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.