DVD Review: Katharine Hepburn in Sylvia Scarlett (1935) and Undercurrent (1946)


A new wave of Katharine Hepburn flicks recently released on DVD from Warner Archive drew me to a pair of titles that, while not among her most celebrated, were of interest to me because of their unusual quirks. Sylvia Scarlett (1935) and Undercurrent (1946) vary in critical, box office and artistic success, but it is worth shining a light on both of these underseen films.



Sylvia Scarlett was a critical and box office bomb upon its release and time has not revealed that response to be unjust. It is a Hepburn picture by billing, but it is perhaps most notable for being the film where Cary Grant's persona truly began to take shape. Kate plays the daughter of an embezzler and thief (Edmund Gwenn) who must masquerade as the teenage Sylvester in order to escape the authorities with her father. They meet grifter Jimmy Monkley (Cary Grant) in their travels and team up with him to attempt to make a living without stooping to work.

Hepburn is handsome, but profoundly irritating as a boy and the action zig zags in an erratic way, sort of moving forward, sort of getting nowhere, but it is all so bizarre that you can't look away. Fluffy-haired Brian Aherne is appealing as Michael Fane a cheerful artist who is drawn to Sylvia, but doesn't quite understand what he sees in this handsome young boy. His confusion and the female advances "Sylvester" must manage are among the most interesting elements of the film.

While homosexuality was seen as repellant, even deviant at the time, the characters here don't seem overly concerned when they touch upon it. It makes you wonder if there were a few closeted souls in the audience who took this as a positive bit of representation. Sylvia is repulsed,but not too scandalized by the prospect of gay eroticism, but the lady who attempts the seduction seems mostly amused by her mistake. Michael is not only less tortured, but a bit intrigued.

Romantic maneuverings aside, it is Cary Grant's transformation from handsome mannequin to sexy devil that distinguishes the film. While his lame Cockney accent hits the ears with a splat, his charm makes up for much of that awkwardness. This is the true screen debut of the debonair, mischievous and dangerously flirtatious Grant that would become a legend even outside of his own understanding.



In the more critically and financially successful romantic noir Undercurrent, Hepburn is Ann Hamilton, a wealthy socialite approaching middle age, who unexpectedly veers into marriage with handsome businessman Alan Garroway. Perplexed by his reluctance to discuss his brother Michael (Robert Mitchum), who seems to have disappeared due to some kind of disgrace, she tries to learn more about this scorned sibling. In the process she finds herself drawn to this figure of mystery, at least partly because he is so elusive, but also because he seems to perfectly fit her sensibilities.

I love the idea of falling in love with someone you've never seen and director Vincent Minnelli creates a dreamy feeling of romance even though the prospective lovers are not acquainted for much of the film. That mood is so intense that when Alan becomes jealous of his wife's obsession, the change in tone feels like a brutal intrusion.

Undercurrent is ultimately an odd film, because the leads are brilliantly cast, but they don't quite fit together. Mitchum perfectly fits the image of Michael that Ann has created, but Hepburn is not a good fit for him. They are discordant in temperament onscreen and apparently were in real life as well, where she seemed to think he was a no-talent skating by on his looks. It's an odd situation where she is not well cast opposite her love interest, but she also fits her role quite well. It is the same for Taylor, who is dangerously seductive, but not believable as a man obsessed with Hepburn. In a way, that lack of cohesion adds intrigue to the film, because it creates an imbalance that keeps you slightly on edge.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copies of the films for review. These are Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVDs. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.


DVD Review: Edmond O'Brien Hits the Range In Cow Country (1953)


Cow Country is an essentially unremarkable, but pleasing western. It was made as one among many simple programmers, but star Edmond O'Brien is a reassuring presence and Peggy Castle steals the show with a bracingly memorable scene. The film is now available on DVD from Warner Archive.

Those who are familiar with the work of Edmond O'Brien (D.O.A. [1950], The Barefoot Contessa [1954], Seven Days in May [1964]) may not feel his image screams western star, but he actually made several films in the genre and even starred in a few. Instead of ambling across the screen like the lanky, muscular Wayne type, he has an efficient manner, focused on the most practical path to his desires. Though his presence is subdued, he's one of the few stars who is made more intriguing by the decency he exudes. You sense a history of pain behind that moral fa├žade and it draws you to him.

He plays Ben Anthony, a range rider who is in charge of a freight line in Texas. When the wealthy owners of a local rendering plant put pressure on struggling cattlemen to sell their stock, Anthony leads the resistance against the corrupt businessmen. He must also compete with business rival Harry Odell (Robert Lowery) for the love of his childhood crush Linda Garnett (Helen Westcott).

Cow Country is the kind of film that could fade in the memory, settling in with other deliberately unremarkable westerns, but it is instead unforgettable because of Peggy Castle. As Melba Sykes, an impoverished but ambitious member of a family squatting on a ranch belonging to Linda's father, she is more passionate and lively by far than any of her costars.

Odell has been romancing Melba behind Linda's back and when she realizes he doesn't intend to marry her, she goes after him with a whip. She doesn't hold back either. It is a wildly entertaining scene and cathartic to boot. I'd like to see a film starring this character, because this moment alone makes the western worth a look.

As Anthony faces increasing violence from his adversaries, the film climaxes in a series of tense, well-paced action sequences that are much more engaging and suspenseful than the action preceding them. These opportunists are willing to be ruthless and it is frightening what they do to get what they want.

It's an enjoyable flick, engaging in a low-key way and with enough spice to keep the energy up.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. This is a Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVD. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

The National Film Registry: Nominate Your Picks By Friday, September 15!



Ever since its establishment in 1988, each year the National Film Preservation Board at the Library of Congress selects 25 American-made films to add to the National Film Registry. The group strives to pick "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant films," in the hopes of recognizing not just award winners or box office champs, but a wide range of works that encompass American filmmaking. Inclusion on this list is huge, because every title is guaranteed to be preserved and made available to the public.

One of the most exciting elements of this process is that the public has input into which films are selected for the list. For a short period each year, film fans can send recommendations for up to 50 films via the Library of Congress website. If you want to have your say, the deadline for making suggestions is Friday, September 15.

Don't know what to recommend? The Board has you covered! Here is a list of significant films that have not yet made it to the registry. Many classic film fans have been stunned to see how many classics still haven't made the cut, but 25 films a year isn't much when you've got over one hundred years of film history to consider. As honored as the board members must be to participate in this process, it isn't easy.

To learn more about the selection process, I recommend watching the 2011 documentary These Amazing Shadows, which I reviewed here.

You can make nominations for the list here.

And if you need ideas, here's that list of films that have yet to make the list. UPDATE: A reader noted that one of my choices Letter From an Unknown Woman (1948) had been added to the registry in 1992, so keep in mind that this list isn't quite up-to-date!

The National Film Registry Class of 2017 will be announced in December.

Of course I couldn't resist making my own list, which I have shared below. Which films would you pick?

Humorous Phases of Funny Faces (1906)
Kid Auto Races At Venice (1914)
Stella Maris (1918)
Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde (1920)
The Scarecrow (1920)
The Blot (1921)
Beyond the Rocks (1922)
Robin Hood (1922)
The Toll of the Sea (1922)
Why Worry? (1923)
He Who Gets Slapped (1924)
The Merry Widow (1925)
Moana (1926)
The Cat & The Canary (1927)
Our Dancing Daughters (1928)
Wedding March (1928)
The Letter (1929)
Whoopee! (1930)
Night Nurse (1931)
Possessed (1931)
Downstairs (1932)
Kongo (1932)
Shanghai Express (1932)
Red-Headed Woman (1932)
Bombshell (1933)
Employees Entrance (1933)
I'm No Angel (1933)
Queen Christina (1933)
Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936)
Nothing Sacred (1937)
Alexander's Ragtime Band (1938)
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939)
The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939)
Love Affair (1939)
Rebecca (1940)
The Devil and Daniel Webster (1940)
Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941)
Gaslight (1944)
Murder, My Sweet (1944)
The Southerner (1945)
The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)
The Lady From Shanghai (1948)
Letter From an Unknown Woman (1948)
Harvey (1950)
Alice In Wonderland (1951)
Scaramouche (1952)
Pretty Poison (1968)
The Landlord (1970)
Claudine (1974)
Cooley High (1975)

Blu-ray Review: Lana Turner and John Wayne, An Oddly Compelling Pair in The Sea Chase (1955)


John Wayne, German. It doesn't make sense on paper, nor does it on the screen. In The Sea Chase the All-American cowboy doesn't seem remotely European, but he is reliably heroic as a morally sturdy naval officer in this sturdy war drama. He even makes you buy that Lana Turner, as a glamorous spy, could fall for him.

Wayne is Karl Ehrlich (really), a naval captain stationed on a freighter called The Ergenstrasse in Australia at the start of World War II. Though he despises Hitler, he realizes he must consider his crew's right to choose where their allegiances rest. He sets sail, escaping internment by the British, and takes on the challenge of returning his men to their homeland.

Facing the threat of mutiny, a treacherous Nazi sympathizer on his crew, and being under hot pursuit by the Brits, Ehrlich's life is further complicated by the arrival of Elsa Keller (Turner), who is also on the run. As the only woman onboard she is another dangerous distraction as he scrambles to find more wood to fuel the drastically understocked ship.

Of course Wayne and Turner have to fall in love, even if you'd never put them together. As a couple, they don't sizzle; this isn't a hot movie romance, but it is intriguing. It's more that they express the exhaustion of people who have lived hard and are ready for the comfort of someone who understands them. 

The love affair wouldn't have worked if Turner had landed in one of Wayne's westerns or he in one of her high-toned dramas, but the open seas is a fine middle ground. Their regard for each other is what makes them so touching together.

Turner slinks around in a tight, low-cut white dress, making the crew members drunk with lust. Wayne is scandalized; he knows she has driven a man to suicide. For her it is simply life, she causes a fuss as a matter of course; it has become background noise to her. 

So has dressing to kill. There's no need for her to wear a jaunty red scarf with her tight white sweater while stuck on a freighter, but it's how she plays the game and perhaps the glamour cheers her up. Also, she is Lana Turner, movie star. Even when she has to resort to men's dungarees to have clean clothes, she works it.

The pair are supported by a solid cast, with reliable actors like Dick Davalos (East of Eden), Alan Hale and James Arness onboard. Tab Hunter also makes an early appearance as a crewman. At this point in his career he couldn't even shout "land ho!" convincingly, but he clearly has presence.

Though this isn't quite the pulse-pounding actioner it aims to be, the slow build tension can be effective. Director John Farrow provides some genre thrills while also capturing the despair and destruction of this mostly self-contained bit of World War II drama.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.
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