The Virginian (1929)

220px-Poster_-_Virginian,_The_(1929)_01.jpgThough the image quality of the print I saw hardly stands the test of time, there’s something almost modern about The Virginian’s characterizations or at least what it deems interesting to show.

There’s actually a layering of tones and a fluctuation in the moral dilemma at its core that feel a great deal more nuanced than a cut-and-dry shoot ’em up western beholden to the stereotypes that the genre was founded on.

In Victor Fleming’s hands, The Virginian was not only a western but an early talkie extending the possibilities of the medium. It’s true that at this point there was a lot of pioneering still to do in film as there had been in the West.

One aspect this picture took advantage of in particular was exterior shooting which gives the West an almost palpable nature because we see the dust swirling up from the feet of the cattle, we hear the constant chorus of animal sounds, and the expanse of the prairie is daunting but also starkly majestic.

Beyond genre conventions, it’s indubitably a seminal picture since we get the overwhelming sense that we are seeing a persona coming into his own — the crystallized image of stalwart Americana — Gary Cooper. Although he was a minor star and this was not only his first starring role in a western but also his first talkie, soon enough he would be one of the most beloved actors of his day.

True, he also made many pictures outside the genre of considerable repute in their own right, and yet there’s no underselling how important the western was in further instilling Cooper’s legacy for generations of faithful fans. His eponymous character in The Virginian is an early marker of the mythology of western masculinity that would stretch all the way to High Noon (1952) and Man of the West (1958). In fact, at times this picture, featuring an imminent showdown, looks eerily similar to its future brethren from two decades later.

His cattle foreman character is a man’s man. He’s a plain-speaking, straight-talking man of few words (Yes ma’am, No ma’am), who nevertheless cares deeply about honor and personal integrity. Yet he still gives off the homely qualities of a man of the West. And it’s true that much of this film adaptation of Owen Wister’s novel and subsequent play is concerned with the butting of heads that comes with the clashing cultures between West and East.

On one side you have the Virginian and the rest of the townsfolk and on the other is the new schoolmarm, Molly Stark Wood (Mary Brian), who causes quite a stir among the men in town and is a welcomed bit of civility to everyone else.

There is a sense that she can help tame this uncivilized world that lacks manners, education, and law and order. The themes would crop again and again most notably in Ford’s own moody rumination The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). But here there’s an oddly good-natured comedy streak. It’s not all horse opera.

The Virginian and his old pal Steve have a fine time switching the babies about to be christened by the parson which causes quite the hubbub. But the two men also jockey for the new gal’s affection in all matter of things. Looking to carry her bags or get a dance with her at the community gathering.

The Virginian and Molly even conduct a discourse on Romeo and Juliet which proves to be an enlightening distillation of their two differing perspectives. All of this is fine and dandy. Even the swapping of infants like a pair of regular cow rustlers feels innocent enough. But there’s another side of this world as well.

The main antagonist named Trampas (Walter Huston) wears black and yet he’s more of a cunning thief than an ornery devil, all guns a blazing. He’s more apt to shoot a man in the back when he’s not looking like a coward than actually face him man to man.

He also happens to be a cattle rustler himself and he’s pulled Steve in with him because it’s a pretty easy business. Lots of reward for little risk. Except if and when you get caught there are no two ways about it. The law of the land says you’ll be strung up even if you’re a friend.

And so The Virginian doesn’t shy away from the harsher realities of this lifestyle whether it be hangings or the prevalence of gun duels. It’s a part of the life but also so at odds with what is considered respectable in other parts of the world. Thus, not only the schoolmarm, but the audience, and really everyone else involved must grapple with what is right and what is wrong and how we reconcile those perceived differences.

4/5 Stars

“When you call me that, smile!” – The Virginian

Girls About Town (1931)

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I came to this film for Kay Francis and I stayed because of Kay Francis, George Cukor, Joel McCrea, Eugene Pallette, and Lilyan Tashman. All to say, it is a supreme pleasure to watch this cast in action and already Cukor seems capable of handling the material in a way that intuitively understands the comedy while never losing sight of the romantic heart. That balance seems key.

But we also see another Cukor hallmark with two strong female characters who are central to the film’s integrity. Wanda (Francis) and Marie (Tashman) make a living as girls about town. They are bankrolled to get comfortable with out-of-town businessmen. Because a little female company and a lot of bubbly makes any business transaction go down smoothly.

Marie doesn’t mind the vocation but you can see it in Wanda’s eyes. She’s tired of the same haggard men and droll conversation. She wants something of a little more substance. An actual man and a real relationship.

Yet she concedes to do another gig as part of a yacht excursion that’s looking to schmooze a wealthy whale of a man named Benjamin Thomas (Palette). He also is a self-proclaimed king of practical joking. In fact, he doesn’t know when to quit whether it’s glasses of water or deep sea diving for golf balls. Marie gravitates to him for a laugh.

Meanwhile, Wanda has her eyes set on the younger one, Mr. Benjamin’s associate (McCrea) who isn’t much for conversation or any kind of companionship. As hard as she tries there’s nothing doing. But they finally strike up a compromise by playing “pretend.” Their relationship becomes jovial. The only problem is that Wanda is falling for a man who never meant to romance her. Things get a little too real.

But thank goodness, the feelings are mutual and it looks like they will be together for good. A zoo might as well be the tunnel of love as our two euphoric romantics smooch their way through the animals. At this point, the love story is floating on air. Until Jim mentions marriage.

Here Girls About Town earns its keep as a Pre-Code picture due to its subject matter, the flippancy with which it deals with romance, and even fairly radical views on the necessity of the institution of marriage between two people.  None is the focal point per se but they certainly make the picture quite bold even in what it deems to be the status quo when placed up against films that came a mere three or four years later. The inevitable bomb is dropped but it hits like a pin drop. She’s married already. She doesn’t even bat an eye. Divorce is what is called for and there’s no reason her husband would not grant her one. She hasn’t lived with him for a time.

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The films secondary narrative involves Benny’s own wife coming back into his life to try and save his reputation only to join forces with the surprisingly reasonable Marie as they scheme to get the old curmudgeon to spend his money and show his affection for his wife.

The final complication just gets better and better and it keeps the picture interesting. At this crucial stage, Wanda’s spineless husband Alex turns an about face and crosses paths with Jim to talk it out.  Now the indignant Jim smells blackmail and lashes out not only at this man but his formerly soon-to-be wife. You can see the heady implications.

But there’s something more to Adam. Perhaps he’s not the villain we assumed him to be. That would have been too easy. So instead of getting the money back from him, Wanda sets her sights on the next best option. An impromptu auction is undertaken as the girls rally to raise $10,000, complete with a heel for a gavel and a wheeling-dealing Marie presiding.

Certainly, it’s not the necessity but the principle of the matter as Wanda wants to pay her man back to show her true character. She was never looking to take advantage of him and she is willing to go to great lengths to renew his trust. It’s made easier by the fact that he’s torn up about what happened. Now she has him where she wants him. Her days as a girl about town are numbered.

Ernest Haller is our cinematographer and there are several setups that are particularly interesting because they trade out our normal frame of reference as the audience by putting us in different places. The first instance comes in the zoo where we find ourselves literally inside different cages with a bear and then some reptiles.

Then, there’s a later sequence where we similarly end up behind the glass of a display case. And of course, we can’t hear the exchange going on outside but the pantomime gets it across just fine. But the creme de la creme is the flurry of close-ups on Palette’s face when he sees all the jewels that he thought he bought for another woman on his wife. Priceless.

3.5/5 Stars

100 Men and a Girl (1937)

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It’s fascinating how history works. Deanna Durbin and Judy Garland came up at the same time. In their day, stars were groomed from an early age and MGM had both the starlets under contract. But instead of holding onto both talents it turned out that Garland remained and Durbin signed a new agreement with Universal.

The conventional wisdom was that you only needed one young singing girl at a studio. That niche was filled. Of course, that proved to be far from the truth as Durbin became a smash hit in her own right rivaling Garland.

100 Men and a Girl is only one film in a long list of successful outings she had in the 1930s starting with Three Smart Girls (1936). Most of these pictures were directed by Henry Koster and proved very popular with audiences.

This particular one surrounds Durbin with players including Adolph Menjou and has some My Man Godfrey (1936) castmates carried over from the previous year. There’s the inclusion of flabbergasted Billy Gilbert as the easily duped funnyman and other crucial character actors like Mischa Auer and Frank Jenks taking up posts as a flutist and a stymied cabbie respectively.

But front and center and most agreeable of everyone is this pleasant girl who unwittingly finds herself in high society and taken under the wing of a bubbly socialite (Alice Brady), who finds this girl’s demeanor charming perhaps for the very fact that she’s so sweet and well, a frantic force of nature. It’s delightfully refreshing and different from the snooty company the lady is used to having in her presence.

But Patsy Cardell can also sing quite stupendously and that’s to her credit. I’m hardly musically inclined but Durbin even at this age hardly seems a show tunes singer, sweetly navigating the utmost of classical compositions with a voice that feels beyond her years. My personal tastes are simpler but there’s no discounting her vocal abilities.

Still, the film is born out of an admittedly absurd idea and the light bulb flashes in a rapid burst of inspiration. Patsy’s father (Menjou) is out of work and so are 100 of his fellow musicians. What should she do? Starting a symphony orchestra is what she should do! It’s as clear as day and she motors forward determined to make her idea turn into something tangible with the promise of backing from Mrs. Frost (Brady).

The wind is in her sails and she’s not about to allow logistics or the scorn of others uproot her vision. Her goal is to get her daddy on Mr. John R. Frost’s radio show. It’s just what her father needs to get back to work. Presto! This is a film plot that might as well have gotten resolved with a puff of smoke. Just like that. Instead, she is crushed by the curmudgeon husband (Eugene Pallette), his wife now off in Europe out of sight. So Patsy has no recourse to go to the top and famed conductor Leopold Stokowski (playing himself).

The rest of the story relies on a number of convenient happenstances. False hopes and crushed dreams become real hopes and true dreams. Although it’s a pure pipe dream of a film, sometimes that’s just what we need whether we’re still wrangling with the Great Depression or in the here and now 80 years onward. Because films like this that are ethereal, fluffy, and light still give us something.

Durbin holds her own with cheerfulness and a certain amount of sass that doesn’t compromise her basic principles. She was instantly likable in her day and still much the same today.

Henry Koster will never get any respect for the kind of pictures that he made but that’s okay because he made films that were crafted with a genuine heart. That speaks to people in ways that other types of films can’t seem to manage. True, this picture can hardly claim the title of an artistic masterpiece for critics to fawn over and dissect to death with their immaculate vocabulary and academic analyses. That too is okay. Here is a film that’s wacky, fun, and it’s okay with being just that.

Deanna Durbin was credited with saving her studio from the pits of bankruptcy during the depression years with her voice and her spirit and a certain candor that made her a beloved girl-next-door icon for a generation. She was crystallized in that image and never quite broke out like she probably would have liked.

She also never saw the same acclaim from modern generations like a Judy Garland since she didn’t have a film like The Wizard of Oz (1939) for folks to rally around but in her time she was quite the attraction. All told, finding her again today is still a lovely revelation. She remains enjoyable to watch even for nostalgia’s sake. Sometimes that’s enough.

3.5/5 Stars

The Kennel Murder Case (1933)

The-kennel-murder-case-1933It’s happened in some well-documented cases that the same actor has played two characters that feel nominally similar and based on this cursory level of comparison the general public has been forever befuddled. You could cite some notable examples being Bogart playing Sam Spade and Phillip Marlowe the archetypal pulp private eye heroes of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler.

Even the fact that Fess Parker played Davy Crockett for Disney and then Daniel Boone on the small screen undoubtedly still has the less historically inclined folks to question if there is any difference between the two men.

A still earlier example would be William Powell who was famed as Nick Charles in The Thin Man Series pairing him with Myrna Loy but about that time he also did pretty well for himself as the eponymous Philo Vance in a handful of mystery serials. In truth, this installment would be his last time performing the role but he slid rather seamlessly into The Thin Man series that arguably allowed him more freedom for comedy.

Other actors took on the mantle as well including Basil Rathbone, Warren William, Paul Lukas, and even Alan Curtis. But it was The Kennel Murder Case directed by one of Warner Bros. top craftsman Michael Curtiz that remains the hallmark of this Pre-Code franchise.

Although Raymond Chandler called Philo Vance, “the most asinine character in detective fiction,” much of that quality was toned down in the feature adaptations and after all, with a charmer such as William Powell, how could he not be at least a bit compelling?

In this particular storyline, there’s initially no case at all only Vance missing out on the big prize at a prestigious dog show. But on his way to Italy riding an ocean liner for a much-needed vacation, he catches wind of the death of one of his kennel acquaintances Mr. Archer Coe. Although the authorities including the straight-laced District Attorney Markham (Robert McWade) and the lovable police detective Heath (Eugene Palette) assume it is suicide, Vance comes in on the proceedings with a hunch of his own.

It has murder written all over it but the circumstances are most peculiar and the extensive array of suspects makes it no small matter to pinpoint the culprit. But that’s the fun of the chase as our perceptive detective looks to derive the correct conclusion and the audience along with him (without much success I might add, at least in my case).

It’s very easily to surmise that nowadays we are so culturally well-versed in crime, mysteries, and whodunits that this film’s script feels clunky at times because the characters say all the things and hit all the marks that we might expect. It’s a rite of passage to have the police constantly dismiss our hero’s deductions as it is to hear the shots ring out in the house or the various suspects nervously fib and cover up for this reason and that person.

However, to its credit, the resolution gets so lost among the various characters with numerous motives and the like that when the killer is revealed it still provides a certain amount of satisfaction. So in some sense, you could say that The Kennel Murder is a successful mystery because it does hit all the marks.

Yes, a no-nonsense Powell isn’t quite as fun as a snarky slightly tipsy Powell, although he still makes for an enjoyable lead. But supporting spots for the always jovial Eugene Palette and noir icon Mary Astor add a dash of character across the rank and file of the cast. Meanwhile, James Lee plays a rather fascinating character for the time, a Chinese cook who nevertheless attended Columbia and is highly educated in Chinese porcelain.

And there is undoubtedly an efficiency to The Kennel Murder Case such that a great deal is able to unfold and be resolved without feeling tedious or overlong aided by Curtiz’s direction and plenty of screen wipes. It proves to be just about the right length to make the payoff worthwhile and the story’s mystery generally engaging. More character development is always a plus but with a whodunit that’s usually not your main concern.

3.5/5 Stars

My Man Godfrey (1936)

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There’s a key moment in My Man Godrey where the ditzy Irene Bullock (Carole Lombard) giddily announces to her mother, “Godfrey loves me. He put me in the shower!” Her mother’s response could best be described as one of indignance but it’s a barrel of laughs for the audience. Because this film is full of off-the-wall remarks which taken out of context are so peculiar you don’t even want to attempt to understand.

That’s the beauty of this screwball comedy from the often underrated Gregory La Cava, best known for this picture and the following year’s Stage Door. Otherwise, the script is courtesy of Morrie Ryskind a veteran of some of the Marx Brothers’ comedies.

It opens as a biting satire of the affluent masses occupied by inane decadence and a multitude of frivolous diversions from scavenger hunts to parading livestock around in front of their friends. The screenwriter’s efforts were well worth it no doubt but the cast indubitably breaths incredible gales of life into the material with each battling for laugh after laugh.

The following interludes repeatedly exhibit perhaps the wackiest, most melodramatic family of comedy from most any decade. It comes from having too much time on their hands, too much money, and not enough sense. They’re a real screwy bunch. We meet the two Bullock daughters (Lombard and Gail Patrick) as they try and outdo each other in the middle of the previously mentioned scavenger hunt, searching out “a forgotten man.” They have no concern for who he is and how he lives. Only that he might win them the game.

Still, the said man plays along and somehow finds himself hired on by young Irene as the family’s latest butler to not only spite her older sister but also so that she might have a protege and maybe due to an inkling of a girlish crush. It makes little sense, only to say her mother’s protege is a musician named Carlo (Mischa Auer) who is good for very little except offering up the pretense of culture and eating them out of the house.

But Godfrey proves to be just about the best butler that the Bullock’s ever could muster, navigating their morning routines of hangovers and playing straight-man to the incessant chaos that constantly swarms around him. On their part, they are so self-absorbed and obliviousness, they never seem to question how perfectly he has transformed into a butler. Surely, he cannot actually have been “a forgotten man” from off a trash heap? But no, they don’t concern themselves with such things. It goes unnoticed.

It seems like each member of the family has their special calling card.  They are a bunch of bubbleheads and Carole Lombard is the queen of them all, though mother (Alice Brady) is equally effervescent and a tad asinine. That’s  a part of her charm. She also flatters very easily.

