Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The 20 Favorite Actresses Meme

With many thanks to Nicole and C. K. Dexter Haven for tagging me, here are my 20 five (sorry, but it's finals week and even picking these few took longer than I thought) favorite actresses. It'll be interesting to look back on this in a few months or a year or so and see how my tastes change.

Bette Davis

Ingrid Bergman

Ginger Rogers

Katharine Hepburn

Carole Lombard

Friday, December 12, 2008

Did anyone ever tell you that you have a dishonest face?

As a former Catholic school student, I'm used to seeing overwhelmingly negative depictions in the media. The Bells of St. Mary's, therefore, turned out to be a very welcome surprise. Despite the myriad differences between Catholic schools of the 40's and Catholic schools of the 90's and 2000's, I could relate to this film far more easily than any modern portrayal I've seen.

The story revolves around a priest, Father O'Malley (Bing Crosby) who is assigned to oversee a school headed by Sister Mary Benedict (Ingrid Bergman). They both have dramatically opposing viewpoints and clash throughout the film, but each is rooted in what they believe is truly best for the children in their care; this is very true to my own experiences with priests and nuns in educational settings, so I appreciated the care given to both points of view.

One theme of the movie hit especially close to home for me, and that was the financial troubles facing St. Mary's. Unfortunately, this is one issue that hasn't changed over the years. My former elementary school was forced to shut its doors a few years ago, as was the other school in the same town, the elementary school that was attached to my former high school, and another high school in the diocese, just to name a few examples. Sister Benedict's prayers for a miracle were particularly touching since I've seen firsthand that often in those situations, nothing short of a miracle will help.

I obviously enjoyed this movie on a personal level, but as a film itself it was definitely worth watching. Bergman and Crosby are a wonderful match, and their good-natured quarreling is highly amusing, especially as they slowly learn to see from each other's perspectives (Sister Benedict as a boxing instructor, anyone?). The "miracle" they finally receive is more than a bit far-fetched, but it works in context and is a nice way to wrap up that part of the story.

I also really liked Patsy's side plot, because I think her revelation at the end is something anyone can relate to -- who hasn't hesitated to leave someplace that had become a second home? Even now as a college student I joke about deliberately failing a semester or two just to postpone graduation, so I knew exactly what Patsy was feeling. Sister Benedict's leniency here showed just how well she understood her students. Art-to-life ratio aside, I think the principal characters' dedication to the students is what makes this film work as well as it does.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

No man is a failure who has friends...

It's A Wonderful Life is my dad's favorite holiday movie, and so it's played in the backgroud of more Christmas Eve gatherings and winter-break Sundays than I can remember. I've seen this movie more times than I can count, however I never really sat down and watched it. For years I dismissed it as just another overrated holiday special; my distaste for the movie continued even after I discovered that black and white movies themelves weren't the dull artifacts I'd assumed them to be. Last night, however, I took a much-needed break from finals week to watch the film as part of the Honors film series I've been attending all semester (it replaced Tommy Boy, which is apparently not academic enough). I felt like I was watching it for the first time. Despite the myriad viewings I whined my way through for years, I had somehow managed to miss large chunks of the story that turned out to be fairly important to differentiating the movie itself from its many parodies and imitations.

For example: Potter. I was vaguely aware that the plot involved a miserly old man, but I never picked up on the Potter's Field and Potterville and other references, and I definitely never realized just how much screen time he really got. And speaking of characters I never paid attention to, has there always been an Uncle Billy in this movie? Thomas Mitchell put in a wonderful performance here as the good-hearted but bumbling drunkard, and I'm glad to have finally taken notice of it.

I also have to say that it was the first time I really saw James Stewart as a good dramatic actor. He's always kind of struck me as kind of an overgrown kid, with those lanky limbs and that boyish face, and I usually associate him with lighter comedic roles, such as Macauley 'Mike' Connor in The Philadelphia Story. He starts out a typical good guy in this film, too, but by the time George Bailey hits rock bottom, when he's sitting in Martini's getting drunk and praying for a miracle, I absolutely believe Stewart as a man with no visible way out.

While I don't think It's A Wonderful Life will ever be my favorite movie, my dad can look forward to a much less-protested viewing this Christmas. Seeing it as a movie instead of an obligatory family tradition was certainly an interesting experience. It also makes me wonder what other movies might go unappreciated just because they're so omnipresent. Have you ever come across a film you've already seen twenty million times, only to really see it on viewing twenty million and one?

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Parce que vous ne pleurez pas...

Now that National Novel-Writing Month is over, I'm hopefully going to be focusing on this blog a lot more. To celebrate my sixth victorious year in a row, I'm going to do something a bit different -- like discussing a movie that was filmed during my own lifetime. Quelle horreur!

The movie in question is actually a French trilogy from the 1990's, which I had the opportunity to watch over the last three Tuesdays in November thanks to Rowan's International Center. Directed by Kryzystof Kieślowski, each film in Trois Couleurs ("Three Colors") represents a color of the French flag and an ideal of the French revolution -- Bleu for liberté, Blanc/Bialy for égalité, and Rouge for fraternité. Each movie's IMDb page bills the films as a trilogy about French society, but I found them to be more portraits of individuals who could conceivably represent anyone from anywhere under the right (or horribly wrong) circumstances.

Bleu, the first film and my favorite of the three, is about a woman who essentially attempts to stop living after losing her husband and daughter in a car crash. Life, however, finds her anyway as she is drawn into forging new connections with her late husband's colleague, her new neighbor, and even her husband's mistress. It's followed by Blanc, which tells the story of a man who returns to his native Poland after his wife humiliates and divorces him due to his impotence. He establishes a friendship with a suicidal family man, and carries out an elaborate scheme of revenge against his ex-wife. The final film, Rouge, details the unlikely connection between a model and a reclusive retired judge, whom she discovers eavesdropping on his neighbors.

The trilogy is in French, except for Blanc which is largely in Polish, but much of the story is told through actions, emotions, and visual symbols rather than words. Each movie's title color figures heavily into the composition of each scene. These movies would not fall into the category of light entertainment; they are frenzied and thought-provoking, with abrupt endings that require a minute or two to digest. The subtle ways in which the three films are connected suggest something about the universality of life, even as each character seems completely isolated. The films function both on their own and as a whole; if you have the chance to see one or all of them, don't pass it up.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

You were Garbo, smoke and deceit...

Raquelle posted a list of some of the strangest search terms that people used to find her most excellent blog, and it was so amusing I just had to go and check my own stats. I haven't been around for very long, so this is going to be a short list, but hopefully... well, at the very least it'll be an interesting one.

movies about college professors "1990 2008"
Well, I did start this blog for a college class, under the direction of a professor. It's conceivable that I'll also write about a movie about college professors at some point, although this person's time period is somewhat later than my usual cuppa tea.

lawyers should never marry other lawyers

groping clip

"lawyers should never marry other lawyers"
Win! Still!

gaslight anthem
Not quite, but: Hee. I have a minor obsession with this band. Classic movie star references, Central Jersey shout-outs -- what more could I ask for?

Oh, Google. You know me so well.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

I think I'll have a large order of Prognosis Negative...

The first glimpse I got of Dark Victory was in the documentary Stardust: The Bette Davis Story, which I caught bits and pieces of when it aired on TCM on what would have been Bette Davis' 100th birthday last spring. They showed the clip that begins at about 6:10 in the above video, and I was so intrigued that I stayed up until 4 in the morning to watch the actual film. I managed to catch it a second time recently at a much more decent hour, and am happy to report that it wasn't just sleep deprivation that made me enjoy it so much the first time.

"Miss Judith Traherne of the Sleeping Trahernes" starts out as a spoiled society girl, only concerned with her parties and her horses. Bette Davis does a wonderful job adding layers to what seems at first like a very superficial character, especially when Judith is questioned about her health. She only reveals the extent of her headaches to Ann because she doesn't want her horse to be blamed for her mistake, a detail that suggests early on that there is more to Judy than the simple party girl she appears to be.

A basic premise of the movie -- the doctor and Ann conspiring to keep Judith's true prognosis from her -- may seem absolutely inconceivable to modern audiences. Although both Dr. Steele and Ann's motivations are pure, the good doctor would be breaking almost every medical law on the books if the story were set today. Even knowing that the film was set at a time when patients were routinely lied to "for their own good," it was still kind of hard for me to look past the idea that a dying young woman, especially one so vibrantly and intelligently portrayed, could not handle her own diagnosis.

Of course, she does eventually find out anyway. The scene in which she confronts Ann and Dr. Steele involves everything I love about Bette Davis' performances -- the barely contained anger, the feigned ignorance, and then the dramatic reveal, complete of course with a well-placed glare from those immortal eyes.

A darker side to Judy's character emerges here, as she throws herself into drinking and partying as a response to learning that she's going to die. It takes both the reappearance of Dr. Steele and a well-timed proposition from Humphrey Bogart's stablehand Michael O'Leary for Judith to realize that she needs to make the most of the time she has left.

Judith's reconciliation with Dr. Steele provides her with her "happily ever after," and it almost seems as though the film should end there. Of course, there's still the small matter of Judy's terminal illness to disrupt the idyllic New England home. The final symptom, and the only sign that death is imminent, is the sudden loss of vision. As you can see in the clip above, Judy initially mistakes her dimming vision for a change in the weather. Once she realizes that she is going blind, her focus almost immediately shifts to comforting her friend. It's this show of extraordinary compassion that first drew me to the film, and it's this scene that left a lasting impression on me long after I first saw it.

The final scenes of the movie concern Judith's attempt at hiding her sudden downturn from her husband. One thing that bothered me about this was that neither Ann nor Judith acknowledged that what she was doing -- concealing life-or-death information from Steele for the sake of sparing his feelings -- is exactly what Judith had had done to her earlier in the film. I would have liked to see Ann try harder to talk her into telling Steele, or for Judith to come to a realization about just why Steele and Ann had initially felt the need to "protect" her as they did. Nonetheless, the scenes of Judith groping around blindly to spare her husband the pain of her impending death are extremely poignant.

According to the movie's Trivia page on IMDb, it was originally supposed to end with Judith's much-maligned horse, Challenger, winning the National. I do think the movie is better off ending with Judith's death, but I also found this interesting, particularly because it brings back an element from the very beginning of the movie. It wasn't until the second viewing that I made the connection between Judith's insistance that her horse had courage, and her later insistance that she herself had to have the courage to die alone.

The next airdate for Dark Victory on TCM is listed as February 25th. If you don't want to wait that long, it's up in its entirety on YouTube, split into 11 parts. Either way, it's definitely something I would recommend watching.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Lawyers should never marry other lawyers. This is called in-breeding: from this comes idiot children and other lawyers...

After months of wanting to see this movie, TCM finally aired it at a timeslot when I wasn't in class or asleep. Yes, last night I finally caught Adam's Rib, and it definitely did not disappoint.

It was included as part of TCM's Leading Couples series, and I could easily see why. It was my first time really seeing Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy together (well, I have seen Pat and Mike but to be honest, I hadn't really been paying attention). The legendary Hepburn-Tracy chemistry is evident throughout the movie, particularly in the massage scene when the mood changes from a light intamacy between husband and wife to a heated argument in an instant. Adam's expression as Amanda begs him to try to understand her point of view is very poignant and reveals a deeper level of their marriage than the audience had seen up to that point. Of course, his gentle and somewhat patronizing attempt to simply start over as if nothing had happened proved that he completely ignored that request, but what would a battle-of-the-sexes plot be without basic misunderstandings on both sides?

One of the things that I enjoyed most about this movie was that I could sympathize with both the man and the woman. On the one hand, Amanda did prove that the court was prejudicial against her client's gender. However, Adam was also right in that no one of any gender has the right to use violence against another person. I almost feel as though Amanda's point would have been strengthened if it had been a man on trial about to get off leniently and she'd had to prove that a woman would have had the proverbial book thrown at her, but in that case the feminist message of the film might have been harder to pull off.

This is definitely a movie I'd watch again. It was an entertaining look at gender roles, both in the legal system and in Adam and Amanda's own marriage. In the case of the latter, I really liked Amanda's ruminations about marriage to Kip, and Adam's willingness to subvert the traditional "macho-man" gender role after all to help him get his own way, just like a stereotypical woman. To quote Adam quoting the French, "Vive la différence!"

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Wherever there's magic and make-believe and an audience, there's theater...

I've seen this Alphabet Meme from Blog Cabins (who is, by the way, the King of Google -- I've checked) all over the place, most recently in She Blogged By Night, and I want to play too. It definitely doesn't look easy -- especially since I've only recently developed a real interest in movies, and haven't seen even a small fraction of the films generally considered to be classics. Getting one for every letter of the alphabet might take some time, but luckily I've got an English paper to procrastinate; I could sit here all night, and quite probably will. According to the official rules I'm supposed to tag five people, but since I don't think there are five people reading this I'll just skip that step.

All About Eve
Le Ballon Rouge
Citizen Kane (admitting how much I like that movie always makes me feel like a pretentious poser)
Dark Victory
Empire Records
Fried Green Tomatoes
Girls Just Want To Have Fun
It Happened One Night
Joyeux Noël
Kill Bill, vol. 1
Only Angels Have Wings
Penny Serenade
Quo Vadis
Requiem for a Dream
Some Like It Hot
Trois Couleurs: Bleu
Un Chien Andalou (cheating here, as "a" and "the" aren't supposed to count, but... come on, what starts with U?)
Wet Hot American Summer
The X-Files: I Want To Believe
Yours, Mine, and Ours (the original; haven't seen the remake and honestly have no desire to)

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

There can be no understanding between the hand and the brain unless the heart acts as mediator...

Two of my favorite things are school and old movies, and I'm constantly looking for ways to combine the two (that don't involve actually changing my major). This blog was the result of one such endeavor; for another, I got to re-watch Metropolis last week for a class called Modernity in the Western World. It's an Honors history class, and my presentation focused on the film as a representation of the post-industrial attitude toward Futurism; don't worry, I won't be rewriting that essay here. I will say, however, that upon seeing Metropolis for the second time -- the first was a year ago, in the film history class I've mentioned here before -- I picked up on a lot of things that I'd missed the first time around. I've blogged before about my lack of patience for silent movies, but I really think Metropolis is a film worth seeing twice.

Metropolis is about a city divided into two classes. The collective "head" of the city is the ruling class, those who live aboveground. The "hands" of the city are the laborers, who live underground and work in shifts to ensure that the city above them runs smoothly. Maria, a wise young woman to whom the workers look for guidance, preaches patience and predicts that a mediator will come, someone who will be the "heart" and unite the two classes for the betterment of all.

It's interesting to see not just how far off Fritz Lang's vision of the future is from what we now know -- although Norman Ball of the Bright Lights Film Journal is quite right to say that he "misses the productivity gains of the computer age by a mile." However, I find it more interesting to look at how he delves into the past in order to create that vision of the future.

The image of the laborers being forced into the machine to replace their comrades who had just perished in the explosion, for example, was strongly reminiscent of images of Hewbrew slaves being forced to build the pyramids in Egypt. Maria's speeches to the workers about waiting for a mediator parallel John The Baptist foretelling the coming of Jesus. The story of the Tower of Babel is directly invoked throughout the film, both when it's mentioned directly and in the image of the aboveground city. My Dad, an avid fan of the genre, always tells me that the best science fiction draws material directly from history; Metropolis is an excellent example of this.


Ball, N. (2008). Metropolis, Ezra Pound, Mammon, and the law of too-large numbers. Bright Lights Film Journal, (62). Retrieved November 11, 2008, from http://www.brightlightsfilm.com/62/62metropolis.html

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Don't let's ask for the moon. We have the stars...

The project for which I started this blog is due tomorrow, so this will likely be my last entry before I get graded. I'm still going to try and keep posting here even after I turn in the project, but I thought this would be a good time to stop and discuss some of the movies that first captured my interest in classic films. You may have noticed the badly-photoshopped banner at the top of this page. I made it a few months ago for another blog layout, and each frame in the film strip is a still from a movie that I've seen. My tastes have changed a bit since I put it together, so this isn't exactly a list of my favorite films, but I'll go through the banner from left to right and try to give you an idea of why I picked these movies.

Penny Serenade was the first black-and-white film I ever saw (willingly, that is; the usual holiday classics don't count). It was on PBS or a similar station one night when I couldn't sleep, and it was the first time I realized that movies without Technicolor contained actual plots and could even be entertaining. I was still in high school, and had no idea what I'd just seen or who had been in it (now, of course, I can't imagine not being able to recognize Cary Grant on sight), and it took two or three years before I was even able to track down the title of this film. After this I went quite a while without seeing another classic, but Penny Serenade is definitely the movie that opened my mind toward movies older than myself.

Top Hat was one of the first talking pictures we watched in my Film History class last year. After half a semester of silent films, a musical felt positively modern. Like Penny Serenade, Top Hat made me realize that old movies weren't nearly as outdated as I'd always assumed.

Notorious was my first Hitchcock film, and it's still among my favorite movies. The final scenes, in which Alicia is slowly poisoned by her mother-in-law and Devlin whisks her away right in front of them, still keep me glued to my seat every time.

It Happened One Night was my introduction to screwball comedy, and one of the first classic films I ever owned on DVD. I paid a tribute of sorts to this movie during last year's National Novel Writing Month; none of my friends got the reference, but it was my favorite thing that I wrote all month.

Now, Voyager is my second-favorite Bette Davis movie. Her willingness to appear completely unattractive for the sake of a role makes Charlotte Vale's transformation wholly believable. It gets sappy a times, such as the voice-over in Tina's room at Cascade, but it's still a film I never turn down the chance to see.

A Bill of Divorcement is the only film besides Penny Serenade on this list that I've only seen once. The plot is admittedly outdated, but Katharine Hepburn's performance is an early indicator of her outstanding career. I honestly can't remember why I included this movie, but I do remember that it's worth watching again to find out.

I probably should have done this post earlier, but better late than never and all that. At least now, if anyone's actually reading this, you'll have a better idea of where I'm coming from as far as my early experiences with classic films. Hopefully I'll get to do full posts on each of these movies at some point. That point, however, is not tonight.


A Bill Of Divorcement (1932). (2008). IMDb. Retrieved October 28, 2008, from Internet Movie Database Web site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0022685/

Carrie. (20 April 2007). Photo Friday - Notorious. from Classic Montgomery: http://classicmontgomery.blogspot.com/2007/04/photo-friday-notorious.html

It Happened One Night (1934). (2008). IMDb. Retrieved October 28, 2008, from Internet Movie Database Web site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0025316/

Kuersten, Erich. (3 May 2008). Mother's Day Salute to Cinematic Blonde Moms... of DEATH!. from Bright Lights After Dark: http://brightlightsfilm.blogspot.com/2008/05/mothers-day-salute-to-cinematic-blonde.html

Notorious (1946). (2008). IMDb. Retrieved October 28, 2008, from Internet Movie Database Web site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0038787/

Now, Voyager (1942). (2008). IMDb. Retrieved October 28, 2008, from Internet Movie Database Web site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0035140/

Penny Serenade (1941). (2008). IMDb. Retrieved October 28, 2008, from Internet Movie Database Web site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0034012/

Top Hat (1935). (2008). IMDb. Retrieved October 28, 2008, from Internet Movie Database Web site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0027125/

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Beer drinking don't do 'alf the 'arm of love-making...

When I think of Alfred Hitchcock, the first images that come to my mind are of absolute terror. When digging through a $5 DVD bin at Wal*Mart several months back, I pulled out a boxed set of 20 films from early in the Master of Suspense's career. Admittedly, at this point the only Hitchcock movie I'd ever seen was Notorious, but since I don't happen to live under a rock, I was of course familiar with the famous shower scene from Psycho and the basic plot behind The Birds. This was all I knew of Hitchcock, so naturally I was surprised to see that there was very little actual horror in his earlier works. There are some suspense films in the collection, such as The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes, but the movies that most surprised and interested me were the silent romantic comedies. The first of these that I watched was 1928's The Farmer's Wife.

I should start by saying that, although I enjoy silent films, I lack the patience to watch them as closely as they need to be watched. For all my love of classic films, I am a thoroughly modern viewer; I've grown so used to multitasking that I'm almost incapable of sitting down to watch a movie without playing a video game or surfing the internet at the same time. With sound films this isn't much of a problem, because although I may occasionally miss some vital or artistically nuanced action on the screen, I can keep up with the movie's plot simply by listening. Dividing my attention between the TV and my laptop is a lot dicier during a silent film, because all of the information is presented visually. Thus, the first time I watched this film I missed a lot of important parts, such as the farmer's dying first wife reminding Minta, the maid, to hang her master's pants to dry. This seems like a frivolous request to make from one's death bed, but it lets the audience know that the soon-to-be-late wife of the farmer wants him taken care of after she's gone, and that she approves of Minta being the one to do it. This bit of foreshadowing sets up the relationship between Minta and Samuel that doesn't fully develop until the end of the film.

Luckily for me, the film as a whole doesn't rely too much on title cards. Hitchcock lets his actors do the talking, telling the story through actions and emotions rather than words. The audience doesn't need to be told that Samuel is lonely -- we can tell by the way he gazes at the empty chair in front of the fire. Likewise, it's clear from Minta's disapproving expressions, even before the text reveals what she's thinking, that she finds fault with each of the women on his list, perhaps because she herself is not among them. Thirza Topper's vanity, too, is established not by what's said about her but by the sheer amount of time it takes for her to get ready to receive Samuel.

The plot itself is trite but amusing, and I think most audiences would enjoy watching the arrogant Samuel Sweetland rejected again and again. The lack of sound doesn't detract from the clever writing, as Samuel finds new and inventive ways to insult each of the women he proposes to. Overall, it was worth seeing once, but I wouldn't go out of my way to watch it again.


Hitchcock, A.(Director). (1930 January 4). ['Movie']. The Farmer's Wife. British International Pictures.

The Farmer's Wife (1928). (2008). IMDb. Retrieved October 25, 2008, from Internet Movie Database Web site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0018876/

Thursday, October 23, 2008

I could'a been a contender...

Thanks to some extremely fortunate timing, I get to continue my recent gangster theme with Elia Kazan's 1954 classic On The Waterfront. I just saw it for the first time, and having last night's documentary and crime-movie-marathon still fresh in my mind made for a very interesting experience.

A lot of the post-WWII changes to gangster films that the documentary talked about were evident in On The Waterfront. The genre had moved on from its bootlegging roots and, like real gangsters of the time, the primary characters in On The Waterfront were racketeers who controlled the longshoremen's union. The corrupt union bosses (led by Lee J. Cobb's Johnny Friendly, who was named by TCM's Movie Morlocks as one of the most memorable mob characters off all time) were no less violent than the bootleggers in The Public Enemy, but in some respects On The Waterfront had to be a lot more subtle than the pre-code films that came before it.

The relationship between Terry Malloy and Edie Doyle seemed surprisingly chaste after watching Tom Powers shove a grapefruit in Kitty's face last night. Terry, though a former prizefighter and a lackey for the local mob boss, demonstrated a much gentler side with Edie through much of the film. One of my favorite scenes was when, prompted by Father Barry, Terry confessed to Edie his part in her brother's murder. Rather than having a dramatic argument, Terry's speech and Edie's reaction were drowned out by the sound of the steamboats in the background. This had a very comedic effect -- the other students I was watching this movie with all laughed out loud at this scene -- but I thought it also had a deeply metaphorical aspect. Edie literally couldn't hear him because of the steamboats, but on a symbolic level, the noise didn't start until after he told her that Jimmy's death was his fault; she wasn't emotionally capable of listening to his explanations after that point.

I also found it interesting that Terry redeemed himself in the end, and it went along with what the documentary said about later gangster films, that for every "bad" main character there has to be an even worse character as a counterpoint. It wasn't as harshly realistic as, say, The Public Enemy, but it fulfilled the audience's sense of justice to have Terry rise up from what seemed to be a near-fatal beating in order to turn against the ultimate union boss.


On the Waterfront (1954). (2008). IMDb. Retrieved October 22, 2008, from Internet Movie Database Web site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0047296/

Smith, Richard Harland. (8 June 2007). Not for nuthin'. from TCM's Movie Blog: http://moviemorlocks.com/2007/06/08/not-for-nuthin/. retrieved October 22, 2008.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Beer and blood...

I've seen The Public Enemy at least three or four times now, but it's one of those movies that's always worth watching again. Since my most recent viewing came right after a documentary on gangster films, I've noticed a few things about this movie that I hadn't paid attention to on earlier viewings. In particular, I find the movie even more interesting now because I'm able to put it into proper historical context.

The Public Enemy was one of the first and most influential gangster films of the sound era. Released during the Depression, it provided audiences with a means of escapism that was relevant to their own lives. Tom Powers, thanks in large part to Cagney's performance, is a charismatic and even likeable character, to the point where moments such as the famous grapefruit scene which remind the audience how corrupt he truly is seem jarring. Part of what makes me, as a viewer, want to watch The Public Enemy again and again is that Tom is presented as being a regular guy, the product of a violent and twisted environment who has more or less the same goals as anyone else. He tries to do right by his mother, he competes with his older brother, and he values his independence; granted, he also shoots people for a living, but the character is so relateable that it's almost easy to overlook that minor detail.

It's very important that audiences can connect with the main character because of the violent nature of the film. Had Tom been played by a different actor, the violence may have felt gratuitous, but Cagney portrays Tom's motivations so clearly and the world that he lives in is so precisely rendered that each shot feels necessary. As a Pre-Code film, The Public Enemy had a lot of leeway as far as graphic bloodshed goes, but I don't feel that director William A. Wellman abused that freedom. According to the documentary, he did have to fight to keep the now-iconic final scene, in which Tom's body is left to fall forward into the hallway as soon as his brother Mike opens the door, but I think the fact that this scene in particular is still embedded in the public consciousness over 70 years later is proof that the censors were wrong. It isn't violent for the sake of being violent, such as Scarface, for example, which was made at the same time but held up by censors for two years according to This Distracted Globe. Rather, I think that the final scene of The Public Enemy is violent because it needs to be in order to dramatize the end to which every criminal will invariably meet. Of course, in real life justice often isn't served, but I don't think that audiences would have stood for such a lapse in fiction. Because Tom Powers was such a charismatic character, his death had to be gritty and hard to take, in order to make certain that the audience knew in the end that he was a terrible person.

Of course, not every filmmaker had the luxury of such a forceful ending. Tomorrow (well, tonight if I'm being precise) is the first screening in Rowan's Honors Film Series, and it just so happens to be a gangster film made under the Production Code. I'm going to take advantage of this excellent timing to take a look at On The Waterfront.


The Public Enemy (1931). (2008). IMDb. Retrieved October 22, 2008, from Internet Movie Database Web site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0022286/

Valdez, Joe. (29 August 2006). Scarface. from This Distracted Globe: http://thisdistractedglobe.com/2006/08/29/scarface-1932/. retrieved October 22, 2008.

Wellman, W. A.(Director). (1931 April 23). The Public Enemy. Warner Bros. Pictures.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Remember this, boys: You gotta have friends...

I just finished watching The Public Enemies: The Golden Age Of The Gangster Film, a documentary about the Warner Brothers gangster flicks. A variety of directors, actors, and film historians whose names unfortunately flashed by too quickly for me to catch (with the notable exception of the professor here at Rowan who taught the class that first sparked my interest in classic movies) discussed the rise and fall of the gangster genre, and the legacy that continues through today.

One interesting aspect that the documentary covered was the social context of gangster films. The genre really took off during the Great Depression, because gangster characters were able to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, as the saying goes, and turn a profit even in the face of widespread poverty. To a degree, the general public emulated these characters, although it was important that every criminal "got his" in the end. Audiences were able to fantasize for the duration of the film that they too could create a more prosperous life for themselves by living outside the law, but by the end of the picture justice had been served and they could go back to their own lives content with the fact that crime doesn't pay.

There were a few real-life events that made storytelling more difficult for filmmakers in the gangster genre. First, the end of the Prohibition took the most cinematically-exciting form of crime (that is, bootlegging alcohol) away from the real gangs. Art was very slow to imitate life in this instance, as producers kept churning out films set during the Prohibition. When they did move on, they tried to adapt by blending gangster films with other genres, such as comedy and horror. When the U.S. entered World War II, gangsters in movies took on a more all-American quality, compared to the immigrant and ethnic gangsters that were originally the genre's focus. Finally, in the post-war era, the genre took on a grittier and more psychological film noir quality before burning itself out entirely. Raoul Walsh's White Heat is considered the last of the classic gangster films.

The documentary covered a lot of other interesting topics, but unfortunately I can't possibly get into all of them here (seriously, I took five Microsoft Works pages of outline-style notes). According to TCM's website, it isn't due to air again until January 10th at 4:30 in the morning, but if you happen to be the type of person who plans things that far in advance then I would definitely recommend setting your DVR (or VCR, if you're old-school like me) for it now. I found the information presented very interesting, and I'd probably watch it again. If you don't want to wait until January for another gangster fix, join me in a day or so when I'll discuss some of the gangster movies I'm watching right now.


Public Enemies, The: The Golden Age of the Gangster Film (2008) Overview. (2008). TCM Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved October 21, 2008, from Time Warner Web site: http://www.tcm.com/tcmdb/title.jsp?stid=728304

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn...

Did you know that this parting shot from Gone With The Wind is considered the best movie quote of all time, according to AFI's "100 Years, 100 Movie Quotes" list? I didn't until I looked it up just now, although I figured it would be in the top ten. I find it interesting, though, that there's such a definitive ranking for something that seems entirely subjective. What makes Rhett Butler's famous line better than, say, "Here's looking at you, kid," from Casablanca, which came in at number 5?

The subject of movie rankings is on my mind because last night I went to the first meeting of an Honors film series at my school. It's the club's first year, and it took us about an hour to decide which movies to see. The theme we ultimately decided on was "Movies Everyone Should See" -- the classics that are so embedded in our cultural lexicon that we can all recite lines and recognize allusions without ever having seen the original film. Using the aforementioned AFI lists, we picked about a dozen movies that seemed too important to pass up, but that someone most or all of us had managed to miss out on. Of course, the fact that there are only eight weeks left in the semester presented a problem, and we had to have a second round of voting to further narrow the list. In the end, we came up with:

  • On The Waterfront
  • 12 Angry Men
  • A Clockwork Orange
  • The Godfather
  • Blade Runner
  • Pulp Fiction
  • Tommy Boy

  • This list actually works out well for me, because I've never seen any of these movies. However, the voting process was definitely influenced by members' likes and dislikes, and what each of us personally wanted to see instead of what we considered the truly classic must-see movies. I was certainly guilty of this -- I lobbied for Adam's Rib purely because I keep missing it on TCM -- but by the time we were finished, I noticed that the movies generally considered to be among the very greatest, such as Casablanca and Citizen Kane, had been knocked off our list. Looking at the eight movies that are left makes me wonder how certain films came to be considered the best of all time, and why our list looks so different from the ones I usually see.

    A Google search for "best movie ever" turns up 5,810,000 hits. The first three are lists from IMDb, Wikipedia, and The New York Times. The last of these three does not give films individual rankings, but instead serves as a guide to movies that are all considered great. I think that this is the best and least subjective way to do it. The IMDb list is based on user votes, with results that I found somewhat surprising. The Dark Knight, for example, has already cracked the Top 5 despite being released only a few months ago. The Wikipedia list is broken down by genre, and includes many of the same titles as the AFI list.

    A "Starter Kit" from the Movie Morlocks was put together based on process of elimination, and is narrowed down not to the definitive dozen best movies of all time, but to twelve films that the author feels all new fans of classic movies should see. This is very close to the same process we used, and in fact one film, 12 Angry Men, wound up on both lists. Adam's Rib would have made our cut as well, if we hadn't needed to narrow our selections down to eight. This list, put together by one blogger rather than the votes of an entire user base, is perhaps more subjective than Wikipedia's or IMDb's, but I find it interesting that it came the closest to what we came up with on our own.

    Since these lists seem based on public polls, I'd like to conduct a very unscientific one of my own. What criteria do you use to rank films? Are your favorite films ones that you would consider classics, or would you have two seperate lists for movies you most enjoy and movies you feel everyone should see? Finally, what do you think is the best film ever made?


    AFI's 100 YEARS... 100 MOVIES. (2008). AFI.com. Retrieved October 16, 2008, from American Film Institute Web site: http://www.afi.com/tvevents/100years/movies.aspx

    Film Critics of the New York Times. (2004). The Best 1,000 Movies Ever Made. The New York Times. Retrieved October 16, 2008, from http://www.nytimes.com/ref/movies/1000best.html

    Films considered the greatest ever. (2008, October 15). Wikipedia. Retrieved October 16, 2008, from Wikimedia Foundation Web site: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Films_considered_the_greatest_ever

    IMDb Top 250. (2008). IMDb. Retrieved October 16, 2008, from Internet Movie Database Web site: http://www.imdb.com/chart/top

    Rambeau, Mark. (August 17, 2008). A Classic Movie Starter Kit. from Movie Morlocks. Retrieved October 16, 2008, from TCM's Movie Blog Web site: http://moviemorlocks.com/2008/08/17/a-classic-movie-starter-kit/

    Tuesday, October 14, 2008

    That would solve none of their problems, because actresses never die...

    (Continued from my last post...)

    The beginning of Margo and Addison's conversation is cut off in this clip, but in the first sixteen seconds the audience gets a clear picture of both characters: Addison delights in revealing to Margo that Eve is her understudy, and a very good one at that, whereas Margo can barely contain her displeasure while trying to appear wholly unsurprised. Addison's seemingly casual revelation that Margo wasn't mentioned at all during Eve's audition is very telling, both to Margo and the audience. It marks the first time that Margo truly realizes how easily she could be replaced by a younger actress. Miss Casswell's entrance is perfectly timed, both to disrupt the tension between the scene's two principal characters and to give Margo a way out of the conversation.

    Her entrance into the theater says a lot with little dialogue. Notice how she dismissively throws her coat over Max's head. His reaction reveals quite a bit about his relationship to Margo; instead of getting angry, he interprets it as a warning sign of the tantrum to come, and signals to Bill, Lloyd, and Eve that they should prepare themselves, then squirms uncomfortably low in his chair when Margo addresses him directly. She cheerfully feigns ignorance, passive-aggressively dropping hints about her conversation with Addison (including, of course, my favorite phrase of the movie, which is used several times). She let's the act drop slowly, picking a fight with Lloyd over her age in relation to the characters he writes for her -- something that's been an issue, first in her own mind and later between the two of them, throughout the film -- until Bill realizes that Addison has already told her everything.

    In the background, Eve slowly backs up as the fight escalates, a move that on first viewing made her seem frightened and innocent, but after having seen the entire film now appears more calculated, as if she deliberately set the argument in motion and now intends to leave before the others pick up on that fact. Bill, meanwhile, is strangely calm, perhaps foreshadowing his own argument with Margo later in the scene. He casually tosses his cigarette pack aside and lays down on the bed, patting the dog statue on his way down. That action, juxtaposed against Margo's raving in the background, is one of those small moments in the film that I think completely makes the movie. His exaggerated state of relaxation provides some measure of comedy in an otherwise dramatic scene, but it also hints to the audience that Bill is at the end of his proverbial rope.

    Meanwhile, the argument rages on as Lloyd finally stands up to the diva, as Hugh Marlowe and Bette Davis deliver some of the best lines in a script known for its sparkling wit. Max Fabian intervenes only when Margo suggests that she might not perform that night, reminding her that she is bound by a legal contract, but she easily calls his bluff and he leaves the theater. Lloyd stays to get in one last parting shot, comparing Margo to a piano that can only play the music he writes for it. He leaves before she can reply, and so she turns on Bill, continuing the metaphor by asking if he is the pianist in this scenario.

    The tone of the scene changes abruptly. Margo is clearly still hurt and angry, but she's far more gentle with Bill and he flat-out refuses to engage her. She notices that Eve has left, and Gary Merrill again successfully combines quiet exasperation with comic relief as Bill looks around, checks under the bed, and shrugs his shoulders. His passivity as Margo rants about Eve, Lloyd, and Addison doesn't spare him. She pauses and sweetly acknowledges how patient he's being, but in the next breath tries again to goad him into an argument.

    He takes the bait when she accuses him of having directly been involved in hiding Eve from her. Eve has been a sore point in their relationship for some time, as Margo has started to sense something sinister in the girl's hero-worship of her, while Bill sees her as an innocent kid. This is made worse by Margo's insecurity about her age and the eight-year gap between them, something that Bill can more easily dismiss because he is the younger one. There are also eight years between Bill and Eve, but because Eve is younger than Bill, Margo fears that he finds her more attractive.

    Bill tries desperately to convince Margo that her jealousy is unfounded, in a physically tense moment that would have much different connotations in a contemporary film, if it were included at all. There's no air of violence in this scene, however, even as Bill overpowers Margo. She squirms beneath him out of anger and denial, not fear, laughing in his face when he declares his love for her.

    Bette Davis does an amazing job of portraying Margo's vulnerability through the rest of the scene, starting with the moment that Bill lets go of her. She lays still for a second, defeated, then rolls over and refuses to face him while she collects herself. She makes it clear, through her words and tone of voice, that her pride remains intact, but when Bill mentions Eve, Margo's voice softens and her insecurity becomes almost palpable. She won't even look at Bill as he begs her to put the subject of Eve to rest, and even has he breaks up with her she remains stoic, though intensely sad. It's not until after he's nearly gone that she turns and, with a fleeting, childlike smile, asks if he's going to find Eve. The scene ends with Margo sobbing alone on the stage, having lost the most important people in her life to her own pride and jealousy.

    This is probably the longest blog entry I will ever write, but if you got this far then I hope you can see why I didn't want to leave anything out -- and in fact, still feel like there's so much more I could say about just those ten minutes of film.

    Mankiewicz, J. L.(Writer/Director). (1950 October 13). ['Movie']. All About Eve. Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation.

    All playwrights should be dead for 300 years...

    I want to use my first post to take a closer look at my favorite film, All About Eve. In particular, there's one ten-minute section of the movie that I consider to be possibly the greatest thing ever captured on film. I was lucky enough to find those exact scenes in one YouTube video, and I'll get to that in a second, but first, some background information. Spoilers below.

    All About Eve is considered by many to be among the best movies of all time. The American Film Institute ranked it #28 on their list of the 100 greatest films ever made. Of course, the opinions of critics would mean very little if the film couldn't still find an audience. Why are modern filmgoers still drawn to a movie that was made over half a century ago? I think the answer lies not in the overall plotline, but in the small touches that writer/director Joseph L. Mankiewicz and his all-star cast put into each scene. Not a frame of this movie is wasted; I think you'll see what I mean after watching the following clip.

    Eve Harrington is an adoring fan that aging Broadway star Margo Channing has taken in. By this point in the movie, Eve has been far too attentive for Margo's liking, especially where Margo's director-fiancé Bill is concerned. She tried to pawn the girl off on her producer, Max Fabian, but Margo's close friend Karen took pity on Eve and arranged through her husband, playwright Lloyd, for Eve to assume the role of Margo's understudy at the theater. Margo is completely unaware of this until she shows up late for a reading, which was to be an audition for Miss Casswell (a small part played by then-unknown Marilyn Monroe), and the manipulative critic Addison DeWitt informs her that Eve read in her place.

    Follow me to my next post, where I'll take a (very) detailed look at this section of the movie.

    (1990-2008). All About Eve (1950). Retrieved October 14, 2008, from International Movie Data Base Web site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0042192/

    (1998-2008). All About Eve movie reviews, pictures - Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved October 14, 2008, from Rotten Tomatoes Web site: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/1000626-all_about_eve/?critic...

    Mankiewicz, J. L.(Writer/Director). (1950 October 13). ['Movie']. All About Eve. Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation.

    Thursday, October 9, 2008

    All that meaning, fire and music...

    My name is Addison DeWitt. My native habitat is the theatre. In it I toil not, neither do I spin. I am a critic and commentator. I am essential to the theatre.

    ...Well, no, not quite. My name is Caitlin. My native habitat is on my living room couch in front of a TV that's perpetually tuned to Turner Classic Movies. I'm not a film major, nor an aspiring actor. I have no connection to classic films beyond an almost obsessive enjoyment of them. I am essential to the film industry only insofar as an audience in general is essential.

    I am a junior at Rowan University, and this blog is part of a class project. I'm a Writing Arts major with a French minor, an Honors concentration, and I'm looking into adding a Creative Writing concentration -- none of that has anything to do with classic movies, but I hope that it demonstrates my passion for learning about the things that interest me.

    I'm relatively new to the world of classic cinema. Last fall, as part of my Honors concentration, I took a Film History course that introduced me to everything from the very first moving images recorded on film to the great screwball comedies of the 1930's. That class taught me to appreciate the films of my grandparents' and even great-grandparents' generation, and since then I've been watching every classic I can find. My favorite, if you haven't guessed by now, is Joseph L. Mankiewicz's All About Eve (1950), but I've enjoyed a wide variety of movies and hope to see many more; anything older than my parents is fair game.

    In addition to watching movies, I'd like to really study them as the art form that they are. In this blog, I'll be sharing any information I kind find about what went into making these films, and why they've stood the test of time.