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Wife vs. Secretary

Cute slice of 1930s marital life
If this movie were made today, you wouldn't know going in whether the wife or secretary would come out on top. However, made in 1936, in the thick of the Hays Code, it's a safe bet to say the secretary doesn't successfully wreck a home without any consequences. It's actually written into the Production Code that a villain either has to see the light and repent or be killed - to show a positive role model to the audience.

Myrna Loy and Jean Harlow play the titular characters, and it takes no guessing at all to figure out which plays which. Though happily married to Myrna, Clark Gable has an "office wife" relationship with his devoted secretary, Jean. Jean's clearly in love with him, but will he really cheat on the wife of the Thin Man? You'll have to watch this quintessential 1930s view of marital life to find out. If you do, you'll see two remarkable things: Jean Harlow without her blonde hair, and James Stewart before he was famous. Jean's publicity campaign wanted to soften her bombshell image, but she really went darker because the continued platinum was starting to cause hair breakage. Jimmy plays Jean's hapless suitor, and if you know your trivia, this is the movie he famously kept messing up the takes so he'd have to keep kissing her!

Test Pilot

Lousy love story
Remember in A Lost Lady when Ricardo Cortez crashes his plane in Barbara Stanwyck's backyard? Remember how ridiculous that was? Well, another movie borrowed that meet-cute: Test Pilot. Clark Gable is a daredevil pilot with a reckless personal life, and when he lands his plane in the family farm of Myrna Loy, he stays for dinner. They're attracted to each other, and they elope. But, the familiar problem rears its head: Myrna wants to domesticate him.

Clark is the type of man who flies a dangerous airplane and takes chances because it gives him a thrill. If that's who she fell in love with, then she shouldn't want to change him. If she wants someone more sedentary, then she should have married Clark's pal, Spencer Tracy. This pseudo-love triangle is really irritating, since I'm not on anyone's side. I would have been far happier if everyone went their separate ways and made a much shorter movie. If you like this one, though, check out the similarly themed Eternally Yours or the William Faulkner drama The Tarnished Angels.

Run Silent Run Deep

Extremely boring
If you're new to old movies, and you never really seen Burt Lancaster or Clark Gable, please don't rent Run Silent Run Deep as one of your first. This movie is enough to drive the most devoted fan away from either of them, so have an old favorite on hand to drive it out of your mind.

Clark Gable is a submarine captain whose ship was sunk by the Japanese. He's angry and out for revenge, and after a year, he's finally presented with his chance. He's given control of another submarine, one that Burt Lancaster was counting on commanding, and he plans to go against orders for his personal vendetta.

This plot sounds far more interesting than its execution. The dialogue is boring, the story is predictable, and neither powerhouse actor is given anything to do but shout and scowl. Both sport terrible haircuts, so it's no fun for the women in the audience. If it's going to be boring, we might as well have some eye candy, right? You won't find any in this movie.

DLM Warning: If you suffer from vertigo or dizzy spells, like my mom does, this movie might not be your friend. This is a submarine movie, so expect the ocean waves to make you sick. In other words, "Don't Look, Mom!"

Never Let Me Go

Clark and Gene are adorable
Sometimes there's a screen couple that's so adorable and looks so happy together, they make you wish they were married offscreen as well. Then, whenever we see either of them in another movie with a different costar, it's almost as if they're being unfaithful. For me, I don't wish Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh were married; it's Clark Gable and Gene Tierney. I've never seen him give such a tender performance or look at another costar with such love - not even Jean Harlow!

Clark stars in this romantic drama as an American journalist stuck in post-war Russia. He's been pursuing the beautiful ballerina Gene Tierney, but up until recently she hasn't given him the time of day. Now, she's learned enough English to say she loves him and that she's agreed to marry him. The only glitch in the newlyweds' happiness is leaving the country. Clark wants to bring Gene back to America, but the Russian government isn't keen to let her go. In a heartbreaking scene, government officials pretend to give both their traveling papers, only to let Clark on the plane and hold Gene back. Both restrained, they're forced apart as Clark is flown out of Russia and forbidden from returning.

Another couple, Richard Haydn and Anna Valentina, are married and also trying to leave the country. They have a baby on the way, so when they also get waylaid by the government with the same treatment, they start to panic. I always like seeing Richard Haydn in pre-Uncle Max roles, since he looks so different and has such a different energy. He's a great sidekick to Clark, but the main couple definitely steal the show. Gene Tierney is completely adorable, with her fantastic Russian accent and her ballerina training. She's never been lovelier.

I didn't really like Clark Gable during his heyday, but I certainly admired his ability to adapt to the changing acting style of the passing years. In this movie, he's no longer the fast-talking, shouting fellow from the 1930s. He speaks with his eyes, talks softly, and fits right in with the realistic style of the 1950s. And not that this is particularly relevant, but he still looks good, too! Never Let Me Go was the same year as Mogambo, but he looks far younger in this movie.

DLM Warning: If you suffer from vertigo or dizzy spells, like my mom does, this movie might not be your friend. During the section when Clark Gable and Richard Haydn are on the boat, the waves make them bob up and down quite a bit and that will make you sick. In other words, "Don't Look, Mom!"

Men in White

Clark Gable gets a different role
Can't picture Clark Gable as a doctor? Then check him out in Men in White. The King takes on a very different role in this movie, and it's a wonder he was cast at all since he usually played the relatable everyman. In this role, he plays an ethical doctor who puts his patients and his integrity above everything else.

Myrna Loy plays Clark's socialite girlfriend. They don't share the same values, and she frequently complains that he's always working instead going to parties with her. Clark turns to his colleagues and mentors, Jean Hersholt, Otto Kruger, and Samuel S. Hinds for advice in balancing his personal and private life. Meanwhile, Elizabeth Allan is a nurse who values hard work as much as he does.

This is a pretty dramatic movie that ended up being banned by the Legion of Decency. There's a lot of subject matter that skirts around the Production Code (or doesn't skirt around it, as it turns out) and shows real people making tough decisions. For something lighter, try one of the Dr. Kildare movies, but if you want a real meaty hospital movie, rent this one or Vigil in the Night.

Manhattan Melodrama

So terrible
The message of this movie is so awful, I almost hate to give it any attention by reviewing it at all. But, since it's Clark Gable week here at Hot Toasty Rag, here I go:

The start of the movie is very sad, setting the stage for the titular melodrama. Mickey Rooney and Jimmy Butler are on a boat with their families for an afternoon party, when suddenly a fire breaks out. The boat is destroyed and several people are dead; Mickey and Jimmy are orphans. Adopted by a kind man whose son was killed, the boys grow up together but with different values. Mickey gets into trouble and Jimmy studies hard in school. As the years pass, they turn into Clark Gable, who owns a speakeasy, and William Powell, the district attorney about to throw his hat in the ring for governor of New York.

Clark's girlfriend is Myrna Loy, but she's decided she wants a change. She's no longer satisfied with living the high life of a gangster's moll; she wants to become respectable and settle down. Clark's not the man for her, so as quick as lightening, she switches her affections to Bill. The audience is supposed to be okay with it because Clark was supposed to meet both of them for dinner but was irresponsible and didn't show up; snooze lose? Although Bill rattles off a hilarious line as they're getting to know each other, "I was born at home, because I wanted to be near Mother at the time," I still couldn't root for him. He was a traitor to his brother!

The movie continues to be rigged against Clark and for Bill's ridiculous ethics. He supposedly values the law and integrity more than anything else, but how is the audience supposed to applaud him when he ends up hurting so many people in the process? He's a terrible person; and there were so many easy fixes along the way that could have prevented him from making the wrong choices, but I don't think the audience was supposed to have figured those plot holes out.

I hated this movie, and I wouldn't recommend anyone watch it. Not even if you love Bill and Myrna from the Thin Man movies and want to see another pairing. They made 14 movies together, so pick something else. If you love Clark Gable, don't even think about renting it. He gets betrayed and thrown under the bus so many times I lost track.

The King and Four Queens

Perfect vehicle for "the King"
Of all the movies he made, I think The King and Four Queens is the most fitting for Clark Gable. After all, he was dubbed "the King", and throughout the course of the movie, each of the four queens fall prey to his charms. There's a fantastic scene where he tries to warm up to the forbidding mother-in-law, Jo Van Fleet, by getting her to dance. She refuses, but each of her son's widows gladly pass Clark around. At last, we see Jo tapping her feet in spite of herself.

The plot of this entertaining western that mixes comedy, drama, and romance revolves around gold. Con man Clark Gable gets chased out of town, and when he overhears men in the town he's passing through talking about a group of bank robber brothers who hid their stash of gold, he decides to stick around. He makes up a phony story about being friends with the sole surviving brother and tries to get the mother and her four daughters-in-law to trust him enough to tell him where the gold is. He's charming, persuasive, and quick-thinking. It's no wonder wise Eleanor Parker, loose Jean Willes, dumb Barbara Nichols, and pious Sara Shane can't resist him!

With a fantastically rousing western theme from Alex North that gives Clark Gable a great entrance and puts you in the mood for a fun time, this movie is entertaining from start to finish. Each of the girls contributes to the plot, and Jo Van Fleet is unrecognizable as she once again plays someone far older than her real age. I've always liked Barbara Nichols, and found her to be completely interchangeable with Marilyn Monroe, and it was fun to see Jean Willes give a great Ava Gardner impression. Eleanor Parker can always hold your own, but if it's the King you've come to see, you won't be disappointed. He winds everyone (including the audience) around his little finger!

The Secret 6

Great direction
As far as 1930s gangster movies are concerned, I was a little disappointed by The Secret Six. I'd heard a lot of hype about it, but it wasn't nearly as captivating as The Roaring Twenties, The Public Enemy, or The Beast of the City, each revolving around bootleggers and policemen out to catch them. Unless you're a big Wallace Beery fan, or you want to see Jean Harlow before her eyebrows, you can rent one of the better ones. Wallace Beery stars as a gangster who wanted to go straight but gets very quickly seduced by his old crowd and goes to work for bootlegger Ralph Bellamy, who works under mob boss Lewis Stone. I wasn't used to seeing Lewis Stone in such a villainous role, but he certainly made the most of it! Where does Jean Harlow come in? Besides showing off her lovely figure and using her sex appeal to distract a do-gooder reporter from exposing the criminal underworld, she doesn't do much. Wallace Beery hands her a wad of cash as she disappears with the naïve young man, then tells her to report to him in the morning. Yes, folks, this is a pre-Code movie.

I was very impressed by George Hill's direction. For 1931, it was very forward-thinking. The start of the movie shows Wallace walking across the block, and the camera, mounted on an extensive dolly, follows him. The streets are filthy, with puddles and trash, making it seem like it wasn't just any old set in the studio. During the scenes when gangsters are making a stereotypical getaway, the camera shows the driver's point of view, and as pedestrians leap out of the way, the camera swerves, narrowly missing them. It must have been very exciting to watch in 1931!

The plot itself, and the execution of it, isn't very fast-paced or interesting. I'm not the biggest Wallace Beery fan, so I probably wasn't the best audience for the film. Keep your eyes open for Marjorie Rambeau, a stereotypical "rotten tramp", and a pre-mustached Clark Gable who shows his energetic screen presence to the audience with a promising future ahead of him.

DLM Warning: If you suffer from vertigo or dizzy spells, like my mom does, this movie might not be your friend. During the driving scenes, the camera bounces around and swerves to mirror the road, and that will make you sick. In other words, "Don't Look, Mom!"

It Started in Naples

Silly and contrived
The plot of It Started in Naples is so contrived. Clark Gable takes the time right before his wedding to hop on a plane to Italy to settle his dead brother's affairs. Why does he need to do this now? Why can't he wait a couple of months, or why didn't he go a few months beforehand? Because - he has to meet Sophia Loren (or as my grandpa always called her, Sophie Lauren) and debate whether or not to call off his wedding.

Sophie plays a cabaret singer, and pretty much any time she's on the screen it's a good time to get up and get some more popcorn. This is a very silly movie without any point but to show that Clark Gable got a free vacation to Naples. There are some courtroom scenes to inject drama into the situation, and Sophie is playing nursemaid to her and Clark's illegitimate nephew; but it all feels a little offensive. Italians have looser morals, so it's okay that his brother never married his Italian girlfriend? The only way to prove Sophie has a heart of gold is to show her taking care of a child that's not her own? If you liked Houseboat, you can rent this one, but it certainly seemed like Hollywood didn't know what to do with Sophia Loren before she got her Oscar.

The Misfits

Clark Gable takes it like a man
As Shirley MacLaine so aptly said in Rumor Has It, "I suppose everyone needs someone in their life to let them know when youth has come to an end." Every silver screen star who was lucky enough to continue working into old age made a telltale movie that showed audiences he or she was officially old. If you're a fan, it was a little sad to see. For Clark Gable, he made The Misfits. It was a very exposing role for the former sex symbol who made a nation of women swoon and inspired the men to ditch their undershirts for twenty years; in this movie, "the King" gets told by the woman he lusts after, "I just don't feel that way about you." It takes a big man to accept that role, and my hat goes off to Mr. Gable in his finest and last performance.

Written by Arthur Miller, this script famously hurt Marilyn Monroe's feelings, for her husband to show the world he thought of her in that light. She plays a depressed divorcée who teams up with other misfits and tries to muddle along. In real life, she (also famously) quoted that in meeting her costar Montgomery Clift, she'd "finally met someone more screwed up than her." That wasn't a very nice thing to say, but if you know anything about her, that speaks volumes.

Speaking of not very nice things to say, this film was the last of its two leads. Clark Gable had a heart attack shortly after filming concluded, and it was widely spread that working with Marilyn was so stressful it gave him a heart attack. I'm not a fan of her as a person, but I do think that was unkind. He was a lifelong smoker and drinker, and he did strenuous stunts in his movies for three decades. It's far more likely that wrestling around with a lassoed horse was too taxing on his heart.

This is a very strange movie about strange people, but the cast and backstage trivia is enough to make any old movie buff want to watch it. Just keep in mind it's not very enjoyable. It's rather depressing, especially since we know all three leads met unhappy, untimely ends in real life.


Unclear and misguided
I don't know if the screenwriters just didn't know what to do with Clyde Brion Davis's novel, or they didn't know how to improve it for the screen version, but the finished product of Adventure was terrible. Contrasting lengthy, poetic speeches with a choppy story that didn't know its point or its leading man, this "adventure" was Clark Gable's first picture after he returned from the war. Couldn't they have given him anything better? Back to Bataan, China Sky, Objective, Burma!, or They Were Expendable, would have been great vehicles for the returning soldier - or if he wanted a change of pace, Love Letters or This Love of Ours could have been made available.

In this movie, Clark plays a merchant mariner with a girl in every port. He's always after a good time and cares for no one's feelings but his own. Settling down is his worst nightmare. His best friend and fellow sailor is Thomas Mitchell, and when their ship gets torpedoed and only a handful of men (including Tom Tully, John Qualen, and Richard Haydn) survive on a life raft, Thomas makes four promises to God if He rescues them. They are rescued, and when Thomas breaks all four promises, he sees his immortal soul leave his body. He's terrified and doesn't know what to do with the rest of his life- Wait a minute! This is supposed to be a romance with Greer Garson, isn't it?

Well, it's a very long movie. And it doesn't really know what it wants to be, either. Thomas Mitchell seemed like the lead to me, and when he shares a tender moment with Greer as he tells her of his plight, I thought they made a far better match than she and Clark. Clark and Greer disagree on everything, small and large, and have terrible arguments. They clearly can't stand each other, and Clark even goes so far as to plan to spend the weekend with her roommate and best friend, Joan Blondell - until for no reason, they decide they can't keep their hands off each other and they spend the weekend together.

Trust me; it would have been a far better movie if she'd spent the weekend with Thomas Mitchell. I didn't understand this movie, and I didn't like it enough to try to. Save your two hours and fifteen minutes and rent The Valley of Decision instead. At least it's dramatic when it's supposed to be, and the point of the movie is clear.

The Easiest Way

Very dated, but familiar faces
Constance Bennett gives her finest Jean Harlow impersonation in The Easiest Way, a movie that could have easily starred the blonde bombshell. She lives in squalor with her parents and four siblings, so when she's approached by a stranger in the department store where she works, she's anxious to snatch up his offer of a higher paying job. Soon she's working as an advertising model, and her family is glad for the extra income; but when the boss Adolphe Menjou wants her to be his mistress, she faces the prospect of being shunned by her family.

Based on the title, it's no great guess to assume she accepts Adolphe's offer. She soon regrets her choice when her entire family cast her aside (except for her father who continues to borrow money) and when she falls in love with the young, foppish, innocent Robert Montgomery. When Bob finds out she's damaged goods, he rattles off a hilarious pre-Code insult: "I don't want that kind of love. I can buy that anywhere." This story is very dated, but if you like these stories, you might want to watch it. You'll see three familiar faces: Marjorie Rambeau plays Constance's morally loose friend with bad advice and a bad attitude, Auntie Em (Clara Blandick) plays her mother, and a young, pre-mustached Clark Gable plays her sister's everyman boyfriend.

The Hucksters

Only one memorable scene
There's a scene in The Hucksters with everyone sitting around a table at a meeting. Sydney Greenstreet is at the head of the table, and he hawks up a huge loogie and spits it on the surface in front of him. "That was disgusting," he says. "But you'll remember it." Ironically, that scene is the only one I remember out of the entire movie!

The rest of the movie is about an advertising agency, which fits in with Sydney's point: if something is shocking and gross, the public will remember it and hopefully buy the product and spread the word among their money-spending friends. Clark Gable wants to get ahead in advertising and still maintain his principles, but he soon learns that's a bit of an oxymoronic wish. It's advertising! While the single, loose Ava Gardner tries to get his attention, he's also drawn to the subdued widow Deborah Kerr. You'll also see Edward Arnold, Adolphe Menjou, and Keenan Wynn in this slightly forgettable drama. As much as you forget it, though, you'll remember the loogie.

It Happened One Night

Vastly overrated
"I'll stop a car, and I won't use my thumb." It Happened One Night is one of the most famous classic comedies of all time, and the hitchhiking scene is referenced by people who don't even watch old movies. I liken It Happened One Night to Marty, another cute comedy that swept up nearly all the awards at the Oscars. They're both cute movies, but neither is exceptional of the genre, and neither deserved to sweep awards that belong to the best pictures of the year. Both are large reasons why the Members of the Board at Hot Toasty Rag decided to create their own awards.

As a mere cute romantic comedy, this isn't bad. Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert are opposites attracting: she's a runaway spoiled heiress and he's a no-nonsense reporter without a dime to his name. They get left behind by the bus and end up walking and hitchhiking to their destination. Along the way, they bicker incessantly and meet a host of colorful characters. "Young people in love are never hungry!" Alan Hale sings as he gives them a brief lift. Claudette gets spanked, criticized, humiliated, and frightened as Clark gives one of the most famous stripteases of all time - and influences every man in American to ditch their undershirts until 1951 when Marlon Brando brought the fashion back. But Clark gets his hat handed to him as he boasts being an expert on everything, and Claudette catches a passing car by lifting her skirt.

One of the other famous scenes that's frequently spoofed is the accounting scene. Walter Connolly, an accomplished actor who's best known as his role in this movie as Claudette's wealthy father, is paying Clark for his expenses he incurred while taking care of his daughter. He offers a large sum, but Clark refuses and only wants gas and food money. With a smirk and a knowing, fatherly look, he tricks Clark into admitting he's in love.

If it weren't for the tremendous hype and accolades, it would be a fun movie to watch every once in a while. But there are so many other romantic comedies that are just as good (and some better) that didn't get any attention, so it's a little frustrating. And, since there are any number of actors and actresses who could have played Ellie and Peter, it doesn't seem fair that Claudette and Clark won Oscars for their parts. Constance Bennett, Myrna Loy, Margaret Sullavan, Miriam Hopkins, Carole Lombard, Fredric March, and Robert Montgomery all turned the script down with their various insults - but they all would have been fine. Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Ginger Rogers, Paul Muni, Robert Young, and James Cagney also would have been fine. If you like this type of movie, you can rent the extremely similar There Goes the Bride or Red Salute. But don't rent the musical remake; it's just awful.

Harmony Lane

Better than I thought
I got my hands on a copy of Harmony Lane because it was Hattie McDaniel week on Hot Toasty Rag, but even though she was in the movie for about ten seconds, I'm still glad I watched it. Douglass Montgomery, the star and portrayer of Stephen Foster, impressed me! I'd only previously seen him as Laurie in my favorite version of Little Women, but I didn't like his performance. He must have taken the two years to take some acting lessons, because he was completely capable handling the lead role and making us believe he was the legendary composer. He was captivated by music, often hearing a tune in his head and needing to plunk it out on the nearest piano no matter what the situation; he loved and lost; and he suffered and died of a broken heart.

I thought this was going to be a rinky-dink, low-budget movie I'd want to turn off, but I enjoyed it very much. I got to hear both Montgomery and William Frawley sing, and I learned the heartache behind Stephen Foster's life. It was very sad to see him sell the rights to his songs for hardly any money, but I already knew that piece of trivia before watching the movie, so I was prepared. If you like "Beautiful Dreamer" or "Camptown Races", check out this well-acted biopic.


Clark Gable's best performance
I've never been one to compliment Clark Gable's acting talents. Yes, he had a great screen presence and represented the everyman in the early '30s when no other good-looking actor fit the bill, but I usually thought all he did was shout and talk quickly. In Homecoming, he surprised me. Full of subtleties and tender expressions, he stars as a man coming home from the war but holds memories he'll never be able to bury.

Told in flashback format, a reporter, talks to different soldiers returning on the ship. When he approaches Clark Gable, he's initially resistant. But thanks to the camera, we get to learn what Clark doesn't tell the reporter. Clark was a doctor, stationed overseas with his pal and fellow doctor John Hodiak. His nurse was the capable Lana Turner, in a rare break from her sexpot roles. They worked fantastically well together and bonded over seeing the horrors of war. Homecoming is a rare honest movie that shows how overworked and underappreciated the doctors, nurses, and medics were. The movie shows them being just as bombarded as the fighting men, with influx after influx of severely injured soldiers coming into the medical tent so quickly and urgently that they can't catch their breaths. It's far different to be a doctor at home than a doctor at war, and only those who have experienced it can truly understand. If you were moved by Lara and Dr. Zhivago's relationship, you'll love this movie.

If 1948 hadn't had such stiff competition, as Hatter's Castle, All My Sons, and Enchantment, I'm sure this movie would have racked up some nominations at the Hot Toasty Rag Awards. As it was, this move wasn't honored, but I do highly recommend it. It's a change of pace for both leads, and in a post-war world, it was the perfect type of war movie to be released in 1948. Many veterans had a tough transition from the battlefield to civilian life, and this movie shows one man's struggle. In the supporting cast, you'll see Anne Baxter, Gladys Cooper, Ray Collins, and Cameron Mitchell.

