Sunday, August 31, 2008

Politics (1931)

Third in the “official” series of Marie Dressler and Polly Moran comedies, Politics is a pleasant way to spend a Sunday afternoon. The proto-feminist plot is slight, but keeps things rolling: Dressler becomes an inadvertent political contender when she convinces the women of their town to “go on strike” against their husbands until liquor-selling establishments are shut down. Moran is her tenant, rival, friend, and collaborator.

Politics mixes the Dressler/Moran formula up a bit by adding some serious scenes of drama, and Moran rises to the challenge of the material.

There’s nothing profound or classic here, but that’s okay. Politics is just a breezy, enjoyable package of early-‘30s MGM entertainment.

Politics has been released on Warner Archives DVD-R.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

The Secret Six (1931)

A 1931 crime film with Wallace Beery, Clark Gable, Jean Harlow, Lewis Stone, Ralph Bellamy, and Johnny Mack Brown – a recipe for a great film, right?

The Secret Six has a great opening act, but then loses its way. First it’s the story of a low-life slaughter-house worker, Beery, opting instead for a rising career as a bootlegger and well-paid thug. Then it’s a love-triangle, with reporters Clark Gable and Johnny Mack Brown vying for the attention of club worker Jean Harlow. Then it’s a police procedural, with a bizarre and unexplained group of black-masked men in power working behind the scenes to bring down Beery, who by this time is in politics. Lastly, it’s a courtroom drama.

Get all that?

The casting is perfect. Beery, who wants steak for dinner after a day of killing cattle, could be reprising his role from The Big House. Lewis Stone gives an unexpectedly understated performance as the quiet head of the gang (did Brando see this?), and Ralph Bellamy, in his first role, is convincingly menacing as a double-dealing gangster. Gable, Harlow, and Brown play early versions of the sorts of characters Hollywood made them famous for.

The Secret Six also falters in its dialogue. I hate to dis the honored Francis Marion, who worked on 166 films from 1912 to 1940. She was Mary Pickford’s personal screenwriter (some great films, those), and brought good, basic storytelling skills to many silent and sound films. By the early ‘30s, though, the tropes she relied on in her dialogue were perhaps getting stale: The Secret Six must contain at least a dozen instances of the responses, “Yeah?” and “Oh, yeah?” Producer Irving Thalberg may have had a hand in the script’s plot, though, as there’s talk about Thalberg making Gable’s role in the film larger late in the shooting process.

The Secret Six has been released on Warner Archives DVD-R.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Possessed (1931)

Possessed, with it's pre-code feminist script, swanky sets, slick direction and upper-echelon star power, is a quintessential early '30s MGM film (A Free Soul, starring Norma Shearer and Gable, from the same year, is another contender). It's escapist melodrama with just enough realism to keep from descending into absurdity.

The plot is a rubber-stamped depression-era fantasy made for its target audience: small-town factory worker Joan Crawford leaves for the big city determined to use whatever assets she has to live the high life, becomes a mistress to powerful man-about-town Clark've seen this before, haven't you?

What's enjoyable about Possessed is seeing two of Hollywood's biggest stars in their prime, Gable in a new sort of male role for the time, an anti-hero, and Crawford, who MGM considered "the personification of youth and beauty and joy and happiness", before she mutated into something other. Those familiar with Crawford's background will realize she's practically playing herself here.

Noteworthy, too, is "Skeets" Gallagher, playing a perpetually inebriated dandy, whose ritzy living quarters and whimsical demeanor must have represented the height of freedom for audiences in 1931.

Clarence Brown's directing doesn't have the sort of dreamy look he excelled in earlier in his career, in films like The Flesh and the Devil, but it's perfectly fine, and benefits from some on-location shooting in the opening scenes.

Possessed has been released on Warner Archives DVD-R.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

The Hollywood Revue of 1929

More of an historical curiosity than an entertaining night at the movies, The Hollywood Revue of 1929 is a quickly filmed (four weeks of long, non-union hours, according to Bessie Love) collection of vaudeville skits and musical numbers designed to present MGM's stars in glorious sound.

Even for the initiated, The Hollywood Revue can be tedious going. A third of the film seems comprised of uninspired musical numbers. The sequences are introduced by Jack Benny and Conrad Nagel; sometimes they're funny, more often not. The editing is awkward bordering on inept, and the camera (no surprise for 1929) is mostly static.

Some of the highlights: a bizarre dance chorus sequence rendered nearly psychedelic with its use of negative photography; a short Laurel and Hardy sequence; Buster Keaton parodying the lascivious dance by Beth Laemmle which preceded him; and Cliff Edwards ("Ukelele Ike"),who enlivens nearly every scene he's in with his visionary version of scat singing.

The world of performers used here is almost too long to list; nearly all of MGM's stars are present except for Greta Garbo, Ramon Navarro, and Lon Chaney (represented by the song "Lon Chaney Will Get You If You Don't Watch Out").

In short, The Hollywood Revue is a very mixed bag, sometimes charming (Marie Dressler, Bessie Love), sometimes boring (Marie Davies' military march), and sometimes inciting one to smash one's television set (Charles King's "Your Mother and Mine").

Nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture of 1929.
The Hollywood Revue has been released on Warner Archives DVD-R.