7 May 2004 | theowinthrop
The Passing of the Tales, and The Passing of a Con Artist's Crown
This is one of the better multiple story movies from Hollywood, though it demonstrates the limitations of the genre as well as it's strengths. At it's best, this kind of movie manages to integrate the stories in some way (think of the plot of GRAND HOTEL or DINNER AT EIGHT, where the problems of different groups of characters manage to intertwine in a confined space - another example (though a non-Hollywood film) is the British horror classic DEAD OF NIGHT). Some of the anthology films based on the stories of a particular writer (O'Henry or Somerset Maugham for instance) don't have to blend the stories because of the style of the writer, which unifies the different stories. But then you have a well made film like this one, with a good journeyman director (Jules Duvivier, who had previously done the similar FLESH AND FANTASY), and an all name cast to die for. This is the only film that had Charles Boyer, Rita Hayworth, Thomas Mitchell, Roland Young, Eugene Pallette, Henry Fonda, Ginger Rogers, Cesar Romero, Charles Laughton, Elsa Lanchester, Victor Francken, Edward G. Robinson, James Gleason, George Sanders, W.C.Fields, Margaret Dumont, Phil Silvers, J. Carroll Naish, Paul Robeson, Ethel Waters, Eddie Anderson, and Clarence Muse in one picture - even though they were in different stories.
But the running thread is weak. It is the passing of a "monkey suit" back and forth from one leading character to another - a pun on "tales" and "tails" (which is what such an elaborate tuxedo is called). That the actors who get the "tails" (Boyer, Romero, Laughton, Robinson, Fields) do not fit the same size clothes does not seem to be taken into consideration. Interestingly, Laughton did lose weight for the role, but he still is burlier than Boyer or Romero. As for the final recipients of the "tails" (Naish and Robeson), the former is a crook who wears the suit briefly while pulling off the robbery of a casino, and then uses the suit as a container for the stolen cash, and the latter never cares about the coat, but is mostly concerned with the cash that is dropped down inside it. The "tails" end up being used on a scarecrow on Robeson's farm.
It is a silly device to use, and the ending (an all African-American episode about how a rural town of African - Americans finds the "tails" containing stolen cash (dropped from a plane by J. Carroll Naish). As the characters in the other stories were all whites in the upper classes (even the now impoverished Robinson was once a successful attorney, and Fields is a social climber/ fake lecturer on the dangers of drinking. The Blacks in the film are definitely in the lower classes. What is unique about their segment is that the money that Robeson finds is not kept (as he would have done) by him but split into shares for every Black person in the town - a "Marxist" kind of solution that fits with Robeson's political views in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Dramatically the two best stories are the ones about Robinson pretending that he is not an impoverished bum, when attending the reunion of his college classmates (one of whom, Sanders, is an old rival who suspects the truth), and the first story about the purchase of the cursed set of "tails" by Boyer, and his subsequent discovery of the unworthiness of his lover Hayworth (who is left humiliated with her husband Mitchell). The continental flavor of Boyer's sequence may be the portion of the film based on a script of Ferenc Molnar's. The Laughton sequence is okay, but nothing to rave about (although the role of Victor Francken as the tempermental symphony conductor - who helps Laughton - is a clone of "Toscanini", down to the name of the character - "ARTURO Belini". The weakest is the Fonda - Rogers - Romero sequence, which should have been better (and the fine screen attraction of Fonda and Rogers makes one wish that they made a complete film together - tragically this segment was their only film together). The Naish sequence is too brief to be judged well, though Naish does exude menace as a thief.
That leaves the famous "lost" sequence of Fields and Margaret Dumont. It really was never fully lost - for many years film societies showing "Fields" specialties would show that sequence like a short. But it is not complete as it survives. How did Margaret Dumont get her head stuck in the chandelier that she is wearing? That is not in the final sequence that the video version of the movie includes.
It was their second movie together. Fields own NEVER GIVE A SUCKER AN EVEN BREAK included his romancing Dumont (as the wealthy Mrs. Hemoglobin) despite the rivalry of Leon Erroll. That film was made in 1941, and perhaps Fields suggested reteaming with Dumont. She is a good foil for him, but nothing else (and nobody else) at the lecture is worthy of Fields' typical shafts of wit. The only other to stand out (at all) in the lecture portion of the sequence is Chester Clute, the alcoholic husband of Dumont, and he does not confront Fields.
But earlier in the sequence is a worthy adversary - in fact the only worthy adversary Fields ever had in a congame confrontation: Phil Silvers. As this was one of Fields last movies, it was one of Silvers first films. Television's future "Sergeant Bilko" had begun to perfect his style of flim-flam and fast talk, and it is a treat of sorts watching him con Fields into paying for the "tails" by putting a fake wad of bills in the coat (so Fields thinks he's getting the better of Silvers in the deal). A bit like watching the passing of a crown between champions of their days.