The Duke of West Point (1938)

The Duke of West Pointthe-duke-of-west-point poster
Directed by Alfred E. Green
Written by George Bruce
1938/USA
Edward Small Productions
First viewing/Streaming on Amazon (free to Amazon Prime members)

 

Picture making is a youngster’s game. When a man gets older he doesn’t want to take a chance to try something new. And this business moves so fast that if you don’t change your methods with every picture you’re out of luck. In a few years I won’t have a thing to do with the creative. Afraid, I’ll hire young men with plenty of nerve to handle that for me. — Edward Small, 1926

I don’t know if it was the titular character or the actor who played him who was insufferable.   At any rate, I couldn’t stand this movie.

Steven Early (Louis Hayward) is an American raised in England by his military attaché father.  Generations of the family have attended West Point and Steven sets out there.  He makes a big splash with his high-handed superiority, refusal to obey the rules and athletic prowess.  He also sets out to steal Ann (Joan Fontaine), the only girl in miles around, from an upperclassman.  But Louis has a well-hidden heart of gold and secretly supplies the money needed to allow his roommate to stay in school.  When he is caught after hours wiring this money, he is tried,and sentenced to the silent treatment for the rest of his stay at the Academy.  How can Louis get back in the good graces of his classmates and win the girl?

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By the time we were ten minutes into the story, I was actively rooting for something bad to happen to Louis.  His grin and attitude really rubbed me the wrong way.  Setting that aside, this is your typical patriotic military academy affair, with plenty of football and hockey thrown in and an unmotivated romance.  The average IMDb user liked it much more than I did.

Clip

 

Port of Shadows (1938)

Port of Shadows (“Le quai des brumes”)port of shadows poster
Directed by Michel Carné
Written by Jacques Prevert from the novel by Pierre Dumarchais
1938/France
Ciné-Alliance

Repeat viewing/Netflix rental

 

Le peintre: A tree. But when I paint one, it sets everyone on edge. It’s because there’s someone or something hidden behind that tree. I can’t help painting what’s hidden behind things. To me a swimmer is already a drowned man..

I was surprised how little I remembered about this really excellent film.

Jean (Jean Gabin) is a French army deserter who has also apparently committed some crime of passion.  He arrives in Le Havre seeking a way to escape.  Nelly (Michele Morgan) is a seventeen-year-old running away from her jealous, lecherous godfather (Michel Simon) and a past affair with Maurice.  Lucien (the fantastic Pierre Brasseur) is a cowardly gangster in search of Maurice and some papers.  Fate is not kind to any of these people.

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The docks of Le Havre are permeated by fog and cruel destiny.  1938 seems to have been a very good year for French proto-noirs.  No one could be more doomed than our hero and, while our heroine is sincere, she is nonetheless fatal.  The acting is excellent.  I seem to admire Michel Simon more with every performance I see.  The Jacques Prevert (Children of Paradise) dialogue is haunting as is the score.  This is a dark and sad film but very beautiful.   I highly recommend it.

Re-release trailer

Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife (1938)

Bluebeard’s Eighth WifeBluebeard's Eighth Wife
Directed by Ernst Lubitsch
Written by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett from a play by Albert Savoir
1938/USA
Paramount Pictures

First viewing

 

Nicole de Loiselle: I wish someone would tell you what I really think of you.

Any film that combines Ernst Lubitsch, Billy Wilder, and this cast has to be entertaining.

Michael (Gary Cooper) is a decisive multi-millionaire.  He meets Nicole (Claudette Colbert) in a Paris department store while trying to purchase only the top of some pajamas.  Nicole buys the bottoms and, without further ado, Michael decides she will be his wife.

Nicole’s father (Edward Everett Horton) is broke and Michael funnels some money his way by buying an allegedly antique bathtub from him.  At first, Nicole resists Michael’s advances but eventually she falls in love with him.  At their engagement party, she discovers that he has been married seven times before.  He explains that his wives have made out fine as he signs a prenuptial agreement with each one guaranteeing $50,000 per year for life,  Nicole holds out for $100,000 per year and hatches a plot to ensure their divorce.  With David Niven as Nicole’s friend.

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This is good fun even if parts of the story don’t hang together too well.  Cooper is very good in a part reminiscent of Mr. Deeds.  The dialogue sings.

Trailer

 

Marie Antoinette (1938)

Marie AntoinetteMarie Antoinette Poster
Directed by W.S. Van Dyke
Written by Claudine West, Donald Ogden Stewart, and Ernest Vajda based in part on the book by Stefan Zweig
1938/USA
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

First viewing

 

Marie: I cannot wear a crown upon my heart.

I am not big on 2 1/2 hour-plus costume dramas … especially if Norma Shearer is going to play a teenager in any part of them.

Marie (Shearer) is thrilled when her mother, the Empress of Austria, arranges with Louis XV (John Barrymore) for her to wed the Dauphin (Robert Morley).  Her enthusiasm wanes when she discovers on her wedding night that the future Louis XVI is a socially inept fellow who has no interest in her or in producing heirs to the throne.

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After a couple of years of boredom, the scheming Duke d’Orleans (Joseph Schildkraut) convinces Marie to enter the social whirl of decadent court life in Paris.  At one of her soirees, Marie meets and falls in love with the Swedish Count Fersen (Tyrone Power). They scarcely consummate their passion when Louis XV orders Marie’s exile for failure to produce an heir and for insulting his mistress Madame du Barry (Gladys George).

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Marie is saved by the bell when Louis XV dies.  She and the Count agree that they cannot continue their affair and Marie, who has formed a close friendship with the Dauphin, becomes Queen.  INTERMISSION.

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Marie and Louis produce a couple of children.  They have great compassion for the poor of France but Count d’Orleans conspires to frame Marie for the purchase of a priceless necklace while the people are starving.  Marie and Louis are eventually imprisoned.  Count Festen comes to Marie’s aid, but to no avail.

This film is not without its good points.  Robert Morley, in his film debut, is fantastic as Louis XV1 and Joseph Schildkraut is suitably evil in his role and looks great in wig and powder.  The production is lavish and all aspects from costume design to art direction to score are first-rate.

That said, this film is way too long for its story and the story itself is trite.  I don’t know whether there actually was a Count Fersen or not, but his story line felt very contrived.  I like Norma Shearer’s pre-Code work as sophisticated ladies.  I find her pretty dreadful whenever she attempts to play naive virgins or lovelorn romantic  heroines.  She spends most of her time doing the later here.

Marie Antoinette was nominated for Academy Awards in the categories of Best Actress (Norma Shearer), Best Supporting Actor (Robert Morley), Best Art Direction, and Best Original Score. This was Irving Thalberg’s last project while head of production at MGM and Shearer, his widow, stuck with it through completion in 1938.

Trailer

 

A Christmas Carol (1938)

A Christmas CarolChristmas Carol Poster
Directed by Edwin R. Marin
Written by Hugo Butler from a novel by Charles Dickens
1938/USA
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

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.

Trailer

 

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
1938/USA
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.

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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.

Trailer

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pygmalion (1938)

PygmalionPygmalion Poster
Directed by Anthony Asquith
Written by George Bernard Shaw
1938/UK
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.

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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

Alexander Nevsky (1938)

Alexander Nevsky
Alexander Nevsky Poster
Directed by Sergei M. Eisenstein and Dmitri Vasilyev
Written by Sergei M. Eisenstein and Pyotr Pavlenko
USSR/1938
Mosfilm

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
1938/France
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.

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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”.

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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.

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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.

Trailer

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
1938/Germany
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