Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Classic Films in Focus: 42ND STREET (1933)

In the Depression Era, frothy, upbeat musicals were a much appreciated form of relief, and nobody made musicals any frothier or more upbeat than choreographer Busby Berkeley, who didn't actually direct the films but rather constructed elaborate, show-stopping musical numbers around which the directors filled in the gaps. Of the Busby Berkeley films, 42nd Street (1933) is the best known, partly because of visually dazzling musical interludes like "Shuffle Off to Buffalo" and partly because director Lloyd Bacon's surrounding story is the ultimate backstage theater tale that so many later films have imitated, parodied, and revised.

The picture features Berkeley regulars Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler as two of the performers in a troubled stage musical being produced by the brilliant but dangerously overworked Julian Marsh (Warner Baxter). Powell plays Billy, one of the principal performers, while Keeler is Peggy, a nervous first timer. After a couple of more experienced chorus girls (Ginger Rogers and Una Merkel) help Peggy get a spot in the show, she finds out just how demanding life on the stage can be. Meanwhile, the show's star, Dorothy Brock (Bebe Daniels), depends on a wealthy admirer for the musical's financial support, but she can't seem to give up her old flame (George Brent) for the sake of her career. When Dorothy breaks her ankle just before opening night, Peggy is forced to sink or swim as her last minute replacement.

The musical numbers are great fun, especially the cheeky "Shuffle Off to Buffalo," and "42nd Street" has become a classic of the genre. Baxter's line to Keeler, "You're going out a youngster, but you've got to come back a star!" is hopelessly sappy but still one of Hollywood's most memorable moments. Ruby Keeler really is the new kid in the film; this was her first screen appearance, and she is somewhat overshadowed by the scene stealing comediennes Ginger Rogers and Una Merkel. Rogers, of course, would go on to lasting fame as Fred Astaire's dancing partner, but she has a great role in "Anytime Annie" that lets her show how spunky, funny, and smart she could be.

42nd Street earned two Oscar nominations, including one for Best Picture. Lloyd Bacon and Busby Berkeley worked with Powell and Keeler again for Footlight Parade, which also appeared in 1933. George Brent went on to meatier roles as a leading man, starring with Bette Davis in Jezebel (1938), The Old Maid (1939), and Dark Victory (1939), among others. You'll find Ginger Rogers making her first screen appearance with Astaire in Flying Down to Rio (1933), but don't miss her starring comedic performance in The Major and the Minor (1942) or her Oscar winning work in the women's melodrama, Kitty Foyle: The Natural History of a Woman (1940). The delightful Una Merkel can also be seen in Destry Rides Again (1939) and It's a Joke, Son! (1947).

An earlier version of this review originally appeared on Examiner.com. The author retains all rights to this content.

BEYOND CASABLANCA is now on Kindle!

I'm very pleased to announce that BEYOND CASABLANCA: 100 CLASSIC MOVIES WORTH WATCHING, is now available as an ebook for Kindle, and right now you can buy the book for only $4.99! I have been working on making this happen since before Christmas, so I'm very excited that it is now a reality. I hope it will help these great old movies find more viewers and new fans.

BEYOND CASABLANCA is also still available as a paperback from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.com, and if you're buying the book for an older relative or friend that is probably still the best way to go. It has been a big hit with my lifetime learners, which makes me happy because it was written with them in mind.

There are also only a few days left for the Goodreads Giveaway of BEYOND CASABLANCA, and we're up to 300 entries so far! If you'd like to win a free copy, head over there before January 31 and put your name in the hat.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Classic Films in Focus: IT'S LOVE I'M AFTER (1937)

We don't generally associate any of its leading actors with the genre of romantic comedy, but that's one reason why Archie Mayo's 1937 film, It's Love I'm After, comes as such a pleasant surprise. The flirtatiously light story could have underpinned an Astaire and Rogers musical, but instead we have Leslie Howard, Bette Davis, and Olivia de Havilland making a troublesome romantic triangle and providing plenty of laughs along the way. Throw in a supporting cast that includes Patric Knowles, Eric Blore, and Spring Byington, and you've got a perfect recipe for the kind of cinematic confection that dominated the smart, sprightly comedies of the era.

Leslie Howard plays stage star Basil Underwood, who engages in a love/hate courtship with his leading lady, Joyce Arden (Bette Davis). Basil is briefly distracted, however, by the adoration of Marcia West (Olivia de Havilland), much to the dismay of her fiance, Henry (Patric Knowles). Henry convinces Basil to turn up at Marcia's house and behave as badly as possible in order to disillusion her, but the plan backfires, and jealous Joyce further complicates the situation by pursuing Basil to the Wests' estate.

There are several delights on offer here. One is seeing Howard and Davis play Romeo and Juliet on stage, whispering poison into each other's ears even as they proclaim the doomed lovers' lines. If you like the sparring thespian couple in To Be or Not to Be (1942), you'll love these two, and Howard brings an especially amusing version of his usual diffidence into the egotistical actor's character. Another highlight is Olivia de Havilland's screwball performance as the starstruck fan; she really invests her scenes with a wacky intensity that makes one wonder why she didn't get to do more of these kinds of films. If you've only seen her as the demure Melanie in Gone with the Wind (1939), you're in for a shock here. Speaking of Gone with the Wind, there's a hilarious Clark Gable gag near the end of the picture, made funnier by the fact that Howard, de Havilland, and Gable would all be starring in that film just two years later.

Patric Knowles is handsome and earnest as Henry; if he pales in comparison to Howard's Basil, he's at least very good to look at, and his dullness serves the purpose of the character. Spring Byington plays the kind of nutty society matron she often brought to life on screen, and she's as funny here as you would expect her to be, although the crowded house party limits her scenes. Nancy Drew fans will also recognize teenaged Bonita Granville as the keyhole spy, Gracie, although a little of her character goes a long way. Eric Blore, however, takes the prize among the supporting cast for the funniest lines and the best reaction shots; watch the way he employs his toupee as a comic prop throughout the film. His presence helps to increase the feeling of watching a Fred and Ginger picture with the musical numbers removed, since he also appeared with them in Top Hat (1935), Swing Time (1936), and Shall We Dance (1937). He's funny enough all by himself to make the whole movie worth watching, no matter how you feel about the more celebrated stars.

See more of Howard and Davis together in Of Human Bondage (1934) and The Petrified Forest (1936). Ironically, Howard's last film before It's Love I'm After was Romeo and Juliet (1936), in which Norma Shearer played his leading lady. For more comedy with Bette Davis, try The Bride Came C.O.D. (1941). You'll find Olivia de Havilland and Patric Knowles in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), while de Havilland and Davis make a memorable pair in Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964). Director Archie Mayo also made the hilarious Jack Benny comedy, Charley's Aunt (1941), as well as the Marx Brothers picture, A Night in Casablanca (1946).

 It's Love I'm After is not especially well-known today, but it's now available on DVD from Warner Archive, and hopefully that will help more people find and enjoy it. It's definitely worth the effort if you can track it down.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Classic Films in Focus: ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES (1938)

The early 30s were the heyday of gangster pictures, with movies like The Public Enemy (1931) and Scarface (1932) heating up the screen. By the end of the decade the moral arbiters had become alarmed about gangster movies being a bad influence on the kids in the audience; therefore, pictures that featured gangster characters were supposed to show that the bad guys would always get their comeuppance in the end. Of course, the gangsters had died in the earlier movies, too, but they had always gone out with a bang. Director Michael Curtiz's Angels with Dirty Faces (1938) pays some lip service to moral rectitude in its juxtaposition of James Cagney's doomed criminal with Pat O'Brien's saintly priest; certainly, its shocking finale seems to support the attempt to strip crime of its glamor, but ultimately it undermines its own ending to give us yet another example of Cagney's brilliance at playing the seductive thug.

Cagney stars as Rocky Sullivan, who learns to become a career criminal in juvenile hall after getting caught in a youthful crime. His pal and accomplice, Jerry Connolly (Pat O'Brien), outran the cops that fateful day and grows up to be a Catholic priest in the same poor neighborhood where he and Rocky were kids. When Rocky gets out of his most recent stint in prison, he reunites with Jerry while horning his way into some crooked business schemes managed by his underhanded lawyer, James Frazier (Humphrey Bogart), and cohort Mac Keefer (George Bancroft). Jerry wants to save Rocky, but even more he wants to save the neighborhood kids from following Rocky's example, and when Rocky gets caught for the last time Jerry asks him to make a terrible sacrifice for the boys' benefit.

Cagney's appeal as Rocky is tremendous, and Pat O'Brien really doesn't have a chance against him with the audience's sympathies. The two of them are like those cartoons of the Faustian angel and devil on somebody's shoulders, and the angel is always the most obnoxious bore. It's easy enough to see that we're supposed to like Jerry Connolly better and that he obviously occupies the moral high ground, but Rocky is more fun every step of the way, and in the end Rocky even turns out to be the better man since the scope of his sacrifice is far beyond anything that Father Jerry will ever be asked to do. I side with the opinion that Rocky's final performance in the gas chamber is just that, although some people insist that it's meant to be ambiguous. The Dead End Kids might buy Father Jerry's story that Rocky went out yellow, but the audience, I think, is meant to know a wink at the Hays Code when they see one.

The supporting cast gives the movie additional depth and character. Ann Sheridan has great appeal as Rocky's love interest, and Bogart exudes sweaty cowardice as the two-timing lawyer. The Dead End Kids run amok like gritty boy versions of the cast of Annie; they had started out on Broadway in Dead End and come to Hollywood as a package deal; their first film appearance was a 1937 screen adaptation of the play, but they proved popular with audiences and made several subsequent films. Take time to appreciate Frankie Burke, the actor who plays Rocky as a boy; he really does a great job capturing the persona of a youthful Cagney.

Angels with Dirty Faces picked up three Oscar nominations, including nominations for Cagney and Curtiz, but it went home empty-handed. Cagney would eventually win his only Oscar for a very different role in Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942). For more of Cagney's great gangsters, see The Public Enemy (1931) and White Heat (1949). Bogart plays more bad guys in The Petrified Forest (1936) and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948). For a change of pace, try one of Michael Curtiz's other 1938 films, The Adventures of Robin Hood. Curtiz actually earned two nominations for Best Director in 1939, one for Angels and one for the Claude Rains drama, Four Daughters (1938); even though he lost to Frank Capra for You Can't Take It with You (1938), that's still an impressive accomplishment. He would win the Oscar a few years later for directing the immortal Casablanca (1942).

An earlier version of this review originally appeared on Examiner.com. The author retains all rights to this content.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Classic Films in Focus: ROOM SERVICE (1938)

There are several truly brilliant Marx Brothers films, including Duck Soup (1933) and A Night at the Opera (1935), but Room Service (1938), directed by William A. Seiter, offers little to compare with them. It's a shame, too, because in addition to the brothers we get Lucille Ball and a very young Ann Miller along for the ride, and a combination like that ought to be a winner when it comes to comedic opportunities. If the opportunities are there, however, the movie fails to make the most of them, and Room Service ends up among the weakest of the Marx Brothers outings.

The plot of Room Service is relatively straightforward. Groucho plays theater producer Gordon Miller, who is struggling to get funding for his play while he and his actors crash the hotel of Gordon's brother-in-law. The hotel brass want the actors thrown out, but the ragtag group uses a variety of zany ruses to avoid getting the boot until the play can open.

Because this picture is not an original Marx Brothers story - it was adapted from a stage play - several of the usual elements of a Marx Brothers movie are notably absent, including the wonderful musical solos by Chico and Harpo. Groucho seems subdued; his usual barbed patter must give way to the scripted material, and he's left duck-walking around the hotel room without enough to do. The story might be funny enough if it were not trying to be a Marx Brothers film, but their presence creates expectations that go unfilled. Lucille Ball plays it more or less straight, Ann Miller is underused, and the funniest guy in the whole movie turns out to be Frank Albertson as the inexperienced young playwright, Leo Davis. Classic movie fans will most likely recognize Albertson as the braying Sam Wainwright in It's a Wonderful Life (1946), but his career included more than 180 film and television appearances.

If you are new to the Marx Brothers, start with one of their best films instead; A Day at the Races (1937) makes an excellent first outing, especially if you are watching with kids. After that, try A Night in Casablanca (1946) or even At the Circus (1939), which at least offers the attraction of Groucho singing "Lydia, the Tattooed Lady" to make it worthwhile. See more of Lucille Ball's earlier work in Dance, Girl, Dance (1940) and Lured (1947). Ann Miller, who was only 15 when she made this film and You Can't Take It with You (1938), would go on to star in classics like On the Town (1949) and Kiss Me Kate (1953). Director William A. Seiter, a veteran of silent films and musical comedies, also oversaw several Shirley Temple pictures, including Stowaway (1936), which actually makes for a better example of his work than Room Service.

An earlier version of this review originally appeared on Examiner.com. The author retains all rights to this content.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Classic Films in Focus: THE ENCHANTED COTTAGE (1945)

Few romantic movies could be more tenderly affecting than John Cromwell's sentimental drama, The Enchanted Cottage (1945), which stars Dorothy McGuire and Robert Young as imperfect people who find an unlikely love affair awaiting them in a small seaside house. This might, in fact, be the perfect classic film for Valentine's Day, especially for those who want love to come to everyone, not just the beautiful and the fair. This sweet story, with moving performances from Herbert Marshall and Mildred Natwick as well as the leading couple, is exactly the sort of thing to watch with the love of your life, or at least with a pint of ice cream and a box of tissues at hand.

Robert Young stars as Oliver Bradford, whose original wedding plans fall apart after he's maimed and scarred in the war. Hoping to hide from his former fiancee (Hillary Brooke) and his flighty mother (Spring Byington), Oliver takes up residence in the little cottage where he had intended to spend his honeymoon. There he encounters Laura Pennington (Dorothy McGuire), a plain, kindly girl who doesn't seem to mind his injured looks. Oliver marries Laura without any real romantic feelings about her, but something magical happens to the pair after their wedding day.

It's true that The Enchanted Cottage treads lightly where the protagonists' appearances are concerned, but the story suggests their flaws more than it actually shows them. Without makeup and carefully styled hair, in ill-fitting everyday clothes, Dorothy McGuire simply looks like a normal person instead of a movie star, but the transformation scenes still work to great effect. Robert Young's injury makeup includes some scarring around one side of his face, which he accentuates with a useless arm, but he's much easier to look at than, say, The Phantom of the Opera (1925) or The Man Who Laughs (1928), and probably even less scarred than Joan Crawford in A Woman's Face (1941). Both McGuire and Young work hard to sell their characters' self-images as flawed, McGuire with timidity and sadness, and Young with bitterness and despair. We are meant to feel for and with them, and the film succeeds in making that happen.

The love story is presented with a brief frame tale featuring Herbert Marshall as the blind composer, Major John Hillgrove, who befriends both Oliver and Laura and functions as a sort of perfect witness to their early sufferings and eventual happiness. Hillgrove sympathizes with Oliver's despair over his war wounds, having been blinded in the previous war, and it's worth noting that the actor had a special understanding of the role, as he had in fact lost a leg in World War I. Marshall is so good with his artificial leg that you can spend the whole movie fruitlessly looking for any sign of it, but his personal history lends additional pathos to the scene in which the two injured men speak of their feelings and reveal the individual costs of war. Mildred Natwick provides another counterpoint to the young lovers as the widowed owner of the cottage; her relationship with Laura is subtle but effective, and she has several brief but moving scenes that ought to go straight to the heart of any sensitive viewer.

The Enchanted Cottage earned an Oscar nomination for Best Musical Score, and music plays an essential part in the story. The composer, Roy Webb, would collect seven Oscar nominations in all but never win, which is a shame when one considers that his other work includes Cat People (1942), Notorious (1946), and Out of the Past (1947). For more of Dorothy McGuire, see The Spiral Staircase (1945) and Gentleman's Agreement (1947). You'll find Robert Young in The Canterville Ghost (1944) and Crossfire (1947), although he's best remembered today for his later television roles on Father Knows Best and Marcus Welby, MD. See Herbert Marshall in Trouble in Paradise (1932), Foreign Correspondent (1940), and The Letter (1940), and catch Mildred Natwick in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), The Quiet Man (1952), and The Court Jester (1955). Spring Byington plays much less irritating mothers in You Can't Take It with You (1938) and The Blue Bird (1940), but I also enjoy her crazed housekeeper performance in Dragonwyck (1946).

The Enchanted Cottage is available on DVD from Warner Archive, but you cannot currently rent it on Netflix.

Monday, January 21, 2013

The Palace Cinema: A LEGO Set for Serious Cinephiles

It's not everyday that my two greatest obsessions - classic movies and LEGO - overlap, but when they do the results are fantastic. The official unveiling of the upcoming Palace Cinema set took place at BrickFair AL in Birmingham, Alabama, on January 19, 2013, and I was there to drool all over the display model. It's a great set, and one that I think general classic movie fans might well find as irresistible as those of us already involved in the LEGO hobby.

This is a huge Creator set designed to work with the previous Cafe Corner modular kits, and all of those have been terrific, but the classic theater design really sets this latest installment above and beyond. As film fans will immediately note, it takes its architectural cues from that Mecca of the movies, Grauman's Chinese Theatre in Hollywood. The movie posters on the outside feature in-jokes for adult LEGO hobbyists but also evoke classic Hollywood style, and the set even has stars on the sidewalk outside the entrance and minifigures to stage a classic Hollywood gala premiere.

The Palace Cinema will go on sale at LEGO stores and other retailers in March 2013. List price will be about $150. If you're planning to stage a red carpet event with yours, be sure you get the Marilyn Monroe inspired collectable minifigure in the new Series 9 figure collection. She costs about $3 retail and will add the perfect starlet sex appeal to the scene!

If you'd like to see more photos of the Palace Cinema set and the huge LEGO displays at BrickFair 2013, head over to the Virtual Virago photostream on Flickr!

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Classic Films in Focus: THE STRANGE LOVE OF MARTHA IVERS (1946)

Lewis Milestone's 1946 noir thriller, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, merits attention for a number of reasons, including another excellent femme fatale performance from Double Indemnity (1944) star Barbara Stanwyck. A story of murder, money, and carefully guarded power, the film presents a fascinating commentary on the ways in which early experiences shape personality and determine destiny, either for good or evil. It also offers an outstanding cast in addition to Stanwyck, including Van Heflin, Lizabeth Scott, Kirk Douglas, and Judith Anderson, all of them in top form as the familiar types of the genre.

Stanwyck plays the adult incarnation of Martha Ivers, a character we first meet as a young girl (played by Janis Wilson). Young Martha's fatal argument with her tyrannical aunt (Judith Anderson) sets the wheel of fortune in motion, bringing freedom and power to Martha but also binding her to the few people who might know what really happened that night. Once grown, she marries Walter (Kirk Douglas), the son of her aunt's chief sycophant, and pushes him into politics and the law. The unexpected return of another childhood companion, Sam (Van Heflin), seems to threaten Martha and Walter's long protection of their dark secrets, and the couple will stop at nothing to ensure his silence, even using his newfound love interest, Toni (Lizabeth Scott), as a pawn in their deadly game.

Martha is one of Stanwyck's steeliest and most deranged characters, and those qualities are established by Janis Wilson's performance before Stanwyck even takes over the role. She needs desperately, and because of that she draws both Walter and Sam to her, although in Walter's case her embrace quickly becomes a death grip. Walter and Martha make for a spectacularly dysfunctional couple, fighting, plotting, and hating each other but bound together in a Wuthering Heights kind of codependency. Countering their mad marriage we have Sam's developing relationship with Toni, a hard luck angel who serves as a foil to Stanwyck's spoiled succubus. The audience sees right away that Toni is the right girl for Sam, but Martha's siren appeal confuses him and draws him in, despite the fact that Sam has been around enough that he ought to know better.

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers is also noteworthy because Walter is Kirk Douglas' very first screen role, and he springs fully-formed from the head of Hollywood, holding his own against the well-established Stanwyck, who was nine years his senior and had been in movies for nearly two decades in 1946. Douglas plays Walter as a tragically mixed bag of weakness and good intentions, and his drunk scenes are some of his best moments in the film. His good looks and strong chin suggest that Walter might have been a better man if not for his opportunistic father and dangerous, demanding wife, but he loves Martha in spite of her rotten heart. He can drink himself into a stupor, but he can never leave her, and she knows it all too well. The ending of the movie brings their relationship to a shocking, but perfectly realized, close, with a scene that embodies everything we love about classic noir.

See more of young Kirk Douglas in Out of the Past (1947), his next film and another great example of film noir. Director Lewis Milestone earned the Oscar for Best Director for his work on All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), but he also directed Of Mice and Men (1939) and the original Ocean's 11 (1960). Judith Anderson is best remembered today as Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca (1940), while Van Heflin is probably best known for Shane (1953) and 3:10 to Yuma (1957), although he won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Johnny Eager (1941). See more of Lizabeth Scott in Dead Reckoning (1947) with Humphrey Bogart. For a different side of Stanwyck, try Stella Dallas (1937 and The Lady Eve (1941.)  

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers is now in the public domain, which means you can see it for free on almost any streaming service, but it looks much better if you can find a high quality print, especially with the stormy scenes early in the film.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Classic Films in Focus: THE GHOST BREAKERS (1940)

The "old dark house" picture has been a staple of the horror and horror-comedy genres at least as far back as the silent classic, The Cat and the Canary (1927), long before the Scooby Gang made it the regular fare of children's entertainment. To this tradition you may add The Ghost Breakers (1940), a creepy comedy featuring all kinds of silly scares and a very young Bob Hope firing off one-liners like silver bullets. While some of the film's touchier aspects may lessen the modern viewer's enthusiasm for the movie, The Ghost Breakers has plenty of laughs and even some genuine thrills to warrant attention, and kids will probably enjoy its humorous take on the haunted house theme.

Bob Hope plays Larry Lawrence (aka Lawrence Lawrence Lawrence, because his parents "lacked creativity"), a radio celebrity whose news scoops involving the mob get him into hot water. When Larry goes to confront the gangsters, he accidentally gets mixed up in the affairs of Mary Carter (Paulette Goddard), who has just inherited a cursed Cuban castle. Larry and his sidekick Alex (Willie Best) accompany Mary to Cuba to investigate the property's ghoulish reputation; once there, they discover both corporeal and ghostly threats lurking in the castle's moonlit halls.

Hope and Paulette Goddard make a fine pair, and they share some very good scenes that combine romance and comedy in equal measure. No shrinking violet, Goddard's Mary is a plucky heroine, ready to engage Larry's silly humor or to venture alone into the haunted castle at night. She becomes especially lovely when she assumes the costume of a long dead ancestor; the stunning black dress, designed by Edith Head, is a real winner, and it suits the actress perfectly. Hope is remarkably handsome, although his distinctive features still suggest the fool more than the hero; his obvious jealousy when another man enters the picture engages our sympathy for fear he should lose the lovely Mary to a more conventional sort of leading man.

The only real hitch in the picture is Willie Best's appearance as Alex, Larry's manservant and companion. There are two ways to react to the performance: you can either decry it as another "Stepin Fetchit" stereotype or you can appreciate how much Best is able to do with it in spite of the attitudes of the day. Best was one of the best-known black character actors in the business, notable enough to recieve credit for small roles when most performers would not. His goggle-eyed reaction shots are typical of the era, and Best eventually lost the public's support as a new generation of African-Americans sought to distance themselves from such portrayals. Still, Alex is Larry's functional equal in the film; often more practical than Larry, and no more frightened by the specters than his white companions, Alex is more sidekick than servant, and Best certainly knows how to hold the screen against the charismatic Hope. If you watch the film with younger viewers, it's a good idea to talk about Best's character and how depictions of minorities have changed since the 1940s, but children are more likely to regard Alex as a full participant in the comedy than a mere stereotype, and that may be the wisest and most appreciative way to view Best's performance.

Look for Anthony Quinn playing a dual role as Cuban twin brothers, as well as Virginia Brissac rendered utterly unrecognizable under the heavy make-up of the zombie mother. If you like haunted house movies, be sure to catch The Old Dark House (1932) and House on Haunted Hill (1959). For more spooky comedy, try Topper (1937), Arsenic and Old Lace (1944), and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948). Hope and Goddard also starred together in a 1939 remake of The Cat and the Canary. Bob Hope is best remembered today for his road movies with Bing Crosby, but he also stars in The Lemon Drop Kid (1951), Casanova's Big Night (1954), and The Seven Little Foys (1955). You can see more of Paulette Goddard in Modern Times (1936), The Women (1939), and The Great Dictator (1940). The Ghost Breakers, which began life as a stage play, was remade in 1953 by Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis as Scared Stiff, with Lewis filling the role that Willie Best had plays in the 1940 version.

An earlier version of this review originally appeared on Examiner.com. The author retains all rights to this content.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Classic Films in Focus: THE CANTERVILLE GHOST (1944)

It's surprising how many times Oscar Wilde's story, "The Canterville Ghost," has been adapted for the screen, although most of the productions have been for television rather than film. The supernatural title character has been played by John Gielgud and Patrick Stewart, among others, but the 1944 theatrical release, starring Charles Laughton, is the classic rendition. Although its World War II setting immediately reveals its broad deviation from Wilde's original, The Canterville Ghost is worth watching because of Laughton's terrific tragicomic performance and the presence of noteworthy classic stars like Robert Young and Margaret O'Brien, as well as spirited direction from Jules Dassin.

Laughton plays Sir Simon de Canterville, a 17th century nobleman whose own father (Reginald Owen) walls him up alive in the family castle for dishonoring the Canterville name with his cowardice. Three centuries later, Sir Simon has become the most terrifying ghost in England, with a long trail of horror stories adding to his fame, and the castle's present owner, six year old Lady Jessica (Margaret O'Brien), lives in fear of him. The ghost's reputation is ruined, however, when a rowdy group of American Rangers takes up residence in the castle and turns the tables on him. As it turns out, one of the Americans, Cuffy Williams (Robert Young), is actually a descendant of the Canterville line, making him Sir Simon's best hope for breaking the curse that has held him on earth for so many years.

The story mixes fantasy with wartime themes of courage under fire and self-sacrifice, the very qualities that Sir Simon originally lacks and that Cuffy - and Jessica - must find within themselves. The special effects for the ghostly manifestations are entertaining but not terribly scary; they have the same sense of fun as Disney's Haunted Mansion and are unlikely to frighten even the youngest modern viewers. Laughton, however, looks fantastic in each of the ghost's ludicrous disguises and fully milks each opportunity for humor laced with pathos. Portly, in puffy period garb, and sporting an improbable set of whiskers, Laughton makes Sir Simon both a buffoon and a truly tragic figure, lonely and weary after his long centuries of immortal exile. The movie's most terrible scene is certainly the moment when Sir Simon's father condemns him to a slow, nightmarish death, ironically within the heart of the very home that renounces him.

Robert Young and Margaret O'Brien mostly supply reactions to Sir Simon's antics, but Young exudes the appropriately sturdy charm of the American soldier, and O'Brien is wide-eyed and effectively cute as Lady Jessica. The Canterville Ghost came out right in the middle of O'Brien's most productive period, between Jane Eyre (1943) and Meet Me in St. Louis (1944). She was a major child star in the 1940s, and little girls who like Shirley Temple ought to enjoy O'Brien, as well, even if she doesn't sing and dance. Una O'Connor doesn't get enough screen time as the housekeeper to provide her trademark hysteria in response to the ghost's manifestations, but classic movie fans will be glad to see her as well as Mike Mazurki and Frank Faylen among the supporting cast.

The Canterville Ghost makes a very good choice for a family film, especially for kids who enjoy ghost stories and fantasies. Try a double feature with Blackbeard's Ghost (1968) for a night of kid-friendly thrills, or follow it with Topper (1937) and I Married a Witch (1942) for more classic supernatural comedy. Charles Laughton won the Oscar for Best Actor in The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), but he also stars in Island of Lost Souls (1932), Ruggles of Red Gap (1933), and Witness for the Prosecution (1957). Actually, Laughton is brilliant in almost every movie he did, and once you start watching him it's hard to stop. Don't miss his sole directorial turn in The Night of the Hunter (1955). Robert Young also stars with Margaret O'Brien in Journey for Margaret (1942), and you'll find him with Shirley Temple in Stowaway (1936).  For Young's darker films, try They Won't Believe Me (1947) and Crossfire (1947). He went on to television fame in Father Knows Best (1954-1960).

Classic Films in Focus: JESSE JAMES (1939)

Even in their own lifetimes, Frank and Jesse James became the stuff of legend rather than historical fact, so it's no surprise that the 1939 film, Jesse James, is more romantic fiction than biographical account. This is the mythology of the outlaw recast for the big screen, full of handsome faces and daring deeds, and it makes for a mighty fine tale, too, thanks in part to Nunnally Johnson's screenplay and Henry King's rousing direction. The cast includes the rather irresistible duo of Tyrone Power as Jesse and Henry Fonda as his brother, Frank, along with a host of other favorite classic stars like Randolph Scott, John Carradine, and even Slim Summerville bringing grit and gumption to the inhabitants of the outlaws' world.

Power takes top billing as Jesse James, who turns to crime only because unscrupulous railroad men try to swindle and then bully his family out of their home and end up killing the boys' mother (Jane Darwell) in the process. Jesse's lifetime commitment to retribution begins with the man who killed his mother (Brian Donlevy), which puts him on the top of the railroad's most wanted list, but he's just getting warmed up. Along with Frank and a small gang, Jesse robs and raids the railroad at every opportunity, becoming a folk hero to the farmers who hate the big money and corrupt practices of the railroad bosses. His outlaw lifestyle proves a strain on his romance with Zee (Nancy Kelly), but even lawman Will Wright (Randolph Scott) has to admire his daring feats, especially when the real villains are spineless crooks like Mr. McCoy (Donald Meek), the railroad head determined to see Jesse hang.

Power turns in a very charismatic performance as Jesse, which makes his relationship with Zee more tender and credible than it might otherwise be, given that he misses major events like the birth of their child and drives Zee to distraction with his dangerous career. Fonda, sadly, is rather underused; Frank pops in and out of the story without much explanation, although when he does show up Fonda gives him plenty of presence and a taciturn, frontier sense of humor that makes us miss him even more when he vanishes again. Randolph Scott's huge physical presence and good-guy jaw make him a fascinating third in a love triangle with Jesse and Zee, but his lawman is too much the gentleman to do more than wait for Zee to come to her senses or for Jesse to reach the obvious end of the life he leads.

Other veteran character players contribute to the atmosphere; Brian Donlevy is truly reprehensible as the railroad bully, but Donald Meek delivers an even more despicable character as his superior, McCoy. In Westerns in a Changing America: 1955-2000, R. Philip Loy describes Meek as "badly miscast" in the role (198), but I think Meek's interpretation of the character as a duplicitous and essentially cowardly little weasel works very well, especially in contrast to Power's romantic outlaw. Jane Darwell's brief appearance as the James matriarch is worth mentioning, as well; she would have an even better turn as Henry Fonda's mother in The Grapes of Wrath (1940) the following year, and she went on to co-star with him in The Ox-Bow Incident (1943) and My Darling Clementine (1946). John Carradine turns up near the end as the infamous Robert Ford, while Henry Hull provides some comic relief as the blustering but kindly Major Rufus Cobb. Blink and you'll miss Lon Chaney Jr. in a very small role as a nameless member of the James gang.

The action in the picture is both exciting and disturbing, especially the infamous cliff jumping scene that ended in the death of a horse and eventually led to the American Humane Association's oversight of the treatment of animals in future films. Another scene has Frank and Jesse jump their horses through a store window and into the midst of a crowded shop; in 1957, The True Story of Jesse James reused both scenes for its own take on the James Gang story, even featuring them in its trailer.

I can't recommend watching Jesse James as an accurate piece of history, but as a Western it works very well, and fans of the genre's best character actors will find a lot to appreciate. It's interesting to note that the very first screen version of Jesse James was played by none other than Jesse James, Jr. in 1921. Other films about the James Gang include Days of Jesse James (1939) and Jesse James at Bay (1941), both starring Roy Rogers, as well as Jesse James Rides Again (1947), The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid (1972), The Long Riders (1980), and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007). For more of Tyrone Power, see The Mark of Zorro (1940), The Black Swan (1942), and Witness for the Prosecution (1957).

Friday, January 4, 2013

Classic Films in Focus: BLITHE SPIRIT (1945)

While Noel Coward's 1941 play remains a community theater favorite, the 1945 film adaptation offers viewers a chance to see the story performed by professionals under the direction the brilliant David Lean, best remembered today for his work on such classics as The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), and Doctor Zhivago (1965). Unlike these sweeping dramas, Blithe Spirit is a comedy set within the domestic sphere, which gives it more in common with Lean's 1954 film, Hobson's Choice. However, the type of comedy depicted in Blithe Spirit is decidedly black, and viewers looking for a gentle fantasy are in for quite for a shock.

Rex Harrison stars as Charles Condomine, a novelist who decides to invite a medium into his home in order to provide material for his work. Charles assumes that the medium will prove a fake, but Madame Arcati (Margaret Rutherford) turns out to be the real thing, and her seance conjures up the spirit of Charles' dead first wife, Elvira (Kay Hammond). Charles' second wife, Ruth (Constance Cummings), bitterly resents the presence of her predecessor, and the entire household is soon in an uproar due to Elvira's ghostly intrusion.

That certainly sounds like the stuff of comedy, but Blithe Spirit takes a sudden detour into a much darker kind of humor when Elvira attempts to murder Charles and ends up killing Ruth instead. It turns out that Charles would be all too happy to be rid of both of his wives, and the nature of the story becomes uncomfortably misogynistic, with the pestering ghostly wives flying around the household as the liberated Charles makes plans to escape from them once and for all. There is at least some comeuppance in the film's final scene, although Coward allowed his protagonist to make a clean getaway in the original play.

Harrison's performance is elegantly heartless; he's playing a blackguard with a sly comic touch, but his air of narcissism might be too natural to be entirely pleasant to watch. Kay Hammond and Margaret Rutherford both reprise their roles from the original stage production; of the two, Rutherford is the most fun, a hale, strapping woman of robust middle age, not at all the airy, disembodied type one might expect. Hammond looks great but can be hard to follow; she often throws away her lines so that they fail to have the proper effect on the audience. On the plus side, Lean's camera work with cinematographer Ronald Neame is great fun; they evoke a delightful sense of the movement of unseen beings through the house, with a great many interesting special effects scenes as the invisible ghosts interact with visible objects.

For supernatural fantasies with a gentler tone, try Heaven Can Wait (1943) and The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947), the latter of which also stars Rex Harrison. For something more melodramatic, see Portrait of Jennie (1948). Rex Harrison is best remembered today for starring roles in big productions like Cleopatra (1963), My Fair Lady (1964), and Doctor Doolittle (1967), but if you like his character in Blithe Spirit you will also probably enjoy him in Unfaithfully Yours (1948). Margaret Rutherford went on to play Miss Marple in a number of films in the 1960s, and you'll also find her as the wonderfully dotty Miss Prism in Anthony Asquith's 1952 film adaptation of The Importance of Being Earnest. Her comic talent is probably the best thing going on in Blithe Spirit, and you'll almost certainly want to see more of her.

An earlier version of this review originally appeared on Examiner.com. The author retains all rights to this content.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

A Year at the Movies: 2012 in Review

 Like many film fans, I like to keep lists of all the movies I watch, not just for bragging rights but also to remind me what I have seen and what I still need to watch. Here's the 2012 list of films, which is mostly classics (of course), liberally seasoned with movies I watched with the other members of the household.

Cars 2 (2011)
Wing Chun (1994)
My Week with Marilyn (2011)
Fright Night (2011)
Cape Fear (1962)
Love Finds Andy Hardy (1938)
The Thing from Another World (1951)
How to Train Your Dragon (2010)
D13: Ultimatum (2009)
The Artist (2011)
Tron: Legacy (2010)
The Blob (1958)
Anchors Aweigh (1945)
The Red Balloon (1956)
I Capture the Castle (2003)
Jane Eyre (1943)
Casablanca (1942)
Dragonwyck (1946)
For Me and My Gal (1942)
The Tomb of Ligeia (1964)
The Bat (1959)
Great Expectations (1946)
The Three Musketeers (1948)
It Happened One Night (1934)
I Walked with a Zombie (1943)
Oliver Twist (1948)
Dirty Harry (1971)
Destry Rides Again (1939)
Red Tails (2012)
Ninotchka (1939)
The Vampire Lovers (1970)
Blood and Roses (1960)
The Descendants (2011)
Madhouse (1974)
Blood from the Mummy's Tomb (1971)
The Secret World of Arrietty (2010)
The Man from Laramie (1955)
Cover Girl (1944)
Alakazam the Great (1960)
The Naked Spur (1953)
The Sound of Music (1965)
Being Elmo (2011)
Countess Dracula (1971)
Gene Kelly: Anatomy of a Dancer (2002)
The Far Country (1954)
Dark and Stormy Night (2010)
The Great Train Robbery (1903)
Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat (1895)
Employees Leaving the Lumiere Factory (1895)
A Corner in Wheat (1909)
Vampyr (1932)
You Can't Take It with You (1938)
Flash Gordon (1980)
One Week (1920)
La Jetee (1962)
The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967)
Repo Man (1984)
Man of a Thousand Faces (1957)
Peeping Tom (1960)
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
The Long, Long Trailer (1953)
Annie Hall (1977)
They Might Be Giants (1971)
Ruggles of Red Gap (1935)
The Magnificent Seven (1960)
John Carter (2012)
The Philadelphia Story (1940)
To Be or Not to Be (1942)
These Amazing Shadows (2011)
The Mummy (1959)
The Sci-Fi Boys (2006)
The Seven Year Itch (1955)
How Green Was My Valley (1941)
Cars (2006)
The Cincinnati Kid (1965)
The Muppets (2011)
Rango (2011)
She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949)
American Scary (2006)
Bend of the River (1952)
The Grapes of Wrath (1940)
Sylvia Scarlett (1935)
Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933)
Mister Roberts (1955)
Seven Chances (1925)
Winchester 73 (1950)
The Three Amigos (1986)
The Haunting (1963)
Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
The Apartment (1960)
The Great Dictator (1940)
Mirror Mirror (2012)
Safety Last! (1923)
Diary of a Chambermaid (1946)
To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)
In the Good Old Summertime (1949)
The Quiet Man (1952)
Westward the Women (1951)
 Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936)
The Blue Angel (1930)
Knock on Wood (1954)
Shall We Dance (1937)
The Roaring Twenties (1939)
The Cowboy and the Lady (1938)
Without Love (1945)
Casablanca (1942) - Again!
Pirates! (2012)
Copacabana (1947)
Stalag 17 (1953)
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)
The Shootist (1976)
The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)
The Avengers (2012)
Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (2011)
Trouble in Paradise (1932)
Angel and the Badman (1947)
Men in Black (1997)
Francis the Talking Mule (1950)
High Anxiety (1977)
The Avengers (2012) - yes, we saw it twice
Men in Black 3 (2012)
Mulan (1998)
This Gun for Hire (1942)
Failure to Launch (2006)
Just Like Heaven (2005)
Annie (1982)
Stand Up and Cheer (1934)
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2012)
The Littlest Rebel (1935)
The Little Colonel (1935)
Grand Hotel (1932)
The Blue Bird (1940)
The Stranger (1946)
Dimples (1936)
Dinner at Eight (1933)
Thor (2011)
X-Men: First Class (2011)
Rock of Ages (2012)
Brave (2012)
Till the Clouds Roll By (1946)
The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)
Magic Mike (2012)
Singin' in the Rain (1952)
The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983)
Amelie (2001)
Jewel Robbery (1932)
The Devil Makes Three (1952)
500 Days of Summer (2009)
Man Wanted (1932)
An American in Paris (1951)
Undercurrent (1946)
Phantom of the Opera (1943)
The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)
Wild Target (2010)
Les Diaboliques (1955)
Brigadoon (1954)
Gunga Din (1939)
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)
Twentieth Century (1934)
Wife vs. Secretary (1936)
The Gay Divorcee (1934)
Rocky (1976)
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1932)
Dance, Girl, Dance (1940)
The Rules of the Game (1939)
The Navigator (1924)
Bombshell (1933)
 The Big Clock (1948)
Bonnie and Clyde (1967)
The Birds (1963)
The Haunted Mansion (2003)
Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948)
Haunted Honeymoon (1986)
You Were Never Lovelier (1942)
The Lost Weekend (1945)
Island of Lost Souls (1932)
I Married a Witch (1942)
Obsession (1949)
Confessions of an Opium Eater (1962)
It (1927)
House of the Long Shadows (1983)
Frankenweenie (2012)
The Innocents (1961)
The Ghoul (1933)
The Three Musketeers (1948) - second time this year
The Vampire's Ghost (1945)
The Mummy's Hand (1940)
The Bad Seed (1956)
Blue Hawaii (1961)
Mad Love (1935)
The Devil Doll (1936)
Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995)
The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939)
The Undying Monster (1942)
The Naked City (1948)
The Nutty Professor (1963)
Mark of the Vampire (1935)
The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932)
Clue (1985)
The Living Daylights (1987)
Ivanhoe (1952)
Wreck-It Ralph (2012)
Night and the City (1950)
Red Garters (1954)
The African Queen (1951)
The Muppets (2011) - again
The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)
It's a Wonderful Life (1946)
Lincoln (2012)
The Hobbit (2012)
The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946)
101 Dalmatians (1961)
Die Hard (1988)
White Christmas (1954)
Lockout (2012)
Pitch Perfect (2012)
Jesse James (1939)

The final count for the year is 219, or about four movies a week on average. Hammer horror, super heroes, Bogart, Hepburn, Westerns, musicals - and quite a bit of Shirley Temple thanks to the 11 yr. old Temple fan! It was a great year at the movies. Here's looking forward to many more movies in 2013!

Classic Films in Focus: MIRANDA (1948)

Mermaids must have been a hot topic in 1948 because that year saw not one but two mermaid movies, Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid and Miranda. The 1947 debut of live mermaid shows at Weeki Wachee Springs in Florida had something to do with it, although the Cornish setting of Miranda is far less tropical than that of its Hollywood counterpart. Directed by Ken Annakin, Miranda is very much a British picture, both very polished and very naughty and shot through with eccentric humor that benefits greatly from the unique charms of its lovely star, Glynis Johns.

Johns stars as the eponymous heroine, a love crazed mermaid who hooks a married doctor, Paul Martin (Griffith Jones), off the coast of Cornwall and persuades him to take her to London so that she can see the sights. Paul falls for Miranda, much to the dismay of his wife (Googie Withers), but Miranda falls for every man she sees, including the Martins' chauffeur (David Tomlinson) and a handsome young painter (John McCallum). Cared for by an eccentric nurse (Margaret Rutherford) who knows her secret, Miranda has a fine time, but her odd behavior and mysterious inability to walk eventually convince Clare Martin that something fishy is going on with her seductive house guest.

Plucky comic performances make this film thoroughly amusing, especially Johns as the winsome heroine. Most film fans will recognize her as the suffragist mother in Mary Poppins (1964), although she earned an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress for her work in The Sundowners (1960). As the star of Miranda she gets more opportunity to flex her comedic talent, and she makes the most of her fey beauty and kittenish voice. The supporting players mostly react to her, although zany Margaret Rutherford threatens to steal several scenes. Rutherford would be the only cast member aside from Johns to return for the 1954 sequel, Mad About Men, which says something about the importance of her character to the original picture's appeal. She would go on to enjoy a long run as Miss Marple in a number of films adapted from the works of Agatha Christie, although her only Oscar win, for Best Supporting Actress, came with her work in The V.I.P.s (1963).

For more of Glynis Johns, see 49th Parallel (1941), An Ideal Husband (1947), and The Court Jester (1955). You'll find Margaret Rutherford cutting up as usual in Blithe Spirit (1945) and The Importance of Being Earnest (1952). Look for Googie Withers in the delightful English comedy, On Approval (1944). David Tomlinson can be found as Glynis Johns' stuffy husband in Mary Poppins and as the unorthodox Emelius Browne in Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971). If you enjoy the first film, go on to the sequel, Mad About Men, although the original picture is the better of the two.

An earlier version of this review originally appeared on Examiner.com. The author retains all rights to this content.

Goodreads Giveaway for BEYOND CASABLANCA

If you're interested in winning a free copy of Beyond Casablanca: 100 Classic Movies Worth Watching, there are three copies up for grabs in my Goodreads Giveaway. Goodreads is a great site for book lovers, and it's free to create a profile. The Giveaway runs from now until January 31, at which point Goodreads will send me the contact information for the three lucky winners it randomly selects.

Here's the link to the Goodreads page for Beyond Casablanca. Just click "Enter to Win" to get a chance at scoring a free book! While you're there, you can also check out the other Giveaway promotions. There are always lots of new books!

The especially curious can even visit my Goodreads Author page to see the other books I've helped to produce, including two anthologies about the works of Jim Henson and editions of literary classics for Barnes & Noble.