Five Star Final (1931)

The Scum

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Five Star Final is 85 years old yet nothing has changed in that the public still has an appetite to read about filth in newspapers. The themes here would be looked at in many newspaper comedies throughout the 1930’s, however, this is no screwball comedy – it’s deadly serious. I guess we can’t say “back in my day journalists had ethics”. The real-life inspiration for Five Star Final came from a New York tabloid called New York Evening Graphic. At the time of the film release, the Evening Graphic was losing circulation because its new editor was attempting to make it a more respectable paper, just like the character of Randall played by Edward G. Robinson the editor of the fictional tabloid newspaper The Gazette.

Randall is an editor who is not without ethics. Despite the objections of the paper’s management, “Randall won’t print pictures of girls in underwear in the pictures section” and prints cables from The League of Nations. The pressure is on him to stop printing “actual news” and more sensationalist stories and gossip. When Randall gives in we see the full sleaze of Edward G. Robinson; after all, nobody could do sleaze better than him.

The stealer of the show, however, is Boris Karloff as Isopod. This isn’t a horror movie but his performance feels like one straight from a horror picture with his distinctive, eerie voice. Isopod is a disgraced priest of whom Randall disguises as a practising priest to go undercover and do the paper’s dirty work; a creep who is full of crap and as Randall puts it “You’re the most blasphemous looking thing I’ve ever seen”. The name Isopod in Greek means ‘even footed’ but more commonly is the name an unpleasant looking order of crustacean parasites so I guess it works.

The Gazette has a number of shady practices; they bully retailers and vandalise their stalls for not putting their papers on top. Likewise they employee a pretty girl played by Ona Munson to do dirty work for the paper although the main reason they’re choosing her for the job is that she’s not flat chested, as evident by the shot in which Aline MacMahon is clearly looking at her rack (even Isopod enjoys checking her out).

In order, the increase the circulation of The Gazette, Randall unearths a 20-year-old murder case for the sake of a sensational story later titled, “Famous Killer’s Girl to Wed Society Man”. Today with this internet thing we’ve got going on it would be highly unlikely someone could hide the fact they were once tried for murder while Isopod could just get a photograph of the murder’s daughter on Facebook. But the fact remains the same: sensationalist news stories can affect the lives of innocent associates.

The film has a truly superb cast with everyone having their moment in the sun and this being a film set in the world of journalism, the dialogue flows at a rapid-fire rate; a form of acting which is truly a thing of the past. Marian Marsh’s breakdown at the end is hair-raising melodramatic brilliance, even if her husband just happens to walk in as she pulls out a gun in a delightfully improbable turn of events.

The production values are excellent, helmed under the great director Mervyn Le Roy (such an impressive back catalogue). The use of sound in the opening credits with boys shouting “extra!” and the noise of the printing press sets the atmosphere while it’s evident the studio strived for this production to have authentic sets. Many shots in Five Star Final have an impressive level of depth such as that of George E. Stone with his feet up in the foreground as he sits back while on the phone.

Five Star Final contains innovative use of split screen as Mrs Voorhes (Frances Starr) in the middle of the frame is trapped between paper employees who go about their business as usual and try to ignore her but also shows the paper as voyeuristic spies. Yes, the filmmakers sure love their symbolism here. Throughout the film, Randall is constantly washing his hands (“50 times a day” apparently) while the paper employees going to the bar and drink in order to deal with their conscience. Likewise, Randall’s closeted love interest Miss Taylor played by Aline MacMahon has feelings towards him but objects to his job and the paper; she is symbolic of his conscious. To top it all off, the film ends with an image of the paper lying in the gutter like the filthy rag it is; a final powerful image to stick in your mind.

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Mr Deeds Goes to Town (1936)

Meet Longfellow Deeds

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

I’ll admit that it took me a while for Gary Cooper to grow on me as an actor and to see his appeal under his minimalist, low key style of acting; but eventfully I got it. It’s been said Cooper’s face was the map of America; so why in under God did they cast Adam Sandler in a remake of Mr Deeds Goes to Town?

Mandrake Falls is a town full of oddballs, and the naive but not a total dunce Longfellow Deeds comes off as a weirdo to the city dwellers who are fascinated by his behaviour and start mocking him. Mr Deeds Goes to Town certainly highlights the divide between city slickers and small-town folk; this is particularly evident in the scene in which Deeds, himself a poet meets a group of distinguished poets in the restaurant and is appalled by their snobbery and elitism to the point that he beats them up.  Likewise, the film also features Charles Lane as a lawyer, the inspiration for The Simpsons’ blue haired lawyer.

In an example of the darker side of Capra’s films, Mr Deeds Goes to Town is a cynical look at society and the media as a whole (“Why do people seem to get pleasure out of hurting each other, why don’t they try helping each other once in a while?”). Multiple people are out to snag Deed’s fortune while the media is out constantly pursuing him due to his odd but ultimately harmless behaviour; the media manipulating how a person is seen by the public. Mr Deeds is a man who became famous for inheriting a fortune, in other words, he’s famous for being famous and the newspapers appear to have nothing better to do than report on his escapades such as feeding donuts to a horse; relevant to today’s celebrity culture.

With the scene in the park in which Babe plays a set of improvised drums and Deeds sings humoresque. Capra didn’t want to include it as he thought it was too sappy but Jean Arthur insisted it remain. Capra of all people thought it was too sappy?!  But ah Capra sentiment, it never fails to move me.

The sanity hearing at the end of the film is pure movie fantasy; I doubt in real life someone could be classified insane on such so-called evidence. In a demonstration of Cooper’s ability as one of the best actors when it comes to giving a rousing speech or monologue, he talks about the silly quirks we all have. Although the likes of “o” filling or knuckle cracking seems rather trivial, I’m always left with the impression that the movie is making a statement on society’s treatment of those who don’t fully “fit in” or adhere to conformity and asks the question; who is truly “normal”?

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

It Happened One Christmas

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Why yes I do cry like a baby over it’s a Wonderful Life: every time. That ending is such a huge release after such as a dark and depressing alternative reality. I’m always left shaken up by it and need a break before I can watch another movie as well as making me want to make amends with loved ones. I’m sure everyone who watched It’s a Wonderful Life thinks to themselves what the world would be like if they were never born. The struggle of George Bailey is relatable to a wide spectrum, and I know for myself it really hits home. Being stuck in a dead-end town and feeling you will bust if you don’t get away from it; having your life not going the way you intended it to while your siblings appear to be doing so much better than you. But in at the end George Bailey realises what he’s got when it’s all gone, above it all, God’s greatest gift. It’s a Wonderful Life takes placed in a world in which God exists (and can focus his time on this one person over the rest of the world, but I digress). I’ve never felt however for It’s a Wonderful Life to have a religious agenda, it’s merely just a plot device for the film’s fantasy elements.

Lionel Barrymore’s performance as Henry F. Potter I feel is a tie between his brother John’s roles in Twentieth Century as the best performance from the Barrymore clan. Potter is one of the biggest douche bags in movie history; the archetype evil business mogul and ripe for comparisons with real-life figures. Not only has he no charitable side, he directly steals money in order to destroy his competition. Unlike other screen villains, Potter does not get any comeuppance at the end of the film, although you could say he’s destiny as a sick, frustrated and lonely man who hates anyone that has anything he can’t have is punishment enough. Potter isn’t a total caricature though, he is more three dimensional than that. He’s a man who knows how to conduct and run a business and understands that high ideals without common sense could ruin a town. But George Bailey is no fool, he is a natural born leader, even if he doesn’t realise it. He stands up to Potter without giving it a second thought, runs a building and loan which is a real estate empire itself; even his father states to him that he was born older than his brother.

Moments like the makeshift honeymoon suite in the broken down house which they later make their own or the recurring gag with the mantle at the end of the stairway represents the kind of writing which elevates It’s a Wonderful Life above the majority of other movies. Like the greatest of films, you notice something new on every viewing. Likewise, nobody can do moments of intimacy like Frank Capra, the movie is full of scenes in which it is simply two actors talking with no background music, yet creates raw human emotions like no other. Take a scene such as George and Mary walking through a neighbourhood at night while George talks about his ambitions for the future, the rest of the world ceases to exist. Many will be quick to put down Capra’s work as so-called “Capracorn” or as Potter puts it, “sentimental hogwash”. Get off your high horse and stop thinking you’re above such emotion – cinema is about the manipulation of emotions.

It’s hard not to feel sentimental for the representation of small-town America on display. Bedford Falls itself is a town full of interesting and unique characters. It actually reminds me of The Simpsons. Potter himself is essentially the town’s own Mr. Burns in The Simpsons – the people of Springfield hate Burns but are dependent on him for their energy needs. Likewise, the people of Bedford Falls hate Potter and would be dependent on him for their housing if it wasn’t for the competition of the Bailey Building & Loan.

Due to its public domain status, the film was shown on some TV networks in 24-hour marathons. I’d happily watch one of those networks as I can’t stop watching It’s a Wonderful Life no matter what point in the movie I begin. Could you get a more perfect marriage between actor and director than James Stewart and Frank Capra? Collaborating on a perfect trilogy of films, with each one better than the last. It’s a Wonderful Life? It sure is.

You Can’t Take It With You (1938)

It’s Truly a Wonderful Life

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

You Can’t Take It With You follows the Sycamore/Vandrerhof household; the ultimate eccentric family. In fact eccentric probably isn’t the right word, they’re complete nuts. They live a counter-cultural lifestyle of not working or paying taxes (and somehow getting away with it) and doing whatever makes them happy without a care in the world; people who aren’t afraid to live. There are like cartoon characters who can twist their way out of any situation with people more in tune with reality, such as when Grandpa Vanderhof (Lionel Barrymore) manages to convince the timid Mr. Poppins (Donald Meek) to stop throwing his life away working as a bureaucrat and start having fun. The Sycamores/Vanderhofs are families we probably can’t be in real life but wish we could.

Even with a large ensemble cast, Lionel Barrymore is the actor at the heart of the film in a role which is the polar opposite of his part of Henry F. Potter in Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. The scene in which Vanderhof is confronted by a government official played by the always miserable looking Charles Lane feels like a dig at big government. When Grandpa asks the official what the government gives him for his money he is given the response of “The government gives you everything”, emphases on the word everything, followed by Vanderhof’s humorous but thought-provoking rebuttals. The family’s refusal to pay taxes may be ethically questionable but it’s a movie fantasy and could never happen in real life. Don’t you wish you could deal with bureaucracies as easily as Grandpa Vanderhof?

One of Grandpa Vanderhof’s other fascinating moments is his monologue on “ismmania” although I’m quite sure what to make of it (“when things go a little bad nowadays you go out and get yourself an ‘ism’ and you’re in business”). The message feels similar to a 1948 animated short “Make Mine Freedom” in how the danger of isms can cripple the people. All we need is our Americanism as Vanderhof proclaims, which itself is an ism but I digress. Regardless his line which following this, “Lincoln said, with malice toward none, with charity to all – Nowadays they say think the way I do or I’ll bomb the daylights out of you”; that gives me chill every time.

One the sweetest, most heartwarming scenes in any film ever is when Grandpa Vanderhof tells Alice Sycamore (Jean Arthur) about his love for his deceased wife and how the room still smells of her perfume. Ugh, it just kills my poor little soul; a perfect display of Capra’s gift for directing very intimate, emotional scenes in which the rest of the world ceases to exist. Likewise, there doesn’t seem to be any actress whom James Stewart didn’t share a great dynamic together. James Stewart and Jean Arthur share a perfect chemistry together, pairing the embodiment of the everyman and the embodiment of the everywoman.

Non-conformity is the name of the game in You Can’t Take It With You. Grandpa Vanderhof understands the preciousness of life as he pursues his own interests and his own forms of fulfillment. He encourages others to follow their dreams and not submit to the will of others. In one scene Alice speaks of Grandpa’s thoughts on how “most people are run by fear, the fear of what they eat, fear of what they drink, fear of their jobs, their future, their health, scared to save money and to spend it. People who commercialise on fear scare you to death to sell you something you don’t need”. Amen sister! – The only thing to fear is fear itself.

You Can’t Take It With You promotes what we would now refer to as a libertarian mindset, live and let live as long as you’re not hurting anyone. As Tony Kirby (James Stewart) tells his father Antony P. Kirby (Edward Arnold) towards the end of the film, “I think this business is great. It’s good for you because you like it. I don’t, and I never will”. In many ways the Sycamore/Vandrerhof family is the embodiment of the American Dream. They own their property, each member pursues their individual dreams and they are above all happy. They live their life without inference from the government or other such bodies: Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

One of the other messages derived from You Can’t Take It With You is the same as that to come from the ending of It’s a Wonderful Life in which the townspeople come to George Bailey’s aid, giving him money so he won’t have to do jail time followed by the final message from the angel Clarence; “No man is a failure who has friends”. A very similar incident occurs in YCTIWY in which friends and neighbors of the Sycamores pay for their fine in night court so they won’t be locked up. Likewise, the family’s arrest for being mistakenly identified as communists feels like a foreshadowing to McCarthyism. Then again they should have thought that a fireworks show based on the Russian Revolution as well as advertising it perhaps isn’t the greatest idea; it stinks!

There are those who will hear the name Frank Capra and have a reaction along the lines of “Oh Frank Capra, sentimental, saccharine, manipulative rubbish”. I don’t make apologies when I say that dismissing a film for being sentimental is the nonsense film criticism to end all nonsense criticisms; it stinks! Newsflash, stories have been manipulating people’s emotions since the dawn of time. Pulling of effective sentimentality is a skill and I have not come across a single good reason as to why it is a problem. You Can’t Take It With You is Capra at his most sentimental, manipulative, saccharine and all those other dirty words and I love it for that. So if that’s the crime of the century, then lock me up for life. Capra-corn and proud of it!

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.