Cleaning Out The DVR #15: Random Harvest (dir by Mervyn LeRoy)


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This morning, as a part of my continuing effort to watch 38 films by Friday and clean out the DVR, I watched Random Harvest, a romantic melodrama from 1942.

And when I say that Random Harvest is a melodrama, I’m not exaggerating.  During the first hour of the film, I found myself thinking that if Random Harvest were made today, it would probably be a Lifetime movie.  By the time the second hour started, I realized that it would actually probably be one of those heavily hyped miniseries that ends up being broadcast on A&E, Bravo, and Lifetime at the same time.  This is one of those big, epic stories where, every few minutes, a new plot twist emerges.

When the film opens during the first World War, John Smith (Ronald Colman) is a patient at a British asylum.  He knows that he was once a soldier.  He knows that he was gassed during a battle.  He knows that he’s recovering from extreme shell shock and it’s still a struggle for him to relate to other human beings. He knows that he will probably spend the rest of his life as a patient at the asylum.  He also knows that his name is not John Smith.  He’s not sure what his real name is because he suffers from amnesia.

One night, a message comes to the asylum.  The war has ended!  All of the doctor and orderlies go out to celebrate, leaving Smith unguarded.  Smith simply walks out of the asylum and eventually makes his way to a nearby town.  It’s there that he meets Paula (Greer Garson), a kind-hearted singer who invites Smith to join her traveling theatrical troupe.

Paula and Smith fall in love, end up getting married, and have a child together.  Paula encourages Smith to become a writer and eventually, a publisher in Liverpool asks to meet with him.  However, when Smith goes to Liverpool, he ends up getting hit by a car.  When he regains consciousness, he suddenly knows that his name is Charles Rainier and that he’s rich!  However, he no longer remembers that he was once named John Smith, that he’s married to Paula, or that he has a child.

The years pass.  Charles returns to his old life of servants, money, and political ambition.  His stepniece, Kitty (Susan Peters), falls in love with him but Charles, for his part, cannot stop wondering about what happened between getting gassed in World War I and getting hit by that car in Liverpool.

Meanwhile, Paula refuses to believe that Smith had abandoned her.  Even after she has him legally declared dead, she continue to believe that he’s out there.  And then one day, she sees a picture of Charles Rainier.  She also learns that Rainier needs an executive secretary, which just happens to be what Paula does when she’s not singing…

Just from reading that plot, you probably think that Random Harvest is an incredibly silly film, that type that, if it were made today, would star Katharine Heigl and maybe a British guy who had a minor role on Game of Thrones.  But, dammit, Random Harvest works!  Filmmakers in the 30s and 40s knew how to make this type of melodrama totally compelling and believable.  There’s not a hint of snarkiness or cynicism to be found in Random Harvest and, as a result, it feels almost churlish to criticize the plot for being implausible.  Sincerity saves this film.

Random Harvest was nominated for Best Picture but it lost to another film starring Greer Garson, Mrs. Miniver.  However, Garson gave a far better performance in Random Harvest than she did in Miniver.  When you watch most of her film today, Greer Garson always comes across as talented but a little boring and obvious in her technique.  (She was the Meryl Streep of her day.)  In Random Harvest, Garson actually gets to sing and danger and laugh and behave like a human being.  After seeing her in Blossoms In The Dust, Mrs. Miniver, and Sunrise at Campobello, watching her performance in Random Harvest is akin to an acting revelation.

Meanwhile, Ronald Colman also does a great work at both Smith and Charles (and they really are two separate characters).  Admittedly, Colman does come across as being a little bit too old for the role (and the age difference between him and Susan Peters does add a certain odd subtext to the scenes between Charles and Kitty) but, otherwise, he’s totally and completely credible as the character.  When he’s Smith, he speaks in a halting, uncertain tone and he walks like he’s still learning how to put one foot in front of the other.  When he becomes Charles, he’s definitely more confident but he still moves like a man who feels as if it’s his duty to carry the weight of the world on his shoulders.

(I have to admit that I’ve always found it strange that Margaret Mitchell apparently wanted Ronald Colman to play Rhett Butler in Gone With The Wind.  Watching his performance here, I still could not see Colman as Rhett but he would have made a great Ashley Wilkes.)

The beautiful Susan Peters was nominated for best supporting actress for her performance as Kitty.  Random Harvest was her first major role and she gives such a great and likable performance that it makes it all the more tragic that her career was cut short.  Just three years after appearing in Random Harvest, Susan was accidentally shot by her husband.  Though she survived, she would never walk again.  When she died, at the age of 31 in 1952, the official cause was pneumonia but it was also said that she had stopped eating and drinking and had literally lost the will to live.  Whether you love Random Harvest or you think it’s just a silly melodrama, you should watch it just to see Susan Peters’s great performance and to consider what could have been.

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #15: Casablanca (dir by Michael Curtiz)


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(This review contains spoilers but seriously, you should know all of this already.)

Is there anything left to be said about Casablanca?

Probably not.

As a film reviewer, I’m not supposed to admit that.  I’m supposed to come up with some sort of new, out-of-nowhere, batshit crazy way to look at Casablanca.  I’m supposed to argue that Rick was actually meant to be a survivor of abuse or that Victor Laszlo was some sort of precursor to President Obama or something.  Or, if that doesn’t work, I’m supposed to intentionally troll everyone by writing something like, “10 reasons why Casablanca is overrated” or “I hate Casablanca and I don’t care who knows it!”

But I’m not going to do that.

The fact of the matter is that Casablanca is as good a film as everyone says it is.  It is a film that everyone should see.  It is a film that quite rightfully was named best picture of 1943.  It deserves to be celebrated.  It deserves to be seen.  In fact, stop reading this review right now and go watch it.  Don’t let me waste another second of your time.

The thing with Casablanca is that it’s such an iconic film that everyone knows what happens, regardless of whether they’ve actually watched the entire film or not.  They know that the film takes place in Casablanca during World War II.  They know that Casablanca is full of refugees, spies, and people who are hiding from their past.  They know that Casablanca is policed by the charmingly corrupt Capt. Louis Renault (Claude Rains).  They know that Major Strasser (Conrad Veidt) is the Nazi in charge.  (I nearly said that Strasser was the “evil Nazi in charge” but when you identify someone as a Nazi, is it really necessary to add that they’re evil?)  They know that Rick (Humphrey Bogart) is the American expatriate who owns Rick’s Cafe Americain and that everyone comes to Rick’s.  They know that Rick’s slogan is that he doesn’t stick his neck out for anyone but they also know that his cynicism hides the fact that he’s still in love with Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman).  They know that when Ilsa shows up at Rick’s and needs him to help her husband, Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid), escape from Occupied Europe, Rick is forced to decide whether or not to get involved in the resistance.

And, whether you’ve seen the film or not, you know that it all ends on a foggy airstrip.  Ilsa wants to stay in Casablanca with Rick but Rick tells her that she has to get on the plane with Laszlo because, if she doesn’t, she’ll regret it.  Ilsa goes with Laszlo, leaving Rick behind.

And it may have been the right thing to do but how many viewers would have done the same if they had been in Ilsa’s high heels?  Throughout the entire movie, we hear about how wonderful Laszlo is but, whenever he actually shows up on screen, it’s always a little bit surprising to discover just how boring a character Victor Laszlo really is.  Unlike the troubled and deceptively cynical Rick, there’s not much going on underneath the surface with Laszlo.  Just as Rick overshadows Laszlo, Bogart’s performance overshadows Paul Henreid’s.  Bogart and Bergman have all the chemistry and the charisma.  Henreid, on the other hand, comes across as stiff and a little dull.  But, as the film suggests, World War II was not a time for self-doubt and self-interest.  World War II was a time when the world needed straight-forward, determined men like Victor Laszlo.

And, if the world needed Laszlo and Laszlo needed Ilsa, then that meant Ilsa had to get on that plane.

That said, I’ve always liked to think that Ilsa ended up leaving Laszlo in 1945 and immediately made her way back to Morocco.  Rick and Ilsa belonged together.

But until Ilsa comes back, Rick has his friendship with Renault.  “Louis,” he says, “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”  Did Bogart realize, when he delivered that line, that literally thousands of people would be repeating it decades later?  Bogart’s performance is probably one of the most imitated performances of all time.  Anyone who sees Casablanca thinks that they can talk about gin joints and hills of beans in Bogart’s trademark style.  Of course, they can’t and it’s a testament to the power of Bogart’s performance that it remains effective even after being endlessly imitated.

On Valentine’s Day of 2014, I saw Casablanca at the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin.  It was an amazing and romantic experience.  See Casablanca on the big screen.  It’ll make you love life and bring life to your love.

Needless to say, Casablanca is an intimidating film to review.  So, I’ll just say this: Casablanca is even better than you think it is.  If you haven’t seen it, go watch it.  If you have seen it, go watch it again.

Just resist the temptation to say, “Play it again, Sam,” in your best Bogart-like voice.

Because, seriously, Rick never actually says that line.

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.

Shattered Politics #21: Kisses For My President (dir by Curtis Bernhardt)


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If there’s anyone who deserves to be the subject of a big budget biopic, it’s Victoria C. Woodhull.  Back in the 19th century, at a time when women were not even allowed to vote, Victoria C. Woodhull was not only the first woman to ever work as a stockbroker but also the first to ever found her own newspaper.  A fierce advocate for women’s right and free love, Victoria Woodhull was also the first woman to ever run for President.  She was nominated in 1872 by the Equal Rights Party and, for the crime of trying to cast a vote for herself, she spent election day in jail.

Since that day, many more women have run for President but none have been elected.  Since 1984, two women have received major party nominations for vice president but neither came close to being elected.  Since 1964, Margaret Chase Smith, Shirley Chisholm, Patsy Mink, Ellen McCormack, Patricia Schroeder, Elizabeth Dole, Carol Mosely-Braun, Michele Bachman, and Hillary Rodham Clinton have all campaigned for the presidential nomination of one of the two major political parties but none of them have been nominated.

I do believe that a woman will be elected President within my lifetime.  In fact, it could even happen in 2016.  But until then, the only place where you can find a female President is on TV and in the movies.

Take, for instance, today’s final entry in Shattered Politics, the 1964 film Kisses For My President.  This may very well have been the very first movie to feature a woman as President.  Needless to say, in 1964, this idea was considered so outrageous that it had to be played for laughs.

Kisses For My President starts with an image of hundreds of women chanting “We want Leslie!”  We get a shot of Fred MacMurray looking out over the crowd.  The next scene, the new President is being sworn in.  We start with a close-up of the chief justice reciting the oath of office to “Leslie Harrison McCloud.”  The camera pans over to Fred MacMurray, listening intently.  However, just when 1964 audiences were expecting MacMurray to swear to uphold the constitution, the camera pans yet again, over to …. Polly Bergen!

“OH MY GOD!” audiences in 1964 gasped, “LESLIE McCLOUD IS A WOMAN!”

That’s right.  Polly Bergen is playing President Leslie McCloud and Fred MacMurray is playing her husband, Thad.  As the film makes apparent in its opening scenes, Thad is not quite sure what his role is supposed to be.  He has an office in the White House but it’s just so … feminine!  And it’s full of painting of previous first ladies who were all ladies!  And, at one point, Thad even imagines a picture of himself wearing a lady’s hat!

Oh my God!

Now, to be fair to the movie, Polly Bergen does get a few scenes where she shows herself to be a strong President.  There’s a great scene where she coolly dismisses a condescending senator (Edward Andrews) who suggests that, as a woman, Leslie might not be up to the task of standing up to America’s enemies.  It’s a brief scene but it’s a good one.

But, ultimately, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that Kisses For My President, a film about the first female President, is mostly interested in how Thad handles being “first gentleman.”  It’s a film that imagines a historic moment for women and then focuses on what it would mean for one man.

How 1964!

On the one hand, Kisses For My President is a dated comedy that runs way too long and tries to get too much mileage out of one joke (i.e., Fred MacMurray looking confused).  However, the film also features a great performance from Eli Wallach.  Playing a strutting dictator named Vasquez, Wallach is a lot of fun and the scenes where MacMurray shows him around Washington are the best in the film.  I also appreciated the fact that the President’s daughter reacts to the restrictions of living in the White House by dating a guy that she knows her parents will hate, largely because I would have done the same thing in her situation.

I’m a little bit torn on the ending of Kisses For My President.  (Should I spoil it?  No, I don’t think I will.)  On the one hand, it’s outrageously sexist and seems to suggests that Leslie — despite being a strong President during the few times we actually get to see her doing the job — should have been content to just be a wife and mother.  On the other hand, it’s one of those endings that would seem to perfectly capture the dominant culture of the time when the film was made.  So, it has some worth from a historical point of view.

When last I checked, Kisses For My President is currently available for free on YouTube. The film is interesting as a historical document if nothing else.