Boys Town

Boys Town

There’s no such thing as a bad boy, I’m sure of that.

Director Norman Taurog seems to have an affinity for working with young casts in his films; first he wins Best Director and is up for Best Picture with Skippy, and now he’s up for both awards once again with Boys Town, a film headed by Spencer Tracy and Mickey Rooney in as best a manner as they can. Now, knowing what Taurog had to accomplish to get the performances he needed in Skippy, I hesitate to give him too much credit for what does work in Boys Town, since I’m unaware of what he had to do to make it work. Most of it, I suspect, is due to Tracy and Rooney basically being Tracy and Rooney, especially since the rest of the film seemed to be so manipulative in getting you to feel just what it wants you to feel, but, like I implied, Boys Town does ultimately work. If only just.

Spencer Tracy is Father Flanagan, who finds a new life purpose call to him after he receives a confession from an inmate on death row. Troubled by the poor state of the reformatory in town for young delinquents, he elects to start his own, founded on proper principles and the notion that no boy is a bad boy if given the chance. His idea quickly expands to become Boys Town, a small autonomous town built, run, and governed by the formerly-delinquent boys who come to live in it. Enter Whitey Marsh, who is sent to Boys Town by his convict brother Joe so Whitey will hopefully not end up like him, despite Whitey’s general purpose seeming to be exactly like his brother. Now it’s up to Father Flanagan and the boys of Boys Town to make sure Whitey ends up on the straight path, especially in the face of Joe’s escape from custody. I do kinda wish I had more to say about Boys Town other than ‘it’s fairly good, if you’re interested in seeing it’, but that pretty much sums up Boys Town. The only other comments I had towards the film were for the music, which was particularly on-the-nose 100% of the time (which grew kinda annoying as the film went on), and for Rooney, whose acting style consisted of mugging as much as possible for the other players, but it added the necessary amount of energy to the film where it otherwise would’ve stagnated, so I guess I can look past it. I’d also echo the sentiments of others in wondering exactly how Spencer Tracy ended up winning Best Actor for this, when all the role called from him was to have a warm heart, demeanor, and voice, which was something Tracy could’ve managed if he were missing all four of his limbs, but I haven’t seen all the nominees for Best Actor for 1938, so I can’t say whether or not Tracy really deserved it or if it was just a particularly weak year in the category.

Is this film really as good as to warrant five Oscar noms, of which two were wins, including Tracy, who became the first to win consecutive Best Actor Oscars? No, not really. Is it still worth a watch if you think you’d like to see it? Yeah, probably. That’s pretty much the mindset that Boys Town left me with; yeah, it’s okay, but I can’t really get myself into a twist over the film enough to really recommend it. I can’t speak for the entirety of Norman Taurog’s filmography, but that the man has no films on the 1001 list seemed to be the right call, as far as the two films of his I’ve seen have gotten me. Boys Town might be one of the good films of the 1930’s, but one of the best of the year? I’m not particularly sold on that.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

You Can’t Take It With You

You Can't Take It With You

That family of yours… Boy, they knock me for a loop!

Regular readers of this blog will know that I have a thorough history with theater. Even with this, though, I’d never seen You Can’t Take It With You, either in the theater or on the screen. It seemed to be quite popular, seeing as I found multiple high school productions of this one on YouTube, so I was expecting a smart comedy-esque picture, thick with dialogue and feel-good sensibilities, especially since this film version would be helmed by Frank Capra, the current king of feel-good sensibilities in this chronological era of Hollywood. I dunno; maybe it was because I’ve been through several Capra pictures in a row, and thus the film’s charms ended up being somewhat diluted; maybe it was because of the theatrical background of the script, that the film appeared to hit every note exactly as it should’ve, almost too exactly; or maybe it was just because the film seemed to try a little too hard, but this film… well, it was just a tad too much of whatever it was trying to do at any given time.

Tony Kirby, son of the illustrious banker Anthony Kirby, finds himself in love with one of his father’s company’s secretaries, Alice Sycamore, who unknown to Tony has quite the extensive and multifaceted family, full of quirks and eccentric talents. Also unbeknown to Tony is the fact that Alice’s family lives on the last unsold property in a 12-property block that his father needs to isolate a competing company and put them out of business. Naturally, when Tony wants to marry Alice, she insists their families should meet, and if you’ve seen any sort of comedies from basically any era of Hollywood, you know how well that’s going to end up going down. I will say, after the aimlessness of Lost Horizon, it was certainly nice to see Frank Capra back to form, though it might’ve been thanks to the theatrically-sourced screenplay. All the Capra touches of wholesomeness and Americana are here, with plenty of oddball moments with the Sycamores to make you chuckle and smile and gee-willikers aren’t they just a hoot of a family to watch. Comedy can be a really fickle beast if it isn’t handled right; what can make something genuine and funny can also, if the line is toed a little too far, end up being mildly insufferable for directly trying to be genuine and funny. You Can’t Take It With You, if it doesn’t cross that line fully, does have plenty of moments that absolutely toe that line, which means the film has unfortunately not aged as well as some of Capra’s other pictures. That being said, viewed from the perspective of an audience from 1938, it’s certainly enjoyable, probably and especially because of its theatrical background, and Capra does do a good job of translating the dialogue and event-based action of the theater to the screen. That, and the ensemble cast is excellent all around, I suspect thanks to their commitment to the material and making it work as well as they can.

This has its moments, the ones that work, but this also has plenty of those other kind of moments, the ones that make you wish they’d held off a little bit so the moment could’ve worked instead of being a tad too far. Most of the former kind comes in the resolution act of the film, as well it should, and most of the latter comes in the middle section, which means that most people will have to suffer through the middle section to get to the better portions of the ending, which is pretty much a foregone conclusion for a typical Hollywood film of this time. That You Can’t Take It With You falls into this category instead of avoiding it or transcending it, to me, doesn’t make it a Best Picture winner, or rather it shouldn’t, seeing as this did win the top prize as well as Best Director for Capra, his third in five years. This was fine, as almost all Capra pictures are, but “fine”, even a Capra fine, shouldn’t be enough to take home the big one.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

Pygmalion

Pygmalion

She’s so deliciously low… so horribly dirty.

Even despite his role as Ashley Wilkes in Gone With the Wind, I don’t know much about Leslie Howard. Apparently, he was rather well regarded in the 30s, even fielding two Oscar nominations for Best Actor before his conspiracy-laden death in the mid 40s during WWII. The second of those nominations came for this, Pygmalion, which he also co-directed, so he would certainly seem to be a man capable of wearing many hats. Now, theater and film aficionados will be quite familiar with the title of Pygmalion, a George Bernard Shaw theatrical play that went on to become the basis for the musical (and later 1964 film adaptation) My Fair Lady. Countless people have doubtlessly seen the later version starring Audrey Hepburn, but I’d imagine much fewer have taken the time to see the original. Really, though, that’s quite a shame; this version is actually pretty good, especially if one is able to take to the British style of writing and humor used to an almost dizzying effect here.

Leslie Howard is Henry Higgins, a phonetics professor who finds a young flower-seller, dirt poor and dirt covered, and through a fortuitous series of verbal repartee with a friend, decides to take her in and teach her everything he knows in order to transform her into a proper English lady. There’s little more to the plot than that; the film is really about verbal wit and the characters that employ it to and against each other, namely in Higgins and the flowergirl Eliza Doolittle. The script, adapted by Shaw himself from his own play, knows its characters like the back of the author’s hands, and it’s thanks to Shaw’s writing skill that the film and the characters come across so well-rounded on the screen. The film, in addition to being smartly written, has a sense of humor to it that’s, for lack of a better word, cracking; this is a British comedy in every sense of the burgeoning genre, and considering I hadn’t thought much of the film before I started it, I was quite pleasantly surprised to find myself snickering rather often during the film’s short running time. The rest of the film’s production was also quite skilled, from the capable and often inventive direction and camerawork to the acting by Howard and especially Wendy Hiller as Eliza.

