Mockery (1927) Review

Director: Benjamin Christensen

Genre(s): Drama, Romance, War

Runtime: 75 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

The 1927 drama Mockery isn’t actor Lon Chaney’s best film, but it is a fairly watchable one. Set during the Russian Civil War, a slow-witted peasant named Sergei (Lon Chaney) must escort a woman – Tatiana Alexandrova (Barbara Bedford) – across the Siberian wastelands to safety, with a love triangle just waiting to break out. This is a silent movie, but it’s told well enough that the lack of sound isn’t an issue.

This picture is mostly concerned with the class relations between the workers/peasants of Russia and the aristocracy desperately clinging to power in the face of revolution. Unfortunately, while the contrasts between the two sides take up a notable amount of screentime, the feature, in the end, doesn’t really have much to say about the matter. This is a melodrama, first and foremost, so displays of naked emotion are valued more than political/economic analysis.

The middle act of Mockery is perhaps the weakest part, but things get back on the rails for the finale. There is some action here, with plenty of soldiers running through the streets and Lon Chaney’s character – Sergei – duking it out with some goons. On the down side, Sergei does a thing or two to cause him to lose the sympathies of the audience during the third act.

As usual, Chaney’s performance cannot be faulted here. It’s just that the film surrounding him isn’t really that compelling. It’s only seventy-five minutes long, so it is manageable, but not that memorable. However, I don’t think that there’s been many easy-to-access flicks made about the Russian Civil War, despite that conflict’s horrendous bloodiness, so Mockery might scratch an itch in that regard.

My rating is 6 outta 10.

He Who Gets Slapped (1924) Review

Director: Victor Sjöström

Genre(s): Drama, Romance

Runtime: 95 minutes (Blu Ray version), 71 minutes (DVD version)

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

With star Lon Chaney showing up as a hideous-looking clown, it would be easy to mistake He Who Gets Slapped for a horror film. However, this silent movie is actually a grotesque drama (similar to other silents like The Man Who Laughs [1928] or West of Zanzibar [1928], the latter of which also stars Chaney) with strong romance elements. The story is about scientist Paul Beaumont (Lon Chaney) who joins the circus as a masochistic clown after his discoveries and his wife, Marie (Ruth King), are stolen from him.

This well-made feature is not held back by the cinematic limitations of the time. It’s still an engaging and poetic picture that intrigues the audience. He Who Gets Slapped has an easily digestible runtime that varies depending on what speed the silent movie is played at. It may not be horror, but it still has an odd, creepy vibe to it. I mean, it does feature dozens of synchronized-dancing clowns, after all.

The second act of this flick does feel a little distracted at first glance. During this segment, the focus is largely shifted away from Chaney’s character and settles on the romance between circus horse-riders Consuelo (Norma Shearer) and Bezano (John Gilbert). It feels “off” at first, but by the time the work’s remarkable climax rolls around, it makes sense.

As far as silent, 1920s melodramas go, this one is very solid. With the occasional abstract touch, it is a film that fans of the silents should try to seek out. Some say that Bela Lugosi can be seen here in a small uncredited role or two. It is supposedly the first Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) movie to have that company’s animal mascot, Leo the Lion, appear before the feature starts. It’s certainly not the only time a lion appears in this movie!

My rating is 7 outta 10.

City Streets (1931) Review

Director: Rouben Mamoulian

Genre(s): Crime, Drama, Romance

Runtime: 83 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

The great Gary Cooper is probably best known for his roles in western and war movies, but did you know that he once played a big-city gangster? Yes, that’s right, and the film was City Streets from 1931. A man simply known as “The Kid” (Gary Cooper), who runs a shooting gallery at the circus, is recruited by the mob after his girlfriend, Nan Cooley (Sylvia Sidney), is sent to prison for assisting in a murder.

The most striking aspect of City Streets is its ahead-of-its-time cinematography. It probably won’t wow most modern viewers, but, if you’re accustomed to the often creaky production values of early 1930s cinema, it’s nice to see. Gary Cooper is a delight here, as expected. He looks like a pro slinging around those shooting gallery pistols.

