THE STRAIGHT DOPE:
I want you to take a look at the DVD cover art to the right. It features Cary Grant and a woman in a somewhat intimate proximity to one another. If you had to describe this movie in a couple of words based on that image, what words would you use? "Screwball romance?" " "Noir thriller?" How about "Dancing Caterpillar?"
If you guessed the last choice, you'd be right. If the old story about 50% of all movies made before 1950 no longer existing is true then I'd gladly trade Once Upon a Time (1944) in for some long, lost Murnau or Von Stroheim classic. Heck, I'd trade it for a couple episodes of Three's Company
Once Upon a Time is the excruciatingly boring tale of Jerry Flynn (Grant), a theater owner (or something) looking to kick-start his lagging career (and save his theater from the mean bank man) by promoting the next big thing. He finds just that in a shoebox owned by little Pinky (the misshapen Ted Donaldson) in a little caterpillar that dances whenever young Pinky drones "Yes Sir, That's My Baby" on his harmonica. Why any creature, let along a caterpillar, would be able to find any rhythm in Pinky's spastic, asthmatic playing is beyond me.
In no time at all Pinky and Curley (that's the caterpillar's name) are huge global stars, conveyed by an endless monolog by some radio host and a few montages of people talking about how Curley is just the thing to pull the world out of the doldrums of war. (Did I mention this nonsense was created at the height of World War II?)
What makes Once Upon a Time even worse than it already sounds is that Curley is never shown. Instead the audience is treated to scene after scene of slack-jawed morons staring into a hole in Curley's box, stunned beyond words. It's a despicable technique that gives viewers absolutely no reason to care about a miracle that's supposedly inspiring wonder and excitement for the entire world.
It's hard to know why the usually outstanding Grant consented to appear in this dreck. Does Once Upon a Time belong to some long-forgotten genre of performing larvae pictures? Regardless, he's unable to rescue the piece. There are moments when his wit causes a chuckle but usually he resorts to cheap mugging. Donaldson, on the other hand, is hopeless; One of the most annoying child actors I've ever seen.
Only Walt Disney fetishists (who might enjoy a subplot about Walt himself offering to buy Curley for unexplained reasons, even though Walt is played by a stand-in) and man-boy lovers (who might appreciate the kind of squirm-inducing relationship between Flynn and Pinky, which contains lots of yucky talk about them being "partners" and "dancing worms") will find anything to watch in this lifeless mess. By the time the utterly predictable "surprise" ending rolls around it was all I could to keep my lids from drifting shut.
The full-frame black-and-white picture is acceptable. Some severe print damage in the opening moments gives way to an even, solid transfer, with good contrast and decent compression. This is not a restored print, however, and damage is constant, if generally unobtrusive.
The Dolby Digital mono audio is also acceptable. The voices are clear and that's really all that matters here. English, Japanese, French, Spanish and Portuguese subtitles are also available.
Only trailers for It Happened One Night, Mr. Smith Goes To Washington and His Girl Friday, all far superior films to this one. Unfortunately, the trailers are either in terrible shape or they're uninterestingly made.
There is a way to create a fun, involving, innocent fairy tale, but this ain't it. Cary Grant's funny, sexy presence is utterly wasted with a script filled with stupid ideas and a supporting cast with no energy. If only Curley appeared on screen. He could have stolen the show!