New Comet Over Hollywood series: 1939

For classic film fans, 1939 is a mystical year filled with perfect films.

Gone with the Wind,” “The Wizard of Oz,” “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington” and “Ninotchka” are just a few of the greats that were released in 1939.

But in 2011, I decided I wanted to see beyond more than just the big-budget box office successes of the year and dig deeper to see what made this year tick. Were all the movies special or was it just a handful?

This included watching all the B and C movies – The 68-minute movies that star people like character actor Henry O’Neill as a lead character.

So seven years ago I set out to see every film made in 1939, a count that came roughly to 515.

Read more in my 2011 post “1939: Watching a Year” about how this all began.

To date after all this time, I’ve still managed to only watch 173 movies made in 1939. So to help propel myself further, I am beginning a weekly Comet Over Hollywood series focused on the films of 1939.

Every Thursday, I will review a film made during 1939. This could range from the top tier films to those B movies shown in a double feature.

Join me every week as I “Watch a Year.”

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Review: Star Reporter (1939)

Often while discussing films we rank their importance with the alphabet.

An A film is a mainstream, high dollar movie. A B movie is a low-budget commercial film that may have a quality story line and actors, but is less publicized. These films would be the bottom half of the double feature — sort of like the song on the 45 record that wasn’t the hit single.

“Star Reporter” (1939) would most likely fall under the “B movie” category.

star

Distributed by “poverty row” studio Monogram Pictures, this hour long film revolves around newspapers and crime.

Reporter John Randolph, played by Warren Hull, works for the Star Tribune newspaper but is also a “star” on the job. Considered bright and brilliant, his father was the owner of the newspaper and was recently murdered. Randolph believes his father was killed because he had information that could bring down the “underworld” of the town.

Randolph is also a big supporter of District Attorney William Burnette, played by Wallis Clark, and throws his support for the DA in each of his stories at the newspaper. Randolph happens to be engaged to the DA’s daughter, Barbara, played by Marsha Hunt.

But when a murder happens, secrets about Randolph and his mother Julia, played by Virginia Howell, are threatened to be dragged out.

It turns out that the deceased newspaper owner was not Randolph’s biological father. Mrs. Randolph was once married to Charlie Bennett, who disappeared and was believed dead. Bennett has now reappeared as the murderer using the name Joe Draper, played by Morgan Wallice.

Lawyer Whitaker tries to bargain with the DA.

Lawyer Whitaker tries to bargain with the DA.

Dirty lawyer Whitaker, played by Clay Clement, is defending Draper.  Whitaker knows Mrs. Randolph’s secret and threatens to reveal it, if she and the DA do not cooperate and close the case.

Draper already signed a confession with the DA, but it is stolen by a thief named Clipper, played by actor Paul Fix in a very small role.

The DA decides not to prosecute to protect the Randolphs. John, not knowing the family secret, turns against  his father-in-law-to-be. Now rather than backing the DA, he works to get him thrown out of office, which was Whitaker’s goal.

For an hour long movie, this is an awfully complicated and mildly confusing plot.

Unlike most newspaper films of the 1930s and 1940s, the majority of the film does not involve a reporter playing detective or getting in fights with gangsters.

I was pleasantly surprised by this, until the end. At the end of the film Randolph is in the same house as the gangster/his biological father with a gun pointing at him. Though as a reporter, it’s not terribly accurate. I wasn’t surprised by this plot development. In my experience as a reporter, I have never gotten in fist fights with gangsters, but then maybe it was different in the 1930s.

Reporter Randolph is engaged to the DA's daughter, played by Marsha Hunt.

Reporter Randolph is engaged to the DA’s daughter, played by Marsha Hunt.

I did like how some of the lines showed just how busy reporters are and how they frequently are on call or away from home.

“After we’re married you can furnish the pressroom as living quarters. That way I can run in and see you between murders,” Randolph said to his new fiancée Barbara.

“Our wedding guests were kept waiting because of a special edition,” Mrs. Randolph told Barbara.

These lines made me chuckle because anyone in newspapers know the words day off, weekend or quiet evening are almost laughable.

I discovered “Star Reporter” shortly after I started working at The Shelby Star in October 2012.

Over the last two years of working at the newspaper, I felt a special connection to the title, because I was (Shelby) Star reporter Jessica Pickens.

Now as I wrap up my last week at the newspaper, I felt it appropriate to finally review the film I’ve been meaning to write about for two years.

Is “Star Reporter” a great movie? No. The biggest names in the film are Paul Fix, who later went on to be in several John Ford films, and Marsha Hunt. Both actors are in the film for less than 15 minutes.

But it is mildly entertaining, especially if you are looking for a very brief film to watch.

In a year that released “Gone with the Wind,” “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” and “Wizard of Oz” –just to name a few of nearly 100 well received films- it is interesting to take a look at the B side of the year 1939.

In an age now where we only concentrate the blockbusters, these little hour long films are equally important to explore.

StarReporter1939

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Musical Mondays: Rose of Washington Square (1939)

It’s no secret that the Hollywood Comet loves musicals.

In 2010, I revealed I had seen 400 movie musicals over the course of eight years. Now that number is over 500.

To celebrate and share this musical love, I’m starting a weekly feature about musicals.

This week’s musical:
Rose of Washington Square” (1939)- Musical #462

roseStarring:
Alice Faye, Tyrone Power, Al Jolson, William Frawley, Joyce Compton

Director: 
Gregory Ratoff

Studio:
Twentieth Century Fox

Plot:
Set in the 1920s, Rose (Faye) and Ted (Jolson) dream of becoming singing stars. While Ted’s career takes off, Rose works her way up while singing in speakeasies. Then Rose meets and falls in love with gambling, con-artist Bart (Power). Bart has trouble with the law but somehow keeps his troubles away from her. When Rose is discovered by Ziegfeld and makes it big on Broadway, she and Bart marry but he disappears because of trouble with the law.

Trivia:
The plot of this film strongly resembled Fanny Brice’s relationship with Jules W. Arndt Stein. Faye even sings Brice’s signature song “My Man.”

Alice Faye as Rose falls in love with gambler Tyrone Power who plays Bart.

Alice Faye as Rose falls in love with gambler Tyrone Power who plays Bart.

Brice sued 20th Century Fox for $750,000 and the studio settled with Brice for an undisclosed amount, according to the Biography documentary on Alice Faye.

The publicity made “Rose of Washington Square the biggest musical hit of 1939.

Notable songs:
-Al Jolson sings his signature songs “My Mammy,” “Toot, Toot, Tootsie” and “California, Here I Come”

-Alice Faye sings Fanny Brice’s signature ballad “My Man”

Highlights:
-Louis Prima has an appearance playing the trumpet as Alice Faye sings. Not only is it always great to have a Prima appearance in a film, but Faye later married Phil Harris who performed with Prima in Disney’s “The Jungle Book.”

-When Alice Faye sings “Rose of Washington Square” specialty dancers Igor and Tanya perform a dizzying dance. Also dancers sing and dance as they smoke a cigarette, toss the cigarette and another appears in their hand.

"Rose of Washington Square" cigarette dancing

“Rose of Washington Square” cigarette dancing

My review:
Alice Faye once said, “My voice was deeper than the plot” of many of her movies and this applies to “Rose of Washington Square.”

I love Alice Faye and will watch her in anything, but my favorite part was getting to see her perform with Louis Prima. Though Jolson was in black face, it was interesting to see him perform several of the songs that made him famous.

The movie was released during Hollywood’s best year, has a stellar cast and well-known songs, but it lacks something. Aside from the Brice vs. 20th Century Fox publicity, it is a run of the mill singer-trying-to-make-it-big musical.

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1939: Watching a year in films

Greta Garbo in “Ninotchka” (1939)

1939.

To most, it’s just a year that occurred a long time ago.

To the Polish, it’s when the Germans took over the country with a Blitzkrieg.

To classic movie fans, it’s a year like no other.

Sure, there are several great films that came out from the 1920s to the 1950s. “Casablanca” came out in 1942. “White Christmas” lit up the screens in 1954. But neither of those years have a plethora of unforgettable movies that have a certain extra something added to them.

Gone with the Wind,” “The Wizard of Oz,” “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington” and “Ninotchka” are all givens when listing off excellent, flawless 1939 films.

But what about the other 515 American films put out in that same year?  Were they just as good?  I decided to find out.

In a crazed moment last summer, I decided to try to see every movie made in 1939. I had two criteria to make it a little easier to find the movies: They must be full-length movies, no short films; they must be American and they cannot be from television (despite being early in TV’s history, there were already experiments with made for TV movies in 1939).

I went on IMDB and got a full list of all the films from 1939. I clicked on each one, made sure it followed my requirements and then typed the title in alphabetical order into a table on Word. It took me several days to make my list due to my inefficient method.

 I was surprised to find that I had already seen 90 of the 515 movies. So far I have seen 106 and counting; this project won’t be completed any time soon.

 Through this process, I have discovered several gems during 1939 that are sometimes overshadowed by larger budget films.

 Some things I’ve discovered:

•Non-MGM films are overlooked:

-“The Rains Came” has a fantastic scene during the flood when the whole city crashes down.

-“Drums Along the Mohawk” gives Claudette Colbert the chance to be in a period film on the frontier and play alongside Henry Fonda. The movie looks fabulous in color.

High quality B movies:

-“Everybody’s Hobby” is a lot of fun with Henry O’Neil being driven crazy by his family’s hobbies.

-Freda Inescort gets the change to play a nice woman in “Beauty for Asking” with a young Lucille Ball.

Contributions to series films:

            –The first “Maisie ” movie starring Ann Sothern premiered. I adore Maisie Revere and her adventures. They are hilarious but also usually have a good moral to them. Jean Harlow was originally supposed to be Maisie before her death. I could definitely see this, but love the spark that Ann offers.

            -Two Dr. Kildare movies come out this year. “Calling Dr. Kildare” and “The Secret of Dr. Kildare,” which were the 3rd and 4th films in the series.  Laraine Day as Nurse Mary Lamont hops on board as a love interest to  Jimmy Kildare.

            -Glenda Farrell and Jane Wyman finish off the “Torchy Blane” series with the last three films.

            –Andy Hardy chases girls and has “man to man” talks with Judge Hardy in three films: “Andy Hardy Gets Spring Fever,” “The Hardy’s Ride High” and “Judge Hardy and  Son.”

Hedy Lamarr and Robert Taylor in “Lady of the Tropics” (1939)

Stars get their first big break:

            –Fresh from “Algiers,” Hedy Lamarr was playing a love interest to Robert Taylor in her first MGM movie “Lady of the Tropics”

            -Greer Garson graced the screen in her first two films “Goodbye, Mr. Chips” and “Remember?”

            -Lana Turner is moving away from being Cynthia Potter on Andy Hardy and making a name for herself in “Dancing Co-eds” and “Calling Dr. Kildare.”

            -Olivia De Havilland finally gets the big break she was looking for in “Gone with the Wind.”

            -Jimmy Stewart had already made waves in “Of Human Hearts” but he really showed he had leading man power in “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington” and three other films that year.

Deanna Durbin is all grown up as she receives her first kiss from Robert Stack in “First Love.”

Joan Crawford is in color for the first time in “Ice Follies of 1939”

I could go on forever of the excellent movies (like Beau Geste, Of Mice and Men, and Real Glory) but no one wants to read 2000 words on a blog.

 All these movies had a certain magic and allowed several of our best stars to emerge. Where did it come from?

 According to the Turner Classic Movie documentary “1939,” 1939 was prolific for the United States in general. Roosevelt was helping the country work its way out of the Depression, and movies showed off this new wealth with stellar films. The industry began to take off for the next two years and then Pearl Harbor was attacked.

 World War II began for the United States and the growth Hollywood was once experiencing halted. The heyday of movies was forgotten as rationing and blackouts became a concern for the world.

After the war the movie industry would never return to the heights achieved in 1939 and American film tastes would change dramatically over the coming decades.

 I hope to discover more about the magic, and maybe see exactly what its source is when I complete all 515 films. It may be a large undertaking, but I don’t think it will be an unpleasant one.

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Confessions of a VHS User

222 classic movies on VHS tapes

Recently my mother told me that we had an estimated 222 movies taped off of Turner Classic Movies. Why you ask?

Every month I flip through the “Turner Classic Movie Now Playing Guide” and make a list of 20 to 50 movies to tape.

Our family owns a DVR but we use VHS tapes, because they hold more, are reusable and usually give us higher quality.

I tape so many movies so I can fulfill the many lists I have made to organize my old movie obsessions.

Here is a very brief summary of the lists I have so far:
-Movie Musical list: I have currently seen 374 musicals. I started this list back in 2004 when I was in 9th grade.  This includes any movie musical I have seen, new or old; anything from a Kay Kyser musical to “Chicago.”
-Silent Movie list: This currently only has 40 movies. I only started really getting interested in silent films in late 2008 and just started the list in March 2010.
-Screen teams: This is a list of famous screen teams such as Errol Flynn and Olivia De Havilland, Myrna Loy and William Powell, Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon.  I try to see all of the movies the screen teams were in together.
-Movies Series: Similarly to the Screen Teams list, I am trying to see all the movies in certain film series such as Andy Hardy, Dr. Kildaire and Maisie.
-Actresses Lists: I have 47 actresses that I am trying to see all of their movies. A few of these are Jean Arthur, Bette Davis and Kay Francis. So far I’ve only seen all of Judy Garland’s movies.
-Actors Lists: Similar to the actress list, except with 19 actors. Lists include Van Johnson, Dana Andrews and George Brent.

Recently, I have started a rather ambitious list. It is all of the movies from 1939- a total of 514 movies and I have only seen 84.

“The Rains Came”: 20th Century Fox’s contribution to the 1939 royalty

The year of 1939 is important not just for “The Wizard of Oz” and “Gone with the Wind,” but it also birthed other well known movies such as “Ninotchka,” “Goodbye, Mr. Chips,” “Stagecoach” and “The Grapes of Wrath.”

It’s amazing to look at all of the films that came out during what is known as “Hollywood’s Greatest Year,” and I was inspired to try to see all of them.

Turner Classic Movies showed a documentary in the summer of 2009 called “1939: Hollywood’s Greatest Year.” The documentary said the reason this year was profitable was the United States was slowly getting out of the depression and the film companies were able to fund bigger projects.

However, this glory only lasted one year.  Two years later World War II hit, actors were drafted and America and Hollywood put their efforts toward the war on the home front and overseas. Once the war was over, the tone of America and movies changed from light and happy 1930s films to darker and angsty melodramas, according to the documentary.

In a way, this is why I want to make the list. I feel like when people hear 1939, they think of “Gone with the Wind” or “Wizard of Oz,” but there were so many other special movies that year. I want to see if the other films that you don’t hear about have that same magic. Who knows, once I finish watching all 514 movies maybe I’ll try my hand at writing a book.

Making the list took maybe three days, however I know that the watching process will take much longer. I’m worried about being able to track some of the movies and making it through low budget crime movies.

Wish me luck!

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The Mystery of the Murdered Movie

I love Nancy Drew.

I have played and solved 21 of the HerInteractive PC games and read most of the original yellow bound novels. I even own a Nancy Drew cookbook, a “Nancy Drew’s Guide to Life” book and a large Nancy Drew cut out.

Nancy Drew has played a pivotal role for the past 80 years in literature for young girls, as well as in pop culture.

Everyone knows who she is and is fairly respected as a literary character. However, why is there not a flattering movie adaptation depicting everyone’s this important literary character and symbol for American women?

Eight years after the first Nancy Drew novel, “The Secret of the Old Clock,” was published in 1930, the first Nancy Drew film adaptation was released.

Nancy Drew, Reporter,” the first film adaptation of the series, was released in 1938, three more movies were released all in 1939. These movies included “Nancy Drew  Troubleshooter,” “Nancy Drew Detective ” and “Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase).”

Film series were not rare in the 1930’s and 1940’s. In fact many studios made a great deal of money off of series such as “Andy Hardy,” “Dr. Kildaire,” “Maisie” and “Boston Blackie just to name a few of many.

I imagine that is what Warner Brothers was trying to do with Nancy Drew. But none of the films followed or resembled any of the Nancy Drew books, except for snippets of “Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase” which I think is modeling itself after the book “The Hidden Staircase.”

In novels Miss Drew is level-headed, fearless and intelligent. She doesn’t goof off and there isn’t much time for romance in her life. Yes there is her boyfriend, Ned Nickerson, but I can count on one hand the amount of times they kissed or flirted in the novels. She was also very talented and fashionable. She could tap dance the Morris code while wearing a freshly pressed tailored suit.

Also in the novels, Ned was concerned about Nancy but never hindered her sleuthing. Carson Drew, Nancy’s father, was a distinguished lawyer. He teased his daughter for her appetite for mysteries and trusted her good sense.

However, the characters in the 1930s Nancy Drew series didn’t resemble Carolyn Keene’s intelligent teens.

Nancy Drew, played by Bonita Granville, was bumbling, scatter-brained and frightened for most of the films. She set out to solve a mystery but would run home before finding any actual clues.

Bonita Granville as Nancy Drew and Frankie Thomas as Ted Nickerson

Ned Nickerson, played by Frankie Thomas, was named TED in the movies for some reason. He was maybe the most tolerable character in the movies, but I wouldn’t run to him to protect me.

John Litel was a very irritating Carson Drew. He forbid Nancy from sleuthing and worried about her constantly. Even Hannah Gruen, the housekeeper, ran away in terror when someone broke into their home. Hannah in the books would have knocked them on their ear.

John Litel as Carson Drew in “Nancy Drew…Reporter” (1938)

The films involve very little mystery solving and an over abundance of silly slap-stick. I’m not asking for a whole detailed novel to be played out in the 68 minute films, but Warner Brothers could have at least been accurate with their character depictions.

Bonita Granville, who was 16 when she played Nancy Drew, was in top-notch films such as “These Three”(1936), which she received her only Oscar nomination, and “Now, Voyager” (1941), giving excellent performances in both but clearly Nancy Drew was not the role for her.

I made a list of who, with some tweaks to the script, could have been the perfect Nancy Drew casting in the 1930s or 1940s.

Nancy Drew: Deanna Durbin (19 at this time) would be my first pick. She sometimes plays silly characters, but also plays serious roles beautifully. Nancy Drew was also supposed to be very attractive. Miss Granville wasn’t ugly, but Deanna Durbin is decidedly prettier. I’m sure they would have to fit in a song or two for Deanna. She would have been old enough by this time, because “First Love,” the film that she received her first on-screen kiss came out the same year as the series.

Carson Drew: John Litel is generally a character actor with small roles. I’m not sure why they chose him to play the distinguished lawyer, Carson Drew. I can’t think of anyone else who could play this role more perfectly than Walter Pidgeon. Mr. Pidgeon is the definition of distinguished and sophistication. With his fatherly and friendly acting style, along with his pipe, I can picture him now giving Nancy advice.

Ned Nickerson: I would either say a teen-aged Jackie Cooper (17 at the time) or Robert Stack (20 at this time). Both boys were attractive and would have seemed more protective of Nancy Drew than Frankie Thomas. Stack was also in the 1939 film “First Love” with Miss Durbin and would have been of a suitable age.

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