Hittin’ the Dusty Trail with THE DESPERADOES (Columbia 1943)


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There’s a lot to like about THE DESPERADOES. Not that it’s anything groundbreaking; it’s your standard Western outing with all the standard clichés. you’ve got your two pals, one the sheriff (Randolph Scott ), the other an outlaw (Glenn Ford ). You’ve got your gambling hall dame (Claire Trevor ) and sweet young thing (Evelyn Keyes) vying for the good/bad guy’s attention. You’ve got your goofy comical sidekick (Guinn ‘Big Boy’ Williams). You’ve got your  supposedly respectable heavy (Porter Hall ), a mean heavy (Bernard Nedell), and a heavy who has a change of heart (Edgar Buchanan). What makes this one different is the movie seems to know it’s clichéd, giving a nod and a wink to its audience as it merrily makes its way down that familiar dusty trail.

Based on a novel by pulp writer Max Brand (who also created the Dr. Kildare series), this was one of Columbia’s big releases of the year, and…

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Rally ‘Round The Flag: Errol Flynn in VIRGINIA CITY (Warner Brothers 1940)


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VIRGINIA CITY is a big, sprawling Western, filled with action, humor, and star quality. It’s the kind of movie they used to show around these parts every afternoon at 4 O’clock on DIALING FOR DOLLARS (George Allen was the local host), helping to spark my interest in classic films past, a flame which still burns bright today, two hours of pure entertainment, with square-jawed Errol Flynn going against square-jawed Randolph Scott backed by a Civil War setting and yet another sweepingly epic Max Steiner score.

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We’re told “only the characters are fictional… The story is true” as we watch Union Captain Kerry Bradford (Flynn) and his two buddies Moose and Marblehead (Errol’s frequent co-stars/offscreen drinking compadres Alan Hale Sr and Guinn ‘Big Boy’ Williams) attempt to tunnel their way out of Libby Prison, aka ‘The Devil’s Warehouse’, when they’re caught by commanding Captain Vance Irby (Scott). He tells them Confederate troops…

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


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“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!

 

 

Shattered Politics #3: Hold That Co-Ed (dir by George Marshall)


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“Americans will put up with bad government but they won’t stand for bad sportsmanship!” — A political consultant in Hold That Co-Ed (1938)

Rusty Stevens (George Murphy) is the new head football coach at State University.  (Which state?  We never learn for sure, though the implication is that it’s somewhere near Louisiana.)  From the minute that he arrives, Rusty discovers why State’s football program is so unheralded.  Not only are the majority of the students lazy and unmotivated but the college can’t even afford to buy the players uniforms.  The perpetually nervous Dean Thatcher (Donald Meek) is of no help when it comes to getting the university what it needs.  Even worse, the state’s Governor, Gabby Harrigan (John Barrymore), is running for the senate and he has sworn that he’s going to solve the state’s budget crisis by cutting the football program!

(Cue dramatic music.  Actually, not really.  There’s not a single dramatic moment to be found in Hold that Co-Ed.)

Well, what can Rusty be expected to do, other than lead all the students on a march down to the capitol building where they demand to see Gov. Harrigan.  However, Harrigan is busy giving an interview and he refuses to meet with the students.  Instead, he tells a fawning reporter how he is going to introduce a bill in the U.S. Senate that will guarantee all retired people, “Not one, not two, not three, but a sum of 400 dollars every month!”

After the reporter leaves, his cynical (Is there any other type?) secretary Marjorie (Marjorie Weaver) asks Harrigan how the government will ever be able to afford his plan.  Harrigan says that the government can’t but “isn’t it nice for” retired people “to have something to look forward to?”

(Gov. Harrigan sounds like he could be elected President in 2016.)

Meanwhile, the college students get rowdy in the front office and end up picking up the Governor’s aide, Wilbur (Jack Haley, who a year later would play The Tin Man in The Wizard Of Oz), and passing him around over their heads.  Naturally, this gets the attention of the press and suddenly, the fate of State’s football program is a campaign issue.

Upon discovering that most voters like football, Harrigan declares himself to be State’s biggest supporter and soon starts to play a very prominent role in the football program.  Not only does he arrange for Lizzie Olsen (Joan Davis) to become the only female to play on a college football team (When informed that Lizzie playing is against the rules, Harrigan replies, “I’ll change them!”) but he also pays players to come to State.  (When informed that paying players is against the law, Harrigan replies, “I’ll change the law!”)

It all eventually leads to Rusty romancing Marjorie and a bet between Harrigan and his opponent in the Senate race in which the outcome of the big game will determine who withdraws from the race.

Because of course it does.

First released in 1938, Hold That Co-Ed is one of those strange films that seems like it could only have come out in the 1930s.  Obviously, it’s primarily a college comedy.  Yet, at the same time, it’s also a musical which features Rusty randomly breaking out into song and dancing.  And then, on top of that, it’s a political satire.  (Reportedly, Harrigan was based on Huey Long, who also served as the basis for a far more sinister character in All The King’s Men.)

And, in its way, Hold That Co-Ed is a fun, little time capsule.  If anything, the film’s political satire feels just as relevant today as it probably did when it was first released.  As playing in grand theatrical fashion by John Barrymore, Gabby Harrigan could be any number of pompous, say-whatever-you-have-to-say demagogues.

What makes this film particularly interesting is just how much it’s on Harrigan’s side.  Whereas most political films always feel the need to at least pretend to be on the side of “good” government, Hold that Co-Ed cheerfully celebrates Harrigan’s casual corruption.  In this shrill day and age, there’s something refreshing about seeing a film that passes no judgment.

And speaking of politics, John Barrymore was never elected to political office.  However, the film’s other star, George Murphy, was.  He served in the U.S. Senate from 1965 to 1971.

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Governor Gabby Harrigan (John Barrymore) in Hold That Co-Ed