Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Big Hangover (MGM, 1950)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film I picked was The Big Hangover, a very strange movie written, produced and directed by Norman Krasna at MGM in 1950 (certainly with Louis B. Mayer’s departure and Dore Schary’s appointment as sole head of production, auteurs were looked on at least a bit more fondly at MGM than they had been in the past!), starring Van Johnson as a recent law-school graduate with a bizarre allergy towards alcohol. He’s about to graduate at the top of his law class and has a job waiting for him at a big law firm as the protégé of John Belney (Percy Waram). He’s also attracted the attention of Belney’s daughter Mary (Elizabeth Taylor), who when she realizes his problem — he’s served a cup of punch at a surprise birthday party for Mr. Belney in the office and he (via a voiceover) is dubious about whether or not he should drink it, but he does and immediately goes into severe intoxication at the first taste.

It turns out that he went to law school on the GI Bill of Rights after serving in Italy in World War II, and his problem with alcohol stems from an incident in which a building he was in was attacked; he was eventually rescued, but not before he spent several days in a cellar full of 100-year-old brandy (it had been bottled but the shock of an air attack had broken all the bottles and thus the cellar had become full of free-flowing booze). Supposedly so much of the alcohol seeped into his system while he was trapped there that he ended up working through his drunk for two weeks in a military hospital after he was rescued — and he was written up in a medical journal (complete with his photo, which shows how much Norman Krasna knew about medical journals) as having had the biggest hangover in recorded medical history (hence this weird film’s title).

Liz’s character decides that, since she once worked in a psychiatrist’s office, she has the knowledge to help him over his problem and cure him so he can once again drink socially (today so many people are “in recovery” from one thing or another that people who go to social functions like this and request non-alcoholic beverages have no problem getting them and aren’t looked down upon therefrom, but in the early 1950’s booze was considered an indispensable social lubricant and turning down an offer of a drink was considered a grave insult) and continue his potentially brilliant career as an attorney without the embarrassment of frequent episodes. Some of his drinking spells are lulus — he starts talking to his dog (and Krasna gives us a point-of-hearing gimmick in which the dog talks back — it’s Van Johnson’s own voice, of course, recorded in a more echoey acoustic than the lines he speaks as a human, and the effect is particularly delightful when Van as Van and Van as the dog talk at once) and, at a hotel banquet honoring the law firm’s alumni, a particularly obnoxious partner named Charles Parkford (Gene Lockhart) deliberately spikes dish after dish of his food with alcohol, hoping he’ll do something embarrassing — which he does, singing loudly, lustily and totally off-key as the hotel band and the Country Gentlemen vocal group attempt to perform Walter Donaldson’s “At Sundown.” (For some reason, even though this film is set in 1950, the band only performs songs from the 1920’s — like “At Sundown” and “Sleepy Time Gal” — as well as a medley of football fight songs and U.S. military anthems.)

There’s also an intriguing subplot featuring a character named Dr. Lee (played by the great Chinese-American actor Philip Ahn, who as usual shames all the white actors in his movie with the quiet dignity and strength he brought to all his roles; I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, if the makers of the Charlie Chan movies in the 1930’s and 1940’s had wanted to do the right thing and cast a real Chinese in the role, Ahn is the person they should have cast), who for some reason is being thrown out of his house and the law firm at the center of this story is handling the eviction. The lawyer for Dr. Lee, Carl Bellcap (Leon Ames), crashes the banquet and chews the big-firm lawyers out for taking a case that will screw the little guy — and Our Hero decides he’s right and quits the big firm to take a job as a government attorney. (Bellcap’s lament that the salaries of government workers are so low he can only get the lawyers who barely graduated because the ones at the tops of their law-school classes take the lucrative jobs with the big private firms rings true today, especially after the recent Bill Moyers’ Journal episode in which Thomas Frank talked about how from at least 1928 to today the Right has always sought to keep the salaries of government workers low to make sure they’re the least competent to take on the highly paid executives, attorneys and lobbyists of the private corporations.)

This weird little excursion into liberal social commentary is typical of the films involving Dore Schary throughout his career, but overall The Big Hangover suffers from an all too common failing that has nothing to do with its politics. Krasna, who could write seriously (he cooked up the story that became the basis of Fritz Lang’s intense 1936 anti-lynching film Fury, though it was Lang and The Racket author Bartlett Cormack who actually did the script) but was best known as a comic writer, tries to do both at once and comes up with something that’s neither fish nor fowl, neither a serious drama of alcoholism à la The Lost Weekend nor a spoof of addiction dramas (not that addiction dramas were anywhere nearly as ubiquitous in the 1950’s as they’ve become since — and even the comedies of today dealing with addiction and recovery, like the otherwise marvelous film You Kill Me with Ben Kingsley, don’t dare satirize the principles and pretensions of 12-step programs even though one would think there’d be plenty of room for ridicule there).

Instead, it’s a film that resolutely sits there, neither dramatic enough to be moving nor comedic enough to be particularly funny — and it doesn’t help that the plot device that “explains” the alcohol allergy (that’s the term used in the script!) of the Van Johnson character is so preposterous, or that most of the gags turn on the sadistic use of Johnson’s condition against him by the practical jokers who infest the dramatis personae. Perhaps the most compelling aspect of The Big Hangover is the precision with which Elizabeth Taylor acts the part of the co-dependent — a role she would later play all too often in her real life!