Romeo and Juliet

Romeo and Juliet

Oh, she doth teach the torches to burn bright.

It seems the success of A Midsummer Night’s Dream the year before had emboldened Hollywood to film adaptations of the Bard, so why not try and go for the mack-daddy of them all; surely it’ll be a guaranteed success, right? Well, it appears only Hollywood could figure out how to screw up an adaptation like this. Anyone who’s anyone knows Romeo and Juliet, so this film will have to have quite the selling points in classic Hollywood to draw people in, and selling points this has. Shakespeare, complete with dialogue? Check. Stars Norma Shearer and Leslie Howard, with Basil Rathbone thrown in as a supporter for good measure? Check. Director George Cukor? Check. Producer Irving Thalberg? Check. So, why then does this fail as surely and widely as it does? If I had to wager a guess, it’s that Hollywood was too concerned with selling points than actually making a good or even decent film out of the selling points it has.

Do I even need to describe the plot of Romeo and Juliet? Two young ones meet and fall in love, despite their families’ eternal feud with one another; how then will they find happiness with each other, etc etc? C’mon, you know this one. So, what’s different about this adaptation? Well, for one, the two leads aren’t young ones, but the early-middle-aged Leslie Howard and Norma Shearer, which would be okay if the film had changed the dialogue any to accommodate the actors’ ages, which they didn’t, and thus the film instead seems hilariously miscast. Other than that, and some shifting around of plot elements to make the stage play come across better in the cinematic medium, this is pretty much an attempt at being quintessential cinematic Shakespeare. I use the word attempt, however, because in my opinion, the film tries too hard at being a Hollywood version that it completely misses the mark of what made Shakespeare’s original so beloved, and this is coming from someone who has never really taken to Mr. Billy Shakes. The acting is so overblown and the dialogue read almost by rote that I spent most of the film cringing at the ensemble’s attempt at making Shakespeare palatable to an average audience. Even Howard and Shearer seemed not entirely sure of what they were doing, but they tried anyway, so I can’t fault them too much. At least Edna May Oliver, who plays Juliet’s nurse, tries to be a character, if even only a bombastic one. I will give the film this, though; the production itself was so full of excess that I actually began to wonder how much this film cost the studio and whether they ended up making any real profit off of it; it wasn’t too much, but it was right along the line of being so, so heads up if you intend to watch this one.

I just realized I went this whole review without mentioning how ambivalent I am to George Cukor’s work, a personal opinion that was once again reassured with this film. So, we have George Cukor directing a Shakespeare adaptation, with actors probably twice the age of the characters they’re playing, and with a producer so invested in the project that the money and production value simply cascades off the screen. In all honesty, I’m actually surprised I wasn’t convinced going into this that it would not be for me at all, but that conclusion swiftly made itself known as I trudged through the two hour running time this had to offer. Once again, I’m left with the same thing to say as almost every other Shakespeare film adaptation I’ve seen: if Shakes is your thing, this might have more to offer you than it unfortunately did for me.

Arbitrary Rating: 5/10

Anthony Adverse

Anthony Adverse

Morals. An important word, Anthony. You should never forget it.

Man, old Hollywood was so damn proud of their literary adaptations, weren’t they? Anthony Adverse is yet another film so taken with its source material that the title of the film appears on the poster on the cover of a large book; fitting, since the original novel was apparently over 1,200 pages long. It is also a film (and a novel) named simply for the main character, a young lad (and later adult) given the surname Adverse due to all the turmoil he’s had to endure in his life. Yep, it’s gonna be one of those types of films; a fictional-character biopic where the main character undergoes adversities one after another, filled with melodrama and strife and conflict, and boasting a larger-than-average running time. It just so happens that this also takes place in late 18th century England, to add to the pile; because of course why shouldn’t it.

