Category: 30’s


Duck Soup

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I’ve had many discussions in this blog about the thin line between great absurdist humor and absurdist humor that falls flat. The Big Lebowski (my practically ur-example of absurdist humor) hits the right notes from beginning to end. Martin & Orloff flails most of its running time without any real direction. And, despite the seeming contradiction there, great absurdist comedies drop jokes with laser-point precision. 1933’s Duck Soup challenges my general premise. It challenges my premise because Duck Soup is an undeniably brilliant and gut-busting comedy, but it takes a shotgun to the idea of “direction” or “meaning” or “themes.” It simply is, and somehow, it makes that work.

If Duck Soup has a raison d’etre, it is an excuse to lay down as many jokes, gags, and slapstick at a machine gun-fire rate that it can. Actually a machine-gun is the wrong metaphor here; Duck Soup fires off jokes like a gatling gun on steroids. Though the film has an expository opening at the beginning (before the Marx brothers show up), once Groucho makes his grand entrance, the film just doesn’t stop. It actually becomes sort of exhausting. If the film were any longer (an hour and eight minutes is the absolutely perfect running time), it would have been too much to handle. But, as the act of comedy distilled to its pure essence, the Marx brothers knew what they were doing.

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What plot that exists in Duck Soup is always in support of the film’s jokes and almost never the other way around, and, against all rules of comedic writing, that works. When the struggling nation of Freedonia needs a loan to stay afloat, the wealthy Mrs. Teasdale (Margaret Dumont) agrees on the condition that Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho Marx) be appointed as the new prime minister. Of course, Rufus being Groucho, he’s no more fit for the job than the last officeholder, and his zany ideas for proper political behavior get the film’s conflicts rolling.

The scheming ambassador of Sylvania, Trentino (Louis Calhern), wishes to marry the wealthy Mrs. Teasdale, who only has eyes for Rufus. And so he hires two spies, the mute Pinky (Harpo Marx) and Chicolini (Chico Marx), to dig up dirt on Rufus T. Firefly. Of course Pinky being Harpo and Chicolini being Chico, they’re no more competent as spies than Rufus is as a government minister. And when Freedonian Bob Roland (Zeppo Marx) discovers Trentino’s schemes, Rufus’s confrontations with the Sylvanian ambassador lead to all-out war between Freedonia and Sylvania.

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Let there be no doubts. Duck Soup is funny. I was belly-laughing from beginning to end. There are bits in the film where it doesn’t work as well. Some of the musical numbers are more ridiculous than funny though that may have been the point. And any second (literally any single frame of the film) where at least one of the Marx brothers isn’t on screen robs it of its power. But, if any single one of them is there, it’s magic. And if they’re all three on screen… it’s divine (Zeppo is also in the film but plays the straight man). Whether it’s Groucho and Chico’s endless non-sequiturs or Harpo’s silent slapstick, Duck Soup fires on all cylinders from beginning to end.

Like Bringing Up Baby or Modern Times, Duck Soup makes the convincing case that cinematic comedy peaked in the 1930s and it didn’t really find itself again until Woody Allen’s dramedies burst on the scene. And it’s easy to pinpoint why. Early comedies just didn’t stop. Most modern comedies are lucky to have a handfull of big, belly laugh moments even though they throw tons of weak material at the screen hoping something sticks. The classic comedies are endlessly inventive from beginning to end. It’s a marvel, and more comedy writers need to study the crisp rapid-fire dialogue of the Preston Sturges screwballs and the brilliant physical timing of Harpo Marx/Charlie Chaplin to get how real comedy works.

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I want to work on my screenplay so I’ll draw this review to a close (I haven’t worked on the screenplay in a significant manner in two days now). Let me leave you with this. I will always remember the avalanche of “bits” in this film. Chico, Harpo, and a lemonade salesman switching hats in a zany bit of misdirection; Chico and Harpo pretending to be Groucho and then Groucho arriving; Groucho’s ever-evolving suite of outfits when war finally breaks out until he ultimately looks like Daniel Boone. The jokes never end. And that should be all the invitation one needs to watch this classic comedy masterpiece.

Final score: A

 

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An avalanche of rapid-fire dialogue, slapstick humor, and gags from start to finish barely scratches the surface of the madcap genius that is 1938’s Bringing Up Baby. The screwball comedies of the 30s and 40s are the golden era of pre-Woody Allen and post-Chaplin comedy, and Bringing Up Baby is surely one of the definitive films of that form. With stars Cary Grant (My Favorite Wife) and Katharine Hepburn (Woman of the Year) at the height of their comedic abilities, it is a non-stop laugh riot. And shy of Modern Times, I’d be hard-pressed to name a comedy from before the 1960s that’s as consistently hilarious as this Howard Hawks classic.

Humor in the purest sense of the word is derived from the unexpected and, like poetry, well-timed repetition. You expect one thing to happen to your heroes but, with expert timing, something else occurs. Say what you will about the non-intellectual nature of slapstick, but setting up the right series of physical gags and pratfalls takes perfect coordination of writer, director, and actor for it not seem contrived or silly. And what makes the screwball classics of Hollywood’s Golden Age so memorable is the ease with which its films transition in and out of hilariously painful physical humor, verbal ping-pong, and constantly escalating situational humor. And, from start to finish, Bringing Up Baby succeeds on every perceivable comedic front without ever having to resort to gross-out gags, foul language, or raunchy sex.

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Clumsy paleontologist David Huxley (Carey Grant) is a brilliant figure in his field but something of a nervous, put-upon mess. His fiancee, Alice (Virginia Walker), insists that they not have a honeymoon for their wedding which is only a day away and that David return immediately to his work, which involves putting the final bone in piece to a massive Brontosaurus skeleton, after their wedding. The pressure on David is compounded by a golf session with the lawyer of a rich woman who wants to give $1 million to David’s museum. And on that fateful golfing trip, after David hooks his starting drive, his life is changed when he meets Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn).

Susan is a desperately ditzy and oblivious heiress. And, in her first meeting with David, she steals his golf ball (because it was on her fairway) and then, leaving the golf course, she drives David’s car without his permission so that it would be easier for her to get out of her parking spot later. And though David positively loathes Susan from first sight, she is struck head over heels for him and concocts increasingly zany schemes so that he will not make it to his wedding. From saddling David with her pet leopard Baby to dragging him to Connecticut on the promise to make amends on costing him his golf meeting with the lawyer, the adventures and laughs never stop once the pair are together.

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Ignoring the complete lack of sexual chemistry that Cary Grant ever seemed to have with any of his female co-stars (his rumored homosexuality not withstanding, he should be able to at least pretend it), Cary Grant is a deliciously funny comic performer. Yes, his dramatic turns in films like Penny Serenade are brilliant, but his sardonic and deadpan comic delivery are a wonderful delight. David is very much a reactive role as he has to respond to the various misadventures Susan (the meatier part) drags him into and with every sigh, roll of his eyes, and exasperated shrug, Cary Grant had me in stitches. Not to mention the verbal rhythm he established with Hepburn’s motor-mouth Susan.

But, let there be no question, this was Katharine Hepburn’s show, and she commands the attention of every scene. The performance is astounding, not just in a comedic sense (though she gets many of the film’s biggest laughs) but in the whole range that Hepburn draws from. Cary Grant is a handsome, charming man, but there’s nothing sexual about him. He never seemed attracted to Susan. And so while Katharine turns Susan into a tough, air-headed, scheming, scatter-brained brilliant mess, she also played Susan in the thrall of a gradual swoon towards David, and the romantic aspect of the film would have fallen apart were it not for her natural magnetism and vulnerability. With the exception of Diane Keaton and Irene Dunne, few female stars have been able to dominate a film as thoroughly as Katharine Hepburn.

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I harped on this during my introduction but Bringing Up Baby was an astoundingly flexible and multi-faceted comedy. It’s one of the talkiest screwballs this side of My Man Godfrey (the similarities between Katharine Hepburn’s character in this and Carole Lombard’s in that are eerie). But, the physical humor is just as expertly pitched and Buster Keaton would have been proud. Few films have ever made the consistent toppling of shelves, tables, and human beings so refreshing. Bringing Up Baby‘s instincts for when to have David or Susan take a spill are perfect. And, then of course, the gags are endless such as a moment at a fancy restaurant where Susan accidentally tears David’s coat and then David accidentally tears Susan’s dress and they have to waddle their way out of the restaurant to spare her dignity.

When Bringing Up Baby was first released, it was something of a critical and commercial flop but it has been vindicated by the annals of history as the classic it truly is. Some old films age poorly, but the best seem as fresh today as the did 75 years ago. Bringing Up Baby has lost none of its pleasures. Proving my long-held belief that real comedy is timeless, I can’t imagine anyone stepping into this world and not finding themselves rolling in the aisles when all is said and done.

Final Score: A

 

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(I should preface this review with the fact that I watched this movie Sunday morning, and I’ve worked two nearly consecutive shifts since then so I apologize if my recollections of this film are less than pristine)

A military “epic” from the late 1930s sounds like a recipe for disaster to me. It’s an opinion I’ve long held, but with the exception of foreign films and film noir, I find most of the dramatic cinematic output of the pre-1960s era to be laughable at best (clearly there are exceptions like Rebel Without a Cause or The Searchers, but generally, I stand by my assertion), and 1938’s Blockade barely qualifies as a good film. The acting is often overwrought (though by turn intriguingly sensitive). The script hinges on one too many improbable coincidences, and it has all the flawed trappings of the melodramas of its time. But, despite all that, I found myself drawn into William Dieterle’s Spanish Civil War drama.

Perhaps it’s the film’s merciful length which miniaturized the epic to a manageable 90 minutes, but Blockade rarely saddled itself with its weak points for long enough for them to be too bothersome, and when it worked, it created interesting clashes with what I associate as the typical convention of late 30s Production Code era Hollywood storytelling. Thanks in no part to the by turns hammy and then deceptively sensitive performance from Henry Fonda, Blockade wormed its way into my heart and though I doubt I’ll give much thought to this tale a month from now, while it lasted I genuinely cared about the fates of its heroes.

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On the eve of the Spanish Civil War (whose politics are not even remotely discussed. it is, in fact, difficult to tell which side of the war that our hero ultimately fights for), simple peasant farmer Marco (The Longest Day‘s Henry Fonda) encounters the beautiful and mysterious Norma (Madeleine Carroll) whose car crashes into Marco’s oxen cart. Marco gives her a lift back to the nearest town not knowing that Norma is a Russian spy working for the force in the war that Marco ultimately opposes. As the war begins, Marco and the other farmers are fleeing their land when Marco finally has enough and rallies the men to form a military defense of their homes.

Afterwards, Marco becomes a high-ranking officer in the resistance (though, yet again, it’s really unclear what he’s resisting and who he’s fighting though maybe less subtlety was needed in 1938 to get across the facts of a then semi-recent war). And, Norma, her father, and another Russian spy work to undermine the resistance by blowing up a ship bringing relief to the blockaded Spanish city of Castelmare. However, after Marco kills her father, Norma begins to realize the error of her ways, and unless she can atone for her past misdeeds, the entire city of Castelmare will starve and the war will be lost.

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This is the earliest Henry Fonda film I’ve ever seen, and I was bowled over by how much he looks like a cross between Willem Dafoe and Jack Lemmon. Watch this movie and til me I’m wrong. I was also impressed by how his performance seemed far more sensitive and less outwardly masculilne than many of his contemporary peers. Here was a man that was clearly a model for later sensitive stars like James Dean and Montgomery Clift. In the bigger dramatic moments, he generally couldn’t find the emotional subtlety that he displayed in the quieter, more emotional scenes, but when he hit the right notes, I was very impressed. I now owe it to myself to watch the rest of Fonda’s early repertoire (as I feel I’m sorely uneducated in the career of Henry Fonda).

I’ll draw this review to a close. I want to play Assassin’s Creed 3 for a bit, and maybe get around to watching the Daniel Day-Lewis movie I’ve had at home from Netflix for nearly a month now (I tried to watch it on Netflix Instant a month ago, but everyone’s Irish accents were so thick that I couldn’t understand a word and I realized I needed subtitles). So, I’ll leave you with this note. Blockade is a melodramatic, ultimately forgettable relic of 1930s cinema, and other than hardcore Henry Fonda fans, it is nowhere near required viewing. But, for a simple cat-and-mouse spy story and a tale of man’s convictions in a war, it will pass 93 minutes with enjoyment.

Final Score: B-

 

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Without wanting to sound arrogant, my knowledge of movies is pretty encyclopedic. You don’t run a movie blog for two and a half years and review at least one film from all but five years since 1930 without knowing your way around cinematic history. So, it’s rare anymore for me to come across a film that I had legitimately never heard of before placing it on my Netflix queue. It still happens (Tape a recent, positive example) but it happens much more rarely than it used to. Sometimes, these unknown films become some of my personal favorites that I’ve watched for this blog (Conversations with Other Women), but sadly, on other occasions, I quickly know why these films were lost to the annals of history.

There are movies that you know are going to be a drag from the plot description alone, and 1938’s Army Girl was one such exercise in cinematic triviality. After World War I, the United States army realized that it was time to signal the change between a traditional horse-mounted cavalry to mechanized tank warfare. But, with America’s rich tradition of cavalry as the linchpin of any successful military campaign, this change was met with much resistance. One man (and I’m unsure if he really existed, Captain Dike Conger (Preston Foster) has led a successful string of demonstrations of the power and flexibility of tanks when he is sent to one last camp to facilitate the change.

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But, Captain Conger is a well-known cad whose only rule in his female conquests is that he doesn’t date any women with any affiliation to whatever military camp he’s been sent to. It’s a rule that he never breaks… until he finds himself falling for Julie Armstrong (Madge Evans), the daughter of the camp’s Colonel. She pretends to be a plucky, hick-accented townie until the ruse is discovered by Conger after he’s already started to fall for her. But their relationship is threatened again when the march of technology threatens to put her horse-trained father out of work and with Captain Conger as his possible replacement.

That description of the plot is actually far more enticing than the one Netflix Instant uses which eschews any mention of the romance between Conger and Julie (which is really the main thrust of the film) and instead focuses solely on the tank vs. horse nature of the film. And, believe me, had this movie been solely about Conger’s attempts to convince his fellow soldiers that the future of the military depended on transitioning to tanks, Army Girl would have been practically unwatchable. Thankfully, it filled those moments out with a quaint romantic comedy that made the film bearable (though it’s short running time didn’t hurt matters either).

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I’ll keep this review very, very short because this film wasn’t terrible. It certainly wasn’t good in any sense of the word either. It was just frivolous and unnecessary. Nothing about it stood out except for maybe Madge Evans, and that had nothing to do with her acting ability (which was alright I suppose) but more to do with the fact that she bore a striking resemblance to Irene Dunne (though she lacked Dunne’s natural presence). I only watched this film because it received a Best Cinematography Oscar nod in 1938, and I suppose there were some well-shot sequences for the time. I can’t imagine any reason why anyone reading this blog should watch this film. It’s best that we let Army Girl stay forgotten.

Final Score: C

(I usually put a trailer for the film’s I review beneath my scores for this blog, but Army Girl is so obscure that no trailers for it exist on Youtube. So, that’s why it isn’t there)

 

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The day that I get too old to enjoy children’s movies will be the day that my heart stops being capable of having simple, innocent fun. Anyone who’s read my reviews of Toy Story 3, The Iron Giant, or Howl’s Moving Castle know the fondness I hold in my heart for great children’s film-making, and when Pixar or Studio Ghibli are involved, we’re living through a family film renaissance. But, the mark of a great children’s movie is how much the adults in the audience can appreciate it, and though 1937’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was a remarkable technical achievement as the world’s first full-length animated film, sitting through it’s actual story was an absolute, almost unbearable bore.

When I was watching the Blu-Ray re-release of Snow White (which impressively decided to not futz with the original film’s 4:3 aspect ratio by not awkwardly forcing a 16:9 schematic into the film), I was bowled over by the film’s artist attention to detail and the sheer scope and gamble that movie surely represented for the Disney studios. No one else had done anything like it before. Cartoons were meant for shorts, not movies, but Walt Disney wrung 90 minutes out of an animated story. And, the backgrounds and characters (except for the hideously drawn Snow White herself) are exquisite and well-crafted in a way that Disney rarely does anymore. Sadly, that didn’t make the actual plot of the film itself any more enjoyable.

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If you are somehow unfamiliar with the plot of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, you’re either an amnesia just waking from a decades long coma or you’re an alien intent on infiltrating the human race. But, here goes. Snow White is a beautiful princess whose evil stepmother, the Queen, fears her stepdaughter’s beauty. With a magic mirror constantly telling her that she’s the most fairest woman in the land, the Queen is content to make her daughter’s life hell and to dress her as a hideous maid until one day the mirror changes its tune and tells the Queen that Snow White is now the fairest of them all.

The Queen, being the psychotic narcissist that she is, doesn’t take the news well. She orders the royal huntsman to escort the young Snow White off to the woods and then to kill her and remove her heart as a trophy. But, when the time comes, the huntsman can not do it and shows mercy on the young Snow White. Snow White is forced to flee into the woods away from the watchful eyes of her evil Stepmother, and in those woods, she stumbles upon the company of seven strange but lovable dwarfs who vow to keep her safe. But, the Queen’s vengeance knows no limits and she devises a plan with a poisoned apple to end Snow White’s life once and for all.

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Words can not properly describe how irritating Adriana Caselotti’s voice is. That’s the woman who voiced Snow White, and it’s like if they took everything that made Judy Garland’s voice so iconic and wonderful and then made it grating like Jean Hagen in Singin’ in the Rain. She thankfully doesn’t talk all that much, but by the end of the film, I was cheering for the Evil Queen to feed her the poisoned apple because I didn’t want to hear her treacly sweet voice ever again. Her singing voice is alright, but most of the enjoyable musical numbers from the film were performed by the dwarfs anyway, but more on them in a second.

The movie’s story is so broad, the characterizations so thin, and the innocence of it so frustrating that it’s difficult for anyone bred on the Disney films of the 90s (like me) to be able to sit through the simplicity of this film’s tale. Until the dwarfs arrive, it lacks much of the trademark humor of a Disney film, and it’s painfully obvious that Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was made for young girls and absolutely no one else was likely intended to enjoy it. Alongside the film’s artistic craftsmanship, the dwarfs are the only consistently enjoyable part of the film, and they add a much needed levity to the whole affair. There’s a reason why “Hi Ho” is still a classic of the children’s genre.

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As dull and uninteresting as I found most of the film, I was able to sit through this thankfully brief film because of how gorgeous the artwork is. For what was the very first full-length animated feature, Disney already knew what they were doing, and their dedication to getting things right in an age before computers is incredible. I can’t even imagine the man hours that went into making this movie. So, although I have no intention of watching this film ever again (unless I have a daughter someday who forces me to), I can appreciate the momentous undertaking that Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs represented for Disney. And it’s that ambition that keeps this score from being even lower than it alraedy is.

Final Score: B-

 

Scarface (1932)

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It’s three weeks into my gangster movie film studies class and I’m already tiring of the genre. Throw in the fact that next week’s film is the 1980s remake of the movie I’m about to review (and a film that I think is super over-rated) and, well, to quote G.O.B., “I’ve made a huge mistake.” Perhaps, it isn’t the gangster genre itself that I’m tiring of though, and maybe this weariness I suddenly feel towards the genre is just directly related to how little I care for the film that I watched a couple days ago (and only now found the time to review), 1932’s Howard Hawks’ “classic” Scarface. With the exception of Paul Muni’s deliciously theatrical performance and occasional moments of shocking violence and action (for a film from the early 30s), I found Scarface to be a tired, cliche-ridden (though it probably made many of the cliches), somewhat racist and overblown picture lacking the fun energy of The Public Enemy or White Heat.

