• U.S.

The New Pictures, Dec. 13, 1943

8 minute read

Happy Land (20th Century-Fox) cinematizes MacKinlay Kantor’s tender, folksy elegy for a typical American Boy who is killed in the war, and for his typical American father, who is thereby killed in the spirit. It is an unusual, sincere, sometimes touching film.

After his son’s death, the boy’s father (Don Ameche) cannot bear to go back to his drugstore in a small Iowa town. He is scarcely able to endure the attempts of his wife (Frances Dee) to comfort him. But one Sunday morning the ghost of his grandfather (Harry Carey) materializes, wearing his G.A.R. hat. He takes the father on a leisurely saunter through the Sabbath silence of the town, and through his memories.

From there on, the film is a gentle total recall of the dead boy’s life. The father sees his son’s first day at school, sees him playing Indian in the cornfields. He lives again through the moment when the twelve-year-old boy, not knowing that he was observed, gave up the money he was saving for a scout ax to a man in need. He sees the glamor and cruelty of his son’s shy first love, sees him begin to assume responsibilities in the drugstore. Then one day the boy achieves the certitude that World War II is everybody’s business. He enlists in the Navy. His father sees him go off to war, waving good-by for the last time. At this point, where memory and the boy’s life fade away together, the father’s life must go on alone. Grandfather explains to the brokenhearted father that the boy’s brief, easygoing, generous, small-town life was worth dying for because it was worth living. That night the father goes back for the first time to the store. A shy young sailor (Henry Morgan) turns up. He is the dead boy’s closest comrade. Together the boy’s father and his friend clink cut-glass cups of loganberry wine, in the mild Puritan salute which had first linked father & son as mature males.

Happy Land is a hard story to picturize without being mawkish. The film does not always succeed. But there is a great deal of simple saving grace about it. The son, who is bad as a baby and unsure as a boy, is as remarkably good as an adolescent (James West) as Don Ameche is as the father. Henry Morgan deserves a small Oscar as the boy’s friend.

The Iowa town which gives Happy Land its Midwest authenticity is neither an Iowa town nor a 20th Century-Fox set. It is an astute selection of views of Santa Rosa, Calif, (with help from nearby Healdsburg and Sebastopol). Santa Rosa (1939 pop. 10,636) has been known chiefly as the home of the late great Luther Burbank. It now seems likely to become Hollywood’s All-American Town. Santa Rosa is a museum of U.S. store and home architecture. The courthouse and square are solid Midwest. By turning a corner, you can get the white columns of the Old South, the brown brick of Oklahoma City, the bright stuccos of Florida. The inhabitants are a pool of perfect extras. Their typicality is violent.

Ail-American Promoter. This showcase of normalcy was discovered quite by chance by Alfred Hitchcock and Thornton Wilder, when they were wondering where to make Shadow of a Doubt. But Santa Rosa might never have played a repeat performance as the All-American town had it not been for sandy-haired, bazooka-voiced Charles G. Dunwoody, manager of Santa Rosa’s Chamber of Commerce.

Manager Dunwoody turned his new offices into a central casting bureau. He catalogued (with photographs) vital statistics on every man, woman & child within a 50-mile radius of Santa Rosa who wanted work as an extra. He listed houses, farms, stores, street locations together with free architectural descriptions. He organized truck drivers, electricians, grips, caterers, accommodations. Then he went to Hollywood to talk to location managers.

First he landed the Happy Land company. Now 20th Century-Fox’s The Sullivans has turned Santa Rosa into Waterloo, Iowa.

All-American Way. Manager Dunwoody’s efforts in behalf of Santa Rosa have paid off handsomely. During the shooting of The Sullivans Fox dropped $70,000 to Santa Rosa businessmen. Members of the company spent some $25,000 more out of their own pockets. The 300 Santa Rosa extras culled an average $35.

But not all Santa Rosans have been as knowing as Manager Dunwoody. When Hitchcock and Wilder first spotted the Edwardian house with gingerbread trim which they knew should become the home of Shadow of a Doubt’s family, it was beautifully weatherworn. When they came back to shoot it, they found that the owners, with fierce civic pride, had given the house a new coat of paint. An antiquing crew had to be rushed up from Hollywood to weather-beat it again.

The Heat’s On (Columbia) restores Mae West to cinema after three years of meditation and literary activity. Miss West has grouped around her Comedian Victor Moore, Cinemactors William Gaxton and Alan Dinehart, Hazel Scott (in a WAC uniform), Dancer-Choreographer David Lichine, Xavier Cugat. The show is directed by Gregory Ratoff, who is almost incapable of making a dull picture. If talent could turn the trick, The Heat’s On would do for cinema what the Return of the Prodigal Son does for parable. But much of the time The Heat’s On is less prodigal than vealy.

In her great days, Mae West was a one-woman saturnalia. In this film she plays a musicomedy star who, sick & tired of William Gaxton (a producer), switches to Alan Dinehart (a producer). Then all three get complicatedly busy trying to corner the money that dim-witted VictorMoore has embezzled. Comedian Moore provides most of the fun. At one point, he comes up and sees Miss West. There he has his first experience of the rumba, of Napoleon brandy (“Quite a bite,” he exclaims), and of Mae’s peculiar and perfected brand of the sporting life.

Cinemactress West is not on-screen half enough. But she is still one of the most entertaining and original personalities in pictures. She can still make something unmailable out of the twitch of a feather or a polysyllable. She is still capable of the low-minded grand manner which made She Done Him Wrong (1933) a minor masterpiece that might have panicked William Congreve. But Mae and her playmates no longer seem certain that it will panic cinemaddicts. As a result, much of The Heat’s On has the weary, if good-humored, halfheartedness of “Stop me if you’ve heard this one.”

Spang, Glunlc, Oomph. “And who wants to see Miss West?” says the switchboard operator of Los Angeles’ Ravenswood Apartments, with an air of tired nobility. At the end of a somewhat musty sixth-floor corridor alight-coffee-colored, middle-aged maid opens Mae’s door, and ushers visitors into the Venusberg.

Spang in the middle of the room is a massive dressing table, its mirror garlanded with crystal lights. Glunk in one corner squats a pure-white grand piano. Oomph on the piano lid perches the famed marble statuette of Mae, like Venus, proud and unattired. From every wall, in every size & shape (and, by tradition, from the ceiling above the bed), mirrors stare at each other. All the upholstery is white-satin brocade, slowly aging, soon to be replaced (by white-satin brocade). There is a husky odor of high-priced perfumes.

Mae swings into the room like a parody of herself. Her favorite attire is a pale blue silk negligee which sets off the inhumanly blonde brilliance of her hair. She founders into a straight-backed chair as if it were a chaise longue. The maid brings ice, two glasses, a Haig & Haig pinchbottle. The second glass is pure courtesy; Mae West neither drinks nor smokes. But she talks likably and rather shyly.

She apologizes for the disorders of housecleaning. She says a little about her career, explains why she has been laying off movies lately, confining herself to a yearly ten-week personal appearance tour. She is tired, she says, of playing the gay belle of the Gay ’90s. She turned down the leading roles in Sin Town and Pittsburgh because they didn’t come up to snuff. Meanwhile she has written two plays and a novel. She is going to call the novel Joe Casanova.

A Wolf and a Heel. “It’s the story of a man,” she explains huskily. “I usually write about women. Joe Casanova is both a wolf and a heel. He’s a composite of all the jerks I ever knew.”

Mae’s plays are called The Men in Her Life and Catherine Was Great. For a time Broadway Producer Michael Todd nibbled at Catherine Was Great. He turned it down, says Mae, because production costs would have been too high. In Hollywood Gregory Ratoff, Boris Morros and Samuel Bronston have also nibbled at it.

Mae is quite pleased that the R.A.F. called their bulky lifebelts “Mae Wests” in honor of the outstanding feature of her anatomy. The term has made the dictionary. Says Mae: “Sort of makes me feel like I started a second front of my own. I’ve been in Who’s Who, and I know what’s what, but that’s the first time Webster’s given me the call.”*

*Miss West exaggerated slightly: the dictionary was “A Dictionary of Army and Navy Slang.”

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