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In director George Stevens, RKO Pictures had a craftsman behind the camera who was known for his ability to elicit sensitive performances from his actors. In Katharine Hepburn, Fred MacMurray and Hattie McDaniel, RKO had actors who were on the verge of being major stars. Stevens would go on to direct several remarkable movies including "A Place in the Sun," "I Remember Mama," and "Swing Time." Hepburn, MacMurray and McDaniel would go on to be... well, Hepburn, MacMurray and McDaniel. Given the level of talent at work on "Alice Adams," it's an inexplicable puzzle this movie turned out to be so god-awful. The fault, perhaps, lies in the story, by Booth Tarkington, from which the movie script was adapted. Tarkington's slice-of-life explorations of small-town, mid-western mores in the early years of last century have not weathered the intervening decades very well. "Alice Adams" follows the career of a young woman of modest means with gigantic social aspirations. In the title role, Hepburn gives an outrageously mawkish performance -- half tremulous maiden, half calculating man-trap. It's not attractive in the least. Pathos morphs quickly into bathos and rather than feel sorry for the sweet young thing, the viewer is more likely to want to shake her. We don't believe, for a second, that Fred MacMurray's character -- a decent and honorable young man -- could fall for such a chatty twit. The cast of the movie includes Fred Stone and Ann Shoemaker, who do their best with essentially one-dimensional characters, but the movie mopes and languishes on to its contrived (happy) ending and the moviegoer is ready for it all to finish long before it actually does. If you're a Hepburn or MacMurray fan, see "Alice Adams" just to be able to say you have seen it. Then, you'll never have to see it again for as long as you live.
In this engaging documentary film, director/writer Mary Murphy explores
both the background to and impact of author Harper Lee's enormously
influential and well-loved 1960 novel, "To Kill a Mockingbird." Drawing
upon a host of resources including: interviews with residents of Lee's
hometown of Monroeville, Alabama and personal friends of the author's;
film footage of civil rights demonstrations in the U.S. south during
the early and mid-1960's; commentary by a host of celebrities (Oprah
Winfrey, Tom Brokaw, Rosanne Cash, Anna Quindlen, Scott Turow and many
others); still photographs; and scenes from the 1962 movie starring
Gregory Peck, Murphy weaves together a compelling portrait of the
gestation of a literary novel. "To Kill a Mockingbird" -- which won a
Pulitzer Prize -- is one of those rare books that manages both to look
back in time to small-town southern life in the 1930's and also forward
to the racial and social issues surrounding the civil rights struggles
of the 1960's. It has rightly become a touchstone of American
literature in the 50+ years since its publication. It is to filmmaker
Murphy's credit that -- while not scanting the civil rights' issues the
book antedates -- she keeps the major focus of this 2010 film upon the
book and its author. By so doing, she manages to augment the viewer's
sense of the book's impact; understatement possesses a quiet power that
overblown rhetoric cannot touch.
At 78 running minutes, "Hey, Boo: Harper Lee and 'To Kill a Mockingbird'" is not a long film documentary, but it pulls the viewer in and commands attention. It is delightfully funny in some places (novelist Allan Gurganus' reminiscing about novelist Truman Capote -- a childhood friend of Lee's -- comes to mind); horrifying in others, and -- like the book it examines -- ultimately moving.
Well, yes. It certainly is. This 1936 Paramount feature, made and
released in an era when Hollywood scriptwriters evidently still
believed in the Mystery and Inscrutability of the Orient, has pretty
good cinematography (by Victor Milner), a fine musical score (by Boris
Morros) and, frankly, not much else. That's a fairly damning assessment
for a movie that also happens to star Gary Cooper and the lovely
Madeleine Carroll, but even those two were unable to bring this turkey
to life. Directed by Lewis Milestone and set in war-torn 1930's China,
"The General Died at Dawn" works overtime to be a hard-boiled thriller
about gun-running and double-crossing, but it doesn't gel. The movie
has great, gaping holes in its narrative line, for starters. Several
western actors also do impoverished turns playing Asian characters
(including Akim Tamiroff playing Chinese war-lord General Yang, and
Dudley Digges as the proprietor of a Shanghai hotel). But the single
worst feature of the movie is the howlingly bad, overwrought dialogue
supplied courtesy of Clifford Odets. As you watch the movie, you may
unwittingly find your lips moving, as you try to memorize the worst
phrases that Mr. Odets has penned for these characters to speak. It
might, however, be even better for you to keep a pad of paper and
pencil beside you as you watch; there are so many bad lines to choose
from and they follow so thick and fast, one after the other, that
you'll have to write them down just to remember them all. The real
problem is that Clifford Odets wrote dialogue that nobody would ever
say. Lord knows the actors do their best, and aren't to blame... but
what on earth was the studio thinking when it released this? There, now
-- doesn't that sound like an inducement to watch this movie?
There's sometimes a fascination in watching a truly bad movie (think "Dune" or the Elizabeth Taylor "Cleopatra" or insert your own favorite here: ________________). But "The General Died at Dawn" really doesn't qualify to breathe that rarified air. It's just too cringe-inducing. Don't believe me? Go. Watch. But don't say you weren't warned...
Although color film technology had been experimented with for some
twenty years before producer David O. Selznick decided to utilize it in
1936's "The Garden of Allah," it never achieved the lushness and depth
seen in this movie until the 3-strip color processing technique
patented by Technicolor came to the fore. And ravishing color is really
the best reason for seeing this movie. Even with Marlene Dietrich and
Charles Boyer as its stars, "The Garden of Allah" doesn't manage to get
off the ground. The beautiful score by Max Steiner, and creditable
cameo performances by C. Aubrey Smith, Joseph Schildkraut, John
Carradine and Basil Rathbone (among others) all do their best to lend
drama to what is essentially a slow, meditative potboiler with heavily
theological underpinnings, but alas, it's no go. The problem lies not
only in the tepid filmscript but with the decision to cast Dietrich and
Boyer in the roles of the star-crossed lovers. If there's one thing
both performers possessed in abundance, it was smouldering sex appeal.
In "The Garden of Allah," however, they're forced to play against type
as otherworldly characters with somewhat saintly pasts, and -- frankly
-- it doesn't click. It would be like casting Marilyn Monroe opposite
Clark Gable in a lavishly produced movie about the First Council of
Nicaea, and then expecting romantic sparks to fly. It would make no
sense, and the audience wouldn't buy it.
The color in "The Garden of Allah," however, truly gorgeous... soft and deeply saturated and glowing with inner fire. It almost makes the movie worth sitting through.
In a year that saw the release of "City Lights," "Little Caesar," and
"The Blue Angel," "Cimarron" was surely the oddest choice to win the
Academy Award for Best Picture, but win it did, although the award
failed to translate into big bucks at the box office. At over two
hours, the movie is both long (for its era) and strangely sluggish
given its action-packed western setting. Adapted from the novel by Edna
Ferber, "Cimarron" is interesting primarily for the celluloid collision
of two schools of cinematic acting. The first, exemplified by Richard
Dix playing two-fisted, editor-pioneer Yancey Cravat, is the school of
silent-film histrionics; the second, is the more naturalistic school of
screen acting which found in Irene Dunne (playing Dix's loyal wife,
Sabra) one of its more sensitive and enduring interpreters. The two
styles don't mix well. Dix is all ham and bluster; shaking his fists,
gesturing like a road-company actor playing Julius Caesar, casting his
eyes up to heaven and ringing the bells loudly on every emotional
change his character undergoes. Dunne, by contrast, engages in a
quieter duet with the camera; one that allows her character to develop
slowly over the course of the movie. The disparity between the two
styles is unsettling; the viewer is left with the impression of having
seen the same movie through two different sets of lenses. The fact that
"Cimarron" is both incredibly dated and blatantly racist doesn't help
All that said, however, the movie's still worth watching, if only as an example of an early Hollywood blockbuster epic. The opening "land rush" sequence (with a cast of thousands) is compelling and cinematically sophisticated, even by today's standards. And there are several worthwhile cameo turns including one by Edna May Oliver, who manages to steal every scene she's in.
"Rango" is a fascinating oddity: a meta-Western, heavily larded with irony, sarcasm, cliché, and adult sensibilities, couched in an animated film format that uses the time-honored (some might venture to say "time-worn") plot structure of a movie for children. There's little doubt that the movie possesses technical brilliance; the animation is dazzling and dazzlingly executed, as one would expect from this first, animated feature out of Industrial Light and Magic. Director Gore Verbinski keeps the film zipping along at breakneck speed and the longueurs are infrequent. BUT... for all its not inconsiderable entertainment value, "Rango" doesn't quite succeed as a movie. The problem lies primarily in its unsettling disjunction between message and medium. "Rango" sounds like a children's movie, looks like a children's movie, but isn't a children's movie. It attempts to encapsulate the naiveté and wonder that are the distinctive hallmarks of childhood, but constantly undercuts those qualities by its heavy use of ironic, self-reflecting commentary. Adults viewing it will enjoy toting up the movie's clever samplings of "oater" cliché from time immemorial. Their enjoyment of it will be magnified by their knowledge of "High Noon" and other western flicks. Children, who -- for the most part -- lack that cinematic context, won't get it. And, since the movie derives much of its generative power from that context, children seeing "Rango" will have to fall back on the action chase sequences and the toilet humor for enjoyment. I suppose, given the impoverished level of much of what passes for "children's entertainment" these days, that may be enough for some kids. But I suspect the makers of "Rango" were after something better and I wish their "grasp" had lived up to their "reach." It's a shame, but I'd guess that many adult movie-goers (who would enjoy the flick, if they saw it) will bypass "Rango," thinking it a children's movie; many children will see the movie and come away from it confused about what it means, however (briefly) entertained they may have been by its gaudy mayhem. "Rango," in brief, would be a better movie if its movie-makers had been less concerned with showing off how clever and cutting-edge they were and more concerned with how best to tell their story in ways that were both appropriate to and apprehensible by their intended audience. With an "A" for effort and technical achievement, "Rango," alas, only merits an overall, ungentlemanly "C."
The first, starring movie vehicle of a very young Barbara Stanwyck, "The Locked Door" isn't a good film, but still worth seeing for the magnetic aura that already surrounds its leading lady. This early "talkies" movie comes from the era when stage actors and silent film stars were just beginning to make the transition to sound and -- to tell the truth -- many of them hadn't yet found their "sea legs" on the sound stages of Hollywood. Histrionics more appropriate to the live stage are greatly in evidence in this predictable murder mystery, which perhaps isn't surprising given the fact that the movie was adapted from an earlier stage play. Particularly egregious in that regard are the performances of Stanwyck's co-stars, William Boyd and Rod La Rocque who indulge themselves in hammy, wooden (Boyd) and oily (La Rocque) characterizations. But there's a most entertaining cameo performance by Zasu Pitts as a telephone operator, and Stanwyck, herself, gives a sure and carefully calculated performance as a woman wronged who goes to great lengths to save her sister-in-law (Betty Bronson) from a similar fate. Veteran "silents" director George Fitzmaurice is in control here, and while his direction isn't especially memorable (and how could it be given the script with its jaw-dropping coincidences and deus ex machinae?) he at least has the sense to keep the camera on Stanwyck as much as possible and let her emote. See "The Locked Door" for Stanwyck if you must, but don't expect to see an overlooked, early screen gem. It isn't.
There's no question but that "The Masquerader" is dated. This 1933 movie is set in a London contemporaneous with the era in which it was filmed and portrays a highly stratified social milieu that has all but disappeared in the intervening eight decades; one is almost surprised that the constable at the doors of the House of Commons doesn't pull his forelock as he addresses the parliamentarians who emerge. But the movie is nimbly and deftly made and features both good acting in its principal and secondary roles and sure direction by Richard Wallace. Portraying both the dissolute Sir John Chilcote and his identical cousin John Loder, Ronald Colman is afforded the opportunity to display both his louche and noble sides (qualities he was to exploit to greater advantage in "A Tale of Two Cities" made two years later) and Colman makes the most of it. He's ably assisted here by Elissa Landi, Juliette Compton and the ubiquitous Halliwell Hobbes (playing his faithful, if long-suffering manservant, Brock). And, really, it's the acting that makes this movie come to life; in the hands of lesser thespians the much-used plot and only serviceable dialogue would begin to display the threadbare attributes of the cinematically shop-worn. But good acting always has the ability to move us... or it should. The joy that Colman's and Landi's characters feel when the expected but nonetheless surprising ending to "The Masquerader" rolls 'round is palpable and -- in a cool, present-day cinematic era when highly charged emotion is regarded as somewhat suspect -- refreshing.
"Caught in her Own Love Trap... she could not stem The Fury of His Love!" screams the poster that was used to advertise this 1930 musical/operetta. If only it were true... Even though elegantly produced by Samuel Goldwyn, "One Heavenly Night" became one of the big flops of the year and the passing decades have not been kind to it. This "talkies" screen debut of West End singing star Evelyn Laye was obviously intended to launch her on a musical film career in Hollywood, but both critics and audience rightly perceived the flick as a turkey, and Miss Laye's career as a screen song siren never materialized. In fairness to the lady, it's difficult to imagine what vocal and thespian powers she might have drawn upon to overcome the stale script, the so-so music, and the stilted performances of her co-actors (including John Boles and a painfully unfunny Leon Errol). It's nice to know that -- after being bruised by Tinseltown -- Evelyn Laye returned to a long and highly successful career on the British stage and died in the 1990's, much loved and appreciated by her audiences, at the ripe old age of 95. As for "One Heavenly Night," if you get the opportunity to see it... don't...
MGM Studio execs. may have have wondered whether Director Sam Wood wasn't taking something of a risk when he hired Spencer Tracy (recently released by Fox, and known primarily for his action-packed B films) to play a tough-guy romantic lead in "Whipsaw" opposite Myrna Loy (fresh off a big success the previous year in "The Thin Man") but Wood knew what he was doing. The result is excellent. Tracy and Loy have terrific screen chemistry together in this 1935 cops-and-robbers movie. It doesn't even matter that the plot isn't particularly fresh, or that the dialogue doesn't always sparkle; the pleasure to be had in "Whipsaw" lies in watching these two screen pros slowly build a portrait of completely disparate characters who overcome their prejudices and their "better" judgments and fall in love. Since Spencer Tracy always played Spencer Tracy (no matter who the character he was portraying may have been) Myrna Loy had the more difficult transformation to accomplish here, and she comes up aces. Her performance is nuanced and understated and she's an elegant, intelligent foil to Tracy's more down-to-earth, beefy, good-guy persona. There's fine supporting work, too, from the secondary characters with John Qualen taking standout honors as a mild-mannered Midwestern farmer; and appropriately "noirish" cinematography from James Wong Howe. But the real story here is the performance by Loy and Tracy. In the flood of terrific movies that the '30's gave to us, "Whipsaw" is often overlooked. It shouldn't be.
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