Tuesday, July 10, 2018

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

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.

I wrote it 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 2018.

"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. 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 BluRay, the only way to see it - the only place, to be specific - is Turner Classic Movies, which has screened it a few times in the past couple years.

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 cast of character actors recruited by Powell. Here goes...

Allyn Joslyn as Lemmon's crusty editor; Charles Bickford as Allyson's wealthy, controlling 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 year later. It's a sly knockout of a song and Allyson and Lemmon, clearly having the time of their lives 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 demonstration of ways to hitch a ride. None of this is sung by Lemmon.  It's spoken but in a musical way that indicates he was having fun with some 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 Sony.

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, although a smidgen of it remains in the finished film. The reporters are played by The Mello-Men, another quartet from the '40s & '50s, founded by Thurl Ravenscroft who also has a role in the film.

Note in Passing: Prior to a 2015 screening of the film by Turner Classic Movies, the late Robert Osborne spoke rather favorably about it in his introduction and made a point of noting that it was photographed in CinemaScope.  But as was the case with the earlier TCM screenings of the movie, 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." Oh well...

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(from top)

~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"
~photography: Columbia Pictures 1956©

~ Poster art for "You Can't Run Away from It"

~Allyson and Lemmon perform the "Temporarily" musical number in the film
~photography: Columbia Pictures 1956©

~Lemmon and Allyson is a moment edited out of the "Thumbing a Ride" number
~photography: Columbia Pictures 1956©
~Allyson and Lemmon participate in the press junket for "You Can't Run Away From It"  for which  the studio utilized a Greyhound bus. 
~photography: Columbia Pictures 1956©

~Lemmon and Allyson at the after party following the film's Los Angeles premiere
~photography: Columbia Pictures 1956©


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.

Bunuel 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.

Mike Schlesinger said...

Well, I TRIED to get it into Columbia's Lemmon box set to make it an even six, but as was so often the case, I was vetoed.

However, I'm pleased to say you're incorrect when you say it's not available on DVD. It's contained in a "20 Musicals" collection released by Mill Creek. Whether it's letterboxed or not, I can't say, but I'd like to think it is, as it's been sub-licensed from Sony, and I can't imagine Grover Crisp would let them have a P&S master.

BTW, this was Columbia's third crack at it; back in 1945 they did EVE KNEW HER APPLES with Ann Miller.

joe baltake said...

Mike- Thanks for the info. I plan to order this set, albeit with some trepidation but with the hope that it is indeed letterboxed. -J

elaine 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.

Tate G said...

I see that it's available for streaming (rent or purchase) on Amazon. Does not appear to be widescreen.

As for the "20 Musicals" dvd, an Amazon user has noted "Despite the format listing as full screen, most of the films that were originally released in widescreen formats are presented here in widescreen (the exceptions are YOU CAN'T RUN AWAY FROM IT and THE 5,000 FINGERS OF DR. T).

Mike Schlesinger said...

UPDATE: Accordingly to Amazon customer reviews, apparently it is NOT letterboxed. On the other hand, 20 movies for $13 bucks ain't a bad deal, even if one or two are imperfect. (Most of the titles pre-date CinemaScope.)

joe baltake said...

Yeah, Mike, but I want "You Can't Run Away from It" in widescreen.

Mike Schlesinger said...

Alas, Joe, I wish I were in a position to help, but I'm not.

Tate: 5000 FINGERS is not a 'Scope film. It was shot in 1952, and thus is presented in its correct 1.37:1 aspect ratio.

Kevin Barry said...


You can stream the movie at this website but, alas, only in a pan-scan version. There are other titles listed here, however, that are shown in their correct 'Scope ratios and very good quality (e.g., The Lieutenant Wore Skirts, A Kiss Before Dying). Strange how some movies continue to be elusive in an age constantly hungry for entertainment.

Kiki said...

I never saw this movie. I never heard of this movie although I'd seen the original at least 20 times. But I always had a great deal of respect for Powell and Allyson ("The Shrike" was a big leap from being "the girl next door"). Powell had an interesting TV series and I think he directed some of the series.