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.

Pre Code Confidential #16: Gable & Harlow in RED DUST (MGM 1932)


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(Hello, all! I haven’t been able to do much posting this week due to a severe bout of sciatica. I’m starting to feel better, and have watched tons of films while recuperating… stay tuned!)

  

Rising young MGM stars Clark Gable (31) and Jean Harlow (21) were red-hot in 1932, and the studio teamed them for the first time in the steamy romance RED DUST. Actually, Gable and Harlow had acted together in the previous year’s gangster epic THE SECRET SIX, but as part of the ensemble. RED DUST marked their first pairing as a screen team, and the duo make the film burn as hot as the sweltering jungle setting!

He-man Gable plays he-man Denny Carson, owner of a rubber plantation in French Indochina (now known as Vietnam). Denny’s a no-nonsense, tough taskmaster, as hard on his foremen as he is on the coolies. Into this manly milieu…

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Soapy Noir: A KISS BEFORE DYING (United Artists 1956)


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A KISS BEFORE DYING is part soap opera, part film noir, and 100% 50’s kitsch! Based on the best selling debut novel by Ira Levin (who went on to give us ROSEMARY’S BABY and THE STEPFORD WIVES), it’s also the debut of director Gerd Oswald (who went on to give us AGENT FOR HARM and BUNNY O’HARE !).  Lawrence Roman’s screenplay has some suspense, but his characters are all pretty dull and dumb, except for Robert Wagner’s turn as a charmingly sick sociopath.

Wagner is college student Bud Corliss, from the wrong side of the tracks, dating rich but naïve Dorie Kingship (Joanne Woodward) to get his hands on dad’s copper mine loot. And when I say naïve I’m not just whistling Dixie; this girl’s downright dense! Bud, after learning she’s pregnant, decides the best thing to do is not marry her, but bump her off. He whips up some poison…

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Happy 100th Birthday Olivia de Havilland!: HUSH… HUSH, SWEET CHARLOTTE (20th Century Fox 1964)


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Today marks the 100th birthday of one of the last true Golden Age greats, Olivia de Havilland. Film fans across the globe are celebrating the life and career of this fine actress, who fought the Hollywood system and won. Olivia is the last surviving cast member of GONE WITH THE WIND (Melanie Wilkes), won two Academy Awards (TO EACH HIS OWN, THE HEIRESS), headlined classics like THE SNAKE PIT and THE DARK MIRROR, and costarred with dashing Errol Flynn in eight exciting films, including CAPTAIN BLOOD , THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD, SANTA FE TRAIL, and THEY DIED WITH THEIR BOOTS ON.

Olivia moved to Paris with her husband in the 1950’s and was semi-retired, acting in a handful of films. In 1962 director Robert Aldrich  scored a huge hit, a psychological horror thriller called WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE?, starring screen veterans Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. A new genre was…

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Cleaning Out The DVR #25: The Maltese Falcon (dir by John Huston)


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

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I would love to see a remake of The Maltese Falcon with Bill Murray in the role of Sam Spade.  Well, maybe not the Bill Murray of today because he’s getting a little bit too old to play a hard-boiled private detective who is as good with his fists as his brain.  Instead, I’m thinking more of Lost In Translation era Bill Murray, when he was no longer young but could still probably beat up any sniveling punk who came at him with a gun.

Now, that may sound crazy to some but think about it.  Bill Murray is one of the great deadpan snarkers and so is Sam Spade.  Last night, when I watched the famous 1941 version of The Maltese Falcon (the story was filmed twice before, once with Bette Davis as the femme fatale), I was struck by how much of the film really was a comedy.  It may have been a murder mystery that featured death and betrayal and a lot of people getting beaten up but, ultimately, The Maltese Falcon is really about Sam Spade reacting to all of the crazy and strange people around him.  No matter how weird things get, Spade always responds with a smirk and a quip.  It’s a role that, at times, seems to be tailor-made for an actor like Bill Murray.

Bill Murray wasn’t around in 1941 but fortunately, Humphrey Bogart was.  Humphrey Bogart may have grown up wealthy and attended private schools but, on screen, nobody was tougher than Humphrey Bogart and nobody was better at delivering sarcastic, snark-filled dialogue.  After spending years as a villainous supporting actor, Humphrey Bogart got his first starring role when he played Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon.  His performance, of course, would set the standard by which all future cinematic private eyes would be judged.

And, of course, Spade was tough and he was cynical and he has that wonderful moment at the end of the film where he explains that nobody’s going to make a “sap” out of him.  But for me, Bogart’s best moments come when Spade is alone and thinking.  It’s at those times that Spade suddenly becomes a human being.  A slight smirk comes to his lips, almost as if he’s sharing a private joke with the audience.  You can tell that he’s thinking to himself, “Can you believe how weird my life is?”

And it is indeed a weird life.  The film opens with Spade’s partner, Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan), being murdered.  The police believe that Archer was murdered by a man named Thursby and that Thursby was subsequently murdered by Spade.  Spade, however, suspects that both Archer and Thursby were killed by his latest client, a woman who introduced herself as Ruth Wonderly (Mary Astor).  Except, of course, that’s not her real name.  Her real name is Brigid O’Shaughnessy and, as she admits to Spade, Thursby was her partner.  She claims that Thursby must have murdered Archer but that she doesn’t know who could have possibly killed Thursby.

What’s particularly interesting about all this is that no one really seems to be that upset about Archer’s death.  Spade’s main motivation for investigating the murder is to clear his name and there are several lines of dialogue that reveal how little regard he had for Miles.  In fact, when Archer’s widow (Gladys George) suggests that Spade might be Archer’s killer, you can understand why she might think that.  But then again, that’s the world of The Maltese Falcon.  Only the tough survive.  Getting sentimental or allowing yourself to care is the biggest mistake you can make.

The murders are connected to the hunt for a valuable statue of a bird.  (This is the famous Maltese Falcon of the title.)  As Spade tries to clear his name in the two murders, he also finds himself getting caught up with a strange group of treasure hunters.  There’s the obsequious Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre).  There’s the ruthless “fat man,” Kasper Gutman (Sidney Greenstreet).  And then there’s Wilmer (Elisha Cook, Jr.), Gutman’s young henchman who spends the entire film trying to convince everyone that he’s tougher than he appears.  Wilmer is a born patsy.  Whenever Spade gets annoyed, he beats up Wilmer.  And he usually smiles afterward.

Along with being the directorial debut of John Huston, The Maltese Falcon was also one of the first great film noirs.  It’s one of the most influential films ever made and, even seen today, it’s a lot of fun.  You really can’t go wrong with Bogart, Astor, Greenstreet, Lorre, and Cook all in the same movie.  Bill Murray may never get a chance to play Sam Spade but that’s okay.  Humphrey Bogart’s the only Sam Spade we really need.

The Maltese Falcon was nominated for best picture.  However, it lost to How Green Was My Valley, a film that literally seems to take place in an entirely different universe from The Maltese Falcon.