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Month: September 2011

Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)

Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)

“I don’t want to be just introduced to him. I want it to be something strange and romantic and something I’ll always remember!”

Synopsis:
In turn-of-the-century St. Louis, a teenager (Judy Garland) in love with the boy next door (Tom Drake) is distraught when her father (Leon Ames) declares that she and her family — including her sisters (Lucille Bremer, Joan Carroll, and Margaret O’Brien), her brother (Henry H. Daniels, Jr.), her mother (Mary Astor), and their housekeeper (Marjorie Main) — will be moving to New York City.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary describes this “wonderful M-G-M musical” — which he argues is the best musical by director Vincente Minnelli, and the second-best for Garland (after The Wizard of Oz) — as “a warm, unsentimental” [really???] “tribute to family, home, and tree-lined America”. He doesn’t go into much detail in his analysis of the film, instead simply calling out certain notable aspects, such as the “magnificent $100,000 set designed by Lemuel Ayres and Cedric Gibbons”, the “striking color photography” by George Folsey (which “contributes to the picture’s early-century flavor”), and the performance given by “cute, feisty O’Brien, who won a Special Oscar” for her role here as the youngest child in Garland’s family, thanks in part to “two exceptional dramatic scenes”: “one set on a scary Halloween night and another in which she destroys her snowman because she’s so upset about the family’s moving”.

Adapted from “Sally Benson’s short stories about her youth”, the narrative of Meet Me in St. Louis is similarly vignette-driven, divided into four seasons (introduced by old-fashioned title cards), and primarily concerned with showing a nostalgia-riddled vision of a bygone era (which, one should recall, was just 40 years earlier at the time the film was released). At this latter goal, it succeeds admirably: viewers would be hard-pressed to find anything at all unappealing about the lives lived by the Smith family, who are close-knit, wear gorgeous period clothing, live in a “large-but-cozy” house, and have a stern but kind housekeeper (Main) to watch over them. Their biggest concerns — other than the imminent move to NYC, of course — are whether a batch of ketchup stirred up by Astor is too sweet or too sharp; whether Bremer’s long-distance boyfriend will propose to her over the phone; whether the “boy next door” will finally realize Garland is alive; and whether young Tootie and Agnes (Carroll) will survive that year’s Halloween “festivities” (which provide us with a fascinating glimpse at what used to serve as entertainment for young kids on this ghoulish night; getting eggs thrown at your windows no longer seems quite so bad in comparison.)

For a rare dissenting (or at least refreshingly critical) view of the film, be sure to check out DVD Savant’s review. While he rates the film “Excellent” and acknowledges its many virtues, he points out that its primary function at the time was to serve as a subtle wartime reminder “that staying home and staying the same is a great ambition”, and that “Americans were supposed to be lovable small town hicks, the kind who would keep buying tickets to MGM movies indefinitely.” He’s also not afraid to specifically call out some of the storyline’s more troublesome elements — such as during the climactic high school dance, when (as we watch Garland dancing with a series of “undesirable” boys she was originally planning to hoist onto her rival), “the movie… dooms a whole social underclass of boys … to ‘inhuman’ status, in the kind of casual discrimination that the writers had no trouble milking for laughs.”

DVD Savant also admits, “When I first saw the film, I thought Margaret O’Brien was delightful, but her precocious morbidity no longer seems so funny.” Indeed, O’Brien’s iconic performance here continues to divide viewers into two distinct camps (as evidenced by a heated discussion on IMDb’s message board for the film): those who find her “annoying and disturbed”, and those who prefer to view her behavior more forgivingly, as simply a product of the film’s escapism and time period. I’ll admit to agreeing with Savant’s overall sentiment: while I thought she was the cutest thing ever when I first saw this film years ago, upon rewatching it recently I found her surprisingly irritating during certain early scenes. With that said, her heartfelt performance during the two dramatic scenes called out by Peary (particularly the latter one with the snowmen — a precursor to her teary presence while Garland sings the heart-rending “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”) do show clear evidence of her acting abilities, and I believe she deserved the honorary Oscar she was given.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Judy Garland as Esther
  • Margaret O’Brien as Tootie
  • Garland’s first meaningful interaction with Drake, as he helps her put out the lights in her home
  • Fine sets and period detail
  • Garland singing “The Boy Next Door”, “The Trolley Song”, and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” — three memorable classics


  • George Folsey’s rich Technicolor cinematography

Must See?
Yes, as an acknowledged American classic. Nominated as one of the Best Pictures of the Year in Peary’s Alternate Oscars.

Categories

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

Links:

Pirate, The (1948)

Pirate, The (1948)

“Underneath this prim exterior there are depths of emotion — romantic longings!”

Synopsis:
On a 19th century Caribbean isle, a young woman (Judy Garland) engaged to her town’s pompous mayor (Walter Slezak) is wooed by a travelling troubadour (Gene Kelly), who pretends to be the mysterious pirate Macoco in order to impress her.

Genres:

Review:
Vincente Minnelli’s third and final film with his wife (Garland) in a leading role — after Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) and The Clock (1945) — was this critically panned musical-fantasy, which has since gained a renewed reputation as a cult favorite (though it’s not labeled as such in the back of Peary’s book; perhaps this status has emerged in recent years). Both Garland and Kelly are in peak form, and appear to be having a blast; they seem to realize that the story is purely escapist fare, and (thankfully) never take it too seriously. Garland’s finest moment comes early on, as she breaks free from her character’s prim persona, and — under the influence of hypnosis — dazzles Kelly and everyone around her by breaking into a lustful ditty about her crush on “Mack the Black” (who, according to the song’s lyrics, “leads a flaming trail of masculinity” !); the pure contrast between this and what we’ve seen before, with Garland’s Manuela meekly agreeing to marry a portly man much older than herself, is remarkably effective.

Kelly, meanwhile, exhibits seemingly unflagging energy throughout. He’s given the opportunity to shine during two wonderful dance sequences: early on, during the song “Nina”, as he makes it known that he’ll fall for any beautiful woman he sees (though naturally, once he lays eyes on Manuela, his womanizing days are over); then later, during a daydream envisioned by Manuela, as he shows off his remarkably muscular physique while dancing the stunning “Pirate Ballet” (see still below). Walter Slezak is well-cast as his nemesis (and the film’s all-around baddie); to that end, the mistaken identity plot is nicely handled, and allows for some fine tension during the denouement. The vibrant sets and Technicolor cinematography are also worth a mention. While not one of Garland’s (or Minnelli’s) best musicals, The Pirate is enjoyable while it lasts, and should be seen by all film fanatics at least once, simply for its cult status.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Gene Kelly as Serafin
  • Judy Garland as Manuela
  • Fabulous Technicolor sets

Must See?
Yes, as a recent cult favorite.

Categories

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Child is Waiting, A (1963)

Child is Waiting, A (1963)

“We have to accept these children as they are — just as they are.”

Synopsis:
A musician (Judy Garland) comes to work at a boarding school for mentally retarded children (run by Burt Lancaster), and finds herself especially drawn towards one particular child, Reuben (Bruce Ritchey). Soon she’s called Reuben’s absentee mother (Gena Rowlands) out to the school for a visit, and learns more about his parents’ reluctance to play an active part in his life.

Genres:

Review:
Judy Garland’s next-to-last film — one of just two studio pictures directed by independent filmmaker John Cassavetes — is a well-intentioned but ultimately patronizing, dated, and frustrating affair. It shows just enough evidence of Cassavetes’ famed cinéma vérité style (through footage of actual children at the school where the story takes place) to frustrate viewers hoping for much more of this; meanwhile, the storyline itself is purely calculated drivel all the way. One would think that Garland, close to the end of her tragically drug-addled existence, would be well-suited for the lead role, playing a musician desperately seeking some kind of meaning in her life (rumor has it that Garland loved children in general, and children with disabilities in particular) — but her character is frustratingly shallow here; all we learn about her is that she’s an unmarried, well-trained musician. Meanwhile, she’s allowed to come work at the school despite possessing no credentials other than her own good intentions — and even once she’s hired, we simply see her wandering the grounds for the majority of the film, until she’s finally tasked by Lancaster to actually teach the music classes she claimed in her brief interview that she wanted to implement; ultimately, her character comes across as simply one more “case” for Lancaster to explore (though this angle isn’t sufficiently exploited, either).

That a mid-century-Hollywood “issue” film like this comes across these days as horribly dated is no surprise, and shouldn’t necessarily be a deal-breaker for would-be viewers. Fortunately, at least in the United States, we’ve moved beyond the well-intentioned but utterly corrupt notion that children with mental retardation (now referred to more properly as students with intellectual disabilities) are best served by being separated from their families and taught to live “independently” in a group home with others; in one climactic “horror scene”, we’re shown older MR individuals (clearly in a state of blathering incapacity) who were apparently allowed to stay at home with their parents for too long, and consequently were left helpless and without appropriate skills by the time they were finally institutionalized as adults (!!). While surely well-intentioned at the time, this scene comes across nowadays as voyeuristic at best.

Meanwhile, Reuben (well-played by Bruce Ritchey, the only actor among the cast of children) becomes the film’s token representative case study — someone Garland immediately “adopts” as her special-interest child (perhaps because he looks “normal”, in comparison to the other children, though her rationale is never made quite clear). We’re shown flashbacks of the trauma his well-heeled, educated parents (Gena Rowlands and Steven Hill) experienced before finally realizing that their child was “defective”; as Lancaster explains heatedly, and in all sincerity, to Garland, “His parents didn’t face the fact that he was retarded until very, very late; they let him play with ordinary children, and go to Kindergarten!” This kind of statement would be campily laughable if it weren’t so painfully representative of erstwhile attitudes.

The film’s best moments are those in which Cassavetes is allowed to show his directorial hand, and presents us with more authentic slices-of-life — most noticeably during the interactions between Rowlands and Hill (both wonderful), and one short scene in which Paul Stewart shares his own experiences as the father of a child with intellectual challenges. In contrast, all scenes with either Lancaster or Garland simply smack of Hollywoodized “best intentions”; while many viewers (see IMDb) seem to adore both actors here, and to admire the film in general for its “daring” subject-matter, I’m not impressed by any of it (as should be clear by now!). Lancaster’s Dr. Clark represents a Firm-But-Kind Authority Figure who occasionally (for no apparent reason other than to allow us a refreshing glimpse of the “real” children) wanders through the school quizzing the students on their letter recognition skills (wouldn’t this be done by a trained speech pathologist?); meanwhile, Garland’s character isn’t nearly fleshed-out enough — she seems to simply be wandering the set in a state of dazed bewilderment (surely a reflection of her personal health at the time), and we quickly become desperate to see more spunk and vitality of some kind. True Garland fans (and there are plenty of them!) probably won’t mind — but all other film fanatics should simply stick with watching her earlier films.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Bruce Ritchey as Reuben
  • Gena Rowlands as Reuben’s mother
  • Steven Hill as Reuben’s father
  • Paul Stewart in a small but memorable role as a sympathetic school staff member
  • Fine, if frustratingly intermittent, use of cinéma vérité techniques

Must See?
No, though most film fanatics will be curious to check it out once.

Links:

Clock, The (1945)

Clock, The (1945)

“Why can’t we have this one last day together — couldn’t we?”

Synopsis:
During World War II, a soldier (Robert Walker) on leave for two days in New York City meets a pretty young secretary (Judy Garland) and falls in love; soon they’re desperately trying to find a way to get married before he’s shipped back to active duty.

Genres:

  • Judy Garland Films
  • Keenan Wynn Films
  • New York City
  • Race-Against-Time
  • Robert Walker Films
  • Romance
  • Soldiers
  • Vincente Minnelli Films

Response to Peary’s Review:
I was surprised to find myself largely in agreement with Peary’s cynical review of this early Vincente Minnelli film, a rare non-musical for Judy Garland (who Minnelli married shortly afterwards). Peary argues that while “Garland is extremely fetching” (true), the “romance is too calculated to endear us through simplicity”, and the picture itself is ultimately “too proud of itself for its ‘realistic’ characters, innocent romance, [and] ‘honest’ common-folks dialogue”. He forewarns us that “despite the fine cast and a few touching moments, [the] picture may grate on your nerves”. The Clock is the type of film you desperately want to enjoy, given that its heart is clearly in the right place — who wouldn’t root for a pair of such likable protagonists under such imposed duress? Thanks to sensitive performances by both Garland and Walker, we like these individuals right away; and it’s refreshing to see Garland only gradually coming to the realization this random “Joe” is someone she may be seriously interested in getting to know better.

As the granddaughter-in-law of a wartime bride, I’ve heard much about the reality of the romantic climate at the time, which was very much one of grabbing opportunities as they presented themselves — and the storyline is faithful to that general sentiment. I’m sure it hit a nerve with audiences at the time. What ultimately undoes the film, however — as Peary points out — is its attempt to engage the leading couple in a series of “authentic” NYC adventures, most of which simply never ring quite true. While James Gleason is believably wholesome as a milkman who picks up Walker and Garland late at night (and I had no problem buying the idea that he’d take them along for a ride; such night-time jobs can get pretty lonesome), the excitement they subsequently undergo quickly feels calculated to drive the plot forward. Meanwhile, Minnelli’s attempts to infuse humor into the script — such as through the weird performance of a prim older woman (Moyna MacGill, Angela Lansbury’s mother) who glances repeatedly up to the heavens while attempting to eat her dinner through the ruckus caused by drunk Keenan Wynn (perfectly cast) — often fall flat, and seem better suited for a different type of indie film altogether.

With all that said, The Clock does get several things right — most notably the palpable sense on the part of both Walker and Garland’s characters that they’ve been thrown into a unique pocket-hole of fate, one they’d be stupid to turn against or ignore. In the midst of war and leave and loneliness, finding a “soulmate” — even for a few days — would surely feel larger-than-life, and it absolutely comes across as authentic that they’d scramble to find a way to consummate (and legitimate) their brief union. So, despite my overall grumpiness, I’ll concede that The Clock is worth a look on numerous levels, even if it fails to deliver an entirely satisfying package.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Judy Garland as Alice
  • Robert Walker as Joe
  • Fine character performances
  • An effective view of both the charms and frustrations of New York City

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

Links:

Girl Crazy (1943)

Girl Crazy (1943)

“I always said you were girl crazy. I was wrong – you’re just crazy!”

Synopsis:
The girl-crazy son (Mickey Rooney) of a newspaper magnate (Henry O’Neill) is sent out West to attend a boys-only college, where he nonetheless falls in love with one of the only girls around — the dean’s beautiful daughter, Ginger (Judy Garland).

Genres:

Review:
Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney’s final film together (at least in leading roles) was this rousing adaptation of George and Ira Gershwin’s 1930 stage musical. The plot is as silly as they come, but ultimately inconsequential in the face of a host of fabulous, memorable tunes — including “Bidin’ My Time”, “Fascinating Rhythm”, “But Not For Me”, and “I’ve Got Rhythm”, among others (wowee!). Meanwhile, Garland and Rooney are in peak form here, with Garland lovelier than ever (it’s a treat to see her actually resisting Rooney’s advances for once, rather than the other way around), and Rooney a bundle of typically irrepressible — but somehow tolerable — energy (viz. the random but enjoyable scene in which he entertains Garland by acting out a boxing round). Busby Berkeley notoriously directed the film’s stunningly choreographed finale, “I’ve Got Rhythm” (which was shot first), but was replaced by Norman Taurog, who does a fine job managing the rest of the escapist material. Don’t pay too much attention to details of the plot, however, or you’ll find yourself irritated by what amounts to lazy scriptwriting (I’m speaking specifically about events related to the “Miss Rodeo” contest, but won’t give away more here).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Mickey Rooney as Danny
  • Judy Garland as Ginger
  • Numerous rousing Gershwin tunes

Must See?
Yes, as one of Rooney and Garland’s best films together (in large part due to that Gershwin score!).

Categories

Links:

Summer Stock (1950)

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.

Genres:

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 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.

Links:

For Me and My Gal (1942)

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.

Genres:

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.

Links:

It! The Terror From Beyond Space (1958)

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 survivor (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.

Categories

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Lancelot of the Lake (1974)

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).

Genres:

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.

Links:

Tarzan, the Ape Man (1932)

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.

Categories

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