Black Legion (1937)

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Dey Turk Ur Jerbs!

Today when the issue of immigration is brought up you will likely be shouted down as a racist by many factions. Since there are people who believe white supremacists (an increasingly meaningless buzzword) have actual influence today in the age of Trump, what does 1937’s Black Legion say on the issue of immigration and people who are without a doubt real white supremacists. Black Legion was inspired from true events from an organisation of the same name despite the film’s false opening disclaimer.

In Black Legion Humphrey Bogart plays the role of Frank Taylor, a family man who is a far cry from the likes of Rick Blaine or Phillip Marlowe. However, Bogart being one of the most adaptable actors he never feels out of place in the part not to mention he actually had a boyish look to him in his early films before he became more rugged over the next few years. Bogart isn’t a tough guy here but rather someone who tries to act like a tough guy. This is exemplified in one of the film’s most memorable scenes in which Frank stands in front of a mirror while alone in the living room of his house with a gun in his hand and admiring the way he looks with it. He feels empowered by it and develops a false sense of security as he plays it tough to bolster his lack of confidence as rarely does Frank ever look totally comfortable within in the Black Legion itself.

Frank Taylor is drawn to racial hatred and later to joining the Black Legion after he loses a job promotion of factory foreman to Joe Dombrowski, a foreign-born worker. Dombrowski is an interesting character. When the position of foreman opens up Joe states that he believes Frank will make a great foreman as he has been employed longer than any of the other employees. However, it is Dombrowski who gets the job as he goes to night school, reads many books and is even studying how to design a lathe such as those used in the factory. Although his nationality or ethnicity is never mentioned, the name Dombrowski is Polish and Jewish in origin while the movie also subtly hints at the character being Jewish when his nose is referred to as “a plenty big one at that”. Likewise the comments later given by Ann Sheridan’s character in relation to the idea of the Dombrowski’s setting their own house aflame for an insurance payment in that they are “honourable people” and that “they wouldn’t do a thing like that” gives the impression that they are pillars of the community and that the locals do not look on at them as foreigners.

Essentially the factory in the film operated as a meritocracy and employed the best person for the job (“They will fill it the way they always have, move the best man up”); the essence of the American Dream – study hard and you will be rewarded. Frank, however, is a sore loser and instead of reflecting on himself and seeing where he went wrong he takes the weak minded route out. How would Frank have reacted if the job had been given to one of his American born co-workers?  He would not have been able to put the blame on “immigrants taking our jobs” so would he have come up with another lie in order to feel better about himself?

After Frank loses out on the promotion he comes across a charismatic radio presenter complaining about foreigners stealing American jobs and taking bread from American homes. Like this would have a hope in hell of appearing on any mainstream media today in what would now be referred to as “hate speech”. Likewise the scene in which Frank first attends a secret meeting held by the Black Legion in which a Hitler-esque speaker who overtly finger points gives a riveting yet at the same time ridiculous speech in which he speaks of ethnic nationalism and delves in conspiratorial nonsense on how foreigners “Now enriched with the jobs they have chiselled away from Americans and drunk with the power of their stolen prosperity, they are plotting to seize and control our government”.

With movies such as Black Legion and others from the mid to late 30’s you can’t help but ask would it be better if it were made before the code? Possibly the topic at hand would be presented in a less watered down manner. Look at a pre-code film such as Warner’s Five Star Final which had no problem with using a range of racial slurs whereas the only instance of this in Black Legion is the use of the word honyock. Likewise Black Legion does distinguish itself as an interesting beast of a film in that it feels like it is in between being a B picture and an A picture.

Interspersed between the main story is a love triangle subplot between Ann Sheridan, Helen Flint and Dick Foran. It’s largely a distraction from the main plot until it finally finds its relevance later on and is ultimately the lesser interesting portion of the film. Regardless Ann Sheridan provides some entertaining wise cracks plus Helen Flint plays a character called Mrs Danvers (no relation to the Rebecca character).

Does Black Legion hold much relevance for today? – To an extent yes. While much has changed since the 1930’s in today’s world of uncontrolled immigration, quotas and political correctness, there will always be groups of various political persuasions to pray on the weak minded.

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!

Stage Door (1937)

The Women

Stage Door is very much the poverty row version of MGM’s The Women. It features only one big box office star, another who had become box office poison and a supporting cast who would later go on to play notable prominent roles in later films (Lucille Ball, Ann Miller, Eve Arden).

Ginger Rogers and Katharine Hepburn where the two big rivals at RKO pictures with Rodger’s career on the up and Hepburn’s career on the down yet you can feel their mutual respect for each other as the film progresses (in the fictional realm at least). Stage Door follows a group of actresses living in a drab theatrical boarding house trying to make it in the world of show business. Right of the bat the movie is emotionally investing as the cast of street smarts constantly spew one-liners and witty remarks in an effort to try and deal with their lack of success amidst the depression-ridden 30’s; the film succeeds in evoking both laughter and sadness simultaneously with its barrage of highly relatable human emotion – The lightning-fast dialogue alone makes Stage Door worthy of multiple viewings.

Supposedly the filming of Stage Door began without a completed script resulting in much of the film’s dialogue being improvised. The interactions between the female cast feels real; the acting present in the movie doesn’t feel like acting, almost like I’m getting a voyeuristic insight into these character’s lives.  Likewise, the film even has an early appearance by Jack Carson as an over giddy lumberjack on an arranged date with Jean Maitland (Ginger Rogers); always a great screen presence no matter how brief his appearance is. I find Stage Door a one of a kind film; it has a raw quality, one that can’t be created intentionally making it a rare treat in many respects. The cast and dialogue is just too good that I really become attached to these characters and almost wish the film could be a bit longer.

Katharine Hepburn’s Terry Randall is another instance of Hepburn playing the odd one out. I do love Terry Randall, she’s the one character in the boarding house of whom clearly comes from an upper-class background and she is only one who achieves stage success by landing the lead in a play despite her lack of acting experience. With her go-getter attitude, Terry is the embodiment of the individual as summed up in one line: “You talk as if the world owed you a living. Maybe if you tried to do something for the theatre, the theatre would do something for you”.  I get the impression Stage Door purports the idea that one who comes from a lower class background will find it harder to overcome these ties and find success. In one dialogue exchange Terry asks the other women “do you have to just sit around and do nothing about it?” and the character played by Lucille Ball replies “maybe it’s in the blood, my grandfather sat around until he was 80”. Terry is clearly more dedicated to her craft than the other woman in boarding house, discussing Shakespeare and other aspects of theatrical arts, while the other conformist woman poke fun and shun her for it. This does make me question what they are doing there in the first place; I guess they have just been beaten down by the system that bad. One thing Terry is not, however, is a snob. She doesn’t look down on the girls from a high and mighty position and even makes the effort to learn their slang. When I doubt I will ask myself, what would Terry Randall do?

Men In White (1934)

Medical Melodrama

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Initially I was skeptical at weather Clark Gable would make a convincing doctor but not only does he pull it off (even if he is the most gorgeous doctor ever *swoons) Men In White has to be my favourite performance I’ve seen him deliver portraying the idealistic and dignified young Dr. George Ferguson; 60 years before George Clooney in ER. Men In White is a perfect showcase of what Gable is cable off while Myrna Loy, although not dominating the film as much still shares a mature romance with Gable who must make difficult decisions between his profession and his love life. Rest assured I got the satisfactory amount of swooning I would expect from a pairing of these two.

I cannot stress enough just how astounding this movie looks. This is without a doubt most stunning black and white film I’ve seen from the 1930’s. Every scene is light so immaculately with multi-layered and angled shots plus the widespread use of shadows giving the film shades of noir. Even the classic noir shot of the shadows created by blind shutters on one’s face to show they have become imprisoned in life is present. Likewise, the art deco design of the hospital itself would likely not be practical in real life but it sure as hell looks good; needless to say the removal of eyes from the screen is easier said than done. The film’s set designer was Cedric Gibbons, a regular at MGM who helped create the distinctive look of their films in the 1930’s and surely Men In White is one of his greatest achievements.

Movies like this where common in the 1930’s, glorifying those who held jobs central to society (Tiger Shark, Night Flight, Slim). Call them propaganda but they were effective and informative. Although I don’t have any real interest in medicine or healthcare (despite both my parents being nurses) Men In White gives a real sense of awe and wonder to medical world such as when Dr. McCabe (Henry B. Walthall) the elder doctor who gives a rousing speech at the beginning of the film on all the medical advances in his lifetime (anesthesia, sterilization, surgery, x-ray) and the figures behind them. We’ve come much further since 1934, certainly when it comes to the etiquette of the doctors on display. In one scene a doctor hits on a nurse in the open for everyone else to hear while other doctors have no problem openly talking about their sex lives (“Being in love kills your sex life”). There is even one scene in which a doctor is running through the public area of the hospital wearing only a towel! If that happened today it would be all over the tabloids.

Men In White paints a picture of just how demanding a job as a doctor is, working round the clock; Dr. Ferguson works 16-18 hours a day for $20 a week (in 1934 or course). His finance Laura (Myrna Loy) has a selfish streak to her, getting frustrated with Ferguson when he’s only doing his job and one which is detrimental to saving the lives of others. Additionally Jean Hersholt (Hollywood’s great Dane and an actor who has that look of great intellect) as Ferguson’s mentor pressure’s George to put greater priority to his career than his love life. The film’s ending isn’t so predictable having me question whether or not George and Laura will end up together in the end.

Men In White also showcases corruption which can exist within hospitals when a superior doctor knowingly gives a child too much insulin, only for Dr. Ferguson to interfere even if it puts his job on the line. Once the child recovers from the insulin overdose, the superior doctor takes the credit; douche. The child, however, thanks and hugs Dr. Ferguson at the end of the film in what I feel is the movie’s most inspiring moment. Gable isn’t playing a brute here like he often does but rather someone who can project a level of warmth especially with his interaction with his child patient.

The scene in which Dr. Ferguson and the English nurse Barbara Den (Elizabeth Allen) are bonding over their loneliness and then start kissing is a breathtaking sequence. This leads to the most daring aspect of Men In White is the inclusion of abortion in the film’s plot. When I first watched the film I didn’t catch on that the big surgery scene itself was the result of a failed back alley abortion as the film’s hints are very subtle; it’s all in the undertones of the movie. That’s one reason why Men In White is re-watching; distinguishing what’s being said and shown versus what is really going on. If anything this is much more fun and satisfying having the movie simply spell everything out to the viewer.

When it is discovered Nurse Den attempted to get an abortion it is simply alluded to that she has a condition worse than a ruptured appendix and before the surgery itself Dr. Ferguson is questioned, “who is the man?”. It’s not made clear if the child being terminated is the result of the affair between Ferguson and Den, however, before their fling she is seen feeling unwell. Although I can’t comment of how accurate a depiction Men In White is of the medical profession I was still amazed at the level of detail in the movie from the terminology to the wide range of instruments used. One particular moment which stood out to me was the rigorously high level of sanitization the staff must go through prior to surgery. The film has an economic length of only 73 minutes but packs so much content. I’d happily become ill just to go to this hospital.