Monday, November 14, 2011

Tonight's Movie: You Never Can Tell (1951)

I marked Dick Powell's birthday this year by watching one of his films for the first time, the hard-to-find YOU NEVER CAN TELL.

YOU NEVER CAN TELL is a very original conglomeration of fantasy, comedy, and mystery. King, a German shepherd who was left a fortune by his late owner, is murdered. King comes back to earth in human form as Rex Shepherd (Dick Powell), private investigator, and he's determined to prove who killed him.

Rex is worried about his late owner's kind secretary, Helen (Peggy Dow). With King out of the way, Helen inherited King's fortune, and in fact she was accused of killing the dog. Rex, however, knows that Helen loved King, and he's suspicious of the motives of Helen's fiance (Charles Drake).

Rex is aided on his detective mission by Golden Harvest (Joyce Holden), a former race horse who goes by the name Goldie Harvey while serving as Rex's assistant.

No, I'm not making all that up, it's as crazy as it sounds. (Small wonder the poster tag line was "A picture for people who think they've seen everything!") It's not only nutty, it's also a lot of fun. It's quite amusing watching Powell's Rex eat kibbles, snarl at people who make him mad, drive cats to distraction, and otherwise act like a dog; for instance, I love the doglike way he lays down on a bench in a jail cell. Along with all that, he has to try to act like a human around people, which isn't always easy.

As for Holden, her purse is a feedbag! I couldn't make up my mind if the wings on her hat were meant to symbolize angel wings or horse ears. There's a very funny scene when the police bug Rex's office and are completely baffled by Rex and Goldie's conversation.

There's an extremely odd sequence in animal heaven; I think the filmmakers could have found a better way to set up the story of the animals going to earth to solve the murder. I also felt the ending was slightly too abrupt; since the film was only 78 minutes, I would have liked a little more closure. Other than those criticisms, it's a fun little movie; it's what I think of as a perfect film for a rainy Sunday afternoon, lightweight, cozy, and amusing, with something for all ages to enjoy.

I first learned of this film in a 2008 interview with Joyce Holden in Films of the Golden Age (Issue No. 54). She spoke about YOU NEVER CAN TELL at some length. She discussed Lou Breslow, who created the story and cowrote the screenplay. Breslow is also credited as the film's director; his only other directing credits were a handful of shorts from the early '30s.

Holden said, "You know who really directed the film? Dick Powell. Absolutely. Every shot, I saw him conferring with Lou. Dick was very circumspect...but it was very obvious that he had the ideas, the set-ups, the little innuendos...Dick really was a brilliant person...He was extremely talented."

When interviewer Tom Weaver said that Holden stole some scenes from Powell, she exclaimed "But he would LET you...he ALLOWED it...That's the kind of guy he was."

It's a wonderful interview by an admiring colleague who worked with Powell and observed him in action, and it serves to underscore some of the points I made in my Powell tribute about his talent. Powell's first credited directing work, incidentally, would come in 1953 with the film SPLIT SECOND.

Peggy Dow is now 83. She had a bright career in the early '50s, including HARVEY (1950), then left the screen for marriage and five children. In 2007 I wrote a bit more about her in a review of her last film, I WANT YOU (1951). I haven't had a chance to listen to it yet, but there's a recorded interview with Peggy about her life and career available online.

The cast also includes Albert Sharpe, Lou Polan, Frank Nelson, and William Vedder.

YOU NEVER CAN TELL is a Universal film which does not appear to have ever had a VHS or DVD release. It was shown on American Movie Classics back in their good old commercial-free days. I'm indebted to Mel, a great friend of this blog, for making it possible for me to see it.

Update: Thanks to commenter Rita for reminding me to update this post with the news that YOU NEVER CAN TELL is now available on DVD in the Universal Vault series. My 2013 post on the DVD release is here.


Blogger barrylane said...

Peggy Dow can be heard in a far reaching, low-key interview at the Voices of Oklahoma web site. She touches on this film and Dick Powell. Worthwhile.

8:06 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Yes, that's the same interview I link to near the end of my post. I'm glad to know it's worthwhile and look forward to hearing it.

Best wishes,

8:20 AM  
Blogger Robby Cress said...

This film sounds like a riot. I've never seen it anywhere. Hopefully this will be another title to get at least a MOD release or be available for streaming on Netflix. The story reminds me of some of the comedy films Disney was making in the 1950s and I love all those.

8:59 AM  
Blogger Brandie said...

I found this movie on YouTube not too long ago (not a great print, but watchable), and loved it! So glad to see you enjoyed it, too.

10:50 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Glad to know it's out there, Brandie, and that you enjoyed it too. :) Hopefully, as Robby says, this will eventually turn up on MOD DVD and/or Netflix streaming (along with a host of other decades-old Universal films which are not being made available to the public!).

Best wishes,

10:56 AM  
Blogger Caftan Woman said...

An adorable and unique movie. Powell and Holden really captured their characters, and that is the fun in the show. An excellent choice to celebrate Dick Powell's birthday.

12:38 PM  
Blogger Kevin Deany said...

This sounds really charming. Yet another one to be on the lookout for.

12:49 PM  
Blogger DorianTB said...

Laura, I'm ashamed: I'm a big fan of Dick Powell's comedies and tough-guy thrillers, and yet I've never caught up with YOU NEVER CAN TELL. I'll have to keep my eyes peeled for it! Interestingly, YOU NEVER CAN TELL sounds a lot like a Chevy Chase movie from the late 1970s or early 1980s titled OH HEAVENLY DOG. Chase played a private eye who gets murdered on a case and somehow gets reincarnated as a dog and solves his own murder. I think Jane Seymour was in it, too. Wonder if OH HEAVENLY DOG was a remake (or rip-off?) of YOU NEVER CAN TELL? In any case, Laura, I loved your review, as always!

1:02 PM  
Blogger ScribeHard said...

Hello Laura. Dorian sent me to this link after reading my review of OH HEAVENLY DOG for the Cafe's Dogathon.

This sounds like a wonderfully fun movie, and I enjoyed your writings about it!

8:04 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thanks so much!

Just read your review of OH! HEAVENLY DOG which I know I saw once upon a time -- I'm a Jane Seymour fan from way back -- but didn't really recall. Enjoyed the trip down memory lane!

Hope you'll have the chance to see YOU NEVER CAN TELL which is a delightful movie. :)

Best wishes,

8:16 PM  
Blogger Rita said...

You can now buy this movie in DVD on Amazon! I only ever caught part of it on TCM many years ago and just ordered my own copy--it's one to watch again and again! That and Auntie Mame (not the Lucille Ball version)!

4:44 PM  
Blogger Biograph Consulting said...

Movie fads come and go, and a frequent return is someone returning from the beyond to resolve issues in one way or another, the best I think being Stairway To Heaven (known in the UK as A Matter of Life and Death), starring David Niven and Kim Hunter, often in lavish Technicolor; less cerebral but equal fun in its own way is You Never Can Tell. One think I appreciated about the film is that the script avoids all the stupid cliches usually found in bad animal movies, crude jokes and cheap jokes at the expense of the animal. The humor here is not always subtle, but always seems honestly endearing, and Powell's immersion in the life of Shepherd King is so complete one comes to accept it as almost real. This is a wonderful way to spend an afternoon with friends and plenty of popcorn. Thanks for your enthusiastic review!

9:58 PM  

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