Sunday, July 31, 2011

It Happened One Night (1934)

This film swept all four of the major Oscars (Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Director)  in 1934, a still-unprecedented feat, and skyrocketed the careers of Clark Gable and director Frank Capra in the process. This, incidentally, was the first black-and-white movie I saw as a child, and I still enjoy it as much in my mid-twenties as I did the first time I saw it at the age of eight. The reason for its enduring charm has to do with the humor, which entertains on enough levels to satisfy both the puerile and sophisticated intellects. It also fulfills all the functions of a successful romantic comedy, and does it with enough flair to keep our interest regardless of the fact that we know the inevitable conclusion.

Of course the real story of It Happened One Night is that everyone apart from Capra thought it was a horrible idea. Gable was "condemned" to the role as a disciplinary action by his parent studio MGM, loaning him out to Columbia to combat his insubordination. Colbert also did not relish her part, but complied only because they paid her a hefty sum and promised to complete filming in less than four weeks, which they did. Indeed, both stars issued apologies to Capra when they won their Oscars, but you could never tell they were unhappy from the fine performances they gave. In fact their frustration might have helped to hone the sardonic humor and sexual tension of both their characters.

The plot revolves around runaway heiress Ellen Andrews (Claudette Colbert) trying to get from Miami to New York in order to be reunited with her husband from whom she was torn away at the altar. Her father, however, is hot on her trail with an army of detectives and offering a huge reward for her whereabouts. Ellie is a resourceful girl, but spoiled and sheltered to the point where she needs the help of the wisecracking reporter Peter Warne in order to remain incognito. Despite their mutual disdain for each other, they agree to a deal: Peter helps Ellie back to her husband, and in return he gets an exclusive story about her epic journey - in which the unlikely couple travel by Greyhound, foot, hitchhiking, and whatever else will get the back to the Big Apple.  Of course they fall in love along the way, and sort through the usual cliche misunderstandings before they finally live happily ever after.

Probably the most iconic scene in the movie is the hitchhiking scene, in which Ellie proves the power of sex appeal by showing her legs in order to get a car to stop for them. Apparently Colbert initially refused to do the scene because she considered it vulgar, but she relented when she heard they were going to use a body double, saying her legs were plenty good enough to show on camera. My favorite parts are undoubtedly the "Walls of Jericho" scene and all the times that Peter becomes didactic about things like hitchhiking, dunking donuts, and piggyback rides. I don't want to spoil too much for people who have yet to see the film, but the ending is pretty memorable and has been parodied countless of time. I also can't overstate the influence of this film on the romantic comedy genre, an influence that has been transmitted down to this day.

I give this film an 8.5 out of ten, highly influential and highly entertaining.


Buy it from Amazon:
It Happened One Night (Remastered Black & White)

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Duck Soup (1933)

This Marx Brothers outing is considered by many to be the best movie that highly talented fraternal troupe ever made. It was also the last film to feature Zeppo before he retired to become a talent agent, so it marks the end of the "early" Marx Brothers films. I personally welcome the new epoch, since my four favorite Marx Brothers films are A Night at the Opera, A Day at the Races, The Big Store, and A Night in Casablanca - all of which were made after Zeppo's departure. The youngest Marx Brother was essentially a straight man to his three much more talented siblings, and he just didn't have the personality to stand up to their madcap antics. Thus his leaving not only didn't harm the brothers as an act, but may also have succeeded in sharpening their comedy.

In order to appreciate Duck Soup to the fullest degree, you have to be careful to avoid the preconceived notions that many film critics attach to it. Despite what they may say, Duck Soup is NOT a brilliant satire on Nazism - there are many other movies that fill this role such as Chaplain's The Great Dictator and Ernst Lubisch's To Be or Not to Be,  but the Marx Brothers neither try nor inadvertently succeed in making a film that's goal is to lampoon Hitler. It's easy to want to see their work in that light because of their Jewish heritage and the fact that they are indeed satirizing politics and occasionally taking shots at fascism, but anyone who comes to this film expecting a strong, humorous offensive against the Third Reich is sure to be disappointed.

That being said, this is still a very good performance by the Marx Brothers, with Groucho stealing the show as usual. In this one he plays a fast-talker who is given control of the country of Freedonia with predictably disastrous results. Everyone always seems to remember the iconic scene where Freedonia declares war, and then the brothers sing about it. It really is a clever sequence, completely over-the-top and all the better for it. Other than that, it's pretty typical fare with Groucho wisecracking, Harpo doing slapstick, and Chico making immigrant slurs in a bad Italian accent. Still, the comedy doesn't feel stale, so it ends up working out rather well.

I give this film 7.4 out of ten, a fun a silly comic romp.

Friday, July 29, 2011

You Can't Take It with You (1938)

This oft-overlooked entry in the Capra canon actually won Best Picture in 1938, deservedly so too, since it's probably the funniest film Capra ever made. Based on the Kaufman and Hart play, the film greatly expands on the original material to make it into much more of a social commentary in addition to a comedy. Ostensibly it starts Jean Arthur, James Stewart, and Lionel Barrymore, but it's much more of an ensemble show, and the real stars are all the unforgettable minor characters.

The Broadway play You Can't Take It with You was very much a comedy of culture clash between the free-spirited Vanderhof clan and the Kirbys, a family of straight-laced socialites. Capra augments this difference so that Mr. Kirby (Edward Arnold) is a greedy venture capitalist whose latest plan involves buying up a large chunk of the city to build a new factor, and unbeknownst to him, Grandpa Vanderhof (a great performance by Lionel Barrymore) is the one man who refuses to sell his land. The direct conflict begins when Kirby's son Tony (James Stewart) gets engaged to Vanderhof's granddaughter Alice (Jean Arthur), and she invites the wealthy financier to meet her family, desperate for the Kirbys' approval before she weds their son. Despite her desire to make a good impression, her fiance is equally adamant that his parents see her family as they really are, she he purposely brings them there on the wrong night, and great comedy inevitably ensues, including Mr. Kirby's plans to strong-arm the Vanderhofs into selling backfiring on him while he's a guest under their roof.

As I said before, it's the character actors that really make this film memorable, so let me name off some of my favorite performances. In one of her earliest film roles, we are treated to Ann Miller as Jean Arthur's ballet-crazy sister, who can't quite hide her technical prowess, even though she's supposed to be playing a novice. We also have Mischa Auer stealing the show as her Russian dance instructor Kolinkov, for whom everything "stinks," and Eddie "Rochester" Anderson as their housekeeper's lazy boyfriend. I won't give away much more, lest I spoil the comedy gold., but I'll suffice to say that this is one of the few films that made me split my sides with laughter the first time I saw it.

