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9/10
Movie Odyssey Review #120: The Scarlet Pimpernel
4 March 2009
120: The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934) - released 12/23/34, viewed 9/25/08.

DOUG: From the makers of 'The Private Life of Henry VIII,' our next entry is 'The Scarlet Pimpernel.' Leslie Howard (from 'Of Human Bondage' previously and 'Gone With the Wind' eventually) plays Sir Percy Blakely, a seemingly empty-headed aristocrat who secretly works the underground as the Scarlet Pimpernel, helping innocents out of France during the revolution. Pimpernel is kind of a super-hero identity, although he has no costumed persona, but he does have a logo (the titular flower), and many disguises. He's something of a French version of Zorro, minus the sword. About that: Call me ignorant, but I always thought Orczy's original story for Pimpernel was a swashbuckler; I'm pretty sure other versions have actual swordplay. But there is not a sword to be seen here; Blakely's weapon of choice appears to be the eyeglass. The movie yields a good performance from Howard, who works Blakeny's act nicely between underground vigilante and witless fop. Oberon is especially good as Marguerite, the wife who can't stand her seemingly clueless husband but admires the courage of the mysterious Pimpernel. Even without the action, this is a capable suspense yarn set in the backdrop of revolutionary France, with some very good performances and compelling twists and turns.

KEVIN: I am happy to see that Leslie Howard is not always as bland as he was in 'Of Human Bondage.' In many ways, 'The Scarlet Pimpernel' is a superhero story, which is probably why it's one of my favorites of the year, up there with 'The Count of Monte Cristo.' The Pimpernel may not have a costume, but he does have a superhero symbol and a host of disguises. Characters like Batman and Iron Man stole the idea of a wealthy aristocrat who utilizes his wealth and resources to aid those in need. But in a totally not-made-up twist, it turns out to be the aristocracy rather than the peasantry that is persecuted under the Reign of Terror. There's also the old crime-fighter trope of the hero assuming the boorish fop persona to throw off suspicion, which in a way gives the hero the chance to be as memorably crazy as the villains. Although it makes for some of the best scenes in the film, I wondered if it was really necessary for Blakeney to maintain his foppishness around the woman he married. Which brings us to the awesome Merle Oberon as Lady Blakeney. She has nearly as much screen time as Howard. It's her story just as much as his, if not more so. Raymond Massey, looking like Paul Muni by way of Boris Karloff, chews memorable amounts of scenery as the dastardly Chauvelin, tasked with uncovering the Pimpernel's true identity. Although the film restoration leaves much to be desired, I would highly recommend this to fans of the book, of lavish adventures in general, and of both Howard and Oberon.

Last film: Bright Eyes (1934). Next film viewed: The Crowd (1928). Next film chronologically: Bride of Frankenstein (1935).
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9/10
Movie Odyssey Review #117: Imitation of Life
4 March 2009
Warning: Spoilers
117: Imitation of Life (1934) - released 11/26/1934, viewed 9/9/08.

Cole Porter's 'Anything Goes' premieres in New York City.

KEVIN: This surprising eleventh-hour addition to the list left me wondering what could possibly compel us to skip it in the first place. Claudette Colbert (playing Beatrice, in her third film this year) teams with Louise Beavers (as Delilah) in an absorbing drama about two very different single moms, their daughters, their successful pancake business, and a lifetime of friendship. At the center of the movie is the relationship between Delilah and her light-skinned daughter Peola (played by Fredi Washington as an adult, in pretty much the role she was born to play). The drama of this story is so powerful, that all the other subplots take a back seat, including the plot of Bea and her daughter Jessie (Rochelle Hudson) falling for the same man. This is the one film that dives in head first with the hard questions for which there are no easy answers. I would like to have seen more scenes between Jessie and Peola interacting as grown women. My only problem with Fredi Washington's performance was that it was hard for me to buy that she was 19 years old. Other than that, her performance is so gut-twistingly poignant that it was sometimes hard to watch.

DOUG: A chance meeting between two single moms leads to a lifelong friendship in Imitation of Life, a movie that was a rather late addition to the Odyssey, but one I'm very glad we looked at. Not since Little Women have I seen a melodrama where everyone is so nice to each other. We've already seen Claudette Colbert in a wide variety of roles in a short amount of time: conniving Roman queen, scheming Egyptian queen, spoiled runaway heiress, and so forth. Here we get to see another side of her: loving, working mom. Louise Beavers as Delilah paves the way for African Americans in the cinema. The movie deals with a lot of dodgy territory for the mid-30's, and putting a black woman in a front-and-center supporting role is just the start of it. Delilah's daughter Peola (Fredi Washington as a teenager) is a mulatto, and deals with alienation at trying to relate to her black mother but preferring to pass as white. Contract Player Alert: Warren William joins Claudette on screen again after playing Caesar in DeMille's Cleopatra. Another welcome contract player is Ned Sparks (42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933), who plays a passing business man who helps put Bea on the right track. **SPOILER ALERT**Other dramas develop as Bea's daughter Jessie falls for Steve who is after Bea. After sizing up her daughter's interest in Steve, she begs him to keep his distance (she must have seen Mildred Pierce already). I will say this though: I've heard that most guys, when they grow up, fall for women similar to their mothers. If the reverse is true for girls, then Jessie falling for Steve kind of indicates that he's the right guy for Bea. **END SPOILER** Great performances and good drama attached to the script based on Fannie Hurst's novel lead to a high recommendation for this one.

Last film: It's a Gift (1934). Next film: The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934).
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8/10
Movie Odyssey Review #118: The Man Who Knew Too Much
4 March 2009
118: The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) - released 12/1/1934, viewed 9/11/08.

A gunfight with the FBI outside Chicago results in the death of Baby Face Nelson.

KEVIN: Our very first Alfred Hitchcock film is hardly a masterpiece, but still a standout suspense yarn among all the rom-coms and melodramas of this year. Were that not the case, this movie would be pretty disposable. As it is, it's a healthy dose of Hitchcock-style cool. Except for Peter Lorre, I didn't recognize any of the actors in this movie, which made me realize that casting recognizable faces can sometimes help the viewer follow the story easier. The leading husband and wife (Leslie Banks and Edna Best) came off kind of bland, but do what they must to move the story along. It was hard to get emotionally invested in their daughter being abducted by bad guys because the actors didn't sell it much beyond what's written in the script. As sometimes happens with movies like this, it's the villains, especially Lorre, who really make it worth seeing, even though we never get a good idea of what their clandestine organization is all about.

DOUG: I don't have a whole lot to say in overview for this, our first Hitchcock movie on the Odyssey, so I'll just sum up my thoughts with some bullet points: --I couldn't tell you why we chose this to be our first Hitchcock film on the Odyssey instead of The Lodger. Still, Hitch did consider this film the real start of his career, so I guess we'll be okay. -We had to watch this one twice to catch the complexities of the plot and get through everyone's accents. Why do so few of these old DVDs have captions? --Peter Lorre, fresh out of Germany in his first English-speaking role, drops just a bit of weight and sports a skunky white streak in his hair to play the villain of the piece. --A lot of the film does seem overtly experimental, especially in the transitions, like cutting to a screaming train as Jill sees the ransom note. Even this early in his career, Hitch wanted to try new things. --A word on the authorities in this film: The lead government heavy who gets in Lawrence's face seems almost angry at him for not handing over the info, even though he knows this will cost the kidnapped daughter her life. Lawrence has no obligation to help the police or the government if his family is in danger, so it should be their priority to help him get his kid back before he hands over the information they want. --I look forward to checking out the '56 remake eventually and comparing the two. I know Hitch preferred the later one (and I probably would too, if I got to take something I made while I was a rookie and make it again as a pro), but many buffs prefer this early version. --I would only recommend this film if you are really, really curious about Alfred Hitchcock and his early work; otherwise, there are many far better choices from the career of the Master of Suspense.

Last film: Imitation of Life (1934). Next film: Bright Eyes (1934).
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Bright Eyes (1934)
8/10
Movie Odyssey Review #119: Bright Eyes
4 March 2009
Warning: Spoilers
119: Bright Eyes (1934) - released 12/11/1934, viewed 9/22/08.

BIRTHS: Judi Dench.

DOUG: It appears I had completely misunderstood Shirley Temple's niche in Hollywood before I watched this movie. I thought that her movies were all-out musicals for kids only, but she was more for the family and all-ages market. Bright Eyes is not a kids' movie, nor is it really a musical, other than the famous Good Ship Lollipop number. That number is, I think, more indicative of a trend in the early sound period where nearly every movie made tried to incorporate a scene with music. I thought the movie was going to be predictable, and it mostly is; the Smythe family never really become more than one-dimensional caricatures, ready to toss the lovely Shirley out onto the street while still indulging their own demonic daughter's every whim. Still, it managed to surprise me in a few places. Loop and Uncle Ned, the two most awesome characters and the ones who care about Shirley the most, suddenly become enemies as they each try to claim custody. **SPOILER ALERT** I was almost in tears a couple times: when Shirley's mom dies was pretty rough (though that car hit looked awfully gentle), and Loop flying through the storm is pretty intense. **END SPOILER** If you're trying to get an idea of what Shirley Temple was all about in Depression-era Hollywood, Bright Eyes is a great place to start. Contract Player Alert: Charles Sellon (Uncle Ned) and Jane Withers (Joy) both appeared three films ago in It's a Gift, as Mr. Muckle and the hopscotch girl, respectively.

KEVIN: This movie surprised me. I really didn't expect to like it much, but the themes of the film and the complexity of many of the characters kept me interested. Of course little Shirley is great, everyone knows that, but all the adult characters, none of whom I recognized right off, are all very well acted and fully fleshed out. **SPOILER ALERT** I'm not gonna lie, I was indeed moved to tears in the scene where Loop (James Dunn) must tell little Shirley that her Mom has died. **END SPOILER** And I was even more intrigued when Shirley is taken in by the snobbish, blue-blooded Smythe couple with their bratty, Nazi-in-training daughter (Jane Withers). Although the custody battle between Loop and the Smythes is the center of the movie, the film does a really good job setting up the characters and getting all its ducks in a row for maximum emotional punch. I couldn't help but giggle at the schmaltzy happy ending, starting with the judge deciding that the proceedings "won't need lawyers anymore." Everyone gets what they want and/or what they deserve, even the crotchety uncle.

Last film: The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934). Next film: The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934).
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It's a Gift (1934)
9/10
Movie Odyssey Review #116: It's a Gift
4 March 2009
116: It's a Gift (1934) - released 11/17/1934, viewed 9/6/08.

BIRTHS: Carl Sagan, Charles Manson.

KEVIN: There are probably earlier films of W.C. Fields we could've started with, but we were just too damn lazy to add them to the list. So we first meet the plump, red-nosed, curmudgeonly underdog at age 53 in his purported masterpiece, 'It's a Gift.' As an actual movie, the film is put together pretty poorly. Comic vignettes are strung together loosely, transitions are almost nonexistent, and the lack of music is far too noticeable. But the comic vignettes themselves, containing some of Field's best gags, are always hilarious. It's rare to see a comic actor in this period playing a family man. Of course, it would be hard to imagine a guy of Field's age and complexion as a romantic lead like his other comic contemporaries. Field's bumbling grocer is tormented by his shrewish wife, annoying kids, and every person he meets in a series of gags that seem more based on the actual experiences of a veteran family man, rather than spilling out of the gag-writers' factory. There are times where Fields' bad luck and getting blamed for every stupid thing that happens (even stuff that's obviously not his fault) strains belief, even in the midst of a comedy. Anyway, this is definitely a must see, but I'm sure it would play far better if watched by a large company of viewers than by any individual.

DOUG: Welcome to the world of W.C. Fields, where all the women are nagging shrews, all the children are unwieldy brats, and the hero is a clumsy, boorish, impatient and obstinate old man. Most of the comedians of the era have protagonists that are everymen and/or cartoon characters, getting into extraordinary situations through mostly no fault of their own and showing some pluckiness as they overcome adversity. Fields, however, seems to wind up in situations, mostly his fault, that he could get out of if he possessed even the slightest bit of finesse. Case in point: the film's first sustained gag sequence, in which Fields foolishly lets his daughter into the bathroom so she can do her hair while he's in the middle of shaving, leaving him to struggle to find a steady reflection to finish his job instead of just, you know, ASKING HER to hang back for a couple of minutes. This continues throughout the movie, which is little more than a collection of episodes showing Fields constantly besotted by forces determined to drive him mad. He tries in vain to escape his awful wife by sleeping on the porch amid a parade of noise; he attempts to run his grocery store while handling a grouchy customer, a neighbor's demon child, a ballistic blind man, and a half-wit assistant he should have fired long ago; and he drives his rickety old car into a private estate for a picnic, promising that the KEEP OUT sign is just to scare the hobos away. A unique brand of comedy to be sure, one that I'm surprised got past the Hays Code in any measure, so definitely recommended.

Last film: The Gay Divorcée (1934). Next film: Imitation of Life (1934).
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Cleopatra (1934)
7/10
Movie Odyssey Review #113: Cleopatra
1 March 2009
113: Cleopatra (1934) - released 10/5/1934, viewed 9/2/08.

Russia and Afghanistan join the League of Nations. BIRTHS: Brian Epstein, Sophia Loren, Leonard Cohen, Brigitte Bardot.

KEVIN: Cecil B. DeMille is at it again with this lavish sword-and-sandal quickie centering on the romantic life of the legendary Egyptian empress, this time played by Claudette Colbert. It should come as no surprise that this film is very poor history by any measure. Historical events that span decades are compressed into weeks or even days. Seemingly important benchmarks, such as the children that Cleopatra bore with Caesar and Antony, are dropped completely. I guess I was a little surprised at how shallow the movie came out to be. All of the actors are playing caricatures, and all their dialogue is spoken in overblown poetic prose. As this is the second DeMille movie we've seen, some comparing and contrasting is in order. 'Sign of the Cross' was more about the large setpieces than about the actual story. This film, no less lavish or expensive-looking, lets the background stay in the background more than hijacking the story. This time, all the big battles and sexytime bears the Production Code seal of approval. This film has far superior (and Oscar-winning) cinematography from Lubitsch-veteran Victor Milner. While 'Cleopatra' is paced and structured far better than 'Sign of the Cross,' I found the former movie, despite its many flaws and similarly two-dimensional performances, to be much more moving than this one. At no point during this film did I feel anything significant for the characters, except maybe for the first flirting scenes between Antony and Cleopatra, which were the best acted and best staged in the film. And Ian Keith is way too old for Octavian at any point in the story.

DOUG: Cecil B. DeMille's take on Cleopatra, once probably the biggest and most definitive version of the story, now looks downright routine by comparison. I have not yet seen the 1964 version with Liz Taylor (I'm kind of waiting until they find all that missing footage). *Contract Player Alert*: Claudette Colbert (eventual Oscar winner for It Happened One Night), for all her awesomeness, never really disappears into the character; she just looks like Claudette Colbert in Cleopatra drag. Maybe it's just that she's the only face I recognized. Still, she looks very good in those costumes, and Cleo comes off (rather intentionally) as the most interesting character, with Caesar, Antony, and Octavian all come off as greedy one-dimensional fools. Also worth noting: the movie opens with a seal of approval from the Production Code of America, the first time we've seen it on the Odyssey so far. It's interesting to compare DeMille's Pre-Code spectacle Sign of the Cross with this one. It's especially noticeable in a montage sequence in the third act which shows the Roman army rampaging through Egypt. Demille's indulgent stretches of violence from Cross are gone, replaced with short, indecipherable clips with occasional stabbing and spearchucking. I hate to say it, but think I liked this one better than Cross. Unable to resort to racy scenes of violence and nudity, DeMille now has to focus on the story, what little of it there is. Recommended? Sure.

Last film: The Count of Monte Cristo (1934). Next film: The Merry Widow (1934).
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8/10
Movie Odyssey Review #115: The Gay Divorcée
1 March 2009
115: The Gay Divorcée (1934) - released 10/12/1934, viewed 9/3/08.

DOUG: Ah, the first true Astaire & Rogers vehicle. After slogging through 'Flying Down to Rio,' it's nice to watch a movie that's more than a footnote. Also, quite a double feature: we watched 'The Merry Widow' the same day as this, another romantic comedy musical revolving around mistaken identity. But where one singing, dancing comedy couple (Chevalier & MacDonald) finishes their run, another (Astaire & Rogers) begins theirs. *Contract Player Alert*: 'Widow' also had the always-reliable character actor Edward Everett Horton, who appears here as Astaire's sidekick. So, onto the movie: After a chance meeting with Rogers, Astaire begins obsessing over her like a stalker, despite never learning her name or anything about her. I have a problem with any movie or TV show that perpetuates the idea that stalking a woman is romantic. Leave these women alone. However, I guess her very unusual situation (having to fake an infidelity to get her mooching jerk of a husband to divorce her) makes Astaire coming into her life kind of okay. Another first on the Odyssey is Cole Porter, who contributes the song "Night and Day." As for how it compares to other A&R vehicles, it's hard to say at this point; we've seen 'Swing Town' before, and I thought that was better; I can still remember a lot of those numbers years later, whereas I've already forgotten all of the numbers from this. I'll have to decide down the road where this ranks among all the other Astaire & Rogers movies.

KEVIN: Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers take the lead for the first time in an overall better movie than 'Flying Down to Rio,' although this movie probably could've done more with its exotic locales. It's routine, but I wouldn't say it's hopelessly routine. The likability of the leads makes this one rise above that extra inch. Edward Everett Horton makes another great sidekick foil (just as he did in our previous similarly titled movie). The dancing scenes are great (though I didn't care for the ones without the two leads), but the characters and storytelling are not nearly as provocative now that the Production Code has anesthetized everything cool about movies. I guess that's something we'll have to get used to.

Last film: The Merry Widow (1934). Next film: It's a Gift (1934).
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9/10
Movie Odyssey Review #114: The Merry Widow
1 March 2009
114: The Merry Widow (1934) - released 10/11/1934, viewed 9/3/08.

DOUG: Criterion just released a Lubitsch box set featuring his sound musicals prior to Trouble In Paradise. Awesome. Now we need one with his work following Paradise, including this lavish piece. Lubitsch favorites Maurice Chavalier and Jeanette MacDonald appear in their last film together; once again she plays a lonely aristocrat, and once again he plays an officer intent on wooing her. This one, however, spares no expense on the costumes, sets, and extras. The always-reliable Edward Everett Horton is also around to pull his weight in a supporting role. For all its loveliness, Lubitsch is in danger of becoming routine, but I don't want that to sound bad; Lubitsch was one of Hollywood's most prolific and most reliable imports at this time, and this is a solid example to be sure. Like all of Lubitsch's best work, this is filled with crackling innuendo and great chemistry, along with lots of fun little moments sprinkled throughout. Overall, though the elements are familiar, everyone is at the top of their game. Definitely recommended, if you can get your hands on it.

KEVIN: After powering through all of Ernst Lubitsch's pre-Code essentials, his latest foray feels kinda routine. In a good way though, not unlike going to your favorite restaurant and ordering your favorite dish that you always order, and getting it served just the way you like it. Chevalier plays another playboy in uniform, and MacDonald, with more big, frilly dresses than ever, is another lovelorn upper-class socialite (here the titular obscenely wealthy widow), and the fate of a cash-strapped kingdom depends on their hooking up. Considering that the plot hinges on their union, the film seems to spend copious amounts of time building up to their meeting. Lubitsch regular George Barbier is memorable as the king, but supporting players Edward Everett Horton and Una Merkel are here and gone far too quickly. As enjoyable as this classic is, I can't help wondering if I would appreciate this movie more if I hadn't seen so much of it before.

Last film: Cleopatra (1934). Next film: The Gay Divorcée (1934).
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9/10
Movie Odyssey Review #112: The Count of Monte Cristo
27 February 2009
112: The Count of Monte Cristo (1934) - released 8/29/1934, viewed 8/28/08.

The Hays Code goes into full effect. John Dillinger is gunned down in Chicago by the FBI. Adolph Hitler becomes Fuhrer of Germany. BIRTHS: Sydney Pollack, Giorgio Armani, Roberto Clemente.

KEVIN: I've seen only one other version of this classic tale, the well-made 2002 film directed by Kevin Reynolds and starring Jim Caviezel in the title role. That film's screenwriter Jay Wolpert chose, rightfully I believe, to inject more action into the story that had mostly been played for melodrama in the past. The awesomest part of this movie is Robert Donat, who hits so many notes playing this character. Edmond Dantes could probably be considered one of the earliest anti-heroes, because even though we're rooting for him, his actions have a tinge of scheming villainy to them, at times not all that different from those he intends to exact his revenge upon. Sydney Blackmer is quite bland and unmemorable as Mondego (his best scene is his undignified death), Raymond Walburn is plenty slimy as Danglars, and Louis Calhern's corrupt Villefort is the only one that comes close to matching Donat's energy. Elissa Landi is also very good, and manages to make her character age as convincingly as Donat. Dantes' escape scene, though effective, was a little unusual, at least by today's standards. The editing and pacing were very plodding and meticulous with almost no music. The pistol duel between Dantes and Albert also went by very quickly (without music) rather than building up the suspense. I'm sure that even the most low-key director making this story today would not present such crucial dramatic turning points that way. Still, even by today's standards, this 1934 version appears to be the one to beat.

DOUG: Once this movie popped up in 'V for Vendetta' as the title character's favorite film, we put it on the list and never took it off. Now you know how our list is made. My exposure to Dumas' classic tale mostly amounts to the 2002 version with Jim Caviezel. I thought that was a good movie. But I liked this one a lot too, for a number of reasons (I'll be comparing the two a lot in this review). I liked this one better for the ways it follows Dumas' original story a little more closely, especially in the unexpected problems that emerge in Edmond's quest for revenge; he was rewarded a little too much in the 2002 version. Tackling each of his targets one by one: The swordfight between Edmond and Fernand is rather bland (this is before Errol Flynn would turn swordfights into a movie cornerstone), as is the whole conflict between the two. Edmond's revenge is more about going after all three guys as a single unit of evil, rather than the 2002 cut where he focuses primarily on Fernand. I didn't dig the end of Danglar's section; I don't care if it's that way in the book or not, that kind of finish is just a cop-out. I liked the conflict when he realizes he can't go after Villefort (who totally deserves it, the slimeball) without hurting the guy's daughter. (*Contract Player Alert*: Speaking of Villefort, he's played by Louis Calhern, the bad guy from the Marx Brothers' 'Duck Soup.') Overall, I wish like everyone else that Robert Donat had done many more movies than he did, and I look forward to seeing him again soon in Hitchcock's 'The 39 Steps'.

Last film: Of Human Bondage (1934). Next film: Cleopatra (1934).
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6/10
Movie Odyssey Review #111: Of Human Bondage
26 February 2009
Warning: Spoilers
111: Of Human Bondage (1934) - released 6/28/1934, viewed 8/24/08.

Franklin Roosevelt signs the Securities Exchange Act into law. Donald Duck makes his debut in the short 'Wise Little Hen.' BIRTHS: Harlan Ellison, Bill Moyers.

DOUG: IMPORTANT NOTE: If you are a Netflix person like me and you are thinking about checking out Bettie Davis' breakthrough movie, rent the one called "Pre-Code Hollywood: Of Human Bondage." The other one is a horrible, horrible transfer that looks and sounds like twenty miles of bad road. On to the review: This was my first Bettie Davis movie. I didn't really get into this movie; it just smacks of one of those prestige films that the Academy force-feeds you at Oscar time. Davis' accent bounces hopelessly between upper-crust and Cockney. Her performance is interesting to watch all the same, especially her famous meltdown scene. The cinematographer does everything possible to show off Davis' good looks where necessary (the song "Bettie Davis Eyes" was written for a reason). There is some good drama in this movie to be sure, but I didn't enjoy watching Leslie Howard (he of Gone With the Wind fame), playing the ultimate shlub, kicking a perfectly good woman to the curb and abandoning a perfectly good life and maybe even a decent career as an artist because he just can't deal with his childish obsession with Davis' lunatic albatross. Once Howard sets out on this foolhardy journey, I pretty much lost interest. As I said, this was my first Bettie Davis movie. I'm sure they'll get better down the road.

KEVIN: First off, let me say that this movie didn't really impress me. I can see why it was Bette Davis' breakthrough, as she does have a few memorable scenes, despite the fact that her character is really quite shallow. There is no real reason given as to why Mildred is such an ungrateful, two-timing hag. Leslie Howard's Philip, though bland much of the time, still manages to convey a lot with a single deadpan expression. There was a standout cinematography trick where the scenes between Philip and Mildred are played mostly with straight-on POV close-ups, rather than the usual over-the-shoulder shot, which made the otherwise standard scenes more memorable. I was surprised to find this in the Pre-Code Hollywood: The Risqué Years Collection, as I didn't find it all that risqué. **SPOILER ALERT** In the end, the evil Mildred gets her comeuppance by dying miserable and alone, and Philip gets over it and lives happily ever after. What could be more code-approved than that? **END SPOILER** Overall, I found this potentially complex love-hate story severely lacking in depth.

Last film: The Thin Man (1934). Next film: The Count of Monte Cristo (1934).
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The Thin Man (1934)
9/10
Movie Odyssey Review #110: The Thin Man
26 February 2009
110: The Thin Man (1934) - released 5/23/1934, viewed 8/15/08.

The Three Stooges release their first short. Bonnie and Clyde are killed in a hail of police gunfire in Louisiana.

KEVIN: On its own, 'The Thin Man' is a pretty standard old movie. In the context of other old movies, it may not appear to be the classic that one might expect. In the context of the other Thin Man movies in the series…well, I have no idea, because I haven't seen them yet. But the whip-smart dialogue and the spot-on chemistry of William Powell and Myrna Loy seems fully formed right out of the gate, and it's not at all surprising that Nick & Nora Charles (not to mention Powell & Loy) would become a gold-standard of on screen couples for years to come. The actual mystery could have been better. The conclusion felt anti-climactic, as the big reveal of the culprit lacked dramatic punch and was over too quickly. The supporting players, especially Maureen O'Sullivan, are commendable, but none hold a candle to the two leads.

DOUG: We are nearing the end of the Pre-Code Era. Fortunately, where there are ends there are also beginnings, and here begins the Thin Man film series starring William Powell and Myrna Loy. I don't have a huge amount to say about this movie except that it is very much worth the watch. I watched it a couple of years ago, but I didn't really get it at all, which was probably my own fault. My brain must have been switched off or something. But the good news is I really enjoyed the movie this time around. The most groundbreaking aspect of this little sleeper hit was its portrayal of the Charles' marriage. Most movies made during this period focus on either the courtship or the falling out (even One Hour With You, which begins and ends with the two leads married, shows them on the rocks), but Nick and Nora are a married couple and that's that. Storywise, the movie works very much like a TV pilot, showing the beginning of this couple as a crime-solving team and working their first case together. The chemistry between Powell and Loy carries the movie far better than the murder mystery. My favorite line? "It's not true. He didn't come anywhere near my tabloids." Oh, and Maureen O'Sullivan (Jane from the Tarzan movies) appears in a supporting role. I'm noticing an overlap of actors in the movies we're watching a lot more than before. This is turning into the Year of the Contract Players. I wouldn't be surprised if the reason this film is considered the best in the series is because it's the only Pre-Code installment. Will the later dialogue be trimmed to be less risqué? Will Nick's rampant drinking be cut down? Time will tell...

Last film: Twentieth Century (1934). Next film: Of Human Bondage (1934).
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10/10
Movie Odyssey Review #108: Tarzan and His Mate
24 February 2009
Warning: Spoilers
108: Tarzan and His Mate (1934) - released 4/20/1934, viewed 8/6/08.

John Dillinger escapes from prison and robs a bank in Iowa. Bonnie & Clyde kill two highway patrolman in Texas. BIRTHS: Ralph Nader, Gloria Steinem, Alan Arkin, Richard Chamberlain.

DOUG: After we were rather disappointed with the original 'Tarzan the Ape Man,' we discovered among fellow users and historians that the second film, 'Tarzan and his Mate,' was the best in the series. It's true. I got a huge kick out of this movie. Johnny Weismuller returns as the titular vine-swinging, animal dueling wild super-hero, and Maureen O'Sullivan reprises her role as his entirely fantastic lady love Jane (who sports a two-piece outfit for the first and last time here). In my review for 'Ape Man,' I stomped on Jane pretty good for her obsession with clothes and her incessant screaming, but she's redeemed herself for me here. Make no mistake: O'Sullivan is the star of this movie, and Jane is the most capable character in the entire cast. She acts as the ambassador between Holt and Tarzan, she can function perfectly in the jungle and get along with the animals, and she knows how to hold off an angry pride of lions when she's out of bullets. She's even got her own jungle scream now. The chemistry between Johnny and Maureen is irresistible. She's totally got him trained. Cheeta is quite charming as well, taking drags off of Martin's cigarette. The plot is mostly an excuse for Tarzan to do battle with the jungle's most vicious animals, especially lions, crocodiles, and rhinos. The effects, though always visible, are much more dynamic and cool and complement the action nicely. Oh, and you can't talk about this movie without talking about the nude swimming scene. All I can say is: yes, she is naked. Very exciting stuff.

KEVIN: Wow. Just wow. When it comes to down-and-dirty pre-code action/adventure, nothing holds a candle to 'Tarzan and His Mate.' The inevitable sequel to Tarzan the Ape Man is a kick-ass, violent and risqué jungle epic. I doubt there will be another Tarzan movie in the future that takes no prisoners the way this one does. You'd be hard pressed to find a full scene in this movie that would be Code-approved, or Animal Rights-approved for that matter. The gruesome violence doesn't even wait for the happy jungle couple to show up before it pushes even the limits of today's adventure movies. And after T&J enter the picture, there's plenty of early morning cuddling and ass-naked afternoon swims. See it for yourself if you don't believe me. I love Maureen O'Sullivan most of all in this film. In the first film, Jane seemed like a walking contradiction, like the writers back then just didn't know how to portray a character like that. But here she is a great precursor to kick-butt females of later cinema. Although she still requires Tarzan's assistance in getting her out of most jams, she does a lot more than just waiting around to be rescued. Her personality is perfectly believable for a woman who has been living (relatively) comfortably in the jungle for a year. I watched this with my Mom, and I enjoyed pointing out to her just how much Jane has Tarzan "trained," as Jeff Foxworthy put it. She totally has the ape man at her every beck and call. Although there is a host of dated optical effects throughout the film, there is still plenty of hair-raising Tarzan vs. predator battles that are performed (mostly) for real. That and the men-dressed-as-apes are a lot more convincing this time around. **SPOILER** The film climaxes as the jungle erupts with a shocking orgy of animal kingdom violence that leaves Tarzan and Jane the only two humans still breathing. Although the couple rides off into the sunset reunited and victorious, I can't help but imagine how this story will seem to the next safari who will hear about the previous bunch of humans who went to find Tarzan and Jane and were never heard from again. **END SPOILER** One of things that still bothers me is Johnny Weissmuller's smooth, hairless bod and over-styled coif. Other than that, this is pre-Code action-adventure that is absolutely not to be missed.

Last film: It Happened One Night (1934). Next film: Twentieth Century (1934).
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7/10
Movie Odyssey Review #109: Twentieth Century
24 February 2009
Warning: Spoilers
109: Twentieth Century (1934) - released 5/3/1934, viewed 8/10/08.

John Dillinger shoots his way out of an FBI ambush in Wisconsin. The Three Stooges unleash their first short, 'Woman Haters.' BIRTHS: Shirley MacLaine.

DOUG: Next up is Twentieth Century, directed by Howard Hawks and based on the play by Charles Bruce Millholland. I'm a bit surprised this movie didn't receive any Oscar love. It just seems like that kind of movie. The perfectly cast John Barrymore plays Broadway director Oscar Jaffe, and gives a performance that is so over-the-top it crosses over into parody. Jaffe is always hunched over like a gargoyle, his hair is constantly a mess, his eyes frequently threaten to fly out of his head and hurt someone, his fingers are always twisted and deformed, and he speaks constantly in indulgent, operatic monologues. The film begins with his "discovery" of a young ingénue played by Carole Lombard, whom Jaffe rechristens as Lily Garland. Under Oscar's guidance, Lombard goes from promising young starlet to spoiled diva in nothing flat, and is soon jetting of to Hollywood to get away from her needy, demanding boss. Lombard couldn't possibly get by with a straightforward performance opposite Barrymore here, so instead she goes for trying to be just as big of a drama queen as him, which fits the material. Contract Player Alert: Seeing Walter Connelly and Roscoe Karns as Oscar's loyal, exasperated underlings was a pleasure (we just saw them both a few days ago in It Happened One Night). They ground the movie, so the audience can keep one toe in reality amongst all these preening lunatics. In the end, I didn't really dig the movie; all this ham acting can get tiresome after a while, and nobody really learns anything by the end.

KEVIN: Howard Hawks directs a great cast and a great script, but at the end of the day, Twentieth Century just made me itch. John Barrymore ditches his usual aged dramatic persona and hams it up for the role of the self-important and egregiously over-the-top lunatic stage director Oscar Jaffe. Although it was sometimes hilarious to watch this crazed jerk do his thing, he came off as extremely one-note after a while. I laughed quite a bit, especially whenever Walter Connolly and Roscoe Karns were on screen, but most of the time I wasn't sure how seriously to take the material. This was especially tricky with Carole Lombard, who most of the time I couldn't tell if she was playing the part for laughs or if she is supposed to be a more serious foil for Barrymore. **SPOILER** I didn't find it very funny that the main characters end up right back where they started. He's an even more self-important jerk than before, and his hamminess has rubbed off on her, so now I can't imagine they'll get anything done on stage ever. **END SPOILER** Maybe I was in the wrong mood to truly enjoy this movie, but it certainly won't go down as one of my favorites for this year.

Last film: Tarzan and His Mate (1934). Next film: The Thin Man (1934).
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10/10
Movie Odyssey Review #107: It Happened One Night
24 February 2009
107: It Happened One Night (1934) - released 2/22/1934, viewed 8/2/08.

Alcatraz becomes a prison. The first Flash Gordon comic strip is published. BIRTHS: Hank Aaron.

KEVIN: What can be said about this seminal rom-com classic that hasn't already been said? This is one of only a couple of 1934 releases that we've seen previously. When we first rented it, we watched it twice before sending it back, which was extremely rare at the time. Even then, I wasn't exactly sure why it merited a second viewing. One of the many things I like about this movie is how it's one of those classic films that was never designed to be a classic. There was nothing particularly out of the ordinary about its production, and yet the planets aligned just right so that the end result swept the major awards at the Oscars for the first time ever. Even when you watch the movie, you're not likely to find anything unusual or innovative about the story and the characters, except that they are all top-notch. Both Gable and Colbert take their potentially bland roles and breathe beautiful life into them. Gable's struggling journalist Peter is kind of a jerk on paper, and not just because he's exploiting Ellie for a story. He seems to want to bring Ellie down a notch and give her a humbling lesson about common folk that she'll never forget. He insults Ellie and her upbringing in nearly every scene. He tells Ellie's father (played by the excellent Walter Connolly) that what Ellie needs is "a guy that'd take a sock at her once a day, whether it's coming to her or not." But Gable's likability and charisma make Peter's undeniable love for Ellie (in the context of all that outward disgust) feel honest and not a contradiction. How is that even possible? Peter creates something of a monster in Ellie, who exceeds his bitter expectations when she metamorphoses from a spoiled, shut-in heiress to a spunky and resourceful heroine (re: the limb is mightier than the thumb). Colbert hits just the right note to make Ellie likable and even at times relatable, yet never losing the sense that this is an upper-crust kind of girl. Then there's the chemistry, which crackles every moment they share the screen. These two probably bad-mouth each other more than they are ostensibly nice to one another, but the script drops in all those subtle hints that these two are really growing attached throughout their journey. The episodic storyline is perfectly paced. I don't think there is one scene that runs too long or too short in the entire film, and every character and subplot is paid off by the end. Frank Capra made a lot of perfect movies, and this one was the first of those.

DOUG: 1934 begins with Frank Capra becoming an A-list director while giving birth to the screwball comedy with It Happened One Night. Not bad, Frank. What's with that title, though? It has nothing to do with the movie. I'm not going to bother summarizing the plot, so I'll just get straight to the review: When I first watched it some years ago, I thought Peter was a little too mean. I don't think that anymore (any girl with $2 her pocket who indulges in bus vendor snacks is in need of an escort), though he probably couldn't get away with some of the things he says or does today. The hitchhiking scene is my favorite, and not for the reason you think; It's Claudette Colbert's shining moment. After taking so much abuse from Peter, she finally gets to upstage him and make him look stupid. I can't believe this hasn't been remade a hundred times over. There's The Sure Thing, which follows the model, of course, but I'm surprised we haven't seen Hollywood do a literal remake, especially in this age of celebutante heiresses splashed all over the media. (Not that I'd want them to, mind you. It's just…odd.) Although it became a huge hit and a motion picture classic, it's easy to see that IHON was designed as a small film.

Last film viewed: One Hour With You (1932). Last film chronologically: Design for Living (1933). Next film: Tarzan and His Mate (1934).
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9/10
Movie Odyssey Review #106: One Hour With You
21 February 2009
106: One Hour With You (1932) - released 3/23/1932, viewed 7/10/08.

KEVIN: What? They're married?! And they're in love?! But the movie just started! Yes, Maurice Chevalier and Jeannette MacDonald reunite in Ernst Lubitsch's inevitable remake of his silent film The Marriage Circle, based on the play Only A Dream by Lothar Schmidt. Naturally, the best advantage of the switch from silent to talkie is getting to hear Chevalier's accent rattling off more of Lubitsch's impeccable dialogue. Obviously not content to make a normal sex comedy, Lubitsch throws in not only musical numbers, but also several dialogue scenes made of Moliere-esquire rhyming couplets. The two leads, Chevalier and MacDonald, absolutely devour their roles. They're sensational to watch, and I look forward to a few more team-ups from them in the future. Genevieve Tobin is very good as best friend and possible home-wrecker Mitzi, the loose trophy wife who makes things interesting for our happily married heroes. Roland Young is also fantastic as Mitzi's exasperated professor husband, who's just waiting for something to happen that will justify a divorce, showing it with a deadpan delivery of the funniest lines in the movie. ("When I married her, she was a brunette. Now you can't believe anything she says.") Not to mention Lubitsch regular Charles Ruggles as the wife's dweebish old flame who's still aching to get some quality time in with the wife.

DOUG: This is Lubitsch's remake to Marriage Circle, his own earlier adaptation of Schmidt's Only A Dream. All the same players are in place: The happily married couple, the flirty best friend, her boring husband, and the wife's lusty ex. In order: Chevalier brings his usual manly Frenchy charm as Andre, and Jeanette MacDonald works her best comedy muscles as his lovely society wife Collette. Genevieve Tobin plays Mitzi, determined to get her claws into Andre no matter what it may do to him and his marriage to her best friend. Roland Young plays Mitzi's supremely uncool husband, apparently bored and repulsed by his wife's flirty antics. Charles Ruggles rounds out the cast as Collette's airheaded ex Adolph. In 99% of the movies made in this period, marriage is either something people try to get into or get out of, so what a surprise it is to start a film with the two leads not only already married, but very much in love. I like to pretend this movie is kind of an informal sequel to any of the other movies starring Chevalier and MacDonald. After the events of a movie like The Love Parade, or Love Me Tonight, or The Merry Widow, where they spend the whole movie courting each other, here we get to see them after they've settled down and are living together, still without losing their fantastic chemistry. So which version is better, silent or talkie? That's hard to say. Circle was such a wonderful discovery, a silent film where all the charming sexual shenanigans still hold up today. However, I'll go with this version, which has Chevalier and MacDonald, and a more experienced Lubitsch running the show (with an assist from an uncredited George Cukor), who adds in many songs and scenes spoken in rhyming couplets. (I thought the scene where Andre attempts to switch the placecards flowed more naturally in the original, though; here, it's a tad clunky).

Last film: Shanghai Express (1932). Next film viewed: It Happened One Night (1934). Next film chronologically: Tarzan the Ape Man (1932).
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8/10
Movie Odyssey Review #105: Shanghai Express
21 February 2009
105: Shanghai Express (1932) - released 2/32/1932, viewed 7/5/08.

DOUG: The titular train cruising through civil war-torn China is the setting for this worthy Best Picture nominee. In the seven films they did together, this was Marlene Dietrich and director Josef von Sternberg's fourth (and possibly best) collaboration. Most of the film is carried by Dietrich's pouting and the exquisite cinematography. Von Sternberg keeps his camera close and the focus soft when it comes to her face. She always has a light above her head to make her hair glow and give her a darkly angelic quality, and she speaks every line with a smoky, darkly veiled accented flirtation. Clive Brook plays Lily's overly square old flame from England. The film boasts a decent ensemble cast who basically shoot the breeze while watching the two lovebirds fight it out. Anna May Wong, in one of the more high-profile roles of her career, is well utilized as Lily's Chinese BFF, Louise Hale plays a prudish boarding house keeper who's generally around to be spooked by Dietrich and Wong's "coasting" antics, and Eugene Palette plays a wisecracking gambler. Swedish character actor Warner Oland manages to come off none the worse for wear as the half-oriental robber baron who takes the passengers hostage. Overall, this is a fine Pre-Code entertainment, which coasts on the strength of its cast and its style more than its story or performances.

KEVIN: I gotta say this movie was just plain cool. Definitely Josef Von Sternberg's coolest movie yet, and in a lot of unexpected ways. A well-rounded international ensemble comes together for a sort of Stagecoach-on-a-train scenario in Shanghai. Marlene Dietrich is a perpetual knockout as Shanghai Lily, the local loose woman whose reputation is almost as well traveled as the nasty warlord who also happens to be on the train. Warner Oland is surprisingly effective as the villain. Rather than a rampant scenery-chewing maniac that you might expect from a white guy playing a Chinese guy, Oland's performance is underplayed and very menacing. I imagine Oland is more convincing here playing a half-Chinese man than he was playing Charlie Chan or Fu Manchu. Clive Brook portrays Shanghai Lily's jilted lover and would-be savior. Rather than playing him as chivalrous and romantic, Doc comes off as exceedingly bitter and cynical. But that doesn't mean he won't be there to do the right thing. Anna May Wong plays Lily's oriental counterpart, and even the only major Asian actor gets to be cool in this movie. I am so glad she doesn't have to put on a hammy Chinese accent. There are many other standouts including Eugene Palette and Louise Closser Hale, though they're not as memorable as the cinematography by Lee Garmes and James Wong Howe. All in all this one was definitely worth the wait.

Last film viewed: The Smiling Lieutenant (1931). Last film chronologically: Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde (1932). Next film: One Hour With You (1932).
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9/10
Movie Odyssey Review #104: The Smiling Lieutenant
21 February 2009
Warning: Spoilers
104: The Smiling Lieutenant (1931) - released 8/1/1931, viewed 7/2/08.

DOUG: For his follow-up to the dreary Monte Carlo, Lubitsch gathered three of his most reliable muses, Maurice Chevalier, Miriam Hopkins, and Claudette Colbert, all in one movie. The territory is very familiar: Chevalier plays the titular Lt. Niki, ANOTHER charming, straw-hat wearing military man who catches the eye of ANOTHER naïve princess from ANOTHER fictional country. Colbert plays Franzi, Niki's spunky violinist girlfriend, and Miriam Hopkins plays the princess, endearingly sexually repressed and prone to crying spells. It's not a terribly dramatic plot, even by the standards of a romantic comedy. Especially charming are the scenes between Franzi and Anna, particularly the racy musical number "Jazz up your Lingerie." (That can't be Code approved.) As in the best Lubitsch fare, everyone's that unique brand of crazy that's endearingly charming and sexy and funny. Right along with Trouble in Paradise, this is one of Lubitsch's best, and one of the great Pre-code comedy-musicals.

KEVIN: And now we flash back to the first meeting of Ernst Lubitsch with the beautiful bag of wonderfulness called Miriam Hopkins. Lubitsch again teams with Maurice Chevalier (as the titular lieutenant), and also brings in Claudette Colbert, who's never looked lovelier as the titular lieutenant's initial love interest. Chevalier's character finds himself once again playing a high-ranking member of society who is suckered into an unhappy marriage to a royal. But this time, there's another woman thrown into the mix. Unfortunately the three leads are never all together in any major way, but the film climaxes when the two ladies finally confront each other, with unexpected consequences, including the film's most memorable jingle "Jazz Up Your Lingerie." And on a more aesthetic note, I suspect that this film has the least amount of dialogue of all the Lubitsch talkies I've seen. ***SPOILER*** The ending surprised me. I was sure all through the story that Chevalier would end up with Colbert, the one he really loved from the beginning, but the unexpected consequences of said final confrontation made this one more than a little fresh. Plus, it leads us to the image of Miriam Hopkins that we would come to love in later films. ***END SPOILER***.

Last film viewed: The Criminal Code (1931). Last film chronologically: M (1931). Next film viewed: Shanghai Express (1932). Next film chronologically: Monkey Business (1931).
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8/10
Movie Odyssey Review #103: The Criminal Code
21 February 2009
Warning: Spoilers
103: The Criminal Code (1931) - released 1/3/31, viewed 6/25/08.

DOUG: Howard Hawks was no mere studio director; looking at his credits, he appears to have made at least one great entry in every genre in circulation during the studio era, including this provocative look at the prison system in the 1930's. It's definitely a movie of its time: a product of the early sound era, so there's almost no music; the bad guys wield Tommy Guns; references crop up to the Great Depression, WWI, and the rise of organized crime. The standouts are Walter Huston as a no-nonsense DA-turned prison warden, Philips Holms as the man wrongly convicted and sent to prison, and Boris Karloff as a sadistic convict with a score to settle. Huston easily gives the best performance here, with Karloff sneering and growling and chewing scenery while looking really big and scary. Holms, our would-be hero, spends most of the movie looking rather docile and unmemorable, while either Huston or Karloff tower over him. I'm hoping for some kind of Howard Hawks DVD box set that would include this movie along with The Crowd Roars.

KEVIN: This film would've opened 1931, just ahead of Little Caesar. This year, morals and ideals are tested to their limits as director Howard Hawks tackles the gritty prison drama. This film is definitely better than The Big House, which is campy by comparison. Walter Huston is very good, as expected, playing a former district attorney who is appointed as the new warden of a maximum security prison. It is never explained why a city District Attorney has been demoted to a prison warden, and Huston's performance gives the sense that the character doesn't really consider it a demotion. Portraying the sympathetic face of the wronged convict, Phillip Holmes does fine job of selling his character's dilemma, although I had a hard time understanding why Graham clings so much to the code of the inmates when letting that go and confessing what he witnessed would allow him to go free. I didn't believe that what he was doing was right, but I was convinced that he believed it. Constance Cummings was good too, although I think more could've been done with her character. I really wanted to see her turn Graham around and bring him all the way back to the land of truth and morals. And of course, I have to mention the excellently creepy Boris Karloff, whose character comes through as the lead heartless scumbag. By the way, Huston's character does a move here that we would see again in Gabriel Over the White House, when he strolls through a crowd of people that despise him without getting a scratch or batting an eyelash. **SPOILER** I was disappointed with the climax. Graham doesn't confess, but he still manages to come through clean. It seemed like a missed opportunity.**END SPOILER**.

Last film viewed: Monte Carlo (1930). Last film chronologically: Morocco (1930). Next film viewed: The Smiling Lieutenant (1931). Next film chronologically: Little Caesar (1931).
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Monte Carlo (1930)
5/10
Movie Odyssey Review #102: Monte Carlo (1930)
13 February 2009
102: Monte Carlo (1930) - released 8/27/1930, viewed 6/23/08.

KEVIN: I feel compelled to keep this brief, because I don't think this movie will stick with me. I didn't hate it, I just couldn't fall in love with it like I usually do with Ernst Lubitsch. There were plenty of enjoyable moments to keep me watching until the end, but I found the love story somewhat confusing. I blame this on Jack Buchanan as the male lead. His character is not only a liar, but a manipulator and stalker, and I must say there wasn't anything terribly charming about him. Buchanan played him just too creepy for me to root for him. Jeanette MacDonald was excellent, as usual, but her growing infatuation with this creep was what really confused me. I suspect when we've watched all of Lubitsch's other hits, this one will not rank so high.

