If I Were King (1938, Directed by Frank Lloyd) English 8

Starring Ronald Coleman, Basil Rathbone, Frances Dee, Stanley Ridges

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(8-Exceptional Film)

Exciting. Intelligent. Lavish.

Anybody can relate to being dissatisfied with their country’s leadership. How many people believe, or at least boast that they could do better if given the chance? Not surprisingly, this feeling extends long before present-day issues, and, in a forgotten classic, If I Were King, we glimpse 15th century France, alternating at times between the much-maligned King Louis XI (played by Basil Rathbone) and the rebel rousing, street poet Francois Villon (played by Ronald Coleman). Never mind that the French historical figures are portrayed here by British thespians, and many supporting players are played by Americans. As a typical style in Hollywood films, I quickly looked past this oddity and was gripped by this exciting swashbuckler, and moved by the two leads’ excellent performances.  This is an exceptional film.

The King and his people have been pushed to holing up in Paris, besieged by the formidable Burgundians, and reduced to scraps for food. Well, actually it’s the common people who go hungry, while the King and his court eat rations of the finest food. On the streets, Francois Villon spouts poetry to the pretty girls and leads raids on the King’s supply of food, narrowly escaping capture. Meanwhile, in his castle, the King detects a spy in his midst and sets a trap to catch the rat. This leads him to a dingy tavern in disguise where he hears the popular Villon drunkenly bragging of what he would do if he were king while insulting the current leader. Naturally, King Louis makes plans to punish the man later, but fate intercedes. He discovers the identity of the spy in his quarters, and it turns out to be his Grand Constable, the man in charge of his military. When the Grand Constable attacks Villon upon recognizing him as a wanted thief, Villon kills him and unknowingly does the King a favor. In return, King Louis, more out of jest than true gratitude, names Villon as the new Grand Constable for one week, and so, Villon gets the chance to make good on his boasts, not knowing that the King plans on executing him at the end of the week.

Basil Rathbone, aside from his long string of Sherlock Holmes movies, is best remembered for playing suave villains who ultimately lose to the protagonist in a duel (The Mark of Zorro, The Court Jester, Adventures of Robin Hood, Captain Blood).  He was great in those roles. Here, he plays a dramatically different character in the historical personage of Louis XI. He makes the unpopular figure a complex, anti-hero of sorts. He’s intelligent, back-handed, greedy, surprising, but not cruel. Rathbone is almost unrecognizable in the role.

Ronald Coleman, unfortunately not as big of a star today as some of his peers, was a fantastic actor with some truly great films. While If I Were King may not be on the same lofty level as another of his films, Prisoner of Zenda, it represents another example of his greatness. He, too, could be described as an anti-hero. He’s a thief, a womanizer, a common criminal, but given the chance, he proves himself to be a hero, saving his city and its people.

A key aspect of any great adventure film is a compelling romance, and If I Were King provides in this as well. Villon falls for the lady-in-waiting, Katherine (Dee), letting her think he’s a high born noble. She eventually falls for the courageous and compassionate man he is, and not the strutting nobleman he pretends to be, and we leave the film giddy from a film that delivered in rich character, sweeping adventure and intrigue, and literate, well-developed romance.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(547)

Heaven Can Wait (1943, Directed by Ernst Lubitsch) English 6

Starring Don Ameche, Gene Tierney, Charles Coburn, Eugene Palette, Marjorie Main

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(6-Good Film)

Outlandish. Witty. Lavish.

Not to be confused with Warren Beatty’s ’70s film, this comedy starts with Henry Van Cleve (Ameche) descending to hell where he must explain to the head honcho why he belongs there. The film then flashes back as he tells his life story from his days as a precocious kid to meeting his wife to his tenth wedding anniversary when she walks out and he has to win her back. It’s a unique comedy, and a perfect example of the “Lubitsch touch,” the quality this film’s director gives his comedies that make even the darkest of material seem light and charming. Don Ameche, remarkable for the matinee idol type, has an incredible comedic range and a very expressive face. He’s fantastic, and the aging process he goes throughout his story is rendered better than many modern films.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(544)

The Bat (1959, Directed by Crane Wilbur) English 6

Starring Vincent Price, Agnes Moorehead, Gavin Gordon, Lenita Lane, Darla Hood, John Sutton

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(6-Good Film)

Entertaining. Involving. Campy.

Two murderous plots are afoot in the small, seemingly sleepy town that mystery writer, Cornelia van Gorder (Moorehead), spends her summers in, and both appear to revolve around a fortune in money missing from the local bank. Vincent Price plays a doctor and the only one who knows exactly where the money’s hidden (since he killed the man who stole it). Then there’s a figure being called “the bat,” terrorizing the town with a string of murders. It all blends together rather simply and the main whodunnit plot is obvious in my opinion, but The Bat is entertaining. The confined setting and cast of older female leads are terrific.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(539)

San Francisco (1936, Directed by W.S Van Dyke) English 7

Starring Clark Gable, Jeanette MacDonald, Spencer Tracey, Jack Holt

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(7-Very Good Film)

Epic. Impressive. Engaging.

A midwestern girl and pastor’s daughter (MacDonald) moves to the raucous urban sprawl of 1906 San Francisco. There, she falls for the roguish club owner Blackie Norton (Gable) while being pursued by the more reliable and wealthy Jack Burley. Special effects and melodrama. An early example that I believe set the template for later classics such as Titanic. The climactic earthquake sequences are remarkable. While the surrounding drama is at times heavy-handed and somewhat hackneyed (perhaps due to age), Gable gives his strong performance as the selfish man changed by love. Tracy is excellent in essentially a supporting role (although he was nominated for the Oscar in the lead category). MacDonald is lovely as the fish out of water songstress and rising star.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(531)

A Royal Scandal (1945, Directed by Otto Preminger) English 6

Starring Tallulah Bankhead, Charles Coburn, Vincent Price, William Eythe, Anne Baxter, Sig Ruman, Mischa Auer

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(6-Good Film)

Witty. Slight. Underrated.

Tallulah Bankhead plays Catherine the Great, the titanic figure of Russian and World History, here, already established as Empress, and with a reputation for seducing many of her male subjects. A military officer, Chernoff (Eythe), discovers a plot to overthrow Catherine, and rushes to warn her. She’s already aware of the plot but decides to make Chernoff her next conquest. Meanwhile, unscrupulous but loyal Chancellor Nicolai (Coburn), does everything he can to destroy Catherine’s enemies. The whole thing is played for laughs, originally meant for the great Ernst Lubitsch who fell ill during the production. The film, no doubt, lost a great deal in the switch from Lubitsch, with his legendary “Lubitsch touch” when it comes to comedy, to Preminger, who’s a great director in his own right but worked almost exclusively in drama. Still, A Royal Scandal is handsomely made and terrifically performed, especially by Coburn and Bankhead (her own reputation mirroring Catherine’s).

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(530)

Top Hat (1935, Directed by Mark Sandrich) English 9

Starring Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Edward Everett Horton, Eric Blore

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(9-Great Film)

Classic. Timeless. Enchanting.

Internationally renowned dancer Jerry Travers (Astaire) falls for the lovely Dale Tremont (Rogers), but she mistakenly thinks he’s married to her friend Madge and is determined to make him pay for his unfaithfulness. The best of the fantastic series of Astaire-Rogers films with all the familiar elements: crazy supporting cast, elegant song-and-dance numbers, madcap mix-ups. Features perhaps their most famous moment with the song “Cheek to cheek.”

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(526)

Dodsworth (1936, Directed by William Wyler) English 10

Starring Walter Huston, Ruth Chatterton, Mary Astor, Paul Lukas, David Niven, Gregory Gaye

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(10-Masterpiece)

Mature. Intelligent. Romantic.

A literate, engaging drama about a middle-aged married couple (played by Walter Huston and Ruth Chatterton) looking to start over on a trip through Europe. The two struggle, however, when the wife is pursued by handsome suitors and the husband grows bored without a job to do. Well-written and romantic classic. Huston is completely natural and note-perfect in the title role. His late-season romance with Mary Astor is one of my film favorites. Director Wyler was famous for his excruciating attention to detail, and it shows through in every scene.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(522)