Sony // 1944 // 89 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Dan Mancini (Retired) // August 7th, 2003
Someone told us a story the other day that sounded fantastic. But in a world that is so troubled today and where reality is so grim -- fantasy was a welcome relief.
After one too many flops, Broadway producer Jerry Flynn (Cary Grant) is in danger of losing his theater. If he can't raise $100,000, the bank will foreclose. When he runs into an orphan named Pinky in possession of Curly, a caterpillar who dances to the tune "Yes Sir, That's My Baby," he believes he may have found the answer to his problems. When Disney expresses an interest in purchasing the miracle caterpillar, all Flynn's problems appear solved. But can he bring himself to tear bug from boy?
Once Upon a Time is a bizarre little entry in the Cary Grant canon, its fairy tale absurdity perhaps explained by its production near the end of World War II, a time when the outcome of the conflict was very much in question. Best viewed as a children's film, Grant manages to hoist it to a level where it plays reasonably well for adults (assuming one can embrace the cartoon-thin premise). His comedic talent goes a long way in selling a film that is otherwise unremarkable.
Having said all that, Grant isn't the only the thing the film has going for it. Tough guy character actor James Gleason (Arsenic and Old Lace) is a hoot as Flynn's goon, The Mook. And despite his geek-boy appearance, Ted Donaldson (A Tree Grows in Brooklyn) proves himself a capable child actor in the role of Pinky, his working class New York accent lending a surprising weight and believability to the character. Still, the remarkable character actor William Demarest (The Lady Eve) is basically wasted playing a skeptical reporter, a role so generic it could have been filled by anyone.
In the role of Pinky's older sister and guardian, Jeannie, Janet Blair feels like the weak link in the film, a female lead who can't possibly hold her own with Grant. It's probably an unfair assessment, an illusion of failure set up by our expectations that any beautiful woman in a Cary Grant film is destined to be his love interest. Thankfully, there is no twelfth-hour romantic awakening, a plot device that would've felt contrived based on everything that's come before. But its absence also leaves one wondering why Blair's present at all.
Based on its obscurity, it's hardly a surprise that Columbia has invested very little time and effort in bringing Once Upon a Time to DVD. What is surprising is in how much better shape the film's elements were than other recent releases of Columbia classics like Frank Capra's You Can't Take It With You or Leo McCarey's The Awful Truth. Neither of those films received a complete remastering either, but Once Upon a Time is riddled with far less source damage, dirt, and grain than either of those more famous films.
The mono soundtrack is unremarkable.
The only extras are trailers for His Girl Friday, It Happened One Night, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, which provides a perfect segue into my verdict: while Once Upon a Time is hardly a disaster, it's not particularly memorable, either -- go buy His Girl Friday or It Happened One Night instead. Heck, I'm not a fan of Capra at his most sentimental, but I have no qualms about recommending Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (not a personal favorite) over Once Upon a Time.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 89 Minutes
Release Year: 1944
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Trailers for His Girl Friday, It Happened One Night, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington