Pre Code Confidential #23: Marlene Dietrich in BLONDE VENUS (Paramount 1932)


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Director Josef von Sternberg and his marvelous muse Marlene Dietrich  teamed for their fifth film together with BLONDE VENUS, a deliciously decadent soap opera that’s a whole lot of fun for Pre-Code lovers. Sternberg indulges his Marlene fetish by exploring both sides of her personality, as both Madonna and whore, and Dietrich plays it to the hilt in a film that no censor would dare let pass just a scant two years later.

How’s this for an opening: a group of schoolboys hiking through the Black Forest stumble upon a bevy of naked stage chanteuses taking a swim! The girls scream and try to hide, and beautiful Helen (Marlene) tries to shoo them away. Ned Faraday refuses until Helen agrees to meet him later. Flash forward to a scene of Helen and Ned now married with a young son named Johnny. Ned, a chemist by trade, has been poisoned by…

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Pre Code Confidential #19: Marlene Dietrich in SHANGHAI EXPRESS (Paramount 1932)


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Marlene Dietrich is TCM’S Star of the Month for May, and “Shanghai Express” airs tonight at 12:00 midnight EST. 

A train ride from Peking to Shanghai is fraught with danger and romance in Josef von Sternberg’s SHANGHAI EXPRESS, a whirlwind of a movie starring that Teutonic whirlwind herself, Marlene Dietrich. This was the fourth of their seven collaborations together, and their biggest hit, nominated for three Oscars and winning for Lee Garmes’s striking black and white cinematography.

The Director and his Muse

Dietrich became a huge sensation as the sultry seductress Lola Lola in Sternberg’s 1930 German film THE BLUE ANGEL, and the pair headed to America to work for Paramount. Marlene became the autocratic director’s muse, as he molded her screen image into a glamorous object of lust and desire. Sternberg’s Expressionistic painting of light and shadows, aided by Dietrich’s innate sexuality, turned the former chorus girl and cabaret…

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Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: Shanghai Express (dir by Josef von Sternberg)


(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 1932 best picture nominee, Shanghai Express!)

Welcome to China, circa 1931.  The country is beautiful, mysterious, and dangerous.  Civil War has broken out and living in China means being caught between two equally brutal forces, the government and the Communists.  Captain Doc Harvey (Clive Brook) is scheduled to ride the so-called Shangai Express, the train that will take him from Beiping to Shanghai.  The Governor-General is ill and Doc Harvey is the only man in China who operate on him.

For Doc, it’s a matter of duty.  However, soon after boarding, he discovers that he is traveling with the infamous Shanghai Lily (Marlene Dietrich).  Though Doc has never heard of her, everyone assures him that Shanghai Lily is one of the greatest courtesans in China.   When Doc does finally meet her, he’s shocked to discover that Shanghai Lily is his former lover, Magdalen.  Did his decision to break up with her lead to Magdalen becoming a courtesan?

“It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily,” she replies.

However, Doc and Lily aren’t the only two people with their own personal drama taking place on the train.  The train is full of passengers, all of whom have their secrets.  Some of the secrets are minor.  One woman spends most of the trip trying to keep anyone from discovering that she’s smuggled her dog onto the train.  Other secrets are major.  It is suspected that one of the passengers might be working for the rebels.  And then there’s people like Sam Salt (Eugene Pallette), who is addicted to gambling and Eric (Gustav von Syffertitz), the opium dealer.  Looking over it all is a Christian missionary (Lawrence Grant) who considers both Lily and her companion, Hui Fey (Anna May Wong), to be fallen women.

It’s not an easy journey, no matter how nice and romantic the train may be.  If the express isn’t being stopped by government soldiers, it’s being hijacked by a warlord who not only wants to stop Doc from performing the operation but who also wants to take Lily back to his palace…

Shanghai Express is pre-code drama at its best.  Director Josef von Sternberg delivers an ornate mix of opulence and melodrama, never shying away from the story’s more flamboyant possibilities.  Marlene Dietrich, appearing in her fourth film for von Sternberg, gives a strong and unapologetic performance as Shanghai Lily.  Just as Lily never apologizes for who she is, the film both refuses to judge her and condemns anyone who would try.  The film’s sympathy is purely with Dietrich and Wong as they do what they must to survive in a world dominated by men who are either judgmental, brutish, or weak.  (Within just a few years, the Hays Code would make it impossible for a film like Shanghai Express to be made by an American studio.)  With one very important exception, the entire cast is strong, with Warner Oland and Eugene Pallette especially turning in strong support.  The only exception is Clive Brook, who comes across as being a bit too dull to have ever won the the heart of Shanghai Lily.

Shanghai Express is not the best von Sternberg/Dietrich collaboration.  That would be the brilliantly insane Scarlet Empress.  However, it’s still a wonderfully entertaining melodrama.  It was nominated for best picture but lost to another entertaining melodrama, Grand Hotel.

Cleaning Out The DVR #5: Around The World In 80 Days (dir by Michael Anderson)


Last night, as a part of my effort to clean out my DVR by watching and reviewing 38 movies in 10 days, I watched the 1956 Best Picture winner, Around The World In 80 Days.

Based on a novel by Jules Verne, Around The World In 80 Days announces, from the start, that it’s going to be a spectacle.  Before it even begins telling its story, it gives us a lengthy prologue in which Edward R. Murrow discusses the importance of the movies and Jules Verne.  He also shows and narrates footage from Georges Méliès’s A Trip To The Moon.  Seen today, the most interesting thing about the prologue (outside of A Trip To The Moon) is the fact that Edward R. Murrow comes across as being such a pompous windbag.  Take that, Goodnight and Good Luck.

Once we finally get done with Murrow assuring us that we’re about to see something incredibly important, we get down to the actual film.  In 1872, an English gentleman named Phileas Fogg (played by David Niven) goes to London’s Reform Club and announces that he can circumnavigate the globe in 80 days.  Four other members of the club bet him 20,000 pounds that he cannot.  Fogg takes them up on their wager and soon, he and his valet, Passepartout (Cantinflas) are racing across the world.

Around The World in 80 Days is basically a travelogue, following Fogg and Passepartout as they stop in various countries and have various Technicolor adventures.  If you’re looking for a serious examination of different cultures, this is not the film to watch.  Despite the pompousness of Murrow’s introduction, this is a pure adventure film and not meant to be taken as much more than pure entertainment.  When Fogg and Passepartout land in Spain, it means flamenco dancing and bullfighting.  When they travel to the U.S., it means cowboys and Indians.  When they stop off in India, it means that they have to rescue Princess Aouda (Shirley MacClaine!!!) from being sacrificed.  Aouda ends up joining them for the rest of their journey.

Also following them is Insepctor Fix (Robert Newton), who is convinced that Fogg is a bank robber.  Fix follows them across the world, just waiting for his chance to arrest Fogg and disrupt his race across the globe.

But it’s not just Inspector Fix who is on the look out for the world travelers.  Around The World In 80 Days is full of cameos, with every valet, sailor, policeman, and innocent bystander played by a celebrity.  (If the movie were made today, Kim Kardashian and Chelsea Handler would show up at the bullfight.)  I watch a lot of old movies so I recognized some of the star cameos.  For instance, it was impossible not to notice Marlene Dietrich hanging out in the old west saloon, Frank Sinatra playing piano or Peter Lorre wandering around the cruise ship.  But I have to admit that I missed quite a few of the cameos, much as how a viewer 60 years in the future probably wouldn’t recognize Kim K or Chelsea Handler in our hypothetical 2016 remake.  However, I could tell whenever someone famous showed up on screen because the camera would often linger on them and the celeb would often look straight at the audience with a “It’s me!” look on their face.

Around The World in 80 Days is usually dismissed as one of the lesser best picture winners and it’s true that it is an extremely long movie, one which doesn’t necessarily add up to much beyond David Niven, Cantinflas, and the celeb cameos.  But, while it may not be Oscar worthy, it is a likable movie.  David Niven is always fun to watch and he and Cantinflas have a nice rapport.  Shirley MacClaine is not exactly believable as an Indian princess but it’s still interesting to see her when she was young and just starting her film career.

Add to that, Around The World In 80 Days features Jose Greco in this scene:

Around The World In 80 Days may not rank with the greatest films ever made but it’s still an entertaining artifact of its time.  Whenever you sit through one of today’s multi-billion dollar cinematic spectacles, remember that you’re watching one of the descendants of Around The World In 80 Days.

Lisa Watches an Oscar Nominee: Witness for the Prosecution (dir by Billy Wilder)


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Earlier today, I DVRed the 1957 best picture nominee, Witness for the Prosecution, off of TCM.  I watched the film as soon as I finished dinner and, having now seen Witness for the Prosecution, I am prepared to give you my professional and erudite review.

Okay, are you ready for it?  Here we go:

🙂 Oh my God, I freaking love this movie!!!!!!!!! 🙂

Witness for the Prosecution is many things.  It’s a courtroom drama.  It’s a domestic comedy.  It’s a twisty murder mystery.  It’s a showcase for three great performers.  It’s crowd pleaser that will make you think and, even if it does involve people killing each other, it will probably make you smile as well.  Don’t let that 1957 date fool you.  Witness For the Prosecution is a lot of fun.

Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power) is a somewhat sleazy man who has two claims to fame.  One is that he claims to be responsible for inventing the egg beater.  The other is that he’s been accused of murdering Mrs. French (Norma Varden), a wealthy widow who had recently named Leonard as the beneficiary of her will.  Everyone assumes that Leonard must have been having an affair with Mrs. French but Leonard claims that he’s innocent.

Suspecting that he is soon going to be arrested, Leonard hires Sir Wilfred Robarts (Charles Laughton) to serve as his attorney.  Though Sir Wilfred is recovering from a heart attack and has been ordered to not take on any more stressful criminal cases, he agrees to defend Leonard.  He proceeds to do just that, under the watchful eye of his nurse, the protective Mrs. Plimsoll (Elsa Lanchester).

(The testy relationship between Sir Wilfred and Mrs. Plimsoll provides the film with its comedic relief.  Laughton and Lanchester were married in real life and, watching the film, you can tell that they had a lot of fun acting opposite each other.)

Sir Wilfred is convinced that he can win acquittal for Leonard, especially since Leonard’s German wife, Christine (Marlene Dietrich), is willing to provide an alibi for him.  (In one of the film’s best moments, Sir Wilfred talks about how distraught Christine will be to discover that Leonard has been arrested just to then have the very calm and self-possessed Christine step into the room.)  However, to everyone’s shock, Christine is called as a witness for the prosecution.  She testifies that Leonard confessed the murder to her and that she only provided an alibi out of fear and love.

Things aren’t looking good for Leonard but then, a mysterious woman with a cockney accent contacts Sir Wilfred and reveals that Christine may have had reasons of her own for not giving Leonard an alibi…

Witness For The Prosecution ends with a voice over that says, “The management of this theater suggests that for the greater entertainment of your friends who have not yet seen the picture, you will not divulge, to anyone, the secret of the ending of Witness for the Prosecution.”  And I have to say that, when I heard that, it just made me love the film even more.  I had enjoyed the film so much and had so much fun following all the twists and the turns of the mystery that I found myself nodding in agreement.

“Sure, 58 year-old voice over,” I said, “I will not divulge the secret ending of Witness For The Prosecution.”

And I’m not going to!  Though, to be honest, you’ll probably guess the secret before it’s revealed.  It’s a plot twist that has been imitated by so many other courtroom dramas that it’s probably not as much of a mind-blower today as it may have been back in 1957.

But no matter!  Witness For The Prosecution is still a lot of fun.  Even if you figure out the mystery early, you can still watch the film and enjoy Laughton’s wonderfully theatrical performance.

Witness for the Prosecution was nominated for best picture and, interestingly enough, another theatrical courtroom drama — 12 Angry Men — was also nominated that year.  It’s interesting to compare the low-key drama of 12 Angry Men to the cheerful flamboyance of Witness For The Prosecution.  They are both great films about the law but each is told from a very different perspective.

Of course, in the end, both of these great films ended up losing to The Bridge On The River Kwai.

Film Review: Judgment At Nuremberg (dir by Stanley Kramer)


I previously posted a review of the 1967 best picture nominee Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner that was somewhat critical of Stanley Kramer as a filmmaker.  In retrospect, I feel like I may have been a bit too dismissive of Stanley Kramer.  When one looks over the list of every film that has ever been nominated for best picture, one comes across the name Stanley Kramer (as a producer, a director, or both) far too many times to just blindly dismiss him for the sin of being old-fashioned.  While Kramer made his share of well-intentioned misfires like Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, he was also responsible for some films that remain important and watchable today.  Judgment at Nuremberg is one of those films.

Judgment at Nuremberg opens in 1947, with one car being driven through the ruins of Nuremberg, Germany.  Inside the car is Dan Haywood (Spencer Tracy), a judge from Maine who has been appointed chief of a military tribunal that will be passing judgment on four German judges who are accused of crimes against humanity for their legal rulings during the Nazi regime.  As Haywood quickly learns,  many people don’t feel that the Nazi judges should be held as accountable for their actions as men like Hitler, Goebbles, and Goering should have been.  It’s up to Haywood to determine whether the accused were simply doing their job or if they had a responsibility to defy the laws that they had sworn to uphold.

Judgment at Nuremberg almost feels like two films.  The first film is a courtroom drama, where the Nazi judges (the main one of which is played by Burt Lancaster) are prosecuted by the fiery Col. Tad Lawson (Richard Widmark) and defended by the idealistic Hans Rolfe (Maximilian Schell).  While Lawson approaches the case and regards the defendants with righteous anger, Rolfe takes a more cerebral approach to defending the undefensible.  Rolfe argues that the judges were following the laws of Germany and that if the tribunal finds them guilty than it will be finding the entire nation of Germany guilty.  (In a rather clever twist, director Kramer and screenwriter Abby Mann initially make the German defense attorney a far more likable character than the American prosecutor.)  During the trial, we also hear heart-wrenching testimony from two people (played by Montgomery Clift and Judy Garland) who were victimized by the Nazi regime and the judges who gave legal legitimacy to the regime’s crimes.

The second film deals with Haywood adjusting to working in Germany and trying to understand how the Nazis could have come to power in the first place.   Haywood asks several Germans to tell him about life under the Nazis and every time, he is met with bland excuses.  (“We were not political,” he is told more than once.)  The film’s strongest scenes are the ones where Haywood simply walks alone through the ruins of Nuremberg.  Spencer Tracy was a uniquely American actor and, much as he did in Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, Tracy here stood in for every American who was struggling to make sense of a changing world.

In his book Pictures At A Revolution, Mark Harris correctly points out that Stanley Kramer started out as a producer and, even after he started directing, he still approached filmmaking like a producer.  While that approach led to many uninspiring films, it was also the right approach for Judgment at Nuremberg.  Perhaps realizing that Judgment at Nuremberg was a long and talky movie about a disturbing subject manner, Kramer made the very producer-like decision to fill Judgment at Nuremberg with recognizable faces.  While this approach has proven disastrous for many films, it works quite well in Judgment at Nuremberg.

This is one of the most perfectly cast films of all time, with all of the actors bringing both their characters and the issues that they’re confronting to vivid life.  As the main defendant, Burt Lancaster brings a combination of intelligence and self-loathing to his role, playing him in such a way to reveal that even he can’t believe the evil he upheld as a judge.  Meanwhile, Spencer Tracy is perfectly cast as a world-weary man who is simply trying to figure out what justice means in the post-war world.  Maximilian Schell plays his role with so much passion that it’s impossible not to listen to him even when you despise the argument he’s making.  Marlene Dietrich has an extended cameo where she plays the widow of Nazi general who befriends Judge Haywood but still refuses to admit that she knew anything about what Adolf Hitler was doing.  Even William Shatner shows up, playing a small role as Haywood’s chief military aide and yes, he does deliver his lines in that Shatner way of his.

First released in 1962, Judgment at Nuremberg won Oscars for Best Actor (Maximilian Schell) and Best Adapted Screenplay (Abby Mann) and was nominated for 9 more: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Spencer Tracy), Best Supporting Actor (Montgomery Clift), Best Supporting Actress (Judy Garland), Best Black-and-White Art Direction, Best Black-and-White Cinematography, Best Black-and-White Costume Design, and Best Film Editing. While it’s hard to argue with the victory of West Side Story in that year’s Oscar race, Judgment at Nuremberg remains a watchable and thought-provoking film.

The Lost Best Picture Nominee: The Patriot (dir. by Ernst Lubitsch)


So, in case you hadn’t noticed, I’ve got a love for film trivia in general and Oscar trivia in particular.  I also love to make lists.  Last night, these twin loves led to me staying up way too late making a list of every single film ever nominated for best picture.  As I looked down at that list, I thought to myself, “That’s not even a 1,000 movies.  Why it would only take a few years for me to see and then review every single film ever nominated.”  So, I am now a woman on a mission.  Well, actually, I’m on several missions but this is definitely one of them.

Unfortunately, there is one nominee that its doubtful that I — or anyone else will ever see — and that is 1928’s The Patriot.  Not only was it the last silent film to be nominated for best picture but it’s also the only nominee to subsequently become a “lost” film.  With the exception of a few publicity stills and the film’s trailer, all trace of The Patriot has vanished.  Maybe there’s a copy of it sitting in the corner of someone’s attic.  It has happened in the past, after all.  More likely though, the Patriot is simply gone. 

Here’s the trailer:

The Patriot was based on the 1801 assassination of Tsar Paul I of Russia.  Paul was played by Emil Jannings who, the previous year, had won the very first Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance in The Last Command.  Paul’s assassin — the patriot of the title — was played by character actor Lewis Stone who later played almost everyone’s father in the 1930s.  Director Lubitsch was, like Jannings, a relatively recent arrival from Germany.

The Patriot was an expensive, “prestige” presentation that was pretty much doomed the moment that Al Jolson spoke in The Jazz Singer.  With audiences now obsessed with “talking pictures,” the silent Patriot was a box office bomb.  Paramount hastily withdrew the film from circulation, added a few sound effects (though no dialogue because of Jannings’s thick German accent), and then re-released the film with the little success.  The Patriot — the last silent film nominated — lost to the first sound film to win Best Picture, Broadway Melody.

The box office failure of The Patriot pretty much drove the last nail into the coffin of the silent film era.  Jannings reacted to the coming of sound by returning to his native Germany and continuing his film career there.  He co-starred with Marlene Dietrich in Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel.   As Germany’s most distinguished actor, Jannings was a supporter of Adolf Hitler and he appeared in several Nazi propaganda films during World War II.  In 1945, following the fall of the Third Reich, Jannings reportedly carried his Oscar with him as he walked through the streets of Berlin.  He died in Austria in 1950 at the age of 65. 

Lewis Stone, meanwhile, prospered in sound films and was a busy character actor until he died of a heart attack in 1953.  Reportedly, he dropped dead while chasing some neighborhood children who had been throwing rocks at his garage.

Ernest Lubitsch also had a very succesful career in Hollywood and specialized in sophisticated romantic comedies and musicals.  While Jannings was making propaganda films for Hitler, Lubitsch was directing the anti-Nazi comedy, To Be Or Not To Be.  He died of a heart attack in 1947, reportedly while having sex with a starlet who was auditioning for a role in his latest film.

The Patriot remains lost.