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Month: September 2008

One Way Passage (1932)

One Way Passage (1932)

“I know now what I want: I want to crowd all the intense, beautiful happiness possible into what life I’ve got left!”

Synopsis:
When a condemned convict (William Powell) falls in love with a dying woman (Kay Francis) on board a cruise ship, his desire to escape from the clutches of his captor (Warren Hymer) suddenly becomes more complicated.

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Review:
Glamorous Kay Francis was one of the most popular and highly paid stars in early Hollywood, but because she made so few memorable films, she’s largely forgotten by movie buffs today. Along with her supporting role in Ernst Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise (1932), she’s probably best known for this three-hankie shipboard romance, which succeeds in large part due to the genuine chemistry between the two leads. Equally enjoyable is Aline McMahon as a kind-hearted con woman posing as a countess; unfortunately, her sidekick “Skippy” (Frank McHugh) — with perhaps one of the most annoyingly affected laughs ever heard on-screen — is nothing short of irritating. Indeed, whenever the film slides into overt comedy, the story falls flat — yet while One Way Passage can’t rightfully be called a classic, it remains worth a look simply to see Francis in her prime.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • William Powell and Kay Francis as the star-crossed lovers (Peary nominates them both for Alternate Oscars)
    One Way Passage Lovers
  • Aline McMahon as “Countess Barilhaus”

Must See?
Yes, simply to see Francis in one of her most memorable films. Listed as a film with historical importance and a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

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American Tragedy, An (1931)

American Tragedy, An (1931)

“You don’t know how I love all this — this music, this kind of life!”

American Tragedy Poster

Synopsis:
A socially ambitious youth (Phillips Holmes) seduces and impregnates a factory worker (Sylvia Sidney), then plots to kill her when he falls in love with a debutante (Frances Dee).

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Review:
Josef von Sternberg’s adaptation of Theodore Dreiser’s monumental 1925 novel was in some ways destined to disappoint, given the need to condense two volumes (over 800 pages) into a manageable running time — and, sure enough, Dreiser himself disapproved of the film. These days, viewers are likely most familiar with George Stevens’ 1951 adaptation of the book — A Place in the Sun (starring Elizabeth Taylor, Montgomery Clift, and Shelley Winters) — primarily because von Sternberg’s earlier version is so hard to locate. Of the two versions, von Sternberg’s is ultimately more faithful to the original text — and less sympathetic to the central protagonist (Holmes), whose cowardly, selfish actions remain truly difficult to watch.

While Holmes’ performance is less than impressive (he tends to read his lines rather than embody them), he does manage to convey the sniveling callowness of a self-absorbed pretty boy. Of the lead performers, however, Sylvia Sidney ultimately comes across the best: unlike her counterpart in A Place in the Sun (Winters), Sidney’s “Bert” is truly a sympathetic innocent: a hardworking girl who wants nothing more than a chance at romance with her handsome boss. She resists sex at first, but gives in once she realizes that their tenuous relationship won’t continue without it; later, she’s willing to give Holmes up as long as he’ll marry her and give her baby a good name. While she’s naively desperate, she’s far from shrewish, and it’s genuinely painful to know she’s destined for a watery grave.

Speaking of such spoilers, the fact that audience members (then and now) already know the outcome of this most famous of American stories (based on the real-life story of Chester Gillette) contributes to the film’s ultimate failure to impress. By the final third of the movie — an extended courtroom sequence — we’re anxious to see Holmes get his due, but are forced to sit through a series of painful lies and distortions before things finally wrap up. The presence of Holmes’ mother (Claire McDowell) in the final scenes hints at the larger theme of Dreiser’s novel — that Clyde’s poverty-stricken upbringing contributed towards his desperate need to climb socially — which unfortunately is barely touched upon. While competent, this early von Sternberg film doesn’t provide enough evidence of his burgeoning style to make it a must-see entry in his canon — though it’s certainly worth a look.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Sylvia Sidney as “Bert” (Peary nominates her as Best Actress of the Year in his Alternate Oscars book.)
    American Tragedy Sidney

Must See?
No, but it’s worth a look if you can locate a copy.

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One is a Lonely Number (1972)

One is a Lonely Number (1972)

“Aimee, you have got to snap out of it: you’re not the first girl to go through this, and you’re not going to be the last!”

Synopsis:
When her husband (Paul Jenkins) suddenly decides to divorce her, a woman (Trish Van Devere) struggles to create a new life for herself.

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Review:
This hard-to-find melodrama — made shortly before Martin Scorsese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore broke ground in American feminist cinema — is earnest and well-meaning but ultimately a disappointment. While Van Devere (George C. Scott’s wife) is an appealing heroine, and tries her best with the material she’s been given, she can’t quite overcome either the pedantic script or the amateurish performances of most of her co-stars. The best, most natural scenes involve Melvyn Douglas as a widowed grocer who helps Van Devere to break down her shell of defensiveness and accept her loss (what a breath of fresh air his presence is!). While the script finally begins to build some steam towards the end — when Van Devere takes a chance on love with a mysterious stranger (Monte Markham) — it can’t quite make up for the pedestrian narrative that’s come before.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Trish Van Devere as Aimee
  • Melvyn Douglas as Aimee’s widowed grocer friend

Must See?
No, but Van Devere and Douglas make it worth a cursory look if you stumble upon it on television. Listed as a Sleeper in the back of Peary’s book.

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Topper (1937)

Topper (1937)

“I want to drink, I want to dance, I want to sing… I want to have fun — whee!”

Synopsis:
When a fun-loving socialite couple (Cary Grant and Constance Bennett) is killed in an automobile accident, their ghosts attempt to do a “good deed” by helping a repressed banker (Roland Young) with an uptight wife (Billie Burke) live life more fully.

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Response to Peary’s Review:
As Peary notes, this supernatural box office hit — which sparked two sequels and a television series — is “not nearly as good as its reputation”. If one can forgive its countless logistical loopholes (why don’t any representatives from the “Other Side” ever show up to validate the proceedings?), the fact remains that “most of the humor is silly; the special effects aren’t that imaginative… and the storyline doesn’t have enough surprises”. In addition, despite the fact that this was a major breakthrough role for him, Cary Grant “isn’t in the picture enough”; and while Bennett is a sparkling actress who “turns in a comedic performance worthy of [Carole] Lombard”, her desire to pursue “Topper” (Young) so aggressively — while Grant waits petulantly in the wings — simply doesn’t ring true. Young is perfectly cast in the lead role, and admirably engages in several sequences of amusing slapstick; however, Billie Burke (typecast as his socially conscious wife) is simply annoying (that voice!). Topper is worth a look by all film fanatics for its historical relevance, but is ultimately a disappointment.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Constance Bennett as Marion Kerby
    Topper Bennett
  • Cary Grant’s droll delivery as George Kerby: “All right, I’ll change the tire… But I’ll be darned if I’ll waste any ectoplasm doing it!”
    Topper Grant
  • Roland Young as Cosmo Topper
    Topper Young

Must See?
No, though it’s worth a look simply for its historical popularity. But don’t expect to be as amused as contemporary audience members once were…

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