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Tiger Shark (1932)
They Knew What They Wanted, with tuna
How many times has this plot been used? The older guy--hearty, well-liked, a good man--wins the pretty young thing, but she's attracted to his best friend. It's like "They Knew What They Wanted," with Edward G. Robinson changing Charles Laughton's Italian accent to Portuguese and becoming an ace fisherman instead of a vintner. He's wonderful, in a showy yet subtle performance, and the beautiful Zita Johann is a prize worth fighting for. The writing isn't wonderful, though--we never understand why this lying blowhard is so popular, and the third side of the triangle, Richard Arlen, is given no personality at all. Howard Hawks must have liked the maritime setting, or just being on a boat, because there are yards of irrelevant footage of tuna fishing, leading to a climax that's not very clearly edited (just how does Arlen get out of this, and why does Eddie G. do such a turnaround?). But it leads to a moving big finale. It's atmospheric, with lots of outdoors shooting that makes it seem less studio-bound, and Robinson is always worth watching.
The Dark Horse (1932)
Genial, shallow political satire
Guy Kibbee, in amiable-idiot mode, is mistakenly made a gubernatorial candidate and cruises to victory with the help of scheming publicist Warren William, who's romancing campaign assistant Bette Davis, who looks bored in this conventional-leading-lady role. It's a lively pre-Code Warners satire that doesn't go very deep, not really saying anything about elections beyond "everybody's a crook." But it's fun going, with Frank McHugh as a campaign troubleshooter and Vivienne Osborne making the most of a nasty role as William's treacherous ex-wife. Even William, who didn't often show a lot of life, really gets into this part and looks like he's having fun. Much of the flummery on display could easily be updated to present-day electioneering-- just add TV and Twitter and stir. An enjoyable quickie.
So Long Letty (1929)
Charlotte devours the screen
You may know Charlotte Greenwood from her Aunt Eller in "Oklahoma!", or from one of the many Fox musicals where she was featured. Hardly leading lady material, with a six-foot frame, endless high-kicking legs, and a face that worked only in character parts, she nevertheless possessed star quality in abundance, and Warners top-billed her in this adaptation of her stage success. It's a flimsy comedy with songs about two dissatisfied couples who try wife-swapping, but it's hardly "Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice," and the setup exists mainly to keep Charlotte singing, high-kicking, and clowning. All these she does with ebullience and a marvelous singing voice, and she plays well opposite both hubby Bert Roach and other-man Grant Withers, who's a hot young lad with a wicked disposition. The songs are pretty good, Lloyd Bacon's direction has pace, and Claude Gillingwater, as an annoying old man, is an annoying old man. Hampered as it is by early-talkie arthritic camera movement and uncertain sound recording, it's a valuable archive of a beloved theater performer who worked steadily in film, but seldom got to strut her stuff as she does here.
Saturday's Children (1940)
This won a Pulitzer? Really?
So the title card claims, and it's based on a play by Maxwell Anderson, a distinguished American playwright who tackled tough subjects--fascism, apartheid, congressional dysfunction. I don't know this play, but whatever it was, the Epstein brothers utterly standardized it in their thin- blooded adaptation, a weak domestic drama where co-workers John Garfield and Anne Shirley meet, fall in love, marry, and suffer small-people problems. He's polite and mild-mannered and uninteresting, and she's pure ingenue, and watching them trod along the well-worn path of conventional screen romance has no bite. Even Claude Rains, as her father, seems disengaged. At least Lee Patrick, as her scheming sister, and Roscoe Karns, as her cynical brother-in-law, provide a little bite, and George Tobias is on the periphery, playing what he always played. But, despite an attempted suicide, a hidden pregnancy, and penny-ante deceptions in the young pair's marriage, it's slow, repetitive, and unfelt. And it needs edge. Oh, how it needs edge.
Loose Ankles (1930)
Piffle, but nice to look at
Based on a successful play and moderately pre-Code, this look at 1930 Flaming Youth has Loretta Young as a not-that-interesting heiress and Douglas Fairbanks Jr., looking younger than I've ever seen him, as the nice boy forced to pose as a gigolo by his roistering buddies. There's some amusing pre-Code clucking about overnight guests of the opposite gender, and a lot of footage given over to Louise Fazenda, as a too-prim aunt unwittingly given some liquor and turning into a loose woman; this was the era when alcohol was still automatically hilarious. Warners peddles its own contemporary hit songs in the background ("Am I Blue?", "Painting the Clouds With Sunshine") and there's some clunky choreography in the nightclub sequence, but the focus is mostly on Loretta and Doug, who are quite charming together. His lack of experience shows, but he's convincingly a young man in love, and what young man could wish for a lovelier conquest than Loretta. An undemanding time capsule, with sufficient spirit.
Call Her Savage (1932)
Junk, but Clara did have something
The It Girl was on a steep downhill by the time she made this one-off for Fox, based on a scandalous novel and directed by the reliably dullard John Francis Dillon. As a willful spoiled girl who can't figure out what she wants, Clara gets into girl-fights, goes braless, almost conceals her Brooklyn accent, and gamely rides the not very credible episodic plot. But she's unrestrained and interesting, and most interesting when in repose; all that silent acting paid off, and her many close-ups show a lot of expressiveness. Gilbert Roland is the too-good-to-be-true half- breed who loves her, and Monroe Owsley, in a role he practically patented, is the wastrel Lothario who exploits her. Their financial ups and downs are not explained; one minute she's a rich heiress, the next she's walking the streets and living in a New Orleans tenement. But logic isn't the point, nor is the now-repugnant races-shouldn't-mix morality. The point is, she's fun to watch, and capable in quieter moments of subtlety and even some depth.
Fixer Dugan (1939)
Quite a diverting little B
Made during the downside of Lee Tracy's career, but he's wide awake in this B, and doing what he did better than anybody: playing a fast-talking, conniving, but likable con man. And this time, as a troubleshooter at a middling circus, he has more morals than usual. It's a compact tale of the young daughter of a trapeze artist who slips and dies, and gets sent to a girls' school (which, in another unexpected twist, isn't a bad place at all), though she'd much rather be back in the carny life, where she's looked after by her late mom's former rival. Virginia Weidler was always wonderful, no simpering aren't-I-adorable child star but a real actor, and she plays beautifully off Tracy, as does Peggy Shannon, whom I wasn't familiar with, but she's a spirited, appealing leading lady. The lion-taming scenes are expertly faked, and a diverting supporting cast of characters keeps turning up--I especially liked Irene Franklin, an esteemed former vaudevillian, as a hanger-on at the circus who keeps looking back on her glory days. It's loaded with atmosphere and has some good lines, and it's over in 68 minutes. Very enjoyable.
Wise Girls (1929)
An early MGM talkie, and how it shows, with awkward pauses, static camera-work, and technical glitches aplenty--at least twice, the camera focuses on a doorway for a full 15 seconds, just waiting for an entrance. It's a Broadway play, a not particularly successful one, written by and starring Nugent pere et fils, who had also done it on stage. The elder Nugent is an irascible paterfamilias in suburban New Jersey, and the younger is a plumber/architect wooing and marrying his flighty daughter, all the while loving the other daughter. It's stagy and slowish, but that's part of its charm--I felt like I was really watching a vintage 1920s romantic comedy as presented on stage, more or less. It's barely opened up, with few exteriors, but the cast is game, and Roland Young, as a deservedly spurned suitor, is already a master of the form. Not worth going out of your way to see, but if it turns up on TCM, and it does sometimes, it's a diverting hour-and-change.
The Last Flight (1931)
I think they meant for this to be a meaningful rumination on the useless postwar wounded, with Barthelmess, David Manners, Johnny Mack Brown, and Elliott Nugent as damaged flyers living useless existences in Paris and Lisbon. All four flit around Helen Chandler, a flighty heiress who talks in non sequiturs and has more shoes in her closet than Imelda Marcos. It has the tone of "The Last Time I Saw Paris" or "A Farewell to Arms." But it's shallow. This quartet seems to spend all its time flirting and drinking, and the talk's all small and doesn't go anywhere. Motivations are picked up and dropped; Barthelmess, furious at Chandler for no discernible reason, escapes to Portugal, then, as she follows him, he's suddenly delighted. Barthelmess does have the right kind of gravitas for this kind of part, and I always liked the gentlemanly David Manners, here a brooding playboy whose eye tic ruins his life. But it's very haphazardly put together. Helen Chandler can only end up with one doughboy, so three of the four are dispatched quickly and randomly before the fadeout. All the actors do their best, but they haven't much to play.
Torch Singer (1933)
Mother-love junk, but with one important asset
And that's Claudette Colbert, playing a not entirely plausible good-woman-turned-tough-cynic, who suffers, wisecracks, repents, and, most surprisingly, sings. That's clearly her voice taking on some decent Rainger-Robin songs, and it's a true, throaty, expressive contralto. Why didn't Paramount, which so often exploited the cheery, joie-de-vivre aspects of the Colbert personality, put her in more musicals? She's a natural. And she emotes touchingly in the soapier sections of this one, including a really devastating scene of her giving up her child. The story doesn't make a lot of sense, least of all the David Manners character, a Boston blueblood who is first portrayed as a rotter but turns out to be wonderful. Nor does Ricardo Cortez fit in easily, as Colbert's radio-manager boss; the script seems to want to suggest a romance for them, but never gets around to it. And the plot gymnastics toward the end, which are determined to give Colbert and Manners a happy ending whatever the cost to logic, are just impossible. Still, it's nicely pre-Code, never condemning Colbert for having a child out of wedlock, and quite a showcase for her many talents.