Balalaika (1939)

Balalaikabalalaika poster
Directed by Reinhold Schünzel
Written by Charles Bennet, Jacques Deval et al

First viewing/Warner Archive Collection DVD


Prince Peter Karagin, aka Peter Teranda: [singing] Blood and fire, not for me. / Blood and mire, not for me / Lovely ladies, six or seven / Luscious lips, I’m in heaven.

Well, I guess I needed to see this to find out that Ilona Massey is no Jeanette MacDonald. This musical is OK but not more.

Lydia Pavlova Marakova (Massey) is a radical and singer at a club for officers.  Prince Peter Karagin (Nelson Eddy), a Cossack officer and son of a hated general, spots her there.  It is love at first sight.  He finds out that she has a weakness for students and poses as one.  She falls for him and he gets her a singing gig with the Petrograd opera.  Then one night, Lydia is out at some kind of protest that gets charged by Cossacks and her brother is killed.  Peter, the leader of the Cossacks, is outed.  He apologizes and swears he will quit the army.  In the meantime, the radicals have plotted to assassinate Peter and his father at Lydia’s opera debut.  The father is killed, but not before he announces that Germany has declared war on Russia.  Broken-hearted, Peter heads off to WWI.

Segue to post-Revolution Paris where all the aristocrats we saw are now working at a night club called The Balalaika and Peter is employed as a singer.  How will Peter and Lydia be re-united?  Not terribly convincingly that’s for sure.  With Charlie Ruggles as Peter’s orderly turned nightclub owner, Frank Morgan as an opera impresario, and Lionel Atwill and C. Aubrey Smith as aristocrats.

I guess MGM was grooming the Hungarian Ilona Massey for stardom but the remainder of her screen career looks to have been spent largely in Universal horror films.  So I may not be alone in my failure to appreciate her singing voice or acting.  Nelson Eddy remains Nelson Eddie.  The story is all over the place and my beloved Charlie Ruggles overdid it in his part here.

Balalaika was Oscar-nominated for Best Sound Recording.

That does it for my 1939 viewing.  I’ve seen all the Oscar-nominated films I can get my hands on and, while there are maybe 30 more films I could catch on-line, it seems to be a matter of diminishing returns.  On to 1940!!!




Swanee River (1939)

Swanee River Swanee River Poster
Directed by Sidney Lanfield
Written by John Taintor Foote and Philip Dunne
Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

First viewing/20th Century Fox Cinema Archives DVD


Way down upon the Swanee River,/ Far, far away/ That’s where my heart is turning ever/ That’s where the old folks stay — Lyric by Stephen Foster

I didn’t have high expectations  but I ended up enjoying this rather sentimental biopic.

This is a highly fictionalized account of the composer Stephen Foster’s sad life — Foster only visited the South once, on his honeymoon, and his wife Jane was from Pittsburgh, PA as Foster himself was.  Anyway, the story opens in antebellum Kentucky, where Foster (Don Ameche) is courting sweetheart Jane.  Foster is a dreamer who gets completely caught up in his music when inspiration hits him and repeatedly stands Jane up during the course of the movie.  Jane’s father objects to her marriage to a composer who is unlikely to be able to support her.

Foster finally sells a song, “Oh, Susanna!”, to windbag self-promoter Edwin P. Christy (Al Jolson) of minstrel fame for $15. The song goes on to make Christy a mint and, disillusioned, Foster goes to work behind a desk.  But later the hard-drinking Christy seeks Foster out and proposes a partnership with him.  Foster, who enjoys a nip himself, uses this success to marry Jane.  But, especially after their first child is born, Jane cannot live with his growing alcoholism.

There is something about Don Ameche that I find very appealing and I enjoyed watching him in this.  I don’t know if it was really Ameche singing “My Old Kentucky Home”.  If so, he has a very pleasant baritone.  I’m not a Jolson fan but in this case the material suited his over-sized personality.  This is nothing great but you could certainly do worse.

Louis Silvers was nominated for a Best Scoring award for Swanee River. This was Al Jolson’s last credited screen performance.

Jolson performing “Oh, Susanna” and “Swanee River” in blackface

Juarez (1939)

JuarezJuarez Poster
Directed by William Dieterle
Written by John Huston, Aeneas MacKenzie, and Wolfgang Reinhardt
Warner Bros

First Viewing/Warner Archive Collection DVD


Emperor Maximilian von Hapsburg: [as he is being led to his execution by firing squad] “Distribute this money among your men and tell them to aim for my heart.”

Ponderous is the adjective that first comes to mind when describing this movie.

This is a fictionalized account of the events that gave us Mexico’s National Day, Cinco de Mayo.  Benito Juarez (Paul Muni), a 100% Zopotec Indian and former shepherd, is President of Mexico and leads resistence to French occupation of the country.  Meanwhile, it looks certain that the Union will win the American Civil War and Emperor Napoleon III (Claude Rains) fears that the U.S. will soon be in a position to enforce the Monroe Doctrine to throw the French forces out.  Since the doctrine only applies to foreign incursion in the Western Hemisphere, Napoleon decides to rig a plebicite and have the Mexican people call for their own monarch.  He dupes the Archduke Maximilian von Habsburg (Brian Aherne) of Austria into assuming the crown, with the encouragement of his beloved wife Carlota (Bette Davis).

Maximilian tries to be a benevolent ruler and decries the plans of the Mexican elite to reclaim lands previously distributed to the peons by Juarez.  He appeals to Juarez for cooperation but Juarez resolutely resists and eventually Maximilian adopts brutal means to quell the rebellion against him.  Meanwhile, Carlota, who has been unable to bear a longed-for child, slowly descends into madness.  With Donald Crisp as Marechal Bazine, Gilbert Roland as Porfirio Diaz, Gale Sondergaard as the Empress Eugenie and many other great character actors of the period including Joseph Calleia, Louis Calhern and Harry Davenport.

In terms of screen time, this could better have been called “Maximilian” and Brian Aherne’s performance is the highlight of the film.  Paul Muni’s direction seems to have been to look expressionless yet noble, and while he complied beautifully this does not make for an engrossing experience.  Bette Davis’s mad scene did not convince this viewer.  I apparently differ from the average IMDb user (7.3/10) so your mileage may vary.

Brian Aherne was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for his work on this picture and Tony Gaudio was nominated for his black and white cinematography.


First Love (1939)

First LoveFirst Love Poster
Directed by Henry Koster
Written by Bruce Manning and Lionel Hauser
Universal Pictures

First viewing/Deanna Durbin Sweetheart Pack DVD


Amapola, lindisima amapola, Será siempre mi alma tuya sola. Yo te quiero, amada niña mia, Iqual que ama la flor la luz del día. (“Amapola” lyrics by Garcia Josè Maria Lacalle)

I really enjoyed this modern take on the Cinderella fairy tale.

Orphan Connie (Deanna Durbin) graduates from boarding school, where she was supported by a wealthy uncle (Eugene Pallette).  She goes to live with the family and is met with indifference from most of the family and outright hostility from gossip column darling cousin Barbara.  The servants love the plucky, talented lass though. When Barbara conspires to keep Connie from attending a ball, the servants arrange a dress and transport for her.  They ask only that Connie leave by midnight because they have arranged to have the family waylaid until then. How will Cinderella be reunited with her handsome prince?  With a very young Robert Stack as the “prince” and Kathleen Howard as a crusty boarding school matron with a heart of gold (AKA “fairy godmother”).

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Eugene Pallette reprises his role in My Man Godfrey as a pater familias driven mad by his family and his performance alone would have made the movie for me.  The script is witty and Durbin is in fine voice.  Someday I will understand why dieing babies do nothing for me but something like this turns on the tears at the happy ending. I can’t ask for more in a Sunday afternoon viewing than this.

Clip – Durbin sings “Amapola” – superb!

Made for Each Other (1939)

Made for Each OtherMade for Each Other Poster
Directed by John Cromwell
Written by Jo Swerling suggested by a story by Rose Franken
Selznick International Pictures

First viewing/Netflix rental


Jane: Are you a man or a mouse?

John Horace ‘Johnny’ Mason: A mouse!

This starts out well and the two stars are superb as always but unfortunately it descends into preposterous melodrama half way through.

Fledgling attorney John Mason (James Stewart) meets Jane (Carole Lombard) on a business trip and marries her before he returns to the office.  This does not sit well with his boss Judge Doolittle (Charles Coburn), whose daughter he has been dating, or his mother (Lucile Watson).  Mother comes to live with the young couple and family strife, career reversals, and a new baby mean married life is not a bed of roses.  Then the baby gets pneumonia and only a serum which must be flown cross country during a terrible storm can save him.

Made for Each Other 1

This movie was rescued for me by its outstanding cast, all of whom did well with the sometimes treacly material.  That said, I see no reason to revisit this.

Clip – credits and opening





Way Down South (1939)

Way Down Southway down south poster
Directed by Leslie Goodwins and Bernard Vorhaus
Written by Clarence Muse and Langston Hughes
Sol Lesser Productions

First viewing/Netflix rental



This is primarily notable for its screenplay by Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes and filmmaker/composer Clarence Muse (“When It’s Sleepytime Down South”).  It also introduced me to boy soprano child star Bobby Breen.

The story is set in the antebellum South.  Timothy Reid, Sr. is a benevolent slaveholder who treats his slaves humanely and has never sold one.  Timothy Jr. (Breen) feels that they are his friends.  Reid’s accountant, the corrupt Martin Dill, harangues Reid for not running his plantation as a business.  Then Reid dies and Dill is named executor.  He promptly decides to sell off most of the “excess” slaves.  Young Timothy escapes with his confidant Uncle Caton (Muse) to New Orleans where they take shelter at a hotel/restaurant run by Jacques Bouton (Alan Mowbray) and Timothy desperately tries to protect Uncle Caton and forestall the sale.

way down south 1

The story is just OK and Breen is none too convincing as an actor but the singing by him and by the Hall Johnson Choir (Green Pastures, Cabin in the Sky) is glorious.  I was kind of surprised that these screenwriters chose to depict contented slaves but I suppose the times may have demanded that tack.

Victor Young was nominated for an Oscar for Best Music, Scoring for this film.

Songs from the film set so still photographs

Allegheny Uprising (1939)

Allegheny Uprisingallegheny uprising poster

Directed by William A. Seiter
Written by P.J. Wilson based on a factual story “The First Rebel” by Neil H. Swanson
RKO Radio Pictures

First viewing/Netflix rental


James ‘Jim’ Smith: Put that gun down!

Janie MacDougall: I won’t! I’m not going to be a widow before I’m even a wife.

I had hopes for this based on the cast but it only reached to “watchable” in my book.

The setting is the frontier in Pennsylvania a decade before the Revolutionary War.  The story begins with Capt. Swanson (George Sanders) arranging an exchange of British prisoners with the French.    Among the British prisoners is Jim Smith (John Wayne) and his buddy who have been held by Indians for the last three years.  After their release, they meet up with MacDougall (the deeply irritating Wilfred Lawson) who has been fighting with the British in Canada and repair to his tavern.  There Smith is reunited with tomboy sweetheart Janie (Claire Trevor), who is determined to let nothing else come between her and her man.

Smith becomes the leader of a militia of colonists called the “Black Boys” who specialize in defending their settlements from Indians.  They discover that a group of evil capitalists led by Callender (Brian Donlevy) is illegally selling trade goods, including alcohol and rifles, to the Indians.  When the Boys intercept a shipment, Callender et al decide to hide future shipments in convoys of military supplies travelling under military escort.  This leads to a head on collision between Capt. Swanson and Smith.

As should be well known by now, my least favorite character type in film is the “comic” drunk.  I have now discovered that even worse is the comic drunk Scotsman.  There is entirely too much of Wilfred Lawson in this film.  I was also let down by the usually reliable Claire Trevor who comes off as shrill and strident here.  All the other performances are fine.


Tower of London (1939)

Tower of Londontower of london poster
Directed by Rowland V. Lee
Written by Robert N. Lee
Universal Pictures

First viewing/Netflix rental


Mord: [to Richard] You’re more than a king, more than a man. You’re a god to me!

This fairly lame retelling of Richard III does not have nearly enough Karloff in it.

Richard, Duke of Gloucester (Basil Rathbone), eliminates the heirs that stand between himself and the throne with the help of his faithful giant Mord the executioner (Boris Karloff). On the margins, Richard prevents the love match of his niece and a  courtier. With Vincent Price as Clarence, Ian Hunter as King Edward IV, and Barbara O’Neill as Queen Elyzabeth.

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This is just barely OK.  The good performances (Rathbone, Karloff, Price) are balanced out with some pretty pedestrian ones.  I was expecting a horror angle and I didn’t get one.  Karloff is effectively menacing but has very little on-screen time.  The film is mainly a watered-down version of Shakespeare’s play with way too much corny romance tacked on.

