CMBA Movies of 1939 Blogathon: The Rules of the Game (1939)

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Synopsis: When aviator André (Roland Toutain) returns to France after a record-breaking flight across the Atlantic, he is heartbroken to discover that the woman he did it for, Christine (Nora Gregor), is not there to greet him. Instead he finds Christine’s childhood friend Octave (Jean Renoir), who tries to convince André that winning Christine’s affections is a lost cause. To help his case, Octave convinces Christine’s husband Robert (Marcel Dalio) to invite André to a weekend getaway at his country estate, so that Christine herself can prove to André that her affections toward him are merely platonic. Meanwhile, Robert is hoping his troublesome mistress Geneviève (Mila Parély) will fall for the heroic aviator and be out of Robert’s hair for good. What will happen when the various volatile parties – and their equally hot-headed servants – finally collide?

This is an official entry in the Classic Movie Blog Association’s Movies of 1939 Blogathon, co-hosted by Becky of ClassicBecky’s Brain Food and Page of My Love Of Old Hollywood. Please click the banner to see a list of contributions by CMBA members on the wild and wonderful fims of 1939 – a year many call the greatest in movie history.

When the CMBA announced the Movies of 1939 Blogathon, my first instinct was to write a review of Ninotchka, since my blog does shamelessly rip off its famous tagline in its title. But scanning the impressive list of films made in that legendary year, my eyes came to rest on Jean Renoir’s masterpiece of satire and cinematic technique The Rules of the Game, original French title La Règle du jeu, a film which inspired a passionate admiration in me the first time I saw it in film class three years ago. After a few sleepless nights, I came to the decision to let someone else have Ninotchka; I figured it was such a popular film that it would have no trouble finding a participating blogger to adopt it for this event. As it turns out, little Ninotchka was not among the chosen forty films that my fellow CMBA members decided to write about. I feel a bit guilty and personally responsible for that omission. Nevertheless, much has been said for Ninotchka, and when I imagined The Rules of the Game going completely unmentioned in this event focused on the greatest films of 1939 – well, that was just something I could not, would not abide. And so, once again on this blog titled Garbo Laughs, I show my determination to seemingly ignore Greta Garbo forever. What can I say? I like to be difficult unpredictable. (more…)

Of Human Bondage (1934)

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Synopsis: The life of mild-mannered medical student Philip Carey (Leslie Howard) is forever changed when he meets a pretty Cockney waitress by the name of Mildred Rogers (Bette Davis). Philip does what he can to woo the vivacious yet self-obsessed young lady, but she rejects his advances and chooses instead to marry for money. Trying to forget his heartbreak, Philip takes up with fashionable novelist Norah (Kay Johnson), but he abruptly ends their relationship when Mildred comes back into his life, pregnant, abandoned, and desperate for money. Out of a sense of love and obligation, Philip helps Mildred get back on her feet, only to see her run off to Paris with his best friend. Philip takes comfort in the warm companionship of one of his patients, Mr. Athelny (Reginald Owen) – and the even warmer affections of his sweet young daughter Sally (Frances Dee). But soon enough Mildred returns, more destitute than ever, and the kind-hearted Philip must learn to resist her manipulative ways if he ever wants peace and happiness in his own life.

Directed by John Cromwell for RKO in 1934, Of Human Bondage is said to be the movie that made Bette Davis a star and forced the film industry to sit up and take her seriously as an actress. Having seen some of Davis’ earlier work, I can understand how this could be the role that turned her career around. As for the controversy that ensued when Davis was snubbed for an Academy Award nomination… not so much. Admitting that the role of Mildred Rogers in Of Human Bondage was Davis’ best performance yet is barely a compliment. Have you seen any of her pre-1934 movies? Pew! Even though she does better here, I still see a young, inexperienced actress chewing the scenery. And that’s fine. We’re all allowed to start off somewhat awkwardly, and it just endears Davis to me all the more. (Far be it for anyone to doubt my love of Bette Davis; I always critique the ones I love the most harshly.) I think it helps her case that her character is also young, capricious, fickle, tempestuous, ill-mannered, and almost psychopathically self-centered; but it also hinders her that the character is somewhat one-dimensional. There’s not much for Davis to do here other than be unapologetically wretched; she had no space to explore her range as an actress. I think it was a role very well-suited to her abilities and physicality at that time, and I can’t imagine a better choice for the part; but to call this one of the greatest performances of her career is an insult to her talent.

Bette Davis as a consumptive wretch. Before she was just a regular wretch.

Believe it or not, there are other people in this movie, all of whom give better performances than Bette Davis, at least in my opinion. Leslie Howard is especially good as the shy and humble Philip Carey; you really root for him to succeed and then get completely angry with him any time he succumbs to Mildred’s pleas for financial support. There are some interesting cinematic effects and techniques, such as some fun metaphorical overlays (like when Philip is trying to study for his exam but the model of the muscular system in his textbook morphs into the shape of Mildred) and a repeated use of straight-on shots of the actors’ faces where they look directly into the camera for dramatic effect; but these can also feel a bit gimmicky at times.

I was also fascinated by the performance of Kay Johnson as Norah, the intermediate girlfriend between Mildred and Frances Dee’s Sally. Johnson didn’t seem quite fit for the part, looking a bit too old and physically imposing for Howard’s Philip and coming off more like a sister or even a mother; but her easy-going and natural self-confidence, not to mention her beautifully realistic affection for Howard, made me want to see more of her. Alas, he dumps Norah when Mildred comes calling and then never picks up with her again, meeting Sally and choosing to court her instead. This left me feeling especially frustrated, as the partnership between Norah and Philip seemed especially healthy and progressive (she even had her own job and was a real full-fledged person!), but instead of tracking her down again after Mildred goes away he instead takes up with Sally and starts a very old-fashioned “no eye contact until we’re married” sort of courtship. In fact, the contrast between Mildred and Sally was entirely too stark for me; the former does nothing but whine and take, and the latter falls all over herself trying to convince Philip that he doesn’t have to marry her if he doesn’t want to and that he’s free to do positively whatever he pleases and has no obligation to her whatsoever. While you’re at it, here’s my back; you can walk on it if you’d like. We 21st-century gals come to expect the disgustingly servile demeanor of (some) women in classic film, but I maintain that it just wasn’t fair of them to tease me with a wonderfully modern character like Norah, who showed in her all-to-brief appearance that it was completely possible to have a career and your own interests and yet still make a perfectly loving companion to a man. But I guess expecting such a massive leap forward in thinking was just asking too much.

While there were some worthwhile components, I disliked this movie overall. While you’d expect a movie about the subtlety and duality of human emotions to be more nuanced, it really was a very stiff morality play about the effects of allowing yourself to get too attached to a toxic entity. While that’s something we can probably all (sadly) relate to, I felt like this movie did not explore this love-hate duality enough. We’re never thoroughly convinced that there is anything redeemable about Mildred at all, so it’s hard to fathom why Philip lets his attachment to her go to such an extreme. You can predict where their relationship is headed from the very start, and the journey to that conclusion is thoroughly unpleasant every step of the way. I won’t fault it for not being a “feel-good” film, but I will fault it for being too formulaic, too stodgy, and weakly composed. It’s 1934; we can do better than this.


Of Human Bondage (1934) – 2.5/5 stars

CMBA Hitchcock Blogathon: The 39 Steps (1935)

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Synopsis: Richard Hannay (Robert Donat), a Canadian man on a visit to England, decides one night to attend a show at the local music hall around the corner from his rented apartment. Unexpectedly, shots ring out in the theater and all the patrons scurry to evacuate. Upon exiting, Hannay is approached by a mysterious woman (Lucie Mannheim) who asks if she can come home with him. The woman identifies herself as Annabella Smith, a foreign agent trying to prevent enemy spies from smuggling British military secrets out of the country. She alludes only vaguely to something called the 39 Steps, said to be somehow involved in the nefarious plot. Hannay doesn’t believe her at first, but is convinced later that night when she turns up in his bedroom with a knife plunged into her back. Knowing he’ll be implicated in Annabella’s murder or killed by the enemy agents if he stays, Hannay decides to flee to Scotland, where Annabella’s next contact (Godfrey Tearle) is waiting to give further instructions. When the police catch up to Hannay on the train, he barges into the compartment of Pamela (Madeleine Carroll), a young woman traveling alone. Hannay begs Pamela to keep his cover, but when the police arrive she identifies him as the fugitive they’re hunting for. Hannay manages to evade their grasp this time – but with both the law and foreign spies on his trail, can he keep running forever? And what – or who – are the 39 Steps?

This is an official entry in the Classic Movie Blog Association’s Hitchcock Blogathon – one day, twenty blogs paying tribute to the Master of Suspense, director Alfred Hitchcock! Whether you’re new to Hitchcock or a lifelong fan, today is the day to get a variety of bloggers’ perspectives on his greatest films, whether they be well-known classics or obscure gems. Check out the CMBA blog for a complete list of participating sites.

I want to start off this review by thanking the Classic Movie Blog Association for hosting this Alfred Hitchcock blogathon. When I first got word of this event, I knew I wanted to participate, but I was unsure of which film I should focus on. I could have chosen one of my old favorites – like Notorious (1946), Rope (1948), or Rear Window (1954) – but I didn’t feel like I had anything new or original to say about these much-lauded classics. So I started to peruse the Netflix Instant options to see if there were any other Hitch flicks available that I hadn’t yet seen. That’s how I came across The 39 Steps, which I had heard of but had never actually taken the time to sit down and watch. So I’m grateful to the CMBA for giving me a reason to check this film out – because I think it may be a new favorite.

Here in the United States we don’t talk much about Hitchcock’s pre-WWII British films, as he is generally considered not to have reached his zenith until after he signed with David O. Selznick in 1940 and started making films in America. Of Hitchcock’s British films, The 39 Steps is arguably the most well-known and critically acclaimed; I say “arguably” because 1934’s The Man Who Knew Too Much with Peter Lorre is also a recognizable title to many casual film fans, although they may just be confusing it with the 1956 American remake starring Jimmy Stewart. The 39 Steps is considered “early” Hitchcock in the sense that it is pre-1940, but in reality the director had already made nearly twenty feature films in the fifteen years prior to 1935. This situates The 39 Steps nicely in the middle – a sort of “transitional” film, if you will – in that it predicts many of Hitchcock’s later masterpieces but also shows the auteur at a technical and narrative level defined and honed enough to make it a work of art in its own right. In other words, this isn’t a film that only cinephiles interested in Hitchcock’s development as a director will take an interest in; it’s simply a good movie that anybody can enjoy. (more…)

White Zombie (1932)

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