Paul Muni (The Life of Emile Zola) plays Tony Camonte, the tough-talking, sadistic, Italian stereotype gangster at the heart of the film. After murdering his old boss at the behest of ambitious crime boss Johnny Lovo (Osgood Perkins), Tony, the scar-marked psychopath, slowly gains power and respect in the criminal underworld which he lords mercilessly over civilians and criminals alike, including his kid sister Cesca (Ann Dvorak) who Tony sees as his own personal property. As Tony’s ambitions rise and he starts to fall for his boss’s girl (Karen Morley), it’s only a matter of time til Tony Camonte tries to take over the rackets as his own boss. But will his greed and insatiable lust for violence prove his downfall?

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Paul Muni is almost the film’s only saving grace and even he takes his portrayal to cartoonish heights. Unlike James Cagney, who could take a psychopath like Cody Jarret or Tom Powers and make them feel human, Muni and the film’s writing turn Tony into a caricature. Which isn’t to say that it isn’t fun to watch him do his thing though. He’s flamboyant, seductive, and able to flip from charmer to brutal sadist at a switch. The xenophobic, racist writing at the heart of the film can be blamed for most of the deficiencies in Muni’s performance but he’s certainly no Cagney and this performance doesn’t reach the high mark he set later with The Life of Emile Zola. Karen Morley also had some good moments as the femme fatale whose affection Tony desperately seeks.

Sadly, everything in the film features the same heavy-handedness that defined Tony’s characterization. Every character feels like a sad racial stereotype of Italian-American’s in the early 1900s. At one point, a cop even comes out and says that most criminals of the time were foreigners. The film reeks of xenophobia and racism. At least, Tom Powers and Cody Jarret weren’t tired racial stereotypes. Although the worst offender in this department was Tony’s mother who can only be called whatever the Italian equivalent of “blackface” would be. There’s no subtlety in the film although that was never Howard Hawks’ strongsuit or Howard Hughes (who produced the film). They just want to beat you over the head with the violence, crime, and sex and not leave any room for character development or interesting social commentary.

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Still, despite its egregious shortcomings, Scarface had its moments where everything seemed to click. When they allowed Paul Muni to menace and terrify, the film moved in the right direction. Particularly, when it explored his borderline incestuous relationship with his sister Cesca, Scarface brought something new to the table that other films weren’t handling much better. And, when it could temper its own excesses and overblown caricatures, it was a legitimately entertaining film that simply suffered from a fatally flawed structure holding those good pieces together. At the end of the day though, Scarface is held up as one of the defining films of the gangster movie genre. I honestly can’t figure out why, but if you consider yourself a student of the art, it’s probably worth a look or two. Just don’t be surprised when it hasn’t aged well.

Final Score: C+

 

The Public Enemy

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I’m almost hesitant to write this review. Without fail (continental divide-wide power outages not withstanding), I try to have my reviews for films up at least a day or so after I first watch the movie. That will not be the case for the 1931 gangster classic, The Public Enemy. I have a film studies class this semester (because the one I took last semester didn’t fulfill the GEC requirement that I thought it did), and all of the films that we’re watching are “gangster” movies. I’m not crazy about that because that’s way too specific for my tastes for a movie every week but it has potential. We watched our first film, James Cagney’s breakthrough film The Public Enemy, on Tuesday and I’ve only just now had the chance to review it. I apologize if my details are hazy.

1931 marked one year into the Motion Picture Production Code, more commonly known as the Hays Code. Films had to follow a very strict moral code. Yet, despite these strictures by the Hays Office, certain movies slipped through the cracks (even if they ultimately had to wrap things up at the end in a “moral” way). Gangster movies and film noir scratched the need for darkness and depravity that the American public craved (even if the law said it was wrong). William Welman’s directorial high-watermark The Public Enemy marked the beginning of the true “ganster” film classics. And despite the film’s real flaws, it was the rare classic where the excesses of the Hays Code never seemed to mar the picture.

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In his first leading role, James Cagney portrays Tom Powers, a young hood on the streets looking to rise the in the ranks of the criminal organization with his best friend, Matt Doyle. Even from a young age, Tom had an almost psychopathic lack of respect for authority. While his brother Mike (Donald Cook) gets a real job though never really rises out of poverty, Tom dives into a life of crime and the immediate riches of running booze and breaking arms for hire. As he climbs higher and higher in the Paddy Ryan crime family, Tom gains more infamy and respect while constantly painting a bigger and bigger target on his back.

Before we watched the film in my class, we watched a mini-documentary where Martin Scorsese called James Cagney’s first appearance on screen the moment where modern acting began. He couldn’t have been more right. Cagney brought an intensity and naturalism to his performance that was lacking in virtually every screen performance before him. He was the Brando before Brando was a thing. He was violent, sexual, menacing, and full of the type of little theatrical flourishes that were unheard of on the silver screen before him. This was the first James Cagney film I’ve ever seen, and I totally get it now.

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Throughout the entire film, I found myself disoriented and I couldn’t put my finger on it til halfway through. There was a striking clarity to the images and I thought that maybe the people who had digitally remastered the film had went a little overboard. That might have been the case but as someone who immediately thinks of film noir when I think of black & white crime movies, I was put off by the film’s almost documentary photographic feel. The lighting is bright, harsh, and very realistic. None of the shadows and atmosphere of later crime films (think Double Indemnity). I can’t fault the film for it but it lacked much of the visual excitement I expect from classic crime films.

But, ultimately, that “true-to-life” visual style meshes with the film’s (dated) attempts to capture a type of sociological realism to poverty and crime in the early 1900s. The Public Enemy seems to revel in its attention to both period detail and a cynical, pessimistic take on the cultural conditions that produced men like Tom Powers. By no means does this film produce the insights of crime films like Winter’s Bone or American History X, but for it’s time, it was an exciting and sophisticated bit of popcorn art.

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The film has its flaws. It does come across as dated. Certain moments carry more comedic weight than their intended dramatic weight. Jean Harlow is an all-time Hollywood legend but I don’t understand it at all. She seemed touched in the head in this film. But, the film’s perfect moments (the infamous grapefruit scene, the great understated moments of violence, Cagney’s pure whirlwind force) remind you why this film has remained a beloved classic for 80 years. Like I said, I watched it a week ago so many of the details are too hazy for me to make a truly insightful review, but if you love gangster movies, The Public Enemy is worth a spin.

Final Score: B+

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Over a year and a half ago, when Hot Saas’s  Pop Culture Safari was still in its infancy, I reviewed the classic Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers musical comedy Swing Time. I loved the movie and it was this close to being an almost perfect classic musical when a last minute black face number in the film nearly derailed the whole production. I understood that minstrel shows were an acceptable part of that era’s entertainment but that didn’t make it any less uncomfortable for this modern, ultra-liberal viewer. My first Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland film for the blog, 1939’s Babes in Arms was proving to be an enjoyable (although not nearly as great as Swing Time) children’s musical when another climactic, ridiculously lavish black face number reared its ugly head to remind me yet again of our nation’s virulent racist past.

When his down-on-his luck parents decide to take their once popular vaudeville show on the road in a hope to reclaim their glory days, Michael Z. Moran (Mickey Rooney) and his fellow stage children friends are left behind. With the help of his best friend Patsy (The Wizard of Oz‘s Judy Garland), Michael enlists the other kids to put on a lavish vaudeville revue to make it big time to prove that they’re just as talented as their washed up parents. With the threat of being taken away by the state hanging over their heads, Michael and Patsy have to raise the money to put on their show. Patsy is supposed to play the lead and Mickey wrote the songs just for her, but when former child-star Rosalie Essex (June Preisser) offers to pay the show’s expenses as long as she can play the show’s lead, Mickey has to choose between his feelings for Patsy and his desire to finally make it big.

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Mickey Rooney received an Academy Award nomination for this film and as weird as this may sound, I totally get it. When I first started watching the film, I thought he was around his character’s age (early teens), but nope. Mickey Rooney was 19 when he made this film. I was incredibly impressed when I thought he was 13 or 14. Still, even at 19, he already had the timing and comedic chops of a seasoned veteran and Rooney was easily the best part of the whole film. His presence controlled every scene and it’s easy to see why he was one of Hollywood’s biggest child stars of the era. His impressions were spot-on and hilarious. He had the manic but controlled energy of a pro like Donald O’Connor. In terms of how comedy worked back in the 1930s, he was as good as much of the established talent of the time.

Judy Garland on the other hand wasn’t as impressive. I can’t entirely blame her though. Her singing voice was as beautiful as ever and she had the girl-next-door appeal that made her such a beloved star. And it’s 1939. It’s the same year as The Wizard of Oz. She’s at the peak of her career. But, it was also terribly clear the entire film that she was stoned out of her gourd. The studio was feeding both her and Mickey Rooney amphetamines and barbiturates like candy to keep them going during their endless film production schedule, and it seems like Rooney got all of the amphetamines and Garland got all of the barbiturates. She just seemed dazed and completely out of it for the entire film. Perhaps, I’m reading something into her performance that isn’t actually there, but that was simply the impression I got the entire time.

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The musical numbers fluctuated between lovely and utterly forgettable. “Good Morning, Good Morning” would be performed to greater effect by Debbie Reynolds in Singin’ in the Rain but it made a great premier as one of the opening numbers of Babes in Arms. One can’t blame Garland’s lovely contralto. Rodgers and Hammerstein numbers almost always seem cookie-cutter to me (yes, I know that’s heresy to classic musical fans. I’m not a fan of that pairing though). But, there was something wonderful in the choreography and the spectacle of a film that was being performed by an almost all-child cast (even if the two leads were actually adults playing much, much younger than their characters). The film often managed to achieve an epic feel that made the material transcend into the charming side of “camp” that captures something innocent and hopeful about the era it was made (at the tail-end of the Great Depression).

Which makes the terribly racist, overly long blackface number at the end so incredibly uncomfortable. I had to get my computer out and look at Facebook and Twitter as that number ran on and on and on. I didn’t think it was ever going to end. But, much like Swing Time, if you can get past that awful relic of our nation’s vaudeville past, the film is ultimately enjoyable. The racism is a huge mark against it, but much like Gone With the Wind or the Tom Sawyer, it’s something you have to get past in order to understand our nation’s past historic outputs. It’s not pretty but it’s there and we can’t pretend like it never happened. So, if you enjoy these old school musicals, I wouldn’t rank Babes in Arms among the all time greats, but if you’re looking for something to pass the time, Mickey Rooney’s star turn is enough to justify a viewing.

Final Score: B

Before comedies had to rely on shocking amounts of obscenities or gross out humor, writers and directors were confident enough that their creation of absurdist situational humor and zany characters could deliver all the laughs they needed. I’m not dissing well-done raunchy humor. Judd Apatow remains the best thing to happen to movie comedies since Harold Ramis. But there was a day where comedies may have been significantly simpler but there were no less funny. And of course, the best Hollywood comedies of the classic era were the screwballs like Bringing Up Baby or It Happened One Night. 1936’s My Man Godfrey is a classic comedy in the screwball vein, and while it may not be as great the iconic films I just mentioned, it brings the laughs with a refreshing regularity.

In the waning days of the Great Depression, Irene Bullock (Carole Lombard), the daughter of a wealthy businessman, enlists the help of an intelligent and well-mannered homeless man to win a socialite scavenger hunt. After seeing the homeless man, Godfrey (Life With Father‘s William Powell), bullied by her wealthy peers, she invites him to come back to her home to be the new butler. Needing a job and eager for a chance to prove himself, Godfrey accepts the position but it becomes quickly apparent that the Bullock family  are a few cards short of a full deck. And when the audience discovers that Godfrey is actually the heir of a wealthy family himself, we join Godfrey on a ride as he tries to teach his condescending and eccentric bosses a lesson or two about life and humility.

Much like every William Powell role I can think of from this blog (Life With Father and How to Marry a Millionaire are the two that spring to mind), he  runs away as the best part of the whole film. Much to the opposite of one’s usual expectations, despite being the literal straight man of the film when matched against all of the crazies in the Bullock household, Powell still manages to get many of the best laughs. His only real competition is Eugene Pallette as the beleaguered head of the Bullock household. Powell simply has a pitch-perfect deadpan delivery, and like many of the best comedians, he can get deep chuckles with a simple wiggle of his eyebrow. That’s not to diminish the performance of his costars, especially Carole Lombard as the scatterbrained heiress who takes him in and develops an almost stalkerly crush on Mr. Godfrey.

The best screwball comedies pick up momentum like a rolling stone collects moss and My Man Godfrey is no exception. From the minute that Irene’s overbearing sister Cornelia (Gail Patrick) shows up at the dump to find Godfrey to the film’s non-stop series of revelations in the film’s final moments, My Man Godfrey gathers steam and rarely slows down the whole film. It’s very much a “talky” screwball and virtually every character except Godfrey speaks like they’ve just done a couple lines of speed (particularly Irene and her mother). Whether it’s a tea party that turns into an unexpected engagement celebration or Irene faking a fainting spell to get Godfrey’s attention, the film has gags and jokes aplenty and thankfully few fall flat.

Continuing my current trend of watching films that got really bad DVD transfer jobs, My Man Godfrey‘s transition to DVD was obviously (and sadly) not a labor of love. It looks bad and the audio is a mess. However, those small quibbles and the occasional moment here and there where the film doesn’t hit its comedic marks shouldn’t discourage fans of classic comedies for giving this film a spin. For a film that I was not anticipating enjoying, I found myself laughing out loud plenty of times throughout the film, and it’s another example of how classic comedies age better than classic dramas. I can only hope that when I inevitably watch the 1950s remake someday, it makes me laugh half as often.

Final Score: B

This blog is well over a year old now, but I’ve only reviewed three other films from the 1930s (and only The Birth of a Nation from before the 30s). I have sort of a complicated relationship with movies (specifically dramas) that came out before the mid-1960s. They have their own idealistic, nostalgic beauty, but more often than not, it’s their same idealism and simplicity that I found to be terribly boring and overdone in the face of the more mature and sophisticated narrative and cinematic devices that have come to define top-tier dramas since the 1960s. However, when I find dramas from that era that I love, I form an almost instant attachment with them because their ability to transcend time and space. If their story or message or simple style seems relevant and entertaining despite being over 60 years old, that’s a fairly massive achievement and it signifies their deserved place in the canon of film beyond the simple fact of their age. Casablanca fits in this category. The films of Elia Kazan and Billy Wilder are other notable timeless works. Well, I now have another film that despite its almost Aaron Sorkin-esque romanticism speaks across the chasms of decades (the film is over 70 years old) with a story that is as relevant today as when it first came out. While it suffers from some of the flaws inherent to the biopic genre, The Life of Emile Zola is a striking statement on our civic duty to stand up against injustice and government hypocrisy.

In the mid 1800s, French author Emile Zola (Paul Muni) and his closest friend, artist Paul Cezanne (Vladimir Sokoloff), are starving for their craft in the impoverished streets of Paris. Emile Zola writes by night and works by day as a clerk at a bookstore where his “slanderous” (i.e. true) attacks on the French government and the social injustices inherent in French life mark him as an active enemy of the state and cost him his job. When a random encounter with a French prostitute inspires him to write a novel that also works as an expose on the harsh realities of French working girls, Zola is suddenly thrust into the international literary spotlight and enjoys a truly prolific career as one of France’s most celebrated authors. He is essentially the Dickens of France in the way that he explores the less glamorous side of the exploding Industrial Revolution. However, in his success, Zola becomes content to while away his years in contented satisfaction despite the condemnations of his former best friend Cezanne who continues to pursue art above wealth. Zola finds himself back in the midst of another moral crisis when a Jewish captain in the French army, Albert Dreyfus (Joseph Schildkraut), is falsely accused of being a spy and a massive government conspiracy arises to frame him for the crime rather than face a more politically tumultuous reality of admitting they charged the wrong man. When Zola embarks on his mission to clear the name of Capt. Dreyfus, he risks not only his legacy among the French people but even his own freedom when the French government accuses him of treasonous libel and places him on trial.

Joseph Schildkraut won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for this film despite the fact that he was only in the movie for at most fifteen minutes or so of actual screen time. Despite the briefness of his presence on camera, he gave a deeply emotional performance that was certainly helped with the effective close-ups of his subtly emotive face. Emile Zola is without question the main character of the film, but the trials of Capt. Dreyfus propel the film’s second half and it’s very important that we care deeply about this unjustly accused man, and Schildkraut aptly garnered my sympathy with his characterization of heartbroken betrayal. However, Paul Muni was the real star of the film, and while I haven’t seen Spencer Tracy in Captains Courageous (who beat out Muni for the Best Actor Oscar that year), I can say that Paul Muni gave an all-star performance as the titular Emile Zola. It may have had some of the over-the-topness and emoting that characterized the big screen in the decade following the transition from silent films to “talkies,” but there was a genuine passion and intelligence in his role and Muni captured the moral outrage that any rational and ethical man in those circumstances would feel. I haven’t enjoyed watching a character give speech after speech in a movie like this since the last time I watched To Kill a Mockingbird with Gregory Peck’s iconic performance as Atticus Finch. Muni’s version of Zola might seem very old-fashioned by modern standards, but even though I knew his acting didn’t really jibe with the more naturalistic modern conventions, I still enjoyed the theatrics and fire he brought to the role.

For the reasons laid out earlier, I was actually dreading putting this in my DVD player. It sounded terribly boring and the plot description on Netflix made me fear that this was going to be a film with an era-relevant theme that wasn’t going to translate well to the modern era. I was completely wrong. Whether it was Emile Zola’s position as a 19th century Howard Zinn/Noam Chomsky/Julian Assange or the way that justice and truth were being railroaded in the vague name of the state, this film is perfectly relevant in the post-Bush era of endless government secrecy. There was a scene during one of the trials where Zola’s lawyer requested the presence of a string of high-ranking army officials to testify, and they all used some imaginary government immunity to not participate. It was like a scene right out of the investigations into torture and inethical spying against the Bush administration. I could just hear Alberto Gonzalez and the rest of the Bush administration saying “I do not recall” over and over again. Similarly, while the film didn’t outright make Dreyfus’ Jewish ancestry the reason why he was being chosen as the scapegoat, the film definitely maintained that subtext (very subtly), and in an era where our government and our nation like to blame one ethnic group or another for our nation woes rather than face harsher truths, it all rang amazingly true. Yes, the script took some liberties with history (though I don’t know how many), and there was a lot of speechifying in this film, but as a product of a day when movies were nearly synonymous with the stage, I thought it was all entertaining and illuminating.

If you’re a fan of classic dramas, The Life of Emile Zola is an obvious pick considering its place as one of the most acclaimed biopics of the early days of cinema. However, if you’re like me and think film noir was the only consistently watchable non-comedy genre from that day, The Life of Emile Zola deserves your attention because of the renewed sense of urgency and relevancy it holds in the modern political climate. The film may paint Zola in the most romantic light possible without exploring any of his potential flaws and so it paints its hero in a very favorable light, but even without getting an entire picture, it’s a fascinating look at a page of history that hasn’t been done time and time again. The acting is excellent (by the standards of theatre anyways) and it was a surprisingly well-shot and well-edited film from this era. If you’ve ever found yourself in a liberal uproar because of social inequality or the government sacrificing justice in the name of a “greater good” that only really profits them, The Life of Emile Zola is an astounding artifact of the dawning of the silver screen to show how some issues have never really gone away.

Final Score: A-