Now, Voyager

Now, Voyager, 1942, Columbia Pictures. Starting Bette Davis, Paul Heinreid, Claude Rains. Directed by Irving Rapper. B&W, 117 minutes.

The story of a plain and painfully shy young woman, held tightly under the grip of her abusive mother, Now, Voyager is a melodrama elevated to an unexpected level of quality by fine performances and a somewhat unpredictable plot. Charlotte Vale (Bette Davis) was a late-in-life child for her sharp-tongued mother (Gladys Cooper), and the overbearing woman has never let her forget what a burden that has been.

With the help of kind relatives, Charlotte is sent to a sanatarium (today known as a mental health facility), where, under the patient and loving care of Dr. Jaquith (Claude Rains), she evolves into a more confident young lady with style and panache.

The stay at the sanatarium isn’t all that helps cure her, however. She leaves the facility and goes on a cruise to South America, where she meets the dashing Jeremiah Duvaux Durrance (Paul Heinreid), a married man whose charm and attention bring her more fully into her own.

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Claude Rains, Bette Davis

But the trip ends, and Charlotte returns home. From there the story has both its predictable and surprising moments, with an ending only a melodrama of that era could pull off.

The film was nominated for three Academy Awards: Best Actress for Davis, Best Supporting Actress for Cooper, and Best Music, Scoring for Max Steiner. It won the music award, as well it should have. Reviews were mixed, in fact, they tended to be more critical than praising, but the movie did well, particularly with women, its intended audience. Melodramas (“weepies”) were popular with the female crowd at the time, and this one was better than most.

Producer Hal B. Wallis originally envisioned Irene Dunne in the lead, but when Davis heard about the film she vigourously campaigned for the part. She was under contract to Warner Bros., she argued, while it would cost the studio to borrow Dunne from Columbia. Also, as a native New Englander, she could understand Charlotte Vale and her lifestyle.

During production, Davis gained a reputation for fighting her own and her cast members’ battles with director Irving Rapper, who was said to go home every evening exhausted from the day’s work with his strong-willed star. Heinreid later said he appreciated her intervention on his behalf, including campaigning for a second screen test when his appearance on the first was “wrong in every way.”

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Bette Davis, Paul Heinreid

Many women wrote to the studio saying they saw themselves in the homely Charlotte, and believed if that transformation could be made for her, it could for them, as well. As Davis was not a classic beauty, this was yet another reason choosing her for the part was wise. It did, indeed, show the power of confidence, self-worth, and some savvy style decisions.

Now, Voyager has staying power because of its solid performances and very human storytelling, as well as the sharp cinematography and feminist perspective. For Bette Davis fans it is a must-see, and should be on the list of movies to watch for all classic film fans.

As of February 3, 2017, “Now, Voyager” is scheduled to air on Turner Classic Movies (TCM) on Sunday, February 19, 2017 at 9:00 a.m. ET/8:00 a.m. CT and Friday, April 28, 2017 at 10:00 p.m. ET/9:00 p.m. CT. Scheduling is subject to change; check TCM’s schedule for the latest information.

 

Bachelor Mother

Bachelor Mother, 1939, RKO Radio Pictures. Starring Ginger Rogers, David Niven, Charles Coburn. Directed by Garson Kanin. B&W, 82 minutes.

Polly Parrish (Ginger Rogers) has just been laid off of her seasonal job at Merlin and Son’s Department Store. It’s Christmastime, and she is in need of income, any income.

While at lunch on what appears to be her last day of work, she passes a foundling home and sees an older woman drop off an infant. Afraid the child may fall off the steps, Polly reaches out to pick him up, just as one of the home’s matrons opens the door. Inside, she’s unable to convince the home’s director the baby isn’t hers, but escapes the situation without a bundle of joy.

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Ginger Rogers

The foundling home tracks down her employer and convinces David Merlin (David Niven), the son in “Merlin and Son’s,” to give her back her job so she can care for “her” son. He does, but ends up paying an unexpected price for his generosity. Through a series of mishaps, the elder Mr. Merlin (Charles Coburn) comes to believe his son is the father of the baby, and expects him to do right by the child and his mother.

Bachelor Mother is an engaging comedy, predictable in some ways, yet clever in the details and twists that raise it above the level of bland storytelling. Nivens, Rogers, and Coburn each bring his or her own particular charm, with Rogers in particular showing an edgy, droll side. It doesn’t hurt that the baby is delightful, performing, it seems, on cue, although of course that likely wasn’t the case.

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David Niven, Ginger Rogers

Rogers initially expressed “deep reservations” about the script, stating the story line was thin and the characters “had no life.” However, her concerns proved unfounded, and in her autobiography she wrote, “I loved working with David Niven and the precious baby…(Garson Kanin) was imaginative and spontaneous and his good humor and lively sense of comedy smoothed out any problems along the way.”

The script was by prolific screenwriter Norman Krasna, who also wrote the screenplays for such movies as Mr. and Mrs. Smith and White Christmas.  It was based on a story by Felix Jackson, who received the film’s one Academy Award nomination, Best Writing, Original Story.

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David Niven

The film critic for The New York Times wrote “through smart writing, direction and performance, the theme is developed hilariously, with sudden and unexpected twists which never are permitted to affect the insane logic of the yarn’s progression.”

Perfectly enjoyable, Bachelor Mother is a comedy all classic movie fans should see. While the plot line of child abandonment hardly seems comic material, it’s handled in such a way that the improbable is easy to believe and the unbefitting is downright funny.

 

Anna Karénina (1935)

Anna Karénina, 1935, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Starring Greta Garbo, Fredric March, Basil Rathbone. Directed by Clarence Brown. B&W, 93 minutes.

Anna Karénina (Greta Garbo) is bound in a financially and socially comfortable, yet deeply unsatisfying, life at home with her husband of ten years, Karénin (Basil Rathbone), and the son she adores, Sergei (Freddie Bartholomew). She wistfully, if somewhat indirectly, relates her feelings of malaise and longing to young Kitty (Maureen O’Sullivan) moments before she meets the dashing Count Vronsky (Fredric March). From there her life is changed forever.

Time and again, Anna and Vronsky defy society with their clandestine and illicit meetings. Gradually they are less discreet, and she is warned by her husband to stay away from the Count. Captivated by the intensity of her feelings, Anna makes a decision that has consequences she had been cautioned were inevitable, yet chose not to believe.

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Greta Garbo, Basil Rathbone

The restraints of bringing Tolstoy’s tome to the screen in little more than 90 minutes are offset by fine performances, stylish set decoration and costuming, and deft direction from Clarence Brown. The result, while not epic, is opulant and moving.

The movie was well-received critically, and did well in the box office, although it was met with mixed feelings by the general public. The London Observer‘s film critic wrote, “it is handsome and dashing, with enough social sense to present divorce as a problem to an age which has come to regard it as a commonplace.”

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Greta Garbo, Fredric March

A superb actress, Garbo’s experience in silent films served her well in Anna Karénina. Her final scenes in particular are subtly nuanced yet fully expressive, with all that is in her heart seen in her eyes, and barely a word said. She is the strength of this film. As the aggrieved husband, Basil Rathbone’s performance is taut and precise. While you may not have sympathy for the man, you understand his point of view. In contrast, Fredric March is perhaps not as compelling, but does not take away from the power of the story.

Dissatisfied with the way the adaption of Tolstoy’s classic had been handled in 1927 in a silent version of the tale titled Love, Garbo had long campaigned for another opportunity to bring Anna Karénina to the screen. She was met with resistance from her studio, yet remained undeterred until they gave in.

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Greta Garbo

Anna Karénina has been remade several times, and each version is a reflection of the era in which it is produced. The story, however, is timeless, and was brought to the screen in 1935 in a powerful manner, making this classic film one of the better movies of the early period of filmmaking.

 

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, 1948, Warner Bros. Starring Humphrey Bogart, Walter Huston, Tim Holt. Directed by John Huston. B&W, 126 minutes.

After being cheated out of their fair wages and finding themselves dead broke in a foreign country, Fred C. Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart) and Bob Curtin (Tim Holt) look to the gold hidden in the hills of Mexico as the way out of dire circumstances. They turn to a crusty old-timer, Howard (Walter Huston), to lead them in their search for buried treasure.

It’s dangerous in 1920s Mexico to search for gold; banditos and federales lurk behind every corner and will likely kill you before asking questions. But Dobbs and Curtin are determined, and Howard reluctantly agrees to go along as their guide.

The story isn’t in the search, however, it’s in the minds and motivations of the men seeking what they are unlikely to find, the drive that keeps them moving toward their goal of wealth and satisfaction, and the greed, fear and paranoia that soon accompany them in their quest.

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Walter Huston, Humphrey Bogart, Tim Holt

Bogart was given his big break in John Huston’s directorial debut, The Maltese Falcon, and this film proved to further his career in yet another fashion with its grisly reality and harsh characterization. That Bogart was the top-rated actor of his time is no surprise, given his versatility and intelligent performances, and he played his unlikable character in such a way one is fascinated by the performance and drawn into the story despite the growing realization that Dobbs is truly unsavory and at times, malevolent.

Walter Huston, father of the film’s director, played bit parts in some of his son’s other films (he was seen as a “good luck charm,” although his appearance did not guarantee success), but this is the only movie of John’s in which he played a major role.  John Huston had long wanted to bring the novel of the same name to the screen, and he always envisioned his father in the role of Howard. As fate would have it, both father and son won Academy Awards for their parts in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Walter for Best Actor in a Supporting Role, and John as Best Director and for Best Adapted Screenplay.

Tim Holt, best known for his likable performances in Westerns, rises to the occasion and proves himself to be far more capable an actor than many gave him credit for throughout his career. That likability comes through in this character, but he’s as tough as the rest, and is a fine contrast to Bogart’s roughness.

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Humphrey Bogart

Critics of the day had nothing less than effusive praise for the film, and summed up its nature eloquently. The New York Times movie critic made note of the film’s grim yet redeeming theme in this manner: “Mr. Huston has shaped a searching drama of the collision of civilization’s vicious greeds with the instinct for self-preservation in an environment where all the barriers are down…he has done a superb illumination of basic characteristics in men.”

Variety stated, “It’s a grim and brutal slice of life whose raw elements have been ordered onto the plane of tragedy through a terrific twist of irony. There’s a magnificent joker hidden at bottom, but spectators will find it so grisly and so bitter that this film moves out of the class of simple entertainment into the realm of vivid experience.” James Agee wrote of the movie in The Nation,  “nominally an adventure story, this is really an exploration of character as revealed in vivid action.”

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Tim Holt, Humphrey Bogart, Walter Huston

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is an outstanding film and has stood the test of time because of its insightful view into human nature set in the backdrop of a Western tale. The cinematography matches the mood in its stark and simple nature (John Huston once said of the detached style of filming, “I just wanted them to look like they were stewing in their own juices”).  That, together with the real-life settings of Durango and Tampico, Mexico, the all-to-authentic performances and the story itself, make it a classic worth watching.

Adam’s Rib

Adam’s Rib, 1949, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Starring Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn. Directed by George Cukor. B&W, 100 minutes.

A distraught wife (Judy Holliday) seeks out her husband (Tom Ewell) as he meets with his paramour (Jean Hagen). With great inexpertise and a shaky aim, she shoots him in the shoulder, wounding his ego more than his body. Their story is headline news, and particularly captures the attention of Adam and Amanda Bonner (Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn), married New York attorneys on the opposite side of the courtroom.

Amanda, a defense attorney, seeks to represent the bewildered and aggrieved wife, while Adam, part of the prosecuting attorney’s team, is assigned the case. For Adam, it is cut-and-dry; the defendant shot her husband and admitted to it, therefore, she is guilty of a crime. Amanda, however, sees a double standard in the way women are treated in the court system and believes a just sentence would be no sentence at all.

The happily married Bonners find their union strained as a result of the courtroom drama, and their belief in each other challenged.

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Jean Hagen, Tom Ewell, Judy Holliday

The movie was nominated for one Academy Award for screenwriting. It was greeted with favor by the press, including The New York Times, whose critic called it “a bang-up frolic” and Variety, who reported the film was “a bright comedy success, belting over a succession of sophisticated laughs.”

This was one of the first major motion picture roles for Holliday, who had come to the attention of the theater-going public in the Broadway production of Born Yesterday. Holliday would go on to make a career of playing scatterbrained yet inadvertantly insightful blondes, the same way she portrayed her character in Adam’s Rib.

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Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy

The script was written by the husband and wife team Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon.  Unlike many screenwriters of the time, Gordon and Kanin wrote independently and sold their scripts to the studios, so they remained free to write the stories they wanted without studio oversight. Working with George Cukor was beneficial, Kanin said in a later interview, because he “was a great respecter of the text.” Cukor, Hepburn and Tracy had input into the story, but the screenwriting remained the domain of Gordon and Kanin.

The sixth of nine films Hepburn and Tracy would star in together, it is perhaps one of their best, along with Woman of the Year. Their chemistry is obvious and, as we know, very real, and their talents equal and balanced. Both are masters of the use of subtle expression and moves, pure communication without words.

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Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy

Adam’s Rib was timely in its portrayal of the woman’s issues of the day, and in many respects, the message is just as relevant today. The courtroom drama may become slapstick and story line a bit improbable at points, but that is part of most comedies, and this is a gem of a comedy.

 

To Be or Not To Be (1942)

To Be or Not To Be, 1942, United Artists. Starring Jack Benny, Carole Lombard, Robert Stack. Directed by Ernst Lubitsch. B&W, 99 minutes.

A renowned Polish acting troupe is compelled to take on the performance of their lives with an impromptu spy plot in this wickedly funny satire of Naziism and Hitler’s Germany. Josef Tura (Jack Benny) and his lovely wife Maria (Carole Lombard) have both talent and ego, as well as the affections of the Warsaw public.

Among those devoted to Maria is aviator Stanislav Sobinski (Robert Stack), who Maria sneaks backstage as her husband is giving his dramatic performance of Hamlet. The two have taken to a clandestine romance under the eaves.

Until the war begins. Like all Poles, the Turas are living in uncertainty. Sobinski, in the meantime, is flying for freedom, and in an unfortunate case of mistaken identity, potentially puts dangerous information in the Gestapo’s hands. His realization of his error and the resulting attempts to set it right lead the entire troupe in a witty, deceptive game that inevitably trips them up at each turn.

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Jack Benny, Carole Lombard

Sadly, Lombard died in a plane crash while promoting war bonds only two months before the film’s release. She was never more dazzling, or funnier, than in this movie, and her comic delivery of the sharp one-liners with their subtle innuendo is flawless. Benny, for his part, is in his element as the husband torn between unleashing his fury at his wife’s betrayal and giving his finest performance for the sake of his country’s freedom.

To Be or Not To Be was met with sharp criticism from some, who questioned how something as serious as the Nazi occupation of Poland could be made comedy material, and strong praise from others, who recognized the satire for what it was. German-born Lubitsch defended his work, pointing out the story is as much about an actor’s drive to act, no matter what the circumstances, as it is about the war, which was heavy on the hearts of all at the time.

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Robert Stack, Carole Lombard

The movie received one Academy Award nomination, for Best Music, Scoring. It is now recognized as a comedy classic, one of the best of the era, and is considered by many to be Lubitsch’s finest work.

The 1983 remake of the same title, starring Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft, is an enjoyable movie, but not of the calibre of the original. There is nothing quite like a film with the Lubitsch touch.

 

You Can’t Take It With You

You Can’t Take It With You, 1938, Columbia Pictures. Starring Lionel Barrymore, James Stewart, Jean Arthur, Edward Arnold. Directed by Frank Capra. B&W, 126 minutes.

Martin Vanderhof (Lionel Barrymore) once was a highly successful businessman, but some 35 years before gave it up for his current carefree lifestyle. He lives in a madcap environment, with his would-be writer daughter (Spring Byington), inventor son-in-law (Samuel S. Hinds), dancer-in-training granddaughter (Ann  Miller), some odds and ends of friends, and perhaps the most stable of the bunch, another granddaughter, Alice Sycamore (Jean Arthur).

Alice is the only one of the clan who has an actual job, working for the Kirby conglomerate as secretary for no less than the heir to the fortune, Tony Kirby (James Stewart), the one decent employee in the organization’s executive management.

Anthony P. Kirby (Edward Arnold), head of all Kirby enterprises and father of Tony, has received the go-ahead from Congress for a munitions monopoly, and in an effort to put the competition out of business has bought up nearly all the property surrounding its factory. The only holdout is Vanderhof, who has no intention of selling the family home.

In the meantime, Tony and Alice have fallen in love and plan to get married. Unaware of his father’s intentions for his fiancée’s home, Tony schemes to have his parents meet her offbeat family in an everyday situation of complete chaos, and not the nicely planned “normal” scenario Alice would put together.

Things start to fall apart at that impromptu dinner, but as they say, sometimes that has to happen before all can be made right. Vanderhof has a valuable lesson to teach the elder Kirby, and Tony and Alice have roadblocks overcome in their pursuit of true love.

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Edward Arnold, Lionel Barrymore

The film was nominated for seven Academy Awards, and won two, for Best Picture and Best Director. Other nominations included Best Supporting Actress for Spring Byington and Best Writing (Screenplay) for Robert Riskin, who adapted the immensely popular play of the same name by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman. The play is said to have been more satirical in nature about the ideals of the Vanderhof clan than the Capra adaptation, and some critics called it superior to the movie, nonetheless, the film was a box-office hit.

Frank Capra looked for a particular type of leading man for the role of Tony Kirby, one who, like Gary Cooper had done in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, portrayed an idealized American with impeccable values and character. He’d seen James Stewart in Navy Blue and Gold and felt he had those qualities, as well as intellect and an “Ivy League idealism.”

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Lionel Barrymore, Jean Arthur

Jean Arthur was another favorite of director Capra’s, who tolerated her stage fright and nervousness because the end result was well worth it. Arthur and Stewart shared a great chemistry, as seen clearly in a scene Capra later said he used to draw the audience in to the intimacy of their romance. In it, Tony reveals his great regret at losing sight of a dream of scientific pursuit he had as a young man.

You Can’t Take It With You is a fun film with a typical Capra-esque idealism and search for higher values. It runs a little long and at times is a bit over-the-top, but the performances of this stellar cast make it worth the watch.