I feel optimistic that things will open up in my part of the world–unless we are told that the Delta variant is now a looming threat–and I look forward to beginning work in just under two weeks’ time. I can now fully enjoy my last week of idleness by finishing up writing about films I watched in 2020.
Since it was close to Christmas time and I’d been in contact with people who were watching that genre of film, I rewatched the 1935 British version of Dicken’s Scrooge with Sir Seymour Hicks and Donald Calthrop, who I always thought made a very appealing Cratchit, appearing almost looking like a beggar. A much better version than Hollywood’s 1938, nothing will ever come close to topping the 1951 Sim version, in my humble opinion. I can’t image I need give any details as to the story and I did write about these three versions back in December of 2014. If you do watch Sim’s version, take a close look at the end of the film when Ebenezer looks at himself in the mirror over his basin. After seeing the film many, many times, I was quite taken aback and amused at what I saw there.
And then because it was in the same DVD case as Scrooge and it was mentioned in a post on holiday films, I watched A Christmas Wish (The Great Rupert) (1950) directed by Irving Pichel, who I take an interest in. It starred Jimmy Durante and featured Chick Chandler, an actor I like from seeing him in early 30s films. A story about a squirrel and money-from-heaven, it certainly wasn’t my taste, finding it rather silly. Reminiscent of those post-WWII TV sitcoms. The most entertaining aspect is the animated Rupert, which can be attributed to producer George Pal.
A friend of mine had mentioned how much he liked The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). It had been many years since I had last viewed the film, and I had just recently watched Mank (2020) on Netflix, so thought it was time to give it another viewing. But first, I have to say I wasn’t particularly enthralled with Mank. I do think that David Fincher is a creative director and I’ve always thought Gary Oldman a superb actor. In fact, if he hadn’t held the title role, I doubt I would have continued watching. I had recently been to San Simeon, visiting it in the summer of 2019, and I think the black and white photography helped to hide the fact that the scenes taking place there weren’t actually shot on location. It was impossible for me to believe that the actress Amanda Seyfried was Marion Davies. I don’t recall for certain any longer although I don’t even think she stuttered once.
Charles Dance was reasonably believable as Hearst, certainly craggy enough. The two that were most impressive were Tom Burke as Orson Welles and Oldman as Mankiewicz. I didn’t yet know who Tom Burke was, only later watching him in the Robert Galbraith (aka J.K. Rowling) series “C.B. Strike”, but he did a decent imitation of Welles. What works best for me is when an actor portrays a nonfictional character that I have no previous perception of. I knew very little of Herman Mankiewicz, even down to his physical appearance, other than he was the brother of the more famous director, Joe. From my experience watching Oldman in films, I think he is very careful in his portrayals, doing his upmost best at becoming the character and it certainly helped me not to have any preconceived ideas of this Mankiewicz. However, in the end, I just didn’t find it all that interesting, even though it can be claimed to be a very wordy film.
But back to The Magnificent Ambersons. I had a vague recollection that I didn’t care one way or the other about this film when I had originally seen it and this time my impression was quite different. I was aware this time ’round that the screenplay was based on another Booth Tarkington novel, having watched a number of his stories brought to the screen this past year. If you’ve seen the film even once, I think most of us remember that it’s mentioned throughout the film that the main character, George Minafer (Tim Holt) deserves his comeuppance. I watched the documentary Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles (2014) available on Kanopy and I think it was from there that I gleaned some interesting information. I believe I recall that Welles did not want the film to end the way it did. I have no idea how it ended in the novel, but here, after George’s “comeuppance” he is a changed man and worthy of Lucy Morgan’s (Anne Baxter) love. Truthfully, I never saw what Lucy saw in him and why she continued to be in love with him. But, just as in real life, we just have to accept other people’s feelings of love; something that is not understandable. Regardless, I think we are to presume that his life would now hold more meaning since he no longer could live as a “gentleman”, someone who did not have to work for a living, but it was a very pat finish. Still, everything that goes on before the ending is remarkable in how his world destructs due to actions both in and out of his control. Agnes Moorehead plays his aunt Fanny and she is annoyingly pathetic in her shrillness, yet we can still feel sympathy because we can understand her. She’s probably the least forgettable character, along with the striking photography by the wonderful Stanley Cortez.
I’m not sure where I saw this visual comment, but someone who was making a film I must have watched talked about how strong words spoken by actors can affect us. He gave the example of the scene where Lucy is walking in a park with her father, Eugene Morgan (Joseph Cotten) and they are talking about the trees. The filmmaker said that the park they were walking in had no trees, but you imagined you saw these trees with their specific blooms—and it was true! I did believe I had seen them.
The Magnificent Ambersons is a perfect follow up for Welles’s Citizen Kane (1940). After his first emergence on screen in an usually well-done aging role, here you only hear him but tie these films together with the help of the ensembled cast.
Because I’m always interested in watching an Ida Lupino directed film, I found a TCM copy of Outrage (1950) on YouTube. It’s the story of a young woman who is raped and how she deals with what has happened to her. At first she attempts to deal, or perhaps not deal with it, by escaping her life. The screenplay was written by Lupino, Malvin Wald and Ida’s then husband Collier Young. The cast was made up of lesser-known actors, with Mala Powers in the main role. It features Ida’s younger sister Rita in the role of Stella Carter.
Every time I see Blessed Event (1932) I enjoy it, yet I never seem to be able to remember much about the storyline. It stars Lee Tracy in the title role and is loosely based on the early real-life shenanigans of gossip news commentator Walter Winchell whose detailed biography I had read a couple of years ago. I can never think of either man without thinking of the other. Lots of pre-Code fun by director Roy Del Ruth and featuring a cast of familiar faces: Dick Powell, Allen Jenkins, Ruth Donnelly, Ned Sparks, Frank McHugh, Jack La Rue and Herman Bing.
One night one of my sisters came over and she wanted to watch an early James Cagney film, so we chose Hard to Handle (1933) where he plays a swindler. Three of the actors that were in Blessed Event were also in this film: Allen Jenkins, Mary Brian and Ruth Donnelly. Ruth Donnelly is an absolute treasure in both while Mary Brian is very pretty and a decent leading actress. In this one she plays a blonde (she’s usually brunette) and she could only bring herself to marry Cagney’s character when he was down on his luck due to his scams going awry; otherwise she wanted nothing to do with him. Oh, how to win such a woman! Fascinatingly, so many pre-Codes have such strange themes. Cagney has the charm to pull off being a loveable scammer who you can’t help root for regardless of who he’s conned.
While lying in bed unable to sleep one night, I tuned in on my phone and started watching The Years Between (1946) on YouTube. It’s a British film featuring Michael Redgrave, Valerie Hobson and Flora Robson about a woman whose husband goes off to war. Although they have a teenage son, you understand that she is still deeply in love with him and is devastated when shortly after he leaves, she receives a letter informing her of his death. I could tell the film wouldn’t be too sharp if I watched it on the large screen TV, but finally falling asleep I finished watching it in the morning on the TV anyway. It was based on a play by Daphne Du Maurier and although I don’t know if the play ended in the same way that the film did, the reviews of the play seem to indicate that the husband, who returns from the dead, is simply an awful person. Was he like this before going off to war? He is less so in the film, but it’s sad that the wife is now stuck between her love for a new man (an old friend) and having to try to rebuild feelings from her past for her husband. Suffice to say that it is a post-war film and everyone must go back to their proper roles in society. Whether the play was made for propaganda purposes, it certainly appeared that the film was; women in particular must go back to the roles they had before the war. When everyone thought he was dead, the wife is offered to take over her husband’s seat in parliament, which was a very rare career for a woman then. She has to decide whether she will continue in an occupation she not only finds very satisfying, but that her constituents admire not only her work ethic but the decisions she makes on their behalf. Although this film was more about the wife’s perspective, it reminded me somewhat of A Captive Heart, another British film made immediately after the end of the war, which also starred Michael Redgrave. In both, he plays an undercover POW. In The Years Between he is married to a British woman, while in the Captive Heart he pretends to be.
Back in a theatre in 1994 I went to see the film Farinelli based on a true story about two brothers involved in opera during the 18th Century. The older brother was a mediocre composer while the younger was a famous castrato singer. I always wanted to see it again, keeping my eyes open for a copy to purchase, but here it was available on Kanopy! So I rewatched it 25 years later and although after reading a bit more about the story and some other people’s criticisms and praise, I have to say I still quite liked it and thought it fell into the category of “visually gorgeous movies”. The colours are extremely lush, not knowing what to look at first, especially during the scenes when Farinelli’s on stage. Even the scenes showing the audience are eye popping what with the costumes and beautiful theatre setting.
There’s a bit of a mystery that plays out as we learn about the brothers odd relationship.
I watched a documentary on Kanopy called Girl 27 (2007) about a woman who had worked as a dancer for MGM and had gotten a call that she was to be employed in a film. This job request also went out to many other young female dancers employed by the studio—hence the number in the title of the film. It was 1937 and the job was a false one, as it was really for an MGM convention that the studio arranged for their country-wide sales representatives (all male) to thank them for their service. Food, alcohol and women were provided. This particular young woman, Patricia Douglas, was raped by one of the attendees and when she takes it to court, the studio uses its power to buy everyone off, including Douglas’s own mother. Sexual abuse ruins so many people’s lives, especially when the victim becomes blamed for what happened. The film was directed by David Stenn who I knew from reading his book on Clara Bow who was also a sexually abused victim.
One night my son said he would watch a movie with me so we chose Harvey (1950) which I had only seen once before when I was around 12. It was much more fun than I remembered since on this viewing I could see that it was too sophisticated for a 12-year-old. It’s the story of an unemployed, alcoholic society man who is accompanied most nearly everywhere he goes by a very tall rabbit that only he can see. Josephine Hull who plays James Stewart’s flummoxed sister is fabulous and steals the film, in my opinion!
Still, Harvey is a lovely alcoholic character and James Stewart, who we like to believe possesses in real life these traits of understanding and a kind nature (minus the drinking issues), allows him to portray his character to perfection.
I watched the French film Diabolically Yours (Diaboliquement Vôtre) (1967), my last Kanopy option for the month. What sounded like a good story, wasn’t. It starred the gorgeous Alain Delon and a beautiful actress I didn’t know, Senta Berger.
The story was about a man who, after recovering from a car accident, starts to not believe that his wife is really his wife and he’s not the man she and their doctor-friend say he is. Sounds like a fun mystery, don’t you think? It was directed by Julien Duvivier and it was a disappointing last film for this director. If it wasn’t for the fact that Delon was in pretty much every scene, I wouldn’t have kept watching with the hopes that it would get better. I didn’t even get the ending. When the detectives arrive on the scene, did it prove their innocence or make everyone look guilty? Of course a German actor, Peter Mosbacher, was cast as the Asian housekeeper.
Again, my son came to visit and offered to watch a film with me. I thought he might be entertained by a more recent film, although to him Bedazzled (2000) would still be considered old since it was made when he was only four. Although I have surprisingly never seen the original, I have seen this film twice before and continue to find it a lot of fun! Directed by Harold Ramis who will always be remembered for Groundhog Day (1993), it’s about a nerdy man (Brendan Fraser), who, in exchange for his soul, expects the beautiful devil (Elizabeth Hurley) will grant him his most innermost wishes. Well, the devil is too literal let us say, and nothing quite turns out the way Elliot Richards anticipates. He’s in love with the cool Alison (Frances O’Connor) and no matter how each new life version plays out—a Spanish lord, ginormous basketball player, famous writer, and more— he just can’t seem to win her love.
The last film I watched in 2020 was Without Honor (1949), directed by Irving Pichel who I have mentioned is of interest to me. Acting in even more films then he directed, I certainly noticed him in a lot of early 1930s films, many times playing the scoundrel. Without Honor was a good, tense drama about a married woman, Jane (Laraine Day), who has been having an affair with a married man, Dennis (Franchot Tone). When he unexpectedly comes to her home to break it off, it’s because he knows they have been discovered by her spouse Fred (Bruce Bennett).
I thought the cast was impressive, with Jane carrying some psychological baggage we don’t really quite understand until we start to follow her thinking process through what others reveal. It also featured Dane Clark as her brother-in-law Bill, and the always worthy-watching Agnes Moorhead as Dennis’s wife, Katherine.
There’s a lot of questions that are slowly resolved in this story of a woman who may have murdered her lover, is sexually hounded by her husband’s brother, confronted by her lover’s wife, while finally having to deal with her husband’s decisions.
As for the films Pichel directed, it seems I’ve seen quite a number of them in the past couple of years— A Christmas Wish (The Great Rupert) (1950), mentioned above, Mr. Peabody And the Mermaid (1948), The Miracle of the Bells (1948), They Won’t Believe Me (1947) and The Man I Married (1940).
So that’s it for my films of 2020. The US is pretty much back to normal; vintage film festivals are being planned. I’m not sure if and how border crossings will be conducted and if it will be possible for Canadians to travel there without major restrictions. Still, the date for the border opening by vehicle is still nearly a month away. We shall see how it all plays out.