Johnny Eager (1941): Taylor and Turner Spark Dynamite

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“Are you thinking of allowing her to play Roxanne to your Cyrano?” – Van Hefflin to Robert Taylor

Pretty faces don’t always add up to a quality movie and if you want to find where the faults lie, you might look between the players and the script then split the difference. Johnny Eager has all the Classic Hollywood trappings that very well could have made it dead on arrival — especially years later.

Because our protagonist has a name that only exists in the movies (or Hollywood for that matter). He’s a gangster from the old days formerly clad in the finest of threads and raking in the dough. To this day, he’s unrepentant or at least blatantly honest about how he feels; he’s no chump, even despite a stint he did behind bars.

Now he’s on the outside on parole making a go at propriety as a cabby. After this preliminary bit of eye-opening exposition, the story has all but telegraphed its intentions, really no fault of its own. It doesn’t take much imagination to put a reformed Robert Taylor and a curious young sociology debutant like Lana Turner together.

They meet through his parole officer: a white-haired, benevolent picture of authority. He seems to believe every man is capable of reform and human goodness if only given a chance. His secretary, on the other hand, gives Johnny the stink eye. Lisbeth Bard can hardly take her eyes off of him.

Of course, none of this is on the level because Johnny is busy getting into his old rackets, including an ambitious plan to resurrect the Alongonquin dog races to make a killing out of it. Simultaneously, he’s double-dealing, getting his sister and bratty niece to masquerade as his alibi. They’re nicely compensated of course to play up a squeaky clean picture of domesticity.

One has to laugh. The authorities must be idiots and Johnny accordingly plays them for fools. He’s a modern-day Machiavelli and this combination of authority, guile, strength, and charm makes Johnny Eager come off a bit more significant than a walking caricature.

It’s true Taylor had caught ahold of something in his career and whether or not he was considered a negligent actor and merely a pretty face, he brings a definite machismo to the screen more than capable of knocking off everyone else around him. He’s without a doubt the center of the action despite the plethora of scene stealers around him.

But one cannot forget the diffident school girl played by Turner, quoting Cyrano de Bergerac and sporting a hat to beat them all. What overtakes her exactly? Is it some compulsion to flirt to convert a wayward soul? Is it simply yearning passion? Whatever the reason, the film is full of “inamorata” — men and women lovers.

Not least among them is Van Hefflin who’s quite the educated fellow, quick and rich on the prose, especially when he’s soused with liquor. Jeb is Johnny’s most faithful friend for reasons the movie never puts to words. But whereas everyone else is either a hired ally, a paid stooge, or an easy rival, Jeb stays by him because he has no one else.

The film is at its most engaging tracing the lines and mixing its reference points between literate dames and men pontificating with a grandiloquent verbosity while the thugs rattle off their own barb-wire jargon prickling the ears. They tumble around inside the head as the most unrealistic and simultaneously peculiar cocktail of discordant voices.

Hefflin does very little compared to the other forthcoming gruff, garble-mouthed, shifty-eyed types, and yet he doesn’t need to because the words flowing off his lips play like riffs off the rest of the film. He seems to relish every soliloquy he gets to run off, and it definitely leaves an overall impression.

But the real fire is between Taylor and Turner for as long as they get on screen together. Aside from Johnny’s clandestine activity, Lisbeth Bard’s step-father happens to be a crucial man. Edward Arnold aptly plays the domineering and vengeful district attorney, who just so happens to be situated in the most convenient place in the movie. He helped put Eager away in the penitentiary as a service to the public. Now Johnny’s looking to stick it to him with Lisbeth implicated in his own crimes.

Could it be he never loved her at all? It always functioned as business over love? Regardless of his motives, enemies become accomplices as he leverages his new position to open up the long-dormant dog racing track. Everyone across the board has got an angle. What sets Johnny apart is his self-serving shrewdness, never blinded by sentimentalities such as sacrificial love, grace, or a guilty conscience.

Meanwhile, Lisabeth is overtaken by mental frailty and paranoia. She’s not bred for the cutthroat gangster’s life like Johnny. Her tragic hysteria forces him into a type of hero’s choice. It’s what all Hollywood movies ask of their protagonists. Something is required of them in the end.

In its day, Johnny Eager was a stirling success, and if history is any indication, it might have one of the most tragic days in American history to thank. It premiered in Los Angeles on December 9th, 1941. For those keeping tabs, this is two days after Pearl Harbor.

It heightens the dramatics just enough to bring out of the realm of reality and into the spaces of escapism. Where illicit romance can shoot off like fireworks on the screen between two scintillating specimens like Taylor and Turner. They were TNT as the contemporary advertisements so aptly framed it. They were the eye candy; they were the distraction to take the masses away from the tragedy right outside those cinema doors.

In a short time, the movies would be acting as a comment on the world at-large and the war at-large with propaganda machines spinning on all cylinders. For now, they still act as a counterpoint saying something about the state of a nation by not saying anything at all.

The story ends in a somewhat comforting manner, ultimately capping off with a Hollywood moralism that made sense, creating heroes out of gangsters far away from the chaos of sneak attacks and brazen days of infamy. It just goes to show life is more ambiguous and thus more complex than a movie.

3.5/5 Stars

Meet John Doe (1941) and The Woman Who Made Him

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“You don’t have to die to keep the John Doe ideal alive. Someone already died for that once. The first John Doe. And he’s kept that ideal alive for nearly 2,000 years.” – Barbara Stanwyck as Ann Mitchell

In their final collaboration, Capra and Riskin draw on the same cisterns with their usual success. Even the opening images matched with music, summons strains of unmistakable Americana from “Take Me Out to The Ballgame” and “Oh Susanna” mixed with “Roll Out The Barrel.”

It taps into the precise sentiment all but embodied and propagated by all their pictures together. There’s always a point of inception. In this case, it begins with something bad. The Free Press gets axed for a new and improved streamlined paper and with the changes, some of the faithful employees get knocked off too. Among them is feisty newspaperwoman Ann Mitchell (Barbara Stanwyck) supporting her family on her measly paycheck. Now the new regime wants to take that away from her too.

I must open with this. I love Barbara Stanwyck to death. There’s something so energetic and alive about her, even the tonalities of her voice feel fresh and appealing. 1941, without a doubt, was a bumper crop of a year for her — the finest of her career — and she churned out three classics. The Lady Eve, Meet John Doe, and Ball of Fire all capitalized on her ready-made brand of wit, strength, and innate beauty.

Twice she plays Gary Cooper, once it’s Henry Fonda, and yet in all cases, she falls in love with the man. So much so she’ll fight to get them back. And they can be fiery in other movies, but when she shares the screen with them, they don’t have to be. She can supply enough verve and vivacity to cover both of them. It’s phenomenal to watch how she effortlessly commandeers scenes.

But this is jumping the gun. For the time being, she hasn’t met her man yet. She’s too busy being miffed, trying desperately to dream up one final hair-brained idea to reclaim her job. It comes with dreaming up an idealized man — the man she will come to fall in love with.

The origins are innocent. She wants to get back at the brusque editor (James Gleason) trimming the fat like there’s no tomorrow. Her Lavender and Old Lace column is too blase for what they’re looking for. They want fireworks. Well, she’s prepared to give them absolute dynamite. Because in a Capra-Riskin picture, ideas can flip the world upside down.

This one involves a universal “John Doe,” who has sent a letter to the editor to protest the state of the world and the lack of brotherly love. As an act of protest, the mystery man asserts he will commit suicide by jumping off a government building on Christmas Eve merely on principle. While it’s one last feisty stab at keeping her light burning, the John Doe column starts a wildfire across the country.

It’s a national phenomenon. People are clamoring for action to stop this preventable tragedy. They want John Doe to be reinstated into society, even bending over backward to offer charity. The idea is almost too big. The paper is forced to back up the lie by instigating a national search for the one and only John Doe.

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Wouldn’t you know it, among all the bums and vagabonds is Gary Cooper, tall and self-effacing as ever, accompanied by his buddy, The Colonel (Walter Brenan), a man continually suspicious of the helots. Moments later, Stanwyck beams up into Coops big brown eyes forming an instant connection. He’s the one.

With their substantial public support and the silent backing of a perfidious magnate D.B. Morton (Edward Arnold), Meet John Doe fits easily on the same plane with Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and A Face in The Crowd.

Long John Willougby (Cooper) looks to be propped up as a spineless ‘yes man’ and yet even with his national sway, he’s hesitant to use it. This makes him the utter antithesis of Lonesome Rhodes. He has his own choices to make because as it goes, indecision is a decision in its own right.

Thankfully, the flimsy gimmick deepens as Stanwyck humanizes it with her deceased father’s words. It’s no longer a totally phony-baloney stunt. She legitimizes it and falls for the ideal she’s created in its wake. The man standing in for her vision is the washed-up big-league pitcher who is simultaneously falling for her.

It’s pure Capra, pure Riskin, even as a rival newspaper tries to bribe him with 5,000 clams to read an alternate speech, effectively ousting himself as a phoney. He’s can’t help but be smitten so he goes forward as planned, and there’s arguably no better man to orate the words than Gary Cooper. He calmly calls on his fellow countrymen to tear the fences down between neighbors because the trouble with the world is people being sore at each other.

A grassroots populism shoots up across the country in response to his amicable radio rally. John Doe clubs dotting the country are almost a kind of humanistic church meeting ground, altogether apolitical and not overtly religious.

Regis Toomey represents the masses as one of the many folks taken up by Doe’s words. Ann Doran is all but uncredited as his doting wife and the guiding light behind his resolve. His candid soliloquy speaks to the same messages of brotherly love. It’s Williloby’s first realization that he’s a part of something far larger than himself. He has some sort of concrete responsibility to these people, whether real or imagined. 

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The story could end here on this most saccharine note if not for the customary sinister twists alluded to by the foreboding closeup on Mr. Morton as he eavesdrops on his help. He knows he’s in on something that he can use for his personal ends. The greedy are capable of taking something pure and twisting it with their duplicitous intentions.

He proves just how Machiavellian he is willing to stoop, ready to kill an idea when it gets in the way of his political ambitions. Prepared to ground Doe into the dirt and turn the whole nation against him with his amble sway in the media. The man who once promoted him, calls John out as a fake, a man paid off with 30 pieces of silver like Judas Iscariot — the most ignominious traitor the world has ever known.

Stanwyck can’t save him in the moment and she cries out, “They’re crucifying him!” The same people who loved him. A fickle generation fed on lies. Now with the biblical imagery increasingly clear, John Doe is prepared to be the sacrificial figure they don’t deserve.

The following Christmas Eve is understated and dismally captured. Instead of a bridge in Bedford Falls, it’s the top floor of City Hall where our man bides his time, resolved to jump to his death as not only an act of silent protest but sacrificial love.

Capra famously shot about four or five different endings to the picture trying to figure out how to resolve the story in a satisfactory manner. Whether you agree with the choice or not, one must admit he kept with the unifying thematics of his oeuvre. For me, Stanwyck is the standout MVP to the very last scene.

4/5 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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4/5 Stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3/5 Stars

 

 

Take Me out to The Ball Game (1949)

Take_Me_Out_To_The_Ballgame_(MGM_film).jpgThere’s something perfectly in sync between Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor so I could never choose another duo over them but Kelly and Frank Sinatra are such wonderful entertainers that they help make this period baseball number a real musical classic even if it has to fall in line behind a row of other quality contenders.

It’s easy to half expect to see Stanley Donen’s name on the marquee as director in part because of his prestigious partnership with Kelly but instead, we get an equally renowned name in Busby Berkeley. In fact, at this time Berkeley was a veteran of musicals. However, it’s true that Donen did help with crafting the narrative on this one with Kelly and would pick up directing duties with On the Town (1949).

America’s original Pasttime (before being challenged by Basketball and Football) is ripe for a musical homage as MGM seemed to take aim at all the popular arenas of entertainment. Set during the golden years of baseball, this story, in particular, takes interest in the fictional Wolves who share some resemblance to the famed Cubs of the early 1900s with the double-play combination of Joe Tinker, Johnny Evers, and Frank Chance. In this film, the archetypal slogan, “Tinkers to Evers to Chance” is adapted into a giddy tune “O’Brien to Ryan to Goldberg” with the trio of Kelly, Sinatra, and Jules Munshin taking the leads.

Esther Williams even gets her obligatory dip in the pool while still showing her prowess as a baseball player, a desirable heartthrob, and a club owner with a certain amount of business acumen. Because she really is at the core of the story’s plot.

You see the boys, O’Brien and Ryan, are having a grand old time coming off a stint in vaudeville during the offseason and now spring training is upon them and they are reunited with their clubmates along with the scintillating prospect of another league pennant. That is until they find out that they’re under new ownership, and they suspect it’s a stuffy nobody named K.C. Higgins.

Are they surprised with what meets their eyes? K.C. Higgins turns out to be a “she” instead of a “he” and a very attractive one at that. But that doesn’t detract from the bottom line. She’s a woman who expects that she knows the game better than they do. Thus, it’s a slight musical riff on the old battle of the sexes dilemma.

Their plan of action entails setting up their buddy Denny (Sinatra) with Ms. Catherine so they can keep her occupied and off their backs. Kelly is the fast-moving playboy ballplayer who also has a complicated relationship with Katherine Catherine (that’s what K.C. stands for). While the forward Shirley Delwyn (Betty Garret) is out to snag herself a man and sets her sights on poor helpless Dennis.

There’s a bit of a black sox scandal type thread that’s grafted in at the end with Edward Arnold playing his usual corrupt businessman who is looking to ruin O’Brien’s reputation and make a killing off betting against the Wolves. Thank goodness in this case Kenesaw Mountain Landis does not come in and expulse Gene Kelly who instead is allowed to dance another day this time with all his costars.

Aside from singing the game’s most revered song on screen, (which is a relief given its name), the film also has adequate room for some of the other important aspects of baseball namely antagonizing umpires, trash talk, clowning, and brawls. After all, what would America’s game be without those finer points?

Gene Kelly even gets around to putting another feather in his dancing cap with an Irish jig proving him to be yet again a master showman and virtuoso performer on taps. He’s also probably the first baseball player in history who carried two careers as a ballplayer by day and a hoofer by night. All in all, this was the kind of Technicolor spectacle that MGM was accustomed to offering up in the 40s and 50s and it’s satisfying stuff, if not quite their best.

3.5/5 Stars

Review: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

James_Stewart_in_Mr._Smith_Goes_to_Washington_trailer_cropThe opening credits roll and recognition comes with each name that pops on the screen. Jean Arthur, James Stewart, Claude Rains, Edward Arnold, Guy Kibbee, Thomas Mitchell, Eugene Palette, Beulah Bondi, H.B. Warner, Harry Carey, Porter Hall, Charles Lane, William Demarest, Jack Carson, and of course, Frank Capra himself.

We are met with the ubiquitous visage of Charles Lane calling in a big scoop on the telephone. A senator has died suddenly. The likes of Porter Hall and H.B. Warner fill the Senate Chamber presided over by a wryly comic VP, Harry Carey. Corruption is personified by the flabby pair of Edward Arnold and Eugene Palette while Claude Rains embodies the tortured political journeyman. The eminent members of the press include not only Lane but the often swacked Thomas Mitchell and a particularly cheeky Jack Carson.

To some people, these are just names much like any other but to others of us, linked together and placed in one film, these figures elicit immense significance and simultaneously help to make Mr. Smith Goes to Washington one of the most satisfying creations of Hollywood’s Golden Age from arguably “The Greatest Year in Cinematic History.”  The acting from the biggest to the smallest role is a sheer joy to observe as is Capra’s candid approach to the material.

As someone with a deep affection for film’s continued impact, it gives me great pleasure that stories such as Mr. Smith exist on the silver screen if only for the simple fact that they continually renew my belief in humanity, whatever that means. Because it’s an admittedly broad, sweeping statement to make but then again that’s what Frank Capra was always phenomenally skilled at doing. He could take feelings, emotions, beliefs, and ideals synthesizing them into the perfect cultural concoctions commonly known as moving pictures.

But his pictures always maintained an unfaltering optimism notably in the face of all sorts of trials and tribulations. He never disregarded the corruption dwelling in his stories–it was always there–in this case personified by the stifling political machine of Jim Taylor gorging itself off the lives of the weak and stupid.

The key is that his narratives always rise above the graft and corruption. They latch onto the common everyday decency, looking out for the other guy, and in some small way uphold the great commandment to love thy neighbor.

Politics have never been my forte. Like many others, I’m easily disillusioned by “politics” as this becomes a dirty word full of arrogance, partisanship, and scandal among other issues. It seems like the founding principles that laid the groundwork for this entire democracy often get buried under pomp & circumstance or even worse personal ambitions.

Although this film was shot over 75 years ago everyone who’s been around the block lives as if that’s the case then too and so they’re not all that different from today at least where it matters. Cynicism is a hard thing to crack when it runs through the fabric of society from the politicians, to the newspapers, all the way down to the general public. It’s not hard to understand why. Still, the genuine qualities of a man like Jefferson Smith can act as a bit of an antidote. He as a character himself might be a bit of an ideal, yes, but I’d like to have enough faith to believe that people with a little bit of Jefferson Smith might still live today.

Common, everyday people who nevertheless are capable of extraordinary things like standing up for what’s right when they know that no one else will or when they know all that waits for them at the end of the tunnel is disgrace. But the promise of what is beyond the tunnel is enough. That is true integrity to be able to do that and those are the causes worth cheering for when David must fight Goliath and still he somehow manages to overcome. That’s the chord Mr. Smith strikes with me. thanks in part to Capra’s vision but also Stewart’s impassioned embodiment of those same ideals.  He has a knack for compelling performances to be sure.

Time and time again James Stewart pulls me in. His career is one of the most iconic in any decade, any era no questions asked. There are so many extraordinary films within that context perhaps many that are technically or artistically superior to Mr. Smith by some  estimations, but he was never more candid or disarming than those final moments in the senate chambers as he fights for his life — clinging to the ideals that he’s been such a stalwart proponent for even as his naivete has been mercilessly stripped away from him.

In the opening moments, his eyes carried that glow of honest to goodness optimism, his posture gangly and unsure represented all that is genuine in man. Now watching those same ideals and heroes come back to perniciously attack him, he presides with almost reckless abandon. Is he out of his mind? At times, it seems so, but as he wearies, his hair becomes more disheveled, and his vocal chords have only a few rasps left he still fights the good fight. There’s an earnest zeal to him that’s positively palpable.

As our stand-in, Saunders (Jean Arthur) first writes him off as a first class phony or at the very least a political stooge ready to do another man’s bidding but she does not know Jefferson Smith though she does grow to love him. And Arthur’s performance truly is a masterful one because without her Smith would hardly be the same figure. She brings out his naivete by sheer juxtaposition but she also puts the fight back into him because he brought a change over her that in turn rallies him to keep on pushing. They’ve got a bit of a mutually symbiotic relationship going on in the best way possible. You might call it love.

Capra repeatedly underlines Smith’s honesty and genuine nature not only through numerous rather simplistic montages of Capitol Hill and the surrounding national monuments but in the very way his character carries himself around others. He never assumes a position of superiority. He’s always humble. He sees the inherent need to raise up young people well so that they might progress to become the leaders of tomorrow with a great deal to offer our world. He fumbles with his hat in the presence of pretty girls and holds his idols in the highest esteem. It’s all there on Stewart’s face and in his actions. We too comprehend the solemnity and the gravity that he senses in the office of the Senate.

While this was not Jimmy Stewart’s debut and it was only at the beginning of a shining career as has already been noted, it was in these moments that the cinematic world fell in love with him. He can’t be licked and for good reason. He was never one to give up on lost causes just like his father before him.

I guess this is just another lost cause, Mr. Paine. All you people don’t know about lost causes. Mr. Paine does. He said once they were the only causes worth fighting for, and he fought for them once, for the only reason any man ever fights for them: Because of one plain simple rule: Love thy neighbor. ~ James Stewart as Jefferson Smith

5/5 Stars

Easy Living (1937)

easyliving1Easy Living is a sizzling screwball comedy propelled by a Preston Sturges script and the direction of Mitchel Leisen (a former costume designer). It finds humor in the stratified 1930s society and the so-called easy livings of the affluent. But it also has it’s fair share of rip-roaring slapstick. Really the whole plot revolves around a rogue fur coat.

J.B. Ball (Edward Arnold) is the third most prominent banker in New York. His wife has a penchant for fur coats and his son John Jr. (Ray Milland) is fed up with his father’s constant criticism. He’s ready to leave the luxury and make a go of it on his own. Fed up with his wife and not all that pleased with his son, Mr. Ball tosses one of his wife’s sables off their balcony. Mary Smith (Jean Arthur) is the unsuspecting recipient of the coat as she rides by on a passing bus. By chance, she and Mr. Ball strike up a conversation and they hit it off after he resolves to buy her a new hat, in lieu of the one that was ruined. Of course, the clerk gets the wrong idea about their little friendship and it has major repercussions.

Many folks want to get on her good side since they’ve heard through the grapevine that she’s connected to Mr. Ball. This includes the befuddled hotel owner Louis Louis, who offers Mary one of his finest suites and she has no idea what she ever did to deserve it. Of course, Mary crosses paths with John Jr. who is smitten with her right off the bat. But she has no idea who his father is.

A joke from him, relayed by Mary, ends up having overwhelming consequences on the stock market and it ends up spelling major trouble for Mr. Ball. But of course, father and son and Mary all wind up in J.B.’s office together as the comedy of errors finally synchronizes. Son finally proves his acumen to father and gets the job he desperately needs.  Mary has her guy now and Mr. Ball’s marriage is all intact.

easyliving3Edward Arnold is an absolute riot and at his pushy best as the affluent banker. Jean Arthur has always been one of my favorite comediennes. She has such a great voice for delivering quips; there’s a certain lilt to it that is always invariably funny. She’s also the perfect independent working woman like a Barbara Stanwyck or Rosalind Russell. She’s no pushover. I knew Ray Milland for later films like The Lost Weekend or Dial M for Murder, but I saw here firsthand that he has some comedic chops. I also learned what an automat was and at the same time got treated with some top-notch slapstick. Thank you, Preston Sturges.

4/5 Stars

You Can’t Take it With You (1938)

Starring a cast boasting Lionel Barrymore, Jean Arthur, James Stewart, and Ed Arnold, this is another comical Capra film. Arnold is a wealthy banker bent on acquiring a block of land for business purposes. Stewart is his son who has fallen over heels for his secretary. Things are complicated by her peculiar family household partly because her grandfather will not give up his land to the banker. Fireworks go off literally and figuratively when the two families meet. It leads to prison, and a chaotic court appearance which causes a further rift. Because his grand daughter is sad, Grandpa decides to sell the family home. Arnold seems to have won, but his son leaves him for his love and so Arnold changes his way. Thanks to a harmonica duet and some dancing a friendship is made and everyone is happy in the end. Every Capra films comes with a message and this one preaches the importance of friends and family compared to money because after all “You Can’t Take it With You.”

4/5 Stars

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

84a24-mrsmithgoestowashingtonposterAs both a political drama and feel good movie, this film cemented James Stewart as an acting powerhouse. Furthermore, despite its age, it acts as a timeless reminder of the evils of political machines. It makes us root for the underdog, and it is distinctively American. Here is a cast and a story that seemingly could never be equaled, but what this film really had going for it was an idealistic outlook. I can, myself, often be a cynical person, and still Mr. Smith never fails to make me acknowledge the numerous attributes that make our country great, whether it is through montage, monuments, music, and of course Jefferson Smith himself. 

In one of his best performances, Jimmy Stewart is an idealistic, naive boy’s troop leader named Jefferson Smith. The starry-eyed Smith trusts that our nation is founded on some very noble principles that should be fought for tirelessly in government and in society. Above all, he is a likable fellow, who earnestly believes in the merits of this country, and he is beloved by boys all across the state. Now, this all sounds fine and dandy, but it would never have come across on the screen if it had not been for Stewart. He emanates this awkward and innocent energy that puts life into the idealistic creation of Jefferson Smith. 

When the film opens, everything is in turmoil when a senator suddenly dies and a replacement is needed fast. Believing Smith will be a pawn, a powerful man named Taylor (Ed Arnold) gets Smith a seat in the nation’s Senate. There he joins the respected Senator and old family acquaintance, Joe Paine (Claude Rains), who is also a cog in Taylor’s machine. However, although he is out of place in Washington, the patriotic Smith does his best to be worthy of his position. He realizes that the press will not give him a break, and the other Senators do not take him seriously.

So, on the urging of Paine, he decides to come up with a bill for a boys camp back in his home state. He requires the help of the world-weary secretary Saunders (Jean Arthur) to get his bill done. Initially, she is disgusted by his naivete, but as she grows to know him, she realizes he is only going to get himself hurt. His action to propose a bill soon find him face to face with the political machine that elected him. Taylor also has stakes on the piece of land where the boy’s camp would be, and he wants it for a dam. 

Smith finds himself being accused of using his position for his personal gain, and pretty soon he is before a committee with false evidence piling up against him. With all odds and seemingly everyone else against him as well, Smith makes one last monumental effort. Thanks to the help and guidance of Saunders, Smith fights to plead his case through a filibuster.

Fatigued by many hours of giving impassioned speeches and reciting the Constitution, Smith finally collapses, but not before effectively succeeding at his task. I doubt this would ever happen in real life, but in the film, it is fantastic watching the Senate break out into complete and utter mayhem. Ultimately, a young man with “a little bit of plain, ordinary, everyday kindness and a little looking out for the other fella,” was able to win. True, it may be overly sentimental, but it is a wonderful piece of sentiment all the same.

Frank Capra was wonderful at these type of cheering tales and his stars were in top form. There is an absolutely wonderful supporting cast here including Claude Rains, Edward Arnold, Eugene Pallette Thomas Mitchell, Charles Lane, Harry Carey, William Demarest, Beulah Bondi, and numerous other familiar faces I don’t even know the names of. That’s the beauty of the studio system I guess. It may have the same director, same leading man, and some of the same general themes, but Mr. Smith Goes to Washington covers completely different territory from Capra’s later classic It’s a Wonderful Life. Mr. Smith should be seen as a unique, and very much American film.


5/5 Stars