Wednesday, February 3, 2021

"The Private Life of Henry VIII" (1933)

A nursery rhyme spoiler: “King Henry VIII, To six wives he was wedded, One died, one survived, Two divorced, two beheaded.” And even if you know how it all plays out this movie is not a dry ‘Masterpiece Theatre’ history lesson. It’s surprisingly zippy, funny, and— because it was made in Pre-Code 1930’s—downright bawdy. The story of the revolving door marriages plays almost like a series of blackout sketches as the famous king moves from one wife to the next, it keeps things moving. Charles Laughton bagged an Oscar for his portrayal of the corpulent king. If you have the stomach for another overbearing, ill-mannered, sexist pig of a leader then by all means give this one a chance. Unlike the 45th POTUS, you discover there’s a human underneath his public pomposity. And the bonafide scene stealer here is Elsa Lanchester (the real Mrs. Laughton), as Henry’s fourth wife Anne of Cleves. She does a hilarious, almost slapstick take on the German princess that should have bagged her an Oscar as well.  

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

"36 Hours" (1964)

A very fine WWII thriller from the 1960’s. By that time these kind of pictures were getting more fantastical, plots where the fiendishly evil-genius Nazis were devising all kinds of outlandish scenarios to gain world domination. On that scale this one is somewhat plausible, like “Oh geez, that’s pretty clever, how is this gonna end??” To describe the plot is to spoil the fun. It’s the kind of idea TV shows like “Mission:Impossible” and "Hogan's Heroes" would pilfer every episode just a few years later. The three leads, James Garner, Rod Taylor, and Eva Marie Saint, are all uniformly good, making you care for the characters way more than required. The smart script is by George Seaton and author Roald “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” Dahl! 

"No More Ladies" (1935)

The plot is paper thin, a beautiful socialite (Joan Crawford) has grown weary of her boyfriend (Robert Montgomery) and his womanizing ways. She tries to make him jealous (with cutie Franchot Tone in order to prove his love for her. Adapted from a play, it’s one of those ‘white telephone’ comedies from the 1930's, but the laughs are few and far between. Let’s be clear, there’s only one reason to watch: Crawford at the height of her chiseled beauty in a plethora of designer gowns by MGM’s star costumer, Adrian. Slinky, satiny, bare-backed, Crawford is the epitome of Depression-era glamour and she knows how to work those threads. For a few pennies it must have been well worth the audience’s escapism to watch this human dress form and live in her world if only for a fleeting moment. 


Monday, February 1, 2021

"Mourning Becomes Electra" (1947)

Are you game for a lengthy film based on Aeschylus’ tragic Greek “Oresteia” set during Reconstruction? Then this is right up your dramaturgical alley. It’s an interesting stunt that mostly pays off. It was originally the brainchild of playwright Eugene O’Neill for Broadway; this is a truncated, if still protracted exercise in all those symbolic psychological complexes that plague a certain family and their internecine dynamics after the death of the patriarch in wartime. Rosalind Russell and Michael Redgrave—the Electra and Orestes standins— are wonderfully impassioned as the ill-fated brother and sister. Their scenes together are topnotch. That’s the good news. Things go haywire anytime Katina Paxinou, the hell-bent mother steps ins. Of course this is part and parcel of the character, but Paxinou plays her scenes at such an exaggerated fever pitch it crosses over into camp. It’s laugh out loud BAD and you wonder how Russell kept a straight face in their scenes together. So it’s a mixed bag, two thirds great drama, one part guilty pleasure. As for the production itself, it’s a little threadbare, this is not the pleasurable opulence of “Gone With the Wind”, despite the family’s wealth. And the direction by Dudley Nichols is basic, if not overly stagey. As always it’s Russell who’ll you’ll remember.  

"Rachel and the Stranger" (1948)

If there’s such a thing as a chastely sexy movie this is it. A farmer the in mid-1800’s Ohio valley William Holden) becomes a widower and wants a mother for his young son. He settles for an indentured servant (Loretta Young). Yes, the premise is as gross as it sounds, but American history is not pretty. Now, no indentured servant ever looked like Young, perfect makeup, a mane of beautiful windblown hair, form fitting blouses, and no farmer ever looked as thirst-trappy as Holden either, golden blonde and shirtless. You know they’ll eventually fall in love just as sure as as their icy wariness of each other begins to thaw. The sexual tension builds through all the butter churning and back forty plowing when, lo,  the third part of the triangle shows up just to complicate things. Robert Mitchum is a wandering stranger with a guitar, he’s almost the sexy good version of the iconic bad man he would portray in “Night of the Hunter” seven years later. Young nicely underplays her part, this was her follow-up to her Oscar worthy performance the year before in “The Farmer’s Daughter”, and Holden and Mitchum are game for the romantic interplay. Things even turn adventurous for a climactic frontier face-off with some angry Shawnee who just want their land back. 

Thursday, January 28, 2021

"Games" (1967)

A stylish neo-noir thriller set in the hip mod world of late ‘60s Manhattan. James Caan and Katherine Ross are a chic wealthy couple who encounter a mysterious woman (Simone Signoret) and begin a series of cat and mouse mindgames just for the thrlll of it. And like the saying goes, “it’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt”. Cue the blood. There are lots of twists and shocks amongst the fashionable trappings (these folks’ Upper East Side townhouse is awash in Segals, Warhols, and Fornasettis), and Caan and Ross look like a Vogue fashion spread. If you’re a student of French Cinema then you might see the surprise ending coming thru the Lincoln Tunnel in a snazzy sports car (the casting of Signoret is the dead give-away, pun intended), but otherwise, it’s a kicky goose-pimply ride. 

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

"Jezebel" (1938)

One of the most iconic Bette Davis roles, and that’s saying a lot given how many she was able to rack up in her long career. She’s a headstrong antebellum belle in New Orleans who does just about everything within her stubborn, headstrong self to sabotage her relationship with the most eligible and handsome man in town (swoonworthy Henry Fonda). When she calls his bluff for her affections one too many times things get complicated. This movie was an obvious play to steal the box office thunder from “Gone With the Wind” but it turns out there was room for more than one Southern beyotch at the plantation. Davis owns the role with a vengeance. Yes, there are histrionics but measured subtleties too. Just watch the scene where Fonda breaks the news that he’s found someone else. Shock, pain, acknowledgment, sadness, and resolve wash across her face in a matter of seconds. That’s film acting artistry. One sticking point: the depiction of African American slaves is awful. At best they’re used as background props and at worst, for uncomfortable comic relief. So be warned.