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Month: June 2011

Way Down East (1920)

Way Down East (1920)

“Don’t worry; everything’s all right. Don’t you trust me?”

Synopsis:
A naive country girl (Lillian Gish) is deceived by a womanizing player (Lowell Sherman) into believing she’s married him, and bears a child out of wedlock. After the baby dies and Sherman abandons her, she starts her life over by working as a maid for a squire (Burr McIntosh), whose son (Richard Barthelmess) falls in love with her. But can she escape her “shameful” past?

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary argues that D.W. Griffith’s adaptation of Lottie Blair Parker’s popular 19th century melodrama remains “the best of [his] pastoral films”, noting that rather than relishing “the chance to make a woman suffer, [he] doesn’t try to milk the audience’s tears”, and makes Gish’s Anna “resilient in her many hardships” so that we “want to admire Anna, not pity her”. Despite Gish’s fine central performance, however — and the justifiably famous finale in which “the freezing Gish walks perilously across ice floes during a blizzard” (using no stunt doubles) — Way Down East remains more of a curiosity than a true classic. There’s nothing particularly new about the heartbreaking storyline (one contributor on IMDb points out the uncanny narrative similarities with Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles), and Griffith’s portrayal of country yokels as foolish rubes quickly moves beyond “humor” into tiresome and offensive caricature. With that said, film fanatics will probably be curious to check this one out simply given its historical relevance; it was Griffith’s second most popular film after The Birth of the Nation.

Note: Another contributor on IMDb notes that she’s shown this film to her high school students for years as an archetypical example of Victorian melodrama — which makes complete sense.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Lillian Gish as Anna
  • An occasionally heart-breakingly melodramatic script
  • G.W. Bitzer’s cinematography
  • The exciting icy climax

Must See?
Yes, but only for its historical relevance.

Categories

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

Links:

Big Broadcast of 1938, The (1938)

Big Broadcast of 1938, The (1938)

“Remember the last time we were in jail together, darling?”

Synopsis:
The owner (W.C. Fields) of an electrically-charged ocean liner challenges a rival ship to a race, while a radio show host (Bob Hope) with multiple ex-wives (Shirley Ross, Grace Bradley, and Virginia Vale) and a new fiancee (Dorothy Lamour) announces the ships’ progress and keeps listeners entertained with performances by Tito Guizar, Kirsten Flagstad, Martha Raye, Shep Fields, and others.

Genres:

Review:
The synopsis of this Paramount Studios musical variety film gives an accurate indication of how paper-thin its “plot” is. I suppose we’re meant to nominally care which ship “wins the race”, and then of course there’s the little matter of romantic entanglements between Hope, Lamour, Ross, and Leif Erickson (Hope is engaged to Lamour, who falls for Erickson; meanwhile, Hope falls BACK in love with Ross). But seriously, it’s all just an excuse to see the musical acts, which are a mixed bag but occasionally fun: the opening live action/animated orchestral sequence, for instance, is cleverly done, and it’s trippy to watch Martha Raye (playing Fields’s loud-mouthed daughter) contorting and bouncing her way across the shipdeck with the help of a bevy of buff seamen. This film (the fourth in a series of similarly titled movies with similarly structured “plots”) is perhaps best remembered today for starring Hope in his feature-length debut, singing “Thanks for the Memories” with more genuine feeling and pathos than one would expect.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Bob Hope singing “Thanks for the Memories” with Shirley Ross
  • The fun live action-animated sequence with Shep Fields’ orchestra
  • Martha Raye’s impressive gymnastic feats while dancing and singing “Mama, That Moon is Here Again”

Must See?
No. Listed as a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book — likely because of the presence of Fields (though he’s not particularly memorable).

Links:

Come and Get It / Roaring Timber (1936)

Come and Get It / Roaring Timber (1936)

“In ten years, I’m going to be one of the richest men in this state! You wait and see.”

Synopsis:
An ambitious lumberjack (Edward Arnold) marries the daughter (Mary Nash) of his business partner rather than the woman he really loves — saloon singer Lotta Morgan (Frances Farmer). Years later, he meets Lotta’s daughter (also Frances Farmer), and falls immediately in love with her — as does his son (Joel McCrea).

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary’s response to this “well-mounted Samuel Goldwyn production of Edna Ferber’s novel” — “the only major film of Frances Farmer’s career” — is a bit of a surprise. He states that Farmer is “not so impressive that we can lament about how great her career would have been if Hollywood hadn’t destroyed her”, and argues that while “she is certainly capable and shows signs of intelligence”, “what’s most striking is how closely Jessica Lange resembles her in Frances“. I completely disagree. From the moment we first lay eyes on Lotta Morgan (Farmer in the first of dual roles), it’s difficult to look away: she’s both gorgeous and spunky, with a modern sensibility. In her second role (as Lotta Bostrom), she’s equally engaging, portraying just the right mix of a small town girl’s drive to make something of herself, and increasing dread at the realization of exactly what Arnold’s intentions are with her. Farmer is really the primary reason to see this movie, and film fanatics will be glad for the opportunity.

With that said, it’s a fine movie in many other respects as well. While it is a bit of a “conventional soaper” at times, the fact that it “becomes uncomfortable to watch in the second half [once] Arnold comes across as a ‘dirty old man'” simply adds to its authenticity. Indeed, the screenplay refreshingly never shirks away from dealing head-on with its somewhat disturbing premise, as married Arnold repeatedly fails to see exactly how creepy and inappropriate his advances towards young Lotta are. Clearly not a conventional leading man, Arnold (giving a “strong performance”) was an inspired choice to play the lead character here, with his bullish demeanor making it easy to sympathize with young Lotta’s dread. While I’m not particularly enamored by Walter Brennan’s Oscar-winning portrayal as Arnold’s best friend Swan (his broad Swedish accent comes across as a bit too heavy-handed at times), there are several fine supporting performances throughout — most notably Mady Christians as Lotta Bostrom’s concerned cousin, and Andrea Leeds as Arnold’s grown daughter (they have a particularly touching scene together).

P.S. Watch for Brooke Shields’s grandfather, Frank Shields, in a bit role as Arnold’s daughter’s beau.
P.P.S. Also of note: the film was directed by both Howard Hawks and William Wyler (with the latter taking over towards the end, and contributing far less).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Frances Farmer as both Lottas

  • Edward Arnold as Barney
  • Fine supporting performances
  • The stunning, if disturbing, logging sequences near the beginning of the film

Must See?
Yes, primarily for Farmer’s performance, but also as a good show all around.

Categories

Links:

Gore Gore Girls, The (1972)

Gore Gore Girls, The (1972)

“That’s the second of my friends that have been killed in the last couple of days!”

Synopsis:
On behalf of her newspaper, a journalist (Amy Farrell) hires a dapper private eye (Frank Kress) to solve the grisly murder of a stripper (Jackie Kroeger) — just the first of many soon to be mutilated.

Genres:

Review:
Herschell Gordon Lewis’s final film (apart from two “come back” films made in the 2000s) was this gore-sploitation of private eye flicks, complete with plenty of Lewis’s characteristically tasteless mutilation of female flesh (in this case, buttocks are tenderized and seasoned, faces are deep fried and ironed, heads are smashed in and scooped out — you know, that kind of thing). Meanwhile, the rest of the narrative consists of interminable stripping sequences that do nothing to further the story; naturally, I’m not naive enough to be confused about the rationale behind this (Gordon Lewis was nothing if not savvy about what would draw in crowds), but these sequences simply make the film just that much more excruciating to sit through. While it (naturally) has its diehard fans (one poster on IMDb writes in all sincerity, “the best part of GoreGore Girls [sic] is when the killer cuts off one nipple, and milk comes out, cuts off the second nipple and then chocolate milk comes out! hahaha genius”), feel free to distance yourself as far as possible from this one.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Nothing — unless you’re a fan of the genre, and enjoy the campily dark, low-budget trash humor

Must See?
Definitely not. Listed as Trash in the back of Peary’s book (and thus not considered, even by Peary, to be essential viewing for all Film Fanatics).

Links:

Scarlet Letter, The (1926)

Scarlet Letter, The (1926)

“Take heed, therefore! If ye sin, ye must pay — there is no escape!”

Synopsis:
In Puritan New England, young Hester Prynne (Lillian Gish) has a child out of wedlock with Reverend Dimmesdale (Lars Hanson), and is forced to wear an “A” for “Adultress” on her clothing at all times. When her estranged husband (Henry Walthall) arrives in town after being held captive by Indians for years, she must deal once again with the consequences of her actions.

Genres:

Review:
Victor Sjostrom is perhaps best known by film fanatics for his performance as the elderly protagonist of Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries (1957); but he was an esteemed silent film director before this, and several of his titles — including The Wind (1928), The Phantom Carriage (1921), and this film — are listed in Peary’s book. Lillian Gish successfully convinced the Hays Office to allow this adaptation of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic American novel to be made — and as silent films in general go, it’s among the more satisfying tales I’ve seen. The thematically dense novel is distilled into a series of vignettes which effectively portray both the authenticity of the lovers’ forbidden romance, and the repressive context within which they are each trying to survive. Gish is as lovely as ever, giving a typically moving performance; and while some accuse Hanson of “scenery chewing”, I find him nicely suited for his role as the kind-hearted minister who longs to do right by both his lover and his child. (Both occasionally “over-act” in typical silent-film fashion, but this is to be expected for the era and genre.) Also of note is the fine attention paid to historical detail — we get the sense we’re really eavesdropping on this little corner of society (as when we see a young couple courting by speaking to each other through tubes).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Lillian Gish as Hester Prynne
  • Lars Hanson as Reverend Dimmesdale
  • Fine period detail

  • Victor Sjostrom’s masterful direction
  • Hendrik Sartov’s cinematography

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

Categories

Links:

Rebecca (1940)

Rebecca (1940)

“Marriage with Max is not exactly a bed of roses, is it?”

Synopsis:
The shy personal assistant (Joan Fontaine) of a brash society lady (Florence Bates) falls in love with a wealthy widower (Laurence Olivier) whose deceased wife, Rebecca, continues to haunt the memories of those she left behind.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
The unnamed heroine in Daphne DuMaurier’s best-selling gothic romance novel — simply referred to as “the second Mrs. DeWinter” — represents the fulfillment of most girls’ dreams: a mousy, self-effacing young woman in an unsatisfying job, she is literally swept off her feet by a handsome millionaire, and taken to live in a gorgeous, postcard-perfect mansion in the English countryside. The fairy tale quickly turns sour, however, once the new Mrs. DeWinter (played here by Joan Fontaine in her “captivating” leading-role debut) encounters the household’s domineering housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson) — a “witch in black” — and realizes that her position as lady of the house will be continuously overshadowed by a “ghost” (the memory of her husband’s larger-than-life former wife, Rebecca). The tautly scripted three-act narrative of this Oscar-winning “best picture” neatly takes us through Fontaine’s whirlwind romance with Mr. DeWinter (Laurence Olivier), her insecurity as mistress of a household haunted by its troubled past, and a police investigation in which numerous secrets are revealed and Fontaine’s loyalty to her husband is severely tested.

If Rebecca isn’t “great Hitchcock” (it doesn’t stand among his very best work), it’s still fine entertainment. The performances throughout are uniformly excellent, with Olivier appropriately haunted and restrained as Fontaine’s brooding husband, and Fontaine perfectly portraying the brew of conflicted emotions felt by her character, who remains both nervously submissive and incredulous about her position until a pivotal shift in the plot later on (a point at which Peary argues the film “loses its power”, but I disagree). The supporting cast is fine as well, with Anderson delivering the performance of her lifetime as disturbed Mrs. Danvers (Peary refers to her portrayal as “chilling” and “soulless”); George Sanders briefly stealing the scenery in a characteristically smarmy role later in the film; and Florence Bates nicely capturing the essence of an overbearing society woman who borders on caricature but just manages to avoid this fate (listen to her conflicted reaction upon hearing about her assistant’s sudden engagement to Mr. DeWinter). A combination of appropriately spooky sets (Manderlay is a truly haunted house), George Barnes’ Oscar-winning “atmospheric cinematography”, “Franz Waxman’s moody score”, and “the clever way Hitchcock uses space so that Fontaine seems dominated by her surroundings” contribute to the film’s “amazing tension”, and turn it into a suspenseful mystery we’re eager to keep watching.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Joan Fontaine as the second Mrs. DeWinter (nominated by Peary as Best Actress of the Year in his Alternate Oscars book)
  • Laurence Olivier as Mr. DeWinter
  • Judith Anderson as Mrs. Danvers
  • George Sanders as Jack Favell
  • Florence Bates as Mrs. Van Hopper
  • Impressive sets
  • George Barnes’ cinematography
  • Franz Waxman’s score

Must See?
Yes, as Hitchcock’s only Oscar-winning picture (and one of only a few, shamefully, to even have been nominated).

Categories

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

Links:

Suspicion (1941)

Suspicion (1941)

“Johnnie, I’m just beginning to understand you.”

Synopsis:
A bookish wallflower (Joan Fontaine) marries a charming rake (Cary Grant) who quickly arouses her suspicions when she discovers he is both a liar and a penniless thief.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary spends the bulk of his review of this early American Hitchcock film — his follow-up to Rebecca (1940) — complaining about its ending (which, by the way, is discussed to some extent in nearly every online review — so be forewarned if you’ve never seen it). He notes that Fontaine “saves [the] picture with [her] gusty performance”, but claims that Grant simply “looks stiff”. He points out a couple of “good scenes — Grant carrying [a] glowing glass of milk to sick Fontaine, a dinner conversation about murder”, but ends his review by once again arguing that “the disappointing resolution keeps it from being top-grade Hitchcock”. I actually agree with Peary that this isn’t “top-grade Hitchcock” — but not just because of the ending. Although there’s a credible amount of tension throughout the entire film (which is told from Fontaine’s point of view), we’re quickly frustrated by her simpering unwillingness to act on her increasingly mounting suspicions.

It’s relatively easy to accept Fontaine’s whirlwind marriage to Johnnie as the consequence of an overly sheltered young woman fearing spinsterhood (certainly plenty of naive, desperate women in real life have married cads or outright psychopaths out of similar motivations) — but once she learns about his lies and financial indiscretions, there’s no excuse for her hesitation in getting out. We’re meant to believe that she simply can’t help herself (she’s too in love with Johnnie), but I don’t buy it. (Interestingly, she’s never given reason to worry about him cheating on her with another woman — which indicates that perhaps women will put up with a lot of nonsense in a marriage as long as they don’t believe their primacy as “woman number one” is being threatened.) Meanwhile, other elements of the screenplay are clumsy as well: how convenient is it, for instance, that Johnnie and Lina happen to be friends with a mystery novelist (Auriol Lee) who’s exploring various methods for untraceable murder? The origins of this friendship are never explained, so it comes across as simply a plot contrivance. With that said, Fontaine’s Oscar-winning performance — in a decidedly imperfectly written role — is fine, and film fanatics will likely be curious to see the movie for this reason alone.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Joan Fontaine as Lina
  • Atmospheric cinematography

Must See?
Yes, simply for Fontaine’s Oscar-winning performance.

Categories

Links:

  • IMDb entry
  • NY Times Original Review
  • Qwipster Review
  • Digitally Obsessed Review
  • DVD Savant Review
  • TCM Article
  • Tired Old Queen at the Movies Video Review
  • Under Capricorn (1949)

    Under Capricorn (1949)

    “I’m afraid I’m not very well.”

    Synopsis:
    In the early 19th century, an Irishman (Michael Wilding) moves to Australia, where he befriends an ex-convict (Joseph Cotten) whose fragile wife (Ingrid Bergman) has become a reclusive alcoholic cared for by her domineering housemaid (Margaret Leighton). When Wilding attempts to help cure Bergman of her neuroses (falling in love with her in the process), he quickly learns more about her unconventional marriage to Cotten, and the tragedy that sent them to Australia.

    Genres:

    Review:
    Based on a novel by Australian author Helen Simpson, this historical melodrama was Alfred Hitchcock’s second film in Technicolor, and features several instances of the “long take” he so infamously utilized in Rope (1948) the previous year. It performed poorly at the box office, and is generally viewed as one of Hitchcock’s lesser efforts — primarily because it’s more of a domestic melodrama than a thriller, and moves at a much more leisurely, literary pace. It’s often compared (unfavorably) with Hitchcock’s Oscar-winning American debut film, Rebecca (1940), which featured a similarly overbearing housemaid intent on meddling in the private life of her mistress — though in this case, Margaret Leighton’s Millie is (unfortunately) not given nearly as much screentime as Judith Anderson’s Miss Danvers in Rebecca. Indeed, given what a pivotal role Leighton ends up playing in the denouement of Under Capricorn, it’s especially frustrating to see how underdeveloped her character is; she’s given one excellent, intriguing monologue mid-way through the movie, but otherwise simply comes and goes until the film’s final scenes bring her back with a wallop.

    At the film’s heart, however, is Ingrid Bergman, giving a typically mesmerizing performance as a conflicted woman driven to drink and seclusion by both her tragic past and her challenging present circumstances. Also effective is Michael Wilding (best known as Elizabeth Taylor’s second husband — though, interestingly, he later married Leighton), as the do-gooding man determined to help rescue Bergman from her self-imposed exile. Meanwhile, Jack Cardiff’s luminous cinematography bathes the entire film in gorgeous, painterly hues. It’s all the more disappointing, then, that the movie itself ultimately doesn’t move in a very interesting direction: we wouldn’t mind learning a lot more about life during this very specific time in Australia’s history (when it was still largely comprised of ex-convicts), but instead must be content with the melodramatic tensions between Cotten (giving an overly restrained performance), Bergman, Wilding, and Leighton. It’s far from boring, and beautifully shot, but is really only must-see for Hitchcock completists.

    Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

    • Ingrid Bergman as Lady Henrietta
    • Michael Wilding as Charles
    • Margaret Leighton as Millie
    • Jack Cardiff’s cinematography

    Must See?
    No, though it’s certainly recommended to Hitchcock enthusiasts and/or fans of Ingrid Bergman. In 1958, voted by the Cahiers du Cinema as one of the ten greatest films of all time. Available for free viewing on the Internet Archive.

    Links:

    Broken Blossoms (The Yellow Man and the White Girl) (1919)

    Broken Blossoms (The Yellow Man and the White Girl) (1919)

    “The Yellow Man watched Lucy often. The beauty which all Limehouse missed smote him to his heart.”

    Synopsis:
    A teenage waif (Lillian Gish) abused by her adoptive father (Donald Crisp) finds refuge in the home of a kind Chinese shopkeeper (Richard Barthelmess).

    Genres:

    Response to Peary’s Review:
    Peary refers to this “D.W. Griffith classic” — an unflinching early look at child abuse and racial prejudice — as “perhaps the cinema’s first outright tragedy”, yet points out that the use of various tints and the strategic employment of a “special soft-focus lens” gives the film “an almost poetic feel that tempers the harshness of the story”. He notes that the “overly sentimental” storyline (based on a short story by Thomas Burke) “surely appealed to Griffith because it again let him lash out at the evil city, again deal with miscegenation and suicide, and again — and this is the disturbing element — sacrifice an innocent girl to our cruel, immoral world.” Indeed, the three central characters are so elemental in their attributes — “snarling Crisp”, “stoical Barthelmess”, and timid Gish — that the wafer-thin story (not really suitable for a feature length film) comes across as more of a fable or a fairy tale than any kind of realistic narrative. This is especially true given that the age and developmental maturity of Gish’s character (Lucy) is left so vague: the 26-year-old Gish* could literally be either 10 or 15 or 20; she’s so petite and huddled over from fear at all times that we can’t really tell — and when Barthelmess hands her a doll to play with (!), we get seriously confused. (In the original short story, the character was 12 — which I suppose lends some credence to this scene.)

    The film’s terribly antiquated, casually racist subtitle will likely turn many modern film fanatics off; but once they make tentative peace with both this and the (then standard) casting of white men in both central Asian roles, they’ll likely be pleasantly surprised to find that Griffith — the infamous director of America’s most egregiously racist classic film, Birth of a Nation (1915) — seems to at least be trying to portray the film’s Chinese-American protagonist (Cheng) in a reasonably respectful light. Indeed, it’s gratifying to know that Griffith “considered the main theme of his film to be that Americans wrongly consider themselves superior to foreigners, including the Chinese, who have a noble, peace-loving philosophy”. Cheng is shown at the beginning of the film to be a noble-minded Buddhist missionary hoping to convert European heathens to more peaceful ways — and thus his quick descent into opium addiction after arriving on the sordid shores of London is given a bit of context and justification, rather than simply perpetuating the trope of drug-addled Asians. (Actually, as I think about it, this piece of the narrative could easily have been expanded upon: I’d love to have seen more of Cheng’s travails upon arrival in London.)

    At any rate, Cheng’s poetically romantic yearnings towards Lucy could be (and are) explained away as merely a platonic desire to love and assist that which is most pure and good in the world — though, again, it would have been much more fulfilling to see this most unusual cinematic couple actually moving towards something “real” together. This would have required a more substantial storyline in general, but at least would have given a shred of credence to the fantastical poster (!). In terms of the lead performances, Peary accurately argues that “Crisp overacts”, “Barthelmess underacts (as if he believed one change of expression would let us know that he isn’t really Oriental after all)” — but Gish “acts up an exciting storm”. He notes that “from her timid talking, stooped, crooked posture, and terrified eyes, Gish immediately gets us to understand that her beatings are a daily thing for her”, and she is “totally convincing” in the role. Her character’s ability to “smile only if she lifts the sides of her mouth her fingers” was apparently thought up by Gish herself, and remains one of the film’s most indelible (recurring) images.

    * TCM’s article lists Gish as 23-years-old when the film was made, but this doesn’t make mathematical sense, given that IMDb cites 1893 as her birth year.

    Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

    • Lillian Gish as Lucy, “the waif”
    • A (relatively) bold exploration of both child abuse and cross-cultural companionship
    • Billy Bitzer’s cinematography

    Must See?
    Yes; despite being “a bit disappointing”, it’s nonetheless considered a silent classic, and “is essential to any study of Griffith”. Selected to the National Film Registry, Library of Congress, in 1996. Available for free viewing at www.archive.org.

    Categories

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

    Links:

    Animal Farm (1954)

    Animal Farm (1954)

    “No animal shall kill another animal. All animals are equal.”

    Synopsis:
    A group of farm animals rebel against their cruel owner and take over the farm themselves. But soon two head pigs (Napoleon and Snowball) are vying for leadership, and the animals find themselves back in dire straits.

    Genres:

    Review:
    Most definitely NOT for little ones, this animated version of George Orwell’s classic anti-Communist allegory has been criticized as merely a serviceable adaptation of the novel (minus its downbeat ending), and viewed as most suitable for teens required to read the book in school. While there’s some truth to this (the translation is quite literal, and will likely be of most interest to those who’ve read the novel), this assessment isn’t quite fair, given that the high-quality animation throughout is consistently impressive, and the animators effectively utilize the medium to tell a tale it would undoubtedly be challenging to relate in any other format. (I haven’t seen the 1999 live version, so I can’t comment on this, but I’ve heard it’s even more disappointing.) Ultimately, as other critics have pointed out, the use of animation to tell this “fairy tale” (the novel’s subtitle) is actually appropriate — as long as viewers are prepared for a truly dark and disturbing narrative journey.

    Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

    • Creative animation

    • An appropriately dark adaptation of Orwell’s classic dystopian novel

    Must See?
    Yes, simply for its historical relevance as the first British feature animated (entertainment) film. Listed as a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

    Categories

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

    Links: