erik lundegaard

Movie Reviews - 1930s posts

Friday September 11, 2020

Movie Review: Trapped By Television (1936)

WARNING: SPOILERS

In the 1920s and ‘30s, as inventors were trying to create a visual version of radio called “television,” the film industry was already exploiting the concept in low-budget movies. Has someone done a study on this? It’s a major plot point in “International House” (1933) starring W.C. Fields, in which various people bid on the invention in a Chinese hotel; “The Big Broadcast of 1936” (1935), where TV is called “the Radio Eye”; a 1935 Bela Lugosi horror film called “Murder by Television”; and this, whose working title was “Caught by Television.”

The future Lex Luthor and the future femme fatale
introduce the future.*

I was caught anyway. I watched because I was intrigued by the title. And? It’s not much, a low-budget quickie, but it has moments.

Sweeping the country
Rocky (Nat Pendleton, the future Goliath in “At the Circus”) is good-natured muscle for the Acme Collection Agency (“If they’ve got it, we’ll get it”), but in his spare time he likes reading “Popular Science,” which his boss, Greggs (Wade Boteler), calls “machinery magazines.” Berated for not pulling his weight, Rocky is given a new assignment: a guy named Fred Dennis (Lyle Talbot, the future Lex Luthor in “Atom Man vs. Superman”), who is working on a beta version of television.

Rather than strong-arm him, though, Rocky becomes intrigued. He thinks Dennis is onto something and wants to help make it happen. So not only does he not take his equipment, he gets Dennis a job as a debt collector for the agency so he can pay back his debt.

Dennis’ first assignment? Blake Enterprises, Inc., a down-on-its-luck sales/promotion firm run by Bobby Blake (Mary Astor, the future femme fatale in “Maltese Falcon”). That debt isn’t collected, either, of course. Instead, he tells her about his television and she promises to help sell it. Per “Maltese,” she doesn’t really believe in his invention; she believes in the money she might bilk for it.

Mae: [Joyce Compton, Bobby’s wise-crackin’ secretary] Say, you don’t think that machine is any good, do you?
Bobby: I don’t think it can squeeze orange juice. What difference does it make? It looks complicated enough to fool anybody. … Television is sweeping the country. Everybody is interested in it and practically nobody knows the first thing about it. That’s where the chumps come in. Curtis would fall for it like a ton of bricks.

Curtis is the president of the Paragon Broadcasting Company (Thurston Hall), and he doesn’t believe in it, either, but he basically gives her a $200 check to get rid of her. Two-hundred bucks! Bobby and Mae celebrate. Except after visiting Dennis, and seeing the commitment he has to the project, and maybe being a little stuck on him, Bobby, against her better, cynical instincts, gives him the dough. 

And he makes it work. Then they demo it for Paragon at a football game with Rocky filming and broadcasting, and … it doesn’t work. Paragon was working on its own version of television until its chief engineer Paul Turner (Wyrley Birch), and his assistant Frank Griffin (Marc Lawrence), went missing. Turns out Turner was kidnapped, and later murdered, by Griffin, who’s working with Paragon executive Standish (Robert Strange). I guess they think they can sell Curtis his own product? Main point is they sabotage Dennis’ demonstration by mucking with the cathode-ray tube. But Dennis figures it out, Bobby sells her prize fur coat to get him a new cathode-ray tube, and, even as the bad guys converge, the new Paragon demo works.

The first thing broadcast? A dull fight scene, blows continually exchanged, between mobster Griffin and scientist Dennis. Prescient.

Whatever happened to…?
“Television” is directed by Del Lord, who seems worthy of a movie himself. He started as a stuntman and a member of the Keystone Kops. Apparently he was adept at crazy, perilous driving. Eventually he became the director of stunt scenes and then Mack Sennett shorts. But when the Depression ruined Sennett, he was let go. A Columbia Pictures executive found him selling used cars. At this point, Columbia had just signed the Three Stooges and they figured the former Keystone Kop/director would be perfect for them. Apparently he was. Over the next 10+ years, he directed more than three dozen Stooges shorts, their best stuff, apparently, and was so revered a New York band named themselves the Del-Lords in his honor.

What he didn’t do much? Feature-length films. IMDb lists 220 directing credits for him, and all but 15 are shorts. He did three features in the ’20s: “Lost at the Front,” a WWI comedy; “Topsy and Eva,” a farce based on “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” (you can see a clip here, if you dare); and “Barnum was Right,” about a down-on-his-luck hotel owner who drums up business with rumors of hidden treasure. This is his first talkie feature. Don't know why they didn't give him a comedy, but that’s Hollywood.

So is there anything of value in it—other than an early look at the medium that usurped the movies as the preeminent storyteller of American lives? Yes, a few things.

Pendleton’s got good comic timing. He played a similar role in “Manhattan Melodrama”—the not-bright muscle with a heart of gold—and of course he made a great comic foil for the Marx Brothers. Born in 1895, the son of a lawyer, he took to wrestling, and was good enough to win a silver medal in the 1920 Olympics. He kept acting into the ’40s; he died of a heart attack in 1967, age 72.

There’s also a great scene after the Paragon engineer has been kidnapped. They’re in a cabin, the engineer is locked in a closet and banging on the door, while Griffin, the mobster, lays on the bed shooting darts at a dartboard with a blowgun. Splat! Splat! There’s something both indolent and menacing in Lawrence’s movements. He’s another story: Group Theater, good friend of John Garfield, gangster roles, blacklisted, European films, returning to the U.S. for TV and movie roles. He kept acting into the 21st century (take that, HUAC!) before dying in 2005 at the age of 95.

Finally,  in “Television,” there’s this early line from Bobby Blake about the titular subject: “Well, if it does what you say it will, the entire industry will be affected.” They had no idea. 

* The above photo is taken from the Bradford Evening Star and Daily Record, Bradford, Penn., July 11, 1936, Saturday evening edition. “Trapped” is a B-picture from a minor-major studio, Columbia, so hardly any posters were created for it. Even in the newspaper ads back then it was usually listed as an “Also” or “Plus”; it was the other feature you could see when you saw the one everyone was talking about. 

Posted at 07:38 AM on Friday September 11, 2020 in category Movie Reviews - 1930s   |   Permalink  

Monday August 24, 2020

Movie Review: Boy Meets Girl (1938)

WARNING: SPOILERS 

“You may think this is heresy, Jim, but I’ve always thought of you as essentially a comedian.”

The line comes from Margaret Hamilton—yes, the Wicked Witch of the West—during the filming of “Johnny Come Lately” with James Cagney in 1943. Cagney’s response? “I told Margaret that it was not only not heresy, it was gospel. My gospel.” He thought all of his roles contained comedic elements. “I have too much of Frank Fay and Lowell Sherman in me,” he told biographer John McCabe, “not to have a comedic attitude at the base of my acting.” 

Sure. And you can see elements of that attitude in “Blonde Crazy,” “Hard to Handle,” and “Lady Killer,” among others. But here? In this comedy/farce? Nope. Everything’s big and theatrical. Nothing lands. 

Not just for him, either. Apparently during the making of “Boy Meets Girl”—a send-up of the movie industry based on the 1935 hit Broadway play by the husband-wife team of Bella and Sam Spewack—producer Hal Wallis kept demanding a quicker pace and ordered director Lloyd Bacon to reshoot some scenes. From McCabe: 

Both Cagney and [Pat] O’Brien knew that the unremittingly swift pace Wallis had imposed on their director was too much, and that, in farce, as in everything else, one had to grant moments of rest. Jim was in special need of caution because of his natural tendency to talk fast. He never watched dailies as a rule but did one day in Ralph Bellamy’s company. As they came out of the projection room, Jim turned to his friend and said, “Would you tell me what I just said? I couldn’t understand a word.”

Too true. But there’s a bigger problem with “Boy Meets Girl.” Its leads are privileged assholes.

Braves and sagamores
Benson and Law (O’Brien and Cagney) are the most successful screenwriting team on the Royal Studios lot, and their huge, cluttered office includes giant Barrel-o-Monkeys hanging from the ceiling, a phonograph of a typewriter tapping away (to throw others off the scent while they play), and movie posters based on their scripts hanging on the walls. Spot the theme:

  • There’s Love Ahead
  • The Love Express
  • Love Handicap
  • Love Is Where You Find It
  • Love, Honor and Behave

That theme is the reason they’re wealthy ($1500 a week each during the Depression) and it’s the bane of their existence. They’re smart men who write pablum: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl. “It’s the great American fairy tale,” Law says. And it’s killing them inside.

So how do they deal with it? Pranks, antics, madcap behavior. They join a dance line on another set, run circles around producer C. Elliott Friday (Ralph Bellamy), instigate a revolt on Indian extras, and mock cowboy movie star Larry Toms (B-western star Dick Foran). They have an anarchic spirit like the Marx Brothers but aren’t nearly as anarchic and definitely not as funny. The white collars don’t help. I actually got whiffs of the 1970s Harvard Lampoon boys: white men with the power to change things who are content to mock the system while swinging a golf club. I never much liked those guys.

The Indian revolt is particularly problematic. Friday is forever receiving calls about what he never ordered for his movies—or what he ordered and forgot—and for a time it’s a busload of Native Americans. Outside Friday’s office, Law riles them up:

Law [theatrically]: Men, I say to you: protest. Mr. Friday asked you to come to work. And now he won’t give you any work. Think of your forefathers. What did they ever get from the paleface—a handful of beads. They took your rivers, your mountains, your plains; and they taught you instead of putting corn in the ground, you could put it in a jug. And today, what do they give you for your great Indian trails? Signboards and trailer camps.

Indians: How, how!

Benson: And how!

Law [more theatrically]: Arise, braves and sagamores! Beat your drums of war in protest! Wait! [Picks up rock] I’m going to make your protest heard ’round the world! Forward, men! To victory!

Then he tosses the rock through Friday’s window, and the Indians are never heard from again. The whole thing is a joke to Benson and Law but it’s never funny—to the Indian extras least of all, one imagines.

(It is, nonetheless, an improvement. Four years earlier, in “Lady Killer,” another send-up of the Hollywood system, it’s Cagney and other white extras who are spraypainted and fitted with headdresses in assembly-line fashion. At least here Native Americans get to play themselves.*)

(*I think.)

As the movie opens, Benson and Law are stuck writing a comeback movie for Larry Toms, who hovers nearby with his agent, Rosetti (Frank McHugh), demanding action. It’s not until a half-hour in, when a waitress, Susie (Marie Wilson), brings a mostly ignored platter of food for Friday, then faints because she’s pregnant, that they glom onto something. A baby! Her baby! Who’ll be named Happy. They’ll put Happy in Larry’s movies and make him a star!

And they do just that. The montage of Happy being put through the star-making machine (movie magazines, etc.) may be my favorite part of this thing.

On the other side of the montage, all seems well. Susie is going back to high school to get her diploma, and Benson and Law, who have power of attorney over Happy, are in the catbird seat. Until they’re not. It’s a little odd how it happens. For the first half of the movie, they ignore work in favor of escapades; in the second half of the movie, they ignore Susie (whom they like) in favor of work. They’re too busy writing screenplays for Happy, her son, to talk to her. As a result, when they let the POA lapse, Rosetti swoops in, sweet-talks Susie, and takes over.

Their scheme to get back what they lost involves the boy-meets-girl subplot. Before giving birth, Susie hit it off with a British extra, Rodney Bowman (Bruce Lester), who was in Friday’s office to get approval for the Buckingham Palace guard uniform he was wearing for a film called “Young England.” Friday, who puts on airs, dismissing Kipling in favor of Proust, for example, objects to the hat but is fine with everything else. Rodney politely informs him that the hat is the only authentic part of the uniform. For that, he’s fired. But B&L’s scheme is a little desperate. At the premiere of a new Errol Flynn picture (“The White Rajah”), as Susie is being interviewed for radio by a young Ronald Reagan (only his sixth credited picture), Law pushes Rodney towards her so he can claim to be the father of Happy. A scandal ensues.

Back at the studio, B&L lock up Rodney, he escapes, tells Friday that B&L orchestrated the whole thing, and they’re canned. As is Happy: washed up at eight months old. Benson and Law have long disparaged what they do, with Law in particular talking about leaving Hollywood to write the Great American Novel in Vermont, but maybe inside they both know this is what they’re best at. So they scheme to get back the soul-killing but high-paying job: They get a British friend to send a telegram to Friday offering to buy the studio as long as Happy is still under contract.

This scheme, too, is eventually uncovered, but by then B&L have their old jobs back. It’s also uncovered that Rodney is really the son of a British lord, he asks Susie to marry him, and the two decide to raise Happy in Europe, away from the Hollywood hubbub. The end. 

Me: Right, except it’s 1938. Europe isn’t such a happy place—or a place for Happy. And it’s about to get much, much worse. 

In like Flynn
It’s a little ironic that the best part of a movie that mocks “boy meets girl” storylines is the boy and the girl. Lester as Rodney is quiet, understated and intelligent. He knows he’s in a clown shop but seems too polite to mention it. I’d never seen Marie Wilson before but she’s got a Judy Holliday thing about her. In his memoir, Cagney calls her savvy and “very adept at giving an impression of naivete.” Reagan is also good in a small role. He’s young, thin, oh-so handsome, and flummoxed when his radio interview goes complete awry.

Cagney? I think I’ve said it before, but it’s so odd that his gangsters are often more likeable than his civilians. That’s the case here, too. He does have his moments, though. During one of the many farcical meetings in Friday’s office, he does a little dance number by himself that’s admired by Pat O’Brien. Earlier, goofing about love love love, he lays on a chaise while doing a dancer’s stretch that’s pretty incredible. He gets his leg way back there. At nearly 40.

I like some of the insidery stuff. Apparently Benson and Law are based on  Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, while Friday is Darryl Zanuck, but I haven’t seen corroboration on this. Dick Powell gets lauded and the Barrymore larynx is mentioned. It’s a Warners movie—Cagney’s first back with the studio after two pictures with Grand National—so of course the studio pimps some of its product, particularly Errol Flynn, who is mentioned three times as the star the ladies are all now crazy about. According to TCM, they also took him down a notch. The Flynn movie being premiered, “The White Rajah,” is fictional, but apparently that was the title of a script Flynn wrote and pushed on Warners that was summarily rejected. I do love the title. So of the era. They should make it today. As a farce.

Posted at 09:48 AM on Monday August 24, 2020 in category Movie Reviews - 1930s   |   Permalink  

Wednesday August 12, 2020

Movie Review: He Was Her Man (1934)

WARNING: SPOILERS

You dirty rat.

The line Cagney never spoke is the character he becomes in “He Was Her Man” (working titles: “Without Honor”; “He Was a Man”), a 1934 Lloyd Bacon-directed Warner Bros. quickie. It’s kind of shocking to see. In both the Cagney and Warner Bros. ethos, no one was lower than a rat; yet here was Cagney, Warners’ biggest star, playing one. 

Flicker Hayes is a safecracker who just spent three years in the stir, and who, as the movie opens, is in a Turkish bath being offered another gig. First words from the other guys: “It’s a cinch.” I like the bargaining—maybe a sly nod to the back-and-forth between Cagney and Warner Bros. Flicker wants half his cut up front, $15k, but they’re not having it. Eventually they offer $5k. OK, how about 10? At which point he raises his ask to 20. Eventually they settle on the 15 he originally wanted.  

Then he rats them out to the cops.

There's a safe full of junk and nose candy at the Empire Wholesale Drug Warehouse. They've hired me to use a can opener. Yeah. Tonight.

Even the cops find this distasteful but they get it. These guys, Dan Curly’s gang, are the reason Flicker spends three years in prison and now it’s payback time. At the scene of the crime, Flicker escapes by window with a laugh, but soon it’s no laughing matter. There’s a shootout, a cop dies, and one of the gang, Red Deering (Ralf Harolde, no childe), will go the chair. So Curly sends J.C. and Monk (Harold Huber and Russell Hopton) to pay back Flicker in kind.

By now he's in San Francisco, goes by the name of Jerry Allen, and seems trapped. A hotel clerk, innocent of all the aforementioned, recognizes him from New York, so Flicker realizes he’s still not safe. Plus he’s run out of continent. He contemplates a slow boat to China but doesn’t have a passport and apparently can’t figure out a crooked way to get one. Seattle? Alaska? Canada? Not a thought. How about at least shaving that pencil-thin moustache? No soap.

For whom the bell tolls
Fate intervenes in the form of Rose Lawrence (Joan Blondell), who enters his hotel room to retrieve, of all things, a wedding dress she left under the mattress when the cops busted her the other night. She’s a prostitute, barely ex, and Nick Gardella (Victory Jory), an Italian fisherman from the small village of Santa Avila 100 miles or so south, has proposed. The wedding is in a few days. A quiet little place, she says. Dead to the world. Doesn’t take Einstein to figure out Flicker’s next move.

Except it gets a little creepy here. He takes the wedding dress from her, hangs it up in the closet, says he’ll get her stuff out of hock and go with her. Then, while she looks resigned, he removes her coat. Fadeout. Eww. Or is the eww on me? I assumed the worst, the last sad sex of the pre-code era, but the rest of the movie indicates otherwise. Either way, Warners should've been more careful with its fadeouts. 

Blondell, by the way, is great. I kept coming back to the word ripe. There’s a scene in her room at the Gardella house where Nick is saying good night, or she’s saying we’d better say good night, and it’s just the two of them in profile, staring at each other, the attraction palpable, maybe leaning in a little, until … he says buon night and leaves. But steamy.

Both Rose and Flicker/Jerry are welcomed into the Gardella house by the merry mother (Sarah Padden), with whom Jerry flirts. Jerry also spends a happy day on the boat with Nick. But a Curly associate (Frank Craven), who’d seen them leave SF, finds them in Santa Avila, alerts the gang, and steals Flicker’s gun. The two assassins arrive the day of the wedding.

By this point, Rose has confessed her love for Jerry, and the two of them are thinking of lamming it. They stick around because she feels she owes it to Nick to explain. Except she can’t—Blondell is sadly passive for most of the movie, missing her usual firecracker wit—and so now she’s just waiting for Jerry. Except Jerry has already left. He saw his gat was gone, as well as the Curly associate, and knows what’s coming. He and the assassins even pass each other on the road to/from Santa Avila—unknowingly. 

About that: Early on, we’re told it’s 12 miles from the bus depot/café to Santa Avila, but near the end of the movie people seem to make this trip in minutes. One guy, for example, the young driver for the assassins, panics when he hears them talking about roughing up Rose, and he makes it to the café/depot on foot—and in time, with his babble, to clue Flicker in to what’s going on.

So what’s he going to do? He has one foot on the step of a bus heading south, toward anonymity and safety, but then, nah, he takes a cab back to the Gardellas, where no violence or even epiphanies have occurred. There, he says goodbye to Rose and leaves with the assassins. I assumed he had a plan and would escape improbably in the Hollywood manner, but it turns out: no. His plan is to get Rose and the Gardellas away from the danger he put them in. He makes the great sacrifice, smiling, and is killed offscreen, while Rose, with an 11th-hour realization of how much she loves Nick, gets married in the town chapel. The bell tolls in celebration. And sorrow.

The killers
That's not bad. The supporting cast, meanwhile, is fun. Jory, who will play Oberon to Cagney’s Bottom in “A Mid-Summer Night’s Dream” from 1935, and who will make an excellent Lamont Cranston/Shadow in the 1940 Columbia serial, makes this happy, nonjudgmental fisherman believable. I like how he’s proud of his work, dismissive of the men who can’t do it, but thinks it’s no life for anyone. John Qualen, Berger in “Casablanca,” is comic relief as the bucktoothed Avila cabbie, while George Chandler (who looks so familiar but can’t place him) is the kid behind the counter at the café. I was particularly impressed with the two assassins. They’re like precursors to Jules and Vincent—forever in disagreement over what to do next. While Monk wants to rough up Rose, J.C. is smarter. He knows she knows nothing and counsels patience and not tipping your hand. There's a stillness to him, which makes him more menacing.

“He Was Her Man” is clunky, not well thought-out, and the title is horrible. But it’s like Flicker: It redeems itself in the end.

Posted at 06:46 AM on Wednesday August 12, 2020 in category Movie Reviews - 1930s   |   Permalink  

Wednesday July 15, 2020

Movie Review: Three on a Match (1932)

Blonell and Dvorak switch places. Bette Davis the blonde, boring one. 

WARNING: SPOILERS

Our title three are Mary, Vivian and Ruth (Joan Blondell, Ann Dvorak and Bette Davis), who know each other in grade school and meet up again 10 years later. Of the three, Bette Davis is the boring one, believe it or not, the “…and Peggy” of the group. She’s got no bit. She’s the smart one who becomes a typist and then a nanny. I guess such were the options for smart girls in the 1920s and ’30s. Or for Warners bit players, which Davis was at the time.

The other two switch places. That’s the movie's real story.

Dempsey, Vallee, Lindsey
We first see them as kids at Public School No. 62, where Mary smokes with the boys (including Frankie Darro, uncredited) and doesn’t care about showing her bloomers on the monkey bars. Vivian is the popular one—although one wonders why since she seems kind of snooty. Either way, their futures appear pre-written. And indeed: Mary (now Blondell) winds up in reform school and becomes a show girl; Ruth (now Bette) winds up at business/typing school and becomes a secretary; and Vivian (Dvorak) goes to prep school—where she reads racy books to the other girls—then marries a rich, prominent lawyer, Robert Kirkwood (Warren William), and has an too-cutesy three-year old, Junior, played by Buster Phelps, who’s a bit like a boy version of Shirley Temple.

Anyway, they meet up again in 1930 and have lunch together. At one point, they light their cigarettes from the same match. “Three on a match,” one of them says.

Know the saying? I didn’t. Apparently if three smokers share the same match, one of them dies. That was the superstition. It may have started during wartime—Boer, WWI—since if the light from the match burned long enough it made the men a target. Another version has it that the slogan was popularized in the 1920s by Ivar Kreuger, the Swedish “match king”—yes, they had those back then—who wanted people to use more matches. War or greed: either could be correct. 

Interestingly, Warren William’s next movie was “The Match King,” a fictionalized version of Kreuger—I guess matches were a bigger thing then—while both “three on a match” theories are mentioned here via newspaper headlines. Normally they‘re used to set the scene/era. So in 1919, along with “Public Enemy” footage of people hoarding booze, we get these headlines:

  • DRY LAW IN EFFECT TOMORROW
  • WOMAN SUFFRAGE PASSES CONGRESS!
  • DEMPSEY KNOCKED OUT WILLARD

There’s also an article about fashion trends, and how the “proper dress length next fall will be six inches from the ground.” It was tongue-in-cheek scandalous. “Not since the days of the Bourbons,” etc. It was 1932 making fun of 1919.

As for 1921? Babe Ruth maybe? Douglas Fairbanks? Nope. Instead we get:

  • The music sheet for Eddie Cantor’s “The Sheik of Araby” (which the Beatles did 40 years later)
  • PRESIDENT HARDING LAUNCHES NEW “ERA OF GOOD FEELING” (sure)
  • AMAZING FEAT OF NEW “WIRELESS TELEPHONE” (i.e., radio)

And 1925?

  • The music sheet for “The Prisoner’s Song”
  • SHENANDOAH WRECKED! MANY LIVES LOST
  • “RED” GRANGE FOR CONGRESS
  • YOUNGER GENERATION RUNS WILD, SAYS JUDGE BEN LINDSEY

I love the stuff that meant something then but less so now. I guess the U.S.S. Shenandoah dirigible crash was eventually usurped by the Hindenburg? Meanwhile, Ben Lindsey was indeed a judge—and a social reformer—but lost to us through the years.

Then we’re up to 1930—only two years removed from when the movie was made and released—so less aware of what might be historically significant. What do they give us? 

  • The music sheet for “Dancing with Tears in My Eyes” by Rudy Vallee
  • WALL STREET LEADERS SEE BUSINESS UPTURN: Stock Slump Only Temporary…

Never heard of the Vallee song. The other is 1932 thumbing its nose at 1930—or at least its pundits. We still haven’t learned that lesson.

Again, this is when our girls meet up. Both Mary and Peggy/Ruth are scraping to get by, Viv has it made but she’s not happy. She’s bored. With husband and maybe child? But the husband is understanding. He suggests a trip to Europe, which she thinks won’t work. Then he suggests a trip to Europe without him. She’s more interested in that. Yikes. She even takes along her annoying son. But she never gets out of port.

Before the ship sets sail, she meets a friend of Mary’s, Michael Loftus (Lyle Talbot), and the two drink each other in; they can’t get enough of each other. And so she and son slip off and spend time with him in a high-priced hotel. She spends most of it drinking, but it soon becomes apparent she’s snorting cocaine, too. Yes, cocaine. Pre-code. By and by, she loses her son (Mary brings him back to the father), her husband divorces her (and quickly marries Mary), and she becomes destitute. Like that. She and Mary change places.

Wait, it gets worse.

Good-for-nothing Michael owes $2k to gangsters. The big man is Ace, played by Edward Arnold, whose henchmen include Allen Jenkins (forever a secondary gangster), an uncredited Jake La Rue (whose got a Bobby Cannavale thing about him), and, in his first gangster role, and only ninth feature, a young Humphrey Bogart. He’s one of the best things in the movie. There’s a stillness to him that feels threatening. There’s a leanness to him that’s like a razor blade.

Since Michael can’t pay them off, he decides to kidnap Junior for ransom. Then the mob wants in on the action: Not the $2k he’s demanding but $25k. Soon it becomes like a Lindbergh baby thing, with headlines around the country and everyone in the city after them and closing in. Things get so hot the others decide to just kill Junior and scram. Vivian overhears, hides her son, writes a message on her nightgown in lipstick, and when the bad guys enter the room she screams and jumps out the fourth-story window. It’s the great sacrifice after the great indulgence.

The boy survives, unlike Lindbergh’s baby, and everyone lives happily ever after except for Viv. She’s the third on the match. Let this be a lesson, moviegoers. Stay away from booze, coke and Lyle Talbot.

‘World War Foreseen’
Yeah, it’s not a great movie. The history of it is more interesting. 

  • As mentioned, it’s the first gangster role for Humphrey Bogart.
  • Sidney Miller has a small role as the humorous Jewish kid at P.S. 62. He’s good. It’s basically the same role he played in “The Mayor of Hell” from ’33. I wrote more about him there.
  • Talbot, who’s quite handsome here, became the first screen version of Lex Luthor in 1950s’s “Atom Man vs. Superman.” He’s one of those guys that never stopped working. According to IMDb, this is his 11th credit and he would wind up with 330 of them—the last being a bit part in the satiric, funny “Amazon Women on the Moon” in 1987. He died in 1996, age 94.
  • Of the titular three, it’s the “…and Peggy” of the group, Bette Davis, who became the star. Maybe because she wanted it most? In her biography, Joan Blondell wonders aloud whether she should’ve fought for better roles like Bette did rather than acquiescing to the Warners; she decides it just wasn’t in her nature.
  • The story came from John Bright and Kubec Glasmon, the guys behind “The Public Enemy,” and it shares a bit of a “Public Enemy” vibe: from seeing our leads as kids to giving us the year yardmarkers throughout. Unlike “PE,” though, the past is not prologue. 

Then there’s all those historical and cultural indicators mentioned above. This is the last group we get—from 1931:

  • Music sheet for Fanny Brice’s “I Found a Million Dollar Baby (In a Five-and-Ten-Cent Store)” (they loved their music sheets)
  • WALL STREET LEADERS SEE BUSINESS UPTURN
  • “SUN SUITS” RULES BEACHES (as juxtaposition with 1919 fashions)

But this is the headline that intrigued me:

 

“Row” is a bit undercutting it; but very, very prescient.

Posted at 08:49 AM on Wednesday July 15, 2020 in category Movie Reviews - 1930s   |   Permalink  

Sunday July 05, 2020

Movie Review: Manhattan Melodrama (1934)

WARNING: SPOILERS

Is there a more unlikely kid actor growing up to be his adult counterpart than Mickey Rooney becoming Clark Gable in this movie? That’s some adolescence he went through.

“Manhattan Melodrama” won an Oscar for best original story for Arthur Caesar (over “Hide-Out” and “The Richest Girl in the World”), and it has an OK rating on IMDb (7.2), but it’s not a good film. It’s one of those “two best friends grow up on opposite sides of the law” movies like “San Francisco,” “Dead End,” and “Angels with Dirty Faces.” “Angels” is the epitome. This? It’s MGM so it loses Warner Bros.’s brashness for a nobility nobody buys. Both men act noble beyond reason. Even the crook. Especially the crook. He’s got a joie de vivre even as he’s doing the dead man’s walk to the electric chair. No worries about me, you just make sure you win that governorship. Put ’er there, pal.

Saved by central casting
Both boys are orphaned after the General Slocum catches fire and sinks in the East River in 1904—a real-life incident in which more than 1,000 people lost their lives, the single-worst tragedy for New York City until 9/11. But central casting to the rescue. The boys are saved by a sturdy priest, Father Joe (Leo Carrillo), and adopted by the emotional Poppa Rosen (George Sidney), who is subsequently killed at a communist rally after standing up for America. Despite all the tragedy, Blackie Gallagher (Rooney/Gable) continues his happy-go-lucky, gambling ways while Jim Wade (Jimmy Butler/William Powell) hits the books and becomes a lawyer, then assistant D.A. Then he runs for D.A. and wins. He’s always modest, never ruthless. He always does right.

As does Blackie, running an illegal casino. Whenever the two meet, they’re happier to see each other than you’ve ever been to see anyone in your adult life. For one meeting, Blackie’s busy, so he sends his girl, Eleanor (Myrna Loy), who’s been trying in vain to get him to go straight and settle down. She’s quickly enamored of Jim, and he of her, and she soon leaves Blackie to be with Jim. How does Blackie react? Fine. She couldn’t have chosen a better guy. Put ’er there, pal.

Two deaths—murders—get in the way of all this brotherly love. Manny Arnold (Noel Madison) keeps chiseling on his gambling debts so Blackie kills him. (I think Manny’s going for his gun or something.) Jim investigates and finds a clue: his own tan overcoat, which he left behind after walking Eleanor home, and which Blackie or his dopey right-hand man, Spud (Nat Pendleton), leaves behind at the scene of the crime. Helluva story: D.A.’S COAT AT MURDER SCENE. Except we don’t go there. Blackie has another coat ordered, exactly to specifications, and puts a gavel tchotchke that Jim had bought in the pocket. Jim’s convinced. He’s schnookered. The crime remains unsolved.

Until Jim begins an “aw, shucks, me?” run for governor. Then a corrupt assistant D.A., Richard Snow (Thomas E. Jackson), who’s been dropped from the ticket, tries to blackmail him about the Manny Arnold murder. Does he have evidence? We never really find out. At the racetrack, Eleanor tells Blackie, who then murders Snow in a bathroom at Madison Square Garden. This time, though, Blackie is caught—the blind beggar outside the bathroom isn’t blind—and is put on trial. Jim, as D.A. running for governor, recuses himself from prosecuting his best friend, of course. Hah. Kidding. This is MGM so they have to milk all the sentimentality they can out of it. But Jim gets the conviction and wins the governorship and man Blackie is proud of him. It’s all so dopey.

Loy’s character is the dopiest and the movie doesn’t seem to realize it. She tells Blackie about the blackmail? What did she think he would do? Then she visits Blackie at the jail—even as her husband is about to prosecute him? “And I thought you were smart,” Blackie tells her, with something close to contempt. “That’s what I always liked about you. You were even smart enough to walk out on me.” 

It gets worse. She demands Jim, as governor, commute Blackie’s sentence. He refuses. So she leaves him. So he rushes to Sing-Sing to stop the execution. Blackie won’t have it. He prefers death anyway than a lifetime in jail. And you need to run for president someday. Put ’er there, pal.

Top of the world, ma
After the execution, Jim, ever noble, tells all before the legislature and resigns the governorship despite cries from the gallery pleading that he stay. Outside, he finds Eleanor. They reconcile. And off they go to … who gives a shit? “Manhattan Melodrama” is mostly interesting for two reasons: the reenactment of the General Slocomb tragedy, and the fact that this is the movie John Dillinger was leaving when he was gunned down by federal agents. Poor bastard. Should’ve been a Cagney.

Posted at 08:08 AM on Sunday July 05, 2020 in category Movie Reviews - 1930s   |   Permalink  

Thursday July 02, 2020

Movie Review: Footlight Parade (1933)

WARNING: SPOILERS

Has anyone in the movies ever talked as fast as James Cagney talks in “Footlight Parade”? Cagney’s patter is always rat-a-tat-tat, but here it’s so zippy it makes Cary Grant’s dialogue in “His Girl Friday” seem positively pensive. His mouth moves faster than our minds.

Cagney’s character, Chester Kent, talks fast in part because he’s scrambling. And he’s scrambling because new technology (talking pictures) has made his talents outmoded (kinda sorta), so he’s struggling to keep up. Also because he trusts the wrong people. Also because he might not be that smart.

He says the following halfway through:

Between Gladstone stealing all our stuff and you saying there are no profits, I’m getting pretty well fed up.

Turns out Gladstone is stealing all their stuff because Kent’s trusted assistant, Thompson (Gordon Wescott), is a spy. And there ­are profits, but Kent’s partners, the production team of Si Gould and Al Frazier (Guy Kibbee and Arthur Hohl), are cheating him. 

Who figures all this out? Kent’s secretary, Nan Prescott (Joan Blondell), who’s not so secretly in love with him. How does he reward her? By dating her friend, Vivian Rich (thin-eyebrowed Claire Dodd, forever playing the other woman). And this after separating from a woman so rotten she deserves the grapefruit in the face Cagney delivered to Mae Clark in “Public Enemy.”

So is our hero, this great musical idea man, not the brightest bulb? You know those scenes in movies where they make the protagonist seem sharp by making them right on an historical moment—like Michael Corleone anticipating the Cuban Revolution in “The Godfather Part II”? They do the opposite with Kent. 

A fad like mah-jongg
“Footlight” begins with a news ticker informing Kent and Thompson (and us) what I assume everyone in 1933 knew—SILENT PICTURES ARE FINISHED—but Kent’s not convinced. He says talking pictures are a fad—like mah-jongg. Thompson doesn’t think so: “Looks like I’m assistant to a guy out of a job,” he says. But is this too smart? Kent directs stage musicals. Why would talking pictures end stage musicals?

That’s the movie’s conceit, though. Kent and Thompson drop by the producers’ office and discover  it’s all over.

Si: Talking pictures—that’s what they want. … Flesh is a dead issue.* We’re in the picture business. Exhibitors.
Al: Yeah, we just bought four houses.
Si: [gesturing to a film cannister] They deliver the show in tin cans and we got nothing to worry about.

(*Ironic given all the flesh in this movie.)

Then they take him to a B-movie starring John Wayne so he can see for himself. Except after the picture is over a mini-musical stage number begins, set in a harem (with, BTW, a superhot uncredited dance lead). I never knew about “prologues” before this movie but here’s a primer. Basically it was a bit of vaudeville between movies in the early days of talkies. The Rockettes got their start with prologues, while one of the impresarios was a guy named Chester Hale, upon whom Cagney’s character is based.

Kent sees the harem number and says, “Hey, why don’t I do that for you?” but Frazier and Gould tell him they’re already phasing out prologues. Too expensive. Then the idea. After Kent’s wife serves him divorce papers—“I’m used to good clothes and everything that goes with it!” is one of the more endearing things she says—Kent goes to a drug store to buy some aspirin and wonders off-handedly why it costs only 18 cents when next door it’s 25. “We got 100 stores,” he’s told. “We buy in big lots.” Kent snaps his fingers. “The chain-store idea solves everything!”* Returning to Frazier & Gould, he sells them on producing prologues that play around the country, not just in one theater, thus diminishing their cost.

(*For the curious: “Chain stores” were, if not a new phenomenon, somewhat new nomenclature in 1933. The first reference in the New York Times came in Nov. 1917 regarding the purchase of a lot by the W.T. Grant Co., which owned a chain of Twenty-Five Cent Stores around the country. At one point, there were 1,200 W.T. Grant Co. stores. It went bankrupt in 1976.)

All of this sets up the rest of the movie. And guess how long all of the above took? Seven minutes. With opening credits. Boom boom. Told you about fast talking.

Cats! The prologue
Now we’re into the scrambling portion of the film. Kent works day and night trying to think up themes for his prologues before Gladstone steals them. At one point we see this list in his office:

I would’ve killed to see the Russian Revolution one.

The first idea we actually hear from him is a doozy. Nan finds him asleep in his office chair, with a cat nuzzled by his side, and when she wakes him up, he looks around, remembers, and shouts, “Cats!” The night before, he’d seen an alley cat, liked its grace, decided it would make a great idea for a prologue. So Cagney, or writers Manuel Seff or James Seymour, or directors Lloyd Bacon or Busby Berkeley, came up with the idea for a “Cats!” musical about half a century before Andrew Lloyd Weber. The bit also allows comic-relief choreographer Francis (Frank McHugh), forever whining through a stogie, to parade around for a time with a long black tail affixed to his hindside.

Other ideas Kent imagines are alternatively racy or racist—sometimes both. Some black kids are cooling themselves off at a fire hydrant “That’s what that wood nymph prologue needs!” Kent cries. “A mountain waterfall splashing on beautiful white bodies!” OK then. In Nan’s apartment, he spies a book, Slaves of Old Africa, and cries: “I can see it now! Pretty girls in blackface, slaves of old Africa, white men capture them!” Ouch. Thankfully they didn’t film that one.

For the first hour, the movie is mostly drama and comedy, with only a smattering of musical numbers. There’s good back-and-forth between Nan and the gold-digging Vivian. “Miss B—,“ Nan begins before correcting herself: ”Miss Rich.“ Then the farewell: “As long as there are sidewalks, you’ve got a job,” she says, before literally kicking Viv out of her apartment. The main subplot is a romance between Scotty Blair and Bea Thorn (America’s then-sweethearts Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler). He’s the college-boy singer who gets a job through Gould’s relative; she’s the sharp, glasses-wearing secretary who rebuffs his charms. Until she doesn’t. Why does she change her mind? Who knows? But there’s a kind of “Gift of the Maji” bit where, as he leaves the stage for an office job, she leaves the office job for the stage. She also loses the glasses. It’s that Hollywood trope—“Oh, she’s pretty after all”—when she was way cuter with the glasses and the gruff putdowns. Losing both, she gushes.

It’s in the last 30-40 minutes where we get the musical—three Busby Berkeley numbers in a row, back to back to back. They’re the proverbial prologues that can save the studio, and they’re each gloriously absurd and surreal. The first is comic, “Honeymoon Hotel,” led by Scott and Bea, a couple trying to enjoy their legit honeymoon in a hotel overrun by the less legit kind (“We’re the house detectives but we’re puzzled with/ The fact that no one stops here unless their name is Smith”). It’s also overrun by “blonde gazelles” in negligees, and a kid, played by Billy Barty, who eyebrow-wags his way through several rooms. Then there's “By a Waterfall,” also with Scotty and Bea. They sing by a waterfall, he falls asleep, and we get that “mountain waterfall splashing on beautiful white bodies” that Kent envisioned. We also get Berkeley’s overhead shots and insane Spirographic concoctions of half-naked women. Part of the absurdity, or the humor, is that all of this is supposedly taking place on a stage. And on a budget.

The final number, “Shanghai Lil,” is the first big musical number that Jimmy Cagney got to perform on screen. He’d done a few quick dance steps in “Other Men’s Women,” and he’d always moved with grace, but here, on a bartop, with Ruby Keeler in Yellowface, he goes all out. He doesn’t disappoint. He’s so good one wishes there’d been more of it.

FDR and NRA
Why is he in the musical number at all? Another classic trope. The lead gets drunk and says he can’t go on. He and Kent tussle, and one of them—we don’t see which—falls down the steps and onto the stage, where the number begins. Of course it’s Kent. He plays a sailor in a Shanghai bar in love with and searching for the title character, a Chinese prostitute, who is called, at various points, a “fascinating heathen” and a “Chinee devil,” and who, when she first makes her appearance, tells Kent, “I miss you very much a long time.” Yeah, it’s a little racist. At the same time, there’s a moment where the camera pans down a long bar and an international central-casting group—Brit, Frenchie, Israeli—sing different lines. One of those is a handsome African with a white woman hanging on his arm. Plus some of the Chinese are actually played by Chinese. Progress.

Then there’s a call to arms, the soldiers and sailors march in Busby-esque formations, and it looks like Lil is going to be left behind. She isn’t. Her gets her a uniform and off she goes with him. To war. We get overhead shots with placards that form the American flag and then the recently elected president: FDR; then the boys, with “Yankee Doodle” piped in, form the National Recovery Administration eagle. Not bad for a bunch of Republican like Jack Warner.

That’s pretty much it. The show is saved, Nan gets her man, and a hundred scantily glad girls move onto the next scene. “Footlight” is one of three big Berkeley musicals that Warners released in 1933. A year later, the Production Code grew teeth and the girls covered up. The racism stayed.

A snapshot of the ”Shanghai Lil" number. 

Posted at 06:56 AM on Thursday July 02, 2020 in category Movie Reviews - 1930s   |   Permalink  

Monday June 22, 2020

Movie Review: Dead End (1937)

WARNING: SPOILERS

According to AFI's film site, Joseph Breen, head of the Production Code Administration, demanded the following changes to Lillian Hellman’s script of “Dead End,” which was already a neutered version of the hit 1935 play by Sidney Kingsley:

  • Delete the line “All cats look alike in the dark”
  • Delete the implied curses of  “son of a—“ and “go to –”
  • Delete the word “bum” from British versions, since it’s Brit slang for posterior
  • No Bronx cheers
  • No cockroaches
  • Garbage might cause offense
  • “Spit” shouldn’t spit

Apparently Mr. Breen was fine with the scene in which a Lower East Side gang, the Dead End kids, lure the local richie rich, Philip (Charles Peck), into a nearby basement and beat the shit out of him. Off camera we hear him cry out in pain and horror, and afterwards we see him run back to his high-rise in tattered rags while the Dead Enders parade around in whatever of his (jacket, necktie, pocket watch) they hadn’t destroyed.

I saw “Dead End” when I was a kid—it turned up on our local Friday night movie show, “Comedy and Classics,” hosted by John Gallos—and that scene freaked me out so much I turned off the TV. I was hardly a richie rich, but I was the furthest thing from a tough kid; so of the two, I identified with the former. What happened to him horrified me: that kids could be so cruel; that the world could be so lawless; that adults would care so little.

It’s more than that, though. It’s that the movie cares so little. It doesn’t give a shit about the rich kid with the French lessons and swim lessons. It only cares about his tormentors. 

Dead/Angels
“Dead End,” the play, is what brought the Dead End kids (Billy Halop, Leo Gorcey, Huntz Hall, et al.) to Hollywood, and “Dead End,” the movie, is what sent them from the Goldwyn Studios over to Warner Bros. Apparently they raised such hell at Goldwyn that Sam didn’t want to deal with them anymore. Their “sez you” vibe was more in tune with Warners anyway. The surprise is they didn’t start there.

You can see in “Dead End” the outlines of a better movie Warners would make a year later: “Angels with Dirty Faces.” Gangster (Bogart/Cagney) returns to his old neighborhood, meets up with old pal (Joel McRea/Pat O’Brien), reconnects with old girl (Claire Trevor/Ann Sheridan), interacts with neighborhood punks (Dead End kids), dies. The ending of this movie even anticipates that one, since the kids exit stage right singing a song about angels, while William Wyler/Gregg Toland’s camera rises above the squalor with their voices:

If I had the wings of an angel
Over these prison walls I would fly
I would fly to the arms of my mother
And there I'd be willing to die

So why is “Angels,” the copy, so much better than “Dead End,” the original?

For one, “Dead End” feels like the play that it was. Apparently Wyler wanted to film on location in New York, which would’ve been amazing, but Goldwyn nixed it. Instead, Richard Day created an elobrate set that was much praised, and Oscar nominated, but to me still seems like a set. It also seems vaguely European? Particularly at the beginning? That slight hill and curve? Anyway, we barely move from this set. I suppose such stasis adds to the sense of how trapped everyone is, but it still makes it seem like a filmed play. That’s one.

Two, Rocky Sullivan has a reason to return to the neighborhood. He’s just out of prison and wants his dough, see? There’s something the guy wants. That’s rule No. 1 of drama. Father Connolly wants something, too: to make sure his old friend Rocky Sullivan doesn’t corrupt the Dead End kids. And the kids? They want to be Rocky Sullivan. It’s what you might call a Mexican standoff of raison d’etres. In comparison, “Baby Face” Martin is just kinda hanging out. He’s a Public Enemy No. 1 with a surgery-altered face, but he’d like to see his mom and maybe his old girl again. Neither reunion goes well. His mom curses him out and the girl, Francey, turns out to be a prostitute—vaguely, per the Production Code—and this hard-bitten gangster is shocked, shocked by it. (That said, Bogart, a late addition to the cast, is the best thing in the movie. He looks gut-punched in both scenes.)

Three, it’s the relationsips, stupid. All of Rocky’s relationships interact with and inform each other. They’re deeply felt. Rocky and Connolly were boyhood pals who went separate ways but still care about one another. Connolly is basically if Matt Doyle from “Public Enemy” found religion. In “Dead End,” “Baby Face” and Dave (McCrea) …. kinda sorta knew each other? Back in the day? There’s no there there. There’s very little there with McCrea, to be honest. In the play, the character was a crippled artist named Gimpty and Hollywood turned him into a handsome, broadshouldered architect who can’t find work and who mopes around after a rich dame, Kay (Wendy Barrie), even with Drina (Sylvia Sidney), right under his nose. His trajectory is to stand up to “Baby Face” and realize Drina is worth his time. Which is what happens. He winds up killing “Baby Face” on the rooftops and using the reward money to maybe start a life with Drina—whose kid brother, Tommy (Billy Halop), the leader of the Dead Enders, has just been sent to reform school.

By the way: Are we supposed to feel sad Tommy that was sent to reform school? It feels like the movie wants us to feel sad. But the kid’s a jerk. And it's not just Charles Peck. Milty (Bernard Punsly) wants to join the gang but only has three cents of the quarter it supposedly costs. Tommy takes it, won’t let him join, won’t give it back, and then they all beat him up. Drina has to arrive to admonish her brother for, whatever, the thousandth time. Later, the cops show up. “But please, officer, he’s a good kid!” Right. 

Maybe most important? There’s a self-important vibe to “Dead End.” It’s from a hit play, with prestige filmmakers, a prestige actress, and it garnered four Oscar nominations: picture, supporting actress (Trevor), cinematography (Toland), art direction (Day). I guess “Angels” garnered three (actor, director, story), but the self-important vibe isn't there. Film historian David Thomson: "Warner Bros. had its share of trash, but few of its films were boring or pretentious.”

Dramatic corners
I’m curious if we owe Robert Moses for the conceit of “Dead End.” Here’s the opening title card:

Every street in New York ends in a river. For many years the dirty banks of the East River were lined with the tenements of the poor. Then the rich, discovering that the river traffic was picturesque, moved their houses eastward. And now the terraces of these great apartment houses look down into the windows of the tenement poor.

That’s why out-of-work architect + rich broad. That’s why Dead Enders + Richie Rich. This spot is where the classes clash. But is the conceit just a conceit or created from real-life East Side development pushed through by Moses? The original New York Times review of the play doesn't mention specifics; it simply passes it off as “one of those dramatic corners on which Manhattan advertises the distance that divides poverty from riches…”

This is the first of six “Dead End Kids” movies that often paired them with Bogart, Cagney or—would you believe—Ronald Reagan. They kept going into the 1940s as, alternatively, Little Tough Guys, East Side Kids and Bowery Boys—the last two without Hallop. Then it was bit parts, B movies, and TV walk-ons. (Halop, for example, played cabbie Bert Munson in 10 episodes of “All in the Family.”) Most of the kids aged fast and died young: Bobby Jordan at 42, Gorcey at 51, Halop at 56. Gabriel Dell held on until 68, Huntz Hall to 78. Bernard Punsley, the tubby Dead Ender with the three cents, got out first and lasted longest. He stopped making movies in 1942 to become an MD, and he's the only kid who saw the 21st century. He died in 2004 at the age of 80.

Posted at 06:49 AM on Monday June 22, 2020 in category Movie Reviews - 1930s   |   Permalink  

Friday June 05, 2020

Movie Review: The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse (1938)

WARNING: SPOILERS

The title drew me in; it’s just so bizarre. Apparently Bogart never much liked the movie nor his role in it—which was like his role in so many late ’30s Warner Bros. movies: the secondary gangster who out of pettiness or ambition screws up the deal and BLAM BLAM. Apparently he always referred to it by its potential porn-title name. Yeah, you don’t have to be James Joyce to see it. It’s so obvious it’s as if they started there and worked their way back.

More fun with words? Or names? The movie is based on a British play by Alfred Edgar, who took the pen name Barré Lyndon, presumably from the Thackeray novel, and stars Emanuel Goldenberg, who was told at drama school that his name was too Jewish, so he went with Edward G. Robinson. The leading lady is Claire Wemlinger, better known as Claire Trevor. Only Bogart is Bogart. 

And yes, sports fans, Bogie, Trevor and Robinson make up three the four principles in John Huston’s great 1948 noir “Key Largo.” (No Bacall; she was just 13 at the time.) Huston has a hand here, too. He worked on the screenplay with John Wexley (“Angels with Dirty Faces”), who was later blacklisted. The director is Anatole Litvak (“The Snake Pit”), who does good work.

Bogart may have been dismissive but “The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse” is a lot of fun, with a great turn by Robinson. Its premise is basically “Breaking Bad”: What happens when a man of science gets mixed up with the mob?

Mensch/gonif
The movie opens at a swanky estate, where an opera singer regales the swells; then the camera pans outside and rises to the second floor where a cat burglary is in progress. Actually, two cat burglaries. One burglar climbing through the window stumbles upon the other. A flashlight in his face, he’s coolly questioned, ordered to stand with his hands in the air, then becomes the fall guy for the crime he arrived too late to commit. The original cat burglar? He’s one of the guests, Dr. Clitterhouse (Robinson), who returns downstairs just in time to applaud the singer at the end of her aria. No one notices he was gone.

When the burglar is found, the doctor coolly calls the cops. When the burglar is hurt in a shoot-out, the doctor coolly calls for an ambulance, then bandages the fellow under the watchful eye of Inspector Lane (Donald Crisp). Lane, to be sure, is watchful of the thief. Of Clitterhouse, he is deferential. All the other guests, in fact, are searched for the jewels, but the good doctor, an important man with other patients to attend to, is allowed to waltz out under a police escort.

That’s the great joy early in the movie: Watching Clitterhouse use his position and his calm voice of authority to get away with everything. He’s so good he seems to tempt fate. He asks a nurse to fetch his glasses from his medical bag and she’s shocked to find it full of jewels. But he wins her over. He explains he’s involved in a scientific experiment—he is—and then takes her and his bag of jewels to the police station. Not to give himself up. No, on the theory, he tells her, that “the best defense is a bold attack.” He pretends he’s worried about Inspector Lane’s health—and Lane admits he’s under a lot of stress—so he gives him a quick medical exam while extracting information. Lane says the jewel thief has committed three other crimes and hasn’t tried to fence anything. Clitterhouse makes casual conversation while going through his paces. How does the police know that? What is a fence? How would one get in touch with such a person? The laugh-out-loud moment is when Clitterhouse leaves his medical bag behind and Lane fetches it for him. He’s grumbling, “If we could only get our hands on those jewels,” just as he’s getting his hands on those jewels.

(There’s another great scene at the police station just before Clitterhouse arrives. Behind a smoky glass door, the unseen police commissioner reams out Inspector Lane for letting these cat burglaries get out of hand. “I’m not interested in long-winded explanations!” he shouts. When Lane is finally allowed to leave, he spots his captain, and reams him out in the exact same language, whereupon the captain spots a passing lieutenant and … you get it. Ad nauseum, one assumes. Consider it the true trickle-down effect.)

The name of the fence Lane mentions is Jo Keller, whom Clitterhouse assumes is a man. Nope. It’s Claire Trevor, who runs her mob out of a hotel she owns. Her boys are the usual fun Warners crew: Allen Jenkins, Ward Bond, and—in particular—Maxie Rosenbloom as the dopey, sweet, giant Butch. At one point, the cops burst in on their card game, looking for “Rocks” Valentine (Bogart) and making various threats; instead, Clitterhouse, the voice of authority, questions them and sends them on their way. The boys love it. That’s his in. He’s stays, helping plan jobs, because he’s interested in … whatever. The effects of illegal activity on the central nervous system or something. It’s the movie’s maguffin. There’s also shades of a love triangle: “Rocks” likes Jo, who develops a thing for Clitterhouse, who’s too intent on his work to really notice, which pisses off “Rocks” all the more. He’s the one guy in the gang who won’t go along with Clitterhouse’s tests. He’s both tough guy and sourpuss. No one did that combo better than Bogie.

He’s also the one who figures out Clitterhouse’s true identity and tries to blackmail him at gunpoint—one of the few times in the movie Clitterhouse doesn’t have the upper hand. At which point he realizes his research isn’t complete. He missed doing tests on the greatest crime of all! “What’s that?” Rocks asks. “Why, homicide naturally,” Clitterhouse responses. A minute later, Rocks is dead. Upper hand returned.

Bupkis
Again, fun movie. You get a lot of dialogue like this:

Clitterhouse: Now, just relax, counselor. Nothing to be jittery about.
Grant (Thurston Hall): My dear boy, I‘ve had over a hundred clients face the electric chair. I’ve never been jittery.
Clitterhouse: But your clients were.

The tour-de-force is the script, the direction, and Robinson’s performance. Here’s an oddity I just realized. Over the course of his career, Bogie received three Oscar nominations and one win (“The African Queen”), Trevor received three Oscar nominations and one win (“Key Largo”), Litvak would garner two noms, while John Huston, as director, writer and producer pulled in 15 noms and two wins (writing and directing “Treasure of Sierra Madre”). But Edward G. Robinson? Nada. Bupkis. I’m sure there are greater actors who never got nominated, but he’s got to be in the conversation.

Posted at 08:31 AM on Friday June 05, 2020 in category Movie Reviews - 1930s   |   Permalink  

Tuesday June 02, 2020

Movie Review: Blondie Johnson (1933)

WARNING: SPOILERS

In the early ’30s Edward G. Robinson played gangsters who were Italian, (“Little Caesar”), Greek (“Smart Money”) and Chinese (“Hatchet Man”), and if he’d been believable as a woman they probably would’ve given him this role, too. Thankfully it went to Joan Blondell.

It’s a traditional ’30s Warner Bros. story but interesting for its gender reversal. Our title character rises on the wrong side of the law only because the right side ain’t right. In the midst of the Great Depression, Blondie is trying to get welfare for herself and her sick mom but the welfare man sticks to the rules. She’d quit her last job at a laundry because the boss wouldn’t let her alone but the welfare man only hears quit. “That's all for now, Miss Johnson,” he declares coldly. Then Blondie returns home to find her mother dead. So she declares the following to the world:

“This city’s going to pay me a living—a good living—and it’s going to get back from me just as little as I have to give!”

It’s a bit like Scarlett’s “As God is my witness” declaration six years before Scarlett, isn’t it? Just not in Technicolor. And at the beginning of a Warners quickie rather than halfway through a Selznick epic.

Hattie’s brother
Her first con is a damsel-in-distress thing that works well but also ensnares a low-level gangster, Danny Jones (Chester Morris). Unabashed, she uses her smarts to rise with him. She figures out the power struggle within the gang, sides with Danny and Louie (Allen Jenkins) over Max (Arthur Vinton), and outsmarts them all. Now it’s Danny’s gang. But he’s interested in Blondie romantically—or sexually—and she wants to focus on business. So he opts to get hitched with Gladyss (Claire Dodd), whom Blondie had dismissed as “the dame with the platinum chassis.” But Blondie outsmarts him again, and takes over the gang, along with her female friends Mae (Mae Busch) and Lulu (Toshia Mori). The 1930s had tons of “smart chick” flicks—more than today, really—but the three of them hanging and plotting in the big office still feels revolutionary.

Unfortunately, the movie makes her have a thing for Danny, and unfortunately there has to be comeuppance for her lawless ways. So she’s sentenced to six years hard labor. Outside the courtroom, she and Danny meet—he’s about to get sentenced himself—and they promise to wait for each other. Yay.

Blondell is by far the best thing in the movie. Morris isn’t much and the usually reliable Allen Jenkins exudes little. Dodd is good as the smirking minx who will try to steal your man—she could do it in her sleep—while Sterling Holloway has a nice turn as Red Charley, a cabbie who haplessly helps her with her first scam and her last ride. Her girls aren’t given much to do. There’s also a short scene with a moon-faced Pullman porter who looked familiar to me. Turns out he’s Sam McDaniel, who played a waiter in “The Public Enemy” with James Cagney. That’s why he was familiar. On IMDb he also has 221 credits to his name, including 60+ where he’s a Pullman porter. He was born in 1888, kept working until 1960, died in 1962. He was also Hattie McDaniel’s brother. There’s a story there, but his IMDb bio is skimpy. Wiki is better but not by much. He had no obit in The New York Times.

Blondes, blondes, blondes
Ray Enright directed “Blondie Johnson,” with story and screenplay by Earl Baldwin (“Devil Dogs of the Air”). He pens some not-bad put-downs, and Blondell makes the most of them: 

Danny: If you was my dame I’d break your neck.
Blondie: If I was your dame I’d deserve it.

And:

Danny: What are you trying to do? Put ideas in my head?
Blondie: There's certainly plenty of room for ’em.

“Blonde” movie titles were of course big back then: “Blonde Crazy” (1931), “Platinum Blonde” (1931), “Anybody’s Blonde” (1931), “Blonde Venus” (1932), “A Blonde Dream” (1932), “Cheating Blondes” (1933). There was even a “Blondie”-titled movie a year earlier: Marion Davies in “Blondie of the Follies.” After that, it became the province of movie adaptions of the Chic Young comic strip.

Overall, “Blondie Johnson” is a two-time stereotype-buster: female gangster, smart blonde.   

Posted at 09:06 PM on Tuesday June 02, 2020 in category Movie Reviews - 1930s   |   Permalink  

Thursday May 28, 2020

Movie Review: Each Dawn I Die (1939)

WARNING: SPOILERS

In “Picture Snatcher” from 1933, James Cagney plays a con who leaves prison to become a newspaper reporter. Six years later, in “Each Dawn I Die,” he plays a newspaper reporter who’s railroaded into prison and becomes a con.

The railroading is reminiscent of “Great Guy,” one of two movies Cagney made for Grand National in the mid-1930s. As the Chief Deputy of Weights and Measures, Cagney’s Johnny Cave is offered a sinecure by a corrupt politician, refuses, and is set up. He’s left at a car-crash site covered in booze with a “hot” gun in his pocket. But the corrupt politician then vouches for him. The whole thing was “a warning.” Here, as Frank Ross, a reporter digging up dirt on a corrupt politician, he’s knocked out, covered in booze, and put in the driver’s seat of a car that is sent careening down the street. This one goes beyond a warning. The subsequent crash kills three and in the next scene the judge is passing sentence: 1-20 years of hard labor. The scene after he’s riding the bus to prison and gets into it with Stacey (George Raft), a famous gangster.

Which is to say: When you make 32 movies in a decade, as Cagney did in the ’30s, it’s easy to repeat yourself.

This wasn’t supposed to be the casting, by the way. Originally, it was supposed to be Cagney and Edward G. Robinson—their first picture together since “Smart Money” in 1931—with Robinson playing the reporter and Cagney the gangster. For some reason, Robinson couldn’t do it, so his role went to John Garfield and then Fred MacMurray. Either of those would’ve been interesting to see. Instead, Raft, an old Cagney pal from vaudeville days, signed on and the parts were switched.

It’s an odd role for Cagney. He’s brave, sure, and gets in with the good cons quick, and he ain’t no mug or rat, but he has an odd faith in the system. He figures his newspaper, The Banton Record, will find the evidence to get him sprung. After months in solitary, he loses it:

“When I first came here I believed in justice! I thought that someday I’d be released! Then I began to figure in weeks and months, and now I hate the whole world and everybody in it for this! Buried in a black, filthy hole because I was a good citizen—because I worked my head off to expose crime. And now I’m a convict. I act like a convict, smell like a convict, and think and hate like a convict. But I’ll get out. I’ll get out if I have to kill every screw in the joint!”

Worse, his first parole hearing is led by Grayce (Victor Jory, “The Shadow” in the 1940 Columbia serial), who—shouldn’t Ross know?—is right-hand man to the corrupt governor, and he offers Ross this classic Catch-22: “We’re only interested in men who acknowledge their guilt and wish to atone.” So Ross loses it again. He actually threatens the parole board. Then he breaks down and sobs.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean what I said. Oh, please give me another chance. I just couldn’t stand it. I couldn’t. I can’t do any more time. Please turn me out of here.”

Yeah. So not your typical Cagney.

Kassock/Cossack
“Each Dawn I Die” is an odd mix of the gritty Warner Bros. of the Depression-era 1930s and the patriotic Warner Bros. of the WWII-era 1940s. The bad guys are still rats and corrupt politicians, but the warden (George Bancroft), for one, is an upstanding guy. He’s mostly useless, and duller than spit, but I guess he’s there to show us the whole system doesn’t stink.

Stacey’s gang in prison, like Red’s in “Shawshank,” is full of personalities:

  • Fargo Red (Maxie Rosenbloom): big, kind, dumb
  • Meuller (Stanley Ridges): volatile-crazy
  • Dale (Edward Pawley): volatile-smart
  • Garsky (Paul Hurst): older, short-timer
  • Lassiter (Louis Jean Heydt): calm banker-type

One of the prison guards, the aptly named Pete Kassock (John Wray), is a sadistic headbuster. You also have to watch out for “Limpy” Julien, a rat with a shiv who’s gunning for Stacey. That’s actually how Ross gets in good with the gang. Limpy is heading towards Stacey with intent to kill when Ross trips him. Back slaps all around. Stacey winds up with the shiv, and Ross later sees him practicing his throws amid the bales of twine they’re making in the workhouse. During movie night—a Warner Bros. release, of course, “Wings of the Navy,” starring George Brent—Stacey and Dale ignore Ross and Fargo Red and sit two rows directly behind Limpy and another rat, Carlisle (Alan Baxter). In the middle of the movie, in the dark, Limpy cries out. He’s been killed with a shiv in the back.

Two things happen as a result: 1) Stacey thanks Ross for not ratting on him, and then 2) says he didn’t do it anyway. He gave the shiv to another guy and he did it. Wait, three things: 3) Stacey suggests Ross rat him out anyway so Stacey can get another trial, escape, then help find the evidence to spring Ross. Ross is wary of this—he doesn’t want to rat and still considers himself a law-abiding citizen—but after a prison visit from his distraught mother (Emma Dunn), he finally agrees. Except then he tells his newspaper to be prepared for a scoop. This leads to him getting solitary and Stacey, on the outside, abandoning him, since he “ratted” to the newspaper.

Much of the movie is this kind of murkiness: Stacey practices killing Limpy but doesn’t, thanks Ross for not ratting on him but asks him to, promises to help him but abandons him. Everyone has a strict code that folds after a 15-second conversation. 

Here’s another. Ross’ girl, Joyce (Jane Bryan), finds Stacey and chastises him for not helping:

Joyce: He had to let his paper know. It was his instinct as a reporter.
Stacey: Well, his instinct blew him right into the hole. And I hope he rots there. … I think he’s like every other wise guy. He had to have a payoff before he’d dummy up.

But in 15 seconds she reduces his argument, his code, to nothing, and he winds up risking everything to help Ross. His gang finds their only lead, Shake Edwards (Abner Biberman), who confesses it was a guy named “Polecat” who arranged it all. And where is Polecat? In Rocky Point Penitentiary, the prison from which he just escaped. He’s Carlisle, Limpy’s other rat friend. At which point Stacey sends word to his gang to get the goods on him.  

Kidding. He actually gives himself up to go back to prison. Got that? One moment he’s not helping Ross at all, the next he’s giving up his freedom to confront the guy who railroaded Ross. So stupid.

That said, the scene itself is great. Stacey takes a cab to the prison and rather than a couple of bills just gives the cabbie the whole wad. “It’s OK,” he says to the stunned cabbie, “I didn’t print it.” He takes one last deep breath of fresh air before walking towards the front entrance. It takes several beats for the cops to realize who is walking towards them, and and then they descend en masse. In their confusion, they’re actually pushing him away from the prison. “What do I gotta do,” Stacey says, “fight my way back in?”

Now that I think about it, Raft is way cooler than Cagney in this. He certainly gets the best lines. Probably because the lines should’ve been Cagney’s.

White flag, schmite flag
The third act is equally murky. There’s suddenly guns in the twine and a big prison break, led by Dale, which Ross keeps counseling against until he’s held hostage. Pete “the Kassock” is finally killed by Meuller, Fargo Red is saved by Ross, who knocks him out with one punch and then handcuffs him to a bale of twine to keep him safe. Oh, they also grab the warden as a hostage.

Then all the stuff the movie wants to happen, happens:

  • Polecat Carlisle confesses in front of the warden
  • The warden believes him
  • All the rioting prisoners die
  • Stacey dies
  • Ross is exonerated

That third point is particularly off-putting. The cons we’ve liked for most of the movie are suddenly gunned down in a hail of bullets by trigger-happy military men—and the movie doesn’t seem to have a problem with it at all. One guy is even holding a white flag but … BLAM. Good riddance. What happened to Warners’ social consciousness?

“Each Dawn I Die” is based on a novel by Robert Odlum, whom IMDb says is “a one-time managing editor of The Minneapolis News who became a successful author of stories chiefly about crime and corruption.” It was adapted by two guys who did a lot of Cagneys: Warren Duff (“St. Louis Kid,” “Frisco Kid,” “Angels with Dirty Faces,” “Oklahoma Kid”) and Norman Reilly Raine (“Fighting 69th,” “Captains of the Clouds”). It was directed by William Keighley, the director of the Broadway play, “Penny Arcade,” that led Warners to signing Cagney in the first place, and who directed his share of Cagneys over the years (“G-Men,” “Fighting 69th,” “Torrid Zone,” “Bride Came C.O.D.”).

“Each Dawn” has a rep but it’s second-tier Cagney. I wish they'd made the Fred MacMurray version instead.

Posted at 07:43 AM on Thursday May 28, 2020 in category Movie Reviews - 1930s   |   Permalink  

Thursday April 30, 2020

Movie Review: Big Business Girl (1931)

WARNING: SPOILERS

You certainly won’t get any spoilers from the movie's synopsis on Amazon.com—where it's currently streaming in blurry black & white for $2.99—because they make it sound like a precursor to “A Star is Born”:

A delightful romantic comedy of a jazz singer and his working wife who are at odds after her new career and popularity take off while his stagnates.

Except:

  1. He’s not a jazz singer
  2. Her success (in business) isn’t the problem
  3. His stagnation (as a band leader) isn’t the problem—to him
  4. It’s not exactly delightful

IMDb’s synopsis is closer:

Thanks to her ability and her legs, Claire McIntyre rises in the business world. 

Bingo.

Coming up for air
Was Loretta Young really only 18 when this was filmed? After being a romantic movie star for several years? Interesting math. She plays the aforementioned Claire, called “Mac” by everyone, who’s just graduating college with her boyfriend, Johnny (Frank Albertson), when the movie opens. It’s the graduation dance, couples keep ducking behind a folding screen to smooch, and Mac makes doe eyes at Johnny, who’s leading the band. But it turns out he’s the dreamy one. Outside, we quickly get a sense of their divergent personalities and interests:

He: Oh, this is a heckuva world. Why should people have to work?
She: Oh, honestly, Johnny, you’re only good for two things: making music and making love.

He’s set to go to Paris to lead his band there—quite the gig!—but doesn’t want to go without her. She's off for New York to start a business career but doesn’t want to go with him. That is, she wants him to have ambition. He doesn’t. She keeps calling him a boy. He is.

New York turns out to be tougher than she anticipated. She posts a Want Ad saying she will “consider position where remuneration and opportunity are commensurate with her ability.” The second one simply says this:

She can’t even get a gig as a secretary at an ad agency—until the agency owner, Robert J. Clayton (Ricardo Cortez, nee Jacob Krantz), shows up on a Saturday afternoon, no one else is there, assumes she works for him, and has her take dictation. Then he notices the legs. Soon she’s writing ad copy and has her own office. For a moment she’s happy. Then over the intercom she hears Clayton tell yes-man Luke Winters (Frank Darien), “Even if this copy isn’t excellent, she’s worth $125 a week as an office decoration. A girl with a chassis like that can be a half-wit and get by.” They laugh, she’s distraught.

This is where the movie gets murky. She winds up using that chassis to play men but to what extent is she getting played? She’s becoming … what they think of her? Is that a victory? And sure, certain clients are putty in her hands, but Clayton’s another story. She’s the last to leave a party at his place and he makes eyes and insinuates. Then he calls her a cab, she’s like “Phew,” but he gets into the cab, too. She keeps saying no. Then he walks her to her door. “I don’t suppose you’ll let me come in for a minute?” “That’s one of the correctest supposes you ever made in your life.” Except she takes too long to close the door and he slips in. And she still lets the door shut? That’s part of the murkiness. How knowing is she or how preposterously naïve? She seems half amused by his persistence. It gets worse. He says if he kisses her once she’ll be in the market for more. “Bless your healthy male egotism!” she says, but then she acquiesces. Does she think this will get rid of him? He’s a wolf, at the door, and after a long kiss, she says “Coming up for air,” and “Stop it,” and “No,” none of which work. She’s trying to push him away but he’s moving in for the kill.

Which is when Johnny walks in the room, spins Clayton around and decks him.

Kidding. He’s a boy, remember? He merely pipes up, more indignant than angry: “Not interrupting anything, am I?”

And Clayton still isn’t ready to go—not until he finds out Johnny and Mac are married. Is this when we find that out? Seems like it. Either way, she hasn’t told anyone. For this reason, she says to Johnny later:

When a girl is just starting out in business, well, if she’s married and everyone knows it, they’re afraid to give her a responsible job. Afraid she’s going to quit. Keep house for her husband, start a family and all of that.

It’s easy to dismiss such lines but women were still hearing that shit 40 years later. Some might still be hearing it today. 

The rest of the movie is about which one she’ll choose: the wolf or the boy. The boy is so petulant and high-pitched, I almost preferred the wolf. She gets Johnny a gig as bandleader on the “Sun Motor Hour,” but he doesn’t know she was behind it and remains petulant. Clayton keeps them apart, lies to both sides, and sets up a “sting” from the days before no-fault divorce: “The old gag, you know: He goes to a hotel, we find him there. That’s all the evidence you need.” They’re all in on it. Even if Mac and Johnny are both filled with regret.

Two good bits come out of this: We see the hotel registry, full of Mrs. and Mrs. Smiths, Browns and Lees. And we get Joan Blondell as the prostitute he’s supposed to be caught with. She’s the best thing in the movie: knowing, droll, gum-cracking. Mac arrives first, she and Johnny put together they’ve been had, and they take the piss out of Clayton when he arrives. He finally gets the decking he deserves. Blondell gets the last line.

Hee Haw
Gotta admit, I have a real thing for a young Loretta Young. At one point, Johnny says “Did anyone ever tell you that the back of your neck is delicious and refreshing?” The refreshing is overdoing it but he ain’t wrong. She's lovely.

Was Cortez always the wolf? He also played “the other man” in “Behind Office Doors,” also from 1931, not to mention the randier Sam Spade in the first “Maltese Falcon.” (Again: 1931.) They groomed him to be Valentino but he became the bad boy you don’t root for. After B movies and a few shots at directing, he returned to Wall Street.

Not Albertson. With his high-pitched voice, youthful looks and gee-willikers attitude, he reminded me of one of those forgettable love interests in a Marx Brothers movie—the “Do you mean it, Julie? Do you really do?” types. Turns out: Yes. He was exactly that in “Room Service,” their weakest film. But you know what else he was? Sam “Hee Haw” Wainwright in “It’s a Wonderful Life” and the swaggering, money-flapping cowboy real estate baron who flirts clumsily, or intrusively, with Marion Crane, and whose $40k cash payment sets her on a deadly path toward the Bates Motel in “Psycho.” Both are small but memorable parts. And he‘s good in them. Check out his scene in “Psycho” again. No “refreshing neck” lines for him anymore. He’s the wolf. Maybe we all become the wolf eventually. 

Sadly, that was one of his last roles. He died in March 1964, age 55. His Times obit mentions “Room Service,” an early talkie called “Happy Days,” but not this one. And, interestingly, not “Psycho” or “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Neither had yet become the institutions they became.

According to the opening credits, “Big Business Girl” is “based on the college humor story” by Patricia Reilly and H.N. Swanson. Swanson wrote and produced a few randy, pre-code movies but is best known as a great literary agent—if that’s the same H.N. Swanson. Can’t find anything on Reilly. The humor story was adapted by Robert Lord—one of eight movies he helped write in 1931. He also wrote a few forgettable Cagney films ( “Winner Take All,” “Hard to Handle”) as well as the early Bogart vehicle “Black Legion,” which changed black and Jewish victims to Irish and Poles, but was still relevant to its (and sadly our) time. Then producing, which he’d begun in the early ’30s, took over: “Gold Diggers of 1933,” “Confessions of a Nazi Spy,” “The Letter,” “In a Lonely Place.”

Young Loretta Young has to choose between the future Sam Spade and the future Sam Wainright. Hee haw.

Posted at 07:22 AM on Thursday April 30, 2020 in category Movie Reviews - 1930s   |   Permalink  

Tuesday April 28, 2020

Movie Review: Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933)

Oddly, Blondell and Kibbee are never canoodling, but if it‘ll sell tickets...

WARNING: SPOILERS

Over the years, I must’ve seen the musical number “Remember My Forgotten Man,” which plays at the end of “Gold Diggers of 1933,” half a dozen times without ever seeing the movie itself. It’s a Busby Berkeley paean to Great War vets, unneeded and dismissed in the early years of the Great Depression, and the woman (Joan Blondell) who stands by them. I’ve seen it so often because it’s one of the musical numbers Martin Scorsese talks up in his great 1995 BBC documentary “A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies.” He talks about different genres (western, gangster, musical), and he's not exactly an MGM man. Plus the themes of the “Forgotten Man” are similar to the themes in another movie he talks up, Raoul Walsh’s “The Roaring Twenties,” where the forgotten man is WWI vet, ’20s gangster and ’30s hobo Eddie Bartlett, played by James Cagney.

(Scorsese had to love Cagney, right? What was Cagney but a short, quick-talking movie star, and what is Scorsese but a short, quick-talking movie lover? Both were geniuses, too.)

All of this got me thinking about the concept of the “Forgotten Man,” particularly as it related to WWI vets. When did it take hold? I searched for mentions in The New York Times archive and came away with this. It’s the number of mentions in each year:

  • 1930: 1
  • 1931: 2
  • 1932: 39

What happened? FDR happened. Running for president, he mentioned it in a speech in April and it took off:

These unhappy times call for the building of plans that rest upon the forgotten, the unorganized, but the indispensable units of economic power—for plans like those of 1917 that build from the bottom up and not from the top down: that put their faith once more in the forgotten man at the bottom of the economic pyramid.

Interesting that initially it’s not specific to Great War vets. Imagine what would happen today if a politician tried something similar: the howls of protest from the right (“How can Roosevelt stoop so low as to politicize our war vets?”) and from the left (“What about forgotten women?”). Maybe there was a bit of that then, too.

Barney & Friends
Anyway, I enjoyed “Gold Diggers of 1933.” It's zippy and brassy and risque. They’re not really gold diggers, by the way, just accused of it. The poster implies that they’re scantily clad and on the prowl when really they‘re scantily clad and perpetually underestimated. 

It’s s tri-part drama:

  1. How do we get money for the show? 
  2. How did he get money for the show? 
  3. Let’s take those Boston Bluebloods for a ride!

It opens with a big musical number at odds with the times, “We’re in the Money,” focusing on lead singer Fay Fortune (Ginger Rogers), which is at odds with the movie. Fay is not one of the three we root for; she’s the snooty fourth. But she was dating director Mervyn LeRoy, and she had the pipes, so she sings the opener. It’s absurd and fun: Near-naked women wear big coins in strategic spots. At one point, Fay sings the song in Pig Latin. But then the cops arrive and shut down the show because producer Barney Hopkins (Ned Sparks) hasn’t paid the bills.

Cut to: Our three girls lazing in bed rather than rising for another day where nothing happens because none of them can get jobs. Trixie (Aline MacMahon) is the cynical grifter who steals milks from a neighbor’s windowsill. Polly (Ruby Keeler) is the doe-eyed singer in love with Brad Roberts (Dick Powell), the smiling piano-playing songwriter across the courtyard. And Carol King (Joan Blondell) is the tough leader.

Soon they hear a big producer is putting together a new show, and they all get excited. Which big producer? Barney. Me: Wait, isn’t he the guy who couldn’t pay the bills on the last show? Why would this one be any different?

And it isn‘t. He says they’ve all got parts (yay!), and now if he could only get the money together (huh?). As they complain about the letdown, Brad across the courtyard begins playing his piano and Barney immediately recognizes his talent. He wants him to create songs for the show—and sing in it, too! Me: Wait, Barney didn’t even have songs for the show? What exactly did he have?

Brad’s cool with the songwriting gig but draws the line at performing. He won’t say why. Oh, and he can bankroll the production, too. In cash. $15k. Here you go.

Immediately Trixie thinks he’s a bank robber—that’s why he has dough and doesn’t want to show his face. Polly isn’t sure what to think but stands by her man. As often happens in’30s musicals, on opening night the nondescript and lame-ass male lead can’t go on (here: lumbago), so Brad has to take over. And he’s a sensation. And he becomes known. Turns out he isn’t a bank robber but a Boston blueblood, and before you can say Jack Robinson his older brother, J. Lawrence Bradford (Warren William), and their lawyer Fanuel H. Peabody (Guy Kibbee), descend on New York to make sure young Brad isn’t taken for a ride by any of these floozies. So of course both men get taken by these floozies. First they assume Carol is Polly and try to put a stop to their relationship. Instead, J. Lawrence falls for Carol (and she for him) and Fanuel/Fanny falls for Trixie (and she … ?).

Several weddings, implied and otherwise, and then the big “Forgotten Man” musical number to remind theatergoers the world they live in. The End.

So we go from “We’re in the Money” to “Remember My Forgotten Man.” Ain’t that America?

Rogers, losing money: “You could at least leave me car fare.”

Theresa Harris & Friends
A few notes.

This is still pre-code Hollywood, not to mention Busby Berkeley, so there’s a lot of titillation—including a sheriff’s deputy taking most of Ginger Rogers’ costume; the girls in the “Park” number protected by a metal swimsuit until Dick Powell gets out the can opener; and Blondell near-naked before the dressing mirror.

The “Pettin’ in the Park” number includes an interesting sweeping shot that takes in other canoodling couples besides Powell and Keeler. For the time, it’s a rather diverse bunch:

  • sailor + girl
  • older man + flapper
  • skinny banker type + fat woman
  • black couple
  • Asian couple

Sadly, the Asian couple is way in the background while the black couple is comic relief. An older couple has a baby in a stroller (Billy Barty) who shoots peas at the man (Fred “Snowflake” Toones), who reacts all bug-eyed. The woman, concerned, remains classy; she’s Theresa Harris, whom I wrote about 10 years ago, looking as stunning as ever. 

The Barty stuff is weird, and echoed in the later James Cagney vehicle, “Footlight Parade”: a lot of leering and eye-rolling. Sterling Holloway has a short, comic walk-on as a messenger. And Jane Wyman, Ronald Reagan’s first wife, is apparently one of the gold diggers. Not sure if there’s a lesson there.

The movie opened May 27, 1933, the 84th of FDR’s first 100 days in office. Look to that history, kids. We might repeat it.

He’s comic relief; she's stunning.

Posted at 12:10 PM on Tuesday April 28, 2020 in category Movie Reviews - 1930s   |   Permalink  
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