Adventures on Criterion: Pre-Code Paramount

March’s featured collections on the Criterion Channel were a treasure trove for me! I was quite interested in almost all of them, but I had to focus on just a couple. First up had to be the Paramount Pre-Codes. I’m generally a pretty big fan of Pre-Code Hollywood, and unsurprisingly I had seen about half of this collection already.

If you’re new to Pre-Codes, I can’t recommend Trouble in Paradise, Love Me Tonight, and Shanghai Express enough. Those three should definitely be top priority if you haven’t seen them (they should be on the channel through at least the end of April – I forget whether they keep collections on for two or three months). I also really enjoy the other three I had seen: The Smiling Lieutenant, She Done Him Wrong, Design for Living, and One Hour With You.

This left largely obscurities for me to see, though some big names are attached to those obscurities – like a very early Cary Grant film, a couple of Dorothy Arzner-directed films (the only female director working in Hollywood in the 1930s), and an omnibus film with sections directed by Ernst Lubitsch among others. As of April 1, there are still a couple of films I haven’t gotten to – the 1934 Cecil B. DeMille version of Cleopatra, and the Ernst Lubitsch-directed drama Broken Lullaby. The former should be fairly easy to find and watch, and I have less interest in Lubitsch directing drama, though I should watch it for completionism’s sake. Maybe sometime this month.

Night After Night (1932)

A nightclub story, with the gangster activity and love affairs you might expect from that. Raft’s character has a girl, but becomes enamored of a glamorous woman who comes in alone frequently – turns out his club is built in the mansion she grew up in, and she’s sentimental. She’s clearly of a higher social caliber than he is (he is taking lessons in etiquette and general knowledge to move up the social ladder) and he falls hard for her. Meanwhile, a former lover turns up – Mae West in her film debut. She steals the show, but the rest isn’t bad either. However, it’s not going to make you a fan of this type of movie if you’re not already. It has some amount of early sound clunkiness.

Merrily We Go to Hell (1932)

One of the two Dorothy Arzner-directed films in the featured collection, Merrily We Go to Hell focuses on a star-crossed couple – Jerry (Fredric March), a reporter and would-be playwright, and Joan (Sylvia Sidney), an heiress who falls for him against her family’s wishes. Their relationship is rocky to say the least – she stands by him in good times, as when his play gets produced, and less-good ones, as when he missed their engagement party because he freaked out and got drunk. Until, that is, Jerry falls into seeing his old girlfriend, now a famous actress, and Joan decides to have a fully “modern marriage” – that is, basically an open, swinging marriage where each of them can do whatever they want on the side. (Look for a young Cary Grant here as one of her “on the sides”.) There’s a very thoughtful and mature tone throughout all these shenanigans, which could easily have just been played for laughs or crudity. I was impressed with how well this story was handled. Props to Arzner, for sure.

Honor Among Lovers (1931)

This is the other Arzner film, with Claudette Colbert as the greatest ever executive assistant plus a super great person in general, so it’s not super surprising that her boss Fredric March falls in love with her. She’s not keen on a potential office romance, though, so she quickly marries her existing boyfriend, an up-and-coming stockbroker. They’re pretty happy for a while, but stockbroker boy is speculating pretty heavily with other people’s money and things go downhill from there. There are a lot of interesting and unusual plot moves made here, and while I didn’t love all of them (having the initially lascivious March become the “good guy” was a bit hard to swallow), it was an enjoyable ride, and Colbert is never less than luminous. Also look for a really young Ginger Rogers as a complete ditz. Sort of an unfortunate part, but there you go.

If I Had a Million (1932)

A dying millionaire is fed up with all of his money-grubbing potential heirs and decides to give a million dollars each to eight strangers chosen at random from the telephone book. We then see eight vignettes (each directed by a different director – Ernst Lubitsch, Norman Taurog, Norman Z. McLeod, etc) that show what each of the recipients did with the money. As usual with these kinds of omnibus films, the stories range from the heartwarming to the sad to the ridiculous. None of these are particularly great as omnibus segments go, but none of them wear out their welcome too much, either.

Patior, pati, passus sum

My Latin teacher’s favorite Latin word is patior, pati, passus sum – these are the three principle parts of the verb “to suffer”. The present active participle is patiens/patientis, from which we get the English word “patience.” From the perfect passive participle passus, we get our word “passion”. I thought I knew a lot about this word, but Anthony Esolen taught me more in his Word of the Week column (link) on Substack. He does some good history of our word “passion” and how its meaning has shifted over the centuries, but this is the wow moment for me:

The ancient Indo-European root that gives us Latin passus, suffered, shows up in only a few of the great limbs of the tree. In Germanic, it gave us the Anglo Saxon feogan, to hate, and its participle which turned into a noun, feond, the hating one: an enemy; and that ended up denoting man’s greatest enemy of all, the fiend, the Devil. So the irony is this: the great fiend desired no other than that man should suffer and be alienated from God, but Christ by suffering defeated the enemy that imposed the suffering, as he would glut the mouth of death with death itself. And therefore let us always remember that our trouble is seldom that we feel too much, but rather that we feel too little. And may the Lord enlarge our hearts and direct our passions to the good and the true.

I’m only a novice at learning the relationship between different families of proto-IndoEuropean (or PIE in linguistic circles). I was low-level aware that the “p” and “f” sounds are frequently related – as in, over time they can shift into each other as languages differentiate, but it never would have occurred to me that this root “pei-” in PIE (“to harm”) yields both “passion” and “fiend” in English. So cool. Yet it makes sense, too. Language is cool.

The Roundup: The Return!

Links from Elsewhere

My favorite reads from around the web. If you used to read my link roundups a few years ago, you’ll note my reading material has changed somewhat! A shift from focus on film to more about books and teaching and education will likely be evident, as well as more explicitly Christian-themed links. Click on the header/article title to read the full article. I haven’t figured out how to change the link color to be more obviously a link in this layout yet.

Watch the Great Fall – Paul Kingsnorth

Paul Kingsnorth has become one of my favorite writers to follow on Substack – he writes public posts infrequently enough that I can usually keep up with them, but they’re always worth reading. He definitely tends toward the gloomy side regarding the current state of the world, but in ways that somehow generally make me hopeful. He also writes very evocatively, which reminds me, I need to read his novels one of these days.

My point is this: as we refuse the rising Total System, as we stand against the Machine, we need solid ground on which to brace ourselves. Neither Progress nor nostalgia offer that solidity. Perhaps we all tend in one or the other direction. Perhaps we tip between the two depending on the day. But I think it is incumbent upon us to draw ourselves out, into the present, into the ongoing moment, and to acknowledge the reality of where we are. To open our eyes, and take in the moment.

What Makes a Classic African-American Text – Henry Louis Gates

This is not only a great exploration of the African American literary tradition through the lens of what texts to include in the Penguin Classics (Gates was asked to curate a series of African American texts for the label), but also of what a classic book is and does in general.

Each text has the uncanny capacity to take the seemingly mundane details of the day-to-day African American experience of its time and trans­mute those details and the characters’ actions into something that transcends its ostensible subject’s time and place, its specificity. These texts reveal the human universal through the African American particular: All true art, all classics, do this; this is what “art” is, a revelation of that which makes each of us sublimely human, rendered in the minute details of the actions and thoughts and feelings of a compelling character embedded in a time and place.

Reading Tristram Shandy in an Age of Distraction – Literary Hub

So…now I really want to read Tristram Shandy. I actually love the movie that came out a decade or two ago, but I’ve always been a little afraid to tackle this 18th century behemoth. I don’t know that this makes it sound EASIER, but I’m intrigued by how it does sound.

Our lives today exist in multiple dimensions: the present, the past, and online. Sterne’s novel might help us to make sense of this tangle. Reading Tristram Shandy for the third time, I realized that my previous frustration was not a failure to understand the book. Sterne’s digressions are both rich and unsatisfying in equal measure, as any surfeit of information must be. But whilst trawling the internet often leaves me drained or feeling numbed by variety, Sterne’s novel invigorates as it overwhelms.

Schooled – Alan Jacobs

Really neat reflection led by Tom Shippey’s book The Author of the Century, on what separates Modernist writers’ use of classical literary allusion from how Tolkien uses Norse sources. Disclaimer: I do love both Tolkien and Modernist writers. :)

The great Modernist writers have a tendency to flatter their learned readers and disdain the others; they are in many respects principially elitist. (As has often been noted, Leopold Bloom is Joyce’s hero but he couldn’t have read Joyce’s book about him.) There’s none of this in Tolkien; the astonishing range of allusions to medieval writing in The Lord of the Rings is certainly meant to provide a kind of felt (not directly perceived) coherence to the reader — Shippey is great on this — but its primary purpose is to satisfy Tolkien’s own imaginative needs.

The Integrity of Poetry – Micah Mattix

A thoughtful response and update of poet Dana Gioia’s 1991 inquiry “Can Poetry Matter?” and whether poetry has begun to matter again in the ensuing three decades, or has regained the integrity that Gioia feared had been destroyed as poetry became the property of academics writing for each other for tenure rather than a vital, central part of national discourse (as of course, it was some centuries ago). Though poetry is more visible in some ways, Mattix isn’t apparently convinced that visibility is actually treating poetry as poetry, rather than as political or moral statement. The essay is wide-ranging and a good reminder for those of us who use even old poetry as teachers that poetry is valuable BECAUSE it is poetry, not merely because it contains ideas. How to do this well I think is a continuing question we need to consider.

