Barbary Coast (1936)

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The production itself was fraught with some turbulence thanks to the contentious relationship between Miriam Hopkins and Edward G. Robinson. The latter actor was irritated how his costar was constantly trying to increase her part and keep him off balance with frequent dialogue changes. Regardless, the talent is too wonderful to resist outright.

How Howard Hawks ended up directing Barbary Coast is anyone’s guess, somehow getting involved as a favor to his screenwriting buddies Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur who spent numerous rewrites crafting something that the production codes might actually condone, overhauling the original novel’s plot points immensely.

Hawks has no major stake in the production and as such it hardly stands up with his most engaging works. Still, it does hold some merit demonstrating from the outset it’s a fast-moving, thick-on-atmosphere, period adventure set out in 49ers era California. That environment is enough to make a generally engaging yarn even if the narrative threads run fairly thin.

But the world is fully animated. Alive with honky-tonk pianos, crooked roulette wheels, and hazy city streets paved in mud. Just about what you envision gold country to be like, at least viewed through the inspired dream factory of old Hollywood. The blending of genre is a fine attribute as the picture is a mixture of historical drama, romance, comedy, adventure, and western themes sharing some relation to San Francisco (1936) and The Sea Wolf (1940), along with the lawless towns in Destry Rides Again (1939) or even The Far Country (1954).

A ship lands in the notorious San Francisco Bay, among its passengers a strangely out of place lady (Miriam Hopkins) and a gentlemanly journalist, Marcus Aurelius Cobb (Frank Craven). They are met with quite the reception committee of local undesirables.

Walter Brennan is a standout as the scrounging, toothless, eyepatch-wearing Old Atrocity preying on unsuspecting outsiders who happen to make their way to the streets of San Fransisco. Mary Rutledge is in town to join her fiancee who messaged her to come out and meet him as he’s struck it rich. She promptly finds out her man is dead, no doubt knocked off by the crooked Louis Chamalis (Edward G. Robinson).

With his restaurant the Bella Donna and adjoining gambling house, the ruthless businessman rakes in the profits by robbing prospectors of their hard-earned caches and getting tough when they object to his dirty practices.

Miriam Hopkins, both radiant and sharp, isn’t about to snivel about her lost prospects and heads straight away to the Bella Donna to see what business she can dig up for herself. There’s little question she causes quite the stir because everyone is taken with this newly arrived white woman — including Louis. As Robinson’s character puts it, she has a pretty way of holding her head, high falutin but smart. That’s her in a nutshell as she earns the moniker “Swan” and becomes the queenly attraction of the roulette wheels.

It’s there, an ornery and sloshed Irishman (Donald Meek in an uncharacteristic blustering role) gets robbed blind and causes a big stink. Louis snaps his figures and his ever-present saloon heavy Knuckles (Brian Donlevy) makes sure things settle down.

He’s sent off to do other jobs as well. In one such case, he shoots someone in the back but with a mere Chinaman as an eyewitness in a kangaroo court presided over by a drunk judge, there is little to no chance for legitimate justice. Then there’s the manhandling of free speech by forcibly intimating Mr. Cobb in his journalistic endeavors and nearly demolishing his printing press for publishing defamatory remarks about the local despot. Swan is able to intercede on his behalf as Cobb resigns himself to print droll rubbish and it seems Louis has won out yet again.

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Joel McCrea has what feels like minuscule screentime and achieves third billing with a role casting him as the romantic alternative, a good guy and yakety prospector from back east who is as much of an outsider as Ms. Rutledge. He’s eloquent and strangely philosophical for such a grungy place. He’s also surprisingly congenial. It catches just about everyone off guard. First, striking up a serendipitous friendship with the woman and gaining some amount of rapport with Chamalis for his way of conversing.

Though the picture stalls in the latter half and loses a clear focus, the performances are nonetheless gratifying as Robinson begins to get undermined. Vigilantes finally get organized using the press to disseminate the word about Louis and simultaneously battle his own monopoly with an assault of their own.

One man must die for the right of freedom of speech to be exercised while another man is strung up like an animal. Our two lovebirds get over the lies they told each other looking to flee the ever-extending reach of a jealous lover. Chamalis is not about to let them see happiness together. The question remains if they can be rescued in time from his tyrannical clutches. The dramatic beats may well be familiar but Barbara Coast still manages to be diverting entertainment for the accommodating viewer.

3.5/5 Stars

Test Pilot (1938)

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Test Pilot is a fine piece of time capsule filmmaking and there’s little doubt that the film showcases a dizzying array of airplanes that we very rarely see today. In that sense, it’s an aerial picture with some truly dazzling footage.

By 1930s standards, this is also an action picture, a sprawling exhibition that simultaneously has a pretty thin story in some patches. In fact, it’s too long for its own good. But it’s a character drama as much as an aerial show, which takes precedence over anything else, narrative included.

The screenplay was forged by Howard Hawks (who worked on several other flight films) and a whole host of others. Its overall success is not necessarily in any amount of tension that is created or a certain brand of visceral storytelling though there are undoubtedly some emotional moments, the brunt of the heavy lifting comes from the cast as they articulate the beats of the script.

It’s true that under veteran director Victor Fleming and a cast including Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, and Myrna Loy, it’s difficult to find a more prestigious partnership out of MGM in the 1930s. This was pretty close to tops. Still, even in this dynamic, there were foreseeable problems. Spencer Tracy has a bit of a thankless job playing the faithful mechanic Gunner Morris, the character who is there to support his friend and he conveniently never gets the girl.

You can understand why Tracy could get a little tired of such roles because there’s no doubt that Gable is in one sense the main attraction as the eponymous “Test Pilot” Jim Lane. He was the great movie star of the age.

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However, Tracy was the acting powerhouse of the two and that’s the chafing at work once again in this picture. The stellar personality and the quality talent seesawing back and forth. Except Tracy’s stock had been rising year after year and by now he was a solid draw in his own right. It’s evident that he’s a formidable third wheel in the picture though he had his sights set on something slightly more gratifying.

In fact, he’s nearly invincible. Gable famously implored “Spence” to go ahead and die already because the actor milked his last words for all they were worth. However, even if this jousting match between the two male stars is most visible, out of the three I think Myrna Loy comes away having the most fun and getting the most out of the picture. It’s completely understandable why she cherished her work here.

She is the Kansas girl who has her head in the clouds like a ditzy farmer’s daughter watching as a man brings his plane down on her family’s land. He’s simultaneously an ungrateful lug and her shining knight. There’s something whimsical and wholly uninhibited about her that lets her meet a grouchy pilot out in the pasture with a wit of her own and yell her head off at ballgames like a seasoned fanatic.

Her performance runs the entire gamut from near screwball antics to deep heartfelt emotion. The dimensions there are at times difficult to read — even enigmatic. I think that’s why Jim falls for her. She’s in some ways just as tantalizing and fascinating to him as the air above.

Test Pilot also examines tragedy of such a pioneering and devil may care lifestyle — themes that Douglas Sirk would streamline in a picture such as Tarnished Angels (1956). Here we get the alluring frolicking fun of going where no man has gone before it is tapered by the stark reality at hand. Icarus had the thrill of his life but it’s possible to fly too high or for your engines to blow out or for your instruments to fail. It’s a part of the lifestyle that pilots come to accept. They take the risk because the skies call out to them so earnestly. It’s their obsession.

Jim is one of those who has always followed that call. His story is really about his romance with two women. His wife waiting for him on the ground and the blue heavens which call out to him from above. It takes a reality check ripping something so dear away for him to realize he doesn’t mind being grounded. It was the one thing he swore he would never do and yet, in the end, he gladly does it.

3.5/5 Stars

Review: Rio Bravo (1959)

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During the 1930s and 40s, Howard Hawks was an unstoppable force of nature churning out a string of classics year after year: Only Angels Have Wings, His Girl Friday, Sergeant York, Balls of Fire, To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep, and Red River. All these titles stand as a collective testament to his prowess.

Over a decade later, Rio Bravo is a film that reflects something of the mastery Howard Hawks still held as a filmmaker making his way through every interlude with impeccable skill. It showcases his ability to string together scenes in a perfect rhythm, balancing humor with tension, romance with conflict, and making the western into a thoroughly entertaining experience once more. To say Rio Bravo is Hawks’ greatest films is not too far off the truth. He makes it so easy, the way he constantly tracks with his characters in space — often just talking — sometimes serious others times not, and it’s all so fluid, natural, and fun. It’s what makes the film, that’s over two hours, run seamlessly like the sweetest of liqueurs.

The script courtesy of Leigh Bracket and Jules Furthman is a bounty of inspiration and amusement. One such moment includes the perfect meet-cute between John T. Chance (John Wayne) and Feathers (Angie Dickinson) when she catches him in a compromising position with a pair of red bloomers. From that point on their dynamic is constantly churning with energy.

Dimitri Tiomkin’s score takes some cues from his earlier work Red River (also with Hawks) including the addition of the hauntingly sorrowful notes of “El Deguello.” With such talent as Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson, it also makes the prospect of a song a rich opportunity and Hawks finds ways to weave a musical aside into his film, showcasing the especially memorable tune, “My Rifle, My Pony, and Me.”

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Meanwhile, Hawks builds on this almost cartoonish mythology of the West where every person of interest lives life with a nickname spending as much time jawing and bickering as they do gunslinging. A great deal of that vibrancy is provided by the actors themselves with John Wayne as our anchor. Walter Brennan and Ward Bond prove to be his wizened counterparts while Dean Martin, as well as newcomers Ricky Nelson and Angie Dickinson, hold their own against the old vets.  It’s great fun to watch Dickinson spar with Wayne and Nelson lends his matinee idol looks to a laconic role as young gun “Colorado.” In an inspired bit of casting, Dean Martin plays a drunk and Brennan takes up his post in the jailhouse as a crotchety old man. It all fits nicely together.

But the question many engaged viewers might ask is whether or not Rio Bravo is a response to the earlier western High Noon. The concise answer is “yes” but that probably is not enough. It’s up to the viewer to discern which example is more truthful and honest in its portrayal of humanity. And High Noon certainly is a somber portrait full of doubt and inner turmoil. However, Rio Bravo is probably just as compelling because of its relational dynamics. John Chance is the sheriff, and as sheriff, he has a certain obligation to uphold the law. That means keeping murderer Joe Burdette (Claude Akins) behind bars. He’s the no-nonsense harbinger of justice that we expect and because he’s John Wayne he’s also tough as nails.

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But that’s what makes the first scene of the film so crucial. It’s notable because it begins with no dialogue, opening up on the town drunk in a saloon that also gets a visit from sheriff John T. Chance. Whether it’s an act of charity or disdain Chance saves El Borrachon’s self-respect only to get bashed over the head in return.

However, this moment is vital in how it sets up Chance’s character. Yes, he maintains a rough even grouchy exterior but looking closer, you see something else. He holds onto his friendships pretty tightly, namely old reliable Stumpy (Brennan) who he bickers with like an old married couple. Then his pal Wheeler (Bond) who comes into the bottled up Texas town with a load of supplies.

And they’re not the only ones. Chance looks to turn away a woman who’s got her face plastered on wanted posters, but slowly shows an affinity towards her. He certainly would not admit it at first but he ultimately does care for her deeply. Also, one of his most faithful allies is the spirited hotel owner Carlos (Pedro Gonzalez-Gonzalez) who is always ready to come to the sheriff’s aid while simultaneously talking his ear off.

Lastly, we go back to the Borrachon who was once Chance’s deputy but lost his sobriety in pursuit of a girl. Honestly, many people would not blame Chance for giving up on this man as a lost cause, and at several junctures, it looks like he has. But the bottom line is that he never does and in his own ornery way, he sticks by his old compadre — never deserting him or doubting him in crucial moments.

Thus, when we put High Noon up against Rio Bravo it’s not a weak sheriff versus a stalwart sheriff in the conventional sense as Hawks and Wayne might have supposed. However, what makes Chance strong are the people he surrounds himself with. In a way, when he is weak, then he is strong because he’s surrounded by people who are faithful and beholden to him. Yes, he’s still John Wayne and he’s one deadly man to cross, but he’s a lot more lethal with friends guarding his back. And that’s a testament to the people he surrounds himself with and also the ones who gravitate towards him. You get the sense that these are not fickle relationships — even in the cinematic sense. The characters can spend as much time ribbing each other as they do toting a gun through town. And perhaps the most telling part is that as an audience we grow to cherish these characters in a similar way. They’re fun to spend time with and that makes Rio Bravo a true gem.

5/5 Stars

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)

Gentlemen_Prefer_Blondes_(1953)_film_poster“I can be smart when it’s important, but most men don’t like it.” ~ Marilyn Monroe as Lorelei

Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell together. It’s a crackerjack combination and Howard Hawks milks it for all its worth. There’s streetwise Dorothy  (Jane Russell) wooing all the boys from here to kingdom come. She cares about more than just money, especially when it entails having fun. Her other half is the vivacious bubble-headed beauty Lorelei like only Monroe could pull off. She’s the girl looking to get hitched with her bookish millionaire and she’s not afraid to admit that his money sweetens the pot. It certainly doesn’t hurt (Don’t you know that a rich man is like a pretty girl? You don’t marry her just because she’s pretty. But, my goodness, doesn’t it help?).

Time and time again words and bits of dialogue leave her lips that are almost astonishing. She delivers them with such a fluid air of seriousness that they force a double take and each and every time she has the audience in the palm of her hand. We think she’s dumb, but whether it’s the just the persona she puts on or a bit of Marilyn Monroe herself, she is extremely intelligent. If nothing else she knows how to captivate an audience, not letting them soon forget her magnetic performance.

If she had been playing against anything else Jane Russell would have been the primary attraction and she’s always wry and lovely, but with Monroe in the equation, they develop into a dynamic duo, leaving a wake of hapless boys behind them. There’s the old playboy Piggy (Charles Coburn) with a tiara Lorelei has ambitions for, the hired private investigator Ernie Malone (Elliot Reid) who finds himself falling for Dorothy, the diminutive Mr. Spofford and, of course, the hapless Gus (Tommy Noonan).

It can be easy to write Gentlemen Prefer Blondes off as a superficial musical — a provocative color extravaganza aboard an ocean liner. After all, it’s a story complete with pools, water slides, romance and a whole squad of athletes with bulging biceps. But it is a genuinely enjoyable film with Howard Hawks once more showing his aptitude for skirting between genres, this case indulging in musical comedy.

The sparkling and most remembered number is, of course, Monroe’s sultry turn in “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend,” clothed in velvety pink,  but really for the entire running time of the film, Monroe and her costar are continually strutting and snapping their way into the hearts of everyone they cross paths with. A final comedic twist of an ending, playing off the comedic dynamic of the film’s pair of heroines, gives Jane Russell an equal chance to show off her star power. This truly is a team effort, even if gentlemen circa the 1950s were discriminatory towards all non-blondes.  Obviously, this film and my commentary are not meant to be taken too seriously. Still, they can be enjoyable. At least in the case of this film. My commentary, not so much.

3.5/5 Stars

Review: Red River (1948)

redriver1Any conversation on quintessential American Westerns certainly has to at least consider Red River. It has genre mainstay John Wayne in one of his most stirring performances, a moody precursor to The Searchers. It boasts the debut of the often criminally under-appreciated method actor Monty Clift. Moreover, it’s cinematic space is filled out by a colorful array of prominent Western stock players. You have the always ornery Walter Brennan, pudgy Noah Beery Jr., Harey Carey Jr., Hank Worden, and numerous others. For a second you can even forget that this isn’t a John Ford film, but instead, the story is placed in the ever-adept hands of Howard Hawks, who knows how to craft compelling stories no matter the genre he’s working in.

In 1851, before Tom Dunson (Wayne) settles on a new plot of land near the Rio Grande and begins to raise his cattle with the brand of the Red River D, he loses the love of his life to an Indian raid, while also picking up an orphaned boy in the aftermath. That young man, Matt Garth (Clift), would become like Dunson’s adopted son and his right-hand man when it comes to running his ranch. The rest of Red River is essentially a road film that chronicles the first cattle drive along the Chisolm Trail. It’s bound to be a gritty, sweaty, and undoubtedly smelly road ahead as Wayne and Clift take the reins on this journey. The intrigue comes with power dynamics because when you put two or more people in a confined space sparks are bound to fly at some point.

redriver2When Dunson begins the massive journey to sell his cattle in Missouri, many wranglers sign on for prospects ahead, but they don’t quite know the degree of hardship that they will face. Soon enough, a stampede leaves one man dead and the company without one of their chuck wagons of provisions. Dunson is a hard taskmaster, who expects his hired hands to finish their job. Morale in the band begins to sink from lack of food and fierce downpours that leave most everyone dejected and distraught.

Then, when Dunson prepares to hang two deserters to make an example out of them, Matt must finally step in. He’s always the subservient one, always backing Dunson with his gun, but for the first time in his life, he crosses the will of his mentor. All the wranglers are quick to continue the journey as they change course for Abilene Kansans and the prospect of the railroad. But Garth leaves a brooding Dunson behind, vowing to kill Matt if it’s the last thing he does. It’s this act of the story which brings to mind the Biblical vendetta of Esau as he pursues his kin for stealing his birthright.

redriver6Garth and his contingent do end up getting to Abilene and are met with open arms by the kindly Mr. Melville, however, perhaps, more importantly, Matt falls in love with a fiery beauty (Joanne Dru) and must leave her behind. Days later Tess Millay also meets Tom Dunson, the man she has heard so much about, and he’s far from being dissuaded from his mission.

Thus, the expected showdown comes with Dunson riding into town with his hired guns, the alarm being sounded, and Garth waiting for him. Dunson draws and Garth will not. It’s a fitting moment, but Howard Hawks develops it in a fabulous way. He fills it with tension and ultimately a hint of humor. The addition of Joanne Dru shifts the power dynamic and she says what everyone else is thinking while angrily packing a pistol.

redriver4Because if Red River was story alone, it would not be the preeminent Western that it is, and I think I made that mistake before. Hawks is a master at using all his actors to perfection in not simply the climactic moments, but also the lulls. With such a substantial ensemble, even the way he positions all his players in the scene holds importance. His scenes are continually interesting from talk of Walter Brennan’s false teeth to complaints about the abysmal quality of the coffee.

My only qualm with the film is the rather shoddy transitions, and so I am interested in getting a look at the theatrical cut with narration from Brennan. John Ford famously quipped that he never knew that Wayne could act until this film, and it’s true that he gives a darkly vengeful performance. But in many ways, Clift proves himself as a worthy co-star. There’s always a tightness, a lilt to his voice, that signals an earnestness and vulnerability. It starts coming out in this film right when he knows that he’s no longer going to follow Dunson. It took two starkly different actors to make the narrative work as well as it did, and Hawks added yet another classic to his catalog. On a side note, the music of Dimitri Tiomkin was noticeable, because the refrains can be heard verbatim in Rio Bravo. If something’s good why change it, right?

4.5/5 Stars

Review: The Philadelphia Story (1940)

philadelphiastory1If there ever was a benchmark for the sophisticated, high-society brand of comedy, The Philadelphia Story is most certainly it. It’s less screwball because instead of Howard Hawks, George Cukor takes the helm and injects the film with his more refined sensibilities. It’s still very much hilarious and impeccably witty, but it’s not quite as scatterbrained as it could have been. Once more you have the iconic pairing of Cary Grant with Katharine Hepburn. Previously they had been in two other Cukor pictures (Sylvia Scarlett and Holiday) and of course Hawks’ romp Bringing up Baby. However, this time they’re joined by another cinematic titan in James Stewart and it proves to be a wonderful battle for command of the screen. The story ends up being a wonderful clash of classes and culture that also manages to illuminate a few bits and pieces of truth.

C.K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant) had it out rather acrimoniously with his wife Tracy Lord (Katharine Hepburn) and now two years down the line, she is set to marry someone else. She couldn’t be happier to be rid of him and all his faults. Her new husband is a real “man of the people,” the wooden George Kittredge (John Howard), and he got his money doing an honest day’s work. In other words, he’s everything Haven isn’t when it comes to class and manners, but he’s also quite different than Tracy. But she doesn’t seem to mind. She’s on cloud nine to be rid of Haven.

Although Cary Grant does take a back seat at times, it’s only so he can manipulate and connive in the background, because he most certainly has an agenda. It’s great fun to watch. First, he brings in the folks from Spy magazine to do a full spread on the big wedding. There’s belligerent journalist Macaulay Connor (James Stewart) scoffing at all the opulence around him and then photographer Ms. Eilzabeth Imbre (Ruth Hussey), who has something complicated going on with her colleague. They’re all here because the editor of Spy has a nice juicy expose piece on Tracy’s father and so C.K. advises her to go along with it. She suspects her old spouse has something to do with it, and it’s true, he didn’t put up much a protest when it came to taking part. However, Tracy’s not ready to let him ruin what she’s got going. She and her younger sister the crack-up Dinah (Virginia Weidler), put on a good show of upper-class snobbery to utterly bewilder their guests.

The funny thing is that while Tracy detests C.K. with the vehemence of the plague, her mother and sister quickly welcome the old gentleman back into their home with open arms. After all, what kind of trouble could he cause a couple days before the wedding, and Dinah is always game for a little chaos. She and C.K. have a mutual affection for each other. They’re both serial troublemakers.

After the surprise of Dexter wears off, the next person Tracy clashes horns with is the brusque newsman Connor, who is as turned off by her as she is annoyed by him. As she sees it, he’s invading her house as part of the paper’s plan to make her life miserable and steal away all her privacy. For him, she’s a stuck-up brat, who has had everything served to her on a silver platter in the west drawing room. He thumbs his nose at the whole set-up. But a chance encounter at the library no less opens up a different side to these characters. Mike Connor is actually an accomplished poet far more skilled than his lousy journalistic pursuits would suggest. He learns just how perfectly imperfect she is.

philadelphiastory2It’s at a party the night before the big day that things get particularly interesting. A lot happens when you fill people up with a little bubbly, some wine, and some early morning gaiety. Tracy is absolutely swimming in exuberance partially thanks to alcohol, partially because of the dancing, and maybe in expectancy of tomorrow’s high. But when things come a little loose around the edges, things happen that you regret. As it turns out Tracy doesn’t remember quite what happened that night, but Dinah saw all the good parts from her balcony. It involved a drunken Mike taking a jaunt to Dexter’s home at a godforsaken hour followed by Ms. Imbrie with an inebriated Tracy in tow. What this sets up is a wonderful little sequence where a hiccuping Stewart helps Grant orchestrate a plot to get back at Spy magazine editor Sidney Kidd. Then, Connor gets to spend the wee hours of the morning rambling on and on. It’s innocent enough, but quite the evening no less. It makes Kittridge quite distraught finding his bride to be in the arms of a man who is singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” And of course, with such an unfortunate moment so close to the wedding it looks like things will be called off. But Kittridge is willing to make amends. It’s Tracy who realizes she has to break things off because ironically this man is too good for her.

philadelphiastory3It looks like Haven has won, but in a split second Connor is proposing marriage and ready to tie the knot with Tracy to save the wedding. Once again Tracy makes a sagacious decision (which is surprising given her earlier condition). Hangovers on your wedding day are not usually a good thing. In this moment everything falls back into place as it should and as we want it to. These are characters that we grow to care about, despite their misgivings and class differences.

