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

The Wizard of Oz (1939)

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The Wizard of Oz (1939)

The Wizard of Oz (1939). 101 minutes. Directed by Victor Fleming, King Vidor, and George Cukor. Starring Judy Garland (as Dorothy Gale), Frank Morgan (as Professor Marvel/the Wizard), Ray Bolger (as Hunk/Scarecrow), Jack Haley (as Hickory/Tin Man), Bert Lahr (as Zeke/Cowardly Lion), Billie Burke (as Glinda the Good Witch of the North), Margaret Hamilton (as Miss Almira Gulch/the Wicked Witch of the West), Clara Blandick (as Aunt Em), and Charley Grapewin (as Uncle Henry). Songs by Edgar “Yip” Harburg and Harold Arlen. Based on the novel by L. Frank Baum.

The Wizard of Oz has to be one of the most phenomenal movies ever made: one of the most quotable, one of the most thematically resonant, and one of the most visually memorable (virtually any scene from any part of the movie can be excerpted in still form and people will instantly recognize it). It was not a major success upon its initial release and only achieved its present status … Read the rest

Mildred Pierce (1945)

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Mildred Pierce (1945)

Mildred Pierce (1945). 111 minutes. Directed by Michael Curtiz. Starring Joan Crawford (as Mildred Pierce Beragon), Jack Carson (as Wally Fay), Zachary Scott (as Monte Beragon), Eve Arden (as Ida Corwin), Ann Blyth (as Veda Pierce Forrester), Butterfly McQueen (as Lottie), Bruce Bennett (as Bert Pierce), Lee Patrick (as Maggie Biederhof), Veda Ann Borg (as Miriam Ellis), Moroni Olsen (as Inspector Peterson), and Jo Ann Marlowe (as Kay Pierce). Music by Max Steiner.

Mildred Pierce is equal parts entrepreneurial narrative, film noir, and melodrama. In some regards, it is an earnestly liberal tale about a hard-working woman who divorces, establishes her own business, and becomes a restaurant mogul. But it is also a lurid and somewhat punishing soap opera about her downfall, which is intertwined with and inseparable from her devotion to her evil young daughter Veda. In the end, in order to get its point across, the movie relies on a fairly conservative understanding of rightful social order and … Read the rest

The Women (1939)

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The Women (1939)

The Women (1939). 133 minutes. Directed by George Cukor. Starring Norma Shearer (as Mary Haines), Joan Crawford (as Crystal Allen), Rosalind Russell (as Sylvia Fowler), Mary Boland (as the Countess De Lave), Paulette Goddard (as Miriam Aarons), Phyllis Povah (as Edith Potter), Joan Fontaine (as Peggy Day), Virginia Weidler (as Little Mary), Florence Nash (as Nancy Blake), Lucille Watson (as Mrs. Morehead), Marjorie Main (as Lucy), Dennie Moore (as Olga), Butterfly McQueen (as Lulu), and Hedda Hopper (as Dolly Dupuyster).

The late film critic Roger Ebert once wrote an aside on his blog that, rather than focusing on film, instead meditated on the general characteristics of the female sex. Ebert offered a perspective on women that may be familiar to you: that women are the ideal sex, that they have a natural proclivity for love and kindness, etc. “Women are better than men” is what he called his article. We have probably all heard these generalizations before, usually coming from … 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

Dawson City: Frozen Time (2016)

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Dawson City: Frozen Time (2016)

Dawson City: Frozen Time (2016). 120 minutes. Written, directed, and edited by Bill Morrison. Music by Alex Somers.

Dawson City: Frozen Time is a documentary that is equal parts history of the late nineteenth-century Klondike Gold Rush, exploration of the early film industry, and exhibition of a major silver-nitrate silent movie horde discovered buried in an old swimming pool in Dawson City, Canada (a Gold Rush boom town). The movie explores how the fate of this valuable silent film collection came to be intertwined with its small-town community and how they were similarly affected by the ravages of time. That it manages to treat all of its topics with equal consideration and resourcefulness is a real feat, but that it does so while infusing its narrative with wonder and appreciation for the fragility of both film and human life is an unexpected gift.

The film broadly tells the story of the gold fever that swept North America in the … 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

Trouble in Paradise (1932)

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Trouble in Paradise (1932)

Trouble in Paradise (1932). 83 minutes. Directed by Ernst Lubitsch. Starring Herbert Marshall (as Gaston Monescu/Gaston Lavalle), Miriam Hopkins (as Lily Vautier), Kay Francis (as Madame Mariette Colet), Edward Everett Horton (as François Filiba), Charles Ruggles (as the Major), and C. Aubrey Smith (as Adolph J. Giron).

Roger Ebert begins his wonderful review of Trouble in Paradise by observing that this movie is a comedy about adults, not the typically juvenile characters that masquerade as adults in modern-day Hollywood films. I would go so far as to say that Trouble in Paradise’s characters are the ultimate adults of the Golden Age of Hollywood: witty, wry, sophisticated, infinitely engaging, amusing, and immaculately dressed and groomed. In particular, the movie not only creates a mature atmosphere laced with champagne, erudite talk, and subtle scheming but also offers us grown-up sexuality, which its characters allude to frequently in word and action, and practice with refinement and enthusiasm. Even more than other daring Lubitsch … Read the rest

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