Category Archives: ★★

Dark Victory (1939, Edmund Goulding)

Bette Davis and George Brent never kiss in Dark Victory. He’s a brilliant neurosurgeon, she’s a mysteriously ill young socialite. He saves her, they fall in love. But does he really save her….

Victory gives Davis an excellent part, right up until the end of the film. It’s a somewhat bumpy ride–in the first act, which is three acts of its own, Davis isn’t particularly likable. The film establishes her on her Long Island estate, twenty-three and free. And very rich. With some decent suitors (Ronald Reagan in an affable performance) and her best friend (and secretary) Geraldine Fitzgerald. Davis goes riding during the day, out on the town in the evening, then home to party all night.

The film opens with her dealings with Humphrey Bogart, who plays her stablehand. He’s Irish and sexist. Bogart’s accent is usually Irish, though very noticeable when not. The sexism just leads to banter; it’s not a great part, in the end, for Bogart. He’s a tool of the melodrama. But he’s still likable, especially at the beginning, when Davis comes off like a spoiled brat and Fitzgerald her enabler.

The film’s focus moves soon to Brent, who gets her case from a decidedly underused Henry Travers. Brent’s excellent as the conflicted doctor, enough so to humanize Davis in their first scene together. From then on, although the action sticks with Brent for quite a while, Davis’s part gets better. She’d had some good dialogue quips, but she was the film’s subject–more, the film’s characters’ subject–not the protagonist.

Whether or not she ever truly gets to be the protagonist is questionable (and one of the film’s eventual failings; it shouldn’t be in question).

So the first thirty-five minutes concern Davis’s recent headaches and how Brent treats them. There’s never a discussion of medical ethics in Dark Victory and it kind of needs it. A lot, as it turns out. Because the only way for the film to function without them–which leads to Brent and Fitzgerald alternately and jointly infantalizing Davis–is through melodrama. After forty-five minutes, Dark Victory never tries for more than melodrama; it promises more than melodrama, but it never attempts to fulfill those promises.

The melodrama does give Davis and Fitzgerald some good material. Not really Brent. Brent gets overshadowed by everyone in the second half of the film, including Reagan (not to mention Bogart, accent or not). The script avoids dealing with Brent, once he’s done just as a doctor. Brent still has some fine moments in the film, but nothing like he had in the first half, when his forced calm demeanor ached with tragedy. It’d be a lot to keep up the entire runtime, sure, but at least screenwriter Robinson could’ve had him in some longer scenes.

Robinson’s adapting from a play, which might explain some of the pacing after the first act. Davis goes through a minor character change, with some fabulous costuming, incidentally, but it requires a rather extreme narrative distance. For her next character change–she gets a lot of character development with the part, going through four distinct phases–the narrative distance closes in, which is great, but the script gets real choppy. It’s a stagy bit of narrative. Not stagily filmed, but stagily plotted. There’s a jump forward, then an exposition-heavy sequence taking place over a single night, with characters strolling through in order to explain what’s happened since the jump forward. All the acting’s fine–Davis is great–but it’s too jammed, too rushed.

And if it’s going to be so jammed, so rushed, at least have Travers do a walkthrough. He goes from leading the second tier supporting cast in the first act to complete, inexplicable onscreen absence.

Davis’s performance makes the film. Brent’s, for a while, seems like it could but their relationship is way too chaste (exceptionally so considering they were carrying on off-screen). Fitzgerald and Davis have a wonderful relationship, full of character development and so on… until the development stops. The film foreshadows a lot for its characters and delivers none of it. Ostensibly it delivers on one thing, but through cop out.

Technically, the film’s fine. Goulding’s composition is decent, if unimaginative in his overuse of interior long shots–the sets aren’t that great and even if they were, they’re immaterial to the melodrama–and Ernest Haller’s photography is good. Max Steiner’s score is excellent.

Davis gets to do so much in Dark Victory, it’s unfortunate the film doesn’t let her do all it promises for her. I almost started talking about the film as the difference between a part and a role. If there’s such a difference, Dark Victory gives Davis a great part but promises her a great role.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Edmund Goulding; screenplay by Casey Robinson, based on the play by George Emerson Brewer Jr. and Bertram Bloch; director of photography, Ernest Haller; edited by William Holmes; music by Max Steiner; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Bette Davis (Judith Traherne), George Brent (Dr. Frederick Steele), Geraldine Fitzgerald (Ann King), Ronald Reagan (Alec), Humphrey Bogart (Michael O’Leary), Virginia Brissac (Martha), Cora Witherspoon (Carrie), Dorothy Peterson (Miss Wainwright), and Henry Travers (Dr. Parsons).


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


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Blade Runner 2049 (2017, Denis Villeneuve)

Whatever its faults, Blade Runner 2049 is breathtaking. Director Villeneuve’s composition, Roger Deakins’s photography, Dennis Gassner’s production design, all the CGI–the film is constantly gorgeous. It’s got nothing beautiful to show–the world of 2049 is a wasteland, all plant life is dead, the endless L.A. skyline is (while awesome) nasty, San Diego is a huge, inhabited dump. I mean, Jared Leto is a biochem industrialist who saves the world; like that world is going to be nice.

2049 spends a lot of time showcasing the achievements of that exterior setting. Interiors are sparer. Villeneuve’s direction is always good (or better), but the interior scenes lack something visually. Joe Walker’s editing can usually cover for it. Most of the interiors have lead Ryan Gosling wishing he was a real boy instead of a pretend one. He’s even got a pretend girlfriend (Ana de Armas as a holographic companion) who wishes she was a real one.

For a while, 2049 seems like it might be about Gosling and de Armas. But it’s not. Because even though Gosling is a Blade Runner, he’s not the blade runner 2049 cares about. Once Harrison Ford shows up, even when the movie’s from Gosling’s perspective, it’s not Gosling’s movie anymore. Maybe if the film had some great part for Ford, it would matter. But it doesn’t. It gives him a few minutes to get established, in a completely different context than his previous turn in the role, and then it keeps him around. Walker’s editing doesn’t cover for Ford like it does Gosling. Gosling sits around despondent in his affectless. Ford looks surprisingly genial and well-adjusted for a person who’s supposedly lived in complete isolation for the last thirty years.

Bringing me to talking about 2049 as a sequel to the original. Because there’s really nothing to it otherwise. There are a handful of sequel setups in 2049, but the way screenwriters Hampton Fancher (returning from the first film) and Michael Green find a story from the first movie? They just retcon obtusely, trusting Villeneuve to be able to pull it off. And he does. He’s able to keep 2049’s narrative detached from the screenplay’s minutiae (for most of the film); Gosling helps, until the movie stops wanting him to help. de Armas helps. Robin Wright (as Gosling’s boss, in an underwritten, underutilized role) helps. Ford’s likable, which really isn’t enough (and might be completely inappropriate, actually). Villain Sylvia Hoeks doesn’t help. She’s shockingly underdeveloped. And Villeneuve’s direction of the genetically enhanced replicant fight scenes is wanting. He can do it when it’s inconsequential, but he’s not able to make the fights dangerous for the characters.

Possibly because of Gosling’s complete detachment in the third act of the film, which is when there’s all the “first movie” revelations (but not, rather events soon following the first movie revelations) and sequel setup. Gosling starts on a hero’s quest, then finds himself just an observer of one. The prologue to one. Villeneuve and company cover as best they can–making the narrative events as unimportant an aspect to the film as possible–but they can’t. Villeneuve can’t share the movie between Ford and Gosling, neither can the script. Everyone just throws up their hands.

Probably because Ford doesn’t need to be there. But if Ford doesn’t need to be there, maybe the direct ties to the first movie don’t need to be there; take those two things away and there’s nothing to 2049 except the gorgeous dystopia. Gosling and de Armas’s subplot, which the film ends up using mostly pragmatically, is red herring.

The music, from Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer, is lacking. But maybe because the film uses it so sparing. 2049 is bold where it can excel–the visuals–and cowardly where it needs to create. The villains are exceptionally thin. Gosling loses his movie. Ford gets to retread a part made different to allow for a way too careful sequel.

It’s too bad, but–deep down–no one should’ve thought a Blade Runner sequel would work. Especially not with Ford forced back into it. It’s like they got the money for a sequel but no one with a real idea for one. Villeneuve’s direction is visually stunning, his direction of actors is usually strong, but he’s got no handle on the story. 2049 is about avoidance.

I mean, who wouldn’t want to avoid a future where Jared Leto saved humanity.

CREDITS

Directed by Denis Villeneuve; screenplay by Hampton Fancher and Michael Green, based on a story by Fancher, and characters created by Philip K. Dick, Fancher, and David Webb Peoples; director of photography, Roger Deakins; edited by Joe Walker; music by Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer; production designer, Dennis Gassner; produced by Bud Yorkin, Broderick Johnson, Cynthia Sikes, and Andrew A. Kosgrove; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Ryan Gosling (K), Harrison Ford (Rick Deckard), Jared Leto (Niander Wallace), Ana de Armas (Joi), Sylvia Hoeks (Luv), Robin Wright (Madame), Dave Bautista (Sapper Morton), Mackenzie Davis (Mariette), and Carla Juri (Dr. Ana Stelline).


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Power of the Press (1943, Lew Landers)

Power of the Press runs a thin–not slim, but thin–sixty-four minutes. It’s paced better than expected (publicity stills suggest quite a few cut scenes); scenes never seem rushed, scenes never seem truncated. Instead, they’re just deliberate. Otto Kruger is a blue blood New York City newspaper publisher who dabbles in fascism. He couldn’t buy his way into politics, but Daddy already bought him a newspaper. Or some of one.

Guy Kibbee, in the closest thing the film’s got to a protagonist, is the new majority owner. He’s a small-town newspaper man from Nebraska who inherits that majority stake because he still cares about the news. About the freedom of the press. About democracy. About the ninety-nine percent (actual line, 1943–“fake news” gets repeated a whole lot too). Kibbee’s got his ethics and ace assistant Gloria Dickson on his side. But can they save a great metropolitan newspaper? Can they bring some clarity and truth to it?

On his side, Kruger’s got literal hitman Victor Jory and managing editor Lee Tracy. It’s unclear if Jory’s in it for the fascism or the money, but Tracy is definitely in it for the money. Robert Hardy Andrews’s screenplay (from a Sam Fuller story) has some rather decided thoughts on fascists and capitalists–and some, sadly, apt insight into how the two support one another.

The movie sets up Kruger and the paper, then brings in Kibbee. Those events take however long a round-trip train ride is from New York to Nebraska, plus a day. The rest of the movie, featuring Kruger using the newspaper to frame an innocent man, sabotage the Allied Powers a little, murder an immigrant, frame Kibbee, and whatever else, it all takes place in about a week. Maybe less. We don’t even get to see Kibbee’s apartment. It’s all at the newspaper.

Until it’s not in the third act, which is when Press hints at what might have been if it weren’t so short and so perfunctory. It’s a low budget, homefront jingoist newspaper thriller. There are crime aspects, there are conspiracy aspects. It’s a reasonably successful one too. Kibbee’s occasional dictated editorials (delivered as monologues) are definitely rousing. And they’ve got some teeth. The racists are traitors one is particularly awesome (and depressing given the film’s from 1943). Kruger’s a great villain. The way the script paces revelations into his backstory alongside a sort of intensifying villainy… Kruger’s dangerous, even though probably none of the main characters are in danger.

Tracy’s second-billed, but his part’s rather small for most of the film. He’s good. He can bark orders and he can stop and listen. There’s remnants of a romance (or at least hope of one) between him and Dickson. More time would be a subplot though and Power of the Press doesn’t do subplots.

Kibbee’s fine in the “lead.” Sometimes good, like during his monologues, but the movie sets him up as a cute old grandpa, then hints at giving him an actual part, then gives up on it to do the homefront newspaper thriller stuff.

Minor Watson is good in a minor (and uncredited) role.

The film’s adequately produced. Director Landers has some good shots, he has some bad ones. Mostly he just has adequate ones. Ditto the photography and editing. Neither impress or disappoint. They both help imply a greater world outside Press, which the budget doesn’t allow shown. Including street scenes. For a New York City-based newspaper thriller… Press didn’t even get the backlot.

It’s still thin, successful or not. Maybe it shouldn’t have gone out on such a fun third act either. From the first scene, Press is focused on being threatening enough to be serious. There’s no fun. Grandpa Kibbee doesn’t have any cute hobbies. But then in the third act, with the right scenes, the actors interact right and it gets fun. Too bad the whole thing isn’t fun. Charm wouldn’t hurt Press. Everyone in the picture’s got charm, they just barely get to employ it.

2

CREDITS

Directed by Lew Landers; screenplay by Robert Hardy Andrews, based on a story by Samuel Fuller; director of photography, John Stumar; edited by Mel Thorsen; music by Paul Sawtell; produced by Leon Barsha; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Guy Kibbee (Ulysses Bradford), Gloria Dickson (Edwina Stephens), Otto Kruger (Howard Rankin), Lee Tracy (Griff Thompson), Victor Jory (Oscar Trent), Rex Williams (Barker), Frank Yaconelli (Tony Angelo), and Minor Watson (John Cleveland Carter).


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The Narrow Corner (1933, Alfred E. Green)

The Narrow Corner runs seventy minutes; it speeds along. Robert Presnell Sr.’s script has somewhat lengthy, complicated scenes where he tries to fit in information. The movie doesn’t need all that information–the subplot about Reginald Owen translating a Portuguese epic poem–because director Green isn’t going to do anything with it.

The film has a somewhat peculiar structure–it starts with an affably odious South Seas captain, Arthur Hohl in a half great performance. He’s to set sail–for a year–with a single passenger Douglas Fairbanks Jr. Fairbanks is on the run, but it’s all hush hush.

Once they’re underway, things skip almost immediately to Hohl and Fairbanks bringing Dudley Digges onboard. Digges is a doctor who’s grown tired of his particular island and wants passage somewhere else. Hohl’s got a stomach ailment, leading to non sequitor burping throughout the film.

Narrow Corner never builds the relationship between Hohl and Fairbanks. It starts to build one between Hohl and Digges, but soon gives it up. Digges and Fairbanks’s relationship is going to be important (ostensibly) for the third act; it would’ve been nice if Presnell or Green cared. They don’t. Digges is underutilized in Narrow Corner. His acting style is a lot quieter than Hohl or even Fairbanks. He gives the film its weight.

Only it’s off and on because once Digges is onboard, the ship goes into a storm and Fairbanks has to captain her all himself. Nihilist Hohl sleeps below as the first-time seaman is on helm. And Digges is busy with his nightly opium (while pre-Code, Narrow Corner still doesn’t delve into that subject at all).

The storm sequence has phenomenal editing from Herbert I. Leeds and some great special effects. The film doesn’t have good projection shots, but all the other effects are excellent. Including the miniatures for the seafaring action–the storm or when the ship has to navigate a treacherous reef.

The success of the storm scene should let the film coast for a bit. And it does, but that bit is only a few minutes because Presnell and Green rush to introduce some new characters. The ship’s anchored off an island. Fairbanks thinks it’s uninhabited, so does a nude swimming scene. The great lengths the film goes through to hide Fairbanks from the torso down behind scenery is amusing but only because it’s so distracting. Presnell and Green severely overestimate the dramatic traction they’re getting out of implied nudity.

Turns out the island isn’t uninhabited, but it’s actual a Dutch settlement. There are (unseen) plantations around and a variety of new cast members. They’re all related. Owen the poem translator is father to Patricia Ellis, who meets naked swimming Fairbanks and immediately enchants him. William V. Mong is Owen’s father-in-law. Mong’s an old man (in a lot of old age makeup) who used to be a scumbag South Seas captain like Hohl. But now they’re rich.

Ralph Bellamy is Ellis’s secret fiancé. It doesn’t end up being clear she knows they’re engaged. Her character is exceptionally problematic. Ellis doesn’t do a great job with it, but there might not be a way to do a better one given how the part is written and how events unfold.

Once Fairbanks meets Ellis and Bellamy, Narrow Corner starts running toward the finish. Sure, it’s only the beginning of the second act, but Presnell can write long enough scenes to fill the runtime. Fairbanks and Bellamy become buddies, with Fairbanks even moving into Bellamy’s huge empty (and mostly) unseen estate. Narrow Corner occasionally will hint at wanting to examine the cultural situation–all the white people, regardless of their station, exploiting the native peoples–but then Presnell thinks better of it and moves along.

It’s too bad, but not unexpected. Narrow Corner is light on character development. Fairbanks doesn’t really get any. He just doesn’t talk much. When he does have a monologue, it’s therefore important. It’s the meat of the part. Fairbanks does okay with it. He’s got three big reveals; two of them are identical in content, which is its own problem. The first monologue is to Ellis; Fairbanks narrates a flashback. The flashback, shown in an awkward split screen, has some well-cut action and probably Green’s most engaged direction. A prologue might have given things away but it also would’ve given Fairbanks a better arc.

The other two monologues–including the third act one, which is nowhere near as dramatic as anyone pretends–are from Fairbanks to Digges. Digges is trying to tell Fairbanks something about the world. Fairbanks doesn’t care. See, Ellis is throwing herself at him and even if Fairbanks does think Bellamy’s swell, a man’s just a man.

If Ellis’s writing were better, if her performance were better, if she and Fairbanks had any chemistry, everything would be different. Instead, Narrow Corner is a nicely acted, adequately directed, half attempt at grand melodrama. All of the actors could excel if the script would just give them the opportunity. Even with the monologues, Fairbanks doesn’t have a better part than anyone else. Worse, in fact, than Digges. And almost Hohl; with the exception of banter with Mong about who’s the more odious white man South Seas captain, Hohl gets zip in the second half of the movie.

Inglorious given he started it.

But still. Not bad at all.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Alfred E. Green; screenplay by Robert Presnell Sr., based on the novel by W. Somerset Maugham; director of photography, Tony Gaudio; edited by Herbert I. Leeds; music by Bernhard Kaun; produced by Hal B. Wallis; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Douglas Fairbanks Jr. (Fred Blake), Dudley Digges (Doctor Saunders), Arthur Hohl (Captain Nichols), Patricia Ellis (Louise Frith), Ralph Bellamy (Eric Whittenson), Reginald Owen (Mr. Frith), Willie Fung (Ah Kay), and William V. Mong (Jack Swan).


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