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

Dinner at Eight (1933)

220px-Dinner_at_Eight_cph.3b52734Dinner at Eight is another all-star slug fest from MGM meant to capitalize and top the success of Grand Hotel from the previous year. This time around, well to do wife, Millicent Jordan is setting up a charming dinner party for a wealthy English couple Lord and Lady Ferncliffe who are traveling to New York. The hostess is frantically trying to figure out dinner guests for the big occasion because everything must be perfect. Observant viewers will notice that the high strung lady of the house is played by Billy Burke (more widely known as the Good Witch Glenda). Her husband Louis (Lionel Barrymore) is a kindly shipping magnate, who was hit hard by the depression, and his health is also failing as a result. Their daughter has problems of her own since she does not really love her fiancee and has fallen for the much older, and washed-up alcoholic actor Larry Renault (John Barrymore).

Next on the list of probable invitees is Carlotta Vance (Marie Dressler), the formerly prominent actress, who is now still in the twilight years of her career, but she still carries on a lavish lifestyle with furs and all. She is old friends with Louis, and she is always ready and willing to reminisce, fish for compliments, and offer a little sage advice on the side. She’s a character we like.

The most dynamic pair is most certainly Wallace Beery and Jean Harlow. They play the gruff, crooked businessman and his equally feisty wife, Dan and Kitty Packard. They’re hardly together because he’s working and she’s buying up clothes and caught up in an affair. When the two of them finally are together in the same room, they are constantly at each other’s throats. No punches or barbs are spared. And yet on the invitation to the Jordan’s they both pull their act together. He wants to meet the highly prestigious Ferncliffes, and she wants a chance to get dressed up. They’re quite the match.

With a title like Dinner at Eight, you expect the drama to take place around the table with the guests all seated together. However, that would be rather stuffy, I suppose, and instead, the dinner only acts as the culminating event to push the plot along. We actually never see the guests at the table, only the action leading up to it. Millicent is in a tizzy, especially when she hears the Ferncliffes have a change of plans. Her husband’s health is slowly deteriorating at the same rate as his company. The arrogant actor Larry Renault bickers with his agent about his next role. Honestly, this was the most unsatisfying of the threads, and it did ultimately end in tragedy. However, I’d be interested to know how close this parody actually came to John Barrymore’s actual life, because sometimes it’s hard to know how to parse the fiction from the reality when they seem to overlap.

Once all the guests are assembled it’s a rather ragtag group, but it is a fun mix of characters, and Millicent gets her cousin Hattie to attend along with her Garbo-loving husband who is unenthusiastic about the whole affair. It’s a satisfying overall result and an enjoyable enough ensemble that George Cukor directs with relative ease.

4/5 Stars

Grand Hotel (1932)

GrandHotelFilmPosterGrand Hotel is the epitome of a Hollywood superstar ensemble, and it would set the bar for all the films that would try to imitate and surpass it. Thanks to Irving Thalberg and the studio with more stars than there are in the heavens, MGM delivered a film that was a smash hit and after well over 80 years, it still remains an important visual relic.

The cast was beyond a contemporary viewer’s wildest dreams. It was that good. You had Greta Garbo, John Barrymore, Joan Crawford, Lionel Barrymore, and Wallace Beery among others. Nowadays many of these names do not carry as much clout (I must admit even to me), and the idea of a film starring numerous big names seems almost mundane. Just take a look at Oceans Eleven or The Avengers. But we must understand that at that time it was a stroke of genius because usually only one or two stars were set aside to be in a certain film. It was seen as the most commercially viable philosophy at the time.

Then came Grand Hotel: As Dr. Otternschlag (Lewis Stone)  muses it’s “always the same. People come, people go. Nothing ever happens.” It’s counter-intuitive but in some ways, that’s what makes this film so much fun. People love stories with fun vignettes that criss-cross and weave in and out. It’s even better when the stories contain the likes of Garbo and the Barrymores. Not to mention Joan Crawford.

It’s a fun world and a lasting tradition that many films have attempted to replicate because honestly, most audiences love these types of realities that they can escape to and in turn, be a part of. In this case, it’s this opulent hotel in the heart of Berlin full of bustling bellboys,  lavish suites, and all the pleasures life could afford.

Furthermore, the guests come from every walk of life imaginable making it all the more enjoyable to watch their intermingling and chance encounters. There is the prima ballerina (Greta Garbo), who has recently gotten cold feet and even canceled a show in her melancholy. It allows for Garbo to utter her famous line, “I want to be alone.”

Then there’s the baron (John Barrymore) who is also in desperate need of money. You might label him a cad because he resorts to theft several times, but if he is a thief he also has a heart of gold befriending and comforting nearly everyone he meets. He especially makes Ms. Grusinskaya very happy and it allows for some amorous scenes between John Barrymore and Garbo.

Next comes Mr. Kringelein (Lionel Barrymore) who is the lowest of all the individuals in the hotel, but since his imminent death is ahead, he is finally going to live a little and he finally gains some of the friends and respect that he has always wanted. On the other hand, Wallace Beery plays Preysing the big magnate who is trying to swing an important deal to keep his company afloat.  Mr. Kringelein is one of his nameless underlings who keeps his books. Preysing has little concern for the “little man,” until he is desperately in need of help.

Last, but not least, is a radiant and spry Joan Crawford as the stenographer. She’s far from the star, but she does seem to steal many of the scenes that she pops up in. Also, despite all the ups and downs, she gets the happy ending she deserves.

I must admit that Grand Hotel takes a little time to set the scene and pick up steam, but when it does it’s a lot of fun. You know it’s a special film when the two Barrymore brothers are acting together, playing two so very different individuals. Yet underlining every scene they share together is the indisputable fact that they are related.  You also have Garbo and Crawford in the same film without either sharing a scene with the other! For an updated take on this type of story give some attention to Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel. Otherwise, this lavish 1930s production is worthwhile, because it really does feel like you’re watching film history.

4/5 Stars

Review: It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

5632c-wonderfullife4Every time I go through the emotional, romantic, heart-warming and at times uncomfortable roller coaster that is It’s a Wonderful Life, something new always seems to stick out to me.

It is always impressive for a film of this length that so much is packed into it. Within minutes we are fully enveloped in this story, and every sequence gives further insight into these characters. There is hardly ever a wasted moment because there is significance in each scene. Pointing us to the nature of George Bailey.

Furthermore, it is easy to forget the darkness that this film submerges itself in because it reaches such a jubilant crescendo. However, this is a story that covers the years including The Great Depression and World War II. Its protagonist sinks into a state of wretchedness complete with angry outbursts, negative feelings, and drunkenness. George Bailey loses all hope and his perspective is so completely distorted. For all intent and purposes, his life looks like it’s over, and it takes a frightening alternate reality to shake him out of his disillusionment. Put in this framework, it makes sense why it was a commercial flop when you juxtapose it with the big winner that year The Best Years of Our Lives. They both deal with post-war reality, but with very different lenses.

That’s the benefit of hindsight and a new context since we do not usually see It’s a Wonderful Life as a gloomy post-war tale, but a more positive parable that is universal in its impact. The first part of this story feels a bit like a Job story of hardship, and the second act is reminiscent to Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, but that’s the simplest of observations. There is a lot more to be parsed through.

The romance of George and Mary is what many of us aspire to and it causes us to really empathize with their young love that weathers the good and bad breaks they receive. It’s the fairy tale love story we want, with the rock hard reality we are used to in our own lives. Some favorite moments in their life together would be the splash they make during the Charleston dance off, singing Buffalo Gals together, smooching on the telephone together, sharing a makeshift honeymoon together, and embracing after George gets his new perspective on life.

There are a fair number of close-ups utilized in this film, but they are usually used at crucial points in the narrative, and they tell us a great deal about both George and Mary.

The first key moment comes during a freeze frame of grown up George with hands outstretched giving us our first look at the man we will be following from there on out. The next big moment occurs when George learns that Potter will gain control and the Building and Loan will be disbanded if he leaves. He realizes in an instant that he must give up his plans. Then, he waits excitedly for Harry with Uncle Billy and it is a happy moment, but George learns his younger brother might have another job. The camera follows his worried face as he goes to follow his new sister-in-law. Never thinking of himself, he realizes that Harry has a chance for better things and that leaves George still working the Building and Loan.

After their tiff, the scene where George and Mary are talking on the phone with Sam Wainwright is a solidifying moment in their relationship. There are so many underlying emotions and unspoken feelings that they are having trouble figuring out and reconciling. And yet there is that violent epiphany when their eyes link. The tears and anger are quickly traded for passionate kisses reflecting the often complicated facts of romance.

One of the final close-ups that hits home occurs when the now non-existent George stumbles away from the front door of his mother, who now has no concept of him. There is sweat on his brow (maybe from the 90 degree summer heatwave) and desperate bewilderment in his eyes. This is the lowest point he could have imagined. His own mother does not know who he is. His wife has grown old and lonely in an existence of exile. Stewart’s face is so expressive and earnest suggesting that George knows just how important human companionship is. Humanity was made to be in fellowship with each other. Lack of money means very little in comparison to our friendships and family ties. This is essentially what George finally comprehends and what Clarence reminds him. George understandably lost sight of his wife and his children and his friends. They were a gift not to be taken lightly.

Aside from these close-ups, it is also evident that a great deal of  effort was put into creating this world from the characters and their back stories to the town itself which was constructed on the RKO lot. Everything from the building facades, to stray dogs, and snow make the drama more atmospheric. It’s one of those films that reveals the beauty of using real props inhabited by seemingly real people. That’s why I sometimes am disillusioned by CGI. Although it can allow us to create amazing spectacles, oftentimes it creates a world that feels altogether fake and alien. It’s not relatable and it lacks the humanity that makes up our existence each and every day. In other words, it has very little of what makes It’s a Wonderful Life so compelling to me.

Perhaps there are more impressive or greater films, but there are few with greater heart and there is something to be said for that.

5/5 Stars

Key Largo (1948) – Film-Noir

5b446-key_largo432Starring Humphrey Bogart, Edward G. Robinson, Lauren Bacall,  with director John Huston, the film takes place on a sweltering day during the hurricane season. Bogart is passing through Florida to say hello to the relations of a dead war buddy. In the process he and the others at the hotel are held hostage by the mobster Johnny Rocco (Robinson). Bogart seems to back away from conflict but he is only biding his time with the villainous gangster. Through a series of events the war veteran is supposed to pilot the mobsters to Cuba, however he ultimately turns on them and brings justice. This is a fairly good film with Lionel Barrymore, Claire Trevor, and Jay Silverheels in support. It must be mentioned that this was the final film pairing of Bogey and Bacall. Get ready to sweat it out in Key Largo.

4/5 Stars

In honor of Lauren Bacall

You Can’t Take it With You (1938)

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

4/5 Stars

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

This is not only a Christmas classic but a classic in any sense of the word. It is the best of Stewart and Capra adding up to one of the most heartwarming stories of all time.  This may exhibit Stewart is his everyman role once again, but it breaks away from Mr. Smith in many ways making it another uniquely great film. A film like this that makes you know and feel for characters so profoundly is certainly worth watching.

Starring Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed with a fantastic supporting cast,  the film tells the life story of George Bailey. We watch with the angel Clarence as he sees George’s life unfold. George saves his brother Harry as a boy and as a result, loses hearing in his ear. He works in the Bedford Falls drugstore and keeps the proprietor Mr. Gower from making a deadly mistake. Later on, he plans to travel the world and go to college so he can escape his hometown and do bigger and better things. But once more he sacrifices. One fateful day, he doesn’t know it yet, but he meets the love of his life Mary, and the same day his kindly father has a stroke. Soon after,  Harry goes off to college and George is left holding down the fort at their father’s old building and loan. He builds up all those around him with selfless kindness, while simultaneously standing up to the grumpy millionaire Mr. Potter. Eventually, he marries Mary and has children. First, during the Depression George gives up his honeymoon to keep the building and loan open. Then, during WWII while his brother and others become heroes, George stays in Bedford Falls because of his poor hearing. In this post-war period, the story picks up in the present.

Although, by unfortunate circumstances George Bailey finds himself contemplating suicide after the absent-minded Uncle Billy misplaces $8,000. That’s when Clarence comes into his life to show George just how important he really is. George sees a world where Harry is dead, Mr. Gower is a disgrace, Martini does not own the bar, his mother has no sons, Uncle Billy is insane, Violet is disgraced, Bert and Ernie do not know him, Mary is an old maid, and Mr. Potter has monopolized Bedford Falls.

Once he gets his life back George finds immediate joy and gains so much because of his friends and family. He runs through the streets of Bedford Falls yelling out “Merry Christmas,” because he is simply grateful to live again. Miraculously, the whole town rallies around him, and George reaps the reward for all he has sowed over the years. Clarence is finally awarded his wings and George Bailey is the richest man in town. There is nothing much to do after this film but simply be happy and sing “Auld Lang Syne.” It is a Wonderful film in many ways, with a wonderful cast, and a wonderful message. It has some of the greatest character development of any film ever because you do not simply become attached to one man but an entire community. That’s what makes the scene where Uncle Billy loses the money one of the most difficult for me to watch. Each and every time I’m so attached to these people. Even if I already know the resolution, I cannot bear for anything bad to happen to them. In fact, it is interesting to focus on just one of the supporting characters and see how they are affected by the life of George Bailey. It makes me ask myself if I were to die tomorrow would anyone care? We know in the case of George they certainly would.

I am further reminded of the phrase that is written on the wall of the building and loan, “You can only take with you, that which you give away.” This is what George Bailey did, and I believe it is something that each and every one of us should be mindful of. He is a great character not only because James Stewart played him genuinely and with such magnetism and heart, but because he was such a sacrificial figure. True, this is a sentimental film given the title and the director, but it is paramount to realize the progression this film follows. George must sink into the depths of his despair and disillusionment before he can truly realize that It’s a Wonderful Life. I would challenge you the next time you watch this film, to not simply acknowledge it as perennial Christmas fare, but look a bit deeper because there is so much more here. As always, Attaboy Clarence! You did it again.

5/5 Stars