Repent, Ye Sinners!: STRANGE CARGO (MGM 1940)


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Any film condemned by the Catholic Legion of Decency can’t be all bad!  STRANGE CARGO depicts a bunch of hardened, unrepentant criminals escaping a brutal French Guiana prison, with a prostitute in tow to boot, and is laced with plenty of lascivious sex and brutal violence. But that wasn’t all the self-appointed guardians of morality objected to… there was the character of Cambreau who, though the film doesn’t come right out and say it, supposedly represents none other than Jesus Christ himself!

One more time: Clark & Joan

Clark Gable and Joan Crawford , in their eighth and final film together, lead this pack of sinners through a sweltering jungle of lust, murder, and ultimately redemption. He’s a con named Verne, “a thief by profession”, whose several attempts at escape have proved unsuccessful. She’s Julie, a two-bit hooker plying her trade on the island. The pair, as always, crackle like…

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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.

A Movie A Day #37: The Challenge (1970, directed by Alan Smithee)


A U.S. spy satellite has crashed onto an uninhabited island in the Pacific Ocean.  Both the United States and an unnamed communist country (described as being “a fifth-rate China,” but obviously meant as a stand-in for not only China but North Korea and North Vietnam as well) have both lay claim to the satellite.  To prevent a possible war, the two countries agree to a compromise.  One American and one communist will be dropped off on the island and will fight to the death.  The survivor gets the satellite.  The communists send the disciplined Yuro (Mako).  The American select Jacob Galley (Darren McGavin), a grizzled Vietnam veteran-turned-mercenary.  Jacob is armed with the latest advancements in weaponry, including a double-barreled sub-machine gun.  Yuro is armed mostly with his wits and an endless supply of booby traps.  Jacob and Yuro fight to a stand still, growing to respect each other even as each tries to kill the other.  However, both countries are willing to cheat to win the challenge.

Originally made for television, this is one of the many films to have been credited to Alan Smithee, the pseudonym that directors used to use whenever they felt that the finished film, usually because of studio interference, did not properly represent their vision.  According to the imdb, The Challenge was actually directed by veteran television directed George McGowan, whose other credits includes episodes of shows like Fantasy Island, Starsky and Hutch, and Charlie’s Angels.  I am surprised that McGowan chose to take his name off of The Challenge because, for a television movie, it’s not bad.  The Vietnam analogy is laid on a little thick but the action is exciting and both McGavin and Mako give excellent performances as the two very different combatants.

The Challenge can be viewed on YouTube.  Keep an eye out for a very young Sam Elliott, in the role of America’s insurance policy.

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Cleaning Out The DVR #26: Little Women (dir by George Cukor)


(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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Based on the beloved classic by Louisa May Alcott, the 1933 film Little Women tells the story of the March sisters.  Growing up in Concord, Massachusetts during the Civil War, they wait — with their mother, Marmee (Spring Byington) — for their father to return from serving as a chaplain in the Union Army.  There are four sisters.  The oldest, Meg (Frances Dee) is a responsible and practical (which is a nice way of saying that someone is boring) seamstress.  The youngest, Beth (Joan Bennett) is beautiful but selfish.  Meanwhile, saintly Beth (Jean Parker) spends her time playing a severely out-of-tune piano.

And then there’s Jo (Katharine Hepburn).  Jo is just a year younger than Meg and … well, basically, she’s Katharine Hepburn.  She’s an independent-minded intellectual who dreams of being a writer and who isn’t interested in conforming to society’s expectations.  She’s head-strong and occasionally, she’s too stubborn for her own good.  But she’s also kind-hearted and loves her sisters, even if she does sometimes disagree with them.  We follow Jo as she rejects one potential suitor, poor earnest Laurie (Douglass Montgomery) and discovers another when she meets the older Prof. Behar (Paul Lukas).  We also watch as a family tragedy brings her and her sisters back together.

In fact, Katharine Hepburn is so perfect as Jo that it throws the rest of this adaptation out of balance.  So totally does Hepburn dominate this film that it’s hard not to feel that the other March sisters end up getting a short shrift.  To a certain extent, it does make sense.  Jo is the lead character and the story is largely told through her point of view.  But, for someone who enjoyed reading Alcott’s novel, it’s hard not to be disappointed.  I mean, Jo is great but some of us may have related more to one of the other March sisters.  Like Beth, for instance.

Another problem with this version of Little Women is that the March sisters are all supposed to be teenagers and yet, they’re played by actresses who were in their 20s.  For instance, 23 year-old Joan Bennett played Amy, who is supposed to be only 12 years old when we first see her.  By casting actresses who were already clearly adults, it makes t difficult for the film to work as a coming-of-age story.

(Personally, my favorite version of Little Women — and the first one that I ever saw — was the 1994 version that starred Winona Ryder as Jo.  Even though Ryder was clearly the film’s star, the other three March sisters were all given time to make an impression as well and, as a result, they felt like a real family.  Speaking as the youngest of four sisters, there was a lot about that movie to which I could relate.  Add to that, Christian Bale made for a far more interesting Laurie than Douglass Montgomery.)

