(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.