This is to espouse a view of poetry that, though more noble than that of the Instapoets, is not different in kind. To value poetry primarily for how it teaches humility and kindness, for how it teaches us to be good friends and citizens, to act justly, or to love well is likewise to view poetry as a means to an end. To value it primarily for what it says rather than how it says it is to undermine its integrity. This leads sooner or later to the subjugation of poetry to politics or theology (or psychology), which, in turn, renders it useless to society as poetry. Poetry is an essential part of society—but only as itself and not as a vehicle for something else.

Caspar David Friedrich and the “Reliturgification” of the West – Imaginative Conservative

The image above is one of the most famous Romantic paintings, a man standing tall against the wild crashing of waves below him – man in contemplation of the sublimity of nature. I’ve seen this picture a lot, but never delved into the artist or his other works. This article uses Friedrich as an example of the Romantic obsession with nature, and is one of the better short attempts I’ve seen to explain how the Romantics’ found transcendence in nature despite their general turn toward secularism.

The Romantic movement of the early nineteenth century was more than historians often understand it to be. With an unparalleled subjectivity and exuberance, it is usually seen as a reaction to the rationalism of the so-called Enlightenment. From the crescendos of Beethoven to the lyrics of Byron, it sought the transformation of a culture constrained, as proponents saw it, by eighteenth-century conventions of counterpoint and the couplet. However, as Romanticism elevated sentiment it also advanced an equally ambitious effort to secure a transcendent anchor for its cult of feeling. Advocates were painfully, even desperately aware that a yawning chasm had opened between the world and the source of its transformation, heaven. They were secularists to the core, but they nevertheless realized that the impasse of modernity was an ironic outcome of secularization.

Restoring the Shire: A Review of the Wonders of Creation – Front Porch Republic

The Front Porch Republic is doing great work on the relationship between faith and community, and how to reclaim a sense of place in a modern transient world, and while I don’t think that *I* do a good job with this, I always appreciate reading their perspective. This is actually a review of a book, and not only did I immediately add the book to my TBR list (I mean, it’s about learning how to steward the earth well via Narnia and Middle-Earth) but the review itself is tremendously thoughtful. I’ve long felt that Christian critiques of “tree-hugging” environmentalists frequently swing too far the other direction – we are still called to faithfully steward God’s creation rather than exploit it.

I want to emphasize Tolkien’s attention to local spaces, small actions, and personal responsibility. As I have written previously, Samwise Gamgee is my favorite example of human-nature relationships in The Lord of the Rings. Presented with a problem that was not his own doing—the destruction of his hometown—he sets about the long, hard work of restoration. What is a typical American response to environmental problems? My college students tend to think that the government or corporations, not consumers, are responsible for most environmental problems and should be the ones to do the cleanup. […] Samwise is clearly not responsible for the destruction of the Shire, but he doesn’t wait for Saruman and his ruffians to restore the Shire. He takes personal responsibility for the health of his own inhabited space, his own local community.

Coolest Bookstores in the World – BookRiot

I apparently have a lot of international traveling to do to visit all these bookstores! Challenge accepted. Pictured above is the Boekhandel Dominicanen in Maastricht, The Netherlands. Not all of these are cool because of how they look or the unusual types of buildings they’re in – there are all kinds of reasons for their inclusion, making this a fun list to browse.

Valiant Hearts: Coming Home Out via Netflix Games – Touch Arcade

Valiant Hearts: The Great War is still one of my all-time favorite gaming experiences, a beautifully illustrated and emotionally compelling side-scrolling puzzler set during WWI. It remains one of only a handful of games that have ever made me cry (no, I haven’t played The Last of Us). It’s been eight years, but I am definitely excited about playing a sequel – the first Netflix game I’ve truly been interested in. I already downloaded it, just waiting now for the right time to dive in!

Reading Right Now

Added to My TBR This Week

I troll book list posts incessantly looking for new books to read, despite the fact that I already have a billion books on my TBR and will never ever get to all of them. These ones caught my eye this week. Sources: Out of the Past Blog, Jessica Hooten Wilson, Front Porch Republic, More Christ.


I am entirely fascinated by this recreation of how Shakespeare’s plays probably originally sounded. Some of this I’ve put together myself from figuring out how certain sonnet lines that don’t rhyme now probably rhymed then, but doing a whole play like this – I would love to see this.

Adventures on Criterion: Joan Bennett

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.

Plato on Education

Excerpted in The Great Tradition:

For we are not speaking of education in this narrower sense, but of that other education in virtue from youth upwards, which makes a man eagerly pursue the ideal perfection of citizenship, and teaches him how rightly to rule and how to obey. This is the only education which, upon our view, deserves the name; that other sort of training, which aims at the acquisition of wealth or bodily strength, or mere cleverness apart from intelligence and justice, is mean and illiberal, and is not worthy to be called education at all.

Plato, Laws (excerpted in The Great Tradition, p16)

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