Alice Adams

Alice Adams

A poor little dead rose for your thoughts, Alice Adams?

I know director George Stevens for his later dramatic work, such as Giant and A Place in the Sun, as well as the western Shane, all of which he either won or was nominated for the Best Director Oscar. Here, he gives us one of his earliest works, Alice Adams, which was the film that largely broke the ground for his career. This film was also the one that helped revive Katharine Hepburn’s failing career; after she won Best Actress in 1933, her subsequent films threatened to turn audiences away from her forever, and it was this film that set her career back on track and improved her popularity. Watching it myself, it’s fairly easy to see why; both Hepburn and Stevens are largely responsible for what does work about this film, along with an able script adapted from yet another literary source, as so many Best Picture nominees (then and now) are. It’s only what the film actually presents to us, instead of how it is presented, that has the potential to roll some eyes among those who would take the time to view this one.

Hepburn is the eponymous Alice Adams, who lives with her family in their modest house; her father is quite ill, but still retains a job for himself at a factory for when he gets better, while her brother mostly lives his own life, gambling and cavorting with the ‘lower-class’ citizens of the town. This rankles both Alice and her mother, both of whom are wannabe social climbers of the highest order and the stiffest lip; Alice goes to several social engagements, where she puts on airs and pretends she and her family is much more well off than they actually are, all to gain the approval of her social circles and find some meaning to her otherwise personally-empty life as a poor person, and her mother is largely the reason for Alice’s personality and attitude, being of the same caliber. Things go by well enough, until one dance where Arthur Russell, the wealthy and to-do fiance of the party’s hostess, takes a liking to Alice, and wishes to get to know her better, and the family must try and find a way to scrape by on their image so that Alice and Arthur can spend time together without Arthur finding out about Alice’s true finances and social standing. After I finished my viewing of Alice Adams, I was really unsure of how to go about describing it and its unique brand of entertainment value, especially to those who might be interested in a viewing of their own. The best I can do is to make a comparison to a more modern movie; in the way that Bridesmaids takes awkward comedy to as uncomfortable a level as that film did, Alice Adams pretty much does the same with awkward drama. Most of what you’ll be experiencing during a viewing of Alice Adams is generally feeling really awkward about how desperately the Adams family tries to hold themselves and their thinnest of social veneers together in the face of other people, including and especially Arthur Russell. To say that it’s cringe-worthy is to undersell it; there were a few moments that I swear I could audibly hear nails screeching on a chalkboard as Alice’s expressions and sanity threatened to splinter right there on the screen as the charade was nearing its collapse. If that doesn’t sound like entertainment to you, in all fairness, stay the hell away from Alice Adams; you’d only be doing yourself a disservice trying to stomach your way through it.

Now, there’s quite a bit about Alice Adams that does work; mostly, it’s George Stevens’ simple and reserved direction, as well as Katharine Hepburn’s nearly perfect performance. Indeed, most of the reason the film and what transpires is as awkward and cringe-worthy as it is is because of Hepburn and every subtle turn of her expressions, which she plays exactly the way she needed to for the material. But, therein lies the rub; it’s the material itself that is ultimately what makes this as unpleasant a watch as it is. I’ve never found the concept of milking awkwardness for every drop that a film can as entertainment, and that’s unfortunately exactly what Alice Adams does. Not to mention the fact that Alice, and especially her mother, are absolutely repugnant characters at heart, and you don’t get any sort of rewarding feeling or satisfaction from a viewing of this film. Hepburn is excellent, but there’s plenty of better films where she’s just as good that are more worth your time.

Arbitrary Rating: 6/10

Broadway Melody of 1936

Broadway Melody of 1936

Before you have that buttered toast… have a song!

Here’s a question for the people reading this; a rhetorical question, but a question nonetheless: Ever heard of Eleanor Powell? For me, I hadn’t until I saw this film, Broadway Melody of 1936. To put things in perspective, the studios of the time, and MGM in particular, generally considered big Broadway revues to be the height of talent and stardom and what audiences mostly liked to see, with dancing, singing, and a little bit of comedy thrown in. Film studios had been trying desperately to bring the gaiety of Broadway revues to the screen, while still having all the things films were known for like plots and characterization, and to do that they would try and put together productions like this one, filled with singing, dancing, comedy, and yes, a little plot and character to tie everything together. And to populate films like this, they’d bring in new and old stars who could sing and dance and smile with the best of them, hoping to make them film stars as well. Now, getting back to my initial question, and in keeping this knowledge of film-musical/Broadway-revue productions in mind… how the hell have I never heard of Eleanor Powell before watching this film?

The plot actually gets quite complicated by the end of it all, so I’ll do my best to simplify. Powell is Irene Foster, a young performer hoping to make it big on Broadway in New York. She has the perfect in; her high school sweetheart, Robert Gordon, is a big-time producer of Broadway revues, and she hopes she can use their connection to get him to cast her in one of his productions, as well as rekindle their old flame perhaps. Problem is, Gordon’s financier for his new production, a young widow, wants the lead herself, and so Irene, along with Robert’s personal assistant, hatch a plan to make use of Robert’s persistent newspaper foe Bert Keeler’s outlandish headlines about Gordon bringing in a made-up French starlet for the show to their advantage, in order to show Robert that Irene is not only perfect for the show, but also for him as well. Daww, you just know they’re made for each other after reading that, and you probably won’t be surprised in the slightest to see how things all work out in the end. But, if the resolution isn’t what to watch this film for, what is a good reason to? Two words, my friends, two words– well, not really words, but a name, a first and last name: Eleanor Powell. I did some looking into Powell after watching this film and being thoroughly impressed by her and her tap dancing skills, and I found quite a few mentions of rumors floating about during the 1930s and 40s that Fred Astaire, ‘the’ premier tap dancer of all filmdom, considered Powell to be the only female tapper to be his equal; more than that, when they starred together in a film for the first time, he was actually intimidated by her talent and was afraid her tapping would upstage his own. That’s how good she was, and that’s how good she is in this film. Now, the rest of the film is only okay in general, but it had such a flair for presentation and such an insistent quality toward trying to make the ‘magic’ of the silver screen come across to the audience that it was hard not to be taken by the film’s charms; hard, but not impossible. It took an unusually long time to get to the actual plot, which made for an initially confusing watch as I had no idea where they were going with things or why certain things were even included to begin with, but everything does end up resolved by the end, even though I felt the ending was considerably rushed, as if the film’s running time was an exact quota they had to fill and go no further on. There’s also a supporting character who goes around in various scenes giving lectures on different types of snoring that I found entirely superfluous, and if indeed he was supposed to be a running gag, I can say the humor of his gag wears thin in the first 30 seconds of his screentime, and he reappears throughout the film, which got mildly annoying as the film went on.

I was a little confused as to why I didn’t enjoy this as much as I felt like I should’ve. After some consideration, I think it boils down to the simple fact that the film is some 80 years old; once again, I’m watching it in the modern age, and not in the 1930s, and despite my attempts to watch classic films in the mindset of their release dates, this one kept nagging at me in a way that I’m sure it wouldn’t have to a 1930s audience. I alluded to this with my ‘magic of the silver screen’ comment in the previous paragraph; it’s hard to resist this film’s charms, but it’s not impossible, and I seem to have managed a way to do it somehow, though I couldn’t tell you exactly how I managed to do it. Still, this is worth seeing for Powell alone, as well as some knowhow regarding the film’s running gags (save the one about the snoring expert), so there’s at least some value in this to be had.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

Ruggles of Red Gap

Ruggles of Red Gap

When people think you are someone, you begin to think you are.

Man, Charles Laughton was all over these early Best Picture nominees. Seems like all you needed was Laughton, good production sense, and a plotline amicable to audiences (and the Academy), and you had yourself a surefire Best Picture nominee. Hell, he’s in three of this year’s field, including the winner, which would be positively ludicrous had Claudette Colbert not done the same thing the year before. Anyway, here we have Ruggles of Red Gap, and here we have Laughton taking a role in an out-and-out comedy for the first time I’ve seen since Henry VIII. This is also a comedy by Leo McCarey, who would go on two years later to give us The Awful Truth, probably the only screwball comedy I actually enjoyed, so my hopes were raised slightly with this one. Add to it the plot, which features Laughton as a British manservant woefully out of place in a small American town, and my initial hesitations about continuing this year’s nominees after the last film I watched nearly completely flew out the window.

