80 Years Ago in This Theatre: The Movies of 1939

Essays written by Richard von Busack


Saturday and Sunday

The Women (1939)

Originally played Stanford Theatre October 15-18, 1939.

The title card informs us that the source play had 666 performances at the Ethel Barrymore Theater ... the number is not the only diabolical thing about it. The all-female cast is helpfully identified by their spirit animals: deer, doe, fox, lamb, leopard, cat. The story concerns gossip breaking up the marriage of the woman who has it all, Mary Haines (Norma Shearer)—she’s an equestrian, she can fish in Canada and cook like a French chef, and she has a beautifully mannered daughter (Virginia Weidler) who politely calls her “Mother.”

That’s when her many frenemies convey the news that her off-screen husband has taken up with Crystal, a perfume-selling shopgirl (Joan Crawford) at “Black’s Fifth Avenue.” Soon Mary is hanging on to her marriage by her Jungle Red-enameled fingernails. Rosalind Russell, the head kitty in this cattery, is the fastest talker in the film—George Cukor could have used some of the Robert Altman multi track sound, since the epigrams and wisecracks fly like shrapnel: “Keep your chin up! That’s right, both of them.” Occasional remarks are pre code: “Can you beat him? He almost stood me up for his wife.” Joan Fontaine and Paulette “Miss Impertinence of 1939” Goddard are part of the catcallers. Also special: Mary Boland as a four times divorced countess who has taken the road to Reno so many times that she can roll a cigarette one handed, like a cowboy. (Like The Gay Divorcee, this Reno business takes a bit of explaining to today’s viewers—back when the USA’s divorce laws were stern, you could get a fast split in Nevada after establishing six week’s residence there.) The centerpiece is a Technicolor fashion show, in which the one-named designer Adrian broke the leash at last. Funny hats always got a laugh in 1939 movies. An example is Blondie Takes a Vacation, where Blondie sulks after her new chapeau doesn’t get the respect it deserves. In context, Blondie’s bonnet seems to be relevant enough, since it’s modeled on the trylon and perisphere logo of the 1939 World’s Fair. (“It scares me,” Dagwood whines.) The Women is a discourse on the madness of hatters; not a definitive list, mind, but the offerings here include: backward Robin Hood, Pizza Hut roof, chiminea, Pied Piper Moderne and Chico Marx tyrolean.

Author Claire Booth, later Clare Booth Luce, became a Republican congressman so outspoken that FDR went low and derided her “a former glamour girl.” After her Stanford student daughter Anne Clare Brokaw was killed in a car accident at the corner of Everett Ave and Byron in January 1944, Luce turned to Catholicism to solace the pain, and became even more conservative. No surprise, though she’d written a very traditional values hit which Shearer endures as a patient wife. It seems an ensemble of flamboyant characters requires a calm, uninteresting center. Whether explaining D-I-V-O-R-C-E to her daughter—a perfect popcorn break—or enduring her husband’s affair, one is drawn more to Crawford, an unrepentant, bubble-bath soaking harridan whose line of farewell is almost as famous as Rhett Butler’s. “I portrayed so many girls and women who went from rags to riches that L.B. Mayer thought I represented Cinderella to the public,” Crawford told the late Lillian Ross. “I began to beg to play bitches.” And who assayed them better? As for Shearer, it’s clear that the man for whom she’s waiting with open arms can only be Ralph Bellamy, with whom she’ll raise a brood of earnest, suit-clad children ... maybe in Albany? or Oklahoma?

Plays Saturday and Sunday (December 14-15) at 3:20 and 7:30.

The Old Maid (1939)

Originally played Stanford Theatre November 1-4, 1939.

Bette Davis as Charlotte, a well-off Philadelphia woman of the 1860s; eclipsed, throughout her life, by the radiance of her cousin Delia (Miriam Hopkins), who is preparing to marry the very day Fort Sumter is attacked. Delia’s former fiancé Clem (George Brent) returns after a two year absence, little knowing that Delia has dropped him. Charlotte comforts Clem’s broken heart, to the extent that there’s an illegitimate child from the liaison. As for Clem, he joins the legions of the Union dead. Their daughter Clementina (who grows into Jane Bryan) and the machinations between the cousin to hide the child’s backstory conspire to wither Charlotte before our eyes. In the first half, we see the essence of what Davis had; the intensity and fearlessness, and the poise that makes even a hoop skirt look supple. Then, later on, she’s overly made up to look consumed with disappointment, stabbing at her embroidery and being looked at with scorn as a spinster. It’s based on an Edith Wharton novella, by way of Zoe Akins’ play. Unlike in much of Wharton it doesn’t suggest the social changes going on outside the walls, except through the difference of costumes. It’s a smaller thing compared to the greatest portrait of a thwarted woman whom life has passed by—Agnes Moorehead in Magnificent Ambersons.

It was an unhappy set. On the one hand Hopkins suspected Davis of dallying with her husband Anatole Litvak; on the other hand, Davis thought she was being made up too heavily (Hopkins’ Delia ages with interesting shadows on her face; Davis looks like the denizen of a haunted house) If this isn’t the movie that caused Davis to rhetorically ask “Is Max Steiner coming down these [expletive] stairs, or am I?” it might as well have been—the overemphatic score tends to sabotage what sensitivity Davis brings to playing a woman whose only fleeting happiness came from goodbye kisses.

Plays Saturday and Sunday (December 14-15) at 5:45 and 9:55.


Tuesday and Wednesday

The Roaring Twenties (1939)

Originally played Stanford Theatre November 1-4, 1939.

In his memoirs, James Cagney noted that crime dramas were flying off the assembly line at Warner Brothers with such rapidity—last minute script changes and changes in casting—that a lot of the actors were making things up off the cuff when they went along. An example, according to him, is the two-for-one punch he deals out here: the first mug caroms onto one behind him, and both hit the floor. Covering about 15 years of history in less than two hours, Raoul Walsh’s dynamite adventure demonstrates how much faster the movies were in 1939 than now. Contemporary films are edited with more speed, but the actual urgency and rapidity of the story telling isn’t as quick. Journalist turned producer Mark Hellinger—a theatrical columnist for an alarmingly titled insider’s mag called Zit’s Weekly, and an acquaintance of Legs Diamond and Dutch Schultz—put his signature on the titles. Narrator John Deering chatters away like a teletype machine, leading us through this story of prohibition, “an era of amazing madness!” in which there was a clash between “an unpopular law and an unwilling people.”

It begins with a male meet-cute: during a bombardment, three doughboys seek shelter in the same shell-hole. They’re George (Humphrey Bogart), Eddie (James Cagney) and Lloyd (Jeffrey Lynn): after WW I, their various destinies link in NYC. Lloyd becomes a lawyer and a DA; Eddie becomes a bootlegger and distiller who (like Cagney in real life) never touches the stuff— “a dressmaker doesn’t have to wear dresses.” During a hijacking at sea, he re-encounters George and gets into a dubious partnership with his old war buddy. As the stakes rise, so does the body count ... and Eddie finds himself less able to hold onto the good girl he loves (singer Priscilla Lane, the Shirley Jones type). The music is the Bugs Bunny songbook: “Melancholy Baby,” “I’m Just Wild About Harry,” Gershwin’s “Swanee”—much of it takes place at a speakeasy run by Eddie’s loyal female pal Panama Smith (Gladys George, terrific); she’s a figure based on the salty hostess Texas Guinan, who used to greet new arrivals at her speakeasy with “Hello, suckers!”. Generic as this can be—“Take your hand off your heater, Lefty!” —it’s directed with pepper and spirit by Walsh. Note the exciting way he stages a liquor warehouse heist with alternate high and low angles, with shadows of figures being surprised and kayoed, and Bogart’s broad grin when he shoots an unarmed guard.

Plays Tuesday and Wednesday (December 17-18) at 7:30.

Drums Along the Mohawk (1939)

Originally played Stanford Theatre November 23-25, 1939

Gil (Henry Fonda) and Magdalena, called Lana (Claudette Colbert—her make-up perfect)—are settlers in upstate New York in the Revolutionary War era; they’re deep in the wilderness but the war comes to them. Certainly, there’s premonitions of the European war to come in this movie about battle. But John Ford’s focus on rumbustiousness and funny-accented bumpkins makes one think that the movie’s never going to get underway. And the over-determination is so thick that John Carradine wears an eyepatch, so we’ll know he’s evil. Nevertheless, it does get underway—it’s not all about how sweet Colbert looks (very sweet) in a little tri-cornered hat, or the stained-glass hues of Ford’s first color film, or how cinematographers Ray Rennahan and Bert Glennon do for blues, purples and white what GWTW did for crimsons and scarlet. (Though the invading Indians use fire, and nothing looks better in Technicolor than fire). Ford’s sense of composition doesn’t fail him. Images here look like a cinematic version of Howard Pyle and N. C. Wyeth illustrations, particularly with figures stealing through the white birches. (Ford shot near Cedar City in Utah.) Things get rough, as the war starts to rob the settlers of life and limb—as in a scene where a soon to be one-legged man starts to tell a saw-wielding doctor a story about the first time he killed a deer, just as we fade out. Seneca Nation Chief John Big Tree is the Christian Indian who hollers “Hallelujah” like it’s a war cry. He certainly has a face for the movies (he claimed he was one of the three models for the head on a buffalo nickel and could be). Also, there’s some aid here from Edna May Oliver, as a widow who hires the burned-out Gil and Lana as domestics. Oliver clearly decided that it’d be a good idea to take the tale into Dickens territory. Drums Along the Mohawk is a reminder that every quotidian American town called Fort Whatever was once a place in which terrified settlers huddled, putting their trust in long rifles. But it’s also a reminder that there’s been no perfect movie about our revolution—was the struggle too cruel, or is it just the knee breeches and buckled shoes that throws a director off?

Plays Tuesday and Wednesday (December 17-18) at 5:35 and 9:30.