For Reel


Dinner at Eight (1933)
January 14, 2016, 9:16 pm
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: , ,

Director: George Cukor
3.5 Stars
Dinner at EightBusby Berkeley’s seminal musical Gold Diggers of 1933 set the tone for Hollywood’s dealings with the Depression in the early 1930s, its opening “We’re in the Money” sequence grinning through the fantasy of an economic turnaround. The same sense of desperation and denial can be seen in MGM’s portmanteau comedy melodrama Dinner at Eight, which involves the neurotic Millicent Jordan (Billie Burke) fretting over the titular soirée as her husband (Lionel Barrymore) deals with impending bankruptcy and heart failure. Meanwhile, a fading drunken movie star played by John Barrymore becomes a footnote in history, his failure to evolve leaving him behind in the dust as men like the corrupt Dan Packard (Wallace Beery) plan for success. Director George Cukor was never less visually imaginative than in this film–nearly all of it plays out in static medium shots (an exception given to the contrasting sequences involving the lavish introduction of Jean Harlow and John Barrymore’s expressionistic downfall)–but he sensibly plays to the cast’s strengths, and as such the picture is carried by the exceptional performances, with Burke, Lionel Barrymore, and Marie Dressler stealing the show. If Grand Hotel (the clear blueprint for this film) imagined itself as a too-serious imitation of a European melodrama, Dinner at Eight is suitably earthbound and decidedly American, bringing with it a touch of sneering cynicism that helps wash down the sometimes tedious plot threads.

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Born Yesterday (1950)
May 6, 2015, 6:50 pm
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Director: George Cukor
4 Stars
Born YesterdayJudy Holliday’s 1950 Oscar win over the iconic performances of Bette Davis and Gloria Swanson (in All About Eve and Sunset Boulevard, respectively) has cheapened the reputation of this appealing George Cukor comedy over the years. Removed from such prejudices, one can see what an affecting piece of work it is, and particularly how well Garson Kanin’s stage play was adapted for the screen. Kanin was concerned with how ignorance could be used as a weapon to repress the less fortunate. Holliday plays a comedic ditz, but the film never faults her for her behavior. It is made quite apparent that Broderick Crawford’s Harry Brock has intentionally left her mentally stunted. The picture deals with her character just right, not condescendingly portraying her as a holy fool, rather as a charming (if abrasive) woman with enormous potential for growth. Holliday’s high-pitched, nasally voice has the whimpers of a nervous child in its inflections, making her Billie Dawn possess a certain anxiousness that elevates the character beyond a one-note comedic act. The Gin Rummy sequence, largely wordless and entirely dependent on Holliday’s ability to hold one’s attention using only her body language, is still a masterful and fascinating blend of character development and physical comedy.



Rockabye (1932)
June 30, 2012, 7:20 pm
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Director: George Cukor

The third of four collaborations between Constance Bennett and Joel McCrea, Rockabye is a pre-Code melodrama that considers a woman whose ill-conceived relationship with a corrupt politician condemns her future life as both a lover and a mother. Bennett was hot at RKO after the box office success of What Price Hollywood?, and because of it Rockabye was rushed into production under director George Fitzmaurice. When the picture was received poorly by studio executives, producer David O. Selznick brought in director George Cukor and a new leading man in McCrea, who was replacing Phillips Holmes. The film certainly plays like a rush job – it lacks wit and visual sophistication, meandering through the formalities of a passable star vehicle. Occasionally, the actors pull the material out of the mud, such as the bizarre sequence in which McCrea and Bennett romantically connect after a slapping and pushing match. The morning following the physical consummation of their relationship, McCrea fills Bennett’s bedroom with balloons, leading to some memorable visuals with the luminous Bennett waking love-struck to the surprise. If the romantic relationship plays well, Bennett’s relationship with the orphan who is taken away from her is tedious, and in the end the picture’s mean-spirited streak of sapping Bennett’s happiness away from her grows tiresome.



Gaslight (1944)
January 16, 2012, 11:08 pm
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Director: George Cukor

The second picture to be adapted from Patrick Hamilton’s play “Angel Street” – the first being a British production released in 1940 – Gaslight was brought to American screens by George Cukor, who diverged from light comedies and sweeping romances to subject matter seemingly better suited for Hitchcock. Ingrid Bergman plays a newlywed who, while living at a family mansion with a dark past, believes to be going insane, and Charles Boyer is her manipulative husband whose intentions are clearly impure from the beginning. It is a terrifically atmospheric picture, with foggy London streets and the dim glow of low-burning lamps. Cukor was adequate at directing suspense – there is a memorable moment in which a threat is introduced by a simple adjustment of the lights – but where he succeeds most is in suggesting the escalating psychological tensions, just as he would later do with Judy Garland and James Mason in the remake of A Star is Born. Bergman, who won an Oscar for the role, was at the peak of her career, and though the performance is big, it suits the character’s delirium. When one watches the way that her frightened eyes follow the perhaps phantom footsteps marching across her ceiling, it becomes apparent that few Hollywood stars in history have had faces so beautiful and expressive.