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Classic Film Criticism

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As I said, I find this 'take' interesting so keep posting these reviews, especially if you can time them to reflect movies TCM is about to show or has just shown.


As for him being negative. Ok I see your point, but I don't think Irene Dunne would agree! :)



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From Agee on June 19, 1948:


Some real talent, and a lot of desperate effort, lost in a picture god wisely forsook. If you haven't lived until you've seen Bergman love Boyer, you should have stood in bed.

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From Agee on September 29, 1945:


A story so inconceivably factitious that only a poet-moralist or a romancer of genius could have been wisely attracted by it, or could have brought it above the sill of absurdity. But Lee Garmes' lighting and photography are wonderful, in a romantic way I do not personally care for; and his, or William Dieterle's camera set-ups and shot-series and Dieterle's directing are like a highly skilled piece of wrestling. Most of the acting, especially that of Ann Richards (in a rather easy role), has unusual intensity and style.

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*THE EXILE (1947)*


From Agee on December 8, 1947:


THE EXILE is one of those shy wildflowers which occasionally spring up almost unnoticed in the Hollywood hothouse. But because of its forced growth, half the freshness is off the bloom.


The story is a pleasant little fraud. It is designed chiefly to purvey the Tarzantics of Actor Douglas Fairbanks Jr. But THE EXILE is also Young Doug's first fling as a producer, and he has concealed most of the fraud with both legitimate and handsome cinematic tricks.


The script (which he is said to have written) has a charming, blank-verse hauteur that just possibly may be a bit asinine, but the direction saves the day by insisting on a witty, natural reading. Fairbanks has also inflicted an extreme lilt on the rhythm of the film, a lilt that would be annoying if it were not necessary to keep the lame plot marching along.


The mock-ups of 17th Century inns and windmills are engagingly na?ve, and often drafty enough to send a chill through a steam-heated audience. The camera seems to eye everything with cavalier detachment, and the sepia film gives the illusion that everything is seen through a blear of centuries.

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TB, I too am glad you've started this thread and have continued to nurture it. Agee's masterly use of the language in which to tell us his take on the films he reviewed was truly of the first order.


Now, I have a question here. After reading your recent following reply to james,...






{quote:title=TopBilled wrote:}{quote}I am posting all of his reviews. I have tried to coincide certain ones with airings on TCM. I don't think the majority have been negative. What I think he does is gives suggestions for improvement, but in all the reviews, he usually says at least one thing positive. He believes in the value of cinema and in making it better.






....I do agree with it what you've said, but I was wondering if off the top of your head you might recall instances of where Agee was totally enthralled with a particular film and found nothing in it in which he might've wanted changed?



I guess what I'm asking here is if you recall any films which Agee thought might've been "perfect" just as they were?

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*ROXIE HART (1942)*


From Agee on February 23, 1942:


ROXIE HART is dedicated to all the beautiful women in the world who have shot their men full of holes. A rewrite by Producer Nunnally Johnson of Maurine Watkins' 1926 Broadway hit 'Chicago,' it is a bawdy farce of the bad old '20s when a pretty murderess was as likely to get ten weeks in vaudeville as the electric chair.


Roxie Hart (Ginger Rogers) is a red-headed, gum-chewing, wisecracking dancer whose husband has just shot her lover and pinned the murder on her. Convinced that she can't have a career and be innocent too, Roxie agrees to stand trial.


She hires the town's best criminal lawyer (Adolphe Menjou), who knows no law but does know juries. She also enjoys the run of her jailhouse and overcomes the competition of Two-Gun Gertie (Iris Adrian) by professing to be with child, which stampedes the jury into freeing her.

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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.

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*THE EGG AND I (1947)*


From Agee on May 10, 1947:


THE EGG AND I asks you to believe in, and laugh at, Fred MacMurray and Claudette Colbert as nauseatingly clownish city people who try their hands at poultry farming. Marjorie Main, in an occasional fit of fine, wild comedy, picks the show up and brandishes it as if she were wringing its neck. I wish to God she had.

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From Agee on August 11, 1945:


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

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From Agee on December 4, 1943:


GOVERNMENT GIRL, a comedy about wartime Washington, is Dudley Nichols' first shot at directing. Some of it is awful, especially some of the things gentle little Miss De Havilland has to do for laughs. But some more of it has a crude energy and lack of timidity and polish which are a pleasure even when nothing much else is doing. And here and there, especially with the surprising Sonny Tufts and other men, Nichols gets down some sharp, nasty, funny comment on business men and politicians.

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*JANE EYRE (1944)*


From Agee on February 12, 1944:


Judging by the play, the novel must have had a good deal of inter-class, feminist, ethical, and erotic tension. Judging by the film, the novel must also have the kind of darkly transparent, hypnotic tone and pace which seem never, any more, to be achieved or even attempted in writing.


There is almost no symbolic resonance and almost no really taking or revealing tension in the film; there is very little, in fact, after the first twenty minutes or so that makes it at all seriously worth seeing. Those first twenty minutes, however, which are devoted to Jane's schooling and her first meeting with Rochester, are a lush, beetlebrowed, unusually compelling piece of highly romantic screen rhetoric. I suspect Orson Welles had a hand in this stretch. For good and for bad, it has a good deal of his black-chenille-and-rhinestones manner.


After that, all you get is a careful and tame production, a sadly vanilla-flavored Joan Fontaine, and Welles treating himself to road-operatic sculpturings of body, cloak, and diction, his eyes glinting in the Rembrandt gloom, at every chance, like side-orders of jelly. It is possible to enjoy his performance as dead-pan period parody; I imagine he did. I might have more if I hadn't wanted, instead, to see a good performance.

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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.

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From Agee on September 27, 1947:


THE GREAT DAWN is a quasi-biography of the Italian musical prodigy Pierino Gamba, starring Pierino Gamba. Now and then the picture faintly promises to show how a prodigy is really manufactured and sold; and Pierino, a haunted-looking little boy, looks as if under wise direction he could carry whatever they handed him. But the promise never pays off, whether because this is a highly authorized biography, or because of everybody's genuine affection and admiration for the child, or because this particularly prodigy is as lucky in life as he is on film, I don't know.


What you get here is a simple little story about a gifted child. There is also his pretty mother, a runaway bourgeoisie; his musician father, who runs away from her; her solid father, who detests artists; and an engaging, slaphappy priest, who rather suggests Keenan Wynn and who is chiefly responsible for developing and placing the boy's talent.


In many respects the whole business is rather thin, even silly. But there are redeeming features which make the picture, at worst, pleasant to sit through.



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From Agee on August 21, 1944:


HAIL THE CONQUERING HERO (Paramount) is the newest cinematic caprice from Preston Sturges (THE GREAT MCGINTY, THE MIRACLE OF MORGAN'S CREEK). It beats a satirical tattoo on the American small town.


It also tells a story that is touching and chock-full of human frailties. It is rich in homely detail, and it achieves a reality transcending the limitations of its familiar slapstick.


Expertly sandwiched between the pratfalls and the broad pie-throwing burlesque of suburban manners lies a richer comedy idea: the alchemy by which a phony hero is transmuted from the base metal of conventional heroics to the pure gold of true heroism.

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From Agee on February 2, 1948:


TREASURE OF SIERRA MADRE (Warner) is one of the best things Hollywood has done since it learned to talk. The movie can take place, without blushing, among the best ever made. But unlike many films of high quality, it does not wear its art on its sleeve. Movie trade papers are treating it as a western. A Los Angeles newspaper reporter called it hilariously funny.


TREASURE is not essentially either a western or a comedy. The squeamish and the lovelorn may be wise to stay away, for it has no heroine and a few scenes are shatteringly brutal. But is a magnificent and unconventional piece of screen entertainment.

