Just recently, I reviewed the book, Alternate Oscars: One Critic’s Defiant Choices for Best Picture, Actor and Actress by Danny Peary. In my review, I mentioned how his essays should come with spoiler alerts because they could ruin the viewing experience for those interested in watching a film classic but want to know what it’s about. The worst part is a lot of these films are actually very good. There are some films, which I had never heard of that deserve more attention. Trust me, I would know.
Before reviewing this book, I watched every one of the films picked for an Alternate Oscar. I didn’t even read an essay until seeing the film first. It wasn’t as easy as it sounds. It required years of searching libraries, thrift shops and youtube. It was worth it to be introduced to entertaining movies. I could write reviews for half a year about the movies I’ve found here. To save time, I’m going to recommend the best films I have seen from the list. Each review will come with a preview of the film.
If you’re interested, I recommend the following movies mentioned in the book;
Pandora’s Box: Known more for her haircut than her acting, Louise Brooks delivers an extraordinary performance as Lulu, a tragic mistress who always ends up destroying the lives of every man she encounters. It also features one of the first sympathetically portrayed lesbian characters.
Twentieth Century: To say John Barrymore chews the scenery as pompous theatre producer Oscar Jaffe would be a gross understatement. He downs it like he’s at a hotdog eating contest. In the film, Jaffe uses every sleazy trick in his book to try to get a movie star (underrated comic actress Carole Lombard) to sign his contract. It is a blast watching Barrymore ham it up against the equally crazy Lombard.
The Man on The Flying Trapeze: W.C. Fields is Peter Griffin before there was Peter Griffin. This bulbous-nosed comic genius plays Ambrose Woolfinger, a long suffering patriarch with a nagging wife, a dead beat brother-in-law and the need for an excuse to get out of work for some boxing. It’s worth watching just for the opening scene where a couple thieves sneak into the house to steal Woolfinger’s bootleg booze. Instead of rushing downstairs, Ambrose takes forever to get out of bed, much to the chagrin of his panicking wife.
The Body Snatcher– When you hear the name Boris Karloff, most film buffs think of his monster from Frankenstein. People from my generation are more likely to link him with the Grinch from the Dr. Seuss cartoon. These two performances are what mainstream audiences associate with Karloff. It’s sad because Karloff has given great performances in other works. His strongest come from his work in Val Lewton produced works, where he portrayed complex villains. His strongest and most underrated is his performance as the title character of Body Snatcher.
Adapted from a short story by Robert Louis Stevenson, the film takes place in 1800’s Edinburgh. At the centre of the film are two men: Respected medical teacher and surgeon Dr. McFarlane (Henry Daniell); and, peasant coachman John Gray (Karloff). McFarlane is in need of bodies for surgeon demonstrations so he hires Gray to bring him some fresh corpses. At first, Gray digs corpses from the graveyard but in time he resorts to murder. McFarlane tries what he can to get rid of him but Gray isn’t leaving.
On the surface, there is a clear difference between good guy (McFarlane) and bad guy (Gray). But as the film progresses, they stop seeming so black and white, especially Gray. This is made most clear in their relationship with a wheelchair-bound little girl. The “good guy” McFarlane could perform surgery to help her walk but doesn’t want to do it. Ironically, it is “bad guy” Gray who persuades him to perform the surgery. After the surgery, McFarlane is unpleasant to the little girl through her recovery. Gray, however, acts like a gentleman to the girl, allowing her to pet his horse. The girl finds the motivation to walk again because of the horse. Even though he kills a child and a dog, you find yourself rooting for Gray more than McFarlane because he is honest about his evil. McFarlane, however, refuses to acknowledge his own wrongdoings. If I were to get symbolic, I would say Gray is the embodiment of McFarlane’s dark side.
Scarlet Street– A twisted film noir from the master of noir Fritz Lang. Screen legend Edward G. Robinson plays Christopher Cross, a mild-mannered banker with a gift for painting. Henpecked by his nagging wife, Chris fantasizes about romance with a younger woman. His dream seems to come true with Kitty (Joan Bennett), who claims to be an actress. In reality, Kitty is a moll of Johnny (Dan Duryea), a small time crook and abusive boyfriend. Thinking him rich, Kitty pretends to be interested in Chris. Johnny takes advantage of this situation to con Chris out of his dough. At first, the weak-willed Chris steals from the bank to support Kitty. When the couple steals the paintings and take credit for it, the shit really hits the fan.
It is interesting to see Edward G. Robinson playing a total weakling. Usually, he’s playing the tough gangster or the wizened old man. Here, his character is so spineless that he bends down to paint Kitty’s toes like a pharoh’s slave. Joan Bennett, however, steals the show in her twist to the Femme Fatale. In most film noirs, the Femme Fatale is very cunning, able to outwit every man in the room and manipulate them into doing her bidding. Kitty, however, is not cunning at all. In fact, she is very dumb. She lives only for sex with Johnny, even though he’s physically abusive and obviously only stays with her in order to get money from Chris. She is such a slob, she spits on the floor of her apartment. She is so lazy, she’d rather drop candy wrappers on the floor than throw them in the trash. It’s Johnny who has to come up with the schemes. But even he’s not all that bright.
It is even sadder when you realize Chris is being outsmarted by two dimwits. It leads to the famous scene where Kitty viciously berates Chris right to his face. As with many of Lang’s work, this one ends on a cynical note.
Monsieur Verdoux– Charlie Chaplin is a legend in need of no introduction. Even those who haven’t seen a silent film automatically recognize the image of the little tramp with his little mustache, raggedy clothing and bowler hat. Chaplin appears several times in the first half of this book for his portrayal of the little tramp. Then in 1947 along comes Monsieur Verdoux and Chaplin does the impossible. He erases the little tramp from your mind. In fact, this film is very far from Chaplin’s usual style of film. Even though his films portray the sadness of poverty, they were always lighthearted slapstick that always carried a ray of hope. This film, in contrast, is a cynical, pitch black dramedy with little slapstick. They have in two things in common. One, Charlie Chaplin vanishes into his character. Two, he uses his films as his commentary and delivers the message through laughs.
On the surface, Monsieur Verdoux (Chaplin) seems like a high class gentleman. Everything about him says class from his posture to his mustache. He was a successful banker with a wife and a son. But when the Great Depression hit he was out of a job. Needing to provide for his family and with no jobs available, Verdoux comes up with a scheme. He will marry widows, off them and then invest their money in the stock market. Throughout the film, we see him lie, manipulate and kill in order to provide for his family. Think a 1940’s Breaking Bad. Looking at it now, this film is way ahead of its time, prophesizing the amoral anti-heroes who would come to take over television.
Despite taking a more serious tone here, Chaplin still provides the laughs, especially in the form of Anna Bella Bonheur (Martha Raye). It’s ironic the legend of silent film creates a loud mouth maiden you wish would shut up. It leads to a hilarious scene on a boat where Verdoux is constantly thwarted in his attempt to murder Bonheur.
 It helps to understand the context explained in the essay
 Even unrolling his socks and blowing into them.