Beat Generation, The (1959)

“The world is full of moldy figs: they’re the squares who eat, sleep, go to work, vegetate, and while they vegetate — I swing.”

Synopsis:
A surly detective (Steve Cochran) and his partner (Jackie Coogan) search for a psychopathic rapist (Ray Danton) known as the “Aspirin Kid”, who finagles his way into Cochran’s house and rapes his wife (Fay Spain). When Spain discovers she’s pregnant, she and Cochran face the difficult decision of whether or not to abort; meanwhile, Danton blackmails his buddy (Jim Mitchum) into instigating a copycat rape against a woman (Mamie van Doren) in order to throw the police off his trail.

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Review:
It’s difficult to know where to begin in assessing this painfully insensitive detective flick, conveniently situated within a Beatnik milieu simply for its novelty and exploitation value. Danton and Cochran are posited as two sides of the same flawed coin — one a psychopathic killer, the other a determined cop, yet both with an inbred distrust of (and/or hatred for) women; the intersection of their two characters seems designed to provide psychological complexity to the script, but instead just leaves us cringing. The rape scenes are disturbing, as expected — but what’s genuinely shocking is how Cochran treats the victims he interrogates, essentially accusing them of complicity in the crimes. (We’re reminded that his former wife was a tramp, which excuses his behavior, I guess.) Meanwhile, when Cochran’s current wife learns she’s pregnant but isn’t sure whether the father is Cochran or Danton, the storyline veers into a truly bizarre pro-Choice subplot that must be seen and heard to be believed. There’s some curiosity value to be had in the sight of a short-haired Vampira in Beatnik get-up, spouting a moronic poem about parenthood while stroking a white rat perched on her shoulder, but this ultimately just feels wildly incongruous to the plot. And while Mamie van Doren brings a bit of life to the second half of the film as a would-be victim, her presence once again feels superfluous, and is clearly designed simply to bring sexual star-power to the film. What’s most astonishing is that the screenplay for this clunker was co-written by the estimable Richard Matheson (who clearly must not have had any final say in what appeared on screen).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Good use of L.A. locales
  • An occasionally campy Beatnik sensibility: “There’s no tomorrow — not while the sky drools radiation gumdrops.”

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

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Jitterbugs (1943)

“I just love the way you show people carry on.”

Synopsis:
A pair of well-meaning jazz musicians (Oliver Hardy and Stan Laurel) team up with a con-artist (Robert Bailey) to help a singer (Vivian Blaine) recover money stolen from her wealthy mother.

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Review:
Jitterbugs is the last Laurel and Hardy film included in Peary’s book, and while it’s not one of their must-see films, it remains a reasonably enjoyable tale of mistaken identities and double-crossing cons. Unlike many of the L&H titles listed in GFTFF, this film has a clear and fairly engaging storyline, moving quickly through its 75 minutes; even the incorporation of a few musical numbers (including an opening ditty by the boys as they play their two-man band, and several songs by Blaine) feels natural rather than bringing things to a halt. Watch for Laurel in drag, and Hardy convincingly portraying a womanizing southern colonel.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • A reasonably entertaining long-con storyline

Must See?
No, though Laurel and Hardy fans won’t want to miss this one.

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Tom, Dick, and Harry (1941)

“Every day you read about girls marrying rich fellas — every day!”

Synopsis:
A telephone operator (Ginger Rogers) whose ambitious car-salesman boyfriend (George Murphy) has just proposed to her meets a happy-go-lucky car mechanic (Burgess Meredith) who becomes equally smitten with her — but she remains hopeful that she’ll finally meet and marry the real man of her dreams, a noted millionaire (Alan Marshall).

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Review:
Garson Kanin is best known as a highly regarded screenwriter, but he also directed a few feature films, including this creatively conceived romantic comedy about a socially ambitious telephone operator trying to decide between three radically different suitors. Unfortunately, Rogers is at her most annoying here, inappropriately affecting a girlish tone of voice (much like the one she would use the following year to better purpose in The Major and the Minor), and blithely shifting romantic allegiances with little concern for anyone other than herself. Setting that enormous caveat aside, however, the rest of the film remains a witty delight, thanks to a consistently sharp screenplay (by Paul Jarrico, based on his own story), and the incorporation of several eye-popping fantasy sequences, which are unlike anything you’ll see in similar films of the period. Meanwhile, Burgess Meredith gives one of his best, most appealing performances as a proto-hippie living a life of penniless contentment; it’s easy to see how he manages to become a viable contender in Rogers’ quest for marital satisfaction (though what he sees in her is an entirely different question).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • The incredibly creative fantasy sequences


  • Burgess Meredith as Harry

Must See?
No, though it’s strongly recommended simply to check out the fantasy sequences.

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Quality Street (1937)

“Women have a flag to fly as well as men, Mr. Brown.”

Synopsis:
In early-1800s England, a young woman (Katharine Hepburn) living with her unmarried sister (Fay Bainter) falls in love with a man (Franchot Tone) who she believes will ask her to marry him, but who instead becomes a soldier. Upon his return ten years later, Tone is disappointed to find that Phoebe (Hepburn) has become an aging spinster, but quickly becomes enamored with her in a different form, as she pretends to be her much younger and more vibrant niece, Livvy.

Genres:

Review:
George Stevens directed this adaptation of J.M. Barrie’s farcical historical play, about a young spinster who takes revenge on her would-be suitor by magically turning herself into a young vixen he can’t resist, intending to break his heart just as he broke hers. Naturally, the film’s very premise is absolutely ripe for disbelief, given that it’s predicated entirely on the notion that a shift from tightly-bound headcap and serious expression to springy curls and gay demeanor is enough to fool a man into believing he’s seeing an entirely different woman. Yet Stevens has fun milking this scenario for all its worth, particularly through the incorporation of a Greek chorus of meddling old biddies (ring-led by wide-eyed Estelle Winwood), whose sole aim in life appears to be to get to the root of Livvy’s identity. Set roughly during the same era as Jane Austen’s novels, Quality Street evokes a similar social milieu of (non-working class) women whose only options in life are to marry or become spinsters; indeed, there’s an undercurrent of quiet desperation to the entire affair. Yet the mistaken identity plot keeps it lighthearted throughout, and it will certainly be of interest to Hepburn fans.

Note: Watch for Joan Fontaine in an early, uncredited role.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Katharine Hepburn as Phoebe/Livvy
  • Fay Bainter as Susan

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

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Corn is Green, The (1945)

“Don’t you ever get tired of lessons?”

Synopsis:
Upon moving to the Welsh countryside, a schoolteacher (Bette Davis) decides to establish a classroom in her own house to help teach the village children. One student (John Dall) stands out as particularly gifted, and she helps him begin preparations to attend Oxford — but the tarty daughter (Joan Lorring) of her housekeeper (Rosalind Ivan) has other plans in mind for Dall.

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Review:
Irving Rapper directed Bette Davis in no less than nine films, including this adaptation of Welsh author Emlyn Williams’ semi-autobiographical play about a gifted young coal-miner attempting to gain entrance into Oxford. The storyline is often overly theatrical, and certain scenes (such as when the coal-miners sing impossibly beautiful ditties while walking to and from work) come across as heavy-handed — but Davis is such a nuanced and compelling actress that she consistently elevates the material, helping us remain invested and engaged throughout. In his film debut, Dall (best known for his starring roles in Hitchcock’s Rope and Joseph Lewis’s Gun Crazy) received a Best Supporting Actor nomination, and does an impressive job portraying his character’s deep sense of conflict; it’s easy to understand why this strapping young man would both appreciate and resent the attentions paid to him by Davis. However, I’m less enamored with Lorring’s performance as a trollop who sets a key plot hitch in motion: while Davis apparently hand-picked her for the role, I find her performance overly broad; sure, she’s written as a no-good femme fatale whose very mother confesses to not liking her when she was born (poor thing!), but she’s a tad too one-dimensional in her sociopathic glee for my tastes.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Bette Davis as Lily Moffat
  • John Dall as Morgan Evans

Must See?
No, though it’s recommended.

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Tales of Manhattan (1942)

“Do you know what it is to look into a woman’s eyes when she’s lying?”

Synopsis:
An actor (Charles Boyer) embroiled in a dangerous love triangle with a woman (Rita Hayworth) and her suspicious husband (Thomas Mitchell) is the first owner of a tailcoat which is eventually passed down to a variety of individuals in diverse circumstances.

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Review:
Episodic (a.k.a. omnibus) films can be notoriously difficult to get “right”, often leaving one with a wish that certain segments had been deleted altogether, or others expanded. Julien Duvivier’s delightful Tales of Manhattan remains an exception to this rule. Only one vignette (a comedic skit with W.C. Fields) doesn’t really seem to “fit” — and lo and behold, it was actually taken out before the film was originally screened! (How in the world was such good sense actually exercised?!) The connecting “storyline” (the fate of a tailcoat) is thin but sufficient to hold the narratives together — beginning with an opening segment involving Boyer’s doomed romance with a dubiously committed married woman (Hayworth) whose husband owns a scary number of guns. This story is likely my least favorite of the bunch, but “works” on a visual level (Joseph Walker’s cinematography is appropriately noir-ish) and provides a neat twist ending.

The second vignette — a comedic gem involving Ginger Rogers’ discovery of a love note in the pocket of her fiance (Cesar Romero), who quickly calls in his friend (Henry Fonda) to cover for him, with truly unexpected results — is probably the film’s highlight, neatly showcasing how to move a zingy storyline from A to Z within just over 20 well-used minutes. The next story — about a poor composer (Charles Laughton) given a life-altering opportunity to conduct an orchestra, only to find that the too-small second-hand tailcoat his wife (Elsa Lanchester) has purchased for him causes him unexpected grief — is decidedly bittersweet and almost surreal, ending with a powerful visual statement. (Indeed, this vignette could easily have been filmed without dialogue.)

The fourth vignette — about a down-on-his-luck man (Edward G. Robinson) who dons the patched tailcoat to attend a college reunion, making up tales about his recent successes — is the one most often cited by viewers who remember the film, and it is indeed a bittersweet, surprisingly touching tale; watch for George Sanders in a typically caddish supporting role. The fifth story (the one cut from the original screening version) is the shortest, and — as indicated previously — the least satisfying. W.C. Fields embodies a variation on his classically tippling self, though with the ironic twist that his character’s tee-totaling lecturer gets drunk accidentally when the coconut milk he’s touting to his audience is spiked with liquor. It goes absolutely nowhere, and fails to entertain on any level (though it’s always nice to catch a glimpse of Margaret Dumont, here playing the event’s hostess).

The sixth and final vignette involves a crook (J. Carroll Naish) who steals the tailcoat, robs a casino, then drops the coat from his getaway plane when it catches fire, pockets full of stolen cash. It lands in the hands of a poor sharecropper (Paul Robeson) and his wife (Ethel Waters), whose faith leads them to believe that they should share the money with their neighbors, only doling it out for items that were sincerely prayed for. It was criticized by Robeson himself as demeaning to Blacks by presenting them as “childlike and innocent”, but while I sympathize with his perspective, I can’t quite say I agree. Rather, the characters here seem to me to be fully human, with the best interests of all at heart — and the closing scene, in which the tattered tailcoat meets what is likely its final fate, is surprisingly moving. This segment is an entirely fitting finale to a most enjoyable film overall.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • A series of uniquely touching and/or humorous vignettes


  • Fine performances throughout
  • Joseph Walker’s cinematography

Must See?
Yes, as a delightful omnibus film.

Categories

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Male and Female (1919)

“Would you put a Jack Daw and a Bird of Paradise in the same cage?”

Synopsis:
A butler (Thomas Meighan) with a crush on the aristocratic Lady (Gloria Swanson) he works for is given an unexpected chance to romance her when she and her family are shipwrecked on a deserted island, and Meighan becomes their de facto ruler.

Genres:

Review:
Despite Gloria Swanson’s status as one of the most popular and beloved actresses of the silent era, Peary only lists two of her pre-Sunset Boulevard titles in his GFTFF: Erich von Stroheim’s notoriously unfinished Queen Kelly (1929), and this much earlier Cecil B. DeMille title (which is credited with helping the 20-year-old Swanson achieve fame as a romantic lead). Adapted from J.M. Barrie’s play The Admirable Crichton, it tells a farcical fable about what might happen if all class-based trappings were suddenly stripped away, leaving both the nobility and the working class to fend for themselves in nature. Naturally, the aristocratic ninnies in this story haven’t the first clue how to survive, leaving it conveniently up to Meighan to take charge and show them how to build a fire, construct shelter, etc. Things turn undeniably silly when Meighan abuses his privileges to become a petty tyrant, fending off advances from not only the reformed Swanson, but a pretty young maid (Lila Lee) with a ferocious crush of her own on Meighan. However, while this film hasn’t dated well enough to remain must-see viewing on its own merits, it’s worth a look simply to see beautiful young Swanson in one her best-known early roles.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • An amusing exploration of class relations

Must See?
No, though it’s worth a look to see young Swanson at the height of her beauty. Listed as a film with Historical Importance in the back of Peary’s book.

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Dangerous (1935)

“I’m bad for people. I don’t mean to be, but I can’t help myself.”

Synopsis:
A down-and-out actress (Bette Davis) seduces an admiring architect (Franchot Tone), who breaks off his engagement with his socialite girlfriend (Margaret Lindsay) to help revive Davis’s failing career.

