April 2008

I’ve slacked majorly on the updating since the semester is coming to an end of I’ve been swamped with work (thing have been considerably less stressful since I decided to just fail my Media and Culture class and retake it next semester). But I didn’t want to just let the week go by without ANY updating. Luckily for you, I wrote a little something for Rotten Tomatoes that I can post here. Perhaps unluckily, though…. it’s more Borzage stuff. Are you getting sick of seeing him on the main page yet?

Trina isn’t a character one might normally consider then thinking about film heroines, romantic or otherwise. On the surface, she seems quite weak – when we first see her she’s crying over the breadcrumbs her soon-to-be love Bill is throwing on the ground for the birds because she’s so hungry. And it’s easy to think that she spends most of the film taking emotional abuse from a man who doesn’t want her. But, as with so many Borzage heroines, Trina’s love for Bill helps her find her own inner strength, and helps her see the strengths and weaknesses in Bill that he refuses to see in himself.

At a glance, Trina’s relationship with Bill does make her appear weak, and perhaps early on in the film she is in a way. Bill’s fear of commitment and being tied down brings him to attempt to “balance out” his acts of kindness and love wo Trina with harsh words and criticism. But Bill’s harshness is never meant specifically to hurt Trina, he uses them to try to convince himself that he doesn’t want to be tied to her. Trina recognizes Bill’s restlessness and creates a home for him, making herself a stabilizing influence, while allowing him room to grow and discover himself. While Trina knows who she is and has the ability to tie herself to one place and one person, Bill is still drifting, unsure of who and what he is. In this way, Trina’s strengths far outweigh Bill’s, and we see this as early on as the second scene. When Trina confesses to Bill how poor she is, Bill suggests that she should turn to prostitution, or even suicide. Trina confesses that she considered both, but couldn’t bring herself to do either. While both Bill and Trina view Trina’s inability to follow through with either of these options as cowardly, in reality it just shows Trina’s ability to keep going in the face of adversity, whether its in the form of poverty or in the form of Bill attempting to deny his love for her.

Trina doesn’t realize how strong she is at first. While she is able to ignore Bill’s criticism of her, knowing he doesn’t mean it, she is unsettled by his constant threats that he’s going to leave her. That fear muffles the fire and strength she has inside of her and she can’t display those things around him. Those qualities blaze brightly, though, in her scenes with their sleazy neighbor, Bragg. We get small flashes of the independence she has when she bluntly refuses his advances. But in Bill’s presence her insecurities get the best of her. This does allow Bill to take advantage of her fears to help assuage his fears. While he does love Trina, it’s not until she shows her independence and her ability to share his world that he actually realizes it.

Trina’s weakest and strongest moments come with the revelation of her pregnancy. She confesses it to Bill out of fear and weakness. She tells him he’s going to be a father after another of his speeches about how he might leave at any time. She frantically tells him that no matter where he goes, he’ll always be tied to her. In that moment, the complete terror she feels at the thought of losing Bill brings down her defenses and she is seen at her absolute weakest. Bill leaves, intending to hop a freight train. But he changes his mind, and when he returns he finds Trina shopping for his dinner. In this moment, Trina shows not only that she’s come to know what Bill truly wants, even better than he does, but she begins to stand up for herself. She confesses to Bill her faith in God, when earlier she had told Bill she didn’t believe in “that stuff”. Trina realizes she has the ability to survive on her own, but she also knows that she won’t have to. In typical Borzage fashion, she’s ascended to a higher emotional and spiritual level. Her journey has finished. Now it’s her job to help Bill get there, too.

Bill attemps to rob a toy store to leave money for Trina and the baby so he can take off. The robbery fails, and Bill is shot in the arm. When Trina finds him, she cleans and wraps his wounds, taking care of him physically as she’s always taken care of him emotionally. She realizes what Bill was trying to do, and tells him defiantly that she wouldn’t have taken the money anyway, again showing the strength she has in her convictions. She then stands over him and tells him exactly what he really is – scared. “For a big husky man, you’re awfully scared of a little thing that ain’t even born yet.” She again tells him that she and the baby will be fine on their own if he leaves. But by this point it’s obvious that it’s Bill who won’t be okay without Trina, and now he’s finally realizing it, too. Trina’s helped Bill realize who he is an what he needs.

Bill realizes he can be tied to Trina without being tied down. Trina realizes her home is with Bill, no matter where they are. They escape on the freight train together, counting down the months until the birth of their child. December. “Sort of a Christmas present, huh, Bill?”

By: Katie Richardson


Year: 1935

Director: Frank Borzage

Cast: Kay Francis, George Brent, Warren William, Helen Lowell

Terry Parker (Brent) walks away from a plane crash that kills his family. The loss causes him to feel massive guilt since he was the pilot, and makes him feel as though he’s living on borrowed time, making him preoccupied with death and danger, with his head constantly in the clouds. He meets Amy Prentiss (Francis), who is engaged to his best friend, Gibraltar Pritcham (William). They fall in love, and Gibraltar loves both of them enough to let them be together. They marry, and while Amy tries to be supportive, the marriage runs in to difficulties due to Terry’s problems.

Living On Velvet is exactly the kind of film where Borzage seemed most at home – the small, intimate romances. Borzage had a fixation on the relationship between love and spirituality, and this is one of his most literal uses of those themes. Terry’s struggle comes from his issues with spirituality, wondering why he didn’t die along with his family and coping with the thought that he doesn’t belong on this earth. When Amy enters the picture, there’s a mingling not just of their spirits, but of their spiritual ideals. Terry doesn’t know how to bring his closer to Amy’s earthier and realistic ones.

While Francis’ solid performance and character anchor the film, it’s heart and soul is Brent’s Terry. The film is about Terry’s changing spirit and his rebirth. Amy is the catalyst for this rebirth, and his anchor throughout. The dialogue of the film shows constantly that she completely understand him, that their minds and spirits are linked. So often Terry doesn’t have to speak for Amy to know what he wants to say.

As the film goes on is becomes clear that Amy is more than wife, she’s also acting as Terry’s mother. Terry is little more than a child. He can’t be expected to follow simple instructions without allowing his mind to be preoccupied with more romantic and dangerous ideas. He can neither act like an adult husband or like a member of the society to which he belongs until he’s overcome his problems.

Early in the film, it is Gibraltor who is in the role of supporter until Amy enters the picture and takes over that role. But whereas Gibraltor seemed to be an enabler, Amy gently prods Terry into fighting his demons. This leads to a very interesting revelation between the characters that love is not enough to sustain their relationship, and not enough to fill the void in Terry’s soul.

Year: 1934

Director: Edgar G. Ulmer

Cast: Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, David Manners, Julie Bishop

In the 1930’s Universal Studios was known for its lineup of great horror films. Best known, of course, are the Frankenstein, Dracula and The Wolf Man series. However, Universal put out a lot of other horror films and one of the most strange and unusual is The Black Cat co-starring Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. It was their first film together and probably one of their best. Directed by Edgar Ulmer (Detour, The Strange Woman) the film is loaded with erotic overtones, devil worshipping, and mass murder.

Very loosely based on an Edgar Allan Poe short story, the film takes place in Hungary and starts when a young honeymooning couple, Peter and Joan Alison, (Jacqueline Wells and David Manners) meet Doctor Vitus Werdergast (Lugosi) on a train traveling through the countryside. The Doctor, just released from a prisoner of war camp, tells them he is on his way to visit an old friend. After they depart from the train, the three share a cab ride to their next destination. The drive is during a heavy rainstorm and an unfortunate accident kills the driver and injures the wife. Since they are now close to Doctor Werdegast friend’s house he invites the couple to come with him so they can take care of the injured wife. The friend, of course, is Haljmar Poelzig (Karloff), a devil worshipping mass murder.

The house Poelzig lives in is a strange reconverted futuristic fortress that we soon will discover is built upon the mass graves of World War 1 soldiers. It soon comes to light that Dr. Werdergast has not come to see a friend but to seek revenge on Poelzig who betrayed him and managed to escape from the enemy during the war leaving Werdergast to be captured and held as a POW. Werdergast is also looking for his wife and daughter who he believes were kidnapped and being held captive by Haljmar. The young couple, Peter and Joan, have become prisoners of Haljmar who intends to sacrifice Joan in one of his satanic rituals while husband Peter is held captive chained in the dungeon below. The film becomes a battleground between Werdergast, trying to save Joan from being sacrificed and also trying to find his wife and daughter, and Haljmar attempting to proceed with his Black Mass rituals and sacrifice Joan.

This is one of the few films where Lugosi is on the side of good. His gives a performance that is actually quite good. Karloff is Karloff and he is actually billed that way in the credits.

Considering this film was made in 1934 it’s a pretty dark unsettling movie filled with satanic rituals, female victims displayed suspended from the ceiling upside down and the “skinning” of human beings. While it is not as graphic as today’s horror films it is unsettling and must have been even more so to the audience of its day. It is surprising that the studio was able to get away with some of the things included. Granted a lot is insinuated or is off screen or shown in shadows and this may make the film disappointing to some of todays gore oriented audiences.

Ulmer was influenced by the German Expressionist movement. He started out as a set designer and assisted on the set of F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise. According to IBDB his set designer credits include Metropolis, The Golem, M as well as The Black Cat. Ulmer and cinematographer John Mescall, who also filmed The Bride of Frankenstein, created a film full of strange eeriness and a deep sense of looming danger.

Available on DVD as part of the Bela Lugosi Collection and VHS.

By: John Greco

Year: 1935

Director: Stephen Roberts

Starring: William Powell, Ginger Rogers, Paul Kelly, Gene Lockhart, Ralph Morgan, Leslie Fenton

The screwball mystery was an extremely popular film genre throughout the 1930s. Following The Thin Man in 1934, studios began putting out several knockoffs to cash in on the film’s popularity. Some were good, some weren’t. The two best knockoffs, The Ex-Mrs. Bradford and Star of Midnight, starred William Powell, who was also the star of The Thin Man. The Ex-Mrs. Bradford was a charming remarriage comedy costarring Jean Arthur. Star of Midnight, slightly better than Bradford, featured Powell as a high power lawyer with a particular knack for solving crimes.

Powell’s ends up working the case of Mary Smith, a popular, but mysterious singer when she disappears in the middle of one of her shows. Star of Midnight has a slightly more mysterious, even surreal, feeling to it because we never see the subject of the case. Whereas in films like The Thin Man we usually see the victim before they are murdered or disappear, in Star of Midnight Mary Smith is just as mysterious as her disappearance. This is what helps to set this film apart from so many other films of this type. The comedy in a screwball mystery is usually by far stronger than the actual mystery part. But the absence of Mary Smith throughout the entire film makes Star of Midnight a but more evenly balanced. The comedy is fantastic and sharp, but the mystery matches up and is really very intriguing.

Powell’s partner and romantic match in this film is the wonderful Ginger Rogers. This was the only film they made together, and they’re such an excellent match it’s actually sad that they didn’t do any others. Powell was almost always several years older than his leading lady, but it was never brought up or made an issue of. That’s another unique thing that Star of Midnight has going for it. Powell was 19 years older than Rogers, and that’s actually a fact used in the film. Rogers plays the daughter of an old friend of Powell’s. It’s a childhood crush turned into love, and it’s completely adorable. They’re a great match. They trade verbal quips with complete ease and their chemistry is completely on the mark, and the writing for them is excellent. Because of the noted age difference, they have an interesting dynamic and their dialog makes great use of it.

With a sparkling script, a fun and interesting mystery, and the brilliant pairing of Ginger Rogers and William Powell, Star of Midnight is one of the very best screwball mysteries of the 1930s.

Availability: http://www.freemoviesondvd.com

By: Katie Richardson

Year: 1940

Director: Raoul Walsh

Starring: George Raft, Humphrey Bogart, Anne Sheridan, Ida Lupino

They just don’t make them like they used to.

While They Drive By Night is certainly not the first title that comes to mind when someone mentions Film Noir, it is, never the less, a great example of Film Noir. This atypical Film Noir features outstanding performances by some real screen legends, including George Raft, Humphrey Bogart, Ann Sheridan, and an unforgettable and classic performance by Ida Lupino who plays the cunning and obsessive Lana Carlsen.

The puzzling thing about this movie is that it isn’t easily pigeon-holed. While I referred to it as Film Noir, it certainly doesn’t fit into the most stereotypical conceptions of what Film Noir is. Most think of movies with tough bad guys, smooth talking P.I.’s, gun play, femme fatales, and plenty of fighting. While They Drive By Night touches on many of those elements, it is really more of a movie about the journey of a regular joe as he tries to do something with his life, something meaningful. It is about struggling through life’s difficulties, while trying to secure for yourself a little slice of the American dream.

This movie has it all really, even as I write what I feel it is I can’t help but feel that my description doesn’t do it justice.

It deals with brotherhood, friendship, the pursuit of happiness, lust, social classes, the depression, murder, business, the drama of the courtroom, insanity, jealousy and betrayal.

In criticism of the movie, it certainly could have been better paced. The first half, and maybe as much as the first two thirds dragged compared to the rest of the film. While the beginning portions of the film do help set the stage for the rest of the plot, it could have been handled better. More of Lupino’s despicable Lana Carlsen and less of the trucking business would have improved this movie.

However, I recommend it for any one who enjoys a good story, or for any one who loves classic films. This is definitely worth your time, just don’t expect Casablanca or Citizen Kane.

A important side note for Bogart fans, keep in mind, this is before his big successes. This is before High Sierra, Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep, Casablanca, To Have and Have Not, and Sabrina etc. Bogart spent plenty of time in the background before he became the poster child for some of the best years of Hollywood, and his role in They Drive By Night is one of those background roles. I couldn’t help but wish I could magically switch his role with George Raft who plays the lead. Not that I have anything against Raft, he too is one of those great Hollywood actors, it is just hard to compete with good ol’ Bogart.

By: Greg Dickson

Year: 1932

Director: Ernst Lubitsch

Starring: Herbert Marshall, Miriam Hopkins, Kay Francis, Charles Ruggles, Edward Everett Horton, C. Aubrey Smith

Lubitsch was a brilliant director who had a way with stylish, sophisticated, sexy comedies. His films were living, breathing innuendos, winking to the audience slyly. He did his best work with this type of film during the pre-code era where he had more freedom. His most high class and lush comedy of the era is Trouble In Paradise, a clever story about thieves in love.

The most important thing to note about Lubitsch’s films is that the sexuality is mature. Unlike so many films about sex today, the story and characters are sexy because they’re sophisticated and behave with dignity, even when they’re lying and breaking the law. The think so highly of themselves, and even of each other, that everything they do, including sex, is done with respect. These people are adults, and it’s nice to see the subject handled in a mature and adult way.

Because Lubitsch was so sophisticated, his films had very littel physical or slapstick humor. The film is constantly funny, but the humor comes from the people, the situations, and the dialogue. Lubitsch could craft a film around words and dialogue like no one else could. He could make a sentence sound physical, and that kept the films from feeling too dull and ‘talky’.

And, of course, Lubitsch had a gift for picking a cast, and Trouble In Paradise has one of his best. The chemistry captured between the trio is strong and inimitable. Heading up the cast is the always classy Herbert Marshall as the master thief. He’s great with Kay Francis, the wealthy woman he romances with plans to rob, until he falls for her. But as great as Francis is with Marshall, his true match is Miriam Hopkins. Their class and unmatchable chemistry turn the thieves into a pefect duo in love and crime. Even though Francis is great, and her scenes with Marshall are excellent, when you see him with Miriam Hopkins you know that Francis doesn’t have a chance.

While the films certainly deals with themes of sex and attraction, in the end it’s about companionship and love. Francis is just a lonely woman looking for companionship, and even though she’s charming, sweet, and has all the money Marshall could ever want, his match, his soulmate, is Hopkins. Love can’t be bought, and Marshall and Hopkins realize that money isn’t worth risking their relationship, and they come to the conclusing that nothing is better than them together.

By: Katie Richardson

Year: 1940

Director: Gregory La Cava

Starring: Ginger Rogers, Joel McCrea, and Marjorie Rambeau

Primrose Path is really an interesting film. It’s quite fascinating that a film like this was able to get made during a time when the Production Code was still being strictly enforced. Ginger Rogers plays the tomboy daughter of a prostitute and an alcoholic. She falls in love with all around good guy Joel McCrea, but thinking he wouldn’t want her if he knew about her family, tells him she comes from a wealthy family that kicked her out because she wanted to be with him. They marry, but Rogers’ guilt eats her up inside and when the truth finally comes out Ed isn’t sure he forgives her.

The plot sounds like just a soapy melodrama, but it’s so much more than that. First of all, as I said before, the subject matter is quite amazing considering the Production Code. This movie is probably more blatant about its characters and themes of prostitution than any other film made at the time. It’s interesting to see how it sidesteps the issue without ever actually saying it or showing it, but still making it completely and abundantly clear that Marjorie Rambeau is a prostitute. Even more interesting is that she’s also a good woman. She a nice lady, a good mother, even a loving wife to an impossible husband. And Rambeau gives her such heart and honesty.

It’s the grandmother that’s a terror. Clearly a former prostitute herself, she sets up the obvious contrast needed to the story. To her, the point of prostitution was having fun and leading an easy life with lots of nice things without having to actually work. She doesn’t realize that to her daughter it is work. Rambeau is doing it because, with her brilliant husband no longer able to work because of his alcoholism, she’s the one who has to support the family.

The highlight of the film isn’t those risque themes, though. It’s the love story between McCrea and Rogers. Few love stories feel so real and honest. It’s not a grand, sweeping love story. It’s just simple and true. Both Rogers and McCrea were excellent actors who had the range to pull off both elegant glamor and American everyman. In this film they’re completely and wholly the latter. The simplicity of their performances makes the love story not something that seems like it’s unique to film. It feels completely real, like you’re watching two good friends fall in love. Which makes the unraveling of their relationship hurt even more.

The film is ultimately about the lies that destroy relationships, and Primrose Path hits that right on target. It’s made believable and heartwrenching by the establishment of the romance, and watching them fall apart and come back together is thrilling, because there are so few films that can make it feel as real and beautiful as this one does.

By: Katie Richardson

Year: 1940

Director: Frank Borzage

Cast: Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, Ian Hunter, Peter Lorre, Albert Dekker

In a prisoner colony in French Guiana, several prisoners plan an escape: the brutish Andre Verne (Gable), mysterious Cambreau (Hunter), amoral Hessler (Lukas), and fellow criminals Moll (Dekkar), Dufond (Arledge), Flaubert (Bromberg), and Telez (Ciannelli). During their journey through the jungle, they come across Julie (Crawford), a showgirl, and saver her from her abusive lover. The group undergoes transformations, both spiritual and romantic, on their way to the shore and to salvation.

As as ensemble piece, Strange Cargo is able to focus both on Borzage’s religious fixation and his romantic one. While Lazybones uses the most literal biblical imagery, Strange Cargo is his most blatantly religious film with Cambreau as an obvious God image and Hessler as an obvious devil. While the physical leadership of the group shifts among the other men, Cambreau remains the spiritual center, the anchor, the guide. Hessler’s attempts to sway the group toward ‘evil’ aren’t quite as dramatic as Cambreau’s attempts at good. He spends most of his time debating with Cambreau, and the others, about good and evil and human nature. It’s clear that Cambreau’s influence is the dominant one, leading the group to their spiritual salvation while Andre leads them to their physical one.

Julie and Andre fulfill Borzage’s need for spiritual romance. They become the focus of the story, and because their souls are so obviously entwined, their journey is meant to be longer than the others’. Early in the film their attraction to each other is completely sexual, but as the film progesses they transcend mere physical attachment to the point where they can begin their spiritual journey together. They must realize that they are bound before they can truly embark on finding their salvation.

The religious and romantic storylines arive when the group emerges from the jungle. The group is now just Cambreau, Hessler, Julie, and Andre, evoking an image of Eden. Julie and Andre as Adam and Eve and Cambreau and Hessler as God and Satan. Hessler solidifies his image when he turns his back on the group and on their salvation and leaves them. Julie and Andre are able to find their salvation once they learn how to sacrifice for each other. Cambreau, who doesn’t need salvation, disappears to, as he told Andre earlier in the film, help others who need him.

By: Katie Richardson

Year: 1944

Director: Edward Dmytryk

Starring: Dick Powell, Claire Trevor, Anne Shirley, and Otto Kruger

There is something perplexing about Murder My Sweet, and it isn’t just the twisting plot. It has all the ingredients of a great noir from the 40s but doesn’t cook up to be a very filling entree. For some reason, despite being based off of a Raymond Chandler story and despite all the double-crossing, murder, despicable characters, adultery, brutality, blackmail, robbery, drugs, and sexuality, it falls some what flat. For some reason it doesn’t seem to quite connect with the audience, and for some reason it is hard to become invested in the characters.

It is still a good ride, but it doesn’t have the impact that some of the other movies from the era did. It doesn’t really stay with you after watching it. The bulk of the performances seemed mediocre to me, but the gritty story line and the stylistic flare redeem it some what, making it still worth watching, especially if you are fan of the era or a fan of film noir. It does visually cook up just the right atmosphere.

Maybe I am prejudiced against Dick Powell who plays Chandler’s well known Philip Marlowe because I recently saw Bogart play the same character in The Big Sleep, or maybe it is because Powell’s primary former film experience had been fluffy musicals. Maybe he just didn’t have what it took to step into Chandler’s dark view of Los Angeles and the shady characters who dwell there. Either way I found his performance sub-par. Maybe he just didn’t look like Marlowe to me, kind of like Timothy Dalton as Bond, his manner and looks just distract me from my love and interest in the character.

If you want to experience the best the 40s, Chandler or Film Noir have to offer, look else where first. Murder, My Sweet won’t satisfy your hunger for any of those things, but it does make a decent snack.

By: Greg Dickson

Year: 1951

Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz

Starring: Cary Grant and Jeanne Craine

I had never seen People Will Talk before, nor had I ever remembered even hearing about it.

However, when I saw the description on my TV my interest was piqued.

I saw 1951.

I saw Carey Grant.

I saw something about an unplanned pregnancy, and I saw the title, People Will Talk.

Needless to say, I had to see this.

So, I recorded it with my DVR a while back and took some time to watch it yesterday.

Maybe it is just me, but I get some kind of thrill out of watching old movies deal with taboo subjects, like an unwanted pregnancy. If you are like me, you too will enjoy People Will Talk and how it handles some sticky subject matter. People Will Talk follows Dr. Noah Praetorius (played by Carey Grant) as a mysterious past catches up with him, threatening to possibly ruin his medical career. Part of what puzzles those who are investigating his past is his inexplicable connection to a man named Shunderson, someone who hardly ever leaves the side of Praetorius and someone to which Dr. Praetorious seems to be very very close. Dr. Praetorious refers to Shunderson as his “friend” but it is up to the viewer to determine exactly what their connection is. Also, under investigation is the doctor’s peculiar medical past and practices, including his beginnings in a small town and how his time there funded the opening of his own clinic.

This is a movie that is not only political, but way ahead of its time. It is meant to come across as a light romantic comedy, but underneath that 1950s conservative surface it deals with what were likely some of the director’s and/or writer’s political soapboxes. If for no other reason the movie is captivating due to how it deals with topics like premarital sex, abortion, the HUAC hearings, homosexuality, tax laws and ethics, the pharmaceuticals industry, government jobs, and the field of medicine, etc.

Don’t expect this movie to be preachy, it shys away from being preachy and was likely enjoyed and still can be enjoyed on a very surface level as a fun romantic comedy. That is to the credit of the script and the direction, much like many film makers that show a command of the medium, this film entertains and fascinates on many levels. There are some flaws to the film, the basic story line is a little drawn out (though I never found myself bored), some of the dialogue seems too scripted, and there are some unanswered questions (I was dying to know what became of the lives of those in this movie after the movie ends) that may be frustrating to some, but it certainly kept me attentive and I think classic film fans especially will be glad they took the time to see this atypical 1950s film.

Carey Grant is fun to watch as he plays this role. He seems to really enjoy the role, and his love for the character or the story or the issues being handled certainly is apparent. The life of Dr. Noah Praetorious and Carey Grant certainly are both filled with mystery. What is the truth about this man and this character he played? No matter what you think, no matter what conclusions you come to, People Will Talk will certainly have you talking about it, well after it is over.

By: Greg Dickson

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