Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: The Barretts of Wimpole Street (dir by Sidney Franklin)


The 1934 best picture nominee, The Barretts of Wimpole Street, takes place largely in one room.

That room is a bedroom located in a mansion that sits on Wimpole Street in London.  The room is occupied by Elizabeth (Norma Shearer), a sickly woman who has spent years in bed and who is barely able to walk.  She is the eldest of 11 siblings and all of them live in the house together, under the watchful eye of their tyrannical father, Edward (Charles Laughton).  Edward has forbidden any of his children from ever leaving home.  None of them are to get married.  In fact, none of them are to have even a relationship.  Even when he hears that a trip to Italy could actually improve Elizabeth’s health, he sternly forbids her from leaving.  Edward is obsessed with sin.  As he explains it, he was once a sinner himself.  In fact, he was such a sinner that he sometimes lost control of himself.  Now that he’s a father and a widower, Edward deals with his less savory impulses through constant prayer and he’s determined to never allow his children to fall into sin as well.

Despite her father’s attempts to keep her isolated from the outisde world, Elizabeth has managed to find an escape.  She’s a poet and her words have won her admirers from around world.  One of those admirers is another poet, a young man named Robert (Fredric March), who frequently writes her letters about his love of her work.  One day, in the middle of a snowfall, Robert shows up at the house on Wimpole Street and requests to see Elizabeth.  Robert tells her that her poetry has not only inspired him but it has also caused him to fall in love with her.  When Elizabeth explains that she is dying and cannot leave the bedroom, Robert says that she’s going to live forever.  After Robert leaves, Elizabeth manages to stand and, for the first time in years, walks over to the window to watch as he departs.

Sounds like a perfect love story, right?  Well, there’s a problem.  Edward has absolutely no intention of allowing Elizabeth to leave the house, regardless of how much her health improves after her initial meeting with Robert.  He is determined to keep her in that bedroom and, this being a pre-code film, it becomes obvious that there’s more to Edward’s behavior than just being an overprotective father.  Though the dialogue may be euphemistic, Edward’s incestuous desires are plain to see.  It’s there every time that he leers as his daughters while also saying that he’ll be sure to pray for their souls.  It’s there in the film’s final moments, when Edward makes a request that’s so dark and cruel that it will take even a modern audience by surprise.  Charles Laughton played a lot of villains over the course of his long career but Edward is perhaps the most monstrous.

As a film, The Barretts of Wimpole Street is undeniably stagy and it’s a bit overlong as well.  Charles Laughton so dominates the film with menace that he threatens to overshadow not just March and Shearer but also Maureen O’Sullivan, who plays one of Elizabeth’s sisters.  But no matter!  I absolutely love The Barretts of Wimpole Street.  The house is gorgeous, the plot is wonderfully melodramatic, and Shearer and March both have a wonderful chemistry.  You can debate whether or not March and Shearer are credible as poets but, ultimately, what matters more is that they are totally believable as soul mates.  From the minute they first meet, you simply buy them as a couple that is meant to be.  Robert’s earnestness is perfectly matched with Elizabeth’s growing strength and it’s impossible not to cheer at least a little when Elizabeth first manages to walk down a staircase without collapsing.

Of course, as any student of literature should be aware, Robert is Robert Browning and Elizabeth is Elizabeth Barrett.  In real life, Robert Browning did arrange a meeting with Elizabeth after having read her poetry and, as well, it’s been said that Elizabeth’s father did not approve of her relationship with Robert.  It’s also apparently true that Edward actually did disinherit any of his children who married.  As for the other details of Edward’s depiction in The Barretts of Wimpole Street, it’s unknown how close to the truth Laughton’s performance may have been.

The Barretts of Wimpole Street is a wonderful historical romance.  It was Oscar-nominated for best picture, though it lost to a far different romance, It Happened One Night.

Lisa Watches An Oscar Winner: The Best Years Of Our Lives (dir by William Wyler)


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I’ve seen The Best Years Of Our Lives on TCM a few times.  There’s a part of me that always wishes that this film was dull, in the way that many best picture winners can be when watched through modern eyes, or in any other way overrated.  The Best Years Of Our Lives won the Academy Award for Best Picture of 1946 and in doing so, it defeated one of my favorite films of all time, It’s A Wonderful Life.  A part of me would love to be able to say that this was one of the greatest injustices of cinematic history but, honestly, I can’t.    The Best Years Of Our Lives is an excellent film, one that remains more than worthy of every award that it won.

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The film deals with veterans returning home from World War II and struggling to adjust to life in peacetime.  That’s a topic that’s as relevant today as it was back in 1946.  If there’s anything that remains consistent about human history it’s that there is always a war being fought somewhere and the man and women who fight those wars are often forgotten and abandoned after the final shot has been fired.  The returning veterans in The Best Years Of Our Lives deal with the same issues that our soldiers have to deal with today as they return from serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Best Years Of Our Lives follows three veterans as they return home to Boone City, Ohio.  As they try to adjust to civilian life, their loved ones struggle to adjust to them.

 Teresa Wright and Dana Andrews

Teresa Wright and Dana Andrews

Fred Derry (played by Dana Andrews) is a self-described former soda jerk.  (To be honest, I’m really not sure what a soda jerk was but it doesn’t sound like a very fun job.)  During the war, he was a captain in the air force.  He returns home with several decorations and few marketable skills.  During the war, he was good at bombing cities but there’s not much that can be done with that skill during peacetime.  Nearly penniless, Fred takes a job selling perfume at a department store.  He spends his days trying to control her temper and not give into his frustration.  At night, he’s haunted by nightmares of combat.

Teresa Wright and Virginia Mayo

Teresa Wright and Virginia Mayo

Meanwhile, his wife, Marie (Virginia Mayo), finds herself resenting the fact that Fred has come home.  She married him while he was in flight training and, as quickly becomes obvious, she’s less enamored of Fred now that he’s just another civilian with a low-paying job.  (She continually begs him to wear the uniform that he can’t wait to take off.)  The Best Years Of Our Lives is a film full of great performances but Virginia Mayo really stands out.  I have to admit that, whenever I watch this film, I find myself envious of her ability to both snarl and smile at the same time.

Teresa Wright, Myrna Loy, Fredric March, and Michael Hall

Teresa Wright, Myrna Loy, Fredric March, and Michael Hall

Al Stephenson (Fredric March) was a bank loan officer who served as an infantry sergeant.  (It’s interesting to note that the educated and successful Al was outranked by Fred during the war.)  Al returns home to his loving wife, Milly (Myrna Loy), his daughter Peggy (the beautiful Teresa Wright), and his son, Rob (Michael Hall).  At first, Al struggles to reconnect with his family and he deals with the tension by drinking too much.  Rehired by the bank, he approves a risky loan to a fellow veteran.  After the bank president (Ray Collins, a.k.a. Boss Jim Gettys from Citizen Kane) admonishes Al, Al gives a speech about what America owes to its returning veterans.

Meanwhile, Peggy has fallen in love with Fred.  When Milly and Al remind her that Fred is (unhappily) married, Peggy announces, “I am going to break that marriage up!”  It’s a wonderful line, brilliantly delivered by the great Teresa Wright.

Harold Russell

Harold Russell

Marriage is also on the mind of Homer Parrish (Harold Russell).  A former high school quarterback, Homer was planning on marrying Wilma (Cathy O’Donnell) as soon as he finished serving in the Navy.  During the war, he lost both his hands and now he’s returned home with metal hooks.  Homer locks himself away from the world.  When he finally does talk to Wilma, it’s to show her how difficult life with him will be.  Wilma doesn’t care but Homer does.

Harold Russell won an Academy Award for his performance here.  Russell was not a professional actor.  Instead he was a veteran and a real-life amputee.  Watching his performance today, it’s obvious that Russell was not an experienced actor but the natural charm that enchanted the Academy still shines through.

Harold Russell, Dana Andrews, and Fredric March

Harold Russell, Dana Andrews, and Fredric March

It’s been nearly 70 years since The Best Years Of Our Lives was first released but it remains a powerfully honest and surprisingly dark film.  All three of the veterans deal with very real issues and, somewhat surprisingly, the film refuses to provide any of them with the type of conventional happy ending that we tend to take for granted when it comes to movies made before 1967.  As the film concludes, Fred is still struggling financially.  Homer is still adjusting to life as an amputee.  Al is still drinking.   All three have a long road ahead of them but they’re all making progress.  None of them will ever be the same as they were before the war but, at the same time, they’re all working on making new lives for themselves.  They haven’t given up.  They haven’t surrendered to despair and, the film suggests, that is triumph enough.

The Best Years Of Our Lives is a great film and a great best picture winner.  It’s just a shame that it had to be released the same year as It’s A Wonderful Life.

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #9: A Star is Born (dir by William Wellman)


A_Star_Is_Born_1937_poster

“Hello everybody.  This is Mrs. Norman Maine.”

— Mrs. Norman Maine (Janet Gaynor) in A Star Is Born (1937)

When I first saw the red neon of the opening credits of the 1937 best picture nominee, A Star Is Born, I thought to myself, “This is a real movie movie.”  And I was so impressed by that thought that I even jotted it down in my review notes and now, looking down at my notes, I’m struggling to figure out how to explain just what exactly it was that I meant.

I think that what I was trying to say, in my own way, was that, when we think of a typical big budget Hollywood romance, A Star Is Born is the type of film of which we tend to think.  It’s a big, glossy film that is shot in vibrant technicolor and which features a self-sacrificing woman (Esther Blodgett, played by Janet Gaynor) falling in love with a self-destructive but ultimately noble man (Norman Maine, played by Fredric March).  It’s a film that has romance, humor, and tragedy.  It’s a film that’s designed to make you laugh, cry, and ultimately fall in love.  It’s pure melodrama, the type of film that would probably be made for Lifetime today.  (And, in fact, it has been remade for Lifetime a number of times, just never under the title A Star Is Born.)

It’s a familiar story that, if I may indulge in a cliché, as old as the movies.  Esther is a girl who lives on a farm in North Dakota and she wants to be a star, despite being told by her aunt that she need to start concentrating on finding a man and having children.  Esther’s grandmother (Fay Robson) tells Eleanor to pursue her dreams and loans her some money to take with her to Hollywood.

With stars in her eyes, Esther goes out to California and deals with rejection after rejection.  (She does, however, manage to rent out an apartment.  The weekly rent is $6.00.)  Esther does befriend an assistant director (Andy Devine) who gets Esther a job as a waitress at a party.  As Esther serves the food, she imitates everyone from Katharine Hepburn to Mae West, all in an attempt to get noticed.

And, amazingly enough, it works!  She meets film star, Norman Maine.  With Norman’s help, she gets her first screen test and, after her name is changed to Vicki Lester, Esther is put under contract to a studio.  She and Norman also fall in love and soon end up married.  However, while Vicki Lester is rising to stardom, Norman is descending into irrelevance.  He’s an alcoholic who has managed to alienate almost everyone in Hollywood.  When Vicki wins her first award, Norman shows up at the ceremony drunk and destroys what little is left of his career.

Will Vicki be able to save Norman from his demons?  And will she be able to do so without destroying her own career?

Well, you probably already know the answer.  A Star Is Born is one of those stories that everyone seems to know, regardless of whether they’ve actually seen the film or not.  (And even if they haven’t seen the 1937 version, chances are that they’ve seen one of the many remakes or ripoffs.)  The original Star Is Born is an undeniably familiar and old-fashioned movie but it holds up as a celebration of both old Hollywood glamour and a heartfelt romance.

And it’s in the public domain!

Watch the original A Star is Born below!

 

 

Embracing The Melodrama #5: Merrily We Go To Hell (dir by Dorothy Arzner)


Merrily We Go To Hel

We conclude today’s melodramatic embrace by taking a look at another Pre-Code film.  Released in 1932, Merrily We Go To Hell takes a look at one of the institutions that the Production Code was meant to save: marriage.  It also takes a look at alcoholism, overprotective fathers, and what goes on backstage during a Broadway production.  In many ways, this movie is a comedy but, at heart, it’s a melodrama through and through.

Everyone should have a catchphrase.  Myself, for example, I tend to say “Stay Supple” a lot.  It drives some people crazy but I like the way it sounds and I also happen to think that it’s a pretty good expression of how I view life.  Alcoholic newspaper reporter Jerry Corbett (Fredric March) has a catch phrase of his own.  Every time he takes a drink, he toasts with, “Merrily, we go to Hell.”  Jerry has been haunted ever since he was dumped by his beautiful girlfriend, actress Claire Hempstead (Adrienne Ames), and he now spends all of his time drinking and dreaming of being a playwright.

However, things start to look up for Jerry when, at one of those decadent rooftop parties that always seem to show up in pre-Code films, he meets an innocent young heiress named Joan (Sylvia Sidney).  Jerry and Joan fall in love and, despite the reservations of Joan’s disapproving father (George Irving), they marry.  With Joan’s help, Jerry stops drinking and writes his play.  It’s called “When Women Say No” and despite the creepy and misogynistic title, it becomes a huge success.   Oh, did I say despite?  I meant to say because of.

(For those you sitting at home, I am currently dramatically rolling my eyes and shaking my head.)

However, there’s a problem.  Guess who is cast as the play’s leading lady?  That’s right — Claire!  Jerry may love Joan but he’s obsessed with Claire.  Having again fallen under her spell, Jerry is soon drinking again and neglecting his wife.  However — and this is what distinguishes Merrily We Go To Hell from even most films made today — Joan doesn’t just silently accept Jerry’s infidelity or sit around obsessing on how she can get her husband back.  Instead, she decides that if he can do it, she can do it.  And who can blame her when Charlie Baxter is around?  Not only is Charlie suave and handsome but he’s played by none other than Cary Grant!

Merrily we go to Hell indeed!

Merrily We Go To Hell is available as a part of the Pre-Code Hollywood Collection and I think it makes for a good double feature with The Cheat.  (The people who put together the Pre-Code Hollywood Collection obviously agreed with me because they put both films on the same disc.)  While Merrily We Go To Hell is, at heart, a very serious movie, it begins with a deceptively light touch.  Fredric March was such a charming actor and seems to be having so much fun playing Jerry as a charming and well-meaning fuckup, that you actually are surprised when the film reveals just how desperate a character he really is.  This is the epitome of the type of film that makes you laugh at the start just so it can make you cry at the end.

Incidentally, Merrily We Go To Hell was directed by Dorothy Arzner, one of the only female directors to work in Hollywood during the studio era.  As a director, she understands that, at heart, Merrily We Go To Hell is Joan’s story.  Whereas a male director would probably have focused almost exclusively on Jerry and used Joan as a mere plot device, Arzner is more interested in exploring why Joan marries Jerry in the first place and how she deals with the inevitable discovery that there’s actually less to Jerry than first met the eye.  It’s that perspective that ultimately elevates Merrily We Go To Hell above the level of being a mere domestic dramedy and makes it worth watching 82 years after it was first released.

Sylvia Sidney

44 Days Of Paranoia #20: Seven Days In May (dir by John Frankenheimer)


For today’s entry in the 44 Days of Paranoia, let’s take a look at the 1964 political thriller, Seven Days In May.

Directed by John Frankenheimer (who also directed the conspiracy classic, The Manchurian Candidate), Seven Days In May opens with unpopular President Jordan Lyman (Fredric March) on the verge of signing a treaty with the Russians.  The chairman of the joint chiefs-of-staff, Gen. James Scott (Burt Lancaster), is opposed to the treaty and feels that Lyman’s actions will lead to the collapse of the U.S.  When Scott’s aide, Jiggs Casey (Kirk Douglas), thinks that he’s come across evidence that Scott is planning a military coup, he takes his suspicions to the White House.  Working with an alcoholic Senator (Edmond O’Brien) and a cynical political aide (Martin Balsam), the President launches his own investigation into Scott’s activities.

When it was first released, Seven Days In May was very successful with both critics and audiences.  Edmond O’Brien even received an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor.  When viewed today, however, Seven Days In May feels rather quaint.  A good deal of the film’s suspense was meant to be generated by the question of whether or not Gen. Scott is actually planning a coup.  However, for the modern viewer, it’s really not a question worth asking.  For us, it’s easy to watch this film and shout, “Of course he’s planning on overthrowing the government!  He’s the most obviously villainous character in the entire film!”  The idea of a military conspiracy to overthrow the U.S. government was perhaps shocking back in 1964 but today, we take the existence of such conspiracies for granted.

Seven Days In May is definitely a product of its time.  Unlike John Frankenheimer’s other well-known conspiracy film, The Manchurian Candidate, there’s no sly undercurrent of satire or subversion running through Seven Days In May.  Instead, Seven Days In May epitomizes everything that we think of when we think about the early 60s.  The film’s politics are liberal but not radically so.  The President is such an honorable leader that he won’t resort to the politics of personal destruction and reveal that Scott has a mistress.  Casey explains that he disagrees with the President’s politics but that he is bound by duty to reveal Gen. Scott’s subversion.  Indeed, by the end of the film, it’s obvious that we’re meant to condemn Scott not because he might overthrow the President but because he would subvert the democratic process to do so.  Seven Days In May is a film that tells viewers to support and respect their elected leaders, whether they be good or evil and whether they’re played by Fredric March or Burt Lancaster.

When I listened to Casey explain why he was informing on a man who he claimed to admire and agree with, I was reminded of some of the recent political debates that we’ve had deal with her in America.  All of those debates can pretty much be summed up by whether we, as citizens, are obligated to support a law even if we personally don’t agree with it or to respect a leader even if we do not agree with him.  The answer, according to Seven Days In May, would appear to be yes.

While Seven Days In May is often a bit too ponderous for its own good, it’s still a well-made and watchable film.  If you’re a history nerd like me, you’ll enjoy the film as a portrait of its time.  John Frankenheimer directs as if the movie is a film noir and the film’s shadowy black-and-white cinematography looks great.  Finally, if you’re a fan of the old school movie stars, how can you not enjoy a film that features Kirk Douglas, Fredric March, and Burt Lancaster?

Other Entries In The 44 Days of Paranoia 

  1. Clonus
  2. Executive Action
  3. Winter Kills
  4. Interview With The Assassin
  5. The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald
  6. JFK
  7. Beyond The Doors
  8. Three Days of the Condor
  9. They Saved Hitler’s Brain
  10. The Intruder
  11. Police, Adjective
  12. Burn After Reading
  13. Quiz Show
  14. Flying Blind
  15. God Told Me To
  16. Wag the Dog
  17. Cheaters
  18. Scream and Scream Again
  19. Capricorn One

Film Review: Les Miserables (dir. by Richard Boleslawski)


Every year, I set a few goals for myself.  In 2012, for instance, my goal was to stop worrying so much about achieving unrealistic goals.  For 2013, my goal is to post a film review a day, alternating between reviews of films that have been nominated for Academy Awards and films that most assuredly were not.

With that in mind, I’d like to get things started by taking a look at Les Miserables.  Now, I’m not talking about the Tom Hooper-directed musical extravaganza that’s currently playing at a theater near you.  Instead, I’m talking about the Les Miserables that was directed by Richard Boleslawski and which was nominated for best picture of 1935.  (It lost to another literary adaptation that featured Charles Laughton as a classic villain, Mutiny On The Bounty.)  As opposed to Hooper’s film, this version of Les Miserables is not based on a Broadway musical.  Instead, it’s a condensed version of Victor Hugo’s original novel.

As opposed to the novel, Les Miserables takes a straight-forward chronological approach to telling the story of Jean Valjean.  We start with Valjean (played here by Fredric March) being sentenced to prison and then follow him through his experiences in prison.  We watch as the embittered Valjean first meets the kindly bishop (played here by Cedric Hardwicke) who turns his life around.  Valjean becomes both a mayor and the protector of the young Cosette, who eventually ends up falling in love with the young revolutionary Marius.  Thoughout all of this, Valjean is pursued by the obsessive Inspector Javert (Charles Laughton).

As a film, Les Miserables is more faithful to the spirit of Hugo’s original novel than to the exact details.  For instance, in this film, Javert first encounters Valjean while the latter is in prison.  While this is clearly different from the novel, it works perfectly from a cinematic point of view.  As well, the film jettisons many of the book’s longer digressions and instead, it focuses on the characters of Valjean and Javert.  As such, characters like Cosette and Marius are only important (and considered) in how they relate to the two main characters.  Fortunately, Valjean and Javert are played by two of the best actors to ever appear on screen.

While Charles Laughton, in the role of Javert, gets to the give the showier performance, the film is rightfully dominated by Fredric March’s quietly determined performance as Jean Valjean.  Valjean is a truly complex character who, over the course of the film, goes from being bitter and angry to kindly and strong and March perfectly captures each side of Valjean’s personality.  As an actor, Fredric March is not as well-remembered as some of his contemporaries (like Charles Laughton, for instance).  However, in this film, Fredric March proves himself to be the perfect Jean Valjean.  He is the Jean Valjean that all other Valjeans must be judged against.

While director Richard Boleslaswki is hardly a household name (I have to admit that I had never heard of him before I saw this film), his work on Les Miserables is impressive.  Interestingly, he directs the film almost as if it was a combination of a Warner Bros. gangster film and a Universal monster film.  (It’s easy to imagine some alternative universe where his version of Les Miserables starred Edward G. Robinson as Valjean and Boris Karloff as Javert.)  He’s at his strongest is the dream-like sequence where Valjean carries the wounded Marius through the sewers of Paris.

While Les Miserables may not be a perfect film, it is the perfect introduction to Hugo’s novel. Incidentally, the most faithful cinematic adaptation of Les Miserables actually came out a year before the Boleslawski version.  It was a French film that had a running time of five hours.  It occasionally turns up on TCM and, like the 1935 version, it’s well-worth watching.