Free for All - 1949

Free for All - 1949

Free for All (1949) is a comedy set in postwar Washington, D.C. about a country bumpkin who comes to the U.S. Patent Office to register his formula for turning water into gasoline.  So many elements of this movie are timely today, including the suppression of the idea by a greedy Big Oil company, but the film, despite some clever aspects, never manages to fire on all pistons. It’s most egregious fault is putting Ann Blyth in a role (the daughter of the Patent Office manager) for which any young ingénue just starting out in her career would be appropriate.  She's just too good for this part.

Though Ann was around twenty-one when this movie was filmed, she already had an impressive string of strong dramatic and comedic achievements as an actress under her belt (Mildred Pierce; Swell Guy; Another Part of the Forest; A Woman’s Vengeance; Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid; Once More, My Darling) playing opposite Hollywood’s top actors.  She is simply wasted here as the secretary Bob Cummings doesn’t have the nerve to ask out on a date.  It’s really Bob’s movie, and she’s just along for the ride.

Second Bob Cummings.  

Mr. Cummings, though some eighteen years her senior, still manages to project a bumbling boyishness that is sweet and appealing, though I couldn’t help but think that somebody like Gary Cooper or James Stewart would really run away with a role like this.  Cummings plays it utterly without any sex appeal, and just sort of sad.  I’ve always preferred him in dramatic roles, though much of his career, especially his turn as the star of his own TV sitcoms, was spent in comedy.  It’s his sadness, his take-a-deep-swallow-and-face-it-like-a-man quality that I find poignant in dramatic roles, but in this, what is supposed to be a very silly romp, it just seems to slow down the movie, without any real chemistry between him and Ann Blyth.  However, she expressed in at least one interview her pleasure at working with him in the romantic scene at the end of the film when he gives her a few befuddled kisses, “Bob is boyish about it, laughing all the time and taking the seriousness out of it.”

By the way, they appeared together before this film in an adaptation of Charles Dickens' Great Expectations on the Lux Radio Theater in October 1947.

Bob comes to town from Ohio seeking to patent his idea.  Percy Kilbride, in a vacation from his Ma and Pa Kettle series, is the Patent Office manager and Ann’s pop.  Bob has no place to stay, so Mr. Kilbride, brings him home, which he opens as a rooming house to other inventors.  

Percy Helton, who we’ve seen in dozens of movies as sweet little men, here is very welcome as another daffy inventor.  They’re all daffy, apparently.

Bob meets Ann when the Rube Goldberg bathtub fixtures nearly drown him, and she comes to his rescue.  

She works as one of the girls in the office at the Big Oil company run by one of our favorite gruff businessmen, Ray Collins, who was so adept at both drama and comedy.  Here’s he’s purely comedic, but no less evil, greedily trying to steal Bob’s idea to quash it.

Donald Woods plays a junior executive in the oil company, who’s sweet on Ann.  His bumbling, rather bland style is almost a mirror of Bob Cummings’ character, and there’s really not much different between them, except Mr. Woods wears a wide-eyed look of surprise through most of this film that is a little strange.  He’s another fellow I prefer in dramas, most especially his turn in Watch on the Rhine (1943), and in one of my favorite Christmas-themed short subjects, Star in the Night (1945). 

When he comes to take Ann out, he hums the peppy, “You’re a Sweetheart”, the same song the dorky sodajerk sings in Sally and Saint Anne (1952) which we covered last week here.  Must the song of young men who don’t get the girl.  He wears a straw boater, so we’re not supposed to take him seriously.

Another minor characters are Dooley Wilson as Percy Kilbride’s butler, Russell Simpson as a farmer in a white linen suit and string tie, and Frank Ferguson, another fellow who I prefer in dramas, who made such a strong impression here in Caught (1949).
One bright spot is Willard Waterman, who plays a daffy naval commander.  He is unimpressed with the idea that a formula for turning water into gasoline would help the navy fuel its tankers at sea.  Percy Kilbride tries to convince him, “They could stay at sea for months at a time.”

“That would be very boring.”  His first command was a tanker.  “Ah, I can still smell her,” he remembers fondly.  Taking potshots at Big Oil, and representing the military as a bunch of obtuse and lazy morons is rather daring for 1949 (only a few years before we wouldn’t think of it), but this film, for all it lacks, shows us a sea change in the postwar era.  I love the shots of them driving on the practically empty highways, the old roads just before the Eisenhower era gave us the Interstate Highway System and we milked it into eight lanes of chaos.

One of the pleasures of the film is seeing Ann Blyth and Bob Cummings strolling around Mount Vernon, and the Washington Monument on the Mall sightseeing.  Movies were beginning to leave Hollywood more and more.  We get a relaxing view of what life was like after the war, with none of the postwar angst the noirs were selling.  Strangely, the very mood of complacence gives this movie a certain otherworldly feeling.

