For Reel

Fire Over England (1937)
August 23, 2015, 10:45 pm
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: , ,

Director: William K. Howard
3.5 Stars
Fire Over EnglandThis amusing period film was the first to star Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, then both married to other people. Set in Elizabethan England, Fire Over England involves the son (Olivier) of a man murdered by the Inquisition going undercover in the court of King Philip of Spain (Raymond Massey). Olivier was not particularly adept at playing swashbuckler roles–his attraction as a star has much to do with his sense of outwardly projecting a brooding sense of interiority, not his skill with acrobatics. The best parts of the picture involve Olivier playing his character’s growth from boy to man. Early in the picture, he meets the news of his father’s death with an infantile whimpering–a reasonable reaction to meet the report, but not one typical of the star of an adventure film. Similarly, in his romantic scenes, he often puts his head on the woman’s breast rather than vice versa, suggesting a sense of boyishness. Only when he is validated by Queen Elizabeth (a magnetic Flora Robson) does he come into himself and show more wit and confidence as a performer. James Wong Howe contributes some stunning visuals that brilliantly serve the narrative. In a particularly dazzling scene, Olivier accepts his task from the queen at the potential risk of sacrificing his future with Leigh. Robson towers over her co-stars, and from behind a blinding light pours through the windows, suggesting not only the holiness of Olivier’s sense of duty, but the responsibilities of the outside invading the private world of the lovers.


The Princess Comes Across (1936)
June 8, 2015, 12:13 am
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: , ,

Director: William K. Howard
3 Stars
The Princess Comes AcrossIn 1934, the murder mystery genre was given a jolt with the wild success of The Thin Man, which pulled off a delightful balancing act as a pair of wisecracking, ever-sparring lovers confronted mortal danger with a smirk and a sip of champagne. The awkwardly titled The Princess Comes Across is designed in that mold but lacks the sophistication in the storytelling. With a total of six writers attached to the project, it plays like a hodgepodge of ideas, drifting between genres without any sort of clarity or a sense of elevating personal stakes. Once the murder plot takes focus, the developing relationship between stars Fred MacMurray and Carole Lombard takes the backseat. The solving of the crime is no longer foreplay for a couple (as it was in some of the best mystery comedies), but rather a simple methodical examination. That said, it’s enjoyable to watch Lombard attempt an impression of Greta Garbo, with both the husky voice and the vacant, mask-like expression present. Another treat is cinematographer Ted Tetzlaff (a frequent collaborator with Lombard at her request), who was one of the great artists of the close-up and of light. In the darker scenes, he has a way of making Lombard’s face seem as visually dynamic as that of Marlene Dietrich or even Garbo herself.

Bullets for O’Hara (1941)
April 20, 2015, 11:07 am
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: , ,

Director: William K. Howard
2.5 Stars
Bullets for O'HaraA G-man wed the ex-wife of a mobster in order to bring him out of hiding in 1936’s Public Enemy’s Wife. Warner Brothers remade the same material just half a decade later with Bullets for O’Hara, casting Roger Pryor as the detective with Joan Perry and Anthony Quinn as his wife and the criminal, respectively. The resulting programmer moves briskly and shows the competency of a talented crew (including respected cinematographer Ted D. McCord), but it’s largely a disposable entertainment. Pryor is woefully miscast as the lead–he lacks the necessary charisma and is wrought as utterly incompetent at his job. In fact, only Quinn manages to leave the picture with any dignity, even if his gifts as an actor would have benefited a more nuanced role. The early moments in which he tries to convince his new wife that his thievery is morally justified promises a throwback gangster with Depression-era cynicism, but Raymond L. Schlock’s screenplay doesn’t follow through. There are a few tense moments, such as a climactic scene in which a captive Perry cuts through a telephone line with a pair of scissors, but with a fifty minute running time and an unimpressive cast, Bullets for O’Hara is forgotten as soon as the credits roll.