Saturday, 19 December 2015

12 DAYS OF CHRISTMAS FILMS | DAY 6: "We're No Angels" (1955)

Theatrical release poster
Directed by Michael Curtiz, We're No Angels (1955) tells the story of three convicts Joseph (Humphrey Bogart), Albert (Aldo Ray) and Jules (Peter Ustinov) who escape from prison on Devil's Island just before Christmas 1895 and arrive at a nearby French colonial town. They stumble upon a store managed by Felix Ducotel (Leo G. Carroll) and his wife Amelie (Joan Bennett) and offer to fix their leaky roof as a way to hide from the police until a boat comes to take them to Paris. As they work, they plan to rob and kill the family, but eavesdropping reveals that the Ducotels are experiencing financial setbacks. Moreover, their charming daughter Isabelle (Gloria Talbot) is having trouble with her faithless fiancé Paul (John Baer) and his ruthless uncle Andre Trochard (Basil Rathbone).

Reasoning that "cutting their throats might spoil their Christmas," the three felons decide to help the Ducotels get their store back on track. Touched by their apparent concern, Felix and Anna invite the three men for Christmas Eve dinner, after which Albert and Jules begin to wonder if they can go through with their plan. Meanwhile, Andre, who owns the store, returns from Paris with Paul to carry out their plan of taking over the establishment, perceived by them as unprofitable due to its use of credit. Infuriated by Andre's accusations, the convicts conduct a mock trial and Joseph condemns him to death. He immediately changes his mind, but then Andre burst out yelling about missing inventory. Andre grabs a decorative box he believes Albert has stolen and retreats to his bedroom, ignoring Albert's warning that the box contains his poisonous pet viper, Adolphe. The following morning, they find Andre dead from a snake bite and Joseph forges a will leaving half of Trochard's estate to Felix. At the same time, Albert and Jules search for the now missing Adolphe and find that the viper has bitten Paul too. After finding an acceptable young man for Isabelle, the convicts steal three suits and bid the Ducotels farewell. At the dock, however, they realize that they have become a little too "angelic" to escape and voluntarily return to Devil's Island.

Joseph: I don't care how nice they are, they're not going to soften me up. We're escaping, and this is our only chance. We came here to rob them and that's what we're gonna do beat their heads in, gouge their eyes out, cut their throats as soon as we wash the dishes.

Over the course of thirty years of working for Warner Bros., Hungarian-born director Michael Curtiz had collected seven Academy Award nominations and one Oscar. By the mid-1950s, however, Curtiz's long partnership with Jack Warner's studio had come to a bitter ending and he was now freelancing for any studio that would pay his salary. In 1954, Paramount Pictures hired him to direct an adaptation of Albert Husson's comedy play La cuisine des anges, which had opened in Lyon, France in early January 1952. When Curtiz signed on, Paramount had already hired Humphrey Bogart to play the lead role. Curtiz was known for wit rather than exaggerated comedy and Bogart had not engaged in slapstick and heavy banter since his days on Broadway. However, director and actor had previously produced one of the most memorable American films of all time, Casablanca (1942), so Paramount had reason to believe that their newest collaboration could become another classic. The film, retitled We're No Angels, even had a preliminary treatment by Julius Epstein, one of the Oscar-winning writers on Casablanca.

Paramount initially announced that Van Heflin and Gig Young would co-star with Bogart in We're No Angels, but they were eventually replaced by relative newcomers Aldo Ray and Peter Ustinov, respectively. A World War II veteran, Ray began his Hollywood venture in the early 1950s, when director David Miller hired him in favor his brother Guido for a small role in the sports drama Saturday's Hero (1951). His career took off the following year, when he appeared opposite Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn in George Cukor's Pat and Mike (1952), for which he received a Golden Globe nomination as Best Newcomer. Also a veteran of the Second World War, the British-born Ustinov began his career as a screenwriter and occasionally director, before achieving notoriety as an actor in Mervyn LeRoy's Technicolor epic Quo Vadis (1951), which earned him his first of three Academy Award nominations for Best Supporting Actor. Ustinov had just worked with Curtiz in The Egyptian (1954) and looked forward to reuniting with the director.

