Top Ten Favorite Movies Set in the 1930s

Below is my current list of favorite movies set in the 1930s: 

 

TOP TEN FAVORITE MOVIES SET IN THE 1930s

1. “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” (1984) – In this exciting second installment of the Indiana Jones franchise, the intrepid archaeologist is asked by desperate villagers in Northern India to find a mystical stolen stone and rescue their children from a Thuggee cult practicing child slavery. Directed by Steven Spielberg, the movie starred Harrison Ford as Dr. Henry “Indiana” Jones.

2. “The Sting” (1973) – Paul Newman and Robert Redford starred in this excellent Oscar winning movie about a young drifter who teams up with a master of the big con to get revenge against the gangster who had his partner murdered. George Roy Hill directed.

3. “Death on the Nile” (1978) – Peter Ustinov made his first appearance as Hercule Poirot in this superb adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1937 novel about the murder of an Anglo-American heiress during a cruise on the Nile. John Guillermin directed.

4. “Chinatown” (1974) – Roman Polanski directed this outstanding Oscar nominated film about a Los Angeles private detective hired to expose an adulterer, who finds himself caught up in a web of deceit, corruption and murder. Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway starred.

5. “Gosford Park” (2001) – Robert Altman directed this Oscar nominated film about a murder that occurs at shooting party in 1932 England. The all-star cast includes Helen Mirren, Kelly MacDonald, Clive Owen and Maggie Smith.

6. “Evil Under the Sun” (1982) – Once again, Peter Ustinov portrayed Hercule Poirot in this entertaining adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1941 novel about the murder of a stage actress at an exclusive island resort. Guy Hamilton directed.

7. “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” (2000) – Ethan and Joel Coen directed this very entertaining tale about three escaped convicts who search for a hidden treasure, while evading the law in Depression era Mississippi. George Clooney, John Tuturro and Tim Blake Nelson starred.

8. “Murder on the Orient Express” (1974) – Albert Finney starred as Hercule Poirot in this stylish adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1934 novel about the Belgian detective’s investigation into the death of a mysterious American aboard the famed Orient Express. Sidney Lumet directed.

9. “Indiana Jones and Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981) – Harrison Ford made his first appearance as Dr. “Indiana” Jones in this classic movie, as he races against time to find the iconic Ark of the Covenant that contains the Ten Commandments before the Nazis do in 1936 Egypt. Steven Spielberg directed.

“Seabiscuit” (2003) – Gary Ross directed this excellent adaptation of Laura Hillenbrand’s 2001 book about the famed race horse from the late 1930s. Tobey Maguire, Jeff Bridges, Chris Cooper and Elizabeth Banks starred.

Honorable Mention: “Road to Perdition” (2002) – Tom Hanks, Tyler Hoechlin and Paul Newman starred in this first-rate adaptation of Max Collins’ 1998 graphic comic about a Depression era hitman who is forced to hit the road with his older son after the latter witnesses a murder. Sam Mendes directed.

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“OTHER MEN’S WOMEN” (1931) Review

 

“OTHER MEN’S WOMEN” (1931) Review

Adultery is rarely treated with any kind of maturity in fiction – whether in novels, plays, movies and television. I am not saying that adultery has never been portrayed with any maturity. It is just that . . . well, to be honest . . . I have rarely come across a movie, television series, novel or play that dealt with adultery in a mature manner. Or perhaps I have rarely come across others willing to face fictional adultery between two decent people with some kind of maturity.

If one simply glanced at the title of the 1931 movie, “OTHER MEN’S WOMEN”, any person could assume that he or she will be facing one of those salacious tales from a Pre-Code filled with racy dialogue, scenes of women and men stripping to their underwear or morally bankrupt characters. Well, “OTHER MEN’S WOMEN” is a Pre-Code movie. But if you are expecting scenes and characters hinting sexy and outrageous sex, you are barking up the wrong tree.

“OTHER MEN’S WOMEN” is about a young railroad engineer named Bill White, who seemed to have a drinking problem. When he gets kicked out of his boarding house, after falling back on his rent, Bill is invited by fellow engineer and friend Jack Kulper to stay with him and his wife Lily. All seemed to be going well. Bill managed to fit easily into the Kulper household. He stopped drinking. And he got along very well with both Jack and Lily. In reality, his relationship with Lily seemed to be a lot more obvious than with Jack. And this spilled out one afternoon, when in the middle of one of their horseplays while Jack was out of the house, Bill and Lily exchanged a passionate kiss. Realizing that he was in love with Lily, Bill moved out and left Jack wondering what had occurred. Matters grew worse and eventually tragic, when Jack finally realized that Bill and Lily had fallen in love with each other.

From the few articles I have read, there seemed to be a low regard for this film. Leading lady Mary Astor had dismissed it as “a piece of cheese” and praised only future stars James Cagney and Joan Blondell. Come to think of it, so did a good number of other movie fans. Back in 1931, the New York Times had described the film as “an unimportant little drama of the railroad yards”. Perhaps “OTHER MEN’S WOMEN” was unimportant in compare to many other films that were released in 1931 or during that period. But I enjoyed it . . . more than I thought I would.

“OTHER MEN’S WOMEN” is not perfect. First of all, this is an early talkie. Although released in 1931, the film was originally shot and released to a limited number of theaters in 1930. And anyone can pretty much tell this is an early talkie, due to the occasional fuzzy photography. Also, director William Wellman shot a few of the action scenes – namely the fight scene between Bill and Jack, along with Bill and another engineer named Eddie Bailey – in fast motion. Or he shot the scenes and someone sped up the action during the editing process. Why, I have no idea. There were a few times when members of the cast indulge in some theatrical acting. And I mean everyone. Finally, I found the resolution to the love triangle in this film a bit disappointing. Considering that divorce was not as verboten in the early 20th century, as many seemed to assume, I do not see why that the whole matter between Bill, Lily and Jack could have been resolved with divorce, instead of tragedy. In the case of this particular story, I found the tragic aspects a bit contrived.

Otherwise, I rather enjoyed “OTHER MEN’S WOMEN”, much to my surprise. Repeating my earlier statement, I was impressed by how screenwriter Maud Fulton, with the addition of William K. Wells’ dialogue; treated the adulterous aspects of the love triangle with taste and maturity. What I found even more impressive is that the three people involved were all likeable and sympathetic. I was rather surprised that this film only lasted 70 minutes. Because Wellman did an exceptional job with the movie’s pacing. He managed to infuse a good deal of energy into this story, even when it threatened to become a bit too maudlin.

Wellman’s energy seemed to manifest in the cast’s performance. Yes, I am well aware of my complaint about the performers’ occasional penchant for theatrical acting. But overall, I thought they did a very good job. Future stars James Cagney and Joan Blondell had small supporting roles as Bill’s other friend Eddie Bailey and his girlfriend, Marie. Both did a good job and both had the opportunities to express those traits that eventually made them stars within a year or two. I was especially entertained by Blondell’s performance, for she had the opportunity to convey one of the movie’s best lines:

Marie: [taking out her compact and powdering her face] Listen, baby, I’m A.P.O.

Railroad worker at Lunch Counter: [to the other railroad worker] What does she mean, A.P.O.?

Marie: Ain’t Puttin’ Out!

I noticed that due to Cagney and Blondell’s presence in this film, many tend to dismiss the leading actors’ performances. In fact, many seemed to forget that not only was Mary Astor a star already, she was a decade away from winning an Oscar. Well, star or not, I was impressed by her portrayal of the railroad wife who finds herself falling in love with a man other than her own husband. She gave a warm, charming and energetic performance. And she portrayed her character’s guilt with great skill. I could also say the same about leading man, Grant Withers. He is basically known as Loretta Young’s first husband. Which is a shame, because he seemed like a first-rate actor, capable of handling the many emotional aspects of his character. Whether Bill was drunk and careless, fun-loving, romantic or even wracked with guilt, Withers ably portrayed Bill’s emotional journey. I also enjoyed Regis Toomey’s performance as the emotionally cuckolded husband, Jack Kulper. I mainly remember Toomey from the 1955 musical, “GUYS AND DOLLS”. However, I was impressed by how he portrayed Jack’s torn psyche regarding his best friend and wife.

I am not going to pretend that “OTHER MEN’S WOMEN” is one of the best films from the Pre-Code era . . . or one of director William Wellman’s best films. Perhaps that New York Times critic had been right, when he described the film as “an unimportant little drama of the railroad yards”. But I cannot dismiss “OTHER MEN’S WOMEN” as a mediocre or poor film. It is actually pretty decent. And more importantly, thanks to the screenplay, Wellman’s direction and the cast, I thought it portrayed a love triangle tainted by adultery with a great deal of maturity.

“SADIE McKEE” (1934) Review

“SADIE McKEE” (1934) Review

Back in the 1930s, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) was king of the Hollywood industry, thanks to the business and artistic acumen of Louis B. Mayer and Irving Thalberg. One major aspect of MGM that made it the most successful studio eighty years ago was its star system. The studio used to boast that it had “more stars than there are in heaven”. One of its top stars was Hollywood icon, Joan Crawford.

Crawford first gained the notice of the MGM brass back in the mid-to-late 1920s. By the early 1930s, she had become a major star, whose metier was the “shopgirl-turned-Cinderella” story. This certainly seemed to be the case for her 1934 movie, “SADIE McKEE”. Based upon Viña Delmar’s 1933 short story, “Pretty Sadie McKee”, this movie told the story of a young part-time serving maid from upstate New York, who moves to New York City with her n’er do well boyfriend, Tommy Wallace, to start a new life as a married couple. When Tommy abandons Sadie to become part of a nightclub act with a beautiful singer named Opal, Sadie is forced to take a job as a chorus girl at a nightclub. There, she meets a wealthy businessman named Jack Brennan, who falls hard for her. Although she marries Jack, Sadie realizes that she still loves Tommy and that her new husband is a serious alcoholic.

When I first saw “SADIE McKEE”, I feared it would become another “EVELYN PRENTICE”, an old and rather unsatisfying MGM melodrama that had been originally released during the same year. And I viewed “SADIE McKEE” with a jaundiced eye. I am happy to say that my wariness proved to be groundless . . . for about two-thirds of the film. I have to commend both director Clarence Brown and screenwriter John Meehan for setting up Sadie’s story – her initial friendship with childhood companion Michael Alderson, attorney for her future husband; their falling out over Sadie’s romance with Tommy; and her engagement to and abandonment of the latter. If I must be honest, Meehan’s screenplay – at least two-thirds of it – proved not only to be detailed, but also well paced. Probably the best aspect of “SADIE McKEE” was its dark portrayal of alcoholism in the form of Sadie’s husband, Jack Brennan. In a scene that I never came across in a movie made before 1950, the film revealed how excessive alcoholism could lead an affable man like Brennan commit a shocking act of violence against the leading lady.

I managed to enjoy and appreciate “SADIE McKEE” so much that I was surprised when the movie took a disappointing turn during its last fifteen to twenty. Two things occurred that I believe brought about the movie’s downfall. Brennan finally became sober – a bit too early for my tastes – and Sadie discovered that her former fiancé, Tommy, was dying from tuberculosis. I honestly wish Brown and Meehan had either allowed Sadie’s story with Brennan and Michael to last longer. In fact, I wish she had never re-entered Tommy’s life in the first place. Their reunion at a hospital reeked with over-the-top sentimentality that bored me senseless. I believe in forgiveness as much as the next person – which is probably barely at all. But I thought Sadie’s forgiveness of Tommy happened a little too quick for my taste. I also had a problem with the movie’s last scene, which followed rather quickly on the heels of Tommy’s death scene. I read other reviews of “SADIE McKEE” that claimed it ended with a romance between Sadie and Michael. Really? I certainly did not get that impression. I felt more of a renewed friendship between them.

The performances in “SADIE McKEE” more than made up for the movie’s last act. Several bloggers have complained that leading lady Joan Crawford had failed to convey Sadie’s innocence in the film’s early scenes. I cannot agree with this assessment. I thought Crawford did a fine job in portraying the more innocent Sadie. More importantly, she expertly conveyed Sadie’s developing character as the latter faced more troubles. Franchot Tone gave an earnest performance as Sadie’s once and future friend, attorney Michael Alerson. On paper, his emotions seemed to be all over the map, but Tone skillfully kept his performance under control and did not allow his character’s emotions to get the best of him. I have never been much of a Gene Raymond fan. In fact, the only movie I had previously seen him in was the 1933 musical, “FLYING DOWN TO RIO”. Needless to say, I was not impressed. However, I was impressed by his portrayal of the charming, but shiftless Tommy in “SADIE McKEE”. Raymond made it easy for me to understand Sadie’s attraction to him.

Esther Ralston gave a funny, yet sympathetic performance as Sadie’s dependable friend, Dolly Merrick. Jean Dixon gave a skillful performance as the charming, yet shallow songstress Opal, who lures Tommy to her act and later dumps him. Fans of the television series, “THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.” would be surprised to see Leo G. Carroll portray the butler in the Brennan household. I thought he gave a solid performance. But the movie’s best performance came from Edward Arnold, who was outstanding as Sadie’s alcoholic husband, Jack Brennan. Arnold once claimed that Brennan was his favorite role. It struck me as a difficult role for any actor to perform. But Arnold more than held his own in a skillful performance that revealed the best and the worst of this complex character. Personally, I feel that Arnold should have received an Academy Award nomination for his performance.

Despite the disappointing finale, I still managed to enjoy “SADIE McKEE”. I would not regard it as one of the best films to star Joan Crawford. But aside from its maudlin finale, I found it fascinating. Director Clarence Brown, screenwriter John Meehan and a talented cast led by Crawford did a solid job in bringing the adaptation of Viña Delmar’s short story to the screen.

“42ND STREET” (1933) Review

42nd_STREET

“42ND STREET” (1933) Review

I have always been a major fan of movie musicals. My favorite period for musicals stretched between the years 1945 and 1969. I find this ironic, considering that one of my all time favorite movie musicals is “42ND STREET”, which was first released over a decade earlier, at the height of the Great Depression in 1933.

When talking pictures first arrived in the late 1920s, the Hollywood industry did not hesitate to produce musicals. One of the earliest films to win the Best Picture Academy Award was the 1929 musical, “THE BROADWAY MELODY”. I have never seen this film, but I had a few glimpses of other musicals made during the first four or five years of the talkies. At worst, they were just awful. At best, they were mediocre. Then along came “42ND STREET” in March 1933 and Hollywood musicals have never been the same . . . well, almost.

Based upon Bradford Ropes’ 1932 novel and written by Rian James, James Seymour and an uncredited Whitney Bolton;“42ND STREET” was originally slated to be directed by Mervyn Leroy. However, the director of Depression-era hits like“LITTLE CAESAR” and “I AM A FUGITIVE FROM A CHAIN GANG” found himself unable to helm the movie, due to illness. The directing assignment went to Lloyd Bacon, a contract director at Warner Brothers Studios. In addition, producer Darryl F. Zanuck hired choreographer Busby Berkeley to direct the film’s big musical numbers near the end of the film.

“42ND STREET” begins when a pair of Broadway producers decide to put on a musical show called “Pretty Lady”, starring stage star Dorothy Brock. The latter is involved with wealthy Abner Dillon, the show’s financial backer. But while Dorothy busies herself with playing hot and cold with Dillon, she is secretly dating her former vaudeville partner, the out-of-work Pat Denning. The producers hire Julian Marsh to direct the play. However, Marsh’s health is in bad shape, due to the high stress of his job. And he is also broke, due to the 1929 Stock Market Crash. He needs “Pretty Lady” to be a hit in order to secure enough cash for retirement. The competition for casting selection becomes fierce, especially for some the chorines, whose desperation for a job leads them to resort to sexual promises. Lorraine Fleming manages to get hired, due to her relationship with dance director Andy Lee. Both she and Ann “Anytime Annie” Lowell help a young woman named Peggy Sawyer to get hired. Peggy is a hoofer from Allentown, Pennsylvania who finds difficulty in getting a job due to her naivety and inexperience. Not only does she managed to befriend Lorraine and Ann, but also the show’s juvenile lead, Billy Lawler. Peggy also acquires another friend – namely Pat Denning. Her friendship with Pat nearly affects his romance with Dorothy Brock and also the show.

When most fans and critics discuss “42ND STREET”, they tend to focus on Busby Berkeley’s direction of the musical numbers and the sexual innuendo that seems to permeate the film’s narrative. What do I think of “42ND STREET”? Well . . . just as I had earlier hinted, it is one of my favorite musicals. Because it is regarded as a “backstage musical”, most of the performances are limited to the film’s last act, when Pretty Lady” has its opening night in Philadelphia. The only exception is the “You’re Getting to Be a Habit with Me” number, which was performed by Bebe Daniels in a rehearsal sequence. Overall, I have no problems with the musical numbers. Songwriters Harry Warren and Al Dubin created some memorable tunes. My favorites tend to be “You’re Getting to Be a Habit with Me” and “Young and Healthy”. The first number is a personal favorite, thanks to Daniels’ charming and slightly wicked performance. And between Dick Powell’s energetic performance and the dazzling choreography directed by Busby Berkeley, the second number holds a special place in my heart. Ironically, when mentioning Berkeley’s choreography, I do not mean actual dancing. I was referring to the number’s complex geometric patterns created by the dancers moving or marching in place. Berkeley was known for this kind of choreography. I also enjoyed “Shuffle Off to Buffalo”, due to its sexual innuendos, but it is not a big favorite of mine. I do love the movie’s main and final song, “42nd Street”. I find it energetic and entertaining – including the instrumental version during the number’s New York Street montage. But I am not particularly in love with the actual choreography in the last number that features the song.

But more than anything, I really enjoyed the narrative behind “42ND STREET”. Recently, I came across an article in which the blogger revealed that he or she had read the source material behind the 1933 movie – namely Bradford Ropes’ 1932 novel. The blogger also revealed that the screenwriters had changed a good deal of Ropes’ story. The novel mainly focused upon the personal lives of the show’s cast and crew. It barely focused upon rehearsals or any of the backstage hang ups, until the last act. In a way, this structure reminds me of the 1933 movie, “DINNER AT EIGHT”, which focused on the lives of a family planning a dinner party and their guests. According to the blogger, Ropes’ novel was even racier than the movie. In fact, one subplot dealt with a romance between Julian Marsh and Billy Lawler. But since overt homosexuality was not tolerated in the old Hollywood films – even during the Pre-Code era – the movie’s screenwriters developed a budding romance between Lawler and Peggy Sawyer, kick starting the first of several on-screen teamings between Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler.

The lack of a romance between two of the three leading male characters did not exactly make “42ND STREET” squeaky clean. The sexual innuendos that flew between the chorine characters provided plenty of ammunition for the Moral Brigade to raise their eyebrows. The movie is filled with memorable lines like:

*“Not Anytime Annie? Say, who could forget ‘er? She only said “No” once, and THEN she didn’t hear the question!”

*“It must have been hard on your mother, not having any children.”.

But what I found really interesting . . . and somewhat disturbing about “42ND STREET” is that the film went beyond mere innuendos.

I was slightly taken aback by the sheer number of sexual politics that seemed to dominate the movie’s narrative. “42ND STREET” featured chorus girls like Ann “Anytime Annie” Lowell and Lorraine Fleming willing to promise anything in order to become part of the show’s chorus. Even leading lady Dorothy Brock seemed willing to subject herself to the slimy attentions of the show’s money bags, Abner Dillon, in order to maintain her job with this show. The movie also featured one male character – namely the unemployed Pat Denning – who seemed willing to be Dorothy’s boy toy, while she services Dillon. However in Pat’s case, I suspect love may be the reason behind his willingness to be Dorothy’s personal bed warmer. In one or two cases, the prostitution that went on in this movie seemed to go beyond sex. A good example of this proved to be a decision made by the show’s two producers, Barry and Jones, and Marsh. Desperate for Dillon’s continuing finances, the three men were not only willing to hire Dorothy for the lead, but also hire local gangsters to rough up Pat Denning, when they learn about his affair with Dorothy.

However, the movie’s sexual politics not only feature prostitution, but also another ugly subject. Sexual harassment. The movie did not hesitate to reveal the sexual manhandling and harassment of the female chorus members. In one scene, Lorraine Fleming had to resort to a caustic one-liner to stop a male dancer from groping her. From the moment she arrived at the theater, Peggy was either subjected to groping by male chorus dancers and crewmen, or propositioned. Most of this is handled with humor by the movie’s screenwriters. But there was one scene in which I found particular scary. At a pre-show party at a Philadelphia hotel, Peggy had to fend off the unwelcome groping of a drunken chorus boy named Terry, who had been presented himself as a friend during the show’s rehearsals. Worse, Terry hunted Peggy down throughout the hotel after she fled the party, leading me to suspect that he had intended to rape her all along.

Some people have commented that one of the movie’s flaws is that it has become dated over the past eighty years or so. Personally, I feel that the march of time has not made “42ND STREET” dated. Despite the 1930s musical numbers and dialogue, the movie’s story and theme is as fresh today as it was eighty years ago. More importantly, the Great Depression background gave the movie’s narrative an earthy, yet realistic aura that still resonates today. But the movie does have its flaws. And for me, those flaws centered around the casting of Ruby Keeler and the final musical number, “42nd Street”.

It occurred to me that I could have accepted Ruby Keeler as the movie’s talented ingénue, Peggy Sawyer, if it not for the presence of . . . Ginger Rogers. I read somewhere that the movie’s original director, Mervyn LeRoy, had suggested Rogers for the role of “Anytime Annie”. Why “Anytime Annie”? Rogers could have easily portrayed the wide-eyed naivety of Peggy Sawyer. She was only 21 years-old when the movie was shot. She had portrayed similar characters in a few of her early movies with Fred Astaire. More importantly, she could both act and dance circles around Keeler. The latter, on the other hand, had a decent singing voice and was a damn good hoofer. But a hoofer only dances with his or her feet and not the entire body. And when it came to using her entire body, Keeler seemed rather sluggish. Keeler’s performance was also rather stiff. This is not surprising, since this was her first movie. So why on earth did Warner Brothers settled on Keeler, when they had a bigger talent in Rogers? Then I remembered . . . Rogers was dating Mervyn LeRoy at the time this movie was made. But Keeler was married to Al Jolson, who was still a top Warners Brothers contract player at the time.

My other major problem with “42ND STREET” is the final musical number. As I had previously stated, I enjoy Harry Warren and Al Dubin’s song very much. It may be 82 to 83 years old, but I still find it very catchy. I had no problems with the song. On the other hand, I had a lot of problems with the dancing featured in this number. I did not find it particularly impressive. Yes, I was impressed by Berkeley’s precision-style choreography and use of the camera to display it in the“Young and Healthy” number. I was not impressed by the actual dancing featured in “42nd Street”. Ruby Keeler’s solo dancing led me to wince a bit. Well, perhaps more than a bit. I noticed that the . . . um, “strutting” done by the extras in the New York street montage segment seemed a bit offbeat. And the final segment featuring the background dancers seemed rather awkward and not particularly mind-blowing. I have seen better dancing in other Berkeley films, especially the“Lullaby of Broadway” dance number in 1935’s “GOLDIGGERS OF 1935”.

“42ND STREET” featured some fine performances from the cast. Most of them not only gave it their all, but also provided a great deal of energy to the movie. Both Ginger Rogers and Una Merkel were hilarious as the two showgirls who befriend Ruby Keeler’s character. I also impressed by the energetic performances provided by George E. Stone and Guy Kibbee, who portrayed dance director Andy Lee and the wealthy Abner Dillon, respectively. However, I was not that impressed by Ruby Keeler’s portrayal of Peggy Sawyer, which I found rather stilted. And I thought both George Brent and Dick Powell were particularly wasted in this film as Pat Denning and Billy Lawler. Fortunately, both men will go on to proved their real talent in later films. I personally thought the best performances came from the movie’s two leads – Warner Baxter and Bebe Daniels. Baxter walked a fine line between indulging in borderline hamminess and conveying a world weary desperation in his portrayal of the tough-minded director, Julian Marsh, who is determined to produce one last hit. And he did it with a seamless skill that still leaves me breathless with admiration. I was also impressed by Bebe Daniels, who did an excellent job in her portrayal of the ambitious Dorothy Brock, who found herself torn between her love for Pat and her willingness to be Dillon’s plaything, despite her personal disgust toward him.

It is a miracle that after 82-83 years, “42ND STREET” still holds up well for me. Ironically, it was not the musical numbers or Busby Berkeley’s choreography that really impressed me. It was the backstage story filled with sharp humor, sexual politics and desperation that I believe resonates even to this day. It was the story, along with Lloyd Bacon’s solid direction and a talented cast led by Warner Baxter and Bebe Daniels that still makes “42ND STREET” a favorite of mine, even to this day.

“SERENA” (2014) Review

(This review features spoilers of the 2014 movie, “SERENA” and the Ron Rash 2008 novel from which it is adapted. If you have not seen the movie or read the novel, I suggest you do not read this review.)

 

“SERENA” (2014) Review

Seven years ago, author Ron Rash wrote a novel about a young socialite’s effect upon the lives of her new husband, their North Carolina timber business and the Appalachian community that relied upon it during the early years of the Great Depression. The cinematic adaptation of Rash’s novel hung around development for a while, before it finally became the 2014 movie, “SERENA”.

“SERENA” begins during the late fall of 1929, when the New England-born timber tycoon, George Pemberton, is forced to travel to Boston and secure more funds for his lumber business in western North Carolina. While attending a horse show with his sister, George meets Serena, the daughter of a businessman who had owned his own lumber business in Colorado. After a quick romance, the newlyweds return to Waynesville, North Carolina. There, Serena and George clash with the latter’s partner, Mr. Buchanan, who regards the young bride as an interloper in his relationship with George. Serena also discovers that George had conceived a child with a local servant girl named Rachel Hermann. Although George reassures Serena that the infant boy means nothing to him, she discovers otherwise after she suffers a miscarriage. Deadly antics follow as the Pembertons deal with legal threats and grow apart over George’s illegitimate child.

When “SERENA” first reached the U.S. movie theaters, it sunk at the box office amidst negative reviews from the critics and fans of Rash’s novel. I have never read the novel. But I have read its synopsis after seeing the movie. And I have also read the reviews. There seemed to be a mixed reaction to the novel, despite its success. But the reaction to the novel seemed a lot more positive than the reaction to the film. Many have criticized director Suzanne Bier and screenwriter Christopher Kyle’s changes from the novel. Serena’s point-of-view was reduced in the film. Bier and Kyle added a background in the timber business for the leading character. They removed an early scene featuring a clash between George and Rachel Hermann’s father Abe (Harmon in the novel). They removed the Greek chorus of loggers and changed the ending. And you know what today’s moviegoers and television viewers are like. If a movie or series is going to adapt a novel, these fans usually insist or demand no changes. This is a very unrealistic or dangerous attitude for any filmmaker or television producer to have. To produce a film or a television movie, series or miniseries takes a great deal of money. And a producer needs to consider so much – especially in creating an adaptation of a literary source.

There were some changes made by Bier and Kyle that did not bother me. I felt more than relieved that they had decided to drop that violent encounter between George Pemberton and Abe Hermann (Harmon) at the Waynesville train station. While reading about it, I felt that such a violent encounter happened too soon in the story and it struck me – personally – as ridiculously over-the-top. Perhaps other fans missed it. I did not. According to some criticism of Rash’s novel, the Selena Pemberton character came off as a one-note monster with no real depth. Some have lobbied the same charge at George Pemberton. Since I have never read the novel, I do not know whether they are right or wrong. But I am grateful that the movie did portray both characters with some emotional depth. This was apparent in the couple’s intense regard for one another and the emotional breakdown that occurred, following Serena’s miscarriage. I also have no problems with Kyle’s decision to add a background in lumber in Serena’s back story. I thought her familiarity with a lumber camp gave credence to her ability to help George deal with the problems that sprang up within his camp. On the other hand, both Bier and Kyle managed to find time to focus on the Pembertons’ willingness to exploit the natural beauty around them for business and George’s penchant for hunting panthers. I also found the clash between the Pembertons’ efforts to maintain their business in the Appalachian Mountains and the local sheriff’s desire to preserve the surrounding forests for a national park rather interesting. I had no idea that the clash between those who wanted to exploit the land and those who wanted to preserve it stretched back that far.

I was surprised to learn that had been filmed in the Czech Republic and Denmark. However, looking into the background of the film’s crew and cast members, I found this not surprising. With the exception of a few, most of them proved to be Europeans. I have no idea which Czech mountain range where “SERENA” was filmed, but I have to give kudos to cinematographer Morten Søborg for his rich and beautiful photography of the country. But thanks to Martin Kurel’s art direction, Graeme Purdy’s set decorations and Richard Bridgland’s production designs did an admirable job of transporting audiences back to early Depression-era western North Carolina. As for the movie’s costume designs, I thought Signe Sejlund did a top-notch job. Not only did she managed to re-create the fashions of that period (1929 to the early 1930s), she also took care to match the clothes according to the characters’ personality, class and profession.

I never read any of the reviews for “SERENA”, so I have no idea how other critics felt about the cast’s performances. When I first learned about the movie, many bloggers and journalists seemed amazed that Jennifer Lawrence would be cast in the role of the emotional and ruthless Serena Pemberton. Personally, I was not that amazed by the news. The actress has portrayed ruthless characters before and she certainly had no problems portraying Serena. I thought she did a top-notch job in capturing both the character’s ruthlessness and the intense emotions that the latter harbored for her husband. There is one scene that truly demonstrated Lawrence’s talent as an actress. And it occurred when Serena discovered that George had been secretly keeping an eye on his illegitimate son. I was impressed by how Lawrence took the character from surprise to a sense of betrayal and finally to sheer anger within seconds. Bradley Cooper, who had co-starred with Lawrence in three other films, portrayed Serena’s ruthless, yet passionate husband, George Pemberton. Cooper not only conveyed his character’s businesslike ruthlessness, but also the latter’s moral conflict over some of his actions. My only complaint is that I found his New England accent (his character is from Boston) slightly exaggerated.

“SERENA” featured solid performances from the supporting cast. Toby Jones did a good job in portraying the morally righteous sheriff, McDowell. Ana Ularu also gave a solid and warm performance as Rachel Hermann, the young woman with whom George had conceived a child, when he used her as a bed warmer. Sean Harris was very effective as the conniving Pemberton employee, Campbell. The movie also featured brief appearances from the likes of Bruce Davidson, Charity Wakefield, and Blake Ritson. But the best performances amongst the supporting cast came from David Dencik and Rhys Ifans. Dencik gave a surprisingly subtle performance as George’s partner, Mr. Buchanan, who resented his partner’s marriage to Serena and her increasing impact on their lumber business. In fact, Dencik’s performance was so subtle, it left me wondering whether or not his character was secretly infatuated with George. Equally subtle was Rhys Ifans, who portrayed Pemberton employee-turned-Serena’s henchman, Galloway. Ifans did an excellent job in infusing both Galloway’s emotional ties to Serena and ruthless willingness to commit murder on her behalf.

Contrary to what many may believe, “SERENA” has its share of virtues. But it also has its share of flaws. One aspect of “SERENA” that I had a problem with surprisingly turned out to be the cast. Mind you, the cast featured first-rate actors. But I was not that impressed by the supporting cast’s Southern accents that ranged from mediocre to terrible. I could blame the film makers for relying upon European (especially British performers). But this could have easily happened with a cast of American actors. Only two actors had decent (if not perfect) upper South accents – Rhys Ifans and Sean Harris. I have no idea how Bruce Davidson, one of the few Americans in the cast, dealt with an Appalachian accent. He barely had any lines. Another problem I had with the movie turned out to be the score written by Johan Soderovist. First of all, it seemed unsuited for the movie’s Appalachian setting. Worst, Susanne Bier and the film’s producer failed to utilize the score throughout most of the film. There were too many moments in the film where there seemed to be no score to support the narrative.

At one point of the film, Kyle’s screenplay seemed to throw logic out of the window. When George committed murder to prevent Sheriff McDowell and the Federal authorities from learning about his bribes, a Pemberton employee named Campbell who had witnessed the crime, blackmailed him for a promotion. Yet, later in the film, Campbell decided to tell McDowell about the murder and the bribes. The problem is that Kyle’s screenplay never explained why Campbell had this change of heart. It never revealed why he had decided to bite the hand that fed him. And I have to agree with those who complained that the film did not focus upon Serena’s point-of-view enough. The movie’s title is “SERENA”. Yet, most of the film – especially in the first half – seemed to be focused upon George’s point-of-view. I have no idea why Bier and Kyle made these changes, but I feel that it nearly undermined the film’s narrative.

My biggest gripe with “SERENA” proved to be the ending. If I must be honest, I hated it. I also thought that it undermined the Serena Pemberton character, transforming her into a weeping ninny who could not live without her husband. Kyle’s screenplay should have adhered a lot closer to Rash’s novel. I am aware that both Serena and George loved each other very much. But Serena struck me as the type of woman who would have reacted with anger against George’s lies about his illegitimate baby, his emotional withdrawal and his attempt to strangle her. She reminded me of a younger, Depression-era version of the Victoria Grayson character from ABC’s “REVENGE”. Both women are both very passionate, yet ruthless at the same time. And if the television character was willing to resort to murder or any other kind of chicanery in retaliation to being betrayed, I believe that Serena was capable of the same, as well. Rash allowed Serena to react more violently against George for his betrayal, before sending her off to Brazil in order to start a lumber empire. Yet, both Rash and Kyle seemed determined to kill off Serena. Kyle did it by having Serena commit suicide by fire, after George was killed by a panther. I found this pathetic. Rash did it in his novel by having a mysterious stranger who bore a strong resemblance to George to kill her in Brazil. In other words, after surviving Serena’s poisoning attempt and an attack by a panther, George managed to hunt her down in thirty years or so and kill her. I found this ludicrous and frankly, rather stupid. I would have been happier if Serena had killed George and left the U.S. to make her fortune in Brazil. She struck me as the type who would get away with her crimes. If the murderer in“CHINATOWN” could get away with his crimes, why not Serena Pemberton? I feel this would have made a more interesting ending.

It is a pity that “SERENA” failed at the box office. Unlike many critics, I do not view it as total crap. I have seen worse films that succeeded at the box office. I suspect that many had simply overreacted to the film’s failure to live up to its original hype, considering the cast, the director and the novel upon which it was based. But it was not great. I regard “SERENA” as mediocre. The pity is that it could have been a lot better in the hands of a different director and screenwriter.

“CENTENNIAL” (1978-79) – Episode Eleven “The Winds of Death” Commentary

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“CENTENNIAL” (1978-79) – Episode Eleven “The Winds of Death” Commentary

A recent critic of “CENTENNIAL” once complained that the miniseries had failed to breach the topic of land environmental issues in an effective manner. Author James Michener allowed this subject to dominate his 1973 novel. But this critic seemed to hint that producer John Wilder had more or less dropped the ball on this topic in the television adaptation.

Looking back at the previous ten episodes, I do not know if I agree with that critic. I did notice that the subject of who was qualified to be the true inheritors of the land – at least in regard to Northern Colorado – appeared throughout the miniseries. “CENTENNIAL” also focused on how the story’s many characters used the land. One could argue that the subplot regarding the Wendells’ origins as stage performers and scam artists had nothing to do with land environmental issues. And I would disagree. The Wendells’ murder of the businessman Mr. Sorenson in “The Crime” and Sheriff Axel Dumire’s death in “The Winds of Change” allowed the family to become the biggest landowners in Centennial. They used their ill-gotten money – acquired from Mr. Sorenson’s satchel – to not only acquire land, but also become successful owners of a real estate company. The Wendells’ new profession allowed them to play a major role in the major subplot featured in“The Winds of Death”.

This eleventh episode began in 1914, with the arrival of Iowa farmers who had recently purchased land from Mervin Wendell. Among the new arrivals is a young couple named Alice and Earl Grebe. These new farmers are warned by Hans Brumbaugh and Jim Lloyd that they would be wise not to farm the land sold to them by the Wendells – namely the neighborhood’s drylands near Rattlesnake Buttes. That particular location had already witnessed previous tragedies such as Elly Zendt’s death, the Skimmerhorn Massacre and the range war that led to sheep herders Nate Pearson and Bufe Coker’s deaths. Alice and Earl Grebe attempted to create a farm there and were successful for several years. But obstacles such as the land’s dry state, the deadly winds that plagued the Great Plains during the 1920s and 1930s finally took their toll, and a free fall in wheat prices after World War I. Earl and his fellow Iowans received good advice from an agricultural consultant hired by the Wendells named Walter Bellamy on how to till their land during potentially bad times. But they ignore Bellamy’s advice and pay the price by the end of the episode. Especially the Grebes.

“The Winds of Death” focused upon other subplots. It marked the deaths of three major characters – Hans Brumbaugh, Mervin Wendell and Jim Lloyd. Wendell died as a happy real estate tycoon, oblivious of the damage he has caused. His only disappointments seemed to be his continuing lack of knowledge of Mr. Sorenson’s final resting place and the contempt his son Philip still harbors. Brumbaugh’s labor problems were finally resolved in the last episode with the arrival of Tranquilino Marquez and other Mexican immigrants. In “The Winds of Death”, he spent most of his time helping Tranquilino’s family settle in Centennial, while the latter endure six years in a Colorado prison on trumped up charges and years of fighting a revolution in Mexico. Unfortunately for the beet farmer, he died minutes before a possible reunion with Tranquilino.

Jim Lloyd faced a few crisis during this episode before his untimely death. The cattleman insured that his son-in-law, Beeley Garrett (son of sheep rancher, Messamore Garrett) would continue to manage Venneford Ranch. Jim and his wife, Charlotte, also helped Truinfador Marquez maintain his cantina for Centennial’s Latino population in the face of bigotry from the local sheriff and the courts. But Jim’s biggest conflict turned out to be his resistance to Charlotte’s plans to breed the ranch’s cattle to an unnaturally small size for stock shows and fairs. This last conflict led to his fatal heart attack.

For me, “The Winds of Death” proved to be the last well-made episode from “CENTENNIAL”. Mind you, it did not strike me as perfect. I feel that the episode’s running time could have stretched to at least two hours and fifteen minutes, instead of the usual 90 minutes or so. “The Winds of Death” was set during a twenty-year period from 1914 to 1934 or 1935. And there seemed to be a great deal going on in the episode’s narrative for a mere 90 to 97 minutes.

I also have issue with the story’s suggestion that Hans Brumbaugh’s labor problems ended with the influx of Latino immigrants. What exactly was Michener trying to say? That Latinos was the only group that lacked the ambition to be something other than agricultural field workers? I also had a problem with the Lloyds’ efforts to help Truinfador keep his cantina. The subplot struck me as a bit contrive and politically correct. Perhaps Jim seemed capable of tolerant understanding of Truinfador’s problems, considering his past relationships with the likes of “Nacho” Gomez, Nate Pearson and especially Clemma Zendt. However, the miniseries had never hinted any signs of such ethnic tolerance from Charlotte in past episodes.

My last problem with the episode proved to be a minor quibble. I noticed that the generation that featured Philip Wendell and Beeley Garrett seemed to conceive their offspring, while in their late 30s to 40s. Why? I can understand one of them having children so late in life, but all of the characters from this particular generation? Philip Wendell’s son (Morgan) will not be introduced until the next episode. But he will prove to be around the same age as Beeley’s son, Paul Garrett.

Despite my problems with “The Winds of Death”, I cannot deny that screenwriter Jerry Ziegman wrote a first-rate script. The episode did an excellent job in re-creating the West of the early 20th century. Not only did it explored the problems that Western farmers faced during that period, it also provided viewers with a more in-depth look into the travails of Latino farm laborers – a subject barely touched upon in American cinema or television. One of the episodes highlights proved to be the two major dust storms that plagued Centennial during the 1930s. Duke Callaghan’s photography, along with Ralph Schoenfeld’s editing and the Sound Department’s effects did an excellent job in creating the nightmarish effects that left parts of the Great Plains covering in dust. The storms sequences left me feeling a bit spooked and sympathetic toward Alice Grebe’s reaction.

I suspect that many viewers were disappointed to learn that the Wendells failed to suffer the consequences of their crimes. Honestly, I was not that surprised. One cannot deny that they were the kind who usually flourished in the end. After all,“Centennial” was not the first or last work of fiction that mingled reality with drama. However, the episode’s pièce de résistance centered on the experiences of the Grebe family’s twenty years in Centennial. It was fascinating, yet heartbreaking to watch Alice and Earl Grebe enjoy their brief success during the 1910s, before the post-World War I years slowly reduced them to a near-poverty state. And considering the tragic event that marked the end of Alice and Earl’s stay in Centennial, viewing their experiences seemed like watching a train wreck in slow motion . . . or the unfolding of a Greek tragedy.

“The Winds of Death” featured some superb performances by the cast. Truinfador Marquez’s efforts to save his cantina led to a conflict between him and his more conservative father, Tranquilino; which also resulted in a superbly acted scene between A Martinez and Byron Gilbert. William Atherton was brilliantly convincing as the aging Jim Lloyd. I found it difficult to remember that he was barely out of his 30s when he shot this episode. Lynn Redgrave was equally superb as the caustic Charlotte Lloyd, who seemed ruthlessly determined to get her own way, whether it meant creating a new breed of cattle for Venneford or helping Truinfador. Anthony Zerbe continued his excellent performance as the charming, yet venal Mervin Wendell. Although Lois Nettleton did not get much of a chance to shine as in this episode as the scheming Maud Wendell, the actress still managed to give a first-rate performance in her brief scenes. Morgan Paul did an excellent job in conveying the many facets of the adult Philip Wendell, who not only remained haunted by Axel Dumire’s death, but also proved to be just as ruthless in business as his parents.

Claude Jarman was excellent as farmer Earl Grebe, who struggled to keep his farm and family together. The episode also featured solid work from Alex Karras, Silvana Gallardo, William Bogert, Geoffrey Lewis and Alan Vint. But for me, the stand out performance came from actress Julie Sommars. She gave a superb performance as the fragile Alice Grebe, whose doubts about farming in the drylands of Colorado would come to fruition some twenty years later. She never seemed more sympathetic, yet frightening in those last scenes in which the high winds and dust proved to be the last straw for the fractured Alice.

I almost regretted finishing “The Winds of Death”. Not only did it convey an excellent portrait of the West during the early 20th century, the episode featured some excellent performances from the cast. More importantly, it proved to be the last one I would find engrossing. The next and last episode is “The Scream of Eagles” and I have to be brutally honest . . . I am not looking forward to it.

“PERIL AT END HOUSE” (1990) Review

“PERIL AT END HOUSE” (1990) Review

I just realized something. I have never read Agatha Christie’s 1932 novel, “Peril at End House”. I find this ironic, considering that I have seen the 1990 television movie adaptation of this novel at least three or four times. One of these days, I will get around to reading Christie’s novel and comparing it to the television adaptation. Right now, I am going to focus on the latter.

Directed by Renny Rye and adapted by Clive Exton, “PERIL AT END HOUSE” is the first full-length television movie aired on“AGATHA CHRISTIE’S POIROT”. It is also about Belgian-born detective Hercule Poirot’s efforts to prevent the murder of a young socialite, during his vacation in Cornwall. The movie begins with Poirot and his friend Arthur Hastings arriving at a Cornish seaside resort for their vacation. While conversing with socialite Magdala “Nick” Buckley on the resort’s grounds, Poirot notices that someone had fired a bullet into the brim of her floppy hat. Poirot exposes the bullet hole to Nick, who finds it difficult to believe that someone wants to kill her. She points out that aside from her house – End House – has no real assets. Poirot decides to investigate her inner circle, who includes the following:

*Charles Vyse – Nick’s cousin and an attorney
*Mr. and Mrs. Croft – an Australian couple that has leased the lodge near End House, who had suggested Nick make a will six months earlier
*Freddie Rice – a close friend of Nick’s, who is also an abused wife
*Jim Lazarus – an art dealer in love with Nick
*Commander George Challenger – a Royal Navy officer who is also attracted to Nick

Poirot eventually advises Nick to invite a relative to stay with her for a few weeks. Nick invites her distant cousin Maggie Buckley. Unfortunately, someone kills Maggie, after she makes the mistake of wearing Nick’s dress shawl during an evening party. Even worse, the killer eventually achieves his/her goal by sending a box of poisoned chocolates to Nick, while she was recuperating at a local hospital.

“PERIL AT END HOUSE” possessed a certain plot device that Christie had used in several of her novels. I would describe this plot device. But to do so would spoil the rest of the story. It took me years to spot this plot device. And I should be surprised that I have not come across anyone else who has spotted it. And yet . . . I am not. The fact that it took me several years to spot this particular plot device only tells me that Christie has utilized it with great effect in some of her more interesting and well-written mysteries. Thankfully, “PERIL AT END HOUSE” proved to be one of those well-written mysteries.

I must admit that Clive Exton did a pretty damn good job in adapting Christie’s novel for the television screen. He stuck very closely to the original novel’s plot . . . with a few changes that did no harm to the overall movie. Both Exton and Rye presented a well-paced production to the audiences. They set up the story with Poirot and Hastings’ arrival to Cornwall and continued on with without any haste or dragging feet. The only time the movie threatened to put me to sleep occurred between the story’s second murder and the revelation of the killer . . . . when the story threatened to ground to a halt. I have one last problem – namely the appearance of Chief Inspector Japp. I realize that Japp did appear in the novel. But his appearance merely dealt with Poirot’s request that he investigate the Crofts, whom the Belgian detective suspected of being forgers. The cinematic Japp immediately appeared following Maggie Buckley’s death as the main police investigator. And Cornwall is not under Scotland Yard’s main jurisdiction.

The production values for “PERIL AT END HOUSE” proved to be top-notch. Rye shot the film’s exterior scenes in Salcombe, Devon; instead of the county of Cornwall. I found that curious. However, both he and cinematographer Peter Bartlett certainly took advantage of the movie’s setting with Bartlett’s photography of Salcombe’s charming, Old World style. This was especially apparent in the movie’s opening sequence that featured Poirot and Hasting’s arrival by airplane. Actually, production designer Mike Oxley did an excellent job of recreating an English vacation resort in the early 1930s. The production practically reeked of the Art Deco style of that time period. However, I was especially impressed by Linda Mattock’s costume designs. I was especially impressed by those costumes worn by actresses Polly Walker, Pauline Moran and Alison Sterling. My only complaints about the movie’s visual styles were the actresses’ hairstyles. No one seemed capable of re-creating the early 1930s soft bob. The actresses either wore a chignon or in the case of Sterling, a Dutch Boy bob made famous by actress Louise Brooks in the late 1920s.

“PERIL AT END HOUSE” featured some solid performances by the cast. David Suchet gave his usual excellent portrayal of Hercule Poirot. I was especially impressed by the on-screen chemistry he managed to produce with Polly Walker. The latter gave a standout performance as the killer’s main target, Madgala “Nick” Buckley. Walker did an excellent job of transforming Nick from the charming “Bright Young Thing” to a wary and frightened woman, who realizes that someone is trying to kill her. Alison Sterling was also excellent as one of Nick’s closest friends, “Freddie” Rice. Next to Walker’s Nick, Sterling gave an interesting and skillful portrayal of the very complex Freddie. Hugh Fraser, Pauline Moran and Philip Jackson were also excellent as Arthur Hastings, Miss Lemon and Chief Inspector Japp. All three, along with Suchet, managed to re-create their usual magic. The movie also featured solid performances from Paul Geoffrey (whom I found particularly convincing as an early 30s social animal), John Harding, Christopher Baines and Elizabeth Downes. I found the Australian accents utilized by Jeremy Young and Carol Macready, who portrayed the Crofts, rather wince inducing. But since their accents were supposed to be fake in the first place, I guess I had no problems.

For some reason, “PERIL AT END HOUSE” has never become a big favorite of mine. It is a well done adaptation of Christie’s novel. And I found it visually attractive, thanks to the movie’s production team. The movie also featured some excellent performances – especially from David Suchet, Polly Walker and Alison Sterling. Naturally, it is not perfect. But that is not the problem. I cannot explain my lack of enthusiasm for “PERIL AT END HOUSE”. I can only assume that I found nothing particularly mind blowing or fascinating about its plot. It is simply a good, solid murder mystery that has managed to entertain me on a few occasions. Perhaps . . . that is enough.