My other movie goal for 2014

In addition to the 10 Classics for 2014 challenge I wrote about yesterday, my other movie-related goal for the year is to make a dent in the number of unseen movies in my possession. Ever since I got a DVD recorder about three years ago, I’ve been recording movies and saving them for a rainy day. Between those hundreds of recordings and the DVDs I’ve purchased over the years I have a lot of movies saved up — so many that I have to have an Excel spreadsheet to keep track of them all.

Of the movies on the sheet I’ve only seen about half, so this year I’m hoping to watch at least a couple of new-to-me films every week, picked at random based simply on what I’m in the mood for. Not a lofty ambition, but a fun one.

Here’s a quick rundown of what I’ve watched so far in 2014. No doubt my viewing will slow down as the year goes on, but I’m off to a strong start. Cold, wintry weather makes for good movie watching , after all! So far everything I’ve seen has been very enjoyable and worth recommending. None have been great classics, but all are quality movies that made for fun viewing.

william-holden-jeanne-crain-edmund-gwenn-apartment-for-peggyApartment for Peggy (1948) is a sweet, funny film starring Jeanne Crain, William Holden, and Edmund Gwenn. Crain and Holden are a young married couple. He’s going to college on the GI Bill, and they can’t find anyplace to live because of the post-war housing shortage. Gwenn is a retired, widowed philosophy professor whose son died in the war. He feels his life has no meaning anymore and plans to commit suicide, until Crain talks her way into renting his attic as an apartment for her and her husband. (And their cat, and the dog she brings home one day, and their soon-to-be-born baby…)

The young couple, especially the sweet but slightly kooky girl, upsets the old man’s household and his plans to kill himself in lots of amusing and touching ways, giving him a reason to live as he grows to love them and to get interested in life again through all their ups and downs. A lovely little film. Edmund Gwenn (who played Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street) is good at playing loveable old men.

I watched this movie on a Fox MOD DVD, and I have to say the quality of the picture and sound was atrocious! This movie deserves better treatment than it got from Fox. Warner Archive does a much better job at releasing films. Honestly, just watch it on YouTube rather than buying the DVD. The quality couldn’t be any worse there than it was on the  disc.

Orchestra Wives (1942) is one of the two movies in which the Glenn Miller Orchestra was featured, the other being Sun Valley Serenade, which I was very happy to finally be able to watch during my Christmas vacation thanks to TCM. The plot — starstruck, innocent girl marries trumpet player she just met and is drawn into life on the road with other orchestra wives — is pretty simple, but the wives’ cattiness is amusing in a The Women-lite kind of way. As with Sun Valley Serenade, however, the real point of the movie is Glenn Miller’s music, which is simply wonderful.

First Love (1939) is a modern (well, 1939 modern) retelling of the Cinderella story, starring Deanna Durbin. This is the second Durbin movie I’ve seen (the other was 1941’s It Started With Eve) and I’ve enjoyed them both. Durbin’s musical style is probably hard for people today to appreciate, I don’t know, but I think she’s lovely. Her acting is so natural. She has great comic timing and can also break your heart. Plus her singing is gorgeous. This movie co-starred a very young Robert Stack in what I think was his first movie role.

I bought myself several Deanna Durbin movies with Christmas gift money after watching It Started With Eve on TCM, so I’m sure more of her stuff will be coming up for me in the weeks ahead.  It’s so fun discovering a new star to love!

Double Harness (1933) stars William Powell as a playboy who has no interest in either work or marriage, and Ann Harding as a woman who sees marriage as a business and sets out William Powell - by George Hurrell 1935to catch him and make him into the successful man she believes he can be. I completely loved this one. It’s a sophisticated look at relationships, and Powell and Harding have great chemistry. I’m starting to think Powell had great chemistry with all women, though!

Pre-Code movies never stop surprising me with how forthright they are about so many things. They’re still tame by today’s standards, of course, but compared to movies from the years after the Code began being strictly enforced they’re shockingly open. For instance Powell and Harding start sleeping together after just a few dates, and there are no punches pulled about this fact. Nothing like that would’ve happened in a movie just a few years later.

Vivacious Lady (1938) had been on my to-watch list for ages, and I don’t know why I waited so long to see it because it’s really good. Jimmy viv ladyStewart plays a quiet, reserved botany professor from a small college town who falls in love at first sight with a spunky nightclub performer, played by Ginger Rogers. They marry after a whirlwind one-day courtship, then head to his hometown to introduce her to his stuffy father, the college president.

Once back home, Stewart can’t seem to find the right moment or the necessary backbone to tell his father he’s married to a blonde singer he met a few days before. Lots of silliness ensues.

Charles Coburn plays Stewart’s father and Beulah Bondi plays his mother. Those two alone make pretty much anything worth watching, and they’re as good as always in this.

In The Ex-Mrs. Bradford (1936), William Powell plays a medical doctor and Jean Arthur plays his murder mystery author ex-wife. They’re still obviously in love in spite of being divorced, and when they get caught up in a real life murder when a jockey falls off his horse and dies under mysterious circumstances, there’s lots of mystery and even more witty banter.

This movie struck me as a wannabe Thin Man film. It isn’t on a par with that series, but it’s still lots of fun. Jean Arthur is one of my favorite actresses, and of course William Powell is always perfect. The wry wit combined with silliness, the jaunty walk, the mustache, the dimples…sigh. I’m feeling very smitten with him lately, the way my girlfriends are feeling about their Cumberbatches or whoever. Granted, my crush was born 122 years ago this year, but that doesn’t make my love any less real. ;-)

Honor thy father and thy mother

Make Way For Tomorrow (1937)

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If there’s a sadder movie than director Leo McCarey’s Make Way For Tomorrow, I’m not sure I could handle seeing it. I watched it for the first time this weekend and it wrecked me.  I think what makes it so powerful is how truthfully and unsentimentally written, acted and directed it is.  The story is told in a matter-of-fact, non-manipulative way, which makes it that much more moving.

The movie centers around the Coopers, an elderly couple in their 70s, beautifully and sensitively played by Victor Moore and Beulah Bondi.  When Mr. Cooper loses his job, the bank takes their house and leaves them homeless.  None of their five children has the room or the inclination to take both of them in.  One son and his wife take in the mother.  A daughter and her husband take in the father.  After 50 years of marriage, the Coopers are separated for the first time, living 300 miles apart.  It’s only supposed to be for a few months, until one of the other children can take both of them in.

The old couple miss each other terribly, and to make matters worse their children aren’t happy to have them in their homes.  They aren’t villains and they do make an effort to help and be kind to their parents, but they’re also self-centered.  They have their own children, jobs and interests to think about.  No one likes to have their life disrupted, after all.  You can’t help disliking the children for not being better to their parents, but at the same time it’s all too easy to put yourself in their shoes. 

Also, you can’t pretend that Mr. and Mrs. Cooper aren’t sometimes irritating and in the way.  Their presence upsets the households they move into.  I think that’s a lot of what makes the movie so painful to see – we’ve all had moments where we resented the intrusion of others on our time and space, even when those others are family members we love.  The complicated and conflicted feelings we see in the Coopers’ children is part of what makes the movie so sadly realistic.

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The daughter who had initially planned to take in both parents backs out.  The son housing the mother (Thomas Mitchell in a wonderful performance) decides to put her in a home for elderly women.  The daughter taking care of the father decides to send him to her sister who lives in California – supposedly for his health, but really to get him out of her hair.

The elderly Coopers get to spend one day together before they go their separate ways.  During that last day they walk around New York City, reminiscing and trying not to look at their watches.  They visit the hotel where they spent their honeymoon, giving us a glimpse at the sweet young couple they must have been 50 years before.  They’ve only changed on the outside – inside they’re still the same boy and girl who fell in love all those years before.  They’re treated very kindly by the hotel staff, who look on them with affection and admiration.  They listen to their stories, provide them with free drinks and a lovely dinner, and play waltzes so they can dance in the ballroom, among all the young couples.

Of course, it’s easy to be kind for one day.  It’s much harder to be kind and self-sacrificing for years, which is what the Coopers’ children aren’t willing to do.  In the end they realize how terrible and selfish they are for separating their parents for their own convenience, but none of them makes a move to change their parents’ circumstances.

last dance

As the elderly Coopers wander around the city, a sign in a bank window seems to taunt them – “Save While You Are Young.”  Mr. Cooper says he’s a failure, because even though he worked hard they have lost their home.  Mrs. Cooper disagrees and says she’s the one who did something wrong, although she tried her best to be a good wife and mother.  “You don’t sow wheat and reap ashes,” she says, as my heart breaks into a million pieces.  The final scene, in which they say goodbye to each other knowing they probably won’t meet again, is wrenchingly sad.  As Orson Welles said of this movie, “it would make a stone cry.”

Make Way For Tomorrow is unflinching about how hard it is to grow old, and about how little regard the younger generation often has for the older one that is in its way.  The movie seems almost prophetic, since family ties have frayed even further since the 1930s, and regard for age and wisdom is even lower in this youth-obsessed time than it was back then.

Even more now than in the Depression era the movie depicts, family members are scattered to the four winds and people are busy doing their own thing.  With a huge generation of Baby Boomer parents approaching old age in this economically difficult Great Recession era, Make Way For Tomorrow is as important and moving a film now as it was almost 75 years ago.

Miss Barbara Stanwyck

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I’m sorry to confess that until relatively recently I knew Barbara Stanwyck mostly from her brilliant Emmy-winning performance as Mary Carson in The Thorn Birds and from her role as Victoria Barkley in The Big Valley, which I used to watch with my mom as a child.  Oh, I’d seen Double Indemnity, but otherwise I was pretty ignorant of her movies from the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s.  Not sure why, I just never sought them out. 

Then last Christmas TCM aired Remember the Night, a 1940 film co-starring Fred MacMurray, and ever since then I’ve been madly in love with Miss Barbara Stanwyck (as she was grandly billed on The Big Valley).  She is amazing in everything I’ve seen so far, with such vulnerability beneath the tough exteriors of the women she portrays.  She’s drop dead gorgeous, has the greatest husky voice, is absolutely hilarious, and can break your heart into a million pieces, too.  Her acting has such subtlety and truthfulness, even in the silliest of movies, like The Lady Eve.

(Discovering her and Jean Arthur within the same year has been an amazing, joyous revelation.  I keep slapping myself on the forehead and asking myself how I could’ve been blind to these ladies for so many years, while blithely calling myself a classic movie fan.)

Just look at her!  Such movie star glamour.  She was absolutely beautiful.

Barbara Stanwyck

There are still many, many Stanwyck movies left for me to see, but here’s a bit about a few I’ve watched lately.

Remember the Night (1940)

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This movie is a treasure, and I have no idea why it isn’t a better known Christmas classic.  Remember the Night was written by Preston Sturges (someone I’m really starting to believe was the greatest screenwriter ever…well, aside from Ben Hecht) and directed by Mitchell Leisen, so it’s a classy, quality affair.  Stanwyck plays cynical, brassy shoplifter, Lee Leander.  MacMurray is John Sargent, the District Attorney prosecuting her.  The trial, which is taking place just before Christmas, is postponed until after the holiday, which means Lee will spend it in jail.  John begins to feel sorry for her and one thing leads to another until he’s finally bailing her out and taking her home to Indiana to spend the holiday with his family.

There are some funny, screwball moments, like when the two end up crashing their car, spending the night in a field, milking a cow, and being arrested for trespassing.  Also funny are the courtroom scenes that open the film.  (Lee’s attorney’s defense of her shoplifting, and John’s reaction to it, are a stitch.)

At heart, though, the movie is a sweet, sentimental one of love and redemption.  Lee’s own family is truly awful (the scene in which she visits them is heartbreaking, and John’s graceful extrication of her from the situation is one of the sweetest moments imaginable), so to see her with John’s kindhearted family, who takes her in like one of their own, is lovely.  The marvelous Beulah Bondi plays Mrs. Sargent, John’s mother, Elizabeth Patterson plays his darling Aunt Emma, and Sterling Holloway is their funny (and occasionally yodeling) farmhand.

This is one of the most truly romantic movies I’ve ever seen.  Stanwyck and MacMurray have wonderful chemistry.  I appreciate stories where the characters have time to get to know one another and you can believe that they really have fallen in love.  So many movies have people meet and fall immediately and based on pretty much nothing. 

In Remember the Night  John begins to see that beneath her hard shell, Lee is a kind, decent girl who has had a difficult life.  Lee sees where John came from, how he worked his way up from a poor but loving home to be a success, and how it’s possible to be part of a happy family.  That makes it sound so schmaltzy, but it’s really not.  It’s sentimental, but in a genuine, heartfelt way.  Anyway, if you can’t have some honest sentiment at Christmastime, when can you?

This movie isn’t out on DVD, which is a terrible shame, but it appears on TCM now and then.  It’s well worth checking out.

The Lady Eve (1941)

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Another one written by Preston Sturges, who also directed it.  This movie is hilarious!  Fall-on-the-floor, laugh-out-loud crazy.  Just look at the expression on Henry Fonda’s face!  Stanwyck is so funny and sexy in that scene.  She drives poor Henry Fonda right out of his mind with lust.  It’s fantastic, and rightfully one of the most famous scenes in screwball comedy history.

Fonda plays Charles Pike, a brewery heir, ophiologist, and bumbling geek in spite of all his wealth and good looks.  Stanwyck is Jean Harrington, a cardsharp and con artist who works with her father, my dear old Charles Coburn.  The relationship between Coburn and Stanwyck is one of the best things in the movie.  They’re both cynical and crooked, but there’s love there, too.  Charles Coburn was the best.

with coburn

They meet on board a ship heading from South America to New York.  Jean sets out to seduce Charles and trick him out of a fortune, but of course she winds up truly falling in love with him.  He finds out who she really is just before their ship docks, and in spite of her attempts to explain he is terribly hurt and dumps her.  That’s when the really crazy stuff begins.

The premise of this movie is so insane (Jean poses as an English aristocrat, “Lady Eve,” at a party at Charles Pike’s father’s mansion, and without changing her appearance at all manages to dupe Charles into thinking she’s really someone else), but somehow it works.  I don’t want to say too much in case you haven’t seen it, but the way it all works out is truly nuts.  Funny, but nuts.

The Mad Miss Manton (1938)

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This movie, also co-starring Stanwyck with Henry Fonda, is fairly entertaining, though a far cry from the perfection created with their pairing in The Lady Eve a few years later.  Stanwyck plays a dizzy socialite, Melsa Manton, who discovers a dead body which inconveniently disappears right after she calls the police.  Miss Manton has a reputation for pranks and getting into trouble, and the cops think this is just another of the silly stunts she and her rich, idle friends pull.

Also skeptical is Fonda as a newspaperman named Peter Ames.  He eventually comes to believe Melsa, however.  And of course he falls in love with her.  He and Melsa, along with her society friends, eventually solve the crime.

Not the greatest movie, but it’s a lighthearted, fun screwball/murder mystery.  This movie plays on TCM now and then, and was also recently released through the Warner Archives.

Golden Boy (1939)

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Based on a Clifford Odets play, this is the story of a gifted violinist, Joe Bonaparte, who comes from a loving, immigrant family.  To his father’s dismay and in spite of his own doubts about what the right thing is, Joe gives up the violin in order to gain wealth and fame as a prize fighter.

William Holden plays Joe Bonaparte, in his first movie role.  He had basically no credits at all when he was cast in this film, and he turns in a really moving, passionate performance.  He was only 21 years old!  Remarkable.  I love Bill Holden.

Stanwyck plays the girlfriend of Joe’s manager (Adolph Menjou), who at first uses her feminine wiles to get Joe to keep fighting when he wants to give it up and return to music, and who later truly falls in love with him and begins to hate what all the money and fighting are turning him into.  Once again she’s a tough on the outside, tender on the inside gal, and she’s wonderful.

Partway through production Columbia Pictures got cold feet about having a newcomer in such a big role, and Stanwyck stood up for Holden and fought for him to stay.  She believed in him and he was always grateful for that.  For the rest of his life, Bill Holden sent Barbara Stanwyck flowers on the anniversary of their first day of shooting Golden Boy.

Stanwyck seemed to inspire that kind of love and loyalty.  Just think of how discreet and gentlemanly Robert Wagner was about their love affair for decades, only revealing it in his memoir last year.  In the caption of a photograph of the two of them in the book he says simply My love, Barbara Stanwyck.  (Excuse me while I swoon a little.)

Miss Barbara Stanwyck.  A great lady and a great talent, as I am happily discovering these days.