Laughton is the titular Ruggles, who works as a valet to an Englishman and is quite pleased with his place and stature as a servant. Since the status quo is required to be shaken up, Ruggles’ master winds up losing him in a poker game to a newly-minted American tycoon, and the mere thought of being sent off to America among the wild Indians and the even wilder settlers threatens to curdle his crumpets, so to speak. Nevertheless, Ruggles ends up traveling with his new family, the Flouds, to Red Gap in Washington state, where Ruggles manages to be taken for a British colonel and celebrity, finding the real meaning of companionship, and learning how to stand on his own two feet. First off, I have to say, I was not expecting Ruggles of Red Gap to actually be funny; I was expecting to be thoroughly amused through the running time, and little more. Nevertheless, when Ruggles’ new master Egbert Floud finally ropes him into drinking with him and a buddy of his, and we flash forward to a thoroughly off-his-ass Ruggles, and Charles Laughton cuts the air in half with the wildest whoop-and-holler this side of the most stereotypical western you’ve ever seen, and I snorted almost against my will. This film is actually, genuinely funny, and I’m a little ashamed to say that I wasn’t expecting that out of a Leo McCarey film at first. Sure, most of the humor comes from Laughton’s stuffy British sensibilities colliding head-on with the wild wild manners and personality of the Americans and him (Ruggles) not knowing what to do with himself when they do, but you know what? It worked, and it worked damn well. I genuinely laughed several more times through the film, and while it wasn’t an all-out laugh-fest, the film knew how to be funny and especially how to use the comedic sense of the film to impart dramatic lessons to us the audience, especially through Laughton’s recitation of the Gettysburg Address in a particularly affecting scene a good ways into the film.

I seem to be slightly spoiled when it comes to comedies the Academy actually appreciates, because I’m coming to this film off the unquestionably exceptional Thin Man and It Happened One Night, and the only way I can figure how to effectively rate this film is to compare it to those two, which came before and largely set the standard. Ruggles of Red Gap isn’t a standard-setter, and neither is it better than those two films, and this plus the filmmaking attitude of the film to just get things done rather than exceed expectations is largely why I’m giving it the rating I am. Still, don’t take this to mean that this film isn’t worth your time. Even if it is only just so, it certainly is; it’s actually funny, which is more than I can say about a good number of the comedies I’ve seen from the annals of cinematic history, so that should count for a good bit of mileage with any audience.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

Naughty Marietta

Naughty Marietta

I haven’t seen a man I could love.

There’s a bit of a dark side to being a movie blogger, even an amateur one. If you’ve got the right focus, most days you just love to watch movies, and whatever you’re watching is something you not only want to watch, but you generally know you’re going to enjoy. Then, there’s the other days; the days where you’re watching something out of obligation, where it feels like a chore. I knew, or had a very certain idea, that when I decided to watch Naughty Marietta, a musical featuring a lot of operatic music a la One Night of Love, that it was going to feel like one of those days, the chore days. Needless to say, the very instant the opening credits first appeared, and that haughty operatic singing forced its way into my ears, I was certain that I was going to hate this film. I got to the first number, and I knew I was in a real bind; I hated it, all right.

Marie is a French princess who is set up on an arranged marriage to a Spanish duke. Incensed at the removal of her choice in the matter, Marie masquerades as her housemaid Marietta and flees the country on a boat to New Orleans full of unwed ladies looking for husbands and new lives in the colonies. En route, their boat is taken by pirates, and the ladies are then rescued by a band of mercenary troops led by Richard Warrington, who takes a shine to “Marietta”, and she to him, despite their mutual declaration that each of them do not want to marry anyone. You see where this is going: Marie’s past catches up to her, and she and Warrington must find a way to be together despite everything that threatens to keep them apart, etc etc. You’ve seen this film before, if only in its individual pieces, and I’m sorry to say that Naughty Marietta does not provide a good enough experience to warrant you seeing those pieces in this particular arrangement. From the first number, where the princess meets her composer friend and starts singing with him, only to join in with a singing group on the floor above, which expands further into the whole town singing outside the building to Marie about what a joy it is to sing with her, I was positively disgusted with the sheer exuberance put on display by this film; it was like the most chipper, upbeat musical you’ve ever seen accidentally-on-purpose swallowed a handful of uppers and started inhaling helium, all for the seeming entertainment value for the audience. Everyone sings as the only pastime, or they write songs and sing about writing songs with anyone around who joins in, or they sing to express their emotions or feelings, or… well, or they just sing for the hell of it. Sometimes this works, and it’s charming and lifts the spirits, and sometimes films take it too far, and this film definitely takes it too far. Even with its moderate running time, I still had to watch the film in very unpleasant installments, just to get through the whole thing, and that does not make a good film in any respect for me. I also couldn’t help but feel that the film was significantly hindered by the technology of the day, namely that the film was in black-and-white and definitely appeared to not know what to do with the format. I got the distinct impression that when color would come to film, that it would be the saving grace of the musical genre, thanks to the muddy and flat template on display by Naughty Marietta.

I can’t believe this was directed by the same guy that did The Thin Man the year prior. What the freaking hell, W.S. Van Dyke? Even the parts of this film that weren’t singing were piddling at best, so really, there’s nothing enjoyable about this film at all. This was nominated for Best Picture? I shudder at my future viewings of the other nominees if this was one of the best films of the year. It’s that rare film that is not only bad in every way, but is so bad that it raises my ire, forcing me to be exceptionally mean to it in my desperate attempts to give the film the comeuppance and chastising I feel it deserves, and Naughty Marietta is just such a film. I don’t really know what else to say. Don’t watch this. Please. I don’t wish this experience on any true lover of cinema.

Arbitrary Rating: 4/10

Judging Oscar: Best Picture 1934

-Year in Summary/What Did Win-

I don’t even think I need to write anything for this section; anyone who’s anyone who knows about the Oscars knows about this year, the first ever year a film would win what would become known as the Big Five Academy Awards: Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, and Screenplay. That film, It Happened One Night, was not seen as the front-runner going into the ceremony; really, there wasn’t a front-runner, and many did not know who or what would take home several of the major awards. Some were still aghast that Bette Davis hadn’t even received a nomination for Best Actress for Of Human Bondage, and the backlash from this prompted the Academy to allow write-in candidates during voting for the first time ever. This year also saw three new categories added to the awards; Editing, and the two musical categories for Original Song and Score. Shirley Temple would also win the first ever Juvenile Award given, making her the youngest recipient of an Academy Award in history.

-Ranking the Nominees-

The Gay Divorcee

-I can’t speak for nearly-lost nominee The White Parade, which exists only as a single copy at UCLA and is thus outside my reach, but I can speak for The Gay Divorcee; this should not have been nominated for this award. Like, at all. I understand the appeal of the Astaire-Rogers pairing, especially for audiences in 1934, but it’s one that has never jived with me; add to that the hilariously out-of-line actions of Astaire’s character in this, which Rogers’ character falls for simply because it was required of her as part of the film, as opposed to calling the police on him several times like a normal person would do, and you have a film that fights so hard to be charming without understanding that the decisions it makes are the exact opposite of that. As I’ve said for poor nominees in the past, get this outta here.

Cleopatra

-I was also surprised to find that Cecil B. DeMille’s Cleopatra wasn’t as good as I was expecting it to be either. Not that I was expecting it to be all that amazing, but I expected to get through it easily enough, mostly thanks to the film’s visual splendor, but this turned out to be almost as difficult a watch as the previous nominee, and the visual splendor wasn’t even utilized properly; it was excessive for the sake of being excessive, and that was all. As much as it was nice to see Claudette Colbert in three Oscar nominees for Best Picture, the category could’ve lost this one and not been any the worse for it.

Flirtation Walk

-I ended up on the other side of Flirtation Walk frankly a little bemused that, one: I had watched it right after another nominee with similar sensibilities toward its plot, and two: that the film, despite its cast and crew, failed in almost every regard that a film can fail. I don’t mean to say that Flirtation Walk was bad, because it wasn’t; what it was was nothing, just a whole bunch of nothingness for an hour-and-a-half. It wasn’t worth the time put into it to watch it, which is one of the major sins a film can make, and while I didn’t hate it, at the other end I didn’t feel anything about it; depending on your viewpoint, that could be good or bad. Either way, I certainly can’t recommend you watch it, and it certainly isn’t getting my vote for this award.

One Night of Love

One Night of Love ended up failing in similar ways, but largely ended up not working for one different reason: it’s cheesy. It starts off well enough, with Grace Moore well cast as an opera singer looking to make it big, but then when we get into the romance angle of the film, it sinks like a weight, opting for melodrama and stupid/petty decision-making by the characters. This film had the most nominations going into the ceremony, which considering the supposed innovations with sound recording it pioneered I could maybe see, but this is one nomination it probably shouldn’t have gotten.

Here Comes the Navy

-I’m putting Here Comes the Navy above the previous film for one reason: I like James Cagney. Otherwise, this film does just about as much things wrong as One Night of Love did, but in totally separate categories; where One Night of Love was sappy and overly concerned with image, Here Comes the Navy fails in being too of-the-era with its hokey and caricatured lines of dialogue, as well as getting James Cagney to do too much of what he was at the time known for. Either way, the slightly impressive qualities of how the real-life Navy’s resources were used in the making of this film does little to overcome the fact that the film that is made from it is mostly just about two guys being assholes to each other for supposed entertainment value. That may have been the cup of tea for 1930s audiences, but it wasn’t for me.

Viva Villa!

-I’m actually a little surprised Viva Villa ended up as high as it did. Now granted, with the missing nominee The White Parade, Viva Villa’s spot ends up being exactly in the middle, but after I had watched the film I was expecting it to end up in the lower half of the rankings. There’s some things that definitely don’t work here, but there are other things that do. I guess this middle-of-the-road mentality I seem to have when I try and assess this film’s merits ends up working out quite well with its placement in this list; it’s okay, and not any more or less than that, so that’s why it’s here.

The House of Rothschild

The House of Rothschild ended up third in the Academy’s vote for this award, and I guess I can see and understand why, even if the film itself is only impressive in certain ways, ways which are matched almost identically in previous Best Picture nominee Disraeli: George Arliss, and the credentials of being a historical drama, and that’s about it. Several people have noted how this film basically seems to exist as nothing but a propaganda piece for the Rothschild family, which I guess I can’t disagree with, but I did like this one overall, so it had to have been doing some things right. Still, though, same with Disraeli, it’s not the best picture of the year.

The Barretts of Wimpole Street

-I gotta say, I was not expecting to be as impressed with The Barretts of Wimpole Street as I was. I went into it thinking it was going to be stuffy and dry and far too uptight to be entertaining, and while at the lowest level it was all these things, it somehow managed to transcend the stuffiness to be genuinely engaging and entertaining, with a central romance that wasn’t contrived and solely demanded by the script. Same as I’ve said about numerous other nominees this year and others, it’s not the best picture of the year, but it’s absolutely not the worst, and given the slew of nominees in these expanded fields, that’s definitely not something to be ashamed of.

Imitation of Life

-I was on the fence for a good long while about which of the next two films to place above the other. Ultimately, I’m putting Imitation of Life here not because I feel that the other two nominees are better-made (though they are exceptionally made), but because they are more enjoyable watches. I try to be as objective as I can be when it comes to evaluating a film’s value to the average viewer, but sometimes, objectivity ends up falling out the window in the face of a subjectively good time, and that’s the case here. That’s not to say Imitation of Life is not worth your time, because it absolutely is. But, of the three remaining nominees, as much as I enjoyed it, it’s probably the one that I’d rewatch the least.

The Thin Man

-Now here’s a film that can withstand a rewatch or two. The Thin Man is a film where everything is exactly as it should be; from a brazenly quick-witted script, to actors with the repartee and knowhow to capitalize on such a script, and the capable hands of a director deft enough to know how to put it all together while still staying out of the way enough to let the individual elements do their thing. My rewatch for this segment was more pleasurable than my initial viewing of several of the other nominees, and it’s this that has it placed above the previous film; even after my rewatch of it, I had the distinct feeling that I could easily rewatch it again in the near future. That’s a winner of a film in my book.

It Happened One Night

-Speaking of winners, even against The Thin Man, it’s hard to top just how much of a winner this film is. I mentioned in last ceremony’s Judging Oscar that comedies rarely tend to have that heft or weight behind it to really resonate enough with the Academy to field major Oscar nominations like Best Picture. It Happened One Night is a great example of a comedy that does actually have that impact, and so much of it that it swept the 5 major awards it was nominated for, which I would and will happily argue it rightly deserved to do. Others can very easily make persuasive arguments against this winning one or two of the nominations, but I’m still behind this film for all five; the script is note-for-note perfect, Gable has never been more winning and charismatic, and Colbert was by and large the best of her field of nominees (though Myrna Loy was still snubbed in that category, among others). Capra’s expert finesse and handling of the material rightfully got him the win for Best Director, and this film rightfully deserved its win for Best Picture.

-What Should Have Won/What I Would’ve Picked-

With the field expanded again to twelve, basically every film that had a shot at being nominated ended up in the running; so much so that there really aren’t a whole lot of great or outstanding films from this year that didn’t make the fold, at least the ones that stick out. Bette Davis’s snub for Of Human Bondage was well-documented; perhaps the film itself might’ve warranted a nom as well. Also, Hitchcock’s original The Man Who Knew Too Much with Peter Lorre was released, which was well-received in England. Manhattan Melodrama picked up an Oscar for Best Story, but was passed up for the big one despite this and an all-star cast (largely, I suspect, due to being overshadowed by The Thin Man, which had the same director and two of the three main stars). Even with these, though, I don’t think anything was going to top Night’s sweep, and I would’ve voted for it regardless of potential changes to the nominations.

-How Did Oscar Do?-

I’m kinda on the fence about how to call this one, Oscar. There’s some winners here, but the expanded field makes even the brighter spots seem diluted somewhat. I still have yet to see some good evidence and worthy entries to justify the continued expansion of the category, and this year didn’t change that. Hopefully, I’ll be eating my words in the years to come, but as of right now, that’s all I’ve got to go on for that; hopes.

Viva Villa!

Viva Villa!

You’re better than news; you’re history!

I don’t know much about Pancho Villa. That being said, I think I can correctly assume that Viva Villa, which purports to be about the Mexican icon, isn’t a very good source to use to try and get a historical context about the figure. Hell, the film even starts off with a title card explaining that, even though Pancho Villa was a real person, the film is almost entirely a fictional account of his exploits; basically, the film is telling you right from the get-go that it is pretty much making everything up as it goes along about the real Pancho. Now, I will say, not every film has the, to use the Mexican term, cojones to state upfront that the film is a load of historical bullshit and that you should watch it anyway, so I had to give Viva Villa some credit. It’s unfortunate, then, that the rest of the film doesn’t do much to really run with the meager amount of credit that it had won from me.

Wallace Beery stars as Villa, who at the beginning of the film is a young lad witnessing his father get whipped to death for standing up to a brutal landowner. After taking revenge for his father, we meet the adult Pancho as a rebel and bandit, who winds up in a meeting with Francisco Madero, a revolutionary leader who wishes to use Villa’s leadership and loyalty to Mexico to oust the current president and establish a new government kinder to the ‘peons’ of the country. Villa agrees, and the film follows his exploits as one of the captains of Madero’s army, his meeting and friendship of American newspaper man Johnny Sykes, his womanizing of several females in his life, and his attempts to find a new path in life once the fighting is over. The first thing I couldn’t help but think, in comparison to the last film I watched, was: now here’s a film that has production value and knows exactly how to use it. The film was shot in Mexico, and more than a few of the scenes feature a slew of extras, sometimes on horseback, so not only did the film have the resources for authenticity and to make a more complete picture, it didn’t exceed the limits of its resources or mishandle them to try and make a film other than what the material called for. Impressed enough with how the film was handled, I couldn’t help but be less so with how the film goes about telling the story it wants to tell. It seemed the film was too concerned with making Villa a caricature rather than an actual character, and the plot was too concerned with following Villa around rather than actually having a real plot, with developments and turns. In short, there really wasn’t a plot to this one; it was just an excuse for Beery to act kinda like a stereotypical Mexican, and little more.

While the passion for the material was definitely here, spirited in its construction, and filled with zest and fervor in its making, there was just something missing to this one, a cohesiveness that wasn’t there; the parts and pieces and ingredients were all present, but they weren’t mixed and molded together into something greater and more complete. It’s actually a little bit disheartening; with the production value behind it, if they’d gotten the right director, and a script with much more know-how, this could’ve been a real winner, and a standout surprise in a field of largely repetitive nominees. But, it wasn’t, and even though it wasn’t, it got nominated for the big one anyway, so did this end up succeeding even barely? I really don’t know. I can’t really give any good reason to watch this, though, so if anything’s gonna sway me to one side of the fence or the other, it’ll probably be that.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

Cleopatra

Cleopatra

“Together we could conquer the world.” “Nice of you to include me.”

There are few names thrown about Hollywood with as much weight as Cecil B. DeMille. In his heyday, it seemed that DeMille could ask for and receive just about anything, including the risque costumes featured in this film, at the eve of the Hays Code’s new enforcement. Still, watching Cleopatra, I couldn’t help but wonder what it was about DeMille that commanded such… not respect, but acquiescence; that ability to get everything that he wanted in the making of his films. I wonder this because Cleopatra, as a film, is not very good; what’s more, even the things that DeMille requested, such as the lavish production value, sets, costumes, and extensive use of extras, were not utilized well at all. Seeing the weight behind the name of DeMille, I couldn’t help but be severely let down at the man’s ability, at least in this stage of his career, to actually tell a good story, and tell it well.

Claudette Colbert stars as Cleopatra, in one hell of a banner year for any individual Hollywood star. If you know the name Cleopatra, you know everything there is to this film’s plot; Cleopatra meets Julius Caesar of Rome, they fall in love, Caesar is assassinated, Cleopatra falls for Marc Antony, they fight Octavian for control of Rome, they are defeated, Antony takes his own life, and Cleopatra soon after. The plot isn’t what you would watch this film for, so what is there to actually watch this for? It was a surprising turn of mine to find out that the answer is: not very much. I started it, and the production value was immediately at the highest level, and I was looking forward to being wowed by the film’s visual splendor. Then… uncertainty. The film had only been going for about 20 minutes, but already I couldn’t help but feel that something wasn’t working, wasn’t clicking right with the viewing. The characterization, and in particular the actions of the characters, seemed stilted, wanting of actual motivation and desire to see desires through; instead, everything was happening by rote, because it was being told to do so, either by the script or by DeMille’s overhanded direction. It was during the next section of the film, that dealt with the leadup to Caesar’s assassination, that it started to grow unbearable for me; the film knew that Caesar was going to be killed, knew that the audience knew as well, and still decided to be as absolutely heavy-handed with the leadup to it as possible, so much so that every time some innocuous character would come in and say something fearful to Caesar out of nowhere as a portent of his doom, I would audibly groan with displeasure at the perceived insult to my intelligence and attention span. It’s this heavy-handedness that I think is why Cleopatra ultimately fails as a film; it’s so concerned with making sure the audience “gets it”, the “it” being whatever the film is trying to do from moment to moment, that it does more than come across as trying too hard – it bludgeons the audience with a sledgehammer in its frustrating attempt to tell the story it wants to tell.

I’d looked up some other reviews on this one, and found a mixed reception at best, but I still went into it with the slight hope that the film’s lavish production would be enough to sustain me through the film’s running time. In short, it wasn’t; this was just bad, plain and simple. It was hokey, and maudlin, overacted and overdirected, and even the film’s excessive budget turned out to be a mark against it, being so only because it was what DeMille wanted on the screen, and not actually used in the right ways. I’m giving it the most difficult of extra points that I’ve given in a long time just for the sheer production value on display, even though for me even that wasn’t an actual boon to the picture, but with that, I’m completely fine with writing this off as a Best Picture nominee entirely. Sorry, Mr. DeMille, but I expected more from you than this.

Arbitrary Rating: 6/10