The Great Man Votes (1939)

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The Great Man Acts

The Great Man Votes is a humble little picture which packs a lot into it; offering a slice of Americana, taking place in “An American City, 1923”  (well the film tells us it isn’t Boston at least). The movie has a similar set up to 1931’s The Champ about a man and a single father who has fallen from grace, a loser to the rest of the world but is adored by his children who know him for what he is and help take care of him. Gregory Vance (John Barrymore) sums up this relationship he has with his children with an elegance that John Barrymore does best; “I believe the devil took you two squirts up on a mountain and offered you the whole world before your eyes, you’d come running back to your old man”. Like Barrymore’s Oscar Jaffe from Twentieth Century, Vance is a man who is who is always making references to history and literature in his speech.

The character of Gregory Vance is a representation of Barrymore at the time with his declining career brought on (at least in part) from his dependence on alcohol. Vance’s alcoholism is prophetic on Barrymore’s demise as the man would die just a few years later from the bottle. However one thing was still for sure, he was still a great actor. One interesting side note is that Luis Alberni who played a drug addict alongside Barrymore in The Mad Genius in which Barrymore’s character sold him drugs, in The Great Man Votes Alberni plays the reverse as a milkman who deals alcohol to Vance during prohibition.

The two children in The Great Man Votes played by Virginia Wielder and Peter Holden manage to hold their own against Barrymore which is no easy task. They are two mature, intelligent kids who even know how the political machine works but when they have to fend for their own and look after their drunk father, they have no choice but to be this way. Virginia Wielder is the movie’s real scene stealer. Like in The Philadelphia Story, she robs any scene she inhabits and is even the victim to a punch in the face in one of the film’s more shocking moments.

Gregory Vance is the only registered voter in his key precinct during the mayor’s re-election. It’s not explained how this manages to be the case but it’s a charming political fantasy in which a corrupt politician is at the mercy of a single John Doe to be elected to office; a case in which one person’s vote truly matters. There is no identification of who the parties are in the film but I do appreciate the scene in which a speaker talks about how voters are slaves to tradition, voting for the traditional party choice over and over again; how true. The Great Man Votes also notably showcases America as the melting pot of cultures as seen during the multi-ethnic pledge of allegiance given in the children’s school.

The movie has a number of nice filmmaking touches to it such as the shot of the two kids walking to school in which we only see their feet as they talk, to an innovative, ahead of its time edit in which the teacher (Katharine Alexander) asks Vance in regard to the wellbeing of his missing children, “But what about Joan and Donald?”, instantly cutting to Donald in another house saying “we’re doing pretty well”.

The villain of The Great Man Votes is the politician Iron Hat McCarthy; not a guy who appears to be in politics to spread any virtue nor does it help he shares the same last name as one of the most vilified figures in 20th-century politics. He is introduced giving candy to children because “they’ll all be voting the straight ticket one fine day”, he says in an unsavory tone; indoctrinate them while they’re young. These traits are carried over to his douche bag son which is visualised in an early example of an ass gag in which he falls into wet cement and creates an imprint of his rear end, a constructing worker looks down at it and utters “spitting image of his old man” and the camera cuts to the ass imprint in the cement.

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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.

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.

All Through the Night (1941)

A Mixture of Action Und Comedy

Bogart: Let’s Get Silly!

Mixing up so many genres into a single movie could potentially be a disaster yet I’ve perhaps never seen a better genre mash-up than All Through the Night. I’m astounded at this movie’s ability to have a bit of everything and pull it off so immaculately; bouncing back and forth between drama, comedy, action, murder mystery and even film noir. All Through the Night is the closest thing to a Hitchcock movie starring Humphrey Bogart in which an ordinary man gets caught up in espionage and becomes a fugitive for a crime he didn’t commit with moments in the film such as the auction scene or Bogart deliberately getting arrested by police directly reminded me of North by Northwest; likewise the movie even stars Judith Anderson in the Mrs. Danvers hairstyle from Rebecca while Bogart’s exploits against the movie’s Nazi villains gives an urban Indiana Jones edge to the film. Even the movie’s final climatic moment had me on the edge of my seat and thinking to myself “how is he going to get out of this?!”. One top of that the film gets an additional boast with some truly superb use of shadows and lighting; All Through the Night really exemplifies the unique look of Warner Bros. movies of the 30’s and 40’s.

I may sound hyperbolic but the more I think about it, the role of Golves Donahue may be the greatest performance of Bogart’s career; why you ask, versatility! Just like the tone of the film he is able to continually bounce back between being serious to just downright silly. Bogart has made me laugh during comedic moments in his other movies but I never knew he could make me laugh this side split-tingly hard; from subtle moments such as throwing the reserved sign off a table in a nightclub to the more obvious in which he infiltrates and stalls a secret Nazi meeting. At another point he delivers the line “More here than meets the FBI”; I do love me a corny pun but with Bogart delivering it just makes it funnier. All Through the Night makes me wish he had starred in more comedies.

On top of all that, the character he plays is a momma’s boy yet he’s still badass! I find this aspect of his character is hilarious in itself. There’s something adorable about a tough guy who wears dotted bathrobes and loves cheesecake so much; exemplified even more with his mother being played by the ever motherly Jane Darwell. All Through the Night features a large selection of character actors at some of their best work and even features a young Jackie Gleason in one of his earliest film roles; what more secrets does this movie hold? If I was to find any point of contention with All Through the Night I wouldn’t have minded seeing a bit romance between Bogart and Kaaren Verne, but with a film that has this much merit, it’s hard to complain.

All Through the Night is an anti-Nazi propaganda film and an effective one at that. I find the satire here is on par with The Great Dictator and To Be or Not Be as the movie pokes fun at Nazi ideology. The leader of the branch of Nazi spies is played Conrad Veidt whom there was probably no one better at the time to play evil Nazis. Golves Donahue is also a minor gangster which reflects the attitude of real-life gangsters of the time who worked with the government to infiltrate Nazi spies. One scene in the film involves Bogart giving a chilling monologue on how the Nazis will take people’s freedoms away in an argument against US isolationism in the ongoing war in Europe; all this however without even mentioning the word Nazi once throughout the film. Another interesting aspect of the film is the mentioning of an actual concentration camp Dachau. Being released in 1941 before the true nature of the camps where discovered, this is one moment I found quite chilling. All Through the Night was released in the US only 5 days before the attack on Pearl Harbor, although Warner Bros. had already long established themselves as an anti-Nazi studio.

By the time I watched All Through the Night I had already seen all of Bogart’s major movies and figured I was largely finished exploring the actor’s filmography, thus it came as such a delight discovering this obscure gem which satisfied me more than many of his more famous movies. This is the type of movie which makes me want to scream out, “Why the hell is this not more well known?!”, but then again its moments like these in which I live to be a cinephile.