Film Review: Bambi (1942)

Release Date: August 8th, 1942 (London premiere)
Directed by: David Hand (supervising director), James Algar, Samuel Armstrong, Graham Heid, Bill Roberts, Paul Satterfield, Norman Wright
Written by: Perce Pearce, Larry Morey, Vernon Stallings, Melvin Shaw, Carl Fallberg, Chuck Couch, Ralph Wright
Based on: Bambi, a Life In the Woods by Felix Salten
Music by: Frank Churchill, Edward H. Plumb
Cast: Donnie Dunagan, Hardie Albright, John Sutherland, Sam Edwards, Paula Winslowe, Sterling Holloway, Will Wright, Cammie King, Ann Gillis, Perce Pearce, Thelma Boardman

Walt Disney Animation Studios, RKO Radio Pictures, 70 Minutes

Review:

“What happened, Mother? Why did we all run?” – Young Bambi, “Man was in the forest.” – Bambi’s Mother

In spite of it’s darker moments, Bambi is one of the most peaceful and serene motion pictures ever produced. It’s absolutely beautiful to look at and Disney once again shows a leap in improvement in the fluidity of their animation.

What’s interesting is that not everything in this is hand-drawn. Most of the backgrounds and landscapes are painted but it also blends really well with the traditional animated characters. It has a wonderful, dreamlike symbiosis and even if it looks like the patented Disney style, it also has a real uniqueness to it. Frankly, the picture looks more like a painting come to life than anything they’ve done before this.

Now I wouldn’t say that it’s as an incredible as the masterpiece that was 1940’s Fantasia but it’s an impeccable looking animated feature in its own way.

As far as the story goes, this is one of the most heartbreaking films Disney has ever made. It’s effect still holds up and even if you’ve seen Bambi a dozen times over, it’s emotional moments are still a punch in the gut.

At its core, this is really a simple coming of age movie where the characters just happen to be animated animals. But their issues and struggles aren’t all that dissimilar from human beings and it’s not hard to relate to what happens onscreen.

Out of the original five pictures, I’d rank this towards the top.

After this movie, Disney got a bit more experimental and wouldn’t return with a feature length animated story until 1950’s Cinderella.

Rating: 8.75/10
Pairs well with: Disney’s other early animated feature films.

Film Review: Dumbo (1941)

Also known as: Dumbo the Flying Elephant (working title)
Release Date: October 23rd, 1941 (New York City premiere)
Directed by: Ben Sharpsteen (supervising director), Norman Ferguson, Wilfred Jackson, Bill Roberts, Jack Kinney, Samuel Armstrong
Written by: Otto Englander, Joe Grant, Dick Huemer
Based on: Dumbo, the Flying Elephant by Helen Aberson, Harold Pearl
Music by: Frank Churchill, Oliver Wallace
Cast: Edward Brophy, Herman Bing, Margaret Wright, Sterling Holloway, Verna Felton, Cliff Edwards, James Baskett, Nick Stewart, Hall Johnson, Jim Carmichael

Walt Disney Animation Studios, RKO Radio Pictures, 64 Minutes

Review:

“[singing] I seen a peanut stand /And heard a rubber band /I’ve seen a needle that winked its eye / But I been done seen about everything / When I see an elephant fly.” – Jim Crow

Coming off of the masterpiece that was Fantasia, Disney had its work cut out for them but this was still a great animated feature film. I’d say that it falls somewhere between Pinocchio and Snow White, which just proves how consistently good Walt Disney Animation Studios were from the get go.

Dumbo is a really short film at just 64 minutes but it tells its story well and also still has time to get in some of the most iconic musical sequences in Disney’s long history.

The tone of the film is very similar to Pinocchio and it also shares some narrative similarities, as it follows a young, newborn character, as he tries to overcome adversity, learn from his experiences and grow into someone better. Like Pinocchio, it’s a film about personal growth but it does it in a fresh way that doesn’t simply retread what Pinocchio already did.

Additionally, where Pinocchio was an improvement in animation over Snow White, this film improves upon its predecessors. The animation is even more fluid here and Disney got really experimental in some sequences. The use of animated shadows is superb for the time and then in the “Elephants On Parade” musical sequence, Disney experimented with animating vibrant colors over a black background. They had to tweak and rework how they produced that sequence and ultimately, their innovation won out, creating one of the coolest moments from any Disney picture.

Dumbo isn’t close to being my favorite motion picture in the larger Walt Disney oeuvre but it’s simple, straight to the point and displays the greatness of the cinematic craftsman behind its production.

Rating: 8.25/10
Pairs well with: Disney’s other early animated feature films.

Film Review: Smash-Up: The Story of a Woman (1947)

Also known as: Smash-Up (working title, alternative title)
Release Date: March, 1947
Directed by: Stuart Heisler
Written by: Frank Cavett, John Howard Lawson, Dorothy Parker, Lionel Wiggam
Music by: Frank Skinner
Cast: Susan Hayward, Eddie Albert, Lee Bowman, Marsha Hunt

Walter Wanger Productions, Universal Pictures, 103 Minutes

Review:

“I just remembered, I have an appointment with a headache.” – Martha Gray, Elliot’s Secretary

I’ve heard good things about Smash-Up from multiple sources and books I’ve read on film-noir. Unfortunately, it didn’t resonate that strongly with me and just came across as fairly meh.

That’s not to say that the performances weren’t good. I’ve liked Susan Hayward in everything I’ve seen her do but even her performance didn’t really keep my interest for too long.

The story is about a woman that hits rock bottom and gets burned in a fire after her daughter almost burns. It’s one of those noir stories that starts at the end and then recounts the events that led the main character to their terrible fate. Granted, this one does have a more positive and hopeful outcome than say, Double Indemnity.

It’s also nowhere near as great and iconic as Double Indemnity.

While this came out in 1947, at the height of film-noir cinema, by that point it already seemed derivative of other movies like it. It feels like the plot of a half dozen Joan Crawford flicks but without the Crawford magic and intensity. Frankly, it feels like a lighthearted and thin copy by comparison.

In the end, I did like the music and Hayward was still good. I also liked Stanley Cortez’s cinematography but there are dozens of better noir pictures that deal with similar subjects.

Rating: 5.5/10
Pairs well with: other classic film-noir of the ’40s and ’50s.

Film Review: Fantasia (1940)

Also known as: The Concert Feature, Highbrowski by Stokowski, Bach to Stravinsky and Bach, The Musical Feature (working titles)
Release Date: November 13th, 1940 (New York City – original roadshow version premiere)
Directed by: Samuel Armstrong, James Algar, Bill Roberts, Paul Satterfield, Ben Sharpsteen, David D. Hand, Hamilton Luske, Jim Handley, Ford Beebe, T. Hee, Norman Ferguson, Wilfred Jackson
Written by: Joe Grant, Dick Huemer
Music by: various
Cast: Leopold Stokowski, Deems Taylor (host, narrator)

Walt Disney Animation Studios, RKO Radio Pictures, 125 Minutes, 124 Minutes (2000 roadshow restoration), 80 Minutes (1942 cut), 120 Minutes (1991 VHS cut), 115 Minutes (1946 cut)

Review:

With only their third animated feature film, Walt Disney Animation Studios achieved true perfection and describing Fantasia as anything less than a masterpiece should be criminal.

Okay, hyperbolic speech aside, this is still an amazing motion picture that was, hands down, the best use of the animation medium up to its existence. Frankly, it’s still a hard movie to top and it has aged tremendously well, still being one of the greatest works of motion picture art in history, regardless of its genre or style.

Now I can see why this wouldn’t be some people’s cup of tea. But we can’t all appreciate greatness or understand the artistic and historical significance of something so old in a time where people barely have the attention span to read just a tweet.

Fantasia is an incredible motion picture, regardless of how you may feel about it, as it showcased how versatile the animation medium is while also taking it to a level that people couldn’t have fathomed in 1940.

It’s a beautiful looking film that’s meticulously crafted and executed on every level. It showcases the best animation of its time with some of the greatest musical creations in human history and it all comes together in a perfect, visually stunning, audibly pleasing and fluid composition.

The film is a series of different small films within the larger tapestry. Each one features classical music tunes played with incredible animated visuals that are cued up to the music. It’s a unique and really cool experiment that more than paid off for the studio and it’s gone on to inspire countless other films and animated releases in various formats from film, television, video, live shows and modern concerts that use animation and cued lighting techniques to respond to the music being performed.

Out of all the old school animated Disney pictures, this is the one that I’ve always wanted to see on the big screen. It’s eluded me over the years but hopefully, if we’re ever in a post-pandemic world, I’ll be able to eventually see it how it was truly intended.

Rating: 10/10
Pairs well with: Disney’s other early animated feature films.

Film Review: Pinocchio (1940)

Release Date: February 7th, 1940 (New York City premiere)
Directed by: Ben Sharpsteen (supervising director), Hamilton Luske (supervising director), Bill Roberts, Norman Ferguson, Jack Kinney, Wilfred Jackson, T. Hee
Written by: Ted Sears, Otto Englander, Webb Smith, William Cottrell, Joseph Sabo, Erdman Penner, Aurelius Battaglia
Based on: The Adventures of Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi
Music by: Leigh Harline, Paul J. Smith
Cast: Cliff Edwards, Dickie Jones, Christian Rub, Mel Blanc, Walter Catlett, Charles Judels, Evelyn Venable, Frankie Darro, Thurl Ravenscroft

Walt Disney Animation Studios, RKO Radio Pictures, 88 Minutes

Review:

“[after singing “When You Wish Upon a Star”] Pretty, huh? I’ll bet a lot of you folks don’t believe that, about a wish comin’ true, do ya? Well, I didn’t, either. Of course, I’m just a cricket singing my way from hearth to hearth, but let me tell you what made me change my mind.” – Jiminy Cricket

I figured that I’d followup my review of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs with Pinocchio. I’m planning on working my way through all the Disney animated films of the classic hand drawn style. I think I’ll probably just do them in order, as opposed to jumping around.

To start, I’ve always liked this story more than Snow White and the animation is also a step up, as it looks more fluid, more refined and kind of pristine by comparison.

While I know that these movies have been digitally restored and tinkered with, you can still see a difference in the overall craftsmanship between the two films. And that’s not a knock against Snow White, as it is still better than anything that came before it. This is more to illustrate how Walt Disney really jumped forward with this picture.

This is also a main reason as to why I want to review these films in order, as it makes it easier to see the progression of Disney’s artists, as well as the company’s overall execution.

Apart from that, I find this to be a good, amusing and lighthearted film that has stood the test of time. It’s still funny and while it might not seem relevant, it still has lessons within it that are important for kids to learn. In the simplest terms, this movie shows kids that its not cool to lie or to be a crappy person.

The film also does a fantastic job at expressing wonderment. It’s a great adventure where Pinocchio is a fish out of water but also in awe of all the things that seem greater than himself.

It also teaches about stranger danger and how some people shouldn’t be trusted and that there are schemes and scams in the world, waiting to exploit those who aren’t careful.

I love this film. While it’s not my favorite of the classic Disney animated pictures, it is definitely one of the best of the earliest crop.

Rating: 8.5/10
Pairs well with: Disney’s other early animated feature films.

Film Review: Champion (1949)

Release Date: April 9th, 1949 (New York City premiere)
Directed by: Mark Robson
Written by: Carl Foreman
Based on: Champion by Ring Lardner
Music by: Dimitri Tiomkin
Cast: Kirk Douglas, Marilyn Maxwell, Arthur Kennedy, Paul Stewart, Ruth Roman

Stanley Kramer Productions, Screen Plays, 99 Minutes

Review:

“I’m expensive. Awful expensive. I didn’t want you to think you could buy me cheap.” – Grace

I heard pretty good things about this motion picture before I actually sat down and watched it. A lot of the film-noir books I’ve read over the years have praised it. It’s also often times discussed alongside The Set-Up, another film-noir from 1949 that features the sport of boxing. In fact, both movies came out less than a month apart and both are very good.

While I give The Set-Up a slight edge, Champion is almost on its level.

To start, this was directed by Mark Robson, who was most known for his noir-esque horror pictures before this. But his transition into more traditional film-noir was incredible and this film truly is a crowning achievement in his directing career.

Robson re-uses a lot of the visual cues from his previous horror work. While noir takes a lot from the visual style of German expressionist films, so did American horror. Robson employs a very chiaroscuro look and it gives certain scenes in this film a very brooding atmosphere. The lighting is fantastic from scene-to-scene and the general cinematography is impeccable. Even in the boxing match sequences, the look stays consistent, giving the bouts a real sense of high stakes and danger.

It’s nice to see how well Robson’s style evolved and developed, just within the 1940s, as he started out as an editor working on the earliest Orson Welles films: Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons. He also spent a lot of time working under RKO horror producer Val Lewton. But, honestly, what better filmmakers could one have worked under at the time?

Beyond just Robson, the film greatly benefits from the magnificent performance of Kirk Douglas, who is, hands down, one of the greatest manly man actors of all-time. He plays the main character, here, an opportunist, conman-esque piece of crap that ends up becoming a great boxer but it’s really neat seeing a guy known for being heroic, play a real scumbag. And despite the character’s terrible nature, Douglas plays the role so well that his fate in the film is still sort of a punch in the gut.

Also, Douglas didn’t have to do all the work and carry the load alone, as the film is full of great performances by several actors who probably deserved bigger careers. I especially liked the scenes he shared with Ruth Roman and Marilyn Maxwell.

Champion is a great sports-based classic film-noir. It does just about everything right and it’s carefully crafted, meticulously executed and just a beautiful looking film with depth, character and real human emotion.

Rating: 9/10
Pairs well with: another 1949 film-noir surrounding the sport of boxing, The Set-Up.

Film Review: Dishonored Lady (1947)

Also known as: Sins of Madeline (US reissue title)
Release Date: May 16th, 1947
Directed by: Robert Stevenson
Written by: Edmund H. North
Based on: Dishonored Lady by Edward Sheldon, Margaret Ayer Barnes
Music by: Carmen Dragon
Cast: Hedy Lamarr, Dennis O’Keefe, John Loder, Margaret Hamilton

Hunt Stromberg Productions, Mars Film Corporation, United Artists, 85 Minutes

Review:

“I only earn $100 a week and you know I can’t live on that.” – Freddie

The high point of any Hedy Lamarr movie is Hedy Lamarr. She’s a better actress than she was given credit for during her time but at least she left behind a great legacy and has stood the test of time, as an old school starlet that is probably more beloved by film aficionados now than she was back in her heyday.

Beyond acting, she was also a film producer and an inventor. In fact, she was a genius and one of her inventions was an early version of FHSS (Frequency-hopping spread spectrum).

In Dishonored Lady, she might be at her best. Granted, I like the film The Strange Woman more but here, she really transcends the film and it is hard not to fall head over heels for her character, Madeline.

In this film, she finds herself in a terrible situation where her past comes back to haunt her after changing her identity and finding a new love. Needless to say, this is a story with a lot of layers and some pretty dastardly characters.

Overall, though, I think the picture itself is pretty weak. Lamarr’s performance is great, as is the always enjoyable Dennis O’Keefe. The narrative just feels somewhat disjointed and the pacing is a bit wonky.

Additionally, this isn’t a great looking film-noir when compared to the others from the classic era. It’s shot pretty straightforward and doesn’t have too much artistic flourish.

Still, this is a mostly enjoyable picture and it really showcases how good Lamarr was in her prime.

Also, the film features Margaret Hamilton in a supporting role and it’s always cool seeing the Wicked Witch of the West pop up in other things.

Rating: 6.5/10
Pairs well with: other noir films of the ’40s and ’50s, specifically those with Hedy Lamarr like The Conspirators, The Strange Woman, A Lady Without Passport and The Female Animal.

Film Review: The Dark Mirror (1946)

Release Date: October 18th, 1946 (New York City premiere)
Directed by: Robert Siodmak
Written by: Nunnally Johnson, Vladimir Pozner
Music by: Dimitri Tiomkin
Cast: Olivia de Havilland, Lew Ayres, Thomas Mitchell

International Pictures, Nunnally Johnson Productions, 85 Minutes

Review:

“Not even nature can duplicate character, not even in twins.” – Dr. Scott Elliott

For a B-movie film-noir, this motion picture is quite impressive. While I love a lot of B-movie noirs, there are many more that are just mediocre or outright shit. But I think that this film’s quality has a lot to do with its director, noir veteran Robert Siodmak, as well as its star, the great Olivia de Havilland, who won an Academy Award the same year for her role in To Each His Own.

Watching this film, I was kind of reminded of Brian De Palma’s Sisters from 1972. Both films deal with a good twin and a killer twin that tries to frame (or destroy) their better half.

The films are very different but I can see where De Palma may haven taken some cues from this picture. But honestly, which young filmmaker wouldn’t between the great split performance by its leading lady, as well as the visionary style of its director, a true auteur and master of the noir genre and visual storytelling.

This is a superbly acted film and not just by de Havilland, who plays two roles, but also by its top two male stars, Lew Ayres and Thomas Mitchell.

Everyone in this film is believable and pretty close to perfect. Siodmak got truly great performances out of the three top stars and they had immense chemistry.

I also love how this was shot and for a film from the mid-’40s, Siodmak did a stupendous job in the composite shots that feature both of the twins on the screen at the same time. These sequences go off without a hitch or any visual or audible hints that may wreck what you see on the screen. There’s no obvious Patty Duke Show trickery.

The film’s story is also really good. It pulls you in and you’re never really sure which sister you’re seeing from scene to scene. While the ending and the darker sister’s plot is kind of obvious, you still don’t fully know how it will conclude and whether or not tragedy will befall the good sister or the decent male characters that just want to help them.

That being said, the picture builds up suspense well. The movie does a great job of not coming off as too formulaic or cliche while telling a good, compelling tale that leaves you unsure till the final scene.

Rating: 7.75/10
Pairs well with: other classic film-noir pictures that were directed by Robert Siodmak.

Film Review: Gilda (1946)

Release Date: March 14th, 1946 (New York City premiere)
Directed by: Charles Vidor
Written by: Jo Eisinger, Marion Parsonnet, Ben Hecht (uncredited), E.A. Ellington
Music by: M.W. Stoloff, Marlin Skiles
Cast: Rita Hayworth, Glenn Ford, George Macready, Joseph Calleia

Columbia Pictures, 110 Minutes

Review:

“Hate is a very exciting emotion. Haven’t you noticed? Very exciting. I hate you too, Johnny. I hate you so much I think I’m going to die from it. Darling… [they kiss passionately] I think I’m going to die from it.” – Gilda

Out of all the film-noir classics I’ve watched and reviewed over the last few years, Gilda was low on my radar, even if it is beloved by many and considered a top noir.

I’m not sure why I wasn’t in a rush to see this one, as I like Rita Hayworth and Glenn Ford, but I do tend to be more attracted to intense crime thriller noir.

This does have a crime thriller element, more than I anticipated, actually, but it is mostly focused on drama and romance, as two ex-lovers who are still in love try their damnedest to try and hurt each other.

There really isn’t a likable character in this film, if you look past the charm and beauty of Hayworth. She acts shitty, Glenn Ford acts shitty and no one else is that great either.

I have to say, though, I was surprised by a rather shocking twist at the very end. I didn’t see it coming and it was jarring in a good way. However, that twist was quickly dealt with and a solid swerve immediately went out with a somewhat underwhelming whimper.

Directed by Charles Vidor, the film’s overall composition looked splendid.

This boasts great cinematography even for the high standard that was set during the height of film-noir. It’s a superb looking picture with magnificent shot framing, incredible lighting and a lush tropical setting that feels both lived in and opulent.

I was mostly pleasantly surprised by this. Sure, it may have been a bit slow, here and there, but it makes up for the lack of narrative energy in how energetic the performances are by the two leads.

Rating: 7.25/10
Pairs well with: other classic noir pictures like Laura, The Lady From Shanghai, The Killers and The Postman Always Rings Twice.

Film Review: Leave Her to Heaven (1945)

Release Date: December 25th, 1945 (New York City & Chicago)
Directed by: John M. Stahl
Written by: Jo Swerling
Based on: Leave Her to Heaven by Ben Ames Williams
Music by: Alfred Newman
Cast: Gene Tierney, Cornel Wilde, Jeanne Crain, Vincent Price

Twentieth Century Fox, 110 Minutes

Review:

“When I looked at you, exotic words drifted across the mirror of my mind like clouds across the summer sky.” – Richard Harland

Man, this movie started out fairly sweet and even though I knew it was a noir picture, I wasn’t quite expecting for the dark side of the story to be so, well… dark.

I guess it’s hard to think of Gene Tierney capable of anything evil, as she’s pretty much lovable in everything that I’ve seen. But I guess that’s the point, as her character goes from sweet beauty to psychotic bitch. And frankly, it’s unsettling and heartbreaking to watch it all unfold, especially in the modern era where we understand mental illness more than we did in the 1940s.

This great performance by Tierney led to her getting an Academy Award nomination. Granted, she lost to Joan Crawford’s performance in Mildred Pierce but that is fantastic company to keep.

It isn’t just Tierney that carries this picture, however, as Cornel Wilde, Jeanne Crain and Vincent Price give some breathtaking performances as well.

Side note: Vincent Price and Gene Tierney actually worked together four times and played off of each other so well, that I wish they had more films together. Other than this picture, they were together in 1941’s Hudson’s Bay, 1944’s Laura and 1946’s Dragonwyck, which is a pretty underrated gem.

What’s really unique about this motion picture is that it is considered film-noir but it is presented in color. That was pretty unusual at the time and it’s kind of strange seeing a noir styled film outside of the typical high contrast, black and white, chiaroscuro presentation. At first, I thought that the version I was watching might be one of those bastardized Ted Turner prints but it wasn’t. In a way, it’s interesting in color and it makes the film standout amongst its contemporaries but I feel like it actually shines too much light and life into the actual darkness of the movie.

However, I understand that the term “film-noir” didn’t even exist at the time and this was probably just Twentieth Century Fox trying to make a beautiful movie with a beautiful starlet. And, honestly, despite my preference for black and white in the noir style, I can’t deny that this is actually a very beautiful film. Especially in the first half, where it shows Cornel Wilde meeting the love of his life and living a sort of fantastical happy ending lifestyle.

The plot sees Wilde meet Tierney, they fall in love, they live in a fairly opulent and attractive world and everything seems perfect. After they are married, however, Tierney’s jealousy and psychotic nature comes out. She lets Wilde’s handicapped brother drown when she could have saved him, she becomes jealous of the baby she’s carrying and throws herself down the stairs and the she eventually commits suicide but not before framing her sister for poisoning her.

Leave Her to Heaven goes into damn dark territory and while that’s typical of noir, this is a different, more intimate type of darkness that carries more emotional weight than a heist gone bad or a femme fatale stabbing the male lead in the back.

In the end, this was a compelling motion picture that grabs you almost immediately and doesn’t let go until the final frame. It features one of Tierney’s top performances and also shows how good Vincent Price could be with straight drama.

Rating: 8.5/10
Pairs well with: other movies starring Gene Tierney: Laura, Dragonwyck, Hudson’s Bay, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir and Night and the City.