March was a divine movie watching month, with 55 new to me titles! It’s the most I’ve watched so far, bringing my overall total up to 115. Am I proud of this achievement? Naturally. As per the norm, TCM is where I watched the majority of these films. Merle Oberon was their star of the month, and I was glad to have seen more of her films. My own personal star of the month was Benicio del Toro, who I’ve got a wild crush on. Besides his ridiculous good looks (seriously, he was an iconic 90s heartthrob), I do admire him as an actor and his wonderfully jagged performances in offbeat films. He reminds me somewhat of Lee Marvin, who was never as weird, but who only ever played the villain. Like Benicio, Lee also wished he could’ve been a romantic lead, and you know something, I do too. I’ve also fallen in love with George Brent, so he along with Merle & Benicio were my favorite people this month, and appeared in most of the films I watched and loved.
The Summer of Sangaile (2015)
dir: Alante Kavaite
This tale of young love was part of my 52 films by women challenge. A film about two girls exploring love can really only be captured by a woman without that problematic male gaze. You see everything from the perspectives of troubled Sangaile and irrepressible Auste. You really understand the two of them. I particularly enjoyed how each girl’s room symbolized her inner landscape. Sangaile’s is bare, rigid, and polished, while Auste’s is cluttered, warm, and inviting. I also loved that Sangaile wanted to fly stunt planes, since i’d like to get my pilot’s license someday. Her love of flying is complicated by her fear of heights, which Auste helps her to overcome. In that way, it’s also a beautiful film about girls supporting one another.
dir: Sidney Lumet
This was my fourth William Holden film of the year, and my 29th overall! *Confetti*. Network is, in the broadest sense, a biting satire of society at large, with some pointed criticism at television itself. Forces manipulate the vulnerable for an unworthy cause. In this case, the vulnerable is Howard Beale (Peter Finch), a news anchor who suffers a nervous breakdown on air. The unworthy cause? TV ratings. Faye Dunaway, possessed of a firm yet fragile beauty, is the ruthless executive who moves about the world like a man. She’s rapid fire in everything she does, cartoonishly callous, and really doesn’t seem to have any kind of human warmth or feeling at all. The money & Howard’s notoriety are the bottom line. She has an affair with Max Schumacher (Holden), who grows disgusted with her cynicism and the “scripts” she’s written out for him. The film is also rife with dark, ironic humor. Bill’s performance in this film is so marvelous, but the speech he gives her is really something else. He’s passionate about what he’s saying, but he keeps so calm and subtle. Network is cited as one of the greatest films of all time. So is Sunset Boulevard, The Bridge on the River Kwai, and The Wild Bunch. And what do all these films have in common? William Holden. He reflected our fractured humanity, while reminding us that we are still fully human and not beyond redemption. He keeps these films, with their elevated narrative beats, grounded.
dir: Charles Walters
Leslie Caron stars as a waifish orphan who joins a traveling circus in this sweet little whimsical film. The puppeteer is crippled and bitter, played by Mel Ferrer. He loves Lili secretly and treats her badly while she has eyes for the suave magician (Jean Pierre Aumont). Leslie Caron is so adorable, and she plays Lili with steely, bright eyed earnestness. The one song of the film “Hi-Lili, Hi Lo” is sad and enchanting, and I remember hearing it years ago and always singing it. This film made me cry profusely, which was surprising. It filled me with a lot of bittersweet joy.
Mystery Street (1950)
dir: John Sturges
Set in Boston (!!), this murder mystery revolves around scientific study. When a skeleton is discovered on a beach, forensic experts and the police team up to reconstruct the murder victim’s identity and find the killer. Detective Peter Morales (Ricardo Montalban) pursues his leads with single minded determination. It was so wonderful to see Ricardo in a heroic role like this one, when his Mexican heritage was unfortunately stereotyped in 20th century Hollywood. As Morales, he’s intelligent and intense, emboldened by a sharp sense of justice. Perhaps honorable, unique roles for people of color were only possible in low budget movies, which this one is. But you’d never tell. The cinematography is also excellent.
Vivacious Lady (1938)
dir: George Stevens
I‘ve heard so many great things about this screwball comedy and it didn’t disappoint in the slightest. One of the highlights was seeing Ginger Rogers get involved in one of the most hilarious cat fights ever captured onscreen, in a gown no less! She and Jimmy Stewart, who were dating in real life at the time, also make the perfect couple. They were both so good looking, and their hesitancy and flirtations really make the film so much fun to watch. Jimmy is Peter Morgan, a stuffy college professor who falls in love with singer Francey, the vivacious lady of the title. The two marry, despite Peter’s engagement to the snobby Helen, after spending a single whirlwind night together. The trouble is that Peter keeps getting prevented from breaking the news to his parents. It’s pure romantic comedy at its very best.
Black Narcissus (1947)
dir: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
My goodness. This film just sent me over the deep end. It was condemned by the Legion of Decency, because it featured nuns behaving controversially. Apparently, longing for life before the nunnery should not have been acknowledged at all. Yet I saw it as a perfectly human thing to do, and certainly didn’t reflect badly on the vocation. Black Narcissus is not anti religious or Catholic; it’s an intense study of human nature, how actual nature can affect us. Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr) and other nuns are sent to the Himalayas as part of a mission, and soon begin to exhibit strange, disturbing behaviors. Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron) has been ill, and she suffers the greatest toll from the heat and environment. Sister Ruth is my hero. She goes absolutely mad. It’s both thrilling and frightening. There’s also the breathtaking cinematography by Jack Cardiff, the astonishing color palette, the exotic locale. The film is not without its problems, brown face being one of them. (Seriously, Jean Simmons as an Asian girl??) but it’s so worth watching. Let the obsession and ecstasy wash over you.
It’s got action, romance, heartbreak, and airplanes. Cary Grant and Jean Arthur are so delightful in any genre, so when you put them together in this, it’s a guaranteed success. Rita Hayworth also stars in one of her early roles. She was so young (21), but carries herself with a maturity beyond her years, and holds her own against such well established screen stars as Jean and Cary. The film is about a small airline run by Geoff (Cary), which is constantly risking the lives of its pilots. There are plenty of impressive, heart stopping plane sequences. Also, Jean Arthur makes me cry like nobody else. A tear only has to glimmer in her eyes to make them run down my face. She was adorable with the sweetest, nasally voice. I really fell in love with this film.
Romance on the High Seas (1948)
dir: Michael Curtiz
A woman suspects her husband is cheating on her, so when he urges her to take a cruise alone, she stays home to spy on him and sends another woman on the cruise in her place. But her husband doesn’t fully trust her either, so he hires a private detective to spy on her while she’s at sea. The detective and this “other woman” fall for each other. It’s completely nonsensical but it works. It works mostly because Doris Day is massively charming, and she makes Jack Carson believable as a romantic lead. This was her first film and she runs away with it. She is so, so beautiful, and the technicolor is dazzling, and the songs are pleasant.
Send Me No Flowers (1964)
dir: Norman Jewison
This movie made me laugh the most. It stars Doris and her best friend Rock Hudson as a married couple. It’s been years since I watched Pillow Talk, the only film of theirs I had seen prior to this one, but I was reminded of why they were so excellent together. There was great love and friendship between them, and the way it’s translated onscreen is like lightning in a bottle. They’re right up there with Myrna Loy and Bill Powell; just as funny. Rock plays George, a hypochondriac who mistakenly believes that he’s dying. To make things easier for his wife Judy, he tries finding eligible bachelors for her to marry after he’s gone. Rock Hudson was probably the most beautiful man of the era, and his comic timing is really sharp. He reminds me of Cary Grant, impossibly good looking and not above playing the fool and doing some great psychical comedy at that. Doris is absolutely his equal. I wish the two had made as any movies together as Myrna Loy and Bill Powell did (15!).
The Unfinished Dance (1947)
dir: Henry Koster
This is a “blink and you miss it” kind of movie. It features Cyd Charisse in one of her earliest roles, an achingly sweet picture about how great love and admiration can lead to tragic consequences. Meg Merlin (Margaret O’Brien) is in love with Ariane Bouchet (Charisse), an accomplished dancer. Ariane loses the lead in Swan Lake to another ballerina, which angers Meg deeply. Her plans to prevent this other dancer from performing imbues the film with this darkness that’s rather startling for a young girl. Margaret O’Brien was a gifted child actress, and not once is she cloying or remotely awkward. She acts like a child, innocent and calculating all at once. The warm cinematography and ethereal ballet also makes it worth seeing.
Meet Me in Las Vegas (1956)
dir: Roy Rowland
A dancer becomes a gambler’s lucky charm and they fall in love. There are lots of celebrity cameos in this one, including Debbie Reynolds, Lena Horne, Peter Lorre, and Frank Sinatra. It stars Cyd Charisse and Dan Dailey as the dancer and gambler, respectively. The two have such an easy chemistry and I really adore them together. And Cyd! Those gravity defying legs of hers. There’s a “Frankie and Johnny” number where her spectacular gyrations left me at a loss, as is usually the case. Just can’t keep your eyes off her, and why should you? Not only were her legs magic, so was her face.
The Uninvited (1944)
dir: Lewis Allen
I watched this film alone at midnight, and was thoroughly scared out of my wits. It’s such a chilling atmospheric ghost story. Apparently, they were quite few in the 1940s, which strikes me as very odd. I was hooked from Ray Milland’s opening narration. “Animals won’t go near it…” It stars Milland and Ruth Hussey as siblings (a nice, rare touch!), who buy a gorgeous house in the country that all the locals believe to be haunted. The rumors turn out to be true however. Soon they both have to confront the spirits that reside within, and stop them from tormenting young Stella, whose mother died (or was killed!) while she still lived in the house. Reviews that I’ve read of the film don’t take kindly to its more lighthearted moments, but I honestly didn’t mind. That didn’t stop me from quaking alone in my bed. Gail Russell makes a really impressive film debut here. She was so gorgeous and reminds me a lot of Belle from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast.
Dark Victory (1939)
dir: Edmund Goulding
I can’t believe this movie…Bette Davis as an heiress who mostly has fun until she’s diagnosed with a terminal illness. And her doctor (George Brent) marries her! How indecent, to give her romance and a ticking clock. I loved every minute of it. I cried so hard (a frequent activity in my life), it was as if a great, cherished friend was bravely meeting her demise. Bette won her first Oscar for this, a performance so nuanced and layered that it only ever comes across as genuine. You’re filled with empathy and admiration. And also tears. So many tears.
Grounds for Marriage (1951)
dir: Robert Z. Leonard
An opera singer (Kathryn Grayson) makes a reappearance in her ex husband’s (Van Johnson) life, much to the chagrin of both he and his fiancee. Kathryn Grayson is basically perfect and I’m in love with her? She was surprisingly great at being conniving. The script makes her lose her voice, so for about half of the film, she doesn’t speak or sing, which is odd, because her voice is the most distinctive thing about her. But with only notepads and her eyes at her disposal, she’s still able to make an impression.
Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967)
dir: John Huston
Dysfunctional erotica. This is quite the bizarre film, complete with voyeurism, repressed sexual desires & homosexuality, and seeped in a burnt gold hue. Elizabeth Taylor and Marlon Brando star as Leonora and Major Weldon Pendleton, a married couple with no love between them. Leonora is having an affair with another officer and Weldon is closeted. Elizabeth turns in one of the most visceral performances I’ve ever seen, proving that she could emasculate men like nobody else. Marlon Brando is also solid; his frayed masculinity is well suited to repressed homosexuality. I was disappointed to learn that Lee Marvin was considered for this role, but Elizabeth insisted on Brando and no one else. Maybe Lee wouldn’t be believable as the tortured Pendleton. But I think he could’ve pulled it off. He did express interest in playing gay characters. Lee wasn’t flamboyant like Brando, but I think he had potential as a romantic lead. He might have even played the role of Leonora’s lover. Volatile and unpredictable, this film is truly a glorious mess.
The Talk of the Town (1942)
dir: George Stevens
Cary Grant and Jean Arthur once again, this time joined by the dashing Ronald Colman. Colman plays Professor Lightcap, who rents a room at the house of Nora Shelley (Arthur). He demands peace and quiet but they elude him, as Nora keeps bouncing about in a madcap way and insists on working as his cook and secretary. The reason she’s so eager is because Leopold Dilg (Grant) has just recently escaped from jail and he’s using her home as a hideout. Despite her initial misgivings, she decides to help him, and they have to make sure Lightcap doesn’t find out the truth. There’s also a love triangle in there!
The Two Mrs. Carrolls (1947)
dir: Peter Godfrey
Ah yes, Humphrey Bogart in the grips of madness, married to Barbara Stanwyck, and creepily stalking the film, shrouded in suspicion. [Mild spoiler]: this is the second film of his where he plays a man trying to off his wife so he can be with Alexis Smith. It’s a suspense film that plays out like a film noir. Although Bogie and Stany aren’t the ideal married couple (because he might be trying to kill her), they are wonderful together. And you know, Stany could do anything. Ann Carter plays their daughter. She was such a talented child actor and her performance here is strong and precocious.
Gay Purr-ee (1962)
dir: Abe Livetow
Judy Garland as a singing cat, pouring all her soul into each song! The story is just ok (a country cat hops a train to Paris and is taken in by another devious cat), but the artwork is divine. The painted backgrounds are like impressionist paintings and the character designs are beyond charming. It all comes to vivid life, like a moving painting. Hand drawn films have a warmth and grace to them that can’t be replicated by computer animation. Likewise, the latter also has strengths that 2D can’t compete with. I’m hoping for a 2D revival here in the states, one that could rival this one in terms of artwork.
Benicio del Toro films
China Moon (1994)
dir: John Bailey
This is a hard film to peg. It’s not extraordinary, and I wouldn’t call it a favorite, but it’s extremely enjoyable. The plot is really unlike anything I’ve ever seen, and it features Benicio in his early twenties. He’s so good looking. And also uh, really great, acting wise. Ed Harris plays a detective named Kyle who begins an affair with a woman who’s trapped in an abusive marriage. Of course, these things can never be simple, so when she kills her husband in self defense, she begs Kyle to help her get rid of the body and avoid prison. It would seem that all has worked in their favor, except that Kyle is suspected pretty early on, and his partner Lamar (del Toro) has become more adept than usual at covering the crime. Set in a sleepy backwater Florida town, it’s really interesting.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998)
dir: Terry Gilliam
This was so disorienting, which I guess was to be expected, since it’s about hallucinatory drugs. It’s outrageously funny in a subtle way, but then again, nothing is really subtle about it. It’s outlandish at every turn. The calmer moments don’t last, and even in those, you’re left thinking, what the hell is going on? But I really enjoyed it. Benicio and Johnny Depp give credible, outstanding performances. I only want to see Johnny in comedic roles. I don’t care about his dramatic depth or range.
The Way of the Gun (2000)
dir: Christopher McQuarrie
Yet another supremely weird film, that’s still enjoyable in its own way. Two men kidnap a pregnant woman for ransom, but the situation is far more complex than they realize. It’s a dark comedy that never takes itself too seriously, and is also full of wtf moments. I really could’ve done without the graphic violence as well. But Benicio makes the whole thing entirely worthwhile.
Merle Oberon films
The Divorce of Lady X (1938)
dir: Tim Whelan
This was a real treat, mainly because Merle looks just like a porcelain doll and also because Laurence Olivier plays against type. He’s a bumbling, love sick fool, not the austere Shakespearean/Gothic figure he embodied. It’s also shot in opulent technicolor and is really funny. Everard Logan (Olivier) quickly falls in love with Leslie Steele (Oberon), whom he believes is married. Leslie decides to fan his suspicions even further, delighting in tricking him while falling in love with him as well. This picturesque little comedy preceded their next film, Wuthering Heights, which of course is anything but.
‘Til We Meet Again (1940)
dir: Edmund Goulding and others
This was my favorite film of the month. Sadly, it is not available on DVD. It stars Merle and George Brent as star crossed lovers aboard a ship. It’s a remake of the 1932 film, One Way Passage, which starred William Powell and Kay Francis. I saw that earlier this month and enjoyed it, but this is my favorite of the two. The original film has a thin running time and Frank McHugh reprises his role as a drunk pickpocket. In the earlier version, he laughs a lot like Nelson from The Simpsons. In this film, he shares comic relief with Eric Blore. (“Darling, did you know a silly ass over there called me a silly ass over there?”)
Now, ‘Til We Meet Again is not a funny film. It’s a full fledged tearjerker, and the richest romantic melodrama I’ve ever seen. Romance is not something I want to indulge in, but I love living vicariously through it in films. Merle Oberon and George Brent light up the film with their chemistry, it made me wish they had worked together again. This was actually the third film of his I’ve seen that made me cry uncontrollably because of what the heroine has to suffer. This is the basic plot of the film: she was a girl with a terminal illness and he was a criminal about to be hanged, can I make it any more obvious?! I truly live for this kind of heartbreaking romance. Neither one knows that death is looming over the head of the other. But they love each other so much. And while it does follow the same pattern as One Way Passage, in this version, Merle’s Joan has a best friend in Geraldine Fitzgerald who wants to protect her. Geraldine was also best friend to another woman suffering from a terminal illness, in another film starring George Brent: Dark Victory! I almost skipped the film and I shudder to think I came so close to depriving myself of this much pain and beauty.
The Lodger (1945)
dir: John Brahm
Violent misogynists in classic films are always motivated by a twisted belief in Biblical warnings against women. Women use their sexuality to trap men, they’re sirens, evil dressed up as beauty, dangerous, poisonous. And these men, like Slade in The Lodger (Laird Cregar) and Harry Powell in The Night of the Hunter pose the real danger. They’re hellbent on destroying all women, the weaker & incompetent sex, and also the cunning ones who lead men to their downfall. It’s a sobering thought when you realize that your life as a woman is often lived in fear of these men, that they don’t only exist in black & white thrillers, that they are real and will hurt you.
Poor Laird Cregar was just 28 when he died, and according to George Sanders (a Scotland Yard inspector in the film), he was brilliantly talented and typecast as a villain. Cregar’s performance as Slade is truly gripping. He seems like a lonely, pathetic man with no experience with women or people, but there is something else that’s off about him. Is he or isn’t he Jack the Ripper?! As he begins to arouse suspicion, neither the characters nor the audience is sure until it’s too late. George Sanders was perfect absolutely, although it’s slightly weird to see him playing a noble guy. Some of his slippery charm breaks through. Merle was at the height of her beauty here and also gives a strong, charming performance.