REVIEWS OF RENTED DVDs I GET IN THE MAIL

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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)

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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?

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.