Possessed (1931): Joan Crawford and The “In” Crowd

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We open up on the Acme Paper Box Co., which has a down-and-dirty industry strewn about its edges. If the people flooding out of the factory are any indication, this will be a dusty, grubby, little picture.

Two of their employees are Al Manning (Wallace Ford) and Marian Martin (Joan Crawford). He’s a concrete worker with a penchant for bricks, and he’s also positively smitten with her. Meanwhile, her gaze is focused somewhere else. She’s not about to settle for “happiness on an installment plan.”

It’s summed up by the train tracks — a handy conduit for the luxurious upper classes who coast by with their dancing, music, and cocktails. They have no idea about a life like Marian’s, nor do they have any reason to care about it. However, she gravitates toward them, peering in at their affluence from the outside. She would do anything to breach the space in between.

She does meet one fellow as he knocks a few drinks back and stares out at the sorry landscape. They strike up a momentary conversation; it’s nothing more and nothing less, but it leaves an impression. Among other things, he tells her there two kinds of people: those who are “in” and those who are “out.” And before he’s whisked away, he offers her one of his cards like a (drunk) gentleman.

Richard “Skeets” Gallagher, a character who ultimately becomes of minor importance, nevertheless fascinates me for some unequivocal reason. As best as can be described, he is the kind of actor who feels stuck in the 1930s, and I mean it as a kind of backhanded compliment. There’s a frequency to his voice perfect for radio tones but somehow it’s hard to see him existing outside the era. That’s perfectly alright.

At any rate, intrepid Marian having eaten the fruit, so-to-speak, and gained knowledge about their world, can never go back to her simple ignorance. Instead, she returns to her mother and Al telling tales of what she’s just seen.

In the city, folks see the world as a woman’s oyster. Poor folks think men are meant to go out and get whatever they can out of life; women are meant to stay where they and get married. If anything is obvious, Joan Crawford’s not one for the shabby status quo. So she goes out and does something about it.

However, she really is in a sorry state, showing up on the doorstep of the one man she knows in town. With nothing else to lose, she tries to sneak her way into a lucky break, fumbling around brazenly, foot in her mouth, but she’s definitely got guts. There are no pretenses when she tries to get in with his friends; she’s a straight-forward gold digger and she knows what she wants.

For some, that’s a turnoff. For self-assured up-and-coming statesmen Mark Whitney (Clark Gable), he finds it oddly attractive and so he gladly leads her by the arm and allows her the benefit of his bounty. A few years down the road she’s made strides in the life of a social hostess. For all intent and purposes, she acts as the perfect wife. Directing the servants, choosing the wine, throwing dinner parties like a seasoned professional.

What’s the big reveal, you ask? They’re not married. They have a mutual agreement and being pragmatic seems to have paid off. Even as she continues to educate herself in the finer things, including French and German loves songs, there’s still something in her upbringing that sympathizes with a lowly tramp brought to one of their gatherings. The woman feels woefully, even uncomfortably, out of place, surrounded by so much class.

Marian realizes no manner of jewels or perfume can totally cover her own genetic makeup. The gravest development in the story starts in Crawford’s own character. She settles in and softens up. In some ways, she wants marriage, because she’s gone and fallen in love. It’s no longer a convenient relationship with fringe benefits.

Right here, it’s evident how it courts similar themes as Back Street or any movie about women trapped in somewhat unenviable positions in a society where their only recourse is to take what they can get by any means necessary. We pity them even as some of their actions feel unfortunate.

Al comes to the city bitten with the same bug that once got her, with the goal of making “the big time,” asking favors from the man she’s already attached to. He’s utterly ignorant of what he’s stepped into — what Marian’s arrangement entails — still, he knows what he wants.

It should be noted Clark Gable never gets a lingering closeup as fine as the ones extended to Crawford. After all, her name is over the title credits, not his. But what’s refreshing about his character — he doesn’t feel like an out-and-out cad — there’s some integrity to him. Still, life must complicate everything. Their relationship begins to disintegrate, on the behest of friends and advisors, as he must make a choice between a political career a woman.

A new normal is soon established. The wheels of the political movement begin to spin, unnamed naysayers look to stir up scandal against him, and Marian somehow evaporates into the background. The final scene is the lynchpin of it all. Joan Crawford feels like an anonymous civilian walking through the rain with her umbrella and mac amid the usual foot traffic. They all make their way to a grand pavilion with posters of her man plastered on all sides.

In a purely cinematic moment, she takes the stand on his defense and gives a tearful, overly sincere annunciation of his character. It wins over the audience as she’s overcome with emotion and stumbles out in tears.

Again, the key is that we follow Joan. We are with her as she bursts through the doors and totters her way out onto the street with the rain pelting her as she labors up the stairs…That’s when her leading man comes and wraps her up in his arms. It’s what these old movies were made for. The final embrace propelled by emotion and buoyed by the attractive glamour of their stars.

Enough films of the era take a bleaker road; it’s safe enough to give this one its Hollywood ending. It is Hollywood after all, the land where Lucille Laseurr could become Joan Crawford: one of the most indelible figures Hollywood ever created.

3.5/5 Stars

You Can’t Take It With You (1938): Quality Capra

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This is my post in The 120 “Screwball” Years of Jean Arthur Blogathon put on by the Wonderful World of Cinema!

Mr. Kirby (Edward Arnold), or A.P. as his deferential colleagues call him, is a business magnate with innumerable successful endeavors. He has the full pockets to go along with a career full of shrewd decisions. And the latest scheme he’s worked up just might be the granddaddy of them all, that is, if it weren’t for the obliging grandfather in his way.

It stands to reason if Kirby can secure the 12 blocks around the Ramsey company, his one sole remaining competitor, he can cripple them out of business with a large scale monopoly, therefore controlling the munitions industry outright.

It’s a representation of the ugliest strain of free market capitalism. This is not the type of carte blanche you want ruling business, especially in Frank Capra’s world. Still, Kirby wants no interference and that means even Martin Vanderhoff must go. He throws one of his cronies, the perpetually twitching Clarence Wilson, at the problem to get it resolved by any means necessary.

But lest you think the man is merely an old crank who won’t sell out, Lionel Barrymore (now crippled by worsening arthritis) walks into the picture on crutches and mesmerizes the entire audience with his instant charisma. This isn’t quite UP, nor is he just a silly little man gumming up the works. Well, maybe he is, but he finds strength in family. That and his given temperament are all the better for doing battle with Mr. Kirby, indirectly though it maybe.

Lionel Barrymore is defined in modern generations solely by the curmudgeon Mr. Potter and little else. What You Can’t Take It With You is a superlative reminder of is just how magnetic an actor he was in all sorts of parts. Here he serves as the affable glue holding the picture together at the seams and spinning wisdom throughout the neighborhood.

It begins by recruiting other “lilies of the field” including the timid Mr. Poppins (Donald Meek) who leaves behind the job he’s been slaving away at to follow his passions. You see, he makes things.

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There’s something innately compelling about the life Mr. Vanderhoff leads. In fact, it’s a bit of a practical utopia. He doesn’t work. He follows his fancy, whether sliding down the banisters, playing his harmonica, or going to the graduations to listen to the speeches. Still, he gets by and feels deeply contented holding malice towards none. The prayers he sends up to the big man upstairs are irreligious, frank, but genuine in nature.

His family takes much the same approach ,and they’ve built for themselves a comfortable if altogether quirky family commune.  Tony Kirby’s not far off when he surmises it’s “Like living in the world of Walt Disney.

Grandpa does all the aforementioned activities including collecting stamps because it’s what he likes best. Mr. Sycamore makes fireworks because he never grew up and mother writes plays because a typewriter was delivered to the house by mistake. Mr. Poppins feels right at home in the basement workshop devoted to all sorts of fanciful tinkering with a raven hopping about. Meanwhile, the precocious Essie (Ann Miller) jaunts around in ballet slippers to her husband’s xylophone playing.

Charles Lane’s IRS income tax man paying a house call and grating up against the libertarian, pragmatism of Grandpa is a hint of conflict just waiting to come to a head. Of course, all of this would add up to nothing if it weren’t for the central romance spawning the indelible chemistry between James Stewart and Jean Arthur.

Because they are a bit of the prototypical Romeo & Juliet passion. He’s set up in his father’s business with no aspirations whatsoever to take over the family firm, and she is his typist with no status to her name. But we never once forget who these people are, and they are adorable together.

They forego the stuffy ballet for two front row seats at a much more attractive park bench, complete with daydreamy small talk and a personal show by a pack of real toe-tapping tykes. Then, it comes to meeting the parents at a well-to-do restaurant and in the sheer awkwardness of the scene, one cannot help but reminisce about Hepburn and Grant’s own high jinks from Bringing up Baby. This one involves a humorous tag, some phantom mice scurrying about, and so on and so forth (you get the idea).

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However, the creme de la creme has to be his parents coming over for dinner to meet Alice’s family under the most embarrassing circumstances, just as whimsical bedlam sets in. Xylophones, dancing, darts, exploding fireworks. You name it and they’re doing it. In fact, it’s enough for them to get raided by the police and serve time down at the courthouse waiting for bail — the Kirbys included. It’s the proverbial nail in the coffin.

I’m not sure if he was genius or not, but Capra had a knack for capturing the organic mayhem of a bustling courtroom to a tee. You Can’t Take It With You‘s finale uses the judicial arena to bring the story out of despair. There are words traded, a $100 fine enacted, and the passing of the charity hat, with the same outpouring of generosity from the common folk George Bailey would later be blessed with. Even the benevolent judge (Harry Davenport) throws into the pot.

And obviously, there is no Capracorn without the inspired quill of Robert Riskin. Watching more and more of Capra’s collaborations with Robert Riskin, there is the sneaking suspicion that the screenwriter has as much to do with this American optimism we so often attribute to the director. Because the words, the scenarios, the characters are constructed in such a way to draw on these deep-running themes time and time again.

You Can’t Take It With You is an unequivocal reminder that these prevailing themes of humanity never quite go away; they only reimagine themselves and return with a vengeance. The patriarch laments the fact nowadays most everyone says “Think the way I do or I’ll bomb the daylights out of you.” If this aphorism was true in a pre-war society, think how much more pertinent it remains in a hyper-polarized, antagonizing social media age.

You can scoff out their resolutions as needlessly naive or champion them as eternal optimists. Regardless, in the world dreamed up here, it’s not just the lion laying down with the lamb. The banker can play harmonica with the country bumpkin and pick up the Russian in a fireman’s carry. If that’s not a bit of paradise, I’m not sure what is.

4/5 Stars

Drums Along The Mohawk (1939): Ford, Fonda, and Colbert

Drumsalongthemohawk.jpgRecently, it’s come to my attention there is really is a dearth of colonial America pictures between the likes of Disney’s Johnny Tremain and Mel Gibson’s The Patriot. The reasons seem somewhat obvious at least in the current day and age. Period pieces cost money and such material feels crusty unless you spice it up with ingenuity a la Hamilton.

For anyone who might want a dose of debatably historical entertainment, there’s Drums Along The Mohawk. Because what it cannot claim in the realm of accuracy, it more than makes up for with the usual shading of classic Hollywood reined in by a consummate professional directorial eye like John Ford’s.

This particular narrative begins with a newly wedded couple in Colonial America Lana (the always glamorous Claudette Colbert) and Gil (a severe-looking Henry Fonda). The ceremony takes place in a grand estate, and it’s true Lana comes from a wealthy family. In this regard, it’s easy to buy Colbert in this part given her image and even easier to comprehend her dismay when she is met with the stone-cold reality of frontier life.

Because, as it happens, Gil has sectioned off a plot of land near the Mohawk River, building a rudimentary log cabin just to get them started as they get on their feet as farmers. For his wife, it’s a shock to the system with the pelting rain and a late-night visit by the generally benevolent Native American: Blueback.

Fresh off their honeymoon, they make the acquaintance of the dubious John Carradine with allegiance to the Tories, matched by veiled threats of a potential Indian uprising. Otherwise, all the rest of the local folks are amicable, welcoming the Martins into their tight-knit community with open arms.

Like any God-fearing populous, they have church on Sundays and a ragtag militia carried away by the “Spirit of ’76.” It proves inconsequential when their homes get ravaged and razed to the ground by marauding Indians, an admittedly faceless tribe, catalyzed by a loyalist.

Until this point, Along The Mowhawk is not altogether compelling, despite our director and leads. However, it settles into its own when our protagonists have nothing; it forces them to make a crucial decision. They seek refuge on the farm of a blunt widow with enough gumption (and covert kindness) to make a new life seem feasible.

The word from the church pulpit is the most hilarious foray in comedy as the preacher takes a dig at Massachusetts men and notes the battle at hand, meaning that all men are expected to report or else be hung! He ends it with a resounding Amen. It’s old-time religion if there ever was such a thing, complete with an earsplitting “Hallelujah” from one of the good Christians.

A worthy image in the Ford catalog comes when the men march off in their column snaking down the dirt road, off into the distance, with the womenfolk watching them leave. It has the tangible sense of space — the assurance of a painting — informing the best pictorials of the director. The simplest measure of excellence is the fact it’s pleasing to the eye.

But of course, when soldiers go off to war some die and the rest come back as changed men. We recall the horror, the almost shell-shocked nature, of war.  Henry Fonda plainly detailing what they saw out in the thicket when they got ambushed is too real. You begin to remember this is right on the advent of WWII. WWI is still a heavy burden on America’s mind as the war to end all wars.

Within the context of this film, it becomes an even more complicated comparison when you place the antagonism of Americans versus The British of the colonial era with the soon-to-be conflict between Britain and The Nazis. In fact, Ford seems to make a distinction between calling the enemy “Tories” versus the British. In 200 years allegiances have changed a great deal.

However, it wouldn’t be a true Ford picture without folks kicking up their heels in a fit of merriment to fight off the dark tides with a joyful show of community. Ward Bond gets his finest moments opposite Mrs. McKlennar, calling into question her prowess in drinking and kissing. She gaily obliges. Meanwhile, in a lowly lit corner, Lana prays these good times might never end. Of course, they do.

Homes are burnt to the ground again. The townsfolk are forced to fall back to their fort to stave off the enemy onslaught in one valorous stand. It feels like a melding of apocryphal American Revolution history, “Remember The Alamo” sentiment and a moderate dose of Ford’s own mythologizing about the frontier. It’s not his very best, but there is a basic flare for the spectacle.

If we might try to encapsulate the reverberating theme to the last line, it would be fitting to evoke Revolutionary War General Nathanael Greene who is quoted as saying, “We fight, get beat, rise, and fight again.” Ford’s film reinforces this as being the American way. The only question remains who really gains the right to this way of life.

3.5/5 Stars

Jesse James (1939): Tyrone Power & Henry Fonda

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Reputed screenwriting scribe Nunnally Johnson starts off on clever footing by giving his mythic western hero an obvious antagonist. It was the railroad — that lawless iron horse — forcing Jesse James into the position of a criminal. Though he would evolve over time into the complicated human being projecting his legend, at least in the beginning, he was all but driven to take the mantle of an outlaw. At least in this telling. 

In making his hero fully sympathetic, Johnson has cast James as a western Robin Hood righting the wrongs perpetrated against him and others based the bloodthirsty land grabbing of railroad companies. Brian Donlevy, still yet to be promoted from his heavy roles, makes his rounds swindling the general populous and using more persuasive tactics to swipe their holdings.

Content notwithstanding, Jesse James is just about the glossiest possible extravaganza, you could offer a cold-blooded outlaw. The early Technicolor is gorgeous to behold, and in these prime early years of their careers, Tyrone Power and Henry Fonda aren’t in need of any favors.

Jesse James (Power) is nothing more than a gee-whiz country bumpkin when we first set eyes on him. His big brother Frank (Henry Fonda) sits in the house lazily chawing on tobacco. Despite living with their concerned mother (Jane Darwell), they aren’t squeamish about sticking up for their own. They also aren’t about to be squandered out of their land without a fight, and they’re ready to oblige any strong-armed tactics thrown their way. Dunlevy doesn’t stand a chance.

As they flee into the night with reward posters calling for them to be dragged in for a hefty reward, they on take the mantle of fugitives almost out of necessity. It’s not merely about absconding with payloads for their own pleasure. This is a form of just retribution to be enacted against the corrupt machine belching smoke and literally railroading every poor sap in its way.

A codgerly newspaperman (Henry Hull) is one of their primary champions, though each week spawns a new tirade, whether it be lawyers or dentists or any insufferable faction who are all destroying society as we know it. Rufus Cobb is one of the voices rallying the public on Jesse’s behalf because it is his daughter Zerelda (Nancy Kelly) that the man has an eye for, but he also genuinely likes the lad.

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Even as the James’ boys notoriety grows, Jesse and Zee get hitched in an impromptu church wedding. They find out, even among this congregation, they have a great deal of friends.

For every conceited businessman represented by diminutive railroad baron Mr. McCoy (a comically demonstrative Donald Meek), there is another humble, salt-of-the-earth human being like local Marshall Will Wright (Randolph Scott). He knows the law, in all its strictness, calls for him to chase down James as a craven villain. In his own way, he’s cheering for him to live another day, even as he turns the other way on at least one occasion.

It’s this sense of good faith and the pleading of his wife leading Jesse to turn himself into the authorities for a fair trial. The judge has vowed for leniency as negotiated by the marshall. They’re all for a fresh slate. Mr. McCoy is not such an understanding fellow. All he thinks of are dollars and cents. He uses his resources to bring in his own judge and make a harsher sentence stick.

However, he’s hardly counting on Frank James. He happens to be a brazen fellow, and when he vows to come in and retrieve his brother from jail before the stroke of midnight, you better believe he’ll keep his word or else be taken for a fool. Even after their thrilling escape — one of the most gratifying successes of the picture — we fall into a bit of a rough patch.

Not only has Jesse gone off on his own to leave his family to live without the specter of his reputation, he begins to change with the constant pressures and paranoia weighing on him daily. He’s no longer the same good-natured kid who once went on the run in a righteous coup against extortion.

While not a film you look for poignancy in, Henry Fonda is present and he does deliver one monologue that speaks to something supremely candid. Jesse has become hard and crazed, systematically alienating all those around him. And if there’s anyone who can speak to him, it’s his brother Frank. Fonda handles the scene with his usual subtleness dumping all these obvious grievances in the lap of his own flesh and blood. He encourages him to draw if he needs to. Frank’s not squeamish about it, but it’s his last-ditch effort to speak some sense into his kid brother.

What will come of Jesse if he doesn’t trust those who have still stuck with him? Of course, among the faithful, there is often a Judas. In this case, Robert Ford (John Carradine), intent on getting a payoff for stabbing his old compatriot in the back.

We understand implicitly we are reaching the beginning of the end. First, they get corralled in a town after a bank job and a hail of bullets comes raining down from any number of windows. This is not what does him in. If you’re acquainted with the history, you’re aware he got knocked off by a double-crossing skunk. Then, again, this is not the Sunday school truth. If anything, Johnson relishes tinkering with the details and coloring in the tall tales to fit his ambitions.

The verdict? Jesse James feels a bit sluggish as it runs its course. There’s not enough action or bank robberies in the span of the film to make it really feel alive with the overarching aura of the James brothers. In its most watchable moments, it functions, fundamentally, like a family drama. Even if the movie is only a minor oater, Tyrone Power and Henry Fonda are the main attractions, and they rarely disappoint.

3.5/5 Stars

Dark Victory (1939): Bette Davis at Her Best

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Dark Victory reminds one how eclectic the Warner Bros. stock company was in 1939 because, in a Bette Davis vehicle, the first visage to present itself is none other than a wry Humphrey Bogart. The movie is a veritable grab bag of assorted talent from Bogart to Ronald Reagan and even kindly, bushy-browed Henry Travers. Despite still being a supporting player (his ascension would come in two years), Bogey is having a grand old time as a smart-mouthed horse trainer named Michael O’Leary.

He is under the employment of one Judith Traherne (Davis) who is coming off her most recent bender, living it up in local social circles. It’s an obvious first impression although, as time goes on, we get quite a different understanding of who she is as a human being. It’s often the case trials and tribulation mixed with romance have a habit of bringing out the truest essence of an individual.

