Yukon Gold: THE SPOILERS (Universal 1942)


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What’s this?? A “Northern” Western set in 1900 Alaska Gold Rush territory starring my two favorite cowboys, John Wayne and Randolph Scott ? With the ever-enticing Marlene Dietrich thrown in as a sexy saloon owner? Count me in! THE SPOILERS is a big, brawling, boisterous film loaded with romance, action, and, most importantly,  a sense of humor. It’s the kind of Hollywood entertainment epic that, as they say, “just don’t make ’em like that anymore”. I’ve never been quite sure who “they” are, but in regards to THE SPOILERS, they’re right – and more’s the pity!

Rex Beach’s popular 1906 novel had been filmed three times before (1914, 1923, 1930), and would be one more time after (in 1955), but with The Duke, Rugged Randy, and La Dietrich on board, this has got to be the best of the bunch. Even though audiences were more than familiar with the story…

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Lisa Reviews An Oscar Winner: You Can’t Take It With You (dir by Frank Capra)


(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 1938 best picture winner, You Can’t Take It With You!)

“You can’t take it with you.”

If there’s any one belief that defines the worldview of Martin Vanderhof (Lionel Barrymore), it’s this.  It doesn’t matter how much money you make in your life.  It doesn’t matter how successful you are at business or anything else.  The fact of the matter is that, when your time is up, you won’t be able to take any of that stuff with you.  Instead, Grandpa Vanderhof (as he’s called by his large family) believes that the most important thing to do during your lifetime is to make friends and pursue what you’re truly interested in.

Vanderhof has another belief, one that particularly appealed to be me.  He has never paid income tax.  He doesn’t see the point of giving money to the government when he doesn’t feel that they’ll make good use of it.  When an outraged IRS agent (Charles Lane) stops by Vanderhof’s sprawling house and demands that Vanderhof pay his taxes, Vanderhof refuses.  When the IRS man argues that the income tax is necessary to pay for the Presidency, the Congress, and the Supreme Court, Vanderhof offers to give him five dollars.  “Hell yeah!” I shouted at the TV.  With an attitude like that, Vanderhof should have moved down here to Texas.  We would have elected him governor.

Grandpa Vanderhof is the head of a large and cheerfully eccentric family, all of whom live together under the same roof.  Penny (Spring Byington) writes novels because, years ago, a typewriter was accidentally delivered to the house.  Her husband, Paul (Samuel S. Hinds), has a basement full of fireworks.  Essie (Ann Miller) loves to dance and spends almost the entire movie twirling from room to room.  Her husband, Ed (Dub Taylor), is a xylophone player.

Of course, it’s not just family living in the Vanderhof House.  There’s also Potap Kolenkhov (Mischa Auer), a Russian who is “teaching” Essie how to dance.  There’s Rheba the maid (Lillian Yarbo) and Donald (Eddie Anderson) the handyman.  Actually, the house appears to be open to just about anyone who wants to stay.

And then there’s Penny’s daughter, Alice (Jean Arthur).  Alice is the most “normal” member of the family.  She has just become engaged to Tony Kirby (James Stewart) and she is still trying to figure out how to introduce Tony’s stuffy parents (Edward Arnold and Mary Forbes) to her eccentric family.  What she and Tony don’t know is that Mr. Kirby is currently trying to buy up all the houses that are near a competitor’s factory.  Only one homeowner has refused to sell.  The name of that homeowner?  Martin “Grandpa” Vanderhof.

It all leads, of course, to one chaotic dinner party, one lively night in jail, and a huge fireworks display.  It also leads to true love, which is nice.  Jimmy Stewart and Jean Arthur are even more adorable here than they were in Mr. Smith Goes To Washington.

Based on a Pulitzer-winning play by George S. Kaufman, You Can’t Take It With You was the second comedy to win the Oscar for Best Picture.  The first comedy to win was 1934’s It Happened One Night.  It’s probably not coincidence that both of these films were directed by Frank Capra.

Seen today, You Can’t Take It With You seems a bit slight for an Oscar winner.  Grandpa Vanerhof is a lovable eccentric.  Tony’s father is a stuffy businessman.  Hmmm … I wonder whose philosophy is going to be victorious at the end of the movie?  Still, predictability aside, it’s a delightfully enjoyable film.  While it never quite escape its stage origins, it features wonderful performances from all the usual members of the Capra stock company.  James Stewart and Jean Arthur are a charming couple while Lionel Barrymore gives a performance that is so warmly likable that it’s hard to imagine that, just 9 years later, he would be so perfectly cast as the heartless Mr. Potter in It’s A Wonderful Life.  Of course, my favorite member of the member was Essie, mostly because I also like to dance from room to room.  While it’s hard to justify awarding it Best Picture over The Adventures of Robin Hood and Grand Illusion, You Can’t Take It With You is still a wonderfully fun movie.

It’ll make you smile and laugh.  Who can’t appreciate that?

 

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: Test Pilot (dir by Victor Fleming)


(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 or they could be a previous year’s nominee!  We’ll see how things play out.  Today, I take a look at the 1938 best picture nominee, Test Pilot!)

Test Pilot is all about charisma.

It tells a fairly simple story.  I imagine that the plot seemed just as familiar in 1938 as it does in 2018.  Jim Lane (Clark Gable) is a test pilot.  In the early days of aviation, long before people took the idea of flight for granted, Jim Lane is a hero and celebrity.  Whenever a new aviation technique is developed, Jim is the one who tests it.  He’s the one who makes sure that it’s safe.  Every day, when Jim goes to work for Mr. Drake (Lionel Barrymore), there’s a chance that he might not make it home.  Not surprisingly, he’s cocky, reckless, and not prone to commitment.  He’s also handsome, charming, manly, and quick with a quip.  In short, he’s Clark Gable.

When the movie starts, Jim has only one real friend.  Gunner (Spencer Tracy) is his mechanic.  Gunner is a by-the-book, no-nonsense professional.  He might enjoy a drink every now and then but Gunner knows his job and he knows his planes and, even more importantly, he knows Jim.  Gunner’s a man of unimpeachable integrity, the type who will always call things as he sees them.  In short, he’s Spencer Tracy.

One day, while on a test flight, Jim is forced to make an emergency landing on a farm in Kansas.  That’s where he meets Ann Barton (Myrna Loy).  Ann is beautiful and outspoken.  She quickly proves that she can keep up with Jim, quip-for-quip.  In short, she’s Myrna Loy and, before you know it, she and Jim are in love.  Just as quickly, Jim and Ann are married.

The movie starts out as a bit of domestic comedy.  Jim may know how to fly a plane but it quickly becomes obvious that he doesn’t know much about commitment or being a husband.  When Jim attempts to buy his wife a nightgown, he doesn’t even know how to pronounce the word lingerie.  (He asks a store clerk for help in finding the “lonjur department.”)  However, Jim soon starts to find that married life agrees with him.

Of course, that’s a problem when your job requires you to defy death on a daily basis.  Ann worries that Jim is going to go to work and never come home, fears that are intensified after a race with another airplane ends in a terrible and (for the other pilot) fatal crash.  Gunner, meanwhile, starts to fear that there’s only so many times that Jim can cheat fate.  Both Ann and Gunner promise that they will never leave Jim’s side.

Well, you can probably already guess everything that’s going to happen.  Test Pilot is not exactly the most narratively adventurous movie ever made but, when you’ve got Gable, Tracy, Loy, and Barrymore all in the same film, you don’t really need to break any new ground, storywise.  Test Pilot is an example of the power of pure movie star charisma.  It’s watchable because the performances are just as entertaining today as they were in 1938.  The film features Gable doing what he did best and Tracy doing what he did best and Loy and Barrymore all doing what they did best.  In this case, that’s more than enough.

When it comes to the film’s numerous flight sequences, it’s perhaps best to try to put yourself in the shoes of someone seeing the film in 1938.  Today, of course, we’ve been spoiled by CGI.  We tend to assume that literally anything can happen in a movie.  In the 30s, however, people couldn’t take special effects for granted.  When they watched the flight footage in Test Pilot, they did it with the knowledge that it was filmed by people who actually were putting their lives at risk to get it.  At a time when commercial aviation was considered to be a luxury, Test Pilot provided audiences with a view of the world in the sky and of the world below, a view that they probably wouldn’t have gotten a chance to see otherwise.

A huge box office success, Test Pilot was nominated for best picture but lost to another film featuring Lionel Barrymore, Frank Capra’s You Can’t Take It With You.

Halloween Havoc!: MAN MADE MONSTER (Universal 1941)


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Lon Chaney Jr.  made his first foray into Universal Horror with MAN MADE MONSTER, the movie that led to his studio contract and immortality with THE WOLF MAN . Both films were directed by George Waggner, who also wrote the script here under the pseudonym Joseph West. Lon’s large and in charge as the electrical monster, but top billing and acting honors go to Hollywood’s maddest of mad doctors, the great Lionel Atwill .

A bus crashes into high tension wires on a rain slicked highway, leaving all aboard dead save one. He’s Dan McCormick, a carny performer known as ‘Dynamo Dan, The Electric Man’. His seeming imperviousness to electricity piques the interest of scientist Professor Lawrence, who invites the jovial Dan to stay with him and his young niece June. Lawrence wants to run some experimental tests on Dan, but when he leaves for a medical convention his assistant…

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Familiar Faces #6: The Law and Mr. Hinds


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I first became aware of actor Samuel S. Hinds watching those old Universal pictures that played frequently on my local channels. What I didn’t know about the stately, distinguished thespian is he had a secret past: Hinds was a successful, practicing attorney for over 30 years before the stock market crash of 1929 wiped him out, and he decided at age 54 to pursue his second love, acting. Hinds, born in Brooklyn in 1875, was a Harvard educated lawyer who had a long interest in amateur acting. When he made the decision to turn pro, he wrangled film parts large and small, credited and uncredited. His first talking picture was 1932’s all-star comedy drama IF I HAD A MILLION, in which he played…. you guessed it, a lawyer! (Hinds previously had a small role in the silent 1926 THE AMATEUR GENTLEMAN starring Richard Barthelmess).

Hinds had a small role as…

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The Fabulous Forties #16: Dr. Kildare’s Strange Case (dir by Harold S. Bucquet)


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The 16th film in Mill Creek’s Fabulous Forties box set was 1940’s Dr. Kildare’s Strange Case.  It’s about a doctor who investigates a medical case and wow, is it ever a strange case.

Apparently, there was a whole series of Dr. Kildare films that were released in the 30s and 40s.  I guess the films were the cinematic equivalent of a TV show like Grey’s Anatomy or ER or Children’s Hospital or… well, every medical show that’s ever shown up on TV since the beginning of time.  Dr. James Kildare (Lew Ayres) is a passionate young doctor who may break the rules but he gets results!  His mentor is Dr. Gillipsie.  Gillipsie is played by Lionel Barrymore and since the character is cranky and confined to a wheelchair, it was impossible for me to watch him without thinking about Mr. Potter from It’s A Wonderful Life.  Whenever Kildare went to him for advise, I kept expecting Gillipsie to glare at him and say, “You once called me a warped old man…”

Anyway, Dr. Kildare works in a hospital and, when he’s not silently judging everyone else that he works with, he’s busy silently judging the wealthy Dr. Lane (Sheppard Strudwick), a brain surgeon whose patients keep dying.  Kildare and Lane are also both in love with the same nurse, Mary Lamont (Laraine Day).  Mary wants to marry Kildare but Kildare would rather be poor and single than compromise his medical principles.  Lane, on the other hand, sends her a box full of silk stockings.  Plus, he’s rich!

Seriously, how is this even a competition?  Forget Kildare and marry Lane!

Except, as I mentioned earlier, all of Lane’s patients keep dying.  Is Lane incompetent or, as Kildare suggests, is it possible that brain surgery is just really, really hard?  I imagine it was even harder in 1940, when this movie was being made.  While Kildare and Lane are operating on brains, Dr. Gillipsie is still using leeches to suck sickness out of the poorer patients.

(You don’t actually see it happen in the movie but Gillipsie comes across as being a leech man.)

Anyway, eventually, Kildare has to cure a schizophrenic and it turns out that he can do this by putting the man into an insulin coma.  As is explained in great detail, forcibly putting a patient in a coma will cause that patient’s mind to go back to a reset point.  It’s kind of like how Windows sets up a restore point before doing a major update.

And that therapy sounds so crazy that you just know it had to be based in an actual practice.  I checked with Wikipedia and I was not shocked to discover that apparently Insulin Shock Therapy used to be a thing!

Anyway, Kildare’s gets into a lot of trouble for putting his patient into a coma and attempting to erase a huge part of his mind.  Will Kildare’s results vindicate his methods or will Gillipsie have to use leeches to suck the crazy out of the patient’s brain?

Watch the film to find out!  Or don’t.  Dr. Kildare’s Strange Case was directed by Harold S. Bucquet, who did a pretty good job with The Adventures of Tartu.  His direction here is flat and uninspired, which only serves to make this entire film feel like an old TV show.  I’m tempted to recommend the movie just because of the scene where it’s explained that insulin shock therapy causes patients to devolve so that they can re-evolve but otherwise, Dr. Kildare’s Strange Case is forgettable.

If you want to see it, you can watch it below!

Or you can just watch this classic episode of Children’s Hospital!

Cleaning Out The DVR #35: Stage Door (dir by Gregory La Cava)


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

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The 1937 film Stage Door is a great example of a unique genre of American film, the Katharine Hepburn Gets Humbled genre.

In the 1930s, Katharine Hepburn went through a period of time where she was considered to be “box office poison.”  She was undeniably talented but it was obvious that the studios weren’t sure how to showcase that talent.  They put her in high-brow films that often did not have much appeal to audiences.  As well, the press hated her.  Katharine Hepburn was outspoken, she was confident, she was a nonconformist, and, too many, her refusal to do interviews and sign autographs marked her as a snob.  Very few people wanted to see a movie starring Katharine Hepburn and therefore, very few people were willing to make a movie starring Katharine Hepburn.

(Interestingly enough, as I sit here typing this, another KH — Katharine Heigl — is pretty much in the exact same situation, with the main difference being that Hepburn was a far more interesting actress.)

Fortunately, Katharine Hepburn was smart enough to recognize the problem and she started to appear in films like Stage Door.  In Stage Door, she essentially played a character who mirrored the public’s perception of her.  Terry Randall is a snobbish and pretentious aspiring actress who comes to New York to pursue her career and moves into a theatrical rooming house.  At first, her attitude makes her unpopular with the other actresses living in the house.  But, as the film progresses, Terry slowly starts to let down her defenses and reveals that she’s just as insecure, neurotic, and vulnerable as everyone else.  She also proves herself to be willing to stand up to manipulative producers and condescending directors.  When she’s cast in her first Broadway show, it turns out that the show is being financed by her father and his hope is that she’ll do such a bad job and be so humiliated that she’ll give up acting.  And, at first, it appears that Terry will be terrible.  During rehearsals, she is stiff and mannered.  (Hepburn was actually quite brave to portray Terry as being such a believably bad actress.)

Of course, Terry isn’t the only actress at the rooming house who has issues to deal with.  For instance, Judy Canfield (Lucille Ball) has to choose between pursuing her career or getting married and starting a family.  Kay (Andrea Leeds) is a once successful actress who is now struggling to find roles, can’t pay her bills, and has become suicidal as a result.  And then there’s Jean (Ginger Rogers), Terry’s cynical roommate and frequent enemy and occasional friend.  Jean is falling in love with Anthony Powell (Adolphe Menjou), the lecherous producer of Terry’s play.

Stage Door is a wonderfully entertaining mix of melodrama and comedy.  You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, and you’ll really find yourself hoping that all of the actresses at the rooming house will have their dreams come true.  While the film is dominated by Hepburn and Rogers, it truly is an ensemble piece.  Not only does the cast include Eve Arden, Lucille Ball and Andrea Leeds (giving the film’s best and most poignant performance) but the great dancer Ann Miller appears as Jean’s equally cynical best friend.  Stage Door may be 79 years old but it’s aged wonderfully.

At the box office, Stage Door was a modest success and it directly led to Hepburn being cast in the classic screwball comedy, Bringing Up Baby.  Stage Door was nominated for best picture but it lost to The Life of Emile Zola.