It's so late in spring it's almost summer, but the Siren is sprucing up once again, adding some wonderful film bloggers she somehow never put on her Blogroll: Matt Zoller Seitz and the crew at The House Next Door, That Little Round-Headed Boy, Edward Copeland on Film and Mr. Middlebrow (he's not all movies, but I like his style, so on he goes).
Back in April, Mr. Middlebrow issued a challenge, taken up by TLRHB among others, to name "10 movies you consider overlooked, underrated, offbeat and in general deserving of not being forgotten." The one rule is that the movies you choose must never have won a major award (and preferably have not been nominated for Best Picture, either). Well now, the Siren knows she is late to the party, and she doesn't want to get too list-happy, especially since she just did one of these things for Edward Copeland's blog. However, she went over the submissions in Mr. Middlebrow's comments, and to be blunt, there aren't enough old movies on the lists to suit her. I mean, good movies and all that, but must they all be in color? And must they be quite so macho? So here's her list:
1. Portrait of Jennie (William Dieterle, 1948) Ignore the ludicrous voice-over at the beginning (complete with gathering cloudbanks) and let yourself be swept away by this full-throttle romance, a film unafraid to say that deeply felt love is an artist's truest inspiration. Jennifer Jones gives her best performance, aging from a little girl to a full-grown woman. If you go over to IMDB you'll see more reviews than usual for such an old movie, but it still deserves a far wider fame.
2. The Diary of a Chambermaid (Jean Renoir, 1946) Paulette Goddard, in real life sort of a Lorelei Lee with intellect, got only a few roles to showcase her unique quality--the hint of a mercenary soul under that heart of gold. Goddard produced this one with her husband, Burgess Meredith (one hell of an odd couple, huh?), resulting in her best performance, her Chaplin films notwithstanding. Jean Renoir's adaptation of Octave Mirbeau's novel has both fans and detractors, as well as those who prefer Luis Bunuel's version, but the Siren thinks this one is swell. It's a dark little farce about class, money and sex, with an outstanding Francis Lederer as the sinister valet. Diary hits many of the same themes as La Regle du Jeu, and perhaps that is why it gets short shrift, since few are the movies as good as Renoir's masterpiece. But Renoir's worst movies are better than many directors' best, and this is far from his worst. Of course it isn't available on DVD but it pops up on TCM every once in a while.
3. All This, and Heaven Too (Anatole Litvak, 1940) This big-budget version of Rachel Field's bestseller didn't fulfill box-office hopes at the time, and to this day it's a bit of a stepchild. The main character, a gentle governess, isn't what you expect from Bette Davis, the central romance remains unconsummated, and the historical background (the 1848 revolution) is one that gets a "whaa? whaddya mean, no Bastille?" response from most Americans. Still, it's the Siren's favorite Bette Davis movie, a sweeping melodrama with a dead-sexy turn by Charles Boyer as the tormented Duc de Praslin. Barbara O'Neil, usually the warm, understanding mother figure, here plays Boyer's Duchesse as the most ghastly, unmaternal harpy imaginable. O'Neil manages to keep just enough of the woman's pathetic (and, for 1940, suprisingly explicit) desire for her husband to make it a truly fine performance.
4. Madeleine (David Lean, 1950) One of the Siren's side interests is crime, but as with film her fascination is with the old or very old. Madeleine Smith, tried for murder in 19th century Scotland, is an enigma as great as Lizzie Borden. Did Madeleine poison her lover? did he commit suicide in an attempt to implicate her? David Lean's subtle, sexy take on the celebrated case starred his wife, Ann Todd, and though she looks nothing like the raven-haired Smith she does a superb job. This, Lean's first effort to tackle a piece of actual history, is criminally unavailable at the moment but scheduled for release in 2008. It's good enough to mark your calendar for.
5. The Strawberry Blonde (Raoul Walsh, 1941) James Cagney plays a two-fisted dentist, an even better conceit than "James Cagney plays a two-fisted inspector for the Bureau of Weights and Measures." Jack Carson plays a heel, five words that are enough to get the Siren to rent anything. Rita Hayworth is the hard-to-hold title character and Olivia de Havilland is Warner Brothers' notion of what a wallflower girlfriend looks like. It is hard to describe this rather whimsical, genre-crossing movie, except to say that it outranks both its predecessor and its remake.
6. Two-Family House (Raymond De Felitta, 2000) The Siren's favorite overlooked movie so far this century won the audience award at Sundance, then vanished from the radar. That's a pity, because it's the perfect indie Christmas movie, the tale of the self-redemption of a sad-sack Staten Islander.
7. Bachelor Mother (Garson Kanin, 1939) Ginger Rogers and David Niven in an incredibly funny screwball comedy. Plot summary is pretty useless, it's all there in the title. The pleasure is from the dialogue and Niven's timing, as when he defends the honor of a baby with "Of course he talks! Why, he can recite the first line of Gunga Din!"
8. Three Came Home (Jean Negulesco, 1950) Based on the memoirs of a woman who spent World War II interned in a Japanese prison camp, this harsh drama does perpetuate some stereotypes. Claudette Colbert, as good as she is here, should have let herself get a little more mussed. But Sessue Hayakawa plays the Colonel in charge of the camp as an honorable man well aware of the codes he is breaking. And late in the film, a scene between Colbert and Hayakawa brings them together and breaks the audience's heart.
9. The Young in Heart (Richard Wallace, 1938) A family of con artists finds themselves in a quandary when their old-lady mark starts to win their affections. Janet Gaynor's last starring role, and a very funny film. Best scene: Roland Young and Douglas Fairbanks Jr., seeking gainful employment with no very lively desire to succeed. Second-best scene: Young arriving for his first day of (gulp) work.
10. Seven Sweethearts (Frank Borzage, 1942) Not a classic, maybe even not that good, but this is my list so I'm putting it up anyway. If fairy tales aren't your thing, stay far away. If, however, you have a soft spot for Borzage the true romantic, wait for this one on TCM. Reasons to watch include S.Z. Sakall (the bartender from Casablanca) flinging his accent all over the place, a funny and self-deprecating turn by Marsha Hunt, and a magical scene between Van Heflin and Kathryn Grayson in a rain-soaked car.