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Classic Film Criticism

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*YOUTH RUNS WILD (1944)*

 

From Agee on January 20, 1945:

 

One of the best fiction films of the past year, YOUTH RUNS WILD, was made by Val Lewton and his associates. I esteem them so highly because for all their unevenness their achievements are so consistently alive, limber, poetic, humane, so eager toward the possibilities of the screen, and so resolutely against the grain of all we have learned to expect from the big studios.

 

But I am afraid there is no reason to believe that the makers of these films, under the best of circumstances, would be equipped to make the great, and probably very vulgar, and certainly very forceful revolutionary pictures that are so desperately needed.

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*THUNDER ROCK (1942)*

 

From Agee on November 4, 1944:

 

It is well produced and on the whole very well acted, especially by Barbara Mullen. There were moments when it really moved me.

 

It is not only on the side of the angels, but it sometimes takes their side with passion and some eloquence. But angels bore me at least as much as anyone else when they arrange themselves so little theatrically.

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*GREAT EXPECTATIONS (1946)*

 

From Agee on January 10, 1948:

 

David Lean's GREAT EXPECTATIONS is an over-sunny transcription of Dickens. It seems to me primarily unimportant how well or ill somebody's else's classic is brought to film, but it is a very pleasant piece of entertainment. Its first half unfolds as prettily as a Japanese paper flower on water.

 

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*TENNESSEE JOHNSON (1943)*

 

From Agee on January 23, 1943:

 

William Dieterle is to be respected as a man who obviously wants to make fine moving pictures, and to use them for serious teaching. It would be a pleasure to say better of him, but that is at best a pleasure deferred. TENNESSEE JOHNSON is another of those sincere screen biographies. Now and then, helped usually by Van Heflin, the sincerity breaks loose and becomes vigorous and warming for a minute or two.

 

Lionel Barrymore, too, is sometimes better than you could think possible after all these years of grunting to stay awake under the boredom of his assignments. The rest is Dieterle?s customary high-minded, high-polished m?lange of heavy touches and intelligent performances. Within the limits of its nearsighted traditions it does its very best.

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*L'ATALANTE (1947)*

 

From Agee on July 12, 1947:

 

L'ATALANTE, on the whole, is put together from the outside inward. It is very good, spasmodically great poetry applied to pretty good prose. The story could be almost one of those pseudo-simple, sophisticated-earth things which several French movie-makers handle gracefully, to the delight of cultivated Americans.

 

It is about the sex life of a jealous barge captain and his restive peasant bride. There are a couple of weird flirtations; estrangement; reunion. There are horribly serious, instinctual, brainless people, presented with a naked directness that is beyond patronage or gentle laughter.

 

At its best, L'ATALANTE is sensuously much richer and more beautiful than Rene Clair's ZERO DE CONDUITE. The picture shows gifts while it suggests the struggles of a maniac in a strait-jacket (in ZERO, the maniac moves freely).

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*LIFE WITH FATHER (1947)*

 

From Agee on August 30, 1947:

 

Rich, careful, rather heavily proficient. Fun, I suppose; but I can't really enjoy laughing at tyrants, least of all tyrants who are forgiven because of their innocence. William Powell acts, rather than is, Father rather well, but it's strictly an impersonation. Irene Dunne is painfully miscast as Mother.

 

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*ANCHORS AWEIGH (1945)*

 

From Agee on August 11, 1945:

 

A musical about two sailors, a girl, and Jose Iturbi. It is thoroughly happy-spirited and enjoyable. But once I have paid my particular respects to Gene Kelly, who dances and acts excellently, and to Frank Sinatra, a singer, I might as well move on.

 

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Wasn't another actress the first choice for the Irene Dunne role?

 

Mary Pickford was considered, but it was decided that she no longer had any clout at the boxoffice.

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*THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE (1946)*

 

From Agee on May 11, 1946:

 

THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE is mainly a terrible misfortune from start to finish. I say it with all respect for the director, Tay Garnett, and with all sympathy for the stars, Lana Turner and John Garfield.

 

It looks to have been made in a depth of seriousness incompatible with the material, complicated by a paralysis of fear of the front office. It is, however, very interesting for just those reasons. It is what can happen, especially in Hollywood, if you are forced to try both to eat your cake and have it, and don't realize that it is, after all, only good pumpernickel.

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*STATE FAIR (1945)*

 

From Agee on September 29, 1945:

 

Rodgers and Hammerstein adaptation of the Phil Stong novel; nice performances by Jeanne Crain, Dana Andrews, Henry Morgan; pretty tunes, graceful lyrics. Otherwise lacking any real delicateness, vitality or imagination; and painfully air-conditioned looking, for a bucolic film; it is nevertheless good-natured and pleasant.

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*MR. BLANDINGS BUILDS HIS DREAM HOUSE (1948)*

 

From Agee on April 24, 1948:

 

How to go broke on $15,000 a year, efficiently demonstrated by Myrna Loy, Cary Grant and Melvyn Douglas. A bull's-eye for middle-class middle-brows. For the low and the high not hard to take and just as easy to let alone.

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*I REMEMBER MAMA (1948)*

 

From Agee on April 24, 1948:

 

Much more love and talent are devoted to this show than the basic show is worth. A beautifully shaded production; a good deal of skillful acting and direction; subtle outdoor work by the cameraman, Nicholas Musaraca. A mild but generally gratifying family movie.

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*THE AFFAIRS OF SUSAN (1945)*

 

From Agee on March 31, 1945:

 

I would like to be able to make THE AFFAIRS OF SUSAN sound half as bad as it is, but I know when I'm licked. In this interminable film, Joan Fontaine is photographed as Joan of Arc.

 

Miss Fontaine appears as a lake-shore innocent. She wears trousers and a thinly knit jersey, and a series of gowns and negligees which are still more earnestly calculated to refute the idea, that if the Hays office permitted, she would be ashamed to make a clean breast of her development. Her wardrobe also consists of horn-rims, tight hair, ties and even sharper tailoring. This sort of thing makes me all the angrier because Miss Fontaine has proved that she is an actress worth building a good picture around.

 

About Dennis O'Keefe's characterization, I feel less kind. He achieves it purely by letting his hair get rather long behind the ears. And as much as I loathe haircuts, I have been trying ever since I saw the picture to brace myself to enter a barber shop.

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*SINCE YOU WENT AWAY (1944)*

 

From Agee on July 29, 1944:

 

David O. Selznick's SINCE YOU WENT AWAY is a movie about an American home in wartime. It is clear that Mr. Selznick thinks of it as the American home and that the Hiltons, who live in it, are supposed to be the American family.

 

I accept Neil Hamilton as the all-American husband, Claudette Colbert as his all-American wife, Jennifer Jones as the all-American seventeen-year-old, the new Shirley Temple as her thirteen-year-old sister, Hattie McDaniel as the ultimate colored cook, and so forth and so on, taking care not to omit the best piece of casting of all: Joseph Cotten as the forever rejected bachelor suitor who, clouding the screen with discreetly alarming threats of adulterous desire, forever comes back to Miss Colbert for more.

 

I accept most of the things the Hiltons and their friends do, not to mention Mr. Selznick's masterpiece, the Hilton home, one of those pitiful suburban brick things which is indeed the American home if you agree with me that seven out of ten Americans would sell their souls for it.

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*GRANDMA'S BOY (1922)*

 

Harold Lloyd depends more on story and situation than any of the other major comedians. He has an expertly expressive body and even more expressive teeth, and out of his thesaurus of smiles he can at a moment's notice blend prissiness, breeziness and asininity, and still remain tremendously likable.

 

His movies are more extroverted and closer to ordinary life than any others of the best comedies. He is especially good at putting a very timid, spoiled or brassy young fellow through devastating embarrassments.

 

In GRANDMA'S BOY, he arrives dressed strictly up to date and finds that the ancient colored butler wears a similar flowered waistcoat. Next, he gets one wandering, nervous forefinger dreadfully stuck in a fancy little vase. And the girl begins cheerfully to try to identify that queer smell which dilates from him; Grandpa's best suit is rife with mothballs.

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*MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET (1947)*

 

From Agee on August 30, 1947:

 

Santa Claus (well played by Edmund Gwenn) comes to Herald Square and wraps up the holiday in one neat package. The film is clever, and pleased with itself, and liked by practically everybody. But I enjoy even less a statement of the profits accruing through faith, loving kindness, etc. I expect next a witty, tender little fantasy presenting the Son of God as God's Customers' Man.

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*GOING MY WAY (1944)*

 

From Agee on May 13, 1944:

 

GOING MY WAY, a rather saccharine story about priests, has a gentle, engaging performance by Bing Crosby, a very full and fine one by Barry Fitzgerald, and a general leisure and appreciation of character which I think highly of. It would have a little more stature as a religious film if it dared suggest that evil is anything worse than a bad cold and that lack of self-knowledge can be not merely cute and inconvenient but also dangerous to oneself and to others.

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*13 RUE MADELEINE (1947)*

 

From Agee on March 1, 1947:

 

13 RUE MADELEINE is doing astonishingly well at the box-office. I wish I knew how much of this, even in the semi-conscious part of the audience mind, could be credited to the use of uninvented backgrounds, in and around Quebec. These are selected and photographed with such intelligence, and give the film such vitality, that the good performances of James Cagney, Richard Conte and Annabella and a generally smart piece of movie-making look weak by comparison.

 

Louis de Rochemont, the producer, is not the only man making movies in this country who knows the great value of getting outside the studio and shooting in highly specific places; but he is getting more of it done, more effectively, than anyone else, and if the idea spreads, and becomes a practice, I expect that most of the credit will be due to him.

 

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*CASABLANCA (1942)*

 

From Agee on February 20, 1943:

 

Apparently CASABLANCA, which I must say I liked, is working up a rather serious reputation as a fine melodrama. Why? It is obviously an improvement on one of the world's worst plays; but it is not such an improvement that that is not obvious.

 

I can quote two lines which I snickered at and then, I blush to say, forgot. One, Miss Bergman's plea to her husband, takes the season's prize for exposition: "Oh, Victor, please don't go to the underground meeting tonight." The other, more tender, is Miss Bergman's too, just after she collapses on to a sofa with Humphrey Bogart: "From now on you'll have to do the thinking for both of us, dear."

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*THE PALEFACE (1948)*

 

One of the most popular recent comedies is Bob Hope's THE PALEFACE. Most of the laughs in THE PLACEFACE are verbal. Bob Hope is very adroit with his lines, and now and then, when the words don't get in the way, he makes a good beginning as a visual comedian.

 

He is funny, for instance, reacting to a shot of violent whiskey. But he does not know how to get still funnier. The camera has to fade out on the same old face he started with.

 

One sequence is promisingly set up for visual comedy. In it, Hope and a lethal local boy stalk each other all over a cow town through streets which have been emptied in fear of their duel. The gag here is that through accident and stupidity they keep just failing to find each other. Some of it is quite funny. But the biggest laugh should come at the moment, and through the way, they finally spot each other. The sequence is so weakly thought out that at that crucial moment the camera can't afford to watch them; it switches to Jane Russell.

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*BATHING BEAUTY (1944)*

 

From Agee on July 1, 1944:

 

BATHING BEAUTY swarms with bathing suits and their contents; most often and most carnally in focus on Esther Williams, lolloping in a friendly way before underwater cameras.

 

Above water level Harry James and Xavier Cugat play, and Red Skelton, for my leathery taste, is occasionally rather funny.

 

I could not resist the wish that MGM had topped its aquatic climax-- a huge pool full of girls, fountains and spouts of flame-- by suddenly draining the tank and ending the show with the entire company writhing like goldfish on a rug.

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