The Lady Vanishes (1938)

Strangers of a Train

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

The Lady Vanishes is often imitated but never equalled. Many movies have done the “person vanishes but their accomplice finds out they apparently never existed” plot; but never has it been done as immaculately as The Lady Vanishes. Likewise train is the perfect cinematic device; there are an infinite amount of possibilities for scenarios based on trains and Hitchcock sure took advantage of this throughout his career.

The Lady Vanishes is a movie with a great sense of adventure to it, travelling through the picturesque mountains of a politically unstable Europe. It’s never identified what country the movie is set in, only that is “one of Europe’s few undiscovered corners”, letting the viewer’s imagination fill in the blanks. I also love the charming miniature of the train station and hotel in the opening, making no attempt to disguise that is it just that, complete with little moving figures and a car driving with no one in it.

Once the lady vanishes, is it a head scratcher, leaving me to hope this better have a dam good outcome and not cop out. The intensity ramps up to crazy levels as the mystery deepens with the atmosphere created by the train sound effects and the impending claustrophobia increases. On further viewings all the elements of the mystery make sense; the couple lying to avoid scandal, the cricket fans lying so they won’t be late and the relevance of the serenading man, genius! My favourite scene in the move is the sequence in the cargo bay in which Redgrave and Lockwood investigate magic props and start doing impressions; it’s such a fun scene to watch.

The film’s first act in the hotel could be a movie by itself; a sort of screwball comedy set in a hotel full of characters slightly off their rocker. Michael Redgrave reminds me and even looks like Errol Flynn here. Playing an adventurous free spirit and a character who could have come right out of a screwball comedy as evident by the manner in which he infiltrates Margaret Lockwood’s room, creating a ruckus in order to “put on record for the benefit of mankind one of the lost folk dances of central Europe”. Lockwood herself also plays an adventurous, free spirit (“been everywhere and done everything”), yet it takes the two of them some time to realise they have more in common with each other than they think.

The two English gentlemen who talk about nothing but cricket on the other hand showcase the British turning a blind eye to the spread of fascism in Europe. They are the only two who would stand to another country’s so called national anthem and dismiss a newspaper article on England being on the brink of war as sensationalism. On a lighter hearted note they even discuss how baseball is referred to as rounders in the UK in a still relevant joke (“Nothing but baseball you know. We used to call it rounders, children play it with a rubber ball and a stick”). Of course it wouldn’t be an unashamedly British movie if someone did mention tea (“What you need if a good strong cup of tea”).

You Can’t Take It With You (1938)

It’s Truly a Wonderful Life

There are those who will hear the name Frank Capra and have a reaction along the lines of “Oh Frank Capra, sentimental, saccharine, manipulative rubbish”. I don’t make apologies when I say that dismissing a film for being sentimental is the nonsense film criticism to end all nonsense criticisms; it stinks! Newsflash, stories have been manipulating people’s emotions since the dawn of time. Pulling of effective sentimentality is a skill and I have not come across a single good reason as to why it is a problem. You Can’t Take It With You is Capra at his most sentimental, manipulative, saccharine and all those other dirty words and I love it for that. So if that’s the crime of the century, then lock me up for life.

The Sycamores are the ultimate eccentric family, in fact eccentric probably the right word, they are complete nuts. They live a counter cultural lifestyle of not working or playing taxes (and somehow getting away with it) and doing whatever makes them happy without a care in the world; people who aren’t afraid to live. There are like cartoon characters who can twist their way out of any situation with people more in tune with reality, such as when Grandpa Vanderhof (Lionel Barrymore) manages to convince the timid Mr Poppins (Donald Meek) to stop throwing his life away working as bureaucrat and start having fun. The movie feels ahead of its time and like something which would have been written in the 1960’s. The family’s refusal to pay taxes is ethically questionable, even though Barrymore gives some interesting and humorous rebuttals to not paying taxes (perhaps Wesley Snipes could have used some of Lionel Barrymore’s logic in court) but it’s a movie fantasy, it could never happen in real life.

