A Month of Media: November Movies and DVDs
November 17, 2012

I’ve brought back this feature after a six-month hiatus (due to my cross-country move), but I’m posting early because the rest of the month is likely to be taken up with holiday prep and such.

Her Cardboard Lover (1942)

The ever-debonair Robert Taylor (who didn’t often do comedy) is infatuated with the often-scandalous Norma Shearer. He needs money, and she needs to keep herself from getting back with ex-boyfriend George Sanders, so she hires Taylor to pretend to be her lover. She often regrets this decision, as Taylor turns out to be very good at his job, even when she succumbs and wants to return to Sanders, who treats her contemptuously.

This could be frothy, if it had been made a decade earlier (the source play actually dates from 1926), but in wartime, it feels tired and old. The result was Shearer’s last movie, although she still looked good and gave the material what it needed.

Weird scenes are oddly believable and quite entertaining, as when Taylor introduces himself to Shearer by saying, “I love you.” It’s also unusual to see a woman portrayed as attracted to a man in spite of herself, succumbing to a mysterious magnetism in spite of her best intentions, as in how Shearer needs help separating herself from Sanders.

The Invisible Man (1933)

I watched this because I appreciate Claude Rains, and it turns out it was his first film. Good thing he was cast for his voice, since we don’t view his face until the very end. It’s kind of weird seeing it now, because all the suspense is gone — you know the premise, that a scientist successfully turns invisible, but it drives him mad, and you know what happens, most likely. The performances are also very stagey and appear overdone to modern eyes.

The effects are still good, though, and it’s neat seeing how a thriller was paced in the early days. It picks up after the fateful experiment, after the chemist has made himself invisible, and it doesn’t really dwell on how (although he references the concept in a later monologue). Today, I’m convinced the movie would be much longer and rely on the audience’s intelligence less — we’d have to see all his experiments before the success, dwelling on the origin instead of what happened after, which is really the interesting stuff, his spiral down into destruction. And instead of simply throwing manpower at the problem of catching him, with squads of policemen, a modern take would require some fancy scientific technique or device to sense him. Am I describing Kevin Bacon’s Hollow Man (2000)? I’ve never seen that take on the concept.

Island of Lost Souls (1932)

I found the effects, specifically the monster makeup for the beast-human “natives”, cheesy, but the performance of Kathleen Burke as the panther woman Lota kept me watching. Charles Laughton is also striking as Dr. Moreau, the mad scientist torturing beasts under the guise of science. The film is slow going at times, but the concepts are still disturbing.

You don’t need me to tell you that this is a story of a shipwrecked guy (Richard Arlen) who winds up on an island where Moreau has been experimenting on the forced evolution of animals into human-like mutants. I did like the way his girlfriend (Leila Hyams) comes to get him, although it precipitates Lota’s jealousy. It’s a shame that Burke’s portrayal is so well-done that it stereotyped her and cut short her career. She seems feral but sympathetic, discovering the attraction of love.

The black-and-white of the film actually helps the suspense, as there are all kinds of suggestions lurking in the shadows. I would never have recognized Bela Lugosi under all his shaggy facial hair makeup without a look at IMDB, but the accent is distinctive as “Sayer of the Law”. The scene where the “natives” recognize that men are not immortal and untouchable is the creepiest part of the movie, in my opinion, followed by the climactic rebellion.

Larry Crowne (2011)

I still like this movie. It’s an optimistic portrait of a particular time period, and I don’t think viewers knew what to make of it. It’s not a comedy, exactly, but a pick-me-up.

Forbidden Hollywood Collection Volume 5 from Warner Bros.

The Mind Reader (1933)

I’m catching up with the Forbidden Hollywood Collection Volume 5 I ordered from Warner Archive a couple of months ago, and this is one of the four films in the set, with the final one being the next I viewed.

Warren William is a fake carnival psychic (is there any other kind?) whose life gets complicated when he falls in love with the daughter of a client (Constance Cummings). He also learns the dark side of meddling with people when a suicidal woman shows up after having taken his advice with deadly results. She’s played by Mayo Methot, best known these days for being the harridan who was married to Humphrey Bogart before Lauren Bacall.

With his aquiline, aristocratic features and pencil mustache, William is an excellent choice to play authority figures with a touch of decay. He had a commanding voice and the air of a cad, reflecting the Depression-era distrust of professionals and institutions. You may recognize him as the lawyer who falls for a showgirl in Gold Diggers of 1933. There’s also a Maltese Falcon remake called Satan Met a Lady, where he starred as the detective against Bette Davis.

Miss Pinkerton (1932)

Joan Blondell stars as a bored nurse seeking excitement. She gets it when she helps the police (represented by George Brent) after a well-known broke aristocrat is shot. She’s taking care of the victim’s elderly aunt, who’s in shock after finding the body of the supposed suicide. It’s based on a novel by Mary Roberts Rinehart.

Blondell is always entertaining, with her smarts and wisecracks, but this was a bit slow to grab me. The creepy old house is almost a character, as various suspects sneak around. There’s also, late in the movie, a point-of-view shot of a character’s death where Blondell makes the oddest pop-eyed expression.

17 Again (2009)

Not as popular as Freaky Friday, but I think there’s something to be said for this as a well-done family comedy. Matthew Perry is a guy whose life is falling down around him — he’s passed over for promotion, his wife has left him, and he’s bunking with his best friend (Tom Lennon), a rich geek who indulges his nerd hobbies. Then one stormy night, he gets turned back into his 17-year-old self.

Zac Efron does a great job playing a teen who’s older inside than he looks, and he even gets close to Matthew Perry’s mannerisms. Plus, he’s magnetic to watch; I hope he continues as a grown-up romantic comedy leading man once he gets past the “attempt to make meaningful movies” phase. Lennon’s nerd mating attempts are particularly funny. I’ve seen this at least three times, and I still laugh at it. My favorite line is “I give up, this will be some other dad’s problem,” when he’s trying to tell the hotties not to be slutty.

The Story of Temple Drake (1933)

Miriam Hopkins as Temple Drake is engrossing in this pre-Code film about a well-bred party girl, granddaughter of the local judge, whose sexual history shocks the town. She won’t marry the nice-guy lawyer she’s grown up with; instead, she goes drunkenly joy-riding with an idiot. When the car crashes, they’re found by a bootlegger and his gang who are hiding out in a deserted shack. She finally begins to fear for himself, giving up on thrill-seeking, and trying to avoid entering the hideout, but it’s too late — the idiot who took her out is more interested in getting a drink than in getting her home safely, and the storm forces her into their lair.

It’s based on William Faulkner’s Sanctuary, and it was a struggle to make the story into a movie, since it’s about Temple’s rape and her subsequent degradation. Jack La Rue is mesmerizing as the gangster Trigger. Today’s viewers may not understand why the family makes up a story about her disappearance instead of, you know, trying to contact her, but everyone apparently believes she’s the type that would simply run away. The end is too abrupt and sugar-coated, and Hopkins’ Southern accent comes and goes, but getting there still feels brutal.

Sunset Boulevard (1950)

I managed to pick the Centennial Collection version up cheap, and I’m now in a much better position to appreciate the story of someone afraid of aging, of reacting badly to a world that’s passed you by, of reaching a point where your dreams are clearly no longer going to happen. It’s such a pleasure to watch movies made for adults; they’re hard to find these days. Although we’re now twice as far from this movie as the subjects were from the silent days (60 years vs. 30), it’s still stunning.

Everyone knows the exaggerated bits — “it’s the pictures that got small!” — but I had forgotten the details in this story of a faded movie queen and the failed screenwriter she adopts into her overgrown, decaying mansion. Like the dead ape Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) is preparing a funeral for when we first meet her. Or having iron gates instead of a front door. Or how a tapped-out Joe (William Holden) is trying to escape repossession of his car. Or how he narrates what’s going on in that 50s sophisticate style, similar to Sweet Smell of Success and its “cookie full of arsenic”.

I loved seeing Buster Keaton as one of the “waxworks”, and a young Jack Webb as a party guy is a hoot. As a counterpoint, I now want to rewatch Paris When It Sizzles, the 15-year-later flip-side, where the edged cynicism with points to make has become jaded wisecracking, where nothing’s taken seriously when you can make a lazy parody.

The two-disc Centennial set has a ton of informative extras, by the way, including interview footage with Swanson from what looks like the 70s; modern comments from Nancy Olson, the only surviving cast member; and the infamous opening morgue sequence (silent, accompanied by script pages), cut from the film, where the dead Joe talks to the other corpses.

Swing Vote (2008)

I watched this election night instead of voting results because I figured it would remind me of the virtue of the process. It’s a flat film, though, and disappointing in its lack of resolution of its central question. Kevin Costner does a surprisingly believable ne’er-do-well, a drunk single dad who gets laid off, but instead of pointed political insight, we get a movie full of mushy good feelings and comedy without teeth.

Vertigo (1958)

I watched this because it recently, in a critics’ poll, displaced Citizen Kane as greatest film, and I thought I’d see if I agreed if it was better. I didn’t.

It was beautiful, in a glossy way, but very dated — the cars they drive! the clothes! the way Barbara Bel Geddes, the nice girl named Midge!, suffers her love for Jimmy Stewart’s character in silence! the Fantasia sequence to express altered mindset! — and more disturbingly, an accurate picture of Alfred Hitchcock’s blonde fetish. If you don’t enjoy staring at Kim Novak in various costumes and hairstyles, then there isn’t as much to the movie for you.

Some say you need to watch Vertigo more than once, the first time to find out what happened, the second to see it all in a new light. Maybe that’s true. I didn’t care enough for it the first time to go through again, though.

Wicked as They Come (1956)

A weak sister to the much superior Baby Face (1933), this 50s British film stars Arlene Dahl as a pretty girl who’s similarly determined to get to the top, no matter what. The mechanisms differ a bit from the older film, as that one was clear that the girl was sleeping her way up. In this one, Dahl simply trades on men — she flatters one to win a beauty contest, she steals from another to get funds for secretarial training, she pretends with a third (her boss) that they slept together when he’s too drunk to remember what happened after dinner. Then the film goes over the top with revenge and a shooting. Beware of pretty women, the message seems to be.

The Women (2008)

I love the original, so I got this because it was one of a free gift selection. Great cast — especially Annette Bening, humanizing and deepening the Sylvia Fowler part originally played by Rosalind Russell, and Candice Bergen as Meg Ryan’s mother. Debi Mazar is also great as the tale-telling manicurist, and it’s always a pleasure to see Joanna Gleason and Carrie Fisher.

I don’t think much of Eva Mendes — I think it would take a much stronger actress to live up to Joan Crawford and make the character more than a one-dimensional slutty man-stealer. I did like the change from a divorce ranch to a yoga retreat, where Bette Midler shows up briefly as the “countess”, a truth-telling super-powered agent. And the way they kept the fashion show in a brand-new context is wonderful.

It made sense, back then, for women to discuss possession of a man as though that defined them, given how much of their status depended on marital state, but here, the “talk about him without ever showing him” gives the film an odd air, especially since the rewritten Sylvia character shows that women don’t need to be married to participate in society. I think the modernization should have gone further. Maybe a film without men would make more sense these days if all the characters were lesbians. Or we could do an all-female film without making it about what the man did.

(Note: The interwoven Dove “real beauty” campaign, with product-placement shots in the movie and a nineteen-minute behind-the-scenes featurette, would be a tad more believable if it weren’t for Meg Ryan’s weird plastic forehead.)

4 Responses  
Ralf Haring writes:  

You described Hollow Man to a T. Lots of action, lots of build-up, lots of he’s-going-crazy parts. The movie’s not marvelous, but the effects were well done. I also only recently saw the original Invisible Man and was impressed with the effects for their time. It’s hard to imagine what contemporary audiences must have thought. I don’t think the concept of “movie magic” really exists anymore.

Johanna writes:  

Oh, I don’t know. I think movies like Avatar and similar visual spectacles provide that same kind of “wow, I never thought I’d see that” appeal.

Ralf Haring writes:  

I meant in more of an old-school-effects “how did they do that” kind of way. Nowadays the fantastic is ubiquitous (in movies).

A Month of Media: November Movies and DVDs, Part 2 » DVDs Worth Watching writes:  

[…] Although I published the first half of this list earlier this month, I did watch a few more […]


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