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In which an impossibly young Fred Mertz peddles "Hoak", 6 August 2014

For several years during the 1920s the De Forest Phonofilm company produced experimental talkie shorts, including some that preserve speeches by prominent public figures, such as Charles Lindbergh and President Calvin Coolidge. While I recognize the historical value of these films, I have to admit the Phonofilms I really enjoy are the ones that offer lighthearted variety acts, especially comedy sketches and/or songs by the likes of Eddie Cantor, Weber & Fields, and Eubie Blake. One short I've discovered recently stars a comic actor who was not particularly well known when his act was filmed, but who earned show biz immortality years later on T.V.'s "I Love Lucy," in the role of the Fred Mertz. That's right, the one and only William Frawley appeared in a Phonofilm way back in 1927, along with his then-wife and stage partner Edna. I can't say this is the funniest routine I've ever witnessed, but it's amusing, certainly enough to hold a viewer's attention for the few minutes it requires to view.

The act is staged before a generic street corner backdrop. Edna enters first, looking about uncertainly. Next comes Fred—oops, I mean Bill—looking remarkably trim, wearing a neat suit and a plaid peaked hat, and carrying a sample case. He whistles brusquely for the young lady to step over. She's a little miffed, but complies. The stranger apologizes for his rudeness, then opens his case, produces a bottle, and launches into a spiel for the amazing cure-all drug he's selling, "Hoak," spelled thusly. This miraculous lozenge relieves gloom, fills flat tires, improves poker hands, and produces hair on Mexican dogs, billiard balls, doorknobs, etc. etc. When the young lady expresses skepticism, our pitchman reads a few testimonials from satisfied customers, then gives her a pill, which we're told will make her sing like a bird. She proceeds to do so, more or less. Whereupon, the lady requests one that will make her dance. The pitchman gives her another pill and she swallows it, but we discover he's mistakenly given her one that turns her into a ventriloquist's dummy; she assumes the floppy posture and grotesque expression of a dummy with startling accuracy. The duo then perform a ventriloquist act. (Notwithstanding the film's title, however, the voice is provided by an unidentified actor offstage; Frawley was not an actual ventriloquist.) The jokes aren't the greatest, but Edna is cute and funny, and steals the show from her husband. What ever became of her, I wonder?

This short is a must for "I Love Lucy" aficionados, vaudeville buffs, and viewers with an interest in early talkies. And as for you Bill Frawley fans out there, well, unless any of his silent films turn up someday, you're never going to see him looking younger than he does here!

Linda (1929)
3 out of 3 people found the following review useful:
The Chicago Tribune got this one wrong, 31 July 2014

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

A beautifully restored print of Dorothy Davenport's rural drama 'Linda' was shown recently as part of the Library of Congress's Mostly Lost 3 festival in Culpeper, Virginia. This late silent feature was all but unknown to most attendees, even dyed-in-the-wool buffs, yet it proved to be a highlight of the festival, the kind of movie that prompts the question "Why haven't I heard of this before?" After the screening I checked the clippings file at the Performing Arts Library in NYC for contemporary reviews, but found, to my surprise, that 'Linda' was greeted with scant enthusiasm by the few critics who bothered to mention it at all. In a review published in the Chicago Tribune in April of 1929, a critic using the name Mae Tinee expressed contempt for the film in no uncertain terms. (And in case you're wondering, "Mae Tinee" was a pseudonym for several journalists who wrote for the Tribune over the years: the name was a pun on the word "matinee," ha-ha.) The Tribune's review of 'Linda' begins with a brisk checklist describing the film, as follows:

KIND: Dilatory drama of a Good Girl.

ACTING: Too good for the story.



QUALITY: Just another movie.

The critic, whoever he or she may have been, then offers an outline of the plot in highly sarcastic language, implying that 'Linda" was nothing more than an old-fashioned, hokey backwoods melodrama of little value. And so it must have appeared in the spring of 1929, especially when we recall that by this time sound cinema was rapidly taking over the market. Most moviegoers favored the newest thing, and that meant talkies full of snappy dialog, hot jazz and dance numbers. Had 'Linda' been produced a year or so earlier it might have found a receptive audience, but unfortunately this sensitively made drama was ignored on its initial release, and quickly forgotten.

Today, however, because the film survives and has been restored, we can appreciate qualities that might not have been readily apparent when it was new. 'Linda' is set among hill people, and the early scenes may remind some viewers of Karl Brown's silent drama Stark Love. Our title character Linda Stillwater (played by Helen Foster) is a bright young woman of unspecified age, seemingly in her mid-teens, who lives in a cabin with her family. Linda helps her careworn mother tend her younger siblings, but also finds time for books, thanks to the attentions of a kindly teacher. Her father is a mean-spirited, brutal man with no steady income. When he tries to sell lumber to the owner of the local mill, Decker (Noah Beery), the latter shows no interest in the deal, but does show romantic interest in Linda. Meanwhile, Linda has fallen for the elegant, well-born doctor (Warner Baxter) who owns property in the area. When Linda's father commands her to marry the much-older Mr. Decker she is horrified at the prospect, but does so in order to keep the peace in her household, specifically to protect her mother from her father's violent temper. Eventually, Linda learns that the crude but tender-hearted Mr. Decker actually loves her, and is ultimately willing to sacrifice his life for her happiness.

The story is undeniably dated, but what makes 'Linda' special is the sensitive direction of Dorothy Davenport, a former actress best remembered as the widow of Wallace Reid. Davenport worked primarily behind the camera after her husband died, writing, producing, and directing. Her career as a director was all too brief, but, based on the evidence at hand, deserves attention. The actors she cast in 'Linda' are superb. I'd never heard of leading lady Helen Foster before seeing this film, and haven't been able to learn much about her, but she is charming and her performance is exceptional. I was startled to learn that she was 22 years old when this film was made; she is convincingly girlish, without being coy about it. Noah Beery, strongly identified with villainous roles, is remarkably sympathetic in a difficult and unusual part. (For a while I expected his character to reveal his true, dastardly nature, in typical Noah Beery fashion, but was pleasantly surprised when he turns out to be a decent guy.) Warner Baxter is fine in a part that calls for dignity, but little else. For me, the biggest revelation in the cast was Bess Flowers, legendary "Queen of the Hollywood Extras," in a featured role as the sympathetic teacher. We've all seen Flowers many times, usually for just a few moments, but in 'Linda' she's so appealing and attractive I had to wonder why she was so seldom entrusted with substantial parts. (Her height may have been a drawback; she towers over Foster in their scenes together.)

In my opinion, the one thing the Tribune's snide critic got right is that the cinematography in 'Linda' is good; only I would call it excellent. Davenport's direction might be termed "languid" in the sense that the story moves at a steady, deliberate pace suitable to the material, which increases in tempo as the story builds to a surprisingly fiery climax. "Just another movie" is precisely what I would NOT call this film, for I found 'Linda' interesting and memorable. Perhaps our temporal distance from the material has lent it more value; we have historical perspective that contemporary viewers lacked. In any case, I feel this is a rewarding film that demands re-evaluation.

1 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
Lubitsch without Lubitsch, 30 July 2014

If you were to watch a few scenes from this film with the sound off, you would see elegantly dressed, upper class people in swanky settings, sipping cocktails and exchanging meaningful looks. Next, you'd likely notice a pair of tubby, comic relief detectives who can't seem to do anything right. You would see some nicely composed shots, with occasional flashy effects using sharp perspective, and a close-up or two filmed through heavy cigarette smoke. You might well conclude that this film was made in Hollywood, perhaps at Paramount. It's not quite up to the quality level of an Ernst Lubitsch picture, but looks like it was made by filmmakers who admired the Lubitsch style.

Turn up the sound, however, and you'll find that the actors are speaking German. Was Frauen träumen ("What women dream") was made in Berlin, and released shortly after Hitler came to power. But there's nothing about politics here; this is a light romantic comedy, not unlike Lubitsch's Trouble in Paradise, made the previous year. This one also concerns jewel thievery, committed by the sort of glamorous people who would look perfectly comfortable dining at the Yacht Club with the cream of society, smoothly exchanging quips—only to depart, late in the evening, with a satchel full of stolen goods.

The story concerns a nightclub singer named Rina (Nora Gregor), who compulsively steals jewelry from the finest shops. She's cool and smart, but even she can't figure out what's happening when a mysterious older gentleman begins trailing her. Every time she steals a gem, this gent arrives on the scene soon afterward and pays for it. (His motivation is not explained until the final scenes.) Meanwhile, Rina is investigated by a pair of bumbling detectives (Peter Lorre and Otto Wallburg). Füssli, the cop played by Lorre, happens upon the clue that breaks the case: a glove that Rina left behind in a jewelry shop, which bears the aroma of a distinctive perfume. Füssli's young friend Koenig (Gustav Fröhlich) happens to work in a parfumerie, and recognizes the scent as a very expensive one called "What Women Dream." This leads the police—and Koenig— to Rina, but she eludes capture. A romance develops between the lady thief and the perfume dealer. She swears she'll reform, but then the older gentleman intervenes. He too is a thief, and admires the lady's technique. He wants her to team up with him, but she resists. Will Rina go straight? Or will those hapless cops finally catch up with her before she can make amends?

Several of the actors here are familiar from other, more widely seen films. Nora Gregor is best remembered for Jean Renoir's The Rules of the Game, while Gustav Fröhlich is known for his performance as Freder in Fritz Lang's classic Metropolis. But needless to say, Peter Lorre is the most familiar player of all. He has a prominent featured role, and his spirited comic turn is something to savor. His detective Füssli distinguishes himself by repeatedly trapping himself in his own handcuffs, but his best scene comes when he sits down at the piano at Rina's apartment and jauntily sings a song, bobbing up and down to the rhythm as he accompanies himself. (Lorre's piano playing was obviously faked, but the singing voice is his own.) The punchline comes when Rina joins him in a duet, and deftly picks his pocket of several items before the number ends.

Was Frauen träumen is quite enjoyable and well worth seeking out, but, as with all German productions from this period, no matter how light-hearted, there a dark undercurrent impossible to ignore. When watching German films of the early '30s I always wonder what became of the actors and crew members behind the scenes during the subsequent years. Sadly, the lives of Nora Gregor and Otto Wallburg, who were Jewish, ended too soon. Gregor managed to escape the Nazis but eventually died by her own hand, while Wallburg was detained, and later murdered at Auschwitz. Other personnel were more fortunate. Billy Wilder, who co-authored the screenplay, was surely the biggest success story to emerge from the project. He made it to America, wrote for Lubitsch and others, and subsequently became one of Hollywood's top directors.

This pleasant romantic comedy stands as an entertaining but poignant memento of its time and place, a souvenir of an elegant, classy world that, all too soon, would be destroyed.

Show business? She just fell right into it, 11 July 2014

When we think of German cinema of the 1930s, it's fair to say that for most of us light comedy is not the first thing that comes to mind. But director Erich Engel made quite a few of them during the period, often featuring a perky brunette named Jenny Jugo, who comes off rather like Bebe Daniels, with a touch of Gracie Allen and (for latter-day viewers) a dash or two of Lucille Ball. She gives a very winning performance in Funf von der Jazzband, a cute comedy that offers some clever gags and one terrific musical number.

The story concerns a struggling quartet, the Jazz Band Four, who are desperate to get hired to play at a prestigious music hall. Early on, when they audition for the theater's hard-to-please director, their performance is exhilarating—for me, a definite highlight of the film. Not only is their theme song a catchy, lively tune, but the musicians spice up the number with sight gags and funny props: a balloon that inflates from a saxophone, a lady's hat that appears from nowhere, a pistol fired unexpectedly, etc. And there's also an incredibly risqué gag involving a horn held like a portion of the male anatomy that must be seen to be believed. I don't think any studio in Hollywood could have gotten away with that bit, even in the Pre-Code era.

In any case, this is when our leading lady Jessie enters the act, though quite unwillingly. She's a stranger to the musicians, a somewhat dizzy young lady who has coincidentally gone backstage to see the manager, and then has to climb a ladder to find him. At the climax of the jazz number her ladder topples onto the stage, depositing her in the drum kit. The music hall director, who (oddly) wasn't very impressed with the band up until this moment, loves this big finish and hires them on the spot, but with the understanding that Jessie will perform her fall regularly as part of the act. Jessie, who has no musical talent, and no desire to be part of what is now the Jazz Band Five, must be persuaded to stick around, go along with the misunderstanding, and risk all for the sake of a paycheck.

That's the gist of the plot, and, like so many show business stories, it all builds up to a high pressure occasion: opening night. Happily, there are some amusing gags along the way. For instance, every time Jessie gets angry and slams a door, the same painting falls from the wall. (Eventually, one of the guys tries to catch it.) In a more elaborate sequence, our leading lady, who has had too much to drink, staggers across a busy street and narrowly misses getting hit by passing cars. (Comedy fans will be reminded of a similar routine from It's a Gift with W.C. Fields, made two years later.) In the last portion of the film there's even a surprise appearance by young Peter Lorre, as a sleazy car thief. His role is brief, but it's a treat to see him at this very early point in his acting career.

Funf von der Jazzband is a rarity, but worth chasing down if you can find it. Jenny Jugo is a nice discovery for buffs interested in films of the '30s, and having enjoyed her work in this zippy vehicle I'd like to see more. This is someone who deserves to be better known.

2 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
Before the storm, a ray of sunshine, 24 April 2014

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Paul Fejos—brilliant director, anthropologist, and humanist—has only recently begun to receive the attention and recognition he deserves. He was not a prolific filmmaker, and some of his works are lost, but what remains is fascinating. His 1928 comedy-drama Lonesome, a charming late silent feature, has become a festival favorite with movie buffs in recent years, and is now available on DVD. The late-blooming popularity of this film has reintroduced Fejos to the world. Lonesome traces the development of a relationship between a young man and a young woman, both working class, who meet at an amusement park, flirt, fall in love, and almost lose each other. It's a simple, straightforward tale, told with great flair.

Fejos, who was Hungarian, was never happy in Hollywood, and in the early '30s he returned to Europe to make films. