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The Godless Girl (1929)
more sophisticated than the usual DeMille
This is a surprisingly complex film with stunning cinematography and terrific performances.
The opening titles tell us "It is not generally known that there are Atheist Societies using the schools of the country as their battle-ground--attacking, through the Youth of the Nation, the beliefs that are sacred to most of the people," adding "And no fanatics are so bitter as youthful fanatics." This leads the viewer to believe that the film is likely to be polemical and mainstream, but it takes a few switches along the way.
Our leads are introduced, "Judy, daughter of Atheism...Bob, son of Gospel...Intolerance vs. Intolerance," and immediately we see that conventions are going to be overturned, and extremism of every kind rejected. Bob (the extremely handsome Tom Keene. ne George Duryea) and Judy (the sultry, zaftig Lina Basquette,who was apparently Hitler's favorite American actress) are drawn to each other, despite their contempt for the others' views. They clash as Tom's true believers try to shut down a meeting of Judy's Godless Society ("Kill the Bible"). In the mêlée, a young girl falls through a top-storey banister to her death. Most of the kids flee, but Bob and Judy run to her side, and with Bob's friend, the bozo "Bozo," are taken in by the authorities and sent to reformatories.
Here, Judy is befriended by the pious Mame (marvellously portrayed by Marie Prevost), and both Bob and Judy are put through various trials by the guards and matrons, notably the guard captain played by Noah Beery. Mame's goodness drives the first cracks through Judy's atheist certainty, and this is aided in no small part by the heavy-handed device of crosses burned onto Judy's palms by an encounter with an electrified chain-link fence.
There is some unintentional meta black comedy in a scene where Judy and Mame are working in the reformatory butchery: Mame drapes some freshly-made sausages around her like strings of pearls and shows off for Judy. "I'm just puttin' on a little dog!" says Mame, played by Marie Prevost who would die of malnutrition in her apartment and end up gnawed by her starving pet dachshund before her body was discovered.
Bob plans a daring escape for himself and Judy and, while at liberty in an orchard, they discover not only that they are in love but that their rigid certainties have undergone some changes. Judy has begun to see a higher power operating behind the world's glory, and Bob's world view has darkened, acknowledging a level of evil that can not simply be sung away with hymns. This, again, is conveyed rather heavy-handedly, as they show their prisoner numbers transform with a single pencil-stroke into the words HELL (Bob's 7734) and LOVE (Judy's 3107).
But their idyll is short-lived; they're captured and returned to prison, where each is locked in solitary. An accidental fire in the girl's section leads to Bob's release to help quench the flames, but Judy is forgotten below. Bob tussles with the Guard Captain and leaves him in the fire while he releases Judy. Beery calls out, "Save me, kids--don't let me burn!" Bob, grown darker, is ready to leave him there to die, but the redeemed Judy cries out, "Don't judge him, Bob--SAVE him!" They do, and Beery recommends their release. Happy ending.
The print I saw on TCM was pristine and sharp--as clean and beautiful a if it had been shot yesterday, which really enhanced the beauty of the riot scene, the orchard idyll, and the suspenseful climactic fire. Carl Davis' new score was stirring, but his use of a leitmotiv clearly lifted from Paul Simon's "An American Tune" was extremely distracting.
The first comment, below, from 2003, describes a sexual dimension to the film which I failed to see (although there's a lovely scene in the orchard where Bob expresses a desire to live for today (i.e., "let's have sex") and Judy responds with her belief in a tomorrow that should keep today unspoiled (i.e., "no")). But then the commenter also mentions the sound-enhanced final scenes which, according to TCM, do exist, but in re-shot scenes which are not part of this restored print.
It's wonderful that TCM and the George Eastman House brought this film back to life. It can be seen on DVD in the collection "Treasures III: Social Issues in American Film" but I don't know if it has this version from DeMille's own nitrate print. It's worth seeing, if only because the conflict between non-believers and believers still rages today, and both sides could use a little of the tolerance this film preaches.
