Cecil B. DeMented: MADAM SATAN (MGM 1930)


cracked rear viewer

It’s wild! It’s weird! It’s Cecil B. DeMille’s  MADAM SATAN, a movie I’ve heard about for decades, but never had the chance to catch, until now. It’s got a little something for everybody, from drama to comedy to musical numbers to half-naked women to jazz baby Lillian Roth! Was it worth the wait, Dear Readers? Well… read on!

Better hold on to your seats though, as MADAM SATAN shifts abruptly in tone throughout it’s running time. It’s slow going the first few minutes, starting out as a stiff drawing-room drama. Angela Brooks (Kay Johnson) is worried about her dissipating  marriage to Bob, who neglects her and stays out all night. Now here comes comedy, with Bob (Reginald Denny ) and his pal Jimmy (Roland Young) trying to sneak in at dawn, two wasted wastrels drunk as the proverbial skunks. Suddenly, out of nowhere, the maid (Elsa Peterson) breaks out…

View original post 542 more words

The Fabulous Forties #4: Topper Returns (dir by Roy Del Ruth)


Topper_Returns_VideoCover

The fourth film in Mill Creek’s Fabulous Forties box set was 1941’s Topper Returns.  Topper Returns was the third (and final) film to be made about Cosmo Topper (Roland Young).  Cosmo Topper is an upper class and mild-mannered banker who likes to collect automobiles and who is married to the somewhat daffy Clara (Billie Burke).  Cosmo would seem to be a pretty normal guy, except for the fact that he can talk to dead people.  In the first Topper film, a ghost played by Cary Grant helped him to learn how to appreciate life.  In the second Topper film, Topper Takes A Trip, a ghost played by Constance Bennett helped to save Topper and Clara’s marriage.  And in this Topper film, a ghost helps …. well actually, the ghost doesn’t help Topper out at all.  Instead, Topper helps the ghost solve her own murder.

When Gail Richards (Joan Blondell) visits her friend Ann Carrington (Carole Landis) for the weekend, she has no idea just how weird things are going to get.  First off, while Gail and Ann are riding in a taxi to the big and foreboding Carrington mansion, a mysterious man in black shoots out the taxi’s tires.  Though the taxi crashes, both Gail and Ann survive and are able to hitch a ride from Ann’s neighbor, Cosmo Topper.

Once they get to the mansion, Gail meets Ann’s strange family.  Gail loves the mansion and who wouldn’t, seeing as how it is big and dark and full of secret passageways?  However, Gail makes the big mistake of switching beds with Ann.  Later that night, when that man in black sneaks into the bedroom and attempts to stab Ann to death, he ends up killing Gail instead.  When we next see Gail, she’s a ghost who can’t leave our world until her murder has been solved.

No worries!  Gail isn’t that upset about being a ghost.  In fact,  she seems to be rather amused by it all.  She floats right over to Topper’s house and demands that he come over and solve her murder.  After some initial reluctance, Topper agrees.  Topper sneaks into the Carrington mansion and gets to work searching for clues and attempting to solve the crime.  Needless to say, it involves a lot of family secrets, hidden rooms, and dark passageways.

Now, I should admit that I haven’t seen the first two Topper films so I don’t know how Topper Returns compares to them.  The majority of the reviews that I’ve read online seem to indicate that Topper Returns is widely considered to be inferior when compared to the first two films.  It is true, as a lot of other reviewers have pointed out, that Topper himself occasionally seems almost superfluous to the film’s plot.  At no point does he mention that he has a history of talking to ghosts and, if not for the fact that the film’s title is Topper Returns, it would be easy to believe that this film was the first appearance of the character.

But no matter!  I enjoyed Topper Returns, mostly because I’d like to think that if I was ever murdered and came back as a ghost, I would manage to have as much fun doing so as Joan Blondell appears to be having in the role of Gail.  Funny, likable, and quick-witted, Gail isn’t going to let a little thing like being dead keep her from having fun!  I also appreciated that the film has a nicely morbid streak.  Towards the end of the film, there’s a cheerful conversation between Gail and another ghost.  Gail mentions that, as soon as the murder has been solved, she can go to Heaven and “you can go to…”  Gail lets her voice trail off but still make a point of glancing down at the ground.

For a modern viewer, the most problematic part of Topper Returns is the character of Chauffeur, who is Topper’s African-American servant and who doesn’t even get a proper name even though he’s in about 80% of the movie.  On the one hand, Chauffeur is written as a total racist stereotype and, as written, the majority of his lines will absolutely make you cringe.  On the other hand, he’s also played by Eddie Anderson, a talented comedic actor who always played his servants in such a way as to suggest that they were actually a hundred times smarter than the white people they were working for.  Though you may not like the way the character is written, it is possible to appreciate the subversive subtext that Anderson brings to his performance (a subtext which, undoubtedly, was not present in the original script).  Anderson was best known for playing comedian Jack Benny’s sidekick and, at one point during Topper Returns, he announces that he’s sick of ghosts and that he’s going “return to Mr. Benny!”

Taken on its own 1941 terms, Topper Returns was an enjoyable old, dark house movie.  Watch it for Joan Blondell having the time of her afterlife.

Lisa Watches An Oscar Nominee: Ruggles of Red Gap (dir by Leo McCarey)


Ruggles_of_red_gap

After watching Barry Lyndon, I decided to continue to explore my DVR by watching another film that was shown as a part of TCM’s 31 Days of Oscar.

First released way back in 1935, Ruggles of Red Gap was nominated for best picture but it lost to Mutiny of the Bounty.  Interestingly enough, both Ruggles and Bounty featured the great Charles Laughton.  In Bounty, Laughton played a tyrannical villain, Capt. Bligh.  In Ruggles, however, Laughton is the film’s hero, a gentle and comedic butler named Marmaduke Ruggles who, after having his contract gambled away in a poker game, finds himself living in the frontier town of Red Gap, Washington.

It’s also interesting to note that Ruggles of Red Gap is one of the few best picture nominees to receive absolutely no other nominations.  To a certain extent, it’s understandable.  Ruggles of Red Gap was made at a time when the Academy had less categories but still nominated ten films for best picture.  As a film, Ruggles mostly serves as a showcase for Charles Laughton but, that year, he received his best actor nomination for his work in Mutiny.  (At that time, there were no supporting categories.  Had there been, it’s likely that Laughton could have received a lead actor nomination for Ruggles and a supporting nomination for Bounty.)  The next time that someone complains that Selma only received two nominations, you remind them that’s one more than Ruggles of Red Gap received.

As for the film itself … well, for a modern audience, the film’s deliberate pace takes some getting used to.  The film’s best moments occur at the start.  Ruggles wakes up one morning to discover that his boss (Roland Young) lost him in a poker game.  Ruggles spends the day meeting and attempting to get used to his new employer, a nouveau riche cowboy named Egbert Floud (Charlie Ruggles).  The joke here, of course, is that Ruggles is stereotypically reserved and British while Egbert is loud, brash, and American.  Ruggles lives his life by the rules of the class system.  Egbert comes from a world where there is no class and everyone is equal.  Ruggles refuses to call Egbert by his first name.  Egbert gets Ruggles drunk.  The scenes of Egbert and Ruggles in Europe are a lot of fun, largely because the two actors were obviously having a lot of fun playing off each other and Laughton clearly relished getting to play comedy as opposed to villainy.

The second half of the film features Ruggles settling into life in Red Gap, Washington.  The citizens of Red Gap are, of course, all honest and hard-working folks who don’t have the slightest hint of pretension.  (Red Gap may have been in Washington but it was obviously nowhere close to Seattle.)  They welcome Ruggles into the community but they also mistake him for being a colonel and soon, everyone is under the impression that Ruggles himself is a war hero.  It’s an odd subplot, one that doesn’t seem to really be necessary to make the film’s point.

And that point, by the way, is that America is a land where everyone is equal and where butlers have the same rights as their employers.  Ruggles goes from being somewhat horrified by his new surrounding to being a proud American, an entrepreneur who is now capable of being his own man.  And it may sound corny and I’m sure all of my cynical friends are rolling their eyes but you know what?  Charles Laughton pulled it off.  As uneven as the film may sometimes be, Laughton’s sincere performance holds it all together.  He’s the main reason to watch Ruggles of Red Gap.

How proud of an American does Ruggles become?  He’s enough of an American that he can even recite the Gettysburg address!  Watch below!

Lisa Reviews The Oscar Nominees: The Philadelphia Story (dir by George Cukor)


The-Philadelphia-Story-(1940)

There are a few reasons why The Philadelphia Story was one of those films that I had been meaning to watch for a while.  For one thing, The Philadelphia Story was nominated for best picture of 1940 (it lost to Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca) and my ultimate goal is to see and review every single film ever nominated for best picture.  The other reason is that Jimmy Stewart won an Oscar for his performance in The Philadelphia Story and anyone who doesn’t love Jimmy Stewart has obviously never seen Anatomy of a Murder (not to mention It’s a Wonderful Life!).

Well, The Philadelphia Story was on TCM last night and I finally got to see it and what can I say?  I absolutely loved it.  For a 74 year-old, black-and-white comedy, The Philadelphia Story is still a lot of fun.

The Philadelphia Story tells the story of Tracy Lord (Katharine Hepburn), a wealthy socialite who is engaged to marry George Kitteridge (John Howard), a self-described “man of the people,” who is widely respect for both his strong moral character and the fact that — unlike most of Tracy’s friends — he made his fortune as opposed to inheriting it.

It would be tempting to reach into the bag of simplistic blogging clichés and call the Lords a 1940s version of Khardashians but I’m not going to do that because the Lords have a lot more wit and class.  My favorite member of Tracy’s family was Dinah (Virginia Wiedler), her teenage sister who is sarcastic, cheerfully cynical, and has no problem demanding to be the center of attention.  My sister Erin claims that the reason I liked Dinah is because I saw a lot of myself in the character and that’s probably true.  However, I have to say that the great thing about both Tracy and Dinah is that they were both wittier, classier, and better dressers than all of the Khardashians and Jenners combined.

Anyway, the evil editor of Spy Magazine, Sidney Kidd (Henry Daniell), wants to get pictures of Tracy’s very exclusive and very private wedding so he sends two of his reporters in under cover.  Mike Connor (James Stewart) is a frustrated writer who hates having to lower himself to writing for a tabloid.  Photographer Liz (Ruth Hussey) is secretly in love with Mike.  Helping Mike and Liz pass themselves off as friends of the family is Tracy’s ex-husband, C.K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant).

As quickly becomes obvious, Dexter is still in love with Tracy.  However, Tracy divorced Dexter because Dexter was an irresponsible alcoholic and, even though Dexter has changed his ways and she is still obviously attracted to him, Tracy is now engaged to the morally upright but boring and judgmental George.

However, Tracy is not just torn between George and Dexter.  She is attracted to Mike as well, to the extent that Tracy even takes the trouble to read some of Mike’s short stories.  For only the second time in her life, Tracy gets drunk and goes for a midnight swim with Mike.  This, of course, leads to the best scene in The Philadelphia Story: Jimmy Stewart singing Somewhere Over The Rainbow.

Seriously, the scene made my entire night.

The Philadelphia Story is based on a play and the film itself is rather stagey in that way that films from the 40s often appear to be to modern viewers.  But, once you get used to the fact that the movie was made in 1940 and not 2014, it’s a real delight.  The dialogue is funny and it’s delivered by one of the best casts ever.  Playing a role that was specifically written for her, Katherine Hepburn is brilliant as the strong-willed but unapologetically romantic Tracy and Cary Grant is just as charming as you would expect Cary Grant to be.  Best of all, you’ve got Jimmy Stewart singing Somewhere Over the Rainbow and seriously, how can you not love that?