Only Angels Have Wings (1939)

Only Angels Have Wings (1939) movie poster

director Howard Hawks
viewed: 05/20/2016

One of Howard Hawks’s most well-regarded films, Only Angels Have Wings is quite a picture.  It stars Cary Grant, one of Hawks’s favorite leading men, stepping out from screwball comedies and into an action-adventure drama about daring pilots in a dangerous Central or South American outpost, delivering mail over mountains and taking their lives in their hands on every flight.

It’s not at all bereft of comedy.  There are some wonderful comic moments throughout, but this is a gritty adventure featuring some really great stunt flying footage (as well as some less compelling miniatures for special effects.)

It also features the wonderful Jean Arthur (for whom I’ve developed quite an appreciation) as Grant’s love interest, a musician who dropped into the camp and never leaves.  Also terrific is Thomas Mitchell, who plays Grant’s best friend and fellow pilot.  And knock-out Rita Hayworth in one of her first significant roles as Grant’s ex.

It’s been written about a ton by better writers than me, but this is pure Hawks, the director around whom the auteur theory was largely conceived.  His rough and ready he-men, measured by their bonhomie and strengths of both character and body.  Bright, tough and witty women.  A concentrated and evocative world view.

It’s a great movie.

Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)

Arsenic and Old Lace (film) movie poster

director Frank Capra
viewed: 11/15/2015

The kids had really enjoyed Cary Grant in His Girl Friday (1940), and Felix was keen to watch another comedy with him in it.  So, for the second entry of our “comedy month” films, I selected an old favorite, Frank Capra’s 1944 version of Arsenic and Old Lace.

The whole film is a pretty hilarious romp, but the absolute best is the wonderful Josephine Hull as Aunt Abby Brewster as the cartoonishly sweet and silly serial killer euthanizer.  Jean Adair is also lovely as Aunt Martha, but Hull is just so perfect and gets the best lines and moments.  Grant pulls the most extreme double-takes of his career, finding out the secrets of his kind and darling aunts.  John Alexander is spot-on as “Teddy Roosevelt” Brewster, unsurprising in that Alexander, Hull and Adair were all reprising roles they had played in the play on Broadway.

The one gag that doesn’t go over nearly as well is the reference to Boris Karloff.  Raymond Massey plays the villainous Jonathan Brewster, scarred and face-lifted to look somewhat like Karloff at the hands of Dr. Einstein (played by the inimitable Peter Lorre).  Karloff played the role on stage and so the self-referential nature of the gag was inherently more impactful.  Here, it sort of works, but with the remove from time and place of the 1940’s, it’s just a little off.

The kids really enjoyed it.  Clara thought it was hilarious.  I have to say that I enjoyed it, having not seen it in eons, but I guess I enjoyed it slightly less than I had recalled.  It’s still a hoot, if not a perfect one.

Blonde Venus (1932)

Blonde Venus (1932) movie poster

director Josef von Sternberg
viewed: 09/01/2015

My Marlene Dietrich/Josef von Sternberg double feature followed Morocco (1930) with 1932’s Blonde Venus.  Since it was the other film on the disc.

Blonde Venus is another melodrama, waxing and waning throughout in qualities and oddities, but ultimately is lifted by Dietrich herself from something potentially middling to something quite touching.

In this one, she’s the German bride of a research scientist who contracts radiation poisoning and has to travel to Germany to get cured.  The two of them have a small boy and live humbly in New York, so Dietrich gets a job as a cabaret singer to earn enough money for her husband’s cure.  Only she takes up with Cary Grant, a rich bigwig.  When her husband comes back, she and her son go on the lam around the country.

You can see, it’s a pretty convoluted melodrama.

It features a trio of songs by Dietrich, somewhat more seemingly outside of her range ideally, jazzy uptempo numbers with lots of American hep slang.  And one of them is a pretty notorious “jungle-themed” tune, which she starts singing after taking off a gorilla suit.

Somehow the movie manages to transcend the corny and campy aspects and turns out to be really quite good.

Suspicion (1941)

Suspicion (1941) movie poster

director Alfred Hitchcock
viewed: 01/17/2015 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA

I took the kids down to the Castro Theatre to watch Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion, which was playing as part of the Noir City Festival.  The kids and I have watched a fair amount of Hitchcock films and have also been watching his Alfred Hitchcock Presents television show from the 1950’s-1960’s, but we really hadn’t delved into film noir at all, not that Suspicion is truly a noir film or not.  But we’d also recently watched Cary Grant in His Girl Friday (1940), so the Cary Grant angle was also a pull.

I hadn’t seen Suspicion since probably the 1980’s or early 1990’s, so my memory was vague of it.

In it Grant plays Johnnie Aysgarth, a bon vivant, inveterate gambler, and confidence man who seduces the spinsterish Lina (Joan Fontaine, who won an Oscar for Best Actress for the role) into marriage.  Only people start dying around them and Aysgarth is simply allergic to work but not embezzlement, so he starts to arouse Lina’s Suspicion!

Apparently three different endings were shot for the film, including one where Johnnie runs off to join the RAF and fight the good fight in WWII.  Luckily such propaganda failed to make the final cut.  But the more Hitchcockian ending, the one where Lina dies and leaves a note of Suspicion fingering her widower husband also failed to make the final cut.  Instead, we’ve got an ending where all the Suspicion turns out to be in Lina’s mind and that Johnnie is really a bad apple trying to make good.

There are aspects to this ending that seem like they could have worked better if the whole film had been committed to that narrative from the get-go.  But really the film feels like it was really leading up to the Hitchcockian ending that was not used and so the ending where all the Suspicion is in the mind of the hysterical woman just seems weirdly forced and inapt.

As introduced by Film Noir Foundation’s Treasurer Alan Rode, it’s suggested that fans and critics have grown to like the ending that we’ve had to live with all these years.  Me, I don’t know about that.  But I’ll take it in consideration.

The kids enjoyed it pretty well.

His Girl Friday (1940)

His Girl Friday (1940) movie poster

director Howard Hawks
viewed: 01/03/2015

I love His Girl Friday.  Back in film school, I wound up seeing it multiple times as part of a class that I was TA’ing.  But it had been a long while.

The kids hadn’t seen it.  They really liked it a lot.

Cary Grant and Rosiland Russell are superb in Howard Hawks’ rattatat machine gun dialogue, snappier and funnier and faster than you can shake a stick at.  Ralph Bellamy is also hilarious as the squarest square in all of Albany, NY.

Screwball comedy at its sharpest.

The Philadelphia Story (1940)

The Philadelphia Story (1940) movie poster

director George Cukor
viewed: 12/23/2014

It’s kind of hard to imagine that Katharine Hepburn was once referred to as “box office poison” but following the poor performance of Howard Hawks’ Bringing Up Baby (1938) (I know, what!!!??), she was. But Hollywood stories aren’t stories without just these types of twists and turns.  Hepburn bought out her contract at RKO and headed to Broadway, where she starred in Donald Ogden Stewart’s The Philadelphia Story.  She also managed to finagle the rights to the film and parlayed it into her comeback to the silver screen and return to commercial success.  Box office antidote, I suppose.

Produced by Joseph L. Mankiewicz and directed by George Cukor, 1940’s The Philadelphia Story bears its stage-based qualities rather significantly.  While it has a lot of solid humor and some good scenes, it’s also very actorly and heavy on the speechifying monologues heightening dramatics that the Oscars was created to appreciate and glorify.

Hepburn plays socialite Tracy Lord, divorced from C.K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant) and engaged to George Kitteredge (John Howard).  Step in slop reporters Mike Connor (Jimmy Stewart) and Elizabeth Imbrie (Ruth Hussey) hired to cover the wedding for Spy Magazine.  You’ve got yourself a comedy of class and divorce (comedy or remarriage), an Oscar for Jimmy Stewart, and a film for the National Film Registry.

Oddly enough, I’d never seen it before, or at least, not all of it.  I enjoyed it, but after having just watched Bringing Up Baby, which is a hysterical screwball comedy also featuring Grant and Hepburn, it was hard not to compare and contrast the two  Actually, TCM was playing several Grant and Hepburn movies that night.)  I’m much more a Bringing Up Baby man.  But that is Hollywood and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for you.  And apparently the American public as well.

She Done Him Wrong (1933)

She Done Him Wrong (1933) movie poster

director Lowell Sherman
viewed: 02/17/2014

Mae West, what a voice, what a patter, what a bunch of great lines.  Adapted from a play written by West, She Done Him Wrong packs a lot into its 80 or so minutes, including a very young Cary Grant and some of the most notable lines of West’s career.

Her sexuality is so frank and clear.  There are no bones about it.  It would be frank today.  That’s what makes this pre-code movie such a hoot.

West belts out a few numbers too.  “Franky and Johnny” I’d say is the best of those.  Swell stuff.

To Catch a Thief (1955)

To Catch a Thief (1955) movie poster

director Alfred Hitchcock
viewed: 12/15/2013 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA

The holidays at the Castro Theatre offered a few classics to which I thought I would like to take the kids.  Funny, I never even really thought how kid-friendly Alfred Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief might really be.  It had been years since I had seen it, though it was one that I had seen as a kid and that I recall my mom always liked.  I think, as well, it was one that I often conflated in my mind with Stanley Donen’s Charade (1963), which also starred the ever-charming Cary Grant.

My kids aren’t big on onscreen kissing, shielding their eyes and asking, “Is it over?” at the least locking of lips.  So, a romantic thriller, with a keen eye to the sexual innuendo, isn’t necessarily their cup of tea.  I don’t recall actually going through any such phase myself.

This is one of those movies that I feel like I saw dozens of times as a kid, but I don’t know.  Cary Grant is the retired cat burglar, “the Cat”, who was active up until WWII but then helped the Resistance and was a war hero, absolved of his crimes, until a mysterious burglar starts mimicking his style with big flashy heists on the Mediterranean.   He’s forced to hunt the new burglar to prove his innocence.  Where he meets up with the icy, gorgeous Grace Kelly, daughter of a nouveau riche American oil family, traveling the south of France with her widowed mother.

The cinematography of the French Riviera probably did as much as any promotion could have to boost tourism.  It’s gorgeous.  I want to be there.  Right now, in 1955.

The film perhaps isn’t one of Hitchcock’s most notable, but it’s a charming, glamorous, entertaining film.  Grace Kelly is the perfect Hollywood blond.  That nose, those lips.  Wowza.

I queried the kids afterwards to see which of the Hitchcock films that they had enjoyed the most, Psycho (1960), North by Northwest (1959), To Catch a Thief, Vertigo (1958) or The Birds (1963) and I guess it’s not surprising that the answer was The Birds.  But I do have to say that we’re doing pretty good with Hitchcock at this point.

Monkey Business (1952)

Monkey Business (1952) movie poster

director Howard Hawks
viewed: 01/18/2013

I have fond memories of this movie from childhood, watching it with my mom.  I’m wont to say that it was one of her favorite films, but I’m don’t remember that specifically and she’s no longer around to ask.  But it’s easy enough for me to think that. Cary Grant, Ginger Rogers, Marilyn Monroe.  Maybe it’s not Howard Hawks’ personal best but it’s still good fun.

Grant plays an absent-minded scientist, married to the lovely Rogers.  He’s working for a lab trying to evoke a sort of “youth formula”, a fountain of youth serum, which his elderly, eager boss, the hilarious Charles Coburn is keen to try out.

Testing on chimps has led nowhere.  That is, until a chimp gets into the act, mixes a serum and dumps it in the water cooler.  Then Grant takes a shot of his test serum (washing it down with the water cooler water) and suddenly he’s a vivified as a teen.  He runs off with Coburn’s sexy secretary, Monroe and plays hooky, buying a sports car, roller skating, and high-diving.  Getting into a lot of trouble.

When he comes down from his high, Rogers gets in on the act, testing the waters herself (still thinking it’s Grant’s formula and not the water doing the work).  She becomes playful and histrionic and more screwball silliness ensues.

And then, toward the end, drinking up a pot of coffee made with the water, Rogers and Grant revert to childhood, getting more and more silly and deeper into their shenanigans.

Clara wound up getting pretty into it.  Felix thought it was a bit “weird”.  I think it certainly has its moments.

Rogers is vibrant and funny and has a very amusing scene where she balances a glass on her forehead as she lies down on the floor and rises again without tipping it over.  Grant’s comedy is typically charming.  Besides Some Like It Hot (1959), I think that this was the only other film from which I was really familiar with Marilyn Monroe as a kid.  It’s a small role and the classic dumb blonde.  But she’s sweet and charming too.

Still, the best element of watching the film was recollecting seeing it with my mom.  It was very much of her era (she would have been nine when it came out).  And it was nice to watch it with my kids, rounding out the experience.

North by Northwest (1959)

North by Northwest (1959) movie poster

director Alfred Hitchcock
viewed: 12/28/2012 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA

On a bit of an epic drive to end out the movie-going year for 2012, I scheduled a number of trips to the Castro for some classic films with the kids.  It had been decades since I had seen Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest and after watching Psycho (1960) with the kids earlier this year, I thought it a decent idea to catch a few more Hitchcocks before too long.  So this seemed an apt outing.  Clara ended up doing something else, so it was just Felix and me.

Often cited as the template for the Hollywood action film of years and years to come, North by Northwest is one of those films that makes “Best of All-Time” lists.  And it’s quite great.

Cary Grant is typically impeccable with his comic timing in his terse and tense moments as the “wrong man” hunted by bad spies and sent looking for the mysterious man for whom he’s been mistaken.  Taking up with the very pretty Eva Marie Saint, parrying with James Mason and Martin Landau, he treks from New York City to Chicago to South Dakota to the faces of Mount Rushmore in one of cinema’s classic classic iconic iconic moments.  Actually, this film has more than a few of them.  And that’s no doubt part of why it’s such a traditional favorite.

Felix found it a little hard to follow, but he liked it pretty well.  It’s true, any time you have double agents, microfilm (what’s that? says a child of this century), and some rapid paced dialogue, it’s easy to get left behind on what’s happening.

I take it back.  I think the last time I saw this film was in film school, so, probably about 15 years ago.  The key memory I have of it from that time was the final shot of the film.  Too much Freudian analysis (or maybe just the right amount of it) makes the punchy final image of the train zooming into the tunnel as we cut away from Cary and Eva Marie as they settle into their nuptial bed aboard the interstate train came as downright hysterical.