City for Conquest (1940)

“Call it applause, call it ambition, call it whatever you’d like — but it’d take a lot more than a man to come between you two.”

Synopsis:
An aspiring dancer (Ann Sheridan) chooses a performing career over marriage with a truck driver (James Cagney) whose decision to fight for a boxing title leaves him with devastating consequences.

Genres:

Review:
DVD Savant nicely summarizes this Anatole Litvak-directed flick as follows:

City for Conquest is an ambitious James Cagney movie given the full Warner treatment. Although it doesn’t quite hit the mark on any of its four or five themes it gives them all a college try… It is a gangster picture, a boxing picture, a “poetic” symphony-of-the-city epic, a starstruck show-biz career picture — and for a finale it even tries to graft on the end of Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights.

Indeed, there’s a heck of a lot packed into this “ambitious” film, which purportedly disappointed Cagney enough to prompt him to write a letter of apology to the source novel’s author. With that said, it’s atmospherically shot by James Wong Howe, and never boring to watch, even if one wishes for a little less going on. Perhaps least successful is the framing use of “Old Timer” Frank Craven (narrator of Our Town) for opening, closing, and intermittent commentary as a hobo who’s seen all sorts of misadventures occurring in the Big City of New York. This footage was excised for many years and suddenly reappeared — though it arguably should have been left aside. Watch for Arthur Kennedy in his film debut, and Elia Kazan in a supporting role.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Ann Sheridan as Peggy
  • James Wong Howe’s cinematography

Must See?
No, though it’s worth a look by Cagney or Sheridan fans. Listed as a Sleeper and a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

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Police Academy (1984)

“Four of you have already quit — and that’s just the beginning.”

Synopsis:
When a mayor announces her city will be accepting police candidates of all types, a group of misfits — including a troublemaker (Steve Guttenberg), a one-man noise-making machine (Michael Winslow), an attractive socialite (Kim Cattral), a former florist (Bubba Smith), and a squeaky-voiced woman (Marion Ramsey) — attend a training academy run by a crusty commandant (George Gaynes) and an irritable lieutenant (G.W. Bailey) determined to make the recruits’ lives miserable.

Genres:

Review:
Peary writes that back in 1984 (shortly before the publication of GFTFF), this “undistinguished, unimaginative comedy became a surprise commercial blockbuster, forcing highbrow critics to lament about the nature of today’s movie audience” — surely a complaint that resonates equally well in 2019. Peary adds that this is “yet another film in the Animal House and Stripes tradition, with a group of incorrigible, klutzy misfits entering a conservative institution” and ultimately deciding “they really want to become policemen after all”. He notes that “the reason for the picture’s popularity has been a mystery, because it hasn’t much sexual content or inspired lunacy” — but he asserts that he thinks “it’s partly because it’s the one film in which the institution doesn’t really alter the rebellious characters it eventually welcomes into its ranks; it doesn’t contend that if someone trains to be a policeman he’ll become a better person, or that disciplined people are the types of citizens we want.” Still, he laments that this remains a “ridiculously tame film” with “some laughs, but the humor isn’t allowed to build toward a funny climax”. Peary’s complaints all ring true; this erstwhile box-office favorite (with numerous sequels to its name) doesn’t offer much of interest to viewers other than those who recall it fondly from their youth.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Michael Winslow’s amusing “sound machine”

Must See?
No; this one is only for cult ’80s movie lovers or those curious to see what the fuss was all about.

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St. Louis Blues (1958)

“There are only two kinds of horns: Gabriel’s and the devil’s!”

Synopsis:
Jazz composer W.C. Handy (Nat “King” Cole) goes against the wishes of his religious father (Juano Hernandez) in joining forces with a dance hall singer (Eartha Kitt); meanwhile, his loyal girlfriend (Ruby Dee) waits in the wings.

Genres:

Review:
This biopic about “Father of the Blues” W.C. Handy is notable for starring Nat “King” Cole in a leading role, as well as featuring many other famous black musicians (including Eartha Kitt and Cab Calloway) and offering up plenty of fine musical numbers. Unfortunately, Cole isn’t quite up to the task of such a major acting role; he’s clearly at his most comfortable when singing and playing the piano (a personal favorite is his rendition of “Morning Star”). The storyline, while based on facts — Handy was indeed quite religious, and his father even more so — is thin and poorly structured, with sudden-onset blindness appearing as an odd and inexplicable narrative crutch. With that said, film fanatics may still be curious to check this one out, simply for its historical value as a film with black actors in all leading roles, and for the musical performances.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Many enjoyable musical numbers

Must See?
No, though it’s worth a look for its historical relevance and the fine music.

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I Want to Live! (1958)

“Just this once, I wish it wasn’t ladies first.”

Synopsis:
Accused of participating in a murder, ex-convict Barbara Graham (Susan Hayward) awaits execution at San Quentin while the media hovers in the wings.

Genres:

Review:
Peary doesn’t review this Oscar-nominated film in his GFTFF, but agrees with the Academy’s decision to name Hayward Best Actress of the Year in his Alternate Oscars, where he discusses her performance in depth. He writes that the picture — “which takes a strong stance against capital punishment” — “supports Graham’s innocence, contending that she was convicted in the press before her trial began”, and notes that “a major source for the strong Oscar-nominated script by Nelson Gidding and Don Makiewicz were articles written in the San Francisco Examiner by Ed Montgomery (played in the film by Simon Oakland), who first thought her guilty and then became her chief advocate.” Hayward purportedly “took the role without having read the script” because she related to Graham’s hard-scrabble upbringing and challenging adult life. Peary explains that “like Graham, who had a difficult childhood, was a target of the press, separated from her husband, and lost her child when she went to prison, Hayward was a tough woman who fought for her own survival, mostly against men (her husband, reporters, agents, judges, studio executives).”

As depicted by Hayward in this film, Graham has “volcanic energy” and is “always moving about, dancing (she loves jazz), hugging and kissing men, mingling with her wild crowd… She takes her lumps, willingly making sacrifices and taking raps for irresponsible men, even going to jail on their behalf.” Meanwhile, “because she is a woman on death row, she is big news, and is exploited unmercifully”, though she’s a “tough cookie [who] doesn’t crack”. Peary argues that while Hayward “is convincing showing the gutsy, rough side of Graham”, “some of her finest moments come when Graham calms down and speaks forthrightly to someone she is fond of”: while “all the men in the picture seem to have conspired against her” (at least “until late in the film”), she does have “some well-played, tender scenes with women”. Ultimately, as Peary argues, “Hayward’s heartfelt performance in the last few scenes makes us see the cruelty and criminality of the death penalty, as well as the lack of dignity accorded to those who are about to lose their lives.” With all that said, this isn’t an easy film to watch by any means, especially knowing Graham’s outcome from the start; I recommend watching it once for Hayward’s performance, but not feeling any obligation for a revisit.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Susan Hayward as Barbara Graham
  • Lionel Lindon’s cinematography

Must See?
Yes, for Hayward’s Oscar-winning performance.

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Citadel, The (1938)

“Your work isn’t making money — it’s bettering humanity, and you know it.”

Synopsis:
An earnest new doctor (Robert Donat) meets his wife (Rosalind Russell) when working and researching tuberculosis in a hard-scrabble Welsh mining town. With assistance from a friend (Rex Harrison), he soon finds himself living a more luxurious existence serving wealthier clients — but when his old friend (Ralph Richardson) suffers grave consequences from medical neglect, Donat begins to rethink his goals.

Genres:

Review:
King Vidor’s adaptation of A.J. Cronin’s semi-autobiographical novel tells a compelling tale of how easily youthful idealism can shift to settled complacency within the medical field. As noted in TCM’s article:

In many ways, The Citadel is the missing link between idealized medical biographies like The Story of Louis Pasteur (1936) and strong, socially conscious films like John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley (1941). The only reason American doctors didn’t raise a fuss over the film’s often negative view of the medical profession is probably because the story takes place in England and not the United States.

However, despite being very specifically about a doctor, The Citadel’s take-aways can easily be translated to countless other spheres. When faced with the choice between a hard-scrabble life fighting for social justice versus enjoying a career of ease and comfort, it’s hard to say how many would willingly pick the former. Donat imbues his complex role with authenticity and pathos, and Russell is admirably resolute as his loyal (and razor-sharp) wife. This one is worth a look.

Note: It’s impossible not to notice the parallels between this and the previous year’s Oscar-winning Best Picture, The Life of Emile Zola (1937), also about tensions between the comforts of fame and fighting for what’s right.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Robert Donat as Dr. Manson
  • Rosalind Russell as Donat’s supportive wife
  • Fine b&w cinematography

Must See?
Yes, for Donat and Russell’s performances.

Categories

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Life of Emile Zola, The (1937)

“Posterity will choose between your name and mine.”

Synopsis:
After steadily growing fame and fortune, French author Emile Zola (Paul Muni) — enjoying a comfortable life with his loving wife (Gloria Holden) — is called to action when a Jewish captain (Joseph Schildkraut) is falsely accused of treason, and his wife (Gale Sondergaard) seeks Zola’s help.

Genres:

Review:
William Dieterle directed this Oscar-winning biopic about France’s most famous “naturalist” author, who gained both infamy and renewed respect after speaking out against the French government on behalf of falsely accused Jewish military captain Alfred Dreyfus. Indeed, only the first half-hour of this film is focused on Zola’s meteoric rise from a penniless artist sharing quarters with his childhood friend Paul Cezanne (Vladimir Sokoloff) to a best-selling author who appears to have “sold out” and settled into a life of comfort and riches. At this point, we abruptly switch to the Dreyfus Affair, and viewers unfamiliar with this historical travesty may well wonder what’s going on with the film’s pacing and narrative focus. Naturally, Zola steps up to save the day — where else could the story be headed? — and is appropriately honored as a hero.

Peary doesn’t discuss this movie in GFTFF, but in Alternate Oscars he admits that while “Muni was terrific” as a “man with the courage of his sometimes foolhardy convictions”, the “film [he] loved so much as a kid is quite tiresome today”, and he questions how the Academy could consider “honoring this biography in which there is no verbal mention that Alfred Dreyfus was Jewish.” Along those lines, as DVD Savant writes in his review:

At only one point in The Life of Emile Zola is Alfred Dreyfus identified as Jewish, and I’ll bet that the writers and producers of the movie had to fight to keep that reference, seen only as a fleeting word on a statistical blotter. The script emphasizes the incompetence and corruption in the French general staff but barely touches on the heinous anti-Semitism that was at the heart of the Dreyfus affair.

I’ll agree that even a brief glimpse of the words “Religion: Jew” on a piece of paper — after which Dreyfus is accused of a crime without any evidence — remains a minor but laudible gamble on the part of the filmmakers at a time when European anti-semitism was so rampant. While the film focuses on military corruption more broadly, the point is clearly made that celebrities with pulpits should be brave enough to use them.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Paul Muni as Emile Zola
  • Tony Gaudio’s atmospheric cinematography

Must See?
No, though it’s recommended for its historical importance as an Oscar-winning feature. Listed as a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

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Mother Wore Tights (1947)

“No kid of mine is going to be born in front of a backdrop!”

Synopsis:
A vaudevillian (Dan Dailey) and his wife (Betty Grable) perform together on stage until Grable becomes a mother. When she eventually decides to return to her performing career, her oldest daughter (Mona Freeman) is mortified by how their family will be perceived by her boarding school classmates.

Genres:

Review:
This innocuous turn-of-the-century musical was 20th Century Fox’s most successful movie of the year, and Grable’s highest grossing film to that point. Unfortunately, the storyline is slim to none, hinging almost exclusively on class tensions and conventions (mother once wore tights! on stage!) that don’t feel relevant today. For post-WWII Americans seeking escapism and portrayals of family cohesion, this film — featuring vivid Technicolor cinematography, enjoyable dance numbers, and a pleasing couple (Grable and Dailey) — probably fit the bill quite nicely; but it hasn’t held up particularly well for modern audiences.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Some colorful, nicely danced musical numbers

Must See?
No; this one is only must-see for Grable fans.

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Barbed Wire Dolls (1976)

“No government inspector would dare condemn our ways, because we have the worst degenerates — female whores, addicts, pimps, abortionists. They’re the worst kind of scum!”

Synopsis:
A young woman (Lina Romay) imprisoned for killing her incestuous father (Jess Franco) joins a cell with a babbling redhead (Beni Cardoso) who has gone off the deep end; a blonde (Martine Stedil) who killed her brother; and a nymphomaniac (Peggy Markoff) obsessed with Christopher Columbus and Queen Isabella. Will they be able to withstand the wrath and torture of their evil female guard (Monica Swinn) and her henchmen?

Genres:

Review:
Fans of the sadistic degradation on display in Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS (1973) are surely the target audience of this “companion piece”, made just a few years later by exploitation-maestro Jess Franco. Franco had shown cinematic promise earlier in his career with atmospheric films such as The Awful Dr. Orloff (1962), but this kind of WIP (Women in Prison) trash is what he had reduced himself to just a decade later. Several reviewers have noted the film’s most infamous scene — a flashback shot in real-time slo-mo, which is rather morbidly fascinating to watch. Otherwise, get your remote ready to fast-forward through this purely exploitative flick which features near-constant female nudity, gratuitous sexual violence galore, and no redeeming qualities at all (other than perhaps a brief moment of genuine female bonding and comraderie between Franco and Stedil).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:
Nothing, unless this is what you’re into.

Must See?
Nope. Listed (appropriately) as Trash in the back of Peary’s book.

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Eyes of Laura Mars (1978)

“What I’m trying to do is give an account of the times in which I’m living. And I’ve seen all kinds of murder — physical, yes, but moral, spiritual, emotional murder!”

Synopsis:
A controversial fashion photographer (Faye Dunaway) known for her graphically violent and sexualized imagery begins seeing murders of her colleagues and friends take place through her mind’s eye — though no one believes her. Can a police chief (Tommy Lee Jones) help Dunaway determine the identity of the killer — who may be her jealous ex-husband (Raul Julia), her ex-con driver (Brad Dourif), or someone else entirely?

Genres:

Review:
Based on a source story and original screenplay by John Carpenter, this American giallo film is high on atmosphere but low on credibility and genuine tension. The potentially intriguing psychic angle — Dunaway sees murders in her head from the unseen killer’s point of view — is used simply to show she might be going off the deep end, and the potential suspects are too broadly drawn to be realistic contenders. Meanwhile, we’re meant to engage with a broader exploration of whether violent, sexually exploitative imagery somehow has an impact on society or vice versa — and/or might be fueling the killer’s moralistic rage — but it all comes across as simply an excuse to show off models in various states of undress, as Dunaway and her assistant (Rene Auberjonois) offer prissily precise feedback on stylized details. The ending comes out of nowhere, leaving viewers not only full of empty imagery but lack of any narrative satisfaction. And the romance between Dunaway and Jones? Well, let’s just call it contrived.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Fine cinematography and on-location shooting in New York

Must See?
Nope. You can skip this one.

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Member of the Wedding, The (1952)

“We go around trying first one thing, then another. Yet we’re still caught, just the same.”

Synopsis:
A housekeeper (Ethel Waters) cares for a sickly young boy (Brandon de Wilde) and his 12-year-old cousin Frankie (Julie Harris), who wants nothing more than to join in the excitement and romance of her brother’s (Arthur Franz) marriage to his fiancee (Nancy Gates).

Genres:

Review:
Carson McCullers adapted her own 1946 novel into a Broadway play, which was then turned into this screen adaptation, directed by Fred Zinnemann and starring much of the original cast. It’s notable both for the poignant screenplay — Frankie’s high-pitch coming-of-age angst is beautifully captured — and for 26-year-old Harris’s performance as a gangly 12 year old, which some considered a challenging translation to the scrutiny of the camera (though I think she remains sufficiently believable). However, what struck me most upon recent viewing is the richness of Waters’ role and performance; as noted in TCM’s excerpt from Donald Bogle’s book Blacks in American Film & Television: An Illustrated Encyclopedia:

“… there is more here of black lives in disarray and in control than in most films of the period: it’s hard to think of any other movie of that time in which black actors had a chance to relate so tenderly and sensitively with one another.”

While “some viewers may be put off by the fact that [Waters’] character Berenice expends most of her energies and wisdom on two white children”, she is a rich and full character in her own right, given a complicated past and a challenging current context — as well as the movie’s final image and words.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Ethel Waters as Bernice
  • Julie Harris as Frankie
  • Fine direction and cinematography

Must See?
Yes, for the strong lead performances — especially Waters’.

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