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Happy Days (1929)
7/10
All talking, all singing, all nonsense
7 May 2020
Lavish story-revue from 1929, originally filmed in a widescreen process called Grandeur, puts most of Fox's roster in a minstrel show format; there's a plot surrounding it, but it's forgotten after the first half hour or so. You have to endure some badly dated acts, including the insufferable El Brendel and the sappy Janet Gaynor (she doesn't sing, she coos) and Charles Farrell (body of Adonis, voice of a fifth grader), but along the way you do get some good stuff, and an entertaining look at what was considered top-notch diversion around the time the stock market was crashing. Marjorie White does some hot scat singing and steps lightly; Ann Pennington and Dixie Lee dance up a storm; Victor McGlaglen and Edmund Lowe do a buddy number (McLaglen can actually sing, Lowe can't); the boxing champ James J. Corbett is a personable interlocutor; Will Rogers, Warner Baxter, and George Jessel do cameos; and poor old Charles Evans' show boat gets saved. The chorus girls are beefy and klutzy (Betty Grable's in there somewhere), the production design's clever, and there's an odd lighting effect that turns actors from blackface to white with the flick of a light switch. Heaven knows you couldn't get away with this stuff today, but the songs are catchy, there's some fine dancing, and among the large roster of early talkie musicals, this one's fairly diverting.
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8/10
A real weepie, and a good one
31 March 2020
Warning: Spoilers
Universal knew it had something special on hand when it signed Margaret Sullavan, and this early vehicle showcases her wonderfully. It's a genre weepie, one of many pre-Codes where the innocent young girl gets pregnant after a one-nighter with a lout (John Boles, showing more range than usual), but it doesn't go in the direction you might expect. Maggie takes up with her liberated aunt (Billie Burke, singing a bit and excellent), who has a younger boyfriend (Reginald Denny) and makes no judgments about her niece's unfortunate fate. She becomes a successful businesswoman, raises a wonderful son, and only succumbs to a Movie Disease because it's a good excuse to allow the splendid leading lady to emote more. The happy-ish ending has an affecting closing line, and while John Stahl's direction is a trifle slow and the screenplay drags things out more than it has to, it's really a first-rate vehicle for Ms. Sullavan, who shows pathos, vulnerability, anomie, and gaiety in the old-fashioned sense, and breaks your heart.
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6/10
Sweet, and a little lackadaisical
19 February 2020
A Clarence Brown special from 1938, meaning it's well-crafted, placid, and determinedly mainstream, this family drama is most interesting in its detailed portrait of small-town pre-Civil War life. We're in rural Ohio circa 1850, where the new preacher (Walter Huston, excellent as always) has arrived with his rebellious son (Gene Reynolds, later James Stewart) and loving wife (Beulah Bondi). They're living off the charity of the impoverished community, and the father-son conflicts never end. We proceed through the son's struggle to become a doctor, and his distinguished service in the Union army, and his neglect of his mom. It's over-sentimental and unsurprising, but it does have some beautiful set pieces (the acquiring of the family horse, the conversations between the son and the local drunken doctor, the battle montage), and the supporting cast is pretty amazing: Charles Coburn, John Carradine, Guy Kibbee, Ann Rutherford, Leatrice Joy Gilbert (she's charming), Sterling Holloway, Charley Grapewin, a feisty Leona Roberts. Plot threads are left hanging (the Stewart-Rutherford romance doesn't develop at all), and Herbert Stothart's score is a bit intrusive, telling you how to feel when it doesn't have to. But it's good MGM product of the day, and yes, by the end you'll have the sniffles.
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Bugsy Malone (1976)
7/10
Intriguingly strange
29 January 2020
There certainly wasn't any other mid-'70s kids' movie like this one, a truly bizarro effort by a young Alan Parker. It's a sort of Warner Brothers early-'30s gangster flick as filtered through the sensibility of a contemporary movie musical, and cast exclusively with preteens or early teens. Jodie Foster's the head moll, Scott Baio's the head gangster, and the other kids aren't well known, but they show a lot of enthusiasm and mostly have a way with Parker's wisecracking screenplay. It's played out on large, lavish sets, and Paul Williams' songs, dubbed by grownups (a decision Parker and Williams later regretted), are tuneful and plot-driven. It's not wonderfully edited: It just kind of fades out, with no real resolution, and "Humpty" Jenkins, as Fizzy, the custodian at Malone's hangout, keeps boasting about what a great tap dancer he is, setting us up for a show-stopping number that never happens--suggesting that there may be loads of missing footage that would wrap it up more neatly. The preteen chorines in (excellent) skimpy costumes may make you a little uncomfortable in these more morally conscious times, and some of the conceits--guns that shoot cream, period autos that are pedal-driven but make engine noises--grow wearying. Still, it's entertaining, and it gets points for sheer strangeness.
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It's a Date (1940)
6/10
A real Pasternak package
28 January 2020
Joe Pasternak gets to do everything he loves: showcase Deanna Durbin, offer a past-her-prime star (Kay Francis) another chance, exploit a mostly public-domain musical repertoire, and peddle light comedy. Deanna is, of course, a delight, underplaying the comedy as the stagestruck daughter of a Broadway star, and Walter Pidgeon is a more than capable object of both ladies' affections (but it's a little creepy, his tentatively pursuing romances with both). The screenplay, by Norman Krasna, has some uncomfortable moments, and we also have to endure the forced charms of Cuddles Sakall, here a formidable playwright (it strains credibility). It's directed by William A. Seiter but plays like a Henry Koster special, and you do see why Deanna tired of being a perpetual singing adorable ingenue. She alone brings it under the wire.
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The Prodigal (1931)
6/10
Racist, cliched, horribly dated, but interesting
30 October 2019
Warning: Spoilers
Lawrence Tibbett was a major MGM contractee when they cast him in this, and it's built all around his capabilities-most notably that voice, a fine operatic baritone. A little funny-looking, he was nevertheless a capable leading man, and he's well cast as a black-sheep Southern aristocrat who's done some hobo-ing (with pals Roland Young and Cliff Edwards), done some time, and returns to the plantation (how his family survived the crash so well is never explained). Most of the Faradays hate him, especially his brother (Purnell Pratt), who beats his wife (Esther Ralston), but his mother (Emma Dunn) adores him-I've never seen so much lip-kissing between mother and son. Tibbett falls for his sister-in-law, and, uncharacteristically for the era, the movie stays on his side, with his mom eventually aiding in the bust-up of her other son's marriage. There's also a picturesque fox hunt sequence, rather pre-"Love Me Tonight" and "Auntie Mame," and much vocalizing. Tibbett does a splendid "Without a Song," which was then a new Vincent Youmans song, and engages in a long spiritual sequence, aided by some now-offensive plantation workers; there's a big production number about chitlins, I'm not making this up. Stepin Fetchit does his usual thing, the sound equipment failing to capture his lines in an understandable way, and what's meant to humanize Tibbett-look how well he gets along with the folk of other color-now comes across as patronizing. The comedy doesn't work and neither, really, does the romance, but Tibbett's quite watchable, and if the whole thing now looks incalculably racist, well, enjoy it as a history lesson.
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Hi, Nellie! (1934)
6/10
Hi, Paul
16 October 2019
Muni takes a break from all the heavy-breathing dramas he was turning out at Warners for this lively newspaper yarn, which takes an odd turn about halfway through. At first it's a "Front Page"-style comedy, complete with bustling newsroom, huffy editor, and speedy copy boys. Muni's demoted from managing editor for mishandling a story and relegated to taking over Glenda Farrell's lonely-hearts column (see also Montgomery Clift in "Lonelyhearts," a couple decades later). Oddly, these two bickering reporters don't romance each other. After being miserable in his new position and getting self-pitying drunk, he braces up and becomes the world's greatest lonely hearts reporter (thus all the "hi, Nellie!" mirth, which comes off today as homophobic and unkind). But then we transition into a convoluted newspaper drama, with Muni and the newsroom-a fine Warners bunch, with Donald Meek, Ned Sparks, Douglas Dumbrille-chasing down a missing executive and pursuing an unlikely course through Houston Street, Little Italy, and Greenwood Cemetery. It becomes less interesting, but Mervyn LeRoy, working at a furious Warners pace, keeps it brisk, there's a swell deco supper club set with a full-size carousel, and even the main-credits theme is memorable. Not top-drawer Warner Brothers, then, but enjoyable middle-drawer.
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6/10
Ridiculous, but effective suds
9 October 2019
A chance for Kay Francis to drop her r's, wear a stunning Orry-Kelly wardrobe, and emote in several styles, this melodrama, effectively directed by Mervyn LeRoy, has her as an American who's become the First Lady of the West End, rather like Talullah Bankhead. She also has a daughter--Sybil Jason, whom several posters have panned, and I think she's good--and a Deep Dark Secret, which, when a silhouetted Barton MacLane threatens to expose it, sends her packing after a triumphant opening night (in a play about Caligula, and it looks like a dog) and running off to New York in unconvincing old-lady disguise. She's trailed by Ian Hunter, a reporter determined to uncover her history, and as he's exposing her unsavory past to the public, he's also falling in love with her. The implausibilities just keep mounting: Once in New York, Stella abandons her disguise, yet NO ONE recognizes her though she's the toast of the London theater, and her fall to cheap burlesque makes no sense, nor does the happy-ending resolution, with Hunter performing a good deed (aided by her producer, a dapper Paul Lukas) that makes everything right. It's mighty entertaining, though, and Kay, sometimes just a clothes horse, does some actual acting.
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8/10
She's one remarkable lady
4 September 2019
A loving and revealing documentary about an extraordinary woman, this shows Ms. Hunt to be, among other things, a good actress, a fierce advocate of human rights, and a survivor of Hollywood's golden age with amazing recall. Generous with film clips and interviews of other survivors we're pleased to meet (Norman Corwin, Norman Lloyd, Walter Bernstein, Margaret O'Brien), it chronicles how she was blacklisted and not only survived it, but was motivated to become a force for good, in so many ways, notably as a hardworking UN functionary. It's also a sweet love story: After a brief first marriage (and they stayed civil and even worked with each other later), she met a perfect mate, the screenwriter Robert Presnell, and really did live happily ever after. She's such a force of nature that we're kind of left wondering what aspects of her we're not seeing, but what we do see is lovely and impressive and inspiring. Really, after watching this, you may be motivated to go out and volunteer for something.
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6/10
Fun trash
20 August 2019
Warning: Spoilers
In widescreen glorious Universal black-and-white, this very '50s melo has an unusual angle amid all its conventional suds: What if the man couldn't decide between a mother or daughter? Tough choice, because the mom's Hedy Lamarr, in a relaxed performance as a slightly fading movie queen, and the (adopted) daughter is Jane Powell, a spoiled drunk Hollywood rich kid who becomes more likable as the script progresses. Faced with the difficult decision: George Nader, with a shaved chest, but looking mighty fit, and it's a real performance, not just the eyelash-batting he got away with in some other Universal product. He must have liked the screenplay: A lot of it is just the women talking about how handsome he is. There's also Jan Sterling, always underrated and absolutely splendid here, as the nasty-obnoxious even-more-faded movie queen saying sarcastic things to everyone else and making a pathetic play for Nader. It's ludicrous, but it's entertaining, and you may chortle at the '50s morality that says, no, ladies, you'd better not attempt to be cougars, youth shall seek youth and anything else is wrong, wrong, wrong. Not badly written, and, in a fun and budget-conscious touch, the pre-credits sequence later shows up again, with new connotations. Jane, in her first big non-musical, seems to enjoy all the luridness, and she's good enough to suggest maybe she should have tried more of these roles and fewer sunny-MGM things.
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Honolulu (1939)
7/10
Rather a treat
24 July 2019
MGM musical with several unusual assets: For one thing, it's unpretentious, and for another, it has a genuinely diverting screenplay, co-written by Herb Fields, an old hand at musical comedy librettos (he wrote a number of Rodgers and Hart hits). The unremarkable but serviceable plot has Robert Young double-cast as a fan-harassed movie star and a pineapple farmer who trade places, and movie-star-posing-as-farmer falls for Eleanor Powell, who's starring in a Honolulu floor show and accompanied by sidekick Gracie Allen. Gracie's material isn't up to standard, and George has practically nothing to do, and Powell's charms seldom went far beyond the Terpsichorean. But she does have a couple of fine solos, and the Harry Warren-Gus Kahn songs are agreeable. It's typically racially insensitive, with Eleanor doing a blackface salute to Bill Robinson not unlike Astaire's in "Swing Time," and the standard giggling-Asian-servant thing going on. Nevertheless, it's so modest and entertaining, I was surprised how much I enjoyed it.
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Paris Blues (1961)
7/10
More mood than story, but still
9 July 2019
Adapted rather freely from a late-'50s novel, and boosted by a once-in-a-lifetime cast, this love letter to the Seine captures a moment, and a mood, that matter more than the lackadaisical plotting. Paul Newman and Sidney Poitier, expat jazz musicians, get involved with American tourists Joanne Woodward and Diahann Carroll, and they're such a gorgeous foursome you just want them all to get married and have lots of children. But wait. Woodward does already have two kids, which should be a major grappling point but is treated as a mere divertissement, while Carroll and Poitier squabble about whether he should be in Paris or fighting civil rights battles at home. The movie seems to advocate the latter, but I wonder if that's fair--all the jazz sequences, with the races happily enjoying each other's company and savoring the fabulous Duke Ellington music, look mighty alluring. There's one well-staged jazz romp with the two guys (they mime their instruments well) and Louis Armstrong riffing that's the most joyous thing you'll ever see, and there are lots of moodily photographed strolls through early-'60s Paris, looking glamorous and curiously bereft of cars. Not a whole lot happens, and Newman's character is rather more of a jerk than he has to be, and a couple of subplots (Newman's mistress; the cocaine-addicted guitarist) aren't well resolved. Martin Ritt had already worked well with Newman and Poitier on different projects, and would soon give the world "Hud," but this one isn't as substantial or moving. What it is is gorgeously photographed and scored, and full of beautiful people, and an alluring time capsule.
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7/10
Fine work from the Shermans, and some other good stuff too
2 July 2019
I loved this movie when I was eight, and a re-viewing of the 172-minute roadshow version on DVD reveals it to be a pleasant, tuneful, middle-of-the-road Disney effort that showed up at an unfortunate moment (when too many big musicals were clogging the market). Based on a hit Broadway play from ten years earlier, it's a leisurely--maybe a little too leisurely--look at the Biddles of Philadelphia during the runup to America's entry into the First World War, and the rather overlong romance of Cordelia Drexel Biddle and Angier Duke. Since they're played by a young Lesley Anne Warren and John Davidson, they're at least nice to look at and listen to, and there are some other standouts in the cast as well. As bickering representatives of both families, Gladys Cooper and Geraldine Page share a duet, "There Are Those," with lyrics worthy of Cole Porter--"posing cozy on their rosy status quos." Tommy Steele has a couple of energetic numbers and isn't as relentlessly hyper as he is in "Half a Sixpence" or "Finian's Rainbow," and Greer Garson, in the uninteresting mom's role, is warm and elegant. It's a sumptuous production, costing $10 million in 1967 dollars, and the costumes, sets, and cinematography are knock-your-eye-out. (The "Detroit" montage sequence is particularly luscious.) The Sherman Brothers are working at the same high level they brought to "Mary Poppins," and a couple of numbers, "It Won't Be Long Till Christmas" and MacMurray's "What's Wrong With That?" reprise, are really pretty deep and touching about family relationships and letting go of the kids, not something you'd expect from a big Disney musical. MacMurray's character is more than a little annoying and one-note, and AJ Carothers' screenplay is trite, and there's no dramaturgical reason this thing has to run on for nearly three hours. Nevertheless, to me it's comfort food, a lavish relic from the last gasp of Hollywood's studio system, and far less of a misfire than some other enormous '60s musicals that helped kill off the genre for decades.
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4/10
What's the matter with kids today?
21 June 2019
Warning: Spoilers
Wesley Ruggles, who's given great billing (he was pretty big in the early 1930s), really had a bee up his bonnet when he conceived this diatribe against Flaming Youth. Eric Linden, a good young actor but not here, is the upright high schooler who ventures on the wrong path after delivering a poorly received speech, and turns away from his too-good-to-be-true girlfriend, Rochelle Hudson, and toward loose women and alcohol. Linden can't make the transition convincing, but at least the pace picks up once he starts nightclubbing with bad girl Arline Judge and some other pals. Eventually, drunk and demanding more booze, he (very unconvincingly) shoots the older guy who hangs out with his grandma (Beryl Mercer, playing what she always played) and tries to dodge the cops. What do you think happens? Linden is virtually playing two different kids, Good Eddie and Bad Eddie, and it's impossible to pull off. He does get caught, of course, and recites a weepy Lord's Prayer as he's led off to the chair. Howard Estabrook did a poor adaptation of Ruggles's original story, and despite some arty transitions and striking photography, it's not much of a movie. But hey, maybe it did scare a teen or two from sneaking into speakeasies, or hanging with loose women.
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Dixiana (1930)
7/10
The state of the art, 1930
6 May 2019
RKO's intended follow-up to its massive hit "Rio Rita," with the same leading lady, director, composer, and some of the cast, isn't a very good movie, but it's a very good look at what was expected of an original movie musical in 1930. It's tuneful and lavish, and the final 20 minutes, in two-tone Technicolor, are delightful--most especially when Bill Robinson gets his three minutes of tapping in. We don't know who he's playing or why he's there, but he's wonderful.

The screenwriter-lyricist, Anne Caldwell, was a Broadway heavyweight who had written with Jerome Kern, Victor Herbert, and other greats. Her lyrics and libretti are often clever and original, but this one's trite, derivative, and, by today's standards, offensive. We're in 1840s New Orleans, on a plantation populated by happy slaves who keep crooning "Mr. and Mrs. Sippi" ("I miss you so, I's jes' dippy"), which desperately wants to be "Ol' Man River" and isn't. Plantation scion Everett Marshall, a Met baritone with a fine voice and an odd face, loves Dixiana (Bebe Daniels), who is welcomed by his family until she reveals she's a circus performer. Her pals Wheeler and Woolsey, with subpar material, buck her up, and some meaningless plot complications happen to keep the young lovers apart until fadeout. Laid out much like a stage musical of the era, it veers between operetta, musical comedy, and farce (the W&W sections, which are boosted by the presence of the always-adorable Dorothy Lee). Anything Caldwell thinks will work, she puts in, and the screenplay wanders all over the place without really going anywhere. Luther Reed's direction is stodgy, but the camera's pretty mobile for 1930, and if you can get around the happy-slaves motif, snarling villain, awkward comedy, and halfhearted plot-song integration, you'll see a lavish example of what the studios thought the public wanted at the dawn of sound. They were wrong--too many musicals saturated the market, this one lost a bundle, and soon theaters were advertising, "This is NOT a musical." I can't imagine a modern audience sitting through this, but if you're a historian or a fan of early talkies, do seek this one out. Also, the UCLA restoration is pretty stunning.
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7/10
Oh, Christabel
17 April 2019
Saw this again recently after a couple of decades, and what sticks is Joan Fontaine--sweet, pretty, and evil. She's Christabel, the rootless blonde who turns up in San Francisco and moves in with lovely Joan Leslie, and takes over her boyfriend (Zachary Scott, not quite right for this part) and her life. It is, as several have commented, All About Eve-like, but more overt: How many times does Nicholas Ray close a scene with Fontaine, smiling to herself in an evil, I've-done-more-mischief, way? Robert Ryan's also on hand, virile as all getout, and Mel Ferrer is a quipping artist who gets most of the good lines; commenters who see the character as gay must have overlooked his line to Fontaine about how when he's not painting, he spends most of his time trying to sell himself as harmless to suspicious husbands. Some nice location photography, and the screenplay's not out of the top drawer, but it will do. Fontaine looks like she's having fun, and she seldom got to play such a baddie. Plus, it's distinctly un-Breen-Code-like--while Christabel is found out and humiliated, she gets away with quite a lot.
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6/10
Eddie G, the beef trust, and two unlikeable women
15 April 2019
Warning: Spoilers
Warners-First National did a bunch of sweeping historic sagas around this time (one particularly good one: The World Changes), and this history of the meat industry is lavish but lopsided. Edward G. Robinson, not young enough at the beginning as an art lover in Athens and not old enough at the end as a retired meat baron back in Athens to escape criminal charges in the U.S., but excellent throughout, not very willingly takes over his dad's beef business when the latter dies, marries a charming Genevieve Tobin, and falls in love with ambitious opera singer (ha!) Kay Francis, who keeps serenading him with his favorite tune, "Home on the Range." She's an eyeful, but ruthless, and we grow to hate her, and Tobin, initially a sympathetic do-gooder, becomes an angry neglected wife. Robinson, too, loses whatever sympathy we had for him as he sells tainted beef to the U.S. army, dodges taxes and hides the books, and cheerfully cheats on his wife. He ends up senile and bitter, which he appears to deserve. Some plotting and character holes in this one, and in the end there's no one to root for, but it's pleasingly sprawling and certainly well acted.
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Crooner (1932)
5/10
Bandleader becomes star. Becomes a jerk. Reforms. The end
9 April 2019
I'd looked forward to this Warners B as a rare chance to see the underappreciated David Manners in a leading role. As a struggling bandleader who discovers he has a voice and becomes a star, he's fine. But the character is such a jerk. Teddy, aided by a PR man (Ken Murray, who had a long career exhibiting home movies of Hollywood stars, but not much of one as an actor, and this shows why), who lusts after Teddy's girlfriend (Ann Dvorak, always welcome but doing nothing surprising here), soon is vain, demanding, unfaithful, greedy, and unreasonable with his bandmates. Nothing in the backstory indicates why this would happen. It's trite, and so is his comeuppance, as he suffers a PR disaster and returns to his saxophone. Even at 65 minutes it feels padded, with too many renditions of the two same old songs, and it feels like it's shaking a finger at us: Stay nice when you get famous, don't let this happen to you.
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Big News (1929)
6/10
A decent time waster
8 April 2019
An early talkie, and boy, does it show, with the static camerawork and uncertain sound recording. But it's a lively newspaper comedy-drama, energetically directed by Gregory La Cava and conveying lots of big--city-news atmosphere. Robert Armstrong, not the suavest or handsomest leading man, is a "Front Page"-style newspaperman pursuing an opioid story and squabbling with not just his editors but his wife, Carol (not yet Carole Lombard), who's only 20 or 21 here and not the incandescent presence she later became. Sam Hardy's a menacing thug, Gabby Hayes another newsman, and, most intriguingly, Cupid Ainsworth is the jacket-and-tie-wearing lady who dispenses advice to the lovelorn, along with wisecracks. There's much drunken behavior, of the type once considered hilarious, and it's fast-paced and lively. I kept wanting Armstrong to turn into Lee Tracy, and I wish it were more audible, but at 65 minutes, it doesn't wear out its welcome.
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5/10
Nice try, but rather a botch
3 April 2019
The 1938 stage musical, with book and lyrics by Maxwell Anderson (a conservative, and he hated Roosevelt; not for nothing is a "Roosevelt" presented here as a dimwitted ancestor) and music by Kurt Weill, was a flawed but very interesting look at the dangers of despotism, with a near-amazing score and a legendary Walter Huston performance. It's noticeably watered down in this independently produced 1944 adaptation, with a fraction of the original score ("Nowhere to Go But Up," "September Song," "The One Indispensable Man," and snatches of "It Never Was You" in the background) overwhelmed by interpolations, mostly by Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn, and they're not very good. The story is simplified, the bloody battles are eliminated, and the fun device of having Washington Irving narrate the story and interact with these figures from the past is gone. Nelson Eddy's more animated than usual and of course sings well, but there's not a lot of chemistry between him and his leading lady, a pallid Constance Dowling. Coburn acts Pieter Stuyvesant well but sure doesn't deliver much of a "September Song," and the supporting cast is mostly nobodies, though "Shelley Winter" (no s yet) is a noticeable giggling soubrette, a role not in the original. What it does have going for it is a fetching production design that conjures up a whimsical old Nieuw Amsterdam, and some of Anderson's speculation about the damage corrupt leaders do does survive. It rushes to an end, though, and so much great Weill is missing. Worth a look, certainly, but if you want to know how it's supposed to sound, there are complete recordings out there now, and Huston's own "September Song," which became a posthumous hit for him when tacked onto a 1950 movie, "September Affair," is the ultimate example of somebody with no voice making a song unforgettable.
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Young Cassidy (1965)
6/10
Some curiosities
2 April 2019
Warning: Spoilers
Big, expensive MGM biopic of Sean O'Casey, here called John Cassidy, which is the first odd thing. O'Casey, still alive, OK'd the screenplay (which is on the weak side), and the plays he wrote as depicted in the film are the plays O'Casey wrote, so why the name switch? "Young O'Casey" would have told audiences more. Rod Taylor, not much physically representing the title character, is nonetheless committed and fine and suitably sexy, and he's supported by an excellent cast, most prominently Maggie Smith, playing a conventional part--the spinsterish bookseller who falls in love with him--with an ambivalence that keeps us guessing about her. You'll miss Julie Christie, second-billed but in a tiny role, if you blink, and Edith Evans and Michael Redgrave are stately and predictable as the powers behind the Abbey Theatre, but Flora Robson, as Cassidy's mother, is very special indeed, and it's also fun to see Jack MacGowran and Sian Phillips as the rest of his family. John Ford started this one and Jack Cardiff finished it, bringing a superb visual sense (1910s-20s Dublin never looked so appealing) but not a lot of dramatic chops. It ends on a strange moment indeed, with Maggie leaving him because she loves him (O'Casey did marry, happily, but we see none of that), then there's a final scene after the credits that means to tie things up in a happy ending. It's misshapen, but there are some good sequences, especially involving the Troubles, and it's certainly beautifully shot.
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7/10
By Jupiter, it's pretty good!
18 March 2019
Just saw a beautiful print of this at MOMA, and was struck by several things. First, did it really cost only $400,000 to make? It's quite lavish, with thousands of extras, and while those are clearly flats representing the far reaches of the Amazon homeland, it looks like Fox spent a bundle on it. As with the stage source and subsequent Rodgers and Hart musical adaptation, "By Jupiter," it's largely an evening of sex-reversal jokes, but a lot of them are pretty good jokes. Elissa Landi, while perhaps less individual than Katharine Hepburn might have been, is a formidable leading lady, and Marjorie Rambeau is a hilarious Hippolyta. Ernest Truex overdoes the feminine-leading man stuff, but David Manners is a manly and appealing Theseus. It's fun to hear a lot of the dialogue that Rodgers and Hart adapted directly into song, or kept. Too bad it can't be seen more; TCM viewers would eat it up.
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6/10
Diverting souffle with a few lumps
14 March 2019
Warning: Spoilers
Late screwball nonsense, with much It Happened One Night in it, this Hal Roach-produced romantic comedy is better in fits and starts than as a whole. Spoiled heiress Virginia Bruce, an always-capable blonde who's a little tentative here, escapes grandpa Claude Gillingwater's yacht and hightails it to New York, where she has the good luck to fall in and room with Patsy Kelly, who yells all her lines and is unfailingly funny. The other roommate, Nancy Carroll--an early-talkie leading lady, and a splendid one, who'd fallen on hard times by now--is a troublemaker who underhandedly gets Virginia in trouble at the department store where they all work, which, in Hollywoodish coincidence, is owned by Virginia's granddad. Newspaperman Fredric March, virtually reprising Clark Gable's Peter Warne, chases the heiress's story and falls in love with her. All reasonable enough, but some things just don't make sense. Why, why do March and editor Eugene Pallette and news photographer Arthur Lake have a drunk scene that does nothing? Why, if the leading couple has sworn each other off, do they keep gravitating back, except to rush to a happy ending? What's this island retreat of March's, where is it, and is there or isn't there a town there, as the presence of Harry Langdon at the end, as its local priest, would suggest? It rushes to a conclusion without explaining some key plot points, and Norman Z. McLeod, accomplished comic director though he was, brings it no real distinction.
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Outcast Lady (1934)
4/10
Was The Green Hat this crazy?
13 March 2019
Warning: Spoilers
That's allegedly the source material for this stilted "women's picture," directed by Robert Z. Leonard wishing he were George Cukor. Constance Bennett, lovingly photographed and lively, but lacking the British accent of everyone around her, loves Herbert Marshall, but his father won't permit his son to associate with her disreputable clan, so Herbert runs off to India. Constance dithers for four years then marries a very rich nice man, who's also adored by her young brother, to an extreme that can only be called suspicious. On their wedding night she learns that her groom committed some unspecified unspeakable crime and went to prison under a different name, and he's so ashamed by the revelation that he jumps out of the window. Her brother renounces her and runs off to drink and ruin, while she tells a lie to preserve her late husband's honor. Marshall, meanwhile, marries nice Elizabeth Allan, though his heart's forever with Connie. The brother dies, Elizabeth sends Herbert back to Connie, the truth comes out, Herbert's rotten father apologizes, and Connie's so devastated by the revelation that she jumps into her roadster and slams suicidally into a tree. It's a stiff but entertaining one, with unlikelihood piling on top of unlikelihood and everybody being insufferably noble. The only other notable element is Mrs. Patrick Campbell, third-billed but on screen for only a minute or two. Worth a look to see just how excessive women's weepies could be at the time.
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7/10
Putting on Ayres
15 January 2019
I like Lew Ayres--he proved himself a versatile actor in everything from the Dr. Kildare series to "Johnny Belinda" to "Holiday" (which he steals from Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn) to his moving early work in "All Quiet on the Western Front." In this, a prototypical Warners gangster flick, at 21, he's a bit young to convincingly play a mob boss who lords it over a sea of bootleggers and other crooks; when he snarls, you're just not sure they'd cower in response. Plus, his right-hand man is being played by Cagney, and he crackles and grins and burns up the screen. That said, it's an interesting early talkie, happily pre-Code (Cagney has an affair with Ayres' wife, a calculating Dorothy Matthews, and the screenplay doesn't over-judge them for that), directed by Archie Mayo with some striking compositions and a slam-bag prison-breakout climax, and with some thoughtful work by Ayres. He's just not quite the commanding, charismatic protagonist you'd like him to be.
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