Bell, Book and Candle (1958)

Bell, Book and Candle (1958) movie poster

director  Richard Quine
viewed: 11/25/2017

A cool, comic analog to Alfred Hitchcock’s VertigoBell, Book and Candle is a another darkened romance starring Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak from the very same year. It’s also a story of obsession and possession, of love’s darker recesses.

In some ways, the shoe is on the other foot, with Novak the enchantress and Stewart the possessed. In other lights, perhaps it’s just as bleak for Novak, though it ends with a more traditional “happy” ending if you don’t read between the lines.

As a comedy, maybe it’s not quite hilarious, though it’s urbane. And maybe its darker soul keeps it from being quite the lark it aspires to.

The cast is sublime, featuring the adorable Elsa Lancaster, Hermione Gingold, Jack Lemmon and Ernie Kovacs. And Pyewacket the cat, “as himself”, though possibly played by up to 12 different felines. And lets not forget The Zodiac Club, a beatnik-witching haven.

Bell, Book and Candle is said to have inspired TV’s Bewitched, which makes sense. It is, after all, the story of a lovely young witch who pines for something more than her magical life. The built-in metaphor of the female having to sublimate all of her inherent skills and character, wit, and abilities in order to succeed in human society is both a critique of patriarchy as well as ceding to patriarchy (for the happy ending).

It’s probably not quite as magical a film as it strives to be, but it’s totally enjoyable, charming, and packed with texts and subtexts, as well as cool character. I did find myself thinking that Billy Wilder could have probably elevated this further, but it’s perfectly fun on its own.

My 13 year old daughter was nonplussed, however.

The Shop Around the Corner (1940)

The Shop Around the Corner (1940) movie poster

director Ernst Lubitsch
viewed: 12/31/2016

Boy meets girl, gets off on wrong foot with girl, winds up working alongside girl but still can’t stand her, doesn’t realize that they are anonymous pen pals deeply in love with one another. All this goes on in The Shop Around the Corner, Ernst Lubitsch’s blithe comedy starring Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan.

It’s deft and charming, adapted from a Hungarian play an oddly set in Budapest still (though never saw the outside of a soundstage no doubt). I found the Budapest setting odd since Stewart, Sullavan, and William Tracy (who plays Pepi the go-fer) are so utterly themselves (that is to say American) and that I can’t see what aspect of the story couldn’t have been transplanted to New York (also as a film set).

Why nitpick?  It’s delightful.

You Can’t Take It with You (1938)

You Can't Take It with You (1938) movie poster

director Frank Capra
viewed: 04/30/2016

You Can’t Take It with You is by no means a perfect movie, but it is damned entertaining and a lot of fun.  It comes from Frank Capra’s most successful run, weaving stories of hope and humanity for the common American against the backdrop of the Great Depression.  Capra’s real world politics were conservative and his portraiture deeply sentimental, but his artistry was strong and his films could be complex, or at least open to more complex readings.

I’ve stated before that I’m no Capra scholar.  This was my first time with You Can’t Take It with You.  I’ve been working my way through his films and typically find them very enjoyable.  I’ve watched them with my now 12 year old daughter, who also enjoys them.  In fact, she probably enjoyed this film more than any other films we’ve watched in weeks.

It’s got the terrific Lionel Barrymore as the “grampa” of a house of collected eccentrics, family and otherwise, somewhat like a non-Goth Addams Family.  His granddaughter, the fabulous and charming Jean Arthur falls for the always lovable Jimmy Stewart, son of magnate Edward Arnold, capitalist (and firearms manufacturer) about to corner the market, driving his opponent to bankruptcy and destroying a working class neighborhood in the name of the almighty dollar.

Adapted from a Pulitzer-winning play, it’s got the common man and the brutal machinery of capitalism stuff that Capra works into magic.  To be honest, some of the stuff works perfectly while others seem to shrill a little hard.  And as likable as Barrymore is, his speechifying is certainly heavy-handed.

And yet, when the emotional surge at the end comes up, if you don’t feel a tug at those tear ducts.

Was it the Best Picture of 1938?  The Academy deemed it so.  I deem it a fine film.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) movie poster

director Frank Capra
viewed: 01/29/2016

Iconic as it is, with Jimmy Stewart filibustering on the floor of the Senate until he passes out, I’d never actually watched Mr. Smith Goes to Washington until last Friday, when my daughter and I watched it.

It’s easy to see how this film catapulted Stewart to stardom.  And Jean Arthur is a real peach here, too.  It’s a great movie.

It’s amazingly dark, really.  When bright-eyed Mr. Jefferson Smith gets hand-picked to fill a Senate seat from an unnamed state, sent by the powers that be to fill a spot and vote along the lines of his fellow state Senator (Claude Rains), he’s agog at all the monuments to American heroes, statesmen, the ideals of democracy, that he gets lost in D.C., just starstruck by all its goodness.  But as this good-hearted fellow comes to learn the ways that things get done in the government, who really holds the political power are the rich, ruthless fat cats (who will even run down children to get their way), it’s a point of stark disillusionment that doesn’t even get fully swept away by the end of the film.

In fact, at the end of the film, even though Rains’s villain has capitulated, Mr. Smith is collapsed and unconscious, unaware of success.  Just as the state is never named, there are no political parties in the film either.  The film is polemical, wrapped in the indoctrinating Americana for which Frank Capra was so well-known.  And that keeps its critique still fresh.  This came from Capra’s period of disillusionment, which is interesting and worth contextualizing more in that he was such a notorious conservative overall.

After the Thin Man (1936)

After the Thin Man (1936) movie poster

director W.S. Van Dyke
viewed: 12/31/2015

I settled myself down for a The Thin Man (1934) marathon with TCM for New Year’s Eve, kind of knowing I wouldn’t make it all the way through.  Though I’d seen the first film a few times, I hadn’t ever watched any of the other films in the series.

After the Thin Man picks up where The Thin Man left off, with Nick and Nora Charles (the splendid William Powell and Myrna Loy) back in San Francisco, just trying for a quiet New Year’s Eve when friends, family, and a murder mystery step in on their fun.

Though it was two years since the first film, director W.S. Van Dyke was back with screenwriters  Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich, from a story by Dashiell Hammett.  Stretched to 2 hours, the picture packs in a lot of charm and comedy as well as a slew of character actors and even a young Jimmy Stewart!

It’s not quite the martini-swilling romp of the first film, but Powell and Loy make the thing fully worthwhile.

The Man from Laramie (1955)

 

The Man from Laramie (1955) movie poster

director Anthony Mann
viewed: 12/16/2015

Between 1950 (Winchester ’73) and 1955 (The Man from Laramie), director Anthony Mann and star Jimmy Stewart teamed up together for five Westerns.  Between 2003 and just now (late 2015), I’ve finally managed to getting around to completing the cycle.  I caught The Naked Spur (1953) two years ago, and have chugged through Bend of the River (1952) and The Far Country (1954) in the last few months.  Considering the many tropes and cycles and themes and styles of films I slog through, it’s kind of amazing to complete anything.

Shot in CinemaScope and Technicolor, The Man from Laramie seems to be the “big one” of the series, a stab at something more epic-ish, if not fully epic.  Their first four films together are much more concentrated action Westerns, themes and big ideas, sure, but each but not the Technicolor, wide-screen luxury of Laramie, and Laramie is even about 15 minutes more epic.

In this one, Stewart rolls into Coronado with a couple wagon-loads of supplies.  The town has been cut off in isolation by the size of some of its holdings and by pesky Apache territory in one direction.  What Stewart finds is a ruthlessly-run place, owned by a harsh but ailing land baron, Alec Waggoman (Donald Crisp), whose son Dave (Alex Nicol) rides psychotically half-cocked at all times, while his testy right hand man Vic (Arthur Kennedy) tries to keep him at bay.  Dave burns Stewart’s wagons and shoots his mules when he thinks Stewart is stealing their salt.  This leads to a fist fight and a rather convoluted situation that makes for the rest of the story.

Mann is once again in his element, shooting on location, this time in Arizona and New Mexico.  And the wide-screen of CinemaScope offers new frames for capturing the rugged landscape and the cowboy hero.  But the longer beats of the pacing, the bigger scope of the family drama wind up bogging the thing down more than expanding it.  I’d say it’s a good film, but the weakest of the five.

I guess if I’d seen the films all in quicker succession I’d have a better chance at teasing out a sense of consistency in the worlds.  Of the three films I’ve seen this year, Bend of the River (1952, The Far Country (1954), and now The Man from Laramie, in each one Stewart plays a man from the outside come to the Wild West outpost.  In each one, be it Oregon, Alaska, or New Mexico, he finds a lack of law and order, is robbed of his rightful goods, and has to decide to take a stand with the underdogs against the rich, powerful villains and then ultimately decide to either settle down or move along.

Both Mann and Stewart made other Westerns with other collaborators, so I don’t know if it’s worth just looking at these five films in isolation.  But shot in that tight 5 year period, it’s a worthwhile cycle for a fan of the classic American Western.

The Far Country (1954)

The Far Country (1954) movie poster

director Anthony Mann
viewed: 11/21/2015

1896, the Alaskan Gold Rush, the “far country”, the Westernmost range of the Western.  This is the setting for Anthony Mann’s 1954 Western, The Far Country, his fourth of five Westerns starring Jimmy Stewart.

Aspects of the film echo of Bend of the River (1952), Mann and Stewart’s 2nd Western together.  In Bend of the River, Stewart played a driver who helped a family drive to their homestead in Western Oregon, navigating the ruthless markets and opportunists who try to rip them off when gold is discovered nearby.  The Far Country begins in another Pacific Northwest frontier town, this time Seattle, and Stewart’s character, Jeff Webster, isn’t aiding a family unit, but shepherding his own team of cattle to Alaska for a big score.  And while he manages to dodge the shysters and thieves in Seattle, he runs afoul of the even more ruthless kingpin in Skagway, Judge Gannon (John McIntire).  The judge, having all authority, just takes his cattle without any chance of recompense.

As Jeff, Stewart isn’t as kind-hearted as his character in Bend of the River.  He’s looking out for #1, and to some extent, his #2, Ben Tatum (the always enjoyable Walter Brennan).  When he manages to free himself (and his cows) to hit the far country, he finds the same villains of Skagway have invaded Dawson City.  But his moral compass only looks to his own profit and he winds up selling to the villains, just to make a buck.

It’s an interesting contrast, these two characters.  Under the sway of a pretty young thing, Renee (Corinne Calvet), and through further ruthlessness by the local villains, Jeff comes around to learning to protect the town and the budding American society laying its seeds in the icy, isolated soil.  He’s forced to do right, to protect and support the good people from the bad, rather than disinterestedly looking only out for himself.  Some vague critique of isolationism or something?

Shot in parts in Canada, like other Anthony Mann Westerns, the natural landscapes are used to significant effect.  The Far Country is an interesting and well-made picture.

Bend of the River (1952)

Bend of the River (1952) movie poster

director Anthony Mann
viewed: 08/29/2015

Jimmy Stewart is a former border raider leading a wagon train to Oregon to set down roots and start homesteading.  He saves the life of a man about to be lynched, another former raider, not quite sure if he’s ready to settle down but joins up for the trek.  When they get to Portland, the homesteaders purchase supplies and catch a steamboat up toward their stake and start working their land.  When a promised and paid for shipment of supplies fails to show up, Stewart heads back down to Portland to see what’s what.

Turns out there has been a gold rush and the merchant who sold them their goods hasn’t sent them because he’s planning on selling them for hugely inflated prices.  When Stewart and his men get the steamboat laded up, they make a break for it.  A chase ensues with the greedy rabble ready to make a break to the highest bidder.

This is another of the Anthony Mann/Jimmy Stewart Westerns, and another good one.  Morality and the Wild West are challenged by greed, and even Stewart’s good-hearted hero forces the layabouts at gunpoint to aid him, promising them decent pay at the end of the line but no choice in the matter.  The other former raider (Arthur Kennedy) doesn’t ultimately have as high a moral code and the showdown must commence.  A lot of it was shot on location in Oregon and bears the unique landscapes of that state.

The film has a good cast, including Rock Hudson as an unlikely gambler good guy and the lovely Julie Adams (Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)) as primary love interest.  It also features a youngish Harry Morgan as Shorty, one of the “treacherous hired men” (as Wikipedia puts it).  And Steppin Fetchit!  Controversial as he was, he was also very good.

I’ve now seen three of the Mann/Stewart Westerns (Winchester ’73 (1950), Bend of the River, and The Naked Spur (1953).  I’ll have to check out the other two as well (The Far Country (1955) and The Man from Laramie (1955).

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.

Rear Window (1954)

 

Rear Window (1954) movie poster

director Alfred Hitchcock
viewed: 11/22/2014

Is Rear Window Alfred Hitchcock’s best film?  I mean that both provocatively and honestly.

I first saw it in the 1980’s when several of Hitchcock’s films became available for the first time on home media: Rear WindowVertigo (1958), Rope (1948), The Trouble with Harry (1955), and The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956).  I’d seen both Psycho (1960) and The Birds (1963), The Birds probably most early and most often, but the minor glut of films on release opened the door for me on one of the most famous and remarkable of film directors.

I won’t belabor analysis here.  It’s been done often and better than I could offer.  But I will say that the construction and control of the camera, of the viewer, of the whole cinematic operation (something I think is so masterfully Hitchcockian) is definitely as refined and sophisticated in this film as any film Hitchcock ever made.  The complex panopticon of a set, the vicarious obsession of the voyeur, the meticulous thrill, black comedy and even the outfits (Edith Head, of course!)

I shared the film with Felix and Clara.  We’ve watched a few Hitchcocks together.  We’ve even taken to watching Alfred Hitchcock Presents as well.  Oddly enough, or not, this was very likely their favorite to date.  And I have to agree at the moment.  Of all the films we’ve seen together, I too enjoyed this one as much as any other Hitchcock.

It’s funny that Jimmy Stewart plays such a jerk.  He’s downright nearly evil in Vertigo, but here he’s a guy who can’t even appreciate the glorious beauty and boundless good nature of Grace Kelly, who is gorgeous and charming in Rear Window.  That said, Thelma Ritter pretty much steals all the scenes in which she appears.  Do they make great character actors like her anymore?  Do they write roles for great character actors like her Stella here?

I said I won’t belabor the point so I’ll stop.  Rear Window is Hitchcock at his best.