Saturday, 30 December 2017

A round-up of great American vintage films I've recently watched for the first time, Part 1- including Nothing Sacred, Union Pacific and Ruggles of Red Gap

Those of us who use the Amazon Fire Stick to watch YouTube videos on our TV sets had a nasty shock recently, when a spat between Amazon and Google (YouTube's owners) led to an announcement that we'd no longer be able to access YouTube on TV as of New Year's Eve. Consequently, I've been running through all the movies in my "watch later" list while I still had the chance - only for an alternative to appear as if by magic yesterday. Phew! Anyway, as a result, I've watched a huge number of old films recently - some truly awful ones, and some absolute classics. Here are some of the classic Hollywood films I've been enjoying (I'll deal with the British ones in another post). I'll start with Nothing Sacred (1937) - the most insanely enjoyable of the lot...

...It's a splendidly cynical yet heart-warming comedy about a New York reporter (Frederic March) who brings a young small-town woman (Carole Lombard) supposedly dying of radium poison to New York, where she's supposed to expire in luxury and a blaze of mawkish, paper-selling publicity. On the very day she's offered her first ever trip to the Big Apple, the girl discovers that she's not ill - her doctor made a mistake. Instead of coming clean, she keeps her mouth shut and undertakes the journey.

That the film is Golden Age Hollywood on absolutely top form shouldn't come as a surprise. It was directed by William Wellman, produced by David O. Selznick, the cast is full of familiar faces acting their socks off (the comic interplay between Lombard and March is delightful), the script was written by Ben Hecht, with contributions from Budd Schulberg, Ring Lardner Jr., Dorothy Parker, Sidney Howard, Moss Hart, George S. Kaufman and Robert Carson, with a score by Oscar Levant, plus additional music by Alfred Newman and Max Steiner. That's a ridiculous collection of talent. You'll be able to tell if this is the film for you by watching the first five minutes (which made me howl):

The March/Selznick/Wellman combo came together again in 1937 to produce A Star is Born - which I'd only known from the admirable '50s version starring James Mason and Judy Garland. This earlier one - with March as the dipsomaniac screen star Norman Maine, and Janet Gaynor as Esther Blodgett/Vicki Lester, the hopeful actress he falls for and turns into a star, only for her career to eclipse his own - is even better. Pretty nigh flawless, in fact - and when Janet Gaynor delivers her "This is Mrs Norman Maine" line, I'm happy to admit that I blubbed. The studio system had many, many faults, and it produced many, many mediocre films - but when it worked, it really worked. 
Ruggles of Red Gap (1935) isn't a patch on Nothing Sacred as a comedy - but it has its moments, mainly thanks to Charles Laughton as Ruggles, a fantastically buttoned-up English butler lost in a card game by his aristocratic employer to the Flouds, a nouveaux riche Western couple from the town of  Red Gap (hubby is a rough-hewn, yee-hawing good ol' boy, while his wife is a social climber) who are on a European tour. Laughton takes a while to get into the part, but eventually manages it - at which point the film really hits its stride. In the key scene, Laughton recites the Gettysburg Address to a saloon full of rough-hewn, yee-hawing good ol' boys (he's the only one who knows it) and leaves us all sniffling. Having discovered the joys of classless equality (and strong liquor), the butler falls in love with ZaSu Pitts, quits his job, and opens up a restaurant in Red Gap. (The ever-reliable Roland Young is a treat as Laughton's former employer, the Earl of Burnstead). Not a must-watch - but definitely a why-not-watch.
Union Pacific (1939) is a Cecil B. De Mille epic about the building of the first trans-continental American railway. A huge box office success, it came out shortly after John Ford's Stagecoach - between them, the two films transformed the Western from a B-movie genre for boys of all ages into respectable mainstream A-movie entertainment for the whole family. It moves along at a hell of a lick: it's so stuffed with incident, we tend not to notice how absurd it all is. It stars Joel McCrea - a much bigger star at the time than I'd realised: ditto Brian Donlevy, who plays the main villain. Barbara Stanwyck is the love interest - a supposedly Irish colleen with possibly the worst Oirish accent in film history. Anthony Quinn - in a small role as one of Donlevy's villainous henchmen - acts everyone else off the screen, while Akim Tamiroff as a good guy overacts everyone else off the screen. Mindless, big-screen hokum - and very good fun.

Penny Serenade (1941) is an occasionally uneasy mixture of comedy and tragedy, but worth a look. Irene Dunn falls for New York newspaper reporter, Cary Grant. They marry and gets pregnant, only to lose the baby in an earthquake when she joins Grant in Japan, where he has been sent by his paper. When he inherits some money, he chucks in his job and they move to a small town, where he takes over a local newspaper, and they decide to adopt a child. The interesting aspect of the film is that Grant is basically feckless and impractical - they live in cramped accommodation "above the shop" and Grant has to lie about his minuscule income in order for them to be allowed to adopt. His newspaper folds just as the authorities are about to review their suitability as parents - and Grant has to beg to be allowed for them to keep the baby. The child dies (through no fault of the adoptive parents) and their marriage falls apart: they are on the verge of splitting up when the adoption agency offers them the chance to adopt another child. It's an odd film - but Grant and Dunne are good, and I kept watching to the end.

Desk Set (1957)  was the eighth and penultimate pairing of Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn, and their final comedy together. He's an efficiency expert brought in by a New York broadcasting company to install a computer to perform the more routine tasks currently carried out by a team of researchers led by Katherine Hepburn. I'd always avoided the film, because it was generally dismissed by critics at the time; because their previous comedy films were so perfect; and because I'd assumed that two relatively elderly folk falling in love would prove somewhat embarrassing. Not a bit of it! The script is very sharp and the two leads seem rejuvenated. What I had assumed would be their worst comedy turned out to be one of their best. A sophisticated treat for grown-ups - i.e. the kind of film that just doesn't get made any more.

This is getting far too long - I'll post Part 2 (where things take a decidedly darker turn) tomorrow.

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