Summer Stock (1950)

“Running a farm isn’t women’s work; why don’t you put the burden where it belongs?”

Synopsis:
A farmer (Judy Garland) engaged to the nebbishy son (Eddie Bracken) of a storeowner (Ray Collins) struggles to make ends meet; meanwhile, her flighty sister (Gloria DeHaven) suddenly brings her boyfriend (Gene Kelly) and his troupe of performers to Garland’s barn, where they hope to put on a show.

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Review:
Summer Stock is primarily remembered for its notoriety as the film which ended Judy Garland’s career at MGM. Read any review or write-up on the movie, and you’ll learn all you need to know about the sad details surrounding Garland’s ongoing addiction, stint in rehab, 20-pound weight gain (leading to the oddity of a “show-stopping” finale number added several months after primary filming, at which point she’d clearly lost the weight), and overall struggles to make it to the set each day; you’ll also read about Kelly’s infamous kindness in helping her through the ordeal (including faking a fall one day to allow her to take the day off). Ultimately, however, what really “matters” is whether the film succeeds or not — and critical opinions remain deeply divided on this point.

DVD Savant
, for instance — while acknowledging the redeeming power of the musical numbers — argues that the plot’s “mechanics are even simpler than shows like Babes on Broadway: Save the farm, put on a show, ditch the loser love interests so the leads can get together”, and points out the “lazy way the… script abuses the supporting players” so that “amusing personality Eddie Bracken and so-so MGM contract player Gloria DeHaven both play unfunny, unpleasant jerks so as to make Garland and Kelly seem all the more virtuous for dumping them”. In his laudatory review for Digitally Obsessed, however, David Krauss argues that the “snappy script… somehow makes the tired backstage story seem fresh”, and that “the colorful characters and brisk pacing (care of director Charles Walters, who also helmed Easter Parade) keep us fully engaged at all times”.

In truth, I’m more in agreement with DVD Savant than Krauss on this debate; the cliched storyline is a bit too escapist for my blood (sorry, but nothing about Garland’s attempt to fill farming shoes “worked” for me) — and while I didn’t have much of a problem with DeHaven as Garland’s spoiled sister (or Bracken as her spineless fiance), the presence of Phil Silvers as Kelly’s irritating sidekick was simply cringe-worthy throughout. With all that said, the film is at least partially redeemed by a host of rousing musical numbers, as well as truly top-notch performances by both Garland and Kelly; whatever troubles Garland may have been having behind the scenes are (amazingly) nowhere in evidence on-screen. While only her stunning finale number (“Get Happy”) is memorable enough to stick in your head for days afterwards, the remaining songs are all enjoyable while they last, and perfectly suited for Garland’s timbre. Meanwhile, Kelly gets to dance one of his best, most creative numbers (and that’s saying a lot!) as he shuffles away on a wooden floor, engaging a newspaper for sound effects. It’s fun stuff.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Judy Garland as Jane
  • Gene Kelly as Joe
  • Kelly and Garland dancing the Portland Fancy
  • Kelly’s truly classic solo tap-dance sequence
  • Garland’s justifiably famous “Get Happy” finale

Must See?
No. While certainly recommended, this one is only must-see for Garland or Kelly completists.

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For Me and My Gal (1942)

“You think anything’s going to stand in the way of us playing the Palace this time? Oh no, not even a war.”

Synopsis:
An ambitious vaudevillian (Gene Kelly) falls in love with a young singer (Judy Garland) and promises to marry her once they’ve hit the big time; but when World War One arrives and Kelly attempts to temporarily dodge the draft, he loses not only the respect of everyone around him, but the love of his life as well.

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Response to Peary’s Review:
For Me and My Gal — directed “with surprising restraint by Busby Berkeley” — is primarily notable as the film in which “Judy Garland got her first solo star billing and Gene Kelly made his screen debut” (after impressing audiences in Broadway’s “Pal Joey”). As Peary notes, the film’s storyline is “obvious, sentimental, [and] patriotic”, but “is bolstered by [the] charisma of the two energetic stars and some fine musical numbers” — most notably “the cheerful title song”. Much has been made about the fact that Kelly’s character is too much of a self-centered heel to be worth rooting for as Garland’s love interest — but at least his character stays consistently opportunistic throughout, and comes across as refreshingly human (until the laughably unrealistic finale, which simply adds an irritating twist of delusional escapism to the entire affair). More frustrating to me than Kelly’s character is the lack of development afforded to George Murphy, playing Garland’s former partner and would-be love interest; Murphy is highly sympathetic in his tiny supporting role, but ultimately never poses enough of a threat to Kelly.

P.S. Don’t bother trying to avoid spoilers about what exactly Kelly does that’s just so awful, as it’s broadcast everywhere, even in Peary’ review — though I’ll refrain from mentioning it here.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Judy Garland as Jo
  • George Murphy as Jimmy
  • Garland and Kelly singing “For Me and My Gal”

Must See?
No — though naturally fans of Garland and/or Kelly will want to check it out.

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It! The Terror From Beyond Space (1958)

“You honestly believe I’d murder nine of my closest friends in order to survive on Mars?”

Synopsis:
The lone survival (Marshall Thompson) of a manned mission to Mars is accused of murdering his crewmates — until a vicious alien (Ray Corrigan) shows up on the ship sent to take him back to Earth, and the lives of everyone on board are threatened.

Genres:

Review:
It! is primarily known for its sandwiched reputation as the film inspired by Howard Hawks’ The Thing (1951), and as the unofficial inspiration for Ridley Scott’s bigger-budget variation on the same theme — Alien (1979). Despite its labeling by Peary as a Camp Classic — due to its obviously low budget and stereotypically one-dimensional characters — It! remains a surprisingly effective little sci-fi thriller, one which packs a fairly scary wallop and makes good use of a smart, economical script by Jerome Bixby. Once it’s established that Corrigan DIDN’T murder his original crewmates in a fit of survivalist panic (yeah, right — how likely is THAT?!), we’re able to focus on the very-real menace of a seemingly un-killable alien presence on board the claustrophobic quarters of a spaceship. As with Alien, we’re kept in suspense about which character will be the next to bite the dust — and we genuinely feel for the predicament of one astronaut stuck in close quarters with the beast as his air supply slowly dwindles. Don’t dismiss this one out of hand as simply Alien-on-a-diet; it’s actually worth a look.

Note: Director Edward L. Cahn’s follow-up film — well, one of SEVEN films he made the next year! (Take that, Roger Corman!) — was The Invisible Invaders (1959), which (somewhat surprisingly) received full Criterion treatment for its release onto DVD.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Effectively creepy low-budget special effects

Must See?
Yes, for its historical importance, and as a fine little B-flick in its own right. Listed as a Camp Classic in the back of Peary’s book.

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Lancelot of the Lake (1974)

“It was not the Grail; it was God you all wanted.”

Synopsis:
Upon return from a fruitless quest for the Holy Grail, Sir Lancelot (Luc Simon) tries to break off his affair with Queen Guinevere (Laura Duke Condominas) and prepares for battle with his arch-enemy Mordred (Patrick Bernard).

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Review:
As I’ve noted in other reviews, I’ll admit to a strong bias against Robert Bresson’s highly stylized approach to filmmaking, in which his actors are explicitly directed to remain expressionless, and Bresson’s own thematically enriched visuals take center stage. While I admire his intentions with this unique approach to the subject matter here (simply check out some of the lengthy user comments on IMDb for a sense of the strategic points he was apparently hoping to make), I’m much more in favor of Eric Rohmer’s alternatively stylized take on the same period and historical figures (1978’s Perceval). With that said, there’s still quite a bit here for all film fanatics (including my own grouchy self) to enjoy and appreciate — such as the power of Bresson’s strategically “cubic” representations of armored body parts, etc., through which one does quickly get a sense of the dreary oppression that dominated this bloodiest of eras. Indeed, the visuals are consistently inventive; all the more shame, then, that his narrative — about guilt and love and shame and God (I think?) — remains so frustratingly opaque. True fans of Bresson will be enamored by Lancelot du Lac; others will simply grow weary and long for clarity.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • An effectively stylized rendering of medieval England and Arthurian legend
  • Fine, authentic sets and costumes

Must See?
No, though naturally Bresson fans will want to check it out. Listed as a Cult Movie in the back of Peary’s book.

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Tarzan, the Ape Man (1932)

“From now on, I’m through with civilization. I’m going to be a savage, just like you.”

Synopsis:
While on safari in Africa, the daughter (Maureen O’Sullivan) of an ivory hunter (C. Aubrey Smith) is kidnapped by an ape-raised man (Johnny Weissmuller) living in the jungle.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary argues that while this “first talkie Tarzan film” has “lots of action and adventure”, it is “foremost a very erotic love story set in the primitive jungle of Africa”, and was “directed with adults in mind by W.S. Van Dyke”. Indeed, much like two other similarly-themed films of the era — Tabu (1931) and Bird of Paradise (1932)Tarzan, the Ape Man (which “borrows elements from Edgar Rice Burroughs’s first Tarzan novel… and deletes many more”, including “all references to Tarzan’s origins”) offers plenty of provocative pre-Code sensuality, in the form of both 20-year-old O’Sullivan as Jane — a “young woman who seems to be searching for excitement… and her first lover” — and buff Romanian-born “swimming champion Weissmuller”, who Peary argues “has amazing screen presence” despite the fact that he barely speaks a word. The bulk of Peary’s review focuses on an analysis of O’Sullivan’s sexual coming-of-age, as she graduates from “childish frolicking” with Tarzan to the scene in which he “lifts her and, as if she were a bride, carries her up the tree to his lair”, after which point “she acts grown up” — and their tentative romance does dominate the storyline. The climactic ending, however, shifts gears to offer plenty of action and adventure, courtesy of a scary dwarf tribe (!) and “a monster gorilla” which “anticipates King Kong“. It’s all silly but effectively harmless serial fun.

Note: This film was followed by five other Weissmuller/O’Sullivan Tarzan movies made for MGM — all of which (yes, all) are listed in Peary’s book. Stay tuned for my ongoing assessment…

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • A provocative pre-Code telling of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ classic adventure novel

Must See?
Yes, simply for its historical importance as the most definitive of all the Tarzan movies.

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Babes in Arms (1939)

“Listen, you kids: I think our time has come!”

Synopsis:
The son (Mickey Rooney) of aging vaudevillians (Charles Winninger and Grace Hayes) is determined to put on a show to raise money for his household, and his girlfriend (Judy Garland) is eager to help — but she soon feels insecure about the arrival of a former child actress (June Preisser) hoping to play the lead role.

Genres:

Review:
Babes in Arms — the third on-screen pairing of Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, a year after their memorable rapport in Love Finds Andy Hardy (1938) — is notable for being an even higher money-maker than The Wizard of Oz, released the same year and also co-starring typecast Margaret Hamilton, whose character is cleverly described here as someone who would “put butterflies to work making rubber tires” (!). Babes… — directed by Busby Berkeley — is likely the first film one thinks of when contemplating the “let’s put on a show!” genre, and this one pulls out all the stops, complete with an offensive black-face minstrel piece which will distress any modern viewers not hardened enough to simply regard it as an unfortunate product of its time.

The storyline itself is surprisingly hard-hitting — most notably in its depiction of strained relations between Rooney and his father (Winninger), who at first is in massive denial about the imminent collapse of vaudeville’s reign, then bitterly angry about the role his son is trying to play in its revitalization; their father-son squalls together are far from representative of typical escapist fare. But, naturally, there’s plenty of levity throughout as well — primarily in the form of Preisser as an “aging” child-actress with tremendous gymnastic talents (check out those back flips!), plenty of money to fling around, and mooning eyes for Rooney; her temporary threat to Rooney’s romance with Garland provides the bulk of the film’s narrative tension. The songs, sadly, are mostly forgettable, but listen for a fine rendition of Arthur Freed’s “Good Morning”.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Mickey Rooney as Mickey
  • Judy Garland as Patsy

Must See?
Yes, simply for its erstwhile popularity. Listed as a film with Historical Importance in the back of Peary’s book.

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

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Man in the White Suit, The (1951)

“He’s made a new kind of cloth. It never gets dirty, and it lasts forever!”

Synopsis:
When a scientist (Alec Guinness) creates an indestructible, impenetrable new fiber, he’s surprised to learn that both factory owners and factory employees want to suppress his invention.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary rightfully argues that this “classic Ealing Studios satire” — highlighting the strategic value of “planned obsolescence” — is a “cynical film” which “shows disenchantment with selfish British workers, who are supposed to be the consumers’ watchdog — since they are consumers themselves — but are resistant to making better, cheaper products because of job insecurity”. Indeed, while we’ve (sadly) come to expect rampant corruption from higher-up executives — who are “portrayed [here] as devious men who couldn’t care less about the practical value of Guinness’s invention if it means their profits will go down” — it’s genuinely disheartening (and surprising) to witness Guinness turned into an all-purpose social pariah (with the exception, of course, of sexy Joan Greenwood, who remains his one true supporter throughout). Peary laments the fact that “because scientist Guinness … has nothing in common with common men — he’s pragmatic rather than being humanistic or idealist — that leaves no one (no worker, no humanist) to be the shafted consumer’s representative in industry”.

As indicated in the quotes above, Peary’s review focuses exclusively on the social message of The Man in the White Suit (based on a play by Scottish writer Roger MacDougall) — and a powerful, smartly scripted message it is, never dumbing down its content, and unafraid to take the outrageous scenario all the way to its bitter end. Yet there are other noteworthy elements in the film to call out as well — starting with Guinness’s portrayal as the iconoclastic genius, simply one of many outstanding performances he provided for Ealing Studios during this early period in his career. Meanwhile, film fanatics will surely be tickled by the irony of Ernest Thesiger (who portrayed one of cinema’s most iconic “mad scientists”, Dr. Pretorius, in James Whale’s The Bride of Frankenstein) being cast here as a character diametrically opposed to Guinness’s “semi-mad” initiatives. And Joan Greenwood is impressive in what could easily have been a thankless role, as the daughter and fiancee of industrialists who experiences a growing sense of social consciousness over the course of the film (indeed, in some ways, her character possesses more dimension than Guinness’s).

Also of note are are the fine set designs (both inside the two laboratories, and out on the streets), and Douglas Slocombe’s consistently atmospheric cinematography. Finally, as director of the entire affair, Alexander Mackendrick clearly deserves kudos as well. He strikes a fine balance between dark humor and social gravitas, giving us one of the most uniquely subversive cinematic stories ever told.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Alec Guinness as Sidney Stratton
  • Joan Greenwood as Daphne
  • Ernest Thesiger’s fun cameo as Sir John Kierlaw
  • Fine set designs
  • Alexander Mackendrick’s confident direction
  • Douglas Slocombe’s cinematography
  • An incredibly smart script

Must See?
Yes, as one of Ealing Studios’ finest works.

Categories

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Panic in Needle Park, The (1971)

“I’m not hooked — I’m just chippin’.”

Synopsis:
A heroin addict (Al Pacino) introduces his new girlfriend (Kitty Winn) to his lifestyle, and she’s soon addicted herself.

Genres:

Review:
Director Jerry Schatzberg’s follow-up to his disappointing debut film Puzzle of a Downfall Child (1970) was this cinéma vérité look — sans any musical score — at heroin use in New York City’s “Needle Park”. One of the first films to directly and graphically show needles being injected into users’ arms, Panic… is NOT for the faint-of-heart: it’s the type of film that makes drug use seem so utterly unappealing (users loll around in listless states of wastedness) that it’s slightly difficult to understand why even a lost waif like Winn would choose to enter into this world. (Of course, we’re made to believe that it’s Pacino’s charisma — and her desperate need for love and acceptance — that propels her, but still…). Regardless, Schatzberg should be commended for his no-holds-barred approach to this milieu — including an effective, oft-imitated (viz: 2007’s American Gangster), entirely silent scene in which Pacino witnesses a small team of workers preparing the drug for sale. At the time of the film’s release, this kind of thing must have been utterly revelatory for audiences.

Panic… is also remembered today for Al Pacino’s standout performance — his first leading role on-screen, and the catalyst for his casting the following year in Coppola’s The Godfather. He’s a bundle of hopped-up energy here, literally sweeping Winn off her feet in the opening scenes (as she’s recovering from an illegal abortion), and somehow charismatic enough to convince Winn that his cadre of drug-injecting losers is a worthy gang to hang with. Inevitably, of course, Winn (whose career infamously never really went anywhere after her auspicious debut here; she chose family life instead) is caught up in the insanity of addiction herself — and, as expected, things simply go downhill from there. So many films (both fiction and documentary) about the pathetic lives of drug users have been released since Panic… that today’s viewers will likely not be shocked by what they’re seeing on-screen — but it remains a worthy early entry in the genre, one film fanatics should expose themselves to once (and then can feel free to leave behind forever, as I will).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Al Pacino as Bobby
  • Kitty Winn as Helen (nominated by Peary as one of the Best Actresses of the Year in his Alternate Oscars)
  • A gruesomely graphic, no-holds-barred depiction of drug addiction

Must See?
Yes, simply for its historical relevance as one of the first films to show drug abuse in its shoddy reality — and for Pacino’s performance.

Categories

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Gauntlet, The (1977)

“You see, we’ve got a problem, you and me: we don’t like each other much, but we have to take a trip together.”

Synopsis:
A cop (Clint Eastwood) is tasked by his superior (William Prince) with escorting a key witness (Sondra Locke) back to headquarters — but he soon finds himself and his feisty charge under fire at every turn.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary argues that much like “John Ford became disenchanted with the military, as his later films indicate”, The Gauntlet — Eastwood’s sixth outing as a director — represents his “growing disenchantment with cops… because they will happily turn on one another if ordered to do so”. Indeed, this film is far from policedom’s finest moment, given that it presents all cops as either under-performing (Eastwood), hopelessly crooked (Prince), smarmy (Bill McKinney, in an effective supporting turn), naive (Pat Hingle as Eastwood’s partner), and/or brainless (i.e., the hundreds of faceless automaton cops opening fire on demand). As Peary notes, “the picture isn’t altogether successful” (there are plenty of silly sequences — such as a lame encounter with motorcyclists in a gorgeous Nevada desertscape), but “the infighting between Locke and Eastwood is interesting primarily because she… proves to have more street smarts than he”. He further argues that director Eastwood “proves to have a true understanding of Locke’s talents, letting her run the gamut of emotions”, noting that “she can be impressive” — which is true.

However, I disagree with Peary’s assertion that there are “too many action sequences featur[ing] thousands of bullets being shot at structures”. It’s these over-the-top, utterly implausible, but undeniably rousing shoot-em-up scenes — such as the early scene in which so many bullets are fired at Locke’s house that it eventually collapses onto itself; cool! — that quickly turn our protagonists into sympathetic characters. Eastwood and Locke are on the run from forces clearly so much larger and stronger than themselves that they can’t help but eventually be propelled into each others’ arms. After all, you can only face imminent death so many times without starting to feel something for the person you’re fighting for your life with, can you?

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Sondra Locke as Gus
  • Plenty of exciting (if utterly implausible — but who cares?!) action sequences

Must See?
No, though it’s certainly recommended for one-time viewing, and a must for Eastwood fans.

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Torn Curtain (1966)

“It takes a scientist to pick a scientist’s brain.”

Synopsis:
The fiancee (Julie Andrews) of an American physicist (Paul Newman) is distressed to learn that he has seemingly defected to East Berlin, where he hopes to learn mathematical secrets from a famed nuclear scientist (Ludwig Donath).

Genres:

Review:
Critics have long debated whether this late-life entry in Hitchcock’s estimable oeuvre — his fourth-to-last film — is a complete clunker, or simply a lesser effort by an acknowledged genius. My personal assessment is the latter, given that it remains a positive delight in comparison with Hitchcock’s one GENUINE “clunker” — the frightfully boring (and mercifully Peary-omitted) Topaz (1969). With that said, of course it’s true that Torn Curtain is far from Hitchcock’s best, and there are certainly signs that his cinematic vision was beginning to waver. Jeffrey Anderson of Combustible Celluloid labels it as “a strangely muted, dull effort”, and this description is somewhat apt: in some ways, Hitchcock seems to be simply moving his characters through a series of scenarios which lack the punch or overtly cynical humor of similar earlier efforts. The fault seems to lie largely in Brian Moore’s script, which even Hitchcock himself professed to be displeased with; and Bernard Herrmann’s would-be score is also sorely missed.

Yet there remain a handful of gripping scenarios — including the infamous “kitchen murder scene” (which Hitchcock intended to show just how challenging it can really be to kill a man); the scene in which Newman finally converses with Professor Lindt, racing against time to get (and memorize) critical mathematical information before he’s found out; and the nerve-wracking bus ride sequence out of Berlin. In general, I find the last 45 minutes or so of this over-long film to be its best, given that everyone’s finally on the move and we’re held in genuine tension about whether or not Newman and loyal Andrews (doing her best in a virtually thankless role) will be able to make it out. While Torn Curtain isn’t must-see viewing for all-purpose film fanatics, it’s certainly worth a look by his fans.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • The infamously prolonged kitchen murder scene
  • Newman’s mathematical “tussle” with Donath
  • The genuinely tense bus sequence

Must See?
No, though naturally diehard Hitchcock enthusiasts won’t want to miss seeing it at least once.

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