Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: The Champ (dir by King Vidor)


“I want the Champ!  I want the Champ!”

Oh good God, shut up you little brat.

Now, nobody actually tells 8 year-old Dink (Jackie Cooper) to shut up at the end of 1931’s The Champ.  I’d like to think that I probably would have said those words if I had been sitting in the audience but, in all honestly, I probably would have been crying along with everyone else.  I’m sure that a lot of people probably cried when The Champ was first released.

And really, it’s probably unfair to criticize Jackie Cooper for repeatedly wailing, “I want the Champ!” during the film’s final five minutes.  It’s actually probably one of the few authentic moments in the film.  It’s just unfortunate that Cooper’s voice was a bit shrill and, as a result, I found myself covering my ears.

As for what The Champ is about, it’s the story of a boy and his alcoholic father.  Andy Purcell (played with loutish charm by the never particularly subtle Wallace Beery) is a boxer.  He used to be the world champion and people still call him The Champ.  Of course, it’s been a while since he’s been in the ring.  Now, Andy just drinks and gambles and continually lets down his son.  However, Dink is always willing to forgive Andy and Andy does truly love his son.  He even buys him a horse, which gets named Little Champ.

It’s while at the stables that Dink meets an upper class woman named Linda (Irene Rich).  What Dink does not realize is that Linda is … his mother!  She was once married to the Champ but his drinking led to divorce.  Linda wants to adopt Dink and perhaps she should because The Champ really is not a very good father.  He even loses Little Champ in a card game.

Fortunately, the Champ has a chance to win the money needed to buy back the horse.  All he has to do is reenter the ring and beat the Mexican heavyweight…

It all leads to “I want the champ!” being screamed several hundred times in a handful of minutes, enough times to make me fear that I would be deaf before the film ended…

The Champ is an old-fashioned and rather creaky melodrama, one that hasn’t aged particularly well.  Director King Vidor specialized in films about the “common man” and The Champ often feels like it was adapted from the first draft of an unproduced Clifford Odets play.  It’s all very sentimental and so thoroughly lacking in snark or cynicism that, for modern audiences, it’s difficult to relate to.  I’ll leave it to you to decide whether that’s a good or a bad thing.

The Champ does hold a place in Oscar history.  Wallace Beery won the Oscar for Best Actor but, for the first time in the history of the awards, there was a tie and Beery shared the Oscar with Fredric March, who won for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

The Champ was also nominated for best picture but it lost to Grand Hotel, which also features Wallace Beery.

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: The Thin Man (dir by W.S. Van Dyke)


Last night, I rewatched the classic 1934 mystery-comedy, The Thin Man.

And you know what?

Nick and Nora Charles should be everyone’s relationship goal.

Technically, The Thin Man is a murder mystery and it’s actually a pretty good one.  While I was rewatching the film, I was surprised to see that the whodunit aspect of the plot held up far better than I remembered.  But, ultimately, the movie is really a portrait of the ideal romance.  Every couple should aspire to be like Nick and Nora.

Nick Charles (William Powell) is a retired private detective, an unflappable gentleman who speaks exclusively in quotable quips.  Nick is the type who can apparently spend every hour of the day drinking without ever getting stupidly drunk.  He has beautiful homes on both coasts and a list of friends that would make anyone jealous.  Whether cop or crook, everyone loves Nick.

Nora Charles (Myrna Loy) is Nick’s wife.  She’s independently wealthy.  She’s beautiful.  She’s always chic.  She is always the smartest and funniest person in the room.  And she’s probably the only person who can outquip Nick.  Nora loves Nick’s lifestyle, whether they’re throwing a party or literally shooting ornaments off of a Christmas tree.  As Nora says at the end of one crowded party, “Oh, Nicky, I love you because you know such lovely people.”

And, of course, there’s Asta.  Asta is their terrier.  If Nick and Nora are the ideal couple, Asta is the ideal pet.  Asta is just as quick to investigate a mystery as Nick and Nora.  Asta may be a playful dog but he’s also remarkably well-behaved.  No insistent yapping.  No accidents on the carpet.  No growling at visitors.  As I’ve mentioned many times on this site, I’m not a dog person but I love Asta.

It’s not just that Nick and Nora are obviously in love and, in this pre-code film, they’re actually allowed to express that love.  And it’s not just that they say things in The Thin Man that they wouldn’t be allowed to get away with in the film’s sequels.  (If you have any doubt that this is a pre-code film, just check out the scene where the police are going through Nora’s dresser.  “What’s that man doing in my drawers?” Nora demands while Nick does a double take.)  It’s that Nick and Nora seem to be having so much fun.  They’re wealthy.  Other than to themselves, they really have no commitments.  (Nick only comes out of retirement because Nora say she thinks a mystery sounds like it would be fun to solve.)  They have no children to worry about.  Even if you don’t want to be either Nora or Nick by the end of this film, you’ll still definitely want to hang out with them.

The Thin Man is a murder mystery.  In fact, it’s probably one of the most enjoyable movies ever made about a double murder.  Dorothy Wynat (Maureen O’Sullivan) asks Nick to help find her father (Edward Ellis), the thin man of the title.  The investigation leads to a rather complicated mystery, one in which everyone that Nick and Nora meets is a suspect.  I have to admit that, with my ADD, I always have a hard time following all of the clues.

Of course, so does Nick.  That truly is part of the appeal of The Thin Man.  Nick is often confused about what it all the clues and evidence add up to but that never seems to upset him.  He and Nora are too busy enjoying themselves to get upset. That’s one reason why, even after you know who the murderer is, The Thin Man is a movie that’s enjoyable to watch over and over again.  The Thin Man is less about the mystery and more about the way Nick and Nora manage to throw the perfect dinner party even as they reveal who the murderer is.

1934 was a good year for comedy.  The Thin Man was nominated for best picture but it lost to another charming little comedy, It Happened One Night.

Cleaning Out The DVR, Again #12: Naughty Marietta (dir by W.S. Van Dyke)


Continuing the process of cleaning out my DVR, I watched the 1935 film, Naughty Marietta.  I recorded Naughty Marietta off of TCM on April 3rd.  Like many of the films that I record off of TCM, Naughty Marietta was nominated for Best Picture.  In fact, if not for that Oscar nomination long ago, Naughty Marietta would probably be totally forgotten.

Instead, it’s only partially forgotten.

Based on an operetta and containing at least one song that I’ve sung while drunk (that song, incidentally, would be Ah!  Sweet Mystery of Life), Naughty Marietta tells the story of Princess Marie (Jeanette MacDonald).  A Spanish princess, Marie is engaged (against her will) to the elderly Don Carlos (Walter Kingsford).  In order to escape a life of forced marriage, Marie pretends to be a servant girl named Marietta and stows away on a boat to New Orleans.  The boat is carrying women to the new world so that they marry French colonists.  The other women on board are shocked when Marietta announces that she plans to never marry.

However, they are even more shocked when the boat is taken over by pirates!  The pirates kill the crew and take the women prisoner.  The pirates take the women to Louisiana where, fortunately, a group of mercenaries led by Captain Richard Warrington (Nelson Eddy) show up and rescue the women.

Marie negotiates for Warrington to take the women to New Orleans and it’s obvious from the start that Marie and Warrington are attracted to each other.  However, Warrington claims that, much like Marie, he plans to never marry!  Oh my God, could it be that these two are meant to get together!?

It has all the potential for being a good musical and Jeannette MacDonald gives a good performance as Marie.  But, unfortunately, Nelson Eddy is a lot less charismatic in the role of Warrington.  Even his singing voice is a bit blah.  Oddly, Naughty Marietta was one of many romantic musicals that Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy made together.  The reason I use the term “odd,” is because — judging from this film — they didn’t appear to have much onscreen chemistry.  Whereas MacDonald is personable and relatable, Nelson Eddy seems to hold the audience at a distance.  Watching a film like this, you can’t help but regret that Jeanette MacDonald didn’t have someone like Fred Astaire for a co-star.

As for Naughty Marietta‘s best picture nomination — well, it was a big production and it was also an adaptation of a popular operetta.  At a time when 10 films were nominated every year and the studios pretty much controlled which one of their films was nominated for best picture, Naughty Marietta got a nomination.  However, the Oscar went to Mutiny on the Bounty.

Shattered Politics #14: The Last Hurrah (dir by John Ford)


Down here in Dallas, we have a county commissioner named John Wiley Price.  Even if you don’t live in Texas, you might have heard about him.  A few years ago, Price stormed out of a commissioners meeting while shouting, “All of you are white!  Go the Hell!”  It was a popular YouTube video for a while and attracted all of the usual type of comments that you see online.  It even made the national news.

Nobody down here in Dallas was surprised by Price’s outburst.  To us, that was just John Wiley being John Wiley.  For that matter, nobody was particularly surprised when it was reported that he was being investigated by the FBI.  Everyone always took it for granted that John Wiley Price was taking bribes and receiving kickbacks.  That’s just the way that things are done down here in Dallas, by politicians both white and black.  (Of course, most of the white politicians who do it don’t get publicly investigated by the FBI.)

Now, if you ask the majority of people in Dallas county what they think about John Wiley Price and they’ll probably say something negative.  I’ll admit that I would probably be among them.  But the thing is — John Wiley Price’s constituents love him.  John Wiley Price was first elected to the commissioner’s court before I was even born and, as long as he’s on the ballot, he will be reelected.  Even if Price is convicted on corruption charges, he will still be reelected.

I can still remember the night that it was announced that John Wiley Price was on the verge of being arrested by the FBI.  All across his district, emergency meetings were held in churches and ministers stood behind the pulpit and, while the TV cameras rolled, they called upon everyone to pray for John Wiley Price.  In Price’s district, he’s known as “our man downtown,” the idea being that John Wiley Price is standing up to the rich and white Dallas establishment and, if he makes some money for himself in the process, so be it.  As long as he’s doing right for the people who elected him, who cares how he does it?

And, as much as we may want to judge the John Wiley Prices of the world, the fact that of the matter is that he’s a part of a long American political tradition.  That political tradition is also the driving force behind today’s final entry in Shattered Politics.

First released in 1958 and directed by John Ford, The Last Hurrah tells the story of Frank Skeffington (Spencer Tracy), the mayor of an unnamed city in New England that’s obviously meant to be Boston.  Skeffington is the flamboyant head of a large and powerful (but, as the film makes clear, aging) Irish-American political machine.  He’s preparing to run for his fifth term for mayor, a campaign that he says will be his last.

Whether Frank Skeffington is a good mayor or not depends on who you ask.  The poor and the disenfranchised love him.  Skeffington, after all, is the son of Irish immigrants.  He was born poor.  His mother worked as a maid and was even fired by a member of the wealthy and influential Force family.  They know that Skeffington has had to cut corners and that he’s gone out of his way to reward his cronies but they also know that Skeffington is on their side.  Though the phrase is never used in the film, Skeffington is “their man downtown.”

Meanwhile, the wealthy and the upper class see Frank Skeffington as being a crook, a man who has run a corrupt administration and who uses class warfare to keep the city divided against itself and to make himself and his cronies rich.  Newspaper editor Amos Force (John Carradine) has thrown his considerable influence between Skeffington’s opponent, a wealthy but dull man named Kevin McCluskey.

Reporter Adam Caulfield (Jeffrey Hunter) is in an interesting position.  On the one hand, he is Skeffington’s nephew.  On the other hand, as a journalist, he works for Amos Force.  Skeffington invites Adam to follow and record his final campaign for posterity.

It’s interesting to compare The Last Hurrah to films like The Boss or All The King’s Men.  Whereas those two films came down squarely on the sides of the reformers, The Last Hurrah is firmly on the side of Frank Skeffington.  It presents Skeffington as being a sentimental figure, the type of old-fashioned, populist politician who won office by going out and meeting the people face-to-face and personally giving them a reason to vote for him.  As Skeffington himself points out, he’s the type of politician that will soon be made obsolete by television and modern campaigning.

And it’s impossible not to enjoy The Last Hurrah‘s refusal to pass judgment on its lead character.  It helps, of course, that Spencer Tracy plays Skeffington with a twinkle in his eye while all of his opponents are played by villainous and aristocratic character actors like John Carradine and Basil Rathbone.  Yes, the film says, Skeffington may have been corrupt but at least he wasn’t boring!

Finally, I enjoyed the film because all of the “good” guys were Irish Catholic and all of the bad guys most definitely were not.

So, with that last hurrah, we conclude Shattered Politics for today.  We’ll be back tomorrow, when we’ll start to get into the 1960s.