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Month: April 2020

Plainsman, The (1936)

Plainsman, The (1936)

“A man’s bound to lose, sooner or later.”

Synopsis:
As the American Civil War comes to an end, an unscrupulous business man (Charles Bickford) facilitates the sale of repeating rifles to Native Americans, leading to an uprising. Soon Wild Bill Hickok (Gary Cooper) and his pal Buffalo Bill Cody (James Ellison) find themselves on the frontlines once again, with Cody leaving behind his pregnant new wife (Helen Burgess), and Hickok’s secret love for Calamity Jane (Jean Arthur) causing unexpected challenges.

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Review:
Cecil B. DeMille directed this “highly fictionalized” (!!!) account of various Wild West figures coming together in improbable ways, all culminating in the infamous death of a lead character. Refreshingly, it’s greedy white military industrialists rather than the Native Americans themselves who are positioned from the beginning as the true “bad guys”, making it a little easier to watch the elaborately staged warfare and killing of Indians. Unfortunately, the creative mixing of storylines and characters focuses too much on the love lives of the leads, with Hickok and Calamity Jane’s would-be romance coming across as particularly strained; we’re meant to root for them as they tentatively make their feelings known to one another, but Jane is put in an egregiously unfair position at one point, forcing her to choose between love and loyalty. Cody’s beautiful young wife is nicely played by 19-year-old Helen Burgess, whose sudden death from pneumonia the following year ended her chances for a promising career. Watch for Anthony Quinn in a thankless role as a Cheyenne Indian.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Victor Milner’s cinematography

  • Impressive historic sets and art direction

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

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Northwest Passage (1940)

Northwest Passage (1940)

“It’s better to be hungry than to be cut up alive with hatchets.”

Synopsis:
During the French and Indian War, Major Robert Rogers (Spencer Tracy) enlists an aspiring painter (Robert Young) and his buddy (Walter Brennan) into his elite militia with the goal of seeking revenge on local Abenaki Indians — but their trek is long and arduous, and soon the men must find creative ways to survive.

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Review:
It’s a challenge to watch this impressively filmed Technicolor wartime adventure tale, knowing that we’re watching a reasonably authentic recreation of the ferocity wrought upon Native populations (albeit often in retaliation for similar treatment) during our quest for continental dominance. While the decimation of various tribes of American Indians — either through warfare or ongoing deculturalization — is now well-known, this MGM production spares no details in sharing how ruthless our tactics were — and how thoroughly we dehumanized and humiliated the tribes we were fighting against. Tracy is stoic but not overly sympathetic in the unenviable role of a tough-as-nails commander directing his men to keep going no matter what, fueling their motivation through no-holds-barred tales of brutal Indian tactics. As DVD Savant describes it:

[Young] listens as Rogers encourages veterans to tell the new soldiers about Indian atrocities — raping women, chopping men up a bit at a time, braining babies, the works. One description of a prisoner having his ribs severed and pulled out one by one is almost too awful to picture, and seems unthinkably strong for a studio film from 1940. Rogers refers to these outrages to inspire maximum savagery from his troops.

Indeed, retaliation against Indians in this film is relentless, with no room at all for humanization or empathy. As Tracy attempts to help Young survive after he’s been wounded and can barely walk, he yells out, “Bring that [nameless] little Indian boy over here”, then says to the boy (without a hint of irony), “From now on your name is Billy”. While it’s true, as DVD Savant points out, that “the movie is very successful in communicating the idea that just a few miles past New York, the green forests stretch beyond the horizon, a seemingly limitless frontier for expansion” (the cinematography throughout this location-shot flick is impressive), the film is a hard one to stomach, and will likely only be of interest to those curious about Hollywood’s early depictions of historical American events.

Note: The film’s title is an infamous misnomer, given that the crew never embarks on its quest to find a “northwest passage”; the title was intended for a sequel that never emerged.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Beautiful Technicolor cinematography
  • Fine recreation of historic sites

Must See?
No; this one is only must-see for the curious.

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Waterloo Bridge (1940)

Waterloo Bridge (1940)

“I loved you; I’ve never loved anyone else.”

Synopsis:
During World War I, a ballerina (Viven Leigh) in London falls in love with an army captain (Robert Taylor) on leave, and they make plans to marry upon his return. When Leigh learns in the newspaper that Taylor has died, she and her roommate (Virginia Field) turn to prostitution to survive — but when Taylor suddenly appears live and well, Leigh must determine whether to tell him the truth about her recent past.

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Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “extremely well-made, extremely depressing adult romance” — based on a play by Robert E. Sherwood — is one which “Vivien Leigh fans — at least those who don’t mind watching her suffer for 75 minutes — have long held dear.” He notes that while “Sherwood’s play was sanitized quite a bit”, it was “still daring for the cinema of the day” and “may have been a warning to young women not to wander while their men are away at war” — though Leigh and Field, “who is really appealing as her roommate and best friend, play their prostitute roles with great empathy, so that we admire rather than look down on them.” Indeed, Peary points out that “more interesting than the undying love between Taylor and Leigh are the supportive relationships among the various women” in the film. He writes that while “director Mervyn LeRoy, never known for his handling of women, directs with great sensitivity”, the “picture belongs to Leigh, who is absolutely splendid, passionate as well as beautiful.” While Peary’s review accurately captures the many fine qualities of this romantic soaper — including Leigh’s performance, one of her first after winning an Oscar for Gone With the Wind — it’s ultimately too much of a downer to recommend for anyone other than fans of the lead stars. We can see where this one is headed, and it’s no place good.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Vivien Leigh as Myra
  • Robert Taylor as Roy
  • Virginia Field as Kitty
  • Joseph Ruttenberg’s cinematography

Must See?
No; this one is only must-see viewing for fans of Leigh or Taylor.

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Pygmalion (1938)

Pygmalion (1938)

“I’m a good girl, I am!”

Synopsis:
A linguistics professor (Leslie Howard) bets his friend (Scott Sunderland) he can transform a Cockney-speaking flower girl (Wendy Hiller) into a refined “lady” thoroughly enough to convince high society she’s “authentic” — but if he does, what then?

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Review:
This Oscar-nominated adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s much produced play — itself based on an ancient Greek myth about a sculptor who falls in love with his own statue — is infinitely more palatable than the insufferable Broadway musical remake, My Fair Lady (1964). As co-directed by Anthony Asquith and Leslie Howard — and produced by Gabriel Pascal, who would direct Shaw’s Major Barbara (1941) three years later — it’s less a cross-class romance than a satire of upper-class society, exposing the vacuity of those who believe it’s critically important to know the “appropriate” way to address various members of the nobility, and who care far more about status than character. Howard is convincing as conceited prig Professor Higgins, and Hiller’s Eliza Doolittle holds her own very nicely; she’s played with great empathy and nuance in a memorable screen debut. The film never feels stage-bound, instead making creative use of cinematography and angles — and at just 96 minutes long (almost half that of My Fair Lady‘s 170 minutes), it only drags a teeny bit towards the end, as Eliza attempts to let Higgins know how much he’s disappointed her, and they eventually (improbably) end up with one another.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Wendy Hiller as Eliza
  • Wilfrid Lawson as Mr. Doolittle
  • Harry Stradling’s cinematography

Must See?
Yes, as a fine adaptation of a classic play. Listed as a film with Historical Relevance in the back of Peary’s book.

Categories

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Major Barbara (1941)

Major Barbara (1941)

“My dear, I’m a millionaire — that’s my religion.”

Synopsis:
When the headstrong daughter (Wendy Hiller) of a millionaire weapons manufacturer (Robert Morley) becomes a major in the Salvation Army, she makes it her life’s mission to save souls, and quickly secures a fiance (Rex Harrison) willing to do anything for her love. Meanwhile, Morley struggles over the question of who to leave his inheritance to.

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Review:
After producing a successful cinematic version of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion (1938), Austro-Hungarian Gabriel Pascal directed this adaptation of Shaw’s 1905 play about an idealistic young woman grappling with issues of identity, morality, compromises, and love — specifically, whether poverty is worse than munitions, and whether it’s better to feed the poor or provide them with work. Such universal concerns remain as relevant today as ever, and fans of Shaw’s work will likely be quite happy with this outing (though it’s not a personal favorite of mine). Hiller is note-perfect in the title role; Harrison is less annoying than usual as her sincere yet opportunistic suitor; Morley (only four years older than Hiller) is suitably pompous as heir to a dubious fortune; Robert Newton is on hand to provide plenty of nastiness a la his later characters in Oliver Twist (1948) and Treasure Island (1950); playwright Emlyn Williams has fun as shyster “Snobby Price”; and Deborah Kerr gives a sweet and compelling supporting performance in her film debut.

Note: Major Barbara is historically notable for having been filmed during the Blitz, yet still coming across as polished and professional.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Fine performances by the entire cast



  • Atmospheric cinematography by Ronald Neame
  • Impressive sets

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

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Caught in the Draft (1941)

Caught in the Draft (1941)

“Of course I’m not a coward. I’m just allergic to bullets!”

Synopsis:
A cowardly actor (Bob Hope) afraid of loud noises does everything he can to avoid enlisting in the army, including wooing the beautiful daughter (Dorothy Lamour) of a crusty colonel (Clarence Kolb) — but he nonetheless soon finds himself in basic training with his buddies (Eddie Bracken and Lynne Overman).

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Review:
This box office hit was squarely designed to capitalize both on the success of the Road To… series (Hope’s character at one point says, “She looks like Dorothy Lamour, with clothes on.”) and current-day angst over involuntary enlistment during the earliest stages of American engagement with World War II. It was quite well received — Bosley Crowther wrote a glowing review for the New York Times, referring to it as “a lively slapstick farce in which the gags are beautifully abundant” — but it hasn’t aged all that well. Hope’s cowardly character quickly (instantly, actually) grates on one’s nerves, and his treatment of Lamour is so utilitarian from the get-go that we have a hard time rooting either for him or for them as a couple. You can skip this one unless you’re a diehard fan of Hope or Lamour.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:
Not much, unless this is your cup of tea.

Must See?
No; feel free to skip this one.

Links:

Return of Dr. X, The (1939)

Return of Dr. X, The (1939)

“The day is coming when man will be able to control blood — and when that time does arrive, he’ll be able to control his destiny. Blood is the source of life!”

Synopsis:
When an eager journalist (Wayne Morris) who has arranged to meet a glamorous actress (Lya Lys) at her apartment arrives to find her dead, he promptly calls his newspaper to file the story — but the police find Lys perfectly alive, and Morris is fired. Morris consults his doctor-friend (Dennis Morgan) for help in investigating the mystery, and they meet both Morgan’s mentor (John Litel) and Litel’s assistant (Humphrey Bogart), who are conducting experiments related to blood types, and are eager to connect with Morgan’s colleague (Rosemary Lane) — who happens to have the exact blood type they’re in search of.

Genres:

Review:
This atmospherically shot B-flick — directed with panache by newbie Vincent Sherman — is best known for featuring Humphrey Bogart in his only “horror flick” role, but it’s actually more of a pseudo-comedic mad-doctor amateur-sleuth genre-mash. In just 62 minutes, we’re taken quickly through a tale of journalistic gusto, mysteriously disappearing bodies, vampiric visages, a pet monkey, a fuzzy white bunny, and a monocled scientist …

SPOILERS HERE

… willing to revive a doctor put to death for — no kidding — experimentally starving a baby (!). Bogart’s white hair-streak is clearly intentionally reminiscent of Elsa Lanchester in The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), and while he wasn’t at all thrilled with his role here, he actually does a decent job — much better than his supporting turn as a Mexican bandit in Michael Curtiz’s Virginia City the same year. There’s some amusingly droll dialogue (“His interest in blood… almost equals my own.”), and Sherman’s visual flair is consistently engaging. While this isn’t high art by any means — and the narrative has plenty of holes — it’s an enjoyable low-budget film and worth a look.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Highly atmospheric cinematography and sets


Must See?
Yes, as a nifty little B-flick. Listed as a Camp Classic in the back of Peary’s book.

Categories

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Virginia City (1940)

Virginia City (1940)

“Don’t let him question you — he’s a union spy.”

Synopsis:
Near the end of the Civil War, a Union prisoner (Errol Flynn) and his compatriots (Alan Hale and Guinn “Big Boy” Williams) escape from captivity and head by stagecoach to Virginia City, Nevada, where they intend to secretly interrupt the conveyance of silver to the Confederate Army. On their way there, Flynn falls in love with a woman (Miriam Hopkins) who turns out to be not only a dance hall singer, but a Confederate accomplice whose lover (Randolph Scott) is heading the entire silver-transport affair.

Genres:

Review:
Michael Curtiz and Errol Flynn made no less than 12 films together between 1935 and 1941 — among them Captain Blood (1935), The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Dodge City (1939), The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939), The Sea Hawk (1940), Santa Fe Trail (1940), and this “based on real events” historical drama with fictional characters and an unconvincing plot. New York Times’ reviewer Frank Nugent referred to it somewhat uncharitably as a “two-hour Blitzkrieg upon the human nerves”, which isn’t really fair, given that it’s finely mounted and photographed (by Curtiz’s regular DP Sol Polito). However, it has the dubious distinction of featuring Humphrey Bogart in one of his worst mis-castings ever (as a Mexican bandit), and a miserable-looking Hopkins giving a surprisingly subdued and depressed performance. Thankfully, Scott and Flynn acquit themselves well (despite the fact that Flynn was originally slated to perform Scott’s role). Watch for an interestingly filmed “cameo” by President Lincoln (Victor Kilian) in the film’s improbable ending.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Sol Polito’s atmospheric cinematography

Must See?
No, though it’s worth a look by Curtiz fans.

Links:

Tall T, The (1957)

Tall T, The (1957)

“A man should have something of his own — something to belong to.”

Synopsis:
When a former ranch foreman (Randolph Scott) is kidnapped along with an heiress (Maureen O’Sullivan) and her new husband (John Hubbard), they must determine how to keep themselves safe from the ruthless outlaws (Richard Boone, Henry Silva, and Skip Homeier).

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “obvious influence on numerous westerns, including Anthony Mann’s Man of the West,” is “probably the quintessential Randolph Scott-Budd Boetticher film” — a noteworthy claim considering all the other fine pictures they made together, viz. Seven Men From Now (1956), Decision at Sundown (1957), Buchanan Rides Alone (1958), and Ride Lonesome (1959). Peary notes that The Tall T is “beautifully shot, strong yet straightforwardly written (by Burt Kennedy, who wrote four of their seven westerns), and deals with Boetticher’s primary concerns: how men choose to lead their lives in a West that is becoming increasingly civilized, yet, paradoxically, more violent and amoral,” with “everyone want[ing] something, be it wealth, a woman, a spread, a position of respect, notches on a gunbelt, [or] to be regarded as a man.” He discusses the fact that “Boone becomes fond of Scott” and the two men are “set up to be mirror images of one another”, with “their final clash” resulting “from Scott being a moral man with violent tendencies and Boone being a violent man with moral tendencies”. The film ultimately posits that “the growth of America had to do with loners such as Scott doing away with their violent Boone-like side, putting away their guns, and settling down with good, loyal… women like O’Sullivan”; indeed, “the stability of the country was dependent on marriage, family, and property.”

Peary’s review highlights the film’s narrative and thematic strengths, but the performances are excellent across the board as well. It’s nice to see 45-year-old O’Sullivan playing a “plain” near-spinster (she looks appropriately weary and wary), and Arthur Hunnicutt steals the show in opening scenes as a feisty stagecoach driver. Boone, Homeier, and Silva (going by the unfortunate nickname of “Chink”) are all convincingly threatening, and given numerous subtly racy lines to speak (“I had me a quiet woman once. Outside she was as calm as Sunday, but inside wild as mountain scenery.”). At just 78 minutes, this nifty western moves swiftly and tells a taut, tense tale from beginning to end.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Fine performances by the entire cast



  • Strong direction

  • Good use of location shooting
  • Kennedy’s first-rate script

Must See?
Yes, as yet another fine Boetticher/Scott western.

Categories

Links:

Under Two Flags (1936)

Under Two Flags (1936)

“Seeing a lady like that makes a fellow feel sort of… homesick, doesn’t it, sir?”

Synopsis:
A French Foreign Legionnaire (Ronald Colman) in Algeria falls in love with a visiting noblewoman (Rosalind Russell), who is equally smitten with him. Meanwhile, Colman’s commander (Victor McLaglen) is jealous and upset that his girlfriend “Cigarette” (Claudette Colbert) has also fallen for Colman, and attempts to send Colman into numerous dangerous situations.

Genres:

Review:
Modern film fanatics will likely be unfamiliar with the bestselling 1867 novel upon which this romantic desert war flick is based, though it was popular enough to have undergone numerous adaptations before this one. Unfortunately, the story hasn’t aged well at all, coming across these days as simply an orientalist excuse to mount elaborate battle scenes in what the opening title cards tell us is “North Africa at the turn of the century — a land of eternal mystery — primitive, barbaric, the camel train its only link with the outer world.” The lead actors all try their best with the material they’re given, but they’re merely caught up in a standard cross-class love quadrangle which can clearly only end one way. The location shooting (in Arizona) is quite effective, but otherwise this one is only must-see viewing for completists of Colman, Colbert (who replaced both Simone Simon and Barbara Stanwyck in her role), Russell, or McLaglen.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Effective cinematography

Must See?
No; you can skip this one.

Links: