Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: Lady for A Day (dir by Frank Capra)


The 1933 film, Lady For A Day, tells the story of Apple Annie (May Robson) and Dave the Dude (Warren William), who is perhaps the nicest gangster that you could ever hope to meet.

Of course, when I refer to Dave the Dude as being a gangster, I should make clear that he’s not the type of gangster who guns down his rivals or sells drugs in back alleys.  I mean, I guess he might do that but we certainly don’t see much of evidence of it in the film.  Instead, Dave is just a dapper gambler who travels with a bodyguard named Happy McGuire (Ned Sparks) and whose girlfriend, Missouri Martin (Glenda Farrell), owns a nightclub where, since this is a pre-code film, the acts are slightly racy but not excessively salacious.  The country may be mired in a depression but Dave appears to be doing okay for himself.  Yes, Dave may be a criminal but at least he’s honest about it.

Surviving the Depression has proven to be far more difficult for Apple Annie.  She’s known as Apple Annie because she makes a meager living by selling fruit on the streets of New York City.  Dave is one of her regular customers, as he believes that her apples bring him good luck.  Annie has a daughter named Louise (Jean Parker).  Louise has never met her mother, having spent the majority of her life in a Spanish convict.  Annie regularly steals stationary from a high class hotel so that she can sends letters to Louise.  Not wanting her daughter to be ashamed of her, Annie has always presented herself as being a rich woman named Mrs. E. Worthington Manville.

However, it now appears that Annie’s charade is about to be exposed.  Louise is coming to New York with her fiance, Carlos (Barry Norton) and her prospective father-in-law, Count Romero (Walter Connolly).  Annie knows that when the Louise arrives, she’s going to discover that her mother is not wealthy and that the marriage will probably be called off.  So, led by Dave, Annie’s customers conspire to fool Louise into believing that her mother really is a member of high society.  And if that means that Dave is going to have to not only kidnap (but, let’s be clear, not harm) three nosy reporters and then make a deal with not just the mayor but also the governor to pull of the deception, that’s exactly what he’s going to do.

Though it may be disguised as a sweet and rather simple comedy, Lady For A Day is actually a rather melancholy little film.  Even when Annie and her friends are pretending to be wealthy members of high society, the film is aware that their escape from reality is only temporary.  Eventually, they’ll have to return to the reality of being poor in 1930s America.  At heart, it’s a sad story but May Robson, Warren William, Glenda Farrell, and Guy Kibbee (who plays the pool hustler who is recruited to pretend to be Annie’s husband) all bring such sincerity to their roles that you can’t help but smile while watching it.  Rejected by “polite” society, Annie and her friends have formed a community of outsiders and, throughout the film, the audience is happy that, no matter what, they have each other.

Lady for a Day was the first Frank Capra film to ever be nominated for Best Picture.  Capra was also nominated, for the first time, for best director but he had the misfortune to be competing with Frank Lloyd, who directed Cavalcade.  At the awards ceremony, when host Will Rogers, announced the winner for best director, he said, “Come on up here, Frank!”  An excited Capra ran down to the podium, just to discover that Rogers had actually been talking to Frank Lloyd.  Rogers, seeing what had happened, quickly invited the other nominated director, Little Women‘s George Cukor, to come join Lloyd and Capra at the podium.  Fortunately, one year later, Capra would win the directing Oscar for It Happened One Night.

Cavalcade would go on to win Best Picture but Capra retained so much affection for Lady For A Day that it was the only one of his films that he would subsequently remake.  A Pocketful Of Miracles came out in 1961 and featured Bette Davis in the lead role.  It would be Capra’s final theatrical film.

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?

 

Horror Film Review: Dracula’s Daughter (dir by Lambert Hillyer)


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Did you know that Dracula had a daughter!?

Well, Bram Stoker might disagree but, according to Universal Studios, he did.  Her name was Countess Marya Zaleska and, as played by Gloria Holden, she is the title character in 1936’s Dracula’s Daughter!  Like her father, the Countess was also a vampire.  The film never gets into just how she became a vampire.  Was she born a vampire or, far more disturbingly, was she once a mortal who turned into a vampire by her own father?  The film doesn’t tell us but it does establish early on that she hates being one of the undead.  Unlike her father, she struggles with her urge to drink blood.  When she discovers that Dracula has been staked, she and her servant, Sandor (Irving Pichel), steal the body from the morgue and burn it.  The Countess thinks that this will cure her of her urges.

Sadly, it does no such thing.

So, what’s a reluctant, 20th century vampire to do?  Well, she can always go to a psychiatrist and hope that science can somehow break the curse.  She ends up as a patient of Dr. Jeffrey Garth (Otto Kruger).  By coincidence, Dr. Garth has another famous patient — Dr. Edward Von Helsing.  (That’s right, they changed the “van” to a “von” in Dracula’s Daughter.  Despite the name change, Edward van Sloan returns to play the veteran vampire hunter.)

Von Helsing in on trial, accused of murdering Dracula in the previous film.  Oddly enough, nobody mentions Renfield who, seeing as how we’re told Dracula’s Daughter starts exactly where Dracula left off, would have been found dead in the crypt as well.  Even stranger, no one steps forward to defend Von Helsing.  Dr. Seward, Mina, Johnathan Harker?  Forget about them.  Not a single one is to be found while Von Helsing is accused of murder.

Bastards.

Fortunately, Von Helsing has a defense!  Since Dracula was already dead and had been for 500 years, Von Helsing could not have killed him.  Helping him out with this defense is Dr. Garth…

Meanwhile, the Countess tries to resist the urge to attack every woman that she sees.  She pours her frustrations out into painting.  One night, Sandor brings the Countess a new model, a beautiful young woman named Lil (Nan Grey).  The Countess orders Lil to undress and then, after staring at her, gives into her urges and attacks…

If you’re thinking that there’s a subtext here, that’s because there is.  (In fact, Universal’s tagline for the film was, “Save the women of London from Dracula’s Daughter!”)  Perhaps even more so than in Dracula, Dracula’s Daughter uses vampirism as a metaphor for forbidden sex.  When the Countess stares at Lil and, later, when she prepares to bite the neck of Dr. Garth’s fiancée, she is embodying the hysterical fears of a puritanical society.  When she unsuccessfully seeks a cure for her vampirism, we’re reminded that, in the 1930s, psychiatry classified homosexuality as being a mental illness.  When the Countess struggles with her urge to drink blood, she is a stand-in for everyone who has struggled with their sexuality.

Gloria Holden plays the Countess as being as much a victim as a victimizer.  Whereas Bela Lugosi turned Dracula into the epitome of evil, Gloria Holden gives a performance that is full of ambiguity.  In fact, she at times seems to be so tortured by her vampiric state that, when she finally fully embraces the fact that she’s a vampire, you have to cheer a little.  At least she’s finally being honest with herself!  At least she’s no longer making apologies or allowing society to punish her for being who she is.  Was Countess Zaleska the first reluctant vampire in film history?  I’m not sure but Holden’s performance undoubtedly set the bar by which all other self-loathing vampires should be judged.

Dracula’s Daughter holds up surprisingly well.  It’s definitely one to look for during this Halloween season.

Horror on the Lens: The Undying Monster (dir by John Brahm)


For today’s horror on the lens, we have 1942’s The Undying Monster!

It tells the story of the Hammonds, a noble British family who, for centuries, have been haunted by suicide, murder, and rumors of a curse.  When a mysterious creature attack Oliver Hammond, Scotland Yard dispatches a scientist to figure out what’s going on.  Perhaps not surprisingly, the local villagers insist that it’s the curse.  The scientist, however, is convinced that it has to be something else…

Clocking in at 63 minutes and made on an obviously low budget, The Undying Monster is actually pretty good.  Director John Brahm emphasizes shadows and darkness, taking an almost film noir approach to this tale of gothic horror.  The Undying Monster is a hidden gem of 40s horror and here it is!

Enjoy!

Cleaning Out The DVR #34: The Story of Louis Pasteur (dir by William Dieterle)


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

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OH MY GOD, LOUIS PASTEUR WAS THE DEVIL!

Okay, maybe not but that’s certainly the impression that you might get from looking at the one sheet for the 1936 film, The Story of Louis Pasteur.  Seriously, Louis looks quite sinister!

As the movie starts, that’s certainly the view of the 19th century French medical establishment.  A doctor has been murdered by a grieving husband and it’s believed that the murder was inspired by one of Pasteur’s incendiary flyers.  What does the flyer demand?  That doctors should wash their hands and sterilize their instruments before operating.

That’s right!  Washing your hands before plunging them into a human body was once considered to be a controversial notion.  Pasteur is put on trial, accused of inciting violence with his quackery.  Even though Pasteur is acquitted, he finds himself a pariah.  The autocratic and close-minded Dr. Charbonnet (Fritz Leiber) declares Pasteur to be guilty of great quackery and even the ducks are offended.  That’s how hated Pasteur has become.

But, of course, we the audience know that Pasteur is not a quack.  Not only do we know that he is responsible for discovering the process of pasteurization but he’s also apparently important enough to have his own 1930s Warner Bros. biopic.  And he’s played by Paul Muni, who made a career out of playing great men in 1930s biopics.

The film follows Pasteur as he discovers cures for anthrax and rabies.  Along the way, he yells at a lot of people and he gives a lot of speeches.  This film might as well have been called The Paul Muni Show and … well, his performance is okay.  It’s not great.  If you’ve seen the very first version of Scarface, you know that Paul Muni was capable of giving a far better performance than he gives here.  But then again, as written, all Louis does is bellow against everyone who disagrees with him.  (And cure rabies, we shouldn’t overlook that.)

The Story of Louis Pasteur is one of those old-fashioned biopics that feels a bit creaky and stiff today.  As I watched it, I kept thinking that it felt like something you might across on PBS at three in the morning.  However, 1936 audiences disagreed with me.  The Story of Louis Pasteur did quite well at the box office and was nominated for best picture, though it lost to another biopic, The Great Ziegfeld.