Call of the Wild (1935)

“Well, they wanted gold — now they got it.”

Synopsis:
A prospector (Clark Gable), his buddy (Jack Oakie), and their new dog accompany the rescued wife (Loretta Young) of a missing prospector (Frank Conroy) on a search for a legendary gold mine during the Klondike Gold Rush — but a weaselly rival (Reginald Owen) is determined to get there first, and will stop at nothing to claim the plot for himself.

Genres:

Review:
William Wellman’s very loose adaptation of Jack London’s novel (which “omits all but one of the book’s storylines”, and adds in a romance) is best known as the film during which Clark Gable and Loretta Young had an affair that resulted in a child Young claimed was adopted, but who looked unmistakably like a hybrid of them. Indeed, the obvious chemistry between the on-screen pair (especially when we learn that Young’s presumed-missing husband is still alive) helps drive the narrative forward; that, and the convincing rapport between Gable and the lovable St. Bernard playing “Buck”. As an adventure story, Call of the Wild is pretty standard fare, though Owen is as dastardly as they come, and cold-blooded enough to pose a serious threat to the protagonists. It’s unfortunate that dehumanization of Native Americans bookends the film: in an opening scene, a large Native woman is shown pulling a man on a sled, clearly exhausting herself through heavy manual labor on behalf of white men; and in the final scene, another Native woman is shown toting gear like a sherpa, and is literally referred to by Gable as “it”. Perhaps we should thank Hollywood for preserving evidence of the casual normalcy of racism during this era.

Note: We recently visited a restaurant in Mt. Baker, Washington (where much of the film was shot), and I took some photos of memorabilia scattered across the walls:

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Young and Gable’s obvious romantic chemistry
  • Fine use of outdoor locations at Mt. Baker, Washington

Must See?
No, but it’s worth a look for Gable and Young’s chemistry.

Links:

Barbary Coast (1935)

“San Francisco is no place for a bad loser — man or woman.”

Synopsis:
Accompanied by a retired colonel (Frank Craven), a single woman (Miriam Hopkins) sails to San Franciso during the Gold Rush, hoping to marry a wealthy man sight unseen. After learning her fiance has been killed in a lawless dispute, the local crime-boss (Edward G. Robinson) offers Hopkins work in his corrupt saloon, hoping she’ll come to love him — but Hopkins instead loses her heart to a poetic goldminer (Joel McCrea).

Genres:

Review:
Howard Hawks directed this cryptically titled historical drama which manages to cover an enormous amount of dramatic territory — mistaken identities, unrequited love, gold-digging, goldmining, feminism, vigilante justice, corruption, and freedom of speech, to name just a few topics — in its 91 minute running time. Robinson is suitably cast as a power-hungry crime-lord who wants to possess the most beautiful creature to enter “his” town in recent years — speaking of which, there are some uncomfortably dated moments early in the film when much is made of Hopkins being an enormously desirable WHITE woman (after the camera has panned past attractive women with darker skin), as well as a scene openly mocking Chinese immigrants’ presumed beliefs about wearing a braided queue to get into heaven (see here for a more accurate history of this hairstyle). With these caveats aside, the cinematography is atmospheric, and the story is reasonably engaging — particularly the critical subplot about Craven’s attempts to start an honest newspaper in a town that would rather keep its law and order tactics secret. (The more things change…)

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Atmospheric cinematography

  • Walter Brennan as Old Atrocity

Must See?
No, though Hawks fans will surely want to check it out.

Links:

Things to Come (1936)

“What is the use of trying to save this mad world?”

Synopsis:
After the onset of plague-inducing global war, the tyrant (Ralph Richardson) of Everytown is visited by an aviator (Raymond Massey) who hopes to bring peace and progress through his organization Wings Over the World. After decades of technological advancement, all humans are living underground in a leisurely communal society — but a sculptor (Cedric Hardwicke) urges society to resist ceaseless advances, and a battle ensues over whether to send a “space gun” to the moon.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “monumental, extremely ambitious, and lavish Alexander Korda production” — the “most expensive British film of the time” — possesses “truly innovative special effects and bizarre set designs and ‘futuristic’ costumes’ [that] are still of interest”, but “what gives [this] fantasy special interest is that it was scripted by 70-year-old H.G Wells”, whose goal was to write a “predictive history” rather than purely speculative fantasy. Peary notes that the “film depicts [the] Wellsian view that near future will be catastrophic but in time man will build a marvelous, peaceful world”, and points out that “this is the rare SF film that is pro-scientific advance, pro-knowledge, pro-technology”. He adds that “unfortunately, Wells’s spokesman… sounds today like a lunatic when he delivers his final speech about mankind spreading out into the universe”, and notes that the “picture is dated and flawed in other areas”; he ultimately posits that the film “presents a futuristic vision that is at once ridiculous and fascinating”.

Peary’s take on this film remains accurate: it’s impossible not to stare at the “architectural wonders” on display, and wonder if we might one day find some way to live in global peace and harmony through technological advances. However, the hive-like nature of the underground village looks uncomfortably like an antiseptic ant hill — and, as pointed out by DVD Savant, “we of course aren’t told how the population is controlled, or where all the non-Anglo people might be.” Savant further points out that “the imagery is also uncomfortably close to depictions of racial glory in Nazi art: unyielding Nordic faces seeking perfection in the stars.” The characters themselves are noticeably flat: with Wells caring most about the accuracy of his vision, and director William Cameron Menzies primarily concerned about the sets and visuals, nuanced performances and meaningful character arcs are missing. However, that doesn’t seem to matter as much as one would think: this really is a broad-scope tale of a planet in transformation, attempting to move beyond barbarian conflict and literally towards the stars.

Note: Interestingly, Peary writes in his review that “Wells’ script was greatly revised by Lajos Biros and [Wells] detested the finished film”, but this isn’t discussed in the extras provided on Criterion’s DVD release. Rather, according to Criterion’s website:

Wells, at the height of his popularity as a best-selling author and monumental cultural personality, held a huge amount of sway over all aspects of the production. There was one battle he did not win, however; although he wanted the film to be presented as “H. G. Wells’ Things to Come” and have no on-screen credits, relying instead on programs handed out to audiences to supply the credit information—“This is a long-needed innovation upon cinema practice,” he said. “Few people remember the names that are just flashed on the screen” — ultimately, the credits appeared in both places.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Magnificent sets and art production


  • Highly effective cinematography

Must See?
Yes, as an early (albeit flawed) classic of the genre, and for the fantastic art design.

  • Historically Relevant
  • (Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

    Links:

    Crossfire (1947)

    “Some of them are named Samuels; some of them have got funnier names.”

    Synopsis:
    When a Jewish man (Sam Levene) is murdered in his apartment after socializing with a group of soldiers in a nearby bar, a detective (Robert Young) investigates the case. While the presumed culprit is a drunken soldier (George Cooper) who visits a dance hall girl (Gloria Grahame) while pining for his wife (Jacqueline White), Cooper’s anti-Semitic platoon buddy (Robert Ryan) soon arouses suspicion as well.

    Genres:

    Review:
    Edward Dmytryk’s adaptation of Richard Brooks’ novel The Brick Foxhole is notable both as the first B-level film to be nominated for an Oscar as Best Picture of the Year, and for running neck to neck with Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) as one of the first Hollywood movies to openly address anti-semitism. Ironically, Brooks’ novel was actually about homophobia, a topic banned at the time by the Production Code. However, unlike Brooks’ own directorial adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ Cat On a Hot Tin Roof (1958) — which suffers from a fatal loss of sensical motives when Paul Newman’s homosexuality is taken out of the storyline — the thematic switch here works fine; it’s easy to be convinced that anti-Semitism (ever present, albeit often in more subtle forms) might drive a senseless murder like this one. As Dmytryk wrote in his autobiography:

    After our rough-cut showing to the sound and music department, one of the young assistant sound cutters, an Argentine, complimented me on the picture.
    “It’s such a fine suspense story,” he said. “Why did you have to bring in that stuff about anti-Semitism?”
    “That was our chief reason for making the film,” I answered.
    “But there is no anti-Semitism in the United States,” he protested. “If there were, why is all the money in America controlled by Jewish bankers?”
    I stared at him in astonishment. “That’s why we made the film”, was all I could think of to say.

    As a noir, Crossfire works exceptionally well, with each frame maximizing use of light and shadow to heighten the drama and suspense; Dmytryk and his crew managed to get the film made with only 150 set-ups (be sure to listen to the commentary soundtrack on the DVD to learn more about the film’s production, as well as Dmytryk’s blacklisting by HUAC). Equally impressive are the stellar performances, most notably by Ryan: check out his soulless eyes as he tells a faux flashback tale to Young, and his chilling scene with terrified Steve Brodie as “Floyd”. Grahame is also a stand-out in her supporting role as a world-weary dance hall girl with a mysterious man (Paul Kelly) living in her apartment.

    Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

    • Strong performances across the board


    • Dmytryk’s creative direction


    • J. Roy Hunt’s cinematography

    Must See?
    Yes — definitely check this one out. Listed as a film with Historical Importance in the back of Peary’s book.

    Categories

    Links:

    Life of Brian (1979) / Monty Python’s Life of Brian

    Hello, CMBA members! I’m happy to be participating in the Classic Movie Blog Association’s “Banned and Blacklisted” blogathon. If you’re new to my site, please click here to read more. Welcome!

    “Only the true Messiah denies his divinity!”

    Synopsis:
    A man (Graham Chapman) named Brian — born in the Roman Empire on the same day as Jesus Christ — becomes involved with the revolutionary People’s Front of Judea, and is mistaken as a messiah by eager crowds of would-be followers. Will his mother (Terry Jones) or his new girlfriend (Sue Jones-Davies) be able to save him from certain crucifixion?

    Genres:

    Review:
    Comedy troupe Monty Python’s follow-up after the success of Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) was this irreverent cult classic, beloved by many and infamous for the controversy it generated both before and after its release (and into recent years). To name just a few of its credentials as a “banned and blacklisted” film, its funding was pulled a few days before production was set to begin (George Harrison stepped in to help); several countries (including Ireland and Norway) banned or limited its screening upon release; rabbis and nuns picketed its opening in New York; and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops gave the film an “O” for Offensive rating, offering the following summation:

    Monty Python movie about a hapless fellow named Brian, a contemporary of Jesus, who is mistaken for the Messiah and eventually crucified by the Romans. The nihilistic, anything-for-laughs thrust of director Terry Jones’s comedy deliberately exploits much that is sacred to Christian and Jewish religious tradition. Especially offensive is the mocking parody of the crucifixion scene.

    Yes, there is much to be offended by in Life of Brian: it’s a satire which truly leaves nothing sacred, and that’s the point. Its sharpest attacks are made on the mobs of worshipers who insist Brian is their messiah, and who turn his every word and action into a literal sign from God; and on left-leaning revolutionary groups which end up competing against each other for the ability to break free from Rome, while conceding that Roman imperialism actually brought quite a few positive elements to their lives. (“All right, but apart from the sanitation, medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh water system and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?”) Not all the humor here will work for all viewers, naturally; I’m not a fan of the running gag about Pilate’s lisping, for instance, or amused by the Roman names such as “Biggus Dickus” and “Incontinentia Buttocks”. However, there’s plenty here to enjoy on repeat viewings — including but not limited to the classic closing ditty (“Always Look on the Bright Side of Life”).

    Note: Be sure to check out IMDb’s Trivia page for plenty of interesting facts about the making of this film, as well as Wikipedia’s in-depth overview and analysis; I’m sure the DVD commentary is worthy, too (though I haven’t listened to it yet myself).

    Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

    • Many classic, laugh-out-loud scenes

    • Fine cinematography

    Must See?
    Yes, as a cult favorite. Listed as a Cult Movie in the back of Peary’s GFTFF.

    Categories

    (Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

    Links:

    Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)

    “A drowning man takes down those nearest.”

    Synopsis:
    A bickering professor (Richard Burton) and his wife (Elizabeth Taylor) invite a young academic (George Segal) and his mousy spouse (Sandy Dennis) over for drinks after a party, and proceed to victimize them mercilessly.

    Genres:

    Review:
    Mike Nichols’ cinematic directorial debut was this adaptation of Edward Albee’s popular Broadway play, which Nichols has stated he instantly connected with and felt drawn to translate for the screen. Nichols’ instincts were right: his film qualifies as an unabashedly successful “opening up” of a play — one which utilizes the power of close-ups, angles, editing, and mixed settings to maximize the impact of Albee’s grueling tale about marital discord. Taylor — one of the most glamorous women in the world at the time — was only 32 when she donned a grey wig and gained 30 pounds to play middle-aged Martha, winning an Oscar for her efforts. In Peary’s Alternate Oscars — where he reluctantly gives Taylor the award as well — he writes that while “Taylor doesn’t come across as being natural or at ease,” we should “at least give her credit for attempting to act rather than just inhabit a character”. While he complains that her portrayal of Martha is “too shrill” and “should appear to be strong for most of the play/film, rather than just loud and irritating”, he concedes that “when it really counts Taylor makes us understand this troubled woman.”

    I’m not bothered at all by Taylor’s performance, and find it difficult (though not impossible) to imagine someone else in the role — primarily due to the casting of Taylor’s real-life husband as her spouse. Speaking of Burton, Peary also awards him an Oscar, noting that Taylor’s “performance is so ostentatious… that it takes a while to realize that the comparatively subdued Burton is giving a brilliant characterization”. He adds that “we are transfixed by [Burton’s] every movement, dazed by his wise yet not always logical remarks, kept off balance by his secretive smiles and powerful gazes, knocked backward by his every shout.” He goes on to provide an analysis of George and Martha’s relationship — one which helps put all the shouting and manipulation into context:

    “[George] tries to blank or drown out Martha’s vicious words (and the meaningless conversation of his unimportant guests) with the long-winded observations of a history professor. But after twenty years [Martha] can still hit nerves if she screams loudly enough and blasts him with the appropriate cruel words, some of which he supplies to her himself. She knows that despite his professed boredom, he won’t back away when she initiates their horrible nightly games … When he goes to sleep each night, he is with the woman he loves. Their battles are what keep them stimulated and spare them from dealing with what is really wrong with their lives … He must remain solid if Martha… is to be protected. The years of combat have taken their toll on George, but it is still through his strength that this shaky marriage survives.”

    Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? isn’t an easy or pleasant film to watch by any means. However, Nichols’ confident direction, Haskell Wexler’s Oscar-winning b&w cinematography, and the memorable performances (including those by Segal and the oh-so-unique Dennis) make it well worth at least one visit. Be sure to check out the commentary on the DVD in which Nichols chats with Steven Soderbergh about his directorial choices and the film’s production history; it’s quite fascinating and insightful.

    Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

    • Strong performances by the entire cast



    • Nichols’ direction

    • Haskell Wexler’s cinematography

    • Alex North’s score

    Must See?
    Yes, as a powerful if gut-wrenching classic.

    Categories

    (Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

    Links:

    Raintree County (1957)

    “War is the most monstrous of man’s illusions. Any idea worth anything is worth not fighting for.”

    Synopsis:
    On the cusp of the Civil War, an aspiring writer (Montgomery Clift) with plans to marry his childhood friend (Eva Marie Saint) becomes smitten with a southern belle (Elizabeth Taylor) whose troubled background continues to haunt her.

    Genres:

    Review:
    Edward Dmytryk’s adaptation of Ross Lockridge Jr.’s bestselling novel is perhaps best known as the film featuring Montgomery Clift both before and after his disfiguring car accident. Unfortunately, it’s a rambling, thematically dubious film which never settles on a satisfying story arc and fails to engage. Clift’s performance seems dialed in (small wonder, given what he was going through), and it’s hard to figure out (or care much about) his character. Meanwhile, Taylor over-emotes like she’s in a Tennessee Williams play, and the narrative threads about her mental instability, her attachment to creepy dolls, and her obsession with racial “purity” make it awfully difficult to sympathize with her. Eva Marie Saint has a thankless part as the beautiful small-town girl who is shoved aside by Taylor’s insistent charm, and Lee Marvin, Agnes Moorehead, and Rod Taylor are all underutilized as well. There’s little to recommend here other than fine cinematography.

    Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

    • Beautiful cinematography

    Must See?
    No. Skip this one unless you’re curious.

    Links:

    Olvidados, Los / Young and the Damned, The (1950)

    “Listen to me, my darling — you’re not that bad.”

    Synopsis:
    In the slums of Mexico City, a boy (Alfonso Mejia) whose over-worked mother (Estela Inda) refuses to love him joins forces with a thuggish ex-con (Roberto Cobo) who swears him to secrecy after witnessing a murder.

    Genres:

    Response to Peary’s Review:
    Peary writes that this “strong social drama, directed by Luis Bunuel” possesses a “realistic atmosphere” and “unsympathetic portrayal of young gang members… whose constant hunger is no excuse for” their “sadistic” behavior. He comments that “Bunuel offers no solution to the juvenile-delinquency problem — although the mother is chastised for being a neglectful parent — but conveys that a boy growing up in such poverty is doomed”. He adds that “viewers will be shocked at how unsentimental and uncompromising the film is”, given that the “kids are brutal and he doesn’t spare them tragic ends that are usually reserved for adults in movies”. Thankfully, “memorable surrealistic dream sequences” occasionally lift the material into the realm of compassion and psychological insight — and the lyrical soundtrack prevents one from devolving into utter despair while watching these kids trying to survive in such an unforgiving world. Although Bunuel’s story isn’t pleasant, it resonates with authenticity, and should be seen at least once.

    Note: Peary writes that this film “ranks with De Sica’s Shoeshine” — which he adores — but I find Bunuel’s non-sentimental approach more impactful than De Sica’s.

    Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

    • Gabriel Figueroa’s cinematography

    • The effectively surreal mother-son dream sequence

    • Fine ethnographic footage of life in Mexico City


    • Many moments of heartbreaking violence and squalor


    Must See?
    Yes, as a powerful if bleak classic.

