What is Box Set Summer?

This post is meant as a brief accompaniment/aside to my latest schedule update. It’s meant to just further explain what Box Set Summer is and why, like other themes usually have, it may not generate posts specifically branded with the title.

Essentially most of my theme ideas are linked either to a time of the year and/or a need to whittle down my unwatched DVD pile. Box Set Summer was designed to tackle the box sets in the pile which are some of the most cumbersome in terms of viewing commitment and take up quite a bit of space too. One area you have and will continue to see Box Set Summer’s agenda reflected is in my ongoing Tarzan series. I’ve now viewed all the Wiessmuller titles and have one other box to get to before I’ve seen everything currently in my possession.

I also, in conjunction with a TCM theme, may start preparing for future Truffaut-related posts by watching and reading more of him soon. And there are a few other examples. It may not become a category but my fulfilling this mission will influence myriad posts and hopefully bring more diversity to the content offered on The Movie Rat. Thank you!

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31 Days of Oscar Log

As you are likely aware every year TCM does a month long festival of only Oscar-winning or -nominated films. Each year the slate is different and differently organized but it’s a great chance to see films you’ve never watched before. Below I will list films I’ve watched as part of the block this year (Goal: minimum 31).

As always refer to My Rating Scale for insight on the scores.

1. Key Largo (1948)

Key Largo (Warner Bros.)

I’ll admit I allowed myself to get too swept up in the MacGuffin but that didn’t hurt the film at all. The only things that really got in its way was that I ended up knowing what Bogart’s endgame would be and the occasional heavy-handed (read dated) attempt of inserting a message into the film about Native Americans while still reinforcing certain stereotypes. In the big picture it’s minor stuff. It’s a great situation that lends itself to tension-building and surprising reversals of fortune and plot.

Oscar Nominations/Wins: 1/1

Score:
8/10

2. The Invisible Woman (1940)

The Invisible Woman (Universal)

If you think that dumb movies that are all about effects are a new thing you should check this out. While not even new I must say the effects work in this film are great, however, the film is comedic in tone and isn’t that funny and truly suffers from the cast trying a bit too hard to sell it. Virginia Bruce does fine when she’s visible but when she’s invisible she’s as obnoxious as her character’s antics. It’s premise is thin and it’s a lame effort, sadly.

Oscar Nominations/Wins: 1/0
Score: 3/10

3. The Fallen Idol (1948)

The Fallen Idol (Selznick Releasing Organization)

This is the first film I’ve seen in this year’s run I’d truly call great. Carol Reed, a director with many great titles to his credit, does a wonderful job building the tension in this film and creating doubt there’s also some great writing of conversations overheard or purposely cryptic. The Kordas always had great sets and the design of the film factors into it as well. It’s no wonder that this film is in Criterion’s library.

Oscar Nominations/Wins: 2/0
Score: 9/10

4. The Ladykillers (1955)

The Ladykillers (Ealing Studios)

To describe the humor of this film as dry would be an understatement. As a matter of fact most of its humor would be situational and not in the dialogue or actions, in fact, Katie Johnson as the old woman offers most of it in the film simply by being so kindly and oblivious. The film also serves to show a small glimpse of what Alec Guinness and Peter Sellers are capable of but is not among their peak performances.

Oscar Nominations/Wins: 1/0
Score: 6/10

5. Lies My Father Told Me (1975)

Lies My Father Told Me (Columbia Pictures)

Sadly, I have to say that I chose the above image because of its orientation rather than because I agree wholeheartedly with all the sentiments conveyed therein. While the film does have its moments of charm and humor they aren’t consistent enough to sustain this film. The song is more grating than memorable, too many of the characters are tiresome, some scenes too repetitive and the edit is not tight enough. Had the film shifted focus some, tried to place David in the courtyard’s world more often it would have succeeded for me.

Oscar Nominations/Wins: 1/0
Score: 5/10

6. Judgment at Nuremberg (1961)

Judgment of Nuremberg (United Artists)

It was bound to happen at some point: I saw this film but just didn’t vote for it at the IMDb and didn’t recall having done so. Part of the reason was because I viewed it in a social studies class in grade school (Junior High or High) I forget which. Regardless, I watched again it anyway because that is not way to have watched this film and it is great enough to revisit. In Night and Fog one of the narrator’s asides discusses responsibility and that’s the crux of this film how far up or down the line does responsibility for the holocaust lie and it’s examined brilliantly with superlative acting. Those interested in film or history should watch this film.

Oscar Nominations/Wins: 11/2
Score: 10/10

7. Scrooge (1970)
Scrooge (MGM)

I, like many, have seen many a version of Dickens’ classic A Christmas Carol it’s one of the Great Stories that we all become accustomed to and can analyze individual adaptations based on interpretation and choices more so than for the narrative itself. This version is a musical that is penned by the renowned Leslie Bricusse and for as closely as it sticks to the structure of the story for the most part offers as change of pace with songs, many of which were new. The songs are well-spaced allowing the drama to unfold adequately between numbers and also many are half-sung which lessens the theatricality of it. When watching 31 Days of Oscar I like to try and guess the nominations, if I don’t know them already and I guessed right on Art Direction and Song and was not surprised by the costuming being included. This is a very enjoyable rendition of the tale that ought not be overlooked.

Oscar Nominations/Wins: 4/0
Score: 8/10

8. The Search (1948)

The Search (MGM)

In mentioning my guessing game above I must say that upon checking the IMDb I was astonished by all the nominations this film got. I knew of this film because of the fact that it featured one of the rare Juvenile Award winners, a now defunct non-nominated category that was occasionally awarded to a deserving youth. However, Fred Zinneman, a talented director perhaps best known for High Noon the writing and Montgomery Clift were all also nominated. Now I do like the film but only by the skin of its teeth. I will grant that shooting in occupied Germany and dealing with displaced children so soon after the war is commendable and it does tell a good tale but not as tightly as it should and with truly intrusive narration. The flip-side of the equation (German children in post-war Germany is handled so much better in Germany Year Zero). The film means well and is enjoyable but some of its fumbling I can’t chalk up to merely being dated, there’s a fine line between simplistic storytelling and spoonfeeding information, between being direct and bad dialogue and this film crosses it on a few too many occasions.

Oscar Nominations/Wins: 4/0 (1 Win in a special non-nominated category)
Score: 6/10

9. The White Cliffs of Dover (1944)

This is a film that suffers somewhat from its preachiness which can be overlooked for the most part when you consider its release date both in a historical context and a film history context. The start is also a little slow considering the fact that you know where the story is going in a lot of cases. One other quibble aside most of it works quite well and is entertaining. Irene Dunne does wonderfully as do Roddy McDowall and Elizabeth Taylor in fleeting parts. It’s lengthy but moving in spite of some of its faults.

Oscar Nominations/Wins: 1/0
Score: 8/10

10. Indiscretion of an American Housewife (1953)

Motgomery Clift and Jennifer Jones in Indiscretion of an American Housewife (Coumbia)

This film illustrates some of the great things about this month of screenings. First, I’ve been able to discover more the marvelous work of Montgomery Clift. Second, aside from his early neorealist work I was none too familiar with De Sica and while this employs many of his production precepts it is a heightened and stylized forbidden romance. The tension and chemistry is absolutely electric and only suffers some pace issues somewhat towards the end. It’s a fascinating film that I may want to revisit on Criterion.

Oscar Nominations/Wins: 1/0
Score: 9/10

11. Panic in the Streets (1950)

This is a very interesting film which can be categorized as Film Noir but also as an outbreak film. It’s that unusual combination which truly makes this film special and entertaining. Was it either but not both it likely isn’t that intriguing but the combination thereof makes it worthy.

