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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Variety (1925)

“You can consider yourself lucky — you’ve got a charming little wife.”

Synopsis:
A side-show manager (Emil Jannings) leaves his wife (Maly Delschaft) and infant child to run away with a beautiful orphan (Lya De Putti), and they begin a new life together as trapeze artists. Their happiness is compromised, however, when a world-famous performer (Warwick Ward) asks them to join his team, and Ward seduces De Putti.

Genres:

Review:
Directed by E.A. Dupont, Variety — a.k.a. Jealousy (a more fitting title) — was one of the most popular films in the world the year it was released, though it was notoriously censored and cut down severely in length before American audiences were allowed to view it (see the All Movie review for more information). It remains a little-seen yet engaging tale of betrayal and jealousy, set within the seamy-by-default world of carnivals and circuses, with one particularly hair-raising scene taking place during a death-defying trapeze act. Jannings is likely best known for his central role in The Blue Angel (1930) with Marlene Dietrich, and there are certainly parallels between the two sorry protagonists, each of whom allow seduction by a young temptress to lead to their downfall. Dupont, working with D.P. Karl Freund, films the story with Expressionist flair, incorporating hints of neo-realism as well (as in the shot of the downtrodden young women Jannings manages in his sideshow).

Note: Interestingly, Jannings is presented here as somewhat of a feminized caretaker, given that we watch him changing his infant son’s diaper (surely the earliest instance of this on screen!), and in general taking more ownership over his son’s well-being than one would expect; it’s unfortunate that all narrative threads relating to his former marriage and family are dropped once he runs away with De Putti.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Fine central performances
  • Expressionistic direction

  • Karl Freund’s cinematography

Must See?
Yes, as a fine silent melodrama. Listed as a film with Historical importance in the back of Peary’s book.

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Three Bad Men (1926)

“Don’t ever be afraid o’ nothin’, Missy — because the three of us will be watchin’ over you.”

Synopsis:
In the 1800s, three bandits (Tom Santschi, J. Farrell MacDonald, and Frank Campeau) following a wagon train come to the aid of a young woman (Olive Borden) whose father has just been killed. Soon they decide she needs a suitable husband to care for her, and set their sights on a handsome young cowboy (George O’Brien).

Genres:

Review:
Peary lists no less than 44 of prolific director John Ford’s films in his GFTFF; of these, three — Straight Shooting (1917), The Iron Horse (1924), and this title — are from the silent era, and will primarily be of interest to those curious to see how Ford’s talents developed over the years. Based on a novel by Herman Whitaker, Three Bad Men tells the semi-humorous tale of three petty bandits with hearts of gold, who are inexplicably drawn to caring for the lovely young fatherless woman they encounter along a wagon train. As noted by Mike Grost in his analysis of Ford’s films, there’s an interesting gay subtext in the bandits’ search for Borden’s perfect mate, as they check out numerous men, including one particularly fey dandy about whom they comment, “If a man’s heart is in the right place, it don’t matter what sex he belongs to.” (!) Meanwhile, Ford’s typical “male bonding” theme can also be seen in the bandits’ close friendship with one another. The second half of the film shifts away from humor towards adventure, as an exciting land grab takes place, and a subplot involving Santschi’s sister leads to a murderous manhunt. Throughout, Borden remains refreshingly sassy, O’Brien appropriately hunky, and Ford’s direction solid.

Note: Try to watch the 2007 version with Dana Kaproff’s multi-faceted score; it stands head-and-shoulders above most silent-era soundtracks.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Olive Borden as Lee
  • The powerful land-grab sequence

  • Fine cinematography and direction

Must See?
No, though it’s certainly recommended for Ford fans.

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Freshman, The (1925)

“I’ve got a new one on Speedy: he thinks he made the football team, and he’s only the water boy!”

Synopsis:
An enthusiastic student (Harold Lloyd) looks forward to becoming a freshman in college, where he imagines he will be the most popular guy on campus; but much to the chagrin of his new sweetheart (Jobyna Ralston), he becomes a laughing stock instead.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that “Harold Lloyd usually played cheery characters who wouldn’t be denied success at whatever it is they want” — and his performance here as “Speedy” is no exception. He argues that while the section in which Lloyd “is determined to be the star of the big game” remains “one of Lloyd’s most hilarious sequences”, the “entire film is filled with great comedy” — especially the “noteworthy” party sequence in which “Lloyd wears a hastily sewn tux which unravels a piece at a time”. Peary writes that “other gags remind [him] of Buster Keaton”, and argues that the “film is ideal to be on a double bill with Keaton’s College.” I’m in agreement with Peary’s enthusiasm. While it’s painful to see Lloyd’s character remain a deluded chump for so long, we take solace in the love he receives from his sweet, loyal girlfriend (Ralston), and feel inspired by his inability to let the opinions of others color his own self-worth. Among the many Lloyd titles listed in GFTFF, this remains one of the few — along with Grandma’s Boy (1922), Safety Last! (1923), and The Sin of Harold Diddlebock (1947) — that all film fanatics should check out.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Several cleverly conceived comedic sequences
  • The genuinely sweet romance between Lloyd and Ralston

Must See?
Yes, as one of Lloyd’s most famous and popular films.

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One Hundred Men and a Girl (1937)

“Maybe we need more orchestras!”

Synopsis:
The daughter (Deanna Durbin) of an out-of-work classical trombonist (Adolph Menjou) convinces a wealthy socialite (Alice Brady) to fund the creation of a new orchestra — but when Brady’s husband (Eugene Pallette) finds out, he refuses to let the scheme move forward; meanwhile, the great conductor Leopold Stokowski is equally adamant in his refusal to help Durbin or her father.

Genres:

Review:
Deanna Durbin’s follow-up to her breakthrough role in Three Smart Girls (1936) was this hyperkinetic fairytale about a can-do teen with enough tenacity and persistence to overcome literally any obstacle placed in her way. For Depression-era audiences, a story about how nearly impossible it is for the have-nots to gain access to a world of employment and privilege must have felt right on target, but today the film simply comes across like a Vehicle — both for Durbin (who, naturally, is asked to sing a few random songs) and for Stokowski (who, naturally, gets to conduct a few pieces with his orchestra). While there’s something undeniably admirable about Durbin’s fearless performance (she rarely pauses to take a breath), her character eventually wears on one’s nerves; she’s like Judy Garland in overdrive, minus the vulnerability. All film fanatics should be familiar with Durbin’s work, given what an erstwhile phenomenon she was — but I recommend sticking with Three Smart Girls instead.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Deanna Durbin’s enthusiastic (if ultimately wearying) performance as Patsy

Must See?
No; this one is really only must-see for Durbin enthusiasts.

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tom thumb (1958)

“He’s not for sale; he’s my son!”

Synopsis:
A poor woodcutter (Bernard Miles) and his wife (Jessie Matthews) wish for a son of any size, and are delighted when the Forest Queen (June Thorburn) blesses them with Tom Thumb (Russ Tamblyn). When a pair of thieves (Terry-Thomas and Peter Sellers) convince Tom to help them steal a bag of gold, his parents are falsely accused of the theft, and Tom enlists the help of his friend Woody (Alan Young) to capture the real culprits.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that “Russ Tamblyn had his best role” in this “classic M-G-M production of the Grimm fairytale, directed by George Pal”. He notes that the “film is colorful, isn’t at all schmaltzy, and has imaginatively designed sets and a spectacular musical number in which the remarkably talented Tamblyn does a great dance with Pal’s puppets”. However, he concedes that “if you’re an adult, you may wish you were a kid again so you could enjoy it as you once did”. I’m largely in agreement with Peary, though not quite as enthusiastic. It’s fun to see Pal’s classic “Puppetooning” on screen, and Tamblyn’s athletic dancing is consistently superb, but his character is poorly conceived; indeed, it’s downright creepy seeing the 24-year-old Tamblyn placed into a cradle by his adoring adoptive parents — and one never quite understands exactly how old he’s meant to be (nor, for that matter, where he came from before magically appearing on their doorstep).

Terry-Thomas and Peter Sellers are appropriately buffoonish as the “evil twosome who want to use Tom for their own ends”, but their quibbling schtick eventually wears out its welcome; and while Miles and Matthews make a sweet elderly couple, they aren’t given much screentime after the nicely conceived opening sequences. Meanwhile, the requisite romantic subplot — between lovely Thorburn and Young (who will be forever etched in my mind’s eye alongside Mr. Ed) — is, perhaps predictably, rather insipid. With all that said, there’s enough life and color to this production that ff parents will surely feel fine putting it in front of their kids. Pinocchio it ain’t — but then few films are.

