Lionel Barrymore

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).



You Can’t Take It with You (1938, Frank Capra)

You Can’t Take It with You has three major plot lines, all interconnected, but separate enough the film often feels stretched. There’s the rather lovely romance between stenographer Jean Arthur and her boss, bank vice president James Stewart. There’s Edward Arnold’s attempt to create a munitions monopoly to take advantage of the coming world war. He’s Stewart’s dad; the only thing standing in the way of his monopoly is acquiring a single piece of property (to build a factory to force his competitor to capitulate). Lionel Barrymore owns the property. He doesn’t want to sell, he’s also Arthur’s grandfather.

Everything intersects eventually, though when Arnold and wife Mary Forbes are disapproving of Arthur, Barrymore, and the rest of the family, they don’t know Barrymore’s also holding up the big deal.

Barrymore runs the house as sort of a hippie commune; albeit a late thirties, Depression-era commune. Arthur’s the normal one. Her mom, Spring Byington, is mildly eccentric, always finding one creative hobby or another. Samuel S. Hinds is Arthur’s dad; he makes fireworks in the basement with Halliwell Hobbes, who showed up delivering the ice one day and never left. Similarly, Dub Taylor came to dinner once and stayed, marrying Arthur’s sister, Ann Miller. Miller’s got a Russian dance instructor (displaced by the Revolution), Mischa Auer. The film introduces Barrymore’s eclectic brood via Donald Meek, who Barrymore recruits away from his awful office job. Also in the house are housekeeper Lillian Yarbo and her fiancé, Eddie ‘Rochester’ Anderson. Going to have to talk about Yarbo and Anderson and the film’s treatment of them at some point. On one hand, they’re Black characters with decently sized parts. On the other, Anderson is the only person in the film who Robert Riskin’s script portrays as lazy.

Before getting to that aspect… the better aspects of the script, which are many. The movie opens with Arnold’s prospective business deal (and introduces Stewart as the disinterested boss’s son), then goes to Barrymore who meets up with Meek, then brings him home. The family gets introduced. Then, twenty minutes into the film, top-billed Arthur finally appears. And begins she and Stewart’s possibly star-crossed, rich boy, middle class girl (not to mention the commune) romance. The first ninety minutes are about the romance and its possibilities and realities. Stewart’s mom, Forbes, is opposed. Her thin characterization will also have to be discussed in a bit. But Stewart and Arthur are in love and, based on their courting scenes, love might be able to conquer all. Joseph Walker’s photography is never better than during Stewart and Arthur’s date night. The actors radiate chemistry, with Arthur beaming at Stewart’s wooing in the two shots (then getting to beaming in her close-ups). It’s also some of Capra’s best direction, particularly when the action then moves to a slightly slapstick posh restaurant scene (from Central Park where Stewart shows he’s not a snob by palling around with some street urchins).

Capra always keeps You Can’t Take It with You moving, he always moves between the various subplots (everyone in the house has something going on, usually with crossover, even if it’s a throwaway C plot), but his best direction is when it’s Arthur and Stewart or Arthur and Barrymore. There’s this devastating quiet scene where Barrymore and Arthur talk about love. Barrymore’s got some phenomenal moments in the film, but that scene has his best acting. He gets to reflect, not act. Usually he’s acting. Or if he’s reflecting, Capra isn’t showcasing it because there’s a lot of other stuff going on. The scene also establishes Barrymore’s reflection, so it only needs check-ins in the bigger scenes. The film’s beautifully constructed; Capra and Riskin excel at it.

Turns out, however, those scenes aren’t actually Capra’s best directed in the film because the third act reveals the protagonist of the film isn’t Barrymore, or Arthur, or Stewart, it’s Arnold. You Can’t Take It with You, somewhere in the second act, becomes about Arnold and Barrymore, then Arnold. Arnold’s conundrum sequence in the third act is Capra’s best direction in the picture. Arnold gets this long sequence to himself and is fantastic. He goes from being a hideous capitalist to someone you can believe Stewart likes having–or liked having before the film started, in the distant past–as a dad. Unfortunately, the film can’t organically tie all the threads together at the end, skipping over Barrymore and the family’s storyline, mega-contriving a finish for Arthur and Stewart, mostly so Arnold gets a satisfactory one. It’s sort of a good full circle since he started the film, but it’s also unfortunate. All of Riskin’s inventive plotting throughout the film and nothing for the finish.

Still, thanks to the acting (and the previous material) the finale is still quite effective. So effective you can almost forget about the plotting problems. Almost.

All of the acting in the film is good, some of it is superior. Stewart and Arthur are great as the romantic leads; they both get some rather dramatic moments as well. Arthur’s better than Stewart in them (but her writing is better). Byington and Hinds are lovable, Taylor and Miller are cute, Auer’s awesome. Meek’s adorable. Harry Davenport is great as the judge who presides over the end of second act night court where everyone’s in trouble (including the narrative because that point’s where things could naturally finish).

Arnold’s fantastic. Barrymore’s fantastic. Arnold gets more of the dramatic acting, Barrymore has to do his dramatic acting (for the most part) amid slapstick absurdity. It’s their movie in the end.

Now the more obvious problems. Riskin tries to avoid getting into Barrymore’s political philosophy too much, but what’s left in the film is some nonsensical jingoistic anti-organized capitalism thing. There’s a funny sequence with an IRS investigator (Charles Lane) where Barrymore’s raving against the government and the film never clarifies whether it’s just federal he hates or local too. Barrymore’s a de facto progressive, but it’s not like Yarbo or Anderson ever get to dine with the family. And as dismissive as the film gets about Yarbo, it’s nothing compared to how it characterizes Anderson solely as a relief defrauder.

And Riskin (and Capra) have nothing but ire for Forbes, who’s really the second biggest female part in the film–Byington’s omnipresent but as support–and Forbes is a thinly sketched society harpy. The filmmakers go so far as to pay her heartlessness off Arnold; as he starts to see the humanity in the poors and reflect on his ways, Forbes doubles down and gets even more shallow. Or at least maintains the shallow.

Makes for a handful of queasy scenes where Riskin and Capra go for the cheapest jokes possible.

Nice enough Dimitri Tiomkin score. Okay editing from Gene Havlick; the actors do so well in their two shots and group shots, you almost never want it to go to close-up. It feels empty.

Look fast for an uncredited Ward Bond.

You Can’t Take It with You has some great dialogue, some fine direction, some exceptional performances; Capra and Riskin are willing to go long with the things they care about (Arthur and Stewart’s chemistry, Arnold’s character arc, the whole pre-court jail sequence), but they don’t know how to make it fit in the narrative. The result is an often glorious, very busy mess of a motion picture.

CREDITS

Directed by Frank Capra; screenplay by Robert Riskin, based on the play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart; director of photography, Joseph Walker; edited by Gene Havlick; music by Dimitri Tiomkin; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Jean Arthur (Alice Sycamore), James Stewart (Tony Kirby), Lionel Barrymore (Martin Vanderhof), Edward Arnold (Anthony P. Kirby), Mary Forbes (Mrs. Anthony Kirby), Spring Byington (Penny Sycamore), Samuel S. Hinds (Paul Sycamore), Dub Taylor (Ed Carmichael), Ann Miller (Essie Carmichael), Donald Meek (Poppins), Mischa Auer (Kolenkhov), Halliwell Hobbes (DePinna), Lillian Yarbo (Rheba), Eddie ‘Rochester’ Anderson (Donald), Clarence Wilson (Blakely), Charles Lane (Henderson), and Harry Davenport (Judge).


Captains Courageous (1937, Victor Fleming)

As Captains Courageous enters its third act, Spencer Tracy (as a Portugese fisherman) reminds Freddie Bartholomew (a spoiled blue blood kid Tracy rescues after he falls overboard from an ocean liner) it’s almost time to go home to his regular life. It’s a shock for Bartholomew, but also for the viewer. Even though the first act is mostly Bartholomew and his regular life–bribing his teachers, threatening his classmates, whining a lot about how his rich dad (Melvyn Douglas) will exact his vengeance–it’s been forever since the film has been anywhere but a fishing boat. Just when the film is sailing its best, Tracy comes along to ring the bell and announce its going to be wrapping up.

Fleming’s direction is strong throughout, but most of the fishing boat scenes are contrained. The transition from second to third acts is when Captains really gets out on the water. Franz Waxman’s score is phenomenal during those sequences; the film’s enraptured with the fishing life. Bartholomew’s on board with it, this obnoxious ten-year-old who–shockingly–becomes a part of the crew.

While setting up Bartholomew’s backstory, screenwriters John Lee Mahin, Marc Connelly, and Dale Van Every keep the film’s focus moving. Sometimes it’s on Bartholomew, sometimes it’s on Douglas, sometimes it’s on tertiary supporting cast members. Fleming handles it fine, but Bartholomew’s always got to be the biggest jerk possible. He’s intentionally unsympathetic. And the film keeps that approach for quite a while once he’s onboard the fishing boat.

The boat’s got this great cast–Lionel Barrymore’s the captain, John Carradine’s a fisherman who can’t stand Bartholomew, Mickey Rooney’s Barrymore’s son and a proven teen fisherman–and Bartholomew clashes with everyone to some degree. Even if he’s not being a complete jerk, there’s a clash. The script starts getting a lot more nuanced in how it positions the characters; another reason it’s become so separated from the boarding school and Bartholomew’s rich kid life. But the film never tries to force a redemption arc on Bartholomew, it’s all character development, it’s all part of his arc.

It works because the acting is so strong, especially in how the actors work off one another. Barrymore’s kind of gruff, but also kind of cuddly. He doesn’t have time to get worked up about Bartholomew being a little jerk, whereas Carradine rages beautifully on it. Even though Rooney’s closest in age to Bartholomew, their relationship never forgets the difference of experiences–something the film brings in beautifully in the third act. Bartholomew and Tracy are wonderful together. Fleming knows it too; he’ll fill the frame with their faces, with the lovely Harold Rosson photography, and the film becomes very heavy and very quiet in this deep, soulful way.

Tracy’s got a strong part and his performance is incredibly measured. He never goes too far with it, never pushes at it. There’s a give and take with the other actors–principally Bartholomew, but also Carradine; Tracy never seems reserved or guarded or even indulgent to his costars. He just keeps the right temperment throughout, which isn’t easy given a lack of both melodrama and action for much of the second act. The film’s tension comes from Tracy’s muted exasperation. It’s awesome. And his curled hair looks great.

The third act has some high points and some lower ones. Captains doesn’t run out of ideas, it runs out of patience for sturdily linking them together. It’s like Fleming knows he can get away with it, thanks to the actors, thanks to Waxman, thanks to Rosson. The script sets up opportunities and the film ignores them, rushing to the end.

Fleming’s right–he can get away with it–especially since the third act gives Barrymore his best moments in the film. As sort of implied, Barrymore’s been sage all along. Only he hasn’t had the motivation, time, or space to reveal it. Barrymore’s always good, but in the third act, he’s phenomenal. It’s a shame the rest of the third act isn’t as successful.

Nice or great performances throughout, strong script, great pace from director Fleming, Captains Courageous almost sails through. It gets bogged down at the finish. It could’ve been better, but it’s still quite good.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Victor Fleming; screenplay by John Lee Mahin, Marc Connelly, and Dale Van Every, based on the novel by Rudyard Kipling; director of photography, Harold Rosson; edited by Elmo Veron; music by Franz Waxman; produced by Louis D. Lighton; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Freddie Bartholomew (Harvey), Spencer Tracy (Manuel), Lionel Barrymore (Disko), Mickey Rooney (Dan), Melvyn Douglas (Mr. Cheyne), Charley Grapewin (Uncle Salters), John Carradine (Long Jack), Sam McDaniel (Doc), and Oscar O’Shea (Cushman).


It’s a Wonderful Life (1946, Frank Capra)

It’s a Wonderful Life is going to be a tough one. When I was a kid, during the public domain days, Wonderful Life was omnipresent. It became a joke because of that omnipresence. But also because it’s undeniably sappy. And it has angels in it. It’s so saccharine, I didn’t even notice my eyes tear up for the finish. It’s so devastating, I also didn’t notice when they teared up at Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed on the phone. Because It’s a Wonderful Life has all these things going on and some of them don’t actually interact with the other, which might be director Capra’s greatest achievement with the film. It’s well-intentioned, feel-good, historically relevant character study as epic. It’s a Wonderful Life is an epic. It’s a short one–the film speeds by in its 130 minutes–but it’s an epic.

The film has four credited screenwriters–including Capra–and a legion of uncredited helpers. The film has the rather expedient structure of heavenly intervention. Let’s face it–God magic is the best magic–and Wonderful Life is aware of the promise it’s making with God magic. A Greek chorus would probably be less awkward, especially since there’s angel bickering. Mind you, angel bickering shows up before Jimmy Stewart. Jimmy Stewart doesn’t appear until twelves minutes into the picture. And it’s all about him. Jimmy Stewart doesn’t start his character–Robert J. Anderson starts the character and it’s great. The opening scenes of It’s a Wonderful Life are phenomenal. Capra goes all out with it.

