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

Stage Door

Stage Door

Maybe if you tried to do something for the theater, the theater would do something for you.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from Stage Door, especially given how tepid the title of the film was. It stars Katharine Hepburn and Ginger Rogers, among a generally-sized cast of women, and doesn’t have all that much in terms of plot and the development of it. Still, it seemed to be relatively well-regarded, from what I was able to find, and it was short, so I started it hoping it wouldn’t be too troublesome. Well, it definitely wasn’t, that’s for sure. In fact, I was surprised at what this did have to offer, which started out one way and ended entirely differently. All told, the film was just about the opposite of tepid that a film like this could’ve gotten.

Stage Door is ostensibly the story of the Footlights Club, a boarding house in New York City for aspiring stage actresses. Katharine Hepburn’s character shows up at the beginning, looking for accommodations, and she is boarded with Ginger Rogers; the two don’t get along at their first meeting, because this is a Hollywood film, after all. The film basically tells the story of the young actresses living under the Footlights roof, focusing mainly on the two leads, but featuring a few other of the boarders as well, one in particular who is responsible for the film’s dramatic shift of genre in the third act. The first thing that jumped out at me during my viewing of Stage Door was the dialogue, and how inordinarily improvisational it all seemed. The opening scene, for example, has a bunch of the tenants arguing and talking over each other in the main gathering room, a squabble of women gabbing and cavorting and generally not caring who else is talking or who they have to out-volume, which seemed to be exactly the opposite of the precise and controlled screenwriting typical of the era. As the film went on, though, I got the distinct impression that not only was the improv-style script the film’s main selling point, but that the film sure as hell knew it, perhaps a little too well. That the film’s script was written improvisationally was impressive and novel at the beginning; that the film kept such a script dialed up to eleven through almost the entire running time grew rather annoying as it went on, even with the film being only an hour and a half long. Thankfully, for me at least, the film seemed to know that it couldn’t remain one-note literally the whole time, and something happens to shift the film’s center of gravity away from snarky comedy and into more dramatic territory, where the film seemed to really come into its own, thanks to all the world-building that had taken place up to then.

This was a surprise, absolutely, but it wasn’t as much of one as I really felt it could’ve been. For one, with the film’s script being what it was, it thus didn’t have all that much in terms of actual narrative, especially with the short running time; the film feels like 15-20 minutes worth of plot carried by a full hour and half of snarky, sarcastic, improvisational dialogue in between. Then the third act happens, and suddenly the film wants to be more than what it had been up to that point. I just so happened to welcome the change, mostly because the constant non-stop speed of the dialogue was getting tiresome, but the film is fairly uneven as a result of the decision to do things the way the film does them. Ginger Rogers was a definite surprise, considering I didn’t think much of her at all in prior films, as was supporting player Andrea Leeds, but aside from them, I’m not sure how to recommend this one; it seems like two films inordinately sewn together, and thus everything I could point to on one side to recommend it to someone would be offset by something else in the other portion of the film. Still, this was pretty enjoyable for me, so I won’t consider this one as a loss or fault, at least too much.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

A Tale of Two Cities

A Tale of Two Cities

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…

So after some technical snafus, which delayed my watching films on my computer at all, I’m sorted out now (finally), so with that, let’s continue:

So, classical Hollywood; what’s the deal with Ronald Colman? I’d never heard of him before Arrowsmith, which bored me nearly to tears, but apparently, he was a big thing in the early-to-mid 30s, and his name is trumpeted at the start of this film like it’s the film’s biggest selling point. Never mind that this is a film adaptation of a Charles Dickens novel; no, this is all about Ronald Colman and his amazing star power, apparently. Well, as someone who’s never read Dickens’ original A Tale of Two Cities, but who’s had experience with Ronald Colman in the past, my expectations for this one were none too stellar, especially considering how high-falutin’ literary adaptations have been in the 30s so far. So, in that, A Tale of Two Cities (the film) exceeded my expectations; it was better than I thought it was going to be. But not by too much, though.

The story is quite complicated, but basically, this is a story of two gentlemen who are both in love with the same woman, all set against the backdrop of the French Revolution. There’s a hell of a lot more to it than that, but I’d run the risk of this plot summary being as long as Wikipedia’s. Still, the film’s story is complicated enough that Ronald Colman, despite being billed as the star, doesn’t show up until a good twenty minutes or so into the film, and from then on he’s on screen for probably only half the remaining running time. Even so, Colman actually does a good job with what he’s given here, even if he isn’t given a whole lot; likely because this was a passion project of Colman’s, and he had a lot of personal investment in it. I don’t know if I’d go so far as to say that he impressed me, but he was one of the better parts of the film, so I’ll give him a check in the win column for that. All told, however, I didn’t find myself too invested in this film, probably because I hadn’t read the original Dickens novel; I definitely feel that I would’ve gotten a lot more out of this if I’d had history with the source material, but I didn’t, so that’s that.

This was fine, but never once during my watch of it did I feel that this was Best Picture material, which is mostly why I ended up where I ended up with it, just for lack of any other opinion being able to form. This, for me, ended up being another smear-of-grey type of film, the type to be fairly decent in production value and possibly even entertainment, but once it’s over, it quickly vanishes from one’s memory, with no lingering intent to ever watch it again, even if I had the opportunity to. That, I say once again, does not for me the best picture of the year make. If for whatever reason you are a fan of Ronald Colman, and haven’t seen this yet, I feel pretty confident that he’ll impress you with this one. Otherwise, unless you’re a fan of the original novel, there’s not much reason to watch this one.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10