erik lundegaard

Movie Reviews - 1930s posts

Monday March 16, 2020

Movie Review: Platinum Blonde (1931)

WARNING: SPOILERS

“Platinum Blonde” is named for Jean Harlow but Loretta Young gets top billing, and the two actresses could probably switch roles. Harlow, a brassy type, is cast as a rich society dame, rather than the newspaper reporter Young plays, while the fine-featured Young could totally play the socialite. Overall, it’s not bad. Directed by Frank Capra before he became Frank Capra.

He became Frank Capra with “It Happened One Night,” in which a rich girl falls for a rougish reporter, and that’s basically this, too. Quick question: How often was this the plot of early talkies? And how often was it written by a former reporter?

“Platinum Blonde” has four credited screenwriters and at least one of them was a journalist. Jo Swerling had a helluva life. Born in Ukraine, his family immigrated to the U.S. when he was young and he grew up on the Lower East Side. As a kid he peddled newspapers, then became a journalist, then a playwright. That led to Hollywood, where wrote “Pennies from Heaven,” “Pride of the Yankees” and “Lifeboat.” He also helped write, or added scenes to, “Gone With the Wind” and “It’s a Wonderful Life,” before writing the Broadway book for “Guys and Dolls” in the 1950s. For “Blonde” he gets an “adaptation” credit but it makes me wonder: Adapted from what? There’s no play, novel, or short story listed. From the story by Harry Chandlee and Douglas Churchill maybe?

The fourth writing credit, for “dialogue,” goes to Robert Riskin, who became a frequent Capra collaborator: “It Happened One Night,” “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town,” “You Can’t Take It With You,” and “Meet John Doe.” Apparently it was on the set of this last film that Riskin, who resented Capra for taking credit for their collaboration, finally blew up. He waggled 120 blank pages in his face and yelled, “Put the famous Capra touch on that!” They never worked together again. Riskin married Fay Wray in 1942, they had two kids, he had a stroke in 1950. His last five years were spent in a home/hospital for old movie stars, where, according to Ian Scott’s 2006 book, “In Capra's Shadow: The Life and Career of Screenwriter Robert Riskin,” his regular visitors included Edward G. Robinson, Jack Benny and Jo Swerling. No Capra. When he died in 1955, the funeral was well-attended. Again, no Capra.

If all of that sounds tragic, wait until we get to the male lead of “Platinum Blonde.”

Method man
So who’s the rougish reporter who somehow rates both Jean Harlow and Loretta Young? His name is Robert Williams, and if you’re saying “Who?” welcome to the club. It’s partly the name. Could anything be more bland? It’s partly the tragedy. He died shortly after the movie was released.

Just what was it about actors in 1931 movies anyway? I recently reviewed “Behind Office Doors,” starring Mary Astor and Robert Ames. Astor would, of course, go on to win an Oscar as well as play the femme fatale in “The Maltese Falcon” starring Humphrey Bogart. Ames would die of alcoholism that same year. For Williams, it was peritonitis.

Williams had sad, hooded eyes and a natural acting style. Other actors see him as ahead of his time. In 2008, on Turner Classic Movies, Christopher Plummer said: “To watch Robert Williams act was like seeing a comic using the Method, long before the Method became famous with Marlon and Monty.” Is he just talking about this movie or others? There’s not many others. Williams was mostly a stage actor who was just beginning his Hollywood career—making four movies in 1931. This was the last.

It begins with a rumor of a scandal among the high-brow Schuylers, and cynical society reporter Stew Smith (Williams) is sent to check it out. The Schuylers bribe Bingy (Walter Catlett), the comic-relief reporter from the Times (who seems like an early, outre version of Phil Silvers), and try the same with Smith but “no soap” as they used to say. He gets Mrs. Schuyler to spill the beans and they run it big. The Schuylers don’t forgive him, but Ann, the original Schuyler sister, does. She makes eyes. Initially I was wondering what kind of game she was playing but it turns out she has a thing for working-class types; and she likes this one enough to marry him.

Some of Riskin's dialogue isn't bad:

Stew: I begin to get goofy ideas and they concern you, Ann.
Ann: None of your ideas could be goofy, Stew, if they concern me.
Stew: Well, my name is Smith. ... I am white, male and over 21*. I‘ve never been in jail—that is, not often. I prefer Scotch to bourbon, I hate carrots, I hate peas, I like bad coffee, and I hate garters. I make seventy-five bucks a week, and I got eight hundred and forty-seven bucks in the bank, and I don’t know yet whether your eyes are blue or violet.
Ann: That's because you‘re too far away, Stew.
[They kiss.]

*Is “white, male and over 21” a play on “free, white and 21”?

Each assumes the other will give up their lifestyle—she’ll shack up in his apartment, he’ll become a kept man in her mansion—but money talks and his lifestyle walks. He winds up with a valet and those garters he hates. For a time, I got whiffs of “The Blue Angel”—the man who loses himself in love or lust—but it’s not so grotesque or horrific as in von Sternberg. The two clash, and the clashes culminate when one old reporter friend after another shows up at the mansion to bend an elbow in prohibition times.

If you’re wondering where Loretta Young is in all of this, it’s mostly on the sidelines. She plays Gallagher, the “sob sister” of the paper, who’s often hanging around Stew with her big doe eyes. She obviously loves him but he thinks her one of the guys:

Stew: There you go, talking like a woman.
Gallagher: Well?
Stew: Well, you’re my pal, aren’t you? Don’t turn female on me.

Don’t know which requires a greater suspension of disbelief: a reporter marrying into society, or seeing Loretta Young as just a pal. And prefering Harlow to her? To be honest, I never really got the Harlow thing. There’s something thick and even mannish about her features. She turned 20 this year, Young—who’d been a star for several years—turned just 18. Williams was 37. So it goes.

Theory of continuity
As with another 1931 “Blonde” title—“Blonde Crazy” starring Jimmy Cagney—we get an Albert Einstein reference. Stew says, “Say, I interviewed a swell guy the other day: Einstein. Yeah, swell guy. Little eccentric, doesn't wear any garters. Neither do I, as a matter of fact.” That’s how the garters thing begins.

In the end, of course, the scales fall from Stew’s eyes and he and Gallagher wind up together. Boy meets girl, boy goes for richer girl, boy leaves richer girl for the girl we knew was right for him all along. Classic Hollywood.

Interesting thing about the above poster? All the writers are listed but not Riskin. Because he was merely “dialogue”? Instead, the third-billed writer on the poster is Dorothy Howell, for “continuity.” Howell actually started out as Harry Cohn’s secretary at Columbia. Can't find a Times obit for her but there's more on her here. Riskin and Sweberg didn't get Times' obits, either. Capra, of course. 

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Posted at 09:41 AM on Monday March 16, 2020 in category Movie Reviews - 1930s   |   Permalink  

Wednesday February 19, 2020

Movie Review: Behind Office Doors (1931)

WARNING: SPOILERS 

Makes sense that a lot of women-in-office movies were made in the pre-code era. Cheap sets, easy sex.

Mary Astor’s Mary Linden here is the opposite of Barbara Stanwyck’s Lily in “Baby Face.” The latter used her body to get ahead in the business world; Mary uses her brain to help one man get ahead. She’s the smartest person in the room but not exactly looking out for herself. That said, can you still make an argument for her as the better feminist—or at least the better wish-fulfillment fantasy? Where’s the challenge in using men sexually? But getting a man to actually clean up his act? To mold the man you love into the man you want? That’s real power.

Not exactly Gary Cooper
“Behind Office Doors” isn’t much, and the blurry, public-domain version on Amazon Prime doesn't help. I wish they'd stop that. 

First, a few cultural tidbits.

  • In the first scene, we see some partying adults play a game called “Truth,” which is like “Truth or Dare” before the “Dare.” It’s just an agreement you won’t lie or prevaricate. Here, as with the longer version today, it’s a party game, a means of titillation, a potential precursor to making out/sex. Ronnie Wales (Ricardo Cortez) plays it with Mary but it stops at kissing. Turns out she’s in love with another man.
  • When Mary proves unwilling, another girl offers herself, saying she’s a “grass widow”—meaning her husband’s often away. Yes, I had to look that up.
  • You know that kid’s bit where you point at someone’s chest and when they look down, flick your hand up at their nose? Mary’s friend, Delores (Kitty Kelly), does it to Mary here. The implication is: Don’t be a sucker. I find it fascinating it was already a thing in 1931.
  • As was talking about yourself in the third person. The man Mary loves, womanizing salesman Jim Duneen (Robert Ames), does it constantly in the first half of the movie. “Consider the Duneen is on his way.” “The Great Duneen isn’t dressed yet, but come in, honey.” Yes, he’s a jerk. It was the province of jerks back then, too.

The Great Duneen is the movie’s main sticking point. He’s a real creep (slapping Delores on the ass and saying “You pack a gun, girlie?”), and not exactly Gary Cooper (Ames died within a year at age 41 of alcoholism), so what does Mary see in him? It’s such a head-scratcher that Delores asks her to explain. For us. She tells a story about being so overwhelmed on her first day of work that she wound up crying in the hallway. Duneen found her, bucked her up, told her to keep up a bluff. He gave her the secret to life: “Everybody in the world was bluffing.” She never forgot it. 

“Oh, he don’t look like no big brother to me,” Delores says.

Exactly. And Mary doesn’t seem the type to wilt in the hallway. But onward.

Delores thinks Mary’s a sap for not going for Ronnie, who’s rich, estranged from his wife, and crazy about her. Plus he’s the dude on the poster. But no soap. He’s barely in it.

Instead, Mary does the following:

  • Convinces the retiring owner of Ritter & Co. Wholesale Paper (Est. 1889) to sell the company to his employees.
  • Convinces Ritter, and banker Robinson (William Morris), that Duneen would be a good man to lead it.
  • Tells Duneen what to say to get the gig. She even writes it down for him.
  • Then she squirts ink on his loud, striped shirt and recommends a white one for the meeting.

That’s just for starters. After Duneen gets the VP job, she tones down his angry letters, suggests new business avenues, and he becomes president. And how does he repay her? Hires another assistant, a floozy named Daisy Presby (Edna Murphy), who seems good at just one thing. Yes, that. How do we know? The price tag of the lingerie she’d bought at Wimball’s—and cattily showed off to Mary—winds up on Duneen’s bedroom floor.

Eventually Mary classes up Duneen enough that he’s actually a catch, and, whoops, he becomes engaged to Ellen (Catherine Dale Owen), the banker’s daughter. Ellen’s no fool, either. She senses Mary’s love for her fiancé and wants her out, but as always Mary has to do the heavy lifting. She concocts an excuse (job offer with better pay), and quits, leaving Duneen flustered and out of his element.

The script was written by Carey Wilson (112 credits, AA nomination for “Mutiny on the Bounty,” said to be Louis B. Mayer’s favorite screenwriter), and Alan Schultz (one credit—this), and we get some good lines. When Mary gets dolled up for a business soiree, and asks Duneen what’s wrong with her frock, he responds, “Absolutely nothing. Looks like you been poured in it and forgot to say when.”

My favorite, though, is the piecemeal way Daisy reveals the disasters that have happened in Mary’s absence:

  • No, she never processed the orders Duneen sent while on his business trip because they weren’t marked RUSH; she waited for him to get back.
  • No, she can’t process them now because she forwarded them to his house.
  • No, the butler can’t bring them to the office because of the fire at his home.
  • No, she’s not sure how it started, but she thought the firemen were very rude to imply it was her cigarette.
  • No, she didn’t fall asleep smoking; she was just “thinking with her eyes closed.”

Eventually, Daisy is canned, the engagement is called off, Mary returns. For a second it looks like we’ll end there, with Mary taking dictation again from the company president she made. Instead: cut to a final scene of Delores at the switchboard, getting a late call from her boyfriend, and seeing a note before her: Duneen and Mary have left to get married. “Ain’t that grand?” she says. That’s the end. The marriage, like Cagney’s death in “Public Enemy,” takes place off-camera. One wonders if it was added at the behest of a studio head or preview audiences. Or both.

Nobody gets out of here alive
“Behind Office Doors,” an RKO Picture, starts out like a wise-cracking Warner Bros. flick, then, under Mary’s tutelage, becomes a more staid MGM movie. I like the Warners part. That's where the cultural references are. At one point, Mary tells Duneen, “What do you think I came here for? Find out there’s one more cough in a carload?” Turns out Not a cough in a carload was an ad slogan for Old Gold cigarettes back then. In the same conversation, Duneen offers her a cocktail but it has OJ in it and she turns it down. For that, he calls her “Mrs. Rick” and adds “And the next time you come, we’ll have that sauerkraut you crave.” Radio show? Song lyric? Another ad? Anyone? I can't find it. 

Overall, there’s a real “Nobody gets out of her alive” vibe to the cast. Most of the people in it either stopped making movies shortly afterwards or died:

  • Ames died of the DTs in 1931.
  • Catherine Dale Owen stopped making movies in 1931.
  • Edna Murphy stopped making movies in 1933.
  • William Morris died in 1936.
  • Charles Sellon died in 1937. 

Only three of the principles had any kind of career after this.

Kitty Kelly, who may be the best thing in the movie, continued to work steadily into the 1960s, but mostly in small roles. In one of her last, she played “Third Poor Person” in a 1966 episode of “Batman.” And no, she’s not that Kitty Kelley.

Ricardo Cortez, nee Jacob Krantz, who was trying to become the next Valentino, and who played the first Sam Spade in “Maltese Falcon” this same year, gave up acting for Wall Street in the early 1950s—although he returned for an episode of “Bonanza” in 1960. He died in 1977. 

Mary Astor, of course, continued working in movies and television until 1964. She won an Oscar in 1941 for supporting actress in “The Great Lie”—most likely aided by the fact that she played her most famous part, Brigid O'Shaughnessy, in John Huston’s “Maltese Falcon” that same year. She died in 1987.

As “Behind Closed Doors” began, I actually mixed up my Malteses. I thought, “Hey, they’re together here before they’re together in ‘Maltese Falcon.’” It took a second before the other shoe dropped.

Could you make this movie today? Possibly. But you obviously couldn’t end it where it ended it. Tables would need to be reversed. Mary would get the company, and maybe Ronnie, who would be a doctor for the poor or something. I do like the idea of a woman refining and molding the man she loves only to lose him because he becomes such a catch. She cleans him up beyond her pay grade. You could make dark comedy out of that.

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Posted at 12:28 PM on Wednesday February 19, 2020 in category Movie Reviews - 1930s   |   Permalink  

Thursday February 13, 2020

Movie Review: Frisco Kid (1935)

WARNING: SPOILERS

It works for a while. Bat Morgan (James Cagney) is a sailor who comes ashore in 1850s San Francisco only to be shanghaied onto another vessel. Or nearly. He wakes up as his attacker is rowing him to the ship, attacks the attacker, and both men go into the drink. Bat swims ashore, where, under the boardwalk, he’s found by a friendly Jewish tailor, Solomon “Solly” Green (George E. Stone), who could get as much as $250 for him but instead nurses him back to health. Bat chastises him later for it. 

Bat: And you call yourself a businessman? Why didn’t you turn me over to his ship?
Solly: I sell merchandise, not men.

Nice line. After that, Bat follows Solly’s example and becomes a better man.

Kidding. Bat adopts the code of those who shanghaied him (“dog eat dog”) rather than the one who saved him. In fact, he winds up causing the death of the one who saved him.

Yeah, it’s kind of fucked up.

The swells
“Frisco Kid,” directed by Lloyd Bacon (“42nd Street”), and written by Warren Duff (“Angels with Dirty Faces”) and Seton I. Miller (“Adventures of Robin Hood”), is Cagney’s first period piece. He’s in fine form with longish hair and a stocking cap, but he never thought much of the flick. In his autobiography, he called it “one of those catch-as-catch-can affairs Warners put out purely because they had to be put out. By that I mean Frisco Kid had already been sold to the exhibitors even before a foot of it had been shot or conceived.”

Bat’s rise on the Barbary Coast is fun but too quick. He shanghais Slugs (Joe Sawyer), the guy who shanghaied him, then tosses in another of Slugs’ victims for a quick $500 ... which he quickly loses at the blackjack table to a cheating Paul Morra (Ricardo Cortez, Sam Spade in the original “Maltese Falcon”), who also happens to own the place. So much of Bat’s rise is in the establishments. At the low end is The Occidental, where he first got shanghaied, and which is run by Spider Burke (Barton MacLane, the future Gen. Peterson on “I Dream of Jeannie”). With cash, he rises to Morra’s, which includes a few respectable people, and where he becomes a bouncer after killing Slugs’ accomplice, the Shanghai Duck (Fred Kohler). But he’s got bigger dreams. He wants to be the biggest and most important guy in town—and he does that by enlisting the help of powerbroker Jim Daley (Joe King). Together, they create the Bella Pacifica, with its mirrored glass and marbled bar, and which caters to “the swells” and “society blades.”

Why does Daley even listen to Bat? Because he’s got an idea, see? The local newspaper, run by Charles Ford (Donald Woods), is on a campaign to clean up the Barbary Coast. “The town is tired of having a dirty neck,” Bat tells Daley. “And they may try to wash it—unless we buy up all the soap.”

Right. It’s a little vague. All the businesses kick in to Daley/Bat—protection money, I believe—but the first part of Bat’s scheme? Quieting Ford and his newspaper? Doesn’t happen. In fact, Daley wants Ford dead. But Bat met Ford once and immediately liked him, for no good reason other than he’s supposed to like him, so Bat confronts the would-be assassin, Spider Burke, and knocks him out. Later, Burke tries to shoot Bat, but Solly inadvertently steps in the way. Down he goes. And with him, the best part of the movie.

Now we’re just left with the romance. Jean Barrat (Margaret Lindsay) is the publisher, or something, of the newspaper. Her father used to run it but he was knifed in the back for taking on the Barbary Coast. “I’m only telling you this,” she says to Ford, “so you know you’ve taken a dangerous position.” Judge Crawford (Robert McWade) warns Ford, too, but in the other direction: He has to say something to clean up the town. The Judge is a pain throughout. He shows up just to hector people: Ford isn’t doing enough; Jean shouldn’t get involved with Bat. Etc.

Jean: I think there’s a very worthwhile and human side to his character.
Judge: I can’t understand you, Jean.
Jean (light laugh): I can’t understand myself sometimes.

Yuck. But it’s that Warner Bros. ethos. Our guy isn’t bad, he’s just trying to survive in a crummy world. If only he could become respectable. At the same time, we don't want him to become respectable. Those guys are boring. Basically:

Scum Charming Crooks Dull Society
Spider Burke Bat Morgan Jean Barrat
Slugs Crippen Paul Morra Charles Ford
Shanghai Duck   Judge Crawford

The Judge is so annoying that when he builds an opera house, Bat can’t resist tweaking his nose. He invites a few raucous Barbary friends, who horrify the swells. Unfortunately, Morra shows up uncharacteristically drunk and invades the Judge’s box; when the Judge objects, he shoots him.

The rest of the movie is lynch mobs. Ford turns back the first mob with a fiery speech about rule of law—only to discover Daley has freed Morra. So he confronts Daley, decks him, and is shot dead by him. That leads to the second lynch mob, which extracts both Morra and Daley from prison, puts them through a kangaroo court, and hangs them. (Morra goes with aplomb; Daley whimpering.) Now they target Bat. He prevented the Barbary Coast mob from burning down the newspaper, but the citizens’ mob doesn't know that, and probably wouldn't care, and they burn down his place and take him prisoner. At the kangaroo court, he's about to get a death sentence when Jean shows up and pleads his case: “You hanged Morra and Dailey because they killed. Bat Morgan has killed no one!” 

Me: Well, Spider Burke, most likely, but we can let that one go. 

In his own defense, Bat says this:

The only thing I’m guilty of is trying to make good. Make good my own way. [Pause] Which was wrong, I found that out.

Ouch. That pause. 

Anyway, the vigilante committee remands Bat to her care. She says she has faith in him. He says she won’t regret it.

We regret it. The end.

Where have you gone, Lili Damita?
It's an odd end. The couple is together but basically surrounded. This was from the period when Warners didn't kill off Cagney. After “Public Enemy,” I don't think he died onscreen again until “Ceiling Zero,” his next picture after this one, which was a sacrificial death, as was, in a way, “Angels with Dirty Faces,” a few pictures after that. Then it was off to the races. Then moidah the bum. 

A couple more things worth mentioning about “Frisco Kid.”

On race matters: There’s just one non-white face, Wong Chung playing Chung. We first see him as another player at Morra’s blackjack table; after Bat builds Bella Pacifica, we see him in Bat’s office, shining his shoes. That’s about it. Of the 45 credits IMDb lists for Wong, 44 are uncredited. The one that isn’t is the Anna May Wong vehicle “King of Chinatown” (1939), in which he plays “Chinese man”—which is his credit (or uncredit) in 11 other movies. This is the fourth movie in which he actually has a name, and it’s his third with “Frisco” in the title. The others: “Frisco Jenny” (1932) and “Fog Over Frisco” (1934).

Charles Middleton, soon to play Ming the Merciless in “Flash Gordon,” also has a bit part as a rabble rouser.

Fourth-billed is an actress named Lili Damita, who’s barely in it. She plays Belle, Morra’s girl, and helps him cheat. She’s also in a lot of publicity shots for the film—including cheek to cheek with Cagney—but again, she’s barely in it, and never with her cheeks near Cagney’s. Was her part cut? Was she was just a name to draw in the crowds? In her obit from 1994, The New York Times says the French-born actress was “one of Hollywood's most glamorous celebrities in the early years of talking pictures,” starring opposite Ronald Colman, Gary Cooper and Laurence Olivier, while romantically linked to Prince Louis Ferninand. A 1929 Times headline reads: LILI DAMITA ENGAGED TO KAISER’S GRANDSON. A day later, this errata: HOHENZOLLERNS DENY PRINCE IS TO WED.

“Frisco Kid” is one of her last pictures. What happened? Chiefly, she married an up-and-comer named Errol Flynn. They divorced a few years later, of course, but they had a son, Sean, who—no surprise—was a handsome sonovuabitch. He made a few knockoff movies in the early 1960s trading on his dad’s fame but apparently died in Cambodia in 1970. As a soldier? No, a photojournalist. He went to Vietnam in 1966 for Paris-Match, was wounded, left to cover the Arab-Israeli War of 1967, then returned with plans for a documentary. He and a colleague went missing from Cambodia in 1970; they were never found. His mother had him declared legally dead in the 1980s.

Me: Wow, they should make a movie of this.

They did: “The Road to Freedom,” 2010, loosely based. The Times thought it awful, calling it “a howler.”

Damita did marry again. From her obit: “Her second marriage in 1962 to Allen B. Loomis, an Iowa manufacturer, also ended in divorce.” Not sure why the Times sounds so dismissive here. They were married 20+ years. Plus it’s somehow charming: from a prince, to a movie star, to an Iowa manufacturer. Even those guys—us guys—get a chance now and again. 

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Posted at 07:12 AM on Thursday February 13, 2020 in category Movie Reviews - 1930s   |   Permalink  

Wednesday October 02, 2019

Movie Review: Devil Dogs of the Air (1935)

WARNING: SPOILERS

Devil Dogs? Plural? More like hot dog, singular. 

Thomas Jefferson “Tommy” O’Toole (James Cagney) considers himself the world’s greatest aviator but joins the Marines to (I guess) be with his childhood buddy, Lt. Brannigan (Pat O’Brien), and has to go through all the steps—training, flight instruction, solo flight—that he considers beneath him. He lets everyone know it’s beneath him. He’s got a superior attitude and a superior laugh. He doesn’t exactly endear himself to them. Or us.

It's kinda weird. I'm a Cagney fan but he's a real asshole in this one. 

Not only does he disrespect Brannigan, he tries to steal his girl, Betty (Margaret Lindsay). Wait, he does steal her. First he tries to con the mother, Ma Roberts (Helen Lowell), by selling her his crashed airplane, which he says will attract customers to her diner; then he keeps making a play for Betty. He assumes, with that constant, superior giggle of his, that Betty is enamored of him, too. All the while, she fulminates—“Ooo!”—until she doesn’t. It’s like that transition in “Taxi” when Loretta Young goes from absolutely hating Cagney to cozying up to him on a date. Here, O’Toole basically blackmails Betty into going to the dance with him, and the next we see them they’re dancing cheek to cheek—and she’s not minding it a bit. All the “Ooo!” has gone out of her. If it wasn’t 1935, I would think Sam Peckinpah directed it, but it’s Warner Bros./Cagney mainstay Lloyd Bacon.

We keep waiting for comeuppance, but when it comes it’s muted and distracted; then rewarded.

South of La Jolla
O’Toole first shows up in his plane with WORLD’S GREATEST AVIATOR on the side and TOMMY O’TOOLE on the tops of the wings, and buzzes the San Diego Marine compound and does loop-de-loops. When instructions are given, he’s paring his fingernails. When he goes up with a flight instructor, he disables communications so he doesn’t have to listen to him. Brannigan then takes over as flight instructor but when the plane catches fire he bails out, while O’Toole, with a laugh and a “So long, sucker!” lands the plane safely to acclaim. The longtime commander—beloved, one would think—is suddenly tagged with the mocking nickname “Bail-Out Brannigan.” Maybe he is. He tries to bail out again by requesting a transfer to Quantico. It’s Betty, inside the newly dubbed “Happy Landing Café,” who convinces him to stay and fight. Given what happens, one wonders why she made the effort. 

O’Toole finally gets an inkling he’s despised when the rookies, after their first solo flight, are hailed and paraded around the compound before a ceremonious toss into the ocean. Hoo-rah! None of this happens to him. He sticks a perfect three-point landing and gets the cold shoulder. “What gives?” he asks. “Figure it out for yourself,” says the mechanic dismissively.

But it’s just an inkling and it doesn’t stick as well as his landings. He makes more plays at Betty. Outside the dance, Brannigan and O’Toole almost fight, but a commanding officer arrives with his wife and two young beauties and asks the young men to escort them inside. All the while, ambulance driver Crash Kelly (Frank McHugh) follows them around hoping to be of use. It’s the movie’s not-particularly-funny running gag. Crash even tries to engineer injuries. Dude, wait seven years. You’ll see plenty. 

It is interesting seeing a military movie from a time when there was no draft and no war. It reminds me of “Top Gun” this way. What do you make the climax about? You make it about war maneuvers, Blue vs. Brown, with “the enemy” trying to land “just south of La Jolla.” Some of these scenes, on the beaches amid smoke screens, seem an eerie prefiguring of future battles.


Of course, during maneuvers, O’Toole and Brannigan are in the same plane, and of course their plane is clipped and they lose part of a wing. O’Toole gets all panicky and is ready to bail but Brannigan insists they keep flying; then he wing-walks to repair the damage. One wonders if he’s doing all this to expunge his nickname or if it actually makes sense. The ground is certainly full of doubters: “A thousand to one they won’t make it,” says Ward Bond. They do, O’Toole is hailed again but for the first time he deflects credit.

O’Toole: Brannigan did it all, give it to him.
[They cheer Brannigan]
Brannigan: Forget it. Took two of us to bring it down.

Aw shucks, guys. At which point, Betty arrives and plants a hot kiss on Brannigan, and it suddenly dawns on O’Toole that he’s not the guy for her.

It just doesn’t dawn on Warner Bros. I guess the star was the star, and he got the girl even if the story has to tie itself in knots to make it happen. Here, days after the kiss, Brannigan is walking with Betty and asks her to marry him. She doesn’t exactly jump. She gets quiet and sad and gives the 1930s version of all of those “I like you as a friend” lines I heard 50 years later: “If you were my brother,” she says, “I couldn’t love your or admire you more than I do.”

Ouch. Then this:

She: Oh Bill, I haven’t hurt your feelings, have I?
He: Oh no, honey. I understand everything. ... Good luck, kid.

One moment he’s ready to spend the rest of his life with her, the next he’s bowing out gracefully. So Pat O’Brien. 

This is the second of seven movies real-life pals Cagney and O’Brien made together between 1934 and 1940, and most are similar. They’re often childhood friends, in the military, with Cagney the hotshot and O’Brien the temperate/spiritual one. There was often an issue with a girl. In the first, “Here Comes the Navy,” Cagney is after O’Brien’s sister, while here, as in “The Irish In Us,” he steals O’Brien’s girl. Eventually, Warner Bros. just threw up its hands and said, “Screw it, we’ll make O’Brien a priest from now on.” Problem solved.

This, by the way, is IMDb’s synopsis of the movie: “A talented but brash stunt pilot enters the Marine Corps and becomes more disciplined.” So when does the discipline come? At the very end—kinda sorta not really. After the turndown from Betty, Brannigan again requests a Quantico transfer, but as he’s leaving he goes out of his way to tell O’Toole that he’s the one Betty really likes. “If you think that kiss the other day was anything but friendship,” he says, “you’re crazier than a Chinese kite.” Then he leaves, hail and hearty, while O’Toole chastises a private for not saluting—repeating the lines Brannigan drilled into him:

“The Marine Corps only asks for three things: willingness to learn; respect for a superior officer and the uniform he wears; and the ability to take orders so he can give them later on.”

Trouble is, O’Toole never really leaned to take orders without a smirk; he just got good at giving them. He's one of those types. 

Anyway, he gets the girl.

The man behind ‘Wings’
A few things I liked. At one point, during maneuvers, there’s a dirigible in the air, reminding us that all of this was filmed pre-Hindenburg when dirigibles supposedly had military value. I also liked the pilot training/tests, which is like a pre-tech, budget version of what we’d see in “The Right Stuff.” Instead of this equilibrium chair from the 1950s, for example, it’s a swivel desk chair. The instructors spin it five turns one way, five turns the next. Then the pilot wobbles out. That’s it.

I liked Lowell as Ma Roberts. She’s got great comic timing in scenes like this:

Ma: Betty’s father was a Marine. Died in the Nicaraguan campaign.
O’Toole: Shot?
Ma: No. Mumps.

The flight footage is surprisingly good. The story comes from John Monk Saunders, who was born in Hibbing, Minn., in 1895, moved to Seattle in 1907, and served in the Air Service, the forerunner to the Air Force, during World War I. He never saw combat— he was a flight instructor in Florida—which apparently disappointed and/or haunted him. Is that why he began to write about it? Because he couldn’t do it? Either way, in the 1920s, he wrote novels and short stories about WWI pilots, which he sold to Hollywood, and which became, among other movies, “Wings,” “Dawn Patrol,” “Ace of Aces,” and this. For most of the ’30s, Saunders was married to Fay Wray, the girl in King Kong’s palm, and got into an infamous fight with actor and WWI vet Herbert Marshall at a 1934 Ernst Lubitsch dinner party. He also suffered from alcoholism, which is why he committed suicide in 1940.

The main thing I didn’t like in the movie, as you can tell, is Cagney/O’Toole. They really do make him an asshole here. He’s much more likeable as a murderous gangster. Those guys have a code. 

Where have you gone, Rocky Sullivan? 

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Posted at 09:51 AM on Wednesday October 02, 2019 in category Movie Reviews - 1930s   |   Permalink  

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 Tuesday September 17, 2019 in category Movie Reviews - 1930s   |   Permalink  
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