Wednesday, July 28, 2021

PICTURE SNATCHER (Lloyd Bacon, 1933)

 


After three years in Sing Sing, Danny is keen on finding a lawful occupation but discovers his camera is just another racket. The finicky protagonist slugs his way through women and bourbon until his past and present are double-exposed in an orgy of violence. Lloyd Bacon directs like Cagney talks, quick and to the point, wasting little time with character development or transitions.

Danny Kean is fresh outta prison and quits his crooked gang to go straight. Jerry the Mug is his old nemesis and the one for whom Danny took six slugs from a police revolver and three years from the State for. Cpt. Nolan is the veteran cop who provided the lead and soon by pure chance (as only Hollywood can attest) he unknowingly falls for the Cpt.’s daughter. Danny is a photojournalist with a scummy rag and befriends his editor. Convolutions of the brain, heart and sexual organs soon prevail which lead Danny to his nearly fatal headline. See Danny punch two women (and knocks one out cold!) and pour bourbon down the cleavage of another. See Danny snap a secretive photo of his gal-pal while she undresses. See Danny destroy a traumatized man’s reputation by portrait. See Danny betray the trust of Cpt. Nola as he sneaks a camera into his old haunt to photograph an execution. Interestingly, the fiction here is a truth down to the very photo used in the film: this plot point mirrors the scandalous 1928 Ruth Snyder electrocution and its strident headline! See Danny chase down Jerry the Mug and become involved in a bloody shootout while Jerry’s wife and two kids witness the gruesome end...of which Danny snaps a photo because, you know, it’s his job. Come to think of it, Danny has only changed his occupation, not himself; and that’s what should really count. It’s Cagney so his Cheshire grin, sly wink and snappy wordplay are endearing but here his character is a total prick.

So Danny suffers some slight consequence to all of his shenanigans but his future father-in-law is keeping the revolver nice and clean. Just in case.

Final Grade: (B-)

Sunday, July 18, 2021

THE BEAST OF THE CITY (Charles Brabin, 1932)

 

Despite President Hoover’s proclamation that precedes the film in which he states that we need the glorification of police and public support to stamp out excessive crime (RE-Bootleggers), I’m not sure which side is truly the City’s Beast! I mean, the film makes clear that Police Commissioner Jim Fitzpatrick (the indomitable Walter Huston) is such an honest and forthright hero yet he violates the very Constitution he has sworn to uphold. He reminds me of Cpt. Quinlan in Orson Welles’ classic TOUCH OF EVIL, the morally bankrupt policeman who only framed guilty suspects. In Welles’ film, the corrupt cop was the focus of our scorn, his Fascism worn on his sleeve like a scarlet swastika but here, the protagonist is portrayed as an All American Dictator to be adored for his sacrifice. Both would agree that the ends justify their means. I’d revise the title to a plurality.

The plot involves the hard-working American Jim Fitzpatrick earning his way to head of the New York City PD while his lazy brother attempts to ride his coattails. His sworn enemy is the Bootlegger Sam Belmonte whose rotund corpus is too often habeas-ed back to his Speakeasys and Gin-Mills. Jim’s brother Ed (Wallace Ford) needs more cash to entertain his platinum haired femme Daisy (Jean Harlow) so soon gets mixed up with Belmonte. The film focuses upon Jim and his family instead of exploiting the gangster’s high-roller lifestyle: we see an adorable interlude with Jim’s twin girls attempting to make edible pancakes (at least the dog likes ‘em) and his precocious son Mickey (yes, a very young Mickey Rooney!) while his adoring and spinsterish wife waits up for his return every night. Ed’s spiral to the dark side begins by pushing into Daisy and ends with pushing up daisies. She’s a shot of hot! Her alluring dance and admission of masochistic pleasure must have incensed censors! The cinematography is excellent as the camera often moves and tracks the action. DP Norbert Brodine also takes his camera to the streets of the city and films car chases and gunfights on location which is uncommon in this era of film-making.

This all ends in one of the most brutal shootouts in Pre-Code cinema! When Ed and his gangster cohorts are acquitted of the murder of a detective and a little girl during a Robbery (yes, it’s Pre-Fucking-Code as we see a child gunned down while crossing the street, and even see her in a pool of blood) Jim descends into his dark night of the soul. But with the help of a redeemed brother, wants to go all Dark Knight. He instigates a showdown between a dozen police and Belmonte's gang which ends in a point-blank gunfight: no one gets out alive. Daisy finally spills her guts, Belmonte and his slimy attorney are now mortuus est, and Jim and Ed makes amends of the permanent kind. We see the specter of Jim vowing to uphold his civic duty exposed upon their dying grasp yet the ghost of Despotism should haunt our collective consciousness.

Final Grade: (B)

Monday, July 12, 2021

I COVER THE WATERFRONT (James Cruze, 1933)

 

A disillusioned waterfront reporter attempts to hook a fisherman accused of smuggling Chinese immigrants into the harbor. I can’t help but think the studio missed an opportunity to promote this film, relying on such a boorish and forgettable title: now, if the original one-sheet splashed CHINESE MAN IN SHARK as the headline I think this would be one of the best remembered “WTF!” Pre-Code films!

H. Joseph Miller (Ben Lyon) is a grumpy dead-ended journalist tired of his friends, job and environment, his novel as unfinished as his love life. He knows Eli Kirk (Ernest Torrence) is smuggling Chinese immigrants into San Diego aboard his fishing boat but can’t prove it. Under protest, he takes an assignment to cover a sordid skinny-dipping story but the naked waif turns out to be Julie Kirk (Claudette Colbert): you guessed it, Eli’s daughter. So Joe uses her as bait to catch his prey. The plot itself is forgettable but the story elements merit special consideration. First let me say this: Robert Shaw’s performance in JAWS is fantastic but pales in comparison to Torrence’s genuinely salty portrayal of Capt. Kirk (ha!). In other words, Quint is like a post-code version of this uncensored and morally flexible seaman. I’m also convinced Steven Spielberg must have screened this prior to shooting his own little shark tale. So, on to the details.

We get Joe on a rocky beach spying on a naked woman emerging from the surf. The print I saw was rather dark but it sure looked like a naked woman (except for the swimming cap) in long-shot walking across the beach. She encounters our faithless reporter who holds her bathing suit on the end of a stick, like a flag of conquest...or surrender? Cruze shoots this scene with Julie hidden behind rocks and Joe foregrounded. His banter is playfully condescending towards her. This fortuitous encounter sets up the rest of the story as he learns her identity. But this relationship only gets better as their next date is a tour of an 18th century Spanish Galleon anchored in harbor. There’s nothing like finding love in the torture chamber and locking your crush into the wrack and forcing your tongue down her throat. Oh, those silly days of youth. Julie dost protest but handles her indecent assault with the proper humility before consenting. Fuck, I think Joe committed at least two felonies!

But Cruze (and/or his screenwriter) makes sure to introduce us to her father so we next get a scene of Eli and his first-mate on their Tuna boat smuggling a young Chinese man. The frightened man is tied up and hidden among the deck ropes. Eli gloats about how much he was paid and the gift of an oriental gown offered for his service. We also see that the recently caught tuna scattered on the deck have a surprise: illegal bottles of booze smuggled inside! Suddenly, a Coast Guard siren wails and Eli orders his mates to tie a chain around the man and drop him overboard. Which they do. Holy shit, this film just became interesting. But now he has an idea (which you’ve guessed from my already announced alternate title): why not catch sharks and hide the Chinese immigrants inside? It worked for smuggling booze, what could go wrong? Our reporter pal discovers the drowned corpse complete with chain around the legs and he matches said links to one found on Eli’s boat! He’s not been dead long as a he’s uneaten by crabs which is gruesome yet important enough to mention in dialogue, placing the time of death to the previous night. I suppose matching chains is forensically possible and we have the time of death correct but still not enough for his Editor. This is being discussed while the water-logged corpse of this poor man is plopped on a desk, carried to the newspaper office wrapped in a tarp by our “protagonist”. He and his editor drop five-letter racial slurs without embarrassment: damn, who is the bad guy again?

So then we get a violent and rather exciting hunt on the open see as Eli and his crew try to harpoon three sharks (one for each immigrant now on board). The first Great White is seen dangling from the tackle and it’s immense about the size of fucking Jaws. Then Eli and his mate harpoon the second but it dashes towards the bottom of the sea dragging their dinghy to Davey Jones’ locker. The mate is catapulted into the foaming sea and attacked by the beast which rips his leg off. This few moments of exciting and dashing camera-work makes the rest of the film static and pale in comparison! He dies in the following scene and when he asks for a holy picture and candle, Eli first looks at a centerfold of a naked woman tacked to his wall before delivering Jesus and Mary. I’d rather die staring at the naked girl! Oh, and we get to see the stump as they apply a tourniquet. When the Coast Guard search the ship later at Joe’s behest, Joe’s drunken cohort finds a bottle of beer gagging a Tuna. Joe has an epiphany: cut open the shark! So we see them cutting open the shark and a bound man purged from its slimy bowels. Holy. Fucking. Shit. This suggests that the other two poor souls were again expunged from his boat by chain since only one shark was available!

The film resolves with Eli rescuing his nemesis before crossing over his own final boundary. Joe believes Julie is gone with the stinking sea breeze as he was responsible for her father’s absconding arrest and eventual slow death but no, she has taken residence in Joe’s apartment while he was mending in the hospital. It’s a happy reunion for them. And the past? Just water under the bridge.

Final Grade: C

Friday, July 9, 2021

TARZAN AND HIS MATE (Cedric Gibbons, 1934)

 

Though Jane is relegated to a mere nameless possession by the title, she’s actually very resourceful and independent; her main flaw is being too kindhearted to the bigoted and slimy Martin Arlington. Her civilized suitor Harry returns from the first film looking to cash-in on the ivory necropolis hoping Jane and her mate can guide them to riches...and back.

This may be the greatest first act of any Pre-Code film! Once the story is set in motion because of a stolen map it becomes gruesomely violent as pounding percussion portends the groups demise amid savage spears and arrows. The brutality is inspired as bloody close-ups and medium-long shots with dozens of men engaged in hand-to-hand combat edited to a fatal tempo makes the heart pound like the native drums. We see men slaughtered and hung upside down, native arrows sticking from their foreheads: in one scene we see ants crawling upon the gory wound! Necks are sliced, men are speared as survivors run for the fabled and cursed escarpment. When a cannibal accidentally sets foot upon sacred ground he gets knifed in the back while penitent before his priest. And we get a nice close-up of the bloody wound. As the group ascends the mountain they are attacked by apes who hurl rocks at the struggling men, raining death down upon their heads. We see men knocked off the trail falling thousands of feet to their deaths, with apes wrestling and plummeting too. It’s an intense scene that ends with Tarzan’s pacifying yodel as the apes stand down and allow the group to reach the summit.

We then are privy to Jane undressing in silhouette and adorning herself with the latest fashions, purchased by Harry and carried for hundreds of back breaking miles by their native hirelings. Martin leers at the winsome Jane, his patronizing attitude deserving of a face-punching retort, but she smiles and forgives his indecent assault. As the narrative progresses towards the elephant graveyard (and her father’s final resting place), Martin’s warning begins to seem prophecy: how would Jane survive if something happened to Tarzan? After she and Tarzan enjoy a nude aquatic ballet (it’s really beautifully photographed, worshiping the human form, not exploiting it), Jane is threatened by every fucking animal on the Dark Continent. I may exaggerate, but Tarzan continuously swings and leaps to her rescue with stabbing panache. He stabs a Rhino to death. He stabs a Lion to death (more than once in this film, mind you). He stabs a giant Crocodile to death. He’s like the Grim Reaper loosed upon Noah's Ark killing one of every kind! But Cheetah is trampled to death saving Lady Jane’s life in one encounter and baby Cheetah cries its heart out in anguish. So Cheetah is alive from the first film but has a baby named Cheetah. Not “Baby Cheetah” mind you, same name. So they continue to call the chimp Cheetah even though original Cheetah died. I found this a bit confusing.

Anyway, when Tarzan refuses to guide them to their destination Martin callously shoots an elephant so they can follow in its dying wake. While camping at the boneyard Tarzan arrives with a plethora of pachyderms to convince them to go home empty handed. This leads to Martin’s apparent murder of the titular hero and Jane’s decision to revoke her savage status and return with her white kin, believing Martin’s story of her paramour’s failed Crocodile fisticuffs. Of course the cannibals ambush the party and corner them upon a rocky outcropping, their only defense a few guns and limited ammunition. The native guide/leader Saidi performs a heroic act by trying to gather the ammunition but is caught and bound to a tree and mauled by lions. This final battle is as gruesome as the first act! The cannibals summon a pride of lions to devour our protagonists while Tarzan, alive and tended back to health by Cheetah and its brood, race to save them. Cannibals, lions, men in ape suits, elephants and Tarzan himself all maul, punch, stab and spear their way to death or glory (mostly death). Jane proves resourceful and fends off a cat-astrophe just long enough for her mate to deliver her from becoming a kitty’s lunch. And we get to see Cheetah ride an ostrich, which is something I never considered existing in my cinematic reality. But Harry and his chum eventually become chum for the hungry lions. Is it a happy ending? Not for Harry (sad, not a bad guy), Martin (deserved his finale) and the hundreds of native hirelings! All dead. But Jane and Tarzan ride into the jungle trumpeting their victory and love for one another.

Final Grade: (B+)

Sunday, July 4, 2021

TARZAN THE APE MAN (W. S. Van Dyke, 1932)

 

Jane and company search for the elusive Mammut Mausoleum but her father ends up discovering his own final resting place. The quest sets the narrative in motion but this is an adventure story of civilization versus ignoble savages in the guise of a white man mysteriously named Tarzan who cohabitates amid other various ethnic stereotypes. The movie is a product of its time when Hippopotamuses were feared Apex predators and black people were portrayed as either pack mules or violent pygmies. Is it racist? As Hell. Is it a feminist restructuring of patriarchal social mores, a cautionary tale of male aggression reducible to a Darwinian theorem? Fuck no. It’s patronizing to the lone female character Jane as she screams more than Tarzan's chimpish companion and becomes objectified by the titular hero’s every brutish sexual impulse.

Jane arrives in her father’s camp as the very model of 1932 glamour, more worried about her skin than the poor guides who break their backs carrying her over-sized luggage. She genuinely seems interested in the regional culture and asks questions about their dress, language and customs. She’s inquisitive and insensitive yet not in a cruel way, just a common one. Once she’s kidnapped by the titular hero after he saves her and her companions from hungry hungry Hippos (whom they randomly slaughter for little reason while fearing a Hippopotamus stampede. I’m not sure that would be my overriding fear in crossing a dangerous river but what do I know? More people are killed by Hippos than any other land animal per annum, thanks Wiki!) the story becomes one of survival for Jane. She’s indecently assaulted by the amorous man-ape while his chimp-pal looks on in empathetic embarrassment. Now, the chimp isn’t ever named by Tarzan and is given its nomenclature seemingly at random in the third act. As the blackface pygmies shuttle Jane and her fatherly cohorts away she sees the chimp on the shore. She screams its name with no apparent context, like she just makes it up on the spot since “There’s Tarzan’s chimpanzee companion whom I recently made acquaintance and I’m pissed because it didn’t stop the bully from groping the fuck out of me” is just a bit too long. So she shortens that sentence to one identifier: Cheetah. Why not Chimp? Or Charley if she like alliteration? And who cuts and styles Tarzan’s hair and shaves his face and chest? The people in monkey suits that cohabitate in his treetop nirvana? But I digress.

The film is just a series of episodes strung together with the barest thread of the quest as narrative glue. But it’s the final act of the film when graphic violence and mayhem make the previous 70+ minutes worthwhile! Abducted by the pygmies, Jane and her entourage are caged and lynched, suspended above a pit containing a raging and engorged Sasquatch while the cheering Lollipop Guild looks on with sadistic fury. An ululating yodel announces salvation just in time as a herd of elephants tramples the village and Tarzan goes mano-a-anthropoid with the hairy giant. The fight is vicious and gory with Tarzan knifing it in the eye and slashing its throat while Cheetah is literally beaten to a pulp. They escape on a dying elephant which leads them to the fabled ivory haven and her father, mortally wounded, joins the plethora of permanent Pachyderms. But it’s a happy ending as Jane and Tarzan embrace with their hairy and newly christened companion. Shouldn't Cheetah be furious that they left him behind as dead meat in the pygmy massacre?

Final Grade: (B-)

Saturday, June 26, 2021

THE BIG SHAKEDOWN (John Francis Dillon, 1934)

 

Jimmy Morrell sacrifices his firstborn and his morals for the almighty dollar before realizing breaking bad is no good at all. The film is as predictable as an empirical formula yet still finds some humour in its humors, so to speak. Bette Davis is miscast and minimized, her role too narrow for her talent and her chemical bond with Charles Farrell weak and insubstantial. DP Sidney Hickox once again makes a mediocre film more enjoyable with competent framing, lighting and excellent blocking.

Jimmy (Charles Farrell) and his girl Norma (Bette Davis) run a corner shop pharmacy that is entrenched in the daily activities of their neighborhood, a parcel of small-time life amid big city sleaze. Our blue-collar lovers are barely making ends meet until a group of gangsters, bankrupt after the repeal of Prohibition, blackmail Jimmy into counterfeiting popular essentials like toothpaste and cosmetics. It’s mostly harmless until the gang boss decides there’s money in fake medical supplies too! This leads to a crisis of conscience for Jimmy who attempts to quit his chemical preoccupation but, like Walter White 70+ years later, finds this divorce quite difficult. We see a gaggle of gangsters ordered to brush their teeth, hilariously choreographed like a Busby Berkeley chorus line! And we get to see Glenda Farrell in a brutal hair-pulling slug-fest with her paramour’s new gal! Tragedy strikes: Norma is pregnant and the baby dies because of the counterfeit Digitalis, the gang boss’s femme (barely a cameo by the wonderful Glenda Farrell!) gets gunned down for turning State’s witness and finally Jimmy answers with this volatile equation 10KNO3 + 3S + 8C → 2K2CO3 +3K2SO4 + 6CO2 + 5N2. Yes, I looked that up.

Dead fetus, fatal femme, bankrupt businesses, suicidal impulses and an acidic comeuppance finish this film. Yet somehow it’s a happy ending for our couple when Jimmy is exonerated and it’s back to the headache remedies and six cent ice cream cones sans childcare expenses. The surviving gangsters break rocks in the hot sun and Dutch goes to the afterlife in dutch, of course.

Final Grade: C

Saturday, June 19, 2021

JUST IMAGINE (David Butler, 1930)

 

Just imagine this simple equation: J-21+LN-18=LUV! A pilot must fly his way to Mars and back to earn the legal Right to marry the woman he truly loves. Here in the art-deco world of 1980 (which looks conspicuously like 1930), men must register to marry the woman of their choice: if there are conflicting applicants then a Judge decides who is more distinguished. This film makes some interesting technical deductions but it’s spot-on regarding the dearth of Women’s Rights and entrenched patriarchal dominance in the ‘80s...and beyond.

The film begins with a look back at the grand old days of 1880 and specifically a street corner in New York City. No stop signs, no street lights, women covered in head to toe frilly fashions, no hustle and bustle of modernity here: just a man trying to cross the street without getting trod upon by horsepower. Cut to 50 years later, same street corner. People crammed together on the sidewalk, traffic zipping by and a man pirouetting between speeding cars until he is literally rear-ended. Now we fast-forward another 50 years to the fantastical and mystical world of 1980! Streams of traffic jam the airways of the great metropolis of New York City, art-deco skyscrapers dominate the scenery as we focus upon two people in their propeller-driven hover cars who idle away at a 1,000 feet or so. I adore the drone-like design of the futuristic vehicles!

Soon comes a sub-plot about a 20th Century Man struck by lightening in 1930 while golfing in a tuxedo who is awakened from his coma then cast aside by the arrogant scientists. Our protagonists just happen to be watching and take the man under their propellered wings because he has no place to go. Since people are referred to as numbers in 1980 he takes the nomenclature Single-0 and becomes immediately annoying. Played by the actor El Brendel, he’s an early incarnation of Balki from the 80’s sitcom Perfect Strangers and just as fucking irritating. I suppose he’s the comedic relief but his wide-eyed innocence soon wears as thin as D-6’s skimpy wardrobe! He’s not entirely insufferable and has a great zinger but his vaudeville schtick goes on forever. Did I mention this is a musical? We get some forgettable tunes, unremembered melodies and trite lyrics that evaporate in your brain while simultaneously listening! Well, the song about flies having sex (which we get to see, mind you) is a tune that can be forgotten asap. Yet it’s kind of hilarious at the same time and like the entire film you just keep watching in awe, wondering what fucked-up embarrassment will happen next!

Interesting concepts such as: Babies from vending machines, Booze and food in pill-form (Prohibition is still in effect!), a scientific lab full of Dr. Frankenstein-like electronic doodads, picture phone wall-screens, the aforementioned hover cars, Zeppelins as a primary mode of transportation, and a dildo-esque rocket-ship to Mars. What is so sorely lacking is diversity in this future age, sadly. So coincidentally J-21 is going to jump off a bridge in despair but a stranger saves him by offering him a chance to pilot an experimental rocket to the Red Planet. Good thing J-21 is a Zeppelin pilot! If successful, his distinguishing accomplishment should earn him his beloved’s marriage certificate and that cad MT-3 (whom I kept referring to as MP3) will be spurned. So it takes them a month to travel to Mars in a rocket without seats or bathrooms but only two days to return? This film is as scientifically plausible as Ridley Scott’s awful PROMETHEUS but much more entertaining! Now here’s a cool factoid: the scientist describes the slingshot effect using earth’s gravity to help propel the rocket towards Mars: a theory that wouldn’t be realized until 1959 (in real-life)! I mean, check that shit out, in 1930 this wasn’t a widely known or popular theory so how it ended up in this crazy science-fiction musical is a mystery to me.

So anyway, they land on a Mars full of scantily clad women who wiggle and writhe in sheer orgasmic ecstasy seemingly on a daily basis. Soon the Queen and her frisky male minion (which gives Single-0 his best zinger: “She’s not the Queen of Mars. He is!”) put on a performance of Marsly Delights for their visitors that is soon crashed by evil doppelgangers. It seems everyone on Mars is a twin, one good and sensuous the other bad and, well, sensuous. The naughty ones put on their own vaudeville act of idol worship that would make Kink Kong blush! They escape just in time, rocket back to Earth using the scientific codex which was stolen earlier but somehow recovered by Single-0, and J-21 wins his court appeal. Thanks to a delaying tactic by D-6 (Marjorie White who steals the film. She’s extraordinary, dancing, singing, stripping and full of luscious energy and verve!) and the cad MT-3 is left empty and emotionally compressed at the alter.

Final Grade: C+

Sunday, June 6, 2021

THE DEATH KISS (Edwin L. Marin, 1932)

 

 Marcia Lane is on a one-way, dead-end street unless her screenwriter paramour correctly interprets the criminal codex. An enjoyable meta-narrative murder mystery set on a fictitious studio lot but filmed on an actual studio lot adds verisimilitude to the narrative. We get to see behind-the-scenes of Hollywood film-making in the 1930s from lighting setups to early sound recording and see the journeymen (and women) who do the grunt work behind the glamour.

The opening shot would make Robert Altman proud in about 35 years as DP Norbert Brodine shoots a long-take through the windows of an automobile as a group of shady characters pull up to a theater. A lovely lady slinks from the rear passenger car door opposite the camera and approaches a well-dressed man. The camera tracks to the right and follows her towards her mark. She surprises him with a kiss and he takes a few steps before being gunned down by off-screen assailants. The camera continues to focus upon the scene as strangers come rushing to his aid while another car speeds off. Then the camera slowly tracks further right and we see a Director and his crew sitting by their equipment contemplating the scene they just shot. CUT. This is the fiction within the fiction we’re watching! Brilliant! But the man is really dead, murdered while filming the scene, and the mystery begins. We get to see the same scene later in the First Act but filmed from the perspective of the fictional crew and it’s static and uninspired in comparison! Of course this becomes evidence that is mysteriously tampered with to delay the inevitable resolution as some clue could have been captured on celluloid.

The plot becomes a bit complicated yet always follows logic and critical reasoning, though the protagonist writer Franklyn Drew is too smarmy and condescending to everyone around him. His smug mug quickly becomes very punchable yet he warms up towards the end and isn’t quite as uningratiating. Marcia Lane is the actress who gave her murdered co-star (and ex-husband) the death kiss (which is the name of the movie we’re watching and the movie they’re filming within the movie we’re watching, cool right?) which marked him for murder both make-believe and real! Is she involved in the killing? Things look sour for her as Drew pits his skills of deduction against hard-boiled homicide detectives who remain one gumshoe behind. Drew also recruits the bumbling studio security guard as accomplice whose rumpled uniform and uneducated sobriety offer counterpoint to his cool and stylish demeanor. To Drew’s credit he treats his cohort with some respect and as an equal, asking advice and gaining perspective from him though the guard remains the source of some slapstick shenanigans. Drew is much more patronizing to Maria Lane and talks for her more than he talks to her.

The final shoot-out is also exceptionally shot and edited, actually utilizing tinted colors for the flashlight and orange flames for gunfire which stand out in the low-key lighted finale. The killer is revealed yet remains in shadow like his identity until the final fall from grace. Was it Bela Lugosi? To reveal the reveal would be the kiss of death.  

Final Grade: (B+)

Monday, May 31, 2021

BRIEF MOMENT (David Burton, 1933)

 

Working girl Abby Fane feigns contentment in holy matrimony to Rodney, the son of a wealthy businessman who has never know the nine to five grind, only the $4,000 month allowance. David Burton’s direction is rather mundane but passable and DP Ted Tetzlaff is solid in his framing, montage and soft-filtered close-ups. The fault lies in the story itself as it’s not very suspenseful and Abby’s expectations are just not realistic.

Abby (Carole Lombard) and Playboy Rodney Deane fall in love and marry against the wishes of his stuck-up family. After a jaunt through Europe which includes a nice jump-cut to the Eiffel Tower (the phallic symbolism justified since it’s their honeymoon! Ha!) they’re back home in New York City in a fully furnished apartment with a sliding entry door (WTF?). Rodney’s sniveling-little-rat-faced-git buddy Sigrift fixed it up for them; as he fixes Rodney up every night! Soon Abby is lost in ennui while Rodney drinks and gambles his way through life. She wants him to become a better man by earning his (and hers) keep, to get a job and give up his party-clown lifestyle. Here’s where I depart from my suspension of disbelief: her expectations are totally unrealistic. The story fails to give us any indication that Rodney has a skill or talent or even interest in anything but drinking with his rat-faced pal. It’s obvious he adores Abby and I’m sympathetic with her desire but truly, what can he do? If the story revealed some suppressed artistic talent or dream of starting his own business then there would be suspense in achieving his goal. But he just answers random want-adds and finally gets a job doing something for $30 week. Though they’re reconciled it’s not a happy ending because it’s not sustainable: he still has his family’s fortune to fall back on. Now make him a Black Sheep that becomes an avant-garde painter or sculptor, something that brings shame upon the family name (more than Abby can) and we have a noble sacrifice and moral achievement. But here at the end of this film, once the headlines shout their reunion his nom-de-plume will be revealed and he’ll never get drudge work again.

Something must be said for Abby’s friend Steve, her boss and a man who honestly loves her. Though spurned in the kindest way, he supports his friend and actually works to bring her and Rodney back together. It refreshing to see a man put his friendship with a woman above his own selfish desire. He states his case that people should marry within their own social strata but when denounced again (kindly) he still continues to offer emotional support and advice. BRIEF MOMENT is but an insubstantial celebration of unrealistic expectations.

Final Grade: (C)

Thursday, May 27, 2021

NO MORE ORCHIDS (Walter Lang, 1932)

The film begins with the arrival of an airplane and ends with the destruction of one! A tragic story of a father’s love wrapped in a bouquet of melodrama, Walter Lang’s film is a competent rom-com but attains an entirely different attitude (and altitude) in its final act. Carole Lombard is exquisite as the spoiled heiress Anne Holt who imbues her character with intelligence, compassion and wisecracking humor that not only makes her adorable but fully human and humane. The trope of the bratty and rebellious child is broken as is the typical role of snooty parents and guardians: her father and grandmother are hilarious and not at all stuck-up snobs and are portrayed as rather down-to-Earth and considerate. After all, their machinations ensure the union of their daughter and the poor but hard-working unit of measurement.

The plot seems fairly mundane: Anne falls in love with the handsome yet poor Tony Gage but is engaged to a prince. She vows to break of the engagement and promises new vows to Tony (who plays hard to get). But the family’s purse-strings are held by a selfish and malignant Grandfather who wants nothing more in life except a family Title so he blackmails Anne into accepting the Prince’s affections in order to bail-out her father from certain bankruptcy. The suspense is in keeping this secret from Tony (who is righteously upset) and her father (who doesn’t understand). Some keen moments elevate this above the typical genre films. The flirtatious workout aboard the ship in the first act is a riot, as we get a nice close-up of Tony’s ass from her POV, then a race on stationary bicycles that finishes with what a devilish voyeur (like me, the audience) could construe as pure orgasmic surprise! Or later on, when the father proudly shows Tony a scrapbook of dogs (and turkeys!) while Anne writhes with boredom and anticipation. The photography is wonderful, captured by the great DP Joseph August whose low-key lighting often captures the emotional state of Anne perfectly. One close-up of Anne is done in right-profile with her face gradually diminishing into shadows much like her soul, lost and anxious. Personally, I love the scar on Carole Lombard’s cheek as it’s a tiny imperfection on a beautiful face that makes her more human and somehow more sincere.

But it’s the final Act that really breaks convention and our hearts. Anne’s father learns of the blackmail but doesn’t let on, arranging a secret wedding for his daughter and Tony the night before the grand matrimony to the Prince. He promises Anne that financial backers from Washington DC came through and he’s flying there that night to close the deal. In reality, he crashes his plane purposely so his insurance money saves his bank and his daughter’s future. Anne and Tony drive away happy without the knowledge of her father’s suicide, their road to nowhere is now here. What parent wouldn’t make the ultimate sacrifice for the happiness of their children?

Final Grade: (B+) 

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

GRAND HOTEL (Edmund Goulding, 1932)

 


Amid the hustle and bustle of Berlin’s Grand Hotel it’s the same routine day in and day out: “nothing ever happens”. It’s an ironic statement but also a subjectively true one: from the staff point-of-view nothing ever happens to them as they go about their dreary grind, slaves to the lavish lifestyles of the Rich and Famous whose tiniest tragedy must seem more important than their own daily suffering.

From the opening credits we see our main characters ensnared in melodrama as snippets of strident telephone conversations which are inter-cut with switchboard operators who struggle to make the connections but also eavesdrop. Then a scarred visage greets the audience and makes the aforementioned pronouncement that will prove to be both self-contradictory and true. The Baron needs money, the Ballerina needs an adoring audience, the stenographer needs a living wage, the Industrialist needs a business (and sexual) partnership and the lonely embittered Accountant needs to live. The film concerns the collision of these tragedies into catastrophe for some and opportunity for others. It at least gives us a happy though exhausting ending for a hotel Clerk whose wife finally gives birth to a healthy son.

Goulding deftly directs this melodrama with wonderful blocking and choreography, as the characters move in and out of the frame like a well-staged dance routine. The camera moves and tracks in long-takes with dozens of extras in the frame too! The iconic high-angle shot looking down upon the circular front desk is amazing for its time and one marvels at the technical expertise required for such a composition. The ensemble is very good with both John and Lionel Barrymore playing the tragic and sympathetic victims while Joan Crawford holds her own against the theatrics of Garbo while Wallace Beery dresses in a suit and combs his hair but is as pugnacious as ever. But it’s Lionel Barrymore as Kringelein that, for me at least, steals the film. He is a dying man spending his life savings on a lifestyle he could only imagine, which has been denied him by his rakish boss Preysing (Wallace Beery). He tries so hard to make friends and earn affection that it’s heartbreaking throughout the film and when the Baron (John Barrymore) makes his acquaintance his morals and conscience (the Baron’s) are put to the test. And Flaemmchen (Joan Crawford) discovers unrequited love and is lowered to giving dictation without her typewriter to her married misshapen benefactor. The final tragedy is surprising as the Baron becomes prey to Preysing and Kringelein loses his only friend and Grusinskaya loses her only love. But the final embrace between Kringelein and Flaemmchen when she proclaims him to be a good man makes the eyes water while the prima donna dancer has yet to learn the awful truth. It’s a happy ending of the temporary sort for some and a brutal permanent denouement for others. But it’s life in a place where nothing ever happens...except to poor dachshunds.

Final Grade: (B)

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)