Barbary Coast (1936)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3.5/5 Stars

The Chase (1966)

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Of all the reasons to watch this movie, I felt compelled to as a roundabout reevaluation of Robert Redford’s career as he just recently said The Old Man and The Gun would be his last film. He more recently still, admitted he never should have said he was retiring but for all intent and purposes, he’s winding down, focusing his energies on other endeavors.

The Chase is situated at the beginning of his career and although he’s not quite the star, Redford has an integral part to play. Bubba is a local boy who breaks out of prison. Due to his dashing good looks, they don’t immediately place him as a runaway criminal type but if Paul Newman could do it, I gather Redford could do it too.

If we had to pick one central conceit this would be it, except, on the whole, The Chase proves a meandering epic, purely hit or miss, especially given such a promising cast. It’s as bloated with talent as it is convoluted by so many character arcs, each coming at us from all over the place with varying degrees of interest and importance.

The local sheriff, named Calder (Marlon Brando), lives an honest life with his loving wife (Angie Dickinson). There is talk around town that the lawman is in the coat pocket of prominent banker Val Rogers (E.G. Marshall). Though the accusations seem dubious based on Calder’s simple integrity. However, if it is true,  he wouldn’t be the only one intent on getting on the big man’s good side.

Soon it’s Saturday night and the whole town seems to be having a party. The most coveted one is thrown by Rogers and sure enough, among his guests are the Calders. Though they hardly fit into the upper echelon, they have an open invitation because Val is intent on staying on the incumbent lawman’s good side for what he might be able to do for him.

Meanwhile, an agitated bank employee (Robert Duvall) and his coquettish wife (Janice Rule) put on a shindig for the “normal folks” who never seem to get an invitation from Rogers. The means might be humbler but they similarly get a little tipsy while play fighting, dancing, and openly flirting with anything with a pulse and a pickup line.

Two of the most accomplished adulterers and partakers in sordid gossip-worthy fodder are Emily and Damon, who are quite openly lovey-dovey, given they are both married to other people. It’s telling that the status quo is getting drunk and carousing with other’s spouses.  We hardly bat an eye because the whole town is rampant with this kind of conduct.

Despite being the lead and raking in a hefty fee, Brando spends most of the film moseying around town making house calls or patrolling the streets. In fact, initially, it feels like the most mundane and understated performance from Mr. Brando I can recall. That is until the final act where for once his hand is forced and he has to struggle for his own survival and any semblance of small-town law and order.

The only other moment where he enters such terrain again is in the final moments on the steps of the sheriff’s office; this time to deliver retribution. Because this is a film where everything seems to go awry. If the hothouse dramas of the 50s were a dying breed, The Chase might be the closest thing to a reanimation of the genre, albeit with younger, newer blood.

However, amidst this southern operatic melodrama, helmed by Arthur Penn, The Chase still comes off somewhat dated, maybe due to its evocation of earlier works. It’s as if the picture is trying to push an agenda of social importance for a new decade but simultaneously lacks a compelling framework to work within. The point is made quite clear that African-Americans and Mexican migrant workers are second-class citizens and subsequently mostly forgotten in this story. But there are few interesting conclusions on this front.

Otherwise, for the first half, there’s nothing organic or terribly alive in terms of authenticity. Because while Brando gives a fine turn, admittedly easy to overlook, most everyone else is carried away by the drama. They have nothing to give us that feels truly genuine and the story freely escalates by upping the temperature in the ongoing search for Bubba.

Finally, Redford and Jane Fonda get together, an escaped convict reunited with his long lost wife. Maybe they didn’t know it at the time but it would be the beginning of a meaningful screen partnership which has been forged over 50 years. But before long, even this brief, potentially intimate moment is interrupted by first one party, then two, and before long the whole town has turned their moment into the latest county-wide social event.

The junkyard is the finest attraction as it promises to give them the most wanted fugitive for miles around and they’ve come to be a part of the show. Soon folks are yelling exuberantly, lobbing firecrackers into the heaps of old automobiles as car horns honk in this symphony of tumult. But if this is where the climax begins it actually ends on the steps of the jailhouse in a scene that evokes if not JFK’s assassination then certainly Jack Ruby’s actions the following day. The clouds of misery linger over the frames but that’s not our biggest regret.

I think, no fault of its own, The Chase boasts almost more talent than it knows what to do with. So many actors come together at so many different crossroads of their careers. Of course, Brando is front and center. He and Robert Duvall still had The Godfather and many other classics ahead of them. Redford and Fonda were both young talents. E.G. Marshall had an illustrious career on stage and screen while Miriam Hopkins was in her twilight years in a small role. Angie Dickinson was pretty much in her prime. Even Arthur Penn had pictures with more socially incisive commentary and interesting themes including the cinema-shattering Bonnie and Clyde released the following year.

The bottom line is that in each individual case it’s easy to think of at least a handful of films each of these actors was involved in which were more enthralling than this one. It’s hard to hold a candle to that type of competition and against it, The Chase looks fairly mediocre. True, it’s a rather unfair fulcrum to measure a movie by but in this case, it’s very hard not to. Taking these unfair biases into account, it has something to offer the viewer even if it’s not quite as satiating as one would like.

3/5 Stars

Review: Trouble in Paradise (1932)

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Ernst Lubitsch made a name for himself and his “touch” in silents as well as leaving an indelible mark on the 1940s with the likes of Shop Around The Corner (1940), To Be or Not to Be (1942), Heaven Can Wait (1943), and Cluny Brown (1946). But for me, no film better personifies his wit and sensibilities than Trouble in Paradise. It proves to be the most impeccable distillation of his directorial style.

The script is courtesy of Samson Raphaelson who would become a longtime collaborator with the director on future projects. Aided by uncredited edits by Lubitsch, the story is imbued with class in the guise of light comedy.

There’s a certain cadence to the cutting and the music. A constant winking that seems to be going on. And it’s simultaneously the height of refined elegance while being undercut with constant nudges and proddings of comic verve. What is noticeable is the economical sophistication of the filmmaking and a seasoned eye for how to tell a story by the best means possible. It’s not always what you would expect.

Consider the film in its early moments as a case and point. It could have started so many ways and yet Lubitsch chose something different. A trash heap, a shadowy fugitive, then a man knocked out on his floor and an almost incomprehensibly daring shot that moves us to another building entirely where we meet our protagonist. It’s all so very enigmatic and almost wordless aside from the bellowing of the gondolier. The man on the balcony rightfully asserts to the waiter attentively standing in the wings, “Beginnings are never easy.” So right he is.

Nevertheless, the film continues to put on a lovely charade concealing its finest secret until the perfect instant to milk the quarries of its humorous intentions for all they are worth. We are introduced to a tryst featuring two great romantics caught up in the rapturous trills of amour.

They sit down to a divine dinner that plays as an intimate tete-a-tete. But soon the curtain drops and they don’t skip a beat as she ousts him as the famed burglar Gaston Monescu and he comes back perfectly charming to accuse her of being a pickpocket herself. She tickled him when she nicked his spoils but her embrace was so sweet. He couldn’t help being touched.

In even these early interludes it becomes obvious that the talent couldn’t be better with Herbert Marshall and Miriam Hopkins falling into their roles seamlessly with a certain amount of relish. Playing a romantic pair of thieves is a fine proposition after all. The world is their oyster and they’re in love. What could be better?

Meanwhile, Edward Everett Horton has an exchange with the police that I can’t but help compare with I Love Lucy’s famous language transfer. So much is lost amid the words and Horton always was an oblivious sort, God bless him.

However, the character who will prove to be the third in our triangle of cultured passion is Colet (Kay Francis) a glamorous heiress in control of a cosmetic empire. Francis embodies the ravishing role flawlessly even despite her well-documented speech impediment. It’s nearly imperceptible if you’re not looking for it.

Far from detracting from her performance it simply increases our sympathy for her. She may be rich — even out of touch with the world at large — but she’s hardly arrogant. She’s easily taken in and a bit cavalier with her money while two men are vying for her affection.

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Edward Everett Horton and Charles Ruggles are both exemplary. I realized perhaps it was something moving deep within me telling me those voices were meant to go together. How right I was. Years later Rocky & Bullwinkle serials would have been a great deal less without them. Just as they make this picture that much better. Horton’s pitch-perfect quizzical look (tonsils, positively tonsils) is wonderfully matched by Ruggles own befuddled mannerisms. Still, I digress.

Of course, we see it already. It is Colet’s vast array of jewels that are of particular interest to a third man: Gaston. Except he’s a clever fellow. Instead of just stealing them at the theater he snatches them so he can give them back to her and in turn gain her confidence with his delicate preening of her ego and artful debonair flattery. He’s skilled and she’s a fairly easy mark.

Soon, he’s hired on as her secretary and it has little to do with his current resume, based on probably one of the films most remembered exchanges that pretty much sums up the tone:

“Madame Colet, if I were your father, which fortunately I am not, and you made any attempt to handle your own business affairs, I would give you a good spanking – in a business way, of course.”

“What would you do if you were my secretary?”

“The same thing.”

“You’re hired.”

His wife AKA his Secretary is getting antsy and a little jealous providing one of the film’s other perfectly inflected quips (If you’re a gentleman, I’ll kill you!). Still, her hubby reassures her all of Colet’s sex appeal is in her safe, 1,000s of francs worth of it. But he’s not as impervious as he would like to believe.

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Lubitsch has the finesse to film an entire extended sequence of only a clock with the dialogue playing over it. The romantic interplay is understood without visual cues. We nod in acknowledgment. They’re also almost more romantic when they don’t kiss than when they do, floating inches from each other’s faces, eyes closed in a reverie.  Gliding on air. We begin to suspect whether this is still a put on or if it is, in fact, becoming real. Gaston is good but his wife is getting anxious and she has every right to be.

The family bookkeeper (C. Aubrey Smith) is skeptical of his qualifications and his identity. But the kicker is that Gaston is finally remembered by Monsieur Filiba and only time will tell when his cover is blown.

It’s time to get out of there and yet something keeps him back. He feels compelled to fess up to Colet and yet there’s no calling of the authorities or any of that. She’s far too wealthy to care. It’s what could have been that she will miss and he knows it too. In the end, he still goes out the door and she lets him. No consequences. No real drama.

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There’s no need because that’s not what the film hinges on. It’s the love story and not just the love but how it plays out in this theater of refinement which Lubitsch has incubated to perfection. Undubitably there is trouble in paradise, even wistfulness sometimes, but that doesn’t mean things cannot be resolved.

Husband and wife go out much as they came in — not able to keep their hands off each other — or out of each other’s pockets. Try and put a name to it if you must. It’s the “grift of love.” How sweet it is.

4.5/5 Stars

The Smiling Lieutenant (1931)

thesmiling1One would never think that one well-placed wink would change the course of an entire life or be the basis for an entire film, but on both accounts it is true. Ernst Lubitsch’s The Smiling Lieutenant represents all that is good and right about one of his films. It’s light and airy with a dash of charm and a tune in its heart. It’s light on its feet with humor and somehow maintains its self-respect, much like the man at the center of this one (Maurice Chevalier).

In fact, this pre-code musical comedy is a lot more unassuming than it has any right to be. Lieutenant Nikki von Preyn (Chevalier) falls for the talented violinist named Franzi (Claudette Colbert) and cannot contain his excitement whenever he’s around her. Except one ill-timed smile followed by a suggestive wink lands him in some hot water with the recently arrived royalty who are making a sightseeing trip around the country.

Princess Anna (Miriam Hopkins) is appalled by such a public act of indecency, but she also happens to be quite culturally naive. In other words, she hasn’t been outside the palace grounds much. In other words, she’s never known many dashing gentlemen before. Wink. Wink. You get the picture.

Nikki is beside himself but vies to take the most obvious option out. Professing his love for the princess — that’s why he winked. But she outdoes him threatening her father that she would wed an American (GASP!) if she is not engaged to Nikki. So daddy is all but obliged to follow through with the whole thing.

Of course, now we have a love triangle of unrequited love, with the Lieutenant’s smile turned upside down and his beautiful beau grief-stricken. She does the only thing she can, confront her competition and have it out with her. What follows is a slap-filled sob fest and our two heroines become real chummy real quick.

thesmiling2But Lubitsch’s final twist is completely out of left field and a completely comic inversion of what’s supposed to happen — capping off his oeuvre of song, suavity, and sensuality in high fashion.

Chevalier is the quintessential French crooner and his touch of comedy is perfectly measured by both Colbert and Hopkins. Colbert is a typical glamour girl of the 1930s, while Hopkins is also pretty, but with more outlandish tendencies. She also gives a brilliant turn on the piano!

In truth, I have long tried to put a finger on just what the Lubitsch Touch is, but it seems that everyone who has ever said anything about it comes up with a different answer. It began as a PR stunt to sell his brand in Hollywood and from thenceforth it took on a life of its own. As a filmmaker and auteur, there is certainly no one quite like him in substance or style.

If I had to try and draw up my own definition of his Touch it would be something like this: His films convey sensuality in such a way that was palatable to the American audience, while simultaneously making romance something humorous. His sensibilities are such that he can be suggestive and still refined. The true irony here is that he’s in a sense winking at his audience by the end. The joke’s really on us.

4/5 Stars

The Mating Season (1951)

b3d8e-the-mating-seasonThelma Ritter was always a scene-stealer, upstaging the stars, but perhaps it is no more evident than in this comedy starring Gene Tierney, John Lund, and Miriam Hopkins. She runs a hamburger stand in New Jersey, talks plain, and works hard. Her son Val McNulty is a college graduate and a kind, gentlemanly figure who also loves his mom for who she is.

In one of the fastest meet-cutes/courtships I have ever seen on film, Val marries the lovely socialite Maggie, a woman above him in status who falls for him, because he is nothing like the stuffy upper crust she is used to dealing with.
In a classic screwball type development of mistaken identity, Ellen McNulty arrives to live with her son after her stand was closed down. But when calling on the house she is mistaken for a cook, and she willingly plays along with the mistake in order not to embarrass her son. Imagine his surprise when he sees her and yet he does not explain who she is. She tells him to play along with the little deception and Val reluctantly goes along with it.
When Maggie’s own stuffy mother (Miriam Hopkins) comes into town, she disapproves of her daughter marrying below her and nothing will make her like Val. Just think what would happen if she knew who Ellen really was?
One evening the unlikely couple goes to a party held by the Kalinger Family who run Val’s firm. There Maggie is insulted and runs out of the party in a huff. The lady she has a spat with is a prestigious person, and Val forces her to apologize. Needless to say, the marital sparks fly. However, things heat up even more when Maggie finds out by accident who Ellen really is. Now Val has a lot of explaining to do and his wife feels lied to. She is furious that he would think her too proud to welcome in his humble mother. Maggie gets ready to leave for Mexico, a destination for attaining an easier divorce.
Interestingly enough, it is an unlikely outsider in Mr. Kalinger Sr. (Larry Keating) who gets the couple back together through a shameless ploy. However, they are not the only unlikely love story, he has a budding romance of his own.
Mitchell Leisen seems to be a little-known director, but after seeing this film I was quite impressed. This movie works because of the conflict in class and the complications and laughs that come out of it. It is this type of conflict that hearkens back to the scatterbrained screwball comedies of the 1930s. Perhaps it is a little hard to believe that Lund was Ritter’s son, but they had enough chemistry to make it seem plausible. It was also hilarious to see Gene Tierney struggling in the kitchen, and Miriam Hopkins was a decent inclusion playing Maggie’s opinionated and overblown mother. Call me plebian if you want, but I know which mom I would take…
4/5 Stars

The Heiress (1949)

fa57e-heiress_wylerStarring Olivia de Havilland and Montgomery Clift with director William Wyler, the film takes place in New York in the 1840s. Catherine is a shy and awkward young woman who lives with her domineering father who is a prominent widowed doctor. At a party a young man introduces himself and begins seeing Catherine frequently. Quickly their plans turn to marriage but her father will not approve. Since her lover is not rich, he sees him as a fortune hunter. Catherine decides to elope with her love, but he never returns leaving her feeling rejected and forlorn. soon the doctor gets ill and dies, but the relationship does not end will since Catherine blames her father. And in the process she has grown cold. Clift’s character finally returns and after some reluctance Catherine seems to agree to get married. he leaves to gather some belongings only to return to a bolted door. Catherine gives him some rejection of his own after what she endured. This films becomes interesting because you do not know who was truly in the right. First Clift seems to be the heel and then de Havilland evolves so much the audience turns on her.

4/5 Stars