A Love Affair, Recycled

Rita Wilson describing An Affair to Remember. Image: Buzzfeed

Rita Wilson describing An Affair to Remember. Image: Buzzfeed

You really can’t beat Rita Wilson’s monologue in the 1993 romantic comedy, Sleepless in Seattle.

In the film, a chagrined Tom Hanks is describing a potential meeting his young son has arranged with a stranger (Meg Ryan) at the top of the Empire State Building on Valentine’s Day. Wilson immediately recognizes this rendezvous from the 1957 classic film, An Affair to Remember.

But as Wilson describes the touching 1957 movie, she becomes increasingly emotional. Soon she’s sobbing as she re-enacts a famous scene between Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr. “It’s so amazing when he comes to see her,” she says, tears spilling down her cheeks.

Sleepless is Seattle is, essentially, a love letter to An Affair to Remember. In one scene, Ryan and on-screen friend Rosie O’Donnell are watching the 1957 classic and it’s clear they’ve seen the movie dozens of times. They recite several passages, including Deborah Kerr’s famous line: “Winter must be cold for those with no warm memories.”

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Rosie O’Donnell (left) and Meg Ryan watching An Affair to Remember. Image: laughterkey.com

O’Donnell quips, “Men never get this movie.”

The film in question, An Affair to Remember, stars Cary Grant as an internationally-famous playboy whose engagement to an American heiress becomes worldwide news. As he sails from Europe to New York to marry his fiancé, he meets a fellow passenger (Deborah Kerr), with whom he falls in love.

Cary Grant meets and romances Deborah Kerr. Image: lsdjfkd

Cary Grant romances Deborah Kerr. Image: Dynasty Forever

This romance leads to a messy business once the pair land in New York. Grant needs to sort things out with his fiancé, while Kerr has to decide what to do about her boyfriend. As the ship pulls into port at New York, Grant and Kerr agree to meet in six months (on Valentine’s Day) at the top of the Empire State Building to see if they Have Something Here.

We have a confession to make regarding this film. For years we eschewed it because we feared it would be too schmaltzy. But when we finally watched it, we were charmed by its humour and some of its exquisite moments.

One such moment is the shot of Grant and Kerr walking down the stairs on the ship to New York. As they descend, Kerr suddenly stops and pulls Grant towards her. Look at the gif below, at the teasing way director Leo McCarey frames this intimacy:

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A shipboard romance. Image: gifsgallery.com

Grant and Kerr have good chemistry, which is crucial because the film depends on it. They have to make you believe each would turn their world inside out for the other.

Their rapport is so sharp and witty, in fact, it’s almost as delightful as the romance in the original film, starring Charles Boyer and Irene Dunne.

Irene Dunne's Words to Live By. Image: tumblr

Irene Dunne’s Words to Live By. Image: tumblr

An Affair to Remember is a remake of the Academy Award-winning Love Affair (1939) – and when we say remake, we mean remake. Some of the scenes in the 1957 movie are shot identical with the 1939 film, so a viewer can’t help but make comparisons. However, director McCarey was at the helm of both versions, so you have to respect his pragmatism: If a scene worked well in ’39, why not recycle it in ’57?

We (as in, yours truly) prefer the 1939 movie to the 1957 version. The character of Terry, played by Dunne in the ’39 version, seems to have been written specifically for her. Dunne is especially winsome, and it’s easy to see why Boyer falls for her.

As for Boyer, in the role of the famous playboy, he has an exceptional scene late in the film, where he visits Dunne after a long absence. When he realizes the truth about Dunne’s situation, his performance nearly breaks your heart. You’ll find yourself rewinding this scene, just to study his method.

The themes in these three films are timeless, and they never fail to enchant – even if they are sprinkled with a little schmaltz. They are proof that good casting and witty dialogue make a story feel fresh, even decades later.

This post is part of the They Remade WHAT?! Blogathon hosted by Phyllis Loves Classic Movies. Click HERE to see the other fab entries.

Love Affair-Affair to Remember

William Wellman and the Accusatory Close-Up

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Dana Andrews (centre) realizes he’s being railroaded. Image: Dr. Macro

*Spoiler Alert

The trouble with creating a masterpiece is sometimes people don’t automatically see it as such.

One example is The Ox-Bow Incident, a 1943 western directed by William Wellman. This film was released during some of the darkest days of WWII and, as a result, it was a box office disappointment. Audiences were in no mood to be reminded of the failings of human nature, and you can’t really blame them.

Fortunately, the film was recognized with an Oscar nomination for Outstanding Motion Picture, and is now considered one of Wellman’s masterpieces.

The Ox-Bow Incident is based on a novel by the philosophical American writer, Walter Van Tilburg Clark. The story takes place in Nevada, in 1885, and tells us What Happens Next when a popular rancher is shot on his own land.

At first, we sympathize with the town’s decision to form a posse. How dare someone shoot our neighbour! Let’s get ’em, boys!

But we soon discover the town’s leaders may not be as keen on justice as they are on other pursuits. A posse provides an opportunity to teach a harsh lesson to a young man, for instance, or provide an outlet to satisfy one’s bloodlust.

It’s not a comfortable film to watch; ten minutes in, you know things are going to end badly. This is Wellman’s doing. He feeds us the narrative in a controlled way, even while events unravel quickly.

Wellman also has a way of torquing scenes with the use of close-ups. His camera forces us to scrutinize characters as they scrutinize each other. Close-ups in this film signify a challenge to, or defiance of, prevailing conditions.

In one scene, we focus on a man (Dana Andrews) who has been arrested by the posse. While the posse waits for the sheriff to arrive in the cold mountain night, the camera isolates Andrews. He watches a woman and a man sitting close together; the man whispers in the woman’s ear and she laughs loudly. This could be a midnight picnic, except it’s not. It’s a prelude to an execution.

The most significant close-up of this film is one of Henry Fonda, and Wellman intentionally hides his eyes from our view.

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Henry Fonda (left) reads a letter that becomes an indictment. Image: ronhamprod.com

In this scene, near the end of the film, the men from the posse gather at the saloon. They are silent, glum, drunk.

Fonda opens a letter written by Andrews and, as he begins to read aloud, he leans against the bar, his back towards the others. Fonda’s eyes are hidden by the hat brim of his friend (Harry Morgan). We analyze Morgan’s expression instead, as he stares straight ahead while Fonda reads. Fonda’s voice is gravelly, betraying emotions he is trying to suppress.

Wellman has staged this close-up to force us to concentrate on the letter’s message. There’s nothing else to look at – no decor in the background, no supporting actor fidgeting with a whiskey glass. It’s Fonda and Morgan, and us.

We squirm a little as Fonda reads, because Wellman has brought us uncomfortably close to this letter.

The Ox-Bow Incident is a powerful, haunting film, and we can’t recommend it enough. Once you see it, you’ll agree that it deserves the reputation of a William Wellman masterpiece.

The Ox-Bow Incident: starring Henry Fonda, Dana Andrews, Mary Beth Hughes. Directed by William A. Wellman. Written by Lamar Trotti. Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corp., 1943, B&W, 75 mins.

This post is part of the William Wellman Blogathon hosted by Now Voyaging. Click HERE to see the schedule.


Ida Lupino’s Murderous Sucker Punch

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Ida Lupino: What to do with all that lovely insurance money? Image: View and Review

In 1940, Warner Bros. released They Drive By Night, a commentary on the American trucking industry. It starred George Raft, who was one of the studio’s biggest stars, and a young British actress who would steal the entire film. Her name was Ida Lupino.

Lupino plays the perfectly-coiffed but disaffected wife of a trucking company entrepreneur (Alan Hale, Sr). Not only is Lupino’s character dissatisfied with Hale – and his money – she is obsessed with Raft.

Now, George Raft has an acting style that doesn’t appeal to everyone, so it may be difficult, at first, to see why Lupino’s character is attracted to him. However, she does provide a clue in an early scene.

“What do I see in you, anyway?” she purrs, as she stands too close to Raft. “You’re crude, you’re uneducated, you’ve never had a pair of pants with a crease in them. And yet I can never say ‘No’ to you.”

With this simple bit of dialogue, Lupino explains everything without really explaining anything at all.

As for Raft, he rebuffs Lupino at every opportunity. Above all, Raft’s character is a loyal fellow, and because Hale the Boss has always treated him fairly, he’s going to do the same in return.

They Drive By Night has a terrific cast, including Humphrey Bogart and Ann Sheridan, but no one brings the intense energy to the screen the way Lupino does.

Her scenes with Hale are some of the best in the film. Hale’s character is someone who wasn’t born the Executive Type: he chums around with his employees; he makes corny jokes; he drinks too much at a party; his laugh is a loud guffaw. But there’s no malice in Hale; he’s generous to a fault.

Lupino has nothing but disdain for her husband. She’s always at him to not drink so much, to stop with the jokes, to put on his jacket. “When we got married, you promised to act like a gentleman,” she says, tipping her hand. She didn’t marry Hale for love, she married him for revenue.

Hale, of course, doesn’t see this. He adores Lupino and, tragically, his admiration for her prevents him from seeing who she really is.

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Alan Hale can’t get enough of Lupino’s scorn. Image: YouTube

In one scene, Lupino walks Raft to his car during a party she and Hale are hosting. Raft is pleasant but distant; he carefully addresses her as Mrs Carlsen.

As Raft drives away, the camera is close on Lupino’s face; she stands alone in her driveway while Hale’s drunken laughter crashes through the night from inside the house.

“Mrs,” she hisses aloud. “MRS.”

Then, as she turns slightly towards the house, we realize what she’s thinking.

When she decides to put an end to Hale, it’s because the opportunity has suddenly presented itself. In this scene, she drives passed-out Hale to their home and pulls into the garage. She sits for a moment before deciding not to turn off the car. She looks at Hale almost curiously, before sliding out from under his heavy, drunk head. She softly closes the car door and hurries out of the garage. Her expression says she can’t quite believe what she’s about to do – but she’s not turning back. No way.

This scene is one of several that features Lupino’s mesmerizing performance. (We’re not divulging any more for fear of giving away the ending.)

They Drive By Night is an intriguing look at the trucking industry during the Depression. This itself is an interesting subject, but it’s Lupino’s superb performance that makes the film memorable.

For more information on Ida Lupino’s career, read this biography by Lindsey at The Motion Pictures.

They Drive by Night: starring George Raft, Ann Sheridan, Ida Lupino. Directed by Raoul Walsh. Written by Jerry Wald and Richard Macaulay. Warner Bros. Pictures Inc., 1940, B&W, 93 mins.

Alice Guy: Entertaining Since 1896

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Alice Guy: Writer, Director, Film Pioneer. Image: Open Culture

They say Alice Guy (Alice Guy-Blaché) made over 600 movies between 1896-1920.

Sure, a lot of these films were under 15 minutes, and she did have her own studio.

Even so. Over six hundred movies.

Although Guy’s work is slowly gaining more recognition through recent publications and a biopic Kickstarter campaign, she remains largely unknown.

Now, we’re not saying Guy should be popular just because she first became a director at the age of 23, or that she was head of production at France’s Gaumont Company for 11 years, or that she emigrated to America with her husband to establish their own studio (The Solax Company) in 1910 at Fort Lee, New Jersey’s fledgling film colony.

We’re also not saying she should be popular because she’s regarded as the first female director, or made movies where women had as much screen time as (if not more than) men, or that she was a filmmaking pioneer who explored the use of colour, special effects and sound.

We think she should be popular because her movies are wonderful.

Happily, Flicker Alley thinks so, too, because they’ve introduced Alice Guy: A Female Pioneer. This newly-mastered collection, streaming on Vimeo, beautifully showcases Guy’s techniques with three touching and amusing films.

Falling Leaves (1912)

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The scientific way to prevent winter. Image: YouTube

We’ve reviewed Falling Leaves before, but we want to discuss it again because the newly-mastered version, in our opinion, makes the film fresher. This charming film is about a girl who discovers her older sister is not expected to live through autumn (“When the last leaf falls…”). The girl reasons she can prolong her sister’s life by re-attaching fallen leaves onto trees.

First of all, the mastering on this film is lovely. We can more clearly see the detailed sets, including a window that reveals rapidly falling leaves as the family receives the bad news about their eldest daughter.

This new version also emphasizes the complexity of Guy’s scenes: Characters in the background are frequently involved in a different activity than those in the foreground. This was a pioneering technique for the period, one that is common in Guy’s films.

Canned Harmony (1911)

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Who, me? I’m not doing anything. Image: Harpodeon

Canned Harmony is an unrestrained comedy about a young couple who want to get married – BUT! – the girl’s father opposes the engagement. Not only does the musical father disapprove of the boyfriend’s musical ineptness, he deplores the young man’s lack of facial hair and curly locks. (Trademarks of a “real” musician, we assume.)

However, the boyfriend is resourceful. He dons a wig and sticky facial hair, and triumphantly returns to his girlfriend’s house posing as “Signor Tremelo, the great violinist”. He then gives a faux performance on a violin while his girlfriend plays a phonograph hidden under the table.

Tellingly, the disguise changes the young man’s demeanour; he is more flamboyant and confident in the presence of the girl’s beaming father.

Guy proves she’s every bit a comedic master, not unlike a Buster Keaton. She was merrily unafraid to construct an outrageous scenario, then run amok with it.

A House Divided (1913)

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Drawing the battle lines. Image: Women Film Pioneers Project

Misunderstandings nearly lead to divorce in the comedy A House Divided. When a husband and wife each suspects the other of having an affair, they hire a lawyer and sign an agreement whereby they “live separately together”. This means they must not communicate with each other, except through notes and letters.

As these notes increase in frequency, they become more ridiculous. For example, the distraught wife, in outlining her unhappy marital state to her mother, pulls out all the notes the pair have written to each other. One of them says, “Please pass the butter.”

During a dinner party, the wife hears someone breaking into the basement. She calmly hands a note to her husband: “There is a burglar in the cellar. You must catch him without disturbing the company.”

A House Divided proves Guy to be a clever and empathetic filmmaker. She doesn’t take sides with these characters; she leaves them to be who they are.

Sadly, Alice Guy’s filmmaking career was short-lived. By the early 1920s, many film studios had moved from New Jersey to California, and Guy returned to France. In 1953, she was awarded the Legion of Honor.

If you would like to see more of Alice Guy’s work in a newly-mastered format, you must see Alice Guy: A Female Pioneer.


Alice Guy: Female Pioneer Presented by Flicker Alley and the Blackhawk Films® Collection (and Ms. Guy herself)B&W, 46 mins.

This post is part of The Anti-Damsel Blogathon co-hosted by The Last Drive-In (Saturday) and Movies, Silently (Sunday).


Sounder: The Anti-Blaxploitation Film

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Paul Winfield (left) doles out fatherly advice. Image: oscarmovs.com

“Son, don’t get used to this place.”

This advice is from a sharecropping father to his eldest son in 1930s Louisiana – and if you guessed these people are black and poor, you guessed right.

The father’s statement has dual meaning: Don’t settle for being a sharecropper, and don’t settle for being a poor black man in Louisiana.

The line is from the 1972 drama, Sounder, a thoughtful and moving film about family, poverty, and being black. Especially about being black.

A little background: In the 1970s, a new sub-genre of film emerged, called Blaxploitation. These were films intended for urban African-American audiences, but were often criticized for perpetuating stereotypes. (You can find a list of blaxploitation films here.)

While Sounder is a movie about being black, it is not an edgy look at life on the mean streets of a large city. In fact, Sounder has often been called an “anti-Blaxploitation” movie due to its focus on a hard-working rural family. It’s based on the lyrical and haunting Newberry Award-winning novel by William H. Armstrong.

Initially, there weren’t high hopes for the film. Variety magazine, at the time, said Sounder would “test whether the black audience will respond to serious films about the black experience rather than the ‘super black’ exploitation features.”

The plot: A poor sharecropper (Paul Winfield) is arrested for stealing meat from a smokehouse. He is quickly arrested and sent to a hard labour camp, leaving his wife (Cicely Tyson) and their three children to plant and harvest the year’s crops.

Sounder is the name of the family’s dog, who is a symbol of the father’s impulsiveness and, by extension, the family’s suffering.

Both Tyson and Winfield were nominated for Oscars, and rightly so. Tyson portrays a strong, determined woman who says more in the tightening of her lips than other actresses say in a page of dialogue. We feel Tyson’s weariness, her fear and her sense of rage. She makes us wonder if, given similar circumstances, we would soldier through half as well.

Winfield is magnetic as a charming man who truly loves his wife and children. He’s quick to laugh but also quick to sink into depression. He’s complex, but never unsympathetic. As he’s arrested for the theft of the meat, his face shows regret, but his body language says, There’s nothing I can do now.

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Cicely Tyson keeps her anger in check. Image: mubi.com

It’s easy for us to say Winfield’s character should not have stolen the meat for his family. But the larger context of the film alters our view. While the family lives on lush Louisiana farmland, they’re practically starving. They’re a study of stark poverty in a rich landscape.

And this family toils. It’s rare to see characters in a film who work as hard as these people do. But it’s not enough. No matter how hard they work, they cannot change the fact they are poor and black.

Sounder is not a comfortable film. Although it has artful cinematography and feels authentic to the 1930s, it’s not intended to make us feel better about the family’s fortunes – or anything else.

With this in mind, it’s surprising that the movie was a box office hit. It was the 15th highest-grossing film of 1972.

Aside from the two Oscar nods for acting, Sounder was also nominated for best adapted screenplay and best picture. But filmmakers went home empty-handed because 1972 was also the year of another cinematic exploration of American life: The Godfather.

Sounder is not a light-hearted viewing experience, but it is a worthwhile one. A film about a poor black rural family is not a theme Hollywood visits often, which means Sounder should be on your Must-Watch List.

Sounder: starring Cicely Tyson, Paul Winfield, Kevin Hooks. Directed by Martin Ritt. Written by Lonne Elder, III. Radnitz/Mattel Productions, 1972, Colour, 105 mins.

Kirk Douglas: Disaster Tourism for Fun & Profit

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Kirk Douglas discovers the Story Of A Lifetime. Image: Criterion

We humans are fascinated by disaster and tragedy.

Many tourist attractions (politely named “Interpretive Centres”) have been built on the sites of man-made and natural disasters. You want to tour the Chernobyl nuclear power station? Click HERE!

The gritty 1951 drama, Ace in the Hole, is one of the best films to explore disaster tourism, profitable side businesses and media coverage. “Bad news sells best,” is the film’s message. “Good news is no news.”

In this film, Kirk Douglas stars as a talented journalist who can’t keep a job. He brags about being fired from 11 newspapers with a combined circulation of seven million. When he finds himself in Albuquerque, New Mexico, he talks the publisher of the local newspaper into hiring him.

On the day he is sent out of town to cover an annual Rattlesnake Hunt, Douglas stops at a small gas station/hamburger stand and learns of a man (Richard Benedict) trapped by a cave-in inside a nearby mountain.

Now, Douglas wasn’t fired from the best newspapers for nothing, and he smells a story – a real story that could reboot his career, and maybe earn him a Pulitzer. Quickly he galvanizes the local sheriff (Ray Teal), the contractor heading up the rescue operation (Frank Jaquet), and Benedict’s unhappy wife (Jan Sterling). Douglas poses this question: If rescue workers were to take a few days to rescue the man, instead of a few hours, how much more profitable would that be for you?

Not one of the main characters in this film is untainted. Sterling’s character, for instance, wants out of her hamburger-slinging life; Teal, as Sheriff, wants to be re-elected; and the contractor Jaquet wants to keep his cozy government contracts.

See? With a cave-in, there’s something for everyone!

Douglas is pure magic in the role of the amoral journalist. He’s smooth-talking when he has to be, and doesn’t think twice about muscling others. He is ambitious and mean, and cannot wait to announce to the journalism world, “I’m back, Baby!”

Douglas’ ability to manipulate the rescue – and the story – is breathtaking. You hate him for his ruthlessness, but you almost admire his strategy.

Ultimately, it’s not how he manipulates the situation that causes us the greatest discomfort. It’s how easily he does so.

Douglas adresses the festival goers – er, the supporters of the traped man. Image: lskdjf dsj

Douglas addresses the festival goers – er, the supporters of a trapped man. Image: Sound on Sight

As word of the trapped man spreads, and with an elaborate rescue operation underway, the flats at the base of the mountain start to fill with tourists. Suddenly, Sterling is making more money than she can spend. People start arriving at the mountain, on vacation, with Airtream trailers and barbeques in tow. An amusement company erects carnival rides for the kids.

Douglas is now treated like a celebrity he’s always wanted to be, and Steling can’t count her cash fast enough. “Honey,” she says to Douglas, “you like those rocks just as much as I do.”

Life has never been better!

Except it’s not. Except there is a real man whose legs have been crushed beneath rock, and the sound of the rescue drill, endlessly pounding through the mountain, tears away his nerves. “It feels like someone is driving crooked nails in my head!” he cries.

This man is important only as long as he remains the ace in the hole. He’s trapped between the mountain and Kirk Douglas and, in this film, only one of them can win.

Ace in the Hole is one of our favourite movies. If you haven’t yet seen this film, promise us you’ll do so ASAP.

Ace in the Hole: starring Kirk Douglas, Jan Sterling, Robert Arthur. Directed by Billy Wilder. Written by Billy Wilder, Lesser Samuels & Walter Newman. Paramount Pictures Corp., 1951, B&W, 112 mins.

This post is part of the My Favorite Classic Movie Blogathon in celebration of National Classic Movie Day (May 16th). Click here to view the schedule listing all the great posts in this blogathon.

My Favorite Classic Movie Blogathon 2

Girl, in Garden, with String

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Magda Foy (in white) practices alternative medicine.

There is a film that makes us a little weepy every time we watch it.

Every. single. time.

Get this: The film is not even 12 minutes long – and it’s over 100 years old!

If you’ve seen the 1912 film Falling Leaves, you know what we mean. If you haven’t seen it, then please scroll right to the bottom of this post where you can watch it.

Falling Leaves is a beautifully-crafted film about a young woman (Marian Swayne) who is dying of consumption. Swayne’s character is caring, sweet-tempered and adored by her little sister (Magda Foy). Swayne dotes on Foy; she reads to her and accompanies her singing via piano.

But she is dying and, after a particularly severe attack, the doctor has bad news for the family. “When the last leaf falls,” says the doc, “she will have passed away.”

The family is naturally distressed, but Foy isn’t convinced. She reasons that if there are still leaves on trees, her sister will not die.

Foy finds a ball of string and runs to the garden. She picks up fallen leaves from the ground and, using the string, she gently but firmly hangs these leaves on the bare branches. However, the leaves continue to drop at a pretty fast clip, much faster than Foy can pick them up.

In this scene, the director keeps Foy at the bottom of the frame, as if to emphasize how little she is, in comparison with the trees, which are quite tall. Every time Foy bends down to retrieve a leaf, she disappears from view and we are left, briefly, with a sense of panic. Hurry! Leaves are falling!

We admire this little girl, alone in the garden in her night-dress, yet our heart breaks for her. If only such single-mindedness could actually cure her sister!

Director Alice Guy-Blaché was a French filmmaker who made her first film, The Cabbage Fairy, in 1896, while she worked at Pathé Studios in France. When she and her husband emigrated to the U.S. in 1906, she founded her own studio, Solax, where she cranked out a film every week, including Falling Leaves.

Guy-Blaché made a brilliant choice in casting Foy as the little girl. Foy is innocent, charming and tenacious. She convinces us she would hang every fallen leaf in the garden if it would cure her sister, and she would do so gladly.

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“No trouble at all. I always carry my patented medicine with me.”

Happily for everyone, a renowned Bacteriologist (Mace Greenleaf) happens to be walking by the garden and sees Foy absorbed in her unusual task. When Foy realizes this stranger could help her sister, she drags him into the house and into her sister’s bedroom where – lo, what’s this? – he pulls a vial of anti-consumption serum from his pocket. Ta dah!

(Three months later, the famous Bateriologist is still making house calls. And bringing flowers. And telling Swayne funny stories while feeding her snacks.)

Yes, we know you’re thinking it was the Bacteriologist, with his modern medical knowledge, who heals Swayne. But our heart tells us differently. Our heart tells us it was a little girl, alone in the garden in her night-dress, with a ball of string and a Mission.

Falling Leaves: starring Mace Greenleaf, Blanche Cornwall, Marian Swayne. Directed by Alice-Guy Blaché. Solax Studios, 1912, B&W, 12 mins.

This post is part of the SHORTS BLOGATHON, hosted by Movies, Silently. Click HERE for a list of all fab entries.


Saying Goodbye to the 1930s Gangster

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James Cagney in his pre Big Shot days. Image: Doctor Macro

*Spoiler Alert*

Who doesn’t love that great dialogue from 1930s gangster flicks? These films treated us to such gems as:

“Listen, you crummy, flat-footed copper. I’ll show you whether I’ve lost my nerve…!”
– and –
“Why, that dirty, no-good, yellow-bellied stool.”

From these movies we learn what a “mug” is, how to “take a powder”, and when a person should “cheese it”. We also observe the desperate life and high living of the Depression-era gangster.

These were gritty films, made on tight deadlines and small budgets, and they were glorious. In our opinion, nobody consistently made a better gangster picture than Warner Brothers.

These kinds of gangster films, centering on the Prohibition Era, did not end with the 1930s but, by 1939, they were on the way out.

It only seems right, then, that the last great gangster flick of the 1930s (in our opinion) was made by Warner Bros., starring two of the best actors in the genre, James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart. The film, The Roaring Twenties (1939), is its own swan song.

Cagney plays a WWI veteran who is unable to get a job when he returns to the Prohibition-era U.S. When he is arrested for unwittingly committing a crime, he decides the only way he can pay the rent is to become a rum runner.

Here’s where we see the bootlegger as the free-market entrepreneur. Cagney buys a taxi to transport illegal liquor, then he decides he can make his own booze. (“I’ve got a bathtub too.”) Soon he has a large supply and distribution network, and is making so much dough he can hardly spend it all.

This movie, like the bootlegging biz, is built on ambition and revenge. Cagney’s character is calculating and decisive, and we cheer for him every minute he’s on the screen. You show ’em, Jimmy! Take that, you coppers!

We want to believe Cagney can’t lose, that he’s untouchable.

Alas, the film has other plans. It has set up Cagney to fail, and it starts in the opening scene.

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Jeffrey Lynn (left) shares his feelings with Cagney and Bogart. Image: Trophy Unlocked

The first scene in the film centres on three foot soldiers in France: Cagney, Bogart and Jeffrey Lynn. In these opening minutes, the pattern of these three men’s relationship is established for the entire movie. Bogart is a psychopath whose actions are brutal, even in war. Lynn is a meek intellectual who will eventually advise Cagney on business matters. And then we have Cagney, a decent fellow who doesn’t have the killer instinct to survive (à la Bogart), nor the humility to know when to quit (à la Lynn).

Cagney can make money – and a stiff drink – but he’s unsuccessful in almost everything else. As a returning veteran, he’s subtly told it’s not society’s fault that he wasn’t killed overseas. Then he falls desperately in love with singer Priscilla Lane, a woman who respects his wallet but not enough to tell him the truth.

There is a woman who loves Cagney, savvy club owner Panama Smith (the fab Gladys George), who has soft heart and a feather-trimmed wardrobe. She is one of the few people who doesn’t use Cagney, or use him up.

In a film of loss and desperate characters, Cagney is the central tragic figure. He runs the bootlegging world, but never really fits into it. And when Prohibition is repealed, there is no room for him anywhere, anymore. He is now a Big Shot Without Portfolio.

 The Roaring Twenties can sink into melodrama at times, but the performances are mesmerizing. Which is only fitting for the last of the 1930s gangster flicks.

The Roaring Twenties: starring James Cagney, Priscilla Lane, Humphrey Bogart. Directed by Raoul Walsh. Written by Jerry Wald, Richard Macaulay, Robert Rossen. Warner Bros. Pictures Inc., 1939, B&W, 106 mins.

This post is part of the FABULOUS FILMS OF THE 30s BLOGATHON, hosted by the Classic Movie Blog Association. Click HERE for a list of all fab entries.


Fred MacMurray: Villain in Remission

Fred MacMurray (right) wishes he had some poisoned strawberries. Image: lasdkjf lakdsjf

Fred MacMurray (right) wishes he had some poisoned strawberries. Image: YouTube.com

*This post is one great big spoiler.

There’s a neat villain bait-and-switch in the 1954 drama The Caine Mutiny.

This film, based on the novel by Herman Wouk, is about a crew on an aging minesweeper during WWII. The script cleverly muddies the waters (ha ha) as it resets the parameters of villainy.

When the tired, caustic captain of the Caine is replaced by a new spit-and-polish leader (Humphrey Bogart), we expect a little friction from a crew unused to strict navy procedures. What we do not expect, though, is a mentally-unstable Bogart who won’t accept responsibility for his errors, and chastises crew members for minor infractions – whether real or imagined.

The movie would have us believe Bogart’s character is the villain, but Bogart the actor doesn’t entirely play it that way. He presents a man who is fearful, confused and easily panicked. He also has his pet obsessions which make crew members (and we the audience) feel apprehensive.

It is the ship’s Communications Officer (Fred MacMurray) who first becomes wary of Bogart’s mental capacities. He eventually convinces the Executive Officer (Van Johnson) that Bogart might be paranoid and unfit for his post. Johnson agonizes over his loyalty to navy regulations vs. the worrisome behaviour of his commanding officer.

It is during a wild storm at sea when Bogart makes bizarre decisions that put his ship and his crew in jeopardy. Johnson finally relieves Bogart of his command and, in doing so, ensures the crew and the ship survive.

Upon return to the U.S., however, Johnson faces a court martial for mutiny. It is during this trial that we realize the villain wasn’t Bogart after all. It was our chum, MacMurray, who kept us laughing with his witty one-liners.

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MacMurray has the “cleanest skirts” in the navy. Image: sherdog.com

Alas, MacMurray is someone we’ve been cheering for. His character is glib, amusing and savvy. He is the film’s comic relief, the person who voices our suspicions about Bogart. (MacMurray on Bogart: “This is the magnificent saga of a man whose lack of charm is exceeded only by his lack of intestinal fortitude.”)

MacMurray consistently disdainful of Bogart. He smirks when Bogart speaks and gives meaningful glances to other cast members. MacMurray sells us faulty merchandise when he does this; he convinces us Bogart is a crackpot who is unworthy of help or sympathy.

It is interesting, though, to compare the attributes MacMurray dislikes in Bogart with those of his own personality.

For example, he has nothing but derision when Bogart clumsily sidesteps responsibility, but MacMurray’s sidestep is sublime. He’s dumbfounded when Bogart perceives a theft of canned strawberries, but perceives he himself to be a master of psychiatry. He ridicules Bogart’s cowardice, but proves himself to be just as skittish.

Like Bogart, MacMurray operates under the assumption that he has everything under control. He knows what he’s doing, and we believe him.


