The Letter

This is another film mentioned in the Movie Palace Mystery book series, and stars Bette Davis who we regard as a movie classics icon so of course we were motivated to watch it.  This 1940 film is available to rent on Amazon Prime Video.  If you do decide to seek it out, make sure you put “1940” in the search line.  “The Letter” is based on a 1927 play (of the same name) by Somerset Maugham and was first filmed in 1929.  The two films, while drawing on the same source material, are quite different (reflecting the fact that there was no Hayes code in 1929).  Another interesting factoid about the two films:  Herbert Marshall appears in both.  In 1929, he had the role of Mr. Hammond (a relative minor part) and, in 1940 he played Robert Crosbie.  A crime drama set on a Malaya rubber plantation , the opening scene of this noir film starts with a gun-shot and a man (Geoff Hammond, a well-regarded member of the European community) emerges onto the porch, followed by Leslie Crosbie (Better Davis) who fires five more time insuring that he is quite dead.  Witnessed by native workers who are in their barracks directly across from the house, there is little doubt that Leslie is the killer. The questions are why she did it and what will be the consequences for this apparent act of murder.  Leslie’s story is that Hammond tried to make love to her, and she shot him in self-defense.  Robert (Marshall) returns from a trip to find she has been arrested and will be tried.  He hires attorney Howard Joyce (James Stephenson) to defend her. However, during the trial, Joyce discovers there is an incriminating letter held by Hammond’s wife that could make Leslie’s story of “why” untrue.  Nonetheless, Leslie is acquitted. However, she eventually does suffer consequences for the murder she committed.  No spoiler here – you must watch the film to see how she gets her comeuppance! This 95-minute film does not move along as quickly as one would like at times; however, Davis, Marshall and Stephens turn in star quality performances.  Gale Sondergaard (an Oscar winning, although not for this film, supporting actress) deserves a special mention for her portrayal of Mrs. Hammond.  If you are a Bette Davis fan, we’d give the film Worth the Search; if not, it falls to the Good for an Afternoon rating category!

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.

A Stranger in Town

From 1943 and available for streaming on Prime Video, this is a comedy-drama film with a political message applicable to the current day.  The star, Frank Morgan, had a 35+ year stage and screen career; however, he is probably best known for the multiple roles played in The Wizard of Oz.  His performance in Stranger does not disappoint!  In the opening scene, a bit fed-up with the day to day grind of his work on the U.S. Supreme Court as associate justice John Josephus Grant (aka Joe Grant), he tells his secretary Lucy Gilbert (Jean Rogers) that he has decided to go duck hunting.  He makes clear to Lucy that he wants no one to know where he has gone (and the smallish rural area where he has gone is never revealed to the viewer).  In the next scene, Grant is confronted by a fish and game warden who asks to see his hunting license which Grant produces, however, it doesn’t have the appropriate county stamp, which the fellow offers to sell Grant with a little “tip” added.  Because Grant refuses, he ends up in court facing the local judge where he settles the matter by paying a $100.00 fine.  It’s in the court room that Grant learns that local lawyer Bill Adams (Richard Carlson) is running for Mayor against the incumbent Connison (Robert Barrat) who appears to have most of the community leaders, including the local judge, Austin Harkley (Porter Hall) in his pocket.  Adams gets into a tiff with Connison, throws a punch and this lands him in jail where Grant intervenes to get him out.  Sensing that things could use some sorting out in this election, Grant sends for secretary, Lucy, to help him out.  Grant sends Adams to the train station to pick up Lucy and, as you can guess, an immediate attraction leads to a flirtatious relationship.  When Lucy arrives at the hotel to check in, she is denied a room because she has no luggage.  Adams comes to her defense which lands both in jail.  Ultimately, Grant reveals who he really is, and with his help Adams is elected mayor and weds Lucy.  Near the end of the film Grant gives a compelling speech during his defense of Adams about citizens’ responsibility for preventing the election of corrupt officials.  His eloquent description of the dangers of political indifference is reminiscent of words that could be spoken today but all too often are not.  A relatively short film (70 minutes) we were surprised at how much it amused us and were glad we stumbled upon it.  We give it a Good for an Afternoon rating.

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.