Meet John Doe (1941)

A Face In the Crowd

Sadly Meet John Doe appears to be an uncared about film falling into the public domain. I’ve previously wondered if this film could have the power to inspire real life John Doe clubs, like Fight Club inspiring real life fight clubs. Meet John Doe is the ancestor to film’s like A Face in the Crowd and Network, chronicling the rise and fall of a media built character. Meet John Doe is not thought of as a conspiracy/paranoia film but is a few actions scenes away from being a conspiracy thriller. After watching you’ll start feeling more like tin foil hat wearing conspiracy theorist untrusting of government and the establishment.

John Doe is a Christ like figure; he preaches loving thy neighbour, when he is disgraced a newspaper editor proclaims “chalk one up for the Pontius Pilates of the world” and even plans to sacrifice himself on Christmas day. On top of that, Barbara Stanwyck’s speech at the end in which she tells John he doesn’t have to die for the idea of the John Doe movement – that somebody else already did – the first John Doe and he has been keeping the idea alive for 2000 years, all while the Christmas bells ring. Classic Hollywood films sure love their hard hitting symbolism and metaphors.

Barbara Stanwyck is a phenomenon here with so much life and energy she can make any bit of exposition entertaining. As for Gary Cooper and Walter Brennan in of their many film pairings; what is it makes them a great duo? Perhaps it’s just the humorous interactions of two folksy Americans. Cooper’s boyish charm is on full display here, such his baseball pitching in a hotel room to his curious on look at a naked statuette. Meet John Doe is one of the finest performances he ever gave with his outburst at the dinner meeting making the hairs on my neck stand up. Walter Brennan’s The Colonel on the other hand doesn’t trust any media, authority or society in general. He’s comically cynical in the extreme and probably be a conspiracy theorist if he had lived in later decades. Throughout the film he refers to others as “helots”; state owned serfs of the ancient Spartans (“When you become a guy with a bank account, they got you, yes sir, they got you”).

Although the John Doe movement claims the John Does are inheriting the Earth, the movement is funded by a corporation; so did they not see someone like D.B Norton taking advantage of them? Edward Arnold as D.B Norton is one scary, menacing guy who is complete with his own personal army force. He defiantly gives of the Hitler vibes and yes, as I write this in 2016 I also get the Donald Trump vibes. When he sees his servants listening to Doe’s speech on the radio and applauding, he realises the political power he can have if he can get John Doe on his side. Under a scheme to buy his way to power he uses the John Doe movement to further his own agenda, to create a political party of which he leads in order to become President of the United States. His description that he plans to create “a new order of things” and “the American people need an iron hand and discipline” sounds like he has the intent of turning the country into a fascist dictatorship. There’s no doubt that Meet John Doe among other things was an argument against American isolationism in the war.

Another striking moment of Meet John Doe is the monologue given by Bert Hanson, the soda jerker (Regis Toomey) on how little we know about our neighbours and how a failure to get the whole picture leads to misconceptions of other people. It’s true in real life, people you live next to for years and you never contact them: perhaps the guy next door isn’t a bad egg.

Many of Capra’s films showcase the people’s need for a leader (Mr Deeds, Mr Smith or George Bailey) and in turn they appear to be clueless and misguided with one (think of Pottersvillie in It’s a Wonderful Life) in a showcase of Capra’s darker side. Here the public buying up what the media tells them such as when Norton exposes John Doe for being an apparent fraud in one of the movie’s most powerful scenes as the movie captures so vividly the destruction of a dream. As dark as the movie’s ending is, it still remains optimistic in which the fight goes on (“there you are Norton, the people!”).

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The Devil and Miss Jones (1941)

Me and Miss Jones

The Devil and Miss Jones may be the best Frank Capra film he didn’t make and one of the last depression era comedies making it one of the last of its kind – a screwball comedy attacking the rich who caused the great depression. The film presents a fascinating and shocking look at the treatment of workers in a department store during the final days of the depression, themes which would become obsolete with the US entry to the war.

The owner of the department store is J.P. Merrick (Charles Coburn). With this character the movie shows the rich aren’t all bad people at heart. They’re just cut off from common people and their reality, unaware of the common man’s struggle and surround by advisors who think they know what’s best. Heck, J.P. doesn’t even remember what stores he owns! He brings himself down to his employee’s level by going undercover as a store worker in order to identify those who are trying to form a union. J.P. has the advantage that no one in the public knows what he looks like as his picture hasn’t appeared in a newspaper for 20 years, also no internet in 1941 would also be an advantage.

I don’t how if the treatment of the workers is realistic or exaggerated; just how relevant is this movie today? In one scene a store supervisor criticises a new worker (unaware it’s the store’s owner going undercover) in a bullying nature for their poor intelligence level test score. In another scene the department store addresses their workers at the end of the day as they stand in unison like a military dictatorship, threatening to fire anyone and preventing them from working in any department store in the city if they speak out against the company or associate with anyone who does. Next many of the workers have a secret union meeting on top of a building, like a band of rebels coming together to take down a oppressive regime. The leader of the cause played by Robert Cummings states the company is letting employees go after 15 years when their salary is higher than a new employee and that they expect a quarter lifetime of loyalty to the one employer. At one point Jean Arthur even speaks during one emotionally rousing speech about how working “25 years for only two employers” as unacceptable –  I know those days have certainly passed us. The art deco department store itself is a beauty and offers a nostalgic look at the days before automation, when people had to be employed to do every task without the aid of computers.

Robert Cumming’s character is more a product of the 1960’s, a radical protester who is against the establishment; the type of person who would protect his country against its government. In one pivotal scene at a police station he takes on abusive, power hungry cops and escaping charges by reciting the Constitution and then the Declaration of Independence at lightening fast speed to remind the officers of their rights; a real bad ass. A scene like this just goes to show you how people are unaware of their rights.

Jean Arthur and Charles Coburn are a superb and unconventional pairing. Yet you get two great romance plots for the price of one – old love and young love; Charles Coburn & Spring Byington and Jean Arthur and Robert Cummings. Like Frank Capra’s works, The Devil and Miss Jones is full of incredibly intimate, powerfully sentimental moments as two characters talk to each other as the rest of the world ceases to exist, such as the beach scene with Arthur and Cummings or the moment on the train with Coburn and Byington are all incredibly moving. Yet the intimate moment which strikes me the most is Arthur and Coburn’s discussion on love. Jean Arthur’s monologue on love feels so true; stating that two people can look at each other and see something way deep inside that no one else can see and distances her love from that seen in movies of love songs. She doesn’t think herself or her boyfriend are the greatest people in the world, yet doesn’t know if she’d care to live or die if she would never see him again. When this moment begins the sound effects of people talking in the background becomes increasingly faint and then loud again as other people enter the scene – it’s perfect. In terms of just pure comedy, just look the scene in which Jean Arthur dives across the table; an explosion screwball comedy in its purest form.

You Belong to Me (1941)

The Guy Henry

I usually avoid writing such comments as “Why does this movie have such a low IMDB rating?!” but I’m going to break my own rule this one time. Why does this movie have such a low IMDB rating?! You Belong to Me is of the funniest films I’ve ever seen, period. Giving me the type of gut busting, side splitting laughter I rarely get from even the funniest of comedies. I was in howls of consistent laughter for 90 minutes; unlike The Lady Eve which I feel looses steam in it’s final third. I only watched You Belong to Me in order to become a Barbara Stanwyck-Henry Fonda completest and was expecting something mediocre based on all the negative IMDB reviews but I have to ask the question mankind has pondered since the beginning of time, “What is wrong with you people!? Do you even understand the basic essence of comedy?!!” Ok, back to planet Earth.

The movie plays out like a newspaper comedy; the setup of a husband neglecting his wife due to his obligations to his job except in this case the profession is a doctor and it’s not the man, it’s the woman. Peter Kirk (Fonda) acts like a spoiled child throughout the film who doesn’t know any better yet he’s always too loveable and innocent to ever come off as annoying. Likewise many of his shenanigans and dialogue are very Homer Simpsons like (“Patient dies while doctor ski-ies”). He goes to extreme lengths to have Helen Hunt (not the modern day actress but the character played by Stanywck) as his own with his increasingly humorous paranoia; and while considering Stanwyck’s sexuality I can’t blame the guy. The man really does look like he’s in love with the woman which would come as no surprise as apparently Fonda would tell his later wife he was still in love with Stanwyck. Peter Kirk has no purpose or ambition and doesn’t contribute a whole lot to society, unlike his polar opposite wife; the more mature of the two to say the least. Even with this comically absurd pairing I did at times feel somber for the couple.

I don’t always say this with every romantic pairing I see however after watching all three movies they did together I do believe Stanwyck and Fonda could have been a regular film pairing up with there with the likes of Astaire & Rogers, Powell & Loy and Tracey & Hepburn. The chemistry they share is some of the best I’ve seen in old Hollywood stars; a match made in heaven if I’ve ever seen one.

A Woman’s Face (1941)

Two Faced Woman

 

A Woman’s Face is a trashy, pseudo horror movie like film but one presented as an A-picture melodrama. I’ve watched A Woman’s Face five times as of writing this review and gets better every time I watch it. Within the last year I’ve felt the motivation to watch the film three times, something which is almost unheard of for me; this movie is that good. I’ve now decided, screw it, this is my favourite Joan Crawford film and considering there’s tough competition from Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, Mildred Pierce and The Women, that’s saying a lot.

Every major cast member in A Woman’s Face is superb. I know that sounds like a generalization but it’s true. Firstly there’s Conrad Veidt as Torsten Barring. I adore every second this man is on screen; he’s just so delightfully sinister but in the most absorbingly charming manner – I’m swept of my feet by his presence. I can completely buy into the romance he shares with Anna Holm (Crawford) because he looks past her facial disfigurement and is unbothered by it. Melvyn Douglas is the other great charmer of the cast, whom I’ve yet to see paired with an actress who he didn’t share great chemistry. Ossa Massen, Reginald Owen, Albert Bassermann, Marjorie Main (unrecognisable here) and Donald Meek are also all equally memorable and stand in the strong characterisations of their roles. Likewise on re-watching look out for the moments of foreshadowing (“You love children? I loathe them”).

Then there’s Crawford herself in a once in a life time role as a facially disfigured woman, a part few actresses would be prepared to play. Her character of Anna Holm only engages in deceitful acts because of society’s mistreatment of her since childhood but is otherwise good at heart. Anna tries to make the best for herself and doesn’t dwell into a victimhood complex (“I don’t care for pity ether”); she runs her own tavern, pursues different talents and less virtuously is involved in criminality. Regardless throughout the film my heart pours out for the poor woman and yet even with the disfigurement I still find Crawford to be incredibly beautiful in this film, nor does the disfigurement ever take away from the asset that is her stunning body. If anything the moment in which Anna returns from a shopping trip and is wearing a very excessive blouse to take attention away from her face is the one moment in the film in which her character comes off to me as pathetic sight.

A Woman’s Face is one of the few thrillers George Cukor directed with echoes of Hitchcock throughout, such as the shots of the smelter plant and a waterfall in the background (similar to the scenery in films such as Foreign Correspondent), to the film’s suspenseful scenes such as that atop the cable car. This sequence itself is absent of any music, simply allowing the sound of the nearby waterfall and the smelter plant increase the tension while the film’s climax on the other hand offers a sort of Ben-Hur on sleds finale. Since I consider this film far superior to Hitchcock’s thriller offering that year of Suspicion, Cukor out Hitchcocked Hitchcock. With Cukor being one of the great masters of his trade, the cinematography of A Woman’s Face is a feast for the eyes. Technically speaking, the scenes at the hospital and Anna’s subsequent unbandaging are my favourite part of the film. Along with A Woman’s Face and the 1934 medical drama Men In White, it makes me wonder if it’s just me or do medical interiors and apparatuses make for some of the best subjects to capture on film.

Being a remake of a Swedish film, there’s something somewhat unconventional about A Woman’s Face for a Hollywood film. The movie does manage to capture the essence of its Northern European setting (despite much of the cast supporting American accents) and offers a slice of Swedish culture with its dancing sequence.

