Tuesday, April 15th, 2008


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

Una Merkel is one of those stars I’d really, REALLY like to have a site for soon. She’s one of my favorite character actresses of the 1930s. Since she was almost exclusively a supporting player, her depth and range as an actress are often overlooked. From her smart ass dummy in 42nd Street, to her overly sensitive bride in Private Lives, to her brainy gold digger in Beauty for Sale, to her deep and sensitive nanny in Day of Reckoning, Merkel consistently knocked it out of the park, sometimes just brilliantly propping up the films’ leads, and sometimes stealing the show from them completely.

She wasn’t conventionally beautiful, and she wasn’t as glamorous as Joan Crawford or Myrna Loy. But she had something that no other actress had. An undefinable quality that made her likable, funny, and sexy as hell. She was just charming, whether she was smart assing the hell out of a man, or being sweet and playing dumb.

She made a number of films with close friend (and Obscure Classics favorite) Madge Evans. The two made an excellent pair. Merkel’s unique sass and flair balanced perfectly with Madge’s more reserved and refined performances. Merkel was often the live wire that allowed Madge to let loose. Watching the two of them together in Beauty For Sale and Paris Interlude is simply a blast. Their real life friendship shows through on screen. Both were brilliant actresses, but they never felt more genuine than they did when they were together.

Merkel’s characters often made a practice of duping simple men. She could play dumb like few actresses could, and the men were like putty in her hands. That sweet baby voice, the raise of her eyebrows and turn of her lip, and they were hers. Temptresses like Garbo and Dietrich are remembered today for turning men into jelly with their smoldering glances and sex appeal, but they had nothing on Merkel’s baby talk.

Few actress were, and ever will be, as unique as Merkel. Everything she did and possessed was so uniquely her, so completely unlike an actress out there.

By: Katie Richardson

Here we go, the Obscure Classics group is finally getting started. So far we have the following sites…

madgeevans.wordpress.com

frankborzage.wordpress.com

Hopefully we’ll get some more sites dedicated to more wonderful but forgotten stars of classic film soon. If you’ve got any suggestions, questions, material you’d like to share, just email me at obscure_classics@yahoo.com