The Flight of the Phoenix (1965)

Plane Crazy

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

James Stewart’s career in the 1960’s was characterised by below average westerns, a contrast to his amazing run of diverse and ambitious films in the 50’s. The Flight of the Phoenix and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance are the two films which broke this mould.

I’m not an aviation expert so I can only speak as a layman but the method in which the men escape from the desert by building a new plane out of the remains of their downed plane doesn’t feel implausible, even if the man who spearheads the project designs toy planes for a living. After Frank Towns (James Stewart) and Lew Moran (Richard Attenborough) learn that Heinrich Dorfmann does not actually design real planes he makes a convincing argument that the principals of model plane design are the same and in many aspects of models require much more exacting designs as there is no pilot to fly them.

Hardy Kruger is the big show stealer here as the reserved loner Heinrich Dorfmann. He doesn’t conform to the rest of the group often physically separated from them nor does he appear to care what they think of him. He is someone who deals in cold, hard logic and shows little emotion throughout most of the film until he finally warms up towards the end. The intense dislike Towns has for Dorfmann is never explained. Ok it is established Dorfmann gets on Towns’ nerves but the contempt he has for him is clearly something more than that; in fact on my first viewing of The Flight of the Phoenix I found myself puzzled as to why he was taking such a dislike to him. Although it’s never stated the dislike could be due to post war bigotry. Although Dorfmann claims to have not been involved in the war he does hold some Nazi like characteristics such as his lack of compassion for those unnecessary or hindering the survival of the greater good (the greater good!), not to mention the blonde hair and blue eyes wouldn’t help Towns’ perception of him.

It’s no secret that James Stewart was an aviation enthusiast, thus no surprise this role would have appealed to him. As a pilot during the war he bring an extra degree of levity to the role, however this is no nice guy Stewart. Frank Towns is a man with a violent temper – nor did Stewart ever appear in a movie with a face so beat up (kudos to the makeup department for all those nasty looking side effects on the character’s faces.). The shot in which he threatens to kill the unknown person stealing water if they do it again as his face goes in and out of the light more than once is intimidating stuff. Likewise The Flight of the Phoenix is piloted by a superb international cast with characters whom have different levels of adjustment to surviving the wilderness. It’s a surprise seeing Dan Duryea playing a softie as Standish the account; a total contrast to his other roles as a no good weasel.

“The little men with the slide rules and computers are going to inherit the Earth.”

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It’s a Wonderful World (1939)

It’s a Wonderful Life…I Mean World

The first 10 minutes of It’s a Wonderful World is just rather dull set up for an incomprehensible murder mystery, but when Stewart becomes a fugitive on the run trying to prove his innocence and Claudette Colbert enters the picture it’s all smooth sailing even with the largely impossible to understand plot.

James Stewart is Guy Johnson, a hardboiled detective who often has a cigarette hanging at the end of his mouth like he’s Phillip Marlow. The role is a very different change of pace for Stewart but he pulls it off showing he could have easily slipped into a noir/detective thriller. Stewart even channels Clark Gable at times; with even the way he talks to a dog shouting at it to go away is very Gable-like. On top of that, at one point he admits to Colbert’s character that he thinks “all dames are dumb and all men ain’t” and how she has changed his philosophy on women; don’t tell the feminists. I also have to ask does this movie contain Stewart’s only ever black face moment in a film? So yes, the on screen personification of a boy scout is now literally poking fun at boy scouts and even tying them up. Claudette Colbert on the other hand plays an overly trusting eccentric poet who states throughout the film, “I swear by my eyes”. What does that even mean?

It’s a Wonderful World offers a genre mix of screwball comedy, murder mystery and even some elements of Hitchcock with the plot of a fugitive on the run to prove his innocence. Likewise many of the solutions’ the character’s use throughout the film feel like they could be used in a Hitchcock movie such as Colbert lighting the newspaper on fire to escape from the car. No surprise that the film’s co-writer Ben Hecht would be a future Hitchcock writer.

