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This 1931 release is weighed down by too much wan dialogue (further impaired by a damaged soundtrack). Gloria Swanson, playing some sort of sophisticated commercial artist, dumps her philandering boyfriend (weasly-faced Monroe Owsley as what else? an irresponsible party boy) for a novelist (charmingly played by Ben Lyon), only to discover months later that her innocent younger sister (Barbara Kent) is now engaged to the cad, whereupon she plots to undo the union. Inserted into this rather unexciting scenario are two good DeSylva, Brown & Henderson numbers, both sung by Swanson ("If You Haven't Got Love" and "Come to Me," the latter sung twice); the music to "One More Time" is heard in a night club scene. If this seems odd for a straight comedy-drama, the reason is that DBH originally wrote the script as a musical. Too bad their plan didn't pan out. Swanson commands the screen but some of the situations she is required to play have dated badly. There are a couple of cute bits of slapstick worked in at a breakfast gathering and a ship's deck, but it's mostly routine and worth a look and listen only if you're a fan of any of the stars or if you like DeSylva-Brown and Henderson songs.
If you're expecting a movie from the late period of Joan Crawford's
career, you will soon realize "Della" is made for TV. In fact, it was a
pilot for what seems to have been intended as a series about a lawyer
and his clients, a sort of "Burke's Law" with a legal theme. In fact,
by superficial coincidence, the star is James Burke.
Partly artistic (some of the blocking is obviously designed with geometric patterns in mind), partly hack (high lit, artificial environments, antiseptic props) part fashion show (every time we see Crawford she's wearing another exquisitely tailored ensemble), part generically boring (dull narration over dull opening montage, albeit with a fine, lush underscoring by Fred Steiner of "Perry Mason" theme-tune fame; dull men saying dull things in dull environments featureless boardroom, picnic spot in nondescript city park with bland participants in spotless boring clothes, except for craggy, wild-haired, slightly rumpled Charles Bickford), part intriguing (references to pagan gods, stars and planets woven into a strong mother-daughter conflict with deep, mysterious roots). It's kind of like a rough sketch for a Eugene O'Neill play that never went beyond an outline and instead became a vehicle for Joan Crawford, who makes her usual post-"Baby Jane" style of star entrance, this time descending a staircase. Regal, defiant, tough; upswept silver-streaked hair, shoulders thrown back, menacing eyebrows. Trim and graceful in long shots, soft-focus in close-ups, she plays the title character, a wealthy recluse who, with her daughter (the attractive but undistinguished Diane Baker), has confined herself to her Downton Abbey-like property for several years except for occasional nighttime drives. What is she hiding? Vampirism? (If only.) Adjacent to her palatial domicile is a private garden festooned with statues of pagan gods that look like backyard kitsch from Walmart. The "moon goddess" wobbles when Baker leans against it; the sun god" ("mother and I made it out of clay when I was little") looks like a replica of a gape-mouthed Aztec temple carving and she feed it flowers for reasons that are never explained. Baker spends a great deal of time gazing at the heavens in her private mini-planetarium which resembles a "Star Trek" set piece.
Into this weird world steps James Burke (a run-of-the-mill actor like Richard Basehart or Dana Andrews: not bad to look at, histrionically competent, but lacking electricity or charismain other words, the perfect complement to Diane Baker). Of course Crawford, with the help of the script and the direction, blows them off the screen, and not subtly either. But back to Burke. He plays a lawyer whose father, Bickford, is on the city council and both would like to convince Crawford to sell her property so that a large aerospace company can relocate its headquarters there and do wonders for the local economy. She agrees by phone to meet Burke to discuss the matter at her place at 2am. Hmmm. While trying to persuade her to sell, he meets and becomes attracted to Baker (also awake and dressed to the nines in the middle of the night) and begins to wonder what is behind this reclusive nocturnal lifestyle. Pop (Bickford) happens to know the answer but he ain't talking'. Otherwise the movie would end at the 30-minute point.
In its time "Della" was probably dismissed as a hopeless clunker, the kind of thing that would have gone straight to video decades later. But through the prism of half a century, certain aspects of it become fascinating if you look at it clinically the way a car mechanic might look under the hood of an Edsel. But if you're expecting a well-conceived and emotionally involving dramatic experience, skip it.
"Dance, Fools, Dance" is one of the better movies of 1931. Its topics
(the spoiled and not-so- spoiled rich, the choices we make between the
easy way and the hard way, alcoholism, the newspaper and bootlegging
games) have ongoing resonance; it moves swiftly; Joan Crawford is
beautiful and arresting even if she gets a little too arch with some of
her line readings in the early scenes; the main supporting players are
all distinct and effective representatives of their types; the dialogue
is frequently snappy.
Bonnie Jordan, a passionate young socialite (Crawford), is introduced saying to her boyfriend during a dull midnight party on a yacht, "If something doesn't happen, l'll die!" whereupon the boyfriend suggests that all of the young hedonists strip and jump into the ocean for kicks. Since this was 1930, they only strip to their fancy underwear, but the point is made. These are flaming and privileged youth just wanted to have fun. Unfortunately for Bonnie and her alcoholic brother Rodney (William Bakewell whatever happened to him? He is terrific in this) their indulgent father drops dead after taking a beating on the stock market and they are left penniless (which in MGM terms translates into sharing a high-ceilinged two-bedroom apartment) andto the horror of the sonhave to get jobs. Bonnie, the more mature of the pair, uses a family social connection to land a spot as a cub reporter covering garden parties and the like for the city newspaper where she befriends a fellow newshound (Cliff Edwards at his peculiar best). Good newsroom shot: The camera pans from one typewriter to another revealing each reporter's story as it's being banged out. Meanwhile, Rodney, desperate to make easy money, agrees to drum up business for a hardened bootlegger (Clark Gable) by persuading his wealthy liquor-consuming former friends to switch to Gable's suppliers. This all leads to big trouble, eventually involving Bonnie, which in turns leads to Gable and Crawford in their first screen pairing.
And now for the highlight of the film: We soon see them full front and center on a sofa in Gable's lair. The screen smolders as these two ferally attractive and impeccably decorated young stars go to it rugged Gable in starched white shirt and black jacket; Crawford in her shimmering satin; he forcing kiss after kiss, first on each of her cheeks as she tries to turn her lips away from his, and then finally hitting the mark. Cinema magic. Another kind of intensity emanates from Natalie Moorhead, as Gable's erstwhile female companion, who gives him the eye as she blows out the flame of his cigarette lighter. Moorhead always made the most of her limited screen time (no more than a few minutes here).
Oh, and we get to see Crawford do one of those lead-footed dances she was forced to perform in early talkies. She has energy, spirit and determination to spare but very little grace.
Unlike most gangster films of the early 30s, this Hearst-produced item was fiercely on the side of the law (with a supporting quote by President Herbert Hoover directly following the opening credits), as personified by Walter Huston, as a charming "everyman" Irish cop with a weak-willed younger brother (Wallace Ford). Huston is a charming family man (extended scenes with his wife and children underscore this point, to distraction) who dedicates himself to wiping out crime in a generic, unnamed American city during Prohibition when bootleggers were the scourge of the nation. Ford, lured by gang moll Jean Harlow, gets mixed up with a crime syndicate (led by German-accented Jean Hersholt uncharacteristically cast as a loathsome Italian gangster). Harlow gets the best lines and is easily the most engaging element of the story. The resolution is earnest if technically clumsy and obvious, but with Harlow, Huston, Hersholt and Tully Marshall, who delivers a rousing courtroom monologue (not to mention a supporting role played by an 11-year-old Mickey Rooney), it's worth a look.
This briskly paced, attractively packaged version of the Dumas classic continues to stand the test of time, owing in large part to Robert Donat, an actor for the ages, and a supporting cast which includes the able Louis Calhern as Donat's strongest enemy, the florid Raymond Walburn as the weakest, and the aristocratic beauty Elissa Landi as the love interest. The story itself is melodrama at its best, with the hook of an innocent man not only wronged by self-seeking villains but wronged in a spectacularly cold-blooded, inhuman manner: railroaded to a veritable dungeon for a crime he did not commit and left to rot forever, only to be saved by a chance encounter with a noble fellow prisoner who bequeaths to him the location of a hidden treasure which he uncovers after a daring escape from his confinement. And then, using his vast fortune, he plots a great act of justice for his enemies, now prominent personages of great corruption, not by stooping to their level, but by cleverly manipulating them into self-exposure and ultimate destruction.
"The Death Kiss," a humor-laced murder mystery set in a Hollywood movie studio, unspools at a snappy pace offering one delight after another: a striking opening, followed by the introduction of a succession of colorful characters played by Everett Van Sloan, Bela Lugosi, Harold Minjir, Alexander Carr, the photogenic Adrienne Ames and David Manners as a studio writer who tries to figure out whodunit. There is a loose, breezy feel, with the camera tracking and panning freely not only around the movie studio but into its nooks and crannies as the dialogue zings with amusing exchanges and wisecracks. There are even hand-tinted flames, gunshots and flashlight beams during various action sequences.
The Horror of Dracula, the Hammer Films remake of the Lugosi classic, takes great liberties with the source (just as F.W. Murnau in Germany and Todd Browning in Hollywood took their own liberties with Bram Stoker's original novel). In Murnau's version the vampire starts out in Transylvania and travels to a port city in Germany to do his evil deeds; in Browning's, it's Transylvania to London; and here it's all geographically condensed to a locality in Germany (albeit with a strictly British accented population). Jonathan Harker, the fellow whose encounter with the vampire launches the story, is introduced not as a clueless real estate agent hoping to close a real estate deal with a mysterious count, but expressly to destroy a creature he already knows is a vampire. He fails, of course, and straightaway ends up among the undead (no returning home, going mad and eating insects in the sanatorium). In fact there is no sanatorium in this film. In some scenes we can see the actors' breath, indicating that they were either shooting interiors outdoors (?) or the heating in the studio was poor to nonexistent. The décor of Dracula's castle is too clean, bright, neat and well-maintained, lacking the dankness and morbidity of its antecedents; there aren't even any spider webs and the coffins look like vinyl stage props. The extravagant use of color, however, heightens the sensuality and emphasizes the blood. In fact, the most compelling moments overall involve the eroticism of the neck biting scenes and the full-throttle passion with which the undead (Valerie Gaunt as a bride of Dracula and Carol Marsh as Lucy) and the victims' maid (Olga Dickie) react to various traumas. Peter Cushing and Michael Gough as the good guys are convincing as stolid 19th century types and Christopher Lee's terse, athletic Dracula seems to suit the pace and budget of the production. There is nothing inherently sinister about him as there was with Lugosi with his pallor, stillness and thick accent; or with Max Schreck's spindly, twisted torso and ratlike features. Lee's impact comes from a menacing glare and prosthetic fangs. In fact, the only time he speaks is in the beginning, with the Harker character. Thereafter it's all hissing, biting, choking and leaping around.
"Burton and Taylor" starts weakly because it takes a while to accept
Dominic West as a dissipated 57-year-old Richard Burton and Helena
Bonham-Carter as legendary glamour puss Liz Taylor. But West wins us
over first of all with his deep voice and cultivated enunciations
(which was what Burton was primarily known for); then secondarily his
Burton-style cheek folds and greying temples provide just enough
distraction from West's own robust youthfulness; finally, West projects
a pervasive worldly cynicism tempered with a basic humanity.
Bonham-Carter has the coloring and heat of Taylor, something of the
physique (though less buxom), slightly similar facial features enhanced
by careful camera angles and she effectively duplicates Taylor's weak,
whiny voice. She redeems herself for her abominable performance in
2012's "Dark Shadows."
The scope of the story, with the exception of one flashback, is wisely limited to several months in 1983 when the famous twice-married, twice-divorced couple reunited to play the leads in Noel Coward's "Private Lives" on Broadway. They were both too old for their parts and Taylor was not remotely adept at stage acting but superficially at least, their own relationship resembled that of the tempestuous couple at the heart of Coward's play. And that was enough for star-struck Broadway audiences to guarantee a financially successful if artistically disastrous - production. Highlights of this extended public embarrassment from early rehearsals through closing night are interspersed with peaks and valleys in the Burton-Taylor personal drama.
Burton emerges as a skilled and erudite artist waylaid by dependency on drugs (alcohol and cigarettes); Taylor as an intelligent but spoiled, pill-popping, self-absorbed star monster, the kind only Hollywood could create; the pair as mutually dependent devourers and enablers of each otherin short, a mythic representation and exaggeration of average couples in general, which indeed was part of their mass appeal.
There are so many revelatory truths scattered amidst the dross of the TV-movie-style mise- en-scene that one can only surmise that the creative personnel behind this effort actually cared about and emotionally connected with their subjects. A few examples: the startling scene backstage when Taylor in mid-conversation with Burton suddenly slugs him in the face for having spoken rudely to her staff moments earlier; the close-up on their hands clasped together and then separating during a curtain call, pointing up the unstable unity-disunity of their relationship as expressed by the failure-success of their play; the dynamic of their on- stage interactions as Taylor, thanks to her sheer star power, gets away with running roughshod over Noel Coward's verbal architecture while Burton, the trained stage veteran, struggles to anchor the proceedings with actorly skill; Burton's frequent quoting from Shakespeare to express powerful feelings, reflective of his early absorption of and inner devotion to the classics of literature which not only fueled his youthful rise to success but sustained him through subsequent decades of personal and artistic dissolution.
This is the second biopic about this pair in the last year, the previous one being the forgettable quickie starring Lindsay Lohan. "Burton and Taylor" manages to obliterate its predecessor.
Devil and the Deep contains a fascinating performance from Charles
Laughton as a submarine commander going nuts with the conviction that
his sultry wife (Tallulah Bankhead) is cheating on him first with Cary
Grant and then Gary Cooper.
The physical production features a claustrophobic studio recreation of a North African town (reminiscent of Von Sternberg's "Morocco" but without the dazzling shadow play), a romantic scene in a starlit desert oasis (said to have been filmed in an actual desert but looking exactly like a painted backdrop) and finally the laughable spectacle of toy boats bobbing around in a tank of water that we're supposed to believe is the Mediterranean.
Bankhead, like other female stars of that historical moment, is made up and coiffed to look like a Garbo clone. The style suits her without overwhelming her innate, distinctive qualities of voice and manner. Laughton's performance prefigures his later Captain Bligh in Mutiny on the Bounty and Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. I prefer his work here to his Bligh, which was sometimes too messily overwrought. This is also the second 1932 film (the other being "Payment Deferred") in which he plays dementia with mad laughter. Cooper is wooden and awkward (and handsome) as usual and Grant does well in a smallish supporting role.
"The Coward" should be seen in order to disprove the oft-made point
that film acting in the early 20th century was overdone. The young and
fresh-faced Charles Ray, who steals this Civil War melodrama from
then-veterans Frank Keenan (a dead ringer for Mark Twain) and Gertrude
Clair, was one of the most naturally appealing young male actors of his
time, and recognized as such by contemporary audiences and critics. Few
of his films have survived, and luckily this rather well preserved
relic contains generous helpings of his talent and magnetism. Sadly,
his career petered out in the 1920s.
There is little of general interest, however, in this simple but overly drawn-out Civil War story of a young man (Ray) whose soldier father (Keenan) forces him at gunpoint to enlist in the Confederate Army for the sake of family honor, if nothing else. There follows a melodrama of desertion, heroism and redemption which could have been told in about 30 minutes if some of the close-ups had been kept to a realistic length, but this was 1915 and cinema audiences apparently needed 60 seconds or so to identify an emotional state from an on screen face.
Some of the indoor scenes bear the telltale sign of having been shot outdoors to take advantage of the natural light (in a parlor scene Keenan's cigar smoke rushes away from his face and the dining room table cloth flutters in the breeze).
Keenan's performance, mostly slow-motion gestures and smoldering glares, seems bizarre by today's standards, but it can't be his fault because the camera and editing are obviously cooperating.
As usual for the era, house slaves are played by white actors in blackface.
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