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

Richard Boleslawski is another of the many, many great, yet underappreciated directors that we love here at Obscure Classics. While he directed a few films in his native Russia (in the area which is now Poland) between 1915 and 1921, his career didn’t really take off until he came to America. His first job wasn’t exactly the brightest omen of things to come. He did fill in work for Erich von Stroheim on the ill-fated Queen Kelly, which was something of a disaster that was never finished. Fortunately, his first job was not an indicator for the rest of his career, and while he never made a picture as big as Gone With the Wind or Grand Hotel, he made many excellent studio pictures before his career was tragically cut short by his sudden death in 1937. A few of his films, Beauty for Sale and Fugitive Lovers, get quite a lot of talk on this site, so here are a few of his films that haven’t received quite as much attention.

The Mystery of Mr. X (1934)
The Mystery of Mr. X is one of the man mystery/comedies to come out of the 1930s, and while it’s not quite as good as The Thin Man or The Mad Miss Manton, it’s definitely in the upper echelon of these types of films. It’s a little bit different than these other films in that its lead character, played wonderfully by Robert Montgomery, is not a detective, or a doctor/detective, or lawyer/detective. He’s ‘technically’ not a good guy at all, he’s a gentleman thief. He gets caught up in a murder when he’s stealing a diamond at the same time a policeman is being murdered just outside the building. Scotland Yard assumes the murder and theft were committed by the same man, and Montgomery is left to prove himself innocent.

His leading lady is Elizabeth Allan, and the two of them share a really wonderful chemistry that really makes me wish they had made more films together. The screenplay sparkles, and Boleslawski easily mixed the humor with some truly suspenseful scenes.

Men In White (1934)
I’ve talked about this movie a few times on this site. It’s a really incredible pre-code film, which tackles some pretty taboo issues with incredible finesse.

In Men In White, Clark Gable plays a young doctor in love with Myrna Loy, but his constantly busy schedule puts a strain on their relationship, and he ends up having a one night stand with nursing student Elizabeth Allan. She gets pregnant and has a back alley abortion, which is predictably botched and she ends up in the hospital, fighting for her life.

Abortion was perhaps the most taboo subject that could be covered in film in the 1930s, and even during the pre-code era, films had to be delicate about the way it approached the topic. The word “abortion” is never used. It’s hinted at without the word ever being spoken. Boleslawski takes a topic that could be sensationalized and tells a very personal story with it.

The Painted Veil (1934)
Boleslawski’s version of W. Somerset Maugham’s brilliant novel The Painted Veil isn’t nearly as good as the almost perfect 2006 adaptation starring Naomi Watts, Edward Norton, and Liev Schreiber. Naturally, the subject matter had to be handled much more delicately in the 1930s. But for what it is, which is basically a watered down version of Maugham’s story, it’s still a pretty good movie, with a really good performance from Garbo.

Garbo plays a restless woman who marries scientist Herbert Marshall even though she doesn’t really love him. This lack of love, combined with Marshall’s constant working, leads to Garbo having an affair with George Brent. When he husband discovers her infidelity, he takes her with him to inland China to fight the region’s illness, assuming they’ll both probably die. But in these worst of conditions, Garbo grows as a human being, as does her love for her husband.

This movie really only tells half the story of Maugham’s novel, leaving us with the happy ending, rather than going past that to the true, tragic ending of the story. But despite the sunny-ing up of the story, Boleslawski’s film does something that very few films at the time did. It takes a very honest and mature look at adult relationships and marriage.

By Katie Richardson

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Year: 1946

Director: Curtis Bernhardt

Cast: Barbara Stanwyck, George Brent, Eve Arden

Odd that Stanwyck’s character in this 1946 weeper is named exactly the same as she was in Forty Guns. When I first read the synopsis of this film, I rolled my eyes. Soap opera city. Imagine my surprise when by the denouement of the picture, I was moved to tears. That’s how effective Babs is in conveying her pain @ being split between the love for her boys and personal happiness. I have friends who grew up in the North Shore area and their anecdotal stuff about the blue bloods and their snobbish behavior combined w/ gossip is plentiful. So the Chicago stuff for that decade is spot on. Jessica Drummond is in the untenable position of being a widow who is expected by her mother to honor a dead husband’s memory by not pursuing any other relationships. Brutal expectations and Stanwyck shows us that they are inhuman standards.

My Reputation is an excellent movie w/ one of my favorite performances from “Missy.”

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Year: 1939

Director: Edmund Goulding

Cast: Miriam Hopkins, Bette Davis, George Brent

This is a melodrama set in the South @ the beginning of the Civil War and finishing well into the 1880s. Delia Lovell (Hopkins) is the older cousin to Charlotte (Bette Davis). The older Lovell belle grows weary of waiting for her fiance Clem Spender (George Brent) to propose marriage so she dumps him and marries a wealthy banker named Jim Ralston — played by James Stephenson — instead. Having held a torch for Clem herself for several years, Charlotte is thrilled and the two commence a romance immediately. When young Spender gets called to war, Davis’ character “comforts” him. The family eventually receives word that Charlotte’s lover is killed in action. This is the worst possible news because Ms. Lovell finds herself in the family way. Wishing to avoid scandal and any pox on the family name, the expecting mother travels out West to give birth in veiled secrecy.

Upon her return, Charlotte witnesses the devastations that war can leave in its wake. Wishing to contribute to the restoration of the South, our lead establishes a school for orphans. This has the added benefit of being a cover for her own child. When Delia finds out who the real father is to Clementina (Jane Bryan) she pleads with her cousin to move into her own home. Hopkins’ cousin suggests that the child has a birthright to a good name and financial resources. What appears as a gesture of Delia’s kindness at first is revealed to be anything but. As the years follow, Charlotte’s personal life is nearly snuffed out by this competitor for her daughter’s feelings. Davis’ character goes through Clementina’s adolescence reduced to the role of an annoying aunt while Delia pretends to be the child’s mother. Throughout the film, her older cousin’s selfish decisions have thwarted any chance Charlotte had @ happiness whether it be in romance, society, or in motherhood. As Clementine prepares for wedlock, our protagonist is sick of being a martyr and a doormat. The final scenes are a great payoff and combined with the rest of the movie, they make The Old Maid one of the better “women’s pictures” out there.

Hats off to Goulding for playing referee in this project as none of the notorious enmity each of these divas harbors for the other shows up in the frame. I have to compliment Davis with not being a grandstander in several scenes, as she chose correctly to play Charlotte stoically with measured reserve. Hopkins plays a detestable southern belle with verve and her insidious, machiavellian treatment of Davis’ Charlotte alienates the viewing audience. In short, she nails the part. What could have unraveled as a weepy, lame melodrama is given booster rockets by Hopkins and Davis. Give The Old Maid a spin if you want to see an acting clinic.

 


 

Year: 1941

Director: Edmund Goulding

Cast: George Brent, Bette Davis, Mary Astor

 

Within the first ten minutes The Great Lie presents itself unmistakably as a love triangle tale.  George Brent plays Peter Van Allen, a man who is desired by two women who are presented in the film as total opposites.  One is nurturing and domesticated  (Bette Davis) and one is a modern career woman, excelling as a talented pianist (Mary Astor).  She is free, driven, uninhibited, social and wild.  

While George Brent commands the attention of these two woman, they command the attention of the audience, squaring off against each other, each seemingly obtaining the upper hand but then loosing it again to the other.  

Bette Davis is as brilliant as ever with her perfectly expressive face.  She plays Maggie.  At times she is formidable and intimidating.  At other times vulnerable and downtrodden, and as her expressions and emotions yo-yo, she is never once unbelievable, only completely convincing despite the soap opera feel this movie takes on as it progresses through the plot.

Mary Astor steals the show despite the undeniable talent of Bette Davis.  In this, Astor’s one and only Oscar earning performance she storms into her opening scene, a powerhouse of presence and charisma.  We know instantly the type of woman we are dealing with and we are simultaneously impressed and on guard.  It seems insulting to the cast who are all marvelous in the film, but Mary Astor really does carry The Great Lie and it is particularly impressive when she is able to communicate the pain of the character to the point of sympathy, but yet continue to be a menacing antagonist.  The best example of this balance is during an extended stay in a small cabin in Arizona, as circumstances force her away from the general populace and the adoring fans of her work.  She is caged there, and she knows she can’t leave, pacing back and forth like a caged predator, simultaneously terrorizing and rueful.  She is a pathetic character really, but she doesn’t seek pity, she lashes out.  She is a dangerous and unpredictable woman.  A woman scorned.  While an evening with her would certainly be eventful and pleasurable, this is certainly not the type of woman we would want to wake up married to after a night of drinking until dawn.  Yet, that is were Peter Van Allen finds himself.

So, the roller coaster begins, and the twists and turns land quite comfortably between just believable enough, yet not entirely predictable.  Sure, it gets a little melodramatic at times, but these performances and the sparring between the always stirring Bette Davis and the toughest Mary Astor we’ve ever seen is worth a good long look.  The Great Lie is great fun, no lie.

 

 

 

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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

Year: 1946

Director: Irving Pichel

Cast: Claudette Colbert, Orson Welles, George Brent, Lucille Watson, Natalie Wood

Much like many of the greatest movies ever made, Tomorrow is Forever is a powerful and emotional film about sacrifice and putting the greater good above your own will.

Claudette Colbert plays a young wife named Elizabeth at the end of World War One. The war is now over and everyone is celebrating. Unfortunately, she receives a telegram informing her that her husband has been killed.

This film deals with the horror of war and how even conflicts far removed can have effects that ripple across the globe. It is also a film that deals with self sacrifice and seeing the bigger picture. To me, such noble and universal themes so masterfully executed are what makes this film so powerful, effective and impressive. This is a film that bores into the soul and touches, enlightens and inspires. It is a tragic story, but one that also generates optimism about the nature of mankind and the ability we have in all of us to step up when the going gets tough.

Orson Welles gives the most memorable performance of the film as Elizabeth’s husband John. Apparently, due to William Randolph Hearst’s objection to Citizen Kane and his desire to ruin Orson Welles, Welles was avoided by Hollywood but Claudette Colbert who was a big star was able to get him cast in Tomorrow is Forever. It is a good thing too. Orson gives another great performance. We see his character transform and mature and Welles portrays this transformation flawlessly.

It is worth pointing out that this was also Natalie Wood’s first credited role. She was just eight years old when the film was released. Even at such a young age she shows considerable talent.

My only real complaint with the film is that there is an essential plot point that comes across as contrived and hard to swallow, but because it was used to further what I thought was a powerful theme, I found it more excusable. Those who have seen the film will know what I am referring too. It has to do with two characters not recognizing each other after the passage of about 21 years. Perhaps with different makeup it would have been easier to swallow but as it is, you have to suspend your disbelief quite a bit to accept that there wouldn’t be complete recognition of one another.

I highly recommend this film.

By Greg Dickson

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.