DOUG: Only Ernst Lubitsch could make such a breezy, likable comedy with such despicable characters. Jeanette MacDonald plays the flighty, naïve Countess Helene, who ditches her wedding to head off somewhere fun and ends up in Monte Carlo. Jack Buchanen plays Count Rudolph, a total creep who decides to court Helene by getting hired as her barber and stalking her at every turn. Claud Allister plays Prince Otto, the dim-witted older man Helene is set to marry. The proceedings are amusing in that fun Lubitsch kind of way; everyone's just on the edge of crazy throughout and are all the more enjoyable for it. The love story is rather dated though; I found Rudy to be an obsessive manipulative loon, scheming his way into her bedroom and saving locks of her hair. Because it's Lubitsch, it's all fluffy and lighthearted, but this is maybe my least favorite of his films so far.

Last film viewed: The Divorcée (1930). Last film chronologically: The Big House (1930). Next film viewed: The Criminal Code (1930). Next film chronologically: Animal Crackers (1930).
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The Divorcee (1930)
8/10
Movie Odyssey Review #101: The Divorcée
12 February 2009
101: The Divorcée (1930) - released 4/19/1930, viewed 6/20/08.

DOUG: Only a film of the Pre-Code era could tackle a divorce in such detail, and have the wife be the protagonist in the story. It's hard to appreciate the edginess of this film today, but back then, a movie about an ex-wife getting back at her former cheating husband by matching his every infidelity was quite the coup. Even today, showing a woman taking matters into her own hands is a tricky business. Norma Shearer (a fine actress mostly forgotten today) took her career in a different direction with this movie; after several years of playing clean-cut women, she wanted something a little more provocative, and went to great lengths to prove to her producer/husband Irving Thalberg that this was the role for her. Shearer plays Jerry as strong-willed and independent, a woman who conforms to the system until it betrays her, then fights against it. Chester Morris plays her fiancée-turned-husband-turned-ex Ted, and Robert Montgomery (who would star opposite Shearer in many more films after this) plays Jerry's old friend Don who catches her on the rebound. Overall, this is a nice little look at Pre-Code and early sound, and a nice showcase for Oscar-winner Shearer.

KEVIN: I was surprised by The Divorceé, not just because it's one of the tamer and less cynical pre-Code movies, but also because it holds up as a compelling drama. At no point was I able to guess which man Jerry (Norma Shearer) would be with at the end. Paul (Conrad Nagel) probably had the worst chances since he was already married (although in a fine twist, he thinks he has the best chance). The scene where Jerry convinces him otherwise was my favorite scene and really showed Jerry to be not just the protagonist but the hero of the story. I liked that the story didn't seem to take sides with Jerry or Ted (Chester Morris), and treated their plights very fairly, even though the focus was primarily on Jerry. I was a little annoyed that we don't really see what leads Ted to his affair (sure Janice is smokin', but so is Jerry), but we see every heartbreaking step in Jerry's path to infidelity (except the actual getting naked, of course). Although it is in all ways Jerry's story, I think more could've been done with Ted. Still, Chester Morris' performance does an excellent job of making Ted sympathetic, even when he's done wrong. Norma Shearer's Oscar-winning performance has aged well. Most of the awards in those days went to performances that today would be considered hammy, but Shearer brings just the right amount of weight to the character and shows her disillusionment from love found to lost to found to lost to found again.

Last film viewed: The Love Parade (1929). Last film chronologically: The Blue Angel (1930). Next film viewed: Monte Carlo (1930). Next film chronologically: All Quiet on the Western Front (1930).
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8/10
Movie Odyssey Review #100: The Love Parade
12 February 2009
100: The Love Parade (1929) - released 11/19/1929, viewed 6/10/08.

DOUG: I always said that as soon as they released an Ernst Lubitsch box set, I would check it out. As Lubitsch's first sound film, 'The Love Parade' would have closed out the 20's for us. This is my 5th Lubitsch film, and he has yet to disappoint me. Right from the start, Lubitsch has an excellent handle on how to utilize sound, dialogue, and music, but still gets plenty of mileage out of dialogue-free business, such as the opening scene. The two leads spark nearly as much chemistry as they would later in 'Love Me Tonight': Chevalier (in his second sound film) is charming as ever, and Jeanette McDonald (in her first film) is supremely sexy (really!), showing a lot more skin in several scenes than the Hays Code would have likely allowed. I thought the second half of the film lagged quite a bit; once the two are married, it's just a series of scenes of Alfred becoming miserable with his new life, suffering under the soul-crushing set-up of "many duties and no rights." Lupino Lane and Lillian Roth add a lot of cuteness, spunk, and verve to the proceedings as Alfred and Louise's respective sidekicks/hired help; their performance of "Let's Be Common" was my favorite musical number of the piece. Judging by his footwork, I'm guessing Lane came off of vaudeville. Although I enjoyed this movie less than the other four Lubitsch comedies I've seen, I still recommend it.

KEVIN: Going back to 1929 we have this royal battle of the sexes, Lubitsch-style! Though not an essential, this movie was definitely worth checking out. The always reliable Maurice Chevalier (in his second sound film), and the lovely singer Jeanette MacDonald (in her first film) star in The Love Parade, Ernst Lubitsch's teasing romantic musical. When a suave ambassador (Chevalier) gets in one too many scandals in his beloved Paris, he returns home to his native Silvania, where he catches the eye of the man-starved queen (MacDonald). But when they wed, he becomes not a king but the "queen-consort," a position with many mundane duties but no responsibilities or power of any kind. That and his lovely new wife is more focused on her queenly duties. Naturally, he finds his new life more than a little unsatisfying. I found the struggle of Chevalier's character to be fresh and appealing, portraying a man who refuses to remain a trophy husband. There were several scenes where it felt as though the gender roles had been reversed, though the scene in the opera house where Chevalier basically taunts MacDonald into submission worried me some. But overall, the irresistible team of Chevalier & Lubitsch definitely met my expectations. The dialogue-free opening scene was a stitch. MacDonald manages to strike the right balance of lovelorn maiden and blue-blooded royal. Lupino Lane and Lillian Roth (who would appear the following year in Animal Crackers) make a great team and provide some fantastic sidekick laughs (and some of the more inventive dance numbers).

Last film viewed: Wings (1927). Last film chronologically: The Cocoanuts (1929). Next film viewed: The Divorcée (1930). Next film chronologically: Anna Christie (1930).
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Wings (1927)
8/10
Movie Odyssey Review #099: Wings
12 February 2009
Warning: Spoilers
099: Wings (1927) - released 8/12/1927, viewed 8/02/08.

KEVIN: We come to it at last. Not surprisingly the most expensive movie of its day by far, William Wellman's inaugural Best Picture-winning tale of love-and-friendship-through-war Wings holds up surprisingly well after 80 years of bigger, badder, and brutaller depictions of war on film. The battle scenes, both ground and aerial, are exciting and energetic even by today's standards. But like most silent films, the sentimental character stuff gets about as much screen time (if not more) as the explosions and gunfire. At first I expected the main characters Jack (Buddy Rogers) and David (Richard Arlen) to be lifelong rivals, but instead they quickly resolve their differences and become BFFs after beating the snot out of each other in the first act. Class separation goes out the window when you're all part of the same war. The very drawn-out scene where Jack gets drunk off his ass yields some of the strangest visuals I've ever seen in a war movie, not to mention the most egregious lull in the film's action. *SPOILER* David's big death scene has got to be, and I say this with a great deal of affection, the gayest thing I've seen in a silent film. I'm certain that scene wouldn't have made it past the censors a decade later. *END SPOILER* The biggest blow against the movie is, I guess not surprisingly, the female characters. The character of Sylvia (Jobyna Ralston!) is grossly underused even at the end when Jack returns home and meets David's parents, but Sylvia, the true love of David's life, is nowhere to be seen. As for Mary (top-billed Clara Bow), her role as an ambulance driver in the war seems mainly there to reduce the geography in the love story, and she is rather unceremoniously written out of the war before long. Her gee-whiz disposition towards the action doesn't seem to go away even after she narrowly survives a horrific bombing raid. At the end of the day, it seems like only the male characters are allowed to be changed by the war. It's too bad we had to wait sooo long to see this film. It was a long movie, yes, but definitely worth the time.