But the problems with the film keep it from being all it could be.  The writing is hit-or-miss, with some clever lines, but many comic situations seem forced.  The funniest part of the movie to me, apart from Willard Waterman, was when Bob Cummings, a bit loopy from being injured, calls Ann Blyth by the wrong name.  Simple, but it’s a great delivery.  The end, a goofy kiss with Bob dressed in a woman’s flannel nightgown (because he had earlier fallen into a well) is a pointless and rather desperate attempt at a laugh.

The actors are all fine in their roles, gamely pushing through a very uneven script, but the direction is weak.  One of the most noticeable problems is very sloppy editing, and I have to wonder if the print I saw (which is a very poor copy as you can probably tell by these screen caps) might have been edited for television decades ago.  I don’t think this one has ever been released to VHS or DVD, and probably never will.  I would say the idea of the movie’s story is good, but the execution is weak.

It had a Screen Guild Theater version on radio in January 1951 with Ann reprising her role, but I’ve not heard it and am not aware if it is available.  

By the time this movie was released in November 1949, Ann had already been working on her next film, Our Very Own (1950), which we’ll discuss in a couple weeks as part of the Classic Movie Blog Association’s Fabulous Films of the Fifties blogathon. 

Free for All had its world premiere in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and Ann appeared there for a four-day publicity tour.  I don’t know what particular connection Milwaukee might have had for this film, or if the studio shrewdly wanted to open this weak film out of town.  The New York and Hollywood press tended to come down rather hard on most films, but everyplace in between showed a gentler appreciation for movies, and were especially thrilled at visits from movie stars.  I expect the studio was trying to save Free for All with the good will Ann would generate by her visit.

She arrived by train Tuesday, November 1st with her Aunt Catherine Tobin as chaperone.  You’ll recall from our intro post to the series here that Mr. and Mrs. Tobin came to Hollywood to look after Ann after the death of her mother. They were greeted by the Marquette University Band, the Homecoming Queen, and a crowd. She was given a bouquet of roses, and was taken from the train depot to the Schroeder Hotel (which is now a Hilton) in an open car while college boys trotted alongside and “tried to make dates.”  Reportedly, she “gushed” to her aunt, “Isn’t this exciting?”  

She was at the age to be a college student herself, but lived a very different life. One wonders what she made of that.  (In 1973 she would return to Marquette University to receive the McElligott Medallion, an award given to women of national prominence who advance the educational and cultural interest of women. She was presented the award by Jane Wyatt, who was the first recipient in 1963.  Miss Wyatt played her mother in Our Very Own.)

In 1949, her press was different.

“She said she particularly looked forward to riding in the Marquette University homecoming parade Thursday night.”

“A high voltage smile constantly plays across her face, but she does not affect the slinky movie screen appearance.  She is just a little Irish girl who sparkles with friendliness.”

A few months later, in February 1950, Ann took another public appearance trek to college and the Midwest with a visit to the two-day Mardi Gras carnival at Notre Dame University.  From their yearbook: 

“The successful 1950 Mardi Gras Carnival will always be remembered as the carnival at which glamorous Ann Blyth came, saw, and conquered the hearts of Notre Dame men. Miss Blyth ' s appearance on the final night, climaxed the two day Student Council  NFCCS affair held in a colorful Navy Drill Hall. Miss Blyth drew the winner of the Buick Riviera, visited several of the booths, and joined with the Glee Club in singing several numbers."

This was perhaps the occasion she sang with the glee club at a benefit before a crowd of 20,000 at the Chicago Stadium,with Pat O'Brien.

From the school paper, the Scholastic

"It isn't every day that a movie star visits the campus, and when Miss Ann Blyth appeared at the carnival last week, WND engineers were on hand with their brand new tape recorder. The machine was apparently in good shape that night, because Miss Blyth's interview by Ed Farrell, as well as her rendition of "Toora Loora" and "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling" were flawlessly recorded for posterity. The station is considering transferring the tape onto records, if enough souvenir hunters and/or Ann Blyth fans on the campus would want to acquire same."

I'd love to know if anybody still has any of these recordings. 

She wasn't through with college.  We mentioned the honorary doctoral degree she was awarded from St. Joseph's College in Emmitsburg, Maryland in our post here.  In 1969 she received an honorary degree from the University of Portland, Oregon.

But back in November 1949, her Milwaukee tour schedule included radio interviews, three performances at the Warner Theater on Friday where Free for All would premiere, and an appearance at the Wisconsin Education Association meeting at the Milwaukee Auditorium.  She attended a press conference at the old Schlitz Brown Bottle restaurant, which had been founded in the late 1930s and was a famous eatery in Milwaukee until it closed, I believe, some ten years ago.  We have a ringside seat courtesy of the Milwaukee Sentinel:

“Wearing a simple, light green tweed suit, the short jacket edged with a dark green braid, Ann Blyth, movie star, chatted with local folk…She’s mighty pretty, with a clean scrubbed look, minus all affectation, and not too excited about the usual things you expect a young girl to be interested in.

