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Brother Orchid (1940)
First, let me assure everyone - I love this movie. It's a slick, funny and beautifully paced and acted comedy-drama, with a matchless cast and one of Heinz Roenheld's most tuneful scores (Roemheld is woefully under- rated IMHO and unjustly forgotten).
However, there is one curious thing about this movie and (Spoiler Alert) it concerns the plot twist that finds the resolutely Jewish Edward G Robinson holed up in (of all places) a Monastery, and eventually eschewing a life of crime to join the Order! I note that no mention of Jesus Christ nor is any Christian imagery shown on set - unusual for a monastery, especially in a Hollywood movie.
Of course Edward G is such a great actor and Warner's stock company play so beautifully together, one hardly notices the inconsistency, but my oh my, it's a rum do!
Robinson was so versatile. The same year he made this, he also made Dr Ehrlich's Magic Bullet and The Sea Wolf (the latter is undoubtedly his finest role and performance - will it ever appear on DVD?). And here, in Brother Orchid, he shows that he's a master of comic timing. Check out his marvellous double- takes during the car ride with Ann Sothern and Ralph Bellamy. He was top of his game and was always underestimated by Hollywood. The DVD of this gem is a beauty - the print looks like it was never out of the vault, so clear and sharp. Don't believe other reviewers on here - this one is a Warner classic.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939)
A remarkable achievement
Considering that RKO was not renowned for epic film making, the production mounted for this version of Victor Hugo's classic story is surprisingly elaborate and effective.
The Paris set is a beautiful creation and possibly the greatest work by Van Nest Polglase, who with the producer Pan Berman is chiefly remembered today for the elegant art-deco designs for the Astaire-Rogers musicals.
The centrepiece of this remarkable set is the replica of Notre Dame cathedral which was only built to 50% height of the original; the towers above were added as an optical effect by use of a hanging miniature in some shots and by incorporating a glass painting in long shots. It's very convincing.
Dieterle was the perfect choice to direct this story. A student (and later collaborator) of Max Reinhardt, he marshals the huge crowd scenes (no CGi here - those thousands of peasants are all real people) with aplomb and his mastery of expressionistic imagery informs every frame.
Alfred Newman brought an intelligence to the musical score rare in Hollywood. His on screen credit "Musical adaptation and original composition by" reflects his skillful combining of original renaissance choral music by Tomas Luis de Victoria with his own work. He also uses a stirring Hallelujah chorus by uncredited Austrian Jewish émigré Ernst Toch (in Hollywood to escape the Nazis) for the memorable scene where Quasimodo rescues Esmeralda, reprised at the film's closing sequence as the camera pulls back from Notre Dame.
It's a great pity that a better restoration cannot be achieved for this beautiful film than is currently available on DVD. While the source print is serviceable, it is often poorly defined and suffers from many scratches. Perhaps it is the only print now extant? I would also love to see the original trailer rather than the re-release version.
While some may wish Basil Rathbone could have been released from contract at Universal to play Frollo, I think Cedric Hardwicke was ideal casting. As for Laughton, this may well be his signature role and a masterly example of great acting with hardly any dialogue at all.
As Mr Sinatra once said - "You can wait around and hope - but you won't see the likes of this again"
We Live Again (1934)
An interesting curio
I finally caught up with this film on DVD and it provoked a lot of questions that merit further research into its production history. I can easily see why it was such a box office flop, despite its high production values, luminous photography and fine cast. Although Goldwyn hired a slew of heavyweight writers (Maxwell Anderson and Preston Sturges among them) the script frequently gets bogged down in preachy rhetoric and as others have noted here, pro Communist theory. Anna Sten is extremely photogenic but her acting style is so emotive, I wondered if she believed she was appearing in a silent film. Frederic March gave a beautiful performance in contrast. The most interesting aspect of the film is its treatment of casual sex and illegitimacy, both taboo subjects under the soon to be enforced Production Code. I'm sure this film was never reissued after 1934 for that content and also its very left wing undercurrent, which may explain why the DVD print was in such remarkable shape. The supporting cast (as always in such films of the period) makes it a joy to watch. It is fascinating to compare with THE SCARLET EMPRESS (released the same year) and ANNA KARENINA (1935) An interesting curio and worth seeing.
The Constant Nymph (1943)
Lost Masterwork of Romantic Cinema Finally Re-released
After more than half a century of being withdrawn from circulation, this ripe example of romantic film making in the best high style that was so typical of Warner Bros' output in the 1940s, has finally been set free from copyright limbo by the TCM Lawyers, following a financial settlement with the heirs of Margaret Kennedy (author of the novel on which the film is based) and Basil Dean (the film director who co-authored the play with her, another key source for the screenplay).
Finally released for television last month (though only in the USA) it will soon make its long awaited debut on DVD. Was it worth the wait? In my opinion, the answer is a resounding yes.
The story (recounted by others here, so I won't weary you with another resume) inspired cast, director and especially the composer, to a rare degree and while the film retains obvious links to its stage origins and has a stylised, often unrealistic look, this approach suits the material eminently.
While the plot revolves around a curious triangle between a neurotic composer (Boyer) a worldly and wealthy woman (Smith) and a teenage girl (Fontaine) it has a subordinate agenda that most reviewers miss entirely.
Few are aware that Erich Wolfgang Korngold campaigned for this film and became closely involved in its production, even to the extent of influencing script development. Originally, he wanted Lewis Dodd to write a simple love song that would eventually develop into a romantic opera, but that idea was dropped, probably due to cost. It was replaced by a climactic transformation into a symphonic poem for mezzo soprano, wordless women's chorus and large orchestra.
Korngold kept the notion of an evolving musical work and made the battle between romanticism and dissonant modernity a key element that parallels the battle for the composer's soul, fought between the simple heart of the constant nymph with the cold, brittle modern woman played by Alexis Smith.
Korngold felt the battle between atonality and dissonance and more direct romanticism very keenly in his own life and relished the chance to create a score where romanticism triumphed.
The musical sequences are outstanding and when Sanger (Montagu Love) or Lewis Dodd (Boyer) play the piano, that is Korngold himself we hear on the soundtrack.
The elaborate Swiss mountain set incorporating the Sanger home was constructed on Warner's largest sound stage and was subsequently redressed to become the Yorkshire moors for the film DEVOTION, a risible biopic of the Brontes, made shortly afterwards and which was originally intended for Fontaine and her sister Olivia De Havilland. In the event, only De Havilland appeared - Fontaine preferred to make JANE EYRE at Fox instead.
CONSTANT NYMPH is enlivened by some familiar faces in the cast, including Peter Lorre, who is largely wasted, and Charles Coburn as an irascible Uncle - a part better suited to Sydney Greenstreet, who presumably wasn't available.
The finale, presenting Korngold's lush symphonic poem TOMORROW, is nicely done and the mezzo soprano seen on stage is actually Clemence Groves, a local Los Angeles concert singer who is also heard on the soundtrack and was the wife of George Groves, a key sound dept technician at Warners.
Those who are eagle-eyed will spot a poster for Korngold's legendary opera Die tote Stadt on the wall of Sanger's study, that is clearly visible in the scene early in the film between Dodd and Sanger, and placed on the wall by the film's associate producer Henry Blanke as a tribute to his friend Korngold, who didn't even notice it until told of the gesture at the film's premiere.
This is a one-of-a kind film that is unlikely to be remade. It's well worth seeing and has a hypnotic appeal that bears repeated viewing.
A Dispatch from Reuter's (1940)
Vintage Warner Biopic with great score
I saw this again the other night after many years and was impressed at how entertaining it was. It moves at a cracking pace (so typical of Warner Bros style) and has a great cast of fine character actors (especially Albert Bassermann, Nigel Bruce and Otto Kruger) supporting Edward G Robinson in the title role, who gives a nicely understated performance.
The telescoping of events and the dramatic license with facts are to be expected in a film from this period, and in the main, the film presents a stirring account of how the transmission of news grew in the 19th century. Some reviewers here criticise Warners for not mentioning Reuter's conversion from Judaism to Christianity but anyone thinking a Hollywood studio would tackle such a complex subject in 1940 is expecting far too much. The direction by Dieterle is first rate and the pace is brisk, with the hand of Hal Wallis very obvious in the snappy editing and excision of any superfluous material.
Much was made on the historical accuracy of the sets such as the London Stock exchange) and certainly, the recreation of the House of Commons in London while smaller than the real thing, looked very convincing.
There is much else to enjoy here if you are a movie buff of Warner films from this period. When Reuter & Max are walking through the city near the beginning, we see many of the famous standing sets on the Warner back-lot at the time, including :- the Casa di Bonnyfeather and canal at Leghorn (built for Anthony Adverse): the large church structure built circa 1930, with the pillars & big flight of steps that featured in so many films including The Roaring 20s (Cagney dies on those steps at the end) and Deception (Bette Davis runs up those steps at the beginning) and we even see the large Nottingham Castle Gate with portcullis built for The Adventures of Robin Hood in 1937. Some of these sets were still standing as late as 1975! Above all, there is Max Steiner's terrific score. This tale clearly resonated in him and he produces one of his most arresting and dramatic works, with a superbly heraldic Main Title which reappears throughout at key points of the story, and also Steiner's most gorgeous waltz (for Reuter's wife played by the lovely and underrated Edna Best) that betrays his Viennese background. Steiner's score for REUTER cries out for a modern recording, yet few ever mention it when discussing his work for films.
I think it is one of his finest, the equal to Now Voyager, All This & Heaven Too and Big Sleep. If the film were shown more, maybe it would be noticed by the CD companies.
So, while this may not be the greatest of the Warner bio-pics, it is certainly unjustly overlooked. Let us hope it reaches DVD soon.
Exquisitely filmed soap opera with superb musical sequences
In the mid 1940s, Hollywood suddenly got the classical music bug and a whole string of lush melodramas were made, among them Columbia's 'A Song to Remember' (a risible biopic of Chopin with Cornel Wilde and Merle Oberon that, in one famous scene, gave Liberace his entire act), MGM's 'Song of Love' (a biopic of Schumann with Robert Walker and Katherine Hepburn) and 'Carnegie Hall' (a film about the famous hall with a dumb plot, stuffed with cameos from the musical greats of the day which is its chief value now).
The two best films of the cycle however,'Deception' and 'Humoresque' were made at Warner Brothers, almost simultaneously, and starring those arch rivals Bette Davis and Joan Crawford respectively. Warners had by far the best and most interesting music department in Hollywood then, with (at this time) the three titans of film music working there - Max Steiner, Erich Wolfgang Korngold and Franz Waxman. Max superbly handled the Warner biopics of Gershwin (Rhapsody in Blue 1945) and Cole Porter (Night and Day 1946), Korngold did a superb job on'Deception' and Waxman was in charge for this film.
HUMORESQUE is a remarkable example of a film treatment that transcends its material. I won't repeat the many deficiencies in plot and story development that others have noted in their reviews here. They must have been clichéd even in 1946.
What makes this film eminently watchable is the wonderful direction and cinematography that richly showcases a New York that no longer exists (and that was recreated in Burbank with aplomb!) and which presents the stars of the film in some of the most erotic and sumptuous photography of the era.
Some shots must have taken hours to set up and light properly. Check out the moment at Helen Wright's party early in the film ["She's as complex as a Bach fugue"], where she meets Paul Boray for the first time ("Bad manners Mr Boray: the infallible sign of talent").
After he insults her and launches into Rimsky-Korsakov's 'Flight of the Bumble Bee', she walks off in a temper, to the bar, to pour herself yet another brandy and as she holds the large brandy glass in her hand, Ernest Haller somehow allows us to see Boray directly through the glass with both Garfield and the glass in perfect focus. It's an astonishing shot, an obvious visual metaphor to be sure, showing how Mrs Wright wishes to control Boray from now on - but, what a stunning effect!
Negulesco is equally inventive and manages some very deft combinations of sound-stage and location footage, especially at Wright's beach house. He also films the musical sequences wonderfully well, ably convincing us that Garfield is really playing, borrowing the trick (from 'Deception' being shot on adjoining stages) of using two real musicians out of camera shot for the fingering and bowing and even Isaac Stern himself for close ups of the left hand.
The music is superbly performed and recorded, and the repertoire is well chosen. That applies not only to the classics. Peg La Centra's contribution, singing great standards of the 1930s and early 40s, is so evocative, one really wants to go to Teddy's Bar right away, for a large Martini. I bet he made a good one.
The finale of the film borrows from that of 'A Star is Born' but elevates the whole suicide idea to an extravagant degree. According to an interview Negulesco gave late in life (that appears in a book called 'The Celluloid Muse') the idea to use the Liebestod from Wagner's Tristan and Isolde, (transcribed for violin), was actually Oscar Levant's and annoyed Franz Waxman, who had other ideas. In the end, he acquiesced and produced a stunning transcription that works extremely well as a concert work.
Stern never commercially recorded it (unlike the Carmen Fantasie, another gem from this score) but his performance on the soundtrack is outstanding. What a pity no original optical track survives in the Warner vaults.
With its ripe dialogue, a great supporting cast, some of the most voluptuous photography in any 1940s film and a fabulous musical soundtrack, HUMORESQUE repays repeated viewings and is a classic of its kind.
It's the kind of film that could not be made today - but let us be grateful that once upon a time in Hollywood, there was the talent around that could make it, .....and very well indeed.
The Unsuspected (1947)
Remarkable example of Hollywood Expressionist Cinema
In 1947, Michael Curtiz set up his own production unit at Warner Bros.
The deal he struck saw this versatile director being allowed to choose his own projects and not merely be assigned films as a house director, while at the same time enjoying the full production facilities of the studio. This film was the first project of what was sadly a short-lived arrangement, chiefly because box office returns on this film were so disappointing.
The script peppered with snappy one-liners and wisecracks particularly for Audrey Totter and Constance Bennett, was by Ranald MacDougall from an adaptation by Curtiz' wife Bess Meredyth of a dime novel by Charlotte Armstrong. MacDougall had previously done the witty screenplay for the superb noir classic, MILDRED PIERCE in 1945 (also directed by Curtiz) and his gift for tart dialogue made the role of Eve Arden in that film especially memorable.
It is likely that Curtiz envisioned the story of THE UNSUSPECTED as the perfect vehicle for Claude Rains, an actor he had worked with frequently before (The Adventures of Robin Hood, Four Daughters, The Sea Hawk, Casablanca etc) and who was renowned for his distinctive, memorable voice. Victor Grandison is a famous radio star because of the hypnotic power of his voice in relating his celebrated true life crime stories and it would be difficult to imagine another actor in the role, save possibly for Basil Rathbone.
The story is complex and not entirely believable, and has several plot holes. The most serious concerns the first murder. If Grandison is able to catch an earlier train because he has used a recording of his broadcast and not performed "live", surely his so-called alibi would have been exposed by colleagues at the radio station - especially his secretary (Constance Bennett)? This is never explained.
No matter. What makes this thriller so eminently watchable are the delicious ingredients lavished on the telling - especially the superb art direction by Anton Grot who would have undoubtedly story-boarded the many memorable images as was his practise - and the distinctive camera-work of Woody Bredell.
Between them, Grot, Curtiz and Bredell bring a Germanic, expressionistic style to almost every scene and there are some amazing trick shots that must have taken days to light properly. Check out the remarkable scene near the end where, as kindly Grandison reassures his niece that all will be well, a wine glass with fizzing content is in close-up and sharp focus and we then realise it has been poisoned by Grandison.
Add to this virtuosity of film making, a beautifully atmospheric score by Franz Waxman, a fascinating cast and a star turn by Claude Rains and this overlooked gem is in a class of its own.
I have never understood why Curtiz is so under-rated. I would know his style within a few shots. His fluid camera, always roving and engaging with the action and the characters, makes CASABLANCA the classic it is and is why we always feel we have really been to Rick's café.
THE UNSUSPECTED is so enjoyable because of Curtiz holding our interest through sheer visual flair and bears frequent repeat viewing. Its weaknesses are quite forgivable when one considers its many pleasures.
Lady Jane (1986)
Chocolate-box drivel wastes some great talent
Trevor Nunn may be a great theatre director but he cannot make movies. Just why he decided to make this turkey, I cannot imagine. Given that the actual true story of Lady Jane Grey is a fascinating example of political intrigue in Tudor England, it is all the more inexplicable that Nunn opts for a Woman's Own version of the tale complete with syrupy music that lurches in style from faux 16th century to 1980s muzak.
Historical accuracy goes out the window and suddenly the 15 year old Jane and her slightly older husband Guildford Dudley are transformed into young lovers cast in the 'Romeo & Juliet' mould. The pace is leaden, and at almost 2 and a half hours, the film is overly long. Beautiful photography and many historic locations aside, the best ingredient is the wonderful supporting cast drawn from some of the finest acting talent in the British Isles.
Of course (as can be judged from most of the comments here) the Americans loved it and perhaps it was made for the US market? The recent, equally risible TV series THE TUDORS was made for America too - given that English history is not a strong point across the pond.
It was a failure on release and Nunn has not made a major film since.
The Spanish Main (1945)
Second Rate Swashbuckler
Paul Henreid apparently wanted his home studio Warner Brothers to make this, but in 1944, that studio was firmly committed to making large -scale war films, and besides, its number one star was Errol Flynn who was (and is) THE swashbuckler. So Henreid took it to RKO and, through a contractual sleight of hand, negotiated his release from Warners to make it at this normally low-budget studio. He should not have bothered.
The main problem with the film is that its central role is miscast. Henreid is both too effete and a bit too old for the part, and next to Miss O'Hara (who as usual, looks ravishing in colour) rather bland and lifeless. He is also clearly doubled in some of the duels.
The music score by Hanns Eisler (a surprising choice) is gestural note-spinning with not one memorable theme to sweep us along. He should have watched The Sea Hawk and listened to Korngold's thrilling score to see how this should be done.
As usual, Walter Slezak effortlessly steal every scene he is in and is a delight. When he is not on screen, the film sags. No wonder he was cast in so many similar roles in the 1940s.
This was RKO's first colour film but most prints I have seen are very poor - either faded, or overly gaudy as a result of the three-strip technicolor separations becoming unstable and running together. It is unlikely to be restored as I doubt the original elements survive.
The ingredients were all there but refused to gel somehow. Maybe if Jack Warner had said yes, it might have been better - and Korngold would have jumped at the chance I am sure! The supporting cast is full of familiar faces (J.M.Kerrigan, Jack La Rue, Curt Bois, Mike Mazurki, Antonio Moreno) and they provide some badly needed substance in this weak entry in the genre.
Reunion in Vienna (1933)
A Forgotten Gem
I finally managed to acquire a copy of this almost forgotten film, chiefly because of my interest in John Barrymore. The film has never been shown on TV in Europe and is unavailable on video or DVD, so it was a delightful surprise to discover how very good it is.
1933 was perhaps John Barrymore's best year in films, just before the slide into alcoholism reduced him to infrequent supporting roles. As well as Reunion in Vienna, he made Topaze (another delightful film) Counsellor at Law (perhaps his greatest screen performance) and Dinner at 8 (a close second).
If you want proof of Barrymore's sheer star quality and presence, take a look at Reunion in Vienna. He dominates the screen in every scene he is in, and when he is on screen, it is difficult to look at anyone else. His wonderfully mellifluous voice is particularly well recorded in this film and his performance is so full of delightful details, and many ad lib physical touches, that one can see how superb he must have been on stage.
Equally surprising here is the subtle performance by Frank Morgan before his familiar bumbling, stammering persona took over almost every performance he gave at MGM. He was a much better actor than remembered today.
The supporting cast is a delight, although not populated by the many émigrés that would shortly arrive from Nazi Europe and become a regular part of Hollywood's scene. Compare this film with THE GREAT WALTZ (1938) to see what I mean.
As a result, the Hapsburg aristocrats are mostly played by Americans (the exception being Eduardo Cianelli who is genuinely touching, giving an excellent portrayal of a devoted servant to his old master).
The music score is credited to William Axt, even though it is really a pot-pourri of themes by Johann Strauss. The exception is a main theme which is a direct steal from Romberg's NEW MOON, then a fairly new work and filmed 2 years before by MGM with Grace Moore and Lawrence Tibbett. Possibly Dr Axt decided to borrow the waltz "One Kiss" and vary it slightly for this film.
As others point out here, the art direction is beautiful throughout and Ms Wynyard never looked more radiant.
In all, a delightful and superbly acted film that should be on DVD. Why isn't it? The print I have looks as if it has never left the vault in 80 years.