The world has been making movies for roughly 220-plus years, producing approximately 300,000 films. That doesn’t include made-for-TV movies, featured videos, short films, documentaries, and anything not found in the IMDb database. That’s a lot of movies by any standard of measure. While the studios (both major and independent) do a good job of putting their new and catalog films to DVD, there’s still thousands of movies that have never made it to the home video market (and an even larger number that have not gone beyond VHS.)
What a treat it is then for cinephiles all over that so many companies are digging through their vaults and releasing very old and obscure films in the DVD or Blu-ray formats. The Fox Cinema Archives has done an incredible job pulling out films that otherwise would be forgotten or lost and putting them into circulation. Today I’ll be reviewing two such films: The 1935 Geroge Arliss-drama Cardinal Richelieu and the family comedy from 1948 Scudda Hoo! Scudda Hay!
Though he has all but been forgotten today, George Arliss was quite the star in the early days of Hollywood. He won one of the very first Academy Awards for his acting in Disraeli (1929) and was also a successful director. We owe him a great debt for discovering such talents as Bette Davis, James Cagney and Dick Powell.
In 1935 Arliss portrayed the notorious French statesman Cardinal Richelieu in a film of the same name. Though Richelieu was certainly a very real, historic, and important person, he is probably best known as a character in Alexandre Dumas’ fictional Three Musketeers story and the myriad of films that have been based on it.
This film is loosely based upon the historic Cardinal’s life and his dealing with King Louis XIII. Based upon a play by Edward Bulwer-Lytton Arliss, the story downplays the more villainous aspects of the man’s life (including censoring the press, creating a large network of internal spies, forbidding the public discussion of politics, and murdering those who opposed him). Instead, it focuses on Richelieu as a master political operative able to manipulate the well-meaning but rather ineffectual and rather dandyish French monarch Louise XIII (Edward Arnold) and outmaneuver his enemies including Louis’ brother Gaston (Francis Lister).
While shaping France to his own power-hungry will, Richelieu manages to find time to play matchmaker by helping his ward Lenore (Maureen O’Sullivan) woo the handsome Andre de Pons (Cesar Romero), though this too is mostly for his own purposes.
It is a fine, well-made film though it contains some of that reserved stateliness you find in movies from that era. The acting likewise is good though a bit stilted and overly theatrical. It’s easy to see why both George Arliss and this film have slipped out of the public consciousness. They belong to another era, a time when movies felt more like plays and the acting was more formal, less natural than we’re used to today.
I want to say they don’t make films like Scudda Hoo! Scudda Hay! anymore, but that’s not entirely true. They do make silly family films about a boy’s love for his mules (or at least his dogs, or sometimes a killer whale), but they tend to air on the Hallmark Channel rather than in theaters. There is a certain charm in these old films though that you just don’t find in the more modern versions.
It is best known today for giving Marilyn Monroe her first on-screen speaking roll. She has two blink-and-you’ll-miss-it bit parts. The first is during a church scene. Marilyn says, “Hi, Rad,” and if you pause it, you can actually see her face up in the corner. In the second, you only see the back of her head in a canoe rolling down a creek in the far off corner of the screen. Honestly, you’d never know it was her were it not for the Internet telling you so. There is another scene, supposedly cut from the film, in which you see her more close up in that canoe, but it isn’t in this version of the film.
The plot is pretty standard fare. A teenage boy, Snug (Lon McCallister), learns to grow up fast after his father (Henry Hull) leaves him with his witch of a mother-in-law (Anne Revere) and her horrible son, Stretch (Robert Karnes). Refusing to help on the family farm, he instead takes a job with the constantly yelling neighbor Robert McGill (Tom Tully). Mr. McGill buys a pair of mules who act nice until you actually want them to pull something at which time they go crazy. To keep him from shooting the animals, Snug agrees to buy them by taking five dollars a week from his wages.
With the help of the much older and wiser Tony (Walter Brennan), the pair eventually tame the mules. But first they must contend with Stretch plotting against them by trying to make Snug miss one of his weekly payments and thus revert the mules back to Mr. McGill (and earn Stretch a nice paying job). Also, in the mix is Rad McGill (June Haver), the beautiful daughter of Mr. McGill who can’t seem to decide between loving Snug and Stretch. A nine-year-old Natalie Wood does a nice job as a precocious girl who learns all the gossip and helps Snuff all along the way.
This is exactly the sort of movie where you know exactly what you are getting going in. It has its guilt-free charms and is perfect for a lazy Sunday afternoon with nothing else to do. You can show it to your grandmother when she visits and pleasantly kill a few hours. It’s also utterly forgettable as soon as you turn it off. I watched the first half with my mother-in-law, who seemed to enjoy it, but when our brief break turned into a couple of days, she never once mentioned watching it again, and neither of us were bothered by the fact that she had gone home before I remembered to turn it back on.
It’s brilliant that these sorts of films are finding their way to DVD, and they certainly make nice editions to any movie collector’s collection.