The Animal Kingdom (1932). I caught this early talkie on my Comedy Kings 50 Movie Pack DVD set, which is odd since it’s more a melodrama with comedic elements than anything else. I remember seeing this about fifteen years ago while exchanging VHS tapes with a fellow vintage movie fan. At the time I found it dull and talky. The film still seems dull and talky, a straightforward adaptation of Philip Barry’s stage hit, but now I can better appreciate the unusually frank themes and understated performances from the leads. Leslie Howard plays Tom Collier, an aspiring writer who chooses duty over happiness when he decides to wed a stuffy society gal (Myrna Loy) over his true love, a bohemian artist (Ann Harding). A rather typical plot of its time, in other words, but three leads are all great (I especially enjoyed seeing the underrated Harding being her radiant self in another great role) with staging refreshingly naturalistic and not at all the hokum you often see in early ’30s melodramas. Loy, who hadn’t yet settled into wifey domestic roles at this point, is so alluring and fantastically begowned that I don’t blame Howard for his dilemma. Actually, I was struck by how nicely un-stereotypical the characters were. As Barry adaptations go, this isn’t nearly as fun as Holiday or The Philadelphia Story, but it’s worth a peek if only for the sophisticated dialogue and acting.
The Furies (1950). This wild ‘n wooly Anthony Mann Western/Melodrama is considered in some circles to be an overlooked masterpiece. I found it too hokey and overdone to be really worth more than one viewing, but the strong presence of Barbara Stanwyck as one of her usual fiery, headstrong gals put this into the (slight) winner category for me. In 1870s New Mexico, Stanwyck’s Vance Jeffords tries to wrest away control of the sprawling Furies cattle ranch from her equally headstrong father (Walter Huston in his final screen role). Adding to the boiling cauldron are Mexican squatters, a manipulative saloon keeper (Wendell Corey), and dad’s chiseling new bride (Judith Anderson). This is one weird, overheated movie, an odd combo of Western, film noir, and melodrama amped up to a Shakespearean degree. Stanwyck seems to be playing an exaggerated version of the kind of hard bitten dames she’s known for (even sporting bangs a la Double Indemnity‘s Phyllis Dietrichson). Huston is even more overbearing; at times his loudmouthed character got so obnoxious I was idly thinking of creative ways to off him. Everything about this film is bombastic, even the score. I was expecting this to be subversive and fun like Johnny Guitar, but mostly it’s hokey and overworked. There are some unusual elements to recommend it, however, such as Stanwyck’s romance with a handsome Mexican played by Gilbert Roland. That was certainly an eye-opener; the film’s snappy dialogue and interesting cast helps.
The True Story of Lynn Stuart (1959). I DVR’d this off the Turner Classic Movies simply because I’d never heard of it and out of curiosity to see likable actress Betsy Palmer in something besides old episodes of I’ve Got A Secret. The True Story of Lynn Stuart is the tawdry tale of Palmer’s average California housewife who, incensed by drug activity in her neighborhood, becomes an undercover police agent attempting to break up the drug ring led by oily Jack Lord. Did I mention, it’s a true story? This low budget effort veers into somewhat campy territory when Palmer makes herself over into a tough ex-con to win Lord’s affections, an unconvincing ploy for both character and actress. The rest of the film is pretty standard true crime stuff. Palmer is awfully cute, however. It’s a shame that her lasting cinematic impression came as Jason’s loopy ma in the original Friday the 13th. At least she’s still with us — rock on, Betsy.
Visual Acoustics: The Modernism of Julius Shulman (2008). This recent documentary was the first movie we saw streamed on our Nintendo Wii via Netflix — a good watch for lovers of Midcentury Modern architecture and 20th century California style. The film follows the life and career of Julius Shulman, who made a name of himself photographing the iconic works of Richard Neutra, Frank Lloyd Wright, Rudolph Schindler, Albert Frey and others. His look was clean, casual and angular, as epitomized by his famous photo of Pierre Koenig’s Case Study House jutting out over the L.A. landscape. The film opens with Shulman in his nineties, admiring the random, overgrown beauty of his backyard garden. We then follow the still spry and talkative Shulman as he revisits some of the homes he photographed (including that Case Study House, still magnificent). If only for the fantastic photos and architecture, this is a worthwhile film. Shulman, who died in 2009, became an environmentalist and advocate for smart city planning later in his life. Which is odd, since the aesthetic of his best known photos extol the kind of personal paradise that suburban sprawl eventually helped to destroy. The film falls apart in its rambling last half hour, with Shulman and assistants attempting to organize the voluminous files in his office. Until then, however, the film is like a luxe architecture book come to life — all shiny planes and dreamy designer furniture.
Word Is Out (1977). This gay documentary was an intriguing addition to the TCM schedule. I’ve actually never heard of this supposedly important film before this month, and found it a very low key and enjoyable window into ’70s gay life (despite Christopher’s grumblings that we were somehow “ghettoizing” ourselves by watching it). This film is simply a string of interviews with several gays and lesbians, regular folk of varying races and economic strata speaking candidly about growing up, falling in love, and grappling with how the world perceives them. There’s a lot of fascinating talk about living underground in the ’40s and ’50s, being excommunicated from their families, etc. Some were even institutionalized and given horrific shock treatments, but despite all that most of the participants have an inner comfort that is inspirational to watch. The film is very ’70s granola, coming across like a wobbly, ultra-earnest PBS production (and musical segments of a serious womyn folkie and a male a cappella group doing “campy” oldies would make anyone cringe). Despite its flaws, the film should be required viewing for all LGBTs just to see where we came from — and straights could use the history lesson, as well. I wonder what the participants are doing now?