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Posts Tagged ‘classics’

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)

MISTER ROBERTS (1955)

In Classic, Comedy, Drama, M, Motion Pictures, War on June 4, 2010 at 12:44 pm

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STUDIO – Warner Bros.

CASTHenry Fonda, Jack Lemmon, William Powell, James Cagney, Betsy Palmer, Ward Bond

DIRECTORSJohn Ford, Mervyn LeRoy

NOT RATED (MPAA Equivalent: PG)

In 1948, Henry Fonda left Hollywood for Broadway to star in a play about Navy lieutenant on a cargo ship who wanted nothing more than get in some combat duty in the final days of World War II. Six years, four Tony Awards, and over 1,100 performances later, Fonda returned to Hollywood to bring this acclaimed play to the big screen, in 1955’s Mister Roberts.

In Mister Roberts, Lt. (JG) Doug Roberts (Fonda) is executive officer and cargo officer on the USS Reluctant. It is April 1945, and he can sense that the war will be ending soon. For over two years, he had been stuck on “The Bucket”, serving under his tyrannical commanding officer, Capt. Morton (James Cagney). His roommate is a lazy, yet resourceful Lothario, Ensign Frank Pulver (Best Supporting Actor Jack Lemmon), and his confidant is the ship’s doctor, known simply as “Doc” (William Powell, in his last film appearance). He’s a favorite among the crew, who regard Roberts as one of the guys, and they’re willing to back him up over the skipper any day. The centerpiece – and bane of existence – of the Reluctant is a palm tree, a “symbol of our cargo record” awarded by Admiral Finchley to the crew, and the only thing on the ship to which the captain gives any affection.

Doc (William Powell) and Lt. Roberts (Henry Fonda) make a bottle of "Red Label" for Ensign Pulver

Legendary director John Ford worked his magic to bring as much authenticity to this production by filming exteriors on board an actual World War II-era cargo ship in Hawaii and Midway Island (Being a Navy veteran himself didn’t hurt). But, as the story goes, shortly after returning to Hollywood for the interiors, Ford was forced to step down for health reasons, and Mervyn LeRoy took the reins to finish out the movie. Some sources say there was fighting on the set (An IMDb blurb even states that Ford once sucker-punched Henry Fonda), while others say the health issues were real (emergency gall bladder surgery). Still, the end result is one of the greatest World War II movies ever made, and in this one, no guns are fired, there aren’t any battles, and no one is seriously injured. John Ford had a tendency to stick with the same people in his movies. He frequently worked with John Wayne, and there is a connection to The Duke in this movie. Bookser, the young, innocent, wide-eyed sailor who nearly missed the boat after shore leave, was played John Wayne’s son, Patrick.

My father was in the Navy in the late-1950s, so he had a soft spot for this movie. During my formative years, this was one of those movies that, if it was on TV, I would run out to the garage and tell him. He would then immediately drop what he was doing, clean up (if necessary), crack open a beer and spend the rest of that Sunday afternoon on the couch. And I would sit there with him and watch the TV, amazed at how even humdrum life on a cargo ship could be interesting!

A few years later, I discovered that my mother had a book with scripts from great American plays, and “Mister Roberts” was among them. I read it over and over. I reenacted scenes and monologues from it in my Drama class (looking back, maybe not such a great idea to concentrate on one play, huh?). I compared the dialogue between the play and the movie (Some changes had to be made because of The Code). I absorbed as much as I could from it.

It was also during this time, I became a fan of the Hollywood Everyman, beginning with Jack Lemmon and Henry Fonda. These weren’t dashing, sexy stars, like Gable, Flynn, or Connery. These were regular guys who looked and acted like regular guys. They came from regular places (Fonda was from Grand Island, Nebraska, Lemmon from outside Boston). And their roles were by and large unglamorous (Both played the pivotal Juror #8 in their respective productions of 12 Angry Men). I was able to easily relate to their characters almost every time, and even today they still resonate within me.

The DVD has a couple of cool features, including clips from Ed Sullivan’s “Toast of the Town”, featuring Fonda, Lemmon and Cagney recreating scenes from the movie on live television. There is also a commentary track from Jack Lemmon, in which he recounts some stories about working with Ford, Fonda, Powell, and Cagney, and how much he’d learned on the set from these men (One caveat about the commentary: Lemmon himself says that if you get tired of his stories, just go ahead and turn it off!). There is also a clip from a video from Jane Fonda, in which she recalls her father’s Kennedy Center Honors induction.

Mister Roberts is funny, dramatic, moving, and classic. Those of you who know Jack Lemmon from movies like Grumpy Old Men, The China Syndrome, or Glengarry Glen Ross should see the raw talent that broke loose in this movie. Cagney, an expert at chewing scenery, leaves plenty of teeth marks here. Powell, who came out of retirement to play Doc, is ever the bearer of wit and sagacity (“What’ll it be, alcohol and orange juice, or orange juice and alcohol?”). And Henry Fonda, for whom Doug Roberts was created, is forever immortalized as the poor lieutenant desperate to get off “The Bucket”.

“Good night, Mr. Roberts.”

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)

IN THE GOOD OLD SUMMERTIME (1949)

In Classic, Comedy, I, Motion Pictures, Musical, Romance on May 16, 2010 at 9:15 am

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STUDIO – MGM

CAST – Judy Garland, Van Johnson, S.Z. Sakall, Spring Byington, Buster Keaton, Marcia Van Dyke, Clinton Sundberg, Lillian Bronson

DIRECTOR – Robert Z. Leonard

NOT RATED (MPAA Equivalent: G)

When I recently opened my rented copy of The Shop Around the Corner, I popped it into my DVD player and discovered that You’ve Got Mail was the second remake of that movie. The first was redone as a musical set at turn of the 20th Century, and that it starred Judy Garland. So, I made a quick trip into my Netflix Queue and ordered In the Good Old Summertime and put it straight to the top of my list. Now, before I proceed any further, let me state that, with the notable exception of The Wizard of Oz and the occasional Andy Hardy serial, I had not seen any motion pictures starring Judy Garland until this point. Nothing against her; she just isn’t my cup of tea. Still, I pressed forward, bowl of popcorn in hand, and watched…

And I dare say I enjoyed this movie. In the Good Old Summertime is the same basic premise of The Shop Around the Corner, only instead of a contemporary department store in Budapest, it’s set in a music store in Chicago. Also, the names have been changed to protect the innocent. The head clerk of the store is Andrew Larkin (Van Johnson), the boss is Otto Oberkugen (S.Z. Sakall), and the romantic interest/fly in the ointment is named Veronica Fisher (Garland). Replace the musical cigarette boxes with 100 table harps, throw in some slapstick, courtesy of Buster Keaton, and some old-tyme songs, and you have yet another Technicolor musical churned out by the factory known as Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Veronica (Judy Garland) offers to "help" Albert (Van Johnson) deomonstrate a song for a customer

The basic story is the same, in some cases nearly word-for-word, but the pacing is actually better than the original. Van Johnson tries not to impersonate Jimmy Stewart, but in some scenes it’s easy to spot that “aw-shucks” quality for which Stewart was famous. Judy Garland proves that even marriage and a child haven’t rusted her pipes. In one scene, a frustrated Veronica is asked to demonstrate a Christmas song; she does so, but only going through the motions in the process. Even in that moment, it’s hard to dismiss her vocal talent.

Speaking of talent, I made discovery with this movie: Marcia Van Dyke. She is an accomplished singer and musician in her own right, and here she shows off one of those talents. Her character, Louise Parkson, lives in the same boarding house as Andrew, and she is a violinist, a damn good one. Several scenes showcase her talent, culminating in an audition for a scholarship in Leipzig, Germany (home of one of the most prestigious orchestras in the world). Van Dyke isn’t much of an actress, but where she lacks in that department, she more than makes up for it with a violin in her hand. And she was very easy on the eyes, too.

One of the things that I noticed in this movie is that many of the musical numbers, especially in the first half, were in 3/4 time (waltz tempo). Now, I’m a sucker for the waltz, but I think even Johann Strauss himself might have cried out “Okay! Okay! Enough with the waltzes! Let’s move on, shall we?” But overall, the music fit in well with the plot, with one minor exception. Okay, maybe not so minor. The bulk of the movie is set in the fall and winter, but MGM needed an excuse to use the song “In the Good Old Summer Time”, which was still a fairly popular tune nearly 50 years after its initial release. So, they bookended it with two brief scenes set in a park during the summer. I’m not sure how, but they managed to pull it off.  Oh, there is one more thing: At the very end of the movie, Veronica and Albert are strolling through the park with a little girl; that brief scene marks the (unofficial) motion picture debut of Judy Garland’s daughter, Liza Minelli.

The DVD comes with a pair of travelogue shorts about Chicago, one for day, one for night. Both are remarkable time capsules to a time that is now all but forgotten. The daytime tour features many fixtures of the skyline, including the Tribune Tower, the Wrigley Building, and the Drake Hotel, along with a parting shot of Buckingham Fountain. The nighttime featurette highlights some of the entertainment and night life aspects of the city, including a music hall frequented by the mayor, Martin H. Kennelly, as well as a dancing horse(!).

In the Good Old Summertime is a surprisingly fun movie to watch. MGM can be considered one of the few manufacturing corporations whose work was considered art, and this musical fits nicely into that fold. Remarkably, I found it at least as charming as The Shop Around the Corner. Up next, the conclusion of my three-part review. Stay tuned…

3-1/2 (out of 5)

THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER (1940)

In Classic, Comedy, Drama, Motion Pictures, Romance, S on May 15, 2010 at 8:37 pm

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STUDIO — MGM 

CAST — Margaret Sullavan, James Stewart, Joseph Schildkraut, Frank Morgan, Sara Haden, Felix Bressart 

DIRECTOR — Ernst Lubitsch 

NOT RATED (MPAA Equivalent: PG) 

When I first set up this little blog of mine, I did back-to-back reviews of the two movies called The Italian Job. In it, I said that I would be doing this from time to time. On that note, a question: What do James Stewart, Judy Garland, and Tom Hanks all have in common? Well, they all starred in movies with the same premise. First up is 1940’s The Shop Around the Corner, starring Mr Stewart and Margaret Sullavan as co-workers who can’t stand each other, but don’t realize they’ve been developing a budding romance through the mail. 

Based on the play “Parfumerie”, by Miklós László, The Shop Around the Corner is set at a small department store in Budapest, Hungary. Alfred Kralik (Stewart) has been working there for nine years, under his boss (and store’s namesake) Hugo Matuschek (Frank Morgan). Other members of the staff include the cowardly and family-concsious Mr. Pirovitch (Felix Bressart), the smug and oily Ferencz Vadas (Joseph Schildkraut), two long-time female clerks named Flora and Ilona (Sara Haden, Inez Courtney), and an energetic errand boy named Pepi Katona (William Tracy). One morning, an out-of-work store clerk named Klara Novak (Sullavan) approaches Aflred for a job. He says that Mr. Matuschek is not hiring at present. She then asks Mr. Matuschek, who confirms Mr. Kralik’s answer, so she improvises. A customer spots her holding a cigarette box, so Klara takes the initiative. She approaches the lady, who asks if it’s a candy box (Klara says it is), and opens it. It starts playing “Ochi Tchornya“, and the lady balks, saying how silly it would be to reach for a candy and to hear that song every time it opens. Klara says that the box will make ladies who tend to indulge themselves to be “candy conscious”, and she makes the sale — at a higher price! She gets hired. 

Klara and Alfred (Maragret Sullavan, James Stewart) bicker about each other's wardrobe before work

Practically from that moment on, Klara and Alfred seem to have nothing better to do than argue with each other at work. But they do have something in common: They each have a secret romantic pen pal. Meanwhile, the usually charming Mr. Matuschek becomes more and more distant toward Alfred, and Mr. Vadas has suddenly made a splash about town, wearing expensive suits, fur coats, and even a pinky ring (Not bad for a store clerk’s wages, eh?). Anyway, I won’t give the whole story away, except for one thing: Klara and Alfred can’t stand each other face-to-face, but they are really each other’s romantic pen pals! 

This is a charming little movie, which still holds much of its luster. Jimmy Stewart was such an underrated talent, his “aw-shucks” style of delivery makes him both a leading man and an everyman. Margaret Sullavan seems a little too forward for my taste, but softens up nicely whenever she smiled. The supporting cast was fairly good, with one exception. Pepi intervenes on a very dramatic moment in the movie. Afterward, he drops many not-so-subtle hints about what happened (though the affected party wanted discretion) and takes advantage of his position. The way William Tracy played it, I kept thinking “This guy is a real jerk!” If that was the intention, then he did well, but I didn’t like him for doing this. 

There are some nice gags in this movie, too. Remember those musical cigarette boxes? In one scene, when a character is unceremoniously sacked, he is pushed into a display of those boxes. They all fall to the floor open, and everyone swoops in, not to pick up the now ex-employee, but to close the boxes up again! 

It is worthy to note that The Shop Around the Corner was such a success at MGM, that it spawned a musical remake nine years later. This is a good movie to pop into the DVD player if you’re a guy who’s invited your new girlfriend to your place. If you really want to impress her, tell her you were looking at a copy of You’ve Got Mail and learned this was the source material of that movie, so you decided to get it instead. Trust me on this one, guys. Part Two is next… 

3-1/2 (out of 5)

THE BROADWAY MELODY (1929)

In B, Best Picture Winners, Classic, Drama, Motion Pictures on January 29, 2010 at 3:22 am

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STUDIO — MGM

CAST — Charles King, Anita Page, Bessie Love, Kenneth Thomson

DIRECTOR —  Harry Beaumont

UNRATED (MPAA Equivalent: PG)

The Broadway Melody marked many firsts in the history of the Academy Awards, save one. It is not the first motion picture to receive the Best Picture award (That honor goes to 1927’s Wings). But it is the first “talkie” to win Best Picture, and it is the first Best Picture winner to spawn sequels (four, in all), and, though not technically a musical, it is the first to feature several musical numbers.

Let me make one thing clear: Lawrence of Arabia, this movie is not! Sound was still a novelty in the late 1920s, and all of the major studios (as well as most movie stars) made the switch to keep with the times. So, while The Broadway Melody is an entertaining spectacle, it suffers from substandard (even for the time) camera work, clunky acting from many members of the cast, and a script so cheesy, I could cut off a slice and put it on a burger.

The Mahoney Sisters (Anita Page, Bessie Love) perform on stage

Does this mean it’s a bad movie? Not necessarily. Anyone who has any interest in old movies will still enjoy it. The Broadway Melody was made for one reason: to entertain. And it does, thanks to serviceable performances by Bessie Love and Charles King. There are also a few running gags in the movie which will keep your attention, including Broadway producer Francis Zanfield’s gang of “yes men”, stuttering Uncle Jed, and a drunk lackey known in the film only as “Unconscious”.

If you know anything about show business history, you probably noticed the name Francis Zanfield (Eddie Kane). Yes, it is close to the name of legendary Vaudeville  showman Florence Ziegfeld. Another name that may catch your attention is that of the movie’s antagonist, Jaques “Jock” Warriner (Kenneth Thomson); it is very close to that of Jack Warner (as in Warner Bros.). Ironic that Warner Bros. would later acquire the rights to the MGM motion picture library when they purchased Ted Turner’s televesion empire, but I digress…

The Broadway Melody is the story of the Mahoney sisters, Hank (Bessie Love) and Queenie (Anita Page), and their quest to make their big break in show business. Hank’s fiancé, Eddie (Charles King), has assured them an “in” by getting them in Mr. Zanfield’s Vaudeville troupe, but like all well-laid plans, things don’t work out so well. Eddie becomes smitten with Queenie, Queenie falls for Jock, Eddie gets jealous, and Hank gets… Well, you didn’t expect me to spoil the whole thing for ya, now, didn’t you?

The Broadway Melody is an excellent study in early motion picture history, and it is mildly entertaining. For the truly bold and adventurous, you can check out the Special Features on the DVD, which include a short loosely based on the movie and with a canine cast, called (wait for it…) “The Dogway Melody”. Less cringe-worthy are a selection of five Metro Movietone Revues, featuring various musical and Vaudeville acts of the time. And there is a peek at the trailers to the other four movies in the franchise, as well.

3-1/2 out of 5