Sunday, February 9, 2014

Unashamed (1932)

Unashamed, a family drama which spends its second half in a courtroom, is sadly dated. Its tone, theme and morals are thoroughly mixed up.

Helen Twelvetrees plays a rich girl courted by the appropriately named fortune hunter Harry Swift (Monroe Owsley). Twelvetrees' father and brother (Robert Warwick and Robert Young) protest against the relationship, to no avail. Then Swift convinces Twelvetrees to spend a night in a hotel so he can force her father to give in...

A resulting act of violence results in a courtroom battle fought by defender Lewis Stone and prosecutor John Miljan. Only, the movie asks you to root for the lying main characters. The quick, weird feel-good ending doesn't help - it's both unbelievable and celebrates injustice.

I can't recommend this odd relic to other than hardcore film fans.

Unashamed is not available on DVD, but has been broadcast on TCM.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Speak Easily (1932)

The best I can say about Speak Easily is it's mildly amusing.

Keaton plays an isolated professor spurred to discover the outside world in this unmemorable plot; Durante is a manager of a traveling dancing troupe.

Speak Easily was Keaton's second-to-last MGM film and the second of three films in which MGM teamed him with Jimmy Durante. Durante fans (are there many now?) probably find much to enjoy here, but Keaton fans can only see Keaton's talents being amazingly wasted. It's sad to see only glimpses of genius sprinkled through the film: Keaton nonchalantly removing himself from a policeman's gaze, gracefully choreographed pratfalls with Thelma Todd... Keaton's scenes with the very funny Todd, minus Durante, are the best in the film.

Keaton was in a bad place when Speak Easily was made. Continual, headline-making conflicts with this wife, Natalie Talmadge, Keaton's alcoholism and his creative conflicts with MGM all contributed to missed days on the set, costing MGM $33,000 in delayed shooting.

Speak Easily has fallen in the public domain and is available in many poor prints on DVD. The best print available is probably in the Warner Bros. Buster Keaton at MGM Triple Feature DVD-R box set. Speak Easily is also shown on TCM.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Huddle (1932)

Huddle, starring Ramon Novarro as an Italian immigrant who somehow gets a paid entrance to Yale, is dreadful. Novarro didn't want to play the role, for good reasons.

33 at the time, Novarro was too old for the role. The movie is too long. The collegiate singing is annoying and frequent. We're to believe Novarro becomes a football star (he had to learn how to play football for the role); the ending, wherein he wins the game during a bout of
appendicitis, is ludicrous.

Ralph Graves plays a reverent and clean and thus wholly unbelievable football coach. Una Merkel plays a colleague's girlfriend, but her talents are wasted; I don't think she has more than five lines in the film. Madge Evans does plays a good love interest.

Audiences of the time didn't think much of the film, either. It lost $28,000 and was one of several miscalculations on MGM's part during this time period that devalued Novarro's box office worth.

Huddle has been released on Warner Bros. Archive DVD-R.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Payment Deferred (1932)

Payment Deferred is a crime thriller and showcase for actor Charles Laughton, who previously played the same protagonist role on stage (both stage and film are based on the novel by C.S. Forester).

Laughton plays a pathetic in-debt banker who commits a crime in order to stay financially solvent. His wife and daughter (Dorothy Peterson and Maureen O'Sullivan) gradually begin to suspect wrongdoing and his affair with a worldly (you can tell because she has a European accent) local merchant (Verree Teasdale) only gets him deeper in trouble.
Ray Milland also plays one of his earliest roles. It all adds up to a slowly simmering tale that's a bit darker than the sort of film MGM usually made.

Nearly the entire movie rests on Laughton's slumped, sad shoulders and he's perfect looking for the role. I do wonder if he wasn't too entrenched in the character, after 70 Broadway stage performances, to bring the sort of subtlety in acting the film camera requires. His performances on film in the decades ahead would be much more convincing.

I do need to mention the direction of Lothar Mendes (1894–1974), who quite capably directed a variety of genres over a forty year span and who here shoots some wonderfully evocative compositions which reminded me of Fritz Lang's work on films like M. Payment Deferred also has the sort of decaying sense of place as Lang's House By the River.

Payment Deferred is not available on DVD, but has been broadcast on TCM.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Devil-May-Care (1929)

Although Ramon Novarro first sang on film in The Pagan (1929), Devil-May-Care, made the same year, is his first all-talking picture. He passes this crucial test with ease (many other Hollywood stars were not so lucky). His accent may be out of place in a Napoleonic-era film (the same was true of his co-stars, especially blues and jazz singer Marion Harris), but his voice and singing are splendid.

Devil-May-Care is very much in the swashbuckler mode and, in fact, is somewhat similar to MGM's earlier Bardelys the Magnificent (1926). Novarro plays a Napoleon loyalist who, while escaping from Royalist forces attempting to execute him, falls for a stubborn Royalist daughter, Dorothy Jordan. Compared to other early sound films, Sidney Franklin's direction is remarkably smooth and accomplished. It doesn't seem as stagebound as most other 1929 films and only suffers from a few of the odd editing choices one sees in MGM films of this period. It even features a completely superfluous Technicolor ballet sequence.

That the film is so technically accomplished is made more remarkable when you take into account this was one of the first Hollywood musicals (the songs by Herbert Stothart and Clifford Grey range from okay to annoying). It's a missed opportunity that Marion Harris didn't sing in the film.

Ramon Novarro is fine in the film, ensuring more years of work at MGM. His mischevious pursuit (some might call it stalking) of Dorothy Jordan can seem a little creepy, though, perhaps depending on what mood you're in when you watch it. John Miljan's also in this film. But, you knew that.

Devil-May-Care has been shown on Turner Classic Movies.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Pack Up Your Troubles (1932)

Second-rate Laurel and Hardy material is so good it would be nearly any other comedian's first-rate material and Pack Up Your Troubles is a good example. It takes an exceedingly unfunny subject (WWI), adds in a little-girl-lost plot, meanders about as Laurel and Hardy movies often do and is still timelessly enjoyable.

Comedians have frequently used the lost or orphaned kid plot; it usually generates audience sympathy and gives the comedians someone to play off of. Chaplin created the template with The Kid. Some of the many later examples include Pack Up Your Troubles, Harry Langdon's Three's A Crowd (1927), Max Davidson's The Rag Man (1925) and even Jerry Lewis' The Family Jewels (1965).

The girl in Pack Up Your Troubles, who loses her father in a French trench, is played by Jackie Lyn Dufton. She's perfect for the role and has some charming scenes with Stan Laurel. This Hal Roach production is filled with great character actors who our duo meet as they attempt to reunite the orphaned girl with her real family, including James Finlayson, Tom Kennedy and Billy Gilbert.

Pack Up Your Troubles is short (68 minutes), but sweet.

Pack Up Your Troubles has been released on DVD as a part of Laurel and Hardy: The Essential Collection.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Bardelys the Magnificent (1926)

Bardelys the Magnificent, directed by the great King Vidor, is a deliciously satisfying swashbuckler, based on a novel by Rafael Sabatini, who wrote the source material for many other epic action films.

John Gilbert plays a Don Juan-type during the reign of Louis XIII. Agreeing to a dubious bet layed down by a court rival (Roy D'Arcy at his most caddish), Bardelys sets out to win the hand of honorable Eleanor Boardman.

This is an epic made at the height of MGM's silent period, made in that sweet spot of the era when the sets were gargantuan, the stories filled with easy humor and danger, character actors appeared in nearly every scene and the stories came to a satisfying, relatively leisurely conclusion. Much of the above would go out the window during the sound era. The satisfying attributes of the early sound era of MGM would be much smaller scale (though no less fun): a script by P.G. Wodehouse, songs sung and played by Cliff Edwards, Bessie Love in musicals, glimpses of genius from Buster Keaton allowed to peek out from imposed, rotten scripts.

Meanwhile, back in 1926, John Gilbert's Bardelys the Magnificent did mad physical stunts that (look on screen as if they) rivaled Douglas Fairbanks. For those who love a good, action-filled love story amidst political intrigue, this movie will fit the bill.

One small drawback: a reel from the film is missing which is replaced by stills and title cards to tell the story. MGM apparently destroyed all of their prints of the film due to their choosing not to renew a ten-year lease with Sabatini. The short sequence is relatively painless.

Bardelys the Magnificent is available on DVD.