San Francisco (1936)

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It’s Going to Be a Bumpy Night

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

The disaster film is a genre thought of as being low brow but San Francisco is one of the few with class and sophistication. Like in James Cameron’s Titanic, the viewer is left waiting in suspense for the impending disaster as the emotional stakes rise. When the night of the earthquake arrives the movie draws out the final moments before the disaster; I’m left thinking to myself “It’s coming, it’s coming”. Also was it common back then to hold a ball at 5 in the morning?

The earthquake itself ranks among one of cinema’s greatest disaster sequences with the special effects and studio pyrotechnics making up for the less than stellar projection effects at the beginning of the film. The sequence shows the close up reactions of individuals just before they are killed by incoming debris as it lasts for the same amount of time which the actual earthquake itself did on Five-Thirteen A.M, April 18th, 1906 (or at least according to the movie, other sources state it occurred at 5:12 AM).  This is followed by the harrowing sight of death and destruction as Blackie Norton (Clark Gable) walks through the ruins of San Francisco as he observes the horrifying, brutal aftermath in a remarkable section of the film. Even famous silent directors D.W. Griffith and Erich Von Stroheim worked on the film without credit which shouldn’t come as a surprise as the plot of San Francisco would have been ripe for a grand silent melodrama.

On my first viewing the ending of San Francisco felt farfetched. I can see many people having an “Oh come on!” reaction but for me at least even on that first viewing it still worked on an emotional level. However after contemplating about the ending I have come around to accept the idea that a person, even a non believer may turn to religion after experiencing something as horrendous as a natural disaster which leaves a trail of death and destruction. Although considering how religious the entire movie is I should have seen it coming not to mention the ending can be justified when looking at the deeper religious parallels within the film.

During the movie Mary Blake (Jeanette MacDonald) performs the opera Faust on stage as we are shown recreations of various portions of the opera; throughout San Francisco there are parallels to the story of Faust. The clash between the moral and immoral, Mary’s tendency to refuse Blackie’s advances, the fire seen at the beginning of the film to lines such as “You can’t take a woman and then sell her immortal soul”. Even during the earthquake’s aftershock the underworld itself opens up (and one poor sucker falls into it); and at the very end of all this Blackie repents his sinful ways. If you can accept Blackie’s conversion then you still have to deal with the extremely corny, patriotic finale but I can still get a kick out of such cheese.

Jeanette MacDoanld, what a voice! The reaction of the church goers listening on in awe when she sings in the choir is the same reaction as the viewer; San Francisco is after all a vehicle designed for the full range of her talents. Plus that title song is one catchy tune and I’m happy to hear it multiple times throughout the film. Likewise Spencer Tracy appears in the film for 15 minutes and 58 seconds but he is the actor who leaves the biggest impression acting wise. Father Tim Mullin is the predecessor to Tracy’s Father Flanagan in Boy’s Town. Tracy was an actor who had the ability to play such a saintly character without it being sickly even as he inhabits the office of his church amongst the most heavenly lighting.

Is Blackie an atheist or just non religious? The first dialogue between him and Father Mullin suggests he may not believe in God; “So you still believe in Santa Claus?” followed by Mullin’s response, “Trouble with you is that you don’t believe in anything”. The character relationship between Blackie and Father Mullin is the same which was seen in Manhattan Melodrama (in which Gable plays a similar character also called Blackie) and later in Angels With Dirty Faces. The two childhood friends who end up taking very different paths in life (one of moral servitude and the other of crime and corruption) yet their friendship prevails despite such contrasting lifestyles and views. Blackie Norton couldn’t be more of a Clark Gable character; a man under great pressure, business owner, runs for political office, has a way with women, cocky, street smart and a loveable jerk. It’s not clear to what extent his criminality runs to other than that he (along with numerous business owners in San Francisco) run his establishment without a license; there was still a bit of the Wild West in 1906 San Francisco.

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Mr Deeds Goes to Town (1936)

Meet Longfellow Deeds

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

 

I’ll admit that it took me a while for Gary Cooper to grow on me as an actor and to see his appeal under his minimalist, low key style of acting; but eventfully I got it. It’s been said Cooper’s face was the map of America; so why in under God did they cast Adam Sandler in a remake of Mr Deeds Goes to Town?

Mandrake Falls is a town full of oddballs, and the naive but not a total dunce Longfellow Deeds comes off as a weirdo to the city dwellers who are fascinated by his behaviour and start mocking him. Mr Deeds Goes to Town certainly highlights the divide between city slickers and small town folk; this is particularly evident in the scene in which Deeds, himself a poet meets a group of distinguished poets in restaurant and is appalled by their snobbery and elitism to the point that he beats them up.  Likewise the film also features Charles Lane as a lawyer, the inspiration for the The Simpsons blue haired lawyer.

In an example of the darker side of Capra’s films, Mr Deeds Goes to Town is a cynical look as society and the media as a whole (“Why do people seem to get pleasure out of hurting each other, why don’t they try helping each other once in a while?”). Multiple people are out to snag Deed’s fortune while the media is out constantly pursuing him due to his odd but ultimately harmless behaviour; the media manipulating how a person is seen by the public. Mr Deeds is a man who became famous for inheriting a fortune, in other words he’s famous for being famous and the newspapers appear to have nothing better to do than report on his escapades such as feeding donuts to a horse; relevant to today’s celebrity culture.

With the scene in the park in which Babe plays a set of improvised drums and Deeds sings humoresque. Capra didn’t want to include it as he thought it was too sappy but Jean Arthur insisted it remain. Capra of all people thought it was too sappy?!  But ah Capra sentiment, it never fails to move me.

The sanity hearing at the end of the film is pure movie fantasy; I doubt in real life someone could be classified insane on such so called evidence. In a demonstration of Cooper’s ability as one of the best actors when it comes to giving a rousing speech or monologue, he talks about the silly quirks we all have. Although the likes of “o” filling or knuckle cracking seems rather trivial, I’m always left with the impression that the movie is making a statement on society’s treatment of those who don’t fully “fit in” or adhere to conformity and asks the question; who is truly “normal”?

Libeled Lady (1936)

The Front Page

The opening credits of Libeled Lady are not your typical list of screen names, instead we get footage of the four main stars walking arm in arm very happily as their names come on screen one by one. Four heavy weights in roles which play to their strengths, giving some of the best dialogue the screwball comedy has to offer. Libeled Lady is my favourite newspaper comedy, a world in which journalistic ethics are nonexistent and people struggle to make relationships and careers in journalism mix. Warren Haggerty (Spencer Tracy) is so preoccupied with his job as the managing editor of a paper he has missed his own wedding several times, so no surprise Jean Harlow gives a very comically angry performance throughout most of the film.

William Powell’s Bill Chandler has such cool and confidence, he even draws his own contract which will bring him back to the paper he was sacked from as he knows Warren Haggerty will come looking for him following a scandal. Powell gets the chance to show the full range of his comic abilities, not only as a master of words but also gets showcase slapstick comedy similar in vain to Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin during the film’s fishing scene. The subplot of Bill Chandler learning to fish would be the basis of Howard Hawk’s comedy Mans’ Favorite Sport?. Despite how incredibly fast he picks up the ability to fish like an expert it doesn’t feel contrived.

A portion of the story is spent trying to find William Powell with telephone, telegraph and radio as their means of communication. Outdated aspects like in old movies always intrigues me and makes me ponder if stories like this could be told today. With the internet and other modern communication devices they could have been able to recall those newspapers at the start of the film. Likewise publications today are no less obsessed with covering the escapades of socialites and people famous for being famous; but Connie Allenbury (Myrna Loy) is not a typical socialite. She is down to Earth, has an image distorted by the media and can even outwit the paper. It’s appropriate this role would be played by Myrna Loy; the so called only good girl in Hollywood.

Theodora Goes Wild (1936)

Fifty Shades Of Screwball

Theodora Goes Wild is an amazingly progressive film, from an era when Hollywood was dominated by strict censorship, provoking the reaction of “how did they get away with that?!”. Hollywood’s production code came into effect in 1934, yet there are films made after this date with code breaking content such as Theodora Goes Wild, which make me question if Will Hays was sick the day this movie went through the production board.

Theodora Lynn is a Sunday school teacher who’s been playing the church organ since she was 15 in the small town of Lynnfield, Connecticut (yet another screwball comedy set in the state). The small community is being dictated by a group of Helen Lovejoy types but when the local newspaper run by Thomas Mitchell starts printing a serialization of a scandalous best seller by writer Caroline Adams in an effort to show the town how people live, love and learn in the real world, it causes outrage. Little do they know Caroline Adams is their own Theodora Lynn! Whoever said old movies are outdated? This movie hasn’t lost an ounce of relevance for today’s world.

The scene at the beginning of Theodora Goes Wild in which the ultra conservative local literary group read passages from the “scandalous” novel has jaw dropping amounts of “how did they get away with that?!” Under the rules of the production code a character must receive a punishment for their so called immoral actions. Not here though! Despite Theodora rebelling against her staunchly conservative home town and upbringing, she receives no punishment. Whoever said old movies are stuffy?

The creation of the screwball comedy came about following the production code’s introduction as a way of ventilating sexual repression. It requires a bit of Melvyn Douglas as Michael Grant to ignite Theodora’s sexual awakening after he seduces her while wearing a vest as his only piece of torso. Despite nether of these two performers being sex symbols, it’s surprising how steamy this scene comes off. Melvyn Douglas plays a potentially creepy stalker but is charming enough to get away with it. The man has adapt comedic timing (I never tire of that whistling of his) and it’s easy to see why he was one of the most reliable male co stars of the time. I would rank Theodora Goes Wild as the second most pre-code post-code film I’ve seen. The only film I think of which out does it is The Lady Eve. So yeah, “how did they get away with that?!”.

The Petrified Forest (1936)

The Boulevard of Broken Dreams

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

When I first watched The Petrified Forest I was at an unsure time in my life, fearful of the future and with my own sense of individualism and artistic ambitions. Watching Leslie Howard as Alan Squier as failed artist who eventually takes his own life so a young girl could be the artist he never was, made me fearful and depressed of what my own future held in store for me. I felt for this character to the point that it hurt because I was worried that someday I could become that character, perhaps not to that extreme but destined to a similar fate. Gabrielle (Bette Davis) Is a character is stuck in a rut and dreams of going to France. At the time when I watched this film and I was dealing with the uncertainty of if I would ever leave my hometown or would I always be stuck here. Few other films have ever had characters which spoke so directly to me.

The Petrified Forest’s most notable contribution to cinema is the breakthrough role of Humphrey Bogart. Bogart was never more terrifying than the role of Duke Mantee. I generally don’t think of Bogart as an actor who is scary, but here he is a guy I would not want to be stuck in an elevator with. Just like the characters in the film, Bogart’s acting career had been marred with failure up until this point. This likely being his final chance to make it in Hollywood no doubt must have fueled his performance. I know a film is good when I have to think and contemplate which actor (Howard of Bogart) gave the better performance. How often do you get to see gangsters and intellectuals involved in such profound conversations? Howard and Bogart play characters who are worlds apart yet develop a mutual respect for each other as they discover they share a bond with their individualism. Also look out for Bogart’s head being framed over a moose head so it looks like he has antlers though out the film. Fascinating characters (all with such unique dynamics between each other) in a fascinating story is already one of the most important things I could ask for from a movie, even better when they affect me on a personal level.

 

My Man Godfrey (1936)

She’s Electric, she’s in a family full of eccentrics.

Does a comedy film actually have to make you laugh? Can you have a comedy without any laughs in it? This was once a question posed by film critic Mark Kermode. When thinking of this question, the first movie which comes to my mind if My Man Godfrey, a comedy which I love but there are only a few moments during it which make me laugh and even those few aren’t big laughs, despite the movie’s crazy screwball, gorilla imitating antics in which the straight man William Powell enters a cartoon world. But I would still call it a comedy as it’s a movie which leaves you feeling melancholic watching it.

William Powell’s role as Godfrey exemplifies why he is the master of words. He can take any regular sounding lines and turn them into something memorable and when he speaks any unique piece of script writing, it’s like poetry. It’s easy to fall in love with Carole Lombard watching My Man Godfrey; she succeeds in playing a ditsy scatterbrain in an endearing manner but I feel the real unsung cast member of the film is Gail Patrick, one of the most underrated actresses of the 30’s; it’s a shame she never became an A-list leading lady. She became typecast playing (for lack of a better term) bitches, but could do so with a dose of humanity.

I love those moments which describe a ridiculous situation which are never caught on camera. The mental image of Carole Lombard riding into a mansion on a horse, going up the stairs and leaving it in the library is an image better left to my imagination. Let’s play grumpy old man and assume, oh say a Hangover sequel would not allow such a scene to be left to the viewer’s imagination and thus be unfunny as all hell.

