Saturday 29 April 2017

Chicken Every Sunday (1949)

Director: George Seaton
Writers: George Seaton and Valentine Davies, from the stage play by Julius J. Epstein and Philip G. Epstein, in turn based on the memoir by Rosemary Taylor
Stars: Dan Dailey and Celeste Holm

Index: 2017 Centennials.

Hey look, it’s Tucson! And this isn’t one of my Dry Heat Obscurities reviews, because Tucson here is merely a setting not a location; the film was shot instead in a variety of towns in Nevada with frontier names like Carson City, Silver City or Virginia City. Another more appropriate location was Gardnerville, named for John M. Gardner, on whose land it was founded. Apparently he sold seven acres in 1879 to Lawrence Gilman, who had bought a house ten miles away and wanted to move it, possibly because it was haunted by a ghost highwayman. So the Kent House in Genoa became the Gardnerville Hotel in Gardnerville and the town was born. This is appropriate because this comedy really revolves around a struggle to define accomplishment and it suggests that its leading male character, James C. Hefferan, accomplished much because he gave his name to pretty much everything in Tucson, even if it rarely brought a decent income. The rest has to do with how his family survives this lack of money, which boils down to his wife, Emily.

That’s Emily Hefferan, in the lovely form of Celeste Holm, who owns this film. Dan Dailey isn’t bad as Jim and this came only a year after his Oscar-nomination for When My Baby Smiles at Me, but he’s an odd cross between Jimmy Stewart and Danny Kaye and he’s a lot more of a supporting character, flitting in and out of the story as needed, rather than driving it forward. He certainly drives the town of Tucson forward but not our story. Holm drives that from her standpoint as the grounding of the family, the film and what may well be the entire community as a sort of collective surrogate mother. Holm would have been a hundred years old today and she came pretty close, succumbing to a heart attack in 2012 at the age of 95. Her career wasn’t as prolific as some, but it ran long, the gap between Three Little Girls in Blue in 1946 and College Debts in 2015 being almost seven decades. In fact, many fans remember her for the TV show Promised Land, which ran from 1996 to 1999 as a spin-off from Touched by an Angel. She was 79 as that began.

If any of those fans watch Chicken Every Sunday, they’ll be surprised because it was made half a century earlier with Holm mostly in aging make-up. It begins with an old Emily strutting angrily down the street to see Charles L. Blaine, Attorney at Law. She wants a divorce, surprising enough to the lawyer, who has known her husband since he was a kid, that she has to walk down the hall to tell her story to the new lawyer in town whose name, Robert Hart, is being stencilled on the door while she talks. What she tells him is our story too, unfolding as a long flashback to show us what brought things to this sorry end. Hart’s questions echo ours as he’s as new to Tucson as we are. For a start, why would Emily want a divorce on the grounds of ‘non-support’ when her husband’s name appears to be on every business in town, from the hotel to the dairy? Sure, it’s on everything, she replies. ‘That’s just the trouble.’ This riddle is a fantastic way to kick off a feature film, even if its answer becomes obvious relatively quickly.

