Piccadilly (1929)

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Piccadilly (1929)

Piccadilly (1929). 109 minutes. Directed by E. A. Dupont. Starring Gilda Gray (as Mabel Greenfield), Anna May Wong (as Shosho), Jameson Thomas (as Valentine Wilmot), King Hou Chang (as Jim), Hannah Jones (as Bessie), Cyril Ritchard (as Victor Smiles), and Charles Laughton (as nightclub diner).

Piccadilly is an impressive silent film. From its dazzling camera work, to its invigorating jazz-era atmosphere, to its use of stunning lead actress Anna May Wong, the movie infuses its scenes with beauty and a keen artistic sensibility. Piccadilly provides Wong—a Chinese American actress who left the United States for more meaningful parts in Europe—with a role of substance, and her work as the nightclub dancer Shosho overshadows the performances of her colleagues, including dancer Gilda Gray, who was at one point a well-known Ziegfeld girl. In the end, the movie, while perhaps less clichéd than Wong’s American projects, still relies on stereotypes to get its points across and concludes Shosho’s narrative in what feels … Read the rest

The Divorcee (1930)

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The Divorcee (1930)

The Divorcee (1930). 84 minutes. Directed by Robert Z. Leonard. Starring Norma Shearer (as Jerry Martin), Chester Morris (as Ted Martin), Conrad Nagel (as Paul), Robert Montgomery (as Don), Helen Johnson (as Dorothy), Florence Eldridge (as Helen Baldwin), Helene Millard (as Mary), Robert Elliott (as Bill Baldwin), Mary Doran (as Janice Meredith), Tyler Brooke (as Hank), and George Irving (as Dr. Bernard).

The Divorcee is a pre-Code drama that explores betrayal, revenge, and sexual double standards. In particular, it focuses on one woman’s efforts to overturn those standards in an attempt to wound her cheating ex-husband. The movie shows us a fair amount of wild living and is rather frank about its characters’ sex lives while they are single, married, and divorced, making it one of the most provocative of the pre-Code films. Nevertheless, it takes pains to demonstrate how unsatisfying the protagonist’s quest to hurt her ex is. The overall effect is that while the movie allows its female … Read the rest

The Sheik (1921)

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The Sheik (1921)

The Sheik (1921). 80 minutes. Directed by George Melford. Starring Rudolph Valentino (as Sheik Ahmed Ben Hassan), Agnes Ayres (as Lady Diana Mayo), Ruth Miller (as Zilah), George Waggner (as Yousaef), Frank Butler (as Sir Aubrey Mayo), Lucien Littlefield (as Gaston), Adolphe Menjou (as Raoul de Saint Hubert), and Walter Long (as Omair).

The Sheik has to be one of the strangest expressions of romance and sexuality that I have seen in a long time. It tells the story of an Arab sheik who abducts an English gentlewoman exploring the deserts of North Africa and holds her captive. At times we see that he hopes she will develop feelings for him, but at others he is intent on having his way with her whether she desires it or not. Regardless of his unsavory intentions, she does fall in love with him, but the movie’s celebration of both him and their relationship is difficult to admire. Overall, The Sheik is an … Read the rest

Safe in Hell (1931)

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Safe in Hell (1931)

Safe in Hell (1931). 73 minutes. Directed by William Wellman. Starring Dorothy Mackaill (as Gilda Karlson), Donald Cook (as Carl Erickson), Ralf Harolde (as Piet Van Saal), Morgan Wallace (as Mr. Bruno), John Wray (as Eagan), Ivan Simpson (as Crunch), Victor Varconi (as General Gomez), Nina Mae McKinney (as Leonie), Charles Middleton (as Jones), Clarence Muse (as Newcastle), Gustav von Seyffertitz (as Larson), George F. Marion (as Jack), and Cecil Cunningham (as Angie).

Safe in Hell is a dark but wonderful pre-Code movie about a fiercely willed prostitute on the run from the law in New Orleans and the Caribbean. Although raped and exploited in the United States, and ultimately executed in the context of the seedy underbelly of the South Seas crime world, she lives out her days devoted to her lover and herself with a rebellious passion. And yet, in spite of its serious content, Safe in Hell is actually laden with a great deal of playfulness both … Read the rest

All the King’s Men (1949)

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All the King's Men (1949)

All the King’s Men (1949). 109 minutes. Directed by Robert Rossen. Starring Broderick Crawford (as Willie Stark), John Ireland (as Jack Burden), Joanne Dru (as Anne Stanton), John Derek (as Tom Stark), Mercedes McCambridge (as Sadie Burke), Shepperd Strudwick (as Adam Stanton), Anne Seymour (as Lucy Stark), Katharine Warren (as Mrs. Burden), Will Wright (as Dolph Pillsbury), Raymond Greenleaf (as Judge Monte Stanton), and Walter Burke (as Sugar Boy).

If you have seen Born Yesterday (1950), the wonderful movie about a woman (played by Judy Holiday) who learns about American democracy and in doing do is inspired to end an abusive romantic relationship, you may remember Broderick Crawford as the politically aspiring businessman and thug Harry Brock—the person from whom Holiday’s character frees herself. Crawford’s Brock is brutish and malevolent, but Born Yesterday is not the first time the actor played a civic-minded and power-hungry antagonist. A year earlier he was in the astounding but perhaps today less well-known All Read the rest

Black Narcissus (1947)

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Black Narcissus (1947)

Black Narcissus (1947). 100 minutes. Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. Starring Deborah Kerr (as Sister Clodagh), Sabu (as the young general), David Farrar (as Mr. Dean), Kathleen Byron (as Sister Ruth), Flora Robson (as Sister Philippa), Jenny Laird (as Sister Honey), Judith Firse (as Sister Briony), Esmond Knight (as the old general), Jean Simmons (as Kanchi), and May Hallatt (as Angu Ayah).

Black Narcissus is a film of astonishing beauty. I liked it even more than I did The Red Shoes (1948), which was also created by The Archers, the production duo consisting of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. Both films tell their stories, which are more than tinged with melodrama, in beautiful three-strip Technicolor. But whereas The Red Shoes tells a story about creative passion that its characters express nightly as members of a ballet company, Black Narcissus documents the development of smoldering erotic passion among a group of Roman-Catholic nuns living in a palace atop … Read the rest

Mrs. Miniver (1942)

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Mrs. Miniver (1942)

Mrs. Miniver (1942). 133 minutes. Directed by William Wyler. Starring Greer Garson (as Kay Miniver), Walter Pidgeon (as Clem Miniver), Teresa Wright (as Carol Beldon), Dame May Whitty (as Lady Beldon), Reginald Owen (as Foley), Henry Travers (as Mr. Ballard), Richard Ney (as Vin Miniver), Henry Wilcoxon (as the vicar), Christopher Severn (as Toby Miniver), Brenda Forbes (as Glenda), Clare Sandars (as Judy Miniver), Marie De Becker (as Ada), and Helmut Dantine (as German flyer).

Mrs. Miniver is an Academy Award-winning movie about the rural English experience during the early years of World War II. Especially in its first half, the movie can be overly sentimental, but I was moved by the dramatic transformation of the characters’ lives as the war progresses in the second half. I was also captivated by the way that the British countryside, which we might think of in the abstract as a tranquil and pacific place, morphs into a dangerous and battle-torn environment in this … Read the rest

The Red Shoes (1948)

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The Red Shoes (1948)

The Red Shoes (1948). 133 minutes. Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. Starring Moira Shearer (as Vicky Page), Marius Goring (as Julian Craster), Anton Walbrook (as Boris Lermontov), Léonide Massine (as Grischa Ljubov), Robert Helpmann (as Ivan Boleslawsky), Albert Bassermann (as Sergei Ratov), Ludmilla Tchérina (as Irina Boronskaya), Esmond Knight (as Livingstone Montague), and Austin Trevor (as Profesor Palmer).

The Red Shoes has been praised over the years by film titans such as Martin Scorsese and Gene Kelly for its striking images and dramatic ballet centerpiece. Scorsese has in particular touted its exquisite use of color, and Kelly used its lengthy and accomplished central dance sequence to convince executives that the extensive ballet at the end of An American in Paris (1951) would work. The movie’s art-minded directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (who together were known in the industry as The Archers) have long been recognized for their visually distinguished productions, and The Red Shoes was only one … Read the rest

Casablanca (1942)

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Casablanca (1942)

Casablanca (1942). 102 minutes. Directed by Michael Curtiz. Starring Humphrey Bogart (as Rick Blaine), Ingrid Bergman (as Ilsa Lund), Paul Henreid (as Victor Laszlo), Claude Rains (as Captain Louis Renault), Conrad Veidt (as Major Heinrich Strasser), Sydney Greenstreet (as Signor Ferrari), Peter Lorre (as Signor Ugarte), S. Z. Sakall (as Carl), and Dooley Wilson (as Sam).

I am constantly amused by how warmly and universally well-received by general audiences Casablanca is—not because I think it deserves otherwise, but rather because it is difficult for any film to endure for so long in the mind of the public at large as an unequivocal classic, and not just as a classic among many, but to many people the definitive classic film. And yet the same people go to such great lengths to diminish it while they praise it, asserting that it was merely a B movie (it was not), or that it was only one of hundreds of films produced that year … 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