My Man Godfrey (1936)

She’s Electric, she’s in a family full of eccentrics.

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Does a comedy film actually have to make you laugh? Can you have a comedy without any laughs in it? This was once a question posed by film critic Mark Kermode.  When thinking of this question, the first movie which comes to my mind if My Man Godfrey, a comedy which I love but there are only a few moments during it which make me laugh and even those few aren’t big laughs. This is despite the movie’s crazy screwball, gorilla imitating antics in which the straight man William Powell enters a cartoon world. But I would still call it a comedy as it’s a movie which leaves you feeling melancholic watching it.

William Powell’s role as Godfrey exemplifies why he is the master of words. He can take any regular sounding lines and turn them into something memorable and unique – it’s like poetry. Even as an unshaven bum Godfrey outclass anyone. Likewise It’s easy to fall in love with Carole Lombard watching My Man Godfrey; she succeeds in playing a ditsy scatterbrain in an endearing manner but I feel the real unsung cast member of the film is Gail Patrick, one of the most underrated actresses of the 30’s – it’s a shame she never became an A-list leading lady. She became typecast playing (for lack of a better term) bitches, but could do so with a dose of humanity.

I love those moments which describe a ridiculous situation which is never caught on camera. The mental image of Carole Lombard riding into a mansion on a horse, going up the stairs and leaving it in the library is an image better left to my imagination. Many modern film comedies would show such a display for the viewer to actually see and well, would just be cringey and embarrassingly unfunny in the process.

My Man Godfrey wasn’t based on a stage play but watching it you might think otherwise as long stretches of the film take place in real time. Plus you get one thing almost unheard of in films prior to the 1950’s, an intricate title sequence.  I consider My Man Godfrey along with You Can’t Take It With You as the two quintessential “kooky family” movies although “kooky” may be an understatement.

Screwball comedy was partially about making fun of the rich as retribution for the great depression; My Man Godfrey is probably the harshest attack on the rich which the genre ever made, partially because of just how somber the film is. The opening scene in which men are living in a shanty town by a dump or the scavenger hunt for bums (or so-called ‘forgotten men’) are shocking sights for any era. However, My Man Godfrey shows how the wealthy upper classes are not beyond redemption and are a necessary component for any functioning capitalist society.

At the beginning of the film, Godfrey utters “Prosperity is just around the corner”, a line misattributed to Herbert Hoover though a widely mocked platform of the Republican Party during the early days of the depression. Once Godfrey is hired by the Bullock family as their butler he uses his newfound position to work his way out of poverty. By pawning the necklace Cornelia planted in Godfrey’s bedroom in an attempt to frame him, Godfrey purchases stock which Mr. Bullock had sold and in turn saving the family fortune. Godfrey owes a debt to a wealthy family for bringing him out living in a literal dump but in return, he is responsible for saving the family’s fortune and bringing the dysfunctional Bullocks together.

It sounds like the movie makes an argument for supply-side economics. Less subtle however is the scene in which Eugene Pallete (I swear that man is the spitting image and voice of Alex Jones) as the head of the Bullock household says “I don’t mind giving the government 60% of what I make but I can’t do it when my family spends 50% of it”, followed by his wife’s response of “Well why should the government get more money than your own family?”. At the end of the film, Godfrey has opened his own diner at the dump from the beginning of the film and hiring his previously homeless chums. – People banding together to get themselves out of poverty and not relying on an FDR handout.

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Mr Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

If anyone asks me why James Stewart is my favourite actor I just say watch the final scene of Mr Smith Goes to Washington. The final scene of this movie is simply of the greatest things I have ever witnessed in any film ever. That may sound like a hyperbole but I’ll never forget the very exact feeling of goosebumps I had when first watching it. Mr Smith Goes to Washington is one of a small handful of films I would call life-changing, one of the films which helped to mold the way I think and ultimately turn me into the person I am today. It encouraged me to be more skeptical, not to believe everything you here and stand for what you believe despite great opposition. It’s thanks to films like these why cinema is my bible. As much however as Capra is criticised for his films being overly idealist, Mr Smith Goes to Washington does not exactly paint the most glowing picture of the American political system. To quote Thomas Paine (Claude Raines), “The duty of a true patriot is to protect his country from its government”.

