Category Archives: Classics

The Wizard of Oz (1939, Victor Fleming)

By the time the door opens and Dorothy (Judy Garland) finds herself over the rainbow, The Wizard of Oz has already completed one full narrative arc and is starting another. The film opens with Garland in a crisis–she’s a teenage girl on a farm where no one has time for her (it’s a busy farm, after all)–and events quickly fall into place forcing her no alternative to run away. Events just as quickly get her to reconsider that decision and set her back home. Full narrative gesture; all it needs is a resolution scene….

Only there’s this tornado and it has other ideas, like whisking Garland up and away into the far off land of Oz.

The opening sequence, set in Kansas, is sepia-toned. Oz is Technicolor. Cinematographer Harold Rosson does both gorgeously, but there’s also a difference in composition (probably because the Kansas sequence has an uncredited King Vidor directing)–Kansas is expansive, familiar, and sort of empty. The horizon is just sky. Oz is expansive, sure, but its not familiar at all and its packed. Garland quests through this beauteous landscape, initially by herself, but soon with friends; there’s the easy constraint of having the yellow brick road to guide her. Everything alongside the yellow brick road–corn fields, apple trees, dark and dangerous forests–is wild and expansive. The Wizard of Oz has phenomenal matte paintings, which director Fleming and cinematographer Rosson stretch into the foreground. The art direction, set decoration, all of it is wondrous.

Matching that wondrousness is Garland’s adventure, which is full of song, occasionally dance, and the pursuit of happiness. While Garland just wants to get back to Kansas, the friends she soon makes have entirely different desires.

The Wizard of Oz runs just over a hundred minutes. Almost twenty are spent on the opening Kansas scenes, the final quest–different from Garland’s initial one–takes up the last half hour. So in the remaining fifty minutes, the film has to introduce Oz to both Garland and the audience, but then also bring in her sidekicks, allies, and nemesis. It does so steadily, never hurriedly. These sidekicks become teenage Garland’s wards, some more so than others; she’s already on her quest to meet the Wizard and she has the idea of inviting others in need along with her.

First is Ray Bolger’s Scarecrow, who’s in need of a brain. He’s just got straw. Then it’s Jack Haley’s Tin Man, who needs a heart. Bert Lehr’s Lion needs some courage. All the while, Margaret Hamilton’s Wicked Witch is out to get Garland for dropping a house on her sister and stealing her shoes. Actually, Garland’s innocent–I mean, the house-dropping isn’t her fault and it’s Billie Burke’s idea to swipe the shoes (to protect Garland from Hamilton). All Garland’s got to do is get to see the Wizard.

Hamilton haunts this first quest, keeping tabs on Garland and company’s progress, threatening them when possible. The second quest has Garland and her friends having to mount a direct assault on Hamilton’s castle and her army of flying monkey soldiers. The Wizard of Oz, in its hundred minutes, is three very different films.

The performances are uniformly fantastic, though Garland, Bolger, Hamilton, and Frank Morgan are the best. Garland’s Dorothy is never youthfully callow for long, she’s thoughtful and determined. Even in the Kansas sequence, where she gets into it with aunt and uncle Clara Blandick and Charley Grapewin over her misbehaving dog–basically, everything in Oz is the adorable dog’s fault, but he also saves the day more than once (and is awesome just to watch amid the singing and dancing on the ornate sets)–Garland navigates getting in the way, both in terms of the narrative and just physically, quite well. Once she gets to Oz, she’s got to stand back and observe, then switch immediately into a more active role; Garland keeps her performance even between the two extremes.

Bolger is one of Oz’s secret weapons. Unlike Haley and Lehr, he’s less Garland’s responsibility than her partner. In the last third, it’s up to Bolger to pick up the slack when Garland is separated from her sidekicks. All three–though most Lehr because he’s in a huge lion costume–do astoundingly well in their costumes and makeup. The makeup’s excellent, which should make it even harder for the actors humanity to come through, but Bolger, Haley, and Lehr do it. The Wizard of Oz is great at its character introductions; Bolger getting a little more agency in his introduction than the others carries him through the entire film.

Hamilton’s exceptionally evil, which is kind of the point of being wicked, I suppose, but she never lets up with it and also never goes over the top. She’s threatening this teenager and Hamilton keeps it in check. Part of Wizard’s magic is no one goes over the top.

Except Frank Morgan. And Frank Morgan knows how to chew through the scenery and director Fleming knows exactly how to feed it to him.

Great songs, beautiful production values, exceptionally luscious photography–The Wizard of Oz opens with a title card acknowledging the source novel’s legacy and promising a majestic film experience.

It delivers, again and again.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Victor Fleming; screenplay by Noel Langley, Florence Ryerson, and Edgar Allan Woolf, adaptation by Langley, based on the novel by L. Frank Baum; director of photography in Technicolor, Harold Rosson; edited by Blanche Sewell; music by Harold Arlen; produced by Mervyn LeRoy; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Judy Garland (Dorothy), Ray Bolger (Scarecrow), Jack Haley (Tin Man), Bert Lahr (Lion), Margaret Hamilton (The Wicked Witch of the West), Billie Burke (Glinda), Clara Blandick (Auntie Em), Charley Grapewin (Uncle Henry), and Frank Morgan (Professor Marvel).


THIS POST IS PART OF THE JUDY GARLAND BLOGATHON HOSTED BY CRYSTAL OF IN THE GOOD OLD DAYS OF CLASSIC HOLLYWOOD.


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Duck Soup (1933, Leo McCarey)

Duck Soup is madness. It’s not divine madness or sublime madness. It’s comedic madness, which is fine, but it’s a tad frantic and a tad distracted. The film opens with Margaret Dumont’s wealthy widow getting Groucho Marx installed as a head of state. Turns out evil Louis Calhern–a neighboring country’s ambassador–wants to create unrest and he’s setting vixen Raquel Torres on Groucho to get it done.

Only Groucho isn’t interested and he never really gets interested. Oh, Zeppo’s his assistant. Zeppo has nothing to do in Duck Soup.

Groucho as President is funnier in concept than execution–director McCarey seems disinterested in Groucho’s storyline, instead focusing on Chico and Harpo’s battles with a lemonade stand owner, played by Edgar Kennedy. There are some musical numbers, which get a smile and are well-produced, but they’re filler. Duck Soup runs under seventy minutes. There shouldn’t be a lot of filler and there’s a whole bunch of it.

Chico and Harpo are spies for Calhern, but Chico also works for Groucho. It’s madness, after all, a series of non sequiturs run together, with the audience left out of most of the jokes. The finale has all four Marx Brothers in a variety of soldier outfits. It’s cute and not a bad setup, only the jokes never arrive. McCarey’s rushing to get the thing finished.

There are some great Harpo moments and a fantastic Harpo and Chico dress as Groucho sequence. Those moments simply don’t add up or make enough of a difference. Duck Soup doesn’t have much narrative logic–something McCarey could embrace and amp up the lunacy; he doesn’t. By the end of the second act musical number, everyone looks exhausted. The whole picture has become a metaphor for McCarey’s universal disinterest and Zeppo’s growing on.

Then comes the third act, which has the two countries at war. It’s mostly poorly cut sight gags–uncredited editor LeRoy Stone never does a great job, but in the third act, he completely gives up. Duck Soup is a surrender (no spoilers). The film doesn’t even come up with a good comeuppance for Calhern, who really, really, really deserves one.

The script–from Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby–and then also Arthur Sheekman and Nat Perrin contributing additional dialogue (perhaps the funnier stuff for Chico and Harpo)–is always problematic. McCarey’s direction is always problematic. The actors get away mostly unscathed, however. Even if Dumont gets almost nothing to do. She’s in the picture a lot–Zeppo’s got nothing to do, but he’s barely in Duck Soup; but the film breaks the cardinal rule–it’s a Marx Brothers movie and it wastes Margaret Dumont.

It’s a shame too, as the film’s probably only a rewrite or two away from greatness.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Leo McCarey; screenplay by Arthur Sheekman, Nat Perrin, Bert Kalmar, and Harry Ruby; director of photography, Henry Sharp; edited by LeRoy Stone; produced by Herman J. Mankiewicz; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Groucho Marx (Rufus T. Firefly), Harpo Marx (Pinky), Chico Marx (Chicolini), Zeppo Marx (Bob Roland), Margaret Dumont (Mrs. Gloria Teasdale), Raquel Torres (Vera Marcal), Louis Calhern (Ambassador Trentino), and Edgar Kennedy (Lemonade Vendor).


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A Connecticut Yankee (1931, David Butler)

A Connecticut Yankee fumbles on pretty much every level, including wasting lead Will Rogers. The big problem is the script, from William M. Conselman. It doesn’t help any director Butler can’t mount an action or comedy sequences, because there’s nothing else in the picture. It doesn’t even work as a Rogers vehicle because his character’s so poorly written.

The film opens in the present, with vaguely dopey electronics repairman slash radio station announcer Rogers going to an old dark house to deliver a battery. He meets the house’s strange inhabitants and then gets knocked unconscious by a falling suit of armor. When he wakes up, he’s in sixth century England. Has Rogers mystically travelled back in time or is he unconscious on a floor? Oh, the drama.

Regardless of inventiveness, the device should give the film a chance to reset. The film sets Rogers up as slightly lazy, mostly stupid. No doubt once he gets back to olden times he’ll make a change for the better. Not really, though. He’s still just a bit of a moron. Conselman’s script makes cracks about him being a Democrat–which is on brand for Rogers, but one would think he’d want better material than one-liners.

Rogers meets King Arthur (William Farnum) and Merlin (Brandon Hurst). Both Farnum and Hurst are bad, but it’s hard to blame them. Their writing is terrible and Butler’s direction of actors is somewhat worse than his direction of action. At least with the action, there’s the castle set. It’s fine. Not so much once Rogers modernizes Camelot. Right after he proves himself worthy, the film cuts to a Camelot with telephones, roller-skates, machine guns, tanks, cars, whatever else.

Because Rogers might be a questionably talented electrician and radio announcer, but he’s a king of all industry. Connecticut Yankee would probably be able to get away with it if there was any direction. Conselman’s script is too inept for comedy or commentary, as is Butler’s direction.

There’s an almost amusing knight vs. cowboy joust. Butler can’t direct it, unfortunately. Then Farnum and Rogers go adventuring; they need to rescue princess Maureen O’Sullivan from evil queen Myrna Loy.

Rogers gets sympathy, but he’s not good. Farnum’s not good. O’Sullivan is appealing but she has a handful of scenes and nothing to do. Same with Frank Albertson as Rogers’s pointless sidekick. Hurst is awful in a fun way as Merlin though. He’s always sprinkling dust on things. Because magic.

Loy’s probably the best? It’s hard to say, as Conselman’s script is so wretched; Loy at least gets to have some fantastic gowns.

The big action finale with knights with tommy-guns ought to be a lot better. Everything about Connecticut Yankee ought to be better. Conselman and Butler never have a handle on the film. They’re fumbling from scene one.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by David Butler; screenplay by William M. Conselman, based on a novel by Mark Twain; director of photography, Ernest Palmer; edited by Irene Morra; released by Fox Film Corporation.

Starring Will Rogers (Hank Martin), William Farnum (Arthur), Frank Albertson (Clarence), Brandon Hurst (Merlin), Maureen O’Sullivan (Alisande), Mitchell Harris (Sagramor), and Myrna Loy (Morgan le Fay).


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Valentino (1951, Lewis Allen)

Valentino opens with lead Anthony Dexter (whose resemblance to Valentino got him the job, not his acting abilities) doing the tango. It’s the trope’s rehearsal and it’s fine. It’s not concerning, which is sort of cool for the film, because most of the scenes are concerning. George Bruce’s screenplay–based on his own story, “Valentino As I Knew Him”–ranges from tepid to cringe-worthy. Lewis Allen’s direction of that screenplay is never better than in this first scene. It’s as good, but it’s also much worse.

So when Valentino approaches mediocre, it’s to be appreciated. And you know early on, because the third scene–where Dexter quits the dance trope because boss Dona Drake wants him to be hers alone. Not all women’s. Drake’s performance is terrible but her role is terrible and hackneyed. Allen doesn’t care. It’s kind of stunning to watch this beautifully rendered Technicolor–Harry Stradling Sr.’s photography is only workman because Allen never asks him to do anything else (or takes him off set)–with this constantly misfiring production.

Bruce’s script either has Dexter playing Lothario or Great Lover, often to the same character. It might keep the character’s true intentions secret if Dexter didn’t give a spellbindingly awful performance. He kind of makes it through the first act, mostly because Eleanor Parker is on hand to hold the movie up, but once Dexter’s on his own… it gets real bad. A lot of it is Allen. He’s not trying at all with his composition. He has this one shot he uses for Richard Carlson’s close-ups over and over again. Carlson’s thanklessly playing clueless cuckold–Parker’s beau and Dexter’s best friend and both their boss. He’s a movie director.

Through the first act, Parker has this character to play. She’s a fictional silent era star–Allen’s real bad at rendering the silent era stuff, though it’s not clear Valentino had the budget to get the scenes done. The cheapness is another problem. Once Dexter arrives in New York City and it’s a backlot set of a town square? Well, segueing back to Parker, at least they didn’t cheap on her wardrobe. She’s beyond glamorous.

Unfortunately, other than the gowns, Parker ends up with nothing. Valentino makes some promises to its female stars–top-billed Parker and third-billed Patricia Medina–they’re supposed to be Dexter’s great loves. Parker makes it work until the script’s just too silly; she and Carlson also have zero chemistry together as creative partners, much less romantic ones. But it’s the script (and Allen) more than the actors. Medina has this somewhat interesting role as Dexter and Parker’s confidant who Dexter cravenly romances.

Valentino has a really small cast of characters who all are in the movie business and none of them have friends outside each other. There’s familiar chemistry between the actors–all of them–except it’s up to Parker and Medina to hold up Dexter. Parker at least gets to have a full character arc, albeit a terrible, thoughtless one, but not Medina. She’s completely disposable once her function is executed.

Everything in Valentino is purely functional, with the exception of Joseph Calleia’s throwaway comic relief lines. Calleia should have the best part in the movie. He’s Dexter’s down-to-earth confidant and business manager. They’re paisanos. Bruce is big on the authentic dialogue.

But Calleia’s got a crap part. He’s there to prop up Dexter too. Only the writing is a lot less compelling, which is a surprise how boring Bruce can go with this script, and Calleia can’t do it. The material isn’t there. Allen isn’t there. And, somehow, Valentino actually manages to get worse.

When Parker does come back, she’s in a different role–she’s subject, not lead. The film introduces Lloyd Gough as a reporter who’s on to Dexter. The last third turns out to be he and Dexter’s showdown over the Valentino brand. Initially, Gough’s a welcome surprise just because he’s different. Turns out you can be different and bad. Valentino has a lot of different bad things about it. Except the Technicolor and Parker’s wardrobe, there’s nothing to recommend it.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Lewis Allen; screenplay by George Bruce, based on his story, “Valentino As I Knew Him;” director of photography, Harry Stradling Sr.; edited by Daniel Mandell; music by Heinz Roemheld; produced by Edward Small; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Eleanor Parker (Joan Carlisle), Richard Carlson (Bill King), Patricia Medina (Lila Reyes), Joseph Calleia (Luigi Verducci), Dona Drake (Maria Torres), Lloyd Gough (Eddie Morgan), Otto Kruger (Mark Towers), and introducing Anthony Dexter (Rudolph Valentino).


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