Wells Fargo (1937)

“In the old days, we had one important rule: get there.”

Synopsis:
An ambitious messenger (Joel McCrea) for the Wells Fargo Company in pre-Civil War America helps shape the future of communication and banking across the states while maintaining a long-distance marriage with his southern wife (Frances Dee).

Genres:

Review:
The primary goal of this episodic western is to showcase the impressive historical trajectory of transcontinental communication in 19th century United States: we’re shown the marvel of eating fresh oysters in New York (before salmonella sets in!); the remarkable ability for Americans to send letters to their loved ones during the Gold Rush; and the challenges of transferring money during an era of continuous robberies and land battles across the nation. However, the jam-packed storyline is hampered by far too many historic moments in one movie, as well as too much time spent on McCrea’s marital challenges. This film will primarily be of interest to McCrea fans wanting to see him in his first film opposite Dee (his real-life spouse).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Interesting historic footage of the dangerous, time-consuming work involved in helping Americans communicate

Must See?
No, unless you’re a fan of this type of historical western.

Links:

Dust Be My Destiny (1939)

“As far as they’re concerned, I’m hanging by the neck already!”

Synopsis:
An ex-con (John Garfield) embittered about being wrongly imprisoned is picked up for train-hopping and sent to a work farm, where he falls in love with the stepdaughter (Priscilla Lane) of a cruel foreman (Stanley Ridges) who dies shortly after a fight. On the lam, the falsely accused couple live a low-key life thanks to the generosity of a deli owner (Ferike Boros) who hires them, and later the owner of a newspaper (Alan Hale) who hires Garfield as a photographer — but the murder allegation continues to haunt them, and Garfield is convinced he’ll never get an even break.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary asserts that this “exciting, romantic, well-acted” Warner Brothers flick — a “sleeper” — is “one of the best couple-on-the-lam films”, with Garfield and Lane (who he argues gives “her most appealing performance”) playing “a couple you can really root for.” Sadly, I disagree on all counts. Lane’s performance comes across as poorly directed, and the outcome of nearly every scene is predictably telescoped; as noted in the original New York Times review by Frank Nugent, “It’s not even fun anymore, outguessing the script” of a film which lies in “an apparently interminable line of melodramas about the fate-dogged boys from the wrong side of the railroad tracks.” Several key factors play against the film’s success. First, Garfield has a chip on his shoulder from the get-go: we never have a chance to see him as anything but a bitterly doomed protagonist who can’t seem to avoid fighting at the worst times. Meanwhile, the world Garfield and Lane inhabit is too neatly black-and-white, with most primary characters either out to get the couple, or convinced they’re just a plucky pair needing a decent job. Most egregiously, there’s no way Garfield and Lane would or could have a chance at marital bliss once they initially run away from the law; I know this was a different era, but isn’t it inevitable they’ll be found? The most labored scene shows Lane attempting to strike out on her own due to the sheer exhaustion of being on the lam, only to realize within a few minutes that being with Garfield is worth it no matter what (though nothing has changed about their circumstances). Call me a sourpuss, but I wasn’t engaged by this one at all.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Atmospheric cinematography


Must See?
No; only seek this one out if you’re a true Garfield fan.

Links:

Story of Alexander Graham Bell, The (1939)

“Ladies and gentlemen, it gives me great pleasure to address you this evening — though I am in Boston, and you are in Salem.”

Synopsis:
Alexander Graham Bell (Don Ameche) falls in love with the deaf daughter (Loretta Young) of a wealthy investor (Charles Coburn) while collaborating with his colleague Thomas Watson (Henry Ford) on numerous inventions — including a “telephone”.

Genres:

Review:
20th Century Fox’s biopic of Alexander Graham Bell’s life was clearly designed for audience appeal: it features a brilliant, intrepid, noble, unassuming hero whose romance with a beautiful lass (Young) is picture perfect (other than the pesky need for him to actually make some money in order to marry her); touching scenes of children and adults impacted by Bell’s work, including a cherub-cheeked deaf boy (Bobby Watson) who learns to communicate with his father (Gene Lockhart) for the first time, thanks to Bell’s pioneering work with Visible Speech; droll humor in the form of Bell’s sidekick (Fonda), who repeatedly points out the need to eat every once in a while; and a final court case in which Bell successfully defends the veracity of his patent against a would-be usurper (Western Union) by agreeing to share a deeply personal letter written to his beloved. Unfortunately, the too-neat storyline fails to elicit as much interest in this astonishingly prolific scientist as the subject matter should warrant, and Young is simply sappy as his all-adoring partner. This flick will primarily be of interest to those who enjoy early Hollywood biopics.

Note: Hardworking Bell was brilliant beyond what he’s best known for. According to Wikipedia:

The range of Bell’s inventive genius is represented only in part by the 18 patents granted in his name alone and the 12 he shared with his collaborators. These included 14 for the telephone and telegraph, four for the photophone, one for the phonograph, five for aerial vehicles, four for “hydroairplanes”, and two for selenium cells. Bell’s inventions spanned a wide range of interests and included a metal jacket to assist in breathing, the audiometer to detect minor hearing problems, a device to locate icebergs, investigations on how to separate salt from seawater, and work on finding alternative fuels.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Touching scenes between a father and his young deaf child who is learning to communicate

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

Links:

Call of the Wild (1935)

“Well, they wanted gold — now they got it.”

Synopsis:
A prospector (Clark Gable), his buddy (Jack Oakie), and their new dog accompany the rescued wife (Loretta Young) of a missing prospector (Frank Conroy) on a search for a legendary gold mine during the Klondike Gold Rush — but a weaselly rival (Reginald Owen) is determined to get there first, and will stop at nothing to claim the plot for himself.

Genres:

Review:
William Wellman’s very loose adaptation of Jack London’s novel (which “omits all but one of the book’s storylines”, and adds in a romance) is best known as the film during which Clark Gable and Loretta Young had an affair that resulted in a child Young claimed was adopted, but who looked unmistakably like a hybrid of them. Indeed, the obvious chemistry between the on-screen pair (especially when we learn that Young’s presumed-missing husband is still alive) helps drive the narrative forward; that, and the convincing rapport between Gable and the lovable St. Bernard playing “Buck”. As an adventure story, Call of the Wild is pretty standard fare, though Owen is as dastardly as they come, and cold-blooded enough to pose a serious threat to the protagonists. It’s unfortunate that dehumanization of Native Americans bookends the film: in an opening scene, a large Native woman is shown pulling a man on a sled, clearly exhausting herself through heavy manual labor on behalf of white men; and in the final scene, another Native woman is shown toting gear like a sherpa, and is literally referred to by Gable as “it”. Perhaps we should thank Hollywood for preserving evidence of the casual normalcy of racism during this era.

Note: We recently visited a restaurant in Mt. Baker, Washington (where much of the film was shot), and I took some photos of memorabilia scattered across the walls:

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Young and Gable’s obvious romantic chemistry
  • Fine use of outdoor locations at Mt. Baker, Washington

Must See?
No, but it’s worth a look for Gable and Young’s chemistry.

Links:

Barbary Coast (1935)

“San Francisco is no place for a bad loser — man or woman.”

Synopsis:
Accompanied by a retired colonel (Frank Craven), a single woman (Miriam Hopkins) sails to San Franciso during the Gold Rush, hoping to marry a wealthy man sight unseen. After learning her fiance has been killed in a lawless dispute, the local crime-boss (Edward G. Robinson) offers Hopkins work in his corrupt saloon, hoping she’ll come to love him — but Hopkins instead loses her heart to a poetic goldminer (Joel McCrea).

Genres:

Review:
Howard Hawks directed this cryptically titled historical drama which manages to cover an enormous amount of dramatic territory — mistaken identities, unrequited love, gold-digging, goldmining, feminism, vigilante justice, corruption, and freedom of speech, to name just a few topics — in its 91 minute running time. Robinson is suitably cast as a power-hungry crime-lord who wants to possess the most beautiful creature to enter “his” town in recent years — speaking of which, there are some uncomfortably dated moments early in the film when much is made of Hopkins being an enormously desirable WHITE woman (after the camera has panned past attractive women with darker skin), as well as a scene openly mocking Chinese immigrants’ presumed beliefs about wearing a braided queue to get into heaven (see here for a more accurate history of this hairstyle). With these caveats aside, the cinematography is atmospheric, and the story is reasonably engaging — particularly the critical subplot about Craven’s attempts to start an honest newspaper in a town that would rather keep its law and order tactics secret. (The more things change…)

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Atmospheric cinematography

  • Walter Brennan as Old Atrocity

Must See?
No, though Hawks fans will surely want to check it out.

Links:

Things to Come (1936)

“What is the use of trying to save this mad world?”

Synopsis:
After the onset of plague-inducing global war, the tyrant (Ralph Richardson) of Everytown is visited by an aviator (Raymond Massey) who hopes to bring peace and progress through his organization Wings Over the World. After decades of technological advancement, all humans are living underground in a leisurely communal society — but a sculptor (Cedric Hardwicke) urges society to resist ceaseless advances, and a battle ensues over whether to send a “space gun” to the moon.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “monumental, extremely ambitious, and lavish Alexander Korda production” — the “most expensive British film of the time” — possesses “truly innovative special effects and bizarre set designs and ‘futuristic’ costumes’ [that] are still of interest”, but “what gives [this] fantasy special interest is that it was scripted by 70-year-old H.G Wells”, whose goal was to write a “predictive history” rather than purely speculative fantasy. Peary notes that the “film depicts [the] Wellsian view that near future will be catastrophic but in time man will build a marvelous, peaceful world”, and points out that “this is the rare SF film that is pro-scientific advance, pro-knowledge, pro-technology”. He adds that “unfortunately, Wells’s spokesman… sounds today like a lunatic when he delivers his final speech about mankind spreading out into the universe”, and notes that the “picture is dated and flawed in other areas”; he ultimately posits that the film “presents a futuristic vision that is at once ridiculous and fascinating”.

Peary’s take on this film remains accurate: it’s impossible not to stare at the “architectural wonders” on display, and wonder if we might one day find some way to live in global peace and harmony through technological advances. However, the hive-like nature of the underground village looks uncomfortably like an antiseptic ant hill — and, as pointed out by DVD Savant, “we of course aren’t told how the population is controlled, or where all the non-Anglo people might be.” Savant further points out that “the imagery is also uncomfortably close to depictions of racial glory in Nazi art: unyielding Nordic faces seeking perfection in the stars.” The characters themselves are noticeably flat: with Wells caring most about the accuracy of his vision, and director William Cameron Menzies primarily concerned about the sets and visuals, nuanced performances and meaningful character arcs are missing. However, that doesn’t seem to matter as much as one would think: this really is a broad-scope tale of a planet in transformation, attempting to move beyond barbarian conflict and literally towards the stars.

Note: Interestingly, Peary writes in his review that “Wells’ script was greatly revised by Lajos Biros and [Wells] detested the finished film”, but this isn’t discussed in the extras provided on Criterion’s DVD release. Rather, according to Criterion’s website:

Wells, at the height of his popularity as a best-selling author and monumental cultural personality, held a huge amount of sway over all aspects of the production. There was one battle he did not win, however; although he wanted the film to be presented as “H. G. Wells’ Things to Come” and have no on-screen credits, relying instead on programs handed out to audiences to supply the credit information—“This is a long-needed innovation upon cinema practice,” he said. “Few people remember the names that are just flashed on the screen” — ultimately, the credits appeared in both places.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Magnificent sets and art production


  • Highly effective cinematography

Must See?
Yes, as an early (albeit flawed) classic of the genre, and for the fantastic art design.

  • Historically Relevant
  • (Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

    Links:

    Crossfire (1947)

    “Some of them are named Samuels; some of them have got funnier names.”

    Synopsis:
    When a Jewish man (Sam Levene) is murdered in his apartment after socializing with a group of soldiers in a nearby bar, a detective (Robert Young) investigates the case. While the presumed culprit is a drunken soldier (George Cooper) who visits a dance hall girl (Gloria Grahame) while pining for his wife (Jacqueline White), Cooper’s anti-Semitic platoon buddy (Robert Ryan) soon arouses suspicion as well.

    Genres:

    Review:
    Edward Dmytryk’s adaptation of Richard Brooks’ novel The Brick Foxhole is notable both as the first B-level film to be nominated for an Oscar as Best Picture of the Year, and for running neck to neck with Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) as one of the first Hollywood movies to openly address anti-semitism. Ironically, Brooks’ novel was actually about homophobia, a topic banned at the time by the Production Code. However, unlike Brooks’ own directorial adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ Cat On a Hot Tin Roof (1958) — which suffers from a fatal loss of sensical motives when Paul Newman’s homosexuality is taken out of the storyline — the thematic switch here works fine; it’s easy to be convinced that anti-Semitism (ever present, albeit often in more subtle forms) might drive a senseless murder like this one. As Dmytryk wrote in his autobiography:

    After our rough-cut showing to the sound and music department, one of the young assistant sound cutters, an Argentine, complimented me on the picture.
    “It’s such a fine suspense story,” he said. “Why did you have to bring in that stuff about anti-Semitism?”
    “That was our chief reason for making the film,” I answered.
    “But there is no anti-Semitism in the United States,” he protested. “If there were, why is all the money in America controlled by Jewish bankers?”
    I stared at him in astonishment. “That’s why we made the film”, was all I could think of to say.

    As a noir, Crossfire works exceptionally well, with each frame maximizing use of light and shadow to heighten the drama and suspense; Dmytryk and his crew managed to get the film made with only 150 set-ups (be sure to listen to the commentary soundtrack on the DVD to learn more about the film’s production, as well as Dmytryk’s blacklisting by HUAC). Equally impressive are the stellar performances, most notably by Ryan: check out his soulless eyes as he tells a faux flashback tale to Young, and his chilling scene with terrified Steve Brodie as “Floyd”. Grahame is also a stand-out in her supporting role as a world-weary dance hall girl with a mysterious man (Paul Kelly) living in her apartment.

    Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

    • Strong performances across the board


    • Dmytryk’s creative direction


    • J. Roy Hunt’s cinematography

    Must See?
    Yes — definitely check this one out. Listed as a film with Historical Importance in the back of Peary’s book.

    Categories

    Links:

    Life of Brian (1979) / Monty Python’s Life of Brian

    Hello, CMBA members! I’m happy to be participating in the Classic Movie Blog Association’s “Banned and Blacklisted” blogathon. If you’re new to my site, please click here to read more. Welcome!

    “Only the true Messiah denies his divinity!”

    Synopsis:
    A man (Graham Chapman) named Brian — born in the Roman Empire on the same day as Jesus Christ — becomes involved with the revolutionary People’s Front of Judea, and is mistaken as a messiah by eager crowds of would-be followers. Will his mother (Terry Jones) or his new girlfriend (Sue Jones-Davies) be able to save him from certain crucifixion?

    Genres:

    Review:
    Comedy troupe Monty Python’s follow-up after the success of Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) was this irreverent cult classic, beloved by many and infamous for the controversy it generated both before and after its release (and into recent years). To name just a few of its credentials as a “banned and blacklisted” film, its funding was pulled a few days before production was set to begin (George Harrison stepped in to help); several countries (including Ireland and Norway) banned or limited its screening upon release; rabbis and nuns picketed its opening in New York; and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops gave the film an “O” for Offensive rating, offering the following summation:

    Monty Python movie about a hapless fellow named Brian, a contemporary of Jesus, who is mistaken for the Messiah and eventually crucified by the Romans. The nihilistic, anything-for-laughs thrust of director Terry Jones’s comedy deliberately exploits much that is sacred to Christian and Jewish religious tradition. Especially offensive is the mocking parody of the crucifixion scene.

    Yes, there is much to be offended by in Life of Brian: it’s a satire which truly leaves nothing sacred, and that’s the point. Its sharpest attacks are made on the mobs of worshipers who insist Brian is their messiah, and who turn his every word and action into a literal sign from God; and on left-leaning revolutionary groups which end up competing against each other for the ability to break free from Rome, while conceding that Roman imperialism actually brought quite a few positive elements to their lives. (“All right, but apart from the sanitation, medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh water system and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?”) Not all the humor here will work for all viewers, naturally; I’m not a fan of the running gag about Pilate’s lisping, for instance, or amused by the Roman names such as “Biggus Dickus” and “Incontinentia Buttocks”. However, there’s plenty here to enjoy on repeat viewings — including but not limited to the classic closing ditty (“Always Look on the Bright Side of Life”).

    Note: Be sure to check out IMDb’s Trivia page for plenty of interesting facts about the making of this film, as well as Wikipedia’s in-depth overview and analysis; I’m sure the DVD commentary is worthy, too (though I haven’t listened to it yet myself).

    Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

    • Many classic, laugh-out-loud scenes

    • Fine cinematography

    Must See?
    Yes, as a cult favorite. Listed as a Cult Movie in the back of Peary’s GFTFF.

    Categories

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

    Links:

    Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)

    “A drowning man takes down those nearest.”

    Synopsis:
    A bickering professor (Richard Burton) and his wife (Elizabeth Taylor) invite a young academic (George Segal) and his mousy spouse (Sandy Dennis) over for drinks after a party, and proceed to victimize them mercilessly.

    Genres:

    Review:
    Mike Nichols’ cinematic directorial debut was this adaptation of Edward Albee’s popular Broadway play, which Nichols has stated he instantly connected with and felt drawn to translate for the screen. Nichols’ instincts were right: his film qualifies as an unabashedly successful “opening up” of a play — one which utilizes the power of close-ups, angles, editing, and mixed settings to maximize the impact of Albee’s grueling tale about marital discord. Taylor — one of the most glamorous women in the world at the time — was only 32 when she donned a grey wig and gained 30 pounds to play middle-aged Martha, winning an Oscar for her efforts. In Peary’s Alternate Oscars — where he reluctantly gives Taylor the award as well — he writes that while “Taylor doesn’t come across as being natural or at ease,” we should “at least give her credit for attempting to act rather than just inhabit a character”. While he complains that her portrayal of Martha is “too shrill” and “should appear to be strong for most of the play/film, rather than just loud and irritating”, he concedes that “when it really counts Taylor makes us understand this troubled woman.”

    I’m not bothered at all by Taylor’s performance, and find it difficult (though not impossible) to imagine someone else in the role — primarily due to the casting of Taylor’s real-life husband as her spouse. Speaking of Burton, Peary also awards him an Oscar, noting that Taylor’s “performance is so ostentatious… that it takes a while to realize that the comparatively subdued Burton is giving a brilliant characterization”. He adds that “we are transfixed by [Burton’s] every movement, dazed by his wise yet not always logical remarks, kept off balance by his secretive smiles and powerful gazes, knocked backward by his every shout.” He goes on to provide an analysis of George and Martha’s relationship — one which helps put all the shouting and manipulation into context:

    “[George] tries to blank or drown out Martha’s vicious words (and the meaningless conversation of his unimportant guests) with the long-winded observations of a history professor. But after twenty years [Martha] can still hit nerves if she screams loudly enough and blasts him with the appropriate cruel words, some of which he supplies to her himself. She knows that despite his professed boredom, he won’t back away when she initiates their horrible nightly games … When he goes to sleep each night, he is with the woman he loves. Their battles are what keep them stimulated and spare them from dealing with what is really wrong with their lives … He must remain solid if Martha… is to be protected. The years of combat have taken their toll on George, but it is still through his strength that this shaky marriage survives.”

    Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? isn’t an easy or pleasant film to watch by any means. However, Nichols’ confident direction, Haskell Wexler’s Oscar-winning b&w cinematography, and the memorable performances (including those by Segal and the oh-so-unique Dennis) make it well worth at least one visit. Be sure to check out the commentary on the DVD in which Nichols chats with Steven Soderbergh about his directorial choices and the film’s production history; it’s quite fascinating and insightful.

    Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

    • Strong performances by the entire cast



    • Nichols’ direction

    • Haskell Wexler’s cinematography

    • Alex North’s score

    Must See?
    Yes, as a powerful if gut-wrenching classic.

    Categories

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

    Links:

    Raintree County (1957)

    “War is the most monstrous of man’s illusions. Any idea worth anything is worth not fighting for.”

    Synopsis:
    On the cusp of the Civil War, an aspiring writer (Montgomery Clift) with plans to marry his childhood friend (Eva Marie Saint) becomes smitten with a southern belle (Elizabeth Taylor) whose troubled background continues to haunt her.

    Genres:

    Review:
    Edward Dmytryk’s adaptation of Ross Lockridge Jr.’s bestselling novel is perhaps best known as the film featuring Montgomery Clift both before and after his disfiguring car accident. Unfortunately, it’s a rambling, thematically dubious film which never settles on a satisfying story arc and fails to engage. Clift’s performance seems dialed in (small wonder, given what he was going through), and it’s hard to figure out (or care much about) his character. Meanwhile, Taylor over-emotes like she’s in a Tennessee Williams play, and the narrative threads about her mental instability, her attachment to creepy dolls, and her obsession with racial “purity” make it awfully difficult to sympathize with her. Eva Marie Saint has a thankless part as the beautiful small-town girl who is shoved aside by Taylor’s insistent charm, and Lee Marvin, Agnes Moorehead, and Rod Taylor are all underutilized as well. There’s little to recommend here other than fine cinematography.

    Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

    • Beautiful cinematography

    Must See?
    No. Skip this one unless you’re curious.

    Links: