Magnificent Ambersons, The (1942)

“There aren’t any old times. When times are gone, they’re not old, they’re dead.”

Synopsis:
An up-and-coming industrialist (Joseph Cotten) loves the wealthy daughter (Dolores Costello) of a local millionaire (Richard Bennett), but they each end up marrying someone else. When Costello’s spoiled son (Tim Holt) grows up, he falls for Cotten’s daughter (Anne Baxter), and Cotten renews his interest in Costello — but Holt’s disdain for Cotten prevents romantic happiness for all involved.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
In his review of Orson Welles’ adaptation of “Booth Tarkington’s [1918] Pulitzer Prize-winning novel,” Peary recounts just some of the film’s infamous production history, noting that “while Welles was out of the country, editor Robert Wise and his assistant, Mark Robson, were ordered by RKO to drastically cut the 131-minute picture that preview audiences didn’t like”. He argues that while many “critics now regard the mutilated version as being equal to Citizen Kane and other Welles classics”, he doesn’t “consider this to be one of his masterpieces”, and bluntly states that “the cutting hurts terribly”. However, he argues that “even if it were intact, it seems to be missing a lead character”, given that “Tim Holt’s George Minafer hasn’t enough stature to carry the latter part of the film”. Despite his complaints, however, he does concede that “Welles presents what may be the most effective look at late 19th-century small town life”, and notes that “the early montage, depicting changing styles… is memorable”. He feels that the “acting is uneven” but calls out Agnes Moorehead’s Oscar-nominated performance (playing Holt’s spinster “Aunt Fanny”) as “dynamic”, “especially when projecting near hysteria in her scenes with Holt”.

I don’t quite agree with Peary that the film is “missing a lead character”. As Peary himself notes, the “story, which is set between 1883 and 1912,” is more broadly about “the decline and fall of the Ambersons-Minafers, and the simultaneous modernization of their once-quaint small town — all due to the industrial revolution, which is emblemized by the advent of the automobile”. It’s this larger socio-economic theme which Welles is concerned with exploring, through the prism of Holt’s hopelessly spoiled and arrogant George Minafer, as well as through the star-crossed would-be romance between Costello and Cotten (who become Holt’s unwitting pawns). Ultimately, …Ambersons is more a film about clashing values in a life-changing era than any kind of straightforward melodrama with a recognizable central protagonist — which is perhaps what disappointed so many audience members at the time of its release.

However, one tends to watch The Magnificent Ambersons even more for its undeniable artistic merits than for its storyline. As Peary notes, “Stanley Cortez’s creatively lighted deep-focus photography is extraordinary”, with “the scenes in the snow and the scenes in the Ambersons’ mansion… among the most visually striking in all of Welles’ [oeuvre].” Some have complained about Welles’ penchant for utilizing overly stylized camera angles at every opportunity, but a more pedestrian approach would surely have detracted from the film’s relentlessly intense emotional impact. Even in its “butchered” form, The Magnificent Ambersons remains a flawed but stylistically ambitious classic, one which is certainly worthy of any film fanatic’s attention.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Joseph Cotten as Eugene Morgan (nominated by Peary as one of the Best Actors of the Year in his Alternate Oscars)
  • Agnes Moorehead as Aunt Fanny
  • Consistently creative direction by Welles

  • Stanley Cortez’s impressive deep-focus cinematography

  • Bernard Herrmann’s score

Must See?
Yes, as a unique — albeit flawed and disputed — American classic. Listed as one of the Best Pictures of the Year in Peary’s Alternate Oscars.

Categories

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

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Kings Row (1942)

“Now, in this modern and complicated world, man breaks down under the strain and bewilderment, disappointment and disillusionment — gets lost, goes crazy, commits suicide.”

Synopsis:
In a small American town near the turn of the 20th century, an aspiring psychiatrist (Robert Cummings) loves the troubled daughter (Betty Field) of a renowned doctor (Claude Rains) who mentors him in his new career. Meanwhile, his happy-go-lucky childhood friend (Ronald Reagan) hopes in vain to marry the daughter (Nancy Coleman) of the town’s surgeon (Charles Coburn), but turns to another lifelong friend (Ann Sheridan) for companionship.

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Review:
Based on the best-selling novel by Henry Bellamann, Kings Row is primarily known as the film where Ronald Reagan gave the best performance of his career — and though I haven’t seen all of Reagan’s movies, it would be hard to argue with that assertion. Indeed, while the movie’s nominal protagonist (“Parris Mitchell”) is played by Robert Cummings, Reagan’s “Drake McHugh” remains a much more fascinating individual to watch, as he shifts from a carefree existence as a trust-fund playboy to a young man with surprising levels of depth, loyalty, and honor; we can’t help but become inextricably involved in the arc of his troubled existence. Supporting performances by the large cast are fine as well — including Ann Sheridan as the girl from the “wrong side of the tracks” who falls for Drake, and Nancy Coleman as the daughter of a “mad” surgeon (Coburn) and his wife (Judith Anderson).

The multifaceted storyline — involving numerous romantic longings, family secrets, mental breakdowns, and other squalid details — was (not surprisingly) toned down quite a bit from the original novel, with a resulting screenplay that feels generally sordid yet a tad opaque at times. For instance, while we see how overly protective Dr. Tower (Rains) is of his sheltered daughter (played first by Mary Thomas, then Betty Field), the film doesn’t share with us the fact of their incestuous relationship (as revealed in the novel); instead, we’re left simply with countless “Don’t ask!” retorts by the increasingly disturbed Field, who is mysteriously forced by Rains to stay home from school at an early age. Indeed, Rains’ performance feels the most confusing in the film — he’s portrayed as a willing mentor to Cummings, yet clearly is ruining his daughter’s life, and thus can’t be seen as the type of life-altering “hero” Cummings builds him up to be.

Regardless, Kings Row remains an admirable counterpart to other cinematic depictions of small-town American life at the time, given that it concedes the need for psychiatric intervention at a time when “psychiatry” was an unknown term, and daringly portrays the presence of a “mad” surgeon whose nefarious practices are clearly far from Hippocratic. Meanwhile, both James Wong Howe’s atmospheric cinematography and William Cameron Menzies’ strategically designed sets contribute to the creation of a world which feels both familiar and spooky at the same time. Also of note is Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s soaring score, which was apparently a direct influence on John Williams’ work for Star Wars (1977) years later.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Ronald Reagan as Drake
  • Fine supporting performances


  • James Wong Howe’s cinematography
  • William Cameron Menzies’ sets

Must See?
Yes, for Reagan’s tour-de-force performance, and as a fine melodrama in its own right. Listed as a film with Historical importance in the back of Peary’s book.

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Return of Martin Guerre, The (1982)

“Never was a husband so maligned!”

Synopsis:
In 16th century France, a young man named Martin Guerre (Stéphane Pean) leaves his wife (Sylvie Méda) and child to go off to war. Eight years later, a man (Gerard Depardieu) shows up in town and convinces his family and neighbors that he is Martin — but his uncle (Maurice Barrier) remains skeptical, especially when Martin insists on being paid the profits his land has made during his absence.

Genres:

Review:
Based on an infamous real-life court case, The Return of Martin Guerre remains one of the most fascinating tales of contested identity in both cinematic and historical memory. Depardieu gives a fine, earthy performance as the man claiming to be Martin Guerre (who may or may not be telling the truth), while Nathalie Baye’s nuanced portrayal as his abandoned wife (Bertrande) allows us to feel every moment of both her confusion and her tentative joy. The nicely paced script spends just enough time on each facet of the compelling story, moving from Martin and Bertrande’s earliest years of unhappy marriage, to Martin’s surprise arrival in town years later, to the brief period of renewed contentment Martin and Bertrande experience before suspicions are raised and Martin is put on trial (first informally, then in court). If you’ve never seen the film before, or can’t quite recall how it resolves, you’re guaranteed to be kept in genuine suspense. Meanwhile, the attention paid to period detail is enough to recommend the film purely from an ethnographic perspective, as we witness the fascinating minutiae of daily life for this village of hardworking, mostly illiterate, but seemingly content peasants.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Gerard Depardieu as Martin Guerre
  • Nathalie Baye as Bertrande
  • Fine attention to period detail


  • Lovely cinematography by Andre Neau
  • Michel Portal’s unusual score

Must See?
Yes, as a compelling foreign drama. Listed as a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

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Tarzan and His Mate (1934)

“It’s a bit fantastic, isn’t it? A well-bred English girl, living in the treetops with a glorified native apeman.”

