Early Summer (Yasujirō Ozu, 1951). The middle entry in the set known as Yasujirō Ozu’s “Noriko trilogy,” Early Summer settles in with a Japanese family and the acquaintances that move in and out of their sphere. The film is about encounters and shifting relationships, with the constant encouragement to get Noriko (Kuniko Miyake) to marry as the most consistent through line. Miyake is wonderful in the film, meeting every nettlesome intrusion into her business with amused good cheer, even when she finally does make a romantic decision that is met with petulant disappointment. Ozu’s elegant visual framing is unlike anyone else’s, and depictions of the emotional intricacy of families is nearly as remarkable. None of this is meant to imply that the film is some precious fragile thing. It bristles with life, in all its messy conflict. Early Summer — like much of Ozu’s work — deserves comparison to poetry.
Ex-Lady (Robert Florey, 1933). In nineteen-thirties New York City, Helen Bauer (Bette Davis) is a proudly independent woman, making her own way as an illustrator. She’s in a somewhat-on-the-sly romance with adman Don Peterson (Gene Raymond). Helen initially and repeatedly declares here disinterest in marriage, but she eventually caves. She and Don enter into a union that falls short of wedded bliss, in part due to professional and personal jealousies. As directed by Robert Florey, Ex-Lady has the cadence of comedy and the barbed fury of drama. The film also has the presence of Davis, typically fierce and flinty as Helen. She takes dialogue that’s as tough as railroad spikes and snaps off the lines like they’re penny candy. At this early stage in her career (her film debut was only two years earlier), Davis is already a staggering force on film. The film is forward-thinking and notably casual about it, precisely the sort of welling progress that the Motion Picture Production Code would soon halt.
So Big (William A. Wellman, 1932). Based on an Edna Ferber novel that won the Pulitzer Prize less than a decade earlier, So Big casts Barbara Stanwyck as Selina, a woman who goes from a youth of relative comfort to a hard rural existence, first as a schoolmarm mocked by the uncouth locals, then as a farmer’s wife, and finally as a weary widow and single mother, still toiling the land. William Wellman’s film has all the kindling necessary to stoke up a fine melodrama, but the director brings a welcome restraint to the staging. In its leaps across decades, intense focus on character, and waves of poignancy, it resembles Terms of Endearment, which seemed quietly revolutionary when it arrived fifty years later. Considered against the era in which it was made, So Big is almost startling in its patient intricacies. Stanwyck is typically great, showing Selina’s aging with small adjustments in physicality and demeanor. And Bette Davis crackles with confidence in an early role, playing the a hard-to-get city gal chased by Selina’s grown son (Hardie Albright).