Boom Town (1940)

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Clark Gable was anxious to do a movie about oil — wildcatters as they call ’em — because his father had been an oil man. Of course, MGM was looking to put him in such a picture too and when a certain story was published in Cosmopolitan it would prove the inspiration for Jack Conway’s Boom Town.

The most obvious attraction to this picture then and now is the copious amount of star power. We already mentioned MGM’s beloved Gable but Boom Town has Spencer Tracy, Claudette Colbert, and Hedy Lamarr all readily available. This would be the two men’s final film together out of three outings. It’s not so much that they didn’t like each other but the fact that they were both formidable attractions and Tracy was starting to command top billing.

In an industry consumed with A-list and B-list stars, MGM didn’t quite know how to go about keeping them together and so they never appeared in the same film again. I can’t say that it leaves me heartbroken.

They meet on a plank crossing a muddy mining street. Whether it was purposeful or not you can’t help but recall the fateful meeting of Robin Hood and Little John. Except these two men share the same name. The local saloon keeper christens them Big John (Gable) and Square John (Tracy) respectively. They’re none too amicable at first but after a bar brawl that looks more like lawn bowling, they’re pals enough. Those type of things builds camaraderie in hard-bitten men like these.

Soon enough they are going halfsies on a piece of land “Shorty” has been aiming to drill on. Frank Morgan isn’t much help as the begrudging equipment salesman and so they take matters into their own hands. A lovable Chill Wills plays a drawling Sheriff with a penchant for cookbooks and a decent shot with a rifle.

The film could have been a gusher laden with drama but most of the blasts of energy are few and far between hidden under layers of good luck and hard luck, romantic interplay, and the ever-changing tides of the oil business. Some of these themes would be echoed again in works like Giant (1956) and There Will Be Blood (2007).

The most rewarding scene by far is watching Gable and Tracy brawl it out in an office. By now they’ve both been big men who have known both failure and success. But this strips everything down to the two of them and the woman caught between them.

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I must admit that Hedy Lamarr’s part is rather uninteresting — little fault of her own — though most would note that she is as alluring as ever as the ingenious socialite and serial eavesdropper who helps McMasters take over the New York market.

Claudette Colbert is compelling enough in a role that reunites here with her It Happened One Night (1934) leading man, though the role was written initially for Myrna Loy and there is an innate sense that if she could have repeated her spectacular turn in Test Pilot (1938), this picture now transplanted to the oil fields would have been better for it. As it is Gable and Tracy do seem to command most of the attention. After all, this is really their story as we watch them rise, fall, and come back clawing again and again.

The final big moment, however, goes to Tracy standing up at the witness stand and even though he and McMasters have long since parted ways, pushed each other out of business, and even come to blows, he still manages to exonerate the man of any wrongdoing.

Because if nothing else they are both oil men with ideals of what the country might be if we take care of our limited resources for our children. You might call “Hogwash” but it’s a nice sentiment anyways and as usual, Spence delivers it with his typical candor that silences any naysayers. However, one wonders what the picture might have been if Colbert and Lamarr were given a bigger stake.

3/5 Stars

Broadway Melody of 1940 (1940)

Broadway_Melody_of_1940_Poster.jpg“The more you know about women the less you know about women.” It’s the story of my life and also a marvelous entry point for this film because it really is a throwaway line. It’s referred to several times thenceforward but really means nothing more. Anyways, if we came to this film simply for the plot it would have been buried under heaps of other more elegant or frenetic comedies over the years. But the reason to revisit this one for all those eager thespians out there is solely for the dancing and what dancing it is.

Don’t get me wrong. It would be tantamount to cinematic blasphemy to say that Fred Astaire belonged beside anyone else rather than Ginger Rogers on the dance floor but maybe it’s the novelty of the situation that makes me quite thoroughly enjoy this effort that paired him with his contemporary, the premiere dancing star Eleanor Powell.

