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Month: February 2019

Grand Hotel (1932)

Grand Hotel (1932)

“I’d like to take you in my arms, and not let anything happen to you — ever.”

Synopsis:
In a ritzy Berlin hotel, a down-on-his-luck thief (John Barrymore) falls in love with a lonely ballerina (Greta Garbo) whose pearls he originally intended to steal. Meanwhile, a plucky secretary (Joan Crawford) accepts work with a womanizing businessman (Wallace Beery), and a dying man (Lionel Barrymore) spends his final dollars and days living it up in the hotel.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Character Arc
  • Do-Gooders
  • Edmund Goulding Films
  • Ensemble Cast
  • Greta Garbo Films
  • Joan Crawford Films
  • John Barrymore Films
  • Lewis Stone Films
  • Lionel Barrymore Films
  • Play Adaptation
  • Romance
  • Thieves and Criminals
  • Wallace Beery Films

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “M-G-M classic, a Best Picture winner” — which he argues should more accurately be referred to as “Heartbreak Hotel” — is “erratically acted by the male stars, but Garbo and especially Crawford, who was never more appealing, glow — as Hollywood stars once did.” Other than noting that “Crawford’s scene with Lionel Barrymore is bizarre” (?), he doesn’t have much to say about this flick in GFTFF — though he does discuss it in more detail in his Alternate Oscars, where he votes for Scarface (1932) as the best movie of the year instead. He notes that Grand Hotel is “pretty hokey stuff to be sure”, but adds that while “Lionel’s character grates on [his] nerves and Beery struggles with a German accent”, “just watching Garbo, Crawford, and John Barrymore interact on screen is quite exciting.”

Indeed, the storyline of a “thief who gives something to people [and thus] cannot survive” (“it’s John Barrymore who helps Garbo, Lionel Barrymore, and Crawford overcome their self-pitying depression”) is an intriguing one. It’s engaging watching the ripple effect of Barrymore’s sudden burst of love and compassion for Garbo carrying out across so many individuals: the moral of this story is a powerful one, and the ending is satisfying. I’m less a fan of top-billed Garbo’s melodramatic performance (“I want to be alone!”) than Crawford’s; indeed, this was one of Crawford’s best early roles, and the pre-Code script allows us no-holds-barred access to understanding the sexual compromises women sometimes make for their careers. It’s interesting to know that, according to TCM’s article, Crawford was “afraid she would be lost among the film’s high-powered stars and also worried that her character’s best scenes would be cut by the censors”; she needn’t have worried, as her charisma shines through.

Peary agrees, naming her Best Actress of the Year in Alternate Oscars for her role as Flaemmchen, “a poor, ambitious, free-lance stenographer who picks up needed money by sleeping with her employers”. He notes that while “Crawford was already a major star when she made Grand Hotel,” this “was the picture that proved she could hold her own with the movie elite and be taken seriously as a dramatic actress.” He adds that “as with her earlier characters, there is a softness under Flaemmchen’s tough, wise-to-the-ways-of-men-and-life exterior”, noting that while he likes “most of Crawford’s early film roles”, this “is her first performance that isn’t erratic. In her movements, her sexy hip-out stance, her line readings, and her expressions, Crawford had never been more natural [or] more honest” and “real feelings come through.” He concludes his essay by noting that “Crawford is extremely sexy, with youthful energy, huge eyes, and sensual backward glances, a posed slim and angular body” — but “there is something much more than sexual magnetism at work”: “what makes Crawford so memorable… is her star quality.”

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Joan Crawford as Flaemmchen
  • John Barrymore as the Baron
  • Fine cinematography

  • Cedric Gibbons’ set design

Must See?
Yes, as a still-enjoyable Pre-Code ensemble drama, and for Crawford’s noteworthy performance.

Categories

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Arthur (1981)

Arthur (1981)

“Grow up, Arthur — you’d make a fine adult.”

Synopsis:
An alcoholic playboy (Dudley Moore) is forced by his stern great-aunt (Geraldine Fitzgerald) and father (Thomas Barbour) to marry an heiress (Jill Eikenberry) with a domineering dad (Stephen Elliott) or lose his fortune — however, when he falls in love with a quirky waitress (Liza Minnelli), he must choose between love and financial security, and turns to his butler (John Gielgud) for advice.

Genres:

Review:
Dudley Moore is perfectly cast as the irrepressible title star of this smash hit screwball comedy about a “fun drunk” who you can’t imagine possibly liking, but eventually grow to enjoy and even admire a little bit. Moore’s chemistry with Minnelli makes their unconventional romance plausible (though I’m not sure what it says about either of them that they “meet cute” while she’s shoplifting), and Eikenberry is note-perfect as a woman convinced she’s capable of “fixing” Moore. Meanwhile, Moore’s relationship with droll John Gielgud — playing his avuncular butler and mentor — consistently reminds us of both Moore’s humanity and his potential. Burt Bacharach’s catchy theme song instantly hits one’s aural memory nerves and begins looping itself through your brain, but at least it’s a pleasing ditty. This film has held up surprisingly well as a light-hearted comedy, and is worth a look.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Fine performances throughout



  • Burt Bacharach’s theme song

Must See?
No, but it’s recommended as an enjoyable comedy.

Links:

Eagle and the Hawk, The (1933)

Eagle and the Hawk, The (1933)

“I didn’t expect to be a chauffeur to a graveyard, driving men to their death day after day!”

Synopsis:
An American fighter pilot (Fredric March) refuses to fly with a reconnaissance photographer (Cary Grant) who he believes is overly eager to shoot down the enemy.

Genres:

Review:
This hard-hitting World War I-era film immediately evokes memories of Howard Hawks’ Dawn Patrol (1930) in its depiction of fighter pilots attempting to stay sane in an environment filled with daily death. Cary Grant, Carole Lombard, and Jack Oakie are present in small but impactful roles, but it’s March’s powerful leading performance which grounds the film. The brutal storyline is primarily concerned with the tensions between killing because it’s one’s duty during war, and killing as a morally reprehensible act. Grant’s “observer” is cocky in his assurance that shooting the enemy, even if he’s parachuting down to the ground, is simply what one does: “This is a war. I’m hired to kill the enemy, and there ain’t no book of rules about that. Every one I put away means one less to kill me. That’s my job and I’m doing it.” March, on the other hand, attempts to maintain a sense of honor in the midst of his responsibilities — a stance which quickly erodes him. The final scenes are brutally heart-breaking.

Note: Other Peary-listed titles by director Stuart Walker include Werewolf of London (1935) and Mystery of Edwin Drood (1935).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Fredric March as Jerry Young
  • Atmospheric cinematography


Must See?
Yes, for March’s devastating performance.

Categories

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Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939)

Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939)

“I don’t see how you could ever get old, in a world that’s always young.”

Synopsis:
A shy schoolmaster (Robert Donat) gains a new lease on life when he marries a beautiful woman (Greer Garson) he meets while vacationing in Germany, and quickly becomes a vital fixture at his venerable school, Brookfield Academy.

Genres:

Review:
Peary doesn’t review director Sam Wood’s adaptation of James Hilton’s novella in his GFTFF, but he does agree with the Academy’s designation of Robert Donat as Best Actor of the Year in his Alternate Oscars, where he writes that “this popular MGM picture covers sixty-three years in the life of the gentle, scholarly Mr. Chips… from his first shaky day at Brookfield, through his small triumphs and great tragedies, to his last moments on his deathbed, when he is still integral to the school.” He notes that the script “smartly… first has us see Chips as an eighty-three-year-old, full of charm and a quirky personality” — an effective gambit given that “for much of the flashback that soon begins… Donat is so reserved that he doesn’t seem to be acting at all”, which was “by intention, since the bachelor Chips is a timid, dull stick-in-the-mud”. This nicely sets things up for the moment “Chip meets (in a wonderfully romantic scene on a fog-covered mountain), falls in love with…, marries, and lives blissfully with the glorious Katherine (Greer Garson)”, who “helps him conquer his shyness and break down barriers with his pupils”.

Indeed, while Garson isn’t on-screen for much of the movie, her presence is vital to the film’s success, and it’s easy to see why this breakthrough film helped make her a star. I wish her character would (could) stick around for longer, since their romance is truly charming, and it’s interesting to see the effect of a young woman on the all-boys campus. I’m less of an overall “sucker for movies with nice schoolteachers” than Peary, who points out his particular fondness for Chips, a teacher who “didn’t pull rank on students” and “cared about their welfare and stuck up for them.” He applauds Donat’s willingness to apologize to his students “for mistakenly disciplining them at an inopportune time”, and argues that a boy’s threat to “kill the headmaster” if he “says another word to Chips” shows “that during Chips’s many years at Brookfield he earned a whole lot more than the boys’ friendship”. He notes that “Donat, a great actor, makes us see why these kids would feel such love for this special individual” — and I agree Donat’s performance makes this one worth a look, even if it’s not a personal favorite.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Robert Donat as “Mr. Chips”
  • Greer Garson as Katherine
  • Freddie Young’s cinematography

Must See?
No, but it’s worth a look for the historical relevance of Donat’s award-winning role.

Links:

Private Benjamin (1980)

Private Benjamin (1980)

“I think they sent me to the wrong place.”

Synopsis:
A young widow (Goldie Hawn) whose husband (Albert Brooks) died on their wedding night listens to advice from a military recruiter (Harry Dean Stanton) on the radio and decides to turn her life around by joining the army. After initial shock and some ribbing by a hard-driving commander (Eileen Brennan), Hawn becomes a dedicated, self-sufficient soldier — but when she meets a handsome doctor (Armand Assante), she must choose between love and a career.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that “in this popular comedy Goldie Hawn is at her most appealing as a Jewish princess from Philadelphia who… actually believes the [army] recruiter’s… promises of single rooms, yachts, [and] the easy life.” He notes that while she “gets more than she bargained for” during basic training, “the army also gets more than it bargained for”, and Hawn “becomes a good soldier” — at which point “the film becomes too conventional”. He writes that:

“Significantly, the army isn’t depicted as a character builder (as in An Officer and a Gentleman). Instead the fussy, childlike Judy, whose previous life had been completely orchestrated by men, evolves into a confident, strong, independent-minded woman in spite of the army, which is represented by less than noble characters: the recruiter who lies to her, the captain (Eileen Brennan) who tries to break her, the colonel (Robert Webber) who tries to rape her, the officer who will discharge her unless she breaks off with Assante. Judy may be sweet, gullible, and vulnerable, but… like all Hawn’s best characters, she has enough intelligence/shrewdness and perseverance to triumph over those in positions of power who try to take advantage of her and yank her in one wrong direction or another.”

Peary’s points about Hawn’s character are all true enough, but I wasn’t sufficiently invested in Hawn — someone whose self-professed life dream since the age of eight was “a big house, nice clothes, two closets, a live-in maid, and a professional man for a husband” — to care very much about her outcome. Sure, it’s great that she eventually moves past these childish dreams into something more realistic and self-proficient — but unlike, say, Working Girl (1988), this feels more like a feel-good message film (specific to a certain era) than an enduring classic.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Goldie Hawn as Judy Benjamin

Must See?
No, but Hawn fans will of course want to check it out.

Links:

Pilgrimage (1933)

Pilgrimage (1933)

“All right, son: if you love her, you can’t love me.”

Synopsis:
A domineering widow (Henrietta Crosman) is so disapproving of her son (Norman Foster) dating a girl (Marion Nixon) from “across the tracks” that she signs her son up to fight in World War I, where he’s killed. Years later, Crosman refuses to interact either with Nixon or her grandson (Jay Ward), but experiences a gradual change of heart when she travels to Europe as a Gold Star Mother.

Genres:

Review:
This Fox Studios outing by the ever-prolific John Ford is notable for showcasing Gold Star Mothers (an organization which first convened in 1928 to support mothers of soldiers killed during service), and for presenting a true Mother-From-Hell — albeit one who undergoes an enormous transformation thanks to a remarkably coincidental series of events later in the film. Ford’s sure directorial hand is in full evidence here, and Crosman gives a fine performance, but the storyline overall doesn’t quite work for me; we’re asked to invest in a character whose bullish behavior isn’t sufficiently explained or given any kind of back-story. Only Ford fans need seek this one out.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Henrietta Crosman as Mrs. Hannah Jessop
  • Marion Nixon as Mary
  • Fine cinematography


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

Links:

Count of Monte Cristo, The (1934)

Count of Monte Cristo, The (1934)

“It was not my sword, Mondego, but your past that disarmed you!”

Synopsis:
During the time of Napoleon’s exile, a falsely accused sailor (Robert Donat) escapes from a dungeon with the help of his secret cellmate (O.P. Heggle), who tells him about hidden treasure on the deserted island of Monte Cristo. Donat emerges under a new identity as a count, eager to reconnect with his fiancee (Elissa Landi), who — thinking Donat dead — has married one of the men (Sidney Blackmer) responsible for Donat’s imprisonment. Soon Donat begins his calculated plan for the downfall of Blackmer, the corrupt city magistrate (Louis Calhern), and a greedy officer (Raymond Walburn).

Genres:

Review:
This first sound adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’ beloved classic is cited by many as one of the best, and it remains a rousing, finely told adventure tale. In his Hollywood debut, Donat is convincingly determined in his efforts, and suitably noble when events take an unexpected turn in the final portion of the screenplay. There is undeniable satisfaction to be had as each of the self-serving men who have gravely wronged Donat (indeed, sent him to his supposed death without concern) get their come-uppance in a fashion exactly suited to their temperament; while the saintly Heggle may worry about Donat’s feverish resentment getting the better of him, Donat makes it clear that his vengeance is not just specific to his own cause but symbolic, meant to rid the world of at least a few sources of unmitigated corruption.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Robert Donat as Edmond Dantes
  • Fine cinematography

Must See?
No, but it’s recommended. Listed as a film with Historical Importance in the back of Peary’s book.

Links:

Desire (1936)

Desire (1936)

“All I know about you is… you stole my car, and I’m insane about you.”

Synopsis:
A long-con diamond thief (Marlene Dietrich) falls in love with an American (Gary Cooper) vacationing in Spain. Will she go straight to be with him, or stick to a life of crime with her business partner (John Halliday)?

Genres:

Review:
Marlene Dietrich’s first post-von Sternberg film was this delightful romantic comedy, directed by Frank Borzage and produced by Ernst Lubitsch. The storyline begins with a clever long-con (co-starring Alan Mowbray and Ernest Cossart) that shows exactly how cool and calculating Dietrich could be — especially with men — but the ensuing plot allows her to gradually show a more vulnerable side of herself as she falls in love with Cooper. The cinematography is appropriately atmospheric, and the European sets fit the tale perfectly. Dietrich fans in particular will be glad to see her playing a more nuanced and interesting character than Concha in The Devil is a Woman (1936).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Fine lead performances
  • Charles Lang and Victor Milner’s cinematography

Must See?
No, but it’s recommended as an enjoyable romantic thriller.

Links:

My Sister Eileen (1955)

My Sister Eileen (1955)

“Oh, they were interested — but not in my acting.”

Synopsis:
A writer (Betty Garrett) and her aspiring-actress sister Eileen (Janet Leigh) move to New York City and are convinced by a Greek landlord (Kurt Kaszner) to rent a basement apartment next to an out-of-work wrestler (Dick York) and his girlfriend (Lucy Marlow). Busty Eileen draws attention everywhere she goes — specifically from a soda fountain manager (Bob Fosse) and his acquaintance (Tommy Rall); meanwhile, Ruth (Garrett) tries to sell some of her stories about life with her attractive sister to a publisher (Jack Lemmon) who believes Garrett is “Eileen”.

Genres:

Review:
Bob Fosse choreographed and co-starred in this enjoyable Cinemascope musical — based on a 1940 play by Jerome Chodorov and Joseph Fields — which was itself inspired by Ruth McKenney’s autobiographical stories. The storyline, focusing on two young hopefuls navigating The Big City, remains as timeless as ever, and while it’s challenging to watch Eileen literally harassed wherever she goes, we can contextualize the scenario as “of the era” and be grateful we’ve moved on at least somewhat (or have we?). Garrett is pitch-perfect in the leading role, and Leigh is appropriately guileless as her lovable sister; there’s no way one could dislike Eileen as portrayed here. The musical sequences are a delight, and it’s fun to see Fosse himself on-screen. I also happen to enjoy the subplot about “Wreck” (York) hanging around the apartment making himself useful, his “unique”, oh-so-New-York relationship with Marlow unthreatened by Leigh’s presence.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Betty Garrett as Ruth
  • Janet Leigh as Eileen
  • Fun musical sequences (choreographed by Bob Fosse)

  • Fine Cinemascope cinematography
  • An enjoyably witty script

Must See?
Yes, as an enjoyable musical. Listed as a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

Categories

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Monster on the Campus (1958)

Monster on the Campus (1958)

“Man is not only capable of change, but man alone — among all living creatures — can change the direction in which that will take place.”

Synopsis:
A professor (Arthur Franz) who receives a rare prehistoric fish is puzzled when the dog owned by his research assistant (Troy Donahue) suddenly becomes wild after drinking the fish’s water, and his colleague’s assistant (Helen Westcott) turns up murdered after spending time with Franz. His concerned girlfriend (Joanna Moore) tries to protect Franz from suspicion, but he himself is determined to get to the bottom of the mystery.

Genres:

Review:
Director Jack Arnold is best known for a handful of sci-fi classics, including It Came from Outer Space (1953), Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), and The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957). Unfortunately, this Jekyll-and-Hyde-inspired flick isn’t in the same league by a long shot; the storyline is of the type where audience members figure out the “mystery” long before the rest of the characters do, despite obvious hints. Meanwhile, Franz isn’t a particularly likable hero — while we admire his tenacity and self-sacrifice, he’s also a bombastic womanizer who won’t stop lecturing. (His opening line as he’s removing a plaster cast from his girlfriend’s face is, “Ah, the human female in the perfect state — helpless and silent.”) Clearly this is meant to show his — I mean mankind’s — more primitive side, but it comes across as simply dated and obnoxious. The makeup of the titular monster is pretty silly-looking, too.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Russell Metty’s cinematography

Must See?
Nope; you can definitely skip this one.

Links: