The Women (1939)

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The Women (1939)

The Women (1939). 133 minutes. Directed by George Cukor. Starring Norma Shearer (as Mary Haines), Joan Crawford (as Crystal Allen), Rosalind Russell (as Sylvia Fowler), Mary Boland (as the Countess De Lave), Paulette Goddard (as Miriam Aarons), Phyllis Povah (as Edith Potter), Joan Fontaine (as Peggy Day), Virginia Weidler (as Little Mary), Florence Nash (as Nancy Blake), Lucille Watson (as Mrs. Morehead), Marjorie Main (as Lucy), Dennie Moore (as Olga), Butterfly McQueen (as Lulu), and Hedda Hopper (as Dolly Dupuyster).

The late film critic Roger Ebert once wrote an aside on his blog that, rather than focusing on film, instead meditated on the general characteristics of the female sex. Ebert offered a perspective on women that may be familiar to you: that women are the ideal sex, that they have a natural proclivity for love and kindness, etc. “Women are better than men” is what he called his article. We have probably all heard these generalizations before, usually coming from … Read the rest

Trouble in Paradise (1932)

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Trouble in Paradise (1932)

Trouble in Paradise (1932). 83 minutes. Directed by Ernst Lubitsch. Starring Herbert Marshall (as Gaston Monescu/Gaston Lavalle), Miriam Hopkins (as Lily Vautier), Kay Francis (as Madame Mariette Colet), Edward Everett Horton (as François Filiba), Charles Ruggles (as the Major), and C. Aubrey Smith (as Adolph J. Giron).

Roger Ebert begins his wonderful review of Trouble in Paradise by observing that this movie is a comedy about adults, not the typically juvenile characters that masquerade as adults in modern-day Hollywood films. I would go so far as to say that Trouble in Paradise’s characters are the ultimate adults of the Golden Age of Hollywood: witty, wry, sophisticated, infinitely engaging, amusing, and immaculately dressed and groomed. In particular, the movie not only creates a mature atmosphere laced with champagne, erudite talk, and subtle scheming but also offers us grown-up sexuality, which its characters allude to frequently in word and action, and practice with refinement and enthusiasm. Even more than other daring Lubitsch … Read the rest

Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928)

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Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928)

Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928). 69 minutes. Directed by Charles Reisner. Starring Buster Keaton (as William Canfield, Jr.), Ernest Torrence (as William “Steamboat Bill” Canfield, Sr.), Marion Byron (as Kitty King), Tom McGuire (as J. J. King), and Tom Lewis (as Tom Carter).

Buster Keaton’s late silent film Steamboat Bill, Jr. was inspired by the 1911 song “Steamboat Bill” and in turn inspired Disney’s well-known 1928 animated short “Steamboat Willie” (the first cartoon to feature fully synchronized sound). In other words, it grew out of a timely reference and inspired a cartoon that may now strike us as antique. But watching Steamboat Bill, Jr. recently, I was struck by how timeless it is. The movie is not considered to be Keaton’s masterpiece—that honor falls to The General (1926)—but it still features outstanding riverbank stunts and an impressive hurricane sequence, complete with the famous shot of a building facade falling over Keaton’s head. However, part of what makes this movie and so … Read the rest

Modern Times (1936)

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Modern Times (1936)

Modern Times (1936). 87 minutes. Starring Charlie Chaplin (as the Little Tramp), Paulette Goddard (as Ellen Peterson), Henry Bergman (as café proprietor), Stanley “Tiny” Sandford (as Big Bill), Chester Conklin (as mechanic), and Al Ernest Garcia (as president of Electro Steel Corp.). Written, directed, and scored by Charlie Chaplin.

Modern Times is very special: unusually clever, unusually bittersweet for a comedy, and unusually and deliberately archaic. I say “archaic” because although it is from the sound era, Modern Times is largely silent, just like its predecessor City Lights (1931), also directed by and starring Charlie Chaplin and also made during the age of sound. Chaplin’s rejection of the talkies was multifaceted, and in resisting sound, he primarily sought to preserve his silent-era persona—the character known as the Little Tramp, who he did not believe could survive in a  sound film. Modern Times, however, resists more than merely the demise of the Little Tramp at the hand of the new … Read the rest

Smarty (1934)

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Smarty (1934)

Smarty (1934). 65 minutes. Directed by Robert Florey. Starring Joan Blondell (as Vicki Wallace Thorpe), Warren William (as Tony Wallace), Edward Everett Horton (as Vernon Thorpe), Frank McHugh (as George Lancaster), Claire Dodd (as Nita), Joan Wheeler (as Mrs. Bonnie Durham), Virginia Sale (as Vicki’s maid), and Leonard Carey (as Tony’s butler).

We live in an era where filmmakers deliberately produce raunchy comedies that exceed the limits of good taste in an effort both to thrill their target audiences and to be thought of as cutting edge. But I find most modern comedies rather tepid when it comes to the task of truly offending me. For something that has more punch, I have to look back to the pre-Code era, the time before Hollywood’s internal censorship office began enforcing the moral guidelines known collectively as the Production Code. Smarty, a late pre-Code movie, is about as far away from being a politically correct comedy as you can get, … Read the rest

Bringing Up Baby (1938)

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Bringing Up Baby (1938)

Bringing Up Baby (1938). 102 minutes. Directed by Howard Hawks. Starring Cary Grant (as Dr. David Huxley), Katharine Hepburn (as Susan Vance), May Robson (as Elizabeth Carlton Random), Charles Ruggles (as Major Horace Applegate), Walter Catlett (as Constable Slocum), Barry Fitzgerald (as Aloysius Gogarty), Fritz Feld (as Dr. Fritz Lehman), Virginia Walker (as Alice Swallow), and George Irving (as Alexander Peabody).

Modern critics such as Peter Bogdanovich are right to give Bringing Up Baby high praise: it is wonderfully hilarious. But oddly enough, it was not a success upon its initial release. In fact, its failure was so painful to RKO that the studio fired its director, Howard Hawks. Following the release of the movie, Katharine Hepburn was labeled box-office poison by the president of the Independent Theatre Owners of America and left RKO as well. But Bringing Up Baby earned its well-deserved reputation for wit, expert pacing, and fantastic performances across the board when it was revived in the … Read the rest

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

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

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