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The Great Waltz (1938)
The Story of Johann Strauss
THE GREAT WALTZ (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1938), directed by Julian Duvivier, is the studio's contribution to the life and songs by the Waltz King composer himself, Johann Strauss (l825-1899). Following the pattern of MGM's Academy Award winning of the three hour production of THE GREAT ZIEGFELD (1936), this 102 minute edition, as in many musical-biographies, is more fiction than fact. The opening message, which reads: ("In Vienna in 1844, nice people neither danced the waltz nor kissed their wives in public nor listened to new ideas. In 1845, came Johann Strauss II and his immortal melodies. We have dramatized the spirit rather than the facts of his life, because it is his spirit that has lived --- in his music") remedies that. European styled production from impressive camera ranges/styles to director to leading players, feature billing goes to Luise Rainer, two-time Academy Award winner in a secondary performance to the major character played by Fernand Gravet, whose performance dominates the proceedings throughout.
In typical Hollywood fashion, so much of the man's life and songs couldn't be depicted to produce an accurate biography. The story begins with young Johann Strauss (Fernand Gravet) getting fired by Mr. Westheimer (Sig Rumann) for composing waltzes on company time. Strauss soon comes to the bakery where Podi Vogelhuber (Luise Rainer), works with her parents (Bert Roach and Greta Meyer). It is Podi who influences "Schani" to form an orchestra and conduct his music publicly. Schani makes his debut at the Casino Donmayer, playing to a near-empty house. Only upon the arrival of Fritz Schiller (George Houston), the first tenor of the Imperial Opera, and singer, Carla Donner (Milza Korjus) does the place fill up to capacity to Strauss's latest waltzes. Later, Johann and Podi marry, followed by his enormous success of his melodies, polkas and marches. Strauss gets his demands of $1,000 per song as opposed to $1,000 a year from Julius Hofbauer (Hugh Herbert), a music publisher. With success comes failure, failure in his troubled marriage through Schani's interest and involvement into the life and career of Carla, much to the displeasure of Count Hohenfried (Lionel Atwill), who loves her.
Of the hundreds of Strauss melodies composed during his lifetime, sadly, only a few were selected. There's even new compositions written by Oscar Hammerstein II. Chosen melodies, whether heard as background or complete orchestration include: "The Emperor Waltz," "I'm in Love With Vienna," "There Will Come a Time," "Tales of the Vienna Woods," "One Day When We Were Young," "Only You" and "Revolutionary Air." Let's not forget Strauss classic selections of "Voice of Spring," "Di and Du," "Die Fledermaus" and "The Blue Danube." Fernand Gravet even gets to sing one of the songs listed, and nicely, too. Others in the cast include: Curt Bois (Kienzl); Leonid Kinskey (Dudelman); Al Shean (The Cellist); Minna Gombell (Mrs. Hofbauer); Alma Kruger (Mrs. Strauss); and Henry Hull (Emperor Franz Josef).
For anyone expecting accuracy to the story will be disappointed. Where are Strauss' brothers and children? Why was Strauss' wife given a fictional name. Why didn't the movie include friction between Johann and his composer father, who wants his son to be a banker rather than a greater composer than he. What about Strauss' other wives? Had all this been depicted, THE GREAT WALTZ might have turned into another three hour GREAT ZIEGFELD-type spectacle. For anyone expecting an entertaining biography will be satisfied by the results.
Luise Rainer's performance at times is reminiscent to her Academy Award winning performance as Anna Held in THE GREAT ZIEGFELD, especially where expresses happiness in public while holding in her bitter disappointments. There is a long stretch of 25 minutes where she's not on screen, and much more time devoted to Fernand Gravet and Milza Korjus. Though Rainer's greatest role goes to her second Academy Award win of THE GOOD EARTH (1937), there's no Academy Award this third time around. The Academy, however, did honor the best supporting actress category to Milza Korjus instead. While at a distance, she builds a physical resemblance to Jeanette MacDonald, and close-up resemblance to Sonja Henie, her operatic high notes is enough to break glass or crack mirrors. Her most memorable scene occurs in a carriage ride with Strauss through the Vienna Woods, where the composer gets the inspiration to another one of his greatest melodies. Of the three Hollywood movies to feature Gravet, THE GREAT WALTZ is his finest achievement and most memorable. Drawbacks are some of its Americanized dialog, notably Strauss calling his orchestra "worms," and Franz Josef a "stuffed shirt." Hugh Herbert's "woo-woo" performance seems out of place here and should have been played straight or played by accented character actor, Joseph Cawthorn instead. And what MGM movie about classical music doesn't include the German stereotype of Herman Bing such this one?
Though a forgotten fact that the story of Johann Strauss was earlier produced in England as WALTZES IN VIENNA (1933), surprisingly directed by Alfred Hitchcock, the Strauss legacy was retold again years later as THE GREAT WALTZ (1972) and more successfully as a television mini-series, "The Strauss Family" (1972-73). The 1937 edition, however, has become available on video cassette and DVD, as well as broadcasts on Turner Classic Movies. To enjoy other great Strauss melodies not used in any of the movies, simply acquire a CD and see why the Strauss name and melodies have survived years after his death. (***1/2)
The Drama of a Southern Family
COQUETTE (United Artists, 1929), subtitled "a drama of the American south," produced and directed by Sam Taylor, goes on record as the movie where movie audiences got to hear Mary Pickford's voice for the first time. A legend of the silent screen for many years, and living up to her stigma of "America's Sweetheart," Pickford had come a long way since 1914. Like many other silent screen performers of that time, she attempted the new medium of what was classified as "the talkies." While Pickford could have selected any one of her previous silent screen efforts to remake as her talking debut such as SPARROWS (1926), a Pickford favorite of many, the selection for her talking introduction was taken from a 1927-28 play, "Coquette," that starred Helen Hayes. No longer playing the little girl with the "golden curls," as in SPARROWS, Pickford, now a woman in her thirties, was now doing adult movie roles, a role that named Pickford the second actress to win the Academy Award. While the success might have lead to a new wave of sound movies through the next decade or beyond, if at all possible, Pickford's career in talkies was however short-lived (1929-1933). At least her attempt in the new medium proved that she was as good as she ever was, even for only a brief span.
Set in the south where location is not disclosed, the story opens the evening of June 6, 1928, where Norma Besant (Mary Pickford) is to be escorted to an upcoming dance at the Sunnydale Country Club. Though she is loved by the ever-loyal Stanley Wentworth (Matt Moore), her heart and soul goes towards Mike Jeffrey (John Mack Brown), a young southern gentleman. Upon Jeffrey's arrival, Stanley leaves saddened, knowing he'll never have a chance in becoming her husband. Caught together in the darkened parlor by Mary's stern father, Doctor John M. Besant (John St. Polis), he makes it clear of his disapproval towards Norma's relations with a man who has never had a steady job, demanding Jeffreys leave and never see his daughter again. To prove himself worthy of Norma's hand in marriage, Jeffrey promise to make good by acquiring employment and coming back later to claim her. Three months later, September 18, 1928, Norma, attending an autumn dance at Sunnydale Country Club with Stanley, meets with Jeffrey outside the garden. The couple leave the party, disappearing into the secluded cabin that once belonged to Norma's late mother. When Besant hears someone returning home at 4 a.m., he assumes it to be his younger son, Jimmy (William Janney), but once Besant catches Norma and Mike together again, he learns it was Norma who returned home at that late hour after being alone with Jeffreys in the cabin. Besant retreats his revolver and shoots him. Because of his half-crazed actions, Norma hates her father and wants nothing more to do with him. Later, it is Norma who is asked to do an impossible task by Robert Wentworth (George Irving), Besant's attorney, to testify on her father's behalf at the trial to prevent his being executed for murder.
Overlooking the fact that COQUETTE is an early talkie, handicapped by echoing sound recording and voices coming in and out from audio, the "drama of the American South," or better yet, "the drama of a Southern family," does have its advantages in acting range and story. Mary Pickford speaks with Southern accent, which is expected, but fortunately restrains from overacting. John Mack Brown, a Southerner by birth, is naturally cast, making his character believable and acceptable.
Had COQUETTE been filmed in silent film tradition, or even a few years later into the mid 1930s where sound technology was greatly improved, COQUETTE would have succeeded, especially the near decade end of Southern themes as JEZEBEL (1938) and GONE WITH THE WIND (1939) where these productions won its lead actresses (Bette Davis and Vivien Leigh respectively) Academy Awards for playing Southern belles. The scene where I feel Pickford might have been responsible for the academy for selecting her as the year's best actress was for her courtroom testimony. Other than that, the duration of her performance was good but nothing substantial. Pickford does have another memorable scene where she tells her troubles while sitting on the lap of her black maid, Julia (Louise Beavers). One debit is Henry Kolker's acting as the district attorney where he seems to be singing some of his wording while questioning the defendant on the witness stand.
While COQUETTE )meaning "flirt") might seem stiff for contemporary audiences expecting fast-paced action, it has fortunately survived intact (76 minutes). Out of circulation for decades, COQUETTE was restored and distributed to video cassette in 1993, and later broadcast occasionally on Turner Classic Movies (TCM premiere: March 3, 1995), where this and other Pickford silent (and final talkie of 1933s SECRETS) are occasionally shown or rediscovery and film study to the Mary Pickford legend. (***)
China Seas (1935)
CHINA SEAS (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1935), directed by Tay Garnett, is an adventure/drama featuring an all-0star cast consisting of top-named performers as Clark Gable, Jean Harlow, Wallace Beery and Lewis Stone, the same actors who had earlier worked together in THE SECRET SIX (MGM, 1931). For this reunion, a lot has happened during those four short years. While Beery and Stone starred in THE SECRET SIX, with Harlow and Gable in secondary supporting roles, Gable and Harlow now assume the leads in CHINA SEAS while Beery and Stone support them. Reminiscing the earlier SHANGHAI EXPRESS (Paramount, 1932) starring Marlene Dietrich, shifting from a train to a shipboard vessel, each allowing for love and adventure along with Chinese bandit attacks as its focal point of interest, CHINA SEAS also includes some doses of verbal comedy to move it along.
Taken from the book by Crosbie Garstin, the story gets underway with plot development and character introduction prior to the sailing of the "Kin Lung" from the port of Hong Kong to its destination to Sinpapore. Passengers of the vessel include: Sir Guy Wilmerding (C. Aubrey Smith), the management director of the line; Alan Gaskell (Clark Gable), the ship's tough captain; Dolly Portland, better known as China Doll (Jean Harlow), Alan's former girlfriend who becomes jealous over his reunion with an old flame, Sybil Barclay (Rosalind Russell), a dignified British widow; Charles McCaleb (Robert Benchley), a drunken American novelist; Jamesy MacArdle (Wallace Beery), a China Seas trader; Dawson (Dudley Digges), a chief officer; Rockwell (William Henry), a young officer; and Tom Davids (Lewis Stone), a former sea captain now reduced to third officer due to his cowardice responsible for the lost of his crew, among others. During the voyage , the Kim Lung goes through a serious typhoon before being attacked by pirates out for a shipment of 350,000 pounds worth of gold hidden away on board the ship, whereabouts known only by Gaskell. It so happens that one of the trusted passengers happens to be the ring leader holding half of the 100 pound note. After pirates attack the vessel, putting both Davids and Gaskell through the Chinese boot torture, it is up to one of the passengers to save the day. Other members of the cast include Hattie McDaniel (Isabel McCarthy); Akim Tamiroff, Donald Meek, Edward Brophy, Willie Fung and Ivan Lebedeff.
An exciting production not as better known as MGM's earlier all-star productions as GRAND HOTEL (1932) and DINNER AT EIGHT (1933), but a worthy offering with elements of surprises during its 89 minutes. He-man Gable and feisty Harlow make a grand pair. Wallace Beery garners enough attention through his usual Beery-method of acting, especially in tense scenes involving him and Harlow, though not as classic as their second pairing together in the popular classic DINNER AT EIGHT (1933). It's also interesting seeing a youthful Rosalind Russell, early in her career, in her Myrna Loy-ish type performance. Let's not overlook Lewis Stone playing a frightful mate hoping to break away from his cowardice stigma. With a cast and plotting such as this, it's totally impossible for any movie buff not to like CHINA SEAS.
Available on video cassette dating back to the mid 1980s in clam shell covering, and decades later on DVD, CHINA SEAS, which was at one time a late show. (***1/2)
Bringing Up Baby (1938)
Loose in Connecticut
BRINGING UP BABY (RKO Radio, 1938), directed by Howard Hawks, is not exactly a movie dealing with a young couple coping and rearing its first born, but a comedy. A madcap comedy, in fact, starring Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant, with the baby being none other than a leopard. While their initial pairing of SYLVIA SCARLETT (1935) was an oddity which couldn't make up its mind whether to be a comedy or drama, BRINGING UP BABY is comedy from start to finish, and that's a promise.
Taken from a story by Hagar Wilde, the plot revolves around the mild-mannered David Huxley (Cary Grant), a bespectacled professor of zoology working for the Stuyvesant Museum of Natural History in New York City. Aside from being engaged to the no-nonsense Alice Swallow (Virginia Walker), he's also awaiting for the last bone to complete his four years of hard work for the development of his dinosaur display. Alexander Peabody (George Irving), a corporation lawyer whose client is to donate a million dollars to the museum, meets with Huxley for a game of golf to discuss matters, matters that couldn't get any worse for David upon his meeting with Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn), an dizzy heiress. Their encounter soon leads to a series of misunderstandings leaving Mr. Peabody behind. Later that evening, David, hoping to explain and apologize for leaving the way he did, tracks down Mr. Peabody to the Ritz Plaza Hotel dining room where he so happens to meet up with Susan again, once more leaving Mr. Peabody in a state of confusion. More confusion arises the next day as Susan acquires a leopard named Baby that was sent to her by her brother, Mark, a hunter, from Brazil. Before he knows it, David, with the much needed dinosaur bone in his box, ends up on a merry trip with Susan and her pet leopard (who reacts calmly to the song, "I Can't Give You Anything But Love, Baby") to Connecticut. While at her country home, David, identified by Susan as Mr. Bones, is introduced to her Aunt Elizabeth (May Robson), and her dinner guest, Major Horace Applegate (Charles Ruggles), one of them who happens to be the one to finance the million dollars to the museum. If that's not enough! David tries to get the dinosaur bone back from Elizabeth's dog, George, who has buried it somewhere on the estate, while he and Susan find themselves mixing a killer leopard who has escaped from a nearby circus, who happens to look just like Baby.
Aside from Hepburn and Grant being the focal point throughout this zaniness, with the first half hour of priceless comedy situations, there's character types as Walter Catlett (Constable Slocum), Barry Fitzgerald (Gogarty, the gardener); and Fritz Lehmann (Fritz Feld), a psychiatrist, to add further laughs when necessary. Catlett's double-talk and matching wits with Hepburn's screwball zaniness ranks one of its brighter moments in the story. Other members of the cast include: Leona Roberts (Hannah Gogarty); Tala Birell (Mrs. Lehmann); and Ernest Cossart. Look quickly for future lead actor, Jack Carson, as a circus roustabout in one scene.
With so many amusing moments involved, it's hard to imagine BRINGING UP BABY was not a success during its initial theatrical screening. Maybe 1938 audiences felt the movie a bit overlong (102 minutes), a bit silly, or feeling Hepburn miscast in a role that might have served best that of Carole Lombard. Who knows, really? Thanks to frequent television revivals in later years, the film has not only become very much appreciated, but listed among one of the greatest comedies of all time. Director Howard Hawks keeps this hectic pace going in fast-pace, not letting up for an instant. Interestingly this was Hepburn's only attempt in madcap comedy and final movie for RKO Radio before shifting over to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (1940-1952). Though Cary Grant sports glasses through much of the proceedings, they apparently disappear from view later on and never worn again.
Formerly available on video cassette dating back to the 1980s, and later DVD, BRINGING UP BABY (title not to be confused with a family comedy titled "Blondie Brings Up Baby" (Columbia, 1939)) has been broadcast on various cable channels over the years, notably American Movie Classics (prior to 2001) and Turner Classic Movies. For sheer fun, be sure bot to miss this one. (***1/2)
DANGEROUS (Warner Brothers, 1935), directed by Alfred E. Green, may not have become an above-average Bette Davis drama by today's standards, but it did become the first of two feature films to win Bette Davis the Academy Award as Best Actress. While Davis' performance as the unsympathetic Mildred in OF HUMAN BONDAGE (RKO Radio, 1934) starring Leslie Howard should have at least earned her a nomination for her standout performance, many claimed Davis got the award for DANGEROUS as an oversight from the earlier film. Regardless of how Davis won for DANGEROUS, it slowly but surely paved the way for better acting roles ahead, and her second Academy Award win for JEZEBEL (1938) and other nominations that were to follow.
DANGEROS opens in a crowded New York street where Roger Farnsworth (Walter Walter) notices Joyce Heath (Bette Davis) passing by in an alcoholic haze. Going inside for cocktails in a gathering of men consisting of Charles Melton (George Irving), Reed Walsh (William B. Davidson), Don Bellows (Franchot Tone), and later Pitt Hanley (Richard Carle), a discussion occurs to whatever happened to Joyce Heath, a once popular leading actress of the Broadway stage. It is learned that the downward path for this now down-and-out actress started when her leading man died, followed by a series of other unfortunate circumstances to label her a "jinx." Don claims he owes a lot to Joyce Heath for his profession as a successful architect. Later that evening, Dan, along with Gail Armitage (Margaret Lindsay) his socialite fiancée, and close friend, Teddy (Dick Foran) have an evening on the town before Dan has Teddy escort Gail home so he could attend to the drunken Joyce Heath, whom he had noticed earlier in a dive of Jerry's Joint surrounded by an assortment of cheap drinks. After passing out while acting out her role from "Romeo and Juliet," Don takes her to his Old Quinn farmhouse in the country where he and housekeeper, Widow Williams (Alison Skipworth), look after her. Regardless of Mrs. Williams labeling this poor unfortunate girl as "Dangerous," Don does everything in his power to help her, regardless of her outbursts. During the course of time, Don breaks his engagement to Gail so he could spend more time helping Joyce break her "theatrical superstition." He arranges for her to star in "But to Die," an upcoming play for producer, George Sheffield (Pierre Watkin). Dan even finances $80,000 of his own money to do it. All goes well until Dan proposes marriage to Joyce and later finding she being in a serious car accident with a strange man (John Eldredge) reportedly connected to Joyce's mysterious past.
Of the five 1935 film releases to star Bette Davis, DANGEROUS is certainly a worthy offering next to BORDERTOWN opposite Paul Muni. Aside from OF HUMAN BONDAGE, DANGEROUS marked the official start to what would develop into the Bette Davis method of acting. Her opening scene where she denies ever being Joyce Heath remedies that, along with her alcoholic binges that followed. It's no doubt the transformation where her Joyce character realizes her self-destruction and destruction to others around her was enough for honor Davis as being the second actress to win the Academy Award for playing an actress, in this instance, on stage as well as off. Franchot Tone, on loan from assignment from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (and second for Warners), holds his own as one out to help a woman wanting no help from him or anyone. Tone even goes through similar defeats as Leslie Howard did in OF HUMAN BONDAGE where Joyce tells him how she really feels about him, through wording strong enough to cause hard feelings. Aside from the frequent underscoring to the recent song, "Mine, Alone" that was introduced by Everett Marshall in I LIVE FOR LOVE (1935), the scene that stands out most during its 78 minutes is where Joyce drives a speeding automobile into a tree in the middle of a country road in order to settle a score. This highlight alone was later clipped and profiled into a document tribute to Warner Brothers thirties films of "The Movie Crazy Years" (1971).
As with most successful films, DANGEROUS served as the basis for a semi-remake titled SINGAPORE WOMAN (Warner Brothers, 1941) starring Brenda Marshall. As with most remakes, it failed in comparison. Formerly distributed to video cassette and available on DVD, DANGEROUS, which seems to improve with repeated viewings, can be seen and studied whenever broadcast on the Turner Classic Movies cable network. (***)
Mona Leslie of Broadway
RECKLESS (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1935), directed by Victor Fleming, is an odd little title for a movie classified as a musical for that there's no reckless driving involved nor reckless living to classify its story. It is, however, a title tune for a production number delivered by the studio's platinum blonde bombshell, Jean Harlow (1911-1937). For Harlow's in a backstage story where she gets to "sing" and dance, one would expect a sort of "gold digger" theme involving three sassy Broadway show girls (possibly Harlow, Una Merkel and Patsy Kelly) out to nab some rich husbands. Instead, RECKLESS is very much Harlow's as the center of attention for a scripted story by Oliver Jeffries supposedly based loosely on the life and incidents of an actual entertainer named Lilly Holman.
Set on Broadway in the Great White Way, Ned Riley (William Powell), is introduced as a sports promoter staying at the 43rd Street Hotel with his assistants, Blossom (Nat Pendleton) and Smiley (Ted Healy). His sleep is interrupted by the arrival of Granny (May Robson) coming to Ned to have him raise bail for her granddaughter, stage star Mona Leslie (Jean Harlow), who's being held on a reckless driving charge at the House of Detention for Women. Ned, being Mona's agent and discoverer, arranges her release in time for the upcoming charity benefit, only to discover the stage show arranged by millionaire playboy, Bob Morrison Jr. (Franchot Tone), who has bought every seat in the theater so he could be the only one to watch Mona perform. Later, Mona becomes romantically involved with Bob. They eventually elope, much to the chagrin of Bob's father (Henry Stephenson), having high hopes for his son marrying Josephine Mercer (Rosalind Russell), his childhood sweetheart. Though Josephine comes to like Mona, the rest of Bob's family and friends prove otherwise, making her feel like an outsider. After Josephine marries Ralph Watson (Leon Ames, billed as Leon Waycoff), Bob realizes the error in his ways, leading to tragedy involving Mona's custody battle over her baby and attempt of a theatrical comeback to a very unruly audience.
In the listing of players credited (in order of appearance rather than the standard billing), there's Mickey Rooney as Eddie, a little boy briefly seen in two scenes with William Powell; Robert Light (Paul Mercer, Josephine's brother); James Ellison (Dale Eberly); Charles Middleton, Harold Huber and Charles C. Wilson. There's also famous wrestlers of the day, Man Mountain Dean, Hans Steinke and Ernie Hayes, appearing as themselves. Look quickly for Allan Jones (singer) and Margaret Dumont (woman in audience), best known for their major supporting performances opposite the Marx Brothers in A NIGHT AT THE OPERA (MGM, 1935) each taking time away from that comedy classic in cameo appearances. Songs featured in this production include: "Reckless" (by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein/Ensemble: Jean Harlow, Allan Jones, Carl Randall and Nina Mae McKinney); "Everything's Been Done Before" (sung by Allan Jones); "Cyclone" (dance number); "Here's What My Heart is Saying" and Reckless." Though Harlow sings, her vocalization is obviously dubbed with choreography lavish scale but forgettable. Interestingly, the "Reckless" number was selected in part of its musical segment profiled for the documentary on MGM musicals titled THAT'S ENTERTAINMENT (1974).
The problem about RECKLESS, clocked at 97 minutes and produced by David O. Selznick, is that it could have been a really fine musical, even better. Rather than presenting a full comedy with standard singing and dancing, the plot generally looks more like a setback to those melodramatic overtones found in those early talkie MGM musicals (1929-30). RECKLESS does have its share of amusements and wisecracks commonly found in thirties movies, however, with William Powell doing his share with Harlow and the rest of the cast. Powell and Harlow had much better luck in the hilarious comedy, LIBELED LADY (1936), but it's only during the latter portion of RECKLESS does the story weaken to conclusion that doesn't ring true. Harlow and Franchot Tone have worked amusingly well together in both BOMBSHELL (1933) and THE GIRL FROM MISSOURI (1934), but with RECKLESS having their serious moments together, especially during Tone's drunken tantrums, they are either satisfactory or a bit unpleasant. Rosalind Russell is a refreshing presence here while the rest of the cast tries hard to rise above this so-so script.
Considering mixed reactions then and now, RECKLESS wouldn't be classified as Hollywood's greatest musicals. It's somewhat all-star cast and MGM gloss does save it from being lost and forgotten to classic film historians, especially over the years with its presentations in revival movie houses in New York City as Museum of Modern Art (1980 to a full house) or the Regency Theater in the seventies and eighties, followed by availability on video cassette (1995), DVD and broadcasts on cable television's Turner Classic Movies since 1994. (**)
Broadway Bad (1933)
It's Tough to be Famous
"Broadway Bad" (Fox Films, 1933), directed by Sidney Lanfield, is an interesting movie more for its casting than its story. Starring Joan Blondell, Ricardo Cortez, Ginger Rogers, and Donald Crisp, all contract player names usually associated with Warner Brothers studio, yet all featured in this one Fox movie with a backstage musical sounding title to it. Regardless whatever studio release, it's definitely common ground material found in many a motion picture during the Depression era pre-production code thirties.
