King Kong (1933)

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Every legend has the basis of truth. Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) needs to finish his movie and has the perfect location – faraway Skull Island. But he still needs to find a leading lady. This is Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) who’s done a little extra work but has never played a large role. She has a romance aboard Captain Englehorn’s (Frank Reicher) ship the Venture with John Driscoll (Bruce Cabot). No one knows what they will encounter on this island but once they reach it they find terrified natives seemingly worshipping a giant and the beast now has Ann in his sights and she is quickly kidnapped. Carl and John have to make their way through the jungle looking for Kong and Ann, whilst avoiding all sorts of prehistoric creatures and once successful they determine to transport Beast back to New York City to publicise their new movie … Women don’t mean to be a bother. Gorgeous, eerie and inventive, with a fairytale theme that resonates through the ages, this is a classic of Pre-Code Hollywood and is so clever in its structure:  before she ever encounters Beast, Ann is filmed rehearsing her potential reaction to a monster, so we are always present in the moviemaking process and the notion of predatory males hangs over the story like a fug. A warning about civilisation, greed and Hollywood itself, this is one of the most brilliant, beautiful and tender films ever made. Directed by Merian C. Cooper (the miniatures) and Ernest B. Schoedsack (the dialogue scenes) although neither is credited; with magical stop-motion effects by Willis O’Brien and an original story by Cooper and Edgar Wallace, with uncredited rewrites by James Ashmore Creelman who was working on The Most Dangerous Game (also starring Wray) at the time; with a final rewrite by Ruth Rose, who was Schoedsack’s wife.  It was beauty killed the beast

Dark Journey (1937)

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Not bad but you need to practise. World War I is in full thrust, but Swedish fashion store clerk Madeleine Goddard (Vivien Leigh) has apparently not aligned herself with either side. When she meets German soldier Karl Von Marwitz (Conrad Veidt), she falls in love. Karl, who presents himself as a footman of low rank and supposedly disgraced officer, is in fact a high-ranking official in the German army and an aristocrat. Madeleine has secrets of her own – she is a spy and double agent, working for the Allies in a bid to uncover the new head of the German Secret Service in Stockholm. As Madeleine and Karl are pulled deeper into the escalating war, their love may be the thing that saves their lives but when her German co-conspirator Anatole (Eliot Makeham) is murdered events overtake them and their identities might just prove their undoing ... Is it a crime to be German?/It’s worse, it’s a vulgarity. This pre-WW2 drama is prescient, pacifist and fence-sitting, all at once, a notably atmospheric tale of spy/counter-spy in a Stockholm that presents rather like a certain Moroccan destination would five years later.  Leigh is inscrutable to the point of roboticism at first, then suave ladykiller Veidt comes along and she’s even more attractive than that saucy minx Brazilian socialite Lupita (Joan Gardner, wife of Zoltan Korda, uncredited producer Alexander’s brother) who seems permanently up for it. With maps, submarines, pips on the radio, coded messages on the fabric held up against lamplight and fog dappling the harbour, it’s a very attractive concoction with a terrific ensemble cast that includes Ursula Jeans, Cecil Parker and Robert Newton as a U-boat officer. With a screenplay by Lajos Biró and scenario and dialogue by Arthur Wimperis, this is assisted by nicely graduated greys and soft whites in the cinematography which was carried out at Denham Studios on splendid sets designed by Andrej Andrejew, and enhanced by a suitably suspenseful score by Richard Addinsell conducted by Muir Mathieson. Naturally, the costumes by René Hubert are rather fabulous. Directed by Victor Saville. It’s easy to touch your pocket, it’s difficult to touch your heart

The Spy in Black (1939)

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Aka U-Boat 29. Who’d be a U-boat captain? A German submarine under the command of Captain Hardt (Conrad Veidt) is sent to Hoy in the Orkney Islands in 1917 in order to determine British fleet movements around Scapa Flow where he is supposedly helped by The School Teacher (Valerie Hobson) assisted by disgraced British Naval Lt. Ashington (Sebastian Shaw).  However they are double agents who actually want Hardt to bring together many U-boats for the attack on the Grand Fleet and then have a destroyer flotilla wipe out the U-boats with depth charges. The arrival of the original schoolteacher’s fiancé (Cyril Raymond) complicates matters …What an idea, putting a motorbike in a submarine. From Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, brought together for the first time by Alexander Korda, armed with a scenario by Roland Pertwee (Jon’s dad) adapted from Joseph Storer Clouston’s novel, and the best German ever, Conrad Veidt (loved him since Terry Wogan used to play his Lighthouse song at the crack of doom), this World War One tale has all the best aspects of that new collaboration – an exciting premise, taut plotting, attractive characters and a great setting, these islands off Scotland. The early kidnapping of schoolteacher Anne Burnett (June Duprez) in a scene reminiscent of The Lady Vanishes, Hobson as a sort of femme fatale, the sight of Veidt with his big eyes and goggles and motorsickle leathers among the sheep, the fog shrouding night time action, witty banter, romantic betrayal, spy and counter-spy, memorable shot after memorable shot – all combine to make this much more than a propaganda film – it was released on the eve of World War Two (in August 1939). It’s a hugely entertaining and well-turned thriller that’s just bursting with atmosphere and irony because who wouldn’t begrudge Veidt? And yet, and yet … You almost persuade me to become a British subject

Only Yesterday (1933)

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Eden was never like this. A man considers committing suicide in the wake of the Wall Street Crash when he sees a letter marked Personal, Urgent! … In 1917 young Mary Lane (Margaret Sullavan) has a one-night stand with soldier James Stanton Emerson (John Boles) and she becomes pregnant. She moves away from her small town to live with her free-thinking aunt Julia (Billie Burke) and gives birth to Emerson’s son. Their paths cross again when he returns from France but he doesn’t even recognise her and she finds out in a newspaper that he has married. Ten years later when he is a successful businessman he seduces her again. She falls ill. Subsequently she learns she is dying and writes to him … I’ve never known anyone as lovely as you are. Adapted by William Hurlbut, Arthur Richman and George O’Neil from the 1931 non-fiction bestseller by Frederick Lewis Allan, but the relationship with the putative source is very loose and in fact this has the ring of Letter From an Unknown Woman (written by Stefan Zweig in 1922 and translated into English ten years later).  Nowadays this film is principally of interest as the screen debut and charming performance of the intensely charismatic Margaret Sullavan and as part of a rehabilitation of director John M. Stahl, renowned for his melodramas or women’s pictures, as they used to be called. I’m not ashamed. I suppose I ought to be, but I’m not. In a new volume about Stahl, historian Charles Barr makes the case for this being among the best films of the Thirties. I’m not sure that it is, but we should be grateful to director/producer Stahl for bringing Sullavan, his Broadway discovery, to Hollywood. As a Pre-Code narrative of illegitimacy and men and women’s very different experiences of romantic love, it’s very well dramatised, filled with moments of truth. If he had changed a thousand ways I would still know him. Some key lines on contemporary womanhood are delivered by Billie Burke playing Mary’s suffragist aunt: It’s just another of those biological events… It isn’t even good melodrama. It’s just something that happened. There is little indication of WW1 in terms of costume, everything speaks to the time it was made, but the characterisation is everything – Sullavan is sweet, Boles is a dirty cad.  It is truly terrible when he returns from the war and doesn’t even remember her. And any film with Edna May Oliver is something to love. We’ve turned that double standard on its head

Gunga Din (1939)

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You will never leave here. Already your graves are dug! British army sergeants Tommy Ballantine (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.), Archibald Cutter (Cary Grant) and Mac MacChesney (Victor McLaglen) serve in India on the North West Frontier during the 1880s, along with their native water-bearer, Gunga Din (Sam Jaffe). While completing a dangerous telegraph-repair mission, they unearth evidence of the suppressed Thuggee cult. When Gunga Din tells the sergeants about a secret temple made of gold, the fortune-hunting Cutter is captured by the Thuggees, and it’s up to his friends to rescue him before the Thuggees run rampage across the territory... Ever since time began, they’ve called mad all the great soldiers in this world. Mad? We shall see what wisdom lies within my madness. Loosely adapted from Rudyard Kipling’s poem and his short story collection Soldiers Three, Ben Hecht and Charles McArthur’s story has a central conflict closely related to their play The Front Page. The screenplay by Joel Sayre and Fred Guiol with uncredited additions by Anthony Veiller, Lester Cohen, John Colton, Dudley Nichols, Vincent Lawrence and William Faulkner (if only we knew!) is a ripping yarn, classical Hollywood at its finest, with George Stevens at the helm. Redolent with wit, fun, danger and charm – Grant even has a way with an elephant! – and his and McLaglen’s reactions to Fairbanks’ marriage to Joan Fontaine are highly amusing. This is a marvellous action adventure, reeking of camaraderie and derring-do and good old-fashioned brio. Reginald Sheffield appears uncredited as Kipling. Lone Pine CA and Yuma AZ stand in for India! You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din 

Jamaica Inn (1939)

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Bah, stop crying! Stop it, you little fool! Be beautiful! Oh, ply those tears if you like, but you must be beautiful. Well, you have to be hard now. The Age of Chivalry is gone! England in 1819, the reign of George IV.  After the death of her mother, young orphan Mary Yellen (Maureen O’Hara) travels from Ireland to the Cornish coast to live with her Aunt Patience (Marie Ney). Stranded on a windswept, isolated road, Mary meets the bumptious Humphrey Pengallan (Charles Laughton), who escorts her to Jamaica Inn. There, Mary meets her aunt and bullying uncle, Merlyn Joss (Leslie Banks) – who secretly leads a band of pirates that pilfers the goods from wrecked ships. Suspicious, Mary turns to Pengallan for help, only to discover another dark secret… Why not a toast to beauty, Sir Humphrey?  Written by Alma Reville, Sidney Gilliat, Joan Harrison and J.B. Priestley, this adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier’s novel about wreckers still has some of that book’s atmospherics despite too much staginess and the overt theatricality of Laughton’s performance. O’Hara is luminous in her first major role and along with the gripping opening wrecking scene, it’s her scenes with Jem Trehearne (Robert Newton) that give this its tinge of excitement.  It’s disappointing in many production respects and Du Maurier reportedly wasn’t happy with the result.  It’s not really a Hitchcock picture – even he realised that, since it was produced by Laughton’s company – but it still has some touches of gallows humour and bright moments of dark humanity. That’s women for you – save your life one minute, frightened of you the next. I guess I’m not a very pretty sight at the moment, but I don’t bite, you know

Nurse Edith Cavell (1939)

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How can we stop? British nurse Edith Cavell (Anna Neagle) is stationed at a private hospital in Brussels during World War I. When the son of a former patient escapes from a German prisoner-of-war camp, she helps him escape to Holland. Outraged at the number of soldiers detained in the camps, Edith, along with a group of sympathisers, devises a plan to help the prisoners escape, assisting hundreds of men. As the group works to free the soldiers, Edith must keep her activities secret from the Germans but the investigation closes in… The law which is good enough for Germans is good enough for these people.  Adapted by Michael Hogan from Dawn by Reginald Berkeley, this is straightforwardly filmed but no less affecting for that. The true story of a nurse tried by secret German military tribunal, refused legal counsel and condemned to death on the word of a child is another instance of German treachery in wartime. A key film in the career of Anna Neagle, she is directed here by future husband Herbert Wilcox (who had previously directed a version of this starring Sybil Thorndike) alongside George Sanders as Captain Heinrichs, Edna May Oliver as local noblewoman Madame Rappard and Zasu Pitts as Madame Moulin.  An impressive production, nicely photographed by Freddie Young. I have seen death so often it is no longer strange or fearful to me

Gone With the Wind (1939)

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What a woman.  The life of petulant southern belle Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh), from her idyllic youth on a sprawling plantation, through her survival through the tragic history of the South during the Civil War and Reconstruction, and her tangled love affairs with Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard) who marries his cousin Melanie (Olivia de Havilland); and roguish Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) who wants her for himself and makes money as a blockade runner while Ashley goes to warLand’s the only thing that matters, the only thing that lasts. The drama of David O.Selznick’s search for Scarlett is well known, so too the issues with the directors (George Cukor was replaced by Victor Fleming, who was replaced for a spell by Sam Wood) but it’s the antebellum grandeur and the personalities of this epic historical romance set against the Civil War that continue to enthrall.  The beauty of plantation life is contrasted with the vivid scenes of Atlanta in flames;  the picture perfect homes and life embroidering and dancing and romancing are juxtaposed with the screams of the dying soldiers. Scarlett’s deceitful delusions about Ashley are dissipated by the reality of his cowardice. And there are the unexpected mini-dramas too:  that Scarlett becomes a can-do woman and saves Tara as her family cry bullying; when Rhett drunkenly asserts his droit de seigneur over Scarlett, she wakes up the next day as pleased with herself as the cat that got the cream. This image still has the capacity to shock (if not entirely surprise). That the screenplay and the performances effortlessly manage the extremes of humanity is a tribute to the talent behind the scenes and in front of camera. Gable is magnificent, but so too is de Havilland as Melanie, the kindest woman ever, who has the breadth of compassion to handle everything put her way and unexpectedly expresses delight when Scarlett kills a Yankee soldier. However it is Leigh’s film:  she is simply perfect as the selfish coquette who becomes brave when everyone around her is falling to pieces and she lives a wholly ironic life as a result. They say great characters make great books and I read it when I was fourteen, a great age to appreciate the feeling that Margaret Mitchell gives to these fully developed people living through the worst of times and trying in their own particular way to survive it. Expertly adapted by Sidney Howard. Wonderful. Tomorrow is another day

Fire Over England (1937)

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Forgive him, Excellency. His father’s ashes blow in his eyes and he cannot see. Queen Elizabeth I (Flora Robson) is dealing with her country’s deteriorating relationship with Spain. Michael Ingolby (Laurence Olivier), a naval officer whose father was killed fighting the Spanish, volunteers to go undercover in the Spanish court when Hilary Vane (James Mason) is killed while spying but before the names of the conspirators are revealed.  He learns plans are afoot to send an armada to ambush the British navy. Meanwhile, the aging Elizabeth, who has fallen for the dashing Ingolby, struggles with his fixation on one of her beautiful ladies-in-waiting Cynthia (Vivien Leigh). In Spain things get complicated when Ingolby tells Elena (Tamara Desni) of his real identity and she tells her husband palace governor Don Pedro (Robert Newton)… In the Old, power. In the New, gold. The first time that Leigh was paired with Olivier in a vehicle tailored for her by Alexander Korda, this wonderful production is unfortunately shot in monochrome – a shame because the colour production stills of this gorgeous pair in each other’s arms are just swoonsome. Adapted from A.E.W. Mason’s novel by Clemence Dane and Sergei Nolbandov, this has a deal of wit, particularly a wonderful dinnertime disquisition on prudence by Ingolgy. Robson is superb as Queen Bess and Raymond Massey is excellent as Philip II. It’s effectively shot by James Wong Howe and scored by Richard Addinsell but languishes in comparison with the following year’s Technicolor Hollywood production The Adventures of Robin Hood. Directed by William K. Howard. Everybody should come to me first

Raffles (1939)

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This isn’t the first time I’ve set a thief to catch a thief.  Famous cricketer A.J. Raffles (David Niven) is a man about town welcomed in high society which he uses to his advantage in his secret career as ‘The Amateur Cracksman’, a master burglar and safecracker who is always one step ahead of Scotland Yard teasing homeowners and returning their possessions intact. His old school friend Bunny Manders (Douglas Walton) reintroduces Raffles to his sister Gwen (Olivia de Havilland) with whom Raffles had been infatuated a decade ago. Raffles falls in love with her. When Bunny confides a crushing gambling debt of £1,000 over which he is considering suicide, Raffles assures him the money can be obtained. He accepts a weekend invitation to the country house of Lord and Lady Melrose (Lionel Pape and Dame May Whitty) – Lady Melrose’s famous jewellery can solve Bunny’s problem. But another guest is Inspector MacKenzie of the Yard (Douglas Digges) passing incognito, who clearly suspects Raffles of being the Cracksman. Raffles plots to frame a petty criminal with the jewel theft and keep the jewellery until the policeman seems to get one up on him and Gwen begins to suspect his motivations … E.W. Hornung’s short story collection about the gentleman cat burglar had already been adapted, including nine years earlier by Sidney Howard who gets a posthumous credit here, along with John van Druten (with suspected uncredited work by F. Scott Fitzgerald). It’s a typical classical Hollywood view of upper class Britishness with beautiful production design, pacy direction by Sam Wood (with uncredited work by William Wyler) and lovely characterisation by the leads.  Crisp entertainment from Sam Goldwyn’s company.