For Reel


Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1942)
September 5, 2016, 12:33 pm
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Director: Roy William Neill
3 Stars
Sherlock Holmes and the Secret WeaponUniversal’s Sherlock Holmes series would transplant the famed detective into a contemporary setting, often involving espionage plots that pit him against the dastardly Axis sympathizers. Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon is the second of a series that would last another ten films (all directed by Roy William Neill), and it finely incorporates the studio’s Gothic aesthetic into the spy plot—dimly lit streets and secret passages are the meeting grounds for Holmes and adversary Moriarty (Lionel Atwill). Alongside Nigel Bruce (consistently the best thing about the Holmes films), Atwill saves the material with his reptilian performance. After being introduced halfway through the picture, he and Holmes engage in the expected battle of wits, each trying to outdo the other and being none-too-surprised when their adversary has seen through their plot. The mystery itself is lacking, but for the Holmes-Moriarty feud alone, it plays as a prototypical Holmes outing, reveling in both the character relationships and a Gothic aesthetic that often resembles the noirs of the period.

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Mexican Spitfire’s Elephant (1942)
June 21, 2016, 12:56 am
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Director: Leslie Goodwins
2 Stars
Mexican Spitfire's ElephantThe penultimate Mexican Spitfire film was the third to be released in just six months—a sign that the hijinx of Carmelita (Lupe Velez) and Uncle Matt’s Lord Epping (Leon Errol) impersonation were a hit with audiences. It also brings an inevitable feeling of exhaustion to the proceedings, with gags being repeated and the misuderstandings being less gleefully contrived and instead feeling more by-the-numbers. For instance, the frequent mishap that occurs when a bartender gets flustered by the inconsistencies of Lord Epping’s orders is protracted more than usual—an especially glaring problem because it’s an old joke to begin with! To the picture’s credit, it has a different feel from the other installments in the series, thanks in large part to the appearances of Lyle Talbot and Marion Martin (returning to the series for the third time, but now as a new character), who raise the stakes by seeming to have just walked off of the set of a film noir. Despite the brief appearance of a pachyderm, the title refers to a small statue that Talbot fools Lord Epping into smuggling for him. Coming a year after The Maltese Falcon, the plot is a deliberate parody of that classic, but unfortunately the writers are in over their heads in satirizing that genre. Although not a great picture by any estimation, the Warner Brothers programmer Find the Blackmailer would do a more effective job of capturing the tone of The Maltese Falcon in a comedic context just a year later.



Mexican Spitfire Sees a Ghost (1942)
June 21, 2016, 12:52 am
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Director: Leslie Goodwins
2 Stars
Mexican Spitfire Sees a GhostThe sixth entry in the Mexican Spitfire series is notorious for being the film that shared a bill with the butchered version of The Magnificent Ambersons. Orson Welles was to stranger to the series after The Mexican Spitfire’s Baby was the B-picture that preceded Citizen Kane… but in this case, Welles was relegated to the second part of the bill! As an entry in the series, Mexican Spitfire Sees a Ghost seems like the biggest wasted opportunity of the bunch. Every comedian worth their salt in the 1940s (from Bob Hope to the Bowery Boys) had a dalliance in the horror genre, which proved to provide the context for a neverending series of creative misunderstandings involving trapdoors and floating props. In this installment, however, the horror aspect is put on the shelf until the last reel of the picture, with the hinjinx involving Leon Errol’s Lord Epping tediously taking up the bulk of the picture. Whereas the Maisie series did a good job of staying fresh by placing its character in a variety of genres, the Mexican Spitfire‘s biggest failure is in recycling gags and failing to take advantage of the new settings—something that the lowbrow comedies of the era were particularly good at. The picture is also seriously hurting from the absence of ZaSu Pitts (who absolutely saved the last film in the franchise), and similarly Lupe Velez continues to be completely underutilized, with her best scene involving her purring like a cat on all fours.



Mexican Spitfire at Sea (1942)
June 20, 2016, 3:17 pm
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Director: Leslie Goodwins
3 Stars
Mexican Spitfire at SeaAs the Mexican Spitfire series goes on, they become so interchangeable that to judge their quality one not only looks at their differences but at what was learned from the last endeavor. In Mexican Spitfire at Sea, the filmmakers took notice of ZaSu Pitts’ terrific role in the predecessor by amplifying her screen time and giving her more to do than the occasional reaction shot. As amusing as Leon Errol’s schtick as Lord Epping can be, the character becomes most successful depending on who he is sharing the screen with—if Lupe Velez strangely often feels left out of her own series, her scenes with Errol consistently elevate his performance by allowing him to play within their warm, familiar repartee. His chemistry with Pitts is similarly fantastic, with this film’s highpoint involving Pitts’ own impersonation of a British socialite (including a bad accent and a monocle that she can’t keep on her face without an absurd grimace). Marion Martin, another standout from the previous film, also reprises her role as Fifi, the “war orphan” who in this installment becomes a pawn in the increasingly complicated games of disguise and misunderstandings. The comedic talents are what keeps the series enjoyable, although the writers do seem more in their element the more chaotic the events become.



Mrs. Miniver (1942)
March 5, 2016, 4:14 pm
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Director: William Wyler
5 Stars
Mrs. MiniverPerhaps Hollywood’s best example of World War II propaganda, Mrs. Miniver is a beautifully crafted sentimental melodrama, complete with a final act sermon that works as a powerful rally in support of the war effort. Director William Wyler has become unfashionable in some circles over the years, but his one-two punch of Mrs. Miniver and The Best Years of Our Lives shows Hollywood studio spectacles at not only their peak artistry, but at their most personal. The desire to read the transition in the outlook of the two pictures from an autobiographical standpoint is irresistible, but barring that they exist themselves as amazing artifacts that demonstrate just what the war did to the average American citizen in just four years time. Mrs. Miniver, though ultimately more optimistic, also permeates with the same feeling of doom–watch the dinner table scene in which Vin (Richard Ney) proposes to Carol (Teresa Wright) just before being called away to war. Wyler takes an extra moment to pause on the empty, set dinner table, a melancholic image of a traditional household dynamic gone to ruins. The sequence later in the film where the family attempts to maintain their rituals while taking refuge in an Anderson shelter is, if not particularly subtle, hugely powerful in its mise en scene and the use of sound. Wyler’s penchant for deep focus cinematography is limited by the close confines of the shelter, resulting in his actors images overlapping each other, packing each plane of the space with either a body or a prop that carries the significance of a family relic. In retrospect, Mrs. Miniver’s very classicism might seem old hat coming just a year after Orson Welles’ breakthrough with Citizen Kane, but if Welles broke the rules of Hollywood in order to reconstruct a new cinema, Wyler in this period was a master of the classical form, having an uncanny ability to know just how long to hold a certain shot or how to organize the frame for maximum emotional effect.



Ride ‘Em Cowboy (1942)
February 23, 2016, 3:27 pm
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Director: Arthur Lubin
2.5 Stars
Ride 'Em CowboyArthur Lubin’s fifth and final film with Abbott and Costello placed the comedic duo in the wild west, where Costello finds himself betrothed to a Native American girl and on the run from those who wish to make a “bow and arrow wedding” happen. After Hold That Ghost and Keep ‘Em Flying, the routine of scaring Costello had already developed as one of the lasting tropes that the team would return to, and Ride ‘Em Cowboy makes its ghoul out of one of the American Indians (leading to the oft-repeated gag wherein a threatening character poses as a statue to tease Costello). The picture is amusing in doses, but offers nothing that hadn’t already been exhausted in their careers at Universal Pictures by this point. The side plot involves a singing cowboy who must transition from his entertainment career to an actual rodeo–Dick Foran is forgettable in the role, but Anne Gwynne is likable as his mentor and love interest. If the best Abbott and Costello films are often determined by how well they incorporate the other elements of the plot, Ride ‘Em Cowboy is mediocre at best. The first screen appearance by Ella Fitzgerald is a highlight, although she doesn’t have the screen time or influence in the plot that The Andrew Sisters were given in their collaborations with the duo.



Now, Voyager (1942)
November 15, 2015, 2:25 pm
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Director: Irving Rapper
4 Stars
Now, VoyagerBette Davis’ highest-grossing picture at Warner Brothers not only involves the actress’ definitive performance, but it ranks among the most essential weepies of the 1940s. In placing true love against social responsibilities–in addition to serving as a coming out into womanhood story–Now, Voyager reflects the wartime fetishization of sacrifice, where the model of becoming a self-possessed individual is tempered by the assumption that there are ultimately higher forces and responsibilities that one must heed to. Along the way, the film is distinguished by the remarkable metamorphosis of Charlotte Vale (Davis), escaping spinsterdom by becoming a chic, sexually active woman of the world, all before arriving a sense of selfhood that exists somewhere between the two poles. The transformation narrative is reflected in the filmmaking, with director Irving Rapper including two contrasting reveal shots that track from fragmented gestures to a complete unveiling of the woman in her environment. Later on, once Davis has completed her transformation, she catches her image in a window and has a Lacanian moment of self-identification, problematized by the film’s superimposing of her mother’s (Gladys Cooper) image over her own face in a preceding shot. Now, Voyager could be derided as the sudsiest of melodramas, but it transcends such an easy categorization by the enormity in its scope, with Vale’s various adjustments to her character beautifully evoking one’s own tumultuous journey in arriving at a purposed sense of self.