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Review:
Bette Davis’s Oscar-winning performance in Dangerous may be one of the first instances of an Academy Award being given to an actor or actress as a consolation prize for not winning the previous year, when he or she more clearly deserved it. In this case, most (including Peary) believe that Davis should have won an Oscar instead for her breakthrough performance in Of Human Bondage (1934), which is certainly the much better film. Indeed, Dangerous — based on Laird Doyle’s story “Hard Luck Dame” — remains a poorly written and conceived melodrama with a ludicrous ending and no clear sense of who to root for or why. Tone comes across like the ultimate fool: from the moment he naively believes he can bring a beautiful but notoriously damaged young actress back to his country home for the weekend and not cause potential risk to his happy engagement with Lindsay, we lose all respect for him, making it difficult to care much about either him or the story’s resolution. Yet Davis’s performance shines through the dross of the narrative, presenting us with a fully dimensional, deeply flawed femme fatale with a host of “dangerous” demons in her closet. She alone makes this film worth seeking out for a one-time look.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Bette Davis as Joyce Heath (nominated by Peary as one of the Best Actresses of the Year in his Alternate Oscars)

Must See?
No, though it’s worth a look simply for Davis’s Oscar-winning performance.

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Shining Victory (1941)

“There’s no sentiment in science, Mary — just the operation of natural laws.”

Synopsis:
A moody psychiatrist (James Stephenson) working at an asylum is at first displeased by the new assistant (Geraldine Fitzgerald) assigned to him, but gradually grows to respect and love her; meanwhile, his search for a cure to dementia leads him to take increasingly drastic measures.

Genres:

Review:
Based on the play Jupiter Laughs by A.J. Cronin, Irving Rapper’s directorial debut remains a less-than-satisfying affair on most accounts. The primary problem lies with the uneven (and ultimately uninteresting) storyline, which begins by showing us Stephenson’s unfair ouster from a Hungarian laboratory run by corrupt Professor Von Reiter (Sig Ruman), who brazenly takes credit for Stephenson’s work, then arranges to have him deported. One imagines this harrowing narrative thread will lead somewhere, but it never does — rather, it seems intended primarily to show us how put-upon poor Dr. Venner (Stephenson) has been, perhaps as an excuse for his decidedly mercurial and pigheaded attitude thereafter. Other than his Relentless Search For a Cure, the plot primarily revolves around his increasingly romantic relationship with Fitzgerald — yet this, too, proves unsatisfying; besides her appreciation for his genius (and perhaps a hint of compassion), what exactly does she see in him? Meanwhile, a pivotal subplot involving a disturbed employee (Barbara Reid) at the asylum seems like nothing more than a calculated attempt to inject a sense of psychological menace into the proceedings. Feel free to skip this one.

Note: Bette Davis purportedly appears in a brief cameo role as a nurse in this film, but I couldn’t spot her.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Geraldine Fitzgerald as Dr. Mary Murray (nominated by Peary as one of the Best Actresses of the Year in his Alternate Oscars)
  • James Wong Howe’s cinematography

Must See?
No; you don’t need to bother seeking this one out.

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Three Smart Girls (1936)

“I’m not pig-headed, I’m strong-minded.”

Synopsis:
Three sisters (Nan Grey, Barbara Read, and Deanna Durbin) try to prevent their estranged father (Charles Winninger) from marrying a gold-digger (Binnie Barnes) by hiring a man (Ray Milland) they believe is a destitute count to woo Barnes.

Genres:

Review:
Teenage singing sensation Deanna Durbin — perhaps best known as Judy Garland’s one-time “competitor” — rose to international stardom in this chipper romantic comedy about a trio of can-do sisters desperate to prevent their father from marrying a calculating gold-digger. A little of Durbin goes a long way, and given that she’s only one among three sisters equally invested in the situation, this is the perfect introduction to her talents (see my review of One Hundred Men and a Girl for an example of too much Durbin in one sitting). Barnes is amusingly predatory, Alice Brady is perfectly cast as Barnes’ meddling mother, and the mistaken-identities storyline involving Milland’s impersonation of a destitute count is nicely handled (if, naturally, terribly far-fetched). However, I have a hard time buying the film’s overarching subplot involving Winninger’s relationship with his daughters: would they really react with such unmitigated glee — rather than, say, muted anger or conflicted emotions — upon seeing him for the first time in ten years? And why, exactly, has he stayed away from them for so long? (This point is never explained.) Regardless, this type of escapist fluff was appealing enough to audiences at the time to help bring Universal Studios out of near-bankruptcy, and remains worth a look simply to see Durbin at her freshest.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Deanna Durbin as Penny
  • Binnie Barnes and Alice Brady as “Precious” and her mother
  • Ray Milland as Michael

Must See?
Yes, for its historical relevance as the film which made Durbin an international star.

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