Gosta Berlings Saga/Story of Gosta Berling, The / Legend of Gosta Berling, The / Atonement of Gosta Berling, The (1924)

“Life must be lived; one has to move on!”

Synopsis:
In 19th century Sweden, a deposed minister named Gosta Berling (Lars Hanson) goes to live as a knight on a country estate, and falls in doomed love with a variety of women.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary notes that this “adaptation of Selma Lagerlöf’s epic novel” — co-written and directed by Mauritz Stiller — represents “the most ambitious and famous work of Sweden’s golden silent era”, and is “perhaps best known for the performance given by [a] young Greta Garbo” (who would soon head to Hollywood, and lose quite a bit of weight). However, while it’s “a lovely film to look at”, with the “outdoor scenes… especially effective”, the storyline itself is not very compelling: overstuffed with narrative threads, and far too clearly an adaptation of an epic novel, we’re never really invested in the (supposed) central concern of Berling’s redemption. Instead, we’re too busy trying to keep track of countless subplots and characters — the most intriguing of whom is a middle-aged noblewoman with a tragic love story of her own (played with emotive expression by Gerda Lundqvist). Film fanatics will be interested to note that Garbo’s introspective acting style is already in clear evidence here; as Peary notes, she “handles herself nicely, playing — as she would in Hollywood — a woman who is controlled by her heart”. It’s too bad that she’s only on-screen for a fraction of the film, and doesn’t emerge as an important character until the final 40 minutes or so.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Gerda Lundqvist as Margaretha
  • Greta Garbo as Elizabeth
  • The burning of Ekeby
  • Fine on-location cinematography

Must See?
No, but it will certainly be of interest to silent film fans, and/or fans of Scandinavian cinema.

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Burn, Witch, Burn! / Night of the Eagle (1962)

“I will not be responsible for what happens to us if you make me give up my protections!”

Synopsis:
A highly rational professor (Peter Wyngarde) is disturbed to discover that his wife (Janet Blair) has been practicing black magic to help him achieve tenure, and forces her to stop — but soon a series of tragedies befall them, and Wyngarde must reconsider his lack of belief.

Genres:

Review:
Film fanatics who’ve not yet seen this low-budget British horror flick are in for a real treat. Based upon a simple yet inspired narrative premise — a young professor seeking tenure would surely be more in need of assistance from the Dark Side than anyone else! — it possesses clear echoes of Rosemary’s Baby (was Polanski inspired by it?) in its depiction of a loving couple whose lives are nearly destroyed by their divergent spiritual beliefs. Director Sidney Hayers and DP Reginald Wyer film the entire affair with extraordinary skill, evoking horror in seemingly mundane interactions and objects; we come to truly believe that dark forces are ruling this unfortunate household. The final half-hour brings an unexpected plot twist, one which suddenly sheds new light on the narrative — and the tension simply never lets up. This is a film which really must be seen to be appreciated, and merits multiple enjoyable viewings.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Peter Wyngarde as Norman Taylor
  • Janet Blair as Tansy Taylor
  • Margaret Johnston as Flora Carr
  • Wonderfully atmospheric cinematography and direction
  • Charles Beaumont, Richard Matheson, and George Baxt’s clever, spooky script

Must See?
Yes, most definitely. Listed as a Sleeper and a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

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Hound of the Baskervilles, The (1959)

“This is, I think, a two-pipe problem.”

Synopsis:
Sherlock Holmes (Peter Cushing) and Dr. Watson (Andre Morell) respond to a request by Dr. Mortimer (Francis De Wolff) to investigate the mysterious death of a nobleman, whose nephew (Christopher Lee) has recently arrived on the moors to take over his inheritance.

Genres:

Review:
Critical opinions are highly mixed on this Hammer Studios adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s oft-filmed novel, with some claiming it to be the best Holmes-ian adaptation ever, and others less enthusiastic. I happen to fall into the latter camp. Despite Peter Cushing’s respectful attempt to portray Holmes with as much authenticity as possible (including emulating his drug-addicted appearance), he ultimately fails to project the kind of magnetic brilliance fans expect from this most iconic of literary figures; his trusty sidekick Watson comes across as almost equally competent. Meanwhile, Lee is miscast in the central role as an heir whose life is in perpetual danger; we’re so used to reading sinister overtones into Lee’s every move that it feels awfully strange to realize he’s simply a neutral foil here. Jack Asher’s color cinematography is lush and beautiful to look at but doesn’t evoke the same level of menace as the black-and-white hues of this film’s celebrated 1939 predecessor. The narrative itself remains relatively faithful to the original story, while incorporating some additional horror elements (i.e., a lethal tarantula) to satisfy those who associate “Hammer Studios” with overt chills and thrills; unfortunately, however, the dramatic finale with the “hound” is far from menacing — again, it was better handled in the 1939 version, which is ultimately the one I recommend film fanatics check out instead.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Jack Asher’s cinematography

Must See?
No, though it’s certainly worth a look, especially for fans of Hammer Studios films.

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Hound of the Baskervilles, The (1939)

“Mr. Holmes, you’re the one man in all England who can help me.”

Synopsis:
Sherlock Holmes (Basil Rathbone) and his companion, Dr. Watson (Nigel Bruce), investigate the suspected presence of a supernatural hound on the mist-shrouded property of a newly orphaned young heir (Richard Greene).

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary notes that this is the “first and best of the Sherlock Holmes series starring Basil Rathbone as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s brilliant, eccentric self-impressed English detective and Nigel Bruce as his bumbling companion, Dr. Watson” — reason enough to consider it a “must see” title, given that Rathbone is the performer most closely associated with this iconic literary legend. Peary argues that “Rathbone’s Holmes has the proper amounts of conceit in his skill and enjoyment in his profession — he really believes that solving murders is a game”, and notes that the “film has flavor, atmosphere, some suspense, [and] a good mystery”. Peary’s review just about sums up the strengths of this modest yet enjoyable whodunit, one which remains consistently compelling despite the unfortunate inclusion of an insipid romance between Greene and Wendy Barrie (which deviates from the original story). Rathbone and Bruce teamed up the same year to make another Holmes film (The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes), also taking place in Victorian London; the remaining 12 entries in the enormously popular series were updated to contemporary times. Listen for the infamously audacious final line by Holmes, originally cut by censors.

Note: I was inspired to revisit some of Peary’s recommended Holmes titles after watching the excellent new BBC series “Sherlock”, which updates the characters to contemporary London. Each episode is nearly 1.5 hours, making the series more like a set of films than a T.V. show. They’re enormously clever, and definitely worth a look. Sherlock Holmes, by the way, is the “most portrayed literary character in film”, according to the Guinness Book of World Records.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes
  • Atmospheric sets and cinematography

Must See?
Yes, to see the “definitive Holmes” on-screen.

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Circus of Horrors (1960)

“A thief and a prostitute: the perfect candidate for the Schuler Circus.”

Synopsis:
After botching a job on a society woman (Colette Wilde), a plastic surgeon (Anton Diffring) goes on the lam, taking over a circus owned by a Frenchman (Donald Pleasence) with a scarred daughter (Carla Challoner), and populating it with facially disfigured, troubled women whose beauty he restores. When his protegees choose to leave, however, he jealously kills them one by one, and soon a detective (Conrad Phillips) is on his trail.

Genres:

Review:
According to TCM’s article, “During a twelve month period between April 1959 and April 1960 British filmmakers tested the boundaries of the horror film with a much stronger emphasis on sex and violence in three features often referred to as the ‘Sadian Trilogy’ — Horrors of the Black Museum, Circus of Horrors and Peeping Tom.” Of these, Peeping Tom (1960) is the most highly regarded, but Circus of Horrors — while not “must-see” for anyone other than fans of the genre — remains a well-mounted, effectively lurid tale in its own right. Despite possessing a host of egregious flaws in narrative logic, it’s guaranteed to hold your interest, thanks in part to colorful cinematography (by DP Douglas Slocombe), solid direction (by Sidney Hayers, best known for 1962’s Burn, Witch, Burn!), and several fine performances (including a small, early one by Donald Pleasence, who — like all others killed or maimed in this film — meets a most unpleasant death).

