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Archive for October, 2009

Last week, I took a look at several of the biggest movies of 1939, the so-called “Golden Year” of movie history. Aside from The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind, I discussed such pictures as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Destry Rides Again, Stagecoach, Ninotchka, Only Angels Have Wings, Gunga Din, and Dark Victory. This week, I want to mention a few other better known pictures before moving on to some recommendations of lesser known gems.

One of my favorite films of the year is Wuthering Heights. It’s been remade countless times, but for many this remains the best adaptation. Lawrence Olivier and Meryl Oberon star as the doomed lovers, Heathcliff and Cathy. Olivier is, of course, best known for his Shakespearean performances, especially in Hamlet, Henry V and Richard III. Despite my intense and long-lasting love for the Bard, I must admit that I prefer Olivier in his early Hollywood years when he played Heathcliff, Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice and Maxim DeWInter in Rebecca. There was a smoldering sensuality about his performances in those parts that caught my teenage imagination and never let go. I suppose many women these days feel the same way about Colin Firth.

This was also the year of The Women, not to be confused with the recent pallid remake. The original film starring Norma Shearer, Rosalind Russell, Joan Crawford, and Paulette Goddard (just to name the tip of the iceberg!) had sharp teeth and claws. Its lines had the sting and bite of truth to them which the new film tries to deny. Much as I’d like to believe that all women treat each other as sisters, reality has taught me otherwise. The Women echoes advice given to me by my mother ages ago about being careful how much influence you allow your friends to have over your life. It’s also funny and possibly the best show case for actresses Hollywood ever produced.

The Golden Year had a picture for every taste. Do you love musicals? Check out Shirley Temple in A Little Princess or Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle. The latter is the last in the great cycle of RKO films that Astaire and Rogers made together in the ‘30s. They only made one more film together many years later, MGM’s The Barkleys of Broadway. A recent discovery of mine was the delightful Deanna Durbin vehicle First Love. It may be the funniest, best adaptation of Cinderella that I’ve ever seen. Durbin is lovely and talented. She possesses a warm, engaging personality that steers clear of sentimentality. With a wonderful cast of character actors to support her, she charms the audience along with an extremely young Robert Stack.

Suppose horror movies are more your taste. Boris Karloff was extremely busy in 1939. He made The Tower of London, The Man They Could Not Hang and Son of Frankenstein. The first is actually a reworking of Richard III also starring Basil Rathbone and Vincent Price. The second is a more traditional horror tale about a doctor conducting an experiment gone awry that results in him being convicted of murder. His own discoveries lead to him returning from the dead to seek revenge on those who had him hanged. Son of Frankenstein is the most fun of the three. Watching it, I was struck by how great a debt Mel Brooks owes to this one film. Basil Rathbone plays the son of the disgraced Dr. Frankenstein who returns to the castle with his wife and son intending to restore his father’s reputation. The villagers do not want him. Bela Lugosi co-stars as the fiendish Ygor who controls Frankenstein’s creature for his own purposes.

If you prefer romance instead, you have some wonderful choices. Leo McCarey’s Love Affair, starring Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer, would later be remade as the better known An Affair to Remember. The original is just as touching with Irene Dunne in superb form. I must confess to missing Cary Grant, though. Another romantic film, Midnight, is a classic screwball comedy starring Claudette Colbert, Don Ameche, Mary Astor and John Barrymore. It feels effortless and effervescent as the best screwballs do. Claudette Colbert plays a broke young woman who ends up in Paris. She makes friends with a cabdriver, but then gets hired by John Barrymore to impersonate an aristocrat in order to seduce his wife’s lover away from her. Barrymore has never been funnier. Another screwball comedy is Day-time Wife, starring Tyrone Power and Linda Darnell. It’s not quite up to Midnight’s caliber, but is solidly amusing. In it, we find Power and Darnell as a young married couple. Darnell discovers that Power is playing around with his secretary. She decides to find out what secretaries have that wives don’t, and takes a secret daytime job working for one of Power’s potential clients. Another great romantic comedy is Bachelor Mother starring Ginger Rogers. She plays a shopgirl who finds herself an unexpected mother after a baby comes her way as only a classic screwball plot can dictate. Unfortunately, this last film is still unavailable on DVD but can occasionally be seen on TCM.

 

If you prefer action instead, try a couple of Gary Cooper films, Beau Geste and The Real Glory. Beau Geste is the more famous of the two – another film that will be remade and remade and remade. I remember as a child watching Michael York in The Last Remake of Beau Geste. It’s a rousing film about brothers who join the Foreign Legion. The Real Glory is set in the Philippines during their fight for independence. Cooper plays a military doctor who is more interested in healing people’s bodies and minds than obeying orders. It’s a very interesting film that strongly resonates today with its parallels to Vietnam and Iraq. If you cross this film with the anarchic spirit of a Marx Brothers’ comedy you might end up with MASH. Another exciting film is Dodge City, Errol Flynn’s first Western. His frequent co-stars Alan Hale and Olivia DeHavilland follow him along for the ride and the result is top-notch. Other thrilling pictures in 1939 include two entries in the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes series, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and The Hound of the Baskervilles. Both are riveting, but I’d give the edge to Baskervilles.

Finally, if you prefer epics like Gone With the Wind, 1939 had others. The Brits had their own epic film The Four Feathers which holds its own with David O. Selznick’s masterpiece. Henry Fonda and Claudette Colbert starred in Drums Along the Mohawk, a revolutionary war drama. Cecil B. Demille directed Barbara Stanwyck in Union Pacific about the building of the railroad and John Ford directed Henry Fonda in Young Mr. Lincoln. My most recent discovery is the wonderful The Rains Came starring Tyrone Power and Myrna Loy. Loy plays a bad girl, the bored wife of an English aristocrat. While in India she falls under the spell of Tyrone Power as a local physician. Yes, I know Tyrone Power is not Indian, but he imbues the character with not only charisma but dignity. There is a storm in the middle of the film that can hold its own against any disaster picture shown today.

There was Another Thin Man while Tarzan Finds a Son.  Charlie Chan went to Reno, Paris and the World’s Fair*, and the Marx Brothers were At the Circus. Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland were Babes in Arms while Laurel and Hardy were The Flying Deuces. James Cagney had a banner year with The Roaring Twenties and Each Dawn I Die. Bette Davis also had an outstanding year, not settling for just Dark Victory but also starring in The Old Maid (based on an Edith Wharton novella) and co-starring with Errol Flynn in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex. Indeed, there is such an embarrassment of riches in this year: Of Mice and Men, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Intermezzo, Goodbye Mr. Chips. Truly, we will not look upon the likes of this again.

 

 

*Charlie Chan in Reno, Charlie Chan in the City in Darkness, Charlie Chan at Treasur

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1939 – Part 1

1939 is affectionately referred to by movie lovers as “The Golden Year.” Reverence and wonder fill the voices of film historians whenever they speak of this one year in the early 20th Century. All of Hollywood’s newest technologies of sound and color coalesced into a benchmark of the studio system. So many wonderful films filled the theatres that year that many are often overlooked. This review deals with the most important films, but will be followed up by a second that recommends some quality movies that are lesser known.

Of course, the two biggest films of that year – the two biggest films of any year – were The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind. They are the giants, their impact so large that even today the majority of the population recognizes both their names and their importance. In this, their 70th anniversary, Warner Home Video is releasing them on Blu-ray. The Wizard of Oz is out already with Gone With the Wind arriving in time for the holidays. The Wizard of Oz lives up to all expectations in high definition: glorious, brilliant and vibrant. The film looks brand new from the sheen of the plastic leaves in Munchkin land to the freckles on Judy Garland’s face to the sparkly sequins on those famous ruby slippers. Gone With the Wind looks to be another superlative transfer which I intend to enjoy along with friends in triple celebration: holidays, end of the semester and 70 years of magic.

The reputations of The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind are so gigantic, though, that many younger movie lovers are losing sight of some of the other highlights of The Magic Year. They are, in essence, Shakespeare during the Renaissance. Renaissance and Jacobean times possessed some of the richest dramas and most talented playwrights in English literature and yet they are practically unknown next to the Bard. Likewise, there were other exceptionally well-made films in 1939, many still well-known.

The most famous is arguably Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, one of Frank Capra’s best and most resonating works. James Stewart gives a heartfelt performance as Mr. Smith, a man who finds himself an unexpected politician in Washington. The corrupt around him intend to use him for their own designs, and when he learns of their schemes he begins to despair. His efforts to fight back and stand up for integrity in government should not be missed. Stewart is only one of many fine actors, including Jean Arthur, Claude Rains and Edward Arnold.

Stewart also had another fantastic film that year: Destry Rides Again. This is one of the first western comedies and it may very well be the best. There would be no Maverick or Blazing Saddles without this film. Stewart plays Tom Destry, the son of a famous sheriff. He’s invited to come to a small town to clean up the outlaws. Everyone gets a bit tense until they find out that Destry doesn’t even like to pack a gun. This leads to all of the macho types thinking he’s a push-over. He’s not. He’s quick-witted and stubborn. This movie is one of the jewels in Marlene Dietrich’s crown as she sings “The Boys in the Back Room” and finds herself embroiled in what has been called the greatest catfight of all times. This movie is both fun and funny and should not be missed.

Another western, serious this time, is Stagecoach which was the film that made John Wayne a star. It teamed him with John Ford, his favorite director. Stagecoach possessed many of the trappings people associate with the genre: gunfights, Indian attacks, and outlaws. At its heart, though, Stagecoach is about its ensemble cast. It delves into the souls of its characters which means that it stands up well today. Wayne is electrifying as the Ringo Kid, but the rest of the cast, including Claire Trevor, Donald Meek and Andy Devine, is also uniformly brilliant.

Bette Davis had two important entries in the Golden Year: Jezebel* and Dark Victory. Jezebel was Warner’s way of consoling her for not being cast as Scarlett O’Hara. Her Southern belle is even more selfish and manipulative than Scarlett, if that could be imagined. Henry Fonda plays the man she’s engaged to, but his admiration is stretched to the limit. Davis won her second Academy award for Jezebel. Dark Victory gives Davis a three-hankie weeper – the epitome of a “woman’s picture.” In it, she stars as a rich young woman who has everything one could desire from life, except good health. George Brent and Humphrey Bogart co-star beside Davis as she gives Greta Garbo in Camille a run for her money.

Speaking of Greta Garbo, in 1939 she starred in Ernst Lubitsch’s Ninotchka. The picture was marketed as “Garbo Laughs!” Ninotchka was an effervescent romantic comedy made by a master at his peak. Co-starring Melvyn Douglas, the film delights with a match of opposites: a strict no-nonsense Soviet-era Russian comrade with a hedonistic playboy living in that city that seems practically synonymous with sensuality, Paris. Garbo relaxes into the role seeming more natural and beguiling than ever. It would later be remade into a musical starring Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse, Silk Stockings.

If you prefer action and adventure, two Cary Grant films fill the bill: Gunga Din and Only Angels Have Wings. The first, directed by George Stevens, is based upon the famous Rudyard Kipling poem. Although the movie is decidedly not politically correct by our current standards, its title character ultimately shows more strength and heroism than the white officers commanding him. Cary Grant famously asked Douglas Fairbanks Jr. to trade roles with him. The result allows Grant to ditch the romantic lead and play to his virtuoso comic timing. By turns hilarious and exciting, Gunga Din was the Indiana Jones movie of its day. (In fact, Indiana Jones owes a large debt to this film – an acknowledgement made to those in the know by making the villains of the second Jones film, Temple of Doom, the same as in Gunga Din, the Thuggee.

Only Angels Have Wings has Grant as the owner of an air-service hauling the mail over the perilous Andes Mountains. It was directed by Howard Hawks and co-stars Jean Arthur and Rita Hayworth. As typical for Hawks, this movie exemplifies male bonding and the kind of woman who understands how to be one of the boys. Hawks really creates a tense, dangerous atmosphere as the audience waits for the pilots to come back safely. Many do not.

I’ll be continuing my look at the greatest year in film history next week, so please join me then. I’ll be briefly looking at some other well-known films, before recommending some not so well-known.

 

* Edited to add that of course, Jezebel came out in 1938, not 1939, an error I didn’t catch until writing this week’s entry.

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Apologies

I apologize for letting so much time pass between reviews. Unfortunately, my health took a downturn this year, and I ended up having surgery twice. I seem to be recovering well and look forward to continuing this blog. Updates will be slower than last fall, though. I intend to post once a week and hope I can maintain that pace for a long while.

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