Thursday, October 3, 2013

Cherry picking The Fabulous Forties

I recently polished off Mill Creek's Fabulous Forties 50 movie box set and was quite surprised by the lack of filler or outright duds. That's not to say it didn't benefit from a complete absence of mediocrity as evidenced by the presence of films featuring bland fictional characters like Dr. Kildare, The East Side Boys, Dick Tracy and Ronald Reagan, but there were a surprising number of near classics and interesting anomalies. So with apologies to Kim Jee-Woon, here are The Good, The Bad, The Weird and The Honorable Mentions of The Fabulous Forties set...

The Good

Guest in the House (1944) 
My love affair with director John Brahm continues in this unsung little psychodrama that was made just prior to his masterpiece, Hangover Square. The main attraction is an over-tightly wound performance by a young, scrumptious Anne Baxter as Evelyn Heath, the patient/romantic interest of Doctor Dan Proctor (Scott McKay). As the story opens, Doctor Dan has brought Evelyn home to meet the family for the first time as a prelude to marriage. However, an early indicator that all is not well in Evelyn-world comes when a young female relative attempts to stroke Evelyn's cheek after complimenting her on her beauty and Evelyn recoils in revulsion and yells at the child not to touch her. Nope, nothing wrong here at all. The story drags on a bit early as characters are introduced, but once the machinations kick in by Baxter's character, the fun begins. Ralph Bellamy, who was one suave gent in his prime, plays the elder, married brother of Dr Dan and spends the movie trying to deflect some very unwanted attention from Evelyn. The melodramatic aspects of the film reaches campy levels on occasion but Brahm's stylish, atmospheric direction keeps it from spinning out of control and almost makes you forget the entire film takes place only in the family's house.
Score 7.5/10

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946)
Previously on my list of shame of unseen greats, the incredible cast alone merits an immediate watch but this is also an excellent blend of noir and melodrama with an intelligent script by Robert Rossen. Both Kirk Douglas and Van Heflin take on uncharacteristic roles - normally they would have been given each other's part - but they're both still outstanding. Lewis Milestone's direction is competent but it's the script and actors that make this one a classic.
 Score 8.0

The Red House (1947)
This is an understated American gothic thriller with some disturbing psychosexual overtones that stars Edward G Robinson. Despite Delmer Daves very perfunctory and uninspired direction, the film works mostly because of the taboo undercurrents in the script that exist between Robinson's farmer, Pete, and his adopted daughter, Meg, who is played with doe-eyed earnestness by Allene Roberts. Roberts is very good in this role and spends a great deal of the movie looking wounded with tears threatening to spill out of her eyes at any given moment due to her character's confusion over Pete's behavior. It's surprising that such a young inexperienced actor is able to hold her own when sharing the screen with Robinson. Unfortunately, the same can't be said for Lon McCallister who gets blown off the screen repeatedly whenever he's in a scene with Robinson and is easily the weakest presence in the film. Julie London and Rory Calhoun co-star in early roles and are both quite enjoyable as the bad boy and wanna-be bad girl. And finally, the great Judith Anderson plays against type as the compassionate sister of Pete. The movie does well in building up the mystery and tension between Pete and Meg and is surprisingly frank at one point when Anderson's character asks Meg if Pete has put his hands on her. Strong stuff for 1947. There were problems, however, in the creation of atmosphere. The day for night shooting was readily apparent to the point of distraction and there were wasted opportunities at the end when we finally get to the red house and it just doesn't look that imposing or scary. Overall though, the film is an engaging old-school, gothic melodrama with really good performances by Robinson and Roberts.
Score 7.25

D.O.A. (1950)
Fast-paced noir that never takes its foot off the pedal as Edmond O'Brien seeks to find out who poisoned him and why. Simple, straightforward storytelling with the only flaw being an annoying slide-whistle when the ladies walk by.
Score 7.5

The Last Chance (1945)
Believable story involving two WWII POWs who escape from a train in Italy and attempt to make their way to the Swiss border. The realistic nature of this one caught me off guard, but unlike Rossellini's War trilogy, there are some Casablanca-like sentimental moments that will bring a tear to your eye as well. The fact that there are no big recognizable stars is a plus and the settings seem to be the real locations, again echoing Rossellini's work. It misses a couple of opportunities to go very dark, but is nevertheless far from the average feel-good war movie of the era. Films like this are the reason I buy Mill Creek sets.

The Bad

This is the Army (1943) 
I know it's not fair to pick on a propaganda film from this era whose heart's in the right place, but this was one of the most overly sentimental, dull, unimaginative and yet overblown productions I've seen. Ronald Reagan, who may have had charisma for a politician, is a complete charm void as an actor and helps scuttle the film towards the end that features a smarmy romance and a climactic musical number involving a bunch of army guys marching around to an uninspired Irving Berlin tune. The shockingly offensive minstrel number (I know, it was a different time, but when one of the characters asks rhetorically "Who says minstrel shows are outdated?" you know stuff like this was way past its expiration stamp even then.) just one more nauseating thing to be endured in this wildly dated affair. I can get on board with a little blind patriotism and can even overlook a some era-appropriate racism, but wow. Ironically, the only real entertaining musical number comes from Joe Louis' African-American pals who unfortunately have to display their considerable skills against a stereotypically offensive mural backdrop.
Score 3.0

Cheers for Miss Bishop (1941)
I usually get annoyed when people criticize a film for what it isn't, but I will now proceed to do just that. However, I do think a film about a dedicated teacher should spend more than a few seconds showing that person actually teaching or interacting with her students in some meaningful way. Films like Stand and Deliver and Mr Holland's Opus show their respective teachers making a connection and actually teaching. In Cheers for Miss Bishop, the school and students are merely a backdrop for the titular character's love life. It's just a given that she's a great teacher but we never see why and it seems unrelated to her personal life to a large degree. I have nothing against romantic movies but this one seemed a bait and switch focusing solely on the soap opera aspects to the exclusion of all else. Plus, the character is just not that engaging nor her affairs that intriguing to hold interest for a story which spans almost her entire adult life. Martha Scott as the lead is fine, I blame the lazy, Harlequin script on this one. 

The Town Went Wild (1944)
Utter predictability is death to comedy and I could see every comic beat coming a mile away in this 40's screwball picture. The movie plays it safe as well teasing the audience with a possible incestuous relationship we know will never materialize. The characters are overly broad and the situation not as clever as it thinks. Even my love for Edward Everett Horton didn't help me through this groaner. The only joke punch that landed with me was the lodge member with the incredibly huge moose head-hat.
Score 4.0

The Weird

Li'l Abner (1940)
I was ready to hate on this thing like no one's business when I began watching. I'm not a fan of any of Al Capp's work and a live action version of dumb, grotesque hillbillies cavorting around the fictional land of Dogpatch seemed anything but appealing. But a weird thing happened about halfway into this, I actually started to enjoy and even admire it. Like Altman's Popeye, the film meticulously recreates the cartoon's world in every ridiculous aspect and the actors go for broke as well in their portrayal of the incredibly goofy characters. Mona Ray and Johnnie Morris as Li'l Abner's parents, Pansy and Lucifer, are particularly good and weirdly convincing. Though the movie is as dumb, obvious and predictable as its source material, it nevertheless has a certain charm and entertainment value.

That Uncertain Feeling (1941)
Burgess Meredith steals married Merle Oberon away from her husband, Melvyn Douglas. That's how weird this Ernst Lubitsch comedy is. Oberon's character, Jill Baker, gets convinced by her psychiatrist that she's bored with her marriage and she decides to have a fling with snooty artist Alexander Sebastian (Meredith). I'm not entirely sure what the message of the film was suppose to be (having a fling with a short pretentious snob will make your marriage stronger?) but I kind of liked its nonsensical wackiness. Plus, the leads were really enjoyable particularly Oberon who never fails to captivate.
Score 6.5

The North Star (1943)
This one is strange in a variety of ways. First, it's an American studio propaganda film with Russian characters as the heroes. Second, it begins as a very lighthearted, feel-good musical before the Nazi's show up and put the brakes on the fun. Third, it was later deemed subversive by The House Un-American Activities Committee (ya, but weren't we allies with the Soviet Union when the film was made?) 
Setting aside the over romanticization of the peasant's lifestyle in the movie, it is a fairly accurate and rare take on the Nazi invasion of the USSR. The self-imposed scorched earth policy and the examples of Nazi brutality actually did occur and I was surprised that this movie went there after starting off so light and breezy but it certainly made its point effectively. As far as the commie "subversiveness" goes, you really need to break out a large magnifying glass to see it. The only things I noticed were a brief shot of the hammer and sickle flag and one or two uses of the word "comrade". I think what probably irritated Tailgunner Joe and his boys was a reminder that we couldn't have beaten the Nazi's without the heroic Ruskies.
The quality of the film is well above average with some able direction by Lewis Milestone who also made All Quiet on the Western Front and the previously mentioned The Strange Love of Martha Ivers. The cast is solid also with Anne Baxter, Walter Houston, Dana Andrews and Walter Brennan in the lead roles. Although it falls victim to a bit too much sentimentality and a traditional-for-the-era ending, it's still a very interesting trip to a place and time rarely visited by western audiences.

Honorable Mentions

Pot O' Gold (1941) A poor but happy music shop owner moves to the city to help his rich but miserable uncle. Leading roles in movies like this were taylor-made for Jimmy Stewart. 7.0

 My Man Godfrey (1936) Mill Creek kind of cheated with the inclusion of a 30's movie in a 40's set but I'm glad they did as William Powell is very dry but likable and Carole Lombard is appropriately daffy in this enjoyable screwball comedy. 7.5

Shock (1946) Modest, somewhat predictable thriller, but when has Vincent Price ever been less than awesome? 6.75

His Girl Friday (1940) I can't stand Cary Grant, but Rosalind Russell steals this film and dominates throughout with her fast-talking and comic timing. 7.25

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