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Classic Film Criticism


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*A WALK IN THE SUN (1946)*

 

From Agee on January 6, 1946:

 

A WALK IN THE SUN is often very alive and likeable, thanks to several of its players, particularly Herbert Rudley, Richard Conte, Lloyd Bridges, and Dana Andrews. The gradual increase of daylight which opens it is atmospherically and technically wonderful. You can seldom get your eyes hurt, as I did here, by the manipulation, against dark contexts, of a little bit of cloudy light on a screen.

 

In motion and shooting, much of the film is worked out with very unusual vitality and care, much of which, unfortunately, is related more nearly to ballet than to warfare.

 

But mainly I think it is an embarrassing movie. The dialogue seems as unreal as it is expert. Most of the characters, as distinct from the men who play them, are as unreal and literary as the dialogue. The aesthetic and literary and pseudo-democratic preoccupations are so strong that at times all sense of plain reality drops out of the picture.

 

At the end, for instance, with their farmhouse captured, various featured players are shown completing the gags which tag their characters: chomping an apple, notching a rifle-stock, and so on as the camera lets you know that their wounded comrades are still writhing unattended in the dooryard.

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*JOURNEY FOR MARGARET (1943)*

 

From Agee on January 23, 1943:

 

The film contains a few poignant flashes on children and parental emotion; some writing as awful as the people who talk like that, and a well-meant performance by Fay Bainter which suggests that if Anna Freud, whom she is supposed to echo, really treats children like that, they are far better left shocked in the bomb-rubble than deshocked in her clinic.

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*THE POWERS GIRL (1943)*

 

From Agee on January 23, 1943:

 

Those who want to see evil, cruelty, and some archetypical national diseases should see THE POWERS GIRL. Few other films manage, even inadvertently, to get down so much. The subject here is American bitchery, with a demon photographer and his insurance-ad Mom and Pop thrown in, and some overloaded music from Benny Goodman, who should have refused to take off his glasses.

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*A NIGHT IN CASABLANCA (1946)*

 

From Agee on May 25, 1946:

 

Apparently you never know when you are seeing the last of the Marx Brothers; so it is unnecessary to urge anyone who has ever enjoyed them to see A NIGHT IN CASABLANCA. It is also beside the main point to add that it isn't one of their best movies.

 

For the worst they might ever make would be better worth seeing than most other things I can think of. Many of the things in this one which by substance and look should be level with their best fall somehow flat.

 

The only two reasons I can get wind of are the manufacture of repetition and the fact that after all these years the Brothers are tired. But to anyone who likes them much I don't think that will get in the way.

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*CALL NORTHSIDE 777 (1948)*

 

From Agee on April 24, 1948:

 

A rather dogged but otherwise competent fact-fiction movie; good camera work on Chicago slums; intelligent use of natural sound. Next to BOOMERANG!, the best, so far, of its kind.

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Thankyou James Agee to be so wise as to see how truly talented Garland was. Rooney had peked and Judy was about to asceninto the stratrosphere. In Two short years she wold be lighting up the sky in film where she sandg nary a note. Too bad it's the only one MGM would let her. She could have been a great actress even without that voice but had it it she did

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I happen to think Garland's best work is in THE CLOCK, which I love very much. She is also effective in A CHILD IS WAITING. She proved herself as a capable dramatic actress more than once.

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*SONG OF LOVE (1947)*

 

From Agee on November 8, 1947:

 

The film takes the liberty of showing Johannes Brahms declare his love for Clara Schumann. Liberties are also taken with the music. Even so short a piece as Brahms's G-Minor Rhapsody is haggled to bits. I don't like these kinds of license even when they are excusable, or unavoidable. But very much to my surprise I did rather like SONG OF LOVE. All such inaccuracies and mutilations, and some clumsy casting, and some wrongly styled acting, were in my feeling more than counterbalanced by the real tenderness and quiet in which the picture was obviously undertaken.

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Yes, THE CLOCK is one of those MGM stories that you have to just accept and go along with for the ride. I find it interesting that Judy is so luminous in this picture, considering that it is not shot in Technicolor. I am always just utterly captivated watching her and Robert Walker in it.

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*THE BIG SLEEP (1946)*

 

From Agee on August 31, 1946:

 

THE BIG SLEEP is a violent, smoky cocktail shaken together from most of the printable misdemeanors and some that aren't. It's one of those Raymond Chandler Specials which puts you, along with the cast, into a state of semi-amnesia through which tough action and reaction drum with something of the nonsensical solace of hard rain on a tin roof. Humphrey Bogart and several proficient minor players keep anchoring it some sufficient kind of reality.

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It is interesting that he describes the supporting cast as minor players. Of course, some of them would have long successful careers, people like Lauren Bacall and Dorothy Malone.

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Interesting comment. Some of them I edit, if there are references to obscure foreign films he is comparing a well-known film to...but many times, he does a series of films he has seen during a week and yes, they are very brief. Occasionally, he will just write a single sentence about a film, promising to review it more fully in a later commentary (he may or may not fulfill that promise).

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*THE EMPEROR WALTZ (1948)*

 

From Agee on July 24, 1948:

 

Bing Crosby, a Yankee drummer, loves Joan Fontaine, a Viennese countess. Crosby's dog, a fox terrier, loves Fontaine's dog, a poodle. The Emperor Franz Josef himself at length declares that Americans are not merely just as good as Austrocrats but better. That goes for their dogs too.

 

At its best this semi-musical is amusing and well shaped, because Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder have learned a fair amount from the comedies of Ernst Lubitsch. In general it is reasonably good fun. At its worst it yaps and embraces every unguarded leg in sight.

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*UNCONQUERED (1947)*

 

From Agee on October 27, 1947:

 

UNCONQUERED is Cecil DeMille's florid, Technicolored celebration of Gary Cooper's virility, Paulette Goddard's femininity and the American frontier spirit. It is, to be sure, a huge high-colored chunk of hokum.

 

The story is set in the early 1760s. Miss Goddard, an English girl, is unjustly accused of crime and is sentenced to 14 years of slavery in North America. The highest bid comes from Captain Cooper of the militia. A scoundrel, Howard DaSilva, tricks Cooper out of his new property.

 

Scoundrel DaSilva wants war with the Indians and a weak frontier (he is a fur trader). Patriot Cooper wants peace and a strong frontier (he is the stuff that the unborn U.S. is to be made of). DaSilva gets his war, and it remains for Cooper to rescue Miss Goddard from the aborigines (Boris Karloff and friends).

 

Mixed with all the 19th century theatricalism, the 20th century talent for making movies move, and the overall impression of utter falsity, UNCONQUERED has some authentic flavor of the period.

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*TENDER COMRADE (1944)*

 

From Agee on May 6, 1944:

 

TENDER COMRADE is one in the eye for widows, with plenty for mere war wives too, and nothing I can imagine for anyone else except the hardiest of misogynists, for whom it should prove the biggest treat and the most satisfying textbook in years.

 

TENDER COMRADE gets along without dry ice and well-fed ghosts; its comfortable realism suggests an infinitely degraded and slickened LITTLE WOMEN.

 

The highest-salaried tender comrade is Ginger Rogers, hilt-deep in her specialty as a sort of female Henry Fonda. She is a girl named Jo. In flashbacks, we are given her courtship, marriage, tiffs, etc., with her tender comrade who is now away at war.

 

Jo is waiting out the war in a rented house with four other female comrades, of whom three are working in an aircraft plant. The fourth shows how any decent refugee can meet the servant shortage by refusing any pay for house-keeping; the others prove their Americanism by splitting their wages with her.

 

Miss Rogers consistently addresses these companions as kids, and her baby as little guy or Chris boy. At the climax, getting news of her husband's death, she subjects this defenseless baby to a speech which lasts twenty-four hours and five minutes by my watch. It is one of the most nauseating things I have ever sat through.

 

It is terribly pitiful, to choose the mildest word, to think how much of America the picture as a whole is likely to move, console, corroborate, and give eloquence to. When you see such a film as this you have seen the end.

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*CASBAH (1948)*

 

From Agee on June 19, 1948:

 

The old reliable garbage of Pepe Le Moko and Algiers turned into a likably unpretentious semi-musical. Disconcertingly straight work by Tony Martin and Yvonne de Carlo.

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*WITHOUT RESERVATIONS (1946)*

 

From Agee on June 8, 1946:

 

Claudette Colbert learns about life in the course of a transcontinental romp with a couple of men in uniform, John Wayne and Don DeFore. Messrs. Wayne and DeFore have kinds of hardness and conceit, in their relations with women, which are a good deal nearer the real thing than the movies usually get.

 

Miss Colbert does another one of those tipsiness acts of hers which do more toward reducing me to Pepsi-Cola than any number of Lost Weekends ever could.

 

The whole business is fairly smooth and spirited without attaining to any of the charm, or for that matter much of the corn, of IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT. One thing I really enjoyed in it was the flooding of landscapes past the train windows, which were the most satisfying that I remember seeing in any American movie.

 

Late in the film Louella Parsons appears, in person, at her microphone, also in person, with all the bewildering force of a chenille sledgehammer.

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*TWO YEARS BEFORE THE MAST (1946)*

 

From Agee on August 31, 1946:

 

The film would be fair enough as a piece of straight sea-melodrama. The performance of Howard da Silva as the Captain and the presentation of the claustrophobia that is developed aboard the ship, made in wartime entirely ashore, are better than fair.

 

What I object to is Paramount presenting this heavily hopped-up piture of what a merchant seaman was up against, a century ago, as if it were historical fact vouched for in Richard Henry Dana's book. Dana, if they would care to tell the truth about it, said that he would have hated to command a crew of that sort unless the law gave him flogging rights.

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*THE ADVENTURES OF TARTU (1943)*

 

From Agee on September 25, 1943:

 

THE ADVENTURES OF TARTU disguises British Agent Robert Donat as a Rumanian whose business it is to destroy a Nazi poison-gas plant and escape the consequences with Valerie Hobson. It is so easy to enjoy that it is easy to overrate: that is, it gave me nearly as much simple fun as thrillers a dozen times better; but not quite.

 

You are seeing all it has, and bald spots as well, the first time around, whereas with a good Hitchcock or even a good Carol Reed, even the pleasures visible at a first seeing stand up, or intensify, under a third and a fifth; new ones turn up with each seeing, and it is a long time before the whole work wears thin or takes on the staleness of a classic indulged too often.

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I like Agee's comments about TARTU very much. His writing indicates that the phrase 'film classic' is not a new thing. There already were classics back in the mid-40s. We need to realize that.

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