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It’s Oscar week, folks, so this week we’re digging out some personal favorite Oscar picks. We’ve got a Best Original Screenplay (The Candidate, 1972), a Best Original Score (A Fine Romance, 1979) and a Best Actress (The Divorcee, 1930).
Best Actress: The Divorcee (1930)
By the end of the 1920s, Norma Shearer’s career was on shaky ground. One of MGM’s most popular actresses of silent era (and conveniently, Mrs. Irving Thalberg) had made a successful transition to sound at a time when so many others hadn’t. Her first talkie had been a success (thanks in part to the medium pitch of her voice) but going forward she knew she had to shed her goody goody image if she was going to stand a chance in the modern landscape. The well known legend is that she lobbied for the part of the lead in the highly controversial The Divorcee (in 1930, divorce was quite an adult topic) and when Thalberg resisted, visited the studios of George Hurrell to have some highly sensuous photos taken of her to prove that she was perfectly capable of being a … woman of the world.
Thalberg relented and Shearer would soon become an Oscar winning actress.
The Divorcee is a bedroom melodrama with a storyline that, while tired and cliché to modern audiences, was edgy and risque in 1930. And yes: you can feel it in the sheer energy of the film. High spirited Norma Shearer marries Chester Morris because, well, she actually loves him. But on their third anniversary, she catches Morris with another woman and Shearer is, needless to say, none too thrilled. The more she becomes embittered by her husband’s indiscretion, the bolder she becomes— a silent screen vamp without question—and the daring, decidedly pre-code attitudes emerge. Let’s just say it’s quite obvious that she decides to exact her revenge by shagging the brains out of Robert Montgomery, and her proclamation to her husband that “from now on you’re the only man in the world that my door is closed to” is … well … yup. Her post-divorce life is party-hardy and a montage of close-ups of hands holding hers, with her voiceover, seals the deal that this gal is getting quite a kick out of the freedom of being single. (Psst … that means S-E-X.)
The Divorcee belongs entirely to Norma Shearer. She is sexy as hell and owns every inch of every frame. Chester Morris does his best to keep up, but this is the tour de force of Queen Nora’s career. The only scene stealer, in fact, is the terrifically young (and devastatingly handsome) Robert Montgomery, always the charming rake. But even he can’t hold a candle to Shearer’s irresistible bad girl. Now, let it be known: I’m not a big fan of Shearer’s. At all. But dammit all if she doesn’t slam dunk this film. That Oscar was hers from the first moment Robert Z. Leonard yelled “action”, and that palpable confidence she exudes on screen hints at the fact that she must have known it too.
Best Original Screenplay: The Candidate (1972)
I’m a sucker for good political satire, and 1972’s The Candidate still holds up, even with our contemporary “jaded” perspective on politics and “spin.” Academy Award Winner for Best Original Screenplay, The Candidate follows the corruption of a well-meaning grassroots activist who shows political promise not only because he’s the son of a former California State Governor, but has the good fortune of sporting the drop dead good looks of Robert Redford. Clearly a man of the people, fighting the good fight, Redford’s Bill McKay is at first resistant to running for State Senate, but Peter Boyle as his sleazy but well-heeled campaign manager talks him into it, promising that he’ll never have to be a “politician,” but instead, run on his own platform and speak the truth. The final kicker is he promises McKay that he’ll never be able to beat the incumbent, old-school Republican Senator Crocker Jarmon, because he’s held the position for years. This is just a chance for a real man with real ideas to shake up the political landscape.
Of course, we all know what happens – the more popular McKay becomes, the more he’s expected to compromise his ideals. Even though we can see what’s coming, (some of this terrain has been covered recently in everything from HBO’s Veep to George Clooney’s The Ides of March) but the Oscar winning script by Jeremy Larner is smart, witty, and surprisingly prescient. I don’t know if it’s a good thing that the issues of 1972 are still hot-button topics today (abortion, welfare, the environment, foreign policy and even an oil spill) and makes one question how little we’ve progressed, but it sure helps the film’s longevity that it’s painfully timeless. Even a woman who continues to approach Redford subtly, and remains on the periphery of the frame, seems creepily prophetic a la Monica Lewinski. (Oh, the weakness of those libidinous Democrats!)
There’s so many reasons to enjoy The Candidate. Redford does some of his best work as a good man losing his soul, Michael Ritchie’s direction has just the right amount of docu-style feel that he perfected with Downhill Racer, and the well-earned ending carries all the ambiguity that the better 70s films delivered. It’s a shame more people haven’t seen The Candidate, but a win-win now that Warner Archive is streaming it, so a modern audience can find out for themselves what they’ve been missing.
Best Original Score: A Little Romance (1979)
Ahhh, young love. So innocent, so full of wonder, so … saccharine. And while George Roy Hill’s affectionate ode to love, A Little Romance, is sugary sweet, the wonderful thing about is that that it’s smart. Oh sure, it’s highly edible confectionary, but with a script that dazzles and a cast that shines, we’re not necessarily talking empty calories here. To view this film with a cynical, academic eye is to miss the point of the film entirely. Rather, enjoy it for what it is: a simple little fantasy that makes you wish you were young again. George Roy Hill understands this and you’d have to be blind not to see that the director is intentionally taking us on an old fashioned escapist romp: the film opens in the flickering light of a movie theatre, introducing us to a little boy in love with the movies.
In fact, the boy, Daniel (Thelonious Bernard) and the girl, Lauren (Diane Lane, in her first screen role, and already a beauty) meet because of the movies. Daniel (who has a thing for Bogie and Bacall and, wait for it: George Roy Hill movies) gets a kick out of crashing movie sets and happens upon Lauren, who is on set against her will. She’s an American living in Paris with her loving stepfather and emotionally scattered mother who is the close friend (and aspiring mistress) of the slimy Hollywood director. Their spark is immediate, both of them too-bright-for-their-own-good (um …what 12-year-olds can talk at length about Heidegger?), and love soon blooms. Their taste for adventure brings them into the company of an amiable, if not overly chatty, old Frenchman (Laurence Olivier, in one of his final screen appearances) who takes on the role of a mischievous matchmaker and chaperones the two on their thoroughly unrealistic (but irresistible) continental journey to kiss beneath the Bridge of Sighs in Venice. (Little Daniel’s jealousy of Lauren’ fascination with the dashing old gent is quite charming.)
As delightful as it is to watch the two little lovebirds, who do an admirable job of holding the film on their shoulders (Lane, hardly surprising, is a treasure), Olivier is the glue here. When he disappears from the narrative—although still an interesting investment that takes some interesting risks (Diane Lane’s breakdown when she accompanies Bernard to a porno movie, for one)—does flounder a bit. But the moment he resurfaces the tale takes on a fanciful magic and delightful levity that is all but impossible not to gobble up like … well … candy. But I still say, not empty calories, ok? You know what you’re getting with a title like A Little Romance: light, lovely entertainment but Hill makes damn sure that, in spite of its sugary nature, there’s not a frame of it that isn’t honest or pure. You know, kind of like young love.
(By the way, Broderick Crawford’s crotchety ‘I’m-Just-Here-for-the-Booze’ cameo is reason enough to watch.)
A Little Romance won the Academy Award for Best Original Score, while scribe Allan Burns lost Best Adapted Screenplay to Avery Corman’s Kramer vs Kramer. Tough year for that category, by the way: Kramer vs Kramer, Apocalypse Now, Norma Rae and La Cage Aux Folles were also nominated.