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


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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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Holidays Scenes That I Love: From It’s A Wonderful Life, George Bailey Wishes Bedford Falls A Merry Christmas


I love the pure joy of this scene.  Not even old Mr. Potter can bring George down.

Of course, for that matter, George can’t bring Mr. Potter down either.  It’s a Merry Christmas all around!

(Be sure to check out Case’s alternative reading about life under Mr. Potter, It’s A Wonderful, Pottersville!)

From 1939, it’s Lionel Barrymore and Orson Welles in A Christmas Carol!


This radio production of A Christmas Carol was originally broadcast on Christmas Eve, 1939.  It’s not really Christmas unless you experience at least one version of Charles Dickens’s classic holiday tale and this version features not only Orson Welles providing the narration but Lionel Barrymore playing the role of Scrooge!

Other members of the cast included such well-known Welles’s associates as  Everett Sloane (Marley’s ghost), Frank Readick (Bob Cratchit), Erskine Sanford (Fezziwig) and George Coulouris (Ghost of Christmas Present).  Two years after this broadcast, Welles, Sloane, Sanford, and Coulouris would all appear in Citizen Kane.

For your listening pleasure, we offer up this journey to the past….

Bats in the Belfry: MARK OF THE VAMPIRE (MGM 1935)


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Tod Browning’s 1931 DRACULA is a masterpiece of terror, the film that launched the Golden Age of Horror and made Bela Lugosi a star. Four years later, Bela and Browning teamed again for MARK OF THE VAMPIRE, loaded with horrific atmosphere but staked through the heart by two fatal blows – too much comic relief and an ending that’s a trick, rather than a treat, for horror buffs.

Lugosi and his “daughter”, Carroll Borland

The shadow of vampirism is terrorizing a small European village, as Sir Karel Borotyn is found murdered, drained of his blood! Inspector Neumann investigates, not believing in such supernatural hokum and suspecting everyone. Lovely young Irena Borotyn, engaged to handsome young Fedor, stands to inherit her father’s estate, with family friend Baron Otto serving as her guardian. When a peasant is found also drained of blood, the villagers suspect the evil Count Mora and his daughter…

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Moanin’ Low: On Claire Trevor and KEY LARGO (Warner Brothers 1948)


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John Huston’s filmnoir KEY LARGO is a personal favorite, and a bona fide classic in its own right that works on many different levels. Much of its success can be credited to the brilliant, Oscar-winning performance of Claire Trevor as Gaye Dawn, the alcoholic ex-nightclub singer and moll of gangster Johnny Rocco (played with equal brilliance by Edward G. Robinson ). The woman dubbed by many “Queen of Noir” gives the part a heartbreaking quality that makes her stand out among the likes of scene stealers Robinson, Humphrey Bogart , Lauren Bacall , and Lionel Barrymore .

Claire Trevor (1910-2000) arrived in Hollywood in 1933, and almost immediately became a star. Her early credits include playing Shirley Temple’s mom in BABY TAKE A BOW (1934), the title role in the Pre-Code drama ELINOR NORTON (also ’34), Spencer Tracy’s wife in the bizarre DANTE’S INFERNO (1935), and the reporter out…

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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?

 

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: Test Pilot (dir by Victor Fleming)


(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 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 nominee, Test Pilot!)

Test Pilot is all about charisma.

It tells a fairly simple story.  I imagine that the plot seemed just as familiar in 1938 as it does in 2018.  Jim Lane (Clark Gable) is a test pilot.  In the early days of aviation, long before people took the idea of flight for granted, Jim Lane is a hero and celebrity.  Whenever a new aviation technique is developed, Jim is the one who tests it.  He’s the one who makes sure that it’s safe.  Every day, when Jim goes to work for Mr. Drake (Lionel Barrymore), there’s a chance that he might not make it home.  Not surprisingly, he’s cocky, reckless, and not prone to commitment.  He’s also handsome, charming, manly, and quick with a quip.  In short, he’s Clark Gable.

When the movie starts, Jim has only one real friend.  Gunner (Spencer Tracy) is his mechanic.  Gunner is a by-the-book, no-nonsense professional.  He might enjoy a drink every now and then but Gunner knows his job and he knows his planes and, even more importantly, he knows Jim.  Gunner’s a man of unimpeachable integrity, the type who will always call things as he sees them.  In short, he’s Spencer Tracy.

One day, while on a test flight, Jim is forced to make an emergency landing on a farm in Kansas.  That’s where he meets Ann Barton (Myrna Loy).  Ann is beautiful and outspoken.  She quickly proves that she can keep up with Jim, quip-for-quip.  In short, she’s Myrna Loy and, before you know it, she and Jim are in love.  Just as quickly, Jim and Ann are married.

The movie starts out as a bit of domestic comedy.  Jim may know how to fly a plane but it quickly becomes obvious that he doesn’t know much about commitment or being a husband.  When Jim attempts to buy his wife a nightgown, he doesn’t even know how to pronounce the word lingerie.  (He asks a store clerk for help in finding the “lonjur department.”)  However, Jim soon starts to find that married life agrees with him.

Of course, that’s a problem when your job requires you to defy death on a daily basis.  Ann worries that Jim is going to go to work and never come home, fears that are intensified after a race with another airplane ends in a terrible and (for the other pilot) fatal crash.  Gunner, meanwhile, starts to fear that there’s only so many times that Jim can cheat fate.  Both Ann and Gunner promise that they will never leave Jim’s side.

Well, you can probably already guess everything that’s going to happen.  Test Pilot is not exactly the most narratively adventurous movie ever made but, when you’ve got Gable, Tracy, Loy, and Barrymore all in the same film, you don’t really need to break any new ground, storywise.  Test Pilot is an example of the power of pure movie star charisma.  It’s watchable because the performances are just as entertaining today as they were in 1938.  The film features Gable doing what he did best and Tracy doing what he did best and Loy and Barrymore all doing what they did best.  In this case, that’s more than enough.

When it comes to the film’s numerous flight sequences, it’s perhaps best to try to put yourself in the shoes of someone seeing the film in 1938.  Today, of course, we’ve been spoiled by CGI.  We tend to assume that literally anything can happen in a movie.  In the 30s, however, people couldn’t take special effects for granted.  When they watched the flight footage in Test Pilot, they did it with the knowledge that it was filmed by people who actually were putting their lives at risk to get it.  At a time when commercial aviation was considered to be a luxury, Test Pilot provided audiences with a view of the world in the sky and of the world below, a view that they probably wouldn’t have gotten a chance to see otherwise.

A huge box office success, Test Pilot was nominated for best picture but lost to another film featuring Lionel Barrymore, Frank Capra’s You Can’t Take It With You.