Gone with the Wind meets wagon train Westerns…in South Africa in the mid-19th century.
The actual plot is slightly complicated, dramatic, and epic. Katie O’Neill (Susan Hayward) meets Paul van Riebeck (Tyrone Power) in Ireland, where he’s buying horses for his Boer cavalry commandos back in South Africa. They fall in love, but Paul decides it wouldn’t work out, and heads back home. Not long afterwards, Katie’s father dies, Ireland is hit with the potato blight, and Katie decides to turn pioneer. With a new husband (John Justin) and baby, she journeys to the colonial promised land of South Africa, a decision which has nothing at all to do with the fact that Paul is out there someplace…
From there, we move into a series of stunning landscapes as a Boer wagon train treks across South Africa. Naturally, Katie and Paul will meet again. Katie will also meet Kurt (Richard Egan), one of Paul’s commandos, who takes an instant shine to Katie and pursues her regardless of husband, baby, and his own girlfriend/mistress.
This is one of those melodramatic soap opera sagas that covers multiple years, long-running love quadrangles, and tempestuous weather events. It brings in a smattering of South African history and politics (the accuracy of which I can’t vouch for). It’s also one of those movies where you want to shake the main characters into their senses.
Why bother watching, if the plot is so hokey? Because it’s filmed well. Despite frustrating lulls in spots, there’s a sense of slow tension running throughout, and nothing is resolved until it really is resolved, at the very end – unlike lengthy plots which seem to resolve, and then continue on for reasons unknown to the viewer. Both Hayward and Power are strong, scene-commanding leads, with visible chemistry, and Richard Egan convincingly delivers a villain who oozes slime, yet isn’t without a few good points.
But the No. 1 reason to watch: Seriously gorgeous cinematography. The lush African landscapes are stunning (“African sequences photographed at Zululand by courtesy of the Natal Parks Board”), and were probably even more breathtaking in their original CinemaScope.
Other entries on the credit side of the ledger:
- Director Henry King films a Zulu attack on the wagon train that must rank among the Top 10 Western “attack on the settlers” scenes, if you stretch the definition of Westerns to include other countries. There are Westerns in which the settlers are supposedly outnumbered 10:1, but the viewer remains unruffled. This isn’t one of them. The Zulu attackers look like they actually know what they’re doing, and the settlers are both seriously outarmed and outnumbered, and faced with unfamiliar enemy tactics.
- Susan Hayward’s character might be selfish and scheming at times, but she’s got the guts that Scarlett O’Hara lacked. At any rate, she doesn’t whine.
- Solid performances from Rita Moreno as Egan’s longsuffering love interest, and Agnes Moorehead as Aggie O’Toole, Hayward’s maid/housekeeper/fellow pioneer (a sort of Irish variant on the Hattie McDaniel role in Gone with the Wind).
On the debit side:
- As mentioned, the soap opera plot, combined with some of the negative stereotypes of a typical Western transplanted to South Africa. (You will shake your head at some point, guaranteed.)
- Significant lack of screen time for Tyrone Power, combined with too much for Richard Egan. Not that Egan is bad; he’s very, very good at being a louse. But Power flat-out disappears for a stretch that’s just a little too long for a movie like this.
Random commentary that didn’t fit anywhere else: A moment of silence is in order for John Justin’s character. Justin plays the man Hayward marries after Power leaves Ireland, who goes with her and their child to South Africa. I felt sorry for him. He seems like a decent guy, but he marries Hayward in the first fifteen minutes, and Tyrone Power is still out there. You’re left making bets with yourself as to whether he’ll die right off the bat, or stick around to provide drama for a tragic love triangle. Poor guy didn’t deserve his fate.
At 111 minutes, Untamed is half the running time of Gone with the Wind, just long enough to wrap things up before they threaten to overwhelm the viewer.
“You’re Never Too Young” (1955)
This movie had me fooled. Up to a certain point, it looked like a comedy starring Dean Martin and Diana Lynn, and Raymond Burr and Veda Ann Borg as jewel thieves. And then it devolved into a showpiece for Jerry Lewis acting like an overgrown 12-year-old on helium with a sugar rush, shoehorned between musical numbers and nearly word-for-word scene repeats from The Major and the Minor. Jerry Lewis, it must be said, is no Ginger Rogers.
The genders are swapped: Diana Lynn, who played the precocious teenager in The Major and the Minor, plays half of the Milland role, and the love interest, in this allegedly comedic revamp. Dean Martin also has part of the Milland role, and as a bonus, Martin has a fiancée (Nina Foch), aka the Rita Johnson role in TMATM, who shows up for a few scenes because the plot demands it. The school is a girls’ school, Jerry Lewis is an incompetent barber turned fake teenager because he’s escaping a jewel thief (Burr), who he (Lewis) thinks is a jealous husband (don’t even ask). (Short version: Burr drops a stolen diamond into Lewis’ pocket, and has to get it back, involving a series of misadventures as he follows him via plane, train, and around the school.) The jewelry thief subplot is a welcome distraction, and it’s probably the only reason anyone who watched The Major and the Minor kept watching ’til the bitter end.
A few genuinely funny scenes, and the presence of a skilled cast, can’t make up for the lack of plot focus and comedic spark. On the plus side: less creep factor. The age difference is played purely for laughs, not real drama, and the ending is different, as Lewis’ character doesn’t really fall for Lynn. (He does, however, fall, jump, speed, and skim over and into multiple objects on a pair of waterskis during the final chase scene.)
Watch if you’re a fan of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, or stick to the musical numbers, or utilize the fast-forward button. Or watch Untamed. You’re Never Too Young clocks in at 102 minutes, and Untamed has better scenery.
The Havana nightclub is all earthy, smoke-screened, muted tones: grey-greens, greys, and oranges, with splashes of unexpected color in hazy lavender and aqua. It’s misty cool mixed with sultry warmth, apropos for the scene.
The dusty lavender also coordinates nicely with Jean Simmons’ suit.
Another nightclub, this one the Hot Spot in New York, where Sky meets Nicely before delivering some bad news to Adelaide. At first glance, this is an uber-50s red and blue color scheme, with a dash of grey from Nicely’s suit. On second glance, the accents are…purple? Yes, purple. The chairs, the pillars, even the dishes reflect subtle plum and pink-tinged lavender! Splitting the difference between red and blue, it keeps the lighter accents from turning the club’s interior into a patriotic palette. It also looks extremely plush.
Fitzwilliam (Dick Van Dyke) is a butler – one of a long line of butlers. His father was butler to the Woodworth family, and his father before him. Fitzwilliam serves the now-elderly Miss Vicki Woodworth. It’s a noble calling, if a little old-fashioned in this modern age. “And,” as Fitzwilliam points out, “terribly, terribly expensive.”
Miss Vicki maintains the enormous family home and creme-de-la-creme lifestyle to which she was born, and writes $20,000 checks to charities on the regular. Her mansion includes an impressive retinue of servants, who spend less time polishing the furniture than polishing a few skills that are, shall we say, less than 100% legal.
Fitzwilliam & Co. are hiding the awful truth: when her father died, she was left without a cent. Everything since has been provided by low cunning. Household expenses are funded by a shocking variety of illegal schemes. Servants pluck Miss Vicki’s charitable checks from visitors’ pockets while helping with their coats, or poach them from the outgoing mail. Fitzwilliam is the brainpower behind this high-class hub of crime, and he’s refined the discreet procural of cash to an art and a science.
The grand dame in question, Miss Vicki, is a strong-minded, strong-willed little old lady, wonderfully portrayed by Edith Evans. She has the total disregard for propriety that exists only in the best and wealthiest old families. She calls Fitzwilliam “Fitzwilly,” scolds policemen who pull her over, says “Poppycock!” to anything she deems silly, and has a warm heart beneath a crackling aristocratic exterior. She’s the leader of the Platypi (“as in ‘many platypuses’?”) – a sort of not-a-Cub Scouts group with principles based on Miss Vicki’s unique life philosophies. (Among other things, she believes it’s “the height of impertinence” to help little old ladies across the street.) Miss Vicki’s other pet project is a dictionary for people who can’t spell, which actually sounds brilliant in a pre-Google era.
It’s the dictionary project that knocks down the first domino in Fitzwilly’s perfectly run household. Miss Vicki, forgetting to inform Fitzwilly, engages the services of a secretary to assist with the dictionary.
Juliet Nowell (Barbara Feldon, AKA “Agent 99″ of Get Smart) shows up. A surprised Fitzwilly makes a major error in judgment, tries to brush her off, and fires up every suspicious neuron in Juliet’s brain…for all the wrong reasons. Assuming she won’t get the job, she blasts the butler with a scathing rebuke: “Whatever you’re up to with that wonderful old lady, you ought to be ashamed of yourself!”
Fitzwilly makes his second error; in a fit of pique, he offers her the job at double the salary, because “she was so sure I wouldn’t.”
With an outsider in the house and a complicated plan worth $75,000 in progress, the gang frets over the potential for disaster. Piece of cake, Fitzwilly says. She’ll see that there’s nothing going on, they’ll make up an excuse for Miss Vicki to take a vacation, and she’ll be out within the week.
Fitzwilly is mistaken.
After Juliet unwittingly thwarts one too many schemes by her intrusions (including a disastrous incident involving one of Miss Vicki’s checks), Fitzwilly resolves to date her and make a pass, figuring that she’ll be so insulted she’ll quit.
This does not go as planned. Romance blossoms! And Fitzwilly is now juggling so many different schemes that he’s bound to drop one sometime.
One by one, the dominoes keep falling, until they decide it’s time to call it quits. There’s just one big Last Heist to be finished before going straight…
All I will say about that is: If you’ve never seen a boldfaced robbery of Gimbel’s Department Store on Christmas Eve involving upturned umbrellas, Christmas carols, free TVs with any purchase (“no matter how small!”), and judicious use of the United States Postal Service, you haven’t lived.
There’s plenty to enjoy here for the crime comedy (and romantic comedy) fan.
Fitzwilly & Co.’s schemes are laid out in deliciously precise detail, from the Samson-and-Delilah bar trick (always good for quick cash in a pinch) to Serenity Through the Word’s Bibles for the bereaved (a long-term investment, but equally rewarding). Should you be interested in funding your own cash-poor, prestige-rich household, I’m sure there’s an idea you can adapt.
A very 1960s highlight of the film is TV actor spotting: “Hey! Isn’t he the guy who…” Starting with Dick Van Dyke and Barbara Feldon (of The Dick Van Dyke Show and Get Smart, respectively), the faces that pop up are a who’s who of characters on TV. You could watch the same actors at the theater on the weekend, and watch them at home on weekdays.
The strong cast of memorable character actors carries the film: John McGiver, Noam Pitlik, Harry Townes, Sam Waterston, and Cecil Kellaway – among many others. Maybe you don’t remember their names. But I bet you remember their faces! And voices – John Fiedler (AKA the voice of Piglet in Winnie-the-Pooh) makes an appearance as a naive piano store manager. Byron Casey (Stephen Strimpell) is hilarious as an interior decorator (in well over his head) who’s an integral part of that $75,000 scheme, and Noam Pitlik is memorable as a footman-turned-henchman.
Dick Van Dyke as Fitzwilly, of course, is the highlight. He pulls out his best fake English accent (and a fake French accent). He looks like he’s having a blast as this modern Moriarty for a good cause. It’s living on the edge, without a shred of guilt. So much so, in fact, that Miss Vicki’s assistant Grimsby (Anne Seymour) gets concerned, telling him that he keeps aiming higher, and he’s only doing it now because he enjoys it. Fitzwilly’s response: “But it’s just that I’m so good at it!”
John McGiver as Albert deserves special mention. He’s the wildcard in the gang: he has a guilty conscience. The retired priest turned servant lies and steals for Miss Vicki’s sake, but his scruples prevent him from participating wholeheartedly. Fitzwilly keeps him in hand, but he’s the weak point; with the right lever, the whole shebang could crack wide open. His solemn, deadpan line delivery is classic. Watch for him “explaining” to Juliet why he was picking someone’s pocket.
Fitzwilly was one of 1967’s family-friendly outings; it pushed no envelopes, though certain aspects would have been nixed under the Production Code. Luckily, it’s not dated: the combination of a Wodehousian setting, juxtaposed with the lively modernity of Dick Van Dyke and Barbara Feldon, plus a generous helping of the very 1960s crime/heist comedy genre, keeps it fresh and entertaining for the modern viewer. It also features a score by an up-and-coming composer credited here as “Johnny Williams.”
And just because you rarely, if ever, get to say this when reviewing a classic movie: if you like Dick Van Dyke as a thief in Fitzwilly, you can watch him play one again in Night at the Museum 3 this December. Yes, this December. 89 years old and still scheming!
In the meantime, enjoy this brief snippet from a 1932 Royalty Theatre stage play, While Parents Sleep, recently uploaded by the British Pathé archive.
I’ve been on a long-running British film kick, and the number of actors who split their time between stage and screen was high – unlike actors in Hollywood (based on highly scientific IMDb/Wikipedia browsing). Unfortunately, most of those performances were never filmed. It’s rare to see actual footage of a play.
All four of the pictured actors and actresses also worked in the movies – Frances Doble, a Canadian actress (The Constant Nymph, 1928 version) and Diana Beaumont (The Stolen Face) sticking to the British film industry. Hugh Williams had a moderately successful movie career (seen here before in Secret Mission), and Jack Hawkins? He would turn up as Major Warden in The Bride on the River Kwai, Quintus Arrius in Ben-Hur, and…a lot of other things.
While Parents Sleep was reportedly popular – popular enough to be filmed in 1935, with a young Jean Gillie (whose character in 1946’s Decoy could go head-to-head with Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity as film’s iciest femme fatale). Also appearing in a small role: William Hartnell, AKA the First Doctor of Doctor Who.
I don’t know. Based on this tiny clip, I’m not sold on the play – it seems like it needs more wit and plot. Maybe it’s just poor advertising. Or good advertising – they probably picked the racier bits to draw the public! What do you think? Would you have bought a ticket for While Parents Sleep in 1932?
The Counterfeit Traitor, as you may have guessed, is one of my favorite 1960s spy movies.
Most classic spy films focus on a single, critical piece of information – or a one-time, action-packed assignment. There are exceptions: Ingrid Bergman in Notorious, or George Smiley hunting the mole in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. But really, most movie spies are after MacGuffins. TV spies’ work is, by nature, episodic; movie spies generally have a mission to get in, get the information, and get out – as fast as possible. Occasionally, we catch up to embedded spies just as they’re escaping (or trying to). It’s less common to find a spy on a long-term, ongoing espionage assignment.
The Counterfeit Traitor‘s premise is loosely based on the story of Eric Erickson, a real WWII spy.
William Holden’s voice-over lays out the facts. The year: 1942. Eric Erickson is a Swedish oil executive (American by birth, now a Swedish citizen). He’s just been placed on a U.S. blacklist and disowned by his brother for – according to Erickson – no reason at all. A “Nazi collaborator,” the papers say. All he’s doing is trading oil with Germany! Sweden is neutral; he’s a businessman. Germany needs barrels of oil; Erickson likes barrels of money. Simple.
Simple, that is, until he meets a British intelligence agent (Collins, played by Hugh Griffith). Collins explains that he can arrange to remove Erickson from the blacklist after the war (a necessity if Erickson wants to keep his business a going concern), provided he serves as a spy. Erickson is ideally situated to discover critical information about Germany’s oil production, and pass it on to Allied Bomber Command. With his hand forced, Erickson agrees. In short order, he’ll also be compelled to turn visibly, actively pro-Nazi – publicly insulting his Jewish best friend, and even losing his wife in the process. He can’t tell anyone. And all for a cause he couldn’t care less about.
As much as it’s an exciting spy story (with a harrowing escape), The Counterfeit Traitor is also about the awakening of a collaborator’s conscience, and a tragic love story. It raises questions about moral responsibility, and doesn’t necessarily answer them. It’s a thrilling, gripping, bittersweet roller coaster of a tale.
There’s too much here to summarize properly, and honestly, I don’t want to give away too many spoilers. (Although I do share a few important ones, so be warned.) This is one you’ll want to watch. Instead, let me share some of the reasons and scenes that make it one of my favorites. There are lots of things to enjoy in this movie.