Road to Zanzibar (1941)

“If he’s a god, I’M Mickey Mouse!”

Synopsis:
A pair of con-artists (Bob Hope and Bing Crosby) flee to Zanzibar, where they are duped into buying a worthless deed for a diamond mine, romance an American con-girl (Dorothy Lamour), and are held captive by a tribe of natives.

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Review:
This second entry in the wildly successful Road To… Hope/Crosby adventure comedy series bumped the films up into the realm of pure silliness, and introduced their trademark self-referential humor. Much like the same year’s Hellzapoppin’ (1941), the actors in … Zanzibar brazenly break the “fourth wall” of cinema by commenting on the conventions of filmmaking itself — most memorably in the boat ride scene between Lamour and Crosby. Hope and Crosby continue to develop their snappy comedic rapport together (Richard Scheib of the SF, Fantasy, and Horror website labels them “more like a thinking person’s version of Abbott and Costello or The Three Stooges”), and are surrounded by a fine supporting cast. Eric Blore has a fun supporting role early on as the giddily unreliable seller of the bum deed, while Lamour is provided with a juicier, less submissive role this time around, and is ably supported by comedic sidekick Una Merkel. The storyline itself — essentially a satire of jungle flicks — is far too ridiculous to spend time analyzing; either you’ll give in and enjoy the silliness or you won’t. I’m recommending it as must-see for all film fanatics given that it’s a representative early example of this infamously zany series.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Fun rapport between Crosby and Hope
  • Amusing “meta-cinematic” references
  • Fine supporting performances by Dorothy Lamour and Una Merkel

Must See?
Yes, as one of the best films in the Road To… series — and the first to really reveal the series’ comedic potential. Listed as a Cult Movie in the back of Peary’s book.

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Dark Journey (1937)

“So our pretty little dressmaker is a spy!”

Synopsis:
During World War One, a French seamstress (Vivien Leigh) working as a spy in Sweden falls in love with a German spy (Conrad Veidt) pretending to be a deserter.

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Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary labels this early Vivien Leigh film — based on a play by Lajos Biró — “pretty confusing” but “classy and romantic”. He argues that we “don’t mind Leigh falling for a German spy in pre-Nazi days”, calls out 22-year-old Leigh’s “lovely”, “smart, delicate performance”, and notes that this film provides one with an opportunity to see “Veidt in a role that contributed to his romantic-idol reputation — before he became a villain in Hollywood”. (To be honest, I wasn’t aware he ever possessed such a reputation.) Unfortunately, while Leigh is indeed truly “lovely” here, the label “pretty confusing” doesn’t begin to do justice to the film’s needlessly opaque screenplay, which even Leigh herself professed to not completely understand. And while Leigh and Veidt do possess a surprising amount of chemistry together, not nearly enough is made of their tentative forbidden romance. Most likely Peary includes this title in his book simply because it’s one of Leigh’s all-too-rare screen roles (and her first leading role) — but it’s not must-see for all film fanatics.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Vivien Leigh as Madeleine

Must See?
No — though fans of Leigh will doubtless want to check it out. Easily available for viewing online, given that it’s fallen into public domain.

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10th Victim, The (1965)

“A study of history confirms the validity of the Big Hunt theory: it is mankind’s safety valve.”

Synopsis:
In a futuristic society which allows individuals to join a human hunting game, a woman (Ursula Andress) stalks her tenth victim (Marcello Mastroianni) with the intention of killing him live on television.

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Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary argues that the “novel sci-fi premise” of this futuristic “sex farce” — based on a short story by Robert Sheckley — ultimately “gives way at the end to a conventional and tired Italian sex-comedy storyline”, and should be “a bit more fun” than it is. He cites Sheckley himself as noting that while his original story was “a commentary on love, the need for excitement and the inevitability of self-deception”, the film instead “points out how difficult it can be to earn a living, how tiresome family problems can get, and how romance is always threatened by the long shadow of marriage, especially in Rome”. Far be it from me to disagree with the story’s author (or Peary), but I actually believe that this cleverly conceived, visually stylish, smartly scored (by Piero Piccioni) sci-fi flick (directed by Elio Petri in a style occasionally “reminiscent of Fellini”) manages to effectively cover all these narrative elements. I wasn’t particularly disappointed by the direction Andress and Mastroianni’s “cat and mouse” maneuvers eventually took, and — unlike DVD Savant — I didn’t find it “hard to accept Marcello and Caroline’s romantic sincerity” after the establishment of “such a cynical world” (their “romance”, after all, is actually more of a sexual attraction grounded in the thrill of the hunt). And while the first half of the film — starting with its energetically filmed opening chase sequence — is indeed its most innovative and gripping, I was surprisingly riveted the entire time, curious to see how this deathly game of romantic deception would ultimately turn out.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Ursula Andress as Caroline
  • Marcello Mastroianni as Marcello
  • The exciting opening chase sequences
  • A clever, drolly envisioned dystopian future

Must See?
Yes, as a cult favorite.

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Sea Hawk, The (1940)

“By now you know the purpose of the Sea Hawks: in our own way to serve England and the Queen.”

Synopsis:
A privateer (Errol Flynn) and his men in Elizabethan England are captured by Spaniards, and must find a way to escape the galleys in time to warn Queen Elizabeth I (Flora Robson) about the presence of a traitor in her court.

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Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary argues that this “Errol Flynn swashbuckler is as good an old-time adventure as you’ll find”, and nominates it as one of the Best Pictures of the Year in his Alternate Oscars book. He notes that it possesses “great ships, sea battles, swordplay, spies, slaves, [and] Spaniards”; a “rousing score by Erich Wolfgang Korngold”; “exuberant and stylish direction by Michael Curtiz (who, as usual, makes great use of light, shadows, and space)”; “a strong, spirited script”; “a marvelous group of supporting actors” (including Flora Robson, Claude Rains, Henry Daniell, Una O’Connor, Alan Hale, and others) — and “even a little smooching” (though Flynn’s romance with beautiful but boring Brenda Marshall is definitely the weakest aspect of the story). Most importantly, however, he notes that it stars “Flynn, the talking pictures’ greatest adventure hero”, who is once again a pirate and once again “champion of the underdog, in this case the England of 1585 that is being set up for conquest for Spain”.

While I find nearly every aspect of this adventure flick to be in fine order, I’ll admit that Flora Robson’s “splendid” performance as Queen Elizabeth I remains its greatest personal enjoyment for me. As Peary so accurately explains, Robson presents the Queen “not as a man in a woman’s body but a woman of intelligence, wit, high spirits, temper, strength, and love for country and subjects; she’s no prude, she just prefers ruling men to loving them”. And speaking of its historical grounding, the parallels made between the film’s “imperialist and evil” Spain of 1585 and Nazi Germany are indeed — as many have pointed out — rather overt, with Robson “start[ing] out like Neville Chamberlain, willing to appease the aggressors rather than risk war”, but eventually “becom[ing] as dogged as Winston Churchill”. As Peary argues, much like 1942’s Casablanca (also directed by Curtiz), this is ultimately a thinly “veiled propaganda piece that attempts to get Americans solidly into the war effort” — but it’s easy to overlook such metaphorical heavy-handedness in the face of what amounts to a bracingly vigorous, finely mounted adventure flick in its own right.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Flora Robson as Queen Elizabeth
  • Errol Flynn as Captain Thorpe
  • A fine set of supporting performances
  • Authentic period detail
  • The exciting climactic duel (between Flynn and Henry Daniell)
  • E.W. Korngold’s score

Must See?
Yes, as an adventure classic.

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Honky Tonk Freeway (1981)

“The International House of Pancakes is the one consistent thing in my life.”

Synopsis:
A motley group of individuals — including two petty bank robbers (George Dzundza and Joe Grifasi), a busty blonde (Beverly D’Angelo), an aspiring children’s book author (Beau Bridges), a pair of nuns (Geraldine Page and Deborah Rush), a middle-class family (Teri Garr, Howard Hesseman, Peter Billingsley, and Jenn Thompson), an elderly man (Hume Cronyn) and his alcoholic wife (Jessica Tandy), a pair of car thieves (Al Corley and Murphy Dunne), a prostitute (Sandra McCabe) and her flashy john (David Rasche), a songwriting trucker (Paul Jabara), a coke-sniffing hitchhiker (Daniel Stern), a jeep full of gay men, and a bus of Asian-American orphans — drive towards Florida, where the evangelist mayor (William Devane) of a small town is desperate to lure tourists.

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Review:
The brief synopsis provided above should give a clear indication that John Schlesinger’s notorious clunker (with a $24 million budget, it was the most expensive movie of its day, earning back only $500,000 at the box office) aims to be QUIRKY, in all capital letters. The very premise of the film — a small-town mayor-cum-preacher unsuccessfully attempts to bribe city officials into providing his town with an off-ramp on the new interstate freeway, and eventually resorts to more extreme measures, including painting his entire town pink, shipping in a troupe of African safari animals, attempting to teach an elephant to water ski, and much more — sets it up as a wannabe “drolly comedic commentary” on the eccentricities of America. Unfortunately, however, while every single situation and character in the script seems designed to milk laughs, I never chuckled — not once.

Like most comedies, this film has its core set of devoted fans, as evidenced by its IMDb message board, which possesses a “Favourite Scene?” thread and plenty of other animated commentary. Many viewers seem to find inherent humor simply in the IDEA of a children’s story about “Ricky the Carnivorous Pony”, pronounced “Licky” by the group of generically “Asian-American” orphans; or the concept of a blonde floozy gathering her mother’s ashes from a drive-in mortuary and driving with them to Florida, accidentally allowing them to spill and be snorted by a cokehead in the meantime; or the notion of a young boy (Billingsley) who hates peeing in his RV’s urinal so much he holds it in for hours; or the portrayal of a defiant elderly woman who insists she ISN’T an alcoholic since she “only” indulges in mixed drinks and never hides her bottles; or the revelation that a young nun (Rush) actually longs for sensual experiences like swimming…

Well, there’s clearly no point in going on — either it works for you, or it doesn’t. The biggest mystery is why Peary includes this clunker in the back of his book, without any kind of revealing “code”. Is he a fan himself? Or does he consider it simply too historically notorious to miss? Regardless, it’s most certainly NOT must-see.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • For me, nothing

Must See?
Absolutely NOT.

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Road to Singapore (1940)

“That’s our agreement — no women, remember?”

Synopsis:
A pair of friends (Bing Crosby and Bob Hope) escaping marital obligations flee to Singapore, where they meet and both fall in love with a beautiful dancer (Dorothy Lamour).

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Response to Peary’s Review:
As Peary notes, this early “Bob Hope-Bing Crosby comedy sets the formula” for the enormously popular and lucrative set of Road To… movies: “both pals fall in love with Dorothy Lamour despite past troubles with women; they are chased by the law; [and] they repeatedly betray and compete with each other for Dorothy’s hand, but ultimately each is willing to sacrifice his own personal happiness for his friend” (to a certain extent, anyway). Peary argues that “while there aren’t many funny moments, the picture is breezy” and “benefits from some lively songs, several Hope-Crosby ‘Patty-Cake’ routines, … and capable supporting work”. Indeed, fans of the series’ particular brand of humor will surely find much here to enjoy (though there’s obviously none of the self-referential humor evident in the later entries). Watch for a fun supporting performance by Judith Barrett as Crosby’s jilted fiancee; her lack of discomfiture at Crosby’s continual attempts to break off their engagement is truly unexpected, and most amusing.

P.S. According to TCM’s article on this first film in the series, “Though both men knew a major cash-cow when they were riding one, and thus were able to maintain a facade of deep friendship, they were highly competitive egotists who never missed an opportunity to belittle each other. And it wasn’t always in good fun.” Click here to read more.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • An innocuously enjoyable screenplay

Must See?
No, though it’s certainly of interest as the first of the extremely popular Road To… series — and one could argue that it’s must-see simply for its historical relevance.

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North Dallas Forty (1979)

“You had better learn how to play the game — and I don’t mean just the game of football.”

Synopsis:
An aging football player (Nick Nolte) pumps up his body with painkillers in order to survive in the game.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary is clearly an enormous fan of this adaptation of a “semi-autobiographical source novel” by “former Dallas Cowboys’ glue-fingered end Pete Gent”. He calls it an “exceptional sports film”, arguing that “the humor comes from the absurd, dictatorial mentality of the coaches and the childishness of the players”, and noting that “the tragic elements of the sport also come from the same sources”. Unfortunately, it’s this very “childishness of the players” that may turn many film fanatics off during the first fifteen minutes, as we’re subjected to an interminable variation on a gonzo fraternity party a la Animal House, only with beefed up football players and their floozy fangirls taking center stage. With that said, Peary analyzes the players’ childishness as masking “their fears of injuries, playing badly, or upsetting the coaches”, noting that “their refusal to grow up is symptomatic of their terror about what they’ll do when their football careers are over” — and this may very well be true (after all, the film is based on a book by an insider, who should know).

We’re clearly meant to sympathize with poor Nolte, who is presented as “more intelligent than his loony, barbaric teammates”, and who — as a player clearly on the tail-end of his viability as a pro athlete — epitomizes many athletes’ willingness “to endure pills and shots, and ‘take the crap, the manipulation, and the pain’ in order to have that special feeling of playing football”. Indeed, this “willingness” ultimately becomes the central thesis of the somewhat aimless screenplay, as we watch Nolte treating his body like a piece of strategic meat he must somehow keep just fit enough to make it onto the field — where he can finally work his “glue-fingered” magic by catching and holding on to the ball. To that end, the film is at its best presenting a brutally “realistic view of the world of pro football on the field and behind the scenes” (a view most sports movies stay far away from); the “big game” at the end of the film is over far more quickly than one expects, given typical cinematic conventions in such films.

Peary argues that “Nolte has never been better” in the central role, and to a certain extent — as a former junior college football player himself — he seems perfectly cast; but my husband couldn’t help pointing out that Nolte simply didn’t seem buff and beefy enough (even as a clear soon-to-be “has been”) to be competing in pro football, especially in comparison with his teammates (many of them actual players). Nonetheless, his characterization is fine and rings true. Giving an equally memorable, quirky performance is “country singer Mac Davis” as “Nolte’s best friend, a partying, sex-obsessed Don Meredith-like quarterback”. Unfortunately, however, Dayle Haddon as “Nolte’s football-hating girlfriend” falls completely flat; she’s boring from the moment we first see her watching the opening party scene with disdain, and we never understand exactly what Nolte sees in her (other than her obvious beauty). Listen for a fine, haunting score by John Scott.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Nick Nolte as Phillip Elliott (nominated by Peary as Best Actor of the Year in his Alternate Oscars)
  • A brutally realistic look at behind-the-scenes pro-football

Must See?
No, though it’s certainly recommended for sports fans.

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Private Life of Henry VIII, The (1933)

“Am I a king or a breeding bull?”

Synopsis:
After ordering the execution of his second wife (Merle Oberon), King Henry VIII (Charles Laughton) marries a series of women in succession — Jane Seymour (Wendy Barrie), Anne of Cleves (Elsa Lanchester), Katherine Howard (Binnie Barnes), and Katherine Parr (Everley Gregg).

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary accurately refers to Alexander Korda’s Oscar-winning biopic (the first internationally acclaimed British film) as “creaky but still delightful”. Charles Laughton literally burst onto the screen (and immediately won an Oscar) in a larger-than-life yet memorably nuanced portrayal as the infamous monarch with multiple wives. As its title suggests, the film “centers less on Henry’s politics than on his personal relationships”, emphasizing the “human, typical-husband side of Henry” as he cycles through a series of wives for one reason after the other. (Only his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, is missing from the remarkably economical 1.5 hour screenplay; she’s simply mentioned at the beginning of the film as “too respectable to spend time on”.)

The screenplay is surprisingly risque, with much made of King Henry’s need to sire a male heir (or two, or three) for the crown; indeed, his sexual appetites — and the ramifications they have for the very survival of his kingdom — serve as the foundation of the entire film. The best, all-too-brief scenes are between Laughton and his real-life wife, Lanchester, who gives a truly fearless performance as a woman supposedly too ugly for Laughton to stomach (though I’ve never been convinced that Lanchester is anything less than stunning, in her own quirky fashion). Her clever machinations on her wedding night, as she swiftly works to prevent Laughton from bedding her, are classic evidence of feminine wiles at work; she manages to maintain not just her head but her lover and her previous existence — in noticeable contrast to foolish Binnie Barnes’ Katherine Howard, a socially ambitious noblewoman who openly makes a fool of Laughton, at her own expense.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Charles Laughton as Henry VIII
  • Elsa Lanchester as Anne of Cleves
  • Binnie Barnes as Katherine Howard
  • A clever, often wittily racy script

Must See?
Yes, as an Oscar winning film with historical importance.

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Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)

“Magic Mirror, on the wall, who is the fairest one of all?”

Synopsis:
A beautiful young princess named Snow White (Adriana Caselotti) escapes the clutches of her evil stepmother (Lucille La Verne) by joining a household of dwarfs in the forest — but her stepmother will not rest until Snow White ceases to exist.

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Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary refers to this early Disney adaptation of Grimm’s classic fairytale — notable as the “first American animation feature, and the first cartoon where characters of the same type (here, the Dwarfs) are individualized” — as “one of the greatest pictures of all time”, and votes for it as one of the Best Pictures of the Year in his Alternate Oscars book. He notes that “children will be dazzled by the animation”, will want to “sing along with” several of the highly memorable tunes, will “delight in the humorous Dwarfs”, and will be both “excited and terrified”, given that “this movie is very scary”. Indeed, much like Grimm’s original fairytales, this film is far too intense for the littlest of viewers, so eager-beaver film fanatic parents (ahem — much like myself) should hold off until their kids are of an appropriate age. In the meantime, adults of all ages are sure to “enjoy the same elements” as children — and, as Peary notes, “those with interest in interpreting dreams and fairytales” may be “interested in the sexual subtext”.

So much has been written about this historically groundbreaking cult favorite that interested readers are advised to browse the Web and DVD special features to their heart’s content (for a good start, check out the links provided below). To add my own two cents to the conversation, the following thoughts occurred to me when revisiting this film the other night in anticipation of wanting to show it to my 2-1/2 year old daughter (nope — way too intense for her at this point!): Snow White (as we all know) is the embodiment of both purity and traditional American feminine virtues, given that she immediately sets to work cleaning up the dwarfs’ house and becoming their caretaker. Her stepmother, naturally, is Evil and Jealousy personified (Peary refers to her as “Satan”) — a woman so focused on the importance of her own beauty (another feminine ideal) that she’s willing to kill or be killed in order to maintain her status as the “fairest of them all”.

The seven dwarfs — provided with names and personalities by Disney, after lengthy consideration; they’re nameless in Grimm — are given much more screentime than I remembered. Indeed, at times it feels as though the bulk of the 83-minute film is taken up with showing them at work and at home, as they return from their diamond mines (what are they going to do with all that treasure??!!), discover the presence of an intruder in their little cottage, and quickly find themselves falling in love with the fugitive princess. Meanwhile, other male figures are given surprisingly short shrift: Snow White’s prince (Harry Stockwell) barely registers (interestingly, rumor has it that his character was so challenging to draw that they limited his “appearance” to just a few necessary plot points), and Snow White’s father (the Queen’s husband) is nowhere to be seen. Finally, Snow White’s animal friends — as in so many other Disney classics — are an essential help to her in her quest to survive in a brutal world (though none in particular are given special attention).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Groundbreaking feature-length animation


Must See?
Yes, of course.

Categories

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

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Nothing Sacred (1937)

“You’ll be a sensation. The whole town’ll take you to its heart.”

Synopsis:
A journalist (Fredric March) exploits the story of a small-town woman (Carole Lombard) supposedly dying of radium poisoning, who hides her healthy status in order to enjoy her new-found fame in New York.

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Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary accurately labels this “classic screwball comedy” — scripted by Ben Hecht — as “an attack on the hypocrisy of all Americans” who “revel in their unselfishness and graciousness toward their fellow human beings, yet … delight in other people’s misery … and exploit it”. While Flagg is indeed an outright imposter, taking advantage of a free ride when it’s handed to her, she feels appropriately guilty the entire time — and in reality, she’s just “a 10-cent charlatan compared to the bloodsuckers who profit … from her plight”; thus, she remains an oddly sympathetic protagonist throughout. It helps, of course, that Flagg is played by the premiere screwball comedienne of the 1930s — beautiful Lombard (the “highest-paid star at the time”), who gives a “witty, animated performance”. March is “his usual too stiff self” (as Peary points out, this it “why it’s funny watching a smalltown boy greet him with a bite on the leg” during an unexpectedly laugh-out-loud moment) — but he’s a suitable foil for Lombard, whose energy never flags.

At just 75 minutes, this public-domain title (which exists in multiple so-so transfers — none doing justice to its Technicolor hues) zips along speedily and never loses steam. The rapidity with which Flagg is embraced by the American public as its latest favorite “folk hero” resonates perfectly with the apparent speed of modern-day celeb-culture, in which “breaking news” is available at the touch of a button. Hecht’s merciless script is full of countless juicy moments, milked perfectly for laughs: a photographer (nonchalant George Chandler) pops up to drolly snap shots of Flagg at opportune moments; a group of schoolchildren intone an anthem to doomed Flagg; a bevy of beauties dressed as historical heroines are paraded on horses (watch closely when Jinx Falkenburg as “Katinka”, the girl who “stuck her finger in a dyke” — and thus saved Holland — is on stage). NB: Walter Connelly deserves special mention in a typecast role which he nonetheless embraces wholeheartedly — that of “Oliver Stone”, ruthless editor of the Morning Star newspaper, who genuinely, sincerely finds it problematic to learn that Flagg isn’t really on death’s doorstep.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Carole Lombard as Hazel Flagg (Peary nominates her as Best Actress of the year in his Alternate Oscars)
  • Fine supporting performance throughout
  • Ben Hecht’s mercilessly skewering script

Must See?
Yes, as a classic screwball comedy.

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