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Category: Original Reviews

Responses to Peary’s “must see” movie reviews, as well as my own “must see” movie reviews up to and after 1986 (when Peary’s book was published).

Hell’s Angels (1930)

Hell’s Angels (1930)

“Life’s short — and I want to live while I’m alive!”

Synopsis:
At the start of World War I, two British brothers — straitlaced Roy (James Hall) and womanizing Monte (Ben Lyon) — join the RAF, while their German friend Karl (John Darrow) becomes a reluctant officer for his country. Meanwhile, Roy continues to worship his girlfriend Helen (Jean Harlow), who is not nearly as “innocent” as he believes.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Airplanes and Pilots
  • Jean Harlow Films
  • Love Triangle
  • World War I

Review:
Eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes only directed two films in his notorious career as an aviator, movie producer, and philanthropist: The Outlaw (1943) with Jane Russell and this early rival to Wings (1927), about aerial fighters in World War I. Hell’s Angels has a truly infamous production history, and TCM’s article provides plenty of behind-the-scenes information about the film:

A year and a half into the production of Hell’s Angels, Hughes had lost his wife (to divorce), two stunt pilots and a mechanic (killed filming the movie’s stunning aerial sequences), two directors (Marshall Neilan and Luther Reed; Howard Hawks and Edmund Goulding were also among those said to have worked on it), and more than $2 million. And he still had roughly 2 million feet of unedited silent footage in a market that virtually overnight was clamoring for talkies. Rather than scrap the whole thing, Hughes decided to add sound to the air footage and re-shoot the dialogue sequences.

Given this decidedly rocky trajectory, it’s impressive that the film coheres as well as it does — though it’s not exactly seamless. Opening scenes featuring Lyon bowing out of a duel with the husband (Lucien Prival) of a woman he’s been having an affair with — and Hall taking his place — are atmospherically filmed but don’t do much for the storyline other than present the brothers as a caddish coward (Lyon) and a foolish martyr (Hall).

Meanwhile, 18-year-old Harlow’s performance isn’t nearly as bad as accounts would lead you to believe; it’s easy to see how she turned into one of cinema’s most alluring sirens. The best aspect of the film by far, however, are the stunning aerial “dog fights”, shot at great cost (both literally, and in terms of human lives lost). Also notable is a sequence in which German dirigible crew members are ordered to jump to their deaths in order to “lighten the load”; this is, as DVD Savant writes, a “disturbing and macabre scene.”

Note: This film’s production was a major narrative component in Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator (2004), a biopic about Hughes starring Leonardo DiCaprio.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Fine cinematography

  • The completely eerie “dirigible death drop” scene
  • Exciting aerial sequences

Must See?
No, though it’s worth a look given its notoriety. Listed as a film with Historical Importance in the back of Peary’s book.

Links:

Drums Along the Mohawk (1939)

Drums Along the Mohawk (1939)

“This is no place for you; it’s no place for any woman!”

Synopsis:
In colonial America, a farmer (Henry Fonda) brings his new wife (Claudette Colbert) from Albany, New York to a homestead in the Mohawk Valley, where they hope to build a life together — but their plans are quickly foiled by Indian raids led by a patch-eyed Tory (John Carradine), and they soon find themselves living with and working for a feisty widow (Edna May Oliver).

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • American Revolutionary War
  • Claudette Colbert Films
  • Henry Fonda Films
  • John Carradine Films
  • John Ford Films
  • Settlers
  • Westerns

Review:
John Ford and Henry Fonda made three films together during 1939 and 1940: Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), The Grapes of Wrath (1940), and this historical drama — based on a novel by Walter D. Edmonds — which remains one of surprisingly few Hollywood films set during the era of the American Revolution. Ford’s keen eye for detail, pacing, and framing — along with superb Technicolor cinematography by Burt Glennon and committed performances by the cast — make this yet another fine entry in his oeuvre. We are shown in no uncertain terms how challenging it was to survive during this tenuous era of American history, as factions were fighting each other on all sides. To that end, the portrayal of Native Americans is unfortunately (though not surprisingly) myopic: with the exception of Chief John Big Tree as Blue Back (an imposing figure used to demonstrate Colbert’s paralyzing fear of “the other”, as well as the camaraderie built between settlers and “good” Christian Indians), Native Americans are uniformly shown as ruthlessly aggressive invaders (into what was very recently their own territory).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Strong performances by Fonda and Colbert
  • Edna May Oliver as Mrs. McKlennar
  • Many memorable moments


  • Fine attention to historical detail

  • Bert Glennon’s Technicolor cinematography

Must See?
Yes, as a fine western by a master director. Listed as a film with Historical Importance and a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

Categories

Links:

Edge of Darkness (1943)

Edge of Darkness (1943)

“We are not animals — we are men!”

Synopsis:
Citizens in a Nazi-occupied Norwegian fishing village respond to their situation in a variety of ways: a middle-aged doctor (Walter Huston) and his wife (Ruth Gordon) hope to allow life to proceed as usual, while their daughter (Ann Sheridan) and her beau (Errol Flynn) are deeply involved in the local Resistance movement, and their son (John Beal) is considered a “quisling” for assisting Huston’s Nazi-sympathizing brother-in-law (Charles Dingle).

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Ann Sheridan Films
  • Errol Flynn Films
  • Flashback Films
  • Judith Anderson Films
  • Lewis Milestone Films
  • Nazis
  • Resistance Fighters
  • Ruth Gordon Films
  • Walter Huston Films
  • World War II

Review:
Lewis Milestone directed this Resistance film set in coastal Norway during the height of World War II — yet another reminder of how many communities were impacted by the insidious spread of Nazism across Europe. Actually, this one hits particularly close to home for me, given that my parents were both very young children in Nazi-occupied Norway, and my grandfather could easily have been killed for harboring two Resistance fighters behind his farm. With that “insider knowledge” put on the table, there isn’t much to distinguish this from other European-based Resistance flicks of the era, given that the Hollywood casts speaks in English, and location shooting was done in Monterey, California — but the storyline remains an archetypically strong one, showing the various stances one could take, and how deeply impacted families were by loyalty in various directions.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Many powerfully filmed sequences

  • Atmospheric cinematography

Must See?
No, but it’s worth a one-time look.

Links:

Student Bodies (1981)

Student Bodies (1981)

“With rape and violence rampant in this land — with human flesh cheapened and vulgarized — one of the last bastions of decency is the general satisfaction one gains from making a horse head bookend.”

Synopsis:
A teenager (Kristin Riter) becomes the prime suspect as her sexually active classmates are murdered one after the other by a “heavy-breather” (Jerry Belson).

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • High School
  • Horror Films
  • Satires and Spoofs
  • Serial Killers

Review:
This attempt at very, very directly spoofing teenage slasher films seems intended as a parallel follow-up to Airplane! (1980), which similarly took the tropes of its genre (disaster flicks) to the most extreme degree possible. Here, we’re given a horny babysitter (Angela Bressler) and her boyfriend (Keith Singleton) who are killed on Jamie Lee Curtis’s birthday as they’re about to have sex; an unseen villain who not only breathes heavily but actually drools over the phone; flashing body count numbers appearing across the screen each time another victim is found; and many openly disturbed potential suspects, including the principal (Joe Talarowski), the aging school secretary (Mimi Weddell), the woodshop instructor (Joe Flood), the distracted school psychiatrist (Carl Jacobs), and the double-jointed janitor (The Stick). The premise is amusing (of course), but unfortunately the jokes fall flat as often as they succeed.

Note: Interestingly, as pointed out in Spinning Image’s review, co-director Michael Ritchie (who opted for an “Alan Smithee” producer designation on this) actually helmed a number of reputable and interesting flicks, including The Candidate (1972), Smile (1975), and The Bad News Bears (1976).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • An occasionally amusing spoof of teenage horror flicks

Must See?
No; you can skip this one unless you’re curious to check it out. Listed as a Sleeper and a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

Links:

Strike (1925)

Strike (1925)

“They’ve pushed us into a corner; we must strike.”

Synopsis:
Factory workers in pre-revolutionary Russia plan and execute a collective strike, with lethal consequences.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Labor Movements
  • Russian Films
  • Sergei Eisenstein Films
  • Silent Films

Review:
Before making his best-known feature — Battleship Potemkin (1925) — 27-year-old Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein debuted with this powerfully crafted tale following similar narrative and structural lines. Through six titled sequences, we learn about a collective of workers who have banded together to protest against unfair conditions in their factory, juxtaposed with imagery of the “fat cat” bourgeoisie who sit back leisurely to drink and smoke while their fellow Russians are barely scraping by. We are introduced to the factory and its labor leaders (“At the factory all is quiet”); see a worker taking his life after being falsely accused of theft (“Reason to strike”); view the immediate after-effects of the strike — including parents having joyful time to spend with their young children (“The factory dies down”); witness the lingering negative impacts of no income or food (“The strike draws out”); see arson and looting carried out (“Provocation and debacle”); and, finally, watch the proletariat being decimated by the police (“Extermination”). This all rings eerily close to home, given recent uprisings and subsequent looting and arson stemming from societal unrest and dissent; viewers should be forewarned that Eisenstein pulls no punches in his depiction of class warfare.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Many powerfully filmed and edited sequences


  • Eduard Tisse’s cinematography


Must See?
Yes, as a fine debut film by a master director. Listed as a film with Historical Importance and a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

Categories

Links:

Irreconcilable Differences (1984)

Irreconcilable Differences (1984)

“I’m just a kid, and I don’t know what I’m doing sometimes. But I think you should know better when you’re all grown up.”

Synopsis:
The daughter (Drew Barrymore) of a Hollywood director (Ryan O’Neal) and a novelist (Shelley Long) tells a judge the story of how her quibbling parents’ marriage fell apart — starting with her dad (O’Neal) falling for a beautiful young starlet (Sharon Stone) — and why she believes she’s better off living apart from them.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Courtroom Drama
  • Divorce
  • Flashback Films
  • Hollywood
  • Marital Problems
  • Rise-and-Fall
  • Romantic Comedy
  • Ryan O’Neal Films

Review:
After her breakthrough role in E.T. (1982), 9-year-old Drew Barrymore starred in both Firestarter (1984) and this flashback romantic comedy, told from the perspective of a young girl interested in “divorcing” her parents. Barrymore’s role is actually somewhat peripheral, given that our primary focus is on the rise-and-fall of two aspiring artists who initially work well together, then descend into farcical ineptitude as their own desires (O’Neal’s lust for Stone, Long’s longing for revenge) replace any sense of moral obligation or concern as parents. Interesting, this is foreshadowed during the first party Long and O’Neal attend upon arriving in Hollywood, when a guest informs Long that she’s a parent but “isn’t that into parenting” at the moment. Because this couple can’t move beyond their petty selfishness to recognize the harm they’re causing their loved ones, they lose everything they value. I wish Barrymore had even more screen time, since she’s infinitely more sympathetic than either O’Neal or Long — but the adult stars do well in their roles, and are suitably convincing.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Fine performances by the leads

Must See?
No, but it’s recommended for one-time viewing. Listed as a Sleeper and a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

Links:

Stormy Weather (1943)

Stormy Weather (1943)

“Tell these fools anything, but tell me the truth.”

Synopsis:
A World War I veteran (Bill Robinson) reflects back on his rise to fame as a dancer, which started when he and his buddy (Dooley Wilson) met a beautiful singer (Lena Horne), and continued along a path filled with many talented artists and performances.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • African-Americans
  • Aspiring Stars
  • Dancers
  • Flashback Films
  • Musicals

Review:
The paper-thin romantic flashback “plot” matters not at all in this delightful musical revue from 20th Century Fox, featuring toe-tapping performances by Robinson and Horne, as well as Fats Waller, Ada Brown, Cab Calloway, and the inimitable Nicholas Brothers [who were also stand-out highlights in Kid Millions (1934) and Down Argentine Way (1940)]. It’s hard to pick a favorite, given they’re all well presented and performed with enormous enthusiasm — but my personal top-picks would likely be the Nicholas Brothers’ dancing “Jumpin’ Jive” (purportedly named by Fred Astaire as the “greatest movie musical number he’d ever seen”), Horne’s rendition of the title song, Robinson tap dancing on ashes on a boat to Memphis, and Fats Waller and his orchestra performing “Ain’t Misbehavin'”.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Countless (actually, close to 20) enjoyable musical performances by powerhouse Black musical icons




Must See?
Yes, as an invaluable and still most-enjoyable all-black musical revue. Listed as a film with Historical Importance and a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

Links:

Beneath the Valley of the Ultravixens (1979)

Beneath the Valley of the Ultravixens (1979)

“The dawn’s early light comes to Small Town every day — and with it, the events of the night before are forgotten.”

Synopsis:
A woman (Kitten Navidad) whose sexual appetites can’t be fulfilled by her husband (Ken Kerr) tries everything she can to help him learn how to have sex the “right way”.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Adult Films
  • Marital Problems
  • Russ Meyer Films
  • Satires and Spoofs
  • Sexuality
  • Small Town America

Review:
Russ Meyer’s final feature was this satirical take (scripted under a pen name by Roger Ebert) on Our Town, in which an earnest narrator (Stuart Lancaster) tells us about the strange sex lives — both fulfilling and otherwise — of various residents in Smalltown. It’s as close as Meyer ever came to making an actual hardcore film, and I’m categorizing it as such here (it received an X rating) — but once/if you get beyond the relentless sex scenes, it’s possible to reflect on the humor and absurdity of the situation, in which Kerr nearly loses his job working for a female dump station owner (June Mack) because of his preferences, and only an ultra-busty evangelical radio announcer (Ann Marie) can potentially “save” Kerr from his own impulses. Homosexuality is most definitely mocked and denigrated, with a dentist/counselor named “Dr. Lavender” (Robert E. Pearson) attempting to force Kerr “out of the closer” using a chainsaw — but is that any more ridiculous or offensive than the many other sex-based scenarios taking place? Not really.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • A sometimes humorous take on “Our Town”

Must See?
No; this one is only must-see for Meyer completists.

Links:

Supervixens (1975)

Supervixens (1975)

“Not ready, with my beautiful body? You’ve gotta lot of nerve, buster!”

Synopsis:
A gas station attendant (Charles Pitts) called back home by his sexually aggressive girlfriend Supervixen (Shari Eubank) ends up in a domestic violence brawl that’s broken up by a psychopathic cop (Charles Napier). When Napier is sexually humiliated by Supervixen, he kills her and Pitts flees, knowing he’ll be blamed for the murder. During his “road trip”, Pitts is relentlessly seduced and harrassed by busty females who won’t take no for an answer — until he finally meets and falls in love with a kind cafe owner named SuperAngel (also Shari Eubank); but Napier is not yet done torturing Pitts and Eubank…

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Falsely Accused
  • Femmes Fatales
  • Police
  • Psychopaths
  • Russ Meyer Films

Review:
Russ Meyer’s return to a more independent style of “adult entertainment” after Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970) resulted in a reiteration of his key preoccupations — busty, sexually voracious, emasculating dames and uber-violent, insecure men — but kicked up a notch, with an early bathtub murder scene especially graphic and misogynistic. It’s somewhat humorous seeing how “poor” Pitts simply can’t catch a break when it comes to horny women (he really is a basically good guy), and Napier seems to be delighting in the devilish extremes he’s allowed to go to with his Bad Cop Extraordinaire. (It’s interesting knowing that Meyer’s absentee dad was a policeman…) The notion of casting Eubank in dual roles works nicely; she does a decent acting job, and one wonders why she left the industry after starring in just one more Meyer flick. The violent ending hearkens back to Finders Keepers, Lovers Weepers! (1968), Cherry, Harry & Raquel! (1969), and BTVOTD — albeit with a (literally) cartoonish twist.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Charles Napier’s unhinged performance as Harry Sledge

  • Shari Eubank as SuperVixen and SuperAngel

Must See?
No, though of course it’s must-see for Meyer fans.

Links:

Cherry, Harry & Raquel! (1969)

Cherry, Harry & Raquel! (1969)

“Nevertheless, pity the poor potheads.”

Synopsis:
While a busty Swede (Uschi Digard) runs naked across the desert, a corrupt sheriff (Charles Napier) working in collusion with a marijuana dealer (Franklin Bolger) and a Chicano deputy (Bert Santos) tries to track down an elusive competitor known as “The Apache”. Meanwhile, Napier sleeps with both a busy prostitute named Raquel (Larissa Ely) and his nurse-girlfriend Cherry (Linda Ashton), who eventually fall for each other as well.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Drug Dealers
  • Sheriffs and Marshalls
  • Russ Meyer Films

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “compact Russ Meyer film” features a “tried-and-true combination of sex, violence, and humor”, with the injection of “intentionally silly footage of superstacked Uschi Digard romping naked (but for an Indian warbonnet) around [the] desert.” He asserts that while it’s “somewhat dated”, it “remains one of Meyer’s best films” given that it “has wit, sharp editing, several Don Siegel-like action sequences, and a solid lead in square-jawed Napier”. I can understand why Meyer fans would be enamored with this flick, which shows ample evidence of the gonzo-surreal sensibilities and rapid-fire editing that would infuse Meyer’s first major studio film, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970). However, it’s really not for all tastes; my favorite moments came early on, during his laughably earnest opening voiceover: “The evil of marijuana caresses all it comes in contact with.”

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Fine location shooting
  • Skillful editing

Must See?
No, though I’m sure some film fanatics will be curious to check it out.

Links: