Only Angels Have Wings (1939): Hawks’ Greatest Adventure Movie

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Howard Hawks always had a knack for creating worlds and subsequently building camaraderie between his characters simply by stringing scenes together one after the other. Only Angels Have Wings sets up a premise — revolving around a South American outpost — then settles in on two flyers.  But for all intent and purposes, Joe Souther (Noah Berry Jr.) and Tex Gordon (Don Barry) exist in the periphery of the story.

Despite all this, we’re instantly interested in what they have to do in this world and they’ve got their eyes on a woman (Jean Arthur) exiting a recently landed ship, only to strike up an instant connection as they’re a trio of Americans. A sequence that almost feels ominous initially does a rapid about-face to settle into something a great deal more amiable.

In truth, the introduction of a female heroine fresh off the boat in a foreign land hearkens back to Miriam Hopkins in Barbary Coast. She too was a tough character who was capable of surviving in a rough and tumble boomtown out west. Jean Arthur does much the same in Barranca. Except the difference is Arthur seems adept at showing her flaws with that quirky comic edge of hers.

The other added benefit is Howard Hawks seems about as invested in this picture as he could be due to his own intense preoccupation with big birds in the sky. His surname never seemed apter. The flight sequences follow in the path of Test Pilot exuding a certain authenticity while the narrative itself is unparalleled thanks, in part, to the entire framework built around it. The fascinating assemblage of characters is a testament to the best of what old Hollywood has to offer.

In 20 minutes he’s already enveloped you in an entire cinematic reality full of people, atmosphere, stakes, and danger. The genial owner Dutch (Sig Ruman) is slowly going broke trying to keep the establishment afloat. His last chance is to come through on a 6-month contract of mail deliveries without a failed drop.

Everything he has is riding on it but he’s a man who cares about people and their lives. It’s not merely a business endeavor. It’s about relationship and that’s why everyone likes the man. Even with this kind of impetus, it remains a harrowing life or death operation that Hawks documents with immense clarity.

Lives are still lost because flyers are foolhardy, proud, and daredevil types and yet when you put them up in a plane fighting against the elements and geography, they don’t always come out on top. Modern man and especially the modern aviator of 1939 is far from infallible.

But it’s one of the most gripping flight films buttressed by Hawk’s capacity for lulls and interludes which layer on character to the plotline. It’s imbued with the same spellbinding aura of a Casablanca or To Have or Have Not. There’s a certain ambiance pervading those classics of old and ironically, the moments that give us impressions of the world and the people walking around in them are the ones I’m most likely to imbibe. They speak in basic, visceral terms about men and women and how we cope with one another. How we emote: laugh, cry, get angry, and bury our emotions to avoid getting hurt.

Cary Grant is hard and fierce as ace flyer Geoff Carter who runs the airmail service for Dutch, willingly deferring to him in all matters due to Geoff’s history and expertise. We get the impression our protagonist is embittered by the years of such a tough vocation. His personality at times proves as severe as the brim of his hat.

When I watch Only Angels Have Wings I remember where Devlin came from in Notorious (1946). Because Grant reveals a side of his persona like a double-sided coin. There’s something different hidden under each side and he’s a tortured soul struggling to reconcile the life he leads with feelings he is so inept in expressing. Because the danger of any type of human attachment is that the same person could just as easily be taken out of your life a moment later. Far from despising him for his callous attitudes, it makes him all the more intriguing as a human being. Because every other character brings something out of him.

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Though his career had all but tanked after immense successes with D.W. Griffith in the silent era, Richard Barthelmess has a crucial role as a recently arrived flyer who has an ignominious history under a different name. In a single moment, he broke the unwritten code of the skies, never bale out and leave your copilot high and dry. It’s followed him everywhere he goes like a Scarlett Letter.

What makes it particularly volatile is the fact that the dead man’s brother, The Kid (Thomas Mitchell), a 22 year veteran of the business, is Carter’s right-hand man. This past tragedy causes the aging pilot to seethe with anger as his ill-will toward Macpherson burns under the surface. There is a great deal of unresolved ire between them waiting for release.

In fact, that’s the trait of many of these characters. Because Macpherson has picked up an attractive young wife in his travels. Though Rita Hayworth is in a smaller role as Judy, it’s still significant because most every player is given a piece of the pie. Her connection being the fact she knew Geoff in a former life. They don’t admit it right away but it becomes clear enough. And of course, there’s this uncomfortable chafing as Grant keeps the disgraced pilot in his back pocket to do all the dirty work. He’s handsomely paid for it but there’s no sentimentality or camaraderie.

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Everyone else is a part of Grant’s family as it were. MacPherson is just around for his usefulness. Carter’s relationship with the other man’s wife puts him in yet another position of power to show compassion. He surprises us incessantly and a dose of redemption explodes right out of an inferno of tragedy.

But we have yet to consider Grant and Arthur’s relationship throughout the picture, arguably the film’s most integral and constantly evolving asset. He is a man who can never be tied down; he does not share feelings or expect anything from any woman. And yet hidden away and shrouded from view are these threads of decency running through his life. Ways that he cares for people without letting his virile image slide. The final scene is a fine summation.

The pass is clearing up and despite all that’s gone wrong — he’s only got one good arm for goodness sakes and Bonnie’s about to leave him — there’s still a drive to finish what they started. But there’s a chance to make it through and save their contract and as he goes flying out the door he gives his girl a great big kiss and says he’ll flip her for whether or not she stays or leaves.

Of course, we know full-well the coin he tossed her is from “The Kid.” It’s marked with heads on both sides. She’s hurt at first. Injured by this flippancy and lack of commitment. But then she realizes, turning it over in her hands. In his indirect way, he’s saying he wants her to stay.

Why bring this up at all? As best as I can explain it, this individual scene is so beautifully restrained and nuanced in a way that surpasses other lesser films. Meanwhile, Only Angels Have Wings displays all the delectable glories of a deeply satisfying adventure film from Howard Hawks. There’s drama, romance, friendship, tragedy, and a simplicity to the action lines which nevertheless feels deeply indicative of the human condition.

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: Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936)

Gary_Cooper_in_Mr._Deeds_Goes_to_Town_trailer“He could never fit in with our distorted viewpoint, because he’s honest, and sincere, and good. If that man’s crazy, Your Honor, the rest of us belong in straitjackets!” ~ Jean Arthur as Babe Bennett

Mr. Deeds Goes to Town is a true treasure of idealism and Americana. People, especially now, may have many quibbles with the films of Frank Capra because he was the undisputed champion of feel good cinema that revelled in happy endings, stalwart honesty, and the little guy being permitted a fighting chance.

It’s no wonder that he made such good use of the likes of Gary Cooper and James Stewart because they embodied common, everyday American decency like few other actors could ever claim. Admittedly it’s easy to belittle his pictures as saccharine and sentimental to the nth degree but beyond that Capra always seemed to have an inherent sense of what America stood for or at least what he believed it could and still can stand for.

Every man deserves a certain amount of respect. You might call them inalienable rights like life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And any force that tries to impede that is in simple terms an affront to all humanity. Because though we might all think we’re different, we share a lot more similarities than we often want to concede. It’s easy for us to forget that and that’s what happens here.

Longfellow Deeds (Cooper) becomes the overnight talk of the town because his rich uncle dies in a horrible car crash and bequeaths his wealth to his unsuspecting nephew. It’s the kind of good fortune that others drool over but in Deeds’ hands, he takes it in stride. He comes off as a real Yokum from the one horse town of Mandrake Falls but if anything Deeds is incredibly smart. He realizes he can have contentment out of the limelight and with very little. He enjoys quiet days oftentimes filling idle hours with his prized tuba and poetry that he writes for postcards.

But his new status as a millionaire forces him into the life that he doesn’t much want. Mansions and butlers, folks looking for handouts, ravenous newspapermen (and women) and conniving lawyers. Front and center is Mr. Cedar (Douglass Dumbrille). It’s these very individuals who see Deeds as a ridiculous outsider to be belittled and taken advantage of.

The brilliance of Capra’s movie is that he makes his hero, while simple and practical, still very astute. He may have his many quirks but there’s a surprising amount of business acumen and common sense flowing through his veins that consequently sends everyone else for a loop. He spies phonies from a mile of away and he looks to reform the local opera while finding ways to spend his newfound fortune sagaciously.

The only thing he’s not watching out for is a pretty girl, journalist Louise “Babe” Bennett (Jean Arthur) is ready to nab him, capturing his heart and simultaneously giving the whole city a front row seat to his exploits about town from quarrels with a snooty circle of poets to an evening jaunt ending on a fire engine. She’s a pro at spinning the tale into one of a first class boob, christening him the “Cinderella Man” that the whole world laughs at. They eat it up and they want to see him fall–this idiotic nobody suddenly being scrutinized by society for his good fortune. It’s all rather unfair but oftentimes that’s the way the world turns. It’s a cruel and sometimes curious place.

Because while Deeds grows fed up with this whole lifestyle, ready to leave it all behind him, Babe finds herself truly falling for her project since he models something she rarely sees in a man — real honest to goodness integrity that guides his every action. There’s never a false pretense or a veiled intention. What you see is what you get. Ironically enough, in this land of fakes, she’s the only “real” person he thinks he’s met. And she knows what’s been going on, going so far as to tell her editor that she’s quitting. There’s no way she can keep up the charade only injuring the character of the one she loves more and more.

But of course, everything dives into the depths of despair when Deeds is sent to trial calling into question his sanity after he resolves to use $18,000,000 to portion off acres of land to destitute farmers to work for him. It’s utter lunacy, isn’t it? The workers line up around the block leading into his home as he offers them a chance at a real life without starving children and food lines every day. This is what Cedar, Cedar, Cedar, and Blumenfeld are bringing him to court for or is it the fact that they want a portion of his fortune? Yes, that just might be it.

Anyways, far worse than that fate is the fact that he thinks his girl has betrayed him and she has in a sense, but she’s also devoted to him by now. She watches helplessly as her man gets railroaded. She began as the one to crucify him in the tabloids and now she prepares to watch him get crucified in the courtroom. In these moments, he does take on a Christ-like post watching all the proceedings without a word. He never makes any effort to defend himself after accusation after accusation is thrown his direction.

But the bottom line is that he does not have to let himself be destroyed. Being the martyr, in this case, is not his job and Capra lifts him out of the pit and resurrects him. The fact that Louise fights for him and numerous others including his cynical right-hand man Cornelius Cobb (Lionel Stander) and the local newspaper editor (George Bancroft), not to mention a legion of grateful farmers. So Mr. Deeds ends with a tumultuous courtroom finale befitting one of Capra’s finest pictures. It brims with goodness and bubbles over with humor that constantly underlines this feel good classic.

Though Gary Cooper represents Capra’s love of the every man with common decency and common sense, Jean Arthur remains equally crucial to the worlds that he creates. It has to do with her quality as an actor that allows her to play the snappy, witty, world-wearied types. Because she represents all the many people with that very same cynical streak and yet the very fact that her heart can be melted and her whole mindset can be changed suggests that there might be hope for all of us. That hope burgeons up from Mr. Deeds and leaves us with a warm feeling indeed.

4.5/5 Stars

The Whole Town’s Talking (1935)

the_whole_towns_talking_1935_posterComic mayhem was always supercharged in the films of the 1930s because the buzz is palpable, the actors are always endowed with certain oddities, and the corkscrew plotlines run rampant with absurdities of their own.  Penned by a pair of titans in Jo Swerling and Robert Riskin, The Whole Town’s Talking opens with an inciting incident that’s a true comedic conundrum.

Bald and beady-eyed Mr. Seaver is called upon to fire the next employee who comes in late to work. A tough proposition to begin with but it gets worse.  Arthur Ferguson Jones has not been late to work in 8 years and of course, today’s the day his alarm clock doesn’t work. Although he gets a reprieve. Still, the next person walking in isn’t so lucky. The hardy, wisecracking Miss Clark (Jean Arthur). And that’s our introduction to our main players.

But the real wrench comes from an age-old device that’s easy to scoff at initially. There’s a doppelganger. Yes, the same upstanding, timid Arthur Ferguson Jones is cut in the spitting image of Public Enemy No. 1, Killer Mannion. But before you check out, consider what this does for this ruckus of a story. It ties it up in knots.

