Going Ape!: TARZAN, THE APE MAN (MGM 1932)


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Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Lord of the Jungle first hit the screen way back in 1918 with Elmo Lincoln as Tarzan. Many actors since then have donned the loin cloth, but for me the definitive movie Tarzan remains Johnny Weissmuller , who swung from his first Hollywood vine in MGM’s TARZAN, THE APE MAN, and played  the part for 16 years in 12 films.

Elderly John Parker and his young partner Harry Holt are in deepest Africa searching for the legendary “elephant’s graveyard”, which contains a fortune in ivory, but is considered sacred ground by the native tribes. Parker’s daughter Jane shows up, a spirited girl who’s no ball of fluff, but can hold her own. When Jane insists on accompanying the men on their journey, Parker scoffs, but Harry signs off because of course he’s immediately smitten with her.The jungle trek is fraught with perils, like a dangerous river crossing…

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Still Great Entertainment: Gable & Harlow in CHINA SEAS (MGM 1935)


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Back in the 1970’s, Boston’s WCVB-TV Channel 5 ran a weekend late-nite movie series called “The Great Entertainment”. For 18 years, host Frank Avruch did Robert Osbourne-like introductions to the station’s library of MGM films, way before the advent of cable. This is where I first saw and fell in love with many of the classic movies and stars of the 30’s and 40’s. When TCM recently aired CHINA SEAS, I hadn’t seen the film in decades, and knew I had to DVR it. It had made an impression on me, and while rewatching I was not disappointed; it’s still a rousing piece of entertainment!

Clark Gable is rugged sea captain Alan Gaskill, carrying a quarter million British pounds worth of gold as cargo aboard his liner heading from Hong Kong to Singapore. Jean Harlow plays ‘China Doll’ Portland, Gaskill’s in-port squeeze who comes along against his wishes. Gaskill’s former flame…

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Lisa Cleans Out Her DVR: Madame Curie (dir by Mervyn LeRoy)


(Lisa is currently in the process of cleaning out her DVR!  How long is it going to take her?  Probably about as long as it took scientists to discover radiation.  Still, she’s not giving up!  She recorded the 1943 best picture nominee, Madame Curie, off of TCM on February 16th.)

It would appear that if you wanted to produce a best picture nominee in the early 40s, the easiest way to do it was to cast Walter Pidgeon and Greer Garson as husband and wife.

Consider the evidence: In 1941, Blossoms in The Dust was nominated for best picture.  Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon played wife and husband.

In 1942, Mrs. Miniver won best picture.  Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon played husband and wife.  Interestingly enough, Garson actually starred in another best picture nominee that year, Random Harvest.  Random Harvest is a far better picture than Mrs. Miniver and actually featured a better performance from Garson but it did not include Walter Pidgeon.  Make of that what you will.

Then, in 1943, Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon starred in Madame Curie.  Again, they played husband and wife and, again, their film was nominated for best picture.

As you can tell from the poster above, Madame Curie was advertised as being “Mr. and Mrs. Miniver together again.”  Actually, Garson and Pidgeon are playing characters far different from the stalwart and very British heroes of their previous film.  Instead, they are playing the Curies, Marie and Pierre.  The film opens with Pierre meeting Marie at a party and it juggles scenes of their romance with scenes of them discovering and playing with radiation.  Of course, it’s a struggle at times.  Their colleagues are dismissive of their efforts.  Both Pierre and Marie tend to get so caught up in their research that they close themselves off from the outside world.  Their efforts pay off when they isolate radium and win the 1903 Nobel Prize.  Of course, then Pierre gets run over by a horse while out buying his wife a pair of earrings.  Can Marie continue to do their research without him?

The unfortunate thing is that the movie pretty much ends with Marie winning her first Nobel Prize, which means that it leaves out some of the most interesting aspects of her life.  For instance, during World War I, she developed mobile X-ray units and worked in field hospitals.  She was also active in the struggle for Polish independence, even naming the first element that she ever discover polonium after her native country.  She spent almost her entire career working with radioactive material, often carrying radioactive isotopes in her pockets.  In 1934, Marie died of radiation poisoning.  Her research notes and other papers are so highly radioactive that they’re kept in a lead box and I assume that they probably glow whenever the lid is shut.  If you want to study Marie Curie’s notes, you have to put on a radiation suit.  Unfortunately, none of this is discussed in the resolutely positive movie.

Judging from what I’ve seen on TCM, Greer Garson appears to have been the Meryl Streep of her day, undeniably talented but a bit too obvious in her technique and just a little boring.  The same can be said of Madame Curie, which is a very well-made but not extremely memorable movie.  It’s like a lot of the films that were nominated for best picture in the 30s and the 40s — a big, prestige picture that never exactly comes to life.  The film is probably at its strongest in the beginning, when Walter Pidgeon does a pretty good job of playing Pierre as a brilliant introvert who is almost too shy to talk to Marie.  But, as the film progresses, it just becomes another slow-moving MGM biopic.

What movie beat Madame Curie for Best Picture?

None other than Casablanca.

Pre Code Confidential #10: Cecil B. DeMille’s CLEOPATRA (Paramount 1934)


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When I hear the words ‘Hollywood Epic’, the name Cecil B. DeMille immediately springs to mind. From his first film, 1914’s THE SQUAW MAN to his last, 1956’s THE TEN COMMANDMENTS, DeMille was synonymous with big, sprawling productions. The producer/director, who’s credited with almost singlehandedly inventing the language of film, made a smooth transition from silents to talkies, and his 1934 CLEOPATRA is a lavish Pre-Code spectacular featuring sex, violence, and a commanding performance by Claudette Colbert as the Queen of the Nile.

1934: Claudette Colbert in title role of Cecil B. DeMille's film Cleopatra.

While the film’s opulent sets (by Roland Anderson and Hans Dreier) and gorgeous B&W cinematography (by Victor Milner) are stunning, all eyes will be on the beautiful, half-naked Colbert. She gives a bravura performance as Cleopatra, the ambitious, scheming Egyptian queen. She’s sensuous and seductive, wrapping both Caesar and Marc Antony around her little finger, and devious in her political machinations. If I were compare her to Elizabeth Taylor in the 1963 Joseph…

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Embracing the Melodrama Part II #13: Rebecca (dir by Alfred Hitchcock)


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Well, here we are, less than a week into Embracing the Melodrama, Part II, and I’m already running behind!  The plan, as I mentioned back on Monday, is to review 128 melodramatic films over the next three weeks.  And, even though I know that sounds a like a lot, I had it all planned out so that I’d be able to get all that done in just 21 days.  All I had to do was make sure that I reviewed 6 films a day.

And …

Well, life happened.

But no matter!  It may now take me 3 and a half weeks to review 128 films but that’s no great tragedy.  And besides, regardless of how long it takes, I’ve got some pretty good films scheduled.

Take, for instance, the 1940 best picture winner Rebecca.

Rebecca is a film that all women can relate to.  The heroine is played by Joan Fontaine.  I say “heroine” because we never actually learn the character’s name, nor do we learn much about her background.  When we first see her, she’s defined by her job, which is to basically be a paid companion to a wealthy woman.  Later, she’s defined by her whirlwind romance with the brooding and aristocratic widower Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier).  When, after two weeks, they get married, she becomes known  as the second Mrs. de Winter.  She becomes defined by both who she married and who she is not.

She’s not Rebecca, the first Mrs. de Winter.

As soon as Maxim takes his new wife to his estate, the second Mrs. de Winter discovers that she’ll always live in the shadow of the deceased Rebecca.  Everyone she meets describes Rebecca as being a vibrant, lively figure — in other words, the complete opposite of the meek second Mrs. de Winter.  The coldly imperious housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson), has perfectly preserved Rebecca’s room and makes little attempt to hide the scorn that she feels for the second Mrs. de Winter.  Even worse, once they return to the estate, Maxim reveals himself to be moody and tempermental.  With the help of the manipulative Mrs. Danvers, the second Mrs. de Winter becomes convinced that Maxim will never love her as much as he loved Rebecca.

Making things even more complicated, a man claiming to be Rebecca’s cousin comes by the house when Maxim is away.  Jack Flavell (played by George Sanders, at his most serpent-like) suggests that there may have been more to Rebecca’s death than the second Mrs. de Winter was originally told…

Rebecca is a classic film, for many reasons.  It’s well-acted, with Fontaine, Olivier, Anderson, and Sanders all bringing their characters to vibrant life.  It’s a gothic romance.  It’s a thriller.  It’s a mystery.  It is the epitome of old Hollywood style.  But, for me, the main reason that Rebecca is a classic is because it tells a story to which almost everyone can relate.  Every relationship that I’ve ever had, I’ve always been curious and occasionally even jealous of who came before me.  There’s nothing more intimidating than living in the shadow of someone who you will never get a chance to meet personally.  The second Mrs. de Winter’s insecurities are everyone’s insecurities and, in some fashion or another, we’ve all had a Mrs. Danvers in our life.  The second Mrs. de Winter’s struggles are our struggles and, as she grows stronger, the viewer grows stronger with her.

Alfred Hitchcock is one of the most influential and acclaimed filmmakers of all time but he never won a directing Oscar.  Rebecca was the only one of his films to win Best Picture.  Producer David O. Selznick brought Hitchcock over from England to direct Rebecca and it’s been reported that Hitchcock resented Selznick’s interference.  (And, while Rebecca is undoubtedly a good film that was directed by Alfred Hitchcock, it’s not exactly a Hitchcock film in the way that Shadow of a Doubt, Rear Window, or Vertigo are Hitchcock films.)  As a result, Hitchcock subsequently made it a point to edit future pictures in camera so that the studios would not be able to re-edit his films.

But, whether you consider it to be a Hitchcock picture or a Selznick production, Rebecca remains a wonderfully watchable melodrama.