The flashback starts with Jim and Emily’s wedding. He’s the vice president of the bank but he has to borrow money from a friend to pay the minister. Emily calls him on that as they drive home, because he had $2,000 a week before, not a small sum for what is presumably the 1910s. He explains that he lost $500 on a real estate deal in Flagstaff, used $1,100 to finance the new brewery and gave the last $400 to their neighbour, Gonzales, as he was going to lose his ranch. Emily’s head is simultaneously up in the clouds, happy that she’s married a man with such abundant faith in the goodness of mankind, and firmly grounded, as she had a feeling that they’d start out without a quarter, so took in a couple of boarders without letting Jim know. So they spend their honeymoon with another pair of honeymooners in their house, but at least the $70 a month the Lawsons are paying ensure that the Hefferans have somewhere to live now that they’re married. And so we continue for an hour and a half.
I should add here that this is a true story, or as close as passed for one in the Hollywood of 1949. It began as a memoir, written by Rosemary Taylor, called Chicken Every Sunday: My Life with Mother’s Boarders. She was born Rosemary Drachman here in Phoenix in 1899, but her family moved to Tucson five years later, 27 years after it incorporated, and the Hefferans are the Drachmans, Mose and Ethel. A quick Google search shows me the Drachman Institute and a Drachman Montessori school in Tucson, among others, but I know the connection already as the hotel at which we usually stay when visiting Tucson is on Drachman St. Taylor’s book was adapted to the stage in 1944 by the Epstein twins, Julius and Philip, writers of little pictures like Casablanca and Arsenic and Old Lace and their solid sense of humour is maybe best highlighted by a response they gave on a House Un-American Activities Commission questionnaire. Asked if they had ever belonged to a subversive organisation, they replied, ‘Yes. Warner Brothers.’

It was Warner Brothers who bought the movie rights to the Epsteins’ play and had them write the script, but they then sold it on to 20th Century Fox, who had it rewritten. Each rewrite surely shifted the story a little further away from the truth, which was a debatable thing even in Taylor’s original memoir; a note from the author in the studio file suggests that she invented a good part of it. That really doesn’t matter, because it’s a good foundation on which to build a comedy and the best reason to watch is surely not the story but Celeste Holm’s performance in it. Those watching because Ruthie, Emily’s youngest daughter in this picture, is played by Natalie Wood, will be sorely disappointed because she’s hardly in it, even if she got to celebrate her tenth birthday on set. The daughter with screen time is the eldest, Rosemary, played by Colleen Townsend, who is the same lovestruck young lady that we’ve seen a hundred times in a hundred different Hollywood movies of the era.
That’s odd, given that Rosemary Hefferan is presumably the fictional representation of the original author. You might think that, if she was going to make this stuff up, she’d make her own character more interesting, but the Hollywood version apparently felt that beautiful was enough, Townsend looking so attractive that we can easily understand why the boy whom she adores, Geoffrey Lawson, who adores her back, finds it hard to get more than a single word out whenever he tries to talk to her. Fortunately, Emily is on the case. ‘A girl’s got to be that forward if a man’s going to be that backward,’ she explains, in one of many memorable lines she’s given throughout the movie. She teaches Geoffrey to dance and gives him the confidence to step in, even as Rosemary finds herself pursued by Harold Crandall, a society robot from an important Boston family. Emily doesn’t trust anyone who bows from the waist and Rosemary doesn’t like him either, but she’ll end up with him anyway unless Geoffrey finds some balls.

What’s notable here isn’t that Geoffrey is played by Alan Young, a capable British actor perhaps best known today as the voice of Scrooge McDuck in a variety of films, cartoons and videogames, even though his six decades worth of features include the classic version of The Time Machine; it’s that Alan Young was a mere two years younger than Celeste Holm, believably playing the mother of his love interest. This happens a lot here, partly because Holm and Dailey have to play their characters as newlyweds, then age as their children age, and partly because we skip forward in time quickly. What we’re shown in between Rosemary’s birth, when she steals the mayor’s thunder while dedicating the Hefferan Hospital, and Rosemary’s graduation from high school, at which Jim is served legal papers (that’s it for the Hefferan Hotel), is a progression of other ventures which succeed after he leaves them or is forced out financially. They’re here to highlight Emily’s promise to add a new room every time he makes another investment.
The age gaps get ridiculous when we start in on the George Kirby angle, which dominates the second half of the picture, ratchets up the pace and shifts proceedings over to broad farce. Kirby is a big man in construction, a perfect investor for Jim’s new copper mine venture if only he lived in Tucson (or even Arizona) and had a clue who James C. Hefferan was. Well, into Emily’s boarding house comes Rita Kirby, George’s wife, escaping his clutches and his horrendous toupee. Veda Ann Borg is great fun as Rita, with a laid back voice, voluptuous looks and back street hooker manners, the first of a number of characters introduced late in the movie who steal the show from Jim and try to steal it from Emily too. Rita is obviously a young trophy wife, but Borg was two years older than Holm. With Borg playing younger than her real age and the younger Holm playing older than her real age, we find ourselves often reliant on the quality of the make-up by the thoroughly experienced Ben Nye. He does a reasonable job of it.

