Halloween Havoc!: WEREWOLF OF LONDON (Universal 1935)

cracked rear viewer

Lon Chaney Jr.’s Lawrence Talbot wasn’t Universal’s first Wolf Man . That honor goes to Henry Hull in WEREWOLF OF LONDON, a chilling but lesser film in the Universal canon. This one reminds me more of DR. JEKYLL & MR. HYDE than any of Chaney’s lycanthropic outings, and Jack Pierce’s makeup job is a little light in the hirsute department (more on that later).

British botanist Wilfred Glendon travels to Tibet to search for the rare mariphasia lumina lupina, a flower that only blooms in moonlight. Trekking into a forbideden valley, he is attacked and bitten by a werewolf. Returning to London with his find, Glendon is confronted by the mysterious Dr. Yogami, who says they’ve met before. Unbeknownst to Glendon, Yogami is the werewolf in question, who wants the phosphorescent moonflower as an antidote for his own lycanthropy. Yogami manages to steal the two blooms, leaving Glendon to transform…

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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: 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.

Cleaning Out The DVR #33: Heaven Can Wait (dir by Ernst Lubitsch)

(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!)


The 1943 film Heaven Can Wait opens with a 70 year-old man named Henry Van Cleve (Don Ameche) stepping into an opulent drawing room and having a conversation with a refined but menacing man known as His Excellency (Laird Cregar).  From their conversation, it quickly becomes obvious that Henry has recently died and His Excellency is in charge of Hell.  Most people who come to see His Excellency do so because they want to argue that they do not belong in Hell and they usually end up falling through a convenient trap door.  However, Henry is there to argue that, after living an enjoyable but dissolute life, he belongs in Hell.

Henry tells the story of his life.  He tells how he was born into great wealth and influenced by his down-to-Earth grandfather (Charles Coburn).  As a young man, he spent most of his time chasing after showgirls bur eventually, he met the beautiful and kind-hearted Martha (Gene Tierney).  He immediately fell in love with Martha but, unfortunately for him, she was engaged to his cousin (Allyn Joslyn).  Henry, however, used his considerable charm to convince her to elope with him.

(It helps, of course, that Henry’s cousin was totally and completely obnoxious, in the way that rival suitors often are in films like this.)

And, for 25 years, Henry was happy with Martha.  It took him a while to settle down and, at one point, Martha even left him as a result of his affairs.  However, they always got back together and Henry eventually did settle down, even going so far as to prevent his son from running off with a showgirl of his own.  It was only after Martha herself died that Henry, who always felt he didn’t deserve her love, returned to his old ways.

And, Henry argues, it’s because he was unworthy of his wife that he deserves to spend an eternity in Hell.  Does His Excellency agree?

Well, it would certainly be a depressing movie if he did.

One of the great things about TCM’s 31 Days of Oscar is that it gave me a chance to discover several films from director Ernst Lubitsch, films like The Smiling Lieutenant, The Love Parade, Ninotchka, and Heaven Can Wait.  Of those four Lubitsch films, Heaven Can Wait is probably the least substantial but it’s still an undeniably entertaining and nicely romantic film.  This is one of those films that you watch because the sets look wonderful, the costumes are to die for, and the performers are all pleasant to watch.  It’s pure entertainment, a crowd-pleaser in the best sense of the word.

In fact, tt was such a crowd-pleaser that it was nominated for best picture of the year.  However, it lost to the ultimate crowd-pleaser, Casablanca.

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!)


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.

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #12: Jezebel (dir by William Wyler)

Jesebel_movieposterWe started out this day by taking a look at Bette Davis in Of Human Bondage so it seems only appropriate that today’s final entry in Embracing the Melodrama should be another film in which Bette Davis plays a potentially unlikable character who is redeemed by being the most interesting person in the film.

The 1938 best picture nominee Jezebel stars Bette Davis as Julie Marsden, a strong-willed Southern belle who lives in pre-Civil War New Orleans.  Julie is looking forward to an upcoming ball but is frustrated when her fiancée, boring old Pres (Henry Fonda), says that he has to work and declines to go shopping for a dress with her.  Impulsively, Julie does exactly what I would do.  She buys the most flamboyant red dress that she can find.

Back in the old South, unmarried women were expected to wear white to formal balls, the better to let everyone know that they were pure and innocent and waiting for the right man.  When Julie shows up in her red gown, it’s a scandal and, upon seeing the looks of shock and disdain on everyone’s faces, Julie wants to leave the ball.  However, Pres insists that Julie dance with him and he continues to dance with her, even after the orchestra attempts to stop playing music.

And then he leaves her.  At first, Julie insists to all who will listen that Pres is going to return to her but it soon becomes obvious that Pres has abandoned both Julie and Southern society.  Julie locks herself away in her house and becomes a recluse.

Until, a year later, Pres returns.  At first, Julie is overjoyed to see that Pres is back and she’s prepared to finally humble herself if that means winning back his love.  But then she discovers that the only reason that he’s returned to New Orleans is to warn people about the dangers of Yellow Fever.

Oh, and he’s also married.

To a yankee.

For the most part, Jezebel is a showcase for another fierce and determined Bette Davis performance.  It’s easy to be judgmental of a character like Julie Marsden but honestly, who doesn’t wish that they could be just as outspoken and determined?  It helps, of course, that the film surrounds Julie with a collection of boring and self-righteous characters, the type of people who you love to see scandalized.  Henry Fonda gives one of his more boring performances in the role of Pres while Margaret Lindsay, in the role of Pres’s Northern wife, is so saintly that she reminds you of the extremely religious girl in high school who would get offended whenever you came to school wearing a short skirt.  In a society as rigid, moralistic, and judgmental as the one portrayed in Jezebel, it’s impossible not to cheer for someone like Julie Marsden.

Add to that, I totally would have worn that red dress too!  In a world that insisted that all women had to act a certain way or look a certain way and think a certain way, Julie went her own way and, regardless of what boring old Pres may have thought, there’s a lesson there for us all.

When watching Jezebel, it helps to know a little about film history.  Bette Davis very much wanted to play Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With The Wind and was reportedly very disappointed when the role went to Vivien Leigh.  Depending on the source, Jezebel is often described as either being Davis’s audition for the role of Scarlett or as being a consolation gift for losing out on the role.  Either way, Jezebel is as close as we will ever get to seeing Bette Davis play Scarlett.  Judging from the film, Davis would not have been an ideal Scarlett.  (Whereas Gone With The Wind works because Leigh’s Scarlett grows stronger over the course of the film, Davis would have started the film as strong and had nowhere left to go with the character.)  However, Davis was a perfect Julie Marsden.



Shattered Politics #7: Meet John Doe (dir by Frank Capra)

Meet John Doe

I cannot stand the phrase “pay it forward.”

The idea is that somebody does something nice for you and then they say, “Pay it forward” and suddenly, you are magically required to go out and do something nice for someone else.  For one thing, I hate the obligation of it all.  I have this fear that as soon as I finally get finished paying it forward, some stranger is going to hand me a Coke and say, “Pay it forward,” and suddenly I’ll have to do it all over again!  And really, honestly, I shouldn’t have to pay it forward just because someone  gives me a Coke.  If you’re going to tell me to pay it forward, at least give me a car or a Victoria’s Secret gift card or something.

Ultimately, “pay it forward” is something that people say to make themselves feel good but it’s actually a pretty shallow concept.

The same thing can be said about John Doeism, the philosophy that rests at the center of the 1941 film Meet John Doe, our latest entry in Shattered Politics.  John Doeism is a grassroots political movement that is based around the slogan, “Be a Better Neighbor.”  Much like “Pay it forward,” “Be a better neighbor” sounds good and it’s easy to say but its main appeal is that it doesn’t require that much thought.  If anything, it sounds like the first step on the road to serfdom…

That said, I still like the film.

Meet John Doe opens with lay-offs at a major metropolitan newspaper.  (These lay-offs are signified by a handsome young man who points at people and then runs his finger across his throat.)  Among those laid off is columnist Ann Mitchell (Barbara Stanwyck).  However, before Ann is officially let go, she is told to write one final column.  Understandably angry over her treatment, Ann responds by making something up.  She writes and prints a fake letter from a man calling himself “John Doe.”  John Doe explains that he’s unemployed and that he will be committing suicide on Christmas Eve.

Well, quicker than you can say twitter death hoax, everyone in the entire country reads John Doe’s letter and demands to know who he is.  The newspaper’s editor, Henry Connell (James Gleason), rehires Ann and puts her in charge of finding the real John Doe.

When numerous unemployed and homeless men start to show up at the newspaper, claiming to be the real John Doe, little do they realize that they are, in fact, auditioning.  Ann finally decides that Joe Willoughby (Gary Cooper) has what it takes to be the public face of John Doe.  Not only does he have a compelling personal story (he’s a former baseball player whose career was ended by an arm injury) but he looks and sounds like Gary Cooper.

(And, as I typed that last sentence, it suddenly occurred to me that Meet John Doe managed to predict American Idol…)

Joe is soon a celebrity, reading speeches that have been written for him by Ann and encouraging people across the nation to be a better neighbor.  And Ann is falling in love with Joe.  However, Joe is not comfortable with his new role.  For one thing, he doesn’t like being a hero for telling a lie.  Secondly, he knows that rival newsmen are eager to expose him as being a fraud.  And finally, there’s a sinister publisher named D.B. Norton (played by Edward Arnold, who previously played corrupt Boss Taylor in Mr. Smith Goes To Washington) who is eager to be President of the United States.  He wants to turn John Doeism into a fascist political movement and, unless Joe endorses him, he’ll reveal that Joe’s a fraud…

Meet John Doe was Frank Capra’s follow-up to Mr. Smith Goes To Washington.  It features many of the same themes as Mr. Smith, with the main difference being that Meet John Doe is a lot more preachy.  Whereas Mr. Smith saved its big speech for the end, Meet John Doe has several big speeches spread throughout its running time.  (There’s also a scene where a guy named Bert tells the story of how he was inspired by John Doe and, I swear, it literally goes on forever.)

So, no, Meet John Doe is definitely no Mr. Smith Goes Go To Washington but I still liked it, mostly because of the chemistry between Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck.  I wanted to be Barbara Stanwyck’s character.  Seriously, watching a film like Meet John Doe, leaves me convinced that I was born several decades too late.  If I had been born in 1918, I could have been a quick-witted, cynical, and secretly romantic intrepid girl reporter at a major metropolitan newspaper.

Girl Reporter

Even better, I would never have to worry about ever being told to “pay it forward.”