Though working at a different studio now  (MGM instead of RKO), the plotline could have easily followed in the footsteps of many of Astaire’s earlier pictures. It’s pure cotton candy fluff about mistaken identity since he gives the name of his best buddy to a man he thinks is a collector. Is he surprised when he finds out days later that the man actually had connections with a big stage production starring the one and only Clare Bennett?  By throwing out the name of his chum King (George Murphy), he unwittingly paid his best friend the biggest favor of his life and he takes it in stride willing to sink into the background.

Still, he can’t help but harbor a crush for the divine Ms. Bennett and he starts getting a little peeved with how the fame is going to King’s head which leads him to get pig-headed and worse yet completely swacked before his grand opening. Obviously, someone else needs to fill in and wouldn’t you know it, we just happen to have Fred Astaire waiting behind the curtain to step in. The rest you can probably figure out for yourself. Meanwhile, Frank Morgan and Florence Rice appear intermittently providing a bit of comic background noise to fill in the idle moments with some mild buffoonery.

But the dancing, the dancing is as sublime as it’s ever been and it’s breathtaking watching Powell’s solo numbers as well as some of the other stunts, some comical and others mindboggling for their precision (Plate throwing and ball balancing come to mind). A few Cole Porter tunes still have their allure namely the famed “Begin the Beguine” number as well as the peppy “I’ve Got My Eyes on You” elevated still further by the dancing that goes with them.

Watching Astaire and Powell is enough. Because dancing done well by Astaire, Rogers, Kelly, Cagney, Powell, O’Connor, Charisse, any of those names, transcends the plotlines they find themselves in and captures us in a moment of sheer euphoric joy. This is coming from a man with two feet so far left that they’re practically right, so perhaps I’m too easily impressed, but I’d like to believe that every time they thrill me with their taps I’m getting my socks blown off by something sensational. Others can judge it as they may but I’ve said my peace.

3.5/5 Stars

The Three Musketeers (1948)

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The Three Musketeers is a luscious Technicolor swashbuckler done in the fashion of the luxuriant Hollywood costume dramas of the time as we are no doubt accustomed to seeing. Fittingly, they’re also easily subject to classic stereotypes. It’s positively bloated with top-tier talent and whether or not it takes on its source material faithfully is generally beside the point.

Its aims are not those of authenticity and if they were it would be laughable. Maybe it is still laughable but it proves to be made for enjoyment as much as it is made up of cliches. Because in one single package it sums up all that is marvelous and to some, all that is tawdry about such productions of old.

It’s a cinematic “Illustrated Classic” courtesy of George Sidney who provides a film that’s precisely to his proclivities as we might expect even if it’s not so much a musical. It’s meant to be gobbled up voraciously by the children and enjoyed with unbridled enthusiasm by their parents. No more, no less.  And how can you not at least admire its sheer gaudy decadence and the way it chooses to slice a path through the material?

Where there’s no pretense to mask any of the actor’s normal speech patterns or any discernable patois. I think mainly of Van Heflin and Vincent Price sounding like they always have and who nevertheless are both generally enjoyable. We also have the pleasure of a cutthroat Lana Turner, an angelic June Allyson, and a various number of others including royalty played by Frank Morgan and Angela Lansbury and a lovestruck maidservant played by Patricia Medina. Undoubtedly there are still others lost under facial hair and plumage but, again, that hardly matters.

Initially, it also felt like a royal pity that Gene Kelly (playing the lead of D’Artagnan) was not dancing but then being the athletic performer that he is, it soon becomes obvious that his sword fighting utilizes many of the limber movements his dancing has and he really is well suited for such a role. If there was ever a genesis for “The Dueling Cavalier” look no further than right here.

Beginning with the opening duel with Richelieu’s men that sees the formation of the famed partnership as we know it, the picture proves to be ripe with thoroughly gripping and lightly comic fight sequences. They prove to be the highlight of the film on a spectrum of entertainment.

The best part is that they keep on coming at us with rip-roaring wreckless abandon, sabers at the ready, though it begins to fizzle out, in the end, overcome by a plodding narrative that seems no fault of Dumas but rather the adaptation itself. If I were to choose favorites I for one would single out Richard Lester’s adaptation but then again, maybe even that film is not for all.

3/5 Stars

The Stratton Story (1949)

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If you’ve never heard of the baseball player Monty Stratton, you’re not alone. In my days of wanting to be a ballplayer myself, I knew quite a bit about baseball Hall of Famers going back to the genesis of the game. But Stratton was not a Hall of Famer like Honus Wagner or Ty Cobb, George Sisler or Rogers Hornsby or even the members of the Bronx Bombers including Lou Gehrig and Joe Dimaggio. Though famed Yankee Bill Dickey does makes a cameo in this one.

Stratton was not in the same category as these men and there is a reason for that. Tragedy struck his life. Interestingly enough, Hollywood looked to make a movie out of it calling on the talents of Jimmy Stewart as well as director Sam Wood. It’s Wood’s association with the picture which causes me to surmise it was meant to be another Pride of the Yankees (1942) with Wood taking up duties again and one All-American in Gary Cooper being traded out for another in Jimmy Stewart.

No disrespect to Monty Stratton or anything that he went through but at face value, his story is hardly that of Lou Gehrig. Still, maybe that’s the point and we can learn something from that. Generalizing and putting all baseball biopics together is in error and in this case, it feels callous. This is a film that makes Monty Stratton’s story into his own and it’s at times winsome in its simplicity and still equally moving.

Watching this picture anchored by James Stewart in another everyman role is as charming as ever. Equally enjoyable is Frank Morgan or even the budding romance with June Allyson coming to fruition within its frames. His brusque mother (Agnes Moorehead) who only knows the tough life of a farm woman even has her affectionate side; you simply need to get to know her. Also, having an old pro like Jimmy Dyke playing the big league manager is yet another touch of authenticity that might be easily overlooked in the modern day.

Through and through, this is Stewart and Allyson’s film as we watch Monty make a name for himself going from being an indefatigable farm boy with a cannon to the minors in Omaha, and finally to the big leagues where dreams are made. Equally important to his career trajectory is the parallel story of how a potentially disastrous first date turned into a lifelong romance with his girl Ethel.

She sees him through a great deal both the highs like the birth of their son to the lows, a fatal event that will change Stratton’s life forever. It’s in this portion where we could criticize the film for stalling but it does rightfully so as Stewart must make a decision whether or not he’s going to fight back to regain his life.

Eventually, he does, going further than any naysayer might give him credit for. Then again, you get the sense that Monty Stratton was the kind of ballplayer that most folks found it in their heart to cheer for. Part of that appeal is Stewart’s typical geniality certainly but the man he was portraying had to be fairly special too.

The spectator in the movie theater might remark Gable and Turner are better kissers on screen but I’d truthfully rather watch Stewart and Allyson. They’re more my type of people.  In fact, I’m pretty sure I would have liked Monty Stratton too. He seemed like a humble fellow who lived his life with everyday dignity. They don’t always make them like that now. The same could be said for this movie.

The film closes with the prototypical “The End” credit but that really was not quite right. Because Monty Stratton was still pitching and had a long life ahead of him just waiting to be lived. That’s the power of this story. It recognizes a man who did not let circumstance deter him from continuing to live a full life.

Stratton died on September 29th, 1982 and within that time he made a second comeback to baseball, moved back to Texas to start a farm team, and was deeply invested in his community until his final days both in promoting Little League and attending his local church.

3.5/5 Stars

The Mortal Storm (1940)

The_Mortal_Storm-_1940-_Poster.pngOur introduction to The Mortal Storm feels rather flat. Bright and bland in more ways than one as we become accustomed to our main storyline.  Professor Viktor Roth (Frank Morgan) is held in high regard all throughout the community as a prominent lecturer at the local university and beloved by his colleagues and family. The year is 1933 and the Bavarian Alps are still a merry and gay place to live. That’s our understanding early on as the Professor celebrates his 60th birthday with much fanfare and receives a commemorative memento from his class.

