Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: The Snake Pit (dir by Anatole Litvak)


The 1948 film, The Snake Pit, tells the story of a writer named Virginia Cunningham.

Virginia (Olivia de Havilland) is a patient at the Juniper Hill State Hospital, a psychiatric hospital that only treats female patients.  Some days, Virginia knows where she is and some days, she doesn’t.  Some days, she knows who she is and other days, she doesn’t.  Sometimes, she hears voices and other times, the silence in her head is her only companion.  Sometimes, she’s paranoid and other times, she’s quite lucid.

Virginia has been admitted against her will.  Her husband, Robert (Mark Stevens), visits frequently and sometimes, she knows him and sometimes, she doesn’t.  Through flashbacks, we see how Virginia and Robert first met.  Robert worked at a publishing house.  Virginia was a writer whose work kept getting rejected.  Robert and Virginia fell almost immediately in love but Virginia always refused to consider marrying him.  In fact, she even disappeared at one point, because things were getting too serious.  However, one day, Virginia suddenly declared that she wanted to get married.  Afterwards, her behavior became more and more erratic.

In the hospital, Virginia is treated by Dr. Kik (Leo Genn), who is depicted as being a compassionate and progressive psychiatrist, even as he puts Virginia through electroshock treatment.  (Remember, this film was made in 1948.)  With Dr. Kik’s guidance, Virginia starts to piece her life together and get to the cause of nervous breakdown.  Unfortunately, it often seems like every step forward leads to two steps back and Virginia still reacts to every bit of pressure by acting out, even biting one unhelpful doctor.

The hospital is divided into levels.  With each bit of progress that a patient makes, she’s allowed to move to a new level that allows her just a bit more freedom.  Everyone’s goal is to make it to the final level, Level One.  Unfortunately, Level One is run by Nurse Davis (Helen Craig), a tyrant who is in love with Dr. Kik and jealous of the amount of time he spends on Virginia.  Davis starts to goad Helen, trying to get her to lose control.  And what happens if you lose control?  You end up in the Snake Pit, the dreaded Level 33.  Being sent to Level 33 means being abandoned in a padded cell, surrounded by patients who have been deemed untreatable.

At the time that it was released, The Snake Pit was a groundbreaking film, the first major American studio production to deal seriously and sympathetically with mental illness.  Seen today, it’s still effective but you can’t help but cringe at some of the techniques that are used in Virginia’s treatment.  (Electroshock treatment, for instance, is portrayed as being frightening but ultimately necessary.)  The film works best as a showcase for Olivia de Havilland, who gives an absolutely brilliant and empathetic performance as Virginia.  Neither the film not de Havilland shies away from the reality of Virginia’s condition nor does it make the mistake of sentimentalizing her story.  For me, de Havilland’s best moment comes when she learns that she bit another doctor.  At first, she’s horrified but then she starts to laugh because the doctor in question was such a pompous ass that he undoubtedly deserved it.  de Havilland handles the character’s frequent transitions from lucidity to confusion with great skill, without indulging in the temptation to go over-the-top.  Arguably, The Snake Pit features de Havilland’s best lead performance.

(Olivia de Havilland is, at 103 years old, still with us and living, reportedly quite happily, in France.)

Olivia de Havilland was nominated for Best Actress but she lost to Jane Wyman in Johnny Belinda.  (A year later, De Havilland’s won an Oscar for The Heiress.)  The Snake Pit was also nominated for Best Picture but ultimately lost to Laurence Olivier’s adaptation of Hamlet.

Double Your Fun: Laurel & Hardy in BLOCKHEADS (MGM 1938) and SAPS AT SEA (United Artists 1940)


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Hal Roach first teamed Stan Laurel with Oliver Hardy in 1927, beginning a long and prosperous screen comedy collaboration. The pair became the movie’s most beloved, and funniest, screen team, a point  that’s hard to argue against after a recent rewatching of BLOCKHEADS and SAPS AT SEA, two films that each clock in at less than an hour, but pack more laughs than many longer, larger budgeted films of the era – or any era, for that matter!

In BLOCKHEADS, L&H are soldiers during WWI, and Stan is ordered to stand guard in the trench until the troop returns from battle. Twenty years later, he’s still there! Found by a pilot he shoots down, Stan is taken to an Old Soldiers’ Home, when Ollie (once again a henpecked husband) spots his picture in the newspaper. Ollie rushes to see his old pal, and finds him sitting in a wheelchair with…

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Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: The Thin Man (dir by W.S. Van Dyke)


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Last night, I rewatched the classic 1934 mystery-comedy, The Thin Man.

And you know what?

Nick and Nora Charles should be everyone’s relationship goal.

Technically, The Thin Man is a murder mystery and it’s actually a pretty good one.  While I was rewatching the film, I was surprised to see that the whodunit aspect of the plot held up far better than I remembered.  But, ultimately, the movie is really a portrait of the ideal romance.  Every couple should aspire to be like Nick and Nora.

Nick Charles (William Powell) is a retired private detective, an unflappable gentleman who speaks exclusively in quotable quips.  Nick is the type who can apparently spend every hour of the day drinking without ever getting stupidly drunk.  He has beautiful homes on both coasts and a list of friends that would make anyone jealous.  Whether cop or crook, everyone loves Nick.

Nora Charles (Myrna Loy) is Nick’s wife.  She’s independently wealthy.  She’s beautiful.  She’s always chic.  She is always the smartest and funniest person in the room.  And she’s probably the only person who can outquip Nick.  Nora loves Nick’s lifestyle, whether they’re throwing a party or literally shooting ornaments off of a Christmas tree.  As Nora says at the end of one crowded party, “Oh, Nicky, I love you because you know such lovely people.”

And, of course, there’s Asta.  Asta is their terrier.  If Nick and Nora are the ideal couple, Asta is the ideal pet.  Asta is just as quick to investigate a mystery as Nick and Nora.  Asta may be a playful dog but he’s also remarkably well-behaved.  No insistent yapping.  No accidents on the carpet.  No growling at visitors.  As I’ve mentioned many times on this site, I’m not a dog person but I love Asta.

It’s not just that Nick and Nora are obviously in love and, in this pre-code film, they’re actually allowed to express that love.  And it’s not just that they say things in The Thin Man that they wouldn’t be allowed to get away with in the film’s sequels.  (If you have any doubt that this is a pre-code film, just check out the scene where the police are going through Nora’s dresser.  “What’s that man doing in my drawers?” Nora demands while Nick does a double take.)  It’s that Nick and Nora seem to be having so much fun.  They’re wealthy.  Other than to themselves, they really have no commitments.  (Nick only comes out of retirement because Nora say she thinks a mystery sounds like it would be fun to solve.)  They have no children to worry about.  Even if you don’t want to be either Nora or Nick by the end of this film, you’ll still definitely want to hang out with them.

The Thin Man is a murder mystery.  In fact, it’s probably one of the most enjoyable movies ever made about a double murder.  Dorothy Wynat (Maureen O’Sullivan) asks Nick to help find her father (Edward Ellis), the thin man of the title.  The investigation leads to a rather complicated mystery, one in which everyone that Nick and Nora meets is a suspect.  I have to admit that, with my ADD, I always have a hard time following all of the clues.

Of course, so does Nick.  That truly is part of the appeal of The Thin Man.  Nick is often confused about what it all the clues and evidence add up to but that never seems to upset him.  He and Nora are too busy enjoying themselves to get upset. That’s one reason why, even after you know who the murderer is, The Thin Man is a movie that’s enjoyable to watch over and over again.  The Thin Man is less about the mystery and more about the way Nick and Nora manage to throw the perfect dinner party even as they reveal who the murderer is.

1934 was a good year for comedy.  The Thin Man was nominated for best picture but it lost to another charming little comedy, It Happened One Night.

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: Bad Girl (dir by Frank Borzage)


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Seeing as how I started this day by watching Fifty Shades Darker, it seemed appropriate to end the day by watching yet another film about the difficulty of finding love and commitment.  This film came out a little bit earlier than Fifty Shades of Grey.  In fact, it even predates the whole concept of fan fiction.  This film came out in 1931 and it would probably be totally forgotten today if not for the fact that, 85 years ago, it was nominated for Best Picture.

Of course, that’s not to say that Bad Girl is particularly well-known.  Until I came across it on my list of best picture nominees, I didn’t know that it even existed.  According to Wikipedia, it was based on a novel and a play and it did rather well at the box office.  The Academy apparently liked it, awarding it Oscars for both Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay.  It’s currently available on YouTube.  That’s where I saw it.  But, despite all of that, it definitely appears to be one of the more obscure films to have ever been nominated for best picture.

Bad Girl opens with Dorothy Hailey (Sally Eilers) in a wedding gown.  However, she’s not getting married.  Instead, she’s a store model and, in a rather surreal little sequence, Dorothy and her co-workers walk through the store in their bridal gowns while sleazy men leer at them.  As Dorothy complains to her best friend, Edna Diggs (Minna Gombell), men are “only interested in one thing.”  When Dorothy’s boss propositions her, Dorothy claims to have a prizefighter husband waiting for her at home.  In truthfulness, Dorothy lives with her overprotective brother (William Pawley), a judgmental brute who accuses her of being a tramp if she stays out too late.

At Coney Island, Edna makes a bet that Dorothy won’t be able to get surly Eddie Collins (James Dunn) to talk to her.  Dorothy takes the bet and then proceeds to go over to Eddie and play a ukulele, until Eddie gets annoyed enough to tell her to be quiet.  Eddie claims to not like women  and he accuses Dorothy of being a tease.  “Listen, sister,” he tells her, “if you don’t want guys to salute, take down the flag.”

Wow, Eddie sure does seem to be a jerk, doesn’t he?

Well, don’t worry.  It turns out that Eddie isn’t as bad as he seems, it’s just that he’s often in a bad mood because he doesn’t have much money and he wants to open up his own radio store.  However, Eddie and Dorothy quickly fall in love and soon, they’re married…

But, of course, things never go that smoothly.  It turns out that Eddie is proud and stubborn.  Fortunately, he’s played by a charming actor named James Dunn because, without Dunn’s considerable working class charm, Eddie would probably be insufferable.  Dorothy, meanwhile, fears letting Eddie know that she’s pregnant…

And you know what?

I liked Bad Girl.  

On the one hand, Bad Girl is definitely a dated film.  Any film released in 1931 is going to seem dated when watched in 2017.  But, at the same time, that also means that Bad Girl works as a nice little time capsule.  Watching Bad Girl was like stepping into a time machine.  And it turns out that the 1930s weren’t that bad!  Everyone wore nice clothes and talked like James Cagney.

But, dated it may be, there is also an almost timeless quality to Bad Girl.  Even decades after the film was originally released, the likable chemistry between James Dunn and Sally Eilers feels real and you really do care about what happens to them.  You feel like they belong together and it’s hard not to worry when they fight or when they misunderstand each other’s intentions.  (This happens rather frequently.)  Furthermore, Bad Girl is a film about people who, often times, are struggling just to make ends meet.  That’s something to which everyone can still relate.  It certainly sets it apart from a lot of the other films made both then and today.

Bad Girl was nominated for best picture but it lost to a film that was almost its total opposite, Grand Hotel.  Unlike most of the other old best picture nominees, I have never seen Bad Girl on TCM but it is on YouTube and you can watch it below!

The Fabulous Forties #46: The Town Went Wild (dir by Ralph Murphy)


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The 46th film in Mill Creek’s Fabulous Forties box set was 1946’s The Town Went Wild!  Nice name, huh?

The name is actually a lot nicer than the movie, which is a bit incoherent.  Basically, David (Freddie Bartholomew) is a nice guy who has lived his entire life in the small town.  His best friend is Bob (Jimmy Lydon) and David is also in love with Bob’s sister, Carol (Jill Browning).  David is an engineer who has just been assigned to go work in Alaska.  Before he leaves, he is determined to marry Carol.

Unfortunately, Bob’s father (Edward Everett Horton) and Carol’s father (Tom Tully) hate each other.  They have been feuding for so long that they’re not even sure what they’re feuding about.  However, Carol and David are determined to get married so they decided to elope.  Getting a ride from their friend Mille (Roberta Smith), they go to the next town over and ask the justice of the peace to marry them,

However, before the justice of the peace can marry them, he needs them to publicly post their wedding plans in the local newspaper.  And before David can post those plans, he needs to get his birth certificate from the local registrar.  When David gets his birth certificate, he discovers something shocking.  There was a mix-up at the hosptial!  His Dad went home with the wrong baby.  David is actually … CAROL’S BROTHER!

So, what can they do?  How can David and Carol still get married despite apparently being related?  And will the fathers be able to set aside their feud long enough to help their children out?  The entire town wants to know!

I have to admit that I’m struggling a bit to come up with anything to say about The Town Went Wild.  The movie is a mess and David and Carol are such boring characters that they even make incest look dull.  Unfortunately, the version I saw of The Town Went Wild suffered from one of those infamously cheap Mill Creek transfers, complete with grainy picture, inconsistent sound, abrupt cuts, and the sneaky suspicion that certain scenes did not make the transfer from film to video.

With all that in mind, it’s hard to fairly judge The Town Went Wild but I can say that at least it provided good roles for Edward Everett Horton and Tom Tully.  If nothing else, these two character actors appeared to enjoy playing loud and frequently stupid rivals.  Otherwise, The Town Went Wild is one of those poverty row films that can safely be forgotten.

Lisa Watches An Oscar Winner: The Best Years Of Our Lives (dir by William Wyler)


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I’ve seen The Best Years Of Our Lives on TCM a few times.  There’s a part of me that always wishes that this film was dull, in the way that many best picture winners can be when watched through modern eyes, or in any other way overrated.  The Best Years Of Our Lives won the Academy Award for Best Picture of 1946 and in doing so, it defeated one of my favorite films of all time, It’s A Wonderful Life.  A part of me would love to be able to say that this was one of the greatest injustices of cinematic history but, honestly, I can’t.    The Best Years Of Our Lives is an excellent film, one that remains more than worthy of every award that it won.

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The film deals with veterans returning home from World War II and struggling to adjust to life in peacetime.  That’s a topic that’s as relevant today as it was back in 1946.  If there’s anything that remains consistent about human history it’s that there is always a war being fought somewhere and the man and women who fight those wars are often forgotten and abandoned after the final shot has been fired.  The returning veterans in The Best Years Of Our Lives deal with the same issues that our soldiers have to deal with today as they return from serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Best Years Of Our Lives follows three veterans as they return home to Boone City, Ohio.  As they try to adjust to civilian life, their loved ones struggle to adjust to them.

 Teresa Wright and Dana Andrews

Teresa Wright and Dana Andrews

Fred Derry (played by Dana Andrews) is a self-described former soda jerk.  (To be honest, I’m really not sure what a soda jerk was but it doesn’t sound like a very fun job.)  During the war, he was a captain in the air force.  He returns home with several decorations and few marketable skills.  During the war, he was good at bombing cities but there’s not much that can be done with that skill during peacetime.  Nearly penniless, Fred takes a job selling perfume at a department store.  He spends his days trying to control her temper and not give into his frustration.  At night, he’s haunted by nightmares of combat.

Teresa Wright and Virginia Mayo

Teresa Wright and Virginia Mayo

Meanwhile, his wife, Marie (Virginia Mayo), finds herself resenting the fact that Fred has come home.  She married him while he was in flight training and, as quickly becomes obvious, she’s less enamored of Fred now that he’s just another civilian with a low-paying job.  (She continually begs him to wear the uniform that he can’t wait to take off.)  The Best Years Of Our Lives is a film full of great performances but Virginia Mayo really stands out.  I have to admit that, whenever I watch this film, I find myself envious of her ability to both snarl and smile at the same time.

Teresa Wright, Myrna Loy, Fredric March, and Michael Hall

Teresa Wright, Myrna Loy, Fredric March, and Michael Hall

Al Stephenson (Fredric March) was a bank loan officer who served as an infantry sergeant.  (It’s interesting to note that the educated and successful Al was outranked by Fred during the war.)  Al returns home to his loving wife, Milly (Myrna Loy), his daughter Peggy (the beautiful Teresa Wright), and his son, Rob (Michael Hall).  At first, Al struggles to reconnect with his family and he deals with the tension by drinking too much.  Rehired by the bank, he approves a risky loan to a fellow veteran.  After the bank president (Ray Collins, a.k.a. Boss Jim Gettys from Citizen Kane) admonishes Al, Al gives a speech about what America owes to its returning veterans.

Meanwhile, Peggy has fallen in love with Fred.  When Milly and Al remind her that Fred is (unhappily) married, Peggy announces, “I am going to break that marriage up!”  It’s a wonderful line, brilliantly delivered by the great Teresa Wright.

Harold Russell

Harold Russell

Marriage is also on the mind of Homer Parrish (Harold Russell).  A former high school quarterback, Homer was planning on marrying Wilma (Cathy O’Donnell) as soon as he finished serving in the Navy.  During the war, he lost both his hands and now he’s returned home with metal hooks.  Homer locks himself away from the world.  When he finally does talk to Wilma, it’s to show her how difficult life with him will be.  Wilma doesn’t care but Homer does.

Harold Russell won an Academy Award for his performance here.  Russell was not a professional actor.  Instead he was a veteran and a real-life amputee.  Watching his performance today, it’s obvious that Russell was not an experienced actor but the natural charm that enchanted the Academy still shines through.

Harold Russell, Dana Andrews, and Fredric March

Harold Russell, Dana Andrews, and Fredric March

It’s been nearly 70 years since The Best Years Of Our Lives was first released but it remains a powerfully honest and surprisingly dark film.  All three of the veterans deal with very real issues and, somewhat surprisingly, the film refuses to provide any of them with the type of conventional happy ending that we tend to take for granted when it comes to movies made before 1967.  As the film concludes, Fred is still struggling financially.  Homer is still adjusting to life as an amputee.  Al is still drinking.   All three have a long road ahead of them but they’re all making progress.  None of them will ever be the same as they were before the war but, at the same time, they’re all working on making new lives for themselves.  They haven’t given up.  They haven’t surrendered to despair and, the film suggests, that is triumph enough.

The Best Years Of Our Lives is a great film and a great best picture winner.  It’s just a shame that it had to be released the same year as It’s A Wonderful Life.