Sunday, April 11, 2010

Film Reviews: Remember? & Lucky Night

** 1\2 (out of ****)

I think most people would agree with me when I say I usually show a lot of respect to classic Hollywood movies and to the great filmmakers behind them. Hopefully you can tell from what I chose to write about that I have a great appreciation for film history. On average I would say I like most of the highly celebrated classics the majority enjoys. But, there have been times I go against popular opinion. I don't like to bring it up often. For example I'm not a fan of George Cuckor's "The Women" (1939, which I have reviewed). I also don't like "The Bride of Frankenstein" (1935, I have also reviewed it). How people can say that movie is better than the original is beyond me. And to that list we can add "Remember?" (1939). An at times charming romantic comedy starring Robert Taylor and Greer Garson directed by Norman Z. McLeod.

I can't quite put my finger on why the film doesn't work. So much seems to be in the film's favor. It's made in the right time period, good actors, capable director, clever premise, but, I couldn't help but feel the film doesn't explore all of the comic possibilities it could have.

The plot may sound similar to the over-rated Charlie Kaufman comedy, "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" (2004). "Remember?" follows Jeff Holland (Robert Taylor) who is an advertising executive. He has recently gotten married to Linda Bronson (Greer Garson). But their love affair is not your typical story. Linda was originally engaged to Jeff's best friend, Sky (Lew Ayres). But, as soon as Sky introduced Jeff to Linda it was love at first sight. They were immediately married.

But as most married couples will tell you marriage changes everything. You may have thought you knew the other person during your courtship but things change. Jeff is always busy at work making Linda feel neglected. Divorce seems to be in their future. Until events take a strange turn.

One of the clients Jeff has been working for has invented a memory lost potion. The idea is to help people forgot traumatic moments in their life. Why should people go around reliving painful memories. With this is mind, Sky decides maybe this is what Jeff and Linda need before they get divorced. What if they can forget the past. Could they fall in love all over again? The problem is though the potion is still in the beginning stages. It is not known how far back one's memory will be lost or for what period of time. There isn't even an antidote yet. Still, Sky thinks it is worth a shot and slips them the potion.

You have to admit on paper this sounds like a pretty good idea. I was reminded of a William Powell/Myrna Loy comedy, "I Love You Again" (1940). I think that is a better film however. Though as I say, it is hard to say what exactly is wrong with this film. One thing I felt was the script takes too long to set-up this premise. The memory lost potion doesn't enter the film until the end. Only the last 20-25 minutes deal with it. Enough isn't done with this great comedy device. But would it have made this a better movie? I don't know.

"Remember?", at first, kind of feels like a typical romance picture. It isn't very funny in general. Maybe that's the problem. If I laughed more I'd be willing to over look any plot structure problems. The film was co-written by Corey Ford. Not a name anyone should remember. He wrote only two films I have seen, both comedies. One was "Zenobia" (1939) best known as one of the few comedies Oliver Hardy appeared in without Stan Laurel. And then there was also "Topper Takes A Trip" (1938, which McLeod also directed). Neither film is one I would particularly recommend. Maybe Ford just wasn't funny.

Norman Z. McLeod was behind many good comedies. He directed my favorite Marx Brothers comedy, "Horse Feathers" (1932), my favorite W.C. Fields comedy, "It's A Gift" (1934) and my favorite Bob Hope picture, "Casanova's Big Night" (1954). Though I suspect the comics probably had more control over the film than McLeod, whom I assume was mostly in charge of keeping everything in frame. Still, he must have known funny when he saw it. Couldn't he tell this wasn't very funny?

The studio, MGM, had a lot riding on this film because of Greer Garson. They thought they had a big hit on their hands. Garson had appeared in "Goodbye Mr. Chips" (1939) that same year and would eventually receive an Oscar nomination for her performance. "Remember?" was advertised as her first film after "Chips" but the audience wasn't buying. And who can blame them? If you wanted to see Garson just watch "Mr. Chips". A few years later Garson would also appear in one of my favorite movies of all time, the best picture Oscar winner, "Mrs. Miniver" (1942).

Another thing I dislike about "Remember?" is the ending. I won't reveal anything here but I will say it was suppose to be one of those punchline endings. Meaning it ends on a funny wise-crack and joke as a result of a last minute twist. Think "Some Like It Hot" (1952) with the "nobody's perfect" line. Here though it raises a lot of questions. I don't know what state of mind the characters are in. What does the final twist here really mean?

Like many MGM films there is a fine supporting cast. In the roles of Linda's parents are Billie Burke and Reginald Owen. Burke plays her usual ditsy social-lite and Owen is his usual wealthy stuff shirt. Also spot Sig Ruman as a doctor who works on the potion.

I suppose "Remember?" will appeal to some viewers. It could be a nice curiosity piece, especially if you liked "Eternal Sunshine". It is a nice reminder to younger people that movies existed before last week. Many films today draw their inspiration from past films. I don't know if Kaufman ever saw this movie, but, if he did, we can see how it inspired him.

"Lucky Night" *** (out of ****)

"Lucky Night" (1939) is one of those movies that makes you feel good watching it. You like the characters, are happy to spend time with them and want good things to happy to them. I felt that way for most of the movie.

The movie stars Myrna Loy as Cora Jordan, daughter of the wealthy H. Calvin Jordan (Henry O' Neill). Cora is bored with her life. She is pursued by men she has no interest in. What is the poor girl to do? What is she looking for? And more importantly, how can she find it? Her father suggest she go out and live. Find an "every man". So Cora abandons her high profile life, tries to get a job, live on her own and meet the man of her dreams.

At this point in the film "Lucky Night" is like another movie I recently reviewed, "5th Avenue Girl" (1939) with Ginger Rogers. Both films involve rich people coming down to the "common man". To a depression era audience I suppose it was an important message. Money can't buy happiness or love.

As Cora goes on her job hunt she meets Bill Overton (Robert Taylor). He is down on his luck. They strike up a conversation on a park bench and decide to become friends. Bill believes Cora is a good luck charm because as soon as they meet, good things happen. Money just pours in. Mostly as a result of gambling. Still, this is another important message point to audiences. Your luck can change at any moment. Just hang in there.

After a wild night of gambling and drinking Bill and Cora get married. Now what? They say they are in love but Cora's father doesn't believe it. Still the two decide the make a go of it. But Cora or Bill doesn't want her father's help. They will get their own place and Bill will get a job. Now Cora will see how ordinary people live.

Up until this point I enjoyed "Lucky Night" quite a bit. It had a good fast paced rhythm to it and I went along with Cora and Bill on their wild adventure of good fortune. I was happy for them. I like to see good things happen to people I like. And Cora and Bill are two likable characters. But once we enter into the second act the film gets boggled down and then we start to wonder, what's next? Now that the couple is married we know there has to be some sort of conflict. And that is one of the things I feel is wrong with "Lucky Night". It waits too long to establish that conflict.

Cora and Bill learn how hard married life is. Cora, surprisingly, wants to save all their money. She doesn't want to be poor. Bill on the other hand thinks life is all about fun. He wants to go out and celebrate every night of the week. These two ideas are going to collide.

On some level "Lucky Night" seems to burrow from "It Happened One Night" (1934). There too a rich girl falls in love with an average joe and learns life lessons from him. But "Lucky Night" is not as entertaining as that movie.

I also disliked the ending of this film. The couple have their inevitable fight but by the end of the film nothing is really resolved. The characters are still going to be faced with the same underlying problems. Unless of the course the film's message is a good wife does whatever she can to make her husband happy. Or could the message be in life we need a balance of responsibility and fun, but, lean more towards the fun.

Like "Remember?" both films can get by due to star power. Taylor and Loy are good actors. They have good chemistry between them. We may know how the film is going to end but we watch anyway because we enjoy the company of these performers. Unlike "Remember?" though, I would say the material is a bit better.

Hollywood at this time I would say was under the star system. A picture would succeed mostly on the star. The majority of audiences were mostly going to see a movie if they liked the cast involved. Most people didn't pay attention to directors. The director of this film, Norman Taurog, isn't a major name. Yes he directed "Boys Town" (1938) with Spencer Tracey, but, it is Tracey who makes the picture. "Lucky Night" works because of the stars. And that is why I think you should it.