Category Archives: 1949

Mighty Joe Young (1949, Ernest B. Schoedsack)

From the first scene, Mighty Joe Young is concerning. There’s a nice establishing shot of an Africa plantation, with some great matte work, then little White girl on the plantation Lora Lee Michel sees a couple African men passing with a basket. She wants what’s in the basket, so there’s a nice lengthy barter sequence where you try to figure out not if it’s racist, but in how many ways it’s racist. Michel’s supposed to be adorable but is annoying and bad, which is more than Mighty Joe can handle. It’s going to be bad way too frequently; annoying and bad is just too much. Michel gets the basket and the baby gorilla it carries. When dad (a completely checked out Regis Toomey) gets home, he says she can’t keep the gorilla but of course she can because she’s precocious and mom’s dead.

Toomey’s foreshadowing for the supporting performances in the rest of the movie, which is familiar faces giving—at best—checked out performances and, in the case of Nestor Paiva, annoying ones. Though maybe it’s not Paiva’s fault; he’s playing the part like you want to see him get eaten by lions but Mighty Joe Young is a cloying kids’ movie and there’s not going to be any great feline feasting. Worse, there’s going to be lots of lions thrown around for stunts.

The film skips ahead twelve years and 8,000 miles west to New York City, where promoter Robert Armstrong is gearing up for an African expedient. He’s opening a new safari-themed Hollywood night club, even though sidekick Frank McHugh thinks it’s a bad idea. You know who doesn’t think it’s a bad idea? Out of work rodeo cowboy Ben Johnson, who’s character’s last name is Johnson and you feel like it’s because Johnson would forget anything else. Johnson’s not unlikable or annoying—actually quite the feat—but he’s beyond amateurish. Director Schoedsack does nothing for his actors.

So off Armstrong and Johnson go to Africa, joined by one of the aforementioned checked-out supporting performers, Denis Green (really, it’s hard to fault any of the actors when Ruth Rose’s script has the blandest dialogue and Schoedsack’s got zero interest in directing the cast). They’re just about to come home with all the tigers Johnson and his fellow cowboys have lassoed when Mighty Joe Young comes a-knocking–previewing the film’s impressive composite shots, where stop motion Joe will interact with the live action—and Armstrong, feeling his Carl Denham coming on, decides they’re going to rope it and bring it back with them.

Only after Joe beats up a bunch of cowboys—the cowboy thing, which goes away for most of the movie after this sequence, seems the most desperate bit of quadrant hunting—does Terry Moore appear and calm the the mighty ape. Moore is playing Michel grown-up; though, in the weirdest, definitely ickiest while not for sure being intentionally gross quadrant hunting, she’s not yet legal age, which means the contract she signs with Armstrong to do a night club act isn’t legal and also it means when thirty-year old Johnson is her love interest, he was going to have to take Moore back to Oklahoma to marry her because even in 1948 it seems like California wasn’t okay with literal dudes taking child brides. Oklahoma was, of course.

Anyway.

Things go terribly wrong and there’s a long Joe wrecking Safari-themed night club scene and fighting lions. The strange thing about the action is what the film’s willing to do stop motion and what it’s not. It uses stop motion lions sparingly, instead cutting in the real ones, usually just when a thrown lion hits something, giving the aforementioned air of animal abuse. With the horses too, in the Joe vs. cowboys scene. It also seems like the kind of movie where they’d hurt animals, while the main plot is about how you shouldn’t hurt an animal. After the night club, Johnson and Moore have to get Joe out of town—the cops want to shoot him dead—so Armstrong helps them get out.

The climax isn’t even about Joe vs. the cops or Joe escaping, it’s this out-of-nowhere orphanage fire, where Johnson, Moore, and the ape have to save children. That sequence is pretty good. The lasso thing comes back and is dumb, but it’s at last suspenseful. Most of it, anyway. They push it, which isn’t a surprise.

The stop motion’s good, but underutilized. While nothing about Joe is interesting—it feels like budget King Kong, especially the model design on Joe; the movement is great, the model itself is eh—some of the other effects, particularly with the occasional person, clicks. There’s some potential to it.

About halfway through it seems like the film’s greatest tragedy is wasting Armstrong, who’s sort of spoofing himself, sort of just doing a broad comedy performance. It rarely all comes together—Rose’s script and Schoedsack’s direction work actively against it—but, again, the obvious potential is visible. Armstrong and McHugh really ought to have been a lot more fun together.

Moore’s awful. She’s not unlikable but she’s tiring. Johnson’s at least not tiring, but it might be because he’s so unmoving you forget he’s not scenery.

A distressingly bad score from Roy Webb doesn’t help either.

From go—well, okay, from the first scene with actors—Mighty Joe Young is clearly in dire straits. The special effects sequences are technically engaging but rarely dramatically. Who knows what better writing and better direction might’ve wrought. Perhaps something entertaining, but at least the great performance Armstrong can so obviously deliver, if only someone were interested in him doing so.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Ernest B. Schoedsack; screenplay by Ruth Rose, based on a story by Merian C. Cooper; director of photography, J. Roy Hunt; edited by Ted Cheesman; music by Roy Webb; costume designer, Adele Balkan; produced by Cooper; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring Robert Armstrong (Max O’Hara), Ben Johnson (Gregg), Terry Moore (Jill Young), Frank McHugh (Windy), Denis Green (Crawford), Nestor Paiva (Brown, a drunk), Douglas Fowley (Jones, another drunk), Paul Guilfoyle (Smith, yet another drunk), Lora Lee Michel (Jill Young, as a girl), and Regis Toomey (John Young).


Adam’s Rib (1949, George Cukor)

Adam’s Rib has a great script (by Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin), but outside director Cukor not being as energetic as he could be—he might’ve been able to compensate—the script is the biggest problem with the film. There are the really obvious problems, like when Spencer Tracy gets reduced to a supporting role in the third act but instead of giving that extra time to Katharine Hepburn, which would make sense because she’s the other star, it spreads the time out way into the weeds. Not the courtroom resolve, of course, but every other scene is just contrived to not get too close in on the lead characters. And there are some communication issues—like were we supposed to get Tracy’s bigger philosophical objection to Hepburn taking her case, which is his case too.

Let me back up.

The movie opens with this great exterior sequence in New York City, following Judy Holliday as she stalks some guy (Tom Ewell). Turns out he’s her husband and he’s cheating on her so she’s got a gun and she’s going to do something about it. He doesn’t die; she’s arrested and charged with attempted murder. Hepburn wants to defend her—the jilted husband gets a pass on shooting at cheating wives and their lovers, why not women too. Tracy’s the assistant district attorney. He doesn’t agree with Hepburn’s opinion, then really doesn’t agree with her becoming Holliday’s defense attorney.

Most of the movie is them fighting it out in the courtroom, then catching up with them in the evenings, seeing how the professional competition is taking a toll on their marriage. But a comedy.

A comedy with what turn out to be a lot of big ideas, which it would’ve been nice if they’d talked about during the movie instead of doing a big subplot around Tracy and Hepburn’s neighbor, David Wayne, who’s a popular musician; he’s also got the hots for Hepburn and sees his chance as the case starts to destabilize the usually wonderful marriage.

That usually wonderful marriage is what makes Adam’s Rib so much fun. Tracy and Hepburn are phenomenal together. Their married banter, thanks both to the actors and their script, is peerless. And they’ve got a great relationship. The script does a great job in the first act establishing their wedded bliss separate from their careers, which then collide and spill over, but not in a way the first act’s handling would predict. The script’s much tighter in the first act as far as establishing the ground situation but it doesn’t do anything to set up the character development. Again, great script, but a big problem one too.

Also in the first act the film seems like it might take Holliday’s murder trial seriously. Like as a procedural. Because the film tries not to utilize screwball humor. It can’t resist, which is a problem as the film’s set up to not be screwball so the screwball scenes don’t play. That lower energy Cukor direction; he respects and enables the actors but nothing else. He doesn’t even showcase them as much as their ability to execute the routine. Good, but not as good as it should be.

Anyway, Holliday—who’s sort of the protagonist of the whole thing, or ought to be—disappears into background. She’s great, but she gets almost nothing to do. There’s potential for some kind of relationship, though not friendship, between Holliday and Hepburn—even a client and attorney one—but the film doesn’t do anything with it. And Tracy never gets shown presenting his case. Or working on his case. So not a good procedural, which is a bummer since—once the finale reveals Tracy’s motivations—it could’ve been a great courtroom drama.

Instead, it’s a wonderfully charming and almost always entertaining Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn picture. The production values are strong, Cukor’s more than adequate, the script’s great, Holliday’s excellent, Wayne doesn’t get too tiresome even though it seems like he might, George J. Folsey’s photography is nice, George Boemler’s editing not so much, but… it works. It all works. It just doesn’t try hard enough. Maybe some of it is Production Code related. But the way the script compensates really doesn’t work, leaving Tracy and Hepburn with good roles in a fun comedy instead of great parts in a better film.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by George Cukor; screenplay by Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin; director of photography, George J. Folsey; edited by George Boemler; music by Miklós Rózsa; produced by Lawrence Weingarten; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Spencer Tracy (Adam Bonner), Katharine Hepburn (Amanda Bonner), Judy Holliday (Doris Attinger), Tom Ewell (Warren Attinger), David Wayne (Kip Lurie), Jean Hagen (Beryl Caighn), Hope Emerson (Olympia La Pere), Eve March (Grace), and Clarence Kolb (Judge Reiser).



The Great Gatsby (1949, Elliot Nugent)

The Great Gatsby can get away with a lot thanks to lead Alan Ladd, much of it related to the adaptation. Gatsby, the film, does open with “narrator” Macdonald Carey—set in the present, with Carey reminiscing on the grand old Jazz Age. Of course, the Jazz Age looks a little different in Carey’s memories because the movie’s post-Code and it wasn’t allowed to actually recreate the Jazz Age styles. The lack of style accuracy doesn’t matter much; the parties aren’t important. Ladd’s Gatsby is a quiet, contemplative wallflower; see, the screenplay (by Cyril Hume and Richard Maibaum) gives Ladd a sympathetic backstory. He only became a bootlegger because some rich widow (an oddly uncredited Carole Mathews) screws him out of his inheritance; her much-older husband (Henry Hull in a really fun performance) saw potential in Ladd and wanted to give him a leg up. Then, of course, there was the War. Ladd’s Gatsby is a war hero.

It’s before the War and after the old man mentorship Ladd meets Kansas City socialite Betty Field. Ladd’s just an enlisted man, bound for Europe and the trenches, but it’s Kansas City and he can get into the parties in his uniform. The flashback to their meeting doesn’t come until the film’s introduced both Ladd and Field in the present. Well, 1928 flashback present anyway. It adds something to both of them. Even though Ladd’s had a bunch of personality in the film so far, this tender side of him—he’s not violent in the present, but he’s got to be capable of violence—but this version of him with Field doesn’t have that capacity yet. And Field has zero personality in the present, so any helps.

At its best, The Great Gatsby is a lousy novel adaptation but a good “gangster goes straight” vehicle for Ladd. He does a vague tough guy routine with everyone until Field comes along and then he’s a sap. What’s so impressive about Ladd’s performance is he’s able to moon over Field even though they haven’t got any chemistry together. You think Field’s just incapable of it, but then she plays really well with estranged husband Barry Sullivan; odd because Field and Ladd are running away that point, when she and Sullivan finally click, performance-wise. Because the film’s not really set up to be the story of the characters from the novel, it’s far more interested in Ladd’s bootlegging days, with Ed Begley as his crotchety older partner and Elisha Cook Jr. as his sidekick (a kid who Ladd saved in the War and went with him from medals of valor to killing rival gangs). It’s more interested in the flashbacks to Ladd with Hull and Mathews. The screenplay feels looser in those scenes, like it’s not trying to hit a particular beat.

The two big problems with the film are the main supporting actors—Field, Carey, Sullivan, Ruth Hussey—and the direction. Nugent’s never quite good enough to do anything with the film. He does an adequate job, but he’s always zigging when he should zag. He’s got these one-shot close-ups he uses in the middle of conversations and they always kill the scene. Maybe some of it’s on Ellsworth Hoagland’s, but most of it’s on Nugent. He’s not interested in what the characters have to say and given how talky things get in the final third… it hurts the film.

Now the cast. So Ladd’s great. He showed up to work and he does. He gives Gatsby two hundred percent, which makes up for a lot, but still isn’t enough. Because the supporting cast is a stinker. Sullivan’s the best, but only because he occasionally is able to roll the thin characterization into a hybrid caricature—angry jock blue-blood unfaithful jilted husband—and find some true connection. But he’s not any good, not really. He’s able to overcome. Meanwhile Hussey tries her damndest and never makes it work but points for trying. Carey and Field are miscast and poorly directed. Field’s got no charisma. It might be some of the Code issues, it might be the script, it’s definitely partially on Nugent. But Field’s demure in the wrong way, especially given she’s got such a big part.

Carey’s pseudo-earnest, but he’s not ambitious in his performance. It needs some ambition. Some energy.

Again, Ladd can carry it through—the film’s only ninety minutes—but it’s a shame, even with all the constraints, the movie doesn’t have better direction, better casting; Ladd deserves more than a compromised production.

Oh, speaking of compromise, nice photography from John F. Seitz. He’s got to work with a lot of composites, some awkward framing, but he establishes a rather solid palette for the film. Just wish Nugent where a little better.

Gatsby’s a missed opportunity.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Elliott Nugent; screenplay by Cyril Hume and Richard Maibaum, based on Owen Davis’s play of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel; director of photography, John F. Seitz; edited by Ellsworth Hoagland; music by Robert Emmett Dolan; produced by Maibaum; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Alan Ladd (Gatsby), Betty Field (Daisy), Macdonald Carey (Nick), Ruth Hussey (Jordan Baker), Barry Sullivan (Tom), Elisha Cook Jr. (Klipspringer), Ed Begley (Lupus), Howard Da Silva (Wilson), Henry Hull (Dan Cody), Carole Mathews (Ella Cody), and Shelley Winters (Myrtle).



The Reckless Moment (1949, Max Ophüls)

The Reckless Moment is self-indulgent. But in a remarkable way. A remarkable and good way. Director Ophüls and star Joan Bennett both find a way to get at the core of the story, which is a very limited character study of Bennett. The film is occasionally fantastic and sensational—though never melodramatic, even in the plotting—as upper-class Bennett gets involved with scumbag James Mason. Sure, he’s cultured and charming because he’s James Mason, but he’s Irish; he’s cultured and charming in a decidedly not WASP-enough way. But it’s always just about Bennett trying to manage her life.

Bennett and family live on Balboa Island, a nouveau riche Los Angeles suburb. Besides Bennett, there’s father-in-law Henry O’Neill, there’s all-American tween son David Bair, there’s art school daughter Geraldine Brooks. There’s also the maid, played by Frances E. Williams (a Black woman), who doesn’t even get credited even though she’s in every third scene with lines so thanks for the ick 1949.

Williams is important too.

Anyway.

The movie opens with Bennett heading into L.A. unexpectedly to meet with Shepperd Strudwick in a cheap motel. Not like that. In the closed bar, in one of the many scenes in Moment where screenwriters Henry Garson and Robert Soderberg give the film just a little bit of detail and Ophüls and his crew are able to amp it up. Lots of individual parts firing just right is what makes Moment such a special success. Because it’s also very noir-y. But also not.

Sorry—back to Strudwick. He’s carrying on with seventeen year-old daughter Brooks—she’ll be eighteen next month he tells Bennett during their initial confrontation. He’s one of the low class people Brooks has met because artists and he’s willing to give her up for cash money, something Brooks doesn’t want to hear from her mother when Bennett gets back. Family drama and some really effective lighter scenes between Bennett and son Bair ensue—Bennett having to single parent Bair gives her a lot of subtle character development. Consistently too. It’s always good. Because Bennett, Ophüls, the screenwriters.

Dad is a post-WWII civil engineer who’s making a fortune—presumably—traveling the globe and rebuilding war-torn countries with U.S. Steel. It’s important because it’s American and a success story. Bennett very knowingly, very deliberately revels in her class status and the privileges it brings. She wouldn’t initially be so sympathetic if daughter Brooks weren’t so obviously in the wrong and beau Strudwick so obviously a creep. Brooks is Moment’s weakest performance, by a lot. She’s all right by the end, but she’s a disaster before Bennett starts having to be a mama lion.

And Bennett has to be a mama lion because it turns out Strudwick’s a gambling man and he just can’t win. As collateral, he’s provided loanshark slash blackmailer slash general scumbag James Mason with all seventeen year-old Brooks’s love letters. They could ruin her. In more ways than one it turns out. Enough so Bennett has to deal with Mason at the same time she tries to deal with the Strudwick situation and get the house ready for Christmas. Reckless Moment has a very short present action. It’s a tight, noir-y thriller. Only it’s a character study, which is what makes it so special.

Bennett dips her toe in the water of disrepute and it doesn’t just fill her life with it, it changes how she experiences her life because of the new situations it brings. It turns out to be an awesome role for Bennett.

It’s a fairly good role for Mason too. He’s got his own subplot about crushing on Bennett, which she doesn’t know about and wouldn’t believe if she did. The only time Mason’s off is when he lays on the Irish too much, usually when he’s talking about Ireland, which isn’t too often. Not sure why Mason’s top-billed, other than patriarchy (though Bennett’s character would clearly approve of the man getting top billing… by would she by the end?).

Good supporting cast: O’Neill’s fine as the father-in-law, Bair’s amusing, Williams’s really good, Brooks’s uneven but comes out all right by the end, Strudwick’s appropriately scuzzy. Great black and white photography from Burnett Guffey. Nice editing and music (Gene Havlick and Hans J. Salter, respectively). Bennett’s house is absurdly big, but Frank Tuttle’s set decoration does a lot for the picture.

The Reckless Moment is short, quiet, and rather good.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Max Ophüls; screenplay by Henry Garson and Robert Soderberg, based on an adaptation by Mel Dinelli and Robert E. Kent and a story by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding; director of photography, Burnett Guffey; edited by Gene Havlick; music by Hans J. Salter; produced by Walter Wanger; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Joan Bennett (Lucia Harper), James Mason (Martin Donnelly), Geraldine Brooks (Beatrice Harper), David Bair (David Harper), Frances E. Williams (Sybil), Henry O’Neill (Tom Harper), and Shepperd Strudwick (Ted Darby).