DOUG: I had wanted to check out this movie for a long time, not least because it's the first winner for Best Picture at the Oscars, but also because the cast includes Clara Bow and Jobyna Ralston (Harold Lloyd's most frequent muse), and was directed by the guy who did The Public Enemy. It is, in a historical sense, one of the "great" war movies of the silent era, along with 'The Big Parade' (which is better). Buddy Rogers and Richard Arlen play the two leads, Rogers as the naïve, boyish Jack, and Arlen as the stern, square-jawed David. Clara Bow gets top billing surprisingly, since she doesn't have as much screen time as the guys, but was still the biggest marquee name. Ralston, alas, is underused as Sylvia, the woman Jack wants even though she loves David; she vanishes after the first act when the boys enlist. I was afraid that the guys' bitter rivalry would drag through the whole movie, but fortunately they don't: they deal with it in basic training with a Fight Club-esquire initiation, at the end of which they're best friends. The movie is overlong; I'm sure it was riveting for audiences in its day, but it was hard for me to get caught up in the long battle scenes, because it means it takes a long time for the movie to get to the broad strokes of the plot. The scene midway through where Mary tries to help out Jack after he's gotten drunk out of his mind takes FOREVER. The movie sets the standard for the tried-and-true "Two guys in love with the same girl go off to war from which only one will return." Despite the flaws, it is worth checking out for its historical significance, and I hope it makes the leap to DVD very soon.

Last film viewed: Design for Living (1933). Last film chronologically: It (1927). Next film viewed: The Love Parade (1929). Next film chronologically: College (1927).
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9/10
Movie Odyssey Review #098: Design for Living
25 May 2008
098: Design for Living (1933) - released 12/29/1933, viewed 6/28/07.

DOUG: We reach the end of 1933 at long last, and an excellent finish it is with a highly underrated comedy starring Miriam Hopkins, Gary Cooper, and Fredrich March. If you're looking for great comedies from the 30's and you've already gone through the Marx Brothers, just do a search for "Ernst Lubitsch" and go nuts. A lot of movies from this period date themselves, but somehow Lubitsch's films hold up, with a combination of great writing and great comedic acting that it seems only Lubitsch can bring out. The three leads, Hopkins, Cooper, and March, play characters that you would love to hang out with, people who are witty and cool, inspired, and love to trade quips and barbs with each other with complete honesty. Everybody is just a little bit crazy in that fun, charming, sexy kind of way that Lubitsch does so well. The dialogue is so crisp and so funny. You just don't hear the word "sex" spoken very often in the 30's, so that when you do hear it, as you will several times in this film, it's a little jarring (but in a good way). Also props go out to Everett Van Horten (also from Lubitsch's Trouble in Paradise) as the straight man who just can't understand this gang.

KEVIN: Wow. Why isn't this movie a classic? Because it is in my book. One of the most enjoyable movies of the year, or next year, or the entire decade I expect, is the hilarious and endlessly quotable Design for Living, directed by Ernst Lubitsch from a play by Noel Coward, starring Gary Cooper, Fredric March, and the always fantastic Miriam Hopkins. There are so few movies I've seen where nearly every line of dialogue is either a joke or is a set up for a joke. Lubitsch and Ben Hecht's fine-tuning of Coward's play brings out an incredible energy that proves Lubitsch's skill not just for silent moments, but great dialogue as well. The three leads give enormously likable standout performances as three struggling artists (two guys and a girl) in star-crossed love, who pour that energy of love into their work. They find success, but it's the emotional companionship that trumps it all. What I love about the story is that these three individuals are all-around good people and whatever happens to them, we really hope that they work it out.

Last film: Sons of the Desert (1933). Next film viewed: Wings (1927). Next film chronologically: It Happened One Night (1934).
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8/10
Movie Odyssey Review #097: Sons of the Desert
25 May 2008
097: Sons of the Desert (1933) - released 12/29/1933, viewed 6/28/07.

DOUG: We've kept up on some of the Laurel & Hardy shorts, both silent and sound, leading up to this, 'Sons of the Desert,' their first full-length feature. Can't remember who's who? It's easy: Ollie is the one with the head shaped like an "O." Ollie is basically the dumb guy who thinks he's smart, while Stan is the dumber guy who doesn't know the difference but is a lot nicer for it. Their routine was quite different from the Marx Brothers, who relied on both physical comedy and verbal sparring; this duo sticks mostly with the physical stuff (going back to their silent roots), although there are a few choice bits of dialogue. Also, while the Marx boys took situations and MADE them crazy, these two try to be normal, and crazy things end up happening TO them (not to mention the situations they cause with their own idiocy). Just one thing bugged me: we never really learn anything about the secret society that Stan and Ollie are a part of. What is their purpose? What is the meeting for? How do Stan & Ollie's silly antics in the movie affect them, if at all? They never really play a big role in the story other than setting up our guys for the comedy situations. All the same, very good laughs, definitely recommended for fans of classic comedy.

KEVIN: The first feature-length Laurel & Hardy adventure on the list is sheer delight. The pair is a few years behind the Marx Brothers when it comes to features, but Stan and Oliver manage to make a much more impressive debut. The comedic beats are some of the best from the pair, and even though I felt that they were drawing it out sometimes, I still laughed. The story is slightly above average, centering around the pair trying to weasel out of their marital obligations in order to attend an annual fraternity convention. The crud hits the fan when the two idiots must explain why they weren't on a cruise to Honolulu that was hit by a typhoon (while they lied to their ladies and went to the convention). Stan's character, who struck me as somewhat inept and nonchalant in past shorts, here seems functionally retarded. To me, the real stars are the wives, played by Dorothy Christy and Mae Busch. What they do and say in putting up with their moronic hubbies (especially Busch) is inspired.

Last film: Queen Christina (1933). Next film: Design for Living (1933).
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8/10
Movie Odyssey Review #096: Queen Christina
23 May 2008
096: Queen Christina (1933) - released 12/26/1933, viewed 6/25/07.

KEVIN: This is the Garbo film I've been waiting for. This time the movie itself is good and not just her. Backed by Rouben Mamoulian's stunning direction, Queen Christina is very loosely based on the life of the 17th century queen of Sweden, who inherited the throne at the age of 6 while her country was steeped in the Thirty Years' War. When she becomes an adult, the story focuses largely on her torrid love affair with the Spanish ambassador Antonio (John Gilbert). Historical inaccuracies aside, this is a beautiful, touching, romantic and often humorous classic. The film pares down the real queen's homosexuality, but it does have fun with her penchant for cross-dressing. One of my favorite scenes is when Christina (pretending to be a man) learns that she will be sharing a room with the dashing Antonio, and hilariously tries to talk her way out of revealing her identity. Although Gilbert (her co-star from Flesh and the Devil) is certainly likable and has great chemistry, he just isn't at the same level as Garbo in any scene. I usually find movies about political intrigue hugely uninteresting, but Garbo's performance manages to inject Christina with real struggles and tangible desires that don't seem simply tacked on or scripted. There was some great storytelling, with some interesting twists and turns, but I found the tragic ending was the only predictable plot twist.

DOUG: This has been my favorite Greta Garbo film yet. Garbo was a very powerful actress in Hollywood, and she got to decide what films she wanted to do. So naturally, she said "I want to play the queen of Sweden." John Gilbert does his part as a Spanish noble who falls for the Queen, and he is good, but this is Garbo's show all the way. I don't believe that Garbo ever did a movie with a leading man with the screen presence she had. And yes, it's hard to believe that Antonio could ever mistake Christina for a man; just go with it. Coming off of silent pictures, Garbo's acting style used to be a little overdone for sound. She seems to have gotten the hang of it, but her silent skills come in handy when she must get across a lot of emotion without words, such as one scene where she is roaming around the bedroom, looking at things, touching things, "memorizing this room," as she says, or in my favorite scene, where she stops a raging mob with her stone-cold gaze. Saw the ending coming ten minutes before it happened. Still, for classic film fans, definitely recommended.

Last film: Counsellor At Law (1933). Next film: Sons of the Desert (1933).
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