Meanwhile, the other daughter Cornelia (Patrick) is more acidic, purring like a feline ready to pounce and make her sister pay for whatever trivial affront she’s perpetrated. Because, truthfully, they’re just a whole clan of boorish rich people who have no idea what’s happening to the world on the outside — if that point has not already been asserted enough. They’ve probably never heard of The Great Depression much less felt its true effects.

Mr. Bullock (Eugene Pallette) probably has it the worst as the long-suffering father — the nearest thing to a sane individual in the entire family. Still, you can’t live in a house of such madness and not have a few unhinged moments of your own. He’s constantly finding himself piping up amid the bedlam his gravelly voice trying to secure even a moments peace. He rarely succeeds.

Again, Godfrey is the calming force that brings a modicum amount of stability to such a place. He along with the veteran maid Molly (Jean Dixon) navigate the choppy waters of melodrama every day as Irene becomes increasingly infatuated, her emotional outbursts becoming more frequent, and Cornelia looking for any way to possibly make his life miserable to get him fired. Still, he goes about his duties.

And that’s part of the joke at the core of this film. The “forgotten man,” this tramp coming up against their own upper-class sensibilities and coming out looking like the true human being with brains and class and culture. Except it’s really a joke within a joke because maybe Godfrey is more than we first perceived him to be. In fact, he’s a lot more.

Pair such a raucous cast with some top tier comic patter that sizzles with wit and you’ve just happened upon the most wonderful mess imaginable. There might be other screwball comedies I enjoy more, but few are as hairbrained as My Man Godfrey and that is a grand word of praise for this brand of comedy. If it’s not stark raving bonkers it can hardly claim the name screwball honestly. No such problem exists here.

William Powell is a natural in this role showcasing that typical dry wit of his that effortlessly pokes fun at these people but also seems to appreciate them for all their shortcomings even finding time to truly respect them in the sincerest of ways. As per usual, Carole Lombard is so over the top to the nth degree with her sniveling zaniness spilling over into every scene.

In the past, I mistook her performances as a sheer annoyance but now I see how perfect she is for such a part. There’s an overwhelming commitment to the craziness that pays heavy dividends and by the film’s end, she’s overrun everyone with her energy — even Godfrey. He has no rebuttal.

For a time she was no doubt the greatest screwball actress though over the subsequent years the likes of Katharine Hepburn, Jean Arthur, Rosalind Russell, and Barbara Stanwyck no doubt gave her a run for her money. Still, there’s something undeniable about being the first and, in many ways, she was that woman.

If there were any residual ill feelings between Powell and Lombard now three years out from their divorce, there’s no visible animosity and together they succeed in forging My Man Godfrey into a classic screwball through and through.

4.5/5 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

Review: The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)

the adventures of robin hood 1As a young boy, no hero was greater in my mind’s eye than Robin Hood and only Star Wars held a more honored spot in my childhood imagination. Because, to this day, Robin of Locksley remains the quintessential hero of mythical lore. Part historical truth mostly canonized myth and that’s the beauty of him. We can believe in him — see how he was in so many ways real but in the same instance larger than life.

To his credit, Erroll Flynn does a surprisingly phenomenal job in portraying the legendary outlaw in Lincoln green with a bit of British (Australian…) cheekiness, as well as bravado and charm. In fact, the film is full of so many wonderful elements from its engaging action sequences full of timeless spectacle and a plethora of characters who come right off the pages of the greatest Robin Hood narratives. Will Scarlett, Much the Miller, Friar Tuck and of course Little John still hold a great deal of esteem in my heart. While there are no men more villainous and corrupted than the likes of Prince John (Claude Rains), The Sheriff of Nottingham (Melville Cooper) and Guy of Gisbourne (Basil Rathbone).

Meanwhile, Michael Curtiz took the reigns of the film and makes it a lively swashbuckler that revels in a sense of good fun and that starts with Flynn’s performance radiating out from there. While this early use of three-strip Technicolor only serves to add yet another layer of elegance and vibrancy to the film’s look. It truly was made for color and every shade of Lincoln green and every bit of medieval opulence proves to be a feather in the film’s cap. It looks absolutely stunning and the same goes for young Olivia De Havilland as Maid Marian.

Olivia_de_Havilland_and_Errol_Flynn_in_The_Adventures_of_Robin_Hood_trailerFrom what I know from Robin Hood folklore, specifically Howard Pyle’s seminal edition, the film is surprisingly true to many of the origin stories and tales that have long since proliferated. As an audience, we become privy to the first meetings of Robin and the formidable Little John (Alan Hale) who lays him out in the local stream after a bout with quarterstaffs. Then, in another instance, Robin provokes the portly Friar Tuck (Eugene Palette) who happens to be a master swordsman and a lover of good food and drink. Still, other vignettes include Robin’s successful masquerade as a lowly archer who wins the grand prize at the Sheriff of Nottingham’s Archery Tournament.

Of course, the most thrilling set pieces occur in Nottingham Castle, initially when Robin brazenly drops in on Prince John and his cronies bearing a deer over his shoulders. Admittedly I have Star Wars on the mind, but this sequence is rather reminiscent of Luke wandering into Jabba’s Palace.

Then, the climax comes later with the return of King Richard and Robin’s assault on the castle full of stellar swordplay and general chaos. The duel between Flynn and Basil Rathbone is especially thrilling and it holds up well even today because there is something so satisfying in watching them thrust and feint back and forth.

the adventures of robin hood 2For me, the reason very few heroes surpass Robin Hood is based on his innumerable qualities. He’s a superior fighter with bow, sword or staff. He’s blessed with a wonderful wit and impressive leadership capabilities. He wins over the girl with his charm. He gets to live out in the forest with his best friends, eating great food. But most of all, he’s a rebel with a heart of gold, robbing the rich to feed the poor.

He’s an embodiment of all things that a little boy dreams of as a kid and in many ways, he’s a fairy tale, but the kind of fairy tale that a boy readily conjures up in his own imagination. The villains are formidable and the action is unmistakable, but it’s all in good fun. That’s why the Adventures of Robin Hood remains an enduring folk tale of the cinema. Its hero transcends a single medium. Because he lives in the heart of many a young lad long after the title credits have rolled.

5/5 Stars

Shanghai Express (1932)

shanghaiex2The same year as Grand Hotel there came another film, that while still boasting an ensemble cast felt far more intimate. In its day it was christened “Grand Hotel on wheels” and its narrative does unravel aboard a train. However, Josef von Sternberg’s film opens with a faceless atmosphere spilling over with the bustling commotion of a railway station. It takes a few moments to lock onto the characters we will be making the journey with, but we won’t soon forget them.

The always reputable Eugene Palette, perpetually gambling his way to Shanghai. The invalid opium dealer is rather an annoying fellow, and the man of faith appears conventionally narrow-minded, although he does make a turn for the better. Warner Oland takes on a more menacing iteration of his Charlie Chan character, while Anna May Wong gets a well-deserved role as a fellow passenger who shares a room with the famed Shanghai Lilly, the fastest lady in the East. Yes, Marlene Dietrich is Lilly, a woman of notorious reputation, but she also carries a distant, wistful love affair in her memories. The train to Shanghai brings all that hurtling back in the form of Captain Donald Harvey (Clive Brooks).

All this is set against the backdrop of a Chinese nation fraught with unrest. When the engine isn’t impeded by a stray cow or chicken, Chinese soldiers board it to apprehend an enemy agent. But that’s just the beginning. The rebels retaliate by holding up the train as well and questioning all the passengers on their financial and political capital. It’s a tense sequence of events that has no simple resolution.

shanghaiex1It is in these moments that are two female heroines must act. Hui Fei (Anna May Wong) so that she might defend the honor of herself and her country. Lilly so that she might express the great, expansive depths of the love she still holds for “Doc.”

Shanghai Express exhibits a simplistic view of religious faith as well love, but perhaps that’s actually one of its strengths. It suggests that faith and love go hand and hand whether it be Christianity or romantic relationships. It’s true that there’s no greater act of love than someone laying down their life or putting their life on the line for friends. There’s nothing overly melodramatic here, but everyone ends up where they are supposed to and justice is dealt. It’s an eventful, passionate, perilous train ride indeed.

Ironically enough, this is a film for the masses that completely disregards their class in favor of the first class club car. Except you could make the argument that they rather preferred the sumptuous extravagance of the upper classes to their own Depression-filled lives. Movies most certainly were the grandest of escapes from reality. Shanghai Express undoubtedly quenched their desire. At the same time, it’s simultaneously a story of exotic intrigue and human drama that blends the prodigal and the personal in high fashion.

To its credit, the film makes comment on Warner Oland’s complete lack of ability to look Asian, although he does fall into some other stereotypical potholes. Also, it acknowledges the preconceived expectations of Asian women that Anna May Wong resoundingly rebuts with her performance. She represents everything pushing back against the Yellow Face of Oland’s numerous portrayals. The effort by Asians to get more complex, multidimensional, and sympathetic. The path is still yet to be fully paved, and representation in media for any class or race is never going to be fully realized. We can never expect it to be perfect or overly politically correct. Because humanity is inherently broken and always and forever incorrect.

You can certainly say that Marlene Dietrich unequivocally overshadowed the career of her longtime lover and collaborator Joseph von Sternberg, but Shanghai Express belongs to both of them. He as her director. She as his muse. Despite, its meager running time, it’s a fine achievement and an enduring Pre-Code classic. 

4/5 Stars

The Mark of Zorro (1940)

markofzorro1Madrid–when the Spanish Empire encompassed the globe and young blades were taught the fine and fashionable art of killing…

The mythology of Zorro most certainly starts with the swashbuckling silents of Douglas Fairbanks, but the character’s legacy would be carried forward into the 1940s. So much so that it even gave some inspiration to a young Bruce Wayne, along with numerous boys picking up comic books in his generation.

In all fairness, I don’t know a whole lot about director Rouben Mamoulian. I assumed his forte was costume dramas and stage production as he did do a lot on Broadway. And if that is true, The Mark of Zorro, while not seemingly the work of some creative mastermind, is invariably enjoyable. That is also to the credit of 1940s matinee idol and dashing leading man Tyrone Power. Although over his career and even in this film, he proves to be more than a handsome face. He seemed to hold his own up against Basil Rathbone when it came to swordplay and he danced between the superficial and heroic personas with relative ease. It brings to mind other such roles as Christopher Reeves in Superman (1978) for instance. That of course, brings up the need for an origin story.

markofzorro2In many ways, it feels anachronistic that Don Diego Vega makes the long voyage from Spain to Los Angeles California, but then in the 1800s Spain still had some presence on the West Coast. It’s there were Vega gives up his sword, rendezvous with his father and mother, while slowly taking on a second life. Zorro certainly has a wonderful double life going. By day a stuffy, foppish playboy fascinated with magic tricks and given to fatigue. Then, by night he dons the black mask and saber as “the fox” wholly prepared to rob from the oppressors and bring hope to the common man. He’s the Robin Hood of the Spanish settlements marking his territory with his iconic “Z” and simultaneously getting a bounty stuck on his head.

markofzorro3The corrupt tub of lard Luis Quintero pushed Vega’s father out of office with the help of his menacing right-hand man Captain Pasquale (Basil Rathbone). On the surface, Don Diego plays into the older man’s hand, while at night he fools everyone including the local priest (Eugene Palette) with his masquerade.

Perhaps most importantly of all Zorro is able to romance the young ingenue Lolita Quintero by eventually letting her in on his little secret and taking down her nefarious uncle. But of course, everything must come down to some epic swordplay and heroics. Zorro and Pasquale eventually face on in an office sword fight that made me absolutely giddy with excitement. As he leads the revolt against the powers that be there is an obvious energy pulsing through the storyline. This is a pure cinematic action-adventure that glories in the age of swashbucklers.

True, we have a pair of tragic stars in Tyrone Power and Linda Darnell. He died of a heart attack at the age of 44 and she died only a few years later at 41 years of age after a house fire. But, for the time being, they are young, vibrant, and full of life. Perfect protagonists in a film where love and justice reign supreme and heroes always conquer evil.

4/5 Stars

Review: The Lady Eve (1941)

theladyeve3“You have the darndest way of bouncing a fellow down and bumping him up again” ~ Henry Fonda as Charles Pike

The story goes that screenwriting wunderkind Preston Sturges penned The Lady Eve with Barabara Stanwyck in mind. He promised her a great picture and he most certainly delivered a stellar screwball like only he could. It plays off the archetypal biblical temptress with comic effect, and it finds the greatest of comic couples in Stanwyck and Henry Fonda. They both are iconic stars, but the narrative works so well, due to that, but also the fact that the film constantly undermines the typical plotting. As the title suggests the woman is really the focal point of the film — she’s the one in control.

In this instance, Stanwyck is shady trickster Jean Harrington, who joins forces with her equally conniving father (Charles Coburn) to take people to the cleaners in any way possible. They’re real smooth operators with cards and any other type of con you could think of. A luxury ocean liner seems like the perfect place to set up their business. Out of all the many high profile passengers, one man stands a head above the rest. His name is Charles Pike (Henry Fonda). He keeps his nose buried behind a book, tries to avoid the gazes of all the pretty girls, and has a penchant for reptilian wildlife after getting back from a long expedition. He also just happens to be the heir to a gargantuan Ale fortune. That’s what catches everyone eye, including the beautifully sly Stanwyck.

theladyeve2In fact, we have a brilliant introduction to her as she narrates the scene unfolding in front of her with the aid of her compact mirror. She trips up the bumbling bachelor and their introduction is the first exclamation point in a bumpy relationship. She’s ready to play him and marry rich and famous, because he’s a pretty naive fellow, and stiff around the ladies. Fonda’s nervous charm proves the perfect recipe for success as he is constantly being overwhelmed by Stanwyck’s frenetic barrage. His defenses are down and he hasn’t the foggiest what has hit him. Either he was really that uncomfortable or otherwise, he does a superb job of faking it since there’s never another moment where he’s not being fondled or manipulated.

Jean is very quick to get cozy with “Hopsy” (after alcohol and not a rabbit), but something strange begins to happen. For some strange, ludicrous reason she begins to fall for her mark — this goofy guy with loads of cash. That certainly was not in her cards, yet she doesn’t seem to mind. What follows are some wonderful card playing antics between Charles Coburn and Barbara Stanwyck as she tries to stave off her father from pulling one over on her new beau. But of course, just as Pike is getting his sea legs he catches wind of the whole charade quite by chance, and he’s quick to turn off Harrington for the fraud he thinks she is.

theladyeve4The story could end there, but Sturges has set his story up perfectly for a killer second act. Jean plans a perfectly sneaky revenge plan to get back at “Hopsy” by posing as the British niece of another con man (Eric Blore). He uses his own wily charm and influence to get them an invitation to the Pike household for dinner. There we see several other great character actors in action including Horace Pike (Eugene Pallette), and the perennial sourpuss Muggsy (William Demarest). Jean shows up now as the Lady Eve and successfully convinces her “Hopsy” that she is a completely different individual. The film works wonderfully on this axle of ludicrousness because  young Pike is completely befuddled and awestruck again. He goes thudding, clanking, and crashing all evening long, a true victim of love. Pike thought he lost one girl for good and here’s another even better prospect. A whirlwind romance follows and everything is falling into place beautifully. There’s a frantic montage in preparation for the big day and then it happens. They get hitched. Afterwards, it’s all done and the two lovebirds are on a train barreling down the tracks interspersed with the long laundry list of all Eve’s beaus from Angus, to Herman, and Cecil and so on. It’s Charles’ worst nightmare, and he hopes to get out of it as quickly as possible.

But then by chance, he runs into the first girl, who is, of course, Stanwyck as well. He’s genuinely happy to see her, and they embrace like nobody’s business. Being the honorable man that he is, Pike acknowledges that he is, in fact, married now, but the joke’s on him. She is too! It’s an entirely irregular ending, but that’s screwball comedy for you.

theladyeve1What makes Sturges’ film so wonderful is all the parts making up the whole. His script is perfectly contrived mayhem. He sprinkles it with his typical slapstick, his loudmouthed stock company lends an added layer, and his typically lightning-quick repartee is brought to life by his leads. Stanwyck was the quintessential leading lady of the 1940s and in 1941 she was in fine form (Balls of Fire and Meet John Doe). She can dance so effortlessly between dynamic comedy to heartfelt drama that is positively palpable.  She overshadows Fonda in a sense, but they still work together, because he is her perfect foil, the precise innocent fool to fall into her web of feminine wiles. She can muss up his hair, manhandle him, and completely manipulate his feelings. Yet we still like both of them in spite of it. They are a hilarious match, and there’s space for some passionate canoodling as well. It’s probably one of the most perfectly wonderful, utterly dysfunctional relationships we could ever hope to see put on screen.  By continually whipping out punch line after punch line to the very last quip, Sturges makes this comedy look positively effortless.

4.5/5 Stars