Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon in MADAME CURIE.

Mervyn LeRoy's Madame Curie seems to check every box of an Academy friendly biopic. Major stars? Check - Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon were hot off the Oscar-winning Mrs. Miniver (1942) and were in  especially great demand. Socially conscious topic? Check. Marie Curie was the first woman to win a Nobel prize in a male-dominated profession, whose discovery of radium was one of the major scientific breakthroughs of the 20th century. 

Films like this were all the rage in the 1930s and 1940s (The Great ZiegfeldThe Life of Emile Zola, The Story of Louis Pasteur, Sergeant York, The Pride of the Yankees, Yankee Doodle Dandy, the list goes on...). The Academy's love affair with biopics is well known and continues to this day, and while Madame Curie certainly has many of the tropes that are familiar to the genre, it's also not as dry as its subject matter might suggest.

The script may be a bit hackneyed and heavy on the exposition (it's certainly working overtime to make complex scientific ideas as easy to understand as possible), but thanks to a luminous performance by Garson in the title role and sharp direction by LeRoy (Gold Diggers of 1933, Little Caesar), Madame Curie positively hums at the excitement of exploring a new frontier. The film is first and foremost a love story between Marie and her husband Pierre (Pidgeon), but LeRoy wisely blends their burgeoning and deepening love into the wonder of scientific discovery. 

It's an ingenious move, and the film is stronger because of it, transcending its rather staid biopic roots and often tingling with a kind of magic that sets it apart from its often dry biopic siblings. The film was ultimately nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actress (Garson), and Best Actor (Pidgeon), ultimately losing the top Oscar tone other than Casablanca. While Madame Curie certainly hasn't endured the same way that film has, and it never hits the heights of Mrs. Miniver, it's certainly a fine studio production that is much better than its nearly non-existent reputation might suggest.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

MADAME CURIE | Directed by Mervyn LeRoy | Stars Greer Garson, Walter Pidgeon, Henry Travers, Albert Bassermann, Robert Walker, C. Aubrey Smith, May Whitty | Available June 29 from Warner Archive

Monday, June 14, 2021

Frank Lloyd sure did love purple melodrama, didn't he? The Oscar-winning filmmaker, who helmed two Best Picture winners, Cavalcade (1933) and Mutiny on the Bounty (1935) and won two Best Director statuettes for The Divine Lady (1928) and Cavalcade, had a sensibility that was perhaps more suited to the silent era, dealing in big emotions and ham-fisted explorations of topical social issues. 

In Children of Divorce (1927) he tackled, you guessed it, the devastating effects of divorce on children. Set in a divorce colony in Paris (which were apparently a very real thing), Children of Divorce follows the exploits of three children left behind by divorced parents who grow up to be deeply scarred by their experience. Reunited as adults, Clara Bow, Esther Ralston, and Gary Cooper end up as a love triangle, with the more worldly Bow and virginal Ralston vie for the affections of Cooper's handsome heir. Married to Bow in a moment of deception but longing for Ralston, Cooper is forced to confront his own desire not to pass on his own trauma to his children through the divorce he experienced as a child. 

There's a lot of social drama finger-wagging here, and naturally the "loose" woman is punished in the end, but many of Lloyd's worst instincts (on full display in Cavalcade) are curbed by the uncredited hand of Josef von Sternberg, a much more elegant filmmaker who was called in by Paramount for reshoots and editing tweaks after they were appalled by Lloyd's original cut. The result is a film that teeters on sanctimony but is rescued largely by the chemistry between Bow and Cooper (who were dating at the time), with Bow as the current "it-girl" and Cooper a handsome newcomer who knew how to command the screen (and he's much more compelling here than he as the symbol of macho stoicism he later became). 

The film was originally released on a special Blu-Ray edition by Flicker Alley several years ago, which has since sold out. It has now been re-issued as an MOD disc for those who missed the original release. And while I don't think Children of Divorce is some overlooked masterpiece, it's an intriguing film in its own right, if for no other reason than for the magnetic performances of its two stars and the uncredited rescue job by von Sternberg, who succeeds in blunting Lloyd's penchant for speechifying, even if the overall effect remains drudgingly moralistic. It's a beautiful restoration, undertaken by the Library of Congress in 2010 and lovingly transferred by Flicker Alley - and offers a tantalizing glimpse into the early careers of two of Hollywood's most luminous stars.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

CHILDREN OF DIVORCE | Directed by Frank Lloyd | Stars Clara Bow, Esther Ralston, Gary Cooper, Einar Hanson, Norman Trevor, Hedda Hopper | Now available on Blu-Ray MOD from Flicker Alley!