Daughter of Shanghai (1937) Starring Anna May Wong and Philip Ahn

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No, this isn’t an alternate universe. There really was a film from the 1930s starring both Anna May Wong and Phillip Ahn. They’re not just supporting players or bit parts to fill in a few stereotypical roles, either, but actual leads. More amazing still, they both speak English without a hint of an accent. They are Asian-American, intelligent and brave — in an era lacking comparable heroes.

Ahn is a G-Man sent by the government to investigate a smuggling ring bringing in hordes of aliens from foreign locales. Wong is front and center as a woman whose father, a local merchant, will not cave to the strong-arm tactics.  He ultimately becomes a casualty of the clandestine syndicate looking to elbow its way further still into the illegal trade.

Lan Ying Lin (Wong) escapes her captors and is intent on infiltrating their racket and putting an end to it, once and for all, to avenge her father’s death. She ends up going undercover as a dancer at an exotic dive in an effort to get to the bottom of the mystery. She does not know the meaning of the word danger, her finest attributes being a certain stubbornness and resiliency.

She makes quite the impression bringing her “Daughter of Shanghai” act to the seedy exotic cantina. Her boss (Charles Bickford) is a grungy braggart who discloses that he is instrumental in helping sneak certain people in through Uncle Sam’s backdoor. Bingo.

Meanwhile, Kim Lee (Ahn) takes up with a mangy sea captain who’s on the other end of the racket supplying the “cargo.” The inside man convinces his not too bright superior that he can speak Russian — a sample of his linguistic skills include those useful Russian phrases, “Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Epsilon.” Being as “exotic” as he is, it’s easy enough to swallow and not another inquiry is made on the subject.

Despite being a quickie, clocking in at barely over an hour, Daughter of Shanghai still manages to have enough time for a couple murders, a barroom brawl, some exotic dance numbers, gambling, and copious amounts of alcohol. The dialogue’s a bit shoddy and there’s no time to waste so the story operates in very straightforward, uncomplicated turns. It’s B level without a doubt, but it utilizes everything at its disposal to draw up the punchy melodramatics necessary to make a story such as this impressionable.

In the end, our two heroes are reunited in their quest only to make the chilling discovery that villainy is a little closer than they ever dreamed. Ahn gets a chance to slug it to Anthony Quinn in a very early spot in the actor’s career. But he gets some much-appreciated help from a pug-nosed, good-natured chauffeur who makes up for his lack of brains with brawn.

One of the strangest dichotomies comes at this point because although Wong has been our guiding heroine thus far, she nevertheless watches the fighting between the men all but powerless to intercede. Regardless, justice is enacted. It’s a group effort.

Admittedly, if it wasn’t for the leads, maybe we would quickly forget The Daughter of Shanghai, but such a cast is so few and far between that this is a historical relic certainly worth unearthing and therefore worth remembering. That doesn’t imply it’s perfect by any means.

The road toward nuanced representation is a long and arduous one requiring baby steps only to be impeded with various obstacles and inevitable steps backward. Because it’s easy to be homogenous, unimaginative, and flat. The outliers are where we find intriguing artifacts suggesting exceptions to the rule, cultural documents that dared to give us a different portrait of humanity. In my labyrinthian odyssey to discover hidden gems, those are the ones I’m invariably drawn to.

Anna May Wong and Philip Ahn should have been bigger stars if not for the perceived impediment of their ethnicity. Daughters of Shanghai is a tantalizing taste of something altogether groundbreaking. That makes it worthwhile even as there’s an air of disappointment. Oh, what might have been. However, we must be thankful this treasure still exists.

3.5/5 Stars

Dodge City (1939): An Errol Flynn Western

Dodge_City_1939_Poster.jpgThe year is 1866. The Civil War is over and anyone with vision is moving west. One such outpost is Kansas where the railway is replacing the stagecoach. It’s a world of iron men and iron horses. Because a place like the notorious Dodge City is a “town that knew no ethics but cash and killing.”

It’s not a decent place for children and womenfolk for the time being. But some affluent magnates with vision see the profits it affords. That’s their business. It will take others to smooth out the rawness and make it into a land worth cultivating and settling down in.

Though lawlessness runs rampant in the streets led by town bad boy Jeff Surret (Bruce Cabot), a wagon train led by a caravan of seasoned cowhands looks to be yet another signifier of change. Because one of the men riding with the rest is self-assured Wade Hatton (Errol Flynn) supported by his pals. You can bet even with an accent Mr. Flynn makes an able-bodied western hero but he’s not alone.

Alan Hale was forever Flynn’s right-hand man from Robin Hood to The Sea Hawk (even playing his father in Gentleman Jim). They also get the boisterous and yet generally good-natured Tex (Guinn Big Boy Williams) to round out their trio. Hatton has his eyes on a pretty passenger who is easy on the eyes. Unfortunately, her younger brother is a drunken hellraising nuisance. He instigates a stampede that turns deadly and from thenceforward Wade and Ms. Abbie Irving (Olivia de Havilland) have a contentious relationship at best.

Seeing Dodge growing so much leaves everyone all agog. Never has a western outpost been crammed with such activity. It feels authentic in one sense. You understand how disease and waste could begin to run rampant in such a bustling atmosphere and crowded conditions. Hatton gets his first taste of Surret when one of his business associates named Orth is shot. But the story is not all drama.

In an ongoing scenario, the boisterous Algernon Hart (Hale) forgoes the tempting calls of the local Gay Lady Saloon for the Pure Prairie League, residing right next door, attended by all the town’s most proper womenfolk.

What follows just might be one of the finest brawl fight ever spilling over into the lady’s social, overwhelming the scene with all sorts of gory sights and gut-busting crashes, bams, and bangs. It feels wild, alive, and somehow thoroughly enjoyable. Maybe because we get to sit on the outside looking in at the merry madness accompanied by whoops and raucous accordion music.

What’s more, it forces a response. A drunken Hart is singled out by Surret and his thugs who get ready to string him up in the plaza right then and there. While Hatton quells the injustice without a standoff, there’s a sense that things will only continue to escalate. No sheriff will stick out their neck in such a country. No man seems strong enough.

Finally, a child (Bobs Watson) is lost it’s the final straw and Hatton vows to clean up the streets and bring civility, law and order to the territory. Rounding up the rowdy troublemakers and ending the citywide shootouts forcibly. He clamps down like no one has ever done and it begins to make things peaceable again.

It’s the old story of civilization moving in on the wheels of law and order, which slowly begin to push out the graft and corruption. Someone must have the guts to lead the crusade with ideals and guns, if necessary. But it takes a community behind him to make it stick.

In this case, he is backed by the paper and its audacious editor Joe Clemons (Frank McHugh) an ardent purveyor of free speech. Change happens incrementally. Scare tactics come and go. De Havilland joins the paper too in order to represent the interests of the local ladies and then becomes an integral member of Hatton’s crusade for good. He takes Surret’s right-hand man Yancy (Victor Jory) into his custody knowing full well that fierce retribution is coming.

Because it’s common knowledge that when two immovable objects come barreling toward each other, there’s bound to be drama. In Dodge City it comes to pass in a flaming railcar finale, one moment dire and in another thrilling, with faceoffs, ambushes, gunfights, prisoners, hostages, and some stellar sharpshooting. But a man like Wade is not meant to remain stagnant. Husband and wife ride off toward their next adventure on the range.

It truly is double trouble with Ann Sheridan and Olivia de Havilland. But Sheridan’s role had the potential to be far more compelling than it is, unfortunately. Aside from a few musical numbers and screaming for a brawl to stop, she doesn’t get much screentime before disappearing for good.

De Havilland is the obvious ingenue love interest and though she abhorred the unimaginative parts she was being handed, she nevertheless has ample talents to imprint herself on the picture. She and Flynn go through the expected beats of mutual distaste toward ultimate affection, and we delight in their chemistry even if it’s easily plotted from start to finish.

However, to survey Dodge City is to look at various pieces that feel almost incongruous. Here is Erroll Flynn playing a cowboy. The palette is Technicolor but the action is focused on towns and interiors opposed to magnificent plains. It’s not Ford. It’s not Wayne or Fonda, and yet it manages to be a fine actioner to add to the western canon due to compelling characterizations, deep-seated conflict, and of course, enough gunplay and romance to make it a true horse opera.

4/5 Stars

Captain Blood (1935) Starring Flynn and De Havilland

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To a certain stratum of society — namely classic movie fans — it’s nearly impossible to imagine Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland not being paired together or not being box office draws, for that matter. However, on both accounts, in 1935, the studio was taking quite the risk, still undoubtedly reeling from the heart of the Depression Years and shelling a hefty sum of money for a vehicle essentially starring two unknowns.

Sometimes you catch lightning in a bottle, and it remains for all posterity. Scoring, again and again, is quite another matter entirely. The pair would be placed together in an astounding 11 films in total!

This initial entry opens in England in 1685 and a band of patriotic rebels has taken it upon themselves to depose the current tyrant James II. Though he chooses to forego involving himself in the fighting, physician Peter Blood nevertheless goes with them in spirit and is ready and willing to operate on a fugitive who is mortally wounded. However, in the process of attending to the man, the king’s guards burst in upon him and all involved are arrested.

Their future is decided in a trial of pomp, circumstance, and unyielding justice. There are few figures in the legions of contenders as charismatic as Errol Flynn, beginning with his attempt to exonerate himself and extol his own noble profession. Even that fails to keep him from the executioner though the king fancies himself a humanitarian and decides to send the lot of traitors on slave ships to the West Indies instead.

There is a blatant irony in the depictions of white slavery while the deep wounds of black slavery were still being felt in our country through the oppression of Jim Crow Laws and racial injustice. This continues on the island plantation prison where the lads find themselves.

There they are sold on the auction blocks like chattel though much to his shame, Blood finds himself indebted to a pretty matron Arabella Bishop (Olivia De Havilland) who bought him for 10 pounds. Their relationship begins on the rockiest of soil and life thereafter is hard. Though eventually, Dr. Blood gains favor when he cures the hissy hypochondriac governor of his gout, earning himself greater freedom.

And with that the good doctor bides his time, planning an escape to coincide with a timely interruption on the outpost by Spanish Pirates. In the drunken escapades that follow, Blood gathers his men together, switching places with the invaders and a new band of pirates is born. They are a hardy lot including Blood’s faithful pilot and friend Jeremy Pitt (Ross Alexander), the sturdy gunner Hagthorpe (Guy Kibbee), and one Bible-spouting mate who has a bit of scripture for every occasion (And then the whale came and the whale swallowed Jonah. I hope!).

Their acclaim grows to such an extent that they fall into the company of a band of French Buccaneers led by a salty lady’s man named Levasseur (Basil Rathbone). He and Blood draw up a loose pact which quickly falls apart as they quarrel and end up dueling for the company of their esteemed “guest” Ms. Bishop. Laguna Beach, California ends up filling in for the Caribbean as they have it out in stirring fashion. Flynn and Rathbone were the best of foes when it came to crossing swords, even when they were purportedly allies.

In the final act, the outlaws are redeemed (like Robin Hood anyone?) taking up the banner of the new king William of Orange to fight a valorous battle for the glory of Merry Ol’ England. Thus, in spite of the tumultuous path he traversed, Captain Blood and his boys reach the pinnacle. He’s a hero and, of course, he gets the girl. There’s nothing her indignant uncle can do about it now as he’s been replaced by a far more benevolent governor.

I would be remiss if I didn’t ruefully admit how much I yearn for the epic swashbucklers of old. Captain Blood was the beginning of great successes to come and the type of Hollywood entertainment that is sorely missed today.

Although I hardly can remember their lips even touching, nevertheless, Flynn and de Havilland are fire together, all but cementing a screen partnership that would continue for many more. Even in the final scene together what becomes apparent is this genuinely contagious brand of fun. If anything they make it seem like a blast for the audience.

There’s a splendidly pulsating finale at sea where it’s convenient enough to cast inconsistencies overboard and instead be overwhelmed by the sheer mayhem of 2500 extras called on to do battle and make a show of it. They take to it handily clashing their cudgels, swinging from the yardarms, and falling into the drink, casualties of pistol fire.

Captain Blood is blessed with laughter as much as action and romance. The tenets of quality adventure filmmaking mean the picture enthralls us as much today as in its day because it knows what it means to have a good time. The seriousness can be shed for the sake of light-hearted, invigorating, no holds barred entertainment.

Because in the assured hands of Michael Curtiz, with a dashing new screen idol in Errol Flynn, Captain Blood never loses sight of what makes movies communal and thoroughly gratifying. Movies of old had a habit of being all things to all people, and it’s true this one has it all, I’m delighted to say.

The final testament is a smile imprinted on the face of the viewer as big as Flynn’s jaunty grin. Oh, what we wouldn’t give to be on the deck of that ship brandishing our cutlass and romancing a pretty young maiden just like he does. Maybe that’s my boyhood imagination speaking, but he really is the ideal action hero.

4.5/5 Stars

Wuthering Heights (1939): Death Be My Destiny

Wuthering_Heights_(1939_film).jpgIt’s almost instantly reasonable to clump this cinematic adaptation of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights with other contemporary pictures swirling with gothic menace like Rebecca, Suspicion, and Jane Eyre. The latter film, of course, is based off the novel of another of the Bronte Sisters, Charlotte.

We might be able to give it some credit as the first of the lot while it also somehow managed to be one of the most high profile pictures in a year that has been lauded for the spectacular nature of its output. Its true 1939 was a staggering year for Hollywood. The list is too extensive even to begin attempting.

William Wyler was continuing his string of successes throughout the 1930s before WWII, and Wuthering Heights, in particular, would see the formation of a fruitful partnership with Gregg Toland, the cinematographer renowned for his perfecting of deep-focus photography. It was used in this picture and most prominently in Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, and then again in The Best Years of Our Lives, also with Wyler.

The story itself streamlined and truncated from the original work begins with the dark mood of the eponymous estate roosted over by a brooding man named Heathcliff and his gaunt wife, frail old housekeeper, and his hounds. But we are provided a flashback to happier times evoking childhood and the glories of the Yorkshire Moors covered by vast expanses of heather (actually imported from England to California).

How it diverges from the tales of Dickens or even Charlotte Bronte’s work is by offering a portrait of elders who are not nearly puritanical but actually show a pretense of actual Christian charity. What is there is a warmth girded around them and a hospitality and prodigal nature toward the less fortunate.

Mr. Earnshaw is a model of such a man as he brings a besmirched orphaned youth from his travels on London back to his estate and he adopts him as his own son. As long as the man lives young Heathcliff finds great joy in life treated as a full member of the family. Out of his childhood blooms his lifelong affection for his adopted sister Catherine. Their friendship grows out of horseback riding and wishful dreaming of castles and knights on the rolling plains of their homeland. They could not be more contented.

Ironically, behind the scenes, we have two talents in Merle Oberon and Laurence Olivier who could not have been more antagonistic. Though young, Oberon was a fairly established actress in Hollywood, admired for her exquisite beauty. Laurence Olivier was just coming into his own as a film actor. His presence and dashing looks are irrefutable, though he had only recently dabbled in the medium following his already illustrious career on the stage.

Their projections are all but believable and ultimately rapturous even if the illusion is somewhat broken by the realization that the two actors abhorred each other off-camera. Part of the resentment might stem from the fact Olivier’s lover and soon-to-be wife Vivien Leigh had been passed over the leading role. But we must fall back to the story.

Mr. Earnshaw’s own son Hindley (Hugh Williams) vindictively maintains a grudge against Heathcliff that began the first day he ever set eyes on the other lad. He was never going to be anything but a stable boy.

Inevitably comes the day when Mr. Earnshaw passes on and the warmth once bathing his dominion is so quickly scrubbed away by the younger Earnshaw. He pushes Heathcliff out of the house to take care of the horses and treats him as he always has, as a mere pair of dirty stable hands, Meanwhile, the conceited rival becomes crippled by alcoholism and gambling debts.

Though they have confessed their undying love, the fact that Heathcliff can never achieve any amount of success to fund their childhood fancies, Catherine grows up impatient and bitter. Impatient to find a man who can make her happy by means of the world. Heathcliff now scorned seemingly leaves for good and she finds such an affluent suitor in Edgar Linton, David Niven with another thankless part, doting over her good-naturedly.

What ultimately arises in the final act is a vindictive battle of raging jealousies and contorted love affairs. Heathcliff begins to court the sympathetic younger sister Isabelle Linton (Geraldine Fitzgerald) which immediately receives the ire of not only her older brother but Cathy as well. She and her future sister-in-law have at it and yet soon Cathy is taken by illness because though she’s too proud to admit it, truthfully she still desires Heathcliff.

The most piercing love stories are those that are unrequited or worst yet lost out on based on the passage of time and changing circumstances. Where regrets and misfortunes pool up in such a way crippling what could have been so joyous. It speaks to a human desire for abiding, even eternal, romantic contentment. Heathcliff rashly prays to be haunted by her — for the ghost of her to torment him — because he cannot live without his soul. That is, Cathy.

What’s more, he is all but granted the wish that never seemed attainable in life, provided by a near transfiguration of the ethereal and the eternal. It’s a deeply powerful and moving apotheosis but upon closer observation, it also bears the responsibility in creating myths around romantic love. Because even in this modern age inundated by themes and testimonies of passion we cling to the idea that love is an eternal force when evoked and instigated between two people.

However, it’s only a half-truth because even as we look at the narrative of Wuthering Heights the messiness and the heartbreak that’s found all the way throughout the story, such final departures do not fit the origins of the story. They cannot line up in the real world either and it is true this is a picture that relies on the outskirts of the imagination and the hinterlands existing on the edges of the moors and the frames of the film itself. This is where love is able to survive in this almost unknowable, illusory world where it is not bounded by the ephemeral things we know to be true.

Reminiscent of some of Frank Borzage’s most enthralling romances, love is spiritual — a religion all to itself — ably transcending the throes of death. That’s the sentiment anyway, observed most curiously by the maid Ellen (Flora Robson) as, “Trying to tear away the veil between death and life.”

Because with Wuthering Heights, were it to maintain a real-world authenticity to the end of its days, we would rue the day we ever saw it and be bitter and downtrodden for the tragedy we had just witnessed. Life and film cannot always be interchangeable. As long as we understand this,  there’s a good chance we can avoid being damaged by such fallacies on the other side of the written page and the celluloid screen.

4/5 Stars

Jezebel (1938): A Bette Davis Southern Belle

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The oldest movie theater near where I grew up was built in 1938 and by some peculiar coincidence, Bette Davis is said to have driven by the establishment time and time again. Being the iron-willed personality that she was, the rising star demanded they open with her latest movie. (I assume very few people crossed Bette Davis and lived to tell about it.)

Thus, the first film ever shown at the newly minted theater was her very own Jezebel. One of the attractions of the theater to this day is an old-fashioned parlor in the ladies room reminiscent of the days when women used to sit together while powdering their noses and sharing in the latest trivialities and juicy bits of gossip. At least that’s how I imagine it.

In truth, Jezebel would prove to be the actresses consolation prize for being passed over for the leading role in one of the biggest cultural attractions of the era, Gone with the Wind (1939). Though Davis was beloved and already extremely popular with the viewing public, the big wigs got the final say choosing Vivien Leigh instead. Of course, the rest is history.

But it’s difficult not to look at Jezebel in juxtaposition with its arguably more opulent and ostentatious rival. That begins with the differing palettes — black & white vs. color — and subsequently bleeds into the running times and comparative success as well.

Surely, Henry Fonda is no dashing rapscallion like Clark Gable, but I find him a more understated hero. More pleasantly reserved. Likewise, while Selznick’s behemoth production was a cash cow, you wonder how he was able to tie the picture together with so many moving pieces and names attached as directors, cinematographers, etc.

William Wyler guides Jezebel with his usual expertise and professionalism, cementing a long and fruitful partnership with Bette Davis. Not that they always were the perfect symbiotic relationship; he soon earned the nickname “99 Take Willie” and Davis was already known for her aforementioned recalcitrant nature.

But there’s little denying that they made each other better. He elevated her performance with his care and the collaboration with long-time cinematographer Ernest Haller lighting her in each scene, creates an ongoing continuity, while Davis brought something authentic and inherently obstinate, fearlessly commanding the screen.

This particular story takes us back in American history to Antebellum New Orleans in 1852. Davis makes a stirring impression as southern belle Julie Marsden arriving late to a fine to-do, not even changing out of her riding crop before bursting in on the company. The churlishness of her impropriety is startling and utterly appalling to the ladies and some of the gentlemen trained up by decades of Southern civility.

Ladies just don’t do such a thing. It isn’t decent. But you get the sense that’s precisely why Davis is impeccable for this role as a woman who willingly tramples over the normative without a second thought. She’s simultaneously an audacious nonconformist and a destructive force clouded by her own pettiness.

She currently resides with her hospitable and generally courteous aunt (Fay Bainter) who nevertheless has her hands full with such a strong-headed woman in her home. The most crucial personal conflict begins with Jezebel’s beau Preston Dillard (Fonda), an up and coming banker. They have a disagreement as he seems more taken with his work than with her.

However, for Julie, in her egocentric world, she is all that matters, and in a form of brash retaliation, she disregards traditional protocol again by ordering a scandalous red dress to wear to the forthcoming ball. Why is it unheard of? Because unmarried women are only ever seen in white. Never in their life would they dream of donning such a brazen symbol.

Throughout the entire film, Davis’ wardrobe, designed by Orry Kelly, essentially becomes an extension of her character, embodying her individuality and defiance of the culture she finds around her.

Henry Fonda maintains a quietly stern resolve much to his credit. Because at face value I always take him for a benevolent soul, and he is when the moments of sincerity are called for. But one cannot acknowledge his candor without remembering the other scenes in You Only Live Once or The Grapes of Wrath where his utter alienation with the world is palpable.

Thus, he’s able to hold his own with Davis even if, by design, this is her picture. The steadiness of his own demeanor is able to be her counterbalance while also confronting the blind devotees of southern convention. Of course, it can’t be helped even as he and his mentor, Dr. Livingstone (Donald Crisp), try and speak sense into those around them.

Julie and Preston weather the Ball together as he forces her to make the ignominious walk of shame and subsequently dance with him, as all eyes fall on them stupefied. Their engagement falls to the wayside after that and Julie will not have him back.

Time passes as Pres goes up north for a spell and Julie becomes inconsolate, clinging to the hope that her former lover will come back to her on his hands and knees. She’s desperate and terribly broken up. Eventually, he does return, just like old times, and yet on his arm hangs his new wife, a charming northerner (Margaret Lindsay), who nevertheless gets slighted by her jealous rival.

In one last-ditch effort to make Prez jealous, Judy tries to use a cocksure southern gentleman named Buck Cantrell (George Brent) to stir up any dissidence she can between the two men. To a degree, her disingenuous contrivance works out in winning the man’s favor with consequences she cannot be absolved of.

Although the conflict between the North and the South is rising to a fever pitch, the film is never actually embroiled in the Civil War. Instead, it is stricken by the peril of the Yellow Fever which fails to discriminate between the rich and the poor.

We see most clearly in these waning moments the arbitrary nature of the southern moral code which would deem two men would have to die in a duel for absolutely pointless means. It’s infuriating to watch because no one’s honor was even at stake. It’s all on account of the needlessly puerile ploys of a woman completely consumed by selfishness, ultimately destroying the relationships around her.

Bette Davis’ pursuit of redemption at the end of the picture generally ruins what we are left with. Especially because she was well-known for playing strong often uncompromising women verging on the unsympathetic. That was part of her allure as an actor, making her so very unlike many of the Hollywood standard-bearers. She had those iconic eyes but also an implacable bullish nature. She’s always a cinematic force to be reckoned with even if her performance gets slightly compromised in Jezebel.

3.5/5 Stars

Dodsworth (1936) Needs Mary Astor

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Sinclair Lewis is one of those literary names I thoroughly recognize and assume must have been a culture-shaper in his day. Yet I can say nothing intelligible about him. In fact, this guttural reaction has more to do with my own ignorance with prose then it does with his fading into antiquity.

But regardless, he is the authorial power behind Dodsworth which was subsequently made into a stage play by Sidney Howard (also starring Walter Huston) before being brought to film by William Wyler. The film itself has always intrigued me as I have great esteem for the director who proved his longevity and ability to construct well-crafted, beloved works out of the Hollywood industry.

The prospect of an authentic examination of marriage circa the early 20th century also piqued my interest bolstered further by Walter Huston’s presence. He originated the stage role and carried it on for over 1,000 performances. In truth, the self-made automotive magnate, Sam Dodsworth, is meant to be the most benevolent of spirits and Huston is flaunting the charm that always made him a likable figure.

He falls seamlessly into the part of a simple man contented where he’s taken his business and ready to give it up to be a family man and devoted husband for once in his life. It is Ruth Chatterton who helps form the nucleus of the story with him, as husband and wife.

To celebrate his leaving the daily grind behind for the welcoming embrace of retirement, the couple plans a luxuriant trip to Europe. Mrs. Dodsworth is looking forward to the culture and fashionable circles to rescue her from the shabby town they hail from. Among the company she keeps is dashing Englishman, Captain Lockerhert (David Niven), who she willingly encourages until his advances get too brazen for her taste.

Meanwhile, Mr. Dodsworth is far more enchanted with the northern lights than the social gatherings, crossing paths with an amiable American, Edith Cortright (Mary Astor), currently residing in Italy. There’s little doubt who is more affable in the marriage or faithful, for that matter. Even when peeved and irascible, there’s still a lovable magnetism Huston seems capable of mustering up, easily seen as the victim of a wife who is trying to stave off old age and the horror of a banal lifestyle.

To be quite blunt, Dodsworth is full of monotonous quibbling. I’m apt to label it a dull showing and a generally sorry business but there you get at precisely what the issue is. Huston labels it “the old triangle stuff” as his wife keeps company with any number of men with varying degrees of seriousness and intent. Eventually, it gets to be too much.

A well-documented point of contention arose between Wyler and Chatterton about divergences in how Mrs. Dodsworth should be played. Chatterton wanted the character to be a full-on villain as it were while Wyler hoped to tease out the insecurities and fears of a woman trying to hold onto or at least reclaim her perceived youth.

It seems apparent upon watching the picture that the actress might have well been in the wrong because you watch her performance and even if it inched more toward the director’s intentions, it lacks any kind of the charisma easily attributed to Huston or even Astor’s performance.

Because they are both contemporaries and prime examples of older couples depicted on celluloid, I could not help but consider Make Way for Tomorrow (1937) in reference to Dodsworth. That film is heartbreaking because it shows two elderly people so faithfully in love and yet pulled apart by circumstance, all but forgotten by their families; the bittersweet nature is in the love story. It’s alive and sentimental in the finest way. We grow to love Victor Moore and Beulah Bondi.

However, in the case of Dodsworth, there’s rarely a moment that captivates in a similar manner. I’m ashamed to admit that I should care and I want to care but for some inexplicable reason, I don’t. Not that the dialogue is rubbish or even that the acting is mediocre. Far from it.

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In fact, Astor proves a far more sympathetic heroine and so Wyler’s final decision to leave us focused on her effulgent countenance is probably the best shot selection of the film thus far because in her dwells all that is good and joyous about the picture. For our protagonist and for the audience. Of course, the other striking juxtaposition is Astor’s own real-life woes as she was entangled in a deleterious scandal at the time. In some strange way, while not completely parallel, the screen and reality overlapped.

Although, that still fails to truly reconcile with the troubling moral dilemma remaining within the storyline. We as an audience are far more content with Dodsworth leaving his wife for another woman. Because every delineation of the film suggests that by remaining faithful to his wife the man only gets hurt again and again. Surely, that’s not how the world works? Loyal people should be happy. Those sots prone to infidelity are the ones for which life becomes a shambles. And yet if there are meager conclusions to glean from the picture, the opposite would seem to hold true.

Life is often very unfair. Marriages do not live and die by monumental skirmishes between antagonized parties. Surely that can happen but more often they simply fall apart as apathy ingrains itself and two persons drift away like ships in the night. Because when you love someone you want to be docked by them forever. The banal and the mundane are the most pleasurable because they provide a proper excuse to just exist with the other person.

You know you’re in trouble when discontentedness begins to spring up. Duty, civility, even sexual intimacy are not the building blocks of marriage. They are good things, assuredly, but we need more. Do you actually relish spending time with your spouse? That’s one imperative. When you look at Dodsworth you come to the sad reality that this couple has lived by each other’s sides for 22 years seemingly just passing time. It all seems like a terrible waste. Both the film and the lives at stake. They were made for so much more than this.

3.5/5 Stars

 

Is The Good Fairy (1935) Luisa Ginglebusher?

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Though not what I might consider purebred screwball comedy, The Good Fairy nevertheless shares some of the essence of the genre, based around class divides and fanciful plotting. The roots in fairy stories even precede two of Billy Wilder’s finest early scripts Midnight (1939) and Ball of Fire (1941) mixing modernity with the worlds of childlike invention.

It’s no small wonder Preston Sturges would be the tip of the spear in the ascension of screenwriters as singular talents, followed soon thereafter by Wilder. Both men would crave more control over their material, which led them both to highly successful careers in the director’s chair. But we are still in the nascent stages for the time being.

The Good Fairy is actually helmed by an up-and-coming director in his own right, William Wyler, though he and Sturges were both subsequently sacked by the studio (or asked to leave) for complications they engendered. That says nothing of the quality of the movie itself.

Admittedly, I’m hardly adept at knowing just what denotes Wyler’s technique as a director aside from the addition of Herbert Marshall and the usual professionalism that assures a fine viewing experience. In this regard, it’s a sight easier to realize the hand working the strings behind the character’s mouths.

You can pick up a certain idiosyncratic quality to the dialogue and then with a flash of recollection you remember Preston Sturges. It’s unmistakable from his impeccable naming of characters; our heroine is Ms. Luisa Ginglebusher (Margaret Sullavan), to the verbal kerfuffles characters engage in, which verge on the uproariously ludicrous.

The daydreamy orphan’s trajectory from a girl’s home to an usherette on the floor of a lavish theater begins when a stately gentleman (Alan Hale) requests an audience with Dr. Schultz. He misunderstands the good doctor to be a man until a helpful girl at the orphanage straightens him out explaining “he” is actually a “she” (Beulah Bondi).

Any matter, they meet and after surveying the prospects, the theater owner decides on the whimsical Luisa (Margaret Sullavan) who soon finds herself learning calisthenics, dressed from head to toe in military garb, and lighting the way for her patrons with a glowing arrow. You’ve never seen a ticket taker quite like this. Here the lavishness comes in, overwhelming her humble sensibilities.

She is also taken with the magic of the moving pictures, getting completely distracted and involved in the movie melodrama playing out in front of her. In this particular case, a woman is continually being chided by her remonstrative lover to “Go.” The tears start flowing.

Her first misstep, no fault of her own, comes right outside the theater when a lothario (Cesar Romero) tries to pick her up. At a moment’s notice, a patron (Reginald Owen) she recognizes from inside serves as a stand-in for her husband and gets her out of harm’s way. He expects no favors from her. In fact, he has connections to get her into a decadent party. His in-road, being a waiter at the establishment.

She ends up way out of her league, an orphan enraptured in the extravagance of the upper elite and swimming in it giddily like an impoverished fish out of water. Because of course, she is. Among the party guests is Konrad, a flittering Frank Morgan who takes an immediate liking to her because she’s well, young and cute and he’s an old eccentric coot with loads of cash.

Eric Blore is up to all his huffy nonsense as an overbearing snob with a cackle for a laugh. There’s a mutual distaste cultivated by the two men that’s utterly hilarious. Reginald Owen is a fine addition as the indignant waiter constantly trying to protect this girl he feels responsible for. With fortitude and a steady supply of excuses, he looks to check in on her and make sure the older “gentleman” doesn’t take any undue liberties.

Nothing catastrophic happens but there’s a spectacular development when Luisa pulls the same trick about a fake husband and Konrad promptly offers the unseen man a job as an excuse to continually lavish the pretty young gal with trinkets. In a follow-up flash of inspiration, Luisa winds up fabricating a husband who happens to be a lawyer out of the phone book — one Max Sporum (Herbert Marshall), distinguished and honorable but terribly broke.

So providence smiles down on him warmly in the form of “The Good Fairy” conveniently bankrolled by a neurotic millionaire. Sporum, of course, thinks he’s being chosen for his strength of character while Konrad believes him to be a downtrodden soul with the wife that he’s taken a personal interest in. Only Ms. Ginglebusher knows the truth and she’s not spilling the beans unless under extreme provocation. But that inevitable moment does eventually arrive. I will leave the ensuing complications be because that is much of the delight of the picture, seeing how all the various confusions will smooth themselves out.

The question, in the end, remains, Who really is “The Good Fairy?” because for varying reasons Luisa, Konrad, and Dr. Sporum all have reasons to claim the title. What’s not up for debate is Detlaff, the waiter. Like John Barrymore a few years later, he plays “The Fairy Godmother” and he does a fine job indeed.

4/5 Stars

Only Angels Have Wings (1939): Hawks’ Greatest Adventure Movie

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Howard Hawks always had a knack for creating worlds and subsequently building camaraderie between his characters simply by stringing scenes together one after the other. Only Angels Have Wings sets up a premise — revolving around a South American outpost — then settles in on two flyers.  But for all intent and purposes, Joe Souther (Noah Berry Jr.) and Tex Gordon (Don Barry) exist in the periphery of the story.

Despite all this, we’re instantly interested in what they have to do in this world and they’ve got their eyes on a woman (Jean Arthur) exiting a recently landed ship, only to strike up an instant connection as they’re a trio of Americans. A sequence that almost feels ominous initially does a rapid about-face to settle into something a great deal more amiable.

In truth, the introduction of a female heroine fresh off the boat in a foreign land hearkens back to Miriam Hopkins in Barbary Coast. She too was a tough character who was capable of surviving in a rough and tumble boomtown out west. Jean Arthur does much the same in Barranca. Except the difference is Arthur seems adept at showing her flaws with that quirky comic edge of hers.

The other added benefit is Howard Hawks seems about as invested in this picture as he could be due to his own intense preoccupation with big birds in the sky. His surname never seemed apter. The flight sequences follow in the path of Test Pilot exuding a certain authenticity while the narrative itself is unparalleled thanks, in part, to the entire framework built around it. The fascinating assemblage of characters is a testament to the best of what old Hollywood has to offer.

In 20 minutes he’s already enveloped you in an entire cinematic reality full of people, atmosphere, stakes, and danger. The genial owner Dutch (Sig Ruman) is slowly going broke trying to keep the establishment afloat. His last chance is to come through on a 6-month contract of mail deliveries without a failed drop.

Everything he has is riding on it but he’s a man who cares about people and their lives. It’s not merely a business endeavor. It’s about relationship and that’s why everyone likes the man. Even with this kind of impetus, it remains a harrowing life or death operation that Hawks documents with immense clarity.

Lives are still lost because flyers are foolhardy, proud, and daredevil types and yet when you put them up in a plane fighting against the elements and geography, they don’t always come out on top. Modern man and especially the modern aviator of 1939 is far from infallible.

But it’s one of the most gripping flight films buttressed by Hawk’s capacity for lulls and interludes which layer on character to the plotline. It’s imbued with the same spellbinding aura of a Casablanca or To Have or Have Not. There’s a certain ambiance pervading those classics of old and ironically, the moments that give us impressions of the world and the people walking around in them are the ones I’m most likely to imbibe. They speak in basic, visceral terms about men and women and how we cope with one another. How we emote: laugh, cry, get angry, and bury our emotions to avoid getting hurt.

Cary Grant is hard and fierce as ace flyer Geoff Carter who runs the airmail service for Dutch, willingly deferring to him in all matters due to Geoff’s history and expertise. We get the impression our protagonist is embittered by the years of such a tough vocation. His personality at times proves as severe as the brim of his hat.

When I watch Only Angels Have Wings I remember where Devlin came from in Notorious (1946). Because Grant reveals a side of his persona like a double-sided coin. There’s something different hidden under each side and he’s a tortured soul struggling to reconcile the life he leads with feelings he is so inept in expressing. Because the danger of any type of human attachment is that the same person could just as easily be taken out of your life a moment later. Far from despising him for his callous attitudes, it makes him all the more intriguing as a human being. Because every other character brings something out of him.

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Though his career had all but tanked after immense successes with D.W. Griffith in the silent era, Richard Barthelmess has a crucial role as a recently arrived flyer who has an ignominious history under a different name. In a single moment, he broke the unwritten code of the skies, never bale out and leave your copilot high and dry. It’s followed him everywhere he goes like a Scarlett Letter.

What makes it particularly volatile is the fact that the dead man’s brother, The Kid (Thomas Mitchell), a 22 year veteran of the business, is Carter’s right-hand man. This past tragedy causes the aging pilot to seethe with anger as his ill-will toward Macpherson burns under the surface. There is a great deal of unresolved ire between them waiting for release.

In fact, that’s the trait of many of these characters. Because Macpherson has picked up an attractive young wife in his travels. Though Rita Hayworth is in a smaller role as Judy, it’s still significant because most every player is given a piece of the pie. Her connection being the fact she knew Geoff in a former life. They don’t admit it right away but it becomes clear enough. And of course, there’s this uncomfortable chafing as Grant keeps the disgraced pilot in his back pocket to do all the dirty work. He’s handsomely paid for it but there’s no sentimentality or camaraderie.

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Everyone else is a part of Grant’s family as it were. MacPherson is just around for his usefulness. Carter’s relationship with the other man’s wife puts him in yet another position of power to show compassion. He surprises us incessantly and a dose of redemption explodes right out of an inferno of tragedy.

But we have yet to consider Grant and Arthur’s relationship throughout the picture, arguably the film’s most integral and constantly evolving asset. He is a man who can never be tied down; he does not share feelings or expect anything from any woman. And yet hidden away and shrouded from view are these threads of decency running through his life. Ways that he cares for people without letting his virile image slide. The final scene is a fine summation.

The pass is clearing up and despite all that’s gone wrong — he’s only got one good arm for goodness sakes and Bonnie’s about to leave him — there’s still a drive to finish what they started. But there’s a chance to make it through and save their contract and as he goes flying out the door he gives his girl a great big kiss and says he’ll flip her for whether or not she stays or leaves.

Of course, we know full-well the coin he tossed her is from “The Kid.” It’s marked with heads on both sides. She’s hurt at first. Injured by this flippancy and lack of commitment. But then she realizes, turning it over in her hands. In his indirect way, he’s saying he wants her to stay.

Why bring this up at all? As best as I can explain it, this individual scene is so beautifully restrained and nuanced in a way that surpasses other lesser films. Meanwhile, Only Angels Have Wings displays all the delectable glories of a deeply satisfying adventure film from Howard Hawks. There’s drama, romance, friendship, tragedy, and a simplicity to the action lines which nevertheless feels deeply indicative of the human condition.

4.5/5 Stars

Come and Get It (1936): Frances Farmer The Hawksian Archetype

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Author Edna Ferber in both her plays and novels had a penchant for sprawling familial tales of Americana which were indubitably fortified by social issues. Come and Get It gives the initial impression of another Howard Hawks movie released the same year, Barbary Coast (1936). In fact, that’s part of the reason producer Samuel Goldwyn wanted the director, even desiring Miriam Hopkins to play opposite Spencer Tracy. Both Walter Brennan and Joel McCrea were kept from the previous project.

But the other fact of the matter was, Hawks, hailing from affluent American stock,  was purportedly related to the real-life protagonist Barney Glasgow. He was supposed to be Hawks’ grandfather. This background is another fascinating tie-in though it was the behind the scenes antics that were almost more pronounced than the film itself.

Hawks took advantage of Goldwyn’s extended leave of absence, due to ailments, to take the picture in his desired direction, centering it around masculine adventure and love. In a satisfying casting decision, Edward Arnold is given a starring turn as ambitious lumberjack foreman Barney Glasgow. His most faithful pal is the affable Swede, Swan Bostrom (Walter Brennan), ever ready with his catchphrase, “Yumpin Yiminy.”

The world they inhabit is glorious, set against the snow-capped woodlands of Northern Wisconsin circa 1884. The timber trade is ripe and profitable. Even if the work is hard the resident workforce seems generally content.

The imagery alone is breathtaking to such a degree it feels like we are enveloped in a documentary as the trees come tumbling down and logs go shooting down the river with the furious forces of nature behind them. It is a life for those who relish the fresh air of the great outdoors and laboring with their hands. Like many Hawks films, a joint vocation is the source of camaraderie with men banding together over honest toil.

Following their final push to get the job done, Glasgow is the first to reward them with a Jamboree. The drinks are on him and everyone is in a jovial spirit. Again, we have an obvious hallmark of a Hawks picture with a communal environment we cannot help but want to be a part of. It’s infectious.

It is here where assured, husky-voiced barmaid Lotta Morgan (Frances Farmer) makes her striking debut. Full of moxie and capable of a captivating rendition of “Aura Lee,” she brings a boisterous bar to a standstill while captivating Glasgow from the first moment he ever sets eyes on her. Her song will remain a motif playing throughout the story even as the memory of her presence holds indelible weight over everyone.

The ever dubious shell game takes place but grander still is the subsequent sequence when the barroom is decimated during a brawl, not by flying fists and bodies but imminently more destructive beer trays doubling up as deadly metal frisbees. It’s in these raucous moments that love and kinship are galvanized between characters and we can understand why.

Except most of what feels Hawksian in content gives way to something else altogether; Barney forgoes the romance of a lifetime to pursue his one true love: the pursuit of wealth and power.

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The latter half of the narrative picks up in 1907. Barney Glasgow is now wealthy and successful with two grown children of his own. His son, played by Joel McCrea (once more horribly underused), is generally resentful of his father’s controlling attitude in both business and life.

Meanwhile, his daughter (Andrea Leeds) embodies a precociousness all her own, making a fine second female lead though her screentime seems minimal. She has an ongoing patter going with her father rivaling any of the chemistry found throughout the film because she brings out his most benevolent side.

But we must also talk about Lotta (Frances Farmer once more) the daughter of Swan and the now deceased barmaid. Because she immediately captivates Barney as her mother did before her. Though I relish Arnold in a leading role as he was far too often relegated to supporting authoritative figures, he does get a bit cringe-worthy by the film’s latter half.

Because the context has changed. He’s an older man now completely taken with his buddy’s daughter because she’s the spitting image of her deceased mother, the woman they both loved once upon a time. The aberrant shades of Vertigo (1959) become increasingly evident even as they try and hide under the guise of generosity and general gaiety.

He’s old enough to be her father. In fact, his son is taken with her too. They don’t get much time to forge any chemistry between them but a taffy pulling sequence facilitates the environment to muck about making a mess and trading repartee long enough for sparks to fly.

The behind-the-scenes turmoil between Hawks and Goldwyn and then Ferber’s own disappointment with the reworking of the storyline meant William Wyler was all but forced to finish up the picture. A task he hardly relished, even looking to distance himself as far as possible from the picture later on.

It’s true that his style and that of Hawks do feel diametrically opposed but it does make for a fascinating case study because it feels like there is a fairly clean break where we see one man’s influence on the story end and another man’s, meticulous and more restrained tendencies, beginning.

As such, the most boisterous and thematic elements give way to wistful and tense emotions that ironically are not too far removed from Wyler’s Dodsworth (1936), also made the same year.

If Hawks had stayed on the picture, you get the sense it would have erred more on the side of bravado and comedy. We have fist fights and a strange love triangle that can easily be seen as some kind of father-son precursor to Red River (1948).

But Wyler sets the scene in a drawing room between father and son commencing in a fist fight with a tinge of melodrama. It seems a far cry from our point of entry and even as the film winds down to come to some sort of conclusion, there is a mild tinge of regret Hawks was not able to see the film to completion. But he was a singular mind not willing for a great deal of compromise.

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One could contend not only the film but France Farmer, his latest muse who he had groomed for the part, suffered dearly. Of course, McCrea, Brennan, and even Arnold would have fruitful careers in Hollywood for years to come. It is not that this film sunk Farmer by any means but what could have been a shining achievement was slightly neutered due to the last minute personnel shuffling.

Of course, her career would take another hit when she was wrongfully interned within a mental institution in 1942 following a tumultuous episode. Indubitably her story was laced with tragedy upon tragedy and yet this film gives glimpses of her quality as an actress.

It’s this whole slew of elements compounded together making Come and Get It feel like a dark horse. It shouldn’t be good. The flaws and inconsistencies are evident and yet through some curious means, it manages to be an endearing picture channeling both pathos and virile liveliness. Those can be attributed to the directors at its core.

True, the social implications involving nature conservation aren’t resounding but it still manages to suggest the need to care for our environment in the stead of money-grubbing business. Even people who seem generous like Arnold are, nevertheless, beholden to an old way of life.

Above all, the talent comes out in spades making for a compelling portrait of the Hollywood machine at its height during the 1930s — warts and all. If there are many familiar talents, then the showcase we can be most appreciative of is Frances Farmers.

Rather than rue the fact her star never shined as brightly as it might have, we can be thankful for the visibly incandescent qualities on display, even just this once. Because, really, it only takes one picture to immortalize someone for cinematic posterity.

She is the Hawksian heroine you’ve never seen before and would never get another chance to witness. From her descend the Lauren Bacall and the Ella Raines archetypes, along with many others. It is no small wonder Hawks himself claimed her to be the best actress he ever worked with. High praise indeed.

4/5 Stars

Three on a Match (1932): The Epitome of Hollywood Pre-Code

ThreeOnAMatch.jpgThe Pre-Code era of Hollywood is a legitimate marvel because in a span of only a few solitary years was a period of filmmaking bursting at the seams with vice, corruption, and licentiousness that we would never see again until the late 1960s.

One could say that each of these elements was merely an exploitive measure to get folks in the sits. No question about it. However, that’s not to say the era is devoid of meaning nor is Three on a Match any less evocative. In retrospect, we look at something like this and it’s not simply a cultural artifact for us to engage with, one could assert just as vehemently that it was more indicative of the human condition than many later films coming out of the Hollywood mills. Scan the contemporary news columns and you might have to agree. In fact, that’s much of what director Mervyn LeRoy does.

He rapidly spans time with a proliferation of news clippings. They are not simply a montage effect but a continual storytelling device that are almost sinews to this story which must function with hyperawareness of its timescale. Ricocheting with time jumps that you almost get used to by the end and each one is out of pure necessity. Remember with 63 minutes you have to scrimp with every minute. From a historical perspective alone, it’s an absolute goldmine with cinematic images to fit right alongside the current events.

The title Three on a Match seems a foreign concept now but it comes from the old wive’s tale that if three people light a cigarette from the same match the odds are one of them will die. It is often incorrectly cited as originating in the trenches during WWI. Instead, it was the advertising gimmick of a Swedish matchbox salesman to drum up more business.

The story itself ambitiously begins in adolescence with three girls. Mary Keaton (Joan Blondell) is the wayward one who looks to be headed toward a reformatory and sure enough, she grows up and winds up in such a life. Vivian Revere (Ann Dvorak) is the purported “good girl” who ends up with a fine education and marrying a wealthy lawyer (Warren Williams) but she finds her life and her marriage dull and unfulfilling. Meanwhile, little Ruth Westcott (Bette Davis) has grown up into a pretty stenographer who nevertheless is relegated to playing the third fiddle. No matter, Davis would get her revenge in an illustrious career to come.

The root of the drama crops up from Vivian’s dissatisfaction with life because being the understanding husband that he is, Mr. Kirkwood proposes she take a trip away with their little son so she can clear her mind and come back refreshed. She jumps at the opportunity.

Adultery is such an insidious thing since you never consciously think you are going to be unfaithful; I imagine it just ambushes you as it does for Vivian. She meets a man (Lyle Talbot) who is charming and the bubbly is flowing. She has few cares in the world and conveniently has neglected her son. Whom does she have to thank for this good time? Why, it’s Mary. Except Mary has changed; she’s a different person, chiding her old classmate to think before she throws her life away. The tides have changed with the reprobate teaching the classy one something about life.

To divulge any more would ruin the surprise but there’s little doubt, it’s sordid stuff with some mild sense of morality. We have drugs, adultery, scandal, and suicide all rolled up into one tightly woven package. Dvorak is devastating in her self-destructive spiral as Blondell commands the film’s stalwart center.

The most unexpected star is little Junior who is a precocious performer, lovable in every scene he shares with his bevy of costars but also a striking reminder of how innocent children are. To neglect them is to disregard the imperative of parenthood to provide for your progeny with an unselfish, unswerving, sacrificial love.

The rest of the gang are all assigned their assorted parts that became their mainstays. Humphrey Bogart becomes the quintessential heavy in a matter of moments. Ed Arnold is the exacting kingpin overseeing everything. Allen Jenkins is another tough customer with little heart or soul.

It might do well as a companion piece to Night Nurse, which also involves little children being exploited. Joan Blondell gives a spunky turn in both even as the plots verge on the utterly ludicrous and are remembered now as much for their louche content than the actual details of their plots. Part of that has to do with how unusual it seems, especially with the laissez-faire attitude of the production codes at the time.

But also in this specific case, the Lindberg kidnapping indubitably was still fresh in the minds of the viewing public, lending some credence to the believability of such a tale. That’s the key. However absurdly a plotline might slingshot this way or that, as long as something grounds it, even momentarily, in reality, it can captivate us. Three on a Match is not a phenomenal film outright but within its means, it manages to be economically diverting.

3/5 Stars