It's so hard to find a movie that can surprise us sometimes. When one is an avid movie watcher, it can cause the mind to immediately start to try to slot them into a "this is gonna be like that other movie I've seen" kind of scenario. It's hard not to. We slot characters in a similar way. For example, when I see a character like the one that Geraldine Page plays in DEAR HEART, I start to feel ever so slightly annoyed at first. "Oh she's going to be obnoxious," I think to myself. She'll be one of those "lonely spinsters" that the movies love to hang out to dry and often make fun of in a way. Enter Glenn Ford. He seems like he's going to be a certain way too. But then something happens and the movie clicks into this place of "These characters aren't what I thought they were going to be" and then my perspective on the movie has to take a turn. It's a pleasant turn. A turn into "I'm not exactly sure where this is going, but I'm along for the ride now," territory. That's a really neat turn for a movie to take. I feel like I've become rather cynical when it comes to films I think. I guess it's the double-edge sword of loving movies so much that I'm driven to watch a lot of them. My palate takes a bit more to get enthusiastic. But that makes the surprises that much more delightful when they happen. This is a very simple story about a lonely but extremely kind woman postmaster who goes to a convention in New York City and ends up meeting a soon to be married man. From there and the details of how they come across each other I'll leave for you to view for yourself, but suffice it to say that this movie snuck up on me in a very nice way. I often worry when I start getting into a movie and certain characters in said movie that the focus will shift away from them (when some new less-interesting characters are introduced). It's that classic feeling of "come on movie, now don't mess this up," that I find myself being overtaken by. This often happens with movies that start out great like gangbusters and you're hoping they don't derail and shit the bed. It also happens with movies where you're not sure how you feel about them at first, but they begin to grow on you and then you see them teetering on the brink of being "actually good" and you just hold your breath and hope they continue with that incline. DEAR HEART is the latter type and those can be just as rewarding as the breathless gangbuster-y good movies when you come across them. I know a movie is interesting to me when I find myself examining my engagement after the fact. It's sounds kind of clinical, but the fact that I'm doing that kind of dissection afterward shows that this film still has me excited about it and the act of continuing to watch movies in general. A sweet, sweet film - check it out.
THE BARRETTS OF WIMPOLE STREET (1934; Sidney Franklin)
Some actors were just born to play heavies. They do it in such a way as to almost make you uncomfortable as they are just walls of pure evil. Charles Laughton can be one of those actors. The great thing about him though is that he has a certain charm about him to that allows him to feel slyly human at the same time which really grounds him in the movies he is in. He's not a mustache twirler, he's a real dude. The opening of this movie features a scene where a group of youngsters are rallying about a sickly girl (Laughton's daughter) and carrying on a bit in a fun way (singing and dancing and so forth). Enter Laughton who puts a gigantic kabash on said proceedings. Talk about a dude that can bring a room down (even the dog hides in his bed when Laughton enters). Laughton bursts forth with an speech about his displeasure at and lays out his tyrannical self-righteousness in short order. He rules his home with an iron fist and any that question him will be me with the most laser-focused parental disapproval one can possibly imagine. Everything in the Barrett home must run through him. His daughters will not have gentlemen callers, and marriage is simply out of the question. Fredric March has other ideas though. He's a poet that Laughton's daughter (Norma Shearer) has been corresponding with who has fallen in love with her (via her letters, books and poems). He is a free spirit and impetuously invites himself over to the Barrett house whilst Laughton is out of town. When the two meet, sparks fly of course so the stage is setter for bitter conflict. How on earth can March get by Laughton? It's gonna get messy. Thankfully, Laughton is only in about 1/2 the movie and the other half has lots of scenes of Fredric March and Norma Shearer talking pretty to each other. It may be mushy for some, but I enjoy that stuff when it's conveyed by fine actors such as these.
Whenever I watch a 'dysfunctional family' epic like this I always end up thinking of Wes Anderson's film THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS. I wonder if this was a film he and co-writer Owen Wilson might have checked out when working on that movie. I know THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS was certainly a huge influence on that film, but it seems to me that a film like this could have come into the mix at some point. This film, like Scorsese's AGE OF INNOCENCE is that period piece that deals with propriety and how rigid it once was. Propriety has thankfully loosened up a bit these days, or relations between men and women would be a damn sight more difficult than they already can be. I can't imagine having to jump through the hoops of proper etiquette and courting procedures that these folks have to go through. It robs the whole process of spontaneity and the impetuosity of burgeoning romance. Therein lies the conflict of course and it does make for good drama. When you as a viewer can see that two people SHOULD be together but there is something blocking that union, you naturally want to get that blockage out of the way. Well, Charles Laughton isn't your average blockage. As blockages go, he's the frickin' Hoover Dam. Ain't nothing getting through that. Have ya seen ISLAND OF LOST SOULS? Look what the dude can do to people! Here he is limited in that he is no experimental scientist/surgeon, but he is nonetheless a brick wall that is not to be trifled with. It all comes back to dramatic construction though for me. A good bad guy, one that you hate with every fiber of your being, can make for great movies. And Laughton is one of the best bad guys ever.