Friday, May 14, 2021

GLORIFYING THE AMERICAN GIRL (John W. Harkrider & Millard Webb, 1929)

 

More like Objectifying the American Girl, this early “100% all talking” musical is mostly a static documentary of vaudeville and the Ziegfeld Follies interlaced with a boorish melodrama whose resolution makes no dramatic sense. It’s interesting as a time capsule as it captures some great performances and lavish musical numbers in two-strip technicolor without utilizing standard editing or camera techniques: we see some long-shots of the live performances without quick-editing or cuts to close-up.

The story concerns Gloria’s quest for stardom, urged on by her passive-aggressive mother at the expense of her sweetheart Buddy and their gal-pal Barbara. As Gloria prostitutes her talent to the vaudevillian villain Danny who paws and gropes his way closer to her breast, she is discovered by a talent scout for Ziegfeld and it’s back to the Big Apple...with the worm Danny signed to 50% profit sharing. The acting is sub-par and more expressive of the Silent era from which the format has just begun to emerge and the narrative trite and juvenile. Of course Gloria gets glorified and Barbara gets concussed but it’s all a happy ending (I guess) as it resolves suddenly and without a coda. As the film dances towards its curtain call, Barbara is run over by a taxi when abandoned by Buddy (wow, what a buddy, right?) at the train station when Gloria arrives back in town. She’s on her deathbed one moment asking for Buddy and the next they’re married, Gloria is pirouetting and prancing on the stage in goofy gowns, and the final curtain drops and exclaims its final credit. How did Barbara recover so quickly? Is she brain damaged? Will Gloria be stuck with the patronizing Danny? Was the performance a hit? Who the fuck knows and the film could care less, I suppose.

What makes the film most interesting is in the style and skill of the performances. Mary Eaton as Gloria actually tap dances and ballets like a professional and she has the thighs to prove it! Her leg strength is incredible and obvious as she dances mostly in short skimpy outfits. The final stage performances are endowed with well endowed women and men who revel all natural. Fig leaves, feathers and butterfly wings are Technicolor ingredients for this promiscuous potpourri panoply. Throw in some slapstick theater and some musical interludes and one has a movie! We also get a few swear words as mother damns her glasses and the vaudeville actors get to damn their stooge. All in all, a mostly fun romp back into 1929 that’s worth your time especially if you can see the color print on a big screen.

Final Grade: (C) 

Friday, May 7, 2021

SHE HAD TO SAY YES (Busby Berkeley & George Amy, 1933)

 

Flo may be chaste but is chastised and subjugated by every man involved in her life. This is Busby Berkeley’s directorial debut but this isn’t a musical as his fingerprints (or footprints, know what I mean?) are all over this one! But this may be the most patronizing and demeaning Pre-Code contrivance as the title implies. The resolution should leave you angry and spiteful and realize it ain’t no happy ending.

Flo is dating her boss Tommy who is a manager in a clothing company. Their secretive rendezvous in an “out of order” phone booth in the first scene tells much without needing dialogue. To boost sales, Tommy convinces the secretary staff to prostitute themselves to visiting businessman so the company can close the deals (but the women can’t close their legs). Of course, Flo volunteers so Tommy can get credit for the transaction, so to speak. The story devolves into cheating and jealousy and Flo, who remains a paragon of virtue throughout the story, is treated like garbage. Every man in this film is an entitled asshole. Even her initial love interest Tommy has the charm of a department store mannequin and just as many facial expressions. Danny is the businessman who paws and gropes his way to her heart (by way of her breasts) and is both protector of her “property”...and master. It’s disgusting. Yet Loretta Young as Flo is adorable, sympathetic and independent, a spitfire who puts each man in their place until surrendering at the very end: the tone of her voice implies protest, at least.

Busby Berkeley’s direction is wonderful. The opening montage is choreographed like one of his musical numbers as the sewing machines, costume designs and leggy models move in syncopation with the score. It’s very cool and a great opening! A few other scenes surprise too. When the secretaries decide to participate in the extra-credit, Berkeley takes his camera into the office and we see the women sitting on their desks, legs crossed, skirts short! Another scene shows a secretary being introduced by her derriere. Strangely, Berkeley crosses-the-axis in a rather mundane scene with Tommy standing over Flo as she is filing something away and is crouched low. We see them speaking in medium shot then he cuts 180 degrees and it’s jarring for no apparent reason. I’m surprised it got past the editor (who was also co-director!). Then he films a low-angle scene as Loretta Young remains seated and her big boss speaks with her: the angle captures her exposed legs and delicate form yet the person speaking has his head cut-off out of frame! I really loved much of the style of this film and it’s refreshing to see some artistry and not just mere competence. It’s the film’s morality that I despise.

The final scene as Tommy and Dan brawl over their perception of Flo’s goodwill is enraging. Both men are complete fucking jerks. When Dan apologizes (moments after attempting to Rape her...again) she grudgingly acquiesces to his embrace. I see Flo as having very few options and in her acceptance of Dan’s love she actually says “I suppose it’s the lesser of two evils”. I hope this film was meant as a bitter and caustic view on the contemporary Depression-era patriarchal mentality but it also objectifies every women. The schizophrenic nature leads to a possible reading either way but, because of Flo’s last words, I interpret this as a tragedy.

Final Grade: (B)

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

SHANGHAI EXPRESS (Josef von Sternberg, 1932)

 

Madeline may earn her cognomen but retains her fierce independence while Doc needs a prescription for his soulless lack of faith in her...and himself. Josef von Sternberg’s film worships at the alter of Marlene Dietrich, every composition by the legendary DPs Lee Garmes and James Wong Howe a masterclass in lighting her vivacious visage obscured by ghostly cigarette smoke and cloaked in shadow. Dietrich is often detached from the claustrophobic background in close-up as the camera (and viewer) adores her very essence, seeking her inner thoughts projected in her sultry gaze. Oh, and there is a story bout a train being hijacked and people taken prisoner on the way to Shanghai.

The story is dominated by von Sternberg’s direction and framing of every scene, the Form itself is greater than the tale he tells. His use of slow dissolve transitions as one scene doesn’t just establish time and place but actually becomes the next place, like a ghostly after-image. It’s an uncommon editing technique for it’s time and again, draws our attention to the physical Form of the medium as if we’re examining a museum painting of our lovely heroines. Madeline is know by her sobriquet Shanghai Lilly and rekindles her acquaintance with Doc who, by chance, is on the same train from Peking to the titular destination. Once lovers, he left her five years before and still carries her image in his wristwatch and she still carries his flame in her heart. But social hierarchies (he’s a Captain in the British Army and she’s a prostitute) are not healthy for such an amoral relationship. There is a Civil War raging in China and the train is stopped by the rebels who take Doc hostage. The boss is going to burn out Doc's eyes but Madeline trades her body for his eyesight by deciding to accompany the rebel leader to his palace. Anna May Wong as her cohort Hui Fei (I would argue even more beautiful than Dietrich!) stabs the rebel leader to death and they all escape back to Shanghai. And here’s the suspense as Madeline doesn’t tell Doc about her sacrifice; she leaves it as a matter of his faith in her. But he can’t seem to get over his jealousy, patriarchal conceit and rigid assumptions about his one-time lover and all seems to be lost. The film empowers Dietrich because she doesn’t beg for a forgiveness that isn’t needed, and she doesn’t tell Doc her secret: the moral conundrum is his, not hers.

Final Grade: (B+)

Saturday, April 24, 2021

PLATINUM BLONDE (Frank Capra, 1931)

 

Stew stews about becoming a Cinderella Man to his high-society wife though he attempts to maintain his job and working-class dignity. Frank Capra depicts two disparate lovers and their class consciousness and examines the great divide between them. The story may take the side of the blue-collar workers but not totally at the expense of the stuffy hierarchy. Capra depicts flaws in both social strata and doesn’t condemn Ann Schuyler (Stew’s wife); in fact, Ann is quite lovely and adorable but their differences seem to be embedded in their social DNA.

Stew (Robert Williams) is an Ace reporter smart guy who pals around with his sidekick Gallagher (a beautiful and winsome Loretta Young) but doesn’t see her as a love interest, merely just “one of the guys”. This requires the audience to use all of their willpower to suspend disbelief! When reporting a story on the Schuyler family he falls in love with Ann (a platinum haired Jean Harlow). They elope and the story becomes a battle of willpower between Stew, who wants them to live on his salary and in his apartment, and Ann (and extended family) who wants them to move into the West Wing of the estate. There is such a cute scene between Stew and Ann as they sit on a bed and sing a childish rhyme to each other, Ann kissing him on the nose, that it’s impossible to condemn either character as wrongheaded: they are just unable to change into something they are not. Jean Harlow is wonderful as the wealthy daughter and many reviews believe she was miscast. I disagree; she is more like the black-sheep of the family and not totally reflective of all the pomp, circumstance and histrionics of her mother. We can see the woman under the veneer of aristocracy that Stew falls in love with. This makes the dissolution of their marriage more heartrending as the potential is wasted because they are both stubborn. Stew is a wiseacre ready with a comeback either verbally or with fisticuffs! Loretta Young’s role is third in the triptych of stars but no less endearing.

There are quite a few wonderful moments such as Stew’s going all Edvard Munch in his wing of the mansion, his scream echoed back to him like a ghostly accusation. He gets the Butler in on the act too. When Stew asks the Butler (Halliwell Hobbes) what he does in his spare time we get a detailed explanation and performance of “puttering” and it’s magnificent. Then there’s the Ball which is contrasted with Stew’s cohort’s drunken revelry and both have a dramatic fallout. There’s a great scene at the Ball when Gallagher and Stew are talking in the garden and Ann watches from above: DP Joseph Walker frames it in an extreme low-angle shot giving Ann the high ground while the two “friends” are mired in lowly shadows. Stew approaches Ann and they both loom over poor Gallagher as if she’s the one who is morally inappropriate. Then the final act turns all meta as the play Stew is writing becomes the very film we are watching! Robert Williams is able to subtly express his realization that he does indeed love Gallagher, that he has always loved her but was blinded by platinum tresses, and the final embrace is achingly beautiful.

Final Grade: (B)

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

UP THE RIVER (John Ford, 1930)

 

Saint Louis and his dimwitted pal Dan are sent up the river but they both know how to swim against the current! This early John Ford talky is a bit rough around the edges (like our protagonists) as he hasn’t perfected his signature style though this claustrophobic prison drama doesn’t allow extreme long shots and lonely men on horseback. But here in this embryonic state is Ford’s allegiance to group strength as three men and a woman must stick together (even when apart!) to foil a shyster’s scheme and allow the bells of Holy Matrimony to ring freely. Ford must have filmed this quickly because he uses a take with a flubbed line and one where an actor drops a prop...but prints it! For me, it adds to the realism of the film. DP Joseph August’s compositions are mostly static and anchored by the limitations of early sound recording yet it frames the narrative with workmanlike skill. The extant print that’s available on DVD is full of stutters and missing frames yet this doesn’t detract much from the sheer enjoyment of seeing both Spencer Tracy and Humphrey Bogart together!

Ford mixes a prison melodrama with vaudeville comedy: this is no message movie about the evils of sin or poor conditions for inmates. This concerns unconditional friendship among men and the lengths they take to help one-another even at great risk to their own self-interests. Briefly, Saint Louis and Moron Dan escape from one prison, end up in another with Steve. Judy is doing time in the women’s annex and falls in love with Steve. When he’s paroled Judy’s crime-boss blackmails Steve and rips-off his well-to-do family while he’s waiting for her sentence to expire. Of course Saint Louis and his pal must protect Steve from his murderous vengeance and bring the lovebirds together while keeping their secret from the gossiping galutes of tiny town: but they have to escape from prison first!

The opening act is hilarious as Saint Louise and Dan escape from a prison into a waiting car. When Dan is convinced to check for a flat tire his buddy drives away! We then cut to Dan marching in a religious rally with women trumpeting their lord and savior on crowded city streets. Dan speaks like a big palooka with his slow drawl, promising an end to sinful ways because crime just doesn’t pay. At that moment his ex-cohort Saint Louis drives up in a big shinning new car with three beautiful women hanging all over him! Ha! But the jokes on both of them as Dan punches his buddy on the chin and they both end up back in prison together. The comic timing here is just right and the editing perfect. Another highlight (which unfortunately has a low-light too) is the second escape that leads to the final act: the prison is having its yearly talent show (WTF?) and our incarcerated heroes use this as cover to escape so they can save Steve and Judy’s blossoming relationship. They dress in drag and while the final encore is staged they hit the lights and scurry away with the Church ladies who were invited by the Warden. Ford’s expert handling of a large crowd in framing and editing builds suspense as we know they’re going to attempt an escape but unsure how. And another WTF: the Warden's little girl just wanders the prison like a playground with little supervision. The low-light of the prison performance is a blackface minstrel show straight from vaudeville stage to our film: it was racist then and it’s racist now.

Finally Saint Louise and Dan end up back in stir but just in time for the big baseball game versus a rival prison. The Looney Tune shenanigans are riotous as Pop just wants to win one penitentiary pennant before he expires to the Big House in the sky (hopefully!). The film ends with our mugs arriving just in time and fades out without a final score. But we know the score for our quartet of quarantined compatriots!

Final Grade: (B-)

Friday, April 16, 2021

NO MAN OF HER OWN (Wesley Ruggles, 1932)

 

Connie Randall’s book-smarts clash with Jerry Stewart’s crook-smarts in this delightful drama that doesn’t despoil the heroine and allows the roguish anti-hero to earn his final chance. Wesley Ruggle’s direction is top-notch and Leo Tover’s photography frames the characters in interesting compositions: from the opening crane shot in an apartment which slowly advances to a medium close-up of the flirty Dorothy Mackaill, to the extreme high-angle shots of the library as Carole Lombard stalks her prey Clarke Gable (or is it vice versa?) It has a neat opening credit sequence: the main characters are superimposed on playing cards as the film begins with a seemingly innocuous poker game but which is quickly revealed to be the grift that Jerry runs.

Clark Gable as the aforementioned scoundrel Jerry “Babe” Stewart is a walking one-night stand; women just always say yes to his tawdry advances. Until chance takes him to small town Glendale where he meets small town yet large minded librarian Connie Randall (Carole Lombard). She’s no pushover though she’s smitten with his good looks and charm. The love story is about chance and fortune (both good and bad) and embracing opportunity when it arrives. Stewart lives by a coin-flip yet his grift is the illusion of chance in the rigged poker games. What’s refreshing in this romance is that Connie is genuinely a good woman who wants her husband Stewart (decided by a coin flip!) to become a better man: she sees beneath his faux persona and encourages the honest and hard working spirit that remains occluded to himself. The spark between the lovers (thus the actors) jolts the film with energy yet isn’t overcooked. Connie never threatens her husband to change and he never encourages her to become part of his criminal activities. We want them to remain together though the story continues to pull them apart. Will random chance once again be on their side?

There are some great Pre-Code moments. Carole Lombard on a step-ladder as we see a slender bare calf extended like an erection from low-angle as Gable amusingly ogles her gams, Lombard naked in the shower as she laughs and squirms while Gable (now hubby) intrudes (we actually see her breast and nipple, how Pre-Code!). To be fair, we get a naked Clark Gable in the shower and see both his nipples! Lombard also undresses to her undergarments and wears a see-through dress leaving very little to our wicked imagination. It’s just so wonderful to see characters behave so naturally and without self-conscious shame in a movie!

Jerry Stewart’s final scam is one of good intentions as he turns himself in for a 90 day stretch but convinces Connie he’s actually in South America for a poker game. But she’s just too fucking smart and the joke is on him! As the film fades out with his incessant chattering about the trip Connie looks on lovingly as she knows the truth. Sometime, the road to bliss IS paved with good intentions.

Final Grade: (B+)

Saturday, April 10, 2021

MAN OF THE WORLD (Richard Wallace, 1931)

 

Michael Trevor is an American expatriate in France who blackmails vacationing compatriots by threatening to reveal their sexual indiscretions and publishing them in his weekly tabloid. This sordid story and script is written by the legendary Herman J. Mankiewicz and delves deep into Michael’s shame and guilt, as he struggles against his past deeds and wonders if he deserves a shot at a decent future. Michael is a man whose conscience has been submerged in self-loathing and anger until resuscitated by the lovely Mary Kendall. William Powell’s performance is truly wonderful as he imbues Michael with class and charm even as he’s earning his Devil’s pay; the good man is always apparent just under the surface and we see him come up for air as the story progresses. Mankiewicz refuses to give us a typical ending of redemption and instead punches us in the gut. It surprised me and I fucking loved it.

Michael is living in Paris under an assumed name (which is never revealed) because of some “incident’ (facts never disclosed) as a reporter for an American newspaper. His cover is that of novelist but his job one of deceit and manipulation. He and his two cohorts publish a weekly rag that prints all of the sexual exploits of wealthy Americans unless they pay him NOT to print: it’s quite lucrative. As he’s fleecing one Harry Taylor (Guy Kibee) in the kindest way he meets the niece Mary Kendall (Carole Lombard) and it’s love at first blush. The story then focuses upon their blossoming relationship as she is engaged to a puerile young man and he’s attached to Irene a jaded and streetwise femme (not quite fatale). It’s atypical in that the story refuses to condemn or lay fault at the feet of any character other than Michael: it’s a wonderful self-own! Even Irene balances precariously on the edge of the fault line but she only makes clear what love has occluded in her former beau. She is cruel to be kind. Michael spills his guts to Mary yet seems to hold back, hedging his moral bets by leaving some details unsaid even as she proclaims that the past is the past. But dead deeds sometimes come back to haunt.

The film ends upon two separate ships steaming towards disparate ports: Mary back with her juvenile partner and Michael discarding his latest proceeds into the vast ocean with Irene at his side. Michael has earned his future and now accepts it and has shown integrity into not sullying the innocent Mary into his nefarious nightlife. It’s a real downer but feels genuine.

Final Grade: (B)

Wednesday, April 7, 2021

FAST AND LOOSE (Fred C. Newmeyer, 1930)

 

Marion Lennox is due for her own Great Depression as she crashes from one Rocky relationship into another. The film’s fault is in its Victorian morality, a story that must have seemed misogynist in 1930 and hasn’t aged well since.

Marion and Bertie are wealthy siblings who rage against their status quo: both wish to marry for love but are not prepared for the responsibility. Marion upsets her parents by breaking off her engagement with Lord Rockingham (jokingly referred to as Rocky) when she falls in love with Henry a lowly mechanic. Bertie is in love with Alice an even more loathsome Chorus Girl and scene by scene he drinks his way to bliss. Hell, the movie begins with a medium shot of Bertie laying on the sofa, the camera angle behind and above his head as he guzzles whiskey from a flask! It’s a cool opening shot. Through good intentions that pave the film’s moral road, their father and uncle pretend to be talent scouts/agents to meet this gold-digging dancer and pay her off. Turns out, Alice is a decent girl. It all ends up as it should through trickery and deceit. The story wants to make a point that Alice and Henry are decent working-class people who have more integrity than the spoiled and selfish siblings but it relies on damning patriarchal empowerment, that both can be made better by adhering to rigid social mores. Marion will be made the “good wife” who will emotionally support her man as he makes his way in this cold hard world without the help of her wealthy father. Bertie will be forced to perform in the role of husband with Alice submissive at his side for better or worse. Just let 'em sit in prison for a night. This isn’t marriage it’s a forced-labor camp! Though Bertie bests his sister’s future as he gets the power and Carole Lombard at his beck and call. Marion lusts after Henry’s good looks but she’s too intelligent and independent to play housewife for a crude and shallow man: it’s to Miriam Hopkins’ credit that she just isn’t believable as a dumb girl. Frank Morgan as their father is wonderful as he engages with his children as equals and obviously loves them very much. He’s judgmental yet reasonably swayed when considering the facts and feelings of his children. His wife’s awful histrionics are more irritating the endearing. Alice’s roommate Millie (Ilka Chase) is full of sexual energy and practically assaults the uncle during the dinner party. It’s funny because it’s so outrageous and the film would have ended on a slightly better note if she would have made the uncle submit to marriage on her own terms! Alas, this story is about everything but female empowerment.

FAST AND LOOSE is more slow and tight and it’s uncomfortable to see an intelligent woman belittled because of her gender. Both Miriam Hopkins and Carol Lombard deserved better scripts.

Final Grade: (D)

Friday, April 2, 2021

THE KISS BEFORE THE MIRROR (James Whale, 1933)

 

Paul sees through a glass darkly, his impotence mirrored by the jealous and vengeful man whose very life he must defend in court. Director James Whale and DP Karl Freund are able to transform a somewhat cliched premise of cheating wives into a tale of emotional doppelgangers and refracted intentions, skewed by Dutch angles and doubled (and tripled) reflections. The sound design is wonderful too.

The first act surprises as we see a woman drift ghost-like into a beautiful home, her black dress and veil like funeral attire foreshadowing her fate. A handsome man embraces her and we quickly learn that this is her lover, fearful that her husband suspects their affair. But soon their passion swells towards the bedroom as another figure appears as a shadow, stalking towards the house. We see the woman begin to undress in silhouette as this stranger clutches a revolver and fires three fatal shots through the glass door: one shot drops her to the floor while two more complete the Actus Reus. Walter has just murdered his wife Lucy in a fit of meretricious matrimony.

Paul Held is a well-renowned Defense attorney and personal friend of Walter and makes his own vow to save Walter’s life. As Paul learns more about his friend’s Mens Rea he begins to see Walter’s fears and concerns about Lucy mirrored in his own relationship with his younger wife. This doubling affect is soon proven beyond a reasonable doubt as Paul witnesses his wife Maria perform before her mirror as if possessed by Lucy’s cruel intent: she powders her nose, plucks her eyebrows, darkens her lashes and puckers her full lips under the guise of a date with her Bridge Club but now Paul’s suspicions are aroused. He follows her and of course, she’s having an affair. And this is why I fucking love crazy Pre-Code films so much: his plan is to murder his wife after winning the acquittal of his friend and use the same defense to spare himself! That is a rather obtuse legal and moral justification yet keeps us riveted to the closing argument. We see Maria wiggle and squirm as Paul proclaims his clients innocence based upon his deceased wife’s betrayal, that his passion was overwhelming; damn, Paul actually says that Walter just loved her so much he HAD to kill her! Sounds like domestic violence to me. This is a story about Patriarchal authority in marriage and its absolute Right to own not only the body of their partner but their very life.

James Whale contrasts the two cheating wives with Hilda, an unmarried rather plain looking attorney who works with Paul. Hilda is a voice of reason offering an objective feminist perspective to her cuckolded cohort. But this disparity isn’t explored in depth and she remains on the periphery of the melodrama. Paul indeed wins the acquittal of his friend and when he’s about to deliver his own violent penalty to his wife, Maria admits her wrongdoing thus saving herself. Damn, the men never even consider their part in the infidelity, consider their own actions (or lack thereof) that pushed their spouses away, but only excrete their own toxic masculinity. Which may be Whale’s point, I suspect.

Now Paul wanders home, revolver in pocket, and looks hard at himself in the mirror. Another Pre-Code suicide? No. He grips the weapon and throws it, shattering the mirror. Freund captures the last scene in a visual reverse as Maria appears behind Paul as their relationship ends in a cracked and fractured verdict.


Final Grade: (B+)

Saturday, March 27, 2021

THE BIG HOUSE (George Hill, 1930)


A triptych of disparate desperadoes trapped behind concrete and  steel stage their own desperate denouement. In other words, three convicts try to survive incarceration but decide life is better on the other side of the steel bars. George Miller’s direction evokes Neo-Realism before the genre existed as his camera seems embedded in the grimy life of the prisoners, capturing the large jail-yard crowds and dinner halls, men who are forced to march, eat and sleep in a strange asynchronous spin and orbit at the mercy of the mystical Celestial body known as the Criminal Justice System. This is no costume drama unless you consider the costumes gray fatigues caked with filth and desperation with a knife or Tommy Gun to accessorize. 

Kent (Robert Montgomery) is a young man just oozing innocence and goodness yet he’s not innocent, he’s guilty of a drunken homicide by vehicle on New Years Eve. The film starts with Kent being brought to prison in his suite and tie then undressed and transformed from a human being into a number stitched on his uniform. This na├»ve young man is assigned to a cell with two of the toughest inmates: Butch (Wallace Beery) and Morgan (Chester Morris). Kent’s mannered appearance and lithe build is immediately contrasted with Butch’s pugnacious attitude and bulldog visage: he’s like a violent baby. But Morgan is the one to truly fear as he’s intelligent, good looking, street-wise and manipulative. He talks Butch into giving Kent back his cigarettes after Butch knocks the newcomer out just so he can slyly pickpocket them for himself. The film merely mentions Kent’s punishment but this film isn’t about how unfair it is or the way he’s treated: it accepts these facts at face value as the drama unfolds. Kent is scared shitless and Robert Montgomery does an excellent job of conveying this tension through body language and expression: he just never quite fits in. Soon the dull routine sets into our characters like a slow-growing cancer causing them to die just a little bit every day. 

Butch is eventually sent to Solitary after inciting a riot over the awful food and Morgan gets notice of an early parole. Kent however, secrets Butch’s knife in Morgan’s suitcase so now Morgan’s freedom is denied and he’s sent to the Hole vowing revenge upon the waifish rookie. Morgan escapes prison by hiding in the prison’s Hearse and he tracks down Kent’s sister to exact his promised vengeance. But Anne recognizes him yet feels sorry for Morgan and drops her guard. The two settle into a relationship as he continues to hide from Police and they begin to fall in love. Once captured, Morgan is brought back to his old haunt just in time for the jailbreak….and what a jailbreak! Butch’s terrible plan quickly devolves into a massacre of machine-gun fire, teargas and tanks FUCKING TANKS! bashing their way through locked steel doors. It’s chaos as Kent is the stoolie who squawked to the Warden so his life expectancy is severely limited but Morgan wants to keep him alive because he loves his sister and understands Kent got a raw deal to begin with. Butch thinks Morgan squealed so guards are murdered, inmates shot down like animals and the two cellmates engage in their own gunfight amidst the fog of war. And poor Kent panics and runs from hiding only to be shot down like a dog. 

The script is solid as it doesn’t become too talky and allows the actors space to express themselves non-verbally. Wallace Beery gets to spout most of the inane language but it fits his illiterate and uneducated character and he is able to believably veer from homicidal aggression to infantile suppliance. Morgan and Kent are characters without sharp corners (though Morgan was convicted of Robbery) so Morgan’s happy ending seems well-deserved. The Art Deco design of the prison is like something from a Fritz Lang silent film and the photography at times echoes that German Expressionist exemplar. THE BIG HOUSE resolves it’s overpopulation problem with mayhem and murder but at least Morgan and Ann have a future together. Maybe they’ll name their first child Kent. 

Final Grade: (B) 

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

THE SHADOW OF THE CAT (John Gilling, 1961)

 


Tabitha the tabby cat casts a guilty shadow over those responsible for the cruel murder of her mistress, once upon a midnight dreary. John Gilling’s deft direction coupled with DP Arthur Grant’s beautiful B&W photography with often skewed perspectives elevates this mundanity slightly above its core camp value and outright hokeyness. The characters often overact to achieve some sense of terror concerning said kitty that looks more friendlier then menacing. This probably reads better as a novella when we can “hear” the internal monologues about guilt-ridden consciences as opposed to giving them concrete value in a perfectly normal Felis Catus.

The plot is rather absurd and needs the audience to suspend disbelief in order to accept the overacting emotional impact upon the criminal's psyches. There are unintentional laugh-out-loud moments when the conspirators go crazy about the felony feline by throwing knives, screaming and having heart attacks. One of the criminals is attacked by the cat but we never see it: he just appears with obviously fake scratches (I mean, the makeup artist didn't even give a fuck about verisimilitude!) on his face and say it clawed him while he napped. But this isn’t a "who-done-it" at all: Gilling reveals the culprit’s identity immediately after the bludgeoning murder in the opening sequence. The story is about how the gang of criminals faces judgment by pussycat! Will they succeed in their evil plan to gain the inheritance by forgery or will the original Last Will & Testament be discovered? I mean, why not find the document first before killing the poor old lady? Arthur Grant uses some neat lighting effects to give the cat glowing eyes but the close-ups still make the tabby appear friendly and overfed. Mikis Theodorakis’ score seems too strident and undermines any suspense that is created by the killer kitty, sometimes at odds with the skewed visuals. It’s an interesting score but better for another film that isn’t meant to be dependent on psychological dread.

All six conspirators meet their fate at the paws of their tormentor either directly or peripherally so Justice is satisfied. The nice granddaughter, innocently portrayed by the wonderful Barbara Shelley, gets what’s coming to her once the original document is discovered: her inheritance. And the murderous pussy retains its old haunt, a good luck charm for a new family.

Final Grade: (C)

Friday, March 19, 2021

TUGBOAT ANNIE (Mervyn Leroy, 1933)

 

Terry Brennan isn’t in love with his own reflection as his identity is darkly mirrored in a bottle of gin or the bottom of a whiskey glass. It’s his loyal and faithful wife Annie who keeps the family afloat. Literally. Mervyn Leroy’s tempestuous drama is dominated by Marie Dressler’s wonderfully self-deprecating performance as the titular character who earns her money the hard way: by working her jawbone of an Ass off! DP Greg Toland elevates the film another notch with beautiful high and low angle shots, finding interesting ways to shoot the film often in the tight confines of a small tugboat cabin. There are some very good special effects camerawork with miniatures in the final act that impress too.

Annie and drunken hubby Terry barely make ends meet as their Narcissus fights for its own tiny workspace in the competitive tugboat racket. They live an honest yet gritty existence, blue collars stained by years of grease, oil and sweat. Annie is the Captain of the boat and marriage because Terry is affable yet a drunkard: he’s not full of piss and vinegar but gin and tonic. He constantly subverts Annie’s directions which eventually leads to their financial catastrophe. Their only son Alec grows up to Captain a huge passenger ship and becomes the glory of their existence, proud parents of a child whose career exceeds their own achievements. Of course, this builds the friction throughout the story as Alec is embarrassed and ashamed of his father’s drunken mendacities (yet still full of good intentions!). The film is grimy and awash in unwashed interiors and exteriors, reeking of its realistic environment aboard a tugboat whose boilers leak and moan when under pressure. It’s refreshing to see “people” represented in a film and not a romanticized representation: though Terry’s alcoholism leads to some laughs his consequences are always too real and justified. The final storm when Terry must crawl into the boiler to fix the pipes while it is still burning fuel is truly inspired. Toland films this tight space of fire and smoke with flickering light and gets the camera in for close-ups. The suspense and drama keeps us on the edge-of-our seats! The Narcissus is the little tugboat that could...and it does. Thanks to Annie and her slovenly (yet kindhearted) husband.

For my money, Dressler should have been nominated for an Academy Award.

Final Grade: (B+)