erik lundegaard

Movie Reviews - 1930s posts

Tuesday September 17, 2019

Movie Review: Other Men's Women (1931)

WARNING: SPOILERS

Apparently they were down with OPP in the 1930s, too. At least at Warner Bros. 

In the clunkily titled “Other Men’s Women,” Loretta Young-elopee Grant Withers plays Bill White, a raconteur for the railroad who has a girl in every station. We first see him stepping off a slow-moving train and ducking into a station diner for three eggs and double entendres with the waitress. He’s counting all the while. Counting what? Double entendres? No. Train cars, we soon realize. So he knows when to get back on board. Like a lot of early Warner Bros. leads, he also has a catchphrase. Offering a stick of gum, he says “Have a little chew on me.” He must say it 10 times in the first 10 minutes.

He also drinks too much, carouses, and is tossed out of his flat by a stuttering female landlord, whose stutter he makes fun of. Plus he’s trying to avoid Marie (Joan Blondell), one of his dames. Not sure why.

Good news: His colleague Jack (Regis Toomey) has offered to let him stay at his place, further out of town, with his wife, Lily (Mary Astor of “Maltese Falcon” fame), and a handyman, Peg-Leg (J. Farrell MacDonald), who, yes, has a literal peg leg. At one point Peg-Leg and Lily are arguing over who should use the shovel to turn the earth for her sweet-pea garden. Peg-Leg wants to help but can’t really use the shovel, which is about when Bill offers his services. Then we see the result: Bill turning the earth, Peg-Leg following behind and poking a hole in the ground, into which Lily plants her seeds. Everyone is useful. Nice scene.

Bad news: The longer he stays the more he and Lily flirt; and one day, when Jack is gone, she’s sewing a button onto his shirt, he feigns to dance with her, and we get this exchange.

Bill: Say, I think you‘re the swellest girl in the world.
Lily: Oh, you’re a dear. And just for that I'm gonna give you a little kiss.

At which point both suddenly realize the depths of their longing for each other. She moves off, he pesters, he grabs and demands to know how she feels, she admits, they kiss.

And to think, it all began with “Say, I think you’re the swellest girl in the world.” Sign of a true lothario: making that line work.

When Jack returns, he senses something wrong—his wife is pale and Bill isn’t around. In fact, he’s already fled. But they’re still colleagues, so Jack sees him. By the time Bill confesses to kissing Lily, Jack thinks it’s worse. They fight, Jack gets the worst of it, and his head hits a rail. Result? 

“He’s blind,” Lily says. “Stone blind.”

Now we’re in melodrama territory. A character can’t go blind—let alone stone blind—at the end of the second act without it being a melodrama.

As for the final act? Bill is still working on the railroad, now partnering with his friend Ed (James Cagney, fourth-billed in his third film), when the rains come. A flood might wash away the bridge, so Bill decides to take a train, loaded with cement, and drive it onto the bridge to weigh it down. Or something. Ah, but Jack overhears and stumbles to do the job himself. Now they’re fighting over who gets to sacrifice himself. Jack, blinded, wins this one. He drives the train onto the bridge, a wave comes, the bridge collapses, there goes that.

To sum up, Jack lets Bill stay at his place, and Bill repays him by:

  • cuckolding him
  • blinding him
  • floating the idea that kills him

You’d think this wouldn’t lead to a happy ending but you’d be underestimating Hollywood’s capacity for such things. At the end, we get a refrain of the opening. Train pulls up, Bill, counting cars, goes into EATS, and now Lily is there, too. They’re happy to see each other. They make small talk. She asks him to come see her sometime. He makes it back to the train, and, as he’s running along the top, jumps up and down in excitement. 

“Other Men’s Women” was written by playwright/actress Maude Fulton and directed by William “Wild Bill” Wellman. We get a few good shots—like when Jack feels his way toward the train that will lead to his sacrificial death—but no memorable lines. Withers isn’t bad but you get why he didn’t last as a leading man. He played big, and often goofy, and not exactly smoldering. Blondell is underused and Cagney criminally so, but we do get to see him dance lightly across the screen. He and Withers also have a nice bit talking atop the train cars, and, without looking, stooping for low bridges because they know the route so well.

As stated, it’s Cagney third movie role. In his fifth, also for Wellman, they made movie history.

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Posted at 07:12 AM on Sep 17, 2019 in category Movie Reviews - 1930s   |   Permalink  
Friday September 13, 2019

Movie Review: Fifty Million Frenchmen (1931)

WARNING: SPOILERS

Does anything make less sense than a Cole Porter musical without the Cole Porter music? Maybe a Pearl Jam concert without Eddie Vedder? It’s like you’ve got LeBron on your team and you leave him on the bench. Because “box office receipts for LeBron are down at this time.”

My roundabout rationale for checking this out:

  1. A few months back, I was watching the Cagney flick, “The Crowd Roars,” in which Cagney players a race-car driver, and at one point Joan Blondell says sardonically, “Well, 50 million race-car drivers can’t be wrong.”
  2. My ears perked up. I’d long known that Elvis Presley had a greatest hits album called, “50 Million Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong,” which I’d always thought a weird, catchy title. So much so that I’d played off it before. Example: “5,000 Elvis Cards Can’t Be Wrong,” about a Memphis attorney who sends cards to his clients on Elvis’ birthday rather than Christmas. But I had no idea the Elvis album title was playing off of something else. But what? What was Blondell referencing?
  3. Turns out, the 1927 hit Sophie Tucker record, “50 Million Frenchmen Can’t Be Wrong.”
  4. Hey, Cole Porter turned that into a musical in 1929!
  5. Hey, Warners turned that into a movie in 1931!
  6. Hey, Scarecrow Video has it!

And here we are.

Minnesota Swansons
So was it worth the journey? Eh.

The song is mostly about sex (“They shorten them here, They shorten them there/ And if her name is Teddy they make Teddy bare”) but the movie is mostly about love. So Hollywood. Apparently even pre-code.

Jack Forbes (William Gaxton) is a rich American playboy who arrives in Paris on a luxury liner with a French girl on his arm (Carmelia Teraghty of Rushville, Indiana), but spots an American girl, LuLu Carroll (Claudia Dell, Octavia in the ’34 “Cleopatra”), and falls hard and fast. He searches all over Paris and finally finds her dining with relatives at the Hotel Ritz. It’s his friend Michael Cummins (John Halliday) who IDs her. Trouble? Cummins likes her, too, so he suckers Forbes into a bet. Part of their dialogue here almost feels like song lyrics:

Cummins: May the best man win? What’s that got to do with it—with all his jack.
Forbes: That sounds like a dirty crack
Cummins: That may be. But everyone woman you’ve ever got, you’ve got with your money.

Cummins winds up betting Forbes $50k that in two weeks, with no money he didn’t earn during that time, he can’t get the girl. Then Cummins badmouths Forbes to her. Says he’s crazy. And he is—for her—while she’s surprisingly open. I mean that negatively. She’s just kind of a big blank.

So was such a bet a common conceit in 1930s movies? Or high society? I was reminded of “Trading Places.”

I did like the moment when Forbes realizes how much of his day-to-day he’s lost by losing money. He calls the bellboy over to page Lulu and is going to tip him, then pats his pockets. Right, no dough. He still makes the request, but the bellboy, knowing the score, stands there, waiting. Forbes pats his pockets again and gives him ... is it a pen? Anyway, not a bad bit. Later, when he hops aboard Lulu’s cab and sweet talks her all the way back to her hotel, but is left holding the cab fare, he hands over his coat in exchange. Good thing he gets a job or he might’ve been naked before long.

The job he gets? Tour guide. Leads to a long scene in which various characters (in both senses of the word) try to engage him. There’s a slim woman “who wants to be insulted” in Paris. She’s played by Helen Broderick, who like Gaxton, was in the Broadway musical. There’s a Jewish couple and their bratty kid.

Wife: Mister, will you kindly tell us where is the house of Victor Hugo?
Forbes: Victor Hugo? The guy who wrote the movie ‘The Man Who Laughs’?
Wife: Yeah
Forbes: Never heard of him.

It’s like the absurdist comedy of the Marx Brothers without the Marx Brothers. Or the comedy.

All the while, Forbes is being tailed by two inept detectives, Simon Johanssen and Peter Swanson, played by the vaudeville comedy team of Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson. They’re supposed to make sure Forbes doesn’t get the girl. But of course they wind up sympathizing with his plight.

Olsen and Johnson are actually the stars of the film—the leads—but for the most part I didn’t find them funny. L’opposite. Olsen is the stern, severe one while Johnson has an insane, sloppy giggle that wears fast. He laughs at an effete bar patron and a fat one. He laughs more during the movie than we do.

I do like a scene where they become unwilling assistants to a magician (Bela Lugosi, I believe), and a nice slow-mo chase by the cops over a recently tarred street. And of course how could I not love this self-intro to the high-society types: “And my name is Peter Swanson. Of the Minnesota Swansons.”

Music-less
In the end, of course, Forbes gets the girl and wins the bet, Cummins is foiled, and Olsen and Johnson wind up at a place called “Café of All Nations” with a bevy of beauties. Initially it’s just Johnson (we hear his giggle inside) while Olsen stands on the sidewalk with their ticket home: From HAVRE to NEW YORK. But he tears this up with a shrug and says the movie’s closing line. “Well, fifty million Frenchmen can’t be wrong.” So we get the line if not the song. 

Apparently director Lloyd Bacon filmed the entire musical, which was released in Europe, just not the U.S., where audiences had supposedly soured on musicals. Only the music-less American version remains. Evalyn Knapp gets a credit, and a photo, on IMDb, but I don’t remember seeing her, so maybe she wound up on the cutting room floor? Meanwhile, an actress playing a hotel-room hottie named Suzette gets no credit at all. Anyone know who she is?

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Posted at 07:32 AM on Sep 13, 2019 in category Movie Reviews - 1930s   |   Permalink  
Saturday September 07, 2019

Movie Review: The Doorway to Hell (1930)

WARNING: SPOILERS

There’s a good bit about halfway through this.

Our lead, Louie Ricarno (Lew Ayres), who organized the Chicago gangs only to walk away from it all, is down in Florida, golfing and writing a book about his life. He proudly reads the last line aloud to his wife, Doris (Dorothy Mathews):

“Now, this concludes the life of a gangster, and begins the life of a man.”

A minute later, he finds out his kid brother has been in an auto accident—inadvertently caused by one of the gangs in a clumsy attempt to get him to return—and he gets quiet, and looks up, and the killer is in his eyes again. Then the phone rings.

Doris: I hate to bother you, but the man from the Atlas Publishing Company wants to know when he can read your book.
Louie (slowly): Tell him it’s not done yet.

That’s damn good.

I like another scene shortly after this one. Louie is back in Chicago, visiting a plastic surgeon. To disguise himself? To get revenge? But then who will play the part? Which actor? That’s what I’m thinking. But the visit isn’t about him. He shows the surgeon a photo of his kid brother. He asks him to make him look like this again. The surgeon asks where he is. “He’s down at Morse Brothers Undertaking Parlors,” Louie says. Then turns and we see the black mourning band on his sleeve.

That’s a bit like the “Look how they massacred my boy” scene from “The Godfather,” isn’t it? One wonders.

To be honest, I thought “The Doorway to Hell” (original title: “A Handful of Clouds”) would be another of those early Cagney movies where the casting choices got screwed up—where Cagney should’ve been lead rather than second banana—and you can certainly make that argument. I buy Ayres as a gangster, why not, but not as someone who organizes the Chicago mobs—who stares down fat, brutal men and gets them to fall in line. That’s actually not even on Ayres, is it? It’s the script. Those scenes are absurd. They require a suspension of disbelief longer than the Golden Gate Bridge.

Even so, Ayres, born in Minneapolis and raised in San Diego, who had recently received raves playing Paul in “All Quiet on the Western Front,” is good. He doesn’t look tough but can convey an inner toughness. He reminds me a bit of Edward Norton in this way. He even looks like him. See above poster.

This is Cagney’s second movie role. After playing what he called “a sniveling murderer” in “Sinners’ Holiday” (original title: “Penny Arcade”), he plays fifth-billed Steve Mileaway, right-hand man to Louie Ricarno, who’s also cuckolding him. Yep. He’s fooling around with Doris. She’s a pill, too; a real jerk. Oh, and when Louie leaves for Florida, Mileaway is supposed to make sure the organization sticks together; it doesn’t.

Basically he’s a hapless two-timer, a real crumb bum.

Well, he has some measure of loyalty:

Cop: Me afraid of Louie? Why, I’d spit in his eye.
Mileaway: Yeah? And he’d spit in your grave.

(BTW: in your grave? Not on? That’s interesting. Implying a time when we actually watched people being buried.)

Doris is another weak link—or the fact that Louie can’t see she’s not worth anything is a weak part of the film. It’s obvious. Louie also identifies with Napoleon, which is odd, since Napoleon walked away from nothing—and certainly not from power. It's Warner Bros.' attempt to create a “Little Emperor” a few months before they would release “Little Caesar.” Yeah, this predates that. This is the ur-Warners gangster film. 

The movie’s title comes from the closing title card. After Louie returns to Chicago to kill the men who caused the death of his kid brother, and he’s jailed by the tough-love paternalistic police chief, Pat O’Grady (Robert Elliott), then escapes and makes a final stand before buying it off-screen in a hail of bullets, after all that we’re informed of the following:

The “Doorway to Hell” is a one-way door. There is no retribution—no plea for further clemency. The little boy walked through it with his head up and a smile on his lips. They gave him a funeral—a swell funeral that stopped traffic—and then they forgot him before the roses had a chance to wilt.

Classic Warners. “Don’t be like this exciting guy who’s exciting tale we’ve just told you. Be like the boring stick-in-the-muds that survived.” I was a bit surprised that Mileaway, nor Doris, ever get comeuppance for their affair. I can’t even remember if Louie ever figures it out. But everybody else, including the cops, knows. 

The New York Times, in a spoilers-and-all review on Nov. 1, 1930, called “The Doorway to Hell” intelligent and exciting, adding, “With excellent directing by Archie Mayo and an excellent cast, among whom only Lewis Ayres may properly be called a star...”

Turns out there was another.

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Posted at 06:33 AM on Sep 07, 2019 in category Movie Reviews - 1930s   |   Permalink  
Monday September 02, 2019

Movie Review: Sinners' Holiday (1930)

See the sinners? See the holiday?

WARNING: SPOILERS

The reason we still care about this 60-minute “All-Talking Picture” from 1930, and why a print has been preserved at the Library of Congress, isn’t because of its director (John G. Adolfi), nor its lead (Grant Withers), and certainly not because it’s considered a classic (it’s a bit meh). No, it’s the fourth-billed talent: a Vaudevillian hoofer from New York making his film debut named James Cagney. He won’t be fourth-billed for long.

Do you know the story of how it and he came to be? The Broadway version, “Penny Arcade” by Marie Baumer, which included Cagney and Joan Blondell, premiered earlier in the year and closed after only three weeks. During that time, though, Al Jolson saw it, bought the rights, and recommended both Cagney and Blondell to Warners. (Jolson should’ve been a talent scout.) “I came out on a three-week guarantee,” Cagney remembers in his 1974 autobiography, “and I stayed, to my absolute amazement, for 31 years.”

Since the play/movie concerns Ma Delano (Lucille LaVerne) who runs the Coney Island penny arcade with her kids—the non-descript Joe (Ray Gallagher), the pretty Jenny (Evelyn Knapp), and the ne’er-do-well Harry (Cagney)—“Penny Arcade” isn’t a bad title. Why did they change it? Cagney again:

There was a great vogue then for pictures with “holiday” in the title, and “Sinners’ Holiday” was part of that trend. That title had as much to do with the picture as Winnie-the-Pooh.

Oh, bother.

The con
It opens well. Over the credits, we hear the sounds and squeals of Coney Island; then we see several barkers working the crowds. I love the enthusiasm of the pitch versus the tawdry reality of the enterprise. They’re selling thrills and sex, but the sex in particular is already bored with it.

One guy says you can get your picture taken with a pretty girl, Myrtle (Blondell), but she’s off to the side, cracking gum, reading a movie magazine, and could care less. Joe Delano, at mom’s behest, extols the penny arcade, while Buck Rogers (Noel Madison), of all names, encourages men to take turns hitting a target, which will “tip the girls back in their chairs,” and you win a cigar. He’s also directing Prohibition-era traffic to bootlegger Mitch McKane (Warren Hymer). “Tell ’im Buck Rogers sent ya,” he says. It’s booze, cigars and upskirts: Doucheville 1930. 

But my absolute favorite is a place called Palace of Joy, whose barker, Angel Harrigan (Withers), extols as a place where you can, drink and be merry all for a dime. “Just one thin dime, folks! And you get to see these gorgeous, beautiful women.” He motions to five not-very attractive women standing in coats next to him. “Give ’em a quick flash, girls,” he says. They do so, bored to death. I love that. Right away we know this is a movie about the con. Which makes it a perfect movie for Warners, con artists themselves, who had a tendency to celebrate the grifters of the world. Cf., “Blonde Crazy,” “Hard to Handle,” “Picture Snatcher.”

The first time we see Cagney—in movie history—he’s playing cards, his back to us. Then he stands up:

Card player: Not going already, are you?
Harry: Already? I’ve been here since yesterday afternoon. There’s going to be an awful beef out of the old lady when she sees me.

His voice is higher-pitched than we’re used to, but still slippery and fast, and there’s already something alive about his face. In the biography, “Cagney,” by John McCabe, fellow actors often talked up how much Cagney listened to them during their scenes together. Shirley Jones:

He always gave to you. Totally unselfish. You never had any sense of your being alone in a scene, as you do with actors who are mainly concerned with themselves. Jim was always with you, listening to you carefully, truthfully...

You can see this quality right away when he’s talking to Mitch, who’s about to hijack some booze. You can see it when he’s talking to his mom, who berates him for “tom-catting” all night. But we quickly come to realize this isn’t the classic Cagney character. Yes, mama’s boy. Yes, hanging with hoods. But he’s not tough, and he’s not straightforward. He’s two-faced. In his autobiography, Cagney calls the character a “sniveling murderer.”

Storyline, such as it is: While Angel tries to romance Harry’s sister, Jenny, and while Myrtle tries to romance Harry, Mitch gets busted and asks Harry to look after things while he’s in jail. Harry does so but skims the dough for himself. When Mitch returns, he comes gunning for Harry; but Harry, panicky, shoots first, and hides the body in the closed “Hit the Bulls Eye, Up She Goes” booth. The next day the cops arrive, the body is found, and everyone’s questioned in a kind of working-class “the butler did it” tableau—even though we know who did it.

So does Jenny. She saw her brother kill Mitch from her upstairs window. Initially I’m like, “So what? She’s not going to turn in her brother for a lout like Mitch.” But then Angel becomes the prime suspect, and you go, “Ah, that’s the dilemma: beau or brother.” She eventually goes with her beau and the truth, Harry confesses and is taken into custody, and the world, and Coney Island, keep spinning.

The pro
You know what I wanted? More of a tour of the penny arcade. What amused people for a penny in the 1930? At one point, Angel—fired by Mitch, hired by Ma to fix the machines—is standing next to something called “The IT Girl,” with the tagline “She’s got IT.” 1¢. Next to that is “The Midnight Girl.” But I can’t tell what these machines are. Ur-pinball? Bagatelle? Slot machine? Amberolas? I want to walk around the joint and try things out. All of that background stuff is way more interesting to me than the foreground melodrama.

I could’ve used more Blondell, too. She’s great—forever eating hot dogs. Withers is broad, goofy and cynical; you get why he didn’t last as a leading man—though he had a nice career as a secondary player for John Ford, among others, before committing suicide in 1959. Evalyn Knapp would become so highly touted she was tapped for the lead in the feature-film remake of the 1914 serial “The Perils of Pauline”; but her career, like a lot of the early Warner Bros. blondes, didn’t last much past the 1930s. Director Adolfi would die three years later, age 52, but not before he directed eight more movies, including the prestige picture “Alexander Hamilton,” starring George Arliss, and based on his Broadway play of the 1910s. 

As for that sniveling murderer? He’d get a few more secondary roles, usually as the pal to the lead, before being cast again as the pal to the lead in “The Public Enemy.” Then director William Wellman saw something in him and decided maybe he shouldn’t be secondary after all.

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Posted at 05:42 AM on Sep 02, 2019 in category Movie Reviews - 1930s   |   Permalink  
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  
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