Wednesday, May 26, 2021

Just when it seemed like the idea of Disney live action remakes/reimaginings had gone completely creatively bankrupt, along comes Craig Gillespie's Cruella, a surprisingly nimble origin story for infamous 101 Dalmatians villain, Cruella DeVil. While Maleficent (2014), and its sequel, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil (2019), sought to upend its source material's narrative by turning its villain into the hero, Cruella takes a different approach, not trying to justify her evil deeds as much as explain them - giving her a Devil Wears Prada-esque origin story that pits the aspiring fashionista and budding villain Estella (Emma Stone) against a ruthless, established fashion designer (Emma Thompson) in a battle for dominance of the London fashion scene. 

While Cruella certainly doesn't break any new ground, it's one of Disney's most effortlessly entertaining live action films in recent memory. Gillespie, who became a Hollywood breakout after helming I, Tonya in  2017 (but has a solid track record of moderate successes like Lars and the Real Girl and The Finest Hours under his belt), directs the film with a bit of wicked glee, reveling in Cruella's bad girl aesthetic as she clashes with her would-be mentor for dominance and a bit of revenge for her role in her mother's death many years earlier. The film hints around and the origins of Cruella's history with Dalmatians, but stops short of explaining her desire to turn them into fur coats, an omission that is refreshing for not over-explaining every bit of IP lore, but makes the final transition into 101 Dalmatians feel like quite a leap from the character we've just spent nearly two and a half hours with. Therein lies Cruella's biggest problem - it's simply too long, and although the two Emmas are absolutely smashing together, the build up to the final showdown feels overstuffed with revelations, twists, and flashbacks that bog the otherwise fleet-footed story down. 

Nevertheless, it's difficult not to like a film that allows Emma Stone and Emma Thompson to chew the scenery in this way. Glenn Close may forever be the definitive live-action Cruella, but there's a certain delight to be had in watching these two world class actresses having the time of their lives as two cutthroat fashionistas willing to do anything it takes to be number one, even if that means leaving a few dead bodies in their wake. It's all surprisingly dark for a Disney film, but one has to give credit to Gillespie, who made an unsympathetic character like Tonya Harding so complex and nuanced in I, Tonya, for humanizing Cruella without excusing her actions. 

Stone is terrific in the role, but its Thompson who steals the show, managing to channel both Meryl Streep's Miranda Priestly from The Devil Wears Prada and Daniel Day-Lewis' Reynolds Woodcock from Phantom Thread into a new, deliciously megalomaniacal creation. Come for the lead performances, stay for the sumptuous costumes by Jenny Beavan that seem to top themselves in each subsequent scene. It ultimately may not be reinventing the wheel, but Gillespie manages to breathe enough new life into Disney's live action remake formula with some stylistic tweaks and a darker, more grown up tone that is a consistent pleasure to watch. It may not be punk rock, its Disney for chrissakes, but I'll take this over their dreary shot for shot remakes of animated classics like Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King any day.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

CRUELLA | Directed by Craig Gillespie | Stars Emma Stone, Emma Thompson, Mark Strong, Joel Fry, Paul Walter Hauser | Rated PG-13 for some violence and thematic elements | Opens Friday, May 28, in theaters and streaming via Disney+ Premiere Access

Monday, May 24, 2021

Sylvia Sidney and Frederic March in MERRILY WE GO TO HELL. Courtesy of the Criterion Collection.

In 1932, Dorothy Arzner was the only woman directing films within the Hollywood studio system. While her none of her films were ever major hits, and many have been forgotten in the decades since, they are nonetheless responsible for launching the careers of such legendary actresses as Clara Bow (Get Your Man), Katherine Hepburn (Christopher Strong), and Lucille Ball (Dance, Girl, Dance), while bringing a much needed feminist perspective to the studio system that was lacking in many films of the period. 

1932's Merrily We Go to Hell was Arzner's fourth collaboration with actor Frederic March, here gamely playing the part of Jerry Corbett, an aspiring playwright whose reliance on alcohol constantly threatens to sink him and everyone around him. Sylvia Sidney is Joan Prentice, an heiress who falls in love with him and gives up everything to be with him, even though he disappoints her at nearly every turn, often showing up late to functions, showing up drunk, or not showing up at all. Joan believes in Jerry when no one else does, wanting nothing in return but to hear the words "I love you" ("gee, you're swell" is all he can ever muster), and in turn Jerry slips back into his hard drinking ways, pining for an actress who once broke his heart. 

Fearing she will lose Jerry forever, Joan agrees to letting him see his one time lover (Adrianne Allen) on the side, an experiment in open marriage that ends disastrously and threatens to bring Joan's world crashing down around her. It seems that no matter how much time, love, and energy she invests in Jerry, he is simply unable to make even the most minimal effort for anyone other than himself.

Merrily We Go to Hell grapples with themes of alcoholism and infidelity in ways that are surprisingly frank for the time, even in pre-code era Hollywood. Arzner deftly illustrates the sacrifices that women were often forced to make in the decidedly patriarchal ideals of marriage (many of which still endure today), where the men are given leeway to do whatever their heart desires, while the women were expected to be good little housewives who support him no matter what. Merrily We Go to Hell takes that idea to its logical extreme, and the result is often hard to watch, as Jerry's self-destruction coupled with Joan's selfless devotion becomes nearly unbearable. Naturally, it paints in bold strokes to make its point, going from romantic comedy to tragedy in the span of 83 minutes, but its emotional core rings true. It's a bruising film, made even more so by Sidney and March's devastatingly truthful performances, skewering society's skewed gender standards and expectations for a "happy" marriage. It's clear where Arzner's sympathies lie, and for a society that continues to value the perspectives of men, Merrily We Go to Hell feels like an uncompromising punch in the gut in ways that will likely feel revelatory to men, and all-too-real to women. 

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

MERRILY WE GO TO HELL | Directed by Dorothy Arzner | Stars Sylvia Sidney, Frederic March, Adrianne Allen, Richard 'Skeets' Gallagher, George Irving, Esther Howard | Now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection.

Special Features:
  • New, restored 4K digital transfer, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray 
  • Dorothy Arzner: Longing for Women, a 1983 documentary by Katja Raganelli and Konrad Wickler 
  • New video essay by film historian Cari Beauchamp 
  • English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing 
  • PLUS: An essay by film scholar Judith Mayne

Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Amy Adams as Anna Fox in THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW. Photo by Melinda Sue Gordon. Courtesy of Netflix.

Originally slated for release in October of 2019, Joe Wright's The Woman in the Window was lost in the shuffle of Disney's acquisition of 20th Century Fox, before finally being sold off to Netflix to be unceremoniously dumped on the streaming service this past week, nearly three years after completion of principal photography. 

Based on the best-selling 2018 novel by A.J. Finn, The Woman in the Window tells the story of an agoraphobic psychologist named Anna Fox (Amy Adams) who believes she witnessed a murder in the apartment across from hers. After reporting the murder to police, she is told not only did the murder never happen, but that the woman she believes she saw killed never existed, causing her to question her own reality and finally face the trauma of her past. The story borrows heavily from Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window, along with films like Steven Soderbergh's Unsane and other contemporary book club book club selections like The Girl on the Train. Protagonists questioning their own sanity is nothing new, and The Woman in the Window brings nothing new to the table, taking it's pulpy source material and failing to find anything  particularly interesting within its pages, despite a screenplay by Tracy Letts.

Adams is in fine form but the script does her no favors, the expository dialogue working overtime to flesh out the novel's intricacies. It's certainly beautiful to look at. Director Joe Wright (Atonement) and cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel (Amélie) shoot the film like a Douglas Sirk melodrama, but you'll find none of Sirk's abilities to translate soap opera trappings into trenchant social commentary. By the time the film reaches its wild conclusion, it feels like it has gone completely off the rails, with its monologuing villain and hyperactive violence that is so cartoonish that it seems completely at odds with the rest of the film. 

For a film about internalized trauma it certainly explains itself in the most blunt fashion, relying on ludicrous plot contrivances and coincidences to drive the action forward. Adams, and indeed Wright, seem completely  lost as to how to tackle the material, whether to play it straight or embrace its trashy aesthetic. It's a fine line that has been walked to much greater success before (think David Fincher's Gone Girl or The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), but here it the result is listless and deeply uninterested in the story it's trying to tell. It's not the epic disaster that it's reputation suggests, it's just a dreary and uninspired thriller will likely be quickly forgotten. 

GRADE - ★★ (out of four)

THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW | Directed by Joe Wright | Stars Amy Adams, Gary Oldman, Anthony Mackie, Brian Tyree Henry, Julianne Moore, Fred Hechinger, Tracy Letts | Rated R for violence and language | Now streaming exclusively on Netflix.

Released in the Greatest Year for Movies© that was 1939, Michael Curtiz's The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, starring Bette Davis and Errol Flynn at perhaps the height of their stardom (not to mention Olivia de Havilland, who co-starred in Gone with the Wind the very same year) was viewed as something of a letdown as in the wake of Curtiz's 1938 output, which included such all-timers as The Adventures of Robin Hood (which was nominated for Best Picture) and Angels with Dirty Faces (for which he received a nomination for Best Director). 

Elizabeth and Essex reunited Curtiz with his Robin Hood, Errol Flynn, de Havilland, and composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold for another historical epic that landed much differently than the jaunty escapades of Robin Hood. Where Robin Hood was light and fleet-footed, Elizabeth and Essex seems ponderous and self-serious; and indeed, it's certainly a much darker story, detailing the tempestuous romance between Queen Elizabeth I (Davis) and the Earl of Essex (Flynn). It has the sprawling battle scenes and high drama, but it's ultimately a film about two people, separated by title and power, doing everything they can to wound each other, whether out of jealousy or some misplaced sense of duty. For Elizabeth, Essex was a dashing younger man, for Essex, Elizabeth was path to greater power. Whether or not the two are actually in love makes up the film's central conflict, as palace intrigue continually keeps them apart, along with Essex's hubris and Elizabeth's mistrust and determination to divorce feelings from her royal duty.

It's certainly a sumptuous production - Warner Bros. pulled out all the stops and were rewarded with five Academy Award nominations in below-the-line categories like Best Cinematography (Color), Best Art Direction, Best Sound, Best Visual Effects, and Best Score. But it failed to garner much attention for its most notable elements, specifically Bette Davis' towering performance (she was nominated instead for Dark Victory, losing to Vivien Leigh for Gone with the Wind). Davis, hidden under heavy makeup and playing a much older character, is at her diva-licious best, managing to chew the scenery while imbuing her character with a real sense of conflict. That the film ultimately ends tragically is almost a given, but The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex is surprisingly heavy. Yet one can see  Curtiz establishing the groundwork for Shekhar Kapur's Elizabeth decades later, itself an overripe melodrama with a towering performance at its center. 

Historical accuracy has never been at the forefront of films about Queen Elizabeth, but Curtiz's film is perhaps better than it gets credit for. It's certainly a bit repetitive, the back and forth between Elizabeth and Essex begins to feel like a familiar pattern by the end, but Davis and Flynn are just so good here that we truly become invested in their characters. It's a historical epic with the heart of a character piece, and the chemistry between Davis and Flynn elevates what could have easily become a turgid spectacle. Curtiz always had an eye for human relationships, and he creates a palpable sense of loneliness and isolation in the way he frames Davis. Trapped by tradition, power, and distrust, her Elizabeth is as much a tragic figure as the ill-fated Essex, each a sacrifice to the inhuman ideal of monarchy. It is an often overlooked film in the careers of nearly all the major participants; but now, gloriously restored in a new Blu-Ray edition from Warner Archive, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex shines again.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

THE PRIVATE LIVES OF ELIZABETH AND ESSEX | Directed by Michael Curtiz | Stars Bette Davis, Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Donald Crisp, Alan Hale, Vincent Price | Now available on Blu-Ray from Warner Archive!

Friday, May 14, 2021

Barbara Stanwyck in Anthony Mann's THE FURIES. Courtesy of The Criterion Collection.

Coming off a string of film noir detective joints like T-Men (1947) and He Walked by Night (1948), Anthony Mann turned his attention to the Western genre, beginning a string of films that would carry him through the 1950s and ultimately come to define his career. The Furies was the third film Mann directed in 1950, after Side Street and arguably his most popular western, Winchester '73, starring James Stewart. It's certainly an unusual entry in the genre - more in line with revisionist westerns like Samuel Fuller's Forty Guns (also starring Barbara Stanwyck) from later in the decade than anything else at the time. 

The Furies is, first and foremost, a melodrama and a romance, its western trappings (taken from the 1948 novel by Niven Busch), almost coming across like window dressing. The film centers around Vance Jeffords (Stanwyck), tempestuous daughter of cattle baron T.C. Jeffords (Walter Huston, in his final performance). Willful and spoiled, Jeffords all bun runs her father's expansive ranch, The Furies, as her father fends off squatters and creditors by issuing worthless "TCs" as a kind of IOU. Deeply in debt and facing foreclosure, T.C. is faced with either doing business with Rip Darrow (Wendell Corey) the son of his mortal enemy who has eyes for Vance (or is it her father's ranch?) or watching his mighty empire crumble to dust. Vance is likewise torn between two men, handsome Mexican homesteader, Juan Herrera (Gilbert Roland), whose family has been squatting on the Furies, and a love/hate relationship with Darrow. But when T.C. brings home a wealthy woman (Judith Anderson) with an eye for marriage, Vance feels her position as her father's favorite threatened, and begins to conspire to win the Furies for herself, by any means necessary.

Mann brilliantly centers two deeply flawed characters at the story's center, even hinting at a possible incestuous relationship between Vance and T.C. But T.C.'s abuses eventually become too much to ignore, as he violently throws the squatters off his land, cruelly targeting the Harrera family in order to take revenge on Vance. The Furies was a continuation of Mann's fascination with Shakespeare's King Lear, with T.C. the clear Lear figure, a lion in winter whose waning power is threatened once the sharks sense weakness and begin to circle. For much of its runtime, The Furies is a brutal tale of intergenerational struggle for power, the Furies becoming a deeply corrupting influence on all who seek to control them. Curiously, Mann undoes much of the moral ambiguity in the final act which ties things up too neatly and retroactively lionizes T.C. in a truly bizarre way that seems totally incongruous to not only the character, but to the film's view of him up to that point. It almost feels like a studio mandated happy ending that just does not fit, and it undermines the integrity of the film in troubling ways. 

The result is a deeply unusual film, one filled with fire and fury that curiously pulls its punches at the last minute, displaying Mann's gritty sensibilities in striking ways while sacrificing its carefully crafted themes in a misguided attempt at a happy ending. Existing in a dark moral gray area for much of its runtime, The Furies ultimately ends up with a pat Hollywood ending that leaves what could have been a western masterpiece as a strangely unsatisfying "what if?" There are so many things to love here - Stanwyck's fiery performance, Huston's jovial menace, Judith Anderson's layered performance as the sympathetic would-be usurper of Vance's crown, Victor Milner's striking, Oscar nominated cinematography; taken together these elements push The Furies to near greatness, only to stop just short. Mann would continue to tinker with his ultimate paean to King Lear in films like The Man from Laramie (1955) and Man of the West (1958), and in a project called The King, that never came to fruition. But The Furies remains a fascinating entry in the Western genre; flawed, powerful, and haunting, a meditation on the all-encompassing corruption of capitalism that, in perhaps the most American fashion, ends up paying tribute to the very figures it set out to condemn.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

THE FURIES | Directed by Anthony Mann | Stars Barbara Stanwyck, Wendell Corey, Walter Huston, Judith Anderson, Gilbert Roland, Thomas Gomez | Not Rated | Now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection.

Special Features:
  • High-definition digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray 
  • Audio commentary from 2008 featuring film historian Jim Kitses 
  • New interview with critic Imogen Sara Smith (Blu-ray only) 
  • The Movies: “Action Speaks Louder Than Words,” a 1967 television interview with director Anthony Mann 
  • Rare on-camera interview with actor Walter Huston, made in 1931 for the movie-theater series Intimate Interviews 
  • Interview from 2008 with Nina Mann, the director’s daughter 
  • Stills gallery of behind-the-scenes photos (DVD only) 
  • Trailer 
  • English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing 
  • PLUS: An essay by critic Robin Wood and a 1957 Cahiers du cinéma interview with Anthony Mann, as well as a new printing of the 1948 novel by Niven Busch on which the film is based

Thursday, May 13, 2021

Charles Boyer and Jean Arthur in Frank Borzage's HISTORY IS MADE AT NIGHT. Courtesy of The Criterion Collection.

There are few filmmakers who could juggle so many genres, not just in their careers but in a single film, with such grace as Frank Borzage. Borzage, who won the very first Academy Award for Best Director in 1929 for 7th Heaven (and again in 1932 for Bad Girl) had a reputation for making incisive love stories. An eternal optimist, Borzage was the kind of filmmaker who believed deeply in true love, and managed to convey that on screen without an ounce of sentimentality. Love certainly conquers all in Borzage's films, but he displayed a keen understanding that it wasn't always an easy road. 

History is Made at Night is a strange animal - it's a love story, a melodrama, a comedy, and a disaster picture picture all rolled into one, featuring tonal  shifts that would have given the audience whiplash in the hands of a less capable director. There's a certain bliss to going into this film blind, experiencing its unusual pleasures organically and with no expectations, because what Borzage achieves here is nothing short of wizardry. It begins with socialite Irene Vail (Jean Arthur) leaving her possessive husband, a shipping magnate named Bruce (Colin Clive), who sends his goons to frame her for infidelity so he can stop the divorce and force her to remain with him. She is rescued, however, by a passerby named Paul Dumond (Charles Boyer), the headwaiter of a local restaurant in Paris. The two form an almost instant bond, one that Bruce becomes determined to break at all costs, including committing a murder and framing Paul. Eventually reunited in America, Paul and Irene become determined to set things right and live happily ever after, that is until Bruce conspires to sink his own ship on its maiden voyage in order to send the couple down with it. 

It's such a wildly unlikely scenario that could only happen in Hollywood, but Borzage handles it with such charm and wit. Boyer and Arthur are a magnetic pair, and Leo Carrillo provides memorable comic relief as Paul's boss and best friend, the world-renowned chef, The Great Cesare. Yet perhaps the standout here is Clive, Dr. Frankenstein himself, in one off his final performances. Clive, suffering from alcoholism and mere months away from his untimely death from tuberculosis and pneumonia at the age of 37, is terrifyingly intense here as the jilted, jealous husband, who is himself an alcoholic. It's an almost painful performance to watch in hindsight, but Clive is tremendous here, displaying a towering talent cut down far too soon. 

That Borzage was able to juggle so many disparate elements into such an endearing picture is a testament to his skill as a filmmaker. History is Made at Night takes high drama to nearly ridiculous heights (a jilted ex-husband ordering a steam ship captain to go into an ice field at top speed in hopes of sinking the ship to kill his ex-wife and her new beau is the very definition of "extra"), but by God this thing works, and not only merely works, it works like gangbusters. It lays out a kind of epic romantic template that would be followed by James Cameron in Titanic decades later (there's no way Billy Zane's Caledon Hockey wasn't inspired at least in part by Clive's Bruce Vail). It grounds its wild plot with endearing characters, charming comic relief, and a deep and abiding belief in the power of love to conquer all. You'll find no cynicism or irony here, Borzage plays it 100% straight, and the result is something quietly enchanting, a guileless and wide-eyed paean to romance whose innocence never feels in any way cloying - it's just pure classical Hollywood magic.

GRADE - ★★★★ (out of four)

HISTORY IS MADE AT NIGHT | Directed by Frank Borzage | Stars Charles Boyer, Jean Arthur, Leo Carrillo, Colin Clive | Not Rated | Now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection.

Special Features:
  • New, restored 4K digital transfer, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray 
  • New conversation between author Hervé Dumont (Frank Borzage: The Life and Films of a Hollywood Romantic) and film historian Peter Cowie 
  • Interview from 2019 with critic Farran Smith Nehme about director Frank Borzage’s obsession with romantic love 
  • Audio excerpts of a 1958 interview with Borzage from the collection of the George Eastman Museum 
  • Radio adaptation of the film from 1940, broadcast by The Screen Guild Theater and starring Charles Boyer 
  • Restoration demonstration 
  • English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing 
  • PLUS: An essay by critic Dan Callahan

Saturday, May 08, 2021

Tiffany Haddish and Billy Crystal in Sony Pictures' HERE TODAY. Courtesy of Sony Pictures.

Written and directed by Billy Crystal, Here Today stars the venerable comedian as an aging comedy writer named Charlie Berns who is privately facing the onset of dementia. 

Facing not only the loss of his career but the memories of late wife, Charlie sets about to write a memoir of his life in order to preserve them, but the pressures of his job and his rapidly progressing condition make it difficult for him to work. That is until he meets Emma Payge (Tiffany Haddish) in one of those "win a date with a celebrity" auctions, and what begins as a minor annoyance soon becomes an unlikely friendship that will change them both.

While not as long as his career in front of the camera, Crystal's career as a director is long is not particularly prolific - Here Today is only his 4th film since 1992. And while there's nothing groundbreaking here, it's a pleasantly inoffensive "opposites attract" buddy comedy with a decidedly schmaltzy tinge. For a film about a comedy writer, its surprisingly light on laughs (even during the SNL-esque comedic segments that are genuinely supposed to be funny), and for most of the running time the film has difficulty balancing its comedic elements with its more serious themes. Still, Crystal and Haddish make for a fine pairing even when working with such thin material, and their friendship really gives the film a lot of heart. It may tread familiar beats, but it packs a surprising emotional punch thanks to an unexpectedly nuanced performance by Crystal, who conveys a great range of pain masked by a funny man's persona. His rapport with Haddish holds the film together even when the script can't quite support emotions its trying to convey. By the end, Here Today seems to fit like an old glove; well-used but warm, familiar, and comforting, filled with celebrity cameos and nostalgic references. Even when it threatens to veer into schmaltz, overplaying its hand in ways that occasionally feel forced, the balance of old school and new school comedy represented by Crystal and Haddish makes for a pleasing combination, even if Haddish feels somewhat trapped by a script that doesn't quite seem to know what to do with her particular talents.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)

HERE TODAY | Directed by Billy Crystal | Stars Billy Crystal, Tiffany Haddish, Sharon Stone, Penn Badgley, Kevin Kline | Rated PG-13 for strong language, and sexual references | Now playing in select theaters.

Tuesday, May 04, 2021

ANOTHER THIN MAN (W.S. Van Dyke, 1939)

The third entry in the venerable Thin Man series finds Nick and Nora Charles  juggling life as new parents during a weekend getaway in which they inevitably get sucked into solving a mystery. At this point, the conceit is beginning to wear a little, um...thin, and the introduction of the baby into the mix does little to enhance the story as he disappears for most of the running time. Another Thin Man lacks the effortless sparkle of its predecessors, with the mystery taking more focus and shrouding the film in a darker air of intrigue. 

William Powell and Myrna Loy are a delight as always, even if their repartee doesn't feel quite as witty as in the previous two films, and they make the most of what they're given. Another Thin Man hews closely to the tried and true formula, and it mostly works thanks to the charm of its leads. Director W.S. Van Dyke, who also helmed the first two films in the Thin Man franchise, as well as the next entry, Shadow of the Thin Man, was well known for his ability to crank out films quickly, relying on single takes and even filming actors interacting without their knowledge to make scenes feel spontaneous. Its part of what gives the Thin Man series its charm, but these films work best when focusing on its central sleuths rather than the mystery itself, which tends to pull focus for the franchise's third entry.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)

BROADWAY MELODY OF 1940 (Norman Taurog, 1940)

Mostly remembered as the first Academy Award winner for Best Picture with sound, 1929's The Broadway Melody actually spawned three name-only sequels from MGM that capitalized on its success - Broadway Melody of 1936Broadway Melody of 1938, and finally, Broadway Melody of 1940. While not as technically impressive as Warner Bros' Gold Diggers series that ran from 1933-1938 under the watchful eye of legendary choreographer, Busby Berkeley, the Broadway Melody series managed a second Best Picture nomination for Broadway Melody of 1936 (easily the best of the series), before going out with Fred Astaire topping the bill in 1940. 

Broadway Melody of 1940 follows the "struggling performer makes good" formula that drove the previous entries in the series, with Astaire and George Murphy starring as two nightclub hoofers who dream of making it big on Broadway. But when a mixup leads Murphy to get Astaire's dream job (with his dream partner), Astaire has to set things straight with the show's absent minded owner (the always delightful Wizard of Oz himself, Frank Morgan) before the creditors come calling. Astaire and Eleanor Powell make a great team, and their final number "Begin the Beguine" is perhaps one of the legendary star's most graceful set pieces, but the film itself feels rather tired, and the formula for these large scale showbiz musicals that dazzled in the 1930s was beginning to wear thin.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)

DOCTOR X (Michael Curtiz, 1932)

Michael Curtiz directs this spooky mystery set around a medical school where each student of Doctor Xavier (Lionel Atwill) becomes a suspect in a series of grisly murders, leading the doctor to attempt to recreate the murders in his lab with the help of his beautiful assistant, Fay Wray. Much of Doctor X feels like a dry run for Mystery at the Wax Museum (1933), which featured much of the same cast as well as rare two-strip Technicolor cinematography (the result of a stock quota Warner Brothers needed to use within a certain time frame). Both films are similarly atmospheric and feature grotesquely disfigured who steal corpses from the morgue, but Doctor X is a more exposition-heavy film, with a good chunk of the 76 minute running time devoted to Lionel Atwill leading detectives around the school and introducing them to potential suspects. 

Still, while Mystery at the Wax Museum may be the strongest of Curtiz' unofficial horror trilogy (which also includes 1936's The Walking Dead), Doctor X is still a gruesome little chiller, made even more lurid by the sickly green hues of its early Technicolor. Warner Archive's new Blu-Ray features a stellar new restoration, detailed in the UCLA before/after restoration reel, also included on the disc along with a documentary about the horror films of Michael Curtiz, and Doctor X's place as the first in the unofficial trilogy. It's a fascinating look behind the method of one of the Golden Age's of Hollywood's busiest and most reliable filmmakers, as well as Warner Bros' reluctant ventures into the horror genre to compete with Universal's burgeoning monster series.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

EACH DAWN I DIE (William Keighley, 1939)

A reporter on the verge of throwing the lid off a massive organized crime conspiracy gets framed for murder in William Keighley's Each Dawn I Die, which cast James Cagney in a familiar tough guy role but this time as a good guy. Once inside the prison Cagney faces brutal guards, constantly beating prisoners and threatening them with "the hole," while coordinating with outside forces to prove his innocence and bring down the crime ring. He partners up with Hood Stacey (George Raft), a gang boss and murderer whose conscience leads him to help his newfound friend lead a revolt against the cruel prison guards in order to help Cagney expose the real villains. 

Each Dawn I Die is a Production Code era film that smartly keeps Cagney on the wrong side of the law while allowing him to be the hero, taking a gritty look at prison conditions in the process. Here, the prisoners are the heroes in a story of corrupt district attorneys, cops, and politicians who are little more than petty bullies willing to do anything to hold on to power. Cagney is at his best here, and his partnership with Raft makes for a strong love/hate relationship that drives the picture forward. It may not be one of Cagney's most famous roles, but it's one of his most indelible. The new Warner Archive Blu-Ray also includes a delightful "Warner Night at the Movies" package that includes cartoon shorts, newsreels, and trailers from 1939, along with a fascinating featurette that puts the film in context with Cagney's already established gangster persona from the pre-code era.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

Now available at the Warner Archive Amazon Store!