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Classic Film Criticism Vol. 2


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*MY FOOLISH HEART (1950)*

 

A routine post-war romance, this time with Susan Hayward and Dana Andrews. I liked these two in the Technicolor western CANYON PASSAGE. But as for post-war romances, I am hard-pressed to believe that anything could be better than Jane Wyman and Van Johnson in MIRACLE IN THE RAIN.

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*THAT NIGHT IN RIO (1942)*

 

This 20th Century Fox production starts with Carmen Miranda in the first of several flashy musical numbers. And indeed, the film is heavy on music and light on plot. In fact, the plot often comes to a screeching halt so that the producer can showcase song-and-dance numbers that do not always comment on or add to the storyline. But the studio's great production values lure the viewer in, as well as the energy of the performers.

 

Alice Faye is not featured much until the second act. Miranda's role lessens in the second and third acts. Don Ameche as the love interest of both, in a dual role as an entertainer and a baron, has a few solo numbers.

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*THE MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM (1933)*

 

Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray and Glenda Farrell encounter strange goings-on in two-strip Technicolor. Due to the technology, the blending of green and blue actually gives the story a more appropriately sinister look. But it is all very anachronistic. In several scenes, we are met with Farrell acting more like a depression-era reporter than a newshound from a bygone era. Wray is very good but is given less screen time than her female costar though she has higher billing.

 

Director Michael Curtiz often cuts to medium shots of the characters. He seems to realize that the true ambience of this story does not depend on dramatic close-ups, but rather emanates from the characters and their space filled with bizarre energy. This does not necessarily involve an overdressed set, which is something that does bog down the remake.

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*HOUSE OF WAX (1953)*

 

HOUSE OF WAX is a remake of THE MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM. It is directed by Andre de Toth in the 3-D process. Technical gimmicks aside, the story is more reverential to the original source material. For instance, great pains have been taken to explain the main character's background; and though his motivation is not completely spelled out, the relationship he has with the imperiled women is much clearer. Vincent Price seems right at home playing this sort of part. So with such perfect casting (including not only Price but Carolyn Jones) and de Toth's assured direction, this is a decent enough version to watch.

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*THE PRODIGAL (1955)*

 

Louis Calhern appears as a corrupt official in one of his last roles, and he makes the most of his screen time. However, this is a Lana Turner motion picture and the pageantry speaks volumes in her favor. MGM's extravagant production values aid the biblical-based story considerably in places where Miss Turner's talents do not, which is nearly the entire film.

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*MOURNING BECOMES ELECTRA (1947)*

 

Rosalind Russell's Lavinia is engaged in a vicious war with her mother (Katina Paxinou) over the death of her heroic father (Raymond Massey) in this adaptation of Eugene O'Neill's MOURNING BECOMES ELECTRA. The drama intensifies when a brother, played by Michael Redgrave, returns from battle in the Civil War. He is soon drawn into simmering family entanglements. With his sister, he commits murder against their mother's lover to avenge the father's death.

 

The film offers an eclectic array of acting styles, though Dudley Nichols' direction seems to skillfully weave all the elements together. Kirk Douglas gives a standout performance in a supporting role, but it's the ambitious interpretation of family justice and the explosive recriminations that characters continually experience which render it a riveting story, a riveting film-- and an undeniable masterpiece.

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*WITNESS TO MURDER (1954)*

 

Great use of Los Angeles exteriors, especially the apartment buildings and high rise development. Also, the interactions between Stanwyck and her two male costars are excellent. The roles are pretty much what you would expect for these actors: Stanwyck is tough; Sanders is cagey; and Merrill is dependable and likable. It's particularly fun to see Sanders and Stanwyck go toe to toe.

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*SUDDENLY, LAST SUMMER (1959)*

 

Elizabeth Taylor gives a fine performance in a story taken from one of Tennessee Williams' more contrived plays. Revised significantly for the Hollywood film, subplots and additional characters are added, and references to Sebastian being a homosexual are made less explicit. The cannibalism of Sebastian is still referenced, but of course, not directly shown. The story draws heavily from the author's own life, as his sister Rose had undergone a lobotomy in the 1930s; and Williams himself was gay. Williams had also begun psychoanalysis in the mid-to-late 1950s, and that is very much reflected in the scenes with Miss Taylor's character and her doctor, played by Montgomery Clift.

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*STABLEMATES (1938)*

 

STABLEMATES offers Margaret Hamilton in a meaty role costarring with Wallace Beery and Mickey Rooney. The film, about a horse that needs doctoring, and a vet (Beery) that needs help, is routine. However, the way the horse and veterinary medicine is discussed and shown is quite superb.

 

The story is bolstered by heartfelt performances. Wallace Beery is not to be missed in an operation scene where his character needs one more sip of liquor. In fact, Beery (a real-life alcoholic) gives one of the most intelligent and most compassionate portrayals of his entire career. Despite the darker shades of his character, the movie falls perfectly in line with MGM's family films, given its ultimately redemptive ending.

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*MURDER ON A BLACKBOARD (1934)*

 

The film is part of the Hildegarde Withers mystery series produced by RKO starring Edna May Oliver. Oliver gives a delicious performance as a spinster schoolteacher solving murders. But the plot is quite mundane. The real mystery is how the lead actress is able to sustain audience interest with such a weak script.

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*THE LEFT HAND OF GOD (1955)*

 

I liked the fact that the two lead characters in THE LEFT HAND OF GOD don't wind up together and that there is not a romantic happy ending. That would not ring true for these characters and their situation.

 

I didn't buy Lee Cobb as the warlord. He's a great actor, but for him to play a role in yellow face, he would at least have to look the tiniest bit Asian. He has too wide a nose and lacks the type of delicate features that would make him physically believable as an Asian. Agnes Moorehead is good as always.

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*THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE (1948)*

 

THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE neglects to tell the female point of view in the story. If it were about a group of women prospecting for riches, it would be reformatted and presented as a gold digger musical. And John Huston would probably not be directing.

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*MY COUSIN RACHEL (1953)*

 

This film is based on one of Daphne DuMaurier's mysterious romances and features one of her most intriguing female characters. Olivia de Havilland as Rachel comes across as an anti-heroine. But even after that determination has been made, that she is no good, one cannot help but think she's been mistook as a villain. That is the ironic beauty of this story--the multiple shades of ambiguity, with no easy answers.

 

Both the novel and 20th Century Fox's faithful version (adapted by Nunnally Johnson) do not provide a traditional resolution. This works because Rachel, like the unseen Rebecca of DuMaurier's earlier novel, hovers beyond the framework of the story. There's no way we can know every innocent or evil detail of her life. We also cannot know every detail of her beloved Phillip's life.

 

Phillip, played by Richard Burton in his first major U.S. film assignment, is strangely just as mysterious and ambiguous as Rachel. In a great scene, Phillip deliriously hangs between life and death and has a fantastic vision of marrying Rachel. He recovers, only to learn that it was all an illusion. His entire relationship with Rachel may all be an illusion.

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*EASY LIVING (1938)*

 

While watching a rented copy of EASY LIVING (a TCM/Universal release with a substandard print), it was easy to focus on Jean Arthur's performance. No doubt she is enjoyable in many pictures and makes motion picture acting look effortless. But it must be said that she has to work even harder in this film due to the fact that Preston Sturges' script is dated and the humor is rather over the top. But Arthur is a bright cinematic light in this film.

 

The supporting cast pitches in considerably. Ray Milland is cast as the love interest, and character actor Edward Arnold is Miss Arthur's alleged sugar daddy. Also of invaluable assistance is Mitchell Leisen's superb direction. In fact, Leisen's background in art design pays off handsomely in this film-- the plot involves relocating our daffy heroine from a run-down apartment to a posh hotel suite. The hotel set is elaborately decorated.

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*THE LONE HAND (1953)*

*Part 1 of 2*

 

Sometimes there are films that deliberately lead the viewers and several of the main characters in the wrong direction. When we reach the story's climax and denouement, we get a cheap excuse of an ending. Then, we replay the events of the story in our mind or we watch it again. But we realize just what a phony bill of goods we've been sold. THE LONE HAND is one such item that should be returned for a full refund.

 

Joel McCrea stars as a widowed western father who may not be all that he seems (and indeed, he isn't). The first twenty minutes or so of the film depict a loving relationship with his son and show his work as a struggling farmer in Colorado. But then, his crop is destroyed and he falls on hard times. Next thing we know, he has joined a group of outlaws and is now robbing stagecoaches. His young, impressionable son witnesses one of the robberies but is unable to turn dear old pa into the law.

 

Meanwhile, there is a new woman in their lives (played by Barbara Hale). She marries McCrea and helps provide a home for the boy. But she is being lied to about her husband's criminal activity. When she finds out, she leaves him.

 

Near the end of the story, we learn that McCrea was not really an outlaw (what?) and that he was-- wait for it-- a federal agent. Yes, he's a good guy after all. He was only pretending to go along with the robberies to help catch the mastermind of the gang. However, this plot resolution does not work, because we have seen him repeatedly clobber stagecoach drivers over the head and he has been involved in a series of vicious killings. Would a government man actually have to go through with murder in order to convince outlaws he is one of them? Also, as Hale's character says, why did he have to put his son through such gut-wrenching conflict about having a pa who was a bad man?

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*THE LONE HAND (1953)*

*Part 2 of 2*

 

While the twists and turns of the story make THE LONE HAND unpredictable, it would appear that the screenwriter is asking the audience to accept too much. We also know that McCrea cannot really be bad, because it goes against his typical western movie persona to be anything but the wholesome hero.

 

There are other problems with the production of the film. In one scene, the boy's wagon turns over and it is obvious that an adult stuntman has been used. Were there no short stuntmen or nearly teenaged stuntmen to pull that scene off more realistically? There is also another sequence where the boy mistakes a gang member for his father and leads him into a gorge and causes the man to fall to his death. It has been assumed that the boy did not get a good look at the man's face and thought it was his father in familiar clothing. But in earlier scenes featuring the outlaw (played by James Arness) he clearly has only one outfit, and it is nothing like the one outfit that McCrea wears throughout the picture.

 

THE LONE HAND is a picture that even the most casual viewer wants to like. The beautiful on-location cinematography in Durango, Colorado almost makes up for the shortcomings. And McCrea's chemistry with Hale is enjoyable to watch. But despite these more favorable elements, there are too many flaws in THE LONE HAND to actually call it a good picture, which is a shame.

 

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*LOUISIANA PURCHASE (1941)*

 

LOUISIANA PURCHASE is a musical from the folks at Paramount, drenched in Technicolor and bolstered by elaborate song-and-dance routines. The vibrant color schemes reveal that Paramount spared no expense and ups the glamour quotient significantly.

 

While the film does benefit from its more spectacular, flashier production values, the acting adds to its charm, too. In the lead role, Bob Hope is likable, if not given totally to restraint. His costar is European dancer Vera Zorina, reprising the role she played in the successful Broadway show upon which this film is based.

 

The other major performer is Victor Moore, also transferring his Broadway work to the screen for this project. Moore is a great supporting actor and shines as a crooked southern politician. Sometimes it appears as if he may have a bit more screen time than Hope does in this picture.

 

One sequence has Hope in a phony mustache and Zorina building up to a scandalous embrace with Moore as picture takers hide just out of sight. A good ten minutes of screen time must have been devoted to catching them in the act, and even then, when the picture snatchers have done their thing, Hope brings them back to take more incriminating photos, in case the first ones do not turn out. It seems more than a bit overplayed and belabored.

 

LOUSIANA PURCHASE does not contain the world's most original plot, but it suffices for nice entertainment. Although there is a disclaimer at the beginning that this is a work of fiction, one can see parallels to political leaders of the day. Though to my knowledge, Louisiana's Huey Long never had the benefit of appearing in Technicolor.

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*ROOM FOR ONE MORE (1952)*

 

ROOM FOR ONE MORE is arguably a masterpiece, with a classic message about the care of foster children. Real-life couple Betsy Drake and Cary Grant are perfect for these kinds of parent roles, because they have such grace and style, and to see them crowded by an assorted lot of kids with realistic problems is quite believable and funny.

 

It was a surprise to learn the picture was from Warners...it seems very much like something we would find from either Fox or MGM in the 1950s.

 

The script is well balanced. It makes a point of showing how older children can be given a second chance at a family, and there is one kid representing girls and one kid representing boys in this situation. The three biological children really take a backseat in terms of the film, but they do contribute to the story. There is a memorable scene where they all cast ballots and write 'leave' but then they tell the illiterate boy they want him to 'stay.'

 

Overall, the picture contains the right blend of realism and humor. Miss Drake's performance is definitely what anchors the film. Cary Grant is sort of like the biggest kid in the bunch, but she is there to guide them all, make the right decisions and dole out the necessary amount of love and patience.

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*JOURNAL OF A CRIME (1934)*

 

Ruth Chatterton undoubtedly has the market cornered on melodramatic femmes in gut-wrenching situations. She has a skillful way of doing close-ups that indicate her character's anguish. It is as if she is feeling every second of the pain-- though whether it's the pain of what her character is going through, or the pain of having to deal with yet another contrived script is anyone's guess. It probably says something about those who do not like watching this on screen, and even more about those who do.

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*THE MEN (1950)*

 

There is a moment when Marlon Brando's paraplegic character pulls up outside wife Teresa Wright's home. He comes up the sidewalk in his wheelchair and she takes him inside. We learn that despite all his resistance, he has realized that they belong together and can share a home and married life. It may have a sentimental feel to it, but these actors play it very realistically. They deftly combine volatility and vulnerability.

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*FALLEN ANGEL (1945)*

 

FALLEN ANGEL is a classic Otto Preminger noir that serves as a follow-up to his earlier hit, LAURA. Again, Fox has cast Dana Andrews in the lead role; and this time, he is paired with Alice Faye and Linda Darnell. Darnell's character dies mid-way and Faye's character lives.

 

Faye is cast as a single woman who plays religious hymns. In other words, she's a church-going spinster. This is a great film. The dialogue crackles, the sets are good, and the supporting cast is wonderful (including Percy Kilbride, Charles Bickford and Anne Revere).

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*WILL SUCCESS SPOIL ROCK HUNTER? (1957)*

 

WILL SUCCESS SPOIL ROCK HUNTER? combines witty jabs at the world of advertising with a biting satire about the cult of Hollywood celebrity, as exemplified by Jayne Mansfield's character, Rita Marlowe. Tony Randall is cast as an ad man and her unlikely love interest.

 

One can see Mansfield?s inimitable talent in this film. Her trademark voice with its punctuated squeals may seem overdone at times, but something about the actress is rather charming. She's a riot in many of her scenes, including one hysterical bit involving a phone call to a Hollywood boyfriend. There is also a funny press conference outside the home of an advertising executive.

 

Joan Blondell is cast as Mansfield's chaperone, while Betsy Drake (wife of Cary Grant) plays Randall's long-suffering girl Friday. In fact, Mr. Grant is mentioned when the Rita Marlowe character says she (meaning Mansfield herself) will soon be appearing with him in her next film.

 

Does SUCCESS have any pitfalls? Not if you're a fan of these stars. The picture is thoroughly enjoyable, and part of its appeal seems to be its commentary about getting ahead. Ultimately, none of the characters are spoiled by success. We're the ones that are spoiled, because we are treated to such merriment that when the final fade out occurs, we may think we have been cheated out of a sequel.

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*SYLVIA SCARLETT (1936)*

 

Audiences may not know what to make of SYLVIA SCARLETT, with its gender-bending theme and its tinge of Sapphic love (Katharine Hepburn shares two kisses with other women in this picture). But it really is much more. The film has a unique identity, full of spirit and fun. That in and of itself makes it worthwhile.

 

Could director George Cukor and his cast possibly make any money for the studio with this picture? Probably not. Though it's as if they are unconcerned with financial considerations and just let their work run the gamut and roam wild and free. I think that makes it a selfless work of art. It is not trying to hoodwink us into being a customer. It is just being itself and letting us follow along for the ride.

 

Of course, Hepburn's role is definitely a character study in transgender states of mind. Sylvia/Sylvester deals with some identity issues and anguishes about it, but it stays light and not too gloomy. In other films, Hepburn plays tougher, more masculine roles. But here, she's just the right combination of masculine-feminine.

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I have always been a fan of Sylvia Scarlett. Yes, it is a different Grant Hepburn movie but that is what I find interesting. I think it gets lost becuase the their other films are so well known, but it is movie that fans of these stars (or fans of classic movies in general), should check out.

 

Thanks for reminding us of this movie.

 

OH, and your comment about Ruth Chatterton were funny! I'm one of those that cannot look away when she goes into one of her moods. But yea, a little does go a long way.

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SYLVIA SCARLETT is utterly whimsical, and I think Kate does the gender bending with a unique flair. And while Cary Grant is fabulous as always, I think Brian Aherne is the one who anchors the film and his contributions must not be overlooked.

 

As for our dear Ruth Chatterton-- she's a true cinematic diva. I reviewed JOURNAL OF A CRIME, but she's even more melodramatic in FRISCO JENNY.

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