A lot of laughter will be leaving the Criterion Channel when May turns into June. The Preston Sturges flicks will disappear, along with comedies by Melvin Van Peebles, Elaine May, and John Sayles. Even a few great dramas will also leave the Channel.
A+ The Lady Eve (1941)
Like all great screwballs, The Lady Eve looks at class differences as well as the differences between a free-spirited woman and an uptight man (Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda). Stanwyck plays the younger half of a father/daughter team of card sharks, who makes the mistake of falling in love with her current mark – a shy, scientifically minded, naïve aristocrat played wonderfully by Fonda. The result: crazy hijinks in glamorous settings. Read my appreciation.
A+ The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944)
At a time when it was impossible for a Hollywood picture to criticize the American military or even suggest that a young woman could get pregnant out of wedlock, Preston Sturges made a very funny comedy about a teenage girl who goes out with some soldiers and comes back in a family way. Betty Hutton plays the knocked-up Trudy Kockenlocker (probably the funniest character name outside of the Marx Brothers). The hilarious Eddie Bracken plays the young man who loves Trudy, despite the desperate place she’s put him in. Read my A+ appreciation.
A Gun Crazy (1950)
No, this movie isn’t about Fox News or the NRA. Written under an assumed name by blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, Gun Crazy combines the crime thriller with a love story. Peggy Cummins and John Dall play a loving couple as excited by firearms as they are by each other. Naturally, their proclivities do not keep them within the law. Both are crack shots, but Dall’s character can’t bring himself to shoot a living creature. Suspense and sexual tension burn through this low-budget masterpiece.
A The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
Bad dreams keep bothering Korean War veterans played by Lawrence Harvey and Frank Sinatra. Were they brainwashed by Communists? And where do the rabid anti-Communists fit in? Easily the best political thriller to come out of the cold war, The Manchurian Candidate finds villains on both political extremes. As the nominal hero, Sinatra proves he really was an actor, but Angela Lansbury steals the film as cinema’s most evil mother – a woman of outsized beliefs and a burning hatred of anyone who disagrees with her. This film was also leaving Criterion in March. I don’t know how that happened.
A- Hail the Conquering Hero (1944)
Only Sturges could find a way to satirize patriotic hoopla at the height of World War II. A draft-board reject (a very funny Eddie Bracken) feels too disgraced to return to his small town. So, a group of real marines set out to help him by loaning him a uniform and taking him home, praising his heroism all the way through. Of course, there are complications.
A- The Brother from Another Planet (1984)
John Sayles’ only comedy, and only science fiction film (at least as a director) puts a black alien in Harlem, where he looks like the natives but doesn’t behave like one. He can’t talk, but he can heal people and machines by touch. But not all is good; he’s an escaped slave, and two Men in Black (David Strathairn and Sayles himself) want to catch him and bring him back to a plantation far, far away. Joe Morton plays the silent leading role as a kind, empathic creature, and also a very good lover (if you can deal with his toenails).
A- Sullivan’s Travels (1941)
Preston Sturges bit the hand that fed him caviar with this satire of Hollywood itself. Joel McCrea stars as a successful director tired of making light-hearted comedies like Ants in Your Pants of 1939. To prepare himself for making a serious drama about the depression, he disguises himself as a hobo and rides the rails. The movie turns surprisingly dark in the last act, and ends with a stirring speech proclaiming Sturges’ message: “Movies shouldn’t have messages.”
A- Watermelon Man (1970)
Melvin Van Peebles’ only Hollywood film is a very funny movie, and a very pointed one. A white, a middle-aged, middle-class bigot wakes up in the middle of the night to discover he’s suddenly black. Everything changes. His wife doesn’t want him. His kids are afraid of him. He can’t jog without neighbors calling the police. Godfrey Cambridge gives a remarkable performance, both comic and serious, including a first act in whiteface. Watermelon Man is howlingly funny at times, but absolutely serious in its intent.
A- The Palm Beach Story (1942)
Although it doesn’t quite come up to the brilliant level of The Lady Eve, this screwball is still a great time at the movies. It’s not just the absurdity of casting singer Rudy Vallee as the millionaire rival ready to win Claudette Colbert from husband Joel McCrea. It’s also the Weenie King, the Ale and Quail Club, Toto, and the most ridiculously happy ending ever filmed.
B+ Christmas in July (1940)
In his second film, Sturges creates a charming yet bitter comedy about the American Dream – with themes that come out of King Vidor’s much more serious masterpiece, The Crowd. Dick Powell stars as a lowly clerk who thinks he has the makings of a brilliant advertising executive.
B Buck and the Preacher (1972)
Sidney Poitier’s directorial debut is a fun and entertaining western with, of course, a race issue. Decent, black settlers, led by Buck (Poitier), are trying to go west. But white bigots make it nearly impossible. Native Americans barter with Buck; it’s a problematic relationship. As the two heroes, Poitier and Harry Bellefonte (as the Preacher) have a fun chemistry, with Poitier as the cool and calm hero, while Bellefonte is funny, outrageous, and not the sort of person you would ever trust. With Ruby Dee as Buck’s wife.
B Hannah Arendt (2012)
The German-Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt escaped the Holocaust, lived to cover the Adolf Eichmann trial, and coined the term “banality of evil.” The book she wrote about the trial angered many other Jews. This fictionalized version has considerable flaws. It jumps over the trial far too quickly, while minor scenes seem to be stretched out. But the film still has much to say about the concept of evil. It also shows a very loving, romantic relationship with her husband. And, of course, there’s a rousing speech at the end.
B A New Leaf (1971)
Elaine May’s directorial debut starts out as very funny broad farce, but the comedy slowly dries away as May’s screenplay turns kind of serious. Walter Matthau stars as an extremely wealthy man…until he is told that he’s broke. Knowing that he has no skills except spending money, his only choice is to marry a rich woman. The director plays the very wealthy, but extremely clumsy, naïve bride – and the only decent person in the film.
Other interesting films that I’m not writing about for one reason or another:
- The Damned (1969)
- Dawson City: Frozen Time (2016)
- Death in Venice (1971)
- Good Bye, Lenin! (2003)
- MASH (1970)
- Sergeant Rutledge (1960)
- Shane (1953)
- The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)
- The Wild Bunch (1969)
You can see all the films going away.