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Viva Villa! (1934)
The Battle Cry of Vengeance
VIVA VILLA! (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1934), directed by Jack Conway, stars the Academy Award winning Wallace Beery ("The Champ" 1931) in one of his most notable film roles, that of the notorious Mexican bandit leader, Pancho Villa (1877-1923). Suggested by the book written by Edgcumb Finchon and O.B. Stade, the film itself is not so much an authentic biographical account on Villa's personal life, but, a fictional story scripted by Ben Hecht that gives its viewers an idea of what's to be shown: "FORWARD: This saga of the Mexican hero, Pancho Villa, does not come out of the archives of history. It is fiction woven out of truth, and inspired by a love of the half-legendary Pancho, and the glamorous country he served."
For its eight minute prologue: "Mexico in the 1880s, a land cringing under the lone whip of Diaz the Tyrant," shows Pancho, the boy (Phillip Cooper) forced to witness his hard-working father (Frank Puglia) strung up at the whipping post for speaking out against a greedy Spanish landowner who has taken away his home and property along with his fellow peons. After the hundred lashes are carried out, the dead body is cut down, left on the street as a warning to the others. Later, Pancho, "the little avenger" during the night, awaits, stabs and kills his father's executioner, fleeing to the hills of Chihuahua. Years later, Pancho Villa, (Wallace Beery), the man, having earned the title of "La Cucaracha" (the cockroach), forms a bandit army, assisted by his trigger-happy henchman, Sierra (Leo Carrillo), to avenge the rich and give to the "peons." With the assistance of Johnny Sykes (Stuart Erwin), an American reporter for the New York World, Villa's name becomes well-known through the accounts printed in the newspaper. Don Felipe (Donald Cook) a wealthy landowner who sides with Villa's cause, introduces him to his friend, Francisco Madero (Henry B. Walthall), a gentle man known to all as "The Christ Fool." An eternal friendship forms as Madero offers Villa advise into helping him form a revolutionary Army. Though he does help with his cause, Madero is disappointed that Villa makes war as a bandit rather than a soldier. After the war, Villa, honored a hero by many, especially Don Felipe's sister, Teresa (Fay Wray), is soon exiled to El Paso, Texas, by orders of his rival, General Pascal (Joseph Schildkraut). After learning the assassination of President Madero, Villa returns to Mexico to avenge his friend's death, leading to another brutal revolution.
Quite popular upon its release, earning an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture, VIVA VILLA! offers some very grim moments. Aside from the aforementioned flogging of Villa's father in the opening segment, another intense scene occurs indicating the method of torture towards General Pascal under Villa's orders. With females of minor importance, Fay Wray, the now legendary star of the original KING KONG (RKO Radio, 1933), surprisingly has a relatively small role as opposed to Katherine DeMille's temperamental Rosita Morales, as one of Villa's wives, who gathers more attention and screen time here. Wray's climatic moment occurs in a darkened room as her Teresa laughs hysterically at the angry Villa, forcing him to continually whip her, as shown through their silhouette images on the wall. This existing scene, among a few others, have vanished from circulating prints since the 1980s, shortening the original length from 115 to 109 minutes.
Other members of the cast worth noting are: George E. Stone (Emilio Chavito, the artist who's rather draw pigeons than bulls); David Durand (The Mexican bugle boy who uses the American slang term, "ain't"); Paul Porcasi (The Priest); and, in smaller roles, Mischa Auer and Akim Tamiroff, among others.
As much as its leading players could have been enacted by natural born Hispanic performers, such is not the case here. Beery's co-star, Leo Carrillo, would have made an agreeable Villa, with Gilbert Roland playing Sierra; and Mexican spitfire Lupe Velez in Fay Wray's part. Of the actors to have portrayed Pancho Villa in later years, Yul Brynnar or Telly Salavas for example, Beery, in mustache, large sombrero and Spanish dialect (which he tends to lose from time to rime) is as part of Beery as King Henry VIII or Captain Bligh is to Charles Laughton. Interestingly, Beery, having played Villa in the silent 1917 chaptered serial, PATRIA, would become a Mexican bandito once again in the western comedy, THE BAD MAN (MGM, 1941), where he not only physically resembles his Pancho Villa portrayal, but assumes the character name of Pancho Lopez. Stuart Erwin, who reportedly replaced Lee Tracy during production, might seem miscast at first, but acceptable considering how Tracy's familiar comedic style and gestures might have turned this bio-drama into a somewhat unintentional comedy.
Reportedly controversial through its assumptions and enactment from the Mexicans point of view, VIVA VILLA may continue to be so today depending on its acceptance as a motion picture. The edited form taken from reissue prints of VIVA VILLA!, distributed to video cassette in 1993, is also the same presented on Turner Classic Movies cable channel. One can only hope a complete version of VIVA VILLA! will turn up again someday in honor of the man named Villa and the legendary song known as "La Cucaracha!" (***1/2)
Of Human Bondage (1934)
The Carey Treatment
OF HUMAN BONDAGE (RKO Radio, 1934), directed by John Cromwell, stars Leslie Howard and Bette Davis in the first screen treatment from the 1915 novel by W. Somerset Maugham. Essentially a Howard film in which he's the central character, it's Bette Davis, on loan from her home base studio of Warner Brothers, who virtually gathers enough attention for her powerful performance. Although it didn't place Davis immediately to the major ranks of motion picture stardom, at least not right away, it did present her to be just more than another movie actress, just more than another a face on the movie screen, and just more than what she can do in a much challenging role.
As the opening credits begin through a superimposed view of France, the story opens in the city of Paris where Philip Carey (Leslie Howard), a struggling young artist eager for recognition on his paintings, being told by a respected Parisian artist that he would be nothing more than "mediocre." Told to try another profession, Philip decides to follow in his late father's field by becoming a doctor. As a medical student at St. Bartholomew's Hospital in London, Philip, quite sensitive about his club foot deformity, becomes the subject matter for both boy patient and medical students, much to his personal humiliation. Boarding with two fellow students, one being Harry Griffiths (Reginald Denny), a ladies man, Philip finds himself attracted to a cockney waitress, Mildred Rogers (Bette Davis), who's constant response being, "I don't mind." Though they have a courtship, Mildred shows no love and compassion for him. Being rejected for Emil Miller (Alan Hale), a married businessman, Philip, with an attempt to forget Mildred, encounters Nora (Kay Johnson), who, after failing his medical examinations, is encouraged by her to resume with his studies. As romance blossoms between them, Mildred comes back to his life, broke and pregnant. He supports her and her child, but his devotion goes unappreciated. With her out of his life once again, Philip, now an intern in a charity hospital, becomes acquainted with Thorpe Athelny (Reginald Owen) and his attractive young daughter, Sally (Frances Dee). Romance blossoms between the two until Mildred returns, leading to further humiliation and heartaches through his trying times of "human bondage."
What might have become a two hour plus super production containing many important passages from the lengthy novel, this 83 minutes screen adaptation to OF HUMAN BONDAGE, does have enough ingredients offering the basic elements of Maugham's detailed work to make it a satisfactory whole. The film itself eliminates much of Carey's personal life from his boyhood days, going to brief passages leading, through super-imposed camera methods, to basic formula material that has made this screen adaptation a true classic. Though the Mildred character in the original novel was of minor importance, screenwriter, Lester Cohen, made her important enough to become the center of attraction, one hard to forget during the stretches she absent from the screen. As much as Davis wasn't Academy Award nominated for her performance, the Academy simply didn't forget her by awarding her two winning trophies with additional nominations besides. As Mildred, Davis in true form, is very convincing right down to her British cockney dialect. She doesn't hold back on how her character is to be portrayed, unlikable as she is unsympathetic, enough to the point of making one wonder why such an intelligent and cultured individual as Philip Carey himself should fall victim of such treatment from an uncaring person for so long, yet, the whole purpose of the story. Without Mildred, whose makes the other female co-stars (Johnson and Dee) seem pale in comparison, OF HUMAN BONDAGE might have become as "mediocre" as Carye's paintings. On the other hand, the other women in Carey's life are beneficial for this shy man's self-esteem, yet worthy of recognition. Classic Philip Carey moment: Telling Mildred, "You disgust me!"
OF HUMAN BONDAGE was remade twice, first by Warner Brothers in 1946 starring Paul Henried and Eleanor Parker, set in gas-lit London at the turn of the century, as opposed to the modern-day original; and again by MGM (1964) with Kim Novak and Laurence Harvey. Though Parker tries her best making her Mildred character believable, the 1946 remake might have succeeded with the casting of British born/ American actress, Ida Lupino has she not refused the assignment. The Kim Novak carnation, which kept the first two editions from circulation for decades, ranks the weakest of the three. Interestingly, the 1934 original, unavailable for viewing and at one time believed "lost," eventually surfaced sometime in the seventies at revival movie houses. Local public broadcast stations and cable television (Arts & Entertainment) followed in the 1980s and 90s. Over the years, the film has fallen into public domain with poor audio/video quality when distributed to home video and later DVD formats. The best available print for OF HUMAN BONDAGE happens to be from cable TV's Turner Classic Movies where this, the latter two BONDAGE remakes, as well as other Howard and Davis collaborations (THE PETRIFIED FOREST (1936) and IT'S LOVE I'M AFTER (1937)), are shown on numerous occasions.
OF HUMAN BONDAGE, now in highest regard as a Bette Davis classic, should not go without mention regarding Max Steiner's pleasing underscoring and its agreeable supporting cast. (****)
The Scarlet Claw (1944)
The Mask of the Red Death
The theatrical film series of "Sherlock Holmes" continues with Basil Rathbone (Sherlock Holmes) and Nigel Bruce (Doctor Watson) starring in THE SCARLET CLAW (Universal, 1944), as produced and directed by Roy William Neil. For this sixth installment for the studio, it basis its characters created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle rather than resorting to stories taken from any one of his many novels. Acquiring an original story by Paul Granglin and Brenda Weisburg certainly was a welcome change in this modernized series, yet, intentionally or not, has more of Doyle's 1890s period setting feel to it, resulting to the best, if not, one of the best of this Universal/Holmes entries.
Though none of the 14-film Rathbone-Bruce "Sherlock Holmes" franchise never resorted to remaking itself from its earlier works, THE SCARLET CLAW comes close to being Universal's own contribution to Rathbone/Bruce's introductory roles from THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES (20th Century-Fox 1939). In fact, there's one scene where Bruce's Watson briefly brings up in conversation one of the earlier cases being "The Hound of the Baskervilles." The intention obviously was there, using fog-drenched marshes, moody set pieces and assortment of suspicious looking characters as sheer reminders. With no hounds involved, there's enough anticipation of fear in the dark by some murderous monster for added suspense. This time the locale of Canada is used in place over Holmes' homeland of London, England. Very much a Universal product, known mostly for its horror film genre, one would expect this mixed bag of horror/ mystery to have Holmes and Watson coming face to face with a werewolf or Frankenstein monster. Comics Abbott and Costello would take care of that later in the decade. In true essence to the Doyle character, and Universal as well, Holmes does encounter some strange admiration, forming great admiration for followers of this series.
A brief prologue opens in a small French village of La Morte Rouge (The Red Death), outside of Quebec, Canada, where at Journet's Tavern, townspeople gather together, talking about a ghost-like glowing image roaming about at night connected with a series of brutal murders involving a claw-like weapon tearing the throats of its victims. In attendance at the bar include the hotel proprietor, Emile Journet (Arthur Hohl), his young daughter, Marie (Kay Harding); Potts (Gerald Hamer), the postman; and Father Pierre (George Kirby). Due to the unforeseen late night bell ringing at a nearby church, Father Pierre goes to investigate, only to find the body of Lady Lillian Gentry Penrose (Gertrude Astor), with her hands clutching the bell rope. Word reaches her husband, Lord William (Paul Cavanaugh) addressing a meeting for the Royal Canadian Occult Society at a Quebec hotel meeting room with Sherlock Holmes (Basil Rathbone) and assistant, Doctor John H. Watson (Nigel Bruce) in attendance. Because Lord Penrose associates the ghastly murders with the supernatural, Holmes believes otherwise. Later that night, after receiving a letter for help from the late Lady Penrose, Holmes postpones his return to England to assist Sergeant Thompson (David Clyde) with the investigation. As Watson remains at the tavern to mingle with the guests while keeping an eye on a prime suspect, Holmes risks his own life roaming through the foggy marshes alone; races against time to prevent the murder of a frightened Judge Brisson (Miles Mander) living a reclusive lifestyle with his mysterious maid, Nora (Victoria Horne), before finding evidence leading to the unmasking of the phantom monster.
Running ten minutes longer than the usual standard 65 minutes, THE SCARLET CLAW, strictly a second feature "B" product, is pure "A" murder mystery material with entire cast in fine form. With Gerald Hamer, Miles Mander, Ian Wolfe and Arthur Hohl as repeat cast members, all assuming different roles from earlier to latter "Holmes" installments, missing this time around are series regulars Mary Gordon (Mrs. Hudson); and Dennis Hoey (Inspector Lestrade). Regardless of any similarities between this and THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES, THE SCARLET CLAW is first-rate entertainment throughout, right up to Watson's run-on gag falling into a hole in the marshes. Be aware this being a motion picture release during World War II era, audiences would get to listen to the master detective, as he did in SHERLOCK HOLMES IN WASHINGTON (1943), recite a passage from a speech by British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill.
Distributed to home video in the 1990s (later DVD in 2006), THE SCARLET CLAW, formerly part of "Sherlock Holmes Theater" on broadcast television, turns up occasionally on various cable stations, notably Turner Classic Movies (TCM premiere: December 26, 2009), with its restored print taken from the UCLA Film and Television Archive. Next installment: THE PEARL OF DEATH (1944), another creepy tale where Holmes and Watson meet another mysterious image known as The Creeper. (***)
Everything's Rosie (1931)
What's Up, Doc?
EVERYTHING'S ROSIE (RKO Radio, 1931), directed by Clyde Bruckman, based on the story by Al Roasberg, stars the second half of the comedy team of Wheeler and Woolsey, that being Robert Woolsey, the glasses wearing, cigar smoking comedian of verbal wisecracks. As much as Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey never really achieved the popularity or lasting appeal as other comic duals of Laurel and Hardy or Abbott and Costello from the lack of television revivals in the sixties and seventies, it wasn't until cable television began resurrecting their products many years later did they earn some notable interest. With the revival of Wheeler and Woolsey movies comes the rediscovery of Woolsey in his only feature length comedy without Wheeler. The same occurred that year as Bert Wheeler starred without Woolsey in a little known comedy titled TOO MANY COOKS (1931). Though the attempt in separating the team came a bit early for them, following their 1929 screen debuts in the lavish-scale musical, RIO RITA (RKO), where Wheeler and Woolsey reprised their original Broadway roles, an attempt in offering the comedians the rare chance showing what they can do on their own, was only temporary. Though Wheeler seemed capable working as a solo comedian, what project could be used to showcase Woolsey's talents? An idea of pairing Woolsey with a talented duck in something called EVERYTHING'S DUCKY might have seemed possible. Instead, the writers developed what became known as EVERYTHING'S ROSIE by casting him opposite the youthful Anita Louise. Though Louise assumes the title role, the resulting film ends up being "Everything's Woolsey."
The story begins in 1916 where J. Dockweiner Droop, better known as "Doc," (Robert Woolsey with hair parted in the middle), living the life of an unlicensed carnival medicine man, selling wonder tonics (one that cures hoarseness) to a crowd full of suckers. Ordered to leave town by the county sheriff, "Doc" soon encounters a three-year-old ragamuffin being mistreated by an old hag on the street. Told the little girl happens to be an orphan she found a year ago and would like nothing more than to pass her off to someone else, it turns out the child, Rosie, takes an immediate liking towards the wiseacre, and follows him. Before he knows it, "Doc" unwittingly becomes her foster father. Fourteen years later, "Doc," still a carnival medicine man, continues to devote himself towards Rosie (Anita Louise), now 17. Over the years, "Doc" and Rosie have lived from carnival to carnival, always one step ahead of the sheriff. For Rosie, she's acquired Doc's strategy by learning the tricks of the trade. While in a small town, Rosie meets a young man named Billy (John Darrow), a law student and son of the prosperous Emma (Florence Roberts) and Mr. Lowe (Frank Beal). Though already in a relationship with Madeline Van Dorn (Lita Chevret), Billy leans his attention towards Rosie. At Billy's 21st birthday party with friends and family in attendance, "Doc," passing himself off as European nobility, becomes a center of attention with his eccentric manner. It is then learned to the dismay of the guests as well as Mrs. Lowe of Rosie not being Doc's real daughter. Problems arise when authorities place Doc under arrest for jewelry store robbery, and place the under-aged Rosie in an orphanage.
For anyone familiar with both stage and screen career of W.C. Fields would notice similarities between Woolsey's "Doc" and Field's surrogate father, Professor Eustace McGargle, from both the 1923 stage production of POPPY and 1925 silent screen adaptation retitled SALLY OF THE SAWDUST, and sound version of 1936's POPPY with Fields in all playing a medicine man who fathers and raises a foundling girl. As surrogate father roles tend to work best for comedians wanting to be more than just comics, Charlie Chaplin's THE VAGABOND (1916) and THE KID (1921), being prime examples, for EVERYTHING'S ROSIE, Woolsey did what he could with such material that could have worked better suited for either a Chaplin or Fields. Editing in certain parts of this 66 minute film are slightly choppy. The screenplay and central character background are under developed. For Rosie, it's obvious she never attended school, having carnival life her sole means of education. Woolsey, whose cigar prop and gift of gab for comedy delivery, could very well be Groucho Marx assuming the lead and attempt in breaking away from his Marx Brothers teaming. But Woolsey being Woolsey, no doubt didn't come off with critical and public acceptance as a solo performer and soon resumed his screen partnership with Wheeler in a series of comedies until his death in 1938.
Regardless of one brief moment of pathos between Woolsey and Louise with organ scoring reminiscent to an old silent movie melodrama, EVERYTHING'S ROSIE is light on sentiment and strong on amusements, best being Woolsey's fortune telling routine to various customers, along with numerous hit and miss one-liners ("A myth is a female moth") that only Woolsey can recite. Never distributed to home video or DVD, this quaint little film, formerly shown on American Movie Classics (prior to 1992), sparingly turns up on Turner Classic Movies. Although the title of EVERYTHING'S DUCKY was actually used for a 1961 Columbia comedy featuring Mickey Rooney, which reportedly didn't do very well, but as for Woolsey, everything's rosie. (**)
Way Out West (1937)
One Good Deed Deserves Another
WAY OUT WEST (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1937), directed by James Horne, a Stan Laurel Production for the Hal Roach Studios, is a way out western comedy starring that classic team of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. If not their funniest, it's definitely one of their finest achievements. Placing Laurel and Hardy in a western setting is a welcome change of pace. For a western, Laurel and Hardy retain their character traits and derby hat trademark. For a western, they don't ride sidesaddle on horses, but travel along in the company of their donkey, Diane. For a western, it's their only attempt in that genre.
The plot is basic and simple. It deals with Stan and Ollie traveling west to Brushwood Gulch where they are to locate and hand deliver a gold mining deed to the daughter of the late Cy Roberts. While on the stagecoach to town, Ollie gets overly familiar with a woman passenger (Vivian Oakland) who turns out to be the sheriff's wife. Learning of his wife's annoyance, the Sheriff (Stanley Fields) orders the two dudes to leave town on the next coach. Ollie obliges, but he and Stan must first fulfill their mission, and they do. After locating the whereabouts of Mary Roberts at a local saloon, they encounter Mary's guardian, saloon owner Mickey Finn (James Finlayson), who give it to his wife, entertainer Lola Marcal (Sharon Lynne), as the rightful heir. After passing off the deed to "Mary Roberts," Stan and Ollie later meet with the real Mary Roberts (Rosina Lawrence), a sweet but extremely overworked young lady working in Mickey Finn's Palace. Realizing their blunder, Stan and Ollie attempt on getting the deed back from these two crooks, which comes with much difficulty to hilarious results.
With 66 minutes of non-stop comedy, song interludes are inserted, none intrusive to the plot, with those including: "Won't You Be My Lovey Dovey?" (sung by Sharon Lynne); "Commencing to Dancing" (Sung by Chill Wills and the Avalon Boys); "In the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia," and "Way Down South in Dixie" (sung by Rosina Lawrence, Laurel and Hardy). Of these fine tunes, the "Commence to Dancing" sequence is most memorable due for Laurel and Hardy's soft shoe dancing.
For many years on broadcast television, the "Lovey Dovey" number was usually edited, with film opening with Stan and Ollie traveling down the dirt road bound for Brushwood Gulch. It wasn't until sometime in the late seventies when WAY OUT WEST would be shown on TV uncut, starting with Public Television, giving repeated viewers a chance to enjoy the movie intact. It's also worth noting how, in the New York City area during the late 1960s, how sometimes TV Guide programmers would confuse the Laurel and Hardy comedy with that of the William Haines own western-comedy of WAY OUT WEST (MGM, 1930) to be shown on the late-late show, or visa versa.
While Haines' WAY OUT WEST is seldom revived these days (even on Turner Classic Movies), it's Laurel and Hardy edition of WAY OUT WEST that's stood the test of time. Interestingly, it's a little known fact that WAY OUT WEST did get nominated for an Academy Award. No, not for best original screenplay (by Jack Jevne, Charles Rogers, James Parrott and Felix Adler), or Best Picture, but for best musical direction (by Marvin Hatley). Accordingly, slapstick and dialog are the essence for WAY OUT WEST or any Laurel and Hardy comedy. Once seen, it's hard to forget Hardy's repeated disappearance into a hidden hole while strolling or running through the riverbed; Laurel's surreal moments singing in both baritone and monotone, and ability to turn his thumb into a flaming torch of fire; Laurel paying homage to Claudette Colbert's classic hitchhiking scene from IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT (Columbia, 1934); Laurel going into hysterics while on the bed of bad girl Lola as she goes through his pockets for the deed; and best of all, James Finlayson, a regular in many Laurel and Hardy comedies dating back to the silent era, doing his now familiar yet often funny direct stares to the camera and intake of air during his constant signs of disbelieve. Finlayson is one of a kind. And where else where can anyone find a movie such as this where the donkey appears to be much smarter than Stan and Ollie.
Distributed to home video in the 1980s (black and white or colorized versions), WAY OUT WEST can be found as a double feature package, along with Laurel and Hardy's other classic, BLOCKHEADS (1938) on DVD. Presented on various cable television channels in later years, including the Comedy Channel (late 1980s), American Movie Classics (1994-96) and finally Turner Classic Movies (TCM premiere: April 1, 2005). As much as SONS OF THE DESERT (1933) and BABES IN TOYLAND (1934) have become best loved Laurel and Hardy products, WAY OUT WEST will definitely be no disappointment either. Commence to laughing. (***1/2)
The Spider Woman (1944)
Deadlier than the Male
THE SPIDER WOMAN (Universal, 1943), produced and directed by Roy William Neil, the seventh installment to the "Sherlock Holmes" franchise starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, the fifth for Universal, ranks another agreeable entry as well as one of the shortest (62 minutes) in the series.
The story begins with series of "pajama suicides" (spelled "pyjama" in the newspaper clipping montage) in the London district where numerous gamblers are found murdered in their beds. When a woman asks her husband, Robert, regarding to these reported suicides, "Where is Sherlock Holmes?" the next scene finds Holmes (Basil Rathbone) on a holiday in Scotland accompanied by his colleague, Doctor Watson (Nigel Bruce). As Watson reads the newspaper stories while Holmes is fishing, it is Holmes, knowing about the case, who's strongly convinced the suicides are actually murders. Moments later, Holmes becomes dizzy, faints and falls into the river. As Watson calls for Holmes, only his hat is seen floating about, followed by the latest newspaper headlines on the drowning death of Sherlock Holmes. It is later learned, to the astonishment of both Watson and Inspector Lestrade (Dennis Hoey) of Scotland Yard that Holmes actually faked his own death in order to secretly go undercover and locate this well-organized gang leader, whom Holmes suspects in being a woman. Disguised as a Hindu named Raghni Singh, Holmes encounters the alluring Adrea Spedding (Gale Sondergaard) at the gambling tables, who turns out to be more of a challenge for Holmes than his arch enemy, Professor Moriarty.
Though the first in the series to eliminate "Sherlock Holmes" in the opening titles, it's a wonder whether or not the movie was initially distributed as SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE SPIDER WOMAN, considering an obvious inserted title, "The Spider Woman" super imposed over a different background, or possibly shortened prior to its theatrical release? Overall, THE SPIDER WOMAN does not disappoint its fans with its fine screenplay developed by Bertram Milhauser, and story lifted from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's story (title source not revealed in opening credits). Holmes, the master of disguises, benefits both film and the legendary crime solver posing as a cockney messenger and a slightly-bearded turban-wearing Hindu. Aside from Holmes and Watson's near death experience from gas fumes and deadly spiders, it is Holmes himself, at the High Holborn Arcade, who ends up on the wrong end of the shooting gallery. Others in the cast include the recurring Mary Gordon as Mrs. Hudson; Arthur Hohl (Professor Adam Gilflower); Vernon Downing (Norman Locke); Alec Craig (Radik); Harry Cording (Fred Garvin); Teddy Infuhr (Larry, Andrea's silent "nephew"); and Belle Mitchell (The Fortune Teller).
Very much a showcase for Rathbone and Bruce, it's no surprise that Gale Sondergaard gathers the most attention here. Her title role, no doubt, is enacted to perfection with her alluring smile and sinister eyes. For its title, THE SPIDER WOMAN gives some indication of a newly proposed film series for Universal. As much as THE SPIDER WOMAN offered this type-cast villainous the opportunity to venom as Holmes description of a "female Moriarty," Sondergaard actually did get to play the leading role in a long forgotten and rarely televised Universal "B" product of THE SPIDER WOMAN STRIKES BACK (Universal, 1946) opposite Rondo Hatton and Brenda Joyce. Regardless of connecting titles and woman's love for deadly spiders, the sequel in name only had Sondergaard assuming a different character portrayal altogether. For this particular Spider Woman, minus eight legs and cobweb surroundings, her Adrea Spedding definitely is deadlier than the male, especially for Sherlock Holmes, who labels her a "remarkable woman."
Available on video cassette (in the 1990s) and later DVD, THE SPIDER WOMAN, formerly part of "Sherlock Holmes Theater" package on broadcast television in the 1960s and 1970s, played on various cable stations over the years, most notably on Turner Classic Movies (TCM premiere: December 26, 2009). Next installment: THE SCARLET CLAW (1944). (**1/2)
Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?
BLOCK-HEADS (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1938), directed by John G. Blystone, is not a comedy short featuring The Three Stooges, but a feature length comedy starring another comedy team simply known by many as Laurel and Hardy. Produced by the Hal Roach Studios, released by MGM, BLOCK-HEADS, resembling a comedy short extended to 57 minutes, is a perfect example how a minor story with enough gag material (whether lifted from other comedies or those starring Stan and Ollie) becomes a laugh-filled comedy classic. Before the story proceeds, it gives out warning that, "The events and characters depicted in this photo-play are fictitious. Any similarity to actors portrayed, living or dead, is purely coincidental and not our fault." Signed Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy.
The story starts off in France during the Great War (World War I) in 1917. Private Stan Laurel is ordered by his commanding officer (William Royle) to remain in the trenches, guarding the post, until relieved from duty, while others in his regiment, including his best pal, Oliver, go off to war. After the Armistice of 1918, soldiers return home and resume with their lives. Move forward to 1938. Stanley still stands guard at the post, with a mountain of bean cans close by. After shooting at a passing airplane, a French pilot (Jean Del Val) lands to tell this soldier that the war has been over for twenty years. Now home from the front, Stanley makes the headline news, "America honors forgotten dough-boy." As Oliver, now living at the exclusive Elite Arms Apartments, is about to go and prepare his one year anniversary celebration with his wife (Minna Gombell), he notices the headline on the front page of a newspaper, "America honors forgotten dough-boy." As he sees the photo with the story, he quips, "I can't imagine anybody being that dumb. (delayed reaction) Oh, yes I can!" Remembering his old pal, Oliver comes to the National Soldiers Home where Stanley is staying. Ollie then invites Stanley to return home with him for a steak dinner and meet the wife. Easier said than done.
Considering the Laurel and Hardy comedies dating back to the late twenties, their movies are never consistent. In almost all of them, they use their own names, indicating a continuing film series, which it's not. It's just a series of movies with new stories using same actors bearing their same names. Laurel and Hardy can be henpecked husbands in one film, or single men the next. One of them can be married, the other a single pal, such as the case in BLOCK-HEADS. Regardless, their basic characters are always the same with derby hats being their official trademarks. Then there's Ollie at one point telling Stanley, "Now here's another fine mess you've gotten me into." With BLOCK-HEADS consisting of many fine messes, Stan's memorable quote here happens to be, "You know how dumb I used to be? Well, I'm better now." Not quite. Invitation to dinner sequence happens to be one mishap after another, thanks to Stanley and scripting material written by none other than former silent comedian, Harry Langdon, with the assistance by James Parrott, Charles Rogers, Felix Adler and Arnold Belgard.
Others members in the cast of Hal Roach stock players include Oliver's next door neighbor, Billy Gilbert as Mr. Gilbert, an avid hunter with a rifle returning home after two months in Borneo to his attractive wife, Mrs. Gilbert (Patricia Ellis) and suspicious nature; Tommy Bond ("Butch" from the "Our Gang" comedies) as a brat playing football in the apartment building; Harry Woods as the boy's tough father; Patsy Moran (Lulu, Oliver's ex-girlfriend); and James Finlayson, a regular in many Laurel and Hardy comedies, seen briefly as an angry tenant whose misunderstanding with Oliver has Stanley alerting the tenants, "There's going to be a fight!" Aside from fine production values and classic underscoring, BLOCK-HEADS is fast-pace and high on laughs. The film itself is a sheer reminder as to how great Laurel and Hardy are as a comedy team. There will never be another likes of them again.
Initially distributed in the 1980s onto home video, either in black and white or colorized format, BLOCK-HEADS, available on DVD (on a double bill with another Laurel and Hardy classic, WAY OUT WEST), had its cable television broadcasts consisting of the Comedy Channel (1980s), American Movie Classics (1994-96) and Turner Classic Movies (TCM premiere: appropriately April 1, 2005). Does Stanley finally get to have his juicy steak dinner with Ollie. Stay tuned and fine out. (***)
What-No Beer? (1933)
Money from Foam
WHAT! NO BEER? (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1933), directed by Edward Sedgwick, is a prohibition-era comedy that marked the closing point to Buster Keaton's career as a star comedian for MGM. Having come a long way since becoming the studio's contract player starting with THE CAMERAMAN (1928), WHAT! NO BEER? far from being prime Keaton, ranges from disappointing to enjoyable. Of the Keaton talkies, WHAT, NO BEER? appears to be his better known movie title, particularly by beer drinkers, naturally. It also pairs Keaton once again with Jimmy Durante for the third and final time, here sharing equal billing above the title, being more of a showcase for Durante rather than Keaton himself.
The story introduces Elmer J. Butts (Buster Keaton), a taxidermist, closing shop to attend a political rally as campaigners march down the street holding a sign reading, "Vote for Horace Frisby, the People's Choice." While in attendance, Elmer is smitten by the presence of Hortence (Phyllis Barry), a companion of mob boss and bootlegger, Butch Lorado (John Miljan). Jimmy Potts (Jimmy Durante), a neighborhood barber and Elmer's best pal since babies in a cradle, returning home from a fishing trip, comes upon a get-rich-quick scheme of being the first to open a brewery and sell beer once Prohibition is repealed. Elmer finances Jimmy $10,000 to open up an abandoned brewery where the two go to work manufacturing beer with the assistance of three homeless men (Roscoe Ates, Henry Armetta and Charles Dunbar) they've found flopping about inside the building. As the election voters put an end to Prohibition, it's still not yet outlawed, causing Elmer and Jimmy to encounter further problems with authorities and rival gangsters, Lorando and Spike Moran (Edward Brophy) the latter with the intent of cutting in on their business, creating a gang war in the process.
Considering the numerous times Keaton acquired the "Elmer" name during his MGM years (1928-1933), this would be the only time he assumed the exact same name from another movie, FREE AND EASY (1930). Whether Keaton's character name of Elmer J. Butts from WHAT, NO BEER! is the same one from FREE AND EASY is uncertain. It might very well be two different characters bearing the exact same name played by the very same actor since there's really no evidence of this being a sequel. In FREE AND EASY, Keaton's Elmer is a garage owner who happens in Hollywood where he unintentionally becomes a comedy actor. In WHAT, NO BEER! he's now a taxidermist who keeps portions of his fortune inside stuffed animals. Yet, on the surface, this appears to be the same Elmer J. Butts three years later. His lovesick "Elmer" character could very much be Elmer from DOUGHBOYS (1930) or Homer in SIDEWALKS OF NEW YORK (1931). In Keaton tradition, there's a series of pratfalls to get a few laughs. Though many consider Durante a mismatch for Keaton, somehow they work favorably together here, even though Durante gets most of the attention with both his schnozzola with constant catch phase of "hotchichacha!"
With gag material few and far between, the most notable sequence turns out to be the rolling of the barrels down the hilly street, a scene reminiscent of rolling boulders from Keaton's masterpiece, SEVEN CHANCES (Metro, 1925). The boulders from the silent classic is classic Keaton. The re-enactment here makes more sense, though this new sequence, quite short, works much better in silent comedy than in sound comedy. Other minor highlights consist of Keaton and Durante's struggle at the voting booth; Keaton's day in the park with Hortense, and occasional amusing Durante one-liners. Hotchichacha!
The editing and pacing are tightly done, with certain scenes ending in sudden blackouts or gag material in abbreviated form. Released at 66 minutes, it leaves indication WHAT! NO BEER? to have been initially longer. In release form, however, it plays like an extended comedy short. Take notice that the aerial view of office workers used in one scene is one lifted from director King Vidor' THE CROWD (MGM, 1928).
Not revived in many years, WHAT! NO BEER? saw its rediscovery where this, and other classic movie titles from the MGM library, aired on Turner Network Television starting in 1988. As classic film titles slowly phased out from TNT in favor of more contemporary ones by 1991, WHAT! NO BEER? turned out to be one of its longer surviving oldies, ending its run by 1993 before becoming part of the Turner Classic Movies line-up which began in 1994. Distributed to home video, it's currently found in the DVD format. Next time it turns up on TCM, have some beer, sit back and watch the movie, compliments of Keaton and Durante. If beverage is unavailable, simply say, "What! No Beer?" (**1/2)
The Passionate Plumber (1932)
Parlor, Bedroom and Wrath
THE PASSIONATE PLUMBER (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1932), a Buster Keaton production directed by Edward Sedgwick, stars Buster Keaton in his second "farce" comedy, the first being PARLOR, BEDROOM AND BATH (MGM, 1931). With screen adaptation by Laurence E. Johnson, and uncredited material lifted from the play "Her Cardboard Lover" by Jacques Deval, THE PASSIONATE PLUMBER, its new title, certainly improves over Keaton's previous screen sound efforts for MGM (1930-33). Though not quite a cinematic masterpiece as one could have hoped for, it's basic flaws tend to be placed on certain gag and story material as being undeveloped with resolutions left unresolved. Overlooking these minor aspects, the finished product generally blends in nicely with its basic comedy premise, even for Keaton.
Set in Paris, France, with the Arch of Triumph captured in full view for its opening, the story introduces Julius J. (J. for Julius) McCracken (Jimmy Durante) coming to Paul Le Maire's (Paul Porcasi) shop in need of a plumber for his employer to fix a leak in the shower. Julius gets Elmer E. (E. for Elmer) Tuttle (Buster Keaton wearing beret), an American from Yonkers, working on his latest experiment, a spot shooting pistol. After these strangers get introduced, next scene has Elmer escorted into the mansion of socialite Patricia Alden (Irene Purcell) where he goes to work on her shower. In the meantime, plot development introduces Alhine (Polly Moran), the household maid whom McCracken is crazy about, and how much Miss Alden is crazy about Tony Lagorce (Gilbert Roland), a handsome gigolo, whose Spanish speaking wife, Nina (Mona Maris), refuses to grant him a divorce. Unaware to Miss Alden, Tony is actually carrying on a romance with Nina, using Patricia as his excuse for a wife, too, refusing to grant him a divorce. Hoping to make Tony jealous, Patricia hires Elmer as her lover decoy, or better yet, her passionate plumber, resulting to a series of mishaps for all concerned.
Previously filmed at the tail-end of the silent era as THE CARDBOARD LOVER (MGM, 1928) starring Marion Davies,and Nils Asther, and remade again as HER CARDBOARD LOVER (MGM, 1942) starring Norma Shearer and Robert Taylor, the Keaton carnation proves most interesting due to how its writers revamped a sophisticated comedy to fit with the opposite comedic talents of deadpan Keaton and over zealous Durante. Though their characters start off as complete strangers, only minutes into the story does it give the impression of they being lifelong pals. Even before the store comes to the halfway mark is it forgotten that Keaton's character is a plumber. It's a wonder if he ever got to finish fixing the shower and make up the bill for his time?
Of the several comedy highlights, including Keaton's gambling mishap at the Casino de Paris and the gigolo's attempt of keeping his two mistresses from getting together, the best known and/or most admired happens to be the dueling sequence between Keaton and Roland, with Durante in amiable support. Though it has its moments, it's obvious how this burlesque style pistol dueling would be recycled by future comedians as Bob Hope, Danny Kaye, or even one of the Three Stooges as prime examples. Keaton's frequent glove slapping Frenchmen to duels and correcting those who constantly mispronounce his last name, along with Mona Maris' constant Spanish speaking outbursts (done more favorably by Mexican actress Lupe Velez in later years) to Mexican born Gilbert Roland in saying in her accented English, "If you could only speak Spanish," are agreeable run-on gags. It's also a wonder how Velez might have handled such similar scenes had she been selected to play the spitfiring wife instead of Maris?
Others featured in the cast are Maude Eburne (Aunt Charlotte); Henry Armetta, Jean Del Val and Edward Brophy (Keaton's frequent co-star during his MGM years) in a cameo appearance as the man outside the beauty parlor. Irene Purcell, a not so well known actress with so few movies to her credit, makes an acceptable foil for Keaton's buffoonery. Closely resembling Joan Blondell in physical appearance and Genevieve Tobin in both mannerism and speech, she takes part in some good scenes involving Keaton, one where she gets served breakfast in bed (in the silent film tradition with limited dialog), and another where she constantly tries losing him so she can have a secret meeting with her lover. Polly Moran, better known for her screen partnership opposite Marie Dressler, has some funny bits here, too, few and far between, but mostly with Durante.
As much as Keaton and Durante are as compatible as Stan Laurel and Harpo Marx, MGM would pair them again in SPEAK EASILY (1932) and WHAT, NO BEER! (1933) before ending their screen partnership. Virturally forgotten over the years, this and other Keaton MGM comedies can be seen and studied whenever broadcast on cable television's Turner Classic Movies. Keaton's Elmer may not be the greatest plumber in Paris, but certainly is passionate, in a funny sort of way. (***)
On the Sunny Side (1942)
Across the Atlantic
ON THE SUNNY SIDE (20th Century-Fox, 1942), directed by Harold Schuster, suggested on Mary McCarthy's "Fraternity," is a simple-minded story about boys, two ordinary boys in fact, of different backgrounds coming together during World War II: one British, the other American. For being programmer of only 70 minutes, this comedy-drama, lacking marque names of major interest then and now, very much belongs to the boys in question, the mild mannered British born Roddy McDowall, and the highly spirited, all-American Freddie Mercer, best known as LeRoy Forrester in the short-lived "Great Gildersleeve" film series (RKO Radio, 1942-44).
The simple plot, reminiscent of similar screenplays that preceded it (Jackie Cooper movies from the early thirties comes to mind), unfolds in typical fashion in a small American town of Englewood, Ohio, the home of a typical American family of 4218 Elm Drive: George Andrews (Don Douglas), his wife, Mary (Katherine Alexander); their 12-year-old son, Donnie (Freddie Mercer), his companion dog, Angus; and their housekeeper, Annie (Jane Darwell). One bright morning while gathered together for breakfast, the family receives a telegram revolving around the father's returning favor for a British family he earlier met in England by agreeing to have their son come live with them for the duration of World War II. Upon coming to the United States by boat, sharing passage with other refugee children escaping the London blitz, Hugh Aylesworth (Roddy McDowall) becomes a delightful addition to the family through his refined English mannerisms. With Donnie and Hugh sharing everything together, including Donnie's friends and having him part of his many activities. he soon becomes jealous over Hugh's popularity in school and at the clubhouse where the members would rather have Hugh appointed president over Donnie. Things become worse as Donnie's girlfriend, Betty (Ann Todd), starts fussing over Hugh, and apparently noticing the same treatment coming from his own parents.
Having made a wonderful impact under John Ford's Academy Award winning direction/ Best Picture winner of HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY (20th, 1941), where Roddy was billed simply as "Master Roddy McDowall," ON THE SUNNY SIDE, his fourth movie, is an agreeable little film seemingly geared mostly for the juvenile crowd. Consisting of enough kids to go around in the similar fashion of Hal Roach's "Our Gang" comedy shorts of the thirties, minus the antics of Alfalfa, Spanky and Darla Hood for amusement purposes, there are other kids to do the same, but not as effective, including Stanley Clements (Tom Sanders, the trouble making bully); Freddie Walburn (Dick); Leon Tyler (Flip); Claude Binyon (Billy); and Tommy Tucker (Boots). As for the adults, the cast consists of Jill Esmond (Mrs Aylesworth); Doris Lloyd (Mrs. Whitaker); and Billy Benedict (The Messenger).
Unseen in the television markets since the 1960s or so, with limited broadcasts in recent years, namely from cable television's Fox Movie Channel, ON THE SUNNY SIDE remains virtually forgotten by today's standards. With limited highlights, worthy mention includes how the boys adjust to each other's customs and way of speaking; Hugh getting accustomed to American slang from Donnie's now outdated phrases of "That's keen," "Jeepers," and "Swell," and Donnie's adjusting to McDowall's tea time and midnight outbursts in his sleep as he mistakes an outside police siren for a London air raid. The scene involving Hugh talking with his parents via short-wave radio is well-handled, showing the reflection of the times. In traditional kid movies, there's some fighting involved, and vengeful practical joke or two, resulting to saying to oneself, "Boys will be boys." Though ON THE SUNNY SIDE leaves the impression for an upcoming sequel that never comes, this minor little film does manage to leave one with good feeling on the sunny side. (**1/2)