Three Comrades (1938)

“The war did such different things to people.”

Synopsis:
After World War I ends in Germany, three soldiers — Erich (Robert Taylor), Otto (Francot Tone), and Gottfried (Robert Young) — start a taxi and auto repair business and meet a young woman (Margaret Sullavan) in remission from TB. When Erich falls in love with Sullavan, they decide to marry despite her health issues and his lack of money — but how long can their happiness last?

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “lovely, much underrated romantic tearjerker” is “sensitively directed by Frank Borzage — one of the few Hollywood directors who sincerely believed in the power of love” — and “adapted from Erich Maria Remarque’s novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald”. He argues that this is a “very moving film, not only because of the love between the three men” but given “how three gallant men and one woman sacrifice all for love and principle”. He writes that “Sullavan is fabulous, reaching our emotions with every expression”; in Alternate Oscars, he names her Best Actress of the Year, adding: “She makes us sigh with her romantic words and glances (her characters always have different perspectives on life than those around her), delights us with her gentle humor, and makes our eyes fill with tears… [She] is wistful [and] haunted: as one listens to her distinct, throaty voice one immediately gets the uneasy feeling that Pat already has one foot in heaven.” He calls out the “wonderful final shot”, noting that in this powerful moment, Sullavan is “as effectively restrained as [in] the rest of [her] performance.”

I’m not as much a fan of this tearjerker as Peary is. Fitzgerald’s script — which was notably altered and cut so that only about a third ended up on the screen — is overly vague at times (particularly regarding Young’s character), and it’s odd to watch a period film taking place in (studio-bound) Germany after World War I when viewers at the time were surely caught up in more recent world developments. It is indeed touching to see how the three men (veterans) stick together through thick and thin, but Taylor’s romance with Sullavan doesn’t hold much dramatic weight: the biggest conflicts are whether she will give up a life of comfort with a wealthy man (Lionel Atwill in a throwaway role); whether she’ll tell Taylor she’s ill before they marry (she arguably should but doesn’t); and when she’ll die. Sullavan’s performance is indeed luminous and other-worldly — she’s a pleasure to watch. But overall, this one doesn’t quite live up to the praise Peary affords it.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Margaret Sullavan as Pat
  • Fine (though decidedly non-Germanic) performances by Taylor, Young, and Tone
  • Atmospheric cinematography

Must See?
No, though it’s worth a look for Sullavan’s performance.

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Wild One, The (1953)

“What are they tryin’ to prove, anyway?”

Synopsis:
When a motorcycle gang led by a rebel named Johnny (Marlon Brando) wreaks havoc on a small town by disrespecting citizens and engaging in a fight with a drunk rival (Lee Marvin), the meek local police chief (Robert Keith) is quickly overwhelmed. Meanwhile, Brando falls for Keith’s beautiful but “square” daughter (Mary Murphy).

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “first and best of a terrible genre” — the “motorcycle film” — was “based on true events: in 1947, 4,000 members of a motorcycle club gathered for a three-day convention in Hollister, California, and terrorized the town.” He notes that this is the movie that “firmly established Marlon Brando’s alienated antihero/rebel screen image”: here he “plays the moody, mumbling, leather-jacketed leader of the ‘Black Rebels'”, and is clearly a “tough guy” but “smarter and, beneath his detached attitude, more decent than the other punks.” Peary argues that while the “film isn’t particularly impressive”, it “has a few exciting scenes” and was likely appealing to young audience members given that “the townspeople who try to drive away the cyclists come across as being just as bad as the cyclists.” Pretty Murphy is a refreshingly independent romantic protagonist, and Brando certainly fits the bill as an intriguing bad boy — but the storyline offers little other than mayhem and havoc; it’s hard to blame the town for wanting their peace, quiet, and safety back.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Marlon Brando as Johnny
  • Mary Murphy as Kathie
  • Atmospheric cinematography

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

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Faster, Pussycat! Kill, Kill! (1965)

“You look to me like a gal with a big appetite for everything.”

Synopsis:
When three go-go dancers — Varla (Tura Satana), Rosie (Haji), and Billie (Lori Williams) — go drag racing in the desert, Varla ends up killing the boyfriend (Ray Barlow) of a bikini-clad girl (Susan Bernard) who the group then kidnaps. They end up at the home of a reclusive, secretly wealthy sociopath in a wheelchair (Stuart Lancaster) who is cared for by his two sons: a mentally slow hunk nicknamed “The Vegetable” (Dennis Busch) and his brainier brother (Paul Trinka). Sex-obsessed Billie pursues Busch, while Varla attempts to bed Trinka in order to learn where Lancaster’s money is hidden, and Bernard tries to escape.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary notes that this “impressive early Russ Meyer film” — notable as “John Waters’ favorite film” — features “three independent, aggressive, voluptuous females who do as they please”, though “as role models for recently ‘liberated’ women, they are the pits.” In his synopsis, he writes that “Tura Satana is an eye-poppingly beautiful, large-chested karate expert who bosses around her two companions, sex-crazed, blonde Lori Williams and Italian Haji, who is amenable to following orders because she has strong feelings toward Santana”. He points out that the “well-made picture [is] shot almost exclusively outdoors”, that the “action scenes have zip”, and that “it’s noteworthy that women are actively involved in them” — especially given the presence of “hand-to-hand combat with men”. Peary is more critical of the film in Cult Movies 3 (1988), where he attributes Meyer’s success as a director to his honest admission “that he’s a male chauvinist who’s turned on by big-breasted women and makes exploitation films because he wants to make a lot of money”. Peary asserts that he doesn’t “think Meyer’s films are important enough to get really angry about”, but he finds it annoying that Meyer “dupes” college-aged fans (as he himself once was) into thinking he’s a “maverick filmmaker”.

Peary goes on to write that this, Meyer’s tenth film, is his “least objectionable” — “so outrageous that it’s funny”, and only bordering “on being off-putting”. Given that “there are no rapes, just rape attempts” — and no resorting to “having… women’s clothes ripped off” — Peary “can accept Meyer stuffing his four female leads… into skimpy costumes and shooting them at every possible compromising angle so that their enormous chests seem to jump toward our eyes”. He appreciates “some quirky and amusing touches” in the film (including the “swingin’ lingo” employed by the girls), noting that the deaths “are all boldly directed and have strong impact” and that “all the action sequences have pizzazz”. Peary is pretty accurate in his fair but critical assessment of this cult feature, which surely should be seen once by all film fanatics simply given its utterly unique stars (Satana particularly), its unforgettable title, and its striking imagery — but a return visit isn’t necessarily necessary.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Memorable performances by the female leads

  • Strong direction and editing by Meyer


  • Walter Schenk’s b&w cinematography

Must See?
Yes, of course, as a long-time cult favorite.

Categories

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

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Since You Went Away (1944)

“You mustn’t fool yourself! That would be the worst thing of all. You’ve got to face it, as hard and cruel as it is.”

Synopsis:
A woman (Claudette Colbert) with two daughters (Jennifer Jones and Shirley Temple) whose husband has enlisted in the war effort takes in a boarder (Monty Woolley) to help cover her expenses. When their family is visited by an old friend (Joseph Cotten) and their former maid (Hattie McDaniel) comes back to live with them, their house becomes even fuller — and when Woolley’s grandson (Robert Young) shows up, new romantic developments arise.

Genres:

Review:
Producer David O. Selznick was hoping to continue the success of his studio’s previous two Oscar-winning films — Gone With the Wind (1939) and Rebecca (1940) — with this lengthy but intimate portrait of an American household surviving the absence of a beloved husband and father (never shown except in photos) during World War II. There isn’t anything particularly noteworthy about the script, which perhaps was precisely the point: life goes on in mundane ways even in the midst of chaos and war. A strong theme throughout the film is the importance of devotion and sacrifice when faced with deprivation; Agnes Moorehead’s “villainous” turn as a snooty socialite who cares only about her own amusement strongly reinforces this message. It’s sad watching vulnerable (on-screen and in real life) Young tentatively romancing Jones, knowing that their marriage was breaking up at the time of filming thanks to her affair with Selznick; so much for loyalty and honor.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Fine lead performances
  • Nice period detail

  • Stanley Cortez and Lee Garmes’ cinematography

Must See?
No, though it’s worth a one-time look for its historical value.

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Fury (1936)

“An impulse is an impulse. It’s like an itch — you’ve gotta scratch it!”

Synopsis:
On his way to meet and marry his fiancee (Sylvia Sidney), a hardworking man (Spencer Tracy) is falsely accused of kidnapping and put in jail. When locals hear rumors about Tracy’s imprisonment, they collectively decide to seek vengeance — with devastating consequences.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “frightening social drama” — “Fritz Lang’s first American film” — “gave Lang the opportunity to advance several of his most important themes: it is unsafe to be a stranger in this world”, given that “people are very territorial; when townspeople band together they may turn into a mob; a man’s innocence or guilt is not what determines how a jury or a mob will judge him; [and] there is no such thing as justice” given that “a hero who seeks revenge and continues the violence initiated by the villains becomes as bad as they, because to play on their terms he relinquishes his humanity”. While Peary points out the “ending is disappointing”, this remains “one of the strongest indictments of America’s small-town lynch-mob mentality.” The film is too nightmarishly surreal at times to be considered strictly realistic — Tracy’s flipped-switch character is a precursor to his role in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941); most of the townspeople are caricatures — but the sentiments and morality behind this living-nightmare flick remain scarily authentic. Mob violence is no joke, and continues to cause untold misery across the globe; surely few knew this better than Lang at the time, who had just fled from Jewish persecution in Nazi-occupied Germany.

With that said, it’s important to note that this film was thoroughly whitewashed in order to be more palatable to white audiences of the day; according to TCM’s article:

The story was conceived during a shocking time in American history when lynching and mob violence escalated in the early 1930s. The fires of injustice were further stoked when a federal anti-lynching bill drafted by NAACP lawyers was killed by the U.S. Senate. But with his hands tied by the notorious movie censorship of the studio years, Lang was unable to explicitly treat lynching as a crime against black people. Lang was even forbidden to use black actors as minor characters in the film, though he initially shot several scenes featuring peripheral black characters to subtly drive home the idea of lynching as a threat to black Americans. In one deleted scene, a black laundress sings a song of freedom as she hangs out the wash, and in another a crowd of Southern blacks is shown responding to a radio speech by Fury‘s district attorney condemning lynching. Both scenes were cut from the film at the studio’s behest.

Clearly another, more authentic film remains to be made about the true horrors of lynching against black Americans in early 19th century America.

Note: Fury was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress in 1995 for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Sylvia Sidney as Katherine
  • Spencer Tracy as Joe Wilson
  • Atmospheric cinematography
  • The truly frightening mob scene

Must See?
Yes, as a still-powerful indictment of mob brutality.

Categories

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You Can’t Take it With You (1938)

“To them, I’ll always be just a stenographer.”

Synopsis:
The son (Jimmy Stewart) of a wealthy businessman (Edward Arnold) tries to convince a stenographer (Jean Arthur) to marry him, despite her concerns that her eccentric household — including her grandfather (Lionel Barrymore), her mother (Spring Byington), and various semi-permanent guests — won’t meet his stuffy parents’ approval.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this winner of “Best Picture and Best Director Oscars” — an adaptation by Frank Capra of George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “stage success” — is “not among Capra’s best films.” He points out that while “there are funny moments and the cast is great”, the “film is too preachy and many of the political-social points made — especially about the wonderfully peculiar character of democratic Americans — are too vague or unconvincing.” He further adds that “themes such as ‘the richest man is the one with the most friends’ are better and more honestly conveyed in Capra’s later It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). Peary’s assessment is spot-on, as is DVD Savant’s lengthier analysis of the film’s many problematic elements — particularly the presentation of non-starring characters as brainless morons, and Capra’s preaching of:

“…a primitive form of Anarchism, one still sold by the pundits. Do your own thing, turn your back on reality. Let somebody else make the sewers work, pay the firemen, and worry about society as a whole. True love always triumphs, and the nastiest villains are really creampuffs. And no problem is bigger than one’s personal emotions. Capra is an Anarchist-know-nothing-fantasist.”

While this movie was a top box office earner in its day, it hasn’t held up nearly as well as many of other Capra’s fine works, and isn’t must-see viewing.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Jimmy Stewart and Jean Arthur as the romantic leads

Must See?
No, though of course Capra fans and Oscar-completists will likely want to check it out.

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Love Letters (1945)

“I love you, and I think I’ll always love you — but I must try to remember.”

Synopsis:
A soldier (Joseph Cotten) who’s secretly written romantic letters to a woman (Jennifer Jones) on behalf of his friend (Robert Sully) eventually meets Jones after the war, though she now goes by the name “Singleton” (rather than Victoria), is looked after by a caretaker (Ann Richards), and struggles with amnesia after being sent to an asylum for murdering Sully. Cotten and Jones fall in love, but Jones is haunted by his original love for “Victoria”; meanwhile, Cotten live in constant fear that Jones will remember the murder she committed and descend once again into madness.

Genres:

Review:
Jennifer Jones and Joseph Cotten co-starred in four features together: Since You Went Away (1944), Duel in the Sun (1946), this title (scripted by Ayn Rand!), and Portrait of Jennie (1948). Rand is primarily known for developing a philosophical system entitled Objectivism — in which heroic, productive, reasoning individuals seek their own happiness above all else — but I’m hard-pressed to see much of her interest or influence here. Indeed, this melodramatic romance about amnesia and hidden identities seems to fly in the face of Rand’s philosophical approach to life — except perhaps in the presentation of Cotten’s character as someone determined to be with Jones no matter what, and resolute in his willingness to help her suppress her memories. Unfortunately, it’s not a very effectively scripted narrative, given that both Cotten and Jones fall in love with individuals sight unseen (Cotten with the recipient of his Cyrano-de-Bergerac-esque letters, Jones with the man she thinks wrote her the letters) — so their entire romance is predicated on other-worldly notions of idealism and transcendent love. Jones’ “Singleton” (what a terrible new name!) might as well be called “Simpleton” given how infantalized her character is, and none of the other characters are particularly well-limned either. We’re left simply waiting for the inevitable moment when a flashback will tell us what really happened to Jones before she lost her memory — and even that pay-off isn’t very satisfying.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Lee Garmes’ cinematography

Must See?
No; you can skip this one.

Links:

Killer’s Kiss (1955)

“It’s crazy how you can get yourself in a mess sometimes and not even be able to think about it with any sense — and yet not be able to think about anything else.”

Synopsis:
A down-and-out boxer (Jamie Smith) reflects on his affair with a dance hall girl (Irene Kane) whose gangster-boss (Frank Silvera) isn’t happy with her decision to leave him.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
In his brief review (which, in a pre-IMDb era, gets the names of the romantic lead actors wrong — whoops!), Peary writes that “Stanley Kubrick’s second feature exhibits flare rather than style, promise rather than skill”. He calls out the “weak story” and notes that the “acting is terrible” — but he concedes that “within this low-budget context Kubrick impresses with dashes of surrealism, strong use of New York locales (when pizza was 10¢), and a wild, medieval fight in a loft full of mannequins.” Along with most other reviewers, I’m pretty much in agreement with Peary’s assessment — though I would argue that the film actually shows plenty of skill and style, and I’m not sure “surrealism” is how I would describe its at-times quirky sensibility. It’s primarily the hackneyed storyline and dialogue that fail us; visually, this one is a consistent stunner.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Powerful cinematography and direction

  • Fine on-location shooting

Must See?
No, though of course all Kubrick aficionados will want to check it out.

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Father Goose (1964)

“If you’re waiting for the big finale, I’m sorry — this is all I do.”

Synopsis:
During World War II, an alcoholic non-conformist (Cary Grant) is forced by a Royal Australian Navy commander (Trevor Howard) to watch for Japanese planes off an isolated island in Papua New Guinea — but Grant soon finds his beloved solitude interrupted by the arrival of a French woman (Leslie Caron) caring for seven stranded school girls.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “genial comedy” — Cary Grant’s next-to-last film before retiring from the screen — “has none of the typical elements of a ‘cult’ movie”, but he notes that he’s “come across an amazing number of people who are truly devoted to it.” (He’s “told in some places it always plays on television at Easter.”) Peary expresses wonder that the script won an Oscar (he refers to it as “typical”), but adds that it “benefits from inspired teaming of the stars, who work extremely well together”. When contemplating why “this film [is] so popular, especially with women”, Peary conjectures “that many women look at the heavy-drinking, gone-to-seed men sitting next to them in front of the TV and hope that they’ll follow Grant’s example and reform, to display once more those qualities that made them so lovable in the first place.”

Peary’s somewhat dismissive review of this film led me to expect less than what I found when revisiting this enjoyable romantic comedy, which starts off somewhat strained (both Grant and Caron’s characters are pills) but goes in surprisingly delightful and quirky directions. Watching as “Grant reforms and reveals his bravery, resourcefulness, and concern for the trapped females” (Caron and her charges) is heartwarming and humorous, and Caron’s evolution (thanks to being plied with alcohol after a snake bite) plays out well. Thankfully, the gaggle of girls are nicely (under)played by the unknown young actresses, adding to the veracity of the scenario. There are numerous memorable moments, both humorous and frightening; it’s the interplay between these two moods that provides so much authentic tension.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Cary Grant as Walter
  • Leslie Caron as Catherine
  • Many memorable moments

  • Peter Stone and Frank Tarloff’s Oscar-winning script

    Caron (while fishing): How do you know it’s a she?
    Grant: Her mouth is open! Now be quiet.

Must See?
Yes, for the delightful script.

Categories

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In Which We Serve (1942)

“A ship can’t be happy unless she’s efficient, and she certainly won’t be efficient unless she’s happy.”

Synopsis:
During World War II, a captain (Noel Coward) boosts the morale of his men — including Seaman “Shorty” (John Mills) and CPO Hardy (Bernard Miles) — as they survive the sinking of their ship and reflect back on their loved ones at home. Meanwhile, Coward’s wife (Celia Johnson) cares for their two children, Mills’ wife (Kay Walsh) prepares to have a baby, and Miles’ wife (Joyce Carey) stoically holds things together as their village suffers from German blitzes.

Genres:

Review:
This wartime propaganda film was made with the direct assistance of Britain’s Ministry of Information and co-directed by David Lean, but otherwise creatively helmed by Noel Coward — who produced, co-directed, co-starred, wrote the screenplay (based on the exploits of Lord Mountbatten in the Royal Navy), and crafted the score. It remains a surprisingly potent and satisfying movie, with tensions kept high both during the initial battle sequence aboard the “H.M.S. Torrin” (we see it being built as the film opens), and then as we’re gradually given numerous watery flashbacks into the memories of the men holding on for their lives as their ship sinks. While centered on the birth, life, and death of the Torrin, this is really an ensemble tale of all the men and women who worked together during World War II to fight and maintain their British way of life. They’re shown celebrating small moments of joy (a hilltop picnic, a brief honeymoon) and giving support to one another through thick and thin; surprisingly (and happily), none of it comes across as sappy, and it’s appropriately balanced with somber reality: a sailor (Richard Attenborough) is chastised for his cowardice; men lose limbs; and numerous characters die. My favorite scenes include Mills feeding and providing drink to Dunkirk survivors; Mills learning both joyous and deeply distressing news in one letter; and Coward — in a wonderfully and respectfully extended sequence — providing a handshake to each individual man he’s served with.

Note: I watched an old version of this film, but will be sure to check out the much-improved Blu-Ray edition next time, as Ronald Neame’s cinematography is clearly top-notch.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Many touching moments

  • Ronald Neame’s cinematography

Must See?
Yes, for its historical value as a highly effective propaganda film, and for Coward’s prodigious efforts. Listed as a film with Historical Importance and a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

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