German-born Diffring is nicely cast as the troubled lead of the film, who is clearly a “baddie” but not entirely evil; from the film’s opening sequence — in which a woman (Wilde) shrieks with horror at the botched job that’s been done on her face — it’s made clear that Diffring never intended for things to work out this way, and that he actually takes great pride in the stellar work he’s able to carry out, under the right circumstances. With that said, we soon learn that Diffring’s Dr. Rossiter/Schuler is an egomaniacal control freak who desires not only to make disfigured women beautiful again, but to hold them forever accountable to his will (and sexual desires). His choice (as a fugitive) to run a very-public circus, as well as his uncanny ability to turn all the women he takes under his wing into stellar acrobats, are evidence of the flawed logic listed previously; but they help to propel the undeniably sensationalist story towards its inevitable conclusion, with several gruesomely circus-themed deaths thrown in along the way. Meanwhile, fine use is made of Billy Smart’s actual circus performers; fans of this type of entertainment will surely enjoy seeing its historical capturing on film.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Anton Diffring as Dr. Schuler
  • Donald Pleasence as Vanet
  • Erika Remberg as Elissa
  • Fine use of Billy Smart’s Circus as a setting

Must See?
No, but it’s certainly recommended.

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Annie Oakley (1935)

“I never knowed any woman could shoot good enough to join this outfit.”

Synopsis:
When touring in the Wild West Show run by Buffalo Bill (Moroni Olson), backwoods sharpshooter Annie Oakley (Barbara Stanwyck) and her performance partner (Preston Foster) fall in love while maintaining a facade of friendly rivalry.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary begins his review of director George Stevens’ romantic biopic by noting that “Barbara Stanwyck is fine as a good-hearted, unpretentious backwoods girl who joins Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show because of her love for Preston Foster, a rival sharpshooter”. He argues that the “most interesting and enlightening aspect of the film is that Foster, once full of conceit, is willing to accept that Stanwyck is the better shot”, and is ultimately “supportive of her rather than being jealous or competitive”; this slant to the storyline makes it more akin to A Star is Born than to the musical it directly inspired, Irving Berlin’s Annie Get Your Gun (which posits Oakley and her love interest as perpetually at rivalrous odds with one another). Peary points out that Annie Oakley “looks dated and suffers considerably from the overuse of studio sets that give it [a] phony and claustrophobic feel”, but I wasn’t all that bothered by this, especially since the Wild West Show itself was very much a “staged” production, and there’s a sense of authenticity to its re-creation here. While it’s not must-see viewing, this one will surely be of interest to fans of Stanwyck, and is worth a one-time look by all film fanatics.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Barbara Stanwyck as Annie Oakley
  • Preston Foster as Toby Walker
  • A fine recreation of the immensely popular Wild West Show

Must See?
No, but it’s recommended for Stanwyck’s performance.

Links:

Journey’s End (1930)

“Think of it all as romantic — it helps.”

Synopsis:
During World War I, a fatigued captain (Colin Clive) on the verge of a breakdown is distressed to learn that a former classmate (David Manners) who once idolized him has been sent to his company; meanwhile, an older lieutenant (Ian Maclaren) tries to help Clive stay balanced and sane until his replacement arrives.

Genres:

Review:
Based on an enormously popular British play by R.C. Sherriff, Journey’s End is notable as the film which brought director James Whale to Hollywood, and provided Colin Clive with his screen debut. Whale had directed Clive in the original play as well, and much of the material remains overly stagebound (perhaps due to its status as a very early talkie); while a few outdoor battle scenes are included (with fine cinematography by Benjamin Kline), the bulk of the film’s action takes place within the officers’ dugouts, and consists simply of dialogue. Speaking of dialogue, the screenplay includes an extraordinary amount of stereotypically polite British banter about the war, which one can only assume is characteristic of how officers at the time might have spoken with each other; sample exchanges include the following:

“It all seems rather silly, doesn’t it?”
“Yes, it does — rather.”

“It’s all a damn nuisance, but I suppose it’s necessary.”
“I suppose it is.”

That damned, silly, necessary nuisance of a war, indeed! Meanwhile, in the midst of such civilized discussion, we witness a quietly powerful character study of a man (Clive is simply brilliant) struggling to reconcile the reality of his daily lived experiences with the stalwart persona he must maintain, for the sake of all his men. He lives in terror of the rumors he’s sure must be circulating about him (notably, that he’s taken to drinking at all hours of the day), but the storyline surprises us in its ultimate revelations about Clive’s reputation.

