There’s a Name for You Ladies

The Women is all about men even though there’s not a single man in the picture. Based on a play written by Clare Boothe Luce, The Women is a rare production with an all-female cast. 1939 was a big year for classic films, but that was my biggest reason for watching it. Since The Women was also screenwritten by women, director George Cukor was the only man who stood between an all-star cast of ladies of all ages. Though I only recognized Joan Crawford and Joan Fontaine, Norma Shearer and Rosalind Russell were just as big at the time. The attention to detail was so good that every background extra, portrait, or animal was sure to be female. The Women passes the Bechdel Test many times, but men are a frequent topic of conversation.

The film focuses on mostly married women from upper-class Manhattan. Though black & white, there is an out of nowhere fashion show shot in technicolor. Shearer goes through many emotions as the married Mary Haines who suspects her husband is cheating. Lucile Watson offers a wise older perspective as Mary’s mother and the young Virginia Weidler is wise beyond her years as Mary’s daughter Little Mary. I didn’t think it was possible to show marital dysfunction without ever seeing the husband, but they found a way. Despite The Women not receiving a single Oscar nomination, Crawford deserved recognition for her delightfully villainous role as Crystal Allen. Crystal takes joy in stealing Mary’s husband and she’s the one who says the film’s most iconic line.

Due to the Hays Code, Hollywood had to get creative with profanity. Referring to ladies as a word used only in a kennel is a perfectly classy insult. Russell is just as rotten as Mary’s manipulative cousin Sylvia Fowler. Along with Phyllis Povah as their gossiping friend Edith. Though there are plenty of positive female friends who help Mary through her divorce. Fontaine is the more innocent Peggy, Mary Boland is an eccentric older divorced Countess, and Paulette Goddard is the younger no-nonsense Miriam Aarons. Fun fact: my mom once played the role of Miriam in a production of the play. Marjorie Main rounds out the cast by taking on her usual role as a strong-willed rancher in Reno. The Women can be funny, but it’s also a classic drama that really takes time to understand what women go through.

The Women 1939

The women gather ’round

I Will Honor Christmas in My Heart

A Christmas Carol (1938) is perfect for the whole family. MGM sought to remove the darker aspects of the original Charles Dickens’ novella. It’s still a ghost story, but now it’s less likely to scare children. Compared to the British Scrooge (1935), the American A Christmas Carol (1938) is a feel good Christmas classic. I actually watched this version a few years back and I really liked its interpretation of the story. A Christmas Carol (1938) is more faithful in spirit than execution. Director Edwin L. Marin has worked with many great actors in his day, but none more accomplished than Reginald Owen. Though he was cast in place of Lionel Barrymore, Owen manages to capture every important aspect of the “Bah, Humbug!” spouting miser. This Scrooge is cruel to charity collectors, doubtful of Marley’s ghost, nostalgic of his childhood, remorseful of his fate, and very joyful near the end.

The lighthearted tone is apparent at the very beginning with Fred playing with children in the snow. Fred and his fianceé Bess are given a much larger role and a small love story with Barry MacKay and Lynne Carver respectively. Fred is actually the first character we see as he runs into Tiny Tim on the way to see his uncle. Child actor Terry Kilburn may be my favorite actor to play Tiny Tim since he has the right sickly look and innocence needed to say “God bless us, everyone.” Gene Lockhart is a lovable Bob Cratchit, but he’s a bit too portly for the poor family man. Lockhart’s wife Kathleen and daughter June are both part of the Cratchit family. One of the biggest changes is having Scrooge fire Cratchit after a snowball fight gone wrong. It’s an intriguing detail that gives Bob something to share with his oldest daughter Martha. Leo G. Carroll is a traditional Jacob Marley with heavy chains and a rag tied over his head.

Ann Rutherford is the first actress to play a young and beautiful Ghost of Christmas Past who has a star on her head. She’s also the first to take Scrooge flying out the window. Scrooge is shown only the hopeful memories of his past. The young Ebenezer is left alone at school, but his kid sister Fan takes him away. There’s also his kind boss old Fezziwig who contrasts his relationship with Cratchit. Visions stop before Scrooge is shown how he became a miser. The Ghost of Christmas Present has the same look as the book, but he’s more unique for his ability to spread Christmas cheer. Scrooge is shown every detail of Fred and Cratchit’s family Christmas celebrations to the point of admitting his love of Christmas. The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come ends up being the darkest part of the movie, though the graverobbers are left out. The end differs again with Scrooge embracing his nephew and his fianceé while also bringing them to the Cratchits for dinner. A Christmas Carol (1938) is full of Christmas spirit.

3. A Christmas Carol 1938

Ebenezer Scrooge is visited by the ghost of Jacob Marley

You Will Be Visited By Three Ghosts

Scrooge (1935) is the oldest surviving sound adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. A 1928 short was also shot with sound, but that version is now lost. Scrooge (1935) is also the second feature-length adaptation after The Right to Be Happy in 1916. Another lost film that wasn’t well preserved. Scrooge (1935) isn’t in great shape, but it can also be found on YouTube. Be sure to seek out the black & white version instead of the poorly colorized one. As a Christmas Carol adaptation, the 1935 British film is a lot darker with a German Expressionist feel. It’s interpretation of the novella is faithful, but there are a few creative liberties. Sir Seymour Hicks reprises the role of cynical miser Ebenezer Scrooge 22 years into his film career. At this point, Hicks was a seasoned veteran who finally got a chance to say “Bah, Humbug!” out loud.

By contrast, Donald Calthrop is a kindly Bob Cratchit who largely resembles the book illustration. The opening spends a lot more time on the divide between the rich and the poor. Scrooge refuses to make charity donations and dismisses his jolly nephew Fred. There’s nothing to see when the ghosts finally show up, because Scrooge (1935) is unique for concealing most of its Christmas spirits. Though he’s seen on a doorknocker, Jacob Marley is a literal invisible man voiced by Claude Rains 2 years after The Invisible Man. The Ghost of Christmas Past is a featureless shape that sort of captures the living candle from the book. The past is shown with a white glow around it. All we see is Scrooge as a young man who let the love of his life Belle slip away. Scrooge’s sister and former boss are left out.

The Ghost of Christmas Present is a plump physical actor who resembles the Victorian Father Christmas from the book. Scrooge is shown Cratchit’s happy home life as they prepare for dinner with their visiting daughter Martha. This version of Tiny Tim is a sweet lad who sings for his family after saying “God bless us, everyone.” We also see Fred enjoying his party without his uncle. The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come is just a silent shadow with a pointed finger that is true to the book. The future is shown with dark shadows around it. Scrooge sees graverobbers and the Cratchits mourning the loss of Tiny Tim. Hicks shows genuine remorse at the sight of Scrooge’s grave and his giddiness is infectious. Like the book, Scrooge gives the turkey to the Cratchits anonymously, attends his nephew’s dinner, and warms up to Bob the day after Christmas. Scrooge (1935) is so much better with sound.

2. Scrooge 1935

Ebenezer Scrooge refuses to celebrate Christmas

Sudden Fortune

Mr. Deeds Goes to Town is the perfect small town Frank Capra picture. I knew I needed to see it since it was the second of three Capra films to win Best Director. After It Happened One Night and before You Can’t Take it with You. Although I watched Mr. Smith Goes to Washington first, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town is the original champion of the common man. Longfellow Deeds is just a simple small town greeting card poet who enjoys playing the tuba. He leaves Mandrake Falls, Vermont for New York City when he suddenly inherits a massive $20,000,000 fortune.

I had no idea the term “Cinderella Man” originated from Mr. Deeds Goes to Town or the fitting “pixelated” description that he’s also given. Screen legend Gary Cooper is genuinely ernest as the kind-hearted Mr. Deeds. Unlike most money makers, Longfellow doesn’t need his newfound wealth and treats people around him with respect. Of course that attracts vultures who seek to either take advantage of him or humiliate him. Money hungry attorneys and the newspaper are his biggest obstacle. Lionel Stander stands out as his troubleshooter Mr. Cobb who warms up to Deeds kindness.

Jean Arthur got her big break as spunky reporter Babe Bennett who writes articles that make Deeds look bad. She gets close to Longfellow posing as a damsel in distress before genuinely falling for him. When Deeds decides to give his fortune away to the needy, he’s sent to court for insanity. Which is a perfect statement about the cynical world around him. The final court battle is thoroughly engrossing as Deeds talks about types of idiosyncrasies. Mr. Deeds Goes to Town is a feel good lesson in generosity.

Mr. Deeds Goes to Town

Babe tries to talk to Longfellow Deeds

Tell Me About the Rabbits

Of Mice and Men is a classic on the page, stage, and screen. The original novel by John Steinbeck is one of the greatest books ever written. It was required reading for my brother and I. The 1937 book was quickly followed by a play and a Lewis Milestone directed film 2 years later. 1939 was a great year for movies, and Of Mice and Men was no expectation with an Oscar nomination for Best Picture. The same year Steinbeck wrote the equally captivating Grapes of Wrath. Both stories are about the American dream during the Great Depression. George and Lennie are an unlikely pair of traveling migrant workers who dream of one day owning their own land.

George has all the ideas that Lennie holds onto as his mentally disabled companion. This was the first major role for newcomer Burgess Meredith. Soon to be monster icon Lon Chaney Jr. acted many times before, but this was his first major role too. Chaney is a perfect physically imposing Lennie with the brain of a child and a lack of control over his actions. All he wants are rabbits to tend to on their farm. Together, George and Lennie find work on a ranch. Bob Steele’s Curly feels threatened by Lennie’s size, but Charles Bickford’s Slim makes him feel welcome with his very own puppy to pet.

George’s dream grows until it includes misfits like Roman Bohnen as the kind elderly Candy and Leigh Whipper as the honest African American Crooks. Betty Field had her breakout role as Curly’s sassy repressed wife Mae. The title refers to a poem that reads, “The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.” Lennie does something bad that ends their dream in a famous ending that was cleverly foreshadowed earlier when a dog is put down. Of Mice and Men is a story you’ll wanna hear again and again.

Of Mice and Men 1939

George and Lennie hideout

Fight for this Lost Cause

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is perhaps the most invested I’ve ever been in politics. Director Frank Capra has a way of making even the most boring topic interesting. My only familiarity with the story was from various Simpsons parodies. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was originally meant as a sequel to previous Capra film Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. After the Best Picture winning success of You Can’t Take it with You, the movie turned into a starring vehicle for James Stewart and Jean Arthur. I immediately recognized Mr. Smith Goes to Washington as one of the all time greats, but it only won one of its 11 Oscar nominations. Only Best Writing, Original Story because 1939 was a very tight Best Picture race. My heart says The Wizard of Oz should’ve won, but I know nothing could compete with Gone with the Wind.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is based on an unpublished story titled “The Gentleman from Montana.” Jefferson Smith is a man of the people with no political experience. He becomes Junior Senator when boys from the Boy Rangers put his name in the ring. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is a political drama, but there is a lot of humorous satire. Stewart’s performance is brilliant as he truly believes in American ideals. Arthur’s performance as Saunders is just as engrossing with her contrasting belief that the system is flawed. Of course the movie was a little controversial for its portrayal of the Senate. Claude Rains is Senator Paine, a more sympathetic monster who bows down to the corrupt Jim Taylor and his political machine. Now Edward Arnold plays Stewart’s enemy instead of his father.

Both Taylor and Paine expect Smith to be too naïve to ask questions, but all that changes when Jefferson establishes a bill to create a national boys camp where a dam was supposed to go. Although he has Saunders and the Boy Rangers on his side, Smith is just one man against the entire Senate. The Senate President played by Harry Carey may also be on his side since he allows him to plead his case. Jefferson launches a filibuster where he must keep standing and talking until he yields the floor. It’s a truly captivating scene and I was hanging on every word. Even in the face of lies and corruption, it’s inspiring to see Mr. Smith continue to fight for a lost cause until he collapses. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is a people’s favorite.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

Jefferson Smith reads falsified documents

Culture Clash

You Can’t Take it with You, but you can enjoy it all the same. This was Frank Capra’s second Best Picture winner after It Happened One Night, and his third Best Director win after Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. I haven’t seen the latter, but at this point I know to expect feel good fare from the filmmaker. You Can’t Take it with You is another rom-com with screwball themes like It Happened One Night. The difference is the focus on family. Since You Can’t Take it with You is based on a play, it only has so many characters and locations.

Tony Kirby and Alice Sycamore are your classic young couple in love. Tony comes from a rich family of bankers and Alice comes from a working class family of eccentric oddballs. They’re brought together through a marriage proposal and the possibility of selling their house. The Kirby’s consist of Tony’s money driven father and snobby mother. The much larger Sycamore’s consist of the wise Grandpa Vanderhof, Alice’s hobby loving mother Penny, firework shooting father Paul, dancing sister Essie, and her simple husband Ed. There’s also assistant DePinna, black servants Rheb, Donald, Essie’s cooky Russian dance instructor Kolenkhov, and wide-eyed toy maker Poppins.

You can imagine the madness and hilarity that ensues when these opposing families come together. You Can’t Take it with You is full of great performances. This was the earliest I’ve seen James Stewart and he leaves an impression. Jean Arthur is a likeable everygirl who stands her ground. Lionel Barrymore tells off another cold businessman just like he did in Grand Hotel. The title refers to money and a lesson in friendship is exactly what Mr. Kirby needs to hear. Edward Arnold has the best arc, but it was Spring Byington who got nominated. Though the ending is sentimental, You Can’t Take it with You earns its heartwarming reputation.

You Can't Take it with You

Alice and Tony embrace with their families


The Life of Emile Zola is the second biopic to win Best Picture after The Great Ziegfeld won the year before. Its impact led many to believe it was the greatest biographical film made up to that point. Only through the movie did I learn Émile Zola was a famous French author known for his naturalist writing and muckraking scandals. Zola exposed the truth in France and the film mostly explores his rags to riches story. The Life of Emile Zola is very deserving of all its admiration and double digit Oscar nominations at the 10th Academy Awards.

Though there is a shadow of controversy that hangs over it. The other half of the story focuses on the Dreyfus affair of 1894. Captain Alfred Dreyfus was a Jewish Army officer accused of treason. Although the reason was strongly anti-semitic, the movie barely acknowledges it. Since the Nazis rose to power around the time, many believe Hollywood was afraid to speak against their actions. The only reference to Dreyfus as a Jew is a piece of paper showing his religion and parallels to Jesus.

Despite the omission, The Life of Emile Zola is well written enough to have won Best Screenplay. Performances are also stellar with a transformative portrayal of Paul Muni as Zola. Muni captures Zola’s enthusiasm for writing and bravery when faced with the dangerous task of exposing Dreyfus’ false arrest. Joseph Schildkraut won Best Supporting Actor since Dreyfus goes through the most turmoil. Zola’s open letter “J’accuse…!” leads to a powerful court case that left me hanging on every word. The Life of Emile Zola proves the pen is mightier than the sword.

The Life of Emile Zola

Emile Zola defends himself in court

A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody

The Great Ziegfeld is a lavish production filled with glitz and glamour. Such was the taste of the man the movie is based around. The Great Ziegfeld is the first biopic to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards. It tells the life story of the great Broadway impresario Florenz Ziegfeld Jr. Even if you don’t know the name, chances are you’ve seen the impact of his extravagant shows. The Great Ziegfeld is so larger than life that it took 3 hours to tell. Making it the longest Hollywood sound picture made at the time. Although Ziegfeld passed away in 1932, his widow Billie Burke sold the rights to make a film almost immediately.

A lot of money went into the massive sets and flashy costumes. Making fellow musical The Broadway Melody look almost pedestrian by comparison. I fully understand why The Great Ziegfeld won Best Picture, but a lot of its strengths become weaknesses overtime. We see Ziegfeld’s life as a struggling producer scouting for talent wherever he can find it. A great deal of it is exaggerated and not entirely historically accurate. Ziegfeld first promotes a strongman named Sandow, he later meets Polish performer Anna Held, he gets the idea for Ziegfeld Follies, and produces multiple Broadway shows. All while competing with his friendly producer rival Jack Billings.

William Powell captures Ziegfeld’s determination and passionate love of women. Including his desire to give them expensive jewels and show them off in his Follies. Luise Rainer deserves her Best Actress win for playing his first wife Anna Held. Although Burke was a working actress at the time, her role went to Myrna Loy instead. Ray Bolger does play himself during an extended tap dance. The Great Ziegfeld may be excessive, but that’s the star attraction (and the main reason why it’s so long). The “A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody” sequence is the best that classic Hollywood has to offer. Earning a now outdated Oscar for Best Dance Direction. There are so many performers and the “Wedding Cake” set is simply astounding. The Great Ziegfeld is showy in the best way.

The Great Ziegfeld

The Wedding Cake

Dancing Cheek to Cheek

Top Hat is a good old fashioned excuse to sing and dance. After the success of The Gay Divorcee and Roberta, Top Hat was written especially for Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. It’s arguably their most well known pairing and it’s the film I wanted to see the most. Even though it’s very similar to The Gay Divorcee, Top Hat was a Best Picture nominee with a rare 100% on Rotten Tomatoes. The director Mark Sandrich, almost the entire cast, and the general theme is the same as The Gay Divorcee.

Top Hat is also about a misunderstanding between dancer Jerry Travers and the mysterious Dale Tremont. This time Rogers’ character mistakes Astaire’s character for the husband of her older friend Madge. If Alice Brady played Madge instead of Helen Broderick, then the entire Gay Divorcee cast would be complete. Edward Everett Horton plays Madge’s mixed up producer husband, Erik Rhodes plays Dale’s fool hardy Italian fashion designer, and Eric Blore plays the hilariously incompetent valet. It’s another fine screwball romance that works itself out in the end.

Song and dance are very much the star of the musical with catchy songs from Irving Berlin and showstopping dance numbers. Truly a winning combination. The relationship only takes off when Jerry taps above Dale. Astaire is a high energy acrobat, but Rogers keeps up very well in heels no less. “Isn’t This a Lovely Day?” puts them on equal footing and “Top Hat, White Tie and Tails” gives Astaire time to shine in his titular top hat. The most classic number will always be the joy filled “Cheek to Cheek” recognized for Rogers’ feather dress and the lyric “Heaven, I’m in Heaven.” Top Hat is top notch entertainment.

Top Hat

Jerry dances with Dale