MODs of the Week: Gildersleeve, Hawks and Grimley, Ltd.
For those that believe that they don't make pictures like they used to, Warner Archives has a slate of vintage titles to underscore that notion. Sweepings (1933) stars Lionel Barrymore as a self-made man who rises from a meager beginning in the wake of the 1871 Chicago fire to the owner of a successful department store. Having reached the end of his life, he turns to his children (Gloria Stuart, Eric Linden, William Gargan and George Meeker) to carry on the family business, only to find that his wealth has turned them callous, petty and entirely uninterested in notions of tradition and commitment. A sort of American take on King Lear, the film, directed by John Cromwell (Of Human Bondage, 1934) and co-written by Lester W. Cohen, who adapted his own (somewhat racy) 1926 novel, walks the line between drama and sudsy family soap opera, but Oscar winner Barrymore anchors the picture with a powerful turn as a man who struggles to balance his commitment to business with his dedication to a family that fails to return the effort in kind. For those who revel in the details, Sweepings is the last film on which David O. Selznick would receive a producer's credit at RKO before his departure for MGM (where he would make Dinner at Eight, also released in '33, among many other titles) and then even greater success as an independent producer with A Star is Born (1937), Gone with the Wind (1939) and Rebecca (1940). Among the bit players who receive no credit for their appearance in the film is Franklin Pangborn, a charter member of Preston Sturges' stock company of character types, as well as Mary Gordon (Mrs. Hudson in the Sherlock Holmes series with Basil Rathbone) as infamous cow owner Mrs. O'Leary, comic Chick Chandler and silent film star Carl Stockdale, who famously defended actress Charlotte Shelby against accusations that she had murdered director William Desmond Taylor. The gentleman playing the Indian sans credit is Olympic hero Jim Thorpe, who by 1933, was reduced to taking walk-ons, among other menial tasks, to support his family after being stripped of his medals in 1909.
Also from the Warner vault: Howard Hawks' The Dawn Patrol (1930), a tense, decidedly unromantic view of aerial combat during World War I, which is depicted as a near-certain death warrant for the pilots and crew at a Royal Flying Corps air base, including Richard Barthelmess, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., and Neil Hamilton. Though the 1938 remake with Errol Flynn and David Niven is perhaps better known, Hawks' version establishes itself through his trademark focus on the relationships between men under tremendous pressure and terse dialogue (which he reportedly wrote, though credited screenwriter John Monk Saunders would claim an Oscar for Best Story for his contribution).
Somewhat lighter fare can be found in the Great Gildersleeve Movie Collection, which compiles all four of the feature-length comedies starring Harold Peary as Throckmorton P. Gildersleeve, the self-inflated foil he played on the Fibber McGee and Molly radio series as well as his own NBC program, which marked one of the first successful spin-off series. The quartet, all directed by the prolific Gordon Douglas (Them!, 1954), hew closely to the antics on the Gildersleeve radio show, with Peary hemming and huffing his way through misadventures involving gangsters (Gildersleeve's Bad Day, 1943), gold diggers (The Great Gildersleeve, 1943 and Gildersleeve on Broadway, 1944, with Billie Burke) as well as a mad scientist, two ghosts and a gorilla (Gildersleeve's Ghost, 1944). The set also includes the loopy kitchen sink musical Seven Days' Leave (1942), which stars Lucille Ball and Victor Mature amidst a host of cameos by radio stars like Peary (as Gildersleeve), the great Arnold Stang and Ralph Edwards, as well as the orchestras of Les Brown and Freddy Martin and singers Peter Lind Hayes (The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T) and Ginny Simms and the great Arnold Stang.
And while we're on the subject of loopy, Warner also offers the full 13-episode run of The Completely Mental Misadventures of Ed Grimley, the short-lived but genuinely inspired Hanna-Barbera animated series featuring Martin Short as the voice of the manic man-child character he created on SCTV and Saturday Night Live. The series is also something of an SCTV reunion, as it features Catherine O'Hara as the voice of Ed's neighbor, Mrs. Malone, as well as Joe Flaherty, who reprises Count Floyd in live-action sequences, and guest vocal contributions by Eugene Levy, Dave Thomas and Andrea Martin. Jonathan Winters is also on hand as the voice of Ed's landlord, while Christopher Guest turns up as a werewolf (!) who shares a hospital room with Ed while he recovers from having his tonsils out. The show is almost too surreal for Saturday morning TV - in "Blowin' in the Wind," Ed is sucked up by the same tornado that took Dorothy to Oz, only to be deposited on Auntie Em and Uncle Henry's farm, where a Jerry Lewis-esque director (voiced by Short, naturally) attempts to put on an atrocious theater production in the hopes of reaching Broadway (shades of Waiting for Guffman!). For those who appreciate Short's hot-wired brilliance and the weird genuis of Ed Grimley, all 13 episodes await your edification. -- Paul Gaita