Wednesday, December 23, 2015

November Viewing ~ Shearer, Spies, and MacLaine

The grades have been posted, the gifts purchased and wrapped, the cookies baked and set out. Now it's time for some Classic Reel Girl (and a nap!).

Before looking forward, I want to look back on the movies watched and discovered throughout the months of November and December. The last few days of 2015 will also include my top 2015 Film Finds, how I did with my 10 for 2015 list, and my 2016 Films to Watch list (not sure if I should make it ten again... ;-) ). Looks like I will be having a mini-blogging marathon to make up for lost time! Watch for updated links.


TCM's November was devoted to the legendary Norma Shearer. Prior commitments didn't allow me to catch nearly as much Norma as I wanted to this time around, but I made room for three of her films.

*The Divorcee (1930) - Ever since I took an interest in pre-code movies, this film and Baby Face (1933) have popped up in conversations as quintessential examples of the genre. While there is no doubting its pre-codeness, The Divorcee is lacking the characteristic I prefer most in pre-code movies: the all-out-strong woman. At first, the film appears it will deliver. When Jerry's (Norma Shearer) husband cheats on her, she "balanced [the] accounts" by doing the same. 

 Best shot of the film: Don't mess with Norma!
***Spoilers ahead***

Double standard rears his ugly head. Hubby Ted (Chester Morris) can't deal with the shoe being on the other foot, so Jerry sends him packing. Then she spends the remainder of the movie trying to spite him by letting every Tom, Dick, and wealthy European into her bedroom. She may appear to be a strong, free woman, but Jerry's affairs are not about her--it is all about her ex. To top it off, she goes back to him. 

The highlight for me is in the background: Jerry's career. I LOVED how Jerry pursues a career before, during, and after marriage and the career is not blamed for the failed marriage! Rather, her job is hanging in the background, a natural part of life, treated in the same manner as a man's job. As it should be.

A Shearer acting quirk I noticed this month (the TV was on even if I wasn't watching the film) - she touches her hair. A lot. A demo from The Divorcee:

*Idiot's Delight (1939) - I first viewed this Shearer/Gable pic years ago while in college. I was oddly smitten with the movie despite the main characters' lack of redeeming qualities. What was it about this movie that intrigued me? November gave me the opportunity to find out. 

As much as I love dancing, it was not Gable's brief dance scenes (the only of his career) that drew me into the film. I believe it was the harsh reality that pulled me in all those years ago. Unlike 42nd Street, Stage Door, Easter Parade, and The Band Wagon, this is a failed stage story. Harry (Gable) is on his way down instead of up due to years lost from fighting in World War I. The theme of sacrificed youth for the benefit of others (see It's a Wonderful Life) gets me every time. Then there is Irene (Shearer) and what my college-self must have seen as her Anne of Green Gables-like imagination. On second (and more mature) viewing, though, Irene's tales border on pathological lying and are not at all attractive. The two characters fall in love, separate, and run into each other years later in a different time, different place. The meeting with lost love, the second chance to make it stick, the Serendipity-ness of it all, gives that harsh reality the rosy glow of hope. No wonder I liked the film. 

Another reason this film intrigued me: The alternate endings, both of which TCM showed in November, demonstrates the different mindsets of the U.S. and international audiences in relation to what was occurring in Europe at the time. (The U.S. ending is embarrassing.)

*We Were Dancing (1942) - With a title like that, you knew I had to pick this one! =) It is practically mandatory viewing for CRG.

What can I say? The film had possibilities. It begins on the eve of Vicki's (Shearer) wedding. Vicki meets Nicki (Melvyn Douglas) at a party. They fall in love while dancing and decide to run off and marry within the first ten minutes of the film. This has to be a satire, I thought, of all those movies--love them as I do--where the main character chucks it all for someone they just met and they live happily ever after. The film must be showing us what happens after the scene fades, I thought, how foolish it is to believe this would work in reality. No. Long story short: passionate love still conquers all. It almost doesn't (you must have conflict after all). In the end they find each other again while--doing what else?--dancing.

Spies (a.k.a. Join the Resistance)

This day of programming was like a birthday gift from the TCM angels. For the past decade, I have been SLOWLY working on a World War II novel with characters involved in espionage. It is cliche, may never be published, but it's all mine and I love it. Watching spy movies is my "research." Any excuse to view an old movie, right?

*Underground (1941) - At the time of its release in June 1941, the U.S. had not entered World War II. With Underground, Warner Brothers attempts to cure its viewers of their feelings of pacifism. Resistance leader Eric Franken's (Philip Dorn) illegal broadcasts are as much for the Americans' benefit as it is for his fictional audience. "45,000 human beings," he warns, "wiped out in a city which was defenseless and which had no military objectives." 

Meanwhile his brother Kurt (Jeffrey Lynn), who happens to be fervent Nazi soldier, embarks on a series of events that will end in his discovering the Third Reich's hypocrisy and brutality. His journey brought to mind Martin Niemoller's poem, "First They Came for the Socialists." In this case, there are no Socialists, Labor Unionists, or Jews. However, there is a sense of groups being taken away one by one: the neighbors, Kurt's family, and the Nazi soldier himself when he is suspected of espionage. This dangerous people will turn on anyone, the movie says, even themselves. No one is safe.

The message was lost on the public if one is to go by New York Times critic T.S.'s review of the film. The critic deemed the plot "neither distinguished nor original" and criticized "the characterization of the Gestapo agent [who is] too coldly inhuman to be credible." If only he knew! To his credit, T.S. recognizes "the savagery of the Nazi state" in the last line of the review. Nonetheless, there is an obvious disconnect between the inhumane actions of individuals and how they enable the savagery of the Nazi machine.

*Edge of Darkness (1943) - Filmed after the U.S. entered the war, this Warner Brothers production has more polish and star power than Underground. The cast includes a rather handsome Errol Flynn, the "Oomph Girl" Ann Sheridan--complete with a scene that gives her reason to undress, veteran actor Walter Huston, and a tough but not creepy Judith Anderson. I was most impressed with Walter Huston, who is able to genuinely convey a man conflicted between what he knows is right and concern for his family's safety. When he takes action, he does so in full fury.

*Betrayed (1954) - If there is one thing this film and Notorious (1946) have taught me, it is that women with a history of "loose" morals make ideal spies. Betrayed is not a remake of Notorious, but the basic set-up is similar. Lana Turner, the woman with a questionable past, goes undercover in Netherlands and Clark Gable takes on the Cary Grant-type role. There is a twist in the plot, which I appreciate, and the countryside--filmed on location in color--is beautiful. Even so, I'll stick with Bergman, Grant, and Raines in Hitchcock's Notorious

Shirley MacLaine

*I wrapped up my November with a movie that I have never seen in full: What a Way to Go! (1964). For some reason, I incorrectly remembered the main character as being portrayed by Debbie Reynolds, which is why I could never find it on my own. The star is actually Shirley MacLaine, which lead to an aha-moment for me: MacLaine is an incredibly versatile actress. She danced in this movie (with Gene Kelly no less!), Can-Can (1960 - choreography by Hermes Pan), and Sweet Charity (1969 - choreography by Bob Fosse). She could be dramatic - Some Came Running (1958), The Apartment (1960), The Children's Hour (1961), Terms of Endearment (1983), do comedy - the aforementioned musicals, Irma la Douce (1963), Bewitched (2005), Hitchcock - The Trouble with Harry (1955), and everything in between - Steel Magnolias (1989). She has survived and adapted to decades of Hollywood culture.

What a Way to Go! (1964) was a delightful movie, especially because it poked fun--albeit lovingly--at various movie genres: the silent movie, the scandalous foreign film, the sophisticated clothes-centric production with a smidgen of teen beach flick, and the musical comedy. Nowadays, you would need to be a student of classic films to appreciate it, but since we are--what a way to end November!

Ciao until next time!


Niemollen, Martin. "First They Came for the Socialists." Holocaust Encyclopedia. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. 18 Aug 2015. Web. 13 Dec 2015.

T. S. "Underground (1941): 'Underground,' a Film Dealing With Radio Anti-Nazi Activities, Seen at the Globe." The New York Times. 23 June 1941: Movie Review. Web. 22 Dec 2015.

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