The Magnificent Ambersons

The Magnificent Ambersons.
Mercury 1942.

Before watching the movie:

I seem to recall that this is sometimes regarded as at least equal in stature to Citizen Kane in some way. It doesn’t get the hype that Kane does though, and it seems to get discussed to the extent of “probably Orson Wells’ best film ever, but moving on…”

Much like Kane is a portrait of a life, just with a nominal mystery to drive the plot, this seems to be a portrait of a family’s travails over possibly years. I have a sense that it’s character driven and plot light and would probably be comfortable on the same shelf with Little Women.

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Snuffy Smith, Yardbird

Snuffy Smith, Yardbird
(or Private Snuffy Smith)
Monogram Pictures 1942

Before watching the movie:

This is based on the newspaper comic strip (Barney Google and) Snuffy Smith, that’s coming up on its hundredth anniversary and is still in newspaper comics today that one could argue that fresher strips deserve, except at this point all the new strips worth reading are webcomics. In that hundred years, the focus shifted from city slicker gambler Barney Google to the hillbilly rascal Snuffy Smith, to the point that Smith was added to the title by the 1930s and Google was written out by the 1950s, only very recently being remembered by the current writer(s).

It looks like it’s going to be hard to tell what the movie changed from the strip and what the strip itself changed between the 40s and the time I became familiar with it, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Snuffy’s moonshining, which seems to be a major character point here, was a bigger part of the strip that got deemphasized to the point of nonexistence by the 90s for the purpose of making the funny papers safe for children who might accidentally learn about alcohol and lawbreaking otherwise.

After watching the movie:

Snuffy Smith is a moonshiner in the hills outside the Appalachian town of Hootin’ Holler, who defends his still from the Revenuers with the help of his friends. When revenue agent Ed Cooper tracks Snuffy back to his cabin, he goes to his friend Saul’s cabin to hide out, and arrives while Saul’s daughter Cindy is being courted by Don Elbie, a Hootin’ Holler native now a US Army Private. As Snuffy is impressed by Don’s khaki britches, gold buttons, and description of “all the food you can eat, a nice place to sleep, and $30 a week”, and as he interfered in Saul trying to run off Don for blood feud and daughter-protection reasons and so now can’t hide out there, Snuffy decides that joining the Army sounds like a pretty good deal. However who does his sergeant turn out to be but Sgt. Ed Cooper! Also there’s a distilling accident that turns Snuffy’s dog invisible.

The concept of “cartoon character joins the military” stories during the 40s is pretty well-traveled. Popeye didn’t wear his iconic outfit before he joined the Navy, and of course Disney and Warner Bros. characters made propaganda cartoons that are still enjoyed today. Everyone was making “the characters you love join the military to do their part for their country (so how about you do too?)” movies. So it’s not too weird to take a hillbilly with no interest in leaving his part of the hills and drop him into the military. What’s odd is that he doesn’t just enlist or get drafted, he tries to enlist, gets refused for very good reasons, and then the General is accidentally indebted to him, and gives Snuffy special dispensation, to a point.

The invisible dog is a much more random element, and what’s bizarre is that an entire movie could be done with that, but instead, it’s a really minor thing that’s used for some jokes here and there, but mostly just gets Snuffy out of some scrapes in the third act. Snuffy and Loweezy don’t understand why this batch turns things invisible, and Snuffy suggests he’ll paint his still with it to hide it from the Revenuers for good, but then the Army calls him up and tells him he can’t bring his dog, so he just pours the invisible spirits on the dog and brings him anyway. That’s weirder than anything that I can imagine happening in the comic.

So like a lot of the propaganda wartime “join the army” stories, this is all about being at a camp still at home. The rising action is mostly concerned with Snuffy’s division winning a wargame with a special new gunsight that Don invented, but there’s also American fifth columnists trying to steal the gunsight to sabotage the army, which would be the most bizarre thing about the movie if not for the invisible dog that’s mostly ignored.

I understand why this exists, but also, the entire thing is a “why does this exist?” Most pieces make sense on their own, but they add up to something highly unusual and not necessarily good. The parts that aren’t confusing are fun, though.

Who Done It?

Who Done It? Universal Pictures 1943.

Before watching the movie:

What can one expect from an Abbott and Costello movie? Bumbling into trouble, one-liners, slapstick. I can’t point to anything about this movie that I think is going to be truly remarkable. It’s a vehicle picture coming out of the Hollywood machine of the Golden Age contract films model.

I have nothing to point to that I’m very interested in, beyond seeing Abbott and Costello get into trouble and be silly for a bit. They’re what sell the movie, which is the whole point.

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Holiday Inn

Holiday Inn. Paramount Pictures 1942.
Holiday Inn. Paramount Pictures 1942.

Before watching the movie:

What can this film offer to audiences seventy years later? It appears to be a show made of a bunch of Christmas songs (which have since become old standards) woven together with the lightest touch of plot. I’m sure some of the songs haven’t passed into the zeitgeist, but I wonder if the performances can be enough to really make a variety show with a plot worthwhile.

Maybe I’m coming at this too negatively. It’s very likely a fun, light way to get into the holiday spirit. Art doesn’t have to be weighty or novel to be good, what matters is if it elicited the response the artist and the audience wanted. Anyway, we’re still talking about it almost three quarters of a century later, so it’s clearly not garbage.

The Holiday Season is here, folks. Try to take it slowly enough to still enjoy it when your holiday of choice is here.

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Casablanca

Casablanca. Warner Bros. 1942.

Before watching the movie:

This week I turn my attention to the oldest film yet reviewed. I admit it diverts in style from most, but Casablanca is almost universally considered a classic, and I share any classic I first watch here.

While the romance again receives a great deal of attention, the World War II backdrop is rich and contributes significantly to the plot, I am told.

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