"Her exquisite mink coat was tossed lightly over her shoulders, and her hair, worn in a long bob, was topped by a small, deep red velour cloche with a tiny veil.”

Buck Herzog, syndicated film critic, gave a diplomatic good review to the film,

“There are moments when the action might have been stepped up, but for the most part, Free for All runs a merry course….”  He also notes that the funniest part of the film is when Percy Kilbride takes the idea to the military, “It kids Washington in an hilarious manner.”

Interestingly, Mr. Herzog shows us just how little the general public knew of Ann’s ability to sing at this time (having forgotten, apparently, about her early Universal teen musicals).  It would be another two years before she sang in The Great Caruso (1951) and launched her MGM makeover, and most of her singing was limited to benefits local to the Los Angeles area.

Ann “surprised capacity audiences who believe her talents to be limited to looking pretty and acting.  She sings, too, and pleasantly.  She sang several current hits, of which “Bali Bali” [sic] from South Pacific was most enthralling.”

That alone might have made the trip worth taking for Ann.

Come back next week when we drop back to 1946 and her first film after Mildred Pierce, and after her year-long hiatus due to injury.  She's the town tramp…in the sinister Swell Guy.

Dome Yearbook, 1950, University of Notre Dame, p. 307.

Knight Digest, Knights of Columbus, Union Council 4504, Union, New Jersey, November 1969, p. 1.

Milwaukee Journal August 22, 1949, syndicated article by Sheilah Graham, “Much Kissed Ann Blyth Says She Has Never Felt Romantic”; November 1, 1949, “Official City Delegation Hails Western Mayor in Mink Coat”, p. 2; November 2, 1949, “Blythely She Floats to City, and City Bows to Irish Eye.”, p. 1; February 1, 1973, "Marquette Women to Honor Ann Blyth", part 2, p. 5; March 18, 1973 article by Beth Slocum, "Jane Wyatt a Spry Aunt Polly", 

Milwaukee Sentinel, “Free for All Premiere to Be in Milwaukee,” October 31, 1949, p. 6.; November 2, 1949, “Ann Blyth, Star of Film, Pretty Picture in Tweed,” p. 9., November 5, 1949, “Review of New Shows” by Buck Herzog, p. 6.

Notre Dame Scholastic, March 3, 1950, p. 5
Toledo Blade, September 28, 1949.

University of Portland online almanac:

THANK the following folks whose aid in gathering material for this series has been invaluable:  EBH; Kevin Deany of Kevin's Movie Corner; Gerry Szymski of Westmont Movie Classics, Westmont, Illinois; and Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. of Thrilling Days of Yesteryear.

UPDATE:  This series on Ann Blyth is now a book - ANN BLYTH: ACTRESS. SINGER. STAR. -

 "Lynch’s book is organized and well-written – and has plenty of amusing observations – but when it comes to describing Blyth’s movies, Lynch’s writing sparkles." - Ruth Kerr, Silver Screenings

"Jacqueline T. Lynch creates a poignant and thoroughly-researched mosaic of memories of a fine, upstanding human being who also happens to be a legendary entertainer." - Deborah Thomas, Java's Journey

"One of the great strengths of Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. is that Lynch not only gives an excellent overview of Blyth's career -- she offers detailed analyses of each of Blyth's roles -- but she puts them in the context of the larger issues of the day."- Amanda Garrett, Old Hollywood Films

"Jacqueline's book will hopefully cause many more people to take a look at this multitalented woman whose career encompassed just about every possible aspect of 20th Century entertainment." - Laura Grieve, Laura's Miscellaneous Musings''

"Jacqueline T. Lynch’s Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. is an extremely well researched undertaking that is a must for all Blyth fans." - Annette Bochenek, Hometowns to Hollywood

Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. 
by Jacqueline T. Lynch

The first book on the career of actress Ann Blyth. Multitalented and remarkably versatile, Blyth began on radio as a child, appeared on Broadway at the age of twelve in Lillian Hellman's Watch on the Rhine, and enjoyed a long and diverse career in films, theatre, television, and concerts. A sensitive dramatic actress, the youngest at the time to be nominated for her role in Mildred Pierce (1945), she also displayed a gift for comedy, and was especially endeared to fans for her expressive and exquisite lyric soprano, which was showcased in many film and stage musicals. Still a popular guest at film festivals, lovely Ms. Blyth remains a treasure of the Hollywood's golden age.

The eBook and paperback are available from Amazon and CreateSpace, which is the printer.  You can also order it from my Etsy shop. It is also available at the Broadside Bookshop, 247 Main Street, Northampton, Massachusetts.

If you wish a signed copy, then email me at and I'll get back to you with the details.


Congratulations to John Greco on publishing his collection of film noir essays from his great blog in Film Noir at Twenty Four Frames Per Second, now available at Amazon.
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