erik lundegaard

Movie Reviews - 1930s posts

Saturday August 03, 2019

Movie Review: Hatchet Man (1932)

WARNING: SPOILERS

It’s not often that a movie in which the principle characters are white actors in yellow face is more embarrassing for its sexual politics. But here we are.

After playing Italian gangster (“Little Caesar”) and Greek barber/gambler/gangster (“Smart Money”), Warner Bros. cast Edward G. Robinson as Wong Low Get, an honorable hatchet man from Sacramento, who is sent to San Francisco for a job. What is a hatchet man? The opening title card tells all. Warning: It's a bit dated:

San Francisco's Chinatown of fifteen years ago had the largest Oriental population of any colony outside China. Its forty thousand yellow residents were divided into various political factions known as “Tongs,” each governed by a President and Council. These various Tongs were almost constantly at war, so the office of “Hatchet Man” was one of special importance. The honorable title of “Hatchet Man” was passed from father to son by inheritance only, and it was he, with the aid of his sharp axe, who dispensed the justice of the great god Buddha.

Basically they keep the peace by chopping off people’s heads. And whose head needs chopping off in San Francisco? “Not Sun Yat Ming, the silk merchant?“ says Wong Long Get, stunned. ”But he’s my closest friend!”

Of course he is.

And how about that name? Sun Yat Ming? They didn’t dig deep into Chinese history for that one, did they? Why not Chiang Kai Qing? It’s as if the Chinese created an American character called Abrajim Lincoln.

Initially objecting in a way that gives us backstory (“Why, we were boys together, came over on the same boat from China”), Wong relents and sadly visits Sun (J. Carrol Naish), who is, of course, writing his will. And of course leaving everything to his good friend Wong Low Get—including, by the way, the hand of his daughter, Toya (Loretta Young) when she comes of age. Except she’s not Loretta Young yet. She’s just young: 6 years old, to be precise.  

Yikes.

When Harry met Toya
We do get some nice early shots from director William Wellman. When the gong of war sounds, the camera pans across the street and back again, as people panic. And after Sun is killed by Wong, we cut to his daughter falling asleep, while her doll, with its head barely held on, lolls to the side. Nice.

One would think the plot would revolve around what happens when Toya (a name that sounds a bit Japanese) discovers her husband killed her father, but that doesn’t enter into it. Suddenly it’s 15 years later, the Tong wars are heating up again, and Wong, now on the council, keeps pushing for diplomacy. He warns that the actions of Tong president Nog Hong Fah (Dudley Digges) will cause wars in Chinatowns across the U.S. Wong’s argument wins the day, but Nog (a name that sounds a bit ... caveman) insists on bodyguards to protect against assassins from the east. Wong finds this amusing—a bodyguard for a hatchet man—and when he sees them he dismisses them aloud: “Boys. Just little boys.”

One of the little boys is Harry En Hai (Leslie Fenton), whom we’ve already seen make a play for Toya at a nightclub. Of course he’s assigned to Toya. Of course Wong is sent to Sacramento. Of course when he returns he finds Toya in Harry’s arms. They’ve become lovers. A dark shadow falls across Wong, and Harry panics:

Harry: You can’t take the law into your own hands like this! We’re in America.
Wong: Tonight, we three are in China.

Except Toya objects, Wong remembers his promise to her father, so he gives her to Harry. He makes one demand: Make her happy. Classy move, considering. But not to Nog, who expels Wong from the Tong for acting “in a manner unworthy of the great Lem Sing Tong.” In a flash, Wong loses his wife, his place in society, his business.

As slow-paced as the first hour is, the final 10-15 minutes cover a lot of ground. When we next see Wong, he’s an itinerant field worker, yet somehow a letter from Toya finds him. Guess what? Harry didn’t exactly make her happy. Opposite. They’re in China, he’s an opium addict, and she’s become a servant girl in the same opium den. She calls it “a living death more terrible than that which mercifully puts an end to suffering.”

So hatchet man to the rescue. He buys back his hatchets from a pawnbroker, shovels coal to pay for his slow boat to China, and finds her in an opium den/brothel at No. 7, Street of Red Lanterns. The Madame there objects to Wong taking Toya, since she paid good money for her, but Wong plays the hatchet-man card. He demonstrates with an expert throw across the crowded room—which, unbeknownst, kills Harry, who was leaning against the wall on the other side. That’s how the movie ends. Someone is talking to Harry, and Harry, dead-eyed, seems to be shaking his head, but it’s because someone is trying to dislodge the hatchet on the other side. When it’s pulled free, Harry falls, we hear a scream, the movie ends.

That's a pretty good end for a pretty weak movie.

Related to Russian royalty
“Hatchet Man” is a First National picture, which is basically Warner Bros., which is why you have all the Warners players from the early ’30s in yellow face. It was based on an unproduced play, “The Honorable Mr. Wong” by David Belasco and a guy named Achmed Abdullah, a pulp writer who grew up in Afghanistan and claimed he was related to the Russian tsar. One gets the feeling his life and lies would’ve made a more compelling movie than this one.

In his 1932 New York Times review, Mordaunt Hall writes of the New York premiere in which Robinson and Abdullah overpraise each other and visiting star Janet Gaynor blows kisses from the audience. Hall, who mistakenly calls Naish’s character “Sun Yat Sen,” doesn’t praise the movie much, but adds:

It is, however, a fast-moving tale with an Oriental motif and one of its particularly effective features is the make-up of the players, not so much that of Mr. Robinson but of others, especially Dudley Digges and Loretta Young.

So the thing that was praised then is what’s embarrassing now. I’d also disagree that the make-up was effective, particularly for Loretta Young. She looks ridiculous. And was it considered far-sighted that the white actors don’t use pidgin English but speak in their own voices? Maybe, but it winds up sounding ridiculous, too.

Question: Did Robinson always play guys betrayed by women? Was that part of his shtick? Cagney slaps them around, Bogart gets his heart broken, Robinson is betrayed. 

All of this is true, by the way: the Tong wars and the hatchet men in turn-of-the-century Chinatowns. A good movie could be made from this.

What was praised then is what's embarrassing now. 

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Posted at 07:22 AM on Aug 03, 2019 in category Movie Reviews - 1930s   |   Permalink  
Wednesday July 10, 2019

Movie Review: Hard to Handle (1933)

WARNING: SPOILERS

It’s a movie of its time. We see dance marathons and holes in dress shoes. We hear about Walter Winchell, Clark Gable and Hoover collars. There are even references to long-forgotten ad slogans, such as “Four out of five have it,” which, it turns out—I had to look it up—was a 1920s campaign to warn against gum disease while promoting Forhan’s Toothpaste. According to a 2007 New York Times article, it was “one of the decade’s most popular advertising slogans.” 

It’s also a movie ahead of its time. Is “Lefty” Merrill (James Cagney) the first publicist-hero in Hollywood movies? Publicists, PR and propaganda were relatively new concepts back then—with Edward Bernays publishing “Propaganda” just five years earlier. And, hey, is Lefty also the last publicist-hero in Hollywood movies? It’s kind of giving away the game, isn’t it? If you show a man manipulating the public to buy a product, the audience might wonder whether they were manipulated to buy this product. 

They were.

“Hard to Handle,” written by Robert Lord (“Black Legion”) and Wilson Mizner (“One Way Passage”), and directed by Mervyn LeRoy (whom Cagney couldn’t stand), has no compunction about letting the public in on the scam. It lays it all out for the yaps/saps to see.

Early on, Lefty has this conversation with his partner Mac (John Sheehan):

Lefty: Listen, Mac ... where did all this money come from?
Mac: A lot of yaps.
Lefty: Sure, yaps, suckers, chumps, anything you want to call them—the public. And how do you get ’em? Publicity. Listen, Mac, here’s the idea: You take the bankroll, open a publicity agency. Exploitation, advertising, ballyhoo, bull, hot air—the greatest force in modern-day civilization. ... Look at the guy who added halitosis to the national vocabulary—and a million bucks to his own payroll. Look at Ivy League, Rockefeller’s press agent. Look at the guy who coined the expression “four out of five have it.” Made more out of that than Shakespeare made out of “Hamlet.”
Mac: Ah, it’s a lot of hooey!
Lefty: Sure, it’s hooey. The most profitable hooey in the world. I’m telling you, Mac, the public is like a cow bellowing, bellowing to be milked.

Again, this is the movie's hero.

Fall and rise
It’s taken me awhile, but I’ve finally realized the formula for these early Cagney flicks:

  • Working class job, often on the shady side
  • Blonde girl
  • Catchphrase

Here, he’s a publicist, the blonde is Mary Brian (who has a Christina Applegate thing about her), and he’s got two catchphrases. The main one is: “You stick with me and I’ll put a gold spoon right in your kisser.” And whenever he kisses his girl, Ruth Waters (Brian), invariably she pulls back and says, “That hurts.” To which he responds: “That’s love.”

“Handle” opens with a dance marathon that’s treated with mirth more than concern. We’re told that after 1,412 hours (which would be 58 straight days), there are two couples left, both of whom have had one fall. They’re only allowed one more. One of the couples is led by Sterling Holloway, soon to be the voice of Winnie-the-Pooh. The other is a short squat guy and a stunning blonde—Ruth. Her mother, Lil (Ruth Donnelly), is introduced as well: “A widow, folks! A widow!” says the radio announcer, played by Cagney pal Allen Jenkins, who gets third-billing for this slim role.

When the other couple finally falls, Lefty goes back to the office to bring Ruth and her partner their winnings ($1,000). Except Mac has absconded with all the dough. Bravely Lefty returns to the stage, says he’s concerned they might get robbed, says he’ll give them the dough tomorrow. At which point, Lil storms the stage—and the movie. She gets all the good lines:

Lefty: But Mrs. Waters, there’s a crime wave!
Lil: Yeah, and it looks like you’re it.
Lefty: Now, now, do I look like a thief?
Lil: You look like you’d steal two left shoes.

She works the mob against Lefty and he barely escapes with his life. Turns out Lefty is Ruth’s guy, though Lil is against it. She also says she’s tired of being on the receiving end: “I’m going to do something to somebody.” That somebody is the very Jewish Mr. Goldstein (William H. Strauss*), to whom she sells the furniture in her apartment. Except it’s not her apartment nor her furniture. By the time Goldstein figures it out, she and Ruth have scrammed back to New York. You could do that back then.

(*Strauss acted in movies from 1920 to 1939, starting out with several starring roles, but mostly cast as a supporting Jewish character. He played five different bergs (Gins, Gold, Silver, Fein, Tim), three tailors and three pawnbrokers. A study of his career would be fascinating.)

Lefty, meanwhile, has another scheme in mind. He sells the owner of “Sea Breeze” amusement parks on a treasure hunt: Hide $5,000 on the premises and let the public try to find it. Problem? The owner hides only $10 and the public tears the park apart trying to find the rest. So Lefty, too, scrams for New York.

He’s down to his last 30 cents when Ruth complains that her “Velvet Bar Milk Cream” won’t rub in, and—snap!—he’s got it. He sells the Velvet company on the idea of pushing their crappy product as a “reducing cream” and winds up with a check for $3500.

Lefty: I always knew the public was dumb but they panned out even dumber than I thought.

Again, that’s our hero.

In this way, his fortunes rise. He convinces society dame Mrs. Weston Parks (Louise Mackintosh, who died later that year at 68) to promote the product, it becomes an even bigger hit, and suddenly he’s a big shot with a team of receptionists. Problem? Ruth doesn’t know if she wants to marry him now that he’s a big shot. Cue her mother’s exasperation.

Donnelly is one of the joys of the movie: grasping for money, gasping at her daughter, shifting 180 degrees depending on the shifting fortunes of Ruth’s pursuers. Initially, she talks up nice-guy photographer John Hayden (Gavin Gordon) and his $25,000-a-year business. But when Lefty comes into his own, Hayden suddenly becomes a “cheap, $25,000 a year man.” She constantly uses the first-person plural for herself and her daughter. After the dance marathon: “Ruth, we won it!” After Lefty comes into his own: “We don’t love that mug. We love you.” Halfway through the movie, and without comment, mother and daughter begin wearing the same outfits. It’s a glorious performance.

Fall and rise, part II
The drama for the second half is all about whether Ruth will come around, and whether Lefty’s publicity schemes will pan out. He’s able to raise $1 million for Bedford College by turning their “hot, skip and jump champ” into a movie star, and by talking up the college’s beautiful co-eds—one of whom is Marlene Reeves (Claire Dodd), who has pre-code eyes for Lefty. She introduces him to her father, Charles, who runs grapefruit farms, and Lefty agrees to handle the advertising.

Bad move. Arlene’s attentions land him in hot water with Ruth, while the ad campaign’s outlandish promises land him in hot water with the feds. The solution comes in jail, when Lefty meets up again with his old crony Mac, who’s lost weight. How? Grapefruit. So Lefty conjures up the 18-day grapefruit diet: “American women will beg, borrow, steal, torture herself, for one thing: a slender figure,” he says. Soon grapefruit prices skyrocket, Lefty’s outlandish promises are no longer outlandish, and the fraud charges are dropped. And with ma’s help, he gets the girl and puts a gold spoon right in her kisser.

Question: Did he sleep with Marlene? I think he did. But the movie makes him seem somehow traduced. Ditto with Grapefruit Farms. It was his ad campaign that concocted the fraud; yet the movie blames Reeves, who skedaddles to Rio.

I like the in-joke about the grapefruit, given its association with Cagney. Particularly when Lefty proclaims to the feds, “What do I know about grapefruit! I never even saw a grapefruit!”

Cagney, with his rat-a-tat delivery, makes a great pitch man, and it’s interesting that Warners thought a man suckering the masses would appeal to the masses. Maybe, to them, it seemed a harmless step up from Cagney’s grifter role in “Blonde Crazy.” It isn’t. Grifters make suckers out of those guys; propagandists make suckers out of us all. Or worse—as Josef Goebbels was beginning to demonstrate.

SLIDESHOW


  • The full line is: “I'm telling you, Mac, the public is like a cow, bellowing, bellowing to be milked.” Plus ça change. We‘re still a bunch of yaps.

  • Cagney, wary of the mother; Brian, with a touch of Christina Applegate about her.

  • “There is no Depression”: I think the Republicans tried that one, too. 

  • What happens when you include only $10 in a $5,000 treasure hunt; they might tear down your place looking for the rest. 

  • If the product doesn’t work? Rebrand. This movie could still be shown in business classes.

  • Lefty with honorary degree in hand about to go into the grapefruit business.

  • Claire Dodd displaying pre-code interest in Lefty.

  • Did he or didn't he? Mother and daughter are standouts, never more so than when wearing the same thing.

  • The movie's great inside gag.

  • “You stick with me and I'll put a gold spoon right in your—” “Kiss her!” *FIN*
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Posted at 07:00 AM on Jul 10, 2019 in category Movie Reviews - 1930s   |   Permalink  
Saturday July 06, 2019

Movie Review: Smart Money (1931)

WARNING: SPOILERS

When I saw this on IMDb I was like, “Whoa. Cagney and Robinson? I didn’t know they made a movie together.”

They didn’t, really. They’re both in it but it’s Robinson’s movie. For reasons of release dates:

  • January 25, 1931: “Little Caesar”
  • May 15, 1931: “The Public Enemy”
  • July 11, 1931: “Smart Money” 

By the time they began filming this, Robinson was a big star, Cagney wasn‘t, so Cagney plays second banana. Meanwhile, Boris Karloff has a bit part, since he wouldn’t become a star until the release of “Frankenstein" on November 21, 1931. Yes, all of this in the same calendar year. Anyone who tells you things didn’t move fast in the past is lying.

Fool me twice
The movie is basically “Little Caesar” Lite. A dude from the sticks becomes big in the Big City, then suffers a fall because of a dame, a pal, and law enforcement. Except here the pal is loyal, the dame is his own fault, and law enforcement is corrupt.

Robinson plays Nick “The Barber” Venizelos—Greek rather than Italian, and a gambler rather than a gangster—but in one way Nick is more Al Capone than Rico. He regales and charms the press as Capone did. Reporters sit on his every word, and laugh along with him: “Have a cigar, boys; fella in Havana makes them up for me.” Nick, like Capone, also doesn’t die in a hail of bullets.

As the movie opens, he’s already a success. He runs a barber shop in Irontown but doesn’t seem to do much hair cutting. He’s a gambler, with a long lucky streak, and when he hears about a big game in the big city, run by Hickory Short, he gets his cronies to bankroll him for $10k. Except in the big city he’s played for a sap by a blonde in a hotel lobby. Marie (Noel Francis) says she can get him in the big game with Hickory but he winds up playing against a con artist named Sleepy Sam (Ralf Harolde), who bilks him for the full 10k. When he figures this out, he’s enraged, attacks them, but is beaten up. He vows revenge.

He goes back to barbering and small-time gambling, and slowly builds his rep and his bankroll; then, with his Irontown right-hand man Jack (Cagney), he takes on Sleepy Sam again. It’s a good bit. Knowing Sam will send out to the hotel lobby gift store for fresh cards, he “returns” four decks there that are marked and cleans up. When Sam and his cronies try to get rough again, Jack and another pal (Donald Cook, whom Cagney usurped in “Public Enemy”) show up with guns drawn.

Now it’s just rise and rise. The big game against Hickory Short (Ben Taggart), is a blip. Nick wins. He’s getting so big, with so much attention, the DA (Morgan Wallace) worries he’ll screw up his re-election chances, and chats with Sleepy Sam about him:

DA: If you were the district attorney, how would you tackle him?
Sam: I’d shoot him some night when he was trying to escape from the law.
DA: Don’t be silly. That isn’t done.

Right. Instead, they go after his soft spot: blondes. An undercover police woman charms him in his office and Nick seems like a sucker again; then he says “...and tell the District Attorney I’ll see him on Tuesday,” and literally kicks her out of his office.

His downfall begins with a magnanimous act. One night, the cops stop his car because they’ve fished a woman, Irene (Evelyn Knapp), out of the river and need to take her to the hospital. (Are there no ambulances?) She winds up at Nick’s place. Jack is immediately suspicious, thinking she’s a plant, but she isn’t. Yet. She’s just on the lam for blackmail. She doesn’t become the plant until the DA hauls her in and essentially blackmails her to help them catch Nick. “All we want to do is give Nick a good scare,” he lies. So she plants a racing form on him, Jack figures it out, tries to warn Nick, Nick gets angry and socks him. Jack hits a metal bolt on the floor and dies. Now it’s manslaughter.

This should be a tragedy, right? Nick inadvertently kills his best friend because he was the loyal one. Except the movie ends on an oddly upbeat note: At the train station taking him to prison, Nick is greeted by friends and the press; and to the latter he proclaims jauntily: “10 years? I’ll bet you two to one I’m out in five!” It’s the movie’s last line.

But Cagney’s still dead.

Gimme luck
A few cultural notes about the movie—one minor, one big.

At one point, Nick does that thing you did as a kid: He blows on his fingernails and rubs them against his chest to show how cool he thinks he is. One wonders where this started and whether it was always parody.

The bigger cultural note is how unbelievably racist the movie is. Yeah, I know: 1931. But I’ve seen tons of movies from this era and there’s rarely this many cringeworthy moments. I doubt it was director Alfred E. Green (“The Jolson Story”), or any of the movie’s four credited screenwriters: Kubec Glasmon and John Bright, both of whom wrote “The Public Enemy,” or Lucien Hubbard and Joseph Jackson, both of whom are best known for writing this.

No, I assume it’s the subject matter: gambling. It’s about what was assumed back then to bring good luck. On a train, Nick rubs the back of a dwarf (John George), who turns and gives him a dirty look. He keeps rubbing the heads of black men who are more accommodating. On the same train, he tears up a dollar and gives it to an old black porter:

Nick: You’ll get the other half at the other end of the line—if you’re a good boy ... C’mere, gimme luck.” [Rubs his head]
Porter: Yassuh, you sho have luck now.

Sleepy Sam has a black servant named “Suntan” (Spencer Bell) who’s similarly abused—as is Nick’s Irontown stalwart, Snake Eyes (John Larkin), who becomes his servant. In the end, Snake Eyes meets him at the train taking him to prison. To gloat? Of course not.

Snake Eyes: Take this rabbit’s foot, boss.
Nick: Not a chance. You gave me one of those once before.
Snake Eyes: I didn’t mean no harm. Cuz I loves you, Mr. Nick.
Nick: Here’s the way to give me luck. [Rubs his head] So long, Snake Eyes.

Larkin would die five years later, age 58. Bell would die four years later, age 47. His best-known role was playing the Cowardly Lion in a 1925 version of “The Wizard of Oz,” which seems forward-thinking until one considers “cowardly”; as well as the character’s other name: “Snowball.”

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Posted at 08:28 AM on Jul 06, 2019 in category Movie Reviews - 1930s   |   Permalink  
Friday June 07, 2019

Movie Review: The Crowd Roars (1932)

The Crowd Roars with James Cagney movie review

WARNING: SPOILERS

Howard Hawks' “The Crowd Roars” is a perfect example of why I like watching old movies. Not because it's good—it’s not—but the history. Questions I didn’t even know I had got answered. That doesn't happen with new movies. If a new movie is bad, it's just bad.

“Crowd” stars James Cagney and Joan Blondell, and has cameos from top race-car drivers of the era (Harry Hartz, Fred Frame, Billy Arnold), while Fred Duesenberg is namechecked. But what won me over was this line:

OK, so they screwed up the subtitle. What she actually says is: “Fifty million racecar drivers can’t be wrong.”

Immediately, I was like: “Wait. That Elvis album was playing off something else?”

The album in question is, of course, “50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong” from 1959. It’s a title so goofy it stays with you. A few years ago, in my day job, we did an article on a Memphis attorney who sends out cards to his clients; but he avoids the Christmas rush, or ignores it, by sending them a few weeks later: Jan. 8 for Elvis’ birthday. They’re Elvis cards, and he sends about 5,000 of them. So of course we called the piece “5,000 Elvis Cards Can’t Be Wrong.”

Long way of saying I have a long history with the phrase. But I had no idea until today that that phrase had an antecedent.

So what was Blondell’s line playing off of? Turns out: “50 Million Frenchmen Can’t Be Wrong,” a hit song by Sophie Tucker from 1927. Two years later, Cole Porter, no less, debuted a Broadway musical simply called “Fifty Million Frenchmen.” That’s how it started. Another reminder that we arrive in this culture in medias res.

As for the rest of the movie, Mrs. Lincoln?

Big shot
“The Crowd Roars” starts with distant footage of a sportscar race. Then there’s a crash, the crowd gasps, and we get the title. So shouldn’t the title be “The Crowd Gasps”?

Cagney plays Joe Greer, who’s one of the best race-car drivers in America. That can only mean one thing in a Cagney movie: His fall is inevitable.

We quickly gauge how it’ll happen, too. He has two issues:

  • He wont tell his family about the girl in his life, Lee (Ann Dvorak)
  • He drinks too much

Then he returns home to Indiana (Cagney?) to the pop who loves him (Guy Kibbee), and Eddie, the kid brother who wants to emulate him (Eric Linden). At first Joe pushes Eddie away; he doesn’t want him hurt in a car wreck. But soon he’s mentoring him and taking him back to Los Angeles, where Lee is waiting. Then he pushes her away. He says:

Lee, the kid doesn’t know anything about us. Both of us have to soft-pedal while he’s around. You understand.

Uhhh ... no. What the hell are you talking about?

Later, Lee and her best friend, Anne Scott (Blondell), are in Lee’s room, dishing dirt, when Eddie stops by. They give him a drink. Anne flashes some leg. Everyone’s getting chummy. Then Joe shows up, scatters the crew and breaks up with Lee:

Joe: Lee, we’re calling it quits.Lee: What do you mean?
Joe: On account of the kid, you understand?

Uhhh ... no. What the hell are you talking about?

Seriously, was Lee a prostitute or something?

Anyway, to show Joe what it’s like to lose someone he loves, Lee has Anne go for Eddie. She wins him over pretty quick ... but she falls, too. This burns up Joe, he and Eddie fight, and for the next big race Eddie is driving for another team. In the midst it, his affable partner, Spud Connors (affable Frank McHugh), tries to come between them. Literally. With his car. Joe, who’s behind, and who was drinking before the race, starts ramming him. You see where this is going, right? Spud’s car bursts into flames, he screams in pain, dies.

Cut to: A series of newspaper headlines charting Eddie’s rise and Joe's fall. He finishes seventh in a county fair. He’s lost his nerve. They don’t call it trauma—not in 1932 and not at Warner Bros. They say “he’s turned yella.”

Anyway it’s that Cagney trajectory again. Long rise, quick fall, then stumbling around with five o’clock shadow. “He used to be a big shot.”

Please pardon the fact that my car is ahead of yours and maybe be disrupting your ability to see
The final act includes something Cagney rarely gets—redemption. He’s hanging around the track in Indianapolis before the big race, where all the hotshot racers turn him down for jobs—they have too much respect for him, see—and then a guy running a coffee joint recognizes him and gives him a free meal. Guess who serves it? Lee! Who’s in Indiana there looking for him. They make up. Then the race. Eddie’s winning but he injures his arm so Joe takes over—with Eddie in the passenger’s seat. (Almost all of this is via distant shots, with announcers creating the drama.) They’re about to take the lead again when Joe flashes back to poor Spud; but Eddie is there to keep his foot on the pedal. They win.  

The movie ends on an oddly light note—with the various racecar drivers, heading to the hospital in different ambulances, encouraging their drivers to beat the others.

This is another of those early ’30s Warner Bros. movies (see: “The Mayor of Hell”) that the studio saw fit to remake at the end of the decade. I guess they were running out of ideas? The ’39 version is called “Indianapolis Speedway” and stars Pat O’Brien (of course) and John Payne as the brothers; Ann Sheridan and Gale Page as the girls; and Frank McHugh resurrecting his role as Spud.

I had a vague thought that maybe “Crowd Roars” was one of the first movies about auto racing, but not even close. Wallace Reid made a slew of them in the early ’20s: “The Roaring Road,” “Double Speed,” “Too Much Speed,” and (my favorite title) “Excuse My Dust.” But “Crowd Roars” may be the first feature-length talkie about auto racing.

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Posted at 09:07 PM on Jun 07, 2019 in category Movie Reviews - 1930s   |   Permalink  
Thursday May 16, 2019

Movie Review: The Whole Town's Talking (1935)

WARNING: SPOILERS

It’s got a great premise—particularly for early 1930s Warner Bros.

A mild-mannered clerk, Arthur Ferguson Jones (Edward G. Robinson), turns out to be a doppelganger for Public Enemy No. 1, Killer Mannion (also Edward G. Robinson), and antics ensue.

If Hollywood made it today, it would become a “worm turns” movie. That’s what I assumed this would be. Maybe Jones is mistaken for Mannion, or maybe Mannion threatens him and menaces his family and friends; and that’s when Jones finally develops courage and initiative and shows the world what he’s made of.

Well...

  • Jones is mistaken for Mannion
  • Mannion menaces his family and friends
  • The worm never turns, he just lucks out

This is particularly odd given that the female lead, Miss Clark (Jean Arthur), the gum-crackin’, wise-talkin’ gal in the office, thinks he’s more than a mild-mannered clerk. Later in the movie, she’ll tell the others in her office, “I always told you that rabbit had something.” Except he doesn’t. 

The police don’t come off well, either. A patron at a restaurant fingers Jones as Mannion, and cops show up and haul both him and Miss Clark away. They interrogate both. He’s nervous, she’s cracking wise. When they realize they’ve got the wrong man, and that they might keep getting the wrong man—i.e., others might finger Jones as Mannion—the D.A. (Arthur Byron) gives him a signed letter to show to any police officer, saying, in effect, “Don’t worry; this man isn’t Mannion. 

(Fingerprinting? No mention of it. Even though it had been around for decades. See: “Pudd’nhead Wilson” by Mark Twain.)

Of course, Mannion gets wind of the exculpatory letter and shows up at Jones’ apartment and takes it. Now he can move around town at his leisure—and in broad daylight, too.

Jones has also been writing columns for the local newspaper about his experiences; but now Mannion is dictating them. He’s telling his story, see? He also uses the letter/resemblance to get into local prison and murder a rival, “Slugs” Martin (Edward Brophy), who was ready to squeal on him. Then when Miss Clark visits Jones and figures out it’s Mannion, they nab her. To where? Both she and Jones’ aunt are locked up in the gang’s basement hideout, but we don’t find that out until the final reel. She just disappears from the film. Our best character.

How does Jones win? Luck. He shows up at the gang’s hideout, they think he’s Mannion, and when the real Mannion comes through the door he orders the gang to plug him. They do. They kill Mannion thinking it’s Jones. Then cops, etc.

Arthur is good, of course, but it’s Robinson’s movie. He plays ineffectual fine but it’s when he shows up as Mannion, with those dead, killer eyes staring at his doppelganger, that you realize just how good he is.

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Posted at 05:28 PM on May 16, 2019 in category Movie Reviews - 1930s   |   Permalink  
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