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Classic Film Criticism

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From Agee on June 9, 1945:


I respect the picture's whole design and the many good things about it. Yet I saw it with as much regret as pleasure. The picture should have made the farm work as immediate to the watcher as to the worker in all its methods, meanings and emotions. It offers instead mere token shots of work; and in these, too often, the clothes aren't even sweated.


Just as unfortunate and more constantly disappointing is the fact that most of the players are wrong. Anywhere from a little bit to a whole world wide of the mark. To cast and realize such a film correctly would be, I must grant, one of the hardest conceivable jobs. But when has that stopped being an artist's responsibility?


The one person in the film who for all his minor mistakes is basically right, in everything from cheekbones and eyes to posture to spiritual attitude is Zachary Scott. He was born in Texas. J. Carrol Naish is no Texan, but he is such an observant, disciplined and clear-spirited actor that he comes close to making up the difference. I have no desire to go into unkind detail about other players such as Beulah Bondi, Betty Field, Percy Kilbride, Blanche Yurka, Norman Lloyd, and two dreadfully miscalculated children.

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From Agee on February 14, 1948:


The first few reels have flow and a kind of boys' book splendor; the rest is locomotor ataxia. The costumes of Montezuma's emissaries are as magnificent as any I have ever seen. They are utilized, for movie purposes, about as appreciatively as so many sack suits.

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From Agee on October 8, 1943:


Sonja Henie's ten-thousandth baked Alaska. It proves that skating musicals do not have to be half as boring as they usually are. Also, it proves the fact that they are of no great importance.

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*JEANNIE (1943)*


From Agee on November 6, 1943:


A gently characterized British-made comedy, it is about a Scottish peasant woman who discovers in the course of a trip to Vienna that she doesn't have to feel like an old maid after all. Barbara Mullen, as Jeannie, in her prim sharp-tuned delicateness, makes it one of the easiest and sweetest of light comedies.

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From Agee on May 11, 1946:


John Huston's LET THERE BE LIGHT is a fine, terrible and valuable non-fiction film about psychoneurotic soldiers. It has been forbidden civilian circulation by the War Department. I don't know what is necessary to reverse this disgraceful decision.

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From Agee on December 28, 1946:


Frank Capra's first film since those he made for the Army. It is one of the most efficient sentimental pieces since A CHRISTMAS CAROL. Often, in its pile-driving emotional exuberance, it outrages, insults, or at least accosts without introduction, the cooler and more responsible parts of the mind. It is nevertheless recommended.

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From Agee on July 1, 1944:


Deanna Durbin sings a quiet arrangement of 'Always.' Aside from that, it is pseudotragic mush about a New Orleans cabaret singer, her weak husband (Gene Kelly, wasting his time), and an insipid officer on furlough.

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From Agee on January 29, 1944


I was unexpectedly and greatly moved by a great many things in the film. The picture is unusually well made, within limits. The limits are those of middle-class twentieth century genteelism, a fungus which by now all but chokes the life out of any hope from Hollywood and which threatens any vivid appetite in Hollywood's audience. I have seldom seen so tender and exact an attention to mood, to overall tone, to cutting, to the edging of an emotion, and to giving vitality, sometimes radiance, in terms of the image and the sound more than of the character, the story, the line, the music.


Jennifer Jones as Bernadette, whether through Henry King's direction or her own ability, impossibly combines the waxen circumspections of a convent school with abrupt salients of emotion of which Dostoevski himself need not have been ashamed.


But Bernadette Soubirous and the cruel, ridiculous and unfathomable eccentrics which spread from her na?ve ecstasy composed one of the more appalling and instructive events of our time, to the reproduction of which only an almost unimaginatively brilliant film could have been adequate. What you have here, instead, is a tamed and pretty image, highly varnished, sensitively lighted and exhibited behind immaculate glass, the window at once of a shrine and of a box office.

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From Agee on July 24, 1943:


Dudley Nichols' original script has been changed. The original script is fairly riddled with the word fascist. The release script and the production prefer the word nationalist. I thought I once caught the word phalangist, but it may have been fuh land sakes.


There is one speech in which Gary Cooper mentions fascists and the grand old party. But even this has no more organic connection with the film as a whole than a Gideon Bible has with a hotel bedroom.


There is, on the other hand, Ingrid Bergman. Miss Bergman not only bears a striking resemblance to an imaginable human being; she really knows how to act. She combines a blend of poetic grace with quiet realism which almost never appears in American pictures.


A lot of other actors ought to be mentioned. Katina Paxinou's Pilar is sometimes stagy, but she does have style and grandeur. Akim Tamiroff's Pablo would have been a great performance if only it had had the chance. Gary Cooper is self-effacing and generally a little faint, like the character he plays. But the faintness has its moments of paying off, and his general support of Miss Bergman is nearly as good as the law will allow.

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From Agee on August 2, 1947:


THE HUCKSTERS comes right out against radio advertising, and in the Hollywood scheme of things this is doubtless much more heroic than attacking Jew baiters in GENTLEMAN'S AGREEMENT, who are not so well organized as advertising men to fight back.


Some of the singing commercials are very funny, and some of the minor characters are drawn with medium shrewdness. Clark Gable seems well at ease most of the time, but something soft and unfortunate has happened to his mouth. Deborah Kerr struggles prettily, but I'm afraid, rather compliantly, against a thorough job of packaging.


I dislike the movie as I disliked what little I could read of the book. I find it uniquely nauseating to watch a spectacle of incurable corruption laboring under delusions of honesty.

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From Agee on April 14, 1945:


I never saw Ethel Barrymore play the teacher in this story. Trustworthy people tell me that she would have left me with my tongue hanging out, and by own experience of Miss Barrymore I can find no reason to doubt it. Bette Davis left me with my tongue in my head, and I hope I can make it a civil one.


I like and respect Miss Davis as a most unusually sincere and hard-working actress. I have seen her play extremely well, but I did not find much in this performance. It seems to me she is quite limited. Very little about her performance seemed to come to life, in spite of a lot of experienced striving which often kept in touch with life as if through a thick sheet of glass.


I have a feeling Miss Davis must have a great deal of trouble finding films which seems appropriate, feasible and worth doing. I wish that I, or anyone else, could be of use to her in that. For very few people in her position in films mean, or could do, so well. But I doubt that anything could help much unless she were willing to discard much that goes with the position, unless she realized the absolute necessity of doing so.

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Later today I am launching Vol. 2 which will feature some of my own writings. I will kick it off with a user review I wrote for THE 13TH LETTER.


Mostly, I will try to cover films from January 1930 to December 1959 that Agee did not get around to discussing. However, this is not a strict rule.


In some cases, I will be reviewing films that Agee reviewed that do appear on this thread...because I do not always agree with what Agee has to say and I sometimes come up with very different observations.


As I stated in the Linda Darnell thread, I am not going to profess to having a third the vocabulary that Agee shows in his work, but I do think my comments will be relevant to today's readers and will reveal Agee as a muse and inspiration on some level. Thanks.

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American soldiers and Indians shortly after the Civil War. Shirley Temple and her husband, John Agar, handle the love interest as if they were sharing a soda-fountain special,


TB, it's a shame Agee couldn't have known about the loathing Agar had for Shirley while he was making that movie. He hated her and kept telling her so in their scenes together. I'm amazed she didn't get an Academy award for pretending to be able to stand him, much less be in love with him. A terrible experience for her, at least, poor thing. She nearly tried to kill herself at one point from his abuse. I can't help thinking those things do play into whatever performance any actor is trying to give. They may be skilled, but are they THAT good? Anyway, he was right about the attitude.

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Re: Classic Film Criticism

Posted: Dec 2, 2011 8:05 AM





From Agee on November 4, 1944:


A medium-silly Western, done, however, as if those who made it knew that, and were getting and giving what mild pleasure they could out of the knowledge.



I will go to my grave knowing every line of this movie. When I lived in England, the BBC was the only channel available, and ITV was about to launch in competition with it. Every afternoon at five, ITV would come on the air and play this movie as a test. For months. Every single day.

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Shirley did find a true sweetheart in her second husband.


I happen to like TALL IN THE SADDLE. It's a fun romp. I also like him in A LADY TAKES A CHANCE with Jean Arthur, made around this time, also at RKO.

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From Agee on March 23, 1946:

THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE may be fun to see, but I feel it has been overrated. Even though she plays it well, I am not impressed by Dorothy McGuire, or anyone else, stunting along through several reels as a suffering mute. Nor am I willingly hornswoggled by Ethel Barrymore's unprincipled use of her lighthouse eyes, wonderful as they are.

Still, the movie is visually clever. And until some member of the Screen Writers' Guild takes care to correct me, neglecting as I am doing such nonentities as the set designer, cameraman and editor, I will mainly credit Robert Siodmak for that; he merely directed the show.

And just for fun, the next time you see it, look at the eye peeking through various holes to indicate the murderer is on the watch. It's Siodmak's.
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I do think EYRE would've been better if Welles had directed the entire thing. Agee is right that after its excellent beginning, it becomes mired in cliches and long, drawn-out exchanges between the main characters with very little action. It essentially becomes a two-character play, which in cinema, tends to be rather boring.



I seem to remember Joan Fontaine writing that he practically did direct it. Came in first day and took over, saying, "We'll start on Page Five."


Do you mind if I say, at the risk of sounding obvious, that this is a woman's picture and that men really don't have the same perspective? I adored Welles in it. I thought Fontaine was close to what Bronte had meant her to be, from the book. One of my favorite scenes of all time is the one where Rochester tells off Blanche Ingram in the garden and sends her off calling him a boor and a cur. I thought Hillary Brooke was sensational in it, too. One extremely talented woman.

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*FURIA (1947)*

From Agee on February 14, 1948:

An Italian farmer's wife (Isa Pola) plays around with a Cornel Wilde-ish groom (Rossano Brazzi). This is filmed with a carnal and psychological frankness I am happy to see, and the censors should be thanked for saving a good deal of it. The picture is essentially sincere rather than pornographic. It is also rather childish in conception and inept as art. Good work by the two most prominent actors in the cast.


I looked for this on Netflix but of course it wasn't there. My great desire when I get to heaven is to have one of him issued to me along with my harp and wings. By that time we will have been purified of all our carnal desires and can just hang out and play music and fly around.
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Yes, it is interesting to see how Agee regards NOTORIOUS when the film was first released. I think sometimes, due to nostalgia, we tend to over-rate classic movies. Though this is certainly a great picture by any era's standards.




God, how I loved the actress who played Claude Rains' mother in that movie. And him, of course. A gripping movie in the key scenes.

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