    Categories

    (Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

    Links:

    Place in the Sun, A (1951)

    “If you’re an Eastman, you’re not in the same boat with anyone.”

    Synopsis:
    The poor nephew (Montgomery Clift) of a wealthy factory owner (Herbert Heyes) secretly dates a co-worker (Shelley Winters), who becomes pregnant. Meanwhile, Clift is invited into his uncle’s social circle and falls in love with a beautiful socialite (Elizabeth Taylor). Will Clift make Winters a respectable wife and mother, or follow his passions and pursue Taylor?

    Genres:

    Response to Peary’s Review:
    Peary isn’t a big fan of this Oscar-nominated Best Picture — “one of the major hits of the fifties” — which was “adapted by Michael Wilson and Henry Brown for director George Stevens” from Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, following an earlier adaptation by Josef von Sternberg. He notes that the “cynical film seems dated and the sociological, psychological, and moral aspects of the story are ambiguous”, pointing out that “it never becomes completely clear what Clift’s initial attraction to Winters is; and we’re never sure if his wish to dump her for Taylor is based on how much prettier Taylor is, happier she is…, nicer she is…, or richer she is.” He further adds, “We never really understand the nature of Clift’s continuous guilt — is it because he seduced Winters, is betraying Winters, has not told Taylor about Winters, [or] is trying to break away from his humble beginnings to join the American aristocracy…?”

    While I understand Peary’s reservations, I don’t share them. Clift is attracted to Winters because she’s an available female in a soul-stifling environment, and he’s lonely. His wish to dump Winters for Taylor is understandable (if utterly shameful), and is due to a mix of all the factors named by Peary above. Peary writes that while “it’s obvious that Clift wants to escape poverty for wealth”, it “becomes apparent that he’d run off with Taylor at the first opportunity, leaving behind her family, her rich young friends, and her money” — which is true; one doesn’t cancel out the other. Peary also criticizes Clift’s “mannered performance”, which he claims “has been much overrated — rather than seeming cerebral and attractive, he has the expression and stance of someone who is one step away from a psycho ward” — but Clift is in a pretty darn miserable situation, with no positive solution in sight, so it’s hard to blame him or fault his deep angst.

    What goes unstated in Peary’s review is that Stevens’ adaptation is ultimately a fatalistic noir — although it’s debatable exactly who the femme fatale is: is it Taylor, without whose alluring presence Clift would never have found himself in this mess? Or is Winters the direct cause of his downfall? The atmospheric cinematography (by William C. Mellor) and carefully crafted direction show how clearly allegorical this “American tragedy” is (though it could really be a tragedy of any nationality). While it’s hard to sit through this film more than once or twice, it’s worth a look by all film fanatics — especially given, as Peary concedes, that “when [Clift] and Taylor dance closely, gaze into each other’s eyes, or kiss passionately… these two superstars are a remarkably romantic duo”.

    Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

    • Montgomery Clift as George Eastman
    • Elizabeth Taylor as Angela
    • Fine direction by Stevens

    • Atmospheric b&w cinematography

    Must See?
    Yes, for its status as a classic — but you may or may not be able to stomach a second viewing.

    Categories

    (Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

    Links:

    Robe, The (1953)

    “Why must men betray themselves with doubts?”

    Synopsis:
    A Roman tribune (Richard Burton) in love with a childhood sweetheart (Jean Simmons) promised in marriage to Emperor Caligula (Jay Robinson) finds his life changed forever when his slave (Victor Mature) runs away after Burton assists in crucifying Jesus, and Jesus’s robe seems to cast a spell on him.

    Genres:

    Review:
    Best known as the first film released in CinemaScope, this adaption of Lloyd Douglas’s best-selling historical novel about the crucifixion of Jesus Christ looks impressive in widescreen, and makes fine use of vivid Technicolor. Indeed, it won Oscars for art direction and costume design (in color), and was nominated for best cinematography. As biblical epics go, it’s refreshingly focused on a journey of personal faith; one gets a strong sense of how persecuted early Christians were for their loyalty to Christ’s teachings, and why they were willing to sacrifice everything for their religion. Less convincing is Robinson as a snivelling, child-like Caligula; he opts for over-the-top theatrics when much less would serve equally well. Burton’s Oscar-nominated, impassioned performance is impressive, however, and his on-screen chemistry with Simmons (borne out in real life) is potent. Ultimately, however, this one is only must-see viewing for fans of the genre or those who like to watch all Oscar winners.

    Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

    • Fine use of Technicolor CinemaScope





    Must See?
    No, though it’s certainly worth a look for its historical relevance.

    Links: