Monthly Archives: February 2012

7. It Happened One Night (1934)

Director:  Frank Capra


Alex – 9.0   Elliot – 9.0    IMDB 8.3   Rotten Tomatoes 8.9

Alex’s Commentary:

I love It Happened One Night. Of the films we have seen, this is the first film that I have seen on numerous occasions (although this is the first time on a large screen HD television). In fact, I never previous appreciated the beautiful cinematography. The elegant black and white scenes reminded me of Ansel Adams photographs. There are scenes of moonlight and daylight, urban city and rural county, people at parties and people on buses, and lots of rain.1416087532_5 I also never realized how attractive Claudette Colbert was.  Especially with the moonlight streaming onto her face through a cabin window as she laid thinking of Peter Warne (Clark Gable) on the other side of the blanket separating their beds.

The story has been retold in various guises through films of every decade. The spoiled rich girl, Ellie Andrews, escapes from her millionaire father (Walter Connolly) who wants to stop her from marrying a worthless playboy, only to be befriended by out-of-work newspaper man, Peter Warne. Naturally, their initial icy relationship blossoms into love as they travel together toNew York. The movie is often considered the first screwball romantic comedy to win the Oscar for best picture.

The story and the acting are first-rate. It Happened One Night was the first film to win the “big five” Academy Awards, Best Picture, Best Actor (Clark Gable), Best Actress (Claudette Colbert), Best Director (Frank Capra) and Best Screenplay (Robert Riskin). The story is warm and engaging. The characters are wonderfully detailed and developed. Even the minor characters are memorable from the fast taking bus rider, Shapeley (Roscoe Karns), to Ellie’s father, to the cottage owners, to the thieving highway man. Although the film is a comedy, it is still a depression era movie that does an excellent job of depicting multiple facets of American life in the 1930’s: both from the perspective of the wealthy, King Westley arriving to his wedding in an autogyro, to those who must chose between spending money on a bus ticket versus eating a meal.

It Happened One Night is a delightful timeless film that all lovers of romantic comedies should include on their must-see list.

Elliot’s Commentary:

I don’t think it is that much of a stretch to say that It Happened One Night is my favorite Oscar Winner that we’ve seen thus far.   First, let me start with two words that sum up my feelings about the film: Clark Gable.  Directed by the very talented Frank Capra, of It’s A Wonderful Life and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington fame among countless other classics, It Happened One Night is the first glimpse we have had of the Golden Age of Hollywood. It is hard to do anything but gush in response to this film, but I will try to maintain some sense of decorum in this commentary.  From the classic backlighting, to the acting, to the production value, to the story, there is something timeless about this film that we haven’t really witnessed thus far in our journey through the best picture winners.  Even the sound quality and sound mixing make this picture a standout in comparison to its more dated predecessors.

An aspect of films like It Happened One Night that one has to take into account, is the fact that what may seem cliché to us now was still an original plot motif when the film was made.  The beautiful Claudette Colbert plays a spoiled rich girl, who runs away from her overbearing father to taste freedom for the first time.  While originally Ellen Andrews (Colbert) flees her father to join her new husband, it quickly becomes apparent that she did not marry “King” Westley for love.   However, Ms. Andrews faces many trials and tribulations as the sheltered debutante attempts to take to the lengthy voyage fromMiami toNew York.  Luckily for both Andrews and viewers alike, the suave newspaper man Peter Warne (Clark Gable) is there to serve as Sherpa for her life-changing journey.  Convinced that the overnight bus fromMiami toNew York won’t leave without her, Ellen takes her time during a brief break only to discover no bus. Suddenly she is met with the stunning realization that the world doesn’t revolve around her.  Peter Warne however, noticed that she had left her ticket on the bus and was waiting to greet the shocked Ellen Andrews.

Through their tumultuous journey together that includes their luggage being stolen, private investigators searching for the missing heiress, being broke and hungry, forging streams, sleeping in hay bales, stealing cars, as well as a myriad of other instances of lovable shenanigans, they discovered that they could quite possibly be in love with each other.   7448b0ad8aae9e38ab8d5aedb58d6f21My favorite scene in the film is one in which Clark Gable shows Colbert how to hitchhike.  He goes on a long spiel illustrating the three different kinds of gesticulations he uses to hail passing cars, and then attempts to demonstrate them.   As he furiously goes through the three options, he fails to elicit a single response from the passing stream of automobiles.  Colbert then steps up to the plate, and asks for a try.  Gable relents to prove to her how difficult the task actually can be.  Colbert then hikes up her dress revealing an amount of leg that was the 1930’s equivalent of a Janet Jackson super bowl performance, and immediately gets them a ride.

While I could write 5000 words on why I love this movie, I think it would be best for me to just endorse that anybody who enjoys classic films, romantic comedies, or just film in general should really see the film It Happened One Night.  *Spoiler Alert* Runaway Bride  totally copied its premise from a scene at the end of this film, and I would take Claudette Colbert over Julia Roberts any day.

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6. Cavalcade (1933)

Director:  Frank Lloyd

Alex – 7.0   Elliot – 7.0   IMDB 6.3   Rotten Tomatoes 6.7

Alex’s Commentary:

Although I have not seen every best picture Oscar winner, I must honestly say that Cavalcade is the only winner whose title was unfamiliar to me. Interestingly, it is also the only film not available through the Carnegie Library system in DVD format; fortunately my VHS player is still viable. Unlike Grand Hotel with its “cavalcade” of Hollywood stars, Cavalcade does not have a single actor that I would consider famous. I do not want to imply that the quality of the acting is lacking because I did enjoy most of the performances. Based on a play written by Noel Coward, the dialogue clearly borders on the melodramatic.

This is our third film out of six where war plays a prominent role. Given that the film was produced in 1933 and that a vast majority of filmgoers would have experienced war’s trials and tribulations, I’m sure the subject matter had broad appeal. This film begins with the Boer War in 1899, progresses though World War I, and offers hope that another war may be averted (which we now know wasn’t to be).1933-Cavalcade-05 Along this journey tracing the lives of two British families of differing financial means, we experience the death of Queen Victoria, the sinking of the Titanic, the extravagance of roaring 20’s, and the rise of philosophies encompassing socialism, communism, Sigmund Freud, and religious and anti-religious thought. A particularly well done scene in the film shows a couple on their honeymoon cruise discussing life, their future and musing what if tonight would be their last.  As they retire to their quarters, the shocking image of a lifesaver with the inscription Titanic is visible in the frame.

Similar in feel to All Quiet on the Western Front, the film does not glorify war. The film however does evoke emotions in its contemplation of the meaning of life, the importance of living for the “now”, and the unpredictable nature of life’s journey. This film could not be considered a feel good movie as the brightness of the future is definitely in question. In fact, the beginning of the twentieth century seems to be a tumultuous time compared to the perception of the tranquility of the 1800’s.  A comparison similar to today’s reminiscing of the quieter, gentler time of the 1950’s (at least as portrayed in television sitcoms).

Technically, I thought the sound was among the best we’ve heard thus far, particularly the emphasis on quality sound effects from artillery explosion to train station whistles.  Not to mention the clarity of the sound of horse hoofs on cobblestone in a funeral procession. The aging of the characters was better than we saw in Cimarron and very believable. Musical numbers effectively change in style as we progress through different eras. Cavalcade will not be one of my favorite Oscar winners but was unexpectedly interesting and enjoyable (even in VHS).

Elliot’s Commentary:

The film, Cavalcade, shows a longitudinal history of two families in late 19th century to early 20th century England.   In the course of this study, it is hard not to make comparison to the predecessors of this film that have also won the award for best picture.  Cavalcade has unmistakable similarities to Cimarron in its method of depicting a family’s evolution through significant historical events.  The tagline of the film, “Cavalcade – Picture of the Generation” creates an accurate portrayal of the events that had significantly influenced the lives of the upper-class London residents Jane (Diana Wynyard) and Robert Marryot (Clive Brook).  Interestingly enough, Cavalcade was the first award to be won by an English production in comparison its American peer productions.  The first event mentioned in the film, The Second Boer War, was a part of English history that I was not too familiar with.   It was particularly interesting to see the juxtaposition of the Marryot children playing soldiers, as well as the ennui of the women on the home front, instead of portraying the violence of the war.  Also, the scene transition from the cheerful men singing with interlocked arms as their families bid them farewell, to the main heroine checking the casualty list was particularly jarring.

Throughout the film they continue to utilize the motif of a cavalcade, defined as a procession or parade on horseback that often depicts historical events and follows a long trail.   The film’s title fits that description perfectly, as 30 years of British history is depicted through the lens of the family.  The film also superimposes the imagery of a processional of horses over scenes of action to symbolize the fact that time is progressing.   While this film does occur during two wars, both The Second Boer War as well as WWI, it shows a side of war that previous films have not depicted as much, the home front.  The hardship of the Marryot family is also portrayed through pivotal moments of the 1910’s including a certain family member’s trip on an ill-fated cruise in 1912 aboard the “unsinkable” Titanic.  1933-Cavalcade-07-1Through the eyes of the family, we are able to gather an accurate portrayal of the hardships and pains of the English public during this era.   While looking at this posterity it is also hard to forget the fact that at the time when this film was created,Englandhad yet to experience its most trying test in the form of WWII which occurred just 6 years after the film was made.

One of the most interesting parts of the film was the montage sequence that portrayed the vice and the hedonism of the 1920’s.  The sequence depicted Jazz-era flappers, a homosexual couple, the rise in atheism, and a complete reversal from the Victorian society portrayed in the first portion of the movie.  These choices were particularly daring, and many of the depictions would not have been possible in Production Code eraHollywood, which would begin to censor films in 1934.  The portrayal of homosexuality  would never have passed censorship restrictions that would limit content for the next 25 or so years.

Overall, I found the film emotionally moving and a better representation of a longitudinal character study than the more fragmented Cimarron.  It’s more innovative technological advances on such a large scale also showed the biggest improvement in film production since All Quiet on the Western Front.  The lesson in English history also familiarized me with a segment of world history that I was not well acquainted with, and I was glad I had the chance to learn about it through an insider’s perspective provided by an English film production.


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5. Grand Hotel (1932)

Director:  Edmund Goulding

Alex – 6.9   Elliot – 7.2  IMDB 7.6   Rotten Tomatoes 7.4

Alex’s Commentary:

Grand Hotel is an unusual quirky film. It features a blockbuster cast of stars including Greta Garbo, John Barrymore, Joan Crawford, Wallace Berry, and Lionel Barrymore and was billed as “the greatest cast in stage or screen history!” The story follows the lives of assorted characters during a brief stay at the Grand Hotel, a luxuriousBerlin hotel. Obviously, with a story involving so many characters, the individual backgrounds of the hotel guests cannot be explored in depth and, in fact, remain a mystery for the viewer to draw one’s own conclusions. lewisstoneasdrotternschlagingrandhotelPerhaps what brought the characters to this place is not as important as what their current circumstance appears to be and how each character deals with adversity. To me, the movie expresses certain truisms – one, good people faced with grim financial prospects will often be drawn to do bad things (such as theft or adultery); two, wealthy people faced with the potential loss of wealth will often do bad things (such as lying and murder); three, wealthy and successful people can still suffer from depression despite material comforts; and four, people facing imminent death can enjoy their remaining days because they are freed from the burdens of responsibility and conformity. I can’t help but feel the screenwriter was sending a message to all of those affected by the Great Depression that was still devastating the American filmgoer. I do not know whether the message that wealth does not lead to happiness could make a depression-era filmgoer feel better, but that’s the impression the writer appears to convey. If all this sounds confusing, it is because it is.  Unless the viewer pays close attention to the dialogue, the interwoven vignettes would become increasingly difficult to follow.  There were some interesting plot twists but I did not feel an emotional connection with any of the characters.

I did enjoy seeing 1930’s glamour and the hotel switchboard scenes were a great reminder of a bygone era. The director presents scenes of the luxurious hotel with dramatic angles and interesting lighting effects particularly the shots from the top floor overlooking the open lobby below.

Elliot’s Commentary:

Grand Hotel was the most eccentric film we have viewed so far in our quest to view all of the Best Picture winners.   While the acting was a bit dated, the Grand Hotel touched upon certain societal themes that still ring true today.  Especially in the dialogue between the haves and the have-nots, the depression-era socioeconomic divide clearly influenced the film’s moral compass.  This film was another example of an ensemble piece that relies on a diverse character-base to provide a snapshot of life in a specific setting.  Each character has a unique function, and represents a role from a different class or profession.  grandhotel2 Interestingly enough, this was actually the second film that we have viewed thus far to take place in Germany, a setting that will become infinitely less popular after the beginning of the United States involvement in WWII starting in 1941.  While it is hard to compare the technical aspects of Grand Hotel to the more grandiose productions of Cimarron and All Quiet on the Western Front, the scene transitions were smoother than its predecessors and appeared to be a more finished final product.  Grand Hotel also contained bona fide Hollywood stars, an aspect the previous films did not capitalize on.   Greta Garbo plays Grusinskaya the beautiful and troubled dancer.  John Barrymore (Drew Barrymore’s grandfather) plays The Baron Felix von Gaigern, a cat burglar and imposter.  As well as a supporting role played by Joan Crawford as a stenographer, to help fill out the rest of the talented ensemble cast.  My favorite member of the ensemble cast was the mysterious doctor (Lewis Stone) who would appear in different scenes and provide commentary about the characters in the Hotel.  He delivers the famous tagline “Grand Hotel… always the same. People come, people go. Nothing ever happens.”  This serves as the complete antonym of the reality of the situation, but draws the audience in with the force of the narrator of The Twilight Zone.

Overall, I enjoyed the film and found it a nice mix of drama, quirk, and comedy.  It was the first real glimpse we have had in our journey of the golden age ofHollywood.   I left the finish of the film with great optimism both for what clearly had shown me the refinement I was looking for in these films as well as the fantastic movies we shall see in the future.

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