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Classic Film Criticism Vol. 2


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*A MILLIONAIRE FOR CHRISTY (1951)*

*Part 2 of 2*

 

If there had been better character development, maybe with a montage, where we had seen Eleanor Parker's character go through a series of disastrous dates-- then, we just might be able to buy into some of her predicament. But as it is, she gets to California and looks up MacMurray and then throws herself on him like a lunatic would.

 

Another concern about CHRISTY is its pacing. The story starts out slowly, then kicks into high gear when she meets MacMurray. It races along for about twenty or thirty minutes, then slows down again. It never regains its momentum after that. The second half of the film is almost like a different movie, and indeed, the setting has changed (from Los Angeles to La Jolla). It leaves the viewer feeling it is an uneven film that had a lot of potential.

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*THIRD FINGER, LEFT HAND (1940)*

 

Interesting title and top-name talent, including Myrna Loy and Melvyn Douglas. But what an utterly inane script. This could have been such a great story, about a woman who needs a man to pretend to be her husband, with all sorts of interesting and plausible zany screwball complications. But instead, we get Myrna pushing the lie that she's married and getting away with it, due to the flimsiest of circumstances. And the reason given for her creating a phantom husband? She needs to be married in order to be an executive! This would've worked better if she was a closeted lesbian or if she was trying to prevent her family from arranging a marriage with a guy she did not love. Instead, we get all this other hooey.

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*WE'RE NO ANGELS (1955)*

 

WE'RE NO ANGELS is enhanced by the performances of its lead actors. And certainly Humphrey Bogart, Aldo Ray and Peter Ustinov make an interesting movie trio. The guys play Devil's Island escapees who hide out at a merchant's home on Christmas night. The picture was released many months in advance of Christmas, though. In July.

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*WRITTEN ON THE WIND (1957)*

 

Douglas Sirk's Technicolor melodramas have a certain formula. WRITTEN ON THE WIND is on par with his other cinematic experiments and is aided considerably by a most skilled cast.

 

Particularly, the entire film hinges on Dorothy Malone's performance. She is the one who sells us the bill of goods at the end. And if she happened to be unconvincing, then we would feel that the entire 99 minutes was lost. But she does save the film at the end. And it is not surprising that for her efforts, she would receive the Oscar for a best supporting performance.

 

Her scenes in the courtroom make it clear to us that not only is her brother Kyle (Robert Stack in an Oscar-nominated performance) a sad waste of a life, but they all are living a nothing existence-- except those who manage to get away (which is what Lauren Bacall and Rock Hudson must do in the last shots). Malone's character will never get away, having been forced to take over the family business at the end. It's a very sobering conclusion.

 

In the meanwhile, Sirk fills the earlier portions of the film with inspired mise-en-scene which continues to build the tension and suggest the inevitable outcome for these characters. At every turn, the director is offering motifs and manipulating them carefully, often without our noticing. The scene where Stack throws the drink into the mirror is not only played for dramatic effect but is rich with symbolism. Another important moment occurs when the father (Robert Keith) is experiencing a heart attack on the stairs. Sirk does not allow the camera to linger on the old man during this display like most directors might be tempted to do. Instead he inserts quick cuts to other members of the household, experiencing their own mini-attacks of anguish at the same time.

 

As a result, Sirk provides quite a searing tale about the so-called lives of the spoiled rich in a desolate oil town. He brings us into the world of its interconnected destinies and the smoldering passions of its inhabitants. Possibly only Vincente Minnelli could have made something as decadent and vivid as this. And only Elia Kazan could have given the characters the sort of raw energy they need, the way Sirk has done. As I think about it, a monstrously good thought occurs to me. Douglas Sirk is like two great directors in one: Dr. Minnelli and Mr. Kazan.

 

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*BIG HEARTED HERBERT (1934)*

 

Under William Keighley's direction, Aline MacMahon provides a most natural performance as the wife of a big-hearted galoot. Guy Kibbee plays the galoot and is prone to fits of endless blustering, but usually foiled by the members of their immediate clan. The story is somewhat episodic in nature, showing situational aspects of the lives of a not-so-typical suburban family. The idea is that despite Kibbee's many forms of tyranny, they are just regular folks. Granted, the design of the family unit and its place in society seems much more thought-provoking than other run of the mill domestic comedies.

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*CHATTERBOX (1936)*

 

CHATTERBOX offers those who care to take the time to watch it a most sincere performance from Margaret Hamilton. Miss Hamilton usually is given mean characters to play. But she is no witch in this one. The witchier, craftier character is played by Lucille Ball who has a small but significant role. Yet, no matter how you spell it, this is Anne Shirley's picture, and as always, RKO's trust in her to carry a picture seems well placed.

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*THE HOUSE ACROSS THE BAY (1940)*

 

A print shown of THE HOUSE ACROSS THE BAY that aired on Turner Classic Movies was more than a bit washed out, which is a shame. The acting, dialogue and story are worth the time, however. It is essentially a woman's picture with Joan Bennett in most, if not all, of the scenes. But George Raft does an excellent job as a gangster sent to the other side of the water, which considering his character's crimes, is probably where he belongs.