Viewers willing to sit patiently through what may be the most “talky”, least-action-filled war film ever made will be rewarded by numerous instances of quiet authenticity. My favorite scene is one in which the seasoned Maclaren (affectionately known as “Uncle”) and the green, gung-ho Manners are about to go up into battle; Maclaren reads from Alice in Wonderland while enjoining Manners to use these precious final moments to think about anything at all other than their imminent task. Less successful are periodic snippets of “comedic relief” provided by the company’s clueless cook (Charles K. Gerrard) and a rotund lieutenant (Billy Bevan) who seems resolutely determined to care more about his next meal than the chaos surrounding him. However, it’s moments like all of these, taken together, which ultimately help viewers to understand the complex psychology behind warfare, as these men prepare themselves in a variety of ways to face truly unspeakable horrors.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Colin Clive as Captain Stanhope
  • Ian Maclaren as Lieutenant Osborne
  • An incisive, literate screenplay
  • Benjamin Kline’s cinematography

Must See?
No, though it’s certainly worth a look. Listed as a Sleeper in the back of Peary’s book.

Links:

Funnyman (1967)

“It doesn’t mean anything. I want it to mean something — anything!”

Synopsis:
A comedian (Peter Bonerz) struggles to find both romantic and creative meaning in his life.

Genres:

Review:
John Korty’s second feature-length outing — after his uniquely satisfying debut film The Crazy-Quilt (1966) — was this highly experimental character study starring Peter Bonerz (then active in the Bay Area improv troupe known as The Committee). Unfortunately, the non-linear, improvisational storyline (co-written by Bonerz and Korty) fails to engage us on anything other than a superficial level; the central protagonist’s quest for satisfaction in both his career and his love life never really sustains our interest, largely because we’re not emotionally invested in this likable but self-absorbed character. As the film opens, we see that Bonerz’ “Perry” has recently broken up with a long-time girlfriend (though we don’t learn why); throughout the course of the movie, he sleeps with various women who present themselves to him, but learn next to nothing about any of them. Meanwhile, we see Perry’s resentment at having to bastardize his creative talents by contributing ideas to a marketing firm — which ironically leads to one of the film’s most engaging and inventive sequences, as we see stop-motion advertisements Bonerz has dreamed up for bug spray; one can’t help thinking of Korty’s later work on the enormously inventive Twice Upon a Time (1983).

When Perry throws a tantrum and demands to be given a chance to put on a solo show, we’re curious to see what he’ll come up with — but the result is imminently forgettable. Meanwhile, the rest of the film turns into essentially a meandering road trip, as Bonerz leaves the city (to where, we’ve never sure) and encounters a variety of diverse individuals. I won’t say more, at risk of giving away too much of the plot, but suffice it to say that the final half-hour or so consists of a series of intriguingly cinéma vérité encounters without nearly enough narrative context to sustain them. Ultimately, the entire affair comes across as simply self-indulgent — which is not to say it doesn’t hold interest on some level. Korty is a strong enough director that even his overly experimental, New Wave-inspired cinematic palette — including frequent shifts from b&w cinematography to various tinted hues — can be forgiven as simply an attempt to bring a fresh perspective to the proceedings. However, while The Crazy-Quilt is a hidden must-see gem (buy a copy from Korty himself!), Funnyman is only worth seeking out if you have a strong interest in the early development of Korty’s unusual oeuvre.

Note: Bonerz had supporting roles in a few big-name films after this — including What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice? (1969) (not listed in Peary’s book), Medium Cool (1969), and Catch-22 (1970) — and was the coke-sniffing psychiatrist in Serial (1980); his best-known role was probably as Dr. Jerry Robinson on “The Bob Newhart Show”. However, the bulk of his career has been spent as a director; see his listing at IMDb for more details.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Creative incorporation of animation
  • Peter Bonerz as Perry

Must See?
No, but it’s worth a look. Listed as a Sleeper in the back of Peary’s book.

Links:

Hobson’s Choice (1954)

“My brain and your hands will make a working partnership!”

Synopsis:
The ambitious eldest daughter (Brenda de Banzie) of a patriarchal shoe store owner (Charles Laughton) woos her father’s best employee (John Mills) into marrying her and setting up their own shop, much to the consternation of Laughton and her two class-conscious sisters (Daphne Anderson and Prunella Scales).

Genres:

Review:
It’s actually somewhat astonishing to be reminded that this classic comedy by director David Lean (one of only two in his oeuvre) is based on a stage play, given how utterly un-stagebound it feels. Lean’s masterful direction opens up the story to show us a pre-Industrial England in which feminism was just beginning to emerge, and women like Brenda de Banzie’s Maggie were truly unsung mavericks. Indeed, Hobson’s Choice is not only a droll comedic delight, but a notable feminist film, in addition to offering a refreshing skewering of class relations. To that end, Laughton’s Henry Hobson is a genuine paradigm of his time: he’s a self-satisfied, condescending patriarch who believes his position in life (as both a father and a business owner) provides him with de facto entitlement to boss others around, and to spend his own time lolling about in a local pub.

The storyline centers on Hobson’s delicious come-uppance — with the title itself ultimately referring to the fact that Hobson really has no choice in mending his ways. Interestingly, while he’s the clear antagonist of the story, we can’t help feeling a bit of compassion for him, given how inevitable his downfall is — and how clueless he is about its coming. Meanwhile, de Banzie’s Maggie makes for a most unlikely protagonist, but that’s precisely the point: from the very beginning, she’s posited (by Laughton) as someone too old and too plain to marry or make anything more of her life than what she has; she spends the rest of the storyline proving him wrong. It helps that de Banzie herself is a somewhat unknown cinematic face: her only other notable (supporting) film roles were as a female baddie in Hitchcock’s second version of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), and as Laurence Olivier’s wife in The Entertainer (1960). This makes her emergence as an unexpectedly strong force-to-be-reckoned-with all the more pleasantly surprising.

Peary nominates Laughton as one of the Best Actors of the Year for his work in this film, and it does remain one among many of his impeccable performances; no one was better at embodying grotesque disdain than Laughton. John Mills is equally delightful (if unexpectedly cast) in the pivotal role as Willie Mossop, a gifted yet intellectually challenged shoemaker who slowly comes into his own as a man of means. Every scene he’s in is delightful, but my favorite is probably the one showcasing the moments before and after his wedding night (with the night itself, naturally, cut out); with help from Lean, Mills masterfully conveys everything we need to know about this critical facet of his shifting relationship with de Banzie. Also worth pointing out is Malcolm Arnold’s instantly hummable score, which seems as much a part of the film experience as the visuals and storyline. This one is a true delight, and should be seen by all film fanatics at least once.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Brenda de Banzie as Maggie Hobson
  • Charles Laughton as Henry Hobson (nominated by Peary as one of the Best Actors of the Year in his Alternate Oscars)
  • John Mills as Willie Mossop
  • Fine direction by Lean
  • The effective opening sequence
  • Malcolm Arnold’s jaunty score

Must See?
Yes, as a most enjoyable dramatic comedy. Listed as a film with Historical Importance and a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

Categories

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Animated Disney Round-Up

Now that I’ve finished watching all the pre-1986 Disney animated features listed or reviewed in Peary’s GFTFF, it seemed like a good time to provide a summative rundown of which ones are must-see:

That’s nine out of thirteen titles — plenty of must-see viewing for film fanatics to enjoy! Feel free to disagree with my choices by posting your own opinion.

Just for the record, the following are all the pre-1986 Disney animated features NOT included in Peary’s GFTFF; as far as I know, none should be considered “Missing Titles”, though all are likely of interest to true Disney fans:

  • Saludos Amigos (1942)
  • Make Mine Music (1946)
  • Fun and Fancy Free (1947)
  • Melody Time (1948)
  • The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949)
  • Alice in Wonderland (1951)
  • The Sword in the Stone (1963)
  • The Jungle Book (1967)
  • The Aristocats (1970)
  • Robin Hood (1973)
  • The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1977)
  • The Rescuers (1977)
  • The Fox and the Hound (1981)
  • The Great Mouse Detective (1986)

Finally, the following is a list of post-1986 Disney animated features, along with my tentative recommendations about which should be considered “Must See” (though I really need to go back and rewatch them to verify, and many I’ve never seen):

  • Oliver & Company (1988)
  • The Little Mermaid (1989) — MUST SEE
  • The Rescuers Down Under (1990)
  • Beauty and the Beast (1991) — MUST SEE
  • Aladdin (1992) — MUST SEE
  • The Lion King (1994) — MUST SEE
  • Pocahontas (1995)
  • The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)
  • Hercules (1997)
  • Mulan (1998)
  • Tarzan (1999)
  • Fantasia 2000 (2000) — MUST SEE
  • Dinosaur (2000)
  • The Emperor’s New Groove (2000)
  • Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001)
  • Lilo & Stitch (2002) — MUST SEE
  • Treasure Planet (2002)
  • Brother Bear (2003)
  • Home on the Range (2004)
  • Chicken Little (2005)
  • Meet the Robinsons (2007)
  • Bolt (2008)
  • The Princess and the Frog (2009)
  • Tangled (2010)
  • Winnie the Pooh (2011)
  • Frozen (2013) — MUST SEE