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.

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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.

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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

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Try and Get Me! / Sound of Fury, The (1950)

“Don’t worry: Tyler and his partner will get a fair trial whether they deserve it or not.”

Synopsis:
A man (Frank Lovejoy) struggling to provide for his pregnant wife (Kathleen Ryan) and son (Donald Smelick) agrees to work with a charismatic criminal (Lloyd Bridges) who eventually involves him in the murder of a kidnapped hostage. When Bridges hooks up with his girlfriend (Adele Jergens) and Lovejoy is paired with her lonely friend (Katherine Locke), Lovejoy gradually becomes unhinged from guilt; meanwhile, a journalist (Richard Carlson) writes a story about the men’s crime spree, not realizing he is unintentionally inciting a mob.

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Review:
Peary lists four films by blacklisted director Cy Enfield in his GFTFF: Sands of the Kalahari (1965), Zulu (1964), Mysterious Island (1961), and this crime drama, based on the same real-life 1933 incident that inspired Fritz Lang’s Fury (1936). Try and Get Me! (renamed after it flopped under its original title of The Sound of Fury) was Endfield’s final American film before fleeing to Britain after HUAC destroyed his Hollywood career, and it’s easy to see parallels here of a man mercilessly assaulted by mob “justice”. Indeed, it’s easy to empathize with Lovejoy’s luckless protagonist, whose sweet Irish wife (Ryan) remains loyal in the midst of poverty, and who is essentially bullied into abetting Bridges when no other opportunities for work emerge. With that said, the film isn’t without notable flaws: Locke’s Hazel is annoyingly pathetic, and the inclusion of an Italian mathematician-sociologist (Renzo Cesana) serving as Carlson’s guilty conscience is a baffling misfire. But the film is creatively directed overall, and the final scenes of mobs stampeding the jail where Bridges and Lovejoy are housed are chilling; this unique low-budget flick is worth a look.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Frank Lovejoy as Howard Tyler
  • Kathleen Ryan as Judy Tyler
  • Guy Roe’s cinematography


  • Powerfully filmed mob scenes

Must See?
Yes, for its historical relevance as a unique film by a blacklisted director. Listed as a Sleeper and a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

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Last Holiday (1950)

“How do you keep smiling with a stiff upper lip?”

Synopsis:
When a salesman (Alec Guinness) is told by his doctor (Ronald Simpson) that he has a terminal disease, he decides to spend his last days and money at a posh hotel, where he unintentionally convinces everyone he’s actually a wealthy, well-bred traveler. He confides his true identity to the head housekeeper (Kay Walsh) while engaging in flirtation with the wife (Beatrice Campbell) of a young criminal (Brian Worth), and receiving countless offers for advice and work.

Genres:

Review:
After providing notable supporting performance in Great Expectations (1946) and Oliver Twist (1948), Alec Guinness had a breakthrough (set of) roles as “the D’Ascoynes” in Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), followed shortly by his leading work here as an unassuming man dealing with the shock of unexpected news. Much like in The Man Who Could Work Miracles (1936), the film holds inherent interest given our curiosity in seeing how an “average” person reacts to life-altering information about his existence: what will he do now? Scripted by the prolific British novelist, playwright, screenwriter, producer, broadcaster, and social commentator J.B. Priestley, the storyline goes in unexpected directions while effectively skewering class expectations, and demonstrating the almost inconceivable power that lies in simply knowing the “right” people and being in the “right” places. Though I’m not a fan of the film’s twist ending, that’s a minor quibble, and the movie overall remains very much worth a look.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Ray Elton’s cinematography
  • A provocative storyline

Must See?
Yes, as an overall good show.

Categories

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Helen Morgan Story, The (1957)

“Why does it always have to be you?”

Synopsis:
Torch singer Helen Morgan (Ann Blyth) falls in love with a married producer (Richard Carlson) and retains a lifelong attraction to a charming hustler (Paul Newman) while rising to the top of her field and then beginning a steady descent into alcoholism.

Genres:

Review:
Twelve years after directing Ann Blyth in her breakthrough role as scheming Veda in Mildred Pierce (1945), Michael Curtiz worked with Blyth once again in her final film, this big-budget biopic about talented torch singer Helen Morgan, viewable in real life by film fanatics in two Peary-listed titles — Applause (1929) and Showboat (1936). Blyth fully inhabits the title role, playing Morgan with sympathy and emotional depth — though it’s unfortunate the storyline plays so lightly with the true details of her life; for instance, Newman’s fictional character is an amalgam of all the no-good heels Morgan encountered and couldn’t seem to stay away from, thus playing conveniently into the sentiments of her two most famous songs from Showboat: “Bill” and “Can’t Help Loving’ Dat Man”. Morgan’s alcoholism (the direct cause of her death at the age of 41) isn’t quite glossed over, but isn’t handled with nearly as much candor as it could have been. With that said, the film is fluidly directed, with impressive CinemaScope cinematography, and the musical sequences (dubbed by Gogi Grant, despite Blyth’s own fine voice) are enjoyable — so it’s worth a one-time look.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Ann Blyth as Helen Morgan
  • Fine CinemaScope cinematography

  • Many well-staged musical numbers

Must See?
No, though fans of Morgan will of course be curious to check it out.

Links:

Son of Fury (1942)

“He’s my uncle — and my enemy.”

Synopsis:
A young orphan (Roddy McDowall) cared for by his gunsmith grandfather (Harry Davenport) is seized by his unscrupulous uncle (George Sanders) and forced to work as his servant, in hopes that Sanders can maintain control over Benjamin (McDowall) and prevent him from learning the truth about his noble heritage. When Benjamin grows up (Franchot Tone), he falls in love with Sanders’ beautiful daughter (Frances Farmer) but decides to escape on a South Seas-bound ship in hopes of making his own fortune. Along with another stowaway (John Carradine), Tone lands on an island where they quickly uncover a wealth of pearls, and Tone falls in love with a native woman (Gene Tierney). Despite his newfound happiness, however, Tone is determined to stake a claim to his rightful inheritance, and — upon his return to England — enlists the help of a lawyer (Dudley Digges) in doing so.

Genres:

Review:
John Cromwell directed this adaptation of Edison Marshall’s bestselling 1941 novel, featuring hunky Tyrone Power at the height of his fame and beautiful Frances Farmer just before her wrongful descent into institutionalization. Sanders plays a typically sadistic baddie with nothing but ill intent up his sleeve, though Power is resilient and more than up to the task of facing him. This well-shot adventure-revenge tale covers quite a bit of territory (literally) in its 98 minutes of running time, and features numerous notable supporting performances — particularly by Elsa Lanchester as a helpful prostitute tickled pink to be interacting with nobility. While not must-see for all film fanatics, it’s well worth a look by those who enjoy this kind of historical adventure drama.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Atmospheric cinematography by Arthur C. Miller
  • Elsa Lanchester as Bristol Isabel

Must See?
No, though it’s recommended for one-time viewing. Listed as a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

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Specter of the Rose (1946)

“He is not a man; Andre is a shadow on the wall that flickers when the music plays.”

Synopsis:
While a poet (Lionel Stander) shadows a mentally unstable ballet dancer (Ivan Kirov) suspected of killing his wife, a smitten ingenue (Viola Essen) falls in love with Kirov despite the warnings of her stern ballet instructor (Judith Anderson).

Genres:

Review:
Although best known as a prolific screenwriter, Ben Hecht (co)directed a number of interesting titles, such as Crime Without Passion (1934), The Scoundrel (1935), and Angels Over Broadway (1940). Unfortunately, this later effort is much more of a mixed bag, coming across as an intentionally stylized dramatic extension of a dance (per the careers of the main characters) punctuated by overly literate dialogue (Standing’s gravelly-voiced character — what is he doing here, exactly? — is the worst culprit; “And my heart… performed a minuet… in an ashcan”) and odd strains of humor — viz. a flamboyantly fey producer (Michael Chekhov) with a Bob’s Big Boy-esque pompadour who swoons over Kirov’s bare chest and is constantly avoiding payments to his set designer and musicians. Meanwhile, Anderson plays it straight as a dour grand dame of dance, but one wonders what kind of movie she thinks she’s acting in. The strengths of this low-budget film lie in its visuals (Hecht worked with DP Lee Garmes as usual) and the unexpectedly humorous earnestness of its lead characters; during a particularly noteworthy scene, Kirov and Essen make love to each other with and through their eyes: “Hug me with your eyes… Harder.” George Antheil’s unique score is also worth a mention.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Numerous unusual sequences and lines (“You’ve got wonderful knees. Most girls’ knees look like plumbers’ fittings.”)
  • Lee Garmes’ cinematography
  • George Antheil’s score

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

Links:

Hasty Heart, The (1949)

“You don’t make friends — period!”

Synopsis:
When a nurse (Patricia Neal) serving in post-WWII Burma learns one of her patients (Richard Todd) has just a few weeks to live, she instructs her multinational group of wounded wards — including a Yank (Ronald Reagan), an Englishman (Howard Marion-Crawford), a Kiwi (Ralph Michael), and a Basuto-speaking African (Orlando Martins) — to befriend Scottish Todd by any means necessary, including looking past his decidedly churlish and off-standing manner.

Genres:

Review:
The essential premise of this adaptation (directed by Vincent Sherman) of John Patrick’s stage play is deeply troublesome: a man isn’t informed he’s about to die, though everyone around him knows. While it’s challenging getting past this moral morass, the film is well-crafted and well-acted, featuring Oscar-nominated Todd (appropriately fierce and memorable) in his screen debut, Neal as a compassionate but no-nonsense nurse, and Reagan simply — being Reagan. A running gag about what a Scotsman wears under his kilt (or not) becomes tiresome, and it’s painfully egregious to watch Nigerian-British actor Orlando Martins given such a demeaning role as an “African” (from where, exactly?) who only speaks one word of English: the name — “Blossom” — given to him by his compatriots. (It’s ironic that Martins was purportedly “the most talkative person on the set.”) With all that said, the story’s central message that we shouldn’t take a person’s gruff exterior as their “true” nature is an important one, and it’s heart-warming to see the group of men banding together for Todd’s sake.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Richard Todd as Lachie
  • Patricia Neal as Sister Parker
  • Wilkie Cooper’s cinematography

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

Links: