You might notice that the new films in this selection are all better than the old ones – a strange situation from a lover of classic cinema. Why? I picked two out of three old movies not because I believed they were good, but because they were historically interesting. The other was, well, not as good as I thought it would be.
A- No Time to Die (2021)
The gritty and noir-like Daniel Craig era of the James Bond franchise ends with a bang…several of them, actually. Knowing that we won’t see Craig as Bond again suggests that he just might die this time, and that ratchets up the suspense. The movie runs almost three hours, but it never feels long. This time, Bond’s retired, tired, frightened, living with his romantic lead from the end of the last movie. But when he gets a call from his friend in the CIA (Jeffrey Wright), he must go out to save the world again. One of the best of the series.
B+ 15 Minutes of Shame (2021)
Monica Lewinsky produced and narrated this documentary about something she knows too much about: watching your life being destroyed on the Internet. For the most part, the film is an attack on Cancel Culture from the left and right. A man loses his dream job accidentally because he made the wrong hand signal. A black woman in college wins a school election, and then nooses appear on campus. And how Facebook and Twitter make massive profits by boiling your blood.
B+ The Life of Emile Zola (1937)
This Best Picture winner of 1937 was surprisingly courageous for its time – after all, it would likely anger Nazis – including those at home. Set in France in the late 1800s, the film starts with Zola (Paul Muni) becoming a famous writer. Then the film focuses on the Dreyfus Affair, which rocked France and opened up the sewer of French anti-Semitism. Warner Brothers executives knew that their audience – not just in Germany but also in the States – was largely very bigoted. But the studio’s courage had its limits. The word “Jew” is never heard in the movie, although you can read the word for about a second. It’s a well-done film about a very important issue.
B- Libeled Lady (1936)
Four major MGM stars – Jean Harlow, William Powell, Myrna Loy, and Spencer Tracy – can’t quite bring up the energy needed for a true screwball comedy. This reasonably funny movie plays with marriage, scandals, and the not-so-gentlemen of the press. Tracy tries to save his paper by having Powell marry his own fiancée (Harlow) while seducing the very rich Loy. It’s worth watching if there’s nothing else around.
D Wee Willie Winkie (1937)
This was my first, and probably last, Shirley Temple movie I ever saw (Fort Apace doesn’t count). I always found her overly saccharin performances difficult to watch, but I sat through this one because it’s considered the child star’s best movie, and it was directed by the great John Ford. Set in a British regiment in 1896 India, the dimpled little girl wins everyone’s heart, to the point of stopping a war. The best I can say is that it’s not as racist as I expected it to be.
There’s another historical reason to watch the movie: Twentieth-Century Fox sued novelist and film critic Graham Greene over his review of the movie, and Fox won. You can see why from this quote from Greene:
“Already two years ago she was a fancy little piece (real childhood, I think, went out after The Littlest Rebel). In Captain January she wore trousers with the mature suggestiveness of a Dietrich: her neat and well-developed rump twisted in the tap-dance: her eyes had a sidelong searching coquetry. Now in Wee Willie Winkie, wearing short kilts, she is completely totsy.”
I suspect that much of what Greene saw came from his imagination. Unlike Greene, I found nothing suggestive about Temple. But I couldn’t see a normal little girl in her, either. She performs like a corporation’s dream of childhood perfection, turned into a nightmare.