Billie Burke

The Wizard of Oz (1939, Victor Fleming)

By the time the door opens and Dorothy (Judy Garland) finds herself over the rainbow, The Wizard of Oz has already completed one full narrative arc and is starting another. The film opens with Garland in a crisis–she’s a teenage girl on a farm where no one has time for her (it’s a busy farm, after all)–and events quickly fall into place forcing her no alternative to run away. Events just as quickly get her to reconsider that decision and set her back home. Full narrative gesture; all it needs is a resolution scene….

Only there’s this tornado and it has other ideas, like whisking Garland up and away into the far off land of Oz.

The opening sequence, set in Kansas, is sepia-toned. Oz is Technicolor. Cinematographer Harold Rosson does both gorgeously, but there’s also a difference in composition (probably because the Kansas sequence has an uncredited King Vidor directing)–Kansas is expansive, familiar, and sort of empty. The horizon is just sky. Oz is expansive, sure, but its not familiar at all and its packed. Garland quests through this beauteous landscape, initially by herself, but soon with friends; there’s the easy constraint of having the yellow brick road to guide her. Everything alongside the yellow brick road–corn fields, apple trees, dark and dangerous forests–is wild and expansive. The Wizard of Oz has phenomenal matte paintings, which director Fleming and cinematographer Rosson stretch into the foreground. The art direction, set decoration, all of it is wondrous.

Matching that wondrousness is Garland’s adventure, which is full of song, occasionally dance, and the pursuit of happiness. While Garland just wants to get back to Kansas, the friends she soon makes have entirely different desires.

The Wizard of Oz runs just over a hundred minutes. Almost twenty are spent on the opening Kansas scenes, the final quest–different from Garland’s initial one–takes up the last half hour. So in the remaining fifty minutes, the film has to introduce Oz to both Garland and the audience, but then also bring in her sidekicks, allies, and nemesis. It does so steadily, never hurriedly. These sidekicks become teenage Garland’s wards, some more so than others; she’s already on her quest to meet the Wizard and she has the idea of inviting others in need along with her.

First is Ray Bolger’s Scarecrow, who’s in need of a brain. He’s just got straw. Then it’s Jack Haley’s Tin Man, who needs a heart. Bert Lehr’s Lion needs some courage. All the while, Margaret Hamilton’s Wicked Witch is out to get Garland for dropping a house on her sister and stealing her shoes. Actually, Garland’s innocent–I mean, the house-dropping isn’t her fault and it’s Billie Burke’s idea to swipe the shoes (to protect Garland from Hamilton). All Garland’s got to do is get to see the Wizard.

Hamilton haunts this first quest, keeping tabs on Garland and company’s progress, threatening them when possible. The second quest has Garland and her friends having to mount a direct assault on Hamilton’s castle and her army of flying monkey soldiers. The Wizard of Oz, in its hundred minutes, is three very different films.

The performances are uniformly fantastic, though Garland, Bolger, Hamilton, and Frank Morgan are the best. Garland’s Dorothy is never youthfully callow for long, she’s thoughtful and determined. Even in the Kansas sequence, where she gets into it with aunt and uncle Clara Blandick and Charley Grapewin over her misbehaving dog–basically, everything in Oz is the adorable dog’s fault, but he also saves the day more than once (and is awesome just to watch amid the singing and dancing on the ornate sets)–Garland navigates getting in the way, both in terms of the narrative and just physically, quite well. Once she gets to Oz, she’s got to stand back and observe, then switch immediately into a more active role; Garland keeps her performance even between the two extremes.

Bolger is one of Oz’s secret weapons. Unlike Haley and Lehr, he’s less Garland’s responsibility than her partner. In the last third, it’s up to Bolger to pick up the slack when Garland is separated from her sidekicks. All three–though most Lehr because he’s in a huge lion costume–do astoundingly well in their costumes and makeup. The makeup’s excellent, which should make it even harder for the actors humanity to come through, but Bolger, Haley, and Lehr do it. The Wizard of Oz is great at its character introductions; Bolger getting a little more agency in his introduction than the others carries him through the entire film.

