Saturday, July 14, 2007

POT O' GOLD (1941)

Jimmy Stewart is the star of this cheap-looking, non-studio quasi-musical based on a radio show). Stewart plays a man who runs a failing music store, following in the footsteps of his late father, giving poor children music lessons in exchange for goods and letting teenagers listen to records. His rich uncle (Charles Winninger) wants him to quit and join the family health food business. As it happens, Winninger hates music and has a particular grudge against the boarding house building next to his office, which is populated almost entirely by struggling musicians (played by real bandleader Hoarce Heidt and his band, the Musical Knights), cared for by landlady Mary Gordon, whose daughter, Paulette Goddard, sings with the band. As Stewart goes wandering through the neighborhood one day, on his way to tell his uncle that he's giving up the store, he gets involved in an incident in which Winninger has called the cops on the musicians, meets cute with Goddard, and winds up throwing a tomato at his uncle. Goddard, Heidt, and the gang take Stewart (who can play a mean harmonica) in, not knowing who he is. He gets initiated into the group, via song of course, winds up in jail briefly (as does Winninger), and helps the gang get onto his uncle's national radio show. Goddard, in a fit of anger at Stewart, announces that they'll give away a thousand dollars to a random person. They manage to turn this into a popular gimmick, using a stack of phone books and a "wheel of fortune" to give the money away, bringing fame to the radio show and a happy ending to all.

This movie falls pretty solidly into the B-production category, and I'm not sure why Stewart, an established star by this time, and an Oscar winner for THE PHILADELPHIA STORY, got roped into it; perhaps the producer, James Roosevelt, son of FDR, made him an offer he couldn't refuse. The film has a certain scruffy charm, but Stewart isn't right in his role; it might have worked better as a vehicle for Kay Kyser or a B-lead like William Gargan. Some elements of the story (the failing family business, the wacky bonded "family," and a courtroom scene with Stewart being arraigned for attacking Winninger with the tomato) remind me of other Stewart vehicles like IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE and YOU CAN'T TAKE IT WITH YOU, but this isn't crafted nearly as artfully as a Frank Capra film. Stewart seems uncomfortable throughout, and Goddard doesn't seem much happier. The neighborhood number is fun but too short; there are a lot of songs woven throughout the film, and Stewart actually does his own singing at least once--later, Stewart sings with a professional voice, and there's a cute reveal scene showing that he's lip-synching. Also with Dick Hogan as Goddard's cute little brother and Art Carney in a small role as a band member. I'm glad to have seen it once, but it's not a keeper. [TCM]

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