For the Davis character, it begins inauspiciously enough. We expect her to be a frivolous, spirited socialite partying, drinking, smoking cigarettes, like any self-respecting belle in her position. In such a world the happy-go-lucky playboy Alex (Ronald Reagan) seems to be an impeccable match.

Her best friend Ann (Geraldine Fitzgerald) is the doting sounding board who might as well be a part of Judith. At any rate, she functions as a guardian angel constantly worried about the other’s well-being. She never fails to be by Judith’s side in all manner of circumstances — it’s almost uncanny — but cinematically, she becomes the necessary foil on which our heroine transfers all her fears.

This is a crucial relationship as the story progresses. For it is Ann who bears the brunt of the sorrow, in effect, freeing Judith to push bravely forward. Ann cries the tears so her friend doesn’t have to. But I’m getting ahead of myself. We must put it out there now that tragedy strikes.

The events are instigated in one frightening instance when Judith all but runs her horse through a jump out on the range. They are both shaken up, but the fall is written off as a lingering after-effect of the previous night’s merriment.

Still, the incidents persist. One afternoon Judith takes a tumble down the stairs while later confiding in her friend about other isolated moments and the recent hangover-induced headaches she hasn’t been able to shake.

While Judith remains peppy and bright, in all manner of speaking, there’s no question these developments have left her frazzled — her nerves undone by this unexplained erratic behavior.

At about this time, our other important character is introduced, a well-respected brain surgeon (George Brent) who is all but prepared to give up his booming practice for a more relaxed mode of medicine. It is only as a favor to a friend he even takes a look at Ms. Traherne (As a  minor side note, it’s staggering to acknowledge this was the eighth out of eleven onscreen appearances Brent made opposite Bette Davis!).

His subsequent examination is basic but wholly conclusive, and it is a clever bit of exposition instigated by director Edmund Goulding. We learn instantly the doctor’s new patient is losing some of her ocular and motor skills. It’s evident something is wrong. Though he does not frighten her in the moment, he has suspicions she is stricken with cancer.

The consequence. She’s going to die. It’s only a matter of time. The main conundrum suddenly thrust upon the doctor and Ann is a deplorable one: To tell her in all truthfulness what is inevitable or let her live in ignorance so her final days might be blissful.

What do you expect to happen? Of course, they never get the chance to make the decision. Two words: prognosis negative, are all Judith needs to put it all together. She feels betrayed and disdains their pity. She will never be the same.

The way Davis approaches each of these scenes with almost a spastic giddiness makes it different than what one might typically consider mainline Bette Davis, whether The Little Foxes or All About Eve. If anything, it reveals her immense aptitude at projecting different sides of humanity. Because she seems so very superficial only to subvert all our expectations with an unassailable strength, bolstering her in her waning days.

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The tear-jerking melodrama is a precarious affair because it must throw out all sorts of tragedies and sentimentalities while all the while compelling the audience such that they don’t completely laugh off the whole idea as poppycock. After all, it’s about the easiest thing in the world to dismiss such a picture — we’ve seen enough soaps in our days to grow weary of them — but the good ones take us through the paces and still manage to get to us.

Dark Victory is no person’s idea of a perfect film, but it does what it sets out to do quite stupendously. Even as someone never quick to fawn over Bette Davis, there’s no recourse but to laud her performance.

Not often am I fond of a Davis character, even the ones you’re meant to like. Dark Victory teeters somewhere in the middle for a while, but the sheer tornado frenzy of giggling life in the face of death wins out. It’s a testament to Davis more than anyone else as she all but sticks the landing, carrying the magnitude of the drama with her implacable performance.

The title itself, Dark Victory, initially sounds morbid or like it’s indicating some form of vindictive revenge. And yet really, this is a happier story imbued with hope in the face of said tragedy. It is a victory over the dark even as the light dissipates for Judith.

In reality, the trills of lasting romance and fearlessness in the face of the great unknown offer her vindication over her struggles. We are not meant to weep over her lot in life. Instead, taking a cue from her own outlook, we must lean into the sweetness in lieu of the tragedy.

4/5 Stars

Goodbye Mr. Chips (1939): Championing Education

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“Chips” of Brookfield School is a bit of a human institution. Now over 80 years of age and retired from his esteemed post at the school, he still is afforded a decent bit of celebrity. The years have not slowed down his wit nor the warmth behind his words. His full life has been a testament to both.

Thus, in his waning days, as he sneaks onto campus for convocation, against doctor’s orders, or takes a restful snooze in his parlor, there’s little sense of regret. The world around him is full of traditions and lineage. After all, Brookfield is a boys’ school with a certain classiness and pedigree. Reflected by the fact the professors dress in the garb we now only wear once in our scholastic career. They can be found in a cap and gown every day.

Likewise, the students are held to a certain standard of dress and expected to address their teachers in a manner customary in such environments. Still, the trilling voices of a boys’ choir hearken back to those days of yore when I was afforded the opportunity to enter such rapturous cathedrals as Canterbury, York Minster, and Lincoln. The impression they left on me is indisputable.

If we were to be critical, we might label it one of those stodgy, medieval institutions of a bygone era best forgotten in the contemporary world. Even Repton School, which served as a filming location, demonstrated long-ingrained toxic traditions of discrimination and bullying.

However, with all things, there is good to be gleaned and chaff better left on the threshing floor to be disposed of.  To be sure, the world depicted is open to such criticism, but if there is any form of antidote or satisfying counterargument it would be our unsung hero.

Because the disarming allure of this story is indebted to Mr. Chips (Robert Donat) and how he reflects all that is admirable about education. He singlehandedly removes it from a context we can never know first hand and makes platitudes and lessons universally understood. Progeny like Dead Poets Society are much the same. The time period does not matter so much as the message being preached.

The narrative succeeds in running the course of the years from his first day as a master at Brookfield up until his last, and this fluidity of time and space allows it to tell something as close to the scope of a real-life as is possible, within the time frame of two hours.

We come to realize Master Chippington was not beloved overnight. It was an arduous process full of failures and missteps. However, he does end up gaining the admiration of the boys in his stead, who were initially drawn to gags and partaking in their favorite blood sport — the undermining of their betters.

From the outset, as antiquated as these forms of British education are, we can immediately draw a bisecting line cutting straight through to the present. Because as long as there have been students and pupils, a war for supremacy has always been waged until the day where some form of mutual respect is settled upon. The struggle hasn’t changed so much as it’s evolved within new contexts.

In this age, it’s a world defined by caning for bad behavior and the promising glories of cricket cups, making all boys want to ditch their arithmetic and pointless studies for something of real substance – bragging rights out on the pitch.

Down the road, further still, he has a fresh mustache and years of experience under his belt. The boy he once consoled on the train years before is now a grown man returning to the stomping grounds of his youth; he is more an equal than a pupil. However, even someone as beloved as Chips is passed over for a promotion for housemaster. It’s the closest thing to an impediment in his career.

Gearing up for the second half, Goodbye Mr. Chips could very easily be a stuffy old drama under the watchful, if often moribund eye of Sam Wood. With leads so winsome and spry as Robert Donat and the ever effervescent Greer Garson, there’s little danger of such a grisly fate.

It’s true you only need one or two stellar pictures to have a career worth remembering for the ages. So it is with Donat. Despite being plagued by terminal asthma and dying fairly young, he stringed together several prominent roles, including Hitchcock’s 39 Steps, all but canonizing him as one of Britain’s finest leading men of the 1930s.

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Meanwhile, Greer Garson still boasted a scintillating career ahead of her all through the 40s and 50s. The key to her enormous allure is on display front and center in Mr. Chips. She’s likable in any manner of speaking, gaining the immediate endearment of the audience, and never doing anything to alienate them thereafter.

But one is led to ask, in all of this vocational work in a boys’ school, where is one to happen upon Ms. Garson? The Alps, of course. What a lovely treat to have them both together propped up in the foggy mountainside sharing an amicable chat. There is still a certain propriety upheld when a man happens upon a woman. This is maintained and yet Katherine at the same time manages to be highly enlightened. Heaven forbid, she rides a new-fangled bicycle contraption in a dress (not side-saddle) and even holds aspirations to vote one day.

Regardless, she is a sanguine spirit who injects Chip’s vocation with a newfound idealism (even bestowing him with his apt nickname). She makes it exciting and heroic, breathing new life into his seemingly humdrum position, and it bleeds into the entire institution.

But first, there is the hesitant romance born while dancing the Waltz in Vienna. With Greer Garson in arm, any man would fly at the chance, and Chippington does his due diligence, dusting off his college dance moves. The marriage proposal in the wake of a departing train is the delightful capstone to the courtship. There are more joys to come.

The newly minted Mrs. Chippington brings the teachers’ room to a standstill with her utter radiance. In fact, it seems to happen just about any time she walks into a room or interacts with anyone. Garson leaves you glowing just being in her mere presence. They’re stupefied Chipping could have such good fortune, and yet they deeply deserve one another. She grants his life a newfound warmth and levity…

What a life it is — even in the cinema — where times at once so vibrant can be so unceremoniously quashed by adversity. It’s affecting in a very concrete manner. What’s even weightier is how time marches ever onward without much fanfare.

The indiscriminate carnage of WWI is felt within the halls of the school — it’s youthful ranks all but decimated by the bloodshed. One also recognizes Chips has witnessed so much. Generations, entire families, having passed under his tutelage. It is one of the wonders of education because I had the pleasure of having such a teacher in my life.

Being the youngest of three siblings, not everyone knows you as an entity connected with family. He might as well be our Mr. Chips, teaching at our high school for well nigh 50 years. The institutions of education have changed, but the merits of them have not. They become far more than facts and figures. They are a place to mature, cultivate character, and encourage individual thinking and fresh ideas to impact the world for the better.

Can we claim all of this is directly connected directly to education? I’m not sure, but I do know quality teachers have an immeasurable impact even as mediocre ones kill the same fertile grounds of knowledge. As the world changes, the need for excellent teachers is no less vital for the upkeep of our society at-large.

In his final hours, the frail Master Chippington is pitied for the lonely life he had. It’s true he lost loved ones. He beget no children of his own, and yet he peacefully asserts he engendered thousands of children. Because every lad from the ubiquitous Colley family (all portrayed by Terry Kilburn) and every other Tom, Dick, and Harry, whoever came through the halls of his school, was like a son. It’s not a mere sentiment. In his heart of hearts, he knows it. They do too. A life only has consequence based on how it is able to bless others. Mr. Chips understood this fact only too well.

What an amiable movie Goodbye Mr. Chips is championing pleasantness over any strain of abrasive negativity. It’s hardly fashionable, provocative, or radically cutting-edge. Then again, maybe a dose of chipper, idealistic entertainment goes against the grain in this often disillusioned world of ours. It has the power to melt your heart in the best possible way. In its place is left a warm smile.

4/5 Stars

Note: Goodbye Mr. Chips features a special dedication to producer Irving Thalberg who died suddenly in 1936. His impact on pictures such as this one cannot be understated.

Story of The Last Chrysanthemum (1939): A Traditional Japanese Epic

The_Story_of_the_Last_Chrysanthemum.jpgAkira Kurosawa is obviously known for samurai pictures — the famed chambara genre  — and Yasjiro Ozu is most sedulous when it comes to the relational bonds between parents and children in Japanese society. However, in some sense, of the so-called “Big-Three,” it is Kenji Mizoguchi who is most obviously attached to the Japanese tradition. I mean this in the way his visual style fluidly mirrors the range of Japanese arts.

The Story of The Last Chrysanthemum is a fascinating portrait because as with any early picture from a forthcoming master, it bears some of the marks that would come to define his career at its most sublime. Due to its availability, the subject matter, and the cinematography, it’s quite seamless to arrive at this extrapolation. Because this is a story set in the past and borrowing liberally from kabuki culture.

It’s also convenient to liken many of the uninterrupted takes to a constantly unfurling scroll. The art form obviously has deep roots in Japanese culture and Mizoguchi uses his camera in a similar manner to capture actions. The setups feel complex, especially for the day and age. Even with a print that proved less than stellar, there’s no ignoring the meticulous nature of the shots marked by invention and a highly novel mise-en-scene.

The beauty of these observations is that the director would only continue to evolve and mature with time. Staying away from close-ups means there’s this continual conveyance of a certain amount of distance. It’s not necessarily about not having an intimate relationship with the material, instead, it feels much more like we are given license to take in everything. We are given a very concrete position as a viewer ruminating in a piece of art.

I think of Ozu as being a master interior filmmaker. Much of the same might be said of his contemporary, though their methods are different. There is, of course, the prominent use of dolly shots you would never find in the other’s work. There is also a fluidity and a movement to Mizoguchi’s work, which nevertheless, should never be confused with the dynamicism of Kurosawa. It stands on its own individuality.

At the center of our story is a young stage performer named Kikunosuke, who is the adopted son of a famed actor and a hopeless performer hardly worthy of the family name. Everyone criticizes him behind his back: geishas, fellow actors, even his own father.

What’s worse, few are willing to give him the truth, instead offering him empty encouragement and stroking his ego. In fact, he’s only popular because of his bloodline; all the naysayers contemptuously note he’s riding on the coattails of his father’s glory. As a result, they’re either jealous of his good fortune or intent on using him to get ahead.

It frustrates him, rightfully so, and he wants to leave them all behind. Except there is one individual who is different: a young woman. Fittingly, Mizoguchi uses a fascinating shot to introduce their relationship. The woman stands, holding her charge, an infant child in her arms. They cross paths and begin to walk with one another. However, it’s the most curious perspective almost as we are in a trench following along as the man and woman have a normal walk-and-talk.

Otoku is the only person who will tell it to him straight and even this is indirect — merely hinted at. In English, we might call her a church mouse, the subservient one who is subsequently the only character bearing any sense. She goes ever further in her bashful yet concerted effort to encourage him. One day he might be something. It’s alright to enjoy the pleasures of life, but he is an artist and he should appreciate and hone his art.

Her behavior is scandalous in others’ eyes. Her indiscretions are deemed impertinent as she has forgotten her place in a rigid society. The young woman is subsequently dismissed from her post leaving the young master stricken with anxiety.

In fact, he does everything in his power to track her down, and he does. The striking part is how he is all but ready to renounce his family name, which in any culture is the ultimate insult, but in Japan, it’s even harsher. Family is everything. The fact he is adopted is a lingering embarrassment. He resolves to make his own way.

Life begins anew on the road, kicking around in another theater, then a traveling troupe. 4 years are cruelly lost with a title card transition. The road has been a hard taskmaster making the man resentful and callous. His wife now is still a genial spirit, but he is struggling to love her as he did before. All he has is bitterness, thanks to a constricting life he cannot break out of.

However, he receives one final chance at redemption, thanks to the behind door pleading of his faithful wife. She’s so devoted to him and his career, in fact, she’s prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice. Analogous themes can be gleaned from the likes of Ozu and Naruse, but there’s no neglecting how central they seem to Mizoguchi’s entire oeuvre. There is no way to ignore their primacy throughout.

Kabuki is rarely shown in full motion — the behind the scenes drama is more pertinent — and when it is shown, in the climactic performance, it lacks gravitas. It is one of the few moments Last Chrysanthemums’ length does seem to catch up with it. However, in admitting my own inadequacies, this could admittedly speak more to my ignorance of kabuki than the actual merit of the sequences.

What strikes me is the overt implications. Kikunosuke is finally the success he always hoped to be. And yet, without his guiding light, success means nothing. Even as there is this implied sense of sacrifice for the sake of loved ones, one is bound to ask, at what cost?

Only two years after Stella Dallas, we have much the same weight in a sacrificial relationship. This one feels even more scalding given Japan’s deep traditions of submission and subjugation of women. 

At a substantial 2 hours and 20 minutes, The Story of The Last Chrysanthemum is a lugubrious epic but artfully done on all accounts. I look forward to seeing a better print in the future because the masters deserve only the best treatment. There’s no question Mizoguchi deserves such distinction.

4/5 Stars

In Name Only (1939): Carole & Cary

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If you know very little about In Name Only and only see the two acting forces who lead the charge: Cary Grant and Carole Lombard, you would come to expect a comedy on almost any given occasion. Oddly enough, this movie is very much a melodrama, though our two stars have fine chemistry and meet in what very well could have been the beginnings of a fine screwball romance under different circumstances.

Julie Eden (Lombard) is doing her best to fly fish, but the overhanging trees are trying even harder to impede her progress. The typical scowling Lombard stanky eye is hard at work, while another familiar face wonders into view from on horseback — only to have her line snag on the tree right near him. He eyes it wryly.

A moment later Alec Walker (Grant) introduces himself as she sheepishly continues — this was all perfectly normal and she meant to do everything — only for him to tell her there hasn’t been any fish in the pond for 20 years. They are one pratfall away from screwball comic proportions, and yet they chart an alternative course.

She has a young daughter. Her husband has died and so she gets by on her own. And Alec, while it’s easy enough to surmise he’s yet another happy-go-lucky Cary Grant playboy, not so fast with your judgments.

He wanders back to a family estate, uncomfortable in the rooms, dodging the needling questions of his concerned father (Charles Coburn), and avoiding the gaze of his perfectly upstanding wife (Kay Francis)…That’s it, isn’t it? He’s already married and these first impressions suggest, unhappily so.

Ironically, divorce proves a crucial element of the plot on this occasion like its counterparts within the subset of “Comedy of Remarriage,” most of which came into being solely because of the rigid structure of the Production Codes. The fact divorce is uttered at all — beyond simply a euphemistic trip to Reno — is, in itself, slightly novel.

If one is to find fault with In Name Only, in retrospect, the plot feels akin to putting such talented actors as Grant and Irene Dunne in a drama like Penny Serenade when you already had them together in such an uproarious movie like The Awful Truth.

In other words, despite the quality of the movie,  it’s a minor letdown because, in this case, we don’t even have another hilarious pairing of the two heavyweights to fall back on (although they were paired in two earlier dramas).

Regardless, we must take it for what it is and enjoy what does work. To dispel any fears, In Name Only isn’t primarily a sudser — at least not in the beginning. In fact, with a pair such as Grant and Lombard as they drum up their romantic rapport together, they can’t help but be sweet, sprinkling in their normally humorous proclivities.

It comes naturally when dealing with the situations around them. Namely, for Grant, it involves the gossips and snooty company he’s forced to parley with — folks he has no tolerance for. On one occasion over Thanksgiving, he very blatantly requests the waiter to bring a very sharp knife with his steak. All the better to poke or, better yet, cut the throat of the insufferable Suzanne (Helen Vinson).

For that matter, it’s a positive delight to see Kay Francis make a prominent return to the screen. Her box office pull had waned significantly since the first half of the decade. Still, despite the change in genre, she comes to play. Francis proves wonderfully manipulative — positively lowdown and conniving — those iconic features of hers intent on any cold mode of deception to get their way.

As Alec’s wife, she’s constantly nettling him in subtle ways — playing mental games to make his life miserable — as he’s made to look the cad. However, she hides her perfidiousness between a perfectly manicured matrimonial mask. The in-laws remain constantly on her side as she easily casts herself as the victim and makes her husband the unsung villain. But for the movie to work, we must be in his corner, despite all else. Who are we kidding? He’s Cary Grant. Despising him is a tall order (Notorious wasn’t released yet).

Mere friendship cannot be maintained under such conditions. Not only does society frown upon it, Julie cannot bear to exist in such a manner. Instead, she desires to never see him again, in an effort to not make life any harder and the feelings more complicated than they already are.

Because left untethered, humans can always play the wishful what-if games until you must actually deal with cold, hard reality. In this story, Grant is married and there’s no dismissing the facts.

Remember these were the days when the institution of marriage was taken very seriously (which is not necessarily a bad thing), but it does become an issue when people get into it who never seemed to love one another in the first place — it’s a bit like living a lie. The solution seems easy enough. They aren’t happy together. Surely an amicable split is in order. Cary asks. Kay condones it. Easy as pie…

And thus, the film lulls into an interim period that all comes too easily — no kicking and screaming spouse, no broken furniture or anything like that. After all, Maida’s M.O. is far more cunning. She has an altogether more insidious plan laid out for her husband, who is thanking his lucky stars he’s had such an easy time of it. He could not be more mistaken.

As alluded to, Maida is prepared for the long haul. She drags the proceedings out, tying them up with “red tape,” and handcuffing Alec and Judie in a constant state of prolonged limbo, month after month. It’s no life existing in purgatory. One after another, holidays come and go without any change, capped off with a Christmas surprise.

Narrative logic says reality must get worse before it can get better. In Name Only goes for the jugular. Maida seems to have achieved a satisfactory victory. Then, a defeated Alec goes on a binge and comes down with a horrible illness in the aftermath. It’s uncertain how any amount of solace or romantic equilibrium can be reestablished.

Gratefully, in one final moment of catharsis, she is ousted in front of the parents. We’ve waited long and hard for this justice, and it feels good. One is forced to ask, “At what cost?” The credits roll in providentially so we don’t have to linger on the consequence, only the emotion. Cary Grant on his deathbed isn’t an altogether familiar image or a welcomed one, for that matter. Still, this drama has its share of welcomed interludes bolstered by the main triumvirate of talent.

3.5/5 Stars

Of Mice and Men (1939) and Dreaming About Providence

Mice_men_movieposter.jpgBeing the ignorant sot that I am, I needed to reacquaint myself with the allusion in Steinbeck’s title, plucked from Scottish poet Robbie Burns. The Scottsman wrote, to the effect that, the best-laid plans of mice and men oft go awry. This is not cynicism but merely an observation on the realities of life, which could come straight out of Ecclesiastes. The only positive response might be clinging to hope even more resolutely and “dreaming about providence” to quote a favorite tune of mine.

John Steinbeck had a gift for bringing a slice of America, so very personal to his own experience, to a broader audience. Namely, the worlds of Monterey, Salinas, and to a broader extent, the itinerant blue-collar working man. One can rarely consider an author an overnight success, but he does have the benefit of being a prominent literary figure in his own time. One only needs to look at how soon after films were made in the wake of his most acclaimed works.

While The Grapes of Wrath and John Ford’s accompanying film remains the benchmark (East of Eden, at least in cinematic terms is a slighter weaker case), Of Mice and Men is a fine endeavor in its own right, despite more meager origins.

One could begin with Lewis Milestone who certainly cannot claim the same reverence as John Ford in the pantheon of directors and yet even if All Quiet on The Western Front was his only movie, surely it would be enough. Of Mice and Men is by no means a shabby picture to add to his filmography, in spite of casting mostly unknowns and minor actors all across the board. It probably serves his purposes all the better.

Burgess Meredith would become a fairly big name — also in part to his marriage to Paulette Goddard — but this was his big shot in a highly coveted role. He has the acumen and the heart to really step into the part of George. But he functions as part of a battery. He must work off his costar.

Lon Chaney Jr. comes out of an acting tradition, but this is the role setting his career in motion and subsequently typecasting him. His characterization of Lennie comes off so seamlessly — the simple-minded charm matched with ox-like brawn — obsessed as he is with small critters that he can pet. He’s so innocent and helpless in one sense. The overt contrast between his body and mind is what makes the character. He needs George as his protector.

It works as a unique strain of symbiosis. While George is the constant keeper of his simple friend, Lennie provides not only strength but an innocent conception of the world. He is part of the reason George is never completely jaded; it’s this unwavering supply of child-like contentment in all things.

He’s continually pestering George to recount their dream: how one day they will get a little stake for themselves so they can live off the fat of the land together. The idea of settling down on their own acreage, making their own hours, and moving at a leisurely pace gives hope to the travelers. In fact, it seems no coincidence, since Steinbeck often evokes other texts, this vision might as well be plucked out of Genesis; it’s a New Eden, a paradise they look to find.

Of course, there is the actual cold, hard reality. The two workers meet the boss and his son Curly — a terse pipsqueak with a chip on his shoulder. He jealously guards his trophy wife (Betty Field) and yet never does much of anything with her. It’s a vicious cycle. He doesn’t want anyone getting near her, and she’s desperately fishing for any kind of attention.

Another member of the workforce is Slim (Charles Bickford), a hard-bitten fellow who maintains a soft spot in his heart, raising up animals and giving Lennie a thrill by way of a newborn puppy.

But it is an unceremonious and unsophisticated lifestyle. The neanderthal eating rituals of the bosses and bunkhouse crew perfectly reflect the continuous distaste the lady of the manor has for such a life. Meanwhile, one old timer’s beloved mutt is taken out and shot to put him out of his misery. It becomes a rather ominous image reflecting what man is ready to do when creatures and things have outlasted their usefulness.

The latter half of the story must belong to Lennie and his inherent innocence. First, he is ambushed in the bunkhouse by Curly over an arbitrary Spat. On the urging of everyone, he defends himself, all but crushing the squat man’s hand. He’s almost incapable of controlling his own strength and as a frequent sufferer of undiagnosed cute aggression, these traits can only lead to one end.

Another unextraordinary evening Lennie is left alone to divert himself with his pup as he unwittingly crosses de facto racial divides by chatting up the in-house ranchhand Crooks (Leigh Whipper). We already have portents for future lightning rods of drama even as word of the boys’ ambitions for their own piece of land trickles out. Thereafter the real scoop on how Curly busted his hand comes to the surface. It was no thresher.

What strikes me about Of Mice and Men is how it manages to be an ode to the common man. It memorializes those who work their entire lives through the hardship and the drudgery. Where the days become monotonous and there is a necessity to dream because it provides something to live for.

Memories you can look back on fondly work much the same, dogs who give a bit of comfort, or maybe a bit of alcohol and a night on the town. As humans we use these things to insulate ourselves from the world and to bring comfort and some type of feeling, even meaning, into our lives. It’s fuel for when the going gets tough.

Lennie is the most obvious proponent because he is so single-minded. His whole existence revolves around his one desire to tend his own colony of rabbits, constantly fearful anything he does might make George angry and get him in trouble.

But everyone else, though they might be sharper and they might be more perceptive — their desires more complex — they still share this instinctual want of comfort and something beyond the existence they can find on the ranch or in a bunkhouse.

Even the wife, constantly looking for attention — companionship of any sort — is taken with her former dreams of being carted off to Hollywood where she can wear all the fancy clothes, get her picture in the paper, and get on the radio for free. This is her version of the same thing.

Perhaps it does not even exist as such — at least not on this earth — and certainly not in Steinbeck’s Depression-era, but that doesn’t make the hoping any less important. There’s the possibility it’s still out there.

Of course, the climactic point of no return in the novella is no different here. The one moment Lennie is not monitored by George, he does something regrettable. Growing panicky in the presence of another human being and not knowing his own strength, he commits an irrevocable act.

Again, it highlights the tragedy of Lennie as there is no malice in his actions, but the results call for retribution nonetheless. He is so innocent and simple and yet he is about to be hunted like an animal. In one last-ditch effort, George looks to protect his hapless friend from the fallen world around him. The paradoxes run deep because in this utterly harsh and unfeeling life, it is George who does something equally harsh. The difference being, he comes out of a place of love.

4/5 Stars

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939) and The Rejected Cornerstone

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Note: This post was originally written a few days after the Notre Dame fire on April 15th, 2019.

“All over France, in every city there stand cathedrals like this one, triumphant monuments of the past. They tower over the homes of our people like mighty guardians keeping alive the invincible faith of the Christian. Every arch, every column, every statue is a carved leaf out of our history.” Harry Davenport as King Louis XI

We often say rather facetiously “if only these walls could talk,” referring to those hallowed grounds imbued with a history of ages gone by, whether they reach near or far into the past. However, it’s necessary to acknowledge, with a place such as Notre Dame de Paris, such an aphorism rings true. It takes on resonant meaning the very week I write this.

Only a few days ago, this landmark of Paris (even preceding the Eiffel Tower) was stricken by a fire that ran rampant, even torching the iconic central spire, so it came crashing down. Given the context and what this structure stands for — even as implied by this film — it’s no small surprise the news grieved, not simply an entire nation, but the world-at-large.

It is part of the reason I desired to watch this adaptation of Victor Hugo’s lauded novel. It is a bit of a memorial, but also an act of solidarity. We need to remember these bastions of history because they carry so much worthwhile beauty within their walls.

As would have it, this version of the famed Parisian tale begins with the two pillars of authority within the film, rather like the towers of Notre Dame themselves, albeit one good and the other bad. The King (Harry Davenport) is an open-minded, bright-eyed, and benevolent ruler, who looks at advancements like the printing press with only mild amusement. He sees no harm in the people being able to spread ideas.

Meanwhile, his counterpart, Frollo (Cedrick Hardwicke), is the local judge and arbiter over the judiciary system. To mollify the production codes, he was changed from a religious hypocrite to a far more secular villain as his behavior is unbecoming a man of the cloth. Disney’s version would rectify this minor faux pas and yet for the longest time, this tweak went all but unnoticed. The sentiments and moral dilemmas work out much the same. Likewise, there’s little doubting the weight of the other performances in this version.

Like A Tale of Two Cities or Les Mis, both adapted throughout 1930s Hollywood, the palpable world being constructed here is one of the most prominent assets of this period piece. I might be biased toward these literary adaptations of old. They certainly are not faithful distillations of their sources; they’re processed through the mechanism of Classic Hollywood, and yet they never cease to amaze me for the sheer amount of atmospheric world they are able to put forth on the screen.

Case and point is the initial street carnival hitting the audience full-on with a flurry of activity, gaiety, and sensory overload in every area. There’s no way to fill in all the background with computerized extras or scenery and so what you see is what you get, from a mass of cackling gypsies to a giant hog on a spit, to all sorts of medieval dunces, stilt walkers, and street performers milling about. It’s true such an arena would be impeccable for a fruit fight and of course, there is one.

Charles Laughton’s turn as Quasimoto is a highpoint in an illustrious career because he willfully commits to the character in all of his outward ugliness and ostracization, while still endowing him with the tenderness dwelling therein.

At times, it’s a near-silent performance, which makes it potentially more compelling — so much is left to posture and expressions — the nuances of behavior speak volumes on his behalf. Dialogue might turn into a crutch for other characters, but very rarely for him. His words — when used at all — are chosen carefully and, thus, there is a meaning behind them well worth considering.

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For the day and age, there is arguably no better lass to portray Esmerelda than Maureen O’Hara as youthful, fiery, and supernally beautiful as she is in this very moment. Whether she’s a convincing gypsy or not, it’s easy enough to believe she draws the admiring eye of nearly every mortal man.

So many eligible (and not-so-eligible) men vie for the affections of the striking, thoughtful, free-spirit. She is smitten with the handsome Captain of the Guards: Phoebus (Alan Marshal), who returns her favor. Another is the scorned poet Pierre Gringoire played by an initially unrecognizable Edmond O’Brien, due to the utter youthfulness of his features. Quasimoto harbors his own crush on the pretty maiden, though his is not the only unrequited love.

Frollo, as painted here, is no Disney villain — harsh and corrupt he may be — but there is something buried there to feel sorry for, even as his soul is twisted up inside. Tormented by an infatuation he cannot seem to quell. Ultimately, what remains is his vindictive polemic against gypsies and anyone he deems to be pernicious to his self-prescribed social order.

Here the narratives channels this undercurrent of Aryan prejudice sweeping the European landscape, this heavy strain of anti-Semitism that, ironically, brought a plethora of talent to Hollywood. The parallels are too overt not to comment upon. It goes to show how the social climate of the time cannot be completely stripped away from material which, while timeless, also has striking ties to the contemporary moment.

On a lighter note, what better vagabond to be King of the Hall of Miracles than the one and only Thomas Mitchell. His year would yield performances in a staggering five movies — all of them classics — including Gone with The Wind, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Stagecoach, Only Angels Have Wings, and this film. What’s more astounding is the consideration that this might be the weakest of all the pictures he was in! One can never discount the inevitable shadings of color he adds to any ensemble.

The Christ metaphors with Quasimoto are also blatantly clear. He is crowned the King of the people on the first day only to be ridiculed and mocked in the streets the next. He is the scapegoat, taking on all the people’s ills, grievances, and malevolence upon his head. Even the local leaders, as reflected by Frollo, look down on him in disdain and utter malice. So Quasimoto’s station in life is that of a total outcast, despised by everyone.

There is only one person who has pity on him and it is, of course, Esmerelda. She showed it before, marrying the poet to save him from hanging, and this is her second act of goodness. The wheels of justice can be harsh as she is sentenced to death, based on the bleatings of a Goat named Aristotle. The logic used is not unlike Witches sinking during the Salem trials. Her innocence falls on deaf ears, not as a result of clanging bells, but instead, even harder hearts.

There is a certain gravitas with the young vision of beauty bowed on the steps of the cathedral, awaiting her execution. The lingering essence is very much the same to Dreyer’s seminal masterwork Joan of Arc. A figure of such common virtue subjected to such ignominy on such a grand scale.

Again, the Christ-like metaphors cannot be dismissed as yet another martyr is unfairly condemned for practicing witchcraft. It takes one outcast rescuing another and seeking sanctuary in the house of God. While it might seem an antiquated tradition, there is something impactful about the walls of Notre Dame being a haven to all who call upon them.

The final storming of the cathedral feels more like disastrous miscommunication than a fully-fledged battle for the heart and soul of the city. Regardless, the last note is a resounding one. Esmeralda ends up with her man. Quasimoto, in a realistic development, despite being a hero, is forced to carry on his life of solitude.

Though he might not be the most prominent feature of Notre Dame de Paris, it becomes increasingly apparent he is like the cornerstone  — a vital component — mostly rejected and forgotten by the world around him. He did everything out of deep, abiding love, requited or not. Much the same might be said of Laughton’s performance. The whole story falls apart without him, and he handles each scene with his usual aplomb and theatrical bearing.

4/5 Stars