Month: December 2011

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

Lovely. A run on the bank.

Another red-letter day in the life of George Bailey.

Please tell us you’ve seen this movie.

And if you haven’t – excuse us while we gasp and clutch our pearls in horror – may we ask: what is wrong with you?

You’ve know the basic storyline: George Bailey (James Stewart), owner of a small-town Building & Loan, finds himself in a no-win situation and contemplates suicide. But his guardian angel appears in the nick of time and shows him what his life would be like if he’d never been born.

Now, maybe you haven’t seen this movie because you think this premise is too syrupy. Not so! Stewart’s portrayal of a desperate man caught in a hopeless situation is wrenching. In fact, the reason why this movie was not a hit when it was first released was that a war-weary America thought it was too gritty.

Perhaps you think the movie might be too boring. While the film does cover a considerable span of time in one man’s life, the blend of drama and humour gives us a full picture of the main character. You can’t help but like George Bailey and, by the end of the movie, you’re practically on your feet cheering for him.

It may be that you think that this movie is “not for me”. Fair enough, but let us say that when we saw this movie at a packed theatre last year, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. Can you believe the audience clapped – clapped! – at the film’s conclusion?

Go. Go now and watch it immediately. You know there’ll be at least 37 channels showing it right at this minute.

You’re welcome.

Starring James Stewart, Donna Reed and the great Lionel Barrymore. Written by Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett and Frank Capra. Directed by Frank Capra. RKO Radio Pictures, 1946, 132 mins.

Lilies of the Field (1963)

Schmit! You're vorking too slowly!

Sidney Poitier: Shapel Contractor

Don’t listen to the cynics who say this film is about nothing more than how to build a church in the desert.

Tsk tsk!

Okay, yes, a church is built. A contractor is hired, materials arrive and a building is completed. But this movie is more than that. It’s about determination and grit, and some pretty stubborn nuns.

Sidney Poitier (in an Oscar-winning performance) is Homer Smith, a wandering army vet who meets a group of German-speaking nuns eking out a living in the Arizona desert. Well! You know how nuns are. Before he knows it, Smith has been coerced into building them a church.

This is a movie with terrific chemistry. Not the romantic kind, but the kind between two strong, opposing characters who each try to bend the other to their will. Mother Maria (Lilia Skala) tries to convince Smith that he is obligated to fulfill God’s plan for a church; Smith argues that if he builds a church the choice is his alone. Never has the Free-Will-vs.-Predestination debate been so much fun!

Ralph Nelson directed this fabulous film, and he also appears as Mr. Ashton, a man who owns a local construction company and is never seen without his hat. Before long the hapless Mr. Ashton realizes that he, too, is centered in Mother Maria’s crosshairs.

(If you permit us a digression, our little Hungarian grandmother, whose GDP in one year was greater than that of a G20 nation, stopped her work for only three things: a good cup of coffee; Lilies of the Field; and any random medical emergency…in that order.)

Why not grab a cup of java and treat yourself to this film? We guarantee you’ll find yourself humming* along with the theme song.

*This link contains a spoiler alert!

Starring Sidney Poitier, Lilia Skala and Stanley Adams. Written by James Poe. Directed by Ralph Nelson. United Artists, 1963, 97 mins.

Tender Comrade (1943)

Don't tell anyone we're communists.

Patricia Collinge, Kim Hunter and Ginger Rogers are - get this - welders at the munitions factory.

We’re going to be brutally honest.

The only time you should ever go near this movie is if you’re forced to do a paper on The Life Of American Women During World War II or an essay on American WWII Propaganda Films.

Or, if you’re trapped under something heavy and can’t reach the remote.

This movie is so bad it’s almost painful to watch. What’s worse, there are wonderful actors like Ginger Rogers, Ruth Hussey, Robert Ryan and Patricia Collinge who are desperately trying to make the script work.

But it just doesn’t.

Tender Comrade was written by Dalton Trumbo who was famously blacklisted in Hollywood during the McCarthy anti-communist era. We do not specialize in history (film or otherwise) but we wonder if this movie contributed to his downfall? After all, this is a film about a group of female factory workers who – gasp! – share resources and live communally. Plus! The title has the word “Comrade” in it!!

We can see you’re skeptical. You still think there’s value in this movie. We tell you there is not! Listen: Ginger Rogers goes ballistic on her roommate for hoarding lipstick; the cook goes ballistic on the butcher for giving her an extra pound of bacon; and the whole cast goes ballistic on married Ruth Hussey for making a date with the creepy lunch wagon guy. (Okay, that last one is completely justified.)

If that weren’t dreadful enough, there are too many sanctimonious speeches. This whole movie is made up of speeches, speeches, speeches! Enough already! Make it stop!

All right, go ahead and watch it, if you must. But don’t complain to us, not even during the utterly unreasonable over-the-top ending. You’ll get no sympathy here.

Starring Ginger Rogers, Ruth Hussey and Robert Ryan. Written by Dalton Trumbo. Directed by Edward Dmytryk. RKO Radio Pictures, 1943, 102 agonizing mins.

The Good Humor Man (1950)

I do it all - solve murders and sell ice cream!

Jack Carson is every kid's best friend.

Boy, this movie was an eye-opener for us.

Here we were thinking that the life of a bow-tied, white-coated Good Humor Man was all A-list parties and celebrity living.

How wrong we were!

The Good Humor Man shows us how difficult being an ice cream man really is: delivering to cranky customers; endlessly reciting flavours; and listening to those infernal chimes day in and day out.

And that doesn’t even cover the involvement with murder and organized crime!

Jack Carson, whom we greatly admire, is the perfect casting choice as Biff Jones, the hapless ice cream man who strives to do the right thing. Which goes to prove once again that no good deed goes unpunished.

Carson is so good, in fact, that he carries the mediocre acting of other cast members, most notably Lola Albright. (Someone did tell her that she was in a movie, right?)

This is an amusing film with some good lines. (“If I ever see you again, there’ll be a hanging. They’ll be hanging me for hanging you.”) But it all collapses into a bunch of running and chasing. Truthfully, we always lose interest if there’s too much of this sort of thing, and we didn’t really pay attention to that part.

The real problem with this movie is that it makes you crave ice cream, and that is why we’re ending this post abruptly to raid the freezer.

Starring Jack Carson, Lola Albright and George Reeves. Written by Frank Tashlin. Directed by Lloyd Bacon. Columbia Pictures, 1950, 80 mins.

Out of the Past (1947)

Relax - I'm not going to shoot you... yet.

Robert Mitchum realizes he's in deep doo-doo.

We love it when you can’t tell how a movie is going to end.

Out of the Past is one of those movies. There’s not one thing about the storyline that you can predict – nope, not one. But, with actors like Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer, you can tell you’re in for a great ride.

Mitchum, a retired private eye with a shady past, tries to reform and make a respectable life in a small town. He opens a business; he meets a nice girl. But sometimes the past has a long reach, and soon he is re-embroiled in a gangster’s underworld.

That gangster is Kirk Douglas. This was Douglas’ second film role, and it’s obvious he was destined to become a big star. He plays Whit Sterling, a well-dressed hoodlum who laughs and smiles easily – characteristics that make you uneasy each time he appears on screen.

In our opinion, a good example of film noir has three characteristics, and Out of the Past has ’em “in spades” as they say.

  1. It makes you suspend disbelief, so that any twist of plot seems entirely plausible. A dead body moves from spot A to spot B without aid or explanation? Why not! It happens all the time!
  2. It has memorable lines. Example: “It was the bottom of the barrel and I was scraping it.”
  3. It has an ending that makes the rest of the movie make sense. We believe Out of the Past has a perfect conclusion, and to say any more would give too much away.

If you are unfamiliar with film noir and are looking for a movie that embraces the best of the genre, this is one to watch.

Starring Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer and Kirk Douglas. Written by Geoffrey Homes. Directed by Jacques Tourneur. RKO Radio Pictures, 1947, 97 mins.

Skyscraper Souls (1932)

You're not the boss of me.

Warren William as that rarest of all breeds: a power-hungry executive.

Now here’s a story line you’re not going to believe:

A prominent New York executive cares only for power and wealth, and will bulldoze over anyone to get it.

Yes, you’re probably right – a movie about a ruthless, back-stabbing capitalist is a bit of a stretch.

But seriously! We are amazed that Skyscraper Souls hasn’t undergone a revival in recent years. While watching this film, we recalled the names of several other New York executives who personally profited from the resources of others.

But never mind that. While Skyscraper Souls isn’t the first or last movie to examine corporate greed, we feel it’s one of the best.

Warren William is perfect as slimy David Dwight, a charming but cold-hearted son-of-a-gun who cheerfully steps over bodies as he manipulates control of a 100-storey skyscraper. (This fictional building would be waaay taller than the Empire State Building, completed in 1931.) William seems to relish the role and is so charismatic, you hate being almost sympathetic towards him.

This is not a feel-good movie, although the script is full of sharp, witty dialogue. For example, Dwight has an unexpected meeting with his estranged wife, who suddenly appears at his apartment.

Dwight: When did you arrive?

Wife: Last Friday.

Dwight: When do you leave?

Wife: Next Friday.

Dwight: And in the meantime?

Wife: Money.

Of course, it’s a bit much for Hollywood to be lecturing others on greed and immorality. But there is so much to admire (the excellent cast, the clever directing), that a person can overlook this, uh, “irony”.

If you ever have the chance to see this thought-provoking film, do so. You won’t regret it.

Starring Warren William, Maureen O’Sullivan and Anita Page. Written by Faith Baldwin (novel) and C. Gardner Sullivan (adaptation). Directed by Edgar Selwyn. MGM, 1932, 80 mins.

The Kennel Murder Case (1933)

Philo Vance is on the case.

Philo Vance cancels his cruise (his cruise!) to solve a murder.

The credits may say that William Powell and Mary Astor are the stars of this film, but tain’t so. No no! The real star is Etienne Girardot.

Girardot plays the hapless doctor in this comedy-mystery, a man who cannot find any peace because super-sleuth Philo Vance (Powell) and his co-horts are forever finding murder victims.

The first such victim is found in a New York mansion early one morning, and the good doctor is summoned during his breakfast. “I was in the middle of cakes and sausage,” he scolds police as he arrives at the crime scene.

As luck would have it, a second body is discovered a few hours later. This time the doctor is dragged from his lunch of stew and apple pie. He examines the body, then begs Vance to not find another because he’s spending the afternoon at a baseball game.

But peace eludes our fellow as a third victim is found – a man who survives a stab wound. “You called me out of bed in the middle of the night,” snaps the doctor, “and this one isn’t even dead.”

This is a fun movie for Powell fans, and Astor is always worth it, but we guarantee you’ll be cheering for the harried doctor who is unable to finish a meal in peace.

Starring William Powell, Mary Astor and, of course, Etienne Girardot. Written by Robert N. Lee and Peter Milne. Directed by Michael Curtiz. Warner Brothers, 1933, 73 mins.