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So Big (1932)

Dullsville

So Big (1932)

So Big (1932)

Pulitzer Prize winning novels don’t always produce award-worthy movies. Case in point: the 1932 version of So Big. One can see why writers, directors and actors are attracted to award-winning books, but too often something happens between the first reading of the source material and the final editing that results in a lackluster final product.

So Big is the story of a young school teacher who marries and then must fight to save the family farm to secure the future of she and her son. Barbara Stanwyck plays the young woman in this William Wellmandirected version. She is propelled into the school teacher role in a one-room school house farming town after her gambler father is killed in the big city.

This Selena immediately wins the affections of the adolescent boy belonging to the family that has offered her lodging. Roelf (Dick Winslow) is forced to work on his father’s cabbage farm and cannot attend school, but Selena shares books that feed his desire for greater knowledge. Although other family members laughed at Selena’s first comment of the cabbage fields as “beautiful”, Roelf agrees and draws her a picture indicating so.

Roelf is upset when Selena attracts the attention of the most handsome man in town, Pervus, played by the not-so-handsome Earle Fox. The two eventually marry and have a 10-pound son, Dirk. Around this time, Roelf leaves home to find himself a better life. Not so much later Pervus gets sick and dies, leaving the farm work to Selena.

The years pass and Dirk (Hardie Albright) is now a young adult, living in the city, working as an architect’s assistant. His mother made the most of the farm by planting the newly popular asparagus vegetable. Her country home is large, and she was able to send her boy to college where he earned his architecture degree. But Dirk is dissatisfied with his $35 per week salary. He dreams of a fancier life and attempts to fulfill that dream by going around with a wealthy married woman. The dame offers to persuade her husband to hire Dirk as a bond salesman, thus giving Dirk the glamorous life he hoped for.

Selena is naturally disappointed in her son’s desires and personality. Somewhat mirroring her own feelings is the young painter Dallas, played by Bette Davis. Dirk meets her in his office where she is hired to draw an advertisement for the firm. He falls heavily for her, but she is less impressed by him, saying she instead prefers men with rough hands, who have fought for their livelihood.

Dallas leaves for Europe only to return in time to celebrate the return of Roelf (George Brent), now a famous sculptor. She accompanies both Roelf and Dirk to visit Selena, who is overjoyed at seeing Roelf again. As those two stand beside the window, Dallas tells Dirk that his mother is beautiful. End of movie.

Although So Big starts as a movie about the struggles of a young woman to make a place for herself, having lost a comfortable city existence afforded by her father’s unsavory mode of employment. She recalls her father’s advice and makes the most of life, never complaining. When we jump ahead in time, however, the movie switches gears to focus on Dirk, who has become a greedy, lazy man deserving of little respect. We see the movie almost become a romantic tale of Dirk and Dallas, but the picture offers no resolution. We expect to see Dallas choose between the two young men –and we naturally expect her to prefer Roelf– but the movie closes with no conclusion of the romance or of Dirk’s shitty approach to life. Roelf’s presence should drive home to both Selena and Dirk what a disappointment the latter is, but we never get to that point.

Besides being unromantic and uninspiring, So Big is incredibly slow and boring. One finds it hard to find much life in any of the characters. Bette Davis and her platinum hair jump off the screen for the short time she appears there, and George Brent at least doesn’t play his usual self, but Barbara Stanwyck disappoints. Despite her unending optimism, Selena is a depressing character to watch. Either her life circumstances are unappealing or she is pathetically old looking, making us pity her.

  • So Big is set for 11 a.m. ET May 12 on TCM.

Wings

Wowza!

Wings (1927)

     What makes a movie worthy of the first ever Academy Award for Best Picture? What constituted greatness in 1929? Apparently a couple million dollars and more effort than perhaps has ever been put into the production of a film.

     Wings would not have been possible had so many parties not come together to make it happen. Whether it was the director with flying experience William Wellman,  the starring actors who took flying lessons and filmed themselves in the air, the stuntmen whose spiraling-toward-death aerial moves were caught on film, or the $15 million-worth of equipment and personnel the military supplied to make the war flick as realistic as possible.

     This Paramount Picture was released on Blu-Ray this year and luckily with it came the release of a DVD reprint, copies of which have been hard to come by. This latest remastering produced images so clear they sort of blew my mind given they are 85 years old. The opening shot in particular is spectacular in clarity. The new edition also allows the viewer to watch the scenes with a re-recorded symphonic score complete with sound effects or an organ rendition. With the sound effects, one can almost forget she is watching a silent flick.

     Wingstells a story of love and war. Two young men are in love with the same high-class girl and both leave for WWI together. This Sylvia (Jobyna Ralston), is preparing a locket with her photo in it for David (Richard Arlen) but when Jack (Buddy Rogers) arrives at her home first, he misunderstands the gift –and Sylvia’s affections– as being for him. Sylvia convinces David her love lie truly with him, but the men head to training with a rivalry brewing.

     After their tensions grow to a boiling point, the pilot trainees box each other until David is down and out. From then on the two are best pals. But the thrill of learning to fly –a lifelong dream of Jack’s– is sobered by the near instantaneous death of tent-mate Cadet White, played for a minute and a half by Gary Cooper, who crashes during a training exercise minutes after meeting the boys.

     Once overseas, American flyers Jack and David make a great pair but Jack is proving himself an obvious hero. During their time in France, a girl from the men’s hometown, Mary (Clara Bow), arrives as part of volunteer women’s group. Mary has been in love with Jack and good friends with the young man who is oblivious to her feelings. Mary comes across Jack drunk in the arms of a French woman at the Folies Bergere and fights to get him back by herself getting gussied up. The evening ends with Mary discovered changing back into her uniform in Jack’s room, leading her to resign in disgrace. Jack meanwhile was too drunk to know it was she who visited him.

     Jack and David’s relationship also gets a black eye when the two have a spat over Sylvia’s picture as David seeks to prevent his pal from discovering it was meant for him. The two head to the skies without their ritual “All set?” “OK”  routine and David crashes amidst enemy fire. He survives but flees the Germans on foot. He will later commandeer an enemy plane to get back to the Allied side, but Jack will see the lone plane as a target.

     The practical effects in Wings are beyond belief. Wellman had cameras bolted to the wings and bodies of planes to get all the amazing aerial shots of the battles and crashes. Planes were created with two cock pits for the actual pilot and the actor, Arlen had been a pilot in WWI and Rogers was also trained to fly the vehicles. In doing so, they would operate a camera affixed directly in front of them and do their own multiple takes as they conveyed expressions of victory and concern. When one German plane spirals from the sky, the stunt pilot is filmed face on and we can see the actual spinning background. Much of that is thanks to Wellman’s insistence that filming take place only with blue skies and clouds. Without clouds, he knew, there would be no context for the planes’ movement.

     I’m so excited to finally cross the first movie to win Best Picture from my Oscar list. True that the first ceremony was held in 1929, butWings spent two years in theaters at ticket prices of a hefty $2. It also one for Best Special Effects. I cannot imagine how blown away audiences were with the flight scenes in the movie at that time because they sure take my breath away now.

Source: DVD Extra “Wings: Grandeur in the Sky”; TCM.com

What to Watch — Nov. 16: Nothing Sacred

Turner Classic Movies will air a new Technicolor print of the Carole Lombard vehicle Nothing Sacred Nov. 16 as part of the month’s tribute to blonde actresses. The version TCM has been airing has been a rather grainy version, the color on which looks more like a black and white film that has been colorized than one that was actually filmed with the new technology. Besides being Lombard’s only color picture, it was also the first color flick to use process effects, montage and rear screen projection.

Nothing Sacred (1937)

Nothing Sacred is among Lombard’s fantastic screwball comedies, and she marked the film as her favorite. The great comedienne plays a small town girl who has radium poisoning and is destined to die. Fredric March as a New York newspaperman seeks a story on the girl and takes her to the big city to add some joy to her bleak future, all to the benefit of the paper. Lombard’s Hazel becomes the city’s sweetheart and everyone seeks to show her a good time, but she soon learns she is not actually dying, which puts the paper and the woman at risk of feeling the wrath of duped New Yorkers.

Lombard plays a great oddball in the big city as the screwball genre suited her better than any other, in my opinion. All kinds of nonsense abound as she and her doctor try to maintain the secret of her health and protect the career of the reporter she has come to love. The movie manages a happy ending, although the original script lacked one. Penned by Ben Hecht based on a short story “Letter to the Editor”, disputes between Hecht and Producer David O. Selznick led to some new writers taking over and giving us the ending that I think produced a better result than the planned black comedy.

Lombard was right to call this her favorite movie as it really shows off her talents, though I wouldn’t call it my favorite (see instead Mr. and Mrs. Smith or To Be or Not to Be). Although she was known to not be fond of March, the two got along great on this picture with all kinds of shenanigans going on off-screen. Although I have already seen this one twice, I am looking forward to the supposed improved print and seeing Lombard in at least better-looking color.

It's not all romance for a fake sick girl and an unscrupulous reporter.

  • Nothing Sacred is set for 8 p.m. ET Nov. 16 on TCM.

Source: TCM.com

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