Category Archives: Classics

The Princess Comes Across (1936, William K. Howard)

The Princess Comes Across is an uneven mix of comedy and mystery. Too much mystery, too little comedy, noticeable lack of romance. The romance is an awkward afterthought in Walter DeLeon, Francis Martin, Don Hartman, and Frank Butler’s script (four screenwriters is probably too much even in 1936; definitely for this kind of picture), which is weird since it’s the initial setup.

The film takes place on a passenger liner going from England to the United States. Starts with the passengers boarding, ends with them getting off. The script’s very hands off with the trip. When band leader Fred MacMurray says he and the band aren’t just rehearsing (in his room, which ought to be a comic bit but isn’t because the film’s never inventive, in script or direction), but getting ready to play for the ship, you wonder why it was never mentioned before. It’s not even clear the rest of the band’s onboard until that moment. Not for sure; you could assume it, but you could also not, it wouldn’t matter for how the film played. Princess is creatively sparse; its logic is fine (even, possibly, with the romance stuff), but the film never seems to be enjoying itself.

Maybe because MacMurray and top-billed Carole Lombard never get to be funny together. They get their not really cute cute meeting. MacMurray and sidekick William Frawley, who was already bald in 1936, booked the royal suite and are getting booted because Swedish princess Lombard is on board. MacMurray’s initially a jerk about it, then gets a look at Lombard and immediately changes his tune. So while Lombard and attendant Alison Skipworth (who gives the film’s most entertaining performance by far) try to get situated, MacMurray keeps annoying them. And it’s not cute. Especially since MacMurray plays more off Skipworth than Lombard; there’s a reason for it, as the punchline reveals, but… it could’ve been done better. Director Howard doesn’t seem to know how to showcase Lombard even when she’s not running a scene. Ted Tetzlaff’s photography doesn’t help. Tetzlaff’s lighting a thriller and even when Princess is full-on mystery, it’s never a thriller. It’s not just too much mystery in a comedy, it’s also way too light of mystery in a comedy.

The film sets up the mystery not to kick off a suspense thriller, but some kind of screwball gag. There are five police detectives onboard, all from different countries, headed to a conference. The captain (a somewhat underused George Barbier) complains about them in exposition, which seems like it’s going to lead somewhere with ex-con MacMurray or secretive royal Lombard, but instead has the five detectives chasing a stowaway Bradley Page. Sure, Page’s a convicted multiple murderer on the lamb but… even when the detectives are talking about dire outcomes, it’s all light. Howard’s just can’t bring any gravitas.

Maybe because all five detectives are basically played as comic relief. The straightest edge is Tetsu Komai as the Japanese detective but only because the movie’s othering him to create suspicion. Douglass Dumbrille’s the French guy; he’s a bit stuck-up but all right. Lumsden Hare’s the British one. He’s not memorable even though he’s got a lot to do third act. But Sig Ruman (as the German) and Mischa Auer (as the Russian)? They’re awesome. It’s like, Ruman and Auer make it seem like Princess knows what its got possibility-wise so it can’t possibly waste it.

Then it wastes all the possibility.

Notice I haven’t mentioned top-billed Lombard and MacMurray in a while? It’s because all they end up doing is reacting to the mystery with Page. And then scuz blackmailer Porter Hall bothering MacMurray and trying to get a pay-off, which ends up involving Lombard too because they’re cabins are next to each other… Sure, Lombard and MacMurray don’t really have story arcs of their own (he’s a successful band leader, she’s about to be successful as a movie star, they don’t get anything else but… vague ambition); they just react when the mystery spills over to their screen time.

They’re both fine. Absolutely no heavy lifting for either. They do have fun in the far too infrequent wordplay scenes. Frawley’s fine. He gets a beret arc, which is more than Lombard or MacMurray get. And more than Skipworth, who doesn’t even get a beret. Again, she’s awesome. Hall’s great too. Ruman, Auer. The cast is good, the film just doesn’t have anything for them to do.

Princess is cute. Ish.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by William K. Howard; screenplay by Walter DeLeon, Francis Martin, Don Hartman, and Frank Butlerz, based on a story by Philip MacDonald and a novel by Louis Lucien Rogger; director of photography, Ted Tetzlaff; edited by Paul Weatherwax; costume designer, Travis Banton; produced by Arthur Hornblow Jr.; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Carole Lombard (Princess Olga), Fred MacMurray (King Mantell), Alison Skipworth (Lady Gertrude), William Frawley (Benton), Porter Hall (Darcy), Douglass Dumbrille (Lorel), Lumsden Hare (Cragg), Sig Ruman (Steindorf), Mischa Auer (Morevitch), Bradley Page (Merko), Tetsu Komai (Kawati), and George Barbier (Captain Nicholls).



Niagara (1953, Henry Hathaway)

Niagara has some noir-ish elements to it—femme fatale wife Marilyn Monroe stepping out on war veteran husband Joseph Cotten—but it’s not about the darkness, it’s about the light. And its location shooting. Niagara takes full advantage of the falls, not just for scenery but for multiple story elements (we find out Monroe’s stepping out because she heads to the falls to meet up with her much younger, prettier, and presumably not PTSD-suffering lover, Richard Allan). Director Hathaway and cinematographer Joseph MacDonald basically do an exceptionally good commercial for the possibilities of Technicolor (and location shooting). Hathaway and MacDonald show it can do noir, it can do suspense, it can do action, it can do drama, it can ogle Monroe. The first act of the film, in addition to introducing the cast and setup, is all about ogling Monroe. Sometimes as a plot point—when Monroe’s turning heads—other times just because. The film also comes up with a really creative way for her to get to do a song, like they want to remind everyone she sings too.

The film opens with Cotten stumbling back to their motel in the early morning, narrating about existence. There’s no further narration in the film and it just sets up Cotten’s character for when he disappears for a spell to introduce the film’s protagonist, Jean Peters, which happens after he gets home to Monroe and passes out. The film’s got a fantastic screenplay (from producer Charles Brackett, Walter Resich, and Richard L. Breen), both in terms of plotting and dialogue. Everything contributes to the character development and the reveals until it’s time for the action finale to take over. Great action finale. Oh, and also the obvious but Code acceptable sexuality of the characters.

Anyway, Peters and her husband Max Showalter are on a delayed honeymoon. Showalter works for a breakfast cereal company in marketing and is all about climbing the corporate ladder. Showalter’s annoying as hell and not very good, which almost doesn’t matter as part of the film hinges on him dismissing Peters’s concerns about neighbors Cotten and Monroe (to the point he stops cop Denis O’Dea from interviewing Peters about something important because Showalter’s done hearing about it); unfortunately he never learns from the experience of the film’s events, presumably consigning Peters to living under his dimwitted wanna-be alpha male nonsense for the rest of her life. If Showalter were good or the part was self-aware, Niagara might be a lot better.

But it’s still really good. Peters is a great protagonist, even if she’s rarely the lead—after Monroe’s introduction at the beginning, things shift to Peters and Showalter, then back to Cotten, then Monroe, then Cotten, then Monroe. The third act is a little more even but it’s so action-packed, there’s not much for Peters to do. She shows empathy for Cotten in the first act, getting involved in he and Monroe’s unhealthy—but not initially clear how unhealthy—relationship so even though she’s the protagonist, it’s all about her perspective on them. As for her and Showalter and their delayed honeymoon, outside him being a dipshit in general, he doesn’t show any interest in anything until he gets to suck up to a local Shredded Wheat vice president, a perfectly obnoxious Don Wilson. Wilson and wife Lurene Tuttle are another of Niagara’s small successes, both in terms of writing and performance. They’re great accessories for Peters and Showalter as Peters comes to understand the thriller she’s found herself in.

Lots of gorgeous filmmaking. Hathaway’s got a great feel for the locations, both the town and the falls; he, MacDonald, editor Barbara McLean, and composer Sol Kaplan do fantastic work. McLean’s cutting gets more impressive than the still wondrous photography in the second half, as the thriller aspect replaces the Monroe ogling.

Monroe’s really good, Peters is really good, Cotten’s real, real good. They more than make up for Showalter being, at best, wishy-washy. O’Dea’s fine as the cop. Allan’s effective as the beefcake boy toy. Russell Collins is the motel owner and he’s very distinctive. He’s fine—he doesn’t have much to do—but Hathaway treats him like there’s always something more to his story. It provides some nice texture.

Niagara only runs ninety minutes and every one of them is effectively used. It’s a very substantial ninety minutes. The only thing wrong in it is Showalter, for multiple reasons, but the film successfully works around him (at one point it feels like everyone’s just ignoring him). It’s an excellent showcase for its leads, the filmmakers, and the Technicolor process.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Henry Hathaway; written by Charles Brackett, Walter Reisch, and Richard L. Breen; director of photography, Joseph MacDonald; edited by Barbara McLean; music by Sol Kaplan; costume designer, Dorothy Jeakins; produced by Brackett; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Marilyn Monroe (Rose Loomis), Joseph Cotten (George Loomis), Jean Peters (Polly Cutler), Max Showalter (Ray Cutler), Denis O’Dea (Inspector Starkey), Richard Allan (Patrick), Don Wilson (Mr. J.C. Kettering), Lurene Tuttle (Mrs. Kettering), and Russell Collins (Mr. Qua).


To Have and Have Not (1944, Howard Hawks)

Whatever To Have and Have Not’s original intent—not just novel versus film but film in pre-production to film completed—what it ends up doing and doing better than maybe anything else ever is star-make. To Have and Have Not showcases Lauren Bacall in constantly imaginative ways, including how much you can like her when she’s not being very nice. And how good she is at not being very nice while still seeming like she’s immaculate. So Bacall’s an unenthusiastic ex-pat in 1940 in Martinique; the French have already fallen, the island run by Nazi-allied Vichy. Except the locals are pro-France but quiet about it in general. The United States isn’t in the war yet so there are Americans around the island. Including lead Humphrey Bogart. Now, To Have and Have Not is a Humphrey Bogart movie. You’re supposed to entertain the possibility he’s actually flirting with Dolores Moran, which Bacall gives him crap about but everyone—Bacall included—can see every time Bogart’s got a scene with Moran, he’s just clamoring to get back into the banter with Bacall. When Bacall’s offscreen in Have Not, which is an actual action movie with Nazis trying to get the good guys—including an adorable, hilarious drunk Walter Brennan—so there are stakes here—but any time Bacall’s not around, it’s all about getting back to her. The movie’s already got a big problem with the end, who knows what it’d be like without Bacall enchanting the whole thing.

Bogart’s got a boat and takes rich guys out fishing. Not exciting but it keeps him fed and best friend Brennan sufficiently drunk. He’s apolitical until fate drops Bacall into his proverbial lap (and later in the literal) while also taking away his payday. Now in a spot, he decides to help out friend, bar-owner, Frenchman, resistor Marcel Dalio. Dalio’s got some friends of friends who want to bring another friend to the island so then they can break yet another friend out of Devil’s Island, the French prison island. As long as it pays, Bogart’s fine with it. Because he’s going to at least get Bacall out of there before the local Vichy police (Dan Seymour is the boss in an okay but not great performance) starts stamping down harder. War’s coming, after all.

Throw in actual good guy Walter Szurovy for some ideological clashes with Bogart’s right-minded but mercenary approach, Moran as Szurovy’s wife who no one believes Bogart’s interested in, drunk Brennan getting into trouble, Hoagy Carmichael as the piano man, Sheldon Leonard as one of the cops–To Have and Have Not has everything; actually it’s excessive. And it’s beautifully made. Hawks does a great job with the direction. Especially of the actors, but in general he and photographer Sidney Hickox do an excellent job making the handful of sets feel like a whole world, without ever being constrained. It helps the action follows Bogart out onto the water. The more complicated shots are all the action thriller stuff, the more complicated lighting is all the Bacall and Bogart stuff. Hickox, presumably under Hawks’s direction, brings the shadows for those scenes. Even when it’s a daytime shot, they find some blinds to shade Bacall. It’s like the movie’s doing lighting tests on her or trying to psyche her out and see how she responds under pressure. The sort of proto-noir expressionist lighting never makes a scene and occasionally gets old. See, the audience already has a read on Bacall because her performance hits the requisite beats as far as the narrative goes, but just because Bacall doesn’t have a line doesn’t mean she’s not the focus of the moment.

And the famous “you know how to whistle” scene is pretty early in the picture. And it’s as good as everyone says. All because Bacall. During the second act the way the narrative distance works—Bacall clearly excelling but the film not giving her increased attention for it—kind of promises there’s going to be something worth it in the end. Yes, Bacall does get the final moment (plus a punctation), but she doesn’t get the third act itself. It’s still that action thriller with Bogart, albeit a lovestruck one.

Good script from Jules Furthman and William Faulkner, despite the movie not having an ending; some of the dialogue is phenomenal—at one point Bogart just starts grinning through most of it, positively giddy regardless of the danger because Bacall. Unfortunately that giddiness isn’t enough to cover for the resolve being so blah. Still. Good script.

Pretty good editing from Christian Nyby, who occasionally cuts a little too late and a little too soon and there are costar reactions in shots. Bacall watching Bogart and Brennan do their thing, Bogart watching Bacall walk then remembering he’s supposed to be listening too. It ends up being charming, even if its loose.

To Have and Have Not is good action thriller with a singular performance from Bacall, a strong, nimble one from Bogart, and solid work from everyone else. Even if they don’t make the most of the role (obviously not Carmichael, who’s awesome as the piano man). Hawks’s direction is excellent, writing’s good, just don’t have an ending. It’s a good film.

And Bacall makes it a classic one.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Howard Hawks; screenplay by Jules Furthman and William Faulkner, based on the novel by Ernest Hemingway; director of photography, Sidney Hickox; edited by Christian Nyby; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Humphrey Bogart (Harry), Lauren Bacall (Marie), Walter Brennan (Eddie), Marcel Dalio (Frenchy), Hoagy Carmichael (Cricket), Dolores Moran (Mme. Hellene de Bursac), Walter Szurovy (Paul de Bursac), Sheldon Leonard (Lt. Coyo), and Dan Seymour (Capt. M. Renard).



The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1954, Mark Robson)

With the exception of Grace Kelly (the only significant female character in the film), none of Bridges at Toko-Ri’s main characters are ever explicitly scrutable. Even when the admiral, Fredric March, muses about the nature of war and the men who wage it, the film’s already established March’s thoughts don’t betray him. He’s not cagey; if anything, he’s a conversational duelist, on the offensive. It’s a very interesting development on the character, who’s initially set up as a sad old man with a dead son who latches onto those officers with similar demographics in his command, in Toko-Ri’s case it’s William Holden. Holden’s a disgruntled lawyer from Denver, Colorado who got called up ahead of activist reservists because of his WWII experience. He’s got Kelly and two daughters at home; he’s miserable at war, living on the carrier, flying missions; he’s trying to grow a drinking problem and he’s thought through faking mental issues to get out of flying those missions.

And he’s not quiet about it either.

One of the strangest things about Toko-Ri’s script, other than it really being a grim, tense, terse war movie with a bunch of character drama shoehorned in to utter perfection, is how little the film is concerned with establishing Holden’s character. The movie opens with March, then goes to Mickey Rooney, who’s fourth lead in the first half, third in the second… maybe second in the second. March is the admiral, Rooney’s the rescue helicopter pilot (Earl Holliman is Rooney’s sidekick), Holden’s the pilot, Kelly’s the wife. Holden never gets a scene to himself until into the second half of the movie, after he’s been introduced through Rooney’s lens, March’s lens… maybe not Kelly’s lens. She doesn’t really get a lens. She gets the dramatic music and she gets to speak plainly about her feelings, though she’s also adorably small c conservative—the one full, sweet scene we get with Holden, Kelly, and the daughters is when they’re in their Japanese hotel and they go to the steam baths and there’s a Japanese family there too. It’s cute but not pandering; mostly thanks to Robson’s direction and Holden but also editor Alma Macrorie, who’s just as good doing the comedy as the fighter jets.

The movie opens with Holden crashing into the ocean, Rooney saving him, March bonding with Holden and telling him Kelly and the daughters are waiting for them in Japan. Then it’s three days ahead and we only get hints of how they passed from Holden’s expressions and how he interacts with the other guys on the ship. The point of that very soft character development technique becomes clear later, in the second half of the film, when it’s just Holden shutting all the guys out on the ship after they’re back to sea, headed to a dangerous mission. Bridges gives its characters their own politics, identifying most with Holden—who’s slowly buying into March’s take, but March also just sees Korea as a diversion from Soviet Russia… but for progressive reasons. Sort of. Kelly’s living “Donna Reed Goes to War.” Rooney’s a sociopath we find out. A lovable one, but a complete sociopath.

The film is character studies but fits them into the epical war drama frame. While mostly being tense action and preparation for action. Valentine Davies writes a really tight script; Bridges is based on a James Michener so who knows where that efficiency is from. Because there’s also Robson. He opens the movie with this very practical look at the way aircraft carriers work. The film opens with a thanks to the U.S. Navy for their participation, but it’s not clear how much participation Bridges is going to get. It gets a whole lot. There are big action set pieces, both in and out of fighter jets. Macrorie and whoever did the miniature effects startlingly match the actual jets. It’s a beautifully edited film.

Including on the opening “welcome to an aircraft carrier” montage sequence. It fits into the narrative eventually, but for a while it’s just Robson displaying this world. Very quickly the grandiosity of the carrier becomes mundane. Very quickly. In fact, I think Robson just cuts away from the carrier setup and never comes back to it. So he truncates it, because Robson keeps a brisk pace through the Japan sequence. Yeah, there’s the cutesy bathhouse scene but there’s nothing else. Otherwise the film’s always working toward the second half, where it slows down and puts Holden through a wringer and the audience never really gets to understand exactly what’s going on with him. Because even though the narrative distance is fairly firm on being about what happens to Holden and around Holden, it also seems like it could toggle over to being about what Holden’s going to do, which would change reads on how previous events unfolded. The Bridges at Toko-Ri doesn’t tell the audience what kind of the film they’re actually watching until around the third act; from the start, it promises to tell them, then keeps building to it. For at least an hour. It’s kind of breathtaking how well Robson and Davies pull it off. They don’t do it for the benefit of the genre—the early lefty-ish war movie—but for the film’s. Instead of going big, Robson and Davies keep it about the four main characters. It’s a tricky finish and the film’s very nimble in the execution.

The best performances are Holden and March. Not to knock Kelly or Rooney, they just don’t get the parts. Holden doesn’t really get to talk about his and March doesn’t talk about his when he’s talking about his. Robson cuts to their close-ups and waits for their reaction, in expression or dialogue, the film unable to continue until they’ve had their moment. Bridges hinges on them. Kelly and Rooney are both excellent, but the film doesn’t hinge on them in the same way. Because Kelly does get to talk about her experience; arguably her learning to speak up for herself is the film’s only traditionally successful character arc. She doesn’t suffer in silence or obfuscation. Rooney’s an entirely different case, initially set up as comic relief (or near to it) he’s actually something quite different. While still retaining some of the comic quality. But just as tragic as everyone else in their mutual delusions.

The Bridges at Toko-Ri takes the pieces of a war action movie and a war melodrama and assembles them into something very special. Great work from Robson, Davies, Holden, March, Kelly, Rooney, editor Macrorie, and photographer Loyal Griffs (save a rear screen projection shot here and there). It’s a phenomenal piece of work.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Mark Robson; screenplay by Valentine Davies, based on the novel by James A. Michener; director of photography, Loyal Griggs; edited by Alma Macrorie; music by Lyn Murray; produced by William Perlberg and George Seaton; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring William Holden (Lt. Harry Brubaker), Fredric March (Rear Adm. George Tarrant), Grace Kelly (Nancy Brubaker), Mickey Rooney (Mike Forney), Earl Holliman (Nestor Gamidge), Charles McGraw (Cmdr. Wayne Lee), Keiko Awaji (Kimiko), and Robert Strauss (Beer Barrel).