So now we get into the meat of the thing. This second of three planned posts on “The Great Unseen” focuses on the sound era of classic Hollywood—the 1930s, 40s, and 50s—even if some of these films are made far from the Hollywood system and break from the classical visual style.
Of course, I had hoped to be wrapping up this series by now, but I once again got distracted by other unseen classics. Still, this quarter, I managed to get to a total of thirteen films on my list: four silents (The Consequences of Feminism, Safety Last!, Battleship Potemkin, Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans), eight from the classic period (Duck Soup, A Night at the Opera, The Little Foxes, A Matter of Life and Death, Late Spring, The African Queen, High Noon, Rio Bravo), and one modern one (Pretty in Pink) that I watched because it was expiring on Hulu. This is not nearly the twenty-five I’d hoped for, but really isn’t too shabby. Plus, I watched seven other new-to-me classics as a result of this project (Les Vampires, The Kid, The Gold Rush, The Scarlett Empress, Swing Time, Tokyo Story, A Night to Remember), which has to count for something.
As with my first post in this series—Matinée Idle—the old adage of “classics are classics for a reason” has proved true. Not that I loved every film I watched, but I appreciate that they are mostly deserving of their place in the canon.
Hello I Must Be Going
Duck Soup (1933) by Leo McCarey
A Night at the Opera (1935) by Sam Wood
While I’ve seen bits and pieces of various Marx Brothers films over the years, I had never watched an entire movie until now. In fact, of all the films on this list, these were the two that I had most consciously avoided. Though certain broad comedies work for me, I’m not a huge fan of slapstick, and I guess I wrongly placed the Marx Brothers in that category. While these movies do rely on pratfalls and obvious gags (and I have to say that I didn’t LOVE them for that reason), they definitely have more layers to them than I expected.
It is perhaps not surprising to long-time readers that I liked A Night at the Opera much more than Duck Soup. Not only is it more like a screwball comedy, but there are opera references galore. Plus, the narrative hangs together much better than Duck Soup—though you’d never guess that by watching only its rather abrupt beginning, which, according to Leonard Maltin (good lord, why?!?) on the commentary track, is the result of later cutting all references to Italy for showings during World War II. In any case, once you realize they aren’t starting in New York, it makes much more sense. That said, some of the individual scenes in Duck Soup—such as the mirror scene and the war-scene costume changes—are well worth watching at least once.
And to Groucho Marx, I give my cravat
To Harpo goes my shiny silk hat
And to heaven, I give a vow
To adore you, I’m starting now
Never Gonna Dance
Swing Time (1936) by George Stevens
For some reason, the Marx Brothers got me thinking about the musicals of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers and how I’ve seen so many scenes of them dancing over the years and yet have no idea how many of their films I’ve actually watched all the way through. So I chose one at random—only to realize I hadn’t seen any of it at all, not even the big dance numbers. That film was Swing Time, which surprisingly includes some of my favorite standards including “A Fine Romance” and “The Way You Look Tonight” as well as “Never Gonna Dance”—which, as seen above, happens to specifically cite the Marx Brothers. The world is small, people. Swing Time also includes an incredible number where Astaire dances with multiple shadows of himself. Unfortunately, said number is marred by the fact that Astaire appears in blackface throughout. Also unfortunate is the ridiculous plot of this film, although the initial sequences of Astaire and Rogers meeting are delightful.
A Matter of Life and Death (1946) by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
I was first exposed to the work of The Archers (aka Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger) in the college film class I mentioned in the previous post in this series. Three films I watched in that class—The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), Black Narcissus (1947), The Red Shoes (1948)—would easily make it onto any all-time favorites list of mine, just as they appear on Edgar Wright 1000 Favorites list. Of course, I would also add I Know Where I’m Going! (1945), a film that is very much in the spirit of my beloved Regency romances. And all four of those films are in the Sight & Sound Top 250. However, above them all on the Sight & Sound list is A Matter of Life and Death. So, needless to say, I thought this one was a sure winner. Reader, it was not.
Not that I didn’t like it: this story of a man (David Niven) who pleads his case to stay on earth after his conductor to the great beyond misses his appointment had interesting technical and visual aspects (notably the stair sequences), but the underlying themes and basic plot were far less interesting than other films I have seen by The Archers. To my mind, this film is rather a pale imitation of its “life and death” forerunner, Colonel Blimp. I’d love to hear from people who have seen both of them as to what would put this one on top. Also, not for nothing, but what was up with that naked shepherd boy playing the flute at the beach? I get the Pan imagery, but whatever is it for?
As always, I’m happy I saw it, but it definitely would fall at the bottom of any Powell and Pressburger ranking I might make.
The Scarlett Empress (1934) by Josef von Sternberg
The Scarlett Empress, one of the last films Sternberg made with Marlene Dietrich, is another film I’ve always meant to see, but didn’t put on my official list for whatever reason. However, once Charlottesville happened, I realized I had zero interest in watching Nazis in Triumph of the Will (1935). Plus, I thought The Scarlett Empress might make an interesting companion piece to Battleship Potemkin, which I suppose it did, although it’s neither the condemnation nor the glorification of the life of Catherine the Great that I’d hoped it would be. In fact, it is not really the life of Catherine the Great at all, but rather how Princess Sophie of Anhalt-Zerbst became Catherine the Great. That is, it purports to tell the story of her childhood and how she came to be in the royal Russian household and eventually stage a coup. It is extremely inaccurate historically speaking, but is worthwhile as a supreme exercise in style, with innovative lighting, elaborate sets, and gorgeous costumes. It is also one of the most obvious examples of how different movies might have been had the Hays Code never been put in place: The opening torture scenes had me immediately rushing to check the production date.
The Little Foxes (1941) by William Wyler
William Wyler is the most nominated director in Oscar history and the director of one of my favorite adaptations ever, The Heiress (1949) starring Olivia de Havilland. Yet I’ve never felt I had a handle on him as a director. In fact, I’m not even sure I knew that The Little Foxes was by William Wyler or I might have taken this one on earlier, since in many ways it perfectly complements his Jezebel (1938), also a “southern” story with Bette Davis, and one that I’ve watched and enjoyed numerous times. Of course, enjoy is not quite the word I’d use for this all-too-relevant story about the corrosive effects of capitalism, racism, and patriarchy.
Yes, they got mighty well-off cheating the poor. Well, there’s people that eats up the whole Earth and all the people on it. Like in the Bible with the locusts. Then there’s people that stand around and watch them do it. Sometimes I think it ain’t right to stand and watch them do it.
—Addie speaking her truth to Birdie and the audience, in The Little Foxes
Like a number of films on my Great Unseen list, I wasn’t too sure of this one when it started, but as it went along I became more and more impressed and interested. While Bette Davis gives an incredible performance as Regina Giddens, I was more than a little surprised to realize this was the debut of Teresa Wright, who would get an Academy Award nomination for her supporting role as Alexandra, Regina’s daughter, and go on to be nominated twice in the next year, for a supporting role in Mrs. Miniver (1942), also by Wyler, and as best actress in Sam Wood’s The Pride of the Yankees (1942). And, of course, the year after that she would play young Charlie in Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1942). Quite a run.
The other participant who really impresses here is the one behind the camera. This is the first film that Gregg Toland would shoot after his groundbreaking work on Citizen Kane (1941), and I might argue that his deep-focus work here is even more extraordinary than on that film. At least, it is more crucial in bringing life to this stage play. Of all the films on this list, it is perhaps the most stunning visually. Though, admittedly, the films of Yasujirō Ozu come pretty close.
Big in Japan
Banshun (Late Spring) (1949) by Yasujirō Ozu
Tōkyō Monogatari (Tokyo Story) (1953) by Yasujirō Ozu
I hadn’t wanted to put any Japanese films on my Great Unseen list because I’ve always thought I would do a complete series on them (a project I started some time ago with Rashōmon (1950) but had to abandon). However, since that plan sprung from not having seen any of the “great” ones, and because I needed one more 1940s film for my list, Banshun (Late Spring) made it on here. And then, oddly enough, before even reaching Late Spring on my list, I found myself taking in Tōkyō Monogatari (Tokyo Story) on the big screen at the Aero in Santa Monica. Unlike my last time at that theater, I was not sitting next to Christoph Waltz, but it was a packed house, which was rather inspiring. [Side note: Tokyo Story is the #3 movie on the most recent Sight & Sound Top 250 poll; Late Spring is #15 on that same list.]
Tokyo Story is one of those movies I was simultaneously bored and enchanted by. Or maybe I was just really tired from hiking up to the Hollywood sign that morning. In any case, the film is visually stunning (which is incredible since the camera basically never moves), but the narrative moves at a glacial pace. Still, it managed to seep into me somehow and I find myself going back to it rather often in my mind. I’m sure there were many cultural nuances and references that went over my head, but its universal story of family dynamics and responsibilities is something I imagine would resonate with many viewers, no matter what their nationality or background. Perhaps Late Spring—as the story of a young woman resisting society’s expectations—should have resonated with me more, but that film felt too scattered to me. Somehow I had a far better handle on the characters of Tokyo Story than I did Late Spring. However, both films are well-made, powerful explorations of marriage and family. Plus, they introduced me to the concept of the “pillow shot” (a term I had never heard of before).
Guns and Ships
The African Queen (1951) by John Huston
I went into this project unsure of whether I had actually seen this one. Well, I definitely hadn’t seen it, but I’m not sure that was any real loss. Sorry, Bogie/Hepburn lovers, I just didn’t buy this one. I liked the basic story, but the couple didn’t work for me and the obvious green screen in many of the river sequences was painful to watch. I imagine that watching this in the 1950s in the theater was likely fairly exciting, but today it falls flat. And, while I wanted to root for the feminist awakening depicted, the classism, colonialism, and nationalism on display were just too distracting for me to fully get behind Rose as a character.
A Night to Remember (1958) by Roy Ward Baker
If you know me at all, you know I am slightly obsessed with stories of the Titanic sinking. Yet, for some reason, I had never seen this famous depiction from the 1950s. And so, even though it was not initially on my list, I added it here. If you have read any of the first-hand accounts, you know that, aside from the “splitting in two” issue, A Night to Remember mostly gets the story right, though it is lacking the incredible special effects of the James Cameron version released forty years later. Having seen Titanic (1997) so many times, it was particularly interesting to watch this and realize just how many iconic shots Cameron took directly from this film. I like both movies, but admit that the sweeping epic romance that Cameron tells has a slight edge for me. Still, two things that A Night to Remember does very well are the depiction of social class and the workings of the crew behind the scenes as the ship went down. One moment in particular stood out for me: the look on Honor Blackman’s face as she realizes what her husband really means when he says they should listen to what the captain says.
(Don’t) Take Your Guns to Town
High Noon (1952) by Fred Zinnemann
Rio Bravo (1959) by Howard Hawks
Lastly, we come to one of my favorite film genres, the western. There are very few classic westerns I haven’t seen, but I thought I had rightly identified these two as holdouts. However, I’m now pretty sure I have in fact seen High Noon before, albeit long time ago. Regardless, I was certainly happy to see it again. And, unfortunately, this is another classic that turned out to be far too relevant for today’s world. Despite that depressing glimmer of recognition, this pairing was actually rather fortuitous, as Howard Hawks apparently made Rio Bravo in part as a reaction to High Noon, with Hawks thinking that a “real” hero wouldn’t have gone running around asking for help nor would he need to be saved by a woman in the end (which is sort of hilarious given the help that John Wayne seems to need in Rio Bravo, but I digress).
You carry a badge and a gun, Marshal. You had no call to do that.
No matter what the inspiration, I absolutely loved Rio Bravo. John Wayne is here, being very John Wayne, and Dean Martin was practically unrecognizable to me (in a good way). Angie Dickinson as “Feathers” could certainly go toe-to-toe with any of my favorite Hawks leading ladies and Walter Brennan as “Stumpy” is a delight. The only weak link in the cast for me was Ricky Nelson, but that is a minor quibble. Despite a running time of 140 minutes, the movie never seemed to lag, and I especially liked the music. I happily watched this one twice.
Tune in next time when I take on unseen classics from the 1960s on. In the meantime, if you are undertaking my Great Unseen challenge, let me know what you’ve watched so far in the comments below.
The Great (Formerly) Unseen
Duck Soup (1933)
A Night at the Opera (1935)
The Little Foxes (1941)
A Matter of Life and Death (1946)
Banshun (Late Spring) (1949)
The African Queen (1951)
High Noon (1952)
Rio Bravo (1959)
The Scarlett Empress (1934)
Swing Time (1936)
Tōkyō Monogatari (Tokyo Story) (1953)
A Night to Remember (1958)