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My Son John (1952)
An interesting movie torpedoed by its political pretensions
Since most of the political bellyaching about this movie seems to be coming from the self-righteous right, I'm going to ignore it and just talk about the film itself. What starts out as a well-acted exploration of family tensions - especially those between a relatively uneducated set of middle-class parents and their college-educated son - gives way to the clumsy, overwrought melodramatics of the second half of the film. The death of Robert Walker during filming doesn't really excuse or explain the awfulness of the last hour. There's an early scene between John and his mother in which he explains that his goals are the same as those of the Catholic Church in which they were both raised but that his methods are different. The fact that he is a Communist (McCarey and some of his apologists seem to suggest) means that those goals must be evil because the methods are evil. Just stop thinking for yourself; trust in God and the FBI. It's a dangerous message, and not all that far off from the one that the Communists drilled into their victims (for "God and the FBI" substitute "the Party"). Oh, well . . . I guess I couldn't avoid the political bellyaching.
The sad thing is that the lead actors are all so good. McCarey was brilliant at getting excellent naturalistic performances from his actors, and Helen Hayes, Robert Walker, Van Heflin and Dean Jagger are all extremely convincing until the film collapses into right-wing agitprop at the halfway mark. Even Hayes couldn't do much (except overact) with her climactic scene in which her character tries to use a football analogy to get her son to see the light.
The Grass Is Greener (1960)
Almost too sophisticated for its own good
This is one of the films Stanley Donen directed during his long sojourn in England. His previous one with Cary Grant, "Indiscreet," also starred Ingrid Bergman, and the two of them repeated their impeccable chemistry from "Notorious" ten years earlier in a very romantic and yet sophisticated comedy. "The Grass Is Greener" is, if anything, more sophisticated, almost stultifyingly so. It's obviously based on a stage play, fitted out with a handful of cinematic tricks that stick out like sore thumbs.
This cast could do no wrong, as far as I'm concerned, and they just about manage to make it work. Robert Mitchum is probably miscast, but he doesn't let it show, and his scenes with Deborah Kerr (the two of them made many films together and enjoyed one another's company) work beautifully. Cary Grant is impeccable, as always, although I can't help thinking that this really is Rex Harrison territory. And Jean Simmons is delightful - she really is a fairly underrated actress. Moray Watson also shines as the butler.
One question: why didn't the doctor every show up? (You have to watch the movie to the end to find out what I mean.)
The Beatles' sequel to "A Hard Day's Night" is a relentlessly silly spoof of spy thrillers, with an Indian cult headed by a manic Leo McKern (his character's name is Clang) pursuing Ringo, who is wearing their sacred ring and therefore must become a human sacrifice. Also in on the chase are an inept mad scientist (Victor Spinetti) and his even more incompetent assistant (Roy Kinnear), as well as Ahme (Eleanor Bron), a renegade member of the cult who is trying to protect the Beatles. Some of the gags are fun, David Watkin's cinematography is highly evocative (especially when the cast converges, for no good reason, on an Alpine slope), and the film contains some of the Beatles' best songs. But, unfair as it may be to compare it to "A Hard Day's Night," the fact is that "Help!" is more elaborate, more expensive, and less charming.
The Prime Minister (1941)
Half of a decent movie
"The Prime Minister" is Benjamin Disraeli, one of the most determinedly interesting figures of nineteenth-century England. This film is very obviously a piece of wartime propaganda, with a few bits of Socialist speechmaking tossed in as well. Many of Disraeli's famous witty quotes are included (to add authenticity, of course), the costumes and sets are reasonably lavish for a moderately-budgeted film, and the performances are more than adequate. The biggest problem is that the first half of the film is pretty bad, and it's Gielgud's fault. A great actor with a great voice, he had absolutely no idea how to play an ardently romantic young man in love and, given no help from the dialogue, comes off as stiff as a board. About halfway through the film, though, about 25 years in Disraeli's (and England's) life are passed over in a few explanatory titles, and Gielgud suddenly appears as a much older Disraeli, sporting a kind of inverted grin and made up to look remarkably like Raymond Massey as Abraham Lincoln. From this point on, Gielgud is in his glory - he's exciting to listen to, and his facial expressions are pricelessly funny. From this point on, the film picks up steam and doesn't lose impetus until the final frames.
The Thing from Another World (1951)
Better every time you watch it
My father served in the Navy during the Korean War. He told me that one night on the ship they showed "The Thing from Another World," and at the scene where a door is opened to reveal the monster standing on the threshold, an entire roomful of hardbitten American sailors screamed like teenaged girls. I'm not sure that would happen today, although the scene still provides a good shock if you're not expecting it, but Howard Hawks' film of "The Thing" is still one of the first and easily one of the best of the 1950s monster movies. Smart dialogue and good acting lift it above all the others (except perhaps "Them!").
Hawks (and the consensus is that the film was principally directed by Hawks himself, not by Christian Nyby, an editor who needed a director's credit on his resume) maintains suspense in the most simple and effective way: instead of constantly cutting away to show us what the monster is up to or where it is, Hawks keeps us with the band of soldiers and scientists trying to find it and destroy it, so that we don't know any more than they do. John Carpenter in his remake over a quarter-century later provides more special effects, but he doesn't hold the suspense as well.
The characters are well-fleshed-out stereotypes, and the film is as fine a display of good ensemble acting as you'll see in any film, let alone a monster film. For me, that's what makes the movie watchable many time over. And it's what makes "The Thing from Another World" a good film rather than a guilty pleasure.
Halfway down the list of "Scrooges"
This is a very odd film version of "A Christmas Carol," mostly worth watching, I suppose, for Sir Seymour Hicks's performance (he was a renowned stage actor, and renowned for this particular role). There is a long interpolated scene of the Lord Mayor giving a Christmas feast while poor children watch through the window that doesn't exist in the book, or in any other film version that I know of, and which seems to have eaten up the budget for the rest of the movie. The invisible Marley's ghost may have worked well on stage but is simply peculiar on celluloid. Most of the performances are acceptable, and this is by no means the worst of the seemingly billions of "Scrooges" available to film lovers, but I wouldn't put it in the same rank as the versions starring Alastair Sim or George C. Scott.
Four Sided Triangle (1953)
How not to make a science fiction film
"Four Sided Triangle" manages to do almost everything wrong. The story had possibilities: two childhood friends who have created a replicating machine fall in love with the same woman; she marries the first; the second decides to duplicate her, forgetting that the duplicate will have the same feelings as the original. It's a fairly simple story, and one that could have been handled nicely in a half-hour segment of "Twilight Zone." Here the writer and director managed to pad it out to 80 tedious minutes, beginning with a completely irrelevant description of the village in which the film takes place (sure, it seems a lovely village, but it plays absolutely no part in the plot, and after the first few minutes of travelogue, the film may just as well be taking place in New Jersey). The doctor (played inertly by James Hayter) is given a lot of narration, much of which is punctuated by platitudinous quotations from poetry. We watch the two scientists raise the money for the machine; we watch them gazing intensely at bubbling test tubes; we watch as they and the woman manipulate the machine, trying to drum up some suspense as to whether it will really duplicate the doctor's watch or not. It goes on forever. The story itself, apart from the cheesy window-dressing, doesn't begin until about the film is half over. The acting gets stagier, the pace gets choppier, the script gets clumsier. The scenes of the village at the beginning are nicely photographed. Otherwise, not one of Hammer's better offerings.
The Horror of It All (1964)
Even color wouldn't help this turkey
I have to disagree with the poster who suggested that "Horror of It All" is neglected because it was filmed in black and white. "Dr. Strangelove" and "A Hard Day's Night," two black and white films which came out the following year, didn't seem to suffer from the lack of color. "Horror of It All" is neglected because it's a stinker. Pat Boone was never a threat to Olivier, and here he is encouraged (or allowed) to overact embarrassingly. The sets are cheap, the costumes are cheesy and the script is awful. And Terence Fisher, a first-rate director of horror films, seemed to have no flair for comedy (and got no help from the script). Neglect in this case is benign.
Mary Poppins (1964)
A Great Film Even When You're Older
I saw this when it first appeared (I was about nine) and was completely swept away by it. I didn't see it again for about twenty-five years, but when I did I was completely swept away by it. I've now seen it at least ten times and am completely swept away by it every time. The combination of live action and animation is still awe-inspiring, as is Dick Van Dyke's Cockney accent, although in a different sense. Still, Van Dyke is superb, as is Julie Andrews. The set design is wonderful - everything looks the way an Anglophile would hope London might have looked in the Edwardian era, even if the reality was very different. The songs are some of the best ever written for the screen, and the dance of the chimney sweeps is still one of the most exciting things ever filmed. This film, unlike some of us viewers, actually improves with age.
The Best of the Scrooges
I remember first seeing this film on the "Million Dollar Movie" on Channel 9 in New York in the early 1960's. The "Million Dollar Movie" ran in the late afternoon, and showed the same movie, with the same breaks for the same commercials, every day for a week. It also made several cuts to fit the film into its time slot, so it wasn't for many years that I discovered that this "Scrooge" did not begin with Scrooge shooing away the carolers from his office door. Anyway, given its obviously low budget, it's a very well-made film (although watch the scene where the reformed Scrooge, cavorting around his bedroom, talks to himself in the mirror - in the reflection you can see a technician's head popping out once or twice from behind a curtain). The atmosphere is suitable dark (brightened up deplorably in the colorized version, which should be avoided), and most of the acting is at least good and at best excellent. Alistair Sim, an actor who was incapable of giving a bad performance, is extraordinarily fine in the title role. The George C. Scott is a very close runner-up to this one in the "Christmas Carol" stakes, and don't overlook Mr. Magoo's musical version, which has a superb score by Jule Styne and Bob Merrill. Still, this is the one that my family has watched every Christmas Eve for as long as I can remember.