Dark Victory (1939)

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Directed by Edmund Goulding
Written by Casey Robinson based on the play by George Emerson Brewer Jr. and Bertram Bloch
Warner Bros.

First viewing/Netflix rental

Judith: But I haven’t time to be ill.

The medical melodrama is not one of my favorite genres.  I have to admit that this one is beautifully made and Bette Davis gives it her all.

Judith Traherne (Davis) is a strong-minded socialite who apparently lives with her best friend Ann (Geraldine Fitzgerald).  Her one semi-productive activity is racing horses aided by her able Irish trainer Michael O’Leary (Humphrey Bogart with brogue!).  Judith has been suffering headaches and one day as she is preparing a horse for a steeplechase she gets double vision and crashes through a hurdle.

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Much against her will, her family doctor (Henry Travers) takes her to reknowned bachelor brain surgeon Frederick Steele (George Brent).  Steele is preparing to close his practice to devote himself to research but one look at Judy and her symptoms has him hooked.  He operates, only to discover a terminal malignancy.  This is a “Hollywood illness” that will leave the victim vital and beautiful until the day blindness strikes and she dies. Steele, who has fallen in love with Judith, tries to hide her fate from her.  With Ronald Reagan as a drunk in Judith’s set.

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This is Bette Davis’s movie.  For most of it, her Judith is a girl in love.  There is a bit of the Davis “diva” especially when she is thwarted but often she is very moving with those expressive eyes of hers.  I never thought I would see Bogart giving a performance like this. To his credit, he is utterly miscast but his brogue is spotty and he almost resorts to histrionics during his love confession scene.  The cinematography by Ernest Haller is a thing of beauty, with rich and interesting shadows revealing the scenes.

Dark Victory was nominated for Academy Awards in the categories of Best Picture, Best Actress and Best Original Score (Max Steiner).



Another Thin Man (1939)

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Directed by W.S. Van Dyke
Written by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett based on an original story by Dashiell Hammett

First viewing; Netflix rental


Nora Charles: How did you find me here?

Nick Charles: I saw a great group of men standing around a table. I knew there was only one woman in the world who could attract men like that. A woman with a lot of money.

The third installment in the “Thin Man” series had me grinning from beginning to end.

An embezzler (Sheldon Leonard) has threatened Col. MacFay (C. Aubrey Smith) with murder.  MacFay calls on retired detective Nick Charles (William Powell) to protect him. Charles is married to MacFay’s deceased partner’s daughter Nora (Myrna Loy).  The Charleses go out to MacFay’s Long Island estate with their baby and Asta in tow.  MacFay is rather swiftly murdered, Nick is the next recipient of threats, and the couple go into high gear on the investigation.  With Virginia Gray as MacFay’s daughter, Ruth Hussey as a nanny, and Otto Kruger as the  D.A.

ANOTHER THIN MAN, William Powell, Myrna Loy, William A. Poulsen, 1939

A new baby does nothing to cramp Nick and Nora’s style or curb their drinking.  The murder mystery solution comes out of nowhere but getting there is enormous fun.  I especially liked Otto Kruger as the DA who accuses first and asks questions later.  I enjoyed this nearly as much as The Thin Man.



The Four Feathers (1939)

The Four Feathersfour_feathers poster
Directed by Zoltan Korda
Written by A.E.W. Mason; screenplay by R. C. Sherriff
London Film Productions

First viewing/Streaming on Hulu Plus


Harry Faversham: I am a coward, Doctor. If I’d been anything but a soldier I might have lived my whole life and concealed it. But to be a soldier and a coward is to be an impostor, a menace to the men whose lives are in your hands.

I was never able to suspend my disbelief, but as pure spectacle this film is great.

Harry Faversham (John Clements) is the last in a long line of military officers.  His father despairs of the boy and asks his friend General Burroughs (C.  Aubrey Smith) to buck him up over dinner.  But Burroughs’ war stories terrify the boy.

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Ten years later, Harry is himself an officer and engaged to Burroughs’ daughter Ethne.  Fellow-officer John Durrance (Ralph Richardson) carries a torch for her.   Then Harry’s regiment is called up to the Sudan to avenge General Gordon’s defeat and death. Harry fears that he will turn tail under fire and resigns his commission.  Three of his comrades, including John, and Ethne send Harry white feathers condemning him for cowardice.

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Almost immediately, Harry vows to redeem himself.  He sets off for Egypt where he convinces a doctor to brand his forehead so that he will be mistaken for a member of a tribe which brands traitors and cuts off their tongues.  The blue-eyed Harry disguises himself as an Arab and nobody notices he has a tongue for the rest of the film. Conveniently, Harry manages to find all of his detractors and heroically rescue them from various situations.  He also takes an enemy arsenal single-handed and even finds a Union Jack to raise there.

