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
Summary/Review:

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
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

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: ****

Classic Movie Review: Swing Time


Title: Swing Time
Release Date: September 4, 1936
Director: George Stevens
Production Company: RKO Radio Pictures
Summary/Review:

Having had mixed feelings about Top Hat, I was a bit dubious about watching another Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers movie. The film starts with Astaire’s character John “Lucky” Garnett attempting to make it to his wedding on time but the other members of his dance troupe sabotage him.  When the wedding is cancelled and Lucky makes his way to New York City to prove himself worthy, he meets Rogers’ character Penny and they squabble over a stolen quarter.  The first 15 minutes or so of this movie is full of cringe comedy that set my teeth on edge.

But it turns out Penny is a dance instructor, and once made aware of Lucky’s dance ability, they are paired up to perform.  Unlike Top Hat, they seem to genuinely like each other early on and scenes alternate among their dance numbers, scenes of gambling (Lucky is a gambler as well as a dancer), and their shyness about admitting they are falling in love (it strikes me that this is also the basic plot of Silver Linings Playbook, although they’re veeeeery different movies. The movie also introduces standards like “The Way You Look Tonight” and “A Fine Romance.”

I was thoroughly enjoying the movie when I saw that the next number would be called “Bojangles of Harlem.”  I said to myself: “Please don’t come out in blackface.  Pleeeeaaase don’t come out in blackface.”  Folks, Fred Astaire totally came out in blackface, leaving me with a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach.  Whatever Astaire’s intentions that this was a tribute to African American tap dancers, the fact is that it is nothing but black caricature.  It’s doubly insulting because Bill Robinson, despite all his talents, wouldn’t get a chance to do a showstopper like this in a Hollywood film.  It wouldn’t have been objectionable if Astaire had performed without blackface and the black caricature props alongside some African American performers (which is plausible since he would do that very thing in his very next film).  It’s too bad it’s so racist, because this dance sequence does have a great special effect of Astaire dancing with his own shadows.

It was hard to settle into watching the movie again after this (especially since Astaire doesn’t remove the blackface for the dramatic scenes that follow).  But there is a beautiful number “Never Gonna Dance” where Lucky and Penny dance their sorrow when they believe they’ll be going their separate ways. The conclusion of the movie is kind of odd, because the whole cast ends up giggling uncontrollably as if they were all high, or someone told an inside joke.  Nevertheless this was a pretty great movie with one exception, but it’s a pretty big exception.

Rating: **1/2 (might’ve been ***1/2 without “Bojangles of Harlem”)

 

Movie Review: April and the Extraordinary World (2015)


Title: April and the Extraordinary World (Avril et le Monde truqué)
Release Date: November 4, 2015
Director: Christian Desmares and Franck Ekinci
Production Company: Arte France (and numerous others)
Summary/Review:

This imaginative animated film created by a team of French, Belgian, and Canadian filmmakers presents an alternative history of the world with a steampunk vibe.  The prologue of the film shows scientist Gustave Franklin working on a serum to create invulnerable soldiers for Emperor Napoleon III in 1870.  Angered that Franklin has only been able to create talking monitor lizards, the Emperor has a fit that inadvertently causes an explosion killing them both. In this alternate history, the young Napoleon IV signs a peace treaty to avoid the Franco-Prussian War thus maintaining the French empire in Europe.

A montage zips the story forward to 1931, during the interim the world’s great scientists are kidnapped retarding technological development. Relying on steam technology, the French Empire uses up all the coal in the world and then denudes Europe of trees for the wood.  This alternate past depicts a gray world devoid of vegetation and full of polluted air, but filled with fantastical steam-powered vehicles and devices. In 1931, Franklin’s son Prosper “Pops” Franklin, grandson Paul, granddaughter-in-law Annette and great-granddaughter April continue to work in secret on the serum, achieving success, but interrupted by both the French Imperial police and then a mysterious black cloud shooting lightning bolts.  Pops is separated, and Paul and Annette appear dead, leaving April alone with their talking cat Darwin (by far, my favorite character) and the serum hidden in a snow globe.

Whew, that’s a lot of setup in basically the first 15 minutes of the movie, because now the film zips forward again to 1941 for the main story.  April, now a young adult, continues to work in secret on the serum.  Disgraced inspector  Gaspar Pizoni – a kind of bumbling version of Javert – continues to try to track down the Franklins, and blackmails young petty criminal Julius to work for him.  Julius saves and then befriends April and Darwin, ultimately having mixed feelings about helping Pizoni.  They are reunited with Pops kicking off an adventure that reveals the secret plans of the French Empire and the mysterious forces that have kidnapped the world’s scientists.

This is imaginative story which also works as an environmental fable.  It’s also interesting that this alternate history depicts 1941 as a time when Europe is dominated by a French totalitarian government where in reality France was under the thumb of Nazi Germany at the time.  It’s imaginatively animated and a clever story.  The one flaw is that the voice acting feels stilted. If I watch this again, I’d like to find the original French cast instead of the dubbed version, because I think that would work better.

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
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: Top Hat (1935)


Title: Top Hat
Release Date: August 29, 1935
Director: Mark Sandrich
Production Company: RKO Radio Pictures
Summary/Review:

In all my life, I’d never before watched a Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers movie.  Much of the plot is a thin link between the wonderful dance sequences.  This movie is also the origination of “Cheek to Cheek,” which was the first dance at my wedding reception.  Nevertheless, much of this movie left me cold.

This movie is divided into two parts.  The first is in London where American dancer Jerry Travers (Astaire) has come to star in a show.  His love for dance leads him to tapdance around his hotel suite awaking the guest downstairs, Dale Tremont (Rogers).  When Dale complains, Jerry falls for her and begins following her around London. This is a romantic comedy trope that’s supposed to be romantic, but comes across as really creepy in this movie.  His dance performance also involves him miming shooting all his back up dancers with his cane.  Maybe its my modern sensibilities but I don’t find a massacre to be a fun thing to incorporate in dance.

The second part of the movie takes place in Venice where Dale travels for work and Jerry (creepily) follows her there.  The set design for Venice only superficially resembles the city, but it’s great in its own right, and provides lots of steps and bridges for the dance sequences.  I suppose if you ignore everything but the dance sequences, it’s really quite enjoyable, but I found much of the plot here, with Dale believing Jerry to be married, and then deciding to up and marry someone else, to just be obnoxious.

Rating: **

Classic Movie Review: M (1931)


Title: M
Release Date: May 11, 1931
Director: Fritz Lang
Production Company: Nero-Film A.G.
Summary/Review:

Continuing with German cinema, this film by Fritz Lang (who also directed Metropolis) is a thriller/procedural drama that basically invented the noir genre.  Peter Lorre, an actor I’ve always liked in his Hollywood films, had is first major role as the serial killer of children, Hans Beckert.  Depicting a serial killer on the silver screen and the way the story unravels is strikingly modern, and is about 30 years of Hollywood doing something similar.

The film begins with chilling sequences of children chanting about murder and then Beckert luring away a girl while whistling “In the Hall of the Mountain King.”  In the panic that follows, people turn on one another with suspicion, and the police crack down on the criminal underworld.  The city’s mob bosses decide that they also need to track down the murderer, and the scenes of cops and criminals preparing for a manhunt are intercut, with it being deliberately hard to tell which group is which.

Beggars are able to track down Beckert who then hides in the office building.  The criminals seek him out using all the means at their disposal, including rather comically drilling a hole through the floor to access a locked office on a lower level.  Once they’ve captured Beckert, the criminals put him on a mock trial. These scenes feel didactic as Lang’s characters overtly explain the moral message to a sick society, which is a weak way to conclude the film.  The command at the close of the film to watch our children seems torn out of the present day manual of helicopter parenting.  Nevertheless, the film on the whole is a compelling drama.

Rating: ***1/2

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 Blue Angel (1930)


Title: The Blue Angel
Release Date: April 1, 1930
Director: Josef von Sternberg
Production Company:  Universum Film A.G. | Paramount Pictures
Summary/Review:

Here’s another German film that’s a kind of weird morality tale about how women are the devil or something like that. I found it more enjoyable than Pandora’s Box, though.  Marlene Dietrich is completely captivating  as the cabaret performer Lola Lola, and not surprisingly this film made her a big star.  The Blue Angel was intended to be a vehicle for renowned German theater and film star Emil Jannings, but he gets overshadowed by Dietrich.

This is one of the first German talkies and the direction seems to revel in sound, especially early on when the camera focuses on a clock ticking and the bell ringing the hour, or when Jannings’ Professor Roth opens a window allowing the sound of children singing on the street to enter, and then closes the window again to make silence.

The story starts with Professor Roth teaching at a preparatory school, where he gets little respect and they play pranks on him.  He catches the boys circulating postcards of Lola Lola, prompting him to visit the cabaret that night in order to catch the boys going there.  Instead he finds himself captivated by Lola Lola.  After a few visits, he asks her to marry him, and surprisingly she says yes.

It’s not really clear what Lola Lola sees in Professor Roth.  Maybe she wants someone who will protect her, maybe she’s charmed by his old fashioned devotion, or maybe she just takes pity on him. Over the next few years though, it becomes clear that Roth won’t be her only man.  Roth becomes envious of her flirtation with other men and that he is financially dependent on her,  and he becomes angry and abusive.  The culmination of the film sees the troupe return to Roth’s hometown, and the townspeople come out en masse to see Roth – now performing as a clown – humiliated.

This movie is depressing, and tragic in the sense that the demands of toxic masculinity lead to Roth’s downfall.  Nevertheless, it is a well-acted and well-made film, and seemingly ahead of its time.

Rating: ****