When reading up on this film I was astounded to hear that the film supposedly had no outtakes. Everything we see was as it was when it was first shot and that has to be a testament to the strength of these actors and maybe a little luck. It’s true that the film sometimes enters territory that feels unscripted and loose. That’s when it really gets fun. Stewart and Hepburn. Grant throwing a quick retort here and there. Imagine, this could have been a vehicle for Hepburn paired with Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy. I’m sure that would have been great, but the whole dynamic would be very different.

So who is the winner in this film? Grant as C.K. Dexter Haven? Hepburn as “Red?” Stewart as the “Professor?” The Philadelphia Story is a real winner for the audience. What more could you want in terms of high-brow comedy bursting with legendary star power?

5/5 Stars

Review: Bringing up Baby (1938)


bringingup2“Our relationship has been a series of misadventures from beginning to end, so if you don’t mind, I’ll see Mr. Peabody alone and unarmed.” –
David Huxley

Bringing up Baby is really and truly one of a kind, almost headache-inducing with its sure energy and dizzying with its scatterbrained tracks, but nonetheless it is a screwball masterpiece. From Hollywood master Howard Hawks comes arguably one of his greatest films, boasting the rat-ta-tat-tat of some killer dialogue, some fantastic comedic sequences, and a number of memorable performances.  Honestly, if I learned anything from this film, you can’t watch it just once, because you’re bound to get bowled over, and afterward you probably won’t realize half of what you saw. For instance, there’s so much talking you hardly realize that there’s not much of a score.

Young Katharine Hepburn is at her most radiant and almost smothering with her constant barrage of words. You either love her or hate her. There’s no way to ignore her performance here because it’s completely out there. It’s hard to believe she was a novice when she came into comedy. There’s no inhibition whatsoever. Not in the least.

Cary Grant is the bookish paleontologist who is content with constructing the skeleton of his prized Brontosaurus and then marrying his admiring, no-nonsense sweetheart Ms. Swallow. It sounds like a pleasant albeit mundane lot in life. In an effort to gather a $1 million in funding, he goes out to the golf course ready to do a little business on the side with Mr. Peabody. That’s when hell strikes in the form of one scatterbrained lady extraordinaire Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn). First, she swipes his golf ball (quite certain it is her’s), then she batters up his car (sure it is her’s again), and to top it all off she causes him to sit on his hat when they cross paths again at a club. Poor Dr. Huxley doesn’t know what’s hit him. He just wants to get away from her and all the fury that comes in her wake.

Good luck with that Cary, because she’s a force of nature! She misunderstands everything, and he gets endlessly caught in her web of miscommunication.  Susan initially roped him into coming along with her, thinking he was a zoologist who could help her take care of “Baby.” Of course, it turns out to be a tame leopard that they must get to her aunt’s home out in Connecticut (Only in a screwball comedy). By now he’s bothered. She’s falling in love.

So she does what any resourceful girl would. She keeps him occupied. First, she swipes his clothes. Then the dog George runs off with his prized possession, the intercostal clavicle. Initially, they want to get rid of the leopard. Then they want to keep it. Auntie comes home along with her gentleman friend Major Horace Applegate. A not so friendly leopard escapes from a carnival. The police get involved led by their bumbling leader Constable Slocum.

bringingup1It’s a doozy of a masquerade and most everything and everyone is utterly confused. It’s as if everything that enters the world of Susan Vance is further complicated. To her, it’s simply a day in the life and Huxley begins as an outsider, but despite all the madness, he becomes accustomed to it.  Running after the dog, getting soaking wet, tripping, falling, fending off a leopard, getting thrown into the clink. Dr. Huxley realizes that he’s never been happier and it ends pretty much as it began. Never a dull moment.

This has to be one of Hepburn’s greatest performances earlier in her career because she has everyone in a tizzy. Although he’s literally getting the run around from Hepburn, Grant is her perfect comedic foil. He dons the glasses at first and carries the sensibility that goes with them. However, he is equally equipped to go without them as a scatterbrained gentleman ready for all the pratfalls, quips, and escapades that ensue. And they are surrounded by a solid set of character actors including a drunken Barry Fitzgerald, the easily distracted Walter Catlett, the big game aficionado Charles Ruggles, and the peppy dog Asta (of Thin Man fame) among others.

Howard Hawks once said that “a good movie is three good scenes and no bad scenes.” In Bringing up Baby some of the memorable moments include the fateful meet cute at the golf course, the chuckle-worthy encounter at the club, and of course the sequence leading up to jail. But it’s also the little comedic moments wedged in between. Maybe Hepburn’s parked in front of a fire hydrant and trying to pull the wool over the policeman’s eyes. Or perhaps Grant dons the only piece of clothing, a frilly bathrobe, and is forced to answer the front door. It’s utterly absurd. It’s become classic and it shows the ability of Hawks behind the camera to make the action flow so organically.

It’s amazing that this film was a flop, Hepburn was labeled “Box Office Poison” by this point, and Cary Grant had yet to become an established star. Oh, how things changed. Because this film, in a sense, was the beginning of something truly wonderful. When two of the greatest stars aligned with one of the great directors.

5/5 Stars

Scarface: The Shame of a Nation (1932)

Ga220px-Scar2ngsters, prohibition, Al Capone, the St. Valentine Day’s Massacre. It all sounds like some distant piece of folklore that by now is far removed from our modern day sensibilities. But when films like The Public Enemy, Little Caesar, and of course Scarface came out, these things were at the forefront of the national conscience. In fact, it seems like these films have seeped into our culture, making it hard to pull the legends and cinematic stereotypes away from the cold hard facts that have now dissipated with time.

Like the other gangster dramas, Howard Hawks‘ effort makes it blatantly obvious with its introductory title card that it is a story condemning the rise and fall of the gangsters. Much like many modern films, there is a great deal of screen time given to corrupt characters, but in this case, there is meant to be less ambiguity. The audience is directed to the fact that this is not a glorification, but an indictment. That didn’t mean controversy was not stirred up since Scarface’s immense amount of violence got it held up by the censors. But it did finally make it past in 1932.

What follows is what we would expect: The rise and fall of one ambitious mobster Tony “Scarface” Carmona. He starts out as an enforcer and tough guy who is ready to make his way up the ranks and he’s not going to allow any Tom, Dick, or Giuseppe get in his way. He often incurs the displeasure of his worried mother, and he is often distraught with his baby sister (Ann Dvorak) since she will not keep away from the boys.

Pretty soon Tony is made second in command, and his boss is looking into taking over the South Side after the previous big shot was knocked off. The little men cannot do much about Johnny and his crew moving in on the territory, but of course Tony’s not satisfied. Along with making a pass at the bosses girl, he starts taking it to rival mobsters on the North Side even when Johnny told him to lay off.

Retaliation follows with a vengeance and the cops are also taking an increasing interest in nailing Tony since he’s such a smug hotshot. But Scarface’s new best friend is the Tommy Gun. Tony only increases his ambitions by countering the rival mobsters, ambushing and gunning them down all across town. There’s no mercy and he even annihilates the rival boss Gaffney (Boris Karloff) at a bowling alley. Tony even manages to escape a hit put on him by Johnny and pretty soon old Scarface is running the show like he always wanted.

Every rise is always followed by a crushing fall, and Tony is no different. He is enraged to find his buddy and perpetual coin flipper Little Boy (George Raft) calling on his sister. Tony literally loses his mind gunning his friend down in cold blood and thus unwittingly setting himself up for an undisputed murder wrap. He deliriously holds himself up in his barricaded flat, but the hourglass is slowly running out. The game is up as quickly as it began.

Paul Muni is a fairly captivating lead who pulls off the gruff Italian tough guy pretty well. His supporting cast including the glowering George Raft and his hapless “secretary” (Vince Barnett). Although Ann Dvorak felt like a girl miscast. Otherwise, this pre-code film has its fair share of bullets flying and sirens blaring. It’s a film full of grit and shadowy avenues that are sometimes swimming with beer and sometimes blood. It is extraordinary to think of where Hawks went from this film, one of his earlier works because he really was one of the most adaptable and successful directors I can think of. His films do not always reflect his own personal style per se, but they are more often than not engaging, self-assured, and dynamic. Scarface is little different. An early classic from one of the great American visionaries of film.

4.5/5 Stars

Monkey Business (1952)

monkeyb5I always was under the assumption that the screwball comedy died off in the 1940s with homages coming out years later. Is there such a thing as neo-screwball comedies? Anyways, after watching Monkey Business I feel it is necessary to reevaluate that general conclusion. Here is a film from Howard Hawks that channels a great deal of the madcap craziness that you see in his earlier works like Bringing up Baby (1938). For lack of a better term, it is very screwy indeed. Right from the opening credits, you have the voice of God (Hawks himself) breaking the fourth wall and calling Cary Grant by his real name.

Then the film actually opens, and we meet the quintessential absent-minded genius Barnaby (Grant) and his loving wife Edwina (Ginger Rogers). They are meant to go to a social gathering and yet he is so caught up in his work that they stay behind. You see he is trying to develop an elixir of youth. His experiments are of interest to the business-minded and much older Oliver Oxly (Charles Coburn), who only sees the positives of such a discovery. Barnaby tries to explain to him that it’s not so cut and dry. In fact, his work could have dire effects if careful precautions are not taken.

Little does Dr. Fulton know that one of his lab chimps got loose in his lab and tampered with some chemicals, dumping them in a water cooler. After this absurd moment, Barnaby unknowingly consumes the rejuvenating concoction and his whole demeanor takes a turn.

Soon he’s out buying flashy clothes, getting a flamboyant car, ice skating, and driving like a speed demon down the thoroughfares with an astonished secretary Ms. Laurel (Marilyn Monroe). Cary Grant even shows off his impressive acrobatic skills, performing a cartwheel and a few other tricks.

monkeyb3Only when the concoction wears off does he figure out what happened, and he resolves to be more careful next time. Except next time turns out to come sooner than he was expecting when Edwina willingly drinks some of the substance so Barnaby can observe her. Just like that, she is a prank-pulling schoolgirl with insatiable energy.

Once more Barnaby takes the elixir while Edwina is sleeping off the effect. However, when she wakes up a misunderstanding leads to more mayhem as she tries to get help from Mr. Oxly. What develops is a spiral into more hilarity. Barnaby and Edwina are reunited, Edwina’s old flame is incensed, Ms. Laurel is petrified, and chimps and man alike are taking part in some Monkey Business. If none of this makes much sense then I did my job!

3.5/5 Stars

Review: The Big Sleep (1946)

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Philip Marlowe is undoubtedly Raymond Chandler’s character, but Howard Hawks and Humphrey Bogart brought him right out of a pulp novel and stuck him on the silver screen to ever be solidified in our minds. Needless to say, this is a quintessential film-noir coming right at the tail end of WWII, known as much for its incomprehensible plot line as it is the romantic pairing of Bogey and Bacall.The title credits role and the contours of our two leads can be seen in the background, cigarette in toe with Max Steiner’s furious score pulsing in rhythm. We find ourselves on the doorstep of a man named Sternwood. A hand is ringing the doorbell and a servant answers. The hand, of course, belongs to Humphrey Bogart or closer yet Philip Marlowe. Right off the bat, he gets the come on from the flirtatious younger daughter of Sternwood and he takes it in stride.

When he meets the sickly man of the house, he’s stricken to a wheelchair parked inside a greenhouse. He and Marlowe get chummy, and he calls upon the P.I. to find a man named Geiger, while bemoaning the trouble his daughters get into. For good measure, Marlowe also gets his first taste of Sternwood’s older daughter Vivian Rutledge who is more mature, but suspicious all the same. From then on the case is a series of storefronts, L.A. street corners, and car interiors. It’s hard to believe, but it also seems so dark and dreary with buckets of rain to boot. It must be L.A. in winter (or in an alternative universe). Bogey has a little fun masquerading as an antique book aficionado and every lady he interacts with feels like another Carmen Sternwood. Always ready to flirt and he usually gives them the time of day.
He stakes out a home and he investigates a piercing scream only to find a disoriented Carmen in a big mess. Next, a dead man is pulled out of a Packard near Lido Pier. The names keep piling up too. There’s A. G. Geiger, Sean Regan, Owen Taylor, Joe Brody, Eddie Mars, Harry Jones (Elisha Cook Jr.) and a number of others. Most are seen at one time or another but a few are not.
08bfb-bigsleepBy this point, The Big Sleep is less about all the facts and more about how we get there in the end. Obviously, the source material is from Raymond Chandler, but the witty script full of great patter is courtesy of William Faulkner and Leigh Brackett of all people. Bogey and Bacall have some fun on the telephone (You like to play games don’t you) which coincidentally has no bearing on the plot. Later on, they have some more spirited back and forth about horse racing. It’s at these times that you cannot help but chuckle at the rapier wit of the script. Philip Marlowe is a great character with a lot of great things to say indeed.
Soon we suspect there is something romantic going on between Eddie Mars and Rutledge. A few more stooges get it and Marlowe gets himself beat up in a dark back alley (Of course). Next thing we know is our new favorite gumshoe is tied up in a house with two ladies. Rutledge is there and the wife of Eddie Mars. What? He gets out of harm’s way thanks to Vivian, and the showdown that we have been waiting for comes to pass. Marlowe outsmarts everyone and puts the damper on the case. Everything seemingly comes to a smooth resolution, the audience just has little idea how we got there. But that’s not the greatest of concerns.

It would be great enough to watch The Big Sleep for the sass and repartee which it is positively dripping with. Thanks to the reworking of the film in 1946, the Bogey and Bacall dynamic became more prominent and fun. Although it is slightly disappointing that a lot of Martha Vickers performance ended up on the cutting floor, it is made slightly better by a memorable appearance by a young Dorothy Malone. All in all, there is very little to complain about if you just sit back and enjoy this very engaging film-noir for what it is. Howard Hawks brought us yet another unassuming post-war classic that is unequivocally American.

4.5/5 Stars