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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
JUST AROUND THE CORNER is a rather lavish commercial for General Electric appliances, circa 1933-4. Not only was the print we saw in pristine condition, but the subtle casting of Warner Brothers players in a fairly commonplace tale of the little homemaker impressing the boss's wife and then the boss himself provides enough delight to recommend this short subject to anyone. Ruth Donnelly portrays the impressionable wife to boss Warren William, and both become deeply convinced of the superiority and efficiency of GE appliances, as ably demonstrated by non-other than Bette Davis as the dedicated homemaker. Bette is so confidently persuasive, as she calmly demonstrates each unique feature that she manages to sell the boss on both a new kitchen and promoting hubby Dick Powell to the coveted office manager position! More amazing than this achievement, Bette Davis effortlessly convinces the audience that she loves and adores her husband and that she will stop at nothing to promote and encourage his career.
My brother and I loved both this show and HANK, but hardly anyone else watched them. We didn't understand this, because CAMP RUNAMUCK was wacky and hilarious! It was always the girls against the guys, but I don't recall one single child actor, if there were any it's news to me now. This show was about the adults! Arch Johnson was the head counselor and his staff always seemed to be unprepared and hung over, while each morning the over-achieving girls' camp across the lake would wake up the boys' camp singing "Good morning, to you, good morning, to you!!!" Alice Nunn was a formidable adversary for the men, and every time she'd get that look of revenge in her eye, Nina Wayne would breathily say "Ohhh, Mahala May!" Ketchum and Madden were a riot, and yes, every time Madden saw Nina Wayne (or any dishy woman), he'd shake, rattle and discombobulate, and Kethcum (or some one) would actually smack him and Madden would say "Thanks, I needed that!" Man, it sure sounds silly, but it was fast-paced and I think we kids thought all the lousy adult behavior was the funniest thing on earth, well every Friday night, that is, until they canceled it, which was pretty quickly. Would love to see this again!
What a treat to see such an unexpectedly saucy picture. SWEETHEARTS AND WIVES is a true romp of a sex farce, delightfully frank and featuring performances filled with genuine joy and colorful flourishes. Of particular interest are the provocative and engaging character turns by Clive Brook and especially by that canny ingenue, Leila Hyams. Hyams plays a married woman about to cheat on her husband, and at all times she manages to balance moral outrage with intriguing randy-ness. Both her contempt for her own situation and her game ability to play along with the farce are quite contemporary, and thoroughly charming, making one wonder why Hyams rarely got more challenging material to work with. Of the four main characters, leading man Sidney Blackmer is the least distinctive, although he seems much more committed to his playing than I've seen in many other films he's done, and he is certainly having a good time. Star-above-the-title Billie Dove, still gorgeous and with a fine, melodic speaking voice, begins her performance in cultured Hollywood French, and it is a relief when, fairly early on in the plot, she is given great reason to drop the French Maid act, and this is when SWEETHEARTS AND WIVES takes off as a sophisticated hoot. One of the most distinctive of those "colorful flourishes" is brought by the often stone cold stoic Clive Brook. In this picture, he plays a Divorce Detective, and he races with his role, having an enormously ripping good time brandishing a long cigarette holder and making smoking resemble the occupation hinted at by Lady Bracknell in THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING ERNEST.
A real surprise and a delight, that is, if you enjoy the Cinderella stories of the 1920s. I always do, so long as they are nicely played, and THE LOVE TRAP has enough distinction to recommend it very highly. Charming and entertaining as a fluid silent, there are many marvelous visual touches, particularly the choreography involving synchronized taxi cabs. Unexpectedly, THE LOVE TRAP retains this graceful pace when the picture begins talking at about the half-way point. The second half is so engaging one really does forget that the first half was such a terrific silent picture. Star Laura La Plante is her wonderful, pert, pretty self, effortlessly carrying the silent style with a seemless transition into the heroine speaking the rest of her role. Of particular note and enjoyment is the handsome leading man, the future Commissioner Gordon on TV's BATMAN, Neil Hamilton. Though called upon to behave like a first rate schmoo at one point during the plot, Hamilton is a first rate smooth comedian, both silent and talking. For being a relatively innocuous "Cinderella" tale, THE LOVE TRAP packs in some fun little moments of sexual intrigue, such as when the snootie sister, Rita La Roy, tells the family she cannot be bothered with La Plante's sordid situation, and as the family leaves, she climbs the stairs, soon followed by a slyly winking butler.
No one said it was going to be a special thing, but seeing a screening of this incredibly and unexpectedly entertaining, albeit highly improbable, TECHNICOLOR yarn truly was special. Of the so-called Universal "Tits & Sand" Maria Montez Easterns, GYPSY WILDCAT was a departure in that there was very little, if any, sand. "Lush" is the first thing I would say in describing the effect of seeing this gorgeous, no, breath-taking print (screened in Bay City, MI) in color like I'd never seen before. Maria Montez keeps on most of her clothes, even managing to keep the mid-riff covered for much of the running time, and although she isn't much of an actress, she is gorgeous (no, breath-taking!), and she knows how to handle the stuff they've laid out for her to do. Jon Hall operates at a more active, swashbuckling level, and he seems to be having a much better time than a lot of the others in the cast, although I'm not so sure he carries the action so much as the action carries him along on a sort of Errol Flynn-school bubble. When the camera is not fixed on this couple, the entire film is sort of passed along from character actor to character actor, as if they are passing off the baton. Taking things mighty seriously are Leo Carillo and especially Gale Sondergaard, who literally runs the show for the entire climactic gypsy revolt sequence. Her craftsmanlike control during this portion of the film is as much a special effect from these escapist Montez vehicles as the technicolor, or the star's costume changes for Montez. The money went into the color, and the spectacle went into the colorful costuming (by Vera West, who apparently threw open the circus trunks). For all its technicolor marvel, GYPSY WILDCAT isn't a heavily populated opus, nor are the sets terribly unique to any one genre (or film), in fact, it was a losing effort trying to figure out GYPSY WILDCAT's intended time period. I love how James M. Cain has the screenplay credit, with additional dialogue by Joseph Hoffman. All I want to know is, what screenplay, and what additional dialogue? But no matter, it is a fun picture. Douglas Dumbrille and Peter Coe are also quite serious about their very different assignments, and both leave you wishing they'd had larger roles, especially the unexpectedly dashing Coe, who gets to share a few smoldering shots with Montez before Hall shows up. Best of all, Nigel Bruce sputters forth the ham like company's comin' for dinner, and lucky for us he does! Just when the great Nigel seems to be on the verge of silliness, he grabs that baton and leads the picture into the exciting finish! Go, GYPSY WILDCAT!
Of the 28 films listed as being directed by John H. Collins, only 3 did not star his wife, Viola Dana (isn't IMDb fantastic?), and of the 15 scenarios credited to his writing skills, only one (the unconfirmed one) did not star Dana. What's more, between 1915 and 1919, only three of Viola Dana's films were not directed by Collins, who died of the flu at the age of 29 in 1918. If the well-constructed, highly entertaining THE INNOCENCE OF RUTH is any indication, the artistic partnership of Dana & Collins deserves a higher rank in the movie books. Viola Dana is completely convincing as a spunky, pretty teen who becomes the ward of a wealthy, unmarried, and relatively young man. Familiar territory, like DADDY LONG LEGS, only told in somewhat darker terms. Not only Ruth's innocence is threatened, but her benefactor's fortune and good name. As a film, RUTH's strongest assets are great pace, intriguing subplots, and a cast where every character has a shady, questionable side. It being a moderately budgeted 1916 production, there is hardly anything fancy here, no tremendous sets, no more than modest, serviceable settings and costuming. When all of society turns up for Ruth's special evening of dancing (not much of it, and not much good at that), there is no establishing shot of a large society audience, just a brief scene of Ruth with a small group of matrons heading out to get their seats. An important player of the 1920s, Viola Dana would find further successes (and further tragedy), starring in Metro's ROUGED LIPS (23); MERTON OF THE MOVIES (24); and the wonderful (and available) OPEN ALL NIGHT (24), sans sausage curls and now playing the wronged wife, and no longer so quick to defend her innocence. Capra's THAT CERTAIN THING (28) is being restored, and there is a marvelous turn with her sister Shirley Mason, an actress of similar career path with not a dot less of historical significance, in the all-star scatter-fest SHOW OF SHOWS (29), and you can still see the smiling, spunky, girlish RUTH of 1916 shining through.
Of the four photos I have been able to locate of the actress portraying A SMALL TOWN PRINCESS, Sennett stock company player Madeline Hurlock, not one of them did her justice or even remotely captured the beauty, charm, and dead-pan magnificence of this lady. The four photos present a vamp or an exotic, someone unapproachable, but Hurlock was really doing her subtle best to vamp that 1920s type. The lead, Billy Bevan, is certainly good, and easily carries this detailed, very funny short (set in a small town, and quickly moving on to a Sennett inspired netherworld of Hollywood and of filmmaking), but for me, the revelation was discovering this bewitching, dark-eyed actress. Hurlock was what the Silent's Majority called "the wittiest of Sennett's beauties" and, according to them, she went on to marry famous writers Marc Connelly, and later Robert E. Sherwood (from 1935 until his death in '55). Hurlock herself retired from pictures in 1928, and when you size up her credits, she appeared in only one feature, and the rest Sennett shorts supporting the likes of Bevan, Andy Clyde, Harry Langdon, and Ben Turpin. She worked for a who's who of directors like Roy del Ruth, Lloyd Bacon, Eddie Cline, Del Lord, Harry Edwards, Edgar Kennedy, and some of the pieces she played in were even written by Frank Capra. A lot of beautiful, talented women worked for Sennett, but I never expected to sit up and take serious note of this woman I'd never heard of before seeing her so expertly dead-pan her way through A SMALL TOWN PRINCESS.
The four leads are nothing short of miraculous, and calling them great simply isn't enough. Remarkable, legendary Charlie Murray plays the lanky, rubber-faced, temper-prone career police officer Kelly, and beaming, robust, beer-lovin' Kate Price, that absolute first choice among Irish Mums during the 1920s, is the Missus. George Sidney is the proud Nathan Cohen, a squat-stocky, blustering, hair-yanking businessman, while pleasantly plump, dark-eyed, forever worrying Vera Gordon plays Mrs. Cohen (she brings hand-wringing to new levels!) THE COHENS AND THE KELLYS is, for the most part, about the perfect casting of these four leading roles, so successful it spawned a series of sequels (and in true Hollywood fashion, George Sidney is the only member of this original quartet to appear in all of the sequels). Kelly and Cohen are funny enough on their own, but add wives, the offspring, and then (not being content) even the family pets, all competing with one another in a great and gusto-laced rivalry, we have a film that generously lives up to its promotional tagline - "An Uproarious Knockout! -- A Thousand Laughs!" Fortune smiles on the Cohens, who move rapidly up in the world and into a fancy, spacious mansion, and the rivalry is jumped a notch. Now, all along there has been a secret relationship between their eldest offspring, police officer Jason Robards, Sr. as the Junior Kelly, and "Nannie" Cohen, played by attractive Universal contract player Olive Hasbrouck, and this BRIDGET LOVES BERNIE/ABIE'S IRISH ROSE sub-plot plays itself out to the expected sentimental yet humorous conclusion. The pace is fast, the jokes are, indeed, very funny, and the cast is marvelous (including skinny, cranky Nat Carr as a business associate). The unavoidable stereo-types you will expect (this picture was screened for a highly appreciative audience at last year's Syracuse festival) prove hilarious and warmly, timelessly entertaining.
Okay, it's the future and we only have the films we have, and thus, SICK ABED (1920) must be elevated to important status, if only for the two stars, Wallace Reid and Bebe Daniels, and its director, Sam Wood. Star appeal, star power, there's no question that it carries this picture. Reid was the forerunner to today's American light comedic lead, through Jimmy Stewart to Tom Hanks. Everything they said about him shines through here, the warmth, naturalness, the timing, the joviality, the athletic confidence, the Arrow-Collar looks. He's a forgotten original, and SICK ABED's not a bad example of his particular speciality. No less important, and much longer lasting, Bebe Daniels was smack dab in the middle of her featured player period, after her years with Harold Lloyd, and before her reign as one of the most popular screen comediennes of the late 20s, and she's marvelously cool and beautiful as the cool and beautiful nurse hired to look after a patient who is only faking a nervous breakdown. The reasons for this aren't terribly vital, it's a light play with plenty of doctors and lawyers, and a modest amount of mistaken identities and misunderstood intentions. The director kept things cracking, and the cast is fine, including the dependable Tully Marshall, and another enjoyable, eccentric turn by Lucien Littlefield. I'm told that Wallace Reid made much better movies than SICK ABED, and I know Bebe Daniels certainly did, but as an example of early 1920s romantic farce, and especially considering how few films of that era still exist, this one is in terrific shape, so it really is a more important film now, and deserves to be seen by more audiences.
The perfect title for this comedy short, not to mention for Al St. John's overall comedic "style." Take any and all opportunity to watch Al St. John's work, especially during this period. The man was impressively, remarkably original. I think what amazed me even more was how contemporary he seemed, as if he were some distant Carradine cousin, or a fore-runner to Jim Carrey. At this point in his career, he resembles a blonde, 1960s surfer dude, and being a lanky 5' 8", he looks a lot taller. Having trained with the Sennett gang in support to Fatty Arbuckle (it says he was a nephew), the physical comedy is peerless and expertly athletic. Fully capable as an actor, I've seen him play bits and small roles in many different genres, including the rare part-talkie SHE GOES TO WAR, where even though I cared little for the character he was playing, I had to admit he did a fearless job and gave it all he had. Thank God for westerns, for not long after Talkies came in St. John moved over to this genre and pretty much stayed there until the Fifties, often using other professional names. Check out the IMDb list of those names, then look down that long list of film credits and watch out for the comedy shorts of the early 20s, you will not be disappointed.
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