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Month: January 2013

Adam’s Rib (1949)

Adam’s Rib (1949)

“Lawyers should never marry other lawyers; this is called in-breeding.”

Synopsis:
A lawyer (Katharine Hepburn) defending a woman (Judy Holliday) who shot her faithless husband (Tom Ewell) and his lover (Jean Hagen) finds her marriage strained when her husband (Spencer Tracy) is assigned as prosecutor in the case.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Real-life lovers Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy co-starred in no less than nine films together, beginning with Woman of the Year in 1942 (where they met on set and fell in love), and culminating shortly before Tracy’s death with Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967). This “middle entry” in their collective oeuvre — directed by George Cukor — represents the duo at their most comfortable, playing (appropriately enough) a childless, middle-aged couple (“Adam” and “Amanda”) at the height of their careers, happily married until they become pitched in an ideological battle against one another. As Peary writes, the “bright script by married Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon deserves praise for being a Hollywood film that not only mentioned the term ‘sexual equality’ back in 1949, but also attempted to be something much more significant than the typical battle of the sexes.” He writes that Amanda “uses the trial as a forum to denounce the sexism that prevails in society”; and while “[Adam] accuses her of making a mockery of the law”, in reality it’s “his masculine pride [that] is hurt”, forcing him to “use feminine wiles to get his wife back”.

Peary argues that Adam’s Rib is “probably Hepburn and Tracy’s best film” (I disagree; I think Woman of the Year merits that slot), but that “it has dated as badly as the others”. He accurately notes that “like the others, it must be seen in the light of its era to appreciate that it was ahead of its time in its treatment of sexual politics” (though isn’t that advice true when viewing most early-20th-century Hollywood films?). He further notes that “the characters do so much grandstanding that the issues get blurred”, which doesn’t really bother me; what I find much more irritating (though unmentioned in Peary’s review) is David Wayne’s performance as Amanda’s would-be suitor, playing an annoying songwriter whose interest in Amanda is poorly conceived through and through. Fortunately, he’s mostly overshadowed by his co-stars — not just Tracy and Hepburn (both in fine if somewhat predictable form), but a memorable Judy Holliday in her breakthrough film role. Meanwhile, Kanin and Gordon’s script is generally smart enough to overcome its occasional narrative flaws, particularly in its honest depiction of marital tensions experienced by an older-than-Hollywood-average couple (in their 40s!).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Katharine Hepburn as Amanda Bonner (nominated by Peary as one of the Best Actresses of the Year in his Alternate Oscars)
    Adam's Rib Hepburn
  • Spencer Tracy as Adam Bonner
    Adam's Rib Tracy
  • Judy Holliday as Doris Attinger
    Adam's Rib Holliday
  • A refreshingly candid look at a happy marriage under tension
    Adam's Rib Marriage

Must See?
Yes, as one of Tracy and Hepburn’s best outings together.

Categories

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

Links:

Blonde Bombshell / Bombshell (1933)

Blonde Bombshell / Bombshell (1933)

“Deep down in every girl’s heart there’s the desire for the rite of real womanhood.”

Bombshell Poster

Synopsis:
Fed up with her mooching brother (Ted Healy), tippling father (Frank Morgan), overbearing publicist (Lee Tracy), and demanding director (Pat O’Brien), a sexy movie star (Jean Harlow) makes various attempts to escape from her hectic Hollywood lifestyle.

Genres:

Review:
Victor Fleming directed this relentlessly-paced, incisive pre-Code satire, starring Jean Harlow in a role purportedly based on Clara Bow. The clever storyline — adapted from a 1928 stage play by Caroline Francke and Mack Crane — shadows Harlow’s numerous failed attempts to seek some semblance of privacy and autonomy in Hollywood, first by nearly marrying a questionable marquis (Ivan Lebedeff), then by trying to adopt a baby, and finally by becoming engaged to a wealthy American (Franchot Tone) whose snooty parents (C. Aubrey Smith and Mary Forbes) are distinctly wary of their son’s new love interest. Meanwhile, her meddling publicist — played by heavy-drinking pre-Code actor Lee Tracy, probably best known for his role the same year in Dinner at Eight (1933) — tries to earn Harlow’s romantic affections while strategically foiling each of her ventures. There’s plenty here for fans of pre-Code comedies to enjoy, from racy dialogue to impressively frantic pacing to Harlow’s spot-on screechy performance; it’s definitely worth a look, though it remains oddly unavailable on DVD.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Jean Harlow as Lola
    Bombshell Harlow
  • Lee Tracy as Space
    Bombshell Tracy
  • An enjoyably loopy screenplay
    Bombshell Screenplay
  • Clever pre-Code dialogue:

    “Your day off is sure brutal on your negligee.”
    “Where I kick her, the camera’ll never pick up the scar.”

Must See?
Yes, as a fine vehicle for Harlow. Listed as a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

Categories

Links:

Woman Rebels, A (1936)

Woman Rebels, A (1936)

“Even though I’m a woman, I have brains — I intend to use them.”

Woman Rebels Poster

Synopsis:
A defiant young woman (Katharine Hepburn) in Victorian England rebels against her autocratic father (Donald Crisp) by having an affair with a man (Van Heflin) she soon learns is already married. When her newly married sister (Elizabeth Allan) dies shortly before giving birth, the secretly pregnant Hepburn decides to raise her child as her niece while forging a career for herself as a groundbreaking journalist; meanwhile, she refuses to marry a kind diplomat (Herbert Marshall) out of fear that her secret will be revealed and cause a scandal.

Genres:

Review:
This little-seen Katharine Hepburn vehicle (based on Netta Syrett‘s 1930 novel Portrait of a Rebel) is primarily remembered as Hepburn’s third box office flop in a row for RKO studios — and unfortunately, it’s easy to see why the film failed to catch on with audiences. It’s ultimately a missed opportunity, relying far too heavily on melodramatic conventions rather than capitalizing on its more interesting feminist premise. Although Hepburn’s “Pam Thistlewaite” defiantly declares that she “has brains and intends to use them”, we see only snippets of her brave attempts to penetrate the glass ceiling in Victorian England — as epitomized in the following reactions to her attempts to seek employment in “men’s work”:

“A girl as a secretary! Why, bless my soul… I’d be the laughing stock of London.”
“Sorry, can’t be done — a salesgirl in a shop? Unthinkable. My customers wouldn’t tolerate it.”

Her character does eventually find success as an agitating feminist journalist, but unfortunately, little to no time is spent dwelling on this aspect of her life. Instead, the bulk of the narrative focuses on issues of dubious morality, as Hepburn’s “sins” of the past come back to haunt both her and her grown daughter.

With that said, Hepburn is as luminous and charismatic as always, fully embodying a role tailor-made for her sensibilities; and the Oscar-nominated period costumes she wears over the decades are a delight. However, this one remains must-see only for Hepburn enthusiasts (and those curious to see Herbert Marshall bathing a baby while wearing an apron!).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Katharine Hepburn as Pamela
    Woman Rebels Hepburn2
  • Fine period costumes
    Woman Rebels Costumes1
    Woman Rebels Costumes4
    Woman Rebels Costumes3
  • Robert De Grasse’s cinematography
    Woman Rebels Cinematography1
    Woman Rebels Cinematography

Must See?
No, though Hepburn fans will want to check it out.

Links:

Chilly Scenes of Winter (1982)

Chilly Scenes of Winter (1982)

“You have this exalted view of me, and I hate it.”

Chilly Scenes of Winter Poster

Synopsis:
An unhappy man (John Heard) with a mentally ill mother (Gloria Grahame) and a deadbeat roommate (Peter Riegert) reminisces obsessively about the love of his life (Mary Beth Hurt), who has left him to return to her A-frame selling husband (Mark Metcalf).

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary notes that Joan Micklin Silver’s “offbeat” adaptation of Ann Beattie’s novel — about a man whose “obsessiveness, jealousy, and constant flattery drive [the married woman he loves] back to her husband” — has “many special, funny, charming moments”; but he complains that “Heard and Hurt [are] offputting” as “screen characters”. It’s true that Heard’s boring, whiny protagonist isn’t exactly likable (he edges dangerously close to stalker tendencies), while Hurt’s chronic indecisiveness about her romantic life eventually becomes simply tiresome. Then again, these characters — effectively played by Heard and Hurt — are both eminently realistic: who hasn’t known people struggling with similar concerns, if to a less extreme degree? Indeed, it’s exactly such fidelity to real-life relationship woes that likely endears audiences to both the film and the book, which collectively possess a small cult following (see IMDb’s message board, where diehard fans reminisce about what might have become of the characters years later).

In his review, Peary argues that while Heard and Hurt “may be real characters”, he “never believe[s] their responses to each other” — a complaint which seems to speak to the screenplay’s literary origins. While I don’t personally have any trouble believing in Heard and Hurt’s interactions, other elements of the screenplay — such as Heard’s repeated dealings with a frustrated blind vendor — come across as overly scripted. It’s also frustrating to see so little made of some of the most interesting supporting characters — i.e., Gloria Grahame as Heard’s loony mom (film fanatics will be thrilled to recognize her, and disappointed by how little screentime she’s given), and Hurt’s put-upon husband “Ox” (with a name like that, wouldn’t you like to learn just a bit more about him?). However, the film itself — expertly directed by Silver — is certainly worth a one-time look, especially given its minor cult status.

Note: Peary concludes his review by noting that he finds “the original [upbeat] ending” from the film’s previous release (in 1979, under the alternate title Head Over Heels) to be “more logical” — but this will be a moot point for modern viewers, who unfortunately won’t have the opportunity to compare versions.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Mary Beth Hurt as Laura
    Chilly Scenes Hurt
  • John Heard as Charles
    Chilly Scenes Heard

Must See?
Yes, once — as a cult favorite.

Categories

Links:

Muppet Movie, The (1979)

Muppet Movie, The (1979)

“All I can see is a million frogs on tiny crutches.”

Muppet Movie Poster

Synopsis:
A talent agent (Dom DeLuise) convinces Kermit the Frog (Jim Henson) to leave his Mississippi home and pursue a career in Hollywood. Along the way, Kermit encounters a host of Muppet friends eager to join him on his trip, and tries to evade capture by the nefarious owner (Charles Durning) of a frog leg-serving restaurant chain.

Genres:

  • Aspiring Stars
  • Carol Kane Films
  • Puppets and Ventriloquism
  • Road Trip
  • Telly Savalas Films

Review:
Two years after “The Muppet Show” became a worldwide hit on television, Jim Henson and his creative team brought Kermit, Miss Piggy, and their friends to big-screen fame in this first (and best) of several full-length Muppet features (including the Peary-listed The Muppets Take Manhattan [1984]). While geared primarily towards kids, the screenplay of this first entry was clearly designed to appeal to adult fans of the TV series as well, given that it’s littered with witty one-liners, cameo appearances, and genre-specific homages, and doesn’t shy away from placing its characters in decidedly precarious situations. Indeed, I recall how, when watching this film for the first time as a child, I was traumatized by the fact that Kermit is pursued by an evil restauranteur whose primary goal in life is to chop off frogs’ legs (eek!); and the scene in which a sadistic professor (Mel Brooks) attempts to turn Kermit’s brain to mush was equally disturbing to my young sensibilities. As an adult viewer, however, I’m better able to appreciate how slyly screenwriters Jack Burns and Jerry Juhl play upon various generic tropes, ranging from the central conceit of a road trip (the bulk of the story) to romance (embodied in Kermit and Piggy’s infatuation) to mad scientist (the scene with Brooks) to western (the climactic finale). A couple of catchy tunes by Paul Williams — most notably the Oscar-winning tune “The Rainbow Connection” — and some impressive Muppeteering (check out Kermit on a bike!) make this an enjoyable flick for both adults and (older) kids to visit every now and then.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • A fun storyline featuring the beloved Muppet clan
    Muppet Movie Still

Must See?
Yes, as a cult favorite. Listed as a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

Categories

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

Links:

Five Came Back (1939)

Five Came Back (1939)

“Chance is too tricky — the wrong people might win; we’ve got to be logical.”

Five Came Back Poster

Synopsis:
When a motley group of airplane passengers — including an elderly botanist (C. Aubrey Smith) and his wife (Elisabeth Risdon); a millionaire (Patric Knowles) eloping with his fiancee (Wendy Barrie); a condemned anarchist (Joseph Calleia) and his keeper (John Carradine); a gangster (Allen Jenkins) caring for his boss’s son (Casey Johnson); and a woman (Lucille Ball) with a questionable past — crash into the Amazonian jungle, they learn valuable lessons about themselves and each other as they struggle to survive. Meanwhile, the co-pilots (Chester Morris and Kent Taylor) work diligently to fix the broken plane — but will they succeed in helping all their passengers escape in time to avoid a tribe of headhunters looming close to their encampment?

Genres:

Review:
This early “airplane disaster flick” (helmed by John Farrow, who also directed its 1956 remake, Back From Eternity) remains an iconic forerunner of just about every other ensemble-cast survival tale released since. The diverse characters, naturally, represent a true gamut of personality types, with plenty of opportunities for character arcs to reveal individuals’ better (or worse) natures once they’re stranded together miles away from modern civilization. Much like in Cecil B. DeMille’s silent flick Male and Female (1919), class barriers melt away in the face of the need to survive, with those best suited to lead (in this case, Morris) tasked with taking charge — though naturally, not without contention. At just 75 minutes long, the pithy script (co-written in part by none other than Nathaniel West and Dalton Trumbo) wastes no time at all in presenting each of the characters and allowing them to interact with one another in strategic ways, so that we’re easily able to see the shifts that take place once they’re plunged into survival mode — i.e., while Ball was once judged too “loose” to help care for the gangster’s son (Johnson), she’s soon entrusted with this role; Smith’s browbeating wife (Risdon) is “domesticated” in the jungle; etc. Watch for the nicely handled final scene, which packs a true emotional punch, and is seamlessly directed.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Fine ensemble performances (particularly by Calleia)
    Five Came Back Ensemble
  • Nicholas Musuraca’s cinematography
    Five Came Back Cinematography
  • A pithy B-level script

Must See?
Yes, as an all-around “good show”. Listed as a film with Historical Importance in the back of Peary’s book.

Categories

Links:

Turtle Diary (1985)

Turtle Diary (1985)

“Nobody’s interested in turtles — except the keeper, me… and you.”

Turtle Diary Poster

Synopsis:
An author (Glenda Jackson) and a bookstore clerk (Ben Kingsley) conspire with a zookeeper (Michael Gambon) to steal caged sea turtles at the zoo and free them into the ocean.

Genres:

Review:
The synopsis for this unusual “caper flick” — based on a novel by the eclectic expat author Russell Hoban, and scripted by playwright Harold Pinter — is a bit misleading, given that the turtle heist in question is essentially a proxy for the deeper theme of how finding a sense of purpose and passion in one’s life can serve as the ultimate liberating force. The characters played by Kingsley and Jackson are both deeply idiosyncratic misfits, living on the fringes to one extent or the other — Jackson is oddly emotionally reserved; Kingsley rooms in a boarding house despite having a wife and kids somewhere in his past — and while the thematic parallel between freeing turtles and freeing one’s inner self is perhaps a bit too obvious, it’s thankfully never hammered over our heads. The literate screenplay goes in unusual directions (i.e., romance emerges, but not as expected), making this one worth a look for fans of eclectic character studies.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Ben Kingsley as William Snow
    Turtle Diary Kingsley
  • Glenda Jackson as Neaera Duncan
    Turtle Diary Jackson
  • An unusual tale of a uniquely formed bond
    Turtle Diary Friendship

Must See?
No, though it’s worth a look. Listed as a Personal Recommendation and a Sleeper in the back of Peary’s book.

Links:

Melanie (1982)

Melanie (1982)

“You are not fit to raise a son in this world.”

Melanie Poster

Synopsis:
When her husband (Don Johnson) takes off with their son (Jamie Dick), an illiterate southern woman (Glynnis O’Connor) follows them to California, where she befriends a troubled musician (Burton Cummings) and begins to build a new life for herself, while attempting to regain custody of her son.

Genres:

Review:
Glynnis O’Connor’s fine lead performance is the primary reason to check out this well-meaning but ultimately disappointing character study about a young woman struggling to overcome the stigma of illiteracy. While there’s potential here for a fascinating glimpse into the world as experienced by someone denied the opportunity to read or write, the script places Melanie (O’Connor) time and again in situations designed for dramatic potential rather than realism. We learn far too little about Melanie’s background in rural Jasper, Arkansas before she’s off on a road trip to California, conveniently following up on an invitational postcard from a friend (Trudy Young) living in Hollywood with her drug-addled musician boyfriend (Burton Cummings). Before you can blink an eye, the sack-dress-clad Melanie has undergone a dramatic physical transformation, and manages to so thoroughly impress Cummings’ manager (Paul Sorvino) with her motherly instincts (by treating his son nicely for a few minutes) that he immediately offers to let her come and live with him (!).

Will romantic entanglements ensue? Absolutely — though again, the script is too undeveloped for the situation as played out to feel anything but contrived. With that said, the performances by O’Connor, Cummings, and Sorvino are all top notch. Cummings — an enormously popular Canadian rock star who I’ll admit I knew nothing about before watching this film — gives a refreshingly natural performance; while his character isn’t anyone we feel sympathy for, he’s at least highly believable. The scenes in which he struggles to compose new songs come across as particularly authentic — and it helps that the score is filled with his catchy ballads. Fans of his music will certainly want to locate a copy of this film, the only one he made — but it’s otherwise only must-see for O’Connor fans.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Glynnis O’Connor as Melanie
    Melanie O'Connor
  • Burton Cummings as Rick
    Melanie Cummings
  • Paul Sorvino as Walter
    Melanie Sorvino
  • A fine score (by Cummings)

Must See?
No. Listed as a Sleeper in the back of Peary’s book.

Links:

Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm, The (1962)

Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm, The (1962)

“I heard this little story… And while it was fresh in my mind, I thought I’d borrow it, for just a few minutes.”

Wonderful World Brothers Grimm Poster

Synopsis:
Jacob Grimm (Karlheinz Bohm) ekes out a living as a writer-for-hire in 19th century Germany while his less practical brother Wilhelm (Laurence Harvey) prefers to find and record local folk tales — including three brought to life in this film: “The Dancing Princess”, in which a woodsman (Russ Tamblyn) utilizes an invisibility cloak to secretly pursue a princess (Yvette Mimieux) at night; “The Cobbler and the Elves”, about an overworked cobbler (Laurence Harvey) who receives help from animated elves in filling an important order; and “The Singing Bone”, in which an unscrupulous knight (Terry-Thomas) unwisely tries to hide the fact that his servant (Buddy Hackett) has slain a vicious dragon.

Genres:

  • Folk Tales, Fairy Tales, and Mythology
  • George Pal Films
  • Laurence Harvey Films
  • Russ Tamblyn Films
  • Writers
  • Yvette Mimieux Films

Review:
The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm — co-directed by George Pal and Henry Levin — was the first fiction film made in the short-lived Cinerama process, which utilized three lenses to create an arced image curving 146 degrees. Unfortunately, while Cinerama was a uniquely creative way to showcase around-the-world travelogues on a vast scale, it was a terribly conceived choice for this fanciful “biopic”, given that we lose all sense of intimacy with the lead characters, who are literally overwhelmed by the gigantic screen they’re portrayed on. It doesn’t help matters any that their personal dramas — Bohm shyly romances a beautiful girl (Barbara Eden) who’s inexplicably smitten with him; Harvey’s wife (Claire Bloom) is distressed time and again by her husband’s fiscal irresponsibility — are terribly dull, and take up far too much of the film’s overlong running time.

However, it’s Grimms’ fairy tales themselves that most viewers will be eager to see brought to life — though the stories selected to showcase here are lesser-known, and none are particularly compelling. The first tale (“The Dancing Princess”) primarily functions as a vehicle for Tamblyn’s dancing, as well as for the Cinerama process itself, with an extended carriage chase sequence far-too-obviously designed to show off what virtual reality tricks the camera could manage (i.e., Tamblyn dangles precariously down from a broken bridge hovering thousands of feet above a roiling river). The second tale (“The Cobbler and the Elves”) is primarily a vehicle for George Pal’s puppetoons, who come to vivid life during a modestly enjoyable musical sequence. The final tale — “The Singing Bone” — possesses a strong narrative arc and a nicely handled twist ending, but relies far too heavily on cartoonish slapstick for laughs (i.e., when the animated dragon breathes fiery air onto Hackett’s metal suit of armor, and hot steam emerges from Hackett’s nostrils).

With all that said, TWWOTBG is the type of colorful, escapist fantasy fare that just might appeal to kids of a certain age — at least those not jaded by more sophisticated animation styles. Unfortunately, it’s not yet widely available on DVD, most likely because the only surviving print (which suffered from water damage during a studio fire) shows distractingly clear evidence of the dividing lines between the three filmed “panels”. Interestingly, this visual artifact is somewhat fascinating at first, given that it helps us more easily imagine seeing the movie projected onto a much larger, curved screen — but it’s ultimately too distracting, and definitely merits “cleaning up” by a restoration team.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Martita Hunt as the storytelling “witch” who Wilhelm pursues through the forest
    Wonderful World Martita Hunt
  • Wilhelm meeting and naming his characters on his sick-bed
    Wonderful World Characters

Must See?
No, though diehard film fanatics may be curious to check it out for its historical relevance as a rare Cinerama picture.

Links:

Old Enough (1984)

Old Enough (1984)

“If God made me perfect, I might as well show it — you know what I mean?”

Old Enough Poster

Synopsis:
A wealthy pre-teen (Sarah Boyd) and a sexy working class teen (Rainbow Harvest) form a tentative cross-class friendship in New York City.

Genres:

Review:
Written and directed by Marisa Silver (daughter of writer/director Joan Micklin Silver), this modest coming-of-age tale reveals a keen sense of authenticity for the intensity of adolescent female friendships, and benefits from a refreshingly natural performance by Boyd, who never hits a false note in her portrayal of a sheltered pre-teen longing to learn more about life outside of her privileged social circle. Harvest — who looks distractingly like Winona Ryder — is nicely cast as the lower-class girl Boyd is smitten with, though her performance eventually becomes a tad too predictably sullen; much less successful is Neill Barry in a key supporting role as Harvest’s rugged older brother, whose actions and attitudes throughout feel scripted rather than authentic. Meanwhile, Silver’s rambling script is better at establishing a mood than providing an interesting storyline for the characters. We’re eventually drawn into a subplot involving Harvest’s father (Danny Aiello) and the sexy new tenant (Roxanne Hart) he may or may not be having an affair with, but this simply feels like a distraction from the central tale of Boyd and Harvest’s evolving friendship, which never quite resolves in a satisfying fashion.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Natural performances by Boyd and Harvest
    Old Enough Boyd Harvest

Must See?
No; you don’t need to bother seeking this one out — though it’s worth a look if you enjoy coming-of-age flicks and/or have nostalgic memories of the era it represents (the early ’80s).

Links: