Naughty Marietta (1935)

“We fight for our living and love at our leisure.”

Synopsis:
A French princess (Jeanette MacDonald) fleeing a forced marriage goes undercover with a ship of single women bound for marriages in the colony of New Orleans. Their ship is ransacked by pirates, but they’re saved by a troop of mercenaries led by Captain Richard Warrington (Nelson Eddy), who MacDonald quickly falls for. MacDonald tells the Governor of New Orleans (Frank Morgan) — whose jealous wife (Elsa Lanchester) doesn’t approve of his roving eye — that she has a compromised past in order to escape marriage to a colonist. But will her true identity eventually be revealed?

Genres:

Review:
The first cinematic pairing of Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy — known as “America’s Singing Sweethearts” — was this adaptation of Victor Herbert’s operetta (featuring several beloved songs, including “Ah! Sweet Mystery of Life”), which tells the story of a strong young woman who refuses to be defined either by her standing or the norms of her era. Indeed, “Naughty Marietta” — unlike MacDonald’s title character in Rose-Marie (1936) — is a true role model: not only do her villagers adore their “singing princess”, but she’s an overall decent woman who cares for those beneath her in status — i.e., the maid (Helen Shipman) whose place she takes on the ship (so poor Shipman can marry her fiance), and a sweet young woman (Cecelia Parker) she meets on her travels; and she is perfectly happy to fall in love with a mercenary (Eddy) rather than maintaining her status among nobility. She’s also quick-on-her-feet and ingenious — as when she hides from police on the ship by stuffing her mouth with food, and selects a random drunk in the crowds as her “brother” seeing her off; and the scene in which she convinces Morgan she’s been deceptive on her application. She handily staves off unwanted attention from numerous men after fabricating an identity as a “loose woman”, and takes great risks for love near the end of the film.

Themes of female strength pervade the film in other ways as well. While the women heading to the colonies are openly viewed as chattel (some are actually pinched and measured for physical strength), they band together collectively, and one gives her life to protect the others from the vicious pirates. Meanwhile, Eddy’s character (unlike the dull Mountie he portrays in Rose-Marie) is charismatic and appealing, and many supporting actors give fine, memorable performances: Lanchester is hilariously bitchy as Morgan’s jealous wife, and Morgan uses his spluttering diction to humorous effect. It makes sense that the screenplay is creative and clever, given that it was written by noted husband-and-wife team Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Jeanette MacDonald as “Marietta”

  • Fine supporting performances

  • Engaging period sets

  • A unique storyline

Must See?
Yes, as the first and perhaps the best pairing of MacDonald and Eddy together, and for its Oscar nomination as Best Picture.

Categories

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Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson (1976)

“Sitting Bull says that history is nothing more than disrespect for the dead.”

Synopsis:
With the help of his producer (Joel Grey), publicist (Kevin McCarthy), and relative (Harvey Keitel), William ‘Buffalo Bill’ Cody (Paul Newman) hires Sitting Bull (Frank Kaquitts) to be part of his popular traveling show, which also features sharp-shooter Annie Oakley (Geraldine Chaplin) and her husband (John Considine). But Sitting Bull — speaking through his agent (Denver Pyle) — has different ideas for his act, and is a source of constant consternation to Cody.

Genres:

Review:
Robert Altman’s follow-up to Nashville (1976) was this revisionist western — loosely based on Arthur Kopit’s play Indians — about spectacle, celebrity, and myth-making in late 19th century America. Unlike the character played by Joel McCrea in William Wellman’s Buffalo Bill (1944), Newman’s Cody is openly disparaging of Indians, and only interested in using them to further his own fortune. Indeed, Newman is presented as a wig-wearing narcissist who believes his own legend, has a buffoonish lust for busty operatic singers (Noelle Rogers and Evelyn Lear), and wants to deliberately avoid the man (Burt Lancaster) responsible for sparking his fame. Filmed on location at Stoney Indian Reserve in Alberta, Canada, the production looks great, and features Altman’s characteristically innovative directorial style. Memorable moments include an extended sequence in which President Grover Cleveland (Pat McCormick) and his new wife (Shelley Duvall) are given a special viewing of the show on their honeymoon, and the President refuses to hear Sitting Bull’s “one simple request”; this heartbreaking depiction of our country’s literal silencing of Indians makes its point clearly. I’m also fond of scenes featuring Chaplin as the fiercely talented and self-competitive sharp-shoot Annie Oakley — but other elements of the film are less successful, and Newman’s final soliloquy seems ill-suited at best.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Geraldine Page as Annie Oakley
  • Excellent period sets

  • Fine cinematography and direction

Must See?
No, though it’s certainly worth one-time viewing, especially for fans of Altman’s work.

Links:

Rose-Marie (1936)

“If I should ever call you, would you answer me?”

Synopsis:
When a temperamental opera singer (Jeanette MacDonald) heads to the Canadian wilderness to find her fugitive brother (Jimmy Stewart), she falls in love with a singing Mountie (Nelson Eddy). But will his sense of duty foil their new romance?

Genres:

Review:
Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy’s second film together (after the success of Naughty Marietta in 1935) features one of the most (in)famous musical romance numbers in movie history — “Indian Love Call”:

Oo-Oo-Oo-Oo, Oo-Oo-Oo-Oo
When I’m calling you
Oo-Oo-Oo-Oo, Oo-Oo-Oo-Oo
Will you answer too?
Oo-Oo-Oo-Oo, Oo-Oo-Oo-Oo

Can you hear it? I’m sure you can. As seemingly interminable as this sequence is, the rest of the film also leaves much to be desired. MacDonald’s diva singer is simply insufferable (though her behavior is presented as acceptable and perhaps even expected), and her blind adoration for a murderous brother (Stewart, in his break-through role) merely lowers one’s opinion of her even further (then again, perhaps filial loyalty was considered such a virtue that this was overlooked). MacDonald’s romance with stiff-as-cardboard Nelson Eddy is as inconsequential as could be; we’re made to understand that two such compelling operatic voices simply must be together. Film fanatics may be curious to watch this film once, to hear “When I’m calling you…” in its original context — but it otherwise should be relegated to historical vaults.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • The iconic “Indian Love Call” sequence
  • Nice use of on-location shooting

Must See?
No — but do check out “Indian Love Call” on YouTube if you’ve never seen it. Listed as a film with Historical Importance in the back of Peary’s book.

Links:

Buffalo Bill (1944)

“Savages — brutes — fiends! Why did I ever come to this nightmare of a country?”

Synopsis:
After “Buffalo” Bill Cody (Joel McCrea) rescues a U.S. Senator (Moroni Olsen) and his beautiful daughter (Maureen O’Hara) from a stagecoach attack, he falls in love with and marries O’Hara, who struggles to adapt to life in the West. Meanwhile, McCrea tries to help broker peace with local natives — including Cheyenne Chief Yellow Hand (Anthony Quinn) and his sister Dawn Starlight (Linda Darnell) — and tells stories of his adventures to a travelling writer (Thomas Mitchell).

Genres:

Review:
William Wellman’s biographical western of William Frederick “Buffalo Bill” Cody is an interesting attempt to add nuance and authenticity to a “cowboys and Indians” shoot-em-up flick, but ultimately doesn’t quite succeed at its goal. According to Jeff Wilson’s review for “Digitally Obsessed”, Wellman himself noted that the film was:

…meant to be a more cynical look at the legend of Buffalo Bill, but as Wellman described it to Richard Schickel in The Men Who Made the Movies, his co-writer decided that he didn’t want an American legend to be destroyed in that fashion, so the script was discarded and this more sanitized version was produced. Wellman was somewhat ashamed, as he put it, of the finished product, in particular the end.