Borg does steal the film for a while, but then vanishes, just as we wonder if she’s working a scam. Later, it’s Connie Gilchrist, only fourteen years older than Borg but playing her much older mother, a drunken ex-vaudevillian called Millie Moon, who steals the show so emphatically that we wonder why she was written in such a way. Gilchrist does a great job but anyone in this role would have stolen their scenes from all the other calm, decent and upstanding members of the household, even the reliable Porter Hall playing within his usual pompous type as bank president Sam Howell, one film before Betty Grable would shoot him repeatedly in the posterior in The Beautiful Blonde from Bashful Bend. The other prominent actor in the cast is William Frawley, just two years away from his most famous role of Fred Mertz in I Love Lucy. He blusters appropriately as George Kirby but inevitably takes a back seat to the ladies in his life, who have all the character that his character doesn’t. That toupee can only take him so far.
Chicken Every Sunday ought to be much better than it is. It’s an enjoyable classic comedy, if not a movie to return to, but not for the reasons we might expect. The director, George Seaton, was riding high after Miracle on 34th Street in 1947, a success which won him the Oscar as a writer he didn’t win four years earlier for The Song of Bernadette; he’d win a second for The Country Girl in 1954. Yet, it doesn’t feel like he had much of a vision for this film at all as a director. He also wrote the screenplay with Valentine Davies, with whom he had written Miracle on 34th Street, but the whole thing feels constrained. It feels like the characters don’t really want to be funny and that they are comes more from the actors than the script. More than once, I felt that Dan Dailey was about to break into song and, while I wish that many classic musicals would just quit with the singing and dancing to give the story a chance, I found a rare example of the opposite here; adding some musical numbers might have given this the life it needed.

The major cast were notable too, if a notch down from those originally sought. Dan Dailey’s Oscar nod was only a year behind him and he was a reliable leading man, if more in musicals than dramatic roles, but he wasn’t of the level of Henry Fonda, the original choice for Jim Hefferan. Celeste Holm had already won her Oscar (and a Golden Globe), for Gentleman’s Agreement in 1948 and she’d be nominated again in both 1950 and 1951, making this an odd year out; however, her role was aimed at Maureen O’Hara. Colleen Townsend was an up and coming starlet after The Walls of Jericho in 1948, but Jeanne Crain was first choice for Rosemary Hefferan. Really, it succeeds best from a feminist standpoint, as long as we ignore the idiotic Hollywood ending that was perhaps inevitable during the Production Code era. Jim Hefferan is a good man and he’s well intentioned, but his only good decision was Emily. Even though he tells her, ‘Honey, I love you, but you don’t have a head for business,’ she really does and she succeeds where he fails.
And that’s why this is a good choice to celebrate the career of Celeste Holm, even though she made many better movies. She came to this from Gentleman’s Agreement, Road House (no, not that one) and The Snake Pit, and she’d soon go on to Champagne for Caesar, All About Eve and High Society. This doesn’t stand well in their company on any criteria except her performance. Even if Dan Dailey has top billing, this is her film and she’s by far the best reason to watch it, even if the role of a patient wife didn’t quite fit reality; at 32, Holm was already halfway through her third marriage and she’d marry twice more after that. For all her great roles on screen, she began on stage, originating the role of Ado Annie in Oklahoma!, and she emphatically went back to it, even with her fame at its peak in the early fifties and even if her 24 films include at least one from every decade from the 1940s to the 2010s. I could have chosen quite a few of those, but Emily Hefferan is a worthy and dominant character and she’s a great way to remember Celeste Holm.

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