The Great Dictator (1940)

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The Great Dictator (1940)

The Great Dictator (1940). 124 minutes. Directed by Charlie Chaplin. Starring Charlie Chaplin (as Jewish barber/Adenoid Hynkel), Paulette Goddard (as Hannah), Maurice Moscovitch (as Mr. Jaeckel), Emma Dunn (as Mrs. Jaeckel), Bernard Gorcey (as Mr. Mann), Paul Weigel (as Mr. Agar), Jack Oakie (as Benzino Napaloni), Reginald Gardiner (as Commander Schultz), Henry Daniell (as Garbitsch), and Billy Gilbert (as Herring). Written, produced, and scored by Charlie Chaplin.

The Great Dictator was in its time and remains today a daring film. Through bizarre coincidence, the movie takes advantage of a unique opportunity for one titan to skewer another—that is, the English comedian with the famous toothbrush mustache lampoons the German dictator with the famous toothbrush mustache. As a comedy about the Nazi regime, and much like its contemporary To Be or Not to Be (1942), The Great Dictator may be hard for some to stomach now as it was then, in spite of its use of revered silent-era star Charlie … Read the rest

The Lodger (1927)

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The Lodger (1927)

The Lodger (1927). 91 minutes. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Starring Ivor Novello (as Jonathan Drew/the lodger), Marie Ault (as the landlady), Arthur Chesney (as her husband), June Tripp (as Daisy Bunting), and Malcolm Keen (as Joe Chandler).

Alfred Hitchcock’s silent thriller The Lodger is one of the earliest movies to express some of the director’s deepest preoccupations: the pursuit of an innocent man who is confused with a killer, the intersection of sex and murder, the experience of people who suspect someone in their circle of being a criminal, and the suffocating nature of crowds. As such, The Lodger is a rich repository of trademark Hitchcock elements, including his first cameo, and the director himself called it the first true Hitchcock film. At the same time, and paradoxically, the movie bears the marks of some of the other great European filmmakers of its time, such as F. W. Murnau and Fritz Lang. The Lodger is best understood as a transitional … Read the rest

My Man Godfrey (1936)

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My Man Godfrey (1936)

My Man Godfrey (1936). 94 minutes. Directed by Gregory La Cava. Starring William Powell (as Godfrey), Carole Lombard (as Irene Bullock), Alice Brady (as Angelica Bullock), Gail Patrick (as Cornelia Bullock), Eugene Pallette (as Alexander Bullock), Jean Dixon (as Molly), Alan Mowbray (as Tommy Gray), Mischa Auer (as Carlo), and Pat Flaherty (as Mike Flaherty).

My Man Godfrey is a kind of topsy-turvy fairy tale about the Great Depression: a society girl finds a hobo whom she adopts and transforms into a butler, but in the end he reveals that he is really a member of the upper classes. Much like the princes of fairy tales, the butler Godfrey is on a personal quest laden with trials, except that his quest involves moving through the American social hierarchy, becoming first a member of one class, then another, and then another. Although the movie is a screwball comedy set in ritzy 1930s Manhattan and features large sets, beautiful clothes, and quirky … Read the rest

I Walked with a Zombie (1943)

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I Walked with a Zombie (1943)

I Walked with a Zombie (1943). 69 minutes. Directed by Jacques Tourneur. Starring Frances Dee (as Betsy Connell), Tom Conway (as Paul Holland), James Ellison (as Wesley Rand), Edith Barrett (as Mrs. Rand), James Bell (as Dr. Maxwell), Christine Gordon (as Jessica Holland), Theresa Harris (as Alma), Darby Jones (as Carrefour), and Sir Lancelot (as calypso singer). Produced by Val Lewton.

I Walked with a Zombie has a sensationalistic title, but don’t let that fool you—this is not a 1950s atom bomb movie about flesh-eating ghouls. The story follows a strange woman living on a balmy island who wanders around in a kind of trance, whether due to tropical fever or vengeance or voodoo (or all three). The true nature of her condition is never made entirely clear, and rather than prove to us definitively that the woman is a zombie, the movie instead cultivates a moody atmosphere where much is unsaid, sorrow pervades, and we are left to draw … Read the rest

Scarlet Street (1945)

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Scarlet Street (1945). 102 minutes. Directed by Fritz Lang. Starring Edward G. Robinson (as Christopher Cross), Joan Bennett (as Katharine “Kitty” March), Dan Duryea (as Johnny Prince), Margaret Lindsay (as Millie Rae), Rosalind Ivan (as Adele Cross), Jess Barker (as David Janeway), Charles Kemper (as Patch-eye Higgins), and Russell Hicks (as J. J. Hogarth).

Scarlet Street is a remake of Jean Renoir’s La Chienne (1931), but whereas La Chienne was made at the beginning of a decade that offered merely the seeds of film noir, Scarlet Street was made by Fritz Lang in the greatest period of this cinematic mode. The remake works splendidly, and Renoir’s story is right at home in a moody 1940s American nightscape replete with darkened streets, shadowy relationships, and moral turpitude. Above all I recommend it because it stars Edward G. Robinson, who is so often typecast as a tough guy or gangster, as a sensitive painter who is taken advantage of by two clever … Read the rest

Boudu Saved from Drowning (1932)

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Boudu Saved From Drowning (1932)

Boudu Saved from Drowning (1932). 84 minutes. Directed by Jean Renoir. Starring Michel Simon (as Boudu), Charles Granval (as Edouard Lestingois), Marcelle Hainia (as Emma Lestingois), Sévérine Lerczinska (as Anne Marie), Jean Gehret (as Vigour), Max Dalban (as Godin), and Jean Dasté (as student).

Pauline Kael famously described Boudu Saved from Drowning as the story of a proto-hippie whom a family of bourgeois benefactors attempts to reform. In many ways this description works. I can attest that Boudu (the proto-hippie) does bear the markers of the many individuals who continue to inhabit the counter-cultural margins of the Bay Area, where I live: a free and easy approach to sex (witness how he impulsively grabs and fondles the maid Anne Marie while he carries on an affair with the lady of the house), a lack of care for his personal appearance (the clothes full of holes and the unkempt beard and mustache), the periodic narcissism (the lack of interest in the … Read the rest

The Maltese Falcon (Three Versions, 1931-1941)

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The Maltese Falcon

The following article is a review of three film adaptations of Dashiell Hammett’s novel The Maltese Falcon: the pre-Code Maltese Falcon (1931), the bizarre comedic Satan Met a Lady (1936), and the superb film noir version (1941).

Synopsis: The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett (1929)

Sam Spade is a private detective working in San Francisco. A woman identifying herself as Miss Wonderly appears in his office one day and asks for his help: she claims her sister is visiting the city in the company of a disagreeable man, and Wonderly wants the two separated. Spade’s partner Miles Archer takes over the case and agrees to shadow the man, Thursby, but that evening both Miles and Thursby are shot dead.

The next day, Spade meets up with Wonderly, who explains that she and Thursby were involved in a plot to capture an illusory, legendary, jewel-studded falcon statuette that has been smuggled around the world by treasure hunters through the ages. … Read the rest

The Pirate (1948)

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The Pirate (1948)

The Pirate (1948). 102 minutes. Directed by Vincente Minnelli. Starring Judy Garland (as Manuela Alva), Gene Kelly (as Serafin), Walter Slezak (as Don Pedro Vargas), Gladys Cooper (as Aunt Inez), George Zucco (as the Viceroy), and Lester Allen (as Uncle Capucho). Special dance sequence with the Nicholas Brothers. Music by Cole Porter.

The Pirate is famous today for its troubled production history. This is largely due to star Judy Garland’s emotional instability at the time of filming, which was related to her mood disorder and prescription pill addiction. She famously missed 99 of the 135 shooting days and had a contentious relationship on the set with director and then-husband Vincente Minnelli. The movie was also unfortunately not a financial success upon its release. But simply watching its colorful sets, beautiful costumes, and expert performances, you would probably never guess that anything was amiss. In addition to featuring the accomplished art direction that we would expect from Minnelli, The Pirate is … Read the rest

The Kingdom of the Fairies (1903)

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The Kingdom of the Fairies (1903)

The Kingdom of the Fairies (1903). 17 minutes. Directed by Georges Méliès. Starring Georges Méliès and Bleuette Bernon.

Together with A Trip to the Moon (1902) and The Impossible Voyage (1904), The Kingdom of the Fairies is one of Georges Méliès’s most impressive silent short films. The story is of the variety that Méliès loved, involving an epic journey, fierce magical creatures, and a grand final spectacle with a parade. The plot, which is fairly simple, is enhanced by the beautiful and inventive visuals that Méliès incorporates throughout the film, and the movie as a whole functions as a kind of catalogue of the various special effects that Méliès was fond of using. Its elaborate sets and complex techniques are fascinating, and overall the film is one of Méliès’s best.

The movie begins in a royal palace with a prince and princess, whose betrothal ceremony we witness. An evil male witch materializes in the middle of the court, menaces the … Read the rest

Night Nurse (1931)

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Night Nurse (1931)

Night Nurse (1931). 72 minutes. Directed by William Wellman. Starring Barbara Stanwyck (as Lora Hart), Ben Lyon (as Mortie/Pal), Joan Blondell (as B. Maloney), Clark Gable (as Nick), Blanche Friderici (as Mrs. Maxwell), Charlotte Merriam (as Mrs. Ritchie), Charles Winniger (as Dr. Arthur Bell), Edward J. Nugent (as Eagen), Vera Lewis (as Miss Dillon), and Ralf Harolde (as Dr. Milton A. Ranger).

Night Nurse boasts many attractions: actresses Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Blondell in the bloom of youth, an almost baby-faced Clark Gable in one of his earliest speaking roles, and a screenplay based on Grace Perkins’s crime novel of the same name. But the main reason to see Night Nurse is because it is a prime example of the type of kinky movie made during what we now call the pre-Code Hollywood period (1929 to mid-1934), which spanned from the advent of sound films to the creation of the Production Code Administration, the internal censorship office of Hollywood’s … Read the rest