Thursday, March 24, 2016

At the (old) movies: 'Three Blind Mice'

Some notes from the local cinephile society’s first get-together of the new spring season….

You’ve almost certainly seen “Three Blind Mice” (Fox, 1938) before.

Even if you’ve never seen “Three Blind Mice” (Fox, 1938) before.

This is because the basic plot of this movie has been used a lot.

How often is “a lot”? Let’s just say that several entire forests probably gave their lives so that the screenwriters could have enough carbon paper.

The most famous version of this plot, filmed many years after “Three Blind Mice,” is probably “How to Marry a Millionaire.”

At this point I could describe the plot, but I have too much respect for your intelligence to believe that you haven’t already figured it out.

The three “mice” are Loretta Young, Marjorie Weaver and Pauline Moore. The prospective rich husbands are played by Joel McCrea and David Niven.

But the women learn soon enough that things aren’t always as they seem.

That’s about all the plot I’m going to give you. There are some twists, not as much wit as one might like, but a lot of charm. The director, William A. Seiter, had a lot of experience with comedy, and he does fairly well here.

Niven is another of those performers whom I have come to appreciate more as time goes by. Perhaps I took him for granted because as I was growing up he seemed to take any role he could get. And he was always so good that he made it look easy. It couldn’t have been.

McCrea is on my short list of unappreciated actors. He didn’t always get the best parts, but he always did his best and, in my view, was always welcome.

In “Three Blind Mice,” McCrea turns in his customary professional job, but you get the idea that he’s doing this film as a favor for an aunt whom he couldn’t turn down because, well, he’s always been such a dutiful nephew. But I couldn’t help thinking that I could almost hear him saying under his breath: “Geez, I can’t wait for Preston Sturges to come along and do this kind of movie the way it really needs to be done!”

The real life of this cinematic party – and she comes to it late, but boy, is she welcome – is Binnie Barnes as Niven’s sister, who is, to put it mildly, outgoing.

I think Barnes was mostly known for comedy parts – I especially remember her as Fred Allen’s wife in “It’s in the Bag” – but she also played Catherine Howard, one of the wives of Henry VIII who didn’t live to a ripe old age, and she is very good playing opposite Frank Morgan in “There’s Always Tomorrow,” a moving domestic drama that I wrote about here.

Barnes made a comeback of sorts in the 1970s in the movie “40 Carats.” It helped that her husband, M.J. Frankovich, produced it, but although I have yet to see “40 Carats,” I suspect it proves that nepotism is not always a bad thing.

A friend of mine recently saw her on a “Tonight Show” repeat from that time and reports that even then she was a hoot.

In all, “Three Blind Mice” is a pleasant enough film, and though it may seem trite (because it is trite), it’s well worth the wait for Binnie Barnes to come in and kick it into high gear.

Before the feature: “In the Sweet Pie and Pie,” featuring The Three Stooges – Moe, Larry and Curly – as three unjustly accused and condemned murderers who wind up married to three sisters in a plot to save their inheritance. Imagine the sisters’ surprise when the three guys are exonerated and set free.

There’s some welcome gallows humor – I mean that literally – in the first reel, and as you’d probably expect from the title, flying pastries take precedence in the second reel.

Custard pie fights were old hat even in the late 1920s – the high point probably being the famous sequence in Laurel and Hardy’s “The Battle of the Century” – and by 1941, when “In the Sweet Pie and Pie” was made, at least three quarters of the old hat were already moth-eaten.

Still, the cinephile society's audience seemed to enjoy the pie fight, and although it’s not my favorite kind of humor, I can appreciate the skill required to correctly throw a pie, not to mention what it takes to take one in the face.

I mean, think of it: Someone is going to throw a pie at you, hitting you square in the face. You know this is going to happen. But you have to pretend that you have no way of knowing it’s going to happen.

Could Sir Laurence Olivier have done it? Quite possibly, though I never saw him try, and doesn’t the fact that he was able to avoid flying pies by hiding behind William “No Whoopie Cushions Here” Shakespeare at least hint that, when it came to dodging cream-filled discs, he didn’t want to be a poor second to Curly?

Or even Shemp?

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