Feature film directors (and Meryl Streep) tell the tales of American feature film directors in the 1930’s and 40’s who were sent to war to make documentaries for the homefront… with one of the best motion-graphics-meets-stock-footage opening title sequences. If you’re interested in filmmakers and/or war, the whole thing’s just fascinating.
William Wyler, fresh off the inspirational Mrs. Miniver, rages against racism while Frank Capra is producing Private Snafu cartoons. Working (mostly) under Capra, John Ford and George Stevens are sent to film D-Day. John Huston makes the gritty San Pietro, using mostly reenacted fight footage but real dead bodies. And Citizen Kane cinematographer Gregg Toland proves himself a poor director. Stevens went on to film the liberation of concentration camps, while Wyler snuck a trip home and found the holocaust had killed his family and all their neighbors. In the end, Huston’s final work about emotionally wounded soldiers was censored for decades, Ford returned to make They Were Expendable, and Capra/Wyler/Stevens founded their own Liberty Studio, which immediately went broke on the flop It’s a Wonderful Life.
I’d love to watch a bunch of the original documentaries themselves, all available on netflix: Battle of Midway, Report from the Aleutians, San Pietro, Let There Be Light, The Negro Soldier, The Battle of Russia, Nazi Concentration Camps and Memphis Belle. But that’s six hours of WWII docs, and it’s Cannes Month now, and six movies I want to see opened in theaters this week, and a new season of Mystery Science Theater 3000 just came out, and it’s baseball season…
Weirdly, for one of the best romantic comedies of all time, I had much trouble remembering this a couple weeks later and had to look up the TCM synopsis – unlike The Good Fairy and Roman Holiday and High Society and What a Way to Go!, which I recalled as well as I ever do. So I’d better watch this again sometime.
Anyway, heiress Claudette Colbert (between Lubitsch films The Smiling Lieutenant and Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife) is on the run from her overdetermined life and meets chivalrous Clark Gable on the bus. He’s a reporter who agrees to help her if he gets an exclusive story – shades of Roman Holiday – but unlike that movie, this is one of the madcap screwball comedies where writing out the plot would take longer than rewatching the movie – the gist being that the two of them fall gradually in love after spending much travel time together, and she finally flees her society wedding to stay with Gable.
Criterion ad copy: “The first film to accomplish the very rare feat of sweeping all five major Oscar categories (best picture, best actor, best actress, best director, and best screenplay), It Happened One Night is among the most gracefully constructed and edited films of the early sound era, packed with clever situations and gags that have entered the Hollywood comedy pantheon and featuring two actors at the top of their game.”
That first autobus ride is clearly an alien experience for the heiress, who has until this point remained unaware of the greater world around her. At first, she is uncomfortable with her fellow passengers, but eventually she joins them in song and then feels sympathetic pain for the plight of a mother and son who don’t have enough to eat. (Explicitly here, and implicitly throughout the film, Capra is making a brave choice for a romantic comedy by telling us that this is no movie fairyland but very real Depression America — where buses might serve those who could no longer afford cars and hitchhiking those who could afford neither.)
In what must be the movie’s most famous scene (although it has a lot of competition), Pete demonstrates, at length and with a fantastic amount of condescension, the proper way to hitchhike: “It’s all in the thumb.” Ellie, splendidly deadpan, watches an entire traffic jam’s worth of cars zip by Pete and his magic thumb, then slinks over and lifts her hem to reveal one of the loveliest legs in movie history. Cut to slamming brakes, then the couple in the rumble seat of a car. But here’s the thing: The man who has stopped (played by Alan Hale) turns out to be a road thief, bent on stealing their remaining suitcase. For all Ellie’s triumph, the creep was looking for a mark, and probably would have stopped in any event.
Lady for a Day (1933, Frank Capra)
I missed the first third-to-half of this, but we’re gonna count it anyway. Clunky comedy with a weeper ending starring a bunch of white people who all look the same.
Young Louise wants to marry some fancy European, but has to impress his dad (Walter Connolly of the much livelier Twentieth Century) with her family. Louise’s mom (May Robson) is actually a lowly apple seller. But May is the good-luck charm of powerful New York gangster Warren William (Julius Caesar to Colbert’s Cleopatra), so along with his buddy Guy Kibbee (righteous reporter in Power of the Press), they fake being high society long enough to get the girl married. By the end, reporters are kidnapped and the mayor and governor are enlisted in the scam. America! Nominated for four oscars but something called Cavalcade won.
Just Like Heaven (2005, Mark Waters)
Maybe I was in a weird mood, but this was an enjoyable movie – well written with decent acting, even if its ultimately a girly soulmate drama with ghosts and people in comas, winning the contest of who would be the first movie to cast Jon Heder in his first post-Napoleon Dynamite comic-relief sidekick role, from the writers of What Planet Are You From and Pay It Forward. Couldn’t possibly be any good. But it kinda was.
The Five-Year Engagement (2012, Nicholas Stoller)
Katy watched with Maria and I sat in for most of it. I think lead couple Jason Segal and Emily Blunt are broken up for at least six months of that engagement while Segal sleeps with some young hottie and Blunt plays the young hottie to some older professor. It’s one of those movies featuring young people in struggling careers who seem to have an endless supply of money, though they envy their seemingly-billionaire friends who have circus-like weddings. Blunt is cute, but I mainly looked up to watch the recurring roles for Chris Pratt and Brian Posehn and cameo by Dr. Spaceman. Speaking of Chris Pratt, now that every major Parks & Rec cast member has been appearing in movies for the last two years without quitting the show, I hope Mark Brendanawicz is regretting choosing Water for Elephants over the series.
An extremely talky Capra movie, which tries to add a bit of fun chaos a la his earlier films, but this just makes it louder, not more interesting. Reporter Bing Crosby is delayed in returning to the States because he’s gathering the necessary paperwork to adopt two adorable war orphans. Bobby is an actual French kid who says all the darndest things while little friend Beverly Washburn (who’d go on to star in Spider Baby) speaks only French with an alarmingly not-French accent, when she gets to speak at all.
Bing’s sweetheart since childhood is Jane Wyman, who has decided not to wait for her perpetually delayed groom and marry her millionaire employer instead. Bing tries to use the cute children as bait to get Jane back, but finally realizes that the millionaire (Franchot Tone of Phantom Lady, Advise & Consent) has a thing for his own cousin (the admittedly hot Alexis Smith (of Any Number Can Win, Of Human Bondage) and sets that up instead. Did it end with a double wedding, or any wedding? I was sleepy.
An oscar win for “in the cool cool cool of the evening”, which was reportedly orchestrated with a technically complex long take, but I didn’t notice. The musical bit that stood out for me was an airplane singalong unexpectedly featuring Louis Armstrong. And there’s an early shoehorned-in scene where a blind orphan girl sings an insane opera number.
In the title I accidentally typed “Frank Zappa” at first. Usually my sympathies lie more with Zappa than Capra, but I liked this one a lot. The version of the play that we did in high school did not give the male lead a homicidal maniac of a brother with a mad doctor and a dead body in tow. I remember it being all around more gentle. The play was a huge hit when this movie was shot, and the playwright permitted the film under two conditions: that Boris Karloff wouldn’t be allowed to participate (all the jokes about the brother looking like Karloff depended on him, but instead of changing the line for the film, they made Raymond Massey up to look like Karloff) and the movie couldn’t be released until the play closed. So it was shown to troops overseas, but didn’t make it into theaters until 1944, some six Cary Grant movies later.
Grant wasn’t wild about this movie – I thought he used his surprised screwball expression too many times but is otherwise just fine. He is to marry Priscilla Lane (of The Roaring Twenties and Saboteur), takes her home to meet his sweet old aunts but discovers that they’ve been murdering lonely men and having Cary’s insane Teddy Roosevelt-impersonating brother bury them in the basement. Then the other brother (Raymond Massey of a couple Powell and Pressburger films) with doctor Peter Lorre show up, and hijinks just never stop ensuing. In fact, the comedy and suspense don’t even let up long enough for Capra to inject any long, boring speeches espousing his patriotism or morals. Hooray for that! E. Everett Horton was in there as well, but I’ve already forgotten where.
Made in the middle of Capra’s streak of sincere, goodhearted dramas, a couple years before he ramped up for the war propaganda machine. I was excited to see this because I love Robbie Fulks’ song about loving Jean Arthur, but I didn’t end up loving the movie’s Jean Arthur more than I love the song Jean Arthur. Maybe Robbie was watching A Foreign Affair, or Shane, or a different Capra film.
A corporate-greed movie, pretty funny for a self-important serious-issues drama, but still feels a tad long and obvious. Jimmy Stewart is in love with his secretary Jean Arthur, but their parents disapprove. Jimmy’s very rich & proper dad owns the huge business of which Jimmy is vice-president, and Jean’s dad (Lionel Barrymore) is a giddy eccentric who lives in a house where everyone does whatever they please (which mostly means dancing and making fireworks). Ends up in jail, then in court, with Barrymore’s lifestyle on trial. Can the stuffy rich people learn to lighten up just a bit, and can the nutty eccentrics learn to conform just a bit, so that their star-crossed lover children can be happy? Of course!
Lionel Barrymore is swell as the good-hearted old commie, but better is Donald Meek as a formerly repressed corporate bookkeeper who goes to live in Barrymore’s house, gleefully inventing and exploding things. Also cool is Russian dance instructor Mischa Auer (seen almost twenty years later in my second-to-last screenshot in Mr. Arkadin) whose strict manner clashes comically with the rest of the Barrymore house.
Lionel Barrymore (right, of Tod Browning and Lubitsch movies, later in Duel in the Sun and Key Largo) shames Edward Arnold (left, in the movies since 1916, played Webster in The Devil and Daniel Webster)
Donald Meek is charmed by Lionel Barrymore:
Small-headed Mischa Auer with God’s Jean Arthur.