Saturday, January 29, 2011

Manhattan Melodrama (1934)

"I'm going to clean out every rotten spot I can find in this city, and, Blackie, I don't want to find you in any of them! "

Manhattan Melodrama is not the most exciting film ever made. I know great way to start a post and grab the readers’ attention. What the film lacks in excitement it makes up for in the interesting way the morals of the main characters are portrayed.
            Clark Gable plays a gangster named Blackie Gallagher who is friends with William Powell’s Jim Wade, the DA of New York City. They have been friends since they were young. Both boys were orphaned after an accident. From the beginning Blackie was always the sly gambler and Jim was always the nice kid. Both boys took different paths in life but remained best friends.
            Unfortunately their paths meet when Jim becomes the DA and must prosecute his friend for murder. This case will make Jim governor if he wins it. Blackie is accused of murder and sentenced to death. Jim is elected governor because he was able to honestly convict someone he knew.
            As the film progresses you do not want to see Blackie die or be convicted of any murder. The reason he was sentenced to death is because he killed someone who was planning to smear Jim’s name; he was saving his best friend. Blackie does not really seem like the villain, by the end of the film it is who we thought as the nice who is not really seen as a villain but as cold hearted for doing what he did to his friend. You can see the whole time that Jim is struggling with his emotions and what he feels is right and what should be done. You want Jim as Blackie’s friend to commute his sentence to life but unfortunately the Production Code would not allow that. These characters are what make the movie interesting enough to watch. They play against conventional types; we’re rooting for the bad guy and mad at the good guy.

            Now I have not forgotten about Myrna Loy… Loy plays Eleanor who was once dating Blackie. One night after Blackie did not show up to meet Jim Eleanor is left alone to entertain him. The two hit it off right away. Jim is the kind of man Eleanor wants. That night she tells Blackie that this is last chance to settle down with him but he tells her he cannot that settling down is not for him. Eleanor leaves him and a while later she and Jim are set to get married. Eleanor is also an interesting character; she cares for both Jim and Blackie very much. She knows how to work both of them and goes back and forth between the friends for different reasons. I have yet to see a performance of Myrna Loy’s that is not good. Eleanor is a character who knows what she wants from Jim and knows what she wants from Blackie; she’s not just a woman who gets bounced between the leading men. When I watch Myrna Loy with any of her roles I have seen her in you are watching the character not the actress. The character feels love and guilt and want and Loy portrays these feelings wonderfully.

            Clark Gable and William Powell also give very excellent performances. Powell is the same way as Loy, you are not watching an actor you are watching a character. You can see the torment on his face as Jim gives his speech in court, you can see the sadness on his face after his friend is sentenced to death. Before Manhattan Melodrama, I had only seen Gable in It Happened One Night as a silly character. He had the perfect look of a tough guy and a good guy. Unfortunately I felt like I was watching Clark Gable not Blackie Gallagher, don’t get me wrong Gable is a great actor I liked his acting but I did not feel like I was watching a character I felt like I was watching just the actor.
            This is the first of thirteen pairings (if someone can tell me what the fourteenth pairing is please let me know) of William Powell and Myrna Loy. Knowing how well the pair worked together in the Thin Man series you can see the spark that would later ignite into fire when they would play Nick and Nora. Watching Powell and Loy as Jim and Eleanor there was just so much chemistry between them, you can almost feel it.
            Manhattan Melodrama, although not fantastic is still a film to watch sometime. The whole film is different, in other words it was not what I expected which I like with movies. By the end you may feel like throwing something at William Powell but then once you really think about what Jim did you feel sorry. So watch the film if you would like to see where the Myrna Loy and William Powell pairing got started, if you like Clark Gable and want to see where he pretty much got his start for MGM, if you like courtroom scenes, or if you just want to see something different.

Black Widow (1954)

Black Widow was my first Film Noir  as well as my first Ginger Rogers film and first Gene Tierney film. I had no idea who Gene Tierney and Ginger Rogers were let alone the genre of Film Noir (well I had heard of Ginger Rogers I knew she was in dancing films). When I bought this DVD I was just becoming a fan of classic films. I can’t remember what attracted me to the DVD but I remember reading the back and liked the story.
            Van Heflin plays a famed Broadway producer named Peter Denver. His wife, Iris (Tierney), is out of town visiting her sick mother. At a party given by his friend and current star of his new play Carlotta “Lottie” Marin (Rogers) and her husband in the apartment above his, Peter meets a young writer named Nancy Ordway (Peggy . She comes off as a nice, young naïve Southern girl new to the city. Nancy wants to be a writer. Peter tells her she can come write in his apartment during the day but only while his wife is out of town. Peter lets Iris know about Nancy, there is nothing going on between them since he is out working all day and she is gone before he comes home.
            A few weeks later, Iris comes home with Peter after he has picked her up from the airport. When they get off the elevator to their apartment they can hear the radio blasting. No one seems to be in the house. Iris goes into the bedroom and quickly but calmly comes back out into the living room looking worried. Peter goes into the bedroom; in the shadows we see Nancy’s hanging body.
            Nancy’s death has initially been ruled a suicide but as the evidence comes together it is revealed that she has been murdered and Peter is the number one suspect. The rest of the film is a race for Peter to clear his name.
            For not knowing this film and having not been into classic films as much as I am now I remember enjoying it when I first viewed it. I recently viewed the film again and I appreciated it more now that I am a huge fan of Ginger Rogers and Gene Tierney and love the Noir genre. The film is in color so there is none of the black and white, dark cinematography but the story is a typical Noir mystery and the “hero” of the film has to get himself out of trouble and clear his name.
            Ginger Rogers was very good in this film. Her character is an actress who thinks who she is and knows she is famous and flaunts it. Throughout the investigation, Lottie has been saying out loud that she thinks Peter is the killer and that Iris should leave him. Lottie is a far cry from the good natured, caring characters Rogers played before this. This role goes to show how good of an actress Rogers was, she was able to play any kind of character and make it great. In her autobiography, Rogers was asked why she chose to play Lottie Marin, she said she took the role because she wanted to play someone who wasn’t nice since she had never done so before.
            Gene Tierney as always was so fabulous. It is a shame that this was one of her last major roles for 20th Century Fox. Although Iris was not in the film as much, Gene Tierney still stole some the scenes she was in. I think I nearly freaked out when she and Ginger Rogers were sitting next to each other in a scene, two of my favorite screen goddesses were in the same scene together it was awesome for me! 
            Black Widow is a Film Noir must see, it is wonderfully written, directed, and produced by Nunally Johnson (who had written Roxie Hart starring Ginger Rogers and Tobacco Road starring Gene Tierney). The mystery is exciting and the killer is not someone you would think of until they are revealed.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Women in the Wind (1939)

Recently I finished reading a biography on the British female aviatrix Amy Johnson called Queen of the Air. Before I read about Amy Johnson I read a fantastic biography on Amelia Earhart called East to the Dawn. Both biographies were so incredible and so inspiring. Amelia Earhart was so much more than the women who disappeared on her last flight and her solo flight across the Atlantic. She inspired women all over the world to step out of their comfort zone and what was expected of them in the time to become adventurous and daring. Amy Johnson flew across treacherous terrain and the elements to become the first female pilot to fly solo from Britain to Australia.
            Both aviatrixes pushed the limits of women’s roles in society in the late 1920s and 1930s. Each flyer earned the love of their home countries and the world endorsing products and planes and wanting to make flying more accessible to women and safer.
            My admiration for Earhart and Johnson led me to record the film Women in the Wind off of TCM a few weeks ago. Women in the Wind is not a well known film today even though it did very well for a Warner Brothers B- movie. The plot is very clichéd and from the moment of its set up you know what will happen. Kay Francis plays pilot Janet Steele. Her brother was once a famous pilot but an accident has left him paralyzed and he desperately needs an operation to save his life. She sees an ad for a race for women pilots worth $15,000.
            You can pretty much guess that Janet wins the race. There’s a not too great love story/triangle going on between Janet, a record breaking pilot named Ace and his wife Frieda who he thought he got a Mexican divorce with. Ace let Janet use his plane which was the fastest around to fly in the race but Frieda decides to take it and there is nothing Ace can do about. Janet gets a plane from someone else who has just broken a flying record.
            Women in the Wind is not a bad film especially if you like to learn about early aviation and how people hero worshipped pilots. This is not a film that is a must see but it is fun. I will say thank God this was not long it is only an hour and fifteen minutes and if it had been any longer it would have been too long. The plot with Janet and Ace was a bit bothersome to begin with. Eve Arden plays another aviatrix who is friends with Janet named Kit. Kit is the type of character I could see how a lot of the women pilots were back in the day: spunky and full of attitude.
            Women in the Wind is predictable but enjoyable. The film gives a great view into aviation at the time and how much of a novelty it once was.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Roxie Hart (1942)

“The knees, Roxie, the knees!”

            So how many of you knew that the musical Chicago is based off Roxie Hart?
            Back when Chicago the musical was made into a movie I must have played it and the soundtrack to death and have not seen it since my sophomore year of high school. To this day I am still baffled at how Renée Zellwegger got the part of Roxie Hart, she was not terrible but next to Catherine Zeta- Jones who has immense singing and acting talent and Richard Geer she was ok.
            Anyway enough about Chicago the musical this post is about the hilarious Roxie Hart.

            We all know the story by now: Roxie is accused of killing her lover Fred Casely and her husband, Amos, takes the blame but then he and the police figure out Roxie knew who Casely was and Amos puts the blame on Roxie and she’s arrested. Well, that’s similar to what happened in this film but because of the Production Code, Roxie had to be innocent and just admit she did it since being a killer would make her famous.
            This film had me laughing from beginning to end. Ginger Rogers gives one of her best performances as Roxie. Her facial expressions alone cracked me up. She was excellent as the gum-chewing airhead who had nothing but fame on her mind. One of the best scenes of the film is when Roxie and Velma Kelly (whose character is only seen for about three minutes) start cat fighting- complete with cat noises. She starts off by billy goating Velma then proceeds to get into a slap fight that winds up with both women on the floor.
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            The courtroom scenes are some of the funniest scenes ever in a comedy. Everyone is nervous and excited which brings out all the characters’ funny sides. The whole courtroom is a circus listening to Roxie’s sob story of how they Casely took advantage of her and how they “both reached for the gun” then “everything went… purple.” The all male jury cannot take their eyes off her for one second and Roxie uses this to her advantage and lifts her dress up a little more exposing her knees. Adolphe Menjou as Billy Flynn, silently mouths the rehearsed words as Roxie is put on the witness stand. Before court he is well put together, dressed nice and his hair neatly combed; in court he makes his hair and moustache a mess and his clothes are old and frumpy looking. They really did work up quite a lot of sympathy.

            Although this is a straight up comedy there are two small dance numbers. In the jail one of the reports wants Roxie to show off her dance skills so with not much coaxing she does and soon enough all the reports are up and dancing as well. The other one Roxie does a little tap on the stairs for the young reporter Homer- “Grab ‘em by the horns and hit it while it’s hot”. Ginger Rogers wrote in her autobiography that when the writer for Chicago the musical watched Roxie they wanted to put the dance on the stairs into the play but they could not find a spot to put it in (*I say thank God… I cannot imagine Renée Zellwegger pulling the tap dancing off gracefully) Even though she had not done a musical in a few years Rogers could dance like no one else.
            Ginger Rogers made Roxie Hart after winging her first and only Oscar for her role as the title character in Kitty Foyle. You can see that Rogers was no longer just the straight laced serious one from her movies with Fred Astaire. She had tremendous talent to pull off a role as serious as Kitty Foyle then going on to be hilarious as Roxie.
             Roxie Hart is a great comedy film it is so much fun to watch. It is silly, funny, and a bit dramatic. The ending is one of my all time favorite movie endings. There are so many funny scenes that will have you talking about Roxie Hart for a while.  

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Tron: Legacy

A man releasing a disc upwards into the air, embraced by a woman

From the moment I saw the trailer for Tron: Legacy I wanted to see the movie. I was like a little kid I was attracted to the cool lights… and the awesome, electronic soundtrack created by Daft Punk was a major plus. Watching this movie I did feel like a little kid the neon blues and reds were really cool. The action was alright I liked the motorcycles that come out of a stick you have to run and jump in the air to activate.
            While Disney is playing it up as an all 3D movie, only the parts where Sam Flynn is in The Grid are in 3D. I was mad that I to pay an extra three dollars to see a movie that is only partly in 3D. There is a message at the beginning of the movie telling viewers that some of the movie has purposely been filmed in 2D and some in 3D. Just know you need the glasses for The Grid/Tron scenes and that’s it.
            The story has a deep meaning of creation and a utopian society. Kevin Flynn set out to created a perfect world and found it. He created Clu to help him created the perfect world since he could not always be there. But since not all humans are perfect and Clu was made out of Kevin’s human likeness, the avatar created chaos and destroyed perfection. It is a plot we have seen before; it gets tedious after a while.
            I have never seen the original Tron before. The plot of Tron: Legacy is not hard to follow if you have never seen the original. There are some explanations for the new viewers so you won’t be completely lost.  Jeff Bridges reprises his role as Kevin Flynn and the avatar Clu. Since Clu has never aged and Jeff Bridges obviously has, a younger Bridges was computer generated. Sometimes the computer generated younger version of the actor looks horrible and sometimes when the camera is not too close on him it’s not bad.
            The acting was really good. Garrett Hedlund as Sam Flynn did a very good job of playing the risk taking character with a soft spot. He did not make Sam out to be a fool, the whole time you knew Sam had a heart for what his father has done but at the same time knew that that softness would not hold him back. Olivia Wilde was great, I always enjoy her acting. Quorra, her character, was being taught by Kevin to be a good fighter through Zen teachings and having her read classic literature. She was a bit naïve but it worked with the kick ass fighting skills she had.
            I liked Tron: Legacy but if I had a choice (I saw the movie with a guy friend who needs action and is in love with Olivia Wilde so there was no way he was willing to see The King’s Speech) I would have waited to see the movie on DVD especially since the whole movie is not in 3D.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Sunset Boulevard (1951)

“You're Norma Desmond. You used to be in silent pictures. You used to be big.”
“I am big. It's the pictures that got small”

            Everyone has heard of Sunset Boulevard (who doesn’t know “Alright Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my closeup”?). Sunset is one of the greatest films ever made. It is brutally honest and pitiful. One of the most important aspects a screenwriter has to keep in mind is the need for the audience to feel for their characters. In Sunset we do feel for the characters, we feel sad and sorry for them. I feel bad not only for these fictional characters but for real actors and actresses out there who are real life Norma Desmonds who have seen their careers come and go and they can only live in the past.
            For those of you who have not heard of Sunset Boulevard and why the film is culturally significant, the story is about a writer named Joe Gillis (William Holden) who is running out of money as well as luck. Joe is about to have his car repossessed when he drives his car into an old house to hide it from the repo men who are after him. The garage he has pulled into is part of a house owned by an old silent film star named Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson). She has been living in the past ever since her film career faded many years ago. Her house is full of old photographs spanning the glory days of her career. Norma has been working on a script about the Biblical woman Salome. She hires Joe to clean up the script so she can give it to Cecil B. DeMille to make with her starring as the title character.
            As time goes on, Norma falls in love with Joe and becomes very possessive of him. He has to sneak out at night to write a screenplay with a reader named Betty Schaefer. His life is no longer his own, Norma has completely taken possession of his life. She has moved all his things into her house and has bought him all new expensive clothing. Max, Norma’s butler as well as former husband and former director, has told her that Joe has been sneaking out at night to be with Betty. Norma calls Betty telling her things about Joe and that she (Betty) probably means nothing to him. Joe gets to the phone and tells Betty to come over. When she comes Joe is kind of cruel to her telling her this is what his life has come to and he cannot get out it.
            Joe packs his things to head back to his hometown; he has truly had enough of Hollywood and certainly has had enough of Norma and her drama. Norma grabs a gun threatening to kill herself but Joe doesn’t care. As he is walking out Norma shoots him in back and he falls face first into the pool.
            Before you get mad me for giving away the ending, the story is told through flashbacks and begins with Joe’s body floating in the pool. He’s the disembodied narrator throughout the film at certain points.
            If you look at Psycho the reason why is was so scary and had such an impact was because it could really happen there are men out in the world like Norman Bates. Sunset Boulevard made an impact and still makes an impact because it is a real story there are actresses out there like Norma Desmond. Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett wrote an honest film of what Hollywood and celebrity can do to a person. Sunset Boulevard, the street, became well known in the 1920s when people were truly making a fortune in the movie business. Actors, directors, and producers built lavish mansions in excess along this stretch of road. Driving down this road Wilder often wondered what happened to the once glamorous and extravagant stars were doing now after their glamour and extravagance had faded.
            Who better to play a once glamorous and popular silent screen actress than a real former silent screen actress than Gloria Swanson? Gloria Swanson was hugely popular in the 1920s staring in many silent films. Her life was splashed all over magazines with millions of adoring fans. By the time sound came her career ground to a slow halt. She made some sound movies in the 1930s such as Tonight or Never but she accepted the end of her major career. Apparently Norma Shearer, Mae West, Mary Pickford, Pola Negri, and Greta Garbo were considered and asked to play the part of Norma Desmond. Gloria Swanson is so perfectly eccentric and wonderful that to imagine someone like Norma Shearer (who would have been awful) or Mae West would not have made as much of an impact. Gloria Swanson just had what it took to play an old star who was stuck in the past.
            Eric Von Stroheim was a famous director. The film that Norma shows Joe was a real movie Gloria Swanson made with Von Stroheim called Queen Kelly. Von Stroheim was notorious for making excruciatingly long films. Queen Kelly was taking too long to make so Gloria Swanson walked off the set and lost a lot of money.
            Billy Wilder took away the illusion of Hollywood like adding old stars such as Buster Keaton and the other “Waxworks” who could not successfully make it in the talkies and pictures of Gloria Swanson from her heyday (many of them including stills and promotional pictures from one of her best film Sadie Thompson). These faded stars as well as Cecil B. DeMille blur the lines between relaity and fiction just like Norma cannot see what is real and what is not. Even Joe and his friends show the real side to being a writer or a reader or an assistant director; they make no money and just barely get by.
Whenever I watch Sunset Boulevard I can never find fault it in. This is American film making at its best. All of our emotions are touched upon as we watch these characters and how their lives just spiral out of control. We all have a secret wish to be famous movie stars living in the lap of luxury with millions of adoring followers but after watching this film reality hits us and our dreams quite possibly dashed. 

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Song of the Thin Man (1947)

Song of the Thin Man is the last film of The Thin Man series. By the time this film came out the series had lost its touch. Nick and Nora Charles were not entirely the carefree, boozy, witty characters we fell in love with in the first three films. Yes there are some elements of the old Nick and Nora the wit is still there although with less of the bite.
            Nick is once again drawn into a case he had no intention of ever getting involved in. The case is literally brought to his door step by two people he and Nora knew when they need help to clear their names and help them solve the murder. The case involves musicians to reflect the jazz scene of the time.

            The whole case is pretty blah I had it figured out the first time is saw the character. I was getting so frustrated with how the film was trying to appeal to a younger and newer audience by using slang from the time period (I swear if I ever hear the word “dame” again in a film). Even Nick and Nora were like “huh” with much of the slang. Nora attempted to use some of the slang being thrown around but with no such luck in getting it correct.

            Myrna Loy once again was my favorite part of the film. In one scene they go to visit a suspect who has been put in a rest home. The suspect Buddy Hollis played in a jazz band and knew the man who was murdered. He was driven mad by someone after the murder had occurred. When Nick, Nora, and their musician friend, Clinker, visit Buddy he is fixated on Nora. She realizes that she must remind him of his girlfriend who used to come visit him. Nora decides to use this to get information even though she has been advised not to since Buddy becomes violent. She feels so bad for Buddy that she slips away from Nick and Clinker and sneaks into the home to talk to him. She lies to Buddy telling him she and his girlfriend have started a new act together and needs some information. Buddy realizes that Nora is not in an act with his girlfriend and starts to get violent. He pulls out a gun aiming it at Nora but fortunately he cannot see straight. Nick, who was in the home at the front looking for Nora since he knew she was there, comes rushing in. Nora is fine she jumped to the floor before the shot went off.
            In another scene, Nora gets up because Nick wakes her up as he gets dressed at four in the morning. She thinks it is the morning and when she opens the blinds to see it dark she lies back down on a chair but insists on following Nick wherever he goes. She does but falls asleep in a chair haha. She even took off her shoes!

            From watching this film you get the feeling of tiredness of the murder stories and how they eventually work themselves out. It seems like someone knew The Thin Man Goes Home was definitely not good for the series to go out on so six years later they decided to properly end it. The Thin Man started out in the ‘30s as a form of escapism during the Depression: they were funny, charming, and glamorous. By the fifth one the series was showing its age and the sign of the changing times; Nora’s glamour was fading (but never died, Myrna Loy still looked wonderful. The writing got a bit sexist towards Nora but that was the times), the drinking was getting more refined and sophisticated when it was so much fun to watch Nick and Nora booze around town. It seems with the introduction of Nicky Jr. he slowed the Charleses down and sobered them up… in some ways not all, they still enjoyed themselves. After World War II no one wanted to really see a rich couple who could afford anything they wanted, viewers to see real people on the screen people who reflected the hard times during and after the War. The comedy that had worked in the ‘30s was no longer working in the ‘40s.

            It was sad to watch the last Thin Man. Knowing there was no more Thin Man and no more Nick and Nora Charles was a little sad but with the way The Thin Man Goes Home and Song of the Thin Man went over it was definitely time for the series to end. I had such a fabulous time getting to know Nick and Nora Charles. Their relationship was a joy to see especially for the time periods in which they were made in. They truly loved each other and you can tell they would be lost without each other. Myrna Loy and William Powell were the best screen couple ever to grace film. We will never see a screen couple like them ever again because no actor is slick and charming like William Powell and no actress is classy and sophisticated and who has a good sense of humor all at the same time like Myrna Loy. You can see that they were good friends on and off the set. They had that great rhythm which made Nick and Nora’s bantering and wit so enjoyable and so pleasant to watch over and over again.