RKO Radio Pictures

Having Wonderful Crime (1945, A. Edward Sutherland)

Having Wonderful Crime is a perplexing comedy-mystery. The mystery itself is perplexing because it’s so exceptionally convoluted; three screenwriters and four or five red herrings and the picture only runs seventy minutes. The comedy is perplexing because Crime hinges its comedic potential on lead Pat O’Brien. O’Brien is a skirt-chasing Chicago lawyer who lets rich pal George Murphy talk him into solving crimes. Murphy seems to want to do it because he can’t say no to his girlfriend, Carole Landis. Landis wants to do it because… she’s the idle rich?

There’s a brief setup–including a voiceover introducing O’Brien (whose character appeared in more than just Crime from source author Craig Rice–but O’Brien never repeated the role)–which doesn’t just reveal (after there’s been a shootout) Murphy and Landis are now married (without telling best pal O’Brien) but also a bunch of the players in the next mystery. While on the run from the cops (because O’Brien will be in trouble if they’re found at the crime scene), O’Brien, Murphy, and Landis duck into a magic show. There, Crime introduces Lenore Aubert and Richard Martin as starcrossed lovers working for big jerk magician George Zucco.

After the magic show, which ends with Zucco really disappearing, Murphy and Landis break the married news to O’Brien and head off to their honeymoon. Of course, they end up taking O’Brien along, which is good because when they run into Aubert on the road to the resort–almost literally–they’re able to double register and get adjoining honeymoon suites. Of course, while his new fake bride is up in the room unconscious, O’Brien’s down at the bar trying to make time with Gloria Holden, who gets a thankless part as a professional swimmer.

The initial mystery–before there’s a murder–involves a giant chest, which may have a body in it. Once there’s a murder, the chest is still important, but then O’Brien and pals find out Zucco had played the resort the night before and there were strange goings ons at the resort too. Some involving rich spinsters Blanche Ring and Josephine Whittell, as well as resort manager Charles D. Brown and giant scary porter guy William ‘Wee Willie’ Davis. So many suspects, so much opportunity, so little motive but so many exteriors on the resorts grounds shot day-for-night.

Most of Crime is just O’Brien, Murphy, and Landis walking around outside trying to stumble onto a scene to kill a few minutes.

The film’s humor is utterly perplexing. While Murphy and Landis both occasionally exhibit comedic timing, it’s never when they’re together. There are some nods at slapstick, but usually at its aftermath, like no one thinks they could pull off the gag on screen. O’Brien’s got zero comic timing, so most of Crime’s scenes throwing him into comedic situations–often involving the skirt-chasing–fizzle. They don’t exactly flop, because it’s not like anyone’s trying too hard. Director Sutherland sure isn’t and the screenwriters don’t put any energy into building the gags. Crime gently amuses and never tries for anything else.

And it’s fine, since the film doesn’t have the time or cast to go for more. Landis is the only one of the three leads who’s consistently engaging; even when she gets pointless material, which is most of the time (Crime seems to know she’s easily the most charismatic cast member, yet the script gives her a constantly changing character because… I don’t know, idle rich?). Murphy always seems like he’s waiting for broader comedy. O’Brien always seems like he’s waiting for some actual direction. O’Brien’s scenes might actually play better with a laugh track, just because it’d provide some context for what Sutherland and the screenwriters are going for. Without it he just seems like a big jerk and a lech.

Aubert’s a weak ingenue. Martin’s light as her Romeo. Zucco’s underutilized. Ditto poor Holden. Ring and Whittell are great as the rich old spinsters. It’s a shame they aren’t in it more (Whittell isn’t even credited).

The film’s technically competent. Frank Redman’s day-for-night photography doesn’t transcend and it’s quizzical why they’d set so much of the movie outside when they clearly can’t shoot for it, but it’s not bad. Gene Milford’s editing keeps the pace.

Crime is more diverting than engaging or entertaining. Its creative choices make zero sense–who at RKO really thought people would rather sit through a Pat O’Brien vehicle than a Carole Landis one?

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by A. Edward Sutherland; screenplay by Howard J. Green, Parke Levy, and Stewart Sterling, based on a story by Craig Rice; director of photography, Frank Redman; edited by Gene Milford; music by Leigh Harline; produced by Robert Fellows; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring Pat O’Brien (Michael J. Malone), George Murphy (Jake Justus), Carole Landis (Helene Justus), Lenore Aubert (Gilda Mayfair), Richard Martin (Lance Richards), Charles D. Brown (Mr. Winslow), Gloria Holden (Phyllis Gray), Blanche Ring (Elizabeth Lenhart), William ‘Wee Willie’ Davis (Zacharias, the Porter), and George Zucco (The Great Movel).


