Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

To Live and Die in L.A. (1985, William Friedkin)

If you’ve ever started watching To Live and Die in L.A. and turned it off because it’s terrible or just heard of it and thought you should see it, let me say… there’s no reason to see it. Or sit through it. Not even morbid curiosity. Or unless you want to see John Pankow’s butt. Director Friedkin does seem to be trying to start a macho male nudity thing with L.A.—including… umm… Little William L. Petersen, but he also does some homophobia in other parts. Not anti-lesbian though. Friedkin’s pro-objectification there.

Also… some vague racism. By some I mean every time someone who isn’t White is around. But all of it—even the dingus—is C-level L.A. shenanigans. They leave far less impression, for example, than the incredible stupidity of Secret Service agents Petersen and Pankow. Though at one point Pankow identifies himself as a Treasury Agent. L.A.’s based on a novel—by co-screenwriter Gerald Petievich—and for some reason I’d assume Petievich would’ve at least looked up the difference. Not Friedkin (the other screenwriter). Friedkin doesn’t even seem aware real guns weigh more than the rubber guns his actors strut around with.

To Live and Die in L.A., when you toss aside whatever is going on with bad guy counterfeiter Willem Dafoe, is about how adrenalin junkie, dirty Secret Service agent Petersen corrupts straight-edge Pankow, teaching him how to blackmail, exploit, and rape comely ex-cons (Darlanne Fluegel gets all the sympathy for being in this one), strut around in tight jeans (though Pankow doesn’t go with two to three inch lifts like Petersen) and shirts unbuttoned to two above the navel, and… I don’t know, act tough or something.

The scary part of L.A. isn’t the idiotic, toxic masculinity is good, actually, sentiment—Friedkin must’ve read some amazing male empowerment books in the eighties—but the idea it’s an accurate representation of the Secret Service. Though, wait, didn’t they get busted for something stupid and… oh. Yeah.

Okay, so it’s probably legit.

Otherwise the movie would be famous for the agency suing them for how they were portrayed. Because they’re idiots. Like, even if you’ve only watched “CHiPs,” you have a better idea of how to run an investigation than this group of dimwits.

The movie starts with a suicide bomber going after Reagan. The stupidest suicide bomber in the world, who comes up with a rappelling thing when he has enough explosive to just take out the hotel or whatever. Once the bomber fails—in an Islamophobic portrayal out of a GOP campaign ad—we get the Secret Service guys getting hammered and Petersen showing off his base jumping.

Every man wants to be a macho, macho man… you know what, L.A. set to Village People instead of Wang Chung (yes, really, it’s got a Wang Chung “score” and, no, it’s not good). But then Petersen’s partner, Michael Greene, three days from retirement, goes off to the middle of nowhere to investigate a counterfeiter who turns out to be Dafoe. Dafoe gets the drop on him because Greene’s an idiot too and so Petersen swears vengeance.

The best performance in the film is probably… Dafoe? Of the leads, anyway. Petersen and Pankow are risible, like they’re doing a spoof of themselves and don’t know it. Dean Stockwell’s kind of okay but then not, which is too bad because he starts better than he finishes. Fluegel’s not good, just sympathetic because she’s so exploited. Robert Downey’s terrible in a stunt cameo. John Turturro… I mean, you can tell he might be good someday but certainly not here. Debra Feuer, despite having the most potentially interesting story, isn’t any good as Dafoe’s muse.

Some of the Robby Müller photography is good. Some of it is not. They go handheld a lot, which would be a questionable choice if there weren’t so many just plain terrible choices Müller and Friedkin make. M. Scott Smith’s editing… is not bad. It’s not good, but it certainly seems like it’d be bad given Friedkin’s vibe here. It’s not. It’s tolerable. So much in L.A. is intolerable—like Lilly Kilvert’s production design and Linda M. Bass’s costumes—the tolerable parts shine.

To Live and Die in L.A. is an excruciatingly bad two hours. It’s hilariously pretentious and full of itself, but it’s got no laugh value; the joke is on whoever’s watching it.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by William Friedkin; screenplay by Friedkin and Gerald Petievich, based on the novel by Petievich; director of photography, Robby Müller; edited by M. Scott Smith; music by Wang Chung; production designer, Lilly Kilvert; costume designer, Linda M. Bass; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring William Petersen (Chance), Willem Dafoe (Eric Masters), John Pankow (John Vukovich), Darlanne Fluegel (Ruth Lanier), John Turturro (Carl Cody), Dean Stockwell (Bob Grimes), Debra Feuer (Bianca Torres), Steve James (Jeff Rice), Robert Downey Sr. (Thomas Bateman), Christopher Allport (Max Waxman), and Michael Greene (Jim Hart).


Pennies from Heaven (1981, Herbert Ross)

Pennies from Heaven is about how being a woman—particularly in the 1930s—is awful because you exist entirely for male consumption. If not sexually, then as production. The film’s supposed to be about how life’s just unfair for dreamers, in this case lead Steve Martin, who’s just trying to make the American Dream work for him; what’s standing in his way is wife Jessica Harper not wanting to give him her father’s estate so he can open a record store. He’s a traveling sheet music salesman in Chicago; he covers the rural points west.

We know Martin’s a dreamer because he daydreams in musicals. All of a sudden the movie will switch over to a big musical number with Martin and other actors lip-synching to period recordings. The musical stuff is good. Ross’s direction emphasizes the production, which is… fine. But the actual production of the numbers is excellent. Great choreography, so on and so forth. Martin’s very good at the dancing.

The same cannot be said about his “aw shucks” performance. Though some of the problem is Dennis Potter’s script; no one speaks his dialogue well until the second half of the movie, when Christopher Walken shows up and Bernadette Peters starts her fallen woman arc. Until that point, it seems like Potter’s dialogue just isn’t catching. But then all of a sudden Peters makes it breathtaking and it’s clear the problem’s a combination of Martin, Ross, and Potter, not Peters or Harper.

The film’s well-aware it’s about how being a woman is lousy—Peters gets seduced and knocked up by married Martin, who then abandons her multiple times, and finally ends up hooking. Harper—who manages to be the character with the least agency in the film, which is something because Martin’s got almost nil—is the cold fish preacher’s daughter wife who won’t give Martin enough sex or the money to start his store. Even though Martin humiliates her and then some cops humiliate her later on, Harper’s never presented sympathetically. If only she gave him some sugar (or the money sooner), look what might’ve been avoided.

Because somehow when it comes time to address Martin’s exploitation and mental abuse and manipulation, the movie just skips it. He’s the hero, after all, the dreamer who can’t find his American Dream. Again, it’s a combination of script, acting, and directing. Pennies from Heaven is only going to work if Martin’s transcendent.

And he’s not. Worse, he’s markedly better during the musical numbers than the dramatic, which makes the dramatic feel like a strange stagy vanity project, but one where he’s unenthusiastic about it too.

Nothing is worse than unenthusiastic vanity projects. Yes, he’s got the enthusiasm for the musical numbers—which disappear during at least twenty minutes of the film; it gives Peters a chance for some great acting in a middling film, but it also all drags. Her character’s ostensibly obsessed with Martin but he’s clearly a doofus. Yes, she’s supposed to be all in because of some kind of animal magnetism but… Martin hasn’t got any. The film cheating Harper out of getting rid of him at some point is a disservice to the work she put into her performance.

Wondrous photography from Gordon Willis—maybe thirty percent of Ross’s shots are good and there are some way too stagy ones—but Willis makes them all work. The film’s gorgeous.

Great dancing from Peters, Walken, and Vernel Bagneris (who’s got the majorly thankless part of the forgotten man). But he’s also really vile man. The only guy who’s not criminally creepy in Pennies from Heaven is Francis X. McCarthy, who plays a kindly bartender.

The end seems like it’s going to flop, then seems like it’ll do the right thing, but then it turns out doing the right thing is the wrong thing for the film anyway. Because it just isn’t going to work out. It just can’t.

Shame to waste the truly spectacular Peters performance.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Herbert Ross; screenplay by Dennis Potter, based on his BBC television serial; director of photography, Gordon Willis; edited by Richard Marks; production designer, Philip Harrison; costume designer, Bob Mackie; produced by Nora Kaye and Herbert Ross; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Steve Martin (Arthur), Bernadette Peters (Eileen), Jessica Harper (Joan), Vernel Bagneris (The Accordion Man), John McMartin (Mr. Warner), John Karlen (The Detective), Jay Garner (The Banker), Robert Fitch (Al), Tommy Rall (Ed), Eliska Krupka (The Blind Girl), and Christopher Walken (Tom).


Adam’s Rib (1949, George Cukor)

Adam’s Rib has a great script (by Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin), but outside director Cukor not being as energetic as he could be—he might’ve been able to compensate—the script is the biggest problem with the film. There are the really obvious problems, like when Spencer Tracy gets reduced to a supporting role in the third act but instead of giving that extra time to Katharine Hepburn, which would make sense because she’s the other star, it spreads the time out way into the weeds. Not the courtroom resolve, of course, but every other scene is just contrived to not get too close in on the lead characters. And there are some communication issues—like were we supposed to get Tracy’s bigger philosophical objection to Hepburn taking her case, which is his case too.

Let me back up.

The movie opens with this great exterior sequence in New York City, following Judy Holliday as she stalks some guy (Tom Ewell). Turns out he’s her husband and he’s cheating on her so she’s got a gun and she’s going to do something about it. He doesn’t die; she’s arrested and charged with attempted murder. Hepburn wants to defend her—the jilted husband gets a pass on shooting at cheating wives and their lovers, why not women too. Tracy’s the assistant district attorney. He doesn’t agree with Hepburn’s opinion, then really doesn’t agree with her becoming Holliday’s defense attorney.

Most of the movie is them fighting it out in the courtroom, then catching up with them in the evenings, seeing how the professional competition is taking a toll on their marriage. But a comedy.

A comedy with what turn out to be a lot of big ideas, which it would’ve been nice if they’d talked about during the movie instead of doing a big subplot around Tracy and Hepburn’s neighbor, David Wayne, who’s a popular musician; he’s also got the hots for Hepburn and sees his chance as the case starts to destabilize the usually wonderful marriage.

That usually wonderful marriage is what makes Adam’s Rib so much fun. Tracy and Hepburn are phenomenal together. Their married banter, thanks both to the actors and their script, is peerless. And they’ve got a great relationship. The script does a great job in the first act establishing their wedded bliss separate from their careers, which then collide and spill over, but not in a way the first act’s handling would predict. The script’s much tighter in the first act as far as establishing the ground situation but it doesn’t do anything to set up the character development. Again, great script, but a big problem one too.

Also in the first act the film seems like it might take Holliday’s murder trial seriously. Like as a procedural. Because the film tries not to utilize screwball humor. It can’t resist, which is a problem as the film’s set up to not be screwball so the screwball scenes don’t play. That lower energy Cukor direction; he respects and enables the actors but nothing else. He doesn’t even showcase them as much as their ability to execute the routine. Good, but not as good as it should be.

Anyway, Holliday—who’s sort of the protagonist of the whole thing, or ought to be—disappears into background. She’s great, but she gets almost nothing to do. There’s potential for some kind of relationship, though not friendship, between Holliday and Hepburn—even a client and attorney one—but the film doesn’t do anything with it. And Tracy never gets shown presenting his case. Or working on his case. So not a good procedural, which is a bummer since—once the finale reveals Tracy’s motivations—it could’ve been a great courtroom drama.

Instead, it’s a wonderfully charming and almost always entertaining Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn picture. The production values are strong, Cukor’s more than adequate, the script’s great, Holliday’s excellent, Wayne doesn’t get too tiresome even though it seems like he might, George J. Folsey’s photography is nice, George Boemler’s editing not so much, but… it works. It all works. It just doesn’t try hard enough. Maybe some of it is Production Code related. But the way the script compensates really doesn’t work, leaving Tracy and Hepburn with good roles in a fun comedy instead of great parts in a better film.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by George Cukor; screenplay by Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin; director of photography, George J. Folsey; edited by George Boemler; music by Miklós Rózsa; produced by Lawrence Weingarten; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Spencer Tracy (Adam Bonner), Katharine Hepburn (Amanda Bonner), Judy Holliday (Doris Attinger), Tom Ewell (Warren Attinger), David Wayne (Kip Lurie), Jean Hagen (Beryl Caighn), Hope Emerson (Olympia La Pere), Eve March (Grace), and Clarence Kolb (Judge Reiser).



A Guy Named Joe (1943, Victor Fleming)

I’m not sure how to talk about A Guy Named Joe without some spoilers. But I’m going to try. Like a test.

A Guy Named Joe is a propaganda picture, but one less about jingoism and more about the American trademarked Freedom. Only it’s a specific kind of Freedom, it’s the kind of Freedom you can only understand if you’re an Army flier. Now, it’s possible—the film attests—the guys in the other branches of the service are just as thrilled about dying in the ways specific to their branches, but Guy Named Joe is about the glory of dying a combat flier. And how dying as a combat flier isn’t just good for the dead flier, who’ll get some real perspective on life, but for the future as well. The little children need dead fliers so the future might live. In Freedom.

It’s a lot.

But also not really, because Dalton Trumbo’s script doesn’t get too far into the weeds with it. Oh, a few people get big monologues about the film’s themes—Lionel Barrymore gets the Freedom one, so even if you’re cocking your head and trying to unravel the philosophy of it, Barrymore’s great delivering it. Because Joe is very well-cast. Spencer Tracy’s perfect in the lead, a daredevil bomber pilot who eventually gets in too much trouble and ends up taking a backseat to the future generation, personified in Van Johnson. Tracy gets some decent scenes with Johnson; best considering the circumstances, but some really good ones with leading lady Irene Dunne. Dunne’s Tracy’s girl—and some kind of military cargo flier (the ladies can fly cargo through war zones solo but they can’t be combat pilots because they’re girls); she, Tracy, and Ward Bond all hang out together. Turns out some of it is because Bond can’t handle misanthropic narcissist Tracy without Dunne to temper him. It’s a great character relationship, something the film doesn’t do enough with, even though it arguably leverages Bond more than anything else in the picture.

The film’s got three sections. The first is in England, where Tracy and Bond are stationed. It runs forty-five minutes; now, Joe is two hours. The first thirty-eight percent of the movie is the England stuff with Tracy, Dunne, Bond, and James Gleason as the guys’ stuck-up CO. You would think, given epical story arcs and Freytag triangles, there’d be a lot of important plot establishing somewhere in that thirty-eight percent. So it’d be important later.

You’d be wrong.

Because in the second part of the film, where Tracy gets stuck back stateside playing guardian angel to rookie ace Johnson, well… nothing from that first part is important. Out of sight, out of mind. It’s just the story of Johnson getting to be a better flier and a more confident guy. He’s just inherited four million bucks, but he’s a solid guy. He’s not even a skirt chaser until Tracy’s influence and even when he’s a skirt chaser, you feel like he’s still a pretty good guy. Johnson’s got the second hardest part in the film. He’s got no one to talk with about his feelings and feelings get talked about a lot in Joe. Similarly, Dunne doesn’t have anyone to talk with about her feelings when it’s important in part three, which is set in New Guinea and the war.

Heavily leveraged Bond is the way the film brings parts one and two together, with Johnson getting assigned to Bond (and Gleason) and Dunne dropping by for a visit. Johnson falls for Dunne immediately; though we don’t get to see him fall for her, because the movie’s busy concentrating on Dunne and Bond and 800-pound gorilla Tracy. Fleming skips the shot of Johnson seeing Dunne, skips his agency in approaching her. Johnson never gets that agency back. Something else lost in part three.

Dunne eventually gets some agency, but kind of too late to matter.

See, she and Johnson get together—rather chastely for a while, which almost seems like the film not wanting to give forty-something Dunne too much chemistry with late twenties Johnson (he can get away with early twenties, her with late); the chaste thing feels forced though. Because for a while the film builds the chemistry between the two—as Dunne is reminded more and more of Tracy, because (unbeknownst to her) Tracy’s been Johnson’s most influential mentor. And then it stops. Eventually there’s a little more of a spark, but it’s in the last fifteen or twenty minutes and it’s a little late.

The film does have a last minute (temporary) rally as Tracy gets a “well, this was worth it” monologue but then the it stays too close with him after just saying the whole point of the damn movie is he’s the 800-pound gorilla. Trumbo pretends he’s been working out the moral of the whole thing for the last two hours and thinks Tracy’s monologue is going to be able to sell it. Tracy’s able to perform the monologue beautifully, he’s just not able to magic it into a good ending or a successful arc for literally anyone in the entire movie.

The performances are key. Tracy and Dunne don’t get great parts, but they get some good scenes. Bond does really well having to carry the energy of the film, even though he’s an glorified sidekick. And the movie is mercenary in how it uses him. Johnson’s potentially got the best part and gets less than anyone else but he’s able to turn it into something. He’s earnest in just the right way, a nice contrast to Tracy and something the film never plays up enough, which is silly. Gleason’s okay. He’s better at the end. At the beginning he’s just a plot foil and exposition dumper.

Technically… well, at least Fleming is consistent in failings. Joe’s got some great special effects with the flying and some really bad composite shots with the background projection. George J. Folsey and Karl Freund do a real bad job matching lighting and it’s distracting at times. It’s worse in the second part, stateside, when the rear screen projection might work as a visual representation of narrative detail.

