Sunday, September 06, 2009

Tonight's Movie: Washington Melodrama (1941)

Wealthy Washington industrialist-philanthropist Calvin Claymore (Frank Morgan) is lonely and spends more time than he should with pretty nightclub dancer Mary Morgan (Anne Gwynne) while his wife (Fay Holden) and daughter (Ann Rutherford) are traveling. When Mary turns up dead, her murder threatens to derail both Claymore's political goals and his marriage, and could ultimately send him to the chair. Small wonder the film is titled WASHINGTON MELODRAMA.

The film reunites at least four cast members of 1940's HULLABALOO, Morgan, Virginia Grey, Dan Dailey Jr., and Sara Haden. WASHINGTON MELODRAMA is much more interesting and better-constructed than HULLABALOO, but it also has some traits in common with the earlier film: it's got almost more actors than it can fit into one 80-minute movie, and the plot veers around crazily, combining political machinations, domestic melodrama, musical numbers, and a murder mystery into one big overstuffed package.

The movie's worth seeing for a bizarre sequence early in the film. Claymore watches a nightclub number featuring Whit King (Dailey) and Teddy Carlyle (Grey) which leads to the dance floor retracting to reveal a swimming pool in the middle of the nightclub! At this point there is a fairly lengthy Berkeley-style water ballet -- which comes to a climax with the customers "fishing" for the dancers, hooking rings on the dancers' backs. You've got to see it to believe it.

The large cast includes Kent Taylor as Rutherford's newspaperman fiance and Lee Bowman as Taylor's rascally sidekick. Douglas Dumbrille and Thurston Hall are also in the film.

The younger cast members, especially the vivacious Rutherford, keep up the movie's energy level, and all in all it's a fun movie to watch, if not a particularly good one. The "medical montage" near the movie's conclusion is a great example of this: rather cliched and hokey from today's vantage point, but amusing.

Some of the film's 1941 political discussions are notable. Morgan and Taylor's characters debate whether to attempt to feed starving children in countries which had declared war on the rest of Europe; their points of view continue to echo in political debates today. Morgan responds to the issue emotionally and wants to start the program "for the children," while Taylor argues that the program would only enable the world's enemies to become stronger -- he points out that who could believe that the adults in such countries would reserve humanitarian aid solely for their children, anyway?

Taylor also makes clear he will use his newspaper to fight Morgan's political position -- another issue which remains relevant today. We've seen an amazing example of the media taking political sides this very weekend, with the mainstream print and network media refusing to cover the long, controversial history of White House "green jobs czar" Van Jones, finally mentioning the story once Jones resigned late last night.

Some fun trivia: Anne Gwynne, who plays the murder victim, is the grandmother of Chris Pine, who has starred recently in BOTTLE SHOCK and the new STAR TREK movie. Pine's father -- and Gwynne's son-in-law -- is Robert Pine, who costarred on CHiPs. I met Robert Pine for a few minutes once upon a time, at the Garden Grove Strawberry Festival.

The same year as WASHINGTON MELODRAMA, Gwynne appeared in Deanna Durbin's NICE GIRL?, reviewed here a little over a year ago.

This black and white movie was directed by S. Sylvan Simon, who specialized in directing B movies for MGM in the late '30s and early '40s. Simon films reviewed here in the past include SPRING MADNESS (1938), DANCING CO-ED (1939), THESE GLAMOUR GIRLS (1939), TWO GIRLS ON BROADWAY (1940), SPORTING BLOOD (1940), and GRAND CENTRAL MURDER (1942).

This movie has not had a video or DVD release, but it can be seen on Turner Classic Movies, which has the trailer available here.


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