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Show Them No Mercy! (1935)
Rochelle Hudson Shines in Gritty, Gripping Drama
Darryl F. Zanuck had been executive producer at Warners/First National and had launched such trend setters as "Little Caesar" (1930) and "The Public Enemy" (1931) so when he left to establish Twentieth Century Pictures he was determined to keep up the hard hitting "plucked from the headlines" stories. When Zanuck merged with Fox, a top studio in the late 1920s that was now ailing, "Snatched" was among the first group of releases. It was Zanuck's first gangster film since his Warner days and had been penned by Kubec Glasmon, co-author of "The Public Enemy" but it ran into problems. The production code committee was appalled and refused to sanction a film involving a kidnapping (the film was based on the Weyerhauser kidnapping case), so in an insightful bit of rewriting, the story begins after the kidnapping. The title also had to be changed before a "purity seal" could be issued so the punchy "Show Them No Mercy" was substituted.
By the mid thirties studios had knuckled under to censorship that decreed that criminals had to take a back seat to the sterling heroes of law enforcement and initially films like "G Men" created a sensation but it soon became the norm - so a film like "Show Them No Mercy" broke new ground with the police kept in the background and the horrifying plight of the trapped family propelling the narrative.
The Martins, driving to California with their little girl and family dog, seek shelter from a rain storm in a desolate farmhouse. There is a build up of tension instantly, the ramshackle homestead looks as though it has been used - the fire is stacked, there is a recent newspaper on the floor, all laughed off by Loretta (Rochelle Hudson), noises are heard in different parts of the house - all adding to the viewer's suspense.
The place isn't deserted, it's being used by the kidnappers who are just returning with the ransom money. The dapper Tobey (Cesar Romero) is the leader but he also has to keep the psychotic Pitch in line. Bruce Cabot gives a powerhouse performance and easily over shadows his Keefer in "Let 'Em Have It" of the same year. Initially seen as a dumb thug, Pitch is revealed as a sadistic psychopath who becomes increasingly vicious under the influence of alcohol. Apparently Cabot based his character on "Mad Dog" Coll, a racketeer whose death was welcomed even by his own kind.
The Martins are kept prisoner in a locked room but when Tobey takes Joe into town to pass off some ransom money, Pitch, drunk and brutal, is very keen to get rid of Loretta and that "squalling brat" once and for all. Again the tension mounts as Joe realising the danger drives like a maniac to get back in time - pretty scary stuff!!
Rochelle Hudson was terrific as the at first contented wife whose dramatic scene when she defies the criminals is unforgettable and Edward Norris gives a nice performance as easy going Joe who is out of his depth when confronted by these low lifes. Makes you wonder why both didn't go on to better things. 1935 may well have been Hudson's best year. The scene where, manning a machine gun, she riddles Pitch with bullets was confronting and brutal, as well as realistic. Cesar Romero often said this was his favourite role. He tried to give the ruthless criminal a few glimpses of a more sophisticated personality.
Born Reckless (1930)
Lee Tracy Keeps Things Natural!!
While keeping a respectable blue collar working man front to his family, Louis Beretti (Edmund Lowe) is in reality a shady mobster who has managed to evade police - until now!! Faced with a stint up the river, a young reporter (razor sharp Lee Tracy) convinces the D.A. to send the jewel thief overseas to serve his country - if he makes good his bad record will be wiped!!
It's a film that seems to be lost amid genres - starting off as a "public enemy" tale it then goes to War with Lowe donning his Captain Flagg mantle for a bit of insouciance amid the "war is hell" theme. Arriving back a hero - he decides to go straight so he opens a nightclub (complete with bootleg booze!!) but it takes all his strength to resist his old mob. First he finds out that his sister's husband has been gunned down by an embittered rival and while audience members know instantly who it is, it takes Beretti until the end of the movie and by that time he is up to his ears in hunting down a child who has been kidnapped by his old gang.
William Fox with his love of gadgetry and his extravagance saw the merits in talking pictures before any other studio. In 1928 he was buying up theatre chains to equip them with sound, an act that would prove his undoing when the stock market crashed, but it did mean that by 1929 John Ford was backed up to take a gamble filming outdoor scenes. There was still an early talkies "experiment" that required two directors - one a seasoned silent director, the other usually an up and comer. Don't know who directed what on this movie set but it definitely wasn't John Ford's finest hour. As with Edmund Lowe who had still to perfect the debonair man about town persona that he would do so in a couple of year's time. His Beretti is too flip with not enough feeling and he is not helped by Catherine Dale Owen, surely the world's worst actress!! She was noted for her beauty but even though she (mercifully) only made a few films her acting didn't improve. She always seemed to me as if she was giving a speech from a podium, even when she was just saying hello!!
Definitely the three best actors were Lee Tracy who kept all his scenes natural and terrifically had a pretty big part, Warren Hymer was his usual dependable self as "Big Shot", a childhood pal of Beretti and Frank Albertson in a small part as a wealthy, irresponsible enlisted man - he may have been annoying in a bigger part but as it was his giggling breeziness was just right!!
Just Off Broadway (1929)
The Whoopee Racket!!
Even by 1929 when most studios (especially, amazingly, the little ones that had a "what have we got to lose" attitude) were already embracing "all talkies", many cinemas out in rural areas were not equipped for sound. Wiring a cinema for sound cost money and maybe it was just a passing fad after all MGM hadn't fully embraced it yet with stylish movies like "Our Modern Maidens" and "The Kiss" still only released with musical tracks. So when these rustic cinemas wanted a movie to show, most of the time they were given sound films with inserted titles - these films are easy to recognise, they spend a lot of time with the actors standing around talking, then with a few titles thrown in, usually with the latest wisecracks. Chesterfield got it's start in sound's early days and was easily identifiable from the striking silhouette of Lord Chesterfield.
The two likable stars were Donald Keith who co-starred along with Clara Bow in "The Plastic Age" but whose career was just about over by the end of the 1920s. Pretty Ann Christy looked a better bet, she had been a 1928 Wampas Baby Star whose big achievement was replacing Jobyna Ralston in Harold Lloyd's "Speedy" but she only made a few features and by the time of "Just Off Broadway" her career had dried up.
"Just Off Broadway" - down Liberty Street is where it all happens - bootleggers have their headquarters, as well as it being the hub of the theatre district. Tom Fowler (Keith) is due to take a well earned holiday after a strenuous college year, all courtesy of his generous brother Ed. But unbeknownst to Tom Ed earns his money as a bootlegger, not a high flying lawyer as he claims. And it is about to get pretty nasty as rival racketeer Marty Kirkland (Larry Steers, a very familiar face, usually playing police etc) plans to take over the racket and leaving no prisoners!! Drawn into the ruse is Nan (Christy) a dancer at "Club Rene" who is assigned to show Fowler a good time and keep him at the hotel until Kirkland gets the machine guns at the ready!!
Once Tom learns of his brother's death he is all for going after Kirkland himself and becomes a permanent fixture at the "Club Rene" where he and Nan end up falling for each other. She calls it the "whoopee racket" and while she is nice she is learning the ropes and at the beck and call of Kirkland, the club manager, who secretly plans to ditch the older Rene and install vivacious Nan as the club's new hostess. Still by the time she is called on to lure Tom to certain death, she is determined to save him.
The movie is okay, more of you've seen this sort of theme done a whole lot better but I think, it's the slang and up to the minute (1929 style) phrases that will draw you in. "Take him for a ride" is uttered so many times, as well as "have you got your gats" and a new one "it's just a whoopee racket"!!
Mystery Ranch (1932)
Is There No Evil Under the Sun That Charles Middleton Won't Stoop To!!
The 1920 story "The Killer" by Steward Edward White told of a rancher with a mania for killing anything that crossed his path. Presumably based on a true story, it was made as a silent and then again in 1932 by Fox who used it for one of their series of George O'Brien westerns. A quality thriller in every way - screenplay was by Al Cohn who had crafted "The Cat and the Canary" and "The Last Warning". The director was David Howard who had been busy directing Spanish language versions of Fox movies including "The Big Trail" and "Charlie Chan Carries On".
Filming was done on location in Arizona (where the real deeds had taken place) and top marks go to Charles Middleton who has never been better (and that's saying something!!) as Henry Steele, the crazy rancher whose reign of terror has incited the State Rangers to send for trouble shooter Bob Sanborn (George O'Brien). The moody evocative lighting of cinematographer Joseph August makes for a spine tingling start as yet another rancher is strangled and strung up. A little later when Bob rescues Jane Emory (beautiful Cecilia Parker looking a lot like Joan Bennett) on a runaway horse Steele says "I was just scolding this chap" - the man is half dead through being flogged!!
At 57 minutes there is no wasted space - Bob accepts Steele's hospitality and is very soon made aware that Jane is in great danger and, in another unusual bit of casting, his sidekick is Artie (Forrester Harvey), a jaunty little cockney ex-jockey. There's plenty of riding action with O'Brien, and Parker is stunning but Middleton just commands all the attention. His clipped, precise tones reek menace whether to Jane when he informs her that they are to be married in the morning "I am doing the gentlemanly thing when I could just take"!! Or at the end "If you want to serve that warrant you will have to do it in Hell"!! To say nothing of the punishment he dishes out to Artie who has sneaked into town to tell Bob the secret plans - needless to say it includes being hog tied to a killer horse!! Also of note is the great Noble Johnson who plays Mudo, a mute Apache warrior devoted to Steele and as deadly as his master!!
The Final Extra (1927)
Gorgeous Marguerite De La Motte
Grant Withers had many jobs before he started in films - even a used car salesman where, maybe, he got his brash confidence that came through in his early film years. This is quite an early one and he has the male lead opposite the beautiful Marguerite De La Motte. After appearing in "The Mark of Zorro" she was taken under the wing by Doug and Mary and also having the reputation of being a great beauty didn't hurt her career. "The Final Extra" combined those two essential 1920's themes - back stage drama with the power of the press. Being a silent movie didn't stop studios from exploring the emotive world of Broadway's bright lights.
Pat Riley (Withers) may have been big on the Harvard football field but on the Daily Tribune he is "Cholly Meadowbrook" - King of the "pink tea and society" pages. He is desperate to have a go at cracking "The Shadow" story - a mysterious, elusive Mr. Big who is boss of the rum runners, but he is still happy to take on the assignment of reviewing the new Gaiety Show, literally falling head over heels for promising chorus girl Ruth Collins (Motte). Pat finds out that Ruth's dad is Tom Collins, legendary Tribune reporter who is so close to breaking the racketeering story. He is gunned down on his birthday but as Ruth mourns there is someone else around to help her pick up the pieces - it is dapper Broadway producer and man about town, Mervin Le Roy(really interesting - almost the same name as a later director) (John Miljan) who dazzles her with his understanding and patronage. When Pat, now back on the social columns, is sent to cover an event at Le Roy's country house, he is shocked to find Ruth dancing at this questionable party!!
Motte had trained as a dancer, apparently under Anna Pavlova and her dancing in this was graceful and skilled, also helped by the choreography of Larry Ceballos who would become famous for some sparkling routines from early talkie musicals. It is a pretty nifty film where chorus cuties hob nob with the underworld - as the other reviewer states, it's not hard to figure out who the elusive "Shadow" is, even though the director goes to great lengths to make sure he is filmed only in shadowy silhouette. There is plenty of fighting action as Withers has two big fisticuff scenes. In fact the only thing standing in the way of this being 1st class is the pretty shoddy print.
The Glass Web (1953)
Robinson Adds Class and Verve to Otherwise Mundane Thriller!!
If you can't beat 'em, join 'em!! - maybe that's what Universal was thinking when they gave this crime thriller a television studio setting. Another novelty that was tried was 3D (although the film was finally released in the normal flat format), which in 1953 was supposedly going to be filmdom's secret weapon to lure people away from their TV sets (it didn't work). Edward G. Robinson lent his considerable talents (and this film needed all the help it could get) - he played Henry Hayes, a frustrated researcher on a weekly crime show. He yearns for attention to detail and the finer points but in the slipshod world of churn 'em out crime shows of early television, near enough is good enough.
Behind the scenes there is just as much intrigue as in front of the camera. Henry's "it's all in the detail" has it's origins in trying to give voluptuous leading lady Paula, a bigger part. Kathleen Hughes was a budding 1950s Universal-International starlet known more for her looks and stunning figure than her acting ability. But Wow - she plays the part of the merciless tramp with a heart of steel to the hilt. She treats Henry with contempt while only too eagerly grabbing whatever money he throws at her. But she has bigger fish to fry, she is also conducting an affair with Don Newell (a young John Forsythe), the show's director. He is happily married and realises it has been a ghastly mistake but Paula has an ace up her sleeve in the pair of Don's pyjama bottoms that she has deftly swiped from his suitcase - she wants $2500 as a first instalment.
Hughes has a few big scenes - especially of note, one with Robinson where she almost spits out her dialogue, putting him down, bringing out all the venom she can muster. It's hard to understand what happened to Hughes, not only was she drop dead gorgeous, she was a terrific actress as well. As if Paula doesn't have enough on her plate, she also has a husband fresh out of prison but that doesn't stop her telling him exactly what he can do with his crude manners and loud clothes!! So when she is found dead there are suspects a plenty!!
Having been shot in 3D, there had to be a few gimmicky shots - in the scene where Newell walks dazedly along the street there are swerving trucks, falling lumps of coal that seem to be heading straight into the camera, all designed to thrill 3D viewers!! Robinson added solid professionalism to the movie but when he wasn't involved in the scene, the film proved just a mundane who done it - Forsyth just didn't have the charisma to carry it off. Richard Denning's character could have been expanded upon - he plays a shallow network executive and in his effort to keep everyone happy, every idea is a great idea!!
Mary Stevens, M.D. (1933)
"the little girl who always understands"
If Kay Francis thought Warner Bros. was going to give her more prestigious roles than she was used to at Paramount she was sadly mistaken. Kay was one of the stars poached from Paramount by Warners who saw in her someone they could develop into a classy and elegant performer. William Powell and Ruth Chatterton were soon regretted but Kay was persevered with. "Mary Stevens, M.D." may have masqueraded as a soapy, emotive romance but it gave Kay a great role as a warm, loving woman who also excels at a man's profession. Kay plays Mary who along with chum Don Edwards (Lyle Talbot) go into practise together but she chides Don for doubting her ability. "A woman couldn't do it, but you're a superwoman" he glows - he can see her as a doctor but turns to blonde society girl Lois to fulfil his desire. The only person to give Mary the support and confidence that she needs is nurse Glenda, played by the ever reliable Glenda Farrell.
As the first scene shows, it's not only the closed shop of the medical world where Mary finds herself up against it - Harold Huber gives an unusually emotive performance as an over wrought, harassed father who can't come to terms with the fact that they sent him a - shock! horror!! - woman doctor!!
While she diligently plies her trade as a pediatric doctor determined to help those in most need, Don is more interested in the Easy Street end of town. He marries socialite Lois Rising (Thelma Todd, who in all the melodrama is only allocated 2 scenes). Making it clear it was a marriage of convenience because of the prestige and promotion her crooked D.A. father could give him, Don takes to the high living too well and finds he is on borrowed time when he turns up drunk for a charity case operation but, fortunately, Mary stands in for him.
A year later Mary has a lucrative practice but Don, who has been taking under the counter payments for charity operations, is hiding out from a grand jury indictment. Both he and Lois are unanimous in wanting a divorce but when the court case is dismissed Lois's father wants her to hold on to him anyway she can, at least for a few months - "you're a woman, you can think of a way"!! Suddenly Don is informed he will soon hear the patter of little feet!! Before this, Don who has been rejoicing at the thought of his soon to be freedom, meets Mary at Sulpher Springs health hideaway.
It soon gets pretty sudsy with Mary realising that she too is expecting a blessed event and going the usual route of a discreet trip to Europe where - surprise!! surprise!! she returns with a baby she just had to adopt!! The scene where she informs pal Glenda of her predicament is very pre-code in her loud and proudness - there is no beating about the bush! "I'm pregnant"!! she announces to a stunned Glenda - then the bathos starts! Of course marriage plans are stalled and on the way back on the boat Mary is thrown into an onboard epidemic of infantile paralysis!! Thank goodness for Glenda Farrell's wise-cracking to stop things getting even more maudlin and stickier!!
Human Desire (1919)
Captivating Anita Stewart!!
If Anita Stewart is remembered at all it is as the star who launched Louis B. Mayer into the film producing business. She first met Mayer through a newsboy, Toby, who was one of her biggest fans, he also felt Mayer was destined for greatness and set about a meeting. Mayer felt her signing would be a huge feather in his cap. Vitagraph refused to release her so she began to have "sick" days. The case went to court and Vitagraph won - Anita was forced to finish her last two films. She was miserable as Vitagraph started building up a new discovery, Corinne Griffith, at her expense and when she finally did get over to Mayer she couldn't regain her lost popularity. "Human Desire" was one of the two films that she owed Vitagraph but interestingly it had a Mayer insignia.
When artist Robert Lane's (Conway Tearle, dare I say it, looking pretty youthful) bored, dissatisfied wife, Helen, goes to Naples she meets Berenice (Stewart), an orphan who has been bought up in a convent but yearns to give her heart and love to all the little "bambinos"!! She is an innocent and when Helen tells her that in America babies and children are often neglected, she decides to go there "as it can't be far, after all, the fine ladies came in a carriage"!!!
Anita Stewart was such a captivating personality and even though by 1919 this film was at the end of her popularity, it ticked all the boxes of the type of characteristics her fans knew and loved. From the start of her career fan magazines had written of the Anita Stewart charm, virginity and purity and a complete all round girl. Who knows how long she would have been able to keep giving her adoring public what they wanted.
Masquerading as a boy, she catches the eye of Jasper Norton (Robert Steele) who helps her with her passage to America. He organises a convent sister to meet her at the New York docks but as luck would have it Berenice is lost in the crowd and finds herself alone, hungry and friendless on Robert Lane's doorstep. He is at the cross roads with his huge canvas "Madonna and Child" - the model, while a great girl, is hardly Madonna material and the baby won't stop crying. Berenice is a life saver who calms everyone around her. Soon a chaste love springs up between the two and while Robert can't marry because Helen refuses to grant him a divorce, he can grant Berenice's wish by adopting a child for her to love. But then - disaster!! Helen drops by when Robert is visiting his sick mother and destroys Berenice's happiness by casting doubtful aspersions on their living arrangements (she also thinks the baby is their own) and calling her "a woman of your kind", Berenice goes out of her mind and is taken to the hospital!!
There are plenty more adventures - as well as an interesting scene showing just how decent working girls pooled their resources and shared a flat - Robert's model rescues Berenice from the streets and once again her maternal instincts become invaluable as she looks after the flatmate's toddler.
I may have thought Tearle looked youngish but in reality he was in his 40s when he made "Human Desire", having come into films only a couple of years previously after having been on the stage for over a decade. Naomi Childers who played Lane's sister and did feature prominently in the movie as a good friend to Berenice had been a Ziegfeld Follies girl and was once voted the world's most beautiful woman. She was known as "The Girl With the Grecian Face".
The Mark of the Whistler (1944)
A Typical Woolrichian Story Full of Interesting Twists!!
Apparently Richard Dix wasn't too keen on the Whistler series, he didn't like the characters he often played - oddballs, psychotics etc but the series gave him some of the most challenging roles of his career. This was the second entry in the series (the first, "The Whistler" had Dix as a man who organises an assassination on himself, then frantically tries to find the unknown assailant when his luck changes). Cornell Woolrich had just had paperback editions of his noir classics "Phantom Lady" and "The Black Angel" released and Hollywood once more opened it's doors to him. One of his first assignments was "The Mark of the Whistler" one of the best of the series. Dix plays a vagrant who sees a bank notice for unclaimed money. He finds one of the recipients has his name and so he meticulously does a back ground check and presents himself at the bank to claim the money. Answering questions glibly, it is easy to convince the authorities but what he thought was $100 turns out to be closer to $30,000. With a now familiar plot twist, the Lee Nugent identity he has appropriated seems to have a few secrets of his own.
Outstandingly directed by William Castle, all the flair and verve were present at the start of his career. There are some terrific close-up shots of actors who at that moment don't seem particularly relevant - a crippled peddler (Paul Guilfoyle) who Lee uses as a ruse to prevent his being photographed for the papers. He responds to Lee's kindness but his character reveals hidden twists. Lee is suddenly pursued by some shadowy gangster figures but in true Woolrich fashion "gangsters" is far from the right word. And because his conscience is bothering him from the start Lee sees suspicious looks everywhere - even the customers at the bank (the security guard confides that because of his windfall he is now quite the celebrity)!!
Janis Carter who was to have such a pivotal role in "The Power of the Whistler" had a very back ground role here as a pushy photographer. Even though this film was superior to the first entry, critics had praised the original so much they had almost run out of steam and it wasn't given the kudos it deserved!!
Windy Riley Goes Hollywood (1931)
After "Beauty Prize" - This??
The fact is that Louise Brooks was completely broke and desperately needed the $500 that appearing in this short would bring her. So instead of a memorable, magnificent feature to proclaim "Lulu Speaks", we have this dreary, unfunny comedy made by lowly Educational which gave the production to their low budget comedy unit "Mermaid Comedy Company". Many famous comedians (Buster Keaton, Harry Langdon etc) worked for Educational but they were usually on their way down. Jack Shutta wasn't going anywhere (up or down) - his sister Ethel had more fame, being featured in a show stopping number ("Stetson") in "Whoopee" and also being married to band leader George Olsen.
Windy Riley was a comic strip character created in 1929 and in this short comes across as a brash braggart with no winning qualities. He is in a New York to San Francisco car race but takes a wrong turn and ends up in Hollywood where he is given a job as publicity agent for Hollywood Studios to keep him off the streets.
Louise Brooks makes her appearance at about 6 minutes in as giddy Betty Grey (and it's as dire as the other reviews say) - a starlet who is being given her marching orders - if she can't keep herself off the front pages. Enter publicity man Windy who has a great idea to boost her career - yes!! it's let's get her onto the front pages, the juicier the headline the better!! And when you realise that the director of this embarrassment was William Goodrich, a pseudonym for Fatty Arbuckle - how ironic the plot was. Arbuckle had been stripped of his career as the result of a murder trial where a starlet, Virginia Rappe died of injuries sustained at a weekend party held in Fatty Arbuckle's hotel suite in 1921. The lurid headlines kept America glued to Hearst's tabloids but over the years, though the public as well as good friends fought for his film return, the studios didn't forget hence, 10 years later, he was still working under an alias at a little hole in corner studio, hoping desperately for a comeback that never eventuated.
Louise said he was like a dead man during production and there was no attempt at directing - Louise's beauty and grace were not captured. There is a dance scene in the short where a chorus line up was conventionally filmed doing a routine but when Louise floats on to the set she is filmed from the back of the stage and worse, when she finally gets to the front, the scene cuts out. Like Fatty Arbuckle, the film industry found it hard to forgive Louise for being a vibrant part of the 1920s!!