But of course Fleming’s not going to think of it.

Otherwise, the direction’s fine. Just not good enough to lift the picture out its problems. Good editing from Frank Sullivan. Great sets; not the sets fault no one lights them or shoots them right.

A Guy Named Joe doesn’t try as hard as it should and it shows, getting good (and better) performances out of its cast without really tasking them. Tracy, Dunne, Johnson, Bond, and Barrymore all could have done much more.

And, last thing—nice support from Barry Nelson as Tracy’s stateside sidekick.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Victor Fleming; screenplay by Dalton Trumbo, based on a story by Chandler Sprague and David Boehm, adapted by Frederick Hazlitt Brennan; directors of photography, George J. Folsey and Karl Freund; edited by Frank Sullivan; music by Herbert Stothart; produced by Everett Riskin; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Spencer Tracy (Pete Sandidge), Irene Dunne (Dorinda Durston), Van Johnson (Ted Randall), Ward Bond (Al Yackey), James Gleason (‘Nails’ Kilpatrick), Barry Nelson (Dick Rumney), and Lionel Barrymore (The General).



Ride the High Country (1962, Sam Peckinpah)

Ride the High Country is a fine attempt. It’s not a successful attempt, but it’s a fine one. Director Peckinpah seems to know what he wants to do, but he’s too trapped in Western genre tradition. Having icons Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott as his leads (they’re both great), George Bassman’s intrusive score and Lucien Ballard’s strangely flat photography might all be forgivable if N.B. Stone Jr.’s script were all right but it’s not.

The plotting is awkward. Retired lawman McCrea hires old partner Scott to help him transport gold, not knowing Scott is planning on taking said gold with the help of his new, youthful partner, played by Ron Starr. Along the way, they meet farm girl Mariette Hartley, who Starr gets involved with, much to the chagrin of the older men. Country runs just over ninety minutes and most of the important scenes involve Hartley and her poor choice to marry James Drury. McCrea and Scott spend their time talking about their glory days, which is cute the first couple times, but tiring when it’s clear Stone doesn’t have any other ideas for them and Peckinpah doesn’t seem to care.

Peckinpah doesn’t seem particularly interested in the film until the shootouts at the end; he does spend some time on the scenery, which should be prettier (that drab photography).

Both McCrea and Scott get pretty decent iconic moments at one point or another in the film, they just don’t get actual characters to play. It’s too bad.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Sam Peckinpah; written by N.B. Stone Jr.; director of photography, Lucien Ballard; edited by Frank Santillo; music by George Bassman; produced by Richard E. Lyons; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Randolph Scott (Gil Westrum), Joel McCrea (Steve Judd), Mariette Hartley (Elsa Knudsen), Ron Starr (Heck Longtree), Edgar Buchanan (Judge Tolliver), R.G. Armstrong (Joshua Knudsen), Jenie Jackson (Kate), James Drury (Billy Hammond), L.Q. Jones (Sylvus Hammond), John Anderson (Elder Hammond), John Davis Chandler (Jimmy Hammond) and Warren Oates (Henry Hammond).



Evelyn Prentice (1934, William K. Howard)

Evelyn Prentice only runs eighty minutes, but it goes on forever. At seventeen minutes alone, it’s getting tiring. The big problem is the lack of thoughtful approach. It’s constantly revealing big twists, twists to shock the audience, but they just end up detracting from the film’s possibilities. Because Evelyn Prentice is not a deep study of floundering marriages or endless guilt. It’s an adultery melodrama, down to the frequent fade-outs to punctuate “affecting” scenes. It’s not even an interesting adultery melodrama–there’s a whole courtroom angle the film never shows, just because it’s withholding information the scenes would reveal. Information the film’s principles, reading newspapers, would know (but somehow do not).

It’s a frustrating film too, because of Myrna Loy and William Powell. It’s one of their least successful pairings, because Powell’s playing toward their standard (after a first act diversion) and Loy is not. She’s in a different film completely. Powell’s in one where Edward Brophy pops in for comic relief, Loy’s in one where she’s ready to collapse from internal struggle. But the script doesn’t know how to tell that story (Prentice is 1934 MGM, not a lot of subtlety) and it’s too bad, since director Howard probably would have done better with that approach than the melodrama one. He’s got one great shot at the end, makes up for the frequent panning and generally lackluster direction.

Both Loy and Powell have some good moments, but since they’re in these genre-defined, rote roles, it’s really the supporting cast who have the best roles. Well, the best roles for actors, not necessarily the best written (the script treats the entire supporting cast as superfluous). Una Merkel’s role, for instance, is to give Myrna Loy someone to have scenes with. Merkel does a fine job in the thankless role, but at least she gets to be in the whole picture. Henry Wadsworth has a lot of fun at the beginning as Merkel’s constantly intoxicated romantic interest. Then he disappears, once Powell returns to the film.

The stuff with Loy and Powell and their kid, played by Cora Sue Collins, is actually pretty darn good, though the scenes still have that disconnect–Loy and Powell aren’t acting in the same film.

Rosalind Russell pops in for a minute too–even though she’s pretty bad, had her character stayed in the film, it would have really helped things out.

At eighty minutes, Evelyn Prentice is an abbreviated but still monotonous melodrama. None of the acting really makes it worth seeing (Loy’s been just as good in similar roles in good movies and Powell’s not doing anything special) and that one shot at the end is too paltry a reward. Had the film run much longer–around two hours–and been a big melodrama, it would have been better. The same problems would probably still be there, but maybe the added minutes who make it more compelling. As it runs, there’s just not enough going on to make it watchable.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by William K. Howard; screenplay by Lenore J. Coffee, based on the novel by W.E. Woodward; director of photography, Charles G. Clarke; edited by Frank E. Hull; music by R.H. Bassett; produced by John W. Considine Jr.; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring William Powell (John Prentice), Myrna Loy (Evelyn Prentice), Una Merkel (Amy Drexel), Rosalind Russell (Mrs. Nancy Harrison), Isabel Jewell (Judith Wilson), Harvey Stephens (Lawrence Kennard), Edward Brophy (Eddie Delaney), Henry Wadsworth (Chester Wylie), Cora Sue Collins (Dorothy Prentice), Frank Conroy (Dist. Atty. Farley) and Jessie Ralph (Mrs. Blake).


Spaceballs (1987, Mel Brooks)

It’s kind of amazing how much of Spaceballs is actually funny–pretty much everything with Rick Moranis and Mel Brooks as the Spaceballs president–given how everything with Bill Pullman and Daphne Zuniga falls flat. It doesn’t even fall… it’s a zero degree plane. Some of it has to do with the writing of that portion–Brooks and his co-writers aren’t particularly interested in the good guys because they aren’t funny (the jokes are cheap and substandard and Brooks tries to give it a narrative–and romantic tension–instead of playing against narrative for laughs, like the Moranis parts). But it’s not all poor writing–Pullman’s terrible and Zuniga’s worse, giving one of the abysmal performances in a Hollywood studio film from the 1980s.

There aren’t any good performances on the good guy side–John Candy’s probably the best, if only by comparison (he’s not good by any means and his character is unfunny) and Joan Rivers’s vocal work as the robot is obnoxious. It doesn’t help it’s obvious the robot is frequently a dummy. Brooks as the Yoda stand-in isn’t funny and the only amusing parts of his sequence (besides the Wizard of Oz reference, which is good) is trying to place the actors playing the Dinks (the Jawas). The less said about Dick Van Patten, the better.

The bad guys are all great, from Brooks as the dumb president (though it’s hard not to think he’s doing a Harvey Korman impression), George Wyner and then there’s Moranis. Moranis does something real strange in the movie, especially given the Pullman, Zuniga and Candy sequences. He acts and he acts very well.

The rest–the jokes about marketing–is hit and miss, but the real problem is Brooks tries to tie a narrative to the movie instead of just playing for laughs. It makes Spaceballs rely on Pullman and Zuniga, so it really can’t do anything but fail.

And… I really do think George Lucas ripped off the good planet’s costume designs for Episode I.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Mel Brooks; written by Brooks, Thomas Meehan and Ronny Graham; director of photography, Nick McLean; edited by Conrad Buff IV; music by John Morris; production designed by Terence Marsh; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Mel Brooks (President Skroob / Yoghurt), Rick Moranis (Dark Helmet), Bill Pullman (Lone Starr), Daphne Zuniga (Princess Vespa), John Candy (Barf), George Wyner (Colonel Sandurz), Joan Rivers as the voice of Dot Matrix, Dick Van Patten (King Roland) and Michael Winslow (Radar Technician).


The Search (1948, Fred Zinnemann)

The Search barely qualifies as a dramatic piece. For the first thirty minutes, an uncredited narrator explains everything to the audience, going so far as to ask the characters rhetorical questions (thankfully they don’t respond). It’s filmed on location in post-war Berlin and–exposes is too strong a word–informs the audience about the situation of displaced children. There’s something unsettling about watching a bunch of kids pretend to be starving kids–probably in the same locations where the real starving kids once were–all for an MGM picture. The Search is a propaganda piece to some degree and a “docudrama” the rest of the way. It’s also Montgomery Clift’s first film.

Clift is good in the film, really good, but he doesn’t really have a character in it. He has a character in the individual scenes, one who has to do things, one who tries to accomplish things, but the audience never gets a sense of him. He’s a blandly American good guy, just one played by Montgomery Clift. The kid, Ivan Jandl, is all right. Unfortunately, his involvement with the film–Zinnemann picked him from a Prague schoolroom and The Search won him a special Academy Award–ended him up in a rock quarry, as the Soviets didn’t like him as a figure of Czech pride. As a child actor, he’s fine but not exceptional. His story, however, makes The Search’s reality a little too real and way too irresponsible. While Clift and Jandl are good together, since Clift’s character is so poorly defined, it’s impossible to really feel anything. There should be some important character relationship–something changing in Clift because of his involvement–but there’s nothing. When The Search isn’t playing hard for the heartstrings, it doesn’t work (except the scenes do move rather well, since they tend to be one conversation are another). It also has a real problem with delineating the passage of time. A month passes in a fade out and the audience gets nothing to help them adjust.

The rest of the cast ranges in quality. As the child’s mother, Jarmila Novotna is good. Her character too should have had a character arc, but it was ignored so The Search could show more footage of post-war hardships. As an American aid worker, Aline MacMahon is so bad I thought they were using real people in the beginning scenes, not actors. At the time, the New York Times praised The Search for its naturalism. Maybe MacMahon, who had a long Hollywood career, got confused by the approach.

Since one could get the same experience (save Clift) from a decent history book as The Search, it’s hard to get particularly excited about it. Zinneman’s not a particularly showy director, but he usually has weighty approach. The Search is too real for that filmic weight, but too filmic to be “real.” And that voiceover removes any naturalism, leaving The Search a confused film. A good idea, a well-minded idea, just not a good story.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Fred Zinnemann; screenplay by Richard Schweizer, David Wechsler and Paul Jarrico; director of photography, Emil Berna; edited by Hermann Haller; music by Robert Blum; produced by Lazar Wechsler; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Montgomery Clift (Steve), Ivan Jandl (Jimmy), Aline MacMahon (Mrs. Murray), Jarmila Novotna (Mrs. Hannah Malik), Wendell Corey (Jerry Fisher), Mary Patton (Mrs. Fisher), Ewart G. Morrison (Mr. Crookes), William Rogers (Tom Fisher) and Leopold Borkowski (Joel Markowsky).


Westward the Women (1951, William A. Wellman)

Robert Taylor leads over a hundred women from Missouri to California. It’s set in 1851, so California is the other side of world. I thought it was going to be cute from that description. Taylor’s films were often aware of being Robert Taylor films, but of those 100+ women, only one thinks Taylor’s good-looking, so Westward the Women isn’t one of those Taylor films. It’s a rough film. It has cute moments and funny moments, heart-warming moments too, I suppose–but it’s rough. It might even be mean. I’m not sure to what degree the filmmakers realized how mean the film was getting.

Some of Taylor’s work in the film is his best. At a certain point, the film runs out of things for him to do and concentrates on the romance, which is fine, but he ceases to be the focus. The rest of the performances are all right (except Taylor’s love interest, once the romance starts), but the script betrays the two best supporting ones. Hope Emerson is excellent in the role of a New Englander who talks exaggerated ship-speak for everything. There’s a poor Japanese guy–played by Henry Nakamura, who did little else–who’s got the worst stereotypical dialogue, but a rather important role in the film. Again, his character loses steam in the last part.

The romance shares the second half’s focus with the more interesting aspect of Westward the Women. At a certain point, the women are left alone with Taylor and have to toughen up for the journey. There’s a great scene–I can think of a good adjective for it–when a woman is in labor in a wagon and a wheel breaks off. A group of the other women hold up the wagon while she gives birth, which would not be an easy task, and then proceed to fawn over the newborn. There’s another great, similar scene at the end, but I can’t give that away.

