Category Archives: 1954 Movie reviews

Johnny Guitar-1954

Johnny Guitar-1954

Director-Nicholas Ray

Starring-Joan Crawford, Sterling Hayden

Reviewed June 15, 2017

Grade: B-

Johnny Guitar is an interesting film to review for a few reasons, but most distinct is for its challenging of the traditional mold of the classic western- front and center is an aggressive and strong willed woman, and a saloon owner no less, who is engaged in an antagonistic feud with another woman-with a similar disposition. Of course, since the film stars legendary screen actress Joan Crawford, she ought to be a strong character. The writing of the film is not brilliant and other western stereotypes abound, but Johnny Guitar is a decent watch-mostly for Crawford.

In the middle of an Arizona cattle town, circa the Wild West days, Vienna (Crawford) is a gorgeous and brazen woman, who owns the local watering hole, frequented by less than savory men. Vienna welcomes the men mostly because one of them is a former boyfriend. The rest of the town, led by Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge), despises Vienna and her support of the incoming railroad, sure to make Vienna rich.

After a bank robbery, Vienna is pursued by Emma and the town into a standoff, in which lynchings, shootings, and fires encompass the rest of the film. Mixed in with the drama is a romance between Vienna and handsome guitarist, Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden), and some musical numbers, but mostly the film is a shoot ’em up led by women.

Let’s take the good with the bad surrounding the film- any picture starring Joan Crawford gets some credit in my book and the role of Vienna is certainly unchartered territory for the glamorous star. Tough talking, gun slinging, and with a short hairdo, rumors abounded that the character of Vienna was gay and in love with her arch enemy Emma. Perhaps, decades later, this might have transpired, but this was 1950’s Hollywood, after all. No, Crawford still dazzles with heavy makeup and bright red lips and is ever so feminine despite the masculine outfit.

Clever, especially for 1954 westerns, is having a tough female character in the central role and this bolsters Johnny Guitar above middling. Typically a genre that sticks to the tried and true, the main female rivalry between Vienna and Emma is the best part of the film, but sadly the back story is never fully explored. Why do they hate each other? Were they in love with the same man? Is their hatred simply because they are the only women in the town?

A chase scene, and the climax of the film is also quite good. How delightful to see Crawford prancing around in peril, riding a horse, and swimming in a creek. The film turns into a good, old fashioned adventure, and the cinematography and exterior sets are not bad.

Two aspects of Johnny Guitar stood out to me as negatives. The romance between Vienna and Johnny Guitar does not work. For starters, Crawford seems much too old for Hayden as Johnny and I never felt any chemistry between the characters- the back story scene with the reveal that they were once an “item” is weak. Besides Emma there are no other female characters at all (a coincidence?), which is a strange aspect to the film. One wonders if this was Crawford’s demand? (but I digress). The romance between the duo is lackluster, though admittedly, I did feel rooting factor for them as the final chapter commenced and the pair was in danger.

The storytelling is only mediocre as I never felt invested in the writing and the entire script feels silly and cheap. The story is laid out in a basic way- Vienna is told by (arguably) the leader of the town, Ward Bond, to close up shop and leave town within twenty-four hours or else there will be hell to pay. When some of the men rob a bank and plan to depart for California, Vienna is blamed in a sloppy contrived plot device, and is set to be hanged. The script is not the high point of the film.

For a gender bending experience and the fabulous addition of Ms. Crawford, Johnny Guitar is worth a watch, but do not expect a masterpiece in storytelling or to be dazzled by character development. Fans of the classic western may be disappointed.

River of No Return-1954

River of No Return-1954

Director-Otto Preminger

Starring-Robert Mitchum, Marilyn Monroe

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Reviewed March 15, 2016

Grade: B-

A departure in genre and character for the iconic Marilyn Monroe, most notable for playing “bubble gum” roles,  in the 1954 film River of No Return she plays a dance hall singer living in 1875 northwestern United States. The film is of western genre with gorgeous scenery, some authentic and some staged, but the look of the film is a great selling point for me, as well as the performance and appeal of Monroe. However, the story has major negatives, mainly that it is not very compelling nor is it interesting, not to mention existing plot holes throughout.

The crux of the story is as follows- A widower, Matt Calder (Robert Mitchum), arrives in a tent city in pursuit of his ten-year old son, Mark, left in the care of Kay (Monroe), while the man who delivered the boy to the town has taken off for the hills. What follows is a mis-mash of storyline involving Matt, Mark, and Kay being chased by Indians, a love triangle of sorts between Kay, Matt, and Kay’s fiancé Harry, and the father/son reconciliation between Matt and Mark.

The story is not the strong point of the film, nevertheless it is certainly where the high drama exists.  Despite it being characterized as a western, a stark contrast to most Marilyn Monroe films, it appears a soft western with a romantic slant. There are some kills, to be sure, with vicious wild animals, guns, and knives prevalent, giving it an outdoorsy, naturalistic feel.

The film lacks a stream-lined direction and does not seem to know where it’s headed. Is it intended to be an all-out western, a romance, or some hybrid? Why does the story ultimately not work? I sensed a snippet of chemistry between Mitchum and Monroe, though they were hardly Clark Gable and Vivian Leigh. In fact, one could argue that Matt does not treat Kay very well and it is surprising that Matt is portrayed as the hero in River of No Return. Close to the middle of the film, while camping along the river, he attempts to rape Kay, where she struggles and ultimately submits. Then, almost as quickly, this fact is forgotten and the story forages forward as a love story. Huh? At times the film almost seems spliced together from a story perspective and it is just not that compelling or memorable.

As an aside, and upon some research, River of No Return was riddled with problems and setbacks amid shooting, most notably  drama existing with Monroe’s needed on-set acting coach who conflicted with director Otto Preminger, and star Robert Mitchum’s heavy drinking. Then there was Monroe’s broken ankle and numerous weather issues. Publicly, Monroe later stated that River of No Return was her least favorite film that she appeared in. Let’s just say that the gods were not with this film.

River of No Return is certainly an uneven film with a lackluster story and odd chemistry among the characters, but contains a marginal appeal to me, mainly due to the talents of Monroe, who carries the weight of an otherwise quite lackluster and forgetable film.

Rear Window-1954

Rear Window-1954

Director-Alfred Hitchcock

Starring-James Stewart, Grace Kelly

Top 100 Films-#50

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Reviewed January 2, 2016

Grade: A

There are several Alfred Hitchcock films that I love dearly and Rear Window is very high up on that list.

The film is a unique experience in that much of the filming is through the point of view of  main character L.B. Jeffries, played with conviction by James Stewart who is a fixture in several of Hitchcock’s great films. Wheelchair-bound and confined to his Manhattan apartment, he has nothing more to do than spy on an apartment full of neighbors across the street. He witnesses a crime and a cat and mouse game ensues.

What is great about this film is the viewer gets to know the series of neighbors L.B. watches and glimpse into their lives, some happy lives, some sad.

Rear Window is shot sort of like a play. The chemistry between Stewart and Grace Kelly is nice, but quite secondary to the great main story. Rear Window can be watched repeatedly and enjoyed with each subsequent viewing.

A Star Is Born-1954

A Star is Born-1954

Director-George Cukor

Starring-Judy Garland, James Mason

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Grade: B+

Reviewed September 25, 2014

A Star Is Born was, at the time, considered Judy Garland’s much touted comeback film and was very expensive for Warner Bros. to produce . Garland delivers her finest career performance in my opinion (yes, even better than her portrayal of Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz). The performance is multi-faceted and complex- it is comical, silly, poised, emotional, dramatic, and heartfelt.

Playing Esther Blodgett- later changed to Vicki Lester for more Hollywood potential, she is a struggling lounge singer who meets a successful actor, named Norman Maine, played wonderfully by James Mason. Esther saves Norman from public humiliation at a function where he attempts to take the stage while inebriated.  They strike up a friendship and he convinces her to pursue films and, through a series of misunderstandings, she assumes he has ditched her. Determined to become a star anyway, Esther forges her path to success on her own. Norman and Esther reconnect and Norman recognizes her talent and pursues her both professionally and romantically. They marry and she becomes a star while his career hits the skids, largely due to his alcoholism. The talented Mason and Garland are at the forefront of the film and are the reasons for its success.

A few key scenes stand out to me as powerful or important- The scene involving a musical number over a dinner of sandwiches in their posh living room is wonderfully merry and light; a delivery boy who does not know who Norman is ruins the mood and causes jealousy to come to a head in his marriage to Esther. Garland’s emotional scenes are excellent- especially the scene in her dressing room where she crumbles, realizing that Mason has hit rock bottom. And the best scene of all is the Academy awards scene where a drunken Norman causes a public spectacle as Esther receives her top honor, spoiling her night, and accidentally hitting her in the face in front of millions. What a forgiving woman Esther is for staying with him and ultimately choosing him at the risk of ruining her career.

An interesting aspect of the story is that Garland’s character is not some ugly duckling that is transformed to Hollywood royalty- she has the talent already, she just needs a break, but is not down on her luck or starving- she makes a decent living with a touring band and she is torn about leaving them. The musical numbers are inspiring and one is reminded why Garland is such a star as she belts them out of the park like nobody’s business, however they do little to further the plot. At times, more often the case in the first half, the film drags a bit, but the second half (post intermission) brilliant and the ending tragic yet heartwarming. Will Esther’s career continue to flourish?

A major, major flaw with the film is the usage of still frames with dialogue overlapping due to lost footage. This makes following the story very tough and the continuity is affected. It also looks ridiculous and for the viewer to be captured by the story only to suddenly view a discolored still shot with audio is disappointing. Surely, this can be corrected. A Star Is Born is the perfect vehicle for Garland to return to her grand position among the Hollywood treasures.

Animal Farm-1954

Animal Farm-1954

Director-Joy Batchelor, John Halas

Voices-Gordon Heath,Maurice Denham

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Reviewed December 10, 2013

Grade: B+

Animated film based on the classic fable written by George Orwell. This film is quite different from the typically wholesome Disney animated film of the time and reportedly many parents were shocked by the subject matter (didn’t they read the book??).

Animation-wise, this film does resemble a Disney film as the colors and animals are meticulously drawn and composed. The tale, as anyone who has read the book knows, is quite dark and satirical/political, and sadly, is relatable today as class systems, power, and greed are still quite prevalent in today’s society. The ending of the film is changed and is more hopeful than the book ending, presumably to appeal to a larger audience.

The written fable is far superior to the film, though the film is well done and effective and gets the message across. Made in the 1950’s, it still holds up well and is a look at the dark side of humanity.