Oscar Nominations/Wins: 1/1
Score: 7/10

12. Wait Until Dark (1967)

This is a film that after having seen it I expected it to have more than one nomination. The films is very tense and the set-up is brilliant. I take some issue with the way it decides to quickly, practically brusquely, resolve itself but most of what happens leading up to that point is great. Of course, Audrey Hepburn is great in one of her more celebrated roles but Alan Arkin is also very noteworthy in this film. The climax of the film nearly makes up for the unfortunate and quick ending.

Oscar Nominations/Wins: 1/0
Score: 9/10

13. The Green Years (1946)

Oh, boy. It’s not a wonder that this one slipped my mind and I had to backtrack through my twitter feed to see if I missed something else. I asked rhetorically if a film could polarize one individual when I finished watching this film because the aspects I disliked about it I truly loathed and the things I loved I adored. It made for a very frustrating and difficult viewing experience. The film does have balance in showing its protagonist as a child and a young adult, however, the beginning is a bit repetitive and almost masochistic in the amounts of gruffness, insensitivity and bullying he comes across. Thankfully, he manages to get through to a few people who warm to him otherwise it would’ve made Dickens at his most dire look like Disney at his sunniest. Yet, there’s a bit too much deus ex machina at play later on and an albeit moving but all to typical All-This-Horrible-Stuff-Happened-To-Me-But-I’m-Fine-Now ending. I wanted to like this one but in the end I just couldn’t.

Oscar Nominations/Wins: 2/0
Score: 5/10

14. The V.I.P.s (1963)

This is a film that is pretty intriguing while its players are all fogbound in the airport and their disparate stories are interesting but when the story extends to a second day and incorporates another locale it loses steam and fast. I can’t say I guessed that this was a supporting actress win for Margaret Rutherford but it makes the most sense, however silly her character and plot-line were.

Oscar Nominations/Wins: 1/1
Score: 5/10

15. The Window (1949)

This film was not on Turner’s line-up this year. Instead I acquired it form the Warner Archive Collection. This film was out of print for sometime despite its brilliance and it being one of the rare films to win a young actor the Juvenile Award. Not only is it likely to be my favorite film of this month but it’s also one of the best films I’ve seen in quite some time. The set-up is simple: a boy who cries “wolf” once too often is witness to a murder and doubted at every plea for help and in danger because of it. If you didn’t know that this was based on a story by Cornell Woolrich you’d guess, it plays like a kids’ introduction to Rear Window and that’s not a wonder as the one of Hitch’s DPs (Ted Tetzlaff Notorious) directs here. Combine Woolrich brilliant story with a man who worked with the Master and you get something very close and a film so suspenseful you hope it’ll last. I’m not embarrassed to admit this film actually had me talking to the TV and shouting interjections at times that’s how into it I got. Yet all this is accomplished in a little over 70 minutes. It’s not a wonder this film also earned an editing nomination. Not a shot, not even a moment is wasted in this film. I’ve talked about this film more than most in this rundown and and I think you can see on and clearly I could go on. One could call many Academy decisions into question but Bobby Driscoll’s Juvenile Award is not one of them, not in the least. He is absolutely pitch perfect in this performance. It embodies all his abilities as a young performer yet all things are in service to the story it’s not a star vehicle per se.

Oscar Nominations/Wins: 1/0* (One academy award win for Bobby Driscoll as this film is cited for his Juvenile Award win).
Score: 10/10

16. Breaking the Ice (1938)

Here’s another film where I went outside the TCM schedule to add a title. I wrote of Bobby Breen recently and this is one of his many films you can stream or save from The Internet Archive, all are in the public domain. I already knew that many of his films had an Oscar nominated song, so there was no guessing game and while the narrative of this one is better than most of his vehicles it is a little lacking in as much as there is some filler were we watch a lot of skating that really doesn’t impact the story in any great way. However, like all his films it ends well and enjoyable enough to watch and there is decent spacing and plenty of singing.

Oscar Nominations/Wins: 1/0
Score: 7/10

17. The Seven Little Foys (1955)

This is a pretty enjoyable tale of the old vaudeville days. It takes some great classical elements and recombines them. It creates in the process an unusual family dynamic that you get accustomed to and you root for all the characters and in a sense understand all of them. Bob Hope is very good in the film and there is a showstopping dance routine where he is paired with James Cagney that is something to behold. Its writing nomination is well-earned.

Oscar Nominations/Wins: 1/0
Score: 7/10

18. A Farewell to Arms (1932)

I will be espousing the importance of separating film from source material soon but my minor quibbles with this film are somewhat different than that. I never read the book. However, when you know something is an adaptation of Hemingway, a titan of literature whose reputation precedes him, you expect something a bit more in terms of story than what amounts to a fairly standard Hollywood tragic love story. The sound work for the era is superlative, the cinematography grand and there’s a brilliant albeit slightly lengthy montage but story-wise it lacks a little.

Oscar Nominations/Wins: 4/2
Score: 7/10

19. Mrs. Parkington (1944)

Oscar Nominations/Wins: 2/0
Score: 10/10

I think it was last year that TCM did a spotlight on Greer Garson and how I wish I’d seen the whole thing. They aired all 5 of her consecutive Best Actress nominations (an unparalleled achievement) back-to-back. After what I thought of Mrs. Miniver I really regretted not seeing all of them. I tried to rectify that as best I could this year. This film is also a “through the years” kind of tale but very interestingly told going from the story’s present to several other key junctures in the past. The conclusion comes swift and impactful and nobly triumphant. Another film I watched for Garson but loved entirely.

20. Bless the Beasts & Children (1971)

As soon as I saw the opening credits I knew this film had one nomination and likely didn’t win it. The title song to the film is a great one by The Carpenters and may be perceived as the kind of nomination that’s trying to get young viewers to watch the ceremony- I think it’s worthy. However, as the film progressed I really liked it. It’s the kind, in fact, that I may like more once I see it again. It’s about six misfits who become friends at a summer camp and decide to free buffaloes from a reserve. The film starts with the beginning of their mission but at key and appropriate points we backtrack so you get an introduction to a particular character then you see how they interact and understand them more. There are some quirky 70s transitions and an ending that leaves you wanting more both in a good way and a bad way but it really is timeless if you look past the details. In fact, with Goodenow’s plight of being bullied due to his perceived homosexuality (the movie brilliantly never confirms or denies it) and threatening suicide it becomes quite relevant today and other characters are as engaging in their struggle to fit in but it’s Daryl Glaser’s portrayal as the aforementioned character and Stanley Kramer’s direction that make the film succeed whatever its faults. I’m glad this is another title now available through the Warner Archive.

Oscar Nominations/Wins: 1/0
Score: 7/10

21. Life with Father (1947)

This is a quirky and pleasant film though it does feature some odd logic and math for humor’s sake and does get a bit long in the tooth. The cinematography proves there’s nothing quite like three-strip technicolor and once again proves that there’s nothing that Michael Curtiz could not do he was just better at some genres than others but more than capable of doing anything. It really in an enjoyable and contained film that is a tribute to restorers as the film has only resurfaced in viewable condition in recent years.

Oscar Nominations/Wins: 4/0
Score: 6/10

22. The Thief of Bagdad (1940)

This is one of the more surprising titles of this year’s festival. I knew some things about some of the talent involved but not the film itself. I was surprised on many occasions. I knew Vincent Korda was a great art director but these sets may be his best. I didn’t know the story was such an enjoyable fantasy. You typically pick up on common names in the fest other not as well-known artists make their presence felt, especially musicians. This year it was Alfred Newman and Miklos Rosza, nominated for this film. Sabu, recently given an Eclipse set by Criterion, stars in this film but there’s also Conrad Veit. It’s a very fun, enjoyable movie with great effects, amazing for the era.

Oscar Nominations/Wins: 4/3
Score: 9/10

23. To Catch Thief (1955)

When I become familiar with a filmmaker part of my scoring indicates how the film fits on their scale. Hitchcock was the first director I started to watch religiously. I always avoided this film based on the description. It’s better than I thought it would be but still not what I’d recommend to anyone as where to start as a starting point. It is enjoyable though.

Oscar Nominations/Wins: 4/1
Score: 8/10

24. A Man Called Peter (1955)

Perhaps the most interesting thing about this film is the fact that it contains some really amazing sermons, which are even greater if cribbed from real life and more impressive. Now preaching is generally verboten in film, however, one exception is when your lead is a priest. Some of the thoughts conveyed are great and even applicable to current times, one reminds me of Stephen Colbert’s recent point about being a Christian country. It gets a little languid towards its inevitable conclusion but the cinematography is great as are some of the performances.

Oscar Nominations/Wins: 1/0
Score: 6/10

25. Tristana (1970)

This is an interesting film by Buñuel which stars Catherine Deneuve. It’s not great but the plotline is simple and accessible and the protagonist’s situation is easy to identify with. There is a pretty impressive closing montage, not to say too much.

Oscar Nominations/Wins: 1/0
Score: 6/10

26. Stella Dallas (1937)

Barbara Stanwyck is brilliant in this. Very deserving of her Best Actress nomination and frankly the only thing that truly makes the whole film worth watching. The film hits an unusual flatness as the romance fizzles and the marriage is in name only it all feels like a lot of window dressing to the next major conflict of the film. It’s about as enjoyable as it can be but not as good as it could be.

Oscar Nominations/Wins: 2/0
Score: 5/10

27. Boomerang! (1947)

It’s funny how similar in conclusion and resolution this is to the other Kazan film I saw (Panic in the Streets above). Another thing that struck me is that it handles a lot of similar elements much better than the later The Town That Dreaded Sundown.

Oscar Nominations/Wins: 1/0
Score: 7/10

28. The Letter (1940)

Better Davis and William Wyler were a pretty dynamic duo when they joined forces, however, this is not the best that duo can do. The situation and complications the protagonist finds herself in are fascinating and he cast is brilliant but the resolution is slightly lacking and a bit anticlimactic, the twists make it work.

Oscar Nominations/Wins: 7/0
Score: 7/10

29. Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985)

William Hurt and Raul Julia in Kiss of the Spider Woman (HB Filmes)

Despite the fact that it’s based on a novel I first became familiar with Kiss of the Spider Woman though a play version. I know that for the most part the narrative is one I enjoyed yet there were a few reasons I avoided the film version for some time.

Most of it has to do with the fact that the film in production terms and representational terms ends up in a very weird cultural limbo. Now in the interest of full disclosure: I am Brazilian so in many ways I disqualify myself but bear with me and try to understand my perspective.

The setting according to the text is always vaguely South American and surely for many reasons dictatorships were rampant on the continent for a time but the signage, location, supporting talent and director (via naturalization) are all Brazilian. It’s a muddled world wherein I see great Brazilian actors look less than stellar for the most part as they struggle with their broken English. You have late great Raul Julia doing a wonderful job but who generally gets overlooked in this film, except by the National Board of Review, and as brilliant as William Hurt is his name is Molina and he has no accent and isn’t designated as a gringo. So those factors along with Brazilians playing German in the film clips don’t ruin the film they just make suspension of disbelief a chore at times.

I’d absolutely love to see this (as I would most stories) in the languages intended whether Spanish or Portuguese and German and French.

Other than that the film is a great tale of unlikely friendship and loyalty, however, another bugaboo is there’s a line where Molina seems to indicate he’s more transgendered at heart than homosexual, so perhaps the description is not accurate. The only difference that really makes is in a public perception and social awareness. If this is looked at as William Hurt playing a transgendered man rather than crassly classifying “just another actor winning an award for playing gay” it would be better for the whole GLBT community so that people would know there are differences amongst the letters in that acronym. To continue to merely characterize the character as homosexual does a disservice to Hurt’s performance and in this day an age a community though I recognize that when the film was made there was a lack of differentiation.

But the only other issue I had was the prolonged and foreseeable ending. It truly is a good piece despite issues I had with it. That baggage was mostly my own and those things didn’t turn me off from the film.

Oscar Nominations/Wins: 4/1
Score: 8/10

Two for Tuesday #1

OK, first of all I realize it’s Wednesday. I may find a way to write and post in anticipation of the day but in order to truly get started I want to watch films on the day of and identify my theme properly and then post. Yesterday it was just too late by the time I would’ve gotten around to it.

Anyway, the idea for Two for Tuesday is just to watch two films, no matter how different they may be. Yesterday’s choices were disparate indeed: they were Mrs. Miniver and the aforementioned feature film cut of Blake of Scotland Yard.

Mrs. Miniver

Mrs. Miniver (MGM)

This is another film I watched for 31 Days of Oscar. What was frustrating to learn was that this was during a Greer Garson block on TCM wherein her five consecutive best Actress nominations were shown. This is a feat that was only matched once, by Bette Davis. It makes sense to feature Garson, however, because I, like most, am underexposed to her. With Robert Osborne doing the introduction there was much to be learned. First being that the role of Mrs. Miniver was originally offered to Norma Shearer. Shearer didn’t want to play the mother of a fully grown son, as there’s a stigma of being an aged actress attached and thus it was offered to Greer Garson who at the time didn’t want to do it either but didn’t have the clout to turn it down. The age concern was such that Garson according to the studio was 34 but in actuality was 37 at the time. Thankfully she did it and it worked out wonderfully.

This film swept away quite a few Oscars and it’s not a wonder. Suffice it to say I just thought myself brash in guessing it was nominated for 10 Oscars, I underestimated it. It was up for 12 and won six. This film also bears a stamp this time is that of William Wyler. Wyler, who despite winning three Oscars and the Irving G. Thalberg Award doesn’t seem to get as much recognition as a man who has a similar name to him, Billy Wilder. Wyler’s film’s are always well-shot and moreover beautifully framed. This film also has a quiet realistic tension to when Mrs. Miniver (Garson) is held captive in her own house by a wounded German soldier there is no scoring it’s all quite realistically handled. Then there is shockingly good sound design that also makes you flinch as you see the quiet, simple village life disturbed by air raids.

It’s also not a wonder that there was pressure on MGM to get this film released to show the American public what life in Europe was like during the war. It’s also no surprise that this film was added to the National Film Registry in 2009.

There was also the wonderfully woven in subplot of the flower show. This not only demonstrated class differences and stasis in society but as things developed came to symbolize the solidarity of a nation. As Mr. Ballard says “There’ll always be roses.” A beautifully deft and understated way of saying the world will go on and life will persist despite what may try to ravage it. I could go on elaborating the naturalistic-humanistic symbolism of the film ad nauseum but you get the idea.

However, the poetics of the film do not halt there. During one of the first air raids the Mr. (Walter Pidgeon) stay awake as their young children do manage to fall asleep and they discuss their love for, and recite the ending of, Alice in Wonderland. The words made far more haunting and beautiful due to the backdrop and wonderful example of artistic re-appropriation of material.

Christopher Severn, Walter Pidgeon and Calre Sandars in Mrs. Miniver (MGM)


There were also some notable long take and it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that Wyler allowed the camera to roll a bit to see what his actors did. One example of this, and the genesis of this idea for me, is when Mr. Miniver and his young son Toby (Christopher Severn) and young daughter (Clare Sandars) are looking into one of the rooms of their house after an air raid taking in the damage. they look for quite a bit of time such that it feels like the scene should end but then Toby kicks a piece of rubble over the step and laughs, forcing a smile from his father. Whether improvised or whether this long pause was dictated kudos are still in store for Wyler.

Mrs. Miniver (MGM)

The very ending is also remarkable without giving too much away. There is a great reveal of the roof of the church most of which is missing. Through the hole in the roof can be seen bombers off to another battle as the congregation sings “Onward Christian Soldiers.” You can protest as much as you like about the propagandist nature of this ending or of mixing religion and war but without even involving politics it’s a great piece of cinema that ending.

