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Classic Film Criticism Vol. 2

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*THE GOOD EARTH (1937)*

 

After viewing THE GOOD EARTH, it occurs to this writer that there should be an outcry that white actors were chosen to do the roles in yellow-face. But where could you find two finer, more nuanced performances than those given by Paul Muni and Luise Rainer in this picture?

 

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Luise Rainer, in particular, is Oscar-worthy. She etches a heartbreaking silhouette of human frailty, expressing so much with the simple tableau of a plainly painted-on face and those piercing eyes.

 

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Observe the stampede scene where her O-lan is nearly trampled to death. As she valiantly clutches on to the stash of precious gems she has found, it is clear that Woman is the sole power to save a male-dominated clan and turn it into the rich dynasty it will become.

 

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Another marvelous sequence is the locust swarm at the end, which once again draws its strength from Rainer's good earthly character. Her inspiration ensures the family's survival.

 

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It would be difficult to fathom Pearl S. Buck's novel in finer cinematic form than the way it is presented here by MGM. If someone did try to remake this film with ethnically correct casting, the newer version could likely not come as close to perfection as this one does. And nobody, not even an Asian actress, could probably give us O-lan so beautifully as Rainer has done here.

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*COPACABANA (1947)*

 

COPACABANA is worthwhile motion picture entertainment. Fearing this may be a substandard vehicle that might oversell but under-deliver the considerable talents of Groucho Marx and Carmen Miranda, not to mention their highly unusual chemistry, this reviewer put the movie off repeatedly. Upon reflection, that seems to have been a terrible mistake and waste of time, delaying what otherwise became an enjoyable experience.

 

The budget of this independent United Artists release could have been larger, because a few of the sets do appear a bit chintzy, as if they have been constructed quickly and cheaply. But the lavish musical numbers are more than acceptable and convey great style and extravagance, more than countering the picture's other visual shortcomings.

 

Particularly impressive is a charming dream scene that Gloria Jean performs with Steve Cochran (a much-underrated actor). And how can one not become an immediate fan of singer Andy Russell whose vocal talents are amply on display during the proceedings?

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*ACE IN THE HOLE (1951)*

 

Viewing this film reminds one of the headlines involving the little girl who fell down into the well several years ago and all the surrounding hoopla. Did the journalists who covered that story ever see this movie? Perhaps some things will never change in America.

 

A problem in selling this picture is the fact that the main character, played by Kirk Douglas, is extremely unlikable. If Billy Wilder had shaded him a bit more ambiguously, showing that he originally did have a conscience-- that he became so caught up in the job and surviving, well then maybe that could have made the film more relatable to audiences.

 

An interesting line of dialogue is spoken by Douglas' character when he says that bad news is big news, and good news is no news. But do we really believe that?

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Seriously? This is one of the best movies about journalism ever made. Douglas gives one of his best performances. He's supposed to be unlikeable. That's what makes the film work.

 

Of course we believe that line. It's absolutely true. 9/11 gets big headlines, we thwart an attack and no one cares. It's just the way it works.

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Thanks for the feedback. I did not say it was not a great film. In fact, I think it is very effective as biting satire. But in a way, we just cannot get too wrapped up in it, because we are not ever asked to empathize with Douglas' character. The John Ireland character in ALL THE KING'S MEN, yes...and Mercedes McCambridge's character in ALL THE KING'S MEN, yes-- we can find something to relate to despite the media frenzy and the surrounding craziness. In ACE IN THE HOLE, though, there is no voice that stands for reason, and we have little to care about in this picture. So we just sit back and let it entertain us, then we move on to something else.

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Next week, I am going to review both the Garbo and Vivien Leigh versions of ANNA KARENINA. I think this would make a great primetime double feature. Hint, hint, TCM's programmers. Are you reading...?

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*DIVE BOMBER (1941)*

 

Some of the early films experimenting with Technicolor do not get it right, but this one does. Director Michael Curtiz and his cinematographers Bert Glennon and Winton Hoch balance the brighter objects with neutral surroundings. In fact, this film almost needed to be shot in color, and it makes you wonder why (aside from expense) studios in 1941 keep making so many pictures in black-and-white. Obviously the technology is available and certain skilled directors and cinematographers prove to be more than up to the task.

 

The film provides an interesting role for Alexis Smith, and though her screen time is minimal, she radiates sex appeal with lead actor Errol Flynn. Mr. Flynn also has exceptional chemistry with Fred MacMurray, who shares above the title billing.

 

One understands the cigarette cases were a dramatic motif in the film, though it seems as if tobacco companies may have paid Warners to advertise smoking inasmuch as it appears to occur nonstop on screen. If one can see past a second-hand cloud, the aerial sequences are wonderful to behold.

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Coming Up:

 

ZERO HOUR!

MILDRED PIERCE

THE YOUNG STRANGER

THE WOMAN IN WHITE

ANNA KARENINA (1935)

ANNA KARENINA (1947)

PHFFFT!

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*ZERO HOUR! (1957)*

 

By 1957 standards, this is a rather exciting suspense film. Passengers often worry about what might go wrong when they board a plane. This movie captures those fears well, but it does not play to panic. The only real hysteria that is shown is when the jet crashes down and the lights go out. But we know Dana Andrews has landed the aircraft safely and the crisis has been magnificently averted.

 

The writing for ZERO HOUR! is carefully laid out. The storytellers do not rush to get to the danger, and they do not hurry the ending, either. Of course, we know the passengers will survive, but the characters change in a life-threatening situation and rise to the occasion, and that is what makes the picture fascinating to watch. Mr. Andrews does particularly well as a haunted pilot who overcomes his demons, taking a flight into death back to life.

 

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*MILDRED PIERCE (1945)*

 

Audiences seem to have been taken in by the sentimental story of a mother who would do anything for her daughter. The title character faces hardship and loss like one might expect in a melodrama, including the tragedy of having a young child conveniently die of pneumonia so that Joan Crawford may be afforded a four-star hankie moment. But it is neither this setback nor her troubled marriage that generates as much sympathy as the relationship she has with an ungrateful older daughter, played by Ann Blyth. In fact, Miss Blyth is so good at causing problems and keeping our attention, that the picture could just as easily have been called VEDA PIERCE.

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*THE YOUNG STRANGER (1957)*

 

James MacArthur is a rebel with a cause. Playing a troubled youth in 1950s Los Angeles, he writes his own page in the James Dean Manual for Wayward Adolescents on Film. Helping MacArthur with his first leading role is Director John Frankenheimer. Frankenheimer proves you do not need crackling dialogue, fast-paced action, or lavish sets and expensive costumes to tell an exciting story. Points must be given for the scene where the main character fools his mother at the traffic light; also, the bit with the boys mowing grass is rather memorable.

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*THE WOMAN IN WHITE (1948)*

 

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THE WOMAN IN WHITE boasts a fine group of supporting actors. Sydney Greenstreet is perfectly creepy as the Count; and Agnes Moorhead nearly steals the show as his wife, a Countess who will not think twice about resorting to murder if necessary. The actor who plays the nervous uncle is also very memorable and helps to increase the film's overall entertainment value.

 

But as good as the supporting players may be, the picture seems to fall flat with its second-rate leading players. Perhaps Warners could have had a real masterpiece with Wilkie Collins' gothic story if it had been cast as follows: Bette Davis as Laura/Anne; Olivia de Havilland as Marion; and Laurence Olivier as Walter. As it is, we have Eleanor Parker in the dual role, and Alexis Smith in the role of Marion. They must contend with Gig Young as the tutor who is so wooden with his performance that Edgar Bergen might as well have been providing the words.

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*ANNA KARENINA (1935)*

 

In many ways, this first sound version of Anna Karenina looks to be a success. What it has: a huge MGM budget; Garbo in her prime; excellent cinematography; and some fine supporting actors like May Robson, Freddie Bartholomew, and Basil Rathbone. What it does not have: fidelity to Tolstoy's classic story; a willingness to subdue Garbo so that she is playing Anna instead of herself; and a tighter economy of scenes.

 

Producer David Selznick, whom I usually respect, has added a lot of contemporary dialogue about how a man needs his work but should value his wife. There is a clumsy scene with Fredric March and his men at the beginning of the picture instead of focusing immediately on Anna, visiting Moscow by train. There is also a phony epilogue added at the end, after Anna's death. This is not Tolstoy, but it is Tolstoy according to Selznick.

 

Also, Selznick has added scenes that feature Anna and her son, so as to beef up Bartholomew's part. This is in direct opposition to Tolstoy's story that takes pains to show just how restricted Anna is in getting to see her son one last time. But what does it matter, since Garbo has not really given herself to the part? It is merely an expensive exercise in vanity, instead of presenting the author's tragic heroine the way she was originally envisioned: a woman haunted by choice, consequence and fate.

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<. . . willingness to subdue Garbo so that she is playing Anna instead of herself; Also, Selznick has added scenes that feature Anna and her son, so as to beef up Bartholomew's part. >

 

 

You hit the nail on the head, TB. These are the two main things that bother me about the film.

 

 

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Check back tomorrow for the review on the Vivien Leigh version of Anna, which I think is much better.

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*ANNA KARENINA (1947)*

 

There is very little to find fault with in this screen update of Tolstoy's classic story. Vivien Leigh is near perfection as the main character. What makes this film work is the way our tragic heroine is shown in relation to the elements that surround her: the scenes of train journeys in winter to and from Russia; and the warm weather and grandeur of a summer spent in Venice.

 

The supporting players are very effective and match Miss Leigh's talents in the most important scenes. The moment where Anna breaks in to see her son who has been told she died should not be missed. But the single greatest aspect of this film is the inner journey this character takes, as envisioned by Tolstoy. It is a harrowing confrontation of one's fate and delivered bravely as only this classic actress can.

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>Will you be posting your critique of Garbo's original version?

 

Do you mean the silent picture, LOVE? I am focusing on sound films from 1930 to 1959. Are we to assume that you consider her original version the better one?

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*PHFFFT! (1954)*

 

Judy Holliday enjoys an easy chemistry with costar Jack Lemmon in PHFFFT! She may very well be one of the zaniest comediennes ever. Her expressions, the way she uses her voice, and the mambo dance number where she contorts her body-- make watching this movie almost illegal. Add Kim Novak to the mix as a light-headed chick that Lemmon dates on the rebound from Holliday and you have a criminally good time.

 

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Coming Up:

 

STINGAREE

THE HAPPY TIME

PRIMROSE PATH

THE STEEL HELMET

THE DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER

MAN OF THE WEST

TELL IT TO THE JUDGE

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> Will you be posting your critique of Garbo's original version?

*Do you mean the silent picture, LOVE? I am focusing on sound films from 1930 to 1959. Are we to assume that you consider her original version the better one?*

 

No I don't consider it the better one, I was just wondering if you were doing all the ones made in the Classic-era Hollywood.

 

Btw, did you know that Elizabeth Taylor and Eddie Fischer, when they were married, were planning on filming "Anna Karenina", to star them both for their production company. It was envisioned after Liz completed CLEOPATRA, but of course, Liz envisioned a whole new life before she completed CLEOPATRA, and that was that.

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Yes, a lot of what-ifs in Elizabeth Taylor's career. It's too bad she and Monty Clift did not get the chance to reunite for REFLECTIONS IN A GOLDEN EYE. I think it would have turned out much better than it did.

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*STINGAREE (1934)*

 

This RKO picture benefits from William Wellman's direction, the reteaming of Irene Dunne and Richard Dix, and a nice blend of music, adventure and romance. Dunne is particularly suited to play an opera singer, and only MGM's Jeanette MacDonald could have performed the lead nearly as well. As for the love interest, Mr. Dix essays the title role of a dashing bandit, the first time he has worked with Miss Dunne since the studio's earlier hit, CIMARRON.

 

Mary Boland does a fine job as an obnoxious snob, proving her worth as a would-be member of the cultural elite who makes things a bit difficult for Dunne. And don't miss Andy Devine turning on the charm as Stingaree's high-pitched loyal sidekick.

 

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*THE HAPPY TIME (1952)*

 

The film, about a boy coming of age in a French-Canadian family, is based on a popular stage play. The characters are so well-drawn and the performances so engaging that one hardly notices the less cinematic aspects of the picture.

 

The dialogue allows both English and French to convey the characters' thoughts and actions. The cast is mostly bilingual, and each performer brings a lively energy to his part. In particular, Charles Boyer shines as a responsible but liberal-minded father. Louis Jourdan, who plays Boyer's playboy brother, provides a delightful contrast; and both men do well to anchor a story that revolves around Boyer's teenaged son (Bobby Driscoll). A highlight of this triangular relationship is the scene where Boyer and Jourdan visit Driscoll's school to deal with a harsh corporal punishment-minded school official.

 

Much of the drama is easily solved, and this is, indeed, a happy time, for each of them. Plenty of drinking scenes add to the merriment in case anything ever gets too serious. Maybe some won't like the uncle next door (Kurt Kasznar) whose enjoyment of wine leads to frequent intoxication, but it is all fairly harmless. It would have been nice had there been a sequel, but maybe they were too drunk to make one.

 

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*PRIMROSE PATH (1940)*

 

The novel upon which this is based centers on the mother figure, but the Broadway play and film version instead emphasize the growing pains of the oldest daughter. RKO has cast Marjorie Rambeau as the mother and Ginger Rogers as the daughter.

 

The story is told in simple, straightforward fashion. We glimpse the young woman's desire to break away from a cycle of poverty, as well as attempts to distance herself from her mother. Life changes dramatically when she embarks on a romance with a local restaurateur (Joel McCrea), but due to a set of circumstances beyond her control, she finds herself following her mother's path as a prostitute.

 

While this is largely a vehicle for Rogers' talents, it is Rambeau that gives a most extraordinary performance as the one whose choices catch up to her in dramatic fashion. Rambeau previously played a destitute mother forced into sin in MGM's MIN AND BILL, and in this picture, she is revisiting familiar emotional territory.

 

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