May Movies
May 26, 2006

Happy, Texas — A waste of an impressive cast and a funny premise: two escaped convicts find themselves posing as coordinators for a little girl beauty pageant. Unfortunately, instead of working with that, the movie decides to go for the predictable “small town inhabitants freed by visit of strangers” developments and a “must stop the bad guy even at the risk of their own reputations” ending that seems to have wandered in from the action flick next screen over.

Happy, Texas
Happy, Texas
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William H. Macy is always worth watching, and I usually enjoy Illeana Douglas’s work, but attractive Brit Jeremy Northam can’t play American loser well, and the movie draggggggggs when it should sparkle. Plus, a major plot point was ruined for me because I saw it on Logo, which was emphasizing actors brave enough to play gay.

The Girl From Missouri — Jean Harlow as a lower-class chorus girl who’s determined to marry rich while keeping her virtue. (Only a movie studio newly dealing with a restrictive Production Code would find this plausible.) She hits on an older man who knows what she’s up to, then his son. Dad wants to keep her away from Junior until she responds to his blackmail situation with one of her own, at which point he admires her nerve. A bunch of scenes someone thought were good ideas that don’t work all that well together.

Ex-Lady — An early short Bette Davis film that starts with her living in sin with her boyfriend. She doesn’t want to marry him — she’s happy sharing her life, her apartment, and her bed without legalities — because she doesn’t want to be controlled. Of course, the whole point of the movie is to show her how much happier she’ll really be once she accepts the way things are supposed to be and settles down as his wife. Before they get there, though, they go into business together, he has to cope with her career becoming more successful than his, and both have affairs. Surprising stuff from the pre-Code early 30s.

Clara Bow: Discovering the It Girl and Louise Brooks: Looking for Lulu — Two documentaries on two fascinating stars of the silent screen. Both were responsible for changing the way society thought about women, especially in terms of sexuality; both had tortured childhoods, including likely sexual abuse; and both had careers that weren’t what they could have been due to psychological issues. Lesson learned: beauty and fame don’t make people happy.

Return to Me
Return to Me
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Return to Me — A quietly enjoyable romantic comedy directed and co-written by the underrated Bonnie Hunt. The Amazon review describes it as “gentle”, which is spot on.

David Duchovny is the guy (and this film is the only time I’ve enjoyed watching him), Minnie Driver the girl, and Robert Loggia and Carroll O’Connor (charming in his last film) her supportive family who run an Irish-Italian restaurant. The gimmick is that she’s received the heart of his dead wife, and the appeal is how the movie ranges far beyond just their relationship to include a variety of family and friend interactions. This isn’t an outstanding or memorable film, just one that can easily be rewatched every so often as a comfortable hug.

The Shopworn Angel — Margaret Sullavan and Jimmy Stewart made several movies together, and they always surprise me by taking what seem like obvious premises and making them something special. In this one, Sullavan is a jaded, selfish, gold-digging actress (a role that I would NOT have thought to cast her in, but the contrast between the stereotype and her innate girl-next-doorness somehow works) and Stewart is a naive soldier about to ship out to WWI. All she knows about the war is that the soldiers marching off woke her up and rationing means she can’t get her coffee with enough sugar.

Consider the timing — this film was released in 1938, so a movie that opens with scenes of the public finding out that the US needs soldiers to fight the good cause likely resonated, the same way MASH was set during the Korean War but was really about Vietnam. Anyway, Stewart’s soldier pretends she’s his girlfriend to impress his buddies, and she goes along with the gag for kicks, only for the two to really fall in love. Along the way, she develops the selflessness she needs to be a better person, seduced by the charm of Stewart’s idealistic Texan alone in the big city for the first time. Spoiler: They get around the problem of how these two very different people could build a life together after wartime, especially when she’s thrown over a boyfriend who’s a much better match for her because he knows her better, by killing off Stewart’s character heroically, leaving her the noble widow.

The Seven Year Itch — Pretty tame today, but I can see how it would be considered a lot naughtier in 1955. The Hays Code wouldn’t allow release of a comedy about adultery, so it had to be made clear that there was absolutely nothing going on between shlub guy Tom Ewell and free-spirited upstairs neighbor Marilyn Monroe, even when she appears in his apartment in her nightgown and falls asleep in his bed. Of course, at the end, he runs off in search of his beloved wife and son, his happy home restored. It’s all very Hollywood and unrealistic.

I only watched it because it was my seven-year anniversary, and it seemed cute. I couldn’t relate to anyone in it, though — not the neurotic barely middle-aged guy who desperately needed to feel as though women still wanted him, not the dumb blonde, not the leering superintendent of the building, not the long-suffering wife (who’s not even a character, really). Marilyn Monroe did a good job with the comedy elements, even though reportedly behind the scenes it took very many takes to achieve the souffle-light results.

4 Responses  
Ed Cunard writes:  

We own RETURN TO ME. The dog in it is adorable, and I always get choked up with him waiting for the dead wife to come home. It’s definitely charming.

Lyle writes:  

I hadn’t realized Return to Me was written by Bonnie Hunt, that makes it a must-see.

While I found it dragging at many moments, the performances made Happy, Texas work for me. Steve Zahn and William H Macy are pretty memorable.

Bob writes:  

I really like RETURN TO ME, I’ve watched it at least once a year since I first saw it. I also recommend the commentary track with Hunt and co-writer Don Lake. Most commentary tracks for recent movies aren’t worth listening to, as the experience is still too fresh for the film-makers to be introspective (I think these days they probably record them before the movie opens), and this one has it’s share of “Oh, I loved working with this guy” and “Remember how many takes it took to get through this scene without laughing” moments, but also has some interesting bits on their storytelling choices and points out a few subtle bits I missed.

Johanna writes:  

The part of the commentary I found repetitive was the “and that’s my nephew/cousin/brother-in-law” — it seems that Bonnie has a huge family, and they all made cameos! It was in keeping with the tone of the film, though.


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