With all that said, it bears repeating that Katharine Hepburn is absolutely perfect as Jo and, if you’re a Hepburn fan (and who isn’t), this is one of her essential films.  It helps that she was directed by George Cukor, the director who was responsible for some of Hepburn’s best performances.  The rest of the movie doesn’t quite live up to Hepburn’s performance but she was such a great talent that it almost doesn’t matter.

Little Women was nominated for best picture.  However, it lost to Cavalcade.

Steampunk Disney: 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA (Walt Disney Productions 1954)


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When TCM aired this movie last week, I just had to watch. It was one of my favorites as a kid, and I was curious to see how well it held up with the passage of time. To my delight, 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA is even more enjoyable in adulthood, a joyous sci-fi adventure film thanks to the fine cast and the genius of Walt Disney.

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Based on the Jules Verne novel, 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA takes us back to 1868, where rumors of a sea monster attacking ships are running rampant. Eminent scientist Professor Aronnax and his protégé’ Counseil are invited to join a voyage to investigate the matter, along with the free-spirited harpoonist Ned Land. They encounter the beast and are shipwrecked, only to discover the monster is actually a fantastic, futuristic submarine, The Nautilus. The sub is commanded by Captain Nemo, who picks up Aronnax, Counseil, and…

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Cleaning Out The DVR #6: Watch On The Rhine (dir by Herman Shumlin)


After I finished watching Around The World In 80 Days, I decided to watch the 1943 film, Watch on the Rhine.  Though both films are immortalized in the record books as a multiple Oscar nominee, Watch on The Rhine might as well have taken place in a totally different universe from Around The World In 80 Days.  Based on a play by the always politically outspoken Lillian Hellman, Watch On The Rhine is as serious a film as Around The World In 80 Days is frivolous.

It’s also somewhat infamous for being the film for which Paul Lukas won an Oscar for best actor.  When Lukas won his Oscar, he defeated Humphrey Bogart, who was nominated for his iconic performance in Casablanca.  This is justifiably considered to be one of the biggest mistakes in Oscar history and, as a result, there are people who will tell you that Watch On The Rhine is a totally undeserving nominee, despite having never actually seen the film and not being totally sure who Paul Lukas was.

Up until I watched the film yesterday, you could have included me among those people.

What’s interesting is that Watch On The Rhine almost feels like a companion piece to Casablanca.  Both films were resolutely anti-fascist, both of them dealt with a member of the Resistance trying to escape from a German agent, and both films climaxed with a gunshot.  The part played by Paul Lukas, a German engineer named Kurt Muller, feels like he could be an older version of Casablanca‘s Victor Laszlo.  Finally, whereas Casablanca centered around “letters of transit,” Watch On The Rhine centers around money.  Kurt is smuggling money to the Resistance.  Teck de Brancovis (George Coulouris), a dissolute Romanian count, demands money in exchange for not informing the Germans of where Kurt’s location.

(Of course, both Casablanca’s letters and Watch on the Rhine’s money are an example of what Hitchcock called the MacGuffin.  The letters and the money are not important.  What’s important is that both films use the thriller format to inspire viewers to support the war effort.)

The film takes place in 1940, when America was still officially neutral.  Kurt and his American wife, Sara (Bette Davis), have secretly entered the United States through Mexico.  Officially, they are only visiting Sara’s brother (Donald Woods) and mother (Lucille Watson) in Washignton, D.C.  Unofficially, they are looking for political sanctuary.  However, Kurt still finds himself drawn back to Germany, especially after he finds out that one of his friends in the Resistance has been arrested by the Gestapo.

Not surprisingly, considering its theatrical origins, Watch On The Rhine is a very talky and a very stage-bound film.  Almost all of the action takes place in one location and a good deal of the film’s running time is devoted to Kurt giving speeches.  Don’t get me wrong, that’s not a complaint.  Though the film may have been released at the height of the war, the play was written at a time when America was still officially neutral and many elected officials were adamant that, even if it meant Hitler taking over the entire continent, America should never get involved in the affairs of Europe.  Watch On The Rhine was Hellman’s attempt to both expose what was happening in Germany and to rally them to the anti-fascist cause.  Watch On The Rhine may be propaganda but its anti-Nazi propaganda and who can’t appreciate the importance of that?

When it was originally released, Watch On The Rhine was sold as a Bette Davis vehicle.  To be honest, Davis doesn’t really do much in the film.  She supports her husband and she has a few sharp words for Teck but, otherwise, her role is definitely secondary to Paul Lukas.  Davis took the role because she believed in the film’s message.  It’s a good message and, for that matter, Watch On The Rhine is a pretty good film.  It’s well-acted, intelligently written, and perfectly paced.

But what about Paul Lukas’s Oscar?  Well, let’s state the obvious.  Humphrey Bogart should have won the award for Casablanca.  That doesn’t mean that Paul Lukas doesn’t give a worthy performance.  He originated the role on stage and he does a good job of bringing the character to life on film, bringing a sincere intensity to even the most stagey of Kurt’s monologues.  Whenever Lukas speaks, he’s explaining to the filmgoers why the U.S. must take a stand against Hitler and his followers.  Considering that Watch On The Rhine was released at the height of World War II, I imagine that this, more than anything, led to Lukas winning his Oscar.

Watch On The Rhine was also nominated for Best Picture.  It was deserved nomination but, in this case, the Academy made the right decision and gave the Oscar to Casablanca.