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With DVD and Remote in Deepest Filmland

Remember Nick and Nora Charles, the movies’ Thin Man and wife? Of course, you do. How about Larry and Kay Wilson? Embodied by the same actors, William Powell and Myrna Loy, they’re a bush-league Babbitt and his divorce-bent wife in 1940’s I Love You Again. Larry’s pretty insufferable, alright, but after a conk on the noggin changes him into grifter George Carey, Kay starts reconsidering. Meanwhile, Carey’s running a con in the Wilsons’ hometown, of which Larry hopes to be mayor. Something must give and does in a delightfully incredible gag ending. Crisp pacing, excellent camera placement and movement, and a high level of ensemble acting—giddily led by Powell’s star turn, in which he’s one helluvan antic clown--make I Love You Again a romantic screwball comedy eventually about marital love, of all things.

So how’d I find I Love You Again, which I’d never heard of until slightly before I watched it?

Well, late in 2010, I finally started a project I conceived 50-odd years ago, to see all the movies I’d ever wanted to see--even if I didn’t know I wanted to see them—in chronology. I unboxed the DVD player received as a gift circa 2005, took out a Netflix subscription, and constructed a queue. I later built another queue at ClassicFlix, which specializes in pre-1970’s films, and discovered that the St. Paul Public Library has a very respectable DVD collection.

I proceeded according to what I’d absorbed from two books I haven’t owned in decades, the well-enough written The Liveliest Art by Arthur Knight, sometimes used as a text in film-history courses, and the poorly written but provocative The American Cinema by Andrew Sarris, the book that promulgated in America the auteur theory of film creativity, which betrays its French origins in its name.

What I’d absorbed was hundreds of names and thousands of titles. The books assured me that these filmmakers’ work and these particular movies should be seen by anyone deeply interested in film. Through the years, as I grabbed this maker here, that film there, I became ever more impressed by what good guides—historical and theoretical rather than critical--I’d chosen.

Several hundred movies into my project, I’m still impressed by them, even more so by how many good movies there are—that is, movies that tell compelling stories, present intriguing characters in interesting situations, and literally see things in striking and beautiful ways. The best do all those things very well, while many others do one better than the others or succeed satisfactorily enough all around to remain engaging throughout their running times, despite lacunae in plot logic and longueurs in development.

Besides my decision to watch my selections in chronology, I imposed one other stricture on myself, revived from my reviewing days in college. If it’s supposed to be of any value as literature or phenomenon, I read a movie’s source before seeing the film; if I’ve already read the source but can’t recall it well, I read it again. So far, I’ve read for the first time Les Miserables and Vanity Fair; the Niebelungenlied and Captains Courageous; pulp fiction “classics” Tarzan of the Apes and The Mark of Zorro; “The Devil and Daniel Webster” and “The Caballero’s Way” (which introduced the Cisco Kid). Conventional wisdom is that a movie never improves on its source (see, however, The Devil and Daniel Webster, directed by William Dieterle), but sometimes a film renders the main thrust of its source faithfully despite greatly altering characters and relationships (see Captains Courageous, directed by Victor Fleming). Most movies, indeed, don’t do their sources justice, and my favorites aren’t often adaptations of novels or plays.

So what’s the point of my project, beyond self-improvement (I almost wrote, self-indulgence)? To admire God-given human creativity, even in the most industrial, or, putting it more warmly, the most collegiate, of art forms, which is what cinema is. Also, to be able to tell others about films I find beautiful and meaningful.

So far, I’ve reached the films of the early 1940’s without, however, having seen all those of the 1930’s or even all the silents I want to see—they’re not all available from Netflix, ClassicFlix, and SPPL, and some haven’t been transferred to DVDs yet.

Back to the question. I got to I Love You Again by pursuing, a la Sarris, a director. But blame TRI, too, because I watched, out of queue chronology, Marie Antoinette (1938) before attending the 2011 Summer School on the French Revolution. No great shakes, it has some brilliant shots and performances, however, all guided by MGM contract director W. S. Van Dyke. I added several other Van Dykes to my queues--White Shadows on the South Seas, The Pagan, Manhattan Melodrama, The Thin Man, San Francisco, After the Thin Man, Another Thin Man, and . . . I Love You Again.

Ray Olson

Ray Olson

Ray Olson writes from St. Paul, Minnesota.

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