Category: 1938


BringingUpBaby1

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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Blockade1

(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-

 

ArmyGirl1

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)