Devilish centenarian Douglas Fairbanks Jr. & theatrically effete Monty Woolley: Packard Campus movies
Below are some of the offerings at the U.S. Library of Congress’ Packard Campus in Culpeper, Virginia, in December 2009 (see detailed schedule further below). There’s no Marilyn Monroe smoking pot, but there’s instead Madeleine Carroll, one of Alfred Hitchcock’s early smoking-hot cool blondes. In addition to centenarian Douglas Fairbanks Jr. as both leading man and leading heel.
Packard highlights in the 1937 version of The Prisoner of Zenda (with Douglas Fairbanks Jr.), Ingmar Bergman’s Best Foreign Language Film Oscar winner Fanny and Alexander, the silent era blockbuster The Big Parade, and Woody Allen’s late 20th century classic Manhattan.
‘The Prisoner of Zenda’ 1937: One of greatest adventure movies ever + Douglas Fairbanks Jr. at his best
A David O. Selznick production directed by John Cromwell, the 1937 adaptation of Anthony Hope’s 1894 novel and Edward Rose’s 1895 play The Prisoner of Zenda is surely one of the best – and best-looking – period adventure movies ever made.
For starters, it’s superior to Rex Ingram’s lavish 1922 version, which, though enjoyable, is too stately for its own good. As a plus, the leads in the Selznick version are all first-rate:
- Future Best Actor Oscar winner Ronald Colman (A Double Life, 1947) in a dual role as both the honorable, irresistibly romantic visiting Englishman Rudolf Rassendyll and the dissolute King Rudolf V (of Ruritania, in the novel), who also happens to be the title character.
- Early Alfred Hitchcock blonde Madeleine Carroll (The 39 Steps, Secret Agent), not only looking splendorous as Rassendyll’s unexpected love interest, Princess Flavia, but also managing to add depth to a role that in most other hands would have been blandly decorative.
- Future Best Supporting Actress Oscar winner Mary Astor (The Great Lie, 1941), memorable as the dark-haired Antoinette de Mauban, the French mistress of the king’s villainous half-brother, Michael (Raymond Massey). Even more memorable were Astor’s off-screen goings-on shortly before filming on The Prisoner of Zenda began, what with her “sexually explicit” diaries playing a key role in a bitter and widely publicized child custody battle.
- And, surprisingly, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., who would have turned 100 next Dec. 9. An uninteresting leading man during the early talkie era – e.g., Loose Ankles, I Like Your Nerve, Parachute Jumper – the son of silent era screen icon Douglas Fairbanks (The Thief of Bagdad, The Black Pirate) was flawlessly cast as the unscrupulous Rupert of Hentzau.
‘Real joy’ + phony ‘Joy of Living’
In one of his memoirs, Bring on the Empty Horses, David Niven, who has a supporting role in The Prisoner of Zenda, credited David O. Selznick for the success of the film, writing that the romantic adventure “was a testament to what happens when a producer infuses all those around him with loyalty, enthusiasm, and a real joy in their work.”
Most audiences will likely feel that enthusiasm and “real joy.” As a bonus, they’ll also be able to appreciate the spectacular work of those not seen on camera: cinematographer James Wong Howe, art director Lyle R. Wheeler, composer Alfred Newman, film editor James E. Newcom, costume designer Ernest Dryden, and screenwriters John L. Balderston and Wells Root (Donald Ogden Stewart contributed some additional dialogue).
Packard’s other Douglas Fairbanks Jr. screening is the phony, unfunny comedy Joy of Living, one of the weakest examples of the screwball genre.
As a conventional “all-American” leading man, Fairbanks Jr. comes across as a more monotonous, more obnoxious version of Rupert of Hentzau. But since Irene Dunne is the film’s leading lady, that in itself makes the Tay Garnett-directed would-be romp a must-see.
See also: “Centennial Academy Screening: Douglas Fairbanks Jr. in The Prisoner of Zenda 1937.”
More Packard movies: Disappointing ‘The Man Who Came to Dinner’ + ineffectual Bette Davis
George S. Kaufman (an important personage in Mary Astor’s aforementioned scandalous diaries) and Moss Hart’s 1939 play The Man Who Came to Dinner is a masterful comedy. The clever lines and situations are all there; the issue is whether the cast and direction are up to them.
Unfortunately, Warner Bros.’ 1942 film version – adapted by Julius J. and Philip G. Epstein (Casablanca, Arsenic and Old Lace) – stars the effete, mannered Monty Woolley, repeating his Broadway role as New York radio celebrity Sheridan Whiteside (based on The New Yorker contributor and Algonquin Round Table member Alexander Woollcott), who comes to dinner in Small Town Ohio and stays on.
Not helping matters, the studio’s reigning queen, Bette Davis, is an ineffectual “straight woman,” obviously cast just for her box office value. Producer Hal B. Wallis had initially been interested in either Jean Arthur or Myrna Loy; either one would have been an improvement over Davis.
That said, Ann Sheridan (as actress Lorraine Sheldon, based on Gertrude Lawrence), Reginald Gardiner (as playwright Beverly Carlton, based on Noël Coward), and a group of penguins are all excellent in supporting roles of varying degrees of importance.
And so is Mary Wickes, who, in her “official” movie debut, proves herself a natural as Whiteside’s nurse, Miss Preen, a character she had brought to life in the original Broadway production.
Ideal casting in front & behind the camera: George Cukor & Charles Coburn + Clifton Webb
It’s too bad that Warners didn’t get to borrow George Cukor from MGM, as the Dinner at Eight and The Women director would surely have handled The Man Who Came to Dinner much more deftly than William Keighley, whose credits mostly consisted of watchable programmers (e.g., The Match King, Ladies They Talk About, Dr. Monica).
And it’s equally unfortunate that Sheridan Whiteside wasn’t played by Charles Coburn (Bachelor Mother, The More the Merrier), whose acting style was modulated for the big screen.
John Gilbert & Woody Allen at their best
The biggest domestic box office hit of the silent era, The Big Parade remains an impressive anti-war romantic drama, with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer superstar John Gilbert in top form as a doughboy who loses a limb but finds love during World War I. Renée Adorée’s farewell moment is as heartrending today as it was more than eight decades ago.
Along with Best Picture Oscar winner Annie Hall, Crimes and Misdemeanors, and Bullets Over Broadway, the funny, witty, touching, disturbing Manhattan is one of Woody Allen’s greatest films.
And courtesy of this year’s Honorary Oscar recipient Gordon Willis, Manhattan itself never looked better, whether in black in white or in color – or in reality. Screenplay by Allen and Marshall Brickman.
Featuring a seemingly never-ending Christmas celebration, Fanny and Alexander is one of Ingmar Bergman’s most gripping psychological dramas – one that should be screened in a double bill with the even more disturbing It’s a Wonderful Life (1946).
Featuring small-town “common folk,” an avaricious banker, a well-intentioned but misguided angel, a flood of sentiment and moralistic platitudes, fake snow, and a little girl playing the piano off-key, It’s a Wonderful Life is the stuff that nightmares – before, during, and after Christmas – are made of.
‘We’re No Angels’
I’ve yet to check out We’re No Angels (1955), but with a cast featuring Humphrey Bogart, who did become a more than capable performer in his later years; a studly Aldo Ray, who could be quite funny (e.g., Pat and Mike); future two-time Best Supporting Actor Oscar winner Peter Ustinov (Spartacus, 1960; Topkapi, 1964); and, especially, veteran Joan Bennett (Little Women, The Reckless Moment), the crime comedy sounds like a must-see.
Michael Curtiz, who helped to solidify Bogart’s star persona in Casablanca, directed from a screenplay by Ranald MacDougall (Mildred Pierce), itself an adaptation of Samuel and Bella Spewack’s play My Three Angels, itself the English-language version of Albert Husson’s French play.
Neil Jordan’s 1989 flop remake starred Robert De Niro, Sean Penn, and Demi Moore.
According to the Packard Campus press release, short subjects will be presented before select programs. All Packard Campus programs are free and open to the public, but bear in mind that titles are subject to change without notice.
For more information, visit www.loc.gov/avconservation/theater/.
Packard Campus December 2009 movie schedule
Thursday, Dec. 3, 7:30 p.m.
Dir.: Woody Allen.
Cast: Woody Allen. Diane Keaton. Michael Murphy. Mariel Hemingway.
Friday, Dec. 4, 7:30 p.m.
The Prisoner of Zenda (1937).
Dir.: John Cromwell.
Cast: Ronald Colman. Madeleine Carroll. Douglas Fairbanks Jr. Mary Astor. Raymond Massey. C. Aubrey Smith. David Niven.
