62. The Catered Affair (1956, Brooks)
Bette Davis is in full-on ACTING mode with an over-enunciated Brooklyn accent. A kitchen-sink Father of the Bride in which poverty and debt are guaranteed if Debbie Reynolds’s wedding (of which Davis, not Reynolds, wants to make a big to-do) is carried out. Most importantly, the impending wedding illuminates the mother’s naturally cold relationship towards her daughter and her own marriage, built on a foundation of $300 and decades of loveless indifference and co-existing familiarity. The dialogue begins to get redundant as the characters circle back to the same conversations after so long of supposedly not addressing any of their domestic disputes. Why didn’t Davis wake Ernest Borgnine up at the end?!?!?! Aaaahhhh so stressful. Certainly recommended though; thoroughly watchable and often quite engaging.
#63. Watch on the Rhine (1943, Shumlin)
Adaptation of a play written by Lillian Hellman in 1941 as a call to America for united closer-to-home-than-you-think alliance against Hitler and Nazi Germany. The 1943 film, obviously made with the US involvement in the war and neutrality no longer the firm stance. Bette Davis’s role is elevated to fit her stature in a thankless but nonetheless moving part as the noble stiff upper lip wife of Paul Lukas, reprising his Broadway role. Lukas and especially Lucile Watson (who represents US obliviousness turned reality check) are excellent but the film is driven into the dugout by a stodgy air, constantly halting for speeches (some of them worthy, some of them not) and a time-wasting subplot involving Geraldine Fitzgerald. Worst of all are the three children whose intelligence and multilingual abilities apparently translates to three performance akin to unbearably vexing, to put it mildly, robots.
#64. “A Corny Concerto” (1943, Clampett) (re-watch)
Parody of Fantasia with Elmer Fudd in the Deems Taylor role, with two wordless segments set to Johann Strauss pieces resembling something akin to “Dance of the Hours”. The first segment is something special with Bugs Bunny, Elmer Fudd and his hunting dog performing dramatic death scenes, the dog sobbing in tune with the music and ending with Bugs wearing a two-piece, slapping a bra over his two opponents, and skipping off into the sunset. The second segment is pretty forgettable with a take on “The Ugly Duckling”.
#65. “Porky Pig’s Feat” (1943, Tashlin)
My favorite of the seven I watched/re-watched within this post. It’s got much more of a throughline than most in the Looney Tunes series even as it sticks to the character-wants-something-and-is-constantly-thwarted-via-violence formula. Incredibly sophisticated and creative in its use of shots and visuals. Also contains the first of many uses of Raymond Scott’s now iconic “Powerhouse”. “EEEEEHHHH, FATSO????”
#66. “Scrap Happy Daffy” (1943, Tashlin)
Wartime short featuring a Nazi goat! Not to much to say about this except that the comic license cartoons had over the buffoonery portrayal of Nazis is on display here with their tantrum-laden insistence on immediately stomping anything outside their ideology.
#67. “Wackiki Wabbit” (1943, Jones) (re-watch)
What this diverting enough toon comes down to is its fabulous abstract Hawaiian print backgrounds, largely unique to what I’ve seen in the work of Looney Tunes. Also of note is the fluctuation with which Bugs gains and loses control of the situation. Later on, Bugs will nearly always have the upper hand of a scenario and its accompanying developments and humiliations.
#68. “Falling Hare” (1943, Clampett)
Speaking of Bugs being on the receiving end, here he is uncharacteristically taunted by a Gremlin while hanging out an at airbase. The final minutes are the most notable, the exhausting range of physical and emotional turmoil kicks into high gear as the plane plummets to the ground, only to run out of gas at the last second (literally).
#69. The Constant Nymph (1943, Goulding)
Due to legal rights, The Constant Nymph was unavailable to the general public for seventy years. I sincerely hope plenty make their way around to seeing this because it might be Joan Fontaine’s best work, and according to TCM her personal favorite as well. At age twenty-four, she is completely convincing playing a teenager. She attains the essence of a flittering girl who shuns proper lady-like demeanors with a free-spiritedness and the by turns demure and talkative impulses of her age. Fontaine’s Tessa gallops, stumbles, fawns, fidgets, insists and swoons. She runs barefoot and carelessly swings her legs around, her gawky frame believable as an innocent girl who is in love but unlikely to have (in this case) thought of herself as a sexual being. Even though Fontaine filmed this before Jane Eyre, I saw the latter before the former, so this put her back in my good graces after that shitshow of an adaptation.
The unrequited love, Joan Fontaine playing a teen, tragic overtones, musician male leads, and the connectivity of music all makes The Constant Nymph in certain ways a kind of warm-up companion piece to Letter from an Unknown Woman. The obliviousness on the part of the male counterpart is present in both, the critical difference being that Tessa is always of the utmost importance to Charles Boyer’s Lewis, whereas she remains the titular ‘unknown woman’ in the latter.
Alexis Smith also impresses in a tough role of opposition. Though Florence is classist and often rude, she is a well-rounded character I spent much of my time feeling sorry for. Lewis is purposely antagonistic towards her once the two settle into marriage, and Tessa giddily installs herself into Lewis’s life as a smitten fellow kindred spirit. Far too little Peter Lorre and Dame May Whitty, I say!
Considering the sincerity of the story and the direction it takes, Tessa’s underage crush on Lewis reads somewhat creepily today. What makes it work is their mutual connection centered around music and the creative mindset. The film is rooted in Romanticism, further extended by insisting Lewis needs to drop the Modernist vibes and put heart in his music which can only be acquired through suffering.
The direction favors longer takes with the backs of characters often visible in some fashion, resulting in a more natural blocking and camera movement by turns gentle and triumphant. The use of music at the end is ahead of its time in the way it is used as a climax and to cross-cut between spatially disparate happenings.
#70. “Tortoise Wins by a Hare” (1943, Clampett) (re-watch)
Completely deconstructs Aesop’s fable and puts it back together again with a lot of hi-jinks, mix-ups and gangsters in a very short amount of time. “The tortoise always wins” much to the frustrated confusion of Bugs who is worked up about it to say the least. The tortoise’s voice has a really amusing (“Clean living, friend”) low timber to it. Mel Blanc is tops even by his standards, especially towards the end as Bugs becomes delirious with joy and then rage, inches away from winning only to have gangsters descend upon him. “I’M THE RABBIT!!!!”
#71. “Dumb-Hounded” (1943, Avery)
Droopy’s first appearance. Humor comes from contrasting the crazed globe-spanning efforts of the wolf to escape the effortless omniscience of Droopy. Favorite bit; the undertaker jumping off the building in order to take measurements as the wolf falls. Also, the wolf running off the film strip.
#72. So Proudly We Hail! (1943, Sandrich)
Appeal here is the focus on U.S Army nurses and their experiences in Bataan and Corregidor played by the de-glammed glamour gals of the early 40’s. Does a surprisingly nice job, by Hollywood standards of the time, conveying the it’s-never-ever-ever-enough futility of the nurses efforts and the onslaught of attacks. The superficial characters shed their shallowness for the greater good. Veronica Lake, suicide bomber (!), is dispensed far too soon, though her character is a mainly a mouthpiece for vitriolic Japanese hatred. She is harshly lit, no softness to be found, and then in those final moments, preparing to die, she lets down her trademark hair. Great stuff.
The story targets and turns Claudette Colbert’s practical and clear-headed woman into a “hysterical schoolgirl” via romance with the block-headed George Reeves. She starts as a role model and ends up having the reverse trajectory of Paulette Goddard’s floozy character re: priorities. Still, an effective female-centric morale booster for the time even if it feels somewhat middling today.
#73. The Hard Way (1943, Sherman)
This was everything I hoped it would be. I’d been dying to see it since reading a plot synopsis, couldn’t get hold of it, and thus blind-bought it (something I don’t have the money to normally do).
One of the best rags-to-riches showbiz claw-my-way-to-the-top yarns with older sis making sure little sis’s dreams of performing on the stage are realized. They rise up from an unhappy marriage, grey dowdy graduation dresses, and endless soot to contracts, furs and success. Like Old Acquaintance, it somewhat conflates women’s careers with the perversion and interruption of ‘natural’ gender roles. Like ‘Old’, this is offset by the individuality of characters with Helen’s (Ida Lupino) bold manipulations and Katherine’s (Joan Leslie) inherent sweetness. It could have spent more time on Katherine’s self-destructive phase, though that likely would have further implied what we can safely assume from that hectic superimposed paint-the-town-red sequence.
Ida Lupino’s eye-on-the-prize performance is electric (though she apparently was not fond of her work here), constantly looking for ways out and up, unabashedly seizing upon questionable opportunities that present themselves, gradually unable to tell the difference between success and personal happiness. Joan Leslie is equally as good, like a 40’s Jennifer Jason Leigh (with a dash of Larisa Oleynik?). She is increasingly torn and devastated, loyalty in check far past its expiration date.
The two male counterparts, played by Dennis Morgan and Jack Carson, are just as engaging. Paul (Morgan) sees through Helen and the two have a great dynamic as she tries to suppress feelings for someone who loathes yet admires her. Al (Carson) is an earnest and naive schlub whose pride and blinders prove too much. What I loved most about The Hard Way is the careful and complicated evolution between all four characters, with attention paid to who they are within themselves and in relation to each other through time as paths cross and double-cross. There’s a development in Act 2 that completely took me off guard. The direction and staging enhance our understandings of the character dynamics and includes visually stimulating and slightly surreal montage sequences.
The Hard Way plays on TCM June 12th. Don’t miss it.