January’s “star of the month” on Criterion is Joan Bennett, and I’ve spent the month catching up with all the films in the collection I hadn’t already seen, which was a substantial chunk! I like Bennett, but somehow even though I KNOW it, I always manage to forget that the blonde vixen of the Pre-Codes is the same person as the brunette femme fatale of the noirs (not to mention the motherly figure of Father of the Bride)! Bennett had range, and this collection covers it nicely. To be utterly fair, my first exposure to Bennett was her role as Amy in the 1933 version of Little Women, which doesn’t fit neatly into any of the previously mentioned categories!
I didn’t rewatch the two Fritz Lang noir films, The Woman in the Window and Scarlet Street, but I recommend both – I specifically think Scarlet Street is one of the best noir films ever made, and while true noir fans know this, it doesn’t seem to ever crack the echelon of best-known noir films (Double Indemnity, Out of the Past, etc), which is unjust. This month’s viewing for me was largely Pre-Code plus the few later films I had missed. I watched my last unseen this morning, which may be the first time I have fully completed a Criterion Channel collection!
Big Brown Eyes (1936)
I love being able to check off films from other major filmographies while watching these star-focused Criterion collections, and this was a Cary Grant film I didn’t even know about! This is a breezy mystery comedy with Grant as a detective trying to bust up a jewel thief gang, with intermittent help from Joan Bennett, who starts off as a manicurist, then briefly becomes a journalist, and then gets drummed out and goes back to being a manicurist. It’s a roller-coaster. Also a roller-coaster: her feelings for Grant, which careen wildly from love to jealousy to disregard and back to love. It’s a little too much, to be honest, and her character isn’t very believable, though Bennett does what she can with what the script forces her into. That said, the film is fun, and the jewel thief subplot gives a duplicitous Walter Pidgeon some fun.
Me and My Gal (1932)
I had heard of this before, although mostly in context of not getting it confused with the Gene Kelly-Judy Garland For Me and My Gal. This one has Spencer Tracy as a policeman in a wharf district cleaning up the place and chatting up diner waitress Joan Bennett. The script is better than Big Brown Eyes, though there are still some relationship back and forths that don’t make total sense. That said, the scene where he tries to make the moves on her and she refuses is more subtle than it seems. The main story plot actually involves Bennett’s sister, who used to be romantically involved with a gangster – she’s now getting married to someone else, but when the gangster turns back up, she falls back into her old ways, even harboring him when he’s on the run. Given Bennett’s blossoming relationship with cop Tracy, this is problematic. There are a ton of really cool little things here – especially the plot point of the sister’s father-in-law, a veteran with lock-in syndrome. I’ve never seen this condition in an old movie and it’s used quite well. There’s also a hilarious scene involving fish-slapping, which is totally random but I loved it.
Wild Girl (1932)
I rather expected this to be the wild card of the bunch, and I was not wrong. You know you’re in for something when there’s one of those opening credit sequences where the actors introduce themselves as the characters and Joan Bennett says “I’m Salomy Jane, and I like trees better than men – they’re straight!” The film was shot on location in Sequoia National Park, which is really awesome – almost all of it takes place outdoors among the redwoods. Salomy Jane is hounded by the man who’s trying to become mayor and touts his founding of some kind of Virtue League or something, but he’s anything but virtuous when trying to get Salomy Jane’s attention (she means “on the level” when she says “straight” in that intro). She can’t get anyone to believe her, though. Meanwhile, a stranger in town knows about the mayoral candidate’s bad actions (he had also seduced the stranger’s sister), and is there to kill him. This endears him immediately to Salomy Jane. MEANWHILE, a lazy neighbor with a brood of children robs the stagecoach and everyone sets out after him. It’s all incredibly melodramatic, and yet somehow quite watchable if you let it be what it is. A talent Raoul Walsh seems to have, as you notice he directed all three of the 1930s Bennett films.
Man Hunt (1941)
With this one we move from Raoul Walsh directing to Fritz Lang directing, and as much as I do genuinely love Raoul Walsh films…yeah. Lang is in another league. This one immediately makes a stylistic impact with the camera following a man’s footsteps going to the edge of a cliff, only then revealing Walter Pidgeon with a sniper rifle. He soon has Hitler in his sights. He pulls the trigger but the gun isn’t loaded. He then puts in a bullet but gets collared by a Nazi officer (George Sanders!) and has to explain how he’s a big game hunter and just into the thrill of the hunt and wouldn’t have pulled the trigger etc etc etc. The officer understandably does not believe him, but he escapes and sets off the titular manhunt across Europe and Britain. It’s a fairly small movie despite the premise, and I’m not sure I ENTIRELY bought Bennett’s Cockney accent, but the film is very solid and very stylish, as you’d expect from Lang.
There’s Always Tomorrow (1955)
Definitely the odd one out of this series in terms of Bennett roles; here she’s the wife and mother in a typical suburban family, as her husband toys with a dalliance. Fred MacMurray is the husband, who keeps planning outings and events and having his wife too caught up in the duties of motherhood/homemaking to do them. She encourages him to go alone on what was meant to be a couples getaway for them, and he does but lo and behold meets a former flame. I’m not particularly into domestic melodramas, but I will admit that Douglas Sirk is a master of them. This one is solid if nothing particularly special. I mostly just wanted to keep yelling at MacMurray’s character that you need to check in with your family before you plan stuff, this is like marriage and family 101. Don’t get mad they made other plans when you didn’t even tell them your plans until five minutes before they were happening.