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The Buccaneer (1938, Cecil B. DeMille)

Even if you give The Buccaneer a lot of its historical absurdities and classic Hollywood whitewashing, even if you give it a motley crew of murdering (but not raping, good family men) pirates getting giddy and doing a singalong while they row themselves through the bayou to fight for Andrew Jackson against the British, even if you give the film lead Fredric March’s accent, it’s got a lot of problems. Without even mentioning how director DeMille gives everyone a slave, American, British, Pirate. Like, he likes it. It’s creepy.

Especially at the opening when you want to be enjoying Spring Byington doing a brief cameo as a capable (and rather sexy, like what is up what that dress) first lady Dolly Madison who was to suffer men trying to rescue her when she’s doing it herself.

The big problem is The Buccaneer himself. Not March, who’s rather likable even with that accent and able to whether the silliest of DeMille’s jingoism. But the character. So he’s a pirate who doesn’t rob American vessels and doesn’t kill passengers, unless they’re asking for it (everyone gets a chance to disembarck). He’s in love with New Orleans society girl Margot Grahame, who grossly comes on to Andrew Jackson (Hugh Sothern) at one point. Not because it’s in character, but because no one–not the four-ish screenwriters, not director DeMille, not Grahame herself–knows what to do with the character. She’s there to give March a reason to fight to be an American. For the pretty, well-spoken girl who gets shown up in every one of her scenes with guardian aunt Beulah Bondi. Just because Grahame’s got nothing else to do. She’s in love with a pirate, if only he’d go legit for her. She’s just not the female lead, so she’s got squat.

The female lead–and kind of protagonist, certainly more than March–is Franciska Gaal. She’s playing an adorable–literally squeaking–Dutch girl who ends up with March and his band. March becomes her protector and, accordinly, Gaal falls in love with him even though she’s seen his men kill an entire ship of innocent people and even try to kill her. She only escapes because pirate Fred Kohler, who met her in the film’s first scene, has been trying to rape her since that first scene.

The film does this whole “she’s not in any great danger with these pirates, oh, wait, no, it’d be better if the nicer one just killed her instead” thing for the first act and beginning of second, so you’d think you’re supposed to take it serious. But then you aren’t whenever Gaal’s supposed to be foolish instead of brave. Like, the movie craps on Gaal’s performance and all the potential for the character. After the setting up the movie to focus on those things.

Because, as Gaal later whines to March when her character does nothing but lather him with unrequited verbal admiration, all the men are acting like little boys and fighting. Once the movie starts moving toward the opening text exposition on Lafitte’s place in history, once all the fighting starts, Gaal gets dropped like a rock. Worse, there’s more with Grahame. No fault to her, but she and March have even less chemistry than March and Gaal. At least March is protective of Gaal. With Grahame, it’s bewildering. She’s supposed to be his obsession and they’re flat together.

Maybe the accent got in the way. But more likely Grahame’s character being really thin. And, really, March’s isn’t much better. He’s supposed to be this great pirate captain yet the only times things go right it’s because of Gaal or Akim Tamiroff as his main sidekick. Anthony Quinn’s all right as the second sidekick. Tamiroff’s in love with Gaal. He makes it cute. He’s the best performance in the film, with Walter Brennan a somewhat close second as Andrew Jackson’s dotting frontiersman sidekick. Gaal’s a far third.

Because there aren’t any standout supporting performances. Douglass Dumbrille’s okay as the governor who’s out to get March. Ian Keith’s bad as the bent politician, working for the British. Hugh Sothern’s hilariously bad as Andrew Jackson. Though at least he doesn’t play Jackson horny old man when Grahame offers.

Beulah Bondi is fine as the aunt. Some of the third tier supporting performances are solid. It’s a big movie. There are a lot of people around. They’re mostly all right. Even Kohler. He’s not good but he’s not bad.

Technically, the film’s competent. I mean, DeMille has annoying two shots because–apparently–of height disparities and Anne Bauchens never cuts to them well. Based on DeMille’s composition, it’s probably because he didn’t get the right shots, which is weird since it’s clearly big budget and so on. He saves his energy for the battle scenes, which really aren’t effective because March doesn’t do much. He tells the other guys what to do mostly.

He does have a sword fight, but it’s got a bad finish and leads into his second asinine patriotic speech (after the Americans have massacred a bunch of his men) and the movie doesn’t even try. DeMille doesn’t try with anything in Buccaneer. It gets annoying. The massacre of the pirates at their base is probably the best action sequence. But it’s in the middle of the rather long two hour and five minute film. And it’s a dramatic fail of a plot beat.

The Buccaneer clearly was a big production and DeMille and company do make an epic. It’s just not a successful one. The script’s alterately lazy, cheap, and dull. The third act only “saves” the film because it stops getting worse. It plateaus. And Gaal’s charming and March’s likable and you just want it to end so why fight it. It’s not a success, it’s a surrender.

1/4

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Cecil B. DeMille; screenplay by Edwin Justus Mayer, Harold Lamb, and C. Gardner Sullivan, adaptation by Jeanie Macpherson, based on a novel by Lyle Saxon; director of photography, Victor Milner; edited by Anne Bauchens; music by George Antheil; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Fredric March (Jean Lafitte), Franciska Gaal (Gretchen), Akim Tamiroff (Dominique You), Margot Grahame (Annette de Remy), Anthony Quinn (Beluche), Ian Keith (Senator Crawford), Douglass Dumbrille (Governor William C.C. Claiborne), Fred Kohler (Gramby), Hugh Sothern (General Andrew Jackson), Walter Brennan (Ezra Peavey), Beulah Bondi (Aunt Charlotte), and Spring Byington (Dolly Madison).


THIS POST IS PART OF THE MADE IN 1938 BLOGATHON HOSTED BY ROBIN OF POP CULTURE REVERIE AND CRYSTAL OF IN THE GOOD OLD DAYS OF CLASSIC HOLLYWOOD.


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You Can't Take It with You (1938, Frank Capra)

You Can’t Take It with You has three major plot lines, all interconnected, but separate enough the film often feels stretched. There’s the rather lovely romance between stenographer Jean Arthur and her boss, bank vice president James Stewart. There’s Edward Arnold’s attempt to create a munitions monopoly to take advantage of the coming world war. He’s Stewart’s dad; the only thing standing in the way of his monopoly is acquiring a single piece of property (to build a factory to force his competitor to capitulate). Lionel Barrymore owns the property. He doesn’t want to sell, he’s also Arthur’s grandfather.

Everything intersects eventually, though when Arnold and wife Mary Forbes are disapproving of Arthur, Barrymore, and the rest of the family, they don’t know Barrymore’s also holding up the big deal.

Barrymore runs the house as sort of a hippie commune; albeit a late thirties, Depression-era commune. Arthur’s the normal one. Her mom, Spring Byington, is mildly eccentric, always finding one creative hobby or another. Samuel S. Hinds is Arthur’s dad; he makes fireworks in the basement with Halliwell Hobbes, who showed up delivering the ice one day and never left. Similarly, Dub Taylor came to dinner once and stayed, marrying Arthur’s sister, Ann Miller. Miller’s got a Russian dance instructor (displaced by the Revolution), Mischa Auer. The film introduces Barrymore’s eclectic brood via Donald Meek, who Barrymore recruits away from his awful office job. Also in the house are housekeeper Lillian Yarbo and her fiancé, Eddie ‘Rochester’ Anderson. Going to have to talk about Yarbo and Anderson and the film’s treatment of them at some point. On one hand, they’re Black characters with decently sized parts. On the other, Anderson is the only person in the film who Robert Riskin’s script portrays as lazy.

Before getting to that aspect… the better aspects of the script, which are many. The movie opens with Arnold’s prospective business deal (and introduces Stewart as the disinterested boss’s son), then goes to Barrymore who meets up with Meek, then brings him home. The family gets introduced. Then, twenty minutes into the film, top-billed Arthur finally appears. And begins she and Stewart’s possibly star-crossed, rich boy, middle class girl (not to mention the commune) romance. The first ninety minutes are about the romance and its possibilities and realities. Stewart’s mom, Forbes, is opposed. Her thin characterization will also have to be discussed in a bit. But Stewart and Arthur are in love and, based on their courting scenes, love might be able to conquer all. Joseph Walker’s photography is never better than during Stewart and Arthur’s date night. The actors radiate chemistry, with Arthur beaming at Stewart’s wooing in the two shots (then getting to beaming in her close-ups). It’s also some of Capra’s best direction, particularly when the action then moves to a slightly slapstick posh restaurant scene (from Central Park where Stewart shows he’s not a snob by palling around with some street urchins).

Capra always keeps You Can’t Take It with You moving, he always moves between the various subplots (everyone in the house has something going on, usually with crossover, even if it’s a throwaway C plot), but his best direction is when it’s Arthur and Stewart or Arthur and Barrymore. There’s this devastating quiet scene where Barrymore and Arthur talk about love. Barrymore’s got some phenomenal moments in the film, but that scene has his best acting. He gets to reflect, not act. Usually he’s acting. Or if he’s reflecting, Capra isn’t showcasing it because there’s a lot of other stuff going on. The scene also establishes Barrymore’s reflection, so it only needs check-ins in the bigger scenes. The film’s beautifully constructed; Capra and Riskin excel at it.

Turns out, however, those scenes aren’t actually Capra’s best directed in the film because the third act reveals the protagonist of the film isn’t Barrymore, or Arthur, or Stewart, it’s Arnold. You Can’t Take It with You, somewhere in the second act, becomes about Arnold and Barrymore, then Arnold. Arnold’s conundrum sequence in the third act is Capra’s best direction in the picture. Arnold gets this long sequence to himself and is fantastic. He goes from being a hideous capitalist to someone you can believe Stewart likes having–or liked having before the film started, in the distant past–as a dad. Unfortunately, the film can’t organically tie all the threads together at the end, skipping over Barrymore and the family’s storyline, mega-contriving a finish for Arthur and Stewart, mostly so Arnold gets a satisfactory one. It’s sort of a good full circle since he started the film, but it’s also unfortunate. All of Riskin’s inventive plotting throughout the film and nothing for the finish.

Still, thanks to the acting (and the previous material) the finale is still quite effective. So effective you can almost forget about the plotting problems. Almost.

All of the acting in the film is good, some of it is superior. Stewart and Arthur are great as the romantic leads; they both get some rather dramatic moments as well. Arthur’s better than Stewart in them (but her writing is better). Byington and Hinds are lovable, Taylor and Miller are cute, Auer’s awesome. Meek’s adorable. Harry Davenport is great as the judge who presides over the end of second act night court where everyone’s in trouble (including the narrative because that point’s where things could naturally finish).

Arnold’s fantastic. Barrymore’s fantastic. Arnold gets more of the dramatic acting, Barrymore has to do his dramatic acting (for the most part) amid slapstick absurdity. It’s their movie in the end.

Now the more obvious problems. Riskin tries to avoid getting into Barrymore’s political philosophy too much, but what’s left in the film is some nonsensical jingoistic anti-organized capitalism thing. There’s a funny sequence with an IRS investigator (Charles Lane) where Barrymore’s raving against the government and the film never clarifies whether it’s just federal he hates or local too. Barrymore’s a de facto progressive, but it’s not like Yarbo or Anderson ever get to dine with the family. And as dismissive as the film gets about Yarbo, it’s nothing compared to how it characterizes Anderson solely as a relief defrauder.

And Riskin (and Capra) have nothing but ire for Forbes, who’s really the second biggest female part in the film–Byington’s omnipresent but as support–and Forbes is a thinly sketched society harpy. The filmmakers go so far as to pay her heartlessness off Arnold; as he starts to see the humanity in the poors and reflect on his ways, Forbes doubles down and gets even more shallow. Or at least maintains the shallow.

Makes for a handful of queasy scenes where Riskin and Capra go for the cheapest jokes possible.

Nice enough Dimitri Tiomkin score. Okay editing from Gene Havlick; the actors do so well in their two shots and group shots, you almost never want it to go to close-up. It feels empty.

Look fast for an uncredited Ward Bond.

You Can’t Take It with You has some great dialogue, some fine direction, some exceptional performances; Capra and Riskin are willing to go long with the things they care about (Arthur and Stewart’s chemistry, Arnold’s character arc, the whole pre-court jail sequence), but they don’t know how to make it fit in the narrative. The result is an often glorious, very busy mess of a motion picture.

CREDITS

Directed by Frank Capra; screenplay by Robert Riskin, based on the play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart; director of photography, Joseph Walker; edited by Gene Havlick; music by Dimitri Tiomkin; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Jean Arthur (Alice Sycamore), James Stewart (Tony Kirby), Lionel Barrymore (Martin Vanderhof), Edward Arnold (Anthony P. Kirby), Mary Forbes (Mrs. Anthony Kirby), Spring Byington (Penny Sycamore), Samuel S. Hinds (Paul Sycamore), Dub Taylor (Ed Carmichael), Ann Miller (Essie Carmichael), Donald Meek (Poppins), Mischa Auer (Kolenkhov), Halliwell Hobbes (DePinna), Lillian Yarbo (Rheba), Eddie ‘Rochester’ Anderson (Donald), Clarence Wilson (Blakely), Charles Lane (Henderson), and Harry Davenport (Judge).



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THIS POST IS PART OF THE FOURTH ANNUAL BARRYMORE TRILOGY BLOGATHON HOSTED BY CRYSTAL OF IN THE GOOD OLD DAYS OF CLASSIC HOLLYWOOD.


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Werewolf of London (1935, Stuart Walker)

Werewolf of London. He actually does need a tailor, because he’s a gentleman and gentleman dress for the evening. For whatever reason, director Walker seems to spend more time on lead Henry Hull getting dressed while a werewolf than doing much else while a werewolf. There are a couple effects shots in the film involving Hull as a werewolf, but Walker and photographer Charles J. Stumar bumble them terribly.

Walker has a very stagy understanding of composition. I’m using stagy as a pejorative. John Colton’s script does nothing to dissuade that style either. Werewolf of London isn’t a horror picture, it’s a society melodrama in search of a point. Yes, Hull is cursed with lycanthropy but he’s still just a jerk to his wife, a floundering but sympathetic Valerie Hobson. All he does is work. He’s one of those obnoxious work-at-home botanists. Hobson starts hanging around old beau Lester Matthews just as Hull becomes more and more insufferable. He’s not just a rude jerk to her, he’s a rude jerk to fellow botanist Warner Oland. Sure, Oland’s a werewolf too, but he’s a botanist first.

Hull’s bad. Oland’s good. Hobson is fine. Matthews is bad. It’s a bad script. Overall, Werewolf of London has nothing going for it. A better script or a better director would help, but it’s conceptually a mess. Walker can’t even take advantage of Hull actually being good as the werewolf or the makeup being excellent. He gets like three decent shots of the titular monster.

But there’s also Spring Byington. She plays Hobson’s society cousin. She’s awesome. Even in bad scenes, Byington is good. It’s like she knows how to make this material work for her. Same goes for Ethel Griffies and Zeffie Tilbury. They’re dueling landladies and drinking chumps who run afoul of Hull’s werewolf.

There’s also all the morality lessons in Colton’s script regarding wandering spouses, which encourage the idea of approaching Werewolf of London as a relic of mid-thirties Universal studio filmmaking and Hollywood and so on. It’s definitely a better approach than going into it looking for a good film.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Stuart Walker; screenplay by John Colton, based on a story by Robert Harris; director of photography, Charles J. Stumar; edited by Russell F. Schoengarth; music by Karl Hajos; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Henry Hull (Dr. Glendon), Valerie Hobson (Lisa Glendon), Warner Oland (Dr. Yogami), Lester Matthews (Paul Ames), Spring Byington (Miss Ettie Coombes), Lawrence Grant (Sir Thomas Forsythe), Clark Williams (Hugh Renwick), J.M. Kerrigan (Hawkins), Ethel Griffies (Mrs. Whack), Zeffie Tilbury (Mrs. Moncaster) and Charlotte Granville (Lady Forsythe).


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Meet John Doe (1941, Frank Capra)

There’s something off with Meet John Doe. Director Capra can’t find a tone for the film, but he also can’t find a pace for it. He tries to find the tone, over and over, usually with excellently directed sequences, but he just throws up his hands as far as finding the pace. If Robert Riskin’s script didn’t have strong moments for background characters, it would just be a bunch of great monologues for the actors. But Capra wants to step too far back from it all–John Doe has a wonderful cast and all Capra wants to do is rant about the Illuminati.

At its start, John Doe is simple. Barbara Stanwyck is a reporter. She loses her job. Angry–because John Doe takes place in a time when it seems like the Great Depression isn’t actually going to end, a forlorn attitude permeating throughout the film–she fakes a letter from someone fed up with the state of the world and promising to kill himself. Turns out the letter’s a hit, so Stanywck has to turn up the writer. She hires Gary Cooper. It’s Gary Cooper after all.

There’s a little humor with Cooper and sidekick Walter Brennan getting into a posh hotel and doing nothing. Riskin’s really good at these scenes. Well, then something happens and Cooper quits for a bit then he joins back up for a bit then it turns out the Illuminati have plans for him so he has to make a big decision. Along the way, he falls in love with Stanwyck (it’s Barbara Stanwyck after all), losing Brennan, and falls under the spell of Edward Arnold, the evil Mr. Big running this nameless city’s Illuminati chapter.

The nameless city should’ve been a bigger giveaway for the film’s problems. Capra doesn’t want anything to have personality except the concept.

Only, Riskin’s script has those amazing monologues I mentioned. James Gleason, who plays Stanwyck’s editor and Arnold’s reluctant stooge, gets at least two great scenes. His second one, where he gets wasted and talks about the Great War, is phenomenal. Gleason’s great and all, but that scene is phenomenal. Riskin’s dialogue is great, Capra’s patience is great, everything’s great. It just doesn’t belong in the movie. John Doe’s so lost, having every actor (except Cooper) directly address the camera when talking to Cooper’s character might work better. First person for the audience. Why? Because, while Capra’s interested in shooting the film well, having fantastic performances from his cast, he’s not actually interested in the film. It’s like he’s avoiding the lack of story.

Unfortunately, the rocky pace means no one gives an overall great performance. Brennan disappears, then comes back with nothing to do. He’s good, often really good, but the film doesn’t give him enough time later on. It never establishes who’s supposed to get the most time–even Cooper and Stanwyck manage to disappear from the story. The present action’s a mess. The film goes on for months and months and doesn’t let the characters grow.

It’s too much story. There are a half dozen points throughout the two hour runtime where Riskin and Capra could’ve focused for a far better experience.

Capra’s direction is outstanding. Riskin’s monologues are great. Cooper, Stanwyck, Gleason, Brennan, all great. Arnold’s not, but it’s hard to fault him. He’s got no part. He’s not even a caricature. He’s just “rich bad guy.”

Dimitri Tiomkin’s music has a few missteps, but it’s generally okay. It tends to stumble through the parts where everything else stumbles. Except maybe George Barnes’s photography and Daniel Mandell’s editing, their work is always strong.

Meet John Doe doesn’t work out. I wish it had, but it’s still one heck of a swing.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Frank Capra; screenplay by Robert Riskin, based on a story by Richard Connell and Robert Presnell Sr.; director of photography, George Barnes; edited by Daniel Mandell; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Gary Cooper (John Doe), Barbara Stanwyck (Ann Mitchell), Edward Arnold (D.B. Norton), Walter Brennan (The Colonel), James Gleason (Henry), Spring Byington (Mrs. Mitchell), Rod La Rocque (Ted Sheldon), Irving Bacon (Beany) and Gene Lockhart (Mayor Lovett).


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THIS POST IS PART OF THE REMEMBERING BARBARA STANWYCK BLOGATHON HOSTED BY CRYSTAL OF IN THE GOOD OLD DAYS OF CLASSIC HOLLYWOOD.


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