Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: The Lives of a Bengal Lancer (dir by Henry Hathaway)


The 1935 adventure film, The Lives of a Bengal Lancer, is a film that probably could not be made today.

Of course, that’s true of a lot of films from the 30s.  In some cases, that’s a good thing and, in some cases, that’s a bad thing.  The Lives of Bengal Lancer is an entertainingly old-fashioned adventure story but it’s also a shameless celebration of the British Empire.  The fact that it was made in Los Angeles and featured all-American Gary Cooper in the lead role doesn’t diminish the fact that it’s pretty much a celebration of British colonialism.

Gary Cooper plays Lt. Alan MacGregor, a Scottish-Canadian who serves in British Calvary.  He’s a member of the Lancers and is currently serving in India, which, at the time that this movie was set (and made), was still under British control.  When the film begins, MacGregor is greeting the new arrivals.  Among those arrivals are Lt. John Fosythe (Franchot Tone) and Lt. Donald Stone (Richard Cromwell).  Lt. Forsythe is an experienced officer who has been sent to India as a replacement for another officer who managed to get himself killed while out on a patrol.  Meanwhile, Lt. Donald Stone is a newly commissioned officer who is desperate to win the approval of his father (and McGregor’s superior), Col. Tom Stone (Guy Standing).  Unfortunately, Donald quickly discovers that winning the approval of his father isn’t going to be easy.  Col. Stone, after all, has a lot to deal with.

For instance, there’s Mohammed Khan (Douglas Dumbrille).  Kahn is a local prince and he boasts that he has got an Oxford education.  He pretends to be an ally of the British but instead, he is plotting a revolution.  The first step in that revolution is to intercept a convoy of British weapons but how can Kahn discover the convoy’s route?  Maybe he could kidnap a lancer who is close to the unit’s commanding officer?  With the help of a Russian femme fatale named Tania (Kathleen Burke), Khan is able to capture Donald.  When MacGregor and Forsythe defy the colonel’s orders and attempt to rescue Donald on their own, they end up getting captured as well!

“We have ways to make men talk!” Khan declares and soon, the three men are having their fingernails ripped out and the skin underneath burned with fiery bamboo.  It’s a shocking act of sadism, one that caught me by surprise in 2020.  I can only imagine how audiences in 1935 reacted to Gary Cooper and Franchot Tone being so graphically tortured on the big screen.  Though the men swear that they will not reveal the location of the convoy, how much torture can they take before they break?

As I said at the start of this review, The Lives of a Bengal Lancer is an old-fashioned film and, with its depiction of savage rebels and heroic colonizers, it would probably cause a riot if it were released today.  However, if you can set aside the whole pro-imperialist theme of the film, this is a fairly entertaining film.  It gets off to a slow start and, to modern eyes, some of the acting is bit creaky but Gary Cooper is, not surprisingly, well-cast as the film’s hero and he’s ably supported by Tone and Cromwell.  Douglas Dumbrille and Kathleen Burke are entertainingly campy villains and the film’s final battle is well-done.

A box office success, The Lives of a Bengal Lancer was nominated for Best Picture but it lost to an even bigger hit (and a film that was a bit more critical of the British Empire), Mutiny on the Bounty.

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: Romeo and Juliet (dir by George Cukor)


You know the story that’s told in this 1936 film already, don’t you?

In the city of Verona, Romeo Montague (Leslie Howard) has fallen in love with Juliet Capulet (Norma Shearer).  Normally, this would be cause for celebration because, as we all know, love is a wonderful thing.  However, the House of Capulet and the House of Montague have long been rivals.  When we first meet them all, they’re in the process of having a brawl in the middle of the street.  There’s no way that Lord Capulet (C. Aubrey Smith) will ever accept the idea of Juliet marrying a Montague, especially when he’s already decided that she is to marry Paris (Ralph Forbes).  Things get even more complicated with Juliet’s cousin, Tybalt (Basil Rathbone), kills Romeo’s best friend, Mercutio (John Barrymore).  Romeo then kills Tybalt and things only grow more tragic from there.

It’s hard to keep track of the number of films that have been made out of William Shakespeare’s tale of star-crossed lovers and tragedy.  The plot is so universally known that “Romeo and Juliet” has become shorthand for any story of lovers who come from different social sects.  Personally, I’ve always felt that Romeo and Juliet was less about love and more about how the rivalry between the Montagues and the Capulets forces the young lovers into making hasty decisions.  If not for Lord Capulet throwing a fit over his daughter’s new boyfriend, she and Romeo probably would have split up after a month or two.  Seriously, I’ve lost track of how many losers I went out with in high school just because my family told me that I shouldn’t.

Producer Irving Thalberg spent five years trying to get MGM’s Louis B. Mayer to agree to greenlight a film version of Romeo and Juliet.  Mayer thought that most audiences felt that Shakespeare was above them and that they wouldn’t spend money to see an adaptation of one of his plays.  Thalberg, on the other hand, thought that the story would be a perfect opportunity to highlight the talents of his wife, Norma Shearer.  It was only after Warner Bros. produced a financially successful version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that Mayer gave Romeo and Juliet the go ahead.

Of course, by the time the film went into production, Norma Shearer was 34 years old and a little bit too mature to be playing one of the most famous teenagers in literary history.  Perhaps seeking to make Shearer seem younger, Thalberg cast 43 year-old Leslie Howard as Romeo, 44 year-old Basil Rathbone as Tybalt, and 54 year-old John Barrymore as Mercutio,  (In Barrymore’s defense, to me, Mercutio always has come across as being Verona’s equivalent of the guy who goes to college for ten years and then keeps hanging out on the campus even after dropping out.)

In short, this is the middle-aged Romeo and Juliet and, despite all of the good actors in the cast, it’s impossible not to notice.  There were few Golden Age actors who fell in love with the authenticity of Leslie Howard and Basil Rathbone is a wonderfully arrogant and sinister Tybalt.  Norma Shearer occasionally struggles with some of the Shakespearean dialogue but, for the most part, she does a good job of making Juliet’s emotions feel credible.  As for Barrymore — well, he’s John Barrymore.  He’s flamboyant, theatrical, and a lot of fun to watch if not always totally convincing as anything other than a veteran stage actor hamming it up.  The film is gorgeous to look at and George Cukor embraces the melodrama without going overboard.  But, everyone in the movie is just too old and it does prove to be a bit distracting.  A heart-broken teenager screaming out, “I am fortune’s fool!” is emotionally powerful.  A 43 year-old man doing the same thing is just not as effective.

Despite being a box office failure (it turned out that Mayer was right about Depression-era audiences considering Shakespeare to be too “arty”), Romeo and Juliet was nominated for Best Picture of the year, the second Shakespearean adaptation to be so honored.  However, the award that year went to another big production, The Great Ziegfeld.

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.