The Happy Time (1952)
A coming of age tale that is beyond charming
Three generations of French film charisma come together in this marvelous film about a family of French Canadians living in Ottawa (not Quebec!). Charles Boyer, in one of his earliest "character" roles after decades of being a leading-man lover, joins the up-and-coming Louis Jourdan and the old theatrical hand Marcel Dalio to make up the Bonnard family: Grandpere (Dalio) lives with Jacques (Boyer), his wife Susan (Hunt), and their son, Bibi (Driscoll). Jacques' bibulous, layabout brother Louis (Kasznar) lives across the street, with his shrewish, seamstress wife Felice and their possibly unmarriageable daughter. Desmonde, the third brother, is a traveling salesman with a rakish reputation--not unlike his father--who stays with Jacques' family when he's in Ottawa and who is a hero in the eyes of Bibi.
The story itself is small: Desmond comes to stay; Jacques, who plays violin and conducts the orchestra in a small burlesque and movie house, brings a sacked magician's assistant home to be the new maid; Louis storms out of his home and moves in on Jacques' porch; Grandpere falls ill; and Bibi deals with troubles at school and in the heart. But the writing and characterization are so true to life and moving that one gets utterly caught up.
The movie was based on a successful Broadway play (with Kasznar reprising his stage role, along with the young actress who plays girl-next-door Peggy), which in turn was based on a series of stories by Robert Fontaine about his own growing-up. The atmosphere is imbued with a certain French sophistication, but even more with the love and compassion all these members of the family have for each other. The conversation that the father, Jacques, has with his adolescent son, Bibi, as he tries to explain the tension between love and desire could be used successfully as a template for any such talk in any family on earth. But it is not just moving; much of the dialogue is as funny as in any family comedy you can think of.
I had never heard of this film, and only discovered it via Turner Classic Movies guest programmer. Sadly, it is not available in any video medium; I can't think of a better family film. If it comes around again on TCM, be sure to give it a try!
Blind Date (1934)
Triumph of love
Working girl Kitty (Sothern) is engaged to Bill (Kelly), who neglects her by working long hours at his garage in order to save money for their marriage. After being stood up on her birthday, Kitty goes on a double-date/blind date, where she meets department store heir Bob Hartwell (Hamilton). She falls in love, but leaves him when his protestations of love appear to cover a desire for her to be his mistress, rather than his wife. Faithful Bill rallies 'round to comfort her, and at last she gives in to his repeated requests to reinstate their engagement, pressured in part by Bill's support of her family after she loses her job. When Bob returns, however, convinced that he wants marriage after all, will Kitty follow her heart or her conscience?
This film was a lot better than I'd expected it to be. The character of Bill at first comes off as the sort of loud comic Irishman type that Jack Carson played so often. But Kelly (and the script) infuse the character with real compassion and love, and Bill turns out to be the best person in the entire group. Viewers may find themselves rooting for him against the feckless Hartwell! The tone of the film wavers, however, between light-hearted romance and a much darker side, especially in the depiction of a dance marathon and a rather horrific accident at Bill's garage.
The cast is rounded out by the dependable Jane Darwell as Kitty's mother, an impish but not yet thoroughly obnoxious Mickey Rooney as Kitty's younger brother, and Spencer Charters as Kitty's ne'er-do-well father.
Party Girl (1930)
Dreadful, but not dreadful enough to be delicious
Douglas Fairbanks jr had already been in the movie business for 14 years when he made this film, despite being a youthful 21 years old. Although he would go on to become one of the more delightful actors of the '30s and '40s, he shows little promise of that here, nor any sign of talent acquired during his previous 25 films.
A prologue announces the virtuous intention of depicting a moral scourge so that an informed public can combat it--but this is clearly just a CYA that allows the intriguingly-named "Personality Pictures" company to run this cheesy exploitation flick past the already toothless production code office.
Maude Lindsay (Almeda Fowler) runs a "party girl" service for business functions, and she tries to send her hootchiest coochies to the United Glass soiree. (The only real humor in the entire film comes from her secretary continually addressing her as "Madame Lindsay," and Lindsay admonishing her, "Don't call me madam!") John Rountree is an upright business man who wants to work with the district attorney to eliminate the party girl influence on doing business; his son Jay (Fairbanks) is a ne'er-do-wheel frat boy in love with dad's secretary, Ellen (Jeanette Loff)--a girl with a secret.
Jay and his frat brothers crash the United Glass party, and a drunken Jay is trapped by a party girl, herself in a delicate situation.
The usual confusion ensues.
As the previous commenter notes, the sound quality is abysmal, but it may be just as well--the dialogue is no great shakes. There are certain scenes painful in their laughableness, especially the death scene of a tender young thing who's fallen 6 stories, and yet appears not to have a scratch on her.
It's a dreadful film, and not even dreadful in that delicious "so bad it's good" sort of way.
Should Ladies Behave (1933)
Alternating witty and dreadful
By the end of the first 15 minutes, we've been introduced to three couples: Gussie and Laura (Lionel Barrymore and Alice Brady), Leone and Geoff (Mary Carlisle and William Janney), and Max and Winkie (Conway Tearle and Katharine Alexander). Gussie and Laura have an unpleasant-appearing marriage, with Gussie irritable and Laura flightier than a very, very flighty Billie Burke. Leone is dissatisfied with the Callow Geoff. Winkie, who we'll learn is Leone's oft-married sister, is having an affair with artist Max, who is introduced to, and entranced by, Leone.
Winkie arranges a rendezvous for Max and herself at Gussie and Laura's place, where Max falls further victim to Leone's innocent charms while the vapid Laura believes that he has come back to claim her after a promise she recalls him making to her 25 years ago.
Gussie's aggravation with Laura becomes tiresome to the viewer, and Laura's ditziness does so as well. Max's instantaneous enthrallment by the unrealistically child-like Leone (who still retreats to her almost life-sized doll-house under stress) rings as false and stagy as one might expect from something based on an early-20th-century stage play. But through the viewer's frustration there are glimmers of real quality. Winkie is a great character and Alexander does her wonderful justice. Gussie's scenes with Leone, especially when he tries to talk her out of her plans with Max, are very moving--as is Laura's attempt to do the same.
It's difficult to recommend such a spotty film, but it's almost worth it for Geoffrey's solution to his relationship problem and, especially, the wonderful reveal at the very end.
I found myself liking this film far more than it deserved. And the Adrian gowns are fantastic--especially Laura's black gown with the open shoulders.
Souls for Sale (1923)
A truly enjoyable romp down Hollywood's memory lane comes to us courtesy, really, of Turner Classic Movies' "Young Film Composers Competition." The latest winner, Marcus Sjowall, was given the opportunity to provide a score to a silent film that had lost its own, and a very fine job Mr Sjowall did, too.
In 1923, Rupert Hughes directed this production of his eponymous novel. The scandals of the very early 1920s had evidently been on his mind, and Hughes wanted to counteract all that bad publicity. He acknowledges the scandals, then sets out to surmount them with title-card after title-card describing the long hours and hard work of Hollywood's employees, going so far at one point as to describe the work as "factory-hard," which must have been startling to young girls slaving away in sweatshops for pennies a day.
The story that conveys this message of virtuousness in Babylon concerns one Remember "Mem" Stodden, the daughter of a reverend who denounces Hollywood from his pulpit. Mem has married Owen Scudder in haste, but does not plan to repent at leisure--she hops from their train on the honeymoon trip. Stumbling through the desert, Mem collapses on the location set of a sheikh film (just as Eddie Cantor would do 14 years later, in "Ali Baba Goes to Town"), where she attracts the attention of the leading man. She shuns the film folk, though, and goes to work at a small hotel, but is laid off at the end of the season.
She decides to try her hand at the movies after all, and this begins perhaps the oddest part of the film. Successive scenes show movie people at work--directors, actors, cameramen, extras--and clearly this is Hughes at work, rehabilitating his coworkers. This is neither about the Glamour Factory nor an industry expose; it's more of a big infomercial for the movie business. It's fascinating to note which real-life stars are still recognizable today, and which prompt a confused, "Who??" Which isn't to say that Hughes doesn't get his digs in here and there. The vamp, the sheikh, the publicity shots that create a myth, the national screen sweetheart who's maybe just a little bit catty in real life--Hughes captures it all. My favorite set piece of this kind is Mem's screen test: she watches in the screening room in horror as she mugs and prances about on-screen, just as many silent actors of her era did: "Has anyone ever been so terrible on film"? Another nice one is Reverend Steddon's stunned reaction when he runs up to Mem on a circus picture set only to find a stunt man dressed in aerialist drag.
These scenes of Hollywood life are intercut with the travels of Owen Scudder, who is, it turns out, a wanted man, a Bluebeard who marries then kills. We see him court another victim, and later get very satisfactorily hoist with his own petard. Eventually, he reads about his wife's success, and comes to Hollywood to cash in.
This creates a kind of love rectangle, made up of Mem, her director, her leading man, and her no-good husband, all of which is satisfactorily settled in the dramatic closing scenes.
The film has had a lot of work done--many of its title cards seem to have gone missing, and the ones that are substituted often have modern-sounding phrasing, which led me to wonder if we were getting the same story as was originally told. The score is superb: evocative and subtle. The print is choppy; at one point a brief scene is inserted of one of Scudder's victims without context or explanation, and that can get a little disconcerting.
But it's an interesting film, funny and touching in many places, and a wonderful evocation of time and place.
Stamboul Quest (1934)
Better than I'd expected
I watched this more for Myrna Loy than for George Brent, whom I'd always considered wooden and stolid. Imagine my surprise to see a playful, puppyish Brent, with only a few small foreshadowings of his priggish side.
Myrna Loy is even more beautiful than usual, in a series of spectacular gowns (most notably one that is backless, nearly sideless, with a front that consists mostly of a flower, two rhinestone straps, and good intentions). She plays a German counter-espionage spy, Fraulein Doktor, who is notorious in many countries for her skill at getting information. It is clear that she didn't mind using sex to do so, which must have made negotiations with the Hays Office more fraught than usual.
There was a real Fraulein Doktor, who had run a school for spies in Belgium. She was still alive when the film was made (though suffering from drug addiction in a Swiss sanitorium), so the writers and producers had to tread carefully in their depiction of her. Loy's trademark sang-froid serves her well as she jokes about missions with her boss (the excellent Lionel Atwill), manipulates targets, and deals with the smitten Brent. The plot twists and twists and then twists a final time (just when you think you've anticipated the double-crosses, there's one last to surprise you). The cautionary references to Mata Hari help ground the story in its historical context.
The cast is great fun, with Mischa Auer as an efficient aide-de-camp, Leo G Carroll as a double-agent, and the wonderfully villainous C. Henry Gordon as Fraulein Doktor's main target.
The end, however, is simply odd. One hardly knows what to make of that final scene--it seems almost like an hallucination. Its unsatisfactory cap to the movie led me to give it a lower rating than I would have otherwise.
Eternal Love (1929)
Pretty people in a Lubitsch silent
The problem with silent films, often, is that techniques or stories that seemed innovative at the time are old-hat and clichéd by the time a modern audience sees them. While the story of "Eternal Love" falls into that category of cliché--if you can't tell what's going to happen next at any given moment, you haven't seen enough movies--it's redeemed by its sets, its performances, and its director.
Those familiar with John Barrymore from his talking-picture roles, when mostly he was playing a caricature of himself, will be taken aback at his handsome intensity (except when he's wearing too much make-up). The two female leads, Camilla Horn and Mona Rico, are beautiful as well, although of the ice-queen and the lusty peasant varieties: Horn is like a Raphael Madonna, while Rico is more of a Caravaggio.
So, Barrymore loves Horn, while Rico lusts for Barrymore--and poor Victor Varconi moons after Horn in the background. Just as Horn gets her guardian's consent to a marriage with Barrymore, however, strong drink and a willing woman trap Barrymore into a marriage with Rico. (It is somehow unsurprising that strong drink should be Barrymore's downfall.) Varconi gets to comfort the grieving Horn--but how will it all end? Well, badly.
Along the way, however, Lubitsch manages some nice comic touches--especially at a village carnivale, to which Barrymore wears a pair of checked bell-bottoms that would have been at home in Haight-Ashbury during the Summer of Love. And he gets terrific performances out of his actors, especially Varconi, who throws a wonderful sidelong glance at Barrymore during the trapped man's nuptial procession. Varconi and Horn also have some terrific moments when Horn betrays her still-burning love for Barrymore after she learns he's missing in a mountain blizzard.
The movie is short and the scenery is magnificent, so if the prospect of some big stars in their prime isn't enough, there's plenty to fall back on!
A Cock and Bull Story (2005)
Film version of a possibly unfilmable--some might say unreadable--novel
Just saw this at the New York Film Festival, where it was met with the wild enthusiasm and raucous laughter it so fully deserves.
I intentionally avoided reading any reviews before I went, as I was so curious to see how Winterbottom (whose "24-Hour Party People" I had loved) would approach this bear of a book.
The film begins with the two stars getting made-up and chatting about the size of their roles and the color of their teeth (the actors, who appeared with Winterbottom in the post-screening Q&A at the festival, assured the audience that this opening scene, as well as their conversation over the end credits, was completely improvised). The scene shifts to Tristram Shandy beginning the narration of his life with an anecdote about Groucho Marx--and proceeds to go wild from there.
The cast is made up of some of the finest actors in British television--apart from the two leads, Dylan Moran of "Black Books" and David Walliams of "Little Britain" appear, as well as Stephen Fry, Shirley Henderson, and a host of others, including a splendid turn by Keeley Hawes in a role that consists of little more than labor pains and screaming--and one American: Gillian Anderson in a couple of wonderful scenes, one as herself and the other as the Widow Wadman.
As one of the actors observes in the film, Laurence Sterne had written "a post-modern novel before modernism had even been invented," and Winterbottom honors that admirably.
Four Men and a Prayer (1938)
Preposterous but occasionally entertaining
Four brothers receive telegrams from their father, telling them he has been dishonourably discharged and bidding them meet him at their home. They arrive to learn that he has the evidence to prove he was framed in his court-martial, but before the end of the evening Father has been murdered in his locked study, and his papers stolen. The four brothers fan out across the globe in search of the four men their father mentioned who might be able to prove his innocence--sort of an inverted version of the Four Feathers.
The brothers, played by George Sanders, David Niven, William Henry, and Richard Greene (who, from a distance, looks oddly like Brendan Fraser), are staunch in support of their dishonored father (played by the only actor who could command unquestioning faith in his military honor: C. Aubrey Smith). In their travels, they are haunted by Greene's irritating American girlfriend, played by Loretta Young as not much more than a series of costume changes (she shows up in some of the oddest hats imaginable, and one fur-trimmed number that makes you wonder if she's a Plushy fetishist--she does make up for it, however, in a lovely gown-to-watch-revolutions-by). Perhaps her most far-fetched moment, however, is her light-hearted banter after an evening of watching a military massacre.
Along the way, the tone of the movie changes almost as often as Young's wardrobe. You think you're in a sort of amateur detective yarn, and suddenly you're watching innocent peasants mowed down by the military. The director, John Ford, is quoted in the AFI Catalog as having said, "I just didn't like the story, or anything about it, so it was a job of work." His lack of passion really shows.
But the chaotic story (filled with pointless red herrings, such as the role Young's father may or may not have played in the evil-doings) does have some wonderful light moments, most of them provided by Niven, who is just delightful throughout: conversing with a boat steward in Donald Duck voices, playing with rubber toys, mocking Henry's incipient whiskers, roughhousing with his brothers when they reunite on a boat dock. These touches make the film less painful than it would be otherwise. The wonderful George Sanders, however, is painfully underutilized.