Movie Review – “Destry Rides Again” (1939)

 

 

When I first heard that James Stewart was the lead actor in a western in the early part of his career of the 1930s, I was genuinely shocked that the wholesome every-man would play such a rough and tumble role. I was even more surprised to learn that Stewart plays a deputy sheriff who refuses to use his guns and wins the towns people over with law and order instead of barbarianism, despite everyone initially thinking he’s crazy.

In other words, Jimmy Stewart is still playing the wholesome every-man in the unlawful old west. And the strange thing is that he makes it work.

“Destry Rides Again” is set in the old west town of Bottleneck, which is run by a corrupt mayor and a power couple who run the saloon that has a vice grip on the local farmers. The attractive German dance hall queen named Frenchy (Marlene Dietrich) lures in the boys, and her boyfriend Kent (Brian Donlevy) runs a rigged poker game that makes the farmers gamble away their land and property until it all belongs to Kent. The sheriff catches on to their game and gets shot in the back for his troubles. The town elects a new sheriff jokingly, the town drunk Wash Dimsdale (Charles Winninger). But much to the shock of the townsfolk (and me), Wash sets down the bottle and gives a grand speech about how he will clean up Bottleneck and make it a town worth living in.

Wash declares that he’ll do it by bringing in the son of the famous gunslinger, Destry and make him his new deputy. But, as everyone quickly finds out, Destry Jr. (Jimmy Stewart) is not like his father. He’s quiet, reserved and wants to solve every problem peacefully instead of with more violence. He walks around town without wearing any guns on him and tells lots of stories about people he knew and the kind of trouble they got into. But he shares a massive similarity to his father – he’s damn good at his job.

 

 

The more I thought about the setup for “Destry Rides Again,” the more I realize that it has a lot in common with “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” – an official is killed in an unruly region, Jimmy Stewart is praised for being the young up-and-coming and is sent in to replace the official, but his wide-eyed innocence makes everyone see him as little more than a child wearing his dad’s boots. Just replace the Senate from “Mr. Smith” with the old west and you’ve got “Destry Rides Again.” It gets even weirder when you realize both films came out the same year, and the leading female had top billing over Jimmy Stewart in each movie, mostly because Jean Arthur and Marlene Dietrich were bigger stars than Stewart at the time.

Outside of Jimmy Stewart’s lovable performance as Destry Jr., I adore this movies’ charm and atmosphere. It takes the time to flesh out everybody in this town while having a sense of humor about everything. From the odd yet quirky Boris Callahan (Mischa Auer) to the heart-broken and homeless Claggett family, there is no shortage of colorful characters here. Yet even this its great slapstick comedy and wordplay, the film still finds time to have impactful and emotional scenes, the best one being the aforementioned fiery speech from the new sheriff to rile up the townsfolk.

Overall, I was extremely surprised by how much fun I had with “Destry Rides Again.” It is a quirky western that is loaded with outstanding performances and a great atmosphere. Jimmy Stewart is his usual lovable self that never seems to grow old or tiresome and adds a great deal of heart and strength to this movie. I think the similarities to “Mr. Smith” make this film even stronger, making this one of the most memorable westerns I’ve ever seen.

Final Grade: A-

 

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Movie Review – “White Zombie” (1932)

 

 

Show of hands – Who wants to watch a film about a Haitian voodoo master killing innocent people and then bringing them back to life as mindless zombies who just kind of stand around looking like their dog just walked away and may not be coming back, with almost incomprehensible dialogue and black face? No one? That does not surprise me in the least.

 

“White Zombie” stars Bela Lugosi shortly after he made it big with “Dracula” as the voodoo master with a Satan-like goatee and eye brows that would make Groucho Marx jealous. The best thing about his character is his name – Murder Legendre. More parents need to name their children ‘Murder’ just as a social experiment, especially when you have a last name that sounds like ‘Legendary.’ That is the best ridiculous movie character name I’ve heard since Chiper Rage from “After Earth.”

 

The memorable image of “White Zombie” is of Lugosi’s creepy stare right into the camera. Though the film uses it so often that feels less terrifying and more like Lugosi is giving a weird look to the guy who took the last of the fried rice at an all-you-can-eat buffet. Then there are times where Lugosi has to do this stare for extended periods of time, or has to literally walk into the camera, or has to have the camera zoom in on him for about a minute.

 

 

 

I’m starting to get the impression this movie did not have a whole lot going for it outside of Lugosi’s face.

 

“White Zombie” falls into the same category as obscenely silly horror films like “The Brain the Wouldn’t Die” or movies that you would see on “Mystery Science Theater 3000.” It is a harmless movie that is extremely dated and is mostly just good for laughs nowadays. It is the best movie to perfect your Bela Lugosi impression, if you are into that.

 

Final Grade: D+

 

Movie Review – “Swing Time” (1936)

 

 

There are times where I love to think about how ridiculous movies can be at times. Moments where I take a step back from the stories and ask “How did we get here?” And when it comes to absurdity, no other movie does it quite like the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musical “Swing Time.”

The film opens with stage dancer and gambler Lucky (Astaire), who leaves his show early to get married into a rich family. But as he’s leaving, his fellow dancers and “friends” keep Lucky distracted by saying he looks ridiculous on his wedding day without cuffs on his pants. They go through a clothing montage and play several rounds of dice and cards, until Lucky remembers the wedding. He ends up being over two hours late to his wedding and all the guests have gone home.

Right off the bat, I’m flabbergasted that Lucky calls these terrible people his friends. They keep him away from his own wedding, and his best chance at happiness and prosperity, just so that he’ll stay. I was surprised Lucky didn’t deck all of them in the face for making him miss his wedding.

But wait, it gets better.

As Lucky arrives at the church, he is greeted by his fiancĂ©e Mabel (Helen Broderick) and her father, who are both ready to disown him. After a smattering of words and insults, Lucky decides to bargain for Mabel’s hand in marriage. The father says that no amount of money would persuade him to make Lucky his son-in-law. But then Lucky says the ludicrous number of $25,000 and he’s suddenly on-board with this idea. This man is willing to sell his own daughter away for large sum of money, even though it was already established that he’s got plenty of money.

 

 

It’s a good thing “Swing Time” is a comedy, because the level of petty-ness and selfish-ness is off the charts. Everybody Lucky meets early on is only looking out for themselves, and will throw anybody they can under the bus to get ahead.

Of course, Lucky doesn’t have $25,000, so he heads to New York City and decides to make all his money through gambling and casinos. Along the way, he bumps into Penny (Ginger Rogers), a dancing instructor, and the two butt heads until they both realize how great the other is at dancing.

It helps that I saw “Swing Time” after seeing “The Major and the Minor” and realized how quick-witted and uproarious Ginger Rogers can be, because that made every scene with her feel exciting as if the atmosphere was charged with sass and charisma. Not only is she a terrific dancer and can keep up with Fred Astaire, but she’s always looking for an opportunity to tell a joke.

Outside of “Swing Time” the only other Astaire/Rogers movie I’ve seen is “Top Hat,” and I greatly prefer “Swing Time” because of how entertaining it is outside of the dance numbers. There is a lot of great comedy and deceptions by Lucky that I found myself looking more forward to the non-musical scenes. And as far-fetched as the plot is, the whole idea of Lucky and Penny being surrounded by terrible people having to outsmart them makes this one worth checking out.

Final Grade: B

 

Movie Review (?) – “Of Mice and Men” (1939)

It’s Mick from “Rocky” and the Wolf Man paired up in the wackiest roadtrip movie you’ve ever seen! From the zany writer who brought you “Grapes of Wrath” and “East of Eden,” John Steinbeck spins a yarn that’ll leave you in stitches, as two rough-and-tough loners try to make in sunny California. But, uh oh! Looks like they cannot help but get into trouble, those crazy guys! Can they make it big while moving some hearts? Will George make his dreams come true? Will Lenny finally get his rabbits? Find out that and more in Lewis Milestone’s most hilarious tale yet “Of Mice and Men,” coming to a theater near you. *

*Disclaimer: “Of Mice and Men” is not actually coming to any theater close to you, unless you developed a time machine and went back to 1939. In which case, why are you going back in time to see a movie when you can kill Hitler? Like, seriously? Time and space are bendable and mean nothing, and you go back to watch a Burgess Meredith and Lon Chaney Jr. flick? Not stopping the assassination of Lincoln or go roam with dinosaurs? You literally have the power of “Back to the Future” and “Doctor Who” and this is what you choose to do? Not that we are judging you or anything, it’s just that there are certain things one must do when discovering time travel. In fact, why are you keeping time travel to yourself? We think that’s the worst thing you can do. Come on man, give us some of that! You’re lucky we don’t come after you and steal that “magic” time machine from you for not using it properly. **

**Disclaimer: On behalf of the staff, we would like to apologize for that outburst. We don’t condone that kind of behavior here. We got a bit anxious at the excitement of your time machine and only wished to see the creation of the firework. I mean, who doesn’t love fireworks? It’s like watching God cry explosions of fire and awesomeness. Anyway, what were we talking about? Oh yeah, “Of Mice and Men.” You should go check it out if you like classic American tales about hard work and overcoming your personal flaws, with good performances from Burgess Meredith and Lon Chaney Jr. Boy, this promo got weird, didn’t it? Time machines and fireworks will do that to us. So, where you going with your time machine? Can we come? We promise not to bug you about going to see “Of Mice and Men” even though you should. ***

***Disclaimer: Give us your time machine!

Final Grade: B-

 

Movie Review – “Only Angels Have Wings” (1939)

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There’s one scene that really stuck with me after watching “Only Angels have Wings.” It is near the beginning of the movie, after we have been introduced to our leading lady, Bonnie Lee (Jean Arthur), arriving the small South American port of Barranca, a village that sits quietly between the sea and the Andes Mountains. Bonnie has a meal with two pilots, working out of a small agency that flies airmail through the dangerous mountains in even worse flying conditions. Barranca is almost always surrounded by either dense fog, blinding rain or below-freezing temperatures.

This agency is led by Geoff Carter (Cary Grant), who immediately orders one of these two pilots to go up for a delivery in the middle of the night, even after a thick fog has rolled in. This pilot promises to return in a few hours to have a nice steak dinner with Bonnie. The pilot goes up and has no immediate problems, but the weather gets worse as his flight continues. Carter orders him to turn around and make it back to base, but the fog is so thick now the pilot can’t see anything out his window. Even after turning on their brightest lights at headquarters, he can’t see anything.

So Carter and his best friend, Kid (Thomas Mitchell) head outside and begin listening for the hum of the planes’ engine. They hook up the radios outside and use their hearing to tell the pilot how close he is to base. During this time, Carter tells the local bar to stop playing music and shut off all lights, being able to hear the engine to the south and telling him to head north.

Only Angels Have Wings (1939)  Directed by Howard Hawks Shown seated: Jean Arthur, Standing from left: Sig Ruman, Allyn Joslyn, Noah Beery Jr., Cary Grant

The pilot is far too high on his first run at the base, but he buzzes over the radio building on his second try. This gives the pilot of glimmer of hope, since he got so low he was able to spot the beacon of light and knows where it is. Carter reminds him that he has enough gas in the plane for three more hours of sustained flight and he should wait until the fog clears to make another attempt. But he is convinced that a clean landing is possible, in a hurry to get to his steak dinner with Bonnie.

Against the orders of Carter and Kid, the pilot makes one last attempt. Upon seeing the plane coming in, Carter yells for him to pull up, but it’s too late – the plane rams right into a tall tree, losing one wing immediately and the plane tumbles to the ground in the most violent way.

The reason this scene is so memorable to be is three things. One, it was done entirely from the perspective of Carter and the people on the ground. We never cut up to the plane until it slams into the tree, so we are put in the same situation as the ground crew, having to use only our hearing to save this man’s life. Two is how tense and suspenseful this scene was. Even though we hardly knew anything about this man, we know that every time he goes up in that plane could be his last. Even the most skilled pilots would find this situation impossible, so we’re immediately invested in this quiet scene and whether this man lives. The final reason is how it builds the dangerous world these pilots live in. Rather than relying on your sight to land a plane, in this area it requires your hearing and instincts. Take into account this takes place in the late 1930s and the types of planes they had back then, and you’ve got a flying situation that will never end well for anyone.

What a great way to open up a movie about pilots who deliver airmail in a dangerous South American village.

It is unfortunate that the rest of the film doesn’t match this opening. The following scenes of the fellow pilots and Bonnie reacting to the crash are great, as well as the first conversation between Carter and Bonnie, but after that the rest of the film is just a bunch of disjointed flying sequences. It is easy to lose track of why they’re flying after the halfway point, which is a little disheartening considering the solid opening.

Final Grade: B-

Movie Review – “Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde” (1931)

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Just so we’re clear, this the version with Fredric March, not the one with Spencer Tracy and Ingrid Bergman.

I could copy and paste my review of the 1941 “Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde” for this 1931 film and I feel like it would reflect my feelings on both films – It was hard to pay attention to the film, but had great duel performances from Fredric March.

I will say this version had better cinematography, especially when it came to the perspective shots of Dr. Jekyll in the beginning of the and the mirror shots when he is transforming into Hyde. This is one of the earliest examples of first-person prespective shots in cinema, and for a film about the constant battle between good and evil within all of us, to see the world through Jekyll’s eyes works very well.

Still, the story is something we’ve all heard a million times and this adaptation stays loyal to that. This one is less horrifying than the 1941 version, going more for a sympathetic tone for Jekyll, having no control over when Hyde takes over and taking a more active role in the destruction of his life.

This version of “Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde” sets the standards for all other adaptations of the story, as well as the mad scientist gone wrong tale. Two solid performances from Fredric March and the creative first-person perspective cinematography do make this one stand out, but these days its only worth watching once.

Final Grade: C+

 

Movie Review – “Mr. Deeds Goes To Town” (1936)

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It is fascinating to watch “Mr. Deeds Goes To Town” after having watched the majority of Frank Capra’s library of films and seeing where what he became so well-known for, his ability to take the every-man and place him at the center of the universe, in its developmental stage. Capra would put this to use in films like “You Can’t Take It With You,” “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington” and “It’s A Wonderful Life,” and “Mr. Deeds Goes To Town” is the blue-print that would lead to those films.

The film begins in the great depression, when an eccentric millionaire unexpectedly passes away and leaves his 20 million dollar fortune to his long-lost nephew Longfellow Deeds (Gary Cooper), a man living in a small town in Vermont and spends most of his time writing poems for greeting cards and playing the tuba. Longfellow is flown into New York City to finalize the deal, while the press has a field-day writing about him, nicknaming him the “Cinderella Man,” helped by a young reporter, Babe Bennett (Jean Arthur), who pretends to fall for him to get all the big scoops firsthand.

Most people will recognize this was turned into an Adam Sandler comedy, “Mr. Deeds,” but while almost everything in that film was played for cheap gags, watching a commoner get billions of dollars suddenly and the shock humor that comes with it, “Mr. Deeds Goes To Town” has an immeasurable amount of class to all of it, mostly helped by the performances of Gary Cooper and Jean Arthur. Cooper plays Deeds, not as a dim-witted man who falls for every trick in the book, but a man who knows what he wants and realizes that everyone who talks to him is probably looking for a hand-out. He doesn’t give away the money to anyone asking for help, because those who have to ask have enough already. To him, it is the people who don’t ask that need it the most.

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Deeds is also overwhelmed by the enormity of New York, having never left his small town. And like Jefferson Smith in “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington,” Deeds wants to see it all and do it all. He asks the waiter to tell him if anyone famous walks into the restaurant, feeds a bag of donuts to a police horse, and stops by Grant’s grave to pay his respects. He laments that he doesn’t see a boring grave, like most people would, but a Ohio farmer who became a great solider that led to an even greater foundation for our country.

Moments like these are classic Capra scenes – A humble and honest man taking something we gloss over a hundred times a day and give it a meaning that has been lost on us. It comes across a little ham-fisted and forced in this film, which is why I can see Capra working out the kinks for his later projects.

Believe it or not, “Mr. Deeds Goes To Town” is funnier than “Mr. Deeds” as well. The final scene, in particular, showcases Longfellow picking apart everything the court has thrown at him to prove that he is not mentally unbalanced and is probably more sane than anyone in the courtroom. Cooper puts it in simple terms and observes the strange habits of those close to him, like facial tics or people who crack their knuckles when they’re thinking. The smile on Longfellow’s face when he slides down the bannister of the mansion goes a long way, especially when the butler comes in with an equally big grin.

Overall, “Mr. Deeds Goes To Town” is Capra still crafting is ultimate films about honest and good-hearted men. While there are plenty of moments where Cooper nails this in ways even James Stewart couldn’t, the pacing is slow after Longfellow’s first night on the town, and the story hasn’t aged well, especially with the Babe Bennett character. Still, certainly worth a look as it is a pleasant feel-good movie.

Final Grade: B-