Zoo in Budapest (1933)

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Once more we have the Hollywood rendition of Budapest that would turn up again in other pictures like Ernst Lubitsch’s Shop Around the Corner (1940). English is spoken perfectly and individuals generally act as we would expect them to in our neck of the woods. It’s simply their story and setting which have any bearings on the real Hungary. But after all, that’s what we’re generally most interested in anyway.

Because Zoo in Budapest is everything its title promises though I admittedly know woefully little about the director Rowland V. Lee. Despite the lean narrative, a refreshing amount of time is actually spent in developing the vast menagerie of animals within the zoo. And there are many of all colors, shapes, and sizes. Elephants, monkeys, lions, tigers, ostriches, giraffes, everything that one might expect. The people are a diverse bunch as well.

For one man, in particular, the zookeeper Zani (Gene Raymond), he couldn’t be happier with his daily regiment. The film is his whimsical tale of paradise. In fact, we could just about call it Eden.  He’s a friend of every four-legged creature and he plays with them all like they’re his family. Furthermore, he slyly steals furs from snooty ladies who see animals only for their pelts.

He even coaxes a timid young orphan (Loretta Young) to make a break for it as she’s already planned an escape with the help of her girlfriends. The reason being, she is about to be hired off as an indentured servant on her 18th birthday.

But it looks like she’s lost her nerve. In one crucial instant, one girl jumps from the bridge to draw attention. Thus, the diversion has been created and Eve instinctively makes a dash for it. She’s on her way to spend an eventful evening in the zoo.

She’s not the only one. A little boy sneaks away from his governess because he wants to ride the elephants and Zani himself becomes a fugitive after purloining one fur too many. They are a trio fleeing from the powers that be, the zoo authorities, the den mother, and a governess.

After she’s gotten over her initial apprehension, Loretta Young’s eyes glow dazzlingly in the moonlight and she’s the perfect helpmate for Zani as they carve out a bit of an oasis for themselves, away from the prying eyes searching for them. In one sense, the parallels to the Garden of Eden are well-founded.

There’s also a startling amount of imagery spent on simply documenting the life around them. Swans gliding on a pond. The play-wrestling of a friendly monkey. But of course, the tranquility cannot be sustained forever. The world at large breaks in disrupting the perfect cadence and the order of beings inside the Zoo’s walls.

I can’t help but think that if the picture were remade today with our technological advancements and subsequent narrative laziness, all that provides a real threat and a true sense of danger in the film’s finale would be lost. Because as humans we know the difference inherently between CGI creations and living breathing handiworks of flesh and blood. It’s the real lions, tigers, and bears that can tear you to shreds. The computer-generated ones just provide the illusion. So Zoo in Budapest might have a bit of a scrappy, melodramatic ending but there’s something to it.

It’s almost like a reality check. We get a taste of what the Garden of Eden might have been like but of course, paradise was lost. We can still have love and romance but there must be violence and turmoil thrown in our midst as well. The lion laying down with the lamb isn’t quite actuality. The question is whether or not you believe that one day it will be so.

3.5/5 Stars

Heroes For Sale (1933)

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We are inserted, presumably, into a war picture courtesy of William A. Wellman, situated in WWI trenches. The downpour is compounded by the constant hail of bullets as a group of men conduct a near suicide mission. One of the soldiers, Tom Holmes (Richard Barthelmess) proves his heroics on the battlefield while his friend Roger dissolves in fear. But the battle leaves Tom, now a prisoner, with debilitating pain from some splinters of shrapnel lodged near his spine. He’s given morphine to keep it manageable.

He comes back from the war addicted. He gets the shakes at his bank job where he works under his war buddy Roger and the other man’s father. Tom is constantly in need of his fix and it just keeps on getting worse and worse.

Early on, the picture begs the question, how are heroes made? We turn them into near mythological beings and even if it’s well-vested that doesn’t mean that they consider what they did to be anything extraordinary. Imagine if it’s not deserved. Tom and Roger understand exactly what this is like. In the wake of a scandal and his ousting from the bank, Tom gets interned at a drug clinic only to come out a year later a new man ready for a fresh start.

It struck me that in a matter of minutes the film drastically shifts in tone, suggesting at first the dark shadows overtaking a picture like All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) only to come out unscathed and don the coat and tails of an industrial comedy-drama. I must say that while the former feels more akin to Wellman’s usual strengths, I do rather prefer the latter, though the picture doesn’t dare end there.

Wellman introduces us to our latest locale with a dash of humor delivered through an array of pithy signs adorning the walls of an old diner. But it’s the people under its roof that make it what it is. Pa Dennis (Charley Grapewin) is the most genial man you ever did meet and he would give you the shirt off his back if you needed it. His daughter Mary (Aline MacMahon) is little different though she chides her father for his loose finances.

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Still, her jovial hospitality charms Tom into striking up a conversation and considering renting a room from them. Meeting the disarmingly attractive Ms. Ruth Loring (Loretta Young) from across the hall all but seals the deal. Cue the music as Young enters stage right and let’s disregard it and just say she more than deserves the fanfare.

You would think the inventor with overt “Red” tendencies, adamant criticisms of capitalism, and a chattering habit like a squirrel would be a turnoff for prospective boarders. Not so.  Soon Tom joins the ranks of the local laundry where Ruth also works forging a happy life for themselves.

The mobility of Heroes for Sale is another thing that struck me. It results from a different era but this is also very much a Depression picture in the sense that we are seeing what a man can still do even if times are tough as long as he has a strong head on his shoulders. Machinery is implemented not to steal work away from eager employees but to cut down on long working hours and increase output. All in all, it sounds like a thoughtful and humane objective.

But a heart attack leaves the company in different hands that are looking to work only in dollars and cents, not in humanity. Thus, it looks like Tom’s idealistic enterprising has been turned on its head, now completely sabotaged. All the folks who put their trust in him are bitter with the prospect of losing their jobs. Put out of business with their own funds.  This same unrest runs through the pages of Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath (1940) too as modernity begins to put out all outmoded methods standing in the way of so-called efficiency.

What we have here is a populist picture daring to show the plight of the people. Richard Barthelmess is an affecting lead because he seems almost unextraordinary. His voice is steady and calm. He’s not unkind. But there’s an honesty to him that asserts itself. The fact that he gets a bum steer and takes it without so much as a complaint speaks volumes so he doesn’t have to.

Heroes for Sale feels like a micro-epic if we can coin the term. It’s ambitions somehow manage to be grandiose as it sweeps over cultural moments like WWI and The Depression which underline further social issues including heroism, drug abuse, communism, and worker’s rights. All done up in a measly 71 minutes. Look no further than the standoff between an angry mob and the riot squad for squalid drama. This is no minor spectacle. Nothing can quite express the anguish watching Young frantically run through the violent frenzy in search of her husband.

There is no excuse if this is the standard we put longer films up against. Not a moment seems wasted. Yes, it goes in different directions. Yes, it feels like a couple different films and yet what connects it all is this abiding sense of Americana. Themes that resonate with folks who know this country and its rich history made up of victories and dark blots as well. Most brazenly it still manages to come out of the muck and the mire with a sliver of optimism left over. Heroes For Sale is no small feat.

4/5 Stars

Employee’s Entrance (1933)

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Not only is Employees Entrance a film made for the Great Depression, but it’s also a project that would have no life if it were not for the lax enforcement of the Production Codes at the time. The same could be said of its protagonist — if he can dare call him that.

Warren William embodies the mercilessly driven businessman named Kurt Anderson like few men before, or even after him, could. He’s a brutal taskmaster who has no sense of integrity. A John D. Rockefeller except less religious. So he has even less of a moral framework. His main purpose is to crush other people because he’s running a business, not a charity ward.

He throws out the weak and surrounds himself with like-minded people. It’s how he’s managed to keep Monroe Company Department Stores a flourishing enterprise even after “The Crash.” Not everyone can say that.

An ambitious, young man named Martin West (Wallace Ford) impresses the autocrat with his idea of upping sales of men’s drawers by selling them to women. Meanwhile, Anderson finds time to sink a clothing supplier who can’t deliver on a shipment and fires a senile department head who nevertheless has stayed with the company well-nigh thirty years.