Cody is shown as generally sympathetic and supportive of Indian culture (and concerned about too many bison being slaughtered), but it’s hard to tell fact from fiction, especially given the critical intervention of ultimate storyteller and myth-maker Ned Buntline (Mitchell) into Cody’s life.

The film’s most discomfiting scenes feature Darnell as an Indian princess who is openly jealous of Cody’s crush on O’Hara (thus adding a bit of “love triangle” tension to the film). In one scene, she helps the semi-literate Cody write a response to O’Hara’s note, looking at him with baleful eyes as she repeatedly attempts to craft an appropriate signature on his behalf. Later, she sneaks into O’Hara’s room and tries on a gown:

O’Hara [entering her room and spotting Darnell in her dress, admiring herself in front of a mirror]: Who are you? [Darnell turns around.] An Indian! What do you mean by breaking into my room and stealing my clothes?
Darnell: I… I didn’t come here to steal.
O’Hara: Maybe you Indians have another word for it, but that’s my dress you have on.
Darnell: I tell you I didn’t come here to steal.
O’Hara: Perhaps you’ll explain to me just what you’re doing in my clothes!
Darnell: I wanted to find out something.
O’Hara: And just what, may I ask?
Darnell: I wanted to find out… if I could be as beautiful as a white girl… in a white girl’s way.
O’Hara [melts, as violins begin playing]: Oh… I see. [smiles and takes Darnell’s hand, showing her the mirror.] There’s your answer. You look beautiful. [beat] I wish your Indian brave could see you now.
Darnell [eyes widen in anger, as pulsing drumbeats re-emerge on the soundtrack]: Indian! [she tears off the dress]
O’Hara: What is it? What did I say to offend you? Please… I’d rather you kept it. It was so becoming on you.
Darnell: I don’t believe you! You don’t want it because an INDIAN wore it! [throws dress at O’Hara]. Indian! [said as she climbs out the window].

This scene could be deconstructed in countless ways — but suffice it to say that Darnell’s character is openly ashamed of being Indian, and only believes she can have worth (and Cody’s heart) by looking beautiful in a “white girl’s way”. Meanwhile, the entire romance between McCrea and O’Hara lacks conviction: we’re not given much insight into why Cody would be so attracted to her other than her beauty, and their ongoing clash in lifestyles (who knew?!) simply serves as a predictable plot element driving narrative tensions forward.

Note: Nine years after his supporting role in Annie Oakley (1935) as Buffalo Bill, Moroni Olsen was cast in essentially a cameo role here as the father of the woman Buffalo Bill marries — a nifty touch for those keeping track.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Fine Technicolor cinematography

Must See?
No; feel free to skip this one.

Links:

Gold Diggers of 1935 (1935)

“Another robber — the hotel is full of them!”

Synopsis:
The daughter (Gloria Stuart) of a penny-pinching millionaire (Alice Brady) convinces her mother to allow her a summer of freedom and fun before marrying her stodgy older suitor (Hugh Herbert). Stuart quickly falls in love with her new “chaperone” (Dick Powell), a hotel clerk engaged to a fellow employee (Dorothy Dare) who decides to pursue Stuart’s thrice-divorced brother (Frank McHugh). Meanwhile, Brady hires a conniving Russian dance director (Adolphe Menjou) and his set designer (Joseph Cawthorn) to run her annual charity performance, and a wily stenographer (Glenda Farrell) schemes to milk Herbert of his money.

Genres:

Review:
Busby Berkeley’s first full-length directorial effort was this especially cynical entry in the “Gold Diggers” series, of which Peary lists three in his GFTFF: Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933), this, and Gold Diggers of 1937 (1937). The storyline in this entry features more than just gold-digging young showgirls: nearly ever character (except sweet-faced Powell and Stuart) is out to earn or save a buck in any way possible — from the manager (Grant Mitchell) of the swanky Wentworth Plaza Hotel (who not only doesn’t pay wages, but “generously” doesn’t charge his employees to work there given the tips they’ll supposedly earn, and who wants a cut of every “deal” made), to stingy Mrs. Prentiss (Brady), who gives a collective dime in tips to six bellboys who have just carried all her bags to her room (and is convinced the hotel is out to fleece her at every turn).

