Monthly Archives: February 2014

The Films of 1939 at 75 (Part I): Adventures with Gunga Din, Boyer and Dunne’s Love Affair, and John Wayne’s Stagecoach to Stardom

Fante’s Inferno commemorates the 75th anniversary of the films of 1939 (considered one of the greatest years of moviemaking) with a four-part retrospective posted in conjunction with the quarters in which they were released.

Part One: January to March of 1939:

Stagecoach 1939 Movie Poster

Stagecoach

Release Date: 2/15/39
Starring John Wayne, Claire Trevor, Thomas Mitchell, John Carradine, Andy Devine, George Bancroft
Directed by John Ford; Screenplay by Dudley Nichols and Ben Hecht (based on Ernest Haycox’s short story The Stage to Lordsburg)

Six passengers on a stagecoach from Tonto, Arizona to Lordsburg, New Mexico, each with their own reasons for leaving town.  Along the way they pick up a fugitive and shoot their way through Apache territory to reach their destination.  John Ford’s Stagecoach revitalized the Western genre and made John Wayne a star.  The story does get a bit too heavy handed with several characters written to represent hypocrisy in society (i.e. a kind prostitute forced from town by the “decent” women; a businessman that preaches patriotism but is embezzling funds, etc.) that it tends to become a distraction.  Regardless, each character is woven into the script so perfectly the story would be unbalanced should one of them be removed, from John Wayne as the Ringo Kidd hell bent on revenge, to Dallas (Claire Trevor) forced out of town with the weight of her past and “proper society” on her shoulders, even down to the comic relief of stagecoach driver Buck (Andy Devine).  Cinematographer Bert Glennon’s photography of Monument Valley is majestic and the editing is seamless.  When you hear the title Stagecoach, how can you not think about John Wayne’s first shot in the film?

Gunga Din 1939 Movie Poster

Gunga Din

Release Date: 2/17/39
Starring Cary Grant, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Victor McLaglen, Sam Jaffe, Joan Fontaine
Directed by George Stevens; Screenplay by Joel Sayre and Fred Guiol based on the story by Rudyard Kipling

Three hell-raising British soldiers (Grant, Fairbanks and McLaglen) are sent to a investigate a military outpost in Tantrapur, India after a break in the communication line.  They arrive to find the town deserted with no sign of soldiers or civilians, are quickly attacked by Thuggees, and fight their way out with the three sergeants and their detail barely making it out alive.  Back at their camp, Sergeant Cutter (Grant) befriends Gunga Din (played by Sam Jaffee), a water carrier with dreams of being a bugler in the British Army.  He tells Cutter of a temple of gold, and against the orders of Sergeants MacChesney (McLaglen) and Ballantine (Fairbanks) Cutter and Din sneak out of camp.  They find the temple, which unfortunately is inhabited by the murderous Thuggees.  Cutter is captured, but Din escapes to bring reinforcements.

This was my first screening of Gunga Din, and it was a pleasant surprise.  I wasn’t expecting to be an adventure/comedy that borders on the screwball.  I’m a big fan of Cary Grant and even in screwball comedies like Bringing Up Baby and His Girl Friday I’ve never seen him play comedy quite this hammy.  Regardless, it’s a fun performance and Grant’s chemistry with McLaglen and Fairbanks carries the film, but at the expense of the title character.  Sam Jaffee gives the character of Gunga Din heart and pathos, but isn’t given enough screen time to present his backstory or motivations.  But overall it’s a fun, fast paced adventure.

Love Affair 1939 Movie Poster

Love Affair

Release Date: 3/16/39
Starring Irene Dunne, Charles Boyer, Maria Ouspenskaya,
Directed by Leo McCarey; Screenplay by Delmer Daves and Donald Ogden Stewart based on a story by Mildred Cram

Painter and bon vivant Michel Marnet (Boyer) and singer Terry McKay (Dunne) meet on an ocean liner bound for New York for their respective weddings.  Their “meet cute” occurs when a breeze blows a romantic telegram from Michel’s hands into Terry’s.  She’s actually amused that the telegram about a romantic night in Lake Como is from his future sister-in-law, and they strike up a conversation that leads to a somewhat innocent tour of her suite.  They take a liking to each other but decide to keep their distance during the next eight days of the voyage in order not to stir up rumors that would leak to the press and interfere with there upcoming weddings.  Try as they might, they just can’t seem to shake each other to the point where it becomes a joke among the passengers.  Along the way, the ship stops in Spain and Terry joins Michel on a day trip to meet his grandmother (played by Maria Ouspenskaya).  She confesses to Terry that she’s concerned about Michel’s lifestyle…unless the right woman can change him.  By the end of the voyage, Michel and Terry are in love and make a pact to meet at the top of the Empire State Building on July 1st.  Michel eventually cancels his wedding and tries to support himself selling his paintings (while painting New York City billboards) as he counts the days to July 1st.  Terry calls her wedding off and bides the next several months as a headline act in Philadelphia.  But as they make their way to the Empire State Building, a cruel twist of fate could keep them apart.

It’s hard to watch Leo McCarey’s Love Affair without automatically comparing it to his 1957 remake An Affair to Remember starring Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr.  Despite An Affair to Remember’s popularity and Grant and Kerr’s unforgettable performances, the 1939 original stands on its own and in my opinion is the better film of the two.  It’s no wonder Love Affair was remade twice (the third version was 1994’s Love Affair starring Warren Beatty and Annette Bening): Charles Boyer and Irene Dunne are fantastic their roles, and (in my opinion) their chemistry actually surpasses Grant and Kerr’s.  Go into a screening of Love Affair without comparisons to An Affair to Remember and you’ll enjoy the film on its own merits.

Other notable films from January-March 1939:

Son of Frankenstein
The Son of Frankenstein

Release Date: 1/13/39
Directed by Rowland V. Lee; Starring Boris Karloff, Basil Rathbone, Bela Lugosi

Jesse James 1939 Movie Poster
Jesse James

Release Date: 1/27/39
Directed by Henry King; Starring Tyrone Power and Henry Fonda

Oklahoma Kid Movie Poster
The Oklahoma Kid

Release Date: 3/3/39
Directed by Lloyd Bacon; Starring James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart

Midnight
Midnight
Release Date: 3/15/39
Directed by Mitchell Leisen; Starring Claudette Colbert and Don Ameche

Hound of the Baskervilles
The Hound of the Baskervilles

Release Date: 3/31/39
Directed by Sidney Lansfield; Starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce

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Thoughts on the Guardians of the Galaxy Trailer

It’s been barely 24 hours since the Guardians of the Galaxy trailer was released and it has already topped 4 million views on YouTube.  I was surprised by the positive buzz over it in my office today, mostly from non-comic book readers (including one of my co-workers that admitted he’s never read a comic book in his life – you know who you are…).

When I first learned that Marvel Studios had green-lit Guardians of the Galaxy, my initial reactions were surprise and skepticism.  Considering the higher profile characters and super teams that have yet to get the big screen treatment (Doctor Strange, Black Panther), I was surprised Guardians was even on the cinematic radar.  I’ve only read a handful of GotG comics, so while I’m hopeful the film version of Guardians of the Galaxy will continue Marvel Studios’ current positive streak at the box office, I’m not as emotionally connected to the characters or canon as I would be to the Fantastic Four, Alpha Flight or even the New Mutants.

Before I even watched the Guardians trailer, I was convinced I wouldn’t like it.  Maybe a better choice of words would be that I was convinced there wouldn’t be enough in it to make me want to give the film a chance.  But I’ll admit, I liked what I saw though not without a few concerns.

Positives:

A solid cast: Bradley Cooper (Rocket Raccoon), Vin Diesel (Groot), Zoe Saldana (Gamora), Benicio Del Toro (the Collector), Djimon Hounsou (Korath the Pursuer), Glenn Close (Commander Rael), John C. Reilly (Rhomann Dey)

The effects, production design and makeup/costumes show that Marvel Studios saw something in the Guardians of the Galaxy and didn’t skimp on the budget.

However:

The trailer doesn’t give any indication as to what the movie is about.  Maybe the “Who are these guys?” element of the trailer will drum up initial curiosity/interest in the film, but I can’t help but wonder what it might be lacking in plot.

The reliance on comedy in the trailer has me concerned that the studio is trying to make the film more “accessible” to a non-comic reading audience by having the film make fun of itself rather than creating a story true to the GotG canon.  Nothing irks me more than a comic book movie that gives a wink to the audience as if to say, “We know comics aren’t cool, but this is!”  Chris Pratt’s Star-Lord reminded me of Bill Pullman’s character Lone Starr in Spaceballs.

But in spite of my concerns, I’ll still hold out hope that Guardians of the Galaxy is a good film that both comic readers and non-comic book readers will enjoy, and that it will be successful enough at the box office to add more comic book films to the pipeline.

Guardians of the Galaxy opens in theaters August 1, 2014.

On a side note, BleedingCool.com posted this article on Rocket Raccoon co-creator Bill Mantlo.  A significant portion of my comic book collection growing up was written by Mantlo, with my favorite titles Micronauts, ROM: Spaceknight and Cloak & Dagger.  In 1992 Mantlo was the victim of a hit and run accident that caused a traumatic brain injury and he has required ongoing care ever since.  I made my donation tonight.  I hope this article will inspire other fans of his work to also make a contribution towards the cost of his care.

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The Films of 1939

Beau Geste Movie PosterGone With the Wind Movie PosterHunchback of Notre Dame Movie Poster

With awards season upon us, it’s usually this time of year that old Academy Award winning favorites are televised in advance of this year’s Oscar ceremony (thanks Turner Classic Movies!).  I’ve never really been a fan of the awards presentations, and most of my favorite films were never nominated anyway, but it is nice to turn on a channel like TCM and watch an old classic again.  I look at this year’s list of Best Picture nominees and wonder if decades from now American Hustle, Gravity or The Wolf of Wall Street could ever be as revered among movie fans as Casablanca, On the Waterfront, The Godfather or Rocky.

Each decade of the last century has produced its timeless classics of cinema, but lately I’ve been reading about how 1939 is considered one of the greatest, if not the greatest year for films.  Looking over the list of releases that year it’s a solid lineup, all of them classics to this day:

Gone With the Wind
The Wizard of Oz
Stagecoach
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
Goodbye, Mr. Chips
The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Love Affair
Of Mice and Men
Gunga Din
Ninotchka
The Women
Stanley and Livingstone
Destry Rides Again
Beau Geste
Babes in Arms
Gulliver’s Travels
Jesse James
The Roaring Twenties
Wuthering Heights
Young Mr. Lincoln

Whether 1939 was actually the greatest year for films is an argument that I’m personally hesitant to make since 1940 had it’s own list of classics that year including The Grapes of Wrath, The Philadelphia Story and His Girl Friday.

But when a lineup includes films like the epic Gone With the Wind, incredible performances in Wuthering Heights and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and a perennial family favorite like The Wizard of Oz, there’s no denying there was something special about the films of 1939.  And to commemorate the 75th anniversary of that celebrated year of moviemaking, Fante’s Inferno will revisit some of the classic films released that year in a four-part retrospective that will be posted in conjunction with the quarters in which they were released.

Part one of our retrospective will begin with several notable films released between January and March of 1939: John Ford’s classic Western Stagecoach starring John Wayne; George Stevens’ Gunga Din starring Cary Grant; and Leo McCarey’s twice remade Love Affair starring Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer.

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