November 2009


Tomorrow is Thanksgiving, which means that the Christmas season is about to officially start. As always, I’ll turn to my old DVD stand-bys: Christmas In Connecticut, Meet Me In St. Louis, A Christmas Story, I’ll Be Seeing You, and so on. But I’m really excited because this year one of my favorite Christmas movies, which I’ve only had on VHS until now, is being released on DVD.

TCM has been diligently airing Remember the Night every Christmas season for the past few years now, helping classic film fans rediscover this sweet and romantic holiday gem. Starring Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck, it’s the unlikely love story between a petty thief and the DA trying to put her away. Stanwyck and MacMurray are mostly known together for their work in Double Indemnity, but this is a completely different kind of film.

Remember the Night is coming to DVD as part of TCM’s new Universal On Demand service, which is a lot like the really awesome but kind of needlessly expensive On Demand service Warner Bros. started earlier this year. Universal is taking it up a notch, though, with remastered material and special features. Their DVDs, even with the features, also appear to be cheaper than Warner Bros. Other titles released include Murders In the Zoo and The Mad Doctor of Market Street, both available on the 5-Disc Cult Horror Collection.

So definitely head over the TCM.com to pick this one up. Sadly, my money is so tightly budgeted for the next month for my trip to Chicago that I’m just going to have to be happy with my VHS copy for another year.

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70. 5th Avenue Girl (Gregory LaCava, 1939)
Another great film to come of the Golden Year of cinema, 5th Avenue Girl is something of a somber romantic comedy. It’s a funny movie about poverty and being ignored by your family! Sounds like a howler, right? But really, it manages to be very funny and very touching at the same time. Mary, played with a healthy does of world weary cynicism by Ginger Rogers, is a poor girl hired by Mr. Borden, the always wonderful Walter Connolly, to come live in his home as pose as his new ladyfriend to help him in his attempts to get his family to notice him again. His wife, his son, and his daughter all ignore him while paying attention to his money. The scheme definitely works, but complications arise when the attentions of his son (played by a pretty darn dreamy Tim Holt) toward Mary turn from suspicious to romantic. 5th Avenue Girl joins movies like My Man Godfrey in the category of socially conscious screwballs of the Depression era, but it definitely has a darker tone overall than most of the film of this type. The film is also notable for Verree Teasdale’s performance as Mr. Borden’s wife.

069. Kongo (William J. Cowen, 1932)
There are some movies that have such a strong atmosphere you can actually feel it physically, on your skin and in your bones. Kongo is one of those movies. It’s a film with such deplorable characters and horrible goings-on that it really could only come out of the pre-code era. And it has an atmosphere of so much wrongness, dirtiness, and sexuality that it almost oozes off the screen. Walter Huston is incredible as the depraved Flint, a cripple who reigns over a cult of natives in Africa. He’s a twisted individual who’s completely self obsessed and bent on revenge. In the film, most of his wrath is brought down upon Dr. Kingsland (Conrad Nagel), a doctor who he kidnaps in hopes that he’ll be able to heal him, and Ann (Virginia Bruce), the  main pawn in his revenge scheme. The brutalizes the two of them, getting them addicted to drugs and forcing Ann into prostitution. It isn’t a pleasant movie to watch, but it is an incredible look at the darkest side of human nature you could possibly find. Along with Huston’s masterful performance, Nagel and Bruce are incredible. Their characters become so broken and hopeless. They’re really the only sympathetic characters in the film, and watching them be just so utterly destroyed is pretty heartwrenching.

068. Anna Karenina (Clarence Brown, 1935)
It’s kind of amazing that a studio would even attempt an adaptation of Anna Karenina, a story that’s all about adultery, after the pre-code era. Despite the restrictions of the era, of the many adaptations of Tolstoy’s novel, Clarence Brown’s 1935 version is probably the best. This was actually the second time Garbo had played Anna Karenina. She’d made a silent, modernized version in the 1920s opposite her then paramour John Gilbert, entitled Love. The role is one that suits Garbo and her talents so amazingly well, and it’s hard for any other actress in the  role to measure up to her.  Particularly impressive are the moments between Anna and her son. Garbo loved children, though she never had any of her own, and the few scenes she shared with children throughout her career are some of the most purely emotional and open moments Garbo ever had onscreen.

067. Five and Ten (Robert Z. Leonard, 1931)
While Marion Davies was always at her best in comedies, she did have some seriously dramatic acting chops. Where so many films during the Depression were about the poor, Five and Ten told the story of a family who acquires new wealth, and the negative effects that has. So I guess it sort of said to the Depression audiences, “Don’t feel bad about being poor. Look at how awful and miserable the people who have money are.” The film looks at the Rarick family as they become members of the new rich. Instead of being blissfully happy with their new money, each family member faces their own problems. Jennifer (Davies), tries to become a member of society, but is generally shunned because she doesn’t come from old money. Her mother (Irene Rich) is bored with her life since her husband works so much, and she takes up with gigolo. Avery, Jennifer’s brother, played by Douglass Montgomery, spends all his time worrying about the problems of his family and it starts to drive him a little crazy. Where the wealthy families in films like Merrily We Live are endearingly nutty, the Raricks are an incredibly sad family to watch.

066. Follow the Fleet (Mark Sandrich, 1936)
There are so many ways in which this is not your typical Astaire/Rogers musical. First, fter Flying Down to Rio, Fred and Ginger were almost always cast as the leads. This time they share pretty equal screentime with a less interesting, but still charming, couple comprised of Randolph Scott and Harriet Hilliard. Second, the pair usually played characters of considerable wealth, or were, at the very least, comfortable. In Follow the Fleet, he’s a sailor and she’s working hard at a dance hall just to make ends meet. Finally, this is the only film in which one of their dances breaks character and they’re actually performing the dance as other characters. These differences make for a breath of fresh air in the Astaire/Rogers canon. For once they’re a completely ordinary couple, trying hard to raise some money. The films features two of their best dances, the beautiful “Let’s Face the Music and Dance”, and “I’m Putting All My Eggs In One Basket”, a lighter number which shows off Ginger’s incredibly gift for physical comedy.

075. Hide-Out (W.S. Van Dyke, 1934)
Hide-Out is a mobster movie in so much as it’s about a mobster. But instead of being a Little Caesar type story of the rise and fall of a gangster, it’s a romantic dramady. Montgomery’s Lucky really is no good. When he ends up at the Miller family farm after being shot, he intends to use the family’s kindness for as long as he can until he recovers and then return to his life of crime. But he starts to actually genuinely like the family, especially Pauline, the daughter, played by a charming Maureen O’Sullivan. At first he is after that one thing that bad boys are after when it comes to girls, but he realizes her really loves her and that makes him want to turn his life around. The movie is a really good piece of character development for Lucky, and Montgomery’s performance as both the heartless Lucky and the changed man is very good. He makes the development feel very natural. The love story, while simple, is surprisingly romantic, and there’s a an incredibly charged scene where Lucky and Pauline take refuge in an empty house during a rainstorm.

074. City Girl (Murnau, 1930)
FW Murnau was a really interesting director. It’s kind of fascinating to compare his other films, like Nosferatu, Faust, and even Sunrise with his 1930 silent film City Girl. On the surface, it’s a very different kind of film. It’s visual style is much simpler than most of his previous efforts (but no less stunning), and it doesn’t have the massive dramatic punch. It’s a much smaller, more intimately set story about love and family and finding your place. Mary Duncan and Charles Farrell (who were fantastic together the year before in Frank Borzage’s The River) play the young lovers who come from two different worlds, and their chemistry manages to carry much of the film.

073. Libeled Lady (Jack Conway, 1936)
William Powell and Myrna Loy made a huge amount of films together. Their most notable are obviously the Thin Man movies, but Libeled Lady is easily their best non-Thin Man movie. I’m a big fan of the love-quadrangle thing in old movies, and this movie has one of the best. Powell, Loy, Spencer Tracy, and Jean Harlow make a great team, and it makes for three of the best pairings in classic romance – Loy and Powell (obviously), Tracy and Harlow, and Harlow and Powell. I think Harlow’s performance is particularly impressive because she spends a good portion of the movie acting like the last thing she wants to do is marry Powell, when in reality that was what she wanted more than anything (Powell and Harlow were an item until her death in 1937).

072. Shall We Dance (Mark Sandrich, 1937)
Shall We Dance really doesn’t get a lot of love among the Astaire/Rogers films, which is unfortunate and not entirely fair. Sure, while the dancing is good, it doesn’t really match a few of their other films, and with the exception of “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” there isn’t an amazingly memorable number. But what it lacks on the musical front it makes up for by having one of the most original stories and the pair’s film canon. No mistaken identity here. Fred and Ginger play two famous dancers who the press mistakingly think are married. It’s a good premise that leads to some fantastic comedy, and great performances from its leads. Especially Ginger, who spends much of the movie acting annoyed and put out by Fred’s obvious attractions. And while there’s no mind blowing dance accompanying it, “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” is one of the best songs Fred ever sang, and Ginger’s reaction shots to it are beautiful.

071. Midnight Mary (William A. Wellman, 1933)
Thanks to the ultra-pious good girl image she cultivated for herself in the late 1940s and 1950s, when people think of Loretta Young think almost exclusively of that ultra-pious good girl. So a lot of people are often surprised to go back in her filmography and look at her pre-code work, in which that good girl was a far away thing. This is especially true of Midnight Mary, an amazing character study where Young plays one of the most flawed heroines of the era. Mary gets dealt a shit hand early on, and her life just devolves from there, from prostitution to a dangerous relationship with a violent criminal. This film is so obviously pre-code. It seems that every time Mary makes a strong moral decision, it backfires on her completely, but whenever she does something bad things kind of work for her. In the end, Mary is her own worst enemy, thinking that she doesn’t deserve any better than the life she has. Young’s performance is incredible, and this is one of the best characters to come out of the decade.

By Katie Richardson

080. The Smiling Lieutenant (Ernst Lubitsch, 1931)
It’s kind of strange to see Miriam Hopkins, the actress who I think is the true Queen of Pre-Code film, playing such a sweet, timid character. No actress during the era enjoyed her sexuality more than Hopkins, but she’s able to play the inexperienced slightly prudish wife of Maurice Chevalier so well and so convincingly that it’s hard to believe it’s the same woman. Until the end, that is, when she becomes the sexual being that Hopkins was known for. It’s almost like watching the birth of the Pre-Code queen. The “Jazz Up Your Lingerie” number with Hopkins and Claudette Colbert is easily the high point of the movie. One wouldn’t think that these women would get along (since they’re rivals for the same man) but they have so much chemistry, almost more than either woman has with Chevalier. This is a Lubitsch movie, so it’s just as sophisticated as it is sexy, and it’s a joy to watch.

079. Conquest (Clarence Brown, 1937)
It’s refreshing when a movie that’s based on fact comes right out and says, before the movie even starts, that the story has been seriously embellished and that it’s a more romanticized version of the events that actually happened. Conquest, a movie about the love story between Napoleon and his mistress, the Polish Countess Marie Walewska, does this. It starts with the disclaimer. It’s nice to see a movie not hide that it’s not 100% fact. Because when the movie is good, that doesn’t really matter, and Conquest is good. It’s very good. It’s kind of amazing that this was made during the strict era of code enforcement considering the entire story is about a romantic relationship between the Countess, who has left her husband, and Napoleon, who eventually becomes married to someone else, even though they never marry. The love story really is beautifully told. It starts out with Marie mostly taking on the role of the Emperor’s mistress to help her country, but she comes to truly love this man. Conquest is also somewhat unique in that Garbo really doesn’t take on the dominant role in the relationship. Usually she’s playing the alpha to a weaker man, but this time that’s not so. It’s a heartbreaking love story that’ s brilliantly performed by the Garbo and Charles Boyer.

078. The Rules of the Game (La regle du jeu) (Jean Renoir, 1939)
Robert Altman’s Gosford Park is one of my favorite films of the 2000s, and it probably wouldn’t exist were it not for Jean Renoir’s amazing examination of the upper class The Rules of the Game. There were a lot of American films in the 1930s about wealthy people, but the most critical Hollywood was of the upper class was usually just depiction them as screwy and kind of lovably out of their minds (see My Man Godfrey and Merrily We Live). But the French filmmaker’s work looks at the real faults of the upper class in the 1930s and just how they were quite different from the common man, not just in their income, but in their attitudes. The most impressive part of the film is how it’s not particularly intimate. The viewer is not treated as part of the experience. We’re merely observers of the action, kept at a distance that almost (almost) makes the film cold. We’re seeing the way these people would act if we weren’t around watching them, which gives the film a voyeuristic feeling.

077. Today We Live (Howard Hawks, 1933)
I really love World War I movies, and I think that there aren’t enough of them. Today We Live doesn’t follow the tradition war movie formula. It focuses  mostly on Joan Crawford’s character and how she deals with the war, with her brother and her best friend (and later husband) serving. We see a little bit of action, but it’s mostly about the effects that the war has on the people on the periphery. Sure, it has it’s faults, like the whole things in the 1930s where, as long as it was set in the 20th century, everyone wore the latest 1930s fashions. But in the end, that really has no effect on ho this story just works on an emotional level. Crawford’s character has a lot of big choices to make, and sometimes she makes the wrong ones, but that perfectly reflects the confusion that comes from being indirectly involved in a war. Franchot Tone plays her brother and Robert Young their best friend, and they both deliver incredibly supporting performances.

076. Fugitive Lovers (Richard Boleslawski, 1934)
Road Romances were a neat little subgenre of Romantic Comedy in the 1930s. The most notable is probably Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night, but perhaps the most overlooked is Richard Boleslawski’s Fugitive Lovers. It’s another pairing of the endlessly adorable and enchanting Robert Montgomery and Madge Evans. This time Montgomery is an escaped convict who grabs a ride on the bus that Madge Evans is traveling on, trying to get away from the mobster who’s infatuated with her, who follows her anyway. It’s a pretty simple movie, but it’s incredibly sweet and has a surprising amount of character development for such a short comedy. The relationship between Evans and Montgomery has a very natural feel to it. Montgomery is great as always, but I think it’s Evans who’s particularly impressive here. She’s playing a character who’s a little bit sharper and snippier than her usual characters, and there are moments where she’s flat out hilarious. Nat Pendleton is the main supporting player, as Evans’ mobster stalker. He’s always a joy to watch, and this time is no different. He also has one of the most surprising and satisfying character moments in the whole film.

By Katie Richardson

I just want to alert you all to a very well done and thorough blog, Where Danger Lives.  It’s all about film noir and dark cinema, and it has some of the best reviews I’ve seen online. So definitely check it out. It will be added to the list of links on this site.

085. The Lady Vanishes (Alfred Hitchcock, 1936)
Following up The 39 Steps, considered today to be his first “major” film, Hitchcock made yet another “traveling” thriller. Hitch had a big thing for trains. From The Lady Vanishes to North by Northwest to Strangers on the Train, it was one of his favorite settings for mischief and mayhem. In this film, nearly all of the story unfolds on a train. The film is also notable for having a female leading the way in the plot. Margaret Lockwood is charming, lovely, and all around watchable. Her eagerness to uncover the truth is totally believable, and at her side is the equally charming and sometimes endearingly irritating Michael Redgrave. The pair try to discover what’s happened to a woman who Lockwood swears she talked to on the train who seems to have vanished without a trace. The plot has been copied in various ways many times since (most notable in Flightplan, perhaps most successfully in Bunny Lake Is Missing.) Knowing someone who has vanished, and then being led to believe that maybe they didn’t exist at all, is the stuff psychological thrillers are made of.

084. Little Caesar (Mervyn LeRoy, 1931)
The Pre-Code era was the golden age of the mobster film. Not only were filmmakers much more free to make their films violent and their villains sympathetic, but America was also in the midst of the Depression, and people were looking to unconventional movie characters to idolize. So filmmakers were able to make their gangsters into not just sympathetic hoodlums, but even into tragic anti-heroes. Perhaps the most sympathetic of the bunch is Edward G. Robinson’s Rico. In 1931, his rise to power could be seen as almost inspiration, despite the illegal and quite violent way he did it, and despite the fact that the character is something of a monster, loyalty and friendship aside. There’s also some of that wonderful pre-code homosexual subtext, and an amazing final line from Robinson.

083. Wuthering Heights (William Wyler, 1939)
1939 is considered Hollywood’s Golden Year because so many amazing movies were released, but the only two that really get any attention these days are Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz, while other films, like Wuthering Heights, which I think is better than both of those other movies, are hardly ever discussed. Wuthering Heights is kind of the grand-daddy of messed up love stories. It’s the story of how a strong and passionate love can sometimes destroy two people rather than save them. It’s dark, it’s not happy, but it’s has its own dark beauty, and this film captures it so well. It’s true, it only tells part of the story, but if you’re going to make a feature length film version of the story, I’d personally rather have a part of the story cut out to allow what’s there to fully develop as it should, rather than trying to cram it all into a two hour running time and rushing things, like that mess that was the 1992 version.

082. Possessed (Clarence Brown, 1931)
Kept woman films were popular in the romantic melodrama genre during the pre-code era. Naturally the idea of a kept woman was something that would have to be done away with completely when enforcement of the code began. But while it was allowed, the subgenre allowed for some very interesting romances. One of them paired Joan Crawford and Clark Gable, one of the all time great pairings (on and off screen) as the kept woman and the man who keeps her. A lot of these stories are about the woman falling in love with a poor man, a man who isn’t the one keeping her. This one is different because it’s about the love between the two characters. It’s not about them falling in love, it’s about their love changing and their acceptance of it.

081. Employees’ Entrance (Roy Del Ruth, 1933)
One of the sexiest movies of the decade, Employees’ Entrance is about all manner of workplace indiscretions, and it crams just about all the pre-code you can get into one movie. Loretta Young is charming as always as the sweet girl who sleeps her way into a job at a department store by way of sleazy yet oh-so-sexy Warren William, but then falls in love with good guy Wallace Ford.  Watching it now with 70+ years of history, it’s an interesting look back at the way life was back in the 1930s. But even without the historical context, it works remarkably well as a romantic drama, with an entertaining supporting ensemble. But the show belongs to the often forgotten but always awesome Warren William. He completely owns this movie in every way. It takes quite an actor to play such a horrible character with so much commitment.

By Katie Richardson

090. Anna Christie (Clarence Brown, 1930)
MGM kept Greta Garbo in silent films longer than any other star in Hollywood. It wasn’t until 1930 that she made her talkie debut in the title role in Anna Christie.  It was really the perfect role for Garbo – the world weary prostitute of Swedish descent. The film is based on the play by Eugene O’Neill, who wasn’t the sunniest of playwrights. It’s a grim and gloomy story that could have easily been bogged down by its own sadness and despair had director Clarence Brown not put such importance on the family dynamic between Anna and her father, played by George F. Marion. Anna hides her past from her father, with whom she’s recently been reunited, for fear of disappointing him. While there is a love story in the film, the movie is really about the relationship between a father and daughter and the difficulties they have relating to one another after being separated for 15 years.

089. Of Human Bondage (John Cromwell, 1934)
Bette Davis had been working steadily in mostly unremarkable pictures until 1934 when she appeared in her breakout role in Of Human Bondage. Davis was a brave actress. Not many would take on a character as vile and horrible as Mildred, and even fewer would work so hard to make the character as horrible as possible. As a result, Davis created one of the biggest film bitches of all time, and cemented her place in Hollywood history as one of the all time greats. W. Somerset Maugham’s story of obsession and abuse is a dark one, filled with characters you can never quite feel sorry for. Nevertheless, watching the power Mildred holds over Leslie Howard’s Carey and the inexplicable pull he feels toward her is fascinating to watch. We’re basically watching a series of events that leads to a train crashing. We recognize that these things are going to lead to a disaster, we’re powerless to stop it, but it’s impossible not to be entranced by it.

088. Vivacious Lady (George Stevens, 1938)
Ginger Rogers and James Stewart were close friends for most of their lives, and they shared a really amazing chemistry on screen. In the 1930s and 1940s, they were both the “every man” (or woman) stars. Unlike much of Hollywood, which seemed glamorous and untouchable, Stewart and Roger seemed like they belonged with us. Like they were regular Joes. And pairing the two worked so well on film. Which is why it’s surprising that the only made one movie together, the delightful romantic comedy Vivacious Lady. The basic story is a little hackneyed – Stewart comes from a wealthy and respectable family, so he’s afraid to tell them that he’s married a showgirl – but the fact that director George Stevens can take that story and make something so funny and heartfelt is what’s beautiful about the whole thing. The romance between Stewart and Rogers feels incredibly genuine, and the family dynamic, while screwball and therefor a little daffy, actually feels real and honest. Despite the screwball elements, this is a movie that feels true.

087. Living on Velvet (Frank Borzage, 1935)
Living on Velvet is one of Borzage’s less recognized films. On the surface is seems to be a typical romantic melodrama, but it’s actually one of Borzage’s darkest stories. George Brent’s character, Terry, has lost his family in a plane crash while he was piloting, so he spends much of his life basically courting death, even after he marries Kay Francis’ Amy. He’s so much more damaged than any of Borzage’s other heroes. So damage that not even his love for Amy can save his soul.  Rather, much of the film seems to be about how their love for each other isn’t enough. For once in a Borzage film, it’s the outside forces that his heroes and heroines are usually so isolated from which are needed to save their lives. It’s an interesting departure for Borzage, less spiritual and certainly darker.

086. Dodsworth (William Wyler, 1936)
Hollywood romances, in both classic and modern film, are usually about young people. While it’s becoming a bit more common in current film to give older people the spotlight, that was a rarity in classic film, which makes Dodsworth a breath of fresh air. The leads are Walter Huston and Ruth Chatterton, 52 and 44 years of age, respectively. Chatterton was lucky enough to have an ageless face, and was able to play the leading ladies in roles that might have gone to younger actresses for much of the 1930s. But in Dodsworth she embraced her age to play an older woman, the mother of an adult child, and the wife of a man who’s just retired. The film continues to be unconventional, telling the story of a long time romance unraveling. It’s sometimes heartbreaking to watch, but it’s such a well done film that you can’t tear your eyes away. It’s also brilliantly performed by its entire cast, especially Chatterton, who isn’t afraid to reveal the incredibly unlikable traits of her character.

Stay tuned for 85-81.

By Katie Richardson

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