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.