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The Lady from Cheyenne (1941)
Wins the election, but not in a landslide
"The Lady from Cheyenne" is loosely built around Wyoming's granting of the right to vote to women in 1869-- and if you want a history lesson, this movie isn't the place to look. It isn't accurate, and it isn't even plausible. But it is a pleasant, diverting and harmless film with an attractive comic performance from Loretta Young as a naive but earnest schoolteacher who fights for the cause of suffrage as a means of rescuing her town from corruption. Carole Lombard was the first choice for this role, and Young emulates her fast-paced, breathless delivery, but she captures the character's idealism better than Lombard would have, and she carries the film with her charm. The supporting cast is strong, the sets are convincing and Frank Lloyd, who specialized in period films, directs with a light touch and a properly brisk pace. Nobody's ever going to call it a masterpiece, but it's certainly a pleasant way to pass the time. By the way, the title is misleading; the heroine goes to Cheyenne, but she isn't from Cheyenne.
Thirteen Hours by Air (1936)
A very satisfying flight
"Thirteen Hours by Air" is a fun little movie that's quick, surprising, and doesn't overstay its welcome. Mitchell Leisen, an underrated director, is usually associated with screwball comedy or romantic melodrama, and there's a little of each in this film, but it's a pleasant surprise to see that he can handle a brisk thriller as well. Like most movies featuring airplane trips, it includes a hodgepodge of characters involved in separate plots, but they blend together nicely, and the script includes a few neat twists that are bound to surprise anyone expecting the usual cliches. MacMurray and Bennett make an appealing team, ZaSu Pitts is, as usual, a joy, and the various airports are designed in an eye-catching art deco style. It's not a classic, but it's certainly a much better film than I expected, and it deserves to be rescued from whatever deep, dark closet it has been hidden in for too many years.
Turkish Delight (1927)
A mildly pleasant distraction
The title promises a little more than the movie can deliver, but "Turkish Delight" is harmless, light-hearted and fun. Rudolph Schildkraut is interesting casting as the misogynist New York rug dealer Abdul Hassan, who inherits the throne of a small, Middle Eastern principality; after he arrives, with his indispensable niece (Julia Faye), he discovers that he has been marked for oblivion by the murderous, scheming Sultana. May Robson is as stiff as a board in that role, but it works; one look at her and you know that it's useless to appeal to her better nature, because she doesn't have one. The acting is solid, and the titles are often clever, but the plot does tend to get lost towards the end of the movie when our heroes get caught in a crazy chase scene that looks as if it escaped from a Mack Sennett film. Finding this film will be difficult, and it isn't a masterpiece by any means, but if you do manage to catch it, it's a reasonably pleasant experience.
Here Is My Heart (1934)
Sophistication from the second team
A musical comedy from Paramount featuring one classically trained voice and one popular singer, set in Europe, built around a romance between an impoverished princess and a rich man posing as a waiter to be near her... this sounds to me exactly like the kind of movie that Paramount would have assigned to Maurice Chevalier, Jeanette MacDonald and director Ernst Lubitsch during the early thirties. I would bet my bottom dollar that this is exactly what Paramount planned to do with this musical remake of the 1926 silent comedy "The Grand Duchess and the Waiter." Unfortunately, none of them were available in 1934, so they gave it to Bing Crosby, Kitty Carlisle and director Frank Tuttle instead. In this case second best isn't good enough. Crosby holds his own reasonably well, making a surprisingly good substitute for Chevalier (or Adolphe Menjou, who played the part in the silent film); like Maurice, he has a breezy, easygoing charm, which fits his character, a common man who made good. But Carlisle is fatally miscast as the Russian princess. Jeanette MacDonald could play these snobbish aristocrats with an undertone of sympathy and humor; Carlisle can't, and she is so haughty that she becomes dislikable. She isn't a bad actress; this part just isn't meant for her. It would be hard for any movie to overcome that handicap. Maybe Lubitsch could have made something out of it, but Tuttle lacks his subtlety and his instinct for a clever gag.
The movie has virtues; the music is good, and the scene in which Bing sings "June in January" is imaginative. The supporting cast is solid, especially Roland Young and Reginald Owen as members of the royal family. The sets and the photography are attractive. I'm glad to see this movie emerge from the closet it had been hiding in for half a century, but it just isn't one of Crosby's best films.
Street Angel (1928)
A superb silent romance
"Street Angel" misses greatness by inches. One of three famous late silent movies starring Janet Gaynor (the others were "Sunrise" and "Seventh Heaven"), it's an ultra-romantic melodrama with enormous power. Frank Borzage, a specialist in this kind of film, pulls out all the stops to make this seem almost like an other-worldly fable; the story is painted in broad brush strokes, and the plot has a few echoes of "Les Miserables." The sets and cinematography are outstanding; Gaynor is heartbreakingly beautiful, and her performance is superb. The film's biggest flaw-- almost the only one-- is that near the end it indulges in a wildly improbable coincidence, and it's always awkward when a film closes on a note like that. It isn't quite as good as "Sunrise--" very few movies are-- but for most of its running length this rich, lush film is an absolute joy to watch.
Charlie McCarthy, Detective (1939)
Too strange for its own good
I suppose we could give this movie points for being different, but we certainly can't give it any points for being logical. "Charlie McCarthy, Detective" combines mystery with slapstick humor in a very uneasy mixture. The movie seems deliberately intended to be surreal. All the characters in the film act as if Edgar Bergen's wooden dummies (McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd) are really alive-- at one point a doctor (Charles Lane) even operates to remove a bullet from Charlie. The movie was about halfway over before I realized that the characters were not insane, and we really were supposed to accept the notion that Charlie was an independent living creature. This takes nerve, but it would have helped if the script had somehow cued us into it. The movie is also absolutely crazy on the question of police procedure, and it prominently features a very stereotypical black character-- one of those servants who is slow on the uptake and terrified of his own shadow-- which may reflect the attitude of its times but is a bit hard to stomach today. The comedy dominates the mystery, and although the solution is somewhat intriguing, it almost comes as an afterthought to the movie's goofiness.
