Lady Takes a Chance, A (1943)

“Any fella that can love a horse can love a girl.”

Synopsis:
A young woman (Jean Arthur) with several competing suitors (Grant Withers, Grady Sutton, and Hans Conried) travels across the country on a tour bus and is accidentally stranded in a small town with a cowboy (John Wayne) she meets at the local rodeo. Will Arthur be able to make her way back to the bus — and will she and Wayne resolve their differences so romance can bloom?

Genres:

Review:
This enjoyable romantic comedy features an unlikely duo (Arthur and Wayne) who have surprising on-screen chemistry together. The screenplay — based on a story by Jo Swerling — cleverly shows how desirable Arthur is back at home before she heads off on her adventure: she isn’t a desperate spinster by any means, thus making her would-be romance with “exotic” Wayne more intriguing. For a film made in 1943, Wayne is refreshingly frank in his desire to sleep with Arthur but not marry her — and if their quibbles inevitably resolve the way we suspect they will, their travails together are an enjoyable enough diversion to make this worth a one-time look.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Fine performances by the romantic leads

Must See?
No, though it’s recommended for one-time viewing.

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Walk in the Sun, A (1945)

“Everything in the army is simple: you live or you die.”

Synopsis:
During an Allied invasion of Italy during World War II, a sergeant (Dana Andrews) takes charge of his platoon when his original commander is severely wounded, and the next sergeant in command (Herbert Rudley) cracks up from the pressure. Will Andrews and his crew — including an outspoken New Yorker (Richard Conte), a bold sergeant (Lloyd Bridges), and an introspective private (John Ireland) — be able to limit their own fatalities while storming a German-occupied farmhouse and blowing up a nearby bridge?

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “solid war film” — “directed by Lewis Milestone, 15 years after his anti-war classic All Quiet on the Western Front” — is “a rare WWII film in which our men have second thoughts about being soldiers”; he points out that “the terrifying finale” (we really don’t know what will happen) “confirms that fighting isn’t fun for Americans in WWII, just necessary.” Indeed, the thematic connections between this and All Quiet… are relatively strong, given that we’re once again relentlessly shown the horrors of war, albeit interwoven with entertaining dialogue between the men (much was taken from the source novel by Harry Brown). It’s refreshing to see how the men may give each other plenty of grief, but are there for one another in the most important ways: volunteering for dangerous tasks; accepting the mental breakdown of their leader without judgment; and staying with their platoon throughout the horrors they endure. Peary notes that the film — featuring fine cinematography by Russell Harlan — is “visually interesting because the men” (there are no women in the cast) “are shown in relationship to the flat landscape and wide sky, which at times is blocked out by smoke from exploded bombs and gunfire”, and “Milestone often pans effectively over the hostile terrain”. The performances across the board are solid, with Andrews and Conte stand-out leads, Ireland memorable in his debut role, and Bridges instantly earning our respect during a critical scene. This one remains must-see viewing.

Note: Andrews and Conte co-starred in Milestone’s controversial WWII film from the previous year, The Purple Heart (1944), which is worth a look but with caution (as outlined in my review).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Fine performances by the all-male cast


  • Russell Harlan’s cinematography

  • Robert Rossen’s script (based on Harry Brown’s novel)

Must See?
Yes, as a still-powerful film about WWII. Selected for preservation in the National Film Registry in 2016.

Categories

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Sullivans, The / Fighting Sullivans, The (1944)

“Well, I guess that oughta learn us Sullivans to stick together!”

Synopsis:
Five Irish-American brothers — George (James Cardwell), Frank (John Campbell), Joe (George Offerman, Jr.), Matt (John Alvin), and Al (Edward Ryan) Sullivan — remain close-knit with their sister (Trudy Marshall) and parents (Thomas Mitchell and Selena Royle), even after Ryan marries his sweetheart (Anne Baxter) and they have a baby. When America enters World War II, the brothers decide to enlist in the Navy together, refusing to be separated.

Genres:

Review:
This biopic about the Sullivan Brothers — whose sacrifices inspired the creation of the United States’ Sole Survivor Policy when all five brothers died in action — was surely an audience pleaser and consoler at the time of its release during the height of World War II. It focuses heavily on the boys’ upbringing and fraternal camaraderie — as well as Ryan’s courtship of Baxter — before finally turning in its last half hour to the moment the family hears about the bombing of Pearl Harbor on the radio, and the brothers’ fate is eventually sealed. The film remains a fitting tribute to this family which gave so much to the war effort — and while it’s not must-see viewing, it’s worth a one-time look, especially by those interested in films of the era.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • An emotionally stirring tale of family unity

Must See?
No, though it’s a fine tale and worthy one-time viewing.

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Louisiana Purchase (1941)

“Shouldn’t you have a bathing suit? The senator might drool.”

Synopsis:
The head (Bob Hope) of a company caught filching government funds hires a beautiful dancer (Vera Zorina) to ensnare a strait-laced senator (Victor Moore) in a sex scandal — but his plan becomes more complicated when Zorina actually falls for Moore.

