(Youtube Streaming, November 2018) It’s easy to like Arsenic and Old Lace if you already like Cary Grant—after all, the film is his showcase, as he goes from being a suave newlywed man of letters to becoming increasingly frantic as he discovers that his aunts and then his brother are all proficient serial killers in their own ways. It’s not a good thing to discover on one’s honeymoon, and things get crazier as he also tries to manage an insane uncle, friendly policemen and fights to stay alive given the presence of a psychopath or two. The black comedy of Arsenic and Old Lace is a bit surprising in a post-Code mid-1940s comedy, but the film did have a strong theatrical pedigree, being an adaptation of a long-running Broadway play. Frank Capra directs what is essentially a stage play with some flair (a bit of a departure from his usual fare), but much of the work is done by the actors. If you want to see a face-off between Cary Grant and Peter Lorre, well, this is your movie. Grant does play the role very broadly, but his facial expressions are terrific—the sequence in which he’s tied up and gagged has some hilarious comedy moments simply because of the way he uses his face and eyes. Grant hasn’t often played a character as out-of-control as in Arsenic and Old Lace, but it works largely because his usual persona is the one we see at the beginning of the film—what if such a person got in as bad a scrap as in here? There’s even a metafictional moment in which his character comments on the stupidity of stage characters … while making the exact same mistakes. The beginning of the film is a bit laborious, but like most farces it converges in time for a high-spirited last act in which everything collides. Some of the acting and staging choices will seem a bit on-the-nose, but Arsenic and Old Lace is still funny and still well-worth seeing today.
(On Cable TV, February 2018) There’s nothing new under the sun and that’s even truer when it comes to Hollywood movies, but it’s still a shock to see in It Happened One Night a template for the entire subgenre of romantic comedies as they’ve been made for the past eight decades. Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert star as (respectively) a rich spoiler heiress and a suave roguish newspaperman stuck together on a bus ride from Florida to New York. Their initial animosity eventually become something else, which complicates an upcoming high-society wedding. We’ve all seen what happens because the basic structure of the film has been reused time and time again. Frank Capra’s direction is as sure-footed as anything else he’s done (and still rivals many modern directors), while the film’s pre-Code status makes it just a bit franker and just a bit more alluring than the following three decades of movies. It has aged remarkably well—Gable and Colbert have good chemistry, and the script is strong on dialogue and single moments. (Ah, that hitchhiking scene…) I’m not so fond of the third-act shift away from the bus, but it does lead the film to its climactic finale. As I’m discovering more and more older movies, the nineteen-thirties are earning a special place in my own version of Hollywood history—a decade where the basics of cinema had been mastered to a level still recognizable as competent today, and (for a brief period before the Hays code) increasingly willing to push the envelope of what was permissible on-screen. It Happened One Night still feels fresh and fun—I can see it being a hit with wide audiences even today.
(On Cable TV, February 2018) As much as it pains me to say so, I’m having a bit of trouble properly assessing Mr. Deeds Goes to Town given the existence of the Adam Sandler remake Mr. Deeds. It shouldn’t be this way—Gary Cooper is a far more likable performer than Sandler, and the Frank Capra-directed original is a far more mature piece of work than the lowbrow remake. Still, both movies follow the same structure to such an extent that even a few weeks after seeing the original (oops; I should write these reviews sooner!) the two of them are blurring together. I’m reasonably confident that Winona Ryder wasn’t alive in 1936, though, so here goes: Highlights of the original include a warm performance from Gary Cooper, as well as a fascinating look at mid-thirties New York City, a surprisingly contemporary look at the gossip media news cycle, and a funny montage or two. (One of Capra’s strengths, even from today’s perspective, is his ability to use montages effectively.) It all amounts to an amiable movie, even a heart-warming one … even though its impact may be blunted in those who have seen the remake. I liked it, and while Mr. Deeds Goes to Town clearly show why Gary Cooper was a star, it also shows why Cooper isn’t as fondly remembered as Cary Grant (who was far better at comedy) or James Stewart (a more relatable everyday man). It’s certainly worth a look, even for those who have seen the remake.
(On Cable TV, February 2018) It’s practically impossible to be an American political junkie and not know about Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, given the film’s stature as a statement about the American political system and its iconic representation of James Stewart as a filibusterer. Curiously enough, though, I had never seen the film. Not so curiously enough, I had seen enough of James Stewart to be an unqualified fan of the actor even before watching Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. That may explain why I spent most of the film in a buoyant joy, watching one of my all-time favourite actor in a film that, perhaps now more than ever, still resonates as an eloquent paean to the ideals of American-style democracy despite the messiness of its practice. It wasn’t necessarily perceived as such, though—If I believe the contemporary snippets quoted on the film’s Wikipedia page, the film was initially condemned for its cynical take on the corruption of the system, and the idealistic nature of its protagonist’s struggles. But while such an approach may have shocked well-meaning commentators then, it may strike contemporary viewers as healthy informed idealism today. Corruption is a natural enemy of governance at all times (now more than ever, considering a current presidential administration that spins off a new scandal every three days) but a healthy government has ways to fight back, and it sometimes takes just one person with the right ideals to make things happen. I still think that the film ends without a satisfying coda, that Stewart’s character is initially presented as too much of a simpleton, and that we don’t see nearly enough of Jean Arthur. On the other hand, Frank Capra’s film remains just as sharp and compelling today as it was—even the climactic filibuster sequence, with its near-real-time popular manipulation and reaction, still plays exceptionally well in this age of constant news cycle. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is an acknowledged classic for a reason, and you don’t have to be a political junkie nor a James Stewart devotee to understand why.
(On Cable TV, February 2018) Despite James Stewart’s considerable charm (and here he has the chance to play as pure a young romantic lead as he ever got), it took me a while to warm up to You Can’t Take it with You. Despite an eccentric cast of characters, it takes a long time for the comedy to truly take off. Fortunately, this happens midway through, as an explosive sequence is followed up by a rather amusing courtroom sequence. That’s when director Frank Capra feels freest to truly unleash the madness of his characters, and what it means for the plot. Less successful is the film’s last act, which focuses on more manners moral lessons (it’s right there in the title), lessening the film’s laugh quotient but ensuring that it would present an easy moral lesson fit for the film to win that year’s Best Picture Oscar. This being said, the film is not a chore to watch even today. James Stewart is always good, of course, while Lionel Barrymore is unusually sympathetic as the patriarch of an oddball family and 15-year-old Ann Miller makes an impression as the family’s dance-crazy daughter. The film’s mid-point highlight is good for a few laughs, and even easy moral lessons can work well in wrapping up a satisfying viewing experience. As a checkmark for best Picture completists, it’s an odd but not a bothersome entry.
(On TV, December 2017) I’ve always liked James Stewart, but after the one-two combination of The Shop around the Corner and It’s a Wonderful Life, he has now ascended even higher in my own pantheon of actors. It’s hard to resist the charms of his performance in It’s a Wonderful Life, as central as he is to the film’s success. After all, on paper it sounds like a snore: A man being shown (by an angel, no less) the impact of his life? Not promising. And yet, after a rough start that goes all-in on divine intervention, the magic starts happening as we follow Stewart’s character as he ages and develops. Writer/director Frank Capra was a veteran at the time of the film’s production and his skill is evident throughout. It’s a Wonderful Life has that elusive scene-to-scene watchability, as we can’t resist wanting to know what will happen next, even though we can certainly guess the outline of the plot before it happens. Much has been said about the film’s inspirational quality, and despite my skepticism the film does deliver on these promises—so much so that, midway through the movie, I paused it and made a difficult (but important) phone call that I’d been putting off for a while. All part of trying to measure up to James Stewart’s character. While I have issues with many of the film’s more maudlin moments (and suspect that I’m opposed to a few of its major themes), I’m rather pleased to report that It’s a Wonderful Life worked as well on me as it worked on several generations so far. Far from aging, it has become quite an amazing time capsule. Plus, hey, James Stewart.