Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Handle With Care

TCM is putting the spotlight on the great character actor Thomas Mitchell all morning and afternoon. (His birthday, however, is in July.) The spotlight concludes with one of Mitchell's last movies, Handle With Care, at 6:30 PM.

The star here is a young Dean Jones, before he started doing all those Disney movies in the 1960s. Here, Jones plays Zachary Davis, who is a third-year law student at a small law school where all the students seem to be in one class and all of them but Zachary come from the same small town where everybody has known each other for generations since whenever the town was founded. As part of the class' final project, they are to do a mock trial. Zachary, however, wants to reenact a real trial, preferably something from the town's history. He probably saw Peyton Place and realized that every idyllic small town has a hotbed of iniquity under the surface, or something. But Zachary's father was a disgraced toofficial in another town; that's part of why he came here and why he wants to do a trial about a real event from the town. There's some dissension, but eventually everybody agrees, and the students go off to examine the town's history.

Zach finds something he doesn't like. While looking through the early 1930s, Zach discovers that the town's tax collector, Dick Williston (that's Thomas Mitchell), handed out receipts for the full amount of taxes owed, but didn't deposit that much money into the town coffers. The obvious conclusion is that Williston was embezzling! Making matters worse is that a quarter of a century on, Williston is now the town's mayor, and everybody loves him, because everybody loves everybody else in these small towns. It seems, however, as though there may be other corruption from the 1930s that was never made public. This all causes quite a rift in the town and Zachary, being the outsider, is a convenient lightning rod. But the townsfolk agreed to have a mock trial about something from the town's past, so they're going to have a trial about this.

Now, this is the sort of movie that could go in the direction of one of two Walter Pidgeon movies from the beginning of the decade: either The Sellout, where it turns out that the officials accused of corruption really are corrupt, and the hero saves the day; or Scandal at Scourie (which I haven't blogged about), which has a little girl falsely accused and there's some simple explanation that results in the accusers realizing how wrong they were and learning to love her. I won't say which ending Handle With Care takes. I mention Walter Pidgeon however, because even though he isn't in Handle With Care, he damn well should be. This was one of those programmers made at MGM in the 1950s presumably to subsidize the more prestigious color movies, and it has all the imprints of MGM's moralizing. Pidgeon would have been perfect as the law professor (actually played by Walter Abel) or some other prominent town citizen like a town judge. The tone that the movie takes on once the mock trial starts is certainly a strike against it.

In some ways, that's a shame, because Handle With Care has some interesting ideas. Dean Jones might be a bit too earnest in his role, but I think a good portion of the blame can be put on the script. Mitchell is professional as the man who understanbly fears his life's work might be pulled out from under him, while the rest of the cast feels like a bunch of players from a stock company: nothing particularly memorable, but they don't detract from the movie. It's just that darn script again. On the whoe, though, Handle With Care is not a bad movie. It's just one that I think could have been better. I don't think it's available at all on DVD, so you'll have to catch the rare TCM showing.

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