In some ways, Frank Borzage’s picture shares a striking resemblance to All Quiet on the Western Front another film that makes its German roots blatantly obvious and yet it wears its incongruities like the ubiquitous use of the English language with ease. And as all the characters accept it, we do too as we begin to sink into the story. But crucial to this story is that they are not as accepting of other things. It feels a little like paradise. Life is good and people are happy. But we expect that at some point the time bomb will go off and it does. Adolf Hitler is elected Chancellor and just like that people begin to change. It’s a collective revolution — a youth movement of sorts.

Pastor, pacifist, and thinker Dietrich Bonhoeffer tore apart the Fuhrer concept straight away in a talk he gave in 1933, long before many of the later horrors during the Nazi reign of terror. But much as this film portrays, such an ideology only leads to destruction — a necessity to harm your brother. Bonhoeffer stated the following which feels surprisingly pertinent to this narrative:

“This Leader, deriving from the concentrated will of the people, now appears as longingly awaited by the people, the one who is to fulfill their capabilities and their potentialities. Thus the originally matter-of-fact idea of political authority has become the political, messianic concept of the Leader as we know it today. Into it there also streams all the religious thought of its adherents. Where the spirit of the people is a divine, metaphysical factor, the Leader who embodies this spirit has religious functions, and is the proper sense the messiah. With his appearance the fulfillment of the last hope has dawned. With the kingdom which he must bring with him the eternal kingdom has already drawn near…

 “If he understands his function in any other way than as it is rooted in fact, if he does not continually tell his followers quite clearly of the limited nature of his task and of their own responsibility, if he allows himself to surrender to the wishes of his followers, who would always make him their idol—then the image of the Leader will pass over into the image of the mis-leader, and he will be acting in a criminal way not only towards those he leads, but also towards himself…”

And so it happens in this film. We see it around the professor’s dinner table first. Formally, a forum for high-minded debate, it’s quickly become a battleground of ideology. Roth’s step-sons and most notably his daughter’s fiancee Fritz Marberg (Robert Young) have all been caught up in the rhetoric and promises of Herr Hitler. All other forms of thought and free thinking have been discarded, these new ideals burrowing into their minds, dictating their actions, and ultimately poisoning their lives and the lives of all those around them. I never thought it was possible to despise Robert Young but when his mind is polluted by an ideology as rancorous as Nazism it’s far from difficult.

We don’t see Jimmy Stewart until quite a ways into the film and he disappears from sight for some time following an escape to Austria from the Nazi clutches, but he’s still our hero imbued with that same iconic everymanness. He is the man to continue the open-minded, compassionate forms of thinking that Professor Roth exemplifies and subsequently get torn asunder.

Margaret Sullivan and Stewart yet again make a compelling pair following Lubitsch’s Shop Around the Corner. She is the good little German girl Freya who actually proves to have a backbone and he is the humble farm boy who stands by his ideals like Stewart always did. They are caught up in a love story amidst a world that seemingly lacks any shred of romantic passion.

Undoubtedly the Production Codes forbade from mentioning Jews in the story — the non-Aryans like Professor Roth, but that makes this film even more haunting, the fact that the people without a voice are not even acknowledged. They are silenced and remain silent.

With its overt portrayal of the Nazis as menacing thugs and brainwashed ideology machines, The Mortal Storm is startling. For years and years most all of us have read, heard, and seen a great deal on the Nazis that we have unknowingly compiled but this film brings many of those common factors to the fore. It’s obvious that people saw them then. They knew them then. They weren’t blind. Thus, it makes us beg the question what were other Europeans and Americans actually thinking? Because although The Mortal Storm might be the exception rather than the norm, there had to be a general consciousness about the Nazis.

Because the film hardly sugarcoats anything nor does it mince words. It’s surprisingly blunt and utterly bleak in its portrayal even with a bit of a bittersweet Hollywood ending. What’s left is a lingering impact that’s terribly affecting. Only at that point do we realize the total transformation the film world has gone through. Those opening moments of The Mortal Storm are so vital as it is only in the waning interludes where we truly comprehend how far things have fallen into hell.

It’s a stunning piece of work and this is not simply the ethereal love story I was expecting. It is a thoroughly gripping indictment of the Nazi menace and far more candid than I would have ever imagined. The Mortal Storm suggests perhaps most audaciously that there were people who waded against the pervasive current of the time. They let their lives be dictated by good will, decency, and personal relationships rather than any churning force of a single political ideology.

The final quotation pulled from the moving work of Minnie Louise Haskins “God Knows” ends like so:

“I said to a man who stood at the gate, give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown. And he replied, go out into the darkness and put your hand into the hand of God. That shall be to you better than a light and safer than a known way.”

4.5/5 Stars

Review: Shop Around the Corner (1940)

Shop-Around-the-CornerA quaint, unassuming film, especially up against other more lavish Ernst Lubitsch works like Trouble in Paradise and Heaven can WaitShop Around the Corner still manages to be in the upper crust of romantic comedies — even to this day.

The story revolves around a little shop in Budapest run by the often curmudgeon and excitable owner Mr. Matuchek (Frank Morgan). Every morning he comes to open up shop and nearly every day he has something to complain about whether it’s his workers or the lack of business. His right-hand man is Alfred Kralik (James Stewart) who has been a diligent clerk in the store for well nigh nine years now.

He confides in his older colleague and friend Mr. Pirovich (Felix Bressart) that he has begun correspondence with a mysterious lady friend who was looking for a partner with whom to discuss culture and all the higher forms of art. Kralik is intrigued as he wants to expand his mind and he seems to have found his perfect match.

Meanwhile, the status quo gets shook up a bit when a Ms. Novak comes into the shop. At first, she gives off the sense of a flustered shopper, but in a matter of moments, she proves herself as a shop girl, acquiring a position even without a vacancy.

Over time, his relationship with Ms. Novak becomes increasingly more antagonistic, to begin with, because she wears a blouse unsuitable for the workplace. The prospect of his first meeting with his secret correspondent has Kralik on edge in expectation, but when he cannot sneak a peak, Pirovich looks for him and delivers a stunning revelation. It is, of course, Ms. Novak.

In such a way the dramatic irony begins as Kralik understands just who this girl is, and she continues to brush him off as the stiff, bowlegged man from the shop around the corner. Mr. Matuchek has unspoken problems of his own that cause him to abruptly fire Kralik, his most faithful counterpart. But their relationship is patched up and the crackerjack clerk gets his position back and then some.

There’s still the matter of Ms. Novak because he truly does feel something for her, even showing up at her home to see how she is getting on after calling in sick. It’s in this moment that she reads one of the letters in front of him. One of his letters.

Then, right before Christmas everything his bustling and busy in the little shop. All seems right as Mr. Matuchek is in good spirits with a Scrooge-like transformation for the holidays. He even winds up with someone to share a festive holiday meal with. It seems that Kralik has a fiancee and so does Ms. Novak. As it is Christmas they both try to leave the other on a positive note, and Klara goes so far as to mention her initial crush on her colleague. This then becomes the critical moment for Kralik as he still knows something she doesn’t. He frightens her stiff about her mystery man and then reveals him to be her pen pal. All it takes is a carnation in the lapel. She gets it right then. They embrace and share a kiss.

Although Stewart is far from a Hungarian clerk, he does exude a pleasant commonness, better than any other actor of his era. As such, he has the perfect demeanor and presence to portray Kralik, a man who seems altogether ordinary, although he certainly is more than meets the eye. Margaret Sullavan seems a generally forgotten leading lady, but there is an airy, almost ethereal quality to her. In real life, she proved to be difficult at times, but here she somehow fits rather remarkably with Stewart. The two leads prove to be adept sparring partners in Lubitsch’s altogether effortless romantic comedy.  It truly reconciles the lines between ideals and reality which allow two people, such as these, to fall in love for real.

4.5/5 Stars

Klara Novak: All my knowledge came from books, and I’d just finished a novel about a glamorous French actress from the Comedie Francaise. That’s the theater in France. When she wanted to arouse a man’s interest, she treated him like a dog.

Kralik: Yes, well, you treated me like a dog.

Klara Novak: Yes, but intead of licking my hand you barked.