Father Goose (1964)

“If you’re waiting for the big finale, I’m sorry — this is all I do.”

Synopsis:
During World War II, an alcoholic non-conformist (Cary Grant) is forced by a Royal Australian Navy commander (Trevor Howard) to watch for Japanese planes off an isolated island in Papua New Guinea — but Grant soon finds his beloved solitude interrupted by the arrival of a French woman (Leslie Caron) caring for seven stranded school girls.

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Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “genial comedy” — Cary Grant’s next-to-last film before retiring from the screen — “has none of the typical elements of a ‘cult’ movie”, but he notes that he’s “come across an amazing number of people who are truly devoted to it.” (He’s “told in some places it always plays on television at Easter.”) Peary expresses wonder that the script won an Oscar (he refers to it as “typical”), but adds that it “benefits from inspired teaming of the stars, who work extremely well together”. When contemplating why “this film [is] so popular, especially with women”, Peary conjectures “that many women look at the heavy-drinking, gone-to-seed men sitting next to them in front of the TV and hope that they’ll follow Grant’s example and reform, to display once more those qualities that made them so lovable in the first place.”

Peary’s somewhat dismissive review of this film led me to expect less than what I found when revisiting this enjoyable romantic comedy, which starts off somewhat strained (both Grant and Caron’s characters are pills) but goes in surprisingly delightful and quirky directions. Watching as “Grant reforms and reveals his bravery, resourcefulness, and concern for the trapped females” (Caron and her charges) is heartwarming and humorous, and Caron’s evolution (thanks to being plied with alcohol after a snake bite) plays out well. Thankfully, the gaggle of girls are nicely (under)played by the unknown young actresses, adding to the veracity of the scenario. There are numerous memorable moments, both humorous and frightening; it’s the interplay between these two moods that provides so much authentic tension.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Cary Grant as Walter
  • Leslie Caron as Catherine
  • Many memorable moments

  • Peter Stone and Frank Tarloff’s Oscar-winning script

    Caron (while fishing): How do you know it’s a she?
    Grant: Her mouth is open! Now be quiet.

Must See?
Yes, for the delightful script.

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In Which We Serve (1942)

“A ship can’t be happy unless she’s efficient, and she certainly won’t be efficient unless she’s happy.”

Synopsis:
During World War II, a captain (Noel Coward) boosts the morale of his men — including Seaman “Shorty” (John Mills) and CPO Hardy (Bernard Miles) — as they survive the sinking of their ship and reflect back on their loved ones at home. Meanwhile, Coward’s wife (Celia Johnson) cares for their two children, Mills’ wife (Kay Walsh) prepares to have a baby, and Miles’ wife (Joyce Carey) stoically holds things together as their village suffers from German blitzes.

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Review:
This wartime propaganda film was made with the direct assistance of Britain’s Ministry of Information and co-directed by David Lean, but otherwise creatively helmed by Noel Coward — who produced, co-directed, co-starred, wrote the screenplay (based on the exploits of Lord Mountbatten in the Royal Navy), and crafted the score. It remains a surprisingly potent and satisfying movie, with tensions kept high both during the initial battle sequence aboard the “H.M.S. Torrin” (we see it being built as the film opens), and then as we’re gradually given numerous watery flashbacks into the memories of the men holding on for their lives as their ship sinks. While centered on the birth, life, and death of the Torrin, this is really an ensemble tale of all the men and women who worked together during World War II to fight and maintain their British way of life. They’re shown celebrating small moments of joy (a hilltop picnic, a brief honeymoon) and giving support to one another through thick and thin; surprisingly (and happily), none of it comes across as sappy, and it’s appropriately balanced with somber reality: a sailor (Richard Attenborough) is chastised for his cowardice; men lose limbs; and numerous characters die. My favorite scenes include Mills feeding and providing drink to Dunkirk survivors; Mills learning both joyous and deeply distressing news in one letter; and Coward — in a wonderfully and respectfully extended sequence — providing a handshake to each individual man he’s served with.

Note: I watched an old version of this film, but will be sure to check out the much-improved Blu-Ray edition next time, as Ronald Neame’s cinematography is clearly top-notch.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Many touching moments

  • Ronald Neame’s cinematography

Must See?
Yes, for its historical value as a highly effective propaganda film, and for Coward’s prodigious efforts. Listed as a film with Historical Importance and a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

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Boomerang! (1947)

“Is one man’s life worth more than the community?”

Synopsis:
When a priest (Wyrley Birch) is brutally murdered on the streets of a small Connecticut town, the chief detective (Lee J. Cobb) heads an investigation leading to the state’s attorney (Dana Andrews) being called in to prosecute a man (Arthur Kennedy) who has been tortured into confessing. Soon Andrews finds himself caught in an elaborate scheme of corruption involving, among others, the Commissioner of Public Works (Ed Begley) and the head of the political opposition party (Taylor Holmes).

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Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary asserts that this “dated, overrated semidocumentary by Elia Kazan” — based on a real-life story involving veteran Harold Israel and U.S. State Attorney Homer Stille Cummings — starts out as “a daring attack on corrupt machine politics, mob violence, press irresponsibility, and fascist police tactics”, but “turns out to be the glorification of an honest man”. He writes that the “trouble is that Andrews is the only character who comes out smelling like a rose”, and complains the screenplay deviates from the facts given that the real “case was never solved”, instead “presenting another suspect (a perverted fellow about whom the priest was about to tell authorities [Philip Coolidge])” in a move Peary refers to as “unfairly manipulative”. He also argues it’s “unfair of Kazan not to let on that Andrews was conducting a serious investigation until the hearing”, given that “we [are] led to believe it is only a hunch that makes him think Kennedy innocent”.

I think Peary holds a grudge against Kazan for being “a friendly witness before H.U.A.C”, and it shows. There’s nothing wrong with the introduction of Coolidge as a player in this fictionalized drama, just as there’s nothing at all misleading about leaving Andrews’ investigation of the case as a series of dramatic flashbacks in the film’s culmination. While the film is perhaps overly bold in its assertion of corruption around every corner, who’s to say that’s not (still and always) the case? Indeed, it’s terrifying to watch the police “drag in anybody wearing a dark coat and white hat” as a suspect; to see a jilted former girlfriend (Cara Williams) willfully lie to get Kennedy persecuted; to witness a confession tortured out of Kennedy through sleep deprivation; and to recognize the overall relief of nearly everybody involved when someone — anyone — is held responsible for the death of their beloved priest. (Not a whole lot has changed in our collective desire for criminal “justice” at the cost of potentially innocent lives.) The film is expertly directed by Kazan, with fine use of on-location shooting in Connecticut, stark angles and cinematography, and strong performances by a roster of familiar supporting faces.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Dana Andrews as Henry Harvey
  • Arthur Kennedy as John Waldron
  • Atmospheric cinematography
  • Fine on-location shooting
  • Strong direction by Kazan

Must See?
Yes, once, as a worthy early film by Kazan.

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Blue Gardenia, The (1953)

“Sudden death sells papers, son.”

Synopsis:
A woman (Anne Baxter) despondent after being dumped by her long-distance soldier-boyfriend accepts the offer of a womanizing painter (Raymond Burr) to go on a date, not realizing he will ply her with drinks and try to rape her. When Burr is found dead in his apartment the next morning with a blue gardenia lying on the floor, an ambitious reporter (Richard Conte) tries to crack the case by promising to help out the “Blue Gardenia” killer if she calls him.

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Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary argues that this “mediocre Fritz Lang film takes too long to get started, forcing the final, more interesting scenes to be rushed.” He notes that “typically, Lang has Baxter [the protagonist] ignore her moral senses for a slight indiscretion, fall into fate’s trap, become involved in a crime that she might be convicted of whether innocent or guilty, and become increasingly paranoid that she is alone and everyone is pointing accusing fingers” — though he adds that “significantly, this is the only time Lang lets this happen to a woman.” Indeed, in Ben Sachs’ review of the film for the Chicago Reader, he notes this is “the only Fritz Lang film that could be categorized as a women’s picture”, given that “the central characters are three single women” — Baxter lives with two blonde roommates, divorced Crystal (Ann Sothern) and crime-fiction-obsessed Sally (Jeff Donnell) — “navigating hazards of working life and the dating scene as they try to get by in Los Angeles.” The scenes between the three supportive roommates are among the most memorable in the film, adding a humorous and humane touch to the proceedings. Burr, meanwhile, is effectively menacing, voicing his lines with a thorough degree of veiled creepiness: “Women always surprise me when they take off their… shoes.” While I agree that this Lang flick is nowhere near his best, even one of his “mediocre” outings is worth a one-time look by his fans.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Nicholas Musuraca’s atmospheric cinematogrophy
  • Raymond Burr as Harry Prebble
  • Ann Sothern and Jeff Donnell as Norah’s roommates

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

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Tarantula (1955)

“I didn’t expect to see a biologist that looked like you!”

Synopsis:
After a mysteriously deformed corpse is found in the desert, a local doctor (John Agar) investigates a laboratory where a scientist (Leo G. Carroll) is experimenting with a serum designed to make creatures grow huge — thus hypothetically providing humanity’s exponentially expanding population with enough food. Soon he meets Carroll’s new lab assistant, “Steve” (Mara Corday), and the two help local law enforcement officials in confronting a massive tarantula which has escaped from the lab.

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Review:
Jack Arnold — best known for directing It Came From Outer Space (1953), Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954), and The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) — helmed this effective “mutant monster” flick, guaranteed to scare the pants off of anyone remotely afraid of spiders. While mega-geek-fans may quibble over minor details related to matting, shadows, and other special effects inconsistencies, the general film fanatic will simply be creeped out while watching enormous hairy spider legs crawling over the desert landscape. There’s much to be amused by here as well, from the overly lengthy initial sequence showing us in excruciating detail exactly what Carroll is up to dosage-wise in his lab, to Corday’s perfectly made-up appearance and masculine nickname (‘Steve’, rather than, say, ‘Steph’), to the fact that townsfolk can’t see something looming so gigantically in their landscape. But the point here — such as it is — is to show how even the most well-meaning scientists risk terrible havoc when daring to mess around with biology, and

SPOILER

the need for all-hands-on-deck when faced with a menace that can’t be blown away by mere assault rifles. (Clint Eastwood’s face can be seen as one of the fighter pilots who eventually bomb the spider to its fiery death with napalm.)

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Leo G. Carroll as Dr. Deemer
  • Appropriately creepy and convincing special effects

  • Atmospheric cinematography (especially the new Blu-Ray upgrade)

Must See?
Yes, as a well-made B-level “giant creature” flick.

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Losers, The (1970)

“I didn’t know you were going to show up looking like a bunch of freaks.”

Synopsis:
During the Vietnam War, a major (Dan Kemp) convinces a group of Hell’s Angels bikers (William Smith, Paul Koslo, Adam Roarke, Houston Savage, and Eugene Cornelius) to rescue a CIA operative (Jack Starrett) by riding their motorcycles through the jungles of Cambodia.

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Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary argues that this “cult film is almost ruined by repulsive characters and [director Jack] Starrett’s overuse of slow motion during action sequences”, adding that “it’s junk, but one of the few films made during the Vietnam War that dared to chastise American GIs for impregnating and then abandoning Vietnamese women and, even more significantly, suggest that the U.S. government had no concern for our soldiers in Southeast Asia” — an idea brought home in the powerful and “depressing ending”. I disagree that this film is “junk”, instead aligning more with Stuart Galbraith, IV’s review for DVD Talk, in which he writes: “Filmed near the height of the Vietnam War, it’s one of the very few American movies of that period set right in the thick of the fighting, and its graphic violence and extreme pessimism toward the war — this despite the movie’s outrageous premise — make it a fascinating time capsule for those reasons alone.” There’s something appealing about the idea of sending Hell’s Angels into a P.O.W. zone to kick ass and help out; not only that, but these long-haired “losers” show unexpected creativity and cleverness in the final jail-break sequence.

Note: Film fanatics may recognize strong-jawed Smith as the lead male character from Invasion of the Bee Girls (1973).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • An unusual and intriguing premise
  • The creative closing collage image

Must See?
No, though it holds interest as a cult flick.

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Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, The (1969)

“I am always impressed by Ms. Brodie’s girls — in one way or another.”

Synopsis:
A free-spirited, Mussolini-loving teacher (Maggie Smith) — who’s had an affair with a married artist (Robert Stephens) and is currently dating her school’s music teacher (Gordon Jackson) — attempts to teach “her girls” — including dependable Sandy (Pamela Franklin), beautiful Jenny (Diane Grayson), sentimental Monica (Shirley Steedman), and stuttering Mary (Jane Carr) — to recognize their own greatness; but when a fantastical letter written by one of her students catches the attention of the school’s headmistress (Celia Johnson), Smith’s career and reputation are on the line.

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Review:
Maggie Smith won an Oscar for her leading role in this adaptation of Muriel Spark’s novel, inhabiting a complicated female protagonist who stays true to herself yet remains a highly questionable influence on her students’ lives. Indeed, the primary power of this story is how easily we’re drawn into Smith’s world — who wouldn’t be rooting for a passionate, empowering, professional, unmarried woman in the early 1960s? — then given a sucker-punch to the gut as we realize her narcissistic ideology is leading to undeniably toxic outcomes. The nature of ideologies, of course, is that they’re so often taken as obvious and true — and when one is in any position of power and moral authority (as teachers are), they’re oh-so-easily transmitted. Franklin plays a pivotal role in this story as well, representing another type of powerful female — one who refuses to play along with the label she’s been assigned by her elder, and who is willing to take action on behalf of justice, albeit justice heavily tinged with resentment. The remaining supporting performances are also spot-on, from the various other girls in Jean Brodie’s “in-group”, to Johnson as her supervisor, to Stephens as her temperamental lover and Jackson playing (coincidentally?) a chap named “Gordon”. While Peary argues in Alternate Oscars that Smith’s “performance is too mannered and theatrical for [his] tastes”, it’s difficult to imagine any other actress embodying this troubling literary icon.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Maggie Smith as Jean Brodie
  • Pamela Franklin as Sandy
  • Robert Stephens as Teddy Lloyd
  • Celia Johnson as Miss Mackay

Must See?
Yes, as a compelling drama with strong performances.

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Ball of Fire (1941)

“That is the kind of woman that makes whole civilizations topple!”

Synopsis:
When the nightclub-singing moll (Barbara Stanwyck) of a gangster (Dana Andrews) goes on the lam, she lands at the home of a group of professors working on a new encyclopedia. Soon she and Professor Potts (Gary Cooper) begin having romantic feelings for one another, which complicates her original plan of returning to Andrews as soon as it’s safe to do so.

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Review:
Peary doesn’t review Howard Hawks’ Ball of Fire (1941) — scripted by Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder, and loosely based on the tale of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs — in his GFTFF, but he nominates it as one of the Best Movies of the Year in his Alternate Oscars (Citizen Kane wins), and names Cooper and Stanwyck as Best Actor and Actress of the Year. He points out that they each starred in three films that year: Cooper in Sergeant York (for which he won the actual Oscar), Stanwyck in The Lady Eve, and both in Meet John Doe — but he votes to award them for their work in this romantic screwball comedy about a “sassy, sexy nightclub entertainer, whose ambition is to marry… rich gangster Joe Lilac (Dana Andrews)” but who falls for Potsy (Cooper) because “he’s the kind of guy who gets drunk on a glass of buttermilk”. Despite — or perhaps because of — its zany premise, this film offers an unexpectedly wild cinematic ride, including a most-enjoyable musical interlude with Gene Krupa’s orchestra, a rafter of memorable supporting performances, and some truly zinger lines: “I shall regret the absence of your keen mind; unfortunately, it is inseparable from an extremely disturbing body.” Speaking of the script, my favorite throwaway line is by Aubrey Mather as Professor Peagram: “No, no, no, no… I insist that the happiest marriages are those which produce three children at intervals of not less than two or more than three years.” (!!!) (My three kids were born 20 months and 29 months apart — they almost qualify for these precise criteria, but not quite.)

In Alternate Oscars, Peary writes that Cooper’s Potsy is “extremely likable, genuinely funny, and much more aggressive and chatty than some of his most annoying innocents” — a point well-taken. He adds that Potsy “is Cooper’s sweetest character (even Mr. Deeds kept slugging people). Here’s a man who has had so few perks in his life that he gets excited just hearing Sugarpuss deliver slang” — and while he “thinks it’s only the phrases that thrill him… of course she has a lot to do with it.” Meanwhile, he writes that Stanwyck was “never sexier, more vivacious, or more energetic” than when she played Sugarpuss O’Shea, the “title character, who sets a fire in the boring, secluding lives of Potsy and his equally sweet collaborators and housemates” (who she describes as “eight squirrelly cherubs”). He points out that Stanwyck “zips around the frame with unbridled energy and quick, nonstop talk”, offering “opinions, information, slang, [and] wisecracks” while singing, dancing, and being extremely “fetching in both glittery bare-midriff costumes and casual dress”. Indeed, Cooper and Stamwyck make an ideal odd couple: it’s easy enough to invest in their happiness together despite her ongoing initial deception. By the climactic finale, we’re genuinely rooting for these two and their future.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Barbara Stanwyck as Sugarpuss O’Shea
  • Gary Cooper as Professor Potts
  • Fine performances by the ensemble supporting cast — especially Mary Field as Miss Totten, Richard Hayd as Professor Oddly, and Dana Andrews as Joe Lilac


  • The “Drum Boogie” music sequence with Gene Krupa and his orchestra
  • Gregg Toland’s cinematography
  • Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder’s script: “Well, patchy my panty-waist!”

Must See?
Yes, as a most enjoyable romantic comedy. Nominated as one of the Best Movies of the Year in Peary’s Alternate Oscars. Selected for inclusion in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress in 2016.

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Little Miss Marker (1934)

“I ain’t takin’ no dolls for security!”

Synopsis:
When a bookie (Adolphe Menjou) accepts the young daughter (Shirley Temple) of a suicidal gambler as collateral, he and the moll (Dorothy Dell) of a local gangster (Charles Bickford) end up caring for her — but when Temple starts to pick up bad habits and slang, they realize they must craft a recreation of King Arthur’s legend to restore her faith in magic.

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Review:
Shirley Temple made her cinematic lead debut in this adaptation of Damon Runyon’s short story, featuring such colorfully-named characters as Sorrowful Jones, Bangles, Big Steve, Regret, Sun Rise, Dizzy Memphis, Buggs, and Sore Toe — not to mention “Marky” herself (Temple), so-called because she’s handed over as a human marker for her dad’s gambling. This pre-Code flick doesn’t shy away from noting that Temple’s sour-luck dad kills himself from despondence — and while the entire tale eventually devolves into schmaltzy saccharine, at least it’s all befitting a Temple vehicle. (Who would want anything but the absolute best outcome for a girl as adorable as her?) Speaking of Temple, she really is charming — it’s easy to see why she was, and remained, such a favorite with audiences.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Shirley Temple as “Marky”

Must See?
Yes, once, for its historical relevance as Temple’s breakthrough role, and as the first cinematic adaptation of a Runyon story. Selected for preservation in the U.S. Film Registry by the Library of Congress in 1998.

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Pocketful of Miracles (1961)

“We’re nothing! We’re a bunch of grabbers, all of us, looking for the best of it!”

Synopsis:
When a destitute apple vendor (Bette Davis) learns her grown daughter (Ann-Margret) will be arriving from Spain with her noble fiance (Peter Mann) and his father (Arthur O’Connell), she enlists the help of a superstitious gangster (Glenn Ford) and his warm-hearted fiance (Hope Lange) in putting on an elaborate charade, including finding a man (Thomas Mitchell) to pose as Davis’s husband.

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Review:
Frank Capra remade his own Depression-era classic — Lady for a Day (1933) — into this Technicolor star vehicle that really… didn’t need to be made. Everything about his earlier version is superior, from the appropriately atmospheric b&w cinematography, to Robson’s genuinely touching lead performance, to its faster-paced running time (96 minutes in comparison with Pocketful…‘s dragging 136 minutes). Ford, Davis, and Lange try their best here, but Ford and Lange’s ongoing quibbling distracts from the central storyline, and Lange’s character undergoes far too rapid of a transformation for us to believe in. The material ultimately comes across as maudlin, with Apple Annie’s love of classical music a distraction rather than a pleasing backdrop. This film is primarily notable for offering Peter Falk a stand-out supporting role as Ford’s sidekick “Joy Boy”, and for introducing a giddy Ann-Margret to the big screen.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Peter Falk as Joy Boy

Must See?
Nope; you can skip this one, unless you’re a Bette Davis completist.

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