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.