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God's Gift to Women (1931)
No, he isn't, but he ain't bad
Having read the 700-page biography of Barbara Stanwyck, which only goes up to 1941, I'm not inclined toward sympathy for her first husband Frank Fay, who stars in this Warners bedroom farce. He was arrogant and possibly abusive, and you can see his career in free- fall here. But he's not bad. As an irresistible Don Juan in Paris, which is itself a bit of a stretch, he has a good way with a comic line and is expert at physical comedy. You don't know why Laura La Plante, Joan Blondell, and Louise Brooks, among others, are all fighting over him, but director Michael Curtiz sustains the action nicely, and the Deco costumes and sets are a treat. There's also the nice additional pleasure of a "Show Boat" connection: Leading lady La Plante, who's charming, had recently been Magnolia in the first film version, and Charles Winninger, the stage Captain Andy who repeated his role in the 1936 version, is her dad. He's quite different here, and good.
Capra does Back Street
"Junk that I wrote myself," Capra opines in his autobiography; he actually just wrote the story, Jo Swerling turned it into a screenplay. He's right about the junk, though. It's very Fannie Hurst, with a plot similar to "Back Street": Librarian Stanwyck falls head over heels for politician Menjou on a Havana cruise, unaware that he's married, and bears his daughter and remains his mistress, on and off. Obviously it couldn't have been made post- Code, and the essential seaminess of the material is delectable. Menjou didn't get to play a lot of romantic leads, and based on this one, that's probably a good thing; he's just not very desirable or likable, and it needs a Gary Cooper or Clark Gable to make sense. What's good about it is, first of all, Babs, who invests her stock role with a lot of individuality, and the ambiguity of the three leads: he, she, and Ralph Bellamy, as the city editor who loves her, all have positive and negative character traits, and aren't whittled down to stereotypes. Capra's direction is way better than his writing, and the ending is suitably Stella Dallas- bittersweet. Also entertaining: some truly awful old-age makeup.
Vigil in the Night (1940)
A noble bore
A.J. Cronin's frustration and anger with the medical profession had translated to the screen so well with "The Citadel," and while some of those themes reverberate in this treatment of another novel of his, it's hardly its cinematic equal. George Stevens, better known at this point for comedies and musicals, heaps nobility upon nobility in this cloying tale of a devoted British nurse (Carole Lombard, sans British accent) and her far less devoted nurse sister (Anne Shirley) and their frustrations and challenges in several hospitals, including hypocritical rich patrons, lack of funds, unsympathetic bureaucracy, and smallpox. It opens with the death of an innocent child, no less, and Stevens thrusts the camera right up in the lad's face, the better to make us weep. It continues with similar emotional manipulation--adorable innocent kids suffering, dark hospital corridors, sneering colleagues. Carole's good--when wasn't she?--and Anne's pretty good, too, and Peter Cushing, as her unfortunate spouse, is quite good. A romance between Carole and impossibly noble doctor Brian Aherne is so stifled as to barely be there, and the slurpy music keeps telling us how to feel every damn minute. Some very nice cinematography, and I'll watch Carole in anything, but as an indictment of medical hypocrisies, it's slow and obvious.
Man Wanted (1932)
Provocative little Warners B that seems to enjoy playing with sexual mores, and presenting an unusually strong leading-lady character. That's Kay Francis, stalking around in high fashion and playing a driven magazine-editor lady, much like Liza Elliott in "Lady in the Dark." She hires a lowly but ambitious (and Harvard grad) David Manners as secretary, cueing the male-secretary jokes, and he's too much of a gentleman to admit to her or himself that he's falling in love with her. Which is a disaster, because, with plot knots that could never survive the Production Code, she's married to rich-but-worthless Kenneth Thomson, and he's engaged to demanding-and-annoying Una Merkel. The script merrily untangles the knots by making little to no judgment on Thomson's philandering, and suggesting that out-of-wedlock relations are just fine, as long as they result in divorce and marriage to the right partner. Manners is, as always, gentlemanly and photogenic (and Gregg Toland's photography makes the most of both the leading players), and the story has a nice feminist bent to it--it never castigates Francis for wandering far afield of expected feminine subservience, though it does eventually suggest that she and Manners will exist as equals, not dominating-woman-passive-man. It's pleasant, swift-moving pre-Code, capably directed by William Dieterle and very nice to look at.
Night Court (1932)
MGM goes Warners, not altogether successfully
Nicely pre-Code but rather hack-written MGM programmer, wherein nice blue-collar cabby Phillips Holmes and nice wifey Anita Page come under the heavy thumb of Judge Walter Huston, who's incredibly corrupt. Huston, with a dashing mustache, relishes his bad-guy histrionics, and it's fun to see Metro toiling in the lower-class provenance of Warners. But the social consciousness is awkward: Huston's so all-bad and enemy Lewis Stone so all-good that these good actors can't do much to make their roles interesting, while the always-too-pretty Holmes is given to some theatrical, unconvincing soliloquizing. We're also asked to sympathize with and root for him when he kidnaps Huston, gags him, ties him to a chair, and beats him up. Virtue does triumph; we know because there's a shot of a newspaper headline saying something like "Vice Banished Forever from City, D.A. Says." There's also an annoyingly cute baby. W.S. Van Dyke directs at about half the pace Mervyn LeRoy or Howard Hawks would have employed at Warners, and Page is given to scene after scene of screaming and wailing. It's fun as a time capsule, but other studios, notably Warners, were handling material like this with much more finesse.
Pagan Love Song (1950)
The most minor of Arthur Freed's minor MGM musicals, and one suspects he took it on because it showcased his (rather pedestrian) lyrics. It's a Tahitian treat, by present-day standards astonishingly racist, with the happy, stupid natives bowing and doing the bidding of Howard Keel, an Ohio teacher who has inherited a dilapidated tropical estate, and Esther Williams, who keeps saying she's through-and-through Tahitian and has dusky makeup to back it up, but comes equipped with a Nebraska accent and seems incapable of playing anything but American. About the most dramatic thing that happens is it rains, and Keel and Williams squabble and make up, while a very young Rita Moreno schemes to get them back together. The two stars look terrific, Keel runs around shirtless most of the time, the Harry Warren melodies are very easy to take, and Esther's one underwater ballet displays Technicolor hues that will probably never be seen again. The storytelling's lazy and condescending, Robert Alton is not a natural-born director, and inconsequential doesn't begin to describe it. For all that, it's fun and tuneful and unpretentious, and you may even enjoy the over-simplistic world view of 1950.
Darling Lili (1970)
Not so darling
Famous big-flop from the Bluhdorn era at Paramount, and it shares some aspects with that other big Paramount flop of the era, "Paint Your Wagon." Both are essentially square musicals that try to be hip. This one tries by messing with Julie Andrews' image: She's a World War 1 spy for the Germans, and she's looser than the Maria von Trapp standard she set: When Rock Hudson, as the flyer who's romancing her, suggests she might be a virgin, she slaps him. Blake Edwards, about to marry her, must have loved the thought of giving the world a new Julie Andrews, but he made some serious mistakes. I find her chemistry with Hudson, counter to some other commenters, just fine. But making her a Mata Hari-type spy leaves us unsure of whom to root for. There's never any mention of how many Allied plots she reported to the Germans, how many Allied deaths she might have caused. And to maintain a persuasive cover, she's always entertaining the Allied troops. But the character is not a heroine, and the ending--she devotes herself to entertaining and raising money for the Allies--is impossible. We wouldn't just forgive Mata Hari, we'd put her before a firing squad. Edwards lengthens the movie with some exciting aerial sequences, a pair of sub-Clousseau French detectives, and much footage of Rock and Julie kissing. It's shot beautifully, and some nice songs are scattered about, including "Whistling in the Dark," a typically lovely minor-key Mancini melody set to an uncharacteristically pointless Mercer lyric. It keeps the eye and ear occupied, but never engages the heart.
The Painted Woman (1932)
Safe in Heck
That's what a friend called this early talkie, screened in Syracuse at the ultimate Cinefest, noting its similarities to the contemporary Dorothy Mackail vehicle "Safe in Hell." Both deal with young women, no better than they should be, who get mixed up with murder and hide out in remote islands, this one near Singapore. Peggy Shannon, who has a Mackail-like toughness-mixed- with-vulnerability, is quite good as "Kiddo" (we never know her real name), who's kept by no- good ship captain William Boyd until they're separated. In a tropical not-quite-paradise, she's wooed by equally no-good Irving Pichel and regular guy Spencer Tracy, who's excellent here-- he's convincingly working-class and still has dirt under his fingernails, unlike his later MGM self. There's loads of atmosphere, and pacing quicker than the average 1932 Fox, thanks to director Henry King. And it made me want to see more of Peggy Shannon.
Heart to Heart (1928)
Mary gets to cut loose, and she's a vision
Charming silent comedy, wherein Mary Astor, a Midwesterner who somehow became an impoverished Italian princess, decides to visit her old hometown, and Aunt Louise Fazenda and Uncle Lucien Littlefield. For plot reasons not worth going into, she infiltrates the household and at first impersonates a dressmaker, and reestablishes contact with old flame Lloyd Hughes. Complications, as they say, ensue, and the happy ending's never far away. After playing so many heavy-breathing romantic leads, this must have been a pick-me-up for Mary, who's gorgeous and spirited, and she's well paired opposite the unassuming Hughes. There's a lovely small-town atmosphere, the title cards are witty, and it has pace.
Out All Night (1933)
Pleasant Slim and ZaSu
Slim's an incredibly mother-dominated good boy, and ZaSu's a dithering nurse-spinster, in this pleasant teaming. What gives it some juice is that his mom is Laura Hope Crews, just coming off the very serious "The Silver Cord," and she's more than willing to have some fun. It's also quite pre-Code, with the couple's marital coupling interrupted by Mama's machinations, but sex is definitely in the air. A late sequence in Chinatown is fun in an un-PC way, and though neither Slim nor ZaSu does anything they haven't done before, their characters are a bit more layered than you'd expect. Practically never shown, but worth sitting through if you get a chance.