Tag: Claude Rains

Now, Voyager (1942)

Now, Voyager (1942)

Romance, make-overs and erotic cigarette lighting abounds in this classic luscious romance

Director: Irving Rapper

Cast: Bette Davis (Charlotte Vale), Paul Henreid (Jerry Duvaux Durrance), Claude Rains (Dr Jaquith), Gladys Cooper (Mrs Windle Vale), Bonita Granville (June Vale), John Loder (Elliot Livingston), Ilka Chase (Lisa Vale), Lee Patrick (Deb McIntyre), Janis Wilson (Tina Durrance)

The untold want by life and land ne’er granted, / Now, voyager, sail thou forth, to seek and find”. Walt Whitman’s words are the poetic urging of kindly psychiatrist Dr Jaquith (Claude Rains) to patient Charlotte Vale (Bette Davis) before she embarks on a cruise that will change her life. Crushed under her imperious mother’s (Gladys Cooper) thumb, Charlotte grew-up an unloved ugly-duckling and self-loathing spinster. How will a taste of freedom change her life – and, with that taste, a love affair with unhappily married would-be-architect Jerry Durrance (Paul Henreid)?

It’s easy to see Now, Voyager as a piece of soapy, romantic puff – and there are certainly suds in its DNA – but that’s to do an engaging, heartfelt character-study down. This is a sort of moral rags-to-riches story about a woman who has been mocked her whole life, finding the courage to build her own life. But that life is not the picture-perfect final image you might expect: instead, it’s about compromise and, more importantly, choosing your own compromises. Without knowing it, that is what Charlotte has been striving for. “Don’t let’s ask for the moon: we have the stars” are her famous closing lines, and it’s about the idea that choosing a compromised version of the life she actually wants is better than a life foisted upon her by others.

Now, Voyager works as well as it does, almost exclusively down to Bette Davis. She fought to get the role, hand-picked the director (an old friend) and stars (insisting on Henreid, despite a disastrous test) and reshaped most of the dialogue. It’s all justified by her superb performance. Charlotte Vale, with her ugly-duckling opening appearance, and operatic romance with Jerry, could have been a pantomimic performance. Davis though grounds her in sensitivity, reality and a deep emotional empathy. It’s a complex, heart-stirring performance.

Almost uniquely for stars at the time, Davis was not afraid to get ugly when the part demanded (she practically invented ugging-up). Charlotte Vale’s first appearance – Rapper teases the reveal by focusing first on her hands at her desk, legs as she descends a staircase before allowing her to fully enter frame – is a sight. With an eye-catching, hairy mono-brow, mousy glasses, a flattened haircut and dumpy clothing, she’s a million miles from our idea of 40s glamour. But Davis doesn’t make her a joke or play up to the appearance. She gives Charlotte a steel, born of self-defence – she snaps swiftly at Dr Jaquith when she thinks she is being condescended to – and a deep well of pain and ill-defined longing for a change she can hardly grasp.

Matters are beautifully inverted when she heads off on her cruise (you can criticise the film’s portrayal of therapy, which seems to be easy if you are stinking rich and can afford a cruise). Rapper repeats his intro trick again – this time revealing a physically confident and striking Charlotte, made-up and dressed to the nines. But, just as the self-loathing Charlotte had a defensive steel, so this ‘confident’ Charlotte has the same vulnerability and fear of ridicule and rejection just beneath the surface. Davis brilliantly gives the outwardly changed Charlotte, a different but equally moving vulnerability, a woman still working out who and what she is.

It’s a brilliant performance that gives the entire confection of the film a real emotional heft, as we experience every inch of this seminal voyage with her. And a lot of that life-change is filtered through the bond between her and fellow-passenger Jerry. Skilfully played by Henreid with a euro-charm that barely masks his own sadness, loneliness and guilt, Jerry may look the part but like Charlotte he’s close to succumbing to imposter syndrome. Unloved by his wife (this unseen harridan arguably deserves a film of her own – perfect role for Joan Crawford?) – but trapped into the marriage by his sense of duty and his love for his timid daughter Tina (Janis Wilson).

Jerry and Charlotte’s relationship blossoms from shyness into a genuine love affair. Reading between the lines of its 1940s code, it’s clear our two heroes get-it-on. Stranded in Brazil after a car crash (caused by an uncomfortably dated caricature portrayal of a Hispanic driver), the two of them ‘snuggle up’ for warmth while camping the night in an abandoned building. Any doubts about how far this went is removed when Henreid lights two cigarettes in his mouth in the next scene, passing one to Charlotte who sucks sensually on it. (This was the era when the language of cigarettes was crucial as a stand-in for bumping and grinding).

Of course, an affair could never be explicitly allowed, just as any idea of Henreid divorcing his awful wife was anathema. But its knowing that it-can-never-be which gives the film its romantic force. Charlotte will eventually find herself drawn to helping Jerry’s daughter Tina, their shared love for the child being the thing that will allow them to be married in spirit if not in actuality.

You could argue Charlotte’s decision to semi-adopt Tina as companion is not dissimilar from her own mother’s would-be exploiting of Charlotte as an unpaid nurse. But Charlotte has learned a lot from the cruel fierceness of her mother. Played with a witheringly cold grandeur by Gladys Cooper – at one point she taps her finger on a bed post in a way which captures oceans of barely repressed fury – this woman is selfish, self-obsessed and cruel. Standing up to her expectation that nothing has changed is the major challenge for Charlotte, with Bette Davis skilfully showing it takes all her strength to overcome.

Now, Voyager is an effective romantic film. It’s helped a great deal by Max Steiner’s beautifully romantic score, that perfectly complements and enhances every on-screen image. Superbly acted by its four leads – Claude Rains is also wonderful as the kindly and deeply professional Jaquith – it’s a detailed character study that manages to rise triumphantly above its soapy roots.

Casablanca (1943)

Casablanca (1943)

Bogart and Bergman are a love story for the ages in the ever-young Casablanca

Director: Michael Curtiz

Cast: Humphrey Bogart (Rick Blaine), Ingrid Bergman (Ilsa Lund), Paul Henreid (Victor Laszlo), Claude Rains (Captain Louis Renault), Conrad Viedt (Major Henrich Strasser), Sydney Greenstreet (Signor Ferrari), Peter Lorre (Signor Ugarte), Dooley Wilson (Sam), Madeline Lebeau (Yvonne), Curt Bois (Pickpocker), SZ Sakall (Carl), Leonid Kinsky (Sascha), Marcel Dalio (Emil), Joy Page (Anna)

For today, for tomorrow and for the rest of your life. That’s the sort of lifespan Casablanca has: to see it is to fall in love with it. That’s what people have been doing for nearly 80 years. There isn’t a more popular “great” movie. This is vintage, top-notch, prime Hollywood product, made by a group of people at the top of their game that has such impact you’ll know most of its highlights without having ever seen the film. No wonder people have been saying since it was released “Play it again” (famously, a phrase you will never actually hear in the film itself).

Casablanca, December 1941. Corrupt Vichy France officials rule the roost, with the city clinging to neutrality. European refugees and American ex-Pats mix with Nazi officers – everyone trying to get those all-important “letters of transit” you need to climb onto a plane and get out of the warzone. Letters like this will cause a world of trouble for American ex-Pat Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart), keeping Rick’s Café going as a place where politics are never discussed. But Rick may be forced to choose sides when his lost love Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman) lands back in his life, on the run from the Nazis with her husband Czech freedom-fighter Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid). Just before the fall of Paris, Rick and Ilsa had a love affair (she thought Victor was dead at the time) and neither of them has got over it. Will Rick take a stand and help Victor flee to continue the fight against the Nazis? Or is this a chance for Ilsa and he finally to be together?

Like many hugely beloved films, Casablanca combines a host of genres into one superbly digestible, hugely enjoyable, package. This is a star-crossed romance in the middle of a war film, with lashings of everything from espionage to gangsters to comedy of manners. In short, there would have to be something wrong with you not to find something to tick your boxes in Casablanca and it’s all brilliantly packaged together by Michael Curtiz into possibly one of the most purely entertaining and crowd-pleasing films ever made.

Casablanca is a superbly written pinnacle of the hard-edged but strangely romantic dialogue of Hollywood at the time, all delivered with more than a dash of humour. There isn’t a scene that doesn’t have a quotable line in it: and all of them delivered by a brilliant actor. Each scene is a master-class in Hollywood professionalism and skill. From our introduction to the streets of Casablanca – capped with the shooting of a Free-French fighter, who collapses to his death underneath a poster of Petain – to the beautifully evocative set (wonderfully shot by Arthur Edeson) for Rick’s café, where we will spend so much of the movie. In swift economy we see how ruthless Rick can be – not lifting a finger to help to petty crook and friend Ugarte (a wonderful cameo from Peter Lorre) – before understanding fully why he’s like that when he responds with something between shock, horror and desperate longing by the arrival of Ingrid Bergman’s Ilsa.

It’s also a film where the stakes are expertly set out. There are jokes about the cold ruthlessness of the Germans, but we are left in no doubt about their danger. (Conrad Viedt is grimly imperious as head Nazi Stasser). The scar on Victor’s face is a constant reminder of the horrors he escaped in the concentration camp (although, as per the time, the film understands these as jails rather than the hell they were). The refugees are putting on a brave face, but there is desperate practising of English and a willingness to trade anything (including their bodies) for letters of transit speaks volumes.

Nearly all of those actors (and Curtiz) are of course refugees and migrants themselves (only Bogart, Wilson and minor-player Page were American). The film gains a sub-conscious depth from this being more than just a story for so many of them. Fleeing from German advance in Europe (or escaping from Nazi persecution) was no theoretical for Henreid, Veidt or the host of great European actors in small roles. You can see that emotion when Victor cajoles the café’s clientele to sing La Marseillaise. The scene never fails to move because of the genuine power of watching real refugees, playing refugees, defiantly singing in the face of the Nazis who ruined their lives (the shots of Madeline Lebeau genuinely tear-stained face or the increasingly moved Spanish guitar player are beyond memorable). You can’t watch this sequence without a lump in your throat.

Mind you can’t watch most of it without that lump. Bogart and Bergman cemented themselves as icons with this passionate love story. It’s grounded, like so many truly affecting romances, on loss and pain rather than joy. Aside from a brief flashback to their time together in Paris – before Ilsa jilts Rick at the train station, rain washing the ink from her note (the sky shedding the tears Rick cannot) – these are two people essentially at loggerheads, because it’s the only way to keep their hands off each other. Rick deeply resents Ilsa, Ilsa can’t even begin to allow herself to think about her lost love for Rick because she fears it will take control of her. Particularly as, in Bergman’s beautifully judged performance, she clearly has a sort of spiritual (as opposed to romantic) love for the noble Laszlo.

It all helped to make Bogart such an icon for generations to come. Bogart is effortlessly cool here, but he’s also incredibly relatable – who, after all, hasn’t had their heart-broken? Watch him sadly starring in the middle distance, befuddled by drink and demanding Sam play As Times Goes By over and over, and it’s no surprise that he’s so torn for so much of the film about what to do. Paul Henreid could never compete with the mix of vulnerability and misanthropic cynicism Bogart effortlessly brings to the part (one of the all-time great performances in the movies).

Bogart is also a perfect encapsulation of what America wanted (and still wants) to be. Minding his own business, but tread on him and he’ll bite back. Not only that, he’ll pick the right side and always make sure he does the right thing. It’s hinted to us that, for all his shady past, Rick has sided with anti-Fascists in Spain and Ethiopia. We even know he had to flee Paris because there was a price on his head. He might “stick his head out for nobody”, but the genius of Bogart is we don’t quite believe him, even while we see him do just that.

The chemistry between him and Bergman – who claimed never to quite understand why the film had such impact – is breath-takingly good. Helped by some of the wittiest and hard-edged dialogue in the movies, they become Hollywood’s own Lancelot and Guinevere. Bergman’s deceptively soft-edged performance, carries inner grit masking her own pain – she also brilliantly manages to show how she could be in love with two men (in different ways) at once. These two characters go through a long dance of denial before finally confessing all: and the iconic ending has the perfect combination of heartfelt longing and sacrifice they both know needs to be made.

But it’s not the only romance in the movie: having almost as much impact is the chemistry between Bogart and a never-better Claude Rains as jovially corrupt Vichy inspector Renault (merrily trading letters of transit for sexual favours and ticking the boxes of his duty while lining his own pockets). Casablanca also has in it one of the greatest love-hate friendships in the movies, between two people who can’t help liking each other, even when they barely have a single interest combined. Sounds like the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Critical discussion has often revolved around whether Casablanca can be considered a piece of “high art”. It’s hard to imagine Ingrid Bergman’s famous Swedish compatriot directing it. To be completely honest, Casablanca is one of the finest packaged pieces of Hollywood Hokum ever made. And there is nothing wrong with that. It’s a master craftsman of glorious stand-up-and-applaud films in Curtiz, delivering his masterpiece. Casablanca doesn’t have the revelatory flair of something like Citizen Kane. But no other film in existence so brilliantly exploited the Hollywood formula. And it shows how much power, emotion and joy you mine from Hollywood’s narrative and filmic tropes when they were worked with as much skill and passion as you get here.

It’s a film that not only perfectly encapsulates a whole period of Hollywood professionalism, it also establishes the sort of golden rules – a brittle semi-anti-hero, sacrifice, moral complexities and open-endings – that would increasingly dominate Hollywood in the decades to come. Casablanca is a genuine turning point in Hollywood, a perfect summation of the noirs, love stories and adventures that preceded it, but repackaging them with influential insight. It’s also, above and beyond everything else, a bloody brilliant film that, as Nora Ephon said, you can never see enough.

The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965)

Greatest Story Ever Told header
Max von Sydow carries a heavy burden in Steven’s far-from The Greatest Story Ever Told

Director: George Stevens

Cast: Max von Sydow (Jesus), Dorothy McGuire (The Virgin Mary), Charlton Heston (John the Baptist), Claude Rains (Herod the Great), José Ferrer (Herod Antipas), Telly Savalas (Pontius Pilate), Martin Landau (Caiaphas), David McCallum (Judas Iscariot), Donald Pleasance (“The Dark Hermit”), Michael Anderson Jnr (James the Less), Roddy McDowell (Matthew), Gary Raymond (Peter), Joanna Dunham (Mary Magdalene), Ed Wynn (Old Aram), Angela Lansbury (Claudia), Sal Mineo (Uriah), Sidney Poitier (Simon of Cyrene), John Wayne (Centurion)

You could make a case to prosecute The Greatest Story Ever Told under the Trade Descriptions Act. In a world where we are blessed (cursed?) with a plethora of Biblical epics, few are as long, worthy, turgid or dull as George Stevens’ misguided epic. Just like Jesus in the film is plagued by a Dark Hermit representing Satan, did Stevens have a wicked angel whispering in his ear “More wide shots George, and even more Handel’s Messiah. And yes, The Duke is natural casting for a Roman Centurion…”. The Greatest Story Ever Told has some of the worst reviews Christianity has ever had – and it’s had some bad ones.

The plot covers the whole life of the Saviour so should be familiar to anyone who has ever seen a Gideon’s Bible. It was a passion project for Stevens, who spent almost five years raising the cash to bring it to the screen. When he started, the fad for self-important Biblical epics was starting to teeter. When it hit the screen, it had flat-lined. It didn’t help that The Greatest Story Ever Told was first released as an over four-hour snooze fest, laboriously paced, that managed to drain any fire or passion from one of (no matter what you believe) the most tumultuous and significant lives anyone on the planet has ever led. The film was cut down to about two hours (making it incomprehensible) and today exists as a little over three-hour epic that genuinely still feels like it’s four hours long.

Stevens gets almost nothing right here whatsoever. Self-importance permeates the entire project. The film cost $20million, double the largest amount the studio had ever spent. Ordinary storyboards were not good enough: Stevens commissioned 350 oil paintings (that’s right, an entire art gallery’s worth) to plan the picture (which probably explains why the film feels at times like a slide show of second-rate devotional imagery). The Pope was consulted on the script (wisely he didn’t take a screen credit). Stevens decided the American West made a better Holy Land than the actual Holy Land, so shot it all in Arizona, Nevada and California. It took so long to film, Joseph Schildkraut and original cinematographer William C Mellor both died while making it, while Joanna Durham (playing Mary Magdalene!) became pregnant and gave birth. Stevens shot 1,136 miles of film, enough to wrap around the Moon.

There’s something a little sad about all that effort so completely wasted. But the film is a complete dud. It’s terminally slow, not helped by its stately shooting style where the influence of all those paintings can be seen. Everything is treated with crushing import – Jesus can’t draw breath without a heavenly choir kicking in to add spiritual import to whatever he is about to say. Stevens equates grandeur with long shots so a lot of stuff happens in the widest framing possible, most ridiculously the resurrection of Lazarus which takes place in a small part of a screen consumed with a vast cliff panorama. Bizarrely, most of the miracles take place off-screen, as if Stevens worried that seeing a man walk on water, feed the five thousand or turn water into wine would stretch credulity (which surely can’t be the case for a film as genuflecting as this one).

What we get instead is Ed Wynn, Sal Mineo and Van Heflin euphorically running up a hilltop and shouting out loud the various miracles the Lamb of God has bashfully performed off-screen. Everything takes a very long time to happen and a large portion of the film is given over to a lot of Christ walking, talking at people but not really doing anything. For all the vast length, no real idea is given at all about what people were drawn to or found magnetic about Him. It’s as if Stevens is so concerned to show He was better than this world, that the film forgets to show that He was actually part of this world. Instead, we have to kept being told what a charismatic guy He is and how profound His message is: we never get to see or hear these qualities from His own lips.

For a film designed to celebrate the Greatest, the film strips out much of the awe and wonder in Him. It’s not helped by the chronic miscasting of Max von Sydow. Selected because he was a great actor who would be unfamiliar to the mid-West masses (presumably considered to be unlikely to be au fait with the work of Ingmar Bergman), von Sydow is just plain wrong for the role. His sonorous seriousness and restrained internal firmness help make the Son of God a crushing, distant bore. He’s not helped by his dialogue being entirely made-up of Bible quotes or the fact that Stevens directs him to be so stationary and granite, with much middle-distance staring, he could have been replaced with an Orthodox Icon with very little noticeable difference.

Around von Sydow, Stevens followed the norm by hiring as many star actors as possible, some of whom pop up for a few seconds. The most famous of these is of course John Wayne as the Centurion who crucifies Jesus. This cameo has entered the realms of Filmic Myth (the legendary “More Awe!”exchange). Actually, Stevens shoots Wayne with embarrassment, as if knowing getting this Western legend in is ridiculous – you can hardly spot Wayne (if you didn’t know it was him, you wouldn’t) and his line is clearly a voiceover. In a way just as egregious is Sidney Poitier’s wordless super-star appearance as Simon, distracting you from feeling the pain of Jesus’ sacrifice by saying “Oh look that’s Sidney Poitier” as he dips into frame to help carry the cross.

Of the actors who are in it long enough to make an impression, they fall into three camps: the OTT, the “staring with reverence” and the genuinely good. Of the OTT crowd, Rains and Ferrer set the bar early as various Herods but Heston steals the film as a rug-chested, manly John the Baptist, ducking heads under water in a Nevada lake, bellowing scripture to the heavens. Of the reverent, McDowell does some hard thinking as Matthew, although I have a certain fondness for Gary Raymond’s decent but chronically unreliable Peter (the scene where he bitches endlessly about a stolen cloak is possibly the only chuckle in the movie).

It’s a sad state of affairs that the Genuinely Good actors all play the Genuinely Bad characters – poor old Jesus, even in the story of his life the Devil gets all the best scenes. That’s literally true here as Donald Pleasence is head-and-shoulders best-in-show as a softly spoken, insinuating but deeply sinister “Dark Hermit” who tempts Jesus in the wilderness and then follows Him throughout the Holy Land, turning others against Him. Also good are David McCallum as a conflicted Judas, Telly Savalas as weary Pilate (he shaved his head for the role, loved the look and never went back) and Martin Landau, good value as a corrupt Caiaphas (“This will all be forgotten in a week” he signs the film off with saying).

That’s about all there is to enjoy about a film that probably did more to reduce attendance at Sunday School than the introduction of Sunday opening hours and football being played all day. A passion project from Stevens where he forgot to put any of that passion on the screen, it really is as long and boring as you heard, a film made with such reverent skill that no one seemed to have thought about stopping and saying “well, yes, but is it good?”. I doubt anyone is watching it up in Heaven.

The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)

Errol Flynn hits the spot in The Adventures of Robin Hood

Director: Michael Curtiz, William Keighley

Cast: Errol Flynn (Robin Hood), Olivia de Havilland (Maid Marian), Basil Rathbone (Sir Guy of Gisbourne), Claude Rains (Prince John), Patrick Knowles (Will Scarlet), Eugene Pallette (Friar Tuck), Alan Hale (Little John), Herbert Mundin (Much, the Miller’s Son), Melville Cooper (Sheriff of Nottingham), Una O’Connor (Bess), Ian Hunter (King Richard)

Has a more enjoyable film ever been made? The Adventures of Robin Hood is such a glorious technicolour treat it’s pretty much an archetype of a Hollywood blockbuster. Reportedly the only film in history that had exactly no changes made to it after preview screenings (so much did the audience lap it up), it’s been entertaining people pretty much non-stop since 1938. Never mind its influence on Robin Hood legend – almost every Robin Hood based film or show recycles elements of the plot here – it’s pretty much built up a picture of what a classic Hollywood Olde Medieval England epic is.

It’s Medieval England at the time of the Crusades (actual history is of course no-one’s concern). King Richard’s wicked brother, the greedy Prince John (Claude Rains) is plotting to seize the throne while bis brother languishes in an Austrian dungeon. Up go the taxes – especially on those pesky Saxons who still fill England’s lands, under the yoke of their Norman rulers. Who can stand in the way of John – and his arrogantly ruthless right-hand man Sir Guy of Gisbourne (Basil Rathbone)? Only the Lincoln-green coated Saxon nobleman Robin of Locksley (Errol Flynn), the most upstandingly, thigh-slappingly, decent chap you could imagine. Taking the name Robin Hood, he takes refuge in Sherwood Forest and builds up a group of like-minded fellows who resolve to rob from the rich, give to the poor and protect the realm for Richard. But things get complicated when Robin falls in love with brave and whipper-smart Maid Maran (Olivia de Havilland) – especially as she is the intended of non-other than the wicked Sir Guy of Gisbourne…

Looking like an explosion in a technicolour workshop, The Adventures of Robin Hood is fast-paced, crammed with rollicking action, packed with good lines and played with a knowing wink by a cast of actors clearly having a whale of a time. It’s a prime slice of entertainment, and it succeeds completely. It’s hard to imagine someone not finding something to enjoy here. Sword fights and chases? Check. Romance and flirtation? Check. Some cheeky gags and a hero thumbing his nose at authority? Check. Villains to hiss and heroes to cheer? You better believe it. I don’t think there is a single type in Hollywood history where the cocktail of action and entertainment was mixed better.

The film has two credited directors. William Keighley was the original, who shot the material in the film shot on location. It’s Keighley who helped tee up the atmosphere, and to get the actors to relax into the style of the thing. Crucial sequences showing the characters meeting (including the encounter with Little John) and a large chunk of the middle-act archery contest were Keighley’s work. So, we have him to thank for working in a competition that includes an arrow piecing straight through the middle of another (a stunt put together with a bit of clever wire work and some genuinely gifted archery skills). However, Keighley was less accomplished at shooting action. And to be honest you can see it, during the sequence where Robin and his Merry Men take hostage Gisborne and the Sheriff. It’s fine, but there is a reason why it’s also not a scene anyone particularly remembers from the film. When the shoot returned to Hollywood for the interiors, a new director was sought out to handle the rest – which included all the big fight scenes.

The man they called on was one of the masters of the studio system, Michael Curtiz. A director famed for his dictatorial approach to film-making (hilariously Flynn agreed to the film on condition that it wouldn’t be directed by Curtiz, the relationship between the two having collapsed during earlier collaborations), what Curtiz could do that Keighley couldn’t was add a really visual scale to the action. And it worked a treat – because Curtiz gifted us two of the greatest, instantly recognisible, action showpieces in Hollywood history. Both epic sword fights in Nottingham Castle are down to him, his camera employing crane, tracking and long shots to add an epic quality. He was also full of cool ideas – it’s him we have to thank for a portion of the closing sword fight being shown through shadow play.

It’s the pace as well that Curtiz really understand. Compare the careful, single shot, used by Keighley for the quarterstaff duel between Robin and Little John. Now admittedly the stakes are lower. But then watch the immediacy and dynamism of Curtiz’s camera moves while Robin fights for his life in Nottingham against dozens of guards, or duels with Sir Guy. The energy – and above all the pace and speed – of these scenes help make them gripping. And it wasn’t just the action. Curtiz bought a romantic jolt of energy to the interplay between Maid Marion and Robin, framing a key scene with a romantic intimacy on the edge of a window sill. While Keighley laid the ground work, it’s arguably Curtiz’ work that makes the film what it is.

Well that and the actors. Errol Flynn was perfectly cast as Robin Hood, the part a wonderful fit for his ability to mix charm with just a hint of rogueish sexuality and cheek. Combine that with his athleticism – some of the stunts he carries out in this film are eye-openingly intense – and you’ve got the man you pretty much cemented the public impression of who Robin Hood was. It’s beyond bizarre to imagine the original choice of actor – James Cagney – playing the role.

Flynn also of course has winning chemistry with Olivia de Havilland. De Havilland uses her great skill to make Maid Marian far more than just a damsel in distress. She’s proactive, plugged in and defiant, convinced of the need for justice and more alert to dangers and opportunities than almost anyone else in the film.

Both of these two go up against one of the finest arrays of baddies I think film has ever seen. Rains is arrogant, aloof and ever-so-slightly camp as the superior Prince John. Rathbone is scowlingly austere and deliciously pleased-with-himself as Sir Guy. And for the chuckles we have the bumbingly cowardly Sheriff, played with comic delight by Melville Cooper. All three of these actors combine perfectly, offering a marvellous troika of villains, each a mirror image of different facets of Flynn’s hero.

It makes for a gloriously entertaining film, all washed down with Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s marvellous symphonic score, the bombast and romantic sweep of the music perfectly counterbalancing the action on screen. Still the greatest of all Robin Hood films, The Adventures of Robin Hood is entertaining no matter when you watch it.

Mr Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

James Stewart campaigns for truth and justice in Capra’s classic Mr Smith Goes to Washington

Director: Frank Capra

Cast: James Stewart (Jefferson Smith), Jean Arthur (Clarissa Saunders), Claude Rains (Senator Joseph Harrison Paine), Edward Arnold (Jim Taylor), Guy Kibbee (Governor Hubert “Happy” Hopper”), Thomas Mitchell (“Diz” Moore), Eugene Pallette (Chick McGinn), Beulah Bondi (Ma Smith), H.B. Warner (Senate Majority Leader), Harry Carey (President of the Senate), Astrid Allwyn (Susan Paine)

Capra’s film are known, above everything, for their fundamental optimism about life, friendship and the American Way. Few films cemented that opinion more than Mr Smith Goes to Washington, the quintessential “one man in the right place can make a difference” movie. And where else would that one man need to be, but Washington? Where laws are framed and ideals come to die. It’s our hope that those at the heart of the political system are there for the good of the people. Of course, even Capra knew most of them were there to line their pockets and do their best for powerful business interests. So who can blame Capra for a little fantasy where naïve, innocent but morally decent Jefferson Smith decides enough is enough?

In an unnamed mid-Western State (the story the film is based on named it as Montana), the junior senator unexpectantly dies. The Governor (Guy Kibbee) needs a new man. Should he go for a reformer or the latest stooge put forward by political power broker in the State Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold). A tricky choice, so he splits the difference by appointing Boy Rangers leader Jefferson Smith (James Stewart) – because he’s wholesome and clean but also naïve enough to manipulate. Jeff heads to Washington, under the wing of Senator Joseph Paine (Claude Rains) – but Paine is in the pocket of Taylor.

Taylor and his cronies want an appropriation bill forced through that includes a clause to build a dam in their state. The dam will be built on land secretly bought up by Taylor and others, making them a fortune from public money. When Jeff announces in the Senate a bill to host a national boy’s summer camp on that same land, it throws a spanner in the works. Despite threats and bribes, Jeff refuses to go along with the shady deal over the dam, so they set out to destroy his reputation. With the help of his secretary Clarissa Saunders (Jean Arthur), Jeff mounts an epic filibuster in the Senate to clear his name, stop the dam and reveal the political corruption in his state.

Capra’s film is earnest, well-meaning and at times even a little bit sanctimonious and preachy – but it gets away with it because it’s also so energetic, honest and fun. It’s strange watching it today to think that the Senate at the time responded so poorly to it. Leading public figures either denounced it’s view of government and even tried to have it banned. Ironically of course, it probably inspired more people to get involved in Government than any other movie.

That was bad news for the corrupt political machines that ran so many parts of America at the time. Capra’s film is remarkably open-eyed about how these machines worked. Powerful business interests at the centre, with a raft of politicians in their pay – from Governors and senators on down. Jim Taylor – very well played with a swaggering, crude, bullying tone by Edward Arnold – only has to snap his fingers to get things done. During the film he mobilises the press, the police, the fire service and an army of heavies to enforce his will in the state and suppress free speech. The Governor (a neatly tremulous Guy Kibbee) is so firmly in his pocket, he can barely tie his shoe-laces without Taylor directing it. Senator Paine is patrician, dignified and has every inch of respectability – but he is soaking in filth up his neck from contact with Taylor.

It’s this system the film has a quiet anger about. Whatever happened to having “a little bit of plain, ordinary kindness – and a little lookin’ out for the other fella too”? Capra’s sprightly film also makes clear that we both don’t look too closely at how our government is really run and are very quick to hoover up any story we get from our political masters and accept it as gospel. An honest, decent man in the middle of all this is as unlikely a sight as you can imagine.

But that’s what these people get with Jefferson Smith – and discover someone who should be easy to manipulate, but doesn’t understand the rules of the game he’s playing. Instead Jeff thinks they are all there to help other people, not to themselves. Now you can argue, as some critics have, that law-making is the art of compromise – and that once the dam is under way, the benefits it will produce to Jeff’s home State (in terms of employment and energy) will be huge. So why shouldn’t Jeff bow down and move his boys camp in order to let the Bill go through?

Well the point is that Jeff isn’t opposed to the dam – he’s opposed to the corrupt profiteering that will spring out of it, and the way the cesspool of Washington (amongst all those fine monuments he so adoringly looks at) doesn’t care. This is a filibuster campaign to put honesty and decency back into American politics – and what’s not to like about that? It’s a film that firmly believes that one good man in the right place (that’s both Jeff and the President of the Senate, who tacitly encourages him) can change the day and save the country from itself.

There was of course no one better for such a job than Jimmy Stewart (and surely it’s this film that made him “Jimmy” to one and all). Capra had James Stewart in mind from the start – and it’s a perfect role for him, an iconic performance that stands as surely one of his greatest roles. Stewart has the skill to make Jeff endearing but not saccharine, naïve but not frustrating, innocent but not a rube, gentle but determined. Despite its corniness (and some of the film is very corny) you relate to his reverence for Lincoln’s memorial and the Capital. Stewart’s homespun charm is perfect, but it’s matched with the steel he could give characters. There is an adamant quality to his filibuster, his refusal to back down and go along with injustice. The final quarter of the film that deals with the filibuster is quite superb stuff, Stewart delivering some very-well written speeches with commitment, passion and bravura. It’s no understatement to say the film would work half as well as it does without him.

But then the entire film is also a feast of great acting, all sparked by a superb script from Sidney Buchman which mixes razor-sharp dialogue with wonderful speeches. Jean Arthur (who actually gets top billing) is very good as a cynical Washington insider who rediscovers her ideals – and finds her heart melting – under Jeff’s honest influence. Claude Rains gives one of his finest performances as the patrician Paine, a man who tries to close his eyes to his own corruption, but swallows down his own guilt and shame every day. Harry Carey gets a twinkly cameo as an amused and supportive President of the Senate. (Both actors were nominated for the Oscar, but lost to Thomas Mitchell for Stagecoach who also appears here in a fun turn as the drunken but principled reporter Diz).

Capra keeps the pace up perfectly, and his direction handles both smaller scale scenes of romance and idealism, with the larger scale fireworks of the Senate (a superb set, that looks so convincing it’s amazing to think it was built on a sound stage). His biggest trick here is to create a film that, in many ways, is a political lecture, but never makes it feel like one. Instead it delivers it’s messages on truth, justice and the American way with such lightness – but yet such pure decency – that it all works. It helps a great deal that the film doesn’t shy away from the corruption and – apart from a final turn that saves the day – resists melodrama and contrivance. Charming, funny but also thoughtful and committed, Mr Smith Goes to Washington is one of Capra’s very best.

Here Comes Mr Jordan (1941)

Edward Everett Horton, Robert Montgomery and Claude Rains deal with death, admin and body swops in Here Comes Mr. Jordan

Director: Alexander Hall

Cast: Robert Montgomery (Joe Pendleton), Evelyn Keyes (Bette Logan), Claude Rains (Mr Jordan), Rita Johnson (Julia Farnsworth), Edward Everett Horton (Messenger 7013), James Gleason (Max “Pop” Corkle), John Emery (Tony Abbott), Donald MacBride (Inspector Williams), Don Costello (Lefty), Halliwell Hobbes (Sisk)

One of the best things about the Hollywood Studio system is that created an environment where middle-brow talents could suddenly lift themselves up to create something very special. That’s certainly the case with Here Comes Mr Jordan, the career high spot for its director and its main stars. It’s the sort of product of Classic Hollywood where everything comes together perfectly and delightfully.

Joe Pendleton (Robert Montgomery) is a boxer with a shot at the title. An amateur pilot, Joe flies his own one-man flight to New York for the match. On the way, his plane crashes. An officious Angel, Messenger 7013 (Edward Everett Horton), collects his soul – only to find on arrival in heaven that Joe was meant to survive the crash and live for another 50 years. Unfortunately, by the time the mistake is found out, Joe’s body has been cremated. Head Angel Mr Jordan (Claude Rains) has no choice other than to find Joe another body on Earth. So Joe winds up in the body of millionaire Bruce Farnsworth, recently murdered by his wife Julia (Rita Johnson) and secretary Tony Abbott (John Emery). In his new body, Joe decides to correct Farnsworth’s wrongs, returning his embezzled money to investors and helping to free the father of Bette Logan (Evelyn Keyes), who took the blame. Joe also wants to retrain for a boxer – recruiting, much to his confusion, his old coach Max Corkle (James Gleason) – and he and Bette begin to fall in love. But Joe’s destiny, it turns out, is to be the champ – and he can’t do that in Farnsworth’s body. How will Mr Jordan clean this mess up?

Here Comes Mr Jordan is a delight, a hilarious musing on reincarnation and afterlife, in which the next world is as weighted down by bureaucracy and red tape as much as this one. With neat, unobtrusive direction from Alexander Hall (who never hit the jackpot like this again), the film keeps its comic balls up in the air beautifully, while throwing in some neat observations around life, death and fate. The script bubbles with lovely bits of invention, from the Afterlife to a bureaucratic organisation to Joe’s inhabiting of Farnsworth’s body (after trying a few other bodies on first), while still appearing to himself (and we the viewers – a neat idea that the film invites us not to think about too much as Joe’s mannerisms and physicality must be completely different from Farnsworth) unchanged from his original body.

Around this the film gets some neat pot shots at big business corruption. In some ways this is a little like A Matter of Life and Death mixed with Capra. As in Capra, the humble, kind-but-not-super-smart regular Joe is the one who takes a long-hard look at the corruption and greed of Big Business and Corporate America and decides “there has to be a better way”. The kind of guy who solves major business problems simply by doing the right thing and listening to his heart. Counterbalancing that is Joe’s ongoing obsession with continuing his boxing career, from his determination to get a body that’s “in the pink” (a phrase that drives Mr Jordan up the wall) to roping in his ageing butler into a series of vigorous workouts.

A large part of the charm of Joe Pendleton lies in the brilliantly dry, witty, sweet but still a little selfish qualities that Robert Montgomery (Oscar nominated) brings to the part. Playing the part with a homespun Brooklyn honesty and simplicity, Montgomery also has a childish delight in finding he can pass unobserved as this new man (particularly funny after his initial terror that he will be “found out” any second), while his boxing obsession has an endearing genuineness to it. Montgomery, as well as getting the light comedic tone spot on (no surprise that Cary Grant was the first choice for the role – although he could never have played the working class Joe as well as Montgomery does he) he also builds a very sweet and charming romance with Evelyn Keyes (also in a career best role), who is ill-treated but defiantly assured of the importance of doing the right thing as Bette.

The whole cast is quite superbly assembled, seasoned pros, doing their thing with aplomb. James Gleason was Oscar-nominated as Joe’s befuddled manager, trying to wrap his head around incarnation. Gleason also gets some of the finest gags, as Corkle tries to interact with Mr Jordan, who remains invisible to the living – but also brings a genuine warmth and tenderness to his feelings for Joe, who he clearly sees as a son. As Mr Jordan, Claude Rains is smoothness personified, playing the entire film with a relaxed grin on his face, gleefully mixing in an obsession with ensuring the “rules” are followed, while offering a dry reaction to events such as murder. As his underling Edward Everett Horton brings his patented A-game of flustered middle-man.

Mr Jordan grins so much through the film it’s easy to forget that he’s basically the Angel of Death. Reasonable and supportive, Jordan is also blithely unaffected by death and murder. The film, among the jokes and the general air of a fairy tale, has a little vein of darkness. In his introduction Jordan is overseeing the collection of souls from some of the battlefields of World War II. Later he calmly informs Joe of Farnsworth’s murder taking place even as they speak. The film doesn’t hesitate to shy away from the details of Farnsworth’s killing – or from two further murders. It’s a little nugget of darkness in amongst the charm, and a reminder that this comedy on death and the afterlife took place while the world was tearing itself apart. No wonder death can sometimes not be as big as a deal to everyone as it is today (especially to the Angel of Death).

Because the film has a more Capraesque belief that what matters is not who we are but what’s inside. Joe will appear as Farnsworth to everyone, but eventually what people will respond to (he is told by Jordan) is the person inside not the outward appearance. The potential that Joe may have to move to a new body to fulfil his destiny of becoming the champ, doesn’t meant that he and Bette need to necessarily be apart if his heart remains the same. While the film does suggest (I feel darkly!) at one point that Joe may forget who he was originally the longer he is in a new body, the more it stresses the point that the basic qualities of his decency won’t be lost.

Its ideas like this – combined with expert telling and superb Classic Hollywood grace and skill in its shooting, directing and acting – that give Here Comes Mr Jordan a little bite, along with its comic impact. Nominated for seven Oscars it won two – and it stands to be remembered in what was a glory year for Hollywood. You might expect something rather slight – but this delightful comedy is as thought provoking as it is playful.