(On Cable TV, December 2018) I’m consciously watching all twentieth-century versions of A Star is Born back-to-back-to-back, and the first stop has to be the original 1937 film that codified it all. (Yes, I’m aware of What Price Hollywood? No, I don’t have it on hand.) The first shock is in the first frame—This A Star is Born is in colour, at a time when only a handful of Hollywood weren’t in black-and-white. Then comes the clichés: The young girl with a dream, going to Hollywood to strike it big. Even knowing a lot about 1930s films, it’s not clear to me what’s a cliché and what’s a then-witty attempt at openly poking fun as the Hollywood dream machine: Certainly, seeing a bus, a train and a plane arrive to “The City of Los Angeles” one after another suggests that the screenwriters were clearly aware, even in those early decades, about the satirical potential of their story. Still, it is a rough prototype of later version, sometimes delivering good scenes and at other times prototyping a basic idea to be developed in later remakes. I really liked the “switchboard” scene, which to my knowledge is unique to this version of the story (as is the strictly non-musical focus of the star’s skills). This first version of A Star is Born is a fascinating film in its own way, if only for the time-travel aspect of it. Alas, my viewing experience was marred by a muddy low-resolution picture from a TV channel largely indifferent to good presentation. This may have been a problem.(Second viewing, On Cable TV, June 2019) I decided to give this version of A Star is Born another shot when I was able to watch it in as good a high-definition version as possible on TCM rather than from a standard-definition channel of dubious fidelity to the original. The good news are that the picture and sound are quite a bit better without being spectacular—this is one of the earliest mass-market colour movies, and it’s not surprising if the image is rough (even TCM has a version scanned from a print that played in theatres—scratches, pops, discoloured spots, cigarette burns and all) and the colours are washed out. Still, this is far better than my first viewing and it helped a lot in staying immersed in the experience. Going back to the 1930s quasi-original (I’ve got What Price Hollywood? lined up next) after watching the 1950s, 1950s and 2010s version is interesting in that you can see some of the roots of the later versions. A lot more of the 2010s version is in the 1930s film than you’d think, for instance—including the “I just wanted to see you again” sequence in a slightly different format. This 1937 version has a lot more humour than you’d think considering the dramatic ending of all versions of the story—some of the dialogue is particularly snarky, which I’m tempted to attribute to Dorothy Parker as one of the credited screenwriters. Janet Gaynor and Fredric March are fine as the leads, but my attention this time around was more interested in Lionel Stander’s darkly hilarious turn as an exasperated publicist symbolizing early Hollywood’s hunger for celebrity spin. (A version of his character would pop up again in the 2018 version.) Speaking of which—the more I learn about classic Hollywood, the most interesting this sometimes-satire becomes. Still, it’s the scene-by-scene execution that remains the film’s biggest draw: it’s far more fun to watch than you’d imagine for a film more than eighty years old, and the fact that it’s in colour keeps it more accessible than many of its contemporaries.
(On Cable TV, June 2018) I never thought I’d reach a point in my cinephilia where I could talk knowledgeably about the 1920, 1931 and 1940 versions of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but here we are. The 1920 version has John Barrymore wearing prosthetics, exposed ankles (i.e.: charmingly quaint ideas about morality) and first-mover advantage, while the 1940 version has Spencer Tracy managing Mr. Hyde without prosthetics or (much) makeup beyond messed-up hair, and much-improved technical credentials. But I’m increasingly partial to the 1931 version for Fredric March’s unchained take on the character, and numerous directorial flourishes including a spectacular subjective opening shot that incorporates still-impressive special effects trickery. Given that the 1931 version is a pre-Code film, it features notably more risqué content than both the 1921 and 1940 version, making it more honest to the themes of the original work. Hyde feels more dangerous because he’s not as restrained as in the other versions. Otherwise, the story is the story … but as a comparative viewing of all three version will show, the 1931 is the best execution of it. Amazingly enough, this 1931 version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde film is said to have completely disappeared between 1940 (when the owner of the Spencer Tracy version bought back all the copies they could find and denied rental requests by keeping the film in their vaults) and the early seventies, at which point it started being shown again. Count your blessings in being able to see it and compare it with the other versions.
(On Cable TV, May 2018) In between Seven Days in May, Dr. Strangelove and Fail-Safe, 1964 was a big, big year for black-and-white techno-thrillers in Hollywood. Dr. Strangelove distinguished itself through black comedy and Fail-Safe made few compromises in showing a nightmare scenario, leaving Seven Days in May as the more average film, although this is a relative term when discussing a film in which the United States government discovers an impending military coup and tries to defuse it before it’s too late. The black-and-white cinematography highlights the non-nonsense atmosphere that the film is going for, trying to make the unthinkable at least plausible. There is something admirable to the way the film builds not to an explosive guns-and-explosion confrontation, but to a quiet climax in which the would-be traitors are sent scurrying, and the country avoids a dramatic confrontation that would have had terrible consequences. The film works hard at instilling a basic credibility to its plotting, even with some then-near-future technological touches such as video screens. The tension is there, and being able to rely on capable actors such as Kirk Douglas, Fredric March (at the close of a long career), Ava Gardner or Burt Lancaster. Director John Frankenheimer made his reputation on thriller much like Seven Days in May, and is still effective today. Compared to its two other 1964 techno-thrillers, the film has aged very well—it may be hard to imagine nuclear war today, but overthrowing a president is still within the realm of possibility…
(On Cable TV, March 2018) There have been a lot of World War II movies, but comparatively fewer post-WW2 films. Released in 1946 and taking a look at the struggles of servicemen coming back home after a long time abroad, The Best Years of our Lives surely qualified as a “social issues” movie when it came out. Fortunately, it does capture the dynamics of the moment well enough to be worth a look even seventy years later. Of our three protagonists, one is an older man coming back home to adult kids and a senior banking job; another is an ex-soda jerk struggling to go back to lower-class jobs after a rewarding tour as a bombing navigator; a third (played by a real-life amputee) sees his disability as a disqualifying factor in his relationship. All three interact in various ways, break established patterns and reveal themselves to have been changed by their experience. Of note here is Harold Russell, an amputated non-actor delivering a performance so impressive it won no fewer than two Oscars. (Nominated in the Supporting Actor category but expected to lose, the Academy gave an honorary Oscar to Russell … only to see him win the competitive category as well.) Fredric March is also quite likable as the visibly older man reintegrating a comfortable position. It does have the quirks of a mid-forties film, but the drama is solid, generally palatable to a modern audience (including a daring-for-the-time subplot of a married man justifiably leaving his wife) and still well-observed even today. The ripped-from-headlines nature of The Best Years of our Lives has aged very well in a credible depiction of an overlooked facet of history and the result is surprisingly good even today.