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Night Life of the Gods (1935)
Whimsy turned to stone
A one-of-a-kind comic fantasy from the pen of Thorne Smith, creator of "Topper", this strained whimsy has eccentric playboy Alan Mowbray invent a magic ring that turns people to stone. After rendering his annoying family into marble, he spends the night drinking with leprechauns, and then visits New York's Metropolitan museum, where he throws his ring into reverse and brings to life the statues of ancient Greek gods. Hectic shenanigans ensue when they all check into the Waldorf-Astoria hotel: Bacchus drinks rubbing alcohol, Venus de Milo acquires arms, Neptune starts a slapstick fight in a fish market, and so on. More witty than funny, the movie is afloat with Prohibition-era tipsy jokes, but manages to get an occasional naughty touch past the Hays Code restrictions. Mowbray captures the right energy and manic glint in his eye, and an imperturbable butler wins some laughs, but the others give overly broad performances that are comic, but in the wrong way. At this point in history, the curiosity value and Art Deco sets exceed the entertainment, or maybe they've now become the entertainment.
Okuman choja (1954)
Hilarious satire of postwar Japan
This scathing satire plays like Ichikawa's attempt to slap Japan out of its postwar malaise. A hopelessly naïve junior tax collector crosses paths with an assortment of quirky characters, including a young woman working on a home-made A-bomb, a spoon tycoon on his way to the U.S., a poor boy aspiring to become a movie star, and a fast-talking geisha scheming to extort corrupt politicians. A running joke throughout is the absurd overpopulation: everyone seems to have an absolute minimum of twelve children. This consistently original work remains fresh and funny, thanks to vigorous performances and Ichikawa's precise framing.
The Vice Squad (1931)
Effective drama about moral choice
Intelligent drama benefits from literate script and a sensitive central performance by Paul Lukas, well cast as a diplomat blackmailed by corrupt vice cops into entrapping prostitutes. Lukas nicely balances a shabby gentility with despair as he's driven to drink in lowdown Greenwich Village dives to forget his "dirty" job. Choosing between sleek Kay Francis and blonde Judith Wood presents a romantic dilemma paralleling the moral decision he must make. Esther Howard--a longtime character actress and Preston Sturges favorite--here looks unrecognizably youthful as a salty-tongued artist's model.
Dangerous Paradise (1930)
Tropical trouble for luminous Nancy Carroll
This early talkie, like a pencil sketch of the famous Maurice Tourneur silent, preposterously reduces Conrad's "Victory" to a Nancy Carroll vehicle. But don't blame her: she gives a characteristically warm and nuanced performance, the best in the film, as a downtrodden violin-player in an all-girl band in Surabaya (now, why didn't Joseph Conrad think of that?),
William Wellman directs in rough-and-ready style, emphasizing leering melodrama, yet produces few pre-code thrills. The weakest link here is Wellman favorite Richard Arlen, even more awkward than he was in WINGS; playing Heyst as Joe College in a tropical white suit, who just happens to enjoy living alone on an island, he drains the central role of conflict and complexity.
In this company, the villains have ample room to shine: Warner Oland works hard at threatening the leading lady's virtue (as does most of the cast), but only Gustav von Seyffertitz, in a stylish black cloak and using Bela Lugosi's vowels, suggests the corruption and wit of Conrad's creation.
The tropical flavor of Surabaya comes down to hula dancers and Hawaiian music, but Archie Stout provides some effective lighting and keeps his shaky-cam moving. While the plot resolution will please only fans of routine Hollywood endings, Nancy Carroll at her peak is always worth a look.
Der junge Medardus (1923)
Early spectacle from Michael Curtiz
This patriotic Austrian costume drama, about the martyr Medardus who opposed Napoleon's occupation of Vienna in 1809, helped to earn Michael Curtiz (then Kertesz) his ticket to Hollywood and a long, productive career.
The plot proceeds in a series of confrontations with Medardus, his mother and sister, the blind exiled Count of Valois, his ambitious daughter, and Napoleon himself (portrayed as a cool strategist), including several brief flashbacks. The romantic element pits Medardus --the blond Mikhail Verkonyi,who became Victor Varconi in Hollywood, working often for DeMille and Borzage-- in a love-hate relationship with the Valois daughter. The result makes for tight-lipped entertainment, too steely and humorless to succeed as human drama, but interesting for Curtiz's handling of spectacle.
Curiously, whether in military parades or court pageantry or epic battles, Curtiz never once moves his camera. Each setup is cemented in place, although Curtiz stages plenty of movement within the frame, especially marshaling his armies in combat, adding inventive use of smoke effects, and ultimately achieving a genuine sense of spectacle. Only once, when the cavalry charges toward a ground-level camera, does this film suggest the dynamism of Curtiz's CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE. Also, from the director of Errol Flynn's most thrilling swordfights, a dueling sequence here offers remarkably disappointing swordplay, filmed in basic one-shots.
Among the numerous locations -- forests, the banks of the Danube, Schoenbrunn palace-- it is startling to glimpse the Josefsplatz, the square outside Harry Lime's flat which would form the epicenter of THE THIRD MAN a quarter century later.
In the end, the non-moving camera, combined with the enormous chunks of dialogue that clog the titles, suggest an illustrated text, elaborate but uncompelling, rather than the best of Curtiz's later work.
Plucky Colleen Moore wins love and stardom
An example of an improbable genre, this silent musical, released for Christmas 1926, makes an agreeable light entertainment, at least until it collapses into a subplot of virginity threatened. As a vehicle for Colleen Moore, who personified flaming youth in a series of jazz-age comedies, it illustrates how this star's image sidestepped the sexual challenge of contemporaries like Clara Bow and Joan Crawford.
Here, in a project that she guided herself, she goes blonde as an aspiring dancer, devoted to her dear old Dad, tempted by an unhappily married local boxer, but targeted by a leering seducer. Throughout this plot, set in Cockney London, her working-class heroine remains good-hearted, relentlessly perky, yet fundamentally innocent. She leaps into a street melee, climbs ladders, rescues a child from a beating, and slugs a disbeliever in her stardom. (Throughout four dance numbers, Moore neither disgraces nor distinguishes herself.)
Director Charles Brabin works up some flavorful Limehouse atmosphere, staging a spirited street brawl for the opening. However, only one sequence- a romantic scene on a stairway when Moore realizes that she loves the boxer -reveals distinctive cinematic choices. The visual sophistication seen in Brabin's MASK OF FU MANCHU in 1932 is absent, apart from some prism shots to express a state of tipsiness.
Among the routinely sentimental figures, Gladys Brockwell hits a strikingly realistic note as the hero's snarling drunken wife, but the character of "Roseleaf", the producer who threatens Moore's virtue, has an anti-semitic subtext that seems borderline offensive (Warner Oland would redeem his role the next year by playing Al Jolson's rabbi father in THE JAZZ SINGER).
The Single Standard (1929)
Garbo blooms in graceful romance
Silent film veteran John Stuart Robertson, once called the most well-liked director in Hollywood, had already guided John Barrymore , Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish in major projects. Here, under his sensitive direction, Garbo blooms in a relaxed and radiant performance, as she never did in her stodgy Clarence Brown vehicles. Was Robertson the silents counterpart of Cukor?
As a socialite seeking to "live honestly", Garbo first has a frank dalliance with her chauffeur, then meets artist Nils Asther--who apparently lives in an art gallery and paints exactly like Gauguin--and impulsively decides to sail to the South Seas on his yacht (although we only see Catalina, Robertson conveys a bracing sun-and-salt air quality from the shipboard locations). Returning to a somewhat scandalized reception in San Francisco, she marries local dullard John Mack Brown; meanwhile, the artist travels to "fever-haunted" China (where his hair inexplicably develops a white streak). Her final conflict is to choose between mothering her darling son or running away with the love of her life. What would Louis B. Mayer do?
Despite some talk about the "philosophy of love" and the injustice of the double standard, this is hardly Tolstoy: the film stays within the conventions of a novelette, never seriously threatening the social status quo. Still, the pleasures are many: graceful direction and nicely underplayed acting throughout, plus Garbo, at the peak of her beauty, in an elegantly tailored Adrian wardrobe, giving one of her most appealing performances.
Pabst pictures a marriage-in-crisis
Just before his two masterworks with Louise Brooks, Pabst directed this provocative study of an upper-class woman's sexual frustration. Neglected by her work-obsessed husband, Brigitte Helm falls in with a fast crowd of Berlin nightclub denizens (the "wrong turn" of the title), toying with an artist and a boxer as potential lovers. Pabst sketches this milieu in terms of consumption of cigarettes, liquor, and drugs, but it looks considerably more realistic than the garish cartoon decadence of CABARET and its imitators. A highlight of a lengthy nightclub sequence is some amusing play around the erotic impact of a backless evening gown. If Helm writhes with coiled intensity in almost every scene, she still creates a credible psychological portrait. While the plot devolves into a can-this-marriage-be-saved? formula, Pabst sustains interest through expert framing and shrewdly chosen gestures: thus, the act of dividing a pastry comes to represent the possibility of divorce. An intelligently adult resolution, offering no easy answers, adds to the film's stature.
Sweet Adeline (1934)
Soaring songs, sputtering story
Chock full of sweet melodies by Jerome Kern, this lavish period musical takes Irene Dunne from Hoboken to Broadway, but in a tin-lizzie of a plot. Set in 1898, in a world of beer gardens and theatres, the film works up plenty of nostalgia -- with horseless carriages, Edison's new "pho-no-graph", and even an audition by "that Jolson kid" ["He'll never get anywhere"]--but self-consciously drops these references in like lead weights. Meanwhile, the screenwriter tries out a tiresome conflict of stage career vs. disapproving papa, then a wholly disposable spy subplot, and finally settles on a dull love triangle.
Irene Dunne supplies much-needed star authority to hold it together, but seems baffled that she has no plausible leading man - where is Cary Grant? -- and no plausible scenes to play. Still, she is a professional, and delivers a surprisingly affecting "Why Was I Born?" In return, she enjoys a knockout wardrobe in white organza and feathers from Orry-Kelly
But what pallid consorts she gets! The erstwhile leading man is Donald Woods, an estimable actor [memorable as Bette Davis' brother in WATCH ON THE RHINE], but here positively evaporating off the screen whenever a stronger personality shares the scene. His songwriter character, when allowed a frame to himself, comes off as callow and egotistical. In the third corner of this love triangle, Louis Calhern-moustachios a-twirl-- plays a military recruiter for Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders, but also fades into the scenery.
Luckily, the music keeps coming, one verging-on-operetta tune after another, staged with a clear Busby Berkeley influence. An amusing Sultan's palace number has a basso trying to sing through the chaos of rehearsal. There's a beer garden singalong of "Polka Dots"; a parade of hansom cabs for "Twas Not So Long Ago"; and hordes of dancers in chiffon enact "Lonely Feet". Appealing Irish tenor Phil Regan [why didn't HE play the lead?] joins Irene Dunne in a country bower filled with flowers, swans, twinkling stars and girls on daisy-swings in "We Were So Young". Finally, and imaginatively, a torn-up score is used for a charming ending with "Don't Ever Leave Me". [Yes, the title tune --not by Kern---is briefly sung.] Throughout, Sol Polito's camera tracks from pretty pastorals to hard-edged dance numbers, but always bathes Irene Dunne in flatteringly soft light for big juicy movie-star closeups.
The heroes behind the scene are the editors at Warners, chopaholics in the 1930's, who made every frame of film fight to stay in the picture. This produced razor-fast comedies [like FIVE STAR FINAL] and gangster operas [like BULLETS OR BALLOTS], while protecting the product from harried and unimaginative directors. [Indeed, when director Mervyn LeRoy moved to MGM, his films slowed to a lumbering pace]. Here, the editors relax for the leisurely musical numbers, but seize their scissors again every time the plot surfaces, winning our applause for speeding us through the creaky parts.
Devil and the Deep (1932)
Tallulah Bankhead takes charge in intense melodrama
Paramount, at the height of its sophistication in the early 30's, could recycle its sets from MOROCCO and fashion a stylish production out of a passable triangle melodrama. Unfulfilled wife Tallulah Bankhead --frustrated at home, humiliated in front of her social set by her pathologically jealous husband -- stumbles into an Arab marketplace crowded with whirling dervishes, and into the arms of Gary Cooper for a romantic liaison under the desert stars. Conflicts ensue, of course, and then all three find themselves on a crippled submarine.
Viewers who know Tallulah Bankhead only from her caricatured role in LIFEBOAT will be startled by her intensity and bruised glamour: slouching in Travis Banton gowns, she looks sometimes like Garbo, sometimes like "Margo Channing". Meanwhile, she gives a crash course in how to hold a melodrama together, commanding every scene, inflecting every line with subtle nuances. When she must deal with menacing Charles Laughton, the air between them vibrates with tension. Laughton [billed as "the eminent English character actor"] does his share as well, but he seems mannered in a familiar way, a dry run for his Captain Bligh.
Only the radiant young Cary Grant in a dazzling naval uniform steals attention from the leading lady in a brief appearance. Gary Cooper, though persuasive as the romantic hero, soon gets submerged in a disappointingly shallow character.
The eye is seduced by cameraman Charles Lang's repertoire of shadows, the heart is stirred by a star performance, but in the end the head may resist: the terse dialogue tries for Hemingway but remains stubbornly pedestrian and remarkably humorless: the script owes its sole laugh to Bankhead's line reading while buying a billiard cue. The devil is in the dialogue!