"The Clock" (MGM, 1945)
A charming, intelligent and pleasantly sentimental wartime comedy-romance, featuring a winsome Judy Garland and a babyfaced Robert Walker as a star-crossed young couple who meet in the waning days of WWII. He's a soldier from a small town who has a couple of days layover in New York City before shipping off to Europe. They meet by accident and slowly, but inexorably fall in love. The delicate, deliberate pace of their budding romance swiftly gives way to a panicked rush to marry, as they realize he's about to leave within hours, possibly never to return... This is one of director Vincente Minnelli's most heartfelt films, a really sweet, nostalgic ode to the meeting of old and new America, as the still-young nation strode into superpower status. One of my favorite old films... Fun supporting cast as well, with several broadly-drawn cariacatures of the nice folks you can meet in the Big City, if you can only still find its heart.
"Clouds Over Europe (Q Planes)" (1939)
By today's standards, this WWII-era British, spy adventure story is a bit creaky and awkward, but it's still pretty fun taken on its own terms. A very young Laurence Olivier plays the brash young (and somewhat unlikeable) test pilot who takes it on himself to solve the mystery surrounding the disappearance of the RAF's new secret planes, he is aided by Ralph Richardson's quirky secret service agent, an older, wiser, and eminently more good-natured sort of chap, who guides the hotheaded Olivier into triumph over the nest of spies who have been spiriting away the new "Q planes." Some vintage offbeat British humour, not a lot of action, and an awful lot of moderately clever gab. Olivier fans will enjoy the chance to see him in such an early role, but in essence this film is somewhat slow going.
"And God Created Woman" (1957)
Got started, couldn't quite finish... (Finally reviewed on next page...)
"For Your Eyes Only" (MGM, 1981)
A mind-numbingly dull Bond film, with walking wax manniquin Roger Moore as 007. Lots of athleticism, as Bond plows through the Winter Olympics sport by sport, deep sea dives, mountain climbs, Zambonis, and wrecklessly races a European mini in order to save the world from nuclear annihilation. The trouble with this film is it is very much a product of the times: the clothes and even the design of all the vehicles are all hideous, and the film itself has the look and feel of a television show like Rockford Files or Magnum P.I., just without the redeeming humor. The "Bond girls," mainly emaciated coke whores, are so bad that James even kicks on out of bed early in the show. Plus, the title song is by Sheena Easton... 'nuff said? Eminently skippable.
"The Harder They Come" (Island, 1972)
A groundbreaking counterculture music movie that brought reggae to America, and made an international star of singer Jimmy Cliff. Cliff, a former member of Bob Marley's band, plays the film's antihero, Ivan, a country bumpkin who moves to Kingston in search of the good life. Nothing Ivan does works out well -- at the movie's start his own mother turns him out; a stint working at a church falls apart after he hits on the preacher's girlfriend. Ivan pursues his dream of becoming a pop star, but finds the record business is just as unfair as the rest of life in the Jamaican shantytowns, and justifiably turns to the last opportunity left to him: selling ganga for the local drug cartel. The release of this film was perfectly timed to capitalize on the drug culture, musical experiemtnalism and leftwing politics that were prevalent in the early 1970s. With its gratuitous shots of Rastafarians lighting up massive spliffs and the exotic melodies of the rhythmically potent roots reggae that makes up the soundtrack, the film was a huge underground hit, and paved the way for Marley and Cliff's subsequent success in Europe and the US. I'm not so sure it was actually that great a film, but it does seem a fairly accurate reflection of Jamaica's poverty- and corruption-ridden urban slums, and the half-exalting, half-deflating look at gangsta mythology places it a few notches above your average '70s blacksploitation flick, or flavor-of-the-month rap album. Worth checking out, although the item to really pick up is the rock-solid soundtrack album, which features Jimmy Cliff, Toots & The Maytals, Desmond Dekker and the Melodions... some of the best reggae music ever recorded!
"Jamaica Inn" (Mayflower, 1938)
Charles Laughton is delicious in this classic Hitchcock thriller as the stuffy, regal Humphrey Pengallan, a psychotic country squire who decides the best way to meet the high costs of royal life is to indulge his immodest talents as a criminal mastermind. Unbeknownst to his friends and peers, Lord Pengallan has assembled a grimy band of cutthroat thieves which he secretly directs to wreck and loot merchant ships on the rocky Cornwall coast. He is of course thwarted by plucky newcomer Maureen O'Hara and her goodlooking beau, an undercover policeman whose cover is blown after one of their heists seems a bit light. Some Hitchcock fans apparently find this film less than satisfying, but it's as classy and as offbeat as any he's made; perhaps it's because the film is a period drama that folks are thrown off track. At any rate, this is vintage Hitchcock, and the character acting is typically impressive, particularly Emlyn Williams as Harry, the most menacing of the pirate crew... his is one of the most sinister screen villains you're likely to see. Laughton, of course, brings his tremendous range to bear, appearing at first as an overbearing aristocratic boor, then modifies himself to become in turns magnanimous, ruthless and finally so homicidally crazed and delusory that he takes on an almost pathetic air. And O'Hara, in her screen debut is both beautiful and full of pluck -- no helpless female here, as she stops the brigands almost single-handedly. An offbeat film, and definitely worth checking out.
"Prisoner Of Zenda" (RKO, 1937)
A classic, old-fashioned adventure flick, featuring Ronald Coleman as a dashing young Englishman on vacation in a nameless Central European backwater. When an attempted coup unfolds, his striking likeness to that country's reluctant, wastrel king leads to his conscription as a stand-in monarch, a task which he meets with typical British pluck. Coleman's dual acting role is a negligible achievement, but he's fine as the hero; Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. gets in some choice scenery chewing as the oily baddie who backs the evil Duke Michael in his attempt to steal the crown. Some great, artily arranged camera shots and moody, shadowy sets, and plenty of flashy, spangly costumes. (Now... is it just me, or does Mary Astor, who plays a bad-gal-gone-good, bear a striking resemblance here to 1990s actress Julianna Moore?) Recommended!
"Carefree" (RKO, 1938)
One of the best-plotted, most delightful Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers team-ups... The dance routines actually aren't as great here as in other films, but Rogers is a hoot as a wisecracking, no-nonsense gal who will have none of Astaire's patronizing airs in his role as a high-handed psychiatrist, hired by her bewildered beau (played by Ralph Bellamy) to find out why she doesn't want to tie the knot. All of Astaire's attempts to diagnose her fail: he talks to her and she runs rings around him, he hypnotizes her and the results are equally disasterous, he dopes her up with an inhibition-lowering "anasthetic" and she goes off on a impish, hilarious crime spree. Ginger's comic timing is devastating, and she's also as gorgeous as ever in this fine, fun film. Recommended!
"Pigskin Parade" (20th Century Fox, 1936)
This college comedy is notable as the onscreen debut of the teenage diva-to-be, Judy Garland, but it also stands on its own as a fine, fluffy '30s comedy. A small-town college in Texas is accidentally invited to meet Yale in a nationally-watched football match. It's the biggest thing that's ever happened at good old TSU, and the student body is understandably all worked up about it -- moved to stage musical shows and pep rallies galore, as a matter of fact. Garland, who was constantly miscast in her early career, enters the picture as the snub-nosed hayseed little sister of TSU's new star quarterback, an Arkansas hillbilly who can pitch a long pass with devastating accuracy. The real stars of the show, though, are the team's coach, played by comedian Jack Haley (later to work with Garland as the Tin Woodman) and the brassy, wisecracking Patsy Haley, as the coach's sports-savvy, shrewish wife. The plot isn't too flimsy and pleasantly zips along, bouyed by some choice performances by all concerned. Yeah, Betty Grable's in there, too, but only in a bit part; half the musical numbers are provided by vocal quartet from the Catskills circuit known as the Yacht Club Boys... Their middleaged appearances are deftly explained by a goofy number called "Sophmores 'Til The Day We Die"; even more hilarious is a political numer called "Down With Everything!" which is sung in honor of a young Bolshie agitator who appears in order to rile up the locals, but winds up instead ont he wrong side of Texas justice. Sports fans will be gratified by the finale, which edits in some tantalizing archival footage of a 1930s Yale game, played in a howling blizzard. Fun film all around... and you can certainly see why the studio heads went ga-ga over Garland!
"In The Good Old Summertime" (Warner, 1949)
A sweet comedy of errors featuring Judy Garland and Van Johnson as two star-crossed pen-pals who (unknowingly) meet in real life and wind up fighting like cats and dogs. A genuinely funny film, with some choice musical performances. Fun stuff!
"That's Entertainment III" (MGM, 1994)
Hey -- don't look at me that way! They were showing it on TV, and how could I resist? Like the previous installments in this series, this scrapbook documentary patches together some of the most dazzling and outlandish dance numbers from the golden age of MGM musicals, using somewhat hackneyed narrations by old-time studio stars such as Gene Kelly, Lena Horne and Esther Williams. The numbers whiz by like lightning, deftly navigating the shoals of countless half-forgotten tossoffs and classic A-list films. Naturally, some bits will appeal more to some viewers than others... my attention began to wander when the Esther Williams and Gene Kelly sequences went on too long: her movies were too bland to merit the extra attention; his were too good to merely nibble at in a forum like this. But the clips from lesser-known films are pure gems, and since many of these films are still out of print (or better left unrented), having the best material lifted out of them is a real treat. I did feel gypped, though by the meagre sampling of Carmen Miranda films... She had some really kooky routines, and it would be great to see more of her work! A fluffily produced featurette, yet packed with great perfromances and evocative of a golden era.
"Ten Wanted Men" (Columbia, 1955)
A clumsy grade "B" oater about a blood feud between two rival Arizona ranchers. Randolph Scott -- who I normally like -- co-produced and starred in this over-obvious western saga. This is one of the infamously "stiff" performances he is often derided for. This film's okay, but certainly no prize-winning cinematic masterpiece. Scott's white-faced bay mare is a gorgeous horse, though!
"Captain Blood" (MGM, 1935)
Errol Flynn's first starring role on the Hollywood screen was a smashing success in every regard. Although it starts out a little on the talky side, this swashbuckling pirate movie has it all: clean, crisp, innovative B&W cinematography, a thrill-packed plot, a nice mix of minature sets and on-location action, and -- of course -- two of Hollywood's most babilicious stars, the surf-dude-y Flynn and the ever-dishy Olivia De Havilland. Fine set of supporting characters, as well, and fine direction by Michael Curtiz (later of Casablanca fame) Plus, the big climactic battle scene is a real humdinger. Recommended!
"Gypsy" (Warner Brothers, 1962)
The slow, painful demise of the Vaudeville stage serves as the backdrop for this (semi-factual) musical autobiography of Ms. Gypsy Rose Lee, one of the greatest burlesque strippers of the mid-20th Century. Rosalind Russell excels in her role as Rose Horvick, the ultimate brassy, intrusive stage mother, driving her two daughters from one end of the country to the other in search of elusive stardom. Nathalie Wood, reserved and demure, plays the incandescent ugly duckling who can't dance and never hits her cues, yet blossoms when the strip circuit beckons. This is, of course, a rather sanitized version of Lee's life, but with such classy performances and a funny, conversational score written by Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim, who cares about historical accuracy? It takes about two hours of Russell bellowing and barking before the actual burlesque numbers begin, but the payoff is there, both in watching Wood light up the screen, and in the emotional reconciliation between her Gypsy Lee and her obsessive, slave-driving mom. A classic no-business-like-show-bizness film that hold up after all these years.
"The Lion In Winter" (MGM/Avco, 1968)
"Waterloo Bridge" (MGM, 1940)
Vivian Leigh and Robert Taylor stars in this weepy wartime romance about a soldier who falls for a ballet dancer whom he meets during the Blitz. The war pulls them apart, and when he finds her again, she's been forced to make her living by walking the streets. Melodramatic and kind of a downer, but Leigh looks fabulous and luminescent in all her soft-focus close-ups.
"Roberta" (MGM, 1935)
This Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers comedy starts out with great promise, as Astaire plays opposite the charmingly rugged and intensely charismatic Randolph Scott, who took a welcome break from his usual tough-guy roles in western oaters. Unfortunately, it turns out that this movie was really a vehicle for Irene Dunne, who is fine as a comedic supporting character, but stops the film dead in its tracks when the directors make her the center of attention. In particular, she drains the life out of the film when she sings not one, not two, not three, but a full four songs (the last with a reprise!) in her horrid, overly mannered operatic soprano... It's a prissy, songbird style which does not wear well over the years, and her vocals -- along with a prolonged fashion show sequence, featuring a parade of unusually garish gowns -- bring this film to a grinding, painful halt. Fred and Ginger are of course beautiful together, but they only have a little time onscreen, with Astaire's "I Won't Dance" the highlight of the show. Scott is absolutely magnetic as Astaire's good-natured, no-nonsense he-man pal (and actually upstages Fred in some of the early scenes!), but his role dwindles to insignificance in the second half of the film, when Dunne is elevated to center stage. Fabulous start, but it sadly fizzles out.
"Three Godfathers" (MGM, 1948)
A lesser-known John Ford western, featuring John Wayne, Pedro Almendariz and Harry Carey, Jr., son of the great silent western actor, Harry Carey, to whom Ford dedicated this feature. The three are an affectionate trio of would-be bankrobbers whose big heist goes kaflooey when they find themselves trapped without water in the Arizona desert with a posse on their trail. The story takes a comedic twist after the desperados are made guardians of a dying woman's newborn son. This "three banditos and a baby" plot had been filmed several times before (and survived intact in other genres later on...) but it still has its charms. Ford's direction is typically solid and entertaining, and Wayne is pretty much at his physical and charismatic peak. Fun film -- not great, but a nice afternoon oater.
French director Jean Vigo's only full-length feature is every bit the bittersweet masterpiece critics proclaim it to be. Very much in the tradition of director Marcel Pagnol, this is a beautifully-shot, naturalistic portrait of a young couple in love, entering a new life together as a captain and his newlywed bride aboard a merchant barge that travels back and forth from Le Havre to Paris. The musty confines of the ship are cramped and unglamourous, and "The Missus" yearns for a little playtime and romance, particularly when they dock for several days in Paris. He's disenchanted by the city's charms, however, and his inattention to his wife's desires leads to trouble to affects the entire crew. Dita Parlo is compelling as the girl, but in many ways the star of the show is supporting actor Michel Simon, who plays the lusty, loutish second mate, a vaguely menacing character who opens up to help make "The Missus" feel welcome onboard and helps provoke her husband's jealousy. The emotional interplay between these characters is deftly and economically rendered, and the cinematography is simply stunning. Plus, cat lovers will be delighted by the cats and kittens which Pere Jules has packed into every available corner of the boat... such cuteness!
"Camelot" (Warner Brothers, 1967)
An exceptional adaptation of a hit Broadway musical about the legend of King Arthur's mistily-remembered reign in the time of chivalrous knighthood and England's transition from the Dark Ages into the Enlightenment. The plot is magnigficent, opening with a capering Richard Harris, whose introductory scenes are so over the top and mincey that even the most enlightened boyfriend/hubby will find his fingers wandering for the remote or searching for a brewski. But King Arthur, like the film, gathers gravitas as the story unfolds... The classic triangle between Arthur, Guinnevere and Lancelot is retold as a parable for the civilizing of England itself -- Arthur allows himself to be cuckholded not for his love of a friend (which is the traditional view), but because to seek revenge would be to slide back into the might-makes-right barbarity and rule by force that he seeks to supplant as king of the newly unified England. As a figurehead, he is trapped in more ways than one, and his character squirms painfully under our gaze, like a butterfly on a collector's pin. The mix of humor and pathos is deftly played, and by the end, we're all swept up by the inevitable, inexorable tragedy, yet can still relish Harris' lusty hamminess. I'm not that knowlegable about musical theatre, but I thought this film was swell.
NOTE: On December 31st, I came down with a case of shingles, a nasty little viral remnant of childhood chickenpox. Don't worry... you'll probably get it too, someday, but not by reading this weblog. Anyway, prescribed plenty of rest, with moderate amounts of codiene and other weird pills, I settled in for an uncomfortable, spaced-out week at home in bed, made easier by a nonstop diet of old, classic films. I recommend this treatment for others, as well as a cold compress against the afflicted area (a remedy I didn't try until very late in the game, and boy do I wish I'd done it sooner!) Anyway, this explains the unusually high volume of films watched in the opening week of 2003... and all the spaced-out, wacky reviews!!
"The Miracle Woman" (Columbia, 1933)
Barbara Stanwyck as Sister "Faith" Fallon, charismatic leader of a Pentecostal sect. David Manners plays a blind man who falls in love with her after hearing a sermon which rouses hope in him; Frank Capra's unusually blunt attack on religious quackery previews familiar themes of individual moralism and the little guy going up against a crooked system. The baby-cheeked, 20-year-old Stanwyck is drop-dead gorgeous in scene after scene, and brings the house down -- literally -- in the beginning and closing scenes. Nice early exploration of Capra's populist ouvre, but mostly just a chance to admire Stanwyck's incandescence.
"The Lady Vanishes" (Gainsborough Pictures, 1938)
A delightful early Hitchcock comedy thriller, featuring a flock of eccentric English tourists unwillingly caught up in the politcal intrigues of Continental Europe. The film's interventionist message is pleasantly leavened by some of Hitchcock's cleverest comedy material -- a sparkling script, a bevy of colorful characters and plenty of properly dasterdley baddies. If you're looking for some fun, light, old-fashioned B&W entertainment, this film should nicely fill the bill. Delicious!
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