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Month: April 2019

Humoresque (1946)

Humoresque (1946)

“I’m tired of playing second fiddle to the ghost of Beethoven.”

Synopsis:
A married socialite (Joan Crawford) becomes smitten with an aspiring violinist (John Garfield), and the pair are soon lovers — but will Crawford’s meek husband (Paul Cavanagh), Garfield’s disapproving mother (Ruth Nelson), or Garfield’s former girlfriend (Joan Chandler) stand in the way of their forbidden romance?

Genres:

Review:
Clifford Odets co-wrote the screenplay for this adaptation (by Jean Negulescu) of Fannie Hurst’s melodramatic cross-class romance. One is tempted to say this is Joan’s show all the way, given she’s in peak form (her final moments on-screen are iconic) — but Garfield more than holds his own as a determined musician so devoted to his craft he has little authentic room for anything (or anyone) else. Levant becomes somewhat tiresome as Garfield’s always-wisecracking pianist-friend, though at least many of his lines are amusingly droll. The music (performed by Isaac Stern) is suitably moving, and Ernest Haller bathes the entire affair in a romantic glow. This would make an interesting double-bill with Rouben Mamoulian’s adaptation of Odets’ Golden Boy (1939), given that they serve as counterpoint stories about the choices and sacrifices one inevitably makes on behalf of talent, love, and family.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Joan Crawford as Helen Wright
  • John Garfield as Paul Boray
  • Ernest Haller’s cinematography

  • Many fine musical sequences

Must See?
No, though naturally it’s a must for Crawford fans. Listed as a film with Historical Importance in the back of Peary’s book.

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Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)

Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)

“He doesn’t punish men for discipline; he likes to see men crawl.”

Synopsis:
When sadistic Captain Bligh (Charles Laughton) mistreats his crew to the point of abuse and death, his first officer (Clark Gable) leads a mutiny despite the protests of Bligh’s loyal midshipman (Franchot Tone).

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “classic sea drama” about “a historical mutiny that took place in the 18th century on a British ship making a two-year voyage to retrieve breadfruit plants from Tahiti” still “holds up” well today. He argues that while the “film hasn’t the sense of adventure, eroticism, or psychological complexities of the 1962 remake with Trevor Howard and Marlon Brando… or the revisionist 1984 film, The Bounty, starring Anthony Hopkins and Mel Gibson”, it remains “the superior film”, and that “its power comes from neither Bligh nor Christian ever backing down from each other during an argument, even when the other has the upper hand.” In Alternate Oscars, however, Peary amends his assessment by noting it’s “too grouchy a picture”, given that “for two hours we see Laughton demean sailors and get away with it”; he asserts it’s not a film “you want to see every time [it turns] up at a repertory cinema or TV.” Meanwhile, he notes that while “Laughton’s Bligh is a villain for the ages, one of the most contemptuous figures in cinema history”, he believes “the role lets him down because it is without nuance — there is no way we can get into his head, no way to figure out if something in his past was responsible for his cruelty.”

I’m essentially in agreement with Peary’s points. While Mutiny on the Bounty is an impressive production on nearly every count — from the on-location shooting to meticulous set design (both historical ships were recreated), expert editing, and fine performances — it is challenging to watch Bligh’s (fictionalized) behavior and then see him retaining loyalty from a reasonably large group of men, who are either deathly afraid of treason and/or believe his behavior is somehow justifiable. In addition, the film is a tad overlong, with too much time spent lingering on romantic dalliances in Tahiti (where the female characters aren’t given any dimensions other than beauty and loyalty). However, enough about this adventure-filled nautical movie remains powerful and well-crafted that it’s certainly worth a look by all film fanatics.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Charles Laughton as Captain Bligh
  • Clark Gable as Christian Fletcher
  • Arthur Edeson’s cinematography

  • Margaret Booth’s masterful editing

Must See?
Yes, as an Oscar-winning classic.

Categories

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

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You Were Never Lovelier (1942)

You Were Never Lovelier (1942)

“I know women — they always fall in love with an illusion.”

Synopsis:
In Buenos Aires, the headstrong father (Adolphe Menjou) of four grown daughters — who insists they get married in chronological order — tries to get his second child (Rita Hayworth) in a romantic mood by sending her letters from a secret admirer. When Hayworth accidentally believes a visiting American dancer (Fred Astaire) is her paramour, they begin a romance, much to Menjou’s chagrin.

Genres:

Review:
Fred Astaire and Rita Hayworth’s follow-up to their successful pairing in You’ll Never Get Rich (1941) was this fluffy romantic musical with an edge — namely in the form of Menjou’s unlikable cad of a dad. While Menjou’s foolishness and stubborn streak is necessary for the plot, he’s such a pill (and a semi-creepy one at that, writing love letters to his own daughter) that he puts a pall on what would otherwise be perfectly acceptable, lighthearted fun. At least Hayworth looks relaxed, happy, and as sexy as ever, and she and Astaire are once again magical when dancing together; thankfully, these scenes are available for easy viewing on YouTube. The subplot about Hayworth’s younger sisters (Leslie Brooks and Adele Mara) unable to marry their own beaus until Hayworth is married is a mere convention, but provides some additional amusing pressure on the proceedings; meanwhile, Gus Schilling gets to fuss about as Menjou’s put-upon secretary.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Astaire and Hayworth’s lovely dances together

Must See?
No, though it’s an enjoyable trifle if you’re in the mood for some lovely dance numbers.

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Captains Courageous (1937)

Captains Courageous (1937)

“Fifteen years I been fisherman — first time I ever fish a boy like you!”

Synopsis:
The spoiled son (Freddie Bartholomew) of a distracted magnate (Melvyn Douglas) accidentally falls overboard and is rescued by a Portuguese fisherman (Spencer Tracy) who takes him under his wing. Soon Bartholomew has learned to work hard and take responsibility, and develops deep respect for Tracy and the rest of the ship’s crew, including the captain (Lionel Barrymore) and his son (Mickey Rooney). Will his new work ethos last beyond the duration of the trip?

Genres:

Review:
Spencer Tracy won his first Oscar playing a quirky, music-loving Portuguese fisherman in this adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s novel, which nicely shows the progression of a manipulative boy — who’s authentically confused about why no one seems to like him — into someone who’s learned the value of hard work and cooperation. The storyline is very clearly set up for Tracy to serve as an alternative father figure for Bartholomew, which he does admirably — and Bartholomew himself turns in a nuanced, empathetic performance (not easy when playing a spoiled rich kid). Most of the film takes place during rocky days at sea, showing ample footage of fishing and rivalry with a nearby ship; I got a little bit seasick watching the proceedings, but can imagine young boys fantasizing about just such a real-life adventure. While not quite a classic, this one has held up reasonably well.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Freddie Bartholomew as Harvey
  • Spencer Tracy as Manuel (nominated by Peary as one of the Best Actors of the Year in Alternate Oscars)
  • Fine cinematography

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

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

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Boys Town (1938)

Boys Town (1938)

“There is no bad boy.”

Synopsis:
An idealistic but fiscally irresponsible priest (Spencer Tracy) opens a home for delinquent boys named Boys Town, but meets his match when an unruly youngster (Mickey Rooney) refuses to fall in line with the community’s principles.

Genres:

Review:
Spencer Tracy won his second Best Actor award in a row for his portrayal as the real-life Father Flanagan, a saintly and sympathetic father figure renowned for his pioneering efforts in providing a meaningful, respectful alternative to reform school. Unfortunately, MGM’s fictional accounting of Flanagan’s work comes across as hopelessly simplistic and unrealistic. DVD Savant, not a fan of this film, writes thatBoys Town now seems painfully dated, wrong-headed and, worst of all, smugly insincere”. While I don’t agree it’s wrong-headed, it’s certainly whitewashed beyond belief — starting from the near total lack of diversity despite the proclamation that all races and creeds are welcome. The plot twists are all cliched heart-wrenchers, and the final narrative turn — with Rooney running into his criminal brother (Edward Norris) at just the wrong moment — beggars belief. With that said, Tracy does turn in a respectable and respectful performance; one can see why he and the film were popular with audiences of the day. Meanwhile, Rooney is full of energy and can’t be faulted for his efforts, either.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Spencer Tracy as Father Flanagan

Must See?
No, though it’s worth a look for Tracy’s Oscar-winning performance and for its erstwhile popularity. Listed as a film with Historical Importance in the back of Peary’s book.

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All the King’s Men (1949)

All the King’s Men (1949)

“Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption.”

Synopsis:
A small-town farmer-turned-lawyer (Broderick Crawford) rises to prominence in politics, aided by a hard-talking political aide (Mercedes McCambridge) and a sympathetic reporter (John Ireland) whose girlfriend (Joanne Dru) becomes Crawford’s lover. However, as Crawford becomes increasingly corrupt, he puts the well-being and reputations of many — including his own son (John Derek) and Dru’s esteemed uncle (Raymond Greenleaf) — at risk.

Genres:

Review:
Loosely based on the life of Louisiana politician Huey Long, this adaptation of Robert Penn Warren’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel — directed and scripted by Robert Rossen — won an Academy Award as Best Picture of the Year, and a Best Actor of the Year award for Crawford. Peary disagrees with both these choices in his Alternate Oscars, where he notes that “cynical movies about the simultaneous moral corruption of individuals and society — with the sheeplike masses just waiting to be manipulated by false prophets — flourished in the postwar years”, including such 1950s titles as “Billy Wilder’s The Big Carnival/Ace in the Hole and Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd” which “made viewers ashamed of themselves”. He writes that while some elements of All the King’s Men — particularly “those [scenes] that illustrate how our political system ‘works'”, as well as the many “authentic crowd scenes” — remain powerful, “the politics get lost because of some romantic subplots and a conventional secondary story involving Stark’s relationship with his disrespectful son”.

Regarding Crawford, Peary asserts that he “became arguably the worst actor ever to win a Best Actor Academy Award” (!), cynically noting that “after a dozen undistinguished years of performances that failed to prove he deserved anything better than to be in films nobody saw”, he was lucky enough to be “perfectly cast” here as “a two-fisted corrupt politician.” While I’m not well-versed enough in Crawford’s career to comment on him, I’ll agree this character study remains one of the lesser (though still intermittently powerful) attempts by Hollywood to expose political corruption and herd-like adoration of a Strong Leader — which, it should be noted, remain salient themes today. The framing narrative by and about Ireland is particularly weak; we lose respect for him fairly early on, as he remains committed to a man who may once have had good intentions but has clearly turned rotten. However, the direction and cinematography are strong, and the final scenes remain shocking and unexpected. Check out TCM’s article for a fascinating overview of the unconventional editing process that pared this film down to manageable size.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Effective direction by Rossen and cinematography by Burnett Guffey

Must See?
Yes, for its historical importance as an Oscar winner. Listed as a film with Historical Relevance in the back of Peary’s book.

Categories

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Escape (1940)

Escape (1940)

“My mother — what’s she got to do with death? She’s life!”

Synopsis:
The son (Robert Taylor) of a famous actress (Nazimova) who has gone missing after selling her late husband’s estate in Germany attempts to track her down, but finds all citizens fearful and evasive about her fate in a concentration camp. Will Taylor be able to count on either the support of an American-born, widowed countess-turned-headmistress (Norma Shearer) whose lover (Conrad Veidt) is a general in the Nazi army, or a kind-hearted doctor (Philip Dorn) with a lifelong admiration for Nazimova?

Genres:

Review:
This early anti-Nazi film by MGM Studios was banned by Hitler — no surprise, given that it pulls absolutely no punches about the dangers of Germany’s totalitarian government, which is shown as willing to mercilessly execute a beloved actress for attempting to legitimately take her own money out of the country. Shearer’s character feels a bit too deliberately crafted as a beautiful American with torn loyalties, but Dutch-born Dorn (who fled Nazi-occupied Europe to continue his career) is excellent as a doctor who shows increasing bravery over the course of the story. We’re kept on our toes about how things will work out, and a very real air of death looms over the entire affair, making it a worthy entry in early cinematic outings about the Nazi threat to humanity.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Philip Dorn as Dr. Ditten
  • Robert Planck’s cinematography

Must See?
No, but it’s worth seeking out by fans of films from this unique era.

Links:

Winning Team, The (1952)

Winning Team, The (1952)

“It isn’t enough that I believe in him — baseball’s got to believe in him, too.”

Synopsis:
Farmer-turned-pitcher Grover Cleveland Alexander (Ronald Reagan) finds support from his loving wife (Doris Day) while pursuing a career in major league baseball — but after being hit in the head, his vision and stability are never quite the same. Will Alexander be able to make a come-back?

Genres:

Review:
This unexceptional biopic about Baseball Hall-of-Famer Grover Cleveland Alexander is likely included in Peary’s GFTFF (1986) both because it starred then-president Ronald Reagan in one of his final roles before turning to politics, and because it centered on Peary’s favorite sport. Unfortunately, Alexander’s tragically complicated story — involving an early work-place accident, war-induced PTSD, alcoholism, and unacknowledged epilepsy — is framed as a dual tale of “never give up” can-do-ism and selfless marital support (together, Reagan and Day are a “winning team”). Baseball fans will likely enjoy seeing numerous cameos by real-life stars — as well as footage from the 1926 World Series, featuring Babe Ruth — but others needn’t bother seeking this one out.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Sidney Hickox’s cinematography

Must See?
No; you can skip this one.

Links:

Strawberry Blonde, The (1941)

Strawberry Blonde, The (1941)

“I’d have quit long ago if that horse didn’t have such interesting teeth…”

Synopsis:
In 1890s New York, an aspiring dentist (Jimmy Cagney) falls instantly in love with a flirty blonde (Rita Hayworth), but accepts comfort and romance with Hayworth’s friend (Olivia de Havilland) instead when his buddy (Jack Carson) steals Hayworth from under his nose.

Genres:

Review:
Raoul Walsh directed this lighthearted romantic comedy about the vagaries of love and courtship, framed through a flashback story of a married dentist reminiscing about his infatuation with the local “strawberry blonde” beauty (Hayworth). Since we know Cagney didn’t end up with Hayworth, the story of how and why his romantic intent failed — as well as the story behind his recent past as a “jailbird” — inform the twist-filled narrative, in which most people aren’t quite what they seem (some for the worse, some for the better). While she’s not the title character, Olivia de Havilland stands out as the most memorable and sassy female in the film, and is given numerous fun lines; she’s nicely filmed by James Wong Howe, who offers stand-out cinematography as usual. Cagney’s character is a bit of an enigma — given his lifelong dreams of dentistry, would he really accept a random job from Carson without hesitation? — but at least we see him evolving, and the overall moral of the story is a satisfying one.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Olivia de Havilland as Amy
  • James Cagney as Biff
  • James Wong Howe’s cinematography

Must See?
No, though it’s a pleasant enough diversion if you’re in the mood for this type of flick.

Links:

Red Dust (1932)

Red Dust (1932)

“Don’t mind me, boys — I’m just restless.”

Synopsis:
A prostitute (Jean Harlow) on the lam falls for the owner (Clark Gable) of a rubber plantation in Indochina, but Gable is primarily interested in the wife (Mary Astor) of a visiting engineer (Gene Raymond).

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “hot-blooded jungle romance” by director Victor Fleming (remade as Mogambo by John Ford in 1953) “still has the sexual charge that caused it to break box-office records in the early thirties”. He points out that “unshaven Gable and braless blonde Harlow have immense sexual chemistry at all times — whether he’s standing next to her while she takes her famous nude bath in a barrel or she sits by him as he lies on a bed, reading to him a children’s bedtime story while he’s putting his hand on her knee.” The storyline is simple but powerful, showing Gable’s sway over “well-bred Astor” (who hates herself for cheating on her noble husband), as well as Harlow’s immense patience and world-weariness. She’s been through enough that a disappointment like Gable choosing Astor over her stings a bit, but she’ll survive intact, and never loses her self-possession or sense of innate dignity. It’s easy to imagine Joan Crawford in a role like this; indeed, Red Dust and Rain (1932) — another film about a fugitive prostitute on a rainy island — would make a potent double-bill.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Jean Harlow as Vantine
  • Harold Rossen and Arthur Edeson’s cinematography

  • A smart and sassy screenplay: “If it was the summer of 1894, I’d play games with you, sister. But life is much simpler now.”

Must See?
Yes, as a pre-Code classic. Selected in 2006 for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.

Categories

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