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Month: October 2019

Peyton Place (1957)

Peyton Place (1957)

“It’s about time you learned that girls want to do the same things as boys.”

Synopsis:
When a new high school principal (Michael Rossi) arrives in the New England town of Peyton Place, he quickly expresses romantic interest in a local widow (Lana Turner) whose daughter (Diane Varsi) is dating a shy, mother-dominated boy (Russ Tamblyn). Meanwhile, Varsi’s best friend (Hope Lange) — whose mother (Betty Field) works as Turner’s housemaid — endures abuse at the hands of her alcoholic stepfather (Arthur Kennedy), and the local “loose girl” (Terry Moore) dates the son (Barry Coe) of a wealthy conservative (Leon Ames) who disapproves of his son’s relationship.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Arthur Kennedy Films
  • Betty Field Films
  • Hope Lange Films
  • Lana Turner Films
  • Mark Robson Films
  • Morality Police
  • Rape
  • Russ Tamblyn Films
  • Sexual Repression
  • Single Mothers
  • Small Town America
  • Teenagers
  • Terry Moore Films

Review:
Mark Robson’s adaptation of Grace Metalious’s best-selling novel (loosely based on stories from her hometown) managed to avoid the scandalous soaper’s most controversial topics (i.e., abortion) while maintaining plenty of lurid subplots. Lange’s sensitive character (she gives a fine performance) and hideous home life are the easiest to sympathize with; however, the remaining ensemble narrative is simply filled with torrid melodrama focused on sexual repression, class snobbery, and parental dysfunction. Oscar-nominated Turner is as earnest and stoic as ever (you’d never know her personal traumas at the time rivaled those on screen), but it’s challenging to feel much engagement around her rebuff of her would-be suitor (Rossi), whose distinguished gray hair looks painted on and whose squeaky, high-pitched voice is a surprise each time one hears it. The best thing about the film is its gorgeous Cinemascope cinematography, much of it shot on location in New England. Listed as a Sleeper in the back of Peary’s book, though I’m not quite sure why.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Beautiful Cinemascope cinematography

  • Hope Lange as Selena

Must See?
No, though it’s worth a look for its historical importance and erstwhile popularity.

Links:

Kitty Foyle (1940)

Kitty Foyle (1940)

“A woman can always tell when a man is going to propose.”

Synopsis:
When the daughter (Ginger Rogers) of a working-class Irish-American (Ernest Cossart) is proposed to by a kind doctor (James Craig), she reflects upon her long-held feelings for an upper-crust publisher (Dennis Morgan) who has suddenly re-entered her life.

Genres:

Review:
Sam Wood’s adaptation of Christopher Morley’s novel is notable as the film that brought Ginger Rogers both her first serious leading role, and an Academy Award. Peary doesn’t review Kitty Foyle in GFTFF, but in his Alternate Oscars — where he names Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday as Best Actress of the Year instead — he notes that “Rogers’ victory is somewhat tainted” (given Katherine Hepburn’s New York Film Critics award-winning performance in The Philadelphia Story) “though it’s good that she got an Oscar sometime during her career.” But he adds that “Kitty Foyle and her performance (and her hairstyles) don’t really hold up, especially when compared to her best work with Fred Astaire, or with Gold Diggers of 1933, Stage Door, Vivacious Lady, Bachelor Mother, Lucky Partners, Roxie Hart, The Major and the Minor, Monkey Business, and others.” I’m in agreement with Peary’s assessment — though I would also add that the narrative itself leaves much to be desired. While Rogers’ character is admirably independent, it’s hard to root for either of the men she’s choosing to be with (for different reasons) — and since the entire movie is premised on her deliberation between them, we’re not allowed to focus on, say, her career ambitions. This film is all about the men in Kitty’s life — and that’s not really such a feminist tale after all.

Note: It was interesting to learn, according to Dennis Morgan’s Trivia page on IMDb, that “During the 1940’s, for six consecutive years, Mr. Morgan received more fan mail than any other star (male or female) at Warner Brothers”; he was in plenty of titles, but few were apparently all that memorable.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Ginger Rogers as Kitty Foyle
  • Creative cinematography

Must See?
No, though certainly Oscar completists and Rogers fans will want to check it out once. Listed as a film with Historical Importance and a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

Links:

Kid Galahad / Battling Bellhop, The (1937)

Kid Galahad / Battling Bellhop, The (1937)

“Did you ever see a bellhop who didn’t want to be a fighter?”

Synopsis:
A boxing manager (Edward G. Robinson) in continuous rivalry with a menacing gangster (Humphrey Bogart) signs on with a handsome and promising bellhop nicknamed “Kid Galahad” (Wayne Morris), but is distressed when his girlfriend (Bette Davis) falls for Galahad and Galahad falls for his sheltered kid sister (Jane Bryan).

Genres:

Review:
Michael Curtiz directed this competently told if unexceptional tale of a naive but good-hearted farmer-turned-bellhop who is so handsome he makes women purr, and instantly causes both Bette Davis and Jane Bryan to fall in love with him. (It’s hard to blame them.) It’s a good thing the film opens with a charming scene in which Davis expresses her long-time devotion to Robinson, so we’ll rest easy as Morris falls for pretty but bratty Bryan instead. However, it’s Davis’s and Morris’s well-being we care most about, which makes it a bit challenging to watch the narrative take pains to separate them (Davis’s nightclub singer is clearly too much of a “loose woman” to deserve an upstanding guy like Morris). Humphrey Bogart merely lurks menacingly on the sidelines, waiting for a chance for his rivalry with Robinson to catch fire, but doesn’t have much of interest to do. This film is more engaging than the 1962 remake with Elvis Presley, but not must-see viewing.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Bette Davis as “Fluff”
  • Wayne Morris as “Kid Galahad”

Must See?
No, but it’s worth a one-time look for both Davis and Morris.

Links:

Watch on the Rhine (1943)

Watch on the Rhine (1943)

“I do what must be done. That is what I know how to do.”

Synopsis:
During World War II, a German-born engineer and resistance fighter (Paul Lukas) travels to America with his wife (Bette Davis) and three kids (Donald Buka, Janis Wilson, and Eric Roberts) to live in the home of his widowed mother-in-law (Lucile Watson) and brother-in-law (Donald Woods), where a house-guest (Geraldine Fitzgerald) and her shifty, suspicious husband (George Coulouris) are also staying.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Bette Davis Films
  • Beulah Bondi Films
  • Geraldine Fitzgerald Films
  • Nazis
  • Paul Lukas Films
  • Play Adaptation
  • Resistance Fighters
  • World War Two

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that Dashiell Hammett’s adaptation of “Lillian Hellman’s 1941 anti-fascist play… probably wasn’t as stagy in the theater”. He points out that “characters gather in a room and, instead of engaging in believable discussion, take turns giving high-minded speeches that express their views of the global situation — and explain how they fit in”; he notes that “even the children — the type you’d consider returning to the orphanage [!] — seem to be indoctrinated rather than speaking from the heart.” He adds that “even with all the problems, however, the picture remains unique in that its major character, a sympathetic character, is a professional resistance fighter… and he is allowed to shoot and kill an unarmed fascist without being arrested or killed himself.”

In Alternate Oscars, Peary gives the Best Actor award to Humphrey Bogart as Rick in Casablanca rather than Lukas in this film, noting that the “Hungarian Lukas was much better playing foreign villains in The Lady Vanishes and Confessions of a Nazi Spy than he was as leading men”: Peary asserts that Lukas’s performance here “is as shaky as the alcoholic Rick’s hand — at times he sounds like Bela Lugosi.” (Ouch!) Unfortunately, I’m in agreement with most of Peary’s points: this is indeed a stagy, speech-filled film, one which was likely excellent propaganda but hasn’t held up well as a drama (and is terribly acted by the kids).

With that said, I don’t find Lukas’s characterization “shaky”, and disagree with Peary’s assertion that Davis gives a “bad performance” — rather, her role is minor, and thus unusual for someone of her stature.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Paul Lukas as Kurt Muller

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

Links:

Carrie (1952)

Carrie (1952)

“I’m still rich — I’ve got my love for you!”

Synopsis:
A poor country girl (Jennifer Jones) moves to the city of Chicago, where she ends up living with a man (Eddie Albert) who vaguely intends to marry her one day. When she falls in love with a wealthy gentleman (Laurence Olivier), Jones thinks her fortunes have changed — but she soon learns Olivier’s wife (Miriam Hopkins) is far from pleased with his affair, and will do what she can to ruin him financially.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Eddie Albert Films
  • Feminism and Women’s Issues
  • Jennifer Jones Films
  • Laurence Olivier Films
  • Love Triangle
  • Miriam Hopkins
  • William Wyler Films

Review:
William Wyler’s adaptation of Theodore Dreiser’s 1900 novel Sister Carrie is a lavish yet disappointing historical drama about the challenges of life as a working class woman in turn-of-the-century America.

The primary problem is that Jones’s character lacks the agency and ambition I recall being present in the novel: for most of the story, she seems to be simply reacting to forces beyond her control, and is presented as a pawn in the hands of deceptive men (and one resentful woman).


Olivier’s portrayal as George Hurstwood is more nuanced, yet we struggle to sympathize with him — especially as he, too, manipulates and lies to Carrie (Jones) simply to meet his own desires.

The production itself is nicely handled, with effective sets and cinematography, but film fanatics needn’t seek this one out.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Laurence Olivier as George Hurstwood
  • Victor Milner’s cinematography
  • Realistic sets

Must See?
No, unless you’re a particular fan of Olivier or Jones.

Links:

Jezebel (1938)

Jezebel (1938)

“Marriage, is it? To that washed out little Yankee? Pres is mine — he’s always been mine!”

Synopsis:
A headstrong Southern belle (Bette Davis) jeopardizes her engagement to a conservative banker (Henry Fonda) by scandalously wearing a red dress to a ball, then experiences extreme jealousy when he marries a woman (Margaret Lindsay) from up north.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Warner Brothers’ million-dollar “antebellum costume drama” — directed by William Wyler “with his customary attention to period detail” — is notable in cinematic history as Davis’s consolation prize for not securing the role of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind (1939). Peary argues that it “suffers because of too much chit-chat about what’s proper in southern society and the embarrassing portrayal of the black slaves (a happy-go-lucky, singing lot)” — but he concedes that “the large-eyed Davis is a joy to watch, whether stirring up things at the ball, humbly apologizing to Fonda, or, in the film’s highlight, convincing Lindsay… to let her take care of the seriously ill Fonda.” However, in Alternate Oscars — where Peary names Margaret Sullavan in Three Comrades as Best Actress of the Year instead — he writes that while it’s “fun to watch Davis in one of her most ostentatious roles”, the “more one sees this hokey film, the less interesting is [her] character”, a woman who (unlike Scarlett) is “empty at the core”. I disagree: Davis’s Julie is clearly presented as a brash, privileged white woman who is used to having her own way and defying society’s (often illogical) rules, but she eventually undergoes a character arc that’s refreshing to behold. With that said, I agree with Peary that the presentation of slaves in this film is distressingly demeaning; and it’s frustrating not to see Julie’s oh-so-scandalously-red dress in — well, red. This isn’t a great film, but Davis’s performance — as well as fine supporting performances by Fay Bainter as Julie’s aunt and George Brent as her would-be suitor — makes it worth a one-time look.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Bette Davis as Julie
  • Fay Bainter as Aunt Belle
  • George Brent as Buck Cantrell
  • Fine cinematography and direction

Must See?
Yes, once, for its historical relevance as Davis’s second Oscar-winning role.

Categories

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

Links:

Portrait of Jennie (1948)

Portrait of Jennie (1948)

“There ought to be something timeless about a woman — something eternal.”

Synopsis:
Shortly after selling a painting to two art curators (Cecil Kellaway and Ethel Barrymore), a penniless painter (Joseph Cotten) meets a mysterious young girl (Jennifer Jones) from another era who becomes his muse and his would-be lover.

Genres:

Review:
William Dieterle and David O. Selznick produced this high-budget romance, based on a novella by Robert Nathan and featuring Selznick’s wife (Jennifer Jones) in the title role. It didn’t fare well at the box office, and was dismissed by Bosley Crowther of the New York Times as “maudlin and banal”, with “a ponderous and meaningless narration” and a “soggy and saccharine musical score”; overall he found it “deficient and disappointing in the extreme”. (The CrowMan really could dish it out!) Modern viewers seem to have a more appreciative take, with Stuart Galbraith, IV of DVD Talk referring to it as an “excellent romantic fantasy” and DVD Savant similarly hailing it as a “superior fantasy”. A more accurate assessment lies somewhere in between: Dieterle handles the affair atmospherically, nicely utilizing outdoor locales in New York, building tension throughout, and leaving viewers in suspense about the finale. However, the storyline is a tad creepy (a grown man falls in love with a young girl — hmmm…..) and a bit overblown (Barrymore’s character stares balefully at Cotten from their first meeting onward, indicating she clearly knows he has unseen talents despite the fact that he shows “no love in his work”). Meanwhile, the script throws us hoary lines like “I know we were meant to be together. The strands of our lives are woven together and neither the world nor time can tear them apart.” and “There is no life, my darling, until you love and have been loved. And then there is no death.” I also find it risky when an entire film is premised on a single painting; the painting in question — viz. The Portrait of Dorian Gray (1945) — can rarely live up to its hype (though at least Laura [1945] wraps a superior mystery tale around its titular painting).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Fine use of outdoor locales
  • Luminous, often creative cinematography

Must See?
No, but it’s worth a one-time look if this type of tale is to your liking.

Links:

Little Foxes, The (1941)

Little Foxes, The (1941)

“The Lord forgives those who invent what they need.”

Synopsis:
A Southern aristocrat (Bette Davis) and her two independently wealthy brothers (Charles Dingle and Carl Benton Reid) will stop at nothing to convince Davis’s unwell husband (Herbert Marshall) to invest in a business deal — including attempting to marry Reid’s irresponsible son (Dan Duryea) to Davis’s daughter (Teresa Wright), who instead is in love with a poor newspaperman (Richard Carlson).

Genres:

Review:
William Wyler’s adaptation of Lillian Hellman’s 1939 stage play remains a deeply troubling drama showcasing both the worst of humanity and noble attempts to push back against greed and corruption. In terms of the story itself, Bosley Crowther’s spot-on review for the NY Times is worth citing at length:

No one who saw the play need be reminded that Miss Hellman was dipping acid straight when she penned this fearful fable of second-generation carpet-baggers in a small Southern town around 1900. Henrik Ibsen and William Faulkner could not together have designed a more morbid account of inter-family treachery and revoltingly ugly greed than was contained in Miss Hellman’s purple drama of deadly intrigue in the Hubbard clan. And with a perfect knowledge of the camera’s flexibility, the author and Mr. Wyler have derived out of the play a taut and cumulative screen story which exhales the creepy odor of decay and freezes charitable blood with the deliberation of a Frigidaire.

Davis deservedly won an Oscar nomination as the middle-aged matriarch at the cold heart of the family’s treacherous scheme, and Wright makes a lovely cinematic debut as her good-hearted daughter. Also notable is Patricia Collinge in a small but memorable role as Reid’s alcoholic wife, who shares some of the family’s deepest truths while under the influence. Wyler’s direction and Gregg Toland’s cinematography effectively convey the claustrophia and heightened tensions of this “parlor drama”, which opens up occasionally into the town and other settings but primarily takes place within the cavernous family home. As DVD Savant writes about Wyler:

… shot-for-shot he’s a supremely superior director. His scenes are built around the drama instead of a strong personal style so he’s not as distinctive as Hitchcock, Ford, or Hawks. But after you’ve seen a few, especially those films he made with Gregg Toland, his style jumps out immediately.

This one is well worth a look on multiple counts.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Bette Davis as Regina
  • Teresa Wright as Alexandra
  • Herbert Marshall as Horace
  • Patricia Collinge as Birdie
  • Strong direction throughout

  • Gregg Toland’s cinematography

Must See?
Yes, for Davis’s performance and as a still-powerful adaptation. Listed as a film with Historical Importance and a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

Categories

Links:

Purple Heart, The (1944)

Purple Heart, The (1944)

“They claim we bombed and machine-gunned civilians, and are not entitled to be considered prisoners of war!”

Synopsis:
A group of bomber pilots led by Captain Ross (Dana Andrews) is captured by the Japanese during World War II and put on civilian trial for murder, while international journalists are invited to watch. Will Andrews and his loyal compatriots — Lt. Canelli (Richard Conte), Sgt. Clinton (Farley Granger), Lt. Greenbaum (Sam Levene), Lt. Vincent (Donald Berry), Lt. Bayforth (Charles Russell), Lt. Stoner (John Craven), and Lt. Skvoznik (Kevin O’Shea) — make it through torture and interrogation without breaking?

Genres:

Review:
This fictional depiction of a “show trial” following the United States’ 1942 Doolittle Raid of Tokyo is a rare film that must be viewed within its historical context in order to be understood and appropriately evaluated. Film fanatics not closely familiar with the aftermath of the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941 should do a bit of reading, and watch this movie with the understanding that it’s pure propaganda. As DVD Savant writes, the film is accurate in showing that “none of the American prisoners broke under pressure”, but “many details seem unlikely” — and given that “the film depicts the Japanese as verminous sub-humans”, it’s problematic at best and should be viewed with extreme caution. With that said, audiences at the time did watch this film (the New York Times referred to it as “honest and thoroughly consistent with American character”); it’s fully understandable Americans were uneasy about “the wartime actions of the Japanese military government”, which “ignored the Geneva Convention” and considered the Doolittle Raid “an act of murder and terror unrelated to their own sneak attack on Pearl Harbor”. In terms of aesthetics and style, the movie is atmospherically filmed, showing a stylized vision of Americans boldly standing up to their enemies, choosing death and torture over betrayal of their country.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Atmospheric cinematography

Must See?
Yes — but simply for its historical notoriety.

Categories

Links:

Blood and Black Lace (1964)

Blood and Black Lace (1964)

“The diary, the diary… If it hadn’t been for that damned diary!”

Synopsis:
The owner (Eva Bartok) and manager (Cameron Mitchell) of a haute couture fashion salon attempt to figure out the identity of a masked killer brutally murdering their models.

Genres:

Review:
After his breakthrough success with Black Sunday (1960), Mario Bava went on to become a cult favorite of the thriller-horror giallo genre — with this film generally considered the first to feature many of its distinctive elements (shocking horror, a shadowy killer, and grisly deaths). The problem with this and other giallo films — and so many, many horror films to come — is that it viscerally glorifies the murder of sexualized, beautiful women. If one can move past that, there’s certainly much to appreciate here in terms of Bava’s cinematography and overall cinematic style — this is aesthetic eye candy from start to finish. DVD Savant — a huge Bava fan — argues:

“Bava’s powerful images are never simply decorative, never just pretty pictures or art direction… Although there’s a lot to be said for understatement, Bava overturns that applecart by veering in the opposite direction — cruelty and sadism are the commodities on display… The sensually charged images encourage us to anticipate the next gruesome killing, briefly converting us all into sex killers.”

So — consider yourself forewarned. For a quick video overview of giallo films and how this title fits into its history, click here.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Vibrant cinematography and imagery



  • Carlo Rustichelli’s score

Must See?
Yes, once, for its visuals and historical relevance as an influential giallo flick. Listed as a Cult Movie in the back of Peary’s book.

Categories

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