Queen & Slim
Once Upon a Time In Hollywood
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Lazily thrown together and clearly made purely to earn a quick buck during the Great Depression there is a real lack of heart behind this film as although James Cagney lights up the screen he can do little with a weak screenplay. This was the first film he made after the introduction of the Motion Picture Production Code and with the new restrictions there is none of the devilish exuberance of The Public Enemy (1931). It was a painful experience to watch such a powerful performer be neutered by new administration and it is hard to see how this trash could have come out at the same time as a wonderful film like It Happened One Night (1934). There was no humor or romance to the film and so it ended up being a series of ‘cute' scenes in search of a plot.
Take one scene in which Cagney chases around a young Gloria Stuart, playing his love interest, and the two attempt to build up witty banter. Their dynamic seemed similar to that which would exist between John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara in The Quiet Man (1952) but Cagney and Stuart did not have their chemistry and there was not a moment or a single line of dialogue that felt authentic. Their relationship should have been the emotional heart of the film and it should have provided a bit of a laugh as the two fight while hiding their attraction but it failed on both accounts. Perhaps we needed more time with them as they seem to jump wildly between scenes from hating one another to being totally in love. It felt like scenes in between had been cut or just never written as the filmmakers expected us to fill in the blanks and care about the characters without them doing any of the work to make us care. I enjoy movie romances, as preposterous as they can get, but this one just never worked for me and that left me not caring about what happened in the rest of the film.
The cinematography was unremarkable as the film looked like most of this era and was oddly gloomy for a film so light in tone. In terms of technical construction director Lloyd Bacon really could have done more to make the film stand out but as it is the film is forgotten by the wider public while Cagney's better vehicles remain beloved.
The fantasy genre was only really beginning to permeate films in the early 1930s with The Wizard of Oz (1939) and Portrait of Jennie (1948) still yet to come but this was one of the early financial successes as it blended romantic drama with a tale of ghosts haunting a man to great effect. 87 years later the film is not gripping stuff as it moves along at a slow pace and never builds up a sense of urgency about anything even as plot developments that should be highly dramatic occur. I wanted to like the film more than I did and while it was not a difficult 98 minutes to plow through I did find myself bored more often than not and that was simply not enough when considering the pleasures provided by the similarly light and fluffy Little Women (1933).
On the wedding day of the beautiful Moonyeen Clare, Norma Shearer, and her longtime love John Carteret, Leslie Howard, she is murdered by her jealous ex-lover Jeremy Wayne, Fredric March. For the rest of his life Carteret continues to mourn her as he raises his niece Kathleen, Norma Shearer, as an older man. Kathleen has been in a relationship with the dull Willie, Ralph Forbes, but during a storm the two take shelter in Wayne's house and encounter his American son Kenneth, Fredric March. Kenneth and Kathleen fall in love but when Carteret reveals dark family secrets she tells him that they cannot see one another anymore and both are left distraught. They reconcile in secret before he heads off to fight in World War I and she spends her time worrying while his life is put at risk overseas. When he returns the two tell Carteret that they intend to stay together and he comes to terms with the fact that he can no longer control them.
Where my heartstrings should have been tugged was in the impossible love that Carteret nurses for his dead bride as he wallows in his grief and holds onto a brief moment of happiness he experienced in his life. Almost all people can relate to the feeling of grief and just wanting to talk to a person you loved one more time but having that literally represented in the form of a ghost version of Clare providing closure for Carteret pushed the idea a little too far for me. There is something simultaneously beautiful and problematic about a person remaining devoted to a person even after their death, if you believe as I do that there is no afterlife, as they are gone and will be forever irretrievable. If we were not human and did not feel illogical emotions we would not limit ourselves as we do in feeling grief for a person but it is that very silly, frivolous emotion that makes love such a wonderful feeling and what allows us to feel so close to a person that it is devastating to lose them. This film captured little of that emotion as it seemed more concerned with the special effects required to show Clare as a ghost than writing convincing dialogue for Shearer to spout.
The love between the members of the younger generation was sweeter and more capable of taking it's time to develop but there was the feeling that each of the characters were too innocent and childlike for how old Shearer and March appeared. They spoke in the style of Romeo and Juliet but while those characters are young teenagers these two appear as at best 25 with the drinking and smoking they presumably engaged in in real life hurting their looks. Shearer does her best as she tosses her head back frequently and lets out breathy squeaks but March feels older than her and so when he delivers line so direct and earnest it feels odd to hear them coming out of the mouth of a man who seems wise and experienced. You want more out of these characters in what we see of them together as young love is beautiful in it's innocence and how all consuming it can feel but it chooses to rest purely on the attractiveness of it's stars.
Few will be particularly pleased by this unambitious little film that was acclaimed at the time but has faded from the public consciousness for good reason.
Comedies from the 1930s can be divisive as they often rely on sexual innuendo that seems tame by modern standards and feature slapstick that is worthy of groaning. This is one of the few that I have seen that stands up to modern scrutiny as some of the most likable and famous performers of the day team up to play characters that feel as though they were written to suit them. I loved William Powell and Myrna Loy in The Thin Man (1934) and while this film never reaches the heights of that unimpeachable classic their reteaming was something to behold as the chemistry definitely carried over from one film to another. Jean Harlow and Spencer Tracy are two actors whose work I have been less enthused about but here they surprised me and turned in predictable but effective performances that played into their public personas. I do not believe that the film was worthy of a Best Picture nomination but it certainly wasn't the worst film to crack the Best Picture lineup.
Newspaperman Warren Haggerty, Spencer Tracy, is so devoted to his job that he neglects his longtime fiancée Gladys Benton, Jean Harlow, to take care of crises at work in favor of marrying her. One crisis that he has to deal with occurs after the newspaper prints a story claiming that heiress and man-eater Connie Allenbury, Myrna Loy, had an affair with a married man without evidence. They are sued for $5 million for libel by Allenbury and her father James, Walter Connolly, who has had negative stories printed about him in the newspaper that derailed his burgeoning political career. Haggerty brings back former employee Bill Chandler, William Powell, to make Allenbury fall in love with him so that she cannot claim libel but in the process has Chandler married to an unhappy Benton.
The film does not attempt to push any real message about journalistic integrity on it's audience and for that I am thankful as many films from this time period that should be light comedies try to incorporate serious drama and fail. With a plot this unbelievable it would be difficult to take any moralizing to heart and the film delights in the wacky shenanigans produced by the somewhat improbable decisions that the characters make. Would a woman really marry another man just to make the man who will not marry her happy? Probably not but it propels the film's plot along and provides an opportunity to include a love triangle which adds tension to the film as well as a reason for Harlow to appear on screen. A better screenwriter could have made the film feel like more than a vehicle to have various actors play to type with hilarious results but this is not a film that requires a great screenwriter and while it is no The Lady Eve (1941) it produces enough laughs to entertain.
This is in large part due to Powell and Loy who are reliably excellent as the leading couple with their chemistry exploding off the screen as Loy takes on a role very different to Nora Charles. Here she is uptight and stuffy and opposes him at every turn with none of the alcoholism of Charles or the total support that characterized their relationship. They build up a repartee reminiscent of Ellie Andrews and Peter Warne in It Happened One Night (1934) but there is more edge to Loy who never fully succumbs to Powell's charms and remains very much her own woman throughout. It was odd to see a power imbalance in a romance of this sort in which the film skewed towards the woman as it is her who holds all of the money and the position as Powell is tasked with breaking her down. Tracy and Harlow prove to be considerably less interesting but they were better than I expected and Tracy does invest his role with an allure that was missing in his dreadful performance as Father Flanagan in Boys Town (1938).
Where the film loses the plot slightly is in it's pacing as it starts off quick and snappy, setting up the various characters and their relationships to one another nicely, but has a midsection that just sort of lumbers from one date between Loy and Powell to the next. This can be forgiven however as it is fun to watch these two stars shine.
Adaptations of Edna Ferber's plays and novels have generally rubbed me up the wrong way as Giant (1956) and Cimarron (1931) touch on important issues like racism and feminism and then choose to abandon them to present overwrought love triangles or support the idea of an all knowing alpha male. Fortunately this film makes significant deviations from her play which attempts to support the idea that theater is superior to films and presents the casting couch as a necessary evil. This film becomes a surprisingly prescient documentation of the negative effect that sexual harassment can have on young women while supporting the idea of women helping one another and pursuing their professional goals in favor of a life as a housewife or socialite.
At the theatrical boarding house "The Footlights Club" actresses struggle to survive as they are all out of work due to the limited positions available and rely on the money of wealthy men eager to trade sexual favors for furs, jewelry and expensive dinners. One of the aspiring performers who uses these men to support herself is the plucky Jean Maitland, Ginger Rogers, who immediately clashes with the upper class Terry Randall, Katharine Hepburn, when the new boarder is assigned to live with her. Randall has little experience and is going against the wishes of her father Henry Sims, Samuel S. Hinds, by becoming an actress but wins the favor of her fellow boarders when she calls out the womanizing, manipulative talent agent Anthony Powell, Adolphe Menjou. Powell has been toying with the affections of various actresses including Maitland but has to swallow his pride when Sims comes to him offering money to have Randall star in a new play with the hope that she will be humiliated and abandon her career ambitions. Meanwhile the emotionally fragile Kay Hamilton, Andrea Leeds, considers committing suicide while she struggles to obtain roles and earn enough money to pay for food and board.
The film combines an Altman-esque slice of life drama with a bitchy All About Eve (1950) style satire on show business and somehow makes it work. We hear snippets of various conversations carrying on between the boarders as they discuss the difficulties they go through trying to get work and the sexual harassment they endure from the men they go out with. There is humor in these interactions as the women are unusually frank in their confessions for a film from this time period and their dialogue sounds naturalistic with all of the shrieks and giggles uttered by a regular twenty something girl around her friends. Where the film really digs into dark commentary is in scenes where we hear Maitland referencing the fact that men she goes out for dinner with force themselves on her afterwards and hearing about the tactics Powell uses to ensnare women in his trap. There is a straightforwardness to the way that Maitland accepts this abuse as a fact of life and this reinforces the sadness of the situation that women attempting to pursue careers during this time stepped into. Powell is also seen as the predator he is as the film does not let him off the hook for leveraging his power over women and even mocks him in all his disgusting behavior as he even employs a fake wife and son to convince women to sleep with him.
The joy of the film is also in the performances as some truly iconic actresses work at the height of their powers in this film as Hepburn and Rogers are expectedly delightful while Eve Arden and Leeds steal scenes in the background. One of the smartest things that the film does is play on Hepburn's reputation as a dislikable figure who looks down her nose at everybody in show business while being relatively inexperienced herself. Her opening scenes make you hate her as she references the "Inferior upbringing" of Rogers when she first meets her and displays a disgust for anything that she sees as below her. There is of course the obligatory scene in this film where Hepburn is humbled and she does a fantastic job at playing a terrible, wooden actress but unlike The Philadelphia Story (1940) and Woman of the Year (1942) her humbling allows her to develop as a person and an actress. In other films she has starred in this humbling served as a sort of masochistic fantasy for the male audience members who hated her in all of her confidence and self sufficiency. She does not submit to any man in this film and instead decides to train in order to become better at her job and befriend the women who have supported her.
As a film that almost put me to sleep it was so dull I find it difficult to understand why this film received a Best Picture nomination and George Arliss was able to win an Academy Award for Best Actor for a truly atrocious performance. One of the primary examples of a play being transferred to the screen with no real adjustment for audiences in a cinema leading to a poorly made film this is one to miss. It does however serve as an interesting historical document of what issues marred early cinema and the fact that what was considered a prestigious picture in the late 1920s is largely similar to what receives critical praise and awards today.
British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, George Arliss, is aiming to extend Britain's reach in 1874 as he faces opposition from his opponents in parliament and drama in his personal life.
The film's primary attraction is presumably the performance of Arliss who was having a career moment with the release of The Green Goddess (1930) and another Academy Award nomination in the same year. Sadly he is a real disappointment as he gives a performance attuned for the theater and does not seem to have learned basic lessons about acting like knowing to look away from the camera and delivering your dialogue like you are reacting to the events occurring around you. Here it seems like Disraeli learned all of his lines and just spat them out in a loud and dramatic tone without really understanding the context surrounding the lines or the reactions of other characters. He tends to dominate every scene he is in but not in a good way as it is easy for his hammy, over the top work to overpower the less intense work of others and sadly all of this passion does not go towards something worthy of dominating the entire film. The Best Actor lineup was one of the weakest of all time and the performance of Arliss seems like the easiest to reward as it ticks a lot of Oscar Bait requirements.
At this point I am mystified by the taste of American audiences during the Great Depression as they loved the vehicles of the infuriating Deanna Durbin and other similarly cloying, precocious child stars. The sisters featured in this film are significantly less vomit inducing than Durbin but they still lack real acting ability and rely on the fact that they each fit into certain stereotypes to carry them along. The film itself has a paper thin plot and somehow stretches it out to 90 minutes as it reaches a level absurdity found only in Three Coins in the Fountain (1954). I assumed that any film that was only 90 minutes would be a breeze but unfortunately I was mistaken as I really struggled to get through this film with it's complete lack of substance or originality.
Single father Adam Lemp, Claude Rains, is the head of a musical family as he trains his four young daughters into becoming musical talents. His eldest Emma, Gale Page, is the most responsible and pursues a relationship with the older, stable Ben Crowley, Frank McHugh, who bores her but who proves a more appealing option than the unpredictable young Ernest, Dick Foran. Third daughter Kay, Rosemary Lane, is an aspiring singer who eventually experiences success while youngest daughter Ann, Priscilla Lane, is caught up in a love triangle between non-confrontational Felix Deitz, Jeffrey Lynn, and his friend temperamental musician Mickey Borden, John Garfield. She finds herself with Borden but both are miserable when they move to New York City. His angst and concern about his future isolate her from him and his issues and leave her feeling lonely and unable to help him. They return home and learn of Kay's success but conflict arises when the feelings between Ann and Deitz reignite.
One of the pleasant surprises of the film was that the girls do not randomly launch into song but have their "musical numbers" justified by the story and are provided with something to do while performing other than staring into the camera. Each of the sisters would also appear to have a decent singing voice as while Rosemary gets the most chance to show off her vocal range the rest of the sisters put in good work. My tolerance for their singing may have been due to the fact that they were not singing opera a la Grace Moore in One Night of Love (1934) or screeching out a tune like Marjorie Reynolds in Holiday Inn (1942) but the fact that I was not in pain seemed like something of a benefit. The singing and dancing still lacked the charm of an Ernst Lubitsch musical from the same time period as Maurice Chevalier is mesmerizing in One Hour with You (1932) while these girls are merely tolerable.
It is in the substance of the film that I was lost as there was so little occurring on screen that it was difficult to stay engaged. I do not mind films with limited plot that focus on characters and relationships generally, in fact I tend to love them, but these films require great writing and performances to make them worth watching and this film lacked both. The girls and their coming of age feels rapid as they jump from scene to scene and become completely different people with seemingly no reason as their primary desire is to get married, the only ambition women have in 1930s films. The love triangle in the film also lacked tension as Deitz was such a mushy nothing of a character that he posed no real threat to the combustible Borden throughout most of the film and Lynn failed to generate chemistry with any of the female leads. Only Garfield creates a character worth paying attention to as he is a rebel of sorts but the kind that I hate who has no justification for his angst and spends all of his time lecturing others. When the most interesting character in the film was somebody that I hated it did not bode well for as this is the sort of film that expects to get by on charm and sweetness.
If you are looking for a pleasant, undemanding 1930s comedy then this is not the one to revisit as it offers little of value.
When I was twelve I saw Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003) and was extremely underwhelmed as the film had an overcomplicated plot and featured characters lacking in any depth. Where that film failed this timeless 1938 classic succeeds as it features perhaps the definitive swashbuckler leading man in Errol Flynn and makes a strong argument for the use of Technicolor. It is very easy to fall in love with the film as it is relentlessly entertaining and refreshing in how straightforward it is as it does not attempt to reinvent the wheel but does what has been done before exceptionally well. Unlike later imitators like Ivanhoe (1952) it is still a rousing piece of entertainment and would still bring joy to youth audiences today with it's optimism and simplicity.
In the late 12th century the honorable King Richard the Lionheart, Ian Hunter, who is devoted to helping the poor and disenfranchised is taken hostage by Leopold V, Duke of Austria and if the English want him back they will have to pay a ransom. In his place his treacherous and corrupt brother Prince John, Claude Rains, ascends to the throne and begins to steal from the poor for his own gain and force them to pay high taxes. The man who defends the poor is Sir Robin of Locksley, Errol Flynn, who steals from the rich and gives to the poor but he faces opposition and in trying to win the heart of Maid Marian, Olivia de Havilland, he must teach her about inequality. He earns a victory in an archery tournament meant to lure him to his execution but when he arranges with Marian to have the King saved she is imprisoned and he must find the King and help him take his rightful place on the throne before it is too late.
The look of the film is extraordinary as the vaunted bright colors produced by Technicolor are on full display here and it allows the film to be more memorable than most from this era. While later iterations of this story would adopt a cold, blue sepia tone that did not allow for the inherent fun and wackiness of the situation to be exploited. The brightness of this film matches it's innocent tone and sense of freewheeling adventure as it allows for the loveliness of a young de Havilland to be highlighted and the bright fabric of their costumes to come to life. To an adult audience it will be immediately clear that the film has been shot on a studio back lot and an orchard owned by the studio somewhere out in California but this artificiality does not really matter. While watching the film you can revert to feeling a sense of childlike wonderment with the larger than life characters and fantastical locations.
What the film also benefits from is smart writing as unlike Ivanhoe it follows the very simple story of a man with socialist ideals facing off against an evil villain who saves the day and gets the girl. It helps that all of the characters proclaim their feelings without reservation and seem to exist in a world where moral grey area does not exist. If performers without the force of personality of de Havilland or Rains had inhabited these roles they might have seemed flat and lacking but they are each aware of what sort of film they are in and play to their strengths wonderfully. She is all doe eyes and breathless proclamations and he plays the type of stern elder statesman who would become his bread and butter in later years. Flynn is not an actor I am enamored of but he fits into this film nicely and for the low bar that he has to jump over with all of the excellence around him he is quite competent. It is easy to see why de Havilland Flynn made so many films together, eight in total, as they have wonderful chemistry and her potential as a great dramatic actress shines through in many of their romantic scenes.
I can't recommend this film enough as while it is hardly important in terms of it's content it stands up as one of the best swashbuckler pictures ever made.
Paul Muni was one of the biggest movie stars of the 1930s but he is not as remembered today as Clark Gable and Errol Flynn because his brand of prestige picture does not have the appeal that Gone with the Wind (1939) or Captain Blood (1935) do. This film was his biggest early hit and he is believed to have narrowly lost an Academy Award for Best Actor to Charles Laughton in The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933). Fortunately Muni delivers as he gives a natural, charismatic performance that convinces us of his character's inherent goodness and heartbreaking struggle to break free of a system that ruins the lives of innocents. The film itself is too simplistic to fully tackle the important issue that it takes on but for a film made in the 1930s it is remarkable in how willing it is to attack government institutions and it's message is sadly still timely and worthy.
Sergeant James Allen, Paul Muni, is desperate to become an engineer and escape the monotony of the job he held before he left to fight in World War I when he returns home to the small town in which he was raised. He goes against the wishes of his loving mother, Louise Carter, and brother Reverend Allen, Hale Hamilton, and quits the job he had before fighting in the war to move across the country and become an engineer. On the way he agrees to join a drifter in trying to buy a burger but discovers that the drifter is a robber and is forced at gunpoint to help them carry out the robbery. When the police arrive the drifter is shot and Allen is convicted and sentenced to becoming a prisoner. While in prison he endures suffering and decides that he must escape with no chance of escaping.
The film's title would make you think that it was a forerunner to The Fugitive (1993) or at least a dozen other 1990s thriller about innocent men crucified by the media and a corrupt system who are forced to go on the run. This film takes itself much more seriously than one of those films and does indulge in considerably less ludicrous plot twists and improbable romances involving kidnapping. Most of the film's first half is actually devoted to displaying how awful the conditions in the prison are and the cruelty of the guards with little flash or attempts to sexualize our hero. If one were asking for more nuance they would ask why the guards seem so inhuman and what it is that drives them to attack the men they are hired to watch over. There is something to be said about the grim, depressing mood that director Mervyn LeRoy builds up with his relentlessly long scenes of the men out in the sun working and cradling themselves in fear as they worry that the prison guards will pick on them at night. I appreciated the fact that the film was not just a popcorn thriller masquerading as a social issues movie but a film that did not shy away from alienating less patient viewers with a slow, contemplative first half.
The second half of the film does become silly as Allen encounters an evil woman in the form of his landlady Marie, Glenda Farrell, who traps him in a marriage and proves to be a gold digger. Sure it was fairly enjoyable watching this man have his life ruined by a delightfully nasty bitch but after the realism of the first half of the film it felt odd to have a character straight out of a soap opera transplanted into the film. In any film like this it is also inevitable that our hero will find a ‘nice' woman who presents an appealing alternative to his evil wife and here she lacked in any personality. Their meet cute seemed strangely flat and with all of the tension flying around between Muni and Farrell it was difficult to care about his tepid flirtation with an unremarkable but kind young woman. His wife's betrayal of him provides the best scene in the second half of the film but at that point you are several steps ahead of the film already and it becomes a lot less than what it set out to be.
Whether a light musical released today could become one of the highest grossing films of the year is debatable this movie was a massive hit in 1931 and gave Ernst Lubitsch two Best Picture nominated films in 1932. In a way this film made me sad that we do not see films of this sort produced now as while they are fluffy and completely lacking in substance there are few directors who can handle a wacky romantic comedy like Ernst Lubitsch. I found the film to be enjoyable in spite of it's lack of a real plot because the performers are incredible and all working at the height of their powers and the film allowed me to relax after watching heavy films like Alice Adams (1935) and Dodsworth (1936).
In the early 1930s in Vienna, Austria Princess Anna of Flausenthurm, Miriam Hopkins, comes to visit from the neighboring country with her protective father King Adolf XV, George Barbier. While attending a parade she believes that she has received a suggestive smile and wink from Lieutenant Nikolaus "Niki" von Preyn, and this story becomes widely circulated in newspapers. In actuality von Preyn was attempting to flirt with his girlfriend, sexy conductor and violinist Franzi, Claudette Colbert, but accidentally locked eyes with Anna. He is roped into marrying Anna against his will but theirs is an unhappy union as he does not sleep with her and often sneaks off to visit Franzi. He and Franzi enjoy their time together as he hires policemen to ‘arrest' her and then protect them while they spend time together. Anna eventually discovers his secret but when she meets Franzi the latter chooses to mentor her and make her the ideal wife for von Preyn before departing herself to let the couple experience marital bliss.
For all of the apparent turmoil that occurred during the production of the film with the rivalry between Colbert and Hopkins, issues with the location and Chevalier's grief making his performance difficult to deliver the film comes off as effortless. The screenplay, written and rewritten by several notable scribes, bounces along at an alarming rate as there seems to be a joke every minute and despite the lack of plot developments there is always something of interest happening on screen. We receive excellent introductions to all of our leading characters as the father-daughter relationship between Anna and Adolf was reminiscent of the relationship between Jean and Colonel Harrington in The Lady Eve (1941). We find ourselves laughing and smiling as these often improbable figures go about their days with entirely un-relatable problems weighing them down.
Chevalier's presence is essential to the success of the film as with his cheeky grins and unflappability he is the perfect star for a film of this sort as he immediately assuages any fears that audiences may have over having to interact with real issues in the film. He is not a roguish French charmer like the later Louis Jourdan or Alain Delon and offers a pleasant countenance while playing the type of foreign fool who appeals to American and British audiences who want to feel superior while sharing in his carefree spirit. He is joined by Colbert, just three years before her incredible 1934 in which she starred in Cleopatra (1934), It Happened One Night (1934) and Imitation of Life (1934), who displays all of the feistiness and subtlety that would make her one of the defining leading ladies of her era. Hopkins, who had a penchant for giving hammy performances, gets a role that she can really sink her teeth into as she gets the regality and confusion of her privileged but inexperienced princess to a t. Lubitsch surely had a hand in all this as Chevalier did his best work with him and could fall into irksome tics when in the hands of a less skillful director like Joshua Logan.
The whole thing is harmless fun and that is something to be appreciated when so many comedies rely on vulgarity and rude jokes that are disgusting and most importantly not funny. I think that it is important that we look back and appreciate the fact that entertainment like this brought joy to people in a time of suffering and because it is so good natured it is very easy to like.
Just one year after the release of the timeless Dodsworth (1936) William Wyler helmed another Best Picture nominee in this social conscious crime drama based upon a popular play of the same name. The film gave rise to the "Dead End Kids" a group of young actors who would go on to appear in films similar in tone and style to this one with their thick New York accents and ‘rough' appeal. They were best put to use here as while the film may seem dated by modern standards and the influence of Hays Code era morality can clearly be seen on the film it does make a real attempt at showing the effect that growing up poor can have on a man's psyche. I would not have nominated the film for Best Picture but it is a film that has it's moments and performances from young Humphrey Bogart and Joel McCrea certainly help.
Criminal Hugh "Baby Face" Martin, Humphrey Bogart, has been in prison for several years and had plastic surgery which makes it difficult for those who used to know him to recognize him. He returns to his childhood neighborhood, a slum in Queens that neighbors a palatial apartment building, and tries to reconnect with his mother, Marjorie Main, who rejects him for his immorality and his ex-girlfriend Francie, Claire Trevor, who has become a prostitute and contracted syphilis. While there he mentors young street kids and tries to mold them into younger versions of himself with the vulnerable Tommy Gordon, Billy Halop, who presents himself as the leader of the group much to the dismay of his ambitious sister Drina, Sylvia Sidney. Drina loves the well meaning but poor architect Dave Connell, Joel McCrea, who is also having an affair with a wealthy man's mistress. When Gordon stabs a wealthy man he goes into hiding and with the arrival of the police old conflicts heat up and prejudices are revealed.
The idea that the film presents, that being trapped in a low socioeconomic class pushes people into a life of crime, is one that we have seen on film many times but it is conveyed quite convincingly here. The street toughs do seem terribly theatrical and would probably be more at home in West Side Story (1961) than Serpico (1973) but that is just something you accept when considering the acting style popular at the time. Fortunately Bogart is very convincing as a former criminal who very quickly turns from being regretful and hoping to start anew to vengeful and angry despite the questionable backstory about his character's plastic surgery. Scenes of him teaching young kids how to commit crimes and them looking up at him as a hero of sorts are the most impactful in the film as we see the painful cycle that these children will go through as they do not have fathers or brothers to look to as a positive example. Oh, there is the fact that McCrea seems a little too good to be true but the fact that he was a complete square gave the film an old fashioned charm that I was sensitive to.
Editing the film must have been a struggle as for a film of this time there is an unusual amount of shooting and near escapes from the police. Daniel Mandell edited the film and while I cannot say that I think he did a fantastic job as there were times when it was unclear who was on the run and which of the kids were in danger he was able to keep the film running at a relatively fast pace and extended verbal interactions between characters to the point where they were fulfilled their purpose. Wyler is also expectedly good as a director as he would appear to be capable of directing almost anything and he gives a nice sense of the ambience of the area with everybody being slightly afraid of one another and the kids having to watch their backs. He also proves to be an actor's director as he coaxes good performances out of a cast who largely play to type and produces an unremarkable but solid follow up to one of his first big hits and possibly his greatest film.
Few films could serve as a better endorsement of alcoholism than this 1934 hit which spawned five sequels and made William Powell and Myrna Loy some of the biggest box office stars of the decade. These sequels did not reach the heights of the first film but it is easy to see why this movie was so popular in it's time and endures as a public favorite as it celebrates the institution of marriage and uses a ludicrous murder mystery to bring a group of delightfully wacky characters together. The film is based on a novel written by Dashiell Hammett but fortunately it takes a considerably lighter tone that some of his other work and is considerably better for it as it commits to being an entertaining comedy instead of trying to be The Maltese Falcon (1941) before it's time.
Functioning alcoholic and retired detective Nick Charles, William Powell, resides in San Francisco and lives the high life due to the money brought in by his wife Nora, Myrna Loy, who is an heiress and partner in his sleuthing and drinking. Charles and Nora travel to New York City where they are met by Dorothy Wynant, Maureen O'Sullivan, who is concerned by the disappearance of her father Clyde, Edward Ellis, and believes it may be connected to his gold-digging mistress Julia Wolf, Natalie Moorhead. Clyde had announced that he was going away without telling anybody where he was going but had arranged with his diminutive lawyer Herbert MacCaulay, Porter Hall, to have money sent to him through contacting Wolf. When Wolf is found murdered by Clyde's ex-wife Mimi, Minna Gombell, who wants money to support her gold-digging husband Chris Jorgenson, Cesar Romero, people begin to suspect that he has become a serial killer and is on the run. Charles sets out to prove that Clyde was not a murderer and find out who murdered him.
The film is such a delight because despite the coldblooded murders at the center of the story every character has their own funny little quirks and comedic gold can be derived from their interactions. The Wynant family in particular are wonderfully weird as Dorothy has a bizarre oedipal complex, Mimi tries to use her ex-husband so that her current husband can use her and son Gilbert, William Henry, psychoanalyzes everybody to the point of insanity. Each of them lack any self awareness and as they spend their time trying to deceive Charles and others you discover exactly why one of them would end up murdered as none of them have their head on their shoulders. Even the murder victim was silly enough to get involved with a woman who steals and was involved with a member of the mafia but we are charmed by him in the few scenes we witness him in as he huffs his way around and offers bemused reactions to his overly affectionate daughter's comments. Screenwriters Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich deserve credit for understanding what makes this story appealing and adding just the right characteristics to all of these supporting characters to keep us engaged despite the lack of plot.
One must also note the fact that the Charles couple are also delightful as even though I doubt their lifestyle would be quite so happy when they drink so much they are both fashionable and complete equals in their relationship, rare for a 1930s film. Loy and Powell have fantastic chemistry as they volley back and forth and their infectious enthusiasm for investigating the case brings a smile to your face as you realize that this is a couple who enjoy one another's company greatly and make a fantastic team. Crucially Nora is seen to help her husband as when he attempts to send her away while going about his investigation she discovers crucial evidence and assists him in the climactic dinner scene when the murderer is discovered. She is happy to witness him shoot another man and looks fabulous while doing so as Loy's scrunched up face and easy smiles make her a truly memorable heroine. Powell really is the main character however and he is brilliant as he underplays all of his comedic moments to the point where they are hilarious without stretching too far. The writing of the characters and the top grade performances delivered by the actors make this a great film.
Something about Cary Grant rubs me the wrong way so almost any film he is in is hurt by his presence in my evaluation as he is often cast as a charming, funny romantic lead and I just cannot find it in myself to like him. He starred in this light romantic comedy from 1937 that received enough acclaim to be nominated for Best Picture and earn director Billy Wilder his first of two Academy Awards for Best Director. Having recently seen and enjoyed The Thin Man (1934) I thought I was going to be able to sit back and enjoy the humor of an arguing married couple coming to realize they love each other but sadly I was left rather bored and did not laugh once.
Lucy Warriner, Irene Dunne, has been taking lessons with music teacher Armand Duvalle, Alexander D'Arcy, without telling her husband Jerry, Cary Grant, who comes to believe that she is having an affair with her teacher when he finds them together late at night. He refuses to believe his wife when she tells him that the car her teacher was using broke down and she believes that he has had an affair when he appears tan despite claiming that he traveled to Florida where it had been raining recently. The two divorce because they do not trust one another and have shared custody of their dog Mr. Smith, Skippy, but continue to spend time together as they are still attracted to one another. Warriner becomes engaged to Oklahoman oil man Dan Leeson, Ralph Bellamy, whose mother, Esther Dale, controls him but their burgeoning relationship is complicated by Jerry's intrusions into their lives. Warriner is also jealous of her husband's new girlfriends and sabotages his relationships with showgirl Dixie Belle Lee, Joyce Compton, and snobbish heiress Barbara Vance, Molly Compton.
There is great comedic potential in concepts of this sort as several comedies of remarriage existed around this time, unfortunately Grant starred in many of them, that did more with the idea of two people who do not value one another enough. There is an added richness to the idea of two people rediscovering why they loved another as they are given room to reflect on their past mistakes and recognize what makes the other person special. Most romantic films could be criticized for only depicting the early period a relationship in which the connection between two people is largely based on physical attraction and they have not had time to develop grievances against one another or develop patterns. Marriages can be the most fulfilling aspect of a person's life as they are difficult to maintain but often rewarding and while this can be difficult to portray on screen, as shown by this film, it would be nice to see something that most people commit themselves to appear more often in films.
What the film wastes it's fantastic concept on is a series of comedic gags based around tired stereotypes as we get a dumb, Southern mother's boy, a floozy and a haughty wealthy woman who is ultimately humiliated. Nothing that appears in this film is original and it does not use any of it's tired jokes well as the ‘sexually suggestive' dance carried out by Compton was not nearly as hilarious as the work of Ginger Rogers in 42nd Street (1933). The inclusion of a dog that the couple fights over also reminded me of The Thin Man as while Nick and Nora Charles get along famously and do not argue their dog draws them together as it brings Warriner and Jerry together and the fact that this film pales in comparison to that film made me depressed. I don't mind comedies that are not necessarily original but use classic tropes and package them well as shown by my love for When Harry Met Sally… (1989) but this film's failure to put tried and true gags to good use made it a frustrating viewing experience.
The performances were also lacking as both of the Dunne performances I have seen so far have underwhelmed me and Grant was typically grating. Dunne seemed to be doing a Claudette Colbert impression but she came across as brittle and silly in early scenes and never really comes into her own as she comes across as an adult woman pretending to be a child. We also get the obligatory scene of her singing and I started to feel as though she was her generation's Diane Keaton and I mean that as a negative statement. She should not have been in the 1937 Best Actress lineup and it is disappointing that with competition like Beulah Bondi in Make Way for Tomorrow (1937) she made her way into contention.
Recently I have watched several early Katharine Hepburn vehicles in Little Women (1933) and The Philadelphia Story (1940) but it was this relatively forgotten gem that I had overlooked. She received her second Academy Award nomination for this film after winning an Academy Award for the dreadful Morning Glory (1933) and she plays a role unlike anything she had played before or would play again as she is an unusually gentle, fragile woman in this film without losing any of the spirit that makes her such a star. She headlined the film and as she appears on screen throughout most of the film she really carries the film so despite the film's considerable flaws her brilliant performance allows it to be a thoroughly enjoyable film.
The poor, lower class Alice Adams, Katharine Hepburn, lives with her bitter, angry mother, Ann Shoemaker, and her invalid father, Fred Stone, who once had hopes of earning enough money to move his family into a higher social class. The point in contention was a glue formula that Mr. Adams helped to create while working for Mr. Lamb, Charles Grapewin, who continues to financially support him despite him not being able to work. Adams attends the dance party of the wealthy Mildred Palmer, Evelyn Venable, where she begins a flirtation with rich but friendly Arthur Russell, Fred MacMurray, who sees through her lies about her background but is attracted to her. She invites him to dinner but ends up embarrassed when her lies are revealed and her gambling brother Walter, Frank Albertson, arrives to announce that he has stolen money from Lamb. Mr. Adams has angered Lamb by opening up his own glue factory and his former employer arrives to threaten him and Mr. Adams must justify his actions by stating that they were taken out to help his daughter.
The most glaring issue with the film is it's treatment of race as all of the African-American characters that appear on screen are depicted in a negative light and the idea that they are lesser than white people is strongly enforced. Walter, who drags down his entire family, is seen to be friends with several African-Americans and all are portrayed as drunken buffoons who are also manipulative and disgusting. His association with them brings shame to the Adams family and our heroine is seen to find the very presence of these ‘colored' people offensive. The only named African-American character is maid Malena, Hattie McDaniel, who serves the Adams family and is depicted as a fool with little self respect who is a source of embarrassment for the family at their dinner. 84 years later this film appears horribly racist but even at the time most of Hollywood had turned against racism and were working to produce films that while not actively supportive of civil rights did not actively attack African-American audiences.
Other issues with the film include the ending as the darker ending found in the Booth Tarkington novel as while Adams reconciles quickly with Russell in the film in the book she loses him due to her behavior but realizes she will have to change her ways if she is to find true happiness. The end of this film feels tacked on and unnecessary as the rest of the film feels relatively realistic and this felt like something out of a June Allyson picture. Hepburn and MacMurray give it their best shot and make their reconciliation more believable than it would have been in the hands of lesser performers but because they are asked to change the way that their characters act so completely it is hard to take them or the film seriously at this point.
All of this does not matter when Hepburn is such a powerful force on screen as she takes on a role that is so different from what we would come to expect of her and excels. The accent is there and some of the mannerisms but gone is the haughtiness that characterizes most of Hepburn's work and she genuinely settles into her role as a girl from the wrong side of the tracks with self esteem issues. Her desperate attempts to have the wealthy recognize her are heartbreaking and Hepburn plays into her strengths as she seems to be saying three different things at once and enunciates every word a little too carefully. She earned her Best Actress nomination and was certainly doing better work than the eventual winner Bette Davis.
With the release of yet another film adaptation of Little Women recently I decided to watch the first film adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's classic novel. Just the prospect of seeing Katharine Hepburn tackle such an iconic literary character tantalized me and I am happy to say that she did not let me down as her Jo March was a force to be reckoned with and an emotionally confused young woman. The film as a whole was just a delight as under the direction of George Cukor, a master of the woman's picture, the story was able to come alive with early feminist ideals and a strong sense of family bonding coming to the fore. For a film that is 86 years old it has hardly aged a day and it is easy to see why it was a favorite of audiences and critics in 1933.
The strong-willed Josephine "Jo" March, Katharine Hepburn, lives in Concord, Massachusetts during the American Civil with her supportive Marmee, Spring Byington, as her father is off fighting in the war. She also lives with her three other sisters, the eldest Meg, Frances Dee, is sensible, the younger Amy, Joan Bennett, is stubborn and often rude and the youngest Beth, Jean Parker, is quiet and caring. The four sisters grow into young women with the help of neighbor Laurie, Douglass Montgomery, who becomes best friends with March while nursing unrequited love for her. March has the desire to become a writer and experiences success as her silly stories are bought and published in the local newspaper but her sisters have less success in pursuing their dreams. Meg finds happiness with the poor John Brooke, John Davis Lodge, Amy continues to be insolent and Beth eventually dies. After being rejected by March Laurie turns to Amy and March finds lasting love with the older Professor Friedrich Bhaer, Paul Lukas.
I went in expecting great things from Hepburn and she may have exceeded even my high expectations as she is perfectly cast as the haughty, headstrong March who is intelligent and well meaning but can alienate those around her with her aggressive nature. Her unique accent fits the character quite well and all of her Hepburn-isms make complete sense when considering the fact that March is written as a theatrical young woman who quite literally stages plays so all of Hepburn's "Dah-lings" and "Ree-allys" sound natural coming from the character. She even makes March believable when she is yelling "Christopher Columbus" and many of the rather clunky monologues she is forced to deliver while teary eyed as she celebrates the unity of her family feel authentic and unforced. She is terribly funny and seems aware of the fact that she needs to play March as a woman who is self conscious but aiming to appear as though she does not care what anybody thinks of her. Her March is a character full of contradictions and in that way she makes her feel like an honest to goodness young woman with all of her inexperience and fear of judgement.
She is surrounded by a film that serves her well as Cukor is smart to make the first half of the film simply a cozy series of vignettes before having March's romantic struggles take center stage in the final act. The book feels much like Anne of Green Gables, a book that I prefer, in that it chronicles the girlhood of an intelligent but overeager young woman filled with impossible dreams. This means that viewers who do not enjoy precious young girls as I do may be irritated by March and all of her sisters who could be considered self absorbed but I think that this film makes the girls sympathetic in their worrying about their own issues. What the film also gets right, that the other adaptations did not, is March's choice of a practical, understanding man over the passionate but impetuous young man who has loved her longer. The film sets up that March is a woman who cares more about her career and furthering her own ambitions than supporting someone else and somebody as immature as Laurie would need her to give him emotional support. Bhaer asks much less of her and is her equal in many ways as he does not have the naivete of Laurie and would allow March to stand as her own woman. The end of the film may not be the most romantic that there could have been but it does remain in line with what we know about March.
The works of Ernest Hemingway have rarely been successfully adapted into films as For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943) was a pretentious bore, The Snows of Kilimanjaro (1952) felt like a television soap opera and The Old Man and the Sea (1958) adhered too closely to the text that it was based on. This film is considered by many to be the best adaptation of his writings but in watching it I found it to be an incredible bore as the plot was thin and without the benefit of an internal monologue the two lead characters feel leaden and lifeless. Even a luminous young Helen Hayes could not save this film from itself.
American architect Frederic Henry, Gary Cooper, becomes an ambulance driver during World War I as he serves in Italy with the stuffy Captain Rinaldi, Adolphe Menjou, who spends his time chasing nurses. He is particularly interested in Catherine Barkley, Helen Hayes, who is said to be the most attractive of the local nurses but she falls in love with Henry instead. Henry is injured when sent off to the battlefield but he is supported by Barkley when he returns. The two try their hardest to survive while fostering their relationship as they realize that they may be permanently separated.
Hayes is one of the most acclaimed actresses of all time what with her title as the "First Lady of the American Theatre" and the two Academy Awards she won but I am still something of an agnostic. I enjoyed her work in The Sin of Madelon Claudet (1932) and I can see the twinkle in her eye that made audiences fall in love with her but there was a lot missing here as she gave an inconsistent performance. She was at once the sweet, virginal ingénue favored in romances of this era and the humorless shrew as Cooper is presented as a nice, All-American boy with a proclivity for drinking and making crude jokes. Part of this issue lies in the fact that Hemingway did not seem to know how to write a realistic female character as Barkley feels like a male fantasy here. She has more maturity than the childlike nymphet found in For Whom the Bell Tolls but we know little about her beyond the fact that she is attracted to the male lead and is innocent and non-threatening unlike ‘bad' women. Director Frank Borzage is very fond of attractive, childlike young women but his previous effort Bad Girl (1931) put this trope to better use as the female lead in that film was challenged and had traits beyond her love for her romantic partner.
If the film could be considered exceptional in any way it would be in it's cinematography as the prolific Charles Lang brought his light touch to the picture and we get plenty of soft focus shots of our lovers in the moonlight and close-ups on Cooper's horrified face. In one rather odd scene we see Hayes press her face up against the camera to represent Cooper's point of view and while I understand what Lang was aiming for this inventive shot had the impact of taking me out of the film instead of allowing me to marvel at how romantic the kiss between Cooper and Hayes is. There are other times when he goes too far in attempting to make the lovers appear angelic as there are only so many times that we can see them drenched in white light before we note the irony of two people most likely having sexual intercourse being presented as ideals during the era of the Motion Picture Production Code.
At the time the film did not receive rave reviews so I am surprised by the amount of Academy Award nominations it received. According to some this was considered a contender for a Best Picture nominee which I suppose makes sense because it is based on an acclaimed book and the eventual Best Picture winner Grand Hotel (1932) seems comparatively less important. I am glad that the star-studded hit beat out the more prestigious film because the former is a better film that has held up over time.
Spencer Tracy is an acclaimed actor who I always assumed that I would someday "get" as from what I have seen of his work so far he seems to play nice, morally upright, often religious American men in fairly one note performances. He appeared in a lot of films that were considered important during their time but I did not find him remarkable in them and in the romantic comedies he made with real life partner Katharine Hepburn she does most of the work. This is the second of two consecutive Academy Award wins so I thought that his performance here would be one of his best but shockingly I found it even less impressive than his work in even lighter fare than Father of the Bride (1950). The film itself I really hated as it was the sort of schmaltz popular with the Academy during the 1930s and the fact that religion was being forced on me actively turned me against the film.
The kindly Father Flanagan, Spencer Tracy, chooses to open a home where underprivileged young men can be rehabilitated after speaking to a man who has become a convicted murderer as a result of his difficult childhood. Flanagan takes on several young men with troubled backgrounds but with order and regimentation the boys become devoted to their new leader. They set up proper facilities for the boy and Flanagan allows them to set out certain laws with unruly boys getting punished if they do not fall in line. Flanagan finds a seemingly insurmountable challenge in trying to convert Whitey Marsh, Mickey Rooney, to Christianity and stop him from committing criminal acts because he is the brother of the dangerous Joe Marsh, Edward Norris. With an election of the new leader of Boys Town Marsh launches an unprecedented campaign but his efforts may not be rewarded.
The specter of religion that spreads across the entire film is something that alienated me because as an atheist I disagreed with the messages put forward and was angered when the characters were hypocritical. Much like Going My Way (1944) this film supports the idea that religious institutions should be provided with money from banks without having to pay back debts. This is an offensive idea to me because that money is being taken from hardworking people who have put the money they earned into the bank for safekeeping and an institution that may go against their beliefs spending their money without their permission is a terrifying thought. I support the idea of troubled young people having their lives improved by social services but having religion involved could be problematic as elements of their doctrine, particularly in the 1940s, could damage a young man's psyche and encourage discrimination against minorities. This film values the religion aspect over the rehabilitation as we see far more of the boys singing angelically in a church choir than the methods that are employed to help them understand the root cause of their troubles and how to improve.
The schmaltz is laid on mercilessly as it feels like an awful line like "There is no bad boy" is trotted out every fifteen minutes because it practically is. This is the sort of thing that Tracy says when presented with a ‘challenge' which is almost always resolved in five minutes with very little consideration or development on Flanagan's part. He is a perfect saint throughout and learns nothing from his experiences as he is never asked to question his religious beliefs, learn new teaching methods or come to terms with mistakes he has made. Plot twists used for dramatic effect also come out of nowhere and are not dealt with sufficiently as at one point a young boy dies in front of Marsh after being struck by a car and while this was meant to be an emotional moment as Rooney begins crying a scene later everybody appears to be unaffected. The film seems like a series of events vaguely stitched together with each moment meant to tug at the heartstrings of middle America harder until finally they end up weeping. I cannot imagine many modern viewers being swayed by this film's clumsy attempts at emotional manipulation but I am glad we have moved beyond the era of Spencer Tracy playing father figures with little emotional depth.
How odd that during the Great Depression all that the poor masses wanted to see was films about incredibly wealthy and glamorous people going through frivolous relationship struggles that were unimportant when compared to the pains of regular, downtrodden folks. Fortunately during the 1930s, in amongst the trash and ridiculous melodrama, several dramas of a high quality were made that remind modern audiences that people in the 1930s were fairly similar to us and experienced their share of frustration at growing older and falling out of love. This may not be a film quite as good as Make Way for Tomorrow (1937) but very few films are and as the ideas it explores are timeless and it allows an incredible cast to work with an exceptionally observant and intelligent screenplay.
Aging automobile tycoon Samuel Dodsworth, Walter Huston, sells his business after twenty years of building it up so that he can travel around the world with his pretentious, social climbing wife Fran, Ruth Chatterton, who longs to escape from the small town they live in. While on a cruise ship traveling from America to England Fran starts to flirt with the British Captain Lockert, David Niven, who criticizes her when she takes offence to his making advances after she has implied that she is attracted to him. She returns to Dodsworth who has struck up a friendship with the likeminded British widow Edith Cortright, Mary Astor, who shares similar views to him and is starved for company. When the Dodsworths travel to Paris they grow farther apart as Fran falls in with a social crowd full of Europeans who claim to be of noble heritage and use her for her money while Dodsworth spends his days visiting museums. The two separate and Dodsworth returns to America where he is forced to confront the fact that he is no longer needed by his family members.
What this film is about is aging and how two people chose to deal with growing older in completely different ways as one lives in denial of having grown up at all while another slowly comes to terms with the fact that he will have to stop concerning himself with the needs of those around him. This is a couple that have clearly been held together by their children and the various social pressures placed upon them as Dodsworth seems unaware of the extent of his wife's frustration with her life in a small town and her tolerance wears thin very quickly when she is given some measure of freedom. It was this that made me sympathetic to Fran as despite all of her pretensions and ridiculous protestations that she looks only thirty years old she is a woman who has been robbed of her youth, as most women were in this time period, as she has been asked to raise children and care for her husband her whole life. When she is finally allowed to do what her heart desires she makes the wrong decisions but perhaps if she had not faced so many limitations throughout her life she would not have been so irrational and extreme.
Both of them pursue relationships outside of their marriage with Fran pursuing three relationships that fail for different reasons and Dodsworth finding love with a mature, caring woman. I appreciated the fact that in this film the woman who provides our beleaguered male hero with comfort is not some young manic pixie dream girl but a mature woman who has been in love before and is hoping for a fulfilling relationship in which she will be treated as an equal. In their encounters Dodsworth and Cortright are seen to act formally and speak to one another in the hushed tones found only in 1930s films. Yet there is the lovely sense of an attraction to one another's minds and not their bodies that suggests a relationship that will allow a man who feels he has no purpose to find some solace in a world that values youth. In comparison Fran's relationships are all seen to be rushed and based on more on how Fran will appear alongside these men than on any attraction to the men themselves. Lockert seems a sophisticate when compared to her husband, Arnold Iselin, Paul Lukas, would offer her status and Kurt Von Obersdorf, Gregory Gaye, the regaining of a lost youth she never really had in the first place. The two find themselves wanting different things as they move into a phase of their lives where they are asked to appreciate the simple comforts in life and with Fran's refusal to accept change comes a painful separation.
One must note that this was one of the early successes of director William Wyler and he directs the film tastefully while allowing for it to really serve as an examination of this complex, fascinating relationship. He never strays from Fran and Dodsworth and because Chatterton and Huston give such powerful performances it is not hard to be drawn into the film. Huston is gifted with perhaps the more difficult role as his performance could seem one note what with his tolerance of his wife's indiscretions but he conveys his slow disillusionment with his wife successfully and when he finally leaves her he gives the impression of a man who has weathered a great deal with his awkward posturing and just a few flashes of his sad eyes. Chatterton gets a role that calls for a showier performance and she delivers with her Fran being easy to hate but underneath that veneer she shows us all we need as she is a fragile woman racked with insecurity. It is frustrating to watch this character make the same mistakes three times but Chatterton makes us believe that this is the sort of woman who easily forgets past mistakes and we feel a twinge of discomfort as she steps into new relationships that are sure to end in disaster. Maria Ouspenskaya and Astor put in good work in supporting roles as they give their characters much needed depth and provide Chatterton and Huston with ample opportunity to shine.
In addition to featuring some of Busby Berkeley's most legendary choreographed sequences this film is seen as one of the original "backstage musicals" and inspired countless rip offs including the well received Footlight Parade (1933). Due to it's legendary status, it is ranked 13th on the American Film Institute's list of Best Musicals, I expected something great and fortunately my expectations were mostly met and in some cases exceeded. The plot would hardly impress a modern viewer and even in 1933 it may not have seemed that inventive but this hardly matters when you have charismatic performers and incredible choreography. The imagery in this film will stay with me forever and while Berkeley has an almost godly reputation he did produce work of a quality that few others have reached.
The musical "Pretty Lady" is being staged to much fanfare as it is the middle of the Great Depression and luxuries such as entertainment are not generally afforded to members of the public. The production is sponsored by businessman Abner Dillon, Guy Kibbee, who expects sexual favors from leading lady Dorothy Brock, Bebe Daniels, who is carrying on a secret affair with her longtime boyfriend and fellow actor Pat Denning, George Brent. Meanwhile inexperienced young dancer Peggy Sawyer, Ruby Keeler, earns a place in the cast while falling prey to the advances of Billy Lawler, Dick Powell, and director Julian Marsh, Warner Baxter, who needs the show to be a hit so that he can retire. Brock eventually rejects Dillon leading him to turn to brassy veteran dancer Ann Lowell, Ginger Rogers. When Brock breaks her ankle and the possibility of the musical being performed is put in jeopardy Lowell kindly directs Marsh towards Sawyer who she believes has the talent to become a star.
The first hour of the film can feel like something that you have to endure before you get to the meat of the film, the Berkeley dance numbers, but I found the rather silly soap opera story engaging enough. It helps that the film doubles as a satire on show business and there is some surprisingly prescient critique of the casting couch and the inclusion of a character who has to hide his homosexuality was a sad reminder that homophobia still exists. While you could take issue with the fact that the film treats sexual harassment and gross power imbalances in professional relationships with humor I still believe that the film criticizes the man carrying out the harassment and by mocking him we see him for the disgusting figure that he is. The women who are able to manipulate the awful situation they are faced with are also held up as positive forces and Lowell in particular stands out as a woman who knows what she wants and is unafraid to aggressively pursue it. She is shown to help the women around her as well as she supports the younger, more naïve Sawyer and has close friendships with the women around her instead of pushing them down for no reason.
What really matters is the dance numbers however as Berkeley's work is stunning with the optical splendor he produces simply with the placement of showgirls is exciting. Their legs crisscrossed and their bodies swiveling around on a pedestal they appear like elaborate marble statues in the best way as they prove that coordinated movement can still be more thrilling than a CGI spectacle. These scenes stretch on for a relatively long time and with lesser content they could have felt like a drag but because the images produced are so mind bogglingly beautiful you are transfixed. If I had to criticize the scenes it would not be because of their content but because they feel randomly dropped in right at the end. Sure the whole film has been building up to a big performance but the rehearsals have given no sense of the characters preparing to dance in the fashion of Berkeley and the dancing seems incongruous with the rest of the film. Director Lloyd Bacon could have made efforts to have the whole film feel more consistent in tone and style but he obviously does not approach Berkeley in terms of ability.
This is a great musical simply because it delivers on the dance numbers but for those looking for an unexpected helping of social commentary they will be satisfied.
My primary knowledge of the story of Pygmalion and the seemingly immortal Eliza Doolittle came from the dreadful musical My Fair Lady (1964) which featured a miscast Audrey Hepburn in the leading role. She was an actress that I have never been fond of and the fact that she was far too glamorous for the role, was never convincing as a working class woman and could not sing when she was playing the lead role in a musical sunk the entire film. Rex Harrison didn't help and so I had low expectations for this earlier adaptation of George Bernard Shaw's popular play. I was blown away by the film because of this as Leslie Howard and Wendy Hiller were perfectly cast and the film was witty, intelligent and most importantly romantic.
Poor flower girl Eliza Doolittle, Wendy Hiller, speaks with a cockney accent that prevents members of the upper class from treating her with respect and leaves her with low self esteem. Her life changes when posh but eccentric speech therapist Professor Henry Higgins, Leslie Howard, takes her on as a client as a result of a bet he makes with his friend Colonel George Pickering, Scott Sunderland, that he could turn a lower class woman into a socialite accepted by the upper class. She comes to live with him, escaping from her alcoholic father Alfred, Wilfrid Lawson, and he trains her aggressively until she knows how to speak with a posh accent and address people based on their titles correctly. In the process she and Higgins fall in love but he is in denial about his feelings and when she succeeds at fooling the upper class at a party and attracts the attention of the rich Freddy Eynsford-Hill, David Tree, he becomes angry. After an argument and a brief separation the two reconcile.
The story itself is not something that I ever really saw the appeal of as the idea of a relationship with that much of a power imbalance made me uncomfortable and the involvement of class distinctions meant that I assumed I would disagree with the film's message. What I found instead was a story about a man having his prejudices challenged by a strong willed young woman who proves to have more intelligence and tenacity than those born into the upper class. She holds her own throughout the film and despite the maneuvering of Higgins and Pickering it is her who has made the decision to have speech therapy and attempt to learn how to move up in the world. Obviously during the era this film is set in women do not have the opportunity to take on a well paying job even if they have education and Doolittle's best hope is that she will marry well but I appreciate the fact that she is seen to actively pursue her goals instead of having a predatory man chase her. The film also comments on the class system and is seen to mock the upper class as it is ridiculous that a funny accent and some fancy clothes completely change the way that people treat you and the wealthy families that Doolittle meet were reminiscent of characters in Being There (1979). Shaw's purpose would appear to be to tear apart the class structure that exists not support it.
All of this would not work if Howard and Hiller were not giving excellent performances and fortunately they each do some of their best work here as they both appear to be having great fun taking on these iconic roles. Howard is convincingly odd as Higgins who has various quixotic passions and initially sees Doolittle as an object. Watching him realize that he truly loves her is fantastic as Howard gets his character's bewilderment and fear in the face of these new feelings while he continues to berate her and flamboyantly directs her to pronounce words differently. Hiller complements him nicely as she is convincing, unlike Hepburn or Julie Andrews, as a regular looking working class girl who would speak with over extended vowels and struggle with her grammar. She is witty and fearless when passing herself off as a ‘lady' and you root for her as she delivers the most ridiculous lines in a lilting accent. The two together have a great chemistry and their banter is delightful to listen to as you get the sense that they truly enjoy one another's company.
Bette Davis is widely considered one of the greatest actresses of all time and this film features a performance of hers that cemented her status as a gay icon. It is easy to see why anybody would be enamored of her as with her big, expressive eyes and sneer that somehow manages to make her attractive she presents an odd appeal that leaves you enthralled. While I would hardly call her work in this film her best I would call it a performance in which all of the recognizable "Bette Davis" tics are on show as she completely dominates the film and brings joy to legions of fans in doing so. The film itself is a big old mushy pea as it is really just a vehicle to have Davis give a fantastic dramatic performance while laying on the schmaltz thick but she is enough to make the film worth watching.
The wealthy, spoilt heiress Judith "Judy" Traherne, Bette Davis, spends her days riding horses, drinking, smoking and arguing with her stable hand Michael O'Leary, Humphrey Bogart, over the prospect of her horse Challenger becoming a champion. She has been experiencing dizzy spells recently and headaches for months and after falling off a horse she is forced into being treated by Doctor Frederick Steele, George Brent, whom she initially clashes with but later comes to trust. He discovers that she has a brain tumor that is untreatable and she will die in ten months shortly after going blind. He chooses not to inform her of the threat of death and wants her to live out the rest of her days happy, a plan which is complicated when her best friend Ann King, Geraldine Fitzgerald, learns the truth. A romance develops between Traherne and Steele but a shocking discovery may ruin both of them.
As soon as you hear that Davis has been experiencing headaches you know that she will die tragically but with composure, grace and love in her heart at the end of the film. This is the film that probably inspired all the jokes about films in which Davis cries at the end and it is sometimes difficult to take her ‘rare condition' seriously as she continues to look luminous until her death but this film is a great deal more fun than most terminal illness romances. The fun comes not in the romance as Brent makes for a dull romantic foil to Davis but when she is without him getting terribly drunk or angrily attacking her friends it is easy to become feverishly excited. She blends the divine bitches that she would play in earlier films like Of Human Bondage (1934) and Dangerous (1935) with the more sympathetic women that she would play in later films like Watch on the Rhine (1943) and dare I say it All About Eve (1950). You cannot take your eyes off her when she is on screen and that makes up for a predictable plot and some entirely unbelievable elements.
Where I was frustrated was in the fact that the third wheel in this film, the one that Davis abandons, is far more appealing than Steele as played by Brent. In the inevitable confession of unrequited love scene that appears in all films like this Bogart references the fact that he and Davis are alike and I couldn't help agreeing with him. In their few scenes together Davis and Bogart generate more chemistry than Davis and Brent do in all the time they spend together and so it was a shock to me to learn that Davis and Brent had been romantically involved in real life. Part of my issue with their romance was probably that he seemed so stiff and well unromantic. When he broke out of his shell and admitted he loved her everything felt so formal and forced in a way that made me uncomfortable and I wanted to see the two explore a real, genuine passion more. When Davis comes to believe that he is only marrying her because he pities her I came to believe this as he didn't seem to love her enough to actually want to marry her.
Overall this film doesn't quite reach the heights of the great melodramas because of Brent's poor performance but Davis more than makes up for him and justifies viewing the film.