Bennett and Bogart playing chess on the set
Joan Bennett's appearance in the film as Amelie Ducotel, a role originally intended for Irene Dunne, was due to heavy lobbying by Bogart on her behalf. Bennett had been the subject of a tabloid scandal in 1951, when her husband, producer Walter Wanger, had followed his wife and her agent, Jennings Lang, to a parking lot. Convinced that they were having an affair, Wanger shot Lang in the thigh and groin. From his hospital bed, Lang swore that the only relationship he and Bennett had was "strictly business." Wanger's lawyer invoked the "temporary insanity" defense and the producer served only a four-month term in prison. Following this incident, Bennett was put on the studios' moral backlist, which virtually destroyed her career. Although the Wangers had "no [Rat] Pack status," Bogart knew them socially and thought it unfair for a studio to punish Bennett for her husband's "lunacy." The actress later recalled gratefully that Bogart "had made the stand to show what he thought of the undergound movement to stamp out Joan Bennett."

Principal photography on We're No Angels began in mid-June and wrapped in early August 1954. Bogart and Ustinov became good friends during the making of the film, but the older actor had a tendency to play childish pranks on his co-star. One day, for instance, Ustinov discovered that Bogart had put raw liver in his shoes, something that he did not find the least bit funny. The scrupulous Curtiz was also a target for Bogart's amusement, falling for fake dog poop in his trailer. Although Ustinov enjoyed working in We're No Angels, he was becoming increasingly tired of Hollywood, comparing it to "a gigantic World's Fair they haven't had time to tear down."

Humphrey Bogart, Aldo Ray and Peter Ustinov
We're No Angels opened on July 7, 1955 to generally poor reviews from critics. H. H. T. of The New York Times called it "a slow, talky affair of elephantine roguishness and a few genuine chuckles," while TIME said the "over-whimsical" film suffered because of Curtiz's inability "to decided whether he is reading from a fairy tale or a police blotter. Bogart plays his role pretty straight; Aldo Ray is disconcertingly elfin for an alleged sex fiend; and Ustinov's mugging seems overdone." The fact that We're No Angels was shot in VistaVision was also a source of criticism, with nearly every newspaper remarking that the screen-expanding medium was an "inappropriate choice [...] for an intimate family picture." Variety, however, wrote a slightly more favorable review, saying that "Michael Curtiz's directorial pacing and topflight performances from Humphrey Bogart, Aldo Ray and Peter Ustinov help minimize the few flaws."

Four months after the premiere of We're No Angels, writers Samuel and Bella Spewack filed an injunction against the film, claiming that a substantial portion of their 1953 Broadway comedy My Three Angels, also based on Albert Husson's play, had been incorporated into Paramount's screen version. In fact, the Times reviewer remarked on the similarity between the works, saying that the film "gives sole credit to the Gallic original, but then stalks the Spewacks almost scene by scene." Paramount executives, however, insisted that Ranald MacDougall's screenplay was derived directly from Husson's original text and that the Spewacks' version was never consulted. The Spewacks demanded an accounting of the film's profits, noting that after Paramount purchased the rights to the French play, they had attempted to acquired the screen rights from the studio, but were denied. The disposition of the Spewacks' suit is not known.

Peter Ustinov, Humphrey Bogart and Aldo Ray
Similarly to I'll Be Seeing You and Remember the Night, Christmas in We're No Angels has a transformative power over its main characters. Joseph, Albert and Jules begin the film with a sinister plan of slaying the Ducotels and stealing everything they have, but the warmth and gratitude they receive at the family's home on Christmas Eve instigates a change of heart. Isabelle tells the men that they are like the three angels on her favorite Christmas tree decoration and Mr. Ducotel even gives them some money, despite the financial setbacks that the family is going through. Touched by their actions, the convicts help the Ducotels make their store prosperous, while also getting rid of the two villains in story, who want to appropriate themselves of the family's business. Their methods may have been questionable, but it is the intention that counts.

Tough Guy With a Gun: The Extraordinary Life of Humphrey Bogart by Stefan Kanfer (2011) | TCMDb (Articles) | TCMDb (Notes) | The New York Times review | Variety review

1 comment:

  1. I can never understand how some of these movies were not hits when they came out, like "Bringing Up Baby." I love Aldo Ray but Peter Ustinov is hilarious!!! It was nice for Bogie to help Bennett!