Synopsis:
An Englishman (Neil Hamilton) and his friend (Paul Cavanagh) venture into the African jungle in search of an elephant burial ground, hoping to entice Jane (Maureen O’Sullivan) to leave her new life with Tarzan the Ape Man (Johnny Weissmuller) and return to “civilization”.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Along with many other critics, Peary argues that this “second… of the Johnny Weissmuller-Maureen O’Sullivan Tarzan series” (a sequel to 1932’s Tarzan, the Ape Man) is the “best”. He notes that while “in future films, which were meant for family audiences, Tarzan becomes increasingly civilized and domesticated”, in “this adult film it is the lady, Jane, who reverts to her primitive nature and goes native”. He points out that while the movie “has a lot of action” (much of it quite exciting), the reason for its “cult status is that beautiful O’Sullivan wears one of the most revealing costumes in screen history: a tiny halter top and a loincloth that leave her thighs and hips exposed and little to the imagination”. Indeed, it’s rather stunning how much overt sensuality this pre-Code film manages to get away with, given that Jane (or her body double) “swims nude with Tarzan, is constantly pawed by him, sleeps in the nude, … [is] stranded in the jungle without clothes on … and is seen nude in silhouette when dressing in a well-lit tent”. Refreshingly, however, O’Sullivan’s character is not just sexy, but strong and independent — while Tarzan does rescue her time and again, in other ways she holds her own quite nicely, most notably in a climactic final scene involving fierce lions.

Note: In his review of TAHM for his Cult Movies book, Peary points out the similarities between this film and Bird of Paradise (1932), starring Dolores del Rio (married to Cedric Gibbons, who directed at least part of TAHM).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Maureen O’Sullivan as Jane
  • Plenty of astonishing pre-Code sensuality



Must See?
Yes, as the most infamous (and enjoyable) of the RKO Tarzan/Jane films.

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Ramrod (1947)

“If our plan works, you’ll be the foreman — the ramrod of the whole outfit.”

Synopsis:
A headstrong young woman (Veronica Lake) defies the wishes of her father (Charles Ruggles) by ignoring the romantic advances of a powerful local landowner (Preston Foster), instead deciding to run her own ranch with the help of a recovering alcoholic (Joel McCrea) and his friend (Don DeFore).

Genres:

Review:
Hungarian-born director Andre De Toth is perhaps best known as the “one-eyed man who directed a 3-D movie” (The House of Wax with Vincent Price), but he possesses a small cult following for a handful of more obscure titles, including this noir-ish western (based on a story by western writer Luke Short) starring De Toth’s then-wife, Veronica Lake. Given the casting of Lake, viewers won’t be too surprised to find that her character quickly emerges as a femme fatale of sorts — a relentlessly calculating woman willing to use men for her own gain, and apply whatever romantic overtures she feels are necessary for any given cause. Interestingly, little effort is made at first to help contextualize the film’s milieu; we’re plunged immediately into a complex situation we only gradually come to understand. Once the pieces are in place, the narrative turns into a reasonably taut drama of rivalry and revenge, made more interesting given the presence of a strong, independent female as one of the two primary rivals.

Note: Diehard western fans will want to check out an extensive analysis of the film for Senses of Cinema, wherein critic Rick Thompson argues that it’s “a turning-point film — a skillful and moving summary of a long tradition… and a definitive break with that tradition, setting up a new area of possibilities which proceed to change the genre — in the direction of film noir.”

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Veronica Lake as a most unusual western femme fatale
  • Don DeFore as Bill Schell
  • Good use of Utah locales
  • Russell Harlan’s cinematography

Must See?
No, though it’s worth a look, and certainly must-see for anyone seriously interested in the genre. Listed as a Sleeper in the back of Peary’s book.

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Anna Karenina (1935)

“I feel that we’re being watched eternally — watched and criticized, from all sides.”

Synopsis:
A married countess (Greta Garbo) falls in love with a handsome military man (Fredric March), but her socially conscientious husband (Basil Rathbone) refuses to provide her with a divorce, ultimately forcing her to choose between a life with her new lover and contact with her beloved son (Freddie Bartholomew).

Genres:

Review:
Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina has been adapted for the stage and screen numerous times, but this early version by director Clarence Brown remains perhaps the most famous and beloved. The screenwriters do a decent job compacting the meaty novel’s most critical plot points into a 90-minute storyline, though it lacks one essential element: a strong enough sense of why Anna would give up contact with her beloved son for a man like Count Vronsky. As played by March, his charm simply isn’t magnetic or overpowering enough to convince us he’s worthy of such a sacrifice by Anna, no matter how unhappy her marriage is to cold and rigid Karenin (Rathbone). The film opens rather creatively on a scene of Vronsky carousing with his military comrades, during which time we get a strong sense of this man as both “one of the boys” and apparently among the mightiest (given that he wins a lengthy drinking contest). Later, once he lays eyes on luminous Anna (Garbo) emerging in a shroud of mist from her train, we can see how and why he’d be smitten — but too little time is ultimately spent building a sufficient context for their life-changing romance.

