Shadow of The Thin Man (1941)

the shadow of the thin man 1.png

Little Nick Charles Jr. is growing up and his loving daddy, in lieu of fairy tales, reads to his son about the horse races. Some things never change. Despite an unfortunate stereotyped-laden portrayal provided by Louise Beavers, the picture quickly settles into another enjoyable jaunt.

In fact, it’s a perfect day for the races until Nick gets pulled over for speeding. That’s only the beginning. Because the cop proves to be a big fan of Mr. Charles. After all, if we haven’t realized it already, he is a household name. Everybody seems to know him. Policemen, conmen, jockeys, and anyone else you can possibly pull out of a hat. It makes no difference. By now, his wife never shows an ounce of surprise. She only smiles, nods, trades pleasantries and never says another word about it.

The recurring gags keep coming with yet another former acquaintance with a grubby nickname like “Fingers” running into Nick and inquiring if the dame he has in tow is his new girlfriend. It seems like no one ever thought him one to get married.

It’s all good fun and there’s even the return of Nick’s old buddy, old pal, Lt. Abrams (Sam Levene reprising his role). This sense of world building and the introduction of characters was always The Thin Man series at its best, but there’s also business at hand — a jockey named Gomez has been whacked.

However, Nick tries to avoid getting pulled into yet another case by patronizing the arts, namely a wrestling match. It’s one of the film’s most delightful diversions but there’s also a sneaking suspicion it must tie into the case somehow. The forces lurking in the shadows hang over the racetrack murder like a stench and they’ve got there hands in all the places, including the press. Maybe even higher up too.

A youthful Donna Reed makes an early appearance as a naive secretary and while still growing as an actress, there’s no doubting her sincerity that always shined through in all her work. With writers Albert Hacket & Frances Goodrich, then James Stewart and Sheldon Leonard also involved in earlier installments, and Reed being featured here, it does seem The Thin Man was a bit of a training ground for It’s a Wonderful Life (1946).

But back to the current business at hand. Molly’s beau Paul (Barry Nelson) is a prime suspect when murder strikes again. With the young couple right at the center of the mess, compassionate Nora wants her Nicky to get them out of it and that he does.

Also, tied up in the case are stuttering Rainbow Benny, famed acting instructor Stella Adler in one of her actual roles as Claire Porter, Frank Faylen as a nervous ticket booth operator, and you guessed it, a whole host of others.

Still, Nick finds time to get accosted by kids while taking Nick Jr. around on the carousel. While Asta’s best gag is getting trapped in a revolving door chasing after a fugitive. Myrna Loy doesn’t get as much screentime as she should but as usual she provides a calming and still slyly comic presence. The continuity provided by W.S. Van Dyke is there as well though this is the first script not penned by the screenwriting duo Hackett & Goodrich.

By now it’s all but inevitable. Everyone gets rounded up to the police precinct. Nick Charles takes center stage bringing wifey along and Lt. Abrams is in the middle of it all for good measure. But he’s really only the white noise and perfect stooge as Nick deduces his way to the finale as he always has. It’s true that the formula feels a tad overspent but seeing as Hollywood is used to beating dead horses to a pulp recently, this one doesn’t feel that bad. At least it’s a good time and we still have Powell and Loy as amiable as ever with a continous spritzing of humor.

3.5/5 Stars

Another Thin Man (1939)

another thin man 1.png

Parenthood hasn’t slackened the good-natured give and take between Mr. and Mrs. Charles or Mr. Charles drinking habit either. The only difference now is that Nick affectionately calls his other half “mommy” and they have a little more work getting their nurse to watch over the baby — Asta’s new younger brother.

For the most part, they have a hands-off parenting approach with the infant Nick Jr. which is a bit of necessity given they need time to solve a mystery. Sure, it starts out innocent enough. They plan to take a trip out to the country to pay a visit to an old friend Colonel McFay (C. Aubrey Smith) who is desperate for Nick’s counsel on an issue of utmost importance.

So they head out to the country to an old family mansion that just so happens to be the perfect space for an “And Then There Were None” scenario. Except this one has Nick and Nora Charles at the center of it all and the cast of characters fits into their world.

After the Colonel is found dead in his study following a piercing gunshot, the police swarm the grounds looking for clues, but Asta winds up tampering evidence again. Meanwhile, their flighty nurse (Ruth Hussey) takes off without leaving a forwarding address. The dead man’s daughter is beside herself with grief compounded by fear when someone kills her prized dog and takes a shot at her. It doesn’t help that she’s caught between two men who love her (Patric Knowles) and her father’s secretary (Tom Neal).

The most obvious suspect is a threatening thug named Church (Sheldon Leonard) who’s been having dreams about the Colonel’s impending death. He’s in cahoots with a deadly dame and the ever faithful Dum-Dum (Abner Biberman). A big man with specs (Don Costello is somehow tied up in this business too. Yet Nick is never one to show his hand too early and he lets things play out.

Having enough of the country life, our heroes get back to the big city to do some sleuthing at the West Indies Night Club while still finding time for made-up meet-cutes and the usual playfulness. One particularly visually uproarious sequence involves Nick Jr.’s first birthday party complete with a playpen for of babies and kindly ex-cons just out of the real pen.

There’s the tell-all finale and it’s as befuddling as any mystery drama. That hardly stops Nick Charles though. It must be admitted that the final stretch outside of the haunted mansion loses a little bit of its traction because the story is stacking moment after moment on top of each other. By the sheer number of characters, it pulls the wool over the eyes once more. And yet again the Charles’ quiet weekend away became the biggest newspaper headline.

While not quite on snuff with its two predecessors, this picture is still carried by the insouciant charm of its impeccable leads and yet another host of quality character players. You’ll notice among them Tom Neal (Detour), C. Aubrey Smith, Ruth Hussey, Sheldon Leonard (It’s a Wonderful Life), Marjorie Main (Ma Kettle), Abner Biberman (His Girl Friday), Virginia Grey, and many, many more. Those were the days of great supporting stars and phenomenal studio stars for that matter. This would be William Powell and Myrna Loy’s 8th film together out of a mindboggling 14. That in itself is a remarkable feat.

3.5/5 Stars

After The Thin Man (1936)

after the thin man 1.png

The reason to watch The Thin Man series was never murder. Sure, like its predecessor, this follow-up has the pretense of a mystery plot but that’s merely a trifle in comparison to the return of Nick and Nora Charles.

The novelty of this picture is no longer that it once more brings crime and comedy together because that’s what the original film did. We already have the formula, the groundwork set before us, and certain expectations. But what it does even in its opening vignettes is further develop its leads by transplanting the New York socialites to the world of San Francisco which brings with it different colorations and really an extension to this fanciful world that they live in.

William Powell and Myrna Loy are just delightful with teasing ever whip-smart interplay but we also see the class dimensions being played up too. All of a sudden, their marriage of such stark opposites comes into clearer focus and we love them even more.

Nick seems to know someone on every street corner most of them being hoods and shifty conmen begging the question just what he did in his previous life (I can’t ever remember being told)? Meanwhile, Nora comes from money and runs in a certain society that’s slightly averse to the constant verbal barbs and nose-thumbing of her husband. You see, he seems to have no respect for respectable folks. Her family can’t stand Nikolai as he’s called. But he loves his wife and she loves him.

The fact that the action is set over The New Year blesses the film with jovial gaiety and champagne bubbles that add a little pizzazz to your run-of-the-mill murder of passion. Meanwhile, the dubious Lychee Club takes its place front and center because a couple implicated persons are tied up with the establishment. One of them, named Dancer, runs the joint while his star performer Polly and her brother Phil also seem caught up in something shady. If you had to put a name to it you might call it extortion.

Then a slimy playboy (and unfaithful husband) is found murdered after a night carousing at the club with the chorus girl. That effectively gets his devastated wife accused of murder with her longtime beau (James Stewart) going to great lengths to defend her.

We could keep running off the list of suspects but to no avail, and it has the typically gung-ho cop Lt. Abrams (Sam Levene) understandably suspicious as he tries to make head or tails of the whole mess. Of course, he has Nick Charles on his side and a good thing too.

Asta is up to his old tricks running off with a vital clue and Nick’s up to his old tricks having his wife locked up in prison so that he can bail her out. Despite her longsuffering lot in life, she gets in some comic retribution of her own while maintaining a dazzling marriage full of mutual understanding.

Because, in one sense, Nick Charles is a complete imbecile, a habitual jokester, and yet he’s just serious enough to warrant some respect in the crime-solving trade and just sincere enough to hold onto his wife for posterity. Again, that’s all part of his charm. If he wasn’t so good at solving crimes, it’s doubtful people would give him the time of day. Though his wife does continuously and that’s what really counts. That’s the heartbeat of this entire franchise.

The Charles also realize humanity’s aspirations of sleeping the day away and it’s true they can get away with settling down for breakfast just as everyone else is finishing up dinner. That’s their lifestyle. I’m sure most of us hold a deep-seated desire for it in some cockeyed way. But most of us can’t solve murders on a whim either. So they get to be our surrogates on both accounts.

I won’t say he’s the epoch of amateur sleuthing, as the company includes the Sherlock Holmes, Miss Marples, and Jessica Fletchers of the world, but Nick Charles is one of the wittiest individuals to hold the mantle.

It must be noted that he was a creation of the Depression, a needed respite from the day-to-day, but you get the sense that today he comes off as a bit callous. Surely a man who knows so many undesirable characters was aware that there was a Depression on. And yet you see, that’s precisely the trick. In this world, such an event does not exist.

There’s no need to worry about it and this alternate reality instead gets to occupy itself with murder and excess, jokes and romantic patter. It truly is escapism and a gift to the masses. No wonder people loved Nick and Nora so much because it really does seem like they filled a need at the time.

While he’s not the center of attention nor is his role all that meaty until the final moments, James Stewart is nevertheless entertaining in this early part with a slam-bang finish that gives a glimpse of the passionate intensity he offered as an actor. It was full steam ahead for both him and The Thin Man series though you might say his future was a little more promising.

4/5 Stars

A Christmas Story (1983)

a christmas story 1.png

The premise is ludicrously simple. Ralphie wants a Red Rider BB Gun for Christmas. It’s his one aspiration. His sole desire in life. But of course, every conceivable adult simply dismisses him, their choice phrase being that mainstay of our modern lexicon, “You’ll shoot your eye out!”

Peter Billingsley remains an icon of the 1980s much in the same way Fred Savage would become one a few years down the road. In fact, it’s no surprise. Because their performances were of a very visual nature but it was the insights of their adult selves (in this case Jeane Shepherd) that lent a certain irony to everything they did in childhood.

Look at Bob Clark’s film and The Wonder Years and you see some very plain points of similarity. Most obviously the television series borrowed this narrative device liberally from its very conception. It lets its young protagonists’ imaginations run wild in colorful ways, but Ralphie did it first.

What proves to be most appealing about this perennial Christmas marathon favorite is the very fact that there is very little agenda and it functions mostly as numerous bits and pieces of anecdotal experiences related to us in a matter-of-fact fashion.

There are the infamous triple dog dares that lead to the inevitable pole licking at the school playground. There’s the ever notorious leg lamp, won in a contest, their proud father’s (Darren McGavin)  glorious victory exhibited for the whole neighborhood until their mother (Melinda Dillon) breaks it accidentally on purpose.

It’s the era of Little Orphan Annie on the radio, ovalteen, decoder rings, The Wizard of Oz, and Bing Crosby and The Andrew Sisters singing their greatest hits. Parents resorted to archaic forms of punishment, namely, mouths washed out by soap and the threat of bodily harm.

In the schoolyard, the roost is always ruled by the biggest bird until it comes out that the bird, in this case, one Scut Farkus is actually a chicken after an unfettered Ralphie begins whaling on the resident red-headed bully.

The infamous bunny suit from Aunt Clara donned by Ralphie on Christmas morning is one of the lasting images as is younger brother Randy wrapped up in puffy winter clothing, or watching a defeated Ralphie get slowly nudged down the slide by a griping Santa Claus at the local mall.

The now anachronistic Chop Suey Palace makes an appearance as does  Ralphie’s Old Man’s constant curse-laden crusade against the furnace. Each subsequent tale is contained as part of this familial lore, a bit murky and at the same time mythical. It turns out to be absurdly even darkly comical in its vignette-driven escapades but that provides much of the substance of its charm.

However, that very nature makes it difficult for me to become unequivocally attached to this picture. Because it’s not an exercise in pathos, though still being steeped in nostalgia and references to the mores of Middle America in some far off, bygone era. It evokes the period but does so with a somewhat trivializing sense of humor.

But what strikes me about the picture, specifically in the Christmas scenes is how the most memorable and, dare we say, “special moments” that we remember around the holidays are the ones with mishaps and circumstances that while derailing our perfect expectations, simultaneously become our most cherished memories. Because life at its best isn’t a cookie cutter experience. It’s full of all those misshapen weird outcomes that bulge out and disrupt life in ways that we can only look back on and laugh. Christmas was never meant to be perfect. Have you looked in the mirror lately? As humans, we are far from it.

That’s what this story sums up quite impeccably. It’s not so much a moral tale or a movie of themes but the scripting and setting get at the essence of a time and place where desiring a Red Rider BB Gun is enough. There doesn’t need to be more — at least not in childhood — that’s what adulthood is for. Even then a child-like perspective, especially during the holidays, is something to be desired.

4/5 Stars

Review: Holiday Affair (1949)

holiday affair 1.png

Holiday Affair might be a bit of an oxymoron as far as Christmas movies go. It’s not too far off the truth to christen it an old-modern Christmas classic, at least depending on how you define your terms.

It’s a Christmas picture that has all but sailed under the radar since its original release in 1949 though it has, rather recently, gained some modest recognition around Christmastime. Given Robert Mitchum’s normal workload for RKO, it feels like an outlier in comparison with most of the dramatic or noirish crime fare he was usually expected to star in. And part of this might have been due to circumstance — circumstance that might also explain why this picture wasn’t such a big hit.

Mitchum was fresh off his famed drug bust for narcotics possession which ironically, far from killing his career, managed to project his image as a bad boy and a major box office draw. But Howard Hughes wanted to try and soften his image and the picture in the pipeline was Holiday Affair. It’s certainly not what we are normally accustomed to for a Mitchum vehicle. Contemporary audiences might have concluded the same.

In earlier iterations, the film was slated to star the intriguing cast of Montgomery Clift, James Stewart, and Teresa Wright. In fact, it’s interesting to note Wright could have been in the Christmas classic of two years prior, The Bishop’s Wife (1947) as well. Alas, she did not end up in either picture. Still, that should in no way dismiss what we actually received.

Although visibly quite young for the role of the widowed mother Mrs. Dennis, Janet Leigh makes it work due to a pluckiness and genuine chemistry that buoys her relationships with her on-screen son (Gordon Gebert) and both of her male counterparts (Mitchum and Wendell Corey).

What brings them all into the most curious of love triangles is a momentary interaction at the toy store. Connie Ennis is a comparative shopper a little too eager to purchase a model train and Steve Mason (Mitchum) is the employee on the other side of the counter.

Though he doesn’t say anything, he’s got her pegged. Sure enough, she comes back to return the gift but instead of reporting her he lets it slide — only asking her never to come to his department again. He subsequently gets fired and is back on the streets, biding his time in order to realize his dreams of becoming a shipbuilder in California.

Meanwhile, Connie doesn’t have an affluent lifestyle but perhaps more important than that, it’s a generally happy existence. Her husband was killed in the war, yes, but she and her son Timmy have a tight-knit relationship. They’re truly there for one another. It’s no fluke she constantly calls her pint-sized man of the house, Mr. Ennis. Because it’s true. He is the most important man in her life.

Although there is another man who is hoping for the privilege to become a part of their family. Carl (Corey) is a divorced lawyer who has long made his intentions plain to Connie. It’s just a matter of figuring out if she’s ready for marriage. And he seems like a good practical man to go through life with. Still, that isn’t everything.

Because Robert Mitchum is added to the equation and between both men, Timmy finds Steve a lot more fun and I think it’s reflected particularly well in the relaxed performance that Mitchum gives.

He’s surprisingly compelling in his scenes with the child because, again, he may have the image of a tough guy but when you watch him speak there’s no pretense. He’s not talking down to the kid. He nearly treats him as an equal or at least not in the condescending manner that adults often have. That’s the key.

The rest of the story, including the final act, doesn’t need spelling out. You probably already can gather some sense of what will unfold. But this film is a reminder that predictability isn’t king. Sure, it’s present but there are also a plethora of idiosyncratically enjoyable moments to be relished.

Among other things, they involve gaudy neckties, hobos, salt and pepper shakers, feeding orphan squirrels, and eating with the seals in the park. A delightfully ornery Henry ‘Harry’ Morgan provides a cameo at the Police Precinct that helps draw out some of the film’s more absurd digressions.

There’s a lovely marital toast and an equally awkward confession. But more than any of this there’s the realization of what family might be and what true happiness looks like during the holidays.

In an earlier moment, in typical Mitchum fashion, he taps the lady of the house on the shoulder and proceeds to kiss the surprised Connie before proclaiming “Merry Christmas.” End scene. Or on Christmas morning little Timmy springs in on his mother to wish her a “Merry Christmas” of his own. It’s these little trifles that make this a congenial outing for those craving a bit of nostalgic yuletide cheer.

3.5/5 Stars

Review: Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

miracle on 34th street.png

From its opening motif of a man nitpicking the arrangement of reindeer in a shop window, Miracle on 34th Street skates away on a delightful journey that evokes both fanciful whimsy and a liberal amount of holiday sentimentality. However, it’s also one of the finest examples and greatest purveyors of holiday cheer ever and that’s in spite of an original theatrical release that Daryl Zanuck slated for the summer of 1947.

Still, all of this aside, the major heartbeat and the effervescence of the picture falls on the shoulders of that precocious gentleman Edmund Gwenn in the most iconic performance of his career. No matter your leanings, be it a sentimentalist or a pragmatic realist, at the very least, he makes you want to believe in Santa Claus. And what’s striking is how he embodies such a man.

Because we could get into a debate on whether he is the real thing or if he truly is delusional and thus, we would have to be alarmed by this entire ordeal. Yet the results speak for themselves as do the fruits of his labor which help to uplift an entire city.

It’s true that he lays down a trail of hints from the outset at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade about his origins. If you’re paying attention and know the score they are easy enough to notice. However, he’s never pompous in proclaiming his exploits.

What draws everyone to him is this genial charm that cannot be fabricated. It’s all him.  There is no shred of an egomaniac or a mentally disturbed person. In fact, he feels the complete antithesis of many of the adjectives we might toss out to describe the commercialized Christmas so prevalent today (and even back then).

Alfred, the young janitor, and a personal favorite expresses the sentiment aptly. “It’s all about, Make a buck. Make a buck. There are a lot of bad “isms” to choose from but arguably the worst is commercialism.”  And it’s Kris who helps to rail against that holiday status quo when he finds himself working as Macy’s floor Santa.  In fact, it almost feels like a necessity that all these things come to pass because not only are people forgetting about him but more importantly, they are forgetting the core tenets of the season.

There are several scenes in particular that put a heartbeat to a little bit of the magic that courses through this picture — a picture that director George Seaton dearly wanted to make as did John Payne. Because it exudes something so remarkable that has proved timeless in years since. Even Maureen O’Hara, though initially skeptical of returning to Hollywood from her oasis in Ireland, relented because she was taken by the story.

miracle on 34th 2.png

As someone always interested in the periphery, one of my favorite moments involves Thelma Ritter. It’s only a small sequence but she plays a harried mother who wants to go home and soak her feet after struggling to find her son a toy fire engine. The joy is watching Santa put the color back into her face when he incredulously evokes the spirit of giving. She’s flabbergasted by this unprecedented piece of goodwill. It’s the calling card of a true Santa.

Then there’s the little Dutch girl who pleads with her foster mother to see Santa. And it’s pure magic, again, because they form a connection when Santa breaks out into her mother tongue and they’re able to sing a Christmas song together. There’s so much underlying context made beautiful by the fact that we have to read deeper to extract the meaning. Surely viewers knew this girl was a casualty of WWII but beyond that, the fact that Santa is able to cross this perceived language divide is in itself a near miracle.

As someone who does not speak Dutch, I’m not privy to the precise conversation but it’s easy to empathize because here Santa Claus has made someone on the outside feel known and loved. It’s telling these precise events strike a chord with young Susan (Natalie Wood) also.

Certainly, it’s about time to fill in the story’s nucleus and of course, sandwiched in between this broader narrative, involving so many people, is a very personal one. It really is a case study and it’s noted as such by Kris Kringle and his devoted follower Fred (John Payne). They fight a two-front war to work on the most obdurate, rational minds in New York, Doris (O’Hara) and her pragmatic little girl Susan (Wood) who has been trained up by the best.

Ironically, Kris’s war on commercialism very much subverts the longheld spirit of capitalism as we watch the foremost toy companies, namely Macy’s and Gimbel’s pitted against each other looking to outdo one another in the realms of helpfulness and good cheer.  It’s simultaneously hilarious and downright uplifting.

But there must be more because goodness very rarely moves forward wholly unimpeded. The antagonist in this scenario is a curmudgeon, insignificant company psychologist named Sawyer (Porter Hall in a particularly testy role) whose own misgivings about holiday cheer cause him to suggest Kris be put in a mental institution. The case of the holiday season begins when Santa is put on trial.

There is a logical conclusion with a respected judge (the character journeyman Gene Lockhart) presiding but don’t expect it because this is a story about miracles and a film about intangibles and a jolly old man spinning his spellbinding magic for the good of mankind.

miracle on 34th 3.png

To the last knowing wink, it tests our faith in the man but even today it never seems like a picture to outright shirk reality. Instead, it’s more founded on cultivating all that is good and life-giving when you tone down the hard-edged pragmatics that leave no room for imagination or faith of any kind.

Because oftentimes, when those reservoirs are sucked completely dry, you are left with people who lack joy, contentment, charity, and goodwill for their fellow man. From such wastelands come the Mr. Sawyers. If you close yourself off completely to this season or this film, you might just feel yourself left a little empty inside.

More than anything else, Miracle on 34th Street is a story of childlike faith as this is much of what the season is supposed to be indicative of. The ultimate gifts of love, joy, and peace require an openness in order to receive them fully.

All there is left to do is to close with an excerpt of prose far more learned and impassioned than my own, penned to an inquisitive girl named Virginia. Because this film very well could be the proof behind the words:

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus! It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence.

We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The external light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished…Only faith, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, Virginia, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.

5/5 Stars

Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)

meet me in st louis 1.png

One thing that can be said of Meet Me in St. Louis is that it captures the milieu of an era while simultaneously being quintessential Vincente Minnelli. Every man, woman, and child is dressed to the tee and enraptured by love and the grand promises of the World Fair full of dancing the Hoochie-Coochie with their special Tootsie Wootsies.  It’s cheerfully opulent in such a fashion that some might consider it almost garish and others will deem it the height of turn-of-the-century elegance.

There’s no doubt that the director had one of the most phenomenal palettes of any filmmaker from any time period. Certainly, this extends to the mise en scene and the costumes adorning his stars — pulled right out of Sears Roebuck circa 1900. But the other crucial aspect is that Minnelli seems to handle his talent with kid gloves or at least he creates an environment for them to flourish.

Of course, front and center of the Technicolor extravaganza is Judy Garland who would marry her director the following year and you get the sense that she had fallen in love with how beautiful he was able to make her on film. It’s true that she’s a striking sight to behold, only magnified by the world she traipses through, surrounded by her kin and singing to her heart’s content.

Still, if the set design is such a grand expression of the film’s potency and visual appeal, it’s necessary to point out again that this is far from a Judy Garland show; there is an ensemble component even if she’s the scene-stealer.

Margaret O’Brien is a riot because she plays little Tootie in the most ingratiatingly precocious way possible. Though it must be admitted she has a bit of a morbid side too. We meet her on an ice wagon telling a man how she’s going to give her doll a nice funeral and later on, of course, she takes the heads off all the snow people.

However, there’s also a whole Halloween interlude starring Tootie and their sister Agnes that feels more like a ghoulish Guy Fawkes day than its modern incarnation of door-to-door candy grabbing. Maybe Halloween has gotten tamer than we give it credit for. Put up against the film’s more mirthful moments, it comes off a tad alarming.

But then again, the story continually goes back to its roots in the centrality of the family unit. Its very integrity is in jeopardy of being disrupted when Father (Leon Ames) drops the news that they will be moving to New York from St. Louis. It comes off horrifically. It’s imperative to remember that in order for those heights to be so gay there must be a steady stream of romantic heartbreaks and personal roadblocks which the picture gladly provides.

There’s a lovely scene staged around the piano between Mr. and Mrs. Adams (Ames and Mary Astor) where like in so many other instances song becomes the perfect expression of the current mood. Based on where the camera is situated, the stairwell in the back is visible and you see the shadows of figures before they inch back into the frame and subsequently back into the family room. It’s a visual representation of the family staying rooted together even after a spat — constantly retracting — then contracting back together in continuous motion.

Without question, the well-remembered “The Trolley Song” is a giddy number that outshines any of the others but that’s because it is the summation of romantic euphoria that Esther (Garland) is feeling for her beau (Tom Drake). Meanwhile, “Have Yourself a Merry Christmas,” though hauntingly melodious, is quite easy for me to rip out of the context of this film.

meet me in st louis 2.png

Meet Me in St. Louis has never been a yuletide film for me in a similar fashion to how Holiday Inn (1942) is not so much attached to “White Christmas” or holiday cheer as the Michael Curtiz picture from 1954. Perhaps its influence isn’t as deeply rooted in my childhood recollections as some of its contemporaries. But then again, Meet Me in St Louis evokes Christmas in the same way that some of the cinematic adaptations of Little Woman (1933, 1949, or 1994) conjure up the season in the context of family. Perhaps that’s how it should be.

In its day, the film was a smash hit only to be outshined by that prior behemoth from David Selznick Gone with the Wind (1939) and it’s easy to draw up parallels if not simply visually speaking. Both films boast breathtaking imagery and extraordinary color photography for the era that even today can rightfully be considered landmark stuff. Still, that doesn’t mean that everything else has improved with age. Make the concessions where you will and the film can be a good-natured classic or even a Christmas perennial favorite. In my estimation its middling in both categories. Still, that can’t completely detract from its finer attributes. Namely Minnelli’s striking color scheme which remains second to none.

4/5 Stars

Zoo in Budapest (1933)

zoo in budapest.png

Once more we have the Hollywood rendition of Budapest that would turn up again in other pictures like Ernst Lubitsch’s Shop Around the Corner (1940). English is spoken perfectly and individuals generally act as we would expect them to in our neck of the woods. It’s simply their story and setting which have any bearings on the real Hungary. But after all, that’s what we’re generally most interested in anyway.

Because Zoo in Budapest is everything its title promises though I admittedly know woefully little about the director Rowland V. Lee. Despite the lean narrative, a refreshing amount of time is actually spent in developing the vast menagerie of animals within the zoo. And there are many of all colors, shapes, and sizes. Elephants, monkeys, lions, tigers, ostriches, giraffes, everything that one might expect. The people are a diverse bunch as well.

For one man, in particular, the zookeeper Zani (Gene Raymond), he couldn’t be happier with his daily regiment. The film is his whimsical tale of paradise. In fact, we could just about call it Eden.  He’s a friend of every four-legged creature and he plays with them all like they’re his family. Furthermore, he slyly steals furs from snooty ladies who see animals only for their pelts.

He even coaxes a timid young orphan (Loretta Young) to make a break for it as she’s already planned an escape with the help of her girlfriends. The reason being, she is about to be hired off as an indentured servant on her 18th birthday.

But it looks like she’s lost her nerve. In one crucial instant, one girl jumps from the bridge to draw attention. Thus, the diversion has been created and Eve instinctively makes a dash for it. She’s on her way to spend an eventful evening in the zoo.

She’s not the only one. A little boy sneaks away from his governess because he wants to ride the elephants and Zani himself becomes a fugitive after purloining one fur too many. They are a trio fleeing from the powers that be, the zoo authorities, the den mother, and a governess.

After she’s gotten over her initial apprehension, Loretta Young’s eyes glow dazzlingly in the moonlight and she’s the perfect helpmate for Zani as they carve out a bit of an oasis for themselves, away from the prying eyes searching for them. In one sense, the parallels to the Garden of Eden are well-founded.

There’s also a startling amount of imagery spent on simply documenting the life around them. Swans gliding on a pond. The play-wrestling of a friendly monkey. But of course, the tranquility cannot be sustained forever. The world at large breaks in disrupting the perfect cadence and the order of beings inside the Zoo’s walls.

I can’t help but think that if the picture were remade today with our technological advancements and subsequent narrative laziness, all that provides a real threat and a true sense of danger in the film’s finale would be lost. Because as humans we know the difference inherently between CGI creations and living breathing handiworks of flesh and blood. It’s the real lions, tigers, and bears that can tear you to shreds. The computer-generated ones just provide the illusion. So Zoo in Budapest might have a bit of a scrappy, melodramatic ending but there’s something to it.

It’s almost like a reality check. We get a taste of what the Garden of Eden might have been like but of course, paradise was lost. We can still have love and romance but there must be violence and turmoil thrown in our midst as well. The lion laying down with the lamb isn’t quite actuality. The question is whether or not you believe that one day it will be so.

3.5/5 Stars

Heroes For Sale (1933)

heroes for sale.png

We are inserted, presumably, into a war picture courtesy of William A. Wellman, situated in WWI trenches. The downpour is compounded by the constant hail of bullets as a group of men conduct a near suicide mission. One of the soldiers, Tom Holmes (Richard Barthelmess) proves his heroics on the battlefield while his friend Roger dissolves in fear. But the battle leaves Tom, now a prisoner, with debilitating pain from some splinters of shrapnel lodged near his spine. He’s given morphine to keep it manageable.

He comes back from the war addicted. He gets the shakes at his bank job where he works under his war buddy Roger and the other man’s father. Tom is constantly in need of his fix and it just keeps on getting worse and worse.

Early on, the picture begs the question, how are heroes made? We turn them into near mythological beings and even if it’s well-vested that doesn’t mean that they consider what they did to be anything extraordinary. Imagine if it’s not deserved. Tom and Roger understand exactly what this is like. In the wake of a scandal and his ousting from the bank, Tom gets interned at a drug clinic only to come out a year later a new man ready for a fresh start.

It struck me that in a matter of minutes the film drastically shifts in tone, suggesting at first the dark shadows overtaking a picture like All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) only to come out unscathed and don the coat and tails of an industrial comedy-drama. I must say that while the former feels more akin to Wellman’s usual strengths, I do rather prefer the latter, though the picture doesn’t dare end there.

Wellman introduces us to our latest locale with a dash of humor delivered through an array of pithy signs adorning the walls of an old diner. But it’s the people under its roof that make it what it is. Pa Dennis (Charley Grapewin) is the most genial man you ever did meet and he would give you the shirt off his back if you needed it. His daughter Mary (Aline MacMahon) is little different though she chides her father for his loose finances.

heroes for sale 1.png

Still, her jovial hospitality charms Tom into striking up a conversation and considering renting a room from them. Meeting the disarmingly attractive Ms. Ruth Loring (Loretta Young) from across the hall all but seals the deal. Cue the music as Young enters stage right and let’s disregard it and just say she more than deserves the fanfare.

You would think the inventor with overt “Red” tendencies, adamant criticisms of capitalism, and a chattering habit like a squirrel would be a turnoff for prospective boarders. Not so.  Soon Tom joins the ranks of the local laundry where Ruth also works forging a happy life for themselves.

The mobility of Heroes for Sale is another thing that struck me. It results from a different era but this is also very much a Depression picture in the sense that we are seeing what a man can still do even if times are tough as long as he has a strong head on his shoulders. Machinery is implemented not to steal work away from eager employees but to cut down on long working hours and increase output. All in all, it sounds like a thoughtful and humane objective.

But a heart attack leaves the company in different hands that are looking to work only in dollars and cents, not in humanity. Thus, it looks like Tom’s idealistic enterprising has been turned on its head, now completely sabotaged. All the folks who put their trust in him are bitter with the prospect of losing their jobs. Put out of business with their own funds.  This same unrest runs through the pages of Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath (1940) too as modernity begins to put out all outmoded methods standing in the way of so-called efficiency.

What we have here is a populist picture daring to show the plight of the people. Richard Barthelmess is an affecting lead because he seems almost unextraordinary. His voice is steady and calm. He’s not unkind. But there’s an honesty to him that asserts itself. The fact that he gets a bum steer and takes it without so much as a complaint speaks volumes so he doesn’t have to.

Heroes for Sale feels like a micro-epic if we can coin the term. It’s ambitions somehow manage to be grandiose as it sweeps over cultural moments like WWI and The Depression which underline further social issues including heroism, drug abuse, communism, and worker’s rights. All done up in a measly 71 minutes. Look no further than the standoff between an angry mob and the riot squad for squalid drama. This is no minor spectacle. Nothing can quite express the anguish watching Young frantically run through the violent frenzy in search of her husband.

There is no excuse if this is the standard we put longer films up against. Not a moment seems wasted. Yes, it goes in different directions. Yes, it feels like a couple different films and yet what connects it all is this abiding sense of Americana. Themes that resonate with folks who know this country and its rich history made up of victories and dark blots as well. Most brazenly it still manages to come out of the muck and the mire with a sliver of optimism left over. Heroes For Sale is no small feat.

4/5 Stars

Employee’s Entrance (1933)

employee's entrance 1.png

Not only is Employees Entrance a film made for the Great Depression, but it’s also a project that would have no life if it were not for the lax enforcement of the Production Codes at the time. The same could be said of its protagonist — if he can dare call him that.

Warren William embodies the mercilessly driven businessman named Kurt Anderson like few men before, or even after him, could. He’s a brutal taskmaster who has no sense of integrity. A John D. Rockefeller except less religious. So he has even less of a moral framework. His main purpose is to crush other people because he’s running a business, not a charity ward.

He throws out the weak and surrounds himself with like-minded people. It’s how he’s managed to keep Monroe Company Department Stores a flourishing enterprise even after “The Crash.” Not everyone can say that.

An ambitious, young man named Martin West (Wallace Ford) impresses the autocrat with his idea of upping sales of men’s drawers by selling them to women. Meanwhile, Anderson finds time to sink a clothing supplier who can’t deliver on a shipment and fires a senile department head who nevertheless has stayed with the company well-nigh thirty years.

Thus, we get this sense that he wields a two-edged sword. Anderson is surprisingly generous and accommodating to those who fit into his scheme of things. For instance, increasing a certain models salary if she distracts his colleague next door. Yet he will just as quickly dump someone who is not pulling their weight. That’s how survival of the fittest works. We know this already.

What suggests this more than anything, however, is his treatment of women. Loretta Young sporting those luminous doe eyes of her is gorgeous as Madeleine, a woman who is nevertheless down on her luck and looking for work at Monroe’s. She meets Mr. Anderson quite by chance, after hours, as she has made the stores home decor section her temporary domicile. He’s immediately taken with her. Is there a tenderness unveiled perhaps?

employee's entrance 3.png

Ultimately, he rewards her with a job and she’s quite the success on the floor. Even catching the eye of Martin. He professes his undying affection wordlessly through adverts. And they do the one thing that if he knew about it, Mr. Anderson wouldn’t approve of. They fall in love. In his estimation love is for saps, marriage gets in the way, and he wants his people to be enamored with their work as much as he is.

Young proves adorable even when she’s tipsy, bopping and popping balloons. But as often happens, people make decisions that they will come to regret while inebriated at parties. This film is little different.

The tone and trajectory break with the entire order that the Production Code soon set in place such that we never would see the likes of this again in Hollywood, at least not for a very long time.

It’s this seemingly admissibly trenchant material that makes navigating Employees Entrance onerous, similar to problems I have with more modern works. It comes down to not only issues of tone; because this is a humorous film undercut by some severely dark realities, even suicide and rape, but it also has to do with the integrity of our lead.

For all intent and purposes, our anti-hero hardly has an ounce of likability. The best that can be said for him is he’s enormously successful and good at his job in a tyrannical, ruthless sort of way. Otherwise, he has no heart, no soul, and he’s a misogynistic lout to boot. The fact that any of those characteristics got put into a man who is not cast as a villain truly is a marvel. It’s definitely worth taking note of.

But this is also a somewhat saucy Pre-Code number and the certain playful impertinence is personified best by Alice White who burst onto the stage during the flapper craze of the 1920s. In one particularly rewarding moment, she tells a stuffy old crone that the basement is on the 12th floor as nice as you please. It’s classic lip.

However, there’s this instant realization that Warren William was made for films such as this. The implications hit like a ton of bricks. He all but disappeared from movies since Joseph Breen literally excised his entire character type out of Hollywood’s new imposed master narrative.

Others might be able to do a far more convincing job of making the case but like his contemporary Kay Francis, it’s time for the likes of Williams to be resurrected from near obscurity. Certainly, not everyone will like him, particularly in this film, but there’s no question that he has something. It allows him to play those scathing characters with an unparalleled precision.

But I’ll be honest, I’m genuinely beginning to think that Loretta Young deserves a spot as a Pre-Code icon as well. In 1933 alone she was featured in nine films! The only problem is her efforts from the 1940s are more well-known. The Stranger (1946) and The Bishop’s Wife (1947) seem to overshadow most anything else. Yet another reason to uncover Employee’s Entrance.

3.5/5 Stars