And now a Capra comedy

Last night TCM ran Frank Capra’s You Can’t Take It With You and while I had the same response as what follows below — this is a very chaotic and cacophonous movie — this time I adapted to it better and noticed just how good Edward Arnold is in it. Though an ensemble piece, this is really his movie.

Capra is the kind of director people either really love or really hate. I lean more to the former but I do understand the feelings of the latter. He can be a bit much with his moralizing and sentimentality. In this case, it wasn’t those elements I found off-putting. It was the bedlam.

You Can’t Take It With You (1938)

Directed by Frank Capra

Sometimes you can have all the right elements but they somehow don’t quite gel. This is the case with Frank Capra’s 1938 You Can’t Take It With You.

It has all the Capra elements, has the Capra touch, and even has Capra stalwarts like Jimmy Stewart and Jean Arthur, Lionel Barrymore and Edward Arnold. But it doesn’t quite work. (This was Stewart’s first movie with Frank Capra.)

I think it’s because it tries too hard. It’s almost as if the movie senses something missing and therefore tries to mask it by pushing too much.

Jean Arthur plays the relatively level-headed member of a family of free-spirited oddballs, the Sycamores. At the head of their family is Grandpa, played by Lionel Barrymore, a man who long ago gave up the competitive rat-race most people are committed to in order to do whatever he feels like doing.

Everyone in the family follows his credo – they all do whatever makes them happy. The household is therefore chaotic – one daughter dances through the rooms, Arthur’s mother writes plays, someone’s husband makes music, while others make fireworks in the basement.

The household is wild and noisy.

Jean Arthur, the only family member who appears to actually work, meets Tony Kirby, played by Jimmy Stewart. They fall in love and want to marry. But Tony is the slightly rebellious son of parents who are straight-laced.

His father, Anthony P. Kirby (Edward Arnold) has little interest in anything other than making money. He’s the anti-thesis of the Sycamore’s Grandpa. His mother, Mrs. Anthony Kirby (Mary Forbes) is a social snob.

And that’s the film’s conflict and the source of its humour. The story is of how the Sycamore’s, who believe “you can’t take it with you,” win over the Kirby’s. (Well, Grandpa wins them over.)

It’s very much a Capra theme and is played out in very Capra style.

But it doesn’t work well. The scenes in the Sycamore household are simply too excessive.

The movie tries too hard to make in chaotic and they become more annoying than amusing. The movie is also too long for the material. The main joke, the free-wheeling Sycamores, wears out quickly.

And while the lead performers are all very good, the supporting cast is a bit weak – less because of their performances than by the fact they have little to do except run around making noise.

At best, the movie is only mildly entertaining, mildly funny. However, given the other movies Frank Capra was making around this time, he can be forgiven for having one that falls a bit flat.

And now, having said all that and having watched it again last night (February, 2011), I should point out how good Edward Arnold is in this movie. Really, the movie is all about his character. Scrooge-like (and a bit George Bailey-like), his character is the one that changes and it is his change that is at the heart of the movie. I found Arnold marvelous in this movie, very natural and also extremely funny at points (like the scene at the Sycamore’s home when he keeps sitting down in the awkward chair).

I liked the movie more this time but still feel it is a bit weak. But it’s worth it to see Edward Arnold.

Who dunnit? What did they do? Who cares? – Anatomy of a Murder

It’s Day 4 of For the Love of Film (Noir) — don’t forget to or use the button on the right. And if you are interested in boatloads of great links to musings on film noir and its films, scroll down this page at Self-Styled Siren or over at Ferdy on Films. This is wonderful material!

What I like about Anatomy of a Murder is that every so often a friend will say something like, “… This movie I saw on TV was so good …” As they describe it I realize what movie they mean and remark, “That’s Anatomy of a Murder.”

“Yeah! That’s what it was called!”

I mention this because many of these people usually have to make what I called cognitive adjustments in a post not long ago. They don’t like “old movies.” Black and white, pacing, sensibility … all kinds of things can impede us from entering a movie because we are used to one kind of film (contemporary) and something old, foreign or both requires some readjustment.

Some require less adjusting than others, however. Anatomy of a Murder is one of them. Despite being a movie from 1959, it feels very modern. Part of it is in the subject matter; part of it is in the way it handles and views that subject matter; it’s partly Duke Ellington’s music for the soundtrack.

Whenever I watch this movie I find myself wondering what is going on behind the eyes of the main characters. I never figure it out. Everyone is so cagey and ambivalent. It’s as if none of them have a moral compass. They exist in a world where that is just excess baggage and only gets in the way.

What follows are the ramblings I made about the movie about ten years ago as I tried get my take on …

Anatomy of a Murder (1959)

Directed by Otto Preminger

Although I was confused about where exactly Anatomy of a Murder was taking place (Michigan, it seems), it’s a great, enthralling courtroom drama of the noir variety.

It has a great late 50’s black and white look, somewhat similar to Kiss Me Deadly, though this is a far better film. (I wouldn’t take the similarity very far either. It’s just something in the period look they have in common.)

Jimmy Stewart is great in this movie. Some argue it’s his best performance, and there’s something to be said for that.

He has the laconic air and halting speech he’s famous for and it works well here as a kind of strategic approach to getting at the truth of things. It catches others off guard.

He’s a small town lawyer, formerly chief prosecutor (holding the post for ten years). Why he’s no longer in the position isn’t really explained but you get hints his leaving was under a shadow, or at least troubled somehow.

Lee Remick and Jimmy Stewart in Anatomy of a Murder (1959).

It seems all his character does now is fish, drink and take small, penny-ante cases to pay his bills (which he does badly). Then a big case falls in his lap.

After taking a long time asking questions, mulling things over, and in no apparent hurry to get involved, he finally takes the case and the film really gets underway. (In fact the first portion of the film is a bit slow.)

The case he has is this: a woman (Lee Remick) has been raped. Her soldier husband (Ben Gazzara) has gone out and shot the alleged rapist dead. The soldier is now on trial for murder. Stewart’s job is to defend the soldier. But as he points out to his client, there is really no defense for him … except, possibly, one. The murder being deliberate (an hour after hearing from his wife about the rape), he can’t argue passion. The time element makes it pre-meditated. Gazzara’s only hope is to argue for insanity – an “irrepressible urge.”

There are various complications along the way, including help for the prosecution via the Attorney General’s office in the person of George C. Scott who plays his role with relish, informing it with a kind of conniving smugness.

Lee Remick, Jimmy Stewart and Ben Gazzara in Anatomy of a Murder (1959).

What really sets Anatomy of a Murder in the noir category is its overarching moral ambivalence. If you pay attention as you watch, you realize that there really are no “good guys” here – not even Stewart, though his performance and the direction align the audience’s sympathies with him.

But he’s defending a man who has committed murder. He is trying to get him off scott free.

You know by what Gazzara says and doesn’t say, and by his performance, that he is guilty. And you know Stewart knows this when he takes the case. The trial is really about playing fast and loose with the law. And both sides in the case do this.

In the case of the woman who was raped, the incident seems to have meant little more to her than stubbing a toe. It’s as if somewhat had given her a quick kiss, not violently raped her.

Of course, her character is a victim in other ways. She’s slatternly and flirtatious and you know from certain scenes, and by the way Remick plays her, she is a woman trapped by abusive men. She’s lonely and seems to gravitate toward men who treat her badly. Her relationship with her husband, Gazzara, suggests domestic violence, though it’s implied and not overtly stated.

Duke Ellington and Otto Preminger on the set of Anatomy of a Murder (1959).

At the end of the movie, while there is a resolution (the trial ends) there is no moral resolution. Nothing has changed. Justice has been thrown out the window. The victim will continue to be victimized. While the man who raped her may be dead, she continues on with the one who abuses her.

(It’s interesting to see how her character changes in the film, allows us to see more of who she is, such as her lonliness, then at the film’s end, as she meets Stewart’s character going up the stairs to hear the verdict, she’s back to her previous clothing and flirtatious manner. Again, nothing has changed.)

Despite a few Hollywood elements to lighten the tone at the end, this is a dark film. The hero, Stewart, at the end is little better than those he has been up against.

The movie concludes with a wry look from Jimmy Stewart and a tone of bemused hopelessness as if the director, Otto Preminger, is saying, “That’s people for you. What can you do?”

One last note … The movie’s music was composed by Duke Ellington and it really gives it a unique quality, particularly for the period it was made, and adds to the movie’s overall atmosphere. Ellington also has an uncredited appearance in the movie as Pie Eye, owner of a roadhouse where Jimmy Stewart’s character sometimes goes to play piano.

Sullavan, Stewart and Box 237

I actually wrote the ‘review’ below about ten years ago. But I watched The Shop Around the Corner a few days ago and wanted to make a few changes, though I also forced myself to leave in some of the howlers, like the “wow” business.

It still doesn’t say what I’d like to say about Lubitsch (not that it’s anything life changing). But my last post and this one are part of me getting to what it is I’d like to write. Have I mentioned how much I love his movies?

The Shop Around the Corner (1940)

Directed by Ernst Lubitsch

Wow. What a great movie! I suppose that’s why so many remakes have followed it, including You’ve Got Mail. But while the attempts may have been well-meaning, there’s nothing like the original, The Shop Around the Corner.

One of the interesting things I find about this film is the fact that the setting, even the story, are so unlikely, so lacking in credibility, yet the film is unquestioningly true. How does that happen? The movie could care less about whether or not it is realistic. It’s pure romantic fantasy. (Think about it: Jimmy Stewart as a sales clerk in a gift-shop in Budapest?)

Yet reality informs the story and its characters. But it’s not the objective reality of science and journalism; it’s the reality of behavior and relationships. It’s the reality of people.

The conceit of the film is pretty simple, which may be why it is such a template for other movies: Alfred (Jimmy Stewart) and Klara (Margaret Sullavan) have begun corresponding by letter as the result of Alfred stumbling across a classified ad Klara has put in the paper for a pen-pal. Both become enamoured of the person they think they are corresponding with.

A romance develops between them though they have never met. Within the fantasy that is the movie, we have two characters living fantasy lives.

In the meantime, Klara has become a clerk in the same shop where Alfred is the longest serving employee. The two find they can’t stand one another; they continually bicker.

There are various complications along the way, but you can guess where the film is going. Eventually the truth must come out, and it does.

The film works well for a number of reasons. One of these is the directing of Ernst Lubitsch. Everything flows, and there is total acceptance of the fantasy world. The performances he gets from his cast are also flawless. They’re wonderfully nuanced performances.

Jimmy Stewart portrays Alfred so naturally it’s hard to imagine it’s acting. (It’s very similar to the easiness of the performance he gives in a film like Harvey.)

Margaret Sullavan is a terrific companion for him and the supporting cast, especially Frank Morgan (the Oz from The Wizard of Oz), are also brilliant.

The Shop Around the Corner is an almost perfect romantic comedy. It does everything a romantic comedy should do. It feels real while being so obviously fantastic. It’s one of the most delightful and charming films ever made.

I also highly recommend reading Self-Styled Siren’s piece on Jimmy Stewart and The Shop Around the Corner. It’s called .

On Amazon:

20 Movies: Destry Rides Again (1939)

I love movies that surprise me. When I picked up this one a few years ago I really had no idea what to expect. I had never even heard of it. What a fabulous surprise it was!

It doesn’t pretend to be anything more than what it is: an entertaining western and comedy. But it succeeds wonderfully and is great fun to watch.

Destry Rides Again (1939)
directed by George Marshall

I think the best word to describe this movie is fun. Following the disappointment a few weeks ago of Five Card Stud, this western, Destry Rides Again, was a real treat.

Made in 1939, this is both a traditional Hollywood western in some respects, and in others a great spoof of those movies. At heart, it’s a comedy but, despite this, it also throws in the requisite western scenes. Often, however, there’s a certain tongue in cheek quality to them.

The story is pure western: the town of Bottleneck (great name!) is lawless. There’s a nasty land baron trying to seize the necessary lands to complete his control of the area. Once his, he can charge others inflated prices to cross those lands.

The town sheriff, trying to impose some law, is shot and killed, his body disposed of in such a way that it won’t be found. The corrupt town mayor then appoints the town drunk as sheriff.

Now there is no law in Bottleneck. But … The town drunk sobers up.

He takes his bogus position seriously and therefore sends for Destry (Jimmy Stewart), the son of another famous lawman.

Destry arrives and the fun really gets going. He’s not what anyone expects.

He’s calm, relatively mild-mannered, doesn’t wear guns … doesn’t even like guns. And of course, this sets up the final scenes when (as we can expect) he finally is pushed to a point where he does put on guns (a similar situation to Clint Eastwood’s Pale Rider).

In the meantime, the filmmakers and the audience have loads of fun, including a cat fight between an angry wife and the town floozy, Marlene Dietrich.

In Destry Rides Again, Jimmy Stewart is perfect – he is so Jimmy Stewart. His famous halting pattern of speech is used comedically to suggest a kind of slyness. It shows the awareness and intelligence behind his character’s meek exterior so we know this quality is part of the character’s act.

As an audience, we realize there is more to him than the meek exterior we see.

Dietrich is also good, though the name Frenchy doesn’t quite fit her German accent … but I suppose that’s quibbling.

Unlike some parodies that simply mock a style, films that choose to take a kind of “looking down the nose” approach, Destry Rides Again seems to love westerns and love using the style to have fun. And it works brilliantly. It’s a movie that succeeds as a western and as a comedy. Ultimately, it is simply a lot of fun to watch.

Highly recommended. (See also: Along Came Jones)

See: 20 Movies – The List

Destry Rides Again (bar scene)

Two men, one Hitchcock

I recently finished reading Marc Eliot’s Jimmy Stewart: A Biography. Because I was reading it, I also watched a lot of Jimmy Stewart movies, which I’ve posted about before. Now I’m reading (or, rather, re-reading) Eliot’s Cary Grant: A Biography.

In many ways, you couldn’t find two actors more different. For example, one was a pretty straight-laced American, almost a poster child for the 1940s, 1950s middle-America image of what a man should be.

That would be Jimmy Stewart.

The other was bisexual (despite his famous romantic image), had a long term relationship with another well-known male actor, and was British.

That would be Cary Grant.

They had one thing in common though: Alfred Hitchcock. Both actors did some of their best work, if not the best work of their careers, with Hitchcock.

Their differences, however, are likely why Hitchcock used them and in many ways those differences defined how he used them (and why).

Last night I watched North by Northwest and remembered that Jimmy Stewart had wanted to be in the movie (having recently done Rear Window, The Man Who Knew Too Much and Vertigo with Hitchcock) but didn’t get the part – Hitchcock didn’t want him. He wanted Grant. (The director waited to pick his lead until Stewart was involved, and obligated to, Bell, Book and Candle, so he could use that as an excuse for not choosing Stewart, so as to soften the blow – they were friends.)

So in the Hitchcock movies, what is the difference between Stewart and Grant? Why did it make a difference to him? Just a whim?

Nope. Each represents something different, a way Hitchcock wants the audience to relate and think about his lead actor. Put succinctly: Stewart is everyman, Grant is fantasy. Stewart is the guy you relate to as yourself, Grant is the guy you relate to as the man you would like to be. In a way, it’s reality on one hand, image on the other.

Each actor did four movies with Alfred Hitchcock. In both cases, Hitchcock made at least one masterpiece (in my opinion). With Stewart, it was Vertigo. With Grant, it was North by Northwest. The former is a kind of study of men, image and reality, and how the unconscious buggers us up. The latter is a kind of study too except it’s more like a master class in filmmaking, in how to get an audience, hold an audience and make one of the most entertaining movies ever through a masterful plot perfectly executed.

You could say Cary Grant’s character is an everyman in North by Northwest, and on the surface that is true. He certainly is in terms of the story on the page. However, when you cast Cary Grant (which you have to believe was a very deliberate, thought-through choice), you don’t have an everyman. You have Cary Grant, an image even Cary Grant said he couldn’t be. On the other hand, when you cast Jimmy Stewart you’re casting an average guy, a run-of-the-mill schmo, an everyman.

(As a not particularly related aside, Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart appeared in at least one movie together, 1940’s The Philadelphia Story.)

Rethinking Jimmy Stewart – Part 1

I’ve finally finished Marc Eliot’s book, Jimmy Stewart: A Biography. Reading it was an interesting process because, as I did, I re-watched many of the movies Jimmy Stewart appeared in. Between the book and the movies, I’ve re-evaluated my opinion of James Stewart, both the actor and the man.

Truthfully, I didn’t really have an “opinion” of him prior to this as Jimmy Stewart and his movies were always a given for me. By this I mean that when I was young I would watch old movies with my mom and, of course, Jimmy Stewart starred in many of them.

Back then, I wouldn’t have thought about the quality of his performances. They were simply movies – some I liked, some I didn’t.

Not long after that, as I got a little older, I’d “stay up half the night,” as my mother would put it. This meant I stayed up watching The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson. (I remember when it was just The Tonight Show and I remember when they tagged the “starring …” part to the title.) If memory serves correctly, it ran between 11:30pm and 1:00am (until it was reduced to a 60 minute show).

Jimmy Stewart was often a guest, as he was occasionally on other shows, like The Dean Martin Show (with The Golddiggers!) which my mom and I also watched, usually together.

I think my image of Jimmy Stewart as both a person and as an actor was determined, or defined rather, by the Jimmy Stewart I saw on these shows: avuncular, not too serious, friendly, quaint and drawling. Just a really nice guy in the way a lovable relative might be. There was a disconnect between the George Bailey of It’s a Wonderful Life, the Scottie Ferguson of Vertigo and the Lin McAdam of Winchester ’73.

It’s likely that business of first impressions. Because I came to Jimmy Stewart at the age I was, and he was in the latter portion of his life, he was (for me) defined by that latter half – which was accurate to some degree, but nowhere close to being complete. Once you get an initial idea in your head about someone it’s very difficult to shake loose of it.

But with Eliot’s book and a somewhat different eye as I watched some of Jimmy Stewart’s movies again, I am to some degree free of my initial idea of him and I think the opinion I now have is very much different.

I think now, as I never would have thought before (it wouldn’t have even occurred to me to think in these terms), Jimmy Stewart is easily placed high in the pantheon of Hollywood actors of the period considered The Golden Age.

And I think it’s very possible he should be placed at the very top. When I think of the kind of person he was and the body of work he produced it strikes me as nothing less than remarkable though, in one sense, perhaps inevitable.

Who would have thought that nice, drawling old guy could have produced such work?


I describe this as “Part 1” because it strikes me there must be a Part 2. What I don’t know is exactly how much I’ll find myself writing. I’ve scribbled enough about many of his movies, so hopefully I can restrain myself and just keep it to one more post … then move on!

Two movies, one Jimmy Stewart

I’ve been watching quite a few Jimmy Stewart movies lately because I’ve been reading his biography by Marc Eliot. It just seems the thing to do …

Over the weekend, I wrote up assessments of two of his lighter films, both directed by Henry Koster and both of which I’ve always enjoyed, though one is considerably better than the other.

The better of the two (by a long shot) is 1950’s Harvey, a movie that, as I write, perfectly articulates one aspect of Stewart’s personality. It’s what I think of as the aspirational Stewart, what he hoped he was or could be or, perhaps more accurately, how he felt the world should be. The other side of that coin would be the movies he did with Hitchcock and Anthony Mann.

The other movie was Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation, which I wrote about here. What can I say? Although I know it isn’t a great movie it has its moments, actually does make me laugh, and has a nostalgic quality, at least for me. Yes, I like it.

A guilty pleasure? Perhaps, perhaps …

Hitchcock’s Vertigo and the litmus test

Although I’ve seen it many times over the years, it was only today I finally got around to writing something about Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 wonder, Vertigo. I posted my “review” (if you can call it that) here: Vertigo (1958). As I say in the piece, Vertigo, “… stands up as an enthralling movie, a magnificent confluence of directing, story, theme and performance.”

I understand that some people find watching older movies difficult (this one is over 50 years old). The quality of them isn’t always the best and often the style and look are hard to adjust to because current films are technically so much better, as far as image goes, and the style is often so different, usually so much more fast paced.

It helps, I suppose, to have grown up with some of these older movies. I think that makes them more accessible — because they are familiar, at least stylistically. But I feel a bit sorry for anyone who finds them hard to engage with.

In the case of Vertigo, as I watched it through it’s second half, as Scotty tries to remake Judy into his fantasy of Madeleine, his obsession, I was actually angry with him. I wanted to slap him on the head and say, “You moron! Don’t you see what you’re doing?”

You can only feel that way if you are fully, meaning emotionally, engaged with a movie. There is no greater litmus test for how effective and successful a movie is than an unthinking emotional response to it. Made in 1958, Vertigo stills snags me.

That is what a good movie should do. Everytime.

Thinking about dialogue

It occurs to me that with a number of current movies, and I’m particularly thinking of action movies and romantic comedies (odd combination), there is often a dialogue problem. The problem is more or less that it is absent.

I was thinking about this because I just wrote up reviews of two older movies, both of which I like but neither of which I could recommend as sterling examples of cinema as a visual art. I wrote the reviews because I was trying to understand why I liked them when, while liking them, I felt they weren’t particularly good. What explained that apparent contradiction?

The movies I wrote about were The Rainmaker (1956) with Burt Lancaster and Katherine Hepburn and The Rare Breed (1966) with Jimmy Stewart, Maureen O’Hara, Juliet Mills and Brian Keith.

Cinematically, The Rare Breed is the better of the two. It’s visually pleasing but also pretty pedestrian. The “cinema” of the movie is functional. With The Rainmaker, it’s less than pedestrian but there is a reason for this: it’s a play on film.

Yet I liked both movies. Why? The stories and the characters which, in the cases of both films, were largely expressed through dialogue.

Currently, I see movies that want to capture iconic moments visually and verbally. A character is lit and shot in a certain way and delivers a line, the hoped-for memorable line. The problem, however, is that the line’s impact is dependent on the dialogue that has preceded it, and that’s absent. What has preceded it (in the action movie case) has been wordless yet noisy quick cuts of action, close-ups of stern heroes and villains, and dialogue that is often single word statements.

In the case of romantic comedies, there has been dialogue but lousy dialogue because the movie focused on the star and provided a dull stereotype as his or her foil. So the dialogue was boring. And often populated with words and phrases considered obligatory because they are “contemporary.”

The memorable lines, the iconic moments (“We’ll always have Paris,” or “You complete me,”) are the conclusion element of syllogisms. It is like 2 plus 2 equals 4. The number 4 is meaningless if not preceded by 2 plus 2. Those remembered movie lines are perfect because, like the number 4, they are the perfect conclusion to what has preceded them. And like a syllogism, every element is important. Remove even one, and it fails.

Of both the films I watched (Rainmaker, Rare Breed) the story, characters and dialogue were compelling and allowed for characters that were individual – distinct and engaging.

Both of those movies suffered from a lack of distinct visual style (but to be fair, they are forty and fifty years old). Yet both are more interesting, for me, than a great deal of what I encounter in today’s movies.

And I think it has something to do with dialogue. And that means character and story.