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Month: February 2013

Tree Grows in Brooklyn, A (1945)

Tree Grows in Brooklyn, A (1945)

“You’re a funny kid — full of all them things, kind of like your pop.”

Tree Grows in Brooklyn Poster

Synopsis:
A bright young girl (Peggy Ann Garner) in early 20th century Brooklyn idealizes her alcoholic father (James Dunn), whose inability to provide a steady income for his family causes enormous stress for his more practical wife (Dorothy McGuire).

Genres:

Review:
Elia Kazan’s directorial debut was this lyrical adaptation of Betty Smith’s best-selling autobiographical novel, starring child-actor Peggy Ann Garner, who won an honorary juvenile Oscar that year in a role she seems born to play. Garner perfectly captures the range of emotions experienced by young Francie Nolan, including ambivalence towards her stern but loving mother, Katie (McGuire in one of her earliest significant roles); annoyance towards her carefree younger brother, Neeley (Ted Donaldson); intense desire for academic success (leading her to proactively pick out a better school for herself); and an abiding adoration for her hard-drinking father, Johnny — portrayed in an Oscar-winning performance by James Dunn, whose own struggles with alcoholism allowed him to empathize deeply with his character. Kazan’s gift for working with actors is in clear evidence throughout the film, as he pulls fine performances from his entire cast (including Joan Blondell as Francie’s oft-married Aunt Sissy).

Smith’s novel is divided into five “books”, shifting back and forth in time to tell the back-story of how Johnny and Katie met, and following Francie into young adulthood; thankfully, the film only attempts to cover one segment of the book, when Francie is 11 years old. The screenplay is gently episodic, portraying key memories from Francie’s youth: wandering wide-eyed through the five-and-dime; dragging home an enormous Christmas tree; witnessing how hard her mother works as a cleaner to support their family; and, in an especially notable scene, helping her mother during the early stages of childbirth (portrayed in a surprisingly realistic manner for the time). One could quibble that Johnny’s debilitating alcoholism is presented in far too tame a fashion — this is no Angela’s Ashes — but I think the choice is a fair one, given that it allows us to empathize more easily with Johnny, and reflects Francie’s own fond memories of her deeply troubled father.

Note: If you’re unfamiliar with the story, beware of a fairly major spoiler that tends to pop up when reading about the film online.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Peggy Ann Garner as Francie Nolan
    Tree Grows Garner
  • James Dunn as Johnny Nolan
    Tree Grows Dunn2
  • Dorothy McGuire as Katie Nolan
    Tree Grows McGuire
  • Joan Blondell as Aunt Sissy
    Tree Grows Blondell
  • Excellent attention to period detail
    Tree Grows Period
  • Fine cinematography
    Tree Grows Cinematography2

Must See?
Yes, as an Oscar-winning classic with noteworthy performances. Nominated by Peary as one of the Best Films of the Year in his Alternate Oscars. Selected for preservation by the National Film Registry.

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State of the Union (1948)

State of the Union (1948)

“The world needs honest men today — more than it needs presidents.”

State of the Union Poster

Synopsis:
A well-liked industrialist (Spencer Tracy) is urged to run for president as a Republican candidate by his power-hungry, newspaper-owning lover (Angela Lansbury), who is eager to manipulate his candidacy for her own purposes — but will Tracy’s estranged wife (Katharine Hepburn) help or hinder the process?

Genres:

Review:
Frank Capra’s stagy adaptation of Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play (loosely based upon a notorious affair between Republican nominee Wendell Willkie and newspaper editor Irita Van Doren) isn’t nearly as well-known or beloved as Capra’s two most famous political dramas, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) and Meet John Doe (1941) — perhaps due to a number of real-life political references which situate it a bit too firmly within its specific era. The film also suffers from both an uneven tone and an overly simplistic storyline: while it’s no surprise that a powerful man like Tracy’s aviation industrialist might be estranged from his wife and carrying on an affair with a much younger woman, Hepburn is simply too radiant, smart, and loyal for us to understand (without additional context) why nice-guy Tracy would stray from her. Sure, men are lured away from amazing women all the time — but despite Lansbury’s youth, she simply can’t hold a candle to Hepburn, either in appearance or personality. Indeed, as written (and acted), Lansbury’s “Kay Thorndyke” (what a name!) is a decidedly one-dimensional villainess (complete with a “Cruella De Vil” streak in her frosted hair), and ultimately comes across as little more than the personification of female power run amok.

Despite these serious caveats, however, the bulk of the storyline remains as relevant as ever in its exposé of the corrupt machinations behind any presidential campaign; and there’s plenty of smart dialogue sprinkled throughout to enjoy:

“No woman could ever run for President. She’d have to admit she’s over 35.”
“You politicians have stayed professionals only because the voters have remained amateurs.”

Indeed, one can’t help getting caught up in the story, and typically fine lead performances by Hepburn and Tracy add to its appeal. However, this one is only must-see for Hepburn-Tracy and/or Capra completists.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Katharine Hepburn as Mary Matthews
    State of the Union Hepburn
  • Spencer Tracy as Grant Matthews
    State of the Union Tracy

Must See?
No, though it’s worth a one-time look.

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Keeper of the Flame (1942)

Keeper of the Flame (1942)

“It’s a pity how easily people can be fooled.”

Keeper of the Flame Poster

Synopsis:
A journalist (Spencer Tracy) intending to write the life story of a recently deceased national hero encounters unexpected resistance from the man’s widow (Katharine Hepburn), who may have something unsavory to hide.

Genres:

Review:
Often cited as MGM’s variation on Citizen Kane (1941), this intriguing wartime mystery — scripted by Donald Ogden Stewart, who also wrote The Philadelphia Story (1940) — afforded Hepburn and Tracy an opportunity to radically diverge from the roles they’d played the previous year in Woman of the Year (their first joint film). In this second onscreen collaboration, they don’t play lovers per se (though romantic chemistry certainly lurks as a constant possibility). Instead, all narrative energy is focused on Tracy’s relentless attempts to uncover the truth behind Hepburn’s deceased husband’s legacy; Tracy repeatedly puts his life in danger (this is wartime, after all!), and we’re never quite sure whether Hepburn will emerge as friend or foe. Atmospheric cinematography and fine performances (by leads and supporting actors alike) make this one worth a look, though it’s only must-see for Hepburn/Tracy completists. Don’t read too much about it online if you’d like to remain surprised by its outcome.

Note: Check out this Wikipedia entry for a detailed overview of the film’s complicated production history and mixed reception.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Katharine Hepburn as Mrs. Forrest
    Keeper of the Flame Hepburn
  • Spencer Tracy as Steven O’Malley
    Keeper of the Flame Tracy
  • Atmospheric cinematography
    Keeper of the Flame Cinematography

Must See?
No, though it’s definitely worth a one-time viewing.

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Song of Songs, The (1933)

Song of Songs, The (1933)

“I see you as an artist, Lily — you must believe it!”

Song of Songs Poster

Synopsis:
A naive orphan (Marlene Dietrich) living with her aunt (Alison Skipworth) is seduced by a handsome sculptor (Brian Aherne) whose patron — a calculating baron (Lionel Atwill) — becomes immediately smitten with Dietrich, and determined to make her his wife.

Genres:

Review:
Marlene Dietrich’s first Hollywood film with a director other than Josef von Sternberg was this adaptation (directed by Rouben Mamoulian) of a 1908 novel by Hermann Sudermann, about a sheltered peasant girl betrayed by her lover. The storyline is fairly inconsequential, functioning primarily as a vehicle for Dietrich to demonstrate dramatic range by portraying her character’s growth from sweet naif to cynical trophy wife to world-weary chanteuse. In addition to Dietrich’s multi-layered performance, the film is also notable for its atmospheric cinematography and production values (see stills below), and for a refreshingly frank pre-Code sensibility — fully nude statues are paraded before the camera, only barely functioning as a stand-in for Dietrich herself. While this one isn’t must-see for all film fanatics, fans of Dietrich and/or pre-Code films will certainly want to check it out.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Marlene Dietrich as Lily
    Song of Songs Dietrich1
    Song of Songs Dietrich2
    Song of Songs Dietrich3
  • A refreshing pre-Code sensibility
    Song of Songs PreCode2
  • Fine direction (by Mamoulian) and art direction (by Hans Dreir)
    Song of Songs Direction
    Song of Songs Sets
  • Victor Milner’s stark cinematography
    Song of Songs Cinematography

Must See?
No, though it’s worth at least a one-time look.

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Morning Glory (1933)

Morning Glory (1933)

“I know that I’m a great actress — the greatest young actress in the world!”

Morning Glory Poster

Synopsis:
Upon arriving in New York, an aspiring actress (Katharine Hepburn) seeks mentorship from a veteran actor (C. Aubrey Smith) and attempts to impress a famous theatrical producer (Adolph Menjou) whose leading lady (Mary Duncan) is an incurable diva; meanwhile, a playwright (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) develops a crush on Hepburn, and feels sorry for her naivete.

Genres:

Review:
Based on an unproduced* play by Zoe Akins (who wrote the 1930 Broadway hit The Greeks Had a Word for It, which was turned into a film in 1932), this hackneyed rise-to-stardom theatrical tale is best known for providing young Katharine Hepburn with her first Best Actress Academy Award. While he doesn’t review Morning Glory in GFTFF, Peary does briefly mention it in his Alternate Oscars, where he argues that, in hindsight, “Hepburn’s performance seems like one of her worst”, and that she “played her part just as her brittle, affected character would have”. I don’t think Peary’s harsh criticism is quite valid: as always, Hepburn fully embodies her character, and having watched a number of her performances recently, I was impressed by how distinguished this particular characterization is from all the others. Unfortunately, the screenplay itself — other than possessing some typically refreshing pre-Code nuances — is pretty much a dud, and ends far too abruptly; indeed, I was astonished to see the closing credits emerging after just 74 minutes, when there was so clearly a need for an additional “act”. Meanwhile, the pacing is terribly off, with ample time and energy spent on Hepburn’s initial encounters with the other players, then an unexplained quantity of time suddenly lapsing for no apparent reason. Feel free to skip this one unless you’re an Oscar completist or a Hepburn fan.

* One wonders — why?

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Katharine Hepburn as Eva Lovelace
    Morning Glory Hepburn

Must See?
No, though most film fanatics will likely be curious to check it out simply for Hepburn’s Oscar-winning performance.

Links:

On Golden Pond (1981)

On Golden Pond (1981)

“You know, Norman, you really are the sweetest man in the world — but I’m the only one who knows it!”

On Golden Pond Poster

Synopsis:
While vacationing at their summer home on Golden Pond, an elderly couple — friendly Ethel (Katharine Hepburn) and crotchety Norman (Henry Fonda), who has a troubled relationship with his grown daughter (Jane Fonda) — agree to care for the sullen teenage son (Doug McKeon) of Fonda’s fiance (Dabney Coleman).

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary correctly notes that the Oscar-winning script for this “surprise moneymaker” — which earned 80-year-old Henry Fonda his first Oscar, and Hepburn her fourth — is “shameless schmaltz where every line is shrewdly calculated to tug at the heart string”; yet he argues that it’s nonetheless “hard not to be taken with” it. He notes that while “we’ve seen the same problematic relationships — cranky old man and lonely young boy, cold old man and his unloved adult child — in other films (and TV movies), … they’re rooted in real life and are hard not to respond to.” He further points out that the film “has special meaning to viewers” given that “Henry Fonda and Jane Fonda had an estranged relationship for many years, until reconciliation late in his life” — just as happens to their characters in the film. Meanwhile, it’s gorgeously shot (on location in New Hampshire) by D.P. Billy Williams, and consistently beautiful to look at.

Unfortunately, however, I can’t profess to sharing Peary’s guilty fondness for this enormously popular film (the top-grossing movie of 1981), which I find not only calculated and derivative but poorly structured. The emotional pay-off we’re waiting for is clearly the reconciliation between Henry and Jane, yet Jane’s underdeveloped character is hardly onscreen, and the bulk of the film focuses instead on Henry’s mentoring of McKeon. In sum, narrative priorities are confused: if this was meant to be a film about an emotionally troubled young teen coming of age in a gorgeous setting under the guidance of a curmudgeonly yet caring grandfather-figure, then McKeon’s character needed to be written with much more depth and insight.

Despite these serious complaints, however, the lead performances in OGP are certainly a joy to watch, and Hepburn and Fonda Sr. do indeed “rise above their roles”. As Peary writes, Fonda Sr. in particular is “wonderful in this role because he seems to really understand all his character’s strengths, quirks, self-doubts (especially in regard to aging), weaknesses, and flaws — particularly as a father”. Film fanatics will likely want to check out this film once simply to see him in his swan song (and to see Hepburn’s “energetic performance” as well).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Henry Fonda as Norman Thayer
    On Golden Pond Fonda
  • Katharine Hepburn as Ethel Thayer
    On Golden Pond Hepburn
  • Gorgeous cinematography by Billy Williams
    On Golden Pond Cinematography

Must See?
Yes, once, simply for the powerful lead performances.

Categories

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Murder, He Says (1944)

Murder, He Says (1944)

“They don’t dare kill you the way they killed that other feller!”

Murder He Says Poster

Synopsis:
A pollster (Fred MacMurray) in search of a missing colleague stumbles upon a family of creepy hillbillies who will stop at nothing to learn the location of treasure hidden in their house.

Genres:

Review:
Several years after directing Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard in the disappointing haunted house flick The Ghost Breakers (1940), George Marshall helmed this creatively zany riff on the genre, which features impressive special effects (see stills below), an enjoyably wacky storyline, quick pacing, and fine performances by the ensemble cast — including Fred MacMurray as the hapless protagonist; Marjorie Main as the murderous matriarch of the Fleagle clan; Helen Walker as “Bonnie Fleagle”; Peter Whitney (in a dual role) as a pair of pugilistic Fleagle twins; Jean Heather as the twins’ loopy, chant-singing sister; Porter Hall as Ma Fleagle’s most recent husband; and Mabel Paige as the clan’s senile “Grandma”. In his fun review of the movie, Dave Sindelar provides the following synopsis of its bizarre plot:

The movie features a hidden treasure, a whip-wielding Marjorie Main, poisoned and possibly radioactive water (it makes everything glow in the dark), two stupid twins (one with a crick in his back so you can tell them apart), a nonsense song that holds the key to the treasure, an escaped criminal, a woman disguising herself as an escaped criminal, an imaginary ghost named Smedley, a truck-powered hay machine, a “Lazy Susan” rotating table, poisoned gravy and Fred MacMurray.

To say much more about the plot would spoil the fun of watching it unfold; suffice it to say that — as Sindelar recommends — you should be in a “silly mood” before sitting down to enjoy this one.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Fred MacMurray as Pete Marshall
    Murder He Says MacMurray
  • Fine supporting performances by the entire ensemble cast
    Murder He Says Main
  • Nifty special effects
    Murder He Says Lit Up
    Murder He Says Effects
  • A clever screenplay with many fun sequences
    Murder He Says Screenplay

Must See?
Yes, as a cult film and an enjoyably zany riff on the “old dark house” genre. Listed as a Sleeper in the back of Peary’s book.

Categories

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Rainmaker, The (1956)

Rainmaker, The (1956)

“Once in your life, you’ve got to take a chance on a con-man.”

Synopsis:
In the midst of a drought, a spinster (Katharine Hepburn) living with her widowed father (Cameron Prud’Homme) and two grown brothers (Lloyd Bridges and Earl Holliman) finds her life changed forever when a charismatic huckster (Burt Lancester) comes to town selling rain.

Genres:

Review:
Theatrical director Joseph Anthony helmed this dated, stagy adaptation of N. Richard Nash’s successful Broadway play, about a “plain” spinster who learns that she need only believe in her own beauty and femininity in order to snare the ultimate prize in life: a husband. Nash’s screenplay (he adapted his own work) would have us believe that Hepburn’s overly earnest father and brothers care more about marrying her off than just about anything else, despite the fact that she conveniently provides quite a comfortable home life for them. Meanwhile, the entire storyline is groaningly metaphorical, with Lancaster’s over-the-top con-artist bringing the promise of life (a.k.a. “rain”) to a “parched” soul, and Hepburn’s dimwitted brother (Holliman) conveniently embodying a hot-blooded alternative to Hepburn’s dilemma in his romance with an aggressive local hottie (Yvonne Fedderson). With that said, Hepburn’s performance as a love-starved spinster is often quite heartbreaking, and the premise itself — two painfully shy and/or reluctant individuals need some serious intervention in order to find their way towards one another — is undeniably sweet; indeed, despite the film’s flaws, you can’t help caring what happens to Hepburn’s self-effacing protagonist.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Katharine Hepburn as Lizzie (named Best Actress of the Year in Peary’s Alternate Oscars)
    Rainmaker Hepburn
  • A sweet tale of reluctant romance
    Rainmaker Romance

Must See?
No; this one ultimately remains simply a curio, and will likely be of most interest to Hepburn fans.

Links:

Alice Adams (1935)

Alice Adams (1935)

“I don’t know why he likes me; sometimes I’m afraid he wouldn’t if he knew me.”

Alice Adams Poster

Synopsis:
A socially ambitious young woman (Katharine Hepburn) lies about her family’s status to impress her wealthy new beau (Fred MacMurray); meanwhile, her mother (Ann Shoemaker) — desperate to give Hepburn and her brother (Frank Albertson) a better chance in life — convinces Hepburn’s father (Fred Stone) to betray his loyal employer (Charley Grapewin) by starting his own business.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that “Katharine Hepburn had one of her greatest successes playing the young heroine of Booth Tarkington’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel” about a “smart, imaginative, energetic, yet dissatisfied small-town girl” who “covets being on equal social footing with her richer acquaintances” and “is so obsessed with improving her social standing that she assumes an affected attitude whenever she leaves her house”. Peary argues that “we’d dislike [Hepburn’s Alice] except that we admire her love for and loyalty to [her family members], despite their constantly letting her down and causing her grief”; and he points out that “we understand her desperate need to escape her sad home life”. He posits that women may “like this film better than men because they can relate to Alice blowing it in public, in front of an attractive man, by trying too hard, talking too much, and smiling and laughing in an attempt to conceal… nervousness and embarrassment”, but he adds that he personally finds “it too painful to watch”.

Speaking as a female viewer, I can firmly attest that I don’t find the film any less disturbing than Peary; indeed, it’s nearly as depressing as Hepburn’s notorious downer of a debut film, A Bill of Divorcement (1932). I’m ultimately most in agreement with the assessment provided by DVD Savant, who notes that Alice Adams is “beautifully put together… but raises a number of issues that can’t be easily dismissed” — most specifically the puzzling nature of MacMurray’s attraction to Hepburn. Sure, she’s pretty, but he’s supposedly engaged to his wealthy (and equally pretty) cousin — so what in the world is he doing pursuing Hepburn? We learn absolutely nothing about him — he functions purely as a projection of Hepburn’s fantasies; while it’s clear as day that she’s putting him on, he simply grins at her like a vacuous dolt. Also frustrating is the film’s tendency to shift in tone between poignant social drama and comedy; meanwhile, the utterly unrealistic denouement between Stone and Grapewin — as well as the obviously tacked-on happy ending (deviating from the original novel) — leave one feeling somewhat cheated (though Peary himself claims to “find [the ending] a relief after watching Alice suffer”).

With that said, the film has much to recommend it — beginning with Hepburn’s passionately committed, nuanced portrayal as Alice. In his Alternate Oscars, Peary names Hepburn Best Actress of the Year for her work here, and it’s hard to argue with his choice. Although she’s an infuriating protagonist to sympathize with — not to mention frustratingly variable (one moment painfully awkward, the next coyly flirtatious) — Hepburn nonetheless brings her to achingly vulnerable life. Meanwhile, the supporting cast (consisting of many little-known faces) is excellent all around — most notably circus performer Fred Stone as Alice’s sad sack father; Frank Albertson as her wastrel brother (who perfectly embodies the cynical antithesis of Alice’s socially conscientious desperation); and droll Hattie McDaniel (in a “scene-stealing performance”) as Malena.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Katharine Hepburn as Alice Adams
    Alice Adams Hepburn2
  • Fred Stone as Virgil Adams
    Alice Adams Stone
  • Frank Albertson as Walter Adams
    Alice Adams Albertson
  • Hattie McDaniel as Malena
    Alice Adams McDaniels
  • Charley Grapewin as Mr. Lamb
    Alice Adams Grapewin
  • Luminous cinematography by Robert De Grasse
    Alice Adams Cinematography

Must See?
Yes, once, for Hepburn’s Oscar-nominated performance.

Categories

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Little Women (1933)

Little Women (1933)

“Christopher Columbus!”

Little Women Poster

Synopsis:
While their father (Samuel S. Hinds) is away at war, an aspiring writer (Katharine Hepburn) and her three sisters — beautiful Meg (Frances Dee), kind-hearted Beth (Jean Parker), and young Amy (Joan Bennett) — are raised by their hard-working mother (Spring Byington) while living next door to a wealthy old man (Henry Stephenson) and his handsome grandson (Douglass Montgomery).

Genres:

Review:
George Cukor’s adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s enduringly popular Civil War-era novel is often cited as the definitive — and/or the most beloved — of numerous cinematic iterations. Katharine Hepburn is perfectly cast as tomboy-ish Jo, though I’ll admit I find her deep-voiced performance a bit forced during the first half of the film; only once her character matures and moves to New York does Hepburn seem to relax into the role. Other key parts in the ensemble cast are nicely filled as well, with Paul Lukas particularly sympathetic as Jo’s older suitor (it’s easy to see why she would fall for him, despite the age difference), and Douglass Montgomery a charming, easygoing “Laurie”. (It’s a shame Montgomery’s career never really took off.) The deliberately episodic, relatively faithful Oscar-winning screenplay follows the cadences of Alcott’s coming-of-age novel nicely, while historically authentic sets and costumes help bring the story to life; fans of the book likely won’t be disappointed.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Paul Lukas as Professor Bhaer
    Little Women Lukas
  • Nicely authentic sets and costumes
    Little Women Sets
  • A fine, Oscar-winning screenplay (by Victor Heerman and Sarah Y. Mason)

Must See?
Yes, as an enduring literary adaptation. Listed as a film with Historical Importance and a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

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