Because most of It’s a Wonderful Life concentrates on Stewart and Reed, which is great because they’re amazing together and if it weren’t for the the last third of the film, Reed would easily give the best performance. The way she watches Stewart is exceptional. It’s a Wonderful Life has some strange cuts–apparently Capra even processed zoomed for emphasis–but the sound design always carries it. The film’s setting is about its sound, about its residents’ voices. Capra brings characters back in at just the right moment, in just the right scene, so the nightmare sequence at the end even scarier. Anyway, the sound and Reed. Capra will go for these different takes, jarring the viewer and forcing a reconsideration of the character. With Reed, it’s a little different. Capra’s direction of Reed during the courtship is about making her the film’s center.

Once Stewart and Reed get married, there’s a handoff to Stewart. Reed literally disappears. Capra figures out a way to show she’s still essential, but she doesn’t have to be omnipresent. There’s a lot of frantic qualities to It’s a Wonderful Life. It’s like the screwball comedy came home from the war.

So around halfway in, the film enters a different relationship with its protagonist. After Stewart being crushed again and again in the first half, the film has to show him get some reward. It’s a Wonderful Life is a mix of pragmatism, hopefulness, and cynicism. Stewart has to live up to the promise of the character before he showed up on screen.

Stewart has to make the viewer dislike him. The scene where he terrorizes the family is so freaky. The architecture designs, given room with the family’s things, are tragic. It answers a question It’s a Wonderful Life told the audience to ignore–sure, Reed’s actually perfect, but would Stewart have made it if he’d gotten away from home? Yeah. But he’s not even angry right, because when he’s angry, he’s supposed to be telling Reed he doesn’t need her and everyone knows he’s lying and is supposed to know he’s lying. He’s betraying the viewer’s expectation–and Capra knows how to do it too. The film’s a wonderful mix of sensibilities. Capra changes the pace, the tone. He introduces memorable characters in the second half. He doesn’t care. It’s awesome.

The nightmare part–does it even have an agreed upon term (it better not be some alternate timeline thing)–is this great twist. We’d been promised God magic and what did we get. Henry Travers, who looks as adorable as he sounds. Travers gets very little screen time and a phenomenal introduction. Capra still has these amazing scene constructions for the finale. And I think It’s a Wonderful Life, in terms of acts, fits Dan O’Bannon’s second act to third act transition mark better than anything else. The bridge. It’s Capra trying some things he’d tried before without success and scoring, time and again.

Very off track, which is the thing about It’s a Wonderful Life–there’s too much. There’s so much to process, so much to appreciate, so much to consider. It’s impossible for me to watch it without thinking about it in terms of anticipation and recollection. I don’t even think I watched it in order when I first saw it. Or it had been cut down to fit a two-hour block and was missing a bunch. I’ve been thinking about how the film works since I was a kid. It’s brilliant. Capra does it. He goes for it, he does it.

Great supporting performances from Lionel Barrymore, Thomas Mitchell, especially Gloria Grahame. Frank Faylen and Ward Bond are awesome. H.B. Warner, Samuel S. Hinds. Everyone else but especially those people.

Technically outstanding, especially William Hornbeck’s editing and Clem Portman and Richard Van Hessen’s sound. They make Capra’s forceful moves work.

Dimitri Tiomkin ’s score actually doesn’t help with those forceful moves, but enables them further. Only then that great scene construction brings it through. It’s a Wonderful Life is like shifting plates in perfect rhythm.

And now I’m never going to write about it again because it’s all I’d want to do.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Frank Capra; screenplay by Jo Swerling, Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, and Capra, based on a story by Philip Van Doren Stern; directors of photography, Joseph F. Biroc and Joseph Walker; edited by William Hornbeck; music by Dimitri Tiomkin; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring James Stewart (George Bailey), Donna Reed (Mary Hatch), Lionel Barrymore (Mr. Potter), Thomas Mitchell (Uncle Billy), Henry Travers (Clarence), Beulah Bondi (Mrs. Bailey), Frank Faylen (Ernie), Ward Bond (Bert), Gloria Grahame (Violet), H.B. Warner (Mr. Gower), Todd Karns (Harry Bailey), Samuel S. Hinds (Pa Bailey), and Robert J. Anderson (Little George).


