The star-dusted celluloid constituting this year’s ‘Hooray for Hollywood’ retrospective makes a strong case for 1939 being the most illustrious 12 months in the history of American cinema – and who are we to disagree? Of course, the year’s reputation doesn’t rest on Best Picture nominees alone, with hundreds of other films thundering through the Hollywood studio system across the same period. So where next to turn attentions once one has walked the yellow brick road, bid adieu to Mr Chips and delighted in Garbo’s laugh? Well, you could do a darn sight worse than this lot…
Only Angels Have Wings
A year after they made effervescent screwball comedy Bringing Up Baby, Cary Grant reunited with director Howard Hawks for this thrilling action-adventure yarn, set in a fictional banana republic on the edge of the Andes. Grant plays a tough-minded pilot charged with getting the mail flown out on time whatever the weather, whatever the risk, while fellow marquee name Jean Arthur is the visiting showgirl who locates his sensitive side. But the real love story is that between the fatalistic pilot fraternity and their profession, with life-or-death choices taken on the chin and heroic sacrifices the order of the day.
The Roaring Twenties
A hard-edged prohibition tale told with plenty of moxie, The Roaring Twenties charts the moral erosion of opportunistic bootlegger Eddie Bartlett; a milk-supping First World War vet who gradually hardens into a ruthless crime boss in jazz age New York. In the lead role, a sly-eyed James Cagney conveys a perilous charisma that carries the saga through its decade-long sweep, while there’s stellar support from a tough-talking Gladys George (as the no-nonsense club owner who first leads Eddie astray) and a perfectly repellent Humphrey Bogart (as an old army pal turned volatile business partner). Last year, the GFF included The Roaring Twenties as part of its Cagney retrospective, so if you missed out then, now’s as good a time as any to track down a copy and remedy the situation.
The Hound of the Baskervilles/The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
Basil Rathbone wasn’t the first actor to inhabit the role of Arthur Conan Doyle’s master sleuth, not by a long chalk. Neither was he the last, with Cushing, Cumberbatch and a bonneted Downey Jr amongst those who have put their own slant on Baker Street’s most famous resident in the decades since. Yet for the last 70 years, his has been the iteration against which every other has been judged – the closest thing cinema has to a quintessential Sherlock Holmes. While later films in Rathbone’s 16-film series saw the character thwarting Nazis in contemporary wartime settings, these initial Victorian-set instalments – released a few months apart by 20th Century Fox – present the character in more familiar terms: first investigating one of the most famous cases from the Conan Doyle canon, and then battling Moriarty in a Tower of London showdown.
At the Circus
Granted, the Marx Brothers’ Paramount heyday was several years behind them by this point, but all the classic hallmarks are there if you look for them, from prickly wisecracks (“I bet your father spent the first year of your life throwing rocks at the stork”) to visual lunacy (a knockabout finale featuring a gorilla on a trapeze and Margaret Dumont’s society dame being fired out of a cannon) – and, in Groucho’s signature performance of Lydia the Tattooed Lady, the most memorable musical interlude of their entire oeuvre.
[written for the Cineskinny]