Oct 302017
  October 30, 2017

rex-harrisonI think of Rex Harrison as one of the great actors, yet “great” is not a word I use with his most famous films. Doctor Dolittle, Anna and the King of Siam, The Agony and the Ecstasy, The Yellow Rolls-Royce, and Cleopatra are all fine, watchable flicks, but no masterpieces, and I normally don’t even call them good without some kind of qualification. (My Fair Lady is a level up, but I still qualify any compliments I give it.)

Not that he isn’t in some great films—or I wouldn’t be making a list for him—simply that they tend to be less known. His finest films are indeed great works in need of viewing.

The top 8:

8 – The Constant Husband (1955) – By the writing/directing/producing team of Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder, which is always a good thing. Harrison is an amnesiac who finds that he may not have been a kindly guy.

7 – My Fair Lady (1964) – Audrey Hepburn is lovely. Harrison is fun. And the music is wonderful. It suffers from dubbing and the same flaw as the Broadway musical–the tacked on and in every way wrong “happy ending.” [Also on the Audrey Hepburn list]

6 – Storm in a Teacup (1937) – A political satire, that seems to be about a small affair being blown out of proportion, but is a look at how fascism works and needs to be fought. A brilliant film with a sadly weak ending.

5 – Unfaithfully Yours (1948) – A dark comedy by Preston Sturges, who made a career out of not fitting Hollywood expectations. This one has Harrison daydreaming how to kill his assumed-to-be unfaithful wife.

4 – Night Train to Munich (1940) – A WWII spy thriller set in the world of The Lady Vanishes. It leans more on fun than tension.

3 – Major Barbara (1941) – Harrison in another film based on a Shaw play, with a co-star who was in the movie of Pygmalion. A thoughtful movie, with a few moments which work better on stage.

2 – Blithe Spirit (1945) – A séance has the unfortunate effect of summoning the ghost of an author’s first wife. Witty English humor based on a play.

1 – The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947) – A widow, escaping her in-laws, rents a sea-side cottage that is haunted by a sea captain. It’s charming and a bit sad.

 

 

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Oct 272017
  October 27, 2017

edwardrobinsonEdward G. Robinson was one of the kings of early gangster cinema (along with Jimmy Cagney, George Raft, and their second banana, Humphrey Bogart).Things changed in a decade, with old-style crime movies fading, replaced by war movies and Film Noir, and elevating Bogart over the other three. But most of Robinson’s best films came after his biggest fame. His gangster roles quickly became clichés and many of his early performances barely varied from the impersonator’s over-the-top imitations. By the end of the ’30s Robinson was using his persona in comedies or to give a meta meaning to his parts, and that worked. Of his top 8 films, only 1 is a straight ’30s gangster film.

I expect big fans of Robinson (and I wonder how many of those are reading this) will be displeased with my top 8 as it doesn’t include either of the Fritz Lang Noirs, The Woman in the Window and Scarlet Street. Both have great casts, good dialog, interesting characters, meaningful themes, and generally good plots. But both are unsatisfying due to poor (and in the case of the first, horrible) endings. The production code-sanctified ending for Scarlet Street saps the strength from the film. And the ending for The Woman in the Window… It takes effort to so efficiently destroy a film in only a few minutes.

An honorable mention for his cameo in Robin and the 7 Hoods (1964)—good enough to make the list, but I require more than a few seconds of screen time.

8 – The Sea Wolf (1941) – As 8th favorite I’d go with Brother Orchid, but The Sea Wolf is a more weighty film, that takes Jack London’s philosophical work and uses it as metaphor for the fascism taking over Europe.

7 – Little Caesar (1931) – A good film, but it is so over the top, so over-acted, that it is impossible for me to take seriously. Still, it is a must-see as one of THE gangster movies of the 1930s.

6 – The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse (1938) – Robinson stars with Bogart with a script by John Huston in a light comedy that has Robinson playing a scientist who wants to study crime, so becomes a crime lord.

5 – Larceny, Inc. (1942) – The second crime comedy on this list, but this one is less crime, more comedy. Robinson and his gang take over a luggage store in order to tunnel into the bank next door and turn out way more successful than planned at selling luggage.

4 – Key Largo (1948) – A movie given extra power from its casting. Robinson plays a washed up gangster, trying to return. Bogart is a man broken by life and Lauren Bacall is the young, clever beauty who could give him a reason to live. It’s incredibly meta. The best performance goes to Claire Tevor as the aging, alcoholic moll. [Also on the Humphrey Bogart List]

3 – The Ten Commandments (1956) – It is all loud and colorful, and for that you need actors who are louder and more colorful than life. Robinson fits that. He’s 5th or 6th banana in a cast of loud, colorful stars and it’s all good. Sometimes you want subtlety. Sometimes you don’t. This is bluster as art. [Also on both the Vincent Price List and the Charlton Heston list]

2 – Double Indemnity (1944) – A masterpiece. One of the top Film Noirs and a strangely comedic bit of pure cynicism. Fred MacMurry and Barbara Stanwyck are the stars, but Robinson is superb as the closest thing the world of Double Indemnity has to a good man. (Full review) [Also on the Barbara Stanwyck list]

1 – Soylent Green (1973) – A film where the ending has eclipsed the fame of the movie in general, and that’s sad as there’s so much good in Soylent Green. The relationship between Charlton Heston’s Thorn and Robinson’s Sol is the heart of the film, and gives us both actors’ finest performances. This is one of the great science fiction films that doesn’t get the credit it deserves. [Also on the Charlton Heston list]

 

 

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Oct 252017
  October 25, 2017

VincentPriceThe 4th of the Big Three horror icons (of sound films), like Karloff before him, Vincent Price had a liquid-jeweled voice and range. Price’s early work was more often in Film Noirs, comedies, and a few adventure films. Except for brief sojourns, he didn’t switch to horror until 1953’s House of Wax, but once there, he was stuck for life. The shame wasn’t that he spent decades only able to make horror pictures, but that they were never A pictures. Still, he made many enjoyable B films and seemed happy.

Before the Best list, a few more honorable mentions than normal: An Honorable Mention for Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)—his part is too small to consider the film for his list. Then an honorable mention to The Invisible Man Returns (1940), which lacks in story, but Price talking to the scarecrow was a fantastic moment. Also an Honorable mention goes to His Kind of Woman (1951), which overall doesn’t quite work, but Price is wonderful in it. And a shout out to Witchfinder General (1968), which would be #9 below.

Finally, a group Honorable mention to a whole line of B horror films that are a lot of fun and a touch silly, including: House of Wax (1953), The Mad Magician (1954), House on Haunted Hill (1959), The Tingler (1959), The Diary of a Madman (1963), The Haunted Palace (1963), The Raven (1963), The Oblong Box (1969), and Theater of Blood (1973)

Which brings me to his best 8 films:

8 – The Last Man on Earth (1964) – The first and most accurate version of the novel “I Am Legend,” about a lone man fighting a world filled with vampires. Price and the theme makes this a must see.

7 – Tower of London (1939) – A horror-tinged version of the story of Richard III. Price is in a supporting role as the peevish Duke of Clarence who ends up on the wrong side of Basil Rathbone’s Richard and Boris Karloff’s Mord. (My Review) [Also on the Boris Karloff List]

6 – The Masque of the Red Death (1964) – I don’t normally connect Roger Corman with deep themes but then he never made another film like this. It’s surreal and epic. Price is an evil prince who thinks Satan will protect him from Death.

5 – Champagne for Caesar (1950) – The hardest to find film on this list. In this zany comedy, Ronald Colman plays a brilliant man who decides to bankrupt an arrogant businessman by winning a quiz show. Price is the businessman. [Also on the Ronald Colman list]

4 – The Fly (1958) – THE mad scientist film of the ‘50s. Unlike the remake, this isn’t a monster movie, but a tragedy. The main character isn’t the genus inventor nor his brother (Price), but the none-too-clever wife. Her emotional strain is beautifully played. (My Review)

3 – The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971) – There aren’t enough art-deco horror films. And there are few that are anywhere near this witty. It’s elegant and violent with Price as a deranged musician out for revenge.

2 – The Ten Commandments (1956) – There are thoughtful and spiritual religious films. This isn’t one. This is the Bible via Lord of the Rings and Mad Max. And Price is capable of bombast with the best of them.  (My Review) [Also on both the Edward G. Robinson list and the Charlton Heston list]

1 – Laura (1944) – And as with Lugosi, this horror icon’s best film isn’t horror. It is one of the great Film Noirs, with Price as a playboy gigolo. (My Critique)

 

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Oct 242017
  October 24, 2017

BoriskarloffThe second of the Big Three horror icons (Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney Jr.), Boris Karloff found stardom with Frankenstein after struggling in silent films. He was grateful for his success and never minded being typecast, and typecast he was. If he wasn’t a monster, a monstrous servant, or a crazed killer, he was a mad doctor. His résumé includes dozens of roles that had “Dr” as part of the name.

As he has so many films that are worth seeing, but not absolutely essential, I have a greater number of honorable mentions than usual. One goes to the enjoyable The Raven (1963), and another to the incredible set design for The Black Cat (1934), and yet another to The Ghoul (1933), the first British horror film; it’s a solid old dark house film and Karloff is excellent. Also an honorable mention to Scarface (1932), which is an important film, but flawed—and Karloff is poor in it. And one more for The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932), which has multiple problems, but Karloff and Myrna Loy are amazing, and if “best” meant “favorite,” it would be on the list below. And a final mention for Five Star Final (1931), a look at the evils of yellow journalism starring Edward G. Robinson. Karloff plays a drunken and particularly sleazy agent of the paper who dresses as a priest to get information, which makes him not only the best supporting actor for that year (from #2 below), but also the second best.

A list of Karloff’s best performances would include his marvelous narration for How the Grinch Stole Christmas, a film which would take third on the list below, but I’m keeping it off the list for entirely arbitrary reasons. Karloff’s best list is solid all the way through, but it is top heavy.

His top films, starting at #8:

 

8 – Isle of the Dead (1945) – One of three collaborations with Val Lewton. A complicated character piece with a simple plot: a plague sweeping an island.

7 – The Old Dark House (1932) – A quirky film—part horror, part comedy, but not a horror comedy, directed by James Whale. A group of odd characters are stranded in a mysterious house. (My review)

6 – The Mummy (1932) – A retread of Dracula—a bit slow, but Karloff is wonderful as his second great monster. The first few minutes make it all worthwhile. (My review)

5 – Tower of London (1931) – A horror-tinged version of the story of Richard III. Karloff plays Mord,the executioner, who is Richard’s right hand man. and is essentially Richard’s darker aspect taken human form. It is another fantastic performance by Karloff, as well as star Basil Rathbone and a young Vincent Price. (My Review) [Also on the Vincent Price List]

4 – The Body Snatcher (1945) – There are more Victorian body snatcher movies than there were Victorian body snatchers, and this is the best. Karloff rules the film, with Bela Lugosi in a lesser part as a servant. [Also on the Bela Lugosi List]

3 – Son of Frankenstein (1939) – A surprisingly good third entry in the franchise. It is seeped in German expressionism. Karloff gets a reduced role; Basil Rathbone is the lead, but Lugosi steals the film as Ygor. (My review) [Also on the Bela Lugosi List]

2 – Frankenstein (1931) – Does Frankenstein need an explanation? (My Review)

1 – Bride of Frankenstein (1935) – Arguably the greatest horror film of all time, and the greatest sequel of all time. It is (without argument) Karloff’s best performance. (My review)

 

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Oct 232017
  October 23, 2017

bela_lugosi_headshot_a_pLugosi had a presence, a charisma, that shaped scenes and entire films. Was he a good actor? It’s hard to say. He wasn’t really given a chance. With his thick accent and less-than-perfect English, his roles were going to be limited. Add in the tendency to pigeonhole horror actors and his own poor choices, and he ended up with a troubled career. But he had a few moments, and those have made him an icon.

For these “best of” lists for actors, I am not considering the actor’s best performances, but best movies. Nor am I worried about if the actor was the lead. Only when the actor has nothing but a brief cameo have I shifted great films into the “Honorable Mention” category (such as Audrey Hepburn’s few seconds in The Lavender Hill Mob). If it is more than one short scene, the film counts for that actor’s list. So, for Lugosi, I’ve ended up with three of my eight choices having him barely in the films. But even in those cases, he does make an impression.

An Honorable mention to Mark of the Vampire (1935) for the art design, cinematography, and for the iconic vampire pair of Lugosi and Carol Borland. And another honorable mention to the incredible set design for The Black Cat (1934).

8 – Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943) – Not a great film, but as the best of the Universal monster-mashups, it is fun. Lugosi’s performance is not good, but then his lines were cut in post. (My review)

7 – The Body Snatcher (1945) – There are more Victorian body snatcher movies than there were Victorian body snatchers, and this is the best. It is Boris Karloff that rules the film, with Lugosi in a lesser part as a servant.  [Also on the Boris Karloff list]

6 – Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) – A surprisingly good horror comedy that treated the monsters respectfully. It was Lugosi’s second best outing as a vampire.

5 – Son of Frankenstein (1939) – A surprisingly good third entry in the franchise. It is seeped in German expressionism. Karloff gets a reduced role; Basil Rathbone is the lead, but Lugosi steals the film in what is probably his best performance as Ygor. (My review) [Also on the Basil Rathbone list and the Boris Karloff list]

4 – Island of Lost Souls (1932) – A powerful, thoughtful film with Charles Laughton as the evil scientist. Lugosi portrays a beast-man, a small but memorable part. (My review)

3 – Dracula (1931) – One of the greatest and most important horror films, Lugosi is stunning as Count Dracula. (My review)

2 – The Wolf Man (1941) – My personal favorite of the Universal monster movies. Lon Chaney, Claude Rains, and Evelyn Ankers are fantastic in this masterpiece. Lugosi has a small part as the initial werewolf. (My review)

1 – Ninotchka (1939) – Yes, the best film of the first horror icon of talking pictures is a comedy, but then it is one of the greatest comedies. Lugosi plays the Commissar that sends Greta Garbo’s Ninotchka to Paris where she meets the playboy count. [Also on the Great Directors list for Billy Wilder]

 

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Oct 202017
  October 20, 2017

StanwyckBarbaraWhen I was a child in the ‘60s, Stanwyck was known primarily as a television Western star. But time is not kind to TV shows in general and particularly not to Westerns, so that work is fading from cultural memory, which is for the best in this case as she should be remembered first as a film actress.

Stanwyck rarely played the damsel or proper doting wife. Her roles were of tough women, often from harsh backgrounds, making their own way. They could be heroes, but were often morally complex, and she had her share of steely villains.

An honorable mention goes to Meet John Doe (1941). It is certainly the best of Frank Capra’s social/political morality trilogy (the others being Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington) and Stanwyck is excellent in it, but like its two cousins, it is too preachy and far too saccharine.

My top 8 films of Barbara Stanwyck:

#8 – The Mad Miss Manton (1938) — The first of her three films with Henry Fonda and one of two on this list, it puts Stanwyck in one of her rare silver spoon roles. She’s a rich young woman who comes upon a murder and no one believes her. She’s stared in moves that took this same premise seriously years later.

#7 – Baby Face (1933) — I’m not sure this movie would be as much fun if made now as it is the taboo nature of it that’s such a riot. The story is of a woman, sold as a prostitute by her father since she was 14, sleeping her way to the top. It was way ahead of its time on racial and gender issues. It loses a bit from a tacked on ending—and I’m only talking about the pre-release version. This is one of the films that got the production code going and the theatrical version is a mess, with most of the sex gone and changes to the philosophy. Luckily, the pre-release version is available now.

#6 – Ball of Fire (1941) — A screwball comedy normally in the shadow of her more famous one (coming further up the list), this one stars Cary Cooper as a hopelessly naïve professor researching slang and Stanwyck as a showgirl in need of a place to hide.

#5 – Remember the Night (1940) — A romance, and perhaps even a weepie, with some comic touches, filmed like a Noir, and set at Christmas, this is an unusual film. Stanwyck is a shoplifter and Fred MacMurray is the prosecutor who takes her home for the holiday.

#4 – The Lady Eve (1941) — Her best known comedy, Stanwyck is a conwoman and Henry Fonda is her hopelessly naïve target.

#3 – The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946) — A Film Noir with a good dose of the gothic, it has Stanwyck at her most steely. If you are looking for the worst in humanity, here’s the place to look. It was Kirk Douglas’s first role and he’s as good as she is, and she’s fantastic. (Full Review)

#2 – Christmas in Connecticut (1945) — A delight in every way (and as far from the two films surrounding it on this list as you can get), this film has been an Xmas tradition for me for fifty years. Romantic, funny and joyful.

#1 – Double Indemnity (1944) — The quintessential Film Noir. In a meaningless world, two jaded people, one a sleazy insurance salesman (Fred MacMurray), the other a sociopathic trophy wife, decide to commit murder. It’s brilliant. (Full Review) [Also on the Edward G. Robinson list]

 

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Oct 192017
  October 19, 2017

myrna-loyIf I’m doing a list for William Powell, then I should do one for Loy, and even more so as this is an easy list to make—it has a great deal of overlap with my Powell list (I’ll even keep some of the brief descriptions).

Loy was as Northern European as they come, but her unusual beauty got her typecast in “exotic” roles–Asians, Arabs, Indians, and Gypsies. She started to wiggle out of this a bit, but it wasn’t until The Thin Man with William Powell that things changed—then she was typecast as “the perfect wife,” although in better films with a higher salary. It was in her co-staring films with Powell—fourteen in total—where she shined. Outside of those, she had some good roles, but had a large number of melodramatic romances and over-done dramas. (As with Powell, I am only referring to her talkies. I have missed too many of her silent and “part-talkie” pictures to voice an opinion).

Honorable mentions go to her comedy with Cary Grant, Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948), the only Thin Man movie not to make the top 8, The Thin Man Goes Home (1945), and the remaining Powell/Loy screwball comedy, Love Crazy (1941). Also, an honorable mention goes to The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), an important movie with a vital political and moral message dealing with the aftermath of war. However, it passes being drama on its way to becoming a lecture and approaches a sermon. It’s heart is in the right place and it makes that really, really clear.

And a mention–somewhat honorable, somewhat dishonorable–for The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932), where she plays the evil Chinese daughter of that well know Chinese actor Boris Karloff. Racial issues aside (and they aren’t going anywhere), it is a fascinating and sometimes fun picture. Karloff and Loy are amazing in a movie she was happy to forget.

 

8 – Song of the Thin Man (1947) – Nick and Nora were characters of the ’30s (they’d have fit in the ’20s as well). The ’40s didn’t work as well for them. The 5th film in the series had tried to restrain them (Nick giving up drinking and worrying about how his father saw him) to make them more acceptable. This 6th film allows them to be themselves, and simply makes them out of step with the world. That works well enough as the characters are what makes the films work. This is a fine end to one of the great film series.

7 – The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer (1947) – A twisted romantic comedy with Cary Grant as a bohemian artist (Hollywood-style) and Myrna Loy as a stiff Judge. Grant is forced to pretend he is as taken with teenage Shirley Temple as the teenager is with him. I’m thinking this movie wouldn’t be made now, and the world is poorer for it. Remembered for this exchange: “Hey, you remind me of a man. What man? Man with the power. What power? Power of hoodoo. Hoodoo? You do. Do what? Remind me of a man…”

6 – Shadow of the Thin Man (1941) – The 4th Thin Man film and the 4th best. Powell and Loy are as good as ever, the dialog is solid, and the mystery is fun. It is now clear that adding a child was a bad idea, as well as a servant, but otherwise, the series is still going strong.

5 – I Love You Again (1940) – It may not be a Thin Man movie, but it’s still Powell and Loy. This time Powell has been an obnoxiously straight-laced boor who wakes up after a blow on the head to realize he’s had amnesia for years, and is really a con artist. [Also on the William Powell list]

4 – Libeled Lady (1936) – Powell and Loy again in a four-way romantic comedy with Spencer Tracy and Jean Harlow. Powell is hired to stop Loy from suing a newspaper for libel, any way he can. [Also on the William Powell list]

3 – Another Thin Man (1939) – The third Thin Man film and its nearly as good as the first two. Nick and Nora have to deal with murder connected to Nora’s father’s business partner. Like the others, it is great fun. [Also on the William Powell list]

2 – After the Thin Man (1936) – Much like the first Thin Man film, but with Jimmy Stewart added, this is a very close second place. Taking place soon after that film, the pair is summoned by Nora’s snobbish family because a husband is missing and Aunt Katherine wants to avoid scandal. The relationship is wonderful, the humor is spot on, and the mystery is engaging. [Also on the William Powell list]

1 – The Thin Man (1934) – She’s a rich socialite; he’s a retired PI (now living the high life on her money) who gets sucked into a murder case. Funny and charming, this introduction of Nick and Nora Charles is as good a time as you can have at the cinema. I lucked out, getting to see it on a big screen around 50 years after its release. The mystery stuff is good, but it is the husband and wife interactions that make this film special; they are my favorite couple after Gomez And Morticia Addams. [Also on the William Powell list]

Oct 192017
  October 19, 2017

GrantCaryI’ve written before that Humphrey Bogart is the greatest film star of all time. That makes Cary Grant the second greatest. This ultimate romantic leading-man doesn’t have the insane number of masterpieces under his belt that Bogart does, but he has multiple. And as far as generally good films go, he’s got more than Bogart, and probably more than any leading-actor. Grant being in a film is a good indicator that it will be enjoyable. Yes, there were a few true duds, but for every Night and Day, there were a few like My Favorite Wife, The Awful Truth, Gunga Din, and I Was a Male War Bride that you should watch. It would be easy to fill in a much longer list of “must see” Grant films, but the challenge is to choose only eight, so I’ve stuck to that for him.

Honorable mentions go to films that would make it on other actors’ lists (and did, with several of these already on best lists I made for other actors), but can’t fit on Grant’s because he has so many good films: Bringing Up Baby (1938) [on the Katherine Hepburn list], The Bishop’s Wife (1947), The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer (1947), and Topper (1937).

 

8 – Charade (1963) – Audrey Hepburn is the window of a murdered man mixed up in a very Hitchockian mystery. There’s plenty of romance, humor, thievery, and killing. Grant may be a crook, may be a murderer, or may be a hero. [Also on the Audrey Hepburn list and the Walter Matthau list]

7 – To Catch a Thief (1955) – This is a light Hitchcock thriller and perfect as part of a double feature with Charade. Grant is an ex-jewel thief who needs to clear his name. Grace Kelly is the daughter of a woman with a lot of jewels.

6 – Arsenic and Old Lace (1944) – Another great one for Halloween. Grant plays a theater critic who discovers that his family is filled with psychopaths. The play is wonderful and this is an excellent rendition.

5 – Holiday (1938) – Often overlooked, this Grant & Katherine Hepburn romantic comedy has always been a favorite of mine. Grant plays a vunderkin whose set to marry the good sister of a high society family, but he wants more than money which doesn’t go over well with the family, except for black sheep Hepburn. This is where you go if you want depth and philosophy with your comedy. [Also on the Katherine Hepburn list]

4 – His Girl Friday (1940) – Who’d have thought gender-swapping one of the leads in a dramady newspaper play would produce this brilliant work. It has all the meaning and fun of the original, and extra layers of romance and feminism. It is extremely fast paced and very funny.

3 – North by Northwest (1959) – Grant in one of the greatest action thrillers, and the second of three Hitchcock films on this list. I suspect anyone reading this already knows this film. If not, go see it now.

2 – Notorious (1946) – A darker Grant and a darker thriller, once again directed by Hitchcock. It’s spies and cruelty and self-loathing and love and it is remarkably moving. Co-stars Ingrid Bergman and Claude Rains.

1 – The Philadelphia Story (1940) – Just as it topped Katherine Hepburn’s list, so it tops this one. This is the essential romcom, and was the perfect vehicle for its three leads, Grant, Katherine Hepburn, and Jimmy Stewart. None of them ever had a role that more completely played to their strengths. This is as witty as film gets. [Also on the Katherine Hepburn list and the James Stewart list]

 

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Oct 162017
  October 16, 2017

Powell WilliamIn old Hollywood, that sold the appearance of sophistication, Powell was the sophisticate’s sophisticate. No one was smoother. He was class personified. I like him in any movie, even when the movie is not so good. No matter the part, Powell made it better.

Powell’s breakout role was as detective Philo Vance in a series of four films, but those have been eclipsed by his superior run as Nick Charles in six Thin Man films, and no film series is better. I can watch them over and over and they are always a joy. The first film is based on a Dashiell Hammett novel although is not a Film Noir, but a mystery nearing comedy. His co-star was Myrna Loy as Nora Charles and their collaboration was so successful that they were in fourteen films together. Five of my eight choices below are Powell/Loy films, and if I doubled the size of the list, a majority of the additions would include the pair.

Honorable mentions go to Life with Father (1947) and the rest of the Thin Man films. I could as easily have put two more Thin Man movies (Shadow and Song) on the list, but since it was close I decided to side with the non-Thin Man films just for the sake of diversity.

#8 – How to Marry a Millionaire (1953) – An older Powell plays 4th banana to Lauren Bacall, Marilyn Monroe, and Betty Grable. It’s candy floss, but tasty.

#7 – I Love You Again (1940) – It may not be a Thin Man movie, but it’s still Powell and Loy. This time Powell has been an obnoxiously straight-laced boor who wakes up after a blow on the head to realize he’s had amnesia for years, and is really a con artist. He decides to take advantage of his social position but is thrown off when he discovers he’s married to Loy but she plans to divorce him. [Also on the Myrna Loy list]

#6 – Libeled Lady (1936) – Powell and Loy again in a four-way romantic comedy with Spencer Tracy and Jean Harlow. Powell is hired to stop Loy from suing a newspaper for libel any way that he can. [Also on the Myrna Loy list]

#5 – Another Thin Man (1939) – The third Thin Man film and its nearly as good as the first two. Nick and Nora have to deal with murder connected to Nora’s father’s business partner. Like the others, it is great fun. [Also on the Myrna Loy list]

#4 – Mister Roberts (1955) – This layered dramady was Powell’s last role. Henry Fonda is the lead and Jack Lemmon and Jimmy Cagney get the best lines, but Powell gets enough to do in a fantastic film that it is a fine send off for him. [Also on the Jack Lemmon list]

#3 – After the Thin Man (1936) – Much like the first Thin Man film, but with Jimmy Stewart added. Taking place soon after that film, the pair is summoned by Nora’s snobbish family because a husband is missing and Aunt Katherine wants to avoid scandal. The relationship is wonderful, the humor is spot on, and the mystery is engaging. I would place it #2, but originality does count. [Also on the Myrna Loy list]

#2 – My Man Godfrey (1936) – One of the great screwball comedies–and for my money, the greatest–it is zany and wild, but also has some depth dealing with social inequity. Powell is a “forgotten man” with a secret, found by rich, pampered society girls as part of a game. He ends up as their butler.

#1 – The Thin Man (1934) – She’s a rich socialite; he’s a retired detective (now living the high life on her money) who gets sucked into a murder case. Funny and charming, this introduction of Nick and Nora Charles is as good a time as you can have at the cinema. I lucked out, getting to see it on a big screen around 50 years after its release. The mystery stuff is good, but it is the husband and wife interactions that make this film special; they are my favorite couple after Gomez And Morticia Addams. [Also on the Myrna Loy list and on the Maureen O’Sullivan list]

 

Back to all Best Films By The Great Actors Lists

Oct 142017
  October 14, 2017

audreyhepburnAn elfin beauty that arose at the close of the golden age of Hollywood, Hepburn had aspects of both royalty and innocence. Her fame came from romantic comedies, where those qualities, and her nearly supernatural charisma could shine. Those attributes were muted in dramas, which made it harder for her to rise over the material, and much of her dramatic material left much to be desired: A Nun’s Story is poorly written and A Children’s Hour misses the point of the play. Then there is the romantic drama Green Mansions, which I do recommend as a film to watch while muttering “What the Hell.” (Really, it’s nuts.)

I have two honorable mentions, The Lavender Hill Mob (1951) and Laughter in Paradise (1951). both of which would have made the list but her parts are so brief in both. The Lavender Hill Mob is one of the great British comedies and is an absolutely must see film. And I’ll add a semi-honorable mention for Wait Until Dark, a very ’70s house invasion thriller which left me cold but has a following among those who was like their horror depressing and non-supernatural.

Now for the best:

8 – My Fair Lady (1964) – Hepburn is lovely. Rex Harrison is fun. And the music is wonderful. It suffers from dubbing (there’s no question that Marni Nixon is a better singer, but dubbing sapped the emotion from the numbers) and the same flaw as the Broadway musical–the tacked on and in every way wrong “happy ending” that differed from the original play.

7 – Love in the Afternoon (1957) – A bit silly, but it’s directed by Billy Wilder so it’s worth a look. It’s thought of as his homage to Ernst Lubitsch (like much of Lubitsch’s work, it’s light and fluffy, set in France, involves adultery, and includes Maurice Chevalier; it also stars Gary Cooper who was the lead in one of Lubitsch’s best, Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife, which Wilder wrote). Hepburn is lovely and the story is fun, but it is weakened by the questionable casting of Chevalier (he’s an acquired taste) and the terrible casting of Cooper; he was not too old, as some say, but rather unable to pull off the entrancing playboy role. Cary Grant, who was about the same age and turned down the part, could have managed it easily.

6 – Charade (1963) – Hepburn as a window of a murdered man mixed up in a very Hitchockian mystery. There’s plenty of romance, humor, thievery, and killing. Co-stars Cary Grant,  and James Coburn. [Also on the Walter Matthau list]

5 – Roman Holiday (1953) – Probably my most controversial placement as many people would place it higher, but while I like the film, and absolutely love her breakout performance, it is a bit too sedate. Still, a very good film.

4 – How to Steal a Million (1966) – Hepburn must enlist burglar Peter O’Toole to steal a statue she owns to keep her forger father from being revealed, except O’Toole isn’t actually a crook. The dialog is sparkling and O’Toole has nearly enough charisma to keep up with Hepburn.

3 – Robin and Marian (1976) – This brilliant, tragic, and sometimes funny film tells the end of the Robin Hood legend. It is about loss and mortality, and of never being able to live up to legends, and more than anything else, it is about age. Co-stars Sean Connery and Nicol Williamson. (My review)

2 – Sabrina (1954) – Sabrina (Hepburn), the chauffeur’s daughter, has a crush on David (William Holden), the playboy of the house. When time abroad turns her into a suitable target for his shallow affections, older brother Linus (Humphrey Bogart) sees trouble and tries to break things up. Hepburn is an obvious choice for a romantic comedy, but Bogart? But it works. [Also on the Humphrey Bogart List] [Also on the Great Directors List for Billy Wilder]

1 – Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) – If it wasn’t going to be Roman Holiday on top, than it had to be this. Hepburn is radiant as a complicated, troubled, lovable party girl who seems to control everyone and everything, while really trying to make herself into something she can bear. The term “bittersweet” has never been more appropriate. If you want to dig into the human soul, and still enjoy the experience, this is the film. It isn’t helped by an obnoxious racist portrayal by Mickey Rooney of the Japanese neighbor. (My Review)

Oct 132017
  October 13, 2017

AstaireFred Astaire is the king of cinematic dance. No one is even close. I’ve loved watching him dance all my life, though the movies he danced in didn’t always live up to his talents. But his finest are the cream of film musicals. Astaire is best known for his paring with Ginger Rogers. They made ten films together and changed the nature of dance on film. The top Astaire/Rogers films sparkled on three fronts: musical numbers, comedy, and a fantastical world. All three were very important to depression era audiences. Great dancing was always present in any Astaire film, but the comedy could be uneven. Strangely, it was neither of those, but the world building that split off the early films. In those, the two danced not in our world, but in an art deco paradise, beautiful and immaculate far beyond the dreams of reality. The lesser of the ten, such as The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939) and The Barkleys of Broadway (1949) still had a Hollywood version of reality, but it wasn’t the marble dream of Top Hat and Shall We Dance.

Outside of the paring, Astaire had numerous great film dances, but few of the total films worked (and a few were horrible, such as the miserable Finian’s Rainbow–shocking not only because Astaire couldn’t save it, but because the Broadway show is quite good with several excellent songs). In later life he had a few non-dancing roles—some worked; some didn’t.

Honorable mentions go to The Towering Inferno (1974) for being exactly what one would hope it would be, The Band Wagon (1953), which fails as a film but succeeds as a series of fantastic dance numbers, and the magnificent “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” that ends the weak Follow the Fleet.

Starting at #8:

8 – Flying Down to Rio (1933) – The first pairing of Astaire and Rogers, though not as the leads. It was intended as a vehicle for breathtaking Mexican actress Dolores del Rio and she’s good, but the pair steal the film. Beyond the music, there’s the exquisite and totally unreal world. Brazil never looked like this but I wish it did. This is a pre-code film; jokes about rounded heels (look it up) and what South American women have that’s better below the equator would have been censored a few years later. Likewise the transparent tops of the female wing-walkers.

7 – Silk Stockings (1957) – An unnecessary musical remake of Ninotchka, with a weak Cole Porter score (of note: a weak Cold Porter score is better than most composer’s best score). Cyd Charisse is wonderful in the dances and the sidekicks are all amusing.

6 – Swing Time (1936) – The 6th Astaire/Rogers film, it has some of the best dance numbers, but with a weaker script than their earlier films. The humor fails and the world is not as magical, none of which matters when Astaire sings “The Way You Look Tonight.”

5 – On the Beach (1959) – A fable of the best in humanity after the results of the worst, this post-apocalyptic anti-nuke story is moving and engrossing. Gregory Peck is the star with Astaire taking on a non-dancing role as a doctor and race car driver as the world dies. (Full Review)

4 – Shall We Dance (1937) – Another Astaire/Rogers, with another assist from the always good Edward Everett Horton and Eric Blore. I find this to be the funniest Astaire film with Astaire playing a jazz dancer whose made it in ballet so must put on a persona of an arrogant Russian. The songs are solid, with “They Can’t Take That Away from Me” the standout.

3 – Holiday Inn (1942) – Astaire gets to play the bad guy, messing up Bing Crosby’s love life. This is a perfect holiday movie for pretty much every holiday as it has songs for New Years, Valentine’s Day, Easter, the 4th of July, and Washington’s Birthday, though the black face Lincoln’s Birthday number might be a hard sell. It also includes the song “White Christmas” and it was from this film’s re-recorded sound track that it became a hit. (Full Review) [Also on the Bing Crosby list]

2 – The Gay Divorcee (1934) – The 2nd Astaire/Rogers film, and the first with them as leads, this one has Rogers attempting to get a divorce from her absent husband and mistaking Astaire as the gigolo she planned to use for cause. Horton and Blore appear again.

1 – Top Hat (1935) – The 4th Astaire/Rogers picture and they’d perfected the routine. The jokes are solid and the fantasy world of shining marble is wondrous and where I want to live (much less depression era audiences). And of course the dance numbers are fantastic. Rogers falls for a very forward Astaire until she incorrectly deduces that he’s the husband of her good friend. Horton, Blore, and Helen Broderick add to the comedy.

 

Oct 122017
 
two reels

Continuing the adventures of Batman and Robin (Adam West and Burt Ward) from the 1966 TV show, the Dynamic Duo are back to stop the criminals King Tut, Bookworm, The Joker, The Penguin, Mr. Freeze, Clock King, and The Riddler. It all started after Batman’s brief romantic visit to the imprisoned Catwoman (Julie Newmar). Dr. Hugo Strange tested his new—and no doubt unconstitutional—evil extractor on the inmates at the local prison. Things went wrong and District Attorney Harvey Dent (William Shatner) was transformed into Two Face. Over the course of the introductory credits, Baman and Robin put him away, and therapy and plastic surgery rehabilitated him. But now there’s a mastermind behind all of the recent criminal activity, and everything points to Two Face.

Time has passed, and the troubled fanboys of the ‘90s and their need for comics to be TAKEN SERIOUSLY have become less prominent, and so the 1960s Batman TV show has begun to reclaim its status. The old show was witty and fun. It also had an excellent, bold, true blue Batman in Adam West. Before he died earlier this year, West recorded his voice-work for this animated flick. It isn’t the perfect last take on his Batman, but it is nice to have him do it once more.

Batman Vs. Two-Face is a sequel to last year’s surprisingly good Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders. This second return of the ‘60s version of Batman doesn’t live up to its prequel. It is still fun, and has a few very good jokes, including a wonderful meta-gag involving Lee Meriwether—she voices a defense attorney here, but replaced Julie Newmar as Catwoman in the 1966 feature. But there aren’t enough of those solid jokes, and the Two Face plot is dull—far too much like something from a kids’ cartoon rather than a kids TV show from the ‘60s, and nothing like the mutli-leveled plot of Return of the Caped Crusaders. I’d thought they were too restrained with that one and this one is done nearly straight. The animation is better than that typically seen on television, but a step below last year’s.

I’ve been watching the old show of late, and while this film is a good enough way to spend 70 minutes, it isn’t the equal of even an average episode. If the nostalgia bug is hitting you, I’d suggest picking up Batman: The Complete Television Series or Batman: The Movie (1966). If you’ve finished those, as well as The Return of the Caped Crusaders, then give this one a shot.

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