Classic Movie Review: Suspicion (1941)

Title: Suspicion
Release Date: November 14, 1941
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Production Company: RKO Radio Pictures

After watching several screwball comedies, it was alarming how similar this psychological thriller begins.  Was Hitchcock making a statement on screwball comedies, or is it just a coincidence? Shortly after their first meeting, Johnnie Aysgarth (Cary Grant) pursues Lina McLaidlaw (Joan Fontaine) across a meadow, and then grabs her hair and starts to readjust it.  This is a huge red flag for Johnnie’s bad character, and yet how many screwball comedies begin with a “goofy” character breaking personal boundaries?

Lina, convinced she’ll become a spinster, is drawn in by Johnnie’s charisma and devil-may-care attitude.  After they elope and return from a honeymoon, Johnnie reveals that he is broke, has no job, and spends much of his time gambling.  Lina catches Johnnie in several lies as he continues to gamble, and even embezzle, behind her back.  When he proposes setting up a speculative land business with his friend Beaky (a wonderful performance by Nigel Bruce), Lina suspects that Johnnie is planning a con. And when Beaky dies, Lina begins to fear that Johnnie is a murderer and she will be his next victim.

The conclusion is cleverly ambiguous: is Johnnie really attempting to work through his compulsions and Lina’s imagination is running away with her suspicions? Or, is Johnnie lying and successfully conning Lina once again?  My understanding is that the Hays Code considerably changed the source novel significantly to be acceptable for filming, but I think Hitchcock worked well within those restraints to make a compelling drama.  Plus, Fontaine puts in a fantastic performance, and Cary Grant, who I’ve always liked, is very creepy and unsettling.

Rating: ***1/2

Classic Movie Review: Lady Eve (1941)

Title: Lady Eve
Release Date: February 25, 1941
Director: Preston Sturges
Production Company: Paramount Pictures

Another day, another screwball comedy.  And this may be the screwiest one yet, because a lot of the plot is simply not at all logical.  But put aside logic and enjoy that gags and you have a good film.

Charles Pike (Henry Fonda) is a shy young man (Fonda is good at playing reserved, but morally-centered characters) and reluctant heir to a brewery fortune. Returning to the U.S. on an ocean liner from the Amazon after studying snakes for a year,  Jean Harrington (Barbara Stanwyck) and her stunning cheekbones come into his life.  He falls for her quickly and they’re discussing marriage before the ship even docks.

But there’s a twist! Jean and her father, “Colonel” Harrington (Charles Coburn), are card sharps, and Charles is their mark.  In another twist, Jean legitimately loves him in return, and protects him from being taken by her father.  Nevertheless, when Charles discovers the truth about Jean, he breaks off their relationship.

Learning of a con to swindle wealthy Connecticut families, including the Pikes, Jean jumps at the chance to join in, putatively to get revenge for Charles dumping her.  She pretends to be a British aristocrat named Lady Eve Sidwich, and Stanwyck is absolutely hilarious putting on her posh English accent and mannerisms.  Charles is stunned by Eve’s resemblance to Jean, but rationalizes that Jean would disguise herself better, and thus accepts she’s a different woman.  They fall in love, and humorously,Charles uses the same lines to propose to “Eve” that he used on Jean.

After they marry, things get really weird.  I mean it’s still funny, but also left me saying “huh?”  All in all a good comic film with great performances by Stanwyck and Fonda.

Rating: ***1/2

Classic Movie Review: My Favorite Wife (1940)

Title: My Favorite Wife
Release Date: May 17, 1940
Director: Garson Kanin
Production Company: RKO Radio Pictures

Producer Leo McCarey, who directed The Awful Truth, reunites with Irene Dunn and Cary Grant for another great screwball comedy. The film begins with Nick Arden (Grant) getting his wife Ellen (Dunn) declared legally dead after she’s been missing for 7 years.  He then immediately marries Bianca (Gail Patrick, who was wonderful in My Man Godfrey, but unfortunately doesn’t get much to here other than react to the weirdness around her). Of course Ellen wasn’t dead at all, merely shipwrecked on a desert island, and she returns home that very same day.

Nick struggles to find a way to tell Bianca that his first wife is alive, and all sorts of hijinx ensue. Nick is also insanely jealous that Ellen shared the island with the handsome and athletic Stephen Burkett (Randolph Scott), and that they called each other “Adam” and “Eve”.  Eventually Nick’s bigamy gets sorted out through the efforts of the befuddled Judge Bryson (Granville Bates in one of the film’s most comical roles), but Nick says he needs to “think it over” regarding and so Ellen torments him in true screwball comedy heroine fashion.  The Arden kids (Scotty Beckett and Mary Lou Harrington) are much more resilient regarding their mother’s surprise return, and Dunn’s performance in the scene where she reveals her true identity is very moving.

It was bound to happen as I worked my way through a list of classic movies I’d never seen before, but so many elements of My Favorite Wife are so familiar I certainly have watched it already. In fact, it feels like I watched it relatively recently, but can’t figure out why I didn’t blog about it.  At any rate, it’s an enjoyable comedy that was worth watching again.

Rating: ***1/2

Classic Movie Review: The Great Dictator (1940)

Title: The Great Dictator
Release Date: October 15, 1940
Director: Charlie Chaplin
Production Company: Charles Chaplin Film Corporation

13 years after the first “talkie,” Charlie Chaplin finally made his first film with true sound.  And let me tell you, it is very strange to hear Chaplin talking.  But he puts words to good use in this startling satire of Adolf Hitler and fascism. Filming began the same month that World War II began and The Great Dictator appeared in theaters at the same time the Battle of Britain was raging.  Not knowing the full extent of the Nazi horror was justification for turning away Jewish refugees on the MS St. Louis in 1939, and yet this movie refers to “concentration camps” by name.

Chaplin plays two roles in this movie. One is a Jewish barber who loses his memory in one of the final battles of the Great War while valiantly aiding Commander Schultz (Reginald Gardiner) secure valuable documents.  20 years later he’s finally recovered and returns to work at his barbershop in the ghetto, unaware of the rise of fascism and the persecution of the Jews.  In this role, Chaplin very much resembles his Little Tramp character in attire.  The barber befriends Mr. Jaeckel (Maurice Moscovich, who liked so much in Make Way for Tomorrow and falls in love with Hannah (Paulette Goddard), who help him adjust to the new situation. Schultz is even able to arrange a brief reprieve of the oppression in the ghetto in recognition of the barber’s heroism in World War I.

Chaplin’s other role is Adenoid Hynkel, Dictator of Tomainia, a not at all subtle parody of Adolf Hitler.  Chaplain mimics Hitler’s oratory style, complete with wild arm gestures, in a German-sound gibberish.  His depiction of a power hungry tyrant who is vain, irrational, and stupid feels a bit close to the surface to watch in 2019.  Other parodies target Joseph Goebbels, Hermann Göring, and Benito Mussolini as Garbitsch (Henry Daniell), Herring (Billy Gilbert), Benzino Napaloni (Jack Oakie) respectively.

It is not at all surprising with Chaplin playing two characters that it will eventually lead to mistaken identity.  But what is stunning is the speech the barber delivers in the guise of Hynkel at the film’s conclusion.  All the comedy ceases, and Chaplin essentially speaks as himself for several minutes on peace and unity.  It’s a powerful ending to a film that I’m still amazed even exists.

Rating: ****

Classic Movie Review: Jamaica Inn (1939)


Title: Jamaica Inn 
Release Date: May 15, 1939
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Production Company: Mayflower Productions

This Alfred Hitchcock period drama wasn’t originally on my (growing) list of classic films I need to watch, but I decided to watch it on a whim.  This was Hitchcock’s last film produced in England before he went to work in Hollywood.  It’s also the first of three Hitchcock movies based on the writings of Daphne du Maurier (the others are Rebecca and The Birds).  But most importantly this is the major film debut of Maureen O’Hara, whom I’ve crushed since I was a callow youth.

Set in Cornwall in 1819, the titular Jamaica Inn is the headquarters of a crew of wreckers, who lure ships to wreck on the rocky shores, kill the crew, and plunder all the valuables.  The gang is lead by Joss Merlyn (Leslie Banks), who is also the innkeeper and husband of Patience (Marie Ney).  Mary Yellen arrives from Ireland after the death of her mother to live with her Aunt Patience, but her stagecoach driver fears the seedy atmosphere of Jamaica Inn and drops of her off at the estate of local squire, Sir Humphrey Pengallan (Charles Laughton).

Mary gets caught up in events when she rescues a member of the gang, Jem Trehearne (Robert Newton), who the other members attempt to hang on suspicion of embezzling.  Jem ends up being an undercover law officer trying to find the mastermind behind the wreckers and teams up with Humphrey to investigate.  But all is not as it seems.

O’Hara is great in her role and shows a lot of agency for a female character in that era.  And yet, the film also depicts a society that’s absolutely terrifying for a woman as Mary’s life is in the hands of cutthroats and gentry alike, with implications of even worse things that the Hays Code wouldn’t allow to be shown.  There’s a moody atmosphere to the setting and some interesting camera angles looking through holes in a ceiling and a cave that add to sense of things closing in around the characters.

Laughton is suitably smug as the aristocratic gambler. Behind the camera, he was a pain in Hitchcock’s butt, taking control of directing the film.  He was also responsible for bringing O’Hara into the movie and they’d appear together again in The Hunchback of Notre Dame later that year. On the whole, the rest of the acting in the film is not too strong.  Marie Ney in particular appears to be reading her lines for the first time from a cue card.  The last third of the film veers toward melodramatic.  Still it was a suitably entertaining jaunt into the Cornish past.

Rating: ***

Classic Movie Review: Stagecoach (1939)

Title: Stagecoach
Release Date: March 3, 1939
Director: John Ford
Production Company: Walter Wanger Productions

I’ve seen John Wayne in films like The Quiet Man and The Longest Day, but I somehow have never watched one of his Western movies all the way through.  This is especially surprising considering that my late stepfather always seemed to have a John Wayne movie on the tv whenever I visited.

Stagecoach creates drama from the simple premise of putting a group of strangers together in a precarious situation and letting their characters drive the story.  The threat they face is the risk of an Apache attack on their stagecoach as it travels between towns in the Arizona territory.  Like most Westerns, the Apache are depicted as violent savages, with no mention that the Apache have been wronged by settlers claiming their land and the US Army waging war on them.  Of course, the white settlers of 1880 would have little to no sympathy for the Apache so it is accurate in that sense to depict them that way in 1939.

Outside the problematic depiction of the Apache, the film is a tense drama with 9 individuals aboard a stagecoach (2 on top, 7 within), contrasting the cramped interiors with the wide open spaces of the scenic Monument Valley as the backdrop.  The characters include:

  • Buck (Andy Devine), the stage driver – a comic relief character who is a bit overplayed.
  • Marshal Curley Wilcox (George Bancroft), a law enforcement official who guards the stagecoach with a shotgun.
  • Dallas (Claire Trevor), a prostitute driven out of town by a “Law and Order League.”  Trevor was the top-billed actor in this film and Dallas has one of the most well-developed character arcs.
  • Doc Boone (Thomas Mitchell), an alcoholic doctor also forced out by the “Law and Order League.”
  • Samuel Peacock (Donald Meek), a whiskey salesman that everyone refers to as a pastor, perhaps because he’s the moral center of this film.
  • Lucy Mallory (Louise Platt), a pregnant woman determined to join up with her husband who is in the Cavalry.
  • Hatfield (John Carradine), a Confederate veteran and gambler who joins the stage because he (rather patriarchally) thinks that Mrs. Mallory needs protection.
  • Henry Gatewood (Berton Churchill), a banker who is embezzling money.  His character serves the role of complaining a lot, and in a large cast is the I think could’ve been removed without harming the story.
  • Henry, the “Ringo Kid” (John Wayne), an escapee from prison intent on tracking down the men who killed his father and brother.  He’s found stranded in the desert early on the journey, and Curley arrests him, although Henry is not held in chains and ends up becoming a leader/protector of the group.

Along they way there is conflict among the group over the Civil War, and whether or not they should journey into Apache territory without Cavalry protection, and even matters of class.  Mrs. Mallory is repeatedly afforded treatment as a “lady” while the same is denied to Dallas, and only the Ringo Kid speaks up about the inequality.  They also face crises ranging from Mrs. Mallory going into labor to needing to float the stagecoach across a river.

When they finally arrive at their destination in Lordsburg, New Mexico, Ringo seeks out his rivals, the Plummers.  In these Hays Code days, the inevitable 1-against-3 duel is only hinted at rather than shown on screen. What I found fascinating about these final scenes is the staging of Lordsburg, with dozens of extras milling about on darkened, dusty streets.  The whole scene is unsettling and claustrophobic compared with the open deserts of the stagecoach scenes.  With reservations noted, this is a compelling Western drama, and if the tropes seem overly familiar, its worth remember that Stagecoach was the origin of many ideas imitated in the ensuing decades of Western film-making.

Rating: ****

Classic Movie Review: The Rules of the Game (1939)

Title: The Rules of the Game
Release Date: July 7, 1939
Director: Jean Renoir
Production Company: Nouvelle Édition Française

Released just months before the outbreak of World War II, The Rules of the Game is a scathing satire of the decadence of France’s wealthy elite.  Director Jean Renoir (son of the artist Pierre-Auguste) uses innovative techniques such as deep-focus cinematography to depict the ensemble cast playing out overlapping conversations and plots at the same time. Before I even looked it up, I could tell this movie influenced the work of Robert Altman.  In fact, Gosford Park is pretty close to a remake.

The film begins with aviator André  (Roland Toutain) completing a transatlantic flight and declaring his love for Christine (Nora Gregor) in a radio interview. The whingy man-baby then has a temper tantrum that she has not come to greet him at the airport.  Christine, it turns out, is married to Robert, Marquis de la Chesnaye (Marcel Dalio), a French aristocrat (as an aside, I could’ve sworn the French nobility was eliminated well before 1939, but maybe someone more knowledgeable in French history could clarify this for me).  Robert, in turn, has a mistress, Geneviève (Mila Parély).

All of these characters, as well as Octave (played by the director, Jean Renoir), a mutual friend of André and Christine travel to Robert’s estate in Sologne for a weekend of parties.  Christine is accompanied by her maid (Paulette Dubost)  , who is married to the gamekeeper Schumacher (Gaston Modot), but more devoted to Christine.  Schumacher catches a poacher, Marceau (Julien Carette), but Robert is impressed by his skill at killing rabbits and hires him on the spot as a domestic servant.  Octave and Marceau are similar in that they’re both comical figures, outsiders, but in ways more morally-centered than everyone else around them.

At the estate, there are masked balls, performances, and a very grim rabbit hunt around which various romantic liaisons take place.  There are declarations of love, heartbreak, arguments, fist fights, and ultimately the threat of using firearms (sometimes these things are happening at the same time with deep-focus tricks).  Not surprisingly there is also a murder, albeit one due to mistaken identity.  The way the elite carry on, not allowing the tragedy to affect their emotional display and continuing to play “the game” shows their moral callousness.  This is a brilliant film about awful people.

Rating: ****

Classic Movie Review: Make Way for Tomorrow (1937)

Title: Make Way for Tomorrow
Release Date: May 9, 1937
Director: Leo McCarey
Production Company: Paramount

I’d never heard of Leo McCarey before, but he directed two films in 1937, and they’re both masterpieces of film-making.  While The Awful Truth is an improvised screwball comedy about a wealthy couple, Make Way for Tomorrow is a drama more grounded in the Great Depression reality of the time (but also highly relevant 82 years later).  McCarey won the Best Director Oscar for The Awful Truth, but in his acceptance speech he stated he deserved the award for Make Way for Tomorrow.

The movie begins with an elderly couple, Bark (Victor Moore) and Lucy (Beulah Bondi) calling 4 of their 5 adult children together for a family meeting in their home. Bark informs them that since he’s been unemployed for several years, he’s been unable to make payments on their family home and the bank has foreclosed.  None of the children have room to take in both parents, so a plan is made to split them up for the time being with the hope that Bark will find work and they can reunite at a new home. At his advancing age, though, this plan seems overly optimistic.

Bark sleeps on the couch at the city apartment of his daughter Cora (Elisabeth Risdon), and spends days at the store of his new friend Max (a warm and heartfelt performance by Maurice Moscovitch as a Jewish immigrant shopkeeper).  Meanwhile, Lucy moves into the suburban home of her son George (Thomas Mitchell) and daughter-in-law Anita (Fay Bainter), taking an extra bed in the room of her teenage granddaughter, Rhoda (Barbara Read). The first half of the movie plays as a comedy of manners and focuses on the generation gap.  The children can be cold and clearly see their parents as an intrusion, although they are also sympathetic characters.  Lucy and Bark can be annoying in their own ways.

After several months pass, Cora decides that Bark would be better off living with the unseen fifth sibling in California, justifying it on the basis that the warmer climate would be better for his health. Meanwhile, in one of the more heartbreaking sequences, Lucy preemptively volunteers to move into a retirement home knowing that George is planning to ask her to do so.  The second half of the film takes place over a single day in New York City when Lucy and Bark reunite before Bark’s train departs to California.

The scenes of them together enjoying one another’s company for the first time in months, with another separation hanging over them, are beautiful and tear-jerking.  They decide to skip meeting their children for dinner and instead visit the hotel where they’d spent their honeymoon 50 years earlier, eventually staying for dinner and dancing.  The people they meet – who can see them as humans, rather than problems – treat them with respect and listen to their stories attentively.  And then it all ends with Lucy seeing Bark to his train, both of them knowing that they’ll likely never see one another again, but neither wanting to admit it.

This is an incredible film that deals with serious issues of aging and how our society seems to have no place for our elders.  It’s remarkable for a Hollywood film to not fall into traps of sentimentality or melodrama. It certainly doesn’t have a happy ending, although Bark and Lucy’s last day together is nevertheless joyous.  Moore and Bondi seem so natural in their roles it’s almost as if they’re not acting, although they were both experienced actors, and neither of them was actually elderly.  Moore was 61 and Bondi was 48!  Bondi and Bondi’s makeup artist each deserved an Oscar.

Rating: ****1/2

Classic Movie Review: The Awful Truth (1937)

Title: The Awful Truth
Release Date: October 21, 1937
Director: Leo McCarey
Production Company: Columbia Pictures

I’ve long been a Cary Grant fan, and this is the film that established him as one of Hollywood’s leading actors for the next few decades.  It’s also unique in that director Leo McCarey didn’t have much of a script and believed in improvising dialogue on the set.  Grant and co-star Irene Dunne rose to the challenge and their performance is comedic brilliance.

Grant and Dunne play Jerry and Lucy Warriner, a fantastically wealthy couple who both believe that the other is unfaithful and sue for divorce.  They also have a custody battle over their dog, Mr. Smith (Skippy, who also played Asta in The Thin Man). During the 90-day period until their divorce is finalized, they each begin dating other people.  And each of them – individually realizing that they’re still in love with the other (and being the only one kooky enough to be their partner) – attempts to sabotage the other’s relationship.

In the first half of the movie, Lucy shares an apartment with her Aunt Patsy (Cecil Cunningham, making the most of the rare part for a glamorous older woman) and becomes engaged with the sweet but countrified Oklahoma oilman Dan Leeson (Ralph Bellamy, decades before Trading Places).  Jerry uses visits to Mr. Smith as a means to scandalize Dan and his mother (Esther Dale) and drive them back to Oklahoma.  In the later half of the movie, Jerry dates heiress Barbara Vance (Molly Lamont), and Lucy arrives at their house disguised as Jerry’s sister, pretending to be drunk and implying a working class background, to the horror of the stuffy Vances.

In the ensuing scenes they end up riding on the handlebars of police motorcycles, one of the more surreal scenes of this film, before ending up in a cabin where they reconcile over a long night.  And if you enjoyed the funny dog scenes with Mr. Smith early in the film, this segment has funny cat scenes! This includes a cat holding a door shut with its paw, the other great surreal moment that made me almost choke in laughter.

I can’t find a trailer for this movie, but one of my favorite scenes is embedded below.  Dunne’s expressions of embarrassment as Lucy when Dan makes her perform a rambunctious dance at a nightclub, and Grant pulling up a chair and smiling are absolutely terrific examples of physical comedy acting.

Rating: ****

Classic Movie Review: My Man Godfrey (1936)

Title: My Man Godfrey
Release Date: September 6, 1936
Director: Gregory La Cava
Production Company: Universal Pictures

I watched My Man Godfrey after watching several silent films, and it was startled by the quick and frequent dialogue.  Talkies were of course well established by 1936 and this movie makes the most of it with enough witty repartee to make up for decades of silents.  This movie is both a romantic comedy and a mild social commentary on the idle rich.  At the center of this film is the dysfunctional Bullock Family and the butler they hire, Godfrey (William Powell) who straightens things out for them.

The film begins with Godfrey living in an homeless encampment along New York’s East River until he is picked up by the youngest member of the Bullock clan, Irene (Carol Lombard), who needs a “forgotten man” for a scavenger hunt being held by wealthy elites based at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel.  Irene takes a liking to Godfrey and offers him a job as the family’s butler, and declares that he will be her “protégé.”

Despite learning of the high rate of turnover for the Bullock’s butler and being warned of the family’s general horribleness by the maid Molly (Jean Dixon), Godfrey finds the job restores his spirits, and enables him to work on a project to help out the other “forgotten men.” Irene falls in love with Godfrey and tries many dramatic ways to get his attention and to return her affection.  Irene’s vindictive older sister Cornelia (Gail Patrick), meanwhile, and schemes to spoil any happiness for Irene or Godfrey (I’ve never seen Patrick in a movie before, but she is both a talented actor and stunningly gorgeous). And Godfrey has a secret past that may come back to haunt him.  All of this if played at maximum screwball comedy level.

The denouement of the movie has Godfrey shorting the stock market, both to save Bullocks from financial ruin, and to fund a night club on the former homeless encampment which provides jobs for 50 “forgotten men.”  Honestly, I didn’t expect short-selling stock to feature in a Depression-era comedy, but it was a great twist.  The final scene where Irene manipulates Godfrey into marrying is both uncomfortable and unnecessary, but otherwise this is a terrific film.

Rating: ****