The Man in the Iron Mask (1939)

The Man in the Iron Maskman in the iron mask poster
Directed by James Whale
Written by George Bruce based on the novel by Alexandre Dumas pére
Universal Pictures

First Viewing/Streaming on Amazon Instant Video

Philippe: There is one law in life, my brother, that not even a king can escape… the law of retribution!

As swashbuckling costume drama goes, this one is OK.

Louis XIII’s wife gives birth to identical twin sons (both played as adults by Louis Hayward). Seeking to avoid strife over the succession to the throne, the king and his courtiers decide to turn one of the boys, Philippe, over to musketeer D’Artagnan (Warren William) to be raised.   All are sworn to secrecy. Unbeknownst to the monarch, evil Fouquet (Joseph Schildkraut) has overheard the plan. Philippe grows up to be a brave, loyal man but Louis XIV, who becomes monarch as a child, is idle, vain, and heartless.

Louis’s grasping ways have caused him to be widely hated among the population.  When Spanish princess Maria Theresa (Joan Bennett) comes to France to marry him, she loathes him as well.  Louis is so unpopular that he fears he will be assassinated if he emerges to light a candle at the cathedral on his father’s name day.  Fortuitously, Philippe is arrested for some crime and when the uncanny resemblance is discovered, Louis sends him out to take the risk for him.  But Philippe easily makes peace with the assassins and captivates Maria Theresa. When Louis finally learns that Philippe is his brother, he imprisons him in the Bastille locked in an iron mask.    How can justice and true love triumph?  You can be sure swordplay is involved.  With Alan Hale as one of the musketeers.

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I went in with some trepidation because I couldn’t stand Louis Hayward’s mugging in the only other movie I’d seen him in.  However, he is quite OK here and especially suited to the nasty, foppish Louis.  Joseph Schildkraut, as usual, makes a really excellent villain. It’s a drags a bit but there’s enough excitement to make it entertaining on balance.

Lud Guskin and Lucien Moraweck were nominated for the Best Original Score Oscar for this film.

Clip – scenes near end – Dwight Frye has a cameo as Fouquet’s valet at approx 3:45

Invisible Stripes (1939)

Invisible StripesInvisible Stripes poster
Directed by Lloyd Bacon
Written by Warren Duff and Jonathan Finn based on the book by Warden Lewis E. Lawes
Warner Bros.

First viewing/Netflix rental


Chuck Martin: [Bitterly to Clint] I’m gonna make them pay for every day I spent in that crummy stir!

I thought this social drama was OK with a good cast.

Cliff Taylor (George Raft) and Chuck Martin (Humphrey Bogart) are prison pals although their attitudes couldn’t be more different.  Cliff is determined to go straight upon release while Chuck is heading straight back to his gang.  Cliff has the support of his mother (Flora Robson) and brother Tim (William Holden).  Even so, nothing goes right for him.  He soon loses his girl who can’t see life with an ex-con and his old job because as a parolee he is not allowed to drive.  His efforts to secure work fail until finally he is forced to work with teenagers as a stock clerk.  Tim is so disgusted with his own prospects and life’s unfairness to Cliff that he is tempted to turn to crime himself.  Cliff will do anything to prevent his brother from suffering his own fate and reaches out to Chuck.

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This is a solid movie though nothing I would seek out again.  It made me wonder when American society lost all sympathy for prisoners.  I don’t think such a film would be made today though the stakes in reintegrating released convicts are even higher.

Clip – Opening scenes


The Spy in Black (1939)

The Spy in Black (AKA “U-Boat 29”)spy in black poster
Directed by Michael Powell
Written by J. Storer Clousten, Emeric Pressburger, and Roland Pertwee
London Film Productions

First viewing/Streaming on Hulu Plus


The performance of Conrad Veidt and some beautiful noirish camerawork under the direction of Michael Powell highlighted this unexpected gem.

In 1917, Captain Hardt (Veidt) is sent on  a secret mission to the Orkney Islands where he is to rendezvous with a German agent masquerading as a schoolteacher (Valerie Hobson).  Together they are to exploit intelligence gleaned from a British traitor to intercept the British fleet as it sails to Germany.  But the mission is fraught with complications and twists, not the least is Hardt’s attraction to the schoolteacher.

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I was really impressed with this one.  Veidt is just fantastic as the spy of the title and the screenplay treats him with some nuance and even a little sympathy.  The shots are glorious and I thought the ending was really suspenseful.  Another highlight is the Miklos Rosca score.  Not necessarily for thrillseekers but nevertheless warmly recommended.

Clip – the accomplices meet – Conrad Veidt and Valerie Hobson


Babes in Arms (1939)

Babes in ArmsBabes in Arms poster
Directed by Busby Berkeley
Written by Jack McGowan and Kay Van Riper based on the play by Richard Rogers and Lorenz Hart

First viewing/Netflix rental
#140 of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die

Michael C. ‘Mickey’ Moran: No, no, no, judge! You don’t understand; she don’t understand, either. Oh, she don’t mean no harm to us, but… we’re not her kind of people – or yours, either. We belong in show business. We gotta start young so we can get some steel in our backbone. Well, gee, we’re developing. You couldn’t teach us a trade: we’ve GOT one. And you couldn’t do without it… Oh, we’re only kids now, but someday we’re gonna be the guys that make ya laugh and cry and think that there’s a little stardust left on life’s dirty old pan. Oh, she don’t understand: she’d put butterflies to work makin’ rubber tires!

I love both movie musicals and Judy Garland but I couldn’t get very enthusiastic about this movie.

Mickey Moran (Mickey Rooney) and Patsy Barton (Judy Garland) have grown up on the road with their vaudevillian parents  Vaudeville has died and Mickey’s father (Charles Winninger) organizes a troupe to play in small towns.  A busy body (Margaret Hamilton) wants to send all the teenage children to a work camp.  Seeking to rescue his father, Mickey gets all his pals together to put on a show.  With Guy Kibbee as a judge.

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This is fine but aside from the standard “Where or When” (unfortunately not sung by Garland) and the “Good Morning” duet with Rooney and Garland the music is not memorable.  It contains every cliché of the “let’s put on a show” genre, though to be fair a lot of these clichés either originated or were perfected here. Mickey Rooney’s impersonations get kind of old.

Amazingly, the Academy nominated Mickey Rooney for Best Actor for this role among a prestigious field.  Roger Edens and George Stoll were nominated for a Best Music, Scoring Oscar.


Gulliver’s Travels (1939)

Gulliver’s Travelsgulliver's travels  poster
Directed by Dave Fleischer
Written by Edmond Seward, Dan Gordon et al base on the immortal tale by Jonathan Swift
Fleischer Studios

First viewing/Netflix rental

[repeated line] Gabby: There’s a giant on the beach!

The creators of Popeye and Betty Boop are worthy competitors to Disney in the feature animated film department.

The story is very loosely based on the Lilliputian episode in Swift’s novel.  Gulliver washes up on a beach where he is discovered by town crier Gabby.  But Gabby can’t get a word in edgewise to report his discovery because the King of Lilliput and the King of Blefiscu are too busy arguing about what song should be sung at the wedding of their son and daughter.  The argument escalates to war and the King of Lilliput finally hears when he understands that having a giant as an ally might be a very good thing.  Gulliver is more inclined to be a peace maker though.

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I enjoyed this.  The songs are catchy and the animation, particularly the roto-scoped animation in the Gulliver scenes, is striking.  It’s not quite up with Disney’s work of the same period but almost.  I got the Blu-Ray edition as a rental and the restoration looks beautiful.

Gulliver’s Travels was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Original Song (Faithful Forever) and Best Original Score (Victor Young).



The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939)

The Private Lives of Elizabeth and EssexPrivate Lives of Elizabeth and Essex poster
Directed by Michael Curtiz
Written by Norman Reilly Raine and Aeneas MacKenzie based on the play by Maxwell Anderson
Warner Bros.
First viewing/Netflix rental

Queen Elizabeth I: To be a Queen is to be less than human, to put pride before desire, to search Men’s hearts for tenderness, and find only ambition. To cry out in the dark for one unselfish voice, to hear only the dry rustle of papers of state. To turn to one’s beloved with stars for eyes and have him see behind me only the shadow of the executioner’s block. A queen has no hour for love, time presses, and events crowd upon her, and her shell, an empty glittering husk, she must give up all the a woman holds most dear.

The quote, picture, and clip probably say more about the quality of this fictionalized costume drama than my feeble words can do.

Queen Elizabeth I (Bette Davis) is many years older than her favorite Robert Devereaux, the Earl of Essex (Errol Flynn).  Theirs is a schizophrenic relationship.  They love each other dearly but he wants to wear the pants in the family, something a monarch cannot allow.  Essex also presents a threat due to his popularity with the mob.  After Essex, who commands an army, disobeys orders one time too many, Elizabeth must make a painful decision.  With Olivia de Havilland and Nanette Fabray (in her screen debut) as ladies-in-waiting, Vincent Price as Sir Walter Raleigh, Donald Crisp as Sir Francis Drake, and Alan Hale as an Irish rebel leader.

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This currently ranks as my least favorite Bette Davis performance of all time.  She was at least 30 years younger than the royal character she was portraying and must have felt that hamming it up would make her more believable.  This also has many, many of the kind of “I love you – I hate you”  lines that make me cringe. I found the whole thing to verge on camp.  The film has a relatively high IMDb user rating so your mileage may vary.

The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex was nominated for Academy Awards in the following categories:  Best Color Cinematography; Best Art Direction; Best Sound Recording; Best Special Effects; and Best Music, Scoring (Erich Wolfgang Korngold).


Daybreak (Le jour se leve) (1939)

Daybreak (Le jour se leve)daybreak-movie-poster
Directed by Marcel Carné
Written by Jacques Viot and Jacques Prévert
Productions Sigma

First viewing/Netflix rental
#134 of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die

M. Valentin: You’re the type women fall in love with . . . I’m the type that interests them.

This has many fantastic elements but the story didn’t hang together well for me on this first viewing.

The story is told as a series of flashbacks as François (Jean Gabin) sits in his bachelor apartment waiting out the police and contemplating the events leading him to fire a fatal shot.  François works as a sandblaster in a filthy factory.  (Why in American films do the characters so frequently have no visible means of support?)  One day Françoise (Jacqueline Laurent) comes in to deliver flowers to a foreman’s wife and François is instantly in love with the young beauty.  It seems to him a match made in heaven because they are both orphans named after St. Francis.  He starts seeing her but it soon appears that there is another man in her life.

François follows her to a rendezvous with Valentin (the superb Jules Berry) a middle-aged dog trainer with a silver tongue.  At the bar, Valentin’s ex-assistant and mistress Clara (Arletty) strikes up a conversation with François.  The two begin an on-again-off-again tryst but François continues to see and pine for Françoise.  Valentin shows up to try to break up the relationship, claiming to be the girl’s father.  Things take their inevitable course until Valentin ends up in Francois’s apartment with a bullet in his gut.

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The acting in this, with the exception of the ingenue’s, is absolutely outstanding.  Gabin is at his intense working class hero best and Jules Berry makes a very interesting, even mesmerizing, villain.  Likewise, the film is exquisitely shot.  I loved the touch of the ringing alarm clock at the end.  However, I never did fully understand the nature of Françoise’s relationship with Valentin and I had a hard time buying into Francois’s desperation for some reason.  While I could understand why this is a key work of French poetic realism (and another great 1930’s French proto-noir), I didn’t love it.  Maybe it will take me more than one viewing.

Daybreak was remade as The Long Night in 1947 by director Anatole Litvak with Henry Fonda, Barbara Bel Geddes, Vincent Price and Ann Dvorak.  I’d like to see that sometime.

Clip – Gabin brooding (no subtitles, but little dialogue either)


The Little Princess (1939)

The Little PrincessLittle Princess Poster
Directed by Walter Lang
Written by Ethel Hill and Walter Ferris based on the novel by Frances Hogson Burnett
Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
Repeat viewing/Netflix rental

[last lines] Sara Crewe: Your Majesty. My Dad.
Shirley Temple Black died today.  She gave a lot of people a lot of pleasure through a very dark time and went on to be the U.S. representative to the UN and U.S. Ambassador to Ghana and Czechoslovakia.  She was 85.  May she rest in peace.  Her obituary can be found here:

Oddly enough, one of her movies was next up for me to watch.  I remember this made me cry as a child.  It seems more calculated now but there are still some nice moments.

The year is 1899.  The place is London.  Captain Crewe is called up for duty in the Boer War and puts his daughter Sara (Temple) into a snobby boarding school for girls.  The Captain comes from a very good family and owns a diamond mine so the irrepressible Sara is catered to by the stern headmistress (Mary Nash).  Everyone takes to calling her “The Little Princess.”  Then her father turns up in the roster of the dead and the headmistress discovers his property was confiscated by the Boers.  Sara, now an orphan, becomes a kind of scullery maid and lives in Dickensian conditions in the attic of the school.  Sara refuses to believe that her father is really dead and continues to search for him among the wounded.  With Arthur Treacher as an ex-music hall performer, Cesar Romero as an Indian servant, and Anita Louise and Richard Greene as the obligatory young lovers. Little Princess 2 This is quite OK.  I was surprised to find it had been shot in color since I think the only times I had seen it before were on our old black and white TV.  I think Mary Nash was the standout   She was particularly good in Sara’s dream sequence.


Each Dawn I Die (1939)

Each Dawn I DieEACH DAWN I DIE poster
Directed by William Keighley
Written by Norman Reilly Raine and Warren Duff from the novel by Jerome Odlum
Warner Bros.

First viewing; Netflix rental

Frank Ross: I’ll get out if I hafta kill every screw in the joint!

This is an OK prison film with the always enjoyable James Cagney in the lead.

Crusading journalist Frank Ross (Cagney) is framed by corrupt officials for vehicular manslaughter and sentenced to one to twenty years.  Frank’s reporter friends work on the outside to prove his innocence.  The prison is a hell hole of sadistic guards. Early on Frank becomes friendly with gangster “Hood” Stacey (George Raft).  Frank is a believer in following the rules but eventually gets so fed up that he assists Stacey with an escape attempt so that Stacey can help find the truth on the outside.  With George Bancroft as the warden.

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This is pretty standard prison film fare but entertaining.  There are a couple of good scenes where Cagney cracks up reminiscent of White Heat.

Re-release trailer

Son of Frankenstein (1939)

Son of FrankensteinSon of Frankenstein Poster
Directed by Rowland V. Lee
Written by Wyllis Cooper
Universal Pictures

First viewing; Netflix rental


Ygor: They hanged me once Frankenstein. They broke my neck. They said I was dead. Then they cut me down. They threw me in here, long ago. They wouldn’t bury me in holy place like churchyard. Because I stole bodies, eh they said. So, Ygor is dead! So, Dr. Frankenstein. Nobody can mend Ygor’s neck. It’s alright.

This does not measure up to the greatness of the first two Universal Frankenstein films but is entertaining and features what may be Bela Lugosi’s very best performance.

Wolf von Frankenstein (Basil Rathbone) arrives in the village of Frankenstein, Germany with his wife and young son to claim the legacy handed down by his father Dr. Frankenstein.  The townspeople are hostile and suspicious and Police Inspector Krogh (Lionel Atwill), who lost his arm to the Monster (Boris Karloff) runs interference.  Wolf becomes obsessed with clearing his father’s name and establishing his father’s greatness as a creator of life.

Dr. Frankenstein’s assistant Ygor (Bela Lugosi) was hanged for body snatching and pronounced dead but lived on with a broken neck.  Ygor has kept the Monster, who lives on, hidden away to do his bidding in meting out revenge on the jury that condemned him.The Monster has been injured and is “sick” so Ygor enlists the help of Wolf in reanimating him.  But, once awoken, the Monster obeys only Ygor …

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I’m not a big Lugosi fan but I thought he did very, very well in this film – better even than his performance in Dracula.  His Ygor is truly scary.  Otherwise, the movie is fairly undistinguished except for the moving portrayal by Karloff of The Monster’s grief toward the end.  The Atwill character shows the source of Kenneth Mars’s role in Young Frankenstein.

This was the last time Boris Karloff played the Monster in a feature film.  Karloff played Dr. Gustav Niemann in House of Frankenstein (1944) and Baron Frankenstein in Frankenstein – 1970 (1958).