Seen by Martin before? No
What did I expect? Didn’t really know! Something Disney-ish.
What did I get? Charley and the Angel is a carpe diem comedy that isn’t funny, featuring a protagonist who’s impossible to root for. Liberally raiding A Christmas Carol and It’s a Wonderful Life for thematic material, it’s a wan, plodding farce that gets its “laughs” by obliging its main character, Charley, to interact with an invisible entity, in this case an angel. The movie is studded with thudding double takes and flabby sight gags, reminding us that the 1970s were not a great decade for the old Disney magic.
Set in the Midwest during the Depression, the movie is about joyless family man Charley Appleby (Fred MacMurray), a hardware store owner whose financial worries prevent him from tending to the emotional needs of his family. He neglects his uncomplaining wife Nettie (Cloris Leachman), and his two sons even find a surrogate father in the dad next door.
Charley is apparently scheduled to die in a few days, and, for reasons that are never explained — he hardly seems worth the trouble — a celestial parole officer arrives in the form of a curiously apathetic angel named Roy Zerney, a deceased old-timer given to warbling the 1899 ditty “Hello! Ma Baby!” Recently departed Harry Morgan is fondly remembered for his roles in the TV mainstays Dragnet and M*A*S*H, but his barking style is a poor fit for Roy, little about whom is amusing or even interesting. For his part, MacMurray is hardly better — his Charley is so dreary and pedantic that his protestations of needing more time invariably ring hollow. As with Ebenezer Scrooge or Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey, the role of Charley requires a palpable transformation into something akin to a joyous child, but nothing of the sort ever happens.
Even with the blade of a guillotine looming over his neck, fumfering Charley remains waspish and neurotic, and his interludes with Roy, who is invisible to others, come to seem a kind of therapy. With Roy and Roy alone, Charley pleads, rants, cajoles, vents — it helps that Roy doesn’t think that Charley has a screw loose for conversing with the empty air. The audience instinctively feels for Charley’s wife and sons, who deal with Charley’s neglect with game good cheer. Meanwhile, teenage daughter Leonora is busy arranging an elopement with a young fellow named Ray, played by a young Kurt Russell (her other paramour is Ed Begley, Jr.). The unintended lesson is that a stable middle-class family will function pretty well even in the absence of affection from the patriarch.
In the last act, everything is resolved in a positively Dickensian torrent of good news after an improbable run-in with some big-city bootleggers, leaving Charley to pay lip service to the task of being a better husband and dad. But we know that isn’t likely.
What here smacks of 1973? The rose-colored treatment of the Depression, perhaps. The 1970s had a lot of half-hearted comedies of this type.
IMDB score: 6.0
My score: 3
Director: Vincent McEveety
Writer: Roswell Rogers
Starring: Fred MacMurray, Harry Morgan, Cloris Leachman, Kathleen Cody, Scott Kolden, Vincent Van Patten, Kurt Russell, George Lindsey, Edward Andrews, Mills Watson, Richard Bakalyan, Barbara Nichols, Kelly Thordson, Liam Dunn, Larry D. Mann, George O’Hanlon, Ed Begley Jr.
IMDB synopsis: Charley is a workaholic family man that finds out from an angel that his “number’s up” and he will be dying soon so he tries to change his ways and be a better husband and father with the time he has left.