Wednesday, March 30, 2022

#2,731. My Fair Lady (1964) - Classic Musicals Triple Feature


It is, without question, one of the greatest movie musicals ever made. George Cukor’s film version of Lerner and Loew’s smash Broadway hit (which was itself based on George Bernard Shaw’s 1913 play Pygmalion), My Fair Lady is the pinnacle of screen entertainment.

Professor Henry Higgins (Rex Harrison, reprising the role he made famous on Broadway) is a master of the English language, and he makes a friendly wager with fellow scholar Colonel Hugh Pickering (Wilfred Hyde-White) that he can take rough-around-the-edges cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle (Audrey Hepburn) and, with a little training, transform her into a sophisticated, well-spoken young woman.

After reaching an agreement with Eliza’s philandering father (Stanley Holloway, also reprising the part he played on-stage), Higgins spends the next several months instructing Eliza on the finer points of speaking the Queen’s English. While their first public test of the “new” Eliza (at Ascot racetrack) doesn’t go quite as planned, Eliza does eventually become the refined British woman Higgins intended. But while Eliza is understandably ecstatic about her new personality, she can’t help but wonder if there’s more to her and Higgins’ relationship than teacher and pupil. If there isn’t, then what’s to become of her when the lessons are over?

Produced by Warner Brothers, My Fair Lady was nominated for 12 Academy Awards, winning eight including Best Picture, Director, and Actor (for Harrison, who strikes the perfect balance between snobbishness and brilliance, making us both admire and detest him as the story unfolds). Stanley Holloway as Eliza’s father was nominated for Best Supporting Actor, and rightly so; in a movie filled with one extraordinary musical sequence after another, Holloway’s two numbers, “With a Little Bit of Luck” and “Get Me to the Church On Time”, are my absolute favorites.

That said, Audrey Hepburn’s snub in the Best Actress category is almost unfathomable. I realize Julie Andrews made the role of Eliza Doolittle famous on Broadway, and there were those who wished she had played the part on film, but Hepburn is wonderful as both the “Cockney guttersnipe” (which Higgins calls her on occasion) and the Regal sophisticate who dominates the second half of the film. In fact, the scene at the Ascot Racetrack, where we get a glimpse of both sides of Eliza’s personality, results in the movie’s single funniest line (ironically, Andrews won Best Actress that year for Mary Poppins).

Also good are Wilfred Hyde-White as the sympathetic Colonel Pickering, Eliza’s confidante and supporter when Higgins gets a bit too intense; Gladys Cooper (also nominated for Best Supporting Actress) as Higgins’ mother; Mona Washbourne as loyal housemaid Mrs. Pearce; and Theodore Bikel as Zoltan Karpathy, a former pupil of Higgins’ who now fancies himself a professional linguist. Also amazing are the film’s costumes and set pieces, which bring the time and setting (London in 1912) convincingly to life (My Fair Lady also took home Oscars for Art Direction, Cecil Beaton’s Costume Design, and Harry Stradling’s expert cinematography).

As for the songs, there isn’t a bad one in the bunch! Along with those I already mentioned, highlights include Eliza’s “I Could Have Danced All Night” (Hepburn’s singing voice was dubbed by Marni Nixon) and Higgins’ undoubtedly sexist (and borderline misogynistic) but oh-so-fun rendition of “A Hymn to Him (Why Can’t a Woman Be More Like a Man?)”.

Of the four musicals that took home Best Picture Oscars in the 1960s (along with My Fair Lady, there was 1961’s West Side Story, 1965’s The Sound of Music and Oliver! In 1968), My Fair Lady is easily the best. More than timeless, My Fair Lady actually gets better with age!
Rating: 10 out of 10

Monday, March 28, 2022

#2,730. The Band Wagon (1953) - Classic Musicals Triple Feature


Though he would direct a handful of fine dramatic films (The Bad and the Beautiful, Lust for Life), Vincente Minnelli will always be remembered for his outstanding musicals, two of which – An American in Paris and Gigi – won Best Picture their respective years at the Academy Awards.

His 1953 film The Band Wagon didn’t garner similar accolades; it received three Oscar nominations - for writing, costumes, and music - winning none. But don’t let that throw you. In fact, it may be the most entertaining of the bunch!

In an effort to revive his sagging career, singer / dancer Tony Newton (Fred Astaire) agrees to star in a brand-new stage production penned by his longtime pals, the husband / wife duo Lester (Oscar Levant) and Lily Martin (Nanette Fabray). All three are excited to be working with Broadway sensation Jeffrey Cordova (Jack Buchanan), who has agreed to direct.

Unfortunately, Cordova has reinterpreted their lighthearted comedy / romance as a musical rendition of the Faust legend, and what’s more has convinced Gabrielle Gerard (Cyd Charisse), the world’s foremost ballet dancer, to play the leading lady!

With production costs skyrocketing and the rehearsals running non-stop for days at a time, Tony begins to wonder if this show - titled The Band Wagon - is going to rejuvenate his career or kill it once and for all.

A breezy, fun musical romp, The Band Wagon features some outstanding musical numbers, including “Shine on your Shoes”, in which Astaire and Leroy Daniels, playing a shoeshine man, dance around a carnival-like attraction on New York’s 42nd street; and the now-famous “That’s Entertainment”, which pops up on a number of occasions (including the finale). And while it’s a bit silly, I really enjoyed “Triplets”, which had Astaire, Nanette Fabray and Jack Buchanan singing a goofy ditty while dressed as infants.

Despite being in his 50s while making this film, Astaire seems as spry and bouncy as ever, and proved the perfect leading man, while Charisse shows off her incredible dancing skills throughout, especially during the very imaginative “Girl Hunt Ballet” sequence, a satire of the hard-boiled Mickey Spillane detective stories that appears towards the end of the movie.

Similar in both theme and entertainment value to the “Let’s put on a show” musicals Busby Berkeley was turning out a few decades earlier (42nd Street, Gold Diggers of 1933), Minnelli’s The Band Wagon is a unique, supremely entertaining, and wholly satisfying motion picture experience.
Rating: 9 out of 10

Saturday, March 26, 2022

#2,729. A Star is Born (1954) - Classic Musicals Triple Feature


Rumor has it that when Grace Kelly won the 1954 Academy Award for Best Actress (for The Country Girl), Groucho Marx sent a telegram to Judy Garland – whose nominated performance for A Star Is Born made her the odds-on favorite that year – and said her losing was “the biggest robbery since Brink’s”.

Judy Garland was indeed stellar in this Warner Brothers musical extravaganza, but matching her every step of the way was co-star James Mason, delivering what might be his greatest performance as Norman Maine, an alcoholic movie star who takes a talented young woman under his wing and transforms her into a Hollywood sensation.

When singer Vicki Lester (Garland) helps him through an embarrassing drunken escapade at a benefit concert, renowned actor Norman Maine (Mason) shows his appreciation by offering her some career advice, telling Vicki to resign from her small band and try her luck in the movies. After a few false starts, Vicki finally lands a role in a major Hollywood production, and before long is on her way to stardom.

Over time, Vicki’s and Norman’s relationship develops into a love affair, and they eventually marry. But how will Norman deal with his new wife’s mounting successes while his own career is fizzling out?

Judy Garland is at her absolute best as Vicki Lester, and her musical numbers are impressively staged, especially “Born in a Trunk”, which Vicki performs in her first ever film. Yet as good as Garland’s voice is, she is even better dramatically, perfectly conveying the excitement, adoration, and eventual heartbreak that results from her character loving a man like Norman Maine.

Equally as superb is James Mason. From the moment we first meet his Norman Maine, we know he’s a loose cannon. The opening sequence, where he stumbles backstage at the benefit show, drunkenly accosting showgirls and fighting with reporters, gets the movie off to an uncomfortable yet engaging start. Mason successfully conveys Norman’s varying personalities throughout A Star is Born: the inebriated silliness with a hint of anger simmering just underneath; the self-loathing; and the genuine desire to help Vicki any way he can. Norman even manages to lure studio head Oliver Niles (Charles Bickford) into his bungalow one afternoon and sets it up so that he can hear Vicki sing for the very first time, and on the same day that another actress dropped out of a big-budget musical.

In addition, we see the love that Norman has for Vicki, and how he is willing to sacrifice everything - his career and more - for her. It’s a stunning portrayal by Mason, and it is he and Garland who carry A Star is Born to the lofty heights it ultimately reaches.

With director George Cukor in top form and a script by Moss Hart (which was partly inspired by the original 1937 film directed by William A. Wellman), A Star is Born - along with the strong performances of its two leads – also offers a less-than-glamorous glimpse into what happens behind the scenes in Tinseltown. Like Sunset Blvd before it, this 1954 movie exposed the seedy underbelly of the motion picture industry and, in so doing, went on to become a Hollywood classic in its own right.
Rating: 9.5 out of 10

Thursday, March 24, 2022

#2,728. The Bible: In the Beginning... (1966) - The Men Who Made the Movies


John Huston’s grand retelling of the first 22 chapters of the Old Testament’s Book of Genesis, The Bible: In the Beginning… takes us from creation, when Adam (Michael Parks) and Eve (Ulla Bergryd) were cast out of paradise for eating from the Tree of Knowledge, to the murder of Abel (Franco Nero) by his brother Cain (Richard Harris). Noah (played by director Huston) and his Ark are given first-class treatment, as is the story of Abraham (George C. Scott) and his wife Sarah (Ava Gardner), who try for decades to have a son before God finally blesses them with Isaac (played as a child by Alberto Lucantoni).

This joint Italian / American production also features, albeit briefly, the Tower of Babel and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, in which three angels (all played by Peter O’Toole) warn Lot (Gabriele Ferzetti) and his family to flee before God unleashes his wrath upon the cities (the image of Lot’s wife, played by Eleanora Rossi Drago, transforming into a pillar of salt is profoundly disturbing).

Though not a perfect film, The Bible: In the Beginning... has its strengths. The opening creation sequence (narrated by director Huston) boasts some stunning photography; it almost feels as if this footage, shot in Dimension-150 (similar to Todd-AO 70mm), was lifted from one of those excellent BBC Nature documentaries. In addition, George C. Scott and Ava Gardner do a fine job as Abraham and Sarah, whose exploits take up the entire second half of this nearly 3-hour movie, yet the film’s best sequences are those with Noah and his ark. Director Huston seems to be having a wonderful time portraying Noah, who develops a rapport with the animals he brings along (there are even a few comedic moments thrown in), and the set pieces used to recreate the ark are extraordinary.

Where the film falters more often than not is in its pacing. The opening scenes with Adam and Even drag occasionally, as does the subsequent segment with Cain and Abel. Even more bloated is the last half of the movie, featuring Abraham (there are a few exciting sequences thrown in to break up the monotony, but not enough to salvage it entirely).

Still, The Bible: In the Beginning... is a grand piece of entertainment, a big-budgeted religious epic with an all-star cast and a rousing score by Toshiro Mayuzumi (nominated for both an Oscar and a Golden Globe) all doing their part to bring these biblical tales convincingly to life.
Rating: 6.5 out of 10

Tuesday, March 22, 2022

#2,727. Giant (1956) - The Men Who Made the Movies


One of the taglines for George Stevens’ award-winning movie Giant screams “The Legendary Epic That’s as Big as Texas!”. This 1956 film is certainly that. A sprawling, gorgeous motion picture about a cattle rancher and his family coming to terms with a changing world, Giant is a mountain of a movie.

While purchasing a horse in Maryland, Texas rancher Jordan Benedict (Rock Hudson) - called “Bick” by his friends - meets and falls in love with East Coast socialite Leslie Lynnton (Elizabeth Taylor). The two eventually marry and head to Reata, Bick’s cattle ranch, which stands on over half a million acres of the great state of Texas.

Though impressed with the grandness of her new home, Leslie also finds herself an outsider, butting heads with Bick’s stern sister Luz (Mercedes McCambridge) and shocked at how poorly the Benedicts and their friends treat their Mexican employees, who live in poverty.

As the years pass, Bick’s and Leslie’s family grows, and though determined to hold on to tradition, Bick soon finds himself at the mercy of former employee and current millionaire Jett Rink (James Dean), who took a small parcel of land smack dab in the middle of Reata and turned it into a thriving oil business.

Giant is an epic in every sense of the word. Beautifully shot by cinematographer William C. Mellor, who somehow manages to make the sparse Texas landscape come alive, Giant also has one hell of a cast. Hudson and Taylor are at their best as the loving, headstrong couple who seldom see eye-to-eye, while James Dean, in what would prove to be his final role, damn near steals the show, giving us in Jett Rink a character we root for early on, and come to despise as the story progresses.

Equally as impressive are McCambridge as Bick’s tough-as-nails sister; Chill Wills as Bick’s kindly uncle Bawley; and Dennis Hopper and Carroll Baker as Bick's and Leslie’s adult children, both of whom experience the pitfalls of being a Benedict. Also turning up briefly are Rod Taylor as an early suitor of Leslie’s and Sal Mineo as Angel, the son of one of Bick’s Mexican workers, who is sent off to fight in World War II.

While the main thrust of the story focuses on the Benedicts and how the incursion of oil drilling changed the Texas landscape, Giant also takes aim at bigotry. Soon after arriving at Reata, Leslie takes a great interest in the local Mexican population, and is horrified to learn that while she and Bick live comfortable lives, others only a mile or two away are dying of hunger. Leslie does what she can to help these employees, going so far as to have a doctor brought in to tend to them on a regular basis, despite the fact Bick has flat-out forbidden her to get involved (there are scenes where he refers to his Mexican employees as “those people”).

George Stevens would go on to make the exceptional The Diary of Anne Frank and the bloated The Greatest Story Ever Told, but Giant would be his final masterpiece. It is a prime example of a Hollywood movie done right, and a motion picture that remains, to this day, an undisputed classic.
Rating: 10 out of 10

Sunday, March 20, 2022

#2,726. Moulin Rouge (1952) - The Men Who Made the Movies


Baz Luhrmann’s award-winning film Moulin Rouge whisks us to Paris at the turn of the 20th century, using modern rock music and a kinetic style to bring the era to life. This 2001 movie absolutely blew me away, and is one of my all-time favorite films.

Released almost 50 years prior, John Huston’s Moulin Rouge is also quite stylish, and gets our adrenaline pumping in its very first scene. It is evening at the Moulin Rouge, and male patrons watch as courtesans strut their stuff, dancing boisterously to the Can-Can and other period tunes. Two performers in particular, La Goulue (Katherine Kath) and Aicha (Muriel Smith), have taken center stage. La Goulue inadvertently bumps into Aicha on the dance floor, and a fight breaks out between the two. The Moulin Rouge’s proprietor, Zidler (Harold Kasket), tries to intercede, and complains that it’s impossible to control these two ladies.

As Luhrmann did with his Moulin Rouge, Huston infuses these opening moments with vibrancy, excitement, and even a little bawdiness, all in an effort to show his audience how intoxicating an experience it was to visit the Moulin Rouge at the zenith of its popularity. But despite its title, Huston’s 1952 film is not about the historic cabaret. This award-winning motion picture is actually a biopic of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, the infamous artist whose risqué paintings and lithographs shined a light on the city’s dingier areas, bringing the street life of 19th century Paris and the exhilaration of the Moulin Rouge to a global audience.

Crippled by a childhood accident that prevented his legs from growing, artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (Jose Ferrer) spends his evenings downing one glass of cognac after another as he sketches the dancers and patrons of the Moulin Rouge. Mocked throughout his adult life because of his diminutive stature (the real Lautrec stood no taller than 5 feet, or 1.52 meters), Henri immersed himself in art and culture, accepting the hard fact that his condition would likely prevent him from ever finding true love.

His luck seems to change, however, when he has a chance meeting with street walker Marie Charlet (Colette Marchand). Smitten, Lautrec allows Marie to move in with him, and showers her with gifts. Alas, the romance is short lived, sending Lautrec into a depression that doesn’t break until his beloved mother (Claude Nollier) pays him a visit.

Commissioned by Zidler to create a poster advertising the Moulin Rouge, Lautrec paints what would become his most memorable work, that of the dancer La Goulue entertaining the crowd. Now more popular than ever, Lautrec befriends Myriamme Hyam (Suzanne Flon), a good friend of the Moulin Rouge’s biggest star, singer Jane Avril (Zsa Zsa Gabor). But will their friendship blossom into something more, or is Lautrec destined to live out his days alone?

Director Huston and his team, including production and set Designer Vertes and costume designer Julia Squire, do a marvelous job recreating late 19th century Paris, from the jubilant dance floor of the Moulin Rouge to the back alleys of the city’s seedier neighborhoods. The supporting cast is also strong. Colette Marchand is quite good as the shifty Marie, whose true feelings for Lautrec are always in question. Also effective are Gabor as the flighty but talented Jane Avril (she even sings a few songs) and Suzanne Flon as Myriamme, Lautrec’s most trusted friend and the only person able to see past his deformities.

But it’s Jose Ferrer as Lautrec who commands our attention. Using everything from knee pads to specialized camera angles, Huston and Ferrer managed to recreate Lautrec’s unique physical condition in a perfectly convincing manner. And because we’re witness to the torment and pain caused by his underdeveloped legs, we understand the source of his sharp wit, his often-standoffish nature, and his occasionally short temper, all of which are matched only by his talent as an artist (even when depressed, he continues to work, turning out one masterpiece after another). From the opening scene, when Lautrec is sitting at the Moulin Rouge, sketching on a tablecloth, Ferrer conveys his character’s complexities and, eventually, his failings (Lautrec was an alcoholic, a condition that grew worse as the years progressed).

Nominated by the Academy for Best Actor (an award he had won two years earlier, for the title role in 1950’s Cyrano de Bergerac), Ferrer (who also plays Lautrec’s father in flashbacks and a few later scenes) is stellar from start to finish, doing his part to make this early version of Moulin Rouge every bit as enjoyable as Luhrmann’s 2001 masterwork.
Rating: 9 out of 10

Friday, March 18, 2022

#2,725. The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) - The Men Who Made the Movies


William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives was the big winner at the 19th annual Academy Awards, taking home seven of the eight Oscars for which it was nominated: Best Picture, Director (Wyler), Actor (Fredric March), Supporting Actor (Harold Russell), Screenplay (Robert E. Sherwood), Editing (Daniel Mandell), and Score (Hugo Friedhofer). Throwing a spotlight on the difficulties World War II veterans faced when returning home, The Best Years of Our Lives is a dramatic, deeply moving motion picture, as well as one of the best Hollywood movies of the 1940s.

Three veterans return to their home town of Boone City. Air Force Bombardier Fred Derry (Dana Andrews) is anxious to reunite with his wife Marie (Virginia Mayo), who he met and married only a few weeks before shipping out. Army Sergeant Al Stephenson (Fredric March) worked as a banker before the war, and lives in a posh hotel suite with wife Milly (Myrna Loy), adult daughter Peggy (Teresa Wright), and teenage son Rob (Michael Hall). Naval Petty Officer Homer Parrish (Harold Russell) lost both of his hands during the war. Though he’s become an expert with his new prosthetic hooks, Homer worries that his fiancé Wilma (Cathy O’Donnell) will be turned off by his handicap.

All three men have trouble readjusting to civilian life. Fred has a hard time finding work, and accepts the only job he can get: a counter clerk at the local pharmacy.  This doesn't sit well with Marie, whose insistence that they go out every night and paint the town red is more than Fred can afford. To complicate matters, Fred is falling in love with Al’s daughter Peggy, who also develops feelings for him. 
As for the others, Al accepts a promotion at the bank, though drinks heavily as a way of coping with his wartime experiences; while Homer withdraws emotionally, and loses his temper at the drop of a hat whenever someone treats him like a cripple.

The three former soldiers do get together occasionally at a local bar owned by Homer’s uncle Butch (Hoagy Carmichael), but each feels alone in this “new world”, and struggles to keep up with a society that seems to have left them behind.

The Best Years of Our Lives sets the dramatic bar very high in the opening 20 minutes, when the vets reunite with their loved ones. Each is hesitant to return home, with Al going so far as to say seeing his family again was as nerve racking as “going in to hit a beach”. All three actors do an amazing job in these early scenes, especially Harold Russell, who prior to this film had no acting experience. Russell was chosen for the role because he actually lost his hands during the war. 

The supporting cast is equally strong, especially Teresa Wright as the lovestruck Peggy and Virginia Mayo as the selfish Marie, When Fred first returns home, his father (Roman Bohnen) informs him that Marie moved out a year earlier, and took a job at a night club. An entire day passes before Fred can even track her down!

Where The Best Years of Our Lives really works its magic, however, is in its depiction of the hardships faced by veterans, and how difficult it was for many to leave their wartime experiences behind. Though a successful banker, Al is dissatisfied with his career, which just doesn’t seem important anymore. Despite the support of his loving wife (played superbly by Myrna Loy), Al deals with his frustration by drinking… a lot! His first night back, he drags Milly and Peggy from one club to another, finally landing at Butch’s bar, where he reunites with Homer and Fred, both of whom also needed a drink to unwind. Along with the performances, credit must also go to director Wyler and screenwriter Robert E. Sherwood, who did their part to make each and every character in The Best Years of Our Lives feel 100% genuine.

In addition to its success at the Oscars, The Best Years of Our Lives won both the Golden Globe and BAFTA awards for Best Picture, with the National Board of Review choosing Wyler as the year’s Best Director. The film was also one of the first selected for preservation by the National Film Society, and in 2007 the AFI ranked it the 37th Greatest American film ever made.

Watch The Best Years of Our Lives and I’m sure you’ll agree it deserves every damn one of these honors!
Rating: 10 out of 10

Wednesday, March 16, 2022

#2,724. To Have and Have Not (1944) - The Men Who Made the Movies


You know you don't have to act with me, Steve. You don't have to say anything, and you don't have to do anything. Not a thing. Oh, maybe just whistle. You know how to whistle, don't you, Steve? You just put your lips together and... blow

The story goes that, while on a fishing trip, Howard Hawks turned to his good friend Ernest Hemingway and said that he could make a great movie out of his worst book. When Hemingway asked which one Hawks was referring to, the director allegedly responded “that hunk of junk To Have and Have Not”.

True to his word, Hawks did his part to make this 1944 Warner Brothers production a great movie, but it was the chemistry generated by his two stars, Humphrey Bogart and newcomer Lauren Bacall, that ultimately transformed To Have and Have Not into a Hollywood classic.

The year is 1940. The setting: French-controlled Martinique. Captain Steve Morgan (Bogart), with the help of his good friend, the oft-drunk Eddie (Walter Brennan), charters his small boat for fishing trips, his most recent client being a wealthy, foul-tempered American named Johnson (Walter Sande).

The political climate in Martinique has changed in recent weeks, with the German-friendly Vichy government taking control and weeding out anyone sympathetic to the Free France movement. Morgan, who is first and foremost a businessman, remains neutral, going so far as to refuse to help hotel owner “Frenchy” Gerard (Marcel Dalio) when he and his Free France buddies attempt to hire his boat for a dangerous mission.

Morgan has a change of heart, however, when he meets and falls for “Slim” (Bacall), a pretty American con artist who wants desperately to leave Martinique. To raise money for her ticket home, Morgan assists Frenchy and the others by picking up rebel Paul de Bursac (Walter Surovy) and his wife Helene (Dolores Moran) and sneaking them into Fort-de-France.

But with Vichy policeman Capitaine Renard (Dan Seymour) hot on his trail, it’s going to take some quick thinking for Morgan to get Slim out of the country.

Having never read Hemingway’s novel, I can’t say how bad it was, yet what I do know is that the film version of To Have and Have Not (which changed the setting from Cuba to Vichy-controlled Martinique) is a briskly-paced, expertly acted motion picture, with a handful of exciting scenes. Chief among them is the nighttime sequence in which Morgan and Eddie shoot it out with a patrol boat. This 1944 film also features plenty of crisp, memorable dialogue, thanks in large part to another of Hawks’ buddies, William Faulkner, who helped pen the screenplay. The supporting cast is strong, chief among them Walter Brennan as the likable inebriate Eddie and Dolores Moran as Helene de Bursac, the dutiful, overly-cautious wife of a French patriot. 

But from the moment Slim asks Morgan for a light, To Have and Have Not belongs to Bogart and Bacall.

Bogart is predictably excellent as Morgan, playing a character not unlike his Rick in Casablanca: a businessman who doesn’t take sides, yet is willing to help his French buddies against the Vichy. Even more impressive, though, is Bacall, who at 19 was making her screen debut. Sultry and alluring, you simply can’t take your eyes off of her, and the scenes in which she and Bogart are together are the film’s best.

It’s no wonder that Bogart and Bacall fell in love while making To Have and Have Not; both were amazing actors, yet the chemistry between them was much too potent to have been a performance. They would make other movies together, including the noir thriller The Big Sleep and one of my all-time favorite films, 1948’s Key Largo.  But to see Bogart and Bacall at their absolute best, one need look no further than To Have and Have Not.
Rating: 10 out of 10

Monday, March 14, 2022

#2,723. Sergeant York (1941) - The Men Who Made the Movies


On October 8, 1918, Alvin C. York, a Corporal in the United States Army serving in France, led an attack against a German machine gun nest. During the skirmish, he single-handedly killed at least 25 enemy soldiers and assisted in capturing over a hundred more. For his bravery, York was promoted to the rank of Sergeant and received the Congressional Medal of Honor as well as awards from France and Italy, making him one of the most decorated soldiers of World War I.

I sincerely doubt that Howard Hawks’ 1941 film based on this heroic individual – aptly titled Sergeant York - is an entirely factual account of its title character’s life and service, but it does feature what I consider to be Gary Cooper’s finest screen performance.

As the movie opens, Alvin York (Cooper) is far from the gallant hero he would eventually become. The son of a farmer in rural Tennessee, York, as a younger man, was prone to drinking and raising hell, which landed him in all kinds of trouble. Hoping to curb her son’s behavior, York’s mother (Margaret Wycherly) asks the local preacher, Pastor Pile (Walter Brennan), to convince Alvin to reject sin and put his trust in the "Good Book".

Eventually, Alvin York does find God, going so far as to teach kids the Bible at the church’s Sunday school. Engaged to marry Gracie Williams (Joan Leslie) and hoping to get a small farm of his own, Alvin is none too happy when, at the outbreak of World War I, he is informed he must sign up for the draft.

With the help of Pastor Pile, Alvin tries to avoid military service, claiming his religious beliefs make him a conscientious objector. Alas, York’s appeals are rejected. He is drafted into the Army, and during basic training proves himself a sharpshooter. As a result, York is promoted to Corporal and put in charge of instructing his fellow recruits on the finer points of shooting. 

It’s during the war, however, that Alvin York truly distinguishes himself, balancing his love for God with what he ultimately sees as his duty to the United States of America.

Nominated for eleven Academy Awards, Sergeant York would win only two, one of which was Best Actor for Gary Cooper (the other was for Best Editing, awarded to William Holmes). From its early scenes, like when York and his buddies Buck (Noah Beery Jr.) and Lem (Howard Da Silva) get into a barroom brawl, to the moment his character finds religion (the result of a lightning strike) and straight through to his service during the war, Cooper’s portrayal of the title character never falters; he plays drunk, pious, and brave equally well.

His performance, coupled with Hawks’ mannered, patient approach to the story (York’s various shifts in personality are never rushed; each is given ample time to play out), did their part to take what might have been a sappy, melodramatic biopic (and there are certainly moments when Sergeant York teeters on the edge of that particular precipice) and transform it into something much more substantial.
Rating: 9 out of 10

Saturday, March 12, 2022

#2,722. The Roaring Twenties (1939) - The Men Who Made the Movies


Director Raoul Walsh and his three screenwriters (Jerry Wald, Richard Macauley and Robert Rossen) pack a whole lot of story into The Roaring Twenties, one of the best of the Warner Brothers early gangster films.

After serving his country during World War I, soldier Eddie Bartlett (James Cagney) returns home and has a hard time landing a job. With the help of his old pal Danny Green (Frank McHugh), Eddie becomes a nighttime cab driver, and finds himself shuttling around some very shady characters.

With prohibition in full effect, Danny also does his part to help the bootleggers, making booze deliveries for speakeasy owner Panama Smith (Gladys George) before finally becoming a bootlegger himself. Teaming up with fellow war veterans George Hally (Humphrey Bogart) and Lloyd Hart (Jeffrey Lynn), Eddie rises to the top of New York's criminal underworld, and uses his success and influence to help singer Jean Sherman (Priscilla Lane) become the headline performer at Panama’s club.

Eddie is madly in love with Jean, and promises to go straight, and eventually leave his life of crime behind if she’ll just wait for him. But Jean has eyes for someone else, a reality that may spell the end of not only Eddie’s obsession, but also his reign as the city’s top criminal.

Director Walsh and company utilize an almost documentary approach throughout The Roaring Twenties, with a narrator (John Deering) breaking in on occasion to introduce each new historical era (World War I, prohibition, the rise of speakeasies and tommy guns, all the way up to the stock market crash of 1929). Interspersed within these history lessons is the story of Eddie Bartlett, played with gusto and tons of charisma by James Cagney, who, as he did in The Public Enemy, brings a likability to what amounts to a very shady character.

This time around, though, we’re given the full picture, and know exactly what it was that pushed Eddie into a life of crime. It’s here that The Roaring Twenties truly works its magic, shining a light on social issues of the time. Returning home from World War I, Eddie couldn’t land a job, an issue that plagued many former GI’s. Then, late in the film, Eddie, like millions of Americans at the time, loses everything in the stock market crash. By framing its fictional story within a fact-based context, The Roaring Twenties further distinguishes itself from other gangster films of the 1930s.

In addition to its approach and Cagney’s excellent turn, The Roaring Twenties features one hell of a performance by Humphrey Bogart as George, Eddie’s former comrade-in-arms who eventually becomes his chief rival, and there’s a romantic entanglement that only adds to the film’s intrigue (Eddie has no idea his good friend Lloyd, expertly portrayed by Jeffrey Lynn, is also deeply in love with Jean).

The Roaring Twenties is indeed a gangster film, but based on the above, I’d say it’s a lot more as well.
Rating: 9.5 out of 10

Thursday, March 10, 2022

#2,721. Beau Geste (1939) - The Men Who Made the Movies


The most popular film version of Percival Christopher Wren’s classic novel, director William A. Wellman’s Beau Geste opens with a mystery; a unit of French Legionnaires has crossed the Sahara to relieve the battle-weary troops at Fort Zinderneuf. Unfortunately, by the time they arrive, everyone inside is already dead, the bloody corpses of the deceased soldiers still standing at their post, as if continuing to defend the fort.

What happened here? And why did the relief company’s bugler, who scaled a wall to open the gate from the inside, suddenly disappear without a trace?

As opening sequences go, this one is an absolute doozy!

Beau Geste then flashes back a number of years to introduce its main characters, namely the three Geste brothers: Beau (Gary Cooper), Digby (Robert Preston), and John (Ray Milland). All were adopted at a young age by Lady Brandon (Heather Thatcher), who is also caretaker for her ward Isobel (Susan Hayward) and nephew Augustus (G.P. Huntley Jr.).

Upon learning that Lady Brandon’s absentee husband intends to sell the “Blue Water”, a valuable gem that has been in the family for generations, one of the Geste boys steals it, and the next day all three head off to join the French Legion (so that nobody will know which one actually swiped the precious jewel).

The three are eventually stationed in the Sahara Desert, where they and their fellow recruits are terrorized by the sadistic Sergeant Markoff (Brian Donlevy). When Markoff discovers that the Geste boys are hiding a priceless gem, he puts a plan in motion to steal it for himself, taking command of a battalion (which includes Beau and John, but not Digby) and marching them to Fort Zinderneuf, where the devious sergeant must fight off both a mutiny and hundreds of attacking Arabs if he’s to see his scheme through to the end.

A rousing adventure that also relates a moving tale of family loyalty, Beau Geste features strong performances by Cooper, Preston, and Milland as three siblings who are always watching each other’s backs, though it’s Donlevy who stands above the rest, perfectly convincing as the vindictive Markoff, an experienced soldier whose greed and ambition gets the better of him (along with stealing the Blue Water, he hopes to win awards for his bravery, even if it means sacrificing every last soldier serving under him).

In addition, director Wellman stages a handful of exciting battle scenes, and the film’s last act, where the mystery of what happened at Fort Zinderneuf is finally solved, is as dramatic as it is exciting.

Beau Geste is a real treat, and ranks right up there with The Adventures of Robin Hood and Gunga Din as one of the finest adventure films of the late ‘30s.
Rating: 9 out of 10

Tuesday, March 8, 2022

#2,720. Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) - The Men Who Made the Movies


Frank Capra and the everyman: a winning combination!

Whether portrayed by Jimmy Stewart (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, It’s a Wonderful Life), Clark Gable (It Happened One Night), or Gary Cooper, the star of 1936’s Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Capra’s “common man” always found their way into an audience’s heart, resulting in some of the finest, most uplifting movies of the 1930s and ‘40s.

After inheriting $20 million dollars from his late uncle, Longfellow Deeds (Cooper) leaves the small town of Mandrake Falls, Vermont behind, taking up residence in a spacious New York City mansion.

Considered by everyone to be little more than a backward yokel when he first arrived, Deeds eventually outwits con men, opportunists, art enthusiasts, bankers, and everyone else who wants a piece of his fortune. It seems the only person he can actually trust is his new flame, Mary Dawson (Jean Arthur).

But what Deeds doesn’t know is Mary is actually “Babe” Bennett, one of the city’s most ruthless reporters, who will stop at nothing to get the inside scoop on Longfellow Deeds. That is, until the moment she starts falling in love with him.

Mr. Deeds Goes to Town was the first film I made in which I consciously tried to make a social statement”, Capra once told Richard Schickel. “I wanted to see what an honest, small-town man would do with $20 million - how he would handle it, and how he could handle all the predators that would surround him, and what good would come out of that thing, what statements you could make about a man being his brother’s keeper”.

Cooper is positively endearing as Longfellow Deeds, a man who enjoys playing his Tuba whenever the mood strikes him, and who rushes to the window to watch fire engines as they roar down the street. Though a man of simple pleasures. Deeds is no pushover. In an effort to convince him to make up a $180,000 loss, the New York Opera names Deeds their chairman, only to be put in their place when he starts asking questions, wondering what they’re doing wrong to be losing money, and refusing to subsidize the Opera until he looks into it further.

On the flip side, Deeds is quick to help those less fortunate than himself, and late in the film is willing to give away large chunks of his money to the poor and needy. It’s a move that causes greedy lawyer John Cedar (Douglass Dumbrille) to try and have Deeds declared mentally incompetent, so that he can seize control of his fortune.

Still, despite the occasional setback, the values that Longfellow Deeds holds firm to remain intact, and anytime someone tries to make a fool of him, or laugh at his small-town mentality, he’s usually one step ahead of them. Even Babe Bennett, who took the assignment of cozying up to Deeds when her editor promised her a month’s paid vacation, eventually sees his inherent goodness, and comes to regret the role she’s playing in turning his New York “adventure” into a nightmare; neither Deeds nor his assigned protector Cornelius Cobb (Lionel Stander) can figure out how his nightly exploits make the front page of the next day’s newspapers.

The character of Longfellow Deeds, bolstered by Cooper’s heartfelt, sometimes understated performance, gives Mr. Deeds Goes to Town a hell of a lot of heart. This is a movie that will have you smiling ear-to-ear!
Rating: 9.5 out of 10

Sunday, March 6, 2022

#2,719. Bird of Paradise (1932) - The Men Who Made the Movies

Shortly after seeing King Vidor’s 1932 adventure / romance Bird of Paradise, Orson Welles commented that he thought its star, Dolores Del Rio, represented “the highest erotic ideal”. Ms. Del Rio is positively alluring as Luana, the island girl who falls in love with a sailor, and she is undoubtedly the best thing in what is an otherwise troubling motion picture.

A yacht sailing the Pacific makes its way to a tropical island, where its crew, including sailor Johnny Baker (Joel McCrae), are greeted by the natives. When Johnny is accidentally pulled overboard (by a shark he was trying to reel in), one of the natives, the beautiful Luana (Del Rio), dives in to save him.

Later that night, at a banquet hosted by the natives, Johnny once again meets Luana, and it isn’t long before the two have fallen in love. But Luana has been promised to another man, a prince on a neighboring island. What’s more, a nearby volcano has shown signs of waking up, and if it continues to spew smoke, Luana will be the next sacrifice to appease the volcano God!

Not willing to lose the woman of his dreams, Johnny whisks Luana away to a remote island, where he hopes they will live happily ever after. But should Luana’s people track them down, it could mean death for them both!

Bird of Paradise got into some trouble with censors as well as the Catholic League of Decency, all of whom objected to a nighttime underwater scene in which a nude Luana playfully swims alongside Johnny. While this certainly wasn’t the only pre-code film to feature nudity (The Sign of the Cross and Tarzan and his Mate, among others, also contained brief nude scenes), this sequence is sexy enough to have raised a few eyebrows back in the day. As for Del Rio, she is stunning, and while her character doesn’t speak English (save a few words towards the end, which she picked up from Johnny), She and Johnny have no problem communicating (the scenes when they are alone on their island are the film’s most romantic). Also turning up in a small supporting role, playing one of Johnny’s shipmates, is Lon Chaney Jr., making his screen debut (he was credited as Creighton Chaney).

Unfortunately, Bird of Paradise isn’t exactly kind to its non-white characters; when we first meet the natives, who have rowed out to greet the yacht, Johnny and a few others toss small objects overboard, and laugh a little as their new friends dive in to retrieve them. Even worse than this is the film’s finale, a grim reminder of a time when it was taboo to feature a romantic relationship between a Caucasian and any other race (these last few minutes actually pissed me off).

