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Friday Film Review: My Best Girl

Friday Film Review: My Best Girl

My Best Girl (1927)
Genre: Romance/Comedy/Silent Film
Grade: B+
My Best Girl MovieThis movie is so cute I just want to scoop it up and hug it. Mary Pickford’s last silent film, it showcases her charm and talent and proves why she was America’s sweetheart.

The plot is nothing new or exciting. Maggie Johnson (Pickford) is a stock clerk at a five and dime store where she meets new fellow clerk Joe Grant (Charles Rogers) and takes him under her wing. Only he’s actually the owner’s son, there to prove himself before his engagement to a society girl hand picked by his parents. But he and Maggie, of course, fall for each other. What will happen when the rich Merrill family finds out about poor Maggie?

Maggie is so the romance heroine martyr. Her mother spends her days attending funerals – doesn’t matter whose – while her henpecked father waits around at home. Meanwhile wild sister Liz is going out with “sporty” men and getting into all kinds of trouble. Maggie seems to be the only one who works – all day – then she comes home to make dinner and clean up the family messes.

The other girls at the store might joke with Maggie about her interest in Joe but he’s just as interested back as we see in two charming scenes when he rides home with her in the back of a truck before meeting her family in an especially raucous mood. Then later they eat lunch in a packing crate, laughing together and annoying an older supervisor before even he is won over by their obvious love for each other.

But Pickford never lets us feel sorry for Maggie. She loves her family and only stays out one night when Joe talks her into going with him for dinner – to his family’s house when they’re out. She’s horrified at the thought while Joe mimes and winks his plans to the butler behind her back. What follows is a funny scene of Maggie flustering the footman and quietly telling Joe that the service is excellent even if the food is poor.

Then the Merrill’s arrive home and before she flees into the rainy night Maggie finds out just how much Joe has lied to her. As she wanders the streets and dreams of what might have been, Joe frantically searches for her. Only to find her talking the night court Judge out of jailing her sister who’s been arrested. Joe declares his love but Daddy Merrill has to make a final play at getting rid of Maggie before true love prevails.

This is the only scene which I thought Pickford played too broadly but the following reconciliation with Joe was worth it. For the rest of the movie, the actors mainly underplay it and there’s a lack of the overwrought facial expressions and exaggerated acting which I associate with silent films. Here the physical comedy is fantastic and usually had me in stitches. There’s not a lot of dialogue but the actors are so good that it’s not needed to follow what’s going on and being said. I also like that there are a few sound effects and the background music is played by a full orchestra instead of only a piano.

It’s also clear that the film was made before the Hays Code as seen in a funny early scene when an overloaded Maggie is attempting to bring out more stock in the store and accidentally drops a pair of ladies underwear. An unknowing female customer walks onto them then looks down and is horrified at the thought that she’s dropped her drawers in public. During the final reconciliation scene, Maggie initially turns him down saying, “It’s my family, Joe…they need me more than you do.” Her father overhears at which point he finally grows a pair, stands up and yells, “Like hell we do!” before he takes charge and kicks his lazy family in the collective ass. Color me shocked when he said that! But it’s funny as …well, hell.

The movie is only 87 minutes long but it’s one I didn’t want to end. It’s filled with humor, creativeness and wit. Pickford and Rogers, who would later marry, have wonderful screen chemistry and are backed by a great cast. If you’ve never tried a Pickford movie or a silent one, here’s a great place to start.

~Jayne

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Friday Film Review: Devil in a Blue Dress

Friday Film Review: Devil in a Blue Dress

Devil in a Blue Dress (1995)
Genre: Noir Mystery
Grade: B

Easy Rawlins: A man once told me that you step out of your door in the morning, and you are already in trouble. The only question is are you on top of that trouble or not?

I hesitated a bit about reviewing this movie for the sole reason that it has no romance in it for the lead character – not even a bromance as the friend of the hero is a bit more on the psychotic side than anything. But it’s so well done, lovely to look at and evocative of the age that I can’t resist. I watched it recently and then immediately watched it again with the director’s commentary – something I’d recommend in order to catch small nuances of the time and characters. The mystery might not be that hard to figure out but the journey to solving it worth the trip.

Easy Rawlins (Denzel Washington) is a black man in 1948 Los Angeles who’s just lost his factory job and has mortgage payments to make. As he’s reading the want ads in a bar owned by a friend from back home in Houston, that man introduces Easy to a possible source of quick money. DeWitt Albright (Tom Sizemore) says he works for a man named Todd Carter – who just recently dropped out of the mayoral race – who is looking to find his estranged fiancee Daphne Monet (Jennifer Beals) and who will pay well for information as to her whereabouts. The $100 (remember this is 1948 and that’s a shitload of money) proves too much of a temptation to a man behind on his mortgage despite the fact that Easy has a decidedly uneasy feeling about all this.

He begins to inquire in the hidden bars and night spots where he meets up with another friend from home and that man’s girlfriend who drops hints that she knows something about Daphne. Easy yields to another temptation and has a one night stand with the woman Coretta (Lisa Nicole Carsen), leaving early the next morning with a bit of information he then passes on to Albright that evening. Arriving home, he’s confronted by detectives from the LAPD who question him – while beating him up – about the murder of Coretta. Eventually released from custody, Easy is picked up and questioned – yet again – on his way home, this time by the other man running for mayor who claims to be concerned about the murder of Coretta, who worked for him.

By this point, it’s dawning on me and Easy that all these important people must want Daphne pretty badly for some nefarious reason and not just to kiss and make up. When the woman herself appears and contacts Easy, the mystery and danger only deepen as still another body is found. After a tense confrontation proves to Easy that he can’t trust anyone and that he’d better start moving fast or be set up for murders he didn’t commit, he calls in reinforcements from Houston in the person of Mouse (Don Cheadle) who’s the fastest draw in Texas but also one of the most unbalanced. With Mouse watching his back, can Easy dig to the bottom of this nasty brew of blackmail, death and worse?

I haven’t read the book this film is based on but I understand that some major changes were made. Since I didn’t know any better while initially watching it, those didn’t bother me and once explained they make sense in the context of condensing a book into the confined time frame of a movie. There are places where the film drags a touch but to have eliminated certain scenes would have removed some of the evocative atmosphere of the age. There are definite moments of light vs dark as Easy moves from his normal environment of a bright, two bedroom bungalow in a neighborhood filled with children, pets and black families just trying to get their slice of the post war American pie and into the dark world of crime and corruption. But then his character is being shown transitioning from a 9-5 factory worker only concerned with his lawn to that of a man who’s gone through a cesspool, lived to tell the story, and who has made the decision to see where his new skills could lead him.

His P.I. persona has to develop and we, the viewers, need a window into the world he has to move through – where racism is rampant, the LAPD is to be feared and black people don’t go to certain areas of the city or certain parts of buildings. Merely replying to the random conversational overtures of a white woman can quickly land Easy into a ton of trouble and driving through a white neighborhood, with a white woman in his car could lead to disaster. Yet there are other sides to his life as seen in the homey scenes of him planting trees and tending to his landscaping, talking to his neighbors and dealing with a strange older man obsessed with chopping down trees. Washington effortlessly conveys all this and his performance is one of the chief reasons to see the film. Another is Don Cheadle who is riveting to watch as the childhood friend from Houston who shoots first – with a smile on his face – and doesn’t even think to ask questions later. There is one chilling line he utters which reminds me of the various fables of the scorpion and the frog or the snake and the woman. Easy knew Mouse’s nature and thus shouldn’t be surprised at something Mouse did. Cheadle makes me believe in this man who is cheerfully amoral as he’s willing to threaten people, shoot them and even kill them without a second thought – all in the name of friendship for Easy.

As I said, the mystery begins to reveal itself fairly early on and I guessed a lot of what is the driving force behind these powerful men who have money to throw around, henchmen on hire, power to gain and yet who are in certain ways as hampered as Easy by the times and social mores. Beals is a nice mixture of naivete and sultriness while Sizemore provides an almost casual, thoughtless menace. The other actors are well cast and good in their roles but many of them have little screen time in which to develop those. The real strength of the film is in the fabulous sets, music, costumes and cars. In the way it takes the viewer into another world and time. It is violent, it is disturbing with its blatant racism but it also manages to end on an optimistic note as Easy and we see that friends and a place to call home are just fine.

~Jayne