It’s Love I’m After (1937)

olivia-and-errol-banner-3

The Taming of the Shrew

It’s Love I’m After draws many parallels to the earlier screwball comedy Twentieth Century (1934) with Leslie’s Howard’s Basil Underwood drawing a number of similarities John Barrymore’s Oscar Jaffe. Basil Underwood is an egomaniacal actor who is as big a ham off stage as he is on. Like Barrymore in Twentieth Century, he can never describe something in a conventional matter but rather has to do it poetically with his constant references to Shakespeare, with Howard’s English accent making him sound all the more pretentious. He’s clearly a man of the theatre to the point that he doesn’t even know who Clark Gable is (yes they actually mention an MGM star in a Warner Bros movie when studios were keen to usually only promote their own contract players). Likewise, his sparing with Bette Davis as his bride to be Joyce Arden is similar to the screaming and shouting between John Barrymore and Carole Lombard in Twentieth Century, yet in a movie with Bette Davis Howard is still the bigger drama queen.

Although Basil is engaged to marry Joyce despite the two hating each other one minute and then are in a loving embrace the next, the real unforgettable dynamic is between Howard and Eric Blore. It’s implied throughout the film that Basil and the effeminate Diggs are gay lovers through much gay subtext (“Do we know anyone called Marsha West Diggs?”, “Not unless you’ve been cheating on me, sir”). This occurs even though Basil is set to marry Joyce, thus is Joyce even aware of this and are they involved in a three-way relationship or is Basil cheating on Joyce with Diggs? Why does Basil even need Joyce if he has the perfect partner in Diggs? Either way, the dynamic between the entire cast of It’s Love I’m After is effortless.

Olivia de Havilland’s Marcia West is an early example of what we would now call fanboyism, having a fanatical love for Basil Underwood. Yet despite her bursts of hyperactivity and her ditzy manner, she does have a smarter side to her. She does cleverly get her way into Underwood’s dressing room at the theatre and even has the common sense to just talk to him about her feelings towards him then run off again and not to continue bothering him. It’s only when Basil deliberately turns up to her house does he feel the full wrath of her fanaticism.

Also contributing to the movie’s over the top histrionics is Bonita Granvillie as the chatterbox Gracie. I actually find her character quite disturbing with her spying through keyholes on other people’s business only to then tell the rest of the family about her discoveries. She reminded me the little girl who from These Three and its remake The Children’s Hour who ruined people’s lives with deceitful spying and her big mouth. Thus it came as no surprise when I learned she was the actress who played the little girl in These Three!

The cinematography of It’s Love I’m After is also a thing beauty, a perfect showcase the distinctive Warner Bros aesthetic of the 30’s and 40’s; particularly the lighting the of the dark theatre at the beginning of the film and those spellbinding close-ups of Miss de Havilland. During the beginning of the film, Basil and Joyce are playing Romeo & Juliet on stage. Howard had played Romeo the year before in MGM’s production of Romeo & Juliet which along with Warner’s A Mid-Summer Night’s Dream in 1935, had failed to garner much interest from filmgoers. I get the impression It’s Love I’m After reflects this when Spring Byington falls asleep to the production of Romeo & Juliet only to be waken and utters “Isn’t it so wonderful, Shakespeare is so elevating”.

Meet John Doe (1941)

A Face In the Crowd

Sadly Meet John Doe appears to be an uncared about film falling into the public domain. I’ve previously wondered if this film could have the power to inspire real-life John Doe clubs, like Fight Club inspiring real-life fight clubs. Meet John Doe is the ancestor to film’s like A Face in the Crowd and Network, chronicling the rise and fall of a media built character. Meet John Doe is not thought of as a conspiracy/paranoia film but is a few actions scenes away from being a conspiracy thriller. After watching you’ll start feeling more like tin foil hat wearing conspiracy theorist untrusting of government and the establishment.

John Doe is a Christ-like figure; he preaches loving thy neighbour when he is disgraced a newspaper editor proclaims “chalk one up for the Pontius Pilates of the world” and even plans to sacrifice himself on Christmas day. On top of that, Barbara Stanwyck’s speech at the end in which she tells John he doesn’t have to die for the idea of the John Doe movement – that somebody else already did – the first John Doe and he has been keeping the idea alive for 2000 years, all while the Christmas bells ring. Classic Hollywood films sure love their hard-hitting symbolism and metaphors.

Barbara Stanwyck is a phenomenon here with so much life and energy she can make any bit of exposition entertaining. As for Gary Cooper and Walter Brennan in of their many film pairings; what is it makes them a great duo? Perhaps it’s just the humorous interactions of two folksy Americans. Cooper’s boyish charm is on full display here, such his baseball pitching in a hotel room to his curious on look at a naked statuette. Meet John Doe is one of the finest performances he ever gave with his outburst at the dinner meeting making the hairs on my neck stand up. Walter Brennan’s The Colonel, on the other hand, doesn’t trust any media, authority or society in general. He’s comically cynical in the extreme and probably be a conspiracy theorist if he had lived in later decades. Throughout the film he refers to others as “helots”; state-owned serfs of the ancient Spartans (“When you become a guy with a bank account, they got you, yes sir, they got you”).

Although the John Doe movement claims the John Does are inheriting the Earth, the movement is funded by a corporation; so did they not see someone like D.B Norton taking advantage of them? Edward Arnold as D.B Norton is one scary, menacing guy who is complete with his own personal army force, giving the full authoritarian dictator vibes. When he sees his servants listening to Doe’s speech on the radio and applauding, he realises the political power he can have if he can get John Doe on his side. Under a scheme to buy his way to power he uses the John Doe movement to further his own agenda, to create a political party of which he leads in order to become President of the United States. His description that he plans to create “a new order of things” and “the American people need an iron hand and discipline” sounds like he has the intent of turning the country into a fascist dictatorship. There’s no doubt that Meet John Doe among other things was an argument against American isolationism in the war.

Another striking moment of Meet John Doe is the monologue given by Bert Hanson, the soda jerker (Regis Toomey) on how little we know about our neighbours and how a failure to get the whole picture leads to misconceptions of other people. It’s true in real life, people you live next to for years and you never contact them: perhaps the guy next door isn’t a bad egg.

Many of Capra’s films showcase the people’s need for a leader (Mr. Deeds, Mr. Smith or George Bailey) and in turn, they appear to be clueless and misguided with one (think of Pottersvillie in It’s a Wonderful Life) in a showcase of Capra’s darker side. Here the public buying up what the media tells them such as when Norton exposes John Doe for being an apparent fraud in one of the movie’s most powerful scenes as the movie captures so vividly the destruction of a dream. As dark as the movie’s ending is, it still remains optimistic in which the fight goes on (“there you are Norton, the people!”).

The Devil and Miss Jones (1941)

Me and Miss Jones

The Devil and Miss Jones may be the best Frank Capra film he didn’t make and one of the last depression era comedies making it one of the last of its kind – a screwball comedy dealing with the conflict between social classes. The film presents a fascinating and shocking look at the treatment of workers in a department store during the final days of the depression, themes which would become obsolete with the US entry to the war.

The owner of the department store is J.P. Merrick (Charles Coburn). With this character, the movie shows the rich aren’t all bad people at heart. They’re just cut off from common people and their reality, unaware of the common man’s struggle and surround by advisors who think they know what’s best. Heck, J.P. doesn’t even remember what stores he owns! He brings himself down to his employee’s level by going undercover as a store worker in order to identify those who are trying to form a union. J.P. has the advantage that no one in the public knows what he looks like as his picture hasn’t appeared in a newspaper for 20 years, also no internet in 1941 would also be an advantage.

