Saturday, December 24, 2011

On the effect of holiday cheer on escaped convicts

As we celebrate another holiday season, with its bustle and commercialism, it is all too easy to forget the man who was born this day.  A man who dedicated his life to making this a better world, and who was taken from us all too soon, leaving behind faithful people who copy his actions and mimic his words in an attempt to keep alive his lessons.

I refer, of course, to Humphrey Bogart.

As part of the Humphrey Bogart Blogathon, a whole bunch of folks are reviewing some of Bogie's films.  Most are picking the low-hanging fruit, and classics like Maltese Falcon and Casablanca were grabbed quickly.  The Wife is doing The Big Sleep, which is practically two movies - an early example (maybe the first for all I know) of a film that underwent a major re-write and came out a very different film at the other end of the process.

I chose a film that not only gave The Trenchcoated One a rare chance to show off his comedic muscles, but actually took place at this jolly time of year, allowing to serve not only as a contribution to the communal showing-off of trivia, but as a Christmas post as well.

We're No Angels (1955) was originally a play by Samuel and Bella Spewack, who among other things wrote the book for Kiss Me Kate.  It stars Bogie, Aldo Ray and the eternally delightful Peter Ustinov as three men who escape, just before Christmas,  from the Cayenne Penal Colony in French Guyana (colloquially known as Devil's Island).  They are hiding in plain sight in the town below, passing as parolees.  Their plan is to steal clothes from a local general store, fake up some papers and get outta the proverbial Dodge on a steamship anchored off coast, currently quarantined.

They enter the establishment of Felix Ducotel (Leo G Carroll) a man with a soft heart and a head to match, under the pretense of offering to fix his leaking roof.  As they spy from above, they learn the life of a mercantile owner is not a jolly one - he and his wife (Joan Bennett) are near ruin, what with his insistence on extending credit to everyone on the island.  His daughter Isabelle (Gloria Talbott) is pining for The One She Left Behind, a kissing cousin for whom she still holds a torch.  The three desperate men almost feel sorry for the family, commenting that there are more than one type of prison.  Things get worse, alas - Felix' cousin, and owner of the shop, Andre (Basil Rathbone) is out on the quarantined steamer, coming to review the store's books.  With him is his nephew Paul, Isabelle's beau, but he's been betrothed to the son of a shipping magnate.  Scarecely a merry Christmas.

The trio determine to do what they can to make the family's season bright - The beg borrow and (mostly) steal the trappings and settings for a proper Christmas dinner, so they can have fun while they can before Andre arrives. He arrives all too soon, demands to see the books and heads for bed.  And if wasn't for the fact that the convicts' pet adder Adolphe is in his bedroom, things would go quite badly indeed.  Bogie whips up a new will that names both Felix and Paul as heirs.  But it turns out that Paul is as big of a prat as Andre was, and promptly burns the will.  No worries - he finds Adolphe before our boys do, and considering they just came of a quarantined ship, two sudden deaths are as easy to explain as one.

This isn't a laugh-out-loud comedy, more the quiet smile at the wicket they've stuck themselves in variety.  There's a wonderfully slow scene as the three decide what they should do considering the fact that Andre has, unbeknownst to him, a deadly snake in his possession.  They slowly and deliberately choose which of the three should hurriedly rush in and warn him, eventually choosing to cut for the honor.  Bogie wins, starts a frenzied amble for the door, only to return, confessing he's forgotten the message.

What's fascinating about this film, aside from it being so entertaining,  is the fact that there's not a member of the main cast who hasn't appeared in one or two classic genre projects.  Even Bogie was in The Return of Doctor X.  Joan Bennett reached (in many eyes) her highest fame as grande dame of the Collins clan in Dark Shadows, and in her last film she played the first of Argento's Three Sisters in Suspiria.  Talbott is easily recognizable, even those horrofic bangs, as the titular "I" in I Married a Monster From Outer Space.  Rathbone was in too many horror and Sci-Fi films to even tabulate, and Aldo Ray had a great (albeit short) role as a man who follows orders to the letter in George Pal's The Power, a favorite in this home.  Ustinov did work in the genre years later, as the old man in Logan's Run.

While DVD copies of the film are going for collector's prices, it's available for electronic download and rental at Amazon.  It doesn't show up on TV at this season nearly as often as it used to, which may very possibly be connected to the fact that it is available for electronic download and rental at Amazon.

As a postscript, I note that the film's Wiki page starts with the disclaimer, "This article is about the 1955 film. For the 1989 film, see We're No Angels (1989 film)."  I cannot express enough how important it is that you do not follow Wikipedia's advice.

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