Angels With Dirty Faces (Curtiz, 1938)

Cagney’s been better (The Roaring Twenties, White Heat) and the story of religious faith vs. gangsterdom isn’t that interesting anyway. The side story of hero worship between child and adult creates some interesting parallels, but doesn’t hold the kind of sway it should over the typical gangster film narrative.

Young Mr. Lincoln (Ford, 1939)

A pure and extraordinary performance by Henry Fonda, brilliantly portraying, both physically and mentally, one of America’s most important figures developing from mortal into icon. The material fits director John Ford’s myth-making process perfectly, favoring passionate moments of change over complex incarnations of conflict or doubt. One standout moment occurs when Lincoln throws a rock into the river he admires throughout, causing ripples which Ford uses to fade downstream, into a now icy mise-en-scene, showing a passage of time with astounding clarity. Young Mr. Lincoln has as straight and narrow a trajectory as it’s protagonist’s lanky frame, Ford filling every moment with lush B/W images dominated by Lincoln’s presence and evolving political aptitude. I’ve never seen a John Ford film obsessed with such a singular vision of character, pressing onward with a third person perspective, the viewer never knowing what Lincoln might say or do until after the film world has experienced it first. In turn, the audience marvels at the nature of the man, the myth, the legend, as he’s becoming. A great film, unique within the canon of one of America’s greatest filmmakers.

Stage Door (La Cava, 1937)

Beautiful, snappy dialogue (which reminds of Hawks’ His Girl Friday) and an excellent look a female camaraderie anchored by the great Katherine Hepburn and Ginger Rogers. Stage Door doesn’t attempt to cover a lot of what traditionally might be called plot, but crams in mounds of story in a deceptively simple amount of time. It’s a great battle of words between women who choose to view the theatrical world with a sense of humor, and it’s a graceful slaughtering of the male hierarchy and ideology that often dominates their livelihood. Hepburn’s speech after her heartbreaking on stage performance touches every single one of her female boarding house mates, and not one of the men in the audience (all they care about is returns, headlines, and sex). This is a masterful scene as directed by La Cava, and Hepburn’s dismissal of the typical limelight in favor of her friendships makes this film a stunning achievement.

Flight Commander (Hawks, 1930)

More convincingly heroic than Sergeant York and more character driven than Air Force, Howard Hawks’ Flight Commander is a masterful look at British airmen fighting in Germany during WWI. This war film shy’s away from the battles, preferring moments of brutal decision-making by commanding officers concerning when to send men to their deaths. Hawks sets up the relationships between these aviator’s with keen attention to sacrifice, past experience, and a revolving cycle of death which inevitably and tragically promotes characters into roles of power, forcing them to better understand the pressures their predecessors felt. It’s a war film bent on genre traits, but one which doesn’t adhere to them universally, sliding in deft action scenes highlighting the characters themselves as opposed to strictly focusing on the impressive scope of the set pieces. Flight Commander, like all of Hawks’ masterpieces, puts the character into tense situations with the greatest attention to atmosphere, and Richard Barthelmess’ tortured commanding officer Courtney exemplifies this mood perfectly as he makes the ultimate sacrifice to salvage his friend’s life. But the cycle continues, as when Douglas Fairbanks Jr.’s Scott takes the reigns Counrtney leaves behind, fully understanding the horrors of bureaucracy in war.

Tiger Shark (Hawks, 1932)

Mortally tainted by Edward G. Roboinson’s annoying and over the top performance as a blowhard fisherman working off the coast of San Diego, Tiger Shark is a structureless character study that fades fast after a brutal and stunning opening sequence. Stranded on a life boat, Robinson’s Captain Mike, his second in command Pipes, and third crew member wait aimlessly for rescue. Sharks surround their craft and desperation turns to violence, leaving the third member eaten alive but the “white bellied devils” of the ocean. It’s a great introduction to the fisherman lifestyle Hawks wants to represent, but the rest of the film never achieves this level of intensity, instead giving scene after scene of melodrama and exaggeration completely outside the realm of this world. Some of the fishing scenes are tense, mostly because Hawks mixes in archival footage, but Tiger Shark feels small (absolutely no production value) and it’s performances warrant little empathy or even attention. A major disappointment, but it’s an early Hawks film so one can chalk it up to working out the kinks for the genius to come.

Sylvia Scarlett (Cukor, 1935)

Cukor’s film achieves a consistent debauchery and an unpleasant lunacy which recycles seemingly meaningless characters back into roles of prominence without a sense of structure. It’s no surprise Sylvia Scarlett bombed upon release, since it lacks the cohesive devotion to story the later Grant/Hepburn/Cukor collaborations thrive upon. There’s no denying the acting talent on display, but Cukor can’t find the right balance of performance and plot, opting out for a shifting, meandering outlook on love and deception. This approach just isn’t as successful as say Holiday‘s brilliant pacing or The Philadelphia Story‘s beautiful attention to character. Where those films created an environment of romantic tension worthy of the characters, this Cukor can’t decide which direction, or stance to take on the subject at hand. A major disappointment.

A Farewell to Arms (Borzage, 1932)

With a steady onslaught of romantic ramblings and fateful stares, it quickly becomes clear one must buy into Frank Borzage’s illogical but well-meaning vision of love if you’re going to enjoy his films. After watching two of Borzage’s whimsical and sometimes downright cheesy romance’s, it’s safe to say I’m not buying. The same story problems I had with Three Comrades rear their ugly heads once again in his version of A Farewell to Arms. As with Comrades, Borzage’s hero couple (WWI soldier Gary Cooper and Nurse Helen Hayes) move along a muddled but perfectly planned out quest toward true love, ending with a death that puts anything in Douglas Sirk’s world to shame. Borzage doesn’t seem to be interested in anything left to chance (unlike Sirk or Lubitsch who both allow the mysteries of love to simmer under the surface). Borzage creates no tension, or real surprising romance (the visuals cue up exactly how the viewer must feel), or for that matter much character. Seemingly transplanted from the Robert Taylor school of acting, Cooper almost never changes facial expressions with any convincing result. From the opening exploding credits, Borzage makes sure to insert every artificial touch within a story about human emotion, without ever really saying anything about this particular dichotomy. Apart from a few excellent POV tracking shots, his direction and visuals are spot on, uninteresting, and most of all tiresome. I find the whimsical romances of Lubitsch far more fascinating and layered than these two Borzage’s, who seems to rely so heavily on visual fancy that coherence and arc get lost in the fairy dust. Even so, too many of the film critics I respect find Borzage’s film’s enticing for me to give up after only two films. Still, all this praise which makes me wonder “why” more so than with any other Classical Hollywood director.