Movie Review – “Brief Encounter” (1945)

 

 

There’s a certain charm to movies that were restricted due to war efforts, especially European films made during World War II. The 1946 French version of “Beauty and the Beast” is possibly the best example of that, with its grand fantastical scope while being made under Nazi occupation, while others like “Rome, Open City” and the entirety of the Italian Neorealism film movement changed the way on-location filming was handled.

But British filmmakers handled it differently from the French and Italians. In France, they most made films to distract from the war and take the audience away from the pain. Italy embraced that pain and suffering, showing just how terrible war can be on the common man. But the British chose to focus on telling grounded yet sympathetic stories where our cast of characters often find hope in a bleak world where love seems lost.

One of the best examples of this is David Lean’s “Brief Encounter,” a tale about Laura (Celia Johnson), a married woman trying to lead a normal life in the middle of WW2, whose life becomes far more complicated when she has a chance encounter with a complete stranger, Alec (Trevor Howard). The two slowly but surely fall in love and this leaves Laura in a difficult position with her husband and children.

 

 

“Brief Encounter” is like if “Mrs. Miniver” was made on an extremely limited budget and did not have the benefit any big name stars, instead relying on realism and film noir-like lighting and sets. Laura desperately tries to run her life like the war does not exist, but it is taking a colossal psychological toll on her. Without ever showing a bullet or bombshell explosion, this movie emphases how bleak and empty life is when there’s someone so close by that wants to exterminate your way of life.

Yet at the same time, the film offers a ray of hope and optimism with Alec, who makes every moment matter. The relationship between these two feels genuine, especially when you see the utter joy Alec brings to Laura’s life.

I’d recommend “Brief Encounter” over “Mrs. Miniver” because of how authentic and genuine Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard’s performances feel, as well as David Lean’s superb use of camera angles and lighting. The film is minimalist, but that certainly gives it a distinct charm.

Final Grade: B-

 

Movie Review – “Mrs. Miniver” (1942)

 

 

Perhaps the title of this film is a lie. Nowadays, you go into a film named after a particular character expecting it to be about that person. But “Mrs. Miniver” is less about its protagonist and more of how the British home front dealt with the German invasion at the beginning of World War II. While we see a large portion of this war from Greer Garson’s perspective, we see how this fight effects everyone around her, including her American husband (Walter Pidgeon), their Oxford-grad son who goes off into the war, the girl he ends up falling in love with (Teresa Wright) and many of the townsfolk like the smug old rich Lady Beldon and the quiet yet kind bell-ringer who names a flower after Mrs. Miniver.

Our protagonist mostly ends up being a witness to many of the selfless acts these characters take for the sake of the war and for each other. There’s a large scene in the middle when the men in the town get together, led by Mr. Miniver, and send every boat they have to head out to Dunkirk. The scene has nothing to do with Greer Garson’s character, but shows the comradery and bravery of these men who would risk everything to protect their fellow man. And while Garson handles her role with pride and a suave demeanor, she is left with little to do outside of showing the resolve of the British people.

 

 

Her one true moment to shine comes when she finds a wounded Nazi-pilot in a bush near her house. The pilot looks like her son, so she is unsure if she should turn him in or help him. But it is clear that she is terrified, especially when he points a gun at her and begins making demands.

“Mrs. Miniver” is, for lack of a better term, effective propaganda. Made in 1942 for mostly American audiences, the film was made to show the rest of the world how the British were struggling against the Nazis and to show what the rest of the world was fighting for. It was created as a way to push those who were unsure about the war into helping in any way possible. And in this regard “Mrs. Miniver” excels in presenting Americans with a great example of why we fight to protect our way of life, and show that it is a life worth fighting for.

Overall, “Mrs. Miniver” does a fine job as a wartime melodrama. It gives a much larger picture of how Britain was affected by the German invasion and the constant fear that plagued the people. The true strength of the film comes from how these people react to that fear.

Final Grade: C+

 

Movie Review – “The Major and the Minor” (1942)

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Recently, I’ve done a bit of research on screwball comedies, in particular how to tell the difference between a screwball comedy and a romantic comedy and why screwballs died out. In films like “The Philadelphia Story” and “The Lady Eve,” it is the overbearing or controlling woman that dominates the weak and incompotent man, a reversal of the typical gender roles in the 1930s and 1940s.

Movies like “Some Like It Hot” and “Bringing Up Baby” are about mascunlinty being challenged through a comedic battle of the sexes. This thrived because women holding all the power in a relationship was new to Hollywood.

But what truly separates screwballs from rom-coms is this challenge is done almost entirely through heated verbal exchanges, always charged with sexual energy. Film critic Andrew Sarris once described the screwball comedy as “a sex comedy without the sex.” All these films came out at a time of strict censorship when filmmakers couldn’t show anything related to sex or hold a kiss for longer than three seconds, so they had to get creative by having sex through word play.

If a man and woman can’t kiss each other, they’ll sass each other.

By doing this, it allowed filmmakers to tell far more riske plots that wouldn’t have been picked up normally. Case in point, 1942’s “The Major and the Minor.” The story follows strong-willed Suzanne Applegate (Ginger Rogers) quitting the New York lifestyle, having tried over 30 jobs in two years and hating them all. She decides to head back to her home in Iowa, only to find out she doesn’t have enough train fare. So she dresses up as a 12-year old girl, Susu, to pay half fare and ends up falling into a cabin with Army Major Kirby (Ray Milland), who buys that she is a little girl, but she slowly falls in love with him.

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“The Major and the Minor” would not work in theaters nowadays, since it would be portrayed as a romantic comedy and it would be hard to avoid the pedophilia. But since this is a screwball comedy, of course the man is oblivious to the woman’s plan or her advances. He doesn’t see her as anything more than a child that he can help, the poor dolt.

Director Billy Wilder takes every advantage possible to show that not only Major Kirby is incompotent, but every single man in the movie. Despite trying to be a 12-year old girl, not a single male on the army training base buys the disguise, except for Major Kirby, who is too kind and honest for his own good. Every Private on the base wants a moment alone with Susu, even the ones in committed relationships, to remind her how the Germans conquered the Sudan if you catch my drift.

There are enough twists and turns in “The Major and the Minor” to keep the story from getting dull and more than enough charm in the writing to keep the laughs coming. Wilder co-wrote the screenplay and he gives every line just enough sass without being too obvious or overbearing. My favorite scene is when Major Kirby has to teach Susu about the birds and the bees, due to all the boys hitting on her, and describes her as a lightbulb attracting all the moths and that she needs to learn to turn that lightbulb down a bit, never aware that Susu has probably killed a few moths in her time.

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Is this the greatest screwball comedy? No, “Some Like It Hot” and “The Lady Eve” excel at turning the gender roles on their heads and spinning it around a few thousand times, but there is no denying “The Major and the Minor” is hysterical, if not a bit ludicrous, and is engaging because of Wilder’s script and the performances of Ginger Rogers and Ray Milland, who give two of the most genuine and honest performances I can think of.

Ultimately, the reason the screwball genre died out was because MPAA ratings system and the creation of R-rated films in the 1970s, as well as how modern sensbilities had changed over the years, especially the sexual revolution of the 1960s. Some elements of the screwball are still used in modern films, but the whole point of the screwball comedy is no longer valid with the strict rules of 1930s and 1940s filmmaking no longer in place. Even without those rules anymore, “The Major and the Minor” is certainly a film worth checking out.

Final Grade: A

 

Movie Review – “The Uninvited” (1944)

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Here we have another one of those movies that began as a romantic novel that take a supernatural turn, like “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir.” “The Uninvited” is about a brother and sister that buy an old rundown house in England, which turns out to be haunted and the only way to free the ghost is to know what is troubling her.

Like with “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir,” I can see the appeal of this movie. It has romance, comedy, fantasy, horror all rolled into one and given some charming actors and actresses, like Ray Milland. To be honest, Milland’s performance the only part I liked, since he always had a happy-go-lucky attitude about the whole thing. He sells everything he owns in London to by this house, so he can’t leave even after finding out the place is haunted. He always has a brilliant smile on his face, not even a ghost can take that away from him.

But clearly, I am not the target demographic for “The Uninvited.” This is aimed for young women who don’t mind being scared now and then, but also like a bit of romance. It is a by-the-numbers fantasy romance, with some nice atmosphere and fitting music, but it does not have much else going for it.

Final Grade: C

 

Movie Review – “The Wolf Man” (1941)

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For being a movie led in the same camp as “Dracula” and “Frankenstein,” Universal’s “The Wolf Man” sure doesn’t feel like a horror film. If anything, this comes across as a psychological mystery, where you’re unsure if there really is a monster or if it is all in the head of our protagonist, Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.).

The doubt about Larry’s actions is the driving force behind “The Wolf Man.” The titular werewolf only gets about two minutes of screen time, and we never see Larry fully turn into a wolf (the most we get are his legs getting extremely hairy), so the film chooses to cast everything in mystery. Larry wakes up remembering nothing, but there are dead villagers with bite marks. Local doctors and psychologists explain that a man could give into his animal-istic tendencies, especially if he were hypnotized. Perhaps by the passing gangs of gypsies, who immediately run for the hills when they hear a werewolf is nearby.

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Larry is an odd character, since he starts out looking through his telescope to find a local girl running an antique shop and runs off to hit on her. He refuses to give up on this girl, even after she turns him down multiple times. Larry shows up after the store closes and takes the girl on a date she didn’t agree to. Even after he learns this girl is engaged, that doesn’t stop him from hitting on her. Larry starts out as such a sleaze-ball and I couldn’t wait for the werewolf to show up.

After he is bitten by a wolf and loses control of his own actions, possibly by the gypsy woman controlling him or by turning into a werewolf, he becomes a bit more sympathetic, since he just wants to understand what’s going on and how to put a stop to all this. Lon Chaney Jr. is wonderful for that part of the role, with his big watery eyes and permanent sad face. You can’t help but feel sorry for this man. Either that or give him a bone and pat on the head.

This is also the film that established all the classic tropes for werewolf movies. How the curse is spread, the full moon being what causes the transformation, and silver being the key to stopping a werewolf.

Overall, I enjoyed “The Wolf Man,” if only for knowing where all these stories of werewolves came from. It was nice to see the introduction to this type of story being played as a mystery and not straight horror, especially since that sets it apart from the other Universal monster flicks.

Final Grade: C+

Movie Review – “Leave Her To Heaven” (1945)

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I had one thought going through my mind after watching “Leave Her to Heaven” – This lady is the biggest bitch I’ve ever seen!

I give Gene Tierney all the credit in the world for turning in a performance that made me hate someone like I’ve never hated before. Tierney plays Ellen Berent, a woman who most of her family says “loves too much.” Because when Ellen falls in love with you, it’s like the devil has you in a vice grip that only gets stronger. She is unbelievably possessive, marrying our protagonist Richard Harland (Cornel Wilde), and promising that it’ll only ever be the two of them in their lives. In her eyes, they don’t need anyone else, just each other.

But, seeing how most people thrive on human interaction, Ellen’s idea goes about as well as you’d expect – Family and friends get in the way, Richard is a novelist and has to interact with the outside world to make a living, and Richard wants to have a family.

Yeah, when Ellen said she only wanted the two of them, she meant just her and Richard, not anyone else. Not even their offspring.

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It also doesn’t help that Ellen gets jealous at the drop of a hat. If Richard even thinks about spending time with someone besides her, she begins to look at others as though her gaze would set them on fire. She’s always in this mindset though, since Richard eventually moves in with her family and spends an awful lot of time with Ellen’s adopted sister Ruth (Jeanne Crain).

So, being the gentle soul she is, Ellen will take any steps necessary to make sure Richard loves only her. At first, she tries simple things, like isolating the two of them from the rest of the world, but Richard eventually gets bored and invites his younger brother, his childhood friend and Ellen’s family. This causes her to start taking more drastic steps that don’t end well for anyone.

Think of “Leave Her to Heaven” as a technicolor version of “Fatal Attraction,” expect with an even more psychotic yet loving wife. Gene Tierney, who was mostly known for playing kind-hearted women you’d love to settle down with, went against type-cast in this role and gave a performance that teetered between obsession and being mentally unstable, all while claiming it was for love. I won’t go into details about what Ellen does, but I will say that her actions are certainly worth watching.

Final Grade: A-

 

Movie Review – “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” (1941)

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This is the first time I’ve had an opportunity to talk about a dead film genre – The screwball comedy.

A screwball comedy can be traced back as far as Frank Capra’s “It Happened One Night” and hit its popularity in the mid-1930s and early 1940s, especially when director Preston Sturges made “The Lady Eve” and “The Palm Beach Story.” A screwball comedy is usually about an unlikely romance that forms between two drastically different yet equally awkward and strange characters, and plays heavily on the slapstick and physical side of the relationship. You won’t see screwball comedies today, since they’ve been replaced with romantic comedies.

It’s strange to have grown up in an age where romantic comedies are so prevalent, to the point they’re almost a cliché, and then go back and watch films like “Bringing Up Baby” and “The Philadelphia Story” to see how that genre has evolved over the years. The difference between a screwball comedy and a romantic comedy is noticeable, and yet difficult to describe. In a film like “When Harry Met Sally…” you can tell this is about the romance that is slowly forming between two characters, but in “It Happened One Night,” the romance sneaks up on you. These two characters go on a journey together, and slowly realize they want to be with the other.

“Mr. & Mrs. Smith” is a screwball comedy that came out in the middle of that craze, but picked the wrong director for the job – Alfred Hitchcock.

In a film about a couple that has been unhappily married for a few years finding out their marriage has been nullified and can now do all the single things they’ve wanted to do, Hitchcock is not the proper director for this story. There is no sense of thrill or suspense throughout this film, and almost everything is played for laughs. It comes across like Hitchcock wanted to be like Preston Sturges and tell a witty yet heartwarming story, but gave up halfway through and gave in to the slapstick.

As a screwball comedy, “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” is a fine distraction that has some good chemistry between lead actors Robert Montgomery and Carole Lombard, with a touching, if a bit rushed, climax in the mountains as the two realize how they feel about one another. But as a Hitchcock film, this one doesn’t hold up at all, with no discernible marks or traits you would expect out of the director.

Final Grade: C