Genres:

Review:
Peary is clearly a huge fan of Bob Hope, given that he lists no less than 18 of Hope’s many comedies in GFTFF (including all but one of the seven Road To… titles). This adaptation of Irving Berlin’s Broadway musical — made shortly after Caught in the Draft (1941) — was Hope’s first film in Technicolor: it remains visually appealing, but sadly only contains a couple of songs, and overall falls short of its potential as a political satire. Moore’s intentionally milquetoast Senator Oliver P. Loganberry is an annoying foil, while Hope’s scheming State Representative is hardly someone we want to root for either. German-Norwegian ballerina Zorina has an ethereal and appealing presence, but she’s not enough to elevate the film to anything other than escapist fare of its day.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Fine Technicolor cinematography

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

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Sun Never Sets, The (1939)

“There are troublesome things taking place in different parts of the empire today that we don’t like — and don’t quite understand.”

Synopsis:
A man (Basil Rathbone) serving in the British colony of the Gold Coast returns home with his wife (Barbara O’Neil), hoping to stay in England — but when his tradition-bound grandfather (C. Aubrey Smith) sends his younger brother (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) back to investigate an ant scientist (Lionel Atwill) who may be responsible for mysterious radio signals, Rathbone and pregnant O’Neil follow along to ensure his safety; meanwhile, Fairbanks, Jr.’s girlfriend (Virginia Field) is determined to stick by his side through even the hardest of times.

Genres:

Review:
This explicitly pro-Colonial “tribute” flick opens with a dedication to “the countless millions bred in the British Isles who, through the past four centuries, have gone forth to the far corners of the earth to find new countries, to establish laws and the ethics of government, who have kept high the standards of civilization” — then shifts to a slide describing the Gold Coast of Africa as “– heat — humidity — fever — known for years as ‘the white man’s grave’.” This condescending tone is maintained throughout, with Smith’s familial brood showcased as noble and heroic martyrs to the “cause” of colonialism. Just as troublesome is the inexplicable central subplot involving Atwill, ants, radio signals, and dastardly intentions — what in the world is this all about? It seems we’re meant to view Atwill as a generic baddie stirring up foment in dominated peoples on behalf of his own hunger for power; was this merely a panicked plea from those who saw the writing of World War II and a post-colonial future on the wall? And what in the world do ants have to do with all of this, anyway? We are primed to cheer for Fairbanks, Jr. as he makes restitution for an unintentionally lethal error in his work, but to what end? This film is a bit of a muddled mess, and hasn’t aged well at all.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Basil Rathbone in an atypically sympathetic role

Must See?
Nope; feel free to skip this one.

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Union Pacific (1939)

“A railroad from Omaha to California? One might as well think of flying!”

Synopsis:
A shady stock manipulator (Henry Kolker) hires a gambling hall owner (Brian Donlevy) to intentionally stall progress on the Union Pacific railroad, but Donlevy’s partner (Robert Preston) — in love with the Irish daughter (Barbara Stanwyck) of an engineer — finds his loyalties tested when his old war buddy (Joel McCrea) comes on board as a “peace-keeping” troubleshooter, and romantic tensions emerge between Stanwyck, Preston, and McCrea.

Genres:

Review:
Several years after “creatively” portraying the legend of Buffalo Bill and Wild Bill Hickok in The Plainsman (1936), Cecil B. DeMille followed in the footsteps of John Ford’s silent classic The Iron Giant (1924) in offering this tale about the corruption inherent in the building of the transcontinental railroad (a massive, years-long, money-infused endeavor if there ever was one — though according to DVD Savant, the true source of corruption is sorely misrepresented here). The leads are all in top form, with Stanwyck especially appealing as a plucky Irish lass willing to face reality squarely in the eyes, and Preston eliciting a surprising amount of sympathy in a challenging baddie role. Overall, the tale is well-directed, and the cinematography by Victor Milner is impressive; but the dehumanization of Indians is distressing, and I’m not a fan of the humorous sidekicks played by Akim Tamiroff and Lynne Overman. While this is one of DeMille’s better flicks, it’s not must-see viewing by all film fanatics.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Barbara Stanwyck as Mollie Monahan
  • Robert Preston as Dick Allen
  • Joel McCrea as Jeff Butler
  • Victor Milner’s cinematography

Must See?
No, though it’s recommended for the lead performances.

Links:

Oklahoma Kid, The (1939)

“I like all kinds of people… What I don’t take to is this itch for plowing up new empires.”

Synopsis:
During the Cherokee Strip Land Run, a sheriff (Hugh Sothern) and his son Ned (Harvey Stephens) attempt to stake a claim in a town they will call Tulsa, but must strike a bargain with an outlaw (Humphrey Bogart) determined to set up bars and saloons in the area. Meanwhile, Sothern’s black sheep son — known as the “Oklahoma Kid” (James Cagney) — arrives in town and quickly becomes involved in retribution against Bogart’s murderous gang, as well as romance with the daughter (Rosemary Lane) of the local judge (Donald Crisp).

Genres:

Review:
Following their co-starring roles in Angels With Dirty Faces (1938), James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart were re-paired in this western (Cagney’s first), in which Cagney’s character embodies some refreshingly progressive notions regarding white settlement of the land:

Cagney: Now, look. In the first place, the White people steal the land of the Indians, right?
Crisp: They get paid for it right?
Cagney: Paid for it? Yeah. A measly dollar and forty cents an acre, price agreed to at the point of a gun.

The storyline itself is a fairly standard western tale of corruption and revenge, with a minor romantic triangle thrown in for good measure (Lane is formally partnered with Stephens). However, it’s nicely shot by DP James Wong Howe, and features some effectively shot action sequences, making it worth a one-time look.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • James Cagney as the Oklahoma Kid
  • James Wong Howe’s cinematography
  • Some fine action sequences

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

Links:

Each Dawn I Die (1939)

“Okay, canary — start singin’!”

Synopsis:
After outing a corrupt gubernatorial candidate and his assistant (Victor Jory), an investigative journalist (James Cagney) is framed for manslaughter and sent to prison, where he meets a gangster (George Raft) who promises to help him clear his name but reneges on this promise once he escapes. Will Cagney’s loyal girlfriend (Jane Bryan) help keep Raft accountable to his commitment, or will Cagney remain unjustly imprisoned for the rest of his life?

Genres:

Review:
James Cagney and George Raft’s only film together was this unusual gangster flick about loyalty and honor among criminals, journalists, and politicians. It swiftly showcases the relentless corruption of politicians willing to do anything to get or remain elected, ultimately landing on the side of the underdog (in this case, journalists and mistreated prisoners). While the storyline is a tad over-complicated, and we can guess what the outcome will ultimately be, there’s sufficient tension and atmospheric cinematography along the way to hold one’s interest, and the prison scenes feel reasonably authentic. The final shoot-out is especially well handled.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • James Cagney as Frank Ross
  • Arthur Edeson’s cinematography
  • The excitingly filmed prison shoot-out finale

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

Links:

Jesse James (1939)

“I hate the railroads — and when I hate, I’ve got to do something about it.”

Synopsis:
When a thuggish railroad goon (Brian Donlevy) accidentally causes the death of their mother (Jane Darwell), brothers Jesse (Tyrone Power) and Frank (Henry Fonda) James become outlaws, robbing trains. With the help of a newly appointed lawman (Randolph Scott), Jesse’s girlfriend (Nancy Kelly) tries to convince him to reform — but when a conniving railroad owner (Donald Meek) betrays the brothers’ trust once again, Kelly’s hopes are dashed.

Genres:

Review:
Notorious gangster and train robber Jesse James is duly whitewashed in this beautifully shot if historically dubious western (scripted by Nunnally Johnson, and directed by Henry King) which portrays his life of crime as the direct result of homesteaders being unfairly forced to give up their land. The Technicolor cinematography is truly stunning (a standout sequence features a silhouette of Jesse running along the tops of train cars with unaware passengers lit below), and the location shooting in Missouri adds to the film’s overall feel of authenticity. However, while the female romantic lead (Kelly, giving a strong performance) helps us sympathize with Jesse, we don’t really get enough of a sense of who Jesse or his brother were, or why they persist in a life of crime long beyond seeking vengeance on Meek (played as a caricature of a sniveling baddie); meanwhile, Scott’s supporting character is badly underdeveloped. This film was followed immediately by a sequel — The Return of Frank James (1940) — starring many of the same actors (including John Carradine as the “coward” who shot Jesse in the back), but directed by Fritz Lang. See also I Shot Jesse James (1949), directed by Sam Fuller.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Fine Technicolor cinematography

  • Nancy Kelly as Zee

Must See?
No, though it’s recommended as a well-shot western. Listed as a film with Historical Importance and a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

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If I Were King (1938)

“If it’s so easy to be king, how would you begin?”

Synopsis:
When medieval poet Francois Villon (Ronald Colman) kills a traitor (John Miljan) in the court of King Louis XI (Basil Rathbone), he’s made Constable for a week, during which time he falls in love with a beautiful lady-in-waiting (Frances Dee), hatches a plan against invading forces from Burgundy, and attempts to bring food and justice to the starving people of France.

Genres:

Review:
Following his successful lead roles in A Tale of Two Cities (1935) and Lost Horizon (1937), Ronald Colman starred in this oft-adapted tale — based on a 1901 play and novel by Justin Huntly McCarthy — about real-life poet-of-the-people Francois Villon. The film, scripted by Preston Sturges, presents Villon as a sort of French Robin Hood, stealing from the rich to feed the poor — a gesture it’s hard to quibble with, today no less than then. Rathbone — wearing plenty of make-up — seems to be having fun playing King Louis XI as a monarch more wacky than sadistic, willing to use his power for creative experimentation. The sets and cinematography are fine, and this was surely an enjoyable outing for audiences of the day, living through the tail end of the Great Depression; however, it’s no longer must-see viewing for all film fanatics.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Ronald Colman as Francois Villon
  • Basil Rathbone as King Louis XI
  • Fine cinematography and period sets

Must See?
No, though Colman fans will want to seek it out.

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