However, Anna Karenina is really all about its titular character — and this film is Garbo’s all the way. She inhabited the role once before, in a silent adaptation by Edmund Goulding entitled Love (1927); ironically, that version — while too pared down narrative-wise to remain a must-see adaptation of the novel — demonstrates chemistry in spades, given the very-real romantic tensions between Garbo and her on-and-off-screen lover, John Gilbert. Nonetheless, those hoping for a more authentic, albeit radically condensed, look at Tolstoy’s famous novel would be best off checking out this version, which features lovely cinematography by William Daniels (who also served as DP on Love) and creative direction by Brown, who worked with Garbo in no less than seven of her films — including Flesh and the Devil (1927) and Anna Christie (1930). Watch for Maureen O’Sullivan in a truncated role as Kitty, who initially has eyes for Vronsky herself.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Greta Garbo as Anna Karenina
  • William Daniels’ luminous cinematography

  • Often-inspired direction by Brown

Must See?
Yes, simply to see Garbo in one of her most iconic roles.

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Planet of the Vampires (1965)

“None of this — this madness that has touched some of us — none of this is coincidence; this was planned.”

Synopsis:
A team of astronauts land on a mysterious planet whose inhabitants seek to take over their bodies and minds.

Genres:

Review:
Mario Bava directed this low-budget Gothic sci fi-horror flick, which bears more than a passing resemblance to Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) (though both Scott and screenwriter Dan O’Bannon claim not to have seen this earlier film before making Alien). As DVD Savant points out in his review, Planet of the Vampires — just one of nine alternate titles considered for the film — “doesn’t have a well-written script or interesting characters”; instead, the action consists primarily of “a repetitive series of fights and disappearances among interchangeable spacemen” (and no, there aren’t any actual vampires). Meanwhile, as noted by Nathan Shumate in his Cold Fusion review, the pacing “varies between subdued and glacial”, with the first half-hour particularly slow-moving. However, as Savant points out, the film’s “appeal lies in director Bava’s creation of an eerie and unsettling alien world that is its own reason for being” — and it’s the stunning visuals that keep one consistently engaged in the story. Indeed, for such a low-budget picture, it’s astonishing how much colorful atmosphere Bava and his creative team manage to pack into each frame of the movie; I couldn’t help myself from snapping still after still as evidence (see below). While it’s ultimately too uneven to be considered any kind of a classic of the genre, Bava fans will most certainly want to check this one out — and all film fanatics should take a one-time look simply due to its cult status.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Wonderfully atmospheric low-budget sets and visual effects (though not necessarily of the spaceships…)




Must See?
Yes, as a creatively produced and influential cult favorite. Listed as a Cult Movie in the back of Peary’s book.

Categories

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Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967)

“Any fulfillment obtained at the expense of normality is wrong, and should not be allowed to bring happiness.”

Synopsis:
A latently homosexual army major (Marlon Brando) enjoys ogling a handsome young private (Robert Forster) who is secretly spying on Brando’s wife (Elizabeth Taylor) at night. Meanwhile, Taylor carries on an affair with Brando’s best friend (Brian Keith), whose mentally ill wife (Julie Harris) is cared for by a devoted Filipino named Anacleto (Zorro David).

Genres:

Review:
Critical opinions seem firmly divided on this unusual directorial outing by John Huston, based upon a 1941 novel by Carson McCullers about sexual repression on an army base in North Carolina. While some view it as simply a gothic mish-mosh in which outlandishly perverse characters converge in a hotbed of unrealistically melodramatic tensions, others recognize it as a uniquely compassionate perspective on the vagaries of sexual repression and expression, as seen through the collective visions of McCullers and Huston. My opinion ultimately lies somewhere in between both extremes: I value the film’s deeply penetrating gaze on humanity, as depicted through a group of individuals trying to find their place in a world which clearly doesn’t approve of their needs and desires; at the same time, there’s no denying the overtly melodramatic thrust of the entire situation.

Underlying the entire film are two primary strengths: first is its unique look, as specifically envisioned by Huston, who (working with DP Aldo Tonti) had the color strategically desaturated from the film stock in an attempt to emulate the story’s titular perspective. While the film was only allowed to run in theaters for a week with this color scheme (before saturation was added back in to make it more palatable to mass audiences), the restored version is now available, and is quite a visual treat. Second, it features a truly heartbreaking and noteworthy performance by Brando, embodying a tragically repressed army major who has clearly maintained a facade of “normalcy” and rigor for far too long. Brando’s every expression reveals the depth of his character’s confusion, anger, and desire, and he’s consistently fascinating to watch.

Meanwhile, the supporting actors all do fine work in their respective roles. Both Taylor and Harris are well-cast as Brando and Keith’s unhappily married wives, who find solace through radically different venues; Keith once again demonstrates his capability as the ultimate “everyman” with a surprising depth of heart; and unknown actor Zorro Davis makes an indelible mark as the flamboyantly “artistic” Filipino manservant Anacleto. In his screen debut, Forster isn’t called upon to do much more than brood, sniff lingerie, and ride naked on horseback, but he suits the role. Together, the ensemble presents a powerful if at times mind-boggling drama about (sexual) identity and one’s place in a world which would much rather not accommodate square pegs in round holes.

Note: There’s a rather active message board for this film on IMDb, where one poster offers this interesting perspective on the various characters and their sexual identities:

Penderton (Brando) = closeted gay
Anacleto (David) = frustrated gay
Williams (Forster) = closeted hetero
Langdon (Keith) = frustrated hetero

Alison (Harris) = inactive hetero female
Leonora (Taylor) = active hetero female

This breakdown, while perhaps overly simplistic, does give one additional food for thought.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Marlon Brando as Major Weldon
  • Brian Keith as Lt. Col. Morris
  • Zorro David as Anacleto
  • Gorgeous cinematography

Must See?
Yes, as a unique cinematic experience by a master director.

Categories

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Barretts of Wimpole Street, The (1934)

“You’re everything in the world to me; you know that. Without you, I should be quite alone.”

Synopsis:
Bed-ridden poet Elizabeth Barrett (Norma Shearer) and her sister Henrietta (Margaret O’Sullivan) fight against the wishes of their tyrannically possessive father (Charles Laughton) in pursuing romance with their suitors — poet Robert Browning (Fredric March) and a soldier (Ralph Forbes).

Genres:

Review:
The Barretts of Wimpole Street — based upon a 1930 play about the romance between poets Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning — is probably best remembered these days as one of the 12 films nominated for Best Picture of the Year in 1934. It also provided Norma Shearer with one of her six Best Actress nominations, and she herself remains the primary reason to check it out: despite playing a put-upon “cripple” facing seemingly insurmountable odds in her quest for health and romance (a situation absolutely ripe for potentially cloying melodrama), Shearer’s performance is never less than fully nuanced and authentically sympathetic. The film itself (directed by Sidney Franklin, who also helmed a nearly identical remake in the 1950s with Jennifer Jones) is overly stagy but provides a surprisingly creepy depiction of parental favoritism and warped paternal despotism. Despite being just a few years older than Shearer in real life, Laughton convincingly plays her emotionally incestuous father — a man determined to keep his beloved daughter permanently by his side, and deny her any chance at romantic happiness; however, Laughton is so naturally adept at playing a creepy baddy that one can’t help wishing for an even more nuanced interpretation on his part. Meanwhile, March is suitably bold (if undistinguished) as Browning; he apparently regretted not doing even more with this role.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Norma Shearer as Elizabeth Barrett (nominated by Peary as one of the Best Actresses of the Year in his Alternate Oscars)
  • A creepy look at an emotionally incestuous father-daughter relationship
  • William Daniels’ atmospheric cinematography

Must See?
Yes, simply for Shearer’s lovely performance. Listed as a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

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Two-Faced Woman (1941)

“It’s a wise man that knows his own wife.”

Synopsis:
A hard-working editor (Melvyn Douglas) marries a ski instructor (Greta Garbo) he meets at a resort in Idaho, but their marriage is immediately compromised when she refuses to follow him back to New York. As Douglas makes repeated excuses for failing to visit her, Karin (Garbo) decides to surprise him with a visit — but when she spots him with a close female friend (Constance Bennett), she quickly changes her plan of action, presenting herself to Douglas as her worldly, vampish twin sister, Katherine, instead.

Genres:

Review:
Two-Faced Woman is perhaps best known as the film that ended Greta Garbo’s career — or, more accurately, the final movie she made before retiring permanently from the screen. Directed by George Cukor, it’s a piffle of a romantic comedy, without much substance, yet not particularly offensive; indeed, Garbo appears to be having quite a bit of fun playing such radically different screen personae — one a down-to-earth, sporty, independent woman, the other an unrepentantly vampish ladies’ man. There are countless details of the screenplay to quibble with (Ruth Gordon’s role as Douglas’s secretary is sadly underdeveloped, for instance), but there’s also surprising depth to be found when conducting a closer analysis of the film as a story of feminine “split personalities”, as elucidated in this insightful Bright Lights Film Review essay (which also discusses Cukor’s earlier Sylvia Scarlett). Ultimately, this one’s not at all a must-see title, but certainly worth a look by Garbo fans.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Greta Garbo as Katrin/Katherine
  • The fun “Chica Choca” dance sequence

Must See?
No, though film fanatics will likely be curious to at least check out Garbo’s final film.

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