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Month: November 2019

Little Miss Marker (1934)

Little Miss Marker (1934)

“I ain’t takin’ no dolls for security!”

Synopsis:
When a bookie (Adolphe Menjou) accepts the young daughter (Shirley Temple) of a suicidal gambler as collateral, he and the moll (Dorothy Dell) of a local gangster (Charles Bickford) end up caring for her — but when Temple starts to pick up bad habits and slang, they realize they must craft a recreation of King Arthur’s legend to restore her faith in magic.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Adolphe Menjou Films
  • Gambling
  • Gangsters
  • Orphans
  • Shirley Temple Films

Review:
Shirley Temple made her cinematic lead debut in this adaptation of Damon Runyon’s short story, featuring such colorfully-named characters as Sorrowful Jones, Bangles, Big Steve, Regret, Sun Rise, Dizzy Memphis, Buggs, and Sore Toe — not to mention “Marky” herself (Temple), so-called because she’s handed over as a human marker for her dad’s gambling. This pre-Code flick doesn’t shy away from noting that Temple’s sour-luck dad kills himself from despondence — and while the entire tale eventually devolves into schmaltzy saccharine, at least it’s all befitting a Temple vehicle. (Who would want anything but the absolute best outcome for a girl as adorable as her?) Speaking of Temple, she really is charming — it’s easy to see why she was, and remained, such a favorite with audiences.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Shirley Temple as “Marky”

Must See?
Yes, once, for its historical relevance as Temple’s breakthrough role, and as the first cinematic adaptation of a Runyon story. Selected for preservation in the U.S. Film Registry by the Library of Congress in 1998.

Categories

  • Historically Relevant
  • Noteworthy Performance(s)

Links:

Pocketful of Miracles (1961)

Pocketful of Miracles (1961)

“We’re nothing! We’re a bunch of grabbers, all of us, looking for the best of it!”

Synopsis:
When a destitute apple vendor (Bette Davis) learns her grown daughter (Ann-Margret) will be arriving from Spain with her noble fiance (Peter Mann) and his father (Arthur O’Connell), she enlists the help of a superstitious gangster (Glenn Ford) and his warm-hearted fiance (Hope Lange) in putting on an elaborate charade, including finding a man (Thomas Mitchell) to pose as Davis’s husband.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Alcoholism and Drug Addiction
  • Ann-Margret Films
  • Bette Davis Films
  • David Brian Films
  • Frank Capra Films
  • Gangsters
  • Glenn Ford Films
  • Hope Lange Films
  • Mistaken or Hidden Identities
  • Peter Falk Films
  • Thomas Mitchell Films

Review:
Frank Capra remade his own Depression-era classic — Lady for a Day (1933) — into this Technicolor star vehicle that really… didn’t need to be made. Everything about his earlier version is superior, from the appropriately atmospheric b&w cinematography, to Robson’s genuinely touching lead performance, to its faster-paced running time (96 minutes in comparison with Pocketful…‘s dragging 136 minutes). Ford, Davis, and Lange try their best here, but Ford and Lange’s ongoing quibbling distracts from the central storyline, and Lange’s character undergoes far too rapid of a transformation for us to believe in. The material ultimately comes across as maudlin, with Apple Annie’s love of classical music a distraction rather than a pleasing backdrop. This film is primarily notable for offering Peter Falk a stand-out supporting role as Ford’s sidekick “Joy Boy”, and for introducing a giddy Ann-Margret to the big screen.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Peter Falk as Joy Boy

Must See?
Nope; you can skip this one, unless you’re a Bette Davis completist.

Links:

Birth of the Blues (1941)

Birth of the Blues (1941)

“Our music sure is going high-brow!”

Synopsis:
With support from a family servant (Eddie ‘Rochester’ Anderson), a clarinetist (Bing Crosby) in New Orleans builds on a rich tradition of African-American blues music in constructing his own White band — including a recently jailed cornet player (Brian Donlevy) and a singer (Mary Martin) with a young aunt (Carolyn Lee).

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Bing Crosby Films
  • Brian Donlevy Films
  • Gangsters
  • Love Triangle Films
  • Musicians

Review:
The Oscar-nominated score is the best feature by far of this white-washed recounting of “how the blues were born”. To the film’s credit, it openly acknowledges the origination of the blues with Black players (albeit showing them stereotypically wide-eyed), and doesn’t shy away from using era-specific language around the “need” to find a White cornet player for the band — but modern-day viewers’ tolerance for watching this kind of narrative will likely be limited. Making matters worse, the framing storyline is shaky at best: meager comedic mileage is milked out of the band’s “meet-cute” with Martin and her 5-year-old (!) aunt (Carolyn Lee); a fabricated (and unconvincing) love triangle plays out between Crosby, Martin, and Donlevy; and the sudden introduction of a gangster-driven subplot near the end forces things to literally get moving. While some film fanatics may be curious to see Martin in one of her rare on-screen appearances, this one unfortunately doesn’t do her justice.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Many fine musical numbers
  • Some atmospheric cinematography

Must See?
No; you can skip this one unless you’d like to hear the music.

Links:

Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939)

Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939)

“It’s a new kind of war — but it’s still war.”

Synopsis:
When a German doctor (Paul Lukas) comes to America to foment support for the Nazi cause, an unemployed man (Francis Lederer) eagerly joins forces with him in a fifth column — but they and their secret compatriots are soon foiled by an FBI sting headed by an intrepid agent (Edward G. Robinson).

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Anatole Litvak Films
  • Edward G. Robinson Films
  • George Sanders Films
  • Nazis
  • Paul Lukas Films
  • Spies<
  • World War II

Review:
When discussing Paul Lukas’s Oscar-winning role in Watch on the Rhine (1943) in his Alternate Oscars, Peary notes that he prefers seeing the Hungarian-born Lukas as a “baddie” — including in this flick (based in part on the Rumrich Nazi Spy Case) as the head of an American espionage ring during World War II. According to TCM’s article, Confessions of a Nazi Spy was the “first anti-Nazi film produced by a major studio”, and it caused major ripple effects — including the banning of all Warner Brothers films in Germany. At this point in history, it must have been incredibly satisfying for Americans to watch an FBI dragnet ready to take down our hidden enemies — and while the lines between good and evil are starkly drawn, this feels like an acceptable narrative choice given the real-life stakes. Meanwhile, it’s exciting to see how the sting itself plays out.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Paul Lukas as Dr. Karl Kassel
  • Sol Polito’s cinematography

Must See?
Yes, once, for its historical relevance. Listed as a film with Historical Importance in the back of Peary’s book.

Categories

Links:

Platinum Blonde (1931)

Platinum Blonde (1931)

“You’re my pal, aren’t you? Don’t turn female on me!”

Synopsis:
A reporter (Robert Williams) falls for and marries a blonde heiress (Jean Harlow), not realizing that his gal-pal (Loretta Young) has a crush on him.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Cross-Class Romance
  • Frank Capra Films
  • Jean Harlow Films
  • Journalists
  • Loretta Young Films
  • Love Triangle

Review:
Frank Capra directed this pre-Code romantic comedy featuring a fine lead actor with a tragically short life: Williams (who I hadn’t seen in anything before this) seemed destined for some kind of stardom, given his natural ease and humor on-screen, but died of peritonitis four days after this film’s release. Meanwhile, 18-year-old Loretta Young is wide-eyed and luminous in her supporting role as Williams’ would-be girlfriend, and Harlow shows typically sassy charm. The storyline itself is a fairly standard tale of classes clashing (we can predict who will end up with whom), but it offers a few memorably nutty moments — most notably Williams and Harlow singing a variation on “The Farmer in the Dell” as Harlow insists to Williams, “You’re gonna be a good boy and wear garters!”, and the scene in which a butler (Halliwell Hobbes) attempts to demonstrate what “puttering” means to Williams.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Robert Williams as Stew Smith
  • Jean Harlow as Anne Schuyler
  • Loretta Young as Gallagher
  • Some enjoyable “pre-Code moments”

  • Joseph Walker’s cinematography

Must See?
No, but it’s recommended for one-time viewing.

Links:

Juarez (1939)

Juarez (1939)

“It is our task to strip the cloak of godliness from him, and show him to the Mexican people for who he really is.”

Synopsis:
Napoleon III (Claude Rains) and his wife (Gale Sondergaard) arrange for an Austrian archduke (Brian Aherne) and his wife (Bette Davis) to become Mexico’s new imperial rulers — not informing them that the Mexican people are actually loyal to their president, Benito Juarez (Paul Muni), and will stop at nothing to regain their autonomy.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Bette Davis Films
  • Brian Aherne Films
  • Claude Rains Films
  • Historical Drama
  • John Garfield Films
  • Mexico
  • Paul Muni Films
  • Revolutionaries
  • Royalty and Nobility
  • William Dieterle Films

Review:
Following on the heels of his success in biopics such as The Story of Louis Pasteur (1936) and The Life of Emile Zola (1937), Paul Muni was well-poised to play the “Abraham Lincoln of Mexico” (Benito Juarez) in this historical drama, based on a novel by Bertita Harding and a play by Franz Werfel, and scripted after much research by John Huston, Aeneas MacKenzie, and Wolfgang Reinhardt. I’ll admit to knowing nothing at all about the brief period of empirical reign in 19th century Mexico, and became increasingly intrigued as the unpredictable narrative played out. Muni is appropriately stoic and impressively made-up as Juarez, but it’s Aherne’s character who really shines: his character is set up in an unenviable position from the start, and we’re ready to hate him, but instead we’re shown a nuanced conflict of interests as both Aherne and Muni stand their grounds and Juarez refuses to compromise his country’s goal of complete independence.

A pivotal side story involving Aherne’s unstable wife (Davis) goes in unexpected directions, and Davis does well in her challenging supporting role.

Tony Gaudio’s Oscar-nominated cinematography is appropriately atmospheric and effective throughout.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Brian Aherne as Maximilian I
  • Fine make-up by Perc Westmore
  • Tony Gaudio’s cinematography

Must See?
Yes, as a powerfully told historical drama.

Categories

Links:

Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, The (1939)

Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, The (1939)

“The necessities of a queen must transcend those of a woman.”

Synopsis:
During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (Bette Davis), Sir Walter Raleigh (Vincent Price) and Sir Robert Cecil (Henry Daniell) are determined to separate the aging queen from her young lover — the Earl of Essex (Errol Flynn) — by sending him to battle in Ireland, and enlisting the help of jealous Lady Gray (Olivia de Havilland) in intercepting his letters to Davis. When Flynn returns and demands joint power with the queen, their romance becomes more tenuous than ever.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Alan Hale Films
  • Bette Davis Films
  • Errol Flynn Films
  • Historical Drama
  • Michael Curtiz Films
  • Olivia de Havilland Films
  • Play Adaptation
  • Royalty and Nobility
  • Star-Crossed Lovers
  • Strong Females
  • Vincent Price Films

Review:
Michael Curtiz directed this adaptation of Maxwell Anderson’s play Elizabeth the Queen, originally starring Lynn Fontanne and Alfred Lunt as the star-crossed regal lovers. The basic theme of this historical romance is that it’s lonely at the top: poor Queen Elizabeth can’t afford to truly trust anyone, even the man she’s clearly happiest and most relaxed with. Davis and Flynn have fine romantic rapport, and turn in first-rate performances; they’re a suitable match for one another. Meanwhile, the entire production — including the inspired art direction (by Anton Grot), vibrant Technicolor cinematography (by Sol Polito), majestic score (by Erich Wolfgang Korngold), and ornate costumes (by Orry-Kelly) — is lushly mounted, so that even the relatively stage-bound feel of the film doesn’t detract from the inherent drama of the story.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Bette Davis as Queen Elizabeth I
  • Errol Flynn as the Earl of Essex
  • Vibrant cinematography and sets


  • Orry-Kelly’s regal costumes
  • Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s majestic score

Must See?
Yes, for the lead performances and overall production values.

Categories

Links:

Invisible Man Returns, The (1940)

Invisible Man Returns, The (1940)

“I don’t want friends; I shall have worshipers, followers!”

Synopsis:
A man (Vincent Price) falsely accused of fratricide eludes execution by ingesting an invisibility serum created by a doctor (John Sutton) whose brother was the original “Invisible Man”. While Sutton works frantically on an antidote to the serum’s side-effect of toxic grandiosity, Price — supported by his loyal fiancee (Nan Grey) — tries to elude capture by a Scotland Yard detective (Cecil Kellaway) and convince his co-worker (Cedric Hardwicke) to confess to the murder.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Falsely Accused
  • Horror
  • Science Fiction
  • Vincent Price Films

Review:
Universal’s follow-up to The Invisible Man (1933) was this “sequel”, which actually simply retells the original story with a weak narrative connection that Sutton’s brother was the original ill-fated “Invisible Man” (thus adding to his sense of guilt and urgency). As Frank Nugent wrote in his review for the New York Times, “Somehow we were not as astonished as once we were when a man unrolled a bandage from his head and revealed no head, or when he shucked off his clothes and became nothing but a nothing, or when he went for a stroll in the woods and all we could see were twigs snapping back and underbrush being trampled.” It’s fun to hear Price’s distinctive voice, though one wishes to see him live for more than the final minute. This was Price’s third film of note after supporting roles in Tower of London (1939) and The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939); he would go on to play many more unhinged “villains” (though in this case, his megalomaniacal behavior is beyond his control).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • John P. Fulton’s clever special effects

Must See?
No; you can skip this one unless you’re a fan of the series.

Links:

S.O.B. (1981)

S.O.B. (1981)

“If you want to dramatize the evils of prostitution, corrupt a virgin — not a whore!”

Synopsis:
A Hollywood producer (Richard Mulligan) despondent over the failure of his most recent kiddie musical must deal with his furious studio head (Robert Vaughn), a relentlessly shrewish gossip columnist (Loretta Swit), and his fed-up wife and leading lady (Julie Andrews). When Mulligan becomes inspired to turn his flop into a soft-core porn flick, he faces mixed reactions from everyone involved — including his director (William Holden), his best friend (Robert Webber), and Andrews herself.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Blake Edwards Films
  • Comedy
  • Hollywood
  • Julie Andrews Films
  • Robert Preston Films
  • Rosanna Arquette Films
  • Shelley Winters Films
  • William Holden Films

Review:
An all-star cast rallies together for Blake Edwards’ darkly satirical look at the vagaries of Hollywood, where a box office flop can lead to existential despair, and (in a running gag) people are too distracted to notice a corpse washed up on the shore outside their beachfront home. Edwards is cynical all right: purportedly this film was made in response to his own experience making Darling Lili (1970) with Andrews, and he spares no one in taking down the narcissistic excesses of the movie industry. Unfortunately, it’s simply not funny watching this crew of self-absorbed players going about their lives. Edwards had achieved success as a comedic director with his wildly popular Pink Panther series — including the title film as well as A Shot in the Dark (1964) — and he fills this film with every antic trope in the book, including foiled suicides, pesky corpses, potty humor, “boobies” jokes, wild car chases, sexual chicanery, and demeaning racial stereotypes. The film does have its fans: see Vincent Canby’s review for the New York Times, for instance, or DVD Savant’s assertion that “there’s wit to most of the characterizations, and the constant ribbing of Hollywood’s venality and lust for power and wealth is spot-on”; however, I simply found this a tedious chore to sit through.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Julie Andrews trying her best

Must See?
Nope; you can skip this one unless you’re a diehard Julie Andrews or Blake Edwards fan.

Links:

Dancing Lady (1933)

Dancing Lady (1933)

“I’m like that guy throwing quarters in the slot machine — I keep on trying.”

Synopsis:
After being bailed out of jail by a wealthy man (Franchot Tone), an ambitious hoofer (Joan Crawford) makes her way to Broadway, where Tone secretly buys her a spot in a play run by a talented but resentful director (Clark Gable). Will Crawford achieve her dream of dancing fame, or choose a life of ease and comfort with Tone?

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Aspiring Stars
  • Career-versus-Marriage
  • Clark Gable Films
  • Cross-Class Romance
  • Dancers
  • Franchot Tone Films
  • Fred Astaire Films
  • Joan Crawford Films
  • “Let’s Put On a Show!”
  • Love Triangle

Review:
MGM’s response to the success of Warner Brothers’ 42nd Street (1933) was this similarly themed “gotta dance!” tale of a plucky young dame determined to pursue a career on Broadway. The storyline is slight and predictable, but moves along quickly enough, with some clever editing and an enjoyably flamboyant finale. As usual, Crawford and Gable have fine chemistry together (Crawford requested his casting). This film is notable for featuring Fred Astaire in his film debut (as a lead dancer in the performance), though he doesn’t make much of an impact.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Atmospheric cinematography
  • The Busby Berkeley-esque musical finale


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

Links: