For Reel


Five Came Back (1939)
May 21, 2015, 9:52 pm
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Director: John Farrow
3 Stars
Five Came BackA prototype for the disaster dramas that would flood the marketplace in the 1970s, Five Came Back is an economically-told programmer that benefits from an irresistible premise and a quality cast. Twelve people are traveling from Los Angeles to Panama when problems strike and they find themselves stranded in a South American jungle. There’s hope of repairing the damages, but as the title would suggest, rescue isn’t in all of their fates. The early airplane scenes are shot with a terrific sense of claustrophobia. When turbulence strikes, director John Farrow stages the action in wide shots so that the audience can see every performer’s reaction and their spatial relationships with one another. The cramped setting is a radical contrast to the vast jungle they’ll soon inhabit. Beyond the adventure thrills, the film suggests that in the wild the true nature of the various personalities will come out. This is explained directly by the wise old professor played by C. Aubrey Smith, who is the first to understand that a convict (Joseph Calleia) soon to be put to death has more to him than pure evil. Similarly, Lucille Ball plays a woman of ill-repute who finds redemption. It’s an endearing, humanistic thought for a film that is saddled with a repressive bleakness starting from the very title, even if it could have been better accomplished with a more understated execution.



Of Mice and Men (1939)
May 21, 2015, 9:38 pm
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Director: Lewis Milestone
5 Stars
Of Mice and MenWhether it is because of the overcrowded year in which it was released or John Ford’s more acclaimed treatment of a Steinbeck novel the following year (The Grapes of Wrath), Of Mice and Men has been strangely neglected in the decades since its release. But seen today, director Lewis Milestone’s adaptation is not only a harrowing treatment of the classic novel, but an exciting piece of cinema in its own right. The picture begins with George (Burgess Meredith) and Lennie (Lon Chaney Jr.) on the run even before the credits roll, which was a pretty radical stylistic innovation for its time and one that articulates the history that the men have shared together. Moreover, a narrow escape is a fitting prologue for one of Hollywood’s great achievements in representing dread on screen. Although much of the material involves George and Lennie discussing their future, one can sense the impending tragedy due to the dark, melancholic tone that Milestone achieves. The scene in which Candy’s (Roman Bohnen) old dog is to be put down is presented as an excruciating wait for the inevitable–a microcosm for the film itself. Besides the two great leading performances, Charles Bickford is terrific as Slim. He’s the most adept force of good in the picture, but even he must back down when confronted with the harsh realities of the world.



Full Confession (1939)
April 14, 2015, 6:39 pm
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Director: John Farrow
2.5 Stars
Full ConfessionRegarded as a close imitation of John Ford’s The Informer (as Frank S. Nugent of the New York Times put it, “We will admit we had rather see a producer crib his sequences from a good picture than from a poor one (…)”), Full Confession stars Victor McLaglen as a cop killer who grapples with guilt when an innocent man is convicted for the crime he committed. As would be expected, McLaglen excels at the part–he was an actor gifted with a brute’s body but an incredible sensitivity, able to convey the complexities of a flawed man who nonetheless is essentially good. Director John Farrow and cinematographer J. Roy Hunt create a haunting atmosphere as the drunken McLaglen strolls through the city streets drowned in deep shadows and fog, amplifying the moral complications through noir-like stylizations. Where things go wrong is in both the preachiness of Jerome Cody & Leo Birinski’s screenplay and especially the miscasting of Joseph Calleia as the priest who acts as McLaglen’s morale compass. He’s a personification of the guilt that McLaglen feels, robbing the morality play from the complex interior world to something that registers as Calleia harassing McLaglen. Calleia plays the priest as first too much of a blank canvas and finally too insistent–not once is he hitting the right note.



Sorority House (1939)
April 14, 2015, 6:37 pm
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Director: John Farrow
2.5 Stars
Sorority HouseFuture blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo contributed the script to this Anne Shirley programmer, which uses the exclusionary and snobbish dynamics of sorority houses as a way of discussing larger socioeconomic issues. The cards are laid on the table late in the film in which Alice’s (Shirley) father (J.M. Kerrigan) suggests that a great many conflicts in the world are caused by the very nature of cliques–whether those groups be that of a sorority, a club, or even a nation. Class is a major issue in the picture (Alice only attracts the attention of sororities when it is believed that her father is wealthy), and the screenplay definitely lambasts upperclass pomposity, which was a favored topic of Trumbo that would get him in hot water. Other than the intrigue of Trumbo’s screenplay, there’s very little worth remembering. Shirley’s performance is exactly what one expects–she’s naive, hopeful, and despite a few hiccups ultimately good-hearted–and the supporting players are serviceable. There’s an unintentionally humorous but charming sequence in which Alice is asked on a date by her love interest (James Ellison) while getting her blood pressure checked. Where else do you get to hear the words “systolic” and “diastolic” uttered as a means of flirtation?



Maisie (1939)
March 2, 2015, 2:42 pm
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Director: Edwin L. Marin
3 Stars
MaisieAnn Sothern’s career had floundered at Columbia and RKO for several years before she was given an MGM contract and attached to a property originally intended for Jean Harlow: Maisie. It was the first of what would be a series of ten films and it laid the groundwork for what would follow. Maisie Revere is a sassy, out-of-work showgirl who finds herself in a humiliating job until she meets a man that she initially finds repulsive. Fate shifts her into a new career path, and gradually she starts falling for the man that she had initially hated. Other than the excellent Sothern, the pleasure of the Maisie series is how improbably it hops between genres–look no further than the juxtaposition between this low-key romantic western and its successor in the series, which involves Revere falling for an African rubber plantation owner in the middle of the jungle. Robert Young is the love interest, playing a salt-of-the-Earth misogynist (he confesses that he distrusts all women because of a failed relationship in his past). Young seems reluctant to indulge the bitterness of his character and ultimately he feels too restrained and bland to bring out passion in the spunky Revere. It’s a shaky start to what is ultimately an enjoyable series, but Sothern is reliably excellent, as is the urbane, capricious Ruth Hussey in a supporting role.



Gunga Din (1939)
December 25, 2014, 4:43 pm
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Director: George Stevens
4 Stars
Gunga DinRudyard Kipling’s famous poem was adapted into this story by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, the duo most famous for the hit Broadway play The Front Page. Perhaps the most pleasant surprise of Gunga Din is that they drew inspiration from their own classic screwball comedy hit by again navigating the divide between loyalty to one’s love and one’s duty. Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Cary Grant, and Victor McLaglen are perfectly cast as the trio of British sergeants who, along with the water bearer who shares his name with the film’s title (played by Sam Jaffe), confront a vicious Thuggee cult. Grant’s performance is the most striking in that it’s the most unexpected–he’s far from a typical hero, coming off as brash and crude, a huge departure from his usual comparatively dignified roles (he was originally considered for Fairbanks’ part but was attracted to the challenge of a cockney blowhard). McLaglen steals the picture, though, utilizing his physical gifts as an imposing, brazen hero and subverting them by ultimately playing a comical sentimentalist.



The Cat and the Canary (1939)
November 13, 2014, 3:12 pm
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Director: Elliott Nugent
3 Stars
The Cat and the CanaryBob Hope and Paulette Goddard were paired for the first of three films in The Cat and the Canary, an “old dark house” horror film injected with Hope’s humorous cowardice and penchant for one-liners. He plays a self-deprecating actor who recognizes each cliche element of the mystery due to his experience in the theater. It’s a charming gimmick, with the self-aware dialogue inviting the audience to be made conscious of the machinations of the plot without losing their investment in it. Ultimately, the picture isn’t nearly as satisfying as the duo’s followup The Ghost Breakers, which more effectively managed the balance between laughs and scares. Cinematographer Charles B. Lang contributes reliably excellent work–like the aforementioned The Ghost Breakers or the paranormal classic The Uninvited, he revels in the play between light and dark, hiding so much in the shadows that the illuminated areas only feel more vulnerable. A climactic chase scene is the closest the film comes to being genuinely frightening, and it has much to do with the sense of claustrophobia that Lang communicates with both lighting and framing.



Fixer Dugan (1939)
October 10, 2014, 6:08 pm
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Director: Lew Landers
3 Stars
Fixer DuganThe circus setting in many classic Hollywood films is presented nostalgically, an earnest tribute to a waning lifestyle. The acrobats, barkers, freaks, and everything in-between are a loyal bunch who wholly dedicate themselves to the show… but, naturally, the law butts its ugly head into the picture and threatens to close everything down. Lee Tracy is well cast as the fixer of one of these circuses–he’s the one in charge of public relations, a needed task when you’re running a fairly shifty operation. His stardom had fallen considerably by the late 1930s and his wisecracks didn’t come quite as fast as they used to, but Peggy Shannon is a good compliment to his familiar performance as the smart-ass. The plot involves the orphaned daughter (Virginia Weidler) of a deceased trapeze artist (a terrifically morose Rita La Roy) who is looked after by Tracy and Shannon. As with many films concerning orphans, the child is taken from the loving makeshift foster parents who spend the rest of the picture seeking to prove their worth as caretakers. Endearing as the behind-the-scenes look at the circus is (director Lew Landers capably presents a dynamic portrait of circus life), the oft-treaded melodramatic ground grows tiresome by the end.



Over the Moon (1939)
May 29, 2014, 11:39 pm
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Director: Thornton Freeland
2 Stars
Over the MoonOver the Moon went into production in 1937 before being shelved for two years. During that period, star Merle Oberon suffered a serious car accident that scarred her for life. Although she would remain a great beauty, makeup and lighting tricks would need to be used for the remainder of her career in order to hide her scars. Just about all this production has going for it is that it is a fascinating glimpse into Oberon’s evolving presentation–one can see drastic changes in her hair and make-up styles from one scene to the next. Beyond that, the project is dead in the water, with director Thornton Freeland blandly staging banal dialogue sequences in-between gratuitous travelogues. Oberon’s co-star Rex Harrison (who had yet to arrive at the peak of his talents) is stiff and wrought with an unintended pomposity. The finished production arrived with good timing in that it followed the release of Oberon’s breakout performance in Wuthering Heights, however it would have been better for all parties involved to have scrapped the material altogether when they had the chance.



Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
January 1, 2014, 6:09 pm
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Director: Frank Capra
5 Stars
Mr. Smith Goes to WashingtonLong before it became fashionable to rag on corruption within the American government, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington emerged as a force of nature–as cynical a depiction of congress as audiences had seen in years, and also a call-to-arms for a new breed of politician. Its wild success can be attributed to its hopeful, naive optimism which argued that an honest country boy could make things right because, dammit, that’s what a democracy is. Even if director Frank Capra is oft-criticized for his sentimentality, just as important to his craft is his recognition of despair–even in It Happened One Night (hardly a political film), Capra takes a moment to consider the effects of the Depression on a small town. What makes the contrived ending of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington serviceable is that it is simultaneously a transcendent moment of victory and also one of almost surreal darkness. What other film has a happy ending that includes a suicide attempt and a full-scale nervous breakdown? Although the shocking contrivance services the sentimental vision of democracy that Capra so dearly believed in, it is also a nod to the realist notion that the government can’t change until there is a full-scale resurrection. Senator Joseph Paine’s (Claude Rains) botched suicide is in fact a death of his ideals, marking a radical transition for the character’s sense of morality and suggesting the need for a similar governmental rebirth.