One the sweetest, most heartwarming scenes in any film ever is when Grandpa Vanderhof tells Alice Sycamore (Jean Arthur) about how his love for his deceased wife. Ugh, it just kills my poor little soul; a perfect display of Capra’s gift for directing very intimate, emotional scenes in which the rest of the world ceases to exist. I’ll also always remember Barrymore’s monologue on “ismmania” as profound words of wisdom (“when things go a little bad nowadays you go out and get yourself an ‘ism’ and you’re in business”). What’s particularly striking about Barrymore’s role as Grandpa Vanderhof is that he character is the polar opposite of the role of Henry F. Potter he would play in Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. Likewise there doesn’t seem to be any actress whom James Stewart didn’t share a great dynamic together. James Stewart and Jean Arthur share a perfect chemistry together, pairing the embodiment of the everyman and the embodiment of the everywoman.

You Can’t Take It with You has only earned a status of a minor classic but in my view is Capra’s most overlooked film. There’s so much fun to be had with this film, it is the perfect 30’s comedy. Capra-corn and proud of it!

Vivacious Lady (1938)

Heeeeeeeeeeey, Vivacious Lady!

James Stewart and Ginger Rodgers where dating during the filming of Vivacious Lady and it’s certainly apparent on screen with the levels of sexual tension between the two with these stars never appeared more youthful than they do here. Watching Vivacious Lady again however something dawned on me – there’s a very unusual incest thing going on between the main characters. Francey (Ginger Rogers) was going out with Peter’s brother Keith (James Ellison) before the met however Francey marries Peter (James Stewart) shortly after they meet for the first time even though she was still going out with Keith at the time. Even when Keith finds out he is perfectly ok with it and himself and Francey continue to act in an overly intimate manner throughout the film for people who are cousins. Or just get look at this dialogue exchange:

“I remember I married you”

“Oh no, she married me”

“So were cousins”

“You and your cousins can use that drawing room now.”

This movie is pretty messed up when I think about it. That’s not the only code breaker in the film; take the opening scene with the exotic dancers in the nightclub and the tail feathers being pushed in Stewart’s face or later in the film when Stewart breaks into a women’s only apartment block after visiting hours.

Incest aside, unlike other screwball comedies Vivacious Lady is actually more grounded in reality with its use of more deadpan humour. There are no over the top misunderstandings or histrionics (not that there’s anything wrong with that sort of thing) but rather the characters react in a manner people would in real life. Just look at the reaction of Peter’s father whenever he tells him he got married, its life like but manages to be no less funny. This was one of the four films in which Beulah Bondi played Jimmy Stewart’s mother; I can’t imagine a more convincing choice to be the mother of the on screen, boy next door Jimmy Stewart persona. Likewise, is there a better choice to play a conservative father than Charles Coburn? I can speak for a friend of mine who couldn’t believe just how much he related to Jimmy Stewart and the manner he acts towards Ginger Rogers; at the beginning Stewart keeping trying to make advances but keeps backing away under nerves. The two of them really do feel like a bunch of young love struck kids.

Holiday (1938)

Is This Where the Club Meets?

Holiday is my favourite Cary Grant film and my favourite of Katharine Hepburn & Cary Grant’s partnership. Between this, Bringing Up Baby and The Philadelphia Story. It’s almost like having to choose my favourite child; yes all three are that good but ultimately Holiday is the most beloved of my offspring. I find Kate & Cary to be one of the five greatest instances of chemistry I’ve seen between an actor and actress (my other selections being Astaire & Rogers, Powell & Loy, Stewart & Sullivan and Fonda & Stanwyck), even preferring them to the longer running Tracy-Hepburn partnership. However the two of them aren’t actually romantically engaged throughout the film, with Grant preparing to be married a different woman. Yet the whole time I’m thinking to myself Kate & Cary are beyond perfect for each other; the coming together of two intellectuals. I don’t want to see him being involved with someone else.

I also feel Cary Grant has every looked more youthful than he does in Holiday and even gets a rare opportunity to show off his acrobatic skills, with Hepburn even getting in on the action. I’ll also take this opportunity to mention that man sure could wear clothes like no other. Katharine Hepburn had the opportunity in her career to play roles which reflected her real life personality as a non conformist odd ball, here playing just that; the black sheep in a wealth, business driven family. The discussions Kate & Cary engage on what their characters want to do with their lives are so deep and profound. The difficulty of finding their place in life, the obstacles of trying to live it and not wanting to miss out on an ever changing world full of ideologies and ideas, all while trying to get by with an optimistic attitude despite the imperfections in their life. It’s hard to take it all in on and decipher in a single viewing, which makes Holiday one of my most life affirming movies.

The scene in which Kate & Cary welcome in the new year in the playroom (also that playroom looks so much fun! You could almost set the entire movie in there) is one of the most powerful and harrowing moments I’ve seen in any film, with the sadness of spending New Years alone is something I can relate to. I do make it an aim during a future new year’s eve to watch Holiday with the film synchronized with real time so I can introduce the new year at the exact same time the character’s in the movie do so.

Fours a Crowd (1938)

Release the Hounds!

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland and Rosalind Russell in a screwball comedy? These are the kinds of cast ensembles which unleash the inner fan boy in me. Errol Flynn rarely got the chance in his career to perform comedy and here he proves he was cable of doing Cary Grant-esque comedy on the same level as well, Cary Grant. Sadly Four’s a Crowd’s lack of box office success prevented Warner Bros from putting him in more comedies

Although The Women is seen as the film which launched Rosalind Russell as a fast talking comedic actress, Four’s a Crowd is the first film in which she plays such a character and her first turn as the working career woman (or “newspaper man” as she refers to herself here) which became synonymous with with shades of Hildy Johnson coming through. She takes full advantage of the role, stealing the show with her impeccable timing which reportedly made Olivia de Havilland envious. De Havilland though is tasked with playing a dim witted character which she performs without coming off as annoying as such characters can easily be.

Four’s a Crowd owes a certain debt to Libeled Lady featuring some similar plot trends and themes with its slam on the upper classes, the socialite lifestyle and the desperate lengths newspapers will go to in order to get a story. Even the opening title sequence is taken from Libeled Lady in which the cast do the same arm in arm walk but is full of moments of inspired zaniness to distinguish itself. The model train sequence which lasts for 16 minutes had to have come from creative minds; plus what’s funnier in an innocent, cute kind of way than grown men playing with model trains. However there is one moment in Fours a Crowd which is one of the most bizarre gags I’ve ever seen in a film in which after escaping from a pack of guard dogs to the other side of a gate, he grabs one of the dog’s legs and bites it. I still don’t know how to react to it, weather I should laugh or be horrified or both! The plot gets very confusing very fast but in a good way culminating in a finale in which Errol gets the wrong girl at the end! Although the manner in which this happens is screwball antics at its finest.

The Divorce of Lady X (1938)

Heathcliff and Cathy’s Other Film

The Divorce of Lady X stands out above other screwball comedies for three reasons. Firstly it’s one of the few screwball comedies filmed in Technicolor which also helps the superb miniature work at the beginning of Trafalgar Square, even if there are a bunch of empty buses driving. Second, it’s the only British screwball comedy I’ve come across to date. Its fun watching typical screwball situations with an entirely British cast, set in Britain with very British lines of dialogue (“You got marmalade all over your newspaper”). All in all, it’s a very British affair.

Third and by far most importantly in what has to rank as one of the most bizarre of pre-stardom roles, it stars Laurence Oliver. Yes, the master of Shakespearean tragedy, perhaps the most respected and dignified actor of the 20th century as a stuffy gent who at first is delightedly full of himself but soon gets into all sorts of crazy shenanigans at the mercy of a screwy dame.  Merle Oberon plays one of the most manipulative characters I’ve seen in any film (and just for the record, that improvised cape made from a bed sheet she wears is such a brilliant touch) and yep, Oliver goes head over heels for her despite all the anguish she causes him, plus her telling him she previously has had four husbands. Of course all this is made believable, both by the abilities of these two actors but also because of the film’s sexual tension and undertones.

In fact the film’s first act is just one big farcical sequence centered around the sexual politics of the time; the fact that an unmarried man and woman sleeping in the same room was considered scandalous. Of course as film critic Andrew Sarris defines the screwball comedy genre, “a sex comedy without the sex”.

Carefree (1938)

Freud & Ginger

On my first viewing of Carefree, I experienced something I never thought I would with Fred and Ginger, boredom. Initially I was expecting another spectacular musical showcase, however the film is on a smaller scale (their shortest at only 80 minutes) than their previous outings and only contains a mere four musical numbers; making it more of a comedy with some singing and dancing than a full fledged musical. With several movies behind them following a similar formula, if they were going to make another then they had to do something different or things would have become stale. I wished though that Fred Astaire could have done straight comedies during his career; Carefree is the closest thing to that.

None of the musical numbers in Carefree stand out as being among the best in the series. Fred Astaire’s number in which he plays golf while tap dancing sounds better on paper than it does in execution. I’m sure what he’s doing is no easy task yet it doesn’t look all that impressive to watch. The Yam on the other hand is a pretty standard number, but heck, it’s still Fred and Ginger dancing. I find the film’s most interest musical number is ‘I Used to be Color Blind’, the most experimental in the film, shot in slow motion and allowing the viewer to see Fred and Ginger’s grace in every detail.

For the only time in the series, Astaire plays a character who is not a dancer by profession, but rather a psychiatrist (although they do make sure to mention he once had aspirations of becoming a dancer). I don’t completely buy Astaire as a psychiatrist, but realism is not what these movies are about. Plus I’m sure the psychology on display here is of the “you are getting sleepy” variety as seen in movies. He doesn’t break his professional ethics though by pursuing his patient like his stalkerish attitude towards Ginger in other films in the series, instead she wants him.

Carefree belongs to Ginger, playing a character whom has been put under hypnosis, giving her the opportunity to completely goof around in a child like manner with big wide eyes, and it’s pretty funny stuff. How many movies do you get to see Ginger Rogers wielding a shot gun? Everyone needs at least one movie where they get to act stupid. The comedic assets of Ralph Bellamy and Jack Carson are a big benefits to the film’s witty dialogue, where much of the film’s strength lies. Even if the dance numbers don’t fully exceed, as a screwball comedy, Carefree grows on me, of course I am a sucker for these movies and the Astaire/Rodgers name, so good enough for me!

Bringing Up Baby (1938)

Screwball Comedy on Steroids

I make it no secret that screwball comedy is my favourite genre of film. I can never get tired of these films; to me this is the most un-boring genre ever. Whenever I’m watching a great screwball comedy I’m on cloud 9 and when it’s over I’m always left wanting more. Sometimes I wish my life was a screwball comedy.

Bringing Up Baby is the quintessential daffy dame/stuffy gentleman movie (a formula often imitated but never topped) and I find it endlessly fascinating this premise of how this woman constantly infiltrates this man’s life and just won’t go away. You think it would be easy that he could avoid her but the manner in which she keeps coming back into his life is comedic brilliance. Like many great comedies, the jokes in Bringing Up Baby always take me by surprise no matter how many times I see it. Howard Hawks seems to have a distinctive style of slapstick comedy which separates his screwball comedies from others but what this is I can’t put my finger on; Hawks’ screwball simply has a distinctive electrically energy to it. Bringing Up Baby was produced at RKO studios, of whom I can’t help but notice their films have a distinctive imperfection of a grainy image quality and the use of soft lighting which is very easy on the eyes; the days when movie studios had their own distinctive styles.

I don’t think Katharine Hepburn ever looked more staggeringly beautiful than she does in Bringing Up Baby, I even find myself infatuated with the outfits she wears and her hairstyles in the film. Unlike other films of the genre however, the romance is largely secondary to the rest of the story; with Susan (Hepburn) falling for David (Cary Grant) but not the other way around. Even with David eventually proclaiming his love for Susan I get the impression the two only remain (unlikely) friends. Likewise the common screwball comedy theme of a crisis of masculinity is really played up here to the full with Grant wearing a woman’s dressing gown an even proclaiming in a fit of rage to be ”gay all of a sudden”.

David’s wild goose chase to obtain a dinosaur bone known as an ‘intercostal clavicle’ (a nonexistent fossil created for the movie) to complete the museum’s Brontosaurus skeleton, it’s eventfully destruction at the hands of Susan (Hepburn) as well as Susan’s treating a leopard as a pet is all perfectly in tune with the character’s defiance of the natural order of things. Bringing Up Baby is the only screwball comedy I can think of which involves it’s cast interacting with a dangerous animal; I’m unsure why this never became a common screwball trope, I guess studios wouldn’t allow their cast and crew to be placed in such danger. My review title may sound hyperbolic but I’d pair Bringing Up Baby with You Can’t Take It With You as the most over the top, steroidal, off the wall offering in the screwball comedy genre. Watching Bringing Up Baby is like watching a movie with the fast forward button turned on; the film is over before you know it. Old movies are slow and boring? Whoever came up with such nonsense?

Angels with Dirty Faces (1938)

Angels With Filthy Souls

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

 

One of the things I love most about Angels with Dirty Faces is that proposes the age old idea of a person’s entire destiny being defined by one single event. The fact that Jerry (Pat O’Brien) could run faster than his childhood friend Rocky (James Cagney) while being chased by the police for a petty crime would determine the paths they would take in life. If only Rocky could climb over that fence, things would have been so much different.

I’m a huge fan of the Warner Bros gangster movies of the 1930’s and Angels with Dirty Faces is probably the most classic of these movies In that it gets referenced and spoofed most in popular culture. These films deal with social issues, many of which are still relevant today. When I hear current news stories about crime and social issues, I often find myself thinking “They dealt with that in an old 30’s crime/gangster film”. Angels with Dirty Faces is no exception. Rocky Sullivan was never truly a criminal but his stay at a reformatory for his petty crime turned him into one. However Pat O’Brien’s role of Father Jerry Connolly presents an incredibly stark contrast with today’s common place media reports of priests molesting boys. I find it fascinating to see a movie in which a member of clergy is presented as someone who is treated with the utmost respect and entirely trustworthy, of course this being an attempt to appease the Legion of Decency.

Even with the religious overtones, the movie still provides one of the most intriguing moral dilemmas ever presented in a movie; Rocky making the ultimate sacrifice. Before his execution Father Connolly asks him to pretend going yellow and show people he was a coward by begging for mercy before being sent to the chair. The only thing Rocky has left is his reputation and he is being asked to throw that away so kids won’t look up to him and his lifestyle. Rocky does just this at the last moment, a complete rejection of the gangster way of life.

While nothing can top the pure electricity that is Cagey in White Heat, Angels With Dirty Faces gets my spot as the next most interesting performance in his career. The Dead End Kids give Cagney an element to his performance few other actors would rarely get the chance to express, likewise his real life friendship with Pat O’Brien is easily apparent on screen with their interactions. Humphrey Bogart also appears in a pre stardom supporting role. Despite only appearing in several scenes he nearly succeeds in upstages Cagney with his enigmatic screen presence. Plus that kid playing a young Cagney at the beginning of the film is very eerily like him.

Socially conscience pictures such as this which came from Warner Bros really give an insight into the lives of common folk of the time. A moment which always stuck out to me in Angels With Dirty Faces is the basketball game because it’s the only classic era film which comes to mind which features a basketball game thus showing an activity from the 1930’s which is still popular today. Likewise the movie also acts as a historical document for the lingo among inner city youths of the time. The performances given by The Dead End Kids feels like an early example of method acting; no surprise when watching this that it was once referred to as Italian street acting.

Michael Curtiz is undoubtedly one of the greatest craftsmen of Hollywood’s golden age (after all, in this same year he directed one of the most perfect things ever created, The Adventures of Robin Hood). The movie immediately flaunts it’s very handsome production values right from the opening shot. The execution finale of Angels with Dirty Faces alone is a masterpiece of cinematography with its prominent use of shadows, bright lighting and titled camera angles. Here Curtiz creates a criminal underworld which is hard not to get sucked into. We might not want to emulate gangsters but we can’t help but be fascinated by them.

The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)

Perfectly Perfected Perfection

 

I’ve long considered reviewing this movie before but it’s hard to do it justice. For my money, The Adventures of Robin Hood is just too dam perfect a film, every element fits together to an nth degree; I could put this movie under the microscope and not find a single thing I dislike about it. Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilliand, Basil Rathbone and Claude Raines as the villains, the Technicolor, the sets, the action, the romance, the music, just the sear escapism of it all. It’s the type of film that fuels imaginations and makes you feel like a kid again. This all may sound hyperbolic but the more think about this movie the more I fall in love with it and have even gone as far as contemplating to label it as my favourite movie of all time, maybe not quite but I put it in my top 10. The Adventures of Robin Hood Is just so dam perfect that I am actually envious of it.

Just the first four names billed names in the cast list would make The Adventures of Robin Hood one of the greatest casts ever assembled. Who can play a more ridiculously charming lead hero than Errol Flynn? Who can play more loathsome villains than Basil Rathbone and Claude Raines? Rathbone being unabashedly evil while Raines surely most have helped popularise the trope of the effeminate villain. Likewise the flawless beauty that is Olivia de Havilliand as The Lady Marian isn’t just some useless damsel in distress but a central figure in the plot’s progression, acting as an insider after Robin has red pilled her.

Along with the masterful direction of Michael Curtiz, these talents coming together in the same picture is one in a million. It’s hard to talk about any Michael Curtiz directed film and not praise the film on a technical level. Let’s talk about that eye watering Technicolor. Where the middle ages really this colorful? Every frame of this movie is oozing in beauty and with sets featuring such an astounding level of detail, those gorgeous matte paintings or the brightly coloured outfits (especially those worn by The Lady Marian); I just love staring at it and can never take my eyes of the screen. Really, The Adventures of Robin Hood is my choice as the most visually arresting movie ever. If you have contemporary film directors who resurrect the use of black & white cinematography, then why isn’t anyone resurrecting the use of Technicolor? There also isn’t a frame in the movie which doesn’t have an eye pleasing composition with layers of props in the foreground and background.

Every action sequence is unbelievably exciting, with the film’s climatic sword fight being one of the most intense action sequences ever filmed. Also that shadow effect is just so dam stylistic and cool; no one could implement shadows into the frame better than Curtiz (one of his visual trademarks as a director). Such scenes wouldn’t be as effective though without Erich Wolgang Korngold’s highly melancholic and at other times adrenalizing score. I do rigorously listen to this soundtrack in it’s entirely on a regular basis; there is no other film score which evokes a greater sense of emotion from me.

On top of that, every time I watch Robin Hood it’s felt like a different experience every time, even as if I was watching the movie for the first time. I swear I’m not making this up but on every viewing I’ve had with this movie has the weird, uncanny effect of having scenes I have no memory of seeing. Normally when I say I don’t remember a scene that would be a criticism but not in this case. That’s just the magic this movie possesses and the reason it is my number 1 choice of desert island movie.  If you have not viewed its perfection then what are you waiting for? That’s not a recommendation, that’s an order! There will never ever be a better Robin Hood movie…ever!