Thursday, June 04, 2015

cinema obscura: Dick Powell's "You Can't Run Away from It" (1956)

Her director-husband Dick Powell (left) and co-star Jack Lemmon celebrate June Allyson's birthday between takes on the set of "You Can't Run Away from It"

Movies change with age. This is something that I wholeheartedly believe.  A film that we initially embraced - and with some enthusiasm - can seem less engaging a decade later, while another title which was perhaps hastily dismissed - and dissed - can look pretty good with the passing of time.

Which brings me to a Jack Lemmon film that has taken me decades to finally appreciate - Columbia's "You Can't Run Away from It" from 1956, which I wrote off long ago as one of the actor's lesser, sadder efforts.

And I was not alone: The critics brushed it aside in '56 and it remains the one Lemmon/Columbia title that has evaded home entertainment in any format. No, I was not alone but I expect to be pretty isolated in 2015.

"You Can't Run Away from It' is Columbia's remake of its 1934 Oscar-winning hit - Frank Capra's "It Happened One Night" - directed by actor Dick Powell and starring Powell's wife, June Allyson, in the Claudette Colbert role and Jack in for Clark Gable. Claude Binyon's script is so faithful to the Robert Riskin original that Riskin receives co-credit and it's abetted by a handful of songs by Johnny Mercer and Gene De Paul.

Just a handful.

As a genre, "You Can't Run Away from It" is a pseudo-musical.

Actually, at the time of its release, Columbia accurately pitched it as "a comedy with music."

Given that the film has never been issued on Beta, Laser, VHS, DVD or Blu-ray, the only way to see it - the only place, to be specific - is Turner Classic Movies, which has screened it two or three times in the past few years, most recently in an early-morning slot (1:30 a.m.) on June 2.

By all accounts, "You Can't Run Away from It" started out as a major production for Columbia. Dick Powell was hitting his stride as a film director at the time ("The Enemy Below" and "The Hunters"), June Allyson was making some savvy acting choices apart from her MGM contract ("The Shrike," "Interlude," "The Glenn Miller Story," "A Stranger in My Arms") and Jack Lemmon was fresh off his Oscar triumph for "Mister Roberts."

Despite the CinemaScope process and the musical format, Powell kept the film amazingly intimate in the spirit of the modest source material.  In fact, his remake is 10 minutes shorter than Capra's film. It is very much a two-character movie, showcasing Allyson as a runaway heiress and Lemmon as a newsman who smells a good story, while surrounding them with a terrific supporting cast of character actors recruited by Powell:

Here goes... Allyn Joslyn as Lemmon's editor; Charles Bickford as Allyson's wealthy father; Dub Taylor and Frank Sully as two of Bickford's sycophants; Byron Foulger as his secretary; Louise Beavers as his maid; Jacques Scott as Allyson's gigolo-fiancé; Paul Gilbert and Stubby Kaye as two passengers who the stars meet on a bus; Henny Youngman as the bus driver; Jim Backus as a hayseed who picks up the hitchhiking stars; Queenie Smith as a woman who befriends Allyson; Tony Martinez as a gas-station attendant; Barrie Chase as a Western Union clerk; and - as assorted proprietors of the various motels where Allyson and Lemmon hole up during the film - Walter Baldwin, Richard H. Cutting, Howard McNear and Elvia Allman, and Jack Albertson and Madge Blake.

Each one of these acting veterans gets to shine in tiny, individual scenes, while never intruding on the interplay between Allyson and Lemmon.  The lean, 95-minute running time is just right for the story being told and the lead players who perform it.  But it could also be an indication that the musical interludes had to be sacrificed in order to keep the film tight.

The movie's pressbook refers to five "book" songs that advance the plot, in addition to the title song used for the main credits and a dance number for Allyson.  However, there are only three songs in the film itself, one of which is severely truncated compared to what's on the soundtrack album.

The songs, written by Mercer and De Paul – at least, what’s left of them – are literate and witty. The clever wordplay, for example, between Allyson and Lemmon during the "Walls of Jericho" number, titled “Temporarily,” has the kind of articulate sophistication that anticipated what Meredith Willson would accomplish, with much more acclaim, in “The Music Man,” a few years later. It's a sly knockout of a song and Allyson and Lemmon, clearly having fun with it, breeze through the number with panache.

The stars assist Kaye on "Howdy Friends and Neighbors," a lively production inventively set on a Greyhound bus where choreographer Robert Sidney actually has the passengers dancing the polka along the aisle.  Sidney didn't so much choreograph the numbers as "stage" them.

Again, matters are kept small.

The truncated number is in the “Thumbing a Ride” duet, which musically recreates another iconic scene from "It Happened One Night" and which is complete on the Decca soundtrack album. In the film, the entire first half is missing -  all of Lemmon’s antic demonstrates of ways to hitch a ride. None of this is sung by Lemmon.  It's spoken but in a musical way that indicates there was some funny mime-staging created by Sidney.

The editing of this portion of the number is rather clumsy; one senses, and rightly so, that something is missing.

Given  the brevity of the film and scarcity of musical numbers, chopping this one in half just doesn't make any sense.  And given that the film’s principals – Allyson, Lemmon and Powell – are all deceased now, one can only speculate about exactly what happened. And it’s unlikely that any of the missing musical footage is still sitting on some shelf at Columbia.

As for the title song, it's performed by The Four Aces, a hugely popular quartet in the 1950s and the go-to group for main-credit harmonizing ("Three Coins in a Fountain," "Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing").

The two missing songs are "Whatcha-Ma-Call-It," which apparently was sung by Backus, and "Old Reporters Never Die," which Lemmon does with four other reporters (played by The Mello-Men, another quartet from the '40s & '50s, founded by Thurl Ravenscroft who appears in the film), although a smidgen of the song does remain in the finished film.

Allyson and Lemmon participate in the press junket for "You Can't Run Away From It" in 1956 and, for the occasion, Columbia utilized a Greyhound bus.  

Note in Passing: The June 2 Turner screening of the film was introduced by Robert Osborne who spoke rather favorably about the movie and made a point of noting that it was photographed in CinemaScope.  But alas, just as the earlier TCM screenings of the film, the print shown was not letterboxed but an antique pan-and-scan version. Plus, the color was rather bleached-out.  If a  'Scope version of the film was available, I'm confident that Turner would have aired it - which leads me to believe that Sony still has no future DVD plans for "You Can't Run Away from It."


Bill said...

It's frustrating that a movie with such important names associated with it still can't be seen in its intended form. Good, bad, or somewhere in between, I'd like to have a chance to see what these folks meant us to see.

Brian Lucas said...

It's been ages since I've seen the film, and the few memories that remain are far from positive. Still, though, I did participate in a discussion of it recently in a 'net group I belong to.

One guy had good things to say about the Gene DePaul/Johnny Mercer title tune, praising George Duning's arrangement. Of the two leads, he said "Not the greatest chemistry, but both appealing singers."

Another voice had special praise for the "Walls of Jericho" number, a DePaul/Mercer song with the title "Temporarily." The adjective used to describe it was "delightful."

joe baltake said...

Delightful is also a word I would use.

Sean Garrick said...

Funny, I haven't seen this thing in probably close to 20 years, but every time I see that title, the melody that goes with the title lyrics pops into my mind.

Robert Jameson said...

I'm always amazed when TCM drops the ball on letterboxing. Thank God it's an extremely rare occurence. Offhand, I can only think of a couple other instances but I'm sure you're right that it's a matter of availability. Thanks for the heads-up about this Lemmon film. I never heard of it! I'll be on the lookout for when Turner airs it again.

joe baltake said...

Yes, if a letterboxed print was made available, Turner would have screened it. It has shown several titles in widescreen that are still not available on DVD or Blu-ray.

Kiki said...

A musical remake of It Happened One Night!???? arghghghghg. I would probably has dissed it back then just on the premise!

John said...

One of the few Jack Lemmon films I have not seen. Enjoyed the article and completely agree how time changes your thoughts on a film. Films you once loved, you now wonder, why did I? Time goes by, you grow, you change and you view on life...and on movies change. It's always good to go back and visit.

joe baltake said...

Thanks, John. Having an open mind about movies and one's reason for liking or disliking certain titles keeps the moviegoing adventure fresh.

Marvin said...

Joe, this is a fabulous article on the wonderful YOU CAN'T RUN AWAY FROM IT, which I saw when it first came out, by the way. Didn't remember that Dick Powell directed it; nor did I remember all the good people in it.