One of my favourite scenes in Mr Smith is that in which Clarissa Saunders (Jean Arthur) attempt to explain to Jefferson Smith (James Stewart) the entire procedure of creating a bill and submitting it to Congress. For starters, the scene is incredibly funny with the comedic timing and Stewart’s childlike reactions. Secondly, it’s a very informative civics lesson and thirdly, this scene shows us how Jefferson Smith acts of the film’s ambassador the for the average Joe watching film who’s just as confounded by Sauder’s lecture as Smith is. The scene lays out in an entertaining manner the political hoo-ha for the politically lay; my knowledge on politics was very limited when I first watched Mr Smith Goes to Washington but that wasn’t a barrier to being engrossed in the film’s state of affairs.

This is as good an opportunity as any to raise the question, why is Jean Arthur such a forgotten actress? Despite working with several big-name directors, co-starring with famous actors and appearing in a number of beloved classics, her presence is incredibly overlooked as the definitive urbanite career woman with her wit, warmth, and innocence. Also, that voice! Her role as Saunders is the opposite of Mr Smith. She is cynical, jaded and knows the ins and outs of the system with its corruption and cronyism. It takes Smith, the Americaphille who appears to know more about American history than the people working in Washington to restore faith in her with his childlike optimism and perseverance.

Along with the attack on the American political system, Mr Smith Goes to Washington is just as harsh with its portrayal of the press as a pack of ravenous vultures. The scene in which Smith confronts the reporters in a bar is truly shocking as they flat up tell him about their lack of journalistic ethics as reality hits Smith like a ton of bricks (also among the crowd of reporters if Jack Carson, always a scene-stealer). I just have to question the morals on the part of Smith prior to this scene in which he literally goes around punching reporters in the face although it could be argued this was more of a social norm back then between men.

Another striking monologue is that in which Smith’s mentor Thomas Paine justifies corruption as a comprise in order to achieve good deeds, a process which has existed since the birth democracy as he puts it. As convincing as he might sound at first, through the course of the film you can tell he’s a man who knows he’s sold out on is ideals partially from the complete look of shame which bestows Claude Rains’ face. Even at the beginning of the film just look at the reaction of Paine’s face when Smith declares “Dad used to tell me Joe Paine was the finest man there ever was”.

The relationship between Paine and the business mogul James Taylor (Edward Arnold) is like that of The Emperor and Darth Vader. Taylor hovers above Paine only for his conscious to be put to the ultimate test by the end of the film. Taylor’s ability to control the media of Smith’s home state and preventing any of his words from the Senate reaching the state is frightening. I can just be glad that in the age of the internet and mass communication that such control of the narrative isn’t as easy as it once was.

Mr Smith Goes to Washington is very snappy and faced paced; with the culmination of some of Hollywood’s finest character, acting talent helps carry the exposition in an entertaining and at times screwball like manner. The final 30 minutes of the film in which Smith filibusters is one of the greatest things ever caught on celluloid with its immense hair-raising build up to an exhausted, out of breath James Stewart declaring that he will fight for this lost cause, even if this room gets filled with lies like these!

Like other political films to arise from classic Hollywood, no party is mentioned during the film nor do we know what state Smith is from and which he fights so hard for. Those on the modern right could see Mr Smith as a little guy standing up against big government and the Washington elites. By contrast, those on the left can view Smith as a rebel fighting against corporate, capitalist fat cats like James Taylor. Independents could see Smith as someone who stood alone without backing from any party to fight for his beliefs. Like many of Capra’s films, Mr Smith Goes to Washington is hard to place on the political spectrum. Anyone can see what they want to within the film which is part of its enduring power.  Really, if I ever met someone in elected office, I will be asking them if they have seen this film. Mr Capra and Mr Stewart, thank you for this film.

The Lady Eve (1941)

So Close, Yet So Far

The Lady Eve is a conflicting film. The first hour is some of the most perfect romantic comedy I’ve ever seen, however, it falls apart around the one hour mark. However, what is it that makes the first hour so perfect? Firstly it didn’t take too long for me to realise that Henry Fonda and Barbara Stanwyck are one of the most flawless screen pairings ever, the perfect combination of sexy meets innocent. Watching these two I get the impression they must have been head over heels for each other. I’ve read that apparently Henry Fonda would later tell his wife he was still in love with Barbara Stanwyck, dam! But then again, after having your hair caressed by Stanwyck for 3 minutes and 51 seconds, who wouldn’t be?!

The Lady Eve is a prime example of a “How did they get away with that?!” movie. I’m not aware of what Stanwyck’s ideological or moral beliefs were but a number of her films are some of most sexually suggestive old Hollywood films I’ve seen. There’s her pre-code work such as Baby Face but in the postcode era, we have Ball of Fire, Double Indemnity and of course, The Lady Eve. Call me old-fashioned but movies were sexier when the actors kept their clothes on. Vilma Banky did more with one raised eyebrow than an entire (Warning! Problem in Sector 7G).

So where does it all go wrong, well about 50 minutes into The Lady Eve, the movie pulls my least favourite movie cliché of all time, “the liar revealed”. You know, when a character is exposed as a fraud causing a relationship to end, even though you know they’re going to get back together again by the end of the movie. Having this cliché is bad enough, however, I thought it was only a contrived modern invention but here it is in 1941. At least they don’t drag it out like any rubbish modern-day romantic comedy would.

I’ve found Preston Sturges’ films to be indiscipline, his films all have their moments of greatness but at times they delve into over the top absurdity, even by screwball comedy standards. During the later part of The Lady Eve it’s hard to buy into Stanwyck disguising herself as another woman who doesn’t look massively different from her previous self in order to win back Henry Fonda. Oh, and he buys into the charade, the dope! Part of me wished the entire movie could have just been the two of them on the boat and it would have been a perfect film, however the final third still has some hilarious moments, such as Eugene Pallette frantically banging the table demanding his breakfast, or Fonda getting his suit destroyed three times at a party, a perfectly timed slapstick gag if I’ve ever seen one.

On a second viewing of The Lady Eve, I still have the same reaction to the first hour but I did find myself more forgiving of the last third. With my love of screwball comedies and the pairing of Stanwyck and Fonda, perhaps with additional future viewings, I may become completely forgiving of the last half hour. The first hour is just that perfect.

The Bride Came C.O.D. (1941)

The Comedy Came: Laugh on Delivery

Whenever I watch a classic movie with two love interest leads with astounding chemistry I’m often left in suspense wanting to see the two together at the end. The Bride Came C.O.D. is one such film.

I find William Keighly to be a director of mediocre films; The Bride Came C.O.D. is a major exception. Past the not entirely electrifying opening, once James Cagney and Bette Davis were alone in the desert and constantly bickering at each other I knew I was going to enjoy the hell out of this film. I was enjoying the presence of these two so much at one point I found some initial disappointment when a third character showed up despite the two being stuck in the wilderness. It felt like someone crashing at a party so it’s a good thing that I did grow to like this character; the movie really does get better and better as it progresses.

The movie takes place over a less than 24 hour time period and I’m pretty sure in real life two people couldn’t go from hating each other to madly in love within a time period of this length, but The Bride Called C.O.D. is movie fantasy. The film has one pivotal scene which elevated the film from being great to excellent in which Davis tells Cagney in a tearful breakdown of how she has had everything handed to her in life. No longer was the movie just a laugh riot, I now had characters whom I was emotionally invested in. It’s a testament to Bette Davis as an actress that she has the ability to tug the heartstrings like that in an instant. I’m generally not a huge of Davis, I find her roles in numerous soap opera romantic tragedies off-putting, thus it was a pleasant surprise to discover her natural ability for comedy. Perhaps that dame could have been undoubtedly the outstanding screwball of her generation!

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!