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Month: October 2009

Roman Scandals (1933)

Roman Scandals (1933)

“They didn’t put people out on the street in Rome.”

Synopsis:
When a nebbishy do-gooder (Eddie Cantor) is thrown out of his home town of West Rome, Oklahoma, he suddenly finds himself a slave in Ancient Rome, fighting to save Princess Sylvia (Gloria Stuart) from the clutches of corrupt Emperor Valerius (Edward Arnold).

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Ancient Greece and Rome
  • Busby Berkeley Films
  • Comedy
  • Do-Gooders
  • Eddie Cantor Films
  • Edward Arnold Films
  • Musicals
  • Slavery
  • Time Travel

Review:
Often cited as one of Eddie Cantor’s best vehicles, this lavish Depression-era musical features two far-out Busby Berkeley sequences, a bevy of nearly-nude “Goldwyn Girls” (including Lucille Ball), and a healthy dose of pre-Code humor (while selling himself on the slave market, Cantor coyly asserts, “I can take care of the children. If there are no children, I can take care of that. By being a son to you!”). In both West Rome and Ancient Rome (where he mysteriously time-travels after being knocked over on the street), Cantor gets to play one of his most likable characters — a genuinely well-meaning if timid guy who takes enormous risks to help others.

Although a little of Cantor goes a long way (and he’s on-screen all the time), fans will have plenty to enjoy. Meanwhile, Gloria Stuart (wearing a long blonde wig) has never been more fetching:

and statuesque Verree Teasdale is humorously villainous as the Emperor’s murderous wife.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Typically lavish Busby Berkeley musical numbers

Must See?
Yes, simply to see the enormously popular Cantor in one of his best films. Listed as a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

Categories

  • Historical Importance

Links:

Naked and the Dead, The (1958)

Naked and the Dead, The (1958)

“You don’t mess around with the army: I don’t care who you are, you take orders.”

Synopsis:
During World War Two, a lieutenant (Cliff Robertson) in the Pacific clashes with his superior (Raymond Massey) over privileges afforded to officers, and is sent to the front to help a cynical sergeant (Aldo Ray) lead a platoon against the Japanese.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Cliff Robertson Films
  • Raoul Walsh Films
  • Raymond Massey Films
  • Soldiers
  • World War Two

Review:
Raoul Walsh’s adaptation of Normal Mailer’s classic WWII-era novel is a notorious dud on every count. Retaining almost none of the brilliance or irreverence of Mailer’s writing, the end result is a pedestrian account of military combat in the Pacific, with power conflicts emerging as the script’s only viable theme. Raymond Massey is well-cast as a military bigwig who honestly believes in the necessity of maintaining fear and distance between soldiers and their commanding officers, but he’s the film’s sole redeeming feature. Read the book instead.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Raymond Massey as General Cummings

Must See?
No; definitely feel free to skip this one.

Links:

Plumber, The (1979)

Plumber, The (1979)

“It’s what you can’t see that counts in plumbing; always remember that.”

Synopsis:
A working-class plumber (Ivar Kants) terrorizes the wife (Judy Morris) of an anthropologist (Robert Coleby).

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Australian Films
  • Cat-and-Mouse
  • Class Relations
  • Peter Weir Films
  • Psychological Horror

Review:
Made by writer-director Peter Weir for Australian television, this darkly humorous thriller is an unusual and strangely compelling treat. Judy Morris (as Jill) and Ivar Kants (as Max) are perfectly cast as opposites who immediately clash with one another when they’re forced into close proximity. Kants (effectively creepy) is deeply insecure about his working class background, and makes his scorn of intellectual Morris known immediately; after insinuating himself into her house (are there really plumbing problems in their pipes?), he proceeds to harass and mess with her, making snide comments about her lifestyle which she’s (initially) too polite to do anything about. It’s both ironic and strategic that Jill (a cultural anthropologist) is studying the “bizarre” cultural rituals of a Guinean tribe while simultaneously trying to deal with the equally inscrutable mystery of Max the Plumber. Will he harm her? Does he have ulterior motives? Or is Jill really going off the deep end? (Indeed, there’s a layer of feminist subtext to the plot, given that Jill has just recently chosen to give up her day job and stay at home.) Weir’s satirical brilliance lies in his ability to bring to the surface latent class tensions we’ve all felt at one time or another in our lives, as we’ve encountered people either more or less moneyed or educated than ourselves. Fortunately, he resists turning The Plumber into a traditional horror film, instead focusing on Jill’s increasingly paranoid reaction to Max, a feeling which no one around her — neither her distracted husband (Robert Coleby) nor her best friend (Candy Raymond) — seems to share. At just 77 minutes, The Plumber leaves you curious about its outcome until the very end; all film fanatics should check it out at least once.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Judy Morris as Jill
  • Ivar Kants as Max
  • A humorously creepy screenplay
  • Rory O’Donoghue and Gerry Tolland’s score

Must See?
Yes, as a most effective and unconventional thriller. Listed as a Sleeper and a Personal Recommendation (I agree) in the back of Peary’s book.

Categories

  • Good Show
  • Important Director

Links:

Diary of a Chambermaid, The (1946)

Diary of a Chambermaid, The (1946)

“From now on I’m going to fight hard, and I don’t care who gets hurt, just so it’s not me.”

Synopsis:
A French chambermaid (Paulette Goddard) aspires to marry a wealthy man and become mistress of her own household. Meanwhile, she’s tasked with keeping the grown son (Hurd Hatfield) of her employers (Judith Anderson and Reginald Owen) happy during his visit home, and finds herself falling in love.

Genres:

  • Burgess Meredith Films
  • Jean Renoir Films
  • Judith Anderson Films
  • Paulette Goddard Films
  • Servants, Maids, and Housekeepers
  • Social Climbers

Review:
Burgess Meredith both co-starred in and wrote the screenplay for this unusual Hollywood comedy by Jean Renoir, starring Meredith’s then-wife Paulette Goddard in the title role. Loosely based on an epistolary novel by Octave Mirbeau, it tells the tale of a beautiful, feisty chambermaid who is quite rightly fed up with scrubbing floors, and determined to seduce a wealthy man, no matter his age. This leads to a dalliance with a wacky older captain (Meredith) living next door, but her pursuits are temporarily delayed by a sudden and inexplicable infatuation with dour Hurd Hatfield, who seems utterly mismatched for her spunky spirit. Meanwhile, the household’s equally ill-humored butler (Francis Lederer) begins to show hints of interest in Goddard, and plots to take advantage of his mistress’s long-earned trust in him. Unfortunately, none of this is particularly compelling or amusing, and the actors are so broadly directed that they emerge more as caricatures than sympathetic people. Goddard somehow manages to remain compelling throughout, but we can’t help wishing she had a better screenplay to work with. This film has numerous diehard fans — including Peary, who lists it as a Personal Recommendation — but I must say I’m not one of them.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Paulette Goddard as Celestine

Must See?
No, though fans of Renoir will surely be curious to check it out. Listed as a film with Historical Importance (I’m not sure why) and a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

Links:

Sin of Harold Diddlebock, The (1947)

Sin of Harold Diddlebock, The (1947)

“Every man is the architect of his own fortune.”

Synopsis:
A recently fired accountant (Harold Lloyd) goes on a bender for the first time and becomes the owner of a circus, which he must then find a way to unload.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Carnivals and Circuses
  • Comedy
  • Harold Lloyd Films
  • Preston Sturges Films

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary labels this creative collaboration of silent comedian Harold Lloyd and writer-director Preston Sturges “disappointing but mildly amusing”. He accurately points out that it contains strong elements of both men’s prior work, given that the film literally opens with an extended clip from Lloyd’s silent classic The Freshman (1925), and is based upon a similar premise as Sturges’ The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944) (with an unseen alcoholic bender producing hilariously challenging consequences). In truth, I think Peary underestimates this controversial film, which was inexplicably pulled from circulation, drastically edited, and renamed Mad Wednesday; it’s actually a most enjoyable slapstick comedy, filled with healthy doses of satirical humor. In his final film, Lloyd (looking MUCH younger than his 54 years) is at the top of his game, and Sturges’ script provides nonstop enjoyment until about 2/3rds of the way through, when Lloyd’s nonsensical plan to try to rid himself of his circus by visiting the offices of prominent bankers in Manhattan temporarily derails the story. Fortunately, things get back on track during the “film’s highlight”, which “finds Lloyd dangling high above [the] city by a rope attached to the neck of a lion”. As Peary notes, the entire cast — most notably Jimmy Conlin as Lloyd’s partner in crime, and Frances Ramsden as his gorgeous workplace crush — is “sterling”. A minor quibble: it’s too bad the title’s first word was changed from “saga” to “sin”, since the latter makes little sense.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Harold Lloyd as Harold Diddlebock
  • Fine supporting performances by Jimmy Conlin and others
  • Sturges’ zany screenplay

Must See?
Yes, as Harold Lloyd’s swan song.

Categories

  • Important Director

Links:

Streetwise (1984)

Streetwise (1984)

“You wanna be downtown, you wanna be cool, you better learn the ways of the street.”

Synopsis:
Homeless teens survive on the streets of Seattle by panhandling, dumpster diving, selling drugs, and prostituting themselves.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Documentary
  • Homeless
  • Survival
  • Teenagers

Response to Peary’s Review:
As Peary notes, this Oscar-nominated documentary about “street kids living in Seattle’s tenderloin” — a “world of street brawls, drugs, perverts on the make, filth, hassles with the police, frequent busts” — is “bruising cinema verite“. While the kids may “seem happy to be free of their parents and enjoying life on their own”, this is simply because life at home with their irresponsible and/or abusive parents and stepparents was so much worse. Indeed, some of the film’s most haunting sequences involve the kids visiting their parents, who are astonishingly blase about the fact that their kids are making a living on the street: one (an alcoholic waitress) simply assumes it’s a “phase” her daughter is going through, while another (a father in jail for burglary and arson) appears to want the best for his son but simultaneously ridicules and belittles him. It’s truly impressive how much access filmmakers Martin Bell, Mary Ellen Mark, and Cheryl McCall (whose initial article for Life magazine inspired the documentary) gain into the private lives of the kids and their families, down to hearing young pimps openly soliciting girls to work for them (weren’t they afraid of exposure?). Despite the recent glut of “reality” T.V. and documentaries, this early glimpse into the lives of homeless teens rises a cut above, and is guaranteed to linger in your thoughts long after it’s over.

Note: A 23-minute follow-up film was made about the life of one of the teens showcased in the movie (“Tiny”), but I haven’t yet been able to locate a copy. Any hints are most welcome.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Countless powerful sequences


Must See?
Yes; this one will haunt you long after it’s over.

Categories

  • Historical Relevance
  • Oscar Winner or Nominee

Links: