I watched a total of 31 movies in January, 29 of which were new to me. There’s a lot of variety on this list, from well known classics to more obscure titles. These are 15 films that made the most impact. I fell in love with a handful. If I didn’t fall in love, I nevertheless found something meaningful. Also worth mentioning: all of these films were watched through Turner Classic Movies! Their Watch TCM app has become indispensable to me, and is the primary reason I’ve watched as many movies as I have. There are other streaming sites I’m grateful for (Netflix and Amazon Prime), but TCM truly holds the key to my heart.
David Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai is a film I’ve attempted and failed to watch on more than one occasion. It was too long and hard to follow before, even though it stars William Holden, my favorite actor. He was the reason I decided to give it another shot, and surprise of all surprises, I found other things besides his performance to love. Alec Guinness won an Oscar for his performance as a British Army colonel engaged in a battle of wills with the Japanese POW commander played by Sessue Hayakawa. Both men are fascinating to watch as they refuse to give in to the other, and in the case of Hayakawa’s Colonel Saito, an ambiguous figure that I found myself sympathizing with. (Knowing that Hayakawa was an influential star and indeed the first Asian superstar has also made me eager to see more of his work). This war movie set in the sweltering Burmese jungle is less about violence and action, but primarily concerned with characters and how they interact with each other and the codes that govern war.
The Gay Divorcee (1934)
dir: Mark Sanrich
There’s so much going on in this poster for The Gay Divorcee and I absolutely love it. Like most of the world, I also love Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing together. But is dancing even the right word for the magic that unspools when these two lock in an embrace and glide across polished floors? Watching them makes me think of this line from Wall-E:
“Computer, define dancing.”
I love that line because it juxtaposes something cold, clunky, and mechanical like a computer with something as earthy as dancing, the ethereal movement of bodies that transcends technology. And watching Fred & Ginger, you have to define dancing. The Gay Divorcee, directed by Mark Sandrich, is filled with gaiety. Rogers is Mimi Glossop, the titular divorcee who catches the eye of Guy Holden (Astaire). He continues pursuing her even after she repeatedly tells him to get lost. But there are lots of hijinks that ensue, featuring a gigolo who’s the complete antithesis of a casanova, the always deadpanning/hilarious Edward Everett Horton, and a new discovery of mine, the delightful Alice Brady. And then of course, a sequence that’s a whirlwind of dancing and truly impressive camera technique.
When Ladies Meet (1933)
dir: Harry Beaumont
Harry Beaumont directed When Ladies Meet, an excellent precode about smart women grappling with moral dilemmas. I. love. this. movie. The lady in the middle of the above still is that paragon of sophisticated wit, Myrna Loy, and her enviable nose/profile. I didn’t like her character, Mary Howard, in the beginning of the film. I thought she was profoundly naive and selfish.
Mary is an author whose latest book is about a woman who’s having an affair with a married man. This woman believes that she and the man’s wife can sit down like mature adults and discuss the matter, and that when the wife realizes how fervently the other woman loves her husband, she’ll let him go. Happy endings all around. Mary’s novel actually reflects her own situation. She’s entangled in an affair with her publisher, Rogers Woodruff (Frank Morgan). Mary’s friend Jimmie (Robert Montgomery), has been carrying a torch for her, and is naturally a little burned by her refusal. He loathes Rogers and concocts a scheme to prove the premise and happy ending of Mary’s novel wrong. Mary meets Rogers’ wife Claire (Ann Harding), and the two hit it off immediately, though they’re unaware of who the other is. My dislike of Mary eventually turned to sympathy. While she and Rogers deserved equal condemnation from me, I found that this film was actually a frank indictment of men who have affairs and end up ruining the smart, talented, extraordinary women who get involved with them. Rogers doesn’t deserve Claire or Mary.
From just this one film, I was drawn to Ann Harding; her dignified, quietly elegant appearance and manner. Alice Brady costars once again as the daffy older woman. She’s so funny! When Claire and Mary sit down to discuss her novel in purely abstract terms, it could have easily turned boring, but I was so engrossed in what they had to say and the complex ways each navigated the world. Definitely makes me wonder if the poignancy would have been greater in a female director’s hands.
A Star is Born (1954)
dir: George Cukor
Another Cukor entry, A Star is Born is one film I’ve been hearing about for years. A heartbreaking look into the world of showbiz and the parallel journeys of one star’s ascent and another star’s fall. Judy Garland is Esther Blodgett, the rising star who breaks into Hollywood with the help of washed up Norman Maine, played by James Mason. Judy’s bravura performance is certainly one highlight. What I found slightly ironic is that Esther’s Hollywood treatment was much kinder than what Judy endured in real life. But it’s nice to see her triumph onscreen, even though that triumph is punctuated by Norman’s gradual downfall from grace. He increasingly turns to the bottle and the sympathy of others has worn out.
Judy losing the Best Actress Oscar to Grace Kelly in The Country Girl (an actress & film I enjoy) is notorious. I waver when it comes to the Oscars. If they are meant to recognize excellence in film and film acting, then the statuette did belong to Judy. There should have been an Oscar for the cinematography too. I especially loved the use of photographs and how they replaced moving images over dialogue. And the music! That entire “Born In A Trunk” sequence is pure cinema magic.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958)
dir: Richard Brooks
I read Cat on a Hot Tin Roof when I was in the eighth grade. Hardly appropriate reading material and all of the themes flew completely over my head. My feelings on it were mixed, no doubt because I didn’t understand it. The 1958 film starring Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman, I love.
The combined beauty of these two is…staggering. Both exude such raw sensual energy too, even though Newman’s Brick is struggling with his repressed homosexuality. And Maggie the Cat is alive! Alive and wilting, desperate for love from the distant, moody, alcoholic Brick. Their frustrated relationship is just one piece of the fractured whole, namely the dysfunction of the Pollitt household, in which Big Daddy (Burl Ives) is the patriarch who doesn’t know he’s dying. Having to confront their demons and individual crutches, the experience watching the film becomes oddly cathartic, though the original play doesn’t end things nearly as tidily.
The Man with the Golden Arm (1955)
dir: Otto Preminger
Clearly not needing a respite from emotionally taxing films, I followed up Cat on a Hot Tin Roof with Otto Preminger’s The Man with the Golden Arm. Francis Albert Sinatra. Not only a gifted singer, the man had acting chops too. As junkie Frankie Machine (greatest name), he probably gave what was the greatest performance of his career. His anguish is palpable, the sympathy he inspires gut wrenching, for anyone with a heart who understands that addiction isn’t a choice.
Sinatra’s costars deserve some credit too. Kim Novak as the girlfriend who’s determined to help him get clean is amazing. And Eleanor Parker! She never ceases to wow me. She’s Zosch Machine (again, greatest name), Frankie’s wheelchair ridden wife who won’t let him forget it. Eleanor’s performance might seem over the top, but that’s the whole point. Zosch is a shrill, frightened, desperate woman. And a villain playing victim.
There aren’t many films, classic or modern, that I’ve seen that deal with addiction in such an unflinching and sensitive manner. Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend (1945) is the only other one that comes to mind. This film is singularly haunting for its use of the music. The instrumentals grow in volume and intensity, ringing in your ears. The shaky camera zooming in on close ups of Frankie’s face when he’s getting a fix produce a similar effect. It’s a chilling fear that courses through your own veins as the drugs pump through Frankie’s body.
Imitation of Life (1934)
dir: John M. Stahl
I watched the 1959 remake of Imitation of Life before watching this 1934 version starring lovely Claudette Colbert. You can’t tell from this poster and others like it that Colbert also shared the screen with black actress Louise Beavers. I’ve found that to be one of the unfortunate practices of early Hollywood. Doesn’t matter how prominent a person of color features in a film, their name and image is missing from the promotional material. And then you get a poster like this one:
Who. Who honestly looked at the floating baby head and thought: “Yes. This is just what this poster needs. Absolutely conveys the struggles of TWO women, one white and one black.” Basically “graphic design is my passion
” in 1934.
Imitation of Life is a difficult movie to embrace, because it’s progressive on the surface but still plays into painful cliches and stereotypes. I think the 1959 film didn’t improve on certain aspects even though it came much later. (Was I expecting more progressiveness in 1959? I don’t know). In this film, Beatrice (Colbert) and Delilah (Beavers) go into business together, whereas in the 1959 adaptation, actress Lora Meredith (Lana Turner) still retains Annie (Juanita Moore) as her housekeeper. But in the 1934 film, Delilah is still content to live with Beatrice as the help even after all the money rolls in from their pancake & syrup business. Also gotta take away points from the Aunt Jemima like photograph of Delilah that appears on the syrup. This film is groundbreaking for doing what the 1959 one didn’t: actually casting a black actress, Fredi Washington, as Delilah’s white passing daughter, Peola. (Hate that this trend of casting white actors in roles meant for black people & other people of color is still going strong in Hollywood today. Baffling to say the least. Is it 2016 or 1916??)
The gorgeous Fredi Washington couldn’t enjoy a successful Hollywood career because she refused to pass as white. She was so adamant that she didn’t relate to Peola in the slightest. She was proud of her black heritage, just like Michael Jackson, who is going to be played in an upcoming film by a white man. I’m still not over this, it is 2 0 1 6, my disgust knows no bounds. Washington never saw any need to pass because she didn’t regard her own race as inferior. Maybe the studio bigwigs found it impossible to promote her, because no matter how racist Hollywood was and is, it just mirrors America. Anyway, Imitation of Life does open up dialogue about the complexities of living/passing as black. This was the first instance of the “tragic mulatto trope”, but I think it was necessary. Washington received letters from young black people thanking her for her portrayal. “You don’t know what it’s like to look white and feel black!” definitely resonated.
Johnny Belinda (1948)
dir: Jean Negulesco
Johnny Belinda, directed by Jean Negulesco is a film that I love so much, because it could have easily devolved into something sensationalist, but it avoids that trap. It offers such a resounding affirmation of life and joy that thinking about it makes me want to cry. Jane Wyman, one of my favorites with a childlike prettiness, won an Oscar for playing the deaf-mute Belinda who lives in a small Novia Scotia town that’s full of religious hypocrites and petty gossips. Everybody sees her as less than human, less deserving of basic human respect and dignity. Her own father, played marvelously by Charles Bickford, doesn’t even start to appreciate her presence in his life until she learns sign language. But his love for her begins to emerge and their relationship is truly heartening. It’s Lew Ayres, the doctor in town, who treats her with kindness and befriends her. He then teaches her how to communicate, which definitely improves her quality of life.
The End of Summer (1961)
dir: Yasujiro Ozu
My first Yasujiro Ozu film was The End of Summer. Partly why I want to see more of his films is because of his frequent collaboration with Setsuko Hara, who I have a major crush on. I also am interested in his films because Summer was so pleasant and relied on quiet moments and scenes to carry the whole film. I don’t have a problem with blockbuster movies, but sometimes they’re just so bloated with noise and action that an intimate film like this one serves as refuge. And you typically don’t get these kinds of films in Western cinema. Maybe there’s a connection between Ozu and the films of Studio Ghibli. The End of Summer concerns the love life of two daughters, one who is torn between the suitor her family has chosen and the man she loves, and the widow who isn’t making much effort to seek romance. In the backdrop is the bustling city of Tokyo juxtaposed against the country.
The Duke Is Tops (1938)
dir: Ralph Cooper
The Duke Is Tops was Lena Horne’s film debut at age 21. It was later released under the title Bronze Venus to capitalize on her role. Like Fredi Washington and Nina Mae McKinney before her, Horne was immensely talented but her potential was ultimately squandered by MGM. Every couple of weeks I think about how she was never given a chance beyond posing for publicity portraits and get filled with sadness. She once said: “They didn’t make me into a maid, but they didn’t make me into anything else either. I became a butterfly, pinned to a column, singing away in movieland.” Roles of substance simply were not there for her or other black actresses. The injustice of it all just rankles.
Enter then, the “race film” of the 30s and 40s, low budget films that lacked the polish and gloss of serious, white Hollywood productions, but which gave starring roles to black actors. In The Duke Is Tops, Duke Davis (Ralph Cooper) and Ethel Andrews (Horne) are in love. Duke is a stage show promoter, Ethel one of the performers in his company. When she gets spotted by some bigger promoters, she hesitates at being whisked away into fame but Duke reluctantly lets her go. Even for a low budget film like this, I was still entertained. It might be unpolished but it’s a lot of fun and worth seeing for its unique place in black Hollywood history. And the first glimmers of Lena’s radiant star power were just starting to blossom.
Blue Skies (1946)
dir: Mark Sandrich
My second Fred Astaire movie of the month paired him with Bing Crosby in Blue Skies. Fred is Jed Potter, a dancer, and Bing is Johnny Adams, a nightclub owner who’s always restless and moving from one city to the next. The film unfolds through a series of flashbacks, with Jed narrating events surrounding the love triangle involving both men and Mary O’Hara (Joan Caulfield).
Blue Skies is a musical that’s heavy on the (great) music (all by Irving Berlin) and low on plot. But it’s also a big, splashy, colorful spectacle with merits galore. I love the dialogue too.
Mary: “What do you think we’ll find in here?”
Johnny: “Us, do you suppose?”
Johnny: “Very private in here, hmm?”
Mary: “Yes, isn’t it nice?”
Johnny: “Do you think Jed’s going to like this?”
Mary: “How could he? He isn’t here.”
Johnny: “Yes, I noticed that.”
Johnny: “Quite a face you have there.”
Mary: “Glad you think so.”
Johnny: “Think I’ll keep it.”
Mary: “Three weeks is such a short honeymoon.”
Johnny: “I was counting on about sixty years.”
This was supposed to be Fred Astaire’s final film before he retired. But that didn’t happen. Even at 47 his agility is ever intact. His dancing still defies description. The “Puttin’ on the Ritz” number uses a lot of nifty tricks, such as multiple Astaires and slow motion during the sequence as he drops a cane and dances. Astaire wasn’t the reason I watched the movie though, it was actually Olga San Juan.
Olga was married to one of my favorite actors, Edmond O’Brien. I find it odd that she’s virtually unacknowledged when people discuss Latinas in Classic Hollywood. That may be due to the fact that she retired in the 1950s to raise her children with O’Brien, but I think she deserves to be mentioned. In movies like Blue Skies and One Touch of Venus (1948), she’s in a supporting role, but not a demeaning one. She was so vivacious, bubbly, and clearly talented. That screen cap of her against the red background is from an intoxicating number, “Heat Wave”, where she and Fred Astaire display some surprising chemistry.
Black Girl (1972)
dir: Ossie Davis
Now I did venture past 1965 for more film discoveries. Black Girl was directed by Ossie Davis and is one of the most complex films about women and family that I’ve ever seen. It’s specifically about black women though. But just as dysfunctional family dynamics aren’t limited to white families only, Black Girl explores similar dynamics that aren’t tied to racism or other black issues. This film isn’t widely known, probably because it’s not about the black struggle. Just ordinary black women going about their day to day. A lot of the recent conversation about the state of films today and the lack of roles for black actors center on this notion that the only worthwhile films about black people are the ones about visionaries. But just regular fictional people? Can’t have that.
17 year old Billie Jean (Peggy Pettit in her only film role) is an aspiring dancer who’s dropped out of school to pursue her dream full time. Her mother Mama Rosie (Louise Stubbs) and sisters Ruth Ann (Loretta Greene) and Norma Faye (Gloria Edwards) don’t encourage her dream and frequently put her down. Ruth and Norma both have the same father and this is something the household often throws in Billie Jean’s face, especially when the other sisters’ father Earl (Brock Peters) pays a visit. Billie Jean isn’t an angel, but alienation from your own family is rough. Mama Rosie loves her daughters but they are disappointments to her. Her foster daughter Netta (Leslie Uggams) is a college student with actual goals who’s going to become a teacher and make her proud, unlike her daughters. Obviously it’s no surprise that a whole lotta resentment has been building up for a long time towards Netta.
The performances are all worth raving about. Ruby Dee makes a tiny appearance and doesn’t speak once, but her presence is still powerful. Claudia McNeil as sympathetic Mu’Dear is wonderful, as is Stubbs, Pettit, and Greene. But Edwards truly frightens whenever she’s onscreen. Norma Faye’s vicious quality burns so brightly that you’re repulsed, but you can’t look away
I also love Black Girl because the 70s fashions don’t make me want to throw up and Leslie Uggams’ afro is everything.
Cooley High (1975)
dir: Michael Schultz
Now this here is the first movie of the year that made me glad to be alive. Cooley High has got so much soul. It’s a coming of age film about black boys but one that I could relate to nonetheless. I mean, my high school/life experiences were strikingly dissimilar, but I found a kindred spirit in Preach (Glynn Turman). He’s an aspiring screenwriter (cough), a guy who loves poetry but isn’t ashamed about it. He and his best friend Cochice (Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs) spend their days chasing after girls, falling in love & lust, all while dreaming of that elusive better life. A tragicomedy, Cooley High is truly black excellence.
The Caine Mutiny (1954)
Fred MacMurray was TCM’s star of the month for January and I’m sad to report that this was the only film of his that I saw. I’m not sad to report that I wanted to watch it for young Lee Marvin in one of his early roles. Lee’s screen time amounts to a whopping ten minutes (I think) out of the two hour runtime. Still, worth it.