Movie Reviews - 1930s postsThursday September 27, 2018
Movie Review: Lady Killer (1933)
Whenever a new storytelling form comes around, it seems its early incarnations are often slap-dash and episodic: Here’s a guy, and things happen to him, and maybe it all means something in the end but probably not. It's more the province of hucksters than artists. Think TV, comic books, movies. The novel began as the picaresque, which Google describes thus:
... relating to an episodic style of fiction dealing with the adventures of a rough and dishonest but appealing hero.
That’s this. A lot of the early Cagney is this, to be honest. It’s astonishing how much that description fits Cagney: rough, dishonest, but oh-so appealing.
At the start, Dan Quigley (Cagney) is a wise-ass, gum-chewing movie usher in NYC who gets canned outside an Edward G. Robinson gangster pic, is targeted by grifters, then gets wise to the grift and offers his services. He says he’ll show them how they can make a thousand bucks a week. Cut to: They’re making $10k a week and own their own nightclub. What did he show them? Who knows? The movie never says. It just happens.
Then they decided to rob houses. An odd move, considering the nightclub. Someone gets clumsy, of course, and a maid dies, or maybe it’s a butler—in conversation, the victim changes gender—so they go on the lam. In a train station in Chicago, Dan and Myra Gale (Mae Clark), the original grifter, pick LA., but she abandons him for the gang’s other leader, Spade (Douglass Dumbrille), leading to that typical mid-movie Cagney moment: our strong hero suddenly falls apart. We next see him in a bar, a mid-day drunk with five o’clock shadow.
Then he’s picked for the picture business. National Pictures wants tough guys. He’s making do as an extra—a prisoner here, Native American there—but wants stardom. So he writes his own fan mail and sends it to the studio. (Apparently, this is based on a real-life scheme by Russian exile Ivan Lebdeff, who became a minor star in the ’20s and ’30s.) Then the gang returns and wants Quigley to use his connections to get inside movie-star mansions so they can rob them. Yeah, despite what happened in New York, they still think this is the way to go. But the cops—who are either nonexistent or right on top of everything—get wise, the gang tries to throw them Quigley, but there’s a chase and everything turns out all right. The gang gets prison, Quigley gets the movie star wife, we get to leave.
A few thoughts after the ride.
Whenever I see a face in a modern movie that I can’t quite place, and none of their better-known projects ring a bell, invariably they were in an episode of “Seinfeld.” Oh, right, he played Bizarro Jerry. And whenever that happens with a face in a ’30s or ‘40s flick? Invariably they were in a Marx Brothers movie. That’s Douglass Dumbrille here. I’m like: How do I know this guy? IMDb suggests Jannes in “Ten Commandments” (nah), John Cedar in “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town” (maybe?), and “Air Hawks” and “The World Changes” (never seen them). So I scan down. And there it is. Dumbrille played Morgan, the villain who beats Harpo in the beginning of “A Day at the Races,” and whose voice is the “Frau Blucher” for the ultimately winning race horse.
This is the first reteaming of Cagney and Mae Clark since they became a smash when he mashed a grapefruit in her face in “Public Enemy,” and the movie plays with it a bit. In that Chicago train station, they read a So Cal brochure, grapefruit is mentioned, and they both pause for just a second. Not bad. Later, he has to drag her across the floor by her hair. Cagney was defined now as a “woman slugger,” so this kind of thing was expected. It's the Hollywood credo: If a thing works, repeat it to death.
The title is a lie, by the way. “Lady Killer” isn’t true literally or metaphorically—and it’s particularly untrue metaphorically. Here’s how much Cagney isn’t a lady killer: He loses the first girl, Mae Clark, to Douglass Dumbrille. Wow. That’s like Brad Pitt losing a girl to James Cromwell or John C. Reilly. Then he tries to woo the second girl, movie star Lois Underwood (Margaret Lindsay), by sending two dozen monkeys to her birthday party. “You ask for monkeys, you get monkeys,” he says, giggling, even as her party is ruined. It’s part of that weird, sniggering, adolescent streak Cagney had in his early films. Glad it went away.
BTW: If anyone ever makes a documentary on all the versions of Minstrelsy and #YellowFace throughout Hollywood history, there’s a clip here worth using: white extra after white extra, as if on an assembly line, and including Cagney, getting spraypainted and fitted with Indian headdresses. It’s not just the appropriation. It’s the fact that the majority race is dressing up as a minority race, so that, in a heroic tale about a member of the majority, they can villainize the minority. And it was done without thought. It was repeated to death.
“Lady Killer” isn’t much of a movie, but it’s got Cagney front and center and that’s always good for a jolt. He's also using a lot of the disappeared vernacular that I love: “No squawk,” “Duck soup,” “I never rapped you.” Plus, when it comes down to it, I don’t mind a picaresque. I kind of like not knowing where I’m going even if at the end it’s not much of a journey.
Movie Review: Jimmy the Gent (1934)
If the title sounds familiar, it may be because it's the nickname of Robert De Niro’s character in “Goodfellas.” He was called that because of this.
How is this? Well, it’s the first time Cagney is directed by Michael Curtiz—who would subsequently direct him in both “Angels with Dirty Faces” and “Yankee Doodle Dandy”—but it’s basically another Warner Bros. quickie. It was made quick, the characters talk quick (Cagney wins), and its runtime is only 67 minutes long. Zip zip. People didn’t have time to waste during the Depression.
You also forget it quick. There’s not much there there.
It feels like a play. There’s a lot of static action. Essentially “Jimmy the Gent” is a comedy in three gags.
In the first gag, we see how Jimmy—who finds or “manufactures” heirs of the recently deceased—operates. It’s rough and tumble, slapping faces, particularly of his hapless subordinate/foil Lou (Allen Jenkins), but Jimmy’s got a humorous glint in his eyes. The usual Cagney, in other words. Some of the adolescent mannerisms in his early films are gone, thank god, but he also gave himself an insane buzzcut to stick it to the bosses at Warners. His co-star, Bette Davis, apparently didn’t appreciate it, either.
In the second gag, Jimmy sees how his competition, Wallingham (Alan Dinehart), operates: high class, with high tea, and impeccable manners. Wallingham keeps tossing out French phrases. “C’est la guerre,” he says at one point, and, to Jimmy, “Au revoir.” “Filet mignon,” Jimmy responds. Hopelessly and—per the Warner Bros. ethos—righteously low class, Jimmy nonetheless tries to pretty himself up. He does this less for the business than for Joan (Davis), the girl he’s sweet on but who doesn’t like his charlatan ways. She used to work for Jimmy, and maybe date him, but now works for Wallingham. She sees him as a gentleman with ethics. So Jimmy tries to get ethics, too.
Well, he doesn’t try that hard. The third gag, which eats up most of the movie, is the big swindle. A woman who eats out of garbage cans dies, and, in the hospital, searching for her identity, it’s discovered that the inside of her coat is lined with treasury bonds, jewels, gold. She’s worth like $200k—about $3.6 million today. Was this a trope in the 1930s? The rich hobo? (I’m reminded of Kurt Vonnegut’s novel “Jailbird,” too.) Either way, the search commences to find/manufacture heirs. Wallingham gets his, so Jimmy searches for one that will trump Wallingham’s. He finds him: Marty Barton, a gambler, who’s now going by the name Joe Rector (Arthur Hohl). Except he’s wanted for murder. He won’t show his face to collect the inheritance. What’s Jimmy to do?
His scheme is incredibly complex, with a lot of moving parts, but it ain’t bad. The fun part is trying to keep up with it.
First he gets Joe to marry Lou’s girl, Mabel (Alice White, who’s great as a sweet, sexy, gum-chewing ditz). Then he bribes the nightclub singer that witnessed the murder, Gladys (Mayo Methot), to marry Joe as well. Now she’s his wife and can’t testify against him in court. She’s also been promised $100k when it’s over. Of course, once Joe gets off, Cagney welches. Plus she’s not Joe’s wife since he already married Mable. Except Mabel isn’t his wife either since she married him under a fictitious name. So all the men get off with the dough and all the women get squat. It’s up to Joan to deliver the rebuke. “You can go down deeper, stay under longer, and come up dirtier than any man I’ve ever known,” she tells him. She also delivers the movie’s tagline: She calls Jimmy “the biggest chiseler since Michelangelo.” Good line.
Bette Davis eyes
That leaves about 10 minutes. So, via another scheme, Jimmy gets Wallingham to reveal he’s just as big a chiseler as he is—worse, actually—and without the Cagney brio. Wallingham flees and Jimmy the Gent gets the girl.
All of which is kind of fun. The biggest problem I had with the movie? We have to pretend Bette Davis isn’t smart enough to see past Wallingham’s front. We have to believe she thinks he’s legit simply because of the tea and British sensibilities. We have to believe she chooses manners over sex.
Nah to any of that.
Movie Review: Picture Snatcher (1933)
“Picture Snatcher” is less about the rise of a photographer than the kind of rise of a kind of photographer. Here’s what we see him do:
- Steal a photo off the wall of a bereaved husband
- Sneak a photo of a woman being electrocuted at Sing Sing (after Ruth Snyder, 1928) via ankle camera
- Get the money shot of a gangster—a former friend—as he’s being shot by the cops
If they made the movie today, he’d have to have a real eye for photography. A photo editor would tell him that. They’d give him a second glance, surprised by all his talent. The photos would matter. Here? They’re just selling tabloids, honey. It’s the Warner Bros. motto personified: talent schmalent, give me gumption. It’s all about Depression-era survival.
But it’s not a good movie.
16 going on 17
James Cagney plays Danny, who, as the movie opens, is getting out of Sing Sing after three years. His gang picks him up, but he soon tells them he’s out. He’ll take the dough for taking the fall but he’s going legit. He says something about never wanting to return to prison but the real explanation is behind the scenes. Cagney became a star playing a gangster in “Public Enemy,” but there was a corresponding outcry about glamorizing gangsters, and the Production Code began to grow teeth. So Warners searched for other jobs for Cagney: boxer; taxi driver; G-Man. Here, tabloid photog.
The movie is episodic. It’s a series of complications and resolutions, and then new complications. As in:
- Situation: Danny wants a job at the Graphic News.
- Complication: Its city editor, Mac (Ralph Bellamy), is reluctant to hire him.
- Resolution: The big story of the day is a fireman who barricaded himself inside his burned-out building after finding his wife and her lover dead there, but nobody can get a photo of him; so Danny pretends to be an insurance adjuster and wins his trust. Then he steals the aforementioned photo off the wall and gets the job.
Some of the resolutions are dicey if you think about them for two seconds:
- Situation: Danny likes Patricia (Patricia Ellis), a journalism student.
- Complication: Her father is Nolan (Robert Emmett O’Connor), the Irish cop who put Danny away, and he doesn’t want his daughter near that “yegg” (burglar).
- Resolution: Mac gets the Graphic News to write a puff piece on Nolan that gets him promoted; then he’s fine with Danny.
Father of the year.
Not sure why the filmmakers (director Lloyd Bacon, five screenwriters) were so quick to resolve things since it simply forces them to create yet another complication. How can Danny get a photo of the Sing Sing electrocution? How can Danny get said photo to Graphic News before the cops catch him? How can Danny fend off the amorous advances of “sob sister” Allison (Alice White), who’s Mac’s girl?
It’s not just Allison, either; all the women in the film throw themselves at Cagney. I like him but he’s hardly Gary Cooper. It’s as if Hollywood folks have already forgotten what it’s like to be a man in the real world.
That said, I could totally see a revisionist take focusing on Allison. She’s called a “sob sister”—a female reporter who uses too much sentimentality—but she’s probably the best writer on staff. After the Sing Sing scoop, Danny relays her the story in his usual patter (“and in walks the two screws...”) and it’s Allison who turns it into readable prose. Afterwards:
Mac: Great stuff, Danny!
Danny: Ah, I always knew I could write.
It’s played for laughs but there’s a social undercurrent there. I mean, why is the movie dismissive of Allison? Because she uses sex to get what she wants—even if what she wants is sex—and because she’s pushy. She’s pushy enough that Cagney has to slug her. That’s actually why she’s pushy: to justify the violence. Smashing a grapefruit in Mae Clark’s face in “Public Enemy” caused such a sensation that Cagney had to repeat variations of it in subsequent movies—“I now had a reputation as a woman slugger,” he writes, somewhat helplessly, in his 1976 autobiography, “Cagney By Cagney.” Here, it’s Alice White’s turn.
White, by the way, was supposed to be Warner’s answer to Clara Bowe—she has a bubbly, humorous presence—but scandal sidelined her career in ’33 and she was more or less done in pictures by 1940. Ditto Patricia Ellis, whose last picture was released in 1939. The men kept acting. Cagney was brought out for “Ragtime” in 1981, while Bellamy’s last picture, “Pretty Woman” in 1990, was released more than 50 years after Ellis’. If her IMDb birthdate can be believed, she was only 23 at the time of her retirement. Wait, which means she was only 17 when playing Cagney’s love interest in “Picture Snatcher”? Scratch that: She turned 17 two weeks after the film was released. She’s 16. To Cagney’s 33.
Wow. So to sum up: Cagney wins the hand of a 16-year-old girl because her father is bought off with a puff piece; and two men are promoted over a better female writer who in the end literally gets socked in the face.
Women were put on such pedestals in those days.
15 days, 77 minutes
Is it contractual that Cagney go down-and-out (drunk, 5 o’clock shadow) before every third act? I see it a lot. Here, the Sing Sing photo leads to Nolan’s demotion—since he let Danny into the prison—so he loses Patricia. Then Mac finds Allison making a pass at Danny, assumes it’s the other way around, and slugs him. So Danny loses Mac, too. Thus the bender. But Mac finds Danny and lets him know:
- He knows what a two-timer Allison is now
- He’s stopped drinking
- He quit the tabloid, and
- If they can get a scoop on Danny’s old gangmate, Jerry the Mug (Ralf Harolde), who’s hiding out after killing two cops, then they can get a job with a legitimate newspaper
He explains all this in about five seconds.
“Picture Snatcher” has snap but that’s it. It took only 15 days to make and ran 77 minutes long. It was one of five movies Cagney starred in that year, one of five pictures Lloyd Bacon directed that year, and one of 12 movies Bellamy appeared in that year. Wasn’t just Danny; everyone was scrambling back then.
Movie Review: Black Legion (1937)
In an early scene, a bunch of machine-shop guys are hanging outside eating their lunches, wearing dirty overalls and 1930s-era working caps—called whoopee caps, which I think of as Jughead caps—and giving each other shit. Mostly they’re giving shit to Ed Jackson (Dick Foran), a big, beefy sort, who’s nursing a hangover because the night before he drank too much with the wrong dame, Pearl Danvers (Helen Flint). It’s all good-natured fun until Cliff Moore (Joe Sawyer) opens his yap. His target isn’t Ed but Joe Dombrowski (Henry Brandon), a handsome kid who’s reading a book with a sliderule.
“What do you got there,” he asks. “A honyock backscratcher?”
Honyock—I had to look it up—is an ethnic slur for Eastern Europeans. Most likely a compound of “Hungarian” and “Polack.”
Our hero, Frank Taylor (Humphrey Bogart), eventually tells Cliff to lay off, and we get this exchange:
Cliff: He’s always got his nose in a book.
Frank: It’s his nose, ain’t it?
Cliff: And a plenty big one at that.
Apparently Dombrowski was originally a Jewish character but got toned down in rewrites. The nose reference is all that’s left of that identity. Like Clementis’ fur hat.
Black Legion, White House
“Black Legion” is one of those Warner Bros. movies that were, as they used to say, “ripped from today’s headlines.” There really was a Black Legion, an offshoot of the Ku Klux Klan, with estimated membership as large as 125,000 in the 1930s. It was the usual mix of all-American nastiness: anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant, anti-socialist and anti-black. Malcolm X believed the Black Legion was responsible for the death of his father, while this movie is loosely based on the kidnapping and murder of WPA worker Charles Poole in Detroit in May 1936.
It’s also ripped from our headlines, isn’t it? At one point, Frank hears the following on the radio from a Father Coughlin-type sermonizer. The sentiments would not be out of place in a speech by Pres. Donald Trump today:
... hordes of grasping, pushing foreigners, who are stealing jobs from American workmen and bread from American homes. It is to combat this peril, to preserve and protect standards of living which made American workmen the envy of the world, that we, the challengers, have raised our rallying cry, “America for Americans!”
Think of that. Despite all the progress we‘ve made, an 80-year-old stock Hollywood villain doesn’t sound much different than the current president of the United States.
As a movie, “Black Legion” is a cautionary tale. From that lunch scene above, you’d suspect Ed might get involved in the Legion, maybe via Pearl Danvers, but no. Ed sobers up and proposes to Betty (Ann Sheridan). It’s Frank, our hero, who goes down the wrong path. And stays down it.
A foreman position opens up, everyone thinks he’ll get it, but it goes to Joe Dombrowski. Incensed, Frank hears the above radio broadcast and joins the Black Legion. Together, they burn down Dombrowski’s home, and ride him and his dad out of town on a rail, then celebrate with beers all around. Frank gets the foreman gig but almost immediately loses it again because he’s too busy recruiting for the Legion. This time it goes to Mike Grogan (Clifford Soubier), so they attack him, too. Cause he's Irish? Or because Frank is feeling, as our current media terms it, “economic anxiety”? Your call.
Yes, it’s a bit sanitized. The real Legion attacked Jews and blacks, rather than the Irish and Polish. Even so, what's fascinating about the film is that our hero isn't redeemed. Far from it. His wife and child leave him, he gets drunk with Pearl, then confesses all to Ed Jackson. When Ed demands Frank go to the police or he will, Frank panics, calls in the Legion, and they take Ed to the woods for a flogging. Instead, he’s shot trying to escape (by Frank), and the rest of the hooded Legion scatters.
Initially, at trial, they create a cockamamie story about how Ed Jackson was in love with Pearl, and that's what led to the tragedy. Odder still, they make Frank claim that he was in love with Pearl, too. It almost feels like this is the reason Frank finally breaks down on the stand and tells the truth. It's not the guilt at killing a pal, or the 11th-hour realization that xenophobia is bad; he just couldn’t stand anyone thinking he preferred the uglier woman.
As in the real Charles Poole case, all of them are sentences to life in prison. That's the end. Just that. So don’t join secret hooded hate groups, kids, or you’ll lose everything.
It was a tidy-enough lesson in 1937, but one we have to keep relearning, apparently. Once more from the top.
Movie Review: Island of Lost Souls (1932)
Thirty years ago my friend Craig told me he liked to begin his plays with characters entering the stage and basically saying, “Whew, glad that’s over.”
“Island of Lost Souls,” based on H.G. Wells’ 1896 novel “The Island of Dr. Moreau,” and which I watched, yes, because it was referenced in “Paterson,” begins similarly. Edward Parker (Richard Arlen) is picked up by a ship, the S.S. Covena, half mad on a life-raft, and for a moment I wondered if we’d get his tale in flashback. Nope. This is his “Whew.” His previous ship sunk, he seems to be its only survivor (no thought is given to the rest of the crew), and aboard the Covena he recovers nicely enough to deck the captain, a drunk piece of work named Davies (Stanley Fields). As reward, Davies sucker-punches him and deposits him, along with Davies’ cargo of wild animals, at their first port of call, which, earlier, he’d called “An island without a name. An island not on the chart.”
Thanks for everything, Julie Newmar
I’ve never read the novel, nor, before this, seen any of the story’s roughly half-dozen screen versions—from Germany’s “The Island of the Lost” in 1921 to John Frankenheimer’s 1996 remake with Marlon Brando and Val Kilmer—but I knew the basics: a doctor plays god with man and beast on an island. But I had always assumed Moreau was tinkering with both man and beast—that he was mixing genetic pools. Nope. Or not here anyway. Here, he takes animals and speeds up their evolutionary processes, which, he says, always tend toward the human. Apparently it’s not just apes that evolve into man; it’s everything.
Since his knowledge is incomplete, so are the results. He gets mostly missing links—hulking, hairy, monosyllabic creatures—although M’ling (Tetsu Komai) is a half-dog houseboy, while Lota (Kathleen Burke, film debut), Moreau’s most successful creation, is, as her film credit goes, “The Panther Woman.” Indeed, in the movie poster, she incorrectly gets all the credit. And the blame:
THE PANTHER WOMAN lured men—only to destroy them body and soul!
This is, what, eight years before Catwoman appeared? And 10 years before Simone Simon in “Cat People”? So we were already on board with that cat fantasy. Poor dogs, they get scraps. No superheroes, mostly pejorative metaphors.
Ever the scientist, Dr. Moreau (Charles Laughton) decides to throw Parker and Lota together. Can she seduce him? Will he fall in love? Will she? At the same time, like an idiot, he keeps experimenting on animals in the “House of Pain,” and since one cries out (in pain), Parker investigates. He draws the wrong conclusion: “They’re vivisecting a human being!” Like an idiot he confronts Moreau, who, like an idiot, explains everything. He even ends the macabre lecture in half-shadow, intoning ominously, “Do you know what it means to feel like a God?”
Way to go, Doc. Cards close to the chest, Doc.
In the midst of all of this, there’s a truly creepy moment when Parker and Lota flee, and they’re surrounded by the creatures in the jungle. She’s about to be assaulted by the hairy-faced Lawgiver (Bela Lugosi) when Moreau appears with a whip and we get this call and response:
Moreau: What is the law?
Sayer of the Law: Not to go on all fours, that is the law. Are we not men?
Beasts (in unison): Are we not men?
Moreau: What is the law?
Sayer of the Law: Not to spill blood, that is the law. Are we not men?
Beasts (in unison): Are we not men?
Yep, that’s where Devo got it. I never knew. Apparently “Island of Lost Souls” was particularly popular among bands of the ’80s and ’90s . Cf., “House of Pain.”
Banned in Britain
In the nearly 100 years since its release, what we want out of a horror film hasn’t changed much—this thing is still way creepy—but what we want in a leading man certainly has. Arlen is that 1930s all-American male: blunt, uncharismatic and unimaginative. You watch him act and think, “B pictures,“ which is where he wound up, despite co-starring in the award-winning “Wings” only four years earlier. He continued to act in movies and on TV into the 1970s.
I did like Leila Hyams as Ruth, the smart fiancée who tracks down Parker (she stopped making movies in 1936), and Paul Hurst as the captain of the ship who reluctantly joins the search (he died in ‘53). At Moreau’s, he’s plied with liquor, takes it all with a smile, and turns out to be not drunk at all. “Oh, you oughta see me when I’m real...” he says with a wink.
But it’s Laughton’s show. There’s a moment when he tells Parker the lengths it took to get his creatures to talk. Then he smiles a pleased-with-himself smile and says, “Someday I’ll create a woman and it’ll be easier.” I love that it’s both a joke (because women talk a lot, ha ha) and an inside joke (since he’s already created Lota), and Laughton manages to capture both of these feelings.
The ending is poetic justice. Moreau orders one of the missing links, Ouran (Hans Steinke), to kill Hurst before he gets to his ship. Since this goes against the Law, and since Ouran gets away with it, the creatures know the Law is bullshit. So they go after the one they truly hate: Moreau. They get him, strap him to a table, break out the knives. Cue scream. That, and the vivisection, got “Island of Lost Souls” banned in Britain until 1958, and even then it was censored. The original Paramount version wasn’t available in England until 2011.
So are movies like this where so many Americans get their anti-science bent? ”Lost Souls" understandably focuses on the horror of what Moreau does but not enough on the fact that, you know, he actually does it. He takes a panther and turns it into Kathleen Burke. I’m not saying he's not the villain, but give the man his props.