Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: Lost Horizon (dir by Frank Capra)


Long before there was Lost, there was Lost Horizon!

Much like the famous television show, the 1937 film Lost Horizon begins with a group of strangers on an airplane.  They’re people from all walks of life, all with their separate hopes and dreams.  When the plane crashes, they find themselves stranded in an uncharted land and, much like the Lost castaways, they are shocked to discover that they are not alone.  Instead, they’ve found a semi-legendary place that is ruled over by a man who has lived for centuries.  Much as in Lost, some want to return to civilization while others want to remain in their new home.  Both Lost and Lost Horizon even feature a terminally ill woman who starts to recover her health after becoming stranded.

Of course, in Lost, everyone was just flying from Australia to America.  In Lost Horizon, everyone is trying to escape the Chinese revolution.  Among the passengers on the plane: diplomat Robert Conway (Ronald Colman), his irresponsible brother, George (John Howard), a con artist named Henry (Thomas Mitchell), a paleontologist (Edward Everett Horton), and the very ill Gloria (Isabel Jewell).

While Lost featured a plane crash on a tropical island, Lost Horizon features a plane crash in the Himalayas.  In Lost, the sinister Others sent spies to infiltrate the survivors.  In Lost Horizon, the mysterious Chang (H.B. Warner) appears and leads the survivors to a place called Shangri-La.

Shangi-La is a lush and idyllic valley that has somehow flourished in one of the most inhospitable places on Earth.  The happy inhabitants inform the survivors that they never get sick and they never fight.  They’re led by the High Lama (Sam Jaffe), a philosopher who explains that he is several hundred years old.  The valley is full of magic and the Lama tells the survivors that Shangri-La is their new home.

Now, I’ve seen enough horror movies that I spent most of Lost Horizon waiting for the Lama to suddenly reveal that he was a vampire or an alien or something.  Whenever anyone in a movie seems to be too good to be true, that usually means that he’s going to end up killing someone about an hour into the story.  But that didn’t happen in Lost Horizon.  Instead, the Lama is just as wise and benevolent as he claims to be and Shangri-La is as much of a paradise as everyone assumes.  I guess we’re just naturally more cynical in 2018 than people were in 1937.

Of course, the Lama isn’t immortal.  Not even the magic of Shangri-La can prevent the inevitably of death.  The Lama is looking for a successor.  Could one of the survivors be that successor?  Perhaps.  For instance, Robert absolutely loves Shangri-La.  Of course, his brother George is determined to return to the real world.  He has fallen in love with one of the inhabitants of Shagri-La and plans to take her with him, despite the Lama’s warning about trying to leave…

Frank Capra was a huge fan of James Hilton’s book, Lost Horizon, and he spent three years trying to bring it to the big screen.  Based on Capra’s previous box office successes, Colombia’s Harry Cohn gave Capra a budget of $1.25 million to bring his vision of Shangri-La to life.  That may not sound like much today but, at the time, that made Lost Horizon the most expensive movie ever made.  The production was a notoriously difficult one.  (The original actor cast as the elderly Lama was so excited to learn he had been selected that he dropped dead of a heart attack.)  As a result of both its ornate sets and Capra’s perfectionism, the film soon went overbudget.  When Capra finally delivered a first cut, it was over 6 hours long.  Capra eventually managed to edit it down to 210 minutes, just to then have Harry Cohn order another hour taken out of the film.  When Lost Horizon was finally released, it had a running time of 132 minutes.

Seen today, Lost Horizon is definitely an uneven work.  With all the cutting and editing that went on, it’s hard to guess what Capra’s original vision may have been but, in the final version, much more time is devoted to the characters discussing the philosophy of Shangri-La than to the characters themselves.  (It’s always good to see Thomas Mitchell but he really doesn’t get much to do.)  Since you never really feel like you know what any of these characters were like outside of Shangi-La, it’s hard to see how being in Shagri-La has changed them.  You just have to take their word for it.  That said, it’s a visually stunning film.  Capra may have gone over budget creating the look of Shangri-La but it was money well-spent.  If I ever find myself in a magic village, I hope it looks half as nice as the one in Lost Horizon.

Despite all of the drama that went on behind the scenes and a rather anemic box office reception, Lost Horizon was nominated for best picture.  However, it lost to The Life of Emile Zola.

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Winner: You Can’t Take It With You (dir by Frank Capra)


(With the Oscars scheduled to be awarded on March 4th, I have decided to review at least one Oscar-nominated film a day.  These films could be nominees or they could be winners.  They could be from this year’s Oscars or they could be a previous year’s nominee!  We’ll see how things play out.  Today, I take a look at the 1938 best picture winner, You Can’t Take It With You!)

“You can’t take it with you.”

If there’s any one belief that defines the worldview of Martin Vanderhof (Lionel Barrymore), it’s this.  It doesn’t matter how much money you make in your life.  It doesn’t matter how successful you are at business or anything else.  The fact of the matter is that, when your time is up, you won’t be able to take any of that stuff with you.  Instead, Grandpa Vanderhof (as he’s called by his large family) believes that the most important thing to do during your lifetime is to make friends and pursue what you’re truly interested in.

Vanderhof has another belief, one that particularly appealed to be me.  He has never paid income tax.  He doesn’t see the point of giving money to the government when he doesn’t feel that they’ll make good use of it.  When an outraged IRS agent (Charles Lane) stops by Vanderhof’s sprawling house and demands that Vanderhof pay his taxes, Vanderhof refuses.  When the IRS man argues that the income tax is necessary to pay for the Presidency, the Congress, and the Supreme Court, Vanderhof offers to give him five dollars.  “Hell yeah!” I shouted at the TV.  With an attitude like that, Vanderhof should have moved down here to Texas.  We would have elected him governor.

Grandpa Vanderhof is the head of a large and cheerfully eccentric family, all of whom live together under the same roof.  Penny (Spring Byington) writes novels because, years ago, a typewriter was accidentally delivered to the house.  Her husband, Paul (Samuel S. Hinds), has a basement full of fireworks.  Essie (Ann Miller) loves to dance and spends almost the entire movie twirling from room to room.  Her husband, Ed (Dub Taylor), is a xylophone player.

Of course, it’s not just family living in the Vanderhof House.  There’s also Potap Kolenkhov (Mischa Auer), a Russian who is “teaching” Essie how to dance.  There’s Rheba the maid (Lillian Yarbo) and Donald (Eddie Anderson) the handyman.  Actually, the house appears to be open to just about anyone who wants to stay.

And then there’s Penny’s daughter, Alice (Jean Arthur).  Alice is the most “normal” member of the family.  She has just become engaged to Tony Kirby (James Stewart) and she is still trying to figure out how to introduce Tony’s stuffy parents (Edward Arnold and Mary Forbes) to her eccentric family.  What she and Tony don’t know is that Mr. Kirby is currently trying to buy up all the houses that are near a competitor’s factory.  Only one homeowner has refused to sell.  The name of that homeowner?  Martin “Grandpa” Vanderhof.

It all leads, of course, to one chaotic dinner party, one lively night in jail, and a huge fireworks display.  It also leads to true love, which is nice.  Jimmy Stewart and Jean Arthur are even more adorable here than they were in Mr. Smith Goes To Washington.

Based on a Pulitzer-winning play by George S. Kaufman, You Can’t Take It With You was the second comedy to win the Oscar for Best Picture.  The first comedy to win was 1934’s It Happened One Night.  It’s probably not coincidence that both of these films were directed by Frank Capra.

Seen today, You Can’t Take It With You seems a bit slight for an Oscar winner.  Grandpa Vanerhof is a lovable eccentric.  Tony’s father is a stuffy businessman.  Hmmm … I wonder whose philosophy is going to be victorious at the end of the movie?  Still, predictability aside, it’s a delightfully enjoyable film.  While it never quite escape its stage origins, it features wonderful performances from all the usual members of the Capra stock company.  James Stewart and Jean Arthur are a charming couple while Lionel Barrymore gives a performance that is so warmly likable that it’s hard to imagine that, just 9 years later, he would be so perfectly cast as the heartless Mr. Potter in It’s A Wonderful Life.  Of course, my favorite member of the member was Essie, mostly because I also like to dance from room to room.  While it’s hard to justify awarding it Best Picture over The Adventures of Robin Hood and Grand Illusion, You Can’t Take It With You is still a wonderfully fun movie.

It’ll make you smile and laugh.  Who can’t appreciate that?

 

The Fabulous Forties #4: Topper Returns (dir by Roy Del Ruth)


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The fourth film in Mill Creek’s Fabulous Forties box set was 1941’s Topper Returns.  Topper Returns was the third (and final) film to be made about Cosmo Topper (Roland Young).  Cosmo Topper is an upper class and mild-mannered banker who likes to collect automobiles and who is married to the somewhat daffy Clara (Billie Burke).  Cosmo would seem to be a pretty normal guy, except for the fact that he can talk to dead people.  In the first Topper film, a ghost played by Cary Grant helped him to learn how to appreciate life.  In the second Topper film, Topper Takes A Trip, a ghost played by Constance Bennett helped to save Topper and Clara’s marriage.  And in this Topper film, a ghost helps …. well actually, the ghost doesn’t help Topper out at all.  Instead, Topper helps the ghost solve her own murder.

When Gail Richards (Joan Blondell) visits her friend Ann Carrington (Carole Landis) for the weekend, she has no idea just how weird things are going to get.  First off, while Gail and Ann are riding in a taxi to the big and foreboding Carrington mansion, a mysterious man in black shoots out the taxi’s tires.  Though the taxi crashes, both Gail and Ann survive and are able to hitch a ride from Ann’s neighbor, Cosmo Topper.

Once they get to the mansion, Gail meets Ann’s strange family.  Gail loves the mansion and who wouldn’t, seeing as how it is big and dark and full of secret passageways?  However, Gail makes the big mistake of switching beds with Ann.  Later that night, when that man in black sneaks into the bedroom and attempts to stab Ann to death, he ends up killing Gail instead.  When we next see Gail, she’s a ghost who can’t leave our world until her murder has been solved.

No worries!  Gail isn’t that upset about being a ghost.  In fact,  she seems to be rather amused by it all.  She floats right over to Topper’s house and demands that he come over and solve her murder.  After some initial reluctance, Topper agrees.  Topper sneaks into the Carrington mansion and gets to work searching for clues and attempting to solve the crime.  Needless to say, it involves a lot of family secrets, hidden rooms, and dark passageways.

Now, I should admit that I haven’t seen the first two Topper films so I don’t know how Topper Returns compares to them.  The majority of the reviews that I’ve read online seem to indicate that Topper Returns is widely considered to be inferior when compared to the first two films.  It is true, as a lot of other reviewers have pointed out, that Topper himself occasionally seems almost superfluous to the film’s plot.  At no point does he mention that he has a history of talking to ghosts and, if not for the fact that the film’s title is Topper Returns, it would be easy to believe that this film was the first appearance of the character.

But no matter!  I enjoyed Topper Returns, mostly because I’d like to think that if I was ever murdered and came back as a ghost, I would manage to have as much fun doing so as Joan Blondell appears to be having in the role of Gail.  Funny, likable, and quick-witted, Gail isn’t going to let a little thing like being dead keep her from having fun!  I also appreciated that the film has a nicely morbid streak.  Towards the end of the film, there’s a cheerful conversation between Gail and another ghost.  Gail mentions that, as soon as the murder has been solved, she can go to Heaven and “you can go to…”  Gail lets her voice trail off but still make a point of glancing down at the ground.

For a modern viewer, the most problematic part of Topper Returns is the character of Chauffeur, who is Topper’s African-American servant and who doesn’t even get a proper name even though he’s in about 80% of the movie.  On the one hand, Chauffeur is written as a total racist stereotype and, as written, the majority of his lines will absolutely make you cringe.  On the other hand, he’s also played by Eddie Anderson, a talented comedic actor who always played his servants in such a way as to suggest that they were actually a hundred times smarter than the white people they were working for.  Though you may not like the way the character is written, it is possible to appreciate the subversive subtext that Anderson brings to his performance (a subtext which, undoubtedly, was not present in the original script).  Anderson was best known for playing comedian Jack Benny’s sidekick and, at one point during Topper Returns, he announces that he’s sick of ghosts and that he’s going “return to Mr. Benny!”

Taken on its own 1941 terms, Topper Returns was an enjoyable old, dark house movie.  Watch it for Joan Blondell having the time of her afterlife.

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: Five Star Final (dir by Mervyn LeRoy)


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In 1911, a pregnant secretary named Nancy Voorhees (Frances Starr) shot and killed her boss and lover.  It was quite a scandal at the time but, twenty years later, it has largely been forgotten.  Nancy has married a successful businessman named Michael Townsend (H.B. Warner) and is a respected member of society.  Her daughter, Jenny (Marian Marsh), has no idea about Nancy’s past and believes Michael to be her father.  Jenny is now engaged to marry the handsome and rich Phillip Weeks (Anthony Bushnell).

Everything seems to be perfect but you know what they say about perfection.

Bernard Hincliffe (Oscar Apfel) is the publisher of a struggling tabloid newspaper.  He is frustrated by city editor Joseph Randall (Edward G. Robinson) and Randall’s refusal to do whatever it takes to boost circulation.  “Why, he won’t even print pictures of women in their underwear!” one of Hincliffe’s assistants exclaims.  Finally, Hincliffe orders Randall to publish a series of articles that will take a retrospective look at both the scandal and what has happened to those involved in the years since.  At first, the cynical Randall refuses but eventually, he gives in.

He assigns two reporters to crack the story.  One of them, Kitty Carmody (Ona Munson) is first introduced showing off her legs and bragging about how there’s no way that she won’t be hired to work at the newspaper.  (By the way, if anyone ever remakes Five Star Final and needs someone to play Kitty, I am ready and available.)  The other is the incredibly creepy T. Vernon Isopod (Boris Karloff).  Isopod was a divinity student until he was arrested on a “morals charge.”  Now, he pretends to be a minister as a way to fool people into revealing their deepest secrets to him.  Kitty and Isopod dig into the life of Nancy and Michael.  The stories appear on the front page.  Suicide and melodrama follow and Randall is forced to finally take a stand.

Released in 1931, Five Star Final was nominated for best picture but lost to Grand Hotel.  Seen today, Five Star Final is undeniably stagey (it was based on a play) but it’s still a compulsively watchable melodrama, featuring good performances and a lot of memorably snappy 30s dialogue. Five Star Final is one of several films about journalism to have been nominated for best picture.  Most of these films — like All The Presidents Men, The Front Page, and this year’s front-runner, Spotlight — have featured journalists as heroic seekers of the truth.  Five Star Final, on the other hand, plays more like a pre-Code version of Network set at a newspaper.  It’s a deeply angry film and, when Randall finally tells off Hincliffe, it feels like the 30s equivalent of Peter Finch shouting that he’s mad as hell and not going to take it anymore.

Finally, the best part of the film, for me, was Boris Karloff as the sleazy Isopod.  Karloff made Five Star Final right before he played the creature in Frankenstein and it’s interesting to see him play a totally different type of monster here.  If I had to choose which character is scarier, I’m going with T. Vernon Isopod.

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #19: Sunset Boulevard (dir by Billy Wilder)


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“All right, Mr. De Mille, I’m ready for my close-up!”

— Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) in Sunset Boulevard (1950)

First released in 1950 and nominated for Best Picture, Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard is one of the greatest and most influential films of all time.  It’s also something of a difficult film to review because, in order for one to truly understand its greatness, it needs to be seen.  A description simply will not do.  You have to experience, first hand, the performances of Gloria Swanson, William Holden, and Eric Von Stroheim.  You have to see, with your own eyes, the way that Billy Wilder perfectly balances drama, satire, and horror.  I can tell you about how cinematographer John F. Seitz perfectly contrasts the empty glossiness of Hollywood with the dark shadows that fill the ruined mansion of Norma Desmond but, again, it’s something that you owe it to yourself to see.  You need to hear the perfectly quotable dialogue with your own ears.  You need to experience Sunset Boulevard for yourself.

And, while you’re watching it, think about how easily one bad decision could have screwed up the entire film.  Sunset Boulevard is famous for being narrated by a dead man, a screenwriter named Joe (William Holden).  When we first see Joe, he’s floating in a pool.  Originally, however, the film was to open with the dead Joe sitting up in the morgue and telling us his story.  Reportedly, preview audiences laughed at the scene and it was cut out of the film.  And Wilder made the right decision to remove that scene.  Sunset Boulevard may be famous for being a strange film but, when you actually watch it, you realize just how controlled and disciplined Wilder’s direction actually is.  Sunset Boulevard may be weird but it’s never less than plausible.

Joe Gillis is a former newspaper reporter-turned-screenwriter.  He may have started out as an idealist but, as the film begins, he’s now just another Hollywood opportunist.  While trying to hide from a man looking to repossess his car, Joe stumbles upon a dilapidated old mansion.  The owner of the mansion is none other than Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), a silent film star who has sent been forgotten but who still dreams of making a comeback.  (When Joe tells her that she used to be big, Norma famously responds that she’s still big and it’s the pictures that have gotten small.)  Norma has written a script and the opportunistic Joe convinces her to hire him as a script doctor.

Joe moves into the mansion and discovers a world that has never moved past the 1920s.  Norma’s butler and former director, Max (played by Gloria Swanson’s former director Erich Von Stroheim) writes letters that he claims were sent by Norma’s fans.  Norma spends her time watching her old movies.  Occasionally, other forgotten silent screen stars (including Buster Keaton) drop by to play cards.

Encouraged by Joe’s vapid flattery and a mysterious phone call from a Paramount exec, Norma has Max drive her down to the studio.  Greeted by the older employees and ignored by the younger, Norma visits with director Cecil B. DeMille (who plays himself).  In a rather sweet scene, she and DeMille remember their shared past.  DeMille obviously understands that she’s unstable but he treats her with real respect, in contrast to the manipulative Joe.

As for Joe, he’s fallen for a script reader named Betty (Nancy Olson) and wants to escape from being dependent on Norma.  However, Norma has invested too much in her “comeback” to just allow Joe to leave…

Sunset Boulevard is a wonderful mix of film noir and Hollywood satire.  And, though the film may be narrated by Joe and told from his point of view, it’s firmly on Norma’s side.  As easy as it is to be dismissive of Norma’s delusions, she’s right in the end.  It is the pictures that have gotten small and, as she proves towards the end of the film, she is still as capable of making a grand entrance as she ever was.

Joe may have been too stupid to realize it but Norma Desmond never stopped being a star.

Shattered Politics #4: Mr. Smith Goes To Washington (dir by Frank Capra)


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So, when you read that I was going to be reviewing 94 political films here at the Shattered Lens, you probably knew that one of them would have to be the 1939 best picture nominee, Mr. Smith Goes To Washington.

So, we all know that story right?  The senator from an unnamed state dies.  The weak-willed Governor (Guy Kibbee) has to appoint a new senator.  Political boss Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold) demands that the governor appoint one of his cronies.  The state’s reformers demand that the Governor appoint a never-seen crusader named Henry Hill (who, whenever I hear his name, makes me think of Ray Liotta snorting cocaine in Goodfellas).  The Governor’s children demand that he appoint Jefferson Smith (James Stewart, of course!), who is the head of something called the Boy Rangers.  The Governor flips a coin.  The coin lands on its edge but it also lands next to a newspaper story about Jeff Smith.

So, of course, Mr. Smith goes to Washington.

Now, as the movie quickly makes clear, Jeff Smith is immediately out-of-place in Washington.  For one thing, he’s actually excited to be there.  He’s convinced that he’s there to make America a better place.  When a bunch of drunken reporters (led by the great Thomas Mitchell) make Smith look foolish, Smith responds by running around Washington and punching them out.  (That whole sequence probably serves as wish fulfilment for a lot of politicians.)  When his cynical legislative aide Saunders (Jean Arthur) tells him that he’s too naive to survive in Washington, he wins her over with the purity of his idealism.  When his mentor, Senator Paine (Claude Rains), is revealed to be a part of Washington’s corrupt culture, Smith is stunned.  When Taylor tries to destroy his political career, Smith responds by giving the filibuster to end all filibusters.  He’s one man standing up against a culture of corruption and…

And there’s a reason why, 76 years later, aspiring political candidates still attempt to portray themselves as being a real-life, modern Jefferson Smith.

This is one of those films that everyone seems to agree is great and, of course, there’s many reasons to love Mr. Smith Goes To Washington.  There’s the lead performance of Jimmy Stewart, of course.  While this may not be his best performance (I prefer the more layered characterization that he brought to It’s A Wonderful Life and Anatomy of a Murder), it is Stewart at his most likable and, most importantly, he makes you feel Jeff Smith’s pain as he discovers that Washington is not the great place that he originally assumed it to be.  Claude Rains was always great when it came to playing good men gone wrong and he’s perfect as Sen. Paine.  Thomas Mitchell and Jean Arthur are perfectly cast and I always enjoy seeing the bemused smile on the face of Vice President Harry Carey as Smith conducts his filibuster.

But I think the best thing about Mr. Smith Goes To Washington is that it actually makes you believe that there are Jeff Smiths out there who actually could make a difference.  And, until Judd Apatow gets around to remaking the film with Adam Sandler, audiences will continue to believe.