The Shopworn Angel – A simple setup for a romantic comedy: naive country kid (James Stewart) stops off in the big city on his way to deployment in WWI. He passes off the photo of a showgirl (Margaret Sullavan) as his girlfriend to impress his buddies, then convinces her to play along when they all actually meet her. Naturally, the pretend romance turns real. The tone is perfectly modulated between the silliness of this setup and the desperate realities of young men on the precipice of death and a cynical woman who’s been around the block a few times, and all kinds of credit is due these two stars (as well as Walter Pidgeon as the rich cad who might actually love Sullavan as well). This is the first film I’ve seen by HC Potter, but I don’t know that he has the reputation for this kind of thing. Perhaps more credit is due screenwriter Waldo Salt? Regardless, it’s a delightful film, of not really on the level of other Stewart/Sullavan pairings like The Shop Around the Corner or The Mortal Storm. The #8 film of 1938.
Give a Girl a Break – One of three great Debbie Reynolds musicals from 1953, along with The Adventures of Dobie Gillis and I Love Melvin. Like Dobie Gillis, this one also features Bob Fosse, this time playing a much more important role (he’s actually the romantic lead) while not demonstrating as much his unique choreographic style (which was on display in Dobie Gillis and another great 1953 musical, Kiss Me Kate). Reynolds is one of three actresses auditioning for a big show on Broadway, and Fosse is the director’s assistant who falls for her and does as much as he can to get her the part (this is essentially the plot dynamic of I Love Melvin). The other two women include the director’s ex (this pair are played by Broadway star Marge and Gower Champion) and a woman the producer is smitten with, a dancer who is secretly married. The film doesn’t have the anarchic wackiness of the other Reynolds or Fosse films from 1953, director Stanley Donen instead maintains control and focuses the film on a few brilliant emotional moments (Reynolds and Fosse together are particularly charming, as are the film’s final climaxes). The #13 film of 1953.
Hound of the Baskervilles – I’m afraid that these Sherlock Holmes films just aren’t working for me. Yes, Basil Rathbone is excellent, perhaps definitive as the detective, and this is definitely an improvement over the same year’s The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, which told an original, and largely stupid, story. But you’d think there’d be more horror and spookiness to the moor than there is in this film, at least there is in the original story (and the werewolf episode of Doctor Who, as well). And that’s probably my problem: the Holmes stories in my memory are a lot better than any cinematic versions I’ve yet seen. Still, by sticking largely to Conan Doyle’s plot and characters, director Sidney Lanfield has succeeded in making a watchable motion picture. The #27 film of 1939.
The Navigator – One of the major Buster Keaton features that I’d somehow managed to not see until now. He plays a clutzy rich kid who gets stuck alone on a massive boat with a pretty girl. The initial setup is wonderfully done, especially an iconic sequence of the two of them looking for and just missing each other when they first begin to suspect someone else is on the boat and the couple’s first night on the boat, that manages to be both hilarious and terrifying (thanks to the floating head of co-director Donald Crisp). Adrift on the open sea, the two have to learn for themselves not merely how to function on a boat, but the basics of life such as can-opening and coffee-making. Eventually, Keaton has to venture underwater to fix a propeller (like Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen, but not really) and the two have to fight a tribe of cannibals that try to eat them. It’s got a lot of great sequences, but it isn’t quite at the level of Keaton’s greatest work. The #5 film of 1924.
The Shining Hour – Joan Crawford in a Frank Borzage melodrama with Margaret Sullavan and Robert Taylor? No, I wouldn’t think she’d fit in either. But of course, that’s why it works, because her character, a dancer who marries into a wealthy and uptight Wisconsin (?!) family, doesn’t fit in either. She marries Melvyn Douglas, the brother of Taylor, whose wife is Sullavan and whose sister is Fay Bainter who is really mean to poor Joan Crawford. Seems Bainter thinks Crawford’s going to disrupt the family by sleeping with Taylor, which, of course, she does, because that’s the kind of girl Joan Crawford is. The Midwestern setting is strange for this kind of thing, you’d expect New England Puritan repression or Southern gentility masking horrible crimes or something. Instead, Bainter is mean but right and Margaret Sullavan, as always, suffers nobly. Good times. The #12 film of 1938.
Close-Up – The earliest film by Abbas Kiarostami I’ve seen, it follows the case of a man who claimed to be director Mohsen Makhmalbaf allegedly in order to scam some money out of a family. But the closer we get to the case, the less sense it makes: the guy isn’t likely to get much money, and what kind of weird scheme is that anyway? Add in typical Kiarostami meta-questions like how much of what we’re being shown is real (it’s supposedly based on a real news story) and his own weird disinterest in telling a straight story when watching a reporter kick a can down a street is much more interesting, and you get a fascinating movie to think and talk about, though my first time watching it, albeit fairly late at night, it kinda dragged. There’s a lot to digest here. The #6 film of 1990.
To Live and Die in LA – A couple months ago I rewatched William Friedkin’s The French Connection, a film I’d never particularly cared for before, and absolutely loved it, only partially because the Blu-Ray transfer, which I understand is probably not at all reflective of what the film looked like in 1971, looks absolutely stunning. 1970s American films have generally always looked ugly to me, but Friedkin, amping up the grain and blurring the colors came up with a visual look just as gritty as the hardcore grunginess of his lead character. Well, 15 years later, Friedkin made a cop movie that is even nastier than that one, and it might even be better as well. The setup and structure of the plot is no different from most other cop films of the period, with a psychotic bad guy (a forger played by Willem Dafoe) being chased by a cop (William Petersen, the CSI guy) who doesn’t play by the rules (or “laws” as we call them), out to get him not merely because it’s his job, but because this time it’s personal (seems Dafoe killed Petersen’s partner, mere days before his retirement!). But whereas most cop movies of the 80s played this scenario for laughs, or at least chuckles (48 Hours, Lethal Weapon), Friedkin relentlessly exposes the ugliness in his characters and seems to revel in the kind of sickness and fascism certain critics saw in The French Connection. I don’t know where the film really stands, as a critique of the vigilante cop genre or its ultimate expression, nor do I think it really matters. Either way, it’s a great movie. The #5 film of 1985.
Dragonwyck – Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s first film as a director is this adaptation of a Gothic romance in which a young farm girl (Gene Tierney) marries her rich cousin (Vincent Price) and moves to his fancy Hudson River mansion. Sure enough, things aren’t all that great when she gets there. Seems the house is haunted, Price’s family is all crazy and the local tenant farmers (led by Harry Morgan, Col. Potter himself) want the right to own land for themselves. It’s a decent enough example of its genre, but nowhere near as great as Rebecca or as twisted as The Secret Beyond the Door. The ending’s kind of weak as well. But Walter Huston, as Tierney’s religious farmer father who doesn’t approve at all of Price, mansions, cities or capitalism, is fantastic. The #14 film of 1946.