Saturday, May 13, 2006

Ten Underrated Films

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.


goatdog said...

I haven't seen any of these films, but I've added a bunch of them to my various rental queues.

This reminds me: One of these weekends, I'm going to do a "heavenly Best Picture nominees" marathon. I'll watch All That Heaven Allows, All This and Heaven Too, Seventh Heaven, both versions of Heaven Can Wait, and One Foot in Heaven. I will be a happy goatdog that weekend.

The Siren said...

That sounds great!! I almost put Heaven Can Wait (since it's you, we're both talking about the Lubitsch, right?) on this list, but at the last minute wondered if any Lubitsch could really be called underrated.

You could cheat a little and put Stairway to Heaven (originally A Matter of Life and Death) on the agenda. Such a good movie.

Peter Nellhaus said...

You got me, Campaspe. I've only seen four of the films on your list.

The Siren said...

**grabs the smelling salts**

Okay, you have to tell me which ones you haven't seen. I feel like I just won "stump the band" on the old Johnny Carson show.

Gloria said...

I recall liking "The Strawberry Blonde", but then I usually enjoy Cagney (except "What Price Glory", one of the cheesiest films ever!)... and what a nice touch wasthe old-timey karaoke at the end of the picture!

Bill said...

The only thing about Portrait of Jennie is that weird experiment with color near the end. It's a bit jarring.

The Siren said...

Gloria, if you follow the link in the entry for that one, we wound up discussing Strawberry Blonde in the comments for that post. Turned out the movie has a lot of admirers.

Bill: **Spoiler** All I remember of color is the last shot of the portrait, which I thought worked rather well? is my memory playing tricks?

Exiled in NJ said...

Jenny is my housemate Pam's favorite film; we finally found it on a DVD. Having seen it perhaps four times now [Pam is one to watch and re-watch films], I believe the color begins with the storm.

I always feel I am looking thru one of the ancient viewers when I watch the shots of Central Park in this film.

Thanks for the still of the great Boyer! I would have Hold Back the Dawn on my list

Koneko said...

Dearest Campaspe...
I owe you a long email! But I wanted to write you here... I was so excited by your list! Jennie is one of my favorite movies! (Part of my Joseph Cotten marathon. I have to tell you a funny story about that...) I remember the addition of color that Bill mentions, but then I just saw it again recently.
I also adore Strawberry Blonde and All this and Heaven...! And I have to see some of the others now... esp. Madeleine...! It sounds very intriguing!
Much love to you!!

girish said...

OMG, the Siren's got me good.
I've seen just one of these, the Renoir.
I have the Borzage on my shelf, waiting to be seen.

Nice list, Campaspe. I've copied it down on a Post-It and affixed it to the ole Frigidaire.

Brian Darr said...

I've only seen one as well, the rather astonishing Dieterle. More grist for my list of films to see.

Peter Nellhaus said...

I've seen Portrait of Jennie, Strawberry Blonde, Two Family House and Bachelor Mother. I saw the Walsh film introduced by the master himself at MoMA, feisty and telling hilarious and lewd stories.

Mr. Middlebrow said...

Wow. I can't even begin to tell you how flattered I am to have your participation in my little survey and a place on your blog roll, too! I can't belive the Siren likes my style.

I must confess I have seen exactly none of these films, but that makes your list all the more valuable. I love "discovering" movies I've either not heard of or written off; that they're "old" is all the better. Mrs. Middlebrow is a ginormous fan of old movies--she could give Robert Osborne a run for his money--and I'm looking forward to working our way through this list together.

Thanks for the recommendations and the link--now, if you'll excuse me, I've got to go tidy up my blog to make it nice for all the traffic you've sent my way.

The 'Stache said...

You win the list prize hands-down. Just goes to show why we need the female perspective to break up that male movie cabal!

The Siren said...

Exiled: thanks for the memory jog! it's been at least three years since I last saw "Portrait." It holds up really well; I recommended it to a perfume board I haunt and the four or five ladies who watched it on TCM all wrote me to say it was great. I love Hold Back the Dawn, I could easily have listed that too. It's pretty relevant these days, too.

Koneko, I think you would probably like all of the movies on this list. I remembered that you liked the Bette Davis movie!

Girish, I'd love to know what you thought of the Renoir. The Bunuel version is on my to-see list.

Brian, I think "Portrait" pretty much tanked on release but it has definitely picked up a following over the years. It is truly one-of-a-kind.

Peter, if you heard stories from Raoul Walsh that sounds like a definite must-post-at-Coffee to me.

Mr. Middlebrow--thanks for the kind thoughts, they are reciprocated! Mrs. Middlebrow sounds like my kind of gal.

TLRHB-I was awfully afraid I was going to get chided for espousing mush. But the thing is, a lot of men like a little romance too.

The 'Stache said...

Of course. I was accused recently by a colleague of having "the mind of a 17-year-old-girl." I sort of took it as a compliment.

ZC said...

Great list--I've only seen a few on it, and am ashamed to say I've never seen the Renoir or Borzage though I'm such a fan ...

But Portrait of Jennie and (especially) Strawberry Blonde are top-notch films that deserve bigger reps. Well done, Siren! These underrated lists tempt me to sound off on my own ...

The Siren said...


Zach, go for it. I'd love to see your choices.

girish said...

Campaspe, I love the Renoir and actually prefer it to the Bunuel (I say this as a big Bunuel fan).

Anagramsci said...

(3 YEARS later!)


love all of these, except for Two Family House and Madeleine, which I haven't seen... I'll have to check them out!

particularly gratified to see Portrait of Jennie, The Strawberry Blonde and All This and Heaven Too on the list--I love Bette in non-histrionic mode (The Sisters is another favourite--also directed by Anatole Litvak--a guy who never gets any credit at all)... I could make a list of more than ten that features nothing but Dieterle movies, but Portrait is probably the one that deserves most universal praise...

JAS-- said...

Portrait of Jennie--been a long time since I saw this last. Loved it. Good pick.

Diary of a Chambermaid--practically anything with smart and sassy Paulette is a winner.

All This, and Heaven Too--yes, yes. My favorite Bette Davis flick(next to All About Eve).

The Strawberry Blonde--my favorite Cagney movie next to Yankee Doodle Dandly. Who woulda thunk a thug could dance?

Three Came Home--Colbert at her WWII best. Also They Also Serve about nurses in the Philippines.

I'm a boomer and saw all these on tv in the 50s. Can't beat 'em with a stick. Although I will admit that after 70 years Gone With the Wind is beginning to show its age!

Love your blog. Is that Joan Fontaine as your profile pic??

JAS-- said...

Oops. I meant So Proudly We Hail, not They Also Serve. Haven't a clue where that came from. So much wonderful info here. And yes, I too am late coming to the party!

Vidor said...

I have just watched "All This, and Heaven Too" off of TCM and I didn't care for it. We're supposed to have the wife, I guess, but all I can see is a woman that's been driven to the edge and past by unrequited love for the husband that's neglected her for years. And Davis's character stays in the household long after she's realized the dynamic that's going on, long after she knows she's coming between a husband and his wife, long after Harry Davenport told her what's what. Watching this whole movie, can't help but wonder how things would have gone differently if Charles Boyer had taken his wife on a vacation.