Monday, July 4, 2022

THE SECRET OF THE BLUE ROOM (Kurt Neumann, 1932)


Irene's twenty-first birthday party becomes a funeral for a suitor, the mysterious Blue Room effectuating one more corpus delicti. Director Kurt Neumann wastes little time establishing the mystery of this old dark castle and allows the deft cast to elevate this from a humdrum mystery to its interesting though somewhat flawed conclusion. DP Charles Stumar’s key lighting, low angles and use of characters haunting the large empty spaces in the castle help create a horror film hybrid, though this is truly a whodunit at heart.

On Irene’s (Gloria Stuart) 21st birthday party, her father Robert von Helldorf (Lionel Atwill) and her three suitors Cpt. Brink (Paul Lukas), reporter Frank Farber (Onslow Stevens) and the immature Tommy Brandt (William Janney) celebrate at the Witching Hour with cocktails and cantatas. Urged by his guests, Robert tells the terror tale of the Blue Room, locked for the past twenty years since three deaths (murders?) were discovered within at the stroke of 1:00 AM. Tommy proposes a test of courage: he, Frank and Cpt. Brink will sleep in the room on consecutive nights and see who survives to earn Irene’s adoration and respect (and hopefully betrothal). Disappearing bodies, guns and shenanigans ensue.

The story does well to includes red herrings, as Robert shares furtive glances with his Butler (who holds the only key) as a cloaked figure stalks the castle grounds and its ominous hallways. Once Tommy disappears in the Blue Room with the door locked from the inside, everyone but Irene is portrayed as a suspect. The serving staff, chauffeur, butler and even the father seem consumed by some hidden agenda which attempts to deflect the obvious. When Frank stays in the room and is murdered by a single gunshot, the police are finally summoned, and the mystery of his missing fully loaded revolver seems unsolvable. We even get a black cat strangely within the room’s locked confines, yet the obvious answer is overlooked by the characters. I’ll spoil it for you (but you’ve guessed anyway): secret fucking door. It’s rather funny that each time someone stays in the room to “see what happens at 1AM”, they do so individually. Once Tommy disappears, why not have a few others hide in the room too? And the Helldorfs have lived in the castle for decades, yet they never discovered the secret door and its dungeon-like passages, but Tommy has? Not even the staff? Yet the wonderful cast make up for these obvious considerations and make the film more interesting than it probably deserves. Lionel Atwill is excellent as always, playing the potential murderer yet imbuing his character with empathy and compassion too.

Overall, a fun Pre-Code mystery that has its contrivances but doesn’t drag out its premise past the 66-minute runtime. 

Final Grade: (C+)

Wednesday, June 29, 2022

STINGAREE (William Wellman, 1934)

 

A fairy tale concerning a young woman who goes from an Australian sheep farm to the Paris Opera, and an outlaw who goes from the Australian outback to a Melbourne cage. William Wellman has directed some great films, but this ain't one of ‘em. The film plods along for its 77-minute runtime as even its opening scene is too talky, blandly introducing the main characters with some trite and unfunny conversations. Wellman’s films are often tough, gritty, and anchored in a violent realism, but this star-studded fantasy is as weightless as a photon...and just as electrifying. 

Hilda (Irene Dunne) is a poor servant girl whose soprano transcends her mistress's chirping nonsense and is soon kidnapped by the swashbuckling Stingaree (Richard Dix), who sacrifices himself for her audition! Incarcerated, she travels the world becoming an Opera sensation yet her wounded heart still yearns for his captured corpus. But Wellman can’t decide if this film is a screwball comedy, melodrama, musical, or adventure so he tries to mash it all together into one big confection. The two stars share little chemistry onscreen, and their romance seems a bad fiction by bored writers, as Stingaree professes his love with patriarchal authority and hers with submissive compliance: it’s too convenient and forced.  The bright spots to this tarnished affair are Andy Devine as the titular rogue’s sidekick Howie, who sputters in disbelief and anxiousness under pressure but is always loyal. Also, Una O’Connor as the housemaid Annie is a firecracker, muttering witticisms and criticism about her smarmy mistress under her breath, her expressions and body language often communicating more than a spoken word. The music by legendary Max Steiner is forgettable and repetitive, and what was hilarious once becomes rather annoying for the third and fourth time! Even the great DP James Van Trees seems to dial-it-in here, with bad back-projection and lazy camerawork that fails to add flavor to this vanilla narrative. STINGAREE is a stinkaroo

Final Grade: (D) 

Friday, June 17, 2022

BLESSED EVENT (Roy Del Ruth, 1932)

 

Fast talking and quick-thinking gossip columnist Alvin Roberts rises to the nadir of The Daily Express, sacrificing his own conscience for comeuppance. Director Roy Del Ruth allows Lee Tracy’s prestissimo verbiage to dominate the film and veteran DP Sol Polito just needs to point the camera and shoot in order to capture the barrage of banter in medium shot: the workmanlike compositions focus the film squarely upon our main characters like a Broadway performance or, more aptly, vaudeville verbosity! 

Alvin Roberts (Lee Tracy) begins at the bottom and sinks even lower as his gossip column airs dirty laundry and moral misconducts of the rich, famous, chorus girl and gangster all with equitable impunity. Of course, he gets promoted! But Alvin’s crush Gladys (Mary Brian) in the news department doesn’t like the sleazeball he’s become at the expense of other people’s grief, and demands he give up his job...or her. Alvin’s nemesis is teen idol Bunny Harmon (Dick Powell, cute as a button) who trades public barbs with the rambunctious reporter and vows to keep him out of the new Jazz Club on opening night. The battle lines are drawn, though rather vaguely. It’s never quite explained why they don’t like each other, and Bunny is never shown doing anything but crooning his numbers and smiling a lot. The conflict is just a MacGuffin to set up the third act. Meanwhile, Alvin publishes premarital consequences and naughty nuptials without regard to those hurt, rationalizing his Yellow Journalism as only taking advantage of what other newspapers would print anyway. His cohort George Moxley (Ned Sparks) loses his column to this muckraker and one of his four humors in this humorous affair. Ned Sparks enriches every scene with his stone-faced droll delivery, whether it be strident or subdued. Alvin’s secretary Miss Stevens (Ruth Donelly) holds her own against his pleonastic rhetoric and even incidentally steals a misplaced kiss from him between doors and doesn’t bat an eyelash. 

So, we get to see a policeman slap around a handcuffed suspect with nary a condemning word, Alvin’s mother says “Well I’ll be damned” just before a fade to black transition, multiple instances of cheating husbands and pregnant mistresses, a step-by-step description of Ruth Snyder’s death by Electric Chair in a nice piece of blackmail by our protagonist and the grand finale of a pregnant chorus girl getting away with murder, with a cop as eyewitness no less! The power of the Fourth Estate saving the intestate! Depression era shenanigans at their best! 

Final Grade: (B)

Friday, June 10, 2022

MIDNIGHT (Chester Erskine, 1934)

 

Jury Foreperson Edward Weldon’s sense of Justice is carved in immutable stone, much like Hammurabi’s Code, but whose own adherence to the Rule of Law is as passive as his entitlement. He’s willing to take another’s eye or tooth while his daughter's remains intact. Chester Erskine directs this “Poverty Row” morality tale with tight framing and stagey blocking which reveals its limited budget, eschewing transitions or establishing shots and relying on solid acting, wonderful match-cuts and interesting compositions to stage this talky affair. The story stretches credibility, and its contrived plot is engineered to exploit the underlying moral conundrum of the central character yet holds our attention as the suspense builds ampere by ampere to its shocking climax. This was re-titled CALL IT MURDER upon its re-release 1947 to promote star Humphrey Bogart, whose role is billed eighth in the original credits! However, Pre-Code sensibilities of premarital sex, murder, executions and the unprosecuted guilty haunt the stark narrative, as the very tale itself would need its ghosts exorcised to appease the Hays Code!

The plot is a reverse 12 ANGRY MEN: Mr. Weldon’s role as head of a jury, who asks a pointed question of the accused murderer Ethel Saxon during her testimony: “Did she take the money?” She proclaims the murder as a crime of passion but her positive assertion of absconding with the money leads Weldon in convincing the rest of the jury of her guilt for First Degree Murder and, by obligation, her death by electric chair. Edward Weldon (O.P. Heggie) suffers little concern over her fate as he’s only applying the law as written by statute. As the story progresses, he becomes a recalcitrant celebrity whose jury question not only convicted the defendant but propelled the prosecuting District Attorney towards potential Governorhood. As the midnight hour of her execution ticks closer, his anxiousness and nervous behavior is contrasted with Ms. Saxon’s, whose dark-circled eyes already seem to stare into oblivion. A journalist slithers his way into the Weldon household for an inside scoop to witness his potential breakdown. Tangentially, Weldon’s adorable daughter Stella (Sidney Fox) is dating slimy dude by the unfortunate name of Gar Boni (I urge you to look this up in the Urban Dictionary) played by the now legendary Humphrey Bogart. The nexus of this night brings together Saxon’s execution at midnight and his own daughter’s crime of murdering her gangland lover. The moral dilemma becomes in Weldon’s acceptance of the Rule of Law’s equity: should his daughter be sent to the electric chair too? Can human behavior always be explained by mere Actus Reus? Isn’t Mens Rea an element too? The denouement involves the District Attorney devising his own narrative to save the waifish Stella even though Weldon wants the exact truth to be told, and Stella confesses to the murder. But law applied unfairly to those entitled to preferential treatment is Fascism, and the film seems to support this claim. Her preemptive Nolle Pros weighs heavily on the viewer’s mind after poor Ethel Saxon was murdered by the State for a similar passionate crime. The film smartly doesn’t include a coda and remains ambiguous in its judgment, ending with the bored looking journalist, who witnessed everything, leaning against the doorframe. Will he write about this miscarriage of Justice? Or will his headline underwrite the DA’s sordid story?

O.P. Heggie is excellent as the rumpled patriarch filled with the nervous energy of the Righteous, angry at feeling shame for carrying out his civic duty. He comes across as a decent man, yet one confused by his own ethics, unable to accept that human behavior is sometimes unquantifiable. He may see the world as black and white, but his world is only white. Sidney Fox is cute as a button and portrays Stella with naïve charm, a good girl who falls for a bad guy. Bogart as Gar Boni actually smiles and laughs in the First Act but when he admits he has a few “birds” in his car while kissing Stella goodbye, the lump she feels is only his Smith and Wesson!

The film is beautifully photographed with claustrophobic framing and deep focus, and obviously Director Charles Erskine didn’t have extra film to waist for coverage: much of the dialogue is spoken in two-shot or close-up. He and DPs William O. Steiner and George Webber also use reflections to create interesting compositions that minimize editing and waste of film stock. Leo Zochling’s use of match-cuts creates tension and conjunction, such as a pacing Ethel Saxon behind bars cut/to Edward Weldon pacing behind a stair banister, or a dolly in for close-up on a policeman dissolves to the guard at her jail door. The best may be an over-the-shoulder shot of Weldon berating his daughter that cuts to the same shot of a Priest reading the last Rights to the convicted. Lithe camerawork that follows a slow head-turn or short nervous tracking shot of pacing feet imbue this film with a creative impulse often lacking in the most expensive feature films!

Final Grade: (B)

Friday, May 27, 2022

STATE’S ATTORNEY (George Archainbaud, 1932)

 


Prosecutor and Prostituter shack up together until the Governorship is about to set sail; fearing a tempest, the elected DA marries for social standing and not the recumbent kind.  Director George Archainbaud allows John to go full Barrymore as the alcoholic and womanizing attorney, yet his antics are to good effect. After all, what is a criminal attorney’s strength but courtroom theatrics! The beautiful Helen Twelvetrees portrays the streetwalking June Perry, knocked down (not up, fortunately) but not out for the count; she’s a strong and resilient woman who may feel shame yet considers herself a survivor and not a victim of circumstances.

Tom Cardigan is a boozing criminal defense attorney for mob boss Vanny Powers. Vanny offers him five grand to go to Night Court to get one of his girls “off the hook” for ‘tapping on the window”. Tom isn’t interested until circumstances find Vanny at the court’s mercy after a speakeasy raid (Tom purposely fails to get the case thrown out) but lingers until June’s case is called to the docket. He feels empathy for her predicament and with charm and devilish wit convinces the judge (a woman, mind you) to acquit the girl. June is thankful and comes home with him for a drink…and makes him breakfast in the morning! Their romance seems genuine and rather touching as they bond in everything but holy matrimony. Tom is offered the chance at District Attorney at Vanny’s suggestion who wants to control him as Chief law Enforcement Officer of the city. Tom is elected and soon the Governorship calls, but he won’t prostitute himself to his one-time boss and decides to go the straight-and-narrow. Melodrama ensues.

I’ve worked in a District Attorney’s Office for 22+ years and have been part of over 100 jury trials in my career (not counting other proceedings!) and have never seen court as exciting and theatrical as this! Barrymore does more speechifying than questioning and the exasperated Judge and Defense attorney (not to mention witnesses) struggle to hold their own against his somber (not sober) verbiage. The Rules of Evidence may have been different in 1932 but not that different! Yet it’s enjoyable enough and presents the moral dilemma beyond a reasonable doubt which Tom accepts with head held high yet professionally laid low. Over-dramatic? Hell yes! But perfectly in character and with a lovely and surprising denouement.

Final Grade: (B-)

Monday, May 23, 2022

THE LIFE OF VERGIE WINTERS (Alfred Santell, 1934)

Vergie suffers through her Winters of discontent, mistress to an ethereal love grasped temporarily, her life dedicated to another’s achievements. Director Alfred Santell tells another version of BACK STREET and FORBIDDEN but Ann Harding as the titular victim breathes fierce life into the often-trite melodrama while John Boles as John Shadwell, the married and upwardly mobile Politician (her One True Love!) imbues his character with the requisite good intentions and deprecating charm.

Plot: Vergie is an independent businesswoman whose father was paid-off to arrange the breakup between Vergie and Shadwell by insinuating she was pregnant to another man. Shadwell leaves her and marries into a wealthy family which is a stepping-stone for his own ambitious career. Small town gossip and rumors spread like Covid (to the same disastrous effects) and soon Shadwell and Vergie are having an affair when he learns the truth about the lie. But Vergie is supportive and sacrifices her happiness and their forbidden child upon the alter of John Shadwell. She also offers her own freedom to save his reputation (and her daughter’s!) after his tragic murder, committed by the jealous wife who stalks him to Vergie’s boudoir. Though the plot reads like a mundane psychodrama the film’s structure tries to frame the narrative in an interesting pattern: it begins with Shadwell’s funeral as we’re introduced to characters (without context, that’s revealed in the next two acts) who cackle and chatter about his life and death. Then we get a reverse shot of the procession from inside a second story jail cell with the beautiful Anne Harding slumped against the window. Reverse-shot to her framed in the window gripping the steel bars: it’s a nice composition that is reminiscent of Robert Bresson, decades later! Then the body of the film is told in flashback beginning 22 or so years prior to the present date of 1934. Strangely enough, decades pass, the child grows to womanhood, yet Anne Harding doesn’t age! It’s not until the denouement that we see her truly withered and unkempt, like an older woman whose hope has receded like a deluge.

Harding’s performance isn’t as breathy and over-dramatic as some of her other roles; she plays it more restrained which makes it more sympathetic. She’s a survivor more than a victim of circumstance, a business owner who relies on herself and not a man for her daily sustenance. There is no weekly allowance from her lover: she is financially independent which makes for a refreshing Pre-Code character! Thankfully for Vergie, she suffers unjust conviction and incarceration for only a year until the guilty wife makes a deathbed confession. She is reunited with her daughter who now knows the truth. It’s a real tearjerker.

Final Grade: (C+) 

Thursday, May 19, 2022

THE LITTLE GIANT (Roy Del Ruth, 1933)

 

You can take Bugs out of Chicago, but you can't’ take Chicago outta Bugs! Edward G. Robinson is Bugs Ahearn, recently unemployed bootlegger from the Windy City who decides to take his tax-free million dollars and move up in the world...or at least society. A street-smart tough guy whose language and mannerisms are as unrefined as the gutters he crawled out from, Bugs gives up his criminal ways (thanks to FDR) and attempts to go straight. See, he’s been reading Pluto’s books! Ha! 

Director Roy Del Ruth propels the narrative with wisecracking rapid-fire dialogue as Bugs delivers his own verdict to peers and rivals alike. He’s sincere and not out for an angle but gets swindled by high society low-lifes in California (which is in Texas, according to his cronies!). Bugs even pays off his moll with both money and kindness and keeps his childhood sidekick around if he really tries to better himself. DP Sidney Hickox sets the right somber tone after the initial election montage with extreme close-ups of tough cigar chomping men, who listen to the disheartening news. The compositions visually balance what at first seems like another violent gangster flick which is soon upset by Bugs’ raucous and hilarious diatribes. It’s a neat trick for an audience expecting LITTLE CAESAR

We see Bugs struggle to choose the right clothes at the right time, uncomfortably mingle with the Santa Barbara aristocracy, attempt to learn and play polo and get blinded and swindled by love. The ultimate gangster becomes victim...but not for long. He’s even conned by his lovely benefactor but no worries, she’s been victimized by the same crass upper-class caste! So, Bugs gets his gang together for one last fling as they try to save his failing Savings & Loan he was tricked into purchasing for six hundred thousands bucks. He sure gets more than his money’s worth! 

Funny and cartoonishly violent, this film is both a parody of the genre and a solid entry. It can laugh at itself and not take itself very seriously and yet carve out interesting characters to tell a rather touching love story. The cast is excellent from Edward G. Robinson’s grimacing countenance and guttural mangling of the English language to the intelligent and beautiful Mary Astor as his “secretary” and Helen Vinson as the disingenuous femme fatale. Finally, his beer buddies finally enjoy a game of Polo, not with mallets but hot lead! 

Final Grade: (B)

Sunday, May 15, 2022

LADY FOR A DAY (Frank Capra, 1933)

 

Annie is a small apple in the Big One, carrying good luck in a wicker basket for Dave the Dude but wearing her own misfortune like a funeral shroud. Frank Capra’s drama is “melo” in all the right places, a Depression-era fantasy that wears its heart on its tattered sleeve. Watching this, I was thinking of Steven Spielberg's often trite ho-hum fantasies that can be discarded without much effort and how Capra’s have always been superior. Specifically, in this film Capra creates a drab and realistic world for his characters to inhabit, suffering and bad luck are as ubiquitous as the crowds on the city streets. He doesn’t romanticize suffering, it fucking sucks for Annie and her street-smart cohorts yet he doesn’t condescend either. Capra only offers his character a temporary reprieve from torment, not a permanent “everything will be alright” fix. In fact, after the tearful denouement one wonders what the future has in store for Annie: it sure doesn’t seem pleasant. Capra gives us a hint visually: Annie, standing on the crowded dock holding onto a thin paper streamer thrown from her daughter, who holds the other end as she departs on the steamship. Annie’s connection to Louise is fragile and twisted about, a moment of celebration later becomes trash to be swept up from the dock. 

The plot is rather simple: Annie is a poor street vendor who has been deceiving her daughter Louise, who lives in Europe and is about to be married to a Count’s son, by stealing stationary from an exclusive hotel and writing her about her high society lifestyle. Of course, her fiancée’s family wants to meet Annie and they set sail for NYC! But gangster Dave the Dude needs Annie’s apples for good luck so when she is down and out, his luck becomes rotten: and he needs good luck for an upcoming big business deal. So, he gets his gang and Annie’s downtrodden friends together to fake a cotillion while trying to keep reporters away (as in locked away!). Hilarity, suspense and good old fashioned kindness ensue. 

The cast is excellent! Mary Robson as Apple Annie wears the role like her drab and tattered clothing, and even when she’s haunting the role of a socialite one can just peer under the deception to see the scared and tender mother who so loves her daughter. It’s such a genuine performance and the film wouldn’t work without our sympathies squarely on her side. This is done by a solid script but Mary Robson breathes life into inanimate typeface. Warren William is the classy Mob Boss Dave the Dude who imbues his character with the requisite amount of charm and dangerous sincerity. Guy Kibee plays penny-ante pool shark Judge Blake (called Judge because he’s erudite, not because he’s formally educated) who masquerades as Annie’s wealthy husband. It’s another funny and selfless performance from Guy Kibee whose character is a hustler with a heart of a golden apple. But it’s Ned Sparks as the incongruously named Happy McGuire that steals the film in a secondary role, his droll and often loud pronouncements hilariously monotone with a wide-eyed kind of disbelief at the circumstances. He’s the voice of reason, the boy who never believed in Santa Clause and doesn’t mind telling his Boss. We also get a solid performance from Halliwell Hobbes as the butler whose reactions are restrained yet always on the verge of hysteria. 

Once again Director of Photography Joseph Walker elevates what could have been a humdrum story (even with great acting) to a cinematic classic. His camera movements and deep focal points especially in crowded scenes is exemplary, the blocking and choreography of movement must have influenced Akira Kurosawa in his formative years. Kurosawa watched every Hollywood film he could see in his youth and Walker’s camerawork must have been influential! 

Though we get the essential happy ending it is still one of hard knocks, fleeting like the steamship that carries the daughter away. Thus, it weighs heavier on our heart. 

Final Grade: (B)

Tuesday, May 3, 2022

LONELY WIVES (Russell Mack, 1931)

 

Renowned Criminal Defense attorney Dickie Smith is two-faced…literally! A comedy of moral errors, we are blessed with a dual performance by the wonderful Edward Everett Horton as both the amoral attorney and his goatee-less vaudeville mimic Felix, aka. The Great Zero. Horton dominates the film in these dual roles with fast talking quips and wide-eyed feigned virtuousness as the two trade places for an evening of infidelity (Dickie) and stage practice (Felix). Of course, it's not a comedy if everything works out as planned! 

Dickie is all work and no play until the clock strikes 8:00 PM, then he transforms from a married man into a wolfish bachelor! But Dickie’s Mother-in-Law is staying with him while his wife is away and keeps a sharp eye on his evening extracurricular activities. When Felix appears and is a dead ringer (once the goatee is applied) for Dickie, they bargain an evening for Felix’s chance to mimic the famous attorney on stage. Hilarity ensues. From the opening scenes of the new secretary and her wiggle waggle to the Mother-in-Law’s dream of pitter-patter of tiny feet, Horton’s reactions and perturbations are perfectly timed comic genius. The entire cast is excellent as this well written script flows non-stop like a raging river of words with twists and turns that surprise the viewer expectations. What I found most interesting is that the script doesn’t “sell-out” Dickie’s wife as stupid or naïve, but more intelligent and scheming then her famous husband! 

The story only has three set pieces: Dickie’s Den, his bedroom/sitting room and a brief affair in a restaurant. Director Russell Mack blocks the film well though it suffers from static compositions, a fault of the technology more than the DP’s skill in these early sound films. Yet DP Edward Snyder deftly uses split-screen to great effect when Horton appears in medium shot talking to his doppelganger: can you see the splice because it’s very well concealed!? Hell, even the eye-lines match! I’ve seen films made decades later that aren’t as skillfully done!  The title is a bit misleading as it places the moral blame on “lonely wives” who are taken advantage of by Dickie when he handles their Divorce proceedings: it is more aptly titled Conniving Husband. 

Final Grade: (B-)

Saturday, April 30, 2022

THE COMMON LAW (Paul L. Stein, 1931)

 

John Neville can’t stand the fact that Valerie, his current crush, has a bit of Dick in her past. It’s Ok for him to adorn his studio with naked and nubile artifice, exposing the double-standard of patriarchal monogamy. Paul Stein’s direction is mostly static and talky (as many early sound films are) and doesn’t come alive until the Ballroom sequence late in the second act after which it becomes rather dull and monotone once again. Constance Bennett is radiant as the love-lost girlfriend Valerie West, imbuing her character with a fierce independence yet she suffers the most because of it: it’s infuriating that she must acquiesce at the film’s conclusion to seek faux happiness. Joel McCrae as the painter John Neville isn’t a cruel man but falls into the typical pattern of male entitlement. He’s adoring one moment then, when he doesn’t get his way, angry and judgmental the next: he’s a little boy in a man’s body. 

The film begins in Paris with Valerie packing her bags and exiting the life of her “boyfriend” Dick Carmedon who insists she stay because otherwise she would need to “work” to support herself: of course, ‘work” insinuating prostitution. But she’s already prostituting herself for room & board and has had enough so decides to set out on her own. She answers an ad for a nude model and soon falls in love with the artist. But Neville is a Black Sheep of a wealthy family and his bitchy sister Clare (Hedda Hopper) schemes to put an end to his social disgrace! Breakups and makes ups ensue until Valerie admits defeat and succumbs to the pressure of High-Society social mores. Though the theme of the film pushes against entrenched patriarchal values it surrenders at the climax, suggesting that the only way Valerie can be happy and safe from sexual exploitation is to be married and subordinate. She seems to embrace a feminist perspective yet is the one who cooks and cleans while they’re dating. Though she is a bit shy when first modeling in the buff, she quickly overcomes her fear and embraces her femininity as her naked body is captured beautifully on a large canvass, displayed to everyone because it’s Art. She may surrender at the end but doesn’t give herself away, either.  

There are some great Pre-Code moments too, aside from the actual plot concerning pre-marital sex. The giant painting is often a focal point for DP Hal Mohr which depicts naked women frolicking beside a lake, nipples and all. We get a brief glimpse of Ms. Bennett in her silky underwear before she poses nude for the first time, as the camera draws slowly back into a long shot to reveal her lithe flesh barely concealed beneath a towel. Then we get the Ballroom sequence later in the film which is an orgy of uncensored Hollywood delights: women scantily clad, draped on a huge float as the revelers drink and thrash in delight! For the most part the compositions are formula and unexciting as the actors are specifically blocked (for sound, I presume). Hal Mohr would go on to multiple Academy Award nominations and victories, but you really couldn’t guess from the standard work seen here. 

Overall, an unfulfilling melodrama where our heroine is eventually subsumed by expectation of authority. I suppose she and Neville will go and live independently together. 

Final Grade: (C-)

Tuesday, April 26, 2022

THE TRUTH ABOUT YOUTH (William A. Seiter, 1930)

 

Phyllis is torn between two Dicks while Kara just can’t get enough! William Seiter’s early talky is a rather stodgy melodrama that sports budding performances by Loretta Young as Phyllis and Myrna Loy aka The Firefly/Kara, both of whom dominate every scene; one with precious naivete and the other with sultry sexual prowess. 

Technically, the film is stiff and talky and instead of establishing shots William Seiter utilizes overlayed inter-titles to denote a change of location. DP Arthur Miller, who would in later years win the Academy Award three times (out of six nominations!), creates rather mundane compositions often with too much headroom. Also, Myrna Loy’s poor lip syncing during her nightclub songs is entirely distracting as she blows kisses while still singing! The film is also scored and not reliant on just diegetic music, but it’s a bit distracting in the many long talky scenes.

The story involves two Dicks: Widower Richard “Dick” Carewe (Conway Tearle) as the fatherly guardian who raises his best-friend’s son Richard “Dick” Dane (David Manners) after his buddy’s death, while simultaneously fostering Phyllis, the daughter of his housekeeper. Young Dick falls for the lip-syncing Kara, a gold-digging vamp whose persona is like a giant billboard advertising her sex. Old Dick wants Phyllis and the Imp (yes, that’s Young Dick’s sobriquet) to marry but Phyllis has the hots for her sexagenarian. A lustful quadrangle ensues with requisite turmoil. I’ll give the film credit in that the final resolution leads the viewer to believe that Imp, who married Kara out of lustful vigor, will lie to Phyllis and get to eat his cake and have it too, so to speak. Of course, a union based on deception is truly no happy ending. Yet Imp spills his guts (and loins) to Phyllis and ends up alone while she professes her love for the elder Dick! This ending could be unsettling as Phyllis is a teenager probably a good 40 years younger than Carewe, but she pursues him, and he is reticent to accept her affections. That he finally acquiesces and kisses her (shot reverse in a mirror) is unsurprising as Loretta Young is not only beautiful but imbues her character with a maturity and intelligence beyond her years! Carewe’s fuddy-duddy buddies get the final word about future quantity, and with a sigh signal their resignation. So, what is the truth about youth? Old and experienced guys are sexy? Youth is wasted on the young? Youth is fickle? Maybe all the above. 

Final Grade: C

Monday, April 18, 2022

THE RIGHT OF WAY (Frank Lloyd, 1931)

 

“Beauty” may think he’s made of Steele as he matches wit with the Crimes Code, but he falls like timber when confronted by a gaggle of pugnacious lumberjacks, plaid devils whose crude hands pass Divine judgment. Wow, what a strange sentence yet it reflects the very theme of this boorish and trite little film. Director Frank Lloyd allows the actors to portray emotions with “silent-film” histrionics and embellishments, the cadence of their language stilted with stiff delivery that would have sounded disingenuous on the stage! DP John Seitz is a legend yet here he seems merely workmanlike and bland in his compositions. But he sure knows how to photograph the 18-year-old Loretta Young who is the real beauty here; she’s like a breath of fresh air is this stodgy melodrama and makes every scene come alive, even though her French-Canadian accent is rather erratic. Ms. Young doesn’t appear until late in the Second Act, but her appearance is magical as she dominates the silver screen by mere presence alone, projecting such a genuine beauty that is more than superficial, empowered by the light of her very soul. 

Well, the tedious tale concerns a truculent criminal defense attorney who gets the shit beat out of him then loses his memory, becomes a good guy and falls in love with Loretta Young but must face down his past when it comes flooding back to his mind. It starts promisingly enough as we see a close-up of hands full of nervous energy with a voice-over that’s smooth and confident: this is our main character “Beauty” Steele (Conrad Nagel who sports the worst mustache in film history) who is defending a lumberjack charged with murder. His competent and cultivated closing argument matched with his courtroom antics describing the limits of Circumstantial Evidence bring an acquittal for his client. When the shaggy-haired client thanks him for saving his life, Steele retorts “You’re guilty as Hell”. What a great opening! Then it all gets muddled and uninteresting as we focus upon Steele who is a true asshole to his wife and her brother with a street-corner reputation to match. And the dirt on his upper lip looks like a canker-sore and becomes distracting. When he’s beaten nearly to death and convalesces with the previously mentioned client 100 miles away in a remote village, we’re just not interested enough to figure out how the fuck he was transported while unconscious. The lumberjack rowed a hundred miles with him in the boat, I suppose. Then Loretta Young materializes like a mirage, an oasis to a thirsty audience, and dominates the film with her gentle allure. They fall in love, make vows, his memory comes back, he returns home to confront his past, his wife is remarried, he visits a priest who gives him the shittiest advice possible, then dies. Now Loretta Young is stuck betrothed to a creepy village elder with his passing. But Steele got right with god...and that must count for something, right? 

Final Grade: (C-)