Being a Capra film, of course, we get a moral message handed to us, but I think he may have been trying a little too hard to squeeze one out of this plot. Certainly it fits well with the rejection of materialism and "Love thy neighbor" theme he'd already established in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town,  but it doesn't really challenge us in the same way. Whereas in Deeds we get a sense of the hero being a Don Quixote figure, whose naive vision might border on lunacy - hence the sanity trial - in You Can't Take It with You we are sure from the beginning that the Vanderhof clan is in the right despite their quirks, so it loses the inherent drama in that sense. Still, this is a minor quibble, as the plotline is still effective, just not so much as it could be.

For once I'm going to agree with IMDb and give this movie a 8 out of 10. It's a good adaptation of a good play with great acting and great direction.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Easter Parade (1948)

Fred Astaire and Judy Garland together in the same film? The combination is not completely intuitive, but it works wonderfully, as producer Arthur Freed proved in this 1948 outing. The idea of teaming Astaire with a singer had been tried before to good effect. He had, in fact, made two movies with Bing Crosby: Holiday Inn and Blue Skies, but had never been paired with a female singer before. Easter Parade was originally intended as a vehicle for Gene Kelly and Judy Garland - Fred Astaire being completely off the radar because he retired the year before. When Kelly broke his leg during rehearsals, however, MGM begged Astaire to take his place - and apparently they didn't have to ask very hard. It's a good thing they did, too, because Astaire would continue to make films for the next fifteen years, producing some of his best-remembered works such as Royal Wedding, and The Band Wagon along with the film I'm reviewing today.

Set around 1910, Easter Parade follows the career of a vaudeville dancer (Fred Astaire) who loses his partner (Ann Miller) and must look for a girl to take her place. In a fit of drunken frustration, he bets that he can take any girl out of a chorus line and turn her into a star. Judy Garland ends up being the victim of this arrangement, and Astaire soon finds that she has no talent for the elegant ballroom dancing that is the staple of his act. Ironically, he is so mired in his personal angst that he remains oblivious to the fact that Judy's primary asset is not her feet but her voice, but when he finally discovers this, their act becomes a smash success. Of course by this point Garland has fallen madly in love with him, but Astaire remains stuck on his ex-partner, who is stuck on his friend (Peter Lawford), who is stuck on Judy, creating a hilarious circle of unrequited love. In the typical fashion of musical comedies, however, Astaire comes to realize that Garland is a much better option, and after some songs and dances, they all live happily ever after.

The highlight of this film for me is Astaire's big number, "Steppin' Out with My Baby," one of his all-time great tap routines, his absolutely joyous "Drum Crazy" solo, the "Couple of Swells" duet with Judy, and Ann Miller's "Shakin' the Blues Away." The music is a compilation of Irving Berlin hits plus a few written especially for this picture such as "It Only Happens When I Dance with You," which was inspired by Judy Garland. This being the case, there are no bad tunes in the bunch, though a few such as "Down on the Farm" are merely good and not excellent. Similarly, with Fred Astaire and Ann Miller doing the dances, none of those numbers fall flat either. It should be a great thrill for audiences to watch the undisputed best male dancer in Hollywood perform alongside a talented female dancer like Ann Miller, but their numbers together lack the romance we see in Astaire's parings with dancers like Ginger Rogers and Rita Hayworth because in this film his character and Ann Miller's never share the same love connection. This is not to say that the numbers aren't highly enjoyable, but they're not quite on the same level as some of Astaire's best pairings.

Before I close this review, I have to say that I love Judy's conundrum in the final scene of how to let a man know that she's in love with him: men are so difficult to buy for. The gender reversal she comes up with is just brilliant, as is Astaire's reaction to it.

I give this movie a 7.9 out of 10, a prime example of the great MGM musicals.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

1-Year Anniversary List: My 10 Top Favorite Leading Men of the Golden Age of Film

Exactly one year ago today, I wrote my first review for Seeing Seepia, a list of my favorite films of the 1930s, minus 1939 (for obvious reasons). Although I have been sporadic in updating my blog, but I think everything deserves a birthday celebration, so today I bring you a list of my top 10 favorite leading men from Hollywood's Golden Age. These are all actors I like so much that I will watch any of their films purely because they're in it.

Like all my list, this one is entirely subjective and is rated solely on how much I enjoy their performances. As you can see from some of the entries, it's not a list of "heartthrobs," but instead based partially on their acting prowess and partially on my personal preference. Many of them, however, are quite handsome, and the top two I freely and openly admit to be rather smitten with them.

And the winners are...

10. Gary Cooper
There are four Gary Cooper films that everyone should see at least once in their lives. They are: High Noon, The Pride of the Yankees, Sergeant York, and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. Primarily a western actor, High Noon is perhaps most indicative of his overall body of work, playing tough but morally-grounded cowboys. It can be argued that he portrays essentially the same type of character in Mr. Deeds and Yankees, but this is because no one except perhaps Jimmy Stewart was as good as Cooper at capturing earnest naivete. In the latter film, people always talk about the heartbreaking final scene where he gives Lou Gehrig's famous farewell speech, but I think even more touching is the scene immediately before where he and his wife both try to put on a brave face for each other, unaware that the other one knows Gehrig is dying. Sergeant York is the film for which Cooper won an Oscar, and is perhaps the one which best encapsulates both the earnestness of Mr. Deeds and Yankees while also showing the tough-guy side made famous in the westerns.

9. Clark Gable
This choice is as much in honor of my grandmother as it is from my own opinion, for it was she who insisted as a child that I should appreciate Gable as an actor. Of course everyone remembers him as Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind, but perhaps his best role was that of smart-mouthed reporter Peter Warne in the classic romantic comedy It Happened One Night, the film which almost single-handedly put him on this list for me. If you haven't ever seen that movie, it's absolutely essential that you do so now. leave this review until you get done. I also enjoy Gable in the films San Francisco and Mutiny on the Bounty, but can't really warm up to many of his post-WWII roles, which is why he ranks comparatively low on this list. He was, however, the biggest male star of the '30s by far, and the subject of the Judy Garland hit song "Dear Mr. Gable," cementing his heartthrob status that remains strong to this day.

8. Errol Flynn
Of course the silver screen's greatest swashbuckler has to make his appearance on this list. Flynn got his break playing a man driven to piracy in Captain Blood, and he cut such a dashing figure that Warner Brothers decided to keep him in tights and wielding a sword for most of his pictures as well as continuing to team him with Olivia de Havilland with whom he had excellent on-screen chemistry. It should be noted that Flynn was an accomplished fencer who did all his own work on his film, and his rapport with De Havilland may have had something to do with the fact that he was smitten with her, though she refused his advances because the rakish actor was already married. Flynn's roguish charm and good looks in addition to his prowess action scenes ensures that he will continue to enthrall audiences in the future as much as he did back in the '30s and '40s. Apart from the classic swashbuckler roles, the greatest of which was undoubtedly 1938's The Adventures of Robin Hood, Flynn also did a fair amount of westerns, war pictures, and even a classic romantic comedy Four's a Crowd with - no surprise - Olivia de Havilland.

7. William Powell
Powell ranks high on this list almost purely for his work in My Man Godfrey and The Thin Man series with Myrna Loy. He also was famous for portraying the title role in The Great Ziegfeld and the father in Life with Father, but is perhaps more beloved for the first two films I mentioned.

Ironically, Powell mostly played the roles of either debonair gentlemen or impudent scoundrels, and he was equally good at being sincerely snobbish or completely irreverent  (Perhaps the knowledge of how to do one extreme so well aided him in performing the other). His partnership with Myrna Loy worked so well because she could stand up to him and exchange verbal barbs with him without seeming put upon. Powell really is unforgettable as the hard-drinking, smart-mouthed detective Nick Charles in the The Thin Man series, and Powell and Loy were such an explosive combination that they were teamed up for several pictures besides the six Thin Man entries. Most of these other films are forgettable, but 1936's Libeled Lady with Spencer Tracy and Jean Harlow is a legitimately good romantic comedy. Similarly, Powell's final screen outing was quite memorable, nearly stealing the show as Doc in Mister Roberts.

6. Leslie Howard
I always think it a great pity that Howard never got the opportunity to play my favorite fictional character of all time, Lord Peter Wimsey, because he had both the looks and personality to carry it off as no other person could possibly do. A famed Shakespearean actor, Howard was picked up by Hollywood once the talkies came in to do films of both the Bard as well as other great stage and literary works. He was also instrumental in advancing the film career of the promising young actor Humphrey Bogart, whom he brought in to reprise his Broadway role in The Petrified Forest. As a kid, I didn't appreciate Howard because the only thing I'd seen him in was Gone with the Wind, which, incidentally, I seem to be committing heresy against by ranking the actor who played Ashley above the one who played Rhett.

Apart from his part in that famed romantic saga, Howard's most famous role was probably that of Henry Higgins in the 1938 version of Pygmalion and the title role in The Scarlet Pimpernel opposite Merle Oberon. He also did a very credible Romeo opposite Oberon's Juliet in 1935, despite being far too old for the part. Like all great actors, Howard had the ability to elevate even mediocre fare, and was surprisingly good in screwball comedies such as It's Love I'm After with Bette Davis and Olivia DeHaviland where he parodied his fame as a Shakespearean actor to great effect. Sadly, he died in the Second World War, aged just 50, having made numerous war films for the British government and also working for British intelligence.

5. James "Jimmy" Stewart
If you looked only at his Capra and Hitchock ouevre, Stewart would be immortal with such performances in such films Mr. Smith Goes to WashingtonIt's a Wonderful LifeVertigoand Rear Window, and The Man Who Knew Too Much (he also did Rope  for Hitchcock and You Can't Take It with You for Capra, but those films aren't as well remembered). Much like Bogart, Stewart got his start playing villains in films like After the Thin Man, but he was soon discovered by Capra, who propelled him into stardom by casting him as idealistic youths. With his awkward, lanky features and lisping voice, Stewart came to perfectly embody the American everyman, and would continue to play such roles until the end of the 1940s. As he reached middle age, however, Stewart was picked up by Hitchcock, who saw in him the potential for cynical, tortured souls - perhaps the natural conclusion for characters once filled with hope and idealism.

Although he gave many Oscar-worthy performances, Stuart received only one statuette, garnering that tribute ostensibly for his part in The Philadelphia Story, though it's generally considered a make-up Oscar for his snubbing in Mr. Smith the year before. Apart from his two famous Capra roles, my favorite Stewart character has to be Jeff Jefferies from Rear Window, a bored invalid-turned-voyeur who solves a murder by watching his neighbor's suspicious actions.

4. Humphrey Bogart
Of all the actors on this list, Bogart probably has uttered the most iconic lines. Then again, he probably has uttered more than any other actor, period. Well, that's what you get for being in Casablanca. "Here's looking at you, kid," "We'll always have Paris," "Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine," "I stick my neck out for no one," and, of course, the apocryphal "Play it again, Sam," (he in fact only ever says, "Play it," though Ingrid Bergman comes the closest by saying, "Play it, Sam") were all lines of Bogie's from that paragon of films. Bogart's other iconic line comes from The Maltese Falcon, where he refers to the titular maguffin as, "The stuff dreams are made of." Apart from those films, Bogart is probably best remembered for his sizzling chemistry with his wife Lauren Bacall in the film noir classics To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep, Dark Passage, and Key Largo, all of which are excellent movies and probably near the apex of that genre. In addition I also enjoy him in the romantic comedy Sabrina even though he's a bit too old for the role he plays, as well as The Cain Mutiny and The African Queen, the former landing him an Oscar and the second a nomination. Perhaps his best villain role would be in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre where the lust for gold drives him mad.

3. Fred Astaire
Fred Astaire is the physical embodiment of the American musical comedy. He may not be the best dancer ever recorded on film,  but he is the one best suited to the medium. His dancing always appeared to be easy and graceful, even when he was pulling off the most difficult of routines, and he made the act of dancing appear to be the most exhilarating experience in the world, inspiring countless millions to take up the art. In addition although he did not have a great voice, songwriters clamored to write songs for him because he would sing their tunes with absolute precision, something even the best singers of Astaire's generation could not boast.

Although Astaire was not handsome in the least, when he danced with a woman his sex appeal became as great as the comeliest actors of his generation, enabling him to take roles as a romantic lead well into his fifties. There is a big debate as to whether Astaire was a better dancer with a partner or as a solo act, but he is certainly remembered best for his partnership with Ginger Rogers, with whom he made ten films. This collaboration made him iconic as the debonair man-about-town romancing girls and dancing in his signature top hat, white tie, and tails. After Ginger split, however, Fred continued to have a successful career dancing in the movies for the next twenty years, being paired with such stars as Rita Hayworth, Judy Garland, Cyd Charisse, Ann Miller, and Leslie Caron. I've already opined that his best film with Ginger is Swing Time, and my favorite of his post-Ginger career is The Band Wagon with Cyd Charisse, though there are many others that can legitimately vie for that title.


2. Laurence Olivier
"My mind has gone blank. I'll never be able to remember! I wonder if this ever happened to Laurence Olivier?" quips Peppermint Patty in a famous Peanuts comic strip. Olivier's name had become so synonymous with the theater by the late 20th century that almost all kids with stage fright might have wondered the same thing. Until Kenneth Branagh came on the scene in the late 1980s, no one could touch Olivier in the realm of Shakespeare, and his contribution to the British stage landed him a knighthood and a peerage (that means he became a Lord, for those [Americans] who aren't familiar with the term).

With his devastatingly good looks and acting prowess, Olivier could have been a king in Hollywood but opted instead to spend most of his time doing plays. Of the films that he did make, the most famous are probably his four great Shakespeare adaptations: Henry V, Hamlet, Othello, and Richard III along with Hitchcock's superb version of the psychological Gothic novel Rebecca1939's Wuthering Heights; and a lackluster performance as Mr. Darcy in a poorly written 1940 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. He also did a lot of historical films in Britain and adaptations of famous non-Shakespearean plays as well. He was married to Vivien Leigh for a long while, and tried to cast her in many of his films with varying degrees of success. Two screen examples of their collaboration include Fire over England and That Hamilton Woman, the latter which seems strangely indicative of their tempestuous relationship - the marriage broke up because of Leigh's uncontrolled bipolar disorder.

1. Cary Grant
Cinema scholar David Thomson - with whom I often disagree - for once got it dead right when he said, "There is a major but very difficult realization that needs to be reached about Grant - difficult, that is, for many people who like to think they take the art of film seriously. As well as being a box-office draw for some thirty years, the epitome of the man-about-town, as well as being the ex-husband of Virginia Cherrell, Barbara Hutton, Betsy Drake, and Dyan Cannon, as well as being the retired actor, still-handsome executive of a perfume company - as well as all these things, he was the best and most important actor in the history of cinema [emphasis mine]." This is the opinion I've held since about the age of twelve, but most film critics try their best to discount Grant because of his extreme good looks, popularity, and his lack of an Oscar for any of his roles - although he was given a Lifetime Achievement Oscar after his retirement.

Grant, however, deserves Thomson's high compliment because he could play almost any non-musical role and do it well. The epitome of his romantic appeal can be seen in the classic An Affair to Remember, but he could also be comic or even sinister in some of his roles. Perhaps the secret to Grant's sex appeal is the fact his handsomeness so very manly that even in romantic comedies he never seems effeminate. He was a favorite of directors Alfred Hitchcock, and Howard Hawks, both of whom used him in very different ways.

He appeared in four movies for Hitchcock: Suspicion in which he is absolutely frightening at times as Joan Fontaine's scheming, possibly murderous husband; Notorious in which he plays a hard-boiled CIA agent; a debonair ex-cat-burglar in To Catch a Thief; and Hitchcock's favorite archetype of the ordinary man caught in a spy ring in the iconic North by Northwest. For Hawks his best films were probably the screwball classics Bringing up Baby, His Girl Friday and I Was a Male War Bride, along with the adventure melodrama Only Angels Have Wings. Other roles for which he is famous include the foolhardy Cockney soldier Cutter in Gunga Din, Katherine Hepburn's ex-husband in The Philadelphia Story, Mortimer Brewster in Arsenic and Old Lace,  a struggling adoptive father in Penny Serenadeand the captain of the submarine in Operation Petticoat. Perhaps the role that best demonstrates his prowess for comedy as well as a dangerous side and his famous sex appeal is Charade with Audrey Hepburn, a personal favorite of mine and one of the last films he ever made. My choice for an underrated favorite is The Talk of the Town with Jean Arthur and Ronald Coleman, where he once again gets to display all three of those aforementioned attributes.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The More the Merrier (1943)

Jean Arthur discovers that her lodger has sublet her
apartment to a young officer.
Production of quality cinema during WWII was severely limited, but this film manages to be one of the happy exceptions to that rule. In fact, if it weren't for the housing crisis caused by the war, this classic screwball comedy probably never would have been made. At least this is one small consolation for one of the most horrible conflicts of the past century.

The More the Merrier stars Jean Arthur, Joel McCrea, and a riotously funny Charles Coburn, who steals the show as the quirky, meddlesome Mr. Dingle. The plot goes as follows: with all the servicemen coming in and out of D.C. because of the war, housing is next to impossible to find. Thus Jean Arthur feels it's her patriotic duty to sublet her apartment in order to help ease the situation. Obviously hoping to end up with a female lodger, she instead gets fast-talked by Mr. Dingle into subletting to him, which she figures will be all right because he's an elderly gentleman. Dingle, however, decides he must find a husband for her, so he sublets his half of the apartment to a young serviceman played by Joel McCrea, and hilarity ensues.

This film is one in which the brilliance lies more in the execution of the plot and the comedic details than in being terribly original. None of the gags are particularly memorable but they are built up so well and the timing on them is so impeccable that they still produce belly laughs. Arthur and McCrea were both veterans of romantic screwball comedies by the time this film came out, and they both shine in their roles, Arthur mostly reacting to the insanity around her, and McCrea fluctuating between a playful boyishness and genuine feelings for his landlady.

I give this film a 7.8 out of 10, one of the few good comedies produced during the Second World War.


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Monday, July 25, 2011

The 39 Steps (1935)

Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll hide from
dangerous spies in Alfred Hitchcock's
comedy/thriller The 39 Steps
I don't know if The 39 Steps is the best of film in Hitchcock's British oeuvre, but it's certainly the most popular and a personal favorite of mine. Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll star in this extremely fun yarn following Hitchcock's favorite plot device: the ordinary man caught in a spy intrigue, a trope he used again and again in such films as Sabotage, Saboteur, The Lady VanishesForeign Correspondent, Secret Agent, NotoriousThe Man Who Knew Too Much (both versions), and North by Northwest - I'm sure there are others I'm forgetting in there as well.

 What makes this movie work so well is the combination of a fast, suspenseful plot, colorful characters, and great situational humor that is often hilarious. When a beautiful spy is found murdered in Richard Hannay's (Robert Donat) apartment, the police naturally assume he's the culprit when in reality though, he was just an innocent bystander. Before she died, however, the spy confided her mission to him, so now Hannay must go on the run from the police in order to stop a dangerous group of foreign agents before they smuggle sensitive information out of the country. That's the plot in a nutshell, and of course there are exciting and funny complications along the way such as quirky Scottish farmers and a political rally that Hannay crashes. He ends up hand-cuffed to a young woman (Madeleine Carroll), whom he must convince of his innocence in order to continue on his journey.

Apart from an abrupt ending, which is typical of films from the '30s,  I really can't find many faults with this movie. Robert Donat is an absolute delight as Richard Hannay: quick-witted, erstwhile, sarcastic, occasionally playful, and completely believable as an ordinary man drawn on an extraordinary quest. Madeleine Carroll is also perfect as the woman who unwillingly comes to believe in his improbable tale and falls for him in the process. As good as the two lead actors are, however, the show is really stolen by the wonderful and silly cast of minor characters, my favorite of which are the Scottish innkeeper and his wife.  In addition the dialog is crisp as a bag of chips and Hitchcock's direction really gets the most out of each scene in terms of suspense and irony. In all, it's about as much fun as you can have with a Hitchcock movie, which is saying something indeed.

Many people compare this movie to the other great early/British Hitchcock film, The Lady Vanishes, which is also a wonderful film, but I think this one works better simply because the pacing is much faster. Whereas, as my colleague Publius already noted in his review of The Lady Vanishes, the first twenty minutes of the aforementioned film are rather slow, The 39 Steps starts quickly, with an attempted murder within the first five minutes, and things only escalate from there. Things are kept, however, from getting overly intense by the comical situations, making this one of those movies you can watch over and over again with pleasure.

I give this movie an 8.3 out of 10, a true Hitchcock masterpiece.


Buy from Amazon
The 39 Steps,  Sabotage / The LodgerThe Lady Vanishes: The Criterion CollectionSaboteur,The Man Who Knew Too MuchNorth by Northwest (50th Anniversary Edition)Foreign CorrespondentThe Secret AgentNotorious

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Vertigo (1958)

Many people regard this film as Hitchcock's magnum opus. It was made at the height of his artistic powers in the mid-to-late 1950s, and starts one of his favorite actors James Stewart in one of the darker, edgier roles that became a staple of that great actor's late career. It's also probably the most emotionally complex and morally ambiguous of Hitchcock's films, which is probably why it's always been a favorite with critics.

For me, however, Vertigo has always been one of those movies that I can admire only from an artistic perspective. As innovative and influential as the film is, I cannot love it  with the same affection that I have for other great Hitchcock works such as Rear Window, Rebecca, Notorious, and The 39 Steps (my four favorites). Both the dark ending and James Stewart's actions in the final reel combine to alienate me from the plot and characters emotionally, leaving me strangely repelled as the curtain closes.

Set in San Francisco, Vertigo tells the story of John "Scottie" Ferguson (James Stuart), a detective who is forced to retire after he nearly falls off a roof and watches one of his fellow officers plummet to his death, a trauma which has afflicted him with a severe case of acrophobia. When an old college friend asks Ferguson to trail his wife Madeline (Kim Novak), whom he fears is going insane, Scottie agrees reluctantly but soon comes to agree that the woman is dangerously unbalanced. She appears to be suffering from psychotic episodes where she believes herself to be her great-grandmother, Carlotta Valdes, a kept woman in 1850 San Francisco who went insane and killed herself after her lover deserted her and took their child with him. This theory seems to be confirmed when Scottie watches Madeline throw herself into San Francisco Bay, at the dangerous currents at the base of the Golden Gate Bridge. After the rescues her from drowning, the two fall in love, and she confides in him  the strange visions she's been having. Scottie discovers from these clues that she's been dreaming about the Spanish mission at San Juan Bautista, so he takes her there hoping to cure her of mania. Unfortunately her presence there triggers an episode, and she runs up the steeple of the mission and flings herself off. Scottie, of course, tries to stop her, but his vertigo prevents him from getting up the steeple in time. Madeline's death sends Scottie into a complete mental breakdown from which he relapses when he meets a girl named Judy who looks amazingly similar to Madeline. He quickly becomes obsessed with this girl and drawn at the same time by an almost supernatural force towards the shocking truth about Madeline's death.

I'll start by saying that Hitchcock did a great job using real San Francisco and Bay Area locations for the filming. Hitchcock was a great lover of Northern California, as evidenced by the way he uses various locations it in this movie, as well as the towns of Santa Rosa in Shadow of a Doubt and Mendocino famously in The Birds. The City by the Bay lives and breathes in this film, feeling much the same in many scenes as it does today, especially the ones shot at Fort Point (underneath the Golden Gate Bridge), Mission Dolores (also known as Mission San Francisco de Assisi, after which the city of San Francisco was named), the Legion of Honor Museum, and the Palace of Fine Arts. San Juan Bautista also looks the same today, but that's because it's a historical museum so it's purposely preserved like that. In addition I tip my hats to them for using the rings on the section of the redwood tree in Muir Woods for Madeline to contemplate her own mortality as a great way to tie the movie's theme into local landmarks.The only two gaffes the movie's editors made were saying the Valdes house was located in the Western Addition when reality it appears to be across the street from Grace Cathedral on Nob Hill and driving the wrong way through Lincoln Park in one shot in order to get to the Legion of Honor.

You can tell Hitchcock really went all-out on this production in terms of cinematography not only because of the expense he went to by shooting on-location but also because the images and techniques he incorporates to convey the growing insanity of Jimmy Stewart's character and the sensation of vertigo he feels. Of course in the post-CGI revolution world, they appear childish and corny at times, but to audiences of the 1950s they were an extremely innovative way to convey emotion. Despite this, I cannot help feeling that it represents a step backwards for the integrity of film-acting because it marks the beginning of the ascendancy of visual effects over acting prowess as a way of establishing verisimilitude and connection with the audience.

For me, however, this film really stops working when Scottie starts manipulating Judy in order to turn her into a Madeline substitute. It's not that I don't believe that Scottie would want to turn Judy into Madeline, but the way in which he goes about affecting the transformation is so disturbing . Any woman who's ever been trapped in an abusive relationship will be horrified at how Scottie traps Judy into changing her wardrobe and hairstyle, telling her things like "It can matter to you." This is so callous, so selfishly manipulating - to say nothing of being a strange fetish - that I lose all sympathy for Scottie and instead can only feel extreme pity for Judy, who, like most women in abusive relationships, cannot extricate herself from the bad situation because of her feelings for her abuser. I will say, however, that until that point I believe every stage of Scottie's grieving process including his following Judy around and wanting to date her. I find it especially heartbreaking when he goes to Madeline's house and stares at her car - it's one of those things that people who've experienced the tragic death of a loved one understand all too well.

I have two final complaints to lodge about this film, the first about the plot and the second about the acting. I won't give away the ending, but I will say that I don't buy Judy wearing the fateful necklace around Scottie because she'd have to be really stupid to think he wouldn't recognize it. I'd understand him discovering it inside her jewelry box because it fits with his obsessive behavior, but it doesn't make sense for her to put on the necklace around him as if she didn't know its significance. As to the acting, I also have to say that Kim Novak's performance as Madeline seems lacking to me when she's having her sane moments. When she's acting insane I believe her, but when she's supposed to be acting normal, she comes off as so wooden that I lose all suspension of disbelief on her performance.

Despite these flaws and despite my persona distaste for it, Vertigo remains an extremely significant film in the history of the cinematic arts. With all the masterful suspense of a Hitchcock classic, the dark fascination with the macabre and honest portrayal of human frailty, this film has been holding audiences spellbound for over fifty years for a very good reason. Unlike my favorite Hitchcock films, however, this movie plunges us so deep into the darkest parts of reality without enough relief from the light so to make it emotionally stable. I have no doubt that this is exactly the effect Hitchcock intended, but for me that makes it too intense to enjoy it as much as I'd like to. I can, however, still watch it with a kind of detached admiration.

I give this film a 7.5 out of 10, well-executed with a decided vision and great cultural significance, but not to my taste.


buy from Amazon:
Vertigo (Collector's Edition)Rear Window (Collector's Edition)The 39 Steps: The Criterion CollectionRebeccaNotorious

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Suspicion (1941)

Joan Fontaine wonders if her husband (Cary Grant)
is trying to kill her in this Hitchcock classic.
For her performance in this Hitchcock classic, Joan Fontaine received an Oscar, considered to be an apology from the Academy for snubbing her the previous year in Rebecca - also directed by Alfred Hitchcock. In reality, if there were a make-up Oscar to be awarded for Suspicion, it should have gone to Cary Grant, who also got snubbed by the Academy the year before for his performance in The Philadelphia Story  (the Oscar went to his co-star James Stuart, a move that is almost universally regarded as a mistake). Ironically, Grant would not only get passed over again in 1941, but he would also be denied the statuette again in 1942 after giving one of his most powerful performances in Penny Serenade.  Of the three films, however, perhaps this one best showcases his great versatility as an actor.

As good as Fontaine is in her role of protagonist in this film, it is Grant who sells it for us.  For this movie to work at all, we must feel that Fontaine's suspicion of Grant is warranted, and thus Grant must appear to be equally guilty and innocent, and intriguing mixturn e of good and evil. Fortunately for the audience, Cary Grant can be menacing just as well as he can be charming and the result is an oft-overlooked gem in the Hitchcock cannon.

Part of this brilliant ambiguity, however, stems both from Hitchcock's great directing prowess and the fact that the film producers honestly didn't know whether or not to make Grant's character a murderer. This resulted in the need to shoot the movie in a manner that would support both endings, a ploy which, as I intimated, keeps us guessing along with Fontaine.

From the very first scene, we are aware along with Joan Fontaine's character that Grant is a bit of a bounder, but we can't help liking him anyway for his roguish impudence and charm. A shy bookworm with no marriage prospects, Fontaine soon falls under his spell and decides to elope with him despite her parents' disapproval. Soon after the honeymoon, however, Fontaine learns that her new husband is drowning in gambling debts and mortgaging their future away in order to maintain the upper-class lifestyle they've both been used to. More disconcerting still, he seems to have counted on Fontaine's fortune being larger than what her parents want to give her, and upon her father's death, cannot hide his disappointment at her small inheritance.

Things become only worse when Fontaine learns that Grant has lost his job on account of embezzling a large sum of money, and he must either repay it soon or risk jail - all of which he had been concealing from her. Then there's the matter of his best friend's suspicious death right after they pooled their money into a corporation - and an Englishman matching Grant's description at the scene of the crime. And when Fontaine finds out that Grant has been checking into a life insurance policy on her, she fears that she will be his next victim.

My only real complaint about this movie is that despite great characterizations by Grant and Fontaine as well as a splendid supporting role by Nigel Bruce as Grant's ill-fated friend, we never really feel the same sense of danger that we do in Hitchcock's other movies. Like Fontaine, we can't figure out if the Grant's threat is real or imaginary, so we end up discounting some of the drama.


I give this film a 7.8 out 10, a solid Hitchcock outing, but not one of his finest works.

Buy it from Amazon:
Suspicion, Penny SerenadeThe Philadelphia Story (Two-Disc Special Edition)Rebecca

Friday, July 22, 2011

Richard III (1955)

Laurence Olivier dons the false nose to play
Shakespeare's Richard III.
For most of the twentieth century, no actor was so identified with the Bard of Avon than Laurence Olivier, who received not only a knighthood but also peerage for his work on the English stage. Olivier had the combination of dashing good look that made him perfect for romantic leads along with a truly menacing quality that enabled him to do heavier roles like Hamlet, Othello, and Richard III.

I must confess that the thought of putting one of my favorite heartthrobs of the silver screen in a false nose and hunchback in order to play Shakespeare's most famous villain seemed almost sacrilegious to me, but in the end the allure of Olivier doing Shakespeare proved too strong for me to overcome.

From the moment he utters his "Now is the winter of our discontent," speech in the opening scene, Olivier holds us spellbound with his performance until his inevitable fall on Bosworth Field. The highlights of the performance are probably Richard's aforementioned opening soliloquy, which gave me goosebumps, and actor John Gielgud's pathos-laden rendering of Clarence's dream in the Tower.

Shakespearean purists will note some changes made, such as the courting of Lady Anne broken up in to two separate scenes so as to render it more credible and the elimination of Queen Margaret's vengeance on the House of York. The vast majority of the text, however, remains intact.

Now I must put the spotlight back on Olivier to to speak of his portrayal of the title character. Many scholars rightly feel that Richard is a fairly flat villain: a simple power-monger without any nuances or redeeming qualities. Of course they're essentially correct, so it takes an actor of extraordinary prowess to breathe some life and subtly into him. Most people play Richard as such a slimy character that it's hard to believe anyone listening to him or following him. Olivier, however, imbues just enough dignity and nobility into him for the audience to understand how Lady Anne falls under his hypnotic influence.

Despite all these good points, the film suffers from the same malady as all Shakespearean movie adaptations up to this point, namely that it still feels like a glorified stage play. This is not to say that the sets and costumes aren't lavish, but they're still not realistic enough to suspend disbelief the way you can in a Zeffirelli or Branagh production of Shakespeare. Sadly it took the Brits a lot longer than the Americans to get this right simply because their films did not receive the same funding.

In the end, I give this film a 7.7 out of 10, solid Shakespeare worth watching purely for Olivier's performance.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Pride and Prejudice (1940)

They had this film on TCM last night, and I tuned in thinking, "Maybe it's not as bad as I remember."

I was right.

Time had softened my memory of its manifold faults, and it was, in fact, worse than I remembered.

Fans of the novel have been disparaging the 1940 version of Pride and Prejudice since it first came out, and I can't really add anything to their well-appointed criticism of this movie, so I'll try to keep my comments as brief as possible. The problem with the movie is simple: the script is horrible. It's not just that it it cuts out a lot of material from the novel - for there are many fine adaptations of long novels that still succeed in capturing the essence their original works while necessarily truncating things for time's sake. Rather the problem lies in the fact that it alters the material it chooses to include almost beyond recognition.

Some of the more glaring inaccuracies include Mr. Darcy coming off as too likable and overt in his feelings for Elizabeth, the elimination of the trip to Pemberley, the Bennets planning to leave Hertfordshire because of Lydia's disgrace, and Lady Catherine turning noble in the end. Add to this the fact that the costumes are Victorian instead of Regency, and it makes the production truly unbearable to a purist like myself. As much as I love Laurence Olivier, moreover, this is certainly not his best performance, mostly because he wanted his then-wife Vivien Leigh to play Elizabeth, and when she was turned down for the role, he went on with the film only under great duress. Still, his phoned-in performance, even with a bad screenplay, is better than most actors could manage. But he just doesn't feel like Darcy to me in about half the scenes.

Now that I've given some vent to my spleen, however. I'm going to be generous and say that the film has some good points. Greer Garson certainly does better than Kiera Knightley did as Elizabeth, and many of the minor characters are also quite well done, notably Mr. and Mrs. Bennet and Mr. Collins. And despite the script's departure from the novel, Dame Edna May Oliver is good as Lady Catherine - but then again, she made her living playing those imperious British aristocrats.

 I'm going to hold my nose and give this movie a 5.6 out of 10 mostly because of my respect for Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier for their other film roles. It's not their faults they were handed such a bad script.

Simply put, though, if you love the book don't watch this movie because it's sure to engender homicidal thoughts!!!!!


Buy it from Amazon:

Pride and Prejudice

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Dark Passage (1947)

This is hands-down my favorite Bogie and Bacall film noir, and there are three reasons for this abiding love. First off, it's underrated. When people think of Bogart and Bacall films, the three that immediately pop to mind are The Big Sleep, To Have and Have Not, and Key Largo, all of which are excellent and memorable, but I think Dark Passage is just as good. Secondly, the film uses an innovative film technique to conceal Bogart's face for the first half of the film because his character is supposed to get plastic surgery to change his face. Bogart physically acts these first scenes, but the camera always shoots him at an angle that hides his face or opts for the first-person view. The only way we know what he's supposed to look like before the surgery is from newspaper clippings that use another actor's face. So the film gets points for challenging cinematography. Third and finally, Dark Passage takes the cake for having one of the most accurate uses of San Francisco and Bay Area geography ever put to film. In fact at the one point where I thought the perfection had been spoiled, one of the characters yells out that they're going the wrong way - my only complaint is it took him so long to figure it out.

The film starts out at San Quentin State Prison, about fifteen miles north of San Francisco in then-rural Marin County. Sirens blare because the dangerous murderer Vincent Parry has just escaped, and the camera then follows the fugitive while never actually showing the actor's face. He gets rid of his prison shirt and tries to hitchhike to the city, only to be picked up by a woman who knows exactly who he is but still offers to hide him in her car. This scene is filmed entirely on-location, and when you drive northbound on US-101 today, you can retrace their steps with your eyes. Their drive back south to SF retraces the highway with exact precision including the Golden Gate Bridge and the tunnel leading up to it.

Bacall then drives him back to her home on Telegraph Hill - another scene unequivocally filmed on-location - where he discovers her motive for helping him is that her father was falsely accused of murdering his wife on the same kind of flimsy, circumstantial case that convicted Parry. She offers him money and a disguise, but Parry rightly figures that with his picture plastered all over the paper, the only way to travel truly incognito would be to change his face via plastic surgery.

He does this, and intends never to bother Bacall again, but when he finds his only other confidant has been murdered, he is forced to impose on Bacall until his face can heal from the surgery. While convalescing, Parry has a long time to contemplate both his friend's murder and his own sorry plight. He figures the killer must have been the same person who murdered his wife, but he has no way to prove it. His only choice, therefore, is to flee the country before the police track him down through the fingerprints, which remain the same even though his face has been changed. In the meantime he has also fallen in love with Bacall while listening to the great jazz standard "Too Marvelous for Words," but dares not take her with him to lead a fugitive's life.

There's enough surprises in the plot that I dare not reveal anything else. Bogie and Bacall sparkle as usual in their roles, and Agnes Moorhead is wonderfully sinister as the dangerous jilted woman. There's also a wonderful moral dilemma to grasp with as more and more evidence piles up against Bogie and he is drawn to more and more desperate means to avoid unjust imprisonment.

This film, however, more than any I've ever seen remains special because it shows the Bay Area as it is instead of insulting the intelligence of its native citizens with incongruous geography and locations that don't remotely resemble the actual environs they're trying to depict. I know I am not the only person to complain about Hollywood treating their native city in this way, so on behalf of all those people, I offer Dark Passage as an example that yes, sometimes the film industry can get it right.

I give this movie a 8.4 out of 10 for innovative photography, great acting and a great story, and enviable geographic verisimilitude.



Buy from Amazon:
Dark Passage (Snap Case)The Big SleepTo Have and Have Not (Keepcase)Key Largo (Keepcase)

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Pygmalion (1938)

Leslie Howard as Professor Higgins, putting marbles in
the mouth of his pupil, Eliza (Dame Wendy Hiller) 
Followers of this blog will know that I have a very high regard for My Fair Lady, but many of you will not guess that I am equally fond of the 1938 version of Shaw's Pygmalion starring Leslie Howard and Dame Wendy Hiller.

In fact the very reason I like it so much is because it's so very unlike its 1964 musical remake. Although My Fair Lady is excellent from a musical standpoint and does a fairly good job of sticking to Shaw's original play, it has some distinct flaws. The first of these is that Rex Harrison's portrayal of Prof. Henry Higgins is a fairly one-note performance as the brilliant but misanthropic scholar. Because of this and because of the fact that he spends half the play bellowing, Audrey Hepburn's Eliza has to become screechy herself just to stand up to him.

After watching Rex Harrison's pained performance since early childhood, the discovery of Leslie Howard's wonderfully nuanced and understated Higgins was an absolute delight to me. Whereas Harrison comes off as half-spiteful, half willfully ignorant of the pain he causes others, Howard is a true absent-minded professor. When he flouts a social conventions, he does it not so much because he holds it in contempt as because his mind is so far-removed that he really does forget them. At the same time, though, he can be harsh and manipulative enough for Eliza to lose her temper in rather a spectacular fashion.

The minor characters in this version are also much different from their Lerner and Lowe counterparts. Instead of being a dewy-eyed romantic, Freddy feels more like a member of P.G. Wodehouse's Drones Club, a simple-minded good-ol'-boy. Eliza's father also. feels like less of a schemer and an obstinate social heretic than a lazy reprobate.

I refrain from a plot synopsis because I assume that it's well known enough to be redundant. I will, however, add that Bernard Shaw actually wrote the screenplay for this film, which means that it remains true to his vision for it. It ends the same way as Lady, which is a departure from the original stage drama, but since it's instigated by the actual playwright, I don't really have a problem with it. In fact, as I said before, since Leslie Howard's Professor Higgins is so much more likable in this version, it's much easier to see Eliza coming back to him in the first place.

The only thing that purists might find trying about this film is that it's set in the '30s instead of the turn-of-the-century. Thankfully this doesn't cause any anachronisms from the dialog, so I end up excusing that choice, especially because I absolutely adore 1930s frocks.

I give this film a 8.2 out of 10, an overlooked gem of a picture.



Buy from Amazon
Pygmalion (Enriched Classics Series)

Monday, July 18, 2011

The Sheik (1921, Silent) / The Son of the Sheik (1926, Silent)

Rudolph Valentino's title character tries to force himself
on an English lady in the silent cult classic The Sheik.
I've always been curious about the great sex appeal that Rudolph Valentino held for women of the 1920s. So crazed was their passion, in fact, that I can't really even find a contemporary comparison for it. Perhaps it's somewhat akin to the splash Marilyn Monroe made with male audiences in the '50s and '60s, but that's the closest I can come to it.

Anyway, the 1921 film The Sheik was the film which propelled Valentino to cult status. It's based on a novel of the same name, which was the Twilight of its generation: a poorly-written, sentimental and salacious piece of drivel with at disturbingly predatory hero that women seemed to swoon over. So of course it was made into an equally popular movie which the critics rightly panned but audiences seemed to love nonetheless. Just like the climate today, the popularity of the novel and movie inspired so many spin-offs and imitations that it glutted the market with sheik/Arabian romance stories the same way our own culture is now overrun with vampire/supernatural romances thanks to Twilight - I'm beginning to think that the Medieval worldview was right to believe that history is cyclical instead of progressive. We don't seem to have made much progress in the past 90 years.

This film is so odd to 21st-century eyes that I had to watch it twice just to make sure I hadn't mistaken certain points of plot and character motive. It starts with the heroine, Lady Diana, sneaking into an Arabs-only party in a desert town in order to get a look at what's going on. She is spotted by the dashing young Sheik Ahmed (Valentino), whom we hear was educated in Paris, and who immediately falls for Diana. He serenades her unseen in the moonlight and even creeps into her bedroom while she's asleep, which I find profoundly frightening. The next morning Diana sets out on a journey across the dessert with only her servants to escort her, which prompts Sheik Ahmed to abduct her so that he can force her to become his bride - Nice fellow!

It's at this point where the film really loses me. Both Diana and Ahmed are so inconsistently characterized that it's hard for me to believe any of their actions. First off, it's hard to get a good picture of Ahmed because he fluctuates so rapidly between a cultured gentleman and a savage that he seems like either a sociopath or someone with a multiple-personalityto disorder. He makes a big show of keeping a valet and French-speaking servants, yet he is constantly trying to force himself on Diana - which he very nearly does on several occasions - and humiliates her by bringing one of his Parisian friends to see her in her captive state. What's even worse, however, is that in spite of this horrible treatment, Diana ends up falling for him even before he starts treating her with much decency. I know he's very handsome and everything, but it's still so wrong that she falls for her would-be rapist that I can't stomach it at all.

I give this movie a 5 out of 10 mostly for its historical significance. Interesting as a curiosity without being a very good film.

Very shortly after I first saw The Sheik, I found out there was a direct sequel, also staring Rudolph Valentino, and called The Son of the Sheik. By all the accounts I read, this film was supposed to be much better than the original, and it has the added appeal of being the last film released before Valentino's untimely death in 1926, perhaps a fortunate occurrence because who knows if the advent of talkies the next year would have ruined the great lover's mystique.

One thing that I can say for this movie is that it is much more entertaining than its predecessor, owing mostly to the fact that it tells a much simpler story. The titular character falls for a young dancer named Yasmin, but during on of their romantic interludes, he is kidnapped by a band of thieves, led by the dancer's father. They implicate Yasmin in their scheme to extort money from the young Sheik's father, which causes our hero to exact his revenge on her by kidnapping and raping her - yeah, such a nice guy! In typical fashion, he then learns of his mistake and sets out to rescue Yasmin from the clutches of a lascivious member of her father's gang. She forgives the young sheik, and they live happily ever after.

So yes, the plot in this one doesn't really carry any surprises in it, but at least it makes the character motives believable. Unlike the first film, we can understand the heroine still having feelings for the hero even after he rapes her because it's been established that they were lovers before that. Also the hero's motives seem more clear-cut because he has cause to want revenge and he lives a wild dessert life where violence against women is commonplace. It's still brutal, but at least it's not wildly inconsistent. And Valentino is still just as handsome in this film as he was in the one he made five years prior, not that it's much consolation.

I elevate this film to a 5.5 over its predecessor.

Buy on Amazon:

The Sheik / The Son of the Sheik (Special Edition)