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Month: May 2020

Romeo and Juliet (1936)

Romeo and Juliet (1936)

“My only love sprung from my only hate!”

Synopsis:
When a young man (Leslie Howard) in 16th century Italy falls in love with the daughter (Norma Shearer) of the head (C. Aubrey Smith) of his family’s rival clan, chaos ensues — especially when Shearer resists marriage to the man (Ralph Forbes) her parents have selected for her, and Howard engages in a disastrous fight with an enemy (Basil Rathbone).

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Review:
According to Wikipedia, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet may be the most frequently filmed play of all time — especially if you include the many movies it directly inspired, such as West Side Story (1961). This early adaptation by George Cukor retains the play’s authentic language (albeit truncated), and simulates something akin to the original setting. The result is a lavishly produced historical romance with notoriously poor casting in the lead roles: Howard (43) and Shearer (34) are simply far too old to play smitten teen lovers, and all that ensues in the story-line suffers for this unassailable discrepancy. With that said, Howard and Shearer’s actual performances are quite lovely — they do the best they can — and the film is visually sumptuous on every level, with atmospheric cinematography and beautiful sets.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Fine performances by Shearer and Howard
  • Atmospheric cinematography and sets


Must See?
No, though it’s a decent if flawed adaptation and worth a look by Shakespeare fans. Listed as a film with Historical Importance in the back of Peary’s book. Nominated as one of the Best Films of the Year by the actual Academy (but not by Peary).

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Titanic (1953)

Titanic (1953)

“Iceberg — straight ahead!”

Synopsis:
On a fateful night in April of 1912, a wealthy expatriate (Clifton Webb) secures a ticket on board the Titanic, where his estranged wife (Barbara Stanwyck) has whisked away their daughter (Audrey Dalton) and son (Harper Carter) in an attempt to give them a life of normalcy in America. The couple quickly begin bickering — but little do they know that even greater drama lies ahead for their family, and everyone else on board the ship.

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Review:
Jean Negulesco directed Hollywood’s first attempt to portray the tragedy of the luxury passenger liner RMS Titanic. An elaborate fictional storyline takes up the first hour of the narrative, focusing heavily on marital strife (Stanwyck and Webb’s relationship couldn’t be more tense), young love (between Dalton and Robert Wagner), and class relations — the latter of which which makes sense, given the infamy of what was to come in terms of disproportionate deaths amongst the passengers and crew. Stanwyck and Webb are fine in the central dramatic roles, though supporting work by (among others) Brian Aherne as stalwart Captain E.J. Smith; Richard Basehart as an alcoholic priest returning home in shame after being relieved of his position; and Thelma Ritter as the Unsinkable Molly Brown are equally noteworthy. The film really comes to life once the ship hits the iceberg, and we’re given an impressive (albeit truncated) rendering of what occurred thereafter. While not quite as impactful or historically accurate as the next cinematic rendition to hit the screens, this early disaster flick remains worthy viewing in its own right.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Barbara Stanwyck as Julia Sturges
  • Clifton Webb as Richard Sturges
  • Fine supporting performances


  • A highly effective early recreation of the infamous ship and disaster

  • Geoffrey Unsworth’s cinematography

Must See?
Yes, as a worthy early disaster flick.

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Ceiling Zero (1936)

Ceiling Zero (1936)

“The fog’s so thick you can cut it in chunks.”

Synopsis:
When the manager (Pat O’Brien) of a flight-based mail carrier business hires his old war buddy (James Cagney) as a pilot, the pair reminisce along with another veteran pal (Stuart Erwin) who also works for O’Brien. However, as womanizing Cagney begins flirting with a 19 year old novice pilot (June Travis), O’Brien worries he may be unreliable — and an upcoming storm soon puts this to the test.

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Review:
Howard Hawks directed this adaptation of Frank “Spig” Wead’s Broadway play, named for a term used when the air is too dense to fly safely without outside assistance. The storyline centers on old friends whose loyalty is tested over women, but the central point of narrative interest is the unique setting, depicting the early (and highly dangerous) years of commercial aviation. Like riders on the Pony Express, these daring pilots risked their lives to ensure letters and packages made their way across the country, in rain or shine. According to an article by Atlas Obscura, the airmail business began just after the end of WWI, with pilots conscripted to help build a new industry which would put planes to use for something other than warfare. This one is worth a look simply for its historical relevance.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • An exciting portrayal of a freakishly dangerous profession
  • Fine cinematography
  • Pat O’Brien as Jake

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

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General Died at Dawn, The (1936)

General Died at Dawn, The (1936)

“What’s better work for an American than helping fight for democracy — do you know?”

Synopsis:
An American (Gary Cooper) in war-torn China meets a beautiful woman (Madeleine Carroll) whose father (Porter Hall) is in league with a vicious warlord (Akim Tamiroff) eager to steal the money Cooper is carrying on behalf of revolutionaries.

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Review:
Lewis Milestone directed this unusual early thriller, featuring several noteworthy sequences, creative cinematography (by Victor Milner), and fine performances by the ensemble cast. While Russian-American Tamiroff plays the lead Chinese villain, many of the supporting Asian roles appear to be played by Asian-Americans and there’s refreshing diversity in their portrayals. With that said, this is still primarily a film about White leads Cooper and Carroll, whose ill-fated love affair rings true — especially given the realistically oily performance by Hall as her worthless father. (Is he meant to be an opiate addict? That would make sense in this context, and would help to explain the desperation felt both by him and his enabling daughter.) Werner Janssen’s score at times feels intrusive, but is interesting enough to make one sit up and take notice.

Note: In looking over the Peary-listed films directed by Milestone — best known for the Oscar-winning All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) — it seems he helmed several other unique and/or above-average titles, including Rain (1932), Of Mice and Men (1939), The Purple Heart (1944), and The Red Pony (1949).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Fine performances by the entire cast


  • Victor Milner’s cinematography


  • Werner Janssen’s eclectic score

Must See?
Yes, once, as an unusual early thriller. Listed as a film with Historical Importance in the back of Peary’s book.

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Empire Strikes Back, The (1980)

Empire Strikes Back, The (1980)

“A Jedi uses the Force for knowledge and defense, never for attack.”

Synopsis:
During an ongoing rebellion against the Empire and Lord Darth Vader (David Prowse and James Earl Jones), Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and R2D2 (Kenny Baker) head to the planet of Dagobah, where Luke is trained in the ways of the Jedi by Yoda (Frank Oz). Meanwhile, Han Solo (Harrison Ford), Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), and C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) flee from the Imperial Army by heading into an asteroid field, seeking refuge on a mining colony run by Han’s old friend (Billy Dee Williams).

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Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “spectacular second film in the George Lucas Star Wars trilogy” features dazzling “special effects”, characters who “are developed and become interesting”, and a “cynical, hard edge that happily lifts it out of the comic-book/juvenile-serials realm” into a “great war movie”, with “events tak[ing] place all over the galaxy”. He notes that this picture “eliminates [the] hokiest aspects of the original, reduces the roles of R2-D2… and C-3PO…, and makes combat look uninviting for a change”; and he points out the “great, imaginative creations”, “excellent direction by Irvin Kershner”, and the “Oscar-winning special effects” by Brian Johnson and Richard Edlund. Thankfully, I’m in agreement with Peary’s review: it was a pleasure revisiting this blockbuster cult favorite, which remains an engaging adventure tale with plenty to satisfy even those who aren’t particularly enamored with the series. It nicely continues what was started in Star Wars (1977), and lays some pretty (in)tense groundwork for a sequel. Stay tuned!

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Fine cinematography

  • Excellent special effects

  • Other-worldly sets

  • John Williams’ score

Must See?
Yes, as a classic of its genre. Nominated as one of the Best Films of the Year in Peary’s Alternate Oscars.

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

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