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Friday, October 16, 2020

"Kings Row" (1942)

It could be argued that Ronald Reagan's greatest performance was as the All American cowboy President, the right-leaning paragon of conservative politics saving the country from all manner of foreign and liberal  evils. His achievements as Commander in Chief didn't really add up to much, but he sure convinced most people otherwise. But what about his career in Hollywood? Most film historians usually point to his supporting role in this glossy Warner Brothers melodrama. It's adapted from a trashy bestseller by Henry Bellaman, one of those multi character page turners that uncovers all the dark secrets behind the sunny facade of SmallTown, USA. Rife with taboos like murder, incest, sadomasochism, psychomania, adultery, and closeted homosexuality it was a given that it be totally scrubbed up and whitewashed for mainstream movie audiences. And for the most part, it works. All the bad stuff is merely hinted at, but what's left still guilty pleasure fun. We watch a group of turn-of-the-century friends grow from children into young adults navigating all sorts of personal tortures and achievements. Reagan is an brash athletic ladies' man, the town stud who's so destined for success you know that a tragic downfall is all but certain. And when it comes it's a doozy, probably his finest (and famous) moment on film. The real standout though is the criminally forgotten Ann Sheridan as the warm hearted girl from the (literally) wrong side of the tracks. There's a lovely genuineness to every scene she's in. Outstanding camerawork by lensman James Wong Howe and a beloved score by Erich Wolfgang Korngold make this a must-view for anybody who loves slick Old Hollywood fare. 

"China Seas" (1935)

You really can't go wrong with a cast like this. Put Clark Gable, Jean Harlow, Wallace Beery, and Rosalind Russell aboard a ship in the South China Sea and throw in a love triangle, some gun-running intrigue, a few action sequences, and some snappy dialogue and you come out a winner. This is basically the same set-up as the Gable/Harlow success "Red Dust" from a few years prior, he's the ship's captain, the mancatch torn between a prim socialite (Russell, in what she called her career's "Lady Mary" stage), and an earthier sexpot (guess who). Beery is the piece's villain, trying to pull off the weapons skullduggery under the eyes of Gable. There are no real surprises but it leaves you feeling like you got your entertainment's worth. 

Monday, February 10, 2020

"The Best of Everything" (1959)

The great film critic Pauline Kael once wrote, "Movies are so rarely great art that if we cannot appreciate great trash we have very little reason to be interested in them." This mid-century potboiler is trash of a very high caliber. It's the kind of film you know is "good bad" going in, and you know the filmmakers know you know it too, so everyone just sits back and wallows in the gooey lushness of the proceedings. It was probably a hoot to make and it's an even bigger one to watch. It uses that tried-and-true plot trope of three young women coming to the big city seeking careers and love. From "Three on a Match" to "How To Marry a Millionaire" to "Valley of the Dolls", Hollywood has mined a lot of gold (or at least gold plate) from this set-up. Here, the blonde, brunette, and redhead are Hope Lange, Diane Baker, and Suzy Parker. They're all eager gals in the typing pool of a successful Manhattan publishing company with Big Dreams of moving up the corporate ladder thru hard work...or maybe just snagging that handsome Vice President by the water cooler (here played by cleft-chinned Stephen Boyd). They have to dodge the roaming hands of the old drunken letch in the corner office (Brian Aherne) and the withering condescension of the brittle bitch boss editor, Joan Crawford. Each of the three lovelies falls for her own Mr. Wrong, so there's lots of sturm und drang about pre-marital sex, this being the buttoned down 1950's. Should she or shouldn't she? Only her screenwriter knows for sure. The whole thing plays like a long lost episode of "Mad Men" but without the incisive dialog or character development. But that's not a bad thing. One man's movie trash is another's treasure. The production has that sleek modern sheen of post-War America (the office is in the iconic Seagram Building). Men in gray flannel suits, women in Lilly Daché Juliette caps, lots of burnt orange and turquoise walls with abstract's a mid-century wet dream. Add to that a syrupy score by Alfred Neuman and a title song by Johnny Mathis and it's popcorn time.

Saturday, February 8, 2020

"A Letter to Three Wives" (1949)

A year before he made the classic "All About Eve", director  Joseph L. Mankiewicz made this acerbic   examination of marriage and suburbia. It starts with a gimmicky plot device: a small town she-devil who we only hear in voice-over, sends a poison pen letter to three good friends informing them she's running off with one of their husbands that night, but not which one she's stealing. So each of the ladies (a great cast of Jeanne Crain, Ann Sothern, and Linda Darnell), woolgather into a flashback where we get a snapshot of their marriages. Crain feels socially inadequate to her society husband, Southern is going for that work/life balance in a two career family, and Darnell cunningly married for money. The dialog is snappy and funny and each of the ladies shine, especially Darnell who has a droll way with her character's world-weary pragmatism. Despite it's age the script still feels fresh, maybe it's because women still struggle with the same marital hurdles today. Look for an uncredited Thelma Ritter in one of her first film roles, she swipes the whole picture in a few choice scenes.

Thursday, November 7, 2019

"The Southerner" (1945)

It's a tall order: make watchable entertainment out of seemingly impossible subject matter. But legendary French director Jean Renoir ("The Rules of the Game", "Grand Illusion") pulls it off --mostly. This is the story about a year in the life of a poor backwoods family trying, against all odds, to begin a sustainable farm for their livelihood. And when I say poor, I mean dirt poor. No shoes, living in a miserable rundown shack held together with newspaper patched walls, always hungry, always fighting the elements...not the usual escapist Hollywood fare by a long shot. The scene where they finally catch a possum and happily chow down on the greasy meat is equal parts gross and heartwarming. Perjoratively, some would call these folks 'white trash' or 'hillbillies'. Here, Renoir enobles their struggle, imbuing their grit with that American Puritan work ethic so that we root for them no matter what. No doubt this played well to a WWII audience. Zachary Scott is the father, the backbone of the family. He is most famously remembered as the slick and slimy boyfriend of Joan Crawford in "Mildred Pierce". This is a one-eighty from that. He turns up the volume on his real Texas-bred accent and he's a stalwart charmer with an aw-shucks positivity that doesn't feel corny. It doesn't hurt that his matinee idol looks make him easy to watch, he's almost always in well worn chambray shirts and faded dungarees looking like a model in a Ralph Lauren Jeans ad. The wife is a chipper Betty Field, an underrated actress who would go on to a long career in character roles. Again, she's awfully pretty after a scorching day of cotton picking, coiffed hair and dewey makeup, but that's Hollywood for ya. It can't be ignored so let's get the worst part of the film out on the table: the granny role, played here by Beulah Bondi, is so badly written and acted it makes your teeth hurt. Bondi's hammy, crotchety corn pone delivery makes Irene Ryan's Granny Clampett look like Shakespearean acting. It's worth the unintentional chuckles it elicits, so just enjoy the rest of the picture.

Sunday, November 3, 2019

"The Heiress" (1949)

Everything is pitch perfect in this costume drama adapted from the Broadway play based on the Henry James novella "Washington Square." Olivia de Havilland is the title character, an unexceptional only child of a very wealthy doctor (Ralph Richardson) in 1840's New York City. She's what polite folks would call 'a plain girl'. And boy, does her domineering dad let her know it every chance he gets. Sometimes the wounds from family are the deepest ones of all. When she gets the romantic attention of an extremely handsome but penniless social climber (Montgomery Clift), her father balks. He's not buying it and flatly says so. The drama builds on two fronts: will she defy her father for this new beau and risk her inheritance? And more importantly will we find out if this suitor is truly sincere in his feelings? How we watch de Havilland's character confront these emotional hurdles is the stuff of stellar movie acting. She won a well-deserved second Oscar for this performance. Richardson is haughty menace personified, a cruel example of the unfair power men can yield over women (as if you need to go back to Old New York to find it). Beautiful Clift, chiseled and cheekboned, in the role that would catapult him into true stardom, dances a fine line. You don't really know his true feelings for this woman until the famous ending. And get ready, because the final scenes are heartbreaking, cathartic, and chilling all at once. And let's not forget a great supporting turn by Miriam Hopkins as the supportive confidante aunt, her comic timing is needed to break up all the heavy phychological mayhem getting thrown about. Expertly directed by William Wyler with a nice score by composer Aaron Copland.

Saturday, November 2, 2019

"Children of Paradise" (1945)

Long considered one of the linchpins of 20th Century French cinema, how you feel about this grand, sweeping epic might hinge on your tolerance for doomed love stories told at a fever pitch. If you like swooning then this is your movie. We're in 1840's Paris with of a group of romantically intertwined actors in a pantomime theatre troupe. They meet cute, fall in love, have sex, fight, fall out of love, get jealous, spurn each other...over and over, you get the picture. It's all that very, very French outlook on life of 'better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all'. The dialog tends toward the overwrought purply type and there's a lot of it, the thing clocks in at over three hours. But here's the thing, there's no denying the production is a feast for the eyes. The production design is superb, the recreation of the Paris streets are like nothing you've seen, with reportedly thousands of extras. There are numerous theatre and plays depicted with sumptuous sets, the acting milieu in front and behind the curtain is painstakingly depicted. This was the most expensive film made in that country up til that time,  which is how it got the nickname "France's Gone With the Wind." And then there's the mime. Wait, don't tune out! The mime scenes and playlets are pure joy to watch. Put any thoughts of a Frenchified Shields and Yarnell skit out of your head. The standout performer (and probably the best in the movie) is Jean-Louis Barrault. He's touching, funny, with liquid body movements that make you look at this kind of performing anew, and in the speaking part of the role his take on unrequited love will break your heart.