Mata Hari (George Fitzmaurice, 1931)

Mata Hari Greta Garbo Lionel Barrymore

Greta Garbo and Lionel Barrymore

This is my very belated contribution to the Barrymore Trilogy blogathon – many apologies for being so late (I forgot the blogathon’s date), but please do visit Crystal’s blog, In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood, to read the other entries. 

This smash hit romantic melodrama is dominated by Greta Garbo, playing the woman whose name has become a byword for seductive spying. However, Lionel Barrymore also gives a powerful performance as a General who falls under her spell. Although Ramon Novarro is ostensibly the male lead, Barrymore has a more interesting role and manages to steal a large number of scenes.

The film is only loosely based on the life of the real Mata Hari, a Dutch exotic dancer living in Paris who was executed for spying for the Germans in the First World War. A recent biographer argues that she wasn’t a spy at all and says there was little evidence against her. Be that as it may, Mata was around 40 during the war and her career as a dancer was on the wane. By contrast, Garbo was only 26 when she made the film and at the height of her beauty – so the character doesn’t quite have the desperation which Mata would have had in real life. Another difference is that the real Mata was Eurasian, but fortunately, although Garbo is seen performing a sexy Oriental dance, the studio didn’t try to alter her appearance.

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The Damned Don’t Cry (1950)

The Damned Don't Cry poster

This is my contribution to the Joan Crawford Blogathon, hosted by Crystal at In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. Please do visit and read the other postings, covering a great range of films.

In her mid-40s when The Damned Don’t Cry was made, Joan Crawford was just a little too old for the part of a gangster’s moll. Yet that’s just what makes this movie so compelling, as she pours herself one more time into the kind of working girl role she had made her own earlier in her career. Although the film is often described as a noir, in some ways it is a successor of pre-Codes like Baby Face. Just like Barbara Stanwyck’s character in that film, Crawford here has nothing but her looks and her wits, and uses them to climb from one man to another, taking revenge on a world which has wronged her.

At the start of the film, a gangster’s body is thrown out of a car. Police start to search for a missing socialite linked with the dead man, Lorna Hansen Forbes, only to discover that her name and her whole lifestyle appear to be fake. Where did she come from? As they try to find out, Lorna (Crawford) turns up at the poor shack where her parents live. Her mother greets her as “Ethel”, but her father coldly ignores her.

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Hold Back the Dawn (Mitchell Leisen, 1941)

Charles Boyer, Paulette Goddard and Olivia de Havilland in Hold Back the Dawn

Charles Boyer, Paulette Goddard and Olivia de Havilland

Happy 100th birthday, Olivia de Havilland! This is my contribution to her centenary blogathon, being organised by The Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood and Phyllis Loves Classic Movies. Please visit and read the other entries, which cover a wide range of Olivia de Havilland’s films.

With a fine cast headed by Olivia de Havilland and Charles Boyer, a great director in Mitchell Leisen and a sharp script by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett, it’s a mystery that bitter-sweet comedy romance Hold Back the Dawn isn’t better known. The story is sadly only too topical, centring on a group of refugees who have fled from war and are trying to cross a border. Let’s hope the celebrations for de Havilland’s centenary lead to this fine film getting more attention. At my time of writing, it’s only available on a Spanish DVD in region 2 – I bought an import copy and can confirm that the picture quality is fine. However, it will be shown on TCM in the US at 1.45am ET on July 22, 2016, and again at 9.45pm on August 29.

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Our Town (Sam Wood, 1940)

Our Town 7This is my contribution to the Golden Boy Blogathon hosted by Virginie at The Wonderful World of Cinema. Please visit and read the other postings, about a wide range of films starring William Holden.

One of William Holden’s earliest roles was as George Gibbs in a poignant screen adaptation of Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play about American small-town life, Our Town. This is a film well worth seeing, with a good director, Sam Wood, and a cast including Martha Scott and Frank Craven, who had starred in the original Broadway production, as well as  character actors such as Thomas Mitchell, Beulah Bondi and Guy Kibbee. It also has a  stirring and atmospheric score by Aaron Copland. However, there is a big but!

Before getting into discussion of the film itself, I’d urge anybody setting out to watch it to learn from my mistake and be very careful about the print you choose. Unfortunately, this is one of those movies which has fallen out of copyright and into one of the lowest circles of public domain hell. There are dodgy copies around where the picture is grey and shaky and the surface noise is so loud you can hardly hear the dialogue or music. Worse still, some of these duped copies have huge chunks of the film missing. After initially starting to watch a truly dire copy, I belatedly realised it had a running time of only 75 minutes instead of 90 and gave up. Fortunately, I then found a complete version in reasonable condition, free to watch, at The Video Cellar YouTube channel, but I’d be interested to hear if anyone has seen a good DVD or Blu-ray of the film.

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The Sisters (Anatole Litvak, 1938)

This posting is my contribution to the Bette Davis Blogathon, organised by Crystal at The Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. Please visit and read the other postings. 

the sisters 3Bette Davis might be best remembered for her “bad girl” roles, but these were not the only characters she played. In The Sisters she pours her emotional power into the role of quiet and self-sacrificing wife Louise. This might be one of her lesser-known titles, but it’s a film I like a lot, partly for the daring way that both Davis and male lead Errol Flynn, playing a waifish alcoholic, are cast against type. (They went on to star together in more characteristic roles in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex). Director Anatole Litvak made a number of good romantic melodramas and is someone I’ve been meaning to write more about on this blog. This is a period piece set in the early years of the 20th century and includes some spectacular footage re-creating the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. It’s available from Warner Archive and there are also Spanish and Italian DVD eleases in region 2.

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Lulu Belle (Leslie Fenton, 1948)

This is my contribution to the Dorothy Lamour blogathon, hosted by Silver Screenings and Font and Frock. Please visit and take a look at the other postings.

lulu belle 4Dorothy Lamour is magnetic to watch in this  sometimes noirish period melodrama laced with music, but sadly the film just doesn’t hold together overall. Lamour’s title character is clearly intended to be a woman who ruthlessly climbs her way from one man to another, like numerous pre-Code anti-heroines But this movie was made when the Production Code was in full force, so the portrayal of Lulu Belle is somewhat confused.

The film is based on a smash hit 1920s Broadway play by Charles MacArthur and Edward Sheldon, which had a mainly African-American cast, although the lead roles were played by white actors in blackface. The character of blues singer Lulu Belle was played by white actress Lenore Ulric. (I found out about the original play by reading an extract from Bulldaggers, Pansies, and Chocolate Babies: Performance, Race, and Sexuality in the Harlem Renaissance, by James F. Wilson, via Google books.) However, when the drama was belatedly adapted as a film, more than 20 years on, the character of Lulu Belle was turned into a white singer, and there was also a lot of censorship brought into force. For instance, although Lulu clearly makes money from men, any suggestion of prostitution is fudged, as it had to be under the Code.

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Hedy Lamarr Film Marathon

This posting is my contribution to the Marathon Stars Blogathon hosted by Virginie at The Wonderful World of Cinema and Crystal at The Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood blogs. Please do visit and read the other postings!

Hedy_lamarr_-_1940The challenge for the Marathon Stars Blogathon was to watch 5 films featuring a star whom I’d only seen in up to 3 movies previously. I found it quite difficult to pick someone, since often as soon as I notice an actor I rush to see as many of their films as possible, promptly ruling them out for this particular blogathon!

However, I realised I had seen just two films starring Hedy Lamarr, and that she had made a favourable impression on me in both. She is on something of a hiding to nothing in Algiers (John Cromwell, 1938), which is almost a frame by frame remake of the great French drama Pépé le Moko, made only a year earlier – but she still gives a good performance. However, the film I had really liked her in was Come Live With Me (Clarence Brown, 1941), a bitter-sweet romantic comedy where she plays a Viennese exile in the US who gradually falls for awkward young writer James Stewart. That’s still probably my favourite of hers even after seeing the 5 new-to-me films that I’ve watched for this marathon, which covered a range of genres and were all highly enjoyable.

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