The Jackpot (1950)- Walter Lang

 ★★★★

 

Everybody likes the idea of winning prizes, right? The thrill of being important, the excitement when the prize arrives; and that says nothing about the notoriety of being a genuine winner to everyone in your community. But what happens when your winnings turn into a curse? The Jackpot (1950)That is exactly what happens to the Lawrence family, in the comedy film “The Jackpot” (1950), from director Walter Lang.

Bill Lawrence (Jimmy Stewart) is unhappy with what he considers to be a mundane life. He is married to the loving Amy (Barbara Hale), and has two young children (Natalie Wood & Tommy Rettig). He has a solid job working at Woodruff’s department store, and Mr. Woodruff himself (Fred Clark) is considering making Bill vice-president of the store. And then the telephone rings, and the trouble begins. Bill has been selected to take part in a radio trivia game and if he answers their “guess the husband” question, he will receive $24,000 in prizes. Bill and his family are elated when he answers correctly, and even though some of the prizes are ridiculous, they’re just happy to have won. That is, until they hear about the tax implications of winning so many prizes. Because the government considers the prizes as income, the Lawrence family is going to owe about $7,000 in taxes. Obviously a middle America family in 1950 doesn’t have that kind of money, so they have to begin selling their prizes in order to pay the taxes. The Jackpot (1950)Of course the added stress from these dealing only takes what was once a quiet, comfortable home and turns it into a three-ring circus, complete with arguments, marital problems, and even a misunderstanding that leads to a night in jail. If only he would have answered that question wrong!

The first half of “The Jackpot” seems like a cute, light-hearted comedy, but then it quickly transitions into a life lesson for all ages. The film is based on the real life events of a Rhode Island man, whose story was written up by John McNulty for The New Yorker, in 1949. This mind-boggling situation actual happened to this poor man and his family, yet you can’t help but sit back and laugh as confusion, bewilderment, and chaos take control of his life.

One of the things that makes this film so easy to enjoy is the cast of professionals, that fill each scene.The Jackpot (1950) These aren’t actors that needed to be told what  to do, they knew how to make a comedy work. Director Walter Lang seems to be a master at giving his cast the freedom to do things their way. His career is filled with films that prove this, and it enabled him to work in any genre and with any story, as long as the actors knew what they were doing.

“The Jackpot” is not a film that one hears about very often these days, mostly because it has fallen into that dreaded pit of obscurity. I suppose it’s because it’s not a “great” movie, so it is easy to cast it behind all the monumental films from the 50’s, where (quite honestly), it belongs. This does, however, make it a satisfying film for those who give it a chance and are seeking some light-hearted entertainment.

Fear ‘aka’ La Paura (1954)- Roberto Rossellini

 ★★★★

 

When you hear the names Ingrid Bergman and Roberto Rossellini your mind can instantly be transported to any one of their famous collaborating efforts that took place between 1950 and 1954.Fear (1954) Each film has something to offer the cinematic world, but because a few of them are considered so extraordinary- such monumental achievements, one or two of the other titles may have unfairly fallen into obscurity. Such is the case with the final film they made together before their divorce, “Fear” or “La Paura” (1954).

Based on the novel by Stefan Zweig, “Fear” features Bergman as Irene Wagner, the wife of the brilliant German Professor Albert Wagner (Mathias Wieman), who has spent his post-war years in a prison. While he was away (and even now that he has returned), Irene has engaged in an affair with a single, younger man named Kreuger (Erich Baumann). With her husband’s return, Irene has begun living in a state of constant fear, guilt, and anxiety over her illicit relationship, and is eager to end the affair.Fear (1954)

That is when a mysterious woman enters her life. She introduces herself as Johann Schultze (Renate Mannhardt), and explains that she is the cast aside lover of Kreuger. Her initial jealousy towards Irene has grown now into a plot for revenge. Schultze begins blackmailing Irene, small amounts at first, but the price increases quickly once Schultze sees how desperate Irene has become, and how her overwhelming fear of being exposed now controls her every move.

What is most unusual about “Fear” is that it ventures into so many different genres without dwelling on any one element to long. The story is something that could have easily been made into a 1950’s American film noir thriller. Rossellini masterfully uses the darkness and shadows to keep the film feeling like a more basic crime film than a character driven drama. It also has roots in the suspense genre, more like a Alfred Hitchcock or Henri-Georges Clouzot picture from the same time period.Fear (1954) And then, of course, there are the two elements that you can always expect in a Rossellini film, the historical and mood defining locations, and the deeply rooted and always relatable lives of the main characters. “Fear” was filmed entirely on location in Munich, and six years after Rossellini’s masterful “Germany Year Zero” (1948),  the war ridden landscape is still evident and harrowing. Few directors understood how to continuously use their locations as a character as well as Roberto Rossellini, and “Fear” is another example of that fact.

And then, on top of all of that, there is Ingrid Bergman. Her presence alone makes any film worth watching, but this film is so different from her other Rossellini pictures, and she has to reach down deep and pull out a different kind of performance. Fear (1954)Her character is living in fear (obviously, from the title), but because she is also alone in her fear, most of her acting is done with few actions and even less dialogue. Bergman is tasked with showing fear with her body and eyes, and somewhat expectantly makes it look easy. It’s not one of her best roles, but she still manages to make something where so many others would have nothing. Every look, glance, thought, or smile is filled with despair, and between her acting and the haunting musical score composed by Roberto’s brother, Renzo, the audience too becomes afraid, even if they don’t know why.

Second Chorus (1940)- H.C. Potter

 ★★★

 

Sometimes it’s important to remember that Fred Astaire couldn’t do everything. When watching his 1940 comedic musical “Second Chorus”, this fact becomes obvious for two reasons: first off, he is not an accomplish trumpeter; second, even his dancing, charm, charisma, and smile can’t save every film in which he appeared. Second Chorus (!940)The plot of this misguided musical revolves around two trumpet playing members of a college band: Danny (Fred Astaire) and Hank (Burgess Meredith). They have spent the past seven years intentionally failing their courses in order to stay  in the collegiate band. At one of their gigs, they both notice and are attracted to Ellen Miller (Paulette Goddard), who turns out to be working for a collection agency, sent there to serve them with a collection notice. Danny and Hank go to Ellen’s office, where they get her fired and then hire her to be their manager. (Somehow she’s alright with this turn of events.) After things begin going well, bandleader Artie Shaw (played by himself) attends one of their shows. Danny and Hank think that he is there to hear them play, but really he wants to hire Ellen, since it’s her managing skills that made the difference for the group.

The rest of the film shows Danny and Hank endlessly fighting with each other to win Ellen’s affections, and the affections of Artie Shaw.Second Chorus (1940) They go back and forth, being as destructive as possible to themselves, each other, and Ellen. If the overly lighthearted and whimsical (borderline frustrating) plot isn’t enough to send up a series of red flags in the viewer’s mind, don’t worry, there are plenty of other problems to make it more obvious. Fred Astaire does his best to keep things rolling, but he is the only person in the film that can sing, and the only person who can really dance. His final number, “Hoe Down The Bayou/Poor Mr. Chisholm,” is an immensely entertaining solo number, full of the usual Astaire delights. Paulette Goddard does her best in her one dance number, and between Astaire dancing around her and the beautiful and distracting dress she has, Goddard ends up looking pretty darn good, considering. Her acting, however, is far more realistic than her musical abilities, and when you’re paired with Astaire, that spells trouble. What makes things really weird is that it’s a musical film, but only one person is doing most of the singing and dancing. Second Chorus (1940)Artie Shaw and his band come in with some good jazz numbers to spice things up, but this is really a one-man-show attempting to disguise itself as something bigger.

In later years, everyone associated with “Second Chorus” agreed that it was a mistake, leading to its falling into public domain. Although it’s easy to see why they feel this way, it is also important to look at the positives as well. In addition to Astaire’s usual charms, Burgess Meredith adds quite a lot laughs to the film. He has a few memorable moments, particularly with the rich backer trying to become a musician (played by Charles Butterworth). I’d be lying if I said their exchanges didn’t leave me smiling.Second Chorus (1940)

There are also the songs in the movie written by Johnny Mercer, including “Love of My Life”, which was co-written by Artie Shaw and earned an Academy Award nomination that year. There is also the dance number, “Me And The Ghost Upstairs” that was deleted from the film, but is included in the special features of some DVD’s. In this number, Astaire’s longtime choreographer, Hermes Pan, dresses in women’s shoes, puts on a sheet (hence the ghost), and mimic dances behind him. It’s really too bad this number wasn’t in the final film, as it would have enhanced both the dancing and the comedy of the overall production.

 

New Criterion Collection Titles Announced for December 2013

It seems impossible to already be closing in on the end of the year, but when The Criterion Collection announces their last releases of 2013, that’s when you know we are nearing the end of the calendar.The Housemaid (1960) Of course closing the year off with a great selection of new inductees to Criterion’s illustrious vault certainly makes the winter months seem warmer, right? So far in 2013, The Criterion Collection has already given us several brilliant films from some of the world’s finest directors: Ingmar Bergman, Roberto Rossellini, Yasujiro Ozu, Ernest Lubitsch, Max Ophuls, Ang Lee, Guillermo del Toro, Satyajit Ray, Michelangelo Antonioni, Charlie Chaplin, Terrence Malick, John Cassavetes, Fritz Lang, Elia Kazan, Delmer Daves, Robert Bresson, and Alfred Hitchcock, just to name a few!

So what do they have in store for us this December? Here they are:

Being released Tuesday, December 3rd, 2013:

  • “Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion” (1970): Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion (1970)This Italian film from director Elio Petri revolves around a high-ranking police officer who kills his mistress, and then helps his fellow officers in the investigation. When the evidence clearly points to himself, the other officers go out of their way to fumble the case and keep their fellow officer above the law. This film stars Gian Maria Volonte and Florinda Bolkan, and was the winner of the 1970 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.
  • “Nashville” (1975): Robert Altman directs this epic drama that was nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award in 1975, and has only grown in both popularity and acclaim since that time.Nashville (1975) The almost non-existent plot revolves around several different main characters, as their lives converge during a few fateful days in the musical title city. Often considered one of Altman’s very best films, “Nashville” is a welcomed addition to The Criterion Collection, and a must see for all true cinema fans. (The cover art is pretty fantastic as well.)

Being released Tuesday, December 10th, 2013:

  • “Grey Gardens” (1976):Grey Gardens (1976) This documentary film from director Albert Maysles is already in The Criterion Collection, but is, at long last, making its blu-ray debut. The film tells the story of “Big Edie” and “Little Edie”, a mother and daughter who live at the slowly deteriorating Grey Gardens, in near isolation. When the estate become dangerously inhabitable, the powers that be begin to interceded, but because “Big Edie” happens to be the Aunt of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, an attempt is made to help restore the home and grounds to its previous glory. 
  • “Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project” (1936-1981): In 2007, acclaimed filmmaker (and cinema lover) Martin Scorsese established the “World Cinema Project”, with the goal of restoring rarely seen foreign films, and making them available to the general population.Redes (1936) In this exclusive collection, six of the films that they have restored will be bundled together in what promises to be a historic collection. The films included are: “Touki Bouki” (1973), “Redes” (1936), “A River Called Titas” (1973), “Dry Summer” (1964), “Trances” (1981), and “The Housemaid” (1960).  Of interesting note (at least to me), “Redes” is a very early experimental film in the career of legendary director Fred Zinnemann, and “The Housemaid”, even with its limited availability in the past, has earned so much acclaim that it has already found its way into the “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die”.

The Power of Hindsight: 1954 at the Movies

Time changes things; there’s no denying that it’s true. Movies are no different, and with each passing year, an individual film’s legacy is altered by how it is remembered and revered. Sometimes a film that is extremely popular upon its initial release tends to lose some of its glory. The Country Girl (1954)On the other hand there are many films that go unnoticed until years, sometimes decades later, and then suddenly we all seem to realize this brilliantly crafted masterpiece that has been staring us in the face the whole time.

For the most part, it is this idea that is the inspiration for this series I’ve entitled, “The Power of Hindsight”. I’ve already written on the year that was 1963, but this time I will go back to one of my favorite years in film, 1954. In order to make the definitive Lasso the Movies “Best of” list, I have carefully examined the films released in that year and have picked up to ten that I consider the very best- much in the same fashion that the Academy Award Best Picture nominees are chosen. The major difference in my selection process is that I am looking at a list of all films released in 1954, and not just released in America. (The foreign market is so often overlooked, especially during the 1950’s, but luckily we can now appreciate these films as well.)

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954)

What I knew about 1954 is that I loved several films released in those short twelve months. What I didn’t know was how many amazing movies there would be vying for the coveted ten spots. In 1954, the Academy Awards only chose five Best Picture nominees. These films were:

“The Caine Mutiny”, “The Country Girl”, “On the Waterfront”, “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers”, and “Three Coins in the Fountain”

On the Waterfront (1954)

All of these films are good in their own right, but when you examine the other releases, things become crowded… quickly.The Barefoot Contessa (1954)

Another big award winner that year was “The Barefoot Contessa”, with Humphrey Bogart, Ava Gardner, and Edmond O’Brien (who did win Best Supporting Actor). Director Otto Preminger released two musical films, the well liked “Carmen Jones”, staring Dorothy Dandridge and Harry Belafonte, and the financially successful “River of No Return”, with Marilyn Monroe and Robert Mitchum. Other musicals that year were the holiday favorite, “White Christmas”, the Frank Sinatra/Doris Day drama, “Young at Heart”, “Brigadoon” with Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse, and George Cukor’s remake of “A Star is Born”. The latter of which earned Academy Award nominations for both of its stars: James Mason and Judy Garland (in her comeback role).

A Star is Born (1954)

The foreign language market in 1954 is one of the greatest of all time as well, with many of the biggest names in directing history appearing one right after another. Japanese filmmaker Kenji Mizoguchi released one of his greatest films, “Sansho the Bailiff”, in March, Jean Renoir’s “The French Cancan” came out in April, Roberto Rossellini’s “Journey to Italy” in September, and Luchino Visconti’s “Senso” came out in December. Seven Samurai (1954)Also coming out that year were two films that always seem to find their way towards the top of everyone’s “greatest all time” lists, Federico Fellini’s “La Strada” and Akira Kurosawa’s epic masterpiece, “The Seven Samurai”. I haven’t even mentioned Ishiro Honda’s “Godzilla”, which might not be considered the “highest quality” film ever made, but it’s legacy and significance can’t be overlooked, especially when examining a specific year.

Back in the English-speaking world, the great films were just as plentiful. Disney released their adaptation of the Jules Verne classic, “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea”, to both critical and financial success, Dial M for Murder (1954)John Wayne starred and produced in the disaster drama, “The High and the Mighty”, not to mention the emotional and inspiring drama, “Salt of the Earth”. Alfred Hitchcock released two films that year: “Rear Window” and “Dial M for Murder”. I happen to think these are two of his finest films, which says a lot considering how much I admire his career. Grace Kelly appeared in both of those Hitchcock films (and won an Academy Award for “The Country Girl”), but she also starred alongside William Holden in well received “The Bridges at Toko-Ri” released in December.

Rear Window (1954)

Nicholas Ray directed the western “Johnny Guitar” that year, Douglas Sirk made “Magnificent Obsession”, the mystery/noir classic “Black Widow” came out, David Lean released “Hobson’s Choice”, and Edward Dmytryk (who also directed “The Caine Mutiny”) released his western, “Broken Lance”, starring Spencer Tracy.Sabrina (1954) Just in case all of these titles aren’t enough to make your head spin, Billy Wilder also released one of his all-time greats, “Sabrina” in 1954, which with star power and pitch-perfect writing has remained just as entertaining as ever; even almost 60 years later.

So how does someone only pick ten of these films? There are so many worthy choices, but with only ten spots, someone is going to get left out of the party. Looking at the five films that did get Academy Award nominations in 1954, “On the Waterfront” La Strada (1954)was the Best Picture winner that year, and deservingly so. It is hands-down one of the top twenty American films ever made, and will definitely make my final cut. I have decided that “The Caine Mutiny” and “The Country Girl” are still both deserving of being called “one of the best” also. They both are marvelously crafted, were directed and written extremely well, and offer some of the best acting performances you will ever find. The other two nominees, “Three Coins in the Fountain” and “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers”,Hobson's Choice (1954) however, are going to be replaced on my list. I see why they were loved in 1954, but I don’t think they have won the test of time.

Continuing on, “Rear Window” is a film that seems to improve with time. It is widely considered Hitchcock’s third best film, behind “Vertigo” (1958) and “Psycho” (1960), and is ranked the 48th greatest American film on the last AFI poll. Akira Kurosawa’s “The Seven Samurai” was ranked the 17th greatest film of all time on Sight & Sound’s director’s poll and their critic’s poll in 2012. It was ranked above any other film from 1954 on both lists, thus securing itself a place on mine. Another film ranked highly on the Sight & Sound director’s poll was “La Strada”. The Caine Mutiny (1954)Although this isn’t a film that I would personally consider a favorite, I do see its importance and significance.

With the more “obvious” choices out-of-the-way, things got really tricky, but finally I was able to narrow it down to ten. Here they are, the ten films that I think represent the best in motion pictures 1954- and what a grouping it is, too.

Mr. & Mrs. Smith (1941)- Alfred Hitchcock

 ★★★★

 

Has there ever been a film that so blatantly stuck out like a sore thumb in a director’s career as Alfred Hitchcock’s 1941 screwball comedy, “Mr. & Mrs. Smith”? I certainly can’t think of any. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that there is anything wrong with the film, it’s just an extremely different kind of movie for Alfred Hitchcock to make. Mr. & Mrs. Smith (1941)For example (and I suppose a bit of a spoiler), this movie has very little violence, no real mystery, and absolutely zero murders! That’s right folks, not one character in the entire film finds themselves at the mercy of a ruthless killer, and what makes it even more shocking… I don’t think these characters are even thinking about killing each other. I almost can’t understand what’s happening.

There is, however, quite a bit that is going on that is worth mentioning in this delightful film. David and Ann Smith (Robert Montgomery and Carole Lombard) have been happily married for the last three years. He’s a successful lawyer, they seem to enjoy each other’s company, and they live in a nice apartment prominently situated in New York City. After a trivial argument, Ann asks David if he would still marry her, given the chance to do it all over again. David (perhaps too hastily) says that he doesn’t think he would- Mr. & Mrs. Smith (1941)not because he doesn’t love her, but because being married gives up a certain amount of freedom that he misses.

And then comes the twist. At work later that same day, David is visited by a government official from the city where he and Ann were married, informing him that their marriage isn’t “technically” real because of a discrepancy in state and county lines. David is told it’s no big deal, but just to make everything legal, he is advised to get “re-married” to his wife. David chuckles and smiles, seeming to rather enjoy the fact that he isn’t married, but he does not, however, embrace his freedom and go gallivanting off into the single world again. He also neglects to inform his wife of their precarious circumstance, but don’t fret… that same government official (who knew Ann as a child) takes it upon himself to seek out Ann and explain the situation to her.

Ann expects that David will “fill her in” that evening, but as the hours roll by it becomes increasingly clear he has other things on his mind. Having sex with an “unmarried” woman seems to be at the top of his list. Mr. & Mrs. Smith (1941)Ann has finally had enough, and in a fitful (and understandable) tirade, throws him out, vowing to be done with him forever.

Now David is on the outside, trying desperately to win his wife back, but her anger (and childish attitude) might be more than he can fight- especially once David’s law firm partner (Gene Raymond) seizes the opportunity and tries to marry Ann himself.

Alfred Hitchcock: The Master of Suspense… I mean The Master of the Screwball Comedy. It doesn’t really have the same ring to it, but is still true. If “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” accomplishes only one thing in the career of the great Hitchcock, it’s that he could do more than just suspense films; he just doesn’t seem to enjoy it as much. I’m not saying he could have had the Lubitsch Touch, but he still had a feel for the style. The story, credited to Norman Krasna, is far-fetched and at times ridiculous, but that’s what we love about screwball movies, right? Mr. & Mrs. Smith (1941)The witty rapport between Montgomery and Lombard is divinely entertaining, with each and every scene attempting (and accomplishing) to outdo the last. I’ve grown accustomed to seeing Lombard play these types of roles, mostly because she did them so well, but Montgomery is a bit of a surprise here. His ability to dig deep within and pull out such a comedic performance is surprising.

“Mr. & Mrs. Smith” is a film that works because its stars make it work. It’s their effort and dedication to being as laughable as possible that keeps the audience smiling. Case in point- the scene where David takes Ann to the restaurant where they used to eat before they were married. Things have changed, and change doesn’t look very good. Ann spends the meal trying to get David to tell her that they aren’t married, but David is so bewildered by his surroundings that he’s barely listening. Lesser actors could have played this as just one of many scenes in a comedy film, but not these two. They pull out all the stops, slowly pacing themselves so that the scene can be enjoyed to its fullest.Mr. & Mrs. Smith (1941) Slow and steady wins the race, and Lombard and Montgomery have proved it in this scene, and this picture.

It is refreshing to see Hitchcock branch out a little from his typical mystery and suspense films, yet his talents do feel somewhat wasted. Occasionally you’ll see some great shot or an impressive lighting technique that grabs your attention, reminding you who directed this film, but for the most part he seems to have made it with a very straightforward approach. It’s not that he doesn’t do a good job, it just doesn’t wow or amaze the way so many of his other films have. The best part about watching “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” (especially with someone who has never seen it before) is to see the look on the viewer’s face when they realize that they are watching a Hitchcock movie. Inevitably the question that comes from them is always, “This is a Hitchcock film?” “Yes, it is,” I say,” Now stop talking while the movie’s on.”