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). 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
Portrait of Jennie (1948). 86 minutes. Directed by William Dieterle. Starring Jennifer Jones (as Jennie Appleton), Joseph Cotten (as Eben Adams), Ethel Barrymore (as Miss Spinney), Lillian Gish (as Mother Mary of Mercy), Cecil Kellaway (as Mr. Matthews), David Wayne (as Gus O’Toole), and Albert Sharpe (as Moore). Produced by David O. Selznick.
Portrait of Jennie is one of several films that paired actors Joseph Cotten and Jennifer Jones together in a romantic scenario, but what is particularly noteworthy about this venture is the extent to which it blends sentimentality with supernatural fantasy. The plot concerns a painter who draws inspiration from someone whom we gradually suspect is a ghost. Given this premise, you may discern already that the potential for it to veer into melodramatic terrain is great, and with producer David O. Selznick at the helm, the events depicted do, in fact, grow to be over the top; the emotional storyline erupts in a cataclysmic fever towards the … Read the rest
The Puppetoon Movie (1987). Frame sequence written, directed, and produced by Arnold Leibovit. Original cartoons created by George Pal.
The Puppetoon Movie, while released in 1987, is a compilation of George Pal’s cartoon shorts from the 1930s and 1940s. If you are both a fan of early animation and an adventurous type who seeks out animated art beyond the world of cel-based cartoons, you might already know of works like the elegant feature-length The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926). If you are looking for the compact and strange, the Puppetoons might be more to your liking. The Puppetoon Movie includes the representative short features The Little Broadcast, Philips Broadcast of 1938, Hoola Boola, South Sea Sweethearts, The Sleeping Beauty, Tulips Shall Grow, Together in the Weather, John Henry and the Inky-Poo, Philips Cavalcade, Jasper in a Jam, and Tubby the Tuba.
In case you have never seen … Read the rest
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
The Lodger (1927). 91 minutes. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Starring Ivor Novello (as Jonathan Drew/the lodger), Marie Ault (as the landlady), Arthur Chesney (as her husband), June Tripp (as Daisy Bunting), and Malcolm Keen (as Joe Chandler).
Alfred Hitchcock’s silent thriller The Lodger is one of the earliest movies to express some of the director’s deepest preoccupations: the pursuit of an innocent man who is confused with a killer, the intersection of sex and murder, the experience of people who suspect someone in their circle of being a criminal, and the suffocating nature of crowds. As such, The Lodger is a rich repository of trademark Hitchcock elements, including his first cameo, and the director himself called it the first true Hitchcock film. At the same time, and paradoxically, the movie bears the marks of some of the other great European filmmakers of its time, such as F. W. Murnau and Fritz Lang. The Lodger is best understood as a transitional … Read the rest
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
I Walked with a Zombie (1943). 69 minutes. Directed by Jacques Tourneur. Starring Frances Dee (as Betsy Connell), Tom Conway (as Paul Holland), James Ellison (as Wesley Rand), Edith Barrett (as Mrs. Rand), James Bell (as Dr. Maxwell), Christine Gordon (as Jessica Holland), Theresa Harris (as Alma), Darby Jones (as Carrefour), and Sir Lancelot (as calypso singer). Produced by Val Lewton.
I Walked with a Zombie has a sensationalistic title, but don’t let that fool you—this is not a 1950s atom bomb movie about flesh-eating ghouls. The story follows a strange woman living on a balmy island who wanders around in a kind of trance, whether due to tropical fever or vengeance or voodoo (or all three). The true nature of her condition is never made entirely clear, and rather than prove to us definitively that the woman is a zombie, the movie instead cultivates a moody atmosphere where much is unsaid, sorrow pervades, and we are left to draw … Read the rest
Scarlet Street (1945). 102 minutes. Directed by Fritz Lang. Starring Edward G. Robinson (as Christopher Cross), Joan Bennett (as Katharine “Kitty” March), Dan Duryea (as Johnny Prince), Margaret Lindsay (as Millie Rae), Rosalind Ivan (as Adele Cross), Jess Barker (as David Janeway), Charles Kemper (as Patch-eye Higgins), and Russell Hicks (as J. J. Hogarth).
Scarlet Street is a remake of Jean Renoir’s La Chienne (1931), but whereas La Chienne was made at the beginning of a decade that offered merely the seeds of film noir, Scarlet Street was made by Fritz Lang in the greatest period of this cinematic mode. The remake works splendidly, and Renoir’s story is right at home in a moody 1940s American nightscape replete with darkened streets, shadowy relationships, and moral turpitude. Above all I recommend it because it stars Edward G. Robinson, who is so often typecast as a tough guy or gangster, as a sensitive painter who is taken advantage of by two clever … Read the rest
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