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Ann Vickers (1933)
Never less than notable
It is doubtful if, at this point in time, anyone needs to be reminded of the consistent excellence of the versatile Irene Dunne, whose presence enhanced drama, comedy and musical films for many years. ANN VICKERS recalls to us how effective her subtle talent was even early in her career, playing a character alternately strong and vulnerable in a story too crowded with incident to give its major players the room they require to draw the characters fully. As a capable and resolute professional woman involved in social work and prison reform, Dunne's title character is curiously susceptible to the less-than-worthy men she finds more appealing than the steady earthbound types she encounters but does not favor. This contradictions accounts for a large part of the interest in her character, discreetly but firmly abetted by the nuances of yet another outstanding performance. Irene Dunne is perhaps the most reliable of all leading ladies. If you share the admiration of many for her work, this somewhat obscure picture will not disappoint you.
That Girl from Paris (1936)
Perhaps it made sense from a commercial standpoint: bringing a great lady of the opera, Lili Pons, to a level at which the public could more easily relate to her - perhaps even to identify with her in some respects. The result, ideally, would have been to create a leading lady in films who sang divinely as she was surrounded by "us." Miss Pons gave it her best try - here and elsewhere - but it just didn't work. Most unfortunately, the filmmakers effort to generate the common touch involved presenting her in the most commonplace outfits, makeup and coiffure, downplaying the "glamour" associated with grand opera. Supporting her with the buffoonery of Jack Oakie and his cohorts, having her hiding under blankets, climbing here and there, etc. doesn't register either. Though no beauty, Lili Pons can radiate elegance and charm (along with her great vocalizing), as she does, in full costume, when she sings "Una voce poco fa" in this picture. Her movies don't give us enough of the Lili Pons that made her a stage presence, and might have made her a screen presence. To have her play against (her own) type - here and elsewhere - was a mistake.
Saturday's Children (1940)
Light as a feather
The picture is consistently out-of-joint as a result of the filmmakers' decision to deal with some rather substantial issues (marriage, poverty, ambition) as themes appropriate for a lighthearted, quasi-comic treatment. Smiling and accepting throughout, the characters suffer no more than mildly bruised feelings before turning their thoughts toward supposedly better days ahead. Seemingly, just about any setback can be overcome by optimism, however groundless, and an acceptance of whatever it is that life holds. That such naive characters would presume to counsel one another verges on the ludicrous. None is a success, all have been manipulated by others and by the vicissitudes of life itself - apparently without having learned a thing from their experiences. The wisest, most thoughtful of them all, played by Claude Rains, has good advice for his family, but has achieved no measure of success. Anne Shirley, sweet and innocent, lacks the wherewithal to come to grips with life. The foremost liability here is the egregious miscasting of John Garfield as a wide-eyed, vacuous sap who, for all intents and purposes, might have been born yesterday. What may have been meant to be a refreshing change from his familiar type of character results in a role which is not beyond him, but beneath him.
Out of the Fog (1941)
Doesn't adapt well
In spite of the effort to "open up" what had originally been a play, this drama, like so many other adaptations, remains stagebound and static. Even with imaginative sets, camera work and lighting, the scenes are essentially conversations: two (sometimes three) people talking, each representing a viewpoint in the story's conflict among moralities - scenes that are all but devoid of physical action, unless you count lighting cigarettes as action.
As for the characters themselves, they are largely one-dimensional, and unconvincingly unworldly for big-city people of the late 1930s. I found the Ida Lupino character hardly credible in her inability to resist the lure of small-time thrills promised by a fling with Goff: she does in fact resist him initially, she is gently warned about his likes by her father, with whom she has an excellent relationship, and despite her yearning for something more than what she has, Goff is no different from scores like him that she would have seen come and go over the years.
Lupino and Garfield are cast as "types," resulting in neither having an opportunity to utilize their considerable talents. Eddie Albert, as he so often does, plays an ineffectual nice guy. Aline McMahon is a complaining wife, a role that seems to have no particular function in the story. The honors do indeed go to Thomas Mitchell and John Quaylen, who make the most of characters given an opportunity to weigh things in the balance, change their minds, and act according to their principles. Even so, the "comical" closing scene is out of keeping with the overall mood of the picture.
The Outfit (1973)
Reminiscent of numerous crime/suspense/action pictures from the 1940s on, the most surprising thing about this one is having Robert Duvall in the leading role: then (1974), as now, one of our most talented and memorable character actors, but playing a part that denies him the use of the nuances and subtleties of performance that distinguish his work - an unchallenging role which many others could have played as well because it is so undemanding.
The story itself is the stuff of pulp fiction: unsavory characters, betrayal, revenge, double-cross, triple-cross; the action often strains credibility, what with people turning a corner a split second too early or too late, someone being in the wrong (right) place at the wrong (right) time, a hail of bullets missing the intended target while a single shot in the opposite direction is fatal. B pictures aren't expected to offer much more than that, but THE OUTFIT has a solid cast and crisp direction, generating the expectation (unwarranted, as it turns out) of something more than routine. All the characters are pawns of the plot: one-dimensional, unmotivated beings who never reveal what brought them to lives of coldblooded duplicity and degradation. They are presented to us fully formed (by greed, for the most part), and do not change in the least from beginning to end.
Robert Duvall was already highly regarded when this picture was made (post-GODFATHER). It is difficult to imagine what he felt a potboiler such as this would do for his career. Maybe he was as disappointed with the result as I was.
Laughing Sinners (1931)
Not bad.....if you can believe it
A curious mixture of grit and fluff that doesn't work because of their incompatibility. Best is the rendering of the traveling salesman's grubby milieu: booze, poker games, floozies, boredom, played out in second-rate hotels and saloons. Though seemingly at home on the perimeter of these surroundings, cabaret singer and dancer Ivy (Joan Crawford) is incredibly naive, believing she has found fidelity and true love in her affair with the sleaziest of the traveling men. When he jilts her, she chooses suicide - until saved, at the last instant, by a cloyingly sanctimonious Salvation Army worker, Carl (played by a badly miscast Clark Gable), who persuades her that, whatever her mistakes, she has much to live for. Ivy devotes herself to the Army's mission, finds fulfillment and inner peace - until a chance encounter with her devious former lover causes her to fall by the wayside once again - until the latter's confrontation with Carl causes her to be saved once again - this time for keeps (we are meant to believe), as Ivy and Carl literally walk off into the sunset. It's all a bit much.
Guy Kibbee and Roscoe Karns score highest as a couple of washed-out drummers, present and future. An added bonus is Joan's very appealing "eccentric" dance routine. But her character, around which the story revolves, is simply too extreme and inconsistent to be convincing.
Cain and Mabel (1936)
See for yourself...or don't bother
By this point in time, Marion Davies has received an honest evaluation as a performer: far from being a hopeless, no-talent Susan Alexander who appeared before the public solely through the wealth and ego of Hearst, she was nevertheless overmatched in many of her roles, displaying the abilities of a competent supporting player if the material were not too challenging.
Casting her in CAIN AND MABEL was a mistake. She has no discernible flair for comedy, her timing being awkward, her gestures and facial expressions being studied, rather than natural. If in fact it is her own singing voice that we hear, its lack of expressiveness is thankfully limited to a few bars. Being a former hoofer, Davies might be expected to acquit herself with some distinction as a featured dancer, but in fact in her one extended number here, her nimble and stylish male partner, Sammy White, rather than making her look good, illustrates just how numerous her limitations were. Further along, there is a balletic production number in which she poses gracefully in the close and medium shots, while the challenging movements and steps are all photographed in long shots, obviously performed by a double.
The story is trite and flimsy - not at all the screwball comedy it was clearly intended to be. Roscoe Karns and Allen Jenkins perform their characteristic screen roles, while Walter Catlett and Ruth Donnelly are unfortunately kept somewhat under wraps. Caught in the midst of all this - but doing his earnest best, as usual - is Clark Gable.
Postscript: Is it a fact that Hearst issued an order that Miss Davies was not to be kissed on the lips? In the half-dozen or so romantic clinches that follow the leading players' confession of their mutual love, Gable kisses her on the cheek and on the chin, getting as close to her mouth as possible, but clearly off-target.....like a number of other things in this forgettable picture.
Emperor of the North Pole (1973)
A sage opined many years ago that all the stories had already been written: with slight variations and changes of locale, the closest thing to an "orginal" may result. This is borne out by EMPEROR OF THE NORTH, a story whose fundamentals have graced many a Western, whose character types have appeared frequently in not only Westerns, but crime movies, boxing films, and a variety of others not so easily typed - including costume pictures with swords and daggers as the weapons of choice. You can be sure there will be a fight to the finish at the end - and there is.
So this time it's hoboes and railroad men. Though set in the Great Depression, the era seems almost an afterthought: there is no sense of desperation, the vagrants (considering their status) are relatively clean and decently dressed, and most appear to have a fair amount of spending/betting money on hand. From time to time they awkwardly lapse into hobo and railroad lingo which is delivered in a stiff, almost Shakespearean manner - i.e., about as far removed from everyday speech as one could imagine.
There are repetitions of episodes central to the story, and no effort to explain the source of the Borgnine character's intense sadism. The baptism scene, doubtless intended to be amusing, is totally gratuitous, as there was no need for Lee Marvin to be a participant in order for him and his partner to steal the others' clothing.
Good tracking shots and an effective (if overdone) use of extreme closeups, but this unoriginal adventure deserves its place in semi-obscurity.
Girl Crazy (1932)
It is not easy to turn GIRL CRAZY into a disaster, given the Gershwin score and a somewhat serviceable plot - but the creators of this version have succeeded in doing just that. There were six writers given screen credit for this scenario: perhaps that was the problem, or maybe the screenplay was even worse until that number was reached.
The gags (can I call them that if they are not funny?) are so forced, so weak, so juvenile as to make an audience squirm. Wheeler and Woolsey were never worse; at their best (it says here) they were second-raters, with a very limited assortment of poses, gestures, and facial expressions. No one in this cast offers demonstrable talent. An amateur cast (and director) could have done more with the material (I've seen it happen). And let us not overlook totally mindless rendering of "I Got Rhythm" in the film's big production number.
Why did you tell me to watch this?
Stamboul Quest (1934)
Leave it in the vault
There has always been an audience for this type of picture: the exotic adventure filled with intrigue, shadowy motives, duplicity and questionable identities. The best of such films will also be somewhat credible; the lesser ones, such as this, will bear little relation to realistic characters or believable happenings (despite the claim that this was based on a true story).
STAMBOUL QUEST is a cinematic comic strip in which everything is subordinate to the plot. Unfortunately, that plot sorely lacks suspenseful or adventurous elements, so that even with its reliance on double and triple cross, invisible ink, temporary insanity and a backdrop of references to Mata Hari, there is little to provoke the viewer's interest.
Despite an exalted Hollywood reputation, screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz characteristically loads his films with uncinematic (and often lengthy) scenes of two characters in a room, talking...and talking. When the dialog is less than stimulating, as is the case here, the scenes are flat and the picture drags. Mankiewicz's approach is much better suited to the stage.
Myrna Loy does nicely with a part that requires her to keep her more intense emotions in check. But George Brent fails as an extroverted, happy-go-lucky American set in contrast to the formal, tradition-bound Old World characters who surround him; his high-spirited cavorting may be worthy of an adolescent, but would surely not generate feelings of love in Myrna Loy's worldly, self-possessed counterspy.
The main supporting roles are handled commendably by Lionel Atwill and C. Henry Gordon, both appearing in parts they have played on more than a few other occasions: the stiff, mannered European, and the wily, scheming Middle Easterner respectively.
There is not much to recommend this picture. It has been all-but-forgotten, and deservedly so.