The Letter

US (1940): Drama
95 min, No rating, Black & White, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

Bette Davis's 43rd movie; it marked her 10th year in films, and it is one of her few good vehicles. Somerset Maugham's melodrama (generally believed to be based on an actual incident) had been a Broadway success for Katharine Cornell and was filmed-memorably-in 1929 with Jeanne Eagels. (Those blessed with movie-loving parents may still retain images of Eagels' corrupt beauty, and of her frenzied big scene when the heroine tells off her husband.) The central figure is the wife of a rubber-plantation owner-a woman of such unimpeachable respectability that she can empty a gun into her lover and get away with it (in the courts, at least, because in Singapore the white ruling class must stick together). Davis gives what is very likely the best study of female sexual hypocrisy in film history. Cold and proper, she yet manages to suggest the passion of a woman who'd kill a man for trying to leave her. She is helped by an excellent script (by Howard Koch) and by two unusually charged performances-James Stephenson as her lawyer and Herbert Marshall as her husband. The cast also includes two formidable women-Frieda Inescort, who seems ineffably absurd as the lawyer's wife, and Gale Sondergaard, whose performance as the Eurasian woman was actually taken very seriously by many people. With Bruce Lester, Cecil Kellaway, Victor Sen Yung, Willie Fung, Tetsu Komai, and Doris Lloyd. The insistent music is pure, adulterated Max Steiner. It demeans William Wyler's clear, taut direction and the erotic awareness he brings to the material. Warners.

Letter From an Unknown Woman

US (1948): Drama
90 min, No rating, Black & White, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

Joan Fontaine suffers and suffers, but so exquisitely in this romantic evocation of late-19th-century Vienna that one doesn't know whether to clobber the poor, wronged creature or to give in and weep. Max Ophüls made this film in Hollywood but its Vienna is as romantically stylized and as beautifully textured as his European work. His theme (it was almost always his theme) is the difference in approaches to love. A pianist, Louis Jourdan, seduces the impressionable adolescent Joan and promptly forgets her; years later he meets her again, and, thinking her a fresh conquest, seduces her again. But in the intervening years she has borne him a child and remained hopelessly in love with him. This ironic love story, which is probably the toniest "woman's picture" ever made, is based on Stefan Zweig's "Brief Einer Unbekannten" and was written for the screen by Howard Koch. With Mady Christians. Cinematography by Franz Planer; art direction by Alexander Golitzen; produced by John Houseman, for Universal.

A Letter to Jane

France (1972): Documentary/Political
45 min, No rating, Color

A 45-minute-long lecture demonstration that is a movie only in a marginal sense. A single news photograph appears on the screen; it is of tall Jane Fonda towering above some Vietnamese, and on the track Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin discuss the implications of the photograph. Their talk is didactic, condescending, and offensively inhuman. In French.

A Letter to Three Wives

US (1949): Drama
103 min, No rating, Black & White, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

Joseph L. Mankiewicz won Academy Awards for Best Screenplay and Best Director for this satirical comedy on American social and marital conventions. The letter is from the town seductress informing the three wives that she has taken away one of their husbands: as each threatened wife reviews her marriage, we get, at best, a sharp, frequently hilarious look at suburbia, and, at worst, a slick series of bright remarks. Mankiewicz coaxed good performances out of Jeanne Crain and Linda Darnell, and the others certainly didn't need coaxing-Paul Douglas is pretty close to magnificent, and Ann Sothern, Kirk Douglas, Florence Bates, Thelma Ritter, and Connie Gilchrist are first-rate. Also with Barbara Lawrence, Jeffrey Lynn, and Hobart Cavanaugh, and narration by Celeste Holm. From a story by John Klempner. 20th Century-Fox.

Libeled Lady

US (1936): Comedy
98 min, No rating, Black & White, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

A wisecracking newspaper comedy, from MGM, with Spencer Tracy as the editor whose paper is being sued for libel, Jean Harlow as his fiancée, Myrna Loy as the maligned heiress who is suing, and William Powell as the man Tracy hires to put Loy in a compromising position, so she'll drop the suit. And, in order to give Powell the married status necessary for the plan, he asks Harlow to marry Powell-just for a few weeks. That's only the beginning of the complications. The director, Jack Conway, keeps up the fast pace by a lot of shouting and busywork-people are always rushing in and out, and practically every line is meant to be funny. Some of them are, and the others are, at least, perky. The picture isn't bad-it's enjoyable, but it's rather charmless. It's constructed like a 70s sit-com, and it has the same kind of forced atmosphere of hilarity; it looks and sounds factory-made. The stars (and the supporting players, too) do their patented characters-the ones they'd invented some years earlier. (Almost nothing seems to be happening for the first time.) Loy is assured and levelheaded; Harlow is a tough cookie-loud and shrill but sentimental at heart; Tracy is a solid man's man; Powell is a suave ladies' man. With Charley Grapewin as the owner of the paper (he gives perhaps the best performance, but there isn't enough of it); Walter Connolly as Loy's father; Cora Witherspoon; George Chandler in a bit; and E.E. Clive as a fishing specialist. (Powell has a fly-fishing scene that Howard Hawks must have liked, because in 1964 he did his version of it in MAN'S FAVORITE SPORT?) Written by Maurine Watkins, Howard Emmett Rogers, and George Oppenheimer.

The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby

UK (1947): Drama
108 min, No rating, Black & White, Available on videocassette

Alberto Cavalcanti, the Brazilian who was active in the French film avant-garde of the 20s, is best known in this country for his direction of the ventriloquist episode in DEAD OF NIGHT. His fast-moving, English-made version of the early Dickens novel has been undeservedly neglected. It's darker, more grotesque and melodramatic than the other Dickens films, with more attention paid to the visual design and the lighting than to any affectionate qualities in the characters, but the style has its own excitement, and the cast is almost everything it should be. Dickens' heroes never seem to come to much on the screen, and Derek Bond's Nicholas is no exception, but his villainous uncle (Cedric Hardwicke) is a beauty, and there are Stanley Holloway as a travelling actor, Sybil Thorndike as bawdy old Mrs. Squeers, Alfred Drayton as the properly horrible Wackford Squeers, Bernard Miles as Noggs, Aubrey Woods as Smike, and Jill Balcon and Sally Ann Howes. The action moves from Dotheboys Hall, where the odious Squeerses board unwanted children, to the King's Bench Prison, where debtors not yet utterly destitute are held. John Dighton did the adaptation.

The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean

US (1972): Western/Comedy
120 min, Rated PG, Color, Available on videocassette

Nihilism plus sentimentality about the rugged-individualist hero-Paul Newman. A mock-epic Western that cannibalizes old movies and mixes an enthusiasm for slaughter with a tacky geniality. John Huston directed this logy, thick-skinned movie from a brutal, jokey script by John Milius, whose imagination appears to have been fed by John Ford, Kurosawa, and a heavy dose of Jodorowsky's EL TOPO. The big scenes don't grow out of anything, and there are no characters-just mannerisms. Newman, his voice lowered to a gruff, non-musical level, sounds like Huston; hiding in a beard throughout, he goes in for a lot of beer-drinking. With Stacy Keach, who has a funny bit as a wild albino, and Ava Gardner as Lily Langtry, and Jacqueline Bisset, Roddy McDowall, Anthony Perkins, Tab Hunter, Victoria Principal, Ned Beatty, Anthony Zerbe, and Huston. (The 1940 Gary Cooper movie THE WESTERNER also dealt with Roy Bean, who was played by Walter Brennan.) A First Artists Production.
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book Reeling.

Life With Father

US (1947): Comedy
118 min, No rating, Color, Available on videocassette

The director, Michael Curtiz, seems to be totally out of his element in this careful, deadly version of the celebrated, long-running Broadway comedy-a piece of starched Americana-by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, based on Clarence Day's stories. William Powell plays the crotchety head of a large, tumultuous upper-middle-class New York household in the 1880s; this must have seemed like a plum of a role, yet Powell's timing (usually impeccable) is way off, and the comic expressions freeze on his face. Everybody seems to be trying too hard. With Irene Dunne, Elizabeth Taylor, Edmund Gwenn, ZaSu Pitts, Jimmy Lydon, Monte Blue, Emma Dunn, and Martin Milner. The script is by Donald Ogden Stewart. Warners.

Lifeboat

US (1944): War/Drama
96 min, No rating, Black & White, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

Ham-handed, wartime Hitchcock, highly regarded by many, and a big hit. John Steinbeck and Jo Swerling concocted the symbol-laden script about the ordeal of a group of survivors of a torpedoed ship; the script's chief virtue is that it provides a raucous opportunity for Tallulah Bankhead to strut her comic sexiness. The picture made her, for the first time, a popular movie star. She plays a famous mink-coated journalist who develops a yen for John Hodiak, an oiler from the ship's engine room. Others aboard the small boat include Canada Lee as a pickpocket, Henry Hull as a millionaire manufacturer, Heather Angel as a simpleton mother with a new baby, Mary Anderson as a nurse, Hume Cronyn as the ship's radio operator, and regrettably, in terms of the didactic uses they are put to, Walter Slezak as the U-boat captain, and William Bendix as a wounded seaman. 20th Century-Fox.

Lifeguard

US (1976): Drama
96 min, Rated PG, Color, Available on videocassette

A low-key account of the life of a Southern California star high-school athlete (Sam Elliott) who goes on working as a lifeguard, clinging to the pleasures of adolescence rather than joining the money-grubbing world of his old classmates. Well thought out and with a feeling for ordinary American talk, but too mechanical, too blandly sensitive, too cool to be popular; it's the sort of small-scale picture that's a drag in a theatre but shines on Home Box Office. The athlete happens to meet his high-school sweetheart (Anne Archer) of 15 years before and they have a fling. (That must be the fulfillment of a widespread male fantasy.) Kathleen Quinlan gives an unusually appealing unconventional performance as a teenager drawn to the overage lifeguard. Directed by Daniel Petrie, from Ron Koslow's script. With Parker Stevenson. Paramount.

The Light That Failed

US (1939): Drama
97 min, No rating, Black & White

This faithful adaptation of the Kipling novel jerks cultured tears. Ronald Colman plays Heldar, the great painter, who is injured by a spear in the Sudan and later goes blind, so he doesn't know that his masterpiece has been destroyed-splashed with turpentine-by his spiteful Cockney model, Bessie Broke (Ida Lupino). When he learns the truth, he goes back to the Sudan, bent on suicide. The director, William Wellman, said of Colman, "He didn't like me; I didn't like him-the only two things we agreed fully on." Fortunately, Wellman seems to have got along well with Lupino (it was her big entry in the Bette Davis-slut sweepstakes) and Walter Huston, who plays the painter's friend. With Muriel Angelus, Dudley Digges, and Ernest Cossart. Paramount.

Lili

US (1953): Drama
81 min, No rating, Color, Available on videocassette

Millions of schoolchildren chirruped "Hi-Lili, Hi-Lo" when this sickly musical whimsey from MGM was released. Mel Ferrer smiles his narcissistic, masochistic smiles as the crippled puppeteer who can speak his love to the 16-year-old orphan girl Lili (Leslie Caron) only through his marionettes. Caron is much too good for him, but the movie doesn't know it. With Jean-Pierre Aumont, Zsa Zsa Gabor, and Kurt Kasznar. Charles Walters choreographed and directed, from Helen Deutsch's script, based on a Paul Gallico novel. Bronislau Kaper was given an Academy Award for that infernal score; Hollywood is shameless.

Lilith

US (1964): Drama
114 min, No rating, Black & White, Available on videocassette

Jean Seberg is the demonic, corrupt Lilith, a patient in an elegant Maryland asylum who wants to "leave the mark of her desire on every living creature in the world;" Warren Beatty is the trainee therapist who finds her madness seductive. This high-toned, humorless attempt to create a mystic enigma was the last work of Robert Rossen, who adapted the J.P. Salamanca novel and directed; it's an unusual sort of disaster-full of symbols, chitchat about schizophrenic spiders, and exquisite cinematography (by Eugen Schüfftan), and utterly lacking in energy and depth. Beatty gives his most irritating performance: he broods over each bit of dialogue for an eternity, his heavy eyelids flickering. With Peter Fonda, Kim Hunter, Gene Hackman, Jessica Walter, Anne Meacham, and René Auberjonois; the score is by Kenyon Hopkins. Columbia.

Lillian Russell

US (1940): Musical/Biography
127 min, No rating, Black & White

Alice Faye, overblown to vacuous perfection, and likable despite it all, wears gigantic hats; the headgear is about the only connection this scrubbed-up bio has with the actual Lillian Russell. In this heavily mounted version, the child Lillian is overheard singing by Tony Pastor (Leo Carrillo), a fatherly type in theatre business; he immediately makes her a star, and she becomes the rage of London and New York. All sorts of generous people-Diamond Jim Brady (Edward Arnold) among them-just keep sending her diamonds and emeralds. Love comes into her life when Henry Fonda rescues her and her Grandma (Helen Westley) from a team of runaway horses. This is the sort of movie in which Lillian the celebrity can never think of Grandma without getting tears in her eyes. A mixture of musical numbers; with Weber and Fields as themselves, Eddie Foy, Jr., as Eddie Foy, Sr. (who, one hopes, was better). 20th Century-Fox.

Limelight

US (1952): Drama/Comedy
145 min, No rating, Black & White, Available on videocassette

Chaplin's sentimental and high-minded view of theatre and himself. His exhortations about life, courage, consciousness, and "truth" are set in a self-pitying, self-glorifying story. As Calvero the old, impoverished English clown, he appears at a gala benefit and shows the unbelievers who think him finished that he is still the greatest, and then dies in the wings as the applause fades; this is surely the richest hunk of self-gratification since Huck and Tom attended their own funeral-and Chaplin serves it up straight. The mediocrity of Calvero's stage routines may be the result of Chaplin's aiming at greatness. At one point Calvero awaits a young ballerina (acted with considerable charm by Claire Bloom, and danced with authority by Melissa Hayden). In the darkened theatre after she has performed, he says to her, "My dear, you are a true artist, a true artist," and the emphasis is on his eyes, his depth of feeling. And is it because Chaplin didn't talk on screen until late in his career that he doesn't seem to have a dramatic instinct for language? (He talks high-mindedly and incessantly.) With Sydney Chaplin, Nigel Bruce, Norman Lloyd, André Eglevsky, and, all too briefly, Buster Keaton. United Artists.

The Lion in Winter

UK (1968): Historical/Drama
135 min, No rating, Color, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

Imitation wit and imitation poetry at the 12th-century court of the Plantagenets. Anthony Harvey directed James Goldman's adaptation of his own 1966 play. On the Broadway stage this play seemed to be an entertaining melodrama about the Plantagenets as a family of monsters playing Freudian games of sex and power, but it was brought to the screen as if it were poetic drama of a very high order, and the point of view is too limited and anachronistic to justify all this howling and sobbing and carrying on. Peter O'Toole is in great voice and good spirits as Henry II-he's so robust he almost carries the role off. Not a small feat when you have to deliver lines such as "Well, what shall we hang? The holly or each other?" and "The sky is pocked with stars." Goldman's dialogue can't bear the weight of the film's aspirations to grandeur, and, as Eleanor of Aquitaine, Katharine Hepburn does a gallant-ravaged-great-lady number. She draws upon our feelings for her, not for the character she's playing, and the self-exploitation is hard to take. With Timothy Dalton as King Philip of France, Anthony Hopkins as Prince Richard, and Jane Merrow, John Castle, Nigel Stock, Kenneth Griffith, and Nigel Terry. The cinematography is by Douglas Slocombe; the music was composed and conducted by John Barry; the costumes are by Margaret Furse. This British production has some location scenes but was mostly shot at Ardmore Studios in Dublin. Martin Poll was the producer.
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book Going Steady.

Lions Love

US (1969): Drama/Comedy
115 min, No rating, Color

Agnès Varda is probably the finest technician among women movie directors and her first American feature (financed independently, it cost less than a quarter of a million dollars) is pleasantly loose, and with a sunny, lyrical quality. But it's short of substance-and what there is makes you regret that there's any. Set in Los Angeles, it's about make-believe and would-be movie stars (Viva, the wilted flower of the underground, and Gerome Ragni and James Rado, the authors of Hair). They play house, cuddle in bed, watch the television coverage of Robert Kennedy's death, and murmur inanities. The film is occasionally funny but it lacks a sense of the fitness of things: we don't want to hear Viva make vacuous little remarks about how sorry she feels for the orphaned Kennedy children. With Shirley Clarke.
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book Deeper into Movies.

The List of Adrian Messenger

US (1963): Mystery
98 min, No rating, Black & White, Available on videocassette

This detective-story film has many of the pleasures of the genre-phonetic clues, some fancy murder methods, a fox hunt, a war-hero detective. The leading roles are played by George C. Scott and Kirk Douglas, and there are several guest stars who appear, or were advertised as appearing, in disguise (Tony Curtis, Frank Sinatra, Robert Mitchum, and Burt Lancaster). They're rather like those maddening suspicious characters in detective novels who seem to be introduced for the sole purpose of throwing dust in our eyes; the stardust is slightly irritating-you find yourself trying to clear up the incidental mystery and losing track of the action. Still, it's a fairly sophisticated diversion. There's a joker in the disguised pack: Mitchum, who defies makeup-when he peels off the layers, the wonder is that he could be wearing so much to so little purpose. There was also a hoax on the audience: Lancaster and Sinatra were seen stripping off their disguises at the end, but other performers played their roles. John Huston directed, from Anthony Veiller's screenplay, based on Philip MacDonald's novel. The cast includes Clive Brook, Gladys Cooper, Marcel Dalio, Dana Wynter, Jacques Roux, John Merivale, Herbert Marshall, Bernard Archard, Noel Purcell, and a couple of Hustons. Cinematography by Joe MacDonald. Universal.

Lisztomania

UK (1975): Biography
105 min, No rating, Color, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

In a couple of sequences, it erupts successfully with a wholehearted, controlled comic-strip craziness, but, for all his lashing himself into a slapstick fury, the director, Ken Russell, can't seem to pull the elements of filmmaking together. Roger Daltrey is Liszt, Paul Nicholas and Veronica Quilligan are Richard and Cosima Wagner, and Sara Kestelman is Princess Carolyne SaynWittgenstein.
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book When the Lights Go Down.

Little Big Man

US (1970): Western/Historical
150 min, Rated PG, Color, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

Thomas Berger's comic, picaresque novel about the events that led up to Custer's Last Stand was brought to the screen by Arthur Penn during the anti-Vietnam war period, and he put white murderousness and racism at the center of the narrative. Dustin Hoffman has the leading role of Jack Crabb, an American Candide whose adventures take him back and forth between the red man's culture and the white man's culture. For roughly an hour, the comic tone is pleasantly askew, and throughout the film amusing characters turn up and disappear and turn up again. They include Faye Dunaway as a preacher's wife, Jeff Corey as Wild Bill Hickok, Martin Balsam as a swindler getting cheerfully dismantled limb by limb, and Chief Dan George as an Indian chief who is part patriarch, part Jewish mother. But after the first hour the massacres start coming, and the speeches, too. Thomas Berger suggested that the Indians looked like Orientals, but when you notice that Jack Crabb's lovely Indian bride looks Vietnamese you start waiting uneasily for more slaughter. And long before you get to Custer's Last Stand you've heard the little click in your brain that says, "Enough." For a tall tale to function as an epic form, the violence must be wry and only half believable-insane, as it is in the book, and not conventionally bloody like this. To be successful, the picture should deepen by comic means, and when Penn goes for seriousness he collapses the form of the movie. It proceeds from hip to straight, and one cancels the other out. In scenes such as a raid on the Indians with one of the leaders of the raid leering with genocidal delight as he goes in for the killing, Penn loses any claim to sensitivity: this is just crude, ideological filmmaking. With Richard Mulligan as General Custer, Carol Androsky as Caroline, Amy Eccles, and Thayer David. Script by Calder Willingham; cinematography by Harry Stradling, Jr.; production design by Dean Tavoularis; edited by Dede Allen. Produced by Stuart Millar, for Cinema Center Films. (2 hours.)
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book Deeper into Movies.

Little Boy Lost

US (1953): Drama
95 min, No rating, Black & White, Available on videocassette

This postwar story of an American journalist's efforts to determine whether the child he locates in a French orphanage is his lost son is drawn out and lacklustre, yet the material isn't easily forgotten. Bing Crosby is inoffensive in the lead, though he lacks an actor's tension; he's colorlessly "natural." And the director, George Seaton, who adapted Marghanita Laski's novel, is also rather gray and low-key. The movie is relentlessly worthy and life-affirming; the script is full of lessons. And there are peculiarities: speaking in English, the great Gabrielle Dorziat overdoes her role-her elocutionary style is too grand for a woman who runs a convent orphanage. And Claude Dauphin and Nicole Maurey don't contribute a great deal. Perhaps the picture is as effective as it is partly because the little boy (Christian Fourcade) is so totally unlike American children that we can see how Crosby would find it impossible to believe that this was his son. And there is a heartbreaker of a gimmick to effect the father's acceptance of the boy. Maybe George Seaton's lack of slickness helps. It should be a stinker and it isn't, quite-the movie's lameness and dullness seem to make it more touching. Paramount.

Little Caesar

US (1930): Crime
80 min, No rating, Black & White, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

Edward G. Robinson's Rico is one of the major prototypes of the movie gangster, but Mervyn LeRoy's direction is sluggish, and the actors seem to be transfixed by the microphone. With Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Glenda Farrell, George E. Stone, Sidney Blackmer, William Collier, Jr., and Stanley Fields. From a novel by W.R. Burnett, adapted by Francis Faragoh.

The Little Drummer Girl

US (1984): War/Spy
130 min, Rated R, Color, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

Directed by George Roy Hill, this suspense movie, based on John Le Carré's novel, is set in 1981 during a rash of Palestinian terrorist bombings of Israeli institutions around the world. The tragedy of these two peoples, killing each other because each has just claims to the same plot of ground, is presented with efficient, impersonal evenhandedness, so that we care about neither of them. The film centers on Charlie (Diane Keaton), an American actress working in a small, third-rate repertory company in England; a left-wing pro-Palestinian, she is recruited by an Israeli intelligence unit that turns her thinking around and uses her to infiltrate the Palestinians and trap their chief terrorist (Sami Frey, who gives the film a bit of bravura). The conception of Charlie is a modern cliché: she's an actress looking for a role to play that will make her feel "real." But Keaton takes this conception so far that she gives it a painful, shrill validity; initially off-putting, she leaps right over likability and crowd-pleasing-she's out there all alone doing something daring. It's maddening that this performance can't carry the dead weight put on it. With Klaus Kinski as Kurtz, Yorgo Voyagis as Joseph, Moti Shirin as Michel, Michael Cristofer as Tayeh, and Anna Massey as the chairlady. The screenplay is by Loring Mandel. Warners.
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book State of the Art.

Little Fauss and Big Halsy

US (1970): Drama
97 min, Rated R, Color

As buddy-buddy motorcycle racers, Michael J. Pollard does an extended version of his runty, nasal pixie bit and Robert Redford makes the mistake of acting raunchy. He's symbolically wounded, and has a great big scar running down his spine to prove it. The scar is much in evidence, because Redford, playing a swaggering oaf, rarely wears a shirt. (This will not, however, do as much for his career as it did for Paul Newman's.) Redford can't seem to keep his pants up, either, and he's constantly fiddling with his zipper and juggling his genitals (on one occasion, in what is possibly a movie first, in a close shot). He also flashes his teeth, keeps a toothbrush stuck in his mouth, wears funny hats, and wiggles his behind. The heroine, Lauren Hutton, enters naked, running toward the camera for no particular reason. Sidney J. Furie directed, from a script by Charles Eastman that's trying to tell us about people's quests for something or other-it isn't clear what. Big Halsy Redford appears to be the stud as loser. The picture is truly terrible; Johnny Cash is on the sound track with messages such as "It takes nerve to take a curve." With Lucille Benson and Noah Beery. Produced by Albert S. Ruddy; the racing leathers were designed by Pierre Cardin. Paramount.
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book Deeper into Movies.

The Little Foxes

US (1941): Drama
116 min, No rating, Black & White, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

Bette Davis's tight, dry performance was probably a mistake; her Regina is so villainous that this version of Lillian Hellman's play about a Southern family of predators doesn't have the temperament and drive that Tallulah Bankhead gave it on the stage. But it's a handsome movie melodrama, well contrived and showily acted. William Wyler directed; with Herbert Marshall, Teresa Wright, Patricia Collinge, Richard Carlson, Charles Dingle, and Dan Duryea, overdoing the whinnying weakling. A Samuel Goldwyn Production; released by RKO.

The Little Mermaid

US (1989): Romance/Musical/Children's/Animated
82 min, Rated G, Color, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

Disney-style kitsch. It's technologically sophisticated, but with just about all the simpering old Disney values in place. They're just slightly updated: the Little Mermaid-a teenage tootsie in a flirty seashell bra-is like Sleeping Beauty plus tomboy spunk. The film does have a cheerful calypso number ("Under the Sea," by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken), and the color is bright-at least, until the mermaid goes on land, when everything seems to dull out. Pat Carroll provides the voice of Ursula, the Sea Witch; Samuel E. Wright provides the voice of Sebastian.
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book Movie Love.

The Little Minister

US (1934): Drama
110 min, No rating, Black & White, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

This RKO picture was one of the movies that helped make Katharine Hepburn box-office poison in the mid-30s. Five writers are credited with adapting the James M. Barrie material (which probably means that at least 25 worked on it), and there's no consistency to the results, but for about a third of the picture Hepburn pretends to be a wild gypsy girl, and she's enchanting in this section. The rest is barely tolerable. Richard Wallace directed. John Beal is the hero; with Donald Crisp, Andy Clyde, and Beryl Mercer.

Little Miss Marker

US (1934): Comedy
80 min, No rating, Black & White

People hadn't seen anything like it; that doesn't mean they needed to. Tiny tot Shirley Temple is left as a "marker" with a bunch of gambler-racketeers, who talk in the coy Broadway lowlife argot invented by Damon Runyon, on whose story the film is based. Adolphe Menjou is the head hoodlum; he and the others bedeck themselves as King Arthur's knights in order to please wee Shirley, and at her instigation he also recites "Now I lay me." No one can deny that the infant Shirley Temple was a trouper; she delivers her lines with a killer instinct, and she sings, natch. Alexander Hall directed this exceedingly popular whimsey. With Charles Bickford, Dorothy Dell, and Lynne Overman. (Remade as SORROWFUL JONES in 1949, reworked as FORTY POUNDS OF TROUBLE in 1962, and remade with the original title, LITTLE MISS MARKER, in 1980.) Paramount.

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