Tag Archives: Romantic Comedy

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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Gregory’s Girl (1981)

Gregory's Girl Movie Poster

Release date: April 23, 1981 (UK); May 26, 1982 (US)

Written and Directed by Bill Forsyth

Starring John Gordon Sinclair, Dee Hepburn, Clare Grogan, Allison Forster, Robert Buchanan

Did you ever flip through the channels and stumble on a movie that just makes your night?  Monday November 18th brought about an unexpected surprise when Turner Classic Movies played Bill Forsyth’s coming of age classic Gregory’s Girl in the 8PM timeslot (which is absolutely deserved – the film, produced in Scotland, ranks # 30 on the British Film Institutes list of the top 100 British films, and a clip from the film was included in the opening ceremony video of the London 2012 Olympics).  Gregory’s Girl has a special place in my cinematic heart and I remember watching (repeatedly) when when it premiered on cable TV around 1983.  We didn’t have a VCR at that time, so it must have been on the schedule at least 20 times over the course of one month.  I lost count of how many times I’d seen it back then.

High school student Gregory (played by John Gordon Sinclair) has his complacent life as a high school student and soccer player upended when Dorothy (Dee Hepburn) earns a spot on the boys soccer team.  He’s immediately smitten with her, and doesn’t even mind that she’s taken over his position at center forward and he’s been moved to goalie (at the expense of his best friend Alan losing his place on the team).  He polishes the ball before handing it to her instead of kicking it to her during the games and practice, and feels the pangs of jealousy (and a little left out from the other side of the pitch) when their teammates and the opposing team each kiss her after she scores her first goal.  His attraction to her reaches a fever pitch but he can’t muster the courage to ask her on a date.

At first Gregory’s cavalier attitude on life is charming and brings the audience back to their carefree teenage days (he calls his father “Mike,” arrives at school as he pleases, isn’t phased by losing a soccer game and doesn’t take his soccer coach seriously when told he may be kicked off the team), but it makes you wonder how he’ll take on life as he gets older if he simply lives his life as “just happy to be there.”  Despite the toll his unrequited love takes on Gregory emotionally, it’s what he needs to begin taking stock of himself and breaking the mold of complacency.  His ten year old sister Madeline is his voice of reason (“If you don’t pay attention to yourself, how do you expect people to pay attention to you?”) as well as his stylist when he finally musters the courage to ask Dorothy on a date.

The tag line of the film says it best: “There’s a little of bit him in all of us.”  Forsyth allows the audience to feel Gregory’s ups and downs with all of the angst in between.  But what I appreciate the most about Gregory’s Girl is how it doesn’t over dramatize Gregory’s situation or the every day lives of him and his friends.  The opening scene may give the mistaken impression that the film will take a sophomoric approach a la Porky’s, but there are no pacts to lose their virginity, no plans for revenge on their teachers, or pranks that will make them legends.  Forsyth didn’t need to go down that road.  He’s crafted a beloved story and film that only needs to be about a young man trying to get a date with the girl that has his heart.

Compared to American teen films of the 80’s like The Breakfast Club (a great movie in its own right), Gregory’s Girl keeps it simple, and this simplicity keeps the characters and plot grounded in a way that each of us can pick a character and substitute ourselves.  Gregory’s Girl succeeds as a film because we can relate to the themes of the awkward teen years, unrequited love, etc. and cheer Gregory on.  Forsyth’s style of directing is understated and charming, and he is a master at making a subtle gesture pop out of nowhere and turning it into a funny moment (see his 1983 classic film Local Hero).  Several of the scenes that bring out the personalities and idiosyncrasies of the supporting characters may leave the audience guessing as to Forsyth’s motivations for including them, but each of these scenes adds a new layer to the film by showing us what Gregory has around him and how he is shaped by his friends and surroundings.

As a teenager watching Gregory’s Girl, I simply enjoyed the ending without interpreting it too deeply (no spoilers here!).  But watching it again in my 40’s, as the closing credits rolled I couldn’t help but wonder how life would have turned out for Gregory, which of his high school friends he would still be in touch with, and how he coped with the loves that would eventually pass in and out of his life (I guess I’ll have to screen Forsyth’s 1999 sequel Gregory’s Two Girls to find out).   I looked back almost 25 years since my high school days and reflected on the course my life took, and I’m still fortunate to have two of my close friends from high school in my life.  As awkward as my friends and I were back in the 80’s (okay, and maybe through the 90’s too), and with all of the ups and downs of the subsequent years, I think Gregory’s Girl’s normally silent character Charlie summed it up best in a scene where one of Andy’s dreams is crushed: “I think everything’s going to be alright.”

As I began this post, I was happy to see that Gregory’s Girl is available on Netflix, and Hulu is streaming the complete film for free!

In a first for Fante’s Inferno, it’s my honor to present (via Hulu), Bill Forsyth’s classic film Gregory’s Girl in its entirety.

Rated PG (Language, Nudity)

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