After insisting Johnson stage a mutiny for the better part of the movie, MacMurray is suddenly vague during the court martial. Oh no, he never speculated about Bogart’s mental state. He had no idea what was really going on. After all, wasn’t he shocked – shocked! – to learn Johnson had taken control of the Caine?

MacMurray offers a perfect portrayal of a man who doesn’t think he’s a bad guy. He’s just someone who’s looking after Number One; others can tidy up the resulting mess.

The Caine Mutiny is a fascinating film with a lively script and a fabulous cast. In our opinion, it bends the traditional notions of villainy in a shrewd way.

The Caine Mutiny: starring Humphrey Bogart, Jose Ferrer, Van Johnson. Directed by Edward Dmytryk. Written by Stanley Roberts & Michael Blankfort. Columbia Pictures Corporation, 1954, Colour, 127 mins.

This post is part of THE GREAT VILLAIN BLOGATHON, hosted by Speakeasy, Shadows & Satin and yours truly. Click HERE for a list of all dastardly entries.


1950s Suburbia in CinemaScope

Gregory Peck wonders if he should take a new job. Image: lsakdjf ksdfj

Gregory Peck wonders if he should take a new job with higher pay. Hmm. Image: dvdbeaver.com

*Spoiler Alert*

This is our opinion: Some of the finest acting we’ve seen from Gregory Peck is not as a crusty sea captain or an egotistical WWII General.

Some of his finest work is as a married father of three kids, a man who commutes to work daily and agonizes over The Right Thing To Do.

Peck is an actor who can handle Hollywood’s big-screen challenges (e.g. giant whales with a vendetta), but it’s the portrayal of life’s everyday struggles – and the associated price tags – that test his resolve.

However, Peck’s character has an added layer: He grapples with inner demons who won’t stay put and are clouding his marriage, his career, and his relationship with his children.

The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit is a 1956 drama based on the bestselling Sloan Wilson novel that examines middle-class America and its preoccupation with money. In the movie, Peck is persuaded (against his better judgement) to take a job at a television company as a PR consultant.

A telling scene occurs early in the film. When Peck is interviewed for the PR position, he must answer the question: The most significant thing about me is… Peck lights a cigarette as he slowly realizes he can’t provide an answer.

There are numerous themes in this film, not all of them successfully handled, but who could resist when using the larger-than-life CinemaScope format? Each storyline could be a movie of its own:

  1. Peck’s memories of World War II.
  2. Peck’s job and the politics therein.
  3. The family’s move to a different house.
  4. A media magnate who forfeited his marriage and his daughter for his career.
  5. The speech that Peck is assigned to write for his boss, which appears to be his entire job description.

Good thing the acting is top-notch. Some of the best actors of the day appear in this film, such as Lee J. Cobb and Keenan Wynn.

Plus Fredric March. He plays Peck’s boss and the owner of a television company, and is compelling as a work junkie. He knows his obsession with his career is ruining his life and his family, but he can’t stop.

The most interesting character, we feel, is Peck’s wife, played by Jennifer Jones.

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Jennifer Jones is ready to strangle Gregory Peck. Image: ApkXda.com

Jones has the thankless job of being Peck’s wife, a woman who must deal with the endless demands of children and broken appliances. She’s frustrated with their house and with Peck and his cautiousness. But we soon realize the real reason she’s frustrated is because Peck continues to be haunted by his experiences in WWII.

Jones: “Ever since the war –”
Peck: “Why are you still harping about the war? … It’s gone and forgotten.”
Jones: “I don’t believe it. Not for you, anyway.”

Her best scene is when Peck finally tells her that he had an affair while he was fighting in Italy. As he is speaking, Jones abruptly cuts him off and tells him about the difficult summer she was experiencing while he was having his little fling. Jones is calm, even a little wistful as she speaks, but her tone says Don’t Mess With Me. In not so many words, she’s telling Peck the war wasn’t just about him.

It’s a slap in the face, just as Jones intended.

Because it’s filmed in CinemaScope, the film appears large, but the themes are claustrophobic. An audience needs all that wide-screen space to absorb the melodramatic turmoil and believe a happy ending is possible.

The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit is a rambling movie, but it does have a timeless message about the conflicts between a family and a career, which makes its grand cinematography feel strangely intimate.

The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit: starring Gregory Peck, Jennifer Jones, Fredric March. Written & directed by Nunnally Johnson. 20th Century-Fox, 1956, Colour, 153 mins.

This post is part of the Cinemascope Blogathon, hosted by Classic Becky’s Brain Food and Wide Screen World. Click HERE for a list of all the entries.