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Posts Tagged ‘best picture’

YOU CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU (1938)

In Best Picture Winners, Classic, Comedy, Family, Motion Pictures, Romance, Y on July 11, 2010 at 10:53 pm

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STUDIO – Columbia

CASTJean Arthur, Lionel Barrymore, James Stewart, Edward Arnold, Ann Miller, Spring Byington, Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, Samuel S. Hinds

DIRECTORFrank Capra

NOT RATED
(MPAA Equivalent: G)

Many moons ago, I was an eighth-grader going to what would later be my high school to attend a production of “You Can’t Take It With You“, the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman. To be honest, I don’t remember much, except that it was required for my Drama class, and that I did laugh during the show. Then, more than a few moons later, I learned that not only did Frank Capra direct a movie based on the play, but that it also was the Best Picture of 1938. I have now seen it a few times, and I am happy to report that You Can’t Take It With You still makes me laugh!

Lionel Barrymore stars as Martin Vanderhof, patriarch of a household of eccentric people. Please pay attention, for there will be a pop quiz later in the article. Vanderhof’s daughter, Penny Sycamore (Spring Byington), took up writing plays because a typewriter was accidentally delivered to their home. Her husband, Paul (Samuel S. Hinds), makes fireworks in the basement with Mr. DePinna (Halliwell Hobbes), a long-time guest in the house. Paul and Penny have two daughters, Essie Carmichael (Ann Miller), who constantly dances and makes candy which her husband Ed (Dub Taylor) sells on the street, and Alice Sycamore, a stenographer for the vice-president of a major bank. As you can see, Alice seems to be the least eccentric of the bunch! Ah, but there’s more!

A.P. Kirby (Edward Arnold) and Martin Vanderhof (Lionel Barrymore) in jail

In the opposite corner is Anthony P. Kirby (Edward Arnold), banker and Wall Street mogul. His drive and ambition drove him to his position, thanks in part to his high-society wife (Mary Forbes). His latest project the development of 12 blocks currently occupied by homes, apartments, and small businesses into a munitions factory intended to be the dominant contractor of the U.S. War Department. And one of those homes is owned by one Martin Vanderhof, and he refuses to sell. By the way, A.P. Kirby had just promoted his son Tony (James Stewart) to vice-president of the corporation. But, despite his parents’ protests, Tony seems to be more interested in his stenographer than his job. Yes, you read that right: Alice works for (and is in love with) Tony! What a tangled web, indeed!

Considering it took two paragraphs to set up the story, I will not even begin to tell you how it unfolds (or unravels, depending upon your point of view), but I will say that You Can’t Take It With You is a timeless comedy sure to make you stop and ponder your life, and make you smile doing it. Lionel Barrymore is so easygoing as Vanderhof, that, before long, you forget he has crutches (by the time filming started, Lionel Barrymore had severe arthritis and a recent hip injury, so they wrote in an ankle injury for Vanderhof). Edward Arnold’s take on Kirby was somewhat cliché in the Capra style, but his performance proved to be a strong counterpoint to Barrymore’s.

The central core of the story is the star-crossed romance between Alice and Tony. This subplot plays out like a sort of comedic “Romeo and Juliet”: He is the son of a powerful banker, and she comes from a middle-class family who just happens to live in the house the banker is trying to buy. The twist occurs when Alice suggests to Tony that he bring his parents over to meet her family, and he does… one day early! Needless to say, the already awkward situation suddenly becomes downright messy!

Finally, You Can’t Take It With You is the story of A.P. Kirby’s journey to gaining that property, and what he did with it once he had it. Along the way, he learns an important lesson: True happiness isn’t measured in fortune, but in kindness and generosity. People should be entitled to do what they want to do, and not what others expect of them. For example, Tony has no ambitions of working in the family business, but he feels obligated because Kirbys have been bankers for “9000 years”. What he wants to do is figure out how to make the “green in the grass” into an energy source.  You have to admit that this idea was way ahead of its time; biochemical engineering was unheard of in the late-1930s!

On a personal level, this brings back my previous idea to reenter my intended career field, which I first mentioned in my write-up of Up in the Air. For too long, I have been trying to do what others want or expect me to do, and, for whatever reason, I kept running into roadblocks, setbacks, and an overall plain ol’ lack of direction. Again, I am not quite prepared to relay any details, but I have hatched an idea which I’m sure will give me a chance to freshen my skills and put my foot in the door. But enough about me; I promise to tell all when the time comes.

You Can’t Take It With You is nostalgic, irreverent, touching, poignant, and most important, fun. It has a great story, a wonderful cast, and running gags aplenty. The quality of the film itself is not the best (there are occasional black frames, for example), but don’t let that distract you; this is the true definition of a “feel-good” movie, guaranteed to make you cry tears of joy!

THE LIFE OF ÉMILE ZOLA (1937)

In Best Picture Winners, Biography, Classic, Crime, Drama, Epic, History, L, Motion Pictures on July 7, 2010 at 1:31 am

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STUDIO – Warner Bros.

CAST -Paul Muni, Gale Sondergaard, Joseph Schildkraut, Gloria Holden, Donald Crisp

DIRECTOR – William Dieterle

NOT RATED
(MPAA Equivalent: PG)

One of the darkest incidents in military history took place between 1894 and 1906. For over a decade, a man wrongfully convicted of treason languished on Devil’s Island, off the coast of South America, while the French Army knowingly and willfully covered up their mistake by deliberately acquitting the real guilty party at a subsequent court-martial and allowing him to continue to serve his country. For years, a nation was divided, and its most famous author, who had exposed the scandal, was convicted of libel, labeled a pariah, and forced into exile. This incident has since been known as The Dreyfus Affair, and the man who brought it into the open was Émile Zola.

In The Life of Émile Zola, Paul Muni stars as the controversial writer from his early adulthood in 1869, until his death in 1902. In the beginning, we see Zola living in a drafty attic flat with non other than Paul Cézanne (Vladimir Sokoloff) as his roommate. Here, both Zola and Cézanne are depicted as literally “starving artists”. After being dismissed from a job as a literary clerk (for writing “bad” books), Zola and Cézanne chanced upon, and befriended, a prostitute (Erin O’Brien-Moore) who would become the inspiration to Zola’s breakout novel, “Nana”. With “Nana”, Zola became an instant success, spawning many more books exposing the harsh reality that is life in the underbelly of Paris.

Émile Zola (Paul Muni) reads from "J'Accuse..." prior to its publication

Fast-forward to 1894, when a hand-written communiqué intended for the military attaché at the German embassy is intercepted by French military intelligence. Senior officers gather to determine who could be responsible for this treasonous act. At first, the name of Major Walsin-Esterhazy (Robert Barrat), known to be of Hungarian descent and with access to sensitive information, comes up; but the preceding name, Captain Alfred Dreyfus (Best Supporting Actor Joseph Schildkraut), a Jewish officer from the Franco-Prussian border region, is selected instead. The next day, he is arrested for treason and, a few months later, publicly stripped of his rank and sentenced to life imprisonment on Devil’s Island. From the moment of his arrest, Dreyfus repeatedly protests his innocence, but his words fall on deaf ears. For the next three years, his wife Lucie (Gale Sondergaard) does everything she can to absolve her husband’s name. Desperate, she calls on the one remaining man she feels can help her: Émile Zola. At first, he resists, but ultimately takes the challenge head-on by publishing J’Accuse… (“I Accuse…”), an open letter to the President of the French Republic, on the front page of the newspaper L’Aurore.

The Life of Émile Zola packs a lot of story within its just-under-two-hours run time, making it one of those movies that requires attention, or you may miss something. The script, though a little choppy in spots, provided a (mostly) accurate portrayal of Zola and the people in his life. Paul Muni’s performance gave Zola a certain degree of humanity (including a humorous gag involving umbrellas) and courage. Joseph Schildkraut’s performance is one of the better examples from the 1930s. Though I was initially put off by Dreyfus screaming “I’m innocent!” over and over, Schildkraut also demonstrated powerful restraint and dignity during key scenes, such as the last time Dreyfus saw his wife before transferring to Devil’s Island. And, speaking of Mme. Dreyfus, Gale Sondergaard’s performance as Lucie Dreyfus is easily the best in the movie.

At every turn, Zola seemed to spend most of his life hitting barrier after barrier in order to get his works published. With the Dreyfus Affair, Zola became an enemy of a people who had been blinded by the very corrupt military he had been trying to expose. In the movie, there was one subtle element which actually bore a stronger punch in the historical record: anti-Semitism. One of the main reasons (if not the sole reason) Dreyfus was railroaded was because he was Jewish. Anti-Semitism was rampant in the French Army at the time, so any opportunity to kick one to the curb was, in the mindset of the time, a “good thing” to do. This aspect was downplayed in the movie, partly because of the Hays Code, and partly because of fear. Remember, this movie came out in 1937, not long after a certain Chancellor of Nazi Germany came to power. At the time, the Unites States was a neutral nation, unconcerned with the affairs of Europe, which would be thrust into war two years later. But that is another story for another time…

The DVD features three shorts from the period. Two of them, “The Littlest Diplomat”, starring a Shirley Temple-like girl named Sybil Jason as the granddaughter of a British garrison commander in India, and “Romance Road”, featuring Walter Cassel as an RCMP officer trying to keep the peace between fur trappers and a railroad gang, are live-action musical pieces in Technicolor. And both of them are a bit on the cheesy side. The third short, a cartoon called “Ain’t We Got Fun”, is a treat for animation fans, because it’s an example of the legendary Tex Avery’s work from his Warner Bros. days. Of course, it doesn’t feature the classic gags for which he is known (Warner Bros. kept him on a short leash), but you can still make out bits and pieces of his trademark animation style, for which he would become famous once he landed at MGM. And, for all you old-time radio fans, there is a Lux Radio Theatre broadcast from 1939, in which Paul Muni reprises his role as Zola.

There were two Best Picture winners in the 1930s which were biographical motion pictures, and The Life of Émile Zola is the better of the two, in terms of brevity and substance. Unlike The Great Ziegfeld (1936), which is a classic in its own right, The Life of Émile Zola did not need to pad its story with unneeded material. The bare-bones approach suits this movie just fine, and in the end, provides us with a look into the life of a man who, in today’s world, may otherwise be forgotten.

4 (out of 5)

THE GREAT ZIEGFELD (1936)

In Best Picture Winners, Biography, Classic, Drama, Epic, G, Motion Pictures on June 29, 2010 at 6:28 pm

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STUDIO – MGM

CAST – William Powell, Myrna Loy, Luise Rainer, Frank Morgan, Virginia Bruce, Ernest Cossart, Fanny Brice, Ray Bolger, Nat Pendleton, Buddy Doyle, A.A. Trimble

DIRECTOR – Robert Z. Leonard

NOT RATED
(MPAA Equivalent: PG)

From the beginning of the 20th Century until the beginning of the Great Depression, the entertainment world was focused not just on New York City, but on one man who can arguably be attributed to giving Broadway its charm, luster, and appeal, Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr. He was a charming man, but at the same time he was very reckless. If he had two nickels to rub together, he’d spend it. His shows (most of them a series of “Ziegfeld Follies“) were renowned the world over, but Ziegfeld himself never kept any money. He spent it on lavish production pieces, the cast and crew, his women, and of course, the many wolves knocking at his door. He died a poor man in 1932, forcing his widow, Billie Burke, to work in motion pictures to pay off his debts. But his influence in show business has since reached out even today, both on Broadway and in Hollywood. Four years after his death, The Great Ziegfeld opened nationwide, and the next year, it became the first biographical motion picture to take home the Oscar for Best Picture.

The story opens during the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, where a young Ziegfeld (William Powell) and his friend and rival Jack Billings (Frank Morgan) hold court at their respective booths, barking for their shows. At first Billings, with his exotic dancer known as Little Egypt, is drawing the large crowds, while Ziegfeld’s show, featuring muscleman The Great Sandow, has been threatened with eviction from the midway. Then, as if by miracle, a female admirer approached Sandow and asked to feel his muscles; from that moment on, he became a sensation, and Ziegfeld was on his was way to bigger and better things. The movie then traces what would be the final 30 or so years of Ziegfeld’s life, including his relationship with Anna Held (Best Actress Luise Rainer), the creation of the Follies, his marriage to Billie Burke (Myrna Loy), and his fall after the Crash of 1929.

Florenz Ziegfeld (William Powell) recruits Anna Held (Luise Rainer) to perform on Broadway

Let me get this out of the way now: Though full of musical numbers, The Great Ziegfeld is not a musical. It a dramatic motion picture of a man who gave the world groundbreaking entertainment on such a lavish scale, that some examples of his work (and a few tributes as well) were added to the story. For example, the centerpiece of this movie is Irving Berlin’s “A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody”, an elaborate seven-minute long trek up a spinning spiral staircase featuring additional music by Strauss, Liszt, Dvorák, and Gershwin (among others). It plays out as a staged production, and is not a song Florenz Ziegfeld sings to upstart actress Audrey Dane (Virginia Bruce), who, by the way, was the titular “Pretty Girl” at the top of those stairs.

What I can tell you about this movie is that it’s a costume designer’s dream. Every Ziegfeld number is a veritable orgy of sequins, silk, and silver lamé, each one more extravagant than the last. And another of the musical numbers, entitled “You Never Looked So Beautiful”, features a parade of costumed beauties in the Ziegfeld style, with ornate trains and flamboyant headdresses (some weighing as much as 50 pounds!). Each of the sets for these numbers was equally elaborate, including one which redefined the term “thrust stage” by having five individual sections of the stage come out toward the audience, choreographed and on cue, even while dancers were performing on them. By far, this and the “Pretty Girl” number are among the most ambitious musical set pieces ever performed in motion picture history, and by themselves, just might be worth the price.

But the drawback to these set pieces is they sometime take away from the movie’s intent. William Powell’s performance of Flo Ziegfeld was nearly spot-on; he even bore a slight resemblance to the great showman. Billie Burke made sure that the screenplay didn’t tarnish her late husband’s image, but that didn’t stop Virginia Bruce from chewing the scenery (wine bottle in hand) as a composite of Ziegfeld’s mistresses. And though Ms. Burke did not appear in the movie, she was competently played by Powell’s favorite screen partner, Myrna Loy (They made 14 movies together). This leaves Luise Rainer’s performance of Anna Held. At the time, Ms. Rainer had never heard of the legendary French-Polish actress, so she drew her performance from the script, resulting in an overdramatic characterization that falls nothing short of potential diagnosis of histrionic personality disorder, including the prototypical and now-famous “good luck through the tears” phone call in her last scene.

The Great Ziegfeld also features scenes of famous performers of the early 20th Century. Aside from Eugen Sandow (for whom the Mr. Olympia trophy is named), Anna Held and Billie Burke, singer/dancer Eddie Cantor (Buddy Doyle) and legendary humorist Will Rogers (A.A. Trimble) are placed on exhibit in brief scenes. And, as an added treat, both Fanny Brice and Ray Bolger play themselves as a tribute to Ziegfeld, and both shine in their respective performances.

All in all, The Great Ziegfeld is a prime example of ROI (return on investment) in motion pictures. Opening to critical and popular acclaim, this movie, budgeted at $2 million, made about $40 million in its initial release. Can you think of a movie made by a major studio in the last 30 years that recouped 20 times its budget (or more) on just its first-run domestic theatrical release? With the exceptions of E.T.: The Extraterrestrial (1982), which grossed 33.2 times its $10.5 million dollar budget, and Airplane! (1980), which brought in 23.8 times its $3.5 million budget, you’d be hard pressed to find one.

The Great Ziegfeld is a spectacle which has some substance, though you may need to find it upon occasion. A bit on the long side (just over three hours, including the Overture and Exit Music), it is still a worthy member of the best that Oscar has to offer.

4 (out of 5)

MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY (1935)

In Action, Adventure, Best Picture Winners, Classic, Drama, Epic, History, M, Motion Pictures on June 21, 2010 at 1:51 am

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STUDIO – MGM

CASTCharles Laughton, Clark Gable, Franchot Tone, Herbert Mundin, Eddie Quillan, Bill Bambridge, Movita

DIRECTOR – Frank Lloyd

NOT RATED (MPAA Equivalent: PG)

In April 1789, the HMS Bounty set sail from Tahiti to the West Indies to transport hundreds of breadfruit tree saplings, in order to provide a cheap and readily available food supply for slave laborers there. She never arrived. The next year, the Bounty‘s commanding officer, Lt. William Bligh, returned to England to report that he had been set adrift in a mutiny led by his sailing master, Fletcher Christian. This wasn’t the first mutiny in the British Royal Navy, nor was it the last, but it is the most infamous, inspiring poems, novels, songs, and of course, movies. With that, I wish to introduce to you the Best Picture of 1935, Mutiny On the Bounty.

Based on the novel of the same name by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall, Mutiny On the Bounty is a fictionalized account of the events that took place on the ship’s fateful voyage from England to Tahiti. Captain Bligh (Charles Laughton) is tasked with procuring the breadfruit trees because of his familiarity with the people and customs of Tahiti (It should be noted that, regardless of rank, all ship commanders are called “captain”). His sailing master, Fletcher Christian (Clark Gable, sans his trademark mustache), was in charge of carrying out the captain’s orders, morale, and the occasional midshipman training. One of those midshipmen was Roger Byam (Franchot Tone), whose assignment was to prepare a dictionary of the Polynesian language. It is through his eyes this story unfolds.

Fletcher Christian (Clark Gable) reacts to being called a "mutinous dog" by Captain Bligh (Charles Laughton)

Right away, Byam notices that Bligh is strict disciplinarian, even to the point of carrying out his portion of a punishment known as “flogging through the fleet” upon a dead prisoner. Once at sea, the Bounty tries for Tahiti by way of South America, but turns eastward through the Indian Ocean instead. Meanwhile, Bligh oppresses the crew further by inflicting punishment at whim, including one sailor getting keel-hauled (He dies). Meanwhile, Christian tries to provide a more lenient approach toward the crew, only to have Bligh bear down even more. Finally, their conflict becomes personal, when Bligh forces Christian to sign a falsified log book in front of the crew. Once at Tahiti, things seem to relax momentarily, until Bligh bears down even more harshly, and… well, you only need to look at the title to know what happened next.

Mutiny On the Bounty is an excellent example of Hollywood starting to come of age. From the moment the movie fades in, a sweeping dramatic score sets you up for a tale of truly epic proportions: You, the viewer, are about to bear witness to one of most notorious events in maritime history. From a technical standpoint, nearly everything stands out in this movie. The settings, the cinematography, even the sound quality all hold up very well. From a performance standpoint, Charles Laughton, Clark Gable, and Franchot Tone were quite memorable. In fact, all three were nominated for Best Actor (At the time, there were no Supporting categories. If they had existed, Franchot Tone would likely have received a nomination).

Oh, there are some inaccuracies, as happens with many historical dramas. For example, the actual mutiny was really relatively uneventful in comparison with the movie, keel-hauling was nearly non-existent in the 1780s, and Bligh did not attend any of the mutineers’ courts-martial (He was at sea). But the most telling inaccuracy is Gable’s voice. I say this in mild jest, as Gable seemed incapable of producing an English accent, while Tone fared somewhat better, and Shakespearean-trained Laughton was from Yorkshire, England. I seem to recall another more recent movie, in which an American actor played a legendary English character without an English accent. Fortunately, Gable’s performance was strong enough that we can forgive this transgression.

There are a couple of special features on the DVD. First is a brief clip from the Academy Awards ceremony in 1936, in which legendary producer Irving G. Thalberg accepted the Best Picture Oscar and gave his thanks to the cast and crew of the movie. And there is also a short about Pitcairn Island, the Bounty mutineers’ final destination, which shows how their descendants live in the film’s present day of 1935.

Nominated for eight Academy Awards, Mutiny On the Bounty is the last movie to win only the Best Picture Award. It is also the third (and last) Best Picture winner produced or co-produced by Thalberg (Grand Hotel and The Broadway Melody were the others). Though not the first movie to test the waters (pun not intended) of historical dramas, Mutiny On the Bounty stands out as a defining moment when the Hollywood Dream Factory finally figured out a way to hone their product and sell it to the masses. With performances nearly as strong as the film itself, it set a new standard in motion pictures (to be eclipsed a few years later by a little-known movie called Gone with the Wind). I recommend this movie as a good place to start for those interested in pre-1940s motion pictures.

4 (out of 5)

IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT (1934)

In Best Picture Winners, Classic, Comedy, I, Motion Pictures, Romance on June 1, 2010 at 12:49 am

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STUDIO – Columbia

CAST – Clark Gable, Claudette Colbert, Walter Connolly, Roscoe Karns, Jameson Thomas, Alan Hale

DIRECTORFrank Capra

NOT RATED (MPAA Equivalent: PG)

When you hear the name “Clark Gable”, you most likely would recall the dashing and cocky Rhett Butler, from Gone With the Wind. The name “Frank Capra” tends to conjure memories of Jimmy Stewart, thanks to movies like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, It’s a Wonderful Life, and You Can’t Take It With You. And the mention of Claudette Colbert’s name may recall the original Imitation of Life, or perhaps Cleopatra, both from 1934. But this was the movie that made them all famous.

It Happened One Night is the story of an impetuous heiress named Ellen Andrews (Colbert) who’d eloped with a smooth operator named King Westley (Jameson Thomas). Her Wall Street tycoon father (Walter Connolly) opposed the marriage and Westley, so he took her to Miami to get her to clear her head. Seizing an oppourtinity, she (literally) jumps ship and takes a bus back to New York to reunite with her husband. On the bus, she meets Peter Warne (Gable), a hard-nosed, hard-drinking newspaper reporter who’s down on his luck. Right away, they don’t get along. At a stopover in Jacksonville, he learns who she really is and, seizing an opportunity of his own, offers to help her to New York in exchange for an exclusive story.

Ellie Andrews (Claudette Colbert) employs her special hitchhiking method as Peter Warne (Clark Gable) looks on

Every romantic comedy made since 1934, from Sleepless In Seattle to The Seven-Year Itch, owes its existence to this movie. It Happened One Night may not be the first-ever romantic comedy, but it was the first to perfect the formula: Two strong-willed leads wind up in a situation where they can’t get away from each other, only to fall in love with each other in the end. It sounds simple enough, but without good chemistry between the leads or a good script, it’s just two people bickering for an hour-and-a-half. And there may be plenty of bickering here, but there are also plenty of laughs!

This movie, made on a tight budget ($350,000, or around $5.5 million in today’s money) and an even tighter schedule (multiple location shoots in four weeks), spans from Miami to New York, as Gable and Colbert’s characters try to assert their respective ways on the other. Even today, with transportation and logistics down to a science, it would still be a major accomplishment to shoot a movie like this. And when you consider that Claudette Colbert, whose salary consisted of about 15% of the movie’s total shooting budget, hated working on this movie (she even told her friends and colleagues as much when she finished), the story becomes that much more astounding. At the time, Frank Capra was a “B-movie” director and Columbia was a “B-movie” studio, so you can imagine all the fervor when It Happened One Night became the first movie to receive Academy Award nominations for Best Actor, Actress, Director, Picture, and Screenplay. Suddenly, this little movie from a little studio became a true “dark horse” at the Oscars.

But on the screen, there was magic, and plenty of it! Gable and Colbert worked off each other brilliantly. The highlight of the movie is the scene that need only be described in two words, as quoted by Mr. Gable: “Quit bawlin’!” The hitchhiking scene, which features Alan Hale, who would later be best known as Friar Tuck to Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood (and whose son was the Skipper on that infamously fateful “three-hour tour” known as “Gilligan’s Island”), is also fun to watch, especially when Claudette Colbert shows Clark Gable the best way to stop a car is by showing off a little leg.

Upon its release, It Happened One Night became an instant sensation. Here are some cool facts about this movie. Following the movie’s initial release, T-shirt sales plummeted, thanks to Mr. Gable’s choice not to wear a T-shirt for brevity’s sake during Peter’s undressing scene. It is also widely reported that elements from this movie formed the genesis of one of the most famous cartoon characters in history, Bugs Bunny; A gentleman named Shapeley (Roscoe Karns) spoke in a nasally voice and called everyone “Doc”, Peter dropped the name “Bugs” when he confronted Shapeley, and in one scene, Peter is eating carrots.

Without a doubt, It Happened One Night is funny, romantic, and a timeless classic. Okay, maybe riding the bus isn’t as fun as it used to be, and maybe today’s motels are far less prying when it comes to the affairs of their guests. But even now, few movies in this genre have dared to come close to this. Remember those Oscar nominations? Well, in the history of the Academy, only three movies won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and one for the screenplay. It Happened One Night was the first (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and The Silence of the Lambs were the others). Not bad for a quickly slapped-together B-movie, huh?

GRAND HOTEL (1932)

In Best Picture Winners, Classic, Drama, G, Motion Pictures, Romance on May 25, 2010 at 5:08 am

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STUDIO — MGM

CAST — Greta Garbo, John Barrymore, Lionel Barrymore, Joan Crawford, Wallace, Beery, Lewis Stone, Jean Hersholt

DIRECTOR — Edmund Goulding

NOT RATED (MPAA Equivalent: PG-13)

“Grand Hotel. Always the same. People come. People go. Nothing ever happens…”

This now immortalized line, spoken by Dr. Otternschlag (Lewis Stone), heralds the beginning of the Best Picture of 1932, Grand Hotel, a motion picture which holds a unique record in Academy Awards history, and also has a unique history of its own. It is the only movie to win Best Picture without so much as a nomination in any other categories. It is also one of the earliest examples of what is now known as the “ensemble cast”, which included Greta Garbo, Wallace Beery, Joan Crawford, Jean Hersholt (as in the Academy’s humanitarian award), and not one, but two Barrymores (Lionel and John, in their second of four films together).

Grand Hotel spans three nights at the eponymous hotel in Berlin, where the lives of prima ballerina Grusinskaya (Garbo), Baron von Gaigern (John Barrymore), stenographer Flaemmchen (Crawford), businessman Preysing (Beery), terminally ill bookkeeper Otto Kringelein (Lionel Barrymore), war veteran Dr. Otternschlag (Stone), and porter – and expectant father – Senf (Hersholt) overlap, and in some cases collide. Grusinskaya is depressed, and her performances of late have reflected her mood. She is in such a funk, that she no longer wants to perform (It should be noted that this is the movie in which Garbo speaks her most famous line, “I want to be alone”). The Baron is a smooth operator, an easygoing gentleman who also happens to be a thief with a heart of gold, as well as a chaser of anything in a skirt. Flaemmchen is a stenographer and sometimes model called to the Grand Hotel to take dictation for Preysing, a business magnate with a solid reputation. Kringelein used to work for Preysing as a bookkeeper until he fell ill, so he decided to spend his final days in the lap of luxury, regardless the cost. The good doctor is a local who frequents the hotel and observes the goings-on. Finally, poor Senf the Porter, forced to work while his wife is in (very protracted) labor, cannot break free from his duties out of fear he’ll lose his job.

Baron von Gaigern, Otto Kringelein, and Dr. Otternschlag (John Barrymore, Lionel Barrymore, Lewis Stone) at the baccarat table

Now that you know how everything starts, let me just say that Grand Hotel is an absolute delight to watch. I will caution that there are parts of this movie which belie its age, but in the grand scheme of things, it still shines as one of the best motion picture of the early years of the Academy Awards. Joan Crawford had already been a veteran in motion pictures by the time of Grand Hotel, but her role as the stenographer is among the first of her many meaty roles during her acting career.

Meanwhile, there was much ballyhoo about the pairing of John Barrymore and Greta Garbo, so much that the normally (and notoriously) reclusive Garbo actually allowed backstage publicity photos of her with him. This unique union of The Face and The Great Profile proves to be one of the many captivating storylines in this movie. Finally, John Barrymore’s brother, Lionel, has a memorable scene when Kringelein confronts his boss, Preysing (Beery), at the hotel’s lounge and tells him how much of a slave driver he really is.

For a place where “nothing ever happens”, a lot seems to be going on at the Grand Hotel. It is a story of star-crossed lovers, of unscrupulous businessmen, of happiness and tears, and (most important) a story that follows the Latin expression “Carpe diem” (Seize the day). It is a story of love discovered and of fortunes lost, and at the end of the movie, another busload of weary travelers step off the bus for their stay at the most famous hotel in Berlin.

The special features on the DVD include footage of the premiere of Grand Hotel at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, trailers for the movie (including a “Time is running out” trailer made for the Chinese Theatre), and a short from Warner Bros. called “Nothing Ever Happens”, a spoof of the movie. There is also a trailer for a remake released by MGM in 1945 called Week-end at the Waldorf, starring Van Johnson, Lana Turner, Walter Pidgeon, and Ginger Rogers (As of this writing, it is not available from Netflix; I will review it if and when it is released).

If there is a drawback to Grand Hotel, it’s that the character names are among the most difficult to remember, let alone pronounce. And, as I said earlier, there are a few areas which show the film’s age, but it isn’t such a bad thing because I feel it enhances the movie’s charm. In 1932, the term “ensemble cast” was a practically unknown term, but Grand Hotel showed the world that seven of Hollywood’s biggest stars of the day can indeed work together and create a masterpiece. And that masterpiece is set at the Grand Hotel, where people come, people go, and nothing ever happens…

4 (out of 5)

CIMARRON (1931)

In Best Picture Winners, C, Classic, Epic, Motion Pictures, Western on May 7, 2010 at 2:30 am

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STUDIO — RKO Radio Pictures

CAST — Richard Dix, Irene Dunn, Estelle Taylor, William Collier Jr., Edna May Oliver

DIRECTOR — Wesley Ruggles

NOT RATED (MPAA Equivalent: PG)

The story of the formation of Oklahoma as a state is fascinating in its own right. More than a few movies have depicted the famous “land-rushes” that took place in the late 19th Century, and Cimarron was among the first to do so.

The word cimarrón itself is Spanish. It means “wild”, “untamed”, “feral”. In the context of the movie, the so-called “Cimarron Territory” in Oklahoma was a strectch of about two million acres of land deeded out to settlers in the 1889 Oklahoma Land Rush. It is here, in the moments prior to this event, that we are introduced to Yancey Cravat (Richard Dix), a flamboyant, self-made man and bona fide rolling stone. Nearly everyone knows who he is in some capacity, as if he were some kind of celebrity. He is an attorney, newspaper man, gunslinger, and preacher all rolled into one. He’s a great friend to have, and a dreadful enemy to fear.

Yancey Cravat (Richard Dix) reunites with his wife Sabra (Irene Dunn) after the Spanish-American War

After Yancey’s attempt at staking a townsite in the ’89 Land Rush failed — He was thwarted by a woman named Dixie Lee (Estelle Taylor) — he returned to his wife and son (and in-laws) in Wichita, Kansas, to announce that he’ll be setting up a newspaper in Osage, a new frontier town in the Oklahoma Territory. Despite protests from Mom and Dad, Sabra (Irene Dunn) vows to accompany her husband to this unknown land. So, Yancey, Sabra, and their young son Cim (short for Cimarron) load up a couple of wagons and make the journey south. On the way, they discover a stowaway, Isaiah (Eugene Jackson), Sabra’s parents’ house boy. He asks to come along, and Yancey just smiles and says “Well, you’ve come this far…”

The plot of Cimarron then spends the next hour-and-a-half leapfrogging over the next 40 years. In that span, the town of Osage transforms from a wild frontier town to a bustling city. And Yancey’s paper, the Oklahoma Wigwam, thrives from a weekly one-sheet publication into a daily voice of equal rights for everyone. But Yancey doesn’t stay around long. He leaves for the Cherokee Strip run of 1893, comes back after serving as a Rough Rider in 1898… In fact, he pretty much comes and goes as he pleases, while long-suffering Sabra stays behind to mind the day-to-day operation of the newspaper.

Now, Yancey Cravat is a noble man. He’s devoted to his wife and family. He feels everyone deserves a fair chance in this world. He knows the Bible from cover to cover. But as I already said, he is the quintessential rolling stone. Early on in the movie, he proudly proclaims that the longest he had stayed in one place was in Wichita, and for the rest of the movie, he lived up to that statement, disappearing for years at time, only to blow into town and act as if he was gone only a few days. I do not claim to be an historian, but behavior like that from a husband isn’t normal by today’s standards, and I don’t think it would’ve been tolerated in 1893, either.

This raises some questions: Why on earth would Sabra stay married to this guy? Better yet, why keep his name as editor-in-chief of the paper? Again, I’m no expert, but if one’s name is prominently and publicly listed as the head of a going concern, it stands to reason that he or she is there to run it. But Yancey doesn’t run the paper; he just owns it. In one scene, Yancey tells Sabra that when she replaces his name with hers as editor-in chief, then she can make the decisions about its content. Well, why doesn’t she? The world may never know…

I’d like to address an issue that is associated with Cimarron: racism. Both Edna Ferber’s novel and this motion picture are reputed to be laced with racial stereotypes. I cannot speak for the novel (I’ve never read it), but the movie does contain material some people may find offensive by today’s standards, like black people using “Mammy-speak” and craving watermelon, and Native Americans being labeled as filthy, uneducated savages. But there are two things to consider. First, this movie was filmed in 1930 (and released early the next year). Hollywood (and much of the U.S.) didn’t really know any better. We are talking about a period when white stage performers put on blackface makeup because blacks themselves weren’t allowed to perform, when a popular radio program about two black men, “Amos & Andy”, was voiced by white actors, and when everything from restaurants to restrooms were labeled “White” and “Colored” throughout the country. Yes, it reads like an excuse, and it probably is. But there is no arguing these were societal norms from a now-embarrassing period in American history.

The other aspect, which I feel balances the stereotyping, is Yancey’s outlook on people in general. He accorded everyone, from Isaiah to the Indians to Dixie Lee (who ran a brothel) with the same respect. He treated Isaiah like a member of his own family. He (rightfully) believed the Indians were forced from their lands to make room for the White Man. And he (successfully) defended Dixie Lee in court when no one else would. And his way of treating people would rub off on his wife, and even onto many of Osage’s citizens (even if Yancey was gone for years at a time). Just something to consider when screening this movie.

Now that we have that behind us, let’s spend a little time on the movie itself. There are moments of brilliance in Cimarron, most notably in the land rush sequence at the beginning. It is amazing to watch, especially when you consider the logistical hurdles involved. In all, over 5,000 extras and 28 cameras were used over the course of a week to shoot it, and the end result is a thrilling joyride through the Oklahoma wilderness. It’s a shame most of the rest of the movie seems bland by comparison. The performances were mixed, from the over-the-top nobility of Richard Dix’s Yancey, to the melodrama of Irene Dunn’s Sabra, to the stereotypical comic relief of Edna May Oliver’s society woman, Mrs. Tracy Wyatt.

There are two shorts that accompany the DVD. One is an early Warner Bros/Vitaphone cartoon called “Red Headed Baby”, one of the first Merrie Melodies produced by Leon Schlesinger. It’s rough around the edges, even for early cartoons, but still fun to watch. The other is a truly rare piece called “The Devil’s Cabaret”. The acting is cheesy and the humor is awful, but what makes it special is that it’s a 1930 two-strip Technicolor film, one of the earliest known to exist. A real treat for fans of early cinema!

I never thought in a million years that my review of Cimarron would be the longest I have written to date. But there was a lot of ground to cover. This is not the best of the Best Picture winners by any stretch of the imagination, but it is a time capsule into cinematic history nonetheless. I would recommend it only to those who specialize in the history of movie-making. For the rest of us, I suggest going with a better Ferber adaptation, 1956’s Giant.

THE STING (1973)

In Action, Best Picture Winners, Classic, Comedy, Crime, Drama, Motion Pictures, S on April 27, 2010 at 11:16 am

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STUDIO — Universal

CAST — Robert Redford, Paul Newman, Robert Shaw, Charles Durning, Ray Walston, Eileen Brennan, Harold Gould, Robert Earl Jones, Dana Elcar, Dimitra Arliss

DIRECTOR — George Roy Hill

MPAA Rating: PG

Back in 1974, I went to the Universal Studios Tour (now known as Universal Studios Hollywood), and I took from that experience a few memories that have stuck with me ever since: lifting a van like the Six Million Dollar Man (Hey, I was 9!), the street scene backlot dressed up for shooting Earthquake (which really was the most powerful memory I have of that visit), and watching audience members reenact a chase scene from The Sting. At least, I think it was The Sting. Ah, memories…

Anyway, this 1973 Best Picture Winner marked the second and final collaboration of Robert Redford, Paul Newman, and director George Roy Hill (1969’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was the first). It is a movie with crime, gambling, corruption, murder, revenge, the Great Depression… and it delivers plenty of laughs in the process. When a pair of Chicago grifters, Johnny Hooker (Redford) and Luther Coleman (Robert Earl Jones, father of James Earl Jones) pull a fast one on a money runner for a gambling operation, they discover they have stolen about $11,000 in cash. That night, Coleman tells Hooker he’s hanging it up, moving to Kansas City, and going legit. He instructs Hooker to look up a legendary con artist named Henry Gondorff (Newman). Later, when Hooker gets roughed up by a cop named Snyder (Charles Durning), he realizes his friend is in danger. He races back to Luther’s place, only to find his dead body on the street below. The next day, he meets up with Gondorff at a local merry-go-round/brothel, and they hatch a plan to pull a con on the man who had Luther killed, Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw).

Henry Gondorff and Johnny Hooker (Paul Newman, Robert Redford) observe their "mark", Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw, background)

Now, this is a movie in which the bad guys are really good guys, the cops are very corrupt, and the “mark” is a tough brute of a man whose look could kill if it wanted to. The con is on, and it’s performed admirably in what is probably the best caper film ever made. The plot moves forward with very few bumps along the way. There are even a couple of twists which, while I won’t reveal them, will surprise those who haven’t seen this movie yet. George Roy Hill seemed to demonstrate a certain efficient energy that sustains throughout. Newman and Redford are great (It’s a shame they made only two movies together), and the entire supporting cast, from Harold Gould as the dapper Kid Twist, to Dana Elcar as FBI Special Agent Polk, are all an excellent fit. This is arguably one of the best-cast movies in motion picture history. But the coup de grâce is casting Robert Shaw as Doyle Lonnegan.

I can remember Shaw in only two movies, Jaws (1975) and this one. I know, he did a lot more, and I am sure I will find him in future films I see. In Jaws, he was, of course, the crusty shark hunter who had met his demise by becoming his prey’s lunch. I had a hard time watching him in that movie, simply because he seemed to drone almost unintelligibly. It was nonetheless a good performance, but not nearly as good as the steely-eyed Lonnegan in The Sting. Here, he was a man of few words, but when he did speak, it meant something. He was tough-as-nails, with the resolve of an attack dog just waiting for the command to kill. By the way, you may notice that Lonnegan walks with a limp in this movie; that is because Robert Shaw had sprained his ankle playing handball right around the time shooting started!

Now, a word about the the now-iconic music of this movie. Composer Marvin Hamlisch decided to  incorporate several Scott Joplin rags into the musical score. While it is admittedly anachronistic with the period of the movie (by about 30 years), it turns out to be one of the few examples of musical genius in motion picture history. Joplin’s music sets the rhythm and tone of the plot so well, that “The Entertainer” is now forever engrained into the motion picture lexicon as the theme song to The Sting. Even as I write this article, I have that song playing in the background, and it just… feels right.

Thoroughly entertaining from start to finish, I could even go so far as to say that The Sting makes for a good family film, if the kids are over 10 years old. Yes, there are hookers, gambling, guns, and a couple of dead bodies, but they are balanced with (mostly) clean language, marvelous attention to detail, and a great sense of comedy. This is a solid movie from start to finish, and it will not disappoint.

4 out of 5

THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES (1946)

In B, Best Picture Winners, Classic, Drama, Motion Pictures, Romance, War on April 26, 2010 at 1:25 pm

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STUDIO — Samuel Goldwyn Co.

CAST — Dana Andrews, Fredric March, Myrna Loy, Virginia Mayo, Teresa Wright, Harold Russell, Hoagy Carmichael, Cathy O’Donnell

DIRECTOR — William Wyler

NOT RATED (MPAA Equivalent: PG)

Over the last few years, there have been occasional news stories about combat veterans returning from Iraq or Afghanistan who encounter difficulties when making the transition back in “The World” (a term sometimes used by service members deployed overseas when they talk about the U.S.). We hear about spikes in divorce rates, domestic violence, and (sadly) even suicide among combat veterans. This isn’t a new problem, as illustrated in the Best Picture of 1946, The Best Years of Our Lives.

With World War II still fresh on everyone’s mind, The Best Years of Our Lives paints a picture of the hardships of three veterans returning from combat. First, there is Fred Derry (Dana Andrews), a decorated captain in the Army Air Corps who wants only two things: a good job and quality time with his wife (whom he married before he shipped out). Next is Al Stephenson (Best Actor Fredric March), a banker with a loving family (Myrna Loy, Teresa Wright, Michael Hall) who became an infantry sergeant in the Pacific Theatre. Finally, there’s Homer Parrish (Best Supporting Actor Harold Russell), an athlete who joined the Navy right out of high school, but lost both of his hands in a fire on his aircraft carrier. These veterans from the (fictional) town of Boone City meet up early on in the Air Transport Command terminal and share the flight home in the nose of a now-decommissioned B-17. One by one, each man reunites with his family, but the real stories begin after the last tears of joy have been shed.

Homer, Al, and Fred (Harold Russell, Fredric March, Dana Andrews) on their way home from the airport

Fred encounters trouble finding work, while at the same time he discovers that his wife Marie (Virginia Mayo) is more interested in money and socializing than she is with building a new life together. Meanwhile, Al is welcomed back with open arms by his family, and he is guaranteed a promotion at the bank he had left years before, yet he is uncomfortable and starts drinking heavily. But the most moving story is that of Homer’s difficulties, both internal and external, because of his disability. On the surface, he’s all smiles and eager to demonstrate what he can do with his prosthetic hooks, but on the inside is a man reeling from the pain of being perceived as some sort of freak.

Produced by Samuel Goldwyn and directed by William Wyler, this is a movie about veterans made by veterans. Wyler (who had served as a film documentarian during the war) made sure the entire film crew consisted of returning veterans, thus lending a perception of authenticity. The lighting, the sound mixing, the costuming, even the editing were all done by veterans, and their combined effort shows in the movie’s overall “feel”. This is especially evident in a key scene toward the end of the movie, in which Fred wanders through the town’s “boneyard” and crawls inside the dusty hulk of what used to be a B-17. Words cannot describe the flood of emotions in this scene, and taken out of context, it is nearly pointless to do so; it is something you will need to see for yourself by watching this movie from the beginning.

Here is a not-so-commonly known fact about this movie: Harold Russell, who had lost his hands in a training accident, is the only actor in the history of the Motion Picture Academy to receive two Academy Awards for the same role in the same movie. As mentioned earlier, he was the Best Supporting Actor of 1946, but he also received an Honorary Oscar “[f]or bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans through his appearance in The Best Years of Our Lives”. Russell, who passed away in 2002, went on to become a voice and face for disabled veterans since World War II by helping to create AMVETS, an organization he had led on three different occasions.

After the euphoria of the fall of Nazi Germany and the surrender of Japan, America (and the entire world) needed to heal from this gaping wound with scars buried deep within its soul. The Best Years of Our Lives showed us a society on the mend and, in the right hands, the hope of a better tomorrow. It is emotional and sometimes painful to watch, even 64 years later, and its themes have a new-found relevance to today’s combat veterans. If you or someone you know has served in the Armed Forces (which should be just about all of us), then I strongly recommend this movie. And guys, it’s okay to cry with this one…

ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT (1930)

In A, Action, Best Picture Winners, Classic, Motion Pictures, War on April 14, 2010 at 12:33 pm

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STUDIO — Universal       

CAST — Louis Wolheim, Lew Ayres, John Wray, Arnold Lucy, Ben Alexander, Slim Summerville    

DIRECTOR —  Lewis Milestone     

NOT RATED
(MPAA Equivalent: PG-13) 

Once in a while, a motion picture comes along that is ahead of its time and so artistically and socially relevant, that it stands the test of time, even 80 years after it release. All Quiet on the Western Front is such a movie.

Winner of Best Picture and Best Director (Lewis Milestone) of 1930, All Quiet on the Western Front follows a young student in Germany named Paul Bäumer (Lew Ayres), and the events which take place as he and his friends enlist to fight in The Great War (known today as World War I). The movie begins with a professor (Arnold Lucy) stirring up the collective patriotic spirit of his students, while an enthusiastic parade of soldiers marches off to war outside. Swept up in the pomp and circumstance, Bäumer and his friends enthusiastically enlist to fight for the Fatherland.

Paul Bäumer (Lew Ayres) prepares for battle

Right away, the young men realize that being a soldier is anything but glamorous, when their drill instructor turns out to be Himmelstoß (John Wray — no relation to King Kong’s Fay Wray), the friendly mail carrier from back home, except now he’s a hard-nosed sergeant hell-bent on making his charges forget everything they thought they had known about him. Once training is completed, our heroes deploy to the front lines, where they are introduced to the grizzled veterans Stanislas “Kat” Katczinsky (Louis Wolheim) and Sergeant Tjaden (Slim Summerville). They show the rookies the ropes, and prepare them for the war they have come to fight.

As this movie was made before the Hays Code went into effect, it is violent, gritty, graphic, claustrophobic, and quite realistic for its time. In one particularly graphic shot, a shell explodes in front of a soldier at a barbed-wire fence; when the dust settles, all we see are that soldier’s dismembered hands hanging on the wire. We are introduced to the maddening effects of war when rats overrun a makeshift bunker that caves in from the shelling. Watching these footsoldiers lose their cool bit by bit from the constant shelling, the dirt, the lack of food and sleep, and the rats was very effective.

Over the next few years, we see Bäumer change from an idealistic young man to a hardened veteran in his own right. When he comes home on leave, everyone expects him to be the way he used to be, but they don’t understand him anymore, not even his own family. And as for the professor who made that stirring speech so long ago, Bäumer confronts him, too. He becomes a changed man, and in the end, all he wants is peace.

All Quiet on the Western Front is a truly unforgettable movie with an undeniably long reach. A disclaimer at the start of the movie claims that it isn’t statement for or against war, but merely an observation of what it’s really like. And with that unflinching eye, Lewis Milestone drew out battle scenes so realistic, they can be easily confused with actual World War I stock footage. The DVD features a re-release trailer, as well as an introduction from film historian and Turner Classic Movies host Robert Osborne. In it, he sets up the movie by giving details of the making and the impact of this movie. For example, because of the impact of this film, Lew Ayres became a conscientious objector when the US joined World War II in 1941. While many people branded him a coward, he still enlisted — and served with distinction — as an army medic.

All Quiet on the Western Front is a timeless classic, and the first truly great Best Picture winner. While it shows its age in spots, it holds up magnificently by showing us the dark, grisly, horrible world of combat with frightening realism and mesmerizing performances.