Every month, A Place for Film brings you a selection of films from our group of regular bloggers. Even though these films aren’t currently being screened at the IU Cinema, this series reflects the varied programming that can be found at the Cinema and demonstrates the eclectic tastes of the bloggers. Each contributor has picked one film that they saw this month that they couldn’t wait to share with others. Keep reading to find out what discoveries these cinephiles have made, as well as some of the old friends they’ve revisited.
Jesse Pasternack, contributor | Duck Soup (1933)
I have been watching a lot of long films since the COVID-19 pandemic led me to spend most of my time inside. But while I have greatly enjoyed seeing epics such as Kwaidan or Come and See, I have been eager to watch something shorter. That’s what led me to Duck Soup, a classic comedy starring the Marx Brothers that uses every second of its 68-minute running time to entertain and offer political commentary that has lost none of its power to bite.
Duck Soup takes place in the fictional country of Freedonia. Wracked by an economic depression, its government officials ask wealthy widow Mrs. Teasdale (Margaret Dumont) for a massive loan. Mrs. Teasdale will only give them the money if they appoint the eccentric Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho Marx) as the new leader of Freedonia. They reluctantly agree to do so, which leads to the kind of comedic lunacy that you can only find in the films of the Marx Brothers.
One of the things that I love about this movie is that you never know what it is going to become next. Duck Soup has the ability to change its genre from a political satire to a farce, or turn its most verbal character into a deft silent comedian in the famous “mirror scene.” The fact that the film can do these things without making any of those changes feel labored or ostentatious makes it feel as fresh now as it did when it first came out in 1933.
In addition to its formal freshness, Duck Soup’s political satire is arguably even more relevant now than when it initially came out. Previously absurd scenes of Firefly incompetently running his government and filling it with inexperienced people now feel realistic after the past four years. There are many jokes in this movie that are not political, but its portrayal of how quickly a country can fall into political madness and war lends it an edge that distinguishes it from other American comedies of its era.
Duck Soup manages to be more entertaining and say more about the world in 68 minutes than most films do in two hours. Its whirlwind ability to change genres and critique inexperienced authoritarian leaders is just as impressive now as when it first came out 87 years ago. Nevertheless, I look forward to the day when I can enjoy this movie purely as a comedy and not think about how any of the world’s leaders resemble Firefly.
Jack Miller, contributor | House by the River (1950)
Though Fritz Lang (1890-1976) is now rightly regarded by almost everyone as one of the key artists in the history of cinema, there was a time when his reputation wasn’t nearly as secure as it is today. Lang had started out in Weimar Germany during the silent period, helming massive productions such as Metropolis (1927), the most expensive film ever made up to that point, with the full budgets and resources of the UFA studio at his disposable. But during his long sojourn working in Hollywood (from roughly 1936 until 1956), he wasn’t afforded the same degree of respect. Never was this fall from grace more apparent than in the threadbare, spartan poetry of his film maudit (“cursed film”) House by the River, the cheapest film he ever made during his long career as a filmmaker, shot for Republic Pictures without any major stars. But those of us who love Lang’s work find much richness and fascination in this small, sinister little picture.
Without giving away too much of the plot, I’ll simply say that the film details a pair of sordid acts, a sexual transgression and a murder, and the ways in which they afflict a writer’s family living along the banks of a great river. As always with this exacting artist, the compositions are almost frighteningly precise, and Lang’s tendency to moralize about his characters comes through strongly. The pungent atmospherics of the river-bound setting are peak Lang, and they link the film with some of the great, watery swamp movies of classical Hollywood, namely Nicholas Ray’s Wind Across the Everglades (1958) and William A. Wellman’s Good-bye, My Lady (1956). In some ways, this is also a kind of horror film about the destructive effects of lust and greed. House by the River, which is in the public domain, can currently be seen for free on YouTube in a pretty nice print, and I highly recommend it.
Ed. note: the trailer below is not the original theatrical trailer and may contain spoilers.
Michaela Owens, Editor | Whirlpool (1950) and Shock (1946)
I watched a lot of great stuff this month, making it very hard to pick just one for this post… so, I went with two, both of which, by pure coincidence, are underrated psychological film noirs. The first is Whirlpool, an Otto Preminger film I revisited when I dived into Gene Tierney’s filmography for my piece on her centenary. A fascinating yarn about a housewife whose kleptomania makes her the unwitting puppet of a sinister hypnotist, I saw Whirlpool once four years ago and found it unforgettable. The plot is just so unique and the performances are divine. Gene Tierney, who faced her own mental health struggles, is movingly real as a woman who slowly unravels under the weight of being the perfect wife, and I adore Richard Conte’s performance as her husband. But if I’m being honest, Whirlpool has stuck with me because of José Ferrer. Playing the hypnotist who worms his way into Tierney’s life, Ferrer is charming, menacing, violent, and — I have to say it — mesmerizing. It’s simply one of my favorite performances that I’ve ever seen.
While Whirlpool was a rewatch, a 1946 film called Shock was entirely unknown to me until I randomly came across it. Starring my beloved Vincent Price, Shock also boasts an intriguing plotline: a fragile young bride is waiting to reunite with her soldier husband at a hotel when she sees a murder outside of her window. The event is so traumatic that she becomes catatonic, leading her husband to take her to a sanitarium. Unbeknownst to him, her doctor (Price) is the very same man she saw committing the murder, and he’ll do anything to keep her from recovering.
A wonderfully made B-film, Shock has some flaws for sure, but it kept me transfixed nevertheless. Price and Lynn Bari, his femme fatale, are delightfully wicked, and there is one particularly creepy sequence during a thunderstorm that had me holding my breath the whole time it unfolded. Classic Hollywood loved making movies about psychology, often without doing any kind of research since that could nix whatever scenarios they wanted to do, so take all of Shock and Whirlpool‘s psycho-babbling with a grain of salt and just enjoy their twisty rides.
Note: although I couldn’t find a trailer for Shock anywhere, let’s just say it’s, um, pretty easy to find.
Laura Ivins, contributor | The Women (1939)
Rosalind Russell is funny. Not only is she queen of the sassy quip, but as Sylvia in The Women, she showcases her felicity with physical comedy. In one scene, her personal trainer leads her in calisthenics, and Russell throws herself into the silliness of the movement. Her long limbs — elegant in other roles — go gangly as Sylvia struggles through the exercises. As if to illustrate how funny Russell is in this sequence, at one point Joan Fontaine’s character, Peggy, joins in and can’t help but be dainty as she follows along with the workout. Russell moves like Frankenstein’s monster while Fontaine moves like a ballerina.
The Women is supposed to satirize the mean-spirited gossipiness of Sylvia and the other women, but honestly the gals just seem like a lot of fun. You can’t help noticing that if all the off-screen husbands could simply remain faithful to their wives, there wouldn’t be much to gossip about.