Monday, December 23, 2013

Payment Deferred (1932)

Payment Deferred is a crime thriller and showcase for actor Charles Laughton, who previously played the same protagonist role on stage (both stage and film are based on the novel by C.S. Forester).

Laughton plays a pathetic in-debt banker who commits a crime in order to stay financially solvent. His wife and daughter (Dorothy Peterson and Maureen O'Sullivan) gradually begin to suspect wrongdoing and his affair with a worldly (you can tell because she has a European accent) local merchant (Verree Teasdale) only gets him deeper in trouble.
Ray Milland also plays one of his earliest roles. It all adds up to a slowly simmering tale that's a bit darker than the sort of film MGM usually made.

Nearly the entire movie rests on Laughton's slumped, sad shoulders and he's perfect looking for the role. I do wonder if he wasn't too entrenched in the character, after 70 Broadway stage performances, to bring the sort of subtlety in acting the film camera requires. His performances on film in the decades ahead would be much more convincing.

I do need to mention the direction of Lothar Mendes (1894–1974), who quite capably directed a variety of genres over a forty year span and who here shoots some wonderfully evocative compositions which reminded me of Fritz Lang's work on films like M. Payment Deferred also has the sort of decaying sense of place as Lang's House By the River.

Payment Deferred is not available on DVD, but has been broadcast on TCM.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Devil-May-Care (1929)

Although Ramon Novarro first sang on film in The Pagan (1929), Devil-May-Care, made the same year, is his first all-talking picture. He passes this crucial test with ease (many other Hollywood stars were not so lucky). His accent may be out of place in a Napoleonic-era film (the same was true of his co-stars, especially blues and jazz singer Marion Harris), but his voice and singing are splendid.

Devil-May-Care is very much in the swashbuckler mode and, in fact, is somewhat similar to MGM's earlier Bardelys the Magnificent (1926). Novarro plays a Napoleon loyalist who, while escaping from Royalist forces attempting to execute him, falls for a stubborn Royalist daughter, Dorothy Jordan. Compared to other early sound films, Sidney Franklin's direction is remarkably smooth and accomplished. It doesn't seem as stagebound as most other 1929 films and only suffers from a few of the odd editing choices one sees in MGM films of this period. It even features a completely superfluous Technicolor ballet sequence.

That the film is so technically accomplished is made more remarkable when you take into account this was one of the first Hollywood musicals (the songs by Herbert Stothart and Clifford Grey range from okay to annoying). It's a missed opportunity that Marion Harris didn't sing in the film.

Ramon Novarro is fine in the film, ensuring more years of work at MGM. His mischevious pursuit (some might call it stalking) of Dorothy Jordan can seem a little creepy, though, perhaps depending on what mood you're in when you watch it. John Miljan's also in this film. But, you knew that.

Devil-May-Care has been shown on Turner Classic Movies.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Pack Up Your Troubles (1932)

Second-rate Laurel and Hardy material is so good it would be nearly any other comedian's first-rate material and Pack Up Your Troubles is a good example. It takes an exceedingly unfunny subject (WWI), adds in a little-girl-lost plot, meanders about as Laurel and Hardy movies often do and is still timelessly enjoyable.

Comedians have frequently used the lost or orphaned kid plot; it usually generates audience sympathy and gives the comedians someone to play off of. Chaplin created the template with The Kid. Some of the many later examples include Pack Up Your Troubles, Harry Langdon's Three's A Crowd (1927), Max Davidson's The Rag Man (1925) and even Jerry Lewis' The Family Jewels (1965).

The girl in Pack Up Your Troubles, who loses her father in a French trench, is played by Jackie Lyn Dufton. She's perfect for the role and has some charming scenes with Stan Laurel. This Hal Roach production is filled with great character actors who our duo meet as they attempt to reunite the orphaned girl with her real family, including James Finlayson, Tom Kennedy and Billy Gilbert.

Pack Up Your Troubles is short (68 minutes), but sweet.

Pack Up Your Troubles has been released on DVD as a part of Laurel and Hardy: The Essential Collection.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Bardelys the Magnificent (1926)

Bardelys the Magnificent, directed by the great King Vidor, is a deliciously satisfying swashbuckler, based on a novel by Rafael Sabatini, who wrote the source material for many other epic action films.

John Gilbert plays a Don Juan-type during the reign of Louis XIII. Agreeing to a dubious bet layed down by a court rival (Roy D'Arcy at his most caddish), Bardelys sets out to win the hand of honorable Eleanor Boardman.

This is an epic made at the height of MGM's silent period, made in that sweet spot of the era when the sets were gargantuan, the stories filled with easy humor and danger, character actors appeared in nearly every scene and the stories came to a satisfying, relatively leisurely conclusion. Much of the above would go out the window during the sound era. The satisfying attributes of the early sound era of MGM would be much smaller scale (though no less fun): a script by P.G. Wodehouse, songs sung and played by Cliff Edwards, Bessie Love in musicals, glimpses of genius from Buster Keaton allowed to peek out from imposed, rotten scripts.

Meanwhile, back in 1926, John Gilbert's Bardelys the Magnificent did mad physical stunts that (look on screen as if they) rivaled Douglas Fairbanks. For those who love a good, action-filled love story amidst political intrigue, this movie will fit the bill.

One small drawback: a reel from the film is missing which is replaced by stills and title cards to tell the story. MGM apparently destroyed all of their prints of the film due to their choosing not to renew a ten-year lease with Sabatini. The short sequence is relatively painless.

Bardelys the Magnificent is available on DVD.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Kongo (1932)

For dark, rotting depravity, look no further than this sound remake of Tod Browning's 1928 collaboration with Lon Chaney, West of Zanzibar. Both tell the same story, but in Kongo, Walter Huston reprises the same role he originally performed on stage (and which West of Zanzibar was based) and he has a delicious time hamming it up. Huston looks like a deranged pirate with a wicked, mischievous glint in his eye, an insane prototype of Dennis Hopper's Frank Booth.

Huston is "King Deadlegs" Flint, a paraplegic planning revenge in an African swamp, manipulating the natives with magic tricks and living with man-hungry Lupe Velez and two Lupe Velez-hungry henchmen.

If you haven't seen West of Zanzibar or Kongo, I won't give away the plot's twists and turns here. I will say that drug addicted-Conrad Nagel and Virginia Bruce get caught in Huston's web and, like so many Tod Browning-related films, the ending is EC-like in its ironic justice.

All in all, Kongo is probably not as strong as the more tightly constructed West of Zanzibar. Where Kongo excels is in atmosphere; the sweaty and heated look of the film is downright claustrophobic.

Kongo has been released on Warner Archives DVD-R.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Are You Listening? (1932)

William Haines is a murderer on the run from a nationwide, radio-reported police manhunt!

This isn't your typical William Haines flick. In fact, it's the last film he made for MGM and the last feature film he made for a major studio. When he's carried away on a train at the end of the film, he's also, in effect, leaving Hollywood.

Are You Listening? plays like a mashup of MGM's first musical, The Broadway Melody (1929) and Haines' previous radio-centric film, Remote Control (1930). As in The Broadway Melody, half of the film tells the story of how young girls who come to New York
to make a living are used and abused. In the no-less-depressing other half of the film, Haines plays a radio writer married to horrendous shrew Karen Morley who plays evil like you've never seen her play it before. Meanwhile, Haines has fallen in love with one of the aforementioned women, the appealing Madge Evans (also Haines' love interest in Fast Life).

The first half of the movie is an uneasy mixture of light comedy (primarily poking fun at radio's primitive production methods) and drama. Are You Listening? gradually sheds all humor and becomes an outright melodrama, with an almost noir atmosphere unlike any other Haines movie. The technology with which Haines made his living becomes the technology that hunts him down and entraps him.

Those who love character actors will have a field day with Are You Listening?. Neil Hamilton, Wallace Ford, Hattie McDaniel,Jean Hersholt, John Miljan, Joan Marsh, Charley Grapewin and more appear.

Old Time Radio fans will be especially interested in Are You Listening?. I'd direct those just discovering Willam Haines to The Girl Said No, The Smart Set or Navy Blues.

Are You Listening? has been released on Warner Archives DVD-R.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Strange Interlude (1932)

I watched Strange Interlude so you don't have to.

Harsh words for a glossy, high-end 1932 MGM movie, perhaps, but the experimentation in Strange Interlude not only doesn't work, it makes for a downright unpleasant movie watching experience.

Strange Interlude is based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning Eugene O'Neill play that has the following conceit: the audience can hear selected thoughts of selected characters. This method was handled in various ways onstage, including the actors holding face masks. In the MGM movie, character's voices are heard on the soundtrack while the actors keep their mouths closed but go through facial acting gyrations as if they speaking. It doesn't work. Director Robert Z. Leonard seemed to have realized it doesn't work because the technique is used less often as the film progresses. And, does it progress: the movie's only 109 minutes long, but by the end it feels like three hours.

The story is long, convoluted and unbelievable. Norma Shearer plays Nina, pining for a lost, unrequited love who died in WWI. She has an odd relationship with her Sigmund Freud-like father, who exits the film quickly (I suspect his role was larger in the play version). She then ping pongs between Clark Gable as her doctor and lover, Alexander Kirkland as her long suffering husband and Ralph Morgan as a pathetic, lovelorn uncle type. The mechanics of the plot I'll leave to your imagination or, if you plan on watching the film, your discovery.

The original play's length was at least twice as long as the filmed version, a length which, I hope, allowed for more subtlety and complexity. When those essential elements are stripped away from Strange Interlude, what's left is sheer melodrama. Strange Interlude invokes madness and the prospect of more madness as an essential plot device. Given more space and attention, that device could have been more believable (as in Tennessee Williams' Suddenly, Last Summer). Here, it's just an absurdity piled on top of other absurdities.

Despite the fact that the film is pre-code, its reticence also harms it. The ad for the film claimed, "For the first time, you hear the hidden, unspoken thoughts of people!", but these thoughts are sanitized. In the play, Nina aborts the (perceived) mad child she had with her husband, but that act isn't mentioned here. The script for Strange Interlude was written by Bess Meredyth, who'd been writing movies since 1910. Meredyth worked on a lot of good movies, but MGM's Strange Interlude needed a more modern sensibility. (Groucho Marx had it, with writers George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind, making fun of Strange Interlude in their stage show and movie, Animal Crackers).

The makeup was also no help. As the characters age, Shearer looks beautiful, but poor Clark Gable looks like he walked out of a coal mine; his makeup is completely unconvincing. The best I can say of the many fine actors involved is they did the best they could with the script they were given. Young Robert Young has an especially thankless role, playing one of the most clueless and dense sons in film history.

Strange Interlude is available on Warner Brothers Archive DVD-R.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Remote Control (1930)

In just one scene, Cliff Edwards runs away with Remote Control, as a hog caller trying to get a radio gig. He's one of several character actors vying for the job, including Benny Rubin, Polly Moran (sadly underused here) and Roscoe Ates. William Haines is the radio producer they're auditioning for and the actics keep forcing him to break character and crack up.

The same vibe carries through the movie, a crime "drama" that's not really a drama. John Miljan (twelve feature film performances on the same year, 1930!) plays a gang leader providing coded gang info through his radio monologues as a psychic. Suspicious William Haines keeps getting in his way, until he's kidnapped by the gang...

If you like Haines' improvised and childish antics, you'll like Remote Control. Even those who dislike him may find themselves having a laugh or two at this slightly stagy, but fast paced diversion.

Mary Doran plays Haines' unlikely love interest. Charles King is her brother, but doesn't have much to do.

Remote Control was directed by at least three directors, none of whom are credited: Nick Grinde, Edward Sedgwick and Malcolm St. Clair. I'd love to know the story behind that.

Remote Control has been released on Warner Archives DVD-R.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Gabriel Over the White House (1933)

Gabriel Over the White House is not a great film. In many ways, it's not even a good film. It is, though, an astonishing document; even if you've read about it, you still have to see it to believe it exists. Based on a fantasy novel which takes place in the future year 1950, it's a no-holds-barred argument for American totalitarian fascism, as subversive and incendiary a movie as could have been created by Goebbels.

Financed and produced by William Randolph Hearst, Gabriel argues that the response to the Great Depression needed to be an president who would trample the Constitution and the democratic system, sieze power and declare martial law in order to "get things done". Hitler and Mussolini might have loved this movie and the fact that it was created and released indicates the desperate measures which did then need to be taken. It also captures a small time period (it was released after F.D.R. had won the presidential election, but before he'd taken office) in which it seems possible that America could have gone the way of Italy or Germany. A temporary dictatorship in America was an option some were arguing for and critics rightly saw Gabriel Over the White House as a piece of propaganda that could prepare mass audiences for acceptance of the idea. In this sense, the film is an invaluable document of the public mood.

Walter Huston plays the bachelor President. At first he's a do-nothing, party-loyal sleazebag, having an affair in the White House with Karen Morley and determined to do nothing for the country that departs from his (unspecified), commerce and industry-loyal party.

After crashing while recklessly driving at nearly 100 MPH, Huston comes to near death and it's here that the movie reaches another layer of misguided looniness. The movie implies that Huston becomes driven by Godly direction to use his powers for "good". The film's mixture of weird spirituality and dictatorship is startlingly reminiscent of Nazi ideology. At first, Huston implements F.D.R.-like New Deal work programs, rallying the unemployed former WWI soldiers on the White House lawn (instead of shooting at them, as President Hoover shamelessly directed the U.S. Army to do). But then...

I leave the rest of the plot for those who haven't seen the film. In fact, Gabriel becomes increasingly plotless as the film goes on (I'm not the only one who thinks this film similar to H.G. Wells' Things To Come in this respect). Instead of dramatizing plot twists, Gabriel merely shows them, one after another, like a pageantry. For a better film of the period, also starring Walter Huston, which deals with some of the same issues, see Frank Capra's American Madness (Columbia, 1932).

MGM head Louis B. Mayer was furious at the completion of the picture and made many cuts of scenes which were even stronger than the final result. He also had Karen Morley fall in love with Vice President Franchot Tone to draw attention away from her tawdry actions earlier in the picture.

Gabriel Over the White House stars an array of character actors including Dickie Moore, Samuel S. Hinds and an uncredited Mischa Auer.

Gabriel Over the White House has served as ruckmaking fodder for political strategists and commentators for decades, with figures from both sides claiming this movies reveals the true goals of the other side. Yawn.

Gabriel Over the White House is available on Warner Archives DVD-R.

Monday, June 3, 2013

The Voice of the City (1929)

The Voice of the City is a real oddity in the MGM library and not just because it's one of those examples of early sound film awkwardly negotiating the new technology. The Voice of the City was written and directed by Willard Mack, who also starred in it. This was a setup MGM heads Thalberg and Mayer rarely allowed. Mack is an interesting figure who was born in 1873, married fellow MGM actor Marjorie Rambeau in 1913, and died five years after this film was released. He also was an acting coach for then-chorus girl Barbara Stanwyck in the mid '20s, when she starred in his play, The Noose.

The Voice of the City is a crime drama with credible atmosphere and more humor (some unintentional) than was typical in films like this. Robert Ames, who also died a few years after this film was made, plays an escaped and innocent convict who attempts to hide out from the police long enough to leave town with his gal, Sylvia Field. John Miljan plays the oily crime boss who framed Ames. The cast is filled out with a drug-addicted friend, Clark Marshall, Duane Thompson as Ames' sister and Mack, the detective charged with hunting Ames down.

One would think The Voice of the City might be a waste of time. Some of the acting is sadly dated and many scenes are too stagy, with the barely moving actors surrounding the nearby microphone. As is also typical of the time, The Voice of the City has some amateurish editing, including a bizarre kiss that's looped three times!

Mack's film, however, holds up better than many later and more prestigious films for the sheer interest the characters and plot generates; you want to know what happens next. As  the film progresses, it also becomes less stagy and features an experimental interrogation scene that takes place in the dark.

The Voice of the City has been released on Warner Archives DVD-R.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Flesh (1932)

Wallace Beery plays a German beer garden wrestler and waiter in the oddly-named Flesh. Beery, childlike and naive, falls for a just-out-of-jail and penniless Karen Morley, who's also pregnant, though she keeps that fact to herself. Beery takes pity on her and gives her a place to stay. Flesh then becomes a sort of slow-burn cousin to The Blue Angel, as the smitten and child-like Beery is fooled, manipulated and swindled by both Morley and her lover posing as her brother (played by Ricardo Cortez), a slimy ex-con who doesn't treat Morley with any more respect than Beery.

Though uncredited (no director is listed in the credits), the great John Ford directed Flesh while on loan to MGM. Many Ford fans don't think much of Flesh and it's far from a masterpiece. It does keep the viewer interested in these characters all the way to the tragic end, though. Beery plays the part with such pathos and innocence it's hard to be unmoved by his predicament - his uncompromising stance when he's pressured to "fix' a fight also makes him endearing. (The awkward German accent, though, is a minus.) Morley's world weary criminal is just conflicted enough about her feelings and guilt to make her character stand out from the cinematic cliche. The role could have been one-dimensional.

Flesh also features character actors like Jean Hersholt, Ward Bond, Nat Pendleton and, for better or worse, the ubiquitous John Miljan.

Flesh is available on Warner Brothers DVD-R.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Son of India (1931)

Ramon Novarro plays another exotic lover in Jacques Feyder's Son of India. Through an arresting series of events, he becomes a ragged pauper, then a rich prince in Bombay. American tourist Madge Evans soon enters the picture and the movie becomes a tragic tale of love fighting against racial boundaries and prejudices. (Would the love story be transpiring if Novarro wasn't rich? I doubt it.)

Son of India features some impressive sets and action scenes; how often do you get to see Novarro buried alive in the same film as a rampaging elephant? The entire film held my interest, even when the romance became increasingly saccharine. Unlike many of her films, Madge Evans gets a more demanding role in this one.

Son of India is packed with the usual MGM character actors, including Marjorie Rambeau as a snobbish aunt, Conrad Nagel as Madge's sister, and C. Aubrey Smith and John Miljan in smaller roles. Ann Dvorak's even on the screen for a minute or two as a seductive dancer.

The movie ends far too quickly (not helped, when watching on Turner Classic Movies, by their loud and abrasive promo following). I'm surprised they didn't cut Novarro off in mid-sentence!

This was Feyder's last American film. Later in the '30s, in France, his movies laid the groundwork for the Poetic Realism film movement. His artistry was vivid, though, even in his American films.

Son of India isn't available on DVD.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Fast Life (1932)

Fast Life was, in several ways, the end of an era at MGM. It was the last film for stars William Haines, Conrad Nagel and Cliff Edwards as MGM contract actors. It's hard to believe Haines' films were no longer successful at the box office; Fast Life is indeed funny, exciting and fast.

Funny is in the ear and eye of the beholder. Haines is obnoxious as usual here, but Cliff Edwards as his pal Bumpy has some amusing lines and double-takes and a priceless sight gag with a mind reader. Though he didn't bring his ukelele, Edwards does do a little singing, one a soulful little number and also some scat joking; the guy had so much talent that anything he does is good and it's a shame MGM didn't star him in his own movies. The story of MGM is the story of many vastly wasted talents.

The story here is slight but servicable: Haines has invented a revolutionary new motor (right!) and meets cute with Madge Evans (a thankless role), whose father happens to be in the boat business and eager to win a Catalina speedboat race. The absurdity of early '30s MGM film scenario writers knew no bounds.

Conrad Nagel untypically plays the baddie here, a stiff, humorless jerk so unlikeable that Haines looks appealing in comparison. All ends well.

Fast Life has been released on Warner Archives DVD-R.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Eskimo (1933)

Like director W.S. Van Dyke's earlier White Shadows in the South Seas (1928) and Trader Horn (1931), Eskimo was another ambitious, expensive adventure filmed in a then-exotic local (Alaska) and again used many natives, this time Inuits speaking in their own tongue. The film also incorporates some amazing documentary footage of hunts for caribou, walrus and whales.

The film tells the story of Mala (played by Ray Wise, later Ray Mala), his family life, the daily fight for survival and his tragic dealings with the encroaching white culture. Though the movie threatens at times to sink under the weight of melodrama, and though the action sequences are riddled with ludicrous rear projection shots, the story is completely engaging. Its nearly two-hour running length goes by quickly.

I'll forgo the plot details and allow the film to surprise new viewers. Eskimo deals frankly with race relations (the most malicious character in the film is European) and the sexual mores of the Inuit (the film was tellingly distributed under the title Eskimo Wife-Traders). This is also definitely not a movie in which one can say no animals were harmed during the making. A ferocious fight to the death between a human and a wolf ends with the wolf getting its head smashed in with a rock! I was surprised at Turner Classic Movies' "G" rating for this one.

Director W.S. Van Dyke plays a Canadian official, while Peter Freuchen, who wrote the two books Eskimo was loosely based on, plays the aforementioned evil ship captain. Eskimo begins with a title card claiming that the only actors were those playing the Canadian parts, but that's untrue. Ray Wise was a cameraman and actor and the three female leads were Asian actors.

Eskimo hasn't been released on DVD.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Navy Blues (1929)

William Haines' Navy Blues was his first talking role and every rambunctious/obnoxious, sly and crazy characteristic suppressed in his earlier films due to lack of sound is here let loose in all its anarchic glory. Haines-haters beware! 

Navy Blues was directed, uncharacteristically, by Clarence Brown. The plot is simple: while on shore leave, Haines falls for innocent Anita Page and courts her (stalks might be the more appropriate word), much to the consternation of Page's mother, Edythe Chapman, though not her father, J.C. Nugent, a beat-upon, forlorn fellow who also used to be a Navy man. 

Page soon leaves home with Haines and wants to marry, but Haines isn't ready for that sort of commitment. In typical fashion for MGM films at the time, the next time Haines returns to town, Page has, out of some sort of twisted sorrow and pride, become a near-prostitute. This plot twist rings totally false in the film; it isn't true to Page's character or to the tone of the rest of the film. This is a William Haines comedy, after all, not Eugene O'Neill! There's, at least, a somewhat happy ending to the film.

Cliff Edwards and his ukelele are missed (by me) in this movie. The void is occupied by fellow seaman Karl Dane, playing the kind of one-note character that ruined his career; so much talent was suppressed, wasted and undiscovered at MGM at the time.

If you like Haines' brand of comedy or want to see the uninhibited spirit of an Adam Sandler, Jim Carrey or Jonathan Winters in full bloom in an early talkie, watch Navy Blues. Movies like this one and Haines' next film, the mini-masterpiece The Girl Said No, are practically urtexts for comedy styles practiced at the end of the century.

Navy Blues is available in a good print on Warner Archives DVD-R and has been broadcast on Turner Classic Movies.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Freaks (1932)

"We accept her! We accept her! One of us! One of us! Gooble-gobble, gooble-gobble!"

Once you've heard this chanted by a tableful of "freaks" in Tod Browning's Freaks, it, like many of the images in the film, will be seared into your brain forever. The chant would be vaguely disturbing even if it were sincere, but is doubly so since the person they are singing it to is a circus performer who looks upon the freaks with undisguised contempt.

Browning, who had had such success with similar sordid subject matter in his films with Lon Chaney, set Freaks in a circus sideshow quite like the kind Browning worked in in his youth. Though the film stars typical dependable MGM performers like Leila Hyams and Wallace Ford, the real stars of the film are real side-show performers, the freaks of the title, most of whom lived their lives in circuses quite like this one. In Freaks, the physically distorted are the "heroes"; the villains of the film are "normal" people.

Though it was little-seen in the immediate decades after its initial release, Browning's twisted circus sideshow fable has had such an influence since that it seems downright prototypical. From Stephen King novels to Tales From the Crypt, from David Lynch's The Elephant Man to EC Comics, those images from Freaks have seared the brain of many a creator.

Freaks is the sort of unytpical MGM film which only could have been made while Irving Thalberg was in charge. No later moguls at the company would have had the reckless audacity or inclination to engineer such a film. Not to say Freaks was accepted during its time; the film was so disturbing to MGM brass, test audiences and exhibitors that it was quickly cut by 25 minutes and then taken off the market altogether. Browning's career never really recovered.

Even with much of the most outrageous material cut from the film, its not surprising MGM got cold feet. The EC-like revenge plot is still lucidly told, even with an outageously "happy" ending shot last minute and tagged on.

Freaks is available on DVD.

Friday, February 1, 2013

The Great Meadow (1931)

The Great Meadow is based on the novel by Elizabeth Madox Roberts which had recently been published. In it, a group of 1777 Virginians decide to start a new life in Kentucky after hearing an inspirational talk by Daniel Boone. The film follows the settlers as they make their arduous trek and start a new life in trecherous surroundings.

Even taking into account the film's faults (most of which were endemic to nearly all early sound films), The Great Meadow, directed by Charles Brabin, is a different sort of "western" picture. The focus is on the common people and their physical and emotional hardships. Silent star Eleanor Boardman, who would appear in sound films for just a few more years, is sympathetic as the lead, who leaves her family behind to marry and begin a tenuous new life. Johnny Mack Brown's one-note performance isn't as convincing, but is adequate.

The Great Meadow benefits from a nearly non-existent film score. It, like MGM's Billy the Kid, was originally shot in a widescreen process, though it's impossible to tell from the 35mm print shown now; no shots seem cropped or scanned. IMDB states the film was shot in a process called Grandeur, while the in70mm website lists The Great Meadow as having been shot in Realife.

Warning: The Great Meadow has a jaw-droppingly sudden ending which may lead you to believe the cameraman simply ran out of film then and there.

The Great Meadow isn't available on DVD, but has been broadcast on Turner Classic Movies.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Reel Old Films

If you're looking for a new resource for old, hard-to-find films, you may want to check out Reel Old Films, which is now listing hundreds of films of all genres:

Monday, January 21, 2013

The Woman Racket (1930)

Blanche Sweet had an extraordinary career in Hollywood. Largely known as one of D.W. Griffith's acting troupe, Sweet first appeared in a 1909 Edison short and last appeared in an episode of Dobie Gillis.

Here she appears in one of the three films she made in 1930 before she left the film industry for decades. Based on her acting in this film, she could easily have had a career had she stayed. She has an assured voice and manner.

In The Woman Racket she's a singer in a prohibition-era nightclub. During a raid, a kindly policeman (Tom Moore) allows her to escape, begins dating her and eventually marries her. She's soon bored with domestic chores, though and the excitement of the nightclub life begins calling to her... Sweet is sweet in this role and her singing is nice, too.

Tom Moore (whose career began at roughly the same time as Sweet's, 1908) gets a drubbing on IMDB for his acting, but I thought he was fine, likable and believable in the role of a patient, loving and abandoned husband. Bringing more life to the melodrama are Robert Agnew and Sally Starr, two innocent singers in the nightclub caught up in the villain's machinations. The uncredited songs used in the film, while not great, have that wonderful early '30s vibrancy and joy, this being the sweet spot of MGM musical accompaniment. It was only the villain, John Miljan, that I found less than believable. Miljan never played roles of great depth (that I've seen), but this dastardly role seemed particularly one-note, stiff and stereotypical.

Give The Woman Racket a try if you're in the mood for an average, pleasant, tuneful 1930 melodrama.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

New to DVD: Salute to the Marines (1943) and Music for Millions (1944)

Salute to the Marines, starring Wallace Beery in Technicolor and Margaret O'Brien and Jimmy Durante in Music for Millions are being released to DVD-R for the first, by Warner Archives.

Check the Warner Archives site for details:

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Laughing Boy (1934)

Laughing Boy, based on the Pulitzer prize winning novel by Oliver La Farge, could have been a good film. The story - of a Navajo, Ramon Novarro, who marries a fellow Navajo educated by whites and torn between two cultures - is a fascinating one and it's unique in its complete sympathy with the Navajo; there's not a good white person portrayed in the film.

Sadly, though, Laughing Boy is a mess. Ramon Novarro is seriously miscast in the lead role. With his Prince Valiant-like haircut and too much makeup, he looks ridiculous. Also ridiculous are the anachronistic songs he's made to sing (or lip-synch), which made me wonder if Jeanette MacDonald was going to glide onstage and join in. Fellow Mexican actor Lupe Vélez fares somewhat better as Laughing Boy's prostituting wife, but exotic doesn't equal authentic.

The movie, directed by W.S. Van Dyke, was partly shot on location with real Native Americans (some of the location footage may be left over from Universal's earlier attempt to film the novel). When mixed with particularly bad rear-projection scenes, cheap looking sets and MGM actors dressed like Navajo, the result is worse than jarring. It's absurd and takes you right out of the picture.

Laughing Boy's fate worsened when the Hays Office demanded cuts which almost make the film nonsensible. Due to fear of controversy, MGM didn't promote the film and it lost money - continuing a pattern for Novarro's films which culminated in MGM not renewing his contract in 1935. Laughing Boy was Novarro's least favorite film of the ones he appeared in. Andre Soares, in his book on Novarro, Beyond Paradise, reports that novelist Oliver La Farge splashed a drink in the face of the screenwriter of Laughing Boy after the release of the film; the ultimate commentary on the film.

Laughing Boy is not available on DVD, but has been broadcast on Turner Classic Movies.