We also see a nefarious gold-digger (Farrell) coolly resorting to deception to achieve her goal of snaring a share of eccentric Herbert’s riches; a showman (Menjou) who openly writes the following telegraph to his friend: “HAVE HOOKED A RICH SUCKER STOP COME UP AT ONCE STOP PARDON ME FOR SENDING COLLECT”; and a woman (Dare) completely fine with her fiance (Powell) escorting a beautiful woman (Stuart) around town if it means earning money for their supposed future together. The contrived script and unsubtle performances, however, naturally take a back seat to the musical numbers in any Busby Berkeley film — and this one features several winners, beginning with a creatively filmed sequence of workers preparing to open the Plaza, and ending with the two showcase finales, which are well worth watching (see stills below).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • “The Words Are In My Heart” white piano sequence

  • The “Lullaby of Broadway” closing number


Must See?
No, but I can understand why Peary included it in his book, given the stunning musical sequences — which you can now simply check out on YouTube.

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Beginning of the End (1957)

“The time will come when the beasts will inherit the Earth.”

Synopsis:
A journalist (Peggie Castle) and a scientist (Peter Graves) help a general (Morris Ankrum) and his army fight against a swarm of giant atomic locusts headed towards Chicago.

Genres:

Review:
A direct rip-off of Them! (1954) (with locusts replacing ants), this Z-grade atomic-creature flick has everything you would expect in such a film — including an inevitable romance between a beautiful heroine and a handsome hero; laughably simplistic explanations of the science behind the animal mutations; and crowds running from super-imposed images on the screen. Director Bert I. Gordon — who also helmed Village of the Giants (1965) — was clearly comfortable with filming Big Creatures running amok among ordinary-sized humans, and that comfort shows here. But not much else can be said in the film’s favor.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Reasonably effective imagery of giant locusts

Must See?
No — though you may want to check out the MST3K version for a few laughs.

Links:

Kipps (1941)

“The portals of society are open nowadays to anyone who has the means to make himself worthy of it.”

Synopsis:
A working-class draper’s assistant (Michael Redgrave) is fired from his job after a night of carousing with an actor (Arthur Riscoe), then comes unexpectedly into a sizable inheritance. Kipps (Redgrave) tries to enhance his status in order to impress a woman (Diana Wynyard) he hopes to marry, but is simultaneously attracted to his childhood sweetheart (Phyllis Calvert), who is now working as a maid.

Genres:

Review:
Carol Reed directed this adaptation of H.G. Wells’ novel about an eminently likable chap (Redgrave) — a “simple soul” — who longs for intellectual improvement and finds himself smitten by his aloof woodworking instructor (Wynyard). When a string of wild circumstances initiated by a drunken actor (Arthur Riscoe) lead Kipps into unexpected money, he’s swept into the fold of the very people he once idolized — including the owner of a “self-improvement” college (Max Adrian), Wynyard, and Wynyard’s barrister brother (Michael Wilding). Kipps’ story transpires in a rather predictable way from there: he misses his old chums, and finds he’s much more comfortable with his childhood sweetheart than with snooty Wynyard (who knew social class mattered so much?). Some tension arises around what decision Kipps will make between the two women, and there’s an additional narrative twist near the end — but this is otherwise a fairly straightforward tale of class aspirations and conflicts that will be of most interest to fans of the novel or Carol Reed.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Arthur Crabtree’s cinematography

Must See?
No, though it’s worth a one-time look by Carol Reed fans.

Links:

Flesh and Fantasy (1943)

“I know your face is beautiful because you are — it couldn’t be otherwise!”

Synopsis:
When a man (Robert Benchley) has his fortune told at a party and then dreams the opposite will come true, his friend (David Hoffman) tries to soothe his nerves by telling three tales about the intersection of the supernatural with psychology: a plain and bitter woman (Betty Field) pursues a handsome student (Robert Cummings) during Mardi Gras while wearing a beautiful mask; a lawyer (Edward G. Robinson) is unduly influenced by a fortune teller (Thomas Mitchell) who predicts he will murder somebody; and a tightrope walker (Charles Boyer) is unnerved to meet the woman (Barbara Stanwyck) he saw during a dream as he was falling to the ground.

Genres:

Review:
A year after making the omnibus film Tales of Manhattan (1942), director Jules Duvivier helmed this loosely-linked episodic tale about the impact of prescience, coincidence, and superstition on our lives. The framing story in which Benchley is counseled by a friend at a gentlemen’s club is pretty thin stuff, and merely an excuse to tell three atmospherically filmed but variably engaging stories. The first (taking place during Mardi Gras) is almost laughable in its narrative simplicity: a “plain” woman (clearly pretty underneath shadowy lighting and dour make-up) is made “beautiful” by recognizing her worth, as she falls in love and loses her selfish stance towards life. The second segment — based on Oscar Wilde’s short story “Lord Arthur Saville’s Crime” — is much more engaging, thanks to a provocative narrative (does being told one’s fortune compel one to carry it out?) and Robinson’s typically-committed performance as a tortured man caught in the grips of “fate”. The final segment — in which Boyer’s “drunken tightrope walker” uses a dream as a legitimate way to connect with a beautiful woman (Stanwyck) he meets on-board a ship — is creatively filmed, but ultimately less satisfying. The primary reason to check this movie out is the stunning b&w cinematography by Stanley Cortez and Paul Ivano; just about every frame is a treat to look at.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • The entire middle story

  • Wonderfully atmospheric and creative cinematography


Must See?
No, but it’s certainly worth a one-time look for the fine cinematography and the middle segment.

Links:

Reign of Terror (1949)

“No one goes to bed in Paris — it isn’t safe to go to bed!”

Synopsis:
A French patriot (Robert Cummings) kills and impersonates a notorious prosecutor (Charles Gordon) summoned by bloodthirsty Maximilian Robespierre (Richard Basehart), who informs Cummings that his “black book” of traitors-to-be-executed has been lost. With the help of his former lover (Arlene Dahl), Cummings attempts to locate the vitally important book — but will his true identity be revealed?

Genres:

Review:
Anthony Mann and DP John Alton collaborated on three low-budget films — T-Men (1947), Raw Deal (1948), and this title — before Mann embarked on the bigger-budget films he’s best known for, including Peary-listed titles such as Winchester ’73 (1950), The Tall Target (1951), Bend of the River (1952), The Naked Spur (1953), The Glenn Miller Story (1954) The Man From Laramie (1955), The Far Country (1954), The Tin Star (1957), El Cid (1961), and more. This “cloak and dagger” historical adventure — taking place during France’s post-revolutionary Reign of Terror — is a highly atmospheric affair, with every frame and set maximized to craft a claustrophobic sense of perpetual danger and betrayal. Unfortunately, the screenplay (co-written by Philip Yordan) is mostly uninspired, with plenty of lines such as the following: “It’s either Madelon or the book — you can’t have both!” However, the details of the fast-moving script don’t matter as much as the excitement generated, and it’s easy enough to follow who the ultimate “bad guy” and “good guy” are. With that said, Reign of Terror is only must-see for fans of this type of flick, and/or Mann completists.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Highly atmospheric cinematography (by John Alton)




  • Fine period sets and art design


Must See?
No, though it’s certainly worth a one-time look for its visuals alone. Available as a public domain title on Archive.org.

Links:

Clockwork Orange, A (1971)

“If you need Pretty Polly — you take it.”

Synopsis:
In a dystopian British future, an ultra-violent thug (Malcolm McDowell) who has committed a series of heinous crimes with his “droogs” (James Marcus, Michael Tarn, and Warren Clarke) is arrested and sent to prison, where he undergoes a new conversion therapy known as the “Ludovico Technique”. Upon release, Alex (McDowell) feels ill at the thought of violence or sex — but what future lies ahead for this reformed delinquent?

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
As Peary writes, Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Anthony Burgess’s dystopian 1962 novel — written after Burgess endured the brutal beating and rape of his wife by AWOL GI’s during a WWII blackout raid — remains a “visually brilliant [yet] thematically reprehensible” film. Peary asserts that “because Alex is meant to embody our savage, anarchic impulses, Kubrick figured we’d identify with him”, and “manipulates us into accepting Alex in relation to the world”. He notes that as “played by McDowell… Alex is energetic, handsome, witty, and more clever, honest, intelligent, and interesting than any of the adults in the cruel world” — and that “without exception, Kubrick makes Alex’s victims more obnoxious than they are in the book [and] their abuse at Alex’s hands more palatable by making them grotesque, mannered, snobbish figures”. Peary points out how many “distancing devices” Kubrick uses, including “extreme wide angles, slow motion, fast motion, surreal backgrounds, [and] songs that counterpoint the violence” — which, by the way, is all “very stylized” when Alex perpetrates it, “but when it comes time for him to endure violence… is much more realistic”. We’re led to pity Alex, who is “like an alley cat declawed before being returned to the streets”.

Peary’s no-holds-barred reviews of A Clockwork Orange in GFTFF (and his Cult Movies 2 book) are incisive, compelling, and worth quoting at greater length. He notes that Burgess stated, “If we are going to love mankind, we will have to love Alex as a not unrepresentative member of it; it is preferable to have a world of violence undertaken in full awareness — violence chosen as an act of will — than a world conditioned to be good or harmless.” However, Peary points out that “the mankind Kubrick shows us is totally alien to us and not worthy of our love. And even before he undergoes the Ludovico treatment, Alex’s violent acts don’t seem to be made through free choice, but are reflexive, conditioned by past violence — he is already a clockwork orange (human on the outside, mechanized on the inside).” Ultimately, the “film’s strong, gratuitous violence is objectionable (as is the comical atmosphere when violence is being perpetrated), but the major reason the film can be termed fascistic is Kubrick’s heartless, super-intellectual, super-orderly, anti-septic, anti-human, anti-female, anti-sensual, anti-passion, anti-erotic treatment of its subject”, with “all emotional stimuli… lumped together as being harmful”, and “all art… pornographic”.

In Cult Movies 2, Peary adds that “the film is like a Sunday sermon where the fellow up on the pulpit suddenly realizes there is no moral lesson that applies to his listeners… Kubrick [simply] teaches paranoid individuals… that you can’t cure the habitual thrill criminal”. He concludes his essay in this book by noting that “once Alex is arrested and the look of the film shifts away from dreamlike pop art, the picture becomes excruciatingly dull”. I’m essentially in agreement with Peary: I’ve avoided a re-watch of A Clockwork Orange for years, and don’t plan to revisit it again — but it’s infamous (and beloved) enough to warrant one-time viewing by film fanatics. (Meanwhile, the cinematography and sets are indeed memorable, as is Wendy Carlos’s synthesized score.) Be forewarned that some scenes are almost unbearably misogynistic and/or brutalizing; if our world is actually headed in this direction, we have reason to be very scared indeed.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Malcolm McDowell as Alex
  • John Alcott’s cinematography
  • Many hideously memorable sequences

  • Effectively stylized, futuristic sets and visual design

  • Wendy Carlos’s memorable synthesized score

Must See?
Yes, once, as a dark cult classic.

Categories

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

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