film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

The Palm Beach Story (1942)

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This one was weird, y’all.

Not unpleasantly so, mind.  At least not to the point I actively disliked it – and I do realize that that’s damning with faint praise.  But so many elements of this film are just so baffling that I can’t say it worked for me. Which is a shame, because there are other elements that were intriguing – a candid approach to how money can impact a marriage, some pointed commentary on how a woman’s attractiveness impacts her opportunities for her success, and even some physical affection that was surprisingly intimate for the Hays era.

Joel McCrea and Claudette Colbert are Tom and Gerry, a couple who have been married for five years and are struggling a bit. Tom is an architect who’s been trying – unsuccessfully – to pitch a new design for an airport, and Gerry is starting to lose hope and is a bit over their frugal lifestyle. Even though she still loves Tom, she asks for a divorce – he’ll have only himself to take care of, and he’ll be better able to hang in there while waiting for his ship to come in.  She declares she’ll find a rich man to take care of her expensive tastes; but secretly, she’s hoping that if she marries a rich man, she can invest in Tom’s airport herself, ensuring he makes his big break at last.  They go out on one last night on the town, Tom getting Gerry drunk to make her forget her plan – but she’s sobered up by the next morning, and slips out leaving only a farewell note.  A plane ticket to Reno is too expensive, so Gerry instead opts to seek a divorce in Palm Springs, conning her way onto the next southbound train out of Penn Station.

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After figuring out her plan, Tom flies to meet her there – only to find that en route, she’s caught the eye of an eccentric billionaire named John D. Hackensacker (Rudy Vallee).  Hackensacker is taking Gerry to meet his wordly sister Centimilla (Mary Astor); Hackensacker plans to propose, but wants Centimilla to pass judgement first.  When Tom runs into them, Gerry passes him off as her brother – prompting Hackensacker and Centimilla to invite him along to their mansion as well, where Centimilla gets busy on wooing Tom just as ardently as Hackensacker is pursuing Gerry.  All of which threatens to throw a monkey wrench into Gerry’s scheme.

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….So, yeah, it’s a screwball comedy with a remarriage plot (even though technically Tom and Gerry don’t complete their divorce by film’s end).  That’s not the part that baffled me – what baffled me is some of the “funny” things the script throws in, which really puts the “screwball” in “screwball comedy” in this instance:

  • There’s a lengthy sequence with the group of men Gerry befriends on the train, a hunting and drinking club called “The Ale and Quail Society” who’ve commissioned a private car on the train.  At first they gallantly let her alone in a spare cabin in their private car, but then they get utterly plastered, and soon half of them are serenading Gerry, accompanied by their hounds, while the other half start taking pot-shots at the windows in their dining cabin before the whole crew decides to go snipe hunting throughout the rest of the train.
  • The catalyst for Gerry’s divorce request is an unexpected windfall from a hard-of-hearing sausage manufacturer calling himself “The Wienie King” (Robert Dudley), a new neighbor who spontaneously decides to give Gerry some money for no reason whatsoever other than the fact that she’s pretty.  (But it’s okay – the Wienie King also gives Tom the money to fly to Palm Springs to win her back.)
  • Centimilla may be chasing Tom, but there’s someone already chasing her – Toto (Sig Arno), a fellow from a generically European country who speaks an unrecognizable language that bears no resemblance to English.
  • There is a twist in the last two minutes of the film that fans of Shakespeare’s comedies may find very familiar (and that’s all I’m saying about that).

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The wacky stuff felt a little thrown-in, kind of like Sturges was trying to up the stakes on the crazy to fit audience demand.  I suspected – rightly so – that this was towards the end of the screwball era, when directors were probably trying to out-do each other for laughs and decided to just pile on the crazy.  And while the crazy did get chuckles out of me, it was equally as likely to get a furrowed brow and a “….huh?”

Which is a shame because the non-crazy bits were pretty intriguing.  Tom is initially scandalized by Gerry’s having gotten money out of nowhere from the Wienie King, and understandably thinks that she’d done a little sumpin-sumpin in return, and outright asks her if sex had anything to do with it.  “Oh, but of course it did,” Gerry replies.  It’s a shocking admission at first – but then she goes on to explain what she means by that.  “I don’t think he’d have given it to me if I had hair like excelsior and little short legs like an alligator.  Sex always has something to do with it, from the time you’re about so big and wondering why your girlfriend’s fathers are getting so arch all of a sudden.”  It’s a surprisingly frank statement for the 1940s – Gerry knows that the only reason that people are giving her things is because she’s an attractive woman, and men like to give attractive women money and gifts because they hope she’ll return the favor with….favors.  The fact that she doesn’t plan on doing so is their problem, not hers.

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There’s also a surprisingly erotic moment the night before Gerry’s departure for Palm Springs – she’s having trouble unzipping her dress, and asks Tom for help, and while he’s back there she quips that the situation seems “unusually intimate.”  “…You want intimate?” Tom retorts, and then kisses the middle of her back.  It leaves Gerry flustered – and I have to admit, it did me, too.  For the Hays era, this was pretty hot.

However, it felt like every moment of witty repartee or seductive physicality was followed up with a wocka-wocka sight gag or a baffling plot twist, and I just ended up confused.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Dumbo (1941)

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By a staggering coincidence, Tim Burton’s live-action remake of Dumbo is set to hit theaters at exactly the time that I find myself watching the original.  Burton’s take was something I was lukewarm about at best; and as is the case with most of my Disney rewatches, I’m lukewarm about the original too.

I mean, it was fine.  It was just really, really short, and a little simple.  To be fair, the short-and-sweet approach was intentional, because Dumbo was something Disney wanted to get out quick to try to recoup losses after Fantasia and Pinocchio faltered at the box office.  Walt Disney apparently got the story from a child’s toy called a “Roll-a-Book”, a sort of slide-show toy – a roll of paper with a series of printed pictures was tucked inside a box with a viewing window cut into it, and as you turned a wheel on the side, each of the pictures would appear in the window in turn.  The story of Dumbo was written expressly for the toy, and Disney was so taken with it (for its charm and simplicity) that he bought the rights to adapt it for film.

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The story wasn’t changed much at all; baby elephant born in a circus, has big ears, people mock him for it, then he discovers his ears help him fly.  Disney’s contribution seem to mostly be in the telling, adding fanciful sequences with Dumbo’s “birth” (arrival by stork), a disastrous circus stunt, some sequences with Dumbo’s mother, and the like.  Some bits were pretty shticky and forgettable; the steam train that carries Dumbo’s circus family around is anthropomorphic, “talking” through its steam whistle a couple times in sequences that felt vaguely Bugs-Bunny cartoonish.  The stork who brings Dumbo specifically has a whole fluffy bit of business where he has to consult a map to find Dumbo’s mom that I didn’t need to see.  On the other hand, there’s a sequence where we see a whole troupe of clowns in silhouette through a tent wall, changing out of costumes as they discuss their act – and I admit that we probably didn’t need to see them pulling padding out of their bellies or taking off wigs and fake heads and what-not either, but I got a kick out of it.  I was also charmed by a short early sequence where baby Dumbo is playing hide-and-seek with his mother, and the famous “Baby Mine” sequence, featuring our hero being sung to sleep, is darling.

Two other famous sequences kind of sour the pot a little, though.  At least one definitely does; the flock of crows Dumbo meets who teach him to fly are depicted as African-American caricatures, and one of the crows was even apparently named “Jim” (although, blessedly, that name is never spoken in the film).  I know it was a simpler and less “woke” time, but that’s a bit that made me feel vaguely itchy.

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Less offensive – but more baffling – is the “Pink Elephants On Parade” sequence, meant to represent a hallucination Dumbo has after accidentally getting drunk (during which he possibly flies while blacked out).  It’s a seriously trippy standalone – the art style is markedly different, with oddly-shaped black-eyed elephants morphing into sportscars and using their trunks as trumpets and cavorting through choreographed swing dance numbers.  At one point a two-legged elephant marches towards us – his body made out of a grinning collection of multicolor elephant heads – and I started to suspect that this was a sequence that had been saved for the Fantasia animators who hadn’t quite snapped out of their “experimental” stage.  Or that they’d been licking some especially weird stamps.

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It was weird, it was fluffy, and it was short and simple – and ultimately was a smash hit for Disney, which lead to its rerelease four more times over the next few decades.  I probably saw one as a child.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

The Maltese Falcon (1941)

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Watching The Maltese Falcon was…interesting.

I’m not referring to the movie as such, although it was interesting itself.  I’m talking about the totality of my experience of watching it – I’d been carrying around an impression of “Humphrey Bogart” in my head for years, despite only seeing him in one thing as a kid (African Queen, which will be coming up later on the list and was a bit out of character for him).  I was pretty sure part of it came from clips of Casablanca I’d seen but wasn’t sure about the rest.  Watching this made me realize “oh, that’s where it came from.”

It’s also where my mental impression of film noir came from – but that’s not surprising, since it apparently is the proto-film-noir and so everyone’s mental impression of the genre came from this film.  Bogart is Sam Spade, a private detective in San Francisco who is visited by an elegant damsel in distress at the top of the film.  The woman (Mary Astor) initially introduces herself as Ruth Wonderly, and claims she’s trying to locate a missing sister who’s run off with a ne’er-do-well by the name of “Thursby”.   Curiously, she seems to know an awful lot about Thursby’s habits and whereabouts, but Spade and his partner Archer don’t think anything of it.

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But wait, you’re thinking – “partner”?  Since when does the film-noir private eye stereotype include a partner?  Which is exactly what I was thinking; I’d always thought the trope included a solo private eye, a grumpy, mistrustful, callous sort who liked to work alone.  But I didn’t have to wonder for very long about how a partner fit into the picture – because Archer is killed off quickly, after offering to check “Thursby” out.  That same evening, Spade gets a phone call – Archer has been found dead, shot at point-blank range in an alley. Thursby is an obvious suspect – but then police find him dead as well.  And police consider Spade a suspect for each murder – either he killed Thursby for revenge after Archer was killed, or he killed Archer out of professional jealousy.

Even more confusingly, when Spade calls on “Ruth Wonderly” again to get more details, she confesses that her real name is “Brigid O’Shaughnessy” and that there was no sister; Thursby was her partner in a murky sort of business deal.  She suggests that Thursby killed Archer, but doesn’t know who killed Thursby.  ….She’s also kind of vague about why she had to pull on con on Spade and Archer to begin with – but Spade doesn’t have time to wonder about that, because he notices he and O’Shaughnessy are being tailed by a mysterious guy in a gray suit.  And right when he’s escaped the man in the suit, he’s surprised at home by an effete Greek man named Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre) who insists on searching his room for a statuette he suspects Spade may have – a valuable sculpture of a falcon.  Then Spade learns that Cairo and O’Shaughnessy know each other – and both are seeking the same falcon sculpture, and both are equally afraid of someone who goes only by “The Fat Man”.  Then Spade finds out the man in gray who’s been tailing him was sent by the “Fat Man” and is also looking for the falcon statue – and at this point, we are right in there with Spade about wanting to get to the bottom of just what in the bleeding hell is going on. 

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You do find out, by the way. I promise. It’s a complicated plot, with fake-outs and double-crosses and betrayals throughout, but you do find out what the falcon is, why everyone’s trying to get it, how the Fat Man and Cairo and O’Shaughnessy all fit into the picture – and also who killed Thursby and Archer in the process, as well as why. But the actual plot wasn’t as interesting to me as was the sheer number of tropes that seem to have been born in this one picture: wise-ass cynical private eye, check.  Cute secretary who secretly has a crush on the boss, check. Double-crossing and untrustworthy femme fatale, check. The private eye being a heavy drinker, check. The initial mystery turning out to be part of a much more complicated plot, check. Incompetent cops, check. The private eye being a suspect briefly, check. And: private eye falling into lust with the femme fatale who is his client, check.

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That last element was the only bit that I really had a problem with – because I did not get any chemistry from Bogart and Astor at all.  O’Shaughnessy was tearfully professing her affection for Spade again and again, but I had been writing it all off as a manipulative move on her part, since she’d pulled a good deal of other histrionics earlier in the film in a bid to play on Spade’s sympathy.  He even calls her on it, in fact, in a line that made me chuckle: “You’re good. It’s chiefly your eyes, I think, and that throb you get in your voice when you say things like ‘Be generous, Mr. Spade’.”  He seems to be holding her at this dubious and skeptical arms-length throughout – but at the end, he has a speech which implies that not only has he fallen for her but is also promising to stay faithful to her during a potentially long absence.  I had no idea where that was coming from, since nothing in Bogart’s performance seemed to indicate that Spade was softening towards her in the slightest.

The world-weary snarky cynic, however, he had down flat, and was fun to watch – outsmarting the man in gray, standing up to Cairo, thinking rings around the cops.  He’s a jerk, but a fun jerk to watch.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Sullivan’s Travels (1941)

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I link to my blog posts on Facebook, and I’ve had friends and family ask me about my progress through the list, asking when I’ll be getting to one or another movie.  My uncle Peter was especially keen on when I’d be getting to Sullivan’s Travels.  “I think that’s my favorite movie,” he told me over Thanksgiving.  And again on Christmas.  Peter: this one’s for you.

I’d actually heard about this film before, without having seen it.  John Sullivan (Joel McCrea), a director of wildly popular screwball comedies, has decided he wants to Get Serious and adapt a “socially conscious” novel about the deprived underclasses called O Brother, Where Art Thou for his next outing (yes, that sounds like a familiar title, we’ll get to that at the end).  He wants to make something that will educate and inspire the Little Guy.  But towards that end, he wants to understand the Little Guy, and concocts a scheme to dress up as a hobo and live out on the open road for a while first; then when he feels he really gets them, he’ll come back and make his Serious Masterpiece.

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Things do not quite go according to plan.  Initially the studio insists on a support team following him in what is basically a fully fitted-out tour bus, complete with lawyer, doctor, publicist and cook on standby just in case; but Sullivan shakes them and manages to thumb a ride pretty quickly.  But he realizes too late that the driver is heading back to Hollywood instead of further out into the wilderness, and the studio finds him again (but agrees to be more hands-off). He meets a young woman (Veronica Lake, known only as “The Girl” in the credits) who’s giving up on Hollywood and trying to save up for a bus ticket home; she learns about his plan and begs to come along, disguised as a boy.  After a couple weeks of slumming it in flophouses and sleeping rough, Sullivan and The Girl call “time” on their experiment and rejoin Sullivan’s support team.

The publicist has been working on a puff piece about Sullivan’s trip and has a great idea for an ending: they give Sullivan a couple hundred dollars in five-dollar bills and send him back out as himself to distribute them to the panhandlers he’d met previously.  But his big stack of cash proves too enticing for one of the homeless men, who knocks him out and seizes all the cash before shoving Sullivan into a boxcar bound for Georgia. When he comes to, he is imprisoned for trespassing and assaulting a guard in his confusion.  And there Sullivan’s troubles really begin – and with them, Sullivan’s education about the value of his past films.

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I knew dimly about the plot before, but hadn’t known about Sullivan’s false starts; I was expecting a pretty straightforward on-the-road tale throughout, with Sullivan going through a long slow slide down. The meandering path and the meddling of the studio actually make for a more complex narrative; initially, no longer how long Sullivan was on the road, he always knew that he could hit an eject button that would send him back to his comfortable mansion in Beverly Hills whenever he wanted.  McCrea also plays Sullivan as one of those painfully earnest Hollywood celebrities that wants so hard for their art to be a Force For Good but hasn’t realized that the common folk they hope to speak to all have minds of their own and little patience.  An early scene sees Sullivan turning to another man in a boxcar and asking him his views on Marxism; his only answer is a long stare, followed by his new friend rolling his eyes and walking away.  It isn’t until Sullivan faces real hardship that he really can empathize with the common man he’s trying to reach out to.

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Actually, the scene that gives Sullivan his epiphany is interesting in and of itself. The work crew Sullivan is on is given a rare treat; a nearby church invites them to join in with their church movie night.  It’s a poor African-American Baptist congregation; but still, the scene is refreshingly free of any egregiously stereotypical “black” characters.  There’s a preacher talkin’ gospel, but he’s only doing so to urge his flock to be welcoming to the chain gang. No one does any minstrel mugging at any point.  Admittedly just seeing extras behaving like regular people feels like a low bar today, but at the time it was such a novelty that the head of the NAACP wrote director Preston Sturgess a gushing letter thanking him for the “dignified and decent treatment of Negroes in this scene.” Frankly, after seeing the single depiction of a black character in High Sierra, I’m inclined to agree with that praise.

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The first few scenes with Veronica Lake also grabbed my attention.  Ultimately her character turns into more of an ingénue, but in the first few scenes, she’s a world-weary, seen-it-all snarker who initially takes pity on Sullivan when he’s posed as a bum; he wanders into a diner, and she overhears him turning down food when he says he doesn’t have enough – so she orders him a plate of eggs, on her.  As they chat, she hints at some of her bad luck with a tellingly current comment:

You know, the nice thing about buying food for a man is that you don’t have to listen to his jokes. Just think, if you were some big shot like a casting director or something, I’d be staring into your bridgework saying ‘Yes, Mr. Smearcase. No, Mr. Smearcase. Not really, Mr. Smearcase! Oh, Mr. Smearcase, that’s my knee!’

In reality, apparently Veronica Lake got on McCrea’s nerves and he turned down the chance to co-star with her on a later movie.  She definitely gives the impression of being someone who does not suffer fools, either on screen or off.

…Okay, if you’re a Coen Brothers fan the title of the movie Sullivan wants to make probably caught your eye.  And yes, the Coen brothers have acknowledged that they named their own film O Brother, Where Art Thou as an homage to this one, and have even said that their own film was one that the fictional John Sullivan might have made in his own day.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

How Green Was My Valley (1941)

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So the cynical me found a lot to snort about in How Green Was My Valley.  Based on a smash-hit novel by English author Richard Llewellyn, it’s a nostalgic and idealized bildungsroman from the perspective of Huw (Roddy McDowall), the youngest son in the Morgan family, looking back on his early childhood in a small mining village in Wales.  And based on everything I’ve just told you, you can probably predict some of the events: yes, people are tragically killed in mine disasters, yes there’s a couple instances of class struggle, yes there’s a kindly villager who sees potential in young Huw and encourages him to educate himself and escape the colliers’ life (and yes, that schooling does involve a teacher who looks down on our hero for being a little bit too rustic in his demeanor).  Yes, there’s also a long-suffering mother and a stern but kind father.  And yes, the town is a picturesque little idyllic paradise which our now-adult Huw leaves at the end of the film (only in voiceover).

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I was actually surprised how little we saw of Huw himself in the film, and how many of the events are things that he witnessed as opposed to being things he did. Yeah, we have scenes of him at school, and a very early scene where he excitedly buys penny candy with some pocket money, but other than that the bulk of the film mainly deals with things happening to his siblings and parents; his brothers and father quarrelling over whether the miners should unionize, the doomed romance between his older sister Angharad (Maureen O’Hara) and the young pastor in their church (Walter Pidgeon) or his sister-in-law Bronwyn (Anna Lee) coping with an unexpected tragedy.  To be fair, though, a lot of the first half of the film sees Huw lying in the front parlor, bedridden from a bad accident, so being a fly on the wall for a lot of other goings-on was pretty much all he could do.  And fortunately, everyone else in the film turns in a fine performance, and the tales being told are all poignant.  But after the third such poignant tale and the third such Death Of A Way Of Life That Will Never Come Again, I started to feel like the sentiment was being laid on a little thick.

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However, reading a little about the film’s production history made me forgive it a little.  The original screenwriter, Philip Dunne, actually toned down some of the sentiment and treacle from the original book; he once described the book in an interview as “turgid stuff, long speeches about Welsh coal miners on strike.”  Geopolitics lead to the film getting scaled down even further; director John Ford originally wanted a 4-hour epic shot on location in Wales, so we could see the lush green valley described in the story in glorious technicolor.  However, World War II’s Battle of Britain started right as they were about to begin filming, and the possibility of German Luftwaffe attacks made Wales somewhat less suitable as a filming location.  So Ford switched Wales for Santa Monica and Technicolor for black and white, scrapped the glorious nature shots he’d had in mind and focused on the story itself (there are still some beautifully-composed shots, so I personally didn’t miss the color).

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And I think the War also added to the tone of nostalgia that pervaded the film. The cast and crew were filming right before the United States entered the War, but they were hearing about it on the news every day; hearing about the real events impacting the real little Welsh villages that inspired their pretend one. Most of the cast were also emigres from the British Isles; Roddy McDowall had only just arrived in the United States as a refugee with his family, fleeing the outbreak of war.  And thus apparently the film became a major bonding experience for them all; no doubt there were a great many heart-to-heart talks people had with each other about the fears of war and for families abroad.  Sometimes members of the cast would even just hang out on set, reluctant to leave the idealized and safe little haven that the film was depicting.  The cast bonded so tightly, in fact, that Ford apparently hosted reunion parties for the cast and crew every year or so, always set close to the date they’d begun filming.

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And it’s not a leap to imagine that the nostalgia is also what drew audiences.  Things weren’t perfect by a long shot – there are events about which Huw has only a child’s understanding, but life still seems something of a challenge.  But the film leans into values like family, duty, honor, and faith pretty hard (there’s a lengthy speech that the pastor has with Huw about faith and prayer, during which the nonreligious may find themselves squirming a bit).  The film was released only two months before the attack on Pearl Harbor, but audiences were no doubt already fearful of war and longing for escape to a simpler and happier time when decency won out (at least usually).  This sentiment also carried over during the Oscars – John Ford beat out Orson Welles for Best Director that year, and the film defeated Citizen Kane for Best Picture.  Donald Crisp also took a Best Supporting Actor statuette as patriarch Gwilym Morgan.

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So the cynic in me still shakes its head a little; but the compassionate side of me understands this film’s message and appeal very well, thinking of the cast and crew and audience at the time it was made.  I understand that desire for escape (that’s a story I will tell in a much later review), and while I didn’t share it today, I definitely understand why they sought comfort then, and can’t fault them in the slightest.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

The Wolf Man (1941)

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So it’s an inescapable fact that I’m watching many of these movies well after their initial release, and sometimes that passage of time is affecting my reaction in some unforeseen and unexpected ways.  This was definitely the case with The Wolf Man.

The Wolf Man is one of the titans of the horror films from Hollywood’s Golden Era; but surprisingly, it was released nearly a decade after the others (like Dracula and Frankenstein), at a time when monster horror films were getting a little passe.  Unlike Dracula and Frankenstein, too, it seems to be a wholly original film; there was no 19th Century Gothic Horror novel upon which this was based.  In fact, a lot of the common conceptions we have about werewolves were invented for this film – the fact that werewolves can only be killed with silver, or that being bitten by a werewolf turns you into one yourself.

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That’s exactly the fate that befalls our tragic hero, Larry Talbot (Lon Cheney Jr.), the prodigal son of an upper class English lord.  He’s just come home after about 20 years to help his father manage the estate, and quickly gets his head turned by pretty Gwen (Evelyn Ankers), who works in a local antique shop.  She’s engaged, but lets Talbot take her out one evening – with her best buddy Jenny as a chaperone – to get their fortunes told at the gypsy camp that’s just set up out of town.  Gwen and Larry slip off for a more intimate chat while Jenny goes first – incidentally, the gypsy who reads her palm is Bela Lugosi, in a small cameo role – but they are surprised when Jenny soon runs screaming past them, with a wolf in pursuit.  Larry heroically comes to her rescue, clubbing the wolf to death with a silver-headed cane Gwen’s just sold him.  But he gets a nasty bite in the process, and Gwen has to help him home.  Even stranger, when police return to the scene, they find Jenny’s body – but instead of a dead wolf, they find the body of one of the gypsies.  More strange deaths happen over the next week or so, and Larry Talbot starts feeling very unlike himself…

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So some bits of this film felt a little cheesy.  Every night scene seems bathed in dense fog and eerie mood lighting.  The “gypsy camp” is pure fairytale nonsense, and the actress Maria Ouspenskaya’s role as “gypsy wise woman” Malvela seems to be more of a convenient exposition and plot device than she is a person; whenever we need to learn something about werewolf lore, or whenever Gwen needs to get somewhere in a hurry, along comes Malvela on her pony cart, spouting arcane folk sayings.

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Still, I had to wonder if the reason why those elements felt so cheesy is because those are precisely the elements that got picked up in the film’s later sequels, like The Wolf Man Meets Frankenstein and other B-movie drive-in fare.  That’s one of the big disadvantages I have in watching this today, I think; I am more familiar with all of those cornball films than I was with this original, and am familiar with them as cornball films, things that get shown on late night public access cable and introduced by someone named “Mistress Fangora” or something.  The later films all copied the same kind of murky fog and spooky music, but with lesser-quality acting and performances, so even though the quality of the script is a bit better here, my head still goes to “this is hokey”.  And the script definitely is trying to be better than that; so much so that Alex (who watched too) and I ended up having a lengthy discussion about why the whole thing felt like it was trying to be a morality play.  I’ve also since realized that the film was trying to do a little bit of “is Larry really a werewolf or is this all in his head” as well; that was the original idea, anyway, and there are some definite parts of the script that point to that “is he or isn’t he” question.  Granted, the fact that you see Larry transform into the werewolf kind of undercuts that, but never mind.

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There’s one bit that did not age well at all; Larry’s initial meeting with Gwen comes after he’s been playing around with a telescope, and sees her trying on earrings in her bedroom above the antique shop.  He carefully notes the shop, then immediately goes there, posing as a customer.  When he sees Gwen is indeed behind the counter, he walks up to her and says he’s in the market for earrings.  When she shows him their stock, he turns them down.  “I’m looking for something pretty specific,” he says, describing the exact set of earrings he’d seen her try on.  When she still doesn’t catch on, politely saying that she hasn’t seen anything like that, he says, “oh, but you have, they’re upstairs on your vanity right now!”  ….Let’s just say that the reaction in my apartment to that line was pretty strong.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

High Sierra (1941)

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So, the people associated with High Sierra were pretty fascinating.  And I’m talking about both the characters in the film and the cast and crew; this was Humphrey Bogart’s first starring role, and his first professional collaboration with writer John Huston (who prior to this was Bogart’s drinking buddy).  Ida Lupino, who played Bogart’s main love interest (and more on why I said “main” later), had an even more intriguing story; she ultimately went into directing, mainly in television.

The characters are interesting too – Bogart plays Roy Earle, a bank robber in the clink who’s just gotten pardoned at the top of the film.  But it turns out one of his old bosses pulled some strings to get him out, for he needs Earle to spearhead a heist at a splashy resort in California.  Earle heads west to the Sierra-Mountain camp where the rest of the team for the heist has set up a base of operations, and meets Marie Garson (Lupino), a taxi dancer one of the others fell for in Los Angeles and invited to tag along with him. However, Garson wasn’t as interested in the dude as much as she was desperate to get out of Los Angeles, so as the team waits for the go-ahead for their heist, Garson finds her attention shifting to Earle, and he gradually finds himself reciprocating – a development that has a tragic impact on their stories.

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Now, it would be one thing if that were the whole story.  But it’s not – there’s also a subplot with Earle getting sweet on another woman entirely for a while, the daughter of an Okie family Earle meets briefly en route to California and coincidentally meets again in Los Angeles. Velma (Joan Leslie) is a pretty and shy young thing, suffering from a congenital club foot, and Earle is smitten enough to gallantly offer to pay for her corrective surgery.  Which is nice and all – except Velma doesn’t return his affections.  And then there’s another plot thread about Earle’s boss Big Mac, and how his sudden death leads to a power struggle in the crime gang to which Earle belongs which further affects his plans.  And there’s still another bit about a stray dog that starts tagging along with Garson and Earle, and the fact that this dog may or may not be a bad-luck totem.

And…to be honest, that’s a lot for a movie that’s only a little over 90 minutes.  The performances are all fantastic; the characters also all have all sorts of weird little fillips of extra business that flesh them out, like Earle’s being visibly charmed by the natural world – periodically during his drive to California, he often pulls over just to stop and marvel at the country he’s driving through.  Even at the very beginning of the film, when he is let out of jail and a driver is waiting to drive him to a meeting with Big Mac’s representative to hear about the heist, Earle tells the driver to give him a half hour to go hang out in a park first. (There is one glaring exception; an African-American handyman at the camp, played by Willie Best, is largely a pretty glaring and icky stereotype of a guy, sadly.)

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There’s also a daring action sequence towards the end, with a high-speed car chase up Mount Whitney followed by a sharpshooter standoff.  A lot of the film was shot on location, which I realized meant someone actually did have to drive that fast up those winding roads on camera.  I’ve driven in that part of the country myself, and was freaked out enough by the steep cliffs and winding mountain passages; I was going about 15 mph in my little automatic rental the whole way.  So seeing someone (most likely a stunt driver) doing the same at high speed on a stick shift was unexpectedly gripping.

But there’s just so much happening in the script that ultimately it felt like it didn’t hang together as well as it could.  Earle and Garson were interesting enough characters that I wanted to know more about them as they were, without having to throw in a spadeful of other subplots and side plots as character development.  Presumably Velma’s story is in there to show Earle’s moral side, but I’m still not convinced that a romantic subplot needed to be added into that.  And while the dog does have a bit of a pivotal role in the final events, I don’t buy that they needed to add all of the hoodoo about him potentially being bad luck.

There may be two reasons there was so much going on in the script.  John Huston was still new to the game as a screenwriter, with only a handful of co-writing credits to his name (Jezebel among them).  While Huston shared screenwriting credit for High Sierra, this was one of the first instances where he was really in charge, and may have wanted to go for broke a little.  Also, Huston’s collaborator was the novelist W. R. Burnett – the film was based on one of his own novels, and he may have lobbied to keep in some bits that Huston may have been able to cut if Burnett hadn’t been around.

Critics didn’t seem to mind, though.  While some reviews sniffed a bit at the heightened melodrama of the plot, most raved about the casting and the performances – justifiably so, I think – and the action sequences.  Whatever I may think of the script, it did lead to the film that won big for everyone involved.