Experiment Perilous (1944, Jacques Tourneur)

Experiment Perilous is a strange film. Not the plot–well, some of how the plot is handled–but the strangeness comes from the result of how the film is executed. It’s a Gothic family drama set in twentieth century New York City without a lot of the family. There’s a flashback sequence, but Perilous is rather modestly budgeted so the flashbacks are pragmatically executed, not abundantly. The family at the center of Perilous is background to the adventure of amiable city doctor George Brent. With a couple of late exceptions, the scenes are always from his perspective.

And, from his perspective (and some of director Tourneur’s perspective), Brent is in a thriller. Rich guy Paul Lukas is mentally torturing his much younger wife Hedy Lamarr. Lamarr is top-billed, but the film puts off bringing her in, treating her as a prize, which is only appropriate because she’s shockingly objectified in every one of her scenes. That objectification is also part of the plot. Screenwriter and producer Warren Duff seems to miss the connection, partially because his script denies Lamarr characterization whenever possible–something Tourneur doesn’t encourage but does utilize to further the thriller vibe at times. Again, Experiment Perilous is a strange film. The way everything comes together but never synthesizes. Despite a thoroughly competent execution, the film just doesn’t have the scale to succeed. Separate from Lamarr’s problematic part is the budget. The film aims for Gothic melodrama and concludes as one, much to the determent of its cast.

So the film opens with Brent meeting scared old lady Olive Blakeney on the train back to New York. There’s a terrible storm, there might be danger. Brent comforts her. It’s good stuff and Brent and Blakeney are both extremely likable. They soon work up a nice rapport, even if the parts are a little thin. She’s sister to Lukas, on her way home for the first time in five years. Brent hears a little about the family, doesn’t think much of it, but takes note of it. Brent’s observant. Unless he’s throwing over de facto fiancée Stephanie Bachelor for Lamarr.

After they get to New York, they go their separate ways. Blakeney off to see Lukas and Lamarr (who haven’t appeared on screen yet), Brent to hang out with Bachelor and drunken sculptor pal Albert Dekker. Experiment Perilous is a Gothic melodrama where the hero’s circle of friends consists of independently wealthy dilletante artists. In 1903 New York. It’s weird. Though there’s some decent foreshadowing from a Medusa sculpture, even if Duff didn’t get it or wanted to avoid it.

Dekker knows Lucas–really, really, really well as it turns out, so well it’s unbelievable Brent could have avoided getting stuck meeting him–and also crushes on Lamarr. All men crush on Lamarr. Young men like independently wealthy poet and magazine writer George N. Neise, old men like Lukas. Men in the middle like Dekker and, eventually, Brent. About twenty percent of Lamarr’s performance consists of listening to men praise her appearance.

Then another five percent for her internal wonderfulness.

It’s not much of a part for Lamarr, except when it’s in the flashback and she gets to enjoy life and not think she’s being tormented by Lukas. See, Lukas is very passive aggressive in his torturing of his wife. He brings in Brent to observe the effects of his abuse on Lamarr. Brent’s supposed to then convince Lamarr she’s unstable. There’s a lot to it. And Experiment Perilous doesn’t get into much of it, because immediately after Brent meets Lamarr a second time, his whole arc is about being in love with her. Only Brent doesn’t play the mad love arc with any more intensity than he played the inquisitive doctor arc, so it doesn’t come off. It also couldn’t come off because of budget and run time and script. But it’s like Brent knows it’s not worth it and doesn’t make the effort.

Because Lamarr’s not really in mad love with Brent. Or Lukas. Or anyone. Because Lukas groomed Lamarr–in the flashback–presumably when she was in her late teens. Even if it’s Lamarr and Lukas playing the characters in the flashback, with no attempt at making them appear younger (again, sometimes just a strange movie because of how things come together). Lukas only sort of weirds Lamarr out–he did keep his hands off for the two years he paid a fortune to turn her into a Parisian society woman in after all–and things are good until they get back to New York. Presumably, there’s a big skip ahead in the flashback.

And then we discover Lukas likes showing off Lamarr and then getting pissed at her for the male attention he invited. Some guys get more serious than most. Though when Lukas lashes out at any of them–we learn in later dialogue–it’s the only time Lamarr finds him desirable.

Lot of depth. But in a throwaway line like Duff didn’t realize what was in it.

Now what’s going to happen with Brent snooping into the family’s secrets, not to mention falling for Lamarr….

