1. The Fuller Brush Girl (1950) Lloyd Bacon’s slight but amiable comedy is most notable for the opportunity to see the great Lucille Ball in one of her last film roles before she commenced production on I Love Lucy. Visually Ball looks quite similar to Lucy Ricardo and here she is able to keep the whole silly affair airborn with really not much more than her comedic talent and considerable charisma. There are some fun rather broad scenes but they vary in quality. As usual, Lucy excells in any of the more physical set-ups.
I Love Lucy fans will be interested to know that there is a sequence in The Fuller Brush Girl concerning Lucy being mistaken for the babysitter and being forced to deal with some out of control children playing cowboys and indians that almost certainly served as the inspiration for a nearly identical story arc on an episode of the sitcom. Fans of Ball (and who isn’t, really?) will enjoy what was, essentially, a dress rehearsal for the sitcom that would change TV forever.
2. Leave Her to Heaven (1945) John M. Stahl’s technicolor noir is, first and foremost, one of the most beautiful films of the 1940s. The film’s exquisite cinematograpny and lush pallette is deeply hypnotic, as is the rather awe-inpsiring beauty of its leading lady Gene Tierney. The film’s second female lead Jeanne Crain was no slouch in the looks department either and it’s a testament to how gorgeous Tierney was that it’s hard to even notice Crain. Leave Her to Heaven is a first-rate melodrama and has enjoyed a growing cult through the decades.
That said, though I enjoy the film each time I see it, I am increasingly bothered by an absence of internal logic that fails to provide much in the way of an explanation for the deliciously evil protagonist. To be sure there is great noir pleasure in cavorting with evil women, but Leave Her to Heaven never really gives the viewer much context for Tierney’s motivation. As the character’s mother says, “there’s nothing wrong with Ellen, she just loves too much.” Yeah, well sure, we all love too much, but we all wouldn’t let the crippled kid drown two feet in front of us!
3. They Drive By Night (1940) Raoul Walsh’s terrific crime melodrama has an amazing ensemble cast that features George Raft, Ann Sheridan, Ida Lupino and a young Humphrey Bogart in the second male lead. They Drive By Night is wonderfully entertaining over 70 years after it was released, combining both crime drama and film noir elements. Raft and Bogart give likable, multi-dimensional performances and Lupino gives us first-rate, scene stealing Ida. The surprise here is Ann Sheridan as the tough waitress—her scenes in the restaurant are magnetic. There is no mistaking this as a Warner Bros. film and an enduring example of their house style.
4. Lilly Turner (1933) William Wellman directed this pre-code scorcher set in the tawdry world of a travelling carnival (what was it about that setting that proves so irrisitible time and time again?) and concerns itself with the usual pregnancies, affairs, desertions you would expect. This oddly short (65 minute) story is like a brief visit with a dirty relative from out of town and an excuse to enjoy the exceptional skill of the great Ruth Chatterton, truly one of the great underappreciated actresses of the period. Lilly Turner is an absolute must for pre-code enthusiasts.
5. The Devil Within Her a.k.a. I Don’t Want to be Born (1975) Truly not Joan Collins’ greatest on-screen moment, and that is saying quite a bit considering the staggering number of truly un-great moments the actress has given us over the years. This film, which also featured Donald Pleasance and the great stage actress Eileen Atkins, was a low-budget English riff on the wildly popular Rosemary’s Baby and can safely be regarded as one of the worst films of its particular type. In other words, it is essential viewing!
So how bad is it? It opens with a tight close-up of Joan giving birth to her devil spawn that looks much more like a moment of carnal bliss, and the film only get’s worse from there! This film’s most questionable creative choice was the curious decision to cast a normal baby instead of utilizing any special effects. Even though the child has dark hair, he is not capable of scowling or in any fashion look vaguely devilish or really anything but a bit gassy. He’s adorable, which pretty much defangs the film completely. Joan herself was capable of being more menacing with just a sideways glance, but you won’t get any of that here. Just some lovely location shots of London in 1975 and Joan in a variety of girl-on-the-go mother-of-the-devil leisure wear. Enjoy!
6. Bachelor Mother (1939) This Ginger Rogers comedy was chosen by none-other than TCM’s new BFF Cher, so naturally I was intrigued. She and Robert Osborne have a rollicking good time when she co-hosts on TCM and I was duly impressed with her recent programming choices.
As Cher pointed out, Ginger Rogers was a terrific comedienne and was quite underrated an actress, which this film ably demonstrates. Her timing is impeccable and she really had a quality that made it hard to look at anyone else when she is onscreen. She was also great looking. Director Garson Kannin even throws in a jitterbug number for good measure. This lighthearted romp goes down quite easily and is bound to make a Rogers fan out of even the most jaded film buffs. Ginger is given able support by co-stars David Niven and Charles Coburn.
First-rate script by Felix Jackson, Norman Krasna, and director Kanin (uncredited), and technical support from costume designer Irene, cinematographer Robert De Grasse, and film composer Roy Webb, prove that when it comes to classic American cinema, we should all listen to Cher!
7. Brute Force (1947) The great Jules Dassin directed this seminal prison break film that starred the young Burt Lancaster and Hume Cronyn as the sadistic warden. Notable for its taut story and excellent cast of actors including Sam Levene, Charles Bickford, Yvonne DeCarlo, Ella Raines and Ann Blyth.
Brute Force was only Lancaster’s second film and he holds the film with the mesmeric, hyper-masculine intensity that came to him with such seeming ease; pure movie star magic.
8. The Stories We Tell (2013) Warning—spoilers!
Sarah Polley’s ambitious, well-reviewed documentary attempts to tell her family history from multiple perspectives but makes the mistake casting her father as the narrator. The result is that director Polley tries to have it both ways: to be both the film’s subject and an impartial observer at the same time. Of course this doesn’t work because in addition to constructing the narrative as the director, she has also recreated fake documentary-style footage. I found myself getting annoyed with her need to seem outside of the telling of a story despite the fact that as the film’s director she is in complete control.
9. Safety Last! (1923) The older I get the more I appreciate the genius of Harold Lloyd. His usual persona has a down-to-earth accessibility that feels simultaneously of its time and somehow contemporary. His stunt work is, of course, quite brilliant and I found myself smiling through the whole film.
I showed Safety Last! to a nine-year-old last week and he absolutely loved it, which once again proves to me that if a kid is engaged by a film’s story, it doesn’t matter whether it’s black and white or silent or both. Like much of Lloyd’s work, this film is funny, interesting, and exceedingly well-wrought.
10. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) I hadn’t seen Philip Kaufman’s 1978 remake of Body Snatchers—which I remembered loving—since its original release so it was interesting to watch again. The film holds up rather well; anchored with a strong performance by Donald Sutherland. Co-star Brooke Adams work holds up less well but I really enjoyed the very young, lanky Jeff Goldblum. What really jumped out at me most this time was the amazing use of sound and sound editing; the terrifying sound the pod people make when they scream will stay with you long after the film ends.
I never realized that the original book was written by Jack Finney, who also wrote Time and Again, his justly-famous treatment of time travel to 19th-century New York that I fell in love with somewhere in the interim.
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