I’ve decided that separating the movies I watch into “olde-tymey” (pre-1960), “quasi-olde-tymey” (1960-1979), and “modern” (post-1980) works pretty well. So I’m going to keep doing it! So let’s take a look at some pre-1960 movies I’ve watched recently and what I thought of them.
It Happened One Night (1934). Of course this movie doesn’t take place over the course of one night, but the misguided title is one of the few things that’s wrong with it, as it’s a pretty great film. I mentioned to my wife when it started that I was expecting sexual harassment and condescension toward women, and sure, that’s there, but not as much as you might expect. Clark Gable is a douchebag for much of the movie, but he’s more a cranky misanthrope rather than a hateful misogynist, and he’s right that Claudette Colbert is a bit of a brat. Frank Capra makes this point and Colbert’s maturation rather cleverly – Gable comments on her blasé attitude toward money, but later in the movie her new empathy is glided over by Gable complaining about their lack of money. Capra also wisely doesn’t turn this into a grand romance – Colbert is under no illusions about Gable’s shortcomings, but she begins to see them less as deal-breakers as the movie goes on, simply because he’s not really a bad dude, just someone a spoiled rich girl wouldn’t like (Colbert was 30 when this was filmed, but it’s unclear how old her character is supposed to be). She won the Oscar, and she deserves it, because she’s terrific – Gable won too, and he’s fine, although he’s better in the movie below this yet he didn’t win an Oscar for that. It’s an odd romantic comedy – the two leads never kiss, and the ending is very weird, as we never see Gable after he leaves Colbert’s wedding pre-party, even after she ditches her groom at the altar. Colbert and Gable famously hated the script, and Colbert had only four weeks free, so maybe they ran out of time and had to film the weird ending because of it? (Colbert was going on vacation on Oscar night and had to be taken to the ceremony from the train station; it’s said she remained dumbfounded for the remaining six decades of her life that anyone liked this movie.) Anyway, this is a fun, brisk romantic comedy with two great actors almost at their peaks (Colbert was in four movies in 1934, and three of them were nominated for Best Picture, and this was the only Oscar win for both of them), and it’s well worth a watch.
Mutiny on the Bounty (1935). This is a classic, and rightfully so – it’s very well done, it was filmed on location in Tahiti so the island scenes actually look real, and it’s the only movie ever for which three different people were nominated for Best Actor (it was because Best Supporting Oscars didn’t exist yet, but still). Neither Charles Laughton, Clark Gable, nor Franchot Tone won the award, strangely enough, although Laughton and Gable were certainly worthy (Tone is fine, but not on the level of the other two). It’s a very good adventure, and the scenes in Tahiti are fairly remarkable in that director Frank Lloyd doesn’t really look down upon the natives or sentimentalize them, either (Tone says they’re simple at one point, but he means that they don’t have a lot of stuff, not that they’re stupid). The movie is highly fictionalized, of course – Fletcher Christian seems like a douchebag in real life, but he’s always portrayed as a hero in these movies – but it’s still gripping. I didn’t know that so much of the movie would be about Bligh’s journey after he and the loyal crew were put in a boat, but Laughton does a terrific job with it, and it’s weird because he manages to humanize Bligh even though that didn’t seem to be Lloyd’s point, as later on, when Bligh captures the mutineers who stayed behind on Tahiti, he’s as horrible as ever. While reading about it, I found it bizarre that Gable was a notorious homophobe and Lloyd thought that would make his relationship with Laughton worse because Laughton was gay (and it did, apparently). What is bizarre about this is that Gable and Tone’s friendship is coded very gay, and I wonder if it’s a Spartacus kind of thing, where Gable was so homophobic that he couldn’t see it when he watched the movie. It’s fairly obvious, though. They really should remake this with it more on the surface. That would be fun. Anyway, it’s a good movie. If you haven’t seen it yet, you probably should.
The Saint in New York (1938). This is the first Saint movie, and it’s pretty good. The print is fairly poor (the RKO master print, it seems, is gone), so the quality of the actual film is not always super, but it’s still a decent thriller, with Louis Heyward playing the title character with a good mix of insouciance, nobility, and cold-bloodedness. The Saint, after all, kills several people in this movie, and while they’re criminals, a few he simply hunts down and exterminates … all with the good graces of the police commissioner, whose force is helpless to stop the crime wave enveloping the city. Heyward dominates the movie, as the gangsters are simply cartoonish thugs, giving him no trouble whatsoever. His ally in the police, played by Jonathan Hale, is a good foil for him, and despite not sharing a lot of screen time with Kay Sutton, their scenes have a crackling sexual undertone – she does declare her love for him quite quickly, but they’re both such good-looking people you can believe they’d be shagging like minks as soon as the camera turns off. The identity of the big bad guy is obvious, but that’s okay – filmmakers today still have trouble with legerdemain, so it’s not surprising they did too 80 years ago. One weird thing happens toward the end, though – someone is shot and presumably killed, but then the Saint says that the person is a good witness. So are they dead or not? Strange. Anyway, this is a bizarre thriller (the police are really going to sit back and let the Saint slaughter all the mobsters in New York?), but it’s a pretty good one, and the two leads are great, which goes a long way. Catch it on TCM sometime, because it ain’t out on DVD!
They Drive By Night (1940). This is a weird movie, in that it kind of veers all over the road (that’s a trucking gag, don’t you know). The title makes it sound a lot more dramatic and sinister than it is (there’s a murder, so it’s not like it’s a cheery movie, but still), but it ends up being a strange amalgam of social commentary and film noir, and it doesn’t quite work. Early on, we meet George Raft and Humphrey Bogart, brothers who drive trucks together, trying to cobble together enough money to pay off their truck and maybe start their own business. They have to deal with the loan shark to whom they owe money for the truck, unscrupulous businessmen who won’t pay them what they’re owed, problems with truck maintenance, and pressure to get things to their destinations even if they’re not in the best of shape. It’s a gritty, realistic look at people living on the margins during the Depression, with Bogey wanting to make enough money so he can have kids with his wife, while Raft is always looking to go into business himself. An old friend of Raft’s, Alan Hale, who has actually been able to start his own business, gives him a tip about a job, and Raft is able to buy the load outright and sell it for a big profit. Coming back, though, he and Bogart are both tired, and Bogart drives off the road and loses his arm (Raft is fine). This happens about 45 minutes into the movie, and suddenly, it becomes a noir film. Hale’s wife, Ida Lupino, is keen on Raft (it’s implied they were a bit of an item before she married), and she convinces Hale to employ Raft in his warehouse so Raft doesn’t have to drive anymore, but really, she wants to put the moves on him. He’s dating Ann Sheridan, though, and he’s not interested. She thinks that if she kills Hale, she’ll be able to hook up with Raft, so she does. Then the movie becomes about her trying to get Raft and then trying to screw him over when he rejects her. It’s very weird. As usual with movies from this era, I wonder how much the censors got to it, because there’s not a lot of drama in the second half of the movie, despite the murder. Raft never shows any interest in Lupino, and when she decides to lie about his role in the murder, that scheme falls apart very quickly. Bogart, meanwhile, who has a nice moment right after his arm is amputated where he rages about not being able to do any work, almost disappears for the last 45 minutes or so of the movie, and all the interesting social commentary is dropped. It’s bizarre. Everyone does good work – Lupino is terrific, Raft is solid, Hale is quite good*, but Sheridan is kind of wasted, and while Bogart is good when he’s in the movie, he’s not in it enough. I’m not quite sure what kind of movie Raoul Walsh was trying to make, but he tried to make too many, and the result is a bit of a mess. It’s not a terrible mess, but it could have been a lot better.
* I’m not all that familiar with Alan Hale’s work, but it’s eerie to see how much of him you can see in his son, who of course played the Skipper on Gilligan’s Island. They don’t look all that similar, but just the way they move and act, it’s clear they’re related.
(I also like that movie poster. I’m not sure if Bogart and Lupino share any scenes together, and they certainly don’t sit in a cab with Bogart driving and Lupino clutching at him, like we see in that poster. Wait a minute – you mean the Greatest Generation lied too, just like Baby Boomers and Gen-Xers and Millennials? SHOCKING!!!!!!)
13 Rue Madeleine (1946). This is a strange movie in that it’s told almost like a documentary, with a voice-of-God narrator and a very businesslike approach to the subject matter, which is intelligence during World War II. In fact, up until the moment you catch a glimpse of Jimmy Cagney a few minutes into the movie, you might think it is a documentary. The movie shows how Cagney recruited agents for intelligence work, how they were trained, and then how they carry out their mission behind enemy lines. Early on, we learn that one of the recruits is a German agent, so Cagney comes up with a convoluted plan to feed him false information which he will then take back to the Germans, obscuring the Allies’ real plans (this is around the time of D-Day, so they’re trying to hide that). Everything goes pear-shaped, of course, and Cagney himself needs to go in the field to save the day. It’s a very no-nonsense approach to the subject matter, as director Henry Hathaway (who’s probably most famous for True Grit, one of his last movies, but also made 23 Paces to Baker Street – see below – and Niagara and Kiss of Death, among many others) keeps things moving along, without doing anything fancy. One major character dies off-screen, for instance, because that’s just the way it would have happened. When we reach the climax, unlike some other spy movies and shows, the Allies do what they have to do, as bleak as it might be. We get good performances from Cagney, Annabella (who for some reason used one name, and it wasn’t even her real first name), Richard Conte, and Frank Latimore – they’re nothing superb, but they do solid work. Karl Malden, in a very early role, has a cameo, which is fun. It’s not a great movie, but it’s fairly interesting given that it came out so close to the end of the war, when most people didn’t know about this kind of work, and while it’s not anti-American or anything, it’s remarkably non-jingoistic, which is somewhat refreshing.
The Window (1949). This could have been a truly great thriller, except it ends so weirdly that it almost ruins the vibe built up in the first hour or so. A 10-year-old boy living in an apartment building in New York likes to tell tall tales, which gets him in trouble the one hot night that he decides to sleep on the fire escape and witnesses a murder through the window of his neighbors’ apartment. Of course, no one believes him, and once the killers find out that he knows about him, they try to get him alone to take care of him. It’s very tense from the moment Tommy sees the murder to the end, and director Ted Tetzlaff has a good knack for claustrophobic settings and Dutch angles and chiaroscuro that makes the cat-and-mouse game work very well. Tommy only sees a bit of the murder because the shade is drawn and there’s only a small space, but Tetzlaff does a very good job showing us all we need. Later, there are some amazing shots of people walking up the long staircase toward Tommy’s apartment that builds the tension nicely. Tetzlaff filmed a good deal of this on location, which makes New York an extra character, and it’s a good choice. The five main character – Tommy, Tommy’s parents, and the Kellersons – all do nice work, and Tetzlaff does a good job subtly contrasting the “good” Woodrys with the “bad” Kellersons, as Tommy’s mother dresses simply and wears her hair up, modestly; his dad dresses like a salt-of-the-earth fellow, but Mr. Kellerson dresses more suavely and Mrs. Kellerson, played by Ruth Roman, wears her hair down and dresses a bit more slinkily even though everyone is living in the same apartment building. Tommy finally leads both murderers into an abandoned building down the street from his apartment, and that’s where the movie falls apart a bit. It ends abruptly, with Tommy’s parents finally believing him even though they have no more evidence that he’s telling the truth than they did before and the motive for the murder left completely unknown, which is odd. Still, for the most part, it’s a pretty gripping thriller, so if it’s on somewhere, it’s pretty cool to watch.
The Left Hand of God (1955). This is a weird movie. It wouldn’t surprise me if it was financed in part by the Catholic Church, because it’s almost propaganda in how it regards the Church itself. Humphrey Bogart shows up at a mission in remote China wearing a priest’s vestments and carrying a prayer book with “Father O’Shea” inside, so everyone assumes he’s Father O’Shea. The Americans at the mission – the doctor (a relatively young E.G. Marshall, although he actually looks older than Bogart, who was 15 years his senior), his wife (Agnes Moorehead), and Gene Tierney, looking radiant as usual – are happy that he’s there because the last priest died some months before, and while we don’t know exactly that Bogart isn’t a priest, we can figure it out from various clues before he comes out and tells the Methodist minister at another mission whom he visits. Bogart manages to be a pretty good priest, actually, but it’s clear he and Tierney are falling for each other, so Bogart goes to the minister and tells him his story – he was a pilot shot down during the war (the movie is set in 1947) and he’s spent the previous three years as a soldier/prisoner of the local warlord, Mieh Yang, played hilariously by Lee J. Cobb (it’s very weird – Yang isn’t in the movie all that much, and it’s not like they needed a big star, so they really couldn’t find a Chinese-American actor to play him? I mean, I know racism was alive and well in Hollywood in the 1950s, but it’s not like it’s a big part). He decided to escape and disguised himself as a dead priest so suspicion wouldn’t fall on him. Yang, of course, comes after him, and Bogart has to save the mission, which he does, but he decides he can’t lie to Tierney any more. The reason it feels like Catholic propaganda is because of the way it gets resolved. Bogart writes a letter to the bishop in the city and explains what he’s done, and two priests show up to take over the mission and decide on his punishment. They realize that despite the fact that he’s not a priest, he did a lot of good in his brief time at the mission, so they don’t blow his cover so the locals aren’t disillusioned with the Church. But it’s weird – Bogart isn’t Catholic, or at least if he was, he doesn’t appear to be anymore, and he hasn’t really committed any crime, so why should he place himself in the hands of the bishop and accept whatever punishment the bishop decides upon? He could just tell them all to fuck off and ride on out of there. It seems like the movie wants us to get the idea that a good man can do good things even if he’s done bad things and that the Catholic Church, just by its presence, makes people holier than they were. It’s just a bit bizarre. Anyway, Bogart is fine, as usual, and he doesn’t look well, which works for the movie because it gives him a beaten-down-by-life mien but which is still sad because we know he’d be dead in two years (he made only two more movies after this); Tierney is gorgeous, although she’s really not given too much to do except pine away for Bogart; Marshall’s character is your typical Western racist; Moorehead knows that there’s something going on with Bogart because she’s a woman who knows men; and Cobb is too weird to deal with, which is how it is these days when you watch old movies where white people are playing Asians or other ethnic groups. This isn’t a very good movie, but it’s not awful, either. It’s just a bit strange.
23 Paces to Baker Street (1956). It’s extremely unclear why this is called “23 Paces to Baker Street” – the main character, Van Johnson, lives near it, and at one point he tells a random dude that Baker Street is indeed 23 paces away, but other than that, there’s nothing about the title that relates to the movie at all – the dude who asks Van Johnson where Baker Street is does not come back around and be important, in other words. The word “paces” is in there because Van Johnson is blind, so he relates everything to paces, but it’s still weird. Anyway, Johnson is an American playwright living for a time in London, and one night at a pub he overhears part of a conversation that sounds like a kidnap plot. As he’s a playwright and has trained himself to remember things, he rushes home and records every word he heard. The police are a bit skeptical, even though the words do sound sinister – they come up with plenty of other interpretations for what he heard and then leave. Of course they do! So Johnson, with the help of his poor put-upon butler, played by Cecil Parker, and the young lady (Vera Miles) that he once was going to marry before the mysterious accident that presumably blinded him made him a grumpy middle-aged dude, decides to solve the case himself. It’s Hitchcock-lite, but it’s gripping enough, as Johnson figures things out, Daredevil-style, by using his sense of smell and his other senses that those silly sighted people don’t use as much. It’s shot pretty well, with some very interesting angles and set-ups, and Johnson uses his blindness to his advantage well, too. The solution isn’t exactly stunning, but it is fairly clever, and the final showdown is fairly tense. Johnson is pretty good, although Miles, as his frustrated ex-girlfriend who still loves him, does a better job making her character more interesting than Johnson’s – he’s just there to play Sherlock Holmes, so either he doesn’t care to give his character depth or he wasn’t asked to. It’s a decent thriller, and hey, Estelle Winwood is in it! She’s everywhere! (Miles is still alive, although she doesn’t act anymore. She was, however, in Into the Night, the terrific 1985 Jeff Goldblum-Michelle Pfeiffer romantic thriller, which isn’t a reason to watch that again, because it’s so good, but it’s still interesting.)
12 Angry Men (1957). It’s impressive that this movie works at all, considering it’s 12 dudes sitting in one room for about 99% of the movie, but it does work, and it works very well. Henry Fonda, as always America’s most boring movie star of all time, is fairly boring as the juror who doesn’t think the case is as slam-dunk as everyone else does, but his blandness works well in the face of the angry dudes yelling at him for the first part of the movie, before everyone begins to reconsider their actions. The cast is great – Lee J. Cobb is brilliant as the angriest of the angry dudes; E.G. Marshall is great as the calmest of the angry dudes; Ed Begley is amazing as the most racist of the angry dudes; Martin Balsam is solid as the most frazzled of the angry dudes; Jack Klugman is terrific as the most sympathetic of the angry dudes; George Voskovec is steady as the most foreign of the angry dudes; Jack Warden is smarmy as the most apathetic of the angry dudes. There are some showy moments – everyone turning away from Begley as he gives his centerpiece racist speech about “them” (see below), which in this case means Puerto Ricans but which could mean any group racists don’t like (the speech could have been spoken verbatim by the Orange-Faced Baboon in the White House on the campaign trail and none of his supporters would have batted an eye, that’s how little has changed) – but in general, it’s just a very realistic look at how people make up their minds based on things other than facts and how hard they cling to beliefs even if they’re confronted with evidence to the contrary. I mean, early on we know why Cobb thinks the kid is guilty, but it doesn’t change the fact that his final speech is utterly riveting. It’s a terrific acting tour-de-force, and for once Fonda’s blandness works for him very well!
Vertigo (1958). It’s easy to see why Vertigo is both considered a Hitchcock masterpiece now and why it didn’t do very well at the box office in 1958. By this time, Hitchcock had a bit of a brand, that of the suspense thriller, and Vertigo twists that genre in ways that audiences might not have liked (The Trouble With Harry, which might be the only other non-suspense thriller Hitchcock made between Vertigo back to, I don’t know, Rebecca in 1940? also suffered in the same way). It wasn’t what audiences expected or wanted from Hitchcock, so they stayed away. This is what makes it a masterpiece, though, as Hitchcock eschews standard thriller conventions to make a deeply creepy movie that probably didn’t sit well with 1950s white America, given as the prevailing thought of the time was that women were indeed trophies, so Jimmy Stewart’s behavior with Kim Novak hit them where white America lived. This is also the only (?) Hitchcock movie where the killer gets away scot free – the murder, in fact, is so unimportant that you might even miss the fact that Gavin gets away with murder! Hitchcock, apparently, blamed the film’s relative failure on Stewart being too old, but the movie wouldn’t work as well if he didn’t cast someone a bit older and as trusted as Stewart – a typically creepy guy would have been just being a creep, where as Stewart’s descent into creepiness is very disturbing (I have no idea how often Stewart played a villain prior to this movie, because my knowledge of older movies is suspect, but he still represented an American ideal in movies in 1958). I’m just impressed that Hitchcock basically put himself into the movie, unless it’s completely unintentional (which I doubt). That he was self-aware enough to know that he indulged in this kind of behavior (and, if we believe Tippi Hedren, kept doing it after this movie) is pretty impressive, even if it doesn’t excuse it. We watched this with my 13-year-old daughter, and it was pretty hilarious, because she could not stop hating Stewart and his disturbing behavior. She kept yelling at Kim Novak that Stewart didn’t love her and that she should get away. I guess we’re raising her right! As usual with Hitchcock, this movie features some impressive shots – I was particularly struck by the church after the first time someone goes off the bell tower – we get an overhead shot with a very wonky perspective, showing Stewart fleeing in the bottom right corner while the priest and nuns enter the church in the upper left, with the tower thrusting toward the viewer in the center. Considering the bell tower didn’t exist in real life, it’s a very cool visual. And boy, someone would have a big lawsuit against that church, right? There’s nothing stopping anyone from going up the tower, and at the top there’s no railing keeping anyone inside. I mean, one person throwing themselves down is bad enough, but it happens again a year later and no one has put up any barriers? Sheesh, Catholics. Get it together!
That’s it for now. As always, I have plenty of movies on my DVR that I haven’t watched, so I’m sure I’ll be back soon enough!