What I think makes Pygmalion ultimately work as a whole, as opposed to being too much of something or too smug for its own good, is that it knows exactly what kind of film it needs to be, and makes the effort to be exactly that, and not any more or any less. It’s smart, and smart enough to know how to not be too smart, and although the film does have an ambiguously pseudo-happy ending tacked on against the wishes of Shaw, the film is still skilled enough to get the story it wants told across, which is more than a lot of other films of the era can say that they’ve done. This impressed me, and again, that’s more than I can say about a lot of other Best Picture nominees in the same fold, so I was especially thankful for this one.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

Alexander’s Ragtime Band

Alexander's Ragtime Band

I know what they like down here, and that’s more than you’ll ever know!

Needless to say, when I got my first glimpse of that poster up there and saw the tagline “An American Cavalcade!”, I was hesitantly put on my guard; a film needing to bill itself as an American version of the tepid previous Best Picture winner would, to me, seem to be needing to cover up some self-perceived shortcomings. Well, thankfully this turned out to not be an American historical biopic, but a musical set in the theater and the world of performing bands. Now, there’s plenty of people who will hear the word musical and tense up inadvertently, and I wouldn’t blame them if they did; musicals are both a dime a dozen as well as very pick-and-choose in terms of quality and enjoyment. Where Alexander’s Ragtime Band ends up being a pretty decent piece of entertainment is both in the music – how it’s written and how it’s presented – and in the story surrounding it, which considering musicals of the time was quite the unexpected surprise.

The titular Alexander is actually Roger, a young violinist who winds up orchestrating a band in an effort to make a name for them, and for himself. Thanks to some misplaced music, they end up performing the ragtime swing brought in by a young singer, Stella Kirby, who’s been gunning for the same gig. An immediate hit, Roger takes the name of the titular tune, combines efforts with Stella, and they become Alexander’s Ragtime Band, and their fortunes are on the way. That is, unless an unexpected romance, with two potential suitors for Ms. Kirby, threatens to ruin the happiness of all involved. I’d go more into it than that, but one of the things I liked about this film was how it went about moving the plot through each of the turns that was required of it, though I will definitely say that the third act seemed to be far too extended in apparently an attempt to lengthen the running time and get in as many musical numbers as they can before the film closes proper. Speaking of which, the musical numbers themselves are thankfully pretty decent for the time period, especially thanks to the decision to base the story around a band performing them, and thus the numbers fit within the universe and the film doesn’t break the flow by having people spontaneously break out into song in a jarring manner. All the numbers, both classic tunes and newly written material for the film, are by Irving Berlin, and are actually a highlight for once, toe-tapping at one time and serenely melodious the next.

I went into this expecting it to be a grind-and-a-half, and was frankly shocked to find how enjoyable this was. Now, I won’t say that it’s an absolute must-see, or even that it’s the best of the nominees for Best Picture. But, I can fairly say that it’s worth the time to watch it, at least, which is a heck of a lot more than I thought I’d be saying about a late 1930’s musical. The acting is pretty much par, and the plot exists only to hold together the numbers (and not to win any screenplay awards, for example), but the film’s selling points outweigh its detriments, at least in my opinion. It’s still a musical, though, so it won’t be for everyone, but I was surprised by it, so who knows; maybe a few others will be too.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

The Good Earth

The Good Earth

The land is our life.

It’s nice to see that Paul Muni would eventually get the recognition I always felt he deserved, even if it did come a few years later than I would’ve liked. He won Best Actor for Louis Pasteur the previous year, and was nominated again for Best Picture winner Emile Zola in ’37. Not only that, he also starred in this, The Good Earth, another Best Picture nominee that year. I haven’t rewatched Zola yet (though I probably should fairly soon), so I can’t compare Muni’s performances between the two films all that much. But, for what it’s worth, I was fairly pleased that The Good Earth managed a nomination for the big one, even if it’s not too much of a surprise when you look at its credentials for the era it was made in.

Muni is Wang Lung, a farmer in the northern farmlands of China, sometime just before the Chinese Revolution. Scraping by enough on his own, he is thrilled when he is selected to be married to one of the servant girls of the Great House, the rich people’s abode in the nearby village. He and his new wife O-Lan soon make a family for themselves, and the film details their trials and hardships as they try and survive whatever life happens to throw at them. There’s really not much more to the narrative than that, though plenty does happen in the film for Wang and O-Lan to persevere through, or try to in some cases. What the film lacks in a standardized narrative, it more than makes up for in sheer production value, as well as the performances of the leads, and a few of the supporting players as well. Being a 1930s historical epic, so to say, the rustic and thorough production value is the main draw, used to fully realize the setting and era the film takes place in, and indeed the production value is very well utilized; cinematographer Karl Freund even won an Oscar for his work capturing it all. Even with the film using Western actors to play the lead roles of Chinese characters, Muni and Luise Rainer (who plays O-Lan) do exceptional work, especially for it being as reserved as it is. Rainer, indeed, would win her second Best Actress Oscar for this, becoming the first actor to win consecutive Oscars, which might be a bit much considering how low-key her performance is here, but as I said earlier, it’s still very good and certainly memorable.

This isn’t a typical Hollywood film, of the times or otherwise, and that I think is what makes this as easy to appreciate as it is. The stars underact instead of over, there’s no real formula or strict adherence to customary narrative, and there isn’t even really a bad guy or villain of the piece (though the uncle character is pushed close to this territory a few times); this is merely a simple tale about people trying to survive in the wake of a hard life that never lets up, both in human obstacles and natural ones. Normally, I’d probably appreciate the shift in difference between a film like this and a typical Hollywood picture of the 1930s, but with The Good Earth, I only felt a little bit of gratification at both the difference and the film’s inherent value. I definitely did not come out of this singing its praises, as should be evident, and for all that it does do well, I just couldn’t get all that invested in it. It’s a solid picture, but it’s not an altogether entertaining one, and it’s really a shame that it almost has to be this way for the picture to even work as well as it does manage to do. Still, while this wasn’t exactly one for the win column, it absolutely wasn’t a loss, and given the lesser fare of these Best Picture noms that I seem to be trudging through, I’ll take whatever I can get in terms of pictures like these.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

Lost Horizon

Lost Horizon

I think I’m going to like it here.

Every director in Hollywood has that big, epic movie production they’ve always wanted to do, and in many cases eventually get the chance to do, and it seems not even hometown, quintessential Americana director Frank Capra is excluded from this conjecture. Capra evidently wanted Lost Horizon to be his grandest picture yet, and no expense was spared him, even when the production went over-budget and he turned in an initial cut of the film that was six hours long. Apparently, his producers finally said enough and cut the film down themselves, to its release running time of just over two hours, which is the version I watched, though some small sequences of film have been lost to time and replaced by still images to the still-existing audio. Even watching this version, though, I could not surmise to any extent why Capra had such a hard time cutting the film down; even at two hours, it feels like it doesn’t get enough done during the running time to justify its own length.

Ronald Colman stars as Robert Conway, a novelist and important British diplomat who is fighting to get a series of planes into China to export a group of Westerners in the midst of an armed conflict. Succeeding, he boards the last plane out, but unbeknownst to him, the plane is hijacked by an unknown pilot, and the plane ends up crashing in the mountains when it runs out of fuel. Facing certain death, the crash survivors are amazed when a small group of sherpas meet them and take them to their refuge, Shangri-La, a remote and isolated paradise secluded by mountains on all sides. Faced with a thriving, idyllic community the likes of which he’d always dreamed of, Conway and the others must now uncover the mysteries of the utopia that has taken them in, and figure out when, or indeed if, they’re going to be able to leave. For an epic, or at least a purported one, this had a surprisingly smaller, hometown mindset to most of it, though considering it’s Capra that is probably more to be expected than I initially thought. There’s no excessive production value to this one that is so typical of Hollywood epics, and indeed the scope of the story itself is rather confined, hopping from the plane to Shangri-La and then pretty much staying there for most of the rest of the picture. There are a few times, mostly during the beginning and ending sections, where the music swells up to seemingly offer a heightened sense of danger or conflict, but never when this happened did it feel genuine or accurate, instead feeling manufactured by the film to cover up the fact that there wasn’t as much to the plot as there could’ve been. Added to this is the actual ending of the film, which if you don’t mind some mild spoilers, opts to not dramatize what likely should’ve been the third act of the film and instead have a chance character regale what happens to a group of people, instead of actually showing us what happens. It felt particularly lazy of the film to do this, and spoiled a lot of what good will I’d had with the film up to then, but I didn’t take it too harshly, as if all of what this chance character describes had actually made it into the film, the picture likely would’ve indeed run six hours, and been justified in doing so.

There were some things to like about this picture, but there were just as many things to not like about it. The major one for me was that it didn’t feel like a complete picture, instead feeling like the released print is, say, parts one and three of a six part story smushed together, with the description at the end of the film filling in whatever blanks the film has by not actually having the plot in the film itself. This, more than anything, is why I felt, as I said in the opener, that the film hadn’t done enough to justify the length it was; oddly enough, it was because the film had too much material, didn’t film enough of it, and then tried to stretch what it had done out to 3 or 4 hours before the producers finally pulled it away from Capra’s hands and tried to make do with what Capra had done up to that point. It was extremely disjointed, and I absolutely was not expecting that from a Frank Capra film. Maybe he did let this one get away from him a little too much. Still, aside from once again not being taken by the supposed charms of Ronald Colman, there’s enough of Capra in here to make it a somewhat decent watch, though it definitely isn’t one you absolutely have to see, so for that, I’ll be nice and put it right in the middle of my ratings scale. It could’ve been worse, and it could’ve been better, but really, what it actually is is just… incomplete. That’s all.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

Dead End

Dead End

You never brought nothin’ but trouble.

For a while now, I’ve been wondering how to frame my review of Dead End, a William Wyler picture starring the eponymous ‘Dead End Kids’, as well as the first appearance of Humphrey Bogart in this Best Picture odyssey for me. I didn’t have a lot to go on; the film itself is very unassuming, even as it does have quite a bit of selling points to it. I was mainly bugged by one main thing about the film, however, and the more I thought about it, the more it seemed that I’d ultimately focus on this as my framing device; the inevitability of it making an impact with me. That framing device is this: the difference, at least in film, between plot and narrative. I bring this up here because Dead End is only the latest example of a film that, while having plot, is rather short on narrative, and what kind of a film it ultimately amounts to as a result of this filmmaking decision.

The film focuses on the end of a dead end street (get it?) in a slummy block of New York City, where a high-rise apartment building towers literally and figuratively over the poor and destitute residents of the rest of the street, which ends at a dock on a river. Here, several stories take place; a small group of kids who live on the block cause rows and make trouble, aspiring to be greater than the block they grew up on, while a former such punk turned gangster named Baby Face Martin returns to seek out his mother and old flame, and one of Martin’s old friends (who still lives on the block doing odd jobs) tries to get out his own way with one of the girls from the high-rise he’s having an affair with. So, what’s the actual story being told here; the point of it all? Well, therein lies the main issue with Dead End; there really isn’t one. Things happen, characters do stuff, dialogue is said; that’s plot, what actually happens in a film, but Dead End has no real narrative, no overarching storyline that the plot serves to advance to a conclusion. In Dead End, things just happen; it’s slice-of-life, but under the pretense of having a story to tell, so a percentage of viewers (like myself) end up a little flummoxed that at the end of it all there wasn’t anything substantive to it. I suppose some could make an argument that the whole point is to tell the story of the people on the block, as a sort of cautionary tale to not be like the punk kids or the gangster in the film. Indeed, this might’ve even been the intention of the filmmakers. But, when it’s a point like this that almost doesn’t need to be made at all, then where’s the real narrative then?

I think I expanded a little too much on my original point, since I didn’t really get to the technicals of the film itself; things like the very well utilized production design, and reserved but effective performances from the likes of Bogart and Joel McCrea, as well as some of the negatives, like the kids themselves, who seemed to have gotten all their acting skill by watching James Cagney and Edward Robinson and doing their most caricatured impressions of them. Still, though, this had more to it than it had detracting from it, in my eyes, so for me, it ends up in the win column, if only just. Not sure how it’ll end up falling in the ranking, though; while this was above the average for me, I can still see plenty of other films that stand a better chance at the big award than this one.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10