Hold Your Man

My favorite classic romance
Hold Your Man is probably my favorite romantic drama of the silver screen - and considering that's a swath of time that includes Gone With the Wind, Now Voyager, Enchantment, Casablanca, and The Shop Around the Corner, that's saying something. It has every element of a perfect love affair: spontaneity, loyalty, fantastic meet-cute, sex appeal, tears, endless waiting, and bringing out the best in each other.

Jean Harlow gives the performance of her career, showing talents the blonde bombshell wasn't normally associated with. She plays a loose woman who meets Clark Gable (in one of his last movies without his mustache) when he barges into her apartment to escape the police. She's in the bathtub, and he begs her to stall the cops, insisting they've "got him all wrong" - even though we saw him pull a con on an innocent bystander at the start of the movie. After a brief flirtatious tete-a-tete, he flees. She stalks his favorite nightclub for a month with her steady, boring beau Stuart Erwin, hoping to run into him again. When she does, she tries to salvage her pride, to no avail. "Don't play so hard to get. I'm the fella who saw you in the bathtub, remember?" he smirks, after telling her to ditch Stuart and come up to his apartment.

If you're hooked already, you'll love this movie as much as I do. If you need more incentive, you'll get to hear Jean Harlow saying the ever quotable, "Well, I like that!" You'll get to see a fantastic seduction scene where Clark Gable's arm wanders where it shouldn't, but he still plays by her rules of staying on her feet when she's in a man's apartment. You'll add to your household phrases with any number of fun quotes: "I guess it must'a been the Lord." "You know, you wouldn't be a bad lookin' dame, if it wasn't for your face." "He was tossing ten dollar bills to all the tramps at Christmas." "Did you get yours?" "Come here, I'll show you the bedroom." "You can send me a picture of it." "Now, you got me all wrong. I just wanted you to see the view from there." "I've seen a view this morning."

A great script, memorable characters, and friendship, loyalty, and love conquering all, this wonderful movie is one of my all-time favorites. If you've never seen it, buy yourself a copy. It'll quickly become one of yours.

A Free Soul

Lionel's only Oscar
To say Lionel Barrymore shines in A Free Soul isn't as much of a compliment as it would be to other actors, because he always shines. I can only think of one movie I've seen him in where he gave a bad performance, and it hardly counts. But A Free Soul won him his one and only Academy Award, so it's worth seeing. If you want to see him in his Rag-winning performances, check out On Borrowed Time and Down to the Sea in Ships.

In this pre-Code drama, Lionel plays a lawyer battling alcoholism. He's less than enthused about his latest client, notorious gangster Clark Gable, but he's forced to set aside his personal feelings and plead the case like his own life depended on it. You see, Lionel's daughter, the young and foolish Norma Shearer, has fallen in love with Clark. For her sake, he has to try to free Clark - and hopefully, in the process, free his soul. If this sounds exciting to you, you won't be disappointed. It's just as good as it sounds.

Command Decision

A war movie with no battle scenes
Before you run out and rent Command Decision thinking it'll be another Wake Island, you should know it's not a war movie. It's based off a play, and it's very wordy. There are no battle scenes, but instead it's full of inner conflict (talked out) by the men who make the big decisions. So if you don't think two hours of talking about war will be as fun as watching soldiers fight it out, skip this one.

If you do rent it, you'll see Clark Gable, Walter Pidgeon, and Brian Donlevy, all sharing pretty much equal screen time - but not equal billing. Brian Donlevy should never have received a lower billing than Van Johnson (who got second billing), playing Clark Gable's assistant. He has no real character, but instead gives sarcastic quips upon entrances and exits. John Hodiak, Charles Bickford, and Edward Arnold also join in on the fun. With six powerful screen presences (and Van Johnson popping in every so often to say hello), you should expect a never-ending competition for screen time and audience favoritism. It's all in good fun, I'm sure. Although they spend the entire movie arguing with each other, you can imagine them all going out for drinks at the end of a long day.

The Call of the Wild

Offstage more interesting than onstage...
Back in the day, I'm sure audiences flocked to see Call of the Wild to see top stars of the day, Clark Gable and Loretta Young, in a film together. Nowadays, it's pretty much remembered as the movie that resulted in a secret love child that's no longer secret. In case you're not up on your silver screen trivia, the morally judgmental, notoriously prudish Loretta Young (who also had an affair with the married Spencer Tracy) had an affair with Clark Gable that resulted in a child. Rather than tell him, she did the classic "go to Europe for a few months and come back with an adopted child" scheme that belongs more in a melodrama rather than in real life.

After that story, who cares what Call of the Wild is about! For those of you who do care, it's loosely based off Jack London's novel. Clark Gable and Jack Oakie are trappers searching for gold in Alaska, and Clark wins a dog in a poker game. On the way to their next gold-search, they run into Loretta Young and both take a shine to her. Which one do you think she'll pick? Which one did she hide the existence of her child, even though she knew he always wanted a child? Maybe she should have realized she lived in a glass house before forcing her costars to put coins in a "swear jar". . .

Valiant Is the Word for Carrie

Her audition for Madame X
The year before Gladys George played the self-sacrificing mother covering up her terrible past, she starred in Valiant is the Word for Carrie, as a self-sacrificing mother covering up her terrible past. For the 1936 melodrama she was nominated for an Oscar; for the 1937 melodrama she was nominated for a Rag.

While the two movies are relatively similar in premise, the actual stories aren't the same. In this one, Gladys starts off a fallen woman, although because of the Production Code, what made her fall is never actually mentioned. She befriends an adorable young boy, Jackie Moran, who's terribly mistreated at home. When at last Jackie's abusive father dies, he asks Gladys to adopt him. Along the way, they pick up the stray waif Charlene Wyatt, and they leave town, change their names, and enjoy a fresh start.

You know these types of movies, don't you? The fresh start only lasts so long, and Gladys's past comes back to haunt her. Plus, as the adorable children grow up, they run into problems and make their poor mother suffer. But, if you want to see a solid Gladys George performance, try to find yourself a copy.

I'm No Angel

When I'm bad, I'm better
"Why don't you come up sometime, and see me?" Everyone knows the quote - even people who don't know who said it and have never seen a movie older than 1980. But have you seen the movie? Even though it was used on the publicity poster for I'm No Angel, it actually comes from She Done Him Wrong, another Mae West comedy costarring Cary Grant, with his old teeth.

This one is still worth watching, though. I'm No Angel boasts more funny one-liners from comic legend Mae West than you can shake a stick at. From "When I'm good, I'm very good. But when I'm bad, I'm better," to "I see a man in your future--" "What, only one?" you'll be howling with laughter every time Mae opens her mouth. In this movie, she plays a circus performer with a great sense of humor who wants nothing more than to find a millionaire for her sugar daddy. She visits a fortune teller who describes her perfect man, and the search is on! You'll see Edward Arnold in the supporting cast, as well as Hattie McDaniel, in the role that first got her noticed and remembered. Yes, she made a career of maids, but this is the one that started it all. Want to see Mammy give as good as she gets to Mae West? Then you've got to rent I'm No Angel.

Gone with the Wind

The trouble lies in the casting
Seeing Gone With the Wind today isn't the same as seeing it in 1939, and there's nothing we can do about it. In 1939, you got Margaret Mitchell's novel hot off the presses and read about the snotty heroine with arched eyebrows, green eyes, and an impossibly tiny waist. You read about her love for her frail, fair-haired neighbor who was too intellectual for his own good; and about the dark, swarthy visitor from Charleston with large dark eyes and a cocky smile. Then, lo and behold, Hollywood bought the rights to the film and generated more publicity than humanly possible about their search for the perfect Scarlett O'Hara. When you saw the film for the first time, you saw the characters from the book come to life in Clark Gable, Leslie Howard, and the brand-new face of Vivien Leigh.

You didn't have the resources of the internet and video rentals, to go back and watch Fire Over England, to find out that Vivien Leigh was Scarlett O'Hara in all her movies and that her arched eyebrow never un-arched itself. If you missed The Prisoner of Zenda in 1937, you couldn't go back and watch it, to find out that Victor Fleming's claims of boasting the first crane shot were false. You weren't desensitized by all the foul language in modern movies to appreciate the curse word that was made an exception by the strict Production Code. And you wouldn't dream of coming up with an alternate cast that would have been even better.

The problem, therefore, lies in the casting. There's a book I own devoted solely to the casting process, production, and publicity of this epic movie. Hollywood went through thousands of Scarlett O'Haras, choosing an unknown for her new appeal. Susan Hayward, Maureen O'Hara, or the relatively small star Maureen O'Sullivan would have been just as effective and believable as Miss Leigh. However, if given a different publicity tactic, a known star would have been just as effective: namely Miriam Hopkins, a native from Georgia who, understandably, wanted the part very badly.

As for the two Southern gentlemen, the loves of Scarlett's lives, why wouldn't they choose an actual Southerner for at least one of them? Could you imagine the publicity of pitting "Hollywood's finest and truest Southern actors in the greatest Southern literature of our time"? Randolph Scott, the most famous Southern actor who literally never made a movie without his accent, was passed over. He could have played either Rhett or Ashley, depending on what dynamic they wanted - and the following year, he, Errol Flynn (who could have easily been Rhett), and Miriam Hopkins all did a movie together to show the public what they could have had: Virginia City.

Ronald Colman, a frontrunner on the short list, would have excelled in either role as well. Laurence Olivier, who won an Oscar for playing a blond brooder, could have easily acted opposite his wife. Before watching the screen tests that are now available on special featured DVDs and YouTube, my favorite choice for Ashley would have been Franchot Tone, whose understanding and sensitivity seemed to be born for the part. Once I watched Melvyn Douglas's screen test, I was shocked. He was fantastic! I never knew he had such tenderness in him, and he would have been a wonderful choice.

Olivia de Havilland was cast to play the simpering, unbelievably kind Melanie - but that's just what she was: unbelievable. I didn't believe for a second that she was kind and loved everyone, merely that she was upset she hadn't been cast in the lead instead. She was also supposed to come across as weak and frail, but her sister Joan Fontaine, who always came across as sickly and frail, would have been a better choice. Margaret Sullavan, Jane Wyman, or Norma Shearer each would have seemed kinder and frailer.

Thomas Mitchell's performance can only be appreciated after you've read the novel and learned he was supposed to have extremely high energy. But, he wasn't the only actor who could have tackled the role. Charles Winninger always took on high energy, Irish father roles. If Hollywood wanted a calmer paternal role model, they could have chosen Donald Crisp, Charles Laughton (who could have received a proper 'and' in the credits), or Claude Rains.

Given the fact that both male leads didn't want to be in the movie, the female lead would have had a happier marriage if she'd filmed Wuthering Heights with her husband instead - in which case, the second lead would have gladly stepped up and filled her place - Leslie Howard complained about being carried by his costar, and Clark Gable not only refused to put on a Southern accent (which pretty much ruins the point of the story) but got the first director fired, doesn't it make sense to recast it?

There are three aspects of Gone With the Wind that I will never criticize: Walter Plunkett's costumes, Sidney Howard's screenplay adaptation, and Max Steiner's music. Although Max Steiner's music revolutionized film scores forever, by giving each character and place in the film its own theme, and although the film swept up eight Academy Awards, he was passed over for the blatantly unoriginal The Wizard of Oz, which should have been placed in the Music Adaptation category. At the Rag Awards, we righted the wrong. Gone With the Wind may not have come away with any of the awards given at the Oscars, but the one award we bestowed was to Max Steiner. Congratulations.

Family Honeymoon

Very cute 'family' comedy
Calling all Claudette and Fred fans: they've made another comedy together! Family Honeymoon is definitely one of the cute ones, so if you liked The Egg and I, you'll love it.

It's a twist from the previous year's plot. Instead of Claudette throwing her life away to join Fred on his farm and raise chickens, Fred throws his life away to join her! Claudette is a widow with three children, and Fred is a lifelong bachelor. When he marries her, he's determined to have a wonderful and easy marriage. After all, she got along raising the kids without him, didn't she? He won't really have to do anything fatherly, will he?

For those of you who are laughing already, you'll love this silly comedy. On their honeymoon, they take the kids along, to make it a real family bonding experience. Hattie McDaniel, Claudette's housekeeper from Since You Went Away, knows it's a bad idea, but she doesn't know exactly how disastrous it'll prove to be. Entrusting a bachelor with three small kids while visiting the Grand Canyon opens the door to all sorts of disasters - all of them hilarious! Watch this one when you're in the mood to put your kids in the playroom and lock the door. Or if you want to be glad you don't have any kids.


They finally kiss!
Carefree is easily the silliest of the Fred and Ginger musicals, but it does have one memorable feature the other movies lack: a long smackaroo. Do I mean a kiss or do I mean a slap? Well, the answer to that is more complicated than you think...

In this one, Fred gets to play a psychiatrist! He does a favor for his pal, Ralph Bellamy, and agrees to analyze Ralph's girlfriend, Ginger. Ginger's reluctant to marry Ralph, so he thinks there's something wrong with her. Oh, the simple joys of 1938! Anyway, as soon as Fred gets Ginger on the couch, she falls in love with him instead. Whenever she's hypnotized, she's free to pursue her real interests, but that might get in the way of Ralph and Fred's friendship.

Included in this movie are the silly numbers "The Yam" and "Since They Turned 'Loch Lomond' Into Swing" that everyone wishes they could forget. "Change Partners" has stood the test of time, though, so if you've ever wondered where that song comes from, it comes from Carefree. And have you ever noticed that Fred and Ginger usually leave their kisses up to the audience's imagination? As Fred so classily stated, the kiss in this movie "makes up for all the kisses I had not given Ginger for all those years." That alone makes the movie worth watching.

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