For Reel

Shadow of the Thin Man (1941)
January 29, 2017, 3:21 pm
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Director: W.S. Van Dyke
2 Stars
shadow-of-the-thin-manIt is commonly accepted that plot is secondary to the character interactions between Nick and Nora Charles (William Powell and Myrna Loy) in the famed Thin Man series. Fans are more apt to refer to the booze and banter than the specifics of any of the narrative machinations that culminate in the routine gathering of the suspects. It is consistently frustrating, then, that Nora often disappears from the films somewhere in the second act—if each Thin Man film is good in the beginning and end, everything inbetween is at the risk of feeling like a common subpar mystery. After the Thin Man, the best of the films by this point in the series, nicely integrated the problems of Charleses themselves with the murder plot (in that film, the case involves Nora’s extended family), whereas Shadow of the Thin Man simply finds its heroes stumbling upon a murder case involving a  jockey. Moreover, none of the supporting characters leave much of an impression, and the murder plot itself doesn’t have quite the emotional impact (as in After the Thin Man) or creativity (as in Another Thin Man) of the previous entries. Powell and Loy are reliably a delight—there’s a terrific bit of comedy in the beginning of the picture in which Nora summons Nick back to their home using the sounds of a cocktail mixer—but the film strays too far from their relationship at the service of a rather dull mystery.

The Wolf Man (1941)
November 6, 2016, 9:53 pm
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Director: George Waggner
4.5 Stars
the-wolf-manThe Wolf Man involves a moment in which one horror icon passes the torch to a new one—in a glorified cameo role as a gypsy, Bela Lugosi turns into a wolf and bites the hapless Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.), cursing him to become the eponymous werewolf. The resulting beast was Universal’s only A-list monster of the decade (in a decade that largely saw the decline of this particular monster cycle), and it gives Frankenstein’s creation a run for his money as the most sympathetic of the monsters. The narrative of an essentially good man suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder having been forced into a violent situation has an added resonance considering the time it was released—if The Wolf Man is about the horrors that lay dormant in every man, it also touches on how unavoidable circumstances can lead decent people into a world of violence. Director of photography Joseph Valentine memorably brings to life the Universal soundstage as a surreal, foggy nightmare (the forest convincingly looks like it is endless while simultaneously feeling claustrophobic), and Chaney Jr. is affable in a role that was completely suited to his strengths as an actor.

Spooks Run Wild (1941)
October 30, 2016, 5:05 pm
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Director: Phil Rosen
1.5 Stars
spooks-run-wildThe horror comedy enjoyed considerable success in the 1940s, finally culminating with Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein as the decade came to a close. As with any Hollywood trend, studios like Monogram would capitalize on ticket sales by creating their own low-budget counterparts. Spooks Run Wild is one of several horror comedies the Bowery Boys (then called the East Side Kids) would make in their storied career, and it was the first to star Bela Lugosi (Lugosi would also appear in 1943’s Ghosts on the Loose). Whereas Lugosi played straight in many of these horror comedies, Spooks Run Wild does allow him some fun due to a twist late in the picture. Unfortunately, the picture not only lacks imagination compared to the other films in this sub-genre, but director Phil Rosen and editor Robert Golden render it almost incomprehensible—the way a scene involving dueling walking sets of armor is cut is meant to amplify the suspense by cutting away at pivotal moments, but it just disorients the viewer and fails to sustain any sense of thrilling momentum. Among the few highlights is the performance by Sunshine Sammy Morrison, essentially playing the Willie Best role. If, as with Best’s roles in films like The Ghost Breakers and The Smiling Ghost, the film is dated as it regards the color of his skin, much of the film’s comedic highlights involve his particular gift with reaction shots. The film’s most successful scene involves the trope of a character slowly realizing that they are standing next to the monster, with Morrison and Lugosi timing the encounter exceedingly well.

The Sea Wolf (1941)
October 26, 2016, 10:57 pm
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Director: Michael Curtiz
4 Stars
the-sea-wolfWolf Larsen might be the most savage character ever brought to screen by Edward G. Robinson, who made a name for himself by playing heavies. Robinson’s terrific gift as an actor was that he could balance a character’s savagery with an understood level of character complexity—his heavy in Little Caesar was an ambitious brute, but tragic in his own ways. The Sea Wolf doesn’t ignore Robinson’s thoughtful, intellectual side, but rather exploits it to create a Nietzchean sociopath who proudly declares that it is, “Better to reign in hell then serve in heaven!” Director Michael Curtiz was no stranger to an open sea setting, but here he doesn’t show the heroics of a swashbuckler actioner. Instead, as Larsen slowly descends into madness, the protagonists don’t intend to overthrow him but rather to escape—heroism is ignored in favor of self-interest, with criminals played by John Garfield and Ida Lupino trying to find a way out rather than try to create social change upon the vessel. Memorable as Robinson’s performance is, the cinematography by Sol Polito and art direction by Anton Grot just about steals the show from him. Filmed on a sound stage absolutely bathed in fog, the film’s high-contrast black-and-white imagery recalls the back alley streets of a typical period noir, with the setting of the ship adding to the sense of claustrophobia and paranoia.

I Wake Up Screaming (1941)
September 5, 2016, 12:32 pm
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Director: H. Bruce Humberstone
3.5 Stars
I Wake Up ScreamingThis unusual genre hybrid is the missing link in marking the chronological development of film noir. Many critics cite 1940’s Stranger on the Third Floor as the launching-off point in that it fully embraced the aesthetic of German expressionism, whereas The Maltese Falcon included a hard-boiled detective and wartime disillusionment but didn’t share many of the visual motifs associated with the genre. I Wake Up Screaming, released shortly after the aforementioned Falcon, leads with its chiaroscuro aesthetic—the earliest scenes take place in an interrogation room, distinguished by a blinding spotlight, characters looming in the shadows, and a haze of cigar smoke. If director H. Bruce Humberstone and cinematographer Edward Conjager are not associated with the genre to come, in many ways they helped lay the groundwork. Accompanying the striking visuals is an impressively assembled cast—Betty Grable in a rare dramatic role, the underrated Carole Landis, and especially Laird Cregar, among the most interesting of screen actors of the 1940s. He plays an obsessed detective who is on the tail of the wrongfully accused Victor Mature, but an early scene in which he eerily stares at Landis suggests that his motivations might not be so pure. Cregar was used best as a man both sensitive and imposing, and here his sliminess has much to do with that contradiction—the film plays up the contrast between his looming figure and his soft voice, and the way his character pays off is expected but memorably performed.

The Reluctant Dragon (1941)
August 20, 2016, 12:08 pm
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Director(s): Alfred L. Werker & Hamilton Luske
2.5 Stars
The Reluctant DragonThe financial losses of Fantasia and Pinocchio led Disney to release this quick, cheap feature as a showcase of their new animation facility, complimenting the studio tour with a handful of already completed shorts. Disney had not yet worked with live-action, and so Robert Benchley and a production team from Fox were brought onboard to film a “documentary” sequence involving Benchley’s trip to the Disney studio with the intentions of selling a story idea. The live-action portions are undoubtedly the film’s highlight—although they are nothing but a fantasy (in reality, hundreds of the studio’s workers picketed outside the studio the same year), the glimpses of the cell animations and the multiplane camera do allow one a genuine peak backstage. Disney enthusiasts are also treated to early looks at Dumbo, Bambi, and the reference models for films like Peter Pan (which halted production for years after this film was released). Unfortunately, the animated segments of The Reluctant Dragon are just not particularly good, with cheap, rushed animation and subpar storytelling. The one exception is Baby Weems if only for its interesting aesthetic—the film introduces the short as a series of storyboards, and therefore the animation is simple and rendered in muted colors (it looks somewhat like the recent Studio Ghibli film The Tale of the Princess Kaguya). Little more than a commercial for the dream factory, The Reluctant Dragon is a hugely unique historical artifact of the studio at the brink of collapse, but ironically does better at its own myth-making than seducing one with exceptional animations.

Go West, Young Lady (1941)
July 20, 2016, 9:10 pm
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Director: Frank R. Strayer
2.5 Stars
Go West, Young LadyTaking a break from the popular Blondie series, director Frank R. Strayer and Penny Singleton took the opportunity to make this B-western spoof (which would be Singleton’s only non-Blondie film during her Columbia contract). It is an appropriately schizophrenic genre hybrid—early on, Glenn Ford is attempting to court Singleton while riding on a stagecoach, only for the romantic comedy scene to quickly turn into an action-packed western when Native Americans arrive with bows and arrows! Thankfully for a film so manic, Allen Jenkins and Ann Miller are both on hand to liven things up, as the scenes involving Ford and Singleton are largely dead in the water after their first encounter. Jenkins, among the most reliable of supporting players during this period, does an entertaining lowbrow number with Miller that coasts on his charisma—very few others could make the scene produce genuine laughs—and Miller’s performance of the eponymous song is a knockout. The film is so noncommittal to any of its plot threads that it barely sustains its running time, but there’s enough talent on screen that it doesn’t play as a total waste.

The Mexican Spitfire’s Baby (1941)
June 20, 2016, 3:13 pm
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Director: Leslie Goodwins
3 Stars
The Mexican Spitfire's BabyJust as many of the multi-film series of the time did, the Mexican Spitfire only got more outlandish as it went on. When the starting point is a broad comedy about a hot-headed latina, one might be concerned about the films sinking to absurd lows. And yet, the fourth installment (which accompanied Citizen Kane in its original New York run) marks a nice change of pace for the series after its dull predecessor, showing that the filmmakers were both fully in charge of their formula and that they weren’t afraid to take risks by venturing more into the sheer silliness that is expected of a low brow programmer. Early on, Carmelita (Lupe Velez) and Dennis (now played by Buddy Rogers, who is only a mild improvement over Donald Woods) plan to adopt a war orphan… only, because Uncle Matt (Leon Errol) doesn’t specify which war, they end up with a 20-something blonde named Fifi (Marion Martin). A series of miscommunications and inopportune timings ultimately leads to a duel between Uncle Matt’s Lord Epping and Fifi’s husband (Fritz Feld), who hurls knives at his adversary in the film’s terrifically absurd climax. The Lord Epping character had already been played out by this point in the series, but this installment does have the sense to build anticipation for his arrival—it is about the halfway point when Uncle Matt is first confronted with the idea. And, despite the familiar schtick elsewhere, Zasu Pitts is a great addition to the supporting cast (doing what she does best with comedic reaction shots), and Martin gives a fine performance that bucks the expected “dumb blonde” trope (in a series about a fiery Hispanic woman, it’s a nice relief to see the writers back off from yet another offensive stereotype!)

Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941)
April 17, 2016, 3:57 pm
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Director: Alexander Hall
4 Stars
Here Comes Mr. JordanIf Heaven Can Wait and A Matter of Life and Death are the two seminal existential dramas set in the afterlife, Here Comes Mr. Jordan is their charming, too readily dismissed predecessor. Robert Montgomery plays an obnoxious prizefighter who is presumptuously extracted from the scene of his death by a heavenly messenger (Edward Everett Horton). In order to “make good” for the afterlife’s clerical error, the eponymous Mr. Jordan (Claude Raines) offers the boxer his choice of newly-deceased bodies to live out the rest of his life in. That some body-hopping occurs due to the pesky fact that good, honest people can’t seem to keep themselves from being murdered shades the film with an undercurrent of menace—while the picture is rightly discussed as a comedy, it is one in which the genre’s interplay with tragedy is its defining trait. Montgomery’s character is severed from his old life and thrust into a world he has no place in, evoking both the noirs of the period and the post-war home-front dramas to come. His very ambivalence towards the suggestion of “trading” his life for another culminates in the erasure of his past, playing out with an uncommon poignancy in the final act. While Montgomery was far from the most dynamic performer of his day, Here Comes Mr. Jordan is extraordinarily generous in its character moments, with each of the supporting players (including James Gleason in a memorable role as a promoter) given an affecting send-off by the film’s end.

Keep ‘Em Flying (1941)
February 23, 2016, 3:21 pm
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Director: Arthur Lubin
3 Stars
Keep 'Em FlyingBud Abbott and Lou Costello had made their film debuts as a team in late 1940, and by the time 1941 was over, they had been the headliners in a total of four films and became certified box office stars. Keep ‘Em Flying was the last of three service comedies that the duo made with director Arthur Lubin during that year, and was actually still in its theatrical run when the attacks on Pearl Harbor occurred. There’s an interesting trajectory in watching Buck Privates through Keep ‘Em Flying–in the earlier film, Abbott and Costello are both fearful of the military and try to avoid it at all costs. By the latter film, however, Costello has a genuinely heartfelt moment where he begs to be a part of the service. As a whole, the picture treats the propagandist message more seriously–in one scene, it is explained in detail that not every person in the air force is a pilot, and that there are heroes on the ground as well. The scene has no relevance to the plot, but it is critical to note that the film was rushed to screens before the previously-filmed Ride ‘Em Cowboy as a means of rallying military support. Aside from that difference, Keep ‘Em Flying both offers the same pleasures of the previous two service comedies (sans The Andrews Sisters) and throws in a little of the duo’s penchant for horror comedy with a bafflingly out-of-place but nonetheless amusing carnival sequence (Hold That Ghost, their first dalliance with the horror genre, being the other film they released in 1941). The love triangle subplot is dead on arrival, but the picture does offer Martha Raye in a dual role for the team to play off of. Raye and Costello have a genuinely affecting chemistry on screen together, and as with Joan Davis in Hold That Ghost, she integrates herself into their comic dynamic seamlessly.