Laughing Sinners (1931)

I’d Rather Laugh With The Sinners Than Die With The Saints

Laughing Sinners is surely some good publicity for The Salvation Army. The plot of Ivy/Bunny (Joan Crawford) leaving her previous life behind and finding happiness in the helping of others is moralising but never came off to me as overly preachy. I like Laughing Sinners despite the film’s inconsistency with sections of the movie having little to no impact on the overall story. The first twenty minutes of set up, for example, could easily have been done in half the time. Yet despite this, there is a powerful emotional undercurrent at the heart of Laughing Sinners with a number of highly moving scenes making up for the less than stellar portions of the film.

At least some of these weaker moments are made passable from the presence of a comical, stereotypical Italian chef to a bizarre dance number in which Joan Crawford is dressed as a scarecrow; go figure. Likewise, another real highlight in Laughing Sinners is a scene in the park depicting a charity picnic which has such naturalism in both its documentary-like appearance as well as the acting; a piece of neorealism which doesn’t feel like a movie set.

As soon as Clark Gable enters the picture at 22 minutes the film truly takes off. Any scene with Crawford and Gable is pure magic with the sincerity in their interactions which at no point feels like acting. I don’t think there’s any other actress of the time who can as effectively as Crawford make you pour out your heart for the poor woman and rarely has she ever looked as angelic as she does here in her Salvation Army uniform. Likewise, many people will laugh at the idea of Clark Gable playing a Salvation Army officer but Laughing Sinners provides a side of Gable I wish more people could see. Like his role of Dr Ferguson in Men In White (1934), the part of Carl Loomis is saintly without delving into the sickly with his ability to project a real sense of warmth especially with his interaction with children.

This is one of the few films in Gable’s career in which he isn’t a romantic lead as he only remains in the friend-zone with Joan. Never again would we see Gable as more of a boy scout and less the alpha male; as he cooks, wears sweaters and aprons and lives with his aunt.

 

It’s a Wonderful World (1939)

It’s a Wonderful Life…I Mean World

The first 10 minutes of It’s a Wonderful World is just rather dull set up for an incomprehensible murder mystery, but when Stewart becomes a fugitive on the run trying to prove his innocence and Claudette Colbert enters the picture it’s all smooth sailing even with the largely impossible to understand plot.

James Stewart is Guy Johnson, a hardboiled detective who often has a cigarette hanging at the end of his mouth like he’s Phillip Marlow. The role is a very different change of pace for Stewart but he pulls it off showing he could have easily slipped into a noir/detective thriller. Stewart even channels Clark Gable at times; with even the way he talks to a dog shouting at it to go away is very Gable-like. On top of that, at one point he admits to Colbert’s character that he thinks “all dames are dumb and all men ain’t” and how she has changed his philosophy on women; don’t tell the feminists. I also have to ask does this movie contain Stewart’s only ever blackface moment in a film? So yes, the on-screen personification of a boy scout is now literally poking fun at boy scouts and even tying them up. Claudette Colbert, on the other hand, plays an overly trusting eccentric poet who states throughout the film, “I swear by my eyes”. What does that even mean?

It’s a Wonderful World offers a genre mix of screwball comedy, murder mystery and even some elements of Hitchcock with the plot of a fugitive on the run to prove his innocence. Likewise, many of the solutions’ the character’s use throughout the film feel like they could be used in a Hitchcock movie such as Colbert lighting the newspaper on fire to escape from the car. No surprise that the film’s co-writer Ben Hecht would be a future Hitchcock writer.

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.

Captain Blood (1935)

There Will Be Blood

Captain Blood, the one that started it all – the breakthrough roles for Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland and the first of their eight films together. The picture which saw the first of eleven films Flynn would make with director Michael Curtiz and the movie which helped establish Erich Wolfgang Korngold as one of Hollywood’s greatest composers. Captain Blood ushered in a new era for the swashbuckler, a genre which was huge in the 1920s but became practically non-existent during the pre-code era.

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 risks like this more often or was Captain Blood just one freakishly lucky gamble? With his long hair and muscular physique I don’t think Errol Flynn has ever appeared more attractive than he was in Captain Blood; he certainly never looked this beat up than he did in any of his subsequent movies. Reportedly during production scenes had to be reshot as Flynn’s acting had improved so dramatically over time. The man is a far better actor than he’s given credit for and perhaps the only other man in Hollywood who could rival Clark Gable in terms of pure swagger (just look at his ability to manipulate those two foolish doctors into assisting him into escaping from the island). The scenes between Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland are pure movie magic. When they’re in isolation it’s like they’re suddenly in a whole world of their own – it’s truly phenomenal chemistry. De Havilland 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 with us as of writing this review. Likewise, it is worth the 70-minute wait until Basil Rathbone finally enters the picture as the larger-than-life, French playboy Captain Levasseur.

In contrast to MGM’s Mutiny On The Bounty from the same year, Captain Blood does suffer slightly from being a more studio-bound product with no location filming (with the exception of the swordfight between Blood and Levasseur) or the aid of a life-size ship recreation. It’s also odd that the film is quite reliant on inter-titles to progress the plot, a silent-era holdover which still made it to 1935. Regardless, under the direction of Curtiz, the topical, palm tree-laden sets do come to life.

Dr Peter Blood reflects Flynn’s real-life personality if the man’s biographical tales are anything to go by – a free spirit who “has had enough adventure for 6 years to last him 6 lifetimes”. The plot of Captain Blood is a surprisingly empowering tale of defiance against corrupt and unjust authority. Blood is a doctor whom after following his sacred duty as a physician and giving medical aid to a wounded rebel during the Monmouth Rebellion in England circa 1685, is sentenced to slavery in a Caribbean colony and denied even the right to a fair trial. Captain Blood, however, is not your typical pirate picture. Blood and his band of escaped convicts do not bare eye patches, peg legs or utter “shiver me timbers”. They are not bloodthirsty pirates and do uphold moral convictions such as disdain the molestation of women (their articles forbid such action). Blood is not too dissimilar to Robin Hood and his Merry Men, they are not revolutionaries but rather outlaws who want to see the rightful king returned to the throne of England.