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.