Even though it was named one of the ten best films of 1931 by the National Board of Review, I don’t think that this is one of the stronger mobster movies out there. The Public Enemy (1931), starring grapefruit-swinging James Cagney, was released the same year, and, even though it didn’t make the National Board of Review’s list, it is certainly the more entertaining picture. The problem with City Streets is its anti-climactic ending, which I won’t spoil the details of here.

Sent to theaters during the Pre-Code era of Hollywood (before the enforcement of the Production Code), this flick doesn’t really have very many “goodies” associated with the time period for modern audiences. Overall, it’s a passable crime-drama, but why settle for “passable?” The only real draw for it nowadays is seeing Cooper play a member of organized crime.

My rating is 6 outta 10.

Across the Pacific (1942) Review

Directors: John Huston and Vincent Sherman

Genre(s): Adventure, Romance, Thriller, War

Runtime: 97 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Despite a somewhat deceptive title, Across the Pacific from 1942 is a satisfactory war-time thriller. Set just before the United States’ entry into World War II, disgraced American serviceman Rick Leland (Humphrey Bogart) is forced out of the military for a scandal and decides to take a cruise on a Japanese ship through the Panama Canal to Asia. The boat he’s on is full of shadowy figures (himself included) and blood is bound to be spilled by the time his adventure is finished.

Across the Pacific has a fascinating plot, but it is a slow-moving picture. It’s pulpy and noirish, sure, but it feels a tad longer than its 97-minute runtime. Some modern viewers may also be turned off by the feature’s war-time depiction of Japanese people. Fortunately, the film is blessed with one huge asset: Humphrey Bogart. That guy makes everything look effortlessly cool, and his performance in this movie is no exception.

Speaking of Bogie, it’s fun to see him in full-on action hero mode here. The action doesn’t really kick in until the third act, but, when it does, it redeems the flick. The actual scenes of physical mayhem are adequately staged, but they’re extra-amusing considering that they are found in a movie released in 1942. Bogart very briefly unleashing his inner John Rambo is hard to pass up on.

Most of Across the Pacific is a romance-heavy thriller, but the last third makes a natural-feeling transition to more adventure-oriented fare. It’s far from being a great movie, but Bogart fans won’t want to miss it. It’s interesting to note that his character in this picture is called “Rick,” the same name as his role in Casablanca (1942), which was released the same year.

My rating is 6 outta 10.

Cloak and Dagger (1946) Review

Director: Fritz Lang

Genre(s): Adventure, Romance, Thriller, War

Runtime: 106 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

During World War II, American scientist Alvah Jesper (Gary Cooper) is recruited by the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) to head to Europe to spy on Nazi Germany’s nuclear weapons program. Cloak and Dagger was directed by Fritz Lang, who had previously helmed the science-fiction masterpiece Metropolis (1927) and the serial killer thriller M (1931) and would later direct the excellent film noir The Big Heat (1953), and starred cinema icon Gary Cooper. Sounds like a dream team collaboration. How does it stack up?

This film is at its best in moments of action and suspense. The surprisingly hard-hitting hand-to-hand combat scenes are the highlight, featuring a Liam Neeson-esque throat punch or two. The final shootout doesn’t fare quite as well. In comparison, it feels lazily shot at times and lacks a distinct culmination. There are also some impressive espionage-related sequences that don’t deal with violence directly.

What keeps Cloak and Dagger back from greatness is its romantic subplot. The movie really hits a brick wall here. The scenes between Gary Cooper’s character and Italian resistance fighter Gina (Lilli Palmer) don’t add much to the final product, although some have commented that they put a human face on the toll of partisan warfare and fascist occupation. The pace would be much tighter if these scenes were written out of the screenplay.

At the end of the day, Cloak and Dagger is something less than the sum of its parts. When focused on the details of Gary Cooper’s mission, this war-time adventure-thriller is pretty memorable. It’s the romance that threatens to sabotage the end result. Still, it’s a watchable enough war picture for fans of Cooper or Fritz Lang.

My rating is 6 outta 10.

