Deck the Halls December: Tall Dark and Handsome (1941)
It's December, the time of year when the whole world gets nostalgic. There is no better time to watch classic movies with a Christmas theme. Join Rodney and Samantha as they discuss Tall Dark and Handsome.
SAMANTHA GLASSER: The movie begins with violence, a shakedown gone wrong that ends with the store owner and both gangsters dead. It is misleading, because the rest of the film is much lighter. Gangster Shep Morrison (Cesar Romero) and his buddy Frosty Welch (Milton Berle) are doing some Christmas shopping in a department store when they get distracted by the beautiful blonde (Virginia Gilmore) working in the kiddie daycare. Shep fell in love with her the moment she fixed the toy tommy gun. In order to strike up a conversation, he invents an imaginary family and hires her to take care of them. He must round up some kids, and he enlists the world's worst choice, a pre-teen tough guy with a foul mouth and no interest in playing pretend (Stanley Clements).
SHEP: That's the kind of girl you want to take home to your mother. FROSTY: Yeah, when your mother isn't home.
RODNEY BOWCOCK: That’s pretty much how things start, but after that, this film definitely doesn’t go in the direction that you think it will, which makes it pretty fun going all around. Of course, there are the requisite rival gangs and night clubs, but it’s all handled with a certain amount of levity that it appropriate for a yuletide film.
SG: The movie took some twists I didn't expect. Shep has a really incredible way of bumping guys off. Tall Dark and Handsome is Christmas movie lite, for those days when you want to see something different from the same ten movies they show on TV this time of year, but still something with nods to the season.
RB: I’d be hard pressed to actually call this a Christmas movie, as I don’t really recall the holiday season being mentioned at all after the first few minutes of the film, but, again, everything is pretty pleasant and moves at a breezy pace that you’d expect from a B (or maybe this is a shaky A? That’s likely a debate for another time) picture.
SG: A writer for the American Cinematographer was critical of the film, saying, "Director of Photography Palmer brings it to the screen with a photographic mounting that the producers of many a 'super special' production might envy.... The early department store sequence, filmed actually in one of Los Angeles' leading stores, rather than a studio, merits careful study as an example of what a great cinematographer can do under these none-to-favorable conditions... On the other side of the ledger, a good deal of criticism can be levelled at Director Bruce Humberstone, Film Editor Allen McNeill, and the script clerk. In many sequences, between apparent carelessness in directing and cutting, the geography of the sets is very badly confused, and the direction of movement of the players between their exit from one scene and their entrance in the next-- apparently in an adjoining room-- is twisted and in some cases actually reversed. In the final sequence, played in a railroad terminal station... we can't recall a terminal station where passengers enter the platform from the engine end! Someone should have caught these errors, even in a program picture."
RB: Well, Lah-De-Dah! I didn’t notice ANY of that stuff, but I’m the type of guy who was probably too busy noticing Edward Brophy showing up uncredited than to pay a lot of attention to the cinematography of the whole thing. I mean, it seemed fine to me and I didn’t notice anything particularly glaring, but maybe I’m a luddite about such things. I do kind of question if this is the sort of thing that the average 1941 movie audience would notice. And, yeah, I understand that the average 1941 movie audience isn’t reading American Cinematographer, so I guess I answered my own question. Might be worth a re-watch to pay extra attention to that stuff though.
SG: Virginia Gillmore was a stage actress before getting a contract with Samuel Goldwyn. She is good enough here, though I find her character's ignorance to be off-putting.
RB: I had a tough time with Gilmore, and not necessarily because of her ignorance, which isn’t really ignorance. She assumes that her love interest is a merciless killer, but doesn’t seem to care. My big issue is in the big musical number about halfway through the film. She’s painfully wooden and it’s unclear if she’s supposed to be or not. For someone who spent most of her career on Broadway, I found this pretty terrible.
SG: Yes, it is almost like she thought playing a musical number broadly wouldn't translate on film so she dialed it down, way down, until it came off as weak and amateurish. The standouts here are the character actors. Milton Berle adds loud comic commentary throughout the film. Charlotte Greenwood is the voice of reason. Sheldon Leonard is sufficiently intimidating as the rival gangster.
RB: Berle and Leonard are reason enough to watch this, but I admit that I kept waiting for Phil Silvers to show up with a “Hi, howareya?” and really tear the place down in typical Fox musical fashion. That doesn’t happen, but there is plenty of character actor fun, including Stanley Clements in an early role.
SG: Most reviews noted Clements as the breakout performance of the film. According to Hollywood magazine, Clements went by Stash off-screen because Stanley sounded too "ritzy." He worked as a "professional croaker" touring with the Major Bowes Amateur Hour before auditioning for this film at age 14 and landing the role and a contract with 20th Century Fox. He went on to take over for Leo Gorcey in the late Bowery Boys films playing Duke Coveleskie.
RB: Clements had a life full of ups and downs, that’s for sure. He spent a period of time panhandling after his Major Bowes gig before he got signed with Fox, became a star at Monogram, married Gloria Grahame, starred in a Pringles commercial… He had quite a life. This film is just a footnote to all of that really, but he definitely threatens to run away with the show a few times. He’s quite good.
SG: Box Office reported that Tall Dark and Handsome did better business in its second week. It was held over at the Roxy Theater in New York City for a third week thanks to word of mouth. Motion Picture Daily reported better than average business in Buffalo, Providence and Washington. In spite of the money it made upon release, the film has gone down in history as a 3 star movie, amusing but far from outstanding.
RB: Tall, Dark and Handsome was actually nominated for a Best Screenplay Oscar in 1942, an award that I’m kind of glad that this perfectly competent, but not Oscar level film didn’t win. I’m going to go with 3 ½ stars. I don’t think this movie will wow anyone, but if you’re a fan of the era and genre, you’re not going to find much of anything to dislike that you can’t get past either.