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Columbia TriStar Home Video presents
Once Upon a Time (1944)

"Caterpillars come and go, but that one has talent."
- Jerry Flynn (Cary Grant)

Review By: Jon Danziger   
Published: March 19, 2003

Stars: Cary Grant, Janet Blair
Other Stars: James Gleason, Ted Donaldson, William Demarest
Director: Alexander Hall

MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 01h:28m:27s
Release Date: February 25, 2003
UPC: 043396052895
Genre: comedy

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B- C+CC- D

DVD Review

Once upon a time there was a man named Cary Grant, and while he acted in many, many terrific movies in nearly every genre, not even he could chart a career as a Hollywood leading man without the occasional clunker. Actually, there's nothing too terribly wrong with Once Upon a Time; it just feels a little labored in its unsuccessful efforts to gin up some Capraesque whimsy, and suffers by comparison with many of the films for which Grant is rightly famous, and which this one hopes to evoke.

Grant plays Jerry Flynn, a hustling New York theater producer, who sports a rakish fedora and a Runyonesque dese/dem/dose accent, which is especially ill-fitting on poor old Archie Leach. A series of flops has the bank knocking on Jerry's door: if he doesn't come up with $100,000 cash money by the end of the week, he's going to lose his pride and joy, the Flynn Theater. What's a dishonest producer to do?

Jerry stumbles onto the street and nearly topples over Pinkie, a 9-year-old orphan toting around a shoebox and a promise: inside the box is Curly, a caterpillar who dances, and you can have a look-see for only a nickel. Jerry figures that the little guy is a hustler and gives him five cents for his efforts—Pinkie insists that his first and only customer get his money's worth. And what do you know: Curly does dance! But only to Pinkie's accompaniment on the harmonica, and only to Yes, Sir, That's My Baby. The wheels start spinning for Jerry: he can sell the little bug for a fortune and hold onto his theater, if only he can partner up with (i.e., swindle) this little kid.

It's not the worst premise for a movie, but it feels like a pale imitation of other movies—Bringing Up Baby comes especially to mind, with its title character, a leopard who responds only to I Can't Give You Anything But Love. But this Cary Grant movie lacks many of the best attributes of Bringing Up Baby, which is great not because it's got an animal and a song, but because it's smart, funny, quick and charming.

It also has Katherine Hepburn, and perhaps the ingredient that's most missing in Once Upon a Time is a love interest for Grant. Pinkie has a sister, Jeannie (Janet Blair), who is a chorus girl and seems the logical choice for Jerry's amorous advances, but nothing ever comes of it. Instead of a love story, it's a tale of man and boy, and of packs of hypnotized kids in Curly Club t-shirts—it's not really pungent media satire, and at the very best it's just moderately amusing. Jerry's desperate quest for money leads him of course to betray Pinkie's hard-earned trust, and is topped off with violence against the little boy—child abuse is a pretty rough and unsettling climax for what's supposed to be a fairy tale.

William Demarest is criminally underutilized in the small role of a newspaperman suspicious of the dancing caterpillar, and the whole media circus surrounding Curly isn't very convincing. And since the fairy tale aspects of the picture don't work all that well, the principal problem for the audience becomes more annoying than enchanting: that is, we never get to see Curly dance. We're reminded frequently that there's a war on—this was made in 1944—but that doesn't mean that an audience should merely overlook some obvious story problems.

The outcome of the story is reasonably predictable—a dancing caterpillar isn't going to stay a caterpillar forever—but it isn't exactly uplifting, despite the filmmakers' obvious attempts to go for the heartstrings. This Columbia picture is also especially notable in that one of its principal villains is the head of a rival studio: Walt Disney, who wants to buy Pinkie and have him star with Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse.

Rating for Style: B-
Rating for Substance: C+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Some of the black & white photography still looks sharp, but the source print for this transfer is full of imperfections and the ill effects of the decades. Bacteria seems to have gotten to the film, eating away at many of the elements, leaving much of the image blotchy and indistinct, and little or no effort seems to have been taken to clean it up for this release.

Image Transfer Grade: C


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: Audio is significantly worse than the picture quality, with lots and lots of crackle. Judging merely by other DVD releases of this period, this one doesn't stack up especially well, as it's loaded with all kinds of aural interference.

Audio Transfer Grade: C-


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 28 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, Japanese, French, Spanish, Portuguese with remote access
3 Other Trailer(s) featuring His Girl Friday, It Happened One Night, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extras Review: A trio of trailers for A-list Sony catalog titles, along with the usually generous chaptering and subtitle options, are the only extras.

Extras Grade: D


Final Comments

It's not a terrific fairy tale or a heartwarming bit of corny storytelling, and given that it's not all that funny, either, Once Upon a Time is curious and not especially endearing. It's got Cary Grant, though, which gives it a leg up on most other movies ever made; maybe this Grant-and-an-animal release is a harbinger of good things to come, like Bringing Up Baby finally coming to DVD.


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