Tuesday, January 12, 2010

#6: Of Human Bondage

Starring: Bette Davis, Leslie Howard
Dir: John Cromwell (1934)
Let's keep this one short and sweet for the good of all concerned.
The bad and the good -
Bad: Let me sum up the bulk of Bette Davis' acting for you.
Good: Leslie Howard has a pretty face.

Summary: I vastly prefer Howard's treatment of the cockney urchin in Pygmalion. Of Human Bondage felt like being tied to a chair and having my eyeballs hammered unceasingly for an hour and twenty minutes. Good thing the most forgiving of guardian angels appear to have ushered Bette safely through such low points in her career... if not, we may never have had Baby Jane. And with that we may all say a short prayer of thanks, and good-night.

-1,000 of 5

#5: The African Queen

Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Katharine Hepburn
Dir: John Huston (1951)
Now I may be technically cheating with this one since I'm fairly sure I saw bits of it when I was small (and it's also technically not a old-timey black & white), but something about The African Queen's classic status convinced the anal-retentive part of my brain that appears to be driving this project (e.g. MICKEY ROONEY MOVIE) that passing it up would be just another kind of cheating, but far more grave. Still, whatever I'd seen of the movie in childhood only left a memory of dread and depression, so I approached the viewing with some anxiety. "Doesn't he die in the end??" I asked Katherine worriedly. She insisted that he didn't, but then again Kat likes to make people suffer by doing things the Right Way, and may have been lying on principle so as not to spoil the ending. I had no confidence.
Oh well.
Turned out the one who died was the homely yet sympathetic brother figure, and while I'm all for feeling sad about that, HUMPHREY MAKES IT OUT OKAY. And that's what I really care about, so, it's safe to watch this movie now!
The bad and the good:
Bad: Well, basically nothing, right?? I mean, maybe some of the score isn't that great, but who's paying attention to the music with everything else going on? Also, watching this movie made me feel like I was swatting away a horde of invisible flies. And like I needed to take a shower. But I guess that was atmosphere.
Good: Everything else!! Katharine Hepburn uses all her old standards - the gangliness, awkwardness, the wobbly chin, the superiority, and the insulted crying - while portraying a character that is obnoxious, frigid, lovable, and hilarious all at once (soooo Kat Hepburn, only a prude). Humphrey Bogart stops being hard-boiled and hams it up as Charlie with the greasy neckerchief and filthy hands. Seriously, it's almost awkward watching him do this after years of tough detective roles, but with a little concentration it all comes together. He's a wonderful character with terrible habits and yet the bravest and most chivalrous spirit imaginable. The movie is all about watching a relationship develop between unlikely people who are basically cross-sections of Bogie and Kate. What I love best about that is how the two people who should reasonably only be bringing out the worst in each other -and they do, for quite a while - end by bringing out the very best, even qualities buried so deeply that we would never have imagined them capable of possessing them, right up to the point of (SPOILER ALERT NOBODY DIES) self-sacrifice. True love, my peeps. Reading Kat Hepburn's book on the making of TAQ, I could believe that their real-life relationship was like this - minus the true love, of course (did you know Lauren Bacall stayed with Bogie on location in Africa? And was a total boss about it? And apparently wandered around makeup-free and glamorous, doing things like cooking for people and just ingratiating herself to everyone, and Katharine Hepburn was hopelessly jealous and freckled-feeling and prickly and used to journal crankily about it? AM I RIGHT LADIES) - in that they complemented each other by being nearly opposites in a few ways but identical in essentials: disciplined, principled, talented, and smart. With a big streak of respectful snark and a love of hard work.
The African Queen is a perfect combination of comedy, adventure, and drama, which while sounding like a cliche is actually a remarkable achievement when you really watch it. Only two actors, a tiny boat, and some intimidating scenery. Lots of squeamish moments, like getting chest-deep into filthy water and almost dying and having to pee in front of a strange man. It's really not the sort of thing you should like to see.
But if you don't, you're an idiot.

'Nuff said.

Stars: 5 of 5

#4: Boys Town

Starring: Spencer Tracy, Mickey Rooney
Dir: Norman Taurog (1938)
I snatched up this little gem while going through the stacks in clean, alphabetical order, so it was right at the top and as soon as I saw it I could only grit my teeth and say, "Well, might as well get this over with!" Get this, youngsters: Catholic priest founds town for boys and presides there as sole authority over what basically amounts to a sprawling Boy Plantation (orphaned and abandoned only). It may have been an inspiring (and true) tale in 1938, but watching it now is just painful.
The bad and the good:
Bad: Well, priests and boys... and lots of it. And enough hugging, candy, and "there's no such thing as a bad boy"-ing to go around.
Worse: Mickey Rooney, folks!! He barely edged out priest/boychild dynamics for the worst element of this film. It's just... that face! That stubby nose, those beady eyes... the whiny voice, the total lack of charisma! - not to mention the fact that the entire second half of the film is composed of him either crying, pleading, or screaming, composing a veritable ugly buffet. It doesn't do him any favors that his character is despicable, either, but then I've seen abler men scrape some appeal out of worse situations.
Confusing: Spencer Tracy supposedly won an Oscar for this role, and while I love the good man and his work, I just plain can't see why. The only word I have for this entire movie, including his performance, is underwhelming. Good thing you can't take those back! Long gone are the days when the sympathetic Oscars are handed out to inspiring portrayals of upstanding men of the Church... nowadays the accolades are reserved more for Satan's Alley-type shenanigans.
Finally, good: This one's easy! My favorite part of Boys Town was the thundering rendition of "Fairest Lord Jesus" that not only heralded the commencement of this fine piece of cinema, but was reprised during every scenes of any significance, including (near-)deaths, chases, and the occasional victory procession. Also not to be missed is its seamless transition into an even more thundering "Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes." Confused? I guess the producers were restricted to the public domain. Darn.

Stars: 2 of 5

#3: Dodsworth

Starring: Walter Huston, Ruth Chatterton, Mary Astor
Dir: William Wyler (1936)

The bad and the good -
Bad: Mary Astor's "emote! emote!" waving scene at the very end. Also bad (in a good way) is the sheer hatefulness of Ruth Chatterton's character. Everything she does makes me want to smack a ho. The French-isms, the emotional manipulation, the mindless way she throws herself at anything with an accent - as long as it's not a Midwestern one - although her comment about tourists and Baedekers made me think of A Room With a View... so that's awesome.
Good: Walter Huston, who I haven't seen in anything else yet, but did one of the finest bits of old movie acting I've ever seen. He created a sympathetic character without being obnoxious, and was actually vivacious and entertaining and endearing to watch (which is something, since I don't usually waste my time on the plain ones). The dialogue was similarly entertaining - replete with shocking arguments, subtle manipulations, and brazen innuendos. Just balls-out fun.

Summary: It looked dreary at first, and I won't deny that it's some fairly intense viewing, but Dodsworth's plot scuttles along quickly enough to make you unable to resist hating the characters you should hate (there was some shouting at the screen), not to mention loving the good ones, by the end. Also props for edgy cinematography! Now who would have thought to place the camera BEHIND a plant...

Stars: 4 of 5

Monday, January 4, 2010

#2: Holiday Inn

Starring: Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire, Marjorie Reynolds
Dir: Mark Sandrich (1942)

The bad and the good -
Bad: Blackface. Lots of blackface. Also, Marjorie Reynolds is a BLAND-PAN. Also, Fred Astaire playing an unsympathetic character is just too much of a stretch for me. Also, there were many boring holiday songs - who says Lincoln's Birthday is a holiday, anyway? Oh wait I forgot it's an excuse for more BLACKFACE! Which we love!! Also, it made me wish I was watching Christmas in Connecticut instead. Also... blackface.
Good: I liked seeing a fresh-faced young Bing doing his buh-buh-buh-boos in the Singing/Dancing number with Fred Astaire. Also not to be missed was Fred's fireworks dance - probably one of the coolest things I've ever seen. Why was he so awesome ALL the time?? I mean, tapping on the ceiling and an exploding dance floor and a duet with a coat rack?? Not all in the same movie, of course.
Best: We have this movie to thank for "White Christmas." And that's wonderful.

Summary: It had two of my favorite actors, but in two of my least favorite roles so far. Most confusing of all, it was a Christmas movie that felt kind of un-Christmas-y. More of a New Year's movie. (Oh, I forgot! Also good were Mamie's adorable children, especially dressed as the Old and New year.)

Stars: 3.5 of 5

#1: The Shop Around the Corner

To Do: Watch all the old classic movies I've always intended to see but have still come thus far without actually sitting down and watching. Sometimes I avoid old movies unassociated with any childhood nostalgia because nostalgia doubles the fun of anything and old movies can be boring. Or I avoid certain other ones because my favorite movie stars are old in them (Barkleys of Broadway still looms...). There are always reasons. Anyway, the time has come NOW to confront the classics I always turn away. (Some, as I will eventually learn, for good reason.)

First in the experiment: The Shop Around the Corner.
Starring: James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan
Dir: Ernst Lubitsch (1940)

The bad and the good -
Bad: I don't get Margaret Sullavan. I just don't. No chemistry, no charm, and her character was a bitch who failed to turn sympathetic despite the demands of the plot.
Good: The first movie to make me love Jimmy Stewart! He's always been kind of standard and bland to me - I prefer the dark and attractive men of classic cinema, rough around the edges, not-quite-gentlemanly et cetera, and I mean who looks good next to Dana Andrews, right? Especially ol' pie-face. But Shop made me like him. He was sweet and sincere and for some reason I found it endearing this time rather than yawn-inducing (maybe a reaction against Mags?). Also, his passionate declaration in the movie's final scene made it into my vault of favorite heart-fluttering lines:

"You know what I wish would happen? When your bell rings at eight o’clock tonight, and you open the door, instead of Popkin, I come in. And I say, 'Klara, darling' - Klara, my dearest sweetheart, I can't stand it any longer. Take your key and open post office box 237 and take me out of my envelope and kiss me."

I swear I teared up when I heard it. Don't know why. Must be the sentimentalist buried deep, deep within.
Anyway, I was underwhelmed given its iconic status in the annals of romantic comedies, but at least it succeeded in opening my eyes to the appeal of Apple Pie.
Stars: 3 of 5

Friday, January 1, 2010

"You know what I wish would happen? When your bell rings at eight o’clock tonight, and you open the door, instead of Popkin, I come in. And I say, 'Klara, darling' - Klara, my dearest sweetheart, I can't stand it any longer. Take your key and open post office box 237 and take me out of my envelope and kiss me."
-The Shop Around the Corner