Movie Review: Make Mine Music (1946)


Title: Make Mine Music
Release Date: April 20, 1946
Director: Jack Kinney, Clyde Geronimi, Hamilton Luske, Joshua Meador, and Robert Cormack
Production Company: Walt Disney Productions
Summary/Review:

Last year, I started a project to watch and review every Walt Disney and Pixar animated feature film.  With the launch of Disney+, I’ve decided it’s a good time to resume the project.  Instead of watching the remaining films in chronological order, I decided to watch poorly-reviewed films first and work my way to the all-time classics.  Make Mine Music is universally a Disney animated film held in low regard.  In fact, Make Mine Music is one of the few movies not available on Disney+ so I watched a version on Internet Archive that is from a 1985 Japanese laserdisc!

Make Mine Music is the third of six “package films” that Walt Disney Productions released in the 1940s when the war in Europe closed off markets and most Disney animators either were serving in the military or working on war time films for the US. government. These movies are basically a collection of shorter works around a theme that allowed Disney to release feature-length films cheaply and easily under these conditions.  (Fantasia, which was released before the US entry into the war is not considered a package film despite being made up of discrete segments).  With 10 different segments, Make Mine Music has more segments than any other package film and is basically a glorified collection of Silly Symphonies.

The theme of the movie is, of course, music.  The animated visuals are accompanied by musical performances by The King’s Men, Benny Goodman and His Orchestra, Andy Russell, Dinah Shore, and The Andrews Sisters.  It’s tempting to see some of these segments as predecessors to music videos.  There are also some segments that adapt musical stories such as “Casey at the Bat” (more of a poetry recitation), “Peter and the Wolf,” and the longest segment, “The Whale Who Wanted to Sing at the Met.”

There is no narration or anything that links together these segments, and a lot of them are below par by Disney standards, although parts could be spun off as mildly entertaining shorts.  And I know that this has been done, because I’ve seen “Casey at the Bat” before.  My favorite segment is “All the Cats Join In” which features stylized illustrations of teenagers enjoying swing music that is “drawn” as we watch (much like Harold and the Purple Crayon).  It might possibly also depict interracial dating although it’s more likely that it’s just a girl with a deep suntan.  I feel that “The Whale Who Wanted to Sing at the Met” is a noble failure, because it’s a cute story but it would have worked better as a short, or maybe even if the characters were developed it could be a feature film on its own.  But at it’s current length it just feels like a padded repetition of the same gags.

Make Mine Music isn’t particularly good, but it isn’t loathsome either.  With ten segments there’s probably something for everyone, although it’s doubtful that anyone will be delighted by the entire film.

Rating: *1/2

Classic Movie Review: Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday (1953)


Title: Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday (originally Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot)
Release Date: February 25, 1953
Director: Jacques Tati
Production Company: Discina Film | Cady Films | Specta Films
Summary/Review:

This delightful comedy gently satirizes the boom in middle class summer seaside vacations in the post-WWII era.  Many of the archetypical characters one would run into into at resort to this day appear in the film.  The movie begins with crowds of people attempting to catch trains and buses, with the title character M. Hulot arriving in an old, backfiring car.

Hulot is portrayed by the director Jacques Tati as a friendly and well-meaning character who inadvertently cause trouble for people around him.  Dialogue in this movie is incidental but music and sound effects are key for the not-quite-pantomime performances.  There are a lot of gags around men getting distracted by the attractive young woman Martine (Nathalie Pascaud), but it never devolves into the full on leering that was common in this era.  In fact, it’s a positive that Martine gets a name and some agency unlike many of the other characters.

The movie is charming and hilarious and probably worth a rewatch for to catch some of the simultaneous gags onscreen.

Rating: ****

Classic Movie Review: Stormy Weather (1943)


Title: Stormy Weather
Release Date: July 21, 1943
Director: Andrew L. Stone
Production Company: 20th Century Fox
Summary/Review:

Back when I reviewed Swing Time I noted that it would’ve been better if Fred Astaire include African American artists in his tribute to Bill Robinson.  Then I realized I was a hypocrite since my list of classic movies had no Bill Robinson films.  So I had Stormy Weather, a musical-dance-romance movie featuring the top African American performers of the era.

The movie is a loose biography of Bill Robinson’s career.  How loose?  The movie begins with Robinson’s character Bill Williamson returning from the First World War.  In reality, Robinson fought in the Spanish American War, and entertained the troops in WWI.  So we just ignore that the 64-year-old Robinson is playing a much younger character, especially when he strikes up a romance with 25-year-old Lena Horne’s character Selina Rogers.

The film is essentially a tribute to a quarter century of African American entertainment and follows Bill Williamson through a film packed with with song and dance numbers.  I was actually surprised that the plot actually holds together based on the standard of movie musical plots.  The movie begins with Bill going to a Harlem nightclub with his army buddy Gabe (Dooley Wilson) where he meets Selina and her manager/band leader Chick Bailey (Emmett ‘Babe’ Wallace) who becomes Bill’s romantic rival.

Bill returns home to Memphis, stopping to scat on a riverboat, and taking up a job as dancer/waiter in a night club where Ada Brown and Fats Waller sing the blues.  They’re all hired to join Chick’s touring act and eventually Bill outshines Chick and leaves to start his own company.  Bill and Selina split up but get back together in a night club scene featuring Cab Calloway (the generational difference between the two performers is acknowledged in a humorous scene where Robinson can’t understand Calloway’s jive talk).  Lena Horne sings the stunning “Stormy Weather” and the brothers Fayard and Harold Nicholas perform a remarkable dance where they leap down steps and land in splits and don’t suffer groin injuries!

It’s an amazingly entertaining film, and I’m leaving out a lot of the great performers and numbers.  There are times where the movie leans into the stereotypes of African Americans that Hollywood audiences expected (for example, a comedy duo perform in blackface).  But there’s also a sense of these artists reclaiming something from these stereotypes and showing how hard they strive toward excellence.

Rating: ****

Classic Movie Review: Cat People


Title: Cat People
Release Date: December 25, 1942
Director: Jacques Tourneur
Production Company: RKO Radio Pictures
Summary/Review:

This horror/thriller stars French actress Simone Simon as Irena Dubrovna, a Serbian immigrant in New York who believes she is descended from people who turn into cats if aroused or angered.   She meets Oliver Reed (Kent Smith) and they strike up a relationship and eventually marriage, although Irena refuses to kiss (and presumably consummate the marriage although the Hays Code won’t allow this to be mentioned).  Oliver is patient and tries to get Irena psychiatric help.  Eventually, Oliver’s work colleague Alice Moore (Jane Randolph) admits she’s in love with Oliver and they begin spending more time together.  Irena is enraged with jealousy and Alice finds herself being tracked by an animal.  The film makes it’s low budget an advantage by keeping the panther in shadows and making the audience question whether the big cat is real or merely psychological.

Roger Ebert classifies Cat People as a Great Movie, but I believe it is merely good.

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: ****

Classic Movie Review: Pandora’s Box (1929)


Title:  Pandora’s Box
Release Date: January 30, 1929
Director: G. W. Pabst
Production Company: Süd-Film
Summary/Review:

This German film is deeply weird and severely misogynist.  American actress Louise Brooks plays Lulu, a young woman who is passionate and sexually confident and of whom the film tells us is “thoughtless.”  But really it’s a morality play that would have us believe that a woman with an independent streak will bring everyone around her to ruin.

Brooks is a captivating actor and without someone of her capability in the role, I don’t think this movie would be worth watching.  She’s a great silent film star because she can say so much with her face.  I found myself pondering for a long time who she reminded me of, and then finally I hit upon Phoebe Waller-Bridge in Fleabag who also conveys so much with a look.

The story, for what it’s worth, has kind of a perils of Lulu plot as each scene leads to another level of degradation. Lulu goes from a mistress to a stage performer to marrying her reluctant lover to an accused murderer to a fugitive in an illegal gambling den to prostitution to a victim of Jack the Ripper.  There are some interesting scenes, particularly during the backstage scenes of her variety show, where performers go on and off the stage entering and leaving Lulu’s drama in the backstage.  This movie also broke ground with a prominent lesbian character, Countess Augusta Geschwitz (Alice Roberts), who helps Lulu escape imprisonment.

The movie is kind of bland melodrama and I can’t really recommend watching other than for film history research.

Rating: **1/2