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Craig's Movie Club
Film/Video Reviews

Classics reviewed with a discerning eye.

42nd Street (1933)

The trouble with the word "classic" is that it becomes applied to films that don't deserve it. Perhaps that's a little harsh, but after watching 42nd Street, that's what came to mind. Now, I can understand how it could gain that name. When it was made in 1933, it was likely a groundbreaker in terms of the movie musical. Busby Berkley is a name known throughout the world for good reason, and the dance sequences in 42nd Street are eyepopping. It's the rest of the movie that is lacking.

I didn't care a whit about any of the characters in the film. I'll take that back, I cared that the guy got dumped and that the girl that dumped him seemed to be prostituting herself for her work. And that's one of the better qualities of the film. In 1933, the Hays office had not yet been created and the dark aspects of society, however implied, could still pass muster and be played out on the screen. The film only picks up, though, during the scenes of the Broadway play "Pretty Lady," when Berkley's genius finally comes to the fore. The rest is merely leading up to that finale.

Several famous names appear like Dick Powell, Ruby Keeler, Una Merkel, and Ginger Rogers; and 42nd Street also contains songs like the title tune and "Shuffle Off to Buffalo." A Broadway adaptation was launched in 1980, based on the movie, rather than vice versa.

The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

The Best Years of Our Lives is probably the best post-war film ever made, not shying away from the real difficulties that faced military men returning from World War II. It was actually made to educate civilians to these problems. This effort on behalf of the country's servicemen earned eight Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Actor for Frederic March, and two for Harold Russell (Homer)--one for Best Supporting Actor, and another for "bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans."

This is the story of three soldiers played by Frederic March, Dana Andrews, and Harold Russell (in his debut role). These three were able to survive in a military setting, but when they arrive home they find that they have changed, and yet everything else is still the same. They deal with their discoveries in wildly different ways.

I was watching The Best Years of Our Lives wondering why one has to go back fifty years to find a film with the poignancy, truth, and quality of this one. There have been wars since then, so why haven't there been movies like this one? Yes, there's Coming Home, but what else, and that was over twenty years ago. And does a movie have to be about war to be a deeply emotional--not romantic, but everyday emotion?

If you are looking for something like that--a film with real drama, believable characters, excellent writing, and unintrusive direction--you must see The Best Years of Our Lives.

Born Yesterday (1951)

Judy Holliday won an Oscar for her fantastically nuanced performance in Born Yesterday as Billie Dawn, the so-called dumb blonde who isn't so dumb after all, just uneducated. When Harry Brock, her fiancee and business partner, chooses to have her educated in local affairs (they live in Washington D.C.) by a reporter who was doing a story on him (William Holden)--so she won't embarrass him in front of the Senators he is planning to buy--things of course, don't go as planned. She becomes too smart to be bossed around anymore.

Knowing the plot does not ruin Born Yesterday at all. The fun is watching the actors, especially the chemistry between Holliday and Holden. Broderick Crawford is wonderful, too, as Brock, a guy you have to hate for the story to work. Even the bit players: the lawyer, the senator are letter-perfect in their parts. The script, based on a play by Garson Kanin, is full of one-liners and zingers. It's a little too patriotic in the end for me--sometimes I felt preached at--but that is easily overlooked during what is really a fun film.

Bringing Up Baby (1939)

Now, I know that Bringing Up Baby is the quintessential screwball comedy, but when I watched it recently, it fell short of others I have seen. First of all, it is far too long. They should have cut the scenes at the house by about fifteen minutes. The joke about the search for the bone is interminable. I got the point very early on.

However, Grant and Hepburn are marvelous together (I kept thinking a remake would be well-served by using Lara Flynn Boyle) and Howard Hawks once again directs with skill and finesse. Every film fan should see Bringing Up Baby, just because.

Casablanca (1942)

Casablanca = Cinema Classica

Casablanca is that rarity of a classic that deserves the title. And it's entertaining to boot. Second only to Citizen Kane in appearing on critics' top ten lists, it is also loved by the average moviegoer just looking for a rousing story.

Casablanca has it all: romance, action, adventure, sacrifice. The acting is impeccable and the screenplay is a perfect example of the form. Many of the lines have entered our lexicon: "here's looking at you, kid," "we'll always have Paris," "the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans," "round up the usual suspects," "this looks like the beginning of a beautiful friendship," and especially the often-misquoted "play it again, Sam" (which never actually appears in the film).

The romance between Rick (Humphrey Bogart) and Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) is very believable (and it needs to be or you won't go for the ending). But just as believable is her devotion to freedom-fighter husband Victor Laszlo. Somehow it doesn't matter that Laszlo is one of the most underwritten characters in film (he's too perfect to be believable), Paul Henreid inhabits him with a truth that surpasses the script.

Some of the greatest characters--and the greatest character actors--ever appear in Casablanca: Claude Rains, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre; it would not feel the same without these greats involved. But we mustn't forget the fully-realized performance of stars Bogart and Bergman, who almost entirely act with their eyes. The love, the pain, the nobility all come through in their eyes. It's a wonderful primer for the ideal form of acting.

If you haven't seen it, do so, if only to increase your film literacy; it's part of our national consciousness.

[The extras on the DVD include two commentaries (one by Roger Ebert), a Looney Tunes version entitled "Carrotblanca," the TV adaptation, the radio adaptation, "The Children Remember"--a retrospective starring Stephen Humphrey Bogart and Pia Lindstrom [Bergman's daughter], "Bacall on Bogart"--a bio of Bogart hosted by Lauren Bacall, and "You Must Remember This"--a documentary that has been recycled from the previous DVD and 50th anniversary VHS.]

The Egg and I (1957)

Claudette Colbert's new husband Fred McMurray buys a chicken farm and moves them out to the country to "live off the land." She has trouble at first but eventually learns to get along. Then comes Louise Allbritton offering financial success--and herself.

This adaptation of Betty MacDonald's non-fiction bestseller is best known for introducing Marjorie Main (Heaven Can Wait) and Percy Kilbride as Ma and Pa Kettle, a pairing that would make nine series film from 1949 to 1957, making millions of dollars for Universal. Main was nominated for a Supporting Oscar for her role in this film and the Kettles do steal every scene they're in, but Colbert and MacMurray turn in fine comic performances as well.

The Egg and I doesn't take much thought to follow; it's a simple fish-out-of-water story with a little jealous tension thrown in. But everything turns out all right and all in all, it's a fun little time-killer.

From Here to Eternity (1953)

We've all seen the famous "beach scene" in clips shown from From Here to Eternity but I have to say that I was disappointed that it was so short in the actual film.

Montgomery Clift (who the producers didn't want but the director stubbornly fought for) is the real star here, giving a wonderfully layered performance as a former boxer who will not join the service team, under any circumstances. He is therefore put through all sorts of hell to get him to reconsider. He takes it with quiet grace and confidence, sure that he can take anything other than getting back into the ring. Clift's best friend Maggio (Frank Sinatra) is always taking up for him and definitely pays the price later on. Sinatra is wonderful in this Oscar-winning performance.

Clift's sergeant, Burt Lancaster, is meanwhile having an affair with his commanding officer's wife, Deborah Kerr, playing bad girl against type. I didn't really care much about their relationship because the commanding officer was such a jackass.

The romantic angle that matters here is the one between Clift and Donna Reed (who also won an Oscar) as a dance hall girl (yes, that Donna Reed!). Theirs is a truly sweet love, more so because they are both so damaged and vulnerable.

The Pearl Harbor scenes, once they happen after all this quiet time, are truly shocking (especially when a soldier is gunned down by a plane while running to warn others), although you do get subtle hints at what is coming. In one scene, where Lancaster is on the phone planning to do something the next day, a calendar behind him clearly reads "December 6."

Through all this, I was never bored. From Here to Eternity is really an excellent film; very entertaining and gripping. I would definitely recommend it if you are a film fan in general or a fan of WWII films in particular.

Heaven Can Wait (1943)

Don Ameche arrives at the gates of Hell ready to turn himself in for being so ruthless with women. "His Excellency," however, chooses first to hear his story. He finds that Ameche has not been any worse than anyone else (in fact most of his "crimes" were done in the name of love), and so sends him on his way up.

Ameche and Gene Tierney give fine performances in Heaven Can Wait, yet another Ernst Lubitsch (To Be or Not to Be, Trouble in Paradise) confection, but the film is stolen out from under them by the supporting cast. Allyn Joslyn (The Horn Blows at Midnight) is perfectly pompous as cousin Albert--from whom Ameche steals Tierney.

But the pair who rule this film are Tierney's parents, played by Eugene Pallette (My Man Godfrey) and Marjorie Main (Ma Kettle in The Egg and I). Their powerful voices fill the air with intimidating presence when they are together; and their dueling breakfast scene is the highlight of the picture. And Charles Coburn is a delight as always playing Ameche's lovable grandfather, charming and good for a laugh.

Yes, the acting is terrific all around, but somehow it doesn't all fit together right. The ending is obvious from the start and so isn't at all satisfying. I was left thinking, "so what?" But at the same time, the performances were so good, I didn't want Heaven Can Wait to end, so it felt cut short.

Made for Each Other (1939)

Made for Each Other is an early film is the careers of stars James Stewart and Carole Lombard. They star as a young impulsively-married couple who go through all the tribulation that entails. The performances are all top-rate and the cast includes Charles Coburn as Stewart's hearing-impaired boss and a cameo by Ward Bond as a reluctant pilot.

It is a light comedy-drama with a good script and great acting. My one complaint is that the last half-hour is mostly taken up with a soap-ish baby-sickness scare that does little to expand the story, but gives Lombard an opportunity for an "Oscar clip"-level crying scene and to look beatific praying to a statue of Jesus. This is in retrospect, however, as I was riveted to the screen throughout the ordeal.

All in all, Made for Each Other is a good (not excellent) film and a realistic portrayal of married life (sans housekeepers, of course) buoyed by terrific acting all around.

Rain (1932)

There must have been a popular play version of Rain that inspired the filming. The direction is purely point-and-shoot, with only a few shots of rain falling on different areas of the island to break the monotony. Also, the actors are projecting their voices far too much. I understand that in 1932 sound was in its infancy, but I have seen other films of the period where there was natural-sounding dialogue.

The placement of the characters appears to have been gathered from the stage version, as well. No one's back ever is to the camera, and people walk while talking and not at other times. The acting in Rain, however, given the other situations, is exemplary. Joan Crawford is good (though not great) as Sadie, however Walter Huston appears to be playing a one-note zealot, at least until the one scene when he falls prey to his baser instincts. He uses dramatic facial expression to show this change, but unfortunately, it only looked to me as if he were about to turn into Mr. Hyde.

The other characters are really just spouting dialogue and we aren't told much about them, other than the proprietor of the General Store where the action takes place, Joe Horn. He is the most interesting character in the film. It was very slow going (I was not previously familiar with the storyline), but after the first half hour, I began to follow and was entertained.

I think that Rain is, at the very least, a good look at cinema history: to see early Joan Crawford work from when she was a sex symbol, and to catch Walter Huston before son John directed him to an Oscar in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Although in order to appreciate director Lewis Milestone's true ability, see All Quiet on the Western Front, 1931's The Front Page, or the Lon Chaney, Jr./Burgess Meredith version of Of Mice and Men.

Shadow of the Thin Man (1992)

In Shadow of the Thin Man, Nick and Nora (and Asta, of course) get themselves embroiled in the murder of a jockey--at the racetrack, no less! This along with helping out a reporter friend whose girlfriend's boss is involved in shady dealings.

But none of this really matters, because the main reason to watch these films has always been the wisecracking chemistry between William Powell and Myrna Loy. And with characters named Link, Whitey, and Rainbow Benny, how can you go wrong?

Plus, there's a bonus! At Nick, Jr.'s insistence, Nick actually drinks a glass of milk! Shadow of the Thin Man is not the best of the series, but certainly worthwhile.

Trouble in Paradise (1932)

This wonderful confection from Ernst Lubitsch is a marvelous pre-Code example of what can be done to imply sex. Trouble in Paradise simply drips with it, and nothing but the slightest hint of cleavage is shown. The script (from Samson Raphaelson and Grover Jones) is literate and flows with banter.

Herbert Marshall is Gaston Monescu, "the man who walked into the bank of Constantinople, and walked out with the bank of Constantinople." We first meet him in Venice, where he has completed a robbery of Francois Filiba (the inimitable Edward Everett Horton), just before having a romantic dinner with love Lily Vautier (Miriam Hopkins). They are both career crooks (and she has a secret unknown to him) and their light-hearted pocket picking of each other is an example of what I imagine would be the ideal romantic byplay.

Their relationship begins to suffer when Gaston begins to put the moves on Mariette Colet (Kay Francis), widow of a cosmetics king, for the 850,000 francs insurance money that is going to be coming in soon. Gaston sets himself up as her personal secretary by laying on the charm. Francis simply glows when around Marshall, and Hopkins (inserting herself as Marshall's secretary) is a perfect delight, fuming at their relationship.

Trouble in Paradise is "ideal" in many ways. It barely treads near reality, but it doesn't matter. This is cinema at its very best. It is funny, sexy, and seems fresh even today, outdistancing the modern idea of "romantic comedy." Fortunately, it is finally available on video from Criterion (my original copy was recorded from American Movie Classics). One of the best motion pictures of all time can finally find a modern audience.

  • ...more to come...

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