Monday, August 19, 2002

Character actors in B-movie leads: Charles Ruggles & Grant Mitchell

FRIENDS OF MR. SWEENEY (1934)--I tend to forget how much I like Charles Ruggles. Mostly I've seen him in supporting comic roles in films like BRINGING UP BABY, TROUBLE IN PARADISE, and RUGGLES OF RED GAP (where he does NOT play Ruggles!). The time I remember not liking him was in MURDERS IN THE ZOO, where his comic style felt out of place. In this one, he has a rare lead part as a milquetoastish journalist who writes strong, nearly radical columns that his editor always wants toned down. His secretary, Ann Dvorak, likes him and encourages him to stand up for himself. A series of occurances involving dating, dancing and drinking changes his outlook and in the end, he helps to foil the ambitions of a crooked politician. This is short (70 minutes) and the first half is quite fun. The strenuous shenanigans of mistaken identities and gun play get a little tiring in the last half, but the movie doesn't outstay its welcome. Dvorak is rather mild; I think her strong performance in THREE ON A MATCH was a career fluke. Berton Churchill (as the philandering editor) and Eugene Pallatte (as a visiting college buddy of Ruggles's who helps bring out the adventurer in him) are good. Not one to search out, but if you stumble across it, it's worth catching.

FATHER IS A PRINCE (1940)--Barely an hour long, this bland second feature, which today would be a pilot for a sitcom, is about a father (Grant Mitchell) who is too concerned with making money and having his house run like clockwork to truly be a loving dad and husband. Most of the movie is light and humorous in tone, but it takes a melodramatic turn when the mother (Nana Bryant) takes deathly ill (during a loud argument with Mitchell) with some unstated illness that requires a touch-and-go operation--her brush with death makes Mitchell realize that he should change his ways toward his family. Pretty mild stuff that even the supporting cast (Jan Clayton, George Reeves, John Litel) can't bring to life. Mitchell, who is fine in small roles (most notably as the cantankerous father in MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER), can't really handle a leading part. But Lee Patrick (the secretary in MALTESE FALCON) is very good as a rich relative.

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