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*THUNDER ROAD (1958)*

 

There is something easy and organic about Robert Mitchum's performance in THUNDER ROAD. And while the film is not quite noir, it does contain crime elements that ambiguously shade Mitchum's role. The story engages its audience in terms of how the main character tries to leave his old life behind and how he tries to protect his younger brother from making similar mistakes in life. The stark black-and-white cinematography works well for this type of story.

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*SUMMERTIME (1955)*

 

To really appreciate SUMMERTIME you have to do a bit of cinematic homework. First, you need to see Katharine Hepburn's earlier romantic melodrama ALICE ADAMS because it is referenced quite a bit in SUMMERTIME (the business with the flower and a Midwestern woman pining for a grand life). And then, considering director David Lean, you need to have seen BRIEF ENCOUNTER, which came ten years before this film. The ending is essentially the same, with a farewell along a train platform and the consequences of an extra-marital affair. Once you have seen these other titles, then you can truly understand how Hepburn and Lean's careers combine at this juncture to make a unique film.

 

The characters are not exactly likable in this story. There are young boys that smoke and sell things they should not be selling; an older over-ripe American woman who succumbs to a shop owner's lustful desires; and other tourists who seem to be negative and selfish, etc. But what makes SUMMERTIME interesting is that it provides a romantic look at a very unromantic situation, and it uses the splendor of a Venetian locale to do it.

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*SMART MONEY (1931)*

 

SMART MONEY offers viewers a chance to see two well-known stars of the 1930s gangster film cycle, together in action: Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney. Mr. Robinson plays the lead in this picture, with Mr. Cagney offering excellent support.

 

But the real treat, in this writer's opinion, is the script by John Bright. Mr. Bright previously wrote the book 'Beer and Blood' that serves as the basis for PUBLIC ENEMY. Since Bright is writing about his experiences growing up in Chicago, he clearly knows these types of characters first-hand. As a result, there is an authenticity in SMART MONEY that makes it just as important as PUBLIC ENEMY or LITTLE CAESAR. Though in the case of this film, the emphasis seems to be on humor, rather than violence.

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*MISS ANNIE ROONEY (1942)*

 

As Miss Annie Rooney, we have Miss Shirley Temple officially reaching adolescence in a Hollywood motion picture. The acceptable effort is a production from Edward Small's company distributed through United Artists. Despite the obviousness of its limited budget, the movie has plenty of merit, though its script could easily have undergone a rewrite to remove some of the more blatant stereotypes about the Irish-American culture.

 

Guy Kibbee is cast as Temple's grand-pop and serves stew along with an authentic-sounding brogue. However, William Gargan, who plays his son and Temple's father curiously does not attempt to convey the Irishness of his character much at all. For that matter, he does not attempt to convey much in the way of acting, either.

 

There are some charming moments in this film that make up for the occasional inconsistencies. One such moment is a teen party where our blossoming star dances with Dickie Moore, who has also officially reached puberty in this film. Like Temple, he suffers the pangs of young love in between fits of barely decipherable young folk slang.

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*MOONRISE (1948)*

 

Ethel Barrymore only appears at the end of MOONRISE with about six minutes of screen time. Nonetheless, the story is well told, and Dane Clark does a marvelous job as Barrymore's fugitive grandson. But wouldn't this story have been better told if it had been about a young black man (as opposed to a young white man) whose father had been lynched years earlier? For that matter, a remake could very easily apply the concept to migrant Mexican laborers who are often denied justice due to illegal status and community suspicion.

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*QUICKSAND (1950)*

 

QUICKSAND contains a few winning elements, but for the most part it is extremely contrived and unintentionally funny. And some of the film just does not make sense at all. The scene where Mickey Rooney is on top of the desk throttling the car salesman is where it is most absurd. How can you root for him? He's too stupid to garner any respect or empathy from the audience. You instead root for Jeanne Cagney's pathetic femme fatale because she at least has more intelligence.

 

And what about the part where Rooney tells a brunette girl that he killed someone and she doesn't even seem bothered by it. Instead, she wants to hop in the car and go to Mexico with him. This is even more ridiculous than the murder scene.

 

Peter Lorre is the only good thing in this sad attempt at a film. He plays a slimy arcade owner and seems to be a substantial part of the story in the beginning. But then, he just disappears half-way through the movie.

 

The biggest problem with QUICKSAND is that they played it straight, when it should have been done for laughs. If it was a black comedy with a wink at the impossibility of the situations the main character was embroiled in, then that may have worked. But for an audience to take this plot seriously means the filmmakers were expecting too much and were not even half as smart as the cardboard characters they created.

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*MR. BELVEDERE GOES TO COLLEGE (1949)*

 

A few notes on MR. BELVEDERE GOES TO COLLEGE. First, it is especially significant that this is the first and only time Shirley Temple returned to 20th Century Fox after her reign as the studio's top child star. She is very appealing in this film. This proves that they could, and should, have groomed her for juvenile leads.

 

As for Clifton Webb, who plays the title character, his performance is very multi-dimensional. When the police think he is a peeping tom and he is crawling through windows-- hiding out in the halls inside Shirley's apartment building-- it reminds this writer of Waldo Lydecker from LAURA. There is a creepiness and danger that he brings to some of these scenes that is both disturbing and fascinating.

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*MR. BELVEDERE RINGS THE BELL (1951)*

 

The fact that Clifton Webb is posing as another character and they call him by that name throughout the entire picture makes him less Lynn Belvedere and more something (someone) else. I understand that the character is working undercover, but I think this is because they had used a stage play as the basis for this film, and in the play, the character is not Belvedere.

 

What I do like about this last sequel in the series is that it once again proves Mr. Webb is the best fish-out-of-water in movies. You can put him into any situation with any assortment of odd characters, and he stands out spectacularly. There were hundreds of other situations they could have thrown him into, and when you think about it, the Belvedere franchise could've gone on long as Blondie. Fortunately, wiser heads prevailed.

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*SMALL TOWN GIRL (1935)*

 

Better than a lot of what passes for romantic comedies today, SMALL TOWN GIRL is a classic and not to be missed. Robert Taylor is just as much at home with comedy as he is with other genres. Janet Gaynor is superb and it's interesting to read that Harlow was the first choice, because that would have given this picture an entirely different flavor.

 

And here's an interesting bit of trivia: there are more than a few connections to MGM's popular Andy Hardy series. The small town that Gaynor's character comes from is called Carvel. The stage play that begat Andy Hardy set the action in a fictitious Idaho town called Carvel, but throughout most of the Hardy series, the location is much more generalized and is basically Carvel, USA. But in this film, it is clearly established that Carvel is in the east. Road signs during one of the scenes indicate that Carvel is 97 miles from Boston.

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*THE SNOWS OF KILIMANJARO (1952)*

 

Gregory Peck gets caught between Susan Hayward and Ava Gardner. There are, to be sure, less desirable devils and deep blue seas to have on either side. Mr. Peck plays the Hemingway protagonist (a stand-in for Hemingway himself) with just the right combination of ease and dis-ease. There are some good outdoor hunting scenes, and through it all, Peck is perfectly groomed and dressed. Perhaps Cary Grant?s tailor joined the hunting expedition.

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*MADAME BOVARY (1949)*

 

Vincente Minnelli is an interesting choice for director of the American version of MADAME BOVARY. Jennifer Jones is excellent as the notorious adulteress, but I felt Van Heflin was a tad miscast as the unsuspecting husband. Louis Jourdan, however, is perfectly suited for his role as the playboy. And Ellen Corby does a fine turn as a servant. The film works because of its attention to period detail. The lavish ballroom scene rivals anything that producer David Selznick created for GONE WITH THE WIND.

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*AUNTIE MAME (1958)*

 

Betrays its stage origins, which in this case, benefits the more theatrical aspects of the story. When Mame and Beau are on their honeymoon, all the scenes are shot indoors. It is clear that the plantation scenes were done inside a studio, too. There is also the lighting-- a pseudo-spotlight that silhouettes Mame at the end of each major scene, to remind us that the producers are bringing Broadway culture into suburban movie theatres.

 

As for Rosalind Russell's performance, she is definitely in command of the role, and her interactions with the other cast members seem rather congenial. While Russell is aware of her above-the-title status, she confidently plays off the others and lets all the actors have their moments. When she plays Mame, she sometimes throws lines away. She comes through with flying colors, though, because she juices it up with a nervous, chaotic energy that makes the character seem larger than life, but not necessarily sane.

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*THE SISTERS (1938)*

 

More than a tad unrealistic that of all the women in the room, Errol Flynn would have been attracted to Bette Davis. Simply stated: the casting is wrong. There is very little romantic chemistry between them. But Davis' poignant acting smoothes over this uneven pairing, and Flynn is believable in the drinking scenes. But because the action has to focus on them so much (since they are the studio's big stars), the other sisters' lives are used as subplots. I bet if Warners had stuck completely to the novel, it would have been more of an ensemble drama with the sisters having equal prominence in the narrative, and with the audience getting a better picture.

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*JOHN PAUL JONES (1959)*

 

Robert Stack plays the title role. He's the renowned hero of the Revolutionary War who clashes with Congress. The film boasts a beautiful Technicolor print by Warners, and Bette Davis appears in a cameo as Russian empress Catherine the Great. No, this is not a Dietrich-inspired version, not even close.

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*THE HOWARDS OF VIRGINIA (1940)*

 

Cary Grant plays a common man who joins Colonial forces in the fight for freedom against England. The catch: he will meet his wife's Royalist relatives on the battlefield. Unfortunately, the average movie-goer will not reach this point in the narrative, unless the individual next to him nudges him violently to stop snoring.

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*STORM WARNING (1951)*

 

Ginger Rogers and Doris Day are believably cast as sisters in STORM WARNING. Steve Cochran plays one of his usual shady characters. And Ronald Reagan appears in his last picture for Warners as a prosecutor who saves the day.

 

The subject matter is rather dark. It is a story about Civil Rights and the Ku Klux Klan. Shot in black and white photography, the film's noir aspects are gripping to say the least, and aside from a somewhat melodramatic ending, the film has a fair amount of social realism in it.

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