I don’t how if the treatment of the workers is realistic or exaggerated; just how relevant is this movie today? In one scene a store supervisor criticises a new worker (unaware it’s the store’s owner going undercover) in a bullying nature for their poor intelligence level test score. In another scene the department store addresses their workers at the end of the day as they stand in unison like a military dictatorship, threatening to fire anyone and preventing them from working in any department store in the city if they speak out against the company or associate with anyone who does. Next to many of the workers have a secret union meeting on top of a building, like a band of rebels coming together to take down an oppressive regime. The leader of the cause played by Robert Cummings states the company is letting employees go after 15 years when their salary is higher than a new employee and that they expect a quarter lifetime of loyalty to the one employer. At one point Jean Arthur even speaks during one emotionally rousing speech about how working “25 years for only two employers” as unacceptable –  I know those days have certainly passed us. The art deco department store itself is a beauty and offers a nostalgic look at the days before automation, when people had to be employed to do every task without the aid of computers.

Robert Cumming’s character is an activist rallying against the establishment; the type of person who would protect his country against its government. The type of character you don’t see often in classic films and likely would have been labelled a communist during the McCarthy era. In one pivotal scene at a police station he takes on abusive, power hungry cops and escaping charges by reciting the Constitution and then the Declaration of Independence at lightning fast speed to remind the officers of their rights; a real badass. A scene like this just goes to show you how people are unaware of their rights.

Jean Arthur and Charles Coburn are a superb and unconventional pairing. Yet you get two great romance plots for the price of one – old love and young love; Charles Coburn & Spring Byington and Jean Arthur and Robert Cummings. Like Frank Capra’s works, The Devil and Miss Jones is full of incredibly intimate, powerfully sentimental moments as two characters talk to each other as the rest of the world ceases to exist, such as the beach scene with Arthur and Cummings or the moment on the train with Coburn and Byington are all incredibly moving. Yet the intimate moment which strikes me the most is Arthur and Coburn’s discussion on love. Jean Arthur’s monologue on love feels so true; stating that two people can look at each other and see something way deep inside that no one else can see and distances her love from that seen in movies of love songs. She doesn’t think herself or her boyfriend are the greatest people in the world, yet doesn’t know if she’d care to live or die if she would never see him again. When this moment begins the sound effects of people talking in the background becomes increasingly faint and then loud again as other people enter the scene – it’s perfect. In terms of just pure comedy, just look the scene in which Jean Arthur dives across the table; an explosion screwball comedy in its purest form.

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!

Theodora Goes Wild (1936)

Fifty Shades Of Screwball

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Theodora Goes Wild was released two years into Hollywood’s production code and yet the entire premise of the movie is one huge “how did they get away with that?!”. Only The Lady Eve, Ball of Fire and The Moon Is Blue perhaps out do it in terms of most pre-code post-code films. A film with a heroine who writes risqué novels and rebels against her ultraconservative, God-fearing, Helen Lovejoy type aunts who deem it their obligation to keep the fictional town of Lynnfield, Connecticut (yet another screwball comedy set in the state) the one last pure, God-fearing town in America. Moral puritans who try to ruin everyone else’s fun and claim to speak for a larger group- every generation has them. Theodora Goes Wild proceeds with an ending in which the once silent majority Lynnfield show their true colours. – This movie hasn’t lost an ounce of relevance for today’s world.

The scene at the beginning of Theodora Goes Wild in which the local literary group read passages from the latest “scandalous” novel from author Caroline Adams really is jaw-dropping. However, the local newspaper run by Thomas Mitchell starts printing a serialization of the scandalous bestseller in an effort to show the town how people live, love and learn in the real world. Little do they know Caroline Adams is their own Theodora Lynn, a Sunday school teacher who’s been playing the church organ since she was 15. Under the rules of the Production Code, a character must receive a punishment for their so-called “immoral” actions. Not here though! Despite Theodora rebelling against her God-fearing upbringing, she receives no punishment. Whoever said old movies are stuffy and the dreaded “O” word, outdated?

Despite writing highly successful adult novels, Theodora’s conscious still objects to it and thus requires a bit of Melvyn Douglas as Michael Grant to ignite Theodora’s sexual awakening after he seduces her while wearing a vest as his only piece of torso. Despite neither of these two performers being sex symbols, it’s surprising how steamy this scene comes off. Melvyn Douglas plays a potentially creepy stalker but is charming enough and carefree to a comic degree that he gets away with it. The man has adapt comedic timing (I never tire of that whistling of his) and it’s easy to see why Douglas was one of the most reliable male co-stars of the time. However what succeeds in making him a more interesting character is the discovery that Michael is actually just as repressed as Theodora due to being enslaved in a hateful marriage on behalf of his father’s political livelihood. Once Michael liberates Theodora from her small town way of life she returns the favour and liberates him from his New York, bourgeois decorum.

Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)

Ship Happens

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Few other cinematic experiences are as immensely satisfying as MGM’s 1935 production of Mutiny on the Bounty. Loosely based on the mutiny on board the HMS Bounty in the South Pacific on April 28th, 1789 (although at the end of the day how can any of us really know what happened on board that vessel over 200 years ago), the actual build-up to the seizing of the ship is just gloriously immense.

Charles Laughton is an absolute beast as Captain William Bligh, a cruel sadist, and a tyrant with no reverence for his convicts and low lives in his crew. With his arrogant stance, a face like a dead fish and his bushy eyebrows, it’s hard to stress just how much I love this performance; shivers go down my back at any of his many outbursts (“Miiiister Chriiiiiistian!”). For me, this is the ultimate love to hate character that when he finally gets his comeuppance after subjecting his crew to overworking, lashings and other mistreatments (which even go as far as leading to the death of some shipmen), it’s one of the most satisfying movie moments ever. Just like the crew, you grow to hate the Napoleon-complexed bully with a passion. On a personal level, I can see many of my old school teachers in Bligh. Ok, they weren’t that sadist but his harsh nature gives me déjà vu of my school days. There’s just something about angry, tyrannical ship captains which make for such memorable storytelling trope (Captain Ahab, Captain Queeg, James Cagney in Mister Roberts, Edward G. Robinson in The Sea Wolf).

Laughton’s performance as Bligh is not merely a caricature, however. Bligh is shown to have a human side which is expressively shown with the friendship he shares with the King of Thatti, Hitihiti (Bill Bambridge) – the only person who can convince Bligh to be less harsh with his crew and take a more liberal attitude. We don’t know why Bligh is the way is he, but it’s clear he’s very selective with whom he shows his respect and loyalties too. Whenever Bligh is on the lifeboat away from the convicts and lower dregs of society following the mutiny and only surrounded by his most loyal officers, suddenly he’s a great morale booster and a competent captain.

Second billed after Laughton is The King of Hollywood himself: Clark Gable as Fletcher Christian – A figure you would be glad to have as a captain, stern but fair and a man you would happily salute and shout “yes sir!”. He’s the humanitarian saving grace for a crew ravaged at the hands of Captain Bligh. Like Laughton, the hairs on my back rise at any of his outbursts throughout the film (“I call ship’s company to bare witness, you killed him!”). Supposedly the two intensely disliked each other possibly due in part to Gable winning the Oscar for Best Actor the year before for It Happened One Night over Laughton’s performance in The Barretts of Wimpole Street. This makes the seething hatred between the two characters feels more real making Mutiny on the Bounty a movie of two powerhouse performances fighting for dominance of the screen. This was Gable’s first role in a historical film and he fits well into the period even with his apparel of knee breeches probably being the most effete thing he’s ever worn on screen and his lack of an English accent (but ultimately this never gets in the way). It’s just a shame Gable would never again do an adventure role in the vein of Mutiny on the Bounty.

The complexity of Fletcher Christian comes from whether the character can be classified as a hero or a coward for his enacting of a mutiny. Christian could have tried to keep the crew’s lives as bearable as possible until they returned to England. On the other hand Bligh, on top of being tyrannical and corrupt, is responsible for the death of crew members. Was Christian justified in his action? It’s a question which the movie has no clear answer for (”From now on, they’ll spell mutiny with my name. I regret that, but not the taking of the ship. Every time think of Bligh, well I’d do it again”). When the mutineers celebrate the taking of the ship, Christian doesn’t part take in their exuberance and has a look of confliction on his face. For the mutineers they had noting waiting for them back in England, Christian, on the other hand, is throwing away his navel career, became a criminal and betrayed the crown in the process.

This question of whether a mutiny can be justified is also notably examined in Herman’s Wouk’s novel and subsequent film adaptation The Caine Mutiny, and there are quite a few plot threads connecting these two films together. In Mutiny on the Bounty Midshipman Byam sees a tall ship and asks if it is the Bounty, only to be disappointed when he’s directed to a much smaller ship; likewise Ensign Keith in The Caine Mutiny spots a new vessel and asks if it is the Caine, only to be directed to a rusty old minesweeper. In Mutiny on the Bounty, Bligh obsesses over two wheels of missing cheese, in The Caine Mutiny, Captain Queeg turns his ship upside down over a quart of missing strawberries. On top of this, both Bligh and Queeg are highly untrusting of their crews, even going as far as to draw up conspiracy theories based on half-heard and innocent conversations. I have to ask if Herman Wouk took inspiration from Mutiny on the Bounty when writing his own novel.

Rounding out the crew of The Bounty is a fine cast of players. I’ve never thought much of Franchot Tone as an actor (or at the very least didn’t get many meaty roles) but he’s superb as Midshipman Roger Byam, an idealist seaman who has to make difficult decisions between his loyalty to the navy and tyranny of Captain Bligh with his final monologue being one of the movie’s many acting highlights. Other character actor highlights include the drunken Dudley Diggs, the easily frightened Herbert Mundin as well as Eddie Quillan and Donald Crisp, who have small but very memorable and striking parts.

The scenes on the island of Tahiti are a major contribution to the pure escapism in Mutiny on the Bounty. Filmed on location on the real-life island itself, this portion of the film is as romantic as it gets. Tahati seems like a world too good to be true; a tropical drug shop of feast, song, and sleep; a seemingly carefree society in which the inhabitants don’t even know about the concept of money. It’s such a release after the tyranny experienced onboard The Bounty, well until we have to return to the ship that is – no wonder a mutiny takes place. Even with the production code in effect, the scenes on the island are still very exotic (even with the women’s navels being covered up with makeup) and it’s defiantly implied that intercourse has taken place. Shirtless Clark Gable, beautiful exotic women, tropical island paradise, what more do you want?

Mutiny on the Bounty also pushes forth a positive representation of the much-vilified British Empire with its patriotic overtones and the portrayal of the Empire having exceedingly good relations with a Polynesian tribe. Even with the appearance of a tyrannical and corrupt ship captain and his associates, the film indicates Bligh is an exception to the British Navy rather than the norm. Likewise, the film states in the opening prologue that the mutiny brought about reform to Britain’s navy:

“But this mutiny, famous in history and legend, helped bring about a new discipline, based upon mutual respect between officers and men, by which Britain’s sea power is maintained as security for all who pass upon the sea.”

The life-size recreation of The Bounty pushes the boundaries of set design at the time. From a visual standpoint, the movie excels in the realism department especially considering the lack of back-projection shooting. Likewise, the rousing musical score by Herbert Stothart unleashes the imagination of your inner schoolboy. Oh, and did I mention James Cagney is in this film; yep he’s in there for a brief second (just when I thought this movie couldn’t get any better). I find the tale of The Bounty is a story of great fascination and one which really sparks the imagination and the yearning for adventure. Mutiny on the Bounty is the seafaring movie all seafaring movies are measured against.