Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: Shane (dir by George Stevens)


“Hey, Shane!  Come back, Shane!”

There’s a few ways in which you can view the 1953 film, Shane.

The more popular view is that it’s a Western about a man named Shane (Alan Ladd) who rides into town and gets a job working for the Starretts, Joe (Van Heflin) and Marian (Jean Arthur).  Joe is a farmer who is determined to hold onto his land, despite the efforts of cattle baron Rufus Ryker (Emile Meyer) to force him off of it.  While we don’t learn much about Shane’s background, it becomes apparent that he’s a man who can fight.  That comes in handy when Ryker brings in a sinister gunfighter named Wilson (Jack Palance).

Another view is that Shane is the story of a man who just wants to settle down but, instead, finds himself continually hounded by an annoying little kid, to the extent that he finally gets involved in a gun battle just so he’ll have an excuse to leave town and get away from the little brat.  Little Joey Starrett (Brandon deWilde) idolizes Shane from the minute that he comes riding up.  When he hears that Shane refused to get into a fight at the local saloon, Joey demands to know whether it was true.  He tells his mom that he loves Shane almost as much as he loves his father.  When Shane does get into a brawl with all of Ryker’s men, Joey stands in the corner and eats candy.  And then, when Shane tries to leave town, Joey runs behind him shouting, “Come back, Shane!  Come back!”

Myself, I think of it as being the story of Frank Torrey (Elisha Cook, Jr.).  Frank is the farmer that’s been nicknamed “Stonewall,” due to his status as a former Confederate and his quick temper.  Stonewall may be smaller than the other farmers but he’s usually the quickest to take offense.  Still, it’s impossible not to like him, largely because he’s played by Elisha Cook, Jr.  When Wilson feels the need to put the farmers in their place, he does so by picking a fight with Torrey.  Standing on a porch in the rain, looking down on the smaller man, Wilson starts to insult both him and the South.  When Torrey finally starts to reach for his gun, Wilson shoots him dead.  While Torrey lies in the mud, Wilson smirks.  It’s a shocking scene, all the more so for being shown in a long shot.  (By forcing those of us in the audience to keep our distance from the shooting, the film makes us feel as powerless as the farmers.)  If you didn’t already hate Wilson and Ryker, you certainly will after this scene.

Shane is a deceptively simple film, one in which many of the details are left open for interpretation.  We never learn anything about Shane’s background.  He’s a man who shows up, tries to make a life for himself, and then leaves.  He’s a marksman and an obviously experienced brawler but, unlike Ryker’s men, he never specifically looks for violence.  In fact, he often seems to avoid it.  Why?  The film doesn’t tell us but there are hints that Shane is haunted by his past.  Shane seems to want a chance to have a life like the Starretts but, once he’s forced to again draw his gun, he knows that possibility no longer exists.

Is Shane in love with Marian Starrett?  It certainly seems so but, again, the film never specifically tells us.  Instead, it all depends on how one interprets the often terse dialogue and the occasional glances that Marian and Shane exchance.  When Shane and Joe get into a fist fight to determine who will face Ryker and Wilson, is Shane really trying to protect Joe or is it that he knows Marian will be heart-broken if her husband is killed?

One thing’s for sure.  Little Joey sure does love Shane.  “Come back, Shane!”  Little Joey follows Shane everywhere, with a wide-eyed look on his face.  To be honest, it didn’t take too long for me to get sick of Little Joey.  Whenever director George Stevens needed a reaction shot, he would cut to Joey looking dumb-founded.  Brandon deWilde was 11 years when he appeared in Shane and he was nominated for an Oscar but he’s actually pretty annoying in the role.  Elisha Cook, Jr. was far more impressive and deserving of a nomination.

I know that many people consider Shane to be a classic.  I thought it was good, as long as the action was focused on the adults.  Alan Ladd plays Shane like a man who is afraid to get too comfortable in any situation and the film works best when it compares his reticence to Wilson’s cocky confidence.  Whenever Joey took center stage, I found myself wanting to cover my ears.

Shane was nominated for Best Picture but lost to From Here To Eternity.

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?

 

Cleaning Out The DVR, Again #4: The Talk of the Town (dir by George Stevens)


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The fourth film on my DVR was the 1942 film, The Talk of the Town.  The Talk of The Town originally aired on TCM on March 20th and I recorded it because it was a best picture nominee.  As some of our regular readers undoubtedly know, it’s long been a goal of mine to watch and review every single film nominated for Oscar’s top prize.

The Talk of The Town is an odd little hybrid of comedy, melodrama, and a civics lecture.  Michael Lightcap (Ronald Colman) is a brilliant attorney and legal professor.  He’s been shortlisted for the Supreme Court and he’s also a widely read author.  In fact, he’s even rented a house for the summer, so that he may work on a book.  The owner of the house — teacher Nora Shelley (Jean Arthur) — will also be acting as his secretary.

As well-read as Prof. Lightcap may be, he’s also rather stuffy and out-of-touch with what’s going on outside of the world of academia.  He knows how the law should work but he has little understanding of how the law actually does work.  Fortunately, he gets a lesson in reality when he arrives at the house and eventually meets the gardener, Joseph (Cary Grant).  Joseph turns out to be surprisingly intelligent and very passionate about politics.  Lightcap and Joseph have many debates about whether or not the American legal system actually protects the working man.

What Lightcap doesn’t know is that Joseph is actually Leopold Dilg.  Leopold is a labor activist, the type who you always see in old documentaries, standing on a street corner and preaching about unions.  Leopold is also a fugitive.  He was accused of setting fire to a mill, a fire that apparently led to the death of the foreman.  Despite the fact that he loudly proclaimed his innocence, Leopold was arrested and prosecutors announced that they would seek the death penalty.  Convinced that he would never get a fair trial, Leopold escaped from jail and fled to Nora’s house.

Nora and Leopold went to school together.  They love each other, even though circumstances — mostly his political activism — conspired to keep them apart.  When Lightcap moves into the house, Nora and Leopold’s attorney, Sam (Edgar Buchanan), hope that they can convince him to take on Leopold’s case.  However, they also have to not only convince Leopold to reveal his true identity but also convince Lightcap to put his supreme court appointment at risk by defending a politically unpopular defendant.  Their solution is to trick Lightcap into falling in love with Nora and then convince him to take on the case for her.

However, Nora soons finds herself falling in love with Lightcap for real.  Who will she choose in the end?  Cary Grant or Ronald Colman?  Today, it seems like a pretty easy decision but apparently, in 1942, Columbia Pictures actually shot two different endings for the movie.

The Talk of The Town is an odd little movie.  For the most part, it’s a drama.  But it also has plenty of comedic elements, mostly dealing with the attempts to keep Leopold’s identity a secret.  In the end, it’s a little bit too preachy to really work as either a drama or a comedy.  That said, I still liked The Talk Of The Town because it made a strong case for the importance of due process, which is a concept that a lot of people take for granted.

(At the same time, The Talk of the Town was made in 1942 so you never have any doubt that Lightcap’s belief in the American legal system will eventually be vindicated.  With America having just entered World War II, 1942 was not a time for cynicism.  If Talk of the Town has been made in the 30s, it probably would have been a very different movie.)

Probably the best thing about Talk of the Town is the cast.  It may not be a great film but, when you’ve got Cary Grant and Jean Arthur in a scene together, it almost doesn’t matter.

The Talk of the Town was nominated for best picture but it lost to Mrs. Miniver.

Cleaning Out The DVR #7: The More The Merrier (dir by George Stevens)


The_More_the_Merrier_-_poster

After I finished with Watch On The Rhine, I decided to watch another film from 1943.  Like Watch On The Rhine, The More The Merrier is a film about life during wartime and it takes place in Washington, D.C.  However, that’s all that they have in common.  Whereas Watch On The Rhine was a serious and somber affair, The More The Merrier is thoroughly delightful little comedy.

The More The Merrier opens with a retired millionaire named Benjamin Dingle (Charles Coburn) arriving in Washington D.C.  He’s been asked to serve as an adviser for a commission that has been tasked with solving America’s housing shortage.  (This was apparently a very real concern during World War II.)  However, as soon as Dingle arrives, he finds directly effected by the problem that he’s supposed to be solving.  His hotel room won’t be available for two days and he has no where to stay.  After a quick look through the newspaper, Ben finds an ad for a roommate.

When he arrives at the apartment, he discovers a long line of men waiting outside.  They’re all in the same situation as him and are hoping that Connie Milligan (Jean Arthur) will select him for her roommate.  However, Connie picks Ben, largely because he’s old and rich and she won’t have to worry about him hitting on her on like most guys nor does she have to worry about him borrowing her clothes or getting jealous of her, like she would have to with a female roommate.  Connie is engaged to a boring but well-paid bureaucrat named Charles Pendergrast (Richard Gaines).  She doesn’t really love Pendergrast (and he has an annoying habit of shushing her) but, after growing up poor because her mother married for love, Connie is determined to not to make the same mistake.

Ben and Connie struggle, at first, to adjust to each other’s habits.  Connie keeps to an exact schedule and claims to not have any use for frivolity.  Ben is the exact opposite.  The early scenes of them trying (and, of course, failing) to stay out of each other’s way are hilarious, with both Coburn and Arthur giving brilliant comedic performances.  (I’m jealous of how wonderfully Jean Arthur could express exasperation.)  Connie’s apartment is already small and it gets even smaller once she sublets half of it to Benjamin Dingle.

However, things are about to get even more crowded.  One day, while out exploring Washington, Ben runs into Joe Carter (Joel McCrea), a sergeant who has a few days before he’s scheduled to be shipped overseas and who has no place to stay.  Generously, Ben agrees to sublet half of his half of the apartment to Joe.  Of course, Ben does this without telling Connie.

When, after another hilarious and artfully done sequence of the three new roommates wandering around the apartment and just barely missing each other, Connie discovers what Ben has done, she orders both Ben and Joe to leave the apartment.  Ben agrees to do so, if she gives him back his security deposit.  Unfortunately, Connie already spent that money on a hat…

So, they’re stuck together.  Connie is attracted to Joe and Joe to Connie but Connie is also determined to marry Pendergrast.  (When Joe scornfully says that he bets Pendergrast combs his hair “every hour on the hour,” Connie snaps back, “Mr. Pendergrast has no hair!”)  Fortunately, Ben — being older and wiser — can see that Joe and Connie are perfect for each other and he starts doing everything he can to bring the two together.

As Ben says more than once, “Damn the torpedoes!  Full speed ahead!”

Jean Arthur is one of my favorite actresses of Hollywood’s Golden Age.  She had this perfect “no bullshit” attitude, mixed with an unexpected vulnerability.  In The More The Merrier, she’s just as credible when she’s ordering Ben and Joe to leave as when she’s breaking into tears after she catches Ben reading her diary.  In the role of Ben, Charles Coburn is warm, kind, and wonderfully eccentric.  (When Joe asks him what does for a living, Ben cheerfully replies, “I’m a well-to-do retired millionaire.  How ’bout you?”)  And then you have Joel McCrea, in the role of the “cute but dumb” Joe Carter.  He’s not really that dumb but he certainly is cute.  Wisely, McCrea never tries to be funny.  Instead, he gets most of his laughs just by reacting to all of the craziness going on around him.

Briskly directed by George Stevens, The More The Merrier features a snappy script from Frank Ross, who was married to Jean Arthur.  It’s full of hilarious lines but, at the same time, there’s an undercurrent of melancholy to it as well.  Hanging, like a shadow over all of the comedy and the romance, is the fact that Joe is soon going to be shipped overseas.  Even while you laugh, you’re very aware that there’s a chance he might not be coming back.  That reality brings an unexpected depth to the film’s otherwise cheerful love story.

The More The Merrier was nominated for best picture but it lost to Casablanca.  However, Charles Coburn did win the Oscar for best supporting actor.

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


mr-smith-goes-to-washington

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.