Is FilmStruck worth $6.99 a month? I think at this point I can still answer “yes.” It’s true there’s a lot of mediocre movies on there (depending one one’s taste), but it’s also full of good movies that you’re not likely to run into anywhere else. This is all predicated on the basis of liking old movies.
Here are some recent gems:
Rich and Strange. This is an early Hitchcock film from 1931. Whether intentional or not, it’s got the look of a silent movie. But it’s a talkie, for sure.
Fred Hill (Henry Kendall) is bored with his life and wants to really live. Providence obliges him when a rich relative leaves him an early inheritance. He and his wife, Emily (Joan Barry), are off to see the world.
This is a good movie and I won’t give anything away. There are some strange aspects. For some reason, Henry Kendall is asked to play a bit of Buster Keaton from time to time in some mild slapstick. It’s out of place. But otherwise Kendall is excellent at playing the bitterly disappointed man. And, try as I might, I didn’t see Hitchcock in any walk-through in the background. But he’s easy to miss. But I assume he’s in there somewhere.
This is an intelligent picture that generally stays inside the moral movie standards of the day. Well…sometimes. The film itself (on FilmStruck) looks to be in need of restoration. Let’s hope they do.
Summer of ’42. I may have seen bits and pieces of this before. But I doubt that I had ever watched it all the way through. And I’m glad I did.
In the hands of lesser talent, this would have been simply an excuse for salaciousness. But the plot is deeper than your typical teenage exploitation film a la John Hughs. There is the crassness of youth combined with some deeper and much more poignant themes. Modern audiences would no doubt laugh at those older notions of shame or shyness. But awkwardness is inherently a part of youth. As is uncouthness. But this is a quiet gem.
Claire's Knee. Okay, this one may be a bit more salacious. But it’s French. What more do you need to know? This is not for everyone. But if you enjoy foreign films, give this one a go.
When Were You Born? This is an odd Charlie Chan-ish movie from 1938. With better casting and more depth to the story, this might have been a gem, even if an odd one.
Anna May Wong (or she might not be) plays Mei Lei Ming who is an astrologer. The opening of this film is unique in that it has some fellow at a desk explaining what each of the astrological signs mean. We move onto the movie in which a murder is committed. Mei Lei Ming was tangentially involved (she predicted the death of the man). She’s summoned by the police as a suspect but soon, because of her amazing abilities at astrology (and analyzing people, and predicting events), she’s unofficially retained by the police to help in the investigation
This is actually pretty good for the first 35 minutes or so. You wouldn’t think an astrological detective would work. But it does for a while. But at some point the movie (much like so many other crime or detective films) simply gives you a rotation of suspects with Mei Lei telling the police why this new one couldn’t have done it. Rinse and repeat.
But it’s campy and unusual enough to be enjoyable. If you like the general low-budget style of Charlie Chan (although the production values are better in this one), you’ll like “When Were You Born?”
Last but not least (well…it probably fits in the middle somewhere) is 1954’s Hobson's Choice. Charles Laughton plays Charles Laughton and because that is unique enough, he generally works as the owner/operator of Hobson’s Boots.
He lives with his three unmarried daughter who take care of him and help out in the business. He’s none to keen to see any of the daughters married off.
The secret to the success of the business is craftsman Wiliam Mossop who is generally unseen and unheard by the customers, working as he does under a trap door in the shop on the bottom floor. Brenda de Banzie plays the hard-driving elder sister who soon (and I forget the circumstances) has a split with her father. She takes off with Mossop to set up a boot shop elsewhere.
A young Prunella Scales (Sybil Fawlty from “Fawlty Towers”) has a minor role as one of the younger sisters. This is clearly a British comedy and to American audiences, it will suffer somewhat from that. There’s just a bit of oddness to the genre.
Nothing of stupendous importance happens, but the characters are fun to watch. Although John Mills as the meek William Mossop is just fine, I kept wondering how this movie would have gone with either Peter Sellers or Alec Guinness in the role. They would have brought much more depth to the transformation of this character from Hobson’s doormat to a sort of henpecked, but bolder, mouthpiece for his eldest daughter. I’m not taking anything away from Mills. It’s a fine interpretation of the character. But it could have been more.
Although Laughton is a giant of an actor (in more ways than one), his character is more of a McGuffin than a fleshed-out character. He's gruff and grumbles and that's about it.