Best Picture Movie Marathon, Part 36
Part 36: 1939
Alexander's Ragtime Band
Test Pilot (hidden gem)
La Grande Illusion
You Can't Take it With You (winner)
Alexander's Ragtime Band
This isn’t so much a movie with musical numbers as it is a movie of musical numbers.
Set in 1911 and spanning more than two decades, Alexander’s Ragtime Band takes its name from the Irving Berlin song of the same name. The movie was originally supposed to be about Berlin himself; however, Berlin was uninterested in a film adaption of his life. Instead, he provided the music, which included roughly 25 songs, including “Heat Wave”, “Blue Skies”, “Easter Parade”, and “A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody”.
The film tells the story of a high society boy who straight up scandalizes his family by pursuing a career in ragtime rather than classical music. It traces the history of jazz - from the popularization of ragtime to the acceptance of swing in the late 1930s - all using the music of Irving Berlin.
The film begins in the early 1900s, with musician Roger Grant (Tyrone Power) enjoying a bit of fame as a classical violinist. While performing with his small ensemble at a local bar, Rodger stumbles upon some sheet music for a song titled, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band”. Unbeknownst to him, the song belongs to a nightclub singer named Stella Kirby (Alice Faye), who brought the sheet music to the bar hoping the manager would hire her to perform there.
Stella, who is distracted by the gaggle of men swarming her, doesn’t see Rodger swipe the sheet music and only realizes her music has been stolen when she hears Rodger’s band playing it. Though they start off playing the song classically, the band – which includes Charlie Dwyer (Don Ameche) on piano and Davey Lane (Jack Haley [The Tinman from The Wizard of Oz]) on drums – quickly begins falling into the ragtime swing. Stella soon joins in with the vocals and, just like that, a star – or a constellation of stars – is born.
From here, this movie is nothing but musical performances and emotional pining. Rodger pines for Stella, Charlie pines for Stella, Stella pines for Rodger and no one is making any moves.
A few musical performances later and we’re in 1918, the beginnings of World War I. Rodger is shipped off to war, Stella leaves the band and settles into married life with Charlie, who finally won her over. However, when Rodger returns, he longs to get the gang back together, this time bringing in newcomer Jerry Allen (Ethel Merman) as his main vocalist.
Rodger’s return also means more romantic drama, especially with Jerry and a newly divorced Stella both pining for his attentions. Whatever is a guy to do?
At the time of its release, Alexander’s Ragtime Band was 20th Century Fox’s highest-grossing film ever, with $3.6 million in worldwide rentals. It was also Fox’s highest-grossing film of the 1930s and was nominated for six Academy Awards, winning the award for Best Music.
While I found Tyrone Power to be a bit of a drag here, I thoroughly enjoyed everyone else, particularly Don Ameche in one of his only non-mustache sporting roles. The female performances were both fantastic, made even better by the fact that both ladies were deep altos!
Whenever my husband and I wrap up one of these 1930s movies, we usually turn to each other and say, “well, that was cute, but…”. The ‘but’ could be anything from historical inaccuracies to blatant racism. Welcome to the 30s. For Alexander’s Ragtime Band, I actually couldn’t find a ‘but’. It’s cute, nothing more, nothing less.
Compared to today’s films about adults who strive to change the lives of their pupils (see Dead Poet’s Society, Dangerous Minds, or Mona Lisa Smile), Boys Town feels a little…schmaltzy. The film, and the main character, believe there’s “no such thing as a bad boy” and everything about this movie plays to that idea. Based on a true story about a man who created a Nebraska town for troubled boys, this film is a pleasant, near harmless story about a kindhearted soul who wanted to make the world a better place.
Disgusted with a prison system that churns out career criminals rather than giving misguided boys another chance at redemption, Father Eddie Flanagan (Spencer Tracy) takes a handful of troubled youths under his wing in the hopes that he can prevent them from adopting a life of crime.
He decides to build a small “town” where boys in need can find refuge. After a few years, Father Flanagan has a 200-acre community filled with several hundred young men living independent lives. They have their own elected government system, machine and wood shops, an on-sight post office, a barber shop and a working farm. All in all, Boys Town had more options than my current town has today. But that’s neither here nor there…
All seems well in Flanagan’s utopia until a little brat named Whitey Marsh (Mickey Rooney) is sent to reside there. Whitey, who rejects the town’s laws, threatens to shatter the fragile public support of Flanagan and his pet project. Will Whitey turn out to be the first “failure” of Boys Town? It’s a tough job, but it’s up to Father Flanagan and the rest of the boys to straighten out Whitey before he drags the whole community down with him.
Fresh off an Oscar win in 1937 for the arguably better and more enjoyable Captain’s Courageous, Spencer Tracy won yet another Best Actor award for his portrayal as Father Flanagan. Ironically, these back-to-back wins were for playing very similar characters: a virtuous, plain-spoken mentor who managers to win over a bratty boy, turning him into an honorable and good-hearted young man.
While Tracy is just as easy as ever to watch here, Mickey Rooney, who walks around campus like a cross between some barnyard rooster and a car salesman, is a bit more annoying. The hamminess of his performance is, in a word, cartoonish, with over-exaggerated emotions that border on obnoxious. However, that’s not to say he doesn’t have a little charm. The brotherly relationship he develops with Pee-Wee (Bobs Watson), the adorable Shirley Temple-like kid of the school, actually succeeds in feeling pretty genuine.
And, as is the case with most of these 1930s movies, they are extremely dated when it comes to views about culture and religion. Whitey sports black face, there are several cultural generalizations about Catholics, Christians, Jews and other faiths, and there are literally no women in this film at all. While these things were all pretty commonplace at the time, they work against it today.
After production, Boys Town was actually shelved for several months, since MGM President Louis B. Mayer believed its ‘lack of sex’ would cause it to bomb at the box office. Little did he know that Boys Town would not only be one of the highest grossing films of 1938, it would break box office records with several sold-out showings. It won two Oscars, brought in more than $2 million for MGM (about $37 million today) and even inspired a sequel, Men of Boys Town.
Not only that, Boys Town – Spencer Tracy, really – even inspired young Bobs Watson to become a real minister. Watson was so moved by Tracy’s performance that he retired from acting early in order to follow his religious calling. Watson and Tracy remained friends for the remainder of Tracy’s life. Watson was actually one of the last of Tracy’s friends to see him before Tracy died in 1967.
In 2021, the real Boys Town in Omaha, Nebraska will celebrate its 100th year of service. It’s still fully operational and continues to give hope to several at-risk children, boys and girls alike. You can visit the campus and check out the Boys Town Hall of History, where you can view memorabilia from the film, as well as the Oscar Tracy won for his role as Father Flanagan.
Though this movie may not stand the test of time from a cultural perspective, there’s no denying the impact this story has had on the troubled youths who found solstice, comfort and community in the hands of Father Flanagan.
It’s funny how these films that came out during The Great Depression are still relevant and relatable…
Powerful and haunting, The Citadel uses medical privilege to highlight the divisions of class that exist within society, particularly the lack of health care for the poor and needy, as well as the unwillingness of doctors to accept and adopt to new ways of thinking.
Dr. Andrew Mason (Robert Donat) is an idealistic new doctor eager to start his first job. Unfortunately, his first step into the medical profession leaves a lot to be desired. Like most of us, Mason starts in the trenches, working as an assistant to the elder Dr. Page (Basil Gill).
He makes house calls, treats kids with the measles, and helps cure pretty teachers with sore throats – nothing terribly exciting. However, when he and his friend, Dr. Philip Denny (Ralph Richardson) come up with a clever plan to help rid the town of typhoid fever, Dr. Mason realizes his creative brain might lead to other medical breakthroughs.
He decides to quit his humdrum job and moves to Wales, where a group of Welsh miners are all suffering from the same symptoms. Initially, Mason works hard to treat them and takes notice that their impoverished life and working conditions leave them in misery. He eventually comes to learn that they all have tuberculosis from the silica found in the coal.
Mason and his now-wife, Christine (Rosalind Russell), set up a lab in their home in an effort to help these miners. But disaster strikes when their cherished home lab is destroyed in a break-in, causing them to pack up and move to London. It’s here where Mason opens up his own medical practice and continues, for a time, to service working class patients in impoverished conditions.
Of course, all this changes after a chance encounter with an old school chum, Dr. Frederick Lawford (a very young Rex Harrison), who shows Mason how tending to the rich and wealthy is the quickest way to success. Mason agrees and begins helping rich hypochondriacs evade oncoming temper tantrums. Christine tries to set him back on his original path of helping the poor, but those cushy digs and fur coats make it hard to walk away…
It’s not until tragedy strikes that Mason realizes the error of his ways…but will it be enough for him to do the right thing? No spoilers here!
As someone who watched her father struggle to pay his chemo bills, ambulance bills, hospital bills, prescription bills, and doctor bills, I can safely say I don’t have many nice things to say about the American healthcare system. For a country that claims to be so well-developed, we are certainly lacking when it comes to taking care of American citizens and their health. Honestly, The Citadel is by no means an EXCITING movie, but it is a topical one, even more than 80 years after it was released. While it does border on preachy, it was one of the first films to champion the need for reform in medical institutions, which certainly took some guts. It also depicted the incredible social and class divisions that existed in Britain at the time (and continue to exist today).
As the old saying goes, you get what you pay for. Those who can afford the best healthcare receive it, while those of us who can’t even afford a generic prescription must pinch pennies, work 3 jobs or sell insulin to even SURVIVE in this supposed “greatest country in the world.”
OK, I’ll step off my soapbox. I guess what I’m trying to say here is that this movie does a great job of proving that even the best men with the best of intentions can be swayed by a few extra bucks. Money may not buy happiness, but it does buy peace of mind, better healthcare, and more opportunities. As my great-grandfather, who lived to be 101, used to say, “If you have your health, you have everything.” Take care of yourselves, and each other.
The Adventures of Robin Hood
Every generation seems to have its own Romeo and Juliet story, its own Johnny Depp movie, and its own Robin Hood. Though the story of this tight-wearing swashbuckler has been told many times in cinema, it’s never quite had the panache and swagger of this 1938 version.
Starring Errol Flynn at the height of his career, The Adventures of Robin Hood may not be as realistic as the more recent versions but, like the equally fantastic Disney interpretation, it’s a lot more fun.
Like most films of the 1930s, Robin Hood was made with true innocence and breathtaking artistry. It was a time when simple values rang true, where bravery and romance existed in this eternal summer of sunshine and folklore. There’s no subtest, no analysis: Robin just wants to rob the rich and give to the poor. When he falls in love, it’s for no other reason than sublime destiny. Frankly, it’s the stuff of fairy tales.
Though this Robin may look and behave differently than other interpretations, the story is pretty much the same. Robin (Flynn) finds himself in exile after Prince John (Claude Rains) usurps the throne from his missing brother. He resides with the peasants in the area and finds a comfortable home in Sherwood Forest.
It’s here where Robin takes up the hobby of robbing the rich and giving to the poor. He gets along quite merrily until, one day, a caravan he robs turns out to have the beautiful Maid Marian (Olivia de Havilland) in its midst. Of course Marian despises him at first, but her heart warms to him when she learns how Robin helps those who can’t help themselves.
Their budding romance is challenged, but true love conquers all. Along the way, there are plenty of action-packed moments, including a target shooting contest, a food fight, and even a Shakespearean balcony scene. Throw in some sword play, evil scheming, quick wit, dark dungeons, and a duel to the death and you’ve got one cinematic adventure that’s hard to beat.
Naturally it doesn’t hurt that Flynn was playing a character here quite similar to himself: confident, lean, handsome, and oh so devilishly charming. This Robin is a boy at heart. When he laughs, he throws his head back. When he loves, it’s all or nothing. When he disguises himself, he does so with nothing more than a poor man’s hat.
But the best parts of The Adventures of Robin Hood have to be the swashbuckling scenes, mostly because they are real. Flynn did many of his own stunts, including sword fighting, flying on ropes, and leaping from ankle-breaking heights…all in a pair of tights, no less.
But what remains at the heart of this Robin Hood, as well as most of the other interpretations, is the love between Robin and Marian. When they look into each other’s eyes and confess their love, they do so without bravado, without arch poetry, without edge. The story knows when to be adventurous and, maybe more importantly, it knows when to be simple.
And speaking of simplicity, Robin Hood is nothing if not a figurehead of defiance in the face of corruption. Heroes of this magnitude almost never change, and he forever stands for impartiality and fairness. He revives our faith in the goodness of the human spirit and, despite his nobility, he knows how to speak and connect with the commonfolk. His fable teaches us to keep a watchful eye on our kingdom, then offers us inspiration, if not instruction, for how to deal with corrupt leaders. Though Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood is boyish of charm and immature by nature, he’s righteous in his heart, as all the best heroes are.
Sisters…sisters…there were never such devoted sisters…
The Lemp sisters, made up of Emma (Gale Page), Thea (Lola Lane), Kay (Rosemary Lane), and Ann (Priscilla Lane) are prodigies in a musical family, headed by their father, Adam (Claude Rains). Adam is an “old-fashioned” patriarch who protests against jazz and swing music. Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms…those are true musicians.
His daughters are not only musically gifted, they each represent a different type of woman (much like Little Women). Emma, the harp player, is efficient and sensible; Thea, the piano player, is the smart one; Kay, the singer, has an opportunity at a scholarship but doesn’t want to leave home; and Ann, who plays violin, is impulsive and enthusiastic.
And, as is the case with these small-town rom-coms, each sister is shopping around romantic offers from hungry boys eager to settle down. Ernest (Dick Foran) has his eye on Emma, but she’s playing hard-to-get; Ben (Frank McHugh) loves Thea, but she isn’t too sure of her own feelings. Felix (Jeffrey Lynn), a composer-friend of the family, falls hard for Ann, and she for him, but she’s not the only Lemp sister who’s swooning over this music-maker. And, to make matters worse, hormones go all out of whack when Felix’s friend Mickey Borden (John Garfield) arrives and catches Ann’s eye, as well.
As a stereotypical “outsider”, Mickey is the only man who matters in this insane romp of romantic rendezvouses. Rude and reckless, Mickey can't help but roll his eyes at this picture-perfect American family in their quintessential American home with their bright white picket fence. He doesn’t think well of himself – or of the world in general. With a cigarette dangling from his mouth, Mickey is the disenchanted idealist who holds grudges against society. He never succeeds in life because “they” (“The Fates”) won’t let him. He needs people to feel sorry for him, a tactic that works wonders on caring, young, people-pleasing Ann.
Mickey becomes a bit of a pet-project for Ann, as she tries to transform him into an honest, kind, all-American human being. According to Ann, “a man makes his own destiny”, but Mickey knows there are bigger powers at play here…and he’s not in control of any aspect of his life, no matter how hard he may try.
Though he sticks out like a sore thumb, Mickey is by far the most important character in this story. He’s not a bad guy, in fact, he’s actually pretty likable. Rather he’s a real person. In this near fairy tale of musical families and pretty houses and handsome neighbor boys, Mickey is the big ol’ dose of reality this Americana family needs. He’s not classically handsome, he doesn’t have any money, he’s been completely disillusioned from the wonders of the world, yet this fluffy story needs him desperately. And he does wonders in saving this film from flying away on a cloud of warm fuzzies.
Four Daughters was a hit upon its release. Starring real-life sisters Lola, Rosemary, and Priscilla Lane – who were a musical trio on their own – Four Daughters inspired two direct sequels: Four Wives and Four Mothers. The film was also remade in 1954 as Young at Heart, starring Doris Day and Frank Sinatra (one of my favorite Sinatra films!).
And, much like life itself, the ending of this film is unexpected. I won’t spoil it, but the dramatic twist strips this film of its almost sickening layer of sugarcoating and sends us right back to reality. While it certainly doesn’t mesh with the tone from the beginning of Four Daughters, it doesn’t feel like a play for our emotions, either. Instead it feels like a representation of how life can throw curveballs that blast through even the happiest families.
Like so many great hidden gems, Test Pilot is not a movie you watch for the story – though the story isn’t bad. No, this is a movie you watch for the cast.
Starring Clark Gable, Myrna Loy, and Spencer Tracy – all at the top of their game – Test Pilot is a cute little rom-com with a plot so simple it shouldn’t need the 120 minutes it dedicates to telling this story.
Jim Lane (Gable) is a suave test pilot with a head as big as the sky. He has the lucky job of flying and testing the speed and altitude limits of new and experimental aircraft. It’s clearly a job that demands a big ego.
His mechanic and close friend, Gunner (Tracy), is a lifelong companion and the two men share a friendship not many films today are even brave enough to show.
During one flight, Lane’s plane starts leaking fuel and he’s forced to land in an open field in Kansas. It’s here where Lane meets Ann Barton (Loy), a feisty farm girl who can’t help but fall for the man who fell from the sky.
After a shotgun wedding, the veil is lifted on Lane’s dangerous job. Ann becomes all too aware of his world of risk-taking, hard drinking and the constant danger of death. Gunner believes Ann to be a distraction, even though he can’t help but fall for her charms, as well. Lane does his best to make the marriage work, but the threat of tragedy is ever-present.
Directed by Victor Fleming (Captains Courageous, The Wizard of Oz, Gone with the Wind) Test Pilot is a fun mix between drama and adventure. The film soars both in the air and on the ground, offering a compelling story about the birth of the aviation era, as well as drama about love, friendship, and what we’re willing to give up for the happiness of those we love.
But the true sparkle of Test Pilot comes from the stars. Myrna Loy, who starred in six films with Clark Gable, has a difficult role as Ann Barton. Not only must she fall head over heels for a self-conceited man in a matter of literal minutes, but then must also come to terms with what it means to marry a man who fences with death for a living. She’s sassy and witty and is the perfect fuel to Gable’s fire.
And though their romantic chemistry is authentic, it hardly compares to the friendship Gable has with Tracy’s character, Gunner. The two men have been through it all together and they care about each other in a very deep, emotional way. It’s not romantic, but it’s not obnoxious. It’s a bond that gets to the very heart of what it means to care for someone.
As the third wheel, Gunner is always on the sidelines, both in Lane’s professional career and his romantic exploits. Lane gets the glory and he gets the girl…and Gunner is the one who helps him do it, even if that means sacrificing his own happiness in the process.
As Gunner, Tracy is just too good for the part. It’s a thankless role, really – and it could have gone to any actor; however, Tracy does his best. He was a natural on camera and it shows here.
But the heart and soul of this film is Gable…the man who laughs in the face of death and drowns the absurdity of his career in large volumes of alcohol. He almost always played an “I don’t give a damn” character but, in most cases, he really did (give a damn). It oftentimes just took a confident woman and about 2 hours of plot development to discover it.
The ending of Test Pilot borders on dramatic and doesn’t quite match the uplifting tone of the beginning, but – like most high-risk adventures – it’s well worth the ride.
To a Yankee like myself, the phenomenon of ‘The Southern Belle’ is difficult to understand. It takes the Western notions of femininity to such an extreme that it’s hard to perceive it as anything but outlandish. Clad in big dresses, big hair, and big attitudes, ‘The Southern Belle’ seems to be both something to admire and something to criticize.
Like Gone with the Wind, which was in post-production in 1939, Jezebel introduces us to a fiery, head-strong Southern woman, whose fierce desire for control of her own life, and her own sexuality, is drastically at odds with the social expectations she finds herself in. Frustrated, she lashes out at her loving fiancée, then spends the majority of the film trying to win him back.
Jezebel begins with a party, as most Southern dramas do. The guest of honor is Julie (Bette Davis) and the occasion is her engagement party. Already late and smelling of bourbon, Julie flounces in still wearing her riding dress (SCANDAL!), causing even further dismay among her prim and proper guests who have been waiting eagerly for her arrival.
Julie’s soon-to-be husband, Preston “Pres” Dillard (Henry Fonda) is also late…in fact, he’s a no show. Julie embarrassingly confronts Pres about it at work the next day, causing a riff in their otherwise picture-perfect romance.
To make matters worse, she also insists on wearing a “saucy and vulgar” red dress, rather than a conventional, virginal white one, to the annual ball she and Pres are attending. Pres advises against it, but her stubbornness knows no bounds. If someone says something, Pres will have to defend her honor. Nothing would make her happier.
What Julie presumes will attract attention instead garners humiliation. As Pres and Julie arrive at the ball, the women – all wearing white – part like the white sea. Everyone refuses to speak to Julie and her thick, Southern bravado begins to weaken. She begs Pres to leave, but he calls her bluff. He swings her around the dance floor, letting her wallow in her embarrassment before taking her home and calling off the engagement.
Jezebel then picks up a year later, with Pres returning from New York after dumping Julie. Chastened by his abandonment, Julie promises to humble herself, even wearing a white dress for his arrival…but Pres has some cargo in tow, namely a new wife named Amy (Margaret Lindsay). It’s then that Bette Davis can finally unleash Julie, eyes glaring and nostrils flaring. “I’ve got to think, to plan, to fight,” she says. Though she masks her anger with feigned pleasantries, you can tell, behind those big saucer eyeballs, she’s plotting how she can regain her man.
Jezebel beat Gone with the Wind to theaters by about 2 years. Though both films share similar characters and plots, it seems unfair to compare the two. Where GWTW is an epic, grand production of Southern life before, during and after the Civil War, Jezebel is homely story with no mention of life outside the plantation. While it takes place during the Civil War, there are no battles, no bruises, no mention of men going off to fight. In Jezebel, the spotlight is entirely on Julie, and that’s certainly how any cinematic ‘Southern Belle’ would want it!
If you’re a fan of Bette Davis, or enjoy a good smoldering Southern melodrama, chances are you will find something to like in Jezebel. The costumes, though in black and white, are brilliant and Davis is perfection, as always. However, if stubborn dames in big dresses just isn’t your thing, you frankly might find this film hard to give a damn about.
La Grande Illusion
The ‘grand illusion’ of Jean Renoir’s film could refer to one of two things: either the idea that war can be fought according to gentlemanly rules is an illusion, or that the coined ‘War to End All Wars’ was anything but that. Ironically, both would turn out to be far from fantasy.
La Grande Illusion is a French film about a few POW’s in two German camps during World War I. The core group of officers includes men from all walks of life. Marechal (Jean Gabin) is working class, Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay) is an aristocrat, Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio) is part of the Jewish bourgeois, and Cartier (Julien Carette) is a music-hall performer.
Hoping to escape their camp, the men build a tunnel – only to be transferred on the eve of their flight. They’re moved to a foreboding German castle, under the command of Captain von Rauffenstein (Eric von Stroheim).
At the castle, Boeldieu bonds with Rauffenstein. Apparently, their ranking means little when they both come from the same social class. Even in the trenches, the wealthy have a better go of it than the poor folk.
Still, the need to break free abounds. Marechal, Boeldieu and Rosenthal plan an elaborate escape, but not everyone makes it out alive. The two survivors must battle the elements, the terrain, and the surrounding enemy in a last-ditch effort to flee to Switzerland.
Coined an anti-war film, La Grande Illusion advocates human solidarity across national and class barriers. French and German aristocrats bond over memories of beautiful women and riding horses, while the lower ranks on both sides are unanimous in their opinion that the war has gone on too long. When a German captain accidently shoots a captured French aristocrat, there is no rejoicing…there are only tears. “For a commoner,” the French man says, “dying in a war is a tragedy. But for you and I, it’s a good way out.”
What the Frenchman knows here is the new world order belongs to the commoners. The “grand illusion” of the title may even play a part here, too. To think that high society could save you from inevitable death is anything but fact. If the upper crust make it out of this, they know life as they knew it would no longer exist.
While the immediate topic of La Grande Illusion is a specific war, its message is still topical and relevant today. Issues of war, class and national conflicts have not lost their relevance. Yet the ending of this film offers a more uplifting lesson, one shared by this year's Best Picture winner, You Can't Take it With You: that class can almost always be displaced by humanity.
“Pygmalion was a mythological character who dabbled in sculpture. He made a statue of his ideal woman – Galatea. It was so beautiful that he prayed to the gods to give it life. His wish was granted. Bernard Shaw, in his famous play, gives a modern interpretation of this theme.”
And so reads the foreword to Pygmalion, the cinematic adaption of Shaw’s play and the catalyst for the 1964 Best Picture winner, My Fair Lady. Though Pygmalion lacks music, and color, and Audrey Hepburn, it’s not all-together terrible…but it’s not all-together great, either.
Pygmalion tells the story of the transformation of the poor and unrefined flower seller, Eliza Doolittle (Wendy Hiller), from “guttersnipe” to graceful lady. Under the tutelage of phonetics professor Henry Higgins (Leslie Howard), Eliza must work, and work hard, to complete her metamorphosis.
Professor Higgins first meets Eliza in London, where we watch him eerily take notes on her interesting dialect. He prides himself on being able to pinpoint the sources of accents and dialects and is a self-absorbed, arrogant language expert with the wit to back it up…at least, he likes to think so.
With great aplomb, Higgins mentions to his confidante, Colonel George Pickering (Scott Sutherland), that he could transform this lowly flower girl into a duchess, just by changing the way she speaks and presents herself. Having heard his bragging, Eliza shows up at Higgins’ house the next day, eager to get started.
Eliza’s ambition is to learn enough proper English to get a job as a flower girl in an actual flower shop. That’s it. But Higgins has his own, grander ideas. He and Pickering enter a wager that Eliza can be passed off as a duchess at an ambassadorial reception within 3 to 6 months. Without her knowing it, she becomes a pawn in their game. Eliza is bullied into acceptance and is suddenly the professor’s pet project.
And so the work, nay – tormenting – begins. Day after day, Higgins works to strip Eliza of her Cockney accent, her impoverished manners, and her bad language. With montage after montage, we see Eliza struggle to embrace her new self. Of course, Higgins isn’t what you might call an understanding teacher. “You squashed cabbage leaf,” he calls her. “You disgrace to the noble architecture of these columns, you incarnate insult to the English language.” What a gem.
Yet, she pulls it off. As Higgins and Sutherland congratulate themselves on basically bulling a young girl into submission, Eliza erupts in anger. Big transformations have big consequences and Higgins isn’t prepared, or interested, in helping Eliza with any of that. Now a new person, Eliza can’t go back to the life she knew. She can’t find work, she has no place to live, she doesn’t even have any clothes. Higgins, who is more preoccupied with the fact that he can’t find his freaking slippers, couldn’t care less. For him, the project is over. It’s back to the gutter for this overturned cabbage leaf.
After about 10 minutes of verbal sparring, Higgins finally admits his feelings. “I like you like this,” he says, as Eliza fumes with anger. But she pulls a Rhett Butler and walks out the freaking door. GIRL, YES.
Unfortunately it doesn’t quite end there, though it really should have. On the pros side, Pygmalion raises all kinds of questions about nature vs. nurture, class and morality, what it means to be a woman, and the notions of the self. On the cons side, it also a film very much about privilege, misogyny, and bullying. Not to mention Leslie Howard is an absolute DRAG.
But, in the end, there’s just one question at the heart of Pygmalion: Can beauty transform the beast? I think the answer to that might come best from the musical version of this story: “The difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves, but how she is treated.”
You Can’t Take it With You
Before It’s a Wonderful Life taught us that no man is a failure who has friends, Jimmy Stewart and Frank Capra united on another project. More screwball than dramedy, You Can’t Take it With You felt very much like a dress rehearsal for what would become a popular holiday classic.
Witty, funny, charming and sweet as Capra-corn, You Can’t Take it With You was a tonic to a Depression-weary country in the beginning stages of righting itself economically. It’s packed to the gills with optimism, toting the popular Capra themes of triumph of goodwill, love conquering all, and the importance of family and friends over material possessions. In this universe, a house of bohemians can survive on a hope and a prayer…a wealthy all-American man can fall in love with a common girl next door…and a corporate warthog’s hardened heart can be softened with a simple and sweet harmonica duet.
The film opens in the boardroom of Kirby and Co., a large banking corporation that seems to be flourishing as the rest of the country is falling apart. In an effort to corner the munitions market, Kirby and Co. are buying up land and surrounding properties; however, not everyone is eager to sell.
Anthony P. Kirby (a fantastic Edward Arnold) is irate because there’s one hold-out in the neighborhood, a man named Martin Vanderhof (Lionel Barrymore). Unwilling to sell even when offered four times what his house is worth, Vanderhof values the memories of his property more than the money and refuses to leave. Kirby, who isn’t used to hearing the word, “no”, orders his real estate agent to use any and all means necessary to force Vanderhof out.
Vanderhof, himself an ex-millionaire who became disillusioned with the world of high finance, now lives a happy life as a stamp collector. His residual fortune has allowed his family to do whatever makes them happy: daughter Penny (Spring Byington) writes fluffy plays; granddaughter Essie (Ann Miller) makes candies and dances around the house with the dream of becoming a ballerina; and Essie’s husband Ed (Dub Taylor) bangs out tunes on his xylophone. In the basement, a collection of extended family members and friends make toys, construct fireworks and recite poetry.
The only ‘normal’ one of the bunch is Alice (Jean Arthur), Vanderhof’s granddaughter and current love interest of Tony Kirby (Jimmy Stewart), the son of the man trying to buy her grandfather’s house. In an effort to bring these very different families together, Alice plans an elaborate dinner and encourages her relatives to be on their best behavior; however, when Tony brings his parents over on the wrong night, thereby exposing his future in-laws at their most eccentric, chaos ensues.
Similar in tone to The Birdcage, Meet the Parents, or Crazy Rich Asians, You Can’t Take it With You is classic family-meets-family comedy. Though in Capra’s world, the clashing of the rich Kirby’s and the poor Vanderhof’s has more to say about his American politics than it does family values.
The Vanderhof household seems to represent a microcosm of America – a place where different people, all of whom come from different socio-economic backgrounds – can live and flourish in harmony. Money is of no importance because there’s nothing more valuable than friendship and being there for your fellow man.
The Kirby’s are wealthy in the materialistic sense but lack friendship. They’re cold, mean and sad, ruined by corporate greed and power. Though they dress in their best and want for nothing, they will never be truly happy until they understand the importance of sacrificial kindness.
This concept of ‘no man is poor if he has friends’ is nothing new in the world of Frank Capra. In fact, this film’s wide-eyed optimism is almost so cheesy that it’s comical; however, You Can’t Take it With You might actually be just as relevant today as it was more than 80 years ago. With COVID-19 still very much a reality, as well as political unrest and general depression running rampant, people have been craving shows and movies that just make them feel good. Popular shows like Parks and Recreation, Schitt’s Creek, The Good Place, even The Great British Baking Show, all embrace the idea of hope just as much as Capra did in his films. When real life is anything but pleasant, we turn to the stories that help reinforce the fact that friendship is important, happiness is important and money – which you can’t take with you – is worthless if you have a full heart.