Saratoga (1937)

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Saratoga (1937).  92 minutes.  Directed by Jack Conway.  Starring Jean Harlow (as Carol Clayton), Clark Gable (as Duke Bradley), Walter Pidgeon (as Hartley Madison), Lionel Barrymore (as Grandpa Clayton), Una Merkel (as Fritzi), Frank Morgan (as Jesse Kiffmeyer), and Hattie McDaniel (as Rosetta).

Saratoga is Jean Harlow’s final film.  She collapsed on the set on May 20, 1937 with 90% of shooting completed, and after a drawn-out series of medical consultations was eventually diagnosed with kidney failure.  Her illness was likely brought on by a childhood bout of scarlet fever and was complicated by her reaction to oral surgery and a recent sun poisoning incident.  Unfortunately, even if Harlow’s kidney failure had been diagnosed immediately, her chances of survival were very low: modern dialysis treatment was not a possibility at the time.  Harlow slipped into a coma on June 6 and died the following day.

The movie itself is a fairly pedestrian yarn about horses—lots of horses. Carol Clayton (Jean … Read the rest

The Blue Angel (1930)

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The Blue Angel (1930). 99 minutes. Directed by Josef von Sternberg. Starring Emil Jannings (as Professor Immanuel Rath), Marlene Dietrich (as Lola Lola), Kurt Gerron (as Kiepert, the magician), Hans Albers (as Mazeppa, the strongman), and Reinhold Bernt (as the clown).  Songs by Friedrich Holländer and Robert Liebmann.

Roger Ebert concludes his review of The Blue Angel by placing its characters in historical context: “You can glimpse the sadomasochism of the Nazi pose in the strange relationship of Professor Rath and Lola Lola.”  Although there are no explicit allusions to Hitler’s political movement in the 1930 film, Ebert’s suggestion that a creepy Nazi power dynamic is evident in the Jannings-Dietrich portrayal is provocative and probably accurate.  The Blue Angel was originally released in the years just before Germany’s official transformation into a Nazi state, and it surely picks up on those larger cultural currents.  But the film is also a weird sort of backstage musical that leaves a bad taste … Read the rest

Ball of Fire (1941)

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Ball of Fire (1941)

Ball of Fire (1941). 111 minutes. Directed by Howard Hawks. Starring Barbara Stanwyck (as Katherine “Pussyfoot” O’Shea), Gary Cooper (as Professor Bertram Potts), S. Z. Sakall (as Professor Magenbruch), Richard Haydn (as Professor Oddley), and Dana Andrews (as Joe Lilac). Screenplay by Billy Wilder.

If you have ever seen Billy Wilder’s 1959 comedy Some Like It Hot, you will immediately notice the similarities between it and Ball of Fire, whose screenplay Wilder also wrote. Both involve characters going on the lam in conjunction with mob activity, a sexy nightclub singer with a ridiculous name (Sugar Cane in Some Like It Hot, Pussyfoot O’Shea in Ball of Fire), and men who have to transform themselves temporarily into their opposites in order to secure a woman’s affections.  In Some Like It Hot, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon don female attire, with dirt-poor Curtis additionally and intermittently posing as a playboy millionaire in order to woo singer Marilyn … Read the rest

Stranger on the Third Floor (1940)

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Stranger on the Third Floor (1940)

Stranger on the Third Floor (1940). 64 minutes. Directed by Boris Ingster. Starring Peter Lorre (as the Stranger), John McGuire (as Michael Ward), Margaret Tallichet (as Jane), Charles Halton (as Albert Meng), and Elisha Cook, Jr. (as Joe Briggs).

Stranger on the Third Floor is a noir curiosity from 1940, cited by many as the first entry in the genre’s classic period, which spanned roughly from 1940 to 1959. I would say that it stars Peter Lorre, except that he barely appears or even talks in the movie until three quarters have elapsed—and yet Lorre was such an impressive actor at the time that he received top billing nevertheless.

Lorre is the reason to see this movie. He plays the weird and enigmatic Stranger, a curious fellow whom protagonist Michael Ward suspects of murdering a neighbor.  Lorre’s early silent appearances as the Stranger—lurking on the front stoop of Ward’s building, peeking out of a door on Ward’s apartment landing, peering … Read the rest

Notorious (1946)

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Notorious (1946)

Notorious (1946). 102 minutes.  Directed by Alfred Hitchcock.  Starring Ingrid Bergman (as Alicia Huberman), Cary Grant (as T. R. Devlin), Claude Rains (as Alex Sebastian), and Leopoldine Konstantin (as Madame Anna Sebastian).

Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious is commonly described as an espionage thriller, but it is also a profound psychological drama and an ethical one, too—a movie that is not merely about notorious people but also about how we treat them.  It ranks with Vertigo and Rear Window as one of Hitchcock’s finest films.

At first we think we know who is notorious in this movie.  The film begins at the American trial of a famous Nazi spy.  We watch as his sentence is read, then see his daughter, Alicia Huberman (played by Ingrid Bergman) exit the courtroom. Surely the Nazi is the notorious one? But it turns out that the notorious person at the center of this story is not a Nazi: it is lovely Alicia Huberman.  We may come … Read the rest