Sunday, March 31, 2013

IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT - 1934



The amazing success of “It Happened One Night” almost never happened. A carousel of A-list actors passed on the project for such reasons as the script was too weak. Critics gave the finished product a tepid reception. And upon its initial release, it didn’t exactly set the box office ablaze.

However, it proved to be the little screwball comedy that could, eventually raking in the Benjamins, winning over fans like Hitler and Stalin and sweeping the Academy A
wards with wins for Best Actress, Best Actor, Best Screenplay, Best Director and, of course, Best Picture for 1934. This feat would not be repeated by another film until 1975’s “One Flew o
ver the Cuckoo’s Nest.” But perhaps even more extraordinary is the film’s enduring influence on the romantic comedy genre, establishing a formula that would be copied over and over, but never replicated.

Directed by the legendary Frank Capra, “It Happened One Night” is completely his discovery, having found the short story in an issue of Cosmopolitan magazine that he read in a doctor’s office waiting room. Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert (no relation to Stephen Colbert, as far as I can tell) later signed on to star. However, Colbert dragged her feet in finalizing the deal, demanding that her salary be doubled to $50,000 and that the shoot wrap in four weeks so as not to conflict with a scheduled vacation. Despite Capra meeting these demands, Colbert still complained everyday on set, capping off her grumbles by remarking to a friend on the final day of shooting that “I’ve just finished the worst picture I’ve ever made in my life.”

Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert size each other up in "It Happened One Night"
In the film, Colbert plays Ellie Andrews, a stubborn and spoiled socialite whose specialty appears to be throwing tantrums. One such tantrum pushes her to go on the lamb from her wealthy father in protest of his disapproval regarding Ellie’s recent marriage to a fame-seeking aviator. In retrospect, perhaps Capra put up with Colbert’s on-set complaints because it probably translated into raising the authenticity of her performance. Furthermore, I suspect that as a director, Capra became shrewd enough to observe that letting a bratty dame run amok played to Clark Gable’s acting strengths, bringing out those rogue and rakish Rhett Butler qualities that made him such a star.

And it paid off handsomely. The chemistry between Colbert’s headstrong Ellie and Gable’s wisecracking reporter Peter Warne, is undeniably magnetic in its comedic and romantic appeal. The weight of the film rested on their performances, and they deserve a large slice of the credit for the success of “It Happened One Night.” Together, they elevated potentially ordinary material into a parade of classic cinematic moments, which continue to endure nearly 80 years later.

Claudette Colbert shows Clark Gable a thing or two about hitchhiking.
Take, for example, the now famous hitchhiking scene where Peter teaches Ellie the distinguished art of hailing a passerby. After Peter’s thumb repeatedly fails to do the trick, Ellie takes a turn at bat, hiking up her skirt to flash some upper leg, which convinces the very next motorist to come to a halting screech. In the wake of this success, Ellie turns toward a shocked Peter and gloats, “I proved once and for all that the limb is mightier than the thumb.”
Interestingly, Colbert initially refused to reveal her leg in the hitchhiking scene, causing Capra to consult with the casting director to bring in a chorus girl who could double as Colbert’s leg. Rumor has it that upon seeing the substitute gam, Colbert angrily demanded, “Get her out of here. I'll do it. That's not my leg!”

Another highlight from the hitchhiking scene stems from a moment when Clark Gable cleans off a dirty carrot and subsequently begins to loudly gnaw away at it as he continues jabbering on. Apparently, legendary animator Friz Freleng was inspired by the way Gable could mulch a carrot and still deliver dialogue in rapid-fire fashion that he borrowed the tactic in developing Bugs Bunny’s signature carrot-consuming style. I guess when you think about it, Clark Gable’s famous onscreen characters and Bugs Bunny share some similar traits: They’re independent, wisecracking personalities who act indifferent to the situation around them, but reluctantly do the right thing in the end.


Over the years, a myriad of romantic comedies have borrowed from the blueprint set forth by “It Happened One Night.” But despite the re-occurrences of the tropes and trends that emanate from it, this film is still a delight to watch. The script’s humor and romance have not grown stale. There is not a weak link in the cast. And given that it is the only film in it’s category to sweep the Oscars, it could be successfully debated that this is the greatest romantic comedy ever made. And to think, it all happened one night.

Favorite Line: There are several snappy and amusing lines in this film that made choosing a favorite somewhat of a toss-up. But perhaps my favorite line emerges when Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert check into a motel where Gable registers them as a husband-and-wife couple. After learning this fact from the motel manager, Colbert sarcastically confronts Gable, informing him that, “I just had the unpleasant sensation of hearing you referred to as my husband.”

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

CAVALCADE - 1932/1933

Puzzlingly, "Cavalcade" is not available on Netflix. It isn't just Netflix, but I couldn't even find it for sale on Amazon in a DVD format. It seems strange that a film that has won the Academy Award for Best Picture is not available on DVD. Too bad, because the poster makes it look epic and sweeping.

Anyway, given that "Cavalcade" isn't available, I've decided to move forward, keeping tabs on its DVD availability. If and when it does become available, I'll circle back and revisit it. Until then, I've got too many other films to watch and write about.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

GRAND HOTEL - 1931/1932



I don’t feel like there is a lot to say about “Grand Hotel.” Admittedly, I wasn’t in a movie-going mood when I watched it. But even if I had been, I still think I would have anointed it as being an unremarkable film. The only thing really noteworthy about this feature is the catalog of A-list stars whose names elbow and crowd each other on the marquee.

Directed by Edmund Goulding, “Grand Hotel” won Best Picture in 1931/1932. It holds the distinction of being the only Best Winner champion not to have secured any additional nominations. The film follows an ensemble of characters, holed up in a swanky Berlin hotel, each navigating their own tiny adventure, which ultimately intersects with the tiny adventures of other principle characters. The only problem is that none of these tiny adventures are particularly compelling, even when combined with the tiny adventure of someone else. 

The film is top lined by Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford and brothers John and Lionel Barrymore. It’s funny (and maybe a tad sad) that I first became aware of these classic film stars through modern pop culture references. Thanks to the verse in Madonna’s ode to vogue where she name drops a list of legendary figures, I’ve known who Greta Garbo is since at least the early 1990s. Unfortunately, thanks to Faye Dunaway’s campy performance in “Mommy Dearest,” I never looked a wire hanger without thinking about Joan Crawford. Then Lionel and John Barrymore are the great uncle and grandfather of cutie pie Drew Barrymore. So there you have it.

Apart from seeing Lionel Barrymore in “It’s A Wonderful Life,” I had never seen any of the films on these actors’ resumes before. So it was interesting to put a face and performance with these names that I’ve heard referenced in pop culture before. Even if I hadn’t seen “Mommy Dearest,” I think I would have still found Joan Crawford to be intense and unsettling. She has a face full of sharp features, beset by a pair of dark eyes that seem capable of erupting into Maleficent flames. Also, to me, she looks like a woman who collects husbands as a personal hobby. This made her seem miscast as a young, innocent stenographer just trying to do the right thing. However, if given the right role, a darker role, I could imagine Joan Crawford to be quite a blazing force onscreen. 
John Barrymore and Greta Garbo in "Grand Hotel."

As for Greta Garbo, she does have a certain mystique that you quite can’t put your finger on. It’s difficult to label her. Is she a good girl? A hell’s angel? Or somewhere in between? My guess is that she could be convincing as all three, which is alluring because it’s far more interesting to watch someone onscreen who is unpredictable. I think what aids this mercurial quality is that her beauty hovers above any categorical fray. She could be dark and intimidating, if it were called for. But she could also be sweet and approachable, if those were the attributes de jour.

On an unrelated note, in the opening credits it attributed the costumes to “Gowns by Adrian.” This caught my attention because I can’t ever remember such a bold and unique costume design credit. Typically costume designers seem to have their screen credit attributed to a regular moniker, like Colleen Atwood. From a quick Google search, it turns out the Adrian Greenburg’s screen credit became Gowns by Adrian because his signature pieces were the evening gowns he designed for the biggest starlets of the day. Ironically, despite his name, Adrian’s most recognizable design was the ruby slippers worn by Judy Garland in “The Wizard of Oz.”

For all of its star power, “Grand Hotel” felt, by-and-large, mostly forgettable. I suppose if there are any serious messages or musings on life to be mined from this story; it would simply be that everything is made equal in the end. In the film, as one character dies, another welcomes a new baby. As one character suffers a broken heart, another finds new love. And as one character’s freedoms are taken away, another is given a new lease on life. Not an especially deep insight, I know.

Lionel Barrymore and Joan Crawford in "Grand Hotel."

Despite the satisfaction of curiosity at having seen such a line-up of screen legends in a film, I don’t feel like this is one hotel that I am going to being checking into again anytime soon. My sense is that all of these stars have made far better films that are much more deserving of a visit. 

Favorite Line: The most famous line from this movie is uttered by Greta Garbo, where she states in tired protest, “I want to be alone.” I don’t quite understand why this line became so famous. From what I can gather, Greta Garbo was elusive with the press and sought to maintain her privacy, leading to speculation that this line was uttered as her personal mantra. However, if you had no idea this line had become noteworthy, it would have come and gone without any notice.



On that note, my favorite line from the movie is delivered by an old WWI veteran who inhabits the hotel and develops keen insights into the behavior of its guests. In dispensing these observations, he says, “What do you do at the Grand Hotel? Eat, sleep, loaf around, flirt a little, dance a little. A hundred doors leading to one hall. No one knows anything about the person next to them. When you leave, someone else occupies your room. Lies in your bed. That’s the end.”

Thursday, March 14, 2013

CIMARRON - 1930/1931


Years ago I remember reading a list of the worst films that had won Best Picture, and “Cimarron” came in near the top. I had never heard of this film before, but when I read the title I thought it said “Cinnamon.” Even when I had corrected my mistake, I couldn’t quite detach myself from the notion that somehow “Cimarron” had something to do with cinnamon. I think my affinity for candy pursuaded me to believe that the plot of “Cimarron” revolved around cinnamon gummy bears and other cinnamon-based candies.

Even though that has been years ago, I have to admit that as I put the DVD in the player, this part of me still hoped that cinnamon would play a key role in “Cimarron.” Much to my disappointment, I learned that “Cimarron” has absolutely nothing to do with cinnamon in any way, shape or form. In fact, there isn’t even one reference to cinnamon or gummy bears. And if other people experienced this same let-down, then it’s no wonder that “Cimarron” occupies a place on the list of the worst films to win the Oscar for Best Picture.

Instead of cinnamon, the word cimarron is a Spanish word that supposedly can be roughly translated to mean rowdy place. This is what I found out through the internet, so who knows how reliable that information is. But if this definition is true, it would fit within the context of the film, which takes place on the untamed plains of the Oklahoma territory. Apart from that, it’s also the name of a street in Las Vegas.

Directed by Wesley Ruggles, and starring Richard Dix and Irene Dunne, “Cimarron” charts a 40-year chunk of Oklahoma’s history through the exploits of Yancey Cravat and his wife Sabra (which also happens to be the name of my favorite brand of hummus). Yancey is a lantern-jawed adventurer, always sporting a Kentucky tie, with his thumbs hooked squarely in his gun holster. Saddled with a severe case of wanderlust, Yancey can’t ignore the siren’s song of the west, dragging his wife Sabra to the rough-and-tumble town of Osage in the early 1890s.

Over the next 40 years, Yancey spends his time chasing every new horizon, leaving and returning to Osage without any warning to his wife. Sabra, meanwhile, remains steadfast in Yancey’s absence, raising their two children, running a newspaper they founded and eventually becoming elected a member of Congress. As a newly elected Congresswoman, Sabra is touring the oil fields of Oklahoma, where she discovers a frail and aged Yancey, right before his death from a work-related accident. The final shot of the film is of a giant statue erected in Yancey’s honor to commemorate all that he contributed and sacrificed in building up Oklahoma.

Irene Dunne and Richard Dix in "Cimarron."

“Cimarron” nabbed seven Academy Award nominations for 1930/1931, the most of any film up until that time. The fact that it managed to receive such acclaim illustrates the irresistible nature that a sprawling epic can possess for the Academy because it isn’t a strong film in many regards. The story is presented in disjointed chapters of time, spreading the narrative too thin and forcing it to take too many corners, which prevents it from being able to gather any real momentum.

It’s frustrating what moments and events the film decides to show and what it decides to skip over entirely. For example, at one point Yancey rides off to Cuba to fight in the Spanish-American war, an event only dealt with through a few passing lines of dialogue. However, during a Sunday scene at church, there is an extraordinary amount of screen time given to different members of the congregation as they completely butcher a hymn.  

But for all of its faults, I found that I enjoyed a variety of isolated aspects of “Cimarron,” which seems fitting given the film’s disjointed nature. From a historical standpoint, “Cimarron” offers up an interesting, truncated look at Oklahoma’s history. The opening sequence is an ambitious recreation of the great land rush on April 22nd, 1889, when President Benjamin Harrison opened up the Territory for settlement. This scene involved over 5,000 extras and 28 cameramen to achieve, which is most likely something no modern film production would attempt to coordinate. And by today’s standards, it still holds up as a stirring spectacle to see all of those extras galloping off at full speed in mass orchestration. I think this version of the Oklahoma land rush is more impressive and striking than the land rush scene presented in the film “Far and Away,” which was released 60 years later. 

Irene Dunne and Richard Dix in "Cimarron."
Apart from the abbreviated history lesson of the Sooner State, I thought the film’s contradictory treatment of minorities and socially progressive ideas proved interesting to mull over. Throughout its running time, minorities are interlaced into the plot, leading to some cringe-worthy moments. However, the story also simultaneously advocates on behalf of those same minority groups that five minutes earlier it had presented in unflattering light.

Additionally, the film also examines socially progressive topics, such as inter-racial marriage, Native-American rights and women holding elected office. But it also maintains a grasp on socially antiquated notions, such as husbands not respecting their wives and men expecting women to solely run the household under every circumstance.

The fact that “Cimarron” seemingly goes out of its way to highlight and advocate progressive ideas, while failing to avoid propagating other negative ideas and racial stereotypes through its own characters is an interesting reflection of the slow pace at which progressive ideals flourish and become accepted. My impression is that the social ideals promoted in “Cimarron” were most likely done in good faith. However, the film seems to simultaneously sabotage its own efforts on this front because it sort of becomes hampered by its own hypocrisy. 

It is human nature to not take sound advice from a hypocritical source, no matter how accurate that advice is. In a sense, “Cimarron” comes across as an insincere voice because, for example, on the one hand it supports women’s rights and their involvement in the political arena. But on the other hand, it shows that a man like Yancey can be selfish and disrespectful toward his wife and in the end he’ll still have a statue erected in his honor surrounded by cheering throngs. I think this type of a mixed messaging trips up the pace at which progressive ideas move through the mainstream because while they very well may be recognized as inherently right, the fact that the old way of thinking is still rewarded doesn’t demonstrate any reason to really change. 

Irene Dunne and Richard Dix in "Cimarron."
Over the years, “Cimarron” has taken it on the chin by critics who deplore its portrayal of minorities. Some of it is deserved criticism. But I think it is unfair to harshly judge an 80-year-old film’s depiction of society and its treatment of socially progressive ideas with a modern mindset. In a way, that would sort of be like labeling the original “King Kong” movie as being technologically backward because it didn’t utilize CGI. “Cimarron” is a product of its time. And I do think it was well intentioned, doing the best it could within the time it existed. I can appreciate that it at least tried to spark conversations about equality and how we treat our fellow beings. For that, I think the film should be defended for what it tried to achieve and not criticized for its faults. The critics who throw back their heads and howl at this film should ease up a little bit. Because the truth of the matter is that films with racially and culturally insensitive content are still being produced and acclaimed. 

Favorite Line: Richard Dix has a large, athletic presence, accompanied by a deep and booming voice. I’ve never seen him in anything else, but my guess is that he wouldn’t be effective in a part that required subtly. If he ever had attempted an understated role, I think the result would be similar to casting Arnold Schwarzenegger in a Sofia Coppola movie.

Anyway, as Yancey, Dix definitely delivers some moments of true ham-and-eggs acting. Perhaps my favorite line comes after Yancey has returned home to Sabra after a prolonged absence, where he declares, “Ah, Sugar, Sugar, I love yah. Hell and high water all the way there’s never been anybody but you and you know it!”

