The Trouble With Harry 1954 Based on the novel by Jack Trevor Story. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. MacLaine’s film debut. A quirky Vermont community is shaken by discovery of the dead body of Harry Worp (Philip Truex). Captain Wiles (Edmund Gwen), Miss Gravely (Mildred Natwick), and Harry’s ex-wife, Jennifer (Shirley MacLaine), are all sure they’re responsible. New to the village, nonconformist artist Sam Marlowe (John Forsythe) wants to help.
No one is upset. Everyone wants to hide the body before it’s discovered by Deputy Sheriff Calvin Wiggs (Royal Dano) who gets paid per arrest. Mishap after mishap brings two couples together. A black comedy romp. Hitchcock can be seen 21 minutes into the film as he walks past a parked limousine while an old man looks at paintings for sale at the roadside stand. Rent on Amazon Prime and Netflix.
The Children’s Hour 1961 Based on the Lillian Hellman play. Inspired by the 1809 true story of two Scottish school teachers whose lives were destroyed when one of their students accused them of having a lesbian relationship. The first adaptation, with Miriam Hopkins and Merle Oberon, was These Three in 1936. Because of The Hays Code, Hellman changed the teachers being lovers into a rumor that one of them had slept with the other’s fiancé. Both films were directed by William Wyler.
Martha Dobie (Shirley MacLaine) and Karen Wright (Audrey Hepburn) open a private school for girls at which Martha’s Aunt Lily (Miriam Hopkins) teaches elocution. Karen is engaged to local obstetrician, Joe Cardin (James Garner- film debut). When punished for backmail and bullying, spoiled student Mary (Karen Balkin) tells her influential grandmother that Martha and Karen are lovers. It’s a lie. The ladies sue, but lose. (In real life, the teachers won.) The school closes. When Joe shows doubt, Karen cuts him off suggesting to Martha they start again elsewhere.
Realizing she actually does love Karen, Martha feels responsible for everything. Even when the court decision is reversed, she can’t go back to things as they were. Tragedy ensues. Powerful, if dated. Rent on Amazon Prime and Netflix.
Two for The Seesaw 1962 Adapted from the play by William Gibson. Directed by Robert Wise. Separated from his wife, Nebraska lawyer Jerry Ryan (Robert Mitchum) moves to New York to start fresh. He prepares for the Bar in a low end apartment and takes long lonely walks. Serendipitously at a party, Jerry meets Gittel Mosca (Shirley MacLaine), a struggling dancer who couldn’t be more different in background, but has the openness and optimism he lacks. They gravitate towards one another and embark on a relationship.
Jerry helps Gittel set up a dance studio. He’s never quite comfortable with her friends, however. Contrast in temperament cause friction. When she discovers his divorce came through and he hasn’t told her…We know it won’t work out from the get-go, but the journey is touching, characters well played. In 2011, MacLaine revealed on Oprah that she and Mitchum began a relationship during the filming that lasted until his death. Rent on Amazon Prime.
Sweet Charity 1969 Based on the Cy Coleman/Dorothy Fields musical. Directed by Bob Fosse, who directed the Broadway production (his feature directorial debut). Charity Hope Valentine (Shirley MacLaine) is an innocent taxi dancer (only in the movies) who wears her heart on her sleeve and keeps getting taken advantage of by men. She and friends Nickie (Chita Rivera) and Helene (Paula Kelly) share dreams of getting out. One evening, movie star, Vittorio Vitale (Ricardo Mantalban), picks her up on the rebound. She spends the night at his apartment but not as expected.
Later, stuck in an elevator after a job interview, the heroine meets clean cut, upright Oscar Lindquist (John McMartin). She hides her profession and they begin a relationship in which Charity places all her hopes. The truth comes out. Entertaining musical numbers. And Hollywood pathos. MacLaine exhibits just the right naiveté. An alternate i.e. happy ending can be found on the laser disc, DVD and Blu-Ray versions. Rent on Netflix.
Oddly, I couldn’t find CanCan to stream and of Irma La Douce, the less said the better.
Terms of Endearment 1983 Adapted from the Larry McMurtry novel. Produced, Written and Directed by James L. Brooks. Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor Academy Awards. Widowed, selfish, femme fatale, Aurora Greenway (Shirley MacLaine) vociferously objects to the marriage of her daughter, Emma (Debra Winger), to feckless college professor, Flap Horton (Jeff Daniels) – probably Emma’s first love. A breach is established. The young couple move away and have three children.
Finances are difficult. Flap is no help with the kids and has a series of affairs culminating with a regular girlfriend. Lonely Emma has one. Back home, Aurora makes a play for randy neighbor, retired astronaut, obvious womanizer, Garrett Breedlove (Jack Nicholson). The actors’ scenes together create fine black comedy.
Then, Emma gets terminal cancer. With John Lithgow, Danny DeVito. A traditional tear-jerker made palatable by more interesting characters and performance level. The part of Garret Breedlove was written for Burt Reynolds who had other commitments. Free with Amazon Prime.
Steel Magnolias 1989 An adaptation of Robert Harling’s play which was based on real life experience of the death of his sister, Susan Harling Robinson. Directed by Herbert Ross. M’Lynn Eatenton (Sally Field) and her husband Drum (Tom Skerritt) prepare for daughter Shelby’s wedding (Julia Roberts) to the handsome Jackson (Dylan McDermot). M’Lynn’s friends, a sisterhood are the axis of narrative.
Beautician Truvy Jones (Dolly Parton) is a big-hearted gossip. New resident, apprentice beautician, Annelle Dupuy-DeSoto (Daryl Hannah) has marital problems. Former first mayoral lady, Clairee Belcher (Olympia Dukakis) is wry and grounded. Irascible, curmudgeon Louisa “Ouiser” Boudreaux (Shirley MacLaine) has nothing good to say about anything. Shelby is happily married but gets pregnant against doctor’s orders putting her life at risk.
The women come together in celebration and tragedy. Death is neither the point nor the heart of this film unless you want to interpret the message as carpe diem. Characters are grand, ensemble work just wonderful. Rent on Amazon Prime and Netflix.
Postcards From the Edge 1990 Based on Carrie Fisher’s semi-autobiographical novel. Directed by Mike Nichols. Actress Suzanne Vale (Meryl Streep) is a recovering drug addict trying to get back on her feet and recover her reputation. Studios will only cast her if she lives with her actress mother, the selfish, manipulative, spotlight-craving Doris Mann (Shirley MacLaine).
Suzanne discovers it was producer Jack Faulkner (Dennis Quaid) who drove her to rehab and lets him charm his way back into her bed. Big mistake. Her business manager absconds with all her money. Doris crashes her car after too much alcohol. Her mother’s doctor asks Suzanne on a date. i.e. life goes on.
Excellent black comedy with a rip-roaring musical number by Streep at the end. Fisher’s mother, Debbie Reynolds said that Nichols told her, “You’re not right for the part.” Rent on Amazon Prime and Netflix.
Fisher’s book and HBO Special one woman show, Wishful Drinking is also available.
Top Bigstock photo: Meryl Streep, Shirley MacLaine at the 40th AFI Life Achievement Award honoring Shirley MacLaine held at Sony Pictures Studios on June 7, 2012 in Culver City, California.