Grand Hotel

A star-studded pre-code movie classic from 1932, this is one film you must see if you’ve somehow missed it through the years.  An adaptation of a 1929 play, the film cast includes Greta Garbo, the Barrymore brothers (John and Lionel who couldn’t be more different), Lewis Stone, Joan Crawford, Wallace Beery and a slew of lesser known early cinema stars as guests at the Grand Hotel in Berlin.   Because the characters’ names are all German or Russian, it’s less important to know them than to understand the core plot and subplots.  At its essence, this is a tale of love, dastardly deeds, and eventual redemption at a terrible cost.  John Barrymore (still a handsome devil although in his 50s) is a down-on-his-luck Baron who is a sometimes thief and frequent card player, Garbo (gorgeous of course) is a legendary Russian ballerina aging out of her roles, Wallace Beery is a very unlikeable industrialist who hires Joan Crawford as his stenographer, and Lionel Barrymore (not the curmudgeon of “It’s a Wonderful Life” here, but rather a grouchy but sweet soul)  is an accountant from Beery’s company who finds he is dying and wants to live life to fullest before he goes.  The entire story takes place in the Hotel, about which Lewis Stone’s character (who is a resident) says that “nothing ever happens here”.  The movie ends with the same quote, and of course, much happens in between.   John Barrymore and Greta Garbo fall in love after he tries to rob her.  Wallace Beery asks his stenographer to “accompany” him to London to close a deal (of course, this is pre-code so he has dastardly plans), and in a twist of events, Beery’s crude character happens upon and kills one of the other characters.  With all the plot twists and turns, it would be too easy to stumble into giving more spoilers, so enough said.  The pace of the film moves along nicely, and the almost two hour run time is well edited to elicit all the emotions the director wants of the audience.   A couple of side notes: this is the movie with the famous Garbo quote “I want to be alone” which she says more than once, and this is the only movie to win the Oscar for Best Picture even though it was not nominated for any other Oscar (too many stars from which to choose?).  For any fan of classic films, this drama is one of the best, and we rate it Worth the Search.    

San Francisco

Billed as a “musical drama disaster film”, this 1936 movie was mentioned in Movie Palace Mysteries as one that anyone from or in San Francisco should see. Since the author’s blog ( didn’t cover this flick, of course we knew we had to see it and do a quick post on it. The film cast is incredible – Jeanette MacDonald as Mary Blake (a singer of course), Clark Gable as Blackie (a saloonkeeper of course), and Spencer Tracy as – what else? – Father Mullen, Blackie’s good friend. The whole movie is a lead up to the 1906 earthquake, and it’s quite an enjoyable albeit predictable. Mary is a down on her luck singer of sterling character who’s given a job by Blackie at his saloon, located in the somewhat disreputable Barbary Coast. Of course, she’s a big hit with his customers as she sings “San Francisco”, while in costume that shows her quite lovely legs (scandalous in 1906). Mary has always wanted to sing opera at the Tivoli, and is offered a chance (we learn that Burley, one of Blackie’s customers just happens to have an interest in the Tivoli). Blackie is less than keen on the idea, and there is a scene in which he attempts to foist his less than honorable intentions on Mary. She leaves, of course, off to the Tivoli. Blackie goes to hear her sing, and decides that she is where she needs to be. However, Mary loves Blackie and asks him to marry her. Naturally, this is where things get out of hand — Blackie wants to again take advantage of Mary (even more revealing costume), and Father Mullen chastises him. At that point, Mary leaves and goes to Burley who also wants to marry her She meets Burley’s mother (a fine character played by Jessie Ralph) who is sympathetic, and has a talk with Mary about what’s important in life. On the eve of the Chicken Ball (the prize for the winning business owner is $10,000), we learn that Blackie’s business is in jeopardy (it was raided because of Burley). Mary and Burley, along with many others from the Barbary Coast, attend the ball where Mary (she’s of sterling character, rememeber?) sings on behalf of Blackie so he can get the winnings. She wins, and he throws the money in her face (the blackguard!). This of course, is the evening of April 17, just before the earthquake. Mary leaves, Blackie leaves in the other direction, and then — catastrophe! The real centerpiece of the movie, and frankly, the best reason to see it, is the earthquake. Remember that this is a 1936 film — and the effects are simply amazing — shuddering buildings, shaking floors with people tumbling about, cars being thrown. For several minutes, we are in the middle of this tragedy. No spoilers, but then again, you can guess how it ends. While the plot is predictable, both the music (this is a Jeanette MacDonald movie after all) and the special effects are the best reasons to see the film We give it Worth the Search.

Blithe Spirit

Charming, witty, clever – so many ways to characterize this 1945 film version of the 1941 Noel Coward play.  It was mentioned in the Movie Palace Mysteries series, and we realized we’d never seen the movie.  So of course, it was on our list immediately!  Rex Harrison and Constance Cummings have the starring roles (well, at least hypothetically) of Charles and Ruth Condomine, but the true stars are Kay Hammond as Elvira and Margaret Rutherford as Madame Arcati.   An important minor character is Edith the hapless maid who we see in several key scenes throughout the movie.   For anyone who’s never seen the play or a movie version thereof, the story is this:  Charles and Ruth invite a medium to their home to gain some background knowledge for a book he’s writing.  Enter the eccentric medium Madame Arcati who conducts a séance with the Condomines and their guests.  While there is much activity and chants in the ceremony there is no apparent success and Madame departs.   Well, of course this is not the end of the matter – we soon are introduced to Elvira, Charles’ first wife who died in an automobile accident and has arrived back to their house as a spirit.   Only Charles is able to see Elvira, which is problematic as Ruth soon believes Charles is going mad.  Only a brief demonstration by Elvira convinces Ruth that the first Mrs. Condomine is in fact in residence.  Ruth seeks the help of Madame Arcati to transport Elvira back to the ether, but Madame is unable to complete the task.  In fact, we find that Elvira plans to be reunited with Charles by causing a fatal accident.  Not a good plan – Ruth dies instead and naturally comes back as a spirit.  Charles now has two wives to aggravate him, neither of whom want to be earthbound.  He is desperate to rid himself of Elvira and Ruth. and goes to Madame Arcati for help.  After many failed attempts, we learn that it was not in fact Madame Arcati who summoned the spirit of Elvira, but rather it was Edith.   No help there, so Charles takes off to get away from the house on vacation, has a fatal accident (that curve at the end of the drive is literally a killer), and joins both wives.   Relative to the production, while some reviewers at the time said that the movie was a “photograph of the play”, in fact there were several changes, including the addition of exterior scenes beautifully shot at elegant homes.  There are also Oscar-winning special effects that give Elvira then Ruth then Charles a sort of ectoplasmic glow, and some prop movement by the ghost that facilitate the story. The most substantive change is that movie had a different ending, which caused Noel Coward to say that the production “ruined the best play I ever wrote”.   We don’t agree.  A few years ago, we saw a Broadway revival with Angela Lansbury as the inimitable Madame Arcati and it was simply wonderful.  We were therefore concerned that Rutherford would be a disappointment but of course she was not.  Both legendary actresses portrayed lovable and spirited (pun intended) eccentricity with grace and charm.   The movie is as charming as the play and is definitely a period piece relative to setting.  It is also a timeless fun filled froth and assuredly Worth the Search.

Random Harvest

Ah, has any movie based on a book by James Hilton been anything less than magic?  We revisited this 1942 movie as it was mentioned in “The Movie Palace Mysteries” and we were in the mood for some sweet sentimentality.   The movie stars Ronald Coleman and Greer Garson – one can swoon just listening to their gorgeous voices – as potentially star-crossed lovers.   The plot was apparently not a hit with reviewers at the time, but who cares?   If you have ever read a James Hilton book or seen a movie based on one (think “Lost Horizon” or “Good-bye, Mr. Chips”) then you know what to expect.   While the movie isn’t 100% faithful to the surprise turn the book takes for obvious reasons (you need to see the actors on the screen), the story is the same.  Coleman plays a World War I airman with amnesia, who is saved from being returned to the asylum by Garson’s character Paula.   She calls him Smithy, as he has no idea who he really is, and of course they fall in love and are soon married with a small cottage to call home.  She supports them with secretarial jobs as Smithy tries his hand at writing.  Soon he has what appears to be a burgeoning career as a paid author.  They have a baby, and all appears blissful after Smithy receives an offer to interview for a full-time job at a publication in Liverpool.   Off he goes with his house key in his pocket and a ticket to the big city, and the second and longer part of the story commences.  Smithy has an unfortunate accident that (of course) restores his memory and obliterates the last two years of his life with Paula.     Lo and behold, “Smithy” is actually wealthy Charles Ranier who returns to his somewhat unpleasant family and assumes management of the family business.  The only token of where he’s been is a key, but to what he cannot remember.   We are led to believe that years go by, Paula never stops looking for Smithy, Charles has ensured that the family business is thriving, and he is supported by an invaluable assistant named Margaret who you don’t see for a good block of time until…….   While you can probably guess the plot twist even if you’ve never read the book, no spoilers here.  Suffice it to say, they lived happily ever after.   If you’re a James Hilton fan, this is definitely Top in Genre, but even if you’re just in need of a gauzy, lovely movie then you should Grab It If It’s Leaving. 

Stage Door

This fun flick from 1937 was mentioned in “The Movie Palace Mystery Series”, with an unfortunate misstatement (Rosalind Russell had no part!).  However, the cast is so wonderful that we just couldn’t resist revisiting the movie through Amazon Prime.  The story is centered around a boardinghouse (the Footlight Club) for aspiring actresses, and the boarders are a veritable treasure trove of early Hollywood beauty and talent.   We first are introduced to the characters played by Lucille Ball, Eve Arden, Andrea Leeds and Ginger Rogers among others as they are gathered in the living room of the Club.  They are all largely unemployed but are game to go to every audition to secure a role that will at least pay their board if not secure worldwide acclaim.  Their banter amidst day to day travails really “sets the stage” (pun intended) for our concern for them, and interest in their lives.  We also meet the owner of the Club, employees there, and naturally, a few young and not-so-young men who are going out with several of the boarders.  Enter Katherine Hepburn’s character, Tracy, who is clearly more polished, wealthier, and possibly more of a snob than the other ladies (I refuse to call them “girls”).   She is, however, quite clearly determined to find out if she has what it takes to make it on the stage, despite the fact that her wealthy father is definitely not in agreement with her plans.    Well, of course we find that Tracy isn’t so much a snob as she is unaccustomed to the kind of friendship and rivalry found at the Club.  While the story about how and why Tracy lands a part for a new production (through some backdoor moves by her wealthy father) is somewhat expected, the plot also concerns one of the boarders who had been a success and yearned for that very same part as her road back to the spotlight.  Alas, not to be, with tragic consequences.  Without further spoilers, suffice it to say that our Kate ends up giving a wonderful performance, and the rest of the crew finally understand that she is truly one of them. As a side note, this is the film that contains that often-used line when imitating Hepburn, “The calla lilies are in bloom again…..” which she delivers with just the right high brow intonation. All in all, it was fun to see so many fresh young faces so early in their careers, with caustic yet witty dialogue at every turn, and we give it Good for an Afternoon.