Bird of Paradise does have its strengths, from the captivating Delores Del Rio to its wonderfully shot underwater scenes (both nude and otherwise). But nowadays its more a relic of a bygone era, when Hollywood - and indeed the world - was belligerently intolerant.
Rating: 5.5 out of 10

Friday, March 4, 2022

#2,718. Wings (1927) - The Men Who Made the Movies


This year marks the 95th anniversary of Wings, a WW I action / drama / romance that took home the very first Academy Award for Best Picture.

A thrilling war film, Wings stars Charles “Buddy” Rogers, who plays the part of Jack Powell, a young, enthusiastic auto mechanic. As the movie opens, Jack is trying to win the heart of Sylvia Lewis (Jobyna Ralston), who is already in love with millionaire’s son David Armstrong (Richard Arlen). Jack is so preoccupied with Sylvia, in fact, that he doesn’t realize the pretty “girl next door”, Mary Preston (Clara Bow), has had a crush on him for years!

When war breaks out, both Jack and David enlist with the intention of becoming fighter pilots. Though rivals at first, a friendship forms between the two, and when their training is over, they become flying partners, battling the Germans in the skies over France and hoping one day to return home as war heroes. But war is unpredictable, and there are no guarantees even for the best pilots. Yet neither Jack nor David could have possibly known how their experience together would play out in the end.

William A. Wellman, aka “Wild Bill”, was the perfect director for a movie like Wings; when he was 21, he enlisted in the French Foreign Legion, and was the first American to join the Lafayette Flying Corps. He was involved in several skirmishes, and shot down three enemy aircraft (with another 5 probable kills) before himself being wounded when his plane was hit by German anti-aircraft fire in March 1918.

As a veteran of World War I, as well as a former combat pilot, Wellman knew how to shoot an aerial battle scene, and Wings features some of the finest ever committed to film. Mounting cameras directly onto the planes to put us in the middle of the action, Wellman pieced the skirmishes together in a way that keeps the excitement level cranked all the way up, culminating with a stirring recreation of the Battle of Saint-Mihiel, which serves as a dramatic turning point in the story.

We had an area there in (San Antonio) Texas that looked exactly like it”, Wellman once told writer and critic Richard Schickel about his staging of the Battle of Saint-Mihiel, “and I rehearsed it and rehearsed it. For those days, it was big. I had 65 airplanes in the air. I had over a thousand men”. And based on his grand, thrilling depiction of this famous battle, I’d say Wellman’s hard work paid off in a big way!.

Kudos must be given to Rogers and Arlen, both of whom did a fine job portraying the rivals that become friends, yet it’s Clara Bow - on her way to being the “It Girl” - who shined brightest in what was essentially a thankless role; like Jack, Mary is a car enthusiast, and volunteers to work for the Red Cross as an ambulance driver. She is herself sent off to France, but while featured in one exciting scene (when the Germans bomb a town), Mary spends most of the movie pining after Jack, both at home and even in Europe (Bow is the best thing about an extended sequence in Paris, where her Mary meets up with a drunken Jack at a night club, only to find he’s too preoccupied with champagne bubbles to even realize she’s there). Also keep an eye out for Gary Cooper, who, in an early screen role, appears briefly as Cadet White.

While some of the film’s non-battle scenes may be hit and miss (Jack’s fascination with bubbles stretches on far too long, eventually losing its humorous effectiveness), Wellman’s aerial fights are as thrilling as they come, and do their part to make Wings a film that, almost a century later, is guaranteed to bring you to the edge of your seat.
Rating: 8 out of 10

Wednesday, March 2, 2022

2,717. The Big Parade (1925) - The Men Who Made the Movies


Released only seven years after the Armistice that ended World War I, King Vidor’s The Big Parade gave audiences what, at the time, was the harshest depiction of warfare ever to grace the silver screen.

As the movie opens, we’re introduced to Jim Apperson (John Gilbert), the idle son of a millionaire businessman (Hobart Bosworth). When war breaks out, Jim, caught up in the patriotic fervor, enlists in the army, winning the respect of both his father and his fiancé Justyn (Claire Adams).

Once in France, Jim - whose unit spends several weeks training in the rear echelon - befriends fellow recruits Slim (Karl Dane) and Bull (Tom O’Brien), and he even falls in love with French peasant Melisande (Renée Adorée). But when the call comes for them to march to the front lines, Jim and his comrades are quickly introduced to the terrible, frightening realities of trench warfare.

The first half of The Big Parade is dedicated to building its characters, establishing both the camaraderie that develops between Jim, Bull, and Slim as well as Jim’s whirlwind romance with Melisande. These early scenes are lighthearted and, at times, even comical; soon after arriving in France, Jim and the others are ordered to shovel pig manure, a sequence that ends with a big laugh.

Once the action shifts to the front lines, however, The Big Parade changes tone, hitting us with one intense scene after another. Before they’ve even made their way to the trenches, Jim and the others are fired upon by German machine guns, and are forced to don gas masks when a mysterious cloud moves their way. These two halves of The Big Parade compliment each other perfectly; having spent time getting to know Jim, Bull, and Slim at the outset, we’re as nervous as they are when the bullets start flying.

Prior to staging the battle scenes for The Big Parade, Vidor consulted several World War I veterans (including a few Germans) to ensure these sequences were as realistic as possible. It proved to be a wise move, and while I wouldn’t go so far as to call The Big Parade an anti-war film, it’s realistic depiction of the World War I battlefield must have surely raised a few eyebrows back in 1925.
Rating: 9 out of 10