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.

4 Shots From 4 Cary Grant Films: The Awful Truth, The Philadelphia Story, North by Northwest, Charade


4 Shots From 4 Films is just what it says it is, 4 shots from 4 of our favorite films. As opposed to the reviews and recaps that we usually post, 4 Shots From 4 Films lets the visuals do the talking!

Today is the 116th anniversary of one of the greatest stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age, Cary Grant!  And that means that it’s time for….

4 Shots From 4 Cary Grant Films

The Awful Truth (1937, dir by Leo McCarey)

The Philadelphia Story (1940, dir by George Cukor)

North by Northwest (1959, dir by Alfred Hitchcock)

Charade (1963, dir by Stanley Donen)

6 Good Films That Were Not Nominated For Best Picture: The 1930s


1937 Oscar Banquet

Continuing our look at good films that were not nominated for best picture, here are 6 films from the 1930s.

Frankenstein (1931, dir by James Whale)

Henry Frankenstein may have created life and revolutionized the horror genre but his creation got absolutely no love from the Academy.  Starting a very long history of snubbing successful horror films, the Academy failed to nominate Frankenstein for Best Picture.  Not even Boris Karloff got a nomination!  Fortunately, the public recognized what the Academy failed to see and Frankenstein remains a classic film.

Scarface (1932, dir by Howard Hawks)

Gangster films may have been all the rage with the public in the 1930s but the Academy felt different.  Little Caesar, The Public Enemy, and Scarface may have excited audiences but none of them received much love from the Academy.  It was hard to decide which gangster film to specifically use for this post.  In the end, I went with Scarface because of George Raft and his sexy way with a coin.

King Kong (1933, directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack)

King Kong thrilled audiences, impressed critics, made a ton of money, and has gone on to influence just about every monster film made since.  It received zero Oscar nominations.

My Man Godfrey (1936, dir by Gregory La Cava)

My Man Godfrey, one of the best of the screwball comedies of the 1930s, received a total of 6 Oscar nominations.  It was nominated in all four of the acting categories.  It was nominated for best screenplay.  It was nominated for best director.  However, it was not nominated for Best Picture.  (My Man Godfrey is the first and, as of this writing, only film to receive four acting nominations without also receiving a nomination for best picture.)  Best Picture that year would go to The Great Ziegfield, which, like My Man Godfrey, starred William Powell.

Bringing Up Baby (1938, dir by Howard Hawks)

My Man Godfrey was not the only screwball comedy to be ignored by the Academy.  Bringing Up Baby features Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn at their best.  It also features an absolutely adorable leopard.  Somehow, it was not nominated for best picture.

The Women (1939, dir by George Cukor)

The competition was fierce in 1939.  If you want to know why 1939 is considered to be one of the best years in Academy History, just consider the ten films that actually were nominated for best picture: Dark Victory, Gone With The Wind, Goodbye Mr. Chips, Love Affair, Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, Ninotchka, Of Mice and Men, Stagecoach, The Wizard of Oz, and Wuthering Heights.  Amazingly, even with that list of nominees, some equally good film went unnominated.  One of those films was The Women.

Based on Clare Boothe Luce’s play, The Women features a witty script, assured direction from George Cukor, and an amazing talented, all-female ensemble cast.  Though the competition was undeniably fierce in 1939, it’s still a shock that this film received not a single nomination.

Up next, in about an hour or so, the 1940s!

Scarface (1932)

Pre Code Confidential #25: The Stars Are Out for a Delicious DINNER AT EIGHT (MGM 1933)


cracked rear viewer

After the success of 1932’s all-star GRAND HOTEL, MGM studio boss Louis B. Mayer kept his sharp eyes peeled for a follow-up vehicle. The answer came with DINNER AT EIGHT, based on the witty Broadway smash written by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber. Mayer assigned his newest producer (and son-in-law) David O. Selznick, fresh from making hits at RKO, who in turn handed the director’s reigns to another MGM newcomer, George Cukor. Both would have long, prosperous careers there and elsewhere. Frances Marion and Herman Mankiewicz adapted the play to the screen for the studio with “more stars than there are in heaven”, and those stars truly shine in this film (in the interest of fairness, the stars will be presented to you alphabetically):

John Barrymoreas Larry Renault 

The Great Profile plays aging, alcoholic former silent star Larry Renault in a role that surely hit close to home. 

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Cleaning Out The DVR #26: Little Women (dir by George Cukor)


(For those following at home, Lisa is attempting to clean out her DVR by watching and reviewing 38 films by this Friday.  Will she make it?  Keep following the site to find out!)

Little_Women_1933_poster

Based on the beloved classic by Louisa May Alcott, the 1933 film Little Women tells the story of the March sisters.  Growing up in Concord, Massachusetts during the Civil War, they wait — with their mother, Marmee (Spring Byington) — for their father to return from serving as a chaplain in the Union Army.  There are four sisters.  The oldest, Meg (Frances Dee) is a responsible and practical (which is a nice way of saying that someone is boring) seamstress.  The youngest, Beth (Joan Bennett) is beautiful but selfish.  Meanwhile, saintly Beth (Jean Parker) spends her time playing a severely out-of-tune piano.

And then there’s Jo (Katharine Hepburn).  Jo is just a year younger than Meg and … well, basically, she’s Katharine Hepburn.  She’s an independent-minded intellectual who dreams of being a writer and who isn’t interested in conforming to society’s expectations.  She’s head-strong and occasionally, she’s too stubborn for her own good.  But she’s also kind-hearted and loves her sisters, even if she does sometimes disagree with them.  We follow Jo as she rejects one potential suitor, poor earnest Laurie (Douglass Montgomery) and discovers another when she meets the older Prof. Behar (Paul Lukas).  We also watch as a family tragedy brings her and her sisters back together.

In fact, Katharine Hepburn is so perfect as Jo that it throws the rest of this adaptation out of balance.  So totally does Hepburn dominate this film that it’s hard not to feel that the other March sisters end up getting a short shrift.  To a certain extent, it does make sense.  Jo is the lead character and the story is largely told through her point of view.  But, for someone who enjoyed reading Alcott’s novel, it’s hard not to be disappointed.  I mean, Jo is great but some of us may have related more to one of the other March sisters.  Like Beth, for instance.

Another problem with this version of Little Women is that the March sisters are all supposed to be teenagers and yet, they’re played by actresses who were in their 20s.  For instance, 23 year-old Joan Bennett played Amy, who is supposed to be only 12 years old when we first see her.  By casting actresses who were already clearly adults, it makes t difficult for the film to work as a coming-of-age story.

(Personally, my favorite version of Little Women — and the first one that I ever saw — was the 1994 version that starred Winona Ryder as Jo.  Even though Ryder was clearly the film’s star, the other three March sisters were all given time to make an impression as well and, as a result, they felt like a real family.  Speaking as the youngest of four sisters, there was a lot about that movie to which I could relate.  Add to that, Christian Bale made for a far more interesting Laurie than Douglass Montgomery.)

With all that said, it bears repeating that Katharine Hepburn is absolutely perfect as Jo and, if you’re a Hepburn fan (and who isn’t), this is one of her essential films.  It helps that she was directed by George Cukor, the director who was responsible for some of Hepburn’s best performances.  The rest of the movie doesn’t quite live up to Hepburn’s performance but she was such a great talent that it almost doesn’t matter.

Little Women was nominated for best picture.  However, it lost to Cavalcade.

Cleaning Out The DVR: Born Yesterday (dir by George Cukor)


Born_yesterday

After I watched Goodbye, Mr. Chips, I decided to watch one more film that I had recorded off of TCM.  The movie I chose was Born Yesterday.

This 1950 film was directed by George Cukor and stars three Academy Award winners.  The lead actor was William Holden, who would win best actor three years after the release of Born Yesterday.  The villain was played Broderick Crawford, just a year after playing his Oscar-winning role in All The King’s Men.  Finally, the true star of the film was Judy Holliday, recreating her Broadway role of “dumb intelligent blonde” Billie Dawn.  For playing Billie, Holliday would win the award for best actress of the year.

In Born Yesterday, Billie is the girlfriend of Harry Brock (Broderick Crawford).  The crude and not particularly intelligent Harry has made a fortune as a “junkman” and, though the film never comes out and explicitly says so, it is suggested that Harry may have ties to the Mafia.  Harry has come to Washington, convinced that he can buy his way into political power.  Harry’s lawyer (Howard St. John) suggests that Harry should marry Billie, specifically because a wife cannot be compelled to testify against her husband.

However, there’s a problem.  Billie is uneducated and lacks formal manners.  Of course, Harry is even worse but then again, Harry is a rich white guy and, therefore, he doesn’t have to be polite or know what he’s talking about  After Billie embarrasses him during a meeting with a congressman, Harry hires journalist Paul Verrall (William Holden) to teach Billie how to fit in with Washington society.  At first, Paul refuses but, ultimately, he takes the job because he needs the money.

As Paul teaches Billie, it quickly becomes apparent that Billie is not as dumb as everyone assumes.  In fact, she has an insatiable desire to learn.  When Paul takes her on a tour of Washington, Billie is excited to learn the story behind every monument and to take a look at every historical artifact.  (When Paul shows her the bill of rights, Billie immediately reads the 2nd Amendment and gets Paul to explain it to her.  As Paul explained that it meant that citizens had the right to bear arms, my sister walked through the room and said, “You got that right.”)  Judy Holliday perfectly captures Billie’s excitement as, for the first time in her life, she’s actually treated like someone with a brain.

Billie also starts to fall in love with Paul.  After reading one of Paul’s articles, an obviously impressed Billie tells him, “I think it’s the best thing I ever read.  I didn’t understand a word.”  At the same time, Paul starts to fall for Billie.

Meanwhile, Harry is not falling for anyone but himself.  He continues to bribe congressmen but now, Billie not only realizes what Harry is doing but also understands that it’s illegal and goes against everything that the authors of the Constitution envisioned.  After a rather nasty scene in which she is repeatedly slapped by Harry, Billie goes down to the Lincoln Memorial, hears the voice of old Abe himself, and is finally ready to stand up for herself, for Paul, and for the American way of life.

(“When you steal from the government, you steal from yourself, you dumb ox!” she yells at Harry.)

Born Yesterday was based on a stage play and, with the exception of the scenes where Paul and Billie explore D.C., the entire film takes place in Harry’s hotel suite.  The film never quite escapes its theatrical origins.  Broderick Crawford bellows his lines out to the last row and William Holden feels miscast.  (That same year, he gave a far more interesting performance in Sunset Boulevard.)

But ultimately, Born Yesterday is mostly designed to showcase Judy Holliday as Billie Dawn.  When the film first started, I have to admit that I had my doubts about Holliday’s performance.  Her character was so stereotypically ditzy and spoke in such a nasal whine of a voice that I found myself wishing that the film had been made with either Marilyn Monroe or even Jayne Mansfield in the Billie Dawn role.  But, as the film progresses, I started to better appreciate Holliday’s performance.  I started to notice the sadness and the insecurity lurking underneath the surface.  I discovered that there was unexpected nuance to both the character and the performance.  By the time she was running through the National Archives and asking Paul questions about George Washington, she had totally won me over.

Still, Holliday’s victory for best actress does seem a little strange.  After all, to win the Oscar, Holliday defeated All About Eve‘s Bette Davis and Anne Baxter and Sunset Boulevard‘s Gloria Swanson.  Holliday’s performance definitely deserved a nomination but it’s a bit more difficult to argue that it deserved the Oscar.  Of course, Davis and Baxter played two tough and sarcastic divas, neither one of whom depended on a man for their success.  Swanson, meanwhile, played an older woman who ends up murdering her much younger lover.  Billie, meanwhile, is never without a girlfriend and doesn’t murder anyone.  Perhaps it’s understandable that certain Academy voters would be more comfortable with Billie Dawn than they would with Norma Desmond or Margo Channing.

Born Yesterday was also nominated for best picture but it lost to All About Eve.

Lisa Reviews The Oscar Nominees: The Philadelphia Story (dir by George Cukor)


The-Philadelphia-Story-(1940)

There are a few reasons why The Philadelphia Story was one of those films that I had been meaning to watch for a while.  For one thing, The Philadelphia Story was nominated for best picture of 1940 (it lost to Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca) and my ultimate goal is to see and review every single film ever nominated for best picture.  The other reason is that Jimmy Stewart won an Oscar for his performance in The Philadelphia Story and anyone who doesn’t love Jimmy Stewart has obviously never seen Anatomy of a Murder (not to mention It’s a Wonderful Life!).

Well, The Philadelphia Story was on TCM last night and I finally got to see it and what can I say?  I absolutely loved it.  For a 74 year-old, black-and-white comedy, The Philadelphia Story is still a lot of fun.

The Philadelphia Story tells the story of Tracy Lord (Katharine Hepburn), a wealthy socialite who is engaged to marry George Kitteridge (John Howard), a self-described “man of the people,” who is widely respect for both his strong moral character and the fact that — unlike most of Tracy’s friends — he made his fortune as opposed to inheriting it.

It would be tempting to reach into the bag of simplistic blogging clichés and call the Lords a 1940s version of Khardashians but I’m not going to do that because the Lords have a lot more wit and class.  My favorite member of Tracy’s family was Dinah (Virginia Wiedler), her teenage sister who is sarcastic, cheerfully cynical, and has no problem demanding to be the center of attention.  My sister Erin claims that the reason I liked Dinah is because I saw a lot of myself in the character and that’s probably true.  However, I have to say that the great thing about both Tracy and Dinah is that they were both wittier, classier, and better dressers than all of the Khardashians and Jenners combined.

Anyway, the evil editor of Spy Magazine, Sidney Kidd (Henry Daniell), wants to get pictures of Tracy’s very exclusive and very private wedding so he sends two of his reporters in under cover.  Mike Connor (James Stewart) is a frustrated writer who hates having to lower himself to writing for a tabloid.  Photographer Liz (Ruth Hussey) is secretly in love with Mike.  Helping Mike and Liz pass themselves off as friends of the family is Tracy’s ex-husband, C.K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant).

As quickly becomes obvious, Dexter is still in love with Tracy.  However, Tracy divorced Dexter because Dexter was an irresponsible alcoholic and, even though Dexter has changed his ways and she is still obviously attracted to him, Tracy is now engaged to the morally upright but boring and judgmental George.

However, Tracy is not just torn between George and Dexter.  She is attracted to Mike as well, to the extent that Tracy even takes the trouble to read some of Mike’s short stories.  For only the second time in her life, Tracy gets drunk and goes for a midnight swim with Mike.  This, of course, leads to the best scene in The Philadelphia Story: Jimmy Stewart singing Somewhere Over The Rainbow.

Seriously, the scene made my entire night.

The Philadelphia Story is based on a play and the film itself is rather stagey in that way that films from the 40s often appear to be to modern viewers.  But, once you get used to the fact that the movie was made in 1940 and not 2014, it’s a real delight.  The dialogue is funny and it’s delivered by one of the best casts ever.  Playing a role that was specifically written for her, Katherine Hepburn is brilliant as the strong-willed but unapologetically romantic Tracy and Cary Grant is just as charming as you would expect Cary Grant to be.  Best of all, you’ve got Jimmy Stewart singing Somewhere Over the Rainbow and seriously, how can you not love that?