Friday, November 28, 2008

Blondie of the Follies (1932)

In the same year that MGM cast Marion Davies in the embarrassing Polly of the Circus, they sort of made amends by casting her in the far more interesting Blondie of the Follies (what was next: Molly of the Midway?).

Blondie of the Follies benefits from two major talents allowed the freedom to do their stuff: Davies and co-screenwriter Anita Loos. In this film, Davies is allowed to show the range of her acting talents, from careful, poignant scenes to parody (in an out-of-place but funny scene with Jimmy Durante, playing himself). Under the hand of Loos and Francis Marion, the dialogue is fast, smart, quick-witted; one would never guess this was the same Anita Loos who wrote sap four years later like San Francisco.

Special mention needs to go to the perpetually old-looking James Gleason, who's given a choice role as Davies' father, attempting to prevent her from leaving their dreary tenement existence for the stage. Often used as stock comedy relief, Gleason was here given a role requiring depth of feeling, and he delivers it.

Blondie of the Follies also stars Robert Montgomery, and Billie Dove as the other compenents of a love triangle, and Zasu Pitts, who's supposed to be Davies' sister (!).

One might guess MGM tried to wreck this film in another completely implausible happy wrap-up scene of the sort the company specialized in. It didn't work - Blondie of the Follies is still worth seeing.

Blondie of the Follies is not available on DVD or VHS, but has been broadcast on Turner Classic Movies.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Grand Hotel (1932)

Muchly much has been written about Grand Hotel, one of the slickest entertainments MGM concocted, so just a few thoughts for the road:

Grand Hotel was the first Hollywood film designed to showcase a wide array of top talent in one ambitious dramatic setting. This I knew, but I hadn’t previously realized that Grand Hotel created the template not only for future star vehicles centered on one setting, but also for the disaster genre and the disaster genre parodies. When John Wayne’s 1954 The High and the Mighty dropped the Grand Hotel format on a plane and added a disaster, that film paved the way for Airport, The Poseidon Adventure, and The Towering Inferno. The High and the Mighty was also the key inspiration, even moreso than Airport, for Airplane! And so it goes.

Irving Thalberg’s artistic instincts were correct in not shooting Greta Garbo and Joan Crawford in the same scene. In the MGM “universe”, these actresses occupy different worlds and their characters were in fact opposites, one ethereal, elusive and mysterious, the other earthy, open and street-smart. To modern-day eyes, Crawford ‘s acting is more believable, but Garbo, even when over-the-top, has an indefinable old-world allure that makes Crawford look cheap in comparison (Rudolph Valentino had the same qualities in comparison to his ‘30s counterparts).

As for the men, John Barrymore’s more subtle acting holds up better than Lionel Barrymore’s flamboyant performance, and Wallace Beery – is Wallace Beery no matter the costume or accent.

The Warner Bros. DVD contains a fine, but too short, documentary on the making of Grand Hotel, a promo short of Grand Hotel’s premiere, containing rare shots of MGM actors and the film’s director, Edmund Goulding, trailers, and a bizarre and not very funny Warner Bros. short parody of Grand Hotel. No complaints about the quality of the print - it looks great to me.

Grand Hotel is recommended for fans of classic Hollywood actors, those who enjoy a good, Saturday afternoon story, and as an example of sophisticated 1930s Hollywood product at its polished best.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Faithless (1932)

There are some scenes in Faithless that may require you to rewind the film to the beginning and see the lion again in order to convince yourself you're watching an MGM movie.

Faithless tackles the Depression in a more honest and sordid manner than MGM usually did. Tallulah Bankhead plays a rich heir, living it up while her savings disappear during the financial crash. She falls in love with Robert Montgomery, a perpetually optimistic advertising executive of limited financial means (in comparison). The first half of the movie involves Bankhead fighting Montgomery
's insistence on their living on his limited means - it takes place amidst art deco sets. The second half takes place in small, dirty apartments as penniless Bankhead is reduced to prostitution to save Montgomery's life. These depressing scenes are subtle and effective.

The actors are fine in these roles (though Montgomery's nearly constant child-like dialogue becomes tedious - no fault of his); Bankhead is, of course, most convincing in her state-of-the-art luxury apparel and hoity-toity surroundings - she was born for roles like this. Tallulah Bankhead fans will want to check this out, one of the best of her few early '30s movies.

Faithless is unfortunately bookended by unconvincing opening and closing scenes. The screenplay does not explain how Bankhead and Montgomery's characters know each other (living in disperate social circles). As for the quick and absurdly bright ending, chopped off by the MGM logo, one can imagine a cigar-chomping producer standing up from his seat in a dark screening room and declaring "That's it. It's over. End it there. It was due on Tuesday"

Faithless is not available on VHS or DVD. It has been broadcast on Turner Classic Movies.