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

Journey into Fear (1943)

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Journey into Fear (1943)

Journey into Fear (1943). 68 minutes. Directed by Norman Foster. Starring Joseph Cotten (as Howard Graham), Dolores del Río (as Josette Martel), Ruth Warrick (as Stephanie Graham), Agnes Moorehead (as Mrs. Matthews), Jack Durant (as Gogo), Everett Sloane (as Kopeikin), Eustace Wyatt (as Professor Haller/Muller), Frank Readick (as Matthews), Edgar Barrier (as Kuvetli), Jack Moss (as Banat), Stefan Schnabel (as purser), Richard Bennett (as captain), and Orson Welles (as Colonel Haki). Screenplay by Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles.

Journey into Fear features Orson Welles’s Mercury Theatre stock players in a story about a hapless American who gets caught up in a European espionage plot during World War Two. The rushed production required the actors to work in many uncredited capacities, and the movie was certainly not the artistic focus of Welles’s time at RKO in the early 1940s—a period that included Citizen Kane (1941), The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), and the ambitious and unfinished It’s All True. But Journey Into 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

The Broadway Melody (1929)

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The Broadway Melody (1929)

The Broadway Melody (1929). 100 minutes. Directed by Harry Beaumont. Starring Anita Page (as Queenie Mahoney), Bessie Love (as Harriet “Hank” Mahoney), Charles King (as Eddie Kearns), Jed Prouty (as Uncle Jed), Kenneth Thomson (as Jacques Warriner), Edward Dillon (as stage manager), Marry Doran (as Flo), and Eddie Kane (as Zanfield). Music by Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown.

The Broadway Melody is one of the first films in the sound era to use an almost completely synchronized soundtrack. The top-grossing picture in its year of release, it was widely praised by critics and was the first sound movie to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. However, the reviews of some in the industry, such as Charlie Chaplin, were not so favorable (he calls it “a cheap dull affair” in his memoir). Chaplin admittedly had much to fear with the arrival of The Broadway Melody, whose success helped to spell the end of the silent era … 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

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

Portrait of Jennie (1948)

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Portrait of Jennie (1948)

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)

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The Puppetoon Movie (1987)

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)

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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