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A young Madeleine Carroll and more
I purchased this film on DVD to add to my collection of Madeleine Carroll films, and although the stunningly beautiful actress does not have a tremendous amount of screen time, I was not disappointed in the final product. I've never particularly cared for disaster films, and the Cameron blockbuster of a few years ago left me decidedly cold, as it were. Not being an expert on the events surrounding the sinking, I was still quite sure that this mega-hit had little relation to what actually transpired on that fateful night. In any event, I am convinced that the film under review is of greater historical accuracy, and unlike the other reviewers, I am not particularly discouraged to discover that a film made almost 80 years ago is not quite as "spiffy" as more recent products. At the very least, films of this type should be regarded as valuable documents of the ways things were done in the not too distant past, and when you realize that "Atlantic" was made a mere 17 years after the Titanic went down, that is all the more reason to cherish it as an invaluable time capsule of a significant event in the annals of the 20th century that still apparently fascinates a great many people.
As far as the individual performances are concerned, I thought that the players effectively conveyed the starkness of the dilemma the doomed passengers were facing, especially the futility of those remaining men who had hope no hope of salvation, the end being only a matter time. Of particular note was the abrupt contrast between the gay frivolity that permeated the mood immediately before the bad news was conveyed by Lanchester and what immediately followed. Add to that Monica's frantic separation from her husband, as she was literally dragged on to the hanging lifeboat, was quite poignant, made all the more so when the news that she was pregnant became known later.
For those interested in a well made vintage film that provides a fascinating look at a sensational event with which practically everyone alive has at least some inkling of, I highly recommend this film. (And there's the added bonus of a very young Madeleine Carroll to feast your eyes on).
I Was a Spy (1933)
A convincing, realistic cinematic rendition
This briskly paced, highly suspenseful cinematic rendering of the war-time exploits of Martha Cnockhaert, a Belgian girl who reluctantly engaged in espionage work for the Allies during the Great War, is a must see for all who appreciate war films sans the usual cheap, one-sided displays of gratuitous propaganda masquerading as history that the various film factories seem to have a penchant for putting out. A great deal of the credit must go to director Victor Saville, who managed to refrain from incorporating any of the typically lurid tales of German atrocities allegedly perpetrated on the prostrate Belgians that had become the mainstay of the British disinformation network throughout the greater part of the war itself. The actual situation, as this film so ably depicts, was bad enough. For example, largely on account of the British naval blockade, the occupying Germans had to impose severe privations on the Belgian people who, as a result, were forced to hoard what little food there was for their own survival. Indeed, it was the witnessing of the constant abuse inflicted on her café-owning parents that spurred Martha to overcome her initial fear and enlist her services for the Belgian underground.
The beautiful Madeleine Carroll gives a convincing, at times deeply moving, portrait of the reluctant Belgian spy whose work as a volunteer nurse in a hospital for wounded Germans complicates her efforts to aid in their ultimate destruction. Indeed, ironically it is her dedicated work in relieving the suffering of war-- not to mention her exquisite beauty and charm- that endears her to the German commandant-- played by the great Conrad Veidt-- enabling her her to carry out more effectively her clandestine activities.
Perhaps the supreme irony of this film, however, resides in the fact that within 10 years, the woman who would play a volunteer nurse/spy in a movie would in real life give up her film career to volunteer as a real life Red Cross nurse in Italy during the sequel to the Great War. For that, Madeleine Carroll will, indeed, always be fondly remembered.
The General Died at Dawn (1936)
Let your imaginations soar!
The scene in the train where femme fatal Judy Perrie seduces O'Hara is a masterpiece of steamy sensuality. Carroll's silky-smooth alabaster skin and flaxen hair, gorgeously highlighted by her exquisitely outlined lips and eyes, were masterfully exploited by director Lewis Milestone and some extremely skilled cameramen, as her feminine delights proved too much for the otherwise unswervingly steadfast O'Hara. Throughout, the curiously uneven script takes a decided turn for the better, with both participants delivering some highly suggestive verbal exchanges, brimming with innuendo and wit, culminating with O'Hara mockingly asking Judie if he can kiss her, only to receive in return the playful reply that he must first ask her mother. He then looks into the neighboring compartment and makes the request in mock earnestness, for there is no Mrs. Perrie! All the while, the sinister war lord General Yang and his dark forces are preparing to intercept the train, "relieve" O'Hara of the funds he's set to deliver to Mr. Wu for the sole purpose of ridding the province of the scurrilous Yang. Let your imaginations soar, esteemed classic film buffs, for this is truly great film-making.
Propaganda That Fails To Propagandize
To paraphrase the late great Father Coughlin's jibe at the Roosevelt government's provision of "relief that failed to relieve", this inept film on the Spanish Civil War provided propaganda that failed to propagandize. That, at least to this viewer, is the only thought that lingered after suffering through almost 90 minutes of Blockade. I say this with a great deal of reluctance because I have always considered myself a great fan of both the principals of this film, Madeleine Carroll and Henry Fonda, but, alas, not even these two cinematic greats could salvage this bummer. In my quest to apportion blame I suppose the the script writer, a certain John Henry Lawson, is as good a place as any to start. The clunky lines he puts in the mouth of Fonda, a peasant hero of the so-called "republican" cause--particularly his closing monologue--are grounds for confinement in the most austere of labor camps courtesy of his obvious favorite, Comrade Joseph Stalin. I was especially struck by the tepidity of the romantic interludes with the beautiful Carroll, suggesting that a proletarian partisan like Mr. Lawson has little feeling for the more sublime side of human emotions. All of this I could excuse if Blockade offered anything approaching effective political propaganda if that was what it offered; but, at the risk of being tedious, that was precisely where it failed the most.
For political propaganda that both entertains and persuades, let me suggest Casablanca. For political propaganda that offers only a few glimpses of the radiant Madeleine Carroll and nothing more, I recommend Blockade. That, unfortunately, is not enough to salvage this less than scintillating 1930s leftist pap.
The 39 Steps (1935)
In this film the great director achieved his masterpiece.
This is by all accounts a brilliant film, the best that Hitchcock ever made. From the opening scene in the crowded music hall the action and intrigue run unabated, with one harrowing escape after another. I was particularly struck by the high quality of the performances. I don't believe Hitchcock was able to put together such a consistently outstanding group of players under his aegis in any other film, either before or since. Imagine the likes of Robert Donat, Madeleine Carroll, Godfrey Tearle, and Peggy Ashcroft appearing together in an Alfred Hitchcock film! Shakespeare anybody?
The other reviewers have covered thoroughly the various details and highlights of this film, either pro or con, so I have little to add. Let me just say that I can't recall a film, regardless of the genre, that was so thoroughly satisfying on all levels. Choose your taste: dramatic intensity, action and intrigue, wit and humor, beautiful women(who can act)--it even has a rousing music hall finale that will keep you tapping.
In this film the great director achieved his masterpiece. So how do you figure the people at TCM in a recent tribute to Hitchcock failed to include it in their offerings? Just go out and buy it. It's cheap enough and you won't waste your time changing channels.
Bahama Passage (1941)
Beautiful but not much else
A tortured, angst-ridden story set on a salt farm situated on a remote island in the Bahamas. Madeleine Carroll and Stirling Hayden are visually resplendent but the lackluster story negates whatever potential there is for a passionate island romance. In fact, they manage to wade through the entire film without once kissing, a record for two stars who allegedly were engaged to be married at the time.
Leo G. Carroll and Flora Robson play a paranoiac pair who are convinced that the majority native population is bent on murdering them. The real star of the film is the cinematographer, who succeeds in offsetting a generally dull screenplay.
I'm yet to see a Madeleine Carroll film that was unwatchable, and Bahama Passage is no exception. It would have been nice if the story matched her inimitable beauty and charm, but you can't always get your wish.
The Case Against Mrs. Ames (1936)
Great dramatic vehicle for the exquisitely beautiful Carroll
This is a highly entertaining, at times engrossing, film centering on a beleaguered woman's determination to gain custody of her son in the face of an almost universal feeling of revulsion over her alleged responsibility for the murder of her husband.
English actress Madeleine Carroll delivers a convincing performance in a dramatic role of the kind that she was, unfortunately, given too few opportunities to exploit during her career. As Hope Ames she reveals a compelling sense of emotionalism that was never over-wrought and remained contained, but not blunted, by a cool, elegant exterior. Every thing about her had a sense of elegance and refinement that is so characteristic of the exquisitely beautiful English actress, from her angelic countenance to her flawless diction. Even in the highly fraught scenes where she tries to regain the love and trust of her estranged son never descend into rank sentimentality, but elicit a welling poignancy at the heart-felt expression of affection that only a mother could feel for her child.
George Brent plays Matt Logan, a hard-drinking assistant D.A. whose vulgarities and flamboyant excesses provide an effective counterpoise to the cool Mrs. Ames. It seems that Logan represented a sort of tribune of the people in his effort to prove Mrs. Ames guilt in the murder of her husband, his ultimate success having political implications. This secondary theme of class conflict was a favorite among depression era film makers, and the contemporary audience of this production must have got quite a chuckle when Mrs. Ames' snobbish uncle goes so far as to call Logan a communist.
The remainder of the cast is uniformly excellent. Arthur Treacher as Mrs. Ames' butler, Griggsby, adds a little levity with his humorous excesses even though you know that no one could be that big of a ham. On the other hand, Mrs. Ames' son, Bobbie, played by Scottie Becket, couldn't have been more convincing as the snarling, spoiled brat that only his mother could possibly love. Now on second thoughts, maybe that should have been the real case against Mrs. Ames.
An Innocent Affair (1948)
The end of one of filmdom's great comedic duos
From start to finish this little known throwback to the best mad-cap screwball comedies of the 1930s is guaranteed to tickle the most jaded funny bone. Vincent Doane, played by Fred MacMurray, is a successful advertising executive who has come under severe scrutiny by his wife of five years, Paula, played by the gorgeous Madeleine Carroll, for the simple reason that he has been keeping rather late nights trying to woo a rather wealthy client, a Mr. Fraser, into signing a lucrative contract. The problem is Paula has serious doubts about the veracity of her husband's story, thinking that Mr. Fraser is in reality, well, you guessed it. In order to cover up the real identity of his client--and it really is a client--Vincent goes to great lengths, entangling himself further and further into a hilarious web of lies and misadventures that, in the hands of a master comedian like Fred MacMurray, are simply unforgettable. The give-and-take between MacMurray and Carroll is in the best vein of their previous pairings, and despite the fact that this would be their fifth, and final film together, their marvelous on-screen chemistry shows no indication of flagging.
Screen legend Charles Buddy Rogers plays a somewhat befuddled tobacco tycoon who unwittingly gets caught up in Mrs. Doane's scheme to pay her husband back for his alleged infidelity, and in the process serves as a splendid foil to the frenetic shenanigans of the Doanes. Despite the fact that you just know how the film turns out, the fun, like in all classic screw-ball comedies, is in the getting there. When the dust has finally settled, this reviewer just couldn't help sighing that An Innocent Affair marked the end of one of filmdom's truly great comedic duos.
The Lady Vanishes (1938)
A marvelous mish-mash
There is nothing ordinary about this tongue-in-cheek thriller, arguably on par with Hitchcock's more well-known earlier classic, "The Thirty Nine Steps", a true masterpiece of the suspense genre.
The bulk of the action takes place in a train where a matronly lady by the name of Miss Froy suddenly and mysteriously disappears without a trace, the only witness to the fact that she even existed in the first place being a young lady named Iris who by chance befriended the old woman just prior to departure.
Undeterred by the fact that none of the other passengers will admit to any recollection of seeing the missing lady, Iris is determined to solve the mystery and in the process is forced to enlist the help of a free-spirited musicologist named Gilbert, who in their initial encounter the previous evening only succeeded in arousing her utmost antipathy (and visa-versa). Gilbert's infectious insouciance is admirably contrasted with Iris's single-minded severity, and the resulting blend provides a wonderful counterpoint to the taut suspense that propels the action-- somewhat reminiscent of the engaging repartee between hand-cuffed Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll in "The Thirty Nine Steps".
As they say, a film is only as good as its minor actors, and the Fellini-esquire montage of bizarre and enigmatic figures that populate the various berths and compartments of our train excel. Of particular note is the Mutt and Jeff duo of Caldecott and Charters, whose obsession with cricket scores just has to belie a more sinister motive, or does it? And the scuffle with the magician Signor Doppo amidst an array of false doors is priceless (pay special note of the three rabbits in the hat). Miss Froy just had to be hidden behind one of his props!
The only unequivocally sinister figure in this mish-mash is a certain Dr. Hartz of Prague, splendidly caricatured by Hungarian Paul Lukas. His unctious medicalese and feigned concern for Iris' obsession with finding Miss Froy couldn't be a better foil to the more light-hearted excesses of most of the other characters. And his final lines provide a penetrating epilogue to this off-beat thriller.
I've always contended that the best of Hitchcock's early British talkies were generally superior to the more conventional suspense yarns of his Hollywood years, most of which never quite had the staying power of the earlier films. Needless to say, the marvelous combination of wit and suspense present in "The Lady Vanishes" goes a long way in proving my point.
The Prisoner of Zenda (1937)
You can't improve on perfection
Ronald Colman shines in the dual role of the dissipated Crown Prince Rudolph and the "simple Englishman", Rudolph Rassendyl. The crown prince's predilection for the bottle recalls Colman's earlier portrayal of the dark side of Sydney Carton from A Tale of Two Cities. In contrast, Rassendyll's reluctant gallantry and abiding integrity and honor epitomize the qualities for which matinée idol Colman had become known during his famous film career.
His scenes with the incandescent Madeleine Carroll are especially felicitous, both visually and aurally. The poignant, penultimate scene of the film left this reviewer with a wistful sense of regret that The Prisoner of Zenda was to be their only cinematic collaboration.
Raymond Massey was never better as the ambitious Duke Michael. The expressionistic qualities of his facial contortions make his lines almost superfluous.
The rakish Count Rupert, played by Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., represents the archetypal rogue. His perennial smile, abiding charm, and sardonic wit make him a curious composite of Don Juan and Mephistopheles. Like Massey, I have never seen the underrated son of the silent screen's most dashing hero in better form.
The film's remaining actors acquit themselves more than adequately. Mary Astor is the lovely Antoinette, Duke Michael's devoted, yet unfairly, neglected paramour. Her consistently dark raiment and shadowy movements are perhaps reflective of her lover's illegitimate origins, while at the same time belying her kind heart. Visually this is contrasted with the always radiant Princess Flavia.
The two royal bodyguards, Colonel Zapt and Captain von Tarlenheim, are a case study, to my mind, as to why films like The Prisoner of Zenda are consistently superior to today's mediocre fare. Although relatively lesser roles, they are capable of, and on more than one occasion, do dominate a given scene; moreover, in their own way they are as fully developed as any of the principals. The abiding sense of honor and loyalty expressed by C. Aubrey Smith's Colonel Zapt is so profoundly felt and reflective of a long-vanished ethos, that one laughs to think of any contemporary actor making such utterances. The paradox would be striking!
As for Zapt's protégé, Captain von Tarlenheim, given the camera's fondness for the handsome young star, it will come as no surprise to learn that this role was reputedly David Niven's first acting breakthrough. His gift for dry English understatement is the occasion for one especially humorous scene-stealing moment that I will generously leave to the curious viewer to enjoy for himself.
With such an outstanding, marquee cast that lives up to its advanced billing and then some, it is not difficult to understand why this film was such a rousing success when it premiered in 1937; so successful, in fact, that it was copied verbatim by MGM 15 years later after it purchased the rights from Selznick. With no slight intended to Stewart Granger et al., you cannot improve on perfection.