Note: If you think you vaguely recognize Matthews from somewhere, it may be from her starring role 20+ years earlier in the enormously successful British musical Evergreen (1934).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Russ Tamblyn’s athletic dancing
  • Fine special effects

Must See?
No, though those interested in Pal’s Puppetooning will certainly want to check it out.

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Flying Deuces, The (1939)

“Well, here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into.”

Synopsis:
Ollie (Oliver Hardy) is heartbroken when he learns his French sweetheart (Jean Parker) is already married. To drown his sorrows, he and his buddy Stan (Stan Laurel) join the Foreign Legion, but leave after just a few days, and are soon cited for desertion.

Genres:

Review:
The Flying Deuces is notable as the first film Laurel & Hardy made together after leaving Hal Roach Studios, and is cited by fans as one of their best later works. Unfortunately, there’s little here to impress those who aren’t diehard fans of the duo, given that the weak storyline is uninspired, and the boys’ gags are not among their best. The one moment I did notice myself perking up was when Laurel starts strumming his bedsprings like a harp, in a clear homage to (satire of?) similar scenes by Harpo in the Marx Brothers’ films; however, this simply made me wish I was watching one of the latter titles. The final shot is mildly surreal, but certainly not worth waiting for.

Note: As a public domain title, The Flying Deuces is available for free viewing on www.archive.org.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Laurel playing his bedsprings a la Harpo

Must See?
No; this one is only recommended for Laurel and Hardy fans.

Links:

Dozens, The (1981)

“I’m not out to get you; only you can get yourself back.”

Synopsis:
A young woman (Deborah Margolies) returning home after a stint in prison struggles to reconnect with her daughter (Jessica Hergert) and estranged husband (Edward Mason) while scraping together a living.

Genres:

Review:
The Dozens holds the distinction of being one of the most challenging titles in Peary’s GFTFF to get ahold of. An ultra-low-budget indie film shot in Boston, it was released the same year as another Boston-based indie included in Peary’s book — The Dark End of the Street — leading one to presume Peary saw them both at some sort of festival, and they made enough of an impression for him to want to recommend them. However, while Dark End… remains a gritty hidden treat (and is worth seeking out), The Dozens comes across as merely a fragmented attempt at what could have been a much more absorbing character study. Margolies is refreshingly feisty and memorable in the lead role, but the narrative gives her far too little to work with: we see her struggling to find her way in life post-prison, but there’s nothing particularly revelatory about her experiences. As Janet Maslin wrote in her cautiously positive review of the film for the NY Times, “Its drama unfolds with more frankness than insight”.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Deborah Margolies as Sally
  • Fine use of gritty Boston environs

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

Links:

Moana (1926)

“The deepest wisdom of the race has said that manhood shall be won through pain.”

Synopsis:
A Polynesian youth named Moana prepares to marry his mate by undergoing a series of rituals.

Genres:

Review:
Robert Flaherty’s commissioned follow-up to his groundbreaking documentary Nanook of the North (1922) was this similarly episodic look at the lives of natives in a land still largely free from Western influences. As with Nanook, Flaherty took great liberties with his storyline, deliberately recruiting actors to play family members, and requesting that a painful, lengthy, recently outdated tattooing ritual be revived for the purposes of filming. Overall, Moana remains a less fulfilling documentary than Nanook, primarily because of a problem Flaherty himself hadn’t anticipated: the Polynesians weren’t engaged in the same kind of man-against-nature survival tactics as their Arctic counterparts. Indeed, their only “enemy” appears to be wild boar. While it’s fun to see Moana and his brother spearfishing and shimmying up coconut trees, and women neatly creating fabric from pulp, these isolated scenes in and of themselves don’t create much dramatic tension. F.W. Murnau’s overtly fictional Tabu (1931) offers a much more nuanced variation on the same theme, and is my recommended pick as “must-see” instead.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • An intriguing (albeit semi-fictionalized) look at Polynesian culture

Must See?
No, though it’s worth a look simply for its historical status as one of Flaherty’s earliest films. Listed as a film with Historical relevance and a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

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