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.