Saturday, August 04, 2007


Another anthology film, this one an American studio production. The connecting element between these stories, written by various screenwriters, is a tuxedo tailcoat which is passed from person to person. It's tailored specifically for Charles Boyer, an actor who is opening in a new show on Broadway. Boyer is told that the coat was cursed by a disgruntled employee; next, we see him in the coat, being shot and killed by a woman, but it turns out we're seeing the finale of his play, which is a great success. At a party that night, he tries to rekindle a relationship with the glamorous Rita Hayworth, who is now married to Thomas Mitchell, and Boyer indeed doesn't have much luck, winding up wounded (literally) but wiser. In the second story, the coat winds up in the possession of Roland Young, butler to playboy Cesar Romero, who, despite a nasty hangover, is due to marry Ginger Rogers that night. When she finds a love letter in his coat pocket, Romero's bachelor buddy (Henry Fonda) claims the coat is his, and Young's coat is Romero's. While this charade seems to save the day, it ends up being the catalyst for a new relationship between Fonda and Rogers. Next the butler pawns the coat and Elsa Lanchester buys it for her husband, Charles Laughton, a tavern pianist who is trying to get a symphony performed. He gets a famous conductor (Victor Francen) to hear him, and Francen immediately wants to perform the piece with Laughton conducing. During the strenuous performance, Laughton's coat begins ripping at the seams, leading to audience mirth and possibly a disaster for Laughton, but all is saved, thanks to quick thinking by Francen.

The coat then winds up in a Bowery mission house run by priest James Gleason, who gives it to down-and-out lawyer Edward G. Robinson to wear to a college reunion dinner. Robinson tries to pull off a demeanor of respectability and tricks everyone for a while until his bluff is called by former colleague George Sanders, who eggs him into telling everyone the sad truth of his downfall. He leaves in what he assumes is disgrace, but there is indeed salvation waiting for him the next morning. The next tale is a short comic bit which was cut from the initial release and therefore doesn't quite fit as snugly as it should, with W.C. Fields as a con man giving a speech at a temperance meeting, selling cocoanut milk as an alternative to alcohol, until the milk winds up spiked with booze, with amusing results. In the final incident, a crook (J. Carroll Naish) uses the coat to pull off a high society robbery; he escapes in a small plane, but later during the flight, the coat catches fire and he dumps it, with its pockets full of the money, overboard. It lands in a small sharecropper community in the South on Christmas morning (yes, this is the biggest stretch in a movie filled with them) and Paul Robeson finds it, thinking it must be a gift from the Lord. The people (including Ethel Waters and Eddie 'Rochester' Anderson) wind up splitting the money amongst themselves based on who has been praying for what--an interesting mix of socialism and religion--and the coat's final resting place is on a scarecrow in the fields.

Though the coat is the literal connection between the stories, what really runs through the movie is a strong feeling for irony, expressed, as in QUARTET, with lots of O. Henryish twist endings, not all of which feel quite right; for example, the outcome of Robinson's story, intended to be heartwarming, is too abrupt to be effective. All the stories are clever, though the weakest are the first (which is hurt by a lack of characterization and might have benefited from another 10 minutes or so of plot) and the last (which has a folktale feeling very different from the other stories, and also has almost nothing to do with Manhattan). Performances range widely from very good (Robinson, Rogers, Young, Francen, Gleason) to good (Boyer, Fields, Fonda, 'Rochester') to weak (Hayworth, Mitchell, and, in a rare non-stellar performance, Laughton, who seems to be lazily going through the paces in an underdeveloped role). Some, like Lanchester, Sanders, and Romero, don't get enough to do to register, though it's fun to see Margaret Dumont and Marcel Dalio (the croupier in CASABLANCA) in small roles in the restored Fields sequence. A DVD of this from Fox with commentary would be welcome. [VHS]

No comments: