(On Cable TV, December 2019) There’s a blend of familiarity and strangeness at play in The Crowd Roars that I find quite interesting. On the familiar side, this is a racing film, and it’s directed by Howard Hawks. You get much of what we’ve come to expect from both Hawks (action, tough men and articulate women) and from car racing films. The dramatic arc is intensely melodramatic, but we know where we are and there aren’t many surprises along the way. But there’s an alien quality to The Crowd Roars that makes it interesting as well. As one of the first sound films to look at auto racing, it reflects the rougher, sometimes fatal nature of such events—different cars, different attitudes toward accidents as well. It’s clear that the film comes from a Pre-Code time when the grammar of racing sequences was still being defined—there’s some surprisingly good racing footage here, as well as some jarring rear-projection work that does not do any favours to the actors. James Cagney stars as a borderline-unlikable protagonist, but he doesn’t quite fit the role and isn’t as intense here as other films of the era. Ann Dvorak and Joan Blondell are more interesting as the romantic interests (spurned by the men!) Hawks’ work here is decent but not overly impressive: he gets the importance of thrilling audiences, but his interest in the film doesn’t seem to extend to the dramatic moments. The Crowd Roar is not an essential film—in many ways, it feels like the kind of material that Warner Brothers churned out by obligation at the time. But it does present an interesting glimpse into racing at the dawn of the 1930s, perhaps the best we have captured on film. Given this, it may be worth a particular look for those interested in cars and their portrayal in Hollywood history.
(On Cable TV, July 2019) There’s a very odd quality to Mister Roberts that makes itself known early on, as this “war movie” remains behind the front lines, spending its time with the crew of a supply ship that never gets close to the front. The forced comedy of the first few scenes feels amazingly close to the anarchic spirit of 1970’s MASH at times, with sailor goofing off in between their war effort, characters intentionally shirking their duties (most notably Jack Lemmon) and the title character (Henry Fonda) trying to shield his crew from an irascible captain (James Cagney). The main cast is intriguing, but the rhythm of the film feels forced, making jokes that remain unfunny and multiplying the episodes that don’t amount to much. The material is there for an examination of men at-war-but-not-at-war, but Mister Roberts, perhaps shackled by source material (it was first a novel and then a Broadway play), seems split between rambling dialogues, incongruous voiceovers and mildly annoying characters. It does feel like a film out of time, more at ease in the anti-war movies of the 1970s than the still-triumphant mood of 1950s WW2 films. (I’m actually amazed that the film got the full cooperation of the US Navy for location shooting.) Mister Roberts’ plot does get better as the film advances, but it leads to a tragic conclusion that feels at odds with the rest of the film.
(On Cable TV, March 2019) At times, it can be fascinating to go back in history to see how the modern shape of cinema came together—how the elements we now take for granted were assembled over decades of small refinements and audience reactions to various experiments. It’s obvious that The Public Enemy is a formative work of crime movies—it’s often mentioned in histories of the genre, and even casual cinephiles are likely to have encountered critical commentary about James Cagney’s prominence in gangster movies of the 1930s. The Public Enemy is framed as a semi-realistic depiction of gangster activity at a time when America was still hungover from Prohibition and pre-Code cinema was trying to figure out the balance between good taste and audience thrills. As such, it’s definitely intriguing—you can see when the filmmakers are trying to get a rise out of the audience (hence the domestic abuse scene featuring a grapefruit in Mae Clarke’s face, still as shocking now as it was then), but also how they ensured that the criminals repented and were punished for their actions. This being said, it hasn’t always aged particularly well, even though its filmmaking techniques were decent for the time and director William A. Wellman used a number of unusual shots. It’s not the film’s fault—it’s that we’re used now to what was novel and exciting then. If you’re watching The Public Enemy for entertainment rather than cinema history, don’t be surprised to find it a tepid viewing at best, and at worst kind of dull.
(On Cable TV, February 2019) I’m done apologizing for the way I can’t process Shakespearian dialogue. Fortunately, there’s enough in the 1930s version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream to get us into a surprisingly detailed early example of a fantasy film. As my attention wandered from the dialogue and plot, I was left to admire nearly everything else: The great sets and costumes, as well as the vivid imagination on display. Remove Shakespeare’s name from the credits, and there’s still enough here to make this a modest masterpiece of early fantasy filmmaking. Clearly, the filmmakers saw in Shakespeare the license to go wild (comparatively speaking) in terms of fantastic creatures, wondrous realism and other tropes of the genre what would be developed decades later. If tracing the evolution of fantasy moviemaking isn’t your thing, then maybe you’d be interested in a very early role for Mickey Rooney, or seeing Olivia de Havilland and James Cagney once more. Still, I’m more appreciative of the fantasy filmmaking aspect: there weren’t that many big-budget fantasy movies at that time, and this one fills an early slot in the development of the subgenre.
(On Cable TV, February 2018) Most reviews boil down to reasons why viewers would want to see a film (or not) and trying to comment on older movies usually filters that answer through a contemporary perspective: what would viewers enjoy (or not) from this film considering today’s perspective? For White Heat, the three main points are; a solid crime story, interesting period detail and James Cagney. White Heat presents the last years of a career criminal, as he gets arrested, goes to prison, escapes and hatches a new plan. The finale is explosive, with “Made it, Ma! Top of the world!” still a reference for movie buffs. Still, the story itself is well crafted and Cagney’s performance is truly enjoyable. The psychodynamics of his character’s attachment to his mom is still rich fodder for crime movie inspiration, along with some femme fatale material, a police informer, a gripping prison mess hall scene and a steadily engrossing story. Nearly seventy years later, there is also a bit of fascination in seeing White Heat take on techno-thriller plot devices, notably in explaining the minutia of radio tracking. It all amounts to a solid and satisfying crime thriller that holds up even today.
(On Cable TV, December 2017) I really wasn’t expecting much from Yankee Doodle Dandy other than checking off a list of classic movies I should see, so imagine my surprise when I started to be honestly engaged in the film. Initially drawn in by the time-capsule aspect of the film (as a 1942 framing device leads us to late 1800s vaudeville, and then the birth of Hollywood musicals), I really started enjoying myself in-between the honestly funny comic routines inspired by state work and the birth of American musical movies. Academy Award-winner James Cagney (looking like a young Anthony Hopkins?) shows some serious skills in giving life to actor/composer/dancer George M. Cohan through some sixty-some years. By the time the film ends, we’ve been given front-row seats to a highly dramatized depiction of the evolution of American entertainment from theatre to movies, as well as a full biography ending with a striking piece of palatable pro-American patriotism both in topic matter and presentation. The re-creation of lavish stage spectacles is striking, many of the tunes are toe-tapping good and the film remains sporadically very funny even now. Add to that some directorial flourishes from Michael Curtiz (most notably a sequence charting the evolution of Cohan’s Broadway shows) and you’ve got the makings of an unexpected great movie that has appreciated in the seventy-five years since its release. I’ve been watching more older movies lately, and Yankee Doodle Dandy is the kind of happy discovery that will keep me going deeper into the archives.