Monday, March 7, 2011

Night Court (1932)

For hard-hitting, even harrowing pre-code crime drama, look no further than MGM's Night Court. If the film had been made in the '70s, it would have been directed by Martin Scorsese and written by Paul Schrader. (In the aughts, it could have been written by Neil Labute and directed by James Foley).

Walter Huston plays a relentlessly corrupt judge, so contemptuous of justice that he attempts to obliterate an innocent family just to suppress the mother's (Anita Page) inadvertent knowledge of his bank accounting!

I'll refrain from giving the details of the plot of a film that goes in some surprising directions. This severely overlooked film deserves the same company as Beast of the City and other early '30s crime dramas which have stood the test of time.

Night Court really has an all-star cast. It also features Lewis Stone, John Miljan and Jean Hersholt.

The now forgotten Phillips Holmes (he died in a mid-air plane collision in WWII) gives an interesting performance as Anita Page's husband. It's not a subtle one, but has a raw, emotional tinge that must have struck audiences at the time. In fact, some of the scenes in the film have such a spontaneity that it makes me, perhaps, rethink the work of the director, W.S. ("One-take-Woodie") Van Dyke, whose quick directing here has a freshness that a more fussy director may not have achieved.

Night Court also benefits from co-writer Mark Hellinger who, as a journalist at the New York Daily News and Hearst's New York Daily Mirror, had a better view of the New York criminal underworld than most Hollywood writers and was friends with Al Capone and Bugsy Siegel.

Night Court isn't available on DVD, but has been broadcast on Turner Classic Movies.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Wet Parade (1932)

A weird downer of a movie (the poster above shows just how weird; Durante's slayed at the end of the film), MGM's adaptation of Upton Sinclair's novel is like a glossy version of a D.W. Griffith preachathon. It's nearly epic in scope (118 minutes), but bogged down by hammed-up acting and a melodramatic script that couldn't have warranted many raves when the film was new.

The Wet Parade begins in the south, where gentleman Lewis Stone slowly drinks himself to death, his last stop a pig sty. When his son, played by Neil Hamilton, moves to the north, the story and his sister, played by Dorothy Jordan, follow him.

There the binge drinking continues in a hotel best described as Alcohol Central.The owner of the hotel, overplayed by Walter Huston, is a non-stop lush and when alcoholic Neil Hamilton moves in, he's right at home. Robert Young, the most naturalistic and fresh actor in the film, plays Huston's teetotalling son.

Things get worse from there: after prohibition is instituted, alcoholics turn to bad liquor purchased from bootleggers. When Huston kills his wife in the throes of this stuff and Neil Hamilton goes blind from it, Young and Jordan dedicate their lives to irradicating bad alcohol from the planet Earth.

Then it gets even more odd: Jimmy Durante, portraying a treasury agent, is beamed into this movie from another planet, playing his role as if he were teamed with Buster Keaton instead of Robert Young. There's a lot of "ha-cha-cha"s and lame jokes while busting bootleggers!

Without having read Sinclair's novel. it's hard to determine if the story is more anti-alcohol or anti-government intervention (it could be both). Both are shown as very, very bad. Sinclair's politics banned him from the MGM lot when the film was being made, and he wasn't allowed to speak at the film's premiere (though the audience was expecting it). That's cold.

The one scene in the film that really works (and is probably straight from the novel) methodically and with no dialogue shows an assembly line of criminals packaging alcohol unfit for drinking as if it were name brand product. With the exception of this scene, Victor Fleming's direction is rote stuff.

Side note: The film ironically shows footage of Woodrow Wilson signing the 18th amendment into law, when Wilson had actually vetoed the act (thanks for this info, Mary).

The film also features Clara Blandick, Myrna Loy in a small part and Max Davidson in a short, uncredited role. MGM missed the boat in not fully utilizing his talents.

An amusing review of The Wet Parade on Booze
The Wet Parade is not available on DVD or VHS, but has been broadcast on Turner Classic Movies.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Arsène Lupin (1932)

This 1932 version of sophisticated thief Arsène Lupin (the character reused throughout the century in numerous countries) has one strength: the brothers Barrymore. Lionel and John, in their first feature film together, are always a joy to watch; Lionel, with his charming irascibility and John, with his suave, mocking urbanity.

John Barrymore plays Lupin, of course, with Lionel as the police inspector driven to capture him. Most of the film takes place on a country estate and at the Louvre, where Lupin steals the Mona Lisa under the inspector's nose.

I'd like to recommend Arsène Lupin, but I found the film's pace terminally lethargic, more characteristic of a 1930 or '31 MGM film. I didn't find myself caring about Karen Morley, John's love interest, at all, either (despite the racy pre-code banter), so the interplay between the Barrymores was the only thing holding my interest here. Their ending scene in a police car was a very nice example of their subtlety and collaborative talents.

Recommended only for Barrymore and Arsène Lupin fans.

Arsène Lupin hasn't been released on VHS or DVD, but has been broadcast on Turner Classic Movies.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Hell Divers (1931)

Hell Divers, while routine in many aspects, impressed me as being much more ambitious than I'd expected - it was the Top Gun of its day. The movie sports some amazing aerial footage, Navy-lent filming of the huge carrier USS Saratoga, bombings galore and even dirigibles, beautifully photographed drifting through the clouds. Naval and aeronautics fans will go nuts with this film.

Wallace Beery plays the sort of character he usually did: a "lovable" (depending on your perspective), incorrigible (until the end) big kid in a cartoonishly gruff, middle-aged man's body. Clark Gable, in the twelfth of twelve films he made in his first year in Hollywood (!) is his in-the-air and on-the-ground competitor. The antagonism between the two, which reportedly carried off-screen, propels the plot forward until the sentimental end, when Beery becomes a hero through his unexpected maturity.

Hell Divers also features silent star Marie Prevost, Marjorie Rambeau as Beery's girlfriend, and Cliff Edwards (no ukulele in this one, alas, though Beery does sing and play the piano).

Hell Divers hasn't been released on VHS or DVD, but is shown occasionally by Turner Classic Movies.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Paid (1930)

Paid is a solid entry in Joan Crawford's early talkie dramas. In fact, it was her first major dramatic role - it gives her a wide range of emotions to display in a role originally meant for Norma Shearer (who, instead, was on maternity leave).

Based on the play, "Within the Law", Paid has Crawford portraying a destitute worker sent to prison for a crime she didn't commit. After studying law during imprisonment, she's released ready for revenge on the boss who charged her in court, the legal system and just about the entire world!

Paid starts stong, then becomes vaguely unconvincing (Joan's Mary Turner becomes the virtual head of a criminal gang in just a few short scenes) and finally culminates in an odd, stage-bound act taking place in a police department. It has some very dated acting and those charmingly bizarre editing choices found in the earliest MGM talkies.
Even so, Crawford is worth watching throughout the entire film and, despite the film's faults - bottom line - you want to know what happens next.

Paid also stars Marie Prevost as Crawford's floozy partner in crime, Robert Armstrong as the gang boss Crawford tries to protect, Douglas Montgomery as the boss' son and a coterie of MGM character actors playing criminals, victims and policemen.

A five minute prison shower fight scene was shot but deleted before the film was released. Some stills from the scene exist.

The film was originally made in 1923 as Within the Law, starring Norma Talmadge and Lew Cody and was made again with the same name in 1939, starring Ruth Hussey and Tom Neal.

Paid has been released on Time Warner Archives DVD-R and has also been broadcast on Turner Classic Movies.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Rag Man (1924)

The Rag Man's an agreeable Jackie Cooper and Max Davidson comedy/drama, unseen for many decades, but shown on television for the first time on Turner Classic Movies in 2004.

Max Davidson plays a junkman who takes orphan Cooper in as a companion and business partner. Though the movie could have went down the path of pathos (as Chaplin's The Kid did, also starring Cooper as an orphan), it doesn't go there.

It does entertain for its duration, with lots of scenes tailored for Cooper's charming facial expressions and body language. (Davidson's character, ill for much of the film, spends most of his time in a chair or bed - I can barely remember him walking across the room in this movie!). It's a pity Davidson's career took a nose dive after the arrival of sound (to the point that his last roles were uncredited); anyone who's seen his '20s comedy shorts can attest to this German actor's talents.

The Rag Man also has some nicely historic location footage shot in New York and a new score for small orchestra by Linda Martinez - a score that borders on being too dissonant but, again, doesn't go that route.

MGM made a sequel to The Rag Man, Old Clothes, the same year with the same cast and director, excepting the sequel also starred a young Joan Crawford. A print of the film reportedly still exists.