In the interest of not spoiling too much I avoided the plotline of Vin (Richard Ney) and Carol (Teresa Wright, who also won an Oscar for her role) it is a major component of the story as it is a love affair that springs from a subplot and becomes quite an important and poignant part of the film. One interesting note was that the part was originally offered to Montgomery Clift who turned it down because it came with the stipulation that he sign with MGM for seven years. Clift, and the industry apparently, felt his time would come and he stayed on Broadway in the meantime.

This movie slowly and steadily rolls itself along picking up meaning and creating a tense environment in the characters. There is no real resolution within the narrative, as they are still in the midst of war but life goes on and “There will always be roses.”

Blake of Scotland Yard (1937; theatrical cut)

One thing that could’ve been added to my manifesto is that I want to try not to be redundant. I realize that I just posted about this here but yesterday I saw this version mostly for lack of something better to do and time. I will try not to over-elaborate but merely convey how utterly gutted I found this film.

The main thing that’s off when you lop 75% off a story is pace. There are moments that are far too slow or protracted and then some that whiz by in a blur, the film ends up being shorter than it feels because of that. There are far too many characters involved in this tale for it to only run 71 minutes and taking out so much you lose clues, speculation and discovery of facts and are left with basically an inciting incident, a long chase which becomes tiresome and a final reveal that is still a surprise because you had little time to wonder who the scorpion could be and were busy trying to figure out what’s up. I had issues following it and I’ve seen the longer version twice I can’t imagine the uninitiated confusion upon viewing this mess.

The intent of this piece is to honor the original film as it was made. There were some notable players involved in this such as Ralph Byrd who played Dick Tracy in more than one incarnation, Joan Barclay who starred alongside Douglas Fairbanks in The Gaucho and Dickie Jones who later went on to voice Pinocchio. There’s also a lot of good story cut out: There is a big arc with the false beggar that here seems pointless, there is Baron Polinka who is oft suspected and one of his catchphrases that cracked me up (“But I’m Baron Polinka”) is missing from this, even the tertiary involvement of Scotland Yard, which is in the title here seems unnecessary.

The only thing I liked is that it made me nostalgic for the original version. This one also gave you a virtually muted soundtrack as the theme rarely played within scenes but was always played in titles which, of course, you only see once here. Due to the desire there are some weird and bad cuts including a very awkward “If you can’t solve it, dissolve it.”

As a DVD presentation it is also a failure: it looks like there are VHS tracking lines at the bottom as if this was a dub and there’s no resume play option so when I stopped I had to find a spot within the chapter.

Ultimately, this proved it’s a failed concept as you see a long but simply-told tale diluted into a short confused mess. I hope other distributors stick to full-length serials.

Monochromatic Monday #1

As I mentioned in my manifesto I endeavor to have viewing themes and post short entries on them. Not necessarily a full review of what I watch but just a bit of information to give you the gist.

Up until early March many of my themes will likely be concurrent with TCM’s 31 Days of Oscar. My goal as a side project is to see at least one film from every day of the festival with a little assistance form my DVR. I am currently one behind.

Today’s selections were the first in a while where both films were afforded introductions by TCM hosts which gave some interesting information, more so in the second film. But without much further ado the films.

Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936)

Gary Cooper and Jean Arthur in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (Columbia Pictures)

Ben Mankiewicz hosted and while he does a fine job, invariably he leaves out a piece of information that puzzles me. The theme for part of the afternoon line-up on this day was good luck charms and it chronicled Bess Flowers, the so-called “Queen of Hollywood Extras,” who was a good luck charm herself. She appeared in over 700 films, yes, 700, this is in the days of the studio system remember, and appeared in 21 Best Picture Nominees and Five winners. Frank Capra employed her often. What I wanted to know, with all this to do being made about someone with a bit part, is where do I look for her, if I can find her that was not mentioned.

This film was a Best Picture nominee and was one of Capra’s three Best Director trophies (amazingly none of them came for his most notable film It’s a Wonderful Life). It certainly does have that Capra touch to it. It’s the story of a simple country man, often mistakenly thought to be a simpleton, who inherits a large sum of money and then has to deal with everyone trying to take advantage of him. It’s a film with a lot of subtle humor and most notably through some Hollywood magic creates some of the most surreal vistas of New York you’re likely to see on film. Capra is often associated with comedy or sentiment but here in this film there is a lot of great cinematography and the visuals really drive the story home. The shot of Longfellow Deeds (Gary Cooper) complacently sitting in a cell with barely a highlight upon his profile is a breathtaking piece of chiaroscuro.

Then, of course, there’s Cooper. This is one hell of a performance and most notably so because he is silent for so much of it. However, there’s a clear subtext and thought-process behind his actions. He’s also incredibly naturalistic, especially for the era, which really allows the story to sink in. More often than not he doesn’t let on but is listening, and absorbing information and planning his next move. Of course, there is misplaced trust in an undercover reporter (Jean Arthur) and that plot goes predictably enough but it’s very well executed but there is one surprise in store which is how it looks like out hero will be vanquished and how he triumphs.

This is a truly wonderful film that has Capra’s stamp all over it, which means that it is timeless this one more than most perhaps because it does talk about cynicism in society which is pervasive and being too cynical might allow you to take a film like this for granted but you shouldn’t.

Viva Villa! (1934)

Wallace Beery in Viva Villa!

*****Warning Spoilers Below*****

There’s much less to say about this title. The intro by Robert Osborne was quite interesting. This film was shown during a block of films that were winners of awards the Academy retired. This one winning a certificate, not a statuette, for Best Assistant Director. There were lots of pieces of information to relay here like Howard Hawks’ firing, the unruly extras who were real soldiers and peasants and the actor who relieved himself off a balcony on members of the Mexican military.

Once the film began the story was compelling but not quite compelling enough. First, it needs to be said that Wallace Beery is incredibly effective and endearing as Villa, when I read the cast I thought it might be a stretch but it worked. The film creates an interesting cinematic mestizo situation in as much as the natives of Mexico are all either Mexican or made to look like they are and the Spaniards are mostly white and don’t speak with accents. The mix of different voice stylings was actually pleasurable rather than rampant stereotypes.

While I love how full screen titles in the Golden Age were poetic and verbose there are far too many of them here and it avoids shooting some scenes which would’ve enhanced the film. It seems they might’ve been an afterthought based on the edit and there are some weird cuts in there, scenes that don’t seem to end in a logical place or stop abruptly. If you count the “Villa Wants You!” title montage as one there are 14 instances of full screen titles in this film. It was like a bad joke at times: “I went to a movie and a book broke out.”

Speaking of bad jokes there ‘s a running gag that an artist/writer friend of Villa’s refuses to draw a bull and is willing to die for this artistic standard. He called it advertising. I call it hard to swallow. Won’t draw a bull? Really?

What this film did have going for it was a beautiful little circle that closed. In a prelude that’s too short we see Villa for a child as a moment don’t really get to know him and he grows but what does get set into motion is the path of his destiny. His family was robbed of its land. His father dies for questioning it and off he goes to eventually lead a long multi-faceted revolution. While knowing that a plot is in the offing does drain some of the tension and drama out of Villa’s last words he does say, not ones the reporter puts in his mouth, are great. The reporter had started his fictionalized obit with the words “Mexico, I apologize.” Villa responded in the end “Johnny, what have I done wrong?”

It was a bit uneven and it was the rare film, in my experience, wherein the conventions that date it hold it back rather than exalt it but it is worth a watch and a decent film. Not sure it should’ve been a Best Picture nominee in this top-heavy era though.

In closing Robert Osborne related the fascinating tale of James Wong Howe the DP who was born in China but grew up in Washington State. He was an Assistant Camera at 19 and had done time at Lasky Studios. As a Director of Photography he garnered 10 Oscar nominations and two wins.