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Molly and Me

Molly and Me(1945)

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teaser Molly and Me (1945)

The 1945 comedy Molly and Me, made by journeyman director Lewis Seiler and starring English comedienne Gracie Fields, is one of those unassuming, low-key charmers that, among '40s comedies, has somehow slipped into semi-oblivion. It's worth rediscovering. Fields stars as Molly, an out-of-work stage actress who decides to put her acting skills to use by becoming a domestic servant - how hard a role can it be? She wheedles her way into the household of John Graham (Monty Woolley), a demanding, curmudgeonly sort who's so cut off from life that he has no use for singing, laughing, or frivolity - or, even more sadly, his young teenage son, Jimmy, played by a winsome Roddy McDowall. Molly eventually brings all of her acting pals into Graham's employ, where they play-act at being maids, cooks, and gardeners -- and bring life back into the house with their boisterous good humor.

You can guess much of what happens in Molly and Me, but that's beside the point. The pleasure of the film lies in watching the lively but not overly broad performances; the picture is sweet without being maudlin or overcooked. The script was written by Roger Burford and Leonard Praskins, from a slim novella by legendary Hollywood screenwriter Frances Marion, a condensed version of which appeared in Photoplay in 1937. Marion got the idea for the novel from stories she heard from her friend, Marie Dressler, who had sought work as a cook and housekeeper when her career stalled out. MGM, the studio for which Marion worked, bought the script in 1937, and apparently planned to cast singer and entertainer Sophie Tucker in the lead role. But the property languished, until it was bought by 20th Century-Fox in 1937. Fox originally planned to produce the film in England - it's set in 1937 London - but the war intervened, and the project was ultimately made in Hollywood instead.

Fields was an enormously popular entertainer in her native England, first in music halls and then in the cinema, and Molly and Me was one of four features she made when she came to Hollywood in the early 1940s. Fields never felt wholly comfortable in front of the camera, and her face may not have been the prettiest. But she was terrific at playing sensible, good-natured, working-class women - her features have a kind of cheerful openness that's instantaneously likable. Apparently, she was well liked by her colleagues, too. McDowall, later in his career, called her "a woman of extraordinary spirit, courage, stamina and fabric. I worshipped her and stayed friendly with her until she died."

McDowall may have felt a special affinity for Fields because, like her, he was fairly new to Hollywood at the time. He'd made his screen debut in his native England with the 1938 Murder in the Family when he was just nine years old. After making 16 more films in Great Britain, he came to Hollywood by way of New York: While he was living with family friends in Great Plains, his mother, who essentially acted as his manager, contacted an agent who then sent him to MGM to test for The Yearling (1946). McDowall was told he was "too English" for the part, but learned that 20th Century-Fox was looking for a child actor for How Green Was My Valley (1941). William Wyler, attached to the film at the time, was greatly interested in him; when John Ford took the reins of the project, McDowall was cast as Huw, a pivotal character in this deeply moving story about a family in a Welsh mining town. The acclaim he received for the role kicked off a successful run as a child actor in Hollywood. In 1942, he appeared in the Irving Pichel-directed drama The Pied Piper, opposite Monty Woolley. The two would reunite a few years later for Molly and Me, although, as it turns out, Fox also canceled McDowall's contract right after that. "At 17 my childhood career was over," McDowall recalled later. "My agent told me I would never work again, because I'd grown up." His agent, of course, was wrong: After his stint as a child actor, McDowall had a thriving career on the stage, on television, and in film, but Molly and Me nevertheless marks a transition point.

Molly and Me was also the second film Fields made with Woolley: The two had costarred in the 1943 comedy-drama Holy Matrimony. Though Woolley had received a Best Actor Academy Award nomination for The Pied Piper (as well as a nomination for Best Supporting Actor for the 1944 Since You Went Away) he is still perhaps best remembered for his role as the imperious wheelchair-bound critic Sheridan Whiteside in The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942).

Woolley's role in Molly and Me isn't nearly so well-defined, but his whiskery appeal certainly wasn't lost on critics at the time. Even the notoriously stuffy New York Times critic Bosley Crowther had fun watching the film. "Miss Fields and Mr. Woolley are an ideal match and they communicate a spirit of friendliness which goes far toward glossing over a basically banal script," he wrote. Fields' performance tickled him, too: "Miss Fields brings not only an air of great good-will to the screen, but a touch of tender sentiment as she sings Roddy McDowall to sleep with 'Christopher Robin.' For a quiet hour or so of gentle, warming humor Molly and Me serves the purpose nicely." TV trivia fans should also take note: Natalie Schafer, of "Mrs. Howl" fame on "Gilligan's Island," has an amusing bit part as a showgirl-turned-aristocrat, proving that she had lots of practice perfecting that comically posh accent early on.

SOURCES:

IMDb
The New York Times
BFI Screen Online (http://www.screenonline.org.uk/people/id/451952/)
The Independent (UK)

Producer: Robert Bassler
Director: Lewis Seiler
Screenplay: Frances Marion (novel); Roger Burford (adaptation); Leonard Praskins
Cinematography: Charles G. Clarke
Music: Cyril J. Mockridge
Film Editing: John W. McCafferty
Cast: Gracie Fields (Molly Barry), Monty Woolley (John Graham), Roddy McDowall (Jimmy Graham), Reginald Gardiner (Harry Phillips/Peabody the Butler), Natalie Schafer (Kitty Goode-Burroughs), Edith Barrett (Julia), Clifford Brooke (Pops), Aminta Dyne (Musette), Queenie Leonard (Lily)

[black-and-white, 77 minutes]

By Stephanie Zacharek

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