It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). 130 minutes. Directed by Frank Capra. Starring James Stewart (as George Bailey), Donna Reed (as Mary Hatch Bailey), Henry Travers (as Clarence Odbody), Lionel Barrymore (as Henry F. Potter), Thomas Mitchell (as Bill Bailey), Beulah Bondi (as Ma Bailey), Gloria Grahame (as Violet Bick), H. B. Warner (as Emil Gower), and Todd Karns (as Harry Bailey).
It’s a Wonderful Life draws inspiration from Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, in which supernatural visitors show the miser Ebenezer Scrooge his past, present, and future in order to convince him to reform his heartless ways. Similarly, in It’s a Wonderful Life, an angelic guide named Clarence uses a vision of an alternate present to demonstrate to the suicidal protagonist George Bailey how integral he is to society, and Clarence’s efforts rescue both George and his small town, Bedford Falls, from a dark fate. But the movie also strives to convince George of the American values that … Read the rest
Grand Hotel (1932). 112 minutes. Directed by Edmund Goulding. Starring Greta Garbo (as Grusinskaya), John Barrymore (as Baron Felix von Geigern), Joan Crawford (as Flaemmchen), Wallace Beery (as General Director Preysing), Lionel Barrymore (as Otto Kringelein), Lewis Stone (as Dr. Otternschlag), and Jean Hersholt (as Senf).
Grand Hotel is a 1932 American-made film set a few years earlier in Berlin at a time when Germany was inching towards Nazification. The movie depicts pre-Hitler Berlin as a dazzling center of cosmopolitan sophistication and adventure, sweeping us away with the interpersonal intrigue and romance of continental life. In the near future, the urbanity in which Grand Hotel revels (as well as the vulnerability associated with urban hotel life that it conveys) would become lost in the dysphoria that was sweeping through Europe—and yet in 1932 when the film was made, it was still possible to envision a Germany that was enveloped in the dreams and schemes of strangers passing each other softly … Read the rest
The Story of Temple Drake (1933). 70 minutes. Directed by Stephen Roberts. Starring Miriam Hopkins (as Temple Drake), Jack La Rue (as Trigger), William Gargan (as Stephen Benbow), William Collier, Jr. (as Toddy Gowan), Irving Pichel (as Lee Goodwin), Guy Standing (as Judge Drake), Elizabeth Patterson (as Aunt Jennie), Florence Eldridge (as Ruby Lemarr), James Eagles (as Tommy), and Harlan Knight (as Pap).
The Story of Temple Drake is based on the controversial William Faulkner novel Sanctuary, which created a sensation when it was published in 1931 because of the way it handles the topic of rape. The movie, while more oblique than the novel, nevertheless also shocked the public. Critics lashed out against it, and its scandalous content helped catalyze the enforcement of the Hollywood Production Code in 1934. Yet while The Story of Temple Drake is laden with elements from the so-called vice movies of the pre-Code period, many of which will seem racy and distasteful even … Read the rest
Baby Face (1933). 75 minutes. Directed by Alfred E. Green. Starring Barbara Stanwyck (as Lily Powers), George Brent (as Courtland Trenholm), Donald Cook (as Ned Stevens), Alphonse Ethier (as Adolf Cragg), Henry Kolker (as J. P. Carter), Margaret Lindsay (as Ann Carter), Arthur Hohl (as Ed Sipple), John Wayne (as Jimmy McCoy, Jr.), Robert Barrat (as Nick Powers), and Theresa Harris (as Chico).
Baby Face tells the story of a young woman who is sexually exploited for all of her young adulthood and who in a life-changing reversal determines that she will exploit men instead for her own personal gain. The film, which charts her quest to use sex to move up the corporate ladder, is frequently cited as a catalyst for the 1934 enforcement of the Hollywood Production Code, the set of industry censorship policies that regulated motion picture content. I have to admit that even as a fan of pre-Code movies, I was surprised by how brazen … Read the rest
The Other Side of the Wind (2018). 122 minutes. Directed by Orson Welles. Starring John Huston (as J. J. “Jake” Hannaford), Peter Bogdanovich (as Brooks Otterlake), Susan Strasberg (as Juliette Rich), Norman Foster (as Billy Boyle), Oja Kodar (as the Actress), Bob Random (as John Dale), Joseph McBride (as Marvin Pister), Lilli Palmer (as Zarah Valeska), Edmond O’Brien (as Pat Mullins), Mercedes McCambridge (as Maggie Noonan), Cameron Mitchell (as Matt “Zimmie” Zimmer), Dan Tobin (as Dr. Bradley Pease Burroughs), Cathy Lucas (as Mavis Henscher), and Tonio Selwart (as the Baron). Featuring Henry Jaglom, Paul Mazursky, Claude Chabrol, Curtis Harrington, and Dennis Hopper as themselves. Cinematography by Gary Graver. Edited by Bob Murawski and Orson Welles. Produced by Frank Marshall and Filip Jan Rymsza.
This November, 48 years after its first day of shooting, Orson Welles’s film The Other Side of the Wind was finally released to the general public on Netflix. The film was not Welles’s last (he left … Read the rest
This 31-minute audio recording was made by film critic, screenwriter, and actor Joseph McBride on August 23, 1970—the first day of shooting on The Other Side of the Wind, Orson Welles’s film about the last day in the life of fictional director J. J. “Jake” Hannaford (played by John Huston). The recording features McBride (as Marvin Pister) rehearsing a scene with Peter Bogdanovich (as Charles Higgam) at Welles’s house in Beverly Hills, with Welles directing. Bogdanovich would later be recast as Brooks Otterlake.
Many thanks to McBride for making the recording available to Kozak’s Classic Cinema.… Read the rest
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). 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). 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). 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