Baby Face (1933) Review

Director: Alfred E. Green

Genre(s): Drama, Romance

Runtime: 71 minutes, 76 minutes (restored version)

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Baby Face is one of the most (in)famous films of the Pre-Code era of Hollywood (the time period of American sound movies before the enforcement of the Production Code). Here, Barbara Stanwyck plays Lily Powers, an unsentimental speakeasy barmaid who’s tired of being pimped out by her father, Nick (Robert Barrat), and decides to travel to New York City to sleep her way to the top of the hierarchy of a big bank there. Who plays one of her early conquests? Well, it’s wholesome he-man John Wayne, himself, playing Jimmy McCoy, Jr.

With its Great Depression-era grit, Baby Face is mostly a tough movie, showing an unscrupulous woman taking advantage of men at every turn. Its depiction of the bedroom (and bathroom) stuff is mighty coy by today’s standards, but it was considered controversial back in 1933. Pictures like these caused the moral guardians to bring the hammer down in mid-1934 by starting to enforce the Production Code, dictating what content could and couldn’t be in American films.

Barbara Stanwyck’s character in Baby Face is a sleazy, gold-digging, black-hearted vamp, turning the tables on men in general, but that’s the way the character is supposed to be. The true weak link in this flick is the third act. Here, the movie becomes more of a conventional romance feature, a jarring change of pace that doesn’t do the overall product any favors.

Baby Face is interesting to watch for its place in cinema history, but with a runtime of only 76 minutes, it’s also entertaining in its own right. Seeing the up-and-coming John Wayne (in a rare non-tough-guy performance) being conned by a floozy is quite a sight. Okay, his role is pretty small, but it’s still one of the picture’s more notable elements. Still, I can’t help but feel that this one’s last third holds it back from the big leagues.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

To Have and Have Not (1944) Review

Director: Howard Hawks

Genre(s): Drama, Romance, War

Runtime: 100 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

The World War II drama To Have and Have Not is perhaps best remembered for being the first movie that future-couple Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall would do together. Set on the Vichy French-occupied Caribbean island of Martinique during the Second World War, American boatman-for-hire Harry Morgan (Humphrey Bogart) finds himself increasingly drawn into the conflict, while falling in love with Marie “Slim” Browning (Lauren Bacall). This was the first of four flicks that the two would make.

To put it bluntly, To Have and Have Not is a Casablanca (1942)-wannabe. Both are romantic dramas set in Vichy French colonies during World War II starring Bogart as an isolationist character who tries to stay out of the fray, while falling in and out of love and being coaxed into the fighting by a non-American freedom fighter and his wife, while being menaced by Axis authority figures. The similarities are striking and consume one’s thought process while watching the 1944 film.

To Have and Have Not is certainly not as tight a movie as Casablanca, and its plot is not as propulsive. The tropical Caribbean setting doesn’t seem to be fully exploited, and the ending felt abrupt and unsatisfying to me (contrast it with the iconic finale of the 1942 picture that it bears a heavy overall resemblance to). The dialogue between Bogie and Bacall is celebrated, but can a film survive on witty banter alone?

In my opinion, To Have and Have Not is just okay. It’s not boring, but it’s no thrill ride either. It lacks the fiery, inspiring spirit of Casablanca and rips off of it too much. I suppose that it’s a perfectly acceptable war-time drama, but why settle for “perfectly acceptable” when you can settle for Casablanca? Maybe you should just play that one again.

My rating is 6 outta 10.

Dark Passage (1947) Review

Director: Delmer Daves

Genre(s): Crime, Drama, Romance, Thriller

Runtime: 106 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

The third (of four) movies that Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall made together was a film-noir with some interesting ideas called Dark Passage. After escaping from prison (where he was locked up for allegedly murdering his wife), Vincent Parry (Humphrey Bogart) is taken in by artist Irene Jansen (Lauren Bacall) to help him clear his name. The finished product really isn’t as good as it should be, but it’s still watchable.

One of the most notable aspects of Dark Passage is the heavy use of first-person point-of-view cinematography in the first half. It’s not always seamless, but it adds a cool, almost ahead-of-its-time flavor to this crime-thriller. This, and the intriguing plot built up around a man on the run with no one he can trust (well, with the possible exception of Lauren Bacall’s character), ropes in the viewer. Not every character is going to survive to the end.

