The Philadelphia Story (1940)

The Philadelphia Story

The Philadelphia Story – 1940

Director – George Cukor

Starring – Jimmy Stewart, Katharine Hepburn, Ruth Hussey, and Cary Grant

A successful film often has more than one thing going for it.  A charismatic star, on their own, isn’t enough to hold up a mediocre story (as much as they might have you believe otherwise).  Likewise, a good story can’t endure under the weight of poor acting, and fantastic cinematography can easily translate to a beautiful yet forgettably boring film.  In order to succeed, the stars have to align, talented people who share a vision have to work together, and put aside their differences to create something that transcends each of, and all of them…or it’ll fall flat anyway despite all their best efforts.

The Philadelphia Story is one such film that, for me anyway, really fell flat fast.  If one were to take the film and separate it into its crucial elements, talent, crew, story, director, etc., the film looks undeniably strong on paper.  Unfortunately, again in my own humble opinion, it comes off as self-important, and more than a little trite not to mention, straight up boring. Rather than Cary Grant charming me with witty repartee and Jimmy Stewart making me feel as though justice has been done, I felt annoyed at each of their rather lack-luster and incomplete characters.  Both are caricatures of jealous sad-sacks that are found on sitcoms.

I’m afraid the jury is still out when it comes to Katharine Hepburn too.  I started out this project with a healthy, natural dislike of her, stemming mostly from the film Bringing Up Baby.  Then I was caught off guard by her lovely, feisty and moving turn in the film The African Queen.  Now I’m afraid I’m going back to square one with my impressions of her thanks to this film.  She starts off as a character that I rather enjoyed watching.  I liked her and agreed with her motivations, then she was transformed into a watered down milquetoast-ish, doormat type of woman who gets on my nerves almost immediately.

This criticisms are, of course, to say nothing of the fact that this film has been built up so highly from the outset.  So many people consider this film a classic and treat it as such.  All forms of criticism for it are too harsh, with the love story and the characters themselves being too dear to the hearts of those who enjoy it.  To be fair, I am not immune to such blind loyalty.  I would be utterly aghast at any criticism, and recklessly jump to the defense of a film such as, say, Total Recall.  But, I mean come on…it’s Total Recall.

So…the story.  As the film opens, we are dropped into the tumultuous marriage of Cary Grant’s, C.K. Dexter Haven, and his fire-brand of a wife Katharine Hepburn’s Tracy Lord.  The first thing we see is Dexter getting kicked out of his house by Tracy for reasons we will come to understand later.  Dexter leaves, but not until getting in one last bit of domestic violence.  Flash forward a bunch of (Years? Months? Days?) time and we find that Tracy is set to marry again, this time to a rather wealthy man whose new money status makes him a target for the local paper’s gossip section.

A photographer and reporter team (Stewart and Hussey as Macaulay Connor and Elizabeth Imbrie respectively) are put on the job of getting the exclusive story of the impending nuptials.  Put up to it by their boss, in cahoots with Dexter, it looks as though it is a smear job engineered by Dexter to get revenge on his ex-wife.

More than anything the failure of this film rests with the lack of chemistry amongst its actors.  Jimmy Stewart, generally seen as a man who could get along with just about anyone, plays a man so filled with melancholy and disdain for the intended subjects of his writing, that he literally makes the worst newspaper reporter ever.  His girlfriend, frankly the most engaging character of the piece, Imbrie is stuck watching her albatross of a boyfriend drunkenly stagger through life and falling in love with another woman on a whim.  Grant, one of my normal favorite actors of the golden age of cinema, is surprisingly absent from this film, especially given that he is one of the headliners, but what I bristled most at was the transformation of the strong confident woman who was Hepburn’s Tracy Lord, reduced by guilt and criticism to just the sort of brainless weak-willed woman that she worked her entire career to rally against.

How dare she want a divorce from a husband who is a un-repentant alcoholic, or be angry at a father who cheats on her mother.  How dare she find a respectful, caring, man of considerable means despite the fact that he is not considered “old money”.  No wonder she is looked down upon by every other single character in this film, until she is brow-beaten into submission.  Each review I’ve read describes her as “snooty”, or “uppity”, and describes her treatment as her having “had it coming”.  How refreshing and unique a view. Yuck.

I found that I had checked out of this film pretty quickly and found little in the way of redeeming characteristics from that point forward.  At most, I can say that I saw this “classic”, and at least I can say that I’d rather have watched something else.  I’m a little surprised that George Cukor had so much to do with a film about a bunch of men putting an “uppity” woman in her place, seeing as how he has had a long history of working on films with capable women characters (A Star is Born, Wizard of Oz, and he’s worked with Katharine Hepburn before on Adam’s Rib which I assume falls into that demographic although I haven’t seen it myself).  This film was a rather large disappointment to me, and as such is not nearly recommendable, either for me or by me.