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I couldn’t stop rolling my eyes but I have to admit the story makes a ripping action adventure.  The scenes in Sudan are astonishing for the time – really for any time. How the filmmakers managed to capture this all on location with hundreds and hundreds of local extras and clunky Technicolor cameras is beyond me.  The attacks by the “dervishes” and “fuzzy-wuzzies” are terrifying.  I imagine a “making-of” documentary would be an adventure film in itself.  Ralph Richardson is, as per normal, excellent and does well as a blind man.

The Four Feathers was nominated for an Academy Award for its Color Cinematography by Georges Périnal and Osmond Borradaile.  It was also nominated for the Palme d’or at the very first Cannes Film Festival and for the Mussolini Cup at Venice.



Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939)

Goodbye, Mr. Chipsgoodbye-mr-chips poster
Directed by Sam Wood
Written by R.C. Sherriff, Claudine West, and Eric Maschwitz based on the book by James Hilton
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer British Studios
Repeat viewing/Netflix rental

Mr. Chipping ‘Mr. Chips’: I thought I heard you saying it was a pity… pity I never had any children. But you’re wrong. I have. Thousands of them. Thousands of them… and all boys.

How in the heck did this classic miss the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die List?

Told primarily in flashback, the story follows the 60+ year career and life of Charles Chipping (Robert Donat), a Latin teacher at an old and prestigious English boys’ school (think Eton).   The boys walk all over the timid, awkward Chipping and he responds by becoming a heartily disliked disciplinarian.  Then, after he suffers a stinging career setback, a kindly German teacher (Paul Heinreid) takes him on a mountaineering expedition to Austria on holiday.  Purely by chance, he meets Kathy (Greer Garson) and she changes his life.

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For those of you who think I am developing a heart of stone, I have to report that I watched almost the entire movie through a veil of tears.  Because I had seen it before,  it didn’t take anything particularly sad to set me off.    There is something about the British stiff upper lip that causes my own lip to start quivering.  This is a beautiful film in every way and Robert Donat’s Best Actor Oscar was richly deserved in a year of great performances.  I can’t imagine why this is not on The List and would encourage everyone to put it near the top of their own personal “to watch” pile.

Goodbye, Mr. Chips was also nominated in the categories of Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, Best Screenplay, Best Sound Recording, and Best Film Editing.


Beau Geste (1939)

Beau GesteBeau Geste poster
Directed by William Wellman
Written by Robert Carson based on a novel by Percival Christopher Wren
Paramount Pictures

First viewing/Netflix rental


Foreword: “The love of a man for a woman waxes and wanes like the moon, but the love of brother for brother is steadfast as the stars and endures like the word of the prophet.” Arabian proverb

I just loved this mystery/adventure.

Beau (Gary Cooper), Digby (Robert Preston), and John (Ray Milland) Geste are English orphaned brothers living with their kindly Aunt Patricia and their obnoxious cousin Augustus.  We meet them as children led by eldest brother Beau and playing at games of derring-do.  Aunt Patricia introduces them to an officer in the French Foreign Legion and they decide that is what they want to be when they grow up.  We find out that Patricia’s absent husband has been going through the family fortune and the largest remaining asset is the huge and immensely valuable “Blue Water” sapphire.

The next time we see them they are adults and as close as ever.  John has fallen in love with his cousin Isobel (the very young Susan Hayward).    Patricia learns that her husband is coming home to sell the sapphire.  The brothers ask to see it for one last time.  While she is displaying it, all the lights go out and the stone vanishes.  A little later Beau confesses to his brothers that he stole it and sets out to join the Foreign Legion.  Shortly thereafter, Digby says Beau confessed to spare him and sets out after him.  The brothers are not to be separated and John soon follows despite his love for Isobel.

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The Foreign Legion proves to be much less romantic than the boys imagined.  They are all assigned to training under the sadistic Sargeant Markoff (Brian Donlevy) whose idea of “breaking” a man to be a soldier includes anything up to killing him.  Then a man overhears the brothers discussing the Blue Water and is convinced Beau has it in his possession. He tells Markoff who begins to plot to get it from him.  The first part of the plan includes separating Beau and John from Digby and putting them under Markoff’s command at a desert fortress.  The rest of the movie includes a mutiny by the Legionnaires and an attack on the fort by the Tauregs.  I won’t give anything else away.

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The whole movie captured my imagination from the intriguing mystery behind the jewel theft to the exotic desert scenes to the stirring battle.  The acting is all first-rate but I thought Brian Donlevy was the standout.  He makes an unforgettable villain.  It was also fun to spot a familiar face playing Beau Geste as a child.  I had to wait for the credits to verify that this was Donald O’Connor!  William A. Wellman certainly knows how to direct action. Recommended.

Beau Geste was nominated for Academy Awards in the categories of Best Supporting Actor (Donlevy) and Best Art Direction.



The Old Maid (1939)

The Old Maidthe old maid poster
Directed by Edmund Goulding
Written by Casey Robinson based on the stage play by Zoe Akins and the novel by Edith Wharton
Warner Bros.

First viewing/Netflix rental

Charlotte Lovell: Oh, but you needn’t pity me. Because she’s really mine. If she considers me an old maid, it’s because I’ve deliberately made myself one in her eyes. I’ve done it from the beginning so she wouldn’t have the least suspicion. I’ve practised everything I’ve ever had to say to her, if it was important, so that I’d sound like an old maid aunt talking. Not her mother.

It’s not a bad movie but this tear-jerker did not particularly move me.

During the Civil War, Delia Lovell (Miriam Hopkins) is about to marry society luminary Jim Ralston.  As she is getting ready for the wedding, she learns that beau Clem Spender (George Brent) has returned from a two-year absence.  She is breaking a promise to marry him and her cousin Charlotte (Bette Davis) offers to break the news.  Unbeknownst to Delia, Charlotte is carrying a torch for Clem and after the wedding the two get together, apparently for one night of passion, before Clem goes off to war.

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Segue to several years later and Charlotte is keeping a foundling home.  Her favorite foundling is named Clementine.  Charlotte is now engaged to Joe Ralston, Jim’s brother. The Ralston family keeps begging Charlotte to give up the home and sends Delia to persuade her to do so.  Charlotte adamantly refuses and Joe gives in.  But on the day of the wedding, in an apparent fit of insanity, Charlotte admits to Delia that Clementine is her daughter and Delia quickly guesses that the father was Clem, who was killed in the war. Delia is jealous and says she will tell Joe.  She does go to Joe and convinces him to call off the wedding, not because of the illegitimacy but because she claims Charlotte is too ill to marry.

After Delia is widowed, she invites Charlotte and Clementine to live with her.  The rest of the plot covers the sad saga as Clementine starts calling Delia mother and disrespecting her strict old maid Aunt Charlotte.  With Donald Crisp as a kindly doctor.

old maid 2This is a well-made film and the acting is good, although I think Hopkins should have stuck with comedies.  My main problem with the film was the ending, which requires Delia to make a complete turnaround totally out of step with her previously established character.



At the Circus (1939)

At the Circusat the circus poster
Directed by Edward Buzzell
Written by Irving Brecher

First viewing//Warner Home Video DVD

Oh, Lydia, Oh Lydia/ Now have you met Lydia/ Lydia the queen of tattoo

On her back is the battle of Waterloo/ Beside it the wreck of the Hesperus too/ and proudly above waves the red white and blue/ You can learn a lot from Lydia

— “Lydia the Tattooed Lady”, lyric by E.Y. “Yip” Harburg

Not every great song  written by Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg for 1939 films was in The Wizard of Oz.

Jeff Wilson bought a circus in order to be near his beloved singer/horse trainer fiancee. He has even turned enough of a profit to pay back a $10,000 debt that is secured by his business. Unfortunately, the dastardly lender needs, for some unexplained reason, to reacquire the circus so he arranges to steal the money before he can be paid.  Loyal employee Antonio (Chico Marx) sends for lawyer J. Cheever Loophole (Groucho Marx) to come to the rescue.  His elaborate seduction of rich widow Mrs. Dukesberry (Margaret Dumont) saves the day.  With Eve Arden as a circus performer and associate of the bad guy.

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I was looking forward to this mostly to see Groucho perform “Lydia” but ended up generally enjoying the whole thing.  It is a musical comedy with too many scenes of the young lovers, singing and otherwise.  However, the Marx Brothers are allowed to do what they do best and the excellent Margaret Dumont makes a reappearance.  It’s not up with the top tier of Marx Brothers movies by any means, but I thought it was entertaining.

Clip – Groucho singing “Lydia the Tattooed lLady”

Wuthering Heights (1939)

Wuthering Heightswuthering-heights poster
Directed by William Wyler
Written by Charles MacArthur and Ben Hecht based on the novel by Emily Brontë
The Samuel Goldwyn Company

First viewing/Warner Home Video DVD
#131 of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die

Heathcliff: I cannot live without my life! I cannot die without my soul!

This is a beautiful looking film and Laurence Olivier becomes Heathcliff.

The classic Emily Brontë novel is the story of unfettered passion destroying everything in its wake.  Mr. Earnshaw brings an street urchin he calls Heathcliff (Laurence Olivier) into his Yorkshire family home, Wuthering Heights.  The wild child forms a close bond with daughter Cathy (Merle Oberon), who also has a wild and rebellious streak.  He forever earns the enmity of son Hadley. When Earnshaw dies, Hadley makes Heathcliff a stable boy and treats him brutally.  Heathcliff stays on because of his love for Cathy, who, however, has a yearning for finer things.  This yearning draws her to the Linton mansion, where Edgar Linton (David Niven) rapidly falls in love with her.  The remainder of the story focuses on Heathcliff’s revenge on Hadley and the Linton family.  With Flora Robson as housekeeper Ellen, the teller of the tale; an almost unrecognizable Leo G. Carroll as Joseph, the farm man-of-all-trades; Geraldine Fitzgerald as Isabel Linton; and Donald Crisp as a doctor.

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I regret that I did not see the film before I had read the novel a couple of times.  If I had, I might have liked the book better.  It is not a favorite of mine and it strikes me as a story in which virtually all the characters verge on insanity.  I find Heathcliff especially cruel and repugnant.

If I had seen the movie, I might have been prepared to accept the novel as a tragic tale of eternal love.  Certainly, Laurence Olivier’s Heathcliff is dreamy, with the perfect undertone of cold violence.  I”m still not to keen on Merle Oberon as an actress but she does look beautiful, which is the main thing required of Cathy.  The movie glances over the worst excesses of Heathcliff’s savagery so that he becomes a more sympathetic sufferer of class injustice.

The story and acting aside, this is an exquisitely shot picture.  The opening, with the driving rain and forbidding moors, is scary and perfect.  The whole thing almost glows.  It definitely qualifies as a must see in my book.

Gregg Toland won the Academy Award for his incandescent black and white cinematography.  Wuthering Heights was nominated for seven other Oscars:  Best Picture; Best Actor; Best Supporting Actress (Fitzgerald); Best Director; Best Screenplay; Best Art Direction; and Best Original Score (Alfred Newman).

Clip – Cathy and Heathcliff at the ball

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939)

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmesadventures of sherlock holmes poster
Directed by Alfred L. Werker
Written by Edwin Blum and William A. Drake based on the play “Sherlock Holmes” by William Gillette
Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp.

First viewing/Netflix rental


Sherlock Holmes: You’ve a magnificent brain, Moriarty. I admire it. I admire it so much I’d like to present it pickled in alcohol to the London Medical Society.

This is the second in the Rathbone-Bruce series of Sherlock Holmes films and the last the two made before the franchise moved to Universal Pictures..  I liked it a bit more than The Hound of the Baskervilles, despite Watson’s increased dithering.

Criminal genius Professor Moriarty devises a plan to divert Holmes while he commits the Crime of the Century and almost succeeds.  With George Zucco as Moriarty, Ida Lupino as a damsel in distress, and Henry Stephenson as Chief Constable of the Tower of London.

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Zucco and Lupino as well as snappier dialogue and suspenseful music help this mystery improve on the first in the series..  Watson is played as a buffoon, but for some reason I find Nigel Bruce so endearing I don’t care much.    And we get to hear Rathbone sing! Standard stuff but fairly entertaining.

Clip – opening scene – Holmes and Moriarty

Holmes disguised as a music hall entertainer singing “I Do Love to Be Beside the Seaside” (sorry about video quality)

Young Mr. Lincoln (1939)

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Directed by John Ford
Written by Lamar Trotti
Twentieth Century Fox Corporation

Repeat viewing/Netflix rental


Abe Lincoln: By jing, that’s all there is to it; Right and Wrong.

The grandeur of Ford’s vision of antebellum America is marred by the trite screenplay to my mind.

This highly fictionalized account of Lincoln’s(Henry Fonda)  career as a young lawyer and aspiring politician focuses, after some preliminaries, on his (fictional) defense of two brothers accused of murdering a town bully who harassed one’s wife.  The story manages to fit in Ann Rutledge, Mary Todd and Stephen Douglas.  Thankfully, Ford was able to forestall the studio’s wish to include a chance encounter between Lincoln and John Wilkes Booth.  With Alice Brady as the mother of the accused, Donald Meek as the prosecutor, and Ward Bond as an “eye witness”.

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I thought Ford captured the texture of frontier life in 1830’s Illinois really well and there are some awesome river vistas in this.  Henry Fonda makes a convincing Lincoln in the first of his seven films with Ford.  While the film has many merits, it suffers from great-man syndrome and some fairly trite dialogue as far as I am concerned.

Young Mr. Lincoln was Oscar-nominated for its Original Story.

Clip – Lincoln judges a pie contest