Unfortunately, the first act is the best part of the movie. Not everything after that is bad by any means, but, as the picture shifts away from the first-person gimmick, it loses something. It gets significantly talkier in several sequences and the ending is quite anti-climatic. It almost feels like the filmmakers were running out of time or didn’t exactly know how to end the picture on a pleasing note and rushed the conclusion.

In retrospective, professional critics have been rather kind to this one, partially thanks to the fact that it’s just Bogie and Bacall doing what they do best (although the supporting cast also gets singled out for praise). I am less enthusiastic about it, due to its not-entirely-satisfying ending and some of its dialogue-heavy tendencies. There are certainly many films I’d recommend this over, but can I really give a thumbs-up to a flick that peaks in its first third?

My rating is 6 outta 10.

Grease (1978) Review

Director: Randal Kleiser

Genre(s): Comedy, Musical, Romance

Runtime: 110 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG

IMDb Page

The 1978 musical Grease is a nostalgic look back on teenage life in the 1950s as seen through the lens of the 1970s. You see, high school cool cat Danny (John Travolta) had a summer fling with an Australian girl, Sandy (Olivia Newton-John), and now doesn’t know that they’re attending the same school together. This one follows the standard rom-com formula pretty closely, so no points will be awarded for guessing how it ends.

The biggest draws of this film are its iconic musical numbers. Even people who’ve never seen the movie before can probably hum along with one or two of the songs featured here. My favorite ditty is “Grease,” performed by Frankie Valli, which plays over the animated main title sequence. It’s a disco tune, but doesn’t feel particularly out-of-place in the fifties setting.

The detractors of this picture point out things like that the high schoolers here look like forty-year-olds (perhaps it was all that underage smoking and drinking?). Another common criticism is the flick’s dubious sense of morality, where surrendering to peer pressure, unprotected sex, reckless driving, and chain-smoking are seen are ultimate cools. I can’t subscribe to what Grease says about right and wrong, but, if you’re getting your moral direction from this feature, you have deeper issues.

The film only has just enough conflict in it to sustain itself. Sure, the characters of Danny and Sandy go back and forth with each other, but most of the work is about teens partying, singing, and dancing. The story’s simple, but the lively music, heavy on the rock ‘n’ roll and pop, makes Grease worth watching. Joan Blondell shows up as Vi, a waitress at a diner frequented by the main characters.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Casablanca (1942) Review

Director: Michael Curtiz

Genre(s): Drama, Romance, War

Runtime: 102 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG

IMDb Page

Made while World War II was still raging and its outcome was still uncertain, 1942’s Casablanca was an essential piece of wartime spirit-raising that went down in history as one of Hollywood’s greatest motion pictures. Set in Vichy French-occupied Morocco during the war, American nightclub owner Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) faces a moral dilemma when he has to choose between escaping from the region with Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman), the love of his life, or helping smuggle Czechoslovakian freedom fighter Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) back into the battle against the Nazis. Buckle up, you’re in for a treat.

This timeless masterpiece is typically marketed as a romance film, but it is so much more than that. More important than the lovey, dovey stuff is the story of awakening your inner hero to fight against tyranny. It may not have any battle scenes, but this is actually a badass war flick, through and through. A tale of idealism, heroism, and sacrifice, it reflects the Wilsonian outlook on foreign policy that was crucial to the Allies in the Second World War and its aftermath. Isolationism is treated like the folly that it is.

The cosmopolitan classic Casablanca benefits from one of the snappiest screenplays ever written. It’s just one iconic line after another. The feature also has a stellar musical score from Max Steiner that’s largely built around the 1931 tune “As Time Goes By,” written by Herman Hupfeld. The cinematography is classy and dazzling, and the nightclub at the center of the movie sometimes resembles a real-world version of the Mos Eisley Cantina from Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977).

This accessible and big-hearted piece of cinema is an important allegory for the United States’ role in World War II. It has a hopeful message that international cooperation and selfless heroism can overcome evil and oppression. Powerful stuff. It’s a wonderful gift to the people of the Free World and a reminder that their work in combating the forces of darkness are not over.

My rating is 10 outta 10.