Classic Movie Review: Partie de campagne (1936)

Title: Partie de campagne
Release Date: 8 May 1946
Director: Jean Renoir
Production Company: Panthéon Productions

After watching several lengthy, epic films in the past few weeks, I was delighted that this movie is only a brisk 40 minutes. Part of the reason for its brevity is that the film was never finished. Director Jean Renoir abandoned filming in 1936 after some weather-related problems and the film was edited together by other parties a decade later, after Renoir had left for the United States.

The story is quite simple. Henriette Dufour (Sylvia Bataille) is a young woman from Paris who goes on a tour of the countryside with her mother (Jane Marken), her father the shopkeeper (André Gabriello), and the shopkeeper’s assistant/Henriette’s fiancé, Anatole (Paul Temps).  When they stop for a picnic, two predatory young men – Henri (Georges D’Arnoux) and Rodolphe (Jacques B. Brunius) – divvy up the Henriette and her mother with plans for “hanky panky.”

While Anatole and M. Dufour go fishing, Henri and Rodolphe take Henriette and her mother out in rowboats. Henri stops at an island and makes the moves on Henriette. In the 1930s expectations, Henriette demurs Henri’s advances out of societal roles for women until she final accepts his kisses. In 2021 terms, it is clearly a sexual assault.  Either way, I don’t really feel a great romance between the two or any reason for the conclusion, set years ago, where they meet again and have a melancholy reflection on their one moment together.

The movie is incomplete and it feels incomplete because it doesn’t seem to fill in the details behind the characters’ emotions. Nevertheless it does work as a vignette, capturing fleeting feelings and moments in time. Stylistically it also impressive, especially with the camera work on scenes such as the one where Henriette rides a swing. I’m not convinced that this is one of the greatest movies of all-time but it’s not a huge investment of time if you want to judge for yourself.

Rating: ***

Classic Movie Review: L’Atalante 1934

Title: L’Atalante
Release Date: 12 September 1934
Director: Jean Vigo
Production Company: Argui-Films

A newlywed couple process from the church to a canal barge for their honeymoon.  Jean (Jean Dasté ) is the captain of the barge delivering cargo at ports from Paris to Le Havre while Juliette (Dita Parlo) is a woman who has never traveled beyond the village where she grew up. At first, setting up house on the houseboat is eccentric and charming, with the scruffy crew member Père Jules (Michel Simon) and the cabin boy (Louis Lefebvre), forming an odd family, not to mention the numerous cats and kittens on bored. But things shift quickly as Jean’s jealousy and controlling nature makes life trapped on the barge miserable for Juliette.

The pair are separated for a time and ultimately reunited which I guess is supposed to be romantic, but I don’t see a bright future for this couple.  Nevertheless, this is a unique and fascinating film. I’m particularly entranced by the beautiful and eerie industrial landscapes captured in the location filming. The movie is more poetic than narrative, and like Jacque Tati’s films it features many wordless sequences of physical humor and humanity. Parlo gives off exuberant charm and innocence and is especially great playing off the gruff Simon.

This is a curious film and definitely one I’ll want to revisit.

Rating: ****

Classic Movie Review: Within Our Gates (1920)

Title: Within Our Gates
Release Date: January 12, 1920
Director: Oscar Micheaux
Production Company: Micheaux Book & Film Company

Within Our Gates is oldest surviving feature film by an African-American filmmaker and it was the second film made by prolific director/writer/producer Oscar Micheaux. It serves as sort of a response to D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation and more immediately, the white supremacist violence of the United States’ Red Summer of 1919. It turns the tables on racist depictions of Blacks people as “primitives” by depicting the real depravity of white America. It also depicts its Black protagonists as exemplars of the “New Negro” movement, assertive and self-confident about their having a significant role in American business and politics, and also intent on displaying Black people as upstanding members of society.

The film portrays the trials of Sylvia Landry (Evelyn Preer), a young woman who works at a school for Black children in the South and travels to the North to raise money for the school. On her travels she has her purse stolen and gets hit by a car while trying to save a child. On the upside she also meets the handsome Dr. Vivian (Charles D. Lucas) and the white philanthropist Mrs. Elena Warwick (Mrs. Evelyn), who eventually decides to donate $50,000 to the school. The final segment of the film features a flashback to Sylvia’s past and features brutal depictions of her family being lynched while a white man attempts to rape Sylvia.

While the movie pulls no punches on white racism, including a “Lillian Gish character” – Mrs. Geraldine Stratton (Bernice Ladd), a Southern woman who is a segregationist and anti-suffragist, it also doesn’t portray all Black people in a positive manner. Among the cast are Larry (Jack Chenault), who fails to woo Sylvia, and is a thief and a murderer. There also is a Black preacher who encourages his congregation to accept white supremacy in return for small donations from white people. Perhaps the most unsettling character is Efrem (E.G. Tatum), a servant who likes to spread gossip to gain favor with white people and falsely accuses Sylvia’s father (William Starks) of murdering a white man, inciting the mob that lynches her family.

The plot of the movie is disjointed, and like a lot of silent films it highly melodramatic. Also, the sociopolitical message is heavy-handed, but it probably had to be to get the point across in 1920. Despite this, I think Within Our Gates is a remarkable fictional document of the real issues of African-Americans in the early 20th century. I don’t think Hollywood would attempt to grapple with this issues for several more decades. This is definitely a movie that should be better known and viewed.

As an aside, I was happy that part of the film is set in Boston. Perhaps not surprisingly, this includes the scene where Sylvia is hit by a car.  I don’t believe it was filmed on location though, as it appears that most of the movie was filmed in Chicago.

Rating: ****

Classic Movie Review: Greed (1924)

Title: Greed
Release Date: December 4, 1924
Director: Erich von Stroheim
Production Company: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

I came to this film reluctantly because in college I read the awful book it’s based on, McTeague, about a horrible dentist who abuses his wife. The novel’s author, Frank Norris, practiced scientific racism and the fictional work is supposed to be his expose of the inferiority of the working class, immigrants, Jewish people, et al. So, you know this is going to be a fun movie!

In a sense, the movie is better than the book, especially since director Erich von Stroheim removed the prejudicial undertones. Gibson Gowland plays the irascible John McTeague, a dentist in San Francisco. His friendship with Marcus Schoule (Jean Hersholt) deteriorates when he marries Trina Sieppe (ZaSu Pitts, one of the great names in Hollywood history), whom they both courted. McTeagues marriage swiftly falls apart, partly dur to Trina clinging to $5000 she won in a lottery even as the couple fall into destitution.

Von Stroheim largely filmed on location which means you get a lot of cool glimpses of San Francisco from a century ago. The final scenes were filmed on location in Death Valley under brutal conditions for the actors and crew. Still, the final shot is about as iconic as they come in film history. Von Stroheim also used tinting to add a golden glow to the objects of desire that the characters lust after. The movie is melodramatic and the characters are more types than realized people. Overall, this is another film that I’m glad to have watched from a film history perspective, but not one that I would otherwise have enjoyed.

Rating: ***

Classic Movie Review: Intolerance (1916)

Title: Intolerance
Release Date: September 5, 1916
Director: D. W. Griffith
Production Company: Triangle Film Corporation

This 105-year-old epic officially becomes the oldest feature film I’ve watched in its entirety, replacing Broken Blossoms (by the same director), which I watched in a high school film class. It’s hard to imagine what it must have been like for the movie-going public at a time when feature length films had existed only for a decade. Movies were as likely to be shown in storefronts as in theaters with many shorts running continuously as viewers wandered in and out. Now audiences were being asked to commit 3-1/2 hours to watching four different stories cut together in a single narrative.

Of course, Intolerance only made the “AFI 100 Years … 100 Movies” list because D.W. Griffith’s preceding film from 1915, The Birth of a Nation, recognized for its innovation in filmmaking was rightly also deemed to be racist a.f.  Intolerance was not an apology from D.W. Griffith for his depiction of leering Black men and inspiring the Ku Klux Klan to reform, but instead he felt that the criticism of his film and NAACP-lead protests were intolerant of him!  So, it appears that Griffith was not only a pioneer in filming techniques and creating feature length films, but he also may have invented the “You’re the real racist” trope used by white supremacists to this very day. 

Intolerance features four intertwined stories about “Love’s Struggle Throughout the Ages.” A recurring motif features a woman (film superstar Lillian Gish in what’s basically a cameo) rocking a baby in a cradle who symbolizes The Eternal Motherhood

  1. The main story is set in the present day and tells of the travails of a working class woman known as The Dear One (a fantastic performance by Mae Marsh). Her life is turned upside down by the forces of Puritanical moral reformers (misogynistically described in a title card as woman who go into philanthropy because men no longer consider them attractive). She and her husband, The Boy (Robert Harron), lose their jobs, have their baby taken away, and The Boy is wrongly convicted for murder, among other trials. There are some surprisingly progressive aspects to this segment as well, such as a depiction of National Guard troops firing on unarmed striking laborers (a criticism of the Ludlow Massacre of 1914) and appeal to abolish prisons.
  2. The modern American story is the only one with a cohesive storyline, but the Ancient Babylon story is the one that Griffith lavished money and attention on. Massive sets were built in central Hollywood (later recreated as a shopping center called Hollywood & Hollywood that I wandered through on my visit to Los Angeles in 2007) and cast thousands of extras for elaborate dance and battle scenes. The theme is the religious divide that lead to the fall of Babylon to Cyrus of Persia in 539 BCE, but really it’s all about the spectacle.  Kudos to The Mountain Girl (Constance Talmadge) for being another strong female character and a great performance in this segment.
  3. Significantly less screen time is given to the French Renaissance story which depicts the French monarchy’s massacre of Huguenots on St. Bartholomew’s Day in 1572.  I had trouble following the story here but scenes were few and far between.
  4. The shortest segment is the story of Jesus of Nazareth (Howard Gaye) that incorporates only a small number of Gospel stories, such as the miracle at the wedding at Cana, Jesus forgiving the woman for adultery, and a brief glimpse of the crucifixion.

The movie does have an amazing amount of spectacle, especially when you consider that it was made 105 years ago, and is worth a watch for that alone.  But Intolerance is also a bit of a slog, and not very coherent. Compared with other silent films I’ve watched, this one is way over-reliant on title cards (some of them even have footnotes!!!) and great acting performances by the likes of Marsh and Talmadge are lost in the shuffle. I’d say that mostly this is a movie to watch if you’re interested in film history, but I doubt it will entertain anyone otherwise.

Classic Movie Review: The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

Title: The Best Years of Our Lives
Release Date: November 21, 1946
Director: William Wyler
Production Company: Samuel Goldwyn Productions

This is a movie I remember the adults in my family often having on the tv when I was a child. But I didn’t really watch it myself until I was in my 20s. Much like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, I was gobsmacked that a movie from this era depicted people expressing nuance and frustrated opinions of post-war America in ways that might be considered “unpatriotic.” The movie is the story of three men return from serving in World War II and adjusting to the return to civilian life. But it is not a celebratory story and it offers commentary on things ranging from PTSD and physical disability to various changes in America’s economy, chains taking over local businesses, fears of another war and/or depression, empty words of “supporting the troops,” and even questioning the use of atomic weapons in Japan.

The three men at the heart of the story are:

  • Al Stephenson (Fredric March) – a banker who enlisted in the infantry at an untypically older age and only achieved the rank of sergeant. He returns to his wife Milly (Myrna Loy) and his nearly-full grown children. He is frustrated by his bank undermining his loans to veterans of good character but without collateral and turns to alcohol to deal with his problems.
  • Fred Derry (Dana Andrews) – A bombardier in the war, Fred finds himself unqualified for jobs in the competitive post-war economy, eventually ending up back at the drug store where he had worked as a drug store (now operated as part of a corporate chain). He and his wife Marie (Virginia Mayo) knew each other only briefly when they married hastily before his deployment and are now learning that they have nothing in common. Fred also finds the is falling in love with Peggy (Teresa Wright), Al and Milly’s daughter.
  • Homer Parrish (Harold Russell) – A sailor who lost both his hands in the war and now uses mechanical hook prostheses. While confident in using the prostheses he is uneasy about the pitying looks he gets from family and friends, and uncertain whether his fiancée Wilma (Cathy O’Donnell) will still want to marry him. Russell was not a professional actor, but was actually a veteran who lost his hands in the war, and he puts in a phenomenal performance.

This is an all-around terrific movie with great acting, great writing, and great direction. It has a very modern feel to it and could easily be remade as movie today. In fact, a story about veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq would likely feel more alienated since there isn’t the common experience of service that there was in World War II. This remains one of my all-time favorite movies.

Rating: *****

Movie Review: Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927)

Title: Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans
Release Date: September 23, 1927
Director: F. W. Murnau
Production Company: William Fox Studio

This film from the end of the Silent Movie Era is the first Hollywood production by F.W. Murnau, director of Nosferatu. Sunrise is informed by the German Expressionist movie as it depicts a simple moral tale and melodrama. A farmer (George O’Brien) has a fling with a vacationing woman from the city (Margaret Livingston). The woman tells the farmer he should murder his wife (Janet Gaynor) and run away to the city with him. The man lures his wife into a boat with a plan to drown her, but can’t go through with it when she pleads for his life.

And here is where the movie goes to unexpected places. The couple end up taking a trolley to a big city where they eventually reconcile and end up having a wonderful day together in the city. Gaynor does a great job of expressing the trauma of the near-murder by her husband and then the joy of their renewed affection. The whole “one perfect day” segment reminds me of the later film Make Way for Tomorrow. Except in this movie they attend the most fantastical fun fair and end up chasing an intoxicated pig. The final act depicts another near tragedy but I won’t spoil the details especially since I found it less interesting than earlier parts.

The movie takes advantage of newer, lighter cameras that can move freely through the scenery. Unfortunately these cameras were noisy so they had to revert to more stationery cameras when talkies emerged later in the same year. Sunrise is also one of the first films with a synchronized soundtrack that included sound effects, albeit no dialogue, so it’s not entirely “silent.” Intertitles are used sparingly and when they do appear they’re in a stylish font and sometimes even animated. The sets are brilliant creating a somewhat real but also fantastical city with forced perspective. The movie also makes great use of multiple exposures and superimposed images to represent memories and fantasies of the characters.

The moralistic and melodramatic aspects made the movie a little hard for me to simply joy. And it should be noted that the man puts up many red flags, even after their reconciling, that indicate that he’s not a good husband, at least to modern audiences. But this is definitely a movie that fans of the cinematic arts need to watch for its place in film history.

Rating: ***1/2

Classic Movie Review: Pulp Fiction (1994)

Title: Pulp Fiction
Release Date: October 14, 1994
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Production Company: A Band Apart | Jersey Films

So I finally watched Pulp Fiction after avoiding it for 26 years.  And it was … okay.  Especially in the first sequence with Vincent (John Travolta) and Jules (Samuel L. Jackson), I kind of felt that I already knew every line of dialogue from repeated quoting and referencing.  Nevertheless, there were some surprises:

  • I had no idea that stars like Christopher Walken and Bruce Willis were in this movie, much less that Willis has a major role.
  • I didn’t realize that this movie is very long (154 minutes).  Granted, it’s basically three different movies intertwined. Tarantino essentially went ahead and made Pulp Fiction sequels and integrated them into the original film, which is admittedly clever.
  • The movie also features a lot of dialogue, both conversations and monologues, allowed to play out in full which is unusual for movies in recent decades and much appreciated. Although that dialogue also adds to the long running time…
  • I had absolutely no idea of the many twists and turns that occur in the “The Gold Watch” sequence with Butch (Willis), Vincent and then Marcellus ( Ving Rhames)

I avoided this movie because I assumed it was full of gratuitous violence and casual, hipster indifference to that violence.  There’s definitely some of that in this movie (a rape scene in “The Gold Watch” and a character getting his head blown off in “The Bonnie Situation” are particularly brutal to watch).  Nevertheless, the violence doesn’t seem to be as extreme as expected and as I noted above, words are more key to this movie than action. I was turned off by the gratuitous and “hipster-cool” ways that racial slurs are used in the movie and that aspect is going to only to continue to make the movie look dated as time passes.

What makes the movie for me is the moments of humanity. In three instances, in fact, people go to great efforts to save the life of another: Vincent rescues Mia (Uma Thurman) from a drug overdose, Butch goes back to rescue his rival Marcellus from their attackers, and Jules begins his transformation away from a life of crime to rescue the hapless robbers Ringo (Tim Roth) and Yolanda (Amanda Plummer).  There are great acting performances by everyone involved including smaller parts by Harvey Keitel, Maria de Medeiros, and Eric Stoltz.

I can definitely see Pulp Fiction earning a spot on a greatest movies of all-time list based on its influence on the film industry alone.  Nevertheless, I don’t believe it will make my personal lists of favorite movies.

Rating: ***1/2



Classic Movie Review: An Affair to Remember (1957)

Title: An Affair to Remember
Release Date: July 19, 1957
Director: Leo McCarey
Production Company: Jerry Wald Productions, Inc.

Celebrity playboy Nickie Ferrante (Cary Grant) is finally going to settle down and get married. Terry McKay (Deborah Kerr) is also in a long-term relationship but traveling in Europe on her own. They meet aboard a transatlantic ocean liner to New York City, and initially the movie plays like a romantic comedy with a series of meet cutes and shipboard antics.

It makes a big shift when the ship docks at a hill-town in the French Riviera and Nickie invites Terry to visit his grandmother Janou (Cathleen Nesbitt). This extended sequence is the best part of the movie as the trio spend a lovely afternoon together and Nickie and Terry form a stronger bond. Upon arriving in New York, the pair make a pact that if they still feel the way they do about one another in 6 months, they will break off their prior relationships and meet at the top of the Empire State Building.

On that day, Terry is hit by a car and severely injured, and Nickie assumes that she stood him up. This is where the movie goes downhill, because Terry assumes that she’s undesirable since she can no longer walk. The movie is steeped in every worst stereotype of people with disabilities, and it’s just awful to watch. Also, the movie gets very corny with Terry directing a chorus of precocious children (which rather progressively for the era includes Black children) while Nickie takes up painting. The sentimentality and mawkishness just get to be too much and I don’t find the conclusion all that believable.

Still, if you can find a way to just watch the Janou scene, it’s a great depiction of human warmth and joy, and an example of Leo McCarey at his best.

Rating: **

Classic Movie Review: Forrest Gump (1994)

Title: Forrest Gump
Release Date: July 6, 1994
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Production Company: The Tisch Company

When I see Forrest Gump on the AFI 100 list, I know it doesn’t belong there. On the other hand, there’s a cottage industry that’s arisen over the past 26 years that insists that Forrest Gump is on of the worst movies of all time, and I don’t think that’s right either. I remember watching and enjoying Forrest Gump in the movie theaters all those years and liking and enjoying it. Revisiting it now, I still like and enjoy it. And that’s fine.

I think Forrest Gump gets its reputation for good or for bad because it is a movie that is hard to get a handle on. It’s not really a comedy and it’s not really a drama. It’s famous for digitally editing Tom Hanks into moments from history, but that’s more of a running gag than the point of the movie. It’s considered inspirational, but a lot of what happens in the movie is very dark and the protagonist is just completely unware of that. The movie is slammed for being a nostalgia trough for Baby Boomers, but it is also a caustic satire of that same generation. Gump is claimed by conservatives as a beacon of traditional American values, but he’s often quite progressive for his place and time. Gump talks an awful lot, but does he ever say anything meaningful?

If there’s one thing that bugs me about this movie, it is the problem of Jenny. Not Robin Wright’s performance, which is as good as could be, but the fact that her character seems to exist to suffer. It’s like a type of cruel pornography.

That aside, it’s a clever and entertaining movie with some good acting by Hanks, Wright, Gary Sinise (as Lieutenant Dan) and others. If you can see it as something other than one of the best movies or worst movies of all time, it may just be an enjoyable couple of hours of your time.

Rating: ***1/2