Jones is the talk of the town. Exploding flashbulbs. Cover stories. Tumult. Back in the glory days when the press ran in a pack like hyenas.  His boss invites him to dinner, wants an autograph for his boy. He’s being ribbed by his coworkers and Miss Jones takes an interest in his literary endeavors. This leads to a gig ghostwriting the gangster’s life story in the local paper.

Meanwhile, the police argue about what to do about him. They finally decide to give him a special passport. It says he’s not Killer Mannion. And hapless little Mr. Seaver still badgers his employee to finish up his waiting caseload. What no one expects is that Mannion will sneak into Jones’ home and sets up camp.

And from that point on, everything gets confused. Robinson gets a chance at a great deal of range sometimes having his two diverging roles playing off each other in the same frame. All you need to know is the gangster is looking to leave his new benefactor holding the bag for his numerous crimes. Whether it works out or not is quite another story.

This a particularly odd film for the talent assembled. It doesn’t especially feel like a John Ford film and not simply because it’s not a Western. But at this point in his career, his stock company isn’t even assembled.

Edward G. Robinson will always be identified with gangster pics and it’s true he was tired of that association. Here he’s playing comedy. He has one foot in his usual wheelhouse but the other seems utterly alien to his usual persona. As such it’s great fun.  And his timid common man isn’t even a tragic figure like Chris Cross (Scarlet Street). The comedy is far more apparent and that in part stems from Arthur.

She shows up late to work, gets fired, and still has quips coming out of her ears. She plays all the journalists trying to pump her for facts and at the same time falls for this dope who has her picture framed by his bedside. Perhaps better than anyone she perfected how to be cheeky but still wholesome and caring. Arthur feels most at home in this film more than anyone else, given her comedic pedigree but she and Robinson bounce off each other well.

In a few years she would play a Miss Jones but for right now she’s content calling her colleague by the pet name “Jonesie” and (tiny spoiler) she does become Mrs. Jones. So an oddball romantic pair they might be, but that doesn’t make the partnering of Robinson and Arthur any less amusing. They’re both on their A-game in The Whole Town’s Talking and thankfully there would be many more arresting performances to come.

4/5 Stars

History is Made at Night (1937)

history-is-made-at-night-1937History is Made at Night molds love into the grandest of pursuits and it wouldn’t be altogether wrong in that assertion because for humanity it is one of the most euphoric, confounding, beautiful entities known to mankind. I have no qualms with saying that whatsoever.

And if there was ever a movie title to act as the quintessential summation of director Frank Borzage’s work this might well be it. This is not his greatest effort but within those aforementioned words lies the essence of his filmography. This overarching idea that romance is this unassailable force that is ethereal and grandiose — capable of combatting anything that the world might throw its way  — wielded by a man and a woman when they both become so enraptured in the throes of passion. The antagonistic force might be human, ideological, or environmental. It makes no difference. As the pithy saying goes, love conquerors all. But it’s unfair to strip Borzage down completely with any attempts at generalization and there’s the necessity to look at this film specifically.

History Begins at Night revolves around an age-old device: The love triangle. A rich man named Bruce Vail (Collin Clive) prone to jealousy is looking to catch his wife Irene (Jean Arthur) in infidelity even if he fabricates it on his own. Because he’s not about to let her divorce him. Except in her time of need, the head waiter (Charles Boyer) at a highly reputed local establishment happens to be in the next room and comes to her aid masquerading as a burglar looking to purloin her jewels. Except he soon lets her go free and that might be the end of it. But Vail is not about to let his wife off scotch free and blackmails her into staying with him. He’s a real snake in the grass and this makes Irene long for Paul even more. That’s really all you need to know to get the general idea and the particulars are not what is paramount anyways. It’s enjoyable taking them as they come and watching how Boyer and Arthur react.

Charles Boyer, just coming off his American debut, was entering into the peak of his career as the token Frenchman in Hollywood and he and Jean Arthur make a charming pair. For her part, she will always be an archetype of the screwball comedienne but with this film, she’s a little different. She plays the comedic moments but right along side the melodrama — working through entire scenes with the simple inflections of the word “Oh.” And while Boyer seems suited to drama, more than his predecessor Maurice Chevalier, he does still prove he can be quite funny.

By the end, there is hardly any need to pay attention to the plot. It is enough watching these two individuals come to together into something quite spectacular with a brilliant climax as their backdrop — a stunning culmination of their relationship. It’s a titanic ending to be sure with sinking ocean liner included but that’s not all that unusual. It conjured up some similarities to Leo McCarey’s romantic drama Love Affair (also starring Boyer) and then Barbara Stanwyck’s own extraordinarily moving Titanic-vehicle.  Each storyline utilizes an ocean liner as the perfect locale for a tragic love story but it’s the individuals involved who actually create the intrigue.

What struck me about this film was the fact that it does not fall into your usual categorizations. There’s comedy but not the outlandish scatteredness of 1930s screwballs and there’s melodrama but most of the time the plotting seems inconsequential. Again and again, the story falls back on the fact that this is a love story pure and simple. Indeed, history is made at night. That is what Borzage hammers home. But he wields his hammer with a deft touch.

4/5 Stars

The Devil and Miss Jones (1941)

the-devil-and-ms-jones-1Its title suggests that this film might be something like Lubitsch’s Heaven can Wait but The Devil and Miss Jones could easily hold the title as the original version of  Undercover Boss. Although its main function is on the romantic and comic planes, it also has a bit of a social message behind it that signals for change.

Setting the stage, the wonderfully memorable Charles Coburn is none other than the 6th richest man in the world and he is also a hopelessly cranky curmudgeon. A comic Mr. Potter if you will. He’s also a finicky eater only indulging in graham crackers and constantly calling upon his longsuffering servant (S.Z. Sakall). He’s always got something to gripe about.

At the moment, the workers at the department store franchise he holds ownership of are decrying his policies and the benefits he gives workers. They’re pretty bad but he really doesn’t care. All he cares about is that his name is being slandered and he’s looking to hire a detective to find the conspirators. However, not finding a suitable candidate, he resolves to join the floor staff in the shoe department himself so he can act as a mole and undermine any plans they have against him. He’ll beat them out his own game. He’s “a real Benedict Arnold in Sheep’s Clothing” as they say.

Soon he is befriended by the kindly Ms. Ellis who swears by her tuna fish popovers and it takes a moment but he is disarmed by her generosity. The plucky Ms. Mary Jones (Jean Arthur) also takes him under her wing in a way, looking out for him amidst the cruel world of customer service. He isn’t much good at it anyway — selling slippers that is. Edmund Gwenn in a rather subdued role as the snooty store manager tells him as much.

And it’s Mary who unwittingly introduces him to the inner workings of all things store-related. Including the fact that her beau is the infamous Joe O’Brien (Robert Cummings) a recently fired store employee who is working his hardest to rage against the accepted order by organizing a labor union to protect his fellow working class friends.

But it’s not all serious, hardly. Among other things, the foursome takes a lively day trip. One can only imagine Coney Island or some such hot spot with crowded beaches that look more like sardine tins and bustling avenues with kids running hither and thither. In these moments it becomes obvious that there’s a bit of a comical culture war being waged, perfectly summated by the moment some of his new colleagues dilute his fine wine with soda pop to kill the peculiar taste. And despite, their simple ways, they grow on Mr. Merrick, while at the same time his naivete about real life, gains their sympathy. He seems fairly helpless without them. A rambunctious trip to the police station ensues because he gets lost like a little kid.

Of course, there’s the expected turn of events. It must happen. Mr. Merrick is slowly becoming redeemed, falling for Ms. Ellis and gaining the trust of both Mary and Joe. But Mary happens across something that puts everything in jeopardy. And it could be melodramatic but Arthur knows how to adeptly play the comedy even in these moments. Most notably, when she’s summing up the courage to clock her deceptive colleague over the head with a hay maker courtesy of the season’s latest model of footwear.

The final crusade for unionization leads to utter bedlam with the higher ups and it has a trickle-down effect on everyone else. Mary and Joe lead the charge emphatically but with this inside look at the corrupt inner workings of his leadership, Mr. Merrick is aghast and willfully joins the rebellion. It’s comic absurdity and all the main players do the film justice making their happy ending all the more deserved. Sam Wood might not be noted as a director of raging comedies (true, he worked with the Marx Brothers) but he does well enough with The Devil and Ms. Jones to make it a delightful trifle even now. Thanks be that Jean Arthur and Charles Coburn were paired once more in More the Merrier. They’re gold together.

4/5 Stars

Review: Shane (1953)

shane1Jackson Hole, Wyoming and the looming Tetons lend the same iconic majesty to this western that Monument Valley does for many of Ford’s best pictures. But then again, George Stevens was another master and he too was changed by the war, coming back with a different tone and an “American Trilogy” that included some of his best work. Shot in Technicolor, this picture boasts more than wide open spaces and raw Midwestern imagery. Stevens has some wonderfully constructed sequences and there are a number of great characters to inhabit them.

Shane is the eponymous gunman who is content to linger in the background while others become the focal point. Namely, Joe Starrett (Van Heflin), a man who came to the untamed land due to the Homestead Act and won’t let the rancher Stryker muscle them off the land that he believes is rightfully theirs. Despite this being her final film — and a favor to her previous collaborator Stevens — Jean Arthur is as wonderful as ever. The character Marian is brimming with goodness and a sensitivity that is hard to discount. It’s a part very different than her earlier work and yet she plays it so wonderfully. As for newcomer Brandon De Wilde, he’s an astute little actor and we really see this world through his eyes, so he does wonders to hold the story together.

Grafton’s general store and saloon become a wonderful arena of conflict within the film because it is rather like Ryker’s stomping ground since he and his men can always be found lounging around there when they aren’t terrorizing some poor sodbuster. After he agrees to work for Starrett, Shane goes into town for new duds, leaving his gun behind, and he quickly learns what he’s in for. It’s in such a scene that we learn who this man really is. He’s not a hot-head and he initially takes the abuse of Stryker’s guns, who call him out for purchasing soda pop. It’s for the boy Joey, but he doesn’t have to say that, because he needs not prove himself, at least not yet. Also, the relationship between Shane and Marian might be troubling to some — will they fall for each other — but when Ryker makes insinuations about Starrett’s wife, Shane is quick to shut him up. He’s not that kind of man. When Shane does return to the store, he’s prepared this time for retaliation and although it might not have been the smartest thing, it sure is gratifying for him and for the audience. He and Starrett make a killer team, after all, beaten and bruised as they end up.

shane2What follows is retribution from Stryker as he tries to buy out, threaten, and continually lean on the sodbusters, but Starrett remains resolute in keeping his friends together. In fact, there’s still time to share a wonderful Fourth of July dance with all the neighbors and it shows signs of a brighter, happier time that could be possible. With neighbors joining together in simple community and sharing life together. Shane feels somewhat out of place in this type of environment, and maybe deep down he knows it too, but he seems oddly content.

This happy time is juxtaposed with the funeral of ornery “Stonewall” (Elisha Cook Jr.), who was gunned down near the saloon by hired gun Jack Wilson (Jack Palance). His death is making some of the others jumpy, but once again Starrett keeps his group together, by first giving their former friend a proper burial and banding together once more. But by this point, they’re barely hanging on. Stryker’s got them on the run and Joe knows he needs to have it out with his arch-nemesis once and for all if things are ever going to return to the status quo. His dreams of ending this whole thing are ludicrous because there is no way he can get out alive. His wife knows it. He knows it, but it doesn’t stop him and his American Dream.

shane3It’s interesting how Shane at first does not try to stop him, but then he gets tipped off to what awaits Joe, and he decides to go in his place. This is his arena after all. The gun we all fawn over is finally getting put to use as Shane rides into town for the final showdown to have it out with the men in the saloon. However, although the shootout is intense it ends very quickly. Thus, what is really interesting are the moments beforehand where friend is literally fighting friend. Both doing what they think is right. However, since Joey only thinks in absolutes, when he sees Shane hit his father over the back of the head, he initially reacts with hatred towards his fallen hero. He doesn’t understand why all this is necessary. But as time goes on and he sees events unfold, he gets it.

As Shane rides off into the night, Joey yells after him to come back, he cannot bear for this idolized man to ride off. It makes me wonder if young Joey grew up with the image of Shane, the hero of his childhood. The doer of good and the ultimate champion of the oppressed.

The cast was rounded out nicely by some solid supporting players like Palance, Ben Johnson, Edgar Buchanan, Elisha Cook Jr., and down to Ellen Corby and even Nancy Kulp. It’s astounding to think that this film could have starred Monty Clift and William Holden potentially with Katharine Hepburn as well. Because, after all, the casting of Shane feels just right. Clift would have brought depth and emotional chops to the role, as a wonderfully impassioned actor. Just look at George Stevens’ A Place in the Sun (1951) for proof of that. However, what Alan Ladd has is a serenity and simple goodness that still somehow suggests something under the surface. It begs the question, how can someone so upright make a living packing a six-shooter? No doubt I like Holden better as an actor, but Heflin has the scruffy outdoors-man look, while still reflecting high ideals. Hepburn just does not seem to fit a western. This is one of the instances when all the pieces seemed to fit into place and we were blessed by a western classic that never seems to lose its luster. In a sense, we become boys again like Joey, completely in awe of Shane. Let us revel in that feeling, that moment of innocence once more.

5/5 Stars

Easy Living (1937)

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

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

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

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

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

4/5 Stars

Talk of the Town (1942)

0db8e-the_talk_of_the_townThis comedy-drama begins with a rather stark montage chronicling how the unfortunately named Leopold Gilg (Cary Grant) was accused of arson, murder, and finally imprisoned by one owner of a mill named Holmes. After escaping from prison and an imminent conviction, in a torrential downpour, the hampered Gilg seeks asylum in a nearby house. It just happens to belong to Miss Nora Shelley a local teacher in Lochester and an acquaintance of Gilg. She reluctantly allows the injured fugitive to hold up in her attic, but then her new tenant arrives a day early, the distinguished professor Lightcap (Ronald Colman).

After Gilg finally reveals himself to Lightcap as the gardener Joseph, what forms is an interesting triangle with the two men on the sides and Ms. Shelley in the middle. Both men take a liking to each other despite their difference in opinion on justice. Lightcap is much the academic and he goes by the book. “Joseph” on the other hand has a more practical approach.

It does not matter much until the professor finally learns Joseph’s true identity and now he feels it is his duty to report Gilg no matter his affinity for him. But after Gilg gets away once again, the professor is finally coaxed to look into the case that he has been so reluctant to involve himself in. Both men make concessions out of respect for the other. The professor involves himself, buys some borscht, and cuts his beard, while Gilg turns himself in. It almost drives Ms. Shelley up the wall with grief. You see she loves both of them.

In his final search, Lightcap finds something very interesting indeed. The town mob bursts into the courtroom as Gilg stands trial again, but the professor shows up with a surprise of his own. He ends up as the next Court Justice, a very happy man and Ms. Shelley and Gilg are very happy for him. They don’t have much to complain about either.

George Steven’s film has a bit of a contrived plot much like The More the Merrier. Things certainly feel set up, but that’s okay because the cast is so wonderful it makes the set-piece work. Jean Arthur is in top form when she is exasperated and sneaking about making little white lies as people file in and out of her home. Gilg seemed like a rather odd role for Grant, but he pulled it off with his usual charm and charisma. Someone else might have made Lightcap unbearably stuffy, but Colman’s portrayal is always tolerable and very often charming. This had a lot more drama than I was expecting, but it was not short on the comedy either. My only complaint is that it ran a tad long, but it just meant more screen time for the leads. That’s not so bad. They were The Talk of the Town after all.

4/5 Stars

The Best Films of Jean Arthur

1. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
2. Shane
3. Mr. Deeds Goes to Town
4. Only Angels Have Wings
5. The More The Merrier
6. You Can’t Take it With You
7. Easy Living
8. The Talk of the Town
9 The Devil and Miss Jones
10. History is Made at Night
11. A Foreign Affair
12. The Whole Town’s Talking