Archive for ‘Drama’

September 8th, 2011

History Is Made At Night (1937)

History Is Made At Night History Is Made At Night History Is Made At Night
Don’t be frightened. . .we have nothing to fear anymore. Everything now seems so little, so unimportant.

*N.B. I have the worst copy of this film in the world, hence the horrifying screen caps.

Aaaaaaaand I’m back!  Sorry for the radio silence.  I would make my excuses, but they would be just that:  excuses.  Plus, this is my blog, so I don’t have to.  Ha!  In any event, I was inspired to write about this film for two reasons:  1.)  Jean Arthur’s character is named Irene, and we were just visited by a lovely lady who was similarly christened (thanks, Mother Nature!).  2.)  Awhile back, Dana Delany tweeted about it.  At the time, I was so knocked out because I’ve never heard anyone mention this film before.  Ever. Which is a shame, because it is really a wonderful, forgotten little gem.  Obviously Dana is a woman of good taste!

Frank Borzage’s History Is Made At Night is interesting in many contexts, not the least of which is that of Jean Arthur’s career trajectory.  It was released the same year as Easy Living (1937), that imitable classic of 30s screwball comedy which we have already discussed.  Yet for Arthur, it represents an entirely different challenge, one that she rises to admirably and which enriches her resume beyond the comedic archetype that modern cinephiles so narrowly remember her by.

Arthur’s Irene Vail is the abused wife of millionaire ocean liner magnate Bruce Vail (Colin Clive).  Violently possessive, Vail is a man who sees perceived betrayal in Irene’s every move and treats her as if she were one of his ships; an empty vessel whose sole purpose is to be filled with the reflection of his desires.  When Irene finally decides to leave her husband, she runs away to Paris (cinematic city of dreams!), with Vail in dogged pursuit.  There, he concocts a scheme to forestall the divorce settlement by orchestrating a fake rendezvous between her and his valet.

Unfortunately for Vail, an interloper by the name of Paul Dumond (Charles Boyer) stumbles upon the scene, and in order to save the damsel in distress, stages a robbery undercover of which he spirits Irene away.  Outwitted, Vail kills the valet and plots to frame Paul, whom he rightly suspects is no thief, and wrongly assumes is his wife’s lover.   From this tragedy, the romantic spectacle at hand is born. . .

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January 28th, 2011

Meet John Doe (1941)

Meet John Doe Meet John Doe Meet John Doe
There you are, Norton:  The People!  Try and lick that!

Two of my favorite films of all time are 1957’s A Face in the Crowd, and 1976’s Network.  In this age of 24 hour news networks, both pictures seem crushingly relevant to modern day concerns regarding the corruptive relationship between politics and mass media.   (I accidentally wrote “mess media” before I corrected myself.  Maybe I should have left the mistake in!)  Yet when the time span between the two is considered, it appears that America has been suffering from these ills much longer than many want to admit.  From this, it would appear that the halcyon days of integrity and honestly are an imagined smoke screen, or coping mechanism, for those among us (and I admit that I’m often guilty of this) searching for a point in time before “it all went wrong.”

Since neither film falls within the time construct I am studying here, let us instead look at what some may call a prequel, or even a first installment in this trinity of American political cinema:  Frank Capra’s 1941 film, Meet John Doe.  For those who are familiar with Capra’s work, the predominant themes of big government and the common man will come as no surprise.  What is startling, however, are the foreshadowed strains of soulless ambition at the expense of the common good (shades of Network’s Diana Christensen), and manipulation masquerading as entertainment, like that of A Face in the Crowd’s Lonesome Rhodes.   In this film, the all consuming, ever present threat of something bigger than the body politic, some “man behind the curtain” who pulls the strings and adheres to an agenda not of our making, looms above what the average person’s sightline  is privy to.

Meet John Doe is billed, curiously, as a comedy/drama.  But the laughs are far and few between, and those that exist germinate from a caustic sarcasm more than anything genuinely side-splitting.  Surely, for box office purposes, the safe bet is to always market a film “down”, and yet the success of Meet John Doe belies the sleight of hand used to lure audiences into the theatre.   Generally speaking, viewers are far more sophisticated than the PR machine gives them credit for.  Thus, the irony of how this film is presented in relation to what it really is, should not be lost on us as we undertake an analysis of its content.

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October 18th, 2010

The Women (1939)

The Women The Women The Women

A woman is compromised the day she is born.

1939. It is a year cited by many as one of the greatest in cinematic history. Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Ninotchka, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington? All released in 1939. On the eve of a war that would forever change predefined notions about humanity, it seems fitting that Hollywood should produce some of its most memorable meditations on the nature of good versus evil, preservation in the face of destruction, idealism apropos reality, and the toll that such struggles reign over its subjects.

On September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland. That very same day, on the other side of the Atlantic, MGM released George Cukor’s comedic classic, The Women. At first glance, The Women seems nothing more than a marriage of style, wit, and star-power, thereby marking it anachronistic to the geo-political battles raging behind its birth. And yet, it proved to be one of the year’s top grossing films, a box-office juggernaut that lifted itself beyond the laurels of Clare Booth Luce’s play, and into a territory all its own. Why? Let’s peel back the onion’s layers and take a peek. . . read more »

September 29th, 2010

The Thin Man (1934)

The Thin Man The Thin Man The Thin Man
Would you mind putting that gun away?  My wife doesn’t care, but I’m a *very* timid fellow!

I had every intention of writing about 1936’s Satan Met a Lady this week, mainly because I wanted to do a three part series about Golden Age productions of The Maltese FalconSatan Met a Lady is the middle child of these efforts, and also the only one to deviate from a strictly dramatic treatment.  As a comedy/crime hybrid, I was intrigued and willing to give the film a far greater latitude than I usually would when regarding incarnations of a famous work.  However, despite the best efforts of one, Bette Davis, the entire film was so haphazardly put together that I barely made it through the modest 74 minute running time.

While I certainly do not think that only “good” films are worthy of deconstruction, sometimes it only takes a single fatal flaw to kill a picture.  When that happens, there’s only so much you can say.  In this case, the failure had less to do with reconceptualizing Dashiell Hammett’s classic tale of murder most foul, and more to do with someone’s insistence that Satan Met a Lady follow in the footsteps of another Hammett property:  the wildly successful cinematic rendering of The Thin Man.  Unfortunately, the dialogue is so turgid and the laughs so forced, that instead of enhancing the criminal aspect of the plot, they create a schizophrenic effect which in turn renders both elements impotent.

Certainly Satan Met Lady was not the first, nor the last, attempt to capitalize on the success of the crime turned comedy procedural.  A whole slew of debonair detective themed pictures cropped up around the same time, indeed William Powell himself was involved in the Philo Vance pictures, a series which predates The Thin Man by a few years.  Then, of course, there is the “Fast” series that revolves around Harry Kurnitz’s novels about Joel Sloan, a rare-book dealer moonlighting as a detective.  Yet I am hard pressed to think of any effort that out performs, or even pulls fair with The Thin Man. So that, dear readers, leads us to the topic at hand. . .

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September 11th, 2010

Wild Boys of the Road (1933)

Wild Boys of the Road Wild Boys of the Road Wild Boys of the Road
You wanna forget us. But you can’t do it. Cuz I’m not the only one. There’s thousands just like me, and there’s more hittin’ the road every day!

Excuse the absence, these past two weeks have been long for Miss Fierce.  They also encompassed a birthday. . .and what better way to celebrate nearing my dotage than to watch a pre-code film about teenaged hobos!

Wild Boys of the Road, was directed by William Wellman in 1933.  If that name sounds familiar to you, it’s probably because he helmed the first film to win an Oscar for Best Picture, “Wings,” back in 1927.  Interestingly, it was also the only silent film to ever be credited with the award.  But I digress!

Eddie (Frankie Darro) and Tommy (Edwin Phillips) are best friends, growing up amidst the pitfalls of normal middle-class adolescence (dating, cars, school dances) until both their families experience financial destitution.  Hitherto blissfully unaware of the Depression’s realities, the pair is thrown into an entirely different world over night when they decide to run away, so as not to further burden their parents.

On their travels, they meet up with a host of other young people, all pushed out onto the road by the Depression.  Most notable amongst these wayward youngsters is Sally (Dorothy Coonan Wellman, the director’s future wife), a freckle-faced girl disguised as a boy, whom they encounter whilst riding the rails.  The trio forms an unlikely familial unit, with Eddie assuming the “fatherly” role of leader, as they navigate an unforgiving territory in search of respite from crushing poverty.

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August 22nd, 2010

Dodsworth (1936)

Dodsworth Dodsworth Dodsworth
Love has got to stop someplace short of suicide

True story!  My personal copy of Dodsworth was bought from a local video store (remember them!?) that went out of business.  When I arrived at the sale, the “Classics” shelf had been picked clean.  I mean, every single film was gone, except for Dodsworth. Someone even purchased Anatole Litvak’s Mayerling (with Charles Boyer and Danielle Darrieux), so you know we weren’t dealing with average video clientele!

Anyway, despite my giving it a good home, the sight of Dodsworth sitting alone, sad and dejected, still haunts me  (Go on.  Say it.  “If that’s all that haunts you, you’ve lived a charmed life!”).  Mainly, because I never thought we’d reach a point where overlooking anything of William Wyler’s would be commonplace behavior.  But I suppose it has, since hardly anyone talks about this film, despite its having been a 1936 blockbuster and recipient of 6 Oscar nominations.

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