A Free Soul (1931, Clarence Brown)

The first hour of A Free Soul is this extremely engaging, if occasionally melodramatic, story about Norma Shearer and Lionel Barrymore. They’re rebellious blue bloods–Barrymore’s Shearer’s father and he’s raised her to be an independent woman. He’s a defense attorney and a drunk. She’s his ambassador to their disapproving relations. She takes up with mobster Clark Gable, throwing aside her more appropriate suitor, polo champion Leslie Howard.

Shearer and Gable have great chemistry from their first scene. She and Howard come off like brother and sister. It’s not miscasting as much as John Meehan and Becky Gardiner’s script doesn’t do any work establishing them. All the work goes into Shearer and Gable for the romance.

Shearer and Barrymore are fantastic together too. So when Barrymore disappears for about twenty minutes, only to return in a wonderful delivery of high melodrama at the very end, Soul suffers for it. Shearer stops being the film’s protagonist and becomes its subject. While the film never actually condemns her, it flirts with the idea as an excuse. It’s lazy writing from Meehan and Gardiner, who are wrapping things up quickly.

Director Brown doesn’t do much to help in the last third either. He’s got some great work earlier in the film, but he encourages the histrionics by the end. He and editor Hugh Wynn treat Shearer differently after she breaks off with Gable to support the drunken Barrymore. They rely on her for exaggerated reaction shots, which walls Shearer off.

Barrymore’s great. Shearer’s good; good enough to weather the bad editing. And Gable’s really good. Howard’s okay. James Gleason’s good, but has nothing to do as Barrymore’s sidekick except be James Gleason. Lucy Beaumont, as Barrymore’s mother and Shearer’s grandmother, is ineffectual, which is a problem.

Most of A Free Soul avoids melodramatic tropes, only to lazily implement them for its resolution. Still, the cast makes the most of it.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Clarence Brown; screenplay by John Meehan and Becky Gardiner, based on the novel by Adela Rogers St. Johns; director of photography, William H. Daniels; edited by Hugh Wynn; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Norma Shearer (Jan Ashe), Lionel Barrymore (Stephen Ashe), Clark Gable (Ace Wilfong), Leslie Howard (Dwight Winthrop), James Gleason (Eddie) and Lucy Beaumont (Grandma Ashe).


Key Largo (1948, John Huston)

Key Largo is a grand affair. Humphrey Bogart versus Edward G. Robinson with Lauren Bacall and Claire Trevor in the wings. Not to mention Lionel Barrymore. The film plays beautifully. Director Huston and co-screenwriter Richard Brooks give Bogart and Bacall some lovely, ever so gentle; Bogart’s a vet, Bacall’s the widow of one of his friends from the service. Huston–with some absolutely gorgeous photography from Karl Freund–shoots their scenes together carefully. Bacall’s always primed, but her enthusiasm is reserved (which ends up being one of the film’s problems).

Robinson’s a gangster hiding out in Barrymore and Bacall’s hotel (Barrymore’s her father-in-law). Trevor’s his moll and he’s got a whole gang of lackeys. Best of the lackeys are Thomas Gomez and Harry Lewis. Gomez gets a bunch of dialogue in the first act, when Robinson’s hiding off-screen, and Lewis is sort of comic relief. He’s still dangerous–more than the other goons–but there’s an aloofness to him.

Bogart’s good, Robinson’s great, Trevor’s amazing, Barrymore’s good, Bacall’s good. Barrymore just gets a Lionel Barrymore role. He’s a wise sage and gets some great scenes where he’s yelling at Robinson, who has to take it because Barrymore’s in a wheelchair. Bacall doesn’t get a lot to do and, oddly enough, neither does Bogart.

Huston and Brooks give Bogart a somewhat unexpected redemptive hero arc, which is already uphill because Bogart’s persona for the character doesn’t match it and–more importantly–they never definitively establish. It’s all based on one tense scene (Key Largo is full of them) and Huston isn’t able to sell the sequence. He gets distracted by his actors and their performances and he concentrates on accentuating those performances, not keeping the movie in check.

Once Robinson shows up and the aforementioned tense scene with the unsold Bogart sequence plays out, Robinson becomes the lead of the picture. Bogart, who opens the film, becomes background. Top-billed Bogart’s subplot doesn’t even take precedence over fifth-billed Trevor’s. Why? Because Trevor’s got an amazing performance to give and Huston enables it at the expense of a more cohesive whole, which is both good and bad. Key Largo could’ve been better, but Trevor couldn’t have been. Like I said, she’s amazing.

And, without malice, she takes the film away from Bacall in the female lead department. Trevor’s so strong, once she and Robinson have their scenes, it feels like Bogart and Bacall are only around to have brought the story to Trevor and Robinson. It’s all an elaborate frame. But it isn’t, of course, because Huston and Brooks don’t try too hard with the script. Key Largo is a thriller, not just because it’s moody and full of intrigue, but because Huston’s going for thrills. He’s exciting the viewer.

He just happens to have some great actors performing these thrill-inducing scenes.

Bacall gets short-changed the most. She has the least character–when, inarguably, she should have the most (she is falling for her dead husband’s commanding officer while she runs her father-in-law’s business). Bogart doesn’t get much either but he does get the expertly done action finale. Great editing from Rudi Fehr.

Key Largo is expertly made, beautifully acted. It’s great entertainment.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by John Huston; screenplay by Richard Brooks and Huston, based on the play by Maxwell Anderson; director of photography, Karl Freund; edited by Rudi Fehr; music by Max Steiner; produced by Jerry Wald; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Humphrey Bogart (Frank McCloud), Edward G. Robinson (Rocco), Lauren Bacall (Nora), Lionel Barrymore (James Temple), Claire Trevor (Gaye Dawn), Thomas Gomez (Curly), Harry Lewis (Toots), Dan Seymour (Angel), William Haade (Feeney), Monte Blue (Sheriff Ben Wade), John Rodney (Deputy Clyde Sawyer) and Marc Lawrence (Ziggy).


Grand Hotel (1932, Edmund Goulding)

Grand Hotel opens with an expository sequence–director Goulding cuts between each of the film’s major players as they talk in the hotel’s telephone booths. It’s a brief, fantastic sequence, thanks to Goulding’s direction and William H. Daniels’s photography, but most importantly, Blanche Sewell’s editing. The editing of this sequence brings the viewer into the hotel, which never gets an establishing shot.

Goulding follows up that exposition with a scene in the lobby to get the present action started. There are two basic plot lines in Hotel, Greta Garbo as an unhappy ballet star and Wallace Beery as a industrial magnet down on his luck. Beery brings in a secretary (Joan Crawford) who meets a nice gentleman (John Barrymore) who is actually a hotel thief targeting Garbo. John Barrymore befriends Lionel Barrymore–their relationship in the film is consistently wonderful, anything with Lionel Barrymore (particularly he and Crawford), but the brothers Barrymore show off their talent quite a bit in their scenes together.

There’s romance, there’s tragedy, there’s humor. Lionel Barrymore and Crawford are the viewer’s way into the film–the problems of Garbo are entirely otherworldly while Beery’s such a creep no one would want to identify with him–and it turns out John Barrymore isn’t so foreign either.

Great acting, a fast script and simply wonderful filmmaking from Goulding, Daniels and Sewell. There’s a freshness and imagination not just to Goulding’s composition, but how he moves the camera around the actors.

Grand Hotel is a masterful, magnificent film.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Edmund Goulding; screenplay by William Absalom Drake, based on a novel by Vicki Baum; director of photography, William H. Daniels; edited by Blanche Sewell; music by Charles Maxwell; produced by Irving Thalberg; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Greta Garbo (Grusinskaya), John Barrymore (The Baron), Joan Crawford (Flaemmchen), Wallace Beery (General Director Preysing), Lionel Barrymore (Otto Kringelein), Jean Hersholt (the porter) and Lewis Stone (Doctor Otternschlag).


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Mark of the Vampire (1935, Tod Browning)

MGM cut at least twenty-five percent out of Mark of the Vampire, which accounts for some of the plotting problems but still leaves the film a little messy. Ben Lewis’s editing is weak during dialogue exchanges, not just in general. And no amount of studio interference could have changed Browning’s reliance on weak special effects.

There is, however, one special effect sequence of startling mastery. Unfortunately it only lasts six seconds.

Vampire is a mix of Universal horror and MGM character drama. Elizabeth Allan and Henry Wadsworth are the engaged couple, Donald Meek is the comic relief, Lionel Barrymore is the wise old man. It feels very comfortable, but it’s so plot-heavy (it’s impossible to know if Browning intended it to be so) one can’t really enjoy the cast enough. Though Allan’s weak and Wadsworth looks lost in a horror film.

Vampire tries for reality–it has a definite setting, a small town near Prague in 1935–and is partially successful.

Jean Hersholt is fantastic as Allan’s guardian. The film contracts a lot in scope–the studio edits move the halfway point up twenty minutes. But Hersholt keeps it grounded for that first half, before he can pass it over to Barrymore.

Browning too occasionally has a great shot or two (ably assisted by James Wong Howe’s photography) but not enough overall. He usually stumbles during the dramatic scenes.

Vampire should be better. Maybe, before the studio got ahold of it, it was more successful. And maybe not.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Tod Browning; screenplay by Guy Endore and Bernard Schubert, based on a story by Browning; director of photography, James Wong Howe; edited by Ben Lewis; produced by Browning and E.J. Mannix; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Lionel Barrymore (Professor Zelen), Elizabeth Allan (Irena Borotyn), Bela Lugosi (Count Mora), Lionel Atwill (Inspector Neumann), Jean Hersholt (Baron Otto Montay), Henry Wadsworth (Count Fedor Vincenty), Carroll Borland (Luna Mora), Donald Meek (Dr. Doskil), Ivan F. Simpson (Jan), Leila Bennett (Maria) and Holmes Herbert (Sir Karell Borotyn).


Dr. Kildare’s Strange Case (1940, Harold S. Bucquet)

I wonder, did Lew Ayres ever feel like Jimmy Kildare was a heel? I mean, he’s an unbelievably nice guy–he won’t propose to nurse Mary Lamont (Laraine Day sleepwalks through almost all of Dr. Kildare’s Strange Case, since there’s only one scene where she needs to do anything) because he doesn’t want to make her wait until his internship is over. If it means he loses her to wealthy neurosurgeon Shepperd Strudwick, well, so be it. In fact, he’s such a nice guy… he’s going to risk his career (and prison time) to make sure Strudwick doesn’t get a raw deal–and, presumably, can then marry Day.

Ayres is okay–he certainly doesn’t play the role with any self-awareness–he’s believable as the impossibly well-meaning Kildare. Maybe it isn’t those good intentions, maybe it’s a lack of consideration for himself. It’s selflessness as a certifiable condition. Every single one of these movies, Ayres ends up doing something illegal and he never worries about it. Usually his mom tells him it’s the right thing to do. In Strange Case–the urge to say “in the case of Strange Case” was unbearable–he’s got to force insulin shock treatment (for schizophrenia, they just call it insanity in the script) on a patient in order to save Strudwick. The obvious, putting the John Doe patient’s picture in the newspaper, doesn’t occur to Ayres or any of the hospital staff (they don’t even call the cops). I read up on insulin shock therapy, just because the film’s treatment of it is so goofy. The insulin causes patient John Eldredge’s brain to devolve to a primeval state, then the mind repairs itself. There are a couple of explanations of this phenomenon, first from Samuel S. Hinds (as Ayres’s father… who visits just in time for every movie) then from Ayres. It sounds absurd both times and I had to look it up. Couldn’t find anything about the primeval state… but it’s interesting a film from 1940 doesn’t question evolution. Of course, 1940 is before the G.I. Bill dumbed down American high schools.

Anyway, Strange Case is fine. There’s not much plot to it–Eldredge doesn’t even show up until the halfway point–and it just allows for the cast, now on their fourth picture in the series, to go crazy. Every performance in the film, from the supporting cast members who got saddled with perfunctory scenes before, is great. Walter Kingsford, Frank Orth, Alma Kruger and Horace McMahon (well, I’m not sure he was in any of the other ones, but it’s implied here) all have these fantastic scenes, just because there’s not enough story so they get more material and they’re wonderful. Emma Dunn and Nat Pendleton, who usually do get material, get even better material here. Dunn’s got her best scene in the four films in Strange Case.

And, of course, Lionel Barrymore is outstanding. He and Ayres have a good banter here, even if the movie–as usual–has him firing Ayres for a few minutes.

Bucquet’s direction is phoned in. He’s fine in his composition except for close-ups. It’s like he wasn’t going to do any, then came back and shot them. The close-ups don’t match. It must have driven editor Gene Ruggiero nuts trying to put the picture together.

Dr. Kildare’s Strange Case is a perfectly inoffensive (narratively, anyway) seventy minutes. It would have been a fine to sit through at an air conditioned movie house on a hot summer day… except it opened in April.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Harold S. Bucquet; screenplay by Harry Ruskin and Willis Goldbeck, story by Max Brand and Goldbeck; director of photography, John F. Seitz; edited by Gene Ruggiero; music by David Snell; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Lew Ayres (Dr. Jimmy Kildare), Lionel Barrymore (Dr. Leonard Gillespie), Laraine Day (Nurse Mary Lamont), Shepperd Strudwick (Dr. Greg Lane), Samuel S. Hinds (Dr. Stephen Kildare), Emma Dunn (Mrs. Martha Kildare), Nat Pendleton (Joe Wayman), Walter Kingsford (Dr. Walter Carew), Alma Kruger (Molly Byrd), John Eldredge (Henry Adams), Nell Craig (Nurse Parker) and Marie Blake (Sally).


The Secret of Dr. Kildare (1939, Harold S. Bucquet)

Watching The Secret of Dr. Kildare is about two things–seeing Lionel Barrymore’s fantastic performance (even as he’s spouting expositional dialogue, it’s riveting) and finding out the deep dark secret of patient Helen Gilbert. It’s the third film in the series and the staples are already in place–Lew Ayres, under some false pretense, stops working for Barrymore. Ayres’s parents, Samuel S. Hinds and Emma Dunn, show up for some contrived reason. Laraine Day is heartbroken Ayres doesn’t know she loves him. Nat Pendleton flirts with Marie Blake before having one fantastic scene involving a fist fight. The script’s just loose melodramatic threads to get these set pieces into place, held together by the cast’s likability, Barrymore’s talent and the mystery to be solved.

What’s most distressing about the film is its length. It only runs eighty-four minutes but halfway through, it’s already at a near standstill. It’s excruciating at times because the titular Secret is one the audience knows and the film’s present action is a couple weeks. There’s no tension to it–it’s just a matter of how everything will be fixed by the end, not if. The script doesn’t take any chances, it’s all paint by numbers. The mediocrity makes every decent moment in the film seem fantastic, whether it’s Ayres picking up Day for a date or Barrymore fishing with assistant George Reed. The occasionally inventive developments–like Grant Mitchell’s crack “doctor” and Sara Haden’s wacko–get Secret‘s heart rate up, waking the viewer.

While the script gives Barrymore a complex, textured character, Ayres’s Dr. Kildare–especially considering the film’s title bares his name–gets a lukewarm treatment. Ayres gives a fine performance–though Bucquet and editor Frank E. Hull hold reaction shots too long–but there’s no enthusasim… not just from Ayres, but from the film itself. He’s the least interesting character in the film, when he’s not around Barrymore, Dunn or Pendleton, it’s hard to believe Ayres could stay awake to deliver his lines. The scene with his fellow interns offers three other characters who give the impression of being far more interesting. Ayres’s romance with Day is boring–she’s far more lively in her scenes with Barrymore. When it’s just Ayres and Gilbert, only the change in setting, from the hospital to a skyscraper observatory for instance, keep the film moving. If it weren’t for Haden’s loon, the second half (when Barrymore and Ayres are bickering) would be static.

Bucquet, besides that annoying editing laziness I mentioned before, does a decent job. He keeps the scenes with Barrymore, those long expository scenes, interesting. But he doesn’t do anything to overcome the script’s shortcomings.

Besides Barrymore, there’s some fine acting from Pendleton (who has almost nothing to do, but approaches it with relish) and Lionel Atwill. Atwill’s a fine character actor, it’s a shame he’s mostly known for his work in horror films. Gilbert’s okay… as the film progresses, she gets more histrionic. Day has nothing to do.

It’s hard to get involved with the film or invested in it, because there’s little sign the filmmakers had any interest either.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Harold S. Bucquet; screenplay by Willis Goldbeck and Harry Ruskin, based on a story by Max Brand; director of photography, Alfred Gilks; edited by Frank E. Hull; music by David Snell; produced by Lou L. Ostrow; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Lew Ayres (Dr. Jimmy Kildare), Lionel Barrymore (Dr. Leonard Gillespie), Lionel Atwill (Paul Messenger), Helen Gilbert (Nancy Messenger), Nat Pendleton (Joe Wayman), Laraine Day (Nurse Mary Lamont), Sara Haden (Nora), Samuel S. Hinds (Dr. Stephen Kildare), Emma Dunn (Mrs. Martha Kildare), Walter Kingsford (Dr. S.J. Carew), Grant Mitchell (John Xerxes Archley), Alma Kruger (Head Nurse Molly Byrd), Robert Kent (Charles Herron), Marie Blake (Sally), Martha O’Driscoll (Mrs. Roberts) and Nell Craig (Nurse Parker).


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