erik lundegaard

Movie Reviews - 1930s posts

Monday March 04, 2019

Movie Review: Great Guy (1936)

WARNING: SPOILERS

A few reasons why “Great Guy,” a mostly forgotten James Cagney film, is notable.  

Its protagonist, Johnny Cave (Cagney), works for the Bureau of Weights and Measures. Think on that for a moment. What would the modern equivalent be? A hero from, say, the Food Safety and Inspection Service? The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office? And how cool would this be, by the way, to have such cinematic heroes? C’mon, Hollywood: Not everyone has to be a cop.

Great Guy movie reviewIt’s also one the movies Cagney made during a contract dispute with Warner Bros. Back in 1930, he’d signed a 40-week deal but somehow, after he became a star, the contract kept going into perpetuity—like the reserve clause in Major League Baseball—which meant he was overpaid for a few weeks and underpaid ever after. In the mid-1930s, he split and made two movies for “poverty row” studio Grand National Pictures. This was the first. Neither did well and they helped sink the studio.

It’s also Cagney’s third and final go-round with Mae Clark. Maybe more notable: no grapefruit in the face (“The Public Enemy”) or dragging her across the floor by her hair (“Lady Killer”). Just a few hat jokes.

It’s just not notable as a movie.

Henry, Henry, Harry or James?
Here’s the plot: After Johnny Cave’s boss, Joel Green (Wallis Clark), is put in the hospital by corrupt ward boss Marty Cavanaugh (Robert Gleckler), Cave becomes the acting head of Weights & Measure. He then shows the ropes to his newest agent, and comic-relief Irishman, Pat Haley (James Burke), by catching chiselers adding weight to chickens and strawberries and the like at a local market. He does the same at a gas station. Then Cavanaugh shows up at Cave’s office and tries to make a deal. He tosses some of Cave’s pennies out the window to make a point, so Cave tosses Cavanaugh’s hat out the window to make the opposite point: Buzz off.

Since this is exactly what Green warned him about—Cavanaugh trying to bribe him—Cave should be on his toes. He isn’t. Without a struggle, he’s kidnapped by two of Cavanaugh’s men who then frame him for drunk driving and reckless endangerment. After that, he should definitely be on his toes, but no: He gets suckered again. In a back stairwell, a former wrestler, Joe Burton (Joe Sawyer), knocks him out and steals evidence against Abel Canning (Henry Kolker), who’s not only the head man but the boss of Cave’s fiancée, Janet (Clark). Luckily, Burton tries to chisel the chiselers—demanding an extra $5k rather than destroying the evidence. In the end, Cave and the cops finally get the goods on Canning and Cavanaugh. As for the mayor who tried to bribe Cave earlier with a sinecure? Who knows? All we know is Cave pushes the cops out of Burton’s room so he can beat up Cavanaugh. The End.

Yeah, kind of a mess. Kind of episodic. But there’s a reason.

The movie is based on three short stories by James Edward Grant that appeared in The Saturday Evening Post in 1933 and ’34. Each story is self-contained. Each has its specific villain. 

  • “Full Measure” (June ’33) is the Cavanaugh story. He tries to threaten/bribe Cave, then kidnaps and frames him for armed robbery. At the police station, Cavanaugh tries to strongarm Cave again; except Joel Green is there to tape-record the bribe. Cave then shoves the cops out of the holding area to beat up Cavanaugh.
  • “Johnny Cave Goes Subtle” (March’34) is the Joe Burton one. Cave is now acting head of the dept. (Green is in the hospital from health reasons), and the villain is a coal magnate named Anson B. Revell, who hires Burton to steal Cave’s evidence. After getting beat up in the stairwell, Cave fingers Burton in the police mugshot book. Cave then frames Burton with counterfeit dough, Burton confesses, Cave confesses the money wasn’t counterfeit, then he beats up Burton in the police holding area.
  • In “Larceny on the Right” (Sept. ’34), Cave is now head of the dept. First, the mayor offers him a sinecure, then there’s a shakedown from Commissioner Hanlon, who frames Cave in the media. “Public sentiment is a funny thing,” he says. “The same people writing you fan letters will be the first to cheer when you get the bounce. It won’t be necessary to prove you have been tipping the till. The accusation will be enough.” Distraught, Cave runs into his former boxing opponent, and onetime bootlegger, Pete “One-Round” Reilly, who’s having a bon voyage party before leaving for England. (In the movie, he appears at the 11th hour.) Eventually, all is made right. I forget if Cave beats anybody up in the end.

That’s the source material, and unfortunately the screenwriters just kind of mashed everything together. They made Hanlon a police captain and a good guy. And they turned Janet’s boss, Canning, into the main bad guy. But it doesn’t cohere. It’s too many villains pursuing our hero in similar ways.

None of these stories are online, by the way. I read them in old, bound editions of The Saturday Evening Post at the downtown Seattle library. I was trying to see if the dialogue I liked came from the stories. Here’s an example: When Cave’s boss makes him acting director, he asks him to keep his fists in his pockets. At the gas station, though, the chiseling attendant starts a fight, and Johnny decks him. Then he looks at his fists, forlorn.

Pat: Did you break your hand?
Johnny: Nah. A promise.

My favorite: Johnny shows up late for lunch with Janet. Even as he’s getting chastised, his eyes keep drifting toward the top of her head. Finally he says the following: 

My best friend gets hit by a streetcar and winds up in the hospital, civil war in Spain and earthquakes in Japan, and now you wear that hat. 

Cagney: And now you wear that hat

The writer of the short stories, James Edward Grant, is an interesting case. Shortly after these stories were published he moved to Hollywood, where he quickly became one of John Wayne’s favorite screenwriters. (Among other films, he wrote Wayne’s paean to HUAC, “Big Jim McLain.”) But the lines I liked aren’t in his stories. So they came from one of these guys:

  • Henry McCarty, 32 credits, mostly silents, with “The Lodge in the Wilderness” (1926) his most famous by IMDb’s algorithms. This is his second-to-last picture, but he lived another 20 years.
  • Henry Johnson, 34 credits, with “$10 Raise” (1935), his most famous. This is his third-to-last picture. He also lived another 20 years.
  • Harry Ruskin, 64 credits, all talkies, with “The Postman Always Rings Twice” (1946) his most famous. “Great Guy,” which gives him an “Additional Dialogue” credit, is one of his earlier pictures.

If I had to make a guess, I’d go Ruskin, who also wrote a book called “Comedy is a Serious Business.” It’s out of print now.

Lost in transcription
Because of Grand National’s bankruptcy, “Great Guy” entered the public domain decades ago, so a lot of versions are simply copies of copies. The one I saw via Amazon Prime was almost blurry—with the shittiest subtitles I’ve ever seen. Early, Green tells Cave: “Keep your fists in your pockets.” This is how it got transcribed:

Great Guy bad subtitles

And when Pat Haley is chatting up a pretty girl with his usual blarney, “Do you know I’m the first son of the first son of the first son for 600 years straight down to—” Cagney finishes the thought: “Haile Selassie.” It’s a small joke, going for the Emperor of Ethiopia rather than anyone Irish; but in the transcription they shortened Haile Selassie’s name a bit. To this: 

Hey.

Cagney still has energy and that great disgusted look he gives crooks. He and Mae Clark still have a spark. But “Great Guy” isn’t notable—despite all the notations I've made above.

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Posted at 10:36 AM on Mar 04, 2019 in category Movie Reviews - 1930s   |   Permalink  
Wednesday January 30, 2019

Movie Review: Something to Sing About (1937)

WARNING: SPOILERS

In “Lady Killer” (1933), James Cagney plays a NY gangster who flees to LA and becomes a Hollywood star. In “Something to Sing About,” Cagney plays a NY bandleader, Terry Rooney, who is sent to LA and becomes a Hollywood star. It was a theme.

It was certainly a theme for Cagney and other stars of the era. Most of them arrived from somewhere else and quickly became famous in a way that no one prior to the 20th century had ever been famous: worldwide. Clark Gable assumed the bubble was going to burst, and Cagney felt similar. He was a vaudeville hoofer who snagged a lead in a Broadway play, Penny Arcade, which was optioned by Al Jolson, which led to the call.

“I came out on a three-week guarantee,” he writes in his autobiography, “and I stayed, to my absolute amazement, for 31 years.”

Parallel lives
Something to Sing About review Philip AhnFor a  time, “Something to Sing About” is a send-up of the Hollywood factory similar to what “Singin’ in the Rain” would do 15 years later: experts on diction, clothing and hairline descend on our hapless hero to “improve” him. At the same time, he's getting the brush-off from the studio. The studio mogul, B.O. Regan (Gene Lockhart, the judge in “Miracle on 34th Street”), is having contract trouble with his exotic Russian star, Steffie Hajos (Mona Barrie), and he doesn't want the same thing to happen to Rooney. So even when the rushes come back and Rooney is dynamite, Regan orders everyone to tell him he’s no good. (BTW: Is B.O. a swipe at L.B. Mayer? One assumes.)

There are other Cagney parallels. On the last day of shooting, for a big fight scene, the stuntmen decide to really sock Rooney. Cf., “Public Enemy” director Wild Bill Wellman telling Donald Cook, playing Cagney’s brother, to really punch him.

Another possible parallel: After wrapping the film, and ready to chuck the whole crazy movie business, Rooney and his girl, Rita (newcomer Evelyn Daw), take a cruise to the South Seas. When they return they’re amazed to discover he’s a star; he’s mobbed for autographs outside a San Francisco movie theater. According to IMDb, something similar happened to Cagney:

After several supporting roles, Cagney filmed his breakout movie, The Public Enemy (1931), in early 1931. When filming was completed, Cagney returned to New York, thinking the movie would be nothing special. A few months later he was surprised to see a long line of moviegoers outside a New York theater where “The Public Enemy” was being shown. Cagney had become a star.

I say this is a “possible” parallel because I can’t find corroboration. Cagney’s autobiography makes it sound like Warners worked him nonstop—he made five movies in 1931, three in ’32, and five again in ’33. Where’s the time to let Cagney walk the streets of New York for months on end? And while he was under contract? 

Anyway, because the studio badmouths Rooney, who becomes a star, I’d assumed the conflict for the rest of the movie would be trying to resign him when Rooney has all the leverage. Nope. He's ready to sign right away. The conflict is he’s now married, which the studio doesn’t want, so Rita has to pretend she’s merely his secretary. Why he doesn’t bargain better, or just walk, I don’t know. But that’s the plot for the second half: Rita chafing under the role, and Rooney having to win her back with a big song in New York.

It’s not much of a movie, and the version I saw on Amazon Prime was a bit blurry because it’s been in the public domain for a while. Grand National, the studio Cagney made it for, went out of business in 1939. It actually went out of business because of this movie. It was their shot and getting out of “poverty row” so they put a lot of money into it, but it didn’t do well at the box office. In a movie about elevating a fictional studio, Cagney helped sink a real one.

But there is something of value here.

Non-parallel lives
First: I was intrigued that William Frawley was in the picture and wondered what he looked like 15 years before “I Love Lucy” began. Turns out: the exact same.

I was also intrigued that Philip Ahn was in it. I’d seen him on “Kung Fu” in the ’70s and recently (for me) in “The Shadow” movie serial from 1940. Here, he plays Ito, Rooney’s Hollywood valet, who speaks embarrassing pidgin English: “Honorable Master” and “humble servant” and the like. While bowing. 

Guess what? It’s an act. Not Ahn’s, Ito’s.

At one point, Rooney is depressed, because he thinks his acting is awful, and he says something about how only Ito will talk to him and all he’ll say is “Yes, sir, please.” So Ito drops the act, speaking impeccable English, and Rooney does a double take.

Ito: My former employers felt that the accent lent a certain dignity...
Rooney: Pull up a chair. Sit down. I want to hear about this. Tell me about yourself.
Ito: I came here aspiring to be an actor.
Rooney: Uh huh. And they couldn’t mold you, huh?
Ito: They didn’t even try. 

Every once in a while, in an old Hollywood movie, you’ll see a character who doesn’t play into the racist stereotypes of the day. But I don’t think I’ve ever seen one that actually points out the racist stereotypes of the day—certainly not in the ’30s. Even our hero doesn’t get it. Rooney thinks he has something in common with Ito—“molding” by the studio—but Ito lets him know that’s not the case with the heartbreaking line “They didn’t even try.” What’s a burden to Rooney is the opportunity Ito never got.

Indeed, when you pull back, it’s worse. We find out Rooney's real name is “Thaddeus McGillicuddy,“ but he changed it to succeed. To succeed, he has to become more like the mass. For Ito to succeed, he has to be less like the mass; he has to adapt a pidgin dialect and bow and scrape. America is telling Rooney “Be like us,” but it’s telling Ito, “Be the other thing we like; the thing not like us. Then we’ll let you eat.” 

They didn’t even try. It says so much, and it’s nothing to sing about.

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Posted at 07:19 AM on Jan 30, 2019 in category Movie Reviews - 1930s   |   Permalink  
Friday December 14, 2018

Movie Review: Flash Gordon (1936)

WARNING: SPOILERS

It’s just a metaphor for China, isn’t it? It’s taking the quintessential early 20th-century boys adventure story—travel to the Far East!—and sticking it in outer space, where the oriental tyrant lusts after the blonde woman and the exotic beauty lusts after the Teutonic hero. Ming (Charles Middleton) is the giveaway—in name, looks, manner and gongs. He’s a Chinese emperor in space.

Flash Gordon 1936 movie reviewIs this where we started the thrones-in-space trope? I was noticing this even in 2017’s “Last Jedi”:

You know what really bugged me about that scene? The throne. Dude’s sitting on a fucking throne in the midst of a big red empty in the middle of a spaceship. Can we get past this throne trope already? How about a desk with some paperwork on it? How about a comfy couch with two corgis?

Secondary thought: Is Capt. Kirk’s chair a kind of throne, too? Or is it a command chair because it swivels? Can a throne swivel? Not onomatopoeically. Throne, like stone, seems to demand stasis.

I’d heard that “Flash Gordon” had been an inspiration for “Star Wars,” but here at least (I haven’t seen the sequels yet), there’s no strong connection. Yes, there’s a princess, but she’s not our princess. Yes, we get a few screen wipes. The most obvious connection is King Vultan’s city in the sky, which is like Cloud City in “Empire Strikes Back,” and just as absurd. Much work goes into keeping it aloft but no one asks the obvious question: Who thought it was a good idea to put it there in the first place?

On the whole, “Flash Gordon” is simply battles with various hawkmen, sharkmen, lion men and monkey men. 

Dr. Zarkov and his Interstellar Inventions
It begins in a planetarium, where two elderly scientists (George Cleveland and Richard Tucker) look at the stars and wring their hands:

Prof. Hensley: We are doomed, Professor Gordon. The planet is rushing madly toward the earth. And no human power can stop it!
Prof. Gordon: You’re right, Henry. It’s only a question of time. Soon the earth will be smashed to atoms!

Thanks, guys. We’re then shown cities throughout the world in panic. Well, “panic.” It’s stock footage, and the white cities (London, Rome, Paris) tend to be fairly placid, while the darker places (Shanghai, India, Africa, Arabia) tend toward riots. The titles themselves are indicative: three European cities, one Chinese city, and then, fuck it, let’s go countries and continents.

Professor Gordon is, yes, Flash’s father, but the two will never meet in this serial, and Prof. Gordon, that old hand-wringer, will never be much help. In fact, he’ll get everything wrong. At one point, he and Hensley discuss a possibility to save the planet only to dismiss it. “Zarkov’s mad, his theory fantastic,” Gordon says.

Dr. Zarkov (Frank Shannon) turns out to be correct, his theory totally doable. By the second chapter, he’s actually saved the earth:

Zarkov: The course of this planet has been changed. The earth will not be destroyed.
Flash: Ah ha, that’s fine. Where’s Dale?

“Ah ha, that’s fine, where’s Dale?” Dude, he saved the earth! I don’t think Zarkov gets his necessary props in this serial. He does everything. It’s called “Flash Gordon” but what does Flash really do? Fights some guys? Then fights more guys? He falls in love (with Dale) and is lusted after (by Aura). He makes friends with enemies. That’s about it. Mostly he fights.

What does Zarkov do?

  • Invents a rocket ship that can land on distant planets and return to Earth—in the 1930s!
  • Convinces Ming to divert his planet’s course so it won’t crash into Earth
  • Saves Flash’s life after the various tortures of the Static Room
  • Creates an explosive device that allows Flash and others to escape King Vultan’s atomic furnace rooms
  • Creates a substitute for radium that will allow Sky City to remain aloft
  • Throws a grenade at the fire monster, saving Flash
  • Helps Flash regain his memory after Princess Aura has wiped it out
  • Invents an invisibility machine that again saves Flash’s life  
  • Electrifies the door to the lab preventing Ming’s men from entering
  • Figures out a way to signal Earth
  • Figures out a way to return to Earth

It’s the invisibility machine that really got me. When did he have time to invent that? In his spare time in Ming’s lab? The guy’s Einstein and Edison rolled into one! This thing should be called “Dr. Zarkov and his Interstellar Inventions.” He really should talk to his agent—he’s getting short shrift here. 

Does Princess Aura (Priscilla Lawson) get short shrift, too? Yes, there are numerous instances when, in her goal to win Flash and destroy Dale, she imperils both. But just as often she saves Flash. She shows up at the 11th hour, gun drawn, to save him from King Kala’s octopus (Chapter 3) and Vultan’s “Static Room” (Chapter 7). She joins him in the arena to save him from the monkey men (Chapter 1) and the Orangopoid (Chapter 8). What’s Dale doing in the meantime? Cringing. Fainting. Aura actually develops as a character—tamping down her love/lust for Flash to accept the hand of the monumentally dull Prince Barin (Richard Alexander). She so pisses off her father, Ming, that by the end he’s ready to let her die: “You have chosen to consort with traitors, you shall share their fate.” Thanks, dad.

At least she gets a reward. In the final chapter, after Ming enters “the sacred palace of the great god Tayo, from which no man returns,” she becomes Queen and sits on the throne.

Except ... Is the serial forgetting Barin’s intro from Chapter 5?

I am Prince Barin, real ruler of Mongo. I was dethroned as a child by Ming the Merciless who killed my father.

I’d assumed this was setting up our ending, with Ming dead and Barin restored to his rightful patriarchal place. Nope. Ming winds up dead (ish), Barin winds up with Aura, but the throne goes to Aura. Too bad we don’t get that conversations:

Barin: Can’t I sit on it for just a little?
Aura: No.
Barin: Please? I am the rightful ruler, you know.
Aura: You are a rightful nothing.
Barin: You’d let me do it if I were Flash.
Aura: You are not Flash!

I was impressed with Buster Crabbe, the former Olympic gold medal swimmer. He’s athletic, earnest, shockingly handsome, and not a bad actor by serial standards. He’s certainly better than most of the actors here. Barin is a limp noodle, Thon worse, while Vultan overacts horribly. In the first chapter, Flash’s dress- shirt-and-jodhpurs look is torn, Doc Savage style, and thereafter he wears skintight Mongo suits. Just as often, he’s shirtless, glistening with sweat, and wearing boots and big-belted supertight shorts. The movie apparently ran into trouble with censors because of some of Aura’s more revealing outfits, necessitating refilming, but no one noticed the near-naked bondage sequences with the star? Maybe that’s the one nice thing about being sexually marginalized in a puritanical society: Your kink may pass unnoticed.

What’s the role of Jean Rogers’ Dale Arden? Love interest (for Flash), lust interest (for Ming and Vultan), rival (for Aura), general damsel in distress. She also looks good in her midriff-baring Mongo outfits (sans bellybutton). But does she ever do anything? Plan? Scheme? Aura’s best revenge may be that she won over her share of fan boys. In “Cliffhanger: A Pictorial History of the Motion Picture Serial,” Alan G. Barbour writes, “Many fans felt that Flash should have been interested in Princess Aura rather than the constantly screaming Dale Arden.”

Aura also never stepped on anyone’s lines. From Chapter 9:

Dale: We must go after them.
Zarkov: No, we must not. There’ll—
Dale: No mo—
Zarkov: There‘ll be  danger.
Dale: No more than here.

How Flash and Dale wind up on Mongo may be the most absurd element of a story full of them. In Chapter 1, Flash, on a flight back to America to see his father, is flirting with Dale, whom he’s just met, when the plane is buffeted by forces of the oncoming planet. The pilot tells everyone to bail out, adding helpfully, “You’ll find a parachute on every seat. We were ordered to bring them aboard in anticipation of any trouble.” Where do they land after they bail out together? Of all the places on Earth? Right next to Dr. Zarkov and his rocket ship.

After an absurdity like that, monkey men and orangopoids are easy to take.

Ode to Aura
Is Flash even necessary for the main storyline of “Flash Gordon”? Doesn’t he cause more trouble—with his looks and his fists—than he solves? You can imagine a much shorter version if it was just Zarkov: He arrives, convinces Ming not to crash into Earth, invents his invisibility machine, uses it, plants a bomb under Ming’s throne. In the confusion, he escapes back to Earth. The End.

One thing Flash and Dale do accomplish: They keep turning enemies into friends: Thon, Barin, Aura, and especially Vultan, who, for several chapters, is truly villainous: all but raping Dale Arden and subjecting Flash, Thon and Barin to the atomic furnace rooms, where they toil along with other slave labor. Question: Does Zarkov’s substitute for radium mean that furnace rooms are no longer necessary? Or are shirtless slaves still shoveling this substitute into his furnaces?

“Flash Gordon” supposedly had a budget three times the norm for a serial ($360,000), and the special effects aren’t bad for the time. The rocket ship (left over from the 1930 sci-fi musical “Just Imagine”) turns in a circle and lands shakily but charmingly. A few scenes with a giant lizard in the same shot as Flash and Dale are particularly well done. More quaint are Ming’s mores. He doesn’t just take Dale; he feels he needs to be married to her. So, via hypnosis and banged gongs, he attempts an elaborate wedding ceremony. That also includes scenes from “Just Imagine.”

I don’t know how they measure the financial clout of serials (which, after all, played before features), but supposedly “Flash Gordon” made more than any Universal film—let alone serial—that year. Yet first-time director Frederick Stephani didn’t direct anything else until TV in the early ’50s. Why?

It’s interesting who went on. Buster Crabbe wound up having such a popular and extensive movie serial career, he’s been dubbed “King of the Serials.” Jean Rogers kept acting until 1950, Charles Middleton until his death in 1949, Richard Alexander all the way to 1970. For Patricia Lawson, “Miss Miami Beach” of 1935, this was her first credited movie appearance, but she would manage only five more credits (and 23 uncredited roles) before retiring from movies in 1941. Supposedly she joined the military; there are rumors she lost a leg and opened up a stationary shop in LA. She died from a duodenal ulcer on August 27, 1958 in a Los Angeles VA hospital. She was 44.

SLIDESHOW


  • Alex Raymond’s comic strip was born when King Features needed a spaceman to compete with the popular “Buck Rogers,” whose comic strip debuted in 1929. “Flash” didn't show up until five years later, January 1934, but beat “Buck” to the big screen by several years. Both would be played by Buster Crabbe.

  • The special effects aren't bad for the time. 

  • Here, too, as Dale Arden almost walks into a giant lizard on Mongo. 

  • Less so here. It's Mongo's plodding welcome committee. “Grab whatever's left in wardrobe.”

  • Ming the Merciless, a Chinese emperor in space. 

  • What begins as a battle to save Earth becomes a battle to save Dale.

  • The first of many arena fights—this time against the monkey men.

  • I suppose Constantine Romanoff (real name: Friedrich William Heinrich August Meyer) had prouder moments on screen, but he made the best of “Monkey Man.”

  • Crabbe would‘ve made a good Doc Savage. 

  • Or an Aquaman. If Aquaman had existed. (He was created five years later.) 

  • Typical Flash/Dale shot: He’s determined, she's frightened. 

  • Typical Flash/Aura shot: He's determined, she's ... determined, too. 

  • The risqueness: A hypnotized Dale is sent to bed in anticpation of Ming...

  • ... and cowers before the rapacious Vultan. 

  • Vultan, aroused. A year earlier, he played the engineer's assistant in the stateroom scene in the Marx Brothers' “A Night at the Opera.”

  • The orangopoid. Mugato, “Star Trek” fans?

  • In the 1960s, journalists were amazed at the shots of the Earth that Apollo astronauts sent back, but moviegoers had been seeing such shots for decades. 

  • Sadly, “spaceographed” never caught on. 

  • Neither did “Stratosphere Party,” although it sounds fun. 

  • All's well that ends well. *FIN*
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Posted at 06:45 AM on Dec 14, 2018 in category Movie Reviews - 1930s   |   Permalink  
Monday December 10, 2018

Movie Review: The Spider's Web (1938)

WARNING: SPOILERS

In its current listing, Wikipedia credits “The Spider’s Web” as the first superhero movie serial ever. It was released in 1938, two years before “The Green Hornet” and “The Shadow,” and three years before “Captain Marvel” truly ushered in the superhero age.

So what makes a superhero serial? A better question: What makes a superhero? Off the top of my head, I’d say:

  • superpowers (but not necessarily: Batman)
  • mask (but not necessarily: Superman)
  • fights crime (but not necessarily: X-Men)
  • urban (but not necessarily: Black Panther)

The Spider's Web movie reviewI might also add this:

  • Born in comic books (rather than radio, pulps, comic strips)

None of those guys before Captain Marvel were born in comic books. The Shadow began as a radio narrator who was so popular they created his own radio show around him; then he took over the pulps. The Green Hornet began on radio as a modern update of The Lone Ranger, who, in Wikipedia’s classification, is a western hero rather than a super hero. The Spider began in the pulps in 1933 to compete with The Shadow—and wound up beating him to the movies by two years.

Overall, at least in their serial incarnations, these three are basically the same guy: a rich dude with no superpowers and an ethnic sidekick, who puts on a mask, fedora and trenchcoat to fight a criminal mastermind bent on taking over the city. In this, The Spider should suffer in comparison. The Shadow has the best calling card (his laugh and catchphrase), the Green Hornet has the best sidekick (Kato), and both have better masks. To modern eyes, the Spider’s mask, with holes for eyes and mouth, looks suspiciously like bondage gear.

And yet “The Spider’s Web” is slightly better than the first offerings from Shadow and Hornet. Its lead, Warren Hull, has energy and verve throughout—even before he puts on the mask and cape. He’s not overshadowed by his sidekick (see: Hornet) nor is his main power given to the villain (see: Shadow). Plus Iris Meredith’s Nita Van Sloan has it all over her female counterparts.

But the serial, like all serials, gets bogged down in the sameness of it all: the hidden villain in his lair sending out his men to implement his orders; the hero and his team working to counteract them; the police stymied and useless and suspicious of the hero; the cliffhanger, the escape, and the regroup. Repeat.

I’m curious: Has anyone with talent ever taken one of these serials—which can run 300 minutes—and edited it down to about 90-100 minutes? So it has a modern pace? So there’s less pause and bad fill and it flows? What would that look like? Could it be good?

Friendly neighborhood Spider
I first heard of The Spider in 1974, while reading Stan Lee’s “Origins of Marvel Comics.“ I was 11. Stan takes us back to the glory years. By 1962, he had created the Fantastic Four and the Hulk and was looking around for other characters to invent and promote:

In the long-dead, practically Paleolithic era when I had been on the verge of approaching teenagehood, one of my favorite pulp magazine heroes was a stalwart named The Spider. He wore a slouch hat and a finger ring with the image of an arachnid—a ring which, when he punched a foe fearlessly in the face, would leave its mark, an impression of a spider. It was The Spider’s calling card, and it sent goose pimples up and down my ten-year-old spine. More than that, I can still remember how the magazine’s subtitle grabbed me. It was called The Spider— but after his name were the never-to-be-forgotten words: Master of Men. Just play with that for a moment—roll it around on your tongue, savor the fateful, fascinating flavor—The Spider, Master of Men. My mind was made up, the stage was set, the cards had been dealt. I was no more than a puppet in the shadow show of destiny.

Yes, Spider-Man. The similarities between the two characters end with the name.

Except watching this, you do see other similarities. The Spider has webbing on his mask and cape. He’s fairly athletic, can climb easily and swings from ropes a lot. Then there’s the villain: The Octopus. He’s not a scientist, doesn’t have mechanical arms, but in the 1938 battle between The Spider and The Octopus, it’s easy to see the trace outline of the epic Spidey/Doc Ock battles to come.

The serial begins well—with villainy and the chaos it causes. We see trains colliding followed by numerous headlines about sabotage, the bombing of freight trucks, a fire destroying the airport. It’s all the work of the Octopus. Who is? Just a guy in a white mask wearing a white cloak who hobbles on a crutch to the big mahogany desk in his lair, and then, to his men—who are all cloaked in black and sitting politely in chairs in front of him—announces plans and issues threats via a raspy voice into a microphone.

Roberts from the Bankers Association shows up and we get this exchange:

Roberts: Where do I fit in?
Octopus: You don’t. You will be eliminated as an obstacle. Tomorrow morning you will no longer be chairman of Roberts Co. Inc. My man will take your place.
Roberts: You’re crazy!
Octopus: I’m quite serious. ... Very soon I will have control of every key industry in this country. I will have the very nerve centers of the nation in the palm of my hand. 

That last line almost calls for a “Mwa-ha-ha!” but instead the Octopus calmly shoots Roberts, then announces the next target: our hero, Richard Wentworth (Hull). Why Wentworth? Who knows? But it’s a classic example of picking on the wrong guy. 

At this point, and despite the headlines, our hero is oblivious to the Octopus’ doings. He just wants to go on a trip and settle down with his new wife, Nita Van Sloan, who knows he’s The Spider. They’re in a plane that he’s flying. Are they coming back from some place? Just flying around for the day? They’re about to land when the Octopus’ men sabotage the runway, forcing them to take off again and bail out. 

For a ’30s serial, it’s nonstop action for a while. The bailout leads to fistfights on the ground and Wentworth even kills a few dudes; then he says to his assistant Ram Singh (Kenne Duncan in beard and turban), “Nita just landed in the meadow. You get her into the city as fast as you can—I think the Jefferson Highway will have the least traffic.” That last bit of micro-managing cracked me up ... until I realized it was part of the plot, since Wentworth discovers the Octopus’ men plan to blow up the Jefferson Highway bridge. So off he goes in pursuit. 

It may be a new series but there’s a nice in medias res aspect to it. On the plane, Wentworth tells Nita he’s putting The Spider behind him. Obviously the attempt on their lives changes things, but we don’t see him as The Spider until the last few minutes of the half-hour opener. The Octopus plans to blow up the bus terminal with a bomb on a bus. The Spider and Ram Singh clear the terminal by firing off guns. After a gun battle with the bad guys, The Spider is driving the bomb-ticking bus away, when ... boom! Except of course, in the next episode, we see The Spider leave the bus and pull down the garage door before the boom.

Here’s how all those cliffhangers work out:

 Ch. Cliffhanger Escape
1 Bomb goes off in bus Spider is driving He'd already gotten out
2 Spider and Nita on fast-falling dumbwaiter thing Ram Singh slows descent
3 Spider seems electrified after being punched into bank of switches He isn‘t. He gets up groggily
4 Spider is gassed He gets up, opens window, leaves
5 Bank of lights is pushed on Spider, who cowers He flattens against the wall
6 Car, with Spider on runner, crashes into electrical transformer He jumps off at last minute
7 Door with jagged edges threatens to close on KO’ed Spider He wakes up and rolls away
8 Fights O's men in car that goes into drink He and Ram Singh jump off beforehand
9 Spider and Ram Singh plunge in elevator whose cables are shot out They initiate the ”Automatic Brake Control“
10 He plummets in plane that's aflame Uses high speed to put out the flames
11 Rockslide Spider jumps from car in time
12 One side of wire Spider dangles from is cut loose He swings into a brick wall, then drops to the ground
13 A motor on a chain swings toward the Spider He jumps out of the way
14 Falls through trap door and dangles by rope upside down Slips out of rope
15 n/a n/a

You pity the screenwriters. You imagine them in the writers room, exhausted, drunk, or both, saying, “OK, what the fuck can happen to him now?” 

I admit being excited at the end of Chapter 12, “The Spider Falls,” when, pursued, he shimmies across a wire high above a courtyard and the bad guys—who seem unable to shoot him from like 10 feet away—cut one side of the wire. I’m thinking, “Hey, he’s going to swing to safety! It’ll be like Spider-Man!” We’d already seen him swinging several times—at the Bureau of Power & Light in Chapter 3; and onto a double-decker bus in Chapter 8—so we know he can do it. And he does—but into a brick wall. It’s more George of the Jungle than Spider-Man. But for this period it’ll do.

Arguing against the hero
There are missed opportunities throughout—scenes that indicate a better serial. My favorite is from Chapter 13. By now Wentworth has figured out that The Octopus, who keeps killing members of the Bankers Association, is a member of the Bankers Association, and, in his living room, he holds forth before the other members of his team with the following written on a chalkboard:

Reynolds        Gordon
Bronson         Gray
Mason            Frank
Chase            Crane

“Now that Chase has been eliminated,” Wentworth says (he was kidnapped in the last chapter), “we find that our search is down to three men: Gray, the banker; Gordon, head of the power company; and Frank, head of the broadcast company.”

Imagine if we’d learned about all of these men earlier—and if they’d had distinguishing personalities or features rather than being vague background figures. Might’ve made a pretty good whodunnit. We could’ve been trying to figure out the identity of The Octopus with Wentworth. But of course that would’ve taken planning, time and talent. 

Ironically, the above scene also includes an example of why vigilantes like The Spider are dangerous. After a brief discussion, Wentworth says the following: “Gray is a very powerful man in this city. Nevertheless, we must go on the assumption that he is the Octopus and let him prove that he isn’t.” Wait. Guilty until proven innocent? In such scenes, Hull’s dynamism actually works against him. He comes off as dangerous.

He was certainly a danger to Charlie Dennis in Chapter 4. Once upon a time, Wentworth helped youthful gas station owner Charlie build a radio, and more recently Charlie was able to get on the Hertzenband(?) wavelength, where he heard men talking in a kind of code; so he alerts his mentor. Wentworth listens, too, and hands Charlie money. “Buy some candy for the kids,” he says. As Wentworth is figuring out the code (the letters and number correspond to pages and words in Webster’s dictionary), and realizes it's the work of the Octopus, does he get back with Charlie? No. Who does? The Octopus' men. They figure out someone is on their wavelength, show up at the gas station and shoot Charlie dead. Then they blow up the gas station. By the time Wentworth finally arrives, he's distraught. He cries over Charlie’s corpse.

I'm kidding about this last part. It's actually worse: Wentworth never finds out what happened to Charlie. How awful is that? The kid has served his purpose in the story and can be eliminated—by both the bad guys and the writers. I get the former but why did the latter eliminate him in this sudden, brutal manner? And why blow up the gas station? Yes, it reveals the menace of the bad guys but it also reveals the obtuseness of our hero. Were scenes cut? 

There's a lot of suspect actions on Wentworth's part. He kidnaps a switchboard operator who is being blackmailed by the Octopus, and questions her until she faints. Then he involves her newsboy brother, Johnny, and almost gets him killed. He often uses Nita as bait. As for The Octopus’ true identity? It turns out to be Chase—the very guy Wentworth eliminated from contention. 

It's as if the serial is an argument against its hero. 

One more time with feeling
Even so, “The Spider’s Web” became a big hit for Columbia. (Does anyone know how they measure serial popularity?) So much so they turned the “Shadow” into a virtual remake: businesses targeted by masked /invisible villain who turns out to be one of the businessmen; incompetent cops suspecting hero; sideplots including raygun that causes airplanes to plummet; early references to television.

Each hero, too, has a third identity with underworld ties. For The Shadow it’s Lin Chang; for The Spider, Blinky McQuade, an eyepatch-wearing con who sounds a like Popeye. He extracts relevant info from time to time. He’s so good at it, one wonders why Wentworth ever bothers with The Spider.

THE SPIDER SLIDESHOW


  • The Spider began in the pulps in 1933 to compete with The Shadow—and wound up beating him to the movies by two years. In fact, ”The Shadow“ serial, also created by Columbia Pictures, pretty much followed the blueprint of ”The Spider's Web.“ 

  • You have a rich guy who plays a masked superhero at night (The Shadow's mask was cooler, less fetish-y)...

  • ...who also adopts a third identity: a man with underworld ties who extracts info from the bad guys. 

  • Buck Rainey's ”Serial Film Stars“ references Meredith's ”ethereal charm, and attractive, restrained acting style." She certainly made this more watchable. 

  • We never see The Octopus outside of this room. The movie may be Spider vs. Octopus but we‘ve got a long way to go to reach Spidey vs. Doc Ock. 

  • But at least we get an early version of web-swinging.  

  • Here, too. Did anything look cooler to kids in 1938?

  • Of course, the police suspect Wentworth of being The Spider, whom they suspect of being a criminal. They’re right on both counts. 

  • Caught. Not in flagrante delicto, despite appearances. 

  • Nita, wondering when the honeymoon can begin. *FIN* 
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Posted at 08:41 AM on Dec 10, 2018 in category Movie Reviews - 1930s   |   Permalink  
Sunday December 02, 2018

Movie Review: Movie Crazy (1932)

WARNING: SPOILERS

I watched this one night on FilmStruck (RIP) because it was a Harold Lloyd comedy and I hadn’t seen many if those. I came away thinking I didn’t particularly like Harold Lloyd. At least I didn’t like the character he plays here, Harold Hall, a kid from Kansas City who dreams of being a movie star. When the wrong publicity photo is sent to a studio head—a shot of a handsome man—he’s invited to LA for a screen test. Havoc ensues.

Is he the anti-Marx Brothers? The Marxes brought chaos wherever they went—but intentionally. They didn’t revel in the chaos or apologize for it. It just was. They just were. They popped pretensions in part because they didn’t have any.

Movie Crazy with Harold LloydHarold Hall is all pretension. He assumes he’s a great actor but isn’t. He’s well-meaning but a walking disaster area. He cares about the problems he causes but keeps causing more. He huffs, surprised, at everything.

I found most of it annoying; I found none of it funny. 

Yet I loved Constance Cummings as the love interest, Mary Sears, a movie star, who is first amused by the funny little man—she nicknames him “Trouble”—then intrigued because he doesn’t make a pass at her like every other man. But he’s too dim to know she’s also the Hispanic actress on the set—she’s made up Spanish for a role—and she uses this mistaken-identity to test him. He fails. Every time. He can’t stand up to the Spanish actress so he has to lie to Mary—the same woman. Eventually, she tosses him to the curb. Ah, but he lucks into more opportunities. Then out of them. Then he feels sorry for himself.

Example. He sees her walking into a friend’s house, writes a note and gives it to the maid, who gives it to Mary. She tears it up, writes him a note: “There is no need waiting out there. I have nothing more to say to you.” Ouch. Except she writes it on the back of an invitation to a dinner/dance at the Falcon Hotel in honor of such-and-such, and that's the only part he reads. He assumes she wants to meet him there. And there, in the hotel bathroom, he accidentally switches jackets with a magician, whose pockets and sleeves are lined with birds, mice, etc. Chaos ensues.

The big final set piece goes like this:

  • Harold enters a phone booth to make a call.
  • It’s a prop for a movie that is wheeled onto the set.
  • There, Mary’s ex tells him to leave. “If I can’t have her nobody can. I’d kill her first.” Yikes!
  • Harold objects but is ineffectual. The ex, Vance (Kenneth Thomson), mocks him, bullies him, kicks him in the shins, then knocks him unconscious into a wicker basket, closing the lid.
  • The wicker basket is wheeled onto the set of Mary’s/Vance’s picture, where the director says to keep filming the next scene no matter what.
  • Harold emerges mid-scene, he and Vance fight, and it lasts like 10 minutes, through various permutations. It’s all filmed.
  • The head of the studio sees the footage, thinks it’s hilarious, and signs Harold to a contract. Mary forgives him. The End.

Not sure why this made the Criterion collection.

“Movie Crazy” is one of the last directing credits for Clyde Bruckman, who directed Buster Keaton in “The General,” and who helped develop Laurel and Hardy as a team. He was also an alcoholic who wound up killing himself in 1955, age 60. He borrowed Buster Keaton's gun, went into a restaurant in Santa Monica, and, possibly after eating a meal he couldn't pay for, entered the restroom and shot himself. Most of his work on “Movie Crazy” was apparently done by Lloyd himself. That's one of the movie's saving graces to me, the direction—that and Cummings—since we get some nice sweeping backstage shots. 

Lloyd would only make four more movies: one in every even year of the '30s, and then “The Sin of Harold Diddlebock” for Preston Sturges in 1948.

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Posted at 11:57 AM on Dec 02, 2018 in category Movie Reviews - 1930s   |   Permalink  
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