The Blue Bird (1940). 88 minutes. Directed by Walter Lang. Starring Shirley Temple (as Mytyl), Johnny Russell (as Tyltyl), Eddie Collins (as Tylo), Gale Sondergaard (as Tylette), Helen Ericson (as Light), Spring Byington (as Mummy Tyl), Russell Hicks (as Daddy Tyl), Cecilia Loftus (as Granny Tyl), Al Shean (as Grandpa Tyl), Sybil Jason (as Angela), Nigel Bruce (as Mr. Luxury), Laura Hope Crews (as Mrs. Luxury), Thurston Hall (as Father Time), Jessie Ralph (as Fairy Berylune). Based on the play by Maurice Maeterlinck.
The Blue Bird is one of the worst movies from early cinema that I have yet reviewed, and I have written about both Reefer Madness (1936) and Maniac (1934). It is certainly one of the most expensive bad movies that I have reviewed, featuring one of the biggest stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age, Shirley Temple. The Blue Bird caused problems for Temple and for her studio, 20th Century Fox, as it failed to prove a profitable … Read the rest
The Bishop’s Wife (1947). 109 minutes. Directed by Henry Koster. Starring Cary Grant (as Dudley), Loretta Young (as Julia Brougham), David Niven (as Bishop Henry Brougham), Monty Woolley (as Professor Wutheridge), James Gleason (as Sylvester), Gladys Cooper (as Agnes Hamilton), Elsa Lanchester (as Matilda), Karolyn Grimes (as Debby), and Sara Haden (as Mildred Cassaway). Featuring The Robert Mitchell Boys Choir. Cinematography by Gregg Toland.
The Bishop’s Wife is a Production Code-era holiday film about a love triangle between an Anglican church official, his wife, and another man. This in itself would be potentially juicy material for a film of any era, but what makes The Bishop’s Wife veer towards the bizarre is that the other man making sexual advances towards the bishop’s wife is in this case an angel, sent down from heaven to assist the bishop as he navigates his way through a building project that is making his wife miserable and resentful. As a Christmas story with … Read the rest
The Big Broadcast (1932). 80 minutes. Directed by Frank Tuttle. Starring Bing Crosby (as Bing Hornsby), Stuart Erwin (as Leslie McWhinney), Leila Hyams (as Anita Rogers), Sharon Lynn (as Mona Lowe), George Burns (as Mr. Burns), and Gracie Allen (as reception clerk). Featuring musical performances by Cab Calloway, The Mills Brothers, The Boswell Sisters, Vincent Lopez and His Orchestra, Eddie Lang, Donald Novis, Kate Smith, and Arthur Tracy.
For a modern audience, watching The Big Broadcast—the first installment of the Big Broadcast film series that Paramount produced in the 1930s—is like watching two different movies at once. On the one hand, it can be enjoyed as a nostalgic, even escapist trip through the past: the movie features a plethora of wonderful period musical acts (including Cab Calloway, The Boswell Sisters, and The Mills Brothers) and boasts some delightful vintage comedy in the form of radio stars George Burns and Gracie Allen. But at least as interesting is what makes … Read the rest
Murder at the Vanities (1934). 89 minutes. Directed by Mitchell Leisen. Starring Carl Brisson (as Eric Lander), Victor McLaglen (as Lt. Bill Murdock), Jack Oakie (as Jack Ellery), Kitty Carlisle (as Ann Ware), Dorothy Stickney (as Norma Watson), Gertrude Michael (as Rita Ross), Jessie Ralph (as Helene Smith), Gail Patrick (as Sadie Evans), Toby Wing (as Nancy), and Donald Meek (as Dr. Saunders). Featuring Duke Ellington and His Orchestra. Songs by Arthur Johnston and Sam Coslow.
Murder at the Vanities is a late pre-Code film that merges the backstage musical elements of 42nd Street (1933) with a violent whodunnit. Putting firearms, dripping bottles of lethal acid, flying sewing shears, and deadly hat pins aside, however, Murder at the Vanities is largely about flesh and the display of flesh at every possible opportunity under the pretense that this is what the tuxedo-wearing hordes that pack the Vanities musical theater chiefly crave. We never see the audience properly, but if the police … Read the rest
The Jolson Story (1946). 130 minutes. Directed by Alfred E. Green. Starring Larry Parks (as Al Jolson), Evelyn Keyes (as Julie Benson), William Demarest (as Steve Martin), Bill Goodwin (as Tom Baron), Ludwig Donath (as Cantor Yoelson), Tamara Shayne (as Mrs. Yoelson), Scotty Beckett (as young Asa Yoelson), Jo-Carroll Dennison (as Ann Murray), and John Alexander (as Lew Dockstader). With vocal performances by Al Jolson.
Al Jolson is billed as “America’s greatest entertainer” in the tagline for The Jolson Story. However, I would be surprised to hear anyone alive today describe him in a similar way. Jolson will forever be associated with groundbreaking cinema because of his performance in The Jazz Singer (1927), the first feature-length film to use synchronized sound; and Hallelujah! I’m a Bum (1932), another of his starring vehicles, is one of the finest films of the 1930s. But in spite of the tremendous success he enjoyed during his lifetime, his legacy as a … Read the rest
Madam Satan (1930). 116 minutes. Directed by Cecil B. DeMille. Starring Kay Johnson (as Angela Brooks), Reginald Denny (as Bob Brooks), Lillian Roth (as Trixie), Roland Young (as Jimmy Wade), and Elsa Peterson (as Martha). Featuring Abe Lyman and His Orchestra.
Madam Satan has been called the weirdest movie that director Cecil B. DeMille ever made. It is true that the interpersonal bedroom comedy that makes up its first two thirds may seem strange to anyone who is used to the biblical and ancient-world spectacles DeMille is known for (although to be fair, he directed films in many other genres). Those scenes, which follow a wife’s developing awareness of her husband’s infidelity, are noticeably stripped down and deprived of the director’s penchant for excess. But Madam Satan’s final act, involving a wild party in a tethered zeppelin that goes disastrously awry, is more reminiscent of DeMille’s fondness for salacious sleaze and biblical-style punishment, albeit divorced from the thorough religious context … Read the rest
The Public Enemy (1931). 83 minutes. Directed by William A. Wellman. Starring James Cagney (as Tom Powers), Jean Harlow (as Gwen Allen), Edward Woods (as Matt Doyle), Joan Blondell (as Mamie), Mae Clarke (as Kitty), Donald Cook (as Michael Powers), Leslie Fenton (as Nails Nathan), Beryl Mercer (as Ma Powers), Robert Emmett O’Connor (as Paddy Ryan), and Murray Kinnell (as Putty Nose).
The Public Enemy is the pre-Code movie that solidified legendary actor James Cagney’s reputation for playing tough-guy criminal types. It made a major contribution to the gangster genre under development in the early sound period, which included such groundbreaking films as Little Caesar (1931) and Scarface (1932). Pre-Code gangster films typically feature slick criminal characters who at times are positioned as worthy of our admiration for their personal style, confidence, and strident disregard for authority. One of the wonderful things about the best of those movies, however, is the way that they also provocatively ask us to … Read the rest
Hallelujah! I’m a Bum (1933). 82 minutes. Directed by Lewis Milestone. Starring Al Jolson (as Bumper), Frank Morgan (as Mayor John Hastings), Madge Evans (as June Marcher), Harry Langdon (as Egghead), Edgar Connor (as Acorn), Chester Conklin (as Sunday), and Louise Carver (as Mrs. Sunday). Music by Lorenz Hart and Richard Rodgers. Written by S. N. Behrman. Based on a story by Ben Hecht.
Hallelujah! I’m a Bum is a pre-Code, Depression-era musical starring Al Jolson and Henry Morgan that seeks both to amuse the audience with comical characters and a healthy dose of light opera, and to unsettle us with a portrait of a down-and-out society on the verge of revolution. It focuses on the adventures of a New York City hobo named Bumper who chooses to be a vagrant because it is, to his mind, the freest way to live. As we follow him, we see the disparities affecting American society during the Great Depression, articulated through the … Read the rest
The Big Sleep (1946). 114 minutes. Directed by Howard Hawks. Starring Humphrey Bogart (as Philip Marlowe), Lauren Bacall (as Vivian Sternwood Rutledge), John Ridgely (as Eddie Mars), Martha Vickers (as Carmen Sternwood), Charles Waldron (as General Sternwood), Elisha Cook, Jr. (as Harry Jones), Louis Jean Heydt (as Joe Brody), Bob Steele (as Lash Canino), and Dorothy Malone (as Acme Bookstore proprietress). Screenplay by William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett, and Jules Furthman. Based on the novel by Raymond Chandler.
The Big Sleep is a befuddling but magical detective movie. Its plot points are overly complicated, much of the action does not make sense, and the audience is left with many unanswered questions when it ends. But The Big Sleep’s relentless use of cool attitudes, mystery-rich moodiness, and snappy, arch dialogue encourages us to enjoy the story’s stylish atmosphere and characterizations in lieu of the usual and more predictable pleasure that we might take in successfully unraveling a gumshoe’s investigation. The result is … Read the rest
Bambi (1942). 70 minutes. Directed by David Hand. Produced by Walt Disney.
Screenwriter William Goldman wrote in Adventures in the Screen Trade (1983) that Walt Disney’s animated cartoon Bambi (and specifically, the death of Bambi’s mother at the hands of hunters) is the 1940s equivalent to Alfred Hitchcock’s later Psycho (1963). It is a provocative claim, yet given the oblique depiction of the mother deer’s death and the generally soft qualities of the film—including how much time Bambi spends foregrounding cute fluffy animals—and also given how comparatively bloody and brutal Psycho’s slasher scenes are, Bambi to me seems a world away from Hitchcock’s masterpiece. Indeed, the public’s focus on the mother deer’s death has enshrined what is essentially one of the film’s weakest moments as a cultural touchstone. Additionally, even though Bambi’s animal characters are rendered with skill that draws on the techniques mastered in earlier Disney projects, the film seems to have forgotten a great deal of what made … Read the rest