Sunday, January 8, 2017
New Year’s Nitrate: My Favorite Old Movies I Saw in 2016
I'd like to start a New Year's tradition on this blog of listing off the year's highlights of my old movie-watching. I've been meaning to do this for years, but my problem is that each movie I see, I want to blather on and on about, even the ones I don't care about much. That’s a big obstacle towards wrestling together a manageable list, even if people did want to hear my thoughts on why Trooper Hook was a much bigger disappointment than His Brother’s Wife. So, with that in mind, I’m keeping this to a Top Ten (In No Particular Order) Favorite Old Movies I Saw in 2016.
Favorite Old Movies I Saw in 2016
Colorado Territory (1949)
I’ll have to watch this one on a double bill with High Sierra to decide if Raoul Walsh's classic story of a regretful outlaw looking for love and freedom works better as a Humphrey Bogart noir film or a Joel McCrea Western. Honestly, I enjoyed this one, but wasn't expecting to list it on my year’s best. Still, to my surprise, it stuck with me. My heart ached for the wistful chemistry between Virginia Mayo and Joel McCrea. I loved the way Walsh mixes his sets and scenery here, so that the movie flows smoothly between scenes that show McCrea dominating a group of outlaws to Western landscapes that turn him into one small man scrambling for a few more breaths of life. The tragic ending of this one also hits harder than in the earlier movie. High Sierra might have done this story first but Colorado Territory might just tell it sweeter.
Dead End (1937)
Now that I've poked a little at the movie that helped make Bogart a legend, let me throw some praise at one from his pre-stardom years. Dead End to me feels like the movie City for Conquest wanted to be, a statement about the dreams and disappointments of slum life that finds beauty in the grime. Wyler's direction shows how a movie camera can overcome “staginess” with elegantly composed shots and lighting. In a way, the film’s obvious use of sets helps it play better today than it might have if Goldwyn had allowed Wyler to try to more directly copy real slum life. The original play, however it might have seemed in 1937, reads like more of a dark little fairy tale now, in which innocence can be rewarded and guilt punished. Add to that two great performances by Humphrey Bogart and Claire Trevor, as well as good ones from Sylvia Sidney and the Dead End Kids and you've got a thirties melodrama that knows how to do it right.
Les Girls (1957)
Some movie musicals are events. They show up at your door with a full brass band in tow, banners waving, feet stomping, the whole nine yards, and you barely have space to breathe. And some musicals slip in quietly, like an old friend from long ago that just wants to share a few laughs and drinks. Les Girls is like that, a lesser-known Gene Kelly musical that works well as a quieter, calmer cousin to the more frantic musicals of the era. Les Girls tells the story of a dance troupe leader, Barry Nichols, and the three women in his troupe that all, for one reason or another, believe they were the real love of his life. Thankfully, all three actresses, Mitzi Gaynor, Kay Kendall, and Taina Elg, come off like smart, sassy, distinct people so sitting down to listen to each of their three versions of the Barry Nichols story is a pleasure. (Honestly, they come off as much more interesting than Leslie Caron or Vera-Ellen ever had the chance to in Kelly’s bigger hits.) Not to mention, this film is dazzlingly pretty in its color, costumes, and choreography.
Underworld U.S.A. (1961)
Samuel Fuller movies are for me, like iced espresso shots. Not the most subtle, never mellow, but oh man, they can blast you awake. At his best, Fuller finds ways to move his camera that startle me; nobody else makes movies that look like his. Underworld USA follows Tolly, a young delinquent who watches his father’s murder in a back alley and grows up to be a ruthless, deadly cold Cliff Robertson, out for vengeance at all costs. He is a cool-headed schemer that plays both cops and crooks against each other and yet, it is clear that Tolly is also a case of arrested development, a man who throws away real human relationships for something empty and dead. What struck me most watching this one is how well it walks a line between telling a cynical gangster story where law enforcement and lawbreakers play by the same rule book, and a story that finds the fragile humanity in those same lowlifes. Fuller’s underworld sings.
Hobson’s Choice (1954)
Cliff Robertson’s Tolly might be a tough, smart ex-con, but I think Brenda de Banzie’s Maggie Hobson could eat him for breakfast. In the sly and wonderful Hobson’s Choice, Maggie Hobson, the plain, sensible and unmarried daughter of a supremely self-involved Victorian bootmaker, decides to seize the life she wants and steamrollers past anyone who stands in her way. If Tolly stands for the idea that losing your humanity is the price you must pay for accomplishing big things, than Maggie Hobson stands for the notion that big things happen only with small steps, clear heads, and eyes that sees the humanity in the humble. Watching Brenda de Banzie slowly but surely pull the rug out from under her Fallstaffian father (played hugely by Charles Laughton) is fantastic.
They Drive By Night (1940)
I have a special place in my heart for those everything-but-the-kitchen-sink Warner Brothers melodramas, where they toss in crime, romance, high society, street toughs, and plotlines that meander all over the place. They Drive By Night is one of those charmers, a movie whose erratic tone and plot shifts might owe something to the fact that it grafts a murder plot from an earlier Bette Davis flick to a tale of truck driver brothers (George Raft and Humphrey Bogart) and their rough, risky jobs. What you get is a story that starts out like Thieves Highway and ends up like Angel Face, with a wisecracking Ann Sheridan thrown in, because heck, don’t we all love Ann Sheridan? Still, director Raoul Walsh manages to hold this one together and at its best, They Drive By Night feels like a roll call of all the things we love about good Warner Brothers films. Even if George Raft and Humphrey Bogart really, really feel like they should have switched roles.
The Man I Love (1947)
Raoul Walsh had quite a year with me, since this is the third film of his I’m putting in my Top Ten list. In many ways, The Man I Love is a close cousin to They Drive By Night. Same kind of rambling, genre-straddling plot, the same plush, velvety art design and camerawork that Warner Brothers used for all its ’40s melodramas. The main differences are that The Man I Love replaces truck drivers with torch singers and piano players and that this film has a heroine, Ida Lupino. Lupino was the villain in They Drive By Night but here, she’s in my favorite kind of Lupino role: the tough, smart dame who can tangle with anyone she wants and come out ahead. Even when she’s in skintight gold lamé. Her character may be infatuated with a rather sad sack piano player, but Lupino still walks through this thing with her shoulders straight and her head high, fully capable of sorting out everyone’s life but her own. Robert Alda is also a standout in this one, suggesting more depth to his sleazy nightclub owner than the script allows him.
It’s Love I’m After (1937)
This was an unexpected fizzy delight, a ’30s comedy that pokes delicious fun at theatrical egos and talents. I enjoyed this one way more than the frantic, nastier Twentieth Century--at least Leslie Howard’s vain Basil Underwood and Bette Davis’ flighty Joyce Arden are people I actually enjoy spending time with. Howard and Davis play a pair of theatre stars who’ve been romantically entangled on and off the stage for years, but can’t stop fighting long enough to get married. Their lives get more complicated by the arrival of Olivia de Havilland’s breathless, lovestruck ingenue, who’s utterly convinced that Basil is the man of her dreams. Bette Davis never got to do much screwball comedy and she’s great here, as is de Havilland, playing against her later types as a a ditzy heiress. The real love story here though, is between Leslie Howard and Eric Blore and their symbiotic relationship of egotistical actor and supremely supportive butler. This is a truly underrated, hilarious comedy.
Advise and Consent (1962)
The cynical politics of Advise and Consent feel like something out of another world as we
stand here in 2017. And I promise, I thought so well before the events of last November. A strange naivete has crept into this gripping story of backroom Congress deals, flip-flopping sympathies and cold power struggles. At least these men have a system they are willing to cheat, lie, and betray for. At least they believe it is worth their time to play the game. And yet, that doesn’t make this adaptation of Allen Drury’s novel feel at all dated to me. Instead, I felt compelled right along with the characters to go down the rabbit hole and see where the scandals led. Otto Preminger, in adapting the material, toned down much of the source material into a more ambiguous work that doesn’t take sides, finding something to value even in Charles Laughton’s spidery Southern senator and something to condemn in Henry Fonda’s self-righteous candidate. The tragedy of Don Murray’s tormented senator carries all the more force in a world where his compatriots condemn his destroyers, not out of moral outrage, but because Murray was one of their own. In today’s Washington, such loyalty would be a rare and beautiful thing.
I’m topping off my list with Scaramouche which is only fitting because this gorgeous Technicolor adventure is a pure dessert film, from the costumes, to the sword fights, to the witty lines. A classic tale of an aristocrat out from revenge comes second to the banter and battles between the characters, all of whom have much more to them than they absolutely need to. Eleanor Parker may be the sexy Bad Girl, but she’s also a lively, loyal friend who’s strong enough to befriend her hated rival. Janet Leigh may be the sweet Nice Girl, but she’s not above a little manipulation of her own. Mel Ferrer is the Bad Guy, but he’s sincerely in love with both Janet Leigh and Nina Foch’s Marie Antoinette (kudos to Ferrer for pulling that off), as well as being a worthy opponent to Stewart Granger’s hero. When I think about Scaramouche, I keep coming back to this: They put more effort into this one than they had to. And it definitely shows.