Frank Capra

Lost Horizon 1937

Lost Horizon (1937)

In the midst of a revolution in China, author and diplomat Robert Conway (Ronald Colman) is tasked with rescuing 90 people and getting them on a plane to Shanghai. Among the people rescued include Robert’s brother George (John Howard), Lovett (Edward Everett Horton), Gloria (Isabel Jewell), and Henry Barnard (Thomas Mitchell). After spending all night on the plane, the passengers wake up and realize they’re traveling in the opposite direction. Their plane has been hijacked and after an extremely arduous journey, the plane eventually crashes in some Tibetan mountains. All the passengers survive, but the pilot is dead.

The passengers are stranded far away from civilization, or so they think. Before long, they are greeted by porters who guide the passengers to Shangri-La, a beautiful paradise that apparently has magical powers. The people of Shangri-La don’t seem to age and Gloria, who was terminally ill when she left China, seems to be getting better. They have no connection to the outside world and have none of the conflicts that exist in the rest of the world.

Robert begins to feel like he’s been brought there for a reason and those beliefs are confirmed by some of the lamas of Shangri-La. When he meets Sondra (Jane Wyatt), he finds out she’s the one who suggested he be brought to Shangri-La because she’d read his books and thought they reflected the philosophical beliefs of their leader, the High Lama. The High Lama is very old and doesn’t have long to live and they want Robert to take his place.

Robert loves Shangri-La (and Sondra), as do all the other passengers, except for George. George resents being kidnapped and wants to leave with Maria (Margo), another woman who was kidnapped and brought to Shangri-La. Robert is forced to choose between staying in Shangri-La or leaving with his brother.

Spectacular. Simply spectacular. Mention the words “epic film” and you’ll likely think of Cecil B. DeMille or Ben-Hur, but Lost Horizon certainly has a place in that league of filmdom. The sets are grand and absolutely stunning, it’s full of intrigue and excitement, the story has a lot of depth to it so it isn’t overpowered by the grandeur of the sets, and the entire cast is amazing. Not only is Ronald Colman fantastic in it, he’s got an incredible supporting cast with the likes of Isabel Jewell, H.B. Warner, Sam Jaffe, Jane Wyatt, Edward Everett Horton, and Thomas Mitchell. It’s simply a first-rate film in all respects.

Ladies of Leisure (1930)

Ladies of Leisure 1930After ducking out of a party with his wealthy friends, Jerry Strong (Ralph Graves) happens to drive past by call girl Kay Arnold (Barbara Stanwyck) rowing along in a boat as she escaped from a different party. He offers her a ride, which she gladly accepts. Jerry is an aspiring artist and decides he wants Kay to be the subject of his next painting and Kay accepts. Things are tense when she first poses for him. He doesn’t like the way she’s dressed when she arrives and his fiancée isn’t exactly happy about his new model.

Tensions continue to grow, but once Jerry finally gets what he wants from Kay, it’s magic.  By now, they’ve also fallen in love with each other and after he spends nearly all night painting her, he asks her to sleep on the couch. They spend all night pining for each other, but the next morning, their happiness is shattered when Jerry’s conservative, upper-class father arrives and demands he stop seeing Kay. He refuses, even if it means being an outcast from the entire family. Jerry and Kay plan to run off together, until Jerry’s mother personally comes to see Kay and begs her to leave her son alone.

I never cease to be amazed by the quality of many of Barbara Stanwyck’s early films. Ladies of Leisure was only Stanwyck’s 4th film, but she hits it out of the park. This was the movie that made her a star. She was paired with director Frank Capra here and he understood exactly what to do with her. There are so many great stars who, early in their careers, went through a stage where studios didn’t quite know what to do with them so they stuck them in all sorts of different types of roles to see what worked and what didn’t. The ones who seemed to find their niche right away and became big stars within their first few movies are comparatively rare, but Stanwyck was one of them (Faye Dunaway and James Cagney are a couple of others.) Her performance is by far the best reason to see this movie.

On the whole, Ladies of Leisure isn’t fantastic. For Capra, this wasn’t one of his best directorial efforts, but he certainly grew as a director over time. The story is average; nothing too exciting or original. But the things that are right about it are so right that they make an otherwise forgettable movie one worth seeing. Capra also not only had Stanwyck as a leading lady, he had cinematographer Joseph Walker on his team, who did a fantastic job of making the movie look beautiful. Between Walker and Stanwyck, they help to distract from some of the other parts of the movie that aren’t as strong.

What’s on TCM: May 2015

Dr. Strangelove Poster

Happy May, everyone! Ready for a new month of movies to look forward to?

Sterling Hayden is the Star of the Month for May and his movies can be seen every Wednesday night this month. In addition to Sterling, there’s also a lot of Orson Welles on the schedule this month because he’ll be the subject of this month’s Friday Night Spotlight.

TCM will also be doing a spotlight on disaster films on May 7, 14, and 21. On May 23, 24, and 25, TCM will be doing their annual Memorial Day war movie marathon.

May’s celebrity Guest Programmer is Tony Bennett and Gary Sargent, whose selections I really love.  But I’d say the highlight of the month is the night of May 2, which will give me the chance to indulge my love of both Garbo movies and bad disco movies.

Without further ado, let’s take a better look at the schedule.

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My Dinner With Zuzu

For me, no holiday season is complete without a trip (or two) to Detroit’s Redford Theatre.  Going there to see Christmas classics like White Christmas and Miracle on 34th Street never fails to get me in the holiday spirit.  Not only is it a treat see my favorite holiday movies on the big screen, the theater is also beautifully decorated and there is always such a nice feeling of community in the audience during those movies.

2013-11-23 19.14.35Christmas came to the Redford a little early this year with three very special screenings of It’s a Wonderful Life. Actress Karolyn Grimes, who played Zuzu Bailey, made appearances at all three shows. But before the final screening on Saturday night, Karolyn joined a small group of VIPs for dinner at the Charles T. Fisher mansion in Detroit’s historic Boston-Edison district.  The Boston-Edison district is full of beautiful old homes, many of them built by or lived in by some of Detroit’s most famous residents including Henry Ford, Joe Louis, and Berry Gordy.  My mom and I were among the lucky attendees for this event and we couldn’t have been more thrilled to be there.

The Charles T. Fisher Mansion

The Charles T. Fisher Mansion

Before dinner, Karolyn briefly spoke to us about her career and answered a few questions.  Once dinner got started, Karolyn came around to each table to say hello and answer more questions.  Since Karolyn also starred in The Bishop’s Wife, I couldn’t resist asking what it was like to work with Cary Grant and Loretta Young.  She said Cary was just wonderful, but remembered Loretta as being a bit aloof.  However, she and Loretta started corresponding more when they were a bit older and Loretta would often send her prayer devotionals.  While they were filming The Bishop’s Wife, Loretta put a “curse box” on set and anytime somebody cursed, they had to put money in the box.  When the movie was finished, Loretta donated the money to a Catholic church.

As soon as we were finished with dinner and dessert, we headed over to the Redford Theatre to watch It’s a Wonderful Life.  I saw It’s a Wonderful Life at the Redford a couple of years ago and there was a great crowd then, but this time, it was even better — it was a sold out house!  Before the show, Karolyn signed autographs and took pictures with fans in the lobby.  If you ever have the opportunity to meet Karolyn, don’t be shy to say hello!  She’s extremely approachable and very sweet.

Me with Karolyn.

Me with Karolyn.

When stars make appearances at the Redford, they come onstage and give an introduction before the movie starts.  Typically this lasts about 5 to 10 minutes, but Karolyn went above and beyond and spent about half an hour talking about It’s a Wonderful Life trivia, her memories of making the movie, and what it was like working with Jimmy Stewart and Frank Capra.  She didn’t have a single unkind word to say about working on It’s a Wonderful Life.  The experience was very stress-free for her and Jimmy and Frank made it very fun to be on the set.

Photo from the Redford's Facebook page.  This picture perfectly captures the essence of being at the Redford during Christmas.

Photo from the Redford’s Facebook page. This picture perfectly captures the essence of being at the Redford during the Christmas season.

It truly was a wonderful night, pun fully intended.  Being able to see It’s a Wonderful Life on the big screen is always a joyous occasion, but having Karolyn there made it exceptional.  It was the perfect way to kick off the Christmas season.

IAWL Book Autograph2On a side note, I got an autographed copy of Karolyn’s book “Celebrating It’s a Wonderful Life: How the Movie’s Message of Hope Lives On.”  If you’re looking for a gift for someone who is a big fan of the movie, this book would be a great choice.  It’s a very cute little book full of trivia, Karolyn’s memories, recipes inspired by the movie, and comments from fans about what the movie means to them.

The Miracle Woman (1931)

The Miracle Woman 1931Florence Fallon’s (Barbara Stanwyck) father dedicated his life to being a minister.  After spending twenty years giving his all to his congregation, he is forced out by his church and it’s too much for him to bear.  He dies the morning he was to give his final sermon, leaving Florence heartbroken and furious at the congregation for the way they treated him.  When she gets up to deliver what would have been his final sermon, she tells the congregation exactly what she thinks of them.  The congregation does not appreciate Florence’s brutal honesty and leaves, but she catches the attention of Hornsby (Sam Hardy), a promoter who wants to turn her into a popular, albeit phony, evangelist.

Florence goes along with his plan and makes it big. When John Carson (David Manners), a former aviator who has gone blind, hears one of her sermons over the radio, it changes his life.  He goes to see one of her shows and waits to meet her afterwards.  After they meet, Florence goes back to John’s apartment and they have a wonderful evening together. When Florence realizes how genuinely touched he was by her sermon, she feels extremely guilty about the shady nature of her business and wants to get out of it. But Hornsby has been harboring secret feelings about her and refuses to let her go.  Florence continues to see John and falls madly in love with him, but Hornsby blackmails her into going on a romantic trip to Monte Carlo.  As she says goodbye to John, she admits to being a phony, but even that isn’t enough to make him stop loving her.

Just before Florence is to go on stage for her last show before her trip, John comes backstage and tries to convince her that he has been miraculously cured.  He isn’t very convincing, but the effort inspires Florence to go out and tell her followers the truth.  Hornsby tries to stop her by turning off the lights, which accidentally causes a fire to break out.  Every0ne escapes and John rescues Florence.  After that incident, Florence leaves everything behind to join the Salvation Army.  One day, she gets a telegram from John letting her know that he may be able to get his vision back and still wants to marry her.

I’ve seen most of the movies Barbara Stanwyck made in the first few years of her career and The Miracle Woman ranks as one of my favorites from that era.  Any movie that opens with Barbara Stanwyck telling off a whole crowd of people is my kind of movie.  Her performance is wonderful throughout the movie, but the way she mixes vulnerability, sadness, and anger in that first scene is incredible and a powerful way to start the movie off.  It’s one of my favorite scenes Stanwyck has ever done.

Another thing I adored about The Miracle Woman was Frank Capra’s direction.  When John comes to see Florence’s show for the first time, she delivers her sermon standing in a cage with lions.  (Yes, The Miracle Woman opens with Stanwyck telling people off, then later she does a scene in a cage with lions. How awesome is that?)  The way Capra filmed this scene really stayed with me after the movie was over.  Florence wears a robe that isn’t particularly ornate, but it does have a sheer overlay with long sleeves.  As she moves her arms, the light hits those sheer sleeves and it makes her look almost angelic, like there’s an aura surrounding her.  Given the way Florence’s followers view her, I thought that making her look as heavenly — literally– as possible was a such a perfect choice for that scene.

Platinum Blonde (1931)

When a showgirl sues Michael Schuyler (Donald Dillaway), part of a very prominent social family, for breach of promise, reporter Stew Smith (Robert Williams) is sent to cover the story.  The Schuyler family desperately wants to keep the scandal out of the papers, so they try bribing the reporters to not cover the story.  Ann Schuyler (Jean Harlow) also tries to charm him out of running the story, but Stew is one reporter who can’t be bought and runs the story anyway.

After the scandal hits the papers, Stew stops by the Schuyler estate.  Not to apologize, but to return a book he had taken with him while he was there.  Inside of it, he found some love letters the show girl was planning to use to blackmail Michael into giving her more money, and he knew the family would want those back.  Stew knows the difference between news and blackmail and doesn’t want any part of the latter.  Ann offers him a $5,000 reward, but he turns it down and the two of them end up having lunch together.

Ann and Stew get along very well and continue seeing each other.  They very quickly elope, to the shock of everyone, especially Gallagher (Loretta Young), Stew’s best friend and secret admirer.  Ann’s family disapproves of her marrying someone from a lower class, but she reassures them that she’s going to turn him into the perfect gentleman.  Many of Stew’s friends give him a hard time about being a kept man.  He wants Ann to move into his apartment and they can live off of his salary, but instead, they end up living in a wing of the Schuyler family estate and Stew has a very hard time adjusting to Ann’s way of life.

Stew and Ann’s worlds collide during a party the Schuylers throw for a Spanish embassador.  Gallagher is sent to cover the story for the paper and Ann isn’t happy to discover that her husband’s best friend is a woman.  Not only that, when a rival reporter shows up to offer Stew his own column under the condition that he uses the byline “Ann Schuyler’s Husband,” Stew punches the reporter.  Sure enough, the fight lands them on the front page of the paper.

The Schuylers are absolutely horrified by the whole event, but Ann sticks by Stew and encourages him to write a play.  One night, Stew skips one of Ann’s many society events to work on the play.  But when he needs a little inspiration, he invites Gallagher and some of his other friends to come over, and before he knows it, there’s a wild party going on.  Despite all the crazy antics going on around them, Gallagher and Stew manage to come up with the idea of doing a play about his marriage.  However, when the Schuylers come home, they aren’t happy about his little party.  Ann gets into a fight with Stew and he decides he wants out of this marriage.  He ends up back in his old apartment and finishing his play with Gallagher by his side.

I really loved Platinum Blonde, despite its forced ending.  However, the title felt a little inappropriate to me.  The first time I saw it, with a title like that, I was expecting a madcap comedy like Bombshell.  In reality, it’s a smart look at the power of social class differences that’s more on the witty side than the madcap.  Frank Capra’s direction and a strong script serve as a rock-solid foundation for Harlow, Williams, Young, and a delightful supporting cast to bring it to an even higher level.

I absolutely adored Robert Williams in it, who unfortunately died a short time after Platinum Blonde was released.  He only made a handful of movies during his life and showed great promise in Platinum Blonde, it’s really too bad that he didn’t get to have a more prolific film career.

The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933)

On the night they were to be married, American missionaries Megan Davis (Barbara Stanwyck) and Dr. Bob Strike (Gavin Gordon) have to put their wedding on hold to rescue some children from an orphanage stuck in the middle of a war zone. In order to get through safely, Dr. Strike asks the feared General Yen (Nils Asther) for a pass to get to the orphanage safely. But General Yen doesn’t think very highly of Dr. Strike and sends him on his way with a worthless piece of paper. Dr. Strike and Megan manage to make their way to the orphanage, but when they get them to the train station, they find themselves caught in the melee and are separated.

Megan is knocked unconscious and when she comes to, finds herself on General Yen’s private train being cared for by Mah-Li (Toshia Mori), Yen’s mistress. She isn’t clear-headed enough to realize who he is, but she figures it out pretty quickly when she wakes up in his summer palace. Yen terrifies her, but he’s quite smitten with her. She wants to leave immediately, but he refuses to let her leave, telling her it isn’t safe. She tries to get letters to Dr. Strike, but Mah-Li never sends them. Yen repeatedly asks her to join him for dinner, but she keeps refusing.

But one night, Megan has a dream about Yen that reveals her true feelings toward him: deep down inside, she’s in love with him. Finally, she stops resisting his advances and joins him for dinner. But while Megan is getting closer to Yen, Mah-Li is betraying his trust. Mah-Li is actually a spy who has been feeding information about Yen to his enemies. When Yen catches her, Megan begs him not to kill her and offers to personally keep an eye on her.  If anything happens again, he could kill Megan. Yen agrees, but when Mah-Li once again gives information to the enemies, information that leads to Yen’s downfall, Yen would rather take his own life than take Megan’s.

I really wanted to be able to like The Bitter Tea of General Yen, but I couldn’t really get into it. I’m just not a fan of movies that involve a woman being held against her will and she eventually falls in love with her captor. They’re just creepy to me. However, The Bitter Tea of General Yen is far less off-putting than, say, The Barbarian. Frank Capra was General Yen‘s director, so it’s safe to expect some very high production values from it. It has some very beautiful cinematography, Stanwyck and Asther had great chemistry together, and I loved Megan’s perfectly surreal dream sequence. Even though it was far from being one of my favorite movies, it was worth seeing at least once anyway.

Hollywood: A Celebration of the American Silent Film (1980)

If you have an interest in silent film, Kevin Brownlow and David Gill’s thirteen-part documentary series Hollywood: A Celebration of the American Silent Film is essential viewing.  This series truly is a treat for silent film fans.  It’s very insightful, has a great narration by James Mason, and is chock full of interviews with actors and actresses, directors, producers, writers, cameramen, stuntmen, and journalists who were all part of the film industry during that era.

Quite a few big names were still alive at the time and were able to be interviewed for this documentary including Gloria Swanson, Janet Gaynor, Anita Loos, King Vidor, Hal Roach, Bessie Love, Mary Astor, Lillian Gish, Jackie Coogan, Colleen Moore, Louise Brooks, Frank Capra, and Charles “Buddy” Rogers, just to name a few.  Interviews with some of these people were quite rare, which makes this documentary an extremely important resource for anyone wanting to learn more about the silent film era.

Although the series was released on VHS and Laserdisc, due to copyright issues, it has yet to make its way to DVD.  Copies of the complete series on VHS are for sale on Amazon, but the asking prices are pretty ridiculous ($989 for a set?  Get out of here.)  I really hope the copyright issues can be worked out someday and it can be released on DVD, because it absolutely deserves to be seen.  In the meantime, the whole series is currently up on YouTube.  Each episode is just under an hour long, so it will take you a while to make your way through the series, but the time investment is absolutely worth it.   I’ve included a link to each episode along with my episode summaries.

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What’s on TCM: May 2012

Happy May, everyone!  It certainly looks like it’s going to be a busy month on TCM.  Joel McCrea is the star of the month, which is something I know a lot of people have been wanting to see for quite some time.  He’ll be featured every Wednesday night this month.  Every Thursday night will be all about movies based on true crime stories.  Plus there’s the annual 48-hour war movie marathon for Memorial day will run from May 27-28.  So without further ado, let’s get to the schedule:

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