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Month: December 2017

Ali: Fear Eats the Soul/Fear Eats the Soul (1974)

Ali: Fear Eats the Soul/Fear Eats the Soul (1974)

“With people like that in the house, dirt takes over.”

Synopsis:
A widowed German housecleaner (Brigitte Mira) falls in love with a much-younger Moroccan mechanic (El Hedi ben Salem), but the couple’s May-December, cross-cultural romance must withstand constant scrutiny and prejudice from their neighbors, friends, and family.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that “for those who consider the films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder too esoteric and perverse, here is one that has universal appeal”; in fact, “it was Fassbinder’s breakthrough film internationally, the reason many people worldwide were willing to examine his more difficult, less accessible films.” He writes that “the couple is strong enough to endure” the “constant racial prejudice [Salem] and other Arabs in Germany are subjected to, but in time Mira’s own prejudices surface and threaten to shatter the marriage”. He concludes his review by noting that this remains “a simple, extremely poignant film, all the more fascinating because Fassbinder deals with racial prejudice in modern Germany — against Arabs, not Jews.” Indeed, Mira and Salem’s unique cross-cultural romance remains as touching and relevant as ever — perhaps even more so in the early 21st century, as Europe’s demographics continue to shift contentiously.

Mira is perfectly cast in the central female role, and fans will definitely want to check out the 2003 interview with her on Criterion’s digital restoration DVD. Salem’s personal story (he was Fassbinder’s lover in real life) mirrors his onscreen tragedy, albeit on an even more catastrophic scale; I’d love to find a copy of the 2012 documentary about him entitled My Name is Not Ali, but haven’t had any luck so far. Suffice it to say that this films reminds us how being an “outsider” — whether older, darker-skinner, less-attractive, foreign, lower-class, gay — remains an ongoing challenge for many (if not most) humans across the globe. Ali: Fear Eats the Soul is simultaneously a balm for one’s heart (“When we’re together, we must be nice to each other — otherwise, life’s not worth living.”) and a cautionary tale that our souls are hardly free from the xenophobic fear “Ali” warns us of.

Note: Peary writes that “Fassbinder admired the work of Douglas Sirk, and critics were quick to point out the film’s similarity to Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows,” as well as themes from Sirk’s Imitation of Life.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Brigitte Mira as Emmi
  • Many memorable, poignant scenes

Must See?
Yes, as a foreign classic.

Categories

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

Links:

Love Me Tonight (1932)

Love Me Tonight (1932)

“Nothing could be commoner than a commoner who’s a tailor!”

Synopsis:
A tailor (Maurice Chevalier) seeking money owed to him by a spendthrift nobleman (Charles Ruggles) is given the identity of a baron when he arrives at a castle overseen by Ruggles’ ducal uncle (C. Aubrey Smith). Smith’s nymphomaniac niece (Myrna Loy) immediately makes a play for Chevalier, while Chevalier woos a widowed princess (Jeanette MacDonald) who is also being courted by a count (Charles Butterworth) — but what will happen when Chevalier’s lowly tradesman status is ultimately revealed?

Genres:

Review:
There’s much to enjoy about this delightful Rogers and Hart romantic comedy, directed with flair by Rouben Mamoulian and considered a cinematic musical breakthrough given Mamoulian’s seamless integration of lyrics into the storyline. The film’s opening sequence — in which a small town outside of Paris slowly comes to life in the morning, eventually forming an ad hoc orchestra of synchronized found-sounds — is worthy viewing on its own, and nicely kicks off the entirely serviceable storyline of a good-natured tailor (Chevalier) whose generosity lands him in trouble with his fellow tradespeople, and forces him to seek immediate renumeration from Ruggles. Love Me Tonight‘s pre-Code credentials are clearly in view throughout, ranging from Loy’s blunt sexual desires (“Tell me, do you ever think of anything but men, dear?” “Oh, yes.” “Like what?” “Schoolboys.”) to many of Rodgers and Hart’s lyrics, such as during the opening sequence:

Chevalier: How’s your bakery?
Baker’s Wife: I need a beau.
Chevalier: Where’s your husband?
Baker’s Wife: He needs the dough!

Meanwhile, during the iconic ditty “Isn’t it Romantic?”, Chevalier sings:

Kiddies are romantic, and if we don’t fight, we soon will have a troop!
We’ll help the population — it’s a duty that we owe to France!

Later, as Princess Jeanette is wooed by a dogged but boring older suitor (Charles Butterworth), double-entendres and word-play abound:

Butterworth: Princess! Jeanette!
MacDonald: Count, I’m going to bed!
Butterworth: I’ve just come up to join you.
MacDonald: Join me?
Butterworth: Join you in a little chat before dinner.
[Later, after Butterworth retreats and falls]
Butterworth: I’ll never be able to use it again!
MacDonald: Oh, Count, did you break your leg?
Butterworth: No, I fell flat on my flute!

And so on and so on; the script and lyrics are chock-a-block full of amusing sexual inferences and references. The film is also visually innovative throughout. As noted by DVD Savant:

In [one] song, the dog pipes up with a note (in the right key!) and even a bas-relief on the wall chimes in with a lyric. Yet another tune plays out over an image of Maurice sleeping in his bed. An image of the sleeping Jeanette dissolves in next to him, forming a literal pre-echo of a visual motif in 1959’s Pillow Talk… We’re surprised when a zoom lens is used to zero in on a smokestack in the first scene, and even more intrigued to see a mounted hunting party ‘leave quietly’ by galloping away in slow motion. Almost every scene introduces something new.

Definitely check this one out; it’s my favorite Chevalier-MacDonald film by far.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • The delightfully creative opening sequence
  • Innovative cinematic techniques
  • Victor Milner’s cinematography


  • Refreshingly risque and humorous Pre-Code content
  • Rodgers and Hart’s soundtrack

Must See?
Yes, as a fine early musical. Listed as a film with Historical Importance and a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

Categories

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

Links:

Boom Town (1940)

Boom Town (1940)

“You’re my girl, see? And you always will be — even if I have to lick you to prove it.”

Synopsis:
Two aspiring oil barons — “Big” John McMasters (Clark Gable) and “Square” John Sand (Spencer Tracy) — become business partners, but find their relationship strained when Gable marries Tracy’s would-be love interest (Claudette Colbert). Gable’s ongoing affair with a beautiful charmer (Hedy Lamarr) in New York causes loyal Tracy to do what he can to save Colbert from heartbreak — including wooing Lamarr himself.

Genres:

Review:
The perils of “wildcatting” (drilling for oil in unknown fields) nearly take second place to the pitfalls of loving another man’s wife in this sprawling tale of frenemies battling for both the heart of the same woman, and bragging rights as oil barons. It’s a true challenge to keep track of who’s up or down oil-wise at any given time, given how often their fortunes shift — but what’s not confusing is the endurance of Tracy’s thankless love for Colbert, whose similarly thankless love for Gable is met with repeated infidelities. Lamarr is beautiful eye candy as the primary rival for Gable’s affections, and Frank Morgan plays a spluttering equipment financier whose loyalties waver as often as his clients’ fortunes. The most engaging scenes in this flick are those of oil fires raging away — yikes!

Note: If this subject interests you at all, be sure to check out the 1992 Pulitzer Prize winning book The Prize: the Epic Quest for Oil, Money, and Power, which was turned into an 8-hur miniseries documentary that is well worth watching.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Good historical recreation of early oil towns
  • The terrifying oil fire scene

Must See?
No; this one isn’t must-see except for diehard fans of the stars.

Links:

Big Trail, The (1930)

Big Trail, The (1930)

“We can’t turn back — we’re blazing a trail that started in England.”

Synopsis:
A frontiersman (John Wayne) seeking revenge on the man who killed his trapping partner agrees to lead a wagon trail headed west, not knowing the man he’s looking for is actually the sinister wagon boss (Tyrone Power, Sr.). Meanwhile, he falls in love with a beautiful widowed mother (Marguerite Churchill) who resists his advances, and is instead interested in a duplicitous gambler (Ian Keith).

Genres:

Review:
Raoul Walsh’s epic early western is notable for featuring Wayne in his first leading role, and for being shot in an experimental wide-screen process known as Grandeur 70. As an impressive recreation of the challenges of westward expansion, it visually rivals The Covered Wagon (1923); but its narrative is too cliched to maintain substantial interest. Power’s identity as The Baddie is not only revealed early on, but entirely foreseeable give his over-the-top performance; and Wayne’s romancing of Churchill (who’s offended by his accidental kiss of her early on, and can’t seem to let that go) is similarly predictable. The best scenes are those showcasing the numerous perils faced by the intrepid settlers; the worst are those featuring “comic relief” El Brendel as a Swede terrorized by his menacing mother-in-law (Louise Carver).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Impressive recreations of the Westward Movement


  • Fine cinematography

Must See?
No, but it’s worth a one-time look. Listed as a film with Historical Importance in the back of Peary’s book.

Links:

Wells Fargo (1937)

Wells Fargo (1937)

“In the old days, we had one important rule: get there.”

Synopsis:
An ambitious messenger (Joel McCrea) for the Wells Fargo Company in pre-Civil War America helps shape the future of communication and banking across the states while maintaining a long-distance marriage with his southern wife (Frances Dee).

Genres:

Review:
The primary goal of this episodic western is to showcase the impressive historical trajectory of transcontinental communication in 19th century United States: we’re shown the marvel of eating fresh oysters in New York (before salmonella sets in!); the remarkable ability for Americans to send letters to their loved ones during the Gold Rush; and the challenges of transferring money during an era of continuous robberies and land battles across the nation. However, the jam-packed storyline is hampered by far too many historic moments in one movie, as well as too much time spent on McCrea’s marital challenges. This film will primarily be of interest to McCrea fans wanting to see him in his first film opposite Dee (his real-life spouse).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Interesting historic footage of the dangerous, time-consuming work involved in helping Americans communicate

Must See?
No, unless you’re a fan of this type of historical western.

Links:

Dust Be My Destiny (1939)

Dust Be My Destiny (1939)

“As far as they’re concerned, I’m hanging by the neck already!”

Synopsis:
An ex-con (John Garfield) embittered about being wrongly imprisoned is picked up for train-hopping and sent to a work farm, where he falls in love with the stepdaughter (Priscilla Lane) of a cruel foreman (Stanley Ridges) who dies shortly after a fight. On the lam, the falsely accused couple live a low-key life thanks to the generosity of a deli owner (Henry Armetta) who hires them, and later the owner of a newspaper (Alan Hale) who hires Garfield as a photographer — but the murder allegation continues to haunt them, and Garfield is convinced he’ll never get an even break.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary asserts that this “exciting, romantic, well-acted” Warner Brothers flick — a “sleeper” — is “one of the best couple-on-the-lam films”, with Garfield and Lane (who he argues gives “her most appealing performance”) playing “a couple you can really root for.” Sadly, I disagree on all counts. Lane’s performance comes across as poorly directed, and the outcome of nearly every scene is predictably telescoped; as noted in the original New York Times review by Frank Nugent, “It’s not even fun anymore, outguessing the script” of a film which lies in “an apparently interminable line of melodramas about the fate-dogged boys from the wrong side of the railroad tracks.” Several key factors play against the film’s success. First, Garfield has a chip on his shoulder from the get-go: we never have a chance to see him as anything but a bitterly doomed protagonist who can’t seem to avoid fighting at the worst times. Meanwhile, the world Garfield and Lane inhabit is too neatly black-and-white, with most primary characters either out to get the couple, or convinced they’re just a plucky pair needing a decent job. Most egregiously, there’s no way Garfield and Lane would or could have a chance at marital bliss once they initially run away from the law; I know this was a different era, but isn’t it inevitable they’ll be found? The most labored scene shows Lane attempting to strike out on her own due to the sheer exhaustion of being on the lam, only to realize within a few minutes that being with Garfield is worth it no matter what (though nothing has changed about their circumstances). Call me a sourpuss, but I wasn’t engaged by this one at all.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Atmospheric cinematography


Must See?
No; only seek this one out if you’re a true Garfield fan.

Links:

Story of Alexander Graham Bell, The (1939)

Story of Alexander Graham Bell, The (1939)

“Ladies and gentlemen, it gives me great pleasure to address you this evening — though I am in Boston, and you are in Salem.”

Synopsis:
Alexander Graham Bell (Don Ameche) falls in love with the deaf daughter (Loretta Young) of a wealthy investor (Charles Coburn) while collaborating with his colleague Thomas Watson (Henry Ford) on numerous inventions — including a “telephone”.

Genres:

Review:
20th Century Fox’s biopic of Alexander Graham Bell’s life was clearly designed for audience appeal: it features a brilliant, intrepid, noble, unassuming hero whose romance with a beautiful lass (Young) is picture perfect (other than the pesky need for him to actually make some money in order to marry her); touching scenes of children and adults impacted by Bell’s work, including a cherub-cheeked deaf boy (Bobby Watson) who learns to communicate with his father (Gene Lockhart) for the first time, thanks to Bell’s pioneering work with Visible Speech; droll humor in the form of Bell’s sidekick (Fonda), who repeatedly points out the need to eat every once in a while; and a final court case in which Bell successfully defends the veracity of his patent against a would-be usurper (Western Union) by agreeing to share a deeply personal letter written to his beloved. Unfortunately, the too-neat storyline fails to elicit as much interest in this astonishingly prolific scientist as the subject matter should warrant, and Young is simply sappy as his all-adoring partner. This flick will primarily be of interest to those who enjoy early Hollywood biopics.

Note: Hardworking Bell was brilliant beyond what he’s best known for. According to Wikipedia:

The range of Bell’s inventive genius is represented only in part by the 18 patents granted in his name alone and the 12 he shared with his collaborators. These included 14 for the telephone and telegraph, four for the photophone, one for the phonograph, five for aerial vehicles, four for “hydroairplanes”, and two for selenium cells. Bell’s inventions spanned a wide range of interests and included a metal jacket to assist in breathing, the audiometer to detect minor hearing problems, a device to locate icebergs, investigations on how to separate salt from seawater, and work on finding alternative fuels.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Touching scenes between a father and his young deaf child who is learning to communicate

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

Links:

Call of the Wild (1935)

Call of the Wild (1935)

“Well, they wanted gold — now they got it.”

Synopsis:
A prospector (Clark Gable), his buddy (Jack Oakie), and their new dog accompany the rescued wife (Loretta Young) of a missing prospector (Frank Conroy) on a search for a legendary gold mine during the Klondike Gold Rush — but a weaselly rival (Reginald Owen) is determined to get there first, and will stop at nothing to claim the plot for himself.

Genres:

Review:
William Wellman’s very loose adaptation of Jack London’s novel (which “omits all but one of the book’s storylines”, and adds in a romance) is best known as the film during which Clark Gable and Loretta Young had an affair that resulted in a child Young claimed was adopted, but who looked unmistakably like a hybrid of them. Indeed, the obvious chemistry between the on-screen pair (especially when we learn that Young’s presumed-missing husband is still alive) helps drive the narrative forward; that, and the convincing rapport between Gable and the lovable St. Bernard playing “Buck”. As an adventure story, Call of the Wild is pretty standard fare, though Owen is as dastardly as they come, and cold-blooded enough to pose a serious threat to the protagonists. It’s unfortunate that dehumanization of Native Americans bookends the film: in an opening scene, a large Native woman is shown pulling a man on a sled, clearly exhausting herself through heavy manual labor on behalf of white men; and in the final scene, another Native woman is shown toting gear like a sherpa, and is literally referred to by Gable as “it”. Perhaps we should thank Hollywood for preserving evidence of the casual normalcy of racism during this era.

Note: We recently visited a restaurant in Mt. Baker, Washington (where much of the film was shot), and I took some photos of memorabilia scattered across the walls:

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Young and Gable’s obvious romantic chemistry
  • Fine use of outdoor locations at Mt. Baker, Washington

Must See?
No, but it’s worth a look for Gable and Young’s chemistry.

Links:

Barbary Coast (1935)

Barbary Coast (1935)

“San Francisco is no place for a bad loser — man or woman.”

Synopsis:
Accompanied by a retired colonel (Frank Craven), a single woman (Miriam Hopkins) sails to San Franciso during the Gold Rush, hoping to marry a wealthy man sight unseen. After learning her fiance has been killed in a lawless dispute, the local crime-boss (Edward G. Robinson) offers Hopkins work in his corrupt saloon, hoping she’ll come to love him — but Hopkins instead loses her heart to a poetic goldminer (Joel McCrea).

Genres:

Review:
Howard Hawks directed this cryptically titled historical drama which manages to cover an enormous amount of dramatic territory — mistaken identities, unrequited love, gold-digging, goldmining, feminism, vigilante justice, corruption, and freedom of speech, to name just a few topics — in its 91 minute running time. Robinson is suitably cast as a power-hungry crime-lord who wants to possess the most beautiful creature to enter “his” town in recent years — speaking of which, there are some uncomfortably dated moments early in the film when much is made of Hopkins being an enormously desirable WHITE woman (after the camera has panned past attractive women with darker skin), as well as a scene openly mocking Chinese immigrants’ presumed beliefs about wearing a braided queue to get into heaven (see here for a more accurate history of this hairstyle). With these caveats aside, the cinematography is atmospheric, and the story is reasonably engaging — particularly the critical subplot about Craven’s attempts to start an honest newspaper in a town that would rather keep its law and order tactics secret. (The more things change…)

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Atmospheric cinematography

  • Walter Brennan as Old Atrocity

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

Links: