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.