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Posts tagged ‘Big City’

Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

miracle on 34th streetDirected by George Seaton

It’s December 1st! For me, today is the day that I can hear Christmas music on the radio without being annoyed by how early it has started. I can justifiably watch Christmas movies, and I can start eating my daily piece of advent calendar chocolate. I’ve decided I’m going to start this Christmas season with a review of a Christmas movie. Have a happy holiday season!
(Also, yes, I am completely aware that this is not the first movie alphabetically. I had some availability issues, so I’m going backwards this month.)

Miracle on 34th Street is a movie that I grew up with. We watched it at least once every Christmas season. I loved it so much as a child that I was angry when it was remade in 1994. I was twelve, and could see no reason why there needed to be another version. The excuse that kids wouldn’t want to watch a black-and-white movie or an old movie made me so mad; I was living proof that kids were, indeed, capable of enjoying things besides the latest movies. Now I’m an adult, and I still don’t see that there was any need for a remake. I absolutely love this movie.

So what’s the story? Macy’s Department Store hires a man to play Santa at the last minute, not realizing that they have hired the real Kris Kringle. Although he is sad by how commercialized Christmas has become, Kris decides he will not only do his best to help everyone have a happy Christmas, but will also help no-nonsense Doris Walker and her young daughter, Susan, believe in Santa again. But when a jealous coworker accuses Kris of insanity, will Kris’s new lawyer friend be able to prove to the court that Kris is actually Santa Claus?

The Good: I would honestly not be surprised if it came out that Edmund Gwenn were truly Santa Claus. His performance as Kris Kringle is fabulous. He’s a jolly, twinkly-eyed man whose only sorrow in life is the unhappiness of others. Each of his scenes is a delight to watch because he truly embodies the spirit of Santa.

The rest of the acting in the movie is good, too. Maureen O’Hara plays Doris Walker perfectly, showing her growth as she changes from a bitter, jaded divorcee to a woman who believes that good things might be possible after all. Precocious seven-year-old Susan Walker is played wonderfully well by Natalie Wood. Besides showcasing these marvelous actresses, Miracle on 34th Street is also the film debut of one of my favorite character actresses: Thelma Ritter, who plays the exhausted, exasperated mother whose little boy wants a special fire truck, the catalyst for Kris’s shocking idea of helping people find what they want for Christmas, no matter where it is for sale. I adore Thelma Ritter in all of her roles, and even though her role is tiny in this movie, I am still happy to see her.

Miracle on 34th Street is a bit of an oddity in that it was released as a book and a movie at the same time. I’m not sure if the screenplay is wholly based on the book, or if the writers worked on both at the same time. I have read the book, and bits of it are word for word the same as the screenplay, but I’m not sure exactly how the dynamics worked. However it worked, though, the screenplay is perfect. The story of how Santa would fare in the modern Christmas season is simple and sweet, but the screenplay elevates the basic story to really make the characters come alive. There’s heart and humor and love without being too sickly sweet; it’s really just delightful.

The Bad: John Payne doesn’t do a bad job of playing Fred Gailey, per se, but Fred is such a flat, bland character that anyone could have played him. There’s just not much for him to work with. It’s a little bit sad that a movie with such dynamic characters has such a boring man for the leading lady to fall in love with.

The Ugly: Like One Hundred Men and a Girl, Miracle on 34th Street is much too sweet of a movie to have anything really ugly in it.

The Major Disappointment: I had always thought that the real Mr. Macy and Mr. Gimbel played themselves. However, I learned this year that they were played by actors. It’s obviously not a huge deal, but it feels like I’ve been lied to my whole life.

A Satisfying Fact: Even though Macy and Gimbel weren’t really themselves, Edmund Gwenn really was Santa Claus for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. The film of him being Santa in the parade is real, not staged.

Oscars Won: Best actor in a supporting role (Edmund Gwenn); best writing, original story; best writing, screenplay.

Other Oscar Nominations: Best picture.

In Old Chicago (1937)

In old chicagoDirected by Henry King

Chicago politics. The Chicago Fire of 1871. Close brothers who become rivals. With all of these elements, what could go wrong? A lot, actually. While there were some exciting scenes, In Old Chicago left much to be desired.

So what’s the story? The O’Leary brothers are polar opposites. Straight-arrow Jack is an attorney who always fights for the underdog. Charmingly roguish Dion runs a saloon, but he has bigger plans. He will use anyone and anything to get what he wants. Jack and Dion’s ideals will be tested for once and all on the night of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.

The Good: There was some good acting. Alice Brady stole the show as Mrs. O’Leary (yes, THAT Mrs. O’Leary). Don Ameche is strong as Jack, and Alice Faye makes a wonderful singer/saloon owner/woman in love with Dion. Dion’s character is a little inconsistent, but Tyrone Power does an excellent job with what he’s given.

The production design was impressive. There is a huge contrast in all the buildings, from the opulence of the saloons to the humble O’Leary home to the elegance of the Mayor’s office. It brought to life the different factions of Chicago society. Also, the streets were disgustingly muddy. Historical films don’t always remember to put in small details like that. I loved it.

I wasn’t going to be impressed with the actual fire scenes; it was 1937. How convincing could it be? That was a bad call on my part. The fire is amazing, possibly even better than the burning of Atlanta in Gone with the Wind two years later. It was just…wow.

The Bad: While I acknowledge that several scenes take place in saloons and that the producers were trying to showcase Alice Faye’s famous voice, there were too many musical numbers. They slowed down the conniving and the action, and they weren’t particularly entertaining.

While In Old Chicago has a good story with lots of potential drama, the movie felt really shallow. The screenplay left the characters feeling flat and uninteresting, except for Dion. He has the opposite problem. His character changes at the drop of a hat. One minute he’s a rogue with a twinkle in his eye, the next he’s completely evil. Then suddenly, he remembers how much he loves his brother and is perfectly good. It’s just not believable.

The Ugly: Rape isn’t a joke, although they play attempted rape as funny twice. Forcing a girl to kiss you and then threatening to rape her will not get you a business partner or a loving wife. Not cool, 1937.

Oscars Won: Best actress in a supporting role (Alice Brady); best assistant director.

Other Oscar Nominations: Best picture; best writing, original story; best sound, recording; best music, score.

Dead End (1937)

dead endDirected by William Wyler

“There was blood on his hands…and a price on his head!” I knew absolutely nothing about Dead End before I watched it, but this tagline made me pretty sure it was film noir. I was so excited; I love film noir. Turns out Dead End is not film noir, but something better: a look at the life of poverty-stricken people in New York’s Lower East Side.

So what’s the story? Drina is single and poor, struggling to raise her younger brother, Tommy. She has always been in love with Dave, a man who worked hard to put himself through college so he could escape the slums, but who can’t get a job now. Dave is falling for Kay, a young woman living in the fancy new apartment building that backs onto Drina and Dave’s block. Tommy is the leader of a street gang; he’s getting into more and more trouble lately. One day, a mysterious man comes to the block. On that one fateful day, the tensions between rich and poor, wealth and poverty, and law and crime all come to a head.

The Good: The lead actors (Sylvia Sydney as Drina and Joel McCrae as Dave) were amazing. Their performances were so good that I can’t figure out why I wasn’t familiar with their names. They both deserved to have much bigger careers than they did. Humphrey Bogart did a good job as always, as did some of the teens in Tommy’s gang.

The filmmakers used several elements to contrast the realities in the lives of the rich and poor. At the beginning, they use editing to show alternating scenes as both groups get ready for the day. The costumes also show class contrast. Drina has one dress on throughout the day, and although it’s clean and pressed, it’s not fashionable. We see Kay in a couple of dresses: a fashionably simple, blindingly white day dress, and a beautiful evening gown. The gang of teenage boys wear a variety of clothes, many of which are obviously hand-me-downs, while the teen boy who lives in the apartment house wears a tailored suit. Martin wears (and brags about) his expensive clothes, while Dave wears worn shirts and trousers. Those living in the poor neighborhood use more slang than the wealthy apartment dwellers; their grammar is also not always perfect. These things all come together to subtly remind viewers of the contrasting lives.

The musical score in Dead End is perfect for the movie; there isn’t one. Sure, there’s some music over the opening credits, and again at the “The End” placard, but the only other music in the movie is the naturally occurring music throughout the day: the player piano in the bar; the kazoo that one of the boys joyfully plays; the songs people sing; the jazz records of the wealthy. This adds to the realism of the movie.

More than anything else, though, the story and screenplay made me love this movie. Dead End speaks for people who don’t have voices, people who are doing their best but who can’t make it out of poverty. It shows why people get stuck in the poverty cycle. It explores that while all people have dreams, sometimes you can’t have all of your dreams. Fighting for your dreams is important, but that doesn’t mean that you’ll get what you’re fighting for. Doing your best isn’t always good enough. The wealthy are not only privileged in their money, but also with the law. They have connections that can get them what they want. On the other hand, just because they are wealthy doesn’t mean that they don’t deserve the protections of the law. All of this was packed into one movie that takes place in one day. That was extraordinarily well done.

The Bad: While Tommy’s gang has some good actors in their midst, some of them are not so great. Also, some of them have such thick New York accents that it’s hard for this person from “out West” to tell what they are saying sometimes.

There were a few parts that felt a little bit slow, but everything is important at some point, so don’t let your attention wander.

The Ugly: This is still happening. People are still living in poor, crime-ridden parts of town. They want to move to a nicer place, but they don’t have the money. Kids still get in over their heads in gangs. Some people decide that they would rather have the money that comes with a life of crime than live an honest life. Some people try to get out of the life, but society makes it hard for them. The justice system comes down harder on poverty-stricken people. I have never ever said that a movie should be remade, but I think this one should be. Not because it’s a bad movie, but because many people won’t watch a black-and-white movie to save their lives. I also think some of the parallels to today might be lost on some people. But this is partially what the humanities are for: to help people understand other people whose lives are so completely different than their own.

Oscars Won: None.

Oscar Nominations: Best picture; best actress in a supporting role (Clair Trevor); best cinematography; best art direction.