John Huston wrote the screenplay and directed the film. It is adapted from a novel by Mexico's mysterious stranger, B. Traven. The story, ideal for movie purposes, is a sardonic, intensely realistic fable, masterfully disguised as an adventure story.

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From Agee on October 13, 1945:


Nasty, gratifying version of the James Cain novel about suburban grass-widowhood and the power of the native passion for money and all that money can buy. Attempt made to sell Mildred as noble when she is merely idiotic or at best pathetic. But constant, virulent, lambent attention to money and its effects and more authentic suggestions of sex than one hopes to see in American films.


Excellent work by Joan Crawford, Jack Carson, Zachary Scott and Ann Blyth who is as good an embodiment of all that is most terrifying about native contemporary adolescence as I ever hope to see.

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From Agee on February 24, 1945:


ROUGHLY SPEAKING is, I fear, a faithful history of the American middle class. It glories in the idea that this is still a country where you don't get shot for dreaming. The one dream worth about ninety percent of its footage is the making of money. The most nearly respectable object of all this dreaming is to make sure that the boys get to Andover and Yale. The whole thing depresses me beyond words. Jack Carson, however, is likable, as he always is.

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From Agee on February 17, 1945:


I think it a more interesting and likable movie than most. It concentrates on poverty, on some crucial aspects of early puberty, on domestic relationships, and on life in a big city, which are rarely undertaken on the American screen, with considerable enthusiasm, tenderness, discipline and intelligence. It even presents and accepts the idea, unpopular enough even in contemporary fiction, that some antagonisms and inadequacies are too deeply rooted to be wholly explicable or curable.


It also develops a main love interest between a little girl and her father. It presents a drunkard, the father, for once without moralizing about him or reforming him. The agencies concerned about this are doubtless satisfied with his death.


The tenements sets and city streets of the movie are as lovingly and exhaustively detailed and as solid-looking as any I can remember. I was especially moved and impressed by James Dunn as the father and by the ways, visible and sometimes stammering though they were, in which Peggy Ann Garner and director Elia Kazan handled what I take to be her rigidity as an actress, turning it into a part of her personal and visual charm, and of the role she is in those respects so well suited for.


A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN also contains single moments or shots so extraordinarily good that they make me wonder why the rest, granted the same eye that made or saved these, need have fallen short. And in a screen play so obviously careful, I don't understand the virtual absence of the symbolic tree of the title, which could have been accounted for in about three extra shots.

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From Agee on March 18, 1944:


VOICE IN THE WIND is a heartfelt shoestring quickie shot in thirteen days, and it is a pretty awful moving picture. But I was touched by its sincerity and by a number of things in it.


It is being advertised as a strange new kind of moving picture. The picture is like a mid-thirties French melodrama drenched in the Rembrandt-and-molasses manner of German art films of the early to mid-twenties. But it is also richly nostalgic if you have any affection for bad period art.


I enjoyed hearing a piece of Chopin played without interruption and with appropriate oversensitivity, while the tragedy came to a standstill, sniffling and wiping its eyes. It takes a lot of anti-commercial courage to do that in a film. However wrong most of it goes, VOICE IN THE WIND has a great deal of that sort of courage.

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From Agee on March 17, 1945:


BREAK THE NEWS was made in England by Rene Clair with Jack Buchanan and Maurice Chevalier. It isn't at all on the level with those Clair films of which the mere recall can bring me tears of admiration or of a detached sort of pride. But it is full of ease and fun and extravagant but unstrained irony. It is worth watching, because it clearly indicates that, though England is not a good place for Clair to work, it is not, like this country, a hell on earth.

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From Agee on November 4, 1944:


BRIDE BY MISTAKE is more nearly a comedy of manners. It is about an heiress who wants to be sure she is loved for herself alone. Lines and characters are often almost human. I thought that Laraine Day, whom I have not seen play comedy before, was attractive both in person and performance. I would like to see what Ernst Lubitsch could do for her.

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