erik lundegaard


Movie Reviews - 1930s posts

Saturday May 25, 2024

Movie Review: Public Enemy's Wife (1936)

Mouse over for the '31 original: same brick-patterned backdrop, same quote marks around titles, but a little blockier and duller, and with stars usurping writers and directors.


James Cagney was so popular in the 1930s that Warner Bros. glommed off his titles to sell lesser fare that had nothing to do with him. So we got “The Angels Wash Their Faces” (with the Dead End Kids and Ronald Reagan) a year after “Angels with Dirty Faces”; and so five years after “The Public Enemy,” and right around the time Cagney was leaving Warners for a stint with Grand National, we got “Public Enemy’s Wife,” starring Cagney pal Pat O’Brien and Cagney co-star Margaret Lindsay.

Lindsay’s the title character, while O’Brien is another mid-1930s G-Man—no-nonsense and hare-brained. And the public enemy in Cagney’s stead? None other than the original Joker, Cesar Romero, a mere stripling at 29. Not bad.

But it’s not good.

Palm Royal
It begins with a trial. Of the public enemy or his wife? That would make too much sense. It’s a guy named Correlli, who was involved in a crime that’s already put Gene Maroc (Romero) and his wife Judith (Lindsay) behind bars. Then we get a rush of newspapermen phoning in the verdict. I guess it’s a hung jury. (The “he” mentioned below is the DA):

  • Journo 1: Sure he’s going to ask for a new trial. But he knows he can’t hang a thing on Correlli unless Maroc or his missus talk.
  • Journo 2: So he’s going to the state prison to try to sweat it out of them.

At the state prison, in place of sweating, we’re introduced to a trio of female switchboard operators, all of whom are prisoners (was that a thing?), including our title character, the chipper, well-groomed Judith. Then she’s told to see the warden because she’s getting paroled. 

Initially I thought it was a scam to sweat her, but no, the warden believes she’s a good kid who got caught up with a bad actor. It’s the two G-Men hanging around his office, Lee Laird and Gene Ferguson (O’Brien and Robert Armstrong), who are suspicious—particularly Laird. He decides at this moment, just when Judith is about to walk, to grill her. She’s not having it. “I don’t care what you believe,” she snaps, “all I ask is to be let alone!” She pronounces it “ahsk.” Like any public enemy’s wife.

Laird might’ve believed her innocence if he’d eavesdropped on her farewell conversation with Maroc:

Maroc: Now get this, Judy: divorce or no divorce, you’re mine. That’s why they sent you here for something you didn’t do—I fixed that! So I’d know where you were every minute.

Judith: But you made one mistake: I’m out! And you’re still here.

A scene later, she’s socialite Judith Roberts, staying at the Palm Royal Hotel while being pursued by Tommy “Marrying” McKay (Dick Foran). True to his name, he wants to marry her, but she’s reluctant. Because of her past? Because she’s worried about Maroc? What kind of name is Maroc anyway? It’s how the French say Morocco, but I assume the writers got it by transposing the last two letters of “Marco.” Could none of them pick up a phone book? 

After their engagement winds up in the newspapers, replete with picture, Maroc hatches his escape plan. He says he’ll testify against Correlli, and as he’s being transported by train to the trial, a package delivered by a kindly old lady starts emitting a gas that puts everyone to sleep. Holy ’60s Batman plot device, Batman! Oddly, the one guy Maroc didn’t let in on the ploy was Correlli, who thinks he’s a rat and comes gunning for him. But car crash. 

Our G-Men show up at Judith’s suite with its black maid out of central casting. They still assume she’s in cahoots with Maroc; but in their presence she finally confesses to McKay her real name, background, and the danger he might be in. Laird, without acknowledging his error, pivots on a dime: The wedding will draw out Maroc! They have to go through with it! Which … Was putting civilians at risk in the FBI handbook back then?

At this point, we’re just 30 minutes. The movie is short but it takes for fucking ever.

At this point, too, we’re still wondering if Tommy is a right guy. He’s not. “You can’t expect me to marry an ex-convict!” he complains to the G-Men. Write the rest yourself:

  • Laird will take McKay’s place at the altar
  • They’ll fall in looooove


During the ceremony a car backfires, all the G-Men go for their guns, and Maroc realizes it’s a set-up. Now we get the honeymoon, with all of its sickly Code-era innuendo. Because yes, they’re actually married—they forgot to tell the minister it was a set-up—and still trying to draw out Maroc. Which they do. Suddenly he’s there, and, with Laird in the next room, he takes off with Judith.

Holed up at the Schwartzman Fishing Camp, waiting for a boat to Havana, Judith looks for a way to get word out. She’s smart about it: She cuts a telephone line, they send repairmen, they see her note. Those guys are smart, too: One guy shinnies up the pole and taps out what’s going on. Who’s not smart? The FBI, of course. Laird and Ferguson go into the joint pretending to be drunk fishermen but fool no one since their shoes are clean. They still get the drop on Maroc, but then his gang gets the drop on them, but then fights ensue, etc. Laird and Maroc fisticuff it out in the mud. Laird wins, Maroc dies. And in the end, no surprise, Laird and Judith realize they’ve fallen in love and kiss in the backseat of the car. The End.

The Joker before the Joker.

Never right
Apparently there was concern, at least in some quarters, that all these 1930s G-Men movies and radio shows were problematic.  “A vast mass of propaganda is being loosed to convince the American public that the agents of the Justice Department are invariably brave, never corruptible and always right,” wrote columnist Heywood Broun.

And yet, here anyway, the G-Men are almost never right. They suspect Judith is guilty when she’s innocent; they set up a wedding/honeymoon to trap the bad guy but don’t. In fact, he gets away with the girl right under their noses. And they only get their man because of the good work of telephone linemen. Maybe we needed a slew of movies about them?

I’m curious if this was intentional—if Warners, or its writers, didn’t like the Code, didn’t like having to switch from gangster protagonists, who were fun, to G-Men, who weren’t, and made them look bad. Two of its writers, Harold Buckley and P.J. Wolfson, wrote mostly slop; the third, Abem Finkel, the son of a famous actor of the Yiddish Theater, went on to help write “Jezebel” and “Sergeant York.” The director was the aptly named Nick Grinde, who mostly did B pictures.

Overall, Romero is good, Armstrong fun, O’Brien phones it in, and Margaret Lindsay is all wrong for the title role. The whole “ahsk” thing. She’s probably my least-favorite of the frequent Cagney co-stars. Under duress she’s not bad but if her character is doing OK her self-satisfaction is insufferable. Yet the studio kept trying to make her happen. She was the fetch of 1930s Warner Bros.

1930s “Fetch”

Posted at 10:14 PM on Saturday May 25, 2024 in category Movie Reviews - 1930s   |   Permalink  

Saturday March 23, 2024

Movie Review: The Maltese Falcon (1931)


There’s a surreal quality to watching the original 1931 version of “The Maltese Falcon.” It’s like explaining a dream to a friend: You were you, but not really you. Here, Sam Spade is Sam Spade, but not really Humphrey Bogart. 

Actually, not at all Humphrey Bogart.

All his teeth
He’s Ricardo Cortez (nee Jacob Krantz), a wannabe Valentino by way of Zeppo Marx, and his Sam Spade isn’t exactly the cool, professional hero of John Huston’s 1941 classic. He’s a lothario—leering at the pre-code women with all his teeth.

At his office he kisses goodbye to a midday tryst (legs only) before nuzzling the neck of his semi-resistant secretary, Effie (Una Merkel), who then ushers in the movie’s femme fatale, Ruth Wonderly (Bebe Daniels), with the familiar line, “You’ll see her anyway—she’s a knockout.” In the midst of this he gets a call from Iva Archer (Thelma Todd of Marx Bros.’s fame), the pain-in-the-neck wife of his partner Miles Archer (Walter Long), and yes he’s banging Iva, too.

All of which makes us aware of the great lie in the ’41 version: Sam Spade is a skunk. Sure, no midday tryst, and he and Effie banter like pals, but he is banging his partner’s wife. That shit ain’t cool. But Bogie gets away with it because, well, he’s cool. He doesn’t leer at anyone or nuzzle anyone’s neck; he’s a professional throughout. Plus he’s friends with everyone in town: this cop, that cab driver, the other hotel dick. It’s the ’41 Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan) who acts the skunk—checking out Ruth Wonderly and all but going hubba hubba. “You’ve got brains—yes, you have,” Spade tells him sardonically, and next thing you know Archer is killed in cold blood and no one cares. He had $10k in insurance, Spade says, no children, and a wife that didn’t like him. Plus, we could add, a partner who couldn’t wait for the body to get cold before taking his name off the door.

The ’31 version of Archer is way more sympathetic. True, he’s got a face like a Mack truck, but when he overhears his wife confessing her love to his partner we feel his pain. Once Ruth leaves, we figure he’s going to wipe the floor with Sam. Instead:

Archer: Any phone calls for me, Sam?
Spade: Ohhhh, yes. Your wife called.
Archer: Yeah? What did she have to say?
Spade: Ohhhh, wanted to know when you were coming home. And she said she missed ya an awful lot!

Is that an unintended irony of the Production Code? When you sweep sex under the rug, you lose accountability. You lose morality. You kind of make it OK to covet thy neighbor’s wife. Way to go, Catholics.

Here, Archer’s body is found in a back alley near a chop suey joint—rather than down a construction site—but like with Bogart’s version Sam has no time to check on it. Unlike in the Bogart version, he stops and exchanges a few words of Cantonese with the owner of the chop suey joint, Lee Fu Gow. This is crucial info, it turns out. Spade now knows (even if we don’t) that Archer was killed by a woman. None of this was in the Huston version, by the way, because none of it was in the Dashiell Hammett novel. You can thank the ’31 screenwriters: Maude Fulton (“Other Men’s Women”), Brown Holmes (“I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang”) and an uncredited Lucien Hubbard (“Smart Money”).

There’s a lot of such little differences between films. We get no opening title cards about the Knight Templars of Malta and Charles V of Spain, we don’t see Archer being killed, there’s no shaking Wilmer's tail or booting him from the lobby of the Hotel Belvedere. Wilmer doesn’t even show up until the big meeting with Casper Gutman, and that meeting is a one-fer. Gutman begins it, then Joel Cairo shows up in the next room, returning to the fold, as it were, with intel that the black bird is arriving on the ship La Paloma, docking that day. So we better understand why Gutman slips Spade a mickey—he doesn’t need him anymore. What we don’t get is why Joel Cairo bothers to return to the fold. If he has the intel, why share it with the Fat Man?

Overall, there’s less playfulness with Cairo. Or the playfulness is Effie’s rather than the movie’s. She tells Sam he has a gorgeous new customer, and as Sam gets ready to sink his teeth in, in walks Joel Cairo (Otto Matieson). There’s no “Gardenia,” no lilt to the soundtrack, no supposition that he’s gay; and after Sam knocks him out there’s barely anything in his pockets. Just the wallet. Lorre has the wallet, three passports, foreign coin, a ticket to the Geary Theater and a scented handkerchief. (Cue lilt again.) He has a storyline in his pockets. He has a life. Plus he’s played by Peter Lorre. (No offense to Matieson, a Dane who played Napoleon Bonaparte several times in the silents.) Gutman, meanwhile, is played quite sweatily by Dudley Digges, who is memorable as the evil “boys prison” warden in “The Mayor of Hell.” Wilmer? That’s Dwight Frye, the original Renfield in Universal horror flicks, as well as Dr. Frankenstein’s assistant (Fritz/Karl) in the first Frankenstein films. They’re no slouches, in other words. They're also not Lorre, Sidney Greenstreet and Elisha Cook, Jr. Not close.

One improvement? While Mary Astor is great at playing a school-marmish type who can suddenly get into a catfight with Lorre’s Joel Cairo, I have trouble seeing Bogart’s Spade losing his heart to her. She’s not the “knockout” she’s made out to be. Bebe Daniels is closer to that, and Cortez’s Spade doesn’t really fall for her that hard. It’s more lust than love. Daniels, who played the star who has to break her ankle so Ruby Keeler can rise in “42nd Street,” was 30 years old at the time, but had been acting in movies for more than 20 years. In 1910, in just her second movie, she played Dorothy Gale in a short version of “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.” One wonders if she was destined to play roles that, in later, better productions, would be made more famous by someone else.

Repping SF
And the hits keep coming—if slightly off-key:

  • “We didn’t believe you, we believed your $200.”
  • “You’re pretty good. As a matter of fact, you’re very good. It’s chiefly your eyes, I think, and the throb you get in your voice when you say, ‘Oh, be generous, Mr. Spade.’”
  • “A statuette. The black figure of a ... bird.”
  • “Permit me to remind you, Mr. Spade, you may have the falcon, but we most certainly have you.”
  • “Why, I feel toward Wilmer exactly as if he were my own son.”
  • “You palmed it, Gutman. ... I said you palmed it.” 

Each line is great, but you miss Greenstreet’s harrumph, Lorre’s whine, Bogart’s cool.

The ’31 version is directed by Roy Del Ruth, who directed some good early Cagneys (“Blonde Crazy,” “Taxi!”) and crappy later ones (“West Point Story,” “Starlift”), and it’s still early in the sound era so the camera doesn’t do much. Everything feels two dimensional. It’s straight-on shots, often with just one person in the camera frame. There’s no sense of humor to the movie, and no sense of tragedy. When the Falcon is finally uncovered, there’s nothing monumental about it. You don’t lean in the way you do in the Huston version. And that great ending, where the elevator gate clangs shut on Mary Astor like the bars of a jail cell, and then descends as if into hell while the soundtrack pounds, well, there’s nothing close to that here. Huston ended it like the best of Hitchcock—ripping the Band-Aid off—while this one just keeps going. Spade, now the chief investigator for the DA’s office, visits a disheveled Ruth/Brigette in her cell, and she tries to coax some of her moxie back. No go. Afterwards, he privately tells the female guard to give her everything she wants. When the guard asks where to send the bill, his mood becomes oddly buoyant: “The district attorney’s office!” he practically shouts. Not exactly “The stuff dreams are made of.”

Oh, another difference? How they open the film. How do you let viewers know we're in San Francisco? Huston opens with a nice shot of the Golden Gate Bridge. Of course. They don't do that here or the simple reason the Golden Gate Bridge didn’t exist in 1931. They began building it in ’33 and it opened to traffic in ’37. So what repped San Francisco in 1931? The Ferry Building.


  • I've always loved the Vitaphone logo—looking, as it does, like a '20s cheerleading megaphone. Sound, yo! Not to mention the touting of books, a popular convention at the time, during the opening credits. When did that stop? When was the last time the book on which the movie is based was seen in the opening credits? 

  • Girl #1: a midday tryst. We just see the gams and the arms.

  • Girl #2: Effie is younger in this one and resists Spade's entreaties throughout. Smart. Una Murkel plays her with the proper amount of professionalism and cynicism. She knows what Sam is, and loves him less than other Effie does Bogart.

  • Girl #3: Iva Archer is younger, too, and played by Marx Bros. favorite Thelma Todd. She also garners less sympathy.

  • This Miles Archer garners more. He knows what's up between Spade and his wife. He's got brains he has. He lays bare what a skunk Sam Spade is.

  • Girl #4: Bebe Daniels, the original Dorothy Gale, and our film's femme fatale. I guess all the women were younger here. 

  • Where Bogart has cool, Cortez has teeth.

  • Pre-code shenanigans. No woman's money is safe...

  • ...unless she knows where to hide it.

  • This is how this Spade first hears about the black bird. I think '41 Spade first hears it from Joel Cairo...

  • ...played here by Danish actor Otto Matieson. He's not bad, but he's got no backstory, no lilt, no hint of gardenia.

  • Caspar Guttman played by Dudley Diggs: less monumental, more sweat.

  • Wilmer is tougher, and less of a joke than Elisha Cook Jr. He's played by Dwight Frye, the original Universal horror right-hand man: Renfield in “Dracula,” Fritz in “Frankenstein.”

  • It's almost disconcerting hearing these familiar lines spoken by unfamiliar voices.

  • The uncovering of the Falcon. Huston leans us in, Roy Del Ruth stays static.

  • I can't help but hear Lorre's voice. I say this line to myself weekly.

  • An odd game Spade played while they waited on the Falcon. Anyone know what it is? It's basically the original iPhone app.

  • We get more resolution than in the Huston version. Not saying Gutman doesn't deserve it, but he also deserved continuing his search forever and never finding what he was looking for.

  • Ruth jailed. Huston gave us this as metaphor, Del Ruth bangs us over the head.

  • Here's a resolution this Spade deserved. *FIN*
Posted at 09:28 AM on Saturday March 23, 2024 in category Movie Reviews - 1930s   |   Permalink  

Wednesday February 07, 2024

Movie Review: Five Star Final (1931)

Robinson, finally cast in a starring non-gangster role, but someone else steals the show.


It’s got one of those great character intros, like Rick in “Casablanca,” where we keep hearing about the guy without seeing him. He keeps getting built up by others. When we do finally meet tabloid newspaper editor Joseph W. Randall (Edward G. Robinson), after about 10 minutes of screen time, he’s washing his hands in a speakeasy bathroom. The speakeasy and hand-washing are both symptoms of the same problem: he hates his job. The speakeasy dulls whatever the soap can’t wash away.

This was the first non-gangster starring role for Robinson after he hit it big with “Little Caesar,” and maybe as a result it was beloved by him. In his autobiography he calls it one of his favorite films. “I loved Randall because he wasn’t a gangster,” he wrote. “I suspect he was conceived as an Anglo-Saxon—to look at me nobody would believe it—but I enjoyed doing him. He made sense…”

Yes and no. From the opener, you get a sense of a man trying to drag his newspaper out of the muck. “Randall’s getting too swell for the chewing gum trade,” is one comment from the New York Evening Gazette’s head of circulation. (I love “chewing gum trade.”) The business side wants sensationalism and he’s giving them League of Nations cables. But circulation is down. Sales are down. “Our weak spot is the editorial department! Randall needs a good jacking up!”

Those are the battle lines, drawn early. The trouble? We never see Randall trying to go highbrow. He’s pressured to do a low-rent thing, does it, and people get hurt. That’s the movie.

Besides, by the time he shows up, we’ve already been introduced to someone way more interesting.

The efficient, sardonic secretary who knows more than her boss, and maybe loves him a little, was a kind of 1930s Warner Bros. staple, wasn’t she? I guess I’m thinking Joan Blondell in “Footlight Parade.” And here.

Here, she’s Miss Taylor (Aline MacMahon), no first name, and she immediately stands out. It’s partly her lines and partly the way MacMahon says them. The people around her are a bit broad. Chicago flapper Kitty Carmody (Ona Munson), for example, shows up, vamps a bit, pours herself into a chair, and talks up how the publisher, “Mr. Hinchcliffe” (Oscar Apfel), wants to hire her. “What I meant about Mr. Hinchecliffe is that he knows that I've had a lot of experience in Chicago,” she says. “Yeah, you look it,” Miss Taylor responds, accepting her as a fait accompli but dispensing with her. 

But it’s the back-and-forth with young gofer Arthur Goldberg (Harold Waldridge) that takes things to another level.

Arthur Goldberg: Sufferin’ Moses, but Mr. Randall's got a lot of women.
Miss Taylor: Arthur Goldboig, ain’t you got no religion?
Arthur Goldberg: Gee, the way you say that, I ought to change my name.
Miss Taylor: Don’t you do it, kid. New York’s too full of Christians as it is.

“Five Star Final” is based upon a play by former New York Evening Graphic editor Louis Weitzenkorn, and was adapted by Robert Lord and Byron Morgan, so you wonder who came up with the “Christians” line and how it was allowed to stick. It’s so great. The pre-code era certainly helped. Three years later, no way Joe Breen is letting that line through. You wonder how many great lines got killed between 1934 and 1966. Or to today.

More, though, it’s the unforced way MacMahon says it. She says it with camaraderie, like it’s a little secret between her and little Arthur Goldboig. It’s almost maternal. Plus, she never stops working. Through both conversations. She’s taking phone calls and filling in notes in a kind of rolodex for her boss. Everyone else shows up, ta da, like they’re in a play, and annunciates like in a play—like the lines are the job. She has a job; the lines she does for free.

And this was her first movie? Just who is Aline MacMahon?

Turns out: An early practitioner of the Stanislavski method of acting, soon to be known simply as The Method. She learned it in the 1920s, became a star on Broadway shortly thereafter, married a well-known architect, Clarence Stein, and, after Hollywood tapped her, commuted between New York and LA. In the mid-1930s, Warner Bros. kept pairing her opposite Guy Kibbee, including as the maternal, cynical Trixie Lorraine in “Gold Diggers of 1933.” In the 1940s, she was nominated for an Oscar for “Dragon Seed,” with Katherine Hepburn and Walter Huston. In the 1950s, she was blacklisted. She’s also the subject of a recent book by John Strangeland: “Aline MacMahon: Hollywood, the Blacklist, and the Birth of Method Acting” (University Press of Kentucky). A 2023 review of Strangeland’s work, as well as an appreciation of MacMahon’s, can be found in The New York Review of Books, for those who subscribe.

Anyway, you can’t help but notice her here. She’s the most natural actor with the best lines.

The plot revolves around resurrecting a 20-year-old murder case, in which a woman, Nancy Voorhes, killed her boss after he impregnated her and reneged on marriage. It was a bit scandal but she was acquitted, and Hinchcliffe figures the public will want to know what happened to her. Randall, who covered the case as a reporter, isn’t exactly highbrow here. He works the phones, then assigns Kitty Carmody and handsy reporter T. Vernon Isopod (Boris Karloff, in one of his last roles before “Frankenstein”) to figure out what’s what, then goes to wash his hands again. Miss Taylor? She’s leaving for the day. But she offers this parting shot about the whole nasty business:

I think you can always get people interested in the crucifixion of a woman.

 Man, I wish I’d had that line in my back pocket in 2016.

For a Chicago flapper, and a handsy ex-priest, Carmody and Isopod make not-poor reporters. They quickly find out Nancy Voorhes is now Nancy Townsend (Frances Starr), wife of Michael (H.B. Warner), and an upstanding member of society living uptown. Hubby knows about her sordid past but her child, Jenny (Marian Marsh), doesn’t. Jenny also thinks Michael is her biological father. And as luck would have it—at least for the tabloid business—Jenny is days from a big wedding to Phillip Weeks (Anthony Bushell) of the hoity-toity Weeks family.

Once the tumblers of the plot begin to fall into place, the movie gets a lot less interesting. They run with the story, circulation jumps, but Nancy is scandalized. She finds out before her daughter and works the phones to try to rein in the rest of the story (it’s supposed to be a series), but no one will take her calls. Finally, Miss Taylor forces the call on Randall, who, distracted and guilty, tells her the story is already out. Then we get melodrama: Nancy kills herself, off-stage in the bathroom, and her husband finds the body. When Jenny and Phillip show up, giddy about their upcoming nuptials, he keeps the news from them, and after they leave, moving and speaking slowly, he joins his wife in death.

It's Kitty Carmody, climbing through the living room window with a photographer, who finds the bodies. Big story for the five star final—the last paper of the day. Except now the scandal threatens to engulf the entire newspaper since they come off so badly. We get a big confrontation in Randall’s office. A distraught Jenny shows up with a gun, demanding to know why they killed her mother. Randall, guilt-ridden, tells her she was killed for circulation and almost dies for voicing the truth. But Phillip Weeks, ever loyal, prevents Jenny from committing the crime and they leave to start their own life. Then Randall tells off Hinchcliffe and leaves with Miss Taylor. And in the final shot—reminiscent of the final shots of the silent film “Chicago”—the headlines that caused all the trouble are seen being washed away into a storm drain. Yesterday’s news.

King of druggists
Life moved fast back then. For the filmmakers, I mean. Louis Weitzenkorn’s play debuted on Broadway on Dec. 30, 1930, and this movie hit theaters in September 1931. So rights were bought, the play adapted, director chosen, people cast, filming done, publicity created, etc. etc.—all in nine months. Probably why the framing of the play—set scenes, from which people come and go—is very play-like. Not much of an attempt to open things up. 

Something else I learned while besides all that stuff about MacMahon? The good-guy husband of Nancy Townsend who takes his own life is played by H.B. Warner, who was perhaps the most famous silent-era Jesus, in Cecil B. DeMille’s “The King of Kings” (1927). But that’s not his most famous role to contemporary audiences, since, 16 years after this, he played Mr. Gower, the druggist, in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Which means … Mr. Gower was Jesus.

“Five Star Final” was directed by Mervyn LeRoy, and, again, it’s not bad before it descends into melodrama. It’s about the media tsk-tsking as it sells sex. That kind of hypocrisy will last beyond newspapers.

The great Aline MacMahon, and a line for the ages.

Posted at 08:28 PM on Wednesday February 07, 2024 in category Movie Reviews - 1930s   |   Permalink  

Thursday January 25, 2024

Movie Review: Public Hero No. 1 (1935)


So is it “Public Hero Number 1” or abbreviated to “No. 1”? Or hashtagged “#1”? Even MGM couldn't decide. It went hashtag for the title card, abbreviation in the trailer, and completely spelled out for the posters. The confusion continues to this day: Wikipedia goes hashtag, AFI abbreviation, IMDb spells it out. Thanks for the clarification.

I thought the title wordplay was at least original but it turns out not. In the wake of the “Public Enemy No. 1” coinage (circa 1930, for Al Capone), the press, for a time, trotted out its opposite. These are among those touted “Public Hero No. 1” in newspapers in the mid-1930s: Charles Lindbergh, Dizzy Dean, J. Edgar Hoover, and—interestingly—John Dillinger, whose bank-robbing exploits were cheered on in the midst of the Great Depression, and whose story elements are in this thing. 

That’s what drew me to the movie in the first place—hearing it was about Dillinger—but it's not. Not really. Yes, we get a shootout in a lodge in rural Wisconsin called “Little Paree,” rather than Dillinger’s “Little Bohemia”; and the main baddie, Sonny Black (Joseph Calleia), is gunned down outside a movie theater the way Dillinger was, but it's in Madison, Wis., rather than Chicago, Ill. That's as close as we get. Black’s gang is actually called “the Purple Gang,” a real 1920s mob that had nothing to do with Dillinger.

We don’t get much Dillinger because you couldn’t even say Dillinger in Hollywood movies in 1935. According to Thomas Doherty in his book Hollywood’s Censor: Joseph I. Breen and the Production Code Administration, the normally wishy-washy Will Hays had “squelched the trigger-happy gangster cycle with a ukase against storylines inspired by John Dillinger.” This was in 1932, two years before the Production Code grew teeth. Why it worked in this instance and almost nowhere else, I don’t know. Why an edict against Dillinger squelched the gangster cycle, I don’t know, either, but squelched it was. After James Cagney’s great turn as Tom Powers in “The Public Enemy,” for example, he was cast more often as grifter than gangster. If he began a movie as a gangster, his arc was toward respectability: reporter in “Picture Snatcher”; movie star in “Lady Killer”; juvenile prison reformer in “The Mayor of Hell.”

Once the code grew teeth in July 1934, all the studios rushed to turn their charismatic gangsters into cops. Warner Bros. actually beat MGM to the punch by a few weeks. “G-Men,” with Cagney, was released May 4, 1935; this one, “Public Hero,” with Chester Morris (a gangster in “Alibi” and “The Big House”), came out May 31.

“G-Men” was better.

Drunk docs and crazy coincidences
Morris plays Jeff Crane, a new, loudmouth convict in prison, who is stuck in a cell with Sonny, the suspected leader of the “Purple Gang,” who quickly puts him in his place. But Crane learns no lesson and before long gets 21 days in solitary. Afterward, still learning no lesson, he’s got a scheme about breaking out, and does, and brings Sonny along. Except Sonny gets shot and a doctor is needed. Luckily, Sonny has one: Dr. Josiah Glass (Lionel Barrymore). Unluckily, he’s a drunk. Since this is the 1930s, it’s played for laughs.

On the way to deliver the drunk doc, Crane nearly runs into a bus that skids off the side of the road. On board? A crazily persistent woman named Maria Theresa “Terry” O’Reilly (Jean Arthur), who insists Crane take the stranded passengers back to town. He does, griping all the way. Then she insists he take her to the next town. He doesn’t. But a bridge is washed out, there’s delays, she stows away in his car, etc. That’s how they stay together.

So what’s her deal anyway? She’s trying to hook up with her brother, Dinkie, about an inheritance. And who’s this Dinkie when he’s at home? Yes, it’s Sonny Black. What a crazy coincidence—running into Sonny’s sister when he’s taking a drunk doc to remove a bullet from Sonny. She doesn’t know her brother is a gangster, either. She’s innocent. She’s Jean Arthur.

But she does think that Crane is a gangster, even though, by and by, we realize he’s an undercover fed who is out to get Sonny and bring down the Purple Gang. That’s why he acted so over-the-top in prison. Because he was acting.

Much of the rest of the movie is Crane trying not to fall in love with Terry before he betrays her brother. But when bro slaps her, Crane decks him. For that, Crane loses two gigs. He’s tossed out of the Purple Gang, and then, because his punch wasted months of undercover work, he’s also tossed out of the Bureau, too. Ah, but then he tricks Dr. Glass into taking him to Little Paree, notifies his stickler boss, Special Agent James Duff (one-time real-life convict Paul Kelly), where Little Paree is, and the feds descend. There’s a shootout, Doc gets it, but before dying he reveals that, yes, Sonny is their leader. A few months later, Sonny gets his outside the movie theater where Terry works. Crane pulls the trigger.

Now he just has to win Terry back, and does, kinda, on a train in the last two minutes of the film. It’s not good. You feel for her need to get away. It’s a little creepy.

Sour-pussed sticklers
All of which points out the difficulty of Hollywood shifting gears and ignoring its charismatic anti-heroes for tight-assed, puritanical law enforcement. MGM is trying to make the feds look good here, right? So why do they come off so poorly? They drop Crane at the drop of a hat then welcome him back when he solves everything? Not cool.

Some part of me wonders if the studios weren’t trying hard enough on purpose. I.e., they saw law enforcement as an extension of the puritanical Joe Breen and the Production Code Administration and portrayed them as they were: sour-pussed sticklers, gumming up the works.

Barrymore gets top billing here despite barely being in it, while Arthur is second-billed though you don’t see her for a half hour. That felt odd: watching a movie and not seeing either of the top two stars for 30 minutes. Morris is fine but he’s no Cagney. He’s not even the Morris of “The Big House.” I liked the Morris of “The Big House.”

As for Sonny Black? It took me a while to realize why the actor’s name, Joseph Calleia, was so familiar. Twenty-three years later, he played Sgt. Pete Menzies, the man you could argue (as I did) is the true hero of Orson Welles’ great noir, “Touch of Evil.” Make sure you see the director’s cut.

Posted at 03:56 PM on Thursday January 25, 2024 in category Movie Reviews - 1930s   |   Permalink  

Friday September 08, 2023

Movie Review: Blood Money (1933)

Dee with Dietrich lighting; Dalton Trumbo called her character “a thrill-seeking little bitch.” 


This came onto my radar because of a good chapter on writer-director Rowland Brown in Philippe Garnier’s book “Scoundrels & Spitballers: Writers and Hollywood in the 1930s.” Except I can’t remember if the movie sounded interesting or Brown did. Stuff like this keeps happening to me. My streaming queues, for example, are filled with films that were part of some important late-night research, but now I look at them and go, “Um … OK?” Whatever rationale I had for watching them is gone.

“Blood Money” isn’t great but it deserves a wider audience and a better print. (I watched it via an avi file on my computer—not ideal.) The film gets into class issues, and gender issues, and it has wit and a cynical sense of the world. People want what’s bad for them and run toward ruin with open arms. Sadly, we get a happy ending.

A thrill-seeking little bitch
We keep hearing about our main character before seeing him. (Cf., Rick in “Casablanca.”) A wife betrays her husband to the cops, he belts her, then tells her to get Bill Bailey on the line. A judge is awakened in the middle of the night with a bond request. “That Bill Bailey has a lot of nerve!” the wife says. Then it’s onto the working class. A butcher, weighing sausages, says Bill Bailey ordered 150 turkeys for Thanksgiving. For charity? “Sure,” he responds. “For our poor judges, our poor lawyers, and our poor police officers.”

When we finally see the man (George Bancroft), he’s ringside at a prizefight, sponsoring a boxer with the just-sitting-there slogan “Bailey for Bail.” When someone says he hasn’t picked a winner all night, he smiles and says, “I make all my money off losers.”

So there he is: a Tammany Hall-type grifter with the world wrapped around his finger. What brings him low? A woman, of course.

She’s a new client who needs $1.5k bail and uses a $6k ring for collateral. That sends his antennae up. She says her name is “Jane Smith” (up again), and, eavesdropping, he discovers she’s from money: Elaine Talbert (Frances Dee), the daughter of the president of a Hawaiian pineapple company. She’s also wild—someone who steals for the thrill of it. Example: While he’s helping her post bail, she lifts his cigarette lighter. Later, when they’re going for burgers and onions, and she lights her cigarette, he takes it, sees it’s his—inscribed to him from Jack Dempsey—and gives her a look. Suddenly she’s in her element. She leans back with a saucy smile and  “So … what?” 

Dee is dynamite—both senses. She has a lovely neck, and can play both good girl and bad. The good is a front. The bad is, too, in its own way. She wants to be bad but she also wants to be punished. “I want a man who’s my master, who isn't afraid of anybody in the world, who’d shoot the first man that looked at me,” she tells Bailey at a Hawaiian luau on her father’s estate.” If only a man would give her a thrashing, she adds, “I’d follow him around like a dog on a leash.” In his review in The Spectator, Dalton Trumbo called her “a thrill-seeking little bitch.”

Bailey’s response to all this? He falls for her like a sap. He turns into the opposite of what she wants.

When does he fall? That’s a good question. Earlier we see him hanging with Ruby Darling, a laconic female gangster/nightclub owner played by Judith Anderson in her film debut. (Yes, Mrs. Danvers from “Rebecca” is the initial love interest.) “Aw, Ruby,” he tells her, “I could never get stuck on any girl but you.” But then Elaine shows up. What tips him? When she wants her burger smothered in onions, and he says he always wanted to meet a girl who really liked onions? When she steals his lighter? The longer they’re together, the less interesting he becomes. It’s called love.

At the dog-race track, Bailey buys a dog for her and she’s beside herself with joy; when the dog finishes last, she mutters, “Where’d you get that mutt?” In a sense, the dog is Bailey. As soon as he introduces her to a sleeker model, Ruby’s brother Drury (Chick Chandler), a bank robber known as the “Lone Bandit,” her eyes get like saucers, and Bailey becomes the mutt. There’s a nice scene later at a golf course when Bailey and Drury make calls in adjacent phone booths—both to her. Another nice scene occurs after Elaine kisses Drury goodnight on the cheek and he returns to his apartment building—to find Bailey standing in the shadows. Does Bailey know? Is he angry? Neither. He’s solicitous. While dabbing the lipstick off his cheek with a handkerchief, he warns that the cops are closing in and Drury should jump bail and leave the country. 

Drury: I think I’ll go to Russia.
Bailey (chuckles): They’ll put you to work there…

Instead Drury lams it with Elaine, but beforehand tells her to take the $50k to pay Bailey for the bond he’s jumping, then destroy the $300k in worthless registered bonds he stole. Except she gives him the bad bonds, and that’s the bonehead move that sets up the rest of the film. Thinking himself betrayed, Bailey works with the cops to bring Drury back. So Ruby calls a meeting to call out her protégé/lover, and the gangsters gang up on Bailey. They tell everyone to jump bail so it’ll sink Bailey’s business; then his safe is blown up and the stolen bonds are found. Now he’s looking at jail time himself.

But—final reel—Drury find outs how Elaine betrayed Bailey, sends word to sis, and she rushes to save Bailey before an eight ball laden with explosives (yes) blows up in his face. “You’ll always be getting behind an eight ball, darling,” she says, as they kiss and make up, “and I’ll always be pulling you out.”

That’s the dull part. The part that sticks is our final scenes with the thrill-seeking little bitch. Elaine shows up at Bailey’s, too, just in time to see the kiss, and when she leaves she bumps into a woman who’s distraught because a man placed an ad for a modeling gig then pawed her. “My arms are black and blue!” she cries. Which is when Elaine’s eyes light up, she grabs the ad, and off she goes—toward what she’d always wanted.

Decking Dempsey
“Blood Money” is from 20th Century Studio, pre-Fox, and produced by Darryl Zanuck, post-Warners. In its trivia section on the film, IMDb lists several of the film’s debuts and finales: 

  • Adalyn Doyle's debut
  • Frances Dunn's debut
  • Final film of Sandra Shaw
  • Final film of Blossom Seeley
  • Theatrical movie debut of Dame Judith Anderson  

Beyond Anderson, most of these are bit players—save Blossom Seeley, who was a big star as a San Francisco jazz singer in the 1910s. In Ruby’s nightclub, she belts out “San Francisco Bay” and “Melancholy Baby.”

At the luau, we also get a sexy hula dance from an actress named Grace Poggi, who was only 19 at the time, and only made 15 films, usually as a dancer. She pops.

The big problem with the movie may be the lead. I loved Bancroft in Sternberg’s “Underworld” but he’s hardly a leading-man type. He’s good with bluster and brutism but not affairs of the heart. This movie doesn’t play to his strengths. 

The previous films Brown directed were “Quick Millions” with Spencer Tracy and “Hell’s Highway” with Richard Dix. Would love to see both. He also wrote for two Cagney films, “The Doorway to Hell” and “Angels with Dirty Faces,” and is given credit, by Pat O’Brien at least, for much of what was good with the latter. “Brown wrote it, no doubt about this,” O’Brien said in 1975. “He was sort of a genius, that guy. … He talked to you like a stevedore would, in plain old everyday American.” Brown is also one of the two screenwriters (among eight writing credits altogether) on the Constance Bennett movie “What Price Hollywood?” which is basically ur-“A Star is Born.”

Brown had gangster connections, or didn’t, drank too much, or not at all, and once sparred with Jack Dempsey and maybe knocked him down. Even Garnier has a tough time getting a handle on him. Either way, “Blood Money” is the last time Brown got credited as director. He was either fired a week into “The Devil is a Sissy,” or filmed the whole thing but was told by Eddie Mannix that MGM’s go-to director W.S. Van Dyke would get credit because his name would sell better. So Brown hit Mannix—either with a phone book or the script—and there went directing. And now he was on the downhill side. That price, Hollywood.

Posted at 06:43 AM on Friday September 08, 2023 in category Movie Reviews - 1930s   |   Permalink  

Thursday June 15, 2023

Movie Review: Up the River (1930)


Considering its historic importance—the first feature film for both Humphrey Bogart and Spencer Tracy, not to mention directed by John Ford and based on a story by Maurine Dallas Watkins, who wrote “Chicago”— treats “Up the River” rather shabbily. The version I streamed for $3.98 was not only blurry but chopped up. It kept skipping bits of dialogue. Nips here, tucks there. The movie is suppose to run 92 minutes but the version I streamed was 84, so I lost eight minutes. Two to five seconds at a time.

It's another 1930 prison movie—there were a lot of those—but this one’s a comedy-romance. Saint Louis is a gangster, while Steve Jordan is a nice-guy inmate who falls for a female prisoner. Guess who plays who? Right. Tracy is the gangster, Bogie the romantic interest. They didn’t know who these guys were yet.

G-rated Shawshank
The third lead is Warren Hymer as Dannemora Dan, a malaprop-laden foil for Saint Louis. The movie begins with them breaking out of a prison in the South, but when Dan implies he’s going straight and starting a chicken farm, Louis leaves him high and dry. So long, sucker!

They next meet when Dan is a member of the Brotherhood of Hope, a Salvation Army type group, and he’s in the midst of telling how he came to be saved when Louis pulls up in a big car with two dames and a shit-eating grin. “And verily,” Dan intones, “I say to you, the wages of sin is—a punch in the jaw, you louse!”

Cut to: Bensonatta, “A penitentiary in the Middle West,” a title card tells us, where the cons jeer the newcomers like in a G-rated “Shawshank Redemption”:

  • “Oh, look at the mug on that guy.”
  • “Look at that pan!”
  • “What did you do, boy, rob your mama’s bank?”

Claire Luce plays Judy Fields, the romantic interest, and she’s willowy and lovely to look at but conveys little. She also doesn’t seem like much a con—hardened or otherwise. When she’s released and Louis asks about her plans, she says brightly, “I’ll go back to the old racket, I suppose,” and you believe exactly zero of it.

She’s also not that Claire Luce. For some reason, I thought Clare (no “i”) Booth was an actress before marrying Henry Luce, but she was socialite and playwright (“The Women”), and then went on to become a U.S. rep (CT-4th), ambassador to Italy (under Ike), and, with hubby, strong, stupid supporter of Chiang Kai-shek. Claire with an “i” had a short career in Hollywood and a fairly long one on Broadway. Among her stage roles: Curley’s wife in “Of Mice and Men” (1937-38) and Katharina in “The Taming of the Shrew” (1951).

The plot here isn’t much and isn’t the point. Steve is paroled and promises to wait for Judy, and Louis and Dan break out of prison and wind up helping Steve. Seems the reason Judy wound up in the can was a con artist named Frosby (Morgan Wallace), who shows up in Steve’s New England town and blackmails him into staying mum about a stock investment scheme. But when Frosby scams Steve’s mom, Steve grabs a gun. Saint Louis grabs it back. “It’s a sucker’s game,” he says, and talks about friends on death row who were there one day and not the next. Instead, they just steal the bonds back from Thursby. I mean, Frosby. Sorry. Every time Bogie said “Frosby” here, I couldn’t help but think of Bogie saying “Thursby” in “The Maltese Falcon.” 

Steve gives the two men a message for Judy but Dan loses it on the train back. They show up worse for wear just as Judy is being released, and just in time for the big baseball game run by Pop (William Collier Sr.). The movie ends with them taking their positions as battery mates as the newly energized prisoners sing the title song:

Rolling home like a beautiful song
Rolling home up the river
Where you belong

Oddities and not-oddities
If the plot isn’t the point, what is? Personality. It’s poor, dumb Dan forever losing out to the charismatic Saint Louis. Tracy’s character has a catchphrase, “I never break my word,” which he constantly does. That’s the gag.

Louis: Tell you what, I’ll give you my word. And you know I never break my word.
Warden: No?
Louis: Well, never twice in succession.

Future Ford mainstay Ward Bond also shows up as prison bully with undertones of sexual violence. “What are you gonna do—make a favorite of that punk around here?” Bond growls at Bogie. “Say, who are you to tell me to keep my hands off anybody?” he growls again before getting decked by Louis. You get a sense Ford knows what happens in prisons.

There’s oddities. The warden’s daughter Jean (Joan Lawes), who’s about 8 or 10 years old, is always hanging in the prison yard. Sure, what could go wrong? The oddest moment may be in Steve’s New England town, when twin sisters May and June (Elizabeth and Helen Keating) burst in to dinner with news of a hayride. They’re dressed alike and they speak in unison? It’s like “The Shining” but played for laughs.

We also get some not-oddities for the period: society matrons sticking their noses in; Judy calling Frosby a “dirty rat”; blackface. The big crowd-pleaser at a prison talent show is a minstrel routine, “Black ‘n’ Blue,” with Amos ‘n’ Andy-type dialogue. A Black con in the audience roars with laughter. “See?” Ford seems to be saying. “They like it, too.”

I do like Hymer, who played not-smart throughout the 1930s, then ruined his career with a not-smart move: urinating on the desk of movie mogul Harry Cohn. Here, at that New England dinner, Dan is sitting next to Bogie’s sister, but when the twins arrive seats are shuffled and he loses his spot to—of course—Louis. Now he has nowhere to sit. After pouting a bit, and with nowhere to go, he simply slips behind a dressing screen in the corner and sits on a stool there, hoping to not be noticed. It felt like me at half the parties I was at in my teens.

Posted at 03:45 PM on Thursday June 15, 2023 in category Movie Reviews - 1930s   |   Permalink  

Saturday June 03, 2023

Movie Review: Madam Satan (1930)


What a weird fucking movie.

In the first half, a wife realizes her husband is unfaithful and it’s treated as a comedy. In the second half, she wins the husband back and it’s treated as a tragedy. Well, it’s an ur-disaster flick so it is a tragedy. It’s the Hindenburg before the Hindenburg, let alone The Hindenburg. There’s a golden calf element, too—outré revelry before fierce judgment—but then it was directed by Cecil B. DeMille, who did both the silent and Charlton Heston versions of “The Ten Commandments,” and who was always big on bacchanalia followed by shame. Lots of bacchanalia, a bit of shame.

You could also say the movie is ripped from the headlines: A dirigible full of rich, partying people crash. That pretty much describes the 1920s. At least these people had parachutes.

And it’s a musical! DeMille’s first and only. It shows.

Regular old crackers
I didn’t know it was a musical, so, 15 minutes in, when the maid (Elsa Peterson) bursts into “Live and Love Today” to her mistress Angela Brooks (Kay Johnson), bucking her up about her philandering husband Bob (Reginald Denny), I experienced the kind of disconnect people who hate musicals have about musicals. Is it the only time in the movie the singing is musical-y? It’s not a performer with a piano saying “Hey, I’ll sing a song here.” It’s an everyday setting where someone just starts belting it out. 

This scene follows an extended comedic open in which Bob and his pal Jimmy Wade (Roland Young) try to sneak back into his stately mansion, drunk, in top hats and tails, after a night of revelry. Jimmy is clumsy and keeps dropping stuff, including his top hat, which winds up on the head of a passing maid. Wucka wucka. But Angela discovers more than just the revelry. She realizes Bob is having an affair with a dame named Trixie (Lillian Roth) and confronts him about it. His response? He blames her.

  • “Don’t you understand? Love can’t be kept in cold storage. Its a battery that has to be recharged every day.”
  • “That’s you all over: cold logic. … I think you're above all other women. But below zero.”
  • “I’m a romantic guy. I crave warm affection … and all I get is frozen justice.”

We also get this back-and-forth:

Bob: You don't know what love means.
Angela: You don't know what marriage means.
Bob: Oh, yes I do! It’s a schoolroom and you’re the teacher. Well, I’ve graduated!

Was male privilege ever more ascendant? 

Was DeMille a philanderer? Of course he was. With several women. And his wife knew. And did nothing. Probably just sang songs with her maid.

Oddly, given the above, the screenwriters are all women—Jeanie Macpherson, Gladys Unger, Elsie Janis—and all of them previously collaborated with DeMille. Particularly Macpherson. She had a longtime affair with him. So I guess they knew from which they wrote.

After confronting Bob, Angela confronts Trixie, but gets similarly dismissed and humiliated. So she divorces Bob and takes him to the cleaners.

Kidding. She decides to fight for him. This is what she says to Trixie: “You made him sick of virtue, I'll make him so sick of vice he’ll scream for decency!” How does she do this? That’s the second half of the film. Jimmy is throwing a masked ball aboard a moored dirigible and she decides to show up in the slinkiest outfit ever and turns heads—especially Bob’s, who pushes others aside to get to the front of the line. Just who is this mysterious woman who calls herself Madam Satan? He must know!

There’s some not-bad lines but Bob is a major creep and the movie doesn’t think so. Plus Angela’s plan to get him so sick of vice he’ll scream for decency is a non-starter. He seems very interested in vice until he realizes the vice would be with his wife. Where’s the fun in that? At which point whatever might’ve happened is disrupted by disaster. There’s a thunderstorm, the dirigible becomes unmoored and begins to break apart, and panic ensues among the swanky set. “I don’t want your husband,” Trixie cries, “I want a parachute!” Bob meanwhile, sacrifices his parachute for Angela but he survives like an action hero. As the ship is going down, at the last second, he dives into the city reservoir. Sure.

If his landing is heroic, for almost everyone else it’s comic: Angela parachutes into a car where a couple is making out, Trixie into a Turkish bath, and Jimmy into a tree in the lion’s den in a zoo. Wucka. 

Animal crackers
It is insane, though. At the gala, most of the women dress slinky (as cats, etc.) or outrageous (peacock-like), while most of the men show up as dashing Douglas Fairbanks types—including Bob as Robin Hood, arms akimbo. We also get a Roman senator, a pirate, Romeo, Eve, Fish Girl, Spider Girl, Victory, Electricity, Miss Conning Tower and Little Rolls Riding Hood. You can get a sense of the madness in this clip.

Roth, the woman who plays Trixie, was immediately familiar to me as the daughter to Margaret Dumont’s Mrs. Rittenhouse in the Marx Bros.’ classic “Animal Crackers.” There, as the loyal girlfriend, she overacts. Here, as the other woman, she’s not bad. But her career quickly sputtered from alcoholism. She recovered enough to write about a memoir about it, “I’ll Cry Tomorrow,” which was adapted into a 1955 Susan Hayward film of the same name.

The movie was a rare box-office bomb for DeMille—deserved. It’s overlong and feels longer. It debuted about a year after the Wall Street Crash and crashed. In a way “Madam Satan” does to us what Madam Satan does to Bob: draws us in with the promise of something sexy only to deliver a bland wife and her stupid husband, reunited at last.

Posted at 07:57 AM on Saturday June 03, 2023 in category Movie Reviews - 1930s   |   Permalink  

Tuesday April 04, 2023

Movie Review: Blonde Crazy (1931)


This was James Cagney’s first lead role after he became a star in “The Public Enemy”; and though gangsters like Tom Powers are what he’s known for, Bert Harris is actually more indicative of his early screen persona. In the precode era, Cagney was more grifter than gangster.

“Blonde Crazy” (née “Larceny Lane”), a tale told in four or five grifts, is not much of a movie but it’s fun. It feels like a B picture or exploitation flick in the way it’s steeped in the culture of the moment—as if it didn’t have the money to extract itself from the culture of the moment. You feel it mostly in the lingo. “You’re not a collar ad, but you're not bad looking.” “I could eat the hip off a horse.” “Aw, you’re as wet as he is.” And of course Bert’s term of endearment for any and all women: “Huuuuuhhh-ney!” 

But my favorite example is the use of dynamite as metaphor. It’s not a compliment yet:

“I’d stay away from those bellhops, they can’t do a girlie any good. And the worst monkey of them all is that guy Bert Harris. He’s dynamite. Everyone in this joint owes him money from those crooked dice of his.”

Dynamite as a pejorative makes way more sense, doesn’t it? Makes you wonder when it become a positive. And why. And what that says about us.

Bert Harris is both ass man and a bit of an ass. He’s a bellhop joyously checking out every passing blonde in the midst of myriad smalltown scams. We never see those crooked dice of his, but we do see the machinations involved in getting Anne Roberts (Joan Blondell) hired—sweet-talking, fast-talking and bribery—and then trying to get into her pants. For the latter, he winds up with his face slapped. That happens a lot. Consider the movie the revenge of Mae Clarke in the beating Cagney takes from women.

Bert may be dynamite but he’s still an amateur—he even keeps a scrapbook of newspaper clippings involving various grifts he’d like to try. When does he begin to think big? I guess when A. Rupert Johnson Jr. shows up (Guy Kibbee, in his first of five Cagney movies). He’s a hotel guest who also expects a little something-something from Anne, and harrumphs mightily when he doesn’t get it. So Bert shows him some Prohibition-era hootch, says it’s $10 a bottle, and when Rupert wonders if that isn’t a little steep, Bert intones slyly: “Not if the blonde chambermaid likes it.” Then with a pal (Nat Pendleton) playing cop, they catch Rupert canoodling in the back of his car with both Anne and the hootch. Desperate to avoid a scandal, our grifters are suddenly $5,000 richer.

All of this takes place, per an early title, in a “leading hotel of a small mid-western city.” The $5k bankrolls their move to a better hotel in a bigger city—Chicago. Except before Bert took the suckers; in Chicago, he’s the sucker. He and Anne fall in with two other grifters, Dapper Dan and Helen (Louis Calhern and Noel Francis), and they make a chump of him. While Helen flirts, Dan pretends he’s passing phony $20 bills—gets them from a guy at three-to-one—and Bert wants in. The $15k they get—real money, it turns out—winds up in a drawer in Bert’s hotel room—along with the previously earned $5k. Except they’ve already cut through the wall on the other side. So instead of cash, Bert is left holding a taunting note:

paste this in your scrap book
love and kisses

Because he can’t bear to let Anne know he’s been taken, he grifts again—though later, Anne oddly sees the enterprise as beneath him. “Out-and-out thievery is not your style, Bert,” she says. “The worst thing you did was take from a lot of wise guys, cheat a lot of cheaters.” Which … sorta? Rupert was a lech, not a cheater. Plus the new grift isn’t bad. He finds out about a high society wedding, goes to a jeweler as a rep of the family, has an expensive necklace sent to the family home, then shows up as a rep of the jeweler saying, “Sorry, we sent this to the wrong house.” Now he’s got the expensive necklace, which he hocks. When the very Jewish pawn shop owner tries to chisel him down, we finally see a bit of Tom Powers. He grabs the guy by the back of the neck, calls him “Three Balls” (for the traditional pawn shop logo) and strongarms him into a better deal. “My, but you’re a tough guy,” the pawnshop owner says. “Not tough. Just mercenary,” Bert sneers before slapping the man with the dollar bills.

Now it’s onto New York, and guess who Anne runs into? “Einstein?” Bert jokes. Nope, Dapper Dan. That’s how she finds out Bert got grifted. Helen is already out of the picture so now it’s time to take Danny boy with another not-bad scam. Dan thinks Anne is working with him to grift the florid Col. Bellock (William Burgess), but it’s the opposite; she’s working with the Colonel. Late to the racetrack, Dan suggests some friendly wagers on races they’ve already missed, knowing one of their gang will call ahead to find out who won, then switch numbers on passing license plates to clue Dan. But the Colonel has the real winning numbers, and at the track Dan discovers he’s out $7500. He can’t figure what went wrong until he finds the taunting note Anne leaves behind.

The most fascinating thing about this revenge grift? It’s about 10 minutes of screentime and we don’t see Cagney. At all. It’s all Blondell. Can’t imagine a modern star taking such a backseat.

Now that that’s solved, what’s the drama/conflict? All along, Anne has complained that Bert just cared about money, blondes, and grifts.

  • “Oh Bert, you’re such a boy. You’ll never grow up!”
  • “Oh, Bert, sometimes you act like a kid.”

Now he wants to get married, he wants to travel to Europe, but Anne tells him he's too late: "I’m in love with someone else.” It’s the guy who helped her get the cinder out of her eye on the train, banker Joe Reynolds (played by a young and very good-looking Ray Milland). Bert watches their wedding from a nearby taxi cab, and when the cabbie asks if it’s a wedding or a funeral, Bert responds: “Both.” Nice line. Then he’s off to Europe by himself. When he returns a year later, he’s lost the spark.

What gets him moving again? Anne. She’s in trouble. OK, Joe’s in trouble. He embezzled $30k, invested it, lost it. Bert figures a cover: Since no one knows the funds are missing, have someone else—him—steal the rest, and they’ll figure it was all just part of the same robbery. Would’ve worked, too, except Joe is not just a cheat but a rat. He and the cops are waiting for Bert. That’s gotta be one of the worst ways to say “thank you” ever. Not to mention moronic. Imagine they’d actually caught Bert. He could’ve spilled the beans, and when Joe objected, he could’ve just said, “Check the satchel. There’s $30k missing in negotiable bonds. That’s on him.” At which point, Joe would’ve bolted like the rat he is. Instead, here, Bert lams it, there’s a car chase, he’s shot in the back, his car goes into a storefront. But he lives.

This is another way Bert Harris is more indicative of early Cagney than Tom Powers: He doesn’t die. We always think of Cagney getting plugged in the final reel, but in the 22 starring roles between “Public Enemy” and “Angels with Dirty Faces,” he only dies twice: “He Was Her Man” (1934) and “Ceiling Zero” (1936). Both deaths are sacrificial/heroic. Generally what happens to him is Hollywood 101: he beats the bad guys and gets the girl. He also has a tendency to repeat his catchphrase at the end, too: “Why, if I thought you meant that…” to Loretta Young; “I’ll put a gold spoon right in your kisser” to Mary Brian.

Here, too. He may be in prison, but Anne shows up, tells him about Joe’s perfidy, tells Bert she loves him and will wait for him. Once she leaves, overjoyed, he returns to the Bert we’ve always known. He tells the female prison guard:

If I had the wings of an angel, huuuuuu-ney
Over these prison walls I would fly! 

It’s not just a return to his catchphrase, it’s a tweak on “The Prisoner’s Song,” a 1920s staple that several years later the Dead End kids would sing at the end of “Dead End” in 1937. That song is probably why, in their next big role, they became angels with dirty faces—playing against Cagney, of course. The connections never stop.

You dirty rats
We all know the ’60s-era variety show Cagney imitation, “You dirty rat,” and we all know it’s a line he never said, but it didn’t come from nowhere. He probably came closest to saying it in “Taxi!,” when he says to the guy who killed his brother, “Come out and take it, you dirty yella-bellied rat, or I’ll give it to ya through the door!”

Here, too. When Anne tells him about Joe’s treachery, he says this:

Why, the dirty, double-crossing rat! I’d like to get my hooks on him I’d tear him to pieces!

Both movies were written by John Bright and Kubec Glasmon (née J.J. Glassman), Chicagoans who also wrote “The Public Enemy” and helped make Cagney’s career. They gave us the early Cagney lexicon, and were assigned to the budding star until Bright ran into trouble with Jack Warner, Darryl Zanuck, et al. and that was that. They were also different types: the Polish-born Glasmon tended toward respectability, the American-born Bright toward rebellion (he helped create the WGA). I don’t know if this is a lesson but the respectable Glasmon wound up dying of a heart attack at age 40 in 1938, while the rebellious Bright, who wound up in B pictures and then blacklisted, spent decades pickling himself and lived until 1989. His memoir, “Worms in the Winecup,” has nice nuggets but is indicative of a scattered mind. He kind of disses Glasmon, calling him “at best semiliterate,” but he adds that he had “a feel for character … his ear for speech patterns, particularly seamy street talk, was accurate and captured flavor.” One wonders if that’s where some of the flavor of this movie came from.

-- A shorter review of this film can be found here. It's from July 1999.

Posted at 02:19 PM on Tuesday April 04, 2023 in category Movie Reviews - 1930s   |   Permalink  

Friday March 24, 2023

Movie Review: Outside the Law (1930)


It’s 1930, sound has just come in, and you plan to remake a 10-year-old gangster flick featuring an actor who became emblematic of the decade: Lon Chaney. Except Chaney is dying of throat cancer so you need to recast the role. Who do you choose? An actor who would become emblematic of the next decade: Edward G. Robinson. 

I love it when that happens. (Cf., Brando/De Niro as Vito Corleone.)

How else does Tod Browning’s “Outside the Law” (1930) differ from Tod Browning’s “Outside the Law” (1920)?

Instead of a jewel heist it’s a bank heist, and instead of the gangster setting up the thieves out of some bizarre vendetta, Robinson’s gangster, Cobra Collins (shades of “Hairspray”!), just wants his cut. I like that. It’s not personal, it’s business. We also lose Chinatown and Nob Hill and really any sense of place. Don’t like that. But at least there’s no yellowface here. Collins’ mother appears to be Chinese but there's no effort to make Robinson appear half-Chinese. It’s just, “Yeah, good enough.” Or is she not his mother? Maybe she's just a lookout named “Mother”? Either way, the racial embarrassment for this version is the maid across the hall (Louise Beavers), who, after rocking the kid to sleep with a tale of baby Jesus, calls downstairs to get some gin from some partying Black folks—which is why the kid is alone at the crucial hour. 

As for what’s the same? Sadly, the dull, unlikable couple at the center.

The movie begins with some scenes that require asterisks today. An actor in a bank window draws a crowd playing a kind of mechanical man pointing out various sales items: “Our Vaults are Burglar Proof!” and the like. Was this a thing back then? In banks? One of the crowd is Cobra Collins, who knowingly, slyly, writes a message on the window: “Hello Fingers.” Initially I thought maybe Fingers (Owen Moore) was on the lam, and now found, but it turns out he’s a yegg—a safecracker. Cobra Collins figures he’s going to rob the bank. Since it’s his town, he wants his cut.

Then we get more odd gawkery: At Cobra’s club, PALACE OF FINE ARTS, the peep shows are done up in homage to great works of art. Basically it’s an excuse to present near-naked women for male perusal—but, you know, classy. There’s a large gilt frame, and a curtain, and a barker with a cane. Love the mix of high and low culture as the barker makes his pitch:

The original painting is valued at 5 million francs and youse slugs are getting the chance to lav it* for 15 cents. Now hold yer breath: Da Carryin’ Away of Psyche.**

* Could not figure out what the verb is. Anyone? Bueller?
** Was Robinson already an art collector? He certainly became one of Hollywood’s more famous ones, so the venue here is interesting.

Connie (Mary Nolan), the woman acting the painting Innocence, turns out to be far from it. She’s partners with Fingers, makes a play for Cobra, but he’s wise. Back at her place, they plot it out. We see Fingers, nattily dressed, and hear her off camera with the sounds of bathtub splashing. But no, it’s not her; she’s just giving the dog a bath. Browning keeps doing this—tricking us with sound. Having fun with the new tech.

Eventually Fingers robs the bank and they lam it—as much from Cobra as the cops. After that, the movie plays out as before. They’re getting on each other’s nerves, he’s going stir crazy, but he occupies himself by playing with the kid across the hallway (Delmar Watson), whom she can’t stand. The gender dynamic that felt oddly unmentioned in 1920 gets called out here. “I can’t figure you out,” he says. “You’re the first dame I met that didn’t like kids.”

We also get dialogue based on the jokes of the day:

Fingers: Say, if I had a wooden whistle that wouldn’t whistle, could I blow it? Ha! Joke.
Connie: [Sarcastic, affected] What a riot you’d be on Broad-way!

Another update is when stir-crazy Fingers decides to go out—risking being spotted—he now returns with a radio. That was less of an option in 1920, but by 1930 it was everywhere.

While he’s away, as in the original, the door turns slowly, she gets out her gun, but it’s just the kid across the hall with a puppy. Then more puppies! The kid almost shoots her, she gets the gun back, yells, the kid cries, and her hard heart softens. Same as before. Plus the battered kite casts the sign of the cross on the floor. Same old.

In a nice touch, the kid’s cop-dad, Capt. Fred O’Reilly, is played by silent film’s original gangster—Rockliffe Fellowes of “Regeneration” (1915). Meanwhile, the one casting through line in Browning’s films is John George playing Humpy, a dwarf sidekick to the Chaney/Robinson gangster. He’s uncredited in the original, credited here, even though the part is much smaller. In the original, he fingers both the girl’s father and the male lead traipsing through town. In the remake, we barely see him.

So how does Cobra figure out their hideout? It just seems like he’s suddenly on their doorstep. (The version I watched wasn’t exactly high res.) Capt. O’Reilly recognizes him, there’s a shootout, and much of the rest of the film is Fingers and Connie trying to save O’Reilly’s life while Cobra tries to get away with the loot. He winds up dying on the landing a floor down, money scattered around his corpse. A lesson for the kids.

More lessons: Despite saving O’Reilly, our leads get 1-5 of hard labor. In the original, everything was forgiven. The moral force there was Confucius; here, it’s the rule of law. Not to mention the Production Code.

This is pre-“Little Caesar” but Robinson's patter already seems a parody of what it’d become. In one scene, he’s called before the cops and sits down with his cigar:

Alright, alright, that’s enough, that’s enough. You fellas better put on a new record. You ain’t got anything on me, see? Now what I came over to tell ya, see, is to tell ya how I feel about it.

It already feels like Billy Crystal’s imitation of him.

I like that Browning never shows us the cops in the above scene. Same as, in the end, not showing faces, just hands. It’s the judge’s gavel and his hands, and our leads wringing theirs. Browning’s artistry is apparent even when the movie isn’t worth much.

This Minneapolis newspaper ad does a lot of heaving lifting for the plot.

Posted at 08:25 AM on Friday March 24, 2023 in category Movie Reviews - 1930s   |   Permalink  

Monday March 20, 2023

Movie Review: The Widow from Chicago (1930)

And a swastika satchel shall save her.


Commissioner Gordon is in the middle of molesting a young dime-a-dance girl when he spots his Nazi-emblazoned leather satchel in the corner of her bedroom and realizes something is up.

OK, so a few misleading parts to that sentence.

Yes, about a half hour into “The Widow from Chicago,” actor Neil Hamilton—who would memorably and comically play Commissioner Gordon in the 1960s TV series “Batman,” and who here plays mobster “Swifty” Dorgan—spots his satchel in the bedroom of dime-a-dance girl Polly Henderson (Alice White). And yes, it does have two prominent swastikas emblazoned on one side. But this was 1930, several years before the Nazis came to power in Germany, and, at the time, the swastika in the U.S. was basically a Native American good-luck symbol. Per the outer rim of these symbols, in fact, we see the satchel came from the “Swastika Hotel,” which was a chain, or at least a name, that really existed. There were many Swastika hotels and lodges throughout the western United States at the time. Other things were named for or emblazoned with swastikas as well: towns, avenues, companies. This began changing in the late 1930s—as this 1938 headline says—for obvious reasons:

The one thing that’s not misleading about my sentence above? “Swifty” Dorgan is about to rape Polly. He backs her into her bedroom saying “Chick-chick-chick-chick, shoo shoo” (super creepy), then grabs her and kisses her against her will. It’s only when he sees the swastikas that he stops. Thank god for swastikas.

Oh, he’s not the villain of the movie, either. He’s its romantic lead.

The charade
Edward G. Robinson, who does play the movie’s villain, Dominic, didn’t think much of “Widow.” A Broadway star of the 1920s, he’d made a few silents and had been courted by MGM’s Irving Thalberg but turned him down. “His eyes showed me that an actor was beneath contempt,” Robinson wrote in his 1973 autobiography. Instead, Robinson signed with Warner Bros., and “The Widow from Chicago” was his first film under that five-year deal. 

It wasn’t exactly he wanted. Edward F. Cline, he said, was nice enough but no real director, star Alice White was “almost entirely without acting ability,” and he was full of doubts about himself. “What the hell did I know about a vice baron with a passion for nightclubs?” he wrote. Since his next picture, “Little Caesar,” made him famous for playing such “vice barons,” I assume that line is tinged with irony. It’s wrong, too. He’s great in this: measured, calculating, in charge. I’d add he was also wrong about Alice White. I don’t know if she could play Ophelia, but she’s great as a big-eyed, tough-talking flapper. Most of the actors in this movie are rather flat. The only ones that pop are White, Robinson, and Frank McHugh playing a comic-relief, Harold Lloyd-ish gangster. He’s so good in a silent film kind of way, it made me wonder if talkies came too early for McHugh. He might’ve been bigger earlier.

The story starts out convoluted and then gets nonsensical.

Two cops investigating Dominic’s gang confront a visiting Chicago gangster, Swifty, on a train, but he bolts over the side and into the river. Since no one in Dominic’s mob has ever seen Swifty, one of the cops, Jimmy Henderson (Harold Goodwin), pretends to be him. He keeps bragging to his sister, Polly (White), and talking himself up in the third person. “Something tells me I’m gonna get a big earful,” he tells her. He does. He’s shot in the street. 

Already, problems:

  1. What do the cops have on Swifty that he’d risk his life rather than simply talk to them?
  2. Does Dominic know he just killed a cop? (He does)
  3. Do the NYPD? They seem pretty blasé about losing one of their own. (Until the 11th hour)

Anyway, that’s why Polly goes undercover as Swifty’s wife, the titular widow from Chicago. But on the same day Dominic hires her as a dime-a-dance girl, guess who shows up? Swifty. Oops.

Except at this point she’s the known commodity—no one’s ever seen him—so in a way Dominic uses her to I.D. him, and Swifty plays it cool until he figures out what her game is. Back at her place, she says she’s just taking Dominic for a ride, which is when we get the “chick, chick, chick” scene; but after he sees his satchel (which he calls his “grip”), she comes clean. He wants to come clean, too—to Dominic—but doesn’t. Why? “It’s a lucky thing for you that you ran across a good guy like me before you stubbed your toe,” he says. Right. Near rape notwithstanding.

Suddenly, for no reason, she’s holding all the cards. He wants her to scram but she figures Dominic will need to see them together so they’ll need to maintain the charade. Not by living together, of course. She tells him to get a room someplace, and then use the back staircase to take her to breakfast every morning. After listening to her orders, he says, “This is just like being married.” Badda-bum.

Much of the subsequent tension is about the charade. Does Dominic suspect? Is he onto them? Meanwhile, Swifty goes undercover as a waiter at the nightclub of rival mobster Chris Johnson (Lee Shumway)—which is surely the blandest name of any Hollywood gangster ever. Dominic plans a midnight heist/hit on Johnson, but Johnson is warned away by Jimmy Henderson’s old partner, Finnegan, (John Elliott), who then puts a gun on Swifty. Polly to the rescue. She kills her brother’s old partner, and everybody lams it. Then she dismisses Swifty as a small-timer. Now Dominic makes a play for her but she’s wondering if he isn’t small time, too. It's all a ruse, of course, to get him to brag about the people he’s killed—including Jimmy—since the phone is off the hook and the cops are listening on the other end. When they descend (with Finnegan, very much alive, that was part of the plan, too), Dominic douses the lights in the joint, they search for him via spotlight, and when they finally spot him he grabs Polly—who for no reason is rushing through the nightclub. Then Swifty to the rescue.

Bozo with indigestion
Dominic is oddly jaunty in his farewell:

Oh, handsome. Don’t forget to invite me to the wedding. You better make it soon, I might not be here very long. [Salutes] Up the river!

That last part just means going to prison—as in “They sent him up the river”—but I’ve never heard it as a stand-alone salutation before.

I don’t know if playing Dominic helped Robinson land “Rico” Bandello—I’m sure it didn’t hurt—but the movie’s a mess. Apparently there were musical numbers, most likely in the nightclub, that were cut for the American release, because pre-“42nd Street” Warners decided Americans didn’t like musicals much. Those scenes are still extant in the European version. I saw the U.S. version, trimmed to a tidy 64 minutes.

But that’s not why the movie is a mess. It often doesn’t make sense from line to line. At one point Swifty is trying to get into Polly’s apartment, she discovers her door is unlocked, he tells her, “Well, think over what I told ya,” which is him basically saying “Bye!” and her response is: “Not tonight, Romeo. Go on.” Right, he was already going on. She does the same later with Dominic.

Dominic: You just bumped a cop, didn’t ya? Ever hear of a thing called an alibi? Well you better have one. Hmm. We all better have one.
Polly: You better get one yourself. Somebody might want to know where you were around midnight.

That’s what he just said. Was Alice White adlibbing nonsensically or was it just a shitty script by Earl Baldwin? In the same talk with Dominic, she also implies that she’s leaving New York and “heading for the big town…” Not sure what the big town is if New York isn't it.

At the same time, we do get good dialogue. The scene where Dominic constructs his alibi with the nightclub bartender is Michael Mann-ish in its economy:

Dominic: Hey, Benny, what time ya got?
Bartender: Twenty minutes after twelve.
Dominic: A little fast, aren’t ya?
Bartender: [Pause] You been here all evening, Mr. Dominic. 

I also like this early back-and-forth as Dominic’s right-hand man Mullins (Brooks Benedict) is trying to get close to Polly, while Polly wonders over Dominic:

Polly: Who’s the little bozo with indigestion?
Mullins: Sssh. Not so loud.
Polly: What’s the matter—do ya know him?
Mullins: Yes. And he’s got a very bad temper.
Polly: [Laughs] Who wouldn’t have with a face like that?

A second later, we get an early movie reference. She says Dominic “looks like the heavy in ‘Way Down East,’” a famous D.W. Griffith film from 1920. Initially I was wondering if it wasn't supposed to be self-referential—“East is West,” Robinson’s previous film, in which, yes, he plays the heavy. Probably not. Both were different studios and “Way Down East” was much more successful.

James Cagney often talked up the comic chops of his friend Frank McHugh, and I’ve usually been like “Sure, whatever,” but, as mentioned, they really shine through here. A favorite moment is when the cops are running that spotlight through the darkened nightclub and land on Slug sitting alone at a table. He looks around, more embarrassed than caught, eyes blinking, hands fidgeting, and Keaton-like, puts on his bowler hat and exits. I laughed out loud.

And I love me some Alice White. Shame her career was truncated.

Posted at 09:09 AM on Monday March 20, 2023 in category Movie Reviews - 1930s   |   Permalink  

Saturday February 11, 2023

Movie Review: The Most Dangerous Game (1932)


What weren’t sadistic megalomaniacs doing on jungle islands in the early 1930s? In Paramount’s “Island of Lost Souls,” released in December 1932, Dr. Moreau was taking animals and turning them into humans. Here, in RKO’s “The Most Dangerous Game,” released just three months earlier, Count Zaroff (Leslie Banks) takes humans and turns them into animals—into hunted prey.

I think we all know the short story by Richard Connell, right? It was published in Collier’s magazine in 1924, won an O. Henry Award, was anthologized everywhere. I think I read it in … junior high? I remember enjoying it but not being shocked. Humans as prey? I was a short, smart kid in junior high; I got it. 

Apparently RKO did the filming concurrently with another little picture it was working on: “King Kong.” They did this one during the day, with Fay Wray a natural brunette, and that one at night with Fay in a blonde wig. When did the poor girl sleep? I guess when she wasn’t screaming or looking frightened. For what it’s worth (not much), I like her better as a brunette. She’s not a great actress, not a great beauty (as Hollywood beauties go), but she’s got something.

Lousy businessman
That’s one of the differences with Connell’s version, by the way. There was no girl in the short story, but Hollywood don’t play that.

Another difference: In Connell’s work, big-game hunter Sanger Rainsford simply falls overboard; that’s how he winds up on the island. Here, despite the cost of special effects, big-game hunter Robert Rainsford (Joel McCrea) is in a shipwreck. The movie begins with a disagreement between the captain and first mate over two light buoys that seem out of place but indicate a safe channel near an island. They don’t. They were placed there by Zaroff to create shipwrecks and thus victims. Bit of a waste, though, isn’t it? He loses like 90% of his inventory to the sharks. What a lousy businessman.

Before the shipwreck, the movie’s themes are teed up:

Doc: I was thinking of the inconsistency of civilization. The beast of the jungle, killing just for his existence, is called savage. The man, killing just for sport, is called civilized.
Rainsford: What makes you think it isn't just as much sport for the animal as it is for the man? Now take that fellow right there, for instance. There never was a time when he couldn't have gotten away, but he didn't want to. He got interested in hunting me. He didn't hate me for stalking him, anymore than I hated him for trying to charge me. 

This is a movie for famous last words. “I’m the hunter, nothing can change that,” Rainsford says, and a second later, CRASH. “Don't worry,” a drunk Martin (Robert Armstrong) tells his sister Eve (Wray), “the Count will take care of me.” Yes, he will.

Was the trophy room in the short story? It’s integral here. Rainsford washes up on shore, tramps through the jungle, finds a fortress run by two Cossacks: Zaroff, and Ivan (Noble Johnson), a huge, creepy deaf-mute assistant. He also finds two other guests. Martin is in his cups, but Eve signals to Rainsford that something is really, really wrong. Two sailors washed up with them, but after each was shown the trophy room they were never seen again! And then that night, Martin disappears. That’s why Eve and Rainsford sneak into the trophy room.

From IMDb’s trivia section:

The trophy room scenes were much longer in the 78-minute preview version. There were more heads in jars. There was also an emaciated sailor, stuffed and mounted next to a tree where he was impaled by Zaroff's arrow, and another stuffed figure posed in a tableau with hunting dogs bringing him down. Preview audiences cringed and shuddered at the head in the bottle, but when they saw the mounted figures and heard Zaroff’s dialog describing in detail how each man had died, they began heading for the exit. So these shots disappeared.

I like how, when Eve an Rainsford hear someone coming, they hide in the shadows, but when it’s revealed to be Zaroff and Ivan returning with a body, Eve, for some screwed-up reason, decides to forthrightly accuse Zaroff. Yeah, that’ll do the trick. The body is Martin’s, of course, which kind of gives the lie to the title. A soused Martin is the most dangerous game? Hardly. Humans are dangerous in almost every context but the one Zaroff creates. Someone should’ve mentioned this to him … along with how he’s wasting his inventory. 

Initially, Zaroff, a fan of Rainsford, wants to hunt humans with Rainsford. It’s only when Rainsford refuses in that stalwart, insulted Joel McCrea way that he goes, OK, now you’re prey. Eve demands to go along because the movie demands a beautiful woman in a slinky gown in the jungle. And they make a go of it. Rainsford takes out Ivan with a firmly planted stick, then creates a Malay man-catcher and a Burmese tiger pit but Zaroff manages to sidestep both. We also get some not-bad shots from either of the directors, Ernest B. Schoedsack or Irving Pichel, of our heroes looking back frightened as they run away from the camera, and Zaroff looking determined as he marches toward the camera. We’re in that lush “Kong Kong” forest, too, and at one point Eve and Rainsford rest on that soon-to-be famous tree bridge.

To infinity and beyond
In the end, cornered near a waterfall, Zaroff fires and both hound and Rainsford go over the side—like Holmes and Moriarty. And like Holmes, Rainsford isn’t dead. He returns, fights, wins, gets the girl.

This was the first time the story was adapted for the big screen but hardly the last. In 1945, they did it as “A Game of Death,” with John Loder the hero, Edgar Barrier the villain, Audrey Long the girl. Eleven years later, it was “Run for the Sun” with Richard Widmark, Trevor Howard, Jane Greer. In the ’70s, they began hunting women (“The Woman Hunt”), and in the ’80s they began hunting women in outer space (“Slave Girls from Beyond Infinity”). In the 2020s, Connell’s work has already been adapted a few times, maybe because it recently entered the public domain. Or because everyone feels hunted lately.

Posted at 08:43 AM on Saturday February 11, 2023 in category Movie Reviews - 1930s   |   Permalink  

Monday February 06, 2023

Movie Review: The Millionaire (1931)


This one surprised me. I’d heard about it, tried for years to see it, read what its star, George Arliss, said about Cagney in it. I had background on the matter.

What startled me was Arliss. He was an acclaimed British theatrical actor who made some early talkies, mostly bios, won an Academy Award for best actor in 1930 (“Disraeli”), then, what, poof, stopped making movies in 1937 and died in ’46. And the movies he made didn’t exactly age well. Biopics rarely do. Plus he's got a long, prim face. Shame he never played Woodrow Wilson. 

Given all that, I was expecting theatrical. I was expecting hammy and not modern.

But he’s great.

Hardly what you’d call a gentleman
He plays James Alden, the titular millionaire, a world-famed automaker and benevolent boss who wants to do right by both customers and employees. Think Henry Ford, but nicer, and without the anti-Semitism.

He’s got two problems as the movie opens. Two of his honchos, Mac and Ed (Sam Hardy and Charley Grapewin), think they can improve upon the engine for his automobiles. And by “improve” they mean “make it cheaper.” He refuses. They offer their resignations. He refuses those, too.

The second problem is tougher to dismiss: He’s begun feeling lightheaded. At his house/mansion, his doctor shows up to tell him he has to retire or he’ll be dead in six months. “Your business can get along without you,” the doc says. “But can your wife get along without you?” That’s when realization crosses his face, and after a moment he apologizes to his wife (Arliss’ wife Florence) and daughter, Babs (Evalyn Knapp), for not thinking of them sooner. And after a final day of work, including goodbyes all around and a few moments of quiet remembrance, he puts the keys on the desk and walks out.

And into what life? We see a train heading west, and then a kind of pool party, but I guess it’s a sanitorium? Or spa? It’s several months later, he’s in suit and tie with a blanket over his lap, and nothing is going right. Babs is dating a rich wastrel (Bramwell Fletcher), Alden is not allowed buttered toast (I thought the doc said he was too thin?), and he’s not allowed to smoke his favorite pipe. He’s bored to death and everyone around him is excessively cheery. They’re slowly killing him with kindness. 

So what shakes him loose? A burst of energy. From Arliss’ autobiography:

There was a small but important part in The Millionaire, the part of an insurance agent. The scene was entirely with me and was the turning point in the story. I knew it depended largely on the actor of this small part whether my change of mental attitudes would appear convincing. I saw several promising young men without being much impressed one way or another, but there was one more waiting to be seen. He was a lithe, smallish man. I knew at once he was right. As I talked to him I was sure he could give me everything I wanted. He wasn't acting to me now. He wasn’t trying to impress me. He was just being natural, and I thought, a trifle independent for a bit actor. There was a suggestion of here-I-am-take-me-or-leave-me, and hurry up. As I came to my decision, I remember saying, “Let him come just as he is. Those clothes and no makeup stuff. Just as he is.” The man was James Cagney.

I like that when the butler is telling Alden there’s someone to see him, it’s like pulling teeth to get specifics:

Alden: Male or female?
Butler: Not a female, sir.
Alden: Ah, I bet one hundred to one it’s a male. A man, probably.
Butler: Not hardly what you’d call a gentleman.

And that’s our boy. Cagney/Schofield just sits down and starts talking a mile a minute, trying to sell Alden a life insurance policy. Then he finds out he’s retired and, per company policy, can’t sell him life. Maybe auto? Accident? Alden questions him on this until Schofield owns up: “Well, Mr. Alden, if you must know, we don’t care to touch them when they’re retired.”

Alden: You’re a cheerful visitor. Can’t a man retire and live?
Schofield: Well, I guess he can but he don’t. Thinks too much about himself. Mustn’t do this and mustn’t do that. Mustn’t eat this, that and the other.

The two wind up bonding over pipe smoking. Apparently Cagney was a pipe smoker but it’s odd to see on film, where he usually plays cigarette guys. But they bond, and Schofield tells Alden what he’d do if he were in his shoes. He’d look through the want ads, buy a place, run it, keep the blood pumping. 

I love how Alden starts calling him “Mr. Bones.” “Well, Mr. Bones, if you were a man like me, what would you do, Mr. Bones?” Is that vaudeville? Radio? It’s a take on something. Oh wait, it’s minstrel shows, isn’t it? There’s always a Mr. Bones in those. And yes, a quick dive into it, and there’s a Mr. Tambo and Mr. Bones, and I guess Arliss is putting himself into the role of the interlocutor, the “dignified, if pompous, straight man,” per Wikipedia. One wonders if it was an ad-lib. Either way, it’s fun. You can tell Alden is having fun. (Arliss, too.) And after Cagney leaves, having just zipped through everything in three minutes of screentime, Alden, rejuvenated, goes through the want ads and then lights his pipe. He’s ready for the next chapter.

Under an assumed name, he buys a half-interest in a gas station from Wallace Beery’s brother, Noah, playing a guy named Peterson. And if that sounds like a recipe for trouble, it is. Alden haggles him down but the next day discovers, with his new partner, Bill Merrick (David Manners), the reason Peterson was selling short: a new highway opened up, Palm Avenue, and “They ain’t gonna use this street no more.” Peterson even has a new gas station on the new highway. They’ve been rooked.

Alden doesn’t wring his hands. He plots. He gets a gleam in his eye. First, he knows there’s no hope diverting traffic back to their place so he immediately gives up on it—tears it down and sells the land. Then he decides to stick it to Peterson by buying the property across the street from him, remodeling it, and reopening as the Mission Garage—offering gas at cheaper prices. Peterson, aghast at the sudden competition, lowers his price further, so Alden trumpets the quality of their gas and implies cheaper gas hurts your car. The ruse works. 

There’s an alter-ego/superhero vibe throughout. Everyone thinks he’s just an old dude running a gas station, but he’s really Henry Ford running a gas station.

And then in quick order:

  • His daughter falls for his business partner
  • Peterson admits defeat and buys them out at a substantial profit for themselves
  • Ed and Mac from his original company show up forlorn, admit they’ve bungled everything, and plead with him to return
  • His health is never mentioned again
  • The End

Talent scout
Not great but not bad. There’s a subtlety to everything Arliss does. You can see him thinking.

Oh, and I was wrong about Arliss appearing in early talkies—or at least incomplete. He made six silent films as well, between 1921 and 1924. Here’s an indication of how much the advent of sound changed the industry: Almost every silent movie he made was remade as a talkie less than 10 years later:

The Devil (1921) n/a
Disraeli (1921) Disraeli (1929)
The Ruling Passion (1922) The Millionaire (1931)
The Man Who Played God (1922) The Man Who Played God (1932)
The Green Goddess (1923) The Green Goddess (1930)
Twenty Dollars a Week (1924) The Working Man (1933)

“The Millionaire” is based upon a short story, “Idle Hands” by Earl Derr Biggers, a Broadway playwright, who actually went through what Alden went through. A doctor advised him to get away and relax or he’d soon be dead. He wound up in Hawaii, where he heard about a great Honolulu detective named Chang Apana. From that, he fashioned a character, who first appeared in Biggers’ 1924 novel “The House Without a Key.” His name was Charlie Chan.

(The doc was right in Biggers’ case: He died of a heart attack in 1933, age 49.) 

I like Knapp here. She’s cute and not dull. Got a flapper vibe. It’s fascinating how all the same actors keeping meeting in these early films. Knapp played Cagney’s sister in “Sinners’ Holiday,” then Edward Woods’ sister in “Mother’s Cry,” a role that got Woods the lead in “The Public Enemy”—but of course that role ultimately went to Cagney. She also played the femme fatale who comes between Cagney and Edward G. Robinson in his next movie, “Smart Money,” and had a cameo as the actress on the movie screen when Cagney and Loretta Young go to the theater in “Taxi!” A year later, she was tapped for the reboot of “Perils of Pauline” but I guess it didn’t do well because she was soon third- or fourth-billed in cowboy pictures. (She played Lou Gehrig’s wife in his 1938 cowboy picture “Rawhide.”) Her last role was as a secretary in the low-budget “Two Weeks to Live” in 1943. She went uncredited. She died in 1981.

Arliss was good at spotting talent—it wasn't just Cagney. A few years later, when he was remaking “The Man Who Played God,” he was having trouble casting the lead female role. A colleague, Murray Kinnell (Putty Nose in “Public Enemy”), suggested an actress he’d just worked with, but who was dispirited and ready to give up Hollywood. Arliss asked to meet her. They spoke, he looked her up and down—but not in a bad way. “Universal asked to see my legs,” she later wrote. “Mr. Arliss was examining my soul.” I guess he liked what he saw because she got the part and stayed in Hollywood. The woman was Bette Davis.

Posted at 08:19 AM on Monday February 06, 2023 in category Movie Reviews - 1930s   |   Permalink  

Friday February 03, 2023

Movie Review: The Greeks Had a Word for Them (1932)


“The Greeks Had a Word for Them” is based on Zoe Akins’ 1930 Broadway hit “The Greeks Had a Word for It,” which, as title changes go, is a little odd. It’s a pre-code film, in which half the point is women in half-slips, but It was considered too suggestive? Isn’t Them more suggestive? Or more disparaging? It implies something about our leading ladies rather than the general situation. 

By the time the movie was re-released in 1937, the Greeks were just tossed overboard and the movie became “Three Broadway Girls.” It’s about three golddiggers who seem less interested in the gold than the digging. Basically men are too easy to catch so they keep throwing them back.

Actually, no, it’s more about how girls stick together even if one of them is really, really awful. Plus side: It passes the Bechdel Test.

Working men
The opening title card trumpets female independence:

Throughout the ages, half of the women of the world have been working women

The second title card is accompanied by a wuh-wuh-wuhhhh noise: 

and the rest of the women have been working men

Our three girls are Schatzi (Joan Blondell), the strong, mama bear type, whose sugar daddy, Pops, is always offstage; Polaire (Madge Evans), the idealistic one whose young beau, Dey Emery (David Manners), is always hanging around; and Jean (Ina Claire), the loose cannon. After Jean returns broke from a trip to Paris, they go out on the town, and Dey brings along a friend for Jean. Not a bad catch, either: famed pianist Boris Feldman (director Lowell Sherman). Except Jean looks down her nose at him because he’s a mere piano player. Actually, she’s informed, he’s a pianist, classical, and performs 3-4 times a week at $2,500 a pop. She does the quick math and warms up fast.

The betrayals come faster at Boris’ place. Boris thinks Polaire has real musical talent and agrees to take her under his wing for two years, but tutelage includes travel and thus—duh—sex. Good guy Dey backs out graciously, but when Polaire wants to go after him Boris holds onto her. “None of that,” he says. “You’re mine now and I’m jealous.” 

As bad as Boris is, Jean’s worse. In the 10 minutes Polaire needs to get her belongings and return to Boris’ place, Jean comes downstairs wearing a mink coat and nothing underneath. And there goes Polaire’s tutelage. Why does Jean do it? I guess to prove she can. Because as suddenly as she wins Boris, she discards him. Then she goes after Dey.

One of the best moments is after Pops dies and the girls are at the reading of the phonographic will—with Jean dressed up in widow’s garb and fake tears. Pops has nice things to say about Schatzi and Polaire, then warns against the scheming of “the one called Jean.” Affronted, she stands and cries, “That’s a lie!” To which the phonograph responds, “I knew you’d say that. Sit down!”

Much of the rest of it is a battle between the girls. Schatzi and Polaire invite Jean to their hotel room while paying a waiter to pretend to be their butler. Jean sees through that gag, they all get catty about furs and pearls, then Jean tries to glom onto their meeting with Dey and his dad. To get Dey for herself? No, dad. And to get him, or maybe just for fun, she throws Polaire under the bus again—accusing her of stealing her pearls. “She wanted the pearls so you wouldn’t think she was a golddigger,” she says, then, to prove she doesn’t have them herself, strips to her slip, raising Dad’s eyebrows. And where are the pearls? In Polaire’s pocket, where Jean planted them.

So instead of Polaire marrying Dey, Jean marries Dey’s dad, but Schatzi and Polaire finally get the better of her. Before the wedding, while champagne-toasting, they regale her with their next adventure: following Italian aviators on an ocean liner to Paris. Suddenly the wedding doesn’t seem much fun to Jean, so the three scram to the ship, followed by the ever-persistent Dey. At the end, they’re all together, forgiven but unchanged, with Jean flirting with one of the Italians using her signature line: “I’m sure I’ve met you before. I never forget a face, and you are good-looking, you know.”

How Not to Marry a Millionaire
If the names and the situation sound familiar, yes, this was remade in 1953 as “How to Marry a Millionaire,” with Lauren Bacall as Schatze, Marilyn Monroe as the glasses-wearing Pola, and Betty Grable as the renamed Loco. Oddly, set amid the prosperity of postwar America, their financial situation seems more dire than it does here in the midst of the Great Depression. The ’50s girls all get married in the end, too. No Italian aviators for them.

“Greeks” isn’t a bad film. It’s urbane, carefree, witty at times. It's amost a forerunner to “Absolutely Fabulous.” When Boris offers a boozing Jean caviar, she responds: “Don’t speak of food while I’m drinking my dinner.” After Polaire sees Jean in wedding white: “Of all the snow scenes…” Wherever a good line could be had, it's had. At the speakeasy, for example, a drunk asks after the restroom, and a waiter replies dryly: “There’s a room there marked ‘Gentlemen,’ but don’t let that stop you.” I was reminded of “blackouts.”

It’s just a shame it’s not better. Claire, a Broadway actress, plays Jean with verve, but the character is so awful I can’t imagine anyone wanting to hang with her. Evans is her usual sweet self while Blondell—great as always—isn’t given enough to do. Director Sherman probably could’ve found a better Boris than himself, while Goldwyn probably could’ve found a better director than Sherman.

The version available for streaming is the 1937 re-release but it still seems fairly risqué. So were no cuts made to it? It’s a movie that fell into public domain, which means it’s easier to watch (yay) all the crappy copies (boo). Would be fun to see a crisp version in a movie theater. With smart friends and smarter cocktails.

Posted at 12:44 PM on Friday February 03, 2023 in category Movie Reviews - 1930s   |   Permalink  

Wednesday February 01, 2023

Movie Review: The Oklahoma Kid (1939)


Cagney had high hopes when this film was pitched to him by screenwriter Edward E. Paramore, Jr. as an homage to 19th-century mountain men like Kit Carson. Then Warners pulled Paramore and tapped director Lloyd Bacon for his ninth and last teamup with Cagney. “When I got the final script it had as much to do with actual history as the Katzenjammer Kids,” Cagney said in his 1974 memoir. “It had become typical horse opera, just another programmer.”

Sure. But some interesting stuff gets smuggled in.

The movie is set around the Oklahoma Land Rush of 1889 when the U.S. government opened up former Indian territories for settlement. We get grand shots of the land rush, and heroic montages of Tulsa being built up from nothing. The movie celebrates all of this. 

Or does it? It begins with no less than Pres. Grover Cleveland (Stuart Holmes) dismissing the land grab. “I was opposed to the opening of any Oklahoma territory to white settlement, because I felt the terms were unfair to the Indians,” he tells the press. “But both houses have now approved the measure. And since I happen to believe that the will of the people is properly expressed through the Congress, I will sign the bill.”

That’s the official dismissal. The unofficial dismissal comes from our outlaw hero.

Half an hour in, he gets into a conversation with the upright Judge Hardwick (Donald Crisp), just as the land rush is underway. Hardwick is astonished that the Kid isn’t participating in it. Doesn’t he have any pride in seeing a civilization carved out of the wilderness?

Kid: Now look. In the first place, the white people steal the land from the Indians, right?
Hardwick: They get paid for it, don't they?
Kid: Paid for? Yeah. A measly dollar and 44 cents an acre, price agreed to at the point of a gun. Then the immigrants sweat and strain and break their hearts carving out a civilization. Fine. Great! Then, when they get it all pretty and prosperous, along come the grafters and land-grabbers and politicians and with one hand skim off the cream and with the other scoop up the gravy. [Shakes head] Not for me.

The veneer of the film is hokum but there’s some blunt truth here. You could even argue that the good white people of the film are actually its villains—blithely cheating the Indians of their land. The only reason they’re not perceived as villains is because you got worse white people: the ones who cheat while cheating the Indians of their land. The nerve.

Feel the air
These are Sooners—scofflaws who leave early for the land grab. (And yes, it cracks me up that the term is somehow celebrated in Oklahoma today.) They’re led by Whip McCord (Humphrey Bogart, excellent as always), whose gang we first see robbing a stagecoach carrying the Indian money. Then our title character appears out of nowhere and robs it back. The Oklahoma Kid is supposed to be a notorious outlaw but what crimes do we actually see him commit? Just this one. He robs robbers. He’s Omar from “The Wire.”

Afterwards, in town, a tall, folksy, mustachioed man, John Kincaid (Hugh Sothern), harangues everyone about how he knows of a spot with rich, rich land, and in the land rush tomorrow he and his son, Ned (Harvey Stephens, forever cuckolded), plan to race to that spot, claim it, and then build a good clean town with good clean people. Who’s with us? (Hurrah!) Then there’s a square dance, the Kid arrives and quickly becomes enamored of Judge Hardwick’s daughter, Jane (Rosemary Lane, of the Lane sisters), who happens to be dating Ned Kincaid. But the Kid gets her alone and tells her to feel the air. No, that’s not a metaphor. Cagney again:

Not long ago I was at a party and a gentleman there said he had seen me on television in the “feel the air” movie. Funny how little things you drop in a picture can become the most memorable things about it for most people. This bit of business derived from a friend of Ed McNamara’s, a gent who had the habit of inhaling deeply when going outdoors, saying, “Feel that air, just feel it!,” and proceeding to do so. Simply to give my one-dimensional character in The Oklahoma Kid something just a trifle memorable, I dropped this little bit in several times—reaching up to feel the air as I said that line—and it persisted in audience memory.

Anyway, Kincaid probably gabbed too much about the spot with rich land, because McCord and his men—cheating, sooning—beat him there and strike a deal. Sure, you can build your town, old man, but we want exclusive rights to all saloons and gambling houses. Kincaid accepts, and we see that town (Tulsa) being hewed out of nothing; but instead of the ideal community Kincaid envisioned, it becomes overrun with rowdies and the lawless.

The Kid, meanwhile, is hiding out with a Mexican couple. There’s a nice scene when their baby cries, the Kid begins to sing “Rock a Bye Baby,” catches himself, then continues in Spanish. It’s here, when he’s unpacking foodstuffs, that he sees a headline about John Kincaid being charged with murder. That’s when he tells Pedro (George Regas), his supposed host, to saddle his horse. 

Why does he care? Who’s John Kincaid to him? The big reveal, which he tells Jane in Tulsa, is that Kincaid is his father. Then he tells it to Judge Hardwick. Then he can’t shut up and blabs it to the crooks as he’s locking them up in order to spring the old man. But of course Dad refuses to go. Too upstanding. So McCord whips a crowd into a frenzy, they break into the jailhouse and lynch him. That’s a fairly powerful scene, actually. In the hands of a better director—Michael Curtiz, for example—it might’ve become legendary.

Now it’s up to the Kid, a.k.a. Jim Kincaid, to exact revenge, by pursuing and killing McCord’s four henchmen. Indian Joe (Trevor Bardette) gets it in a saloon, Curley (Lew Harvey) at a farmhouse, and Handley (Ward Bond, that SOB) atop a train. The bad guys draw first, of course. The Kid finds the last, Doolin (Edward Pawley), wandering in the desert, parched, etc., and he gives up without a fight. Then he confesses that McCord was the one who whipped up the lynch mob, meaning McCord can face trial. He can face justice. Which leads to this great exchange as the Kid leaves to pursue McCord.

Hardwick: Listen son, I know just how you feel.
Kid: In that case you won't hold me up with a lot of talk, will you?

By this point, Ned Kincaid—the Kid’s brother, remember—is U.S. Marshall, and both he and the Kid arrive at McCord’s saloon at the same time. Ned wants to bring him in, the Kid wants to kill him. So of course it’s Ned who winds up killing McCord, after being shot himself. Both men die. This is after a long, drawn-out fistfight, with bad cuts between Cagney/Bogie and their stunt doubles, that reminded me of nothing so much as fistfights in movie serials or on, say, 1960s “Star Trek” episodes. Did previous Cagney flicks have such battles? I don’t remember any. Super cheesy.

As is the ending. The Kid is about to cut out for the wide-open spaces of the Arizona Territory, while Jane—not at all distraught over the death of Ned—flirts, and suggests, and then gets Dad, the judge, to marry them on the spot. And they do. Bummer. I wanted him back with the Mexican couple.

Your yard
This is Cagney’s first western, and it led to some guffaws, not least from his co-star. Bogart said that in his 10-gallon hat Cagney looked like a mushroom. He does look oddly smaller here. Others had trouble seeing Cagney, the kid from the Lower East Side, the gangster's gangster, hanging with horses; but of course by then he was a gentleman farmer on Martha’s Vineyard. “I am, have been, and will be always a man for horses,” he said in his memoir. But the rep was the rep. Even so, I don’t think the movie hurt him—he still made Quigley’s list of top 10 box-office champions of 1939.

Beyond the cream/gravy speech, he gets in a few good bits. After dismissing the land grab to Judge Hardwick, the sheriff shows up in the saloon to arrest the Kid and we get this exchange: 

Sheriff: I’m Abe Collins.
Kid: Who?
Sheriff: Abe Collins!
Kid: Is he?
Hardwick: Yes, he’s the sheriff.

I flashed on the Marx Brothers—it has that kind of patter. The Kid is basically Groucho dealing with another stuffed shirt.

Earlier, in the saloon, Cagney sang “I Don’t Want to Play in Your Yard,” which was not only Cagney’s father’s favorite song but fits the movie, too. We never find out why Jim Kincaid split off from his family, but, yeah, he doesn’t want to play in their yard. We don’t want him to, either. But the thrust of the film is getting him back there—with all the good white people. Shame.

See my shorter and sweeter review from 2002 here.

Posted at 07:15 AM on Wednesday February 01, 2023 in category Movie Reviews - 1930s   |   Permalink  

Monday January 02, 2023

Movie Review: The Cheat (1931)


Here are the big differences between this version of “The Cheat” and the famous 1915 silent film:

  • Fannie Ward in 1915 was just a spoiled spendthrift but Tallulah Bankhead obviously has a gambling problem
  • Fannie was branded on the upper back; for Tallulah, it’s the upper chest
  • The original villain was Japanese; this one is a white Japanophile

In other words, the movie goes deeper psychologically and bawdily but takes a step back racially.

Or is that a step forward? When the original came out, the Japanese and Japanese-American communities objected so vociferously that when the film was re-released in 1918 the villain was changed from a Japanese ivory merchant to a Burmese one. Which … sure. To the Japanese it’s like: We finally get a big role and it’s a sexual predator who literally brands a white woman? Not a good look. Give it to the Burmese.

At the same time, the actor who played the role, Sessue Hayakawa, became a matinee idol as a result—the first Asian star in Hollywood, and probably the biggest Asian male movie star in America until Bruce Lee came along more than 50 years later. Wouldn’t you want to embrace that in some way? Instead, the controversy may have caused the studio in 1931 to figure, “Yeah, let’s skip all that and go with a white dude.” So there went another opportunity for an Asian actor.

Ah, who am I kidding? They probably would’ve gone yellowface anyway.

Milk funds
Another difference, of course, is that the original was silent, (as was the 1923 remake with Pola Negri), and this one gets into the repartee right away.

We’re among the smart set at the Dunes Yacht Club on Long Island, where a cynical character named Leslie (Porter Hall) good-naturedly chides stockbroker Jeffrey Carlyle (Harvey Stephens) about working too hard to support his wife, Elsa (Bankhead).

Leslie: You know, I take a positively clinical interest in this man
Man: What’s the trouble?
Leslie: He’s in love with his wife!
Man: I know. And after four years, too.
Jeffrey (smiling): Can’t help it, boys. I’m sorry.
Man: Why don’t you do something about it? It’s disgraceful.
Leslie: Worse than that, it’s indecent. Here’s to her.
(They toast and drink)

That’s not bad, but Leslie leaves us too quickly. Porter Hall didn’t even make the credits.

Elsewhere at the club, a speech is delivered by Hardy Livingstone (Irving Pichel), who, like the more famous Dr. Livingstone, is a world traveler. He’s just spent three years in Asia and has promised to lend his house for the big Milk Fund Ball. Back in 1915, it was a Red Cross Ball to help the poor Belgians during WWI; now it’s the Great Depression and everyone needs milk.

Not Elsa, though. She’s too busy matching coins with the men. There’s a fascinating scene where she’s mesmerized by the gambling table, and, without looking behind her, begins to sit down—and a Black servant moves a chair there for her. That’s lucky but she isn’t. She winds up losing $5K, then goes double or nothing and loses again. And Livingstone is hanging around with a leer. Earlier, we’d heard him philosophizing: “No, the oriental woman isn’t really a slave. She’s simply been well-trained, that’s all.” Now he sees a chance to train another. He and Elsa walk along the beach and she agrees to see his mansion across the water. It has Japanese servants and a Japanese vibe, but each step gets creepier. One room he calls his “holy of holies,” including Yama, the God of Destruction, which frightens Elsa; another room is his “gallery of ghosts,” with branded female figurines. “Once they were lovely women who were kind to me,” he says. The brand is his Japanese crest. “It means … I possess.” “What a strange man you are,” she says.

Then he offers servants playing music, a glass of Saki, and a beautiful, jewel-encrusted Japanese dress, which he demands she wear. That’s when she splits.

Even so, she wears the dress to the Asian-themed Milk Fund Ball. By this point she’s gambled another $10k on a stock speculation her husband wouldn’t touch. I like how, despite the yacht club trappings, the movie doesn’t ignore the depression:

Hubby: You’d think from the way they talk downtown the whole country was going to be put up for sale cheap in six months.
Elsa: Is it?
Hubby: No. When everyone’s blue, it’s time to buy. When the crowd buys, it’s time to sell. I know that and everybody knows it.

Everybody knows and everybody forgets.

Anyway, her speculation goes awry, and now she owes $20k, and the bill is coming due. Hubby doesn’t have it but Livingstone does, and, with that leer, he offers a deal. What was oblique in the original is underlined here: “I don’t ask for much in return—only that you be a little nicer to me. And maybe, maybe some evening soon, you’ll come to see me.” But when hubby’s number comes in, she tries to back out of it. He won’t let her. “If you’re trying to appeal to my better nature, it’s hopeless,” he says. “You made a promise, and you’re going to keep it!” When she’d arrived he was branding a doll he’d made of her. Now he breaks the doll and decides to brand her instead. After the deed is done—via shadows—we get the title line, clumsily applied: “You cheat! Now show that to your husband!”

The rest pretty much plays out the same. She shoots Livingstone—wings him--hubby comes across the scene and takes the blame. In court, husband and wife do everything to hide the scandal. They’re basically fighting to keep losing. Once she comes clean, Livingstone looks awful, the mob looks to lynch him, and they win.

The silent movie ended with the couple walking triumphant out of the courtroom. This version gives us a jokey epilogue in a tavern where, at one point, she says “You bet,” he waggles a finger at her and says, “No more betting,” and she swears nothing but double solitaire. Oof.

It’s still a more coherent movie than the 1915 version; but it could’ve used more Porter Hall.

Mad to live
Did Jack Kerouac ever see this movie? At one point, hubby tells Elsa he loves her and she responds:

Even if, at times, I do things that don’t please you? Mad things? Because you know, Jeffrey, I am mad. Mad about living. Things going around—I love them: ferris wheels, train wheels, roulette wheels.

Cf. Kerouac: “…mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing …”

That wouldn’t have been a bad description for Tallulah Bankhead. I’d heard of her, of course, but didn’t know her story. She was a big hit on London’s West End in the 1920s and Broadway in the 1930s. She was also famous for giving days-long parties, with or without clothes. She had a deep voice, a love of cigarettes and bourbon, called everybody “darling,” and was apparently one of the models for Cruella de Ville, but she didn’t translate well to the big screen. Her ‘30s titles were indicative of the roles Hollywood gave her: “Tarnished Lady,” “My Sin,” “Faithless,” “The Cheat.” She seems way more interesting than all that. Her last screen role was Black Widow on TV’s “Batman.” She died in 1968.

I’d never heard of Irving Pichel before but what a life: actor, and then director, and then one of the Hollywood 19—the 19 members of the Hollywood community who were accused of being communists and undermining America and were brought before HUAC in 1947. Well, 10 were brought forward; Pichel didn’t make the cut. He was blacklisted nonetheless and survived by working in B pictures, then in Europe, but—like John Garfield—he died young of heart troubles. Both Wiki and IMDb add that after his death someone fingered him as a communist, or a one-time communist, but no word on how any of it might have manifested itself in his work. Was he undermining America with his narration for “How Green Was My Valley” and “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon,” or for the WWII propaganda films “Know Your Ally: Britain” and “December 7th”? How about as director of “O.S.S.” or “Martin Luther”? To look at what he was accused of vs. what he produced is to know the absurdity of the blacklist.

The movie’s director was George Abbott, who only has 15 film credits because he was too busy on Broadway. Among his shows: “Chicago” (1926), “Twentieth Century,” “Pal Joey,” “On the Town,” “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” “The Pajama Game,” “Damn Yankees,” and “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.” He lived to be 107. The film’s screenwriter, Harry Hervey, was a reporter for the Atlanta Constitution, and a world traveler, who wrote books and screenplays, and died young. He was born 13 years after Abbott and died 44 years before him, in 1951, age 50. Don’t know if there’s a lesson there.

Publicity shots have Bankhead branded on her upper back ...

... but the movie reversed it.

Posted at 12:33 PM on Monday January 02, 2023 in category Movie Reviews - 1930s   |   Permalink  
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