The Uninvited (1944) and Stella by Starlight

To place my cards on the table, next to the ouija boards and ghost catchers, I’m not always fond of haunted house movies because how many truly original iterations can you have out of one premise? Granted, there are lots of houses in the world, but how do you make each one stand out among the crowd? If it’s not obvious already I’m already originating from a place of skepticism and apathy. There you have it.

There is some good news. Although The Uninvited won’t exactly make a convert out of me, it is freed up by the fact it was the instigator of many of the archetypes the genre holds onto even to this day. Since this is a movie from the 1940s, the onus is not on the picture to be pop-out scary; instead, it uses its assets of music, mood, and atmosphere to project an inedible impression.

The brother-sister relationship between Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey on the screen is not so common in movies, and you could easily see them playing romantic partners in another movie. The novelty is agreeable enough as they gayly happen upon an old house in Cornwall that they are just thrilled to see since it reminds them of warm childhood memories.

So they walk in of their own accord — their yippy dog scurrying after a squirrel in a fairly spectacular bit of choreography — waltzing around the place just as if they own the place. They have no misgivings until they walk up to an eery room overlooking the cliffside. Just being there makes them heavy and already we have a portent of things to come.

As it turns out, the siblings get an opportunity to buy Windward House and at a real steal too. The owner, a somber commander named Beech (Donald Crisp), is more than happy to get rid of it even as his earnest granddaughter (Gail Russell) can’t bear to see the place leave their possession. You might say she has an attachment, even a compulsion to be there. The old man goes so far as to say the house is filled with malignity against the girl.

Still, brother and sister get their wish, moving in, setting up their housekeeper, and trying to get acclimated. What the sibling dynamic does tease out are other romantic interests. Roderick, for one, is fascinated by the “sleeping beauty magic” about the girl Stella, even as they got off on a bit of a wrong foot.

When they finally do make amends, there’s a conviviality born between them. As a musician and one-time music critic, he plays her quite the tribute: none other than “Stella by Starlight.” It’s an immortal tune, and it also, coincidentally, was composed by Victor Young just for this picture. It becomes a haunting song of lament and romance on par with the entrancing theme from Laura also released the same year. It’s yet another case of music having such a mesmerizing grip on a movie.

If the aura around Laura is one adaptable touchstone, another closely related one is the unnerving ambiance of Rebecca. Daphne du Maurier’s novel, turned into the well-remembered Hitchcock drama, played with this same spectral sense of the otherwordly. The house, Manderley, became a character in its own right, and the deceased first Mrs. De Winter effectively made it into her eternal haunt. As an embodiment of obsessive devotion, Mrs. Danvers played so forebodingly by Judith Anderson, knows few equals.

Much of The Uninvited is about set-up and even the delay tactics bringing us to the point of release. It rarely confronts us only inhabiting the corners and peripheries of the story and milking Charles Lang’s delicious cinematography for every drop of darkness it’s worth. It has a lot to offer.

For instance, there are wailing and moaning noises in the middle of the night. Word of some apparition. Smells of mimosa that flood the air on other occasions. At a later date, their housekeeper raves about a crawling mist upstairs. It’s all very peculiar.

Alan Napier comes into the story as a voice of refined observation — a local physician who partners with them. He effectively brings clarity to the situation by disclosing some of the local history. You see, Stella’s mother died on the edge of the cliffs many years before under tragic circumstances.

If anything, it gives the Fitzgeralds more reason to worry about Stella’s well-being. They somehow decide the best option is to face the spirit head-on with a seance. It’s taken for granted that something exists; this is not a total figment of their overactive imaginations.

And it’s true, something fills up the room. There’s a look in the girl’s eyes of terrible happiness, a possessed euphoria. She’s resolute throughout the entire film; if they destroy that house, they’ll be destroying her. In some unexplainable way, it is a sanctuary for her.

Ultimately, the captain sends her away to a sanitarium run by a local plaster saint, Miss Holloway. Her reputation proceeds her; she’s renowned around town for her charity and stately benevolence. However, up close and personal, it’s only too evident there’s something suspect about her. She obviously still harbors a deep affection for the deceased Mrs. Meredith, championing her memory for future generations. It lends the movie yet another level of subtext.

From thenceforward we deal in ghosts, twists of exposition, and jumps in internal logic that must be parsed through. I’m often not a stickler for plot details, but it felt like The Uninvited ultimately relies on them too much. There are some genuine instances of dread or at the very least intrigue, but I’m more enamored with the Lauras and Rebeccas of the world. Their mystery manages to linger over me.

With The Uninvited my greatest takeaway was “Stella by Starlight” and the starring turn for Gail Russell. She, of course, would remain a bright hopeful in Hollywood for a few more years until alcoholism crippled her career and her personal life. However, within the frames of this movie, she is still brimming with the buoyancy of youth. It’s a pleasure to see her in such a place. If nothing else, I consider this a victory. “Stella by Starlight” might as well be a eulogy to a shooting star that burned out far too quickly.

3.5/5 Stars

Arise, My Love (1940): Milland and Colbert

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“Arise, my fair love and come away” – Song of Solomon 2:13

The screenplays of Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder are often literal master classes in hooking the audience. They understand intuitively the construction necessary to bring us into a story so we’re invested. Take the opening of Arise, My Love. Yes, there’s some throw-away text about the Spanish Civil War in the summer of 1939. It’s in the aftermath, but then we’re introduced to a telling scene.

One of these soldiers of fortune, American Tom Martin (Ray Milland) sits in confinement as a father (Frank Puglia) from the local monastery pays him a visit. The firing squads right outside his annex make it painfully clear the hour of his own execution is imminent. Those aren’t rubber bullets. The man of faith feels some urgency to ask the prisoner if he even feels penitent — if he needs to clear his chest of anything.

All this sounds rote so far. Anyone could write this scene like so. Then, individuality sets in. Instead of contrition, he bemoans the fact he didn’t get into the action with Chamberlain and Hitler nor has he gotten a chance to take potshots at Nazis. It has the vitriolic gallows wit of Wilder setting up the gag.

Here’s the kicker. The inevitable is whisked right out from under Martin by the most unexpected of Providences. He’s been granted a pardon! It came through the pleading of his wife! It’s an obvious punchline if I know Wilder (and Brackett): he has no wife!

This plucky mystery woman (Claudette Colbert) is a reporter out for a story and boy does she has a way of making a doozy of a spread. They get out of the scenario thanks to her charm, his flying, and a bit of luck.

We are reminded the movie is planted squarely in its moment from the headlines about the Yankees in the World Series and the hunt for Scarlet O’Hara finally being over. Tom was among three American flyboys, who are a group of idealistic interventionists siding with the little guys against the big boys.

Paris, the city of amour, is still free from Nazi influence, and the pilot does his best to channel what’s already in the air. “Gusto” rebuffs him — albeit good-naturedly — because she’s an all-or-nothing gal. She knows if she says “yes” she’ll be head over heels. There’s nothing wrong with that per se. But she’s a career woman.

Now Claudette Colbert doesn’t quite strike me as a typewriter-plunking type like Rosalind Russell or Barbara Stanwyck — one of the boys as it were — but she comes off as deliriously happy. Because it feels like she’s in her element again in this world, whether or not it’s totally manufactured by Hollywood. As her slighted suitor sits in the Cafe Magenta just betting she’ll walk over from her hotel, she looks to climb the journalistic ladder.

She’s dropped with quite the gig: Special Berlin Correspondent. The previous correspondent was kindly asked to leave by the Nazis. Among other infractions, he went to a reception for Herr von Ribbentropp and yelled “Gefilte Fish!”

The agitated editor (Walter Abel) is a long-running trope, but here it works as well as it did anywhere else in that he provides yet another antagonistic force to push against our heroine. Although, given the state of the world, she hardly needs it. He more likely serves as a bit of comic relief.

Because while Tom decides to go off to Warsaw, Poland to fly with his buddies (“I’ve always wanted to drop something on Hamburg after I got ptomaine from that hamburger”), while simultaneously stealing a few more hours with Gusto, Hitler rudely kicks off WWII. They plan to get out of town on the fated S.S. Athenia. No one told them the battle for the Atlantic has already geared up. Though hit hard, they are luckier than most. At the end of the day, Tom and Gusto are still together (and alive)…

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If you humor me for only a moment, there is a habit that can get me into trouble. Reading other people’s reviews. I’m as insecure as the next fellow about my writing. I could never do it as good as so-and-so or why didn’t think of that! That’s all that comparison gets you. Worse yet it can start infecting your own point of view if you consider other voices. Usually, I hold off until after my words are set in cement.

However, in a rare instance, I happen upon a contemporary review of Bosley Crowther, and it gave birth to some thoughts. He ends his piece on Arise, My Love in this manner:

“It is simply a synthetic picture which attempts to give consequence to a pleasant April-in-Paris romance by involving it in the realities of war — but a war which is patently conceived by someone who has been reading headlines in California. Miss Colbert and Mr. Milland are very charming when tête-tête. But, with Europe going up in flames around them, they are, paradoxically, not so hot. Same goes for the film.”

While I understand where Crowther is coming from, I will politely dissent, armed with hindsight as I most conveniently am. I’m often of the mind Hollywood folks are too self-important. How much influence do they really have? And yet even to look back at cinema in 1940 there is a sense there was real social importance in the movies being made — at least the ones that were truly aware of the cultural moment.

I am reminded Hitler was a cinema nut and Goebbels (derided briefly in this film) was deeply engaged in harnessing film for propagandistic purposes. Hitler even had a special prize for capturing Clark Gable. They really could be taken down a few pegs by the medium they too seemed to admire in spite of all their dementedness, and it’s quite a fitting mode of attack.

Think of Chaplin’s lampoon. Think of the various contours of Nazi menace explored in the likes of The Night Train to Munich, Foreign Correspondent, and The Mortal Storm from both inside and out. Hold Back The Dawn shows the implications on the American homefront. Even the passing remark from Cary Grant in His Girl Friday to stick Hitler on the funny pages brandishes something momentarily powerful.

If Billy Wilder is not considered to be an integral part of this company, he deserves to be. Because Arise, My Love taps into the same immediacy available only in those uncertain months. He gladly sticks his nose out to be bitten and whether it was from the relative comfort of California, Wilder was not a stranger to personal heartache. He lost loved ones at the hands of the Nazis. It’s a personal context I doubt Crowther could have been aware of. Arise, My Love was promoted as a romance that could only happen in 1940, which is a key to its resonance; it’s effectively encased in the amber of the times.

The final interludes are in a forest, a pasture, as Colbert stands on her soapbox, as it were, in a lasting embrace with her love. It’s not as stunning as Joel McCrea’s delivery of Ben Hecht’s prose in Foreign Correspondent, nor is it Wilder/Brackett’s finest hour. But that’s just it.

For an effort that’s not even that well-remembered in Classic movie circles, Arise, My Love is a charming picture. The word proves apt for much of Mitchell Leisen’s filmography. And yet there is the undeniable wit and sophistication of its writers. Right down to its title. The full passage reads like this:

My beloved speaks and says to me:
“Arise, my love, my beautiful one,
and come away,
11 for behold, the winter is past;
the rain is over and gone.
12 The flowers appear on the earth,
the time of singing has come,
and the voice of the turtledove
is heard in our land.
13 The fig tree ripens its figs,
and the vines are in blossom;
they give forth fragrance.
Arise, my love, my beautiful one,
and come away.

So you see, it’s not only an inflection of passionate love but also naturalistic hope.

3.5/5 Stars

Till We Meet Again (1944): Directed by Frank Borzage

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This is my entry in the CMBA’s Hidden Classics Blogathon!

The movie is built out of the opening juxtaposition. A youthful nun with an angelic countenance (Barbara Britton) lifts up supplications to her triune God asking for prayers on their behalf — herself and the host of children and other sisters around them.

Their daily discipline is disrupted by a commotion down the road — Nazi soldiers firing after fleeing prisoners. It’s a signifier of tense times, but very real and pertinent ones in a French village plunged deep into Nazi occupation.

One of the girls asks Sister Clothhilde, “What happened outside?” All she can manage in response is that she doesn’t know, nor does she want to know. It suggests the core tenets of her character, maintaining all levels of religious piety, even her own serenity, above all else. She’s cloistered from the outside world.

Because it’s true the convent walls provide a buffer — a peaceful asylum — and for someone like the young sister it’s all she’s ever known and all she’s ever loved. Sister Clothilde is generally content with the amiable life of a nun, taking care of the young children in her dormitory with warmth and diligence. That could be the end of it right there, but as this is a movie, of course, there must be more.

The Reverend Mother has a rather pointed distaste for the Germans (enduring three wars will do that to even the most generous of spirits), but she and the local Major Krupp maintain their etiquette amid obdurate conflict. He has orders to make a search for runaway prisoners, and she is adamant about not opening her doors. For a time they can play the game easily enough, and Sister Clothilde can remain equally ignorant of the world outside.

However, all of this changes with the appearance of a wanted American pilot carrying vital information for the local underground. He all but appears out of nowhere, happening upon the sister quite by accident. In the darkness and the solitude, there is something strange outlined around them. It’s not menace nor romantic melodrama exactly but a yet to be discovered facet in their relationship.

Milland, terse and paranoid, wants to get to his contact and the sister wants nothing of his world. Ultimately, she has no choice but to become a part of it. There is no one else and so she instantly finds herself giving up her small comforts for a mission of immense peril that, coincidentally, takes her outside the walls she’s grown so accustomed to. She goes from a woman of faith to a full-fledged civilian on the outside, given a new name — that of Louise Dupree — and betrothed in marriage.

If there are all the nuts and bolts of a cloak and dagger thriller, these are never a part of Frank Borzage’s primary agenda. After all, he is a far cry from a Friz Lang or an Alfred Hitchcock. I’m thinking of Ministry of Fear or even Foreign Correspondent in particular. Also, although it’s not as robust as The Mortal Storm, Till We Meet Again becomes both an extension of that world and its themes courtesy of screenwriter Lenore Coffee.

What’s evident is Borzage’s forever visible sense of this kind of high-minded naturalism. Where they can momentarily forget the task at hand, that is getting to a distant airbase and freedom, so they can help return a wayward baby bird back to its mother. Is there a need for such a scene? In a word, no, but in Borzage’s conception, this is the more crucial matter because it denotes something elemental.

Man’s duty is not only to his fellow man but to the creatures on God’s green earth. The director gravitates toward acts of care and goodness as opposed to the needless destruction as represented by the Nazis in their brutish, insensitive clumsiness.

Even as they travel together and “Louise” comes to know John as a most intimate friend, she learns a great deal from his assertions. That God is everywhere: reflected in acts of beauty, nature, the vows of marriage, and the goodness that crops up in any person who lives in this world.

It comes through thanks to Milland gushing affection about the marvelous intricacies of marriage between two human beings in intimate union, babies, jam in the morning newspapers, and tripping over the slippers. To her own astonishment, he speaks the words with a kind of devoted reverence. “You say it like a litany — a kind of prayer.”

But to those who think of Borzage as merely a starry-eyed dreamer, the movie is still compelling when they are forced to evade the Nazis, now trailing them with ill-intent and more precise intel. The sense of dread is immediate, and there are stakes.

In another key scene, after she’s done so much on this treacherous journey, the sister makes one false step. Smoke billows out from a dimly lit room, and she rushes toward it to sound the alarm for John to make his getaway. Instead, out steps an old adversary showing himself from under the shroud of darkness.

She is from thenceforward intimidated and threatened in a way that feels so real you can just imagine have it was used against so many victims before her. She has committed an act of treason, put herself beyond the protection of her church, and acted as an enemy of the German Reich. Under such duress, she has every right to feel hopeless.

Instead, she makes a personal judgment, a double sacrifice out of this transcendental love of hers. It’s not simply romantic love but love wrapped up with ideals and goodness that must be shielded from the Nazis at all cost.

They escape to England with Milland, and she lets him go gladly. But the second sacrifice is the Christ-like one. If I have to spell it out for you then the allusion means nothing nor the cross she holds in her grasp. You have to see it for yourself.

Although it’s sublimely sentimental and swelling with angel’s song, this simply means Till We Meet Again is yet another definitive Borzage picture. It’s somehow fitting he would trace the line of religious iconography all throughout the picture even as a woman learns what her faith means in all walks of life.

Far from trivializing it, her vocation feels richer, bolder, and freer than it ever was before. And yet with Borzage, he’s not so much a champion of religious ardor as he is a believer in the grandeur available in life for those who readily embrace it.

These large, esoteric, unsearchable concepts whether they be spiritual, transcendent, or in other ways ethereal are there for the taking. For a humble movie, Till We Meet Again gets swept up with the same scope. Importantly, it’s kept accessible by the candor of Milland and the vestal warmth of Barbara Britton. Because it is once and for all a litany — a kind of layman’s prayer.

4/5 Stars

The Lost Weekend (1945) and Alcohol The Femme Fatale

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It might be a futile exercise but at least for a brief moment, I will attempt to get back into the headspace from when I first came upon Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend. I was younger then. Bright-eyed and a budding cinephile. It is the film that defined Ray Milland’s entire filmography for me as I had never seen another one of his pictures (although Dial M for Murder followed soon thereafter).

Now I understand the crucial context. To say Ray Milland is defined by The Lost Weekend is analogous to attributing Anthony Perkins’s entire persona to Norman Bates and Psycho. You wouldn’t be wrong but in order to understand this inference, you have to understand how the viewing public viewed them in the moment. They were matinee idols and boys-next-door. They fit in comedies and as youthful love interests.

It takes a subversive and inventive mind like a Wilder or a Hitchcock to take the inherent expectations provided by an actor only to toy with the audience. Milland, in his early years, could be defined by the likes of Easy Living or The Major and The Minor. Even noir like Ministry of Fear and The Big Clock, though clouded by menace, rely on the inherent likeability of our hero thrown into trauma though he maybe.

The Lost Weekend was an unequivocal gamble for Milland, in particular, and history has proven to be on his side. He gamely throws himself wholeheartedly into the drama, and it pays heavy dividends.

Don Birnam (Milland) is a struggling novelist with a persistent drinking habit. He’s playing at being reformed, about to go on a trip to the country with his pragmatic brother, but just out of sight and out of reach is a bottle. He’s still beholden to the stuff. It’s a hidden cache of security just in case he needs a nip.

His concerned girlfriend (Jane Wyman) has the cutest way of remedying their height disparity when it comes to kissing (bend down). Even as I’ve gained a more full-bodied impression of Ray Milland, I would like to believe I’ve also reappraised the stardom of Wyman with newfound respect.

She’s not merely an ironic Sirkian pawn in melodrama. During the bulk of the 1940s, she more than asserted herself as a quality performer.  In retrograde, the likes of The Yearling and Johnny Belinda show an extraordinary range, redefining how I perceive her for the better. The Lost Weekend exhibits her at her most likable while still being bolstered with personal resolve.

This is evident even as her boyfriend so quickly falls into outrage as if the people who love him most are turning against him. It all plays as a symptom of the real problem. He feels hemmed in or could it be the withdrawals from the alcohol crying out?

Regardless, the theremin has never used as effectively to denote menace in such a different context than the ubiquitous Sci-Fi trope it would soon become. Because one bottle is snatched away and yet it’s simply indicative of a far more pervasive problem. Don has stashed alcohol all over his apartment in the most ingenious hiding places though his brother is equally adept at hide and seek.The premises are really and truly dry. That is until the cleaning woman unwittingly tips him off to $10 he can splurge on. He’s up for a perilous road ahead.

John Seitz photographs the drama like a brooding noir, and it is as if alcohol — the siren on the shelf — is the deadly fatale entrapping Ray Milland in its web. His girlfriend even goes so far as to label the “other woman” and confidently intimates she’s not going to go down without a fight; she’ll help him beat it and keep Birnham for her own.

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Eventually, he succumbs to a bender of a weekend, caught as he is within his own self-exile. What becomes so very evident is how isolating addiction becomes. His only confidante is the local bartender (Howard da Silva in an uncharacteristically sympathetic part).

As Don spirals back into his destructive habit, he recounts how he managed to meet a girl like Helen even in the throes of his alcoholism. There he was sitting in the theater like a fine thespian and yet he couldn’t get it out of his mind. Even the play reminds him of the bottle he has in his jacket pocket, currently stashed out in the coat check. It proved a fortuitous evening as his petulant first impression gave way to charms that won his girl over.

However, it is a portent of all his recurring troubles. The want of liquor leads him into distancing himself from the community just so he can get alone with his bottle. Companionship seems so much more vital and yet we tell ourselves backward lies to rationalize our decisions.

He is a man who suffers from the age-old affliction of Jekyll and Hyde syndrome. He even admits there are two sides to his persona. The man about town with a charming public persona, and then the other Don Birnam. The drunk who remains a tortured writer.

He hits the pits of despair, wandering the streets, desperately looking to hock his belongings for one last satiating drink — even a handout if he can get it. But that’s the lie, isn’t it? Just one more time and we’ll reform. Just one more and never again. We gather together the willpower for an hour, a day, a week, a month, until it comes back with a vengeance.

Birnham’s life is indicative of a whole caste of society. The silent and the forgotten in dark rooms and lonely bouts of aggravation. His brother has turned his back, and he won’t respond to his girlfriend. It quite literally feels like a little slice of hell.

The film makes one harrowing detour to an archaic-looking drunk ward where a sardonic Frank Faylen takes care of the jittery new arrival inside the booze tank. He’s confident Birnham will be a regular customer soon enough. It feels like a harsh and unfeeling extension of the world.

For some, The Lost Weekend might be a tempered now antiquated exploration of alcoholism firmly planted in the past. However, I would like to push against this preconception slightly.

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Wilder purportedly penned the piece with his writer partner, Charles Brackett, as a way to explore his relationship with Raymond Chandler and how alcoholism affected their art — the processes of a writer being derailed by drink.  So in this regard, it too is personal and yet about as universal as a picture can be. There is this obvious duality of art and alcohol where one impacts the other in highly detrimental ways.

Wilder’s not always known as a technical director but, if nothing else, he surrounds himself with competent people. A couple names that come to mind in this picture, in particular, are cinematographer John Seitz and then his editor Doane Harrison.

One is reminded of the shots of the overturned lamp repeatedly reflecting the shambles of Birnham’s current life, derailed by drunkenness as it is. In another, it’s Milland’s eyeball spinning psychotically inside its socket. He’s more alive than Marion Crane on the bathroom floor, but we can hardly deign to call this life.

Each of these elements, even the more blatant evocations of his delusions, illustrates the torment of human beings stricken by addiction. It saps our creativity and our energy. It can take away a want for relationships and, in some cases, our desire to live.

The Lost Weekend is a reminder sometimes we need to enter into the storm of our struggles so we might come out on the other side. When you’ve hit rock bottom, the tap is dry, and your body is shaking, the only place to go is up.

However, sometimes we’re not strong enough to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. Grit, determination, and resolve only get us so far. We have nothing left. We’re broken, alone, destitute.  Utterly defeated. It’s in this place of helplessness when we are forced to look outside of ourselves…to something or someone else. To reclaim all that is lost and be found again.

4.5/5 Stars

The Major and The Minor (1942) and The Taking of Sudan

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Billy Wilder obviously got his start in screenwriting but much like Preston Sturges before him, he desperately wanted creative control to sculpt the vision of the meticulous scripts he helped forge with writing partner (and producer) Charles Brackett.

He got his breakout chance with The Major and The Minor and hardly squandered the opportunity. This might sound silly and high-minded given the plot of the picture:  a young woman posing as a child to claim half-fare on the train to her home state with ensuing complications…

However, the film flows not only out of the script but the execution and total commitment to the gag by Ginger Rogers. At first, it seems like a curious decision. She went from lavish musicals and heady drama to something so zany. Even today her legacy is first and foremost galvanized out of the magic she created on taps with her legendary partner Fred Astaire.

And yet, she took a chance on the neophyte because he had charisma and a gentlemanly manner, and she wholeheartedly believed in his talents. If you take a look at his trajectory after The Major and The Minor, her observations were very well-founded. From these promising albeit still humble beginnings, Billy Wilder shot to the top of Hollywood remaining one of its premier storytellers for decades.

It comes down to his almost holistic approach to comedy and drama. Somehow they become one and the same, tackled with the same gleeful, frequently trenchant wit no matter the subject matter.

This one begins with a typically pointed tagline: “The Dutch bought New York from The Indians in 1626 and by May 1941 there wasn’t an Indian left who regretted it.”

To put the statement in context, we get to know jaded and long-suffering Susan Applegate (Rogers) as she pays a visit to her latest client for a reinvigorating scalp treatment. Everyone including the bellboy gives her a whistle or a fresh word. It’s little better meeting Albert Osborne (Robert Benchley) as he offers her a martini, and she retaliates with an egg shampoo. While she maintains her business-like demeanor, he begins to flirt, mix martinis, and tell a string of increasingly lame cracks, making her fume.

It’s the final straw. She’s had it with the Big Apple and is now prepared to catch the first train back to the welcoming cornfields of her native Iowa. Here’s the catch. They’ve upped the fare, and she doesn’t have the funds to cut it. This calls for a creative solution.

All these types of screwy comedies have to involve some harebrained scheme, the type of fodder made to order for some of the best I Love Lucy episodes. In a similar manner, what is a screwball comedy without a train?

Since she can’t swing a ticket back to her hometown, she dreams up the wackiest solution. Pose as a child… It’s just about as outlandish as it sounds and looks just as strange.

Ginger goes into the Women’s Lounge and comes out a certified bobby soxer no doubt ready to swoon over Frank Sinatra. It becomes increasingly evident we are witnessing a forerunner to Some Like it Hot, as she pulls off the shenanigan with the help of a purloined balloon, a willing accomplice, and an extra high-pitched tone.

As an added alibi for the conductors, she fibs being of Scandinavian stock even speaking Swedish like the great Garbo (“I Want to Be Alone”). Wouldn’t you know, they catch her smoking underage, setting up the obligatory chase scene giving way to the ever-necessary meet-cute.

Enter Ginger Rogers into Ray Milland’s compartment. In a film crammed with cringe-worthy awkwardness, it has to be one of the definitive moments. To his credit, Milland does the storyline a service by committing to the setup in all earnestness. It’s possible to accept his candor, in various moments, chiding her for using her spare change to buy sweets or stumbling through “The Facts of Life.”

He legitimately believes this is a young girl he’s happened upon and treats her accordingly, even as the irony sets in. His one footfall is failing to defend her better against the ravenous boys under his tutelage.

Because he is a military man with a sterling record who, nevertheless, feels stuck in his current post at the military academy. His fiancee’s daddy is his commanding officer and Pamela (Rita Johnson) is used to having everything her way. So when she comes aboard the train to welcome her man home, boy, is she surprised to see another “woman” in his room (unbeknownst to him, of course). In jealous retribution, she sends a tray full of breakfast clattering into his face, which is more worthy of a few hearty chortles. The game is afoot now.

“Susu” as she’s now called is able to smooth things over while maintaining her cover and keeping the good major from public disgrace. As a reward, she gets to experience all the pleasures and perils of Wallace Military Institute, including Rita’s baby sister. However, the aspiring Madame Curie named Lucy, though initially skeptical becomes a willing accomplice in the other “girl’s” ever-evolving plans.

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What begins as a fundamental story of escape morphs into a mission of mercy to salvage the life of Phillip Kirby from soul-crushing mediocrity. On his behalf, “Susu” weathers an army of handsy young Cadette Adjutants, who have been trained in, among other things, “The Taking of Sudan,” a handy piece of history if you want to kanoodle.

Using her beguiling feminine wiles to her advantage, Applegate tries to snag the switchboard to send an outbound phone call to get Uncle Phillip’s orders altered. Not only does her ineptitude throw the camp into an uproar; she also raises suspicions.

It only makes sense that the academy’s ball is a space for everything to implode. But first, we must take a moment to acknowledge what a peculiar pairing it is having all the kiddos dancing with Ginger Rogers. Again, she takes it like a sport sans feathery boa or suave dance partner.

Although this is the least of her worries. Something is fated to go awry. It comes in the form of a ticking time bomb of a man who finds little Susu very familiar indeed. The final act falls heavily on the shoulders of the leads’ charismatic powers to rescue it from utter triteness.

Since I’ve been in the habit of mentioning Wilder in the same breath with Preston Sturges as of late, it’s fitting enough to note how The Major and The Minor steals liberally from The Lady Eve‘s playbook. In the end, the after-hours military maneuvers and “The Taking of Sudan” are its own contributions to the screwball genre courtesy of Brackett and Wilder.

3.5/5 Stars

Classic Hollywood Baseball Movies

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Given its hallowed place as American’s original national pastime, I thought it would be worthwhile to share some of the best baseball movies classic Hollywood ever offered during its heyday.

I’m not sure if the industry ever made a baseball masterpiece during the Golden Age, but it did highlight some of the great talents of the era both on the field and in front of the camera.

If nothing else, they play a bit like comfort food, between fairy tale romances and warm humor, highlighting men who overcame obstacles to become world-class talents in the Major Leagues.

Pride of the Yankees (1942)

Here is, arguably, the standard-bearer of all baseball movies of a similar ilk. Gary Cooper stars as another famed All-American superstar, Lou Gehrig. Teresa Wright costars as his loving wife Eleanor. The Iron Horse became one of the most formidable ballplayers ever, despite being overshadowed by Babe Ruth. His final days, stricken with ALS, remain a stirring tragedy to this day. There’s hardly a dry eye as he “considers himself the luckiest man on the face of the earth” only to walk off the field for good.

It Happens Every Spring (1949)

This unabashed comedy relies on a crackling premise: a university professor comes upon a curious new formula in his laboratory. No, it’s not flubber but methylethylpropylbutyl. It’s most noteworthy trait is its repellence of wood! Soon the bookish baseball fan is touting his pitching abilities and goes from a nobody to carrying his ball club toward the pennant. Ray Milland stars alongside Jean Peters and Paul Douglas.

The Stratton Story (1949)

Here is a picture certainly in the mold of Pride of The Yankees. This time it’s James Stewart playing Monty Stratton with June Alyson as his crush and future wife. Although Stratton is hardly as well-remembered today, the heart of the romantic drama involves his rehabilitation after he undergoes an amputation. Through grit and determination (and the support of his wife), he made a comeback from his injury to pitch another day.

Take Me Out to the Ballgame (1949)

Although it has much more in common with the other MGM musicals of the day, between Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra on the ball field (making up a Tinker to Evers to Chance combo with Jules Munshin), and Esther Williams, it’s hard not to enjoy this bright and cheery Technicolor singalong. The shakeup of new female ownership is a good excuse for sparks to fly and quality entertainment to abound courtesy of Busby Berkeley and Arthur Freed.

The Jackie Robinson Story (1950)

There are not necessarily a lot of dramatic thrills to this feature adaptation of Jackie Robinson’s life, but unlike all these other movies, there’s something distinctly special about Jackie portraying himself. With Ruby Dee as his steadfast wife Rachael, we watch Jackie as he is signed by Branch Rickey and rises up the ranks to break the color barrier in baseball, becoming a stalwart of the Brooklyn Dodgers’ team even as he faces an onslaught of prejudice and intimidation. He’s the definition of a sports hero.

Angels in the Outfield (1951)

It plays as a slight and fluffy fantasy story with a demonstrative big league manager (Paul Douglas) receiving some angelic intervention only if he agrees straightens up his act. He goes from being universally reviled by the world to a newsworthy curio. As he starts to change, the team’s fortunes pick up, and romance flowers between him and Janet Leigh. There’s not too much more to it. Donna Corcoran gives an adorable portrayal of a young girl who can see the angels.

The Pride of St. Louis (1953)

The arguments for making a movie about the life of Dizzy Dean seem somewhat slim. Granted, he was a thoroughly colorful figure, born in the backwoods of the Ozarks only to become one of the big leagues preeminent pitchers along with his brother Paul. Dan Dailey and Joanne Dru form a chemistry of contrasts, as Dizzy learns what it is to love someone else and have his will crossed. It’s hardly on par with Gehrig’s or even Stratton’s career trajectory, at least in purely Hollywood terms, but it’s an agreeable story from top to bottom.

Fear Strikes Out (1957)

Here is a baseball biopic that takes the conventional formula while slotting in a younger star in Anthony Perkins to portray up-and-coming outfielder Jimmy Piersall. Far from having his career behind him, it was very much a current event highlighting the ballplayer’s battle with mental health problems, in this case, bipolar disorder (although it was not described as such initially). The two crucial relationships in his life are with his overbearing father (Karl Malden) and his wife (Norma Moore).

Bonus: That Touch of Mink (1962)

While it’s not explicitly a baseball movie, this New York Rom-Com has one of the great baseball cameos with Cary Grant and Doris Day joining the Yankees’ dugout only to see their famed trifecta of Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, and Yogi Berra all unceremoniously tossed from the game by the agitated umpire. Although it’s hardly as enjoyable, Jerry Lewis’s Geisha Boy similarly features cameos from some of the LA Dodgers’ ballplayers from 1958 for the west coast aficionados.

Alias Nick Beal (1949): Ray Milland’s a Devil

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This is my entry in the CMBA Politics on Film Blogathon.

Alias Nick Beal handily flips the paradigm of cinematic angels in vogue with Hollywood, specifically during the 1940s. You could make a whole subgenre out of them. As its name suggests, the lynchpin character of the whole movie is Nick, though this is admittedly only a pseudonym. Across time and space, he’s come in many forms, under many names, including the serpent, Lucifer, or the Devil.

Ray Milland portrays him in bodily form ,providing a deliciously evil turn in fine threads. He’s not quite the “blonde Satan” out of Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade literature, but he’s almost there, about as close as you might possibly come in the flesh. With such a devious figure pulling the strings, Alias Nick Beal becomes noir mixed with myth and allusion in a rather unusual manner. It is the first of its kind: a Faustian noir.

The story itself opens in more conventional territory. There’s an earnest, hard-working district attorney named Foster (Thomas Mitchell) who is looking to clean up local corruption, manifested as always by cigar-chomping Fred Clark with his host of slot machines and bookies just looking to rake in the dough.

Try as he might, he’s never been able to deal the definitive blow to the town’s graft. Regardless, he’s an upstanding man of principle with a devoted wife (Geraldine Wall) of many years and a solid base of friends, including local minister Reverend Garfield (George Macready). Of course, even someone like him falls to temptations; they seem innocent at first even honorable. The trajectory of his entire political career starts to change for the better, although his personal relationships are poisoned beyond repair. More on that later.

For now, he has an inauspicious meeting at the local watering hole, the dubious China Coast Cafe. It’s the kind of joint that can only exist in the foggy back lots of some Hollywood studio (in this case Paramount Pictures).

It’s the cheap, low-lit atmospherics of such an obviously stylistic or phony facade that make Alias Nick Beal feel like low-grade entertainment. With noir, however, this often proves more of a blessing, and what’s more remarkable is how impressive the cast manages to be. The cafe also happens to be a fitting place to meet the devil’s incarnate.

No, Foster doesn’t go and sign the pact right then and there. His new acquaintance is far too cunning, far too diabolical to be so direct. But it comes soon enough as his new undue influence makes an insidious impact on the politician’s life. Isn’t it true that small habits compound as days, weeks, months, and years go by before you realize how much you’ve actually changed? Whether good or bad.

Simultaneous with his public ambitions, Foster’s reverend friend helps run a boys home not unlike similar storylines in Boy’s Town or Angels With Dirty Faces. It’s a conventional if generally uninteresting element. The one moment prodding the movie’s core conflict with a stick comes with the daily Bible reading.

Nick doesn’t want to be caught dead near the good book, but the minister opens it all the same as is his practice reading the following words to his charges:

“The earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein. For he hath founded it upon the seas and established it upon the floods. Who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord? Or who shall stand in his holy place? He that hath clean hands, and a pure heart; who hath not lifted up his soul unto vanity, nor sworn deceitfully. He shall receive the blessing from the Lord, and righteousness from the God of his salvation.”

If they’re not obvious already, the passage is an implicit call for Foster — to make him take heed — a warning against his current trajectory. Nick knows if Foster heeds the words, all his tireless work in interference will be thwarted. However, he’s still got some tricks up his sleeve.

One of them is named Donna Allen (Audrey Totter), a dame he found out on a street corner by the same upstanding establishment he just happened to meet Foster at. Audrey Totter does her gloriously acerbic rendition for this strange character and plays it nice and tender as well. It’s a fluid performance for a peculiar role calling for a hooker to get promoted in status to that of a campaign manager and confidante.

Suddenly, the work of devils and angels don’t look altogether dissimilar. After all, he raises this woman of ill-repute out of the gutter, gets her an apartment, drapes her in mink coats and stoles. However, it’s the ulterior motives that are most revealing.

Because eventually Nick has worked his way up — greasing the wheels of Foster’s ego as it were — so they can start talking about the murky grays of politics. His line of arguments are deceptive to the point he has his victim finds himself conceding on the same points of moral bedrock as Claude Rains in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

They buy into the lie that this is the only way to get anything done. Maybe it is partially true. Who am I to say? Conveniently, in the other picture, Thomas Mitchell was the wisecracking journalist who could observe from a comfortable distance. In this one, he’s embroiled right in the middle of the mess.

With Nick Beal constantly needling him and all the conflicting forces and voices in his life swelling, it really is a tug-of-war for his soul. Everyone wants a piece of it. His wife, the reverend, Nick, even Donna. It’s the intent that colors their true character.

Thus, Alias Nick Beal is an impeccably noirish take on spiritual warfare — the necessity of “pinning the devil to the mat” — before he totally makes you into a self-serving, arrogant person. Given the context it’s already working within, Nick Beal is a creative riff on Faust, but it never feels like full-fledged noir since the moralism is laid on a bit thick.

Neither of these elements is altogether detrimental, but it does feel like the movie is diluted in all its efforts. It’s this curious amalgam of disparate points of interest and self-reflexive in its orchestration with Milland being allowed to be villain and impresario. Again, the pieces and the resulting performances are intriguing, but it feels too cut-and-dry in the scripting department.

There’s never the great intrigue of watching a movie where we imbibe the sense of drama, romance, laughter, or whatever else. It feels like a story is being spun for the sake of Nick Beal so we can see him pulling the strings in front of the camera. Meanwhile, other themes are either cast aside or never fully explored. They could have been the building blocks for another movie entirely.

All told, I’d put it a couple rungs under the likes of The Bishop’s Wife and Here Comes Mr. Jordan. And it’s not quite on par with director John Farrow’s The Big Clock or His Kind of Woman. Milland is enough to make it nearly worth it.

3/5 Stars

Beau Geste (1939): Brotherly Love in The French Legion

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“The love of a man for a woman waxes and wanes like the moon…but the love of brother for brother is steadfast as the stars, and endures like the word of the prophet.” ~ Arabian Proverb

No matter what Joseph Von Sternberg thought of such a proclamation, we can concede his Morrocco was a film concerned with the former. Von Sternberg’s dalliances with Marlene Dietrich behind the scenes and then Dietrich and Cooper in front of the camera are a living testament.

Beau Geste stakes its claim early to being a film of undying brotherly love. It brings to mind the words of scholar and author C.S. Lewis when talking about philia as a “side by side, shoulder to shoulder” appreciative love. It comes not by looking at each other but having a vision of something in front of us.

“Every step of the common journey tests his metal; and the tests are tests we fully understand because we are undergoing them ourselves. Hence, as rings true time after time, our reliance, our respect and our admiration blossom into an Appreciative love of a singularly robust and well-informed kind.”

I think this is a perfect illustration to begin to understand why Beau Geste is an initially compelling hero’s journey because it relies on a joint adventure to bring out expressions of deep-rooted love.

Admittedly, William A Wellman’s film is a close remake of the 1926 silent Ronald Colman vehicle. One element this film borrows from its predecessor are intertitles, and they’re too many of them for a talking picture.

But soon enough a cold open places us within the ranks of some French Legionnaires who come upon a fortress only to find the stronghold littered with the bodies of their comrades propped up against the walls. Something dreadful must have happened to them. For now, we get no more explanation as the story quickly fades back into the past, 15 years prior.

There we meet five children, three of them named Geste, one of them named Isobel, and the fifth a bespectacled killjoy named Augustus. You see, the others are still enraptured with adolescent imaginations that find them gallivanting around on the most glorious adventures as soldiers or possibly members of King Arthur’s court.

Their exploits are to be remembered with a Viking’s funeral with a dog lying at their feet. The beauty of their temperaments is the fact they hold on to a bit of their youthful exuberance when they grow into young men.

It always is a bit of a start when you jump from child actors to their corresponding adult selves. In the picture, I couldn’t quite make the jump seamlessly but no matter. All I know is I do have an appreciation for our leads — that is the three Geste brothers. They really are rather like the three Musketeers with Gary Cooper, Ray Milland, and Robert Preston making a jocund company.

Also, on a side note, this is too perturbing for me not to mention. I double-checked records multiple times and our three stars were born in 1901, 1907, and 1918 respectively. I’m still trying to figure out why Robert Preston hardly looks any younger than his costars or at least Milland. Maybe it’s his mustache. At any rate, age differences aside, the chemistry is present.

What is not present is the priceless jewel “The Blue Water” that was stolen one evening from the home of their adopted aunt Lady Patricia. The same evening Beau runs off to the Foreign Legion followed soon thereafter by Digby (Preston) and finally John (Milland) who gives one parting embrace to Isobel (Susan Hayward) before leaving on the grand adventure. Hayward is exquisitely beautiful and though her ingenue role is in no way groundbreaking, we have the solace of many meaty performances to come.

The film’s true standout is Brian Donlevy as an unscrupulous tyrant in charge of new recruits. He eventually finds himself commanding the entire outpost with the whole outfit threatening insubordination. His hunger for power verges on the deranged.

My expectations were more of the rip-roaring adventure variety but as the previous commander’s remarks on his deathbed, “Soldiers die as much from fevers as they do battles.” Meanwhile, Digby is unceremoniously pulled away from his brothers on a work detail and subsequently, misses out on most of the final act.

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I would say wholeheartedly the film is salvaged in its last push as we are granted the spectacle we have been waiting for as the remaining men hold down the fort against incoming marauders. It makes one nearly cry out “Remember The Alamo!” The sentiment is there anyway.

It seems a horrible thing to say, but Cooper affected me more when he was on the verge of death than when he was alive. The all but wordless finale plays particularly cryptically as Digby sneaks around the compound to carry out his oldest brother’s wishes.

I must admit to dismissing Beau Geste‘s storytelling prematurely as it evoked greater complexities than I would have expected. The mechanisms of the opening and overlapping moments are more intricate than I might have given them credit for. The mysterious words spoken once upon a time, while Beau was hiding in the suit of armor, come to fruition as do the opening moments, neatly folding back into the tale.

The reunion of John with Isobel and his Aunt arrives in the nick of time to satiate audience wish-fulfillment. It almost elevates the film wholeheartedly, but the pacing and where the story chooses to focus its efforts feel scattered. Had they come together more succinctly we might be hailing Beau Geste one of the great actioners.

While Gary Cooper in a foreign legion kepi is nonetheless iconic, I am apt to remember him more so for Morocco (even if that picture belonged to Dietrich). Although if one is sentimental enough to forgive the faults, it’s painless enough to say Beau Geste belongs to three devoted brothers. Coop, Milland, and Preston maintain a spirited solidarity throughout.

3.5/5 Stars

Ministry of Fear (1944): Nazis & Noir

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In screenwriting 101 they always say engaging movies employ ticking clocks from start to finish. Ministry of Fear takes this quite literally, opening with the tick-tock of a clock face as Stephen Neale (Ray Milland) sits in rapt attention, waiting for the bells to chime.

At first, we’re not sure where we’ve found ourselves. What’s going on? Why is he so on edge? Then, he makes his way through some stone gates and the word “asylum” is emblazoned on the front entrance. We instantly know more about him. He has a past but it seems, at least for the time being, this man has a clean slate to work with.

His first adventure upon purchasing a ticket to London is popping over to a local carnival put on by all the nice ladies of the town. But this British-set noir, directed by Fritz Lang, and based on a Graham Greene work, also begins employing a time bomb…in the form of a cake.

After an enigmatic tip from a lady psychic, Mr. Neale unwittingly acquires said confection and soon gathers he’s gotten involved in something way over his head. The MacGuffin has been brought into circulation.

It proves to be an eventful trip to London, to say the least, and not just because of the Nazis raining down bombs overheard. There’s some homegrown drama as well. As Neale starts dropping cake all over the train compartment, he subsequently welcomes in a bland bloke, only to have the mystery man run off with his dessert.

For the time being, there is nothing to do. In London he calls on a stodgy old investigator (Erskine Sandford) to back him up; he obliges only when money is waved in front of his nose. Then there’s the giggly introduction of an amiable brother and sister duo (Marjorie Reynolds and Carl Esmond) who escaped from Austria.

Mr. Neale is led to believe their business is unwittingly being used as a front for some clandestine activities involving The Mothers of Free Nations. They always were shifty characters.

Meanwhile, Reynolds dips in and out of her accent; she probably would have been served better without it. Though she is winsome enough, I’m inclined to believe the film could have been more twisted if she was, in fact, a more duplicitous dame. Admittedly, the rogue gallery is still quite busy without suspecting her.

The imposing, austere beauty, Mrs. Belaine, leads a seance joined by the foreboding Dr. Forrester (Alan Napier) and dropped in upon by a Mr. Cost (Dan Duryea), who has a very familiar face. The good doctor holds a particularly high position in the ministry of propaganda.

The unearthly environment is textbook high contrast cinematography with visages almost incandescent while otherwise shrouded in darkness. Unfortunately, there’s a shot in the dark (no Clouseau available here) and our hero must be on the run again. We have yet another tip-off that an international conspiracy akin to Foreign Correspondent is afoot.

We are treated to a Hollywood version of a wartime Underground bomb shelter as Neale looks to evade capture with Carla. We get another visual tip on Dr. Forrester thanks to ominous swastikas projected on the wall. His newest analysis “Psychology of Nazidom” is the culprit. One gathers he might have a closer relationship with the Third Reich than he’s letting on. Unless it’s someone else…

Given these details, it’s difficult not to also consider Lang’s harrowing Hangman Also Die! which tackled the Nazi menace right from the interior. The fact that the enemy might have infiltrated and live all but undetected among us is even more frightening (though these themes are not considered in length here).

Because, like Hitchcock’s best British films, Ministry of Fear is all thriller, and its main allegiance is to entertainment rather than pure propaganda. I think the years are kinder to it for those very reasons. It does not give us a completely false sense of the piety found in the world — especially in the midst of something so troubling as WWII.

There are further bomb explosions and the involvement of Scotland Yard leading to a very familiar face turning up once more. The emblematic shot of the whole picture comes when a door is closed behind a fleeing fugitive and a shot rings out, with one solitary beam of light emanating through the bullet hole. It explains the whole scene, and what has happened, in the most dramatic way possible.

A chase up to the roof ensues, where, upon being pinned down, Neale and his gal shoot it out with the enemy, the rain pouring down in torrents overhead. It looks like dire straights if not for some fortuitous help. In literary terms, I believe the accepted phrase is a deus ex machina. Because closure, as such, is hardly arrived upon so easily, we conveniently edit through the climax to explain it away.

Instead, there is a hastily cut-together ending with one obligatory mention of a forthcoming church wedding and of course, a wedding cake…It is a glib reminder noir can often bleed into the most mundane environments.

As forced as it may feel, this happy ending leaves us with nervous laughter. Otherwise, we might still be trembling considering what might have happened. I can only imagine the reactions of a wartime audience — no matter how farfetched the plot — they were living through this very real fear.

3.5/5 Stars

Classic Movie Beginner’s Guide: Grace Kelly

Here is the latest installment in our beginner’s guide to classic movies where we look to profile a Hollywood star by highlighting 4 of their films and getting sidetracked by a few others too good to pass up.

This week we’ll be talking about none other than Princess Grace of Monaco who willingly gave up her movie career in 1956 to marry Prince Rainier and become royalty. Here’s where to start!

Dial M for Murder (1954)

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There were plenty of early films worth noting including Fourteen Hours, High Noon, and Mogambo. But how could we not acknowledge this first Hitchcock pairing that has Grace Kelly fighting desperately for her life against a jealous husband (Ray Milland)!

Rear Window (1954)

Classic Movie Beginner's Guide: Grace Kelly

The top tier of Hitchcock movies and it solidified Kelly and Hitch for the ages as one of the great movie partnerships. She is the quintessential “Icy Hitchcock Blonde,” cool and collected in one moment, beautiful and elegant, and yet impetuous as the stakes get higher. Despite their differences, Jimmy Stewart cannot help but fall in love with her.

The Country Girl (1954)

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Grace Kelly had so much poise and screen presence in all her films. But if there was ever a question of whether or not she was a “serious” actress, The Country Girl might as well dispel any doubts. She exudes a quiet dignity as she supports her husband (Bing Crosby), a soused up entertainer who unwittingly assassinates her reputation. They also starred together in the light-hearted musical High Society.

To Catch a Thief (1955)

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Grace Kelly and Cary Grant together are literally fireworks. The outfits are as extravagant as they are iconic. The interplay sizzles as the mystery mounts on the stunning French Riviera. A game of cat and mouse is afoot and both our leads are more than obliging in this lithe Hitchcock offering.