A Christmas Carol (1938)

A Christmas CarolChristmas Carol Poster
Directed by Edwin R. Marin
Written by Hugo Butler from a novel by Charles Dickens

Repeat viewing


“Bah,” said Scrooge, “Humbug.” ― Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

Dickens’ classic Christmas story gets the MGM treatment.

Skinflint Ebenezer Scrooge (Reginald Owen) thinks Christmas is for fools until he is visited by his deceased partner’s ghost (Leo G. Carroll) and the Spirits of Christmases Past, Present, and Yet to Come.  With Gene Lockhart as Bob Crachit.

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This festive adaptation takes most of the scares, pathos, and interest out of the original.  I thought Reginald Owens’ Scrooge was converted much too easily.  I’m afraid I am an Alastair Sim purist when it comes to A Christmas Carol.

The DVD I received contained some interesting extras – “Jackie Cooper’s Christmas Party”  (1931), a kind of Christmas card from MGM with lots of its stars; Judy Garland singing “Silent Night” (1937); and “Peace on Earth” (1939), an anti-war Technicolor cartoon in which Grandpa Squirrel explains to the youngsters what “men” were and how they destroyed themselves.



The Dawn Patrol (1938)

The Dawn PatrolDawn Patrol Postet
Directed by Edmund Goulding
Written by Seton I. Miller and Dan Totheroh from a story by John Monk Saunders
Warner Bros.

First viewing


Lt. ‘Scotty’ Scott: It’s a funny war.

Phipps: [sadly] No, not awfully.

I really enjoyed the acting in this all-male war film.

In 1915 France, Major Brand (Basil Rathbone) commands a unit of the Royal Fighting Corps.  He loses pilots on every mission and these are replaced by increasingly green recruits.  Flying aces Courtney (Errol Flynn) and Scott (David Niven) buck the odds and spend their evenings drinking and engaging in devil-may-care banter.  The mood darkens when Brand is promoted for a successful daring raid by Courtney.  Courtney then takes over the heavy task of executing the orders from the High Command straining relations with his former comrades.  With Donald Crisp as an aide-de-camp.

Dawn Patrol 1

The story didn’t particularly stand out for me but I thought all the leads were fantastic.  It was nice to see Basil Rathbone without a sword in his hand.  The film makes a good contrast from the many heroic RAF WWII dramas that would come just a couple of years later.








Pygmalion (1938)

PygmalionPygmalion Poster
Directed by Anthony Asquith
Written by George Bernard Shaw
Gabriel Pascal Productions
Repeat viewing



Prof. Henry Higgins: Yes, you squashed cabbage leaf, you disgrace to the noble architecture of these columns, you incarnate insult to the English language, I could pass you off as the Queen of Sheba!

This may be the best adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s play.  I love this film!

Professor Henry Higgins (Leslie Howard) bets that he can pass Cockney flower seller Eliza Doolittle (Wendy Hiller) off as a duchess with six months of training in phonetics. With Wilfred Larson as Alfred P. Doolittle and Esme Percy as Count Aristid Kaparthy.

Pygmalion 1

Leslie Howard makes a splendid Henry Higgins but the real revelation is Wendy Hiller in her second film.  With Hiller, Eliza is keeping her Cockney soul under check at all times whereas Audrey Hepburn always seems to me as a born princess struggling to escape her flower girl disguise.  The other performances are of a very high standard.  Asquith does an excellent job of opening up the story so it does not seem unnecessarily stagey.  I had a smile on my face throughout.  Very warmly recommended.

George Bernard Shaw and the adaptors of his play won the Academy Award for Best Screenplay, making Shaw the only Nobel Prize winner to also have an Oscar.  Shaw said “It’s an insult for them to offer me any honour, as if they had never heard of me before – and it’s very likely they never have. They might as well send some honour to George for being King of England.”  Pygmalion also received nominations in the categories of Best Picture, Best Actor (Howard) and Best Actress (Hiller).

“Trailer” – Professor Higgins makes Eliza an offer she can’t refuse

Sweethearts (1938)

SweetheartsSweethearts poster
Directed by W.S. Van Dyke
Screenplay by Dorothy Parker and Alan Campbell based on a story by Fred De Grasac et al

First viewing

Sweetheart, today will never fade/ Like an eternal serenade/ For love will end the way it starts/ Forever we’ll be sweethearts — lyric by Robert C. Wright & Chet Forrest

The singing is the high point of this movie.

Gwen Marlowe (Jeanette MacDonald) and Ernest Lane (Nelson Eddy) play sweethearts in the long-running Broadway show of that name and are happily married in real life.  A film studio is trying to lure them to Hollywood.  Stakeholders in the Broadway show resort to desperate measures to split up the team to prevent their departure.  With Frank Morgan as a Broadway producer, Mischa Auer as a playwright, and Ray Bolger as a dancer.

Sweethearts 1

Despite the sterling cast of character supporting actors, I thought the comedy fell flat.  The story also takes quite awhile to get going.  The first hour or so is filled with flimsy excuses for one musical number after another.  Ordinarily I would not object but here the tunes are not very catchy.  There is a nice number featuring Ray Bolger’s loose-limbed dancing at the very beginning.  MacDonald and her red hair look very good in color.

Sweethearts won an Honorary Academy Award for its Technicolor cinematography.  It was nominated in the categories of Best Sound Recording and Best Music, Scoring.

Jeanette goes clothes shopping for Hollywood (1938 fashion on parade)


Block-Heads (1938)

Directed by John G. Blystone
Written by Charlie Rogers, Felix Adler, et al

Hal Roach Studios
First viewing


Oliver: But, Toots, Stan is different.

Mrs. Hardy: I’ll say he’s different!

For some reason, this just did not tickle my funny bone.

The story opens in the trenches of WWI France.  Ollie departs for combat with the rest of his battalion leaving Stan to guard the trench.  Twenty years later, Stan is still guarding it. When he shoots down a French pilot, he is sent home where he is reunited with Ollie. The two get in to many “fine messes”.

Block-Heads 1

The film was announced as being the last Laurel & Hardy movie and it was the last Hal Roach production for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.  Laurel & Hardy went on to make many films at Hal Roach Studios.

Happy Thanksgiving to all celebrants!

Clip – first scene

Alexander Nevsky (1938)

Alexander Nevsky
Alexander Nevsky Poster
Directed by Sergei M. Eisenstein and Dmitri Vasilyev
Written by Sergei M. Eisenstein and Pyotr Pavlenko

Repeat viewing


Alexandr Nevsky: Go tell all in foreign lands that Russia lives! Those who come to us in peace will be welcome as a guest. But those who come to us sword in hand will die by the sword! On that Russia stands and forever will we stand!

My appreciation of this film took a nose dive due to the substandard print and sound track on the rental DVD I received.  I rated it very highly when viewed in a restored print.

The story is based on the historical Prince Alexander (1220-1263) who defeated an army of Teutonic Knights of the Holy Roman Empire who were invading Novgorod.

Most of Russia, save Novgorod, has fallen to the Mongol Horde.  The people call on Alexander, who had previously defeated a Swedish invasion, to free Russia of the Mongol yoke.  Alexander declines, saying that the real threat will come from Germany.  Soon enough, the Teutonic Knights have defeated the city of Pskov, massacring its civilian population (and throwing babies into bonfires).

The people beg Alexander to lead them against the foe and he arrives in Novgorod, where the nobility and merchants desert the town.  The common people, including woman warrior Vasilisa, bravely fight the Huns on frozen Lake Peipus.  The Germans are roundly defeated and their clergy crushed.  The people take pity on captured German foot soldiers but have no mercy for Russian traitors.

Alexander Nevsky (1938)1B

The main attractions of Eisenstein’s film are the magnificent Prokofiev score and the masterfully edited and shot battle sequences.  These were obscured by a blurry print and a  tinny, static-fillied soundtrack in the version I watched.  In addition, the subtitles made the characters sound like medieval Yodas.  I can recommend the Criterion Collection version and I am sure there are other good restored prints out there.

The film was a great success on its 1938 release.  In 1939, it was withdrawn from circulation when Stalin entered the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact with Hitler.  Following the Nazi invasion of the USSR in 1941, it was rapidly returned to Soviet screens.  Eisenstein was awarded the Stalin Prize for the film the same year.

Clip – Battle on the Ice (beautiful sound)

La Bête Humaine (1938)

La Bête Humaine La Bete Humaine Poster
Directed by Jean Renoir
Written by Jean Renoir and Denise Leblond (both uncredited) from the novel by Emile Zola
Paris Film

Repeat viewing


Jacques Lantier: I can’t go on. I can’t go on.

This adaptation of Emile Zola’s novel may be my least favorite of Jean Renoir’s films.  It is great filmmaking nonetheless.

Jacques Lantier (Jean Gabin) is a highly competent train driver, who is a little in love with the steam engine that he has named “Lison”.  He travels the rails with a down-to-earth stoker, Pecquex (Julien Carette).  Poor Jacques suffers mightily from terrifying blackouts ending in homicidal fits. These he attributes to hereditary “alcohol poisoning” with which he has been cursed by generations of his alcoholic ancestors.


Roubaud (the excellent Fernand Ledoux) is the stationmaster at one of the stops on Jacques’ route.  He dotes on his young beautiful wife Séverine (Simone Simon) but is pathologically jealous and abusive toward her.  He gets the idea (probably well-founded) that Séverine has had an affair with railroad boss Grandmorin and decides to make his wife an accomplice in his murder to “bind her to him”.


The two execute the plan on a train and Jacques witnesses them returning to their compartment.  Séverine uses her feminine charms to secure Jacques’ silence and their relationship rapidly develops into something more, ending in tragedy for all concerned. With Renoir as a fall guy.

La Bete Humaine 1

While I find that La Bête Humaine lacks the humanism I love in Renoir’s films, it grew on me quite a bit on this viewing.  Previously I thought that the entire plot hinged on the “alcohol poisoning” construct which kind of lets everyone off the hook.  This time I saw the film as more of a Double Indemnity-type story, something I doubt Zola intended but could have been on Renoir’s mind.  Certainly Séverine is a classic femme fatale.  Simone Simon, already looking like a kitten well before Cat People, portrays her to perfection.

Gabin brought Zola’s novel to Renoir because he wanted to drive a train, and the railroad scenes are the true glory of the picture.   They are dynamic and beautifully shot.  Needless to say, for me Gabin can do no wrong as an actor.

La Bête Humaine was reportedly the most financially successful of Renoir’s 1930’s films. Fritz Lang modernized and remade the story in 1954 as Human Desire with Glenn Ford and Gloria Grahame.


Olympia Part Two: Festival of Beauty (1938)

Olympia Part Two: Festival of Beauty (“Olympia 2. Teil – Fest der Schönheit”)Olympia Part II Poster
Directed by Leni Riefenstahl
Written by Leni Riefenstahl
Olympia Film GmbH

Repeat viewing
#126 of 1001 Films You Must See Before You Die


I am fascinated by what is beautiful, strong, healthy, what is living. I seek harmony. — Leni Riefenstahl

The second part of Riefenstahl’s documentary features the decathalon plus all the sports not on the track and field Olympic lineup.  Once again, we begin with a prologue – this time featuring nude male atheletes swimming in a natural setting and finishing up with a hearty sauna.  All of the sports coverage is quite lovely, with even some funny moments during the steeplechase event as officers and horses repeatedly get dunked.  My very favorite part of the film was an Olympic diving sequence right at the end (see clip below).  It was mesmerizing to watch the dives without narration and without nationality or winners. Riefenstahl demonstrates her brilliance as an editor here and throughout Olympia. Recommended.

Olympia II

Clip – diving


Olympia Part I: Festival of the Nations (1938)

Olympia Part I:  Festival of the Nations (“Olympia 1. Teil – Fest der Völker”)Olympia Poster 2
Directed by Leni Riefenstahl
Written by Leni Riefenstahl
Olympia Film GmbH

Repeat viewing
#125 of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die


Through my optimism I naturally prefer and capture the beauty in life — Leni Riefenstahl

Riefenstahl’s film begins with a long arty prologue starting with the ancient Greek games and including a long sequence of nude male and female athletes practicing their sports. It’s sort of an exploration of the beauty of the human body. While this is captivating stuff, I was not looking forward to an hour and a half of the same. As soon as I could tire of it, we were into the Berlin Olympic Games. I ended up really enjoying the film and even rooting for my favorite athletes.

Olympia I

This part of Olympia covers the track and field events. There is no narration per se, just the voice of the German sports commentator. There is surprisingly little nationalism, perhaps inevitable since Germany won so few medals. There are several shots of Hitler but mostly he just looks disappointed. Jesse Owens runs like a rocket compared to his competitors. The music is magnificent.  Recommended.

Fan trailer set to selections from Vangelis (non-sexualized nudity)

Jezebel (1938)

JezebelJezebel Poster
Directed by William Wyler
Written by Clements Ripley, Abem Finkel and John Huston from the play by Owen Davis
Warner Bros

Repeat viewing
#120 of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die


Aunt Belle: Child, you’re out of your mind. You know you can’t wear red to the Olympus Ball.

Julie Marsden: Can’t I? I’m goin’ to. This is 1852, dumplin’. 1852, not the Dark Ages.

William Wyler was some director and this is a polished well-acted drama.

Neither her aunt (Faye Bainter) nor her guardian can make headstrong Julie Marsden (Bette Davis) behave according to the rules of antebellum New Orleans society.  Julie is determined to win the same battle with her fiance Pres Dillard..  In a fit of pique after Pres refuses to leave an important business meeting to go to a fitting with her, Julie decides to wear a red dress to a ball.  This is simply something not done by unmarried girls, who traditionally dress in virginal white.  Julie loses the battle of the sexes and the story follows the many bad consequences of her stubbornness.  With George Brent as a rival beau, Donald Crisp as a doctor, and Spring Byington as a society matron.

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This role suited Bette Davis perfectly.  She is magnificent as the haughty, catty Julie. William Wyler, with whom she was having an affair at the time, made her look radiantly lovely as well.  The rest of the cast is excellent, with the possible exception of Margaret Lindsay who gets on my nerves for some reason.  The production was lavish and expensive and Wyler sets off the beautiful surroundings with a fluid moving camera.  The ball scene is particularly notable.

I never can make sense of the ending.  Why would anyone trust Julie to return her husband?  I certainly wouldn’t.

Bette Davis and Faye Bainter were awarded with Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress Oscars.  Jezebel was nominated in the categories of Best Picture, Best Cinematography, and Best Music (Scoring).