Classic Movie Review: Make Way for Tomorrow (1937)


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

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

TV Review: Good Omens (2019)


Title: Good Omens
Release Date: 2019
Creator and Writer: Neil Gaiman
Director: Douglas Mackinnon
Production Company: Narrativia | The Blank Corporation | Amazon Studios | BBC Studios
Summary/Review:

Having finished re-reading the Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman novel Good Omens, I binged the miniseries adaptation on Amazon Prime. It’s largely entertaining, and I wouldn’t discourage anyone from watching it, but it’s a bit disappointing based on the source material and the talent involved in producing the adaptation.

The strength of Good Omens is the casting of David Tennant and Michael Sheen as the demon Crowley and the angel Aziraphale who team up to try prevent Armageddon.  The miniseries increases the focus on these two characters and their centuries-long friendship, which is a good decision because they are talented comic actors who fill their characters fully.

Unfortunately, the adaptation is almost too faithful to the book. Several scenes feature dialogue word-for-word from the book.  There is a lot of heavy foreshadowing of gags to come, and excess narration from Frances McDormand as God.  While the authors of the book enjoyed digressing into silly tangents featuring supporting characters, the straight adaptation of these scenes to tv just don’t work as well.  There’s too much icing on the cake!

Good Omens the novel was published in 1990.  While the tv series is not a period piece set in the 90s, there’s only a slight effort to update the story to the present day, so it comes off feeling dated.  I think the satirical take on pop culture tropes was groundbreaking in 1990, but has become commonplace in the ensuing decades, so that Good Omens the tv show is the victim of the success of Good Omens the book.

A ton of notable actors from the UK in the US appear as supporting cast and cameo roles.  These include Nick Offerman, Anna Maxwell Martin,  Jon Hamm (as the Archangel Gabriel, a role greatly expanded from the novel, and one of the strongest parts apart from Tennant and Sheen), Miranda Richardson, Michael Mckean, Bill Paterson, Mark Gattis, David Morrisey, Derek Jacobi, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Josie Lawrence.  Again, there is nothing wrong with any of these performances, but it often feels as if the creators of the miniseries weren’t ambitious enough to go beyond eliciting the reaction of “hey, there’s that funny actor I like doing something funny.”  No one really inhabits their roles the way that Sheen and Tennant do.

There is some promise in some of the lesser known actors, for example, Adria Arjona as Anathema Device.  She seems to be weighed down by having to do nothing more and nothing less than what was written for her character in the book.  Ironically, Anathema’s character’s life was defined by following the predictions written in a book by her ancestor, so it’s sad that Arjona was similarly constrained.

Okay, this sounds like a bad review.  But, again, Good Omens was a perfectly fine show to binge over a few days.  It’s only six episodes long, which may actually be one episode too long for the material, but nonetheless a worthwhile enjoyment.

 

Classic Movie Review: The Awful Truth (1937)


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

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: ****

TV Review: Derry Girls (2019)


Title: Derry Girls
Release Date: 2019
Creator and Writer: Lisa McGee
Director:  Michael Lennox
Production Company: Hat Trick Productions
Summary/Review:

The second series of Derry Girls shows no sign of a sophomore slump.  In fact, the show is funnier and more confident than it was in the first series.  Set against the backdrop of the last days of The Troubles in Northern Ireland, Erin, Clare, Michelle, Orla, and James are, well, not ordinary teenagers, but motivated by their daily teenage dilemmas rather than their geopolitical situation.  The adults, primarily Erin and Orla’s parents and grandfather, have a bigger part this season, and get some adventures of their own, which are just as wacky as the kids.  And Sister Michael (Siobhan McSweeney) steals every scene she is in with instantly GIF-able quotes.

The series begins with the Girls enduring excruciating 1990s-style team building exercises with a group of boys from a Protestant school.  In the next episode they take inspiration from a new English teacher,  Ms De Brún, in a parody of Dead Poets Society, complete with the kick the ball/poetry sequence replaced with hitting a ball with a hurley and shouting something that makes you mad (James does not like that people in Derry refer to things as “wee” even when they’re not small).  Then they take a bus trip to Belfast to see a Take That concert even though their parents forbade them over fears of an escaped polar bear.

The fourth episode shows an Irish wedding (complete with a choreographed group dance to “Rock the Boat”) and an Irish wake (with hash scones).  An episode about a 50’s style prom at the school has one of the sweeter moments when James shows up to take Erin after her date stands her up.  And the finale contrasts the excitement of President Bill Clinton and family visiting Derry (complete with actual archival audio) and James preparing to return to England with his mother (and another touching finale).

 

Classic Movie Review: My Man Godfrey (1936)


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

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: ****

Classic Movie Review: City Lights (1931)


Title: City Lights
Release Date: January 30, 1931
Director: Charlie Chaplin
Production Company: United Artists
Summary/Review:

Four years after the first “talkie,” Charlie Chaplin released another one his masterpieces of silent film.  It’s kind of fascinating how Chaplain resisted the shift to talking films.  On the one hand, there is great artistry in silent film, especially in the hands of an auteur like Chaplin. On the other hand, silent films existed primarily due to technical challenges.  Considering that the theatre had speaking roles for thousands of years, it’s not too hard to believe that early filmmakers wanted to replicate that. Chaplin makes light of “talkies” early on by featuring politicians delivering speeches at the dedication of a statue where the sound of gibberish comes from their mouths.

The main plot of the movie focuses on the Little Tramp (Chaplain) and his perambulations through the city.  One night he saves a millionaire (Harry Myers) from drowning himself.  In gratitude, the millionaire invites the Tramp for a night out on the town. When he returns to visit his new friend, the millionaire has no memory of him. A recurring gag has Myers’ character only remember the Tramp when he’s drunk.

The other main plot line focuses on the Tramp falling for a blind woman (Virginia Cherrill) who sells flowers.  He befriends her, and takes up jobs – as a street sweeper and a boxer (each with their own set of gags) – to try to raise money to help her restore her vision.  Eventually he is able to get her the money, but at a personal cost.  The final scene is one of the more touching and heartwarming scenes ever recorded on film.

Rating: ****

Classic Movie Review: The General (1927)


Title: The General
Release Date: February 5, 1927
Director: Clyde Bruckman & Buster Keaton
Production Company: Buster Keaton Productions | Joseph M. Schenck Productions
Summary/Review:

I knew I’d need to watch a Buster Keaton film for my classic movie project, but was disappointed that his most famous work is not only a Civil War film, but one sympathetic to the Confederate cause.  So I watched this movie rooting against Keaton much of the time.

The movie was a big-budget spectacular for its era and stars Keaton as Johnnie Gray, a railroad engineer dedicated to maintaining the engine The General.  When the war begins, he attempts to enlist, but is denied because his skills with the trains are needed.  Nevertheless, his fiancée Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack) believes him to be a coward, and refuses to speak to him.

A year later, Union spies steal The General (with Annabelle Lee aboard the train) and head north from Georgia to Tennessee with a plan to destroy the rails, bridges, and telegraph wires behind them.  Johnnie pursues The General through various means, eventually working on his own as he leaves the Confederate soldiers behind. There are are a number of spectacular gags as Keaton walks along the train performing various stunts and fights with the spies.  Scenes from the next day show him returning with The General  and Annabelle Lee, leading another chase and culminating in a battle (which was the most expensive shot in film history to that point due to hundreds of extras and the collapse of a bridge with a train on it).

Despite my misgivings, I enjoyed this film and think the stunts and slapstick hold up well, even if the politics do not.

Rating: ***

Classic Movie Review: The Gold Rush (1925)


Title: The Gold Rush
Release Date: June 26, 1925
Director: Charlie Chaplin
Production Company: United Artists
Summary/Review:

The Little Tramp joins the Klondike Gold Rush, although his bowler cap and coat make him look like an English gentleman compared with the more rugged-looking prospectors he encounters.  The majority of the film is focused on a cabin where the Tramp and his colleagues escape from a blizzard.  The cabin belongs to Black Larsen (Tom Murray), identified as a wanted criminal, and the Tramp’s friend Big Jim (Mack Swain) also ends up occupying the cabin.  In fact, while Larsen is identified as a villain, the Tramp and Jim pretty much take advantage of him, and send him out to get food.

The comedy of the cabin involves wind blowing characters in one door and out the other, starvation dreams of a giant chicken, and eventually the cabin itself takes flight.  There’s also a romantic subplot where the Tramp meets with a self-confident dance hall girl (Georgia Hale) who dances with him to avoid unwanted attention from an aggressive man.  The Tramp falls in love and in one of the most famous scenes he imagines entertaining her with dancing dinner rolls.

It’s a clever comedy that makes the special effects and physical acting required of a silent film its strongest assets.

Rating: ***

Classic Movie Review: Safety Last (1923 )


TitleSafety Last
Release Date: April 1, 1923
Director: Fred C. Newmeyer & Sam Taylor
Production Company: Hal Roach Studios
Summary/Review:

Harold Lloyd’s most famous comedy film features Lloyd playing a character named “The Boy” who leaves “The Girl” (Mildred Davis) behind in their hometown while he goes to the big city to save up money for their marriage.  With lots of scenes filmed on location in Los Angeles, this is a great document of a bustling urban center in the 1920s.

Lloyd’s Boy sends lots of gifts to The Girl, making her think he’s doing well financially when he’s actually struggling. She arrives and he has to pretend he’s a manager rather than a clerk at the department store.  Unfortunately this leads to a lot of cringe comedy, where Lloyd builds lie upon lie, getting himself into an increasingly worse situation.  Lloyd comes off as kind of a jerk, rather than a protagonist the viewer wishes to support. Luckily this film offers a good share of physical comedy and stunts as well, which Lloyd carries off well.

The most famous stunt is Lloyd climbing up the outside of the Los Angeles skyscraper where his character works.  This sequence takes up a significant portion of the latter half of the film. It all begins when The Boy thinks he can get a $1000 reward from his boss by having his friend Limpy Bill (Bill Strother) climb the store building as a promotional event.  Unfortunately, Bill is recognized by a cop he’d had a run in with early in the movie and Lloyd climbs a story hoping Bill will take over, but various comic events force him to continue the climb on his own.  It’s a great comedic sequence.

Rating: ***

Movie Review: Ralph Breaks the Internet (2018)


Title: Ralph Breaks the Internet
Release Date: November 21, 2018
Director: Rich Moore | Phil Johnston
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures
Summary/Review:

The sequel to Wreck-It Ralph picks up the story 6 years later with Ralph content living his days predictably with his friend Vanellope, while Vanellope yearns to break the routine. When the steering wheel breaks on the Sugar Rush machine and the arcade owner decides that its too expensive to replace because the company that made it is defunct. So Ralph and Vanellope head into the newly installed wifi router to purchase a replacement wheel on eBay.  That is the first of many prominent product placements in the movie.

In order to pay for the new wheel, they take up jobs from spammers and Ralph becomes an online influencer by making lots of meme videos for likes.  Vanellope also spends sometime at the Disney social media website, visiting with her fellow Disney Princesses, a hillarious bit of self-satire.  The pair also enter a Grand Theft Auto-type game which terrifies Ralph but excites Vanellope with its unpredictable driving.  Vanellope wishes to stay leading Ralph to be insecure and possessive, and ultimate manifest as a Ralph-virus that is the nightmare fodder for the film.  Obviously, they work things out by the end, with some important messages about friendship.

A lot of the gags and satire of the internet are funny, but this movie is not going to make much sense outside of historical research in a few years.  Even a year after release, a lot of the gags seem dated.  The focus of the film isn’t very strong either as it seems mostly a plot to link together the various internet-related gags.  It’s entertaining but I don’t think it stands up as well as its predecessor.

Rating: ***