Thus, we get this sense that he wields a two-edged sword. Anderson is surprisingly generous and accommodating to those who fit into his scheme of things. For instance, increasing a certain models salary if she distracts his colleague next door. Yet he will just as quickly dump someone who is not pulling their weight. That’s how survival of the fittest works. We know this already.

What suggests this more than anything, however, is his treatment of women. Loretta Young sporting those luminous doe eyes of her is gorgeous as Madeleine, a woman who is nevertheless down on her luck and looking for work at Monroe’s. She meets Mr. Anderson quite by chance, after hours, as she has made the stores home decor section her temporary domicile. He’s immediately taken with her. Is there a tenderness unveiled perhaps?

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Ultimately, he rewards her with a job and she’s quite the success on the floor. Even catching the eye of Martin. He professes his undying affection wordlessly through adverts. And they do the one thing that if he knew about it, Mr. Anderson wouldn’t approve of. They fall in love. In his estimation love is for saps, marriage gets in the way, and he wants his people to be enamored with their work as much as he is.

Young proves adorable even when she’s tipsy, bopping and popping balloons. But as often happens, people make decisions that they will come to regret while inebriated at parties. This film is little different.

The tone and trajectory break with the entire order that the Production Code soon set in place such that we never would see the likes of this again in Hollywood, at least not for a very long time.

It’s this seemingly admissibly trenchant material that makes navigating Employees Entrance onerous, similar to problems I have with more modern works. It comes down to not only issues of tone; because this is a humorous film undercut by some severely dark realities, even suicide and rape, but it also has to do with the integrity of our lead.

For all intent and purposes, our anti-hero hardly has an ounce of likability. The best that can be said for him is he’s enormously successful and good at his job in a tyrannical, ruthless sort of way. Otherwise, he has no heart, no soul, and he’s a misogynistic lout to boot. The fact that any of those characteristics got put into a man who is not cast as a villain truly is a marvel. It’s definitely worth taking note of.

But this is also a somewhat saucy Pre-Code number and the certain playful impertinence is personified best by Alice White who burst onto the stage during the flapper craze of the 1920s. In one particularly rewarding moment, she tells a stuffy old crone that the basement is on the 12th floor as nice as you please. It’s classic lip.

However, there’s this instant realization that Warren William was made for films such as this. The implications hit like a ton of bricks. He all but disappeared from movies since Joseph Breen literally excised his entire character type out of Hollywood’s new imposed master narrative.

Others might be able to do a far more convincing job of making the case but like his contemporary Kay Francis, it’s time for the likes of Williams to be resurrected from near obscurity. Certainly, not everyone will like him, particularly in this film, but there’s no question that he has something. It allows him to play those scathing characters with an unparalleled precision.

But I’ll be honest, I’m genuinely beginning to think that Loretta Young deserves a spot as a Pre-Code icon as well. In 1933 alone she was featured in nine films! The only problem is her efforts from the 1940s are more well-known. The Stranger (1946) and The Bishop’s Wife (1947) seem to overshadow most anything else. Yet another reason to uncover Employee’s Entrance.

3.5/5 Stars

Taxi! (1932)

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Taxi! is indubitably parked in the pantheon of misquotes and few people probably realize it. Yes, this is the film where Warner Bros. tough guy James Cagney purportedly sneered, “You dirty rat, you killed my brother!” I remember hearing the line in everything from The Monkees to M*A*S*H and it no doubt showed up in just about every show from here to eternity. Right up there with Cary Grant’s apocryphal line “Judy, Judy, Judy.”

But none of that speaks to this film or what it’s actually about. Well, the title says it: Taxicab drivers. So let’s talk about the talent instead and when I say talent that mostly means two people, James Cagney and Loretta Young. They’re the main draw.

In the opening gag, we see James Cagney using his Yiddish to placate a customer who can’t seem to get any help from a policeman. But he’s also back to running off his mouth and throwing his fists because after all, this is the same man that electrified the world with his portrayal of a gangster in William Wellman’s Public Enemy (1931) of the previous year.

The crucial event in this film is a rash of strong-armed maneuvers pulled by a taxi conglomerate in New York City looking to shoulder their way into the industry through scare tactics and willful sabotage of their competitors.

One of their victims is a veteran cabbie (Guy Kibbee) who isn’t about to take this lying down and he guns down one of the perpetrators of injustice. Justice is swift and he is given a prison sentence in lieu of death. But it might as well have been. His life is all but over.

In the wake of this outrage, Cagney begins a call-to-arms for his fellow colleagues to fight back and fight fire with fire as it were. The incarcerated man’s daughter (Young) stands tall as well and calls for action by peaceful means. She receives the disdain of Nolan for behavior that he sees as selling out her own father. Of course, he doesn’t know the whole story.

For some inexplicable reason, maybe it’s his animal magnetism, Sue falls for the cad of a cabbie. What follows are dates at the picture show which provides some free publicity including a weepy starring Donald Cook and a poster for The Mad Genius (1931) starring John Barrymore.

Sue’s fellow waitress at the local grub hub, the oddball chatterbox Ruby (Leila Bennett) even makes a passing comment to her beau about Frederic Marc though Joe E. Brown is still here personal favorite. It makes sense.

Next, comes a Peabody contest at the nightclub, featuring an appearance by George Raft, where the fiery Cagney tries to wail on his real-life friend. If it’s not that then it’s a fat man in an elevator or most obvious of all Buck Gerrard the big oaf who had a part in the shady tactics that landed Sue’s father in jail.

Matt’s not a happy camper for most of the film and yet he still manages to keep his gal. After a lover’s quarrel, a silky smooth Cagney takes his love in his arms and they dance while he slips a ring on her finger. He’s also a self-confident son-of-a-gun.

But as electric as Cagney is, one of the best to ever light up the screen — there’s no doubt about that — I’m not sure if I can forgive him slapping around someone as loving and as innocent as Loretta Young. Especially today, it just doesn’t come off very well. She deserves someone better.

3/5 Stars

Platinum Blonde (1931)

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“It’s like a giraffe marrying a monkey!” ~ Conroy

The nucleus of Capra regulars are all present and accounted for including a script adaptation by Jo Swerling and dialogue by Robert Riskin. The cast, on the other hand, is an interesting array of talents that simultaneously proves a major asset.

Foremost among them and most notable in this picture right off is Jean Harlow. It’s certainly true Platinum Blonde was one of those that helped build the mythology around her that still seems to linger following her death in 1936. Thanks in part to its title alone. And yet it’s a role that feels contrary to the Harlow archetype. Further still, it’s nearly a misnomer because this is somebody else’s picture entirely and it’s very likely you’ve never heard his name uttered before.

Anyways, his name is Robert Williams and he plays our main protagonist Stew Smith, a newspaperman who works the beat with not only shrewdness but an understated affability and integrity.

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Idle moments at his typewriter are spent penning a play set in Siberia and then Araby and finally Old Madrid. He’s planning to figure out the plot later. Either that or he’s killing time playing his handheld puzzle with his co-conspirator Gallagher (Loretta Young) instead of doing work like any gainful employee. He’s the thorn in the side of his editor Conroy but the man can’t fire him. He’s too good at his job.

In this respect, it’s a picture that shares the same world and figures immortalized in comedies such as The Front Page (1931), Libeled Lady (1936), and His Girl Friday (1940). In fact, it seems like the newspaperman had a certain appeal during the 30s and 40s at least in cinematic terms.

Smith’s the man who digs up a story on the well-off Schulyer clan who are currently embroiled in a breach of promise suit that involves the family playboy Michael and a chorus gal. Though a reporter from The Tribune is easily bought, Stew’s not and comes out with a major scoop. He’s got his editor’s thanks and the family’s ire. Still, they are more surprised that he’s an actual honest-to-goodness newshound and not an opportunist.

Soon enough Ann Schuyler (Harlow) has fallen for him. So this is also a class picture and there’s the expected chafing when a man of working stock falls in love with a woman with means. They can go batty for each other but that doesn’t make acclimating to a new life any easier. And someone has to give. In this particular instance, it’s Smith and he goes absolutely stir crazy.

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He and Harlow are beyond cute together having a playful marital tiff over garters. For him, he would lose all respectability in the newsroom and his own individuality if he went back to donning this archaic emblem of the old elite. For her, it would help make him into a gentleman.

But far from just glowing with Harlow, Williams can’t seem to put a step wrong. Whether it came purely out of the script or not, he translates the actions with a sincerity that feels utterly disarming. When he has the mansion all to himself, he starts hopping about and testing out the acoustics with his vocal chords. Then there’s an extended sequence with a discourse between Smith and his valet Smythe about the art of “puttering.” Don’t try and figure it out.

And he keeps the lamp burning with Gallagher too. Loretta Young at 18 years old and radiant as ever is not exactly a “one of the boys” prototype and she can’t pull it off like a Rosalind Russell or Barbara Stanwyck might. But that doesn’t downplay her usual effervescent and winsome charm, bouncing off Williams nicely. There’s no doubt about it; they’re pals. You know a girl’s one in a million when she’ll help you get out of a jam with your play. She advises him to write about something he actually knows about like his own life story with Ann.

Of course, the aforementioned play proves imperative to the final act of the film because we see the very events occurring in real time being used as perfect fodder for the fiction. The man finally stands up to his wife. He finally moves out and plans to get a divorce without “alimony” attached. He’s too proud for such an arrangement. Always has been.

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But most importantly the play’s ending gets written right in front of us too. He goes back to the girl he’s always loved without ever realizing it. He tells her what a fool he’s been. End scene. Call me a sentimental sop but I couldn’t have envisioned a better ending for the picture if I’d written it myself.

The great tragedy of this particular film is not that Harlow was gone in 5 years time but that Williams would pass away only 3 days after the picture was released. And that’s why the film history books don’t have as large a page on this man as they very well might have. There’s no question he’s a charming dope with a touch of understated comedy and certain charisma.

It’s a testament that in a movie boasting Frank Capra, Jean Harlow, and Loretta Young, Robert Williams is the undisputed standout, holding together all its various relationships with aplomb. He elevates the picture. It’s a shame that we lost him on the precipice of what could have been such a rewarding film career. I admit it’s a bit selfish. I would have loved to see him in more

4/5 Stars

Man’s Castle (1933)

220px-Mans-castle-1933.jpg“Blessed are the poor in spirit for their’s is the kingdom of heaven”

With Frank Borzage taking on both WWI and WWII in his career it only makes sense that he would take on the event that in many ways bridged them — The Great Depression.

It’s fairly early on in the story where the local resident Ira (Walter Connolly), a minister by day and a night watchman by night cites the Sermon on the Mount and later references 1 Corinthians 1:27. The moral being: Blessed are the poor in spirit and God chooses the lowly things of this world and the despised things to nullify the things that are strong.

If nothing else a character such as Ira is one of the lovable figures in this fairly dank and dreary tale but his words breathe an inherent worth into the masses of everyday individuals slogging their way through the Depression.  In many ways, this film is a eulogy to those very people, the downtrodden, the poor, the heavy-laden folks.

But sometimes those same folks seem to come in all shapes and size making it nearly impossible to get a line on them. We first meet Bill (Spencer Tracy) a veteran fast-talking Artful Dodger-type who works the streets of New York in his top hat and tails. In this very first sequence, he’s in the middle of a seemingly frivolous activity offering breadcrumbs to the pigeons. He catches the young gal (Loretta Young) next to him giving him the eye and calls her out. Although she might not look it, she’s destitute, going without food on two days now so he begrudgingly agrees to treat her to some fine dining. Of course, when the time to pay the check comes so comes the big reveal. Bill is just about as broke as Trina and they get thrown out (at least with full bellies).

For the rest of the film they hold up together in a shantytown in the local Hooverville where the existence is sparse but Trina exists as a happy homemaker whose indefatigable spirit never seems to dampen. Bill spends his days drifting finding bits and pieces of work here and there and in the evenings he comes home to his gal. Any other circumstances and their lives would seem fairly normal.

He playing the breadwinner. She playing his devoted spouse. Except he gets the bread by serving a summons to a local stage performer and stilt walking in his free moments, among other things. But he scrapes together enough to get Trina a new stove. The fact that they remain unmarried is invariably inconsequential and Trina’s not looking to tie down her man — she’s far too understanding and open-minded for such thoughts.

And although partially unbelievable its integral in how Tracy’s protagonist reveals his true character. Yes, he is a man with restless feet constantly playing the curmudgeon — disdaining the “ball and chain.” However, there’s an old adage that would be apt in describing him. His bark is worse than his bite.

There’s no conceivable way that two individuals such as this should remain together and even in the film there are moments when their symbiotic relationship seems to be splitting at the seams.

Tracy is brusque and surprisingly stink-eyed but as is his custom he comes around and has the audience on his side for the very fact that Loretta Young is so devoted to him. On her part, the sprightly and ever-effervescent Young at the ripe young age of 20 might be skinny but she holds her own and is crucial to making this love story something of substance.

Borzage once more dissects a romance that’s, in this case, one of the most unlikely pairings but Bill ceaselessly subverts our expectations. He’s not such a bad cad after all and Trina makes him be better than he has any right to be.

In this specific instance, the two lovers get their happy ending clutching each other closely in a pile of hay aboard a freight train. The destination nor the future seems to matter because the underlining factor is they have each other. You’ll be hard-pressed to find many affluent people in this picture and this is an important distinction to make. This is not a screwball comedy. On the contrary, center stage is given to members of society who are usually marginalized and it comes off exceedingly well thanks to Tracy and Young.

3.5/5 Stars

Note: It’s most likely that the cut you will see is the 1938 reissued version following the installation of the Hays Codes. I’m not actually sure if an original print is still available or if it’s considered lost.

The Farmer’s Daughter (1947)

The_Farmer's_Daughter_(1947_film).jpgWhatever our criticisms of the previous generations, there’s still something within me that sees something uniquely compelling about films of old. Hollywood in the 30s and 40s could sugar coat, they could oversell the drama, but there was also a general decency that pervaded many of those films.

The cynical edge of dirty politics and corruption was given credence but more often than not, all that was good would win out in the end. Is it realism? Certainly not. Is is dated? Probably so. But there’s something overwhelmingly pleasant about a film like The Farmer’s Daughter for the very reasons mentioned above.

Our heroine is intelligent, plucky, and sincere. She’s from good Scandinavian stock which not only explains her vitality but informs a bit of her work ethic and her constant handle on what is right and true. That’s something we could always use more of today. A bit more of those core values sprinkled into our upbringings. It’s not informed by pride, or entitlement, selfishness or greed. It cares about what is good for all people and looks to be honest in all circumstances. To her credit, Loretta Young embodies all those qualities with a profound earnestness.

Katrin (Young) makes her way into the spotlight after acquiring a position as a maid for a local political dynasty after losing her hard-won funds for nursing school to a local swindler.  Still, in the home of Agatha Morley (Ethel Barrymore) and her son the promising young senator Glenn Morley (Joseph Cotten), Katrin soon makes a strong first impression.

She proves to be a gifted woman not only in doing housework but also in ice skating, with Swedish massages, making glogg, and much more. She’s also politically astute and though she lacks education her practical upbringing allows her to see every individual in practical terms. She bases none of her opinions on hearsay, ad campaigns, or newspaper spreads. Her thoughts come from what she’s heard first hand and what officials have done in the past. She’s also an impeccable judge of character.

The most obvious tension running through the film is the fact that Glenn is slowly growing attached to Katrin for the very reasons mentioned previously. Although he already has a bit of a fling with a local reporter who is smitten with him. But the real problems come into being when a seat opens up in the house and the incumbent’s choose to back an unscrupulous career politician.

Katrin sees right through him and openly grills him at a town hall meeting. Now the opposition is calling on this young woman to be their candidate and she agrees to run against her employers. She’s crossing political lines because she constantly exercises her freedom to do as she sees fit. That is her prerogative after all. Glenn in one sense is incensed by her decision but he’s also madly in love with her and he has to make a choice.

A raucous screwball finale turns out to be surprisingly gratifying given the sentimentality and political drama that provide most of the film’s makeup. The comedy is also bolstered by the generally open-minded and wryly amused Ethel Barrymore who looks at all the unfoldings in front of her with a bit of a glint in her eye. Meanwhile, Charles Bickford’s gruff charm as the valet Mr. Clancy serves as the perfect foil for Katrin’s affability. Because he’s really a good man as well.

The Farmer’s Daughter might turn some modern viewers off for a purported simplistic view–a film of overt goodness where the woman ends up with the man who in turn allows her to succeed. But what is wrong with a good Joseph Cotten and an effervescent Loretta Young? A dose now and then can hardly be considered harmful.

What struck me was a timeless statement that Mrs. Morley teases out of the crooked Mr. Finley. He’s opposed to things that don’t meet his definition of “100% Americanism” and it’s a very narrow view. Namely whites, no foreign-born, and the right kind of religion. Ironically, 70 years later we are still guarding against such poisoned intentions. Because if anything, Katrin represents in a small way a great deal of what makes America great. Let us not forget that.

3.5/5 Stars

 

The Bishop’s Wife (1947)

Cary_and_the_Bishop's_Wife_posterAlthough its theology probably isn’t sound, rather like It’s a Wonderful Life, The Bishop’s Wife nevertheless utilizes its central plotting device wonderfully.

Imagine if on a whim an angel came to your rescue, and then imagine that the angel is named Dudley and looks and acts like none other than Cary Grant. In this case, the person in need is a distraught Bishop named Henry Brougham (David Niven). He is right in the middle of a major undertaking to build a new cathedral, and his primary benefactor Mrs. Hamilton (Gladys Cooper) is being a thorn in his side. The building project has consumed all his time and efforts, causing him to neglect his radiant wife Julia (Loretta Young), their little daughter Debbie, and the people from their old parish.

Director Henry Koster crafts a whimsical and rather sentimental film much in the same mold as Harvey (1950) which came three years later. This time Dudley is the character who exists outside of worldly convention. He is constantly kind, always patient, never hurries, and is always helpful to everyone in need be it blind man or bishop. In truth, everyone adores him, because after all, he is an angel. Everyone, that is, except Henry who needs him most. Henry unwittingly asked for help and now he has an angel in his midst, but Dudley will not allow that to be revealed to anyone else. It’s an unnecessary detail, and besides, he has much more pressing matters like attending to Julia and assisting Henry with his work. To her, he is purely a radically pleasant and good-hearted individual. With such positives, there hardly needs to be any explanation, only wonderment.

He takes Julia through the old town she used to live in happily with Henry. They meet old friends like the blustering Professor Wutheridge (Monty Wooley), who Dudley also happens to give inspiration to. He makes little Debbie a ringer in a snowball fight, and he and Julia are joined by a chipper taxi driver (James Gleason) in an ice skating adventure. Even a check in on the humble cathedral at St. Vincent’s leads to an angelic rehearsal by the local boy’s choir. Meanwhile, Henry is absent, attending to other matters.

Of course, he is as bitter and distressed as ever by his plight — his attention still skewed in the wrong directions. Even when Dudley goes to grumpy old Mrs. Hamilton and totally redeems her perspective in order to feed the hungry, Henry hardly seems pleased. His artifice, his tower is now even farther from being completed.

The final scenes of Bishop’s Wife are key because it’s in these moments where we see the change in Henry. Cary Grant might seem obviously miscast for this role, and in truth, it was originally supposed to go to Niven who was to play opposite the equally angelic Teresa Wright. But Grant’s debonair side is important for this final act because it makes sense when he makes a pass at Julia. It fits his screen persona as the suave bachelor, angel or not. You can debate whether he was actually in love with the beautiful mortal, or if he was just doing it to get a rise out of Henry. Whichever way you see it, for the first time Henry is driven to fight for his wife out of love and because of the human emotion that still pulses through his veins. Finally, he drops the peripheral and looks at what is central, his family and friends. Dudley, or Cary Grant, takes one final approving look and walks off in the snow. His work here is done. Peace on Earth and Goodwill towards men.

4/5 Stars

“We forget nobody, adult or child. All the stockings are filled, all that is, except one. And we have even forgotten to hang it up. The stocking for the child born in a manger. It’s his birthday we’re celebrating. Don’t let us ever forget that. Let us ask ourselves what He would wish for most. And then, let each put in his share, loving kindness, warm hearts, and a stretched out hand of tolerance. All the shining gifts that make peace on earth.”

~ Final Message given by Henry (David Niven)

The Stranger (1946)

f6c39-the_stranger_filmIn a whirlwind, the film goes from a moody foreign locale to a quaint American town called Harper, but it never ceases to be a gripping film noir. Considered Orson Welles‘ weakest project thus far, The Stranger is still thoroughly enjoyable thanks to the performances of Edward G. Robinson, Loretta Young and Welles himself. Much like Shadow of a Doubt, this film shows that noir thrillers can still take place in middle America, and they can be pulse-pounders all the same. Also, an evil man can easily exist in a mundane environment and still be evil.

The reason we end up in Harper of all towns has to do with an “escaped” Nazi war criminal. He was allowed to escape and investigator Mr. Wilson (Robinson) follows him. It’s an idyllic little town and one of its most respected members is professor Charles Rankin (Welles), who is soon to be wed to pretty Mary Longstreet (Young). Little does she know that he is former Nazi war criminal Franz Kindler, and he is the man the escaped Konrad Meinike is looking for. Mr. Wilson is very interested in his whereabouts too.

Meinike soon disappears but not before deterring Wilson. However, not one to shy away from his duty, Wilson soon ingratiates himself with the local people, especially the newly married Mary and her kindly family. He is eager to learn more about the professor and at first, the gentleman seems above reproach, but something lurks underneath his calm exterior. Soon the beloved family dog Red is killed, an increasingly manic Rankin confesses his predicament to his wife and conveniently leaves out a few facts. Now constantly paranoid, Mary’s life is in far more peril than she realizes, and Wilson takes all the precautions he can. The clanging of the newly refurbished clock becomes a point of major contention, and it also serves as the perfect locale for a final climatic showdown (Put aside the absurdity and just watch it).

The whole town turns out for the show and finally after getting conked on the head and nearly killed during the case, Mr. Wilson finally has time to relax. Welles is not quite as memorable as Harry Lime here but still a sophisticated villain of sorts.  Likewise, Barton Keyes is a bit more memorable but Edward G. Robinson still brings his personality, iconic voice, and memorable mug to the table. Loretta Young has a radiant face and eyes like always. In other words, they do what they do. It works in making The Stranger a worthwhile thriller with the expected melodramatic music and shadowy facades of a film-noir. This is undoubtedly an oversimplification, but  then again, Orson Welles needs no introduction, and he certainly does not need me to vouch for creative genius.

4/5 Stars

The Bishop’s Wife (1947)

Starring Cary Grant, Loretta Young, and David Niven, I would certainly consider this film a Christmas classic. It opens and we are introduced to the kindly and handsome angel Dudley (Grant). When a Bishop prays for guidance in the difficult task of building a Cathedral, Dudley is sent to him. The once genial man has become frustrated and troubled, making life more difficult for his loving wife. When Dudley arrives, Henry finds out in disbelief that he is an angel. However, to everyone else Dudley is simply a charming man who has come to assist Henry. Everyone gravitates towards his kindness, except Henry. Dudley befriends an old professor, is kindly to the servants, helps their little daughter, and above all makes the Bishop’s wife happy by spending time with her. Over time he becomes attracted to her but she doe snot feel the same way. A jealous Henry stands up to the angel and realizes he must strengthen his marriage. Before he leaves Dudley explains he will not be remembered and he will not reutrn. Then on Christmas Eve the Bishop delivers a sermon as a new man. Dudley look on contentedly, knowing that he wrote the sermon. Most importantly he fixed the Bishop’s attitude and marriage so he could continue doing good with or without a cathedral. Grant’s charming portrayal reminds me somewhat of Clarence Oddbody and it makes sense because Henry Koster directed James Stewart in Harvey as well.

4/5 Stars