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Month: June 2020

Sun Never Sets, The (1939)

Sun Never Sets, The (1939)

“There are troublesome things taking place in different parts of the empire today that we don’t like — and don’t quite understand.”

Synopsis:
A man (Basil Rathbone) serving in the British colony of the Gold Coast returns home with his wife (Barbara O’Neil), hoping to stay in England — but when his tradition-bound grandfather (C. Aubrey Smith) sends his younger brother (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) back to investigate an ant scientist (Lionel Atwill) who may be responsible for mysterious radio signals, Rathbone and pregnant O’Neil follow along to ensure his safety; meanwhile, Fairbanks, Jr.’s girlfriend (Virginia Field) is determined to stick by his side through even the hardest of times.

Genres:

  • Africa
  • Basil Rathbone Films
  • Cecil Kellaway Films
  • Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. Films
  • Lionel Atwill Films
  • World Domination

Review:
This explicitly pro-Colonial “tribute” flick opens with a dedication to “the countless millions bred in the British Isles who, through the past four centuries, have gone forth to the far corners of the earth to find new countries, to establish laws and the ethics of government, who have kept high the standards of civilization” — then shifts to a slide describing the Gold Coast of Africa as “– heat — humidity — fever — known for years as ‘the white man’s grave’.” This condescending tone is maintained throughout, with Smith’s familial brood showcased as noble and heroic martyrs to the “cause” of colonialism. Just as troublesome is the inexplicable central subplot involving Atwill, ants, radio signals, and dastardly intentions — what in the world is this all about? It seems we’re meant to view Atwill as a generic baddie stirring up foment in dominated peoples on behalf of his own hunger for power; was this merely a panicked plea from those who saw the writing of World War II and a post-colonial future on the wall? And what in the world do ants have to do with all of this, anyway? We are primed to cheer for Fairbanks, Jr. as he makes restitution for an unintentionally lethal error in his work, but to what end? This film is a bit of a muddled mess, and hasn’t aged well at all.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Basil Rathbone in an atypically sympathetic role

Must See?
Nope; feel free to skip this one.

Links:

Union Pacific (1939)

Union Pacific (1939)

“A railroad from Omaha to California? One might as well think of flying!”

Synopsis:
A shady stock manipulator (Henry Kolker) hires a gambling hall owner (Brian Donlevy) to intentionally stall progress on the Union Pacific railroad, but Donlevy’s partner (Robert Preston) — in love with the Irish daughter (Barbara Stanwyck) of an engineer — finds his loyalties tested when his old war buddy (Joel McCrea) comes on board as a “peace-keeping” troubleshooter, and romantic tensions emerge between Stanwyck, Preston, and McCrea.

Genres:

  • Anthony Quinn Films
  • Barbara Stanwyck Films
  • Brian Donlevy Films
  • Cecil B. DeMille Films
  • Historical Drama
  • Joel McCrea Films
  • Lon Chaney, Jr. Films
  • Robert Preston Films
  • Trains and Subways

Review:
Several years after “creatively” portraying the legend of Buffalo Bill and Wild Bill Hickok in The Plainsman (1936), Cecil B. DeMille followed in the footsteps of John Ford’s silent classic The Iron Giant (1924) in offering this tale about the corruption inherent in the building of the transcontinental railroad (a massive, years-long, money-infused endeavor if there ever was one — though according to DVD Savant, the true source of corruption is sorely misrepresented here). The leads are all in top form, with Stanwyck especially appealing as a plucky Irish lass willing to face reality squarely in the eyes, and Preston eliciting a surprising amount of sympathy in a challenging baddie role. Overall, the tale is well-directed, and the cinematography by Victor Milner is impressive; but the dehumanization of Indians is distressing, and I’m not a fan of the humorous sidekicks played by Akim Tamiroff and Lynne Overman. While this is one of DeMille’s better flicks, it’s not must-see viewing by all film fanatics.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Barbara Stanwyck as Mollie Monahan
  • Robert Preston as Dick Allen
  • Joel McCrea as Jeff Butler
  • Victor Milner’s cinematography

Must See?
No, though it’s recommended for the lead performances.

Links:

Oklahoma Kid, The (1939)

Oklahoma Kid, The (1939)

“I like all kinds of people… What I don’t take to is this itch for plowing up new empires.”

Synopsis:
During the Cherokee Strip Land Run, a sheriff (Hugh Sothern) and his son Ned (Harvey Stephens) attempt to stake a claim in a town they will call Tulsa, but must strike a bargain with an outlaw (Humphrey Bogart) determined to set up bars and saloons in the area. Meanwhile, Sothern’s black sheep son — known as the “Oklahoma Kid” (James Cagney) — arrives in town and quickly becomes involved in retribution against Bogart’s murderous gang, as well as romance with the daughter (Rosemary Lane) of the local judge (Donald Crisp).

Genres:

Review:
Following their co-starring roles in Angels With Dirty Faces (1938), James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart were re-paired in this western (Cagney’s first), in which Cagney’s character embodies some refreshingly progressive notions regarding white settlement of the land:

Cagney: Now, look. In the first place, the White people steal the land of the Indians, right?
Crisp: They get paid for it right?
Cagney: Paid for it? Yeah. A measly dollar and forty cents an acre, price agreed to at the point of a gun.

The storyline itself is a fairly standard western tale of corruption and revenge, with a minor romantic triangle thrown in for good measure (Lane is formally partnered with Stephens). However, it’s nicely shot by DP James Wong Howe, and features some effectively shot action sequences, making it worth a one-time look.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • James Cagney as the Oklahoma Kid
  • James Wong Howe’s cinematography
  • Some fine action sequences

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

Links:

Each Dawn I Die (1939)

Each Dawn I Die (1939)

“Okay, canary — start singin’!”

Synopsis:
After outing a corrupt gubernatorial candidate and his assistant (Victor Jory), an investigative journalist (James Cagney) is framed for manslaughter and sent to prison, where he meets a gangster (George Raft) who promises to help him clear his name but reneges on this promise once he escapes. Will Cagney’s loyal girlfriend (Jane Bryan) help keep Raft accountable to his commitment, or will Cagney remain unjustly imprisoned for the rest of his life?

Genres:

  • Framed
  • Friendship
  • George Bancroft Films
  • George Raft Films
  • James Cagney Films
  • Journalists
  • Prisoners

Review:
James Cagney and George Raft’s only film together was this unusual gangster flick about loyalty and honor among criminals, journalists, and politicians. It swiftly showcases the relentless corruption of politicians willing to do anything to get or remain elected, ultimately landing on the side of the underdog (in this case, journalists and mistreated prisoners). While the storyline is a tad over-complicated, and we can guess what the outcome will ultimately be, there’s sufficient tension and atmospheric cinematography along the way to hold one’s interest, and the prison scenes feel reasonably authentic. The final shoot-out is especially well handled.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • James Cagney as Frank Ross
  • Arthur Edeson’s cinematography
  • The excitingly filmed prison shoot-out finale

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

Links:

Jesse James (1939)

Jesse James (1939)

“I hate the railroads — and when I hate, I’ve got to do something about it.”

Synopsis:
When a thuggish railroad goon (Brian Donlevy) accidentally causes the death of their mother (Jane Darwell), brothers Jesse (Tyrone Power) and Frank (Henry Fonda) James become outlaws, robbing trains. With the help of a newly appointed lawman (Randolph Scott), Jesse’s girlfriend (Nancy Kelly) tries to convince him to reform — but when a conniving railroad owner (Donald Meek) betrays the brothers’ trust once again, Kelly’s hopes are dashed.

Genres:

  • Biopics
  • Brian Donlevy Films
  • Henry Fonda Films
  • Henry King Films
  • Historical Drama
  • John Carradine Films
  • Outlaws
  • Randolph Scott Films
  • Tyrone Power Films
  • Westerns

Review:
Notorious gangster and train robber Jesse James is duly whitewashed in this beautifully shot if historically dubious western (scripted by Nunnally Johnson, and directed by Henry King) which portrays his life of crime as the direct result of homesteaders being unfairly forced to give up their land. The Technicolor cinematography is truly stunning (a standout sequence features a silhouette of Jesse running along the tops of train cars with unaware passengers lit below), and the location shooting in Missouri adds to the film’s overall feel of authenticity. However, while the female romantic lead (Kelly, giving a strong performance) helps us sympathize with Jesse, we don’t really get enough of a sense of who Jesse or his brother were, or why they persist in a life of crime long beyond seeking vengeance on Meek (played as a caricature of a sniveling baddie); meanwhile, Scott’s supporting character is badly underdeveloped. This film was followed immediately by a sequel — The Return of Frank James (1940) — starring many of the same actors (including John Carradine as the “coward” who shot Jesse in the back), but directed by Fritz Lang. See also I Shot Jesse James (1949), directed by Sam Fuller.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Fine Technicolor cinematography

  • Nancy Kelly as Zee

Must See?
No, though it’s recommended as a well-shot western. Listed as a film with Historical Importance and a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

Links:

If I Were King (1938)

If I Were King (1938)

“If it’s so easy to be king, how would you begin?”

Synopsis:
When medieval poet Francois Villon (Ronald Colman) kills a traitor (John Miljan) in the court of King Louis XI (Basil Rathbone), he’s made Constable for a week, during which time he falls in love with a beautiful lady-in-waiting (Frances Dee), hatches a plan against invading forces from Burgundy, and attempts to bring food and justice to the starving people of France.

Genres:

Review:
Following his successful lead roles in A Tale of Two Cities (1935) and Lost Horizon (1937), Ronald Colman starred in this oft-adapted tale — based on a 1901 play and novel by Justin Huntly McCarthy — about real-life poet-of-the-people Francois Villon. The film, scripted by Preston Sturges, presents Villon as a sort of French Robin Hood, stealing from the rich to feed the poor — a gesture it’s hard to quibble with, today no less than then. Rathbone — wearing plenty of make-up — seems to be having fun playing King Louis XI as a monarch more wacky than sadistic, willing to use his power for creative experimentation. The sets and cinematography are fine, and this was surely an enjoyable outing for audiences of the day, living through the tail end of the Great Depression; however, it’s no longer must-see viewing for all film fanatics.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Ronald Colman as Francois Villon
  • Basil Rathbone as King Louis XI
  • Fine cinematography and period sets

Must See?
No, though Colman fans will want to seek it out.

Links:

Four Men and a Prayer (1938)

Four Men and a Prayer (1938)

“If dad’s evidence was so important that they had to murder him, we’ll be running the same risk.”

Synopsis:
A disgraced British colonel (C. Aubrey Smith) falsely accused of issuing an order responsible for 90 deaths in India shares what he knows with his four sons — Geoffrey (Richard Greene), Wyatt (George Sanders), Christopher (David Niven), and Rodney (William Henry) — and is then promptly murdered. The brothers, secretly accompanied by Greene’s love-interest (Loretta Young), set off across the globe to investigate, and soon discover their father was a pawn in illegal arms dealings.

Genres:

Review:
John Ford was contracted to direct this highly uneven adventure sleuth flick toggling between scenes of romantic comedy (which handsome brother will Young end up with?) and the murderous slaughter of innocent civilians in South America. To its credit, the film is atmospherically shot by Ford and DP Ernest Palmer, and the script goes in continuously unexpected directions — but the tonal shifts (especially given the gravity of the subject matter) are simply too jolting to stomach. Young’s performance is a stand-out: she, along with her innovative costumes and hats, emerges as the true heroine of the film. Also of minor note is Sanders not playing a cad for once, and the truly weird inclusion of Niven speaking like a duck with an Asian servant (?!).

Note: Ford apparently claimed of this film, “I didn’t want to do that picture, and I raised hell, but I had it under contract. I made it but I didn’t see it.”

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Loretta Young as Lynn Cherrington
  • Ernest Palmer’s cinematography

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

Links:

Prisoner of Zenda, The (1937)

Prisoner of Zenda, The (1937)

“History is born out of a bottle of wine.”

Synopsis:
An Englishman (Ronald Colman) vacationing in Ruritania is instantly spotted as a doppelganger for Rudolf V (Ronald Colman), who is due to become king the next day. When Rudolf V is drugged and kidnapped by his power-hungry brother (Raymond Massey) at a drinking party, Rudolf’s loyal assistants (C. Aubrey Smith and David Niven) enlist the help of British Colman to pose as the king and engage in a marriage ceremony with Princess Flavia (Madeleine Carroll). Complications ensue when British Colman and Carroll fall genuinely in love with one another; meanwhile, Massey’s long-time love (Mary Astor) will do whatever it takes to prevent Massey from achieving his ambitions, and Massey’s villainous side-kick (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) is ready for lethal action.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that while “it’s a bit dated”, this remains “the best of the five film versions of Anthony Hope’s novel,” representing “the type of story that Hollywood was meant to tell.” He points out that it “has fine acting, exciting action sequences (including a swordfight between Colman and Fairbanks), romance between the appealing Carroll and Colman, lavish sets, striking sepia-toned cinematography, stylish direction by John Cromwell”, and a “top-rate cast”, specifically calling out Ronald Colman for his “dashing yet elegant performance as an Englishman who impersonates his kidnapped Cousin, the King of Ruritania.” I agree with Peary that this adventure tale is well mounted and contains all the ingredients necessary for a rousing thriller — including mistaken identities, complicated love affairs, loyal assistants (of both good and evil), and much excitement. I’m especially fond of Astor as a woman inexplicably devoted to Massey’s turgid would-be monarch; she’s proof that love really knows no reason.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Fine performances by the entire cast



  • James Wong Howe’s cinematography
  • Fittingly regal sets
  • The exciting sword duel

Must See?
Yes, as a “good show”.

Categories

Links:

Black Legion (1937)

Black Legion (1937)

“What this country needs is bigger and better patriots!”

Synopsis:
A factory worker (Humphrey Bogart) upset that an anticipated promotion has gone to his bookish co-worker (Henry Brandon) is recruited by a colleague (Joe Sawyer) to join an undercover society called the Black Legion, and soon finds himself involved in increasingly violent hate crimes. When his wife (Erin O’Brien-Moore) and son (Dickie Jones) leave him, he is consoled by the former girlfriend (Helen Flint) of his friend Ed (Dick Foran), who is now engaged to the sympathetic daughter (Ann Sheridan) of an older colleague (Clifford Soubier).

Genres:

Review:
This chilling social drama provides an invaluable if white-washed look at an Ohio-based, KKK-inspired hyper-“patriotic” secret organization which at one time may have had a membership as high as 135,000. According to Wikipedia’s article, the Black Legion was “largely made up of native-born, working-class, Protestant white men in the Midwest [who] feared the rapid social changes underway and resented competition with immigrants such as Italians and Jews and migrants in the industrial economy of major cities such as Detroit.” (Their enemies list “included all immigrants, Catholics, Jews and blacks, nontraditional Protestant faiths, labor unions, farm cooperatives and various fraternal groups”.) As in Storm Warning (1951) — based on a Broadway play about the KKK — no specific mention is made about anti-black racism; DVD Savant adds that:

The avoidance of the race issue puts the movie in the same category as the late-40s social protest movie Crossfire, which was compelled to substitute a Jew for its homosexual victim. Standing up for the rights of blacks was something that movies just didn’t do in the middle of the 1930s. Yet both movies were successful in that they opened the door to public discussion about civil rights and civil liberties.

It’s highly disconcerting to see a would-be protagonist like Bogart so easily caught up in murderous, cowardly behavior — which I suppose is exactly the point. We’re meant to be shocked and horrified by what we see carried out here, and we are.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Humphrey Bogart as Frank Taylor
  • Some powerfully disturbing imagery and themes

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

Links:

Last Gangster, The (1937)

Last Gangster, The (1937)

“He is the kind of boy you really hoped for — isn’t he, Joe?”

Synopsis:
A gangster (Edward G. Robinson) whose newly immigrated wife (Rose Stradner) knows nothing about his criminal life is infuriated when she refuses to bring their new son to visit him in prison. Stradner marries a kind journalist (Jimmy Stewart) and “Junior” (Douglas Scott) grows up believing Stewart is his dad — but Robinson, with support from his former associate (Lionel Stander), is determined to seek revenge on his former wife, and Junior soon finds his life in danger.

Genres:

Review:
Edward G. Robinson is suitably edgy yet sympathetic as an Al Capone-esque mob boss in this (yes, you guessed it) gangster flick, primarily notable for featuring Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Austrian wife Rose Stradner in one of just three films she made in Hollywood, and Stewart sporting a mustache in a pre-stardom role. Stradner — whose life ended tragically when she was just 45 — has a lovely screen presence, and Scott is refreshingly non-obnoxious as a young boy who refers to his adoptive father as “Dads” (!). The storyline goes in some unexpected directions, and the film is atmospherically shot (the tear gas scene during a prison riot is especially chilling); however, this one is only must-see viewing for Robinson fans.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Edward G. Robinson as Joe Krozac
  • Rose Stradner as Talya Krozac
  • Atmospheric cinematography

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

Links: