Film Review: It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

Also known as: The Greatest Gift (working title), Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life (complete title)
Release Date: December 20th, 1946 (New York City premiere)
Directed by: Frank Capra
Written by: Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, Frank Capra
Based on: The Greatest Gift by Philip Van Doren Smith
Music by: Dimitri Tiomkin
Cast: James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, Thomas Mitchell, Henry Travers, Beulah Bondi, Ward Bond, Frank Faylen, Gloria Grahame

Liberty Films, 130 Minutes, 118 Minutes (DVD cut)

Review:

“Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?” – Clarence

Maybe I’m a jerk for never having seen this motion picture in its entirety until now. I had seen all of the iconic scenes over the years and thought that I knew the film well enough but I was wrong. This wasn’t some lame, old-timey, feel good, cookie cutter Christmas movie. This is, in fact, a f’n masterpiece and I have to consider it one of the greatest, if not the greatest, Christmas movie of all-time.

I think that I had just heard the hype for decades and I imagined that it would be impossible to live up to it. I had also seen the important bits and heard so many people talk about it my entire life that I almost felt like I didn’t need to experience it. But this year, I thought that giving it a shot was long overdue and since I love both James Stewart and Donna Reed, I hit “play” on my HBO Max app.

This was a long, great story that covers the entirety of a man’s life. In that regard, it reminded me of another masterpiece, Citizen Kane. However, this has a very different tone and it showcases a great man, feeling down and out, nearly committing suicide, as he witnesses what life would have been like for others, had he not existed and touched them over the years.

It’s a film with a real lesson in it and I think it truly applies to everyone regardless of their situation. We’ve all had really bad strings of luck and most have probably thought really bad thoughts about their own mortality at one point or another. This film kind of centers you and makes you realize that there is much more at stake than our own singular lives.

This works so damn well too because James Stewart is one of the greatest actors that ever walked the Earth. I also have to give a lot of credit to Donna Reed, as well as Lionel Barrymore. But ultimately, I think that the real creative and driving force behind this film was its great director, Frank Capra. And after seeing this, this is possibly my favorite Capra picture. I’ll need to revisit more to be sure, however.

The lesson I learned in watching this, which I’ve learned before but I have a thick skull, is that you should never assume you know something unless you’ve fully experienced it. Maybe I thought the world had spoiled the movie for me but honestly, even knowing the end result didn’t diminish the impact that this film had on me after finally seeing it in its entirety without interruption.

Rating: 10/10
Pairs well with: other classic family Christmas movies from way back in the day.

Film Review: Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)

Also known as: The Brain of Frankenstein (working title)
Release Date: June 15th, 1948
Directed by: Charles Barton
Written by: John Grant, Robert Lees, Frederic I. Rinaldo
Based on: characters by Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker, Curt Siodmak, H.G. Wells
Music by: Frank Skinner
Cast: Bud Abbott, Lou Costello, Lon Chaney Jr., Bela Lugosi, Glenn Strange, Lenore Aubert, Jane Randolph, Frank Ferguson, Charles Bradstreet, Vincent Price (voice, uncredited cameo)

Universal International Pictures, 83 Minutes

Review:

“Young people making the most of life – while it lasts.” – Dr. Lejos/Dracula

I’m actually surprised that I hadn’t yet reviewed any of the Universal Monsters pictures with Abbot and Costello in them. I have an immense love of both things and having them come together, which they did a handful of times, was really cool.

Overall, this one was always my favorite but I like all of them.

In this one, we don’t just get Frankenstein’s Monster, we also get Dracula, the Wolf Man and a little cameo by the Invisible Man. With that, we also got Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney Jr. and a voice cameo by the legendary Vincent Price.

Unfortunately, Boris Karloff didn’t come back to play Frankenstein’s Monster but we did get Glenn Strange, who had already played the monster twice before this and who is really underappreciated in that role.

The only problem with this is one that doesn’t actually effect the film itself but instead, effects the ones that followed. You see, they blew their nut really early by cramming a ton of monsters into this one, so the following movies felt a bit underwhelming after the precedent this one set. But honestly, it’s why this particular one is the best of the lot.

Abbot and Costello are both hilarious per usual and their camaraderie was so solid by this point that they could’ve entertained in their sleep.

All in all, this was a really good horror comedy that took the best parts of two very different things and merged them together very well, not diminishing the performances of the two comedic legends or the coolness of the classic monsters and the legends who played them.

Rating: 7.75/10
Pairs well with: the other Abbot and Costello monster movies.

Film Review: Born to Kill (1947)

Also known as: Deadlier Than the Male (working title, Australia), Lady of Deceit (UK alternative title)
Release Date: April 30th, 1947 (New York City premiere)
Directed by: Robert Wise
Written by: Eve Greene, Richard Macaulay
Based on: Deadlier Than the Male by James Gunn
Music by: Paul Sawtell
Cast: Lawrence Tierney, Claire Trevor, Walter Slezak, Phillip Terry, Audrey Long, Elisha Cook Jr.

RKO Radio Pictures, 92 Minutes

Review:

“You’re the coldest iceberg of a woman I ever saw, and the rottenest inside. I’ve seen plenty, too. I wouldn’t trade places with you if they sliced me into little pieces.” – Mrs. Kraft

Since I’m not posting enough to truly celebrate the month of Noirvember, my noir-centric reviews have been pretty nil, as of late. But I wanted to slip in one of the film’s I haven’t seen that’s been in my queue for far too long.

1947’s Born to Kill teams up Lawrence Tierney and Claire Trevor, which on paper seems like quite the duo. It also adds in the always entertaining Walter Slezak and superb character actor/cinematic weasel Elisha Cook Jr.

Needless to say, this has a well-rounded cast and it’s also directed by Robert Wise, who had a very long and successful career making pictures in just about every genre.

Weirdly, this one just didn’t hit the mark for me like I hoped it would.

Now there are some really good scenes, like the one linked below, which shows Elisha Cook Jr. being a total bastard, but ultimately, this story felt a bit clunky and I wasn’t that engaged by it.

Also, Tierney and Trevor didn’t seem to mesh together as well as I had hoped.

Still, Wise’s direction was generally good, at least from the visual side of things. The cinematography was great and Wise’s ability to capture visually appealing magic lived up to expectations but everything else kind of fell flat.

That being said, I mostly enjoyed this and didn’t find it to be a waste of time but sometimes, even with a lot of good pieces, things just don’t click in the right way.

A lot of noir lovers do like this film and my take on it may exist in contrast to most but this just didn’t give me what I needed.

Rating: 6.5/10
Pairs well with: other classic film-noir pictures of the time, especially those starring Lawrence Tierney.

Film Review: Grand Central Murder (1942)

Release Date: May, 1942
Directed by: S. Sylvan Simon
Written by: Peter Ruric
Based on: Grand Central Murder by Sue MacVeigh
Music by: David Snell
Cast: Van Heflin, Patricia Dane, Sam Levene, Cecilia Parker, Virginia Grey, Tom Conway

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 73 Minutes

Review:

“Where were you raised? Didn’t anyone ever tell you its bad luck to whistle in a dressing room?” – Mida King, “I’m sorry miss, I… I was raised in a cattle boat, where folks whistle when they feel like it, including the cows!” – Whistling Messenger

Grand Central Murder is an example of a very early noir picture just before the style really started to take shape. It’s also a comedy and because of that, isn’t a straight crime picture but more of a tongue-in-cheek, amusing take on the evolving crime genre.

This sits just between the super popular gangster films that ruled the ’30s and the noir boom that happened in the mid-’40s. It also stars Van Heflin, who might just be the perfect guy to be featured front and center in a film that works as a bridge during this stylistic shift.

While I liked the amusing bits, I think that this would’ve been a much better and actually, really good, crime picture had it played it straight.

What I did like about this movie is that it doesn’t waste time and it moves at a brisk pace getting from point-to-point without trying to pad itself out with a bunch of filler. Even with the comedic moments, the film still flows like a steady river and picks up the right sort of momentum, leading into the climax.

Like a typical noir picture, it has a mystery that comes with some swerves. But I thought that the reveal and the solving of the crime was well done, especially in a time where this picture couldn’t be influenced by all of the other films like it. For the most part, those films didn’t exist yet.

Granted, I can’t necessarily call it an intelligent film but it’s more than competent and it certainly entertained this noir buff for 73 minutes.

Rating: 6/10
Pairs well with: other very early film-noir pictures.

Film Review: The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

Release Date: July 9th, 1942 (Los Angeles premiere)
Directed by: Orson Welles
Written by: Orson Welles
Based on: The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington
Cast: Joseph Cotton, Dolores Costello, Anne Baxter, Tim Holt, Agnes Moorehead, Ray Collins, Erskine Sanford, Richard Bennett, Don Dillaway, Orson Welles (narrator)

Mercury Productions, RKO Radio Pictures, 88 Minutes, 148 Minutes (original cut), 131 Minutes (preview version)

Review:

“Something had happened. A thing which, years ago, had been the eagerest hope of many, many good citizens of the town, and now it had come at last; George Amberson Minafer had got his comeuppance. He got it three times filled, and running over. But those who had so longed for it were not there to see it, and they never knew it. Those who were still living had forgotten all about it and all about him.” – Narrator

While this is considered to be one of Orson Welles’ all-time classic motion picture masterpieces, I was somewhat underwhelmed by it.

The main reason is because it felt like it needed more meat and potatoes. The story was a bit skeletal and I felt like I needed to know the characters on a deeper level to be more invested into the story and their lives.

However, this problem with the film isn’t really the fault of Welles, as his original cut was 148 minutes, not the 88 minutes that this ended up being. Had this film had that extra hour, I think it would’ve been a much richer, more intimate and more complete body of work that could’ve possibly lived up to the iconic status of Welles’ previous film, Citizen Kane.

Still, most professional film critics today seem to have a very positive view on this film and apart from the issue I already mentioned, it’s easy to see why.

The film is absolutely stunning and beautiful. This “magnificent” world looks authentic and lived in. The sets are perfect but even more than that, the lighting, cinematography, shot framing and general mise-en-scène are stupendous. But coming off of Citizen Kane, Welles’ had already proven himself as an absolute maestro of cinematic craftsmanship and artistry. This honestly just adds even more credibility to the man’s legendary, iconic status as a filmmaker and visionary.

Additionally, the picture is superbly acted with Welles’ regular star, Joseph Cotton, taking the lead but also having solid assists from Dolores Costello, Anne Baxter, Tim Holt, Agnes Moorehead, Ray Collins and others. Also, Welles’ narration adds an extra level of magic to the film.

All those solid positives aside, though, it still suffers from a lack of depth and context. The film is full of many characters, all of whom are interesting, but only a few really get explored at length. I’m pretty sure that wasn’t Welles’ intent but the finished film is somewhat diminished but this.

Ultimately, this is still a very good, almost great, motion picture. But it also makes me yearn for what could have been had Welles’ intended vision actually made it to the silver screen.

Rating: 8.75/10
Pairs well with: other early Orson Welles pictures.

Film Review: The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949)

Also known as: Two Fabulous Characters (working title)
Release Date: October 5th, 1949 (Washington DC premiere)
Directed by: Jack Kinney, Clyde Geronimi, James Algar
Written by: Erdman Penner, Winston Hibler, Joe Rinaldi, Ted Sears, Homer Brightman, Harry Reeves
Based on: The Wind In the Willows by Kenneth Grahame, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving
Music by: Oliver Wallace
Cast: Basil Rathbone (narrator), Bing Crosby (narrator), Eric Blore, Pat O’Malley, Colin Campbell, John McLeish, Campbell Grant, Claude Allister, Leslie Denison, Edmond Stevens, The Rhythmaires

Walt Disney Animation Studios, RKO Radio Pictures, 68 Minutes

Review:

“Come along! Hop up here! We’ll go for a jolly ride! The open road! The dusty highway! Come! I’ll show you the world! Travel! Scene! Excitement! Ha ha ha!” – Mr. Toad

This is the sixth and final movie in Disney’s string of anthology/package films, ending their strange and very different approach to feature length animated productions in the 1940s.

Overall, this is my favorite film in this strange stretch of pictures, as it feels more like traditional Disney storytelling, as it only features two stories and both are done quite well and exhibit that Disney storytelling magic better than anything else out of the package film releases.

I really like both of these stories and both were favorites of mine, as a kid. However, I’ve never seen them presented in this full film version and usually just saw them used separately as filler to take up time between movies on the classic ’80s version of The Disney Channel, back when it was a premium cable channel that had to be subscribed to similar to HBO and Showtime.

This movie actually feels like the people at Disney were already planning on returning to feature length storytelling but they had to do this to get their mojo back and to learn how to tell a longer story, once again.

This film is made by two different teams, each focusing on their half of the film.

The two stories here are adaptations of two different books: The Wind In the Willows by Kenneth Grahame and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving. The former makes up the Mr. Toad portion of the film, the latter makes up the Ichabod story.

I think what I liked about these stories was that they were just amusing and fun. I loved the spirit and tone of the Mr. Toad segment but then I really fell in love with the Ichabod half because of its finale with The Headless Horseman, which is still, in my opinion, one of the greatest finale sequences that Disney has ever done.

Seeing this now, the animation really stands out and it’s clear that over the course of these six experimental anthology pictures, that the Disney company really honed their skills in a variety of ways. In this film, applying these more refined skills, we’re treated to a picture that looks better than most of the work that Disney has done previously in regards to their standard animation style.

This is more fluid, the action and motion is just more dynamic and the two sequences just blend together nicely, even in spite of their very stark narrative and style differences.

Rating: 7.75/10
Pairs well with: Disney’s other 1940s package/anthology films.

Film Review: Melody Time (1948)

Also known as: All In Fun (working title)
Release Date: May 27th, 1948
Directed by: Jack Kinney, Clyde Geronimi, Hamilton Luske, Wilfred Jackson
Written by: Winston Hibler, Harry Reeves, Ken Anderson, Erdman Penner, Homer Brightman, Ted Sears, Joe Rinaldi, Bill Cottrell, Jesse Marsh, Art Scott, Bob Moore, John Walbridge
Music by: Eliot Daniel, Paul J. Smith, Ken Darby
Cast: Roy Rogers, Trigger, Dennis Day, The Andrews Sisters, Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians, Freddy Martin, Ethel Smith, Frances Langford, Buddy Clark, Bob Nolan, Sons of the Pioneers, The Dinning Sisters, Bobby Driscoll, Luana Patten

Walt Disney Animation Studios, RKO Radio Pictures, 72 Minutes

Review:

“In the state of Texas, USA, life still goes on in the same old way.” – Roy Rogers

Melody Time is the fifth of the six Walt Disney anthology/package films of the 1940s. This one is also a lot like Make Mine Music in that it mostly focuses on a series of musical numbers.

I’d say that this one is a bit better than Make Mine Music, as it features some live-action actors interacting with animated characters. Although, I don’t think that it’s as groundbreaking as The Three Caballeros in that regard.

While I appreciate these films, I much prefer the anthologies that feature stories or educational bits like Fun and Fancy Free, Saludos Amigos and The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad.

The animation is really good, the voice acting is solid and overall, this is an energetic and amusing film with great music. But I think, by this point, the animated anthologies were starting to get redundant and tiresome.

Luckily, Disney fans in 1948 were only two years away from the second great era of Disney animation with 1950’s Cinderella being just around the corner.

Rating: 6.25/10
Pairs well with: Disney’s other 1940s package/anthology films.

Film Review: Fun and Fancy Free (1947)

Also known as: Fun and Fancy Free, Featuring Mickey and the Beanstalk (VHS title)
Release Date: September 27th, 1947 (New York City premiere)
Directed by: Jack Kinney, Bill Roberts, Hamilton Luske, William Morgan (live-action)
Written by: Homer Brightman, Eldon Dedini, Lance Nolley, Tom Oreb, Harry Reeves, Ted Sears
Based on: Little Bear Bongo by Sinclair Lewis, Jack and the Beanstalk
Music by: Oliver Wallace, Paul Smith, Eliot Daniel, Charles Wolcott
Cast: Cliff Edwards, Edgar Bergen, Luana Patten, Walt Disney, Clarence Nash, Pinto Colvig, Billy Gilbert, Anita Gordon

Walt Disney Animation Studios, RKO Radio Pictures, 73 Minutes

Review:

“Once upon a time, long long ago…” – Edgar Bergen, “Funny, nothing ever happens nowadays.” – Charlie McCarthy

The fourth of six films in Disney’s 1940s package/anthology series is a return to form of what the first two were. It actually plays very similarly to Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros, except it’s not pushing Latin American tourism as its main objective.

This one is an anthology film that features a few short animation tales that come together with a series of live-action bits featuring a guy and his ventriloquist dummy telling the tales to kids. The guy and his dummy also narrate the short films.

Honestly, my only real issue with Fun and Fancy Free was the narration. It’s not bad but the guy talking to his dummy gets tiresome after awhile and it felt like more of a distraction by the time you reach the great Mickey and the Beanstalk story.

That Beanstalk cartoon is the most memorable bit to come out of this film and it has lived on beyond this movie as a whole. I think most kids, even today, have seen or at least heard of Mickey and the Beanstalk but not a lot of people would know what Fun and Fancy Free is. That’s probably due to that short film appearing on its own over the years in a variety of places.

In the end, this is mostly okay but it’s not up to the level of what Walt Disney Studios was capable of at their best.

Rating: 6.75/10
Pairs well with: Disney’s other 1940s package/anthology films.

Film Review: Casablanca (1942)

Also known as: Everybody Comes to Rick’s (original script title)
Release Date: November 26th, 1942 (New York City premiere)
Directed by: Michael Curtiz
Written by: Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein, Howard Koch
Based on: Everybody Comes to Rick’s by Murray Burnett, Joan Alison
Music by: Max Steiner
Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid, Claude Rains, Conrad Veidt, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre

Warner Bros., 102 Minutes, 82 Minutes (cut version)

Review:

“Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine.” – Rick

As much as I love Humphrey Bogart, noir-esque pictures of the classic era and the films of Michael Curtiz, I’m still going to be that oddball that says that this film is slightly overrated.

Don’t get me wrong, I still adore Casablanca and it has left the universe with possibly more famous lines than any other motion picture but it’s not perfect, even if I still see it as a cinematic masterpiece.

I also can’t fully quantify or elaborately explain why I don’t view it as “perfect” but I kind of just put that on the fact that it’s not a film I really want to revisit all that often. In fact, as much as I do actually like it, I put off reviewing it for a long time because I just wasn’t ever in the right mood for it.

Full disclosure, I was also waiting to revisit it on the big screen but it’s one of those all-time classics that hasn’t played on the big screen in my area since before I started Talking Pulp. If my local theater plays Gigi one more time over anything else, I’m going to throw popcorn bucket at the theater director.

Moving on, as much as I like Bogart, I wouldn’t call this his best performance. It’s absolutely exceptional but I still think it falls below his acting in 1950’s A Lonely Place. Bogart was always on his A-game though, and this film is no different and it still ranks up towards the top of greatest acting performances of all-time from any era.

I also really liked Ingrid Bergman in this and it made me realize that I need to go back and watch some of her other films, as this is the first thing I’ve reviewed with her in it. Her performance in Notorious was also top notch and that may be the first one I revisit.

The film also features Conrad Veidt, a guy mostly known for his work in the silent era. In fact, his role in 1928’s The Man Who Laughs was so chilling and iconic, it inspired the creation of The Joker, Batman’s top nemesis. In Casablanca, it is really neat hearing him speak and seeing him have to act in a different style, as he plays a Nazi commander and primary antagonist in the story.

Claude Rains and Peter Lorre also show up and both men are legends of not just the horror genre but of motion pictures in general, as their range is far greater than just playing silver screen monsters.

More than just the stupendous acting and fabulous story, the film’s greatest asset was its director, Michael Curtiz. The man is a legend and it definitely shows in this picture from his ability to get some of the most iconic and replicated shots in history, as well as getting performances out of his actors that eclipse even their own greatness. He also shows that he had the right crew working to achieve his vision just based off of how perfect and majestic the general cinematography, lighting and set design were.

Casablanca is a special film. It definitely deserves its historical status, even if I don’t see it as a pillar of absolute perfection. It’s still significantly better than some of the other films in history that are debated over as the best of all-time.

Rating: 9.75/10
Pairs well with: other Bogart starring pictures of the ’40s and ’50s.

Film Review: Make Mine Music (1946)

Also known as: Swing Street (working title)
Release Date: April 20th, 1946 (New York City premiere)
Directed by: Jack Kinney, Clyde Geronimi, Hamilton, Luske, Joshua Meador, Robert Cormack
Written by: James Bordrero, Homer Brightman, Erwin Graham, Eric Gurney, T. Hee, Sylvia Holland, Dick Huemer, Dick Kelsey, Dick Kinney, Jesse Marsh, Tom Oreb, Cap Palmer, Erdman Penner, Harry Reeves, Dick Shaw, John Walbridge, Roy Williams
Music by: Eliot Daniel, Ken Darby, Charles Wolcott, Oliver Wallace, Edward Plumb
Cast: Nelson Eddy, Dinah Shore, Benny Goodman, The Andrews Sisters, Jerry Colonna, Sterling Holloway, Andy Russell, David Lichine, Tania Riabouchinskaya, The Pied Pipers, The King’s Men, The Ken Darby Chorus

Walt Disney Animation Studios, RKO Radio Pictures, 75 Minutes, 68 Minutes (DVD cut)

Review:

“And you, faithful little friend, don’t be too sad, because miracles never really die. And somewhere in wherever heaven is reserved for creatures of the deep, Willie is still singing, in a hundred voices, each more golden than before, and he’ll go on singing in a voice so cheery forever.” – Narrator

Overall, this is probably the weakest of the Disney package/anthology films. That’s also probably why it’s the only one not on Disney+. I was able to find all the segments (and in order) on a YouTube playlist.

This one is comprised of more than a half dozen musical numbers of varying lengths and done in varying animation styles with different genres of music.

This isn’t bad and it’s fairly entertaining but it lacks any sort of cohesion and just feels more like what watching an hour or so of MTV could’ve been like in the 1940s had music video channels existed that far back.

The animation is good and this is a nice looking production but comparing it to something as glorious and perfect as Fantasia really exposes its flaws and lack of production value.

To be fair, however, Disney was stretched thin in the ’40s between making World War II propaganda films while also trying to put out stuff like this to keep the studio from completely moving away from entertainment during wartime.

Make Mine Music is interesting more for what it is and its place in history than it is for its actual content. By the time this did come out, World War II was over but while it was being made, the war was still a reality.

Rating: 6/10
Pairs well with: Disney’s other 1940s package/anthology films.