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  • January 25, 2011

    Best Movies by Farr: Carole Lombard, Comedienne

    by John Farr

    The star of this week’s Reel 13 Classic, Carole Lombard, left us tragically, but she made her mark with comic genius.


    Twentieth Century (1934)

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    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Broadway producer Oscar Jaffe (John Barrymore) creates a star in the beautiful Lily Garland (Carole Lombard), then alienates her, causing a decline in his own fortunes. He happens upon Lily (now embarked on a Hollywood career and on the luxurious Twentieth Century Limited train) and while she is a captive audience, attempts to woo her back into the Jaffe fold.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    One of the great early screwball comedies, and an opportunity to see Barrymore in his funniest performance as the desperate, histrionic Jaffe. As Lily, Lombard is leading lady gorgeous, but also possesses unmatched comic flair. The screenplay, by partners Charles MacArthur and Ben Hecht, moves as fast as that train. Get on-board.


    My Man Godfrey (1936)

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    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Through a contest only the idle rich could invent, a daffy family hires a forgotten man from skid row to become the new butler in their zany household. Younger daughter Irene (Lombard) proceeds to fall in love with him. Godfrey (Powell), however, is not precisely who, or what, he seems.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Gregory La Cava’s sublime “Godfrey” blends screwball elements with more serious overtones on Depression-era class injustice, to create a wildly entertaining yet thought-provoking movie that holds up beautifully. The term debonair was indeed coined for Powell, and Lombard makes for an adorable ditz. (Trivia note: the two stars had been married briefly several years earlier, but had divorced amicably, and remained good friends). Highlights: comic actor Mischa Auer as Mrs. Bullock’s “protégé”, along with the rotund Pallette as Mr. Bullock, the family’s frustrated industrialist father, who appears more like an impotent keeper at an asylum.


    To Be or Not To Be (1942)

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    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Husband-and-wife thespians Maria and Joseph Tura (Carole Lombard and Jack Benny) are minor stage celebrities in their native Warsaw, where they’ve been rehearsing an anti-Nazi play in addition to nightly performances of “Hamlet.” Then Hitler invades, and the house lights go dark. But when an ardent fan of Maria’s, Polish fighter pilot Stanislav Sobinski (Robert Stack), secretly returns from the Allied side in England, he sets in motion some juicy off-stage intrigue, whereby the Turas and their troupe must outwit a Gestapo spy with plans to crush the Resistance.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Criticized for satirizing the raging war in Europe on its release in 1942, Lubitsch’s clever, spirited, often side-splitting farce doubled as a tribute both to the Polish resistance and, quite ingeniously, to the mighty art of play-acting. Benny, in his best-remembered film role, is terrifically funny as “that great, great actor” Joseph Tura, especially playing opposite Sig Rumann (as a Nazi colonel), and a young Robert Stack, the love-struck lieutenant whose cue to tryst with Maria is the first line of Hamlet’s soliloquy. Tragically, this marked Carole Lombard’s final screen appearance (she was killed in a plane crash flying home from selling war bonds later that same year). This gifted comedienne gives a grand farewell performance under Lubitsch’s inspired direction.


    Visit Best Movies by Farr for more great DVD recommendations.

  • January 18, 2011

    Reel 13 and the New York Jewish Film Festival Team Up!

    This week’s Reel 13 Short Film Contest contenders are all official selections of the New York Jewish Film Festival. This year the NYJFF celebrates its 20th anniversary showcasing world cinema exploring the Jewish experience. The NYJFF runs from January 12 – 27, 2011. Be sure to watch all three films, then vote for your favorite. The winner will air next Saturday, January 22nd along with the Reel 13 Classic RAIN and the Independent feature CHILDREN OF INVENTION.

  • January 18, 2011

    Best Movies by Farr: Winning Walter Huston

    by John Farr

    Walter Huston made so many films, it’s hard to pick favorites. But John Farr does it.


    Dodsworth (1936)

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    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Sam Dodsworth (Walter Huston), a business tycoon, decides to retire and take an extended trip to Europe with wife Fran (Ruth Chatterton). Unfortunately, Sam’s financial success has only increased Fran’s latent vanity and social-climbing tendencies. No longer distracted by his work, Sam sees his wife’s weaknesses for the first time, as she openly flirts and cavorts with a European aristocrat. Sam must confront the problem in his marriage, then find a way to regain some happiness for himself.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Based on a novel by Sinclair Lewis, director William Wyler and screenwriter Sydney Howard have crafted an adult, perceptive romantic drama, beautifully played. They wisely minimize the soapiness inherent in the premise, leaving an honest and surprisingly moving film about love lost and re-discovered. The Oscar-nominated Huston is superb.


    The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)

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    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Fred Dobbs, Bob Curtin and Howard, three motley down-and-outers in Mexico (Humphrey Bogart, Tim Holt and Walter Huston, respectively), pool their meager resources and set off to search for gold. When they find some, they must decide how best to protect it and thus the seeds of distrust are sown.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    This potent film delivers savage human drama wrapped up in an adventure film. Containing humor, suspense and action, ultimately “Treasure” is a striking meditation on the nature of greed. This masterpiece marked the first time a father and son took home Oscars the same night: John for his peerless direction and his father Walter for his indelible performance as the crusty old prospector. “Treasure” is just that- cinematic gold.


    The Furies (1950)

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    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Blustery ranch owner T.C. Jeffords (Walter Huston) intimidates everyone around him, except his fiercely independent daughter, Vance (Barbara Stanwyck), with whom he has an intensely close (and stormy) relationship. Her father’s engagement to gold-digging socialite Flo Burnett (Judith Anderson) grates on Vance, and when T.C. moves to undercut her romance with noncommittal gambler Rip Darrow (Wendell Corey), she finally explodes.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Dealing with revenge, obsession, racism, and hints of incestuous jealousy, Mann’s dark, psychological Western was a fine showcase for Stanwyck, here a mix of fiery passion and resolute determination, and the towering, formidable Walter Huston in his final film appearance. “The Furies” is Shakespearean in its depiction of a father-daughter conflict that curdles into hatred, but adds a taste of the grotesque, too, namely in a scene involving a well-flung pair of scissors. In the hands of Mann and his volatile leading players, 1870s New Mexico was never quite the same.


    Visit Best Movies by Farr for more great DVD recommendations.

  • January 10, 2011

    Best Movies by Farr: Serious Stanley Kramer

    by John Farr

    As Reel 13 prepares to air the Stanley Kramer Classic, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, John Farr selects three of the late director’s most intense works.


    The Defiant Ones (1958)

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    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    When convicts John “Joker” Jackson (Tony Curtis) and Noah Cullen (Sidney Poitier) escape a chain gang manacled together, they must put aside their mutual antipathy. Jackson’s an uneducated Southern bigot who doesn’t hide his contempt for Cullen, while Cullen exhibits his own well-earned hatred of “crackers”. Still, given the circumstances, they must rely on their combined resources to survive.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Another of maverick producer/director Kramer’s consciousness-raising social films, this tale proved a potent metaphor for race relations in 1958. Virtually simultaneous with the rise of the civil-rights movement, this progressive adventure eloquently presented the case for racial harmony in the story of a gutsy prison-break film. Poitier-who at age 30 was set to go where no black actor had gone before–more than holds his own with Curtis, then a big star, who plays the despicable “Joker” to perfection.


    On the Beach (1959)

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    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    After learning that a nuclear holocaust has wiped out most of humanity, U.S.S. Sawfish sub commander Capt. Dwight Towers (Gregory Peck) finds a group of survivors near Melbourne, including lovely Moira (Ava Gardner), guilt-ridden scientist Julian Osborn (Fred Astaire), and newlyweds Peter (Anthony Perkins) and Mary Holmes (Donna Anderson). Knowing that slowly creeping radiation from the northern hemisphere will eventually kill them all, each deals with the impending doom in their own way.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    A stark wake-up call in its time, Kramer’s blunt, unswervingly bleak doomsday classic was based on a popular novel by Nevil Shute and premiered in major cities around the world on the same day in 1959. Though hardly subtle, “Beach” does boast fine performances by Peck, Gardner, a young Perkins, and Astaire in his first purely dramatic role, playing wildly (and confidently) against type as an intellectual with a heavy conscience.


    Judgment at Nuremberg (1961)

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    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    This dramatization of the famous Nuremberg trials centers on Dan Haywood (Spencer Tracy), who’s sent to Germany as chief Allied judge (Haywood’s character was based on real-life jurist Robert Jackson). Prosecutor Tad Lawson (Richard Widmark) tries a group of top-level Nazis for complying with Hitler’s inhumane edicts, facing off against defense attorney Hans Rolfe (Max Schell). As Haywood presides over the historic trial, he ponders where the great nation went wrong, and how to apportion the blame.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Long but brilliant, “Judgment” was a box-office sensation, due to director Kramer’s sensitive, socially conscious approach, which examines the degree to which people should be held responsible for following orders. The movie includes a host of sterling performances: Schell stands out as the impassioned defense attorney (the part netted him an Oscar), as do Montgomery Clift and Judy Garland, whose tragic characters poignantly mirror the consuming sadness in their real lives. “Judgment” is an absorbing, true-to-life reckoning with the infamous Nazi legacy and the nature of modern justice.


    Visit Best Movies by Farr for more great DVD recommendations.

  • January 4, 2011

    Best Movies by Farr: Early Billy Wilder

    by John Farr

    Billy Wilder’s early films, like this week’s Classsic, One, Two, Three, launched a brilliant career. Here are three other gems.


    The Major and the Minor (1942)

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    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Unable to pay for a train ticket back home to Iowa, big-city office worker Sue Applegate (Rogers) decides to pose as a 12- year-old girl for a reduced fare. On the train, kind Major Kirby (Ray Milland) takes “Sue-Sue” under his wing, but her scheme is danger of exposure once Kirby’s fiancee (Rita Johnson) and her in- the-know 12-year-old sister (Diana Lynn) enter the picture. Also, little Sue’s developing a not-so-little crush on the Major .

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Leave it to legendary director Billy Wilder to turn what could have been a dunderheaded studio comedy into a first-rate howler with satirical overtones. With puckish irreverence, Wilder –in his directorial debut-shouldered a potentially dicey subject (a blossoming romance between a soldier and a minor) and lathered it with just enough intelligence, wit and compassion to please Hollywood audiences! Rogers and Milland play their roles with an insouciant innocence, too, under his peerless direction. You’ll love “The Major and the Minor,” a madcap Lolita story like no other!


    The Lost Weekend (1945)

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    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Struggling writer Don Birnham (Ray Milland) has a nasty drinking problem that worries his brother, Nick (Phillip Terry), who’s reluctant to leave his sibling alone. Don convinces Nick and his own girlfriend Helen (Jane Wyman) to take in a concert without him, promising to do some serious work on a novel. Instead, Don hunts for a hidden stash of booze, finds money, and goes on a hellish, two-day alcoholic binge.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Billy Wilder’s searing look at the “problem” of alcoholism was harsh, unpleasant stuff for audiences to swallow in the ’40s, but Paramount execs-who nearly shelved “Weekend” over pressure from temperance and liquor lobbyists-were thrilled when it became a huge hit. That’s due entirely to Milland’s riveting, Oscar-winning portrayal of Don, a man so hysterically self-destructive that he sacrifices his dignity and others’ goodwill to keep himself in a state of perpetual stupor. Cheery it’s not, but “Lost Weekend” is a landmark work, showcasing Wilder at his gut-wrenching best. Wyman also excels in an early role as the concerned Helen.


    Sunset Boulevard (1950)

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    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Ducking into the garage of a decayed Hollywood mansion to evade his creditors, heavily indebted screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden) encounters Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), an aging star of the silent screen who recruits Gillis to work on her hopeless comeback script. Penniless and cynical, Gillis agrees to help the wealthy, barely remembered star, and eventually becomes Norma’s kept man.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Recently remastered by Paramount, “Sunset Boulevard” is finally getting its due. One of the all-time great Tinseltown satires, this noirish tale of an opportunistic, down-and-out young writer and the nostalgic, delusional film luminary who ensnares him takes a harsh look at an industry that eats its own. Holden, whose character narrates from beyond the grave, is impeccable as the sardonic Gillis, but the show belongs to real-life silent star Swanson, an ideal choice to play the creepy, twisted Norma. Great support form Nancy Olson (as Joe’s appalled girlfriend) and Erich Von Stroheim (as Norma’s protective chauffeur) round out this shocking, sordid gem. Are you ready for your close-up?


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