There are some surprises, there’s a good fight scene (way too short, but good), there’s not much for the actors. But it’s an engaging film throughout. The parts are thin. Lukas probably makes the most of it, albeit with multiple qualifications. Brent’s a great lead. Lamarr does really well sometimes, kind of flat other times. Tourneur doesn’t do much directing on the actors and Duff’s script doesn’t do much characterizing so it’s a really rough part for Lamarr. She gets her good moments when the movie forgets it’s supposed to be reducing her to a prize.

Blakeney’s awesome. Dekker improves somewhat throughout. Bachelor’s fun.

Decent score from Roy Webb. Decent cinematography from Tony Gaudio. It’s not noir, it’s not a thriller, it’s a Gothic melodrama period piece so the lighting doesn’t add much mood. Similarly, Tourneur doesn’t have any grand thriller sequences. He’s got some effective thriller transition stuff occasionally and his direction is fine. Ralph Dawson’s editing leaves a lot to be desired, however. But it’s not all him. Tourneur’s not comfortable with his actors acting very much in close-up.

Perilous is a strange picture. Not neccesarily successful but far from a failure. It’s always engaging and its cast does put in the work, just within some rather harsh constraints.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Jacques Tourneur; screenplay by Warren Duff, based on the novel by Margaret Carpenter; director of photography, Tony Gaudio; edited by Ralph Dawson; music by Roy Webb; produced by Duff; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring George Brent (Dr. Huntington Bailey), Hedy Lamarr (Allida Bederaux), Paul Lukas (Nick Bederaux), Albert Dekker (Clag), Stephanie Bachelor (Elaine), Carl Esmond (Maitland), and Olive Blakeney (Cissie).


Vivacious Lady (1938, George Stevens)

Vivacious Lady strengths easily outweigh its weaknesses, but those weaknesses have a way of compounding on each other as the film moves to its conclusion. The most obvious–and usually forgiveable–problem is how the film can’t decide what to do with Ginger Rogers, the Vivacious Lady. Not the film, sorry, the script. Director Stevens, photographer Robert De Grasse, costume designer Irene, Rogers’s costars, they can all work with Rogers to great success. The script just can’t figure out how to make her “vivacious” and sweet simultaneously. Unless it’s opposite leading man James Stewart, because the film is able to sail over any troubled scenes on their chemistry alone. It’s how the rest of the world treats Rogers where there are problems. Read: how the script has the rest of the world treat her.

And it’s not Code consideration because Vivacious Lady establishes very clearly early on Rogers and Stewart are anxious get a bed of their own. It’s the film’s most vibrant theme, no less.

The film starts with New England college professor–associate professor–Stewart in New York City trying to collect his ne’er-do-well, womanizing cousin, James Ellison. Ellison has fallen in love with nightclub performer Rogers, though she hasn’t fallen for him. One look into her eyes and Stewart falls for her too. Turns out the feelings mutual and after spending the night out on the town, they elope and head back to Stewart’s home town.

Only he hasn’t told his overbearing father (and boss) Charles Coburn about it. College president Coburn’s got big plans for Stewart, so long as he stays in line, which means marrying harpy blueblood Frances Mercer. When they arrive in town, Ellison–very affable for a jilted suitor–entertains Rogers while Stewart tries to figure out how to tell dad Coburn and mom Beulah Bondi about the marriage. And to break off his existing engagement to Mercer (who he forgot to tell Rogers about).

Vivacious Lady runs ninety minutes. It takes about twenty minutes to get Rogers, Stewart, and Ellison from New York to the town–Old Sharon. The next half hour is gentle screwball comedy of errors with Stewart trying to tell his parents, but Mercer screws it up or Coburn is such a verbally abusive blowhard–aggrevating Bondi into heart problems–it just never happens. It culminates in Rogers and Mercer getting into a fight. Those thirty or so minutes, ending in the fight, all happen in the first day.

I think the movie takes place over three days. Maybe three and a half.

Anyway. The next portion of the film has Rogers pretending to be a college student so she can spend time with Stewart, who’s now not telling Coburn about their marriage because of the fight. Stewart’s always got some reason for not telling Coburn–a couple times it’s Bondi’s heart condition–it’s mostly just contrived fear of Coburn. Only there’s no way for Stewart and Rogers not to moon at one another, beautifully lighted by De Grasse; their scenes are the best in the film, they radiate infectous chemistry.

But everyone else just whistles at Rogers (she’s vivacious after all), which just draws attention to how little character development she’s had around Stewart. She has more character development with Ellison, Mercer, and Bondi throughout the film than with Stewart. Even during their whirlwind courtship, as Stewart–the film points out–never shuts up about himself. That radiant infectous chemistry covers up for a lot of it, but it’s still a major script deficit.

The other major problems in the script are structure and Coburn’s character. P.J. Wolfson and Ernest Pagano’s script frontloads one supporting cast member and shortchanges another, only to flip their positions in the last third. Wouldn’t be a problem if the movie’s conclusion didn’t rely on that character with the increased presence so much. It works out–pretty well–because the cast’s great, the direction’s great, and the script is (scene by scene) excellent. But the narrative structure is disjointed.

And Coburn. Coburn’s an unlovable bastard. He’s such an unlovable bastard you forget he’s Charles Coburn and he’s (probably) secretly going to turn out to be a lovable bastard. But he’s a bad guy, who gets worse–the script doesn’t imagine anything about these characters before the first scene–and no one seems to acknowledge the level of internal disfunction. And it’d definitely have external effects.

Stewart would be so browbeaten he couldn’t order a meal without consulting Coburn, much less be sent to New York to fetch Ellison; Coburn wouldn’t trust him to do it.

So problems. The film has some big problems. And they’re script problems (though Stevens also produced so he’s not off the hook). But Vivacious Lady is still an outstanding romantic comedy. Rogers and Stewart are glorious together. Separate, Rogers is better. She gets good material on her own. Stewart doesn’t. He’s still funny and charming, but the material’s nothing special. Rogers’s material–whether it’s showing down with Mercer or teaching Bondi to dance–is dynamic.

Ellison’s the film’s secret weapon. He’s a little annoying at the start, but once Vivacious Lady is in its second act and Stewart abandons Rogers for mean Coburn and Mercer (and suffering Bondi), it’s Ellison who provides the picture its affability. The script shortchanges him, but it shortchanges everyone at one point or another.

Bondi’s phenomenal. As wondrous as Rogers and Stewart’s chemistry is onscreen, when Bondi and Rogers get a scene together here and there, they’re able to do so much with the material. Their performances compliment each other beautifully.

Mercer’s fine. It’s a lousy part. Ditto Coburn. He’s a caricature of himself playing a caricature of himself.

Some good comedic bit parts–Phyllis Kennedy as the maid, Franklin Pangborn as an apartment manager. Willie Best is good as the Pullman porter, but the part is gross.

Vivacious Lady is a definite success. However, Rogers, Stewart, Bondi, and Ellison deserve to be a resounding one.

It almost recoups all (or most all) with the final gag. Then tries to one up itself and loses that ground. It’s particularly frustrating.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by George Stevens; screenplay by P.J. Wolfson and Ernest Pagano, based on a story I.A.R. Wylie; director of photography, Robert De Grasse; edited by Henry Berman; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring Ginger Rogers (Francey Brent), James Stewart (Peter Morgan Jr.), Charles Coburn (Peter Morgan Sr.), James Ellison (Keith Morgan), Frances Mercer (Helen), Beulah Bondi (Martha Morgan), Phyllis Kennedy (Jenny), Franklin Pangborn (Apartment Manager), Willie Best (Train Porter), and Grady Sutton (Culpepper).


Flying Padre (1951, Stanley Kubrick)

Flying Padre has three types of impressive shots. The first two types involve an airplane. The short is about a New Mexico priest who flies around his 4,000-square mile parish. There are interior and exterior shots of the plane and director Kubrick gets some fantastic shots from inside out. He’s also got some great shots of the plane from the ground, though they’re occasionally a little jerky. Given how smooth the camera movements tend to be in Padre, the jerks have got to be unintentional.

Then there are the close-ups. Kubrick gets these great shots of the priest’s parishioners when he’s performing services. Sometimes there are great shots involving the priest himself, but more often it’s when Kubrick can get a shot of the ostensibly enraptured parishioners.

The shots with the priest tend to involve action, not reflection. Flying Padre is–in its nine minutes–a bit of an adventure story. The priest, Father Stadtmueller, goes from funeral to children’s counselor to erstwhile ambulance driver. I suppose the funeral’s real? Though it seems a little macabre either way. Because the children’s counselor bit–and then the ambulance flier bit–those two are definitely staged. They might be based on real events, but they’re dramatized for Flying Padre.

The short’s got no natural sound. There are occasional diegetic sounds, like the bullied child knocking on the priest’s door or the priest’s birds chirping, but they didn’t record any sound during filming. Or, if they did, they didn’t use it, which is too bad because Father Stadtmueller is frequently talking. There’s constant narration to explain what’s going on.

The narration also establishes the narrative distance, something Kubrick relies on once the staging is obvious. When Father Stadtmueller has to fly a mother and her sick baby to a medical services, there are shots of the mother talking to the Father. While they’re on the plane. And it’s obvious there’s no way they both could’ve fit in the plane with a camera.

Kubrick even pokes fun at the priest at one point, when the narration describes him as a crack shot with a rifle and then Father Stadtmueller misses not just the bullseye but the any of the target’s rings.

There are some excellent shots and some great location shooting to get Padre through.

Flying Padre’s interesting but disposable. Kubrick’s got some ambitious filmmaking but no ambitions for the short itself.

2/3Recommended

CREDITS

Photographed and directed by Stanley Kubrick; edited by Isaac Kleinerman; music by Nathaniel Shilkret; produced by Benjamin Burton; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring Fred Stadtmueller; narrated by Bob Hite.


Chicken in the Rough (1951, Jack Hannah)

Chicken in the Rough is constantly charming. It feels incomplete, but it’s still constantly charming.

Chip ‘n’ Dale are collecting nuts near a farm. On that farm, the rooster is waiting for a hen’s eggs to hatch. Anthropomorphizing roosters and hens is one heck of a thing, incidentally. Just the relationship and the implied expectant mother and father. So Dale, being an idiot, mistakes the soon-to-hatch eggs for walnuts and gets curious. Chip tries to correct him, but fails (and then disappears, another reason the cartoon feels incomplete); basically, it ends up with Dale pretending to be a chick to try to fool the rooster, who’s thrilled he’s a new daddy.

And the hen just assumes Dale is one of her chicks. Even after all the other chicks are born.

It’s a short cartoon, with Dale trying to get away from the rooster–who’s simultaneously wise to the chipmunk not being a chick and yet still hopeful he’s wrong and Dale is his newborn (it’s weird and cute). There’s a great sequence where Dale has to pretend to eat a bug. And Dale trying to convince the actual chick to stick around is excellent too.

Most of the action takes place inside the expecting hen’s hen house (separate from the other hens) and the animation’s good.

It’s too short and doesn’t have anything approaching an ending, but Chicken in the Rough’s many charms–particularly the voice acting (even the hen gets some “lines”)–make up for the cartoon’s foibles.

CREDITS

Directed by Jack Hannah; written by Nick George and Bill Berg; animated by Bob Carlson, Bill Justice, and Judge Whitaker; music by Joseph Dubin; produced by Walt Disney; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring Dessie Flynn (Dale), James MacDonald (Chip), and Florence Gill (hen).


The Gay Falcon (1941, Irving Reis)

The Gay Falcon answers a question I never thought to ask. Can George Sanders flop a part? The answer is yes. There are extenuating circumstances to be sure, but Sanders flops the lead in Falcon. He’s a skirt-chasing, playboy criminologist, which ought to be a natural fit for Sanders. Instead he comes off as a so callous he doesn’t recognize his misogyny nitwit.

Most of the problem, besides director Reis’s inability to get the cast above it, is the script. Lynn Root and Frank Fenton only have to fill sixty-six minutes and they barely come up with enough to cover.

The films starts with Nina Vale visiting fiancé Sanders in his office. He’s given up international adventuring and detectiving and skirt-chasing to be a stock broker. He brings along his faithful sidekick from his detective days, expert locksmith Allen Jenkins, on the stockbroking venture.

Maybe ten minutes later Sanders is charmlessly enamored with Wendy Barrie, who’s trying to hire him to look into jewel thieves. Barrie’s secretary to high society party planner Gladys Cooper and someone’s ripping off her parties. Won’t Sanders help?

Of course he will. It’s off to a party–maybe the only time Falcon has the scale it needs. The budget’s another issue, even if the RKO backlot looks great thanks to Nicholas Musuraca’s gorgeous photography.

Pretty soon Jenkins is in jail for a murder he didn’t commit, Vale is mad at Sanders, Barrie is lovestruck at Sanders, and Sanders is on the case.

The mystery isn’t mysterious and only goes on so long because Sanders and Jenkins don’t appear to be very good at international adventuring and detectiving. Sanders is theoretically better at the skirt-chasing but the film would be less obvious about it if he turned into a cartoon dog and his tongue fell onto the floor whenever a woman walked past.

Except, of course, Lucile Gleason, who isn’t beautiful so Sanders is a boar to her. Gleason and Willie Fung (as Sanders’s jawdroppingly yellowfaced butler) are always played for jokes, which just makes the film look all the more desperate. It’s like it knows it can’t connect with Sanders and Barrie’s banter so it tries Jenkins’s lovable oaf, fails, tries Vale’s jealous, silly female hysterics, fails, tries dumb cops Edward Brophy (who isn’t lovable, which is the film’s greatest crime) and Arthur Shields (who gets worse the longer he’s in the film), fails. Casual sexism and racism… they don’t work either.

So it all rests on Sanders being a skirt-chaser and a genius detective. Except he’s a dimwit detective. And his performance as a skirt-chaser is so exaggerated it’d be better if he’d at least chew some scenery.

There aren’t any good performances in the film. Vale’s better than most. Jenkins and Sanders can’t sell their stupid actions. Once Barrie becomes Sanders’s sidekick, she becomes the butt of the script’s jokes. She wasn’t very good before, but she’s worse then. Cooper’s maybe the best. Brophy should be so much funnier, but the writing is bad and Reis doesn’t direct the actors. At all.

Or, worse, he does and Falcon is the result.

Aside from the Musuraca photography and morbid curiosity, there’s nothing to The Gay Falcon. No sixty-six minute movie should be tedious. Falcon gets tedious from the fourth or fifth scene.

And George Crone’s editing is terrible. Maybe Reis didn’t get coverage, but still, terrible editing.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Irving Reis; screenplay by Lynn Root and Frank Fenton, based on the story by Michael Arlen; director of photography, Nicholas Musuraca; edited by George Crone; music by Paul Sawtell; produced by Howard Benedict; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring George Sanders (Gay Laurence), Wendy Barrie (Helen Reed), Allen Jenkins (Jonathan G. ‘Goldie’ Locke), Nina Vale (Elinor Benford), Arthur Shields (Inspector Mike Waldeck), Turhan Bey (Manuel Retana), Gladys Cooper (Maxine Wood), Edward Brophy (Detective Bates), Eddie Dunn (Detective Grimes), Lucile Gleason (Vera Gardner), and Willie Fung (Jerry).


The Little Foxes (1941, William Wyler)

The most impressive things about The Little Foxes are, in no particular order, Bette Davis’s performance (specifically her micro expressions), Patricia Collinge’s supporting performance, director Wyler’s composition, director Wyler’s staging of the narrative (adapted by Lillian Hellman from her play and set in a constrained area but a living one), Herbert Marshall’s performance, and Gregg Toland’s photography. Actors Teresa Wright and Charles Dingle almost make the top list. They make up the second tier. Then you get into the other great supporting performances and things like Daniel Mandell’s editing or the set decoration and it goes on and on.

Because The Little Foxes is an expertly made film. The script is strong, Wyler’s got Gregg Toland shooting this thing, Wright’s character got hidden range (too hidden), and Davis can do this role. Davis and Wyler didn’t get along but the conflict never comes through because Davis’s character is supposed to be so against the grain. Bickering with the director through your performance is a great way to generate grain to move against.

Even though Wyler does a great job translating a play to the screen, the film skips a little too much. Wyler and Toland have this great foreground and background action thing going so they can get multiple things done at once (occasionally with middle ground action too). But it’s a device to keep Little Foxes lean. The first thirty-six minutes, taking place over a day, sings. Wyler gets done with it and it’s like the film is just starting. He’s introduced the cast, he’s introduced the setting. It’s laying the ground situation in action. It’s awesome.

And for a while it pays off and just keeps getting better. Little Foxes is about the machinations of a nouveau riche Southern family in 1900. Well, not quite riche enough but almost. Davis and brothers Dingle and Carl Benton Reid (in a sturdy but inglorious performance) have a plan, they just need Marshall–as Davis’s convalescing husband–to get on board. Only maybe Marshall thinks the family is awful. Foxes has some peculiar politics, with Marshall and Richard Carlson as progressives (and the only decent white men in the picture).

Collinge’s part in the film, reductively, is to forecast the possibilities for Wright’s future. Collinge does a great job with it and the scenes are beautifully written–her relationship with Wright in the first act is a standout both for acting and cinematic brevity–but she disappears in the third act. She’s got no place in the story, which is kind of a problem because the story was the family and then it just turns into this business deal thing.

It’s too abrupt, but Wyler’s able to make it at least flow a little thanks to Toland and Mandell’s contributions. There’s a throwaway scene in the third act where Carlson gets to slap around porto-bro Dan Duryea. Not to fault Duryea with that description, he’s awesome in the part. Lovably dopey and still somewhat dangerous. So Wyler gives the audience a reward for sticking through the mussed third act.

Even though the grand finale is part of that mussing, Davis and Wright really bring it together and make it work long enough for Wyler and Toland to finish the movie. Dingle and Marshall also go far in making it happen, but it’s Davis and Wright. It’s got to be the mother and daughter showdown, even though the film never exactly promised such a thing. And you get to see Wright develop her character without an inch from Davis. Is it an inch in character or out? Doesn’t matter, makes their scenes beyond tense. Maybe because Davis wasn’t in the second act much. The Little Foxes, with Marshall, Wright, Carlson, Collinge, and Jessica Grayson just sitting around enjoying each other’s company in one scene, becomes almost genial. Wyler doesn’t promise happiness, but he does acknowledge people actually enjoy life.

Davis has to come back with a vengeance to remind the audience there is no happiness, no enjoyment. Because the world’s a bad place. It’s actually a really downbeat ending even though everyone kind of gets a happy ending. Characters win, humanity loses.

Foxes has got some problems–it’s too short as it turns out–but Wyler and company turn in an excellent picture. Confident, beautifully shot, beautifully acted, well-paced. But in that confidence is a lot of safety. Wyler’s most ambitious with his composition, not the film overall.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by William Wyler; screenplay by Arthur Kober, Dorothy Parker, Alan Campbell, and Lillian Hellman, based on the play by Hellman; director of photography, Gregg Toland; edited by Daniel Mandell; music by Meredith Willson; produced by Samuel Goldwyn; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring Bette Davis (Regina Giddens), Teresa Wright (Alexandra Giddens), Herbert Marshall (Horace Giddens), Charles Dingle (Ben Hubbard), Patricia Collinge (Birdie Hubbard), Jessica Grayson (Addie), Carl Benton Reid (Oscar Hubbard), Dan Duryea (Leo Hubbard), Richard Carlson (David Hewitt), John Marriott (Cal), and Russell Hicks (William Marshall).


Vigil in the Night (1940, George Stevens)

Vigil in the Night is supreme melodrama. I mean, in its first ten minutes, the film manages to establish a small English town’s hospital, introduce stoic nurse Carole Lombard and her flighty sister Anne Shirley, throw them into tragedy and crisis, and kick Lombard into an entirely new setting. Vigil in the Night is an interesting melodrama in how Lombard’s not a suffering martyr, she’s a rejoicing one. It’s kind of iffy as far as character development goes, but Lombard plays saint perfectly.

She has a lot of help from director Stevens, who starts the film showing off a combination of miniature and ornate set. The camera just moves too. Robert De Grasse’s photography is effortlessly smooth. The camera moves around that small town hospital so much and so fluidly, it’s impossible to believe the film’s ever going to leave. When it does, it creates a fine jarring effect to accompany Lombard’s new position.

Steven’s style changes a little. He’s much gentler. He and De Grasse concentrate on holding shots, making Henry Berman’s editing do some of the work. Alfred Newman’s music gets more annoying–he has this one theme he uses over and over again and it sounds like a theme from Franz Waxman’s Bride of Frankenstein, which made it disconcerting for me, but also overbearing for the film. Stevens pushes on the melodrama boundaries and nearly breaks through in the second half, but he always relieves the genre pressure–read: retreats into genre–and he relies on Newman’s music to pull things back. Newman’s music blows the potential of some great shots, some great moments in performances.

Because, in melodrama, Stevens and his screenwriters and the film in general can get away with making Lombard the martyr. She doesn’t need to have a character as much as reject having one. She can become holy without too much trouble. Making her an actual character–she has less personality than everyone in the film–in a film about nurses suffering through terrible conditions for their patients, horny rich men after them, mercenary wealthy women exploiting them, the concepts of sibling responsibility and accountability, guilt, regret, loneliness, sacrifice. Well, it’d be a lot to do in ninety-six minutes and you’re not going to get the right tears or comeuppance. Stevens isn’t reinventing the wheel, he’s delivering an excellent melodrama.

Lombard’s good in the lead. She doesn’t actually have to do much. Anytime some earthly tragedy befalls her, just before she has to actually react, the film turns her into an angel. Stevens and De Grasse’s evolution of Lombard’s close-ups in Vigil probably warrant some better attention, just in terms of how subtly and gradually Stevens changes the viewer’s understanding of the character. Somewhere in the third act, I realized Lombard wasn’t the protagonist anymore–she was the film’s grounded center, while things ran wild around her.

Anne Shirley’s the most significant wild running thing. She’s the troublesome, callow, well-meaning sister. She’s Lombard’s sacrifice, but she’s actually got the film’s most developed character. It’s melodrama. The more drama a character has, the more development they have too. She’s good. She gets better as the film goes along and she succeeds in the role. It’s an unlikable part and Vigil has a somewhat peculiar structure. Stevens doesn’t worry about narrative transition, so Shirley will drop out of the film then have to come back and play catch up.

Brian Aherne’s solid as Lombard’s love interest. Ethel Griffies is awesome as the matron. Julien Mitchell’s a suitable toad of a horny rich man. Brenda Forbes and Rita Page are fun as Lombard’s sidekicks. Peter Cushing’s kind of disappointing.

Vigil in the Night does a bunch in ninety-six minutes. Stevens’s pacing of the film is exceptional. Lombard’s an awesome lead. The Newman music does hurt it. A better score might’ve done wonders. It’s an ideal melodrama.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by George Stevens; screenplay by Fred Guiol, P.J. Wolfson, and Rowland Leigh, based on the novel by A.J. Cronin; director of photography, Robert De Grasse; edited by Henry Berman; music by Alfred Newman; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring Carole Lombard (Anne Lee), Brian Aherne (Dr. Robert S. Prescott), Anne Shirley (Lucy Lee), Julien Mitchell (Matthew Bowley), Brenda Forbes (Nora Dunn), Rita Page (Glennie), Peter Cushing (Joe Shand), Doris Lloyd (Mrs. Martha Bowley), Emily Fitzroy (Sister Gilson), Helena Grant (Nurse Gregg), and Ethel Griffies (Matron East).


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).


Journey Into Fear (1943, Norman Foster)

Journey Into Fear has a number of insignificant problems, a couple significant ones, and one major one. The major one is Foster’s direction. It’s not bad, it makes good use of the sets, it even uses some of the supporting cast well, but it’s not frightening, it’s not exciting. Journey Into Fear, not just because of the title, has to be frightening, it has to be. And it’s not. Foster shoots too much of Fear like a melodrama–albeit a quirky one–and his crew does the same. There’s nothing foreboding in Roy Webb’s score, not even when Fear finally gets exciting at the end, and Karl Struss’s photography’s a little flat. Competent, but flat. And it doesn’t utilize the sets well.

The film runs just under seventy minutes, which wrongly implies a spry pace. Instead, there’s an awkward opening with American munitions expert Joseph Cotten (who also wrote the screenplay) in danger in Turkey. His wife–a wasted, but still momentarily wonderful Ruth Warrick–knows little to nothing about it. Cotten’s been hanging out with a bad influence–Everett Sloane in a fun smaller part–and ends up in protective custody. Orson Welles’s the cop. He has a good time chewing the scenery as an action hero. So, a bunch of good performances in an awkwardly paced first act, which has little bearing on the rest of the film. Sure, Welles tells Cotten who’s after him, but it doesn’t really matter. They could have any motive, the point is the, you know, Fear.

Most of the film takes place on a freighter; Cotten’s smuggling himself to safety. There are a bunch of eclectic passengers, there’s a flirtation interest for Cotten, there’s presumably danger to Cotten. Dolores del Rio is the flirtation interest. There’s a significant portion of the film where it could just be an unfunny comedy of errors–del Rio’s business parter, Jack Durant, thinks Cotten wants to marry her–because there’s not even a threat to Cotten’s wellbeing. He’s just an inconvenienced tourist.

All the eclectic passengers are good–Eustace Wyatt, Agnes Moorehead, Frank Readick, Edgar Barrier–and Cotten, as screenwriter, does give each of them a little to do but it’s not enough. Moorehead and Readick are this hilarious married couple–Fear actually would’ve been better with someone who could appreciate the humor better as well–only neither gets enough to do. Especially Moorehead, who Foster introduces in long shot no less.

The third act seems like it might save the film, especially once there’s an action sequence. Only then it slips again. Journey Into Fear is disappointing given the cast–given it reunites Cotten and Welles (though they’re clearly having a great time together), given it’s a Welles production, given everything. Foster just never finds the right pace for the film, never the right tone. It’s a shame.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Norman Foster; screenplay by Joseph Cotten, based on the novel by Eric Ambler; director of photography, Karl Struss; edited by Mark Robson; music by Roy Webb; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring Joseph Cotten (Howard Graham), Orson Welles (Colonel Haki), Dolores del Rio (Josette Martel), Ruth Warrick (Mrs. Stephanie Graham), Jack Durant (Gogo Martel), Eustace Wyatt (Prof. Haller), Everett Sloane (Kopeikin), Agnes Moorehead (Mrs. Mathews), Frank Readick (Matthews), Edgar Barrier (Kuvetli) and Jack Moss (Peter Banat).


Scroll to Top