Nobody Waved Goodbye (1964)

“What kind of a life is he going to have? He’s got to go to college — he’s got to at least graduate from high school!”

Nobody Waved Goodbye Poster

Synopsis:
A rebellious Canadian teenager (Peter Kastner) fights with his parents over his goals for the future and his relationship with a local girl (Julie Biggs).

Genres:

Review:
Canadian filmmaker Don Owen was originally tasked with making a 1/2-hour documentary about juvenile delinquents for Canada’s National Film Board, but ended up filming this largely improvised cinema verite docudrama instead. Reminiscent of Cassavettes (though Owen himself notes a distinct difference between their two styles), Nobody Waved Goodbye is an indie variation on Rebel Without a Cause (1955), with Peter Kastner’s “Peter” longing for something indescribably more than his own parents’ comfortable middle class lifestyle. He’s a clean-cut pseudo-Beatnik (indeed, he attends sing-along “hoots” with his banjo in tow) who’s seemingly ripe for a 1960s hippie lifestyle, but without a viable counterculture readily waiting for him; instead, he plays hooky from school with his sweet girlfriend (Julie Biggs), resists studying for his senior exams, toys with petty crime, and eventually moves away on his own. Naturally, he quickly learns how challenging it can be to survive in the world without a degree or any experience — but easy answers to his existential dilemma aren’t forthcoming. Nobody Waved Goodbye remains a noteworthy entry in Canada’s film history, and is worth seeking out for one-time watching.

Note: Twenty years later, Owen made a follow-up film called Unfinished Business (1984), which I haven’t seen, but a lone poster on IMDb gives it a disappointing thumbs down.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Peter Kastner as Peter
    Nobody Waved Kastner
  • The cinema verite script
    Nobody Waved Verite

Must See?
No, though most film fanatics will likely be curious to check it out.

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Rembrandt (1936)

“What is success? A soldier can reckon his success in victories, a merchant in money. But my world is insubstantial. I live in a beautiful, blinding, swirling mist.”

Rembrandt Poster

Synopsis:
Rembrandt van Rijn (Charles Laughton) deals with the death of his wife Saskia, suffers from bankruptcy, and falls in love with his housemaid (Elsa Lanchester).

Genres:

Review:
While Charles Laughton is perhaps best known for his Oscar-winning performance as Henry VIII (in Alexander Korda’s The Private Life of Henry VIII, 1933), many believe that his work in this little-seen historical biopic by Korda is even better. Refreshingly, at just 81 minutes long, the episodic Rembrandt doesn’t try to relate every detail of the famed artist’s life: instead, it starts with the death of Rembrandt’s (unseen) wife Saskia, then moves on to chronicle Rembrandt’s financial struggles, his relationship with his sharp-tongued housekeeper (Gertrude Lawrence), and his scandalized but loving affair with a housemaid (Lanchester). Korda’s decision not to show Rembrandt’s paintings (with the strategic exception of “The Night Watch” — an essential early plot element) is a wise one; instead, the film’s impressive attention to visual detail (sets, costumes, and props are all stunning) allows us to feel genuinely immersed in Rembrandt’s work-a-day world of 17th century Holland. It’s Laughton’s central performance that really carries the film, however: even when simply reading scripture passages, the world around him literally stands still, and we along with it. While I’m not normally a fan of Hollywood biopics (they tend to take themselves far too seriously, not to mention playing fast and furious with the facts), Rembrandt stands out a notch above the crowd, and remains worthy viewing for all film fanatics.

Note: Theatre fans will be especially gratified to see Gertrude Lawrence in one of her few cinematic appearances; she’s a worthy match for Laughton (as is his real-life wife, Elsa Lanchester). Watch also for a nearly unrecognizable performance by Roger Livesey as “Beggar Saul”.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Charles Laughton as Rembrandt
    Rembrandt Laughton
  • Elsa Lanchester as Hendrickje
    Rembrandt Lanchester
  • Gertrude Lawrence as Geertje
  • Georges Perinal’s cinematography
  • Vincent Korda’s stunning sets
  • Fine period detail

Must See?
Yes, for Laughton’s noteworthy performance.

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Belle of the Nineties (1934)

“It’s better to be looked over than to be overlooked.”

Belle Nineties Poster

Synopsis:
A popular nightclub singer (Mae West) from St. Louis signs a contract with a manager (John Miljan) in New Orleans to get away from her ex-lover, a boxer (Roger Pryor) who has falsely accused her of cheating on him.

Genres:

Review:
This innocuous Mae West-ern was one in a string of enormously popular films West wrote and starred in during the 1930s, following her success in She Done Him Wrong (1933) and I’m No Angel (1933) (both Peary titles). Here, West once again plays (to reasonably campy effect) an utterly irresistible femme fatale chanteuse, but the storyline she’s given herself to work with is lame and confusing. All we’re really watching for are West’s infamous quips, which are too few in number and too tame — most likely because the Production Code had just gone into full force. Leo McCarey directed, but there’s little evidence of his comedic genius here. Hardcore West fans will want to check this one out, but the rest of us can feel free to skip it.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Mae West doing what she does best (while wearing some beautiful gowns)
    Belle Nineties Mae West

Must See?
No, though Mae West fans will certainly want to check it out.

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One-Eyed Jacks (1961)

“You may be a one-eyed jack around here, but I’ve seen the other side of your face.”

One-Eyed Jacks Poster

Synopsis:
An outlaw (Marlon Brando) seeks revenge on his former partner (Karl Malden), who abandoned him years earlier and is now sheriff of a small California town.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary argues that this “lone directorial effort” by Marlon Brando — with an original running time of 4 hours and 42 minutes, cut down to 141 minutes by the studio — is a “visually impressive but muddled psychological western”. While it’s easy to see how Brando might have stretched the story to go deeper into the characters’ psyches and motivations, however, the story itself is never hard to follow, and the narrative works just fine. One-Eyed Jacks (based on a novel by Charles Neider) is essentially a revenge tale, made more complex by the fact that Brando’s character (Rio) decides not to automatically confront and kill his former partner when he first encounters him after five long years in prison. Instead, he initiates a game of cat-and-mouse, baiting “Dad” (Malden) into believing all is forgiven and forgotten. This maneuver actually makes sense, given what we know already about Rio’s crafty ways: he’s a liar and manipulator, someone who will do and say anything to bed a pretty woman, for instance. Indeed, Rio’s very much an anti-hero, yet we can’t help rooting for him given his hiss-worthy nemesis — Malden’s conniving, two-faced, social climbing sheriff.

The aspect of the story that works least well is Rio’s star-crossed romance with Malden’s stepdaughter (Pina Pellicer), who comes across as far too willing to forgive Rio’s lies and welcome him back into her embrace (were there explanatory scenes cut from the longer version??). Yet Pellicer (who, sadly, took her own life just a few years after this film was released) has such a winning presence and an unusual beauty that we can’t help enjoying her whenever she’s on-screen, despite how little she’s given to work with. Indeed, nearly the entire western is pleasant to watch, given the inspired decision to establish the setting along California’s Monterey coast, with dramatic waves crashing in the background during numerous key scenes. Malden himself is nicely cast against type in a complex villainous role; and while Peary argues that Brando is simply patterning his performance after Elvis Presley and other “fifties rebels”, I find his tortured portrayal of Rio to be convincing. Equally impressive is the fine supporting cast — most notably Ben Johnson as a hardcore baddie who hooks up with Rio after his escape from prison, and Katy Jurado in a tiny but effective role as Malden’s wife.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Marlon Brando as Rio
    One Eyed Jacks Brando
  • Karl Malden as Dad
    One Eyed Jacks Malden
  • Pina Pellicer as Louisa
    One Eyed Jacks Pellicer
  • Fine supporting performances by Ben Johnson, Kary Jurado, and others
    One Eyed Jacks Jurado
  • Charles Lang’s cinematography
    One Eyed Jacks Cinematography

Must See?
Yes, for its historical relevance as Brando’s lone directorial effort. Discussed at length in Peary’s Cult Movies 3.

Categories

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

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Evergreen (1934)

“Do you mean that you think you can persuade the British public that this girl is the Harriet Green of Edwardian times?”

Evergreen Poster

Synopsis:
The daughter (Jessie Matthews) of deceased Edwardian music hall star Harriet Green (also Matthews) stages a “comeback” as her mother, convincing the public that Harriet Green is alive and well — but how long will her ruse last?

Genres:

Review:
Once hailed as the “female Fred Astaire”, British singer/dancer Jessie Matthews skyrocketed to international fame with this phenomenally popular romantic musical, featuring music by Rodgers and Hart. The rather implausible “mistaken identities” storyline — involving Matthews’ rekindled affair with her dead mother’s aristocratic lover (Ivor McLaren), and her burgeoning love for the man passed off to the public as her grown son (Barry MacKay) — is flimsy but innocuous, and really just an excuse to let Matthews show off her impressive dancing chops and comedic delivery. Sadly, Matthews’ fame never really went anywhere, and few film buffs today will recognize her name. As the most successful British film musical until 1960’s Oliver!, Evergreen is worth a look for historical purposes — but it’s not must-see viewing for all film fanatics.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Jessie Matthews as Harriet Green
    Evergreen Matthews
  • Several creatively staged dance sequences
    evergreen-dance1
    Evergreen Dance2

Must See?
No, but it’s worth a look simply for Matthews’ dance numbers, and for historical purposes.

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Bitter Tea of General Yen, The (1933)

“You can always do so much more with mercy than you can with murder.”

Bitter Tea Poster

Synopsis:
A general (Nils Asther) in revolutionary China falls in love with an American missionary (Barbara Stanwyck) he rescues during a street riot.

Genres:

Review:
The Bitter Tea of General Yen remains a unique entry in Frank Capra’s early oeuvre. Exhibiting none of the “Capra-corn” that would mark Capra’s later populist films, Bitter Tea… is a dreamy, luminously photographed, provocative tone poem about cross-cultural tensions and inter-racial longing. Danish actor Nils Asther thankfully manages to avoid most stereotypes in his portrayal of the imposing Chinese General Yen, instead infusing his character with charisma and emotional complexity. He exhibits authority and vulnerability in equal measure — indeed, it’s easy to see why Stanwyck’s strong-willed female missionary (Megan) can’t help feeling a deep-seated attraction to him, despite her status as a betrothed woman (watch for her infamous “dream sequence” — haunting evidence of pre-code cinematic sensibility). Stanwyck is luminous in this early role — like Asther, she’s called upon to demonstrate both strength of character and emotional nuance as she contemplates, however subconsciously, a forbidden romance. The entire story takes place within the context of gorgeously baroque sets and lustrous cinematography, adding to the dream-like ambience of Megan and Yen’s tragic “affair”; the film’s ending is foreshadowed by its provocative title.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Nils Asther as General Yen
    Bitter Tea Asther
  • Barbara Stanwyck as Megan Davis (nominated by Peary as Best Actress of the Year in his Alternate Oscars book)
    Bitter Tea Stanwyck
  • A provocative portrayal of “forbidden” romance
    Bitter Tea Romance
  • Stunning sets
    Bitter Tea Sets
  • Joseph Walker’s luminous cinematography
    Bitter Tea Cinematography

Must See?
Yes, as a unique gem by a famed director.

Categories

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

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Duellists, The (1977)

“The duelist demands satisfaction; honor for him is an appetite.”

Duellists Poster

Synopsis:
A truculent French soldier (Harvey Keitel) challenges a cavalry officer (Keith Carradine) to a duel, thus setting off a 15-year feud that lasts throughout the Napoleonic era .

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
As Peary notes, this “excellent, highly original” first feature by Ridley Scott features “exquisite photography” by D.P. Frank Tidy and meticulous “attention to period detail”. Unlike Scott’s later blockbuster films — such as Alien (1979), Blade Runner (1985), and Gladiator (2000) — The Duellists (based on a 60-page short story by Joseph Conrad) was “not an ideal commercial project”, and has remained more of a favorite with critics than with the masses. Keitel and Carradine’s series of “exciting, brutal and realistic” duels — which “parallel the ongoing, equally senseless Napoleonic Wars” — are posited as a thinly veiled attack on “nations that are enemies because of events that happened long ago and are long forgotten”. Interestingly — and perhaps strategically — it’s never made entirely clear why Keitel’s Feraud challenges Carradine’s D’Hubert to a duel in the first place; we simply get the sense that he’s a pugnacious, “temperamental brute” who’s continually “itching for a fight”. While it’s difficult not to wish that Scott’s original choices to play D’Hubert and Feraud — Michael York and Oliver Reed (sigh) — had been cast, I’ll agree with Peary and most other critics that Carradine and Keitel, despite their anachronistic American accents, eventually emerge as compelling leads.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • A compelling tale of an enduring rivalry
    Duellists Duelling
  • Frank Tidy’s gorgeous cinematography
    Duellists Cinematography
  • Impressive period detail
    Duellists Period Detail
  • Fine supporting performances
    Duellists Supporting

Must See?
Yes, as an impressive debut by a master director.

Categories

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Who Are the DeBolts? [And Where Did They Get Nineteen Kids?] (1977)

[Note: The following review is of a non-Peary title; click here to read more.]

“You know, being a mother of 19 can be pretty hilarious–“

Who Are the DeBolts Poster

Synopsis:
Bob and Dorothy DeBolt maintain a loving household of both biological and adopted children (many of whom have physical disabilities).

Genres:

  • Disabilities
  • Documentary
  • John Korty Films
  • Raising Children

Review:
The DeBolt family — a dauntingly enormous crew of biological and adopted children — grew gradually, over a number of years: after giving birth to several kids of their own, Dorothy DeBolt and her first husband decided to adopt a few special-needs kids from around the world; shortly after her husband died, Dorothy met and married Bob DeBolt (with one biological daughter of his own), and they proceeded to adopt even more children, eventually raising 20 altogether (though they “only” had 19 at the time this film was made). The DeBolts ultimately come across like the Brady Bunch on overdrive, with countless personal struggles to overcome, but an overriding sense of unity and pride holding them together through thick and through thin.

While director John Korty and his crew have been accused of sugar-coating the DeBolts’ existence by showing a preponderance of family sing-alongs and playful holiday adventures (rather than day-to-day squabbles, for instance), this can easily be forgiven, given the invaluable insights we gain into Dorothy and Bob’s unique philosophy of child-rearing. Their driving belief is that each child, no matter how physically challenged, should be as responsible for him or herself as possible. Their son J.R., for instance — both blind and paralyzed from the waist down — is taught to get himself safely down the porch stairs to wait for the bus; it may take him 15 minutes to do so, but he develops a routine that works, and he’s able to do it on his own. Meanwhile, Karen — a feisty girl with no limbs — is able to adroitly put all her appendages on herself, and doesn’t allow her impediments to get in the way of having as much fun as possible. You’re guaranteed to watch Who Are the DeBolts? with a sense of both joy and respect for this unusual family; within the space of just 72 minutes, they have something to teach us all.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Many heartwarming scenes of personal triumph and family unity
    Who Are the DeBolts Karen
    Who Are the DeBolts JR
    Who Are the DeBolts Lounging
    Who Are the DeBolts Piano
    Who Are the DeBolts Sofa

Must See?
Yes, as a most enjoyable and inspirational Oscar-winning documentary.

Categories

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Vigil in the Night (1940)

“There is nothing so good as a good nurse, and nothing so bad as a bad one.”

Vigil Night Poster

Synopsis:
A dedicated nurse (Carole Lombard) takes responsibility for a death caused by her uncertified sister (Anne Shirley), and leaves to work at a large urban hospital, where she develops a relationship with a handsome surgeon (Brian Aherne) and fights to help fund a plague ward.

Genres:

Review:
At the time she agreed to star in George Stevens’ adaptation of A.J. Cronin‘s serial novel Vigil in the Night, Carole Lombard was attempting to break out of typecasting as a screwball actress by taking on more “serious” roles. Unfortunately, her choice of “breakthrough” material is little more than a sappy soaper about a do-gooding nurse (Lombard) a la Florence Nightingale who’s willing to give up all personal gain for the sake of helping others. Her first act of selflessness, which sets the story in motion, is accepting responsibility for a negligent death caused by her immature younger sister (Anne Shirley), who carelessly leaves the bedside of a terminally ill boy at just the wrong moment. Leaving her sister behind to finish her nursing certification, Lombard quickly moves on to a grueling position at a hospital in London, where a potential romance with a handsome surgeon (Aherne) is hinted at but never develops; instead, Lombard’s Nurse Lee stalwartly deals with crisis after crisis, never losing her head, and always fighting for “what’s right” against stony head nurses and sleazy benefactors. She may be plucky and honorable, but the truth is she’s terribly uninteresting as a character; we long for Lombard to break into manic screwball mode, even for just a moment! The primary redeeming feature of this predictable weeper is Robert De Grasse’s luminous cinematography.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Robert De Grasse’s cinematography
    Vigil Night Cinematography

Must See?
No; feel free to skip this one. Listed as a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

Links:

Crazy-Quilt, The (1966)

“Henry indulged Lorabelle in some of her fantasies, ignored others — and gradually realized that what she wanted most was the impossible: a declaration of love.”

Crazy Quilt Poster

Synopsis:
An idealist (Ina Mena) attempts to cure her husband (Tom Rosqui) of his cynical realism, with little success.

Genres:

Review:
John Korty‘s debut film — narrated by Burgess Meredith, starring unknown actors, and following a most unconventional storyline — is a delightful taste of mid-century independent American cinema. More a fable than a realistic narrative, The Crazy-Quilt is nonetheless grounded in the very-real tribulations of love and marriage, as two complete opposites struggle to create a life together. Korty’s low-budget camerawork is consistently innovative and striking, making fine use of high-contrast lighting and naturalistic settings; meanwhile, Peter Schickele‘s creative score provides a quirky, memorable backdrop to the proceedings. Mela and Rosquith are well-cast as the film’s protagonists, with Mela in particular (she has no other credits listed on IMDb) giving a haunting performance; she ages from giddy young housewife to seasoned woman over the course of the film, and the contrast is striking. Film fanatics should definitely seek out The Crazy-Quilt: while it may come across as slightly dated, its emotional impact remains largely intact.

Note: Korty’s Oscar-winning documentary Who Are the DeBolts? [And Where Did They Get Nineteen Kids?] (1977) is also well worth a look; surprisingly, it’s not a Peary title.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Ina Mela as Lorabelle
    Crazy Quilt Ina Mela
  • Tom Rosqui as Henry
    Crazy Quilt Tom Rosqui
  • An unusual portrait of an unconventional love affair
    Crazy Quilt Sleeping
  • Memorable imagery
    Crazy Quilt Memorable
  • Impressive low-budget b&w cinematography
    Crazy Quilt Cinematography
  • Peter Schickele’s distinctive score

Must See?
Yes, as a one-of-a-kind experimental film.

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