Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Once Upon a Time (1944)

Yes Sir, he dances!
Once Upon a Time calls itself a fairy tale, but personally I don't see it. Imagine Miracle on 34th Street meets Our Gang, where the role of Santa Claus is played by a dancing caterpillar and Cary Grant plays the lead. The story reads like the screenwriters surely must have lost a bet with someone, but snappy dialog and a solid performance by Grant make for a surprisingly entertaining bit of more or less family friendly fluff.

Struggling theater promoter Jerry Flynn (Grant) thinks he's found the answer to his prayers in the form of nine-year old boy Pinky and his music-loving pet caterpillar, Curly, who lives in a shoe box and dances to the tune of "Yes Sir, That's My Baby." After a whirlwind of publicity and a predictably sappy friendship between Flynn and Pinky, Flynn tries to sell Curly to Walt Disney (Walter Fenner) for the money he desperately needs to save himself from bankruptcy. Possibly the only thing sillier than the plot of Once Upon a Time itself is the project Walt has in mind for the bug--a live action/animation film starring Curly against an animated backdrop.

Flynn explains his view of the story thus: "I'll give it significance, importance, greatness. They'll believe anything I want them to believe." Flynn, of course, is a promoter, and like most Cary Grant characters is a champion talker. Early in the film he says of himself, after having just successfully pitched a wildly elaborate show to his financier (a show he made up on the spot, and has no intention of producing), "You know me, I get lonely if I can't hear myself talk."

Talk he does, and how. The real saving grace of Once Upon a Time is not its inspirational message (which nearly kills it), and is certainly not its story or characterizations. Grant's not exactly acting much in this movie, but he is charismatic and good looking (as always), and delivers a steady stream of pointed, mile-a-minute dialog that is witty enough to keep my interest in this otherwise paper-thin story. Ultimately, Grant himself is the expert promoter, and he certainly is good enough to sell even a story as inane as this one.

Characterizations are pretty weak throughout. As the mischievous but wholesome orphan boy (yup, he lisps) Pinky has little depth, but is at least consistent and believable. Unfortunately, Flynn is neither, but I don't think you can blame that on Grant. Even on paper Flynn's behavior is so erratic there's not much saving it. I can get behind the idea that he is selfish and ruthless and will even stoop to selling Curly out from under Pinky to save his own skin, but all throughout he seems to think that Pinky will eventually understand and accept this course of action. I'd say that's highly unlikely, considering that Pinky is a pretty one dimensional character whose sole defining personality trait is his attachment to Curly. Together, this makes Flynn equal parts ruthless and stupid, but he is also shown to be a brilliant promoter, a tough gig for someone who can't read the emotions of an utterly transparent nine-year-old. Any way you look at it, the cards don't add up. Pinky's sister Jeannie (Janet Blair) is even more bewildering. When Flynn is on the level with Pinky, she disapproves of the friendship, but once Flynn betrays that trust she has nothing but sympathy (for Flynn, mind you).

"Perhaps Curly might be telling us, that if we feel we are crawling around,
lost in the dark as he was, that we should look up. Look up! Look up!" 
"Perhaps some of you may see a profound meaning in Pinky and Curly," a radio show host touts as he shares their story with millions of eager listeners. I suppose the metaphorical implications of Curly are unavoidable: he is the magic of childhood, more or less. He is the reward for stopping to smell the roses, or in this case, crouching to look at bugs in the dirt. Personally, I'd rather stay as far away from that interpretation as possible, thank you very much. Heartwarming dramas about the magic of childhood are a dime a dozen, and overpriced at that.

There's another aspect to this story running parallel to the "magic of childhood" drivel that I find much more interesting. No one other than Pinky and Flynn and a few kids are interested in Curly for his own sake. When Flynn stages a press conference to show off his new find, he can't even get the reporters to look in the box. Flynn's assistant "The Moke" (James Gleason) does look, but even still sees nothing remarkable. "A worm wiggling," he says dismissively. Only after a mythology has been built around Curly explaining his significance and changing that "wiggling" to "dancing" does anyone pay him the least attention. Curly himself is not the attraction, but the "Curly-World" amusement park that has been built up around him, the stories made about what he is supposed to mean to everyone. It's no wonder then that the whole affair has Disney salivating, and you can get a lot of mileage out of stretching that view of shameless promotion outside the confines of the film, particularly with Disney already brought to the witness stand, as it were.

Despite this provocative subtext, the narrative of the film stays firmly grounded within its own delusions. Although Flynn and others invent stories about Curly right and left, they all believe, or at least convince themselves, that they are inventing the truth. The film's ending, with Flynn and Pinky watching in wide-eyed joy as Curly, now a butterfly (animated, of course), flies off into the city to new and greater things, leaves the viewer with a series of largely unanswerable questions. Does the "magic of childhood" even exist, outside of the promotional nonsense of shameless hucksters like Flynn? If manufactured significance and pay-per-view mythology bring joy to millions of people, does it matter that it was made to turn a profit?

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