Classic Movie Beginner’s Guide: Joan Fontaine

Although she probably wouldn’t like it one bit, with the recent passing of Olivia de Havilland, it seems necessary to acknowledge her sister and fellow actress Joan Fontaine.

Their sibling rivalry became the stuff of legend when they were vying for the same Oscars throughout the 1940s. What Fontaine portrayed on camera was this kind of alluring timidity, and her early work with Alfred Hitchcock remains one of the lasting creative partnerships of her career.

Her life off screen is more difficult to reconcile with her image, but regardless, here are  a handful of her films worthy of searching out:

Rewind: Rebecca (1940) | The Medium

Rebecca (1940)

Joan Fontaine was a part of a couple epic ensembles with The Women & Gunga Din, but it was the early American classic from Hitchcock the following year that cemented her stature. Opposite the gail force of Laurence and Olivier and Judith Anderson’s ghostly Mrs. Danvers, she gets positively blown over. But part of the brilliance is how Fontaine plays the breathless young bride so effectively haunted by her husband’s past.

Suspicion. 1941. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock | MoMA

Suspicion (1941)

Hitchcock exploits Fontaine’s persona beautifully in this home thriller where her docile wife suspects her dashing husband — played by none other than Cary Grant — is out to murder her! It’s a tense set-up fraught with romance and peril. Both performers carry their assignments with impeccable aplomb although the ending might ruffle some feathers.

Jane Eyre spotlights Orson Welles' perfect romantic antihero

Jane Eyre (1943)

Joan Fontaine once again establishes a role pulled out a literary adaptation, and the parallels to Rebecca are quite strong. Orson Welles give the kind of brooding giant performance easily overpowering Fontaine. But it’s in her very reticence onscreen where she attains power and builds a sympathy with her audience, despite all the trials thrust upon her in Charlotte Bronte’s novel — adapted by none other than Aldous Huxley.

Letter From an Unknown Woman (1948)

Within the spiraling pirouettes of Max Ophuls and the tragic loves story of Stefan Zweig Joan Fontaine and Louis Jourdan take up their posts amicably. Fontaine’s performance runs the gamut of youth to adulthood as she falls in love with a famed pianist from afar and finds herself entwined in one of the most piercing love stories of the era. It’s a heartbreaker.

Worth Watching

You Gotta Stay Happy, The Bigamist, Othello, Island in the Sun, Beyond Reasonable Doubt

 

Classic Movie Beginner’s Guide: Olivia de Havilland

With the recent passing of Olivia de Havilland — one of the last living ties to some of the Golden Age of Hollywood’s hallowed classics — it seemed fitting  to acknowledge her talents in our latest classic movie beginner’s guide.

Her most visible role was that of Melanie in Gone With The Wind (1939) a film that has been the subject of a lot of important conversations of late about representation and censorship.

However, Ms. de Havilland’s career had many other facets. Two that will most likely be remembered are her sibling rivalry with fellow actress Joan Fontaine, and then her famed court case against Warner Bros., which was a landmark decision for actor’s rights. Here are a handful of her most memorable films you should search out showcasing her civility and grace.

The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)

The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)

Olivia de Havilland’s most illustrious on-screen partnerships was with Errol Flynn as she and the dashing Tasmanian actor starred in 8 films together. Captain Blood was their first foray together and began an auspicious screen romance bursting with chemistry (and conflict). The pinnacle was The Adventures of Robin Hood followed by other beloved classics like Dodge City and They Died With Their Boots On.

Charles Boyer and Olivia de Havilland - HOLD BACK THE DAWN ...

Hold Back The Dawn (1941)

On the prowl for more challenging and gratifying work other than a pretty damsel, Mitchell Leisen’s film scripted by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett was a fine step forward for de Havilland. Her sympathetic schoolteacher opposite Charles Boyer took hold of a story of an immigrant’s purgatory and imbued it with swelling sentiment, heartbreak, and warmth.

To Each His Own (1946): Olivia de Havilland Does Melodrama Well ...

To Each His Own (1946)

At first, it doesn’t seem like a prestigious part, but Olivia de Havilland proved her talents spectacularly in this quintessential melodrama. She plays a middle-aged woman, who made the ultimate sacrifice for her son, charting her own course from youth in a small-town, war-time romance, and private tragedy. It’s ending is perfectly orchestrated for emotional impact.

The Snake Pit' Review: 1948 Movie | Hollywood Reporter

The Snake Pit (1948)

The Heiress is, rightfully so, a hallmark of de Havilland’s career, exhibiting her immense dramatic talents, but equally emblematic is The Snake Pit. It becomes a harrowing portrait of a woman battling the voices in her head as she navigates a life in a psych ward. Far from being solely melodramatic, she grounds the performance making it as sympathetic as it is terrifying.

Worth Watching

The Charge of The Light Brigade, It’s Love I’m After, Strawberry Blonde, Dark Mirror, In This Our Life, Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte

8 Underrated Screwball Comedies

theodora goes wild

Screwball comedies, like film noir, have a fairly devoted following and although they were very much of their time, they still have descendants and influences on the movies coming out today.

Many of the heavy hitters from the 30s and 40s are household names, but I thought it would be fun to highlight a few titles that fewer people might think about in conversations surrounding screwball comedies. Let me know what you think!

Theodora Goes Wild (1936)

Irene Dunne is a great person to start this list off with because I always enjoy her films and yet she oftentimes feels woefully forgotten. In this zany vehicle, she is the eponymous title character who, while living a life of propriety in a small town, actually moonlights as quite the titillating author. Her life gets flipped upside down when one of the city slickers (Mervyn Douglas) finds out her secret.

Easy Living (1937)

It’s true a whole movie can be born out of a fur coat dropping from the sky, and it builds into a wonderfully raucous narrative thanks to the wonky scripting of Preston Sturges. Jean Arthur and Edward Arnold make a fine pair and send the town into a tizzy when rumors start circulating about the extent of their relationship. Ray Milland also proves why he was a much sought after rom-com lead.

It’s Love I’m After (1937)

It’s a dream cast with Leslie Howard, Bette Davis, and Olivia de Havilland in a dream scenario: a love triangle dressed up with Shakespearean theatricality. What better bedfellow for screwball comedy as Howard puts on a performance to rebuff a starstruck fan girl and earn back his jealous co-star. Eric Blore is stupendous as per usual.

True Confession (1937)

It’s courtroom drama meets screwball romance with Carole Lombard giving one of her most frenzied performances as a serial fibber who pleads guilty to an egregious crime so she can drum up some publicity for her husband (Fred MacMurray), a struggling lawyer in need of a big case. Una Merkel and John Barrymore show up to supply some added character.

Merrily We Live (1938)

Here is a movie that’s good-naturedly built out of the mode of My Man Godfrey. It’s about a family of idle rich: Constance Bennett, Billie Burke, Clarence Kolb, and Bonita Granville, of all people! They’re a constant whirlwind of ditzy entertainment around the breakfast table, and they quite unwittingly pull a passerby (Brian Aherne) into their comic vortex. Chaos ensues.

Vivacious Lady (1938)

Ginger Rogers and Jimmy Stewart have a glowing chemistry. However, their recent marriage has a wrench thrown into it when they head home to meet the parents. The word never got to them, and Charles Coburn, in one of his most obstinate performances, will never approve. Ginger uses all her tricks to woo her husband’s family over and fight off any rivals with her unparalleled catfighting skills. It’s as delightful as it sounds.

The Rage of Paris (1938)

Spunky Danielle Darrieux and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. spar across social lines with your typical screwball romance riddled with conflict transplanted to Paris and the French countryside. What Henry Koster brings is his usual heart-warming tone, and with support from the likes of Helen Broderick and Misca Auer, the material receives a dose of extra comedic oomph.

The Devil and Miss Jones (1941)

Here is the original uncover boss with the always cantankerous Charles Coburn slinking around his own department store. Not only does he come to understand his employees’ dissatisfaction with their work, through the eyes of Jean Arthur and Robert Cummings, he also learns what real friendship is. The movie is blessed with that wonderful one-two combo of uproarious antics and genuine heart.

Let me know what screwball comedies you would include!

It’s Love I’m After (1937): In Honor of Olivia De Havilland

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There is a very significant reason to be watching It’s Love I’m After at this time. Her name is Olivia de Havilland, and by some brilliant piece of Providence, she has just recently turned 104 years old! She, of course, was in her early 20s when this movie came out and what a charmer it is.

A few years before To Be or Not To Be, here is another movie hamming up Shakespeare on the stage. This time it’s Leslie Howard and Bette Davis as they act out their version of Romeo and Juliet for a rapt audience. What makes the sequence is the dueling couple whispering snide asides to one another mid-performance. Barbs about garlic breath and upstaging come out because they’re both conceited and jealously in love.

But where is Olivia in all of this? She’s up in the balcony swooning over the sublime eye candy down on the stage. She’s seen all of his performances and is positively devoted to his very essence. Her boyfriend (Patric Knowles) looks on with frustration as he’s having to compete with a rival who has never even met his girl before.

This is soon remedied when she promptly goes backstage to pay her respects. It’s all quite innocent. Basil and Joyce continue their incessant bickering from their adjoining dressing rooms, still at each other’s throats, despite the wall between them.

Then, Marcia West presents herself positively agog by the image of her idol thoroughly in the flesh before her. He’s flattered but he hardly knows what he’s doing when he accepts her compliments. Worse still, Joyce sees the young woman on her way out. Harmless or not, it adds further fuel to their relational fires.

What a delight it is to see such beloved thespians and titans of dramaturgy like Howard and Davis doing comedy, of all things, and doing it quite well in the screwball vein. After all, this would be their third picture together following Of Human Bondage and Petrified Forest. There’s no comparison.

The movie is totally overtaken by bipolar swings in fortune. First lovers’ quarrels — it’s the worst New Year’s Eve ever — then there are marriage proposals, and finally, Basil resolves to help a young fellow out.

They do have some handy support. There were few better in this department than Eric Blore, and he has a readily available supply of birdcalls and advice on his master’s matrimonial habits on the “precipice,” as it were.

Being your typically theatrical, philandering type, Basil resolves to shirk his impulses and pursue his own moral salvation. In this case, his good deed is for a lovesick fellow whose best girl is smitten with the stagebound Romeo. The actor doesn’t know it’s the same girl. How can he? No one in these movies ever stops to compare notes.

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Still, he resolves to turn up on her doorstep and rudely ruffle her illusion of him. He and his man Digges (Blore) pay a late-night housecall to the West residence. Their shouts of “ire” soon become “fire” and brief pandemonium sets in as an impromptu round of “We’re here because we’re here” comes out sounding a lot like “Auld Lang Syne.”

He schmoozes his way into the house, making himself at home in the company of the avuncular father, befuddled mother, and a gossiping sister (Bonita Granville) always peeping through keyholes. But in Marcia’s eyes, he can still do no wrong. Now he’s got quite the prompting audience, and he’s all but ready to do his part.

His bit of showmanship has him playing up his image as an egotistical malcontent tearing through the guests and their breakfast table with ferocity (and some help from the Bard). Digges does his best to complain about the lack of kippers and other inadequacies. None of it congeals as they were hoping, in fact, it has an adverse effect. Marcia agrees with his every word.

As someone fed on a steady diet of P.G. Wodehouse and Jeeves and Wooster, there’s something familiar and comforting about the picture’s comic situation. Basil is no Bertie Wooster. Digges is no Jeeves, but they are stuck in the same madcap realm of romantic entanglement mixed with comedic hijinks.

Whatever Basil tries is quite unsuccessful in quelling the ardor or the affection of Ms. West. The best-laid plans all too quickly go awry and poor Digges can do little to stop the inevitable. Joyce makes her reappearance at precisely the most inopportune time. She catches her man in the arm of another. The jealous boyfriend feels affronted as he watches his girl be ripped away from him, albeit unwittingly.

The story couldn’t look bleaker and further from its agreed-upon happy ending and yet, eventually, it comes, like any good rom-com. Don’t ask me how it happens. Maybe it’s the youthful fickleness of De Havilland’s ingenue. Perhaps cinematic serendipity gets in the way. Regardless, the partners shuffle around only to get back together with their ordained.

Leslie Howard and Bette Davis are, again, madly in love, then yelling and screaming and pushing each other across the room. Digges is busy packing the suitcases only for the contents to come tumbling out as future husband and wife make up and share a passionate embrace. What light through yonder window breaks? It is the East and Juliet is the sun! End scene.

3.5/5 Stars

 

To Each His Own (1946): Olivia de Havilland Does Melodrama Well

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Ginger Rogers purportedly passed over the script for To Each His Own because, at first glance, it’s hardly a glamorous role; but for the right person, it could be something unquestionably special. That actor was Olivia de Havilland.

Certainly, the production is bolstered by Mitchell Leisen, a mostly forgotten director who made a string of highly memorable comedies and romantic pictures during the 30s and 40s. It’s no different here. And then you have Charles Brackett, formerly half of the lucrative writing partnership with Billy Wilder before alighting on his own as a producer. None of that can be discounted nor a handily-played dual debut by John Lund. But we must return to Olivia de Havilland.

In the opening interludes, she comes off as acerbic and curt, a forlorn type of person. No relationships or community or people to worry about or to worry about her. She’s joined by another middle-aged man named Desham (Roland Culver) and they make quite the pairing, taking on the night watch duty over the holidays so others might celebrate.

He coolly makes the observation that people like themselves are alone for one of two reasons — not caring enough for other people or caring far too much. Though Ms. Norris divulges little, we instantly gather she fits into the latter category. This is what starts us on the journey through her past, which led her to a man named Bart Cosgrove (John Lund).

But before their fateful meeting, the flashback sets up the world of Pierson Falls, familiar to anyone who has glimpsed It’s a Wonderful Life with its parochial atmosphere and local drugstore. Match that with the jingoism out of Hail the Conquering Hero and you have a slice of life in this little town during WWI.

John Lund is sour and far harsher than I recall in say The Mating Season and it serves him quite well. He and his co-pilot (the always reliable Frank Faylen) are the two jaded flyers who get the hardiest of welcomes from the townsfolk. However, this is their umpteenth stop on an endless bond tour. They’ve become overly familiar with people like Bernadock Clinton (Arthur Loft) the asinine town cryer making a continual bother of himself ushering the flyers around like prized sideshow attractions. And it would be more of the same if not for the meeting of the flyer with the town’s most eligible gal.

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The heightened emotion of wartime uncertainty swirls around them and they share a rapturous, if whirlwind, romance that Captain Cosgrove was never expecting. All too soon, he’s off again leaving his newfound love behind and to use euphemistic vernacular, they’ve created a ticking time bomb.

Here To Each His Own enters its scandalous phase where Jody must confess to her father that she’s had a child out of wedlock. The old man (Griff Barnett), with the steady voice, sounds uncannily like Will Geer and spouts unassuming wisdom, “We don’t judge each other. We love each other.” But small towns are not usually as forgiving and so lest people talk, Jody decides to leave her child on a doorstep. Hoping to pick her child up later and “adopt him.”

Instead, a couple who’ve been tragically hit with a miscarriage are thankful for this second chance at cultivating life and they take the child. Of course, the couple is one of Jody’s old beaus and another peer. They got married because Jody rejected him. The dramatic situation is clear enough.

When the mechanizations of the plot become clear, it also becomes clear just how awful the circumstances are — just horrible. They’re apt to tear your guts out. After the passing of her father, Jody, who needs a job, proposes coming on as a nursemaid, but there is no compassion there. She gets pushed out of the scenario thanks to a jealous wife and a husband who still holds a boyhood crush.

She has no choice to move on and, being a go-getter, she takes charge of a bootlegging business and turns its front, Lady Windemere’s, into a legitimate international operation proving highly successful. Whenever she has a free moment, Jody does her best to manufacture chance encounters just so she can glimpse a few minutes with her son who is growing in knowledge and stature. But she knows deep down, with each passing year, little Gregory is less and less her son.

Melodramas or so-called “women’s pictures” can be hit or miss depending on how thick they lay it on and how much the music swells at the exact moments of deepest impact. But in full consideration, To Each His Own might be one of the finest such pictures to come out of the 1940s, and it’s no small coincidence that it shares that distinction with the thematically similar Stella Dallas.

When it’s all said in done, it’s about heartwrenching relationships between mothers and their children and when the mothers are portrayed by such stalwart titans as Barabra Stanwyck and, in this case, Olivia de Havilland; the drama enters territory that can easily pierce the heart to the core.

To Each His Own is also somehow akin to Random Harvest with dramatic irony being integral to the plot — one character knowing something that deeply affects how they live their life — except the person they care about knows nothing about it. This is by no means a criticism either but simply an acknowledgment that these stories can tug at the heartstrings with great fervor.

Again, it comes down to the players as much as the scenario. They must be people that we are capable of feeling great pathos for. Certainly Stanwyck, Greer Garson, and Ronald Colman and even Olivia de Havilland. Maybe she’s known for being difficult or a perfectionist or what have you, but that has nothing or maybe everything to do with her as an actress.

She makes us care about her as she moves from every stage of her life. And I say life because it feels less and less like a performance and more like real life. She, like Stanwyck before her, is able to carry the weight of youthful exuberance and maternal toil equally well.

Far from being unglamorous for winding up being mother to a grown son, I think a film like To Each His Own makes you appreciate the beauty of de Havilland even more. Because there’s a realness and a depth there that you would have never gotten in a career of roles opposite Errol Flynn. You just wouldn’t.

That’s part of what makes it special. And like the other previously mentioned titles, it goes out with a few tears but also espousing dreams. We can question the final moment — the rationality; the catering to the audience — or we can just enjoy it like a wedding feast with the ones we love.

4/5 Stars

Dodge City (1939): An Errol Flynn Western

Dodge_City_1939_Poster.jpgThe year is 1866. The Civil War is over and anyone with vision is moving west. One such outpost is Kansas where the railway is replacing the stagecoach. It’s a world of iron men and iron horses. Because a place like the notorious Dodge City is a “town that knew no ethics but cash and killing.”

It’s not a decent place for children and womenfolk for the time being. But some affluent magnates with vision see the profits it affords. That’s their business. It will take others to smooth out the rawness and make it into a land worth cultivating and settling down in.

Though lawlessness runs rampant in the streets led by town bad boy Jeff Surret (Bruce Cabot), a wagon train led by a caravan of seasoned cowhands looks to be yet another signifier of change. Because one of the men riding with the rest is self-assured Wade Hatton (Errol Flynn) supported by his pals. You can bet even with an accent Mr. Flynn makes an able-bodied western hero but he’s not alone.

Alan Hale was forever Flynn’s right-hand man from Robin Hood to The Sea Hawk (even playing his father in Gentleman Jim). They also get the boisterous and yet generally good-natured Tex (Guinn Big Boy Williams) to round out their trio. Hatton has his eyes on a pretty passenger who is easy on the eyes. Unfortunately, her younger brother is a drunken hellraising nuisance. He instigates a stampede that turns deadly and from thenceforward Wade and Ms. Abbie Irving (Olivia de Havilland) have a contentious relationship at best.

Seeing Dodge growing so much leaves everyone all agog. Never has a western outpost been crammed with such activity. It feels authentic in one sense. You understand how disease and waste could begin to run rampant in such a bustling atmosphere and crowded conditions. Hatton gets his first taste of Surret when one of his business associates named Orth is shot. But the story is not all drama.

In an ongoing scenario, the boisterous Algernon Hart (Hale) forgoes the tempting calls of the local Gay Lady Saloon for the Pure Prairie League, residing right next door, attended by all the town’s most proper womenfolk.

What follows just might be one of the finest brawls ever, spilling over into the lady’s social, overwhelming the scene with all sorts of gory sights and gut-busting crashes, bams, and bangs. It feels wild, alive, and somehow thoroughly enjoyable. Maybe because we get to sit on the outside looking in at the merry madness accompanied by whoops and raucous accordion music.

What’s more, it forces a response. A drunken Hart is singled out by Surret and his thugs who get ready to string him up in the plaza right then and there. While Hatton quells the injustice without a standoff, there’s a sense that things will only continue to escalate. No sheriff will stick out their neck in such a country. No man seems strong enough.

Finally, a child (Bob Watson) is lost; it’s the final straw and Hatton vows to clean up the streets and bring civility, law and order to the territory. Rounding up the rowdy troublemakers and ending the citywide shootouts forcibly. He clamps down like no one has ever done and it begins to make things peaceable again.

It’s the old story of civilization moving in on the wheels of law and order, which slowly begin to push out the graft and corruption. Someone must have the guts to lead the crusade with ideals and guns, if necessary. But it takes a community behind him to make it stick.

In this case, he is backed by the paper and its audacious editor Joe Clemons (Frank McHugh) an ardent purveyor of free speech. Change happens incrementally. Scare tactics come and go. De Havilland joins the paper too in order to represent the interests of the local ladies and then becomes an integral member of Hatton’s crusade for good. He takes Surret’s right-hand man Yancy (Victor Jory) into his custody knowing full well that fierce retribution is coming.

Because it’s common knowledge that when two immovable objects come barreling toward each other, there’s bound to be drama. In Dodge City it comes to pass in a flaming railcar finale, one moment dire and in another thrilling, with faceoffs, ambushes, gunfights, prisoners, hostages, and some stellar sharpshooting. But a man like Wade is not meant to remain stagnant. Husband and wife ride off toward their next adventure on the range.

It truly is double trouble with Ann Sheridan and Olivia de Havilland. But Sheridan’s role had the potential to be far more compelling than it is, unfortunately. Aside from a few musical numbers and screaming for a brawl to stop, she doesn’t get much screentime before disappearing for good.

De Havilland is the obvious ingenue love interest and though she abhorred the unimaginative parts she was being handed, she nevertheless has ample talents to imprint herself on the picture. She and Flynn go through the expected beats of mutual distaste toward ultimate affection, and we delight in their chemistry even if it’s easily plotted from start to finish.

However, to survey Dodge City is to look at various pieces that feel almost incongruous. Here is Erroll Flynn playing a cowboy. The palette is Technicolor but the action is focused on towns and interiors opposed to magnificent plains. It’s not Ford. It’s not Wayne or Fonda, and yet it manages to be a fine actioner to add to the western canon due to compelling characterizations, deep-seated conflict, and of course, enough gunplay and romance to make it a true horse opera.

4/5 Stars

Captain Blood (1935) Starring Flynn and De Havilland

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To a certain stratum of society — namely classic movie fans — it’s nearly impossible to imagine Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland not being paired together or not being box office draws, for that matter. However, on both accounts, in 1935, the studio was taking quite the risk, still undoubtedly reeling from the heart of the Depression Years and shelling a hefty sum of money for a vehicle essentially starring two unknowns.

Sometimes you catch lightning in a bottle, and it remains for all posterity. Scoring, again and again, is quite another matter entirely. The pair would be placed together in an astounding 8 films in total!

This initial entry opens in England in 1685 and a band of patriotic rebels has taken it upon themselves to depose the current tyrant James II. Though he chooses to forego involving himself in the fighting, physician Peter Blood nevertheless goes with them in spirit and is ready and willing to operate on a fugitive who is mortally wounded. However, in the process of attending to the man, the king’s guards burst in upon him and all involved are arrested.

Their future is decided in a trial of pomp, circumstance, and unyielding justice. There are few figures in the legions of contenders as charismatic as Errol Flynn, beginning with his attempt to exonerate himself and extol his own noble profession. Even that fails to keep him from the executioner though the king fancies himself a humanitarian and decides to send the lot of traitors on slave ships to the West Indies instead.

There is a blatant irony in the depictions of white slavery while the deep wounds of black slavery were still being felt in our country through the oppression of Jim Crow Laws and racial injustice. This continues on the island plantation prison where the lads find themselves.

There they are sold on the auction blocks like chattel though much to his shame, Blood finds himself indebted to a pretty matron Arabella Bishop (Olivia De Havilland) who bought him for 10 pounds. Their relationship begins on the rockiest of soil and life thereafter is hard. Though eventually, Dr. Blood gains favor when he cures the hissy hypochondriac governor of his gout, earning himself greater freedom.

And with that the good doctor bides his time, planning an escape to coincide with a timely interruption on the outpost by Spanish Pirates. In the drunken escapades that follow, Blood gathers his men together, switching places with the invaders and a new band of pirates is born. They are a hardy lot including Blood’s faithful pilot and friend Jeremy Pitt (Ross Alexander), the sturdy gunner Hagthorpe (Guy Kibbee), and one Bible-spouting mate who has a bit of scripture for every occasion (And then the whale came and the whale swallowed Jonah. I hope!).

Their acclaim grows to such an extent that they fall into the company of a band of French Buccaneers led by a salty lady’s man named Levasseur (Basil Rathbone). He and Blood draw up a loose pact which quickly falls apart as they quarrel and end up dueling for the company of their esteemed “guest” Ms. Bishop. Laguna Beach, California ends up filling in for the Caribbean as they have it out in stirring fashion. Flynn and Rathbone were the best of foes when it came to crossing swords, even when they were purportedly allies.

In the final act, the outlaws are redeemed (like Robin Hood anyone?) taking up the banner of the new king William of Orange to fight a valorous battle for the glory of Merry Ol’ England. Thus, in spite of the tumultuous path he traversed, Captain Blood and his boys reach the pinnacle. He’s a hero and, of course, he gets the girl. There’s nothing her indignant uncle can do about it now as he’s been replaced by a far more benevolent governor.

I would be remiss if I didn’t ruefully admit how much I yearn for the epic swashbucklers of old. Captain Blood was the beginning of great successes to come and the type of Hollywood entertainment that is sorely missed today.

Although I hardly can remember their lips even touching, nevertheless, Flynn and de Havilland are fire together, all but cementing a screen partnership that would continue for many more. Even in the final scene together what becomes apparent is this genuinely contagious brand of fun. If anything they make it seem like a blast for the audience.

There’s a splendidly pulsating finale at sea where it’s convenient enough to cast inconsistencies overboard and instead be overwhelmed by the sheer mayhem of 2500 extras called on to do battle and make a show of it. They take to it handily clashing their cudgels, swinging from the yardarms, and falling into the drink, casualties of pistol fire.

Captain Blood is blessed with laughter as much as action and romance. The tenets of quality adventure filmmaking mean the picture enthralls us as much today as in its day because it knows what it means to have a good time. The seriousness can be shed for the sake of light-hearted, invigorating, no holds barred entertainment.

Because in the assured hands of Michael Curtiz, with a dashing new screen idol in Errol Flynn, Captain Blood never loses sight of what makes movies communal and thoroughly gratifying. Movies of old had a habit of being all things to all people, and it’s true this one has it all, I’m delighted to say.

The final testament is a smile imprinted on the face of the viewer as big as Flynn’s jaunty grin. Oh, what we wouldn’t give to be on the deck of that ship brandishing our cutlass and romancing a pretty young maiden just like he does. Maybe that’s my boyhood imagination speaking, but he really is the ideal action hero.

4.5/5 Stars

The Strawberry Blonde (1941)

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The opening shots of The Strawberry Blonde are not unlike Easter gatherings at my family’s house. Croquet in the backyard…well, that’s about it. But that’s precisely the distinction that’s being made as Raoul Walsh develops a dichotomy between two societies on either side of a brick wall.

On one side the Yale college boys play guitar as their gals all gussied up sing “Meet Me in St. Louis” after a rousing game of croquet. They are eye-catching and the frivolously well-off members of the elite. We think of them and their gayly prim and proper ways when we conjure up archetypal mental pictures of the so-called “Naughty Nineties.”

On the other end, two working men play a good old-fashioned game of horseshoes. They’re a different type of folk. A Greek barber (George Tobias hidden behind an accent and a mustache) and our pugnacious protagonist Biff Grimes. It’s not a typical Cagney picture but it’s still a typical hard-nosed Cagney and that’s the joy of it.

To use his vernacular, he’s a real hairpin. The kind of guy who never takes nothin’ from nobody but has made a habit of getting stepped on his entire life. Whether it’s the girls he’s missed out on or the fights he’s lost or any number of other footfalls. A 5-year stint in prison springs to mind.

Still, he can’t believe he missed out on the flirtatious, bodacious strawberry blonde Virginia Bush (Rita Hayworth), what seems like so many years ago now. But as was his habit, Biff’s friendly rival Hugo Barnstead (Jack Carson) ended up the lucky man.

Following their fateful first encounter, Biff gets continually saddled with Amy Lind (Olivia De Havilland) which obviously would be far from a disappointment with any sensible man. That doesn’t stop Biff from being sore. He needs a house call to get it through his thick skull that he really has a life to be grateful for.

This is the Epstein Brothers’ glorious revamping of a failed Gary Cooper vehicle from 1933, in this case, made to tailor fit James Cagney. The actor returned to his old studio, Warner Bros., looking for a change of pace to get him as far away from gangster fare as possible. Likewise, director Raoul Walsh was looking for a change after the riveting but tragic drama High Sierra (1941).

Given the results, it’s little surprise that the director considered it one of his personal favorites among the many pictures he helmed over the years. The quality cast starts with Cagney but we really have four superb talents at its core rounded out by Olivia De Havilland, a vivacious Rita Hayworth, and that old happy-go-lucky jokester Jack Carson. Alan Hale fills in as Cagney’s derelict father who’s always finding himself getting thrown out of the local saloon by the ear.

By now I all but take James Wong Howe’s photography for granted but as per usual, The Strawberry Blonde looks two-tone drop dead gorgeous as it lights a world with nostalgic hues of turn-of-the-century New York. Whether moonlight, streetlights, or candlelight, it is a film that is totally evocative of a bygone era.

Where men removed their coats to partake in fisticuffs. The same men humored their best girls with Sunday walks in the afternoon while local bands paraded through the park their brassy tunes wafting through the air. The barbershop subculture was in full bloom, quartets and all. Likewise, modernity was coming into its own with nitrous oxide, horseless carriages, electric lights, women’s suffrage, and the art of spaghetti imported from Italy.

In some paradoxical way while being nostalgic it still finds a way to feel surprisingly progressive particularly through the character of Olivia De Havilland with all her so-called improprieties. A nurse who winks, smokes, and whose mother was a bloomer girl and her aunt was an actress. At least on the surface. Maybe she’s not quite like that.

Meanwhile, Biff is always trying to save face his entire life and as a married man, he’s trying to save face with his concerned wife. He lives with discontentedness instead of satisfaction but just as the times keep on changing, Biff does too, realizing how lucky he is.

What makes the film itself a charming change of pace is the fact that it’s not concerned so much with one singular defining moment of drama but an entire life and it elicits a connection with a time and place even as we feel a sense of pity for Biff. It’s not a bleak film, more of a wistful one, and with wistfulness, a lighter more nostalgic tone can still be evoked.

Even to the end when Cagney takes on the masses it’s great sporting fun and he gets in his licks like any of his gangster pictures but he does it with a loving wife and a life to be wholly satiated by.

4/5 Stars

“Don’t be a hypocrite Virginia. Spiritually you winked.” ~ Olivia De Havilland as Amy Lind

The Snake Pit (1948)

Snakepit1948_62862nThere is a lineage of psychological dramas most notably including the likes of Shock Corridor and One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest. But one of their primary predecessors was The Snake Pit which is a haunting, inscrutable and thought-provoking film in its own right.

But rather than trying to sum it up with words, it’s necessary to look deeper at what makes this such a potent film and it begins most obviously with Olivia De Havilland. She undoubtedly gives the best performance of her career — in so many ways drifting so effortlessly across the emotional spectrum. She’s either sane or “crazy” with fits of paranoia and inner turmoil, voices sounding off in her head and the like. But the most beautiful things are the moments when all the drama derives from the look on her face, a furrowed brow or a panic-stricken reaction we cannot fully understand.

That’s why it takes us the entire film to comprehend what is actually happening and it’s wonderful that we enter her story while she is in a sanitarium. Why and how she got there we don’t know right away, so as an audience there’s a similar sense of disorientation. Several reliable points of reference exist early on. Those being the genial Dr. Kik (Leo Genn)and Virginia’s concerned husband Robert (Mark Stevens) who visits her during every possible hour.

The film does intermittently feel disjointed but that hardly seems due to faulty storytelling and more a convention of Virginia’s narrative. It all comes to us in incoherent bits. In reality, months have passed but her memory is poor, causing her to lose track of the days. She drifts in and out of different wards and soon forgets the people and places that have been there all along. Furthermore, her progress waxes and wanes, with special visits from her husband and the faint chance of being released. Then in her darkest moments come electroshock therapy and even a straight jacket confining her in the depths of the sanitarium.

Anatole Litvak would hardly be considered an auteur but he still finds a way to heighten the tension with whip pans and nightmarish imagery when necessary. A pounding score adds yet another layer of anxiety reverberating with a vengeance, most memorably to simulate the jolts of electroshock therapy. But the greatest compliment that I have for his film is that it knows when to simply sit back and watch, like many of the great Classical Hollywood films. It lets its story, actors, and script all work and, in this case, they develop something with lasting depth.

Earlier I alluded to  The Snake Pit being part of a lineage including Shock Corridor and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. It contains similarly shocking revelations about the reality behind sanitarium walls except they feel more realistic than the former film. Furthermore, De Havilland is surrounded by a wide array of odd bodies and patients with all sorts of psychoses rather like Randle McMurphy. But although there are some antagonistic people, her problems stem partially from the system around her and mostly from the pain buried deep within her own past.

It’s Dr. Kik who is able to dredge up the truth hidden inside of her over time. His calming, reassuring voice balanced with his psychoanalytic practices are able to work on Virginia’s psyche systematically. But in the same instance, it’s easy for her to get lost among the masses. Nurses do their jobs, doctors pass verdicts but they’re woefully understaffed and overworked.

The film’s resolution is actually hidden within its title. Because like the madmen of old, Virginia was thrown into a snake pit of her own that, far from driving her crazy, revealed to her that she must, in fact, be sane — at least compared to many of those around her. It’s up to the viewer to decide, aside from the happy denouement, if this is a troubling conclusion that the film comes to or not.

However, it’s paramount to note The Snake Pit’s conclusion on personal trauma and mental illness, based on childhood experiences. A lot of Virginia’s struggles came out of guilt and dysfunctional relationships with her parents. Yes, this is the punchline of the movie, but I only say this to point out how frightening or more precisely, how universal that revelation make this movie. Virginia’s parents weren’t altogether bad people and the reality is that all of us will face personal tragedy. We will have our share of guilty consciences too.

It’s how we cope with those things that matter most because it’s going to happen. We can hide it but we can’t escape it. All of us are broken in one way or another — even if we don’t want to admit it. That’s part of what The Snake Pit begins to bring to light.

4/5 Stars

Review: The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)

the adventures of robin hood 1As a young boy, no hero was greater in my mind’s eye than Robin Hood and only Star Wars held a more honored spot in my childhood imagination. Because, to this day, Robin of Locksley remains the quintessential hero of mythical lore. Part historical truth mostly canonized myth and that’s the beauty of him. We can believe in him — see how he was in so many ways real but in the same instance larger than life.

To his credit, Erroll Flynn does a surprisingly phenomenal job in portraying the legendary outlaw in Lincoln green with a bit of British (Australian…) cheekiness, as well as bravado and charm. In fact, the film is full of so many wonderful elements from its engaging action sequences full of timeless spectacle and a plethora of characters who come right off the pages of the greatest Robin Hood narratives. Will Scarlett, Much the Miller, Friar Tuck and of course Little John still hold a great deal of esteem in my heart. While there are no men more villainous and corrupted than the likes of Prince John (Claude Rains), The Sheriff of Nottingham (Melville Cooper) and Guy of Gisbourne (Basil Rathbone).

Meanwhile, Michael Curtiz took the reigns of the film and makes it a lively swashbuckler that revels in a sense of good fun and that starts with Flynn’s performance radiating out from there. While this early use of three-strip Technicolor only serves to add yet another layer of elegance and vibrancy to the film’s look. It truly was made for color and every shade of Lincoln green and every bit of medieval opulence proves to be a feather in the film’s cap. It looks absolutely stunning and the same goes for young Olivia De Havilland as Maid Marian.

Olivia_de_Havilland_and_Errol_Flynn_in_The_Adventures_of_Robin_Hood_trailerFrom what I know from Robin Hood folklore, specifically Howard Pyle’s seminal edition, the film is surprisingly true to many of the origin stories and tales that have long since proliferated. As an audience, we become privy to the first meetings of Robin and the formidable Little John (Alan Hale) who lays him out in the local stream after a bout with quarterstaffs. Then, in another instance, Robin provokes the portly Friar Tuck (Eugene Palette) who happens to be a master swordsman and a lover of good food and drink. Still, other vignettes include Robin’s successful masquerade as a lowly archer who wins the grand prize at the Sheriff of Nottingham’s Archery Tournament.

Of course, the most thrilling set pieces occur in Nottingham Castle, initially when Robin brazenly drops in on Prince John and his cronies bearing a deer over his shoulders. Admittedly I have Star Wars on the mind, but this sequence is rather reminiscent of Luke wandering into Jabba’s Palace.

Then, the climax comes later with the return of King Richard and Robin’s assault on the castle full of stellar swordplay and general chaos. The duel between Flynn and Basil Rathbone is especially thrilling and it holds up well even today because there is something so satisfying in watching them thrust and feint back and forth.

the adventures of robin hood 2For me, the reason very few heroes surpass Robin Hood is based on his innumerable qualities. He’s a superior fighter with bow, sword or staff. He’s blessed with a wonderful wit and impressive leadership capabilities. He wins over the girl with his charm. He gets to live out in the forest with his best friends, eating great food. But most of all, he’s a rebel with a heart of gold, robbing the rich to feed the poor.

He’s an embodiment of all things that a little boy dreams of as a kid and in many ways, he’s a fairy tale, but the kind of fairy tale that a boy readily conjures up in his own imagination. The villains are formidable and the action is unmistakable, but it’s all in good fun. That’s why the Adventures of Robin Hood remains an enduring folk tale of the cinema. Its hero transcends a single medium. Because he lives in the heart of many a young lad long after the title credits have rolled.

5/5 Stars