It (1927)

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It (1927). 72 minutes. Directed by Clarence G. Badger. Starring Clara Bow (as Betty Lou Spence), Antonio Moreno (as Cyrus Waltham, Jr.), William Austin (as Monty), Jacqueline Gadsden (as Adela Van Norman), Priscilla Bonner (as Molly), Gary Cooper (as reporter), and Elinor Glyn (as herself).

According to Elinor Glyn, whose serialized novella “It” was the inspiration for the movie of the same name, “It” is:

“…that quality possessed by some which draws all others with its magnetic force. With ‘It’ you win all men if you are a woman and all women if you are a man. ‘It’ can be a quality of the mind as well as a physical attraction.”

This sounds very similar to the definition of the so-called “X-factor,” the mysterious source of talent that entertainment industry casting directors, talent managers, and moguls claim emanates from great film and theater stars. It seems a bit strange to suggest that what governs our sexual and romantic interests also … Read the rest

I Married a Witch (1942)

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I Married a Witch (1942). 77 minutes. Directed by René Clair.  Starring Fredric March (as Wallace Wooley), Veronica Lake (as Jennifer), Cecil Kellaway (as Daniel), Susan Hayward (as Estelle Masterson), and Robert Warwick (as J. B. Masterson).

As a supernatural comedy that also has a political subplot, I Married a Witch is both a good Halloween movie and a good election-year movie.  Possibly it is familiar to you as one of the inspirations for the television series Bewitched.  The movie tells the story of the witches Daniel and Jennifer, a father and daughter pair who were found guilty of sorcery and burned in seventeenth-century New England at the instigation of Puritan Jonathan Wooley.  Just before her execution, Jennifer curses the Wooley men, condemning them all to unsatisfying love lives until the end of time.  Daniel and Jennifer’s ashes are buried under an old tree, where their spirits remain until 1942, at which point, thanks to some stray lightning, their … Read the rest

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

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

The Bride Came C.O.D. (1941)

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"The Bride Came C.O.D." Detail from a movie poster.

The Bride Came C.O.D. (1941). 92 minutes.  Directed by William Keighley.  Starring James Cagney (as Steve Collins), Bette Davis (as Joan Winfield), Eugene Pallette (as Lucius Winfield), and Harry Davenport (as “Pop” Tolliver).

The Bride Came C.O.D. is reminiscent of two other films that I have reviewed recently.  Like von Stroheim’s Greed, it was filmed in Death Valley when temperatures were high.  Like It Happened One Night, it features a wealthy heiress who wants to marry a dashing celebrity of whom her father disapproves, and the plot involves her displacement and an elaborate hunt to locate her.

By the early 1940s, Bette Davis and James Cagney were looking for new material.  Cagney had flourished playing gangster characters in movies such as The Public Enemy, and Davis had had great success in melodramas such as Jezebel and Of Human Bondage, but both actors thought a comedy was necessary to move their careers in fresh directions.  What they … Read the rest

Ninotchka (1939)

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Ninotchka (1939)

Ninotchka (1939).  110 minutes.  Directed by Ernst Lubitsch.  Starring Greta Garbo (as Nina Ivanovna “Ninotchka” Yakushova), Melvyn Douglas (as Count Leon d’Algout), and Ina Claire (as Grand Duchess Swana).  Written by Billy Wilder, Charles Brackett, Walter Reisch, and Melchior Lengyel.

Ninotchka is a sparkling comedy about the collision between the Soviet East and frothy 1930s Paris.  It was released in October 1939, just one month after World War Two began, and it gleefully depicts pre-war life with barely a reference to the ordeal unfolding on the continent.  The closest we come to a note of the German conflict comes early in the movie when three Soviet envoys await the arrival of their Russian supervisor at a Paris train station.  They assume this supervisor will be a man, and they scan the crowd for him, not knowing what he looks like.  One of them arrives at a possible candidate: a man with a round, bearded face — perhaps it is him?  … Read the rest

It Happened One Night (1934)

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"It Happened One Night." Detail from movie poster.

It Happened One Night (1934).  105 minutes.  Directed by Frank Capra.  Starring Claudette Colbert (as Ellie Andrews), Clark Gable (as Peter Warne), and Walter Connolly (as Alexander Andrews).

It Happened One Night is a distinguished film, perhaps most famously because of its five Oscars.  It swept all five major categories (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Screenplay), and that feat has rarely been achieved since.  But for a production of such legendary industry success, it certainly had humble origins as a film that was developed at Columbia, then a struggling studio, and whose script was passed over for various reasons by a number of stars including Myrna Loy, Carole Lombard, and Bette Davis, and Margaret Sullavan for the female lead.  It took some finagling to secure Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert in the lead roles. An apparently legendary story claims that Gable was farmed out to Columbia to work on the film as a punishment for … Read the rest