Classic movie fan confession…until now, I had never seen a Douglas Sirk movie.
While the credits were rolling on the delightful comedy Has Anybody Seen My Gal, I was pretty shocked when I saw “Directed by Douglas Sirk.”
You see, Douglas Sirk is nowadays most famous for directing a number of melodramatic “weepies” like Magnificent Obsession, All That Heaven Allows, Written on the Wind and Imitation of Life. I’ve been aware of these films for years, but have not made much of an effort to see them, as that’s far from my favorite genre.
But after having watched Has Anybody Seen My Gal, I can see that Sirk was far more than "just" a director of tearjerkers and social issues films. Early in his career (late 40s to the mid-50s) he made all kinds of films: musicals, crime dramas, wartime thrillers, swashbucklers and even westerns. In other words, he was just like many other journeyman directors, churning out quality mid-budget product for the major studios (in his case, Universal.)
Has Anybody Seen My Gal fits into this early period, and is far removed from his later serious works. It’s a light, joyful and witty tale, with lots of laughs and a simple moral.
After a title card that reads: "This is a story about money -- Remember it?", the movie opens in the late 1920s, with aging multimillionaire Sam Fulton (Charles Coburn) in bed, talking to his doctor and his lawyer. It quickly becomes apparent that the old man isn’t sick in the slightest, but is rather something of a hypochondriac. Fulton has summoned his lawyer because he wants to change his will.
Seems when he was a young man, he was in love with woman named Millicent, who spurned him and married someone else. This rejection so infuriated Fulton that he went out and made himself a fortune. Now in his 70s and with no family or heirs of his own, Fulton is contemplating giving his money to Millicent’s daughter Harriet Blaisdell and her family. His lawyer persuades him to go and investigate the family first, to see if they’re worthy of his legacy. So Fulton heads to the small town of Hilverton, where the Blaisdell family lives, and insinuates himself into their busy household as a paying lodger, “John Smith.”
The Blaisdells seem a happy, normal family. Harriet’s husband Charles (Larry Gates) runs the local soda shop and drug store, making just enough to take care of his family and not any more. Son Howard is a college freshman, disappointed at not having car and wearing a shabbier coat than most of his fraternity pals but otherwise cheerful about his future prospects. Twentysomething daughter Millie is pretty, perky and in love with Dan (Rock Hudson) who works as a soda jerk at her father’s store.
Even though the Blaisdells live in what seems to be a comfortable, middle class home, mother Harriet dreams of a better life for Millie and tries her best to steer her away from working class Dan and into a relationship with wealthy creep Carl Pennock (Skip Homeier).
Fulton soon blossoms in his newfound homey environment, disobeying his doctor’s orders by swiping Charles’ cheap cigars, eating Harriet’s beef stew and sharing his bed with the family dog. He especially bonds with the youngest Blaisdell, precocious 11-year-old Roberta (Gigi Perreau). Roberta takes to “Mr. Smith” right away, and before you know it, Fulton is working with Dan in the family store and enjoying his life immensely.
He sees the Blaisdells as the family he should have had, had Millicent accepted his proposal all those years ago. Convinced of their basic kindness and good nature, Fulton arranges anonymously to give the family $100,000 (about $1.3 million in today’s money).
He’s dismayed to witness the negative impact the money has on the family, as their newfound wealth goes to their heads and leads them on the path of misery, bankruptcy and dysfunction. It’s up to Fulton to salvage the situation and restore the family to their original poor but happy status quo.
This is a light, effervescent bubble of a film. The 20s small-town Americana setting is well-realized, the characters varied and interesting, and the plot full of fun little complications, all handled with a light touch by Sirk and company.
This film was included as part of the Rock Hudson Screen Legend Collection, put out by Universal, but it couldn’t fairly be called "a Rock Hudson film," even though he has top billing. The movie belongs to Charles Coburn all the way.
Coburn was 75 at the time of filming Has Anybody Seen My Gal and had a long string of character parts behind him (including Heaven Can Wait, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Monkey Business). His age hardly seems to have slowed him down: he’s in virtually every scene here, and easily dominates the film, despite the strength of the supporting cast. He gets the lion’s share of the funniest lines, gets to show off a flair for physical comedy (he's a master of the reaction shot) and even does a little Charleston at the finale. He’s a delight.
The film’s script and production are a love letter to the 20s, with lots of standards on the soundtrack, plenty of flapper fashions and old Model T cars. The movie flirts with being a musical at times, but never quite crosses the line into full-on production numbers. There are a few brief snippets of songs, one early on when we first enter the Blaisdell’s soda shop, and a particularly cute little scene where Piper Laurie croons to Rock Hudson as he concentrates on getting his old clunker of a car started.
The main message of the film seems to be the old chestnut “be careful what you wish for,” but Sirk seems even more interested in how money changes people who aren’t used to having it, and how maybe having too much of it is not such a good thing after all, especially at the expense of family and friendships. Sirk also pokes fun at both the pomposity and rigid social structure of the “old money” class and the ostentatious vulgarity of the noveau riche.
The movie is terrific fun overall, but it does has a few niggling problems. Harriet, the mother, becomes a bit too much of a caricature of a money-grubbing social climber later in the film. In fact, both parents come off as drips, frankly, and it almost seems hard to believe that they could have raised such well-adjusted, nice children. In addition, as sweet as her character is, Piper Laurie can't help but come off as weak-willed, letting her mother control her life and almost railroad her into marrying for money rather than love. And $100,000 doesn't seem quite enough to afford all the things the Blaisdells quickly accumulate: big mansion, expensive clothes, new cars, servants, etc. But these are small wrinkles in an otherwise intelligent and charming story.
Whether Sirk particularly enjoyed working with Hudson, or was generally just stuck with him as a leading man, I’m not sure (though I'm guessing it's the former), but they made several films together, including some of Sirk’s most famous, such as Magnificent Obsession, All That Heaven Allows, Written on the Wind, The Tarnished Angels, Taza, Son of Cochise (Rock Hudson as an Apache!) and the swashbuckler Captain Lightfoot. Sirk also used Piper Laurie and Gigi Perreau in several films besides this one.
Has Anybody Seen My Gal comes highly recommended as a bright and clever comedy with just enough bite to the story to keep it grounded.
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