Essays


Yeah, I’m a few days late on this one. Like I said, I was really busy making that facebook page and all.

Sadly, we’ve lost another great actress of the classic era. Jean Simmons died on Thursday, just a little over a week short of her 81st birthday.

Simmons started her career on the screen in small roles in B-pictures before moving up the ranks in Hollywood. Soon she was getting supporting roles in major films with major directors, like Michael Powell and David Lean. Soon she was playing the leading lady in a variety of roles, from Shakespeare to noir to biblical epics.

She worked diligently in film throughout the 1930s, 40s, 50s, and 60s, and she then moved on to many television projects, including the miniseries North and South and the popular television show Murder She Wrote.

She’s known for her more popular films, like Black Narcissus and Great Expectations, but since this is Obscure Classics after all, I want to hit on a few of her lesser remembered films.

Angel Face is a fantastic noir that Simmons made with film noir heavyweight Robert Mitchum. It has an intentionally slow pace that builds the suspense for a wallop of a conclusion. Mitchum is, as always, pretty great. But it’s Simmons who really anchors the movie. She’s definitely nuts, but she’s so calm about it that it’s really downright eerie.

So Long at the Fair is a strange film, based on a supposedly true story (the details on it are sketchy and hard to pin down). This time Simmons is playing a sane person who everyone thinks is crazy, and it’s a more frantic performance than the one in Angel Face. It works as both a bizarre mystery and as a strong costume drama.

2009 was yet another tough year when it comes to celebrity deaths. Much like 2008, there were quite a few upsetting and shocking deaths (Natasha Richardson, David Carradine, Michael Jackson, Brittany Murphy). There were also, as usual, several deaths in the classic film world, but perhaps this year wasn’t as upsetting as last year, when we lost film giants like Paul Newman and Richard Widmark. Nevertheless, we lost several wonderful and memorable contributors to classic film. As usual, I can’t right something for the many people who passed away, but here are just a few that hit me hard.

Early this year we lost the wonderful character actor Karl Malden. He was 96 years old, one of the oldest of the great actors left. He didn’t have the movie star looks to be a leading man, but he was easily one of the best actors throughout the latter part of the classic era, turning in several incredible supporting performances. He won an Academy Award for his performance in A Streetcar Named Desire, and received another nomination for On the Waterfront. These are easily his two most famous performances, but he was also amazing in movies like I Confess, Gypsy, The Birdman of Alcatraz, and Baby Doll, which is my personal favorite performance from him.

Director Robert Mulligan is best known for To Kill a Mockingbird, which is an excellent film. It is easily his best film, but unfortunately a lot of his other films are overlooked, and he made many good ones. I’m pretty fond of Love With the Proper Stranger, starring Natalie Wood and Steve McQueen. It’s a really strong romance and Mulligan worked with the chemistry between Wood and McQueen so well. Fear Strikes Out is also an really good film, one of the better biopics of the era. He also did an excellent job with the uniquely structured Same Time, Next Year.

Dorothy Coonan is probably best known as Mrs. William Wellman. They were married for 41 years, until his death. But before she married Wild Bill, she made a few movies. She was a dancer and chorus girl in 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933. But her most impressive work onscreen is in her husband’s film Wild Boys of the Road, in which she plays a young girl living her life on the railroad, hopping freights. It’s an honest movie about the Depression, and Coonan’s performance is quite affecting.

Ricardo Montalban is mostly remembered for his later work in Fantasy Island and The Wrath of Khan, but he made a few good films back during the classic era. He costarred in a few really good musicals in the late 1940s (On and Island With You and Neptune’s Daughter) as well as Battleground, a very good World War II movie from 1950. He also starred in Latin Lovers with Lana Turner. It’s not a particularly good movie, but I’m fond of it.

Jane Bryan’s career was pretty brief. She only made 18 films and worked only between 1936 and 1940. But in that four year period, she had supporting roles in some really wonderful films, like Marked Woman, The Old Maid, and Each Dawn I Die. She was extremely charming in the lead female role in the crime comedy A Slight Case of Murder.  Bryan had a really great, understated screen presence, but she married in 1940 and quite the business for good.

James Whitmore is one of my favorite character actors from the 1950s. He was in John Huston’s caper drama The Asphalt Jungle, and he more than held his own among a really impressive ensemble cast. He also costarred with Montalban in Battleground. Whitmore had a screen presence that was really electric and versatile. He went from films like The Asphalt Jungle to musicals like Kiss Me Kate and Oklahoma.

I wrote about Jones’ death a few weeks ago when it happened. She’s one of my all time favorite actresses, who could handle both comedy and drama with amazing skill and ease. From Portrait of Jennie to Cluny Brown, she was simply dazzling to watch on screen. She was also great at going from the good girl (in something like Since You Went Away) to the bad girl (her fiery performance in Duel In the Sun). Her talent is simply unforgettable.

050. The Roaring Twenties (Raoul Walsh, 1939)
The Roaring Twenties is one of the most amazing gangster dramas of the classic era, but it’s probably the least recognized among the “big” ones. Few gangster films have a leading character as likable as James Cagney’s Eddie Bartlett. And because he’s so likable, his downfall is absolutely heartbreaking. This probably is the most emotional of all the major gangster films of the era. The film is about more than just Eddie’s downfall, though. It’s about the downfall of the country, how is went from the fun Roaring Twenties to the Great Depression. And it has one of the most fantastic closing lines of all time. “He used to be a big shot.”

049. Men In White (Richard Boleslawski, 1934)
As with Life Begins, Men In White is a fascinating look at how things were so much different in the medical world in the 1930s. But it’s also one of the most daring films to come out of the pre-code era. It’s not just about sex and violence. It tackles some really important social issues of the time. The topic of abortion was so taboo they had to tip toe around it in the dialogue, even during the pre-code era. It was a bold move, and the films handles it delicately but honestly. It’s an emotionally powerful film in more ways than one.

048. Nothing Sacred (William Wellman, 1937)
Few actresses could do screwball comedy as well as Carole Lombard (Fort Wayne native, thank you very much). There were many gifted comic actresses in the 1930s, but I think Lombard was at the top of the list, and I really can’t imagine anyone else playing Hazel Flagg in Nothing Sacred. She really carries the movie, being sweet, funny, and likable despite the fact that we know she’s lying the whole time. Fredric March was no screwball slouch either, and the pairing of these two is absolutely perfect. I enjoy the way it often buck romcom norm, as with their first kiss, which we don’t even see. It’s amazing how director William Wellman was able to make a kiss we didn’t even get to see so incredibly romantic.

047. Mannequin (Frank Borzage, 1937)
Believe it or not, it took me awhile to warm up to Mannequin. I know, right? A Frank Borzage movie I didn’t love instantly. It took a few viewings for me to appreciate and really see the beauty in the love story between Joan Crawford’s Jesse and Spencer Tracy’s Hennessey. It’s a very slow build. Jesse starts the relationship married to another man, and Hennessey loves her from afar. But it turns out her husband is a pretty big loser, so she divorces him. Hennessey pursues her, she resists, but then they marry. Jesse doesn’t really love Hennessey at this point, and they both know it, but they figure that love will grow. And it does.

046. The Man In Possession (Sam Wood, 1931)
The Man In Possession might be the sexiest pre-code film I’ve ever seen. Of course, like most pre-code films, it uses sly innuendos and the like, but even then it’s a lot more blatant and in-your-face about its sexuality than most films from the era. There’s a moment where Irene Purcell’s Crystal wakes up in the morning, obviously sated and worn out from a night of lovemaking with Robert Montgomery’s Raymond, and the maid finds Crystal’s nightgown at the end of the bed. And it’s pretty much ripped in half. That’s probably the most blatantly sexual moment in all of pre-code film. Thankfully, though, there’s more than just that to the film. It’s a clever, very funny comedy. And it has Robert Montgomery. Which is always good.

055. Bad Girl (Borzage, 1930)
Frank Borzage won his second Academy Award for Best Director for the Depression romance Bad Girl. The brilliance of his work in this film is the simplicity. It’s a very small, private love story that probably was probably more than a little like a lot of love stories happening in real life at the time, so he knew not to be too over the top and flashy. The movie is very down to earth and it feels stunningly authentic. Not only is it an excellent love story, it’s also an incredible depiction of life during the Depression, from the tenements to the slang.

054. Baby Face (Alfred E. Green, 1933)
Baby Face is, without a doubt, essential pre-code viewing. It’s hard to find a leading female character more pre-code than Barbara Stanwyck’s Lily (seriously, what is up with the worst of the pre-code dames being named Lily or Lil? That was also Jean Harlow’s name in Red Headed Woman, and she might actually have Stanwyck beat for the most pre-code). Even during the era, that weren’t a lot of films that celebrated a woman’s ability to get to the top by getting on her back, and Baby Face was one of them. Lily sleeps her way to the top, and she’s completely unapologetic about it.

053. It’s Love I’m After (Archie Mayo, 1937)

It’s Love I’m After is another nutty love-square romantic comedy, only it’s not quite as totally frakking insane as Four’s a Crowd. Nevertheless, it’s a flat out awesome romcom, with stellar performances from the whole cast. Unlike Four’s a Crowd, you can be pretty certain from the beginning who’s going to end up with who, despite the couple swapping (and at one point it almost becomes a love pentagon when Davis’ character starts to cozy up to DeHavilland’s dad), but it’s fun to watch them get there. It also has one of the best lines ever in a comedy. After being particularly mean to DeHavilland, only to have her delight in his criticisms, Leslie Howard says, “You don’t suppose I’ve awakened her ‘slap me again, I love it’ complex?”
052. City Lights (Charles Chaplin, 1931)
No doubt I’ll get a few “What the hell? WAY TOO LOW!” comments because City Lights isn’t in my top 50. But I still love it. Otherwise it wouldn’t be on this list at all. Chaplin continued to make silent films into the sound era, and proved that true emotion and love could still be expressed without words. It’s a film about true selflessness. The Tramp works to earn money for the Flower Girl’s operation even though he knows there’s a huge chance she won’t want him once she sees he’s not the millionaire she thinks he is. It’s a simple story, but a moving one, and it proves that you don’t need a lot of frills to make an effective romantic comedy.

051. Camille (George Cukor, 1936)
Greta Garbo’s performance as Marguerite in Camille my be the  most famous of her career. While I don’t think it’s her best performance, it’s certainly the ultimate Garbo role, the sacrificial bad girl, and she even gets to slowly die in this one. Yeah, sounds like a downer, but it is an incredibly romantic and ever moving film. And Garbo’s performance is really fantastic. She’s charming, she’s sexy, she’s sad. And Robert Taylor makes for a wonderful younger leading man. They’re a good pair, with strong chemistry. If you like Moulin Rouge, you’ll like this. Because it’s basically the exact same story.

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.

Academy Award winning actress Jennifer Jones passed away today in Malibu at the age of 90.

Jones won an Oscar in 1943 for The Song of Bernadette. She was nominated four other times, for Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing, Duel In the Sun, Love Letters, and Since You Went Away.

I don’t really talk about Jennifer Jones a lot on this site, but she really is one of my all time favorites. She’s definitely very high on my list of actresses working in the 1940s. Portrait of Jennie is one of my all time favorite movies. It’s an incredible love story, and Jones’ performance is amazing. She plays Jennie from a child (I believe she starts the story at 10 years old) to an adult, and she’s believable at every stage of her life. She also manages to imbue the character with an otherworldly feel that’s essential to the character. Joseph Cotten was her leading man in this one, and I think he was easily her best leading man.

She also made Love Letters with Cotten. It’s a bizarre movie that’s kind of impossible to explain without ruining. But it’s really fantastic. It’s weird and twisty and just so damn good, and Jones gives another stellar performance. It’s a difficult character, with some serious emotional and psychological problems, but she also needs to be convincing in her romance with Cotten, and Jones pulls off both sides of the character perfectly.

I also love her in an underseen Lubitch film, the endlessly charming Cluny Brown.  Her performance is really essential to the film. Played by a lesser actress, the character could have easily come out as supremely annoying. But Jones makes her so funny and lovable.

Madame Bovary doesn’t get a lot of attention, but I think it’s a pretty great movie.  Her character does bad things and Jones is able to make the character sympathetic without condoning her actions. And she infuses her with an incredible amount of passion.

Jones does have a few missteps in her filmography, particularly her two remakes, A Farewell to Arms and The Barretts of Wimpole Street. Both movies are pretty terrible, pale imitations of their originals, but that’s not Jones’ fault, of course.

Really, compared to other stars of the studio era, Jones’ filmography is pretty short. In her 35 years in Hollywood, she made only 27 films (when you look at a lot of stars from the 1930 and 1940s, they’ll have 80, 90, sometimes over 100 films to their credit). But with the exception of a few films, all of her works was wonderful. Hers is definitely a case of quality over quantity, and she will definitely be missed.

By Katie Richardson

You guys get two entries since you went so long without. Yay!

60. Life Begins (James Flood, 1932)
There are some movies from the 1930s that are really fascinating looks into the way the world worked back then. Some things were just so drastically different. Life Begins is one of those film. It’s about the maternity ward of a hospital and the many women who occupy it. It’s so strange to see the way a hospital maternity ward worked at the time. But outside of being an interesting 1930s slice of life, Life Begins is a really excellent movie about, well… life. Young plays an expectant mother who’s been checked into the maternity ward knowing that once her child is born she’ll be returning to prison to finish out a manslaughter sentence.  Glenda Farrell plays another expectant mother, a carefree showgirl. This is a very emotionally charged movie about the start of a new life and all the complications that brings.

059. Scarface: The Shame of the Nation (Howard Hawks, 1932)
Howard Hawks’ violent, completely insane Scarface: The Shame of the Nation is without a doubt one of the best and most important gangster films of all time. Paul Muni give an amazing performance as Tony Camonte, the overly ambitious and kind of crazy protagonist of the film. It’s completely fearless and shameless. The supporting cast is excellent as well. George Raft (who had real-life mob ties) plays Tony’s closest confidant, the lovely and alluring Karen Morley plays his love interest, and Ann Dvorak is flat out incredible as his little sister. There is, of course, a shocking amount of incestuous subtext, which just make this movie all the more fascinating. It’s easiest the most balls-to-the-wall crazy mobster movie of the classic era.

057. Jezebel (William Wyler, 1938)
Bette Davis was never more beautiful than she was in William Wyler’s period romance Jezebel. And her performance is absolutely wonderful (she won her second Best Actress Oscar for it). She makes Julie a more arrogant, beautiful, glorious, simpering mess of a southern belle than Scarlet O’Hara could ever hope to be. William Wyler, despite coming form Europe, just got the American South. (He also directed Davis in the exquisite Southern masterpiece The Little Foxes in 1940.) It’s a shame he never directed a Faulkner adaptation. The two would have been an absolutely perfect fit. Davis is paired here with Henry Fonda, and the two are an excellent screen team. They had loads and loads of chemistry.

057. Four’s a Crowd (Michael Curtiz, 1938)
Love triangles are a pretty ordinary thing in romantic comedies. Love squares are less common. Especially love squares as completely nuts as this. Not only is it a totally crazy love square romantic comedy, but it’s also a newspaper movie, too. Be still my heart! And it even has a twist ending. That’s right, it’s a romantic comedy with a twist ending. Up until the last minute, you’re not really sure who’s going to end up with who. It really could go any way. Michael Curtiz is one of the most underappreciated directors of all time in my opinion. He gets a lot of recognition for Casablanca, but so few recognize the really solid work he did as a studio director. He could do literally every genre, and he proved with Four’s a Crowd that he could do excellent work in the screwball comedy genre.

056. The Barretts of Wimpole Street (Sidney Franklin, 1934)
Hmmm… two movies with strong incestuous undertones in one post. That’s  a little bit weird. Anyhoo, the film is based on the true love story between Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning.  But while the romance is very important to the movie, the story is more about the growth of Elizabeth Barrett as a person, and away from her family. Producer Irving Thalberg was big on adapting stage plays to the screen, and while the camera work isn’t particularly creative (it’s often criticized as being basically a films play) the story is still told beautifully. Shearer and Charles Laughton give career best performance. Laughton plays Elizabeth’s father, who love clearly goes beyond fatherly affection. Due to the Production Code, the Hayes Office ordered a re-write of the script to tone down the incestuous subtext, but Laughton famously said, “They can’t censor the gleam in my eye.”

By Katie Richardson

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