The Ex-Mrs. Bradford (1936)- Stephen Roberts

 ★★★★

 

In the years following the success of Warner Brother’s “The Thin Man” (1934), a whole slew of imitations and copycat films were produced (as well as the five sequels, of course).The Ex-Mrs. Bradford (1936) Some of these films were good… and some not so good. None, however, seemed to duplicate that perfect blend of light-hearted ease, and suspenseful drama as well as “The Ex-Mrs. Bradford” (1936).

The story revolves around Dr. Lawrence Bradford (William Powell) and his mystery novelist ex-wife, Paula (Jean Arthur). It seems they got a divorce because Paula’s cravings for adventure and danger during her preparations for her novels became too much for the Dr.’s quiet way of life. Their marriage certainly didn’t crumble from a lack of attraction, or love, as is obvious whenever they are in a room together. Paula has returned from traveling the world (and pushed her way back into his house) because of a growing desire to rekindle things with her dear husband.

Coinciding with her return is the mysterious death of a jockey, right in the middle of a lucrative horse race. Paula is sure foul play was involved, and will stop at nothing to get her ex-husband to help investigate. Reluctant as he may be, Paula’s charms are more than he can handle, which works out conveniently since Dr. Bradford shows up as suspect number one. He also may very well be the only man capable of solving this particular mystery.

See what I mean? This could have been another “Thin Man” movie, except for the whole divorce angle.William Powell is as delightful as ever in a role that is perfectly suited for his comedic abilities, leaving the audience desiring nothing. So, sure, Myrna Loy isn’t in the film- which is a great travesty, but Jean Arthur’s no slouch herself. The Ex-Mrs. Bradford (1936)In fact the one major difference between “The Ex-Mrs. Bradford” and the “Thin Man” films is that in this movie the wife character is just as tough as her husband- thus the need for Arthur. Nobody can say that Jean Arthur isn’t capable of being tough. (It also doesn’t hurt that she’s as beautiful as ever in this film.)

If there is any time that you want me to start spouting off about what an amazing actor William Powell is- all you have to do is ask. He seems to always have his character’s thoughts running through his head, and even when the dialogue or staging becomes over the top, Powell knows how to play the part in order to ensure laughs. His career has many notable moments, but the reason I am singling him out today is because of my admiration for his ability to turn out magnificent performances one on top of the other. “The Ex-Mrs. Bradford” was not the only movie in which he appeared in 1936. Just a few months later he could also be seen in one of his best roles, alongside Carole Lombard in “My Man Godfrey” (1936). But Powell wasn’t done there either. Before the year was out he also starred in the comic hit, “The Libeled Lady” (1936), and the second installment in the “Thin Man” series, “After the Thin Man” (1936).The Ex-Mrs. Bradford (1936) If that wasn’t enough, he also headlined an amazing cast in that year’s Best Picture winning “The Great Ziegfeld” (1936), bringing his grand total to five films in one year, all of which were successful, including three of them being among the highest eleven grossing films of 1936. How he was able to put in so much energy, day after day, to ensure the highest possible quality, I’ll never know.

“The Ex-Mrs. Bradford” was directed by Stephen Roberts, who to me was not a “known” filmmaker. After a little research I learned that he directed his first film in 1923, at the age of 27, and proceeded to direct more than 100 movies between that time and the release of this film in May of 1936, before his untimely death of a heart attack just two months later. His filmography is impressive to behold, even if many of the films are unheard of or obscure, and one can’t help but think about what could have been.

Is “The Ex-Mrs. Bradford” a masterpiece of filmmaking? No, but it is entertaining and showcases two of Hollywood’s most entertaining actors in all their glory and splendor.

Cleopatra (1963)- Joseph L. Mankiewicz

 ★★★★★

 

“Cleopatra” (1963) is a very good movie- in fact it’s basically two very good movies. When director Joseph L. Mankiewicz tried to convince the big-wigs at Twentieth Century Fox to split this into two separate films, he was probably on the right track. Epic doesn’t even begin to describe the overall production; in fact there isn’t a word that accurately Cleopatra (1963)describes the production of this film. That is why today, when a movie has a grandiose feel- or even when the making of a movie gets out of control, we instantly begin to compare it to “Cleopatra”.

So what went wrong, and why is this film regarded by many to be a waste of time? Is this really such a bad film, or is it just a long one? When you look- and I mean really look at this film, what is it that is so bad? When examining (or re-examining) “Cleopatra”, the first aspect that must be dissected is the story itself. Julius Caesar (Rex Harrison) his been victorious in his campaign over Pompey. Caesar pursues Pompey upon his retreat to Alexandria, where Pharaoh Ptolemy XIII (Richard O’Sullivan) and his sister, Cleopatra (Elizabeth Taylor), are vying for the throne. Caesar, displeased that Ptolemy has had Pompey killed, ends up siding with Cleopatra and disposing of Ptolemy.

Cleopatra (1963)

With the throne hers, Cleopatra sets her sights higher by producing a son and heir for Caesar, one who could rule absolutely, above all others. Of course, as virtually everyone knows, the Roman Senate, and even Brutus himself, cannot allow this to happen, and on the Ides of March, 44 B.C. Julius Caesar is murdered.Cleopatra (1963)

Caesar’s loyal friend, Marc Antony (Richard Burton), along with Caesar’s nephew, Octavian (Roddy McDowall), begin a campaign to destroy all those involved in Caesar’s death. After they are victorious in their righteous endeavor, the land is divided, but there is also bad blood between them, yet to be sorted out. Antony needs help and knows that Cleopatra could be his answer. Unlike the relationship between Julius Caesar and Cleopatra that seems to be mostly based on status and mutual gain, Antony and Cleopatra have an attraction and chemistry that blindly leads Antony against all reason and good judgment. His decisions become based on his desires, thus causing the downfall of himself, and his chance to be victorious again.

Cleopatra (1963)

Well you can’t fault anyone on the story aspect of this film because it is about as intriguing as they come. It also happens to be one of the most accurate life to screen adaptations in memory, and we known how hard that is to do when Hollywood gets involved. “Cleopatra” isn’t filled with a bunch of fake scenes involving epic battles that didn’t really happen or subplots that never existed.Cleopatra (1962) This is what happened. These are the real events. With the exception of a few minor, mostly insignificant deviations, we are given the real story of the life and times of the last Pharaoh of Ancient Egypt, Cleopatra.

So if there is nothing wrong with the story, what about the acting? Among the nine Academy Awards for which “Cleopatra” was nominated, only one was for acting, and that was a Best Actor nomination for Rex Harrison. Perhaps it was the heated, public affair of Burton and Taylor that caused their omission from the nominees that year, but I for one can’t believe that it was because their performances weren’t considered great. Burton’s ferocity as Antony shows off some of his best work in a role that is unlike many others in his career. His passion exudes from within, filling the screen with both emotion and heartache.Cleopatra (1963) Elizabeth Taylor plays the role of Cleopatra with a confidence and inspiration that few actresses have ever possessed. She is magnificent to behold, with the beauty and elegance of a queen, effortlessly combined with the sting of a femme fatale from a 1950’s film noir. The lack of nominations for both of these screen icons, is an unforgivable oversight, but as bad as their omission is here, they are not the only ones. Roddy McDowall gives a stellar performance as Octavian, and was also deserving of recognition, but due to an “oversight”, he too was denied a nomination. It seems (for some ridiculous reason) that McDowall was submitted as a contender in the Best Actor category, instead of the more obvious, and better suited Best Supporting Actor category.

Cleopatra (1963)

“Cleopatra” did however secure other nominations and victories at the Academy Awards. It won four awards for Best Costume Design, Best Visual Effects, Best Cinematography and Best Art Direction. I don’t think any of these categories need defending, as each and every one (especially the costumes with 65 different ones for Cleopatra alone)Cleopatra (1963) are as near to perfection as it gets.

So I ask again, why is this not a great film? I  have come to the conclusion (despite my previous claims) that it is a great film. Sure you can point out that the production was plagued with problems, both physical and financial. Yes, it lost money and nearly destroyed one of the most prolific movie studios in the world, but I for one refuse to judge (or at least try not to judge) a film by anything more than what I see on the screen, and I can find very little to complain about while watching “Cleopatra”.

So then we have finally arrived at the topic that people most like to discuss: the film’s running time. Yes, 248 minutes makes for a long movie. I see no need to argue that there aren’t scenes that could be deleted, or areas that could be trimmed. As I said at the beginning of my ramblings, this would have made two excellent movies. Cleopatra (1963)What it comes down to is that if you tried to take out enough of the story to cut the film down to 170 or even 190 minutes, it would appear (and rightfully so) thrown together and incoherent. The story needs these scenes and dialogue, it needs the slow-paced story to increase the drama and intensity. What is doesn’t need are long, drawn out battles sequences every thirty minutes, because those (quite honestly) aren’t important to this particular story on any level, which is why they were left out, thus opening countless arguments that “Cleopatra” is boring. This is not just an epic, it’s a romantic epic that is reliant on the dialogue carefully written and performed, and the passion that is expressed between the films stars. Nothing else is needed.

Cleopatra (1963)

If someone doesn’t want to sit through 248 minutes of romance, betrayal and drama, then obviously this is not the film for them, but to write off “Cleopatra” simply because, “It’s too long,” is unfair and a mistake. Sometimes being patient does pay off in the end. Besides, if you don’t like sports movies, you don’t watch them, right? If you find gangster movies to be too violent, you avoid them. So if you know that long movies aren’t your thing- just know to keep your distance on this one.
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Remembering Elmore Leonard (1925-2013)

Famed author Elmore Leonard died this morning from complication of a stroke he suffered on July 29th. He was 87.

I was twenty-years-old the first time I picked up an Elmore Leonard novel on the recommendation of a friend, but was never sorry that I did. His writing seemed simple, but the stories were so complicated and intriguing that it was almost as if the simplicity was just a disguise, lowering the readers guard, to only surprise and delight in the final chapters. He never tried to overcomplicate things, but his characters were so deeply written that it’s impossible to read any of his stories without becoming engrossed.Get Shorty (1995) Since that time, I have read several more of his novels, short stories and other literary endeavors, but because this is a site dedicated to my love of movies, I will limit today’s thoughts to the memory of his contributions to the cinematic world.

More than twenty of his stories have been adapted for the screen (both theatrical and television), and even though I haven’t seen them all, each one that I have sought out perfectly exemplified his talent and ability to be a great story-teller. Anyone can put words on a page and try to entertain their readers, but Leonard invited us into his characters’ world, where we can share an experience with them, even if just for a brief time. The stories that he has left behind will live on forever, as will my memory of him and his undeniable brilliance. Thank you, Elmore, for making movies better.

My Elmore Leonard “must see” list includes seven films- some westerns, some crime films- all amazing. What is your favorite Leonard adaptations?

  • “Get Shorty” (1995): Jackie Brown (1997)Starring John Travolta, Rene Russo, Gene Hackman, Danny Devito, Dennis Farina, Delroy Lindo, James Gandolfini and David Paymer. Based on the 1990 novel of the same name.
  • “The Tall T” (1957): Randolph Scott teamed with director Budd Boetticher for this western classic based on Leonard’s 1955 short story, “The Captives”.
  • “Joe Kidd” (1972): Starring Clint Eastwood and directed by John Sturges, this western film wasn’t based on anything, but was instead an original screenplay written by Leonard.
  • “Out of Sight” (1998): An all-star cast headlined by George Clooney, Jennifer Lopez, Ving Rhames, Don Cheadle, Steve Zahn and Albert Brooks- based on Leonard’s 1996 novel of the same name.
  • “Hombre” (1967): 3:10 to Yuma (1957)Based on his 1961 novel, “Hombre” is still considered to be one of the finest western stories ever told, and is often cited as Leonard’s most acclaimed literary work. The film stars Paul Newman and Fredric March.
  • “Jackie Brown” (1997): Quentin Tarantino adapted Leonard’s 1992 novel “Rum Punch” into this masterfully woven crime story. The film stars Samuel L. Jackson, Pam Grier, Robert Forster, Bridget Fonda, Michael Keaton and Robert De Niro
  • “3:10 to Yuma” (1957 & 2007): Last, but certainly not least on my list are the two different films version of Elmore Leonard’s 1953 short story (“Three-Ten to Yuma”). Although I enjoy both film versions of this story, the 1957 film starring Glen Ford and Van Heflin, and directed by Delmer Daves, is an absolute masterpiece.

The Man with a Cloak (1951)- Fletcher Markle

★★★★

 

“The Man with a Cloak”. Doesn’t it sound mysterious, intriguing and exciting? With a title as great as that, one can’t help but have some seriously high expectations for what follows. The Man with a Cloak (1951)The good news is that on most levels this 1951 drama exceeds, or at least meets those expectations.

The film takes place in New York City, 1845. A young French girl named Madeline (Leslie Caron) has traveled to New York in order to track down her finance’s wealthy Grandfather, Charles Thevenet (Louis Calhern). She finds him grumpy, angry, drunk and almost incommunicable, in part due to his failing health, and in part because of the woman who “cares” for him, Lorna Bounty (Barbara Stanwyck). She, along with her two cohorts (Joe De Santis & Margaret Wycherly) posing as a maid and butler, are just waiting for the old man to die in order to live comfortably off of his money; so much so in fact, that they may be trying to speed up his dying process.

Madeline is the unexpected thorn in their side, as they correctly suspect that the blood ties to his only living relative might persuade him to send money back to France.The Man with a Cloak (1951) Lorna does everything in her power to keep Madeline from spending time with Charles- locking him away because of his “failing health”, leaving Madeline sitting alone, worrying about his safety.

Enter, “The Man with a Cloak”. (I know, you almost forgot about him, didn’t you?) This good-natured, nameless chap (Joseph Cotten) claims to be a writer, but his true profession is drinking. In fact, if ever there was a movie that did everything they could to convince the audience that a man has a drinking problem, this would be the one. He meets Madeline early on in the film, and like all great mysterious film characters, waits around patiently observing until he can be of some use. He introduces himself simply as Dupin, and finds himself playing detective- enthusiastically getting involved in Madeline’s problems, and getting involved with Lorna as well.

There are many aspects of this film that are great, but it’s the acting that stands out.The Man with a Cloak (1951) The unusual part is that it’s not just because of Stanwyck and Cotten, as you might expect. They are both good (as always), but it’s the supporting players that enhance the overall film: People like Margaret Wycherly, the underrated character actor from movies like “White Heat” (1948), “Sergeant York” (1941) and “Random Harvest” (1942); Joe De Santis, who would go on to a long and flourishing career in television, as well as some key roles in films like “The Professionals” (1966), “Buchannan Rides Alone” (1958) and “I Want to Live!” (1958); Louis Calhern, whose career spanned over thirty years of filmmaking, in which he covered almost every type of movie imaginable. Films like “Duck Soup” (1933), “Notorious” (1946), “The Asphalt Jungle” (1950), “Blackboard Jungle” (1950) “High Society” (1956), and even played Julius Caesar alongside Marlon Brando. Even Jim Backus, who brilliantly portrayed James Dean’s father in “Rebel Without a Cause” (1955), shows up as the humorous bartender always trying to get Dupin to pay his tab. Sure you can expect that special something from Cotten and Stanwyck in this film, but these smaller roles are the ones that make “The Man with a Cloak” an ensemble picture. The Man with a Cloak (1951)Leslie Caron, on the other hand, is desperately outmatched here. It’s not really her fault (well, maybe it is), there is just too much experience and charisma oozing from everyone else on the set, and she is unable to keep up, leaving her hiding in the shadows of more prestigious actors.

I find myself surprised that more people weren’t, and aren’t, enthralled by this film. It feels similar in a way to George Cukor’s “Gaslight” (also starring Cotten in a vaguely similar role), only without the same level of suspense. The black and white cinematography by George J. Folsey looks stunning, the music by David Raksin is appropriately mysterious, and the direction from Fletcher Markle doesn’t interfere with the cast that was obviously the focal point anyway. So I asked myself, “What went wrong?”

And then it hit me. “The Man with a Cloak” is a superbly crafted 1940’s drama, released in the 1950’s. It feels like a 40’s movie, it looks like a 40’s movie, and when it’s over you’ll feel like you watched a 40’s movie. The Man with a Cloak (1951)Now don’t get me wrong, this doesn’t need to be a bad thing. It’s just that “The Man with a Cloak” was released within the same few months as films like “Strangers on a Train” (1951), “A Place in the Sun” (1951) and “A Streetcar Named Desire” (1951). Those are 50’s films, thus clearly differentiating themselves in design and style from films such as this one.

So don’t label “The Man with a Cloak”, expecting something overly suspenseful, as audiences inevitably did in 1951. Enjoy the film as an example of complex characters portrayed by some highly talented actors, culminating into a film that has a little bit of everything to offer. Besides, who doesn’t love a good mystery every now and then?
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New Criterion Collection Titles Announced for November 2013

The middle of the month is here, which means that once again it is time to argue… I mean discuss what we think about the new additions to the historic Criterion Collection that we will be seeing this coming November. As if these films aren’t great enough on their own, The Criterion Collection will also be adding a new feature for their discs: the “dual format” feature, that will include both DVD and blu-ray copies of the film. But we can talk about that another time; on to the selections.

Being released on Tuesday, November 12th, 2013:

  • “City Lights” (1931): City Lights (1931)It doesn’t get much better than this Charlie Chaplin classic that is FINALLY making its way to blu-ray. This is arguably Chaplin’s greatest film, as he brilliantly mixes his usual array of comic enthusiasm with quite possibly the greatest romance in screen history. And how about that boxing scene, right? “City Lights” has been given a 4K digital film transfer for this release which I am sure is going to look as glorious as possible, and the array of bonus features seems worth while as well. Unfortunately, we do have to wait until November to see this film in its new found glory!
  • “Frances Ha” (2013): Frances Ha (2013)Being released the same day is another comedy film, this time from one of The Criterion Collection’s favorite active directors, Noah Baumbach. Greta Gerwig stars as a twenty-something year old, living in New York, while trying to find her place amongst those around her. With a style that only Baumbach possesses, and a skill that should be applauded, “Frances Ha” is a delightful and sweet film that is getting some much deserved validation with this release.

Being released on Tuesday, November 19th, 2013:

  • “Tokyo Story” (1953): Tokyo Story (1953)I’m not trying to sound too preachy or anything, but if you haven’t seen- no wait, experienced this exceptional film- wait no longer. This poignant story was inspired in part by Leo McCarey’s 1937 masterpiece, “Make Way for Tomorrow”, and centers on an elderly couple experiencing difficulties adjusting to life in a new era. Masterful director Yasujiro Ozu has many great films to his credit, but there is little denying that “Tokyo Story” is his best, and is also one of the most moving and powerful films of all time. If you don’t believe me, just try to find a bad review for this film. “Tokyo Story” is already part of The Criterion Collection, but is at long last making its blu-ray debut, as well as receiving some new bonus materials. 

Being released on Tuesday, November 26th, 2013:

  • “Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman” (1962-1973): ZatoichiI’m not going to sit here and pretend to know everything movie related, so I’ll be honest and admit that I have no memory of these films what-so-ever. From what I can gather, these films are based on a character by Ken Shimozawa that is both a blind masseur and a master swordsman. In total, 26 films were made with this character, as well as a brief television show. This set includes the first 25 films in the series. (That is a lot of blind-swordplay!)

Cinemark Classic Series for August- October 2013

As the seasons continue to change, the Cinemark Classic Series changes as well. For the Fall 2013 films, Cinemark has mixed things up quite a bit, ranging throughout the genres with action movies, dramas and comedies, not to mention Best Picture nominees, and cult classics- with release years range anywhere from 1958 to 1999. Vertigo (1958)This time around there is a little something for everyone, guaranteed.

As always, you can get more information through the Cinemark website, including ticket prices and showtimes. As usual, each film will be shown once on Sundays at 2:00 P.M., and then twice on the following Wednesday at both 2:00 P.M. and 7:00 P.M. Ticket prices may vary (usually around $10 per movie), but tickets for all six films can be purchased at a reduced, bundled price. (Usually around $30.) Here is the rundown of films being shown:

On Sunday, August 25th, and Wednesday, August 28th:

  • “Pulp Fiction” (1994): Pulp Fiction (1994)Quentin Tarantino surprised the world with this Best Picture nominated film starring John Travolta, Uma Thurman, Samuel L. Jackson and Bruce Willis. Tarantino won his first Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for his wickedly entertaining combination of humor and violence that not only grabbed attention upon its initial release, but also has become one of the most enduring films of the 1990’s. It also happens to be one of those films that forever changed the way we looked at movies. It is a must see for all cinematic lovers, and there is no better way to see this film than on the big screen. 

On Sunday, September 1st, and Wednesday, September 4th:

  • “The French Connection” (1971):The French Connection (1971) Another dark, gritty film is the crime drama from director William Friedkin. With perfect cinematography, a great screenplay and the best performance of Gene Hackman’s career, “The French Connection” was another game-changer as it swept the movie watching world off their feet, pushing the boundaries of what had been seen in the past. It also happens to be the first “R” rated film to ever receive the Academy Award for Best Picture. 

On Sunday, September 8th, and Wednesday, September 11th:

  • “Some Like It Hot” (1959): Some Like it Hot (1959)Billy Wilder is a comic genius, and this is his masterpiece of humor and delight. Jack Lemmon is incredibly funny, Tony Curtis is at the top of his game, and Marilyn Monroe is as entertaining as ever in this story about two Chicago musicians who are on the run from a mob boss. How will they get out of town unnoticed? Dress up as women and join an all girls band of course! The laughs never stop in what is widely voted one of the funniest films ever made, and a perfect way to spend any day.

On Sunday September 15th, and Wednesday September 18th:

  • “To Kill a Mockingbird” (1962): To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)Gregory Peck gives a tour-de-force performance in this incredibly brilliant film based on Harper Lee’s best-selling novel. If you are looking for an example of perfect filmmaking, you need look no further, as each and every aspect of this picture is done to the highest standard. “To Kill a Mockingbird” has proven to the world that with a great story, a brilliantly adapted screenplay, and of course, one of the greatest actors of all time, there is nothing that can’t be accomplished. 

On Sunday, September 22nd, and Wednesday, September 25th:

  • “Fight Club” (1999): Fight Club (1999)You can argue with me day and night if you’d like to, but I said it back on October 15th, 1999, and I still say it today, “Fight Club” is one of the greatest motion pictures ever filmed. Filmmaker extraordinaire David Fincher created one of the most interesting, captivating and completely unorthodox films, that despite the neigh-sayers has hung around long enough to become an incredibly popular cult classic. Edward Norton, Brad Pitt and Helena Bonham Carter are all magnificent, but it is David Fincher’s direction and Jim Uhls’s screenplay that steal the show. 

On Sunday, September 29th, and Wednesday, October 2nd:

  • “Vertigo” (1958): Vertigo (1958)The piece de resistance of this group comes in the form of Alfred Hitchcock’s immortal classic, “Vertigo”. It received many negative reviews upon its initial release, yet somehow in the last 50-some odd years it has moved up the ranks of great films, most recently being voted Sight & Sound magazine’s, “greatest film of all time” in 2012. The always perfect James Stewart stars with Kim Novak in a psychological thriller that is as patient and intriguing as any of Hitchcock’s film, and promises to leave the audience thinking and contemplating long after the lights have come up. Originally filmed in 70mm, “Vertigo” is a film that is begging and pleading to be seen on the largest screen possible, making this an opportunity that shouldn’t be missed.

You Were Never Lovelier (1942)- William A. Seiter

 ★★★★★

 

American dancer Bob Davis (Fred Astaire) would like to retire from his line of work and spend all his time at the racetrack. Unfortunately for Bob, he isn’t as good with the horses as he would like.You Were Never Lovelier (1942) Broke and busted in Buenos Aires, Bob heads over to Hotel Acuna to get some work. The harsh hotel owner, Eduardo Acuna (Adolphe Menjou), won’t even see Bob, partially because he doesn’t want to and partially because he is preparing for his daughter’s upcoming wedding. Bob, coincidentally, meets his old friend, bandleader Xavier Cugat (who uses his real name to play his character), and together they devise a plan to get Acuna to notice Bob. At the wedding, Bob will sing a romantic song as the newlyweds come together for their first dance.

You Were Never Lovelier (1942)During the wedding Bob goes unnoticed by Acuna, and is further discouraged when he is ignored by Acuna’s next eldest daughter, the beautiful Maria (Rita Hayworth). Bob tries to talk to Acuna about a job, unaware that Maria is his daughter, and mentions that she has the personality of an ice box, thus cementing a bitter feel to his and Acuna’s relationship.

Acuna has four daughters and has told them that, as per family tradition, they must be married in age order, making Maria next in line. Her two younger sisters have already found their men and are impatiently waiting for Maria to meet Mr. Right. In an unusual twist for this type of movie, Acuna is not an overly protective or unemotional character. You Were Never Lovelier (1942)He too wants to see Maria fall head over heels, so much so that he creates an imaginary admirer for his daughter.

After many poems and flowers (all sent by her father), Maria falls in love with her imaginary man, who she mistakenly thinks is Bob. In order to try to help matters, Acuna hires Bob to pose as Maria’s suitor, in exchange for a dancing contract at the hotel. Naturally, once Bob spends some time with Maria’s charming smile, sparkling eyes and irresistible dance moves, he can’t help but fall in love with her, even if under false pretenses.

Alright, so  the plot could be interchanged for most other Astaire films, especially when you consider that when Maria and Bob meet there are no sparks, only to later lead to a romance. This seems to be the basic idea of every Astaire dancing film, doesn’t it? Then there are the dancing numbers.You Were Never Lovelier (1942) As always Fred has an energetic solo number, followed by a romantic duet in the garden, and then another fast-paced modern dance number with his leading lady. All that’s left is a final romantic number right at the film’s climax, and don’t worry, you won’t be disappointed, as Astaire delivers again.

What makes “You Were Never Lovelier” such a great film is the perfection of each and every one of these dance numbers. Fred’s solo, Latin inspired number is one of his personal best. Cramped into a small office while auditioning for Acuna, Astaire manages to make theYou Were Never Lovelier (1942) room seem bigger by jumping on a table, Acuna’s desk, pushing back a chair, and even using things sitting around the room as props. This number seems uncharacteristic of Astaire throughout his career, as there is a special flare to it that really shows his excitement and passion over making this film. This much enthusiasm only appears a few times in his carrer, although he comes quite close regularly.

Likewise with Astaire and Hayworth’s “Zoot Suit” number, these two irresistible stars seem to be having more fun than usual, only making the audience yearn for more from them both. The young Hayworth (who was only 24 years old when the film was released) is able to keep up with the never-tiring Astaire, who despite being 19 years older than Hayworth, still makes everyone watching feel old and decrepit. You Were Never Lovelier (1942)(How does he move around a room like that?)

Another aspect of this film that I find quite interesting is the wonderful Adolphe Menjou. Capable of so many different types of roles, he adds a sense of legitimacy to “You Were Never Lovelier”. He spends so much of the film barking orders to those around him, but because Menjou is such a talented actor, he mixes things up by making his yelling seem amusing, nicely fitting into the comedy feel of the film. It also doesn’t hurt that the character is written as such a soft-hearted romantic. Even when he treats everyone around him with contempt, he instantly redeems himself with some act of kindness, fully devoted to his daughter’s happiness.

The two pairings of Fred Astaire and Rita You Were Never Lovelier (1942)Hayworth (the other being “You’ll Never Get Rich”) might not be widely remembered as Astaire’s best movies, but I am unsure as to why. Their chemistry is undeniable, their dancing impeccable and the music is unforgettable. Any opportunity to see Rita and Fred is one that shouldn’t be missed, and I dearly wish they had been able to work together in more than just these two pictures as they quite honestly… were never lovelier.
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A Foreign Affair (1948)- Billy Wilder

 ★★★★

 

In the American occupied zone of Berlin during 1948, a United States congressional committee has been sent to report on the morale of the military men stationed there. One member of the group is the uptight, conservative congresswoman, Phoebe Frost (Jean Arthur), from the honorable state of Iowa. Upon her arrival, she meets Captain Pringle (John Lund), who is also from Iowa, giving them an instant bond. A Foreign Affair (1948)Phoebe begins an investigation into a local cabaret singer, Erika von Schluton (Marlene Dietrich), who was closely involved with several high-ranking members of the Gestapo during the war. To help her discover the truth, Phoebe enlists the help of Captain Pringle.

When Phoebe discovers that Erika has been allowed to remain here despite her checkered past, she (correctly) assumes that she must be sexually involved with an officer who possess that powerful combination of access to files and influence. What she doesn’t know is that it’s Captain Pringle who spends his nights at Erika’s place. By Phoebe enlisting his help in her fact-finding mission, he is given ample opportunity to cover his tracks. The hitch in Pringle’s plan is that while trying to trick Phoebe into believing that he has fallen in love with her, he actually does. Pringle’s other problem comes from his superior officer,A Foreign Affair (1948) Colonel Plummer (Millard Mitchell), who surprisingly has know about Pringle’s involvement with Erika for some time, and “encourages” him to continue the relationship in order to draw out one of Erika’s jealous former lovers (Peter von Zerneck)- a high-ranking Gestapo member now in hiding.

In my expert opinion (and yes, I use the word expert lightly), Billy Wilder is a filmmaking genius. Many directors can be great or brilliant, but what separates Wilder from so many of the other guys is that no matter what kind of movie he was making- no matter what genre it fell in or what kind of message he wanted to send, you could always count on him to deliver his vision in the highest possible quality. Perhaps for some, he’s best remembered for his everlasting contributions to the comedy genre, with entertaining films like “Some Like It Hot” (1958), “Sabrina” (1954), “The Apartment” (1960) and “The Seven Year Itch” (1955). On the other hand, maybe you’re more partial to his deep and powerful dramas like A Foreign Affair (1948)“Witness for the Prosecution” (1957), “The Lost Weekend” (1945), “Double Indemnity” (1944) or “Sunset Boulevard” (1950), all four of which incidentally were nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award. Any one of these films would look great on a resume, but because all eight of these examples are so perfect- so cherished amongst film aficionados, his other movies are often overlooked.

Wilder was intrigued by the idea of making a film in post-war Germany, and when the Army agreed to be cooperative with his filming if he set the story in Allied-occupied Germany, the idea for “A Foreign Affair” was born. Joining with his regular collaborator, Charles Brackett, and writer Richard L. Breen, the screenplay came quickly and easily, blending humor and drama effortlessly, even when the seriousness of the story seems like it should have made it harder. A Foreign Affair (1948)The screenplay was nominated for an Academy Award (one of two that this film would receive) and is the driving force that keeps the film going.

Jean Arthur and Marlene Dietrich don’t seem like two people who would have much in common with one another. Their careers, and even their personal lives, seem to be complete opposites. Wilder had his hands full with his leading ladies, but I’m guessing he knew what he was getting into before he sought them out. His supposed quote goes,  “I have one dame who’s afraid to look at herself in a mirror and another who won’t stop looking!” Boy, that must have been fun to watch. The funny thing about these two stars being so different is that it works beautifully because their characters are so different as well. They’re not written to be friends, so they didn’t have to try to fake it anyway.Billy Wilder and Marlene Dietrich Both of them are absolutely perfect in roles that seem to be written specifically for them, designed to accentuate their natural charms.

John Lund, on the other hand, doesn’t work out so well. I’d like to be able to blame the writing (as some of it is rather cheesy), but I think he was just lost as an actor. The role was calling for some comedy, but he doesn’t know how to pull it off. Lund plays some scenes much too serious, and others far too much like a screwball comedy. There needed to be a happy medium somewhere, but Lund never finds one. Perhaps he was just overmatched by his co-stars. The role seems to need an actor that could handle his more comedic scenes with the kind and naive congresswoman, but also seem man enough to tame his German seductress. My suggestion, incidentally (not that anyone asked me): Ray Milland, and if you don’t think he’s right, just think about him with Jean Arthur in “Easy Living” (1937), with Marlene Dietrich in “Golden Earrings” (1947), and teaming with Billy Wilder in his Academy Award winning role in “The Lost Weekend”.A Foreign Affair (1948) He seems almost destined to be in this film!

Another aspect in which “A Foreign Affair” excels is in the location shooting throughout war-torn Berlin. Few films in the years after WWII seemed to capture the devastation and destruction during these beginning stages in the rebuilding process. There aren’t lots of scenes with the ruins around them, but the ones that are there leave a lasting impression. These harrowing images give the overall film a feel that reminds me of the Fred Zinnemann film, “The Search” (1948), released just three months earlier. Cinematographer Charles Lang takes full advantage of his surroundings, enhancing his own superb black and white cinematography. This film was one of Lang’s seventeen Academy Award nominated works, tying him for the most ever in his field. Any opportunity to see his Marlene Dietrich and Billy Wilder on the set of "A Foreign Affair" (1948)work is well worth the time, and “A Foreign Affair” is no exception.

Today, “A Foreign Affair” isn’t overly seen or discussed. It’s availability is disappointing, as it currently can only be purchased through Turner Classic Movies in a print that is in dire need of some attention. Perhaps in future years this film will be experienced by a new audience who can appreciate it more as its availability widens.

The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933)- Frank Capra

 ★★★★

 

Frank Capra and Barbara Stanwyck made a great team. He was one of the revolutionary directors who was thrilled to make the adjustment from silent to sound films, with the education and the technical know withal to think outside the box, paving the way for all of the followers lining up behind him. She was to become one of the greatest movie stars of all time, with Capra being the perfect man to give her career a lift at just the right moment. The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933)Not that she would really need help to become the icon that she did, but Capra’s films clearly got her there faster. Their first collaboration, “Ladies of Leisure” (1930), was only her third credited role, but it propelled her to the ranks of stardom- a status that she would never relinquish. They ended up making five films together, ending with what is probably their most watched film, “Meet John Doe” (1941). It is these first four, however- these “under-the-radar” pictures that are the more noteworthy and aberrant; particularly when considering the timing of their release. Sound films came on the scene in 1927, and by 1934 the Hayes Code was in full effect, leaving only seven years for the filmmaking pioneers to make talking films with the freedom in which great directors (including Capra) always seem to thrive. That is when Stanwyck and Capra got together to create these other four movies, which in addition to “Ladies of Leisure “, also included “The Miracle of a Woman” (1931), “Forbidden” (1932) and today’s topic,“The Bitter Tea of General Yen” (1933).

The story, based on the novel by Grace Zaring Stone, takes place in the 1920’s, during the height of the Chinese Civil War. A ruthless warlord, General Yen The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933)(Nils Asther), is in control of things in Shanghai. His situation only appears to be improving as his chief financial advisor (Walter Connolly) informs him that he was recently able to gather up six million dollars for Yen’s personal “war chest”.

On the other side of town, safe from the fires that are destroying much of city, American missionary Bob Strike (Gavin Gordon) is about to get married to his childhood sweetheart, Megan (Barbara Stanwyck). She just arrived in China, and hasn’t seen her fiance in three years. Their wedding, however, has to be postponed as Bob feels morally compelled to travel into the hazardous zone to save a group of children stranded at an orphanage. Megan goes along with her soon to be husband, who first must stop by and see General Yen, in order to obtain a pass to make it safely through the war-torn area. Yen, however, does not comply, instead giving him a worthless piece of paper that he claims is a pass, thus guaranteeing the failure of their mission.

The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933)While trying to get the children to safety, Megan gets knocked unconscious while at a train station and becomes separated from Bob. She is seen, however, by General Yen who recognizes her from an earlier chance meeting. Yen takes her on his private train to his summer palace where she will “be safe”. When Megan awakens, she is being cared for by Yen’s concubine (Toshia Mori), who also happens to be a spy working against Yen. While staying at his luxurious home, Megan and Yen develop an unusual interest in each other. She becomes sexually attracted to him (including a particularly erotic dream). Yen begins to trust her blindly, even though he is aware that this trust is a bad idea.

At times it’s melodramatic, at others down-right moving, but the interesting thing is that it doesn’t lack in any area. Frank Capra has created a masterfully woven story with his directing being some of the best from any of his early films. He shies away from nothing, as his camera boldly travels throughout the well designed sets to reveal a highly exhilarating and sexually charged drama.The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933) The costumes are magnificent, Edward Paramore’s screenplay is superb and the cinematography by Joseph Walker is inspiring, culminating into a full-service film watching experience.

The acting in particular is spectacular, with Stanwyck being as brilliant in exactly the way we have come to expect. She seems to have an ability to take these basic, uncomplicated characters, and make them far more interesting and emotional than they would seem on paper. Swedish actor Nils Asther pulls off the villainous General Yen with the greatest of ease. He is brutal and cold, but after meeting Megan you can actually see the transformation occur, leaving him a vulnerable, unselfish man, with only remnants of his war lord life being remembered as vague recollections from days long forgotten. The show-stealer, however, is the elegant Toshia Mori, who with limited screen time manages to be Stanwyck’s equal- something that so many actresses would attempt to do from this point on. Mori didn’t continue to have a flourishing career in Hollywood, but not because of a  lack of talent, as is evident when watching this movie.

Some directors have an emotional connection to their stars. This on-film “love affair” with their own personal screen goddesses always seems to work to the advantage of the beautiful ladies that become illuminated by the directors that worship them so much.The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933) It worked for Greta Garbo and Clarence Brown, it worked for Marlene Dietrich and Josef von Sternberg, it worked with Grace Kelly and Alfred Hitchcock, and it worked for Stanwyck and Capra. His appreciation for her talent and beauty is what makes their films together so memorable and special. He takes every possible opportunity to showcase her to the audience. Because it was important to him, it becomes important to us- shaping her performance in each film (and her career) into something larger than life.

“The Bitter Tea of General Yen” is a patient film that focuses of the characters and their stories. It doesn’t try to do too much or be anything that it’s not. Perhaps that is why some find it to be slow-paced or dull. It is the subtle beauty of the film, however, made with a precision to capture a time, a place and the love of two people as realistically as possible that helps it succeed on all counts.

New Release Round-Up! August 6th, 2013

New Release on Blu-ray and DVD for Tuesday, August 6th, 2013

Well there is no point in beating around the bush this week- I have never been so excited by a week’s releases! It just seems like all the good films that could have been spaced out over the last month have been culminated into this “hall of fame” week.The Place Beyond the Pines (2013) Let me give you a quick run-down as to what I mean: The Criterion Collection came through with a great blu-ray debut, Disney has released three of their classics in blu-ray editions for the first time, we have a special release from the only Academy Award winning Best Picture that has yet to be available on home media, as well as the only two films from 2013 that I have given a rating of ★★★★★. And just in case that wasn’t enough, we also get a first time blu-ray release of an Alfred Hitchcock classic, and Terrance Malick’s latest opus. (Can you tell I’m a bit excited here?) So tell me, how many of these films will you be watching this week?

  • “Mud” (2013): Mud (2013)I loved this movie. Matthew McConaughy gives a knock-out performance as a man on-the-run, hiding on a small island along the Mississippi River. He is found by two young boys (Tye Sheridan & Jacob Lofland) who try to help him escape the law and reunite with his on-again off-again girlfriend (Reese Witherspoon).The film is brilliantly made and combines the perfect blend of warmth and drama. “Mud” boasts an amazing supporting cast as well, including Sam Shepard, Michael Shannon, Ray McKinnon and Sarah Paulson. Trust me when I say that this is a movie worth watching.

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  • “The Place Beyond the Pines” (2013):The Place Beyond the Pines (2013) Another film released earlier this year that surprised me with its quality was this drama directed by Derek Cianfrance (“Blue Valentine”). The film stars Ryan Gosling as a motorcycle stunt man who puts his driving to use by becoming a bank robber. Bradley Cooper plays the police officer whose life is forever changed because of the decisions that he makes while trying to stop the robberies. With brilliant editing, haunting music and spot on performances from the entire cast, including Eva Mendes, Bruce Greenwood and Ray Liotta, “The Place Beyond the Pines” is a stunning example of expert filmmaking.

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  • “The Earrings of Madame de…” (1953): The Earrings of Madame de... Getting a much deserved blu-ray release through The Criterion Collection is this brilliantly conceived and constructed French film from director Max Ophuls. The story is about the wife (Danielle Darrieux) of a wealthy General who decides to sell a pair of earrings that her husband (Charles Boyer) gave to her on their wedding day. Although the earrings don’t seem to mean much to her now, through a series of fateful events, these expensive jewels find their way back to Madame de through her new love (Vittorio De Sica), once again giving them (and her life) new purpose. Few films are as perfectly designed as this one, and it’s easy to see why, “The Earrings of Madame de…” has become one of the most acclaimed French films of all time.

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  • “The Man Who Knew Too Much” (1956): Alfred Hitchcock and Jimmy Stewart were a great team. They made four incredible and unforgettable films together, between 1948 and 1958. The Man Who Knew Too Much (1954)Sure “Vertigo” (1958) and “Rear Window” (1954) are the most acclaimed and remembered of the group, but to overlook either “Rope” (1948) or “The Man Who Knew Too Much” (1956) simple because they are not as good as the other collaborations would be a serious mistake. In this film, Stewart plays a man on holiday with his wife (Doris Day) and young son (Christopher Olsen). Through a series of coincidences and mistakes, a spy is killed and passes sensitive information, asking him to deliver it to the British government. The nefarious villains kidnap the couple’s son and threaten to kill him if anyone is alerted to their plan. This film is a remake of Hitchcock’s 1934 film of the same name, and although there are many similar plot points, his maturity as a director (and the presence of Stewart and Day) make this the superior film. In addition, this movie also boasts the Academy Award winning song, “Whatever Will Be, Will Be (Que Sera, Sera)”, which plays an important role in the film’s plot.

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  • “Robin Hood” (1973):Robin Hood “Oo De Lally”! You can laugh if you want, but I’m not afraid to admit that Disney’s “Robin Hood” is one of my all-time favorite films. For starters, the cast is filled with wonderfully comic voice performances, headlined by Peter Ustinov as the thumb-sucking Prince John. Then, there are the songs that were spectacularly written and are guaranteed to be stuck in your head, giving you something to whistle all day long. Say what you will about the so called greatest animated films of all time, I think I’ll take “Robin Hood” any day.

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  • “To the Wonder” (2012): Terrence Malick… in my opinion, you either love him or don’t understand him.To the Wonder (2012) His films are legendary for having the most beautiful images, combined with a unparalleled narrative style. His latest film, “To the Wonder”, tells the story of a mid-western man (Ben Affleck) who falls in love with a French woman (Olga Kurylenko). She comes to live with him in America, but things quickly begin to become stale. Complicating the issue further is the emergence of his high-school sweetheart (Rachel McAdams) who begins to pull his affections away. The film, which has very little dialogue that isn’t done in voice over, seems unusual to many movie-goers, but for viewers who can be patient, the payoff is well-worth the time invested. It is visually stunning and once again proves that Malick is a pioneer director, forging the way for future filmmakers prepared to think outside the Hollywood way of doing things.

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  • “Oblivion” (2013): Oblivion (2013)Tom Cruise and Olga Kurylrnko star in this science fiction film that takes place in the future, after the human race has abandoned Earth. Only a couple of people remain behind to finish collecting the water from the oceans, until things go terribly wrong. This film pays homage to many of the science fiction films from the 1960’s and 70’s, but ultimately falls short with a story that just doesn’t seem to hold any interest. The visual effects are a plus, but still aren’t enough to keep the mediocre story afloat.

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  • “The Sword in the Stone” (1963): The Sword in the Stone Here’s another Disney classic finally getting a blu-ray release. This classic tale of King Arthur’s fictitious childhood comes to life with the help of Merlin, the fantastic wizard, and his owl, Archimedes. The special features aren’t anything to be excited about, but there is a four-minute, never before seen opening sequence that could be interesting. At this point, I’m just glad to see these Disney classics gaining new interest after so long. Anybody up for a wizard’s duel?

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  • “Cavalcade” (1933): Cavalcade (1933)This is the Best Picture winning film from 1933, that is FINALLY becoming available on DVD and blu-ray. Directed by Frank Lloyd, the story follows an English family from New Years Eve, 1899 all the way through present day (1933). Many scenes revolve around major world events such as different wars, the Titanic sinking and the death of Queen Victoria. Unfortunately, there don’t seem to be many (or any) special features with this release, but because I’m so excited that I can finally watch the movie, I’m not going to be too picky.

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  • “Oliver and Company” (1988): Oliver and Company (1988)Billy Joel, Bette Midler and Joey Lawrence lead an all-star cast in this modern-day (by modern-day I mean 1988) spin on Charles Dickins, “Oliver Twist”. This is clearly a flawed Disney classic, but still one that entertains, mostly because of the toe-tapping songs.

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Also being released this week are a fewer less-popular films that may be of some interest. We have the 35th anniversary edition of the science fiction classic, “Battlestar Galactica” (1978), the comedy/action film “Silver Streak” (1976), starring Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor, Wesley Snipes’s action extravaganza “Passenger 57” (1992), Kevin Bacon’s bicycle drama, “Quicksilver” (1986), and the Macaulay Culkin fantasy film, “The Pagemaster” (1994).
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