S.O.B. (1981)

“If you want to dramatize the evils of prostitution, corrupt a virgin — not a whore!”

Synopsis:
A Hollywood producer (Richard Mulligan) despondent over the failure of his most recent kiddie musical must deal with his furious studio head (Robert Vaughn), a relentlessly shrewish gossip columnist (Loretta Swit), and his fed-up wife and leading lady (Julie Andrews). When Mulligan becomes inspired to turn his flop into a soft-core porn flick, he faces mixed reactions from everyone involved — including his director (William Holden), his best friend (Robert Webber), and Andrews herself.

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Review:
An all-star cast rallies together for Blake Edwards’ darkly satirical look at the vagaries of Hollywood, where a box office flop can lead to existential despair, and (in a running gag) people are too distracted to notice a dead corpse washed up on the shore outside their beachfront home. Edwards is cynical all right: purportedly this film was made in response to his own experience making Darling Lili (1970) with Andrews, and he spares no one in taking down the narcissistic excesses of the movie industry. Unfortunately, it’s simply not funny watching this crew of self-absorbed players going about their lives. Edwards had achieved success as a comedic director with his wildly popular Pink Panther series — including the title film as well as A Shot in the Dark (1964) — and he fills this film with every antic trope in the book, including foiled suicides, pesky corpses, potty humor, “boobies” jokes, wild car chases, sexual chicanery, and demeaning racial stereotypes. The film does have its fans: see Vincent Canby’s review for the New York Times, for instance, or DVD Savant’s assertion that “there’s wit to most of the characterizations, and the constant ribbing of Hollywood’s venality and lust for power and wealth is spot-on”; however, I simply found this a tedious chore to sit through.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Julie Andrews trying her best

Must See?
Nope; you can skip this one unless you’re a diehard Julie Andrews or Blake Edwards fan.

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Dancing Lady (1933)

“I’m like that guy throwing quarters in the slot machine — I keep on trying.”

Synopsis:
After being bailed out of jail by a wealthy man (Franchot Tone), an ambitious hoofer (Joan Crawford) makes her way to Broadway, where Tone secretly buys her a spot in a play run by a talented but resentful director (Clark Gable). Will Crawford achieve her dream of dancing fame, or choose a life of ease and comfort with Tone?

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Review:
MGM’s response to the success of Warner Brothers’ 42nd Street (1933) was this similarly themed “gotta dance!” tale of a plucky young dame determined to pursue a career on Broadway. The storyline is slight and predictable, but moves along quickly enough, with some clever editing and an enjoyably flamboyant finale. As usual, Crawford and Gable have fine chemistry together (Crawford requested his casting). This film is notable for featuring Fred Astaire in his film debut (as a lead dancer in the performance), though he doesn’t make much of an impact.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Atmospheric cinematography
  • The Busby Berkeley-esque musical finale


Must See?
No, though it’s worth a one-time look. Listed as a film with Historical Importance in the back of Peary’s book, which makes sense.

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Americanization of Emily, The (1964)

“I’ve had it with heroes. Every man I’ve loved has died in this war.”

Synopsis:
During World War II, a military adjutant (James Garner) tasked with keeping a Navy admiral (Melvyn Douglas) happy on the home front falls in love with a widowed chauffeur (Julie Andrews) who has mixed feelings about Garner’s access to rationed goods and his cynical insistence on keeping himself out of harm’s way. When Douglas has a nervous breakdown and insists that a film be made of the first Naval officer to die during D-Day, Garner is pressured by his buddy (James Coburn) to take part; but will Garner follow orders or save his own skin — and how will Andrews feel about his choice?

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Review:
Paddy Chayefsky wrote the ultra-cynical script for this film in which, as DVD Savant writes, “War may be Hell, but… its glorification is a worse obscenity.” Garner plays a self-professed proud coward whose primary goal is to stay alive while the machinery of war works its lethal way around him. Andrews — in her second movie role, just after Mary Poppins (1964) and before The Sound of Music (1965) — is appropriately wary of Garner at first, but soon decides she’d rather enjoy a fling than continue to mourn the string of heroes she’s lost in her life (including not just her husband, but her father and brother as well). Unfortunately, the presentation of “dog-running” in the military is so blatantly womanizing that it’s hard to stomach, as women are literally objectified and treated as “procurement” for officers (complete with happy willingness to dye their hair and offer sex in exchange for chocolates, drink, and dresses); a running gag has Garner walking in on Coburn as he’s bedding various beautiful women, all positioned as brainless and vapid. Level-headed Andrews is presumably meant to be the counter-balance to this portrayal, but Chayefsky ultimately has her give in and agree she “shouldn’t be a prig”. Meanwhile, hearing dialogue like, “Do the Russians still like their girls short, fat, and reactionary?” becomes not only tiresome but radically unfunny. With that said, the rest of the narrative does eventually pay off, to an extent; but the road to get there — while expertly filmed, especially during the D-Day sequences — isn’t worth it.

Note: Another minor irritant, as pointed out by DVD Savant, is “the women’s hairstyles: Andrews, [Liz] Fraser and all of Garner’s good-time motor pool girls have poofy 1964 big-hair hairdos … there’s little or no period feeling.”

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Philip Lathrop’s cinematography

Must See?
No, though film fanatics may want to check out beautiful Andrews in one of her earliest roles.

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Lady for a Day (1933)

“It’s for Apple Annie, see? She’s in a tough spot, and it’s up to us to give her a break.”

Synopsis:
When a destitute apple vendor (May Robson) learns that her grown daughter (Jean Parker) will be arriving from Spain with her noble fiance (Barry Norton) and his father (Walter Connelly), she enlists the help of a superstitious but grateful gangster (Warren William) and his moll (Glenda Farrell) in putting on an elaborate charade to present herself as a “lady”, including finding a man (Guy Kibbee) to pose as her husband.

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Review:
Frank Capra’s first adaptation of Damon Runyan’s short story “Madame La Gimp” — remade as A Pocketful of Miracles in 1961 — earned him a Best Director and Best Picture nomination, though he didn’t win until the following year for It Happened One Night. Lady for a Day remains a touching tale of collective support for a down-and-out friend with a complicated request — and the fact that the level of deception necessary to sustain Parker’s belief in her mother’s status would never last (Robson is only made a “lady” for a day) is part of the story’s fairy-tale charm. It’s impossible not to compare this with A Pocketful of Miracles, which pales in comparison despite its vibrant Technicolor hues: Robson embodies Apple Annie and her transformation in a much more convincing and pathos-driven fashion than Bette Davis, and it’s nice to see William and Farrell’s characters mutually supportive of Annie (rather than quibbling and taking up screen time, as Glenn Ford and Hope Lange do in the remake). Joseph Walker’s cinematography bathes the entire movie with an appropriately melancholy yet magical atmosphere. This early Capra flick is worth a look.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • May Robson as Apple Annie
  • Fine supporting performances
  • Joseph Walker’s atmospheric cinematography

Must See?
Yes, as an enjoyable Oscar-nominated classic. Listed as a film with Historical Importance and a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

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Three Godfathers (1948)

“I want you — all of you — to be my baby’s godfathers.”

Synopsis:
When three bank robbers (John Wayne, Pedro Armendariz, and Harry Carrey Jr.) are driven out of town and into the desert by a sheriff (Ward Bond) who’s shot holes in their water bags, they shortly encounter a pregnant widow (Mildred Natwick) who gives birth to a baby boy and asks the men to be his godfathers.

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Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “minor John Ford film is, of course, a Christian parable — the Christmas story”, and argues that while it’s “sentimental, funny, [and] overly symbolic,” it also “suffers because of sharp changes in tone”. He points out that the “story bears some resemblance to The Searchers, in that Wayne plays a character with a shady past who exorcises his bad qualities while returning a child to civilization — only here Wayne is welcomed (in Welcome, Arizona) with open arms by the citizens because they realize he has reformed and can fit into their town.” I’m a little fonder than Peary of this quirky tale, which plays as though the Three Wise Men were on the lam in the Wild West trying to survive a dust storm. There’s a kind of surreal magic in the scenes of the men making their way across desolate landscapes, happening upon a dying widow (Natwick is a tad too old to be playing a first-time mother) who gives birth to a son and therefore to a new life and sense of meaning for the bandits. Their need to care for this helpless creature trumps all other considerations, leading to the unexpectedly happy ending. Beautiful on-location cinematography and typically fine direction by Ford make this a one-time must-see for film fanatics.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Strong direction by Ford

  • Excellent on-location cinematography
  • Many memorable moments

Must See?
Yes, as a charming film by a master director.

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Song of Bernadette, The (1943)

“She sees this lady; no one else does.”

Synopsis:
A devout Catholic girl (Jennifer Jones) in 19th century France sees a vision of a beautiful woman (Linda Darnell) in a grotto, and soon the entire town is transfixed by Bernadette’s visits with “the beautiful lady” (presumed to be the Virgin Mary). Among those who remain at least temporarily skeptical of Bernadette’s visions are her hard-working mother (Anne Revere), a cynical nun (Gladys Cooper), the local priest (Charles Bickford), a doctor (Lee J. Cobb), and a prosecutor (Vincent Price) determined to show that rationality will triumph over faith.

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Review:
Peary doesn’t review this adaptation of Franz Werfel’s novel in his GFTFF, but he discusses Jennifer Jones’ Oscar-winning performance in Alternate Oscars, where he writes: “As was surely the case with Best Actor winner Paul Lukas [in Watch on the Rhine], the Academy probably voted as much for her noble character [Bernadette] as they did for her.” He argues that Jones “wasn’t really given a chance to act” but rather “had to play every scene identically, with a kind, simple smile but little emotion”. He asserts that “the scenes themselves are repetitive, with her character refusing to alter her story despite interrogations by one stern person after another”, and notes that he much prefers Jones’s “later, hot-blooded temptresses.” I’m not in agreement with Peary’s assessment, instead concurring with DVD Savant’s statement that the film remains “an unimpeachably good production, with an intelligent script, fine direction and performances by actors that don’t behave as if told to, ‘hurry up and be enlightening.'” In terms of Jones’s performance, Bernadette is nothing if not steadfast: great pains are taken to establish this from the outset, and to emphasize the critical role it plays in what transpires. While Jones does consistently present a “kind, simple smile”, she also displays enough authentic emotion to carry us steadily through her travails, and we root for her the entire time. Indeed, Jones’s performance grounds this character-rich film, with Bernadette’s unwavering faith allowing or prompting countless others to experience profound shifts in their own assumptions and beliefs.

The lengthy film merits its 156 minute running time. We’re first introduced to Jones (part of a large family) living in extreme poverty, with her mother (Revere) and father (Roman Bohnen) scarcely knowing where the next meal will come from — thus making it all the more powerful when Bernadette’s visions bring about both a seeming-miracle of healing AND a gift of plentiful food from neighbors. Time is taken to establish Bernadette’s lack of spiritual knowledge in school (due to asthma-induced absences), which leads to her stern nun-teacher’s (Cooper’s) refusal to allow her to accept a beautiful “miracle card” from the local priest (Bickford); could Bernadette’s later vision be a manifestation of this simple gift taken so quickly and cruelly from her? We simply don’t know, and to the film’s credit, we’re not asked to necessarily believe one version of reality over another. The film’s final “act” come as a bit of a surprise, given that a logical denouement has already occurred — but we soon learn that a sideline involving Cooper’s character (who becomes unexpectedly pivotal to the plot) must be given time to mature, and that Bernadette herself

SPOILER ALERT

will be given more than a simple send-off to a nunnery. Price gives a notably powerful performance as Bernadette’s primary foil, who earnestly believes that “To wipe out an epidemic, you must eliminate the cause” — but the entire cast is uniformly excellent (as is Arthur Miller’s cinematography).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Jennifer Jones as Bernadette Soubirous
  • Vincent Price as Prosecutor Vital Dutour
  • Gladys Cooper as Sister Maria Theresa
  • Anne Revere as Louise Soubirous
  • Charles Bickford as Father Peyramale
  • Convincingly atmospheric sets
  • Arthur Miller’s luminous cinematography

Must See?
Yes, as a fine spiritual drama.

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Stella Dallas (1937)

“Such women don’t deserve to have children!”

Synopsis:
A working class woman (Barbara Stanwyck) marries an executive (John Boles) and has a child, but the couple find themselves drifting apart and soon live separate lives. As their daughter (Anne Shirley) grows older, she becomes more aware of her mother’s lack of social refinement — and when Stanwyck realizes it’s best for Shirley to live with Boles and his kind socialite girlfriend (Barbara O’Neil), she makes the ultimate maternal sacrifice.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “prototypical soap opera” — based on a novel by Olive Higgins Prouty — “was one of the first to advance the form’s most important tenet: whatever a woman’s faults, she will be a devoted, loving, sacrificing mother.” (If only this fantasy were remotely true…) He notes that Stanwyck’s Stella — “a smalltown girl who marries above her class” and “is well-meaning but restless for the wild life” — is “not upset about separating from Boles” (he points out “this is one of the screen’s first amiable divorces”); however, “she can’t bear not being with her teenage daughter… who gives meaning to her otherwise drab life.” Peary writes that “thematically this picture, is, of course, dated, but it’s still worth watching because of its classic status, the strong and sympathetic performances by Stanwyck and Shirley, and director King Vidor’s interesting portrait of smalltown America. Even considering the snobs who naively make fun of Stella, this film contains some of the nicest people…” I’m in agreement with Peary’s assessment. Stanwyck brings pathos and nuance to a challenging role: we’re willing to believe in her character’s story given that no easy answers are presented or accepted. It is indeed refreshing to see how nicely the major players (though certainly not all of society) treat one another other. Stanwyck and Shirley’s dilemma becomes simply an old-fashioned (albeit class-soaked) take on the recurring challenge of custodial privileges, which haven’t disappeared.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Barbara Stanwyck as Stella Dallas
  • Fine supporting performances
  • Rudolph Mate’s cinematography

Must See?
Yes, for Stanwyck’s performance, and as a classic soaper.

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Peyton Place (1957)

“It’s about time you learned that girls want to do the same things as boys.”

Synopsis:
When a new high school principal (Michael Rossi) arrives in the New England town of Peyton Place, he quickly expresses romantic interest in a local widow (Lana Turner) whose daughter (Diane Varsi) is dating a shy, mother-dominated boy (Russ Tamblyn). Meanwhile, Varsi’s best friend (Hope Lange) — whose mother (Betty Field) works as Turner’s housemaid — endures abuse at the hands of her alcoholic stepfather (Arthur Kennedy), and the local “loose girl” (Terry Moore) dates the son (Barry Coe) of a wealthy conservative (Leon Ames) who disapproves of his son’s relationship.

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Review:
Mark Robson’s adaptation of Grace Metalious’s best-selling novel (loosely based on stories from her hometown) managed to avoid the scandalous soaper’s most controversial topics (i.e., abortion) while maintaining plenty of lurid subplots. Lange’s sensitive character (she gives a fine performance) and hideous home life are the easiest to sympathize with; however, the remaining ensemble narrative is simply filled with torrid melodrama focused on sexual repression, class snobbery, and parental dysfunction. Oscar-nominated Turner is as earnest and stoic as ever (you’d never know her personal traumas at the time rivaled those on screen), but it’s challenging to feel much engagement around her rebuff of her would-be suitor (Rossi), whose distinguished gray hair looks painted on and whose squeaky, high-pitched voice is a surprise each time one hears it. The best thing about the film is its gorgeous Cinemascope cinematography, much of it shot on location in New England. Listed as a Sleeper in the back of Peary’s book, though I’m not quite sure why.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Beautiful Cinemascope cinematography

  • Hope Lange as Selena

Must See?
No, though it’s worth a look for its historical importance and erstwhile popularity.

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Kitty Foyle (1940)

“A woman can always tell when a man is going to propose.”

Synopsis:
When the daughter (Ginger Rogers) of a working-class Irish-American (Ernest Cossart) is proposed to by a kind doctor (James Craig), she reflects upon her long-held feelings for an upper-crust publisher (Dennis Morgan) who has suddenly re-entered her life.

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Review:
Sam Wood’s adaptation of Christopher Morley’s novel is notable as the film that brought Ginger Rogers both her first serious leading role, and an Academy Award. Peary doesn’t review Kitty Foyle in GFTFF, but in his Alternate Oscars — where he names Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday as Best Actress of the Year instead — he notes that “Rogers’ victory is somewhat tainted” (given Katherine Hepburn’s New York Film Critics award-winning performance in The Philadelphia Story) “though it’s good that she got an Oscar sometime during her career.” But he adds that “Kitty Foyle and her performance (and her hairstyles) don’t really hold up, especially when compared to her best work with Fred Astaire, or with Gold Diggers of 1933, Stage Door, Vivacious Lady, Bachelor Mother, Lucky Partners, Roxie Hart, The Major and the Minor, Monkey Business, and others.” I’m in agreement with Peary’s assessment — though I would also add that the narrative itself leaves much to be desired. While Rogers’ character is admirably independent, it’s hard to root for either of the men she’s choosing to be with (for different reasons) — and since the entire movie is premised on her deliberation between them, we’re not allowed to focus on, say, her career ambitions. This film is all about the men in Kitty’s life — and that’s not really such a feminist tale after all.

Note: It was interesting to learn, according to Dennis Morgan’s Trivia page on IMDb, that “During the 1940’s, for six consecutive years, Mr. Morgan received more fan mail than any other star (male or female) at Warner Brothers”; he was in plenty of titles, but few were apparently all that memorable.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Ginger Rogers as Kitty Foyle
  • Creative cinematography

Must See?
No, though certainly Oscar completists and Rogers fans will want to check it out once. Listed as a film with Historical Importance and a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

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Kid Galahad / Battling Bellhop, The (1937)

“Did you ever see a bellhop who didn’t want to be a fighter?”

Synopsis:
A boxing manager (Edward G. Robinson) in continuous rivalry with a menacing gangster (Humphrey Bogart) signs on with a handsome and promising bellhop nicknamed “Kid Galahad” (Wayne Morris), but is distressed when his girlfriend (Bette Davis) falls for Galahad and Galahad falls for his sheltered kid sister (Jane Bryan).

Genres:

Review:
Michael Curtiz directed this competently told if unexceptional tale of a naive but good-hearted farmer-turned-bellhop who is so handsome he makes women purr, and instantly causes both Bette Davis and Jane Bryan to fall in love with him. (It’s hard to blame them.) It’s a good thing the film opens with a charming scene in which Davis expresses her long-time devotion to Robinson, so we’ll rest easy as Morris falls for pretty but bratty Bryan instead. However, it’s Davis’s and Morris’s well-being we care most about, which makes it a bit challenging to watch the narrative take pains to separate them (Davis’s nightclub singer is clearly too much of a “loose woman” to deserve an upstanding guy like Morris). Humphrey Bogart merely lurks menacingly on the sidelines, waiting for a chance for his rivalry with Robinson to catch fire, but doesn’t have much of interest to do. This film is more engaging than the 1962 remake with Elvis Presley, but not must-see viewing.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Bette Davis as “Fluff”
  • Wayne Morris as “Kid Galahad”

Must See?
No, but it’s worth a one-time look for both Davis and Morris.

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