The Awful Truth (1937)

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Starring: Irene Dunne, Cary Grant, Ralph Bellamy, Alexander D’Arcy

Director: Leo McCarey

Summary: A divorced couple keeps getting mixed up in each other’s love lives

Other Nominations: Director*, Actress (Dunne), Supporting Actor (Bellamy), Adapted Screenplay, Film Editing

Positives

-I liked Cary Grant quite bit: he’s handsome, charming and has this odd accent that’s like an odd mix between British (which he was) and New Yorker. I can see why he was a major male romantic comedy lead for years to come, although based off this, he probably won’t be one of my favorites or anything. This is actually the second movie I’ve seen him in, after She Done Him Wrong, but that movie was so lousy that it barely counts

-The film does a nice job of treating both the leads (and sexes) as equals. They’re portrayed as equally smart but equally lacking in trust for their partner (which is their downfall), and the film doesn’t take sides or assign blame specifically to either one.

Negatives

-It had its moments and I liked the characters just fine, but I just did find the movie to be THAT funny. I knew coming in that this is a highly regarded classic comedy, but there were long periods where I barely chuckled every couple of minutes. Compared to the last McCarey movie I saw (Ruggles of Red Gap), neither was really funny, but Ruggles was the better movie because it had a lot more heart and genuine emotion to it.

Other Stuff

-This movie features probably the most famous movie dog after Pal, the dog who played the original Lassie: the Wire Fox Terrier Skippy, who was most famous for being “Asta” in the Thin Man and it’s first two sequels. He was also in Bringing up Baby.

Overall

Somewhat disappointed with this one-not bad or anything, but not funny enough to be a great comedy in my opinion. Cary Grant’s charm and Dunne’s solid performance are the main reasons to watch, but I don’t have any strong interest in watching it ever again.

Rating: C

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Captains Courageous (1937)

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Starring: Freddie Bartholomew, Spencer Tracy, Lionel Barrymore, Melvyn Douglas, Mickey Rooney, John Carradine

Director: Victor Fleming

Summary: A spoiled rich boy is lost at sea and is rescued by a fishing boat, where hard work and responsibility help him become a man

Poster: http://tinyurl.com/hszjd3j

Other Nominations: Actor (Tracy)*, Adapted Screenplay, Film Editing

Positives

-The story is very good, about the transformation of a kid who lacked discipline to a fine young man with the aid of Spencer Tracy’s character who becomes the father figure he never really had in his life. Everything story wise feels realistic enough and the characters are entertaining enough (even if most lack depth) that it has held up well

-The whole movie would fail if Freddie Bartholomew’s performance wasn’t good-instead, it’s one of the better child actor performances I’ve seen, playing both the brat and the sensitive, good hearted kid well. Lionel Barrymore is also a highlight as the curmudgeonly captain, and while I had problems with his performance, Tracy injects the needed life and warmth into his role.

Negatives

-Even though Tracy got the Oscar for his performance as Manuel, he’s pretty terrible playing a Portuguese man, with his broken English, bad accent that drops out every once in awhile and brownface makeup (at least I think he has it on, sometimes his skin tone looks darker than at other times). All of this detracted a lot from an otherwise strong set of performances.

-The movie feels like it was filmed almost entirely on a soundstage, which is bad for a movie that is supposed to mostly take place on the ocean. The rear projection they use is obvious, and the distance shots of the ships when they actually filmed at sea with real fishermen don’t fit look-wise with the soundstage footage.

Other Stuff

-This film marks one of the last times Lionel Barrymore is seen standing and walking in a movie unassisted; by next year, he could only stand with crutches, and 1939 on he was confined to a wheelchair due to his hip and knee injuries. In spite of this, he’s still in 3 more movies coming up in the future.

Overall

Good movie with good characters and good acting, although some production choices detracted from what would have otherwise been a borderline great movie.

Rating: B

Dead End (1937)

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Starring: Sylvia Sidney, Joel McCrea, Humphrey Bogart, Wendy Barrie, Claire Trevor, Billy Halop

Director: William Wyler

Summary: A killer returns to his childhood home to plot his escape from the law

Other Nominations: Supporting Actress (Trevor), Art Direction, Cinematography

Positives

-I really liked the cinematography and lighting in the movie, although the copy I watched had a lot of jarring/clumsy cuts, where it looked like there was a black frame in between cuts. I’m assuming that, at least when originally shown, these weren’t there (or that I just had a substandard copy)

-Bogart is pretty good playing the kind of gangster role he was typecast in at this point in his career and I found his character to be the most interesting, as there was more to it than I initially thought there would be. However, there’s nothing that indicated to me that he would become one of the biggest stars in the history of Hollywood by this performance.

Negatives

-The movie tries to make some commentary about class and how during the depression there were few good alternatives for people living on the streets to make money besides a life of crime (not to say that these aren’t still very relevant to current society). The problem is that it lacks the realism and grit that such a heady topic demands-the worst being the street urchins (the Dead End Kids), who feel cartoonish and are a set of tropes come to life (even if this film probably contributed to them becoming tropes); they never felt like real characters.

-It received an Oscar nomination for Art Direction, but I didn’t like it’s intentionally stagy, play-like look. Much like the whole movie, this place that obviously looks like a sound stage hurts the realism that they should have been going for.

Other Stuff

-He’s showed up in a couple of films I’ve already watched, but this was the first time I recognized Ward Bond in a movie. He’s one of the great character actors of the 1930’s-1950’s with over 200 film roles to his name, including a record 12 Best Picture nominees and 23 John Wayne films.

-Claire Trevor was nominated for Best Supporting Actress despite appearing in literally one five minute scene in the entire movie. Will mention this whenever this kind of thing happens (like in Dodsworth) as it annoys me.

-I believe this is the first film I’ve reviewed that takes place in one location (at the end of a block by the river in New York City). This will not be the last, with one very famous one coming up in the 1950’s.

Overall

Fun to see a pre-Maltese Falcon Bogart, but somewhat disappointing otherwise considering the topic and the director.

Rating: C-

The Good Earth (1937)

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Starring: Paul Muni, Luise Rainer, Walter Connolly, Tilly Losch

Director: Sidney Franklin

Summary: Drought, Famine and Greed take their toll on a Chinese farming couple

Other Nominations: Director, Actress (Rainer)*, Cinematography*, Film Editing

Positives

-Luise Rainer is excellent in the movie, even if I didn’t find her character all that interesting. She’s subtle but very expressive, and it reminds me just a bit of Maria Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc. A much more deserving Oscar performance even if I had the same problems with it as with the other leads in the movie

-The film looks very good, both from a production design standpoint, and from a cinematography standpoint-Karl Freund (Metropolis, Dracula) won an Oscar for his cinematography, his only of his career.

-I liked the score quite a bit, felt epic and not cliched for a movie that takes place in Asia.

Negatives

-The two leads are completely unconvincing playing Chinese people. They don’t look Chinese at all and don’t even try to hide their obvious German/Austrian accents; to be fair, the alternative probably would have been worse, but it’s still pretty bad from the entire major cast who are all white.

-I didn’t like Paul Muni in general in this movie-besides obviously not being Chinese, he also overacts constantly which looks even worse when he’s acting against Rainer who is very restrained

-The story was solid, but it feels like it repeats itself a lot in the second half, with the same arc and the same lessons for the main character happening twice up until the finale.

Other Stuff

-I guess M*A*S*H was right when they said Paul Muni played everything- in the 30’s, he played a gangster (Scarface), a convict (I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang), a chemist (The Story of Louis Pasteur), a coal miner (Black Fury), a Chinese farmer (The Good Earth) and a journalist/writer (The Life of Emile Zola) among others

Overall

You couldn’t have found a more relevant time to release a movie about farmers fighting against drought and famine than 1937. Luise Rainer is great and it feels like a true film epic, even if there are whitewashing problems and a hammy lead.

Rating: B-

In Old Chicago (1937)

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Starring: Tyrone Power, Alice Faye, Don Ameche, Alice Brady, Brian Donlevy

Director: Henry King

Summary: Two Irish brothers become political and romantic rivals in the time before the Great Chicago Fire

Other Nominations: Supporting Actress (Brady)*, Story, Score, Sound Recording, Assistant Director*

Positives

-The Great Chicago Fire sequence is outstanding: how can you make a huge fire look the most realistic? By actually setting fire to dozens of buildings in a backlot and filming them burn down with the actors right there despite the danger. This was even more impressive than the earthquake stuff in San Francisco and is easily the highlight of the film.

-Power is insanely handsome here and is obvious leading man material on that basis.

Negatives

-This film is such a blatant copy-cat of San Francisco, which came out the previous year. They’re both historical disaster movies starring a guy who owns a saloon who falls in love with a singer who he hired, people try to reform him which fails until the disaster hits. They even have the same ending essentially. Laaaazzzyyyy.

-Faye falls in love with Power’s character when he breaks into her dressing room, pins her down to the floor and starts kissing her; he also does a similar thing to regain her affections later. This has not aged well to say the least. That, combined with the frankly creepy way he interacts with his mom in some of the early scenes in the movie makes me not like his character at all.

-The first ten minutes could have been excised in their entirety and you wouldn’t have missed anything.

Other Stuff

-The DVD has the theatrical release version (96 Minutes) and the Roadshow version (109 Minutes), which was lost for many years until 2009. I watched the Roadshow version since that is probably what most of the Academy voters saw.

-I had to stop my DVD player when I saw an unexpected and not-easily-mistaken face: Rondo Hatton! He’s in the movie and actually has a decent amount of screen time. As an adult he developed acromegaly, disorder that severely distorted his face from this: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/cd/Rondo_Hatton_from_his_1913_high_school_yearbook%2C_before_becoming_afflicted_with_acromegaly.jpg, to this:  https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/0/05/Rondo_hatton_in_the_brute_man.jpg. As a result, he traveled to Hollywood where he became cast as either a thug or in horror films as a monster. He has since become a beloved figure for classic horror movie fans, and has been referenced in everything from Scooby Doo to The Rocketeer.

Overall

A blatant cash-in on San Francisco, and is lousy except for its incredibly impressive fire sequence which ends up putting it on par with its predecessor.

Rating: D+

*The Life of Emile Zola (1937)*

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Starring: Paul Muni, Gloria Holden, Gale Sondergaard, Joseph Schildkraut, Donald Crisp

Director: William Dieterle

Summary: The famed writer risks his reputation to defend a Jewish army officer accused of treason

Other Nominations: Director, Actor (Muni), Supporting Actor (Schildkraut)*, Story, Adapted Screenplay*, Score, Art Direction, Sound Recording, Assistant Director

Positives

-Great screenplay that is well-paced, has a great narrative for the title character, along with a powerful and still-relevant story. Zola’s character arc is an effective one, as fights his way to the top of the literary world, and then must decide whether he wants to risk it all or end up betraying his own principles. While some important themes may have been brushed aside, the ones that are there are strong. The ones that spoke to me is the danger of unquestioned devotion to the rightness and greatness of the military (looking at you Michael Bay), along with how the media can either be a sword on the side of the public against corruption, or it can be a shield to protect those who have done wrong.

-Muni is great as Zola, consistently entertaining and impassioned without being over-the-top. One of the better lead performances so far

-About as accurate as you can expect from a biopic-while it adds an internal crisis of conscience that may or may not have existed, the events of the Dreyfus Affair and his involvement are essentially as presented.

Negatives

-Anti-semitism was an important (and very relevant at the time) theme to the story that should have been explored but was almost totally ignored due to the political climate at the time, as well as the Production Code Authority. In 1937, there were still many in the U.S. sympathetic to the Nazis and anti-semitism was very common, and the gatekeeper for all films, Joseph Breen, was himself an anti-semite who probably would not have passed the movie. While I can understand why they didn’t include it, the fact that Dreyfus was Jewish at a time of rampant anti-semitism in France was the main reason why he was chosen as a scapegoat. Ignoring such a critical aspect of the story for reasons of political expediency makes this an incomplete and tainted account.

Overall

Very good biopic that probably would have been great if not for studio cowardice. Still worth a watch though.

Rating: B+

Lost Horizon (1937)

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Starring: Ronald Colman, Jane Wyatt, Edward Everett Horton, John Howard, Thomas Mitchell, H.B. Warner, Sam Jaffe

Director: Frank Capra

Summary: Four fugitives from the Chinese revolution discover a lost world of peace and harmony called Shangri-La

Other Nominations: Supporting Actor (Warner), Score, Art Direction*, Sound Recording, Film Editing*, Assistant Director

Positive

-The movie looks great with elaborate sets and details, and it sounds great too with a soundtrack by legendary film composer Dimitri Tiomkin

-Performances are generally good, with Colman probably being the best

Negatives

-Oh man did I hate the theme of this movie and how it was presented-I am a Democrat, but there is so much hippy dippy impractical bullshit here. The whole movie constantly preaches how amazing this place is because nobody ever wants for anything and shares with everybody, everybody is nice to each other, and constantly finger wags at the bloodlust and greed in our world. While this is a nice sentiment, that’s all it is-a totally shallow and simplistic sentiment with nothing more than rhetoric. This movie blasts “violence and greed is bad” over and over again for over two hours, without getting into any kind of nuance about human behavior, why sometimes these can be necessary, etc. Furthermore, a world with no struggle or strife, where nothing ever changes like Shangri-La in the movie would get extremely dull and boring very quickly and no one would ever grow as a person.

-It bothered the heck out of me that Shangri-La was established by a white foreigner who basically proclaimed himself leader of a group of natives who still do all the labor work today while all the white people in the movie are the leaders, teachers, engineers, etc. There is one exception to this, but he’s the one native who looks and sounds (and is played) by a white person in the movie.

Other Stuff

-When this film was restored in the 1980’s, they were still missing 7 minutes of footage but had sound for that segment, so some of the film is presented in production stills with the dialogue and soundtrack over it.

Overall

This movie is as preachy and shallow as Captain Planet, and it has some troubling racial aspects, but its acting, looks and sound are nice enough that it bumped it a level higher than I might have given it otherwise.
Rating: D