Monthly Archives: March 2012

11. You Can’t Take It With You (1938)

Director:   Frank Capra

Alex – 8.5   Elliot – 8.7   IMDB 8.0      Rotten Tomatoes 7.4

Alex’s Commentary:

 It’s hard to imagine a person not liking a Frank Capra movie. You Can’t Take It With You incorporates the familiar Capra themes of the inherent goodness of man (unless you work for the IRS) and money is not the root of happiness. These themes resonated with Capra when he saw the George S. Kaufman / Moss Hart play on Broadway.  He also immediately recognized its potential appeal to the depressions era crowds that would eventually flock to the movie.

This is our second Capra movie that has garnered both the Best Picture and Best Director honors. Although I enjoyed the romantic tension displayed by Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night more than the budding romance between James Stewart and Jean Arthur,  You Can’t Take It With You is still considerably fun.lionel barrymore, james stewart, jean arthur & edward arnold - you can't take it with you 1938 The film has a wonderful script that provides a vehicle for the all-star cast to display their theatrical talents. Martin Vanderhof (Lionel Barrymore) plays the role of the family patriarch and purveyor of homespun philosophies of life. The story juxtaposes wealthy Wall Street financiers with a neighborhood coping with a decimated economy. The presentation of high unemployment and dissatisfaction with the economy could easily be an allegory for a present-day 1% versus 99% Occupy movement. Hopefully, today’s economy will have a Capra-inspired happy ending.

A young James Stewart offers a good performance and displays his acting potential which will continue to evolve as we explore his future Academy Award winning films. On the other hand, Jean Arthur is at the top of her game. It’s difficult to articulate the qualities that make Jean Arthur one of my favorite actresses but the combination of attractive girl-next-door looks coupled with a spunky good-natured sense of humor is infectious. Of course, a screwball comedy needs an entire cast of screwball characters, and this film delivers. Among the numerous residents inhabiting the Vanderhof household are Ann Miller, the accomplished dancer who plays a bad dancer, Donald Meek as the eccentric inventor,  Mischa Auer who plays Russian dance instructor Kolenkhov, and Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, as the resident “on relief.” Obviously, not all of the character portrayals would be considered politically correct but this was a different era and clearly not meant maliciously.

Much of You Can’t Take It With You feels contemporary. The story holds up well and surprisingly does not feel dated. I would be remiss to mention that there were multiple scenes that had me laughing hysterically.  You Can’t Take It With You is a feel good classic 1930’s film that deserves to be on your watch list if you have yet to experience it.

Elliot’s Commentary:

Frank Capra’s You Can’t Take It With You is a timeless classic, with a message and dialogue that is as relevant today as it was in 1938.  You Can’t Take It With You has more a poignant message than Capra’s previous winner, romantic comedy It Happened One Night.  Frank Capra is also the second director thus far to win the Academy Award for Best Picture twice, the first being Frank Lloyd.  However, the talent of the prolific Capra puts him in a league of his own.  James-Stewart-in-You-Can-t-Take-It-With-You-james-stewart-29986512-1067-800Besides his two Best Picture wins, Capra has also picked up two Best Director wins for the same films.  On a personal note, Capra directed one of my favorite films of all time, Arsenic and Old LaceWhile I could rant about Capra for 1000 more words, I should probably go back to the purpose of this blog and discuss the film.  You Can’t Take It With You comes from a rare breed of filmmaking that has the power to evoke a wide array of emotions in a viewer.  I was laughing, I was happy, I was sad, I was angry. It was as if I was a marionette and Capra stood above me as a puppeteer who manipulated my emotional responses for the entire 126 minutes of the film’s running time.

The title of this film actually stems from a colloquial rephrasing of the scriptural verse 1 Timothy 6:7 “For we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out.”  This is fitting of both Capra’s religious beliefs as well as the tone of the film, which could easily be considered a modern-day parable.  The film was adapted from the Pulitzer Prize winning Drama penned by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, and is a stylized morality play criticizing the impact that the over-emphasis of wealth incurs on the human psyche.  Perhaps the iconic rapper, Notorious B.I.G., described the concept best in his song “Mo Money, Mo Problems.” While Capra’s own life embodies a Horatio Alger story, his roots allowed him to gain a different perspective on the role of wealth in human happiness.

The film is centered on the romance of Alice Sycamore (Jean Arthur) and Tony Kirby (James “Jimmy” Stewart), as the couple seeks acceptance of their relationship from their polarized parents.  The Kirby’s are the banking kings on Wall Street, whereas the Sycamore’s have rejected the self-indulgent world of capitalism to focus on their individualized creative pursuits and whims.  Though not paupers by any means, the Sycamore’s have rejected pursuing fields that do not make them happy and instead engage in businesses that allow their creativity to thrive.  This creative hotbed has also attracted outsiders to settle down within their abode, as evidenced by a particularly zany exchange of dialogue between their former ice delivery man and a new recruit where the delivery man states that “[he] came to make a delivery nine years ago, and has been [there] ever since.”  The Sycamore’s collect stamps, write plays, play the xylophone and harmonica, dance, make candy, and make fireworks as well engage in whatever hobbies du-jour tickle their fancy. The only real exception in the family is Alice who is working as Tony Kirby’s secretary in the Kirby Company.  Tony is the Vice President of the company but only through nepotism, and has a clear disinterest in the family business.

The film has several key movements, first the establishment of the characters, then the meeting of the family, and finally the trials and tribulations of a prohibited love. One of my favorite scenes in the film comes during the meeting of the two families in which Anthony P. Kirby (Edward Arnold), Tony’s father, meets the Sycamore’s dance instructor, Kolenkhov (Mischa Auer).  Anthony tells Kolenkhov that he used to wrestle, and Kolenkhov responds by flipping Mr. Kirby on his back and pinning him.  The suddenness of the action and the body type of the elderly Mr. Kirby is enough to make anyone with a sense of humor break out in laughter.  I’m not usually a fan of slap-stick comedy, but Capra manages to incorporate some slap-stick gags in a surprisingly artful fashion.  you-cant-take-it-with-you-prayerThe film also changes its tone substantially in a jail scene in which the entire cast is incarcerated.  As the indignant Anthony P. Kirby rails into Martin Vanderhof (Lionel Barrymore), Alices’s Grandpa, for the unpleasantness of the situation, Martin goes on a verbose rant filled with scathing criticism of both Mr. Kirby and his capitalist way of life.  He describes that Kirby’s money and power have not made him any friends, and that he has forgotten what happiness even feels like.  Using the metaphor of a harmonica, a relic of Kirby’s carefree past, Mr. Vanderhof dares Kirby to try and renounce his selfish ways and attempt to be a father and a human being for once in his life.  Vanderhof’s point is further solidified during the sentencing of the two parties for crimes of disturbing the peace and manufacturing fireworks without a permit.  While Kirby has four lawyers to represent the three members of his family, Vanderhof has a courtroom full of friends and neighbors to provide moral support.  It was hard not to choke up during a particularly joyous scene in the courtroom as Vanderhoff’s supporters take up a collection and pay off his 100 dollar fine.

This film is a fantastic story, with a great cast, and a great message.  The only complaint I had about this film was the racial stereotyping of the “help” in the house.  However in this era of filmmaking, these patronizing portrayals of Blacks were unfortunately common place. It is important to recognize the time period in which the films that we view were made, because these racial portrayals were tame compared to peer productions.  Honestly if you are reading this review and have never seen the film, go out and see it.  I promise that you will not be disappointed.  I don’t care which demographic that you represent, this thought-provoking and enchanting film is truly a classic of American cinema and should not overlooked.

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10. The Life of Emile Zola (1937)

Director:   William Dieterle

Alex – 8.0   Elliot – 8.1  IMDB 7.3      Rotten Tomatoes 7.0

Alex’s Commentary:

The Life of Emile Zola was a pleasant surprise. I was unfamiliar with this film’s protagonist, Emile Zola, as well as actor, Paul Muni, who was nominated for the Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Zola. The movie traces the life of the prominent French writer from his early years as a staving writer sharing a Parisian flat with his childhood friend Paul Cezanne, to becoming a popular and financially successful literary figure.  The film ultimately discloses the course of events leading to his intense criticism, vindication, and untimely death in 1902,

Although I felt the movie progressed rather slowly for its first hour, the second hour was thoroughly engrossing. Once the story of Alfred Dreyfus was woven into the plot, the power of the film and its message became evident. 77080-004-A39A3982Dreyfus was the Jewish artillery officer in the French army who was falsely accused of treason. After his innocence was made known to the French military leaders, they decided to remain silent lest the French people lose faith in the military. The accusation of Dreyfus was based in antisemitism, as were efforts to maintain his sentence of life imprisonment on Devil’s Island. Interestingly, the only indication that Dreyfus’ religion led to his indictment was a military officer pointing to the word Jew on the Captain’s military record. No mention of Jews or Judaism is ever spoken. The movie presented the best courtroom scenes we have seen thus far and Paul Muni, as well as his defense attorney, present rousing orations. Joseph Schildkraut won a Supporting Actor Oscar as the wrongly accused Captain Alfred Dreyfus

For viewers interested in early filmic interpretations and presentations of courtroom drama, exploration and exploitation of mob mentality, and the military authority’s corruption and manipulation of the chain of command, this film is up your alley. Although I question the historical accuracy of some of the events depicted, the story is nevertheless entertaining.

Elliot’s Commentary:

The Life of Emile Zola is our second biopic that we have viewed thus far, and a significantly stronger representative of the genre than The Great ZiegfeldI do have a confession to make in regards to Emile Zola, I had never heard about the author until I saw this film.  After watching the film, I did do a small amount of research about the author to supplement my knowledge as well as to assess the accuracy of historical information in the film’s portrayal.  As with all films in Hollywood based upon historical events, there has to be a certain amount of manipulation of a story to make it fit into the recognized tropes of the narrative experience.  This manipulation at times can affect the credibility of a film as a work of non-fiction; however, The Life of Emile Zola does not portray any glaring historical inaccuracies that would affect the film’s overarching message.

The film can be divided into two into two main segments: the life of Emile Zola prior to the Dreyfus Affair, and Dreyfus Affair as told through the point of view of Emile Zola.  For those of you who have never been to Hebrew School, studied Anti-Semitism, or studied late 19th century/early 20th century French history, the Dreyfus Affair is one of the most preeminent court cases in French history.  The Dreyfus Affair details the trial and conviction of Captain Alfred Dreyfus on charges of treason against France. emile_zola_photo1 The Jewish captain was indicted with no evidence of these charges by the French Military courts and banished to Devil’s Island in French Guyana. Despite a vocal minority maintaining his innocence, the French government and press demonized the convicted man and unabashedly ridiculed his lack of allegiance to the country of France.  Even when soldiers of the French army came forward to testify that they had evidence that Dreyfus was wrongly convicted and that Major Esterhazy was the real spy, the French government acted in an abhorrent manner.  They jailed the soldiers and officers who came forward and formally pardoned Esterhazy, rather than dealing with the backlash of admitting that they had incorrectly charged Dreyfus.

The Life of Emile Zola paints the picture of the man who would impact the trial, and ultimately ensure that justice would prevail over the bureaucracy and corruption of the French judicial system.  The film starts with Emile Zola (Paul Muni), living with childhood friend, Paul Cezanne, in a meager Bohemian artist apartment in Paris.  Through the lens of Zola’s bohemian idealism, the film portrays the protagonist rallying against the system with brutally honest commentary on the military’s actions in their defeat in the Franco-Prussian War.  It also depicts him as an advocate for social justice, championing under-represented groups like French prostitutes in his uncensored portrayal of the life of a street-walker entitled, Nana. Through a rather epic montage sequence, the film catalogues Zola’s countless successes as viewers see the protagonist transform from struggling idealistic writer, to a wealthy and prolific established author.  The film’s first act was a bit too prolonged for essentially a prologue to the main course of action, and I was left feeling very underwhelmed with how the story was progressing.  My feelings however were ameliorated by the reemergence of Paul Cezanne, as he visits the fatter, richer, and more complacent version of his former childhood friend.  Cezanne accuses Zola of becoming a member of the class that he had once had criticized, and castigates Zola for having no backbone.

So begins the second half of the film, the point in which this film begins to become worthy of the accolades of the Academy as well as earn the distinction of inclusion in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress. This is the point in the film that the case of Alfred Dreyfus is introduced into the story arch.  The third-person omniscient narrative technique utilized by the film’s story shows the injustice of Dreyfus’ accusation, conviction, and sentencing, in order to enrage the audience.  MV5BMjAyMDgxNjg5NV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMjE1MzQyNw@@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1243,1000_AL_However, it is quite bothersome the way that the film downplays the significance of anti-Semitism in its portrayal of the Dreyfus case. The film does not ever overtly describe Dreyfus as a Jew, but rather shows the military officers pointing to Dreyfus’ name on a sheet of paper with Jew listed next to his rank and nationality.  This mention is done so subtly that a distracted viewer could easily miss this all-important fact.  The under-emphasized reference of anti-Semitism is very fitting of a Post-Production code Hollywood, which does not wish to overstep its highly regulated constrains.  Also, in an era where national celebrities like Henry Ford and Charles Lindbergh were outspoken anti-Semites, hate-mongering was still very much en vogue.

Emile’s attitudes towards the Dreyfus case change drastically when Dreyfus’ wife appears at Zola’s door to plead her case.  At this point in the film, Alfred Dreyfus has already been banished on Devil’s Island for years and Zola is Mrs. Dreyfus’ last hope.  Originally he is very cold to her, but as she leaves his residence she also leaves a folder of evidence that proves without a doubt her husband is innocent.  There is a great shot of Zola contemplating opening up the folder, an item he perceives as a metaphorical Pandora’s Box.  As he his vacillating between the actions of opening the folder or ignoring it, he notices a portrait of himself painted by his former roommate, Paul Cezanne, and Paul’s critical words replay in his head.  The words trigger an impulse that seemed long-suppressed by his wealth and fame, and his muckraking spirit overtakes his desire for peace and comfort.  Determined to prove himself as a harbinger of justice once more, Emile Zola pens an op-ed that appears on the front page of a major newspaper in France entitled “J’accuse”.  In the article, he accuses the French military of having knowledge of Dreyfus’ innocence and participating in an elaborate cover-up.  His actions were performed with the sole purpose of bringing the Dreyfus case back to court through a Libel trial.   This trial would allow him to present evidence that would exonerate Alfred Dreyfus in the public sphere, but if his efforts proved unsuccessful, he would be sentenced to jail time.

The second half of the film is enthralling, poignant, and a fantastic portion of filmmaking.  If the first half could have achieved the same amount of exposition with a greater focus on brevity, I would have rated the film much higher.  Overall, I found the film thought-provoking and a great example of 1930’s filmmaking.  In particular, the trial scene showcased the talent of the actors and the emotionally manipulative power that the film evokes.  I highly recommend this powerful and thought-provoking film, because it showcases a horrible example of hatred and bigotry that is all too often forgotten.

Side note: While this blog is not a politically influenced blog, there are certain universal rights for all human beings that we believe in.  While the Dreyfus case occurred some time ago, there are still many innocent people who are incarcerated for crimes they didn’t commit in our own country.  Please check out this website and donate if you can:

The Innocence Project’s Mission Statement from their Website:

The Innocence Project was founded in 1992 by Barry C. Scheck and Peter J. Neufeld at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University to assist prisoners who could be proven innocent through DNA testing. To date, 289 people in the United States have been exonerated by DNA testing, including 17 who served time on death row. These people served an average of 13 years in prison before exoneration and release.innocence-project

The Innocence Project’s full-time staff attorneys and Cardozo clinic students provide direct representation or critical assistance in most of these cases. The Innocence Project’s groundbreaking use of DNA technology to free innocent people has provided irrefutable proof that wrongful convictions are not isolated or rare events but instead arise from systemic defects. Now an independent nonprofit organization closely affiliated with Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University, the Innocence Project’s mission is nothing less than to free the staggering numbers of innocent people who remain incarcerated and to bring substantive reform to the system responsible for their unjust imprisonment.

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9. The Great Ziegfeld (1936)

Director:   Robert Z. Leonard

Alex – 8.1   Elliot – 7.8   IMDB 6.9   Rotten Tomatoes 6.0

Alex’s Commentary:

The Great Ziegfeld is a great movie. Produced just four years after the death of Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr., the film is a cinematic spectacle that is a tribute to the life of one of the greatest Broadway producers in history. In fact, many of the original performers from the Ziegfeld Follies appear in the film including Ziegfeld star, Fanny Brice. 8Great Ziegfeld.jpgThe movie stages musical numbers that even by today’s standards are astounding in their extravagant costuming, dancing, and stage construction. In addition to winning Best Picture for 1936, the film also earned Seymour Felix the Best Dance Direction Oscar for “A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody.” Ray Bolger (pre-Wizard of Oz scarecrow) performs an amazing tap dance and Harriet Hoctor dances a ballet that is jaw dropping. The movie at 183 minutes is long and in the style of Broadway shows of its era, begins with an overture, has an intermission and then concludes with exit music. Despite its running time, I certainly was not bored and found myself hoping for yet another over-the-top musical production.

Next, on to the acting. William Powell provides an excellent portrayal of Flo Ziegfeld and I was surprised that he did not receive an Oscar nomination for his role. I especially liked Frank Morgan’s role as Flo’s good friend, Jack Billings, although I could not stop thinking that Flo was speaking to the Wizard of Oz. Luise Rainer plays the role of Flo’s first wife, Anna Held, and presents a performance that earned her Best Actress Oscar. I did enjoy Ranier’s characterization of Anna but was surprised by the Oscar win. Myrna Loy plays Flo’s second wife, Billie Burke, and continues the strong acting displayed throughout the movie.ziegfeld-px.1-195-252

I was surprised how much I enjoyed this film. It was a visual feast for the eyes, had more familiar songs than I expected, and was an interesting biography of a man I only knew by name. Of the musicals we have viewed thus far, this one is my favorite as I am a sucker for big production numbers with that “wow” factor. The sound and film quality continue to improve and many of the scenes are beautifully filmed – not only the musicals but also the quiet apartment scenes. The closing scene of Flo’s last evening, seated in his chair, flower in his hand, is especially moving. If you haven’t seen this film and enjoy musicals from the 1930’s, this should be on your must see list.

Elliot’s Commentary:

Robert Z. Leonard’s The Great Ziegfeld was our longest film that we have seen at this point, but this biopic on the life of the eccentric Florenz Ziegfeld warrants nothing less than the 185 minutes I committed to viewing this film. A great improvement over the previous year’s Mutiny on the Bounty, The Great Ziegfeld mixes the whirlwind life of the musical theater pioneer with elaborate musical numbers that Ziegfeld would have been proud of.  Made four years after his death, the film is as much about entertainment as it is about paying tribute to the legend that Ziegfeld personified.  While there were some liberties taken in the depiction of his life for its translation into film, MGM created a sentimental homage to Ziegfeld’s professional and private life that spanned the 40 years from the 1893 Chicago World Fair to his death in the early 1930’s.

One of the most extraordinary aspects of this film is the set design and how it is used to augment the cinematography.  The Great Ziegfeld uses elaborate sets for the musical numbers and long shots to make the film audience feel as though we are actually seeing clips of the Ziegfeld Follies as a theater audience.  Complete with shots framed using the dimensions of the stage as reference points; the film shows the towering, elaborate staircases and moving set pieces that truly cemented Ziegfeld as a musical impresario.  While I found some of the actual songs in the musical numbers a bit drab, center piece numbers like “A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody,” still were very catchy.  image2Also, the tap-dancing in this film is sensational.  I’m a sucker for well-choreographed tap numbers and this film brings the art of tap to life in a way that only a 1930’s era musical can do.  This movie had two elements that were spliced together to form this epic tale of Ziegfeld’s life: the biopic, and the musical.  Neither segment could really stand on its own, because Ziegfeld’s life would have felt incomplete without showcasing his professional life.

The film was our first biopic of the winners that we have viewed thus far, and makes a decisive entry into the Academy’s history.  The only reason I feel as though it is not as well known as other winners has to do with its length and the liberties it has taken in its deviance from reality.  The movie does have some filmic aspects that translate to modern audiences as a bit cliché, but overly harsh criticism of the film would ignore the fact that this is still set in depression-era America.  In this pre-WWII setting, escapist cinema was what the movie-going audiences thirsted for, and its tribute to the glitz and glamour of the early days of Broadway were exactly what the audience ordered.  Rather than fixating on historical inaccuracies or slight melodramatic tendencies, the audience would have left the theater pleased with the caliber of entertainment they received for their ticket price.  The choices the film made for entertainment purposes do not detract from the well-made movie with spectacular sets and interesting plot twists that comprise our 1936 winner.   While you won’t see this film on many AFI top 100 lists, it is hard to ignore the charm of this joyful spectacle of a tribute to one of Broadway’s most ground-breaking producers.

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