Favorite Film Discoveries of 2019: Adventures with Angels, Dates with Devils

The Greeks had a word for it: pharmakon. A poison which may also be a cure. A cure which may also be a poison. Plato associated the term with writing, and Derrida concluded, by extension, that “the god of writing must also be the god of death.” Most writers I know would agree. At least some of the time.

Film, another medium of substitution, deception, and instability, is a pharmakon in my life too. It shatters me, piques me, messes with me, hypnotizes me, pulls me outside of myself, distracts me from my day job, and generally gives me reasons to keep on living.

My yearly roundup of favorite new-to-me films often betrays some loose theme or pattern. The 2019 harvest yielded a high proportion of poisoned apples: movies reveling in temptation or moral extremes. Wickedness took many forms, from voluptuous demoness Elena Sangro to hedonistic lord of the manor David Farrar to noir’s ne plus ultra bad boy Lawrence Tierney. Fortunately such unlikely angels as Bebe Daniels, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Joel McCrea, and Ann Sheridan were on hand to balance the cosmic scales. So here’s to the things that poison us and the things that keep us alive. May they forever intertwine in cinema.

1. Maciste all’inferno (Guido Brignone, 1926)

What’s it about?

Powerful demons mingle with mortals to ensnare souls. When big hunky superhero blacksmith Maciste intervenes to save his cousin from dishonor, the baddies transport him down to Hell. But those devils get more than they bargained for.

Why do I love it?

If some maniac decided to adapt Dante’s Inferno as part of the Marvel Extended Universe, the result still couldn’t touch this wild adventure from the silent Maciste series. Once we get to Hell, the sheer surreal saturnalia on display stands as a testament to just how trippy silent popular cinema could be—and frequently was. A hellish vamp’s kiss transforms Maciste into a demon with shaggy legs and horns. Bevies of brimstone beauties vie for his attention. Our musclebound hero leads a demon army to victory in an intra-Inferno civil war. A demon’s face, punched concave by Maciste, rebuilds itself in a spellbinding close-up.

At the beginning of the year I watched a whole bunch of silent movies about Hell to research a piece for SF Silent Film Festival. As you might expect, that involved many hours of wallowing in guilt and despair. Rather refreshingly—even blasphemously—Maciste all’inferno was the most fun I had in Hell all year. It shows sympathy for the damned, yet treats Hell like some weird adult theme park designed by Doré for demons. Given the playfulness and overt sensuality of its spectacle and inventive special effects, the film’s creators were clearly more interested in delivering pleasure than preachments.

Federico Fellini mentioned Maciste all’inferno as his earliest film memory and a lifelong influence on his work. That explains a lot. The silent film’s panoply of grotesque eroticism and nimble leaps between fantasy and reality—or merely different registers of reality?—feel distinctly Fellini-esque.

Where can you see it?

It’s on YouTube.

2. Midnight Mystery (George B. Seitz, 1930)

What’s it about?

Pulp novelist Sally Wayne and her gaggle of murder-obsessed friends are enjoying a quiet weekend in a creepy island castle. Sally’s rich stick-in-the-mud fiancé decides to stage a phony murder to teach Sally a lesson, but when a real body turns up, he’s the prime suspect.

Why do I love it?

The Gothic elegance of this early talkie, with its cavernous Max Rée art direction and creeping camera movements, nourishes me as pure cinematic comfort food. There are silhouettes and self-playing pianos and clanging buoys and opulent candelabras and howling winds and a villain eavesdropping from an overstuffed armchair. But plenty of movies have “atmosphere in chunks,” to borrow a phrase from the script. This old dark house movie earned a place in my heart because its girl sleuth heroine enjoys an unusually triumphant fadeout. When we celebrate the maturity of pre-Code films, we’re often talking about sex, drugs, and hard-hitting social commentary. But this modest comedy thriller arrives at something quietly progressive even for its anything-goes era: a worldly woman who single-handedly cracks the case and makes her man eat his words.

To love studio-era cinema, you have to inoculate yourself against groan-worthy, tacked-on endings in which sharp dames renounce their identities and accept their role as some schmoe’s passive helpmate. Midnight Mystery, however, concludes with a different balance of power. Sally’s morbid, melodramatic mind enables her to unravel the mystery and catch the killer. In a sly turn of psychological Judo, Sally leverages the villain’s lustfulness and exhibitionism against him and extracts a public confession. “I learned the trick writing thrillers, dime novels, trash,” she explains. This is where we expect her to add, “And no more! I’ve had enough of murder” etc. etc. But, lo and behold, her fiancé capitulates instead: “I give in. I don’t deserve you in a thousand years…. Detect all you want. And I hope all our ten children are detectives.” Corny? Sure. But his humble embrace of Sally’s trashy passion—he wanted her to bust up her typewriter a few reels ago—goes against the grain of so many glib Hollywood endings.

Betty Compson digs into the screwball feistiness of her character with gusto. Though her cutesy voice can grate on one’s nerves, her expertly staged histrionics at the end more than compensate. As the suave murderer, Lowell Sherman infuses his part with devious glee—campy enough to be humorous but lecherous enough to be a threat. At one point he picks up a silk stocking of Sally’s from the back of a chair and rubs it appreciatively between his fingertips. Why, he even glances towards the camera, as though he’d like to be considered for inclusion in your Best of Pre-Code sizzle reel.

Where can you see it?

It’s on ok.ru. Since it’s an RKO Radio film, I have no idea why it’s not on Warner Archive DVD. Maybe some rights issue? In any case, I’d buy it.

3. Men in Her Life (William Beaudine, 1931)

What’s it about?

Betrayed by a gold-digging lothario and stranded in the French countryside, broke socialite Julia Cavanaugh befriends Flash, a vacationing bootlegger with social aspirations. Julia jumps at the chance to earn money working as a one-woman finishing school for the clearly smitten Flash. Though they fall for each other, class differences and Julia’s past indiscretions threaten their happiness.

Why do I love it?

In essence, it’s “My Fair Gangster”—an irreverent, gender-flipped riff on the Pygmalion formula. But instead of watching an overbearing professor sculpt a spirited guttersnipe into a lady, we savor the gentle chemistry as a ruined debutante gives her big lug client a crash course in etiquette. By helping Flash navigate the glitterati in Paris, Julia builds a sense of self-efficacy and gains perspective on the superficial life she used to know.

Who would’ve suspected that Charles Bickford could carry a rom-com as a leading man? Not me, surely. Yet his guileless toughness and aw-shucks delivery made this obscure Columbia film a major highlight at the most recent Capitolfest. As his lady love, the luminous Lois Moran conveys her character’s inherent grace and bruised uncertainty.

With its sharp dialogue and wacky situations, this breezy send-up of class relations, scripted by Robert Riskin and Dorothy Howell, deserves a mention in the history of screwball comedy. Although it veers into drama towards the middle and courtroom drama at the end, the humor of Flash and Julia’s courtship and their adventures among the vapid socialites in Paris remain the most rewarding and memorable aspects of the film. The fact that a coarse crook turns out to be the truest gentleman of all strikes me as quite a Riskin-esque reversal of conventions. When Julia finally proposes to Flash with the same routine he had practiced on her earlier in the film, you could feel the audience at Capitolfest sigh out a collective “Awwww” before such cuteness.

Speaking of overturned conventions, the film doesn’t hide that Julia spent the night with a faux-noble seducer. The whole plot hinges on it. But that doesn’t matter to Flash. The fallen woman nabs a rich, lovable man who worships her and would literally kill for her. And they live happily ever after. Now that’s pre-Code.

Where can you see it?

Maybe at some rare film festival or archive screening. I would love to see this get a DVD or Blu release.

4. Union Depot (Alfred E. Greene, 1932)

What’s it about?

Rakish vagrant Chick comes into possession of some stolen money and decides to spend the night with Ruth Collins, an out-of-work chorine. Once they’ve gotten over the misunderstanding that she’s a sex worker, Chick resolves to set things right for Ruth and get her on the train to Salt Lake City for a job. But the cops, crooks, and Ruth’s stalker have other plans.

Why do I love it?

Douglas Fairbanks Jr. orders “a flock of hot biscuits” from a train station lunch counter. That’s all I need in a movie.

Seriously, though, if you could harness the charm that Dougie Jr. and Joan Blondell exude and somehow convert that into fuel, we’d never have an energy crisis again. These are two world champions of sparkling for the camera. It’s awfully sweet to watch them sparkling at each other. And I’m simply mad about train stations, even recreated on sound stages. This film evokes the romance of the criss-crossing destinies they contain. I’d need to watch the film again to get the whole story straight. It’s a speedy tangle of assumed identities, stolen goods, bums, hookers, investigators, and a pervert in dark glasses, all handled with the pacy vigor we crave from a pre-Code Warner Brothers film. Despite the morass of plot, the emotional through-line—Fairbanks behaving like a cad then spending the rest of the movie trying to prove his nobility to Blondell—stays strong and poignant. You catch yourself rooting hard for these two crazy kids. Which makes the ending quite a blow.

Pre-Code movies did so much of what New Hollywood movies get credit for inventing. And they often did it in half the runtime. Union Depot leaves viewers with the jarring sense of “wait, that can’t be the end” as the credits flash up. Its wrenching, unsentimental conclusion reminded me of those oft-cited gut-punch denouements from films of the 60s and 70s. Admittedly, there’s far less cynicism here, since Fairbanks Jr. does enjoy his shining moment as Blondell’s champion. But as Ruth speeds away towards a precarious future on that midnight train to Salt Lake, Chick ends up right where he started, maybe worse off. He’s a vagrant with zero prospects. His dream girl left, never to see him again. Being a hero might feel swell for a second, but in practical terms? It doesn’t mean a thing. So he flips up his collar, shrugs off despair, and walks into the night with nobody but fellow bum Guy Kibbee to split a cigarette with. Forget her, Chick. It’s Union Depot.

Where can you see it?

It’s available from Warner Archive.

5. Counsellor at Law (William Wyler, 1933)

What’s it about?

Jewish lawyer George Simon rose from humble origins to become one of New York’s most sought-after attorneys. Now that he’s on top, however, his professional rivals are out to get him with a vengeance. He’s got a Society Register wife who doesn’t much like him. And a good deed he committed in days gone by—fraud to save a weak man in a jam—is coming back to haunt him…

Why do I love it?

Because it kept me on the edge of my seat and held my emotions hostage until the very last moment. Though categorized as a drama, its level of tension and relentless drive seem more in tune with what we’d call a legal thriller today. I went in expecting something preachy and/or badly stereotyped, but the joke’s on me, and I’ve rarely been happier to be wrong. William Wyler was a great director. We all know that. But only lately I’ve realized how early he was a great director. When I saw The Storm in 2018 at Capitolfest, the film suggested that his talent for shaping cinematic space and building suspense through subtly shifting relationships was already crystallizing in 1930. Well, Counsellor at Law is a leap ahead of The Storm. A work of staggering assurance and efficiency, this film would be the crowning achievement of many directors’ careers. Wyler, as we know, was warming up.

Barrymore, an actor whom I love but do not usually associate with restraint, rose to the occasion in portraying George Simon. He’s exasperating and irresistible, hilarious and tragic, icy and passionate, naïve and cynical. A seductive monument of contradictions. But never a caricature. The images of the film that I remember most are a swooping crane shot towards Barrymore, then a close-up of his eyes shining like star sapphires (on nitrate), as the idea of suicide comes to him. Barrymore may have never been better, or realer, onscreen than at the moment when, manning the switchboard in his empty office, Simon gets a call that devastates him. And he finds that, in the eyes of the frivolous woman he married, he’s no more worthy than the little boy who got his start manning that switchboard decades ago. Everybody, from chirpy office lady Isabel Jewell to blasé wastrel Melvyn Douglas, is on point in Counsellor at Law. They’re like gears in some giant, rhythmic, artful machine. But Bebe Daniels, playing Simon’s sharp but soulful secretary, nearly steals the show as the heart of the film. We cannot help but love Simon because she loves him, and we can tell that so fine a person as her could only love someone whom she truly respected.

The script by Elmer Rice, adapted from his own stage play, is a race car engine that Wyler drives with aplomb. Without leaving a posh Manhattan office, gleaming in its sleek Deco majesty, the screenwriter and the director create a fluid, exciting space where worlds collide. In George Simon’s waiting room, a communist agitator clenches his fists at the the bourgeois prattle of Simon’s two revoltingly pampered step-children. Indeed, Counsellor at Law boldly interrogates some big social and ethical issues. What is success, really, in a society where success often means disowning parts of your identity? Should you die fighting an oppressive system tooth and nail, or can you do good by working within that system? Is it worth it? But the film lets those questions hang in the air, raising them but refusing to settle them. Thank heavens. Answers are usually far less interesting than questions anyway.

Because it dares to stand on the window ledge of despair, preparing to splatter our hero all over the pavement, this movie truly earns it last-minute His Girl Friday-esque ending. The flawed, tormented lawyer finds his match in the vivacious, brainy beauty who was 10 feet away the whole time. The joyful rush of that long-overdue recognition sends you back into reality still keeping time to the beat of this exquisitely rhythmic minor masterpiece.

Shoutout to my Nitrate Picture Show pals Emily West, Harry Eskin, and Jay Patrick who loved this as much as I did!

Where can you see it?

It’s on DVD from the Universal Vault Collection.

Photo by John Springer Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

6. Mary Burns, Fugitive (William K. Howard, 1935)

What’s it about?

Mary runs a coffee joint in the country while romancing out-of-town mystery man Babe Wilson. After a shootout at Mary’s shop, her gangster boyfriend leaves her to take the heat. Branded a “gun moll” and sent up to the big house, Mary escapes… by the grace of the cops who hope she’ll lead them to Wilson. Mary never wants to see him again—but he’s not through with her by a long shot. As the poor gal’s cellmate summarizes, “Aw, Mary. Men’ve been kickin’ dames around since the days of Eve.”

Why do I love it?

William K. Howard, whom James Wong Howe called the best director he ever worked with, was a poet of celluloid celerity. What I’ve seen of his early 1930s output practically lunges at you with its synergy of camera movements, brisk cutting, and tensely stylized compositions. All of those elements—along with a top-notch performance from Sylvia Sidney and a roller-coaster plot—make Mary Burns, Fugitive a gripping programmer both in style and substance.

From the bucolic opening scenes, Leon Shamroy’s cinematography imparts a sense of vague ethereality to what might’ve been a purely gritty yarn of crime and suffering. Sometimes that dreamlike, spiritual quality gives Mary’s torments a halo of martyrdom, but sometimes it’s just intoxicating to the eye. Particularly during the expressionistic prison break scene. Mary and her roommate sneak through corridors of stark shadows, dart through fog occasionally pierced by searchlights, then dive into the water and swim through shimmering waves towards their rendezvous. It’s like a crime melodrama evanescing into a dream.

Sylvia Sidney may have given more great performances in now-obscure 1930s movies than some bigger stars (and more acclaimed actors) gave in their whole careers. Her fey, childlike face and air of gentle sincerity made her a natural to play decent dames who fall, and fall hard, for rotten men. She hits her courtroom breakdown just right with ripped-from-the-headlines naturalism. Her voice rises to a pitchy wail and her face contorts into an unglamorous sob of confusion and shame. But Sidney usually communicates Mary’s sorrow quietly, with hushed agony. As life kicks her around, her suffering turns inward. But you can hear the stifled tears choking her. You can feel the jagged shards of broken dreams cutting ever deeper into her soul.

Alan Baxter, aided and abetted by clever lighting, strikes an appropriately loathsome note as Wilson. He doesn’t come off as particularly tough or charismatic, especially not next to hardboiled henchman Brian Donlevy, but he sure is mean. He resembles more of a snarky, entitled college kid than what I’d expect a bank robber to be like. As a casting and performance choice, it’s actually kind of brilliant, even if I don’t 100% buy it. Portrait of the gangster as a spoiled brat. (See? I don’t always root for the bad guys.) The moment when Mary realizes what Wilson is—punctuated by a noirish close-up of his suddenly defiant pretty-boy killer face—is chilling, because he does look like a different person than the carefree lover he was 5 minutes ago.

Mary’s final face-off with her bad-to-the-bone ex brings the film to a satisfying, Temple Drake-ish close. Wilson forces Mary to humiliate herself by fawning on him in front of her new love, but the gangster’s sadism proves his undoing. After shrinking from confrontation for so long, Mary seizes the moment and becomes the agent of her own justice, retribution, and freedom.

And I can’t finish this capsule without a nod to Melvyn Douglas’s Adirondack-style mountain lodge, which is truly the stuff of fantasies.

Where can you see it?

I caught it on TCM last summer. Maybe it’ll air again. It’s also floating around the internet…

7. Internes Can’t Take Money (Alfred Santell, 1937)

What’s it about?

In his first film appearance, Dr. Kildare helps a paroled mother find her missing daughter and escape the clutches of a lecherous racketeer. Does the doctor dare to call in his own underworld connections and save the day?

Why do I love it?

Perhaps the biggest hit of this year’s Capitolfest, Internes is exactly the kind of movie I’m thinking about when I lament “they don’t make ‘em like that any more.” That is, a gratifying 80-minute crime melodrama with hardly a dull moment. From its opening credits, overlaid on shots through the windshield of an ambulance speeding through city streets, this movie hooks you. And through a magical marriage of great acting and superior filmmaking craft, it never lets you go until the end credits roll. Clearly I need to dip more into the oeuvre of director Alfred Santell. He invests this bizarre tale of barroom surgery, sexual blackmail, grateful gangsters, and a missing daughter with muscular B-movie momentum while giving the tear-jerker scenes room to breathe.

I will never look at kitchen utensils the same way again after watching Joel McCrea improvise an operating room in a bar. “Get me a lime squeezer!” barks Dr. Kildare, preparing to save a hemorrhaging mobster with a MacGyver-esque assortment of found objects. One wonders, did the young doctor spend all his precious drinking time pondering, “How could I use that for surgery… you know, if it should ever come up?” Some contrivances are so much fun that you welcome them with open arms as contrivances. This is one of them.

McCrea in Boy Scout mode can wear thin on me, but his chemistry with Stanwyck lights up the screen. For instance, the physical contact of dressing an infected wound on her wrist becomes an unlikely but undeniably smoldering conduit of sexual tension. It’s also a wry inversion of that old ministering angel trope. How many times have we seen a battered tough guy melt as some radiant young beauty tends his wounds? But here it’s fresh-faced doctor McCrea tenderly succoring the downtrodden but unbroken Stanwyck.

Even with Kildare riding through the film like a knight errant in scrubs, Internes delves into dark territory. Degradation looms over Stanwyck as she deliberates whether to sell herself to a slimy, popcorn-munching racketeer in order to see her daughter again. German-born cinematographer Theodor Sparkuhl, who’d shoot Among the Living and The Glass Key a few years later, cloaks the desperate ex-con mother in an aura of noirish desperation. Curtains of rain stream down the windows and cast shadowy waterfalls around Stanwyck as she pleads with the villain. No dice. He wants his payment in dollars or flesh. “You’d like to kill me, wouldn’t ya?” he gloats. “You’re a mind-reader,” she snaps back. As she contemplates her meager options, she watches the lights of a roaring elevated train go by outside the window of her dim, cramped apartment. The shot I recall most vividly from the film is a bleak slice of urban alienation. We see an abstracted misty street at night with glowing lamps and storefronts. A snack vendor, in silhouette, cooks popcorn over a whistling open flame. Stanwyck, in a shiny black raincoat, walks slowly past, then doubles back, and buys a bag of popcorn—the racketeer’s favorite—in a gesture of symbolic defeat. What an oddly wonderful movie.

Where can you see it?

I’m pleased to report that it’s available from the Universal Vault Series. Physical media for the win!

8. Quiet, Please: Murder (John Francis Larkin, 1942)

What’s it about?

Forger, thief, and murderer Fleg steals a rare Shakespeare folio and proceeds to sell several fake copies to collectors. Then Fleg’s lover and partner in crime, crooked manuscripts expert Myra, sells one of the phonies to a Nazi collaborator—who wants a payback in blood. Myra, a shady investigator, and Nazi henchmen all converge in the Los Angeles Public Library. Fleg impersonates a detective and holds everyone under blackout conditions while looting rare manuscripts and making mischief.

Why do I love it?

Slinky, sardonic criminals Gail Patrick and George Sanders come across as a pulpy, psychopathic variation on Nick and Nora Charles. (Or Joel and Garda Sloane, given their focus on manuscripts. But who the hell knows them?) Fleg and Myra swap urbane threats instead of cute quips and get their kicks from committing crimes instead of solving them. Double-crosses are perhaps the sincerest form of foreplay in their amoral universe. The more grandiloquent of the pair, Sanders purrs out some of the kinkiest dialogue this side of the Production Code: “You’re dangerous to my interests. And it excites me to play with my own life. The way we live is a constant threat to our security. But we love it—giving and taking pain.”

There’s a special place in my heart for movies with book-related skullduggery, and Sanders and Patrick’s sinister standoffs in the Public Library will delight anybody with a similar book fetish. The film doesn’t totally jell or live up to its potential, but I cannot hold trivial concerns like those against a movie that manages to mix such an exotic cocktail of bookish and lurid. Or one that leans so enthusiastically into nastiness. Even our nominal “hero,” a smarmy, unlikable investigator, delivers Myra to her death in a ruthless move that leaves us with nothing to cling to at the end but the Dewey Decimal System.

Director Larkin and DoP Joseph MacDonald endow this oddball B thriller, largely set in a fixed location, with plenty of angular shadows and darkly dramatic early noir atmosphere. Gail Patrick, resplendent in a sparkly tiara and evening gown, stalks among the stacks and lurks behind bookshelves. Lit from below by candlelight, a ghoulish George Sanders holds court by menacing his lover and two inconvenient witnesses with torture by harp string. The urban walk-of-doom ending even anticipates The Seventh Victim. Gail Patrick leaves the library and strides down eerily empty streets while trailed by a Nazi assassin. Spoiler: he gets her. Which is a shame really, because Myra and Fleg deserved another 2 or 3 movies in which to fleece rich book collectors, betray each other, and rack up their body count as a form of couples therapy.

Where can you see it?

It’s-nay on-ay Outube-yay. (At least as of this writing.)

9. The Devil Thumbs a Ride (Felix Feist, 1947)

What’s it about?

After some light robbery and murder, Steve Morgan gets a ride from a tipsy traveling salesman and invites two hitchhiking dames they meet along the way. As the cops close in, the killer pressures his unwitting companions to take shelter at an isolated beach house. Sure, this is going to end well…

Why do I love it?

Strange as it sounds, I owe a lot to that scary bastard Lawrence Tierney. After I watched this sick little movie, he invaded my nightmares and jolted me out of a wretched 8-month run of writer’s block. Call it an exorcism: I wrote almost 4,000 words about this Devil and haven’t stopped writing—mostly about noir—ever since.

The Devil Thumbs a Ride provides the key link in Tierney’s transition from old-school gangster in Dillinger to noir’s most depraved fantasy figure in Born to Kill. As it happens, Devil is so harrowingly good that it prompted me to revisit Born, which had failed to impress me around a decade ago. Turns out I adore it now. Few couples in noirdom can compete with Trevor and Tierney thirstily baiting and berating each other between illicit lip-locks. But if Robert Wise’s class-conscious A noir complicates Tierney as a kind of beast in captivity, Feist’s gleefully trashy 62-minute B noir unleashes him in a more natural habitat.

He gets to hit-and-run his way through a seedy, unhinged playground/obstacle course in a vehicle that seems bespoke to his ferocious dirtbag appeal. The confined spaces accentuate his hulking presence. There’s a tough dame to admire him—as one bullshit artist to another—and a starry-eyed nice girl for him to charm, then pulverize. The masculine cast of domesticated dorks, card-playing cops, trigger-happy patrolmen, and cartoonish yokels all serve to emphasize his steely, entertaining badness. In the midst of this chaos and opportunity, he’s more relaxed, funnier, and thus scarier when he goes in for the kiss or the kill. Which are similarly brutal in this movie.

Where can you see it?

An old TCM print is floating around ok.ru. Or you can get a Region 2 DVD. The Film Noir Foundation has restored it, but to see that version (I haven’t, alas) you’ll need to attend to a non-U.S. screening.

10. Woman on the Run (Norman Foster, 1950)

What’s it about?

Eleanor Johnson’s husband witnesses a murder and hides out somewhere in San Francisco. The police want to bring him in, make him testify, and put his neck on the line. And gangsters want to kill him. Eleanor isn’t exactly crazy about the guy herself, but the more she learns about the tight spot her husband’s in, the more she wants to save him. A wisecracking reporter offers to help Eleanor find her hubby and stay ahead of the cops, but can she trust him?

Why do I love it?

Norman Foster evidently learned a thing or two from collaborating with Orson Welles, because this is a damn near perfect thriller. Think of it as a women’s drama reborn as a chase film in the key of Welles minor. Complete with canted angles, a darkly carnivalesque set piece, and oodles of slow-burning suspense.

My favorite subtype of noir centers on stand-up gals who pursue intensely personal investigations—quests, really—through dark labyrinths of danger and deceit. Or, to generalize, girl sleuth movies. Woman on the Run presents us with a most unusual “girl sleuth” variant, in that there is nothing girlish about her at all. On the contrary, she’s a prickly, childless wife in a burnt-out marriage. Shorn of her bombshell locks and sporting an unsexy assortment of bulky coats and dresses, Ann Sheridan nails the bone-tired air of a woman who’s had the romance worn right out of her.

Compared to girl sleuths like winsome secretary Ella Raines, earthy nighthawk Susan Hayward, and streetwise knockout Lucille Ball, Sheridan cuts a dramatically less hopeful and glamorous figure. Even June Vincent in Black Angel passionately throws herself into the glitzy nightclub demimonde to save her husband’s neck; her determination and energy are unwavering. By contrast, Sheridan is sick to death of almost everybody except her dog. The story works because you sort of believe that she might give up on her husband. You know, if she got too tired or ran out of cigarettes.

I like to think of noir’s girl sleuth movies as twisted fairy tales that confront the heroines with riddles and seemingly insurmountable challenges. In Woman on the Run, we even get a devastatingly charming wolf in disguise and a life-giving potion: the ampoules of heart medicine that Eleanor needs to smuggle to her husband. Eleanor’s quest takes the form of a life-or-death scavenger hunt bound up with the enigma of her bitter, failing marriage. That unrealistic conceit results in one of the more nuanced and narratively creative depictions of a troubled marriage in film noir.

Instead of watching a marriage fall apart from beginning to end or through flashbacks, we acquire more haunting insight into Eleanor’s troubled relationship with her husband through his absence. We never see the couple interact in person until the very end. Instead, their story comes to us through fragmented clues. A cryptic letter. A dirty apartment with a cramped kitchen and cupboards full of nothing but dog food. The scornful head of a mannequin. Paintings and sketches that chart the trajectory of a promising but unfocused career circling the drain. The short story-like anecdotes that Eleanor recounts and tries to decode in an attempt to figure out where her husband first “lost” her. This is couples therapy as a puzzle box, an apt fusion of noir’s penchant for jigsaw narratives and the snarled messes of resentment that long-term relationships can become.

A movie about second chances on the edge of an abyss, Woman on the Run stands as a reminder that toughness and tenderness often intertwine in noir. David Bordwell recently pointed a finger at the “cult of noir” for making us underrate gentler genres—especially cozy family sagas—in favor of forceful, action-oriented movies. (Touché, I guess? Look at this list…) Now, I’m not going to make the case that film noir is actually warm and fuzzy. God forbid. But what of the world-weary, wised-up, bittersweet brand of tenderness that belongs to noir? Out of the Past leaves us on a note of melancholy affection beyond the grave. Shadow of a Doubt is the dark double of Meet Me in St. Louis. Inscrutable and laconic though they often were, Lake and Ladd clicked as a screen couple largely because of their moments of surprising tenderness and vulnerability.

Like Raymond Chandler wrote, in a letter reflecting on his wife’s death, “All us tough guys are hopeless sentimentalists at heart.” Some tough dames are too. And so it is with Woman on the Run. As this rueful wife scours the city of San Francisco, she summons up her memories of marriage and discovers, almost too late, how much tenderness she still harbors for her imperiled dreamer of a husband.

Where can you see it?

The FNF/UCLA restoration is available on DVD/Blu from Flicker Alley. It also shows up on TCM occasionally; it was my favorite Noir Alley discovery of last year. For the love of all that’s good and holy, do NOT watch one of the murky prints circulating on YouTube, etc. I tried to watch it that way years ago and couldn’t make it more than 5 minutes in.

11. Gone to Earth (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1950)

What’s it about?

A witchy fox-loving peasant girl in turn-of-the-century Shopshire vacillates between repulsion and attraction to the fox-hunting local squire. Which complicates things after she weds the chaste new vicar. Sure, it sounds banal, but it is really a poem woven around the titillating tropes of a tawdry romance novel.

Why do I love it?

Because it may be Technicolor’s finest hour. I had procrastinated seeing this one for a while, and that paid off because I had the privilege of seeing it at the Nitrate Picture Show. There were colors I have never seen before. Colors stolen from some fairy realm or—same difference—from the mind of the film’s whimsical heroine, a woman clearly tuned to a higher frequency. The limpid blues, torrid yellows, and rosy but forbidding pinks of Shropshire skies. The dusky cobalt of Jennifer Jones’s skirt as she casts a midnight spell. The amber glow of a sunset on fox fur. The look of white lace in the bare afternoon sunlight.

And is there any cinematic image of lost innocence more heartbreaking yet erotic than Jones standing tiptoe on grass, only to be scooped up by squire Farrar—who crushes her dropped bouquet of scarlet flowers with his shiny brown boots?

Where can you see it?

It’s on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber.

12. The Naked Spur (Anthony Mann, 1953)

What’s it about?

A bounty hunter reluctantly joins forces with a prospector and a caddish cavalry officer to bring a killer and his girl accomplice back to civilization. But can the captors hold it together as the desperado attempts to divide and conquer?

Why do I love it?

Bumpy road trips with charismatic killers make for great cinema, as far as I’m concerned. Here it’s wily outlaw Robert Ryan toying with the nerves, egos, and lives of his traveling companions. Not unlike Tierney in Devil, Ryan infuses this bad hombre with such virile, animalistic arrogance that it’s almost impossible to look at anything else when he’s onscreen. But Ryan’s Ben Vandergroat is a more complex beast, with an emotional range from cringing self-pity to lustful jubilation; even three tough men on high alert can’t keep this scruffy, protean trickster down for long.

I’m fascinated by intimidating performances that involve some kind of physical limitation, like noir’s wounded gangsters who can conjure even more menace when hiding out or hospitalized. Similarly, Ryan projects such power and mastery over the situation even when tied up and thrown around like a sack of potatoes that you know you’re in the presence of one dangerous dude. Dig the way that, never so smarmy but in defeat, he pulls his own wanted poster out of his pocket with his teeth, then grins with the knowledge that he has shot his pursuer’s plans to hell. Or the cocky glances he flashes towards his fellow travelers as Janet Leigh gives him a shave or a back rub, as if to say “Don’t you wish you were in my filthy hide right now?” Or how he smirkingly tells his rambling hard-knocks life story while feverish Jimmy Stewart slips further, further, further on his sabotaged saddle and topples off his horse.

Leathery, damaged, and volatile, the Jimmy Stewart of Anthony Mann’s gritty Westerns has become my favorite Jimmy Stewart. And yet, listen to the yearning tenderness in his voice when he talks to Janet Leigh about nursing cattle through the winter. More than any man who ever graced the screen, Stewart made the prospect of settling down seem like another warm, romantic adventure rather than an end to it. (Me, I probably rather go ride-or-die with Ryan, but I can appreciate a good pitch when I hear one.) I have to hand it to Janet Leigh too. She could very easily have been merely another item thrown on the scale of the film’s high stakes: death, money, and the woman. With her delicate features accentuated by cropped hair and men’s clothes, she’s a wildcat-fierce slip of a thing who can hold her own against Stewart and his posse. And yet she captures that lost-girl devotion to father figure Ryan, devotion so intense that she refuses to see how he sees her.

Oscar-winning cinematographer William C. Mellor envelops almost every shot in breathtaking Technicolor vistas of rugged natural splendor. This pure, epic scenery provides an ironic backdrop for Ryan’s machinations. We get the mythic West of storybook illustrations wrapped around Mann’s sordid West of cheap life and dirty death.

Where can you see it?

It’s on DVD and available to purchase on YouTube.

Best of FilmStruck, Volume 1: 11 of My Favorite Old Hollywood Movies to Stream Right Now

So many movies to recommend, so little time! FilmStruck—the arthouse streaming platform brought to you by TCM and the Criterion Collection—recently added a whole bunch of old Hollywood movies.

Subscribers can now satisfy the urge to watch Casablanca (or The Thin Man) virtually any time, anywhere. But you can do more than just round up the usual suspects. As the exclusive streaming home of Warner Brothers’ classic library, FilmStruck offers a tantalizing and eclectic variety of studio-era movies beyond that hit parade.

However, unless you know exactly what you’re looking for, FilmStruck might leave you feeling a little film… stuck (sorry not sorry). Especially since not all of the classic Hollywood movies in the FilmStuck streaming library show up under the Classic Hollywood category.

With that in mind, I’ve decided to create a series of guides or primers to the movies I love within FilmStruck’s ever-growing catalog. I’m starting with classic Hollywood, but I see a list about classic British movies on FilmStruck in my future…

For today, I’ve tried to skew this list of recommendations towards weird, lesser-known, and/or not-on-DVD classics. And, remember, you can watch them right now.

Why Worry? (Fred C. Newmeyer and Sam Taylor, 1923)

What’s it about? An insufferable hypochondriac millionaire and his lovelorn nurse travel to a banana republic where they get mixed up in a coup d’état.

Why should you watch it? Harold Lloyd was hilarious and versatile. His spectacles stayed the same, but his character changed. He could be a bashful country boy, a campus dork, or an urban go-getter. But I’d say he’s at his funniest and most interesting playing a cocky spoiled brat who wins us over with his staggering moxie, like he does in Why Worry? Over the course of this rip-roaring comedy, the poor little rich boy sheds his selfishness, and that character arc lends emotional weight to an expertly paced succession of gags.

Frequent Lloyd leading lady Jobyna Ralston gets to do even more than usual. You’ll chuckle at her running around in tight pants and a sombrero, then root for her as she unleashes the fiery rebuke that prompts our hero’s transformation. The exotic location, loathsome villain, and unique comedy sequences (Pulling a tooth from a giant! Fighting off an army with smoke and mirrors!) combine to produce one of Lloyd’s very best.

The Most Dangerous Game (Irving Pichel, 1932)

What’s it about? Shipwreck survivors wash up on a secluded tropical island where the wicked General Zaroff hunts humans.

Why should you watch it? Shot simultaneously with King Kong on the same RKO jungle sets, The Most Dangerous Game is a scarier, leaner horror-adventure hybrid. Director Irving Pichel manages to revel in the pulpy, morbid side of the material and keep the plot zooming forward with the velocity and inevitability of a bullet from General Zaroff’s rifle.

Leslie Banks rips into his bad guy role with diabolical relish. His over-the-top Grand Guignol performance, slavering with thirst for blood and Fay Wray, sets a standard for every comic book villain to come.

(Fun fact: The pack of Great Danes you see in The Most Dangerous Game were owned by Why Worry? star Harold Lloyd!)

Three on a Match (Mervyn LeRoy, 1932)

What’s it about? The tempestuous lives of three schoolmates intertwine during the Great Depression. Restless Vivian marries well but plunges into poverty and addiction. Fun-loving, warm-hearted Mary rebuilds her life after prison. Studious Ruth tries to help and support them both.

Why should you watch it? If you want to know what “pre-Code” means, this is a good movie to explain it. The plot revolves around sex, drugs, gangsters (including a young Bogie!), gambling, prison, child neglect, and suicide. Three on a Match wades unflinchingly into content that would’ve been excised just a few years later. Ann Dvorak’s gutsy descent from bored socialite into grimy, coke-addled mob captive is the stuff of legend, a show-stopping, career-defining performance. Her shriek of abject terror in the lipstick scene will ring in your ears long after the movie ends.

On top of the fast and furious personal melodrama, Three on a Match chronicles the whole Prohibition era with newsreel-like interludes of headlines, hit tunes, and stock footage. As we watch Vivian, Mary, and Ruth choose their paths in life, we watch the 20th century come of age and wise up along with them. And all that happens in just over an hour of runtime! They really don’t make ‘em like this anymore.

Man’s Castle (Frank Borzage, 1933)

What’s it about? Bill and Trina, two people living meal to meal on the margins of society, build a life together in a shantytown hovel. When Trina gets pregnant, Bill considers turning to crime so that he can provide for their child.

Why should you watch it? Trust me when I say that this pre-Code romance is uplifting, even magical, despite the grim plot synopsis. Before the advent of FilmStruck, I had’t seen Man’s Castle in a long time (because it’s not on DVD), but certain images and sequences stayed with me for years. The opening scene in which a starving Loretta Young weeps as Spencer Tracy feeds popcorn to pigeons. The lovers skinny dipping in the moonlight. Glittering music hall queen Glenda Farrell having an unspoken conversation with Tracy in the audience. Tracy innocently fidgeting with a little wind-up toy as his accomplice breaks a safe.

Frank Borzage, cinema’s lyric poet of the love that blossoms from adversity, turns the mean city into an intimate dreamlike landscape against which our couple finds strength in their shared vulnerability.

Twentieth Century (Howard Hawks, 1934)

What’s it about? An egotistical Broadway impresario turns a lingerie model into a star actress, but she grows tired of his possessive ways. Can he win her back in time to save himself from ruin?

Why should you watch it? There’s something especially hilarious about movies that call for actors to play actors, giving the stars permission to chew the scenery and work themselves up into high dudgeon. Carole Lombard and John Barrymore both deliver go-big-or-go-home comic performances, while hinting at the scared real people holding the strings of those big bombastic balloons.

Starting with the rehearsal from hell and building to a madcap climax aboard a train, the ever-brilliant Howard Hawks whips up enough frenzied energy to fuel a major railroad. Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s script marries droll, flowery dialogue with kicking-and-screaming physical comedy. I’ve watched Twentieth Century several dozen times in my life, and it never fails to crack me up.

History Is Made at Night (Frank Borzage, 1937)

What’s it about? A suave maître d’ intervenes to protect the wife of an abusive shipping magnate and falls in love with the damsel in distress.

Why should you watch it? This heady cocktail of genres has something to please everyone. Whether you like disaster movies, screwball comedies, feel-good romances, weepy melodramas, or psychological thrillers, you’ll get your money’s worth out of History Is Made at Night. What’s most staggering to me is how well all of the different tones balance each other out without diluting the power of any mood or element.

Patron saint of celluloid star-crossed lovers Frank Borzage is at it again, making us swoon at the intoxicating power of romance. Watch this as a double feature with Man’s Castle if you need to restore your faith in humanity. Jean Arthur dancing a late-night tango (barefoot, no less!) with Charles Boyer ranks among the most charming getting-to-know-you scenes produced by classic Hollywood. “I’ve needed tonight more than anything in my life,” Arthur says as dawn breaks. “Because I’ve never been happy before.”

Finally, I have to put in a word for my man Colin Clive, who died of tuberculosis shortly after making History Is Made at Night. The movie pivots on his elegantly febrile turn as an evil husband willing to kill thousands of people merely to slake his quest for personal revenge.

Bulldog Drummond Escapes (James P. Hogan, 1937)

What’s it about? Celebrated amateur sleuth Captain Drummond sets out to free an heiress from the gloomy manor where crooks have her imprisoned.

Why should you watch it? Sometimes you need great art that moves you to tears. Sometimes you need a fun, atmospheric little mystery to amuse you on a dark and stormy night. Bulldog Drummond Escapes does the latter admirably. Ray Milland in a trench coat traipsing through fog is a gift to us all. His beguiling goofy-yet-dashing vibe as Drummond makes me deeply sad that he only essayed the role once.

Lydia (Julien Duvivier, 1941)

What’s it about? In her twilight years, Lydia, a great beauty who never married, reminisces with the men who loved and lost her long ago. But memories can be deceptive. Do any of Lydia’s suitors know who she really is?

Why should you watch it? Because it’s a sweeping, sympathetic, tender waltz through the saddest chambers of the human heart. Lydia gives her love to a scoundrel, suffers, and throws away any chance at happiness with another man. And yet Duvivier helps us embrace all that loss and regret and see its bittersweet beauty. No love is given in vain, since, as Lydia muses, “The past always improves. It’s about the only thing that does.”

Merle Oberon pours her heart into all of Lydia’s emotions and irreconcilable contradictions. So much of what makes this movie great is her face, whether coyly peeking up from under a lacy hat, beaming with joy as an Atlantic wind whips her hair, or frozen with humiliation as her eyes reflect a flickering fire.

Released weeks after Citizen Kane, Lydia explores similar themes—the perspective of old age, the complex truth of memory, the fragmentation of identity—through a similar flashback structure. But the final piece of Lydia’s puzzle is no sentimental rosebud. It’s a quietly staggering blow, a silken gut punch that will haunt me for quite some time.

To Be or Not to Be (Ernst Lubitsch, 1942)

What’s it about? In occupied Poland, a theater troupe must pull off a daring, elaborate charade in order to neutralize a high-ranking Nazi spy.

Why should you watch it? Ernst Lubitsch works a miracle of high-stakes comedy, proving that sometimes the most potent way to respond to evil is to laugh and laugh hard. The Nazis ravaging Lubitsch’s native Poland in To Be or Not to Be are both scary and ridiculous. The director denies his enemies the stoic, steely dignity that Hollywood too often accorded them and instead takes aim at the Nazis’ pomposity, venality, and humorless vision of a homogenous world.

On the side of the good guys, To Be or Not to Be suggests that you can always count on arty weirdos to strike a blow for freedom and democracy. (Indeed, many heroes of the real-life resistance in Europe were poets, musicians, or creatives of some kind.) Jack Benny delivers his best film performance and arguably the greatest double-take in cinema. Given surprisingly little comedy business in her final film role, Carole Lombard holds the film together with her cunning, determination, and moral judgement.

I don’t want to give too much away, but anyone who likes movies deserves to see this virtuoso high-wire act that breathtakingly melds art and life, drama and reality.

Now, Voyager (Irving Rapper, 1942)

What’s it about? An insecure spinster escapes the clutches of her tyrannical mother, reinvents herself with guidance from a kind psychiatrist, and falls in love with a married man.

Why should you watch it? Now, Voyager is a soothing and nourishing movie. I’m so grateful it exists.

Without sensationalism or condescension, director Irving Rapper illuminates one woman’s inner life. There’s no need to create unnecessary drama, no tendency to move on from Charlotte’s struggles to the real plot. She is the plot. Now, Voyager treats a woman’s psychological journey with the same respect and attention that cinema usually reserves for grievous sins, battles, and murders.

In one of her finest, most restrained performances, Bette Davis invites us to share Charlotte’s emotional ups and downs and rewards the viewer with a transcendent feeling of catharsis. And although she dials down the diva factor, I feel reborn when Bette Davis makes a magnificent entrance in that little black dress.

Perhaps the most well-known film in this post, Now, Voyager nevertheless seems like a movie that can easily sit on your “to watch” list for years. It’s a difficult movie for me to “sell” because there aren’t many movies like it. Poignant but not overwrought. Romantic but not defined by romantic tribulations. Psychological but not gimmicky. I procrastinated watching it for a long time, because the plot synopsis sounded sappy and depressing. Now it’s one of my favorite films.

I could kick myself for waiting so long to discover it. Don’t make the same mistake I did! (And once you do, be sure to read Angelica Jade Bastién’s essay on hope, mental illness, and Now, Voyager.)

The Curse of the Cat People (Gunther von Fritsch and Robert Wise, 1944)

What’s it about? A melancholy little girl conjures an imaginary friend—or is it the ghost of her father’s first wife?—and struggles to mediate between her daydreams and the dangers of the real world.

Why should you watch it? Few movies have captured the intensity of childhood as sublimely as The Curse of the Cat People. Master noir and horror cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca casts a spell over us, so we can revisit the heightened experience of youth. Ice sparkles lovingly. Snow falls with malice. Shadows carry the sadness of broken hearts and lost souls. Inscribed in every frame is the wonder, the fear, the despair, and the sense of inhabiting a hidden universe that grown-ups don’t understand.

The Curse of the Cat People is the perfect autumn-to-winter movie. As the seasons slip by, the changing landscape makes the viewer ache with nostalgia. The meandering, almost anecdotal narrative gives Ann Carter a chance to shine with one of cinema’s greatest child performances.

Whereas many coming of age tales conclude with a child pulling away from their dreams. this movie validates the child’s fantasy world. As The Curse of the Cat People implies, the only way to heal our wounds is to return to that pure seeing, that acceptance of the marvelous among us, which the film recreates.

If you do watch any of these selections on FilmStruck, let me know what you think! And feel free to suggest themes for future lists and guides!

Reel Change: 11 Favorite Classic Film Discoveries of 2017

The French, inexorably judgmental in so many things, are merciful when it comes to the transition from one year to the next. You have until the end of January to send holiday greetings, well wishes, and fond regards.

Today I’m going to use that extension to reminisce about 2017.

I sure did a lot of talking about classic movies last year. I yapped about my favorite classics on Periscope. I rambled about obscure classics like Letty Lynton and Spectre of the Rose and got quoted in Newsweek. I went on a tangent about the cultural cachet of classic films and their lack of availability and made it into the L.A. Times. And to my enduring dream-come-true amazement, I recorded a commentary track for Olive Films’ Blu-ray of Orson Welles’s The Stranger.

But was I writing about classic movies? Nope. Not as much as I would’ve liked. I guess I was too busy watching a lot of new (old) movies that delighted me, scared me, and generally “gave me all the feels.” (As a millennial, I’m contractually obligated to say that.) Interestingly enough, a major theme that unites many of these very different discoveries is radical life changes—journeys from frustration to fulfillment, from cowardice to courage, from conformity to freedom.

So, before I turn the page on 2017, I wanted to compose my thoughts on a few favorite new-to-me films.

The Four Feathers (Merian C. Cooper, Lothar Mendes, and Ernest B. Schoedsack, 1929)

What’s it about? The son of a British general decides to quit the army rather than risk his life to quell an uprising in Sudan. Branded a coward by his comrades and rejected by his fiancée, our hero sets off to rescue his friends and prove his courage.

Why do I love it? It’s always exciting to watch a performance so good that it makes you change your mind about an actor. In this case, who knew that Richard Arlen could be so charismatic? Certainly not me, despite having seen a significant slice of his prime Paramount filmography. His odd combination of boyish swagger and aggrieved aloofness finds its ideal vehicle in this oft-adapted adventure yarn.

Sweat and grime suited Arlen. The image that will stay with me most from this film isn’t shifting sands or fierce tribes or Victorian ballrooms, but a close-up of Arlen at the moment when he puts his body on the line to block mutinous troops from escape. His nostrils flared, his ridiculous cheekbones bulging under rakish stubble, his eyes glittering with defiance, his face leaves an unshakeable impression. I can think of few close-ups that pack the same transformative weight in a character’s arc. At that moment, Arlen’s huge face on the screen of the Capitol Theater became less a face than an emblem for a less disillusioned world. Or the dream of one, because 1929 was pretty damn disillusioning.

Make no mistake, this is heady imperialist propaganda, so rousingly made by masters of the exotic epic Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack that you’ve got to handle it with care. If The Four Feathers extols a bygone way of thinking that we should not mourn, it also exemplifies the sophistication and lost grandeur of the late silent era. And that we should mourn. We can learn a lot from the past, if only how to make a sprawling, monumental, novelistic movie that clocks in at 81 minutes.

Where can you see it? It’s not on DVD, but you can watch a not terrible quality version on the Internet Archive.

The Countess of Monte Cristo (Karl Freund, 1934)

What’s it about? When her fiancé breaks off their engagement, a bit part actress snaps, drives off the set, and arrives at a swanky hotel in in her studio-owned car and glad rags. In a kind of fugue state, she decides to live it up and pass herself off as a Countess. But how long can she keep up the charade? Will new men in her life, a suave aristocrat and a crotchety crook, reveal her secret?

Why do I love it? If The Countess of Monte Cristo is poor man’s Lubitsch, it’s still very rich indeed. Great cameraman-turned-director Karl Freund gives this Great Depression wish fulfillment romp a buoyant frothiness. When I remember this movie, I see contrast between the dire gloom of the early scenes and the cheerful, gilded, 5-star-hotel sparkle of Wray’s sort-of-accidental foray into grand larceny. And don’t get me started on the snowy brightness and snuggly fireside crackle of the romantic subplot. We get a montage of Fay Wray and Paul Lukas frolicking through an alpine paradise of sports and snow in fur coats and designed woolens, for crying out loud.

Though remembered most for her signature scream, Wray was a smart, tough cookie in real life, and The Countess of Monte Cristo gave her the chance to carry a movie (which she did more often than she’s given credit for). She could wrap the audience around her little finger, even when she’s not pursued by a giant ape. Never forget it.

Paul Lukas is dreamier than I ever remember him being. He looks damn fine when smoking in hotel hallways, and Freund lets Lukas smolder frequently. As Wray’s accomplice and gal pal (who apparently shares a bath with her sometimes), Patsy Kelly delivers the lion’s share of funniness. And, as the curmudgeonly master thief who uses Mitzi as bait, Reginald Owen steals plenty of scenes, memorably sneering, “I’m not diabolical. I’m debonair.” What’s not to love?

Where can you see it? Nowhere at the moment. Of all my 2017 discoveries, this is the one I’d most like to rewatch. Unfortunately, it’s buried deep in the archives at Universal. At Capitolfest, I was part of the first audience to see The Countess of Monte Cristo since the initial release. Maybe it’ll show up at a rare film festival near you!

Alexander Nevsky (Sergei Eisenstein, 1938)

What’s it about? A medieval Russian prince leads an army of lusty singing peasants and lovelorn landowners to battle evil baby-burning German invaders.

Why do I love it? Prince Alexander has great hair. Love me some progressive medieval chieftains who fight alongside women, violently dislike religious fanatics, accessorize with blingy medallions, and flip their fabulous, shiny locks victoriously in front of the camera.

Seriously, though, like everybody else who took a college film course (or 9), I had to watch and read a heaping helping of Sergei Eisenstein. It kind of wore thin on me. YES, MONTAGE IS LIKE A HAIKU IN THAT A MEANING IS PRODUCED WHICH IS NOT PRESENT IN A SINGLE IMAGE ALONE. THANK YOU, SERGEI. YOU ARE VERY CLEVER. I left school without any inclination to further explore his work recreationally.

As much as I respect Eisenstein as a film pioneer, I had given up on enjoying any of his films until I saw this rip-roaring action epic. It’s ultimately about beating the living bejeezus out of proto-Nazis. (And in case you have any doubts that the villains are in fact supposed to stand for Nazis, take a good look at what the zealot bishop has on his little hat.)

Eisenstein’s use of black and white and every shade of gray in between packs a punch into each frame. The frigid, dead whiteness of the German knights’ tunics. The masses of dark troops organizing like some macabre ballet on the ice. Prince Alexander and his lieutenants in chainmail, surveying the land from jagged gunmetal cliffs and harmonizing against the silvery sky. (Sure, it didn’t hurt that I saw this on nitrate at the Nitrate Picture Show.)

Despite some deeply disturbing scenes, Alexander Nevsky is exuberantly entertaining. I call it the Eisenstein Capades, maybe the most fun you can have with the father of montage.

Where can you see it? It’s in the Criterion Collection. You can stream it on FilmStruck. Praise be.

Lady in the Dark (Mitchell Leisen, 1944)

What’s it about? Magazine editor Liza Elliott is a Woman Who Has It All. So why can’t she make up her mind—about her upcoming magazine issue, about the men in her life, about what she really wants? Why does she feel listless and depressed? And why have her dreams turned into bizarre Technicolor allegories? Hm, I wonder if it has to do with some kind of Freudian childhood trauma…

Why do I love it? The colors. My lord, the electrifying, terrifying, soul-nourishing, phantasmagoric colors. Blue dresses and red sequins and orange lipstick and neon pink columns surrounded by lavender mists. Busby Berkeley himself would have to call this movie seriously trippy. I’ve seen a lot of movies, and Lady in the Dark must be one of the most visually stimulating films I’ve ever seen. Director Mitchell Leisen explained his philosophy of color as an embrace of dissonance, like the conflicting colors of dresses at a real-life dinner party.

With Lady in the Dark, Leisen creates a film that seems to be rebelling against itself and subjects its surface dogma to a brutal bombardment of destabilizing beauty. The regressive 1940s-ness the script clashes with the liberating fantasia of the images, celebrating the heroine’s spectacularly troubled unconscious, Freudian complexes and all.

I hope to write more about this one in the future, because it’s been haunting me since I left the the screening at TCMFF! Oh, did I mention I saw it on nitrate? I could hardly stay in my seat.

Where can you see it? Not on a legit U.S. DVD. But you can find it on a major online video platform that begins with Y. And some non-legit purveyors of DVDs have it, too.

Cluny Brown (Ernst Lubitsch, 1946)

What’s it about? A maid struggles to fit into her place in society, despite a fascination with plumbing (yes, really!) and her attraction to a refugee writer who cherishes her weirdness.

Why do I love it? As Lubitsch’s penultimate film, Cluny Brown shows a gentler, mellower side of the director’s cheeky comedy, far from the pyrotechnics of his 1930s output. His quiet mastery of the film medium imparts a cozy glow to this wondrous journey of self-acceptance—but you can’t miss the sharp side-eye cast at the nonsensical constraints of convention. (The villains of the piece are grim and instantly recognizable as every self-loathing petty buzzkill sadist you’ve known in your life.)

The chemistry between Jennifer Jones (never spunkier) and Charles Boyer (never more lovable) sings the truth at the heart of Lubitsch’s best work: we’re at our most ridiculously sexy when we’re at our most ridiculous. Get you a man who beams with admiration when you pull out a wrench to bang on drainage pipes or when you drop the dinner tray shrieking about nuts to the squirrels.

Where can you see it? Cluny Brown occasionally airs on TCM. Heaven knows why it’s not available on a legit U.S. DVD, but that’s my excuse for taking so long to see it. You can probably find it on the vast tangle of internets.

The Man I Love (Raoul Walsh, 1947)

What’s it about? Blues singer Petey goes home to help out her family in Los Angeles and lands a job in a nightclub. Can she protect her siblings from tough breaks while fending off the slimy advances of her gangster boss?

Why do I love it? Ida Lupino smokes, croons, gets her heartbroken, wears Milo Anderson gowns, and slaps awful men in a musical noir romance ensemble melodrama. What more could I say?

Where can you see it? Bless Warner Archive. Long may they reign over the MOD kingdom.

Kind Lady (John Sturges, 1951)

What’s it about? A charitable dowager takes an interest in a charming, penniless artist… allowing him to invade her home and hold her prisoner. Will he succeed in robbing her of everything she treasures, including her sanity?

Why do I love it? By this point in her career, Ethel Barrymore’s mesmerizing talents were usually confined to supporting roles (see Portrait of Jennie, The Spiral Staircase, Moss Rose). Kind Lady gave her a leading role, and, boy, does she ever rip into it. Even today, there’s a decided dearth of worthy vehicles for women over 60 to share the craft they’ve honed over their distinguished careers. It’s downright revelatory to watch a mid-century gaslighting thriller centered on a mature, romantically unattached woman.

Beneath the impeccable control of an Edwardian lady, Barrymore exudes a potent combination of dread and determination. In one unforgettable scene, she responds to the mockingly grotesque portrait that her captor has painted of her. Though literally tied down and physically powerless, she slices through his attempt to diminish her and affirms her identity and dignity with her voice alone. I get chills just thinking about it!

Although we’re rooting for Queen Ethel, Kind Lady spins a gripping tale from uncomfortable questions of luxury and inequality. The fascination with art and collection adds an aura of decadence and semi-Gothic obsession to this tale. One senses that the villain doesn’t merely want money. He derives a perverse pleasure from seeking to destroy a woman whose taste, fortitude, and compassion confronts him with his own inadequacies as an artist and a human being.

Where can you see it? Huzzah! It’s out on DVD from Warner Archive, along with an earlier film adaptation (which I’ve heard is excellent as well).

Beat the Devil (John Huston, 1953)

What’s it about? Oh, gosh. Let’s just say that a bunch of devious people try to do devious things and fail miserably. Imagine The Maltese Falcon if everybody was stoned and couldn’t get their sh*t together.

Why do I love it? Weirdly enough, I started watching Beat the Devil maybe 10 years ago and turned it off after 15 minutes. It just didn’t click. The transfer was bad. I wanted to take it seriously (Heck, it’s John Huston and Humphrey Bogart!) and the movie would not cooperate.

Seeing it at TCMFF (with a similarly appreciative audience) made me fall in love with this oddball caper and welcome its canny meta humor. Exhibit A: Robert Morley, trying to release his posse from the clutches of an unamused authority figure, says something like, “Well, surely looking at us should show that we’re honest!” Whereupon the camera pans across the grisliest rogue’s gallery you can imagine, culminating in Peter I’ve-Played-a-Lot-of-Serial-Killers Lorre. Dear reader, I howled with laughter.

This one is a roaring good time if you’re in on the joke—the joke being Hollywood’s penchant for twisty heist films and thrillers set in spicy locales. And daffy savant Jennifer Jones is my new spirit animal.

Where can you see it? It’s fallen into the public domain, so you can watch it just about anywhere they’ve got movies. The DVD I have is not great, but I haven’t bought the Blu yet but I plan on doing so.

Blood and Roses (Roger Vadim, 1960)

What’s it about? Glamorous European aristos who go to costume parties and fall hopelessly in love with their cousins and ride horses around their sprawling countryside estates and cry into their pillows over their love for their cousins. Also vampires?

Why do I love it? Despite my love of vampire movies and Technicolor eye candy, I procrastinated this one for many years, expecting something ponderously trashy (bloodsucking Barbarella, basically). I was surprised by the film’s combination of delicate, youthful sensuality and bitter regret. In one dazzling scene, our heroine stares transfixed by a vision of love she can never share, and psychedelic flashes of fireworks play over her fresh face as it hardens into despondency. Vadim reinvents the aesthetics of the Gothic, giving us ancient dances played off records, sleek mid-century décors chilled by unrequited passion, and ruins demolished by the remnants of WWII shells.

One of my favorite art historians, Kenneth Clark, said that the painter Watteau understood the sadness of pleasure better than anybody else. Blood and Roses is rather like a horror film made by Watteau. If it is a horror film at all. Because, in this movie, the supernatural is not an intrusion into the characters’ lives, not an invading other. The divisions between past and present, self and other, living and dead, dreams and reality, are not the reassuring partitions we like to imagine.

I don’t want to give too much away. Suffice to say, this movie is everything I thought it wouldn’t be: subtle, pensive, lingering… and, dare I say, immortal.

Where can you see it? Jeez, I like a lot of not-on-U.S.-DVD movies, huh? This one is not hard to find if you do a Google video search.

The King of Hearts (Philippe de Broca, 1966)

What’s it about? During the bloody final days of World War I, a timid British soldier is ordered to defuse a massive bomb hidden somewhere in a quaint French town. He discovers that all the “normal” residents of town have fled, leaving only the whimsical inmates of the local asylum. Will he save the day? Even if he does, what happens when he has to march away, back to the sausage-grinder of trench warfare?

Why do I love it? Around once a year, I happen upon a film that utterly wrecks me in public. In 2017, The King of Hearts was that movie. When the theater lights came up at TCMFF, black rivulets of teary eyeliner streamed down my cheeks, and my heart swelled with the sublime recognition that cinema hasn’t lost its power to destroy me.

Those labeled as crazy are truly the sanest among us. War is true madness. These aren’t novel ideas. But The King of Hearts’ air of frenetic, carnavalesque melancholy perfectly captures the sadness and muffled horror of living in a world that doesn’t give a damn about your flickering happiness as much as it cares about you killing people you’ve never met.

It’s one of the few movies that’s effectively captured the absurdity and impaled innocence of World War I. And yet I left the theater on a swell of butterfly-fragile hope. Throughout it all, the tender bonds between Alan Bates and Genevieve Bujold and between the cohort of inmates as a whole exalt the life-saving power of love and imagination—the craziest and most beautiful qualities of humanity.

Where can you see it? The price is a bit steep, but it is available on DVD.

Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb (Seth Holt, 1971)

What’s it about? An archaeologist’s daughter feels the pull of an ancient spirit, a powerful sorceress queen who wants to return to the land of the living. And take her vengeance.

Why do I love it? Hammer horror isn’t exactly known for an abundance of complex female characters. Beyond the “blood and boobs” reputation, however, you’ll find quite a few juicy femme fatale roles in the Hammer canon. Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb offered up arguably Hammer’s best role for an actress. Valerie Leon seems poised to be just another likable daughter figure when we begin to see another personality leech into her, a commanding woman with fearsome occult knowledge.

The ambiguity of this Hammer installment intrigues me. The script wrestles with the good-evil duality that many horror movies accept at face value. Is the Queen Tera really a force of darkness, hellbent on destroying the world as we know it? Or is she a brilliant seer, persecuted all those millennia ago by the ruthless patriarchy? Perhaps she’s both, an eternal embodiment of the knife-edge balance between good and evil that sustain the universe as we know it.

I enjoyed the chutzpah with which Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb toys with its audience, trampling all over the reassuring “rules” of who lives and dies in the Hammer universe. And that last shot, a fitting tribute to the horror genre fixation on women’s eyes, has not left my mind since I saw this underrated Hammer gem months ago.

Where can you see it? Yay, this one is on DVD! Glad to end on a positive note. Otherwise you’d have to endure a tirade about film (un)availability.

Other 2017 recaps and best-of lists that I’ve enjoyed:

Reel Romance: Favorite Film Discoveries of 2015

portraitofjennieMaybe I did too much living in 2015, because I sure didn’t do much writing!

I attended 5 film festivals, got quoted in the L.A. Times as a “classic film blogger,” watched over 200 new-to-me movies, and marked my 25th birthday with an epic weekend of 5 horror films on the big screen. And I got to meet my hero Kevin Brownlow. I think I might need to make a new “life goals” list now.

Before I can let go of that glorious year, I need to process some of the film discoveries that delighted and haunted me most. If you’ve never seen them, I hope they’ll delight you for the first time in 2016.

A theme that connects most (though not all) of these movies is unlikely or unexpected romance. In Second Floor Mystery, two strangers flirt through coded messages and elaborate fictions, modeled on potboiler clichés. In Heaven Can Wait, a playboy reflects on the value of lifelong commitment. In Portrait of Jennie, a ghost finds the soulmate she never knew while alive. Even a few canonical characters surprisingly gave in to the lovefest. Sherlock Holmes renounced his bachelorhood, and Doctor Van Helsing showed some more-than-professional interest in the lady he’s trying to save!

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“I just watched Portrait of Jennie. Please give me a few moments to collect myself.”

Another “theme” was me weeping uncontrollably, whether sobbing my eyeliner off in the presence of 500 other cinephiles or sniffling in my pajamas while streaming something on my laptop. I was unprepared for the catharsis. So, fair warning to you, dear reader: some of these films may mess with you mercilessly, causing trauma, vulnerability, revaluation of your life’s purpose, and the inability to get them out of your head.

Since some people have been asking, I’ve noted which films are currently available on DVD or Blu-Ray (in the United States) with asterisks. As for the ones that aren’t marked… well, let’s just say that you can find many of them around this cavernous thing called the Internet.

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Sherlock Holmes (Arthur Berthelet, 1916)*

Since the news broke in 2014 that the Cinémathèque française had found a print of the presumed-lost Sherlock, I’d desperately wanted to see it on the big screen. That chance finally came in September when New York’s Film Forum screened the mystery thriller with live accompaniment. It did not disappoint.

William Gillette’s formidable, archly romantic portrayal of the great detective won my heart. From the luxurious dressing gown to the intense, Zen-like focus, many of the mannerisms and traits established by Gillette as Holmes have influenced (whether directly or indirectly) every actor who essayed the role after him. I also did a longer write-up on Sherlock Holmes and how it portrays the sleuth as a romantic hero.

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A Page of Madness (Teinosuke Kinugasa, 1926)

Words are feeble to describe the heart-wrenching impact of this Japanese silent. A grief-stricken man works as a janitor at a mental asylum in order to stay close to his disturbed wife… and, he hopes, to set her free. The protagonist’s anguish and alienation anchor the film as his obsession verges dangerously on the madness of the inmates.

A Page of Madness is a lyrical and terrifying invitation to empathize with extreme states of mind. Blurring dreams, reality, and hallucinations, it encourages us to see the inmates not merely as unfortunates to be pitied but also as awe-inspiring (and sometimes frightening) volcanos of emotion and creativity.

Rather than beginning with an outsider’s gaze, director Teinosuke Kinugasa immediately pulls us into the interior universe of a patient. The film opens with a bizarre, opulent dance: a woman draped in a glittering white costume moves slowly in front of a giant spinning ball. As the camera tracks backwards, we see the cell bars that confine her physical space, but fail to confine her vast imaginings.

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Lonesome (Pál Féjös, 1928)*

An average boy and an average girl fall in love over the course of one chaotic day at Coney Island. Within the framework of this breezy, you’ve-heard-it-a-thousand-times rom-com plot, Pál Féjös delivers both a documentary about the mating rituals of the Jazz Age working classes and a paean to the rush of young love. Out of a horde of merrymakers, a jostling crowd of tired, lonely people looking for stimulation, two people find each other. After some initial bluffing, they agree to be honest about themselves and their feelings. It’s a tiny, everyday miracle, but a miracle nonetheless.

The cheap thrills of the amusement park—confetti, hot dogs, ice cream, sand between our hero’s toes, rollercoaster rides—mingle with numinous devotion. Lonesome offers up one of the most beautiful, almost divine images of romance in cinema: a couple dancing against a periwinkle sky besides a golden castle and a flickering crescent moon. The couple are really twirling in shabby beachfront dancehall, but their giddy affection elevates this ordinary moment to the stuff of fairy tales.

Even the few stilted dialogue scenes (a novelty thrown into an otherwise silent film) exude an awkward likeability. As the hero and heroine sheepishly open up to each other the film medium finds its voice.

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Why Be Good? (William A. Seiter, 1929)*

Colleen Moore was one smart flapper, onscreen and off. In real life she banked a fortune and grew it. And in this movie she showed her legions of fans that there’s nothing more fashionable than a woman who stands up for her rights. Indeed, Why Be Good? quickly reveals itself as a sequined feminist manifesto.

Pert Kelly, all-American girl, department store worker, and dance champion, doesn’t hesitate to run her own life and crush double standards under her bejewelled pointy-toed shoes. For instance, when her traditional Irish papa starts to dictate her curfew, she reminds him that her salary is a hefty part of his household income.

Better yet, she gives her entitled beau an earful when he assumes that any stylish, fun-loving girl is sexual fair game. Moore defends a woman’s right to control her body and boldly defines her clothing choices as a means of playful self-expression—not a way of separating “good” girls from “bad.”

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Our Blushing Brides (Harry Beaumont, 1930)*

Come for the pre-Code lingerie, stay for the emasculating comebacks tossed off by Joan Crawford (often while wearing pre-Code lingerie). I watched this movie twice in a row when I discovered it last January. Both times I could be heard to exclaim variations of, “You tell him, girl!” at the screen.

Crawford plays a department store model who fends off the advances of skeevy rich guys. Her blistering retorts and gritty sense of self-worth—along with zingers written by Bess Meredyth, one of classic Hollywood’s greatest lady screenwriters—make this shopworn shopgirl drama shine.

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The Border Legion (Otto Brower and Edwin H. Knopf, 1930)

Festivals of rare films are inevitably bittersweet, since there’s always at least one film that makes me want to storm the projection booth and abscond with the reels (preferably fleeing on a white horse, discharging two six-shooters into the sky). The Border Legion, screened at Capitolfest, provoked such an impulse in me.

This Western from Paramount moves along at a hell-for-leather pace. A young man wrongly accused of murder (Richard Arlen) joins a band of outlaws governed by an enigmatic former cavalryman (Jack Holt). But a beautiful hostage (Fay Wray) ignites tensions that lure the gang to its doom. The plot culminates in a catastrophic raid on a frontier village. An uneasy stillness bursts into deafening explosions, showcasing the dramatic, shattering power of sound for the directors and crews who knew how to use it in the early talkie days.

Jack Holt gives his rendition of “the good bad man” as a paradoxical combination of rugged and immaculate. He embodies a drive to conquer and command so fierce that it marks him for death like a bullseye on his back. Holt’s ability to project an archetype and a nuanced human being simultaneously in The Border Legion puts him up in the Western pantheon with Hart, Wayne, and Scott.

I really wish you could all see this film. Maybe you will someday if Universal ever releases its hundreds of neglected pre-Code Paramount classics… Or, you know, I could saddle up, put a bandana over my face, and “liberate” the vault. Just a thought.

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Follow Thru (Lloyd Corrigan and Laurence Schwab, 1930)

I can’t describe two-color Technicolor without resorting to dessert metaphors: peppermint candy, peach and mint sherbet. It looks yummy, as though your eye could taste it. This silly Paramount musical, shot entirely in the two-color process, circulates in terrible prints online, but I had the good fortune to see a UCLA restoration on 35mm at Capitolfest. (I also did a write-up on the experience.)

As fluffy and entertaining of a musical as you could wish for, Follow Thru uses early Technicolor to invigorating effect. Oh, and did I mention the musical number where chorus girls dressed as lipstick-red devils hoof it to the tune of “I Want to Be Bad”—amidst actual rising flames? Talk about a dance inferno…

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Second Floor Mystery (Roy Del Ruth, 1931)

This delirious parody of crime capers and pulp writing—all wrapped up in an appealing love story—is so meta it could’ve been made yesterday. (Only then it wouldn’t look so sleek and it would’ve been, like, 2 hours longer.)

Geoffrey, a young man of means (Grant Withers), woos American tourist Marion (Loretta Young) from afar through “the agony column,” the cryptic newspaper personal section. As the lovers exchange messages, what begins as an idle flirtation unfolds into an exotic tale of murder, espionage, and secret societies … or does it? Once Geoffrey admits that he’s been fabricating his intrigues to impress Marion, another conspiracy arises!

I adore movies that mess with my head, and The Second Floor Mystery doesn’t hesitate to send its viewers right down the rabbit hole. Just when you think the story couldn’t get crazier, couldn’t ascend to further heights of hyperbole, it does.

One wild fabrication is debunked and set aside… only to make way for another. This castle of cards comes fluttering to earth at the end when Marion reveals that she set up a plot within a plot for Geoffrey, “to give you a few of the thrills you gave me.” Is this love as a metaphor for pulp fiction? Or is pulp fiction as a metaphor for love?

The Second Floor Mystery shows, as The Thin Man did 3 years later, that romance and spine-tingling excitement reinforce each other—especially when abetted by harmless fibs and ruses. Courtship, the process representing yourself to the object of your affections, often echoes the Byzantine twists of detective novels.

I’d absolutely love to see this currently unavailable Warner Brothers film (which I saw in already-digitized form at Cinefest) get the Warner Archive treatment. Powers that be, please make this happen!

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Don’t Bet on Women (William K. Howard, 1931)

I caught this zippy pre-Code Fox romp at the TCM Classic Film Festival and, boy, was it ever a treat. A stuffy husband (Roland Young) makes a bet on his wife’s ability to resist the charms of a cheerful playboy (Edmund Lowe). Unfortunately for hubby, his wife (a cheeky, non-singing Jeannette MacDonald) discovers the wager and decides to make her husband sweat it out. Una Merkel steals virtually every scene as Jeannette’s flirtatious cousin who dispenses all manner of risqué advice in a Southern twang.

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Painted Woman (John G. Blystone, 1932)

Imagine Safe in Hell (1931) with a happy ending—and an utterly ridiculous sequence of a giant octopus attack—and you’ve got the essence of this Fox potboiler. One sultry night in Singapore, a singer and prostitute known only as Kiddo (Peggy Shannon) bashes in some creep’s skull and goes on the lam with her abusive ship captain boyfriend. When Kiddo’s main squeeze parks her in a remote South Sea island, she fends off the local sleazeballs, but falls hard for an affable ex-Marine (Spencer Tracy). Alas, the nasty boyfriend rolls back into town, threatening to crush Kiddo’s future.

As Kiddo, Peggy Shannon looks out at the world from bedroom eyes set in an incongruously childlike face. She exists in a state of jagged bemusement, halfway between weariness and wariness, as if asking life, “What next, pal? Where ya landing the next punch?” Painted Woman sometimes borders on dumb and sometimes crosses right over, but Shannon holds it together with bruised dignity. Even skinny dipping in a lagoon, she can hurl tough-dame one-liners with a bite that made me think of Stanwyck… crossed with Harlow… with a pinch of Bow. I’d never heard of Shannon before Cinefest, but I couldn’t help thinking: Here’s an actress ripe for a rediscovery.

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Goodbye Again (Michael Curtiz, 1933)

This bawdy Warner Brothers comedy confection gave pre-Code bad boy Warren William the chance to show a more relaxed and hilarious side of his lascivious screen persona. A writer of risqué novels, William rekindles his romance with a now-married former sweetheart—much to the chagrin of his long-suffering secretary Joan Blondell.

With a marvelous supporting cast (Genevieve Tobin! Helen Chandler! Wallace Ford!), Goodbye Again has a wacky soundstage party ambiance. And who doesn’t love endless meta-cracks at the expense of prudery and censorship?

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Quatorze Juillet (René Clair, 1933)*

When a movie audience leaves the theater literally dancing to the exit music, you know you’ve witnessed something special. I saw René Clair’s Quatorze Juillet (14th of July, France’s Fête nationale) on the 14th of July. In Paris. However, I suspect that any day would feel like a holiday watching this triumph of creative storytelling.

Quatorze Juillet dwells in a silvery, stylized cosmos of exquisite coincidences and contrivances. Visual matches and quirky motifs catch the rhythms of city life. Gently-arcing high-angle shots look benevolently down on the destinies of outwardly ordinary people. A sweet flower girl falls in love with a gallant cab driver on the night before the 14th of July… then loses him to his old girlfriend. Misfortunes and mistakes tear them apart, but will fate bring them back together? The answer is predictable, but that doesn’t detract from the journey.

Tempting though it is to label this a “feel-good movie,” Quatorze Juillet elegantly drifts through so many emotional tones. Wistful. Joyful. Silly. Tragic. Serendipitous. All of it clad in the stardust of Paris.

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Heaven Can Wait (Ernst Lubitsch, 1943)*

To quote one of my favorite film professors, “Relationships are hard.” He was quite correct, as usual. Relationships are hard to make a go of in real life and hard to make convincing and fresh on the screen. Heaven Can Wait, airy and buoyant as a waltz, understands the difficulty of relationships better than many hand-wringing, tear-stained dramas. I can’t conceive of a more tender valentine to marriage and its sublime challenge to human nature.

Frivolous playboy Henry Van Cleave (Don Ameche) wins and weds the woman of his dreams (Gene Tierney). That’s where most movies would stop, but Ernst Lubitsch probes the triumphs and frustrations of “happily ever after.” As Henry errs from his pledge to monogamy, his wife wonders whether the price of loving him might be too high, after all.

Shot in velvety, sensual Technicolor, Heaven Can Wait reminds us that lifelong commitment is the most quixotic of promises. Every gentle chuckle, every vibrant shade of purple (and there are many), every quarrel, and every kiss in the Van Cleaves’ marriage lead us to the conclusion that regrets, flaws, and death all make life worth living—and love worth loving.

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La Main du Diable (Maurice Tourneur, 1943)

As France was making a series of devil’s bargains with the Nazis, Maurice Tourneur directed this Faustian horror drama under the occupation. Morbidly comical and criss-crossed with foreboding shadows, La Main du Diable evokes the very modern risk of losing one’s soul.

Longing to be a great painter, bohemian loser Roland (Pierre Fresnay) exchanges his soul for artistic talent by way of a cursed hand passed down through a line of doomed men. When Roland regrets his decision, the devil arrives—in the person of a venal, bald-pated bureaucrat—and offers our hero the chance to buy back his soul… with interest, bien sûr. But can Roland afford it?

La Main du Diable made me wonder where the hell it had been all my life. Fresnay’s performance—one part bad boy, one part lost puppy—invested me deeply in Roland’s sad fate as he shambles into the devil’s path. And the film’s visual highlight, a fabulous carnival sequence, resurrects the former owners of the hand (and conjures visions of their misspent lives) by resurrecting the aesthetics of silent cinema.

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The Exile (Max Ophüls, 1947)

Douglas Fairbanks Jr. paid conscious tribute to his charismatic swashbuckler father in this beguiling film—while displaying a streak of heroism and derring-do that was uniquely his. Returning to filmland after his service in WWII, the star produced and helped to write this elegant historical adventure about Charles II’s exile in Holland.

Charles’s wily grace and adaptability, honed through years of wandering, make him the only opponent who can defeat the sinister Roundheads, spookily reminiscent of the Third Reich. Max Ophüls’s traveling camera elevates fight scenes to ideological dance-offs: the sluggard brutality of totalitarianism versus the flexibility of constitutional monarchy.

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Kiss the Blood Off My Hands (Norman Foster, 1948)

From the lurid, Mickey Spillane-ish title, you’d never guess that Kiss the Blood Off My Hands offers up one of the most sensitively-rendered relationships in the noir canon.

Bill Saunders, a traumatized American WWII vet in London (Burt Lancaster), accidentally kills a man in a barroom brawl. Running from the law, he hides out in the apartment of a kind but outspoken young hospital worker, Jane Wharton (Joan Fontaine). Jane helps Bill to rebuild his life and, bonded by vulnerability and loneliness, they fall in love. But can Bill control his rage? And will a greedy racketeer pull him away from his fragile chance at happiness?

Watch this movie for the chemistry between Lancaster and Fontaine. Watch it for the subtle commentary on a world struggling to heal itself after a devastating conflict. Watch it for the intoxicating cinematography by Russell Metty. Really. Do. Watch it.

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Portrait of Jennie (William Dieterle, 1948)*

Only two things can conquer death: art and love. As Portrait of Jennie suggests, perhaps those things can’t be separated from each other—or from death. This supernatural romance dares to dance with the great mysteries of life. Some critics have mistaken the film’s sincerity for sentimentality. Well, that’s their loss. One wonders, do they also snigger at sonnets and mock arias?

When an uninspired artist falls in love with a phantom, the movie lends us his eyes, slowly opening to the glories of his beloved, of winter in New York City, of the roiling sea, of the world in all of its palpitating aliveness. Only the ecstasy of loving and the agony of loss—for to love is to lose, since we are not built to withstand the forever we crave—can draw back the veil that hides the wonders all around us.

In the mystical contrasts of Jennie’s cinematography, you can feel the yearnings of the great poets to bridge the divide between the darkness and light of human existence. The delicate, petal-soft lace of Jennie’s dress showcases the onyx cameo profile of her face in shadow. The blinding white glare of the sun and the ice in Central Park illuminate Jennie’s silhouette as she glides towards the camera. Jennie comes running out of the mist to meet her mortal lover, and again she glows like a black angel of eternity. (I also saw this on nitrate at the Nitrate Picture Show, which really made the film’s ethereal imagery sing.)

With its garden of marvels blooming out of the ordinary, Portrait of Jennie reminds me of another film that I consider truly enchanted: The Blue Bird (1918). Like the ghostly Jennie, the cinematographer of The Blue Bird, John van den Broek, drowned without realizing his radiant potential. Yet, he lives on. He speaks to me through the supernal beauty that his lense captured. Art, like love, is a legacy, a gift that awakens others. I think about The Blue Bird and Jennie often, and I am deeply grateful for the paradise-colored lens that those films hold before my eyes.

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Alias Nick Beal (John Farrow, 1949)

This allegorical noir transforms foggy, abstracted city sets on the Paramount backlot into a battleground for the forces of good and evil. Honest lawyer Joseph Foster (Grant Mitchell) struggles to convict a big-time gangster, until a tenebrous stranger Nick Beal (Ray Milland) shows up with the solution. Soon Foster succumbs to the insidious temptation of idealism, as Beal promises him the chance to clean up corruption—while corrupting Foster’s own soul.

His eyes glittering with the malice that Hitchcock would use so well in Dial M for Murder, Ray Milland oozes wicked suavity as Lucifer in a slick suit. His oily charm lulls us into almost trusting him and amplifies the shock of his occasional lapses into brutality. This prince of darkness is no gentleman. Audrey Totter captures the fear and pathos of her role as the devil’s unwilling accomplice: a wharf hooker given a satanic make-over by Beal and deployed to compromise Foster.

Rather than downplay the supernatural eeriness of the scenario, director John Farrow channels full-on cosmic dread. In this transplanted Medieval morality play of creeping camera movements, Satan himself literally dictates the dialogue at times. And a cigarette case, a bottle of rum, a pile of ashes all become signs not of mere mundane evil, but of Evil-with-a-capital-E.

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Beyond the Forest (King Vidor, 1949)

Bette Davis’s last contract film for Warner Brothers, a steamy, rural, noirish melodrama, is pretty darn difficult to get a hold of. That unavailability has sadly contributed to the film’s reputation as a so-bad-it’s-good camp-fest. I braced myself for the worst—and found a passionate lamentation on the sorrows of being an ambitious, trapped woman. Director King Vidor endows the backwoods setting with an operatic grandeur suited to its heroine’s fiery longing and spectacular downfall. Think Hardy’s Return of the Native with an injection of Virginia Woolf. Plus a Maria Montez wig.

Though Bette Davis loathed the movie, she gives faded small-town temptress Rosa all her fury and cunning. She potently incarnates the feelings that good little post-war wives were supposed to sweep under the rug: boredom with domestic life, disgusted rejection of motherhood, grasping pursuit of money, and a desire for younger, exciting men. Even the oft-parodied “What a dump!” line expresses Rosa’s frustration with her petty existence.

Much of film noir is about thwarted women who turn to crime because they lack a socially-sanctioned way of getting what they want. Beyond the Forest refuses to sugar-coat that pill. Its prickly protagonist doesn’t soften her aspirations or pander to male fantasy with the silken, nubile glamor of the archetypal femme fatale. Her excess is intentional, in-your-face defiance. A refusal of all things passive, demure, acquiesced to silence. If that’s camp, please, spare me your earnestness.

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Brides of Dracula (Terence Fisher, 1960)*

Scary movies got me interested in film to begin with. Horror remains my favorite genre. So, when I tell you that Brides of Dracula has won a place in my top 10 favorite horror movies, that means a great deal to me.

This Gothic cautionary tale unfolds against a lush palette of Technicolor purples, reds, and golds and possesses a refinement matched by no other Hammer horror flick. The well-bred seductiveness of Brides mirrors the dandyish aura of its vampire: sorry, no, not Christopher Lee, but can I interest you in the subversively alluring David Peel?

To counter this bloodthirsty aesthete, Peter Cushing gives a dashing portrayal of Doctor Van Helsing—whose unspoken but palpable romantic rapport with the movie’s heroine subtly raises the stakes (pun intended). I wrote a nice long post about the wicked brilliance of this film. You know, if you’re into gratuitous Baudelaire quotes and gorgeous screenshots.

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Boom (Joseph Losey, 1968)

The TCM Classic Film Festival screened an eye-popping 35mm print of this notorious flop at the midnight hour. I laughed so hard I was genuinely afraid that I might cease breathing. (Proposed epitaph in the event that this does happen someday: Here lies one Nitrate Diva,/ She succumbed to movie fever.)

Starring a tipsy, resplendent Liz Taylor and a roaring, pretentious Richard Burton, Boom satisfies the gawking paparazzo lurking within each of us. Heiress Sissy Goforth rules her private Mediterranean island with a tyrant’s hand. When a poet with a reputation for visiting dying dowagers washes up on her shore, they engage in a tumultuous battle of wills and passions.

Despite, or perhaps because of, my initial paroxysms of hilarity, I’ve come to appreciate the genius of Joseph Losey’s “failed art film,” to quote John Waters, who loves it even more than I do. Boom’s ostentatious incoherence calls to mind the authorial self-indulgence of many a successful art film. It forces its viewers to question their definitions of good and bad as applied to such an amorphous segment of cinema.

Boom examines what happens when celebrity self-absorption crashes into the grim inevitability of death. We get sunsets that look positively radioactive, cerulean waves, Beardsley-esque black and white costumes, all stirring and oddly pitiable in their magnificence. Tragedy seasoned with trashiness: consider it the love child of Jackie Collins and Euripides.

13 Barrier-Breaking Women of Early Cinema and Old Hollywood

ida“I do not hesitate to say that the average intelligent woman, gifted with the same sense of dramatic values as the average intelligent man, will make a better picture than he, for the reason that the woman, in addition, will have an eye for detail,” director Lois Weber remarked in 1921.

Such a matter-of-factly feminist statement from almost a century ago may sound startlingly modern, almost anachronistic. However, from the dawn of cinema, women have boldly taken on crucial roles in the film industry.

In fact, Hollywood is, in many ways, a more male-dominated environment today than it was 90 or so years ago. Scary, huh?

In order to perpetuate a culture where more women make movies now, we need to recognize the women who made movies in the medium’s formative years. Let’s take our editing shears and snip the “boys only” myth right out. It belongs on the cutting room floor.

Now, I’ve written about some of these women in previous posts, and I hope to write about more of them in the future. For now, though, I content myself with enumerating a few of the pioneers who inspire me to speak up in the hope of encouraging other women to do likewise.

Please note that I’m presenting only a very limited selection of the hundreds of brilliant women who’ve enriched the wonders of classical cinema. If you’re interested in the history of women in the film industry, I highly recommend Columbia’s Women Film Pioneers Project or Ally Acker’s book Reel Women (both of which I gratefully acknowledge as sources).

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Alice Guy (1873 – 1968) actress, director, writer, and producer

We’re talking about the world’s first woman filmmaker here, folks. She ran production at Gaumont in France, then moved to the United States and started her own studio—years before women could vote in either country! Like Méliès and the Lumière brothers, she directed hundreds of movies and shaped what the cinema would become in the crucial years between 1896 and 1916… basically from the inception of the medium.

Her best-known legacy is probably her insistence on an acting style suited specifically to cinema. However, her films abound with innovation, from integrating the special effects we associate with “trick films” into narrative to using close shots for maximum emotional impact.

Where to start with her work: Le piano irresistible (1907) in which the sound of jamming music motivates all sorts of people to start dancing. Madame a des envies (1907), about a pregnant woman on a rampage, is also a hoot. For a more nuanced, melancholic sense of Guy’s work, I’d recommend Falling Leaves (1912) or The Ocean Waif (1916).

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Lois Weber (1879 – 1939) – actress, director, writer, and producer

Not only was Weber a filmmaker of great skill, acclaim, and box office power, but she was also a true auteur, as Anthony Slide has noted. Many of her often allegorical films tackle tough social issues that continue to trouble us today, including class tensions, religious hypocrisy, and the plight of women in poverty.

Where to start with her work: Suspense (1913), a harrowing, stylish thriller that incorporates split screens, a keyhole matte, and disorienting close-ups, serves as a concise introduction to Weber’s substantial gifts. Then move on to one of her thought-provoking dramas, like Hypocrites (1915).

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June Mathis (1887 – 1927) – writer

After touring in vaudeville during her youth, Mathis shifted to screenwriting at Metro. Many of the most acclaimed actors of the day were soon clamoring for scripts by Mathis, and the studio rewarded her talent by promoting her to head of the scenario department.

With a shrewd sense of popular appeal, Mathis sculpted poignant, dramatically intense movies with plenty of spectacle and sex to win over the masses. Mathis’s discernment made her one of the most sought-after and well-paid professionals in the industry.

She also used her power as a studio executive to support directors’ right to actualize their personal visions. If Mathis had had her way, Von Stroheim’s masterful Greed (1924) would most likely have survived in a more complete form, rather than the largely mutilated version that remains.

Where to start with her work: The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921), since Mathis not only distilled Ibañez’s complex war novel into a crowd-pleasing romantic epic, but also insisted on casting an obscure young actor in the lead role. His name was Rudolph Valentino.

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Frances Marion (1888 – 1973) – actress, writer, director, producer

Here’s a not-so-fun fact: only about 11% of movies made these days are written by women, whereas over half of movies made before 1925 had female writers.

The most prominent of old Hollywood’s lady screenwriters, Frances Marion began by working for Lois Weber, scripted a number of Mary Pickford’s most popular vehicles, and joined the retinue of top MGM writers. Marion excelled in nearly all genres, from gritty prison dramas like The Big House (1930) to boisterous comedies like Min and Bill (1930) to passionate literary adaptations like Camille (1936).

Where to start with her work: The Champ (1931), the much imitated, never equalled macho tearjerker that won Marion an Oscar.

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Anita Loos (1888 – 1981) – writer and producer

Loos started her film career in 1912 at the tender age of 24, writing original stories for D.W. Griffith. When sitting through Griffith’s colossal Intolerance (1916), you can enjoy the varied linguistic textures of the intertitles, written by Loos.

Most famous for her novel Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Loos also made a name for herself in the talkies by writing witty screenplays and original stories, frequently centering on conflicted, brassy heroines trying to overcome their shady pasts.

Where to start with her work: The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912). Yes, that’s right, Loos wrote the scenario for what some consider to be first ever gangster film.

Although multiple writers worked on the wild Jean Harlow comedy Red-Headed Woman (1932), much of its ditzy-genius dialogue sounds in tune with Loos’s nothing-sacred sense of humor—and it comes with my hearty endorsement!

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Mary Pickford (1892 – 1979) – actress, writer, and producer

Don’t let the ringlets fool you. A founder of United Artists and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Pickford was a formidable self-taught businesswoman and a damn sharp producer.

Arguably the most popular and influential star in the history of American film, she rose from obscurity to give joy to millions and played an integral role in creating Hollywood as we know it.

Where to start with her work: For a short taste of Pickford at her sassiest, check out the empowering role-reversal fantasy The Dream (1911), a one-reeler she also wrote, in which a nasty husband imagines his wife turning the tables on him. As for her features, I’d recommend starting with Sparrows (1926), a taut Southern Gothic fable that Pickford produced. It’s one of the great treasures of the silent era.

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Lillian Gish (1893 – 1993) – actress and director

Fetishized onscreen as the waifish ideal of 1910s femininity, Gish in real life was anything but frail. She directed only one film, which has sadly been lost, but she was actively involved in almost every aspect of her career, bringing the cameraman Hendrik Sartov to D.W. Griffith’s attention, for instance.

Once she joined MGM’s stable of stars, she enjoyed unprecedented artistic control and lobbied to make meaningful, morally challenging films like The Scarlet Letter (1926) and The Wind (1928). Gish picked her director, Victor Seastrom, and her leading man, Lars Hanson, for both films. She also had to clear the adaption of Hawthorne’s novel with women’s organizations around the country, because the studio feared that her public would object to such a racy story! Without Gish’s efforts, at least two masterpieces of the late silent era wouldn’t exist.

Where to start with her work: Her influential performance in Broken Blossoms (1919) will break your heart. Grab a box of tissues (and a good friend) and weep away. Then dig up a copy of The Wind (1928); without giving away too much about the plot, I’ll just say that The Night of the Hunter isn’t the only movie to feature a gun-toting Gish…

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Mae West (1893 – 1980) – actress and writer

It seems strange to group Mae West with women who made their film debuts decades before she did. Born the same year as Lillian Gish, West created a name for herself in the theater, writing and starring in plays so scandalous that she was brought to trial for indecency.

Although the Hays Office warned studios against hiring West, Paramount ignored the edict. West’s bawdy brand of comedy—and she wrote her own fantastically quotable dialogue—raked in huge box office profits, saving Paramount from bankruptcy. Her ribald, confident persona appealed to Depression-era audiences. Better yet, her frank sexuality and proudly independent attitude appalled the censors.

Where to start with her work: She Done Him Wrong (1932), and remember it’s spoofing melodrama.

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Mabel Normand (1895 – 1930) – actress, director, writer, and producer

Before there was Charlie Chaplin, there was Mabel Normand, exploring the largely uncharted territory of screen comedy. In her own words, “Since all previous laughs had been achieved through the spoken word, and in our early days, through slapstick hokey, I had to cleave a path of laughter through the wilderness of the industry’s ignorance and inexperience, I created my own standard of fun.”

Where to start with her work: You’ll enjoy the spirited hijinks that Normand directed in Mabel’s Strange Predicament (1914). I also recommend the cheeky feature-length romp Mickey (1918), which she produced.

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Dorothy Arzner (1897 – 1979) – writer, director, and editor

The only woman director working at a major Hollywood studio in the 1930s, Dorothy Arzner specialized in movies focusing on the struggles of driven, headstrong female protagonists. She directed Clara Bow’s first talkie, The Wild Party (1929), and interesting vehicles for the top female talent of the day, including Katharine Hepburn, Joan Crawford, and Maureen O’Hara, among many others.

In a film industry that had come to embrace a factory system mentality, Arzner was a rebel. She’d direct the film her way or not direct it at all. As she said, “My philosophy is that to be a director, you cannot be subject to anyone, even the head of the studio.”

Where to start with her work: Dance, Girl, Dance (1940), an acidly feminist take on the seedy world of burlesque and club dancing. It was also Arzner’s penultimate film.

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Margaret Booth (1898 – 2002) – editor and producer

When we talk about influential women in film, the temptation is to focus on directors, writers, and producers. However, editors literally piece movies together, setting their rhythm and contributing a vital interpretative component of filmmaking.

Starting out as a “cutter” on Griffith films, Margaret Booth moved on to MGM and rose to the position of editor-in-chief, supervising the assembly of hundreds of movies. In fact, Irving Thalberg coined the phrase “film editor” to describe Booth and to eliminate the unskilled connotation of “joiner,” “patcher,” or “cutter.”

Where to start with her work: The Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), which displays her knack for creating tension through dynamic, rapidly-paced passages of editing.

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Virginia Van Upp (1902 – 1970) – writer and producer

One of the few women to hold a leadership position at a major Hollywood studio in the Golden Age, Van Upp was appointed executive producer and second-in-command at Columbia by the notoriously hardboiled mogul Harry Cohn.

Starting out as a screenwriter, she was instrumental in defining the public image of Rita Hayworth. Van Upp supervised two of the most lush and enduring of 1940s films noirs: Gilda (1946) and The Lady From Shanghai (1947).

Where to start with her work: Cover Girl (1944), a vibrant musical with plenty of wisecracking dialogue for undaunted career woman Eve Arden… saying what we imagine Van Upp would say if she were in the movie. One suspects that she wrote herself into her own script!

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Ida Lupino (1918 – 1995) – actress, director, writer, and producer

Groomed as a potential replacement for Bette Davis at Warner Brothers, Lupino projected a wounded, soulful toughness during her prime as an actress, even in the most insipid films. But she longed for more and, after picking up the fine points of direction by observing the likes of Raoul Walsh and William Wellman, she formed an independent production company.

Lupino made low-budget films with surprisingly ambitious subject manner. As Ally Acker wrote, she “chose controversial, socially conscious issues for the themes of her movies: rape, bigamy, polio, unwed motherhood.”

Where to start with her work: The Hitch-Hiker (1953), a nail-biting, ferocious cautionary tale of two dudes in distress held hostage by a serial killer.

Who am I forgetting? Which pioneering woman from film history most inspires you?

Soaring Spectacle: 10 Reasons to Watch Wings (1927)

sterBig budget movies from any era typically don’t do much for me. Give me snappy dialogue and recycled sets over earthquakes and casts of thousands any day.

There are, however, a few exceptions to my dislike of big bottom lines… and William Wellman’s Wings, which cost a whopping $2 million to make, is exceptional in almost every way.

The story focuses on two young men who enlist as combat pilots during World War I: middle class, happy-go-lucky Jack (Buddy Rogers) and wealthy, contemplative David (Richard Arlen), both of whom love the same woman (Jobyna Ralston). The fact that neither man is in love with Clara Bow as Mary, Jack’s vivacious neighbor, taxes my suspension of disbelief, but the plot all makes sense in the end.

As Jack and David train and join the fight, they form an unlikely friendship, a mutual loyalty that will be put to the ultimate test by their romantic rivalry and by the sobering sacrifices of war.

If you haven’t seen it, remedy that as soon as you possibly can. I can hardly conceive of a better way to spend 2 hours and 20 minutes. It’ll probably cost less than whatever you paid to see any Oscars contender this year, and it’ll be way better.

In case I need to convince you of the glory of Wings, here are the reasons, in order of ascending significance (does that sound official enough?), why I consider it a great and historic film.

Warning: this post does contain some spoilers.

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10. It won the first-ever Academy Award for Best Picture.

On May 16, 1929 in the Blossom Room of the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, industry professionals gathered at a banquet to celebrate excellence in contributions to American film from 1927 to 1928.

The event included practically none of the pomp or the fixtures that we associate with the Oscars today. It wasn’t recorded or broadcast. Douglas Fairbanks Sr. hosted a program consisting of about 15 minutes of award presentations.

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The winners, selected by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, had been announced far in advance. Studios received congratulatory telegrams in February of the previous year.

A welcome prestige nod for Paramount, Wings won the prize for “Outstanding Picture,” claimed by producer Lucien Hubbard. William Wellman, the film’s director, wasn’t even invited to the ceremony!

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9. You’ll see both male and female nudity. In a general admission film.

Do you have a friend who thinks silent films are boring? Well, first off, you need to make better friends. Second, you should sit the aforementioned loser down (use restraints if necessary) and play Wings for his or her benefit. Don’t worry: there’s a little something for everyone.

Want to see 3 naked men standing in a row? Keep your eyes wide open during the first 15 minutes of the film.

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Interested in the prospect of topless Clara Bow? You’ll see exactly that, briefly but unmistakably, about halfway through the runtime.

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Yeah, I went there. The things I do to encourage people to watch old movies.

And remember, no ratings system existed for movies in 1927. Audiences of all ages could enjoy what was, ahem, on display. It really was a simpler time.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I shall try to recover my dignity (doubtful) and proceed with my post.

8. Would-be filmmakers could learn a thing or two about how to balance spectacle with story.

A popular epic and a technical miracle, Wings glides above the clouds but never loses sight of its human dimension. The film’s reputation today primarily (and justly) rests on the scale and innovation of its airborne sequences. Yet all that derring-do would be meaningless if we didn’t care about the characters. And Wellman worked hard for the viewer’s emotional investment.

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Wings could serve as an instructive example for the industry today. It demonstrates that a colossal movie (and a box office juggernaut) can and should have a heart. As many recent blockbusters show, spectacle for the sheer sake of spectacle just doesn’t cut it as art.

7. It catapulted Gary Cooper to stardom—even though he’s onscreen for less than 5 minutes.

Even before the public knew his name, the female employees at Paramount sure did. When Coop walked by their offices, a collective sigh rose from the secretarial pool. As B.P. Schulberg’s secretary described the actor, he was “the most beautiful hunk of man who ever walked down this hall!”

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Cooper had already distinguished himself in a supporting role in The Winning of Barbara Worth, but remained a relative unknown.

It’s not exaggerating by much to say that if you blink during Wings, you might miss the ‘Montana Mule.’ Nevertheless, William Wellman tested dozens of actors for the small role of a pilot who dies during training before he chose Cooper to play doomed airman White.

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When White crashes, the shocking incident exposes the shadow of fear and peril that airmen lived under, even before they squared up against the enemy. Cooper’s strange blend of casualness and intensity spurred audience members all over the country to swoon over the bit player.

6. Buddy Rogers was adorable… and quite brave, to boot!

Due to the limitations of cameras and the instability of planes in flight, the leading actors of Wings both flew their planes at times and turned on the cameras to film their own close-ups. This wasn’t a big problem for the ruminative Richard Arlen who had aviation experience.

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But Buddy Rogers, a 22-year-old rising star from Kansas, had never flown a plane before. After each flight—and he spent almost 100 hours up in the air—he would vomit out of anxiety and motion sickness. Then he immediately got back to work.

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Even tough customer Wellman had to admire Rogers’s persistence and courage. But he had another trick in mind for the poor kid.

For a rowdy drunk scene set at the Folies Bergère, Wellman opted to make Rogers’s performance as genuine as possible. As the actor recalled years later, “Here I am this little boy, never had a beer or champagne, and Billy says, ‘Why champagne’s good for you, Buddy. It’ll relax you.’ And so he relaxed me, relaxed me, relaxed me. And he said, ‘Do the scene this way.’”

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Rogers carries the film on his narrow shoulders. We watch him convincingly transform from a carefree teenager to a traumatized hero redeemed by love. His sparkling boyishness and irresistible charm give way to abject despair and guilt. A beloved, important star of the 1920s and 1930s, Rogers is undeservedly forgotten today and due for rediscovery.

vlcsnap-2015-02-21-15h48m42s169 Looks like somebody’s not in Kansas anymore.

5. Even during earthbound scenes, the cinematography will astound you.

Wings dazzles the viewer with so many fluid camera movements and multi-plane shots that it would take far more space than I have here to go through them all.

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Perhaps the most impressive shot occurs during the Folies Bergère scene when the crane-mounted camera swoops over several tables of carousing couples (including a same-sex couple!), finally ending up on the rim of Jack’s champagne glass as he stares agog at the bubbles.

4. Clara Bow will awe you with her talent and range.

Sex symbol, 1920s icon, flapper ideal: sure, Clara Bow was all of those things, but first and foremost she was a tremendously gifted actress. Saucy romantic comedies made Clara Bow the biggest star in the world, but she proved just as adept in dramatic situations.

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Playing the girl-next-door who goes overseas in the female volunteer corps for the chance to see her sweetheart again, Bow lends beguiling credibility to a rather expedient part. Although one could argue that her role merely serves to add gratuitous helpings of ‘It’ to an otherwise manly war drama, her poignant performance justifies every second of screen time she gets.

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Her incandescent naturalness wins you over from her first entrance, parting a pair of bloomers on a clothesline and bursting with joy at the sight of Jack, her childhood crush. Few actresses in the history of cinema could exude such enthusiasm and energy without seeming strained. Even doing something as mundane as driving an army transport truck, she doesn’t fail to hold our attention with her wondrously animated face.

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Bow also evokes much of the film’s piercing melancholy. She imbues the movie’s wild centerpiece, the Folies Bergère scene, with a moral resonance and establishes a special bond with the audience. As the hero loses himself in an unselfconscious haze of alcohol and oblivion, she reflects his innermost sorrow to the viewer. Mature beyond her years, she understands the sadness of his pleasure far better than he does.

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3. William Wellman claimed it as his masterpiece. And that’s saying something.

Before he took on Hollywood, Wellman graduated with honors from the school of life by joining up with the Lafayette Flying Corps as a combat pilot during World War I—and coming home to tell the tale. Although 29-year-old Wellman had only directed a few movies by the mid-1920s, Paramount executives knew he possessed the real-life knowledge of military aviation necessary to oversee the massive production of Wings.

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Wellman would go on to direct a staggering run of great films. He helmed the virtuoistic gangster saga The Public Enemy (1932), the gritty, unforgettable social drama Wild Boys of the Road (1933), the uproarious screwball comedy Nothing Sacred (1937), the much-imitated Hollywood satire A Star Is Born (1937), and the seminal Western The Ox-Bow Incident (1943).

He’s also the man you can thank for the ass-kicking, scantily clad Barbara Stanwyck vehicle Night Nurse (1932), so hip-hurray for ‘Wild Bill’!

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Towards the end of his life, when asked to name the film of which he was most proud, he mentioned Wings. In fact, it was not only his best, but his most personal film, the perfect expression of all that he’d experienced and all that he could help others to experience through cinema.

Wellman makes a cameo appearance in the movie—but not in the air, as you might expect of a venerated pilot. Instead, he dies during the big attack at Saint-Mihiel, looking up towards the sky at the planes decimating the enemy. He croaks his last words as a blessing to those men in their flying machines, “Attaboy! Them buzzards are some good after all!”

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2. It conveys the bitter irony of war.

Over the course of the film, Jack mistakes his friends for strangers twice. The first time, he confuses Mary with one of the French floozies at the Folies Bergère. The second time, he mistakes David for a German flyer. And kills him.

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Shot down behind enemy lines and presumed dead, David hijacks a German plane and heads back to the base. On the way, he encounters Jack, mourning his comrade’s “death” and bent on revenge.

To me nothing looks like hell with the lid taken off more than Jack’s impossibly pretty face contorted in blooddrunk triumph and fury… not realizing that he just shot down his best friend.

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Similarly, after mowing down swaths of his German counterparts, we can read Jack’s lips as he callously mutters, “Bastards!” By dehumanizing his enemy, Jack lets his own humanity slip. No one can blame him for doing so; we would all do the same in his situation or perish.

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The point isn’t merely that Jack kills his friend, but rather that he remorselessly kills men who might’ve been his friends, who aren’t substantially different from himself and David. Put a cross or a tricolore on your plane and you become anathema to the other side. The irony of David’s death begs the question, why invest so much hate in symbols? Why take lives because of them?

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And, lest the film end on a note of victory, Wellman deals us another gut punch of sadness. When Jack returns to his hometown, his car passes through a street of jubilant neighbors who toss flowers at him. Wellman cuts to an unusual low angle shot from beneath the car’s steering wheel. The hero is looking down at something, but what? Then a cut to a higher angle divulges what Jack holds in his hand: a miniature teddy bear, David’s good luck charm, and the medal he promised to return to David’s mother.

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Meanwhile, David’s father stares blankly out at the celebration from behind a memorial flag. David’s girl Sylvia sits catatonic on the swing she once shared with the man she was going to marry. And Jack will have to trudge through the rest of his existence missing his friend, the man he gunned down. The loss of a single young life palpitates in the forlorn final images of Wings. As WWI poet A.E. Housman wrote:

Life, to be sure, 
Is nothing much to lose,
But young men think it is,
And we were young.

1. You won’t find a more stunning and authentic recreation of WWI in any film.

It is not easy for a modern mind to grapple with the awe-inspiring realness of Wings.

Its battle scenes use no rear projection, no models, and, obviously, no CGI.  No tricks of any kind. Just frame after frame of clouds, aircraft, and men risking their lives to execute a brutally beautiful aerial ballet.

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220 real planes and 13 cameramen were drafted into the fray. Thousands of soldiers participated in the battle scenes. The U.S. Army blasted and bombarded vast expanses around San Antonio, Texas to reproduce no-man’s-land.

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The finished film (especially its airborne sequences) stands as a record not only of extreme physical courage, but also of material marvels, of things that actually happened at a certain time and place. The thrills of Wings depend on an inherent, mechanical quality of film: that it captures and preserves reality.

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The stakes of the action emerge from the fact that, like a fingerprint, each frame is existentially bound to the fraction of a second that it photographed. What we see—a plane careening through the air, spiraling, trailing smoke, and crashing to earth, for instance—could perhaps be faked. But that fakery would undermine everything that makes us gasp when confronted with the real thing, so daring and dangerous that it seems locked in a perpetual present.

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In fact, I can think of few mainstream movies that so intoxicatingly engage cinema’s tensions between spectacle and documentary, between fiction and reality. Wings weaves the immediacy of cinema into the visual equivalent of WWI poetry.

By turns lyrical, giddy, sentimental, and ugly (as all great war movies must be), Wellman’s film transmits the chivalric pride and the wrenching disillusionment of WWI.

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Wings allows its audience to feel both the soaring adrenaline rush and the crushing futility of the war that stole the 20th century’s innocence. You share the cockpit with the characters. You see the clouds billow around them and watch the horizon come unstuck. Perhaps no movie has ever put its viewers inside a war as completely as Wings does.

The Academy deemed it an “Outstanding Picture.” And, for once, I agree entirely with The Academy.

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This post is part of the 31 Days of Oscar Blogathon, hosted by Outspoken and Freckled, Paula’s Cinema Club, Once Upon a Screen. Be sure to check out the other entries!

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Happy Thanksgiving! Harold Lloyd in Hot Water (1924)

Today I’m thankful for Harold Lloyd. Today and pretty much every other day. That bespectacled goofball/genius never fails to make me laugh and remind me that life, even at its most awkward and calamitous, is a beautiful thing.

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Sadly, Lloyd doesn’t seem to get the widespread love that Keaton and Chaplin do, but his comedy has aged every bit as well as theirs. I actually feel like I can relate to Lloyd’s character the most of silent comedy’s “big three.” Lloyd’s harried, usually eager-to-please persona displays the right amount of cockiness and crankiness to let audiences recognize him as one of their own. Encountered with ridiculous obstacles or heinously rude people, Lloyd takes a moment to grimace in solidarity with his audience, as if to say, “Well, that’s just typical, isn’t it, folks?”

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I decided to share the brilliant scene where Harold wrestles with a turkey in Hot Water—perfect Thanksgiving entertainment, right? Well, I couldn’t find it on YouTube, but I don’t want to live in a world where that scene’s not available for your instant viewing pleasure. So, I uploaded it myself. Enjoy!

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An hour-long feature, Hot Water doesn’t stand out as one of Harold’s best films or even a representative entry in the Lloyd cannon: he doesn’t have a distinct goal or overcome a weakness to win the girl he loves. Instead, he plays a new husband grappling with his wife’s unpleasant family through a series of disastrous events.

However, Hot Water does contain some of Lloyd’s funniest material, such as the celebrated car-ride-with-the-family shenanigans and a dizzyingly hilarious faux-ghost finale. Although the movie’s second half takes place in a mundane setting, a modest 1920s home, the simple cleverness of the gags speaks to Harold’s remarkable timing.

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For instance, seized by the false fear that he’s killed his mother-in-law, Harold Lloyd looks down at a newspaper to see a story about a hanged criminal. He tries to pull away, but, oh no, he’s leaned on his necktie! We get a hearty belly laugh as Harold’s guilty conscience, no doubt interpreting the pressure around his neck as a phantom noose tightening on him, prompts a panic. This underrated gem of a movie proves that Harold excelled at a wide range of comic styles—including domestic humor—not just the high-anxiety daredevil comedy for which he’s best remembered.

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When I had the pleasure of meeting Lloyd’s granddaughter Suzanne Lloyd at the TCM Classic Film Festival, she described Harold as “the father of romantic comedy.” Hot Water, with its abundant misunderstandings and ambiance of family dysfunction, suggests that Harold might’ve been the ancestor of the modern sit-com, too!

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