Monday 10 August 2009

Once Upon a Time (1944)

Director: Alexander Hall
Stars: Cary Grant and Janet Blair

Once Upon a Time obviously aimed to infuse some light heartedness into the minds of a public that was suffering through the Second World War and showman Jerry Flynn has the same ideas in the film. He's played by Cary Grant and he's something of a hasbeen. He's had major successes going back a decade but he's had three flops in a row and the bankers are ready to haul him over the coals. Flynn Theatre was built as Jerry Flynn's personal monument and it could just work out that way, if he can't raise $100,000 in a week.

After his latest show closes early after a mere ten days, he's struck by fantasy on the street right outside his theatre. He throws a nickel over his shoulder for luck and it's picked up by a couple of honest young showmen who have a trained caterpillar in a cardboard box. When nine year old Pinky Thompson plays 'Yes, Sir, That's My Baby' on his harmonica, little Curly the caterpillar dances, and Jerry Flynn sees this as his big opportunity. He doesn't see a caterpillar, he sees a fairy tale in a box, thus the title of our film.

Of course this caterpillar is a complete MacGuffin. We don't see Curly at any point throughout the entire movie (at least not as a caterpillar) and that's a good thing because it would have spoiled it. It really doesn't matter what's in the box because it's what Curly stands for that matters. In a time of war, when everyone's thoughts are about life and death, a little fairy tale is precisely what's needed to raise everyone's spirits out of the mire. That's what Curly means, the fuzzy little brown critter that only dances to one tune and who we never see. He means everything to those who are looking.

The cast are happy to play along. As great a serious actor as he was, Cary Grant was an astute comedian, always good at poking fun at himself and he gets plenty of opportunity here as a showman who loses track of who he really is. He's one very human story sitting within this fairy tale, just as young Arthur 'Pinky' Thompson is, in the able form of Ted Donaldson. There are a number of able names backing them up, but the best is James Gleason as Flynn's assistant, named McGillicuddy but called the Moke. He was a versatile actor who who could play anything and could hold a lead, although he spent most of his long career playing supporting roles.

There's something else here too, something that screams out over the years as possibly the most ironic single line of dialogue ever spoken on screen. When Curly becomes a media phenomenon, everyone and his dog are interested in a slice of the pie that he's going to generate, not least Flynn himself, of course. One of these interested parties is Walt Disney who sends a representative to New York to bargain with Flynn and cut a deal. This finally happens when Disney himself (played by an actor) rings him from California and says, get this, that Curly belongs to the world now, just like Mickey Mouse. Anyone with any knowledge of copyright is going to find this unintentionally hilarious. For the uninitiated, Mickey Mouse is the single reason that copyright is continually extended because the Walt Disney Co won't let him fall into the public domain and they have enough clout in Washington to ensure that it doesn't happen.

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