Anthony is a young boy, born to Maria Bonnyfeather and her true love Denis, despite her marriage to a Spanish marquis, who kills Denis in a swordfight when he learns of the affair. Maria dies in childbirth, and the marquis leaves the infant at a convent, despite the qualms of the sisters, as the convent is supposed to be for girls only. He comes of age, and is thus presented to a benefactor, who happens to be his grandfather; all of this being fully presented to us instead of remaining backstory, and thus taking up the first 45 minutes or so, until we finally meet Anthony as an adult, where he’s played by Fredric March. Needless to say, things happen, the years pass, and through a distractingly large amount of exposition through title cards, we follow Anthony as he tries to keep his longtime love, helps his benefactor with his work and his inheritance, and tries to find his way in the world. If I sound at all disinterested in explaining the minutiae of the plot, it’s because I am so disinterested. I started the film, and fairly quickly picked up on the overblown musical score and acting by those involved. Needless to say, it was about 15 minutes into the film, after all the melodrama that had already happened, that I finally came to realize that I ultimately wasn’t going to like Anthony Adverse very much. The acting by everyone was so over the top that it became almost too much to bear after enough time had passed (though Fredric March does at least try to be a little more than a caricature). The overabundance of title cards to explain each shift forward in time and cover all the holes grew to be quite an annoyance as well; really, everything about this one was just annoying to an absurd degree. Even with the over-two-hour running time, I had completely checked out of the film with well over half the film left to go, and the rest became a mere endurance test, me counting the minutes until the end credits finally rolled.

God, was this a laborious watch. I’d intended to have it done and the review up around the middle of the week, and it’s finally going up today; it took me several days to watch this, in several installments, just to get through the whole thing. The most frustrating thing was yet another recurrence of a problem I’ve been encountering with these lesser nominees for the big Oscar; what was really the point of making this film? If it was actually a passion for the source material and a drive to see it presented to a new, wider audience, then perhaps the source material should’ve been more worth the passion and presentation; this just felt like a poorly-focused vanity project, and I’m actually a little angry it ended up with the nominations it did, including Best Picture. Normally, this is where I’d lay out reasons to potentially sit through this one, contrasted with reasons it’s not worth a look, but I really couldn’t care less about this film if I wanted to to lay it all out for you, and that I think says more than anything else about where I stood with this picture.

Arbitrary Rating: 5/10

The Gay Divorcee

The Gay Divorcee

Still I’ll follow every little clue… Cause I’ve got to find you!

As iconic and legendary a screen couple as there ever was, I can’t say I was all that enthused to start up the first Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers film in the Best Picture pantheon. The pair made ten films together, and if I were pressed to distinguish between any of them, I would be completely unable to. I had my suspicions that this would be a flighty, whimsical affair, filled with music and cheer and light-hearted banter between the characters (particularly Astaire and Rogers), and that’s exactly what I got with this. Unfortunately, my taste in films does not usually align with such a picture, and it takes something seriously special to make me stomach a meal like the one The Gay Divorcee has to offer. So, is this something seriously special? I’ll save you the manufactured suspense and tension; no, it’s not.

Astaire is Guy Holden, a dancer (of course) and friend of lawyer Egbert; the two dine in France at the beginning of the film, where they’ve forgotten their wallets, and Guy is called upon to prove his identity as a famous dancer by tap-dancing a lavish number, because we have to find excuses for Astaire to dance in these things – indeed, the waiter even eagerly tears up the check after seeing Guy dance, in a sequence that I’m sure helped inspire the frequent parody musical numbers that break out in the cartoon series Family Guy. Anyway, Guy and Egbert make their way to London, during which Guy falls for an American woman, Mimi (played by Rogers), and to say that they have an inauspicious first meeting is to put it mildly. Guy ends up literally chasing after Mimi whenever he sees her, including when the two are driving down a country road and he finds a way to actually box her into a dead end with his car just so she’ll stop running from him, in a move that totally wouldn’t come off as creepy and stalker-ish and borderline illegal today. Mimi is a married woman, looking to divorce her husband, who won’t consent, so she conspires to fake having an affair in a way that her husband will “discover” her, which is all her lawyer’s plan, who by chance would have it is Egbert; and, by that chance, Guy is along with Egbert as well, and Mimi misconstrues a saying Guy frequently quotes as the passphrase Egbert gave her to indicate the man to whom she is supposed to be caught in an affair with by her husband. So, basically, the plot of this is: Mimi hates Guy, Mimi is forced to spend time with Guy, blah blah blah, Mimi ends up falling for Guy… somehow, and now the two must figure out a way to be together when Mimi’s husband shows up and the plan must be safely executed, especially after the real man Mimi is supposed to be caught with shows up. It may be quaint and charming and silly fun for some, but it wasn’t for me; Guy’s actions would cause any sensible woman to file a restraining order, but because it’s Astaire and Rogers, she is required to fall for him instead. Not to mention the supporting players, who were all defined by their quirk and thus their one-notedness became increasingly annoying as the film went on.

God, did I ever not like this. The film had barely been running for ten minutes, and I was already waiting desperately for it to end; unfortunately, the film went on for another hour-and-a-half after that. Everything this film did annoyed me to no end, especially the musical numbers, including the first ever winner for Best Original Song, “The Continental”, which was a number near the end of the film that went on for literally fifteen whole minutes; imagine that, if you really want to. To be fair, though, the film itself was okay; it gets the job done, and I’m sure in the 1930s it was no doubt a winner, so I can’t really grade it too low. But still, boy did I not like this; it was soooo not my thing at all. I genuinely laughed more at a few of the reviews of this one I read than I even smiled at the antics of this film. I can only hope that the future musicals I have yet to get to aren’t nearly as insipid as this, or I’ve got a really big problem on my hands.

Arbitrary Rating: 5/10

Arrowsmith

Arrowsmith

To be a scientist… That is born in a man.

It was nice to start a film and see John Ford’s name come up in the opening titles under the director’s credit. Well, that goodwill towards this film was washed away fairly quickly once I actually started it. Arrowsmith proudly stars Ronald Colman, a name I did not recognize, and thus became slightly concerned with having to watch this picture that so loudly touts the name of an actor I don’t recognize on the poster up there. I’d be lying if I didn’t say that flashbacks of Alibi rang through my head as I started the film up. Thankfully, Arrowsmith is no Alibi; it’s well made, that I can say at the very least. Too bad that the film has virtually zero selling points to convince anyone to actually sit through the whole thing.

The film is the story of Martin Arrowsmith, a young lad with gumption and brains and the knowhow to become a medical scientist, who ends up becoming exactly the man he aims to become; a research assistant to his college mentor, Dr. Gottlieb. Then, he meets Leora, a nurse, and falls in love, which complicates his aims when he must become a practicing doctor in order to bring in a salary to support them both. It is during his trials as a ‘country doctor’ that he comes up with an improved serum to combat a cattle disease, and through this becomes reacquainted with Dr. Gottlieb, who promptly puts him to work in his lab, where he toils and researches, finding a strange serum with such bacteria-killing properties that Arrowsmith’s colleagues send him to the Caribbean to try and use it to fight bubonic plague. More happens after this, but I’ll leave the plot where it is; if it all sounds very boring and stuffy and official, trust me, the film very much is all these things. So, what did I like about Arrowsmith? Weirdly enough, I enjoyed Ronald Colman in the title role, and I say weirdly enough because he overacted in just about every scene he was in, but despite this flaw, he was endearing in an odd way, mostly through his voice and diction. I also thought the production value of the film was on point, though it may not have been serviced very well by the film itself. Now, what I didn’t care for; besides the overacting from Colman, the film seemed to move at an extremely deliberate pace, barreling forward with its plot and characters without any regard as to whether we the audience should even really be caring about who’s doing what or why things are happening. Everyone involved was doing everything so much by rote that there was no passion invested in the project at all, from the actors to the script, to the direction and the editing, to just about everything else. There was no feeling like there was any conflict or drive to anything in the film, because there wasn’t any feeling at all; the film just went through the motions to deliver the script to the audience in moving picture form and expected that to be enough of a payoff for the viewers. Well, as it turns out, it’s not. There’s no real reason to sit down and watch this film, and I was actually surprised that I’m able to say that about a John Ford picture.

I’ve tried to sum up my feelings about Arrowsmith as concisely and officially as I could, but regardless of whether or not I’ve succeeded, I’d like to get real with how Arrowsmith the film made me feel: this film was blah. Blah pudding with blah-flavored cream on top in a blah-colored dish. I really wanted to give it a slightly higher rating, but this film was so blah that I decided to be a little mean toward it, and my justification for doing so was that, to repeat what I said in the middle, there is virtually no reason whatsoever to actually watch this film, unless of course you’re going through a list of films like I am. I’d try and continue, but I’d really rather not; instead, I think I’m going to watch some other film, that I’ve seen or otherwise, just to wash the feeling of blah off me. I hope I’m not blamed too harshly for my doing so.

Arbitrary Rating: 5/10

In Old Arizona

In Old Arizona

Dios mio!

In Old Arizona is a film with quite a bit of novelty to it, being the first all-talkie western, and the first sound film to be shot outdoors; these advances in the cinematic palette being the chief sell of the film, as evident by the talking points of the poster up there. I hadn’t really considered the novelty too much when I started the film, wanting to judge it on a more complete and finished level, but the novelty of it is made all too apparent for almost every second of this one’s running time. This one somehow tied with the now-lost The Patriot for the most nominations at the Oscars that year. I use the word “somehow” to emphasize just how incredulous I was after watching it for myself that this did in fact happen, and at how much novelty this one tries to cram into its scant hour-and-a-half length.

Warner Baxter stars as the Cisco Kid, a bandit in the Southwest who holds up stagecoaches without robbing the innocent passengers of their hard-earned goods; the American Robin Hood indeed. The film, I had assumed, would be the tale of his adventures and misdeeds, as the authorities are hot on his trail, but he always outwits them until the final showdown, yadda yadda, etc. Turns out this wasn’t the case; this didn’t really have a story, and only barely a narrative. What it was was mostly an excuse to get the actors to perform scenes together, despite and in some cases in direct affront to the concept of a narrative thread that should run through any fiction film. Each scene seemed so out of place with the rest of the film, with only certain pieces of dialogue tying the whole thing into what amounted to the story’s structure. For instance, the scene near the beginning with the Cisco Kid and the sergeant in the barbershop seemed to go on needlessly long, like the film were trying to milk as much so-called comedy from the idea that the two men, official enemies, were being unknown friends to each other as it possibly could, and then went further after that. It didn’t help that the acting was extremely stilted from just about everyone involved, especially the leads. Baxter’s accent and manner of gesturing every time he said anything was incredibly hammy at the beginning, so much so I began to wonder immensely how he had won the award for Best Actor, and I was a bit let down to discover that this hamminess didn’t fade the more the film went on. Indeed, everybody else seemed to be taking their cue from it, delivering each line very carefully and in a very precise manner, and it got extremely annoying whenever I would pick it out, which was all the time.

This film reminded me of a slightly more well-made Alibi, which is not a comparison a film should be making from me; it was very blocky in how it operated, filmed, and acted, though it benefited from the production value added by the external shooting locations. It was almost as if the film knew it was going to be the first all-talkie western and wanted to make sure that you and everyone who watches the film knows it, pointing its finger into your chest every time it did something to emphasize its own merits. Of course, knowing the studio heads of the time, this is likely exactly the case with this film, and it would take a few years before studio bosses started to outgrow this almost macho-esque posturing with the films they made, if only a little bit. Still, this exists as a relic, a fossil of how they used to make films at the advent of sound, and little more. Really, if it weren’t for the inexplicable Oscar nominations it garnered, I wouldn’t have been surprised if this had been forgotten in the annals of film history altogether. Oh well; one more for the books, I guess.

Arbitrary Rating: 5/10

The Hollywood Revue of 1929

The Hollywood Revue of 1929

You’ve got to make love with words and music… You’ve saved your money, haven’t you?

Even for someone whose cinematic palette is as multi-cultured as I’d like to think mine is, there’s some things that just will never sit well with me. There might be the occasional neorealist film I can appreciate and enjoy, and even screwball comedies sometimes hit it right on the mark with me every now and then, but… what exactly did I just watch? I’m pretty sure it was a two-hour excuse for one studio to get together all of its name stars and force them to dance and sing and act “amusingly” humorous like trained monkeys, but apparently this is what’s known in the Hollywood circles as a revue, or variety show. My uncouth metaphor aside, The Hollywood Revue of 1929 somehow got nominated for Best Picture, or, according to my research, was “considered” for the award, and for the life of me, I cannot understand why. What’s more, I really don’t even want to try to understand it. This type of… do I dare even call it a film? Well, this type of… “film” is one thing that I just will not click with, in any way shape or form, and I’m just gonna have to try and accept that.

There is no plot for this; it’s a variety show, and for two whole hours you are going to be subjected to musical numbers, comedy acts, and big choreographed dance sequences to show off the MGM contract players’, um, talent. I guess that’s why this sort of thing has never jived with me; it possesses the notion that, if it’s not singing or dancing or musically (or comedically) inclined in some way, it doesn’t count as talent or entertainment. That’s a notion that I, as an eternal fan of the cinematic art form, reject, and I am made fully aware by films like this that my notion is not one that is aligned with the notions of the timeframe that this film was made in. I guess what I think I’m saying is, this film is unfortunately very dated, having been made with 1920s audiences squarely in mind, so it is almost required to watch a film like this in that dated mindset, something I was unfortunately unable to do this time. It was just so extremely weird seeing screen stars, supposedly known for their acting, singing and dancing rather awkwardly pretty much for no reason other than they were compelled to by their contracts with MGM. Granted, a few have gone on record saying that it was enjoyable to at least make the picture and do their numbers, so again, it’s probably just me and my modern sensibilities. The one sequence I actually did enjoy, amusing enough given my earlier comments, was the “modernization” of the Romeo and Juliet scene featuring director Lionel Barrymore; probably because it was the closest to being an actual film, with acting and written comedy, instead of being nothing but song-and-dance.

Words really cannot express how bored I was watching this. I tried as hard as I could to legitimately watch the whole thing, but there were a few times that I found myself alt+tabbing and merely listening along instead of visually watching the performers strut around the stage; I did actually watch a majority of it, but even so, chalk an asterisk next to this one as being watched for me. Even the comedy acts by notable names like Laurel & Hardy and the pratfalls of Buster Keaton ended up being cringeworthy, and I spent a majority of the running time (two hours, need I remind you) wondering when it would finally be over. Oh well; I got through it, I guess, so there’s something to that. Be a fan of variety shows, and watch it as a 1920s audience member, and you might get quite a bit out of this; otherwise, I wouldn’t bother, and if it weren’t for its Best Picture (again, really?) nomination, I wouldn’t have.

Arbitrary Rating: 5/10

The Red and the White (Csillagosok, katonak)

The Red and the White

No quarter for the Bolsheviks!

Here we go, another film that largely divides audience reactions into the “love it” or “hate it” camps. Interestingly enough, though, this is one that I actually do have something to go by before seeing it, having seen Miklos Jancso’s other list film, Red Psalm. That one I hated; I found it completely empty of substance, and likened it humorously to being an interpretive dance rather than a film. Well, it seems I can’t fault Jancso for not being consistent; this earlier work of his, The Red and the White, is very much of the same mold, and features almost identical selling points; the only real difference being that this is in black-and-white instead of color.

So, here’s the thing: this film basically has no plot. There isn’t even a section for the plot on the Wikipedia entry for this film; that’s how plotless it is. Ostensibly, the film is about the conflict between the titular Reds (Communists) and Whites (Tsarists) in post-Russian-Revolution Hungary, and leaves it at that. What the film actually is, however, is something a little more difficult to grasp. I’m going to describe the film as best I can, and I’ll do it in ways that will be almost identical to the descriptions I gave for Red Psalm, but I’ll assume you either haven’t seen that film or read my review of it, because if you’ve read my review for one of them, you’ve really read them both. The film is comprised of a series of long takes, which necessitates that everything that happens in the frame happen flawlessly, or they’ll be forced to do it again. By that logic, I can commend Jancso for being a hell of a craftsman, and knowing exactly what it is he wants out of his actors and set pieces. That said, I can’t commend him on being a hell of a storyteller, because Jancso isn’t a storyteller; he’s an expresser of metaphors and ideas. This is basically a fancy way of saying that he’s a choreographer, and little more, and here I’ll repeat a sentiment I expressed in my Red Psalm review: to make up for the lack of engaging editing, since it is merely long take after long take, each take has a ton of movement in the frame, from people going through scripted motions to other people on horseback trotting along to add extra kinetic visuals, even to the camera itself floating back and forth and to and fro for seemingly no reason other than to see if Jancso could get away with doing it in the shot, or to make the shot more complicated for whatever reason.

It’s at this point that I’m basically throwing my hands up in the air when it comes to Jancso as a filmmaker. He’s not a filmmaker; he’s a choreographer, and even with his choreography having layers of metaphor beneath them, that alone does not a film make. I hand-waved this away with my Red Psalm review by basically saying at the end that it’s up to Jancso how he wishes to use the medium of cinema, but I really have to protest the concept of making a film like this; just because he wants to make a film like this, does not make a film like this watchable. It may be historically relevant, or cinematically appealing, or nice to look at, or even important in that the Soviet Union sought to suppress the film, but that still doesn’t make it watchable, and that doesn’t make it good. Really, the only reason to see this or Red Psalm is to say that you’ve seen all the films on the list and not be a liar in doing so, because there’s no other reason to watch this film, and I’d be willing to bet that any reason anyone could come up with to watch this, I could take that reason and stick it on another film that does it better, thus making The Red and the White almost completely perfunctory in the annals of cinema. I’m willing to grant that my opinion of this film has only soured further during my writing of this review, but I still say that that does not mean that I am wrong.

Arbitrary Rating: 5/10