Carefree (1938)

Freud & Ginger

On my first viewing of Carefree, I experienced something I never thought I would with Fred and Ginger, boredom. Initially I was expecting another spectacular musical showcase, however, the film is on a smaller scale (their shortest at only 80 minutes) than their previous outings and only contains a mere four musical numbers; making it more of a comedy with some singing and dancing than a full-fledged musical. With several movies behind them following a similar formula, if they were going to make another then they had to do something different or things would have become stale. I wished though that Fred Astaire could have done straight comedies during his career; Carefree is the closest thing to that.

None of the musical numbers in Carefree stand out as being among the best in the series. Fred Astaire’s number in which he plays golf while tap dancing sounds better on paper than it does in execution. I’m sure what he’s doing is no easy task yet it doesn’t look all that impressive to watch. The Yam, on the other hand, is a pretty standard number, but heck, it’s still Fred and Ginger dancing. I find the film’s most interest musical number is ‘I Used to be Color Blind’, the most experimental in the film, shot in slow motion and allowing the viewer to see Fred and Ginger’s grace in every detail.

For the only time in the series, Astaire plays a character who is not a dancer by profession, but rather a psychiatrist (although they do make sure to mention he once had aspirations of becoming a dancer). I don’t completely buy Astaire as a psychiatrist, but realism is not what these movies are about. Plus I’m sure the psychology on display here is of the “you are getting sleepy” variety as seen in movies. He doesn’t break his professional ethics though by pursuing his patient like his stalkerish attitude towards Ginger in other films in the series, instead, she wants him.

Carefree belongs to Ginger, playing a character whom has been put under hypnosis, giving her the opportunity to completely goof around in a childlike manner with big wide eyes, and it’s pretty funny stuff. How many movies do you get to see Ginger Rogers wielding a shotgun? Everyone needs at least one movie where they get to act stupid. The comedic assets of Ralph Bellamy and Jack Carson are big benefits to the film’s witty dialogue, where much of the film’s strength lies. Even if the dance numbers don’t fully exceed, as a screwball comedy, Carefree grows on me, of course, I am a sucker for these movies and the Astaire/Rodgers name, so good enough for me!

Captain Blood (1935)

There Will Be Blood

Captain Blood, the one that started it all. The beginning of both the Flynn-de Havilland partnership and the Flynn-Curtiz partnership, establishing Erich Wolfgang Korngold as a movie composer and ushering in a new era of swashbucklers. Talk about a great start for two careers; two unknown actors being cast in a major production at one of Hollywood’s biggest studios. Should Hollywood have taken more risks like this more often or was this just a freakishly lucky gamble?

Warner Bros where the best studio of the 1930’s when it came to making thrillers and action pictures in this their answer of MGM’s Mutiny on the Bounty. The combination of Michael Curtiz’s direction, Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s pumping music scores, Errol Fylnn’s embodiment of a swashbuckling action hero and the dynamic he shared with Olivia de Havilland represents all the elements coming together at the right place and time to create something truly special. It’s no surprise that these elements would reunite many times over the next few years.

The scenes between Flynn and de Havilland are pure movie magic, when they’re together and alone it’s like they’re suddenly in a whole world of their own, it’s truly phenomenal. With his long hair and muscular physique I don’t think Flynn has ever been more attractive that he was in Captain Blood; he certainly never appeared this beat up than he did in any of his subsequent movies. During production scenes had to be reshot as Fylnn’s acting had improved so dramatically over time; the man is a far better actor than he’s given credit for. The character of Peter Blood reflects Flynn’s real-life personality, a free spirit who has had enough adventure for 6 years to last him 6 lifetimes. De Havilland, on the other hand, was only 19 during the filming of Captain Blood, and it never ceases to amaze me I watch her in a film and knowing that she is still alive. As of writing this review, there are only two years left until she reaches 100. I am counting down the days.

The plot of Captain Blood is a surprisingly empowering tale of defiance against corrupt authority and the seeming meaninglessness of war (“I fought for the French against the Spanish and the Spanish against the French”) giving the film that added intelligent edge but this doesn’t take away from the film’s aurora of just pure unmitigated fun.

Broadway Bill (1934)

A Day at the Races

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Broadway Bill is Frank Capra’s forgotten follow up to It Happened One Night, likely due to the film being out of circulation until the 1990’s and what a shame too. Warner Baxter and Myrna Loy are not romantic leads as she is his sister in law but both of them have great admiration for each other with Dan Brooks (Baxter) referring to her affectionately as The Princess and Loy clearly in love with the man and holding the same ideals as him but unable to go any further due to family ties; I find this dynamic is more interesting than a standard romance. Capra originally wanted Clark Gable in the lead role but had to settle with Warner Baxter who at least seems to be the next best thing as he holds much of the same rugged, footloose appeal of Gable.

Broadway Bill features many of the same Capra-isms as seen in his other films. The small town of Higginsvillie being run by business mogul J.L Higggins played by Walter Connolly is a much more light-hearted version of Mr Potter from It’s a Wonderful Life. He is in control of his entire family who run his individual enterprises and even their own national bank as visualised in a gag in which the entire Higgin’s family proceed to eat dinner in perfect unison. They’re not the Rothschilds but they’re wealthy and powerful (“Higgins, that’s not a family, that’s a disease”). Yet at the end of the film J.L. gets rid of his businesses or as he puts it, gives back institutions to the people who founded them. Like the Sycamore family in You Can’t Take It With You, Dan Brooks want to leave behind his life of work in favour of leisure and enjoyment, ideals comparable to the counter-cultures of the 1960’s. After all what could be duller than running a paper box company? Unless you’re Seymour Skinner.

One of the most pivotal scenes in Broadway Bill involves one of the richest men in the world, J.P. Chase putting a $2 bet on Broadway Bill at 100/1 as a means to pass time will in hospital. When word gets out it spreads like wild-fire and the claims of what the amount of money he placed on the best become exaggerated from $2 to $20,000 to $50,000 all the way up to a quarter million. Simple message – don’t believe everything you hear.

I love Broadway Bill for its simple cheerful Innocence. This is one of several films which has managed to tug my heartstrings over the fate of a horse. One plot element even involves the horse Broadway Bill refusing to race because he doesn’t have his pet chicken called Skeeter. You wouldn’t find this kind of innocence today in a film which is supposedly made for adults.

Bringing Up Baby (1938)

Screwball Comedy on Steroids

I make it no secret that screwball comedy is my favourite genre of film. I can never get tired of these films; to me, this is the most un-boring genre ever. Whenever I’m watching a great screwball comedy I’m on cloud 9 and when it’s over I’m always left wanting more. Sometimes I wish my life was a screwball comedy.

Bringing Up Baby is the quintessential daffy dame/stuffy gentleman movie (a formula often imitated but never topped) and I find it endlessly fascinating this premise of how this woman constantly infiltrates this man’s life and just won’t go away. You think it would be easy that he could avoid her but the manner in which she keeps coming back into his life is comedic brilliance. Like many great comedies, the jokes in Bringing Up Baby always take me by surprise no matter how many times I see it. Howard Hawks seems to have a distinctive style of slapstick comedy which separates his screwball comedies from others but what this is I can’t put my finger on; Hawks’ screwball simply has a distinctive electrically energy to it. Bringing Up Baby was produced at RKO studios, of whom I can’t help but notice their films have a distinctive imperfection of a grainy image quality and the use of soft lighting which is very easy on the eyes; the days when movie studios had their own distinctive styles.

I don’t think Katharine Hepburn ever looked more staggeringly beautiful than she does in Bringing Up Baby, I even find myself infatuated with the outfits she wears and her hairstyles in the film. Unlike other films of the genre, however, the romance is largely secondary to the rest of the story; with Susan (Hepburn) falling for David (Cary Grant) but not the other way around. Even with David eventually proclaiming his love for Susan I get the impression the two only remain (unlikely) friends. Likewise, the common screwball comedy theme of a crisis of masculinity is really played up here to the full with Grant wearing a woman’s dressing gown an even proclaiming in a fit of rage to be ”gay all of a sudden”.

David’s wild goose chase to obtain a dinosaur bone known as an ‘intercostal clavicle’ (a nonexistent fossil created for the movie) to complete the museum’s Brontosaurus skeleton, it’s eventfully destruction at the hands of Susan (Hepburn) as well as Susan’s treating a leopard as a pet is all perfectly in tune with the character’s defiance of the natural order of things. Bringing Up Baby is the only screwball comedy I can think of which involves it’s cast interacting with a dangerous animal; I’m unsure why this never became a common screwball trope, I guess studios wouldn’t allow their cast and crew to be placed in such danger. My review title may sound hyperbolic but I’d pair Bringing Up Baby with You Can’t Take It With You as the most over the top, steroidal, off the wall offering in the screwball comedy genre. Watching Bringing Up Baby is like watching a movie with the fast-forward button turned on; the film is over before you know it. Old movies are slow and boring? Whoever came up with such nonsense?

A Bill of Divorcement (1932)

A Star Is Born

Katharine’s Hepburn’s screen debut proved to be a stronger film than I expected, starring alongside the great John Barrymore in this tragic mental illness melodrama and when I say tragic, I do mean tragic. Boy does this movie lay it on thick but it sure made this viewer’s hear sink. Even before Barrymore appears on screen I was already starting to feel sorry for this character upon learning he’s spent years at a mental asylum with shell shock and couldn’t pursue his music, and that’s only the beginning. You know that dirty word people like to throw around, “manipulative”; well this movie certainly manipulated me. Yet despite the story laying additional tragic layers after another, the performances make it work and prevent it from coming come off as totally ridiculous.

Watching Katharine Hepburn I would never have guessed this was her first film, she is entirely natural and gives the impression of someone has much acting experience. Plus she was never more youthful than she is here, springing full of energy and life. Supposedly director George Cuckor inserted shots in the film which did nothing to advance the story nor deepen character but were simply lingering shots of Hepburn in which the audience could adjust and get acquainted with her.

John Barrymore, however, is the main star of the show. Throughout the film there is a sadness and fragile nature of his voice while he denies the reality of the situation to himself and pulling the puppy dog eyes; with the occasional scenery chewing outburst. He’s a ham but a lovable ham. I feel the most powerful moment in the film is the scene in which Barrymore breaks into tears into the arms of his neglectful wife (Billie Burke) while she can’t even bear to look at him; I almost broke into a tear myself.

I’ve read many comments describing the film “stagey” – not at all. Shots are framed with depth, often at different angles and with objects framed in the foreground; George Cukor was a better director than that. A Bill of Divorcement is a heart sinker if there ever was one.

The Big House (1930)

You Know What They Do To Guys Up At The Big House!

I suspect The Big House helped birth many of the conventions, staples and slang terms which have come to define prison films. Many of the classic elements are here but they manage to feel fresh instead of coming off as worn out clichés.

The big impact this film had for me was that it made me a fan of two of its main stars, Robert Montgomery and Wallace Beery. The Big House made Beery a star, establishing his loveable lug persona and making him one of the biggest stars of the early 30’s and one of the most unconventional stars in Hollywood history. Beery has a contradictory screen persona as seen here as his role of Butch; a thuggish brute one minute but as gentle as a puppy the next. However, I feel Robert Montgomery is the one who steals the show, even If he doesn’t have as much screen time as Beery and Chester Morris. Montgomery strikes me as the most interesting character in the film, as a privileged pretty boy convicted of manslaughter while drunk driving; he appears to be barely ready for adulthood, let alone ready for serving 10 years in prison. Throughout the entire film, you can tell he’s completely out of his element with his trembling manner and naive wide-eyed stare. Unlike the rest of the prisoners, he is not a criminal in the common sense, displaying how it’s a scary possibility for any regular person to end up in prison regards of their background or social standing.

Being an early talkie, The Big House features many long static camera shots, muffled sound and no background music. However, I feel these technical limitations are one of the film’s greatest assets as they heighten the claustrophobia of the cells and other confined areas of the prison. If The Big House was made or remade later in the sound era with more advanced cinematography and clearer sound and a music score, it would not be as effective. The sound design itself is impressive, with the sound effects of whistles, prisoners marching or turning their plates in perfect unison in the mess hall showcase the routine nature of prison life and its mundanity.

The film’s screenwriter, Frances Marion interviewed actual prisoners and prison personnel when writing The Big House, making the film an as authentic as possible look at the American prison system in 1930. Director George W. Hill apparently threatened to fire anyone caught acting and forbade the use of makeup in the film. The sets don’t look like Hollywood sets and this is not a romanticized look at prison such as movies like Ladies They Talk About. At the beginning of the film the prison’s warden (Lewis Stone), delivers a monologue about the general public wanting criminals locked behind bars but don’t care about their treatment or rehabilitation once in prison. Here the prisoners have nothing to do all day in the overcrowded prison but grow animosity towards the guards and plot on how they are going to make their escape. Shortly after watching The Big House, I heard a discussion on the radio regarding the deteriorating conditions of prisons in the UK in 2014 and a caller phoned in and mirrored the exact points Lewis Stone made in The Big House; 80 years later and nothing has changed.

The Barbarian (1933)

Complete and Utter Bonkers

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

The Barbarian has to be seen to be believed. That’s if you’re able to believe this unbelievably ridiculous plot. Ramon Navarro’s Jamil is the textbook definition of a creep and why the characters in the movie take as long as they do to realise this is beyond me. Throughout much of the film, he treats the Myrna Loy’s Diana like dirt. He kidnaps her, drags her into the desert, has her whipped by another man so he can pretend to save her and on top of that, or at least what’s implied, he rapes her. Throughout The Barbarian I was thinking there’s no way these two are getting together at the end of the film but with only five minutes run time left to go, Diana ditches her nice loving fiancé for the man who earlier in the film kidnapped her and made her life a living hell. Why?! Stockholm syndrome, abused wife syndrome, girls just love a bad boy syndrome?

The final scene of the movie shows the two in a loving embrace on a barge under the moonlight, implying that his ending is supposed to be happy. Uh no, this is dark and disturbing. This woman is with a man who is the most morally dubious character being presented as the hero of the story I’ve ever seen. Is it supposed to be ironic or just horribly misguided? The Barbarian, however, is a rare instance of a movie which I feel kind of bad for having enjoyed, like I have to have the TV facing the wall in the corner of a room with the volume lowered, not letting anyone knowing I’m watching such a thing; or at least that was the case until I decided to post a review on the internet.

So what makes this movie enjoyable? For starters, there is the unmitigated joy that comes from watching politically incorrect pre-code movies. I’ve seen some crazy pre-code films but this just takes the cake.  It’s like a train wreck, it’s so shocking but you can’t look away. Moments of The Barbarian are shocking, other times it’s unintentionally funny, yet despite this bizarre mishmash, the film works. It’s engaging and there’s tension throughout, the sets and locations are superb, feeling like a tourist brochure at its exotic interiors and landscapes and there’s Myrna Loy’s bathtub scene, a moment of astounding risqué beauty and one of the sexiest scenes in all of cinema. Loy actually shows a lot of skin throughout the film in a range of skimpy attire. This is also the only movie I’ve seen to date which shows that the Pyramids of Giza are right beside the city of Cairo and not in the middle of nowhere – Who knew! Watch and observe The Barbarian in all its unbelievable pre-code glory.

Angels with Dirty Faces (1938)

Angels With Filthy Souls

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

One of the things I love most about Angels with Dirty Faces is that proposes the age-old idea of a person’s entire destiny being defined by one single event. The fact that Jerry (Pat O’Brien) could run faster than his childhood friend Rocky (James Cagney) while being chased by the police for a petty crime would determine the paths they would take in life. If only Rocky could climb over that fence, things would have been so much different.

I’m a huge fan of the Warner Bros gangster movies of the 1930’s and Angels with Dirty Faces is probably the most classic of these movies In that it gets referenced and spoofed most in popular culture. These films deal with social issues, many of which are still relevant today. When I hear current news stories about crime and social issues, I often find myself thinking “They dealt with that in an old 30’s crime/gangster film”. Angels with Dirty Faces is no exception. Rocky Sullivan was never truly a criminal but his stay at a reformatory for his petty crime turned him into one. However, Pat O’Brien’s role of Father Jerry Connolly presents an incredibly stark contrast with today’s commonplace media reports of priests molesting boys. I find it fascinating to see a movie in which a member of the clergy is presented as someone who is treated with the utmost respect and entirely trustworthy, of course, this being an attempt to appease the Legion of Decency.

Even with the religious overtones, the movie still provides one of the most intriguing moral dilemmas ever presented in a movie; Rocky making the ultimate sacrifice. Before his execution, Father Connolly asks him to pretend going yellow and show people he was a coward by begging for mercy before being sent to the chair. The only thing Rocky has left is his reputation and he is being asked to throw that away so kids won’t look up to him and his lifestyle. Rocky does just this at the last moment, a complete rejection of the gangster way of life.

While nothing can top the pure electricity that is Cagey in White Heat, Angels With Dirty Faces gets my spot as the next most interesting performance in his career. The Dead End Kids give Cagney an element to his performance few other actors would rarely get the chance to express, likewise his real-life friendship with Pat O’Brien is easily apparent on screen with their interactions. Humphrey Bogart also appears in a pre-stardom supporting role. Despite only appearing in several scenes he nearly succeeds in upstages Cagney with his enigmatic screen presence. Plus that kid playing a young Cagney at the beginning of the film is very eerily like him.

Socially conscience pictures such as this which came from Warner Bros really give an insight into the lives of the common folk of the time. A moment which always stuck out to me in Angels With Dirty Faces is the basketball game because it’s the only classic-era film which comes to mind which features a basketball game thus showing an activity from the 1930’s which is still popular today. Likewise, the movie also acts as a historical document for the lingo among inner-city youths of the time. The performances given by The Dead End Kids feels like an early example of method acting; no surprise when watching this that it was once referred to as Italian street acting.

Michael Curtiz is undoubtedly one of the greatest craftsmen of Hollywood’s golden age (after all, in this same year he directed one of the most perfect things ever created, The Adventures of Robin Hood). The movie immediately flaunts it’s very handsome production values right from the opening shot. The execution finale of Angels with Dirty Faces alone is a masterpiece of cinematography with its prominent use of shadows, bright lighting and tilted camera angles. Here Curtiz creates a criminal underworld which is hard not to get sucked into. We might not want to emulate gangsters but we can’t help but be fascinated by them.

After the Thin Man (1936)

All In The Family

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

After the Thin Man clearly has a much higher budget than the first film so it does loose the grittier, low budget charm of the original but it still works in its own glossier way. I don’t think any of The Thin Man sequels reached the standard of the first film but this was the best of them.

After the Thin Man gives William Powell some of the best comedic moments of his career; the scene in which he has a conversation with the snoring gentlemen I could watch over and over; he manages to maintain composure and still act sarcastic no matter how frustrated he gets. Although my favourite part of the film is just watching Nick and Nora trying to get an important clue from Asta by chasing him through their giant manner of a house. Just how does a retired detective and a woman who doesn’t work manage to afford to live in a palace like this during the great depression anyway? Every movie in the series had a long sequence in which Nick would go sleuthing on his own in the dark with no dialogue or music, and rightfully so, it’s so captivating. The plot is even the easiest in the series and I was actually just barely able to keep up with it.

The film’s most notable contribution to cinema is having James Stewart’s first really notable screen role. This would be the only time in his career in which he would play a villain as the suspiciously motivated David Graham. At the end of the film when he’s revealed to be the murder culprit, he has a breakdown and threatens everyone at gunpoint before being thwarted and then arrested. Jimmy Stewart as a heartless murderer who is sent to prison, what kind of crazy movie is this? It’s disheartening in a way to see this but of course, this was before he became forever enshrined as the everyman. He does pull off the role and displays he was a natural acting talent from the start of his career and shows he could have potentially portrayed convincing villains. Also look out for the Asian bodyguard who throws his hat to get a gun from Jimmy Stewart’s hand, Oddjob anyone?

The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)

Perfectly Perfected Perfection

I’ve long considered reviewing this movie before but it’s hard to do it justice. For my money, The Adventures of Robin Hood is just too dam perfect a film, every element fits together to an nth degree; I could put this movie under the microscope and not find a single thing I dislike about it. Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Basil Rathbone and Claude Raines as the villains, the Technicolor, the sets, the action, the romance, the music, just the sear escapism of it all. It’s the type of film that fuels imaginations and makes you feel like a kid again. This all may sound hyperbolic but the more think about this movie the more I fall in love with it and have even gone as far as contemplating to label it as my favourite movie of all time, maybe not quite but I put it in my top 10. The Adventures of Robin Hood Is just so dam perfect that I am actually envious of it.

Just the first four names billed names in the cast list would make The Adventures of Robin Hood one of the greatest casts ever assembled. Who can play a more ridiculously charming lead hero than Errol Flynn? Who can play more loathsome villains than Basil Rathbone and Claude Raines? Rathbone being unabashedly evil while Raines surely most have helped popularise the trope of the effeminate villain. Likewise, the flawless beauty that is Olivia de Havilland as The Lady Marian isn’t just some useless damsel in distress but a central figure in the plot’s progression, acting as an insider after Robin has red pilled her.

Along with the masterful direction of Michael Curtiz, these talents coming together in the same picture is one in a million. It’s hard to talk about any Michael Curtiz directed film and not praise the film on a technical level. Let’s talk about that eye-watering Technicolor. Where the middle ages really this colourful? Every frame of this movie is oozing in beauty and with sets featuring such an astounding level of detail, those gorgeous matte paintings or the brightly coloured outfits (especially those worn by The Lady Marian); I just love staring at it and can never take my eyes off the screen. Really, The Adventures of Robin Hood is my choice as the most visually arresting movie ever. If you have contemporary film directors who resurrect the use of black & white cinematography, then why isn’t anyone resurrecting the use of Technicolor? There also isn’t a frame in the movie which doesn’t have an eye-pleasing composition with layers of props in the foreground and background.

Every action sequence is unbelievably exciting, with the film’s climactic sword fight being one of the most intense action sequences ever filmed. Also, that shadow effect is just so dam stylistic and cool; no one could implement shadows into the frame better than Curtiz (one of his visual trademarks as a director). Such scenes wouldn’t be as effective though without Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s highly melancholic and at other times adrenalizing score. I do rigorously listen to this soundtrack in it’s entirely on a regular basis; there is no other film score which evokes a greater sense of emotion from me.

On top of that, every time I watch Robin Hood it’s felt like a different experience every time, even as if I was watching the movie for the first time. I swear I’m not making this up but on every viewing, I’ve had with this movie has the weird, uncanny effect of having scenes I have no memory of seeing. Normally when I say I don’t remember a scene that would be a criticism but not in this case. That’s just the magic this movie possesses and the reason it is my number 1 choice of desert island movie.  If you have not viewed its perfection then what are you waiting for? That’s not a recommendation, that’s an order! There will never ever be a better Robin Hood movie…ever!