Sunday, November 15, 2009

Domestic and Exported Love

From the April, 1931 Silver Screen.

"Would you rather have a French or American hero make love to you? Robert Montgomery gazes at Constance Bennett in that worshipping, wistful way in the American version of the "Easiest Way," but Andre Burgere in the French version asks no questions but seizes lovely Lily Damita in his arms. The American humbly pleads for love; the Frenchman takes it boldly."

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Skyscraper Souls (1932)

Skyscraper Souls just didn't do it for me. It's a low-rent Grand Hotel, with Warren William at the top (literally) as the sordid, egotistical, predatory owner of a very tall new building. He's also out to own Maureen O'Sullivan, an innocent secretary (though he's already having an affair with O'Sullivan's boss, Verree Teasdale, and he's married to Hedda Hopper!).

Skyscraper Souls also has a few other sub-plots, including one about Jean Hersholt and Anita Page (as a prostitute) that I never could make much sense of. Mainly it's about wheeling and dealing Warren William, who gave perfomances later in his career much better than this. His nonchalant self-assuredness serves him well, for example, in his Lone Wolf series for Columbia, and he's more enjoyable to watch there. Here, he's hampered by an over-the-top script in which he justifies whatever suits his fancy for the sake of his glorious building and progress.

Skyscraper Souls is beloved by a lot of pre-code fans (it may be one of the edgiest), but the combination of characters I didn't care about with sub-plots MGM had already over-used kept this one away from my heart.

Skyscraper Souls has been released on VHS and Laserdisc. It's not currently available on DVD, but has been broadcast on Turner Classic Movies.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Not So Dumb (1930)

Not So Dumb, filmed in 1929 and released in 1930, is a lot of fun. Based on the 1921 play, Dulcy, written by George S. Kaufman and Marc Connelly, the film lost $39,000 for MGM. That's a shame because Not So Dumb was a perfect vehicle for Marion Davies' comedic talents.

Davies plays the ditzy fiancee of Elliot Nugent, who's trying to strike an important business deal with a big shot staying with them for the weekend. Will Davies inadvertently mess up Nugent's plans, or will everything turn out right in the end? Hmmm....

It's all light as air, flighty, inconsequential and entertaining, with some very witty lines. Davies looks like she was having a lot of fun here. The eccentric characters portrayed by a fine ensemble cast point the way to future plays and films also written or co-written by George S. Kaufman like You Can't Take It With You and The Marx Brothers' The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers. George Davis plays an ex-convict butler. Franklin Pangborn plays a screenwriter named Vincent Leach (great name!), who regales his trapped hosts with a scenario ripped from Cecil B. DeMille's Intolerance. DeMille's often used actress Julia Faye is hilarious as the easily-led-astray big shot's wife. Only Donald Ogden Stewart falls flat as the requisite "crazy" of the bunch, but that's due to the screenplay; crazy doesn't automatically equal funny.

Those unaccustomed to early sound films may be bothered by the bad (sometimes bordering on the bizarre) editing; the sound is also bad in the first scene. Life's short - you can get over it.

Dulcy was filmed earlier in 1923 with Constance Talmadge (it's easy to picture her playing the part; is there a print of this film still in existence?), and in 1940 with Ann Southern. Zazu Pitts and Gracie Allen also played the role in radio versions.

Not So Dumb is not available on VHS or DVD, but has been broadcast on Turner Classic Movies.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Divorce in the Family (1932)

I like this movie. It covers territory most '30s films stayed away from (the effects of a divorce and remarriage on two young brothers) and it holds your interest to the end.

Jackie Cooper is the attention-needing younger brother who dislikes his new, emotionally detached step-father (who can blame him?) and feels betrayed by his emotionally weak mother (again...). They don't even tell Cooper they're getting married until the deed is done, the weasels! His older brother, played just adequately by Maurice Murphy, is gone for half the picture and sidetracked by the girl next door in the other half, so he's not much help, either.

The lone parental figure Cooper can rely on (to the extent that the law will allow it) is his biological father, played by Lewis Stone. He's cool. In his very first scene he finds a skull in the ground - it doesn't get any cooler than that! Their scenes together are wonderful, two consummate professionals of very different age, playing off each other with a casual ease.

Alas, this story is determined to have Cooper embrace his new lot in life, so a melodramatic climax is contrived wherein the step-father (Conrad Nagel), a family doctor, saves the life of Cooper's brother and proves himself worthy of Cooper's acceptance.

That ending's wack. I'd rather see a movie where Lewis Stone and Jackie Cooper rage against the social order! There needed to be a high-octane sequel, directed by Quentin Tarantino or Jean-Luc Godard. I'd pay to watch that.

Divorce in the Family is not available on DVD or VHS, but has been broadcast on Turner Classic Movies.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Emma (1932)

Emma (no relation to the Jane Austin story) is one of the best Marie Dressler dramas - perhaps, in its gentle way, even stronger than Min and Bill.

Nominated for an Academy award for her role, Dressler plays the nanny for the four children of an inventor (well-played by Jean Hersholt). When Dressler and the inventor marry, most of the children revolt against the relationship, culminating in Dressler being dragged to court on malicious charges by the very kids she spent her life raising.

The screenplay, written by Dressler's friend and supporter, Frances Marion, is tailor-made for her, allowing Dressler a full range of emotions. The story is sentimental and endearing in the best ways; it has the ache of real emotions in it, such as the very effective scene in which Emma sees the ghost memories of the children she raised, in her vacant, lonely house.The long marriage proposal scene, beginning in her bedroom and ending in the middle of an airport, is also quite effectively sustained; the director, Clarence Brown, was perfect for sequences such as this.

One could argue that Emma's unblinking belief in her children (most of whom grew up vile and greedy) was naive. So what? Emma's not a perfect person, and it's the humanity of the characters that makes the film enjoyable eighty years later.

That Dressler's style could be utilized for dramas like this in addition to her career as a comedian is a testament to her versatility and professionalism.

Myrna Loy plays one of the bratty kids, in a role that in no way stands out.

Side note: the railroad station scene, featuring lingering close-up shots of a broad-range of just-released magazines, is a freeze-frame extravaganza for magazine collectors.

Emma has been released on Warner Bros. Archive DVD.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Strangers May Kiss (1931)

What a crazy, mixed-up movie! Rich man Robert Montgomery is a kindly dipsomaniac in love with rich girl Norma Shearer (I assume they're independently wealthy - are they ever shown working a job?), but Shearer is instead lollygagging about with a handsome but caddish, globe traveling news correspondent (played by future Commissioner Gordon Neil Hamilton).

Hamilton leads her on, lies to her, then leaves her to travel her own way back from Mexico! Spurned Shearer then does what nearly every spurned woman did in MGM films of this period: she sleeps her way across Europe with one aristocrat after another, natch!

To add to the confusion of the viewer (if not the characters), Shearer goes back to the untrustworthy worm in the last scene (all he does is glare at her and she's his) while Montgomery feebly and complacently looks forward to his next drink. The end.

Mick LaSalle, in his fine book on women in pre-code movies, Complicated Women, extols Strangers May Kiss as an adventurous "pop-feminist document", far ahead of its time.This is probably true, though it is noteworthy that none of the characters in the film seem particularly happy about their situations or choices; if the film is a feminist document, it's perhaps prescient in that regard, too.

The usual MGM slickness is in the house with stunning art deco sets and gorgeous gowns (though the movie is hampered by some very poor editing). The greatest actors and sets in the world won't help, though, if you find the characters absurd, unlikable, or nuts. Complexly amoral characters were frequent in pre-code movies, but what worked in Norma Shearer films like The Divorcee and A Free Soul just ain't working here.

Strangers May Kiss isn't available on DVD or VHS, but has been broadcast on Turner Classic Movies.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

The Squaw Man (1931)

The Squaw Man...where does one start?

Based on a 1905 play which had four Broadway revivals, the Squaw Man plot now seems archaic: an English aristocrat, Capt. James Wynnegate (Warner Baxter) flees England, honorably taking the blame for stealing funds he did not steal to save the reputation of the woman he loves (Eleanor Boardman) and her husband (right!).

He then does what any English aristocrat would do in that situation: becomes a cowboy in Montana, where he marries an Indian maiden, Naturich (Lupe Velez), he'd rescued from a local thug (Charles Bickford) - they have a son. Seven years later, the law shows up to arrest Naturich for the murder of the thug (she had shot him, to rescue Wynnegate). The very same day, Roland Young as a family friend and Eleanor Boardman show up to take Wynnegate home (her husband's now dead) and Wynnegate is convinced to send the son back back to England and, heartbroken, Naturich kills herself. The (abrupt) end.

Cecil B. DeMille's movies are often best enjoyed as surrealistic alternate versions of D. W. Griffith's movies. Griffith traded almost solely in Victorian-era melodrama. DeMille did, too, but with a sensational, bizarre bent that is best exemplified here by a cut from British high society to a hilarious desolate shot of the forlorn, wild west "Buzzard's Pass".

(Yep, I'm aware the transition is there in the 1905 source material, but DeMille finds a way to make it seem crazier. He was a master at creating absurd, only-in-Hollywood, leaps in logic. In Fool's Paradise (1921), he deliciously lets his hero pursue his dream girl from a Mexican border town to Siam, where she dances for a prince in front of a pit of alligators. Yes!! I wouldn't at all be surprised if David Lynch wasn't thinking of DeMille when he incongruously had his film director, Adam, meeting The Cowboy at a stereotypical ranch in Beechwood Canyon in Mulholland Drive - itself a critique of Hollywood's absurdities.)

The Squaw Man is certainly watchable for those who just want an involving story. DeMille knows how to tell a story that people want to see, even creaky, predictable stories, and he must have loved this one - this is the third time he filmed it. Even when the ending is telegraphed, you want to see what happens next. Lupe Velez gives a genuinely sympathetic performance here, and the ending is sad no matter how you look at it.

All the actors have given better, more expressive performances in other films and the reason is the dialogue is stilted here, old-fashioned for 1931, requiring stilted mannerisms, especially in the beginning scenes in England. The scenes with Velez and Baxter fare better, and Dickie Moore as their son acts with an ease the others aren't allowed. He doesn't care about the lofty source material - he's just havin' a good time!

The Squaw Man has been released on a Warner Archives DVD-R, along with the 1914 version.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Sporting Blood (1931)

As horse racing movies go, Sporting Blood is an interesting and even unique one.

Through several opening title cards, the movie sets about with the intention of just telling the story of a horse, Tommy Boy, as he's transferred from owner to owner. The first half hour of the film is the best: Ernest Torrence plays the horse's first and most sentimental owner in an atmospheric, powerfully directed extended sequence. The sequence is also noteworthy (for 1931) for a portrayal of African Americans which isn't condescending or farcical. The Uncle Ben character (John Larkin) proves more instrumental to Tommy Boy's fate than any other.

Tommy Boy is shown sold to a succession of owners, each with diminishing respect or care for the horse. Then Clark Gable and Madge Evans enter the picture and it deflates. What had previously been a single-minded film about the fate of a horse becomes a late-in-the-game, conventional MGM love story about the redemption of sordid characters and the story of a horse.

One can imagine the producers' concerns that the story of just a horse wouldn't have the sex appeal needed for box office draw, but the Gable/Evans plot seems forced into a movie that was doing fine by itself.

Still, Sporting Blood is worth watching for some other good qualities: the direction, the Kentucky racing cinematography and the appearances of longtime silent film stars like Lew Cody and Marie Prevost.

Sporting Blood has been released on a Warner Archives DVD-R and is also shown on Turner Classic Movies.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Where East Is East (1929)

Don't let the so-so reviews on fool you: when viewed on the big screen, with excellent piano accompaniment (as at Cinevent 2009), Where East is East is a typically twisted, timeless, and highly enjoyable Tod Browning/Lon Chaney production - probably not on a par with The Unknown or West of Zanzibar, but not that far off, either.

Just listing the elements involved tells all you need to know: Chaney as a lion-tamer, Tiger Haynes, Lupe Velez as the daughter he loves, Lloyd Hughes as her fiance, seduced by the exotic, mysterious Estelle Taylor as Madame De Sylva - and a caged gorilla who hates De Sylva's guts, all in the fetid Chinese jungle.

It's clear, a half hour into the story, what the ironic, EC-like conclusion will be, but it's the details and style that make this movie stand out. Chaney's a force of nature here - I think it's one of his most subtle roles. Velez is perfectly cast as the naive and energetic Toyo; Hughes as Bobbie does a creditable job; and Estelle Taylor makes the movie hers with a languid performance that practically makes you smell the exotic perfumes she must be soaked in. Browning, by good instinct, doesn't speed these scenes up but lets the story tell itself slowly and carefully.

The 16mm print we saw was quite good. Where East Is East has also been released on Warner Archives DVD. I don't know which musical score is used for the DVD, but hope it isn't the reportedly dreadful '30s reissue soundtrack used for a TCM UK broadcast.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

The Fire Brigade (1926)

Eager to see The Fire Brigade since Kevin Brownlow used scenes from its climax to open his 13-hour Hollywood documentary 29 years ago (!), I was very glad to see it shown at this year's Cinevent film convention.

The Fire Brigade exemplifies for me the sort of stirring, glossy, serious, but leavened with humor, big-budget (yet sensitive to small, sentimental details) movie that MGM excelled at in the '20s - a specific kind of atmosphere that was lost when sound came in. A tribute to firefighters everywhere, The Fire Brigade hones in on a Irish family of multi-generational firefighters, headed by the young Charles Ray.

The film is unsparing in its depiction of the costs and bravery involved in fire fighting. The depictions of building contractor negligence and governmental corruption, though somewhat simplified, are as relevant today as then. And the showpiece sequence, involving the rescue of orphans from a burning, collapsing building looks amazing - one can only imagine how it played in 1926.

The Fire Brigade was accompanied at Cinevent by Phil Carli (, whose thunderous yet subtle piano playing served and elevated the film.

The Fire Brigade is not available on DVD or VHS.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Private Lives (1931)

Sophisticated, witty, fast, fun - MGM's 1931 film of Noel Coward's Private Lives altered the dialogue and scenes for American audiences, but still made a film true to the spirit of Coward's work.

As the previously married (and fighting) and destined to be reunited (and fighting) protagonists, Norma Shearer and Robert Montgomery make the best of their roles. Shearer clearly was having fun with such a juicy character, requiring a menagerie of emotions, body language, and quick, caustic, overlapping dialogue.

Montgomery's a fine performer (and would later, with more serious roles, become an even better one), so I don't consider it damning with faint praise to say that his abilities were probably not then on a par with Coward's dialogue. One can't imagine Montgomery ferreting out the delicious barbs and droll, cutting witticisms that Coward undoubtedly performed in the stage role he wrote for himself. Montgomery's not all bad in the part, though; it was MGM, in 1931, so there he was.

Reginald Denny and Una Merkel are also fine in roles that don't require as much.

Private Lives is recommended as an enjoyable, adult, afternoon romp.

Private Lives has been released as a Warner Bros. Archives DVD.

Monday, April 13, 2009

The Smart Set (1928)

By the late '20s, William Haines' screen persona had settled into a formula, giving his films the same sort of predictable inevitability other MGM formula stars of the day excelled in (like Lon Chaney and Greta Garbo).

In Haines' films, he played an obnoxious cut-up who pursued women dubious of him and squandered his talents and duties until he fell from grace - at which point he wised up, matured, won the day and the woman. The settings changed, but the story was always the same.

You either like William Haines or you don't. Some find him funny, others obnoxious (some, like myself, find him funny and obnoxious). Even Haines naysayers would have to admit that, in his infantile, improvisational antics and edgy, out-on-a-limb rambunctiousness, he was willing to go where no other comedian had gone before (save, perhaps, Harry Langdon). In Haines' work one can find the seeds of Jim Carrey, Adam Sandler, Jonathan Winters, and even Andy Kaufmann. And like most of those comics, Haines was also adept at playing serious scenes when required.

The Smart Set takes place in the world of polo. Read the formulaic plot described above, imagine stock polo footage, and you have most of this movie.

Having not seen an MGM film in awhile when I wrote this review, I had forgotten what a smooth machine Thalberg and Mayer had running at MGM during this time period; even this average, non-blockbuster film has a smooth, professional finish. Thalberg or his assistants make sure the scenario plows straight and true to its foregone conclusion. The unpredictably of Haines' wild actions, though, keep your interest (one scene seems particularly to presage Jonathan Winters). An on location car chase is imaginatively shot. One night scene of Haines alone on the polo field is especially moody. And a scene with Haines crying for his lost horse is as bizarre as it is effective.

The Smart Set also stars Alice Day as the love interest, and Jack Holt and Hobart Bosworth as poloing rivals.

The Smart Set has been broadcast on Turner Classic Movies with an okay film score by Marcus Sjowall.

The same print has been released on DVD-R by Time Warner Archives.

Friday, March 13, 2009

The Washington Masquerade (1932)

In The Washington Masquerade, Lionel Barrymore plays a relentlessly uncompromising lawyer who is elected to the Senate only to falter due to a moment (or moments) of moral weakness. In this, the film is more realistic and in some ways more interesting than the later Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Frank Capra would have filmed a movie standing on his head before he would have corrupted his Jefferson Smith character (played by James Stewart) who, in Capra's world, signified All that Was Right and True. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is a crowd-pleasing popcorn movie and a good one, too, but it doesn't have the sort of melancholy grasps at realism that The Washington Masquerade contains.

Based on Henry Bernstein's play "The Claw," (Barrymore played the role on stage ten years earlier), The Washington Masquerade sets up Karen Morley as a manipulative, seductive opportunist, the fine Diane Sinclair as Barrymore's wise daughter, and a wide array of character actors playing corrupt government officials, not least of which is Nils Asther, who excelled in playing smarmy, predatory, illicit lovers.

Wouldn't you know it, but the film has some faults that keep it from being first-rate: the over-the-top speeches Barrymore spouts about God and Country and the Common Good would have made even Jefferson Smith do a double-take. These bromides had to have been dated when this film was made and even when the play was written. Secondly, MGM continued to shoot itself in the foot with hurried, out-of-the-blue wrap-up endings guaranteed to make your jaw drop. I won't give away the ending of this one, but don't expect much.

The good acting shines through, though, and even those who find Barrymore's acting over-done (I don't) may enjoy this one for its uncompromising tone.

The Washington Masquerade is not available on DVD or VHS, but has been broadcast on Turner Classic Movies.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

When a Fellow Needs a Friend (1932)

When a Fellow Needs a Friend is a fine little film starring child star Jackie Cooper; a movie more successful, in fact, than many of the ones MGM made by and for adults. Those films often resorted to jaw-dropping twists of plot in order to get the guy and the gal together in the last frame. There's nothing too far-fetched in this movie, though, and some of it is quite effective, and it's also a love story of sorts.

Cooper is teamed up this time with character actor Charles 'Chic' Sale. Though born in 1885, Sale made a career playing old men even though he was only in his '40s! In this film Sale's character, Uncle Jonas, helps Cooper learn courage despite a crippling physical handicap and over-protective parents. Andy Shuford is also excellent as Cooper's bullying cousin, "Froggie". Cooper crying in several scenes caused some viewers to think he cried too much. I don't mind his crying if the story warrants it, which it did here.

There's nothing too profound or Oscar-worthy here, just a good little story well-told. If this movie was released to theatres this week, and marketed to kids, it would be a money maker.

When a Fellow Needs a Friend is not available on DVD or VHS, but has been broadcast on Turner Classic Movies.

Monday, February 16, 2009

But the Flesh is Weak (1932)

What bizarre catalyst propelled Irving Thalberg and company to churn out one MGM romantic "comedy" after another starring leads whose defining characteristics were boorish, brutish, insufferable infantilism? I would argue that in the hands of William Haines, this sort of material could border on comic genius, in a surreal Jonathon Winters-ish way. Usually, though, it just thuds and offends, and But the Flesh Is Weak is a prime example.

In this film, written by Ivor Novello, deadbeat Robert Montgomery and his philandering father, C. Aubrey Smith, do their best to mooch from, seduce, and wed (or not) rich women. That's practically the entire story. Montgomery at first latches onto the interesting Heather Thatcher, but then quickly dumps her for a widow, Nora Gregor (better known for her role in Renoir 's Rules of the Game).

There may be a fine line between romantic persistence and cloddish, creepy annoyance, but this screenplay asks Robert Montgomery to dash over it and never look back. Gregor 's ending line "I knew I loved you when you hit me" was the straw that broke the camel's back for Mary. Bleahhh.

Thatcher's role is sympathetically written, for all the good that does the film; Edward Everett Horton plays Gregor's rival suitor in a part that doesn't play to his strengths.

There might have been an amusing line scattered here or there; if so, I can't remember them.

Remade by MGM in 1941 as Free and Easy.

But the Flesh Is Weak is available on Warner Archives DVD-R and has been broadcast on Turner Classic Movies.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Lovers Courageous (1932)

Based on a play by Frederick Lonsdale (MGM would film his The Last of Mrs. Cheyney at least twice), Lovers Courageous is an oh-so-typical MGM early '30s film. In fact, MGM filmed Faithless, with a similar plot (lower class guy woos and marries rich girl) the same year, with the same lead actor, Robert Montgomery. If you watch a lot of old movies, you'll see this plot over and over and over again.

Faithless wasn't a great movie, but better than this one, which is too reliant on some stagy, formal dialogue which just doesn't ring true. Montgomery is perfect for these sorts of care-free, whatever-may-come characters, but it sometimes seems as if he's having to play two characters: a witty, subtle, funny guy in some scenes (possibly partially improvised), and an earnest, flowery, Victorian-leaning one in the "serious" scenes. He's supposed to be a determined playwright and a good one, but I didn't buy that at all, not least for the reason that the dialogue he supposedly writes is atrocious.

Having said that this film isn't very good, it's also true to say it has an inherent emotion-tugging tragectory which is intrinsically suspenseful, even when you know the ending will be happy. Madge Evans as the rich girl is lovely, as always. In this film she's expected to marry Reginald Owen, who plays a brash Englishman as a broad caricature. How more believable and interesting the movie would have been if the person Evans' betrothed had been a real person, and maybe even somewhat sympathetic. As it stands now, there's no contest between the suitors.

Your spirits will be kept up, though by some other fine character actors: Beryl Mercer, as Montgomery's mother and, especially, Roland Young as Evans' father's aide. Young, in the last film of his MGM contract, effortlessly drifts through this affair as if he had nothing better to do that week and thought he might earn some money and some laughs by being in a movie.

Lovers Courageous is not available on DVD or VHS, but has been broadcast on Turner Classic Movies.