Saturday, May 31, 2008

The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

Four stars for sure - this is one of those movies that is well made and really moving and has a complexity that really makes you reflect on serious themes - and yet at the same time, you don't stop just enjoying wondering what's going to happen next.

Okay, so this is three hours long and it took us two nights to finish because we started it kind of late on Memorial Day (TCM was running a bunch of war/veteran-themed movies in honor of Memorial Day, while we were mostly drinking margaritas -I had the day off - my network always airs a COPS marathon in honor of three-day-weekends and all the drunk driving that goes on I guess). On Tuesday while I was at work, I found myself looking forward to going home to watch the second half, so that's always a good sign.

I remember in college studying about this movie and how it showed the true impact of the war, through the eyes of three returning veterans, whereas the wartime movies were all upbeat and positive. It's clear of course that this movie aims to tell the harsh truth about the effects of war, but it's still got a lot of all those things movie-goers love: two and a half love stories, a fist-fight, a cooch dancer, a dash of humor, and Myrna Loy.

I adore Myrna Loy because of the Thin Man movies so of course that's how this movie came to be on my Tivo Monday night. And she does a great job playing the mother and wife who can handle it all with a smile. In fact so does her daughter. You could probably subtitle this movie "hey guys, women are tough, too".

The story follows three men: Al, Fred and Butch, all returning from the war to the same fictional home town, Boone City - at least, I assume it's fictional...where's my research department when I need them? Al is middle-aged and I guess was an officer in the army, hard to be sure they don't talk much about the war in the movie. Fred was a pilot, a bomber, and Butch was in the Navy and lost both his hands.

Left to right: Butch, Al's daughter Peggy, Fred, Al's wife Milly, Al.

Butch is like the sweetest character ever, Fred is troubled by nightmares about the war, and Al is returning to a wife and two almost-grown children, and a job at the bank. Al's just having a hard time remembering how to be a civilian. Fred doesn't have a job, but he does have a ditzy wife who he married in a hurry before he shipped off to war, and she seems to have been working as a cooch dancer while he was away. Butch has the most trouble re-adjusting, although he seems at first completely relaxed about his hooks-instead-of-hands - making jokes and showing off tricks he has taught himself - this belies a deep uneasiness.

Cooch Dancer? Couldn't find a picture of her in character, but the part is played by Christina Applegate-ish Virginia Mayo.

The movie is full of fun things to look at - the side characters are excellent - from Butch's uncle who owns the bar in town to the drug-store assistant manager who bosses Fred around, to Fred's poor down-on-their-luck parents. Myrna Loy herself is really just a side character, but she is so great she steals every scene she is in - God, if anyone could really be a wife and mother like that - taking everything in stride and with a sense of humor and kindness - well - there would a lot of out-of-work therapists for one thing.

I also have to say I really loved watching Butch - who in real life lost his hands - grapple with things - no pun intended, really - it was Freudian, I guess. He won two Oscars for the role, according to Robert Osbourne, and in my opinion they were well deserved. Normally I would say two Oscars for one role is excessive...but what other leading role are you going to play as a guy with no hands? Right. Therefore, totally fair.

Great movie, awesome ending - thankfully a Hollywood ending despite the serious themes (I don't think you have to have a sad ending to make a point). Will definitely watch again. Would make a great double-header next Memorial Day with "Till They Sail" - ooh - that's an idea so good I might just have to host a party!

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Now, Voyager (1942)

First, there is the fact that the story opens with a heroic psychiatrist sympathetically coming to the aid of a grossly misunderstood woman.

I have to admit, I was a little terrified at this point that the entire movie was going to be told as one sad, doomed flashback of a woman driven insane by unhappiness. UGH. I was not interested in watching that movie. Luckily, this is not that movie!

The psychiatrist springs the woman from her oppressive home for a weekend in the country (which can fix anything, as we have already established in COUNTLESS other movies), and he quotes Walt Whitman to inspire her to start new life: "Untold want, by life and land ne'er granted, / Now, Voyager, sail thou forth, to seek and find."

And boy does she!

I liked this photo the best of the ones I could find - most of them show her looking aloof and glamorous, but Davis does such a great job of revealing Charlotte's anxiousness in every shot (Kim said "when she looks nervous, she makes me feel nervous") that I wanted a still that would show that nervousness. She is a girl's scared heart inside the body of an old maid...which of course is something just about every woman has felt at some point. Which is why this movie is perfect.

Yup, I said it, perfect - despite the untraditional ending (not happy or unhappy, but not disappointing, either) - this movie perfectly captures the sweetness and sadness of unfulfilled love. It's also a perfect little portrait of a woman's life before and after liberation - from forced and miserable self-sacrifice to independence, to a tentative peace with life, then to a voluntary and fulfilling self-sacrifice.

If this sounds like nonsense, you've got see it for yourself - I assure you there is a lot of fun stuff to look at while you're making up your mind about the moral of the story...there's the stiff and stern Boston Brahmin mother, the cheeky niece, the generous and glamorous sister-in-law, the awesome clothes, the grand house, the cruise and the scenery of Brasil, as seen on the back lots and California by-ways.

And need I remind you of Paul Henreid, aka Victor Laszlo (I was more than halfway through the movie before I could stop thinking of him as Victor Laszlo from Casablanca - it's a hard character to shake) and the over-enthusiastic tour director or the mysteriously Italian Portuguese cab driver? And of course there is always the wise, witty Dr. Jaquith - if only we could all have a psychiatrist like that!

It's pretty much all good here, will definitely watch again - although after I hoarded the DVD for six months without watching it, I'm sure I won't be able to borrow it from Anastasia ever again!

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948)

Why not "The Blandings Build Their Dream House?"

Jim and Muriel Blandings (Cary Grant and Myrna Loy) and their two daughters (one precocious) start out the movie living in a cramped little apartment in New York. Muriel has secret grand plans to knock down walls and transform their apartment. Jim would love a closet that holds all his things and then closes.

When Jim comes across a real estate ad for a house in the country, he and Muriel instantly fall in love with the place and buy it, only to learn that it will need to be entirely knocked down and rebuilt. They spend most of the movie driving their architect crazy with elaborate plans for too many bathrooms and closets and all of the things they never would have dreamed of having in the city. And, the house is just as much Muriel's dream as it is Jim's!!! So, I repeat, why not "The Blandings Build Their Dream House?"

There is more to the plot than this, but mostly during the movie (one star, not going to watch again), I entertained myself by going off on tangents:

*separate beds for married couples... just in the movies?   See The Motion Picture Production Code of 1930, including the clause "IX. Locations. The treatment of bedrooms must be governed by good taste and delicacy."

*I suppose I can relate to some of this... After all, doesn't my dream house/apartment contain a giant walk-in closet in which I can obsessively organize my clothes, shoes, and bags and archive my grandmother's clothes and shoes and bags?  Maybe Muriel and my uncle could team together to design my closets...

*Cary Grant shower scenes... In this movie he sings "Home on the Range." In "Charade" he seems to be humming "Singin' in the Rain" while he showers in his clothes. I'm pretty sure he was also humming "Singin' in the Rain" when he pretended to take a shower in "North by Northwest." Fascinating. I am quite the Cary Grant character historian...  When I explained this exciting discovery to my friend Barbara she said, "So this is the only movie where he takes an actual naked shower."

*wow, I've seen enough classic movies to know things about the 30s and 40s... Without having seen "The Women," I never would have gotten the joke, "When I came in here this morning, I had no intention of sending you two to Reno."

*Hey, there is a good quote in this movie... Muriel on why she fell for Jim: "Maybe it was those big cow eyes of yours or that ridiculous hole in your chin."

*When will this movie end?

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Meet John Doe (1941)

One star.
I like Frank Capra. At least, I thought I did. This movie was SO sappy, that I found myself wondering what Capra's reputation was. I didn't have to look any further than IMDB:
"Critics dubbed his movies as "Capra-corn" for their simple and sappy storylines."

This movie is about a spunky female reporter - so far so good - with a great wardrobe - right up my alley, right? - who makes up a letter from a "John Doe" to save her job. The ruse works well - so well that she has to produce the John Doe.

Enter Gary Cooper. (At this point I remembered that I still hate Gary Cooper for looking strikingly like the guy who broke my friend's heart but I decided to try to ignore that). Gary Cooper is a down-on-his luck guy who just wants to play baseball and he brings in tow a paranoid bum who just wants to play harmonica. Gary Cooper also enjoys playing harmonica. He agrees to play John Doe.

And, that's about it. I did watch most of this movie. I watched the beginning, most of the middle, and the end. The guy turns out to be inspiring to a lot of people, "little people" they keep calling them. Small-time people with sad stories who he then inspires to do good deeds rinse, repeat.

Then he realizes he's being manipulated for the benefit of people he doesn't like, then he becomes disillusioned, then, at the very end, he becomes illusioned again, miraculously. I'm sorry if I'm spoiling this for you but really, it's just awful.

Maybe Capra had to make this to figure out how much better it would be if, in a It's A Wonderful Life the disillusionment came at the start of the movie and then you looked back on the hopefulness and defeat and then you got right to the miraculous re-illusionment. If so, I'm glad he made this movie. But I never, ever plan to watch it again, spunky female reporter with great outfits notwithstanding.