Clip – drinking contest between Gloucester and Clarence (Basil Rathbone and Vincent Price)


Jamaica Inn (1939)

Jamaica InnJamaica Inn
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Written by Sidney Gilliat, Joan Harrison, et al adapted from the novel by Daphne du Maurier
Mayflower Pictures Corporation

First viewing/Netflix rental


Title Card: “Oh Lord, we pray thee ~~ not that wrecks should happen ~~ but that if they do happen / Thou wilt guide them ~~ to the coast of Cornwall ~~ for the benefit of the poor inhabitants.”

This movie was much better than what I expected – which, by reputation, was very little.

Mary (Maureen O’Hara in her British film debut) has recently lost her mother and travels to England to live with her Aunt Patience at Jamaica Inn.  The coach driver refuses to deliver her to her unsavory destination, however, and deposits her and her trunk at night in the road.  Mary makes her way to the doorway of effete pleasure-lover Sir Humphrey Pengallen (Charles Laughton), who, noticing her beauty, welcomes her with open arms and takes her to the inn in his carriage.  There Mary finds that her aunt is under the thumb of her husband Joss Merlyn (Leslie Banks), who is the leader of a gang of cutthroats and wreck-robbers.  Finally, she sees the gang attempt to hang Jem Trehearne (Robert Newton), a new member who is found with excess money in his pocket.  Mary cuts him down and the two flee together, eventually into what they think is the safety of Sir Humphrey’s manse.

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As an adventure/thriller goes, I thought this was an enjoyable film.  Hitchcock hated it, though, and it certainly does not boast much of the Master’s characteristic style.  You can see traces of it but his efforts to build suspense were doomed by Laughton’s desire to appear in most of the scenes in the picture.  This proved to be irresistible because Laughton was the principal financier.  Thus, a key plot twist is revealed much too early in the story. Laughton was also given wide latitude to ham it up which did not do him or the film any favors.  Still, I’d rather see Laughton overact than most actors act and all the rest of the performances are excellent.  There are some nice storms and other maritime effects.  The 1939 British viewing public apparently ate it up too.

The movie is in the public domain and is available streaming on several sites including YouTube and Amazon Prime Instant.

The Rains Came (1939)

The Rains Camerains came poster
Directed by Clarence Brown
Written by Philip Dunne and Julian Josephson from a novel by Louis Bromfield
Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

First viewing/Netflix rental

Thomas ‘Tom’ Ransome: [Describing Ranchipur to Lady Edwina Esketh] See, in Ranchipur, the important things in life are the elemental things, such as crops, starvation, and weather. In Europe, when someone says “It looks like rain,” in all probability, he’s trying to make polite conversation. But here, where people die as easily as they’re born, they’re speaking in terms of life and death. You’ll see what I mean, if you’re still here when the rains come. You’ll see them overnight turn the fields, the gardens and the jungles from a parched and burning desert, into a mass of green that seems to live, to writhe and to devour the walls, the trees and the houses.

Despite some over the top melodrama at the end, I enjoyed this disaster/romantic drama..

(The fictional) Ranchipur province  India is governed by a benevolent, progressive maharaja (H.B. Warner) and his wife (Maria Ouspenskaya).  The disreputable painter Tom Ransome (George Brent) has lived on the fringes of the palace for several years.  When Lord (Nigel Bruce) and Lady (Myrna Loy) Edwina Esketh arrive, Tom and the libertine Edwina apparently rekindle an old flame.  But Edwina is soon distracted by Major Rama Safti (Tyrone Power), a noted physician and court favorite.  She gets nowhere with the major until the rains come and an earthquake and dam failure inspire her to take pity on the sick and dieing.  With some great character actors, including Joseph Schildkraut, Henry Travers, Mary Nash, Jane Darwell, and Laura Hope Crewes.

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I think this would have been a more interesting story if it had been made outside the strictures of the Hayes Code.  It was not bad as it was, containing many more wrinkles than I was able to include in my plot summary.  It was not easy to buy Tyrone Power as an Indian.  The rest of the cast was great and it was nice to see Myrna Loy back in a vamp role.

The Rains Came won an Oscar for its special effects.  It was also nominated by the Academy in the categories of: Best Black and White Cinematography; Best Art Direction; Best Sound Recording; Best Film Editing; and Best Original Score (Alfred Newman).

Clip – earthquake