Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Review: Night Court (1932)

I promise I'll start posting more content than just movie reviews soon, but in the meantime, here's a review of a great pre-code I watched a few days ago:

When MGM released Night Court in 1932, its story of crooked judges and a corrupt system of justice in New York City was pulled from the newspaper headlines of the previous year. When, in the movie, cabbie Mike Thomas's (Phillips Holmes) wife Mary (Anita Page) is set up, arrested and jailed for prostitution, that part of the story didn't surprise New Yorkers, who had read for months of the activities of Chico Accatuna (the spelling of his last name varies), nicknamed the "human spitoona." Just as in the movie, this unsavory character would set women up for an arrest by the vice squad. Once the woman lost her job and reputation as the result of the arrest, criminals such as Lucky Luciano would then force these women into prostitution.

In this movie, Mary Thomas is sent to jail to discredit her, since she accidentally saw the bank book of the crooked Judge Moffett, played by Walter Huston. He had given it to his girlfriend when he told her to hide out while Lewis Stone's judicial commission was investigating Moffett and others for corruption. She moved in next door to the Thomases,in a rundown walk-up rowhouse, and managed to drop the bank book (which showed tens of thousands of dollars in the judge's secret account) into the crib of Mary's son when she dropped by.

At one point, this picture is as grim as any you will see. Mary is in jail. Her little boy is in a city foster care facility, crying his heart out. Mike, trying to spring her, goes to a lawyer who is a crony of Judge Moffet and informs the judge of Mike's plans. Moffet, lying on a sofa, tells an associate to "get me bad boys, very bad" to take care of the troublemaker cabbie. These "bad boys" beat the cabbie to a pulp, then put him on a slow boat to South America.

Now, Night Court is like a time capsule, a reflection of a world long gone. Mark Hellinger, the co-writer of the play the movie is based on, was a reporter who had first hand knowledge of the real life events he borrowed for the story. The hero in this movie is a cabbie, not a cop, a district attorney or any other government official. In this movie, except for Lewis Stone's character, all the public officials you see are on the take. As a result of the tremendous scandal involving Chico Accatuna and the compulsory prostition racket, the NYPD Vice Squad had a new name, the Public Morals Squad. This scandal helped get La Guardia elected Mayor and is the basis for this pre-code crime classic from MGM.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Five Weeks 'Til Christmas, Week 1: Miracle On 34th Street (1947)

Christmas is my favorite holiday and one of my favorite things about it is watching all the wonderful Christmas movies! I thought it would be fun to do a weekly countdown during the holidays (5 weeks, counting this week!) where each week I'll review one of my favorite Christmas films, starting today with the original 1947 version of Miracle On 34th Street.


The movie starts out in a festive atmosphere. It is Thanksgiving and the employees of Macy's department store are busy with preparations for the annual Thanksgiving day parade. Doris Walker (Maureen O'Hare) is in charge of the parade. She anxiously hires Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn) to replace the man she hired to play Santa Claus when she discovers the original Santa is too intoxicated to even get on the float. Kris does such a good job that Mrs. Walker asks him to stay on in the role and be the department store's Santa. She soon has serious doubts about her decision when she discovers that her new Santa really believes he is Santa Claus.

Mrs. Walker is a working, single mother, who works for Macy's Department Store in New York City. Natalie Wood plays her daughter, Susan. As the result of a failed Marriage, Doris raises her daughter to accept reality. There is no room for fantasy or make believe in her life. Susan is a quiet, child who acts more like a grown up than a 6 year old. She has difficulty using her imagination, and has become just as skeptical as her mother. Since Kris believes that "the important thing is to make children happy," winning the affection of Susan and her mother is his main objective.

Whether or not Kris is the real Santa Claus, there is no doubt that he seems to have an influence on almost everyone he meets--except for Macy's staff psychologist .Mr. Sawyer believes that Kris is delusional, and has him committed to thrown into a mental institution. In order to get out, Kris must face a court hearing, where not only is his sanity questioned, but the state of New York will decide if there really is a Santa Claus. Fred Gailey (played by John Payne) a neighbor of Doris Susan Walker agrees to represent Kris. The predictable end to the story is that Fred and Doris become attracted to each other, and as Fred works hard to secure Kris' freedom, Doris finds herself not only believing in Kris, but also in believing in fantasy.

Maureen O'Hara portrays Doris Walker with poise and sophistication. Although the movie is over 55 years old, the idea of a single working mom trying to raise her daughter after a bitter divorce, tells a story that is relevant by today's standards. Natalie Wood does such a good job at playing as the bright six year old, Susan, that you can almost imagine her going straight from being a baby to being an adult. John Payne, as Fred Gailey, predictably plays the handsome attorney who falls in love with Mrs. Walker. Finally, Edmund Gwenn's portrayal of Santa Claus is so believable. The Oscar he won for this part was well-deserved.

Miracle On 34th Street is a very touching film that's an essential to watch this holiday season!

I hope you enjoyed this review, and stay tuned for next week's installment!

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Review: Trouble in Paradise (1932)

Trouble In Paradise was the first talkie romantic comedy that Ernst Lubitsch made for Hollywood. Prior to this, he made many very funny silents and a couple of dramas and musicals. But it was on Trouble in Paradise where his directorial strengths came into play. With sophistication, and good timing, Lubitsch rewrites the rules of romantic comedy. Lubitsch is at his best when he has his leads (Herbert Marshall, Miriam Hopkins, and Kay Francis) just banter between themselves. His suggestive actions and subtleties are far funnier than straight slapstick.

Marshall and Hopkins are a couple of con artists who meet while trying to con each other. They fall in love and get married. They then fall into an opportunity to con Francis. Francis and Marshall fall in love, and you can probably guess the rest of the plot.

The cast is first rate. Marshall walks through this film never losing his sense of sophistication, even when he knows the jig is up. Hopkins turns on the charm as needed and is hilarious in a small bit with Eva McKenzie at the beginning of the film. Francis is beautiful as their high spending foil. Nice work is also turned in by Charlie Ruggles, Edward Everett Horton and C. Aubrey Smith. Also, the sets and costumes create a gorgeous, enticing Art Deco world that's a little hard to leave when the movie ends.

Interestingly, when Paramount tried to reissue this film in 1935, it was turned down because of the production code and the same thing happened in 1942. But this is a superb comedy that definitely deserves your attention. It's a real pleasure to watch.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Review: I Married A Witch (1942)

Last night I was planning to watch a horror film to review this Halloween weekend, but then I found this movie online, and since I've wanted to see it for a few years, I couldn't pass it up.

It's 1690 and Daniel and Jennifer are branded witches, burnt at the stake they curse their persecutors, the Wooley family. The curse being that no male member of the family will ever know happiness in love. We then see a number of sequences throughout history where various male Wooley's are beset with misfortune. On to 1942 and the latest Wooley is a fella named Wallace, he is a pompous politician soon to marry the snobbish Estelle and running for governor of the state backed by his fiancée's wealthy father. A storm breaks and lightning strikes the old tree that the accused witches Daniel and Jennifer were buried under years and years ago, this releases the duo first as smoke, then with the help of fire, Daniel as a booze loving man and Jennifer as a smoldering blonde sexual siren. Jennifer sets about wooing Wallace with every trick in the book, while Daniel is less than impressed and does all he can to overcook it.

I Married A Witch is now rightly acknowledged as the inspiration for the hit running series Bewitched, and as good as I find that particular show, it could never replace this delightfully breezy picture. Though the rest of the cast might not agree (I read Lake and March hated each other) I found Veronica Lake simply wonderful as Jennifer, seductive yet vulnerable, Lake shows a real impacting comedy streak, and as memorable as she was in the Noir genre, it's real to see her having fun for a change.The very dignified March made a great politician, as the character in this film is - but he comes off as too old to be marrying Hayward or getting involved with Lake, overall though he gave a fine performance. Bonus here is the turn from Cecil Kellaway as Jennifer's father Daniel, he's an engaging character given maximum gusto from Kellaway. Susan Hayward is Wallace's snob fiancée Estelle, the role doesn't call for a great deal, but the marker was set here and Hayward would go on to be a true great in the acting circle. René Clair directs with very accomplished comedic hands, what is, a lovely jovial film with neat special effects.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

New Look and A Blog Award!

Hi all! I'm sorry I haven't posted anything here in over a month. Once August rolled in I was getting ready to start school, and I've spent the last month getting back into the swing of things. But now that I have my schedule down, I think I'll have more time to post here, which is good, because I've ben watching a lot of movies just not writing about them and I miss doing that.

To coincide with the revival of this blog, I updated the layout. I might still make a few more changes, but right now I like it. Also, I've been working on some reviews that I'll probably post later this week, and a few fun blog post series' as well. But first, I just realized that back in August I was given the Irresistibly Sweet Blog Award (my very first award!) by the always lovely Meredith of Forever Classics! Thank you so much, Meredith, and I apologize for accepting it so late!

Here are the rules:

1. Thank and link to the person who nominated you.
2. Share 7 random facts about yourself.
3. Pass the award to 12 of your blogging buddies.
4. Notify the recipients.

7 random facts about myself:

  1. After I graduate, I plan to get my MA in history and eventually become a museum curator.
  2. I love to cook but I'm not very good at it.
  3. Besides film, music is my life. I'll listen to almost anything except rap. I'm really not a fan of most modern music in general.
  4. I play golf, but like cooking, I'm not very good. It's just a fun past time.
  5. Someday I want to travel cross-country by train, like people used to do in the 1930s and 40s.
  6. When I was younger I always wanted to sing with a big band; it sounds so fun!
  7. My favorite food is any kind of pasta.

12 blogs I tag:
  1. Backlots
  2. Another Old Movie Blog
  3. ClassicBecky's Brain Food
  4. Garbo Laughs
  5. Bette's Classic Movie Blog
  6. Comet Over Hollywood
  7. Movie Montage
  8. And...Scene!
  9. Caftan Woman
  10. Viv and Larry
  11. Self-Styled Siren
  12. Out of the Past
Be sure to follow these amazing blogs if you aren't already!

Saturday, August 13, 2011

The Shop Around the Corner (1940)

The Shop Around the Corner is one of those films that seem to get better each time you see it. The warmth that projects from the screen and the teaming of James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan are only two things that make this movie a standout in the filmographies of all involved.

The fluffy but pleasant story benefits greatly from the “Lubitsch touch”, since director Ernst Lubitsch had the knack of giving significance to little things without taking them too seriously. Presenting his characters honestly yet sympathetically, he makes the somewhat contrived situation seem believable and worth caring about. Its appeal comes across as almost effortless, but you only have to compare it with the less effective 1998 remake You’ve Got Mail to see how important the right touch is with this kind of story.

In Budapest, Hungary, the Matuschek and Company store owned by Hugo Matuschek (Frank Morgan) and the bachelor Alfred Kralik (James Stewart) is his best and most experienced salesman. When Klara Novak (Margaret Sullavan) seeks a job position of saleswoman in the store, Matuschek hires her but she and Kralik do not get on with each other. Stewart and Sullavan are delightful as the clerks in love with romance and then with each other - without knowing it. Their dialogue - so adeptly handled as to seem utterly natural - perfectly conveys their confusion & quiet desperation as they seek for soul mates.
At its surface, one might assume The Shop Around the Corner to simply be the story of two lovers, Klara Novak (Sullavan) and Alfred Kralik (Stewart), who love each other without knowing it. However, Lubitsch's film runs much deeper than that. It's the story of Matuschek and Compan, and the various human relationships that make the store such a close-knit family. When storeowner Matuschek begins to suspect his oldest employee of having an affair with his wife, we witness the breakdown of two families, both at home and at work. Ernst Lubitsch really does himself proud with this film; the charm of the simple story is that it is so real and relatable.

The atmosphere of life in the Budapest shop is set up efficiently and convincingly, and the cast all settle into their roles seamlessly. As the leads, Jimmy Stewart works perfectly and Margaret Sullavan conveys the right balance of spunkiness and vulnerability. Felix Bressart is invaluable, giving perhaps the finest performance among his many character roles. In some of his scenes, he barely has to say a word to make you smile. Frank Morgan is surprisingly good in a role rather different than usual for him, Joseph Schildkraut is effectively oily as the deceitful Vadas, and the others all help out, too. Lubitsch gives all of the characters a chance to come to life without pretense, just by using simple details effectively.
It all fits together very well, with a great cast and a nice blend of wit and sentiment. The film moves at just the right pace and makes you a part of the characters' world. It makes for a very enjoyable movie that holds up very well even after several viewings and for its age.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Sinatra, The Actor

When most people think of Frank Sinatra, they think of him as a singer, not as an actor. I was surprised to find he had a long acting career when I first became a fan. But he was much more than just a singer who could act in musicals and his Academy Award win for From Here To Eternity wasn't pure luck. Unlike the singers today who think they can act and vice-versa, he had real talent.

I feel that a lot of people don't give Frank enough credit for his acting abilities, so I came up with this small list of performances that showcase what he was capable of on screen. If you're not a huge fan his acting, then try watching a few of these movies.

From Here to Eternity (1953) was the movie that really made Frank take acting seriously. He desperately wanted the role of Maggio and after he got it, he did all he could to turn out a fantastic performance. His hard work paid off and he won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for the role. When he won the part, his career was in decline, but with the Oscar both his acting and recording career skyrocketed and he became a superstar.

In Suddenly (1954) Frank Sinatra plays a ruthless criminal mastermind who wants to assassinate the president who is traveling through the small town en route to a fishing trip. He is downright brutal and nasty in the role--an utterly detestable villain who does remind us the it was the army that created him and made him into a killer or maybe deep down, it's just that he was always a killer at heart. An outstanding multi-dimensional performance from Sinatra.

The Man with the Golden Arm (1955) is in my opinion Sinatra's best performance on film. He is absolutely astounding as Frankie Machine, a junkie trying to conquer addiction. He made the role so realistic and incredibly believable. He clearly deserved the only Best Actor nomination of his career for this performance.

Some Came Running (1958) has Frank Sinatra playing a footloose writer returning to his Midwestern home town right after World War II. It's essentially a smart soap opera, with some very deep emotions and Sinatra (and the rest of the cast included) is brilliant. In my opinion, he was perfectly cast.

The Manchurian Candidate (1962) This film features Sinatra's most complex and subtle performance of the 1960s. Sinatra plays Bennett Marco, a Korean War vet who is having troubling nightmares about what happened to him in Korea when his unit was attacked. Unbeknown to the survivors of the unit, they had been taken by the Koreans and transported to China, where they were brainwashed. Marco begins an investigation into what really happened and must stop a murder from being committed.

Though Sinatra often coasted through his roles, especially in the 1960s, he proved that he was much more than the song and dance man in musicals. He really could be a great actor when he wanted to be.