Hamilton’s exceptionally evil, which is kind of the point of being wicked, I suppose, but she never lets up with it and also never goes over the top. She’s threatening this teenager and Hamilton keeps it in check. Part of Wizard’s magic is no one goes over the top.

Except Frank Morgan. And Frank Morgan knows how to chew through the scenery and director Fleming knows exactly how to feed it to him.

Great songs, beautiful production values, exceptionally luscious photography–The Wizard of Oz opens with a title card acknowledging the source novel’s legacy and promising a majestic film experience.

It delivers, again and again.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Victor Fleming; screenplay by Noel Langley, Florence Ryerson, and Edgar Allan Woolf, adaptation by Langley, based on the novel by L. Frank Baum; director of photography in Technicolor, Harold Rosson; edited by Blanche Sewell; music by Harold Arlen; produced by Mervyn LeRoy; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Judy Garland (Dorothy), Ray Bolger (Scarecrow), Jack Haley (Tin Man), Bert Lahr (Lion), Margaret Hamilton (The Wicked Witch of the West), Billie Burke (Glinda), Clara Blandick (Auntie Em), Charley Grapewin (Uncle Henry), and Frank Morgan (Professor Marvel).


The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942, William Keighley)

The Man Who Came to Dinner is, a little too obviously, an adaptation of a play. There are occasional moments outside the main setting–the home of Grant Mitchell and Billie Burke–but director Keighley doesn’t do anything with them. All involve Richard Travis’s character, which suggests maybe his subplot (local reporter in the center of a media sensation) should have been expanded. Except Travis wouldn’t have really done anything with it so maybe not.

Instead, Travis is simply a cog in Dinner’s gear, much like everyone else.

The film concerns Monty Woolley getting injured while visiting Mitchell and Burke’s house (under duress) and having to stay. Woolley’s character is a famous radio personality who, in private, is a manipulative, abusive egomaniac. The screenplay, from Julius J. and Philip G. Epstein, never quite works as various characters see Woolley being viciously mean to other characters, yet still warm to him. It makes everyone in the film a moron (except Woolley), even Bette Davis, who plays his suffering secretary.

The film’s at its most honest when Woolley, (an annoying) Jimmy Durante and (an utterly misused) Ann Sheridan get together and bask in the fruits of their manipulations. It’s a cruel, mean-spirited film and utterly tone-deaf about it. Seeing as how it’s a studio picture about celebrities secretly being atrocious, I guess the tone-deafness shouldn’t be a surprise. But Keighley’s direction is pretty lame anyway.

The best performance is easily Davis, though Sheridan eventually gets some good material (when she’s not just there to be Woolley’s stooge). Mitchell and Burke are both good. Travis is likable if weak. Mary Wickes is great as Woolley’s nurse; she manages to weather the film, which plays his cruel treatment of her entirely for laughs, with dignity.

As for Woolley… is he good as an utterly reprehensible jerk? Sure. Is there any point to watching almost two hours of it?

No.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by William Keighley; screenplay by Julius J. Epstein and Philip G. Epstein, based on the play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart; director of photography, Tony Gaudio; edited by Jack Killifer; music by Friedrich Hollaender; produced by Jack L. Warner; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Bette Davis (Maggie Cutler), Ann Sheridan (Lorraine Sheldon), Monty Woolley (Sheridan Whiteside), Richard Travis (Bert Jefferson), Jimmy Durante (Banjo), Billie Burke (Mrs. Ernest Stanley), Reginald Gardiner (Beverly Carlton), Elisabeth Fraser (June Stanley), Grant Mitchell (Mr. Ernest Stanley), George Barbier (Dr. Bradley), Mary Wickes (Miss Preen), Russell Arms (Richard Stanley), Ruth Vivian (Harriet), Edwin Stanley (John), Betty Roadman (Sarah), Charles Drake (Sandy), Nanette Vallon (Cosette) and John Ridgely (Radio Man).


monty-woolley


Father of the Bride (1950, Vincente Minnelli)

Father of the Bride is such a constant delight, it’s practically over before its problems become clear. First off, it’s definitely about the titular Father–a wonderful Spencer Tracy–who not only narrates but is in almost every scene. The wedding reception, when he’s chasing around daughter Elizabeth Taylor to say goodbye, is about the only time he’s not running a scene.

The reception is also where the problems show. Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett write a great script, no question, but their situational comedy is so strong… things get lost. Joan Bennett, as Tracy’s wife and Taylor’s mother, gets shortchanged in the second half. She’s around, she has some good scenes, but nothing compared to her first half ones.

There are also a number of plot threads left unresolved or forgotten or just plain dismissed. Goodrich, Hackett and director Minnelli go for the best laugh they can get out of a scene. Some of these laughs do have narrative consequences and no one seems to have much interest in acknowledging them. It’s too bad.

But Bride’s problems don’t hurt the film’s ability to entertain. Tracy and Bennett are great–he’s so energetic, it’s very impressive she can hold her own. Goodrich and Hackett’s masterful script actively works his narration into scenes.

Taylor’s very likable as the daughter, though she doesn’t have a lot to do. Leo G. Carroll has a great part too.

Minnelli does well too. The settings are confined, but he never lets Bride get claustrophobic.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Vincente Minnelli; screenplay by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, based on the novel by Edward Streeter; director of photography, John Alton; edited by Ferris Wheeler; music by Adolph Deutsch; produced by Pandro S. Berman; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Spencer Tracy (Stanley T. Banks), Joan Bennett (Ellie Banks), Elizabeth Taylor (Kay Banks), Don Taylor (Buckley Dunstan), Billie Burke (Doris Dunstan), Leo G. Carroll (Mr. Massoula), Moroni Olsen (Herbert Dunstan), Melville Cooper (Mr. Tringle), Taylor Holmes (Warner), Paul Harvey (Rev. A.I. Galsworthy), Frank Orth (Joe), Russ Tamblyn (Tommy Banks), Tom Irish (Ben Banks) and Marietta Canty (Delilah).


Dinner at Eight (1933, George Cukor)

It’s called Dinner at Eight, not Leading Up to Dinner at Eight. I had this film taped from TCM and it was near the head of my movielens recommendations–and movielens has been frighteningly accurate–so I watched it….

There’s a lot of good acting in the film–I can’t decide which Barrymore is better or if Wallace Beery is the best. Billie Burke, as the hostess, is good and Jean Harlow’s got some nice moments.

But, really, come on. I can’t believe this one has the reputation it does. It’s not just that it’s stagy, it’s that it isn’t about any of the characters, just about being about them. And it’s too long. Way too long. And there’s no dinner. Don’t be cute, show me the damn dinner.

For a while, it seemed all right. Star-crossed lovers and ruminations about aging… but then it just got long and irritating.

I think I’m going to have to go with Lionel, now that I think about it more.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by George Cukor; screenplay by Frances Marion, Herman J. Mankiewicz and Donald Ogden Stewart, based on the play by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber; director of photography, Williams H. Daniels; edited by Ben Lewis; music by William Axt; produced by David O. Selznick; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Marie Dressier (Carlotta Vance), John Barrymore (Larry Renault), Wallace Beery (Dan Packard), Jean Harlow (Kitty Packard), Lionel Barrymore (Oliver Jordan), Lee Tracy (Max Kane), Edmund Lowe (Dr. Wayne Talbot), Billie Burke (Mrs. Oliver Jordan), Madge Evans (Paula Jordan), Jean Harsholt (Jo Stengel), Karen Morley (Mrs. Wayne Talbot), Louise Closser Hale (Hattie Loomis), Phillips Holmes (Ernest DeGraff), May Robson (Mrs. Wendel), Grant Mitchell (Ed Loomis), Phoebe Foster (Miss Alden), Elizabeth Patterson (Miss Copeland), Hilda Vaughn (Tina), Harry Beresford (Fosdick), Edwin Maxwell (Mr. Fitch), John Davidson (Mr. Hatfield), Edward Woods (Eddie), George Baxter (Gustave), Herman Bing (The Waiter) and Anna Duncan (Dora).


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