I consider 1941 to be the greatest year in history of cinema. The output of this single year is the jealous vain of entire decades and A Woman’s Face just adds to this. Melodrama seems to have a bad reputation for no good reason. Like many things it can be done well and done poorly. A Woman’s Face represents the old Hollywood melodrama tailored to perfection.

Tom, Dick and Harry (1941)

The Horror…

I was left in a state of despair after watching Tom, Dick and Harry. The fact that a Ginger Rogers film could be this shockingly below par. It’s not just a forgettable, run of the mill film. Heck, I wish I could call it mediocre. Tom, Dick and Harry is horrifyingly bad.

Although the opening title is creative, it all goes downhill from there. For starters there is a “joke” early during the film, in which Phil Silvers asks Rogers if she wants some ice cream, he mentions a variety of flavours, Rogers mentions he forgot one, Silver’s denies it. Once he leaves, Rogers say to her date that he forgot to say pistachio. Several minutes later Silvers returns just to mention he forgot Pistachio. I don’t get it, what’s the punch line!? Rest assured my laugh count by the end of the film was a total of 0.

But let’s move onto the most awful thing about Tom, Dick and Harry. I am talking about the film’s dream sequences. They sound like an interesting idea on paper, but good lord, are they terrifying! I rarely find any movie scary, weather classified as horror or not, but never have I been so close to wanting the literally hide behind the couch. The most terrifying thing about these sequences are the adults dressed as babies, miniaturised and superimposed in the scenes. The Exorcist? Rosemary’s Baby? Phhh , please. Those adults dressed as babies is where it’s at when it comes to the stuff nightmares are made of. Was David Lynch inspired by this film? It’s like something straight out of Eraserhead.  Every time one of these dream sequences was about to start I was pleading with the movie, “please not another one!”. This was the last thing I was expecting from a 1940’s movie with such an innocent, carefree title.

I can assure you that I’m not exaggerating when I call Tom, Dick and Harry one of the absolute worst films I’ve seen from Hollywood’s golden age. After finishing the film I had to watch something else in order to help get it of my mind, not only because it’s a terrible film starring my beloved Ginger Rogers,  but because those dream sequences will give me my own horrible nightmares (Just for the record the film I watched was Lonely are the Brave starring Kirk Douglas, which did the trick). I’d imagine after winning an Oscar for Kitty Foyle, Ginger Rogers would have had all sorts of film offers going her way. Heck, she turned down Ball of Fire and instead appeared in this. I don’t even like thinking about it. Thankfully the following year she stared in The Major and the Minor, so all is forgiven.

Love Crazy (1941)

Serving the Nuts

I believe every great actor should have at least one movie in which they get to go completely over the top and out of character (Barrymore in Twentieth Century, Howard in Its Love I’m After, Bogart in Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Stewart in Vertigo). For William Powell, Love Crazy provided him with his opportunity, in easily the most slapstick oriented comedy ether Powell or Myrna Loy ever done; from heads being stuck in elevator doors to characters slipping on the same mat several times throughout the film. It’s not John Barrymore levels of over the top, but compared to William Powell’s usual soft spoken persona, it’s pretty over the top.

Love Crazy is the William Powell show all the way, showcasing the complete range of his abilities as a comedic actor in a plot which is like a tabloid newspaper story turned into a screwball comedy; a jokey representation  of mental illness which wouldn’t be politically correct by today’s standards. All the more fun then! One of the scenes from any film Powell has appeared which I feel best demonstrates his comedic timing, is when he is tasked with convincing a lunacy commission of his sanity by placing shaped blocks into their corresponding holes. It’s such a basic task yet his overzealous confidence he still manages to convincingly screw it up; it works on so many levels. Yet as the film progresses, I end up feeling particularly sorry for his character.

But not to undo Myrna Loy, with her stand out moment being a surprisingly erotic scene with Jack Carson in which both of them are bare shouldered. On top of that I find myself in awe that there is a straight up dick joke in this movie (“He has to have his torso free when he shoots his bow and arrow”). Of all the sneaky jokes they got past the censors I’ve heard in screwball comedies, this is one of the most unsubtle. Likewise Gail Patrick who plays Powell’s former girlfriend appears to be a bit of a nymphomaniac; badly wanting him shortly after meeting for the first time in years despite both of them now being married, and it’s his anniversary night! Just listen as the seductively tells Powell, “Stevie I’m bored!”. There’s quite a bit of setting up in Love Crazy, but the payoffs are worth it. Love Crazy also gets a big boost from the apartment sets designed by Cedric Gibbons. The painted backdrops of skyscrapers high in the sky and the art deco shading, it’s beautiful.

I managed to go into Love Crazy unaware of the screwball hijinks which occur during the third act. If it’s not too late for you, I recommend doing the same. You’ll be left in a state of disbelief that what occurs on screen is really happening.

The Lady Eve (1941)

So Close, Yet So Far

The Lady Eve is a conflicting film. The first hour is some of the most perfect romantic comedy I’ve ever seen, however it falls apart around the one hour mark. However what is it that makes the first hour so perfect? Firstly it didn’t take too long for me to realise that Henry Fonda and Barbara Stanwyck are one of the most flawless screen pairings ever, the perfect combination of sexy meets innocent. Watching these two I get the impression they must have been head over heels for each other. I’ve read that apparently Henry Fonda would later tell his wife he was still in love with Barbara Stanwyck, dam! But then again, after having your hair caressed by Stanwyck for 3 minutes and 51 seconds, who wouldn’t be?!

The Lady Eve is a prime example of a “How did they get away with that?!” movie. I’m not aware of what Stanwyck’s ideological or moral beliefs where but a number of her films are some of most sexually suggestive old Hollywood films I’ve seen. There’s her pre-code work such as Baby Face but in the post code era we have Ball of Fire, Double Indemnity and of course, The Lady Eve. Call me old-fashioned but movies were sexier when the actors kept their clothes on. Vilma Banky did more with one raised eyebrow than an entire (Warning! Problem in Sector 7G).

So where does it all go wrong, well about 50 minutes into The Lady Eve, the movie pulls my least favourite movie cliché of all time, “the liar revealed”. You know, when a character is exposed as a fraud causing a relationship to end, even though you know they’re going to get back together again by the end of the movie. Having this cliché is bad enough, however I thought it was only a contrived modern invention but here it is in 1941. At least they don’t drag it out like any rubbish modern day romantic comedy would.

I’ve found Preston Sturges’ films to be indiscipline, his films all have their moments of greatness but at times they delve into over the top absurdity, even by screwball comedy standards. During the later part of The Lady Eve it’s hard to buy into Stanwyck disguising herself as another woman who doesn’t look massively different from her previous self in order to win back Henry Fonda. Oh and he buys into the charade, the dope! Part of me wished the entire movie could have just been the two of them on the boat and it would have been a perfect film, however the final third still has some hilarious moments, such as Eugene Pallette frantically banging the table demanding his breakfast, or Fonda getting his suit destroyed three times at a party, a perfectly timed slapstick gag if I’ve ever seen one.

On a second viewing of The Lady Eve I still have the same reaction to the first hour but I did find myself more forgiving of the last third. With my love of screwball comedies and the pairing of Stanwyck and Fonda, perhaps with additional future viewings I may become completely forgiving of the last half hour. The first hour is just that perfect.

The Bride Came C.O.D. (1941)

The Comedy Came: Laugh on Delivery

Whenever I watch a classic movie with two love interest leads with astounding chemistry I’m often left in suspense wanting to see the two together at the end. The Bride Came C.O.D. is one such film.

I find William Keighly to be a director of mediocre films; The Bride Came C.O.D. is a major exception. Past the not entirely electrifying opening, once James Cagney and Bette Davis where alone in the dessert and constantly bickering at each other I knew I was going to enjoy the hell out of this film. I was enjoying the presence of these two so much at one point I found some initial disappointment when a third character showed up despite the two being stuck in the wilderness. It felt like someone crashing at a party so it’s a good thing that I did grow to like this character; the movie really does get better and better as it progresses.

The movie takes place over a less than 24 hour time period and I’m pretty sure in real life two people couldn’t go from hating each other to madly in love within a time period of this length, but The Bride Called C.O.D. is movie fantasy. The film has one pivotal scene which elevated the film from being great to excellent in which Davis tells Cagney in a tearful breakdown of how she has had everything handed to her in life. No longer was the movie just a laugh riot, I now had characters whom I was emotionally invested in. It’s a testament to Bette Davis as an actress that she has the ability to tug the heart strings like that in an instant. I’m generally not a huge of Davis, I find her roles in numerous soap opera romantic tragedies off putting, thus it was a pleasant surprise to discover her natural ability for comedy. Perhaps that dame could have been undoubtedly the outstanding screwball of her generation!

All Through the Night (1941)

A Mixture of Action Und Comedy

Bogart: Let’s Get Silly!

Mixing up so many genres into a single movie could potentially be a disaster yet I’ve perhaps never seen a better genre mash up than All Through the Night. I’m astounded at this movie’s ability to have a bit of everything and pull it off so immaculately; bouncing back and forth between drama, comedy, action, murder mystery and even film noir. All Through the Night is the closest thing to a Hitchcock movie starring Humphrey Bogart in which an ordinary man gets caught up in espionage and becomes a fugitive for a crime he didn’t commit with moments in the film such as the auction scene or Bogart deliberately getting arrested by police directly reminded me of North by Northwest; likewise the movie even stars Judith Anderson in the Mrs. Danvers hairstyle from Rebecca while Bogart’s exploits against the movie’s Nazi villains gives an urban Indiana Jones edge to the film. Even the movie’s final climatic moment had me on the edge of my seat and thinking to myself “how is he going to get out of this?!”. One top of that the film gets an additional boast with some truly superb use of shadows and lighting; All Through the Night really exemplifies the unique look of Warner Bros. movies of the 30’s and 40’s.

I may sound hyperbolic but the more I think about it, the role of Golves Donahue may be the greatest performance of Bogart’s career; why you ask, versatility! Just like the tone of the film he is able to continually bounce back between being serious to just downright silly. Bogart has made me laugh during comedic moments in his other movies but I never knew he could make me laugh this side split-tingly hard; from subtle moments such as throwing the reserved sign off a table in a nightclub to the more obvious in which he infiltrates and stalls a secret Nazi meeting. At another point he delivers the line “More here than meets the FBI”; I do love me a corny pun but with Bogart delivering it just makes it funnier. All Through the Night makes me wish he had starred in more comedies.

On top of all that, the character he plays is a momma’s boy yet he’s still badass! I find this aspect of his character is hilarious in itself. There’s something adorable about a tough guy who wears dotted bathrobes and loves cheesecake so much; exemplified even more with his mother being played by the ever motherly Jane Darwell. All Through the Night features a large selection of character actors at some of their best work and even features a young Jackie Gleason in one of his earliest film roles; what more secrets does this movie hold? If I was to find any point of contention with All Through the Night I wouldn’t have minded seeing a bit romance between Bogart and Kaaren Verne, but with a film that has this much merit it’s hard to complain.

All Through the Night is an anti-Nazi propaganda film and an effective one at that. I find the satire here is on par with The Great Dictator and To Be or Not Be as the movie pokes fun at Nazi ideology. The leader of the branch of Nazi spies is played Conrad Veidt whom there was probably no one better at the time to play evil Nazis. Golves Donahue is also a minor gangster which reflects the attitude of real life gangsters of the time who worked with the government to infiltrate Nazi spies. One scene in the film involves Bogart giving a chilling monologue on how the Nazis will take people’s freedoms away in an argument against US isolationism in the ongoing war in Europe; all this however without even mentioning the word Nazi once throughout the film. Another interesting aspect of the film is the mentioning of an actual concentration camp Dachu. Being released in 1941 before the true nature of the camps where discovered, this is one moment I found quite chilling. All Through the Night was released in the US only 5 days before the attack on Pearl Harbor, although Warner Bros. had already long established themselves as an anti-Nazi studio.

By the time I watched All Through the Night I had already seen all of Bogart’s major movies and figured I was largely finished exploring the actor’s filmography, thus it came as such a delight discovering this obscure gem which satisfied me more than many of his more famous movies. This is type of movie which makes me want to scream out, “Why the hell it this not more will known?!”, but then again its moments like these in which I live to be a cinephile.