When I said before the film was mean–it kills characters left and right. The only sympathetic character it doesn’t kill is the dog. In addition to showing the difficulty in crossing the country, it throws the audience off guard. You never know if a character is going to make it or not. Even with this tension, however, the film ambles a little too much. It’s got a long present action–at least four months, but it might be more like seven–and since only a handful of the women are realized, the film is mostly in summary. But it’s real pretty summary. Wellman’s direction of the desert landscape is wonderful. Not only is the scenery incorporated into the story (unlike the frequent Monument Valley backdrops) but his camera angles take full advantage of them.

However, the film doesn’t take place entirely in the desert, only thirty minutes of it does. So, you have those twenty or thirty minutes of great direction, an hour or so of a great Taylor performance, a half hour of the great relationship between Taylor and the Japanese guy, and Emerson only getting rid of the lame seafarer dialogue at the end. Still, it’s a good film–it might be the only widescreen academy ratio film I can think of.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by William A. Wellman; screenplay by Charles Schnee, based on a story by Frank Capra; director of photography, William C. Mellor; edited by James E. Newcom; music by Jeff Alexander; produced by Dore Schary; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Robert Taylor (Buck), Denise Darcel (Danon), Hope Emerson (Patience), John McIntire (Roy Whitman), Julie Bishop (Laurie), Lenore Lonergan (Maggie), Marilyn Erskine (Jean), Beverly Dennis (Rose), Henry Nakamura (Ito) and Renata Vanni (Mrs. Maroni).


Libeled Lady (1936, Jack Conway)

Libeled Lady suffers from a few things, but it’s hard to pinpoint what doesn’t work about the film because there are so many things working well. There’s a great William Powell slapstick fishing scene in the film, there’s a great wedding scene where the husband gets a peck and the best man gets a passionate kiss, there’s even a nice courtship between Powell and Myrna Loy, except Powell’s married to Jean Harlow and Loy is suing Harlow’s boyfriend, played by Spencer Tracy. The problem stems from not knowing what to do with Harlow. Libeled Lady is a ninety-eight minute comedy with four major stars, it having focusing problems isn’t even in question….

The film opens with Harlow and Tracy and it stays with Tracy for a bit, introducing Powell in a great way, but up until that introduction (and even immediately following) Libeled Lady is a newspaper comedy. This genre has disappeared, but it was prevalent in the 1930s. I’ve read the early talkie screenwriters were newspaper reporters, explaining the newspaper office as a frequent setting and the reporter as a dedicated hero. But then it turns and becomes an odd Myrna Loy-William Powell comedy, one where you really miss W.S. Van Dyke behind the camera. When Tracy and Harlow return to the film, Harlow has become superfluous. It’s not a traditional comedy–there are different expectations and responsibilities. It’s a little more serious. The audience comes to like Loy (or Loy warms to Powell and the audience warms to Loy while Powell in conflict). But, Powell never reveals the full extent of his subterfuge to Loy when the audience gets to see (again turning the film’s focus to Harlow and Tracy). There isn’t a scene because it doesn’t work with that returning focus to Harlow’s side of the story.

It’s a lot of fun, and Tracy is really good in the opening. He and Powell have a good repartee going too, but we only get to see it once. Harlow and Powell were together at the time and the chemistry cares over to celluloid, but it’s also a Powell and Loy film, which causes a disconnect. I think it’s in Myrna Loy’s biography–when Loy had a cameo in The Senator Was Indiscreet as Powell’s long-unseen wife, it wasn’t even a question for audiences she would be the wife–it was expected. It doesn’t help the film perturbs Harlow’s character arc to fit that clean ending or makes Tracy so ineffectual in the second half–though the scene with him running across a foyer is delightful. It’s in an awkward part of the film, but Tracy’s fun translates well.

It’s good. It is. It’s just the problems are more visible then they should be….

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Jack Conway; screenplay by Maurine Dallas Watkins, Howard Emmett Rogers and George Oppenheimer, based on a story by Wallace Sullivan; director of photography, Norbert Brodine; edited by Fredrick Y. Smith; music by William Axt; produced by Lawrence Weingarten; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Jean Harlow (Gladys), William Powell (Bill Chandler), Myrna Loy (Connie Allenbury), Spencer Tracy (Haggerty), Walter Connolly (Mr. Allenbury), Charley Grapewin (Mr. Bane) and Cora Witherspoon (Mrs. Burns-Norvell).


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