Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: Dodsworth (dir by William Wyler)


(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 1936 best picture nominee, Dodsworth!)

Dodsworth is the type of film that makes me thankful for both TCM and my own obsession with Oscar history.

Based on a Sidney Howard-penned stage adaptation of a Sinclair Lewis novel, Dodsworth tells the story of an American couple abroad and how their travels change them as both individuals and as a couple.  Sam Dodsworth (Walter Huston) is a wealthy man living in the middle of the United States.  20 years ago, he founded Dodsworth Motors and now, he’s finally reached the point where he can sell his company and retire.  Sam doesn’t have any big plans, not yet anyway.  Mostly, he just wants to visit Europe with his wife, Fran (Ruth Chatterton).  They’ve never been.

Walter Huston is perfectly cast as Sam Dodsworth.  When we first meet Sam, we’re not really sure whether we’re going to like him or not.  He seems to be a decent human being but he also seems to be rather resistant to change.  He’s a self-made man.  He’s smart but he’s not well-educated.  He’s honest but he’s stubborn.  He’s rich but he’s hardly sophisticated.  He says that he wants to experience new things but we can’t help but wonder how he’s going to react when he actually has the opportunity.

The cracks in Sam and Fran’s marriage become obvious as soon as they board a luxury liner heading for England.  Sam meets another traveler, Edith (Mary Astor).  Edith is divorced and lives in Italy, two things that make her very exotic to a proud product of middle America like Sam Dodsworth.  Edith and Sam immediately hit it off but there’s no way that Sam would ever consider having an affair.  Meanwhile, Fran finds herself attracted to a series of different Europeans, played by David Niven, Paul Lukas, and Gregory Gaye.  While Fran loves Europe, Sam finds himself yearning to return to the small town world that he knows best.

For a film that was released 82 years ago, Dodsworth remains a remarkably watchable and involving film.  Along with featuring brilliant lead performances from Walter Huston, Ruth Chatterton, and Mary Astor, Dodsworth touches on universal themes that remains as relevant as today as when the film was first released.  Though neither Sam nor Fran would probably recognize the term, their trip to Europe leads to an existential crisis that will be familiar to anyone who has ever looked at their life and wondered, “Is this all there is?”  At the start of the film, both characters believe that they’ve found perfection in their marriage, their family, and their money.  By the end of the movie, both of them realize just how wrong they were.

If not for my love of Oscar history, I never would have seen Dodsworth listed among the films nominated for best picture of 1936.  And, if not for TCM, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to DVR Dodsworth this morning and then watch it earlier tonight.  That’s why it pays to know your history and to take chances on films of which you previously may not have heard.

Dodsworth was nominated for 7 Academy Awards but it only won the Oscar for Best Art Direction.  It lost Best Picture to a far less memorable film, The Great Ziegfield.

Horror Film Review: Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man (dir by Roy William Neill)


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Long before Batman v. Superman, there was Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man!

Released in 1943, Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man was the first of the Universal horror movies to feature the monsters meeting.  (Dracula would join both Frankenstein’s Monster and the Wolf Man in later films.)  In our current age of the MCU and Zack Snyder super hero movies, that might not seem like a big deal but I’m sure it was huge in 1943.  Were the Universal Monster Movies the first example of a shared cinematic universe?  To be honest, I have no idea but it sounds good so let’s go with it.

Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man starts, as so many Frankenstein films have, with a little bit of grave robbing.  Except, this time, the grave robbers aren’t looking for body parts.  Instead, they break into the Talbot family crypt because they’ve heard that Larry Talbot was buried with a lot of jewelry and money.  As the grave robbers wander around the crypt, they recap for us everything that happened in The Wolf Man.  Finally, they open up Larry’s coffin and are confronted with the dead body of Larry Talbot himself!  (Larry is, once again, played by Lon Chaney, Jr.)

Unfortunately for our grave robbing friends, there’s a full moon out.  As soon as the moonlight shines on Larry, he comes back to life and promptly transforms into … THE WOLF MAN!

After killing one of the robbers, the Wolf Man runs out of the tomb.  The next morning, once again human and alive, Larry Talbot wakes up in some bushes.  He’s arrested by the police.  He’s sent to a mental hospital.  He transforms a few more times and kills a few more stock characters.  And during all of this, Larry tells anyone who will listen that he just wants to be cured of his condition so that he can die and stay dead.

It was at this point that it occurred to me that Larry Talbot is perhaps the whiniest werewolf in film history.

Eventually, Larry decides that maybe the famous Dr. Ludwig Frankenstein could help him!  So, he breaks out of the hospital and travels to Germany (though, since the film was made during World War II, we’re never specifically told that he’s in Germany).  Accompanying him is Malena (Maria Ouspenkaya), the gypsy woman from the first Wolf Man.

In Germany a generic Eastern European country, Larry finds out that Dr. Frankenstein is dead and his research is missing.  Larry does, however, discover the frozen body of Frankenstein’s Monster (now played by Bela Lugosi).  After reviving the monster, Larry is upset to discover that the Monster not only doesn’t know where to find Frankenstein’s research but that, after dealing with their crap for four movies, the Monster doesn’t really seem to care about doing anything other than harassing the local villagers.

Fortunately, Larry does get to meet Ludwig’s widow (Illona Massey) and get a chance to tell her about how much he wishes he was dead.  Probably just to get him to shut up about how terrible his existence is, the widow agrees to help Larry.  She gives him Ludwig’s research and Larry believes that he’s finally found a way to end both his life and the Monster’s!

Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite work that way.  For one thing, Larry is working with a scientist (played by Patric Knowles) who doesn’t think that the Monster needs to be destroyed.  Secondly, Larry keeps forgetting to keep track of the lunar cycles.  That full moon is continually taking him by surprise.

It all leads to a final battle between Frankenstein’s Monster and the Wolf Man.  It only lasts for a little less than 10 minutes so it’s hard not to be a bit disappointed but at least no one talks about having a mother named Martha.

(Can you imagine that conversation?

“Growl growl growl growl”

“Why you say Martha?”

“Growl growl.”

“But Monster’s mother named Martha!”

“Growl!”

“Friends!”

“growl…”)

(It’s been seven months since that damn movie came out and, here at the Shattered Lens, we’re still getting mileage out of “But my mother was named Martha!” jokes.)

Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man isn’t necessarily a good movie but it is a lot of fun to watch.  It helps, of course, if you’ve seen the other Universal horror films.  Part of the fun is spotting members of the Universal stock company, like Lionel Atwill and Dwight Frye, and seeing who they’ll be playing this time around.  One thing that I did legitimately appreciate is that the film made at least some sort of an effort to maintain a continuity with both The Wolf Man and Ghost of Frankenstein.  It appears that some actual thought was put into explaining how both the Wolf Man and the Monster were still around after the events of the last two films.  That shows more respect for the audience that you’ll find in most modern films.

Horror Film Review: The Wolf Man (dir by George Waggner)


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“Even a man who is pure in heart, and says his prayers by night;

May become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright.”

— Gypsy Poem, The Wolf Man (1941)

Poor Larry Talbot.

We all know his story, of course.  The plot of the original Wolf Man is so iconic and has been imitated in so many other films that, even if you somehow have never seen the original 1941 film, you still know what happened.

Larry (played by Lon Chaney, Jr.) is a loser.  When we first meet him, he is nervously returning to his childhood home in Wales.  (Chaney doesn’t sounds at all Welsh nor does he sounds like he’s from any other part of the UK for that matter, but that’s not really important.)  Larry’s older brother has recently died and Larry hopes that maybe he can reconcile with his father, Sir John (Claude Rains).  Larry’s brother was the favored son, the one who lived up to the Talbot name and made his father proud.  Larry, on the other hand, hasn’t really succeeded at anything he’s ever done.  To use the slang of the time, Larry comes across as basically being a lug.  A big dumb lug.

After discovering that his father really doesn’t seem to want to have much to do with him, Larry goes for a stroll through the nearby village.  He buys a silver-headed walking stick, mostly so he can flirt with the salesgirl, Gwen (Evelyn Ankers).  It turns out that there’s a gypsy camp nearby.  What better place to go on a date!?

Well, perhaps Larry should have just invited her to the movies.  Not only does a fortune teller (Maria Ouspenskaya) see something terrible in his future but Larry ends up getting bitten by what appears to be a wolf.  The good news is that Larry was bitten while saving the life of one of Gwen’s friends, which is certainly going to make him look like good boyfriend material.  The bad news is that the wolf was actually the fortune teller’s son, Bela (played by none other than Bela Lugosi).  It turns out that Bela was a werewolf and now, Larry’s going to be a werewolf too!

Larry, needless to say, is not happy about this.  But then again, Larry wasn’t happy before he became the werewolf either.  Lon Chaney, Jr. played Larry Talbot in five different movies and I don’t think he smiled once.  I guess that’s understandable, seeing as how he was a werewolf.  In every film in which he appeared, Larry would beg someone to kill him and put him out of his misery.  And, in every sequel, Larry would somehow be brought back to life and have to go through it all over again.  I guess he earned the right to be a little glum.

But still, even before he’s bitten in The Wolf Man, Larry is kind of a boring character.  The only time that he’s interesting is when he’s a wolf man.  And really, he’s a far more successful werewolf than human.  When we first meet Larry, he apologizing to his father for never living up to his expectations.  But once Larry turns into the Wolf Man, he finally manages to get things done.  When he’s the wolf man, Larry has the inner drive that he lacks as a human.

To me, the heart of The Wolf Man is not to be found in Chaney’s glum performance.  Instead, it’s in Claude Rains’s performance as John.  When we first meet Sir John, he seems like a rather imposing figure but, over the course of this 70 minute film, John slowly lowers his guard.  We discover that he’s actually a loving father and there’s something rather sweet about watching as he slowly welcomes Larry back into his life.  Of course, it all ends in tragedy.  These things often do.

Everything, from the set design to shadowy cinematography to the hard-working fog machine (which keeps the moors looking properly creepy) to the performances of Claude Rains and Maria Ouspenskaya, comes together to make The Wolf Man into a genuine classic of horror cinema.  And, of course, I have to mention the brilliant makeup job that was done to transform Chaney into The Wolf Man.  

Still, I have to wonder — why did Lugosi turn into an actual wolf while Chaney turned into this?

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Oh well, it probably doesn’t matter.  Just relax and enjoy the damn film, as a wise person somewhere once said.  Be sure to watch The Wolf Man this holiday season!

Lisa Watches An Oscar Nominee: Love Affair (dir by Leo McCarey)


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“If you can paint, I can walk!” — Terry McKay (Irene Dunne) in Love Affair (1939)

So, TCM’s 31 Days of Oscar has ended but I’m still on my mission to watch and review every single film that has ever been nominated for best picture.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  This isn’t going to be one of my series like Shattered Politics or Embracing the Melodrama.  I’m not going to post six best picture reviews a day for the next three weeks until I’ve reviewed every single one of them.  Instead, I’m just going to keep my eyes open.  When I see that a best picture nominee is going to be on TCM, I’ll be sure to record, watch, and review it.  On days that I have some extra time, I’ll watch and review something from my DVD and Blu-ray collection.  And, of course, I’ll keep make sure to keep up with what’s available on Netflix, Hulu, and all the other streaming services.

And, on a night like tonight when its sleeting outside and I’m aware that I probably won’t be going outside for the next two or three days, I’ll be sure to look through my DVR and see what I still need to watch.

Tonight, for example, I did just that and I ended up watching the 1939 best picture nominee, Love Affair.

Love Affair tells the story of two rich people in love.  Michel (Charles Boyer) is a painter and a notorious playboy. Terry (Irene Dunne) is an aspiring singer.  They’re both engaged to other people but, when they meet on a cruise, it’s love at first sight.  They try to avoid each other.  They try to remain faithful to their significant others.  But, when the boat docks off of the island of Madeira, Terry agrees to visit Michel’s grandmother with him.

Michel’s grandmother is played by Maria Ouspenkaya and, while Ouspenkaya does a good job playing the eccentric grandma and even received an Oscar nomination for her 10 minutes or so of screen time, it’s hard to look at her without imagining that she’s about to say something about what happens when the moon is full.  Or, at least, that’s the case if you’re a fan of the old Universal horror films and you’ve seen Ouspenkaya play the gypsy in original Wolf Man.  Instead of talking about the curse of lycanthropy, Michel’s grandma instead tells the two that they are meant to be together.

Anyway, once they return to New York, Michel and Terry agree to separate and, if after six months they still can’t stop thinking about each other, they’ll meet at the top of the Empire State Building.  Michel spends his six months becoming a more responsible human being.  Terry spends her six months singing.

Six months pass.  Michel stands at the top of the Empire State Building.  Little does he know that, on her way to meet him, Terry got struck by a car.  Michel is convinced that Terry stood him up.  Meanwhile, Terry is confined to a wheelchair.

Wow, depressing movie, huh?  Well, don’t worry.  That’s only the first half of the movie.  There’s still a lot more misunderstandings to get through before Terry can deliver her classic final line.

Occasionally, I’ve seen an old film referred to as being creaky but I don’t think I ever understood what that meant until I saw Love Affair.  Love Affair is such an old-fashioned melodrama and such a product of a bygone era that it can’t help but be a little bit fascinating.  Love Affair is definitely a film that was made at a different time and for a very different, far less cynical audiences and, watching the film today, definitely requires a bit of an attitude adjustment.  However, what Love Affair may now lack in entertainment value, it makes up for in historical value.  By today’s standards, Love Affair may seem slow and a bit too melodramatic but it remains a time capsule.  If you want to go back to 1939, you can either build a time machine or you can watch Love Affair.

(And, fortunately, Love Affair is in the public domain, which means it’ll be a lot easier to find than a working time machine.)