Saturday, March 2, 2013

ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT - 1929/1930



For some reason, my teacher showed “All Quiet on the Western Front” in class when I was in grade five. I haven’t the faintest idea why. In retrospect it seems odd to show a bunch of 10 year olds an old war movie from the 1930s. Maybe he had been a big movie buff. But I do remember not understanding pretty much anything going on in this film and riding the bus home with the impression that it was dreadfully boring. So it was with trepidation that I sat down to watch it again more than 20 years later, admittedly expecting another dreadfully boring experience. However, I’m pleased to report that it was a good reunion and that “All Quiet on the Western Front” is neither dreadful, nor boring. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.

Directed by Lewis Milestone (director of the original “Ocean’s 11”), and adapted from Erich Maria Remarque’s novel of the same name, “All Quiet on the Western Front” was nominated for four Academy Awards, winning Best Director and Best Picture for 1929/1930. The film charts the course of Paul, played by Lew Ayres, and his apple-cheeked chums as they skip off to join the German army with notions of patriotic heroism orbiting their heads. They are quickly shipped off to the Western Front to fight the French, where reality soon catches up and has them competing with rats for moldy bread; struggling to maintain a tenuous grip on sanity; and watching the number of familiar faces gradually fade.

 “All Quiet on the Western Front” holds up remarkably well under the weight generated by decades of time. Part of the film’s enduring strength is the presentation of its anti-war message through chronicling disillusionment and the destruction of a soul. When it comes to the ugly effects of war on individuals, this message is as resonant today as it was in 1930.

Also, I think when modern audiences watch this film, they feel that a lot of the themes still retain relevancy. For example, at one point a group of soldiers have forgotten the reason the war even started in the first place. Maybe it’s because the Kaiser had everything except for a war, suggests one of the soldiers. This notion that wars are started by leaders, but fought by the people is still a point that causes debates and protests decades later.

Lew Ayres
Additionally, the despairingly gritty and realistic look of the film also aids in its ability to withstand the test of time. From an aesthetic standpoint, I think if Lewis Milestone were directing today, he would be making films like “Saving Private Ryan” and “Blackhawk Down.” A lot of the battle scenes in “All Quiet on the Western Front” look like actual newsreel footage, with the camera tracking across desolate landscapes littered with mangled bodies. At one point, a soldier is seen gripping a wire fence when a nearby bomb explodes, leaving nothing behind except for two contorted hands dangling on the barbs.

Apart from the coarse aesthetics, “All Quiet on the Western Front” retains power by knowing when to subscribe to the less-is-more approach to storytelling. Maybe it’s because I’m just coming off of the cheese-tray acting replete in “The Broadway Melody,” but the performances in “Front” felt refreshingly understated. Sure there was a scene here and there that delivered some hysteria, but most of the film’s running time featured low-key acting. To me, this made the film seem ahead of its time because one ingredient that makes me gag on a lot of early films is the over-acting.

The subtle style of the film isn’t contained within the performances along. Most of the film is devoid of any type of a score, which I didn’t even realize until most of the film had passed. But the lack of music created a sense of isolation and disconnect from normal life. Another example of a film that I think omits music to good effect is “Castaway.” For the most part, there are no tunes of any kind providing an overture to Tom Hanks’ exploits while on the island, which again contributes to a sense of loneliness and separation.

Apart from a minimal score, there are long stretches of the film that shelve dialogue altogether. (It made me wonder if Sofia Coppola took her writing cues from “All Quiet on the Western Front.”) This lack of conversation generated the same effects of despair and detachment because it leaves the viewer with little to focus on except the muddy surroundings of the bunker or the battlefield.


It would be interesting to know the history of the cast and crew on this film and whether any of them personally experienced World War I. Everyone who worked on this film probably lived through the war and were most likely affected by it to some degree. If this is true, then it would make sense that the production can lay claim to this unique credibility in presenting World War I with firsthand experience that is now obviously lost. No amount of research and attention to details is going to allow a modern cast and to recreate World War I with a set of burning memories and fresh wounds.

In its way then, “All Quiet on the Western” isn’t just worth watching because it’s a great film that strips away the myths and melodrama of war.  It’s worth watching because it now doubles as historical artifact that captures and presents The Great War that can never be replicated again, presenting a truly distinct cinematic experience.

Favorite Line: This isn’t exactly a line from the movie; but the film’s opening title. However, I thought it succinctly summed up the film’s core theme. “This story is neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it. It will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped its shells, were destroyed by the war…”