(On Cable TV, February 2019) There are, even today, many reasons to see Saratoga Trunk. The best is probably seeing Ingrid Bergman at her most radiant, and playing opposite Gary Cooper. Otherwise, it can be fun to follow the plot of the story (adapted from a then-best-selling novel) as it moves from New Orleans revenge to Saratoga Springs husband hunting to transcontinental railroad brawling and such. There’s a lot of material crammed in the film’s 135 minutes running time. The production values of the film are high, with plenty of overwrought costume drama. (Flora Robson is a highlight.) It’s clearly from another era—never mind the blackface for one of the performers, how about the radically different social expectations for women? This being said, you can like melodramatic 1940s Hollywood productions without necessarily being entirely convinced by them: there’s a sumptuous nature to some of Saratoga Trunk’s sequences that’s pure Golden Age, and there are few better exemplars than Bergman and Cooper at it.
(On Cable TV, January 2019) Not having seen all of Howard Hawks’ filmography, I’m not entirely qualified to say that he’s never made a bad movie, but Sergeant York is a powerful argument that he’s made at least one average one. This is from a contemporary perspective, of course: Back in 1941, Sergeant York was the perfect combination of a veteran director, a superstar actor and the story of a famous WW1 hero. The titular Alvin York was (and remains) a legend in American military history—a rural God-fearing boy who became a soldier reluctantly, but ended the war with an impressive marksmanship record and the Medal of Honor. The film does dive into the duality of York’s character as being both very religious and a terrifying marksman, but does end up chalking it up to divine intervention. That played by gangbusters back in 1941, but from a contemporary perspective this is squarely a propaganda film: the values espoused here happen to be the perfect values to convince a generation of boys to enlist in the looming WW2—humility, obedience, marksmanship and as few moral qualms about killing as many enemies as possible even if you have to go through impressive rationalizations to keep both your bible and your rifle. Gary Cooper is up to his usual all-American bland self: solid without taking up much of the spotlight, an ideal model for the impressionable audience. There are many, many intriguing points of comparison between Sergeant York and the 2014 American Sniper if anyone cares to look. It doesn’t help the film’s blunt-edged persuasive intent that it feels very long, especially—surprisingly!—toward the end when everything should be wrapping up. It’s easy to see why the film was a smash hit upon release, but it has aged far less gracefully than many of its contemporaries, especially for non-American audiences. If Sergeant York still works today, it’s largely because of Hawks’ skills and Cooper’s charisma.
(On TV, June 2018) There is, at first, not a lot to distinguish High Noon from countless other westerns—there’s the hero (getting married), there are villains waiting for their boss. A confrontation is coming to a small Western town, and that seems to be the extent of it. But High Noon does go farther than that—first, by taking place in near-real time, it does create more tension than a less time-compressed film, especially as our retiring hero fails to find allies in confronting the coming threat. It culminates in a classic shootout in which help comes from an unlikely place, and concludes with a highly skeptical look at some of the Western’s most cherished clichés. It helps that rock-solid Gary Cooper (looking a bit older than his prime) stars as a good man forced to take one last stand. Grace Kelly is merely fine as the newlywed bride, but Katy Jurado is more eye-catching as a source of wisdom. Keep your eyes open for smaller performances from Lloyd Bridges and Lee van Cleef. Director Fred Zinnemann keeps things stirring until the climactic shootout, and High Noon has survived admirably well 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.