“I can not and will not endorse any work whose agenda it is to propagate the idea that anyone should stay in an abusive situation.  That is not love, nor is it amusing to dress it up as such.  A truly disgusting film.”  –  Ashley

Black Narcissus (1946)

Black Narcissus – 1946

Directors – Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger

Starring – Deborah Kerr, and David Ferrar

Heading into this film, before I knew anything else about it other than the photo Netflix uses, I assumed that I wouldn’t like it. A movie about nuns? Booooorrring! Of course I wouldn’t like it.  But then it began, and the Archers logo came up (the people who made The Red Shoes, and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp), and suddenly there was this chance that this film could be something more, much more than what is immediately present on the surface. As it happens, Black Narcissus was an austere, bland, and rather unimpressive yet beautiful looking journey through the wilds of British colonial India.

The story goes thusly…A group of relatively inexperienced nuns gets sent by their leadership, to India, charged with taking up residence in an abandoned palace high in the  mountains, and bringing the light of the lord to the local heathens.  The usual set of barriers present themselves in the form of cultural misunderstandings, a native Englishman versed in the ways of the locals, and the inner strife that comes when questioning one’s own…blah, blah, blah.  It doesn’t really matter, you won’t remember it in a few minutes, as I barely remember it now.

Plain, slow and for the first half nearly monochromatic, Black Narcissus tries to reach for the subtlety and distinction of Blimp and Red Shoes but was just never able to make it happen.  Deborah Kerr, who was so very arresting and vivid in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, staggers through this movie as emotionally one-dimensional as a tertiary character in a Dickens novel.  She doesn’t really change from one end of the movie to the other, aside from softening slightly to the brash Mr. Dean (David Ferrar), native Brit, envoy to the local royal government, and all around one note character.

Speaking of Mr. Dean.  It seemed like no one could decide quite what his character flaw/personality was going to be beforehand.  Is he a drunk, a cynic, or is he simply down on the snooty, dismissive behavior of the nuns to the locals?  Rather than giving him a set of characteristics, and building upon them, they decided to make him inebriated at times, moody at others, indignant and rude at still others, but without the rhyme and reason that would indicate he was a flesh and blood creation rather than a ham-fisted plot device.

Where the Brits seemed unduly rude and dismissive of their hosts, the Indian characters in the story, both Generals (young and old), the orphaned girl, as well as all of the children and villagers, all seem completely engaging and willing to learn about their guests without judging or strife.  Perhaps it’s because I come from a day and age that is more aware of and accepting of different cultures and personalities, but watching a film that comes out of the 1940’s makes western race relations seem positively barbaric and out of touch.

The one stand out, in terms of performance, is Kathleen Byron as Sister Ruth, the troubled, sickly sister who seems unable to handle the rigors and harsh conditions of the high mountain palace.  It actually wasn’t so much her performance, as it was the lack of performance.  Byron channelled Jack Nicholson’s work from the Shining, (or the other way around I suppose) all maniacal smiles and dangerous eyes, staring into space and providing her character with just enough vacancy to make her dangerous.  Sister Ruth is the most tightly wound of the nuns, and when she is pushed to her breaking point, she is unable to hold up.  It’s a shame really that she really didn’t have much impact until about two-thirds of the way through the film, but once she starts going, she is the most magnetic thing on-screen.

Similarly, halfway through the film, the color scheme begins to change from the sterile white robes and light-colored walls, into the rich swathes of color indicating lust, danger, and fear.  Beige and cream coloring gives way to deep shadowy reds, blues, greens, and oranges.  It’s really at this last third of the film that it becomes worth watching.  So much so, that it makes you wish the beginning part of the film was as interestingly composed, and executed as the latter part, although it doesn’t do much to change the fact that the story is a very dated one about the maddening effects of bringing religion to the uncivilized wilds

Despite my negative impression of the film, I did notice quite a lot of influence in a director whose films I truly do admire.  Wes Anderson, seems to have taken cues from the entirety of the Archers body of work, and for The Darjeeling Limited story cues from Black Narcissus in particular.  For example, the dramatic, rich use of color used as a backdrop against which every story plays out in all of Anderson’s films.  The diorama like composition Anderson utilizes, is equal parts Powell/Pressburger and Kubrick, but to his credit, Anderson does a much better job finding cohesion in all the disparate elements.

When it all comes down to it, Black Narcissus isn’t all that good, and certainly not worthy of its place on this list.  Sorry, Archers fans, I know it’s blasphemy to speak ill of saints Powell and Pressburger, but in this instance I think it’s justified.

“Not as good as Sister Act” – Ashley

Detour (1945)

Detour – 1945

Director – Edgar Ulmer

Starring – Tom Neal, and Ann Savage

Most movies have a fairly common structure.  Introduce main character, introduce obstacle, main character struggles, main character overcomes obstacle, main character succeeds, lesson learned.  Now these steps can be repeated over and over again as needed, but generally this is the standard flow that a linear movie follows.  There is, however, always an exception to the rule that eschews this set up in favor of either of two scenarios.  The first, is that nothing happens to the main character, and they live happily ever after.  Boring.  The second is that everything possible happens to the main character.  They are so weighed down with the overwhelming  hopeless circumstances that they may not ever recover, and there is no happily ever after stage in that equation.  Detour resides in this second, depressing as hell movie category.

Everything starts out fairly well for Al Roberts (Tom Neal), he’s young, he has a job that he loves, and he has his best girl by his side.  Pretty quickly though, things begin to tarnish for him.  His girl wants to take a break from their relationship and move out to Los Angeles to chase her dream of being in the movies.  Distraught, Al plans to follow her, win her back and marry her.  So it is about this point in your standard movie following my previously outlined formula that our hero would struggle, and endeavor against all odds to do just that.  He may run into trouble along the way, but with pluck and ingenuity fueled by this goal, he’ll no doubt find a way.  So that is exactly what Al sets out to do, so far so good.

So he starts hitchhiking across the country towards LA, and towards his dreams of happiness and the future.  Of course the problems start right away, but that’s to be expected, right?  Challenge gives way to frustration, and eventually to desperation as one problem turns quickly into many.  Al is picked up by a shady gambler, Charles Haskell, who is also on his way to Los Angeles, but the weather changes, things go wrong, and the man ends up dead, accidentally maybe, but dead none-the-less.  Afraid of blame and retribution from the police, Al steals the mans identity and becomes Charles Haskell Jr.  At this point, things go from bad to worse, not only for the character, but also for the audience who is stuck watching him make the dumbest decisions that he possibly can.

In an attempt to appear normal, and change his luck for the better, Al decides to pick up a hitchhiker himself.  Enter, Vera (the very appropriately named Ann Savage).  Distrusting, brash, opportunistic, with a little touch of crazy, that would appropriately describe, Vera.  Oh and one other thing, Vera knows that Al isn’t who he says he is.  Much as I might like to elaborate, to do so would give away too much of the plot.  Needless to say the situation goes from bad to worse.  What started as simple, easily explained, accidental death, continues to spiral downward along a path of deception, greed, and desperation.

This bat-shit crazy pair of travel companions simultaneously need, and can’t wait to be rid of the other.  It’s nearly excruciating watching them make worse and worse decisions, swinging them ever closer to the final reel of the film (which by the way you can see their fate coming from a mile off).

Strangely, and tragically enough, this events of this film (Success, murder, money, double crossings, etc…) were mirrored, in a way, in Tom Neal’s (Al) real life.  Violence led to his being black-balled from Hollywood, causing him to take up landscaping work, and he ended up serving 6 years of a 7 year sentence after being convicted of manslaughter in the murder of his wife.  This knowledge of what has become of our main actor sort of colors the impact of the film, making it seem even darker, which is quite a feat considering how dark it is already.

This film, while interesting and definitely unique, is not nearly as engaging and warm as other studio system films of the same era, and as a result seems out-of-place.  Bleaker than other, similarly plotted movies, this film seemed like it was trying to alienate and shock audiences of the day much in the same way a movie like “Kids” did in the early nineties, or anything that Lars Von Trier has ever done ever.  Detour, like the film “Peeping Tom” fifteen years later, seemed to be a film that went to a point that audiences weren’t ready to go just yet.  Themes like this would later be explored and realized more fully and successfully in films of the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s.  At that point the glow of a war winning, wholesome Americana was just wearing off and we were ready to have doubt, fear, and loathing creep in again.

“Bitch is crrraazy” – Ashley

The Lady Eve (1941)

The Lady Eve – 1941

Director – Preston Sturges

Starring – Henry Fonda, Barbara Stanwyck, and Charles Coburn

Screwball comedies are a tricky mixture of absurdity and reason.  The absurdity gives these films their energy, their source of conflict, and it keeps the plot moving forward.  This is the defining element of the screwball comedy, and while absurdity can go a long way to tickling our funny bones, it ultimately can fall flat or fail outright if there isn’t some grounding element, some person, or people who play it straight.

Howard Hawks apparently once said that the flaw with his famous screwball comedy, Bringing Up Baby, was that everyone was a screwball.  There was no gauge by which the audience could compare the antics of the crazy characters with those of a normal, functioning, human being.  Despite, or perhaps because of, it’s inclusion in the screwball genre, The Lady Eve works very hard to ground the film squarely on the shoulders of the straight man, Henry Fonda.  He is the lens through which the audience can clearly see, appreciate, and enjoy the madcap antics of the family of con artists and ne’er-do-wells that populate The Lady Eve.

The story is fairly simple, a young, rich, handsome, young man, Charles Pike (Fonda) who prides himself on his zeal for new experiences and adventure, begrudgingly learns first hand how naive he really is when he encounters a group of traveling hucksters (Stanwyck and Coburn primarily) on a steamship back from the jungles of South America.  Friendly, shy, and the object of desire of all the single women on the ship, he makes an ideal mark for Jean Harrington (Stanwyck), the devious, whip-smart, and capable con-woman who is determined to relieve him of his money.

She and her father, the delightfully underhanded (Coburn), go work almost immediately, isolating, charming, and seducing Pike in short order.  The surprise comes for Jean with the sudden realization that she has fallen for Pike’s subtle, earnest charms.  All that remains is to gently break the news of her background as a card-shark, and that is when the trouble starts.

While he is the foundation upon which the premise is based, the least engaging character is Fonda’s Pike.  He is by and large just another set-piece for the more interesting grifters to play against.  He is used as prop almost like someone might use a gun or a hat, to build upon and explore their character.

Stanwyck on the other hand, really has room to spread her wings.  Her role in Double Indemnity, as the murderous, money, hungry wife, may have been more iconic, but this one is far more developed and way more fun to watch her work.  During a con, Jean wears a mask, a different personality to blend in and follow the script that’s been written, never able to show her true self.  The irony is that the face she wears when she is being herself is also a mask to hide and protect herself from danger, like falling in love and getting hurt.  It’s when she finally realizes that she’s fallen in love with Pike that she starts to show her real personality.

When Pike learns of her past, and her deception, she has to develop yet another character, so she can win him back, and there you have the titular, Eve.  The gusto that she brings to the role of Jean/Eve is infectious, and quite frankly the best part of the film.  The longer we watch Jean work, the more we want to see, and the more we see, the more we like her.

The Lady Eve is packed with gags, all vying for the audience’s attention.  From Pike’s rough around the edges bodyguard mixing with high society, to the slap-stickish food based humor in the second half of the film, Preston Sturges really throws everything including the kitchen sink at us hoping to connect.  While that stuff is funny, it’s really an after thought as compared to the interaction between Stanwyck and Fonda, so much so that it can almost be distracting, and take you out of the movie.  Almost, but thankfully, not quite.

The Lady Eve gives me hope for screwball comedies.  It joins the ranks of “His Girl Friday” as being madcap, exciting, and genuinely funny, without seeming ridiculous and un-restrained.  The characters, while bigger than life, aren’t too big, too crazy, and they never become unbelievable, which is death for any movie character.  Definitely a good example of Screwball Comedy that is, itself, good.

“Men are dumb.” – Ashley

Brief Encounter (1945)

Brief Encounter – 1945

Director – David Lean

Starring – Celia Johnson, Trevor Howard, and Cyril Raymond

***Disclaimer***

So, I initially saw this film about two years ago.  Why did I wait so long to review it, you might ask? I had just ended a bad relationship and while I was trying to throw myself into something creative (ie: this) I ran across this movie dealing with some relationship issues that I didn’t really feel like dealing with.  So, I took a break.  A rather long break, as it turns out, nearly two years.

In that two years, I have not been sitting idle.  I jumped into other pursuits.  Photography, drawing, and being a good father to my little guinea pig Oliver.  On top of all that, I connected with my best friend.  I must confess, not only is she my best friend, but she has been the girl of my dreams for years now, although she apparently had no idea of that little detail.  We started hanging out and fell madly in love with one another.  Low and behold, the stars aligned, I managed to trick her something fierce, and this Saturday we are going to get married.

Looking back on it in the light of day, Brief Encounter isn’t a very good film, certainly not one worthy of taking a break from writing for.  So it is time to clear the past efforts out to make way for the future.  Now since I didn’t feel like re-watching this film to get back up to speed on the details, you’ll get a brief synopsis of the plot, and a lot of my opinion of the story, with maybe only a little bit about the cinematography, or acting.

You have been warned!

***End Disclaimer***

Laura Jesson and Alec Harvey are in love.  Or rather they are in love with each other.  After meeting in a train station while waiting for their respective trains going in opposite directions, (keep in mind this is the mid 40’s people were less likely to ignore each other while on, or waiting for, public transportation.) they strike up a conversation, a friendship, and fairly quickly a love for one another after Alec helps Laura remove an errant piece of coal dust from her eye (again, it’s the 40’s, coal dust is a problem).

Sounds pretty straight forward right?  Well here comes the complication…each of them is already married to another person.  The two manage to bump into each other accidentally at first, then as time passes it becomes a regular, expected occurrence, all under the radar of their unsuspecting spouses. Alec is a doctor who works at a hospital in the same town that Laura comes to do her weekly errands, so after a while lunching together turns into, movies together.  Movies turn into dinner, and dinner turn into the possibility of…well, this is England during the 40’s, so presumably it turns into a long-lasting mutual respect for one another without the need for physical contact (Okay probably not.  Probably it will lead to sex).

Since their illicit meetings always end up at the train station,  where each waits to head home to their spouses, the danger of running into people from their ordinary lives is quite high, and requires some misdirection in order to keep their romance a secret.  To this end Alec and Laura go to great lengths.  White lies, and fabrication to keep the suspicion low, and to keep the story from reaching home.  At some point it becomes clear that they are going to have to make a decision, stop seeing each other and go about their lives, or continue seeing one another and damn the consequences.

The part that is so infuriating about each of the characters is that each is content to blunder merrily along in this rather doomed fling rather than being straightforward and honest with the people they are supposed to be closest to in their lives.  While I understand the need for conflict in any story, much less a love story, I have to say that I find it hard to care too much about two such unrealistic, unsympathetic people.

And that’s it.  You now have the whole plot.  This rather small-scale story centers solely on this doomed relationship.  It isn’t set against the back drop of some greater conflict, like a war, or an alien invasion.  No other stories are interwoven in with this one, all we have are two characters playing out the last notes of a doomed relationship.  Even on paper this story seems a little thin.

Celia Johnson plays Laura, this rather wish-washy, oaf of a woman, content to simply spend her day wandering the little town of Milford, shopping and going to the Matinee.  Is there no re-building to be done in England in the mid 40’s?  Nothing more constructive to be spending her time on?  If i’m not mistaken her home country was just ravaged by the blitz,  at least Alec is a doctor doing doctor things.  Her method of floating through life flies in the face of the reputation of dedication and bravery that was typical of the British during the oppressive times of World War 2, and is, frankly, just frustrating.

Ultimately, they agree to break off seeing each other.  They part ways, and immediately, Laura, runs home and tells her husband all about the affair she’s had…for some reason.  Even more hard to decipher, he gives her a hug and tells her everything will be alright, rather than putting all of her stuff out on the lawn.

So you might be asking yourself, “Well, didn’t you like Lost in Translation, which was essentially the same story told in an updated and foreign setting?”, to which I would reply, “Yes!”.  “That doesn’t make any sense,” you say, “what’s the difference?”, to which I reply “What are you? My mom?  Get off my back.”  When analyzing them both side by side, there doesn’t seem to be all that much different plot wise, but something about the isolation and wonder of being trapped in Tokyo made it seem…I don’t know, right.  It’s been a few years since I saw Lost in Translation for the first time, and while it doesn’t have the lustre of when I first saw it, it manages to do something that Brief Encounter couldn’t.  It manages to be better than the sum of it’s parts, and make you care for the people involved.  Just as my initial impression of Lost In Translation has faded, so too will my negative one of Brief Encounter.  That doesn’t mean it will get better, it just means I will have moved on and changed.

His Girl Friday (1940)

His Girl Friday – 1940

Director – Howard Hawks

Starring – Cary Grant, Rosalind Russell, and Ralph Bellamy

So this is one of those movies that I started, stopped, re-started, and re-stopped, before finally sitting down and watching the whole thing.  There was no particular reason for my continued in-ability to sit through it, it just worked out that way.

In the end, all it took for me to finally sit down and dedicate and hour and a half to watching this movie was the simple little task of falling in love with a girl, patiently waiting 5 years or so for her and I to be single at the same time, start dating, immediately get engaged, and having her suggest that we show it at our wedding.  Simple.  At that point all I had to do was watch it.

For the un-initiated, His Girl Friday is a comedy of the screw-ball variety.  It’s fast paced, and quick-witted with none of the rather dumb short-comings of another Howard Hawks / Cary Grant screw-ball comedy from 2 years earlier, “Bringing Up Baby”.  Where that film was populated with infuriatingly stupid and aggravating characters grating on each other’s (and my) nerves, His Girl’s characters are smart, and they only build upon each other.  Even when the characters are working at cross purposes, which considering it’s a screw-ball comedy means it’s quite often, nothing is dumbed down.  Hokey slapstick is set aside in favor of smart dialog and strategic scheming.

Cary Grant, ever the charmer, plays the crafty, hard-nosed, newspaper editor, Walter Burns.  When he finds out that his best reporter, not to mention former wife, Hildegard “Hildy” Johnson (Russell) is set to marry meek insurance man, Bruce Baldwin (Bellamy), and  settle down to a life of mediocrity, Burns jealously tries to stymie the couples wedded bliss.  He tries to lure Hildy back into the fold of the newspaper by dangling the biggest story of the decade in front of her.  To her credit, Hildy sees what he is trying to do, but to her detriment she is tempted, and ultimately gives in to the chance to crack this story wide open.

Russell and Grant play fabulously off of one another, each regularly topping the other with calculated sarcasm and well placed wit.  The rapid fire dialog is punctuated with priceless reactions that only illustrate just why these two people are made for each other.  Both are driven, career oriented, people who are going towards the same goal, and in the process clashing with each other along the way to get there first.

Bellamy’s meek, milquetoast, alternative to Burns, is at once pitiable and loathsome.  It’s easy to understand how this rather tame, safe alternative might have been attractive to a woman of Hildy’s strength and conviction as a break from Burns.  After all, he is safe and controllable.  He is a dramatically different choice from Burns’ fiery, aggressive, competitor.  Although, while Hildy may have had moments of frustration with Burns, it is exactly that competition and desire that pulled them together initially and continues to pull them together.  It is exactly this rivalry that intrigues them both, and it doesn’t take long for us to realize that poor Bruce Baldwin doesn’t stand a chance.

Along with the two strong leads, and equally watchable secondary character, His Girl Friday has a whole cast of tertiary characters that really work to fill out the chaotic, hilarious universe in which this film exists.  The bumbling sheriff, crooked mayor, shady cohort of Burns, convicted murderer, and unhappy mother in-law all weave together a dense enough tapestry to be at once believable and compelling.  Hilarious and frustrating.  Each of these characters does his or her part to occupy Hildy and Walter for the sake of the story without distracting them from each other for too long.

This film is a super strong testimony in favor of romantic comedies as being legitimate works of art, and currently resides as my favorite screw-ball comedy of all time.  It goes a long way to rectifying my bad attitude (and Cary Grant’s reputation with me) in regards to Bringing Up Baby, not to mention it introduced me to Rosalind Russell who I had never seen in anything previously.

Perhaps the biggest benefit His Girl Friday has afforded me…I got to watch it with my favorite person, and the coolest girl around, and future wife.  And I didn’t even have to trick her (much) into getting married.  Bully for me!

“Our wedding movie.” – Ashley

The Wolfman (1941)

The Wolfman – 1941

Director – George Waggner

Starring – Lon Chaney Jr., Claude Rains, Maria Ouspenskaya, and Bela Lugosi

When mention is made of the “Classic Universal Monster” films, inevitably the first ones that spring to mind are Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Wolfman.  Given enough time to consider the category of film you might eventually think up The Mummy, or The Creature from the Black Lagoon, but these are just monsters whereas all of the other three are more fully realized characters.  It just so happens that these characters also happen to be monsters.

The Wolfman in particular, is the most similar to the audience.  He is an everyman, someone who, unlike Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster, we get to know before he becomes a monster.  He is every bit a human being, someone who is scared of what is happening to him, and remorseful of the crimes he has committed because of his affliction.  But does this humanity, this pathos make the Wolf Man story better than that of Dracula, or Dr. Frankenstein?  Not quite.

The story is simple enough and fairly well-known, a man bitten by a strange wolf while out during a full moon, finds himself turning into a wolf himself and roaming around killing for pleasure.  Ultimately he must either find a cure or he must be hunted down and killed before the killing will stop.

While a lot of the same elements are in place as they are in Dracula and Frankenstein (Count Dracula himself, Bela Lugosi even makes an appearance as a Gypsy afflicted with the werewolf’s curse), Lon Chaney, Jr. isn’t quite up to the challenge of acting opposite someone like Boris Karloff, and the imagery doesn’t hold as much terrific horror as the gothic imagery put forth in Dracula.  The film didn’t seem like that much of a surprise.  Instead I felt like I knew the entire time what was going to happen.

The imagery, set design, and music all seemed much more formulaic to me than in either of the other two, on top of the less convincing story and powerful acting, The Wolf Man was just unable to get from under the weight of its big brothers.  Where it did succeed admirably, was it’s ability to draw the audience in through its main character.  In each of the other two monster films, the showpieces were the monsters.  These inhuman, alien beings, lacking much in the way of recognizable human characteristics, served to menace the villagers, despite their best efforts (frankenstein) or because of them (dracula).

We were introduced to the Wolf Man, however, while he was still a man.  We are given insight to his somewhat troubled relationship with his father, and his competitive relationship with his dead brother.  We see him pining away after the local girl, and the awkward situation he is put in when he’s introduced to her fiance.  So right away, we can relate to him.  He is a man, first and foremost.  A man who eventually has one more problem thrust upon him, the whole turning into a wolf against his will and killing, thing.  The unfortunate part is, this history we’ve built up never plays a part in the story beyond the introductions.  We are able to sympathize with him at first, but eventually he just becomes “another guy” that we don’t really care all that much about.

Despite it’s not being as good as some of the other Classic Monster films, The Wolf Man is still definitely worth a watch, although I would contend with its position on this list if only because it seems like a “well we can’t leave The Wolf Man out” type of pick.

“Always listen to your neighborhood gypsy” – Ashley

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp – 1943

Director – Michael Powell

Starring – Roger Livesey, Deborah Kerr, and Anton Walbrook

Throughout the history of cinema, pairings of filmmakers emerge who, together, can magnify and build upon each others abilities to create something that neither could have done alone. Often times these partnerships are comprised of a director and an actor, but its not limited to those two positions. For every Scorsese and DeNiro, there is a Tarantino and Lawrence Bender, or a Hitchcock and Bernard Herrman. Despite the job titles involved these partnerships can be very fruitful, but there is no more celebrated combination of talents than those of Michael Powell and Emerich Pressburger.

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp seems to be the culmination of that particular pairing, though I can hardly profess to know for sure.  I decided to watch the movie in an attempt to follow along with the Powell/Pressburger movie marathon put on by the boys at the Filmspotting podcast.  Till that point I had, of course, heard the names of the famous duo, but I had no idea of their impact on the film industry.  So despite my having seen The Red Shoes before this film, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp counts as my awakening to their particular brand of humor, whimsy, and romance.

Blimp  follows the unlikely friendship of Clive Candy, a young British officer, and Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff, a German officer with whom Candy is assigned to fight a duel after a misunderstanding between their respective countries.  Each man is seriously wounded in the duel and they grow close to one another in the hospital.  Theo eventually falls in love with his friend’s companion Edith Hunter, and risks another duel to ask for her hand in marriage. 

The film opens a few years from the beginning of  World War 1, and goes all the way through the Nazi build-up of the second World War.  Though they don’t see each other often, when the pair does have occasion to meet, it is clear that each man treasures his friendship with the other more than anything.  Even Candy’s fascination with Theo’s new bride, seemed to me to be simply an extension of his desire to connect with his friend more often.  Though he obviously has deep feelings for Mrs. Hunter as well. 

Each man grows from the idealism of youth, to the comfort of middle age, and into the winter years of their lives all the while enduring wars, the deaths of loved ones, and the political and social challenges that go along with being on opposite sides of massive turmoil and conflict.

Roger Livesey plays the stout, indomitable Clive Candy, in all his bombastic glory.  Ever the positive go getter, Livesey imbues Candy with a certain innocence that runs contrary to all the conflict and horror the character has seen in his lifetime.  Theo, played by Anton Walbrook, is a bit more of a stuffed shirt, and in his earlier years a bit more pessimistic thanks to Germany’s loss of the first World War.  Ultimately he provides a fine counterpoint to Candy, however, as both men vie for the attention and affection of the different incarnations of Mrs. Hunter, played memorably by Deborah Kerr.  Kerr plays Hunter, but also plays the woman who Candy ultimately marries, Barbara Wynne, and eventually the driver hired by Candy, Johnny Cannon.  The fact that each of these three characters looks similar is simply for the benefit of Candy and Theo.  Beyond the exterior, these three women are different characters in their own rights.

Pressburger’s script is able to maintain the dry, sometimes zany, British humor without losing any of the real emotional heft, and Powell’s direction gives the actors room to make these characters their own.  In the hands of another writer/director team, that fine line of humor and heart could easily have been lost.

Cinematographically speaking, Blimp is positively glowing in rich Technicolor tones, and dreamy 1940’s set pieces.  George Perinal, the film’s cinematographer, was also responsible for the look of another of my favorite films from this list so far, Le Million.  Perinal manages to keep that certain dreamy quality that I loved so much from Le Million, and use it in a completely different way in Blimp.

The one rather confusing, although ultimately unimportant, problem I had with this movie, was the fact that I waited quite a while for the character Colonel Blimp to show himself.  Well, actually that’s not entirely true.  Once I was caught up in the story, I stopped caring about the title so much, but it still doesn’t make a whole lot of sense until I looked up the reference to the stodgy British militarism on Wikipedia afterwards.  Check that out here if you are so inclined.  That one quibble shouldn’t prevent you from seeing this film, it didn’t stop me!

Sullivan’s Travels (1941)

Sullivan’s Travels – 1941

Director – Preston Sturges

Starring – Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake

Sullivan’s Travels is the story of a motion picture director, played byJoel McCrea, who is sick of making comedies despite their fantastic success.  Against the studio’s protests, he decides that he wants to make a movie with a message, something that tells the story of the long-suffering everyman.  His brilliant idea is that he’s going to go out with nothing but the clothes on his back, and nothing in his pockets, and live among the common poor.  Through these adventures, or misadventures to be more accurate, McCrea’s titular John Sullivan gets a rude awakening.  It turns out the poor, downtrodden masses simply want to laugh.  They don’t want to spend their miserable lives watching their own miserable lives.

Along the way, Sullivan meets up with an attractive young woman known only as “The Girl” played by Veronica Lake, and falls for her almost immediately.  At first the problem is she thinks he is down and out, just like she is, but eventually she joins him on his decidedly well thought out adventure along the rails and slums of the United States.  Together they sleep on floors, pick food out of garbage cans, get their pockets picked, and occasionally clean up, eat, sleep, and put on brand new clothes on the luxury bus that the Sullivan’s studio sent to follow him around.  Needless to say, they are able to paint a true portrait of what it is to be down on their luck.

At its heart, Sullivan’s Travels is a romantic comedy just shy of screwball, and a little too light to be melodrama.  The film’s attempt to hammer its message home, and really show how laughter is the best medicine is nearly ruined by the rather serious consequences that  Sullivan faces while trying to do a good deed for the poor people who opened his eyes, and in the end seems like a rather convenient plot point to help our couple get together at the end of the picture.

Lake in the role of “The Girl” makes the most effort to make her character convincing and at the same time likable.  Even though she is not entirely believable as a hobo, she does a fantastic job as a romantic lead, and as a sympathetic out of work actress, she is the best part of this movie.

In the end, it seems like Sullivan’s Travels can’t decide what it wants to really be, a buddy/romantic comedy, a film with a message, or a commentary on both.  Worth watching for sure, but best-of-list worthy?  Not so sure.

The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

The Magnificent Ambersons

Director – Orson Welles

Starring – Joseph Cotton, Delores Costello, Anne Baxter, and Tim Holt

Often compared as a bastard sibling to the widely praised Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons is the second of Orson Welles’ two picture deal with RKO Pictures.  While he was away filming another feature in Brazil, Ambersons was taken away from Welles by the studio who felt the picture was too slow and somber.  RKO cut roughly 50 minutes of footage from the end, and tacked on a happy ending to appease test audiences who, since it was released after the attack at Pearl Harbor wanted something a bit more cheerful, and with laughs.

Ambersons tells the story of a spoiled little rich kid, George Amberson Minaver, played to cruel, selfish perfection by Tim Holt.  George (apparently based on the somewhat spoiled Orson Welles) is so caught up in himself, and his worries, that he doesn’t allow anyone else in his family the opportunity of their own happiness.  Seeing the affection between his mother, Isabel, and Joseph Cotton’s character Eugene Morgan, as a threat, he firmly plants himself in between the pair willing to go to great lengths to keep them apart.  The families reliance on their seemingly endless wealth threatens to teach them some hard life lessons.  From this brief synopsis, you can see where the story is going, but rest assured you won’t see the abbreviated ending coming.

Despite the new happy ending, The Magnificent Ambersons, as it exists today is incomplete.  The editor, Robert Wise, a director in his own right (The Haunting, West Side Story, and The Sound of Music) was put in charge of cutting the film to its current length.  While salvaging as much as he could of the story, the film still seems to end abruptly, destroying the our investment in the characters as well as the weight and importance of the story.  The cut footage was rumored to have been destroyed to prevent Welles from protesting and producing another cut, all though officially it was to clear space in the studio’s vaults.

Since we will never fully know what this film could have been, it is unfair to say it is as good as Citizen Kane, nor is it fair to put it on the list of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, especially since it isn’t commercially available on DVD in the United States (I watched a decent quality AVI file that I happened upon).  That being said, what is present in the version that I saw, was a prime example of why Orson Welles was (and still is if you ask me) such a revered filmmaker.  The ensemble acting is the quality you might expect of the Mercury players, everyone does a great job, not only of playing their parts, but also of supporting their fellow actors in their roles.

A class could be taught on the cinematography of this film alone.  Stanley Cortez replaces Gregg Toland as Welles’ cinematographer of choice, but none of the elegance inherent in Citizen Kane was lost.  Unlike a lot of films from this era, Welles isn’t afraid of using shadow to dramatic and atmospheric effect.  Character’s, especially female characters, in most american films seem to always find that same pocket of light that illuminates them in just such a way.  In Ambersons, not only is there plenty of darkness, but it is nearly a character all its own.  One that each other character interacts with, and plays against (both physically with the shadows in a scene, and metaphorically with their own motivations and intentions).

Another interesting element deserving of mention is the mammoth estate in which the Amberson’s dwell.  The sense of foreboding and expectation carried by the physical structure that houses this indomitable family affects the story as much as any other element in the story.  The cavernous stairway is host to as many romantic kisses as it is to malicious eavesdropping and tense stand-offs.

Finally it is important to point out the resonance this film has had with one of my favorite films of all time, The Royal Tenenbaums.  Similar to The Magnificent Ambersons, Tenenbaums deals with the perceived mythology of a family of spectacular characters, and juxtaposing that ideal against the reality of the dysfunction that is inherent in family.  Similarities range from the small (the titles are similarly grand) to the grand (the main conflict in both films comes about when love and relationships are threatened by jealousy and depression).  Wes Anderson, to his credit, has managed to finish what Orson Welles was never able to.  With The Royal Tenenbaums he manages to bring closure to the wonderful story that has had a false happy ending on it for nearly 60 years.

Is The Magnificent Ambersons great?  No, not as a whole, but what it’s made of, what it was going to be, and what it has inspired, is far more than great!  It’s Magnificent!