Gentleman Jim (1942)

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A Boxer and a Gentleman

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

There’s something about Gentleman Jim which makes the film uplifting, it has a real aura of celebration to it. There’s nothing better than hearing Auld Lang Sang during the opening credits of a piece of classic Hollywood filmmaking. Compare this to the many bleak biopics which portray historical figures going through unprecedented amounts of suffering, Gentleman Jim really stands out with its combination of comedy and drama which never takes itself too seriously to create something unique; historical accuracy be dammed!

Errol Flynn and Jack Carson make for a fun duo as a pair of part time con-men. Flynn’s reaction at the film’s beginning to the pickpocket currently in the act of robbing him, just a quick “get outta there” and a slap on the wrist as he continues himself to con other people, it’s so brief you would almost miss it and if it doesn’t show what a great actor he is then I don’t know what will; such sly confidence.

Gentleman Jim is a movie full of blink-and-you-miss-them moments of subtle comedy. One of my favourite of these is the moment in which a child asks his mother during a fight “why doesn’t daddy look that like in his underwear” and her response of “shh, he did once”. I love the child’s reaction with his eye’s rolling up as if he’s saying “oh, I totally get it”. The movie does also have its more overt moments of humour in the form of Corbett’s entertaining family of screwballs led by a scenery chewing Alan Hale. Yet even Hale’s chewing of the scenery is outdone by Ward Bond as the over the top, manly force of nature that is John L. Sullivan.

Gentleman Jim differs from most boxing film partially due to its time period setting. The film acts as a piece of 1890’s nostalgia when there would still have been people alive in 1942 to remember this period. It is easily apparent the filmmakers put great strides into recreating the time period with its lush sets and great attention to detail. However the other aspect which makes the movie stand out amongst boxing pictures is its presentation of boxing as a real gentleman’s sport, making the movie really live up to its title. This isn’t a story with Rocky Balboas nor does it take place in sweaty, gritty inner city gyms. I guess somewhere along the way the sport of boxing became less sophisticated and more middle to lower class.

Classic Hollywood films are generally not known for their realistic boxing scenes with their use of sped up footage and not very convincing punches. Gentleman Jim does a better job than other boxing films of the era. Flynn learned to box for the role and no body doubles where used while the fights for the most part do come off as convincing.

The meeting between Corbett and Sullivan after their fight is the film’s real tearjerker moment: what true gentlemen. An acceptance that your time has come to an end and that it will happen to all of us eventually.

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A Star Is Born (1954)

What Price Hollywood?

It’s hard to believe a mainstream film made as late as 1954 has strands of lost footage, yet that is the case with A Star Is Born. The inserts of production photographs over the surviving audio track in the restored version is a mildly irritating, so I can just hope and wait that an uncut version of the film will surface one day.

A Star is Born is the ultimate showcase for the incomparable talent that is Judy Garland. The film’s title couldn’t be more apt as this is the role she was born to play in the film her career had been building up to. Every song to come out of her mouth is sang with such emotional intensity, and with this being as much a drama as it is a musical, Garland acts her little heart like never before with her monologue at the end of film always leaves me stunned. Her performance is surely contributed by the movie very evidently tapping into Garland’s own past insecurities; such as the scene with Esther and the makeup department men.

As much as A Star Is Born is Garland’s big moment in the sun, it is also one of the high points of James Mason’s career in a performance which is nothing short of magnificent (thanks in part to that heavenly voice of his). The character of Norman Maine is right out of a classic tragedy; a man who has accepted his doom rather than fighting against it. He is a tragic figure wearing a mask while joking and makes light about his failing career and his dependence on alcohol. His only remaining hope is that his name will continue to be remembered through the success of his wife’s career (a career from a star which he created) if he dies he will continue to exist through his wife. George Cukor had tackled this material before, first in What Price Hollywood? (1932) and later in Dinner at Eight (1933) in which John Barrymore played the alcoholic, washed up actor Larry Renault. Like Norman Maine, Renault succumbs to the bottle, although has a demise without any optimistic ending that Norman Maine has. The other real standout member of the cast is Jack Carson as Matt Libby the publicity department executive. Carson often played roles such as PR agents but it’s not hard to see why as the man has the born look of a con man.

There is real movie magic within the structure as well as individual moments throughout of A Star Is Born. The entire first act for example takes place over the course of one night and within this single portion of the film we have a whole gauntlet of human emotion (fear, uncertainty, pity, joy, optimism). That scene in which Norman meets Esther for the first time and writes on the wall with lipstick has so much more poignancy when watching the film again.

With The Man That Got Away number, the song itself is amazing but the setting really sells it; a band playing in the early hours of the morning in a club after it’s closed, with the chairs on the table and the lights dimmed, just playing in order to unwind. Not to mention Garland’s vocals, just incredible. Likewise the scene in which Norman tells Esther to stay behind and start a Hollywood career to a backdrop of city lights – you can feel the world on her shoulder. There is also the publicity department sequence in which Esther is thrown from person to person only to literally end up where she started at the beginning of the scene. I can’t quite put my finger on it but I do smell a metaphor here. For the final portion of the film it goes right into classic melodrama territory, taking place in a home by the sea with the sound of crashing waves and hard winds.

It’s impressive considering this was George Cukor’s first film in widescreen, his first film in colour plus his first musical, yet watching the film you would he was already a long established master of these forms in a movie littered with eye pleasing compositions and a three hour run time which feels shorter than it is. A Star Is Born is a great movie to have playing in the background to enhance of the atmosphere of the room or just listen to the highly lush film score; I can happily listen to orchestral variations of The Man that Got Away over and over again. Likewise the film’s use of locations in L.A. as well as the Warner Bros studio makes the film a time capsule of Hollywood circa 1954.

Like Singin’ in the Rain, A Star Is Born is a movie which satirises Hollywood with its exposure of the actions of publicity departments and the lengths they go to in order to retain their public relations, however at the same time it is a movie which celebrates Hollywood; an ideal balance between celebration and self-deprecation. A Star Is Born is an ecstasy explosion of old Hollywood glamour; a world of spotlights, big bands, big costumes, high end nightclubs, back stage drama and the extravagance that comes with it. Likewise the number Born in a Trunk is Warner’s attempt to create the type of impressionistic ballet sequence which MGM had perfected – and they certainly succeed, with movies like this it’s hard to look away from the screen.

Larceny Inc. (1942)

Under Pressure

How can you resist a film like Larceny Inc once you’ve heard the plot? It’s one of those quirky film concepts I just love. A cocky criminal and his two buffoons buy a luggage store to they can dig their way into the bank next door. Perhaps the film’s greatest strength is how it plays out like a live action cartoon. Nothing ever goes beyond the scene in the moment; for example in one scene a set of oil pipes are burst during the digging process and the basement from which they are digging from is drenched in oil and yet this is never mentioned again. Even as one character who is not involved in the ban heist comes across the two drenched in the oil he bizarrely does not comment on their appearance; that’s the twisted cartoon world Larceny Inc incorporates. I’ve always thought actors from the 1930’s resembled cartoon characters with their exaggerated facial features and distinctive accents; very true with this cast including Edward G. Robinson, Jack Carson and even a young Jackie Gleason; all live action caricatures.  Actors who emerged after the war generally didn’t have this and instead were actually more lifelike. You really get a sense of the world the movie takes place in with a street populated with such memorable and mostly ethnic characters giving the movie that Shop Around the Corner edge to it.

Maxwell aka Pressure’s gift wrapping has to be the comedic highlight of Robinson’s career; a comedy moment which couldn’t be timed more perfectly. His uttering of “$9:75”  is funny enough as it is but his pathetic attempt at gifting wrapping which follows had me in stitches. I also love Jack Carson’s attempt at hitting on Jane Wyman. This scene has nothing to do with the rest of the movie but has got to be the ultimate “skipping the pleasantries” monologue I’ve ever heard.

There are so many layers within Larceny Inc. Is the movie a celebration or an indictment on capitalism? The gangsters involvement in legitimate business is what makes them renounce their past ways but only after they’ve essentially been seduced and consumed by the capitalist system. Larceny Inc was released in 1942 just months after the US got involved in the war but the film’s production began prior to that with its themes of business and consumerism are completely counterproductive to the war effort, something I’ve noticed with many films released in 1942. There is also the irony that the gangster is the one who brings the community together and the authority figures in the movie are played as fools.

Larceny Inc can also join films like Rocky IV and Die Hard as Christmas movies which aren’t about Christmas; and Edward G Robinson dressed as Santa Claus? Sold!

Vivacious Lady (1938)

Old School

Sex! Now that I’ve got your attention, it’s fascinating to see just how many references to the birds and the bees permeate the seemingly innocent veneer of Vivacious Lady. James Stewart and Ginger Rodgers where dating during the filming and it’s certainly apparent on screen with the levels of sexual tension between the two with these stars never appearing more youthful than they do here. There are many code breaking moments in Vivacious Lady from the opening scene with the exotic dancers in the nightclub and their tail feathers being pushed in Stewart’s face to Stewart breaking into a women’s only apartment block after visiting hours.

It’s clear that the University in the fictional town of Old Sharon is full of students eager to get it on from every other male student wolf whistling Ginger to the large number of couples occupying the boathouse at night. I mean the President of University and Stewart’s father played by Charles Coburn even comes right out and says it, “We are having the usual spring difficulties between our male and female students a little early this season. Too much fraternising in the lockers”.  – The Hays Code? What code?

However on closer examination of Vivacious Lady 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 (James Stewart) brother Keith (James Ellison) before they met, however, Francey marries Peter 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 this arrangement and himself and Francey continue to act in an overly intimate manner throughout the film for people who are cousins. Likewise 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.”

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 in which people would in real life. Just look at the reaction of Peter’s father whenever he tells him he got married, it’s lifelike 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 an overly 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 such as Stewart’s attempts to make advances but keeps backing away under nerves. The two of them really do feel like a bunch of young love-struck kids.

Stage Door (1937)

The Women

 

Stage Door is very much the poverty row version of MGM’s The Women. It features only one big box office star, another who had become box office poison and a supporting cast who would later go on to play notable prominent roles in later films (Lucille Ball, Ann Miller, Eve Arden).

Ginger Rogers and Katharine Hepburn where the two big rivals at RKO pictures with Rodger’s career on the up and Hepburn’s career on the down yet you can feel their mutual respect for each other as the film progresses (in the fictional realm at least). Stage Door follows a group of actresses living in a drab theatrical boarding house trying to make it in the world of show business. Right of the bat the movie is emotionally investing as the cast of street smarts constantly spew one liners and witty remarks in an effort to try and deal with their lack of success amidst the depression ridden 30’s; the film succeeds in evoking both laughter and sadness simultaneously with its barrage of highly relatable human emotion – The lightning fast dialogue alone makes Stage Door worthy of multiple viewings.

Supposedly the filming of Stage Door began without a completed script resulting in much of the film’s dialogue being improvised. The interactions between the female cast feels real; the acting present in the movie doesn’t feel like acting, almost like I’m getting a voyeuristic insight into these character’s lives.  Likewise the film even has an early appearance by Jack Carson as an over giddy lumberjack on an arranged date with Jean Maitland (Ginger Rogers); always a great screen presence no matter how brief his appearance is. I find Stage Door a one of a kind film; it has a raw quality, one that can’t be created intentionally making it a rare treat in many respects. The cast and dialogue is just too good that I really become attached to these characters and almost wish the film could be a bit longer.

Katharine Hepburn’s Terry Randall is another instance of Hepburn playing the odd one out. I do love Terry Randall, she’s the one character in the boarding house of whom clearly comes from an upper class background and she is only one who achieves stage success by landing the lead in a play despite her lack of acting experience. With her go getter attitude Terry is the embodiment of the individual as summed up in one line: “You talk as if the world owed you a living. Maybe if you tried to do something for the theatre, the theatre would do something for you”.  I get the impression Stage Door purports the idea that one who comes from a lower class background will find it harder to overcome these ties and find success. In one dialogue exchange Terry asks the other women “do you have to just sit around and do nothing about it?” and the character played by Lucille Ball replies “maybe it’s in the blood, my grandfather sat around until he was 80”. Terry is clearly more dedicated to her craft than the other woman in boarding house, discussing Shakespeare and other aspects of theatrical arts, while the other conformist woman poke fun and shun her for it. This does make me question what they are doing there in the first place; I guess they have just been beaten down by the system that bad. One thing Terry is not however is a snob. She doesn’t look down on the girls from a high and mighty position and even makes the effort to learn their slang. When I doubt I will ask myself, what would Terry Randall do?

Mr Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

If anyone asks me why James Stewart is my favourite actor I just say watch the final scene of Mr Smith Goes to Washington. The final scene of this movie is simply of the greatest things I have ever witnessed in any film ever. That may sound like a hyperbole but I’ll never forget the very exact feeling of goose bumps I had when first watching it. Mr Smith Goes to Washington is one of a small handful of films I would call life changing, one of the films which helped to mold the way I think and ultimately turn me into the person I am today. It encouraged me to be more skeptical, not to believe everything you here and stand for what you believe despite great opposition. It’s thanks to films like these why cinema is my bible. As much however as Capra is criticised for his films being overly idealist, Mr Smith Goes to Washington does not exactly paint the most glowing picture of the American political system. To quote Thomas Paine (Claude Raines), “The duty of a true patriot is to protect his country from its government”.

One of my favourite scenes in Mr Smith is that in which Clarissa Saunders (Jean Arthur) attempt to explain to Jefferson Smith (James Stewart) the entire procedure of creating a bill and submitting it to Congress. For starters the scene is incredibly funny with the comedic timing and Stewart’s childlike reactions. Secondly it’s a very informative civics lesson and thirdly, this scene shows us how Jefferson Smith acts of the film’s ambassador the for the average Joe watching film who’s just as confounded by Sauder’s lecture as Smith is. The scene lays out in an entertaining manner the political hoo-ha for the politically lay; my knowledge on politics was very limited when I first watched Mr Smith Goes to Washington but that wasn’t a barrier to being engrossed in the film’s state of affairs.

This is as good an opportunity as any to raise the question, why is Jean Arthur such a forgotten actress? Despite working with several big name directors, co staring with famous actors and appearing in a number of beloved classics, her presence is incredibly overlooked as the definitive urbanite career woman with her wit, warmth and innocence. Also, that voice! Her role as Saunders is the opposite of Mr Smith. She is cynical, jaded and knows the ins and outs of the system with its corruption and cronyism. It takes Smith, the Americaphille who appears to know more about American history than the people working in Washington to restore faith in her with his childlike optimism and perseverance.

Along with the attack on the American political system, Mr Smith Goes to Washington is just as harsh with its portrayal of the press as a pack of ravenous vultures. The scene in which Smith confronts the reporters in a bar is truly shocking as they flat up tell him about their lack of journalistic ethics as reality hits Smith like a ton of bricks (also among the crowd of reporters if Jack Carson, always a scene stealer). I just have to question the morals on the part of Smith prior to this scene in which he literally goes around punching reporters in the face although it could be argued this was more of a social norm back then between men.

Another striking monologue is that in which Smith’s mentor Thomas Paine justifies corruption as a comprise in order to achieve good deeds, a process which has existed since the birth democracy as he puts it. As convincing as he might sound at first, through the course of the film you can tell he’s a man who knows he’s sold out on is ideals partially from the complete look of shame which bestows Claude Rains’ face. Even at the beginning of the film just look at the reaction of Paine’s face when Smith declares “Dad used to tell me Joe Paine was the finest man there ever was”.

The relationship between Paine and the business mogul James Taylor (Edward Arnold) is like that of The Emperor and Darth Vader. Taylor hovers above Paine only for his conscious to be put to the ultimate test by the end of the film. Taylor’s ability to control the media of Smith’s home state and   preventing any of his words from the senate reaching the state is frightening. I can just be glad that in the age of the internet and mass communication that such control of the narrative isn’t as easy as it once was.

Mr Smith Goes to Washington is very snappy and faced paced; with the culmination of some of Hollywood’s finest character acting talent helps carry the exposition in an entertaining and at times screwball like manner. The final 30 minutes of the film in which Smith filibusters is one of the greatest things ever caught on celluloid with its immense hair raising build up to an exhausted, out of breath James Stewart declaring that he will fight for this lost cause, even if this room gets filled with lies like these!

Like other political films to arise from classic Hollywood, no party is mentioned during the film nor do we know what state Smith is from and which he fights so hard for. Those on the modern right could see Mr Smith as a little guy standing up against big government and the Washington elites. By contrast those on the left can view Smith as a rebel fighting against corporate, capitalist fat cats like James Taylor. Independents could see Smith as someone who stood alone without backing from any party to fight for his beliefs. Like many of Capra’s films, Mr Smith Goes to Washington is hard to place on the political spectrum. Anyone can see what they want to within the film which is part of its enduring power.  Really, if I ever met someone in elected office, I will be asking them if they have seen this film. Mr Capra and Mr Stewart, thank you for this film.

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.

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!

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!