Cleaning Out The DVR #31: Libeled Lady (dir by Jack Conway)


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

In the 1936 comedy Libeled Lady, tabloid newspaper editor Warren Haggerty (Spencer Tracy) has a problem.  His newspaper has just published a story accusing wealthy heiress Connie Allenbury (Myrna Loy) of being the other woman in a scandalous divorce.  The problem is that Connie was not the “other woman” and she is now suing the newspaper for $5,000,000.

“5 million dollars!” an astonished Warren declares, “nobody has that type of money!”

(It was 1936, after all.)

However, Warren has a plan and, since this is a screwball comedy, it’s an unneccesarily complicated plan.  He hires a former reporter, the suave Bill Chandler (William Powell, the suavest man alive in the 30s) to meet with Connie.  Warren believes that there’s no way that Connie won’t fall in love with Bill.  (Perhaps Warren had recently seen The Thin Man…)  Once Connie does fall in love, Warren will arrange for Bill’s wife to catch the two of them together.  In order to avoid the scandal, Connie will drop the suit.

The problem is that Bill isn’t married.  However, Warren has a solution for that as well.  Warren arranges for Bill to marry Warren’s fiancée, Gladys (Jean Harlow).  Gladys is not happy about the arrangement but goes along with it because, despite his behavior, she truly loves Warren and Warren promises her that the marriage will only last for 6 weeks.

(When the minister says that he hopes he’ll be invited to the new couple’s silver anniversary, Gladys replies, “It better be in six weeks.”)

And, at first, things go as planned.  Bill meets Connie on a luxury cruise and she quickly falls in love with him.  However, Bill finds himself falling in love with her too.  Soon, he no longer wants to frame her.  However, that’s not the only complication.  Finally fed up with Warren’s behavior, Gladys has started to think that maybe it would be better to be married to Bill.  Soon, she decides that she has no intention of getting a divorce…

Libeled Lady is a minor but enjoyable screwball comedy.  The plot is thoroughly implausible but, fortunately, William Powell was one of those actors who could get you to believe almost anything.  As anyone who has seen any of the Thin Man films can tell you, Powell and Myrna Loy had great chemistry together.  Spencer Tracy seems a little uncomfortable with the role of Warren but Jean Harlow is a lot of fun as Gladys.  She doesn’t have a big role but, at the same time, you can still understand why she was such a huge star and why her tragic death a year later was such a shock.

(At the time the movie was made, Harlow was dating William Powell.  She wanted to play Connie but MGM was determined to repeat the formula of previous William Powell/Myrna Loy comedies and Harlow settled for the secondary role of Gladys.)

As enjoyable as the film is, it still does seem a bit strange that it was nominated for best picture.  It lost the Oscar to The Great Ziegfeld, another MGM film that starred William Powell and Myrna Loy.

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Cleaning Out The DVR: Yankee Doodle Dandy (dir by Michael Curtiz)


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So, today, I got off work so that I could vote in Texas’s Super Tuesday primary.  After I cast my vote (and don’t ask me who I voted for because it’s a secret ballot for a reason!), I came home and I turned on the TV and I discovered that, as a result of spending February recording countless films off of Lifetime and TCM, I only had 9 hours of space left on my DVR.  As a result, the DVR was threatening to erase my recordings of Bend It Like Beckham, Jesus Christ Superstar, American Anthem, an episode of The Bachelor from 2011, and the entire series of Saved By The Bell: The College Years.

“Acgk!” I exclaimed in terror.

So, I immediately sat down and started the process of cleaning out the DVR.  I started things out by watching Yankee Doodle Dandy, a film from 1942.

Yankee Doodle Dandy is a biopic of a songwriter, signer, and dancer named George M. Cohan.  I have to admit, that when the film started, I had absolutely no idea who George M. Cohan was.  Imagine my surprise as I watched the film and I discovered that Cohan had written all of the old-fashioned patriotic songs that are played by the Richardson Symphony Orchestra whenever I go to see the 4th of July fireworks show at Breckenridge Park.  He wrote You’re A Grand Old Flag, The Yankee Doodle Boy, and Over There.  Though I may not have heard of him, Cohan was an American institution during the first half of the 20th Century.  Even if I hadn’t read that on Wikipedia, I would have been able to guess from watching Yankee Doodle Dandy, which, at times, seems to be making a case for sainthood.

And that’s not meant to be a complaint!  74 years after it was originally released, Yankee Doodle Dandy is still a terrifically entertaining film.  It opens with George (played by James Cagney) accepting a Congressional Gold Medal from President Franklin D. Roosevelt.  (We only see Roosevelt from behind and needless to say, the President did not play himself.  Instead, Captain Jack Young sat in a chair while FDR’s voice was provided by impressionist Art Gilmore.)  Cohan proceeds to tell Roosevelt his life story, starting with his birth on the 4th of July.  Cohan tells how he was born into a showbiz family and a major theme of the film is how Cohan took care of his family even after becoming famous.

The other major theme is patriotism.  As portrayed in this biopic, Cohan is perhaps the most patriotic man who ever lived.  That may sound corny but Cagney pulls it off.  When we see him sitting at the piano and coming up with the lyrics for another song extolling the greatness of America, we never doubt his sincerity.  In fact, he’s so sincere that he makes us believe as well.  Watching Yankee Doodle Dandy, I found myself regretting that I have to live in such an overwhelmingly cynical time.  If George M. Cohan was alive today, he’d punch out anyone who called this country “Murica.”

Yankee Doodle Dandy is an amazingly positive film.  There are a few scenes where Cohan has to deal with a few Broadway types who are jealous of his talent and his confidence but, otherwise, it’s pretty much one triumph after another for Cohan.  Normally, of course, there’s nothing more annoying than listening to someone talk about how great his life is but fortunately, Cohan is played by James Cagney and Cagney gives one of the best performance of all time in the role.

Cagney, of course, is best remembered for playing gangsters but he got his start as a dancer.  In Yankee Doodle Dandy, Cagney is so energetic and so happy and such a complete and totally showman that you can’t help but get caught up in his story.  When he says that, as a result of his success, things have never been better, you don’t resent him for it.  Instead, you’re happy for him because he’s amazingly talented and deserve the best!

Seriously, watch him below:

James Cagney won the Oscar for Best Actor for his performance here.  Yankee Doodle Dandy was also nominated for best picture but lost to Mrs. Miniver.

I’m really glad that I watched Yankee Doodle Dandy today.  In this time of overwhelming negativity, it was just what I needed!

Lisa Reviews an Oscar Nominee: Our Town (dir by Sam Wood)


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(SPOILERS BELOW!  THE END OF THIS FILM WILL BE REVEALED!  I will also be revealing who played George Gibbs but that’s probably not as big a spoiler.  It depends how you look at it.)

I was only 15 years old when I first read Our Town.  Because I was a theater nerd, I knew a little about the play.  For instance, I knew it took place in a small town.  I knew that it was narrated by a character known as the Stage Manager.  I knew that the play was meant to be performed on a bare stage, with no sets or props.  What I did not know, as I innocently opened up that booklet, is that Our Town is probably one of the most traumatically depressing plays ever written.

When the stage manager appears at the start of the play and talks about the town of Grover’s Corner, he lulls you into believing that you’re about to see a sentimental, comedic, and old-fashioned celebration of small town life.  We meet the characters and they all seem to be quirky in a properly non-threatening way.  Joe Crowell shows up delivers a newspaper to Doc Gibbs.  The stage manager mentions that Joe will eventually grow up to attend to M.I.T.

“Awwwww!  Good for Joe!” the audience says.

And, the Stage Manager goes on to inform us, as soon as Joe graduates, he will be killed in World War I, his expensive education wasted.

Okay, the audience thinks, that was a dark moment but this play was written at a time when World War I was still fresh on everyone’s mind.  Surely the rest of the play will not be quite as dark…

And fortunately, George Gibbs and Emily Webb show up.  They’re young, they’re likable, and they’re in love!  George and Emily get married and they’re prepared to live a long and happy life in our town!  Good for them!  YAY!

And then Act III begins…

Oh my God, Act III.  Act III begins with almost everyone dead.  Emily died in child birth so she hangs out at the local cemetery and talks to all the other dead people, the majority of whom only have vague memories of their former lives.  Emily relives the day of her 12th birthday and discovers that it’s too painful to remember what it was like to once be alive.  Emily asks the Stage Manager if anyone truly appreciates life.  The Stage Manager replies, “No.”  In the world of the living, George Gibbs sobs over his wife’s grave….

And the play ends!

OH MY GOD!

Seriously, reading Our Town was probably one of the most traumatic experiences of my life!

The 1940 film version of Our Town is a little less traumatic because it changes the ending.  In the film version, Emily doesn’t die.  She nearly dies while giving birth to her second child and the entire third act of the play is basically portrayed as being a near-death hallucination.  But, in the end, she survives and she comes through the experience with a new found appreciation for life.

And it’s certainly the type of happy ending that I was hoping for when I first read the play but, as much as I hate to admit it, the story works better with Emily dying than with Emily surviving.  The play presents death as being as inevitable as life and love and it makes the point that there’s nothing we can do to truly prepare for it.  By allowing Emily to live, the film gives us a ray of hope that wasn’t present anywhere else in Our Town.  The happy ending feels inauthentic.  If Emily could live then why couldn’t Joe Crowell?  For that matter, why did Emily’s younger brother have to die of a burst appendix on a camping trip?

But, other than the changed ending, Our Town is a pretty good adaptation of the stage play.  While the film features an actual set (as opposed to the bare stage on which theatrical versions of Our Town are meant to be performed), director Sam Wood does a good job of retaining the play’s surreal, metatheatrical style.  Making good use of shadow and darkness, Wood and cinematographer Bert Glennon made Grover’s Corner seem like a half-remembered memory or a fragment of a barely cohesive dream.

Frank Craven, who originated the role on Broadway, is properly dry as the Stage Manager and, in the role of Doc Gibbs, Thomas Mitchell is so sober and respectable that it’s hard to believe that, in just 6 years, the same actor would play the delightfully irresponsible Uncle Billy in It’s A Wonderful Life.  Emily and George are played by Martha Scott and an impossibly young William Holden, both of whom give wonderfully appealing performances.

With the exception of that changed ending, Our Town is a worthy adaptation of a classic play.  It was nominated for Best Picture but lost to another literary adaptation, Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca.

Shattered Politics #5: Young Mr. Lincoln (dir by John Ford)


YoungmrlincolnWay back in 1939, at the same time that Jimmy Stewart was conquering Washington in Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, the great director John Ford was making a film about another man who would eventually go to Washington.

In Young Mr. Lincoln, Henry Fonda plays the future 16th President.  Even though Fonda was probably far better looking than Abraham Lincoln ever was, he’s ideally cast in the role.  Along with being a very natural actor, Fonda personified a certain middle-of-the-country, stoic decency.  He played characters who were smart but never elitist and who were guided mostly by common decency.  In short, his screen persona was everything that people tend to think about when considering Abraham Lincoln.

As for the film itself, it begins with Lincoln as a simple storekeeper who accepts, as payment for groceries, a barrel of old books.  After reading the books and having a conversation with his doomed first love, Anne Rutledge (Pauline Moore), Lincoln decides to learn the law.

Years later, now a poor-but-honest lawyer, Abraham Lincoln arrives at Springfield, Illinois, sitting a top mule because he can’t afford a horse.  Lincoln opens a law office, awkwardly courts the rich and spoiled Mary Todd (Marjorie Weaver), and eventually defends two brothers who have been accused of murder.  While the case’s prosecutor (played by Donald Meek) may have a better education, he can’t compete with Lincoln’s common sense and ability to relate to the common people.

Obviously, the whole point behind Young Mr. Lincoln is that it’s about the early life of an American hero.  You watch the entire film with the knowledge that Lincoln is going to be the man who eventually leads the U.S. during the Civil War and who frees the slaves.  The viewer knows that Lincoln is going to be a great man, even if nobody else does and a good deal of the film’s effectiveness come from the moments when Fonda will strike an iconic pose or will casually deploy a familiar phase and you’re reminded of just who exactly it is he’s playing.

But, and this is why Young Mr. Lincoln remains a great film, the important thing is that the film is just effective when viewed as being a portrait of a dedicated lawyer trying to prove the innocence of his clients.  Fonda is compelling as both a future President and as an honest man trying to do the right thing.  Ultimately, the film would be just as compelling even if it was called Young Mr. Jones and didn’t open with soaring, patriotic music and end with a shot of the Lincoln Memorial.

It’s interesting to compare Young Mr. Lincoln to some of the other films made about Abraham Lincoln.  It’s a far more assured film than D.W. Griffith’s Abraham Lincoln and, needless to say, Henry Fonda makes for a better Lincoln than Walter Huston did.  At the same time, it’s far more naturalistic and less overly manipulative film than Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln.  In the end, it’s a good film and a great tribute to our 16th President.

And you can watch it below!