Michael Curtiz

The Breaking Point (1950)

The Breaking Point 1950

Harry Morgan (John Garfield) dreams of running a successful fishing boat rental business, complete with a whole fleet of boats. Currently, he only owns one boat and is barely making enough money to make the payments on it and take care of his wife Lucy (Phyllis Thaxter) and their two daughters. It’s putting a terrible strain on Harry and Lucy’s marriage and Lucy desperately wants him to give up this idea and go work on his father’s farm, but he refuses.

One day, Harry is hired to take Hannagan (Ralph Dumke) and his girlfriend Leona (Patricia Neal) fishing in Mexico. While in Mexico, Hannagan leaves Leona behind and without paying Harry for his services. Now truly desperate for money, Harry takes a job offered to him by Duncan (Wallace Ford), who often tries to recruit him for shady jobs. This time, Harry is asked to smuggle Chinese workers into the country illegally. Harry isn’t happy about having to take this job and tries to protect those close to him like his friend Wesley Park (Juano Hernandez) and Leona, who he has become attracted to, so they won’t be involved. And he certainly doesn’t want Lucy to know what he’s up to, although it doesn’t take her long to realize something is wrong and to hear that he’s been spending a lot of time with Leona.

It gets harder and harder to keep his new “job” a secret, especially after Harry gets into a tussle and kills a gangster who tries to rip him off. Harry runs into problems with his boat being confiscated, which gets him even deeper in with Duncan after Duncan helps get the boat back so Harry can do more work for him. This time, Duncan wants Harry to help some gangsters escape after a robbery. Once again, feeling like he has no other choice, he takes the job but comes up with a plan to turn the tables.

The Breaking Point is film adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not. Although the version starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, which came six years earlier, is by far the more famous version, The Breaking Point is much more faithful to the source material. (As great as To Have and Have Not is, nobody even bothers trying to argue it was a faithful adaptation of the book.) The Breaking Point is hugely under appreciated. John Garfield, Patricia Neal, and Phyllis Thaxter are all excellent. It’s very raw and gritty with a powerful ending, very much in line with the signature Warner Brothers style. The screenplay is fantastic and it certainly doesn’t hurt that it had Michael Curtiz at the helm as director. The only reason I can imagine as to why it isn’t a more well-known movie is that it’s overshadowed by To Have and Have Not. (I’m not trying to speak ill of To Have and Have Not; I’m very fond of both movies.) Keep an eye out for this one, you won’t be disappointed.

The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936)

Charge of the Light Brigade 1936

Brothers Geoffrey (Errol Flynn) and Perry Vickers (Patric Knowles) are both British Lancers stationed in India. Geoffrey is engaged to Elsa Campbell (Olivia de Havilland), daughter of Colonel Campbell (Donald Crisp). Unbeknownst to Geoffrey, Elsa and Perry have been seeing each other for a while and have fallen in love with each other. When Perry tries telling Geoffrey about Elsa, Geoffrey refuses to hear any of it. The news drives a wedge between Geoffrey and Perry and they stay estranged even as they are ordered to different outposts.

Geoffrey is sent to Chukoti and Perry goes to Lohara. When Geoffrey’s troops are ordered to Lohara on maneuvers, Col. Campbell disregards warnings about the potential for an attack by Surat Kahn (C. Henry Gordon) and sends most of the soldiers to Lohara anyway. Sure enough, Kahn attacks and it’s a far more brutal attack than anyone could have anticipated. Not only are many soldiers killed, Kahn’s troops also slaughter many of Chukoti’s women and children. Geoffrey and Elsa survive, but Geoffrey finally begins to see that Elsa really does love Perry.

When Kahn joins forces with the Russians, Geoffrey is sent to Crimea, but is given orders not to attack Kahn. However, Geoffrey wants to avenge the attack at Chukoti and re-writes the orders so that he can lead an attack on Kahn. The attack would be a suicide mission and he knows it. In one final act of nobility, he arranges it so that Perry will be away from the action and will live to marry Elsa.

The Charge of the Light Brigade is a first-rate adventure movie. Adventure movies aren’t always my thing, but Charge of the Light Brigade has plenty of thrilling action scenes paired with an intriguing human interest story; a nice balance for my taste. (However, I’m not a fan of the fact that so many horses were hurt or killed during production, Congress had to step in and create laws to protect animals on film sets.) I wish Olivia de Havilland’s role had been more substantial; it wasn’t a particularly interesting role. But it is awfully hard to resist getting to watch Errol Flynn at his peak, doing what Errol Flynn did best. It may not be very historically accurate, but it sure was entertaining.

The Strange Love of Molly Louvain (1932)

For all her life, Molly Louvain (Ann Dvorak) has been treated like a second class citizen.  Her mother abandoned her when she was a baby and everyone in town assumes she’s nothing but a good-for-nothing tramp just like her mother was.  But Molly is determined to rise above it all and at last, she thinks she’s found what she’s been looking for in Ralph Rogers (Don Dillaway).  Ralph comes from a wealthy family and been having an affair with Molly and he’s in love with her and wants to introduce her to his family.  However, Molly’s happiness is shattered when he suddenly leaves town and leaves her behind expecting a child.

Molly works by selling cigars in a hotel, which is where she meets a young bellhop named Jimmy Cook (Richard Cromwell).  Jimmy absolutely adores Molly, but she only sees him as a friend.  When Molly decides to leave town, she runs off with Nicky Grant (Leslie Fenton), a traveling salesman and thief.  Three years pass and Molly now has a daughter she adores, but she can’t deal with Nicky’s shady dealings anymore and leaves him.  She gets a job as a dance hostess at a local club, and one night, in walks Jimmy Cook.

She and Jimmy leave the club to catch up with each other, but Nicky sees them and makes them get into a car, which it turns out, has been stolen and used in a robbery.  The police catch up with them when Nicky stops at a store and Molly is left to drive away.  Nicky is arrested, but now the police are after Molly, too.  She dyes her hair and she and Jimmy get out of town and they end up living in a boarding house along with reporter Scotty Cornell (Lee Tracy).  It just so happens that Scotty’s pet story is the police’s search for Molly Louvain.

Even though Scotty is extremely attracted to Molly, he fails to realize who she really is.  He also isn’t as serious about her as Jimmy is, who plans to marry her.  When Scotty hears this, he tells Molly that being with Jimmy would only mean unhappiness for them both, and she backs out of her marriage plans.  But then Scotty works with the police on a plan to catch Molly by announcing that her daughter was very sick.  Sure enough, the plan works and Molly turns herself in.  Scotty is shocked to find out who Molly is, but when he sees just how much Molly loves her daughter, he vows to help clear her name and give her the life she’s always dreamed of.

Gotta love a good Ann Dvorak pre-code.  She gives it her all in Molly Louvain and makes a  movie with an average story one worth seeing.  As great as Dvorak is in it, I’ve got to give credit to Lee Tracy for being able to keep up with her.  Even though I wasn’t a huge fan of the ending and thought Molly would be better off with Jimmy, it was hard for me to fault Molly for choosing Scotty when Lee Tracy brought so much charisma to the character.  Jimmy may have had the best intentions, but compared to Scotty, he’s about as interesting as a piece of plain white bread.

Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933)

In 1921, Ivan Igor (Lionel Atwill) is an exceptionally gifted wax sculptor living in London.  He runs his own wax museum, but it isn’t particularly successful.  The public wants to see figures of people like Jack the Ripper, not Marie Antoinette, which he considers to be his masterpiece.  Eventually, Ivan’s business partner Joe (Edwin Maxwell) gets fed up with losing money on the museum and burns it down for the insurance money, with Ivan inside at the time.

Ivan survives the fire and twelve years later, he sets up shop in New York to open a new wax museum.  The fire left his hands and legs badly damaged and Ivan has to direct others on how to make the figures. Just before the museum’s grand opening, all of New York is abuzz with news of the suicide of model Joan Gale. At first it looks like a pretty cut and dry suicide case, but when newspaper reporter Florence Dempsey (Glenda Farrell) starts doing a little investigating, she discovers that there’s more to the story.

When Joan’s body disappears from the morgue, officials begin to suspect foul play and the top suspect is George Winton (Gavin Gordon), Joan’s ex-boyfriend. Florence quickly realizes that George is innocent and is determined to find the truth. Florence’s roommate is Charlotte Duncan (Fay Wray), who is engaged to Ralph Burton (Allen Vincent), one of Ivan’s employees. While meeting Charlotte for lunch one day in front of the new wax museum, Florence sneaks inside and notices the new Joan of Arc sculpture bears an uncanny resemblance to Joan Gale. At the same time, Ivan meets Charlotte and is taken by just how much she looks like his beloved Marie Antoinette sculpture. He asks her to pose for him and she agrees.

Florence continues her investigation, and eventually she discovers there is a badly disfigured person working for the museum stealing bodies to be covered with wax and placed in the museum. Of course, the police write her off, but she keeps looking. Meanwhile, Charlotte arrives at the wax museum to meet with Ivan, and things immediately start getting scary. Ivan has no intention of having Charlotte simply pose for him; he plans to kill her and dip her in wax, just like the others. Luckily, Florence shows up just in time to save her friend.

For a long time, Mystery of the Wax Museum was thought to be a lost film.  It finally resurfaced in the late 1960s and it’s a good thing it was found because it’s a darn good movie. It’s an excellent blend of horror and mystery with lots of witty lines. I have so much love for Glenda Farrell in it, but Fay Wray felt a little underutilized. And I’ve really got to acknowledge Ray Romero and Perc Westwood who did some really amazing make-up work here and they weren’t even given on-screen credit for it. All in all, a pretty great movie.

Four Wives (1939)

A few months after the events of 1938’s Four Daughters, things are as lively as ever at the Lemp household.  All of Adam Lemp’s (Claude Rains) daughters all come back home to help out with his spring cleaning, but they all have other things on their mind.  Emma (Gale Page) thinks she might be expecting her first child and Ann (Priscilla Lane) is now engaged to Felix (Jeffrey Lynn), who has just returned from a concert tour.  However, the mood changes when Emma finds out she isn’t pregnant and will probably never have children.  Ann, on the other hand, is pregnant, but Felix isn’t the father — her recently deceased husband Mickey Borden (John Garfield, footage of him from Four Daughters is used in flashbacks) is.

Everyone thought Ann had moved on from Mickey, including Ann herself, but news of her pregnancy has stirred up a lot of feelings in Ann.  All she can do is think about Mickey and his music.  She can’t stop feeling guilty about the tragic nature of Mickey’s life.  Kay (Rosemary Lane) is worried about her sister and asks Doctor Clint Forrest, Jr. (Eddie Albert) to have dinner at the Lemps’ home that night so he can give Ann some advice.  Well, that and Kay wants to date Clint.  Clint’s best advice to Ann is to move on with her life and not let this tie her to the past.  She takes his advice to heart and decides to quietly elope with Felix.

Thea (Lola Lane) hosts a dinner party for the newlyweds, but also has some news of her own  — she will be adopting a baby!  Even though Ann wants to move on with her life, it’s really hard for her when Felix decides to finish an unfinished piece of music Mickey had written and she breaks down during the party.  The ghost of Mickey continues to come between Ann and Felix, and they get into a big fight just before Felix is to leave on another tour.  Just as he’s about to leave, Ann goes to the train station to stop him, but not only does she miss his train, she starts to go into premature labor.

Four Daughters was one of my favorite discoveries during last year’s Blogging Under the Stars, so naturally, I was very eager to see Four Wives this year.  Four Wives wasn’t quite as good as Four Daughters, but it is a pretty decent sequel nonetheless.  Claude Rains was still perfect as the Lemp family patriarch, but Priscilla Lane proves to be the strongest link in Four Wives.  I’ve really been becoming a big fan of Priscilla Lane lately and her performance here makes me think she is very underrated as an actress.  The strength of her performance really carried the movie through a sometimes-weak screenplay.  Ann’s storyline is pretty compelling, but the subplot about Thea’s adoption process was completely ridiculous and pushed my ability to suspend disbelief to its breaking point.  Plus it is a bit heavy-handed on the sentiment.  But, even for its faults, I still really enjoyed the movie and I’m looking forward to seeing the other sequel Four Mothers sometime.  It’s a really enjoyable film series, I’m not sure why it isn’t better remembered today.

Female (1933)

Alison Drake (Ruth Chatterton) is a woman with no interest at all in conforming to stereotypical expectations of women.  Rather than being a secretary or a shopgirl, she is perfectly happy running her father’s car company.  She runs a tight ship, but it doesn’t leave her much time for romance.  So rather than having long-term relationships, she prefers to seduce some of her male coworkers every now and then without getting too attached.

When she gets a visit from Harriet (Lois Wilson), an old school friend who is now married with children, Harriet finds Alison is a different woman than she remembered.  The Alison she went to school with was hopeful and romantic, nothing like the hardened, cynical woman she now is.  Harriet doesn’t try to change Alison and after she leaves, Alison continues on with her life as usual.  But eventually, Alison finds herself getting frustrated with her life.  When she throws a big business party at her house one night, she realizes that not a single person there likes her for who she is, they’re all only interested in the fact that she’s the president of her company.

Alison sneaks away from her party and finds herself at a shooting gallery, where she meets Jim Thorne (George Brent).  She comes on to him in her usual fashion, but he turns her down.  The next day at the office, Alison is waiting to meet an acclaimed engineer who has just been hired.  She’s surprised to find that the new engineer is none other than Jim, but not more surprised than Jim is when he finds out Alison is his new boss.  Alison may have had a lot of men in her life, but Jim is the only one to make her feel differently about everything.  She tries every trick in the book to seduce Jim, but he’s not falling for it.  At last she succeeds when she invites him to an employee’s picnic and he was the only employee invited.  That evening, Jim impulsively proposes to Alison, but Alison is so thrown off guard that she turns him down.  Jim quits his job and goes to New York, leaving Alison to realize that she loves Jim so much that she’s willing to put her business on the line.

Female is definitely one of my favorite pre-codes and it’s another essential pre-code movie.  Even though I’ve always found the ending slightly disappointing, Ruth Chatterton truly shines in it, the art deco sets are stunning, and the script is very sharp.  I love how in the beginning of the movie we see the exterior of the car factory, then some of the secretaries talking to each other about how the president is busy giving someone what for.   And then it cuts to the inside of the conference room where we see the back of a man talking, and the audience expects him to be the boss, but then the camera moves around him and we see Ruth Chatterton and that she’s the boss.  It’s such a great reveal.  And be sure to look for all the references to other Warner Brothers movies from that era like Picture Snatcher, Footlight Parade, and 42nd Street.

Four Daughters (1938)

The Lemp family is a family of musicians.  Adam (Claude Rains), the family patriarch, is a music professor and his daughters Emma (Gale Page), Ann (Priscilla Lane), Kay (Rosemary Lane), and Thea (Lola Lane) are all talented musicians as well.  But despite all the talent the daughters have, Kay is the only one truly interested in pursing a career in music.  Thea has her sights on marrying Ben Crowley, who she is only marrying for his money.  She swears up and down that marrying for love is overrated, but we soon see that she’s having a hard time making herself believe that.  Emma has been seeing a guy named Ernest, but doesn’t appear to be in any rush to get married.  Then there’s Ann, who just doesn’t get the appeal of marriage and makes a pact with Emma that neither of them will ever get married and they’ll be a couple of old maids together.

Ann starts singing a different tune when she meets Felix Deitz (Jeffrey Lynn), a young composer who has come to town for a music competition.  All the girls in the family have a bit of a crush on Felix, but Felix and Ann quickly fall in love with each other.  Things get even stickier when Felix’s friend Mickey Borden (John Garfield) comes to town to help him work on his music.  Mickey’s a pretty rough guy, but Ann realizes he’s not a bad guy underneath it all.  She manages to break through his tough exterior and a mutual attraction builds between the two of them.  But despite her new attraction to Mickey, she accepts Felix’s marriage proposal.

When Mickey hears the news, he’s heartbroken and tries telling Ann that he thinks Emma is in love with Felix.  She doesn’t believe it at first, but on the night before their wedding, Ann spies on Emma and Felix through a window and worries that Mickey was right.  After giving it some thought, Ann decides the best thing she can do is marry Mickey instead and let Emma have Felix.  Mickey and Ann move to New York, but married life isn’t everything they thought it would be.  When they go back to the Lemp homestead for Christmas, they find Felix is also visiting for the holiday.  Ann also finds out that Emma is engaged to Ernest, not Felix and Mickey realizes that there are still feelings between Ann and Felix.  Feeling guilty for what he’s done, Mickey offers to give Felix a ride to the train station and on the way back, drives into a tree.  Mickey doesn’t survive, but a few months later, Felix comes back to start again with Ann.

Four Daughters is the kind of movie that made me glad I decided to make myself watch something new every day during Summer Under the Stars this year.  I don’t know if I would have watched it if it weren’t for this scheme, but I am so happy I did watch it.  Even though this was nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award, it’s not a very talked about movie and that’s really too bad because it’s fantastic.  I loved the writing, it’s got plenty of drama but it’s also got just the right amount of humor.  The cast is just top-notch.  Claude Rains made the perfect patriarch, Jeffrey Lynn was totally endearing, and John Garfield was a flawless choice for the part of Mickey.  Four Daughters was actually John Garfield’s first movie and he earned a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for his performance.  I just loved every minute of it.  If you’ve never seen it before, keep an eye out for it on TCM.  It’s one of those totally underrated gems that really delivers.