Thursday, February 25, 2021

FOG OVER FRISCO (William Dieterle, 1934)

 

Arlene rumbles her way through life, her sadism matched only by her beauty, and fittingly draws her last breaths in a rumble seat. William Dieterle’s excellent direction and pacing catapults this crime drama forward until it all smashes together for a violent yet lip-locking denouement.

Arlene (Bette Davis) is the bad step-sister of the winsome Val (Margaret Lindsay) and is involved in a convoluted racket of stolen security bonds. Arlene is engaged to a decent guy who works for her step-father’s Firm but her Femme is very Fatale to his future blood-bank balance! Val has an unconditional love for her sister but as the film rockets towards it’s final act, even she cannot make excuses for her decadence and amoral behavior. Bette Davis is wonderfully narcissistic in her role, her wide eyed beauty only a lure to satisfy her own toxic lusts: there is literally no redeeming quality to her character who actually enters the story with a Bang! The plot of stolen bonds is ludicrously complicated and is really the MacGuffin (as Hitchcock would say) that ignites the flame until the conflagration burns out of control. This leads to her fiancée's suicide when his criminal machinations are discovered when he’s spurned by Arlene and, rather surprisingly, her eventual murder by strangulation in the front seat of her car. Bette Davis gets Top Billing yet doesn’t survive until the third act! It’s disconcerting for Val because she was driving around all day with her sister’s corpse hidden in the closed rumble seat. When this is revealed to Val, we get a reverse shot of Arlene’s rigor mortise stiffened arms clawing at the sky while Val screams in horror: it’s a fucking brilliant shot! Val is then kidnapped by her sister’s conspirators and another of Arlene’s boy-toys is drowned in the harbor. Tony is Val's’ beau, a reporter hot on the trail of said criminals with his pal Izzy and camera in tow.

The film’s entire third act is a race against time with careening police cars, rushing trains and speeding boats all filmed on location in San Francisco. It’s exhilarating even though the plot seems rather nonsensical at this point! Tony and Izzy flip some words right side-up (after all, their skill is in wordplay and images) to discover where Val is being held captive even though she bursts safely into their arms at the climax. The bad guy gets machine-gunned as he attempts to escape justice but it’s a happy ending for the two love-birds. Just watch were you step; don’t mind the blood and gore!

Final Grade: (B)

Monday, February 22, 2021

THE BIG PARADE (King Vidor, 1925)

 

The big parade of jingoistic speeches, marches and banners returns with the big parade of mournful tributes, ambulances and hearses. King Vidor’s melodramatic excoriation of The Great War frames the story in threes: a triangle between Jimmy and the two women he loves and the triptych of soldiers, Jimmy and his buddies Bull and Slim, as they stride through mud, blood, and guts without glory in their dark nights of the soul and soil. Vidor doesn’t make a political statement about the war, he makes a personal one, telling the story from the point-of-view of three disparate American citizens: Jimmy the Rich Kid, Slim the hard-working poorly-educated Southern Riveter and Bull the tough-as-nails Bronx Bartender. Strangers before the war, three men unearthed from different social strata, they now make strange bedfellows. The film doesn’t ask questions about the War’s justifications: it answers the violent equation with a grotesque mathematics.

The first half of the film is strictly melodrama, depicting Jimmy and his tempestuous relationship with his wealthy father and his hard-working brother. His fiancée Justyn urges him to enlist once war is declared because he’ll look handsome in an officer’s uniform. His father’s reaction from disgust to overwhelming joy fills Jimmy with pride so he’s off to France to fight the good fight. Slim and Bull are briefly shown in their working environment but Jimmy is the focus here: his tragedy is collectively our tragedy. Once in Europe, they are far from the Front, billeted at a French farmhouse where the beautiful Melisande and her family live. The film still encourages humor and playfulness as all three men vie for her affections (to the point of practically sexually assaulting her) but she stoically rebuffs their military advances. Vidor has us feeling comfortable in accepting the tropes of melodrama and comedy before unleashing the fucking horrors of Hell upon us. We the audience feel the boundary of our sanity broken like the characters themselves, living a common life one moment the thrust into abject violence and mayhem the next.

Now the film comes alive in its depiction of death. The first great scene is here: as Jimmy and his cohorts are trucked away to the front, Melisande rushes into the traffic looking for her paramour. Vidor frames her in medium shot as hundreds of soldiers and trucks whiz by her, some of the men grabbing and kissing her while she fends them off. The action and speed of the convoy as she’s caught between the marching soldiers and the trucks blurring both the foreground and the background while Vidor pulls focus upon her despair is truly breathtaking. This isn’t rear-projection. There must be a thousand extras and thirty trucks in this scene alone! This leads to the men being dumped off miles away with orders to fix bayonets. Two scenes are brilliant here: one is the long column of men who march down a muddy road to be gunned down by a German aircraft. Jimmy now has his first taste of mortality as dying men writhe in the mud, as he’s ordered to march ever onward. Once they reach a forest they must continue their advance without stopping as men continue to fall from sniper fire. Vidor films in medium long-shot with deep focus so we see our three protagonists in the center of the frame yet can witness men being shot and dying, one by one in the background, as they advance towards the sniper. Like a deadly obstacle course, the men face snipers, then rifle fire, followed by blistering machine guns that mow men down like blades of grass, before ending with the concussion of artillery batteries that pin them down in an open field. Filming in extreme long shot from a high angle, Vidor depicts this hellish imagery utilizing hundreds of soldiers and huge explosions, dirt and human detritus raining down upon them like Armageddon. Mustard gas is the least of their worries. Now the laughing has stopped. Now the melodrama is forgotten amid these moments of pure survival. Life is no longer to be lived but endured.

Jimmy eventually survives while his friend’s remains are forever interred on French soil, his own leg shot apart and left behind. In one interesting visual call-back, we’re reminded of Melisande’s last contact with Jimmy as he throws her his dog-tags and a shoe (of all things, seemed strange right?) yet when they finally embrace in the coda we know he’s walking with a prosthetic as his left leg was amputated. Good thing he didn’t throw her both shoes, or his helmet! So Jimmy finds his one true love, his fiancé finds hers, and it may be a happy reunion but one bitter with the aftertaste of war.

Final Grade: (B+)

Thursday, February 18, 2021

HELL’S HOUSE (Howard Higgin, 1932)

Jimmy keeps his trap shut and gets trapped...for three years in Reform School. A poor man’s version of the frenetic energy of THE MAYOR OF HELL, this one is merely competent in execution with solid yet mundane performances. Howard Higgin’s direction shows workmanlike ability in stringing together scenes with typical editing patterns; nothing showy or flashy in this film. It’s chugs along for it’s 72 minute run time and makes its point. It wants to be a tearjerker message movie but doesn’t quite have the quality that allows us to completely immerse ourselves emotionally with the story. There’s also one unfortunate racial epithet early in the film which is best left unstated.

In the very first few minutes we are introduced to the 14 year old protagonist Jimmy as he playfully taunts his mother. A few moments later she is killed by a hit and run driver (who gets away) and she dies in his arms. Welcome to the world of depression era cinema! He goes to live with his aunt in the city and befriends Matt Kelly (Pat O’Brien), a fast talking con-man who hires him to answer phones...not questions. Jimmy takes the rap for his bootlegging acquaintance and is sentenced to three years in Reform School. Yikes! Once there, his pal Shorty, whose life expectancy is even shorter due to a heart condition, dies in solitary confinement for trying to mail a secret letter for Jimmy. The conditions of the school are terrible (I wonder if Jimmy ever learned to spell it?) and the kids are forced to labor in making and stacking bricks, day after day. The punishments are cruel and food rotten. Jimmy eventually escapes and begs Matt and his gal Peggy (a beautiful Bette Davis) to help save his buddy but it’s too late. They meet with a newspaper Editor in Chief to give them the story but the police snatch Jimmy: he’ll be sent back, the story quashed, unless Matt reveals he’s the bootlegger who hired Jimmy in the first place. A bit of suspense but Matt does the right thing, he’ll do his time, and all cry happily.

Junior Dirkin plays Jimmy with such an earnest and dumbly innocent personality that it’s easy to like him but tough to take him seriously. Jimmy’s homoerotic relationship with Shorty is very interesting as his literally broken-hearted (or heartbroken) pal calls him Big Boy, which becomes the very last line of the film. And Pat O’Brien proves he may actually be able to challenge Glenda Farrell for words-per-second! Not a bad film, one that is merely KO.

Final Grade: (C) 

Saturday, February 13, 2021

SVENGALI (Archie Mayo, 1931)

 

Trilby is a victim of patriarchy, indebted to two men: one has taken her soul and the other her heart. Director Archie Mayo deftly balances on the tightrope between comedy and horror, a precarious stunt as one-misstep transforms shock and suspense into unintentional laughter.

John Barrymore is excellent in his characterization as he is able to imbue Svengali with human pathos while never minimizing his abusive pathology. It’s not often a villain is depicted as wholly human, a self-deprecating beggar who can own-up to his shortcomings and laugh at his dire circumstances. His sidekick and servant Gecko is even treated more fairly than most, benefiting from Svengali’s circumstances as opposed to obeying from fear: cruel overlords never seem to learn this! Gecko remains loyal until the end. Bramwell Fletcher is Billee, the opposing love interest but he remains sketchily portrayed (literally, he’s an Artist). That is, he’s rather undefined and just expected to be the forthright knight in shining armor. He does little but proclaim his love and stalks the pair through the second and third Act. But it’s Marion Marsh as Trilby who shines in every scene, her exuberant laughter, bright eyes and uncommon beauty in such a humble girl make it so easy to accept that these two men would fall instantly in love (or lust) with her.

If the eyes are the mirror to the soul, then Svengali sees the world through a glass darkly. His gaze hypnotizes women into compliance whether it be suicide or unconditional devotion. His first interaction is with a woman who leaves her husband for him but doesn’t accept a financial settlement. His apoplectic stare leads to her deluged demise and a slab in the morgue. When coincidence leads him to cross paths with Trilby, he is smitten with her beauty and angelic voice. With Demonic dominance, eyes circled in black and irises bled of color, he purges her migraine and secretly invokes her spirit into complete compliance with his wishes. This leads to her apparent suicide and his disappearance: in actuality they run off together to tour Europe as Mr. & Mrs. Svengali a dynamic duo of operetta and symphony performance. Another chance encounter has Billee identifying his lost love after a show and then stalks them to the ends of the earth (or end of the film).

The film is wonderfully photographed by Barney McGill with set designs that reflect German Expressionism such as the work of DP Karl Freund or Director Robert Wiene. From the apartments house of the first act to the rooftops of the supposedly French city, our perspectives are skewed just a bit, the camera often titled slightly or placed at a very low-angle, that this vertiginous effect is psychologically unsettling. We end up feeling somewhat disjointed without being aware, much like poor Trilby throughout most of the film. There is one superlative camera movement as the film transitions from comedy (of sorts) to a much darker palette: McGill pulls his camera slowly away from an extreme closeup of Svengali’s eyes as he summons Trilby on that virgin night, and the shot tracks backwards through the window to the outside second story of the house. But now we’re above a model city! The camera then creeps towards another window and dissolves into Trilby’s room where she awakens disorganized and confused. Wow.

The finale is tragic, unbelievably bleak yet elevates the film another notch in its brutal intensity. As Svengali’s psychological grip tightens his body weakens until, stalked by Billee from Opera Houses in Europe to a dive bar in Cairo, he and Trilby close their final act. Svengali’s parting gift to Billee is not admitting defeat but embracing it by destroying his hope and desire with one last gasp of breath: as he collapses and dies, his stranglehold on Trilby chokes out her last sputtering words: Svengali. Even in death he wins as Billee holds her now lifeless corpse in his frantic grip.

Final Grade: (A)

Tuesday, February 9, 2021

THE EAGLE AND THE HAWK (Stuart Walker & Mitchell Leisen, 1933)

 

Lt. Young doesn’t consider himself a fighter Ace; he’s a chauffeur for a graveyard, driving men to their graves day after day, an occupation that limits his potential to reach a ripe old age. Fredric March’s powerhouse performance of torment and anxiety is a realistic depiction of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder before the condition was diagnosed or understood, when showing the affect of trauma was considered a sign of weakness or diminished manhood. Cary Grant plays his volatile cohort Henry Crocker, a terrible pilot but the best Gunner in the squadron. It’s refreshing to see Grant in an early role playing against type (or what would become type) as an angry and belligerent soldier with a chip on his shoulder in nearly every scene. There is no background story here for either character, just two men who don’t like each other but are forced to fight together for a common cause: survival, not glory. This is not a romantic story depicting heroes returning undamaged from The Great War but a brutal look at the effect of combat upon one individual. I’m reminded of the Sergeant from Sam Fuller’s epic THE BIG RED ONE: “We don’t murder the enemy, we kill him”. But this distinction is lost upon Lt. Young who feels responsible for not only the men lost who fly with him but the men he shoots down, plummeting like Roman Candles to their death.

Lt. Young and his fellow pilots finish their several months of training and finally get assigned a combat squadron in France. This euphoria is soon depressed when Young shoots down two planes on his first mission then discovers his gunner has been shot dead. In a wonderful montage, we see a blackboard with Lt. Young’s name as a constant while the gunner’s name is erased and a new one chalked in five different times. Now the horror is written in indelible ink upon Young’s soul and madness, the whisper at the edge of his reason, begins to consume him. A few great scenes stand out. While attending a dinner party he is introduced to a child who wants to be “just like him” and become a pilot. This boy speaks of war as if it’s a game and asks about the planes exploding and catching fire but never about the men who die, an understanding beyond his years. Afterwards, a beautiful lady (Carole Lombard) jumps in his cab and they eventually share a night-cap in the park. But instead of a romantic interlude, he purges himself of the anxiety and fears of the past several months. While he speaks, the camera cuts to an extreme close-up of Lombard who listens attentively yet never expressing horror or fear at what she hears, only support. The caveat is Young’s final comment: does this make me a coward? Once he returns to combat a very young soldier (who looks practically feminine with arched eyebrows and cheekbones) happily accepts the position as his gunner. But the rookie is shot and during the dogfight when Young loops into his Immelmann the boy falls 3,000 feet to his death! And we see him plummet from Young’s point-of-view. When the Greentail is shot down, Young lands his plane only to discover he has aced the German Ace Arnold Voss who is nothing but a young boy, barely old enough to shave.

The film ends tragically, as the squadron celebrates Young’s victory (and another medal) he toasts the German Ace then vomits his emotional guts out and storms away. Back in his room, his guilt at being a role model that leads other boys to their deaths, at seeing men burn to death and friends ripped to shreds, he finally takes one last shot into oblivion: he blows his own brains out. FUCK!! Yet his antagonist Crocker devises a hero's death and secrets his body into a plane and shoots him point blank with the machine gun, giving the illusion of a combat fatality. It’s touching yet surely Lt. Young would not have approved. Now his “heroism” can be used to trumpet the glory of war upon the ignorant and unfinished minds of children who, like Young, will never grow old.

Final Grade: (A+)

Saturday, February 6, 2021

BACK STREET (John M. Stahl, 1932)

Ray lives for the sunbeams that occasionally flicker in the darkness of her back street affair with a wealthy paramour. Hers is a life of a simple regret, a “What If?” moment stamped in time that haunts her to their dying days. John Stahl’s dull and lifeless Direction is elevated a grade because of DP Karl Freund’s excellent photography! Oh, and you get to hear the word flibbertigibbet.

In the good old days before the Eighteenth Amendment (or so the film declares) life was so much more fun and carefree. Ray is a party clown who thrives on the affections of her suitors (though she makes sure to aver her Virginity during a marriage proposal) but has never fallen head-over-heels in love. Kurt Shendler is a local Bicycle Shop owner who is the first to propose and his desire remains constant throughout the years as their paths cross again. But Ray meets Walter and falls in love but, of course, he’s a man about to be married. He may change his mind and invites Ray to a local bandstand show to meet his mother before the wedding but Ray is sidelined by her step-sister’s pregnant revelation. This is the moment of regret that flashes back in the final scene. Could her life of secret love tempered with loneliness and misery have been different if she wasn’t late that afternoon? Unfortunately, the romance is dominated by Walter’s patriarchal and pathological needs and wants while Ray is a willing victim, choosing to be his doormat.

Irene Dunne is Ray, beautiful but dimensionless in this role who shares practically no silver screen chemistry with her co-star John Boles. Contrast this film with a similar theme in Capra’s FORBIDDEN and you’ll find you love Stanwyck but feel little sympathy for Dunne’s character. Here, Ray is forced by Walter to quit her job to become the furniture in his secret bordello, more or less. He even excoriates her for having hobbies to pass the time while he’s on a months-long trip to Europe. And Walter even forgets to deposit money to Ray’s account while he’s away though I’m sure he’s quick to deposit something else upon his return! Financial power and control over Ray is a form of abuse that she accepts but, to Walter, it’s embedded in his DNA: it’s just a casual gaffe. Walter isn’t portrayed as a purposeful cad but just a typical one. When Walter dies of a coronary in the conclusion it’s learned that he doesn’t even mention her in his Will. Even Adolphe Menjou scrawls an addendum for Stanwyck in Capra’s final act but here, the son has to promise her an allowance. But she dies of a broken heart, or something.

The film is mostly pointless and obtuse but it’s still worth your time just to experience Karl Freund’s photography. The first shot of the film has Freund slowly moving his camera through a large crowd of people dancing and drinking in a nightclub. He focuses upon a big frosty mug of beer (the story begins before the 18th, remember?) and tracks from table to table. In a laugh-out-loud moment he ends on a family dinner with two small children downing their own tall glasses of brew! Brilliant! Freund paints each set with subtle lighting and shadow, details which are better served for a better film. His camera moves from long shot to medium close-up a number of times, allowing the characters to feel more real and embedded in their environment instead of the typical edit to medium shot. The scene at the bandstand is exceptional as Ray moves against the crowd and his camera, slightly elevated and from behind, follows her in a long take before he reverses shot. The crowd moves like a flash-flood that she fights against, a riptide to pull her under in her anguish. It a nice touch and reminiscent of Kurosawa’s much later design of movement in his masterful films! Freund captures a deep focus long-shot of a woman nearly burning to death and one is left to puzzle over the logistics of that stunt. His use of tonal lighting shifts in the final scene is sadly beautiful as Ray lays her head down to sleep...forever.

Final Grade: (C)


Wednesday, February 3, 2021

TAXI! (Roy Del Ruth, 1932)

 

Matt Nolan has a taxing anger problem that could lead him down the path of self-destruction but Sue Riley will save him...whether he wants saved or not! James Cagney has the subtlety of a machine-gun, his hyperactive performance transfixing and Loretta Young, beautiful and assertive as his girlfriend has the fortitude to hold him accountable: it’s a volatile combination yet they’re adorable together. Hell, she gives Cagney a good slap in the kisser and it sure doesn’t look like she held back! He returns the favor later on but it’s apparent he pulls his punch: Loretta Young wins this round!

Sue Riley’s father dies in prison after murdering a rival Taxi Cab Company bully. His cohort Matt Nolan won’t be pushed around and he urges all of their coworkers to be aggressive and retaliate as the Law will do little to protect their livelihood. But Sue urges a peaceful resolution thus setting the boundaries of their emotional involvement. Once the Government negotiates a settlement between the two Taxi Companies, the Second Act focuses on the fractured relationship between Matt and Sue. She pleads with him to control his temper or else she’ll leave him. Though the film is violent and solemn, it’s not without laugh-out-loud moments. The couple, along with their friends and Matt’s brother, attend a Hollywood film HER HOUR OF LOVE (which was created for this film) and the stilted dialogue and gestures of the cast are quite humorous when paralleled with the actual film we’re watching. Matt makes a comment about the leading man’s large ears while Sue remains oblivious, so in love with the fantasy on screen. And their talkative friend Ruby emotes her affections, not for John Barrymore but Joe. E. Brown! Ha! Another scene has Matt almost punching-out a rather large man in a crowded elevator while on their way to secure a marriage certificate. When they finally arrive at the office they discover that the clerk is the same man! Matt and Sue both break-up with laughter and it seems so spontaneous and unrehearsed that it makes the revelation even funnier!

The Final Act is tragic as Buck, the conspirator responsible for Sue’s father’s death, murders Matt’s brother on his (Matt and Sue’s) wedding night. Matt’s vendetta cannot be abated: he will track down and kill Buck. But Sue once again pleads with him to let the police arrest Buck, to control his aggression because he’ll end up in prison for murder. Sue even tries to help Buck escape the city just so Matt won’t go ballistic (literally). But alas, it ends in a shootout as Matt snarls “Come out and take it, you yellow-bellied rat, or I’ll give it to you through the door!” With police present, he fires...but Buck has fallen to his death from the window before the lead could do him in. Matt actually doesn’t kill him but he has lost Sue in the process.

Matt may have gained his revenge but lost his soul (and wife) as a result. It’s bittersweet as Sue sells her belongings and is prepared to move out on her own. But Matt, with the drop of a hat, finds the way back into her heart.

Final Grade: (B+)

Sunday, January 31, 2021

RAIN OR SHINE (Frank Capra, 1930)

 

Mary Rainey doesn’t have much to be Smiley about, her life a sideshow carnival that rains more than it shines. Frank Capra’s riotous send-up of circus life is practically a Joe Cook monologue of absurd and baffling tall-tales and one-liners, dangerous stunts and physically profound performances, all dressed up as a trite melodrama. It’s a wonderful film.

Mary inherits a rag-tag traveling circus from her father. Smiley is the manager (and performer) who has promised to look after her after his boss’ death; but he also crushes on her. Mary obviously cares for Smiley and considers his a confidante but she’s truly in love with Bud Conway, a nice rich kid who decided to run away with the circus. This triptych is wonderful as Capra uses it to create a modicum of melodrama but each character is adorable in their own way: it’s not jealous arguments and fisticuffs but disappointing yet optimistic acceptance of defeat. Smiley isn’t a violent freak and Bud isn’t a spoiled rich boy, as Capra breaks with stereotype to elevate this film into so much more: Hope in the face of despair.

The plot treads water with the lover’s triangle and the very survival of the circus because mounting debt will soon dismount the performers. But this is window-dressing for Joe Cook to shine, as the uses these plot devices to create vignettes for insane verbal gymnastics and physical comedy routines. In one, Smiley convinces the local feed-store owner Amos Shrewsberry who is owed $240 by the circus to actually pay the bill himself...and give Smiley another $60! Shrewsberry becomes a comic foil playing straight against Smiley’s hype for the rest of the film. Yet his jibes and word games are never cruel and not meant to belittle his adversary, he just twists Shrewsberry’s reasoning skills into Gordian Knots! Smiley also has a partner in crime, an Alfred E. Neuman lookalike (inspiration?) aptly named Dave whose gap-toothed grin and slapstick antics compliment his cohort. In one scene, as the group attends a dinner party hosted by Bud’s wealthy parents, this menagerie of misfits put on a Hell of routine that dazzles the viewer yet alienates Mary: she is so embarrassed by the display of tactless talent before Bud’s family and peers that she is left a shambles. This scene balances her distress with Smiley’s complete joy in performing, an insight that shows the division inherent in Mary: who she is and who she wants to be for Bud.

The photography by DP Joe Walker is exceptional! He lenses many of Capra’s films and his style compliments Capra’s direction perfectly. Walker moves his camera practically like a Steadicam (not invented until the mid-70’s) to follow characters. To make this even more difficult, this film is shot almost entirely outdoors and on location, where steady lighting and capturing sound would be most problematic. Capra also uses hundreds of people as extras (and an Elephant) so there are often many moving parts in each scene yet they’re choreographed perfectly without feeling staged or blocked. The technical side of this film is brilliant as it truly captures life in 1930 that’s doesn’t seem created in a Hollywood studio or backlot.