Saturday, Dec. 5, 2:00 p.m.
A Walt Disney Shorts Festival.
Thursday, Dec. 10, 7:30 p.m.
Joy of Living (1938).
Dir.: Tay Garnett.
Cast: Irene Dunne. Douglas Fairbanks Jr. Lucille Ball.
Friday, Dec. 11, 7:30 p.m.
Fanny and Alexander (1982).
Dir.: Ingmar Bergman.
Cast: Pernilla Allwin. Bertil Guve. Ewa Fröling. Erland Josephson.
In Swedish with English subtitles.
Saturday, Dec. 12, 7:30 p.m.
The Big Parade (1925).
Dir.: King Vidor.
Cast: John Gilbert. Renée Adorée. Hobart Bosworth. Claire McDowell. Karl Dane.
With live musical accompaniment by Andrew Simpson.
Thursday, Dec. 17, 7:30 p.m.
We’re No Angels (1955).
Dir.: Michael Curtiz.
Cast: Humphrey Bogart. Aldo Ray. Peter Ustinov. Joan Bennett. Basil Rathbone. Leo G. Carroll. John Baer. Gloria Talbott.
Friday, Dec. 18, 7:30 p.m.
The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942).
Dir.: William Keighley.
Cast: Monty Woolley. Bette Davis. Ann Sheridan. Reginald Gardiner. Billie Burke. Mary Wickes. Richard Travis. Jimmy Durante. Elisabeth Fraser.
‘The Prisoner of Zenda’ & its various casts
 For the record, Metro Pictures’ Rex Ingram-directed version of The Prisoner of Zenda starred Lewis Stone as the two Rudolfs, Alice Terry as Princess Flavia, Ramon Novarro as Rupert of Hentzau, Barbara La Marr as Antoinette de Mauban, and Stuart Holmes as Michael.
Directed by Richard Thorpe, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s 1952 version starred Stewart Granger, Deborah Kerr, James Mason, Jane Greer, and Robert Douglas.
E.H. Sothern and Grace Kimball starred in Edward Rose’s 1895 play on Broadway.
‘Too Much Johnson’ & Mary Wickes
 Prior to The Man Who Came to Dinner, Mary Wickes had been featured in Orson Welles’ uncompleted, made-for-the-stage 1938 silent film Too Much Johnson, which was supposed to have been a component of Welles’s Mercury Theatre presentation of actor-playwright William Gillette’s 1894 comedy.
Too Much Johnson was thought lost until last year, when a print was found in a warehouse in Pordenone, Italy. Besides Mary Wickes, the cast includes Joseph Cotten, Ruth Ford, Virginia Nicolson, Arlene Francis, Edgar Barrier, Howard Smith, and future Best Supporting Actor Oscar winner John Houseman (The Paper Chase, 1973).
As for Mary Wickes, she would enjoy a lengthy film – and later television – career. Among her nearly 50 big-screen efforts are:
- Now Voyager (1942) and June Bride (1948), both starring Bette Davis.
- On Moonlight Bay (1951), I’ll See You in My Dreams (1951), and By the Light of the Silvery Moon (1953), all three starring Doris Day.
- More recently, Postcards from the Edge (1990), as Meryl Streep’s grandmother; Gillian Armstrong’s version of Little Women (1994), as Aunt March; and, as Sister Mary Lazarus, the hit comedy Sister Act (1992) and its less successful sequel, Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit (1993), both starring Whoopi Goldberg.
Clifton Webb as Sheridan Whiteside
 Television rights to The Man Who Came to Dinner were reportedly purchased in 1958, as a potential star vehicle for none other than Clifton Webb. It’s too bad that this project never came to fruition.
Webb did, however, star opposite Lucille Ball in a stilted March 27, 1950, Lux Radio Theatre broadcast of the Small Town Ohio-set tale.
Douglas Fairbanks Jr. The Prisoner of Zenda image: Selznick International Pictures / United Artists.
Bette Davis, Reginald Gardiner, and Monty Woolley The Man Who Came to Dinner image: Warner Bros.
Peter Ustinov, Aldo Ray, and Humphrey Bogart We’re No Angels image: Paramount Pictures.
“Douglas Fairbanks Jr. + Monty Woolley & Mary Wickes: Christmas Cheer & Horror Mix at Packard” last updated in August 2018.