Three Ages (1923)

“If you let your mind wander back through History you will find that the only thing that has not changed since the World began is — LOVE.”

Synopsis:
In three different historical eras (the Stone Age, Roman times, and 1920s New York), a young man (Buster Keaton) vies for the attentions of a beautiful girl (Margaret Leahy) against a bigger, stronger, and/or wealthier suitor (Wallace Beery).

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Review:
Buster Keaton’s first feature film (originally conceived as three separate two-reelers, in case it bombed as a full-length movie) is an enjoyable satire on D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance (1916), similarly presenting thematic links — here, on the challenges of romantic pursuit — between several historical eras. It’s amusing to witness Keaton’s hapless yet doggedly resilient persona facing such similar challenges in each of his iterations, and to see the immensely clever — if occasionally foolhardy — ways in which he attempts to foil his opponent. The film’s most surreal moment (just one among many): Keaton gives a lion a manicure. (!!)

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Plenty of humorous moments and classically Keatonian slapstick


Must See?
No, though it’s certainly of historical interest, and a must for diehard Keaton fans.

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Palm Beach Story, The (1942)

“You have no idea what a long-legged gal can do without doing anything.”

Synopsis:
A woman (Claudette Colbert) plans to divorce her financially unsuccessful husband (Joel McCrea) so she can seduce a millionaire and convince him to finance one of McCrea’s business inventions. On her way to Florida to obtain the divorce, she meets one of the wealthiest men in the world (Rudy Vallee), who falls in love with her — but will McCrea allow Colbert to follow through with her plans?

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Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary notes that this “delightful screwball comedy by Preston Sturges” is “fast-paced and consistently funny”, and accurately points out that “McCrea and Colbert are an engaging screen couple” (though their relationship, naturally, is strained from the get-go). Indeed, as brilliant as I find this film — it remains a comedic treasure, and one of Sturges’ best — I’ll admit to feeling a vague sense of discomfort throughout (which is likely exactly what Sturges intended!). While Colbert’s plan may be “noble” at heart, it’s genuinely difficult to watch her romancing a likeable schmuck like Vallee and know that, in a romantic comedy like this — with an “engaging screen couple” like Colbert and McCrea waiting in the wings — there’s really only one outcome possible. (Though to his credit, Sturges soundly blasts that notion with an inspired — if dubitable — ending, about which I’ll say no more.)

Despite its decidedly discomfiting premise, however, the film remains consistently amusing and engaging, with “stars McCrea, Colbert, Vallee, and Mary Astor (as Vallee’s sister, who takes a liking to McCrea when he poses as Colbert’s brother) weaving their way through a crazy world of landlords, cops, cabbies, eccentrics, men named Toto, and the gun-toting, boozing, harmonizing Ale & Quail members” — yes, the storyline really is as wacky as that rundown indicates! I’m especially tickled by the performances given by Vallee and Astor, who prove beyond a doubt that the idle-rich are indeed — as Sturges himself believed — “funny” folk; and Robert Dudley is note-perfect as the deaf old coot who starts the narrative ball rolling. Meanwhile, Colbert is at her loveliest (it’s nice to see her with her hair down here — literally!), and handsome McCrea is well-cast as her perpetually affronted husband.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Rudy Vallee as John D. Hackensacker
  • Mary Astor as Princess Centimillia
  • Robert Dudley as The Wienie King
  • Claudette Colbert as Gerry Jeffers
  • Plenty of clever and/or zany dialogue: “Chivalry is not only dead, it’s decomposed.”

Must See?
Yes, as a certified comedic classic. Nominated by Peary as one of the Best Movies of the Year in his Alternate Oscars.

Categories

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

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Day the World Ended (1955)

“There are two forms of life fighting for survival in this valley, and only one of them can win; it’s got to be us.”

Synopsis:
After atomic warfare leaves most of the world dead, a rancher (Paul Birch), his grown daughter (Lori Nelson), a geologist (Richard Denning), a con (Mike Connors) and his moll (Adele Jurgens), a miner (Raymond Hatton) with a donkey, and an atomically scarred victim (Paul Dubov) struggle to survive while battling against unseen mutant forces.

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Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary labels this post-apocalyptic survival tale “the first and best of Roger Corman’s fifties sci-fi films”, but I don’t quite agree with his second assertion; Corman’s Not of This Earth (1957) — about alien vampiric forces invading Southern California — holds my vote as his most creative and enjoyable outing in this genre. Nonetheless, Day the World Ended — which Peary posits is essentially “a combination of Key Largo and Five” — does have “a couple of scary scenes, good atmosphere, and a smart ending”. It’s especially interesting, as always, to see how Corman is able to make judicious use of his ultra-low budget: here, he effectively utilizes fog, shadows, and sound effects to forebode threatening forces, while pitting a conveniently motley crew of survivors against one another in claustrophobic quarters. Once the mutant monster (Paul Blaisdell) actually appears on-screen, the tone of the film suddenly turns undeniably silly; but Corman’s cast of reliable B-actors continue to take the situation so seriously that we’re willing to suspend our giggles and our disbelief.

Note: You may recognize handsome good-guy lead Richard Denning from The Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954) — a more “reputable” B-level variation on a similar theme.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • An effectively told low-budget tale

Must See?
No, though fans of nuclear survival flicks (or Roger Corman’s films) will surely want to check it out.

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Beautiful Blonde From Bashful Bend, The (1949)

“Never wait too long between shots, or your finger may change its mind.”

Synopsis:
A trigger-happy saloon singer (Betty Grable) accidentally hits a judge (Porter Hall) in his backside while intending to shoot her cheating lover (Cesar Romero). She flees to a small town with her Mexican friend (Olga San Juan), where the pair are mistaken for a schoolteacher and her Indian companion, and Grable makes a play for the mayor’s wealthy son (Rudy Vallee) while trying to avoid detection.

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Review:
Preston Sturges’ final American comedy was a notorious bust upon its release, but it’s not quite as bad as its reputation would indicate. Indeed, the first 45 minutes or so of this short comedy (just 77 minutes long) are reasonably clever, and full of exactly the type of zany, fast-paced dialogue you’d expect from Sturges; my favorite scenes are those involving Olga San Juan, playing a lower-keyed Carmen Miranda-type with fabulously droll comedic timing (many agree she should have been given more screen-time). Unfortunately, Sturges seems unable to sustain the momentum he’s built, allowing the film to devolve into an interminable slapstick shoot-out and an unrealistic courtroom finale. Other elements of the screenplay don’t quite sit well, either: if Grable’s character is posited (in a cute opening sequence) as a woman trained from birth to have remarkable aim a la Annie Oakley, how is it that she manages to miss her target so widely? Meanwhile, a pair of over-aged “schoolboys” (played by Sterling Holloway and Dan Jackson) are simply ill-conceived, and Grable’s interest in Vallee merely serves to turn our sympathies away from her, given that she’s supposedly in love with Romero, and thus is clearly just gold-digging with poor Vallee. Regardless, fans of Sturges will still be curious to check out his infamous final outing for Hollywood, before all but disappearing from the screen.

NB: Sturges’ last film, made in France (titled The French, They Are a Funny Race, or The Diary of Major Thompson), isn’t listed in Peary’s book.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • An amusingly scripted first 45 minutes
  • Olga San Juan as Conchita

Must See?
No, but I do think it’s worth a look during its first half — and Sturges completists will naturally want to have seen it.

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Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, The (1939)

“Moriarty’s as curious about my movements as I am about his.”

Synopsis:
The arch-enemy (George Zucco) of Sherlock Holmes (Basil Rathbone) plots to steal the Crown Jewels, hoping to distract Holmes and his assistant, Dr. Watson (Nigel Bruce), by enticing them with a case involving a distressed heiress (Ida Lupino).

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Review:
The second of two Sherlock Holmes films made with Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce for Fox Studios (and the last to feature them in an “authentically” Victorian-era setting), this finely mounted whodunit was, like the 1932 film Sherlock Holmes, based (albeit loosely) on a stage play by William Gillette rather than an original story by Doyle. It’s an enjoyable, atmospheric outing, made all the more interesting by the introduction of Holmes’ sociopathic “arch-enemy”, Moriarty (Zucco), who — recognizing Holmes’ desire to alleviate boredom above all else — plays fast and furious with people’s lives by perpetuating a serial murder scheme simply to keep Holmes distracted. It’s a remarkably dastardly thematic element, and definitely adds an intriguing twist to the entire affair.

Note: If you’re at all a Holmes fan, be sure to compare this film with the sixth entry in the modern British mini-series Sherlock, which features a somewhat similar storyline about Moriarty and Holmes’ ongoing “rivalry”.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes
  • Atmospheric cinematography

Must See?
No, but it’s certainly recommended as a most enjoyable Sherlockian yarn.

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Spite Marriage (1929)

“There are only two cures for love: marriage and suicide.”

Synopsis:
A dry cleaner (Buster Keaton) obsessively in love with a stage actress (Dorothy Sebastian) is distressed to learn she’s married him simply to spite her co-star (Edward Earle), who she’s still infatuated with.

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Review:
I’ll begin my review of Buster Keaton’s final silent film by noting that not a single one of his feature-length silent movies (all of which are either listed or reviewed in Peary’s book, btw) has been a disappointment — even his supposedly “lesser” titles, like this one. While it may not be quite on the same level as his most widely acknowledged classics, it’s consistently amusing, and full of exactly the kind of boldly humorous (and often audaciously physical) sight gags one comes to expect from Keaton. Here, he plays a variation on all the seemingly-milquetoast characters he embodied in previous features — a man pining for a beautiful woman who at first is out of his reach, but eventually (yes, there’s always a happy ending) comes to realize what a loyal and brave catch he is. The most memorable scenes in this particular flick are probably Keaton’s bungled attempt to stand-in for a missing actor in Sebastian’s play, and his attempt to get his soused new wife-in-name-only into bed — but plenty of others are chuckle-worthy as well. Keaton fans won’t be disappointed in the slightest.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Plenty of amusing gags





Must See?
No, though it’s recommended, and (naturally) a must for Keaton completists.

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Blood on Satan’s Claw, The (1971)

“I must confess, sir: I fear there’s something very strange afoot.”

Synopsis:
When a plowman (Barry Andrews) in 17th century rural England uncovers a strange corpse in a field, a group of teens — led by beautiful temptress Angel Blake (Linda Hayden) — become obsessed by satanic forces, prompting the arrival of a judge (Patrick Wymark) well-versed in witchcraft.

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Review:
This atmospheric British horror film (co-written and directed by Piers Haggard) is strongly evocative of both The Witchfinder General (1968) and The Wicker Man (1973) in its depiction of a rural village besieged by evil forces. Originally intended as a horror omnibus consisting of three separate stories, the narrative — while technically cohesive — feels patchy at times, with certain characters (such as a young couple whose romance dominates the storyline during the first 15 minutes) introduced and then never seen again, and a lack of any central protagonist to relate to. With that said, there’s definitely a palpable sense of sustained horror throughout: while we don’t quite understand why dark patches of fur are suddenly showing up on children’s body parts, the effect is undeniably chilling, given that it clearly causes them to turn mercilessly upon one another, in a form of demonically-driven, peer pressured bullying. Adding to the film’s overall atmospheric flavor are fine cinematography, a relentlessly creepy score, convincing performances, and excellent use of authentic countryside locales — all of which help to at least partially overcome the screenplay’s deficiencies. While it’s not entirely successful, it’s nonetheless easy to see this film’s cult appeal, thus making it worth a one-time look.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Linda Hayden as Angel Blake
  • Michele Dotrice as Margaret
  • Fine use of authentic British countryside and period sets
  • Atmospheric cinematography
  • Marc Wilkinson’s score

Must See?
No, though it’s worth a look for its cult status. Listed as a Cult Movie in the back of Peary’s book.

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Noah’s Ark (1928)

“This War — it is a Deluge of Blood drowning a World of Hate!”

Synopsis:
On the eve of World War I, two friends (George O’Brien and Gwynn Williams) meet a beautiful young German girl (Dolores Costello), who O’Brien marries; when both men enlist, Costello becomes prey to the evil intentions of a Russian official (Noah Beery), who accuses her of being a spy when she refuses his advances. Meanwhile, in a parallel story set during Biblical times, Noah (Paul McAllister) and his three sons (George O’Brien, Gwynn Williams, and Malcolm Waite) build an ark as defense against an impending flood sent by God, who is angry that a king (Noah Beery) has turned himself into a false god.

Genres:

Review:
After years of making silent films in his native Hungary, Michael Curtiz was given a chance to direct this epic Hollywood disaster flick, which remains an historical curiosity simply for its status as a hybrid silent-talkie film (with just a handful of scenes utilizing the Vitaphone process to record voices). Unfortunately, the movie itself is disappointingly “hybrid” in another way: rather than focusing exclusively on its titular topic (which is what most audience members would surely be curious to see), the first hour or so of the screenplay is spent telling a decidedly insipid “modern” tale set during World War I, meant to draw tenuous parallels between the horrors of War and the rampant godlessness which brought lethal flooding to all but a handful of God-fearing folk during the Biblical era. However, it’s not until we see our lead actors donning Biblical garb and experiencing life under the rule of evil King Nephiliu (Beery) that the action becomes truly exciting — particularly, of course, once the Great Flood unleashes its power upon the heathens. This sequence is remarkably dramatic, and one shudders to think about the lives that were purportedly lost during its filming.

Note: As in Clarence Brown’s Flesh and Fantasy (1926), there is some undeniable homoerotic tension between the two lead actors in this film (O’Brien and Williams); was this sort of male bonding viewed differently in an earlier era, I wonder?

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Fine cinematography


  • Impressive historical sets

  • The highly effective flood sequence

Must See?
No — though the flood sequence is certainly impressive, and worth a look. Listed as a film with Historical Importance in the back of Peary’s book.

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Witchcraft Through the Ages / Haxan (1922)

“How do you expect me to confess to that which is not true?”

Synopsis:
Director Benjamin Christensen explores the effects of witchcraft on medieval life while making connections to “modern-day” hysteria in women.

Genres:

Review:
Haxan, or (in Swedish) “the witch”, was the most expensive Scandinavian silent film ever made, and ranks as one of the most unique movies to emerge from the silent film era. A fascinating mix of didactic documentary and fictional imagining, director Benjamin Christensen provides us with both a pictorial history of witchcraft via ancient European art (complete with animated pointers highlighting key images for us to focus on), and a set of increasingly disturbing dramatizations showcasing what life may have been like for those willingly practicing the Satanic arts (yes, witchcraft and Satanism are frustratingly conflated here), those seeking said services, and those falsely accused. What starts out as a relatively lighthearted presentation of a homely woman seeking assistance in seducing a portly clergyman through the use of a special witch-brewed potion quickly turns deeply somber, as we see an entire household overtaken by suspicion and hysteria. Special kudos should be given to Christensen for daring to demonstrate the ways in which witchcraft was used as a means of lethal subjugation by men (especially those in the clergy) against women of all ages, and by women against each other.

Cinematically, the entire film is a consistently innovative visual treat. Christensen seamlessly blends animation, live action, costumes, and atmospheric cinematography throughout his motley narrative, using whatever tools best fit his vision at any given moment. Certain scenes are nothing less than shocking in their willingness to transgress our comfort zone, as we see (for instance) witches lining up to kiss the devil’s bottom, or a witch giving birth to Satan’s beastly children. In later scenes, Christensen attempts to connect his sequence of historical dramatizations with modern-day psychology — an effort which isn’t entirely successful (we can no longer chalk women’s psychological challenges up to pure “hysteria”), but which suits the film’s overall exploratory nature just fine. Meanwhile, Christensen also provides a fascinating meta-cinematic narrative, not only including “voice-over” intertitles for the early scenes, but openly “outing” the fictional characters as actors who were apparently closely involved in the entire endeavor.

Note: This film was released in 1968 in a truncated form, with a voiceover by William Burroughs — but the restored full version (which is what I saw) is apparently highly preferred.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • A fascinating documentary/fiction exploration of witchcraft


  • Creative animation and overall cinematic artistry


  • Fine, atmospheric cinematography

Must See?
Yes, as a truly unique and compelling early film. Listed as a film with Historical Importance in the back of Peary’s book.

Categories

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

Links:

Covered Wagon, The (1923)

“Day after day, week after week of grinding toil to cover twelve pitiful miles a day.”

Synopsis:
In 1848, two men (Charles Ogle and J. Warren Kerrigan) lead a pair of lengthy wagon trains towards Oregon while Ogle’s daughter (Lois Wilson) struggles between loyalty to her fiance (Alan Hale) and her growing interest in Kerrigan, whose checkered history causes her concern.

Genres:

Review:
Director James Cruze helmed this remarkably authentic recreation of the westward movement in American history, which distinguishes itself almost immediately as a film worthy of our attention. Within ten minutes of its narrative, we see a group of (real) Native Americans standing around a plow, followed by this intertitle:

The Pale face again crosses the River of Misty Water — always advancing towards the setting sun. With him he brings this monster weapon that will bury the buffalo — uproot the forest – and level the mountain. The Pale Face who comes with this evil medicine must be slain — or the Red Man perishes!

While the remainder of the movie focuses exclusively on the travails of the White settlers, we can’t help feeling gratitude to Cruze (and screenwriter Jack Cunningham) for bothering to show the Indians’ perspective on events as well. Meanwhile, several powerful scenes — most notably a lengthy depiction of wagon trains crossing a river — are simply astonishing in their level of realism; we feel we’re actually watching a documentary portrayal of this pivotal period in American history. (Interestingly, the dramatic buffalo hunt scene was, given the scarcity of herds, only partially “real”, with extensive use of small lead castings — but you’d never know.) The romantic storyline itself leaves much to be desired, and is best simply ignored.

Note: In an interesting bit of trivia: Dorothy Arzner appears to have edited this film.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • A remarkably authentic recreation of the journey undertaken by westward-bound pioneers


  • A refreshing (albeit too short) glimpse of the Native American perspective on “westward expansion”

Must See?
Yes, for its historical relevance as the first “epic” western. Listed as a film with Historical Importance in the back of Peary’s book.

Categories

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