The final act once again ends in a conflagration (see Capra’s THE MIRACLE WORKER) and Smiley, fired by Mary over a misunderstanding, returns with Bud to save her from the burning Big Top. In another incredible feat of strength and dexterity (which Joe Cook displays more than a few times throughout) Smiley has to climb up the 73 ft. main rope to carry her down from certain death. Though it’s obvious a “dummy” is used to replace Mary as he descends, there is no trick photography in his hand over hand ascent.

Capra ends the film with Smiley and Shrewsberry engaged in more insane dialogue as they sit dejectedly amid the ashes of the circus tents. Mary is rushed away to the hospital by Bud and Capra doesn’t even give us closure: is Mary going to live? Will the circus recover? Does Bud or Smiley finally earn her unconditional love? Nope. Unresolved. But this dark night of the soul still makes one smile as the outré plays Singin’ in the Rain.

Final Grade: (B+)

Friday, January 29, 2021

SIN TAKES A HOLIDAY (Paul L. Stein, 1930)

 

A Divorce Attorney seeks matrimony as legal tender, a contractual investment against his aggressively enticing married mistress who wants him at all cost. Constance Bennett is Sylvia the plain-Jane secretary who agrees to her boss Gaylord’s offer but she’s too inscrutable to earn our sympathies. Kenneth MacKenna as Gaylord Stanton, Esq. is a good-natured Playboy and remains so even though the story wants us to believe he has finally fallen in love. I don’t buy it and neither should Sylvia.

So the film wants us to believe that Sylvia is a poor and practically destitute young lady barely meeting the cost of living, a woman who is invisible to the men around her. Yet even “dressed down” in common clothes for the first act she is beautiful yet shy. She is secretly in love with Gaylord so when he offers her marriage so he can get out of a tricky situation with his mistress, she hesitantly accepts. Her roommate Zasu Pitts thinks it’s the best thing since sliced bread; the film would have benefited with more Zasu! So she takes a months long trip alone and meets Gaylord’s buddy Reggie on the cruise to Europe, a slick and charming womanizer played by Basil Rathbone. Reggie is not a total jerk but fails to convince in his sudden and desperate love for Sylvia. Pictured together in gossip magazines, Gaylord knows of their gallivanting yet seems unconcerned: after all, he’s not even infatuated with his ex-secretary. Upon return, Gaylord needs Sylvia to act like she loves him so he can dump the ambitious paramour and in doing so he falls in love with his own wife! Sylvia is now dressed in expensive gowns, her makeup and hair perfect, seemingly another woman entirely. So this superficial change is all Gaylord needs to find her enticing and sexually attractive: his change of heart (or other part of his anatomy) is facile and unconvincing. Reggie takes it like a champ and moves on to his next conquest.

The Direction is lackluster though the editing has a few sublime match-cuts in the Paris montage but the score is a bit too strident for the atmosphere of the film. The film even ends with an outré after the final credit. Overall, the title of the film is much more exciting than the product, like Champagne without the fizzes, warm and flat.

Final Grade: (C-)


Wednesday, January 27, 2021

THE WOMAN BETWEEN (Victor Shertzinger, 1931)

 

Another Oedipal Pre-Code odyssey as the prodigal son returns from roaming exotic Africa and unknowingly has an affair with his father’s new wife. Talk about an uncomfortable dinner party!

The scandalous plot becomes awful boorish rather quickly in the second act, as a cigarette case which could reveal the secret is forgotten and written out of the story while the young step-mother and her incestual romance is just too damn talky. The father is a wealthy businessman and his son the roguish upstart who ran away from home after the death of his mother. He objected to his father’s remarriage (what a douche-bag) in principle, never having met the woman. When he finally does decide to return home he meets a lonely lady and begins an affair: this lady turn out to be his step-mother. But it’s not as salacious as it seems as the principal characters are dull and flat. There is no trace of passion between the step-mother and the son; she mumbles her way through a terrible French accent and feigns regret and remorse by bad posture. The son comes awful close to being a creepy stalker. The father is the good guy who adores her but there is no spark of love from her steely half-lidded eyes though he tries valiantly. She has the mannerism of a mannequin which was her previous profession before starting her own successful clothing business. At least she is given an independence outside of marriage but the writers forgot to give her a personality.

A few melodramatic plot turns involving a younger sister and her childish but adorable best friend who crushes on the son (fuck if I know why) resolves when the father decides to tear up the letter that confesses everything. Seems ignorance is bliss for him, after all. And the son is alone on a slow boat back to Africa. This time I’m rooting for the Hippopotamus.

Final Grade: (D)

Monday, January 25, 2021

KEPT HUSBANDS (Lloyd Bacon, 1931)

 

Dorothea wants Dick in the hardest way so he signs his manhood away on the Dot-ted line. A film about sustaining Patriarchal values and the consequence of sequestering a man’s self-worth, as the women play their patronizing parts of excessive and class-conscience judgments. It’s not flattering but has its moments of insight and empowerment.

Dot (Dorothy Mackaill) is the daughter of a wealthy steel magnate, a working man who earned his fortune. Dot’s mother is the typical hysterical socialite who looks down her nose upon working people. Dick Brunton is a hero at the factory and Dot’s father (his boss) invites him over to a dinner party. He is handsome and well mannered (a young Joel McCrae who looks 7 ft. tall!) and Dot wants him now: she’s like Veruca Salt in Roald Dahl’s book CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY. She bets her father that she can convince Dick to propose in four weeks. She fails and it’s actually Dot who proposes! So the hard working Dick becomes husband to a spoiled brat whose concerns are expensive clothes and a mansion, all paid for by her father. Dick just wants to work and earn his keep, live within his means but Dot makes this impossible. The story parallels the two homes during Christmas: the working class hero (small tree) and the wealthy magnate (gigantic tree). The two mothers are also depicted in contrast and here, it’s Dick’s kind and loving mother who wins our sympathies.

But the best part of the film is Ned Sparks as the dour and pessimistic boarder who rents a room from Dick’s mother. His relentless monotone idioms and sage advice, sometimes mixing metaphors and semaphores, is fucking hilarious. His character plays no part in advancing the plot, he has literally no impact upon the outcome of the story, yet steals every scene he’s in with his Buster Keaton-like visage.

Dick regrets being a kept husband and does his best to struggle against his wife’s limited ambition, and Joel McCrae’s performance may be a bit one-note and dull but Dorothy Mackaill tries to walk the thin line between specious and facetious. She even fends of a potential sexual assault from a boyfriend with humor and role-play until he gives up, so she has strength and willpower but hasn’t applied it to her marriage. Of course, this is a film of its Era and neither Dick nor Dot are given any alternative to their relationship: it’s just a man’s world, after all.

Final Grade: (C)

Saturday, January 23, 2021

THE LADY REFUSES (George Archainbaud, 1931)

 

June walks the foggy London streets in despair and ends up making a deal, not with the Devil but Oedipus Rex. Though the word prostitute isn’t directly used, June’s occupation is implied in every stammer, stutter, pregnant pause and synonym one can think of! The Foggy streets and silhouettes of the opening foreshadow what would one day become Film Noir tropes, especially the work of DP John Alton.

June escapes from two curious Bobbies and stumbles upon the doorstep of the wealthy aristocrat Sir Gerald Courtney. The good Sir Courtney convinces this lady of the night to lure his son Russell away from another women whose intentions are weighed in pounds...and not the units of mass and weight. June takes the offer of 1,000pds (upon completion) and soon befriends Russell and becomes his pal and confidante. But both father and son fall in love with June, June falls in love with the father, father and son have a grand falling out, and son gets a murder rap as compensation. But June sacrifices her own reputation to set things right (she’s the alibi for Russell) and keeps her self-respect by refusing the “weight” gain, so to speak.

It’s all a bit trivial and the direction mundane, the photography begins interestingly enough but becomes rather rote and unexceptional, the story too talky and static yet it’s enjoyable. Betty Compson is perky as June (though she gives up the British accent rather quickly) and her performance workmanlike. John Darrow is the often drunk yet unpretentious son whose fate is sympathetic, and his father, played by Gilbert Emery is a kind and gentle man (though a bit too Victorian). June dissolves into the murky London night and Sir Gerald Courtney vows to follow her to the ends of the Earth.

Final Grade: (C)