It sounds as if I'm saying the movie is terrible. It isn't. It isn't good, but it isn't awful. There are some good jokes, and Bergen, surprisingly, gives a pretty good performance. The supporting cast is, for the most part, strong. But I prefer my movies to make sense, and it's just impossible to take this film seriously.
Hands Up! (1926)
A neglected classic
There are movie buffs who believe that Raymond Griffith belongs in the same class of silent comics as Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd, and from what little I've seen, I'd say they have an argument. "Hands Up" is a delightful feature, enjoyable from beginning to end, with the dapper, dandified Griffith as a clever and enthusiastic Confederate spy. There are some brilliant gags, including one with a firing squad and another where he teaches hostile Indians to dance the Charleston (OK, so it's anachronistic-- who cares?), and the final gag is brilliant. Griffith is thoroughly ingratiating; it's a pity that so many of his movies have disappeared and the survivors are so seldom revived. It's interesting, by the way, that both Griffith and Keaton made a comedy about the Civil War in the same year-- and that both of them portrayed Southerners. "Hands Up" isn't quite as good as Keaton's "The General," but that certainly isn't an insult. This is one buried treasure that deserves a wider audience.
Where Are My Children? (1916)
A remarkable surprise
This remarkable film has sometimes been described by historians as a movie about birth control, but it isn't, although birth control is presented as an alternative to abortion, which is the film's true subject. "Where Are My Children" is probably the most forthrightly anti-abortion movie ever made by a mainstream American studio, and how Lois Weber got away with it, I'll never know; a film like this couldn't possibly be made today.
I have no objections to a filmmaker using a movie as a vehicle for his or her convictions, as long as they're honest about it, and this movie is honest. Weber follows the logic of her plot, and her convictions, right to their end, without flinching from the logical and merciless conclusion. This is a gripping and powerful tragedy, well acted, written and directed. There is one unforgettable moment in which a quiet little gesture by Helen Riaume tells volumes; she has taken her friend to a doctor who performs abortions (and has done so for her), and while lingering in the waiting room, Helen yawns, as if terminating a pregnancy is a completely casual matter. It is a perfect, subtle sign about the depth of her corruption.
"Where Are My Children" isn't perfect; the scenes of souls in Heaven's antechamber, "waiting to be born," are a little heavy-handed, even if they give Weber the chance to use the trick photography she was so fond of. But the skill with which this movie is made is remarkable for 1916; this is a much more powerful movie than Griffith's "Intolerance," the most famous film of that year. I was amazed by "Where Are My Children," and I will never forget it.
The Witness Vanishes (1939)
A disappointing mystery
One of Universal's "Crime Club" series of the thirties, this movie has a few good moments and a decent premise, but it falls apart halfway through the story. I wouldn't be surprised if it worked better as a novel before it was adapted into a movie. An escapee from a lunatic asylum has announced his intentions to kill the four journalists whom he claims stole his newspaper away from him, and one by one his enemies meet their demise. But all is not as it seems.... There is some imagination in the plot, particularly in the second murder, but the imagination dries up when the guilty party leaves a clue so obvious that a six-year-old child would call Scotland Yard immediately. From that point on, the film loses its steam. Edmund Lowe is almost invisible for most of this movie, and the lion's share of the acting is done by the supporting cast. They're capable, but this story isn't very believable, and it's a far cry from Agatha Christie or Ellery Queen.
Back in Circulation (1937)
This is a prime example of a movie that doesn't know what it wants to be. The first half of the film is a snappy little screwball comedy, obviously inspired by "The Front Page" (just like about a zillion other newspaper comedies), in which star reporter Joan Blondell tries to cope with hard-driving editor Pat O'Brien. It isn't brilliant, but it's good enough to get by. The second half is a typical Warners social crusading film of the thirties, an expose of the dangers of yellow journalism. This half doesn't work very well at all, partly because Margaret Lindsay's performance is wooden, and partly because the change in tone is so abrupt that you're liable to suffer from whiplash. O'Brien and Blondell are both cast to their strengths, and they work well together. This film was never going to be a masterpiece, but it might have been modestly successful if it had maintained the tone of its first half. As it is, the movie just doesn't work. Warners couldn't help themselves; they never passed up an opportunity to hoist the gauntlet of a social crusade. Sometimes they did it well, but in this case they should have let well enough alone.
Traffic in Souls (1913)
Primitive but appealing
This may be the earliest American feature film that can be shown today without embarrassment; the technique is primitive, but it still holds your interest. Coincidence plays a huge role in the plot, but there's a genuine sense of danger, and the hypocrisy of the villain is a nice touch that should appeal to modern viewers. The camera doesn't move (the camera rarely did in 1913), but brisk editing helps keep the film lively, and Tucker directs with imagination. If you have any interest at all in silent movies, this one is worth a look.
Apocalypse Now (1979)
A ridiculously overrated film
It's a pity to see a director put so much time and effort into a film and come back with something so awful. This film is pretentious, chaotic, self-indulgent and ridiculously overrated. The first half has its moments, even though Robert Duvall's character is a cartoon, but once Dennis Hopper and Marlon Brando show up and start chewing the scenery as if it's all you can eat at the diner and they've been on a three-day fast, the movie dies. The last twenty minutes or so look as if they were filmed by a three-year-old playing with his father's movie camera. I'm sorry to be so harsh, but this was one of the most unpleasant experiences I've ever had watching a film.