Monday, May 26, 2008

West of Broadway (1931)

West of Broadway, 1931, starring John Gilbert, Lois Moran, Ralph Bellamy, and El Brendel. Directed by Harry Beaumont.

Those who believe MGM was deliberately sabatoging John Gilbert's sound-era career won't find much in West of Broadway to dissuade them; the character Gilbert is asked to play here is thoroughly disagreeable. Jilted by his girlfriend after returning from WWI, and on a bender, Gilbert marries sweet but low-class Lois Moran the very night he meets her. Gilbert's character continues drunk and bitter throughout the film, as Moran unrelentingly pursues him, determined to make the quickly-spawned marriage work. She does, of course, in a fast, tacked-on ending.

There's just not a lot believable or likeable here, except for Lois Moran's good-hearted commitment to an ideal. Ralph Bellamy plays to type as the guy who doesn't get the girl; El Brendel may have been funny in some films, but not in this one.

For a much better Gilbert sound film, see The Phantom of Paris, also 1931.

Not available on DVD; it has been shown on Turner Classic Movies.

Friday, May 23, 2008

MGM Straight Down the Line

Since April, 2002, Mary and I have undertaken an ambitious (some would say foolhardy) agenda of film watching: we are watching every MGM film which still exists (many no longer do), in as close to chronological order as possible. Our agenda encompasses all feature films released by MGM from the studio's creation, in 1924, until 1960, when the classic era of systematic Hollywood filmmaking was, for all intents and purposes, over.

MGM was probably the grandest of the Hollywood studios. It lacked the hard-hitting edge of Warner Bros., but made up for it through sheer spectacle, high, glossy production values and, as their tagline proclaimed, "more stars than there are in heaven". It's also worth noting that proto-EC and proto-Lynchian films such as Tod Browning's Freaks and The Unknown were produced by MGM, as were films of visionary decadence by Erich Von Stroheim, (recommendation: see Stroheim's Greed on a double-bill with P.T. Anderson's There Will Be Blood. Only the strong will survive). MGM also destroyed the career of Buster Keaton, another fascinating but depressing spectacle. Last but not least, MGM featured a trinity of top actresses in the '20s and '30s: Norma Shearer, Greta Garbo, and Joan Crawford. Sometimes sublime, sometimes mediocre and sometimes bizarre (or all three in the same movie), their films were always fascinating.

We began by watching The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, the first film MGM released (though not the first film made by the new studio). It is also the film which made Rudolph Valentino a star. Since then, we have watched approximately 115 films, and are halfway through 1931. We're using, as a reference guide, The MGM Story, by John Douglas Eames, which lists films MGM released by year. (If you'd like to follow along with our movie watching, buy a copy of The MGM Story and have at it.) As films from years we've already covered have been made available, we've "backtracked", watching that film, then continuing on with the "current" year. I'll be posting here short reviews of the films we watch in the series, and posting reviews of earlier films we've watched when it's possible to go back and review them.

I'll also be posting miscellanious thoughts and lists on our crazy endeavour and we welcome your comments, comparisons, suggestions, or just plain help in tracking down elusive MGM films we've not yet been able to find. If you have a question about MGM or an MGM film,please post it here. I don't claim to be an expert on MGM, merely a guy watching a bunch of MGM movies. Then again, watching 115 MGM movies in a row can fill your head with a lot of near-useless facts. If you spot mistakes or wish to post clarifications or alternate opinions, feel free to post your comments.