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Alias Nick Beal (1949)
Interesting, atmospheric late-'40s near-noir, shot through with smoky exteriors and great moody lighting. But it's just a variation on the Faust legend, and not an imaginatively conceived one. Thomas Mitchell, a good man running for governor, is courted by Ray Milland, who's essentially the devil. He talks in epigrams and charms when he wants to and bends fate to his will, and he enlists femme fatale Audrey Totter (who's splendid) to lure Mitchell away from his good, moral, dull wife. There's some fine Franz Waxman blasting beneath the surface, and some good character actors turn up--Fred Clark as a corrupt pol, Darryl Hickman as a bad kid turning better. What ruins it for me is the sanctimonious posturing, from a too-good-to-be-true priest to some absurd plot points- -Milland refuses to be touched, and is ultimately done in by being unable to touch a Bible. Though Milland's top-billed, Mitchell is really the lead, and he's good. But the picture sermonizes too much for its own good.
Born to Love (1931)
Not uninteresting pre-Code soap suds, wherein Yankee nurse Bennett, in London (nice historical touch: a bus advertising "Chu Chin Chow") meets Captain Joel McCrea, they have a torrid romance and pledge their troth, and while carrying his child she hears he's dead. We know he's not--he's second-billed, and there's an hour to go--but she thinks he is, so she marries Paul Cavanagh on the rebound and we wait for the fireworks that will erupt when McCrea returns. Connie's histrionic- -she gets to love, yell, sob, scream, and put on a phony British accent, even though she's playing American--and Paul Stein's camera likes to linger on her overemoting. But Joel McCrea was certainly the personification of solid masculine American values circa 1918 or 1931, and his sincere underplaying nice complements her overplaying. The screenplay doesn't hate her for having a child out of wedlock, and the happy ending isn't that happy. So, by 1931 standards, it's an adult movie. Just not a very good one.
Three Sailors and a Girl (1953)
First-rate second-rate musical
Warners borrowed Jane Powell from MGM in 1953 and put her in a Doris Day kind of role, as an up- and-coming Broadway leading lady starring in Sam Levene's not-very-integrated-looking musical. Together they charm sailors Gordon MacRae, Gene Nelson, and Jack E. Leonard (trying to be Jackie Gleason, the Fat Funny One) into investing, and turn an out-of-town flop into a Broadway smash. Not an original story by any means, but it's lively, and the Sammy Fain-Sammy Cahn songs are good. It seems stinting of the screenwriters not to write in a girlfriend for Nelson, who has two spectacular tap numbers, and the no-name supporting characters (Georges Givot as a temperamental Ezio Pinza-like basso, somebody else as the sarcastic secretary, somebody else as the doofus playwright) don't have much interesting to do. But the songs and dances are really lively, and it's a chance to see Levene playing a Nathan Detroit-like schemer at the top of his form. MGM was making better musicals, even Warners was, but this one's an unpretentious good time.
Brigsby Bear (2017)
Delightful, with one large caveat
Unexpected little comedy from Kyle Mooney, who co-wrote and stars, and is a sweet presence as a man-child suddenly thrust out into the real world after living a very, very constricted existence. In an era where so many comedies are loud and raucous and determined to wring laughs out of vulgarity, this one's small and quiet, and as it progresses, it shows you the best of humanity, in a convincing way. That's the word for it, humane. But it's also... far-fetched is too mild. The central conceit makes no sense: WHY did the Mark Hamill and Jane Adams characters subject him to this? Was it some sort of mind experiment? Something else? Give us a line or two that explains the premise, and I'll raise it to an 8.
The Witness Chair (1936)
Well, it does have Ann
Predictable, talky, unsuspenseful courtroom drama, with Walter Abel held for murdering business partner Douglas Dumbrille, while secretary Ann Harding obviously knows there's more to it. Some fun supporting players, notably Margaret Hamilton as an office busybody, and it's over in 64 minutes. And while an unambiguous happy ending is impossible, it does have a hopeful one. But it has little really going for it but Ann, who, as always, is dedicated and interesting, with a certain... stillness that suggests a woman who's thinking all the time. She didn't like this one much, and she was right. But she's the only reason to watch.
It's a banal country
Expensive and all-star and in production for most of 1950 and 51, this MGM anthology reflects what patriotism looked like in the Cold War era, and uncertainly jumbled together comic and dramatic episodes. A couple just pass muster: There's one where Ethel Barrymore is a sad Boston matron dismayed to learn she hasn't been counted in the census, and in another, Marjorie Main is excellent as a grieving mother visited by her dead son's war buddy. Most of the stories just aren't interesting, and there's some amazing miscasting: Gene Kelly as a Greek entrepreneur making goo-goo eyes at Janet Leigh (and S.Z. Sakall rattling his cheeks as her father), Fredric March (in a rare bad performance) as a stupid Italian immigrant arguing with schoolteacher Nancy Davis over whether his son should have eyeglasses, Gary Cooper over-drawling as a Texan mis-explaining the Lone Star State. There's a welcome but perfunctory documentary about great African Americans, and William Powell is elegant in the opening segment. There's also a lot of narration, and if I'm not mistaken, it's Louis Calhern. It was understandable that MGM wanted to celebrate America in the early '50s, but couldn't they have come up with some better plots?
The Cat and the Fiddle (1934)
The dawn of MGM Jeanette
Jeanette MacDonald's first for Metro is a loose adaptation of the hit Kern-Harbach operetta co- starring Ramon Novarro and Frank Morgan, and alas, she's already becoming MGM Jeanette. A smart, suggestive comedienne at Paramount in things like "One Hour With You" and "Love Me Tonight" (to these eyes, the greatest movie musical ever), she really became a household word at Metro, in operettas, usually opposite Nelson Eddy, that increasingly encouraged her diva- hood. Here, as an American pop composer in Brussels, she's already losing her deliciously risqué sense of humor and indulging in great-lady sentimentality. Fun Jeanette isn't entirely gone, though, and she works well with Ramon, who has an attractive tenor and a good deal more acting skill than some of MacDonald's subsequent leading men. The screenplay, by the Spewacks, runs far afield of the Broadway original but makes room for most of the sublime score. And there's also a good glimpse of Vivienne Segal, a legendary Broadway soprano who'd been playing Jeanette-style leads just a few years back, at the dawn of sound. Charles Butterworth--no stranger to Kern, having supported Helen Morgan on Broadway in "Sweet Adeline"--has some funny bits, and there's a pleasing finale in early three-strip Technicolor. Jeanette followed this one up with "The Merry Widow," where, aided by Chevalier and Lubitsch, she was more her old self. Witness this one for some lovely Kern and for Novarro, but watching Jeanette trade comic finesse for prima donna respectability isn't pretty.
The Road to Singapore (1931)
Early polished Powell
Not-especially-interesting romantic melodrama, from a play, of a triangle in the tropics. But it's one of the earliest demonstrations of William Powell in full William Powelldom. As a rich, unscrupulous playboy living a hedonistic existence in Khota (why Khota is never made clear), he's all polished consonants, dapper clothes, and upper-class charm. You can see why Doris Kenyon, unhappily married to dull, work-obsessed doctor Louis Calhern, would respond to his flirtations. And you can see why her younger sister, Marian Marsh, would be similarly captivated. It's a bit clichéd and more than a bit casually racist (when displeased with a servant, kick him), but it's lifted up by a) some spiffy early-talkie camera-work--love the long take panning from Calhern's to Powell's bungalow!--and b) engagingly pre-Code morality, where the callow hedonist isn't entirely punished for his devil-may-care attitude. It's swift, and the ending may surprise you a little.
Vanessa, Her Love Story (1935)
Drivel, and I loved it
What a wallow, a Hugh Walpole novel he adapted himself, assisted by the reliable Lenore Coffee, and produced, with needless lavishness, by Selznick during his MGM tenure. Eternal love in its most idealized state, with Robert Montgomery pining for Helen Hayes, until they have an elaborately staged misunderstanding and she marries Otto Kruger, who's not only rich and shallow but goes insane. Meantime Montgomery loses an arm, but their love is unaffected, and when they're reunited the whole 19th century British society rejects and disdains them, even though they're platonic lovers (and lack chemistry). Meantime, May Robson, as Hayes's centenarian-plus grandmother, makes barbed comments on the side, like a very, very old Eve Arden. And the happy ending arrives when Kruger dies. William K. Howard was no great stylist but has some nice, elaborate compositions, and the musical score is suitably slurpy, and some winning MGM stalwarts hover on the sidelines, like Lewis Stone and Henry Stephenson. Montgomery was an awful man, but he's good here, though he doesn't even attempt an accent, and Hayes is... prim. Distinguished it's not, but as an example of large, prestigious studio product of 1935, it's great fun.
The Rabbit Trap (1959)
The problems of little people. Very little people
Adapted from a '50s TV drama, this United Artists release stars Ernest Borgnine, at the height of his Everyman abilities, as a family man torn between home and work responsibilities. His boss (David Brian, good) is a slave driver who knows how to exploit his cooperativeness, and his wife (Bethel Leslie, also good) keeps talking sense to him, knowing he's disinclined to listen. When he's called back to work prematurely from vacation and forgets to dismantle the rabbit trap he and his young son set up, the son worries about the suffering rabbit and tries to travel back to the lake on his own. Yes, the movie's really that small. There's a subplot about a va-va-voom but nice secretary who's having an affair with the boss and feels guilty about it, and there's a happy ending that really isn't very happy. And there's annoying, TV-sounding music throughout, and some dull shots of L.A. and environs in 1958. It's well intentioned and reasonably well executed, but also prosaic and up to its neck in the Everyday Problems of Normal People. That's generally not a recipe for exciting cinema.