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

It Happened One Christmas

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Why yes I do cry like a baby over it’s a Wonderful Life: every time. That ending is such a huge release after such as a dark and depressing alternative reality. I’m always left shaken up by it and need a break before I can watch another movie as well as making me want to make amends with loved ones. I’m sure everyone who watched It’s a Wonderful Life thinks to themselves what the world would be like if they were never born. The struggle of George Bailey is relatable to a wide spectrum, and I know for myself it really hits home. Being stuck in a dead end town and feeling you will bust if you don’t get away from it; having your life not going the way you intended it to while your siblings appear to be doing so much better than you. But in at the end George Bailey realises what he’s got when it’s all gone, above it all, God’s greatest gift. It’s a Wonderful Life takes placed in a world in which God exists (and can focus his time on this one person over the rest of the world, but I digress). I’ve never felt however for It’s a Wonderful Life to have a religious agenda, it’s merely just a plot device for the film’s fantasy elements.

Lionel Barrymore’s performance as Henry F. Potter I feel is a tie between his brother John’s roles in Twentieth Century as the best performance from the Barrymore clan. Potter is one of the biggest douche bags in movie history; the archetype evil business mogul and ripe for comparisons with real life figures. In 2012 it was Mitt Romney, in 2016 it’s Donald Trump. Not only has he no charitable side, he directly steals money in order to destroy his competition. Unlike other screen villains, Potter does not get any comeuppance as the end of the film, although you could say he’s destiny as a sick, frustrated and lonely man who hates anyone that has anything he can’t have is punishment enough. Potter isn’t a total caricature though, he is more three dimensional than that. He’s a man who knows how to conduct and run a business and understands that high ideals without common sense could ruin a town. But George Bailey is no fool, he is a natural born leader, even if he doesn’t realise it. He stands up to Potter without giving it a second thought, runs a building and loan which is a real estate empire itself; even his father states to him that he was born older than his brother.

Moments like the make shift honeymoon suite in the broken down house which they later make their own or the recurring gag with the mantle at the end of the stairway represents the kind of writing which elevates It’s a Wonderful Life above the majority of other movies. Like the greatest of films you notice something new on every viewing. Likewise nobody can do moments of intimacy like Frank Capra, the movie is full of scenes in which it is simply two actors talking with no background music, yet creates raw human emotional like no other. Take a scene such as George and Mary walking through a neighbourhood at night while George talks about his ambitions for the future, the rest of the world ceases to exist. Many will be quick to put down Capra’s work as so called “Capracorn” or as Potter puts it, “sentimental hogwash”. Get off your high horse and stop thinking you’re above such emotion – cinema is about the manipulation of emotions.

It’s hard not to feel sentimental for the representation of small town America on display. Bedford Falls itself is a town full of interesting and unique characters. It actually reminds me of The Simpsons. Potter himself is essentially the town’s own Mr Burns in The Simpsons – the people of Springfield hate Burns but are dependent on him for their energy needs. Likewise the people of Bedford Falls hate Potter and would be dependent on him for their housing if it wasn’t for the competition of the Bailey Building & Loan.

Due to its public domain status the film was shown on some TV networks in 24 hour marathons. I’d happily watch one of those network as I can’t stop watching It’s a Wonderful Life no matter what point in the movie I begin. Could you get a more perfect marriage between actor and director than James Stewart and Frank Capra? Collaborating on a perfect trilogy of films, with each one better than the last. It’s a Wonderful Life? It sure is.

The Philadelphia Story (1940)

Another Philadelphia Experiment

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

At the beginning of The Philadelphia Story, Cary Grant pushes Katharine Hepburn to the ground by putting his hand in her face. With any other actor this would be a vile act against a woman but because it’s Cary Grant, it works and thus showing the power of these three acting titans, Hepburn, Grant and Stewart. The Philadelphia Story gives an insight into the lives of the rich and famous, something which would be harder to pull off in later decades not to come off as a metaphorical dick waving display of wealth. I do find myself trying to figure out why this is? Could it be the incredibly high standards of writing and filmmaking craft on display here and the love of these performers; even more so when compared to the poor standard of romantic comedies today?

Tracy Lord (Katharine Hepburn) is not a ditzy socialite. In this role written for Hepburn it’s clear that she is a symbol of first wave feminism; wearing pants and an emasculating suit and being an influence on her younger tomboy sister but more importantly it’s not to be undermined the complex characterisation of Tracy Lord. Like in Holiday, Grant and Hepburn share some very poignant and hard to decipher dialogue in which he tells her about her standing as a goddess and her lack of human frailty. Despite her ego, she claims in a sincere manner “I don’t want to be worshipped, I want to be loved”. Under the surface of the usual Cary Grant charm and elegance, C.K. Dexter Haven is one the darker characters Grant ever played. Apparently he “socked” Tracy on occasions, destroyed the cameras of multiple photographers on a boat and is a recovering alcoholic. This is Cary Grant at his most knieving with no remorse and enjoying it, displaying the darkly comic side of The Philadelphia Story.

However this is Stewart and Hepburn’s film. Macaulay Connor is the moral, do gooder James Stewart is known for (at least at the beginning that is); objecting to having been given the assignment of snooping in on the wedding of a Philadelphia socialite, as opposed to something with more journalistic integrity. He is appalled by the rich and their lifestyle but unlike Jefferson Smith he throws this out the window when he falls in love with Tracy; a piece of subtle cynicism on the movie’s part? I also really appreciate the relationship he shares with his work partner Liz Imbrie (Ruth Hussey). Her character is very cynical throughout most of the film but later reveals her more idealist side. She shares a platonic friendship with Macaulay but there are hints they have deeper feelings for each other. Virginia Weidler on the other hand is a real scene stealer. Just look at her speaking French in an overdramatic manner then singing Lydia the Tattooed Lady by the piano; a pointless scene but funny.

I can’t call The Philadelphia Story a predictable movie as I couldn’t see where the story was going at the end. I could have sworn she would end up with Jimmy but at the last minute and totally out of nowhere she goes with Cary and with it coming off as contrived. Likewise a drunken Stewart carrying Hepburn in his arms while singing Somewhere Over the Rainbow is surely one of the greatest things ever caught on celluloid.

No Highway In the Sky (1951)

Airplane!

After the war James Stewart expanded his range taking on a number of tough guy roles, mainly in westerns but would still return to his gawky boy next door persona which he first became famous for. In No Highway In the Sky he not only returns to the gawky persona, Stewart plays the most nerdy, socially awkward, slouched over, clumsy character.

No Highway In the Sky puts forth an idea of scientists requiring social isolation in order to do their work. As Stewart’s daughter who is destined towards the same life says, “The scientists do the thinking while we do the living”. The Jack Hawkins character represents the layman viewer, exploring this man’s odd but fascinating lifestyle and being bemused by the technical jargon. I don’t know how many real life scientists would appreciate this, but it makes for a fascinating character dynamic.

The section of the film on board the aeroplane is a predecessor to disaster movies to follow which would follow which would feature a diverse array of characters in danger. It is a cliché that the crazy or seemingly crazy one is the person who is right about an impending danger but it is cliché I admit to enjoying. I’m not an aviation expert so I can’t comment on the film’s scientific accuracy but as a lay viewer it did a good job at explaining the aeronautics involved and made it sound convincing; a real nail bitter of a film.

The Greatest Show On Earth (1952)

The Show Must Go On

The DVD release for The Greatest Show On Earth plays down its Best Picture win. Hang on, isn’t this supposed to be the highest accolade in the film world? Why would you downplay that your film won the award? Probably because the Academy Awards are a farce. Yeah, total shocker. I normally have a rule when reviewing movies not to mention the Oscars because I feel it is so redundant to do so. “How did this beat ‘x’ picture?”, “Why didn’t ‘x’ get an Oscar nomination?”, such tiring statements. Best Picture winners attract viewers to a film which they would unlikely watch otherwise and because of this many films get a bad reputation as the film which beat such and such for Best Picture.

The Greatest Show On Earth is one such film, made out to be worse than it is due to attracting an audience who would otherwise never watch it if it wasn’t for its Best Picture win. The Greatest Show On Earth is tons of fun; at times I had a care free feeling that I was at an actual circus, minus the smell of elephant dung. There is even an appearance of people wearing costumes of Disney characters; good luck trying to put that in a non-Disney film nowadays! The acrobatic scenes are suspenseful and you really get a sense of the scope and awe; the whole thing even feels like it has weight to it, so I can forgive the odd jumpy edit. You could look at it cynically and say it’s a commercial for Barnum and Bailey, well it’s a very entertaining commercial at that and a very informative one offering a documentary like look at how the circus operates. It’s not an easy job, therefore someone as commanding as Charlton Heston is perfect for the role as the person who runs the operations and pulls the strings behind the scenes. The movie packs alot of material into its run time and I felt like I got my money’s worth.

When your movie stars James Stewart (albeit a supporting performance), isn’t any surprise he’s the best aspect of the film. I believe his role of Buttons is an underrated performance of his and one of his most tragic. He has a permanent smile on his face (really, his make-up never comes off at any point), yet has a dark, troubled past. Ok its obvious symbolism but you can feel his pain throughout thanks to his quiet, subtle performance. As the movie progresses it takes a surprisingly dark turn, not only with the shockingly intense train wreck sequence, but also the implication that Buttons assisted his wife to kill herself, surprising that a mainstream blockbuster would have an assisted suicide subplot in an era controlled by censorship.

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.

The Shop Around the Corner (1940)

The Other Jimmy Stewart Christmas Movie

The Shop Around the Corner was the first Ernst Lubitsch film I saw and as soon as the characters started interacting with each other I instantly knew this was a guy who knew how to handle dialogue in what is referred to as the so called ‘Lubitsch Touch’. With such levels of subtly this is the kind of movie that needs to be watched multiple times and gets better every time you do so. Often there will be a verbal joke in which I am unaware it even is a joke and it will take a few seconds to catch onto it. Most of Lubitsch’s films where set in Europe as this was where he was from. The shop of Shop Around the Corner is in Budapest, Hungary. The world this movie is set was on the brink of destruction in 1940 but there is no mention of this in the film. Just like the how the film harkens back to a more peaceful time it also acts like a nostalgia portal to a time before the internet or big corporate businesses. A shop which is a physical, hands on and above all a communal experience. The shop is a world onto its own populated by unforgettable characters.

Like Lubitsch, most of Margaret Sullavan’s movies also took place in Europe, I don’t know of the reason for this however; a big coincidence or did she deliberately choose to star in movies with European settings? James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan aren’t remotely Hungarian but classic Hollywood movies aren’t exactly known for their realism in this regard. I also find it humorous how Klara is able to get a job by walking into a store and proving she is capable of selling items; if only it were that easy in real life!

The Shop Around the Corner is one of the prime examples of the classic “they hate each other but are really in love”; infact they really hate each other. Stewart’s Alfred Kralik is actually a real asshole; he’s brash and very opinionated. Likewise Margaret Sullavan isn’t a sexy, glamorous Hollywood star; Klara Novak is a down to Earth, intellectual. As the movie progresses you so badly want these two characters to end up together to the point that it hurts. These aren’t two performers with great chemistry, these are two performers with incredible lifelike chemistry which blends the dividing line between fiction and reality. If ever there was an on screen couple how where made for each other, this is it.

Rope (1948)

Is Murder an Art?

Rope is one of those rare movies which is totally engrossing within less than five minutes, no doubt in my top 5 films by the master himself. Hitchcock successfully recreates the theatrical experience for the big screen. The set of Rope looks a bit fake and washed out and even the colour cinematography has a washed out feel to it, this all being part of the charm of course. The actors strand in unnatural positions when talking, avoiding having their back facing the audience when speaking; unnatural for real life that is, normal for the warped reality of a stage play. Above all, the entire movie takes place in real time through a series of ten minute takes and all this happens while there is a dead body in the room.

The characters played by Farley Granger and John Doll as well as their teacher (James Stewart) hold a Nazi like ideology that murder is “an art a few superior beings should be allowed to practice”, rather than those such as say, people who are Harvard undergraduates. The character’s discussion on the justification for murder is chilling as they make it sound scarily convincing. Rope is based a true story from the 1920’s and adapted into a play in 1929 although it’s clear the movie is set during the period it was made due to the fashions and the mentioning of movie stars from the era. It does seem unlikely in the aftermath of the atrocities during the Second World War that people would be so openly discussing such fascist ideas which were more common in the United States during the 20’s and 30’s.

The movie is about homosexuality although I didn’t catch onto this. I’m not the best person when it comes to identifying gay characters unless they’re really gay (hey sisters!). I’ve heard criticism of Stewart being miscast in the role as he apparently doesn’t make a convincing gay character thus the homosexual love triangle from the play is not present in the film. Judging the film on its own merits however Rope is a major step in his evolution as an actor, away from his gawky roles he was known for up until this point. His breakdown at the end is one of the acting highlights of his career and gives me the chills watching it.