December 2008


Year: 1929
Director: Frank Borzage
Cast: Janet Gaynor, Charles Farrell, Guinn Williams, Paul Fix, Hedwiga Reicher

In 1929, the silent film was coming to an end. Really, it managed to go out in a blaze of glory with films like The Single Standard and The Kiss. Lucky Star was one of those final, glorious silent films. It’s also one of the quintessential Borzage films in terms of themes and style. It was his third film with Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell. But this point these two had become the ultimate Borzage pair: the troubled, hardened waif and the arrogant man who manage to soften each other’s hearts.

Mary (Gaynor) is a dirty rough farm girl who takes daily beatings from her mother and likes to steal and lie. Tim (Farrell) defends her one day when he thinks Wrenn (Williams) is cheating her out of money. When he finds out she was lying, her “gives her a lickin'”. Before Mary can get her revenge, war breaks out and Tim enlists. He’s injured on the front and comes home paralyzed. Knowing he’s back, Mary goes to his house to finally get her revenge, but the two end up talking and becoming friends, with Tim cleaning Mary up and teaching her to be decent.

While both Seventh Heaven and Street Angel were more Janet Gaynor’s films, Lucky Star definitely belongs to Charles Farrell. His performance is really quite heartbreaking. Early on, his spirits are surprisingly high for a man who’s been paralyzed. He wants to fix broken things since he doesn’t think he can fix himself. Mary becomes one of those broken things, and he soon sees the diamond in the rough and falls in love with her. It’s not until he discovers his love, and realizes the fact that he can’t be with her because of his condition, that it begins to weigh on him. In the end, though, that love only inspires him to try to learn how to walk again, however hopeless it might seem. Farrell was an extremely charming actor, and he pulled off those arrogant guy roles very well. He gives Tim so much heart that watching that heart break feels very real. This is truly a story of the triumph of the human spirit, and in the hands of a lesser actor, I don’t think that would come through as beautiful, or an such an inspiring way.

While the film certainly belongs to Farrell, Gaynor gives a very strong performance, as usual. In her earliest scenes, Mary is adorable in her immorality. This is kind of an essential thing, because it makes her development into the sweet,happy girl that Tim falls in love with believable. But her performance is also quite wrenching. She’s such a lonely girl, and there are moments with Tim that are so beautiful, where she just seems like she can’t believe someone loves her. These are two damaged misfits, and they end up fitting together and fixing each other absolutely perfectly.

Lucky Star doesn’t have quite the visual flair that Seventh Heaven and Street Angel have. Overall, it takes place in much more intimate settings. The two main sets are Tim and Mary’s simple houses. There are some beautifully filmed outdoors scenes, but Lucky Star is just a much more simple film, visually, than most Borzage efforts.

But its themes of transcendant love that overcomes all obstacles and makes people better than they were before come through crystal clear. Borzage was an undying romantic, and it shows through in Lucky Star, maybe better than it does in any of his other silent films.

By Katie Richardson

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This morning I opened up the Murnau, Borzage, and Fox set that I knew I was getting. It’s so beautiful and amazing.

So, first of all, it’s huge. It’s not just a big DVD set. The case is probably 8 in by 9 in. The top pops off, and inside of it is the case of DVDs, that’s kind of like a photo album.

In the front is a picture of FW Murnau. Then each page has a film still on one side and 3 DVDs on the other.

And held in the front on each side is a book. One is about Murnau, Borzage, and Fox, and the other is about Murnau’s lost film 4Devils

I already had DVD copies of Bad Girl, Seventh Heaven, and Street Angel. I put in the Bad Girl DVD from this set, and the transfer is just beautiful. Much better quality than the one I got from freemoviesondvd.com. And I’m pretty excited, because now that I have these movies in the set, I can give my old copies to a friend. And I just love sharing Borzage with people.

Once I go through the whole set (which will probably be quite awhile) I’ll post a full DVD review.

So, did anybody else get some totally awesome presents?

Hot damn, I love Christmas. The snow, the lights, the songs, the presents. Especially the presents.

I got the best gift last night at about 6 pm when our power, which had been out since Friday, came back on. But that’s not classic movie related, so let’s move on.

I happen to be getting the one thing I wanted most this year, the Murnau, Borzage, and Fox DVD set with a bazillion movies and books. I know I’m getting. It’s the only thing I asked for. And I ordered it myself. With my mom’s credit card. So, technically it’s a present from her. That I bought myself.

The DVD set might be the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. From Murnau, it has Sunrise and City Girl. From Borzage, it has Seventh Heaven, Street Angel, Lazybones, Lucky Star, They Had to See Paris, Liliom, Song o’ My Heart, Bad Girl, After Tomorrow, Young America. It also has a documentary. And on those DVDs is also a reconstruction of Murnau’s 4 Devils and the surviving footage of Borzage’s The River. AND it comes with two books. My god.

Really, that’s all I want. I know I’m getting other stuff, because my mom has the guilt thing where she thinks we need to have a bazillion presents under the tree. But that’s all I want.

But…. in the hypothetical Christmas list…. I got one wish this year already when TCM finally aired Man’s Castle. Now I want it on DVD. Special edition DVD. With extras and commentaries (hey… I could do the commentary… just sayin’….) Maybe a Criterion release….

Christmas is also about more than presents. It’s also about Christmas movies. I adore Christmas movies. There are the old favorites. A Christmas Story, Muppet Christmas Carol. But there are those lesser known pieces of lovely.

We discussed Bachelor Mother on the Christmas podcast. Ginger Rogers give an excellent performance opposite David Niven and an adorable baby. It draws some parallels to the story of the virgin birth, so it’s kind of a Christmas movie more in theme then in time setting (though it does take place during the holiday season).

Another Ginger Rogers Christmas movie, I’ll Be Seeing You, is a little darker in tone, but it’s a really beautiful movie. Rogers plays a convict on furlough for Christmas, and Joseph Cotten plays a soldier suffering from post traumatic stress. They meet, and mend their broken spirits together over the holiday season.

Finally, I love the hell out of the Barbara Stanwyck/Fred MacMurray film Remember the Night. It is technically a comedy, but like I’ll Be Seeing You, it’s more serious in tone. Stanwyck and MacMurray shared such steamy chemistry in Double Indemnity, and their chemistry translates very sweetly to this film.

So, if you have time tonight and tomorrow, seek these movies out. They’re really great for the holiday season. Have a great Christmas!

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Truth be told, my primary Christmas wish this year is for the Denver Broncos to make the playoffs. But in keeping within the obscure classics theme on this site, I have another which is more appropriate. Being a huge fan of Max Ophuls’ The Earrings of Madame de… (1953), I’ve eagerly awaited a proper R1 release of the great director’s rare attempt at a film noir: The Reckless Moment (1949). I’ve heard nothing but good things about the picture and I’m dying to give it a go. Ophuls’ movie stars James Mason and Joan Bennett, two icons of cinema and they’re both among my favorite actors. Reckless marks Bennett’s first matriarch role following a career defined by intriguing single women characters. I wish Sony would get it together and satisfy my request.

I would be lying if I named any picture other than It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) as my favorite Christmas-themed movie. Stewart’s performance is incredible and the scenes between him and Gloria Grahame are splendid. A beautiful story for any time of year, it never fails to lift my spirits when I’m down.

Two other choices that are not so obvious are Christmas in Connecticut (1945) and Holiday Affair (1949). The former is a screwball comedy starring the great Barbara Stanwyck — Babs is my favorite actress) — and the latter is a sweet romance I’ve only recently discovered. The film stars the always fascinating Robert Mitchum and an uber gorgeous Janet Leigh. She’s never looked better on the silver screen. It’s only recently been released on dvd so you won’t have to wait to see it aired on TCM. Give it a spin this holiday season.

By James White

Year: 1948
Director: William Keighley
Cast: Richard Widmark, Mark Stevens, Lloyd Nolan, Barbara Lawrence, Ed Begley

If you’ve taken a look at my other blog ( thoughtfulthinkingthoughts.wordpress.com ) you might know that, of late, I’ve been on a big “I must own every Richard Widmark movie I can get my hands on” kick. It started with just wanting Night and the City and Don’t Bother to Knock. Nowhere I went had them. So, naturally, this led to me buying every single movie they had at Borders. That’s what we call lack of self control, folks. One of those movies was the 1948 noir The Street With No Name, which is a sort of documdrama, supposedyl ripped from real FBI files (I say supposedly because I’m far too lazy to look to see if what they said at the beginning of the movie is true). It definitely has that feel of a The Naked City, only perhaps more movie-y.

Agent Gene Cordell (Stevenes) is recruited to go undercover to help solve some murders and robberies and whatnot. He takes the identity of Gene Manly, and goes to work for crime boss Alec Stiles (Widmark). It doesn’t take too much work to find incriminating evidence against Stiles, but the boss has people in high places that put a wrench in the plans of the FBI, and puts Cordell’s life in danger.

The Street With No Name was made the year after Widmark’s star making role in Kiss of Death, so he was sort of type cast as the bad guy. His performance here isn’t nearly as evil nor as maniacal (no pushing crippled old ladies down the stairs in this one), but he still plays a damn good villain. I love Richard Widmark anyway I can get him, be that villain, hero, anti-hero. But he really does something special with his villains. He was one of the few actors who wasn’t really afraid of alienating the audience or being disliked, which really gave him the power to create some really destestable villains. But he also makes them so electrifying, especially against the somewhat dull good guys, that you’re almost rooting for him.

Mark Stevens is sold in his role. This isn’t a particularly demanding hero role. He’s not a conflicted hero, he doesn’t get taken in by the glamor of the life of crimes. He’s just a good guy doing his job well, and Stevens sells that well enough. The relative dullness of the role really isn’t his fault. It’s just not an excitingly written role.

This is a very straightforward film, made without much flair, probably intentionally so. With professional sounding narration, they really seemed to be going for a non-film, documentary feeling and they succeed. The movie may have been a little more interesting if it had been made as straight up, stylish noir. But as it is, it’s just an interesting story presented in a simple way. Viewed in today’s context, the narration definitely feels a little corny.

I have to admire the movie a bit for really sticking to that docu-drama idea and not throwing a romance in for the sake of it. Agent Cordell is getting no love here. The movie is all about the story of the crime, with no room for romantic frills. The only woman in the cast is Barbara Lawrence, playing Stiles’ abused-yet-still-brassy wife. It’s a role that has little point except to show what an asshole Stiles really is, but Lawrence plays the role well, garnering sympathy for a character that’s not particularly likable.

Overall, this is definitely an excellent film to watch if you’re a Widmark fan. It really showcases his talent, and he’s definitely the best thing about the movie. And if you like these docu-dramas, this is one of the best.

By Katie Richardson

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No, this is clearly not the Kay Francis podcast. Greg is on hiatus for family reasons, so my brother came on board to help me out for the Christmas podcast. Hopefully we’ll have the Kay Francis podcast up soon.

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Year: 1933

Director: Michael Curtiz

Starring: Ruth Chatterton, George Brent, and Ferdinand Gottschalk

Female is a Pre-Code effort that is unlike any other from the early 1930s. Unlike Barbara Stanwyck’s character in Baby Face — who sleeps her way to the top of the corporate ladder — Alison Drake (Ruth Chatterton) is already the CEO of her own automobile manufacturing concern. She is a sexual predator that is the equal of any male you’ve seen in film. A tough no nonsense businesswoman by day, Alison treats her company like a carnal candy store. This female captain of industry surveys her office space daily for potential boy toys amongst her employees. Her modus operandi is to pick a potential lover, invite them to her palatial digs on the premise of important shop talk, and then interrupt any professional discussion with sexual seduction. These young men are intoxicated by her lustful wares and they are left hopelessly under Ms. Drake’s spell. Of course she discards them immediately, even brazenly transferring them elsewhere in the firm if they give her any difficulties the next day.

Our protagonist gets the tables turned on her when she steals a top design engineer from a rival company. Jim Thorne (George Brent) rebuffs her advances which infuriates his new boss. He’s not impressed by her come ons. The female CEO is suddenly without the power of her sex appeal. Not used to losing, Alison pursues Thorne relentlessly until she ultimately wins him over. They fall in and out of love quickly. The engineer wants a conventional woman who will maintain a home and take care of his needs. When he leaves the company, Chatterton’s character is useless on the job. All she can think about is the one that got away.

What ensues is a crazy cross-country search until Ms. Drake is able to find her man at a carnival shooting at targets. How fitting when you consider that hanging out in an amusement park is what they did on their first successful date. Then the bottom sort of falls out of the picture as this tough CEO proclaims that she’s no superwoman and agrees to do the decent thing and marry him. What?! I can only imagine that this was thrown in as a salve to the fragile egos of the male audience. If the filmmakers had not emasculated Alison in the third act, this might have gone down as the best Pre-Code film out there.

There are some excellent production values starting with the Drake mansion. This is a real Frank Lloyd Wright creation in the Hollywood Hills known as the Ennis House. For 1933, its Grecian touches and art deco flavor are quite stirring. Our lead even has an ornate live organ halfway up one of her walls. The swimming pool is a sight to see and provides the setting for one of the funnier moments when the lady of the house rejects one boy because he’s too “poetic” (read: homosexual). Michael Curtiz received the director’s credit even though he was the third helmsman on the picture. William Dieterle got sick and William Wellman came aboard only to get in a dispute with the studio over money. Warner Bros. booted him off the set and brought in Curtiz to finish the project. Another interesting thing to note is that Brent and Chatterton were married in real life during Female. This probably didn’t hurt their onscreen performances which were seamless.

Despite the flawed and jarring reversal in this movie, I’m inclined to recommend it highly. I just love the idea of a strong woman getting away with the same boorish workplace behavior that was second nature to several male managers forever. I’ve really only seen this dynamic in one other film called Disclosure starring Demi Moore and Michael Douglas. But for 1930s America, Chatterton’s in-your-face sexuality must have seemed shocking. Oh, and I actually learned something by watching Female. I now know what it means when I’m with a woman and she casually tosses a pillow on the livingroom floor.

By James White

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