Following an introductory segment on a train revolving around gossiping chorus girls from Lew Gordon's Frolics of 1929, Antoinette "Toni" Sanders (Joan Blondell), a member of the troupe, having missed the train to be alone at an empty stadium of Yale University to be with Bob North III (Allen Vincent), a college boy and rich man's son, while her loyal friend and roommate, Flip Daly (Ginger Rogers) awakens to find Toni's bed has never been slept in all night. It is later revealed that Toni is secretly married to Bob so not to be expelled from college. Craig Cutting (Ricardo Cortez), the show's backer responsible for Toni's employment, is unaware of Toni's marriage. Thanks to the troublesome Aileen (Adrienne Ames), Craig's former mistress, she takes Bob to Craig's penthouse apartment where he's holding a social function with Toni. Misunderstandings occur as Bob Walks in on them, followed by a divorce, naming Craig as correspondent. To avoid a scandal, Toni attempts to leave Gordon's (Spencer Charters) Frolics. Instead, thanks to Joe Flynn (Phil Tead), a publicity man, stumbles upon the idea how such publicity will help the show's proceedings. Through the course of time, Toni rises from chorus girl to featured player of Frolics of 1933. As for Toni, who has risen to fame and fortune, is now romantically now a mother of a four-year-old son she calls "Big Fella" (Ronnie Cosbey). As for Bob, now down-and-out, having lost all financial income from his father (Frederick Burton), and owes a huge $15,000 gambling debt. Bob comes to Toni, who refuses to have anything to do with him. When Bob discovers the child she has to be his son, he and fellow gambler and racketeer, Tommy Davis (Francis J. McDonald), attempt to get more money out of her as well as Bob taking her to court so to disgrace her name and gain custody of the boy.
Other members of the cast consist of Donald Crisp (District Attorney Darrell); Margaret Seddon (Bixby, the babysitter); and Eddie Kane (Eddie Malone, the Jeweler). While some sources label songs listed in this production, only "Forget the Past" is vocalized only too briefly. During its relatively short 62 minutes, which might have been longer in the director's cut, the major disappointment is how little screen time Ginger Rogers is offered. She's here and there during Blondell's troubles, with little to offer. "Broadway Bad" also shows how Ricardo Cortez could play decent characters as opposed to nasty ones for which he excelled, notably at Warner Brothers.
A very rare find as in most Fox Films of the early thirties, "Broadway Bad" is not so bad but not that great either. It had a lot to offer but little to add. Blondell seemed a little out of place in a role that might have better served for Barbara Stanwyck. Even though a Fox Film, it does use a latter 20th Century-Fox logo in surviving prints that were televised on New York City's public television showing on WNET, Channel 13, in December 1992, and decades later, on a cable channel called "Movies" in November 2016. Regardless of its pros and cons and age, "Broadway Bad" is a worthy viewing, especially for long forgotten gems such as this one. (**)
The Last Mile (1932)
On Death Row
THE LAST MILE (World Wide, 1932), directed by Sam Bischoff, is not exactly a racing story of cars or horses going through their last lap towards the finish line, but in convicts terms, a prison movie about execution. Taken from a stage play by John Wexley that reportedly starred Spencer Tracy (New York) and Clark Gable (West Coast), it might have been interesting watching either any of these two fine actors reprise his original roles of "Killer" Mears: Tracy for Fox Studios or Gable at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Instead, the Mears role went to the second billed Preston Foster, who did a fine job as Mears. The central character, however, is played by the top-billed Howard Phillips, a name not known but so happens to be one of the actors from the stage production in this screen adaptation whose movie career was relatively brief and totally forgotten.
Following an introductory message about "prison and of the condemned, and what society is going to do about it" by Lewis E. Lawes, warden of Sing-Sing Prison in Ossining, New York, the story opens in a courtroom where Richard Walters (Howard Phillips) is sentenced by the judge for murder in the first degree, and to be executed for his crime on September 13th. Richard's mother (Louise Carter) immediately screeches and cries upon sentence as she witnesses her boy taken away by the guards. No longer a name but now simply an identification number, Richard is placed in a cell on death row surrounded by other condemned prisoners, including John "Killer" Mears (Preston Foster), the toughest of the bunch. As he witnesses Joe Berg (George E. Stone) of Cell 1 being escorted his last mile through the little green door to the electric chair, Richard faints dead away. A flashback foretells to what lead to his prison sentence. (Richard's business partner, Max Kuger (Max Wagner)borrows a large sum of money from their bank account, followed by a gas station robbery where Kuger is shot and killed by police while Richard, caught with a gun in his hand, arrested for a crime for which he is innocent). During the course of time, a prison break arises, and Killer Mears threatening to kill every one of his hostages, ranging from prison guards (one being brother-in-law to the warden) to a prison priest unless the warden, Frank Lewis (Frank Sheridan) doesn't meet with his demands for freedom.
With 1932 seemingly being the year of prison or chain gang themes, with such titles as HELL'S HIGHWAY (RKO Radio, with Richard Dix) and the classic I AM A FUGITIVE FROM A CHAIN GANG (Warner Brothers, starring Paul Muni), where Louise Carter plays the mother in each of these aforementioned movie titles, it's interesting how THE LAST MILE wasn't part of the Warner Brothers list of social issues, considering how that studio specialized on this sort of material, or even MGM, where THE BIG HOUSE (1930) featuring Wallace Beery, having started the whole cycle about men behind bars for that time, in spite that Samuel Goldwyn's CONDEMNED (1929) starring Ronald Colman arrives a year earlier. Fox films did one amusing parody of UP THE RIVER (1930) with Spencer Tracy, while Hal Roach got Laurel and Hardy to spoof it in PARDON US (1931). Yet THE LAST MILE, produced by a non-major movie studio, holds up, even where portions seem to be like a reproduced stage play. The story does contain some outdoor activities, but the death row scenes with prisoners holding on to the metal bars in upward positions to be what's shown the most, giving indication to how the play was performed and presented on stage. Other actors in the cast include: Daniel L. Haynes (Sonny Jackson, Cell # 2); Edward Van Sloan (The Rabbi); Alec B. Francis (Father O'Connor); Noel Madison (D'Amoro, Cell # 6); Alan Roscoe (Kirby, Cell # 7),Al Ulll (Werner, Cell # 8); among others. Of the major actors, Preston Foster gathers the most attention over Howard Phillips while George E. Stone being a close second through his small but very effective performance.
THE LAST MILE was successful enough to spawn a 1959 remake for United Artists starring Mickey Rooney in one of his finer roles during his latter-day career. The 1932 original, almost forgotten until its resurrection in the 1980s with 1940s reissue opening title from Astor Pictures being the print in current circulation as part of a 45 minute featurette on public television's "Matinee at the Bijou" in 1982. Availability has been followed onto video cassette distribution and later DVD process, along with complete 68 minute late night broadcasts on various public television stations until the 1990s. Cable television has been rare, though notably shown on Turner Classic Movies (TCM premiere: October 5, 2016) where the Astor Print reissue print rather was shown than the 1932 World Wide original opening instead. Regardless of its age, its a gripping screen adaptation about convicts on death row awaiting their last mile to eternal freedom. (*** pardons)
Thin Ice (1937)
The Prince and the Ice Skater
THIN ICE (20th Century-Fox, 1937), directed by Sidney Lanfield, stars Olympic skating champion, Sonja Henie, in her second ice skating musical and her first of two opposite the studio's then rising young leading actor by the name of Tyrone Power. With screenplay by Boris Ingster and Milton Sperling, it's basically fluff-type material consisting of mistaken identity between two people highlighted by song and ice skating production sequences that was no doubt back in 1937 to be another sure winner for the One in a Million Sonja Henie.
Plot Summary: Christmas is fast approaching in the Swiss Alps but at 82 degrees, there seems to be no signs of snow in the forecast. With three weeks before the season, Herr Kratz (Melville Cooper), manager of the Grand Hotel Imperial of St. Christoph, prays for a miracle of snow so Christmas will find his empty hotel full of ski going guests. A miracle does happen: Nottingham (Arthur Treacher), the butler to Prince Rudolph (Tyrone Power), makes reservations for 81 rooms and three suites for an upcoming convention shortly before the much needed snow starts falling down from the clouds above. Some time later, Prince Rudolph and Nottingham arrive by train. After coming to the Grand Hotel Imperial on wheelchair pretending to be sick, Rudolph sneaks away with his servant to the quaint Billage Inn where he remains to have his privacy. While on the ski slopes, he encounters Lily Heiser (Sonja Henie), a skating instructor at the Grand Hotel. Unaware of his identity, the prince passes himself off as Rudy Miller, a newspaper man covering the convention at the hotel where she works. After Lily is seen returning to the hotel exiting the prince's royal car driven by her chauffeur boyfriend, Alex (George Givot), rumors spread rapidly throughout the village of Lily being romantically involved with the prince. Feeling this news to be good publicity for his hotel business, Krantz allows Lily to display her skating skills to the guests at the hotel's ice skating musical programs. With Lily is a bit confused by all the attention and gifted presents, she claims to have never even met the prince before. Later Lily finds herself being watched by some elderly gentleman in the audience bearing bushy mustache and glasses during her slating exhibitions, unaware it's Rudy in disguise, leading to a series of complicated events for all. Also in the cast are Raymond Walburn (Lily's Uncle Dornic); Sig Ruman (Prime Minister Ulrich); Alan Hale (The Baron); Maurice Cass (The Count); and Greta Meyer (Martha). Look fast for Lon Chaney Jr., a few years before his Universal horror fame of the 1940s, glimpsed as one of the newspaper reporters.
New songs by Lew Pollack and Sidney Mitchell are as follows: "Over Night" (vocalized over opening credits); "My Secret Love Affair" (sung by Leah Ray); "Olga of the Volga" (by Mack Gordon and Harry Revel, sung by Joan Davis); "The Polovetsian Dances" from PRINCE IGOR (skating number with Sonja Henie and ensemble); "My Swiss Hilly-Billy" (sung in comic fashion by Joan Davis); "Tales of the Vienna Woods" (by Johann Strauss/skate number with by Henie); and "Over Night" (finale, sung by chorus, skate number with Henie). Leah Ray offers a beautiful rendition to "My Secret Love Affair," a title tune that might have served better as its movie title considering the royalty meets commoner theme involved. Skating numbers, choreographed by Harry Losee, is well staged with Henie, naturally, as its center of attention.
Formerly broadcast on commercial (1960s) and later public television (1980s, where the closing cast credits was edited), THIN ICE would come to pass again in its entirety on video cassette and DVD, plus cable television availability as American Movie Classics (1992-93, and 2001) and occasionally on Fox Movie Channel where other Henie musicals are shown.
THIN ICE is short (77 minutes), sweet and to the point romantic fairy tale type caper with Henie and Power appearing to be enjoying their assignment together as they would again in the second film together of SECOND FIDDLE (1939). While the plotting may be a bit thin with ice only part of the skating sequences, there's enough entertainment to go around for anyone's enjoyment. (***1/2)
Wild Boys of the Road (1933)
Welcome to Hard Times
WILD BOYS OF THE ROAD (First National Pictures, 1933), directed by William A. Wellman, is a hard-hitting drama set during the dark days of survival of the Great Depression. With other Depression era accounts depicted in 1933 pertaining to unemployed show girls from GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933, to war veterans struggling to survive the failed economy in HEROES FOR SALE (1933), WILD BOYS OF THE ROAD goes one further with more victims of the Depression, the victims being teenage kids, headed by Frankie Darro in possibly his best or at least finest lead performance of his entire career.
The then current events starts off amusingly during its character introduction with Eddie Smith (Frankie Darro) driving in his Leapin' Lena heap accompanied by his best pal, Tommy Gordon (Edwin Phillips), and their dates, Grace (Rochelle Hudson) and the compassionate kissing Harriet Webster (Shirley Dunstead). After arriving at a sophomore frolic high school dance, Tommy, who doesn't have any money for admission, dresses himself in girls clothes posing as one of Eddie's guests. On their way home, Tommy confides in Eddie that he's broke because his mother has worked only four days in the past five months. Sympathizing to his financial needs, Eddie promises to talk with his father about offering his mother a job at his place of employment. When he returns home, Eddie finds his mother (Claire McDowell) has been crying and is told by his father, James (Grant Mitchell) that he's lost his job. Even though Eddie trades in his car for some cash to help his parents, two months of unpaid bills and economizing has proved hardship for the Smiths. Not wanting to be a burden to their parents, Eddie and Tommy quietly leave home to strike out on their own taking the next freight train bound to the city to find jobs. On the freight train, both boys encounter Sally (Dorothy Coonan), a tough but appealing girl dressed in boys clothes, also a victim of hard times bound for Chicago to live with her aunt Carrie (Minna Gombell), whom she hasn't seen since she was a child. After a promising start, things go so dramatically wrong, forcing the trio, along with other wild boys of the road in freight trains traveling from city to city before ending up panhandling on the street and facing a judge (Robert Barrat) at a superior court while in New York City.
As with most Depression era stories of the 1930s, WILD BOYS OF THE ROAD is pre-code with situations as grim as they get his leg amputated. There's even a hint involving one of the girls getting raped by a sadistic brakeman (Ward Bond). In spite of unpleasant circumstances, there's sympathetic people involved, including Doctor Henry A. Heckel (Arthur Hohl), and a kindly judge (Robert Barrat), played by actors usually playing unsympathetic character type. Unlike I AM A FUGITIVE FROM A CHAIN GANG (1932), the story offers some hope for the kids, although Depression era despair continues to be in the horizon.
Other hundreds of credited and uncredited wild boys of the road seen in the list of extras are: Sterling Holloway (Ollie); Sidney Miller (The Boy selling a letter); along with Ann Holvey (Lola); Willard Robertson (Captain of Detectives); Charley Grapewin (Mr. Cadmust); Barbara Rogers (The Movie House Cashier); George Cooper (The Homeless Man) rounding out the cast. While the players are not top marquee names, their performances come as if viewers are watching actual kids in real life situations.
A true reflection of the times with current popular song tunes as "The Shadow Waltz," "Pettin' in the Park" and "We're in the Money" from GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933, underscored during the party sequence., there's even a movie within a movie sequence set in a theater where patrons are seen watching James Cagney and Guy Kibbee in a scene from the backstage musical, FOOTLIGHT PARADE (1933).
Of the dark and grim melodramas of this period, WILD BOYS OF THE ROAD is one of the forgotten ones which have, at least, been profiled with highlighted scenes clipped into a public television documentary on Warner Brothers movies from the 1930s titled "The Movie Crazy Years" (1971). For the social drama section that included scenes from the better known classic of I AM A FUGITIVE, there's director, William A. Wellman, discussing about the making of WILD BOYS OF THE ROAD, followed by clips of the movie including Darro's pleas for the homeless kids of America as well as an interesting insight about casting the teenage Dorothy Coonan, a Busby Berkeley extra chorus girl from the Warner Brothers musicals, for the lead, and how she soon became his wife for life, Mrs. Wellman. Many decades later, WILD BOYS OF THE ROAD became part of the Warner Brothers archive of movies presented occasionally first on Turner Network Television (TNT) in the late 1980s before becoming a permanent fixture on Turner Classic Movies after 1994.
With this and Frankie Darro sharing the spotlight opposite James Cagney in THE MAYOR OF HELL (1933), with Darro playing another "Smith" character, this time named, Jimmy, Darro's movie career consisted mostly of playing leads in forgettable low-budget programmers or assuming minor parts as horse racing jockeys for major film studios. In conclusion, let's not forget the equally fine, realistic performance given by Edwin Phillips, in his only co-lead in a motion picture. Once seen, WILD BOYS OF THE ROAD, clocked at 68 minutes, for its fast movie grim realities, is something not easily forgotten long after it's all over. (***)