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Thursday, Dec 4, 2014
The sharp direction of Lloyd Baker, along with the ace acting of James Cagney and Pat O'Brien, makes this rat-a-tat '30s comedy a gem.

James Cagney ought to be more famous for comedies than gangster movies, because he’s never more delightful than when spinning like a dynamo, throwing off rat-a-tat dialogue and now and then bursting into a graceful dance. Exhibit A: Boy Meets Girl, now available on demand from Warner Archive. Hollywood has made so many good comedies at its own expense that you might be forgiven for never having heard of this one, yet it’s among the best. The script by Bella & Samuel Spewack, based on their play, has it all: brilliant lines, excellent characters, and a smooth, surprising plot to wrap them in.


Cagney and Pat O’Brien, together again (as the trailer trumpets, or perhaps trombones—that’s a joke in the movie), play a frantic, irreverent screenwriting duo supposedly inspired by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur. In this homage to the audacity and wackiness of creativity, they are mischievous devices to spin the narrative. Supposedly their motive is to preserve their jobs by spewing out variations of the “boy meets girl” plot for their studio, but the accidental by-product of their manipulations is, of course, true love.


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Monday, Dec 1, 2014
Sure, this is a melodramatic, but don't be ashamed of that swelling in your heart... the music really is that beautiful.

How do you film someone playing the violin? How about overhead, looking down on the fingering like Busby Berkeley presenting geometric legwork? You can find that and other graceful ideas in Archie Mayo’s direction of the scenes where legendary violinist Jascha Heifetz performs in They Shall Have Music, now available on demand from Warner Archive. In his first performance, the camera seems to be mounted on a crane that glides gracefully around Heifetz in a single shot, then rises majestically upward, as though on the notes themselves. No wonder the grubby little delinquent kid from the Brooklyn slums, who found his way into the audience while fleeing the cops, is spellbound.


The kid is Frankie (Gene Reynolds), and it turns out his late father used to play the fiddle and taught him to recognize musical notes. This impresses the teacher (Walter Brennan) at a music school for poor kids, into which Frankie has wandered by accident while chasing his scene-stealing dog Sucker (played by “Zero”), for Frankie is blown by the winds of fate throughout this plot. Too bad the school is on the verge of being shut down and having everything repossessed for lack of funds, unless—wait a minute—what if the great Mr. Heifetz could play at their concert? It’s so crazy, it just might work. Joel McCrea and Andrea Leeds are on hand to provide romantic interest without getting in the way, and Marjorie Main plays Frankie’s put-upon mom.


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Thursday, Nov 20, 2014
Sure, Jennifer is chock full of dimensionless characters, banal dialogue, and gratuitous nudity, but it's never boring.

This horror item from the ‘70s is one of those dumb, cheap, cheesy, unconvincing efforts peopled by mostly undimensional characters spouting dialogue that wavers from simple to stupid, with the teen characters played by actors in their 20s, and many moments of gratuitous (i.e. necessary) breast nudity among teasing girls. Which begs the question: So what? None of that makes it bad, and Jennifer can rightly claim never to be boring.


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Wednesday, Nov 19, 2014
The moral predicament of Escape Me Never rings as hollow from the start, making it watchable at best, but not swallowable.

Escape Me Never is a handsomely produced disaster that sat on the shelf for almost two years before Warner Brothers released it to widespread disinterest. Classic starwatchers can shake their heads in bemusement, for it’s now available on demand from Warner Archive.


It’s Venice in the year 1900, and a poor woman called Gemma (Ida Lupino) causes a commotion in a snazzy palazzo. Gabbling out the exposition of her life story while overplaying bits of business all over the room, she tells the swells that she’s an orphan with a baby and that she lives with a composer. By coincidence, her listeners think she means Caryl (Gig Young, with mustache), the composer who’s wooing their rich and proper daughter (Eleanor Parker, beautiful), but it’s actually his womanizing brother Sebastian (Errol Flynn, without mustache). This misunderstanding leads the quartet into a muddled and unmerry dance where Gemma is anguished by the cad she loves while he’s smitten by his brother’s girlfriend, and all anybody’s going to get out of it is a lousy ballet.


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Tuesday, Nov 18, 2014
This film is, above all, a technical accomplishment, but it has languished since its 1938 release.

This expensive epic focuses on a little-told historical subject. While the initial California Gold Rush of 1849 has often been used as a background for films and stories, this screenplay by Warren Duff and Robert Buckner (from Clements Ripley’s novel) focuses on the Sacramento Valley rush of 1877, specifically on the use of hydraulic mining to wash away tons of mud onto the farmland below, leading to environmental and legal conflict between farmers and miners. The latter aren’t rugged individualists but employees of fatcat syndicates in San Francisco, who are depicted as shallow and greedy while the farmers are the salt of the earth. Real issues and philosophies are discussed before the destructive climactic action literally washes everything away when everyone disregards the law.


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