For Reel


The Prisoner of Zenda (1937)
April 13, 2015, 1:54 pm
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: , ,

Director: John Cromwell
5 Stars
The Prisoner of ZendaWhat distinguishes The Prisoner of Zenda as being the best of the romantic swashbucklers is its insistence on focusing on just that–the romance. Director John Cromwell and cinematographer James Wong Howe beautifully articulate each character relationship before delving into the action sequences, meaning that the audience is truly invested in each conflict and aware of the high stakes. One of the great shot-reverse-shots in classic Hollywood cinema occurs at Rassendyll’s (Ronald Colman) coronation in which he is confronted by the princess (Madeleine Carroll). First, there’s a close-up of Colman staring directly at the camera, and next the princess slowly raises her head to match his eyeline. Beyond the sheer perfection of Carroll’s costuming and her lighting, that the moment is shot head-on with the characters looking directly at the camera both articulates their unbroken gaze at each other and similarly makes the audience fall in love with each performer. It’s a knockout moment, later reflected on by Carroll as the moment in which she fell in love with Rassendyll (unaware at the time that the body switch has occurred). The masterful direction and camerawork is met by one of the great casts of the era, of whom many praises have been sung. C. Aubrey Smith isn’t as discussed as much as his co-stars, but he gives one of his career-best performances as a man utterly devoted to his duty and honor.



This Man Is Mine (1934)
February 1, 2015, 2:01 am
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Director: John Cromwell
2.5 Stars
This Man is MineBefore her talents as a comedienne came to light with a series of unforgettable screwball comedies in the late 1930s and early 1940s (including The Awful Truth and My Favorite Wife), Irene Dunne had been pigeon-holed into stately melodramas early in her career. This Man is Mine begins to mark a transition in her screen persona–although much of it plays like a fairly standard romantic drama, she does have a relatively empowered presence and is given the chance to match wits with her costars. She’s the noble wife, sticking by her man even when she is given no cause to. The man causing the distress is played by Ralph Bellamy in a rare leading role in which he is the object of affection rather than the dullard who comes between a pair of lovers. Unfortunately, he plays it no different than he would in those supporting parts–he’s passionless, humorless, and ultimately compromises Dunne’s capable performance because her pining for him rids her of credibility. Dunne has better chemistry with Kay Johnson, her honest friend who serves as a sounding board for Dunne’s distress.



The Enchanted Cottage (1945)
March 18, 2014, 12:09 am
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Director: John Cromwell
3.5 Stars
The Enchanted CottageArthur Wing Pinero’s 1923 play on which this film is based was originally written as a spiriting morale booster for disabled troops returning from the war. It is fitting, then, that its second adaptation would come to audiences early in 1945, when again soldiers were facing a similar crisis. The story concerns a pair of outcast lovers–she, a homely maid riddled with insecurity (Dorothy McGuire); he, a veteran who becomes suicidal when he returns disfigured (Robert Young). Together, in the cottage of the title, the two come to find love and see the true beauty of their partner. Although Pinero had his heart in the right place, the story is problematic–he wants the audience to be glad that these self-hating individuals have found each other because only together can they feel beautiful. It says nothing about overcoming one’s own self-doubts, rather being entirely dependent on a partner for a sense of self-worth. Regardless, the production is an impressive one–Roy Webb contributes a haunting score, and Ted Tetzlaff’s cinematography evokes the eerie atmosphere of a cottage which may or may not be magical. It is through him that the setting becomes a character–watch, for instance, the transformation scene in which the camera (in soft focus) pans in a circle around McGuire as she sits on the piano bench. Not only does the movement evoke the change that is occurring, it places the cottage itself as a sort of voyeur that coexists with and even directs the two lovers.



Sweepings (1933)
June 30, 2012, 7:46 pm
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Director: John Cromwell

A tough, bitter melodrama about life’s greatest disappointments, Sweepings is a forgotten masterpiece of the pre-Code era. Directed by the underrated John Cromwell (who would go on to make Of Human Bondage and Abe Lincoln in Illinois) and produced by David O. Selznick (his last producing credit at RKO studios), the film was adapted by Lester Cohen from his 1926 novel of the same name. Lionel Barrymore plays a man who came from humble beginnings and, shortly after the Chicago fire of 1871, finds success with a department store. As much as he excels financially, however, his family life falls to ruins – his wife dies giving birth to their fourth child, and all of his children grow up to be ungrateful and unwilling to carry on his legacy. Like the films of Yasujirō Ozu, the picture’s presentation of the nuclear family is far from harmonious. A violent distinction is made between the younger and older generations, with the privileged young appearing as little more than selfish and thankless, whereas the old understand the importance of work ethic. Barrymore’s performance as the patriarch is heart-breaking and surprisingly harsh. He’s not a lovable man, never resorting to sentimentality and remaining absolutely stubborn to the core. Cromwell and cinematographer Edward Cronjager underscore the mood with shadows and gloom – in a late scene, Barrymore has a nearly-lethal fall after his loyal employee reveals the truth about the selfish children. It’s the most intense confrontation in the picture, and Cromwell and Cronjager shoot it entirely through shadows on the wall, as if both mercifully distancing us from Barrymore’s pain as well as suggesting his impending doom.



Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1940)
March 3, 2012, 7:01 am
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Director: John Cromwell

Nine months after Fox released John Ford’s masterful Young Mr. Lincoln came RKO’s adaptation of the successful Broadway play, “Abe Lincoln in Illinois”. Reprising his role as Honest Abe was Raymond Massey – a surprising choice, considering that any number of legitimate screen stars could have been more bankable. Although Ford’s shadow has largely rendered the latter film obsolete – save for its beloved, Oscar-nominated performance from Massey – it should be regarded as yet another dynamic, unexpectedly somber assessment of the presidential icon. Henry Fonda’s Lincoln was wrought with a level of uncertainty, but more significantly he was cocksure – his frequent gesture of resting his feet on his desk is not so much a suggestion of his naive small-town roots, but rather a demonstration that he doesn’t quite know what he’s gotten himself into and only in time will he grow to understand the importance that he can have on the nation’s future. Massey’s depiction, on the other hand, is self-loathing and passive, almost frustratingly so. In her debut screen performance, Ruth Gordon plays Mary Todd Lincoln with an embittered propensity for nagging, attempting to do whatever she can to motivate her husband out of apathy and elicit within him the confidence that he needs. This Lincoln never wanted to be anything but a nice, wholesome Midwestern boy, however uniting the country had become his calling. With America on the brink of World War II, the film is not so much riddled with blindly patriotic optimism, but rather it suggests the importance of involving oneself with an active resistance against great evils.



In Name Only (1939)
January 20, 2012, 7:44 am
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Director: John Cromwell

Adapted from Bessie Breuer’s novel Memory of Love – a domestic melodrama about a love held at bay by the man’s gold-digging shrew of a wife – In Name Only is an excessive weeper that mostly succeeds due to its game cast. Cary Grant plays the wealthy husband to Kay Francis, who admits that she only married him for his money and social position. When Grant asks Francis for a divorce in order to begin a relationship with the radiant Carole Lombard, with whom he is really in love, Francis refuses. The picture is handled well by all of the performers, most of all Francis, who gives what risked becoming a one-dimensional character a tangible arc of her own. There’s a sensitivity in her early scenes that suggests that her reluctance to divorce is fueled by jealousy – it is revealed that she had been having an affair and that her lover had died – and her transition to the all-out harpy doesn’t fully transpire until the third act. And what a bitch she makes. Her scenes with Lombard, in particular, are lively, with their passive-aggressive dialogue creating a thrilling war of equally empowered women. As maudlin as the final scenes might be, it is nice to see Grant in a position that is so utterly vulnerable and, though he may not quite pull it off completely, Lombard is terrific as the supporting lover.