Screwball comedy was all about making fun of the rich as retribution for the great depression; My Man Godfrey is probably the most harsh attack on the rich which the genre ever made, partially because of just how sombre the film is. The opening scene in which men are living in a shanty town by a dump or the scavenger hunt for bums or so called ‘forgotten men’ are shocking sights for any era. Likewise the Bullock family may be wealthy but they sure aren’t happy and don’t get along with each other.

My Man Godfrey wasn’t based on a stage play but watching it you might think otherwise as long stretches of the film take place in real time. Plus you get one thing almost unheard of in film’s prior to the 1950’s, an intricate title sequence. I consider My Man Godfrey along with You Can’t Take It With You as the two quintessential “kooky family” movies although “kooky” may be an understatement.

The Moons Our Home (1936)

Straight to the Moon!

 

The Moons Our Home is one of my favourite super obscure films with only 139 users ratings on IMDB as of writing this review and a proclamation from Bill Murray as one of his favourite films (look up his appearance on the Siskel and Ebert Holiday Gift Guide 1988 In which he mentions he would like a cassette of the film for Christmas). The Moons Our Home has only recently seen its due on DVD on the Universal Vault Series although when I watched the film I had to access it though a torrent. Not the greatest image quality but as a big fan Margaret Sullavan and a Henry Fonda enthusiast I was overjoyed to get a hold of the film and was not let down in the slightest.

What surprised me about Margaret Sullavan’s performance is how much she reminded me of Jean Harlow, always changing mood within a split second while screaming and throwing tantrums from the very beginning of the movie Sullavan and Harlow are two actresses I didn’t think I would ever compare so it’s fascinating to see this aspect of her screen persona I didn’t even know existed. There is even a Hepburn-esque quality to her character of Cherry Chester with her fierce desire to be independent as well as clothing choices of a turtle neck and trousers.

Sullavan and Fonda had previously been married, making their pairing feel more tender and genuine with moments like their histrionics in the snow being as adorable as they are funny. The Moon’s Our Home also features innovative use of split screen in which Sullavan and Fonda are given half of the screen to represent different rooms in which they move in parallel and symmetrical tandem. The filmed is also carried by a fine cast of supporting players including Beulah Bondi, Margaret Hamilton and my favourite Walter Brennan as the hard of hearing justice of the peace; a brief but hysterically funny role.

It’s already a joy to discover a film I love, even more so when it’s a film that almost no one else will watch in a million years. It gives me the sense that it’s my movie. I guess this is what hipsters must feel like listening to bands no one else has heard off.

After the Thin Man (1936)

All In The Family

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

After the Thin Man clearly has a much higher budget than the first film so it does loose the grittier, low budget charm of the original but it still works in its own glossier way. I don’t think any of The Thin Man sequels reached the standard of the first film but this was the best of them.

After the Thin Man gives William Powell some of the best comedic moments of his career; the scene in which he has a conversation with the snoring gentlemen I could watch over and over; he manages to maintain composure and still act sarcastic no matter how frustrated he gets. Although my favourite part of the film is just watching Nick and Nora trying to get an important clue from Asta by chasing him through their giant manner of a house. Just how does a retired detective and a woman who doesn’t work manage to afford to live in a palace like this during the great depression anyway? Every movie in the series had a long sequence in which Nick would go sleuthing on his own in the dark with no dialogue or music, and rightfully so, it’s so captivating. The plot is even the easiest in the series and I was actually just barely able to keep up with it.

The film’s most notable contribution to cinema is having James Stewart’s first really notable screen role.This would be the only time in his career in which he would play a villain as the suspiciously motivated David Graham. At the end of film when he’s revelled to be the murder culprit, he has a breakdown and threatens everyone at gunpoint before being thwarted and then arrested. Jimmy Stewart as a heartless murder who is sent to prison, what kind of crazy movie is this? It’s disheartening in a way to see this but of course this was before he became forever enshrined as the everyman. He does pull of the role and displays he was a natural acting talent from the start of his career and shows he could have potentially portrayed convincing villains. Also look out for the asian bodyguard who throws his hat to get a gun from Jimmy Stewart’s hand, Oddjob anyone?