For Reel


There Goes My Heart (1938)
July 17, 2017, 11:22 pm
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: , ,

Director: Norman Z. McLeod
3.5 Stars
There Goes My Heart.jpgAlthough screwball comedies had only been hugely successful for four years at the time There Goes My Heart was made in 1938, the simplicity that they were first loved for had come to be seen as largely derivative in the later years of the genre. Much like It Happened One Night, There Goes My Heart concerns a runaway heiress who learns what it is to live below her class and is shown the ropes by a roguish newspaperman who is torn between love and work. And yet, screwball comedies of this ilk come alive in the details, and not only does the film has a number of memorable setpieces given its short running time, but it boasts a hugely talented supporting cast. As game as Fredrich March and Virginia Bruce are as the leads, the film is stolen by the brash Patsy Kelly, who plays a shopgirl with the streetwise to sneak a free meal or swindle customers into buying a clearly faulty product. Nearly everything Kelly says is delivered with a heavy dose of snark, and yet there’s a touching sincerity in her hilarious relationship with her longtime boyfriend played by Alan Mowbray (delightfully named Pennypepper E. Pennypepper). Although they only see each other in the hallway as they are coming from/leaving to work, that sort of efficiency suits Kelly’s practicality well. The courtship between March and Bruce is likable (they are involved in a humorous scene involving musical chairs), but Kelly’s sheer energy as a performer is what elevates the material above its derivative imagining.

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Pennies from Heaven (1936)
August 16, 2016, 10:12 pm
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Director: Norman Z. McLeod
3.5 Stars
Pennies from HeavenThe 9th annual Academy Awards saw Jerome Kern’s “The Way You Look Tonight” beating out Arthur Johnston’s “Pennies from Heaven” in the Best Song category. Although the musicals the two songs appear in are both affable, crowd-pleasing entertainments, they seem to come from different worlds. Released by Columbia Pictures, Pennies from Heaven was perhaps an attempt to bank on the recent success of the studio’s It Happened One Night in that it similarly grounds itself in Depression-era realism, with Bing Crosby’s troubadour going as far as to risk his life in a carnival stunt out of his affection for an orphan girl (Edith Fellows). If it wasn’t the first musical to strive for socioeconomic realism (Gold Diggers of 1933 is a masterpiece with similar intentions), it’s a striking contrast with the largely escapist fare of the Astaire & Rogers pictures at RKO. Pennies from Heaven largely coasts on the charm of Crosby and its songs, and it is to its great benefit that there an embarrassment of riches in the latter department—in addition to the title song are “One, Two, Button Your Shoe”, “Let’s Call a Heart a Heart”, and Louis Armstrong performing “Skeleton in the Closet.” Armstrong’s musical number occurs during the film’s best episode in which the makeshift family opens a haunted house themed restaurant in which props literally burst out of the tables, providing an endearing sense of youthful creativity that overcomes the humdrum plotting.



Here Comes Cookie (1935)
February 18, 2016, 5:50 pm
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Director: Norman Z. McLeod
2.5 Stars
Here Comes CookieIf Here Comes Cookie is not the best picture to showcase the talents of George Burns and Gracie Allen, it is undeniably a personal one. For starters is the title, referencing Allen’s frequent singing of the medley in their earlier pictures together. But the last half of the film, which sees Allen convert a mansion into a shelter for struggling vaudeville acts, is an affectionate homage to their roots, showing a delightful pleasure in many of the skilled extras that appear in the film–in one scene, an unnamed juggler/drummer gets several minutes of screen time to show off his routine. That it all ends in the big show (as so many of these sorts of musicals do) is somewhat of a disappointment, perhaps a little too old hat for the usually expectation-defying duo. There is an amusing gag where a Romeo & Juliet adaptation is saved by unforeseen bloopers that plague the production, but the film has already run out of gas by the time it gets there. Interestingly, Burns and Allen don’t get as much screen time together as usual, which could explain what’s missing–even if their schtick was familiar, their genuine affection for each other translated well on screen. When they are kept apart and Allen, in particular, has her lunacy dialed up beyond where it usually is, they go from being something special to a fairly standard comedy routine.



Alice in Wonderland (1933)
January 14, 2016, 9:53 pm
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Director: Norman Z. McLeod
4 Stars
Alice in WonderlandAs fascinating a failure as Hollywood ever produced, Alice in Wonderland was an ill-conceived adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s beloved novels (this one drawing heavily from both Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass). Boasting a cast of all stars–well, an assortment of familiar character actors joined by W.C. Fields, Gary Cooper, Jack Oakie, and a young Cary Grant–the film makes the bold choice of making nearly all of its players unrecognizable under prosthetics and grotesque costumes. Furthermore, it is undeniably horrific at times, including the frenzied climax that sees Alice (Charlotte Henry) throttled around the neck after she converses with her dinner. In the scene in which Alice confronts the Duchess and the pig baby, the woman is rendered with an abnormally large, potholed face, complete with a gaping mouth and tiny peering eyes. In her arms is a child that she hurls in the air, only it is not a child, but a dwarf actor. All this is to say that children might be less disturbed by Jan Švankmajer’s 1988 adaptation of the material. But, aside from the fascination of watching Alice in Wonderland for its parade of the grotesque, it is complemented with genuinely terrific set design by William Cameron Menzies, and the achievement of recreating the illustrations of the novel was an impressive one that yields some undoubtedly compelling results.



It’s a Gift (1934)
September 7, 2015, 12:26 pm
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Director: Norman Z. McLeod
3.5 Stars
It's a GiftShedding his persona as a cynical, brash eccentric, W.C. Fields takes on a sort of everyman role in It’s a Gift. In the very first gag, Fields tries desperately to shave as his daughter blocks his view in the mirror. It’s almost sweet that he does so little to get in her way–he thinks of every possible way to circumvent the inconvenience except simply asking her to move aside. Similarly, the film’s best sequence involves Fields cast out to sleep on the porch and being interrupted by a series of noises. In exploring the perils of sharing a bathroom and the frustration caused by insomnia, each scenario characterizes Fields as not only an underdog but as a man castrated by a stifling, unrewarding domestic life. It’s a Gift is one of Fields’ most remembered pictures, perhaps a faint praise that suggests that many viewers aren’t quite taken to the comedian (films like The Bank Dick and Million Dollar Legs are better representations of what it is that makes Fields unique). Even if it goes on too long, however, the porch scene is beautifully handled. The long shots that show the entirety of his housing complex (including the noisy neighbors) have a dollhouse quality, where people become cogs in a machine that exists solely to annoy the suffering Fields. In reveling in these moving parts and positioning Fields as one small part of a chaotic universe, the sequence recalls Buster Keaton’s mastery of the frame.



Topper (1937)
January 20, 2012, 3:42 am
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Director: Norman Z. McLeod

A wildly popular supernatural comedy that spawned two sequels, a television series, and a remake, Topper pairs Constance Bennett and Cary Grant as a fun-loving couple who are killed in an automobile accident and must complete one good deed before ascending into heaven. The titular Mr. Topper, played by the dry Roland Young, is the subject of their charity, and their goal is to teach him how to loosen up. I suppose that an audience in 1937 might have gotten a kick out of seeing a tire change itself – and, to be sure, the visual effect is still impressive – but that is all that the picture has going for it in the way of humor. Items float about and the living look on in disbelief. These supernatural sight gags have long been the most tiresome of comic staples. Part of what makes a screwball comedy of this sort endearing is to see the people pulling the pranks delighting in their behavior. In this picture, however, a handkerchief floats across the room, and the audience doesn’t know why Constance Bennett is doing it, nor is there a glimpse of the surely mischievous look on her face. It turns out that dissolving two charismatic, amusing, and beautiful stars into phantoms is a bad idea.