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Month: March 2019

What Price Hollywood? (1932)

What Price Hollywood? (1932)

“We don’t live in the same world!”

Synopsis:
A waitress (Constance Bennett) hoping to make it big in Hollywood convinces an alcoholic director (Lowell Sherman) to take a chance on her, and soon her star is on the rise — but her new husband (Neil Hamilton) quickly tires of her hectic schedule, and gossip emerges around her enduring loyalty to Sherman no matter how low he falls.

Genres:

  • Actors and Actresses
  • Alcoholism and Drug Addiction
  • Aspiring Stars
  • Constance Bennett Films
  • George Cukor Films
  • Hollywood

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that in “George Cukor’s classic” — precursor to A Star is Born (1937) and the musical remake Cukor himself directed in 1954 — “Constance Bennett is extremely appealing as Mary Evans, a spunky Brown Derby waitress” who remains “forever grateful” to the man (Sherman) who gives her a break in Hollywood, becoming “the only person who remains loyal once alcoholism ruins his career”. Peary points out that the “sharply written” script by “Jane Murfin, Ben Markson, Gene Fowler, and Rowland Brown” — who “adapted a story by Adela Rogers St. John” — is “more cynical [about Hollywood] than vicious: careers are shown to be fragile and personal lives are easily shattered, but at least the souls of good people are not destroyed.” Unfortunately, the “film wavers between being highly original and very conventional” — including “everything involving Hamilton”. Indeed, Mary’s marriage to Lonny (Hamilton) is particularly poorly handled; their “meet cute” is annoyingly protracted, placing both of them in a bad light and setting us up not to like either of them as a marriage partner. As Peary notes, “the best part of the film is the core relationship between Bennett, whose star is on the rise, and Sherman, whose career is in a drunken tailspin”; his final scene is a doozy indeed.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Constance Bennett as Mary Evans
  • Lowell Sherman as Max
  • Fine cinematography
  • The impressively edited final sequence with Sherman

Must See?
No, though I’m tempted to say it’s a once-must for its strengths as well as its historical relevance.

Links:

Scarface, The Shame of the Nation (1932)

Scarface, The Shame of the Nation (1932)

“Colorful?! What color is a crawling louse?”

Synopsis:
A ruthless aspiring ganglord (Paul Muni) zealously protects his young sister (Ann Dvorak) from suitors while wooing the sultry mistress (Karen Morley) of his boss (Osgood Perkins); meanwhile, with help from his loyal henchman (George Raft), he wreaks murderous havoc on rival gangsters while attempting to take over new territory in Chicago.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary begins his review of Scarface by noting that this “best of the early gangster films was completed by Howard Hawks in 1930 but was held up by censors until several changes were made”, in order for “the public to understand that the motion-picture industry was also infuriated by crime.” However, as Peary points out, this film hardly glamorizes gangster life, given that “Paul Muni’s Tony Camonte, who, like many movie gangsters, was based in part on Al Capone, is a stupid, loutish, ugly brute — his scar is his best facial feature since he’s made up to resemble an apeman (he’s like Fredric March’s Mr. Hyde minus the fangs).” He adds that “screenwriter Ben Hecht based his crime family on the Borgias, so he had a model for the corruption, cruelty, power-lust and decadence that exists” — including “an incest theme” but minus any parental influence; Tony’s father is non-existent and his mother (Inez Palange) is completely ineffectual. Peary correctly notes that “no one who sees this film would want to emulate the lives of these criminals” — but with that said, the “film has exciting, atmospheric cinematography by Lee Garmes; taut, inspired direction by Hawks; and a powerful script by Hecht (with additional dialogue credit going to John Lee Mahin, Seton I. Miller, and W.R. Burnett).”

In GFTFF, Peary outlines several of the film’s highlights, including “the opening, in which the camera pans for several minutes across an emptying party room and ends up showing the first victim being murdered”; and “gangster Boris Karloff being shot just as he bowls — the camera follows the ball down the lane, where it knocks over all the pins, including the king pin, which spins for a while and topples over.” In Alternate Oscars — where he names this the Best Film of the Year — Peary writes that “for real, reel-to-reel excitement, no film filled the bill better than” Scarface, “the best and most ferocious of the gangster cycle.” He notes that “the gangster world Hawks presents is unsavory, sordid, and not enticing” — though “males might be drawn to the beautiful, trampy women played by Ann Dvorak and Karen Morley (two of the great unsung actresses of the period).” (Indeed, Dvorak “almost steals the film”.) Peary adds that “the gangsters themselves are childlike, ignorant brutes who could stand no other company but their own and play dangerously stupid games… We don’t want to be like them and we don’t want to walk the streets when they’re around.”

In GFTFF, Peary writes that Muni “gives one of his finest performances — it is his one character for whom you can feel no sympathy”, and he awards Muni Best Actor of the Year in Alternate Oscars, noting that “Muni plays his character as if he were a cocky punk teenager. Unsophisticated and immature (like all other gangsters), he’s self-impressed, overrates his intelligence (he is proud to use the word disillusioned), boasts nonstop, acts tough, doesn’t listen to his mother…, and is always looking for a good time.” He considers machine guns “toys”, women “meat”, and “likes anything that is ‘hot’.” While he “is usually having a good time” — at which moments “we fear his recklessness” — he “suddenly shifts from being carefree to being serious” and is “downright creepy.” As “Muni’s eyes, face, and tone of voice quickly change”, we “realize what a frightening, depraved individual Tony is.” I find Muni’s performance a tad overdone, but would agree he’s fully invested in his role and quite memorable — as is the entire atmospherically filmed narrative, which is well worth a look by all film fanatics.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Strong performances throughout

  • Lee Garmes’ cinematography


  • Ben Hecht’s script

Must See?
Yes, as an early gangster classic.

Categories

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

Links:

Shampoo (1975)

Shampoo (1975)

“Women can get to be an occupational hazard.”

Synopsis:
A hairdresser (Warren Beatty) lies to and cheats on his steady girlfriend (Goldie Hawn) while bedding the wife (Lee Grant), daughter (Carrie Fisher), and mistress (Julie Christie) of the man (Jack Warden) he’s hoping to secure funding from to open his own salon.

Genres:

  • Goldie Hawn Films
  • Hal Ashby Films
  • Julie Christie Films
  • Lee Grant Films
  • Love Triangle
  • Warren Beatty Films
  • Womanizers

Review:
Warren Beatty and Robert Towne co-wrote this satire (directed by Hal Ashby) about the vacuous lives of various Hollywood denizens, both rich and aspiring-rich, who mostly want sexual satisfaction and financial freedom but occasionally (like Hawn) show leanings towards something a little more wholesome — say, kids. It’s a depressing yet amusing farce, set during Nixon’s triumphant election over Humphrey in 1968, presumably to show that self-absorbed individuals may merit leadership by equally self-absorbed politicians. However, the primary focus is on George (Beatty) as he zips around L.A. (helmetless) on his Triumph motorcycle, doing women’s hair while hopping from one bed to the next. Beatty plays on his own public image as a sexual Lothario, ultimately coming across as hedonistically distracted at the cost of any other considerations (including loyalty, honesty, or the chance to open his own business). The most charitable character by far is Hawn, who thankfully has other options available to her.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Warren Beatty as George
  • Laszlo Kovacs’ cinematography

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

Links:

Black Sabbath (1964)

Black Sabbath (1964)

“There’s no fooling around with ghosts, because they take revenge!”

Synopsis:
Boris Karloff introduces a trio of horror stories about a woman (Michele Mercier) seeking solace from an estranged friend (Lydia Alfonsi) while she’s menaced by an ex-lover threatening to kill her; a patriarch (Boris Karloff) returning to his family home and bringing a dreaded curse with him; and a nurse (Jacqueline Pierreux) who foolishly steals a special ring from a corpse.

Genres:

Review:
Mario Bava’s seventh credited directorial effort was this omnibus of horror shorts, retitled from “The Three Faces of Fear” for American audiences to bank on his beloved debut film Black Sunday (1960). Black Sabbath (yes, the band took direct naming inspiration from this movie) offers plenty of spooky, atmospheric visuals tied to simple yet tight storylines that serve their purpose — but it’s the visuals that really linger. DVD Savant, a huge Bava fan, describes the unique quality of Bava’s lighting style:

It’s difficult to properly express the ‘special’ quality of Mario Bava’s artistic lighting… Favoring bright primary hues, sets are bathed in washes of color that can only be called hallucinatory. Electric greens and crimson reds, steely blues and deep purples give the screen depth and character. The heroines are bathed in warm golds and lit in non-traditional ways that make them look lusciously alive (Mercier) or nervously cold (Pierreux)… The fact that Bava’s lighting makes frequent use of unmotivated, un-sourced colored lights only adds to the feeling of fantasy. Images disturb precisely because their lighting is so ‘impossible’.

Film fanatics should enjoy checking out this cult favorite, though it’s only must-see for Bava fans.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Highly atmospheric cinematography and sets


Must See?
No, but it’s worth a look as a solid set of short films by a master director.

Links:

Champ, The (1931)

Champ, The (1931)

“He’s got plenty of environment right here.”

Synopsis:
An alcoholic, gambling-addicted boxer (Wallace Beery) struggles to provide a decent life for his son Dink (Jackie Cooper) — however, when Dink’s long-lost mother (Irene Rich) suddenly reappears in his life, a custody battle ensues.

Genres:

Review:
Wallace Beery won an Academy Award for his role as a washed-up former heavyweight boxing champion trying to make good again for the sake of his kid. Unfortunately, this melodramatic tale about a boy who adores his father no matter how badly and repeatedly he messes up is either maudlin, depressing, or unrealistic (as when Cooper’s mother suddenly shows up, wealthy, with another husband and child, and hoping to adopt him). Meanwhile, your tolerance for Cooper — who, fresh from his success in Skippy (1931), became the first major child star of the 1930s — will depend entirely on how much you can handle his overwrought if heart-felt reactions.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • A sometimes touching tale of father-son love

Must See?
No. Listed as a film with Historical Relevance in the back of Peary’s book.

Links:

A Nous la Liberte (1931)

A Nous la Liberte (1931)

“In life, liberty is all that counts.”

Synopsis:
A convict (Raymond Cordy) escapes prison with the help of his buddy (Henri Marchand) and quickly establishes himself as a phonograph factory magnate. Once Marchand catches up with Cordy, he falls in love with a beautiful secretary (Rolla France) at the factory, hoping to win her heart.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Class Relations
  • Ex-Cons
  • French Films
  • Musicals
  • Rene Clair Films

Review:
Rene Clair’s follow-up to Le Million (1931) was this playful musical showing how industrialized work in the early 20th century mimicked the anti-human drudgery of prison. Meanwhile, as convicts become capitalists, class relations are effectively skewered, and we learn that true happiness comes from freedom rather than commitment to wealth, societal norms, responsibility, or romantic love. In addition to its innovative use of sound and stylized sets, this film is primarily notable for the fact that some of the factory sequences very closely resemble similar scenes in Modern Times (1936); indeed, without Clair’s approval, the production company sued Chaplin. The storyline unfortunately doesn’t give us much to hold onto — we know that Marchand’s love interest has another suitor, and thus he’ll never win her authentic affections; the primary tension comes from wondering how the bowler-hatted Cordy will treat Marchand once their fortunes have shifted. Is there loyalty among (ex)thieves?

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Effectively stylized sets (by Lazare Meerson) and cinematography


  • Georges Auric’s score

Must See?
Yes, for historical purposes.

Categories

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

Links:

Front Page, The (1931)

Front Page, The (1931)

“So, you’re leaving me for marriage. Why?”

Synopsis:
A wily editor (Adolphe Menjou) tries to prevent his star journalist (Pat O’Brien) from marrying his sweetheart (Mary Brian) by luring him into investigating a story about a cop-killer (George E. Stone) due to be hung that evening.

Genres:

Review:
Fresh from the success of All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), Lewis Milestone directed this 180-degree change-of-pace screwball comedy, based on the Broadway play by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur and famously remade and re-gendered by Howard Hawks as His Girl Friday (1940). Given the brilliance of Hawks’s classic, I was pleasantly surprised by this earlier iteration, which offers ample fast-paced enjoyment of its own. The Pre-Code screenplay reveals its age in terms of numerous good-ol’-boy comments that wouldn’t pass muster these days (“He’s going to write poetry about milady’s panties.”), but otherwise has held up well. One generally expects early talkies to be somewhat static and slow; however, that certainly isn’t the case here. This one’s worth a watch.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Impressive direction and editing


  • A consistently amusing and engaging screenplay: “This place is beginning to smell like… like an owl’s foot.”

Must See?
Yes, as an enjoyable and historically relevant screwball comedy. Selected in 2010 for the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.

Categories

Links:

Public Enemy (1931)

Public Enemy (1931)

“Why, that dirty, no-good, yellow-bellied stool!”

Synopsis:
When a young hoodlum (Jimmy Cagney) and his friend (Edward Woods) are betrayed by their fence (Murray Kinnell), they join forces during Prohibition with a bootlegger (Robert Emmett O’Connor) and a wealthy gangster (Leslie Fenton). Cagney’s straight-laced brother (Donald Cook) disapproves of Cagney’s career choice, while his sweet mother (Beryl Mercer) remains clueless. Meanwhile, Cagney mistreats his current girlfriend (Mae Clarke) and woos another (Jean Harlow), while Woods marries his girlfriend (Joan Blondell) and Cagney is unwillingly seduced by O’Connor’s moll (Mia Marvin).

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “seminal Warners gangster film, directed by William Wellman, catapulted James Cagney to stardom”, and that despite being “somewhat dated” it remains worth watching for Cagney’s performance as Tom Powers (which he nominates as one of the best of the year in his Alternate Oscars). He writes that “Cagney is so engaging as Powers, so full of spirit, energy, and charm, that viewers couldn’t help but confuse liking the actor with liking his character”, who is “having a good time — shooting guns, killing other bad guys, hanging out with pretty women…, and making lots of money — while his honest brother (Donald Cook) is a bore, has a cruddy low-pay job as a trolley-car ticket puncher…, and lives with a scowl on his face.” Peary adds that “surely male viewers envied tough guy Powers because he wasn’t afraid to take on bullies and cops since he had no fear of death.”

Peary notes that this film has “several classic scenes: the classic grapefruit bit” (in which “Powers pushed a grapefruit in the kisser of his mistress”); “the badly wounded Cagney tap-stepping his way through a large puddle; Cagney’s off-screen execution of a horse; the delivery of Cagney’s body back home”. It’s likely that the version of this film Peary watched when writing GFTFF didn’t have several additional, memorably racy scenes that were added back in for its DVD release, including “a markedly effeminate tailor measuring Tom for a suit” and “Tom being seduced when hiding out in a woman’s apartment.” Overall, Public Enemy remains a more engaging and nuanced film than its equally well-known counterpart, Little Caesar (1931), both of which were re-released in 1954 with the same prologue cautioning that the lead characters “are a menace that the public must confront”. With that said, the narrative isn’t as tight as it should be (the female characters in particular aren’t fleshed out), making this more of an historic must-see than an all-out classic.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Jimmy Cagney as Tom Powers
  • Good historical detail and sets

  • Numerous memorable (pre-Code) moments



  • Strong direction by Wellman
  • Atmospheric cinematography

Must See?
Yes, for its historical relevance and Oscar-nominated performance by Cagney.

Categories

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

Links:

Monsieur Verdoux (1947)

Monsieur Verdoux (1947)

“Don’t believe too much: this is a ruthless world, and one must be ruthless to cope with it.”

Synopsis:
In Depression-era Paris, a former bank teller (Charlie Chaplin) with an invalid wife (Mady Corell) and young son (Allison Roddan) has a dark record of secretly marrying and murdering wealthy women. While plotting to kill one of them (Martha Raye), Chaplin intends to test his poison on a down-and-out young girl (Marilyn Nash) but takes pity on her instead. Meanwhile, he relentlessly courts a widow (Isobel Elsom) by sending her bouquets through a flower girl (Barbara Slater), and risks imminent discovery by the police.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that “Charles Chaplin’s last masterpiece was certainly his most controversial film”: “while The Great Dictator had been a comedy about Hitler and the Nazis… this was perhaps even more daring. After all, in this comedy Charlie Chaplin, once the lovable tramp, plays a cold-blooded murderer.” However, “Verdoux, the murderer of 14 women, kills only one person (a woman who has no life to begin with) during the film — therefore we find his character palatable”. While Chaplin “wisely doesn’t try to make Verdoux sympathetic”, we “can see traces of the tender, romantic, life-loving man he once was”, and we “understand his bitterness.” Peary writes that this “most compelling and unusual film” — once “championed by James Agee” — has a “storyline [that] is serious and sometimes morbid, but there is hilarity, especially in Chaplin’s scenes with Raye.”

In Alternate Oscars, Peary names this the Best Film of the Year and once again awards Chaplin the Best Actor award (for the third time!), thus providing plenty of additional written analysis. Peary’s selection of Monsieur Verdoux as the “best film” in a year filled with so many other worthy contenders — including the Peary-nominated Black Narcissus, Great Expectations, Miracle on 34th Street, Nightmare Alley, and Out of the Past — speaks volumes about his adoration for Chaplin’s oeuvre (and for underdog films that were unfairly maligned due to their creator’s politics). He writes that, “Depite its morbid plot line”, this film is “full of wit, ranging from Verdoux’s sardonic lines to wild Chaplinesque slapstick”.

Peary adds that “Verdoux’s scenes with Martha Raye’s loudmouthed, nasty Annabella are some of the funniest in all of Chaplin’s work”, with “the sequence in which he tries to poison her… [a] most complex comedy routine”, and “Verdoux’s discovery of Annabella at his wedding to Madame Grosnay” [Elsom] “hilariously complicated.” He writes that “in addition to the humor, the picture has charm… poignancy… and tenderness”, yet “we never forget that the Chaplin who wrote and directed this film is quite cynical, quite serious”: while “no one would think that Charlie Chaplin could give us the creeps… that’s our reaction just before he kills Lydia [Margaret Hoffman]”. Verdoux is presented as a “wise but insane man”, and “viewers must decide for themselves where Verdoux is bound” (heaven or hell), given that he isn’t “so sympathetic or likable that we automatically forgive his crimes”.

In his review of Chaplin’s acting, Peary writes that his Verdoux was “without question” “the best performance in 1947”. In addition to Chaplin’s ability to present a highly complex character (as discussed above), Peary notes that “at forty-eight he was still a masterful physical comedian, as exhibited when he backflips out of a window and when, without stopping his conversation or spilling his tea, he tumbles off a couch and onto his knees while proposing to Madame Grosnay.” Among Chaplin’s many hilarious scenes with Raye, Peary highlights “Verdoux’s attempt to drown her American Tragedy-style in a lake. When she suspects something is fishy, he quickly sits down, legs crossed, with the hilariously innocent expression of a naughty five-year-old.” Peary further adds that it’s “most interesting watching Chaplin play a dapper, gentlemanly Lothario, capable of seducing any woman he speaks to… In his conquests he’s as aggressive as Groucho Marx… but uses words like Charles Boyer.” Peary writes that he sees “Verdoux as the flip side of Chaplin’s Little Tramp”: while “Verdoux still acts in a gentlemanly manner, he has long given up the dignity and self-respect that is key to the Little Tramp’s resilience and survival.”

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Charlie Chaplin as Monsieur Verdoux
  • Martha Raye as Annabella
  • Marilyn Nash as The Girl
  • Many memorable scenes and sequences

Must See?
Yes, as a dark classic by a master director. Discussed at length in Peary’s Cult Movies 3 book.

Categories

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

Links:

Little Caesar (1931)

Little Caesar (1931)

“Can’t you just forget about me?”

Synopsis:
A small-time hood named Rico (Edward G. Robinson) rises to prominence as a gangster, but is frustrated when his best friend (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) chooses a life with his new dancing partner (Glenda Farrell) over crime.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “first of the sound gangster films” — directed by Mervyn LeRoy — “is somewhat dated, but still has power, thanks to Edward G. Robinson’s performance as the vicious, swaggering braggart Enrico Bandello, who rises from two-bit hood to public enemy number one.” He notes that “Rico has no redeeming qualities, no economic or social reasons for having chosen a life of crime. He just lusts for power, fame (gangsters make headlines), territory (an essential element in gangster films) — he gets the coveted North Side — and money (the spoils of gang warfare) — like Caesar.” Most of Peary’s GFTFF review focuses on “the only person [Rico] has feelings for” — his “former partner, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.” — noting that “their relationship is central to one interpretation of the film: Rico is a latent homosexual whose suppressed sexual aggression manifests itself in shooting men.” He concludes his review by noting that the “best scenes in the movie come at the end, when Rico has lost his power” and utters his “famous last words: ‘Mother of mercy, is this the end of Rico?'”

Peary elaborates on his praise for Robinson’s performance in Alternate Oscars, where he names Robinson Best Actor of the Year and notes, “Robinson is frightening as the swaggering, power-hungry Rico, not a character anyone would want to emulate. When he’s just a henchman, he scowls constantly, looks at everyone with sideways glances under a pulled-down hat, and is always snarling, talking back, or arguing… He uses his thumb when he talks, intimidatingly pointing it at others or thumping his chest like a dictator. Only when he becomes powerful is he cheerful, admiring himself in the mirror, getting his picture taken, combing his hair, having a banquet thrown in his honor, smoking cigars, wearing the outfit and pinky ring that a gangster he envied once wore.” However, when “Rico tumbles back to the gutter, he becomes a grotesque, primitive, slovenly figure.” Indeed Rico could be viewed as pure “id” — his character isn’t nuanced, but rather simply representative of Desire for Power. Fairbanks, Jr.’s role offers audiences an opportunity to see someone more human and humane, grappling with loyalty versus future goals; he’s fine in his supporting role, as is gutsy Farrell.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Edward G. Robinson as Rico
  • Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. as Joe
  • Glenda Farrell as Olga
  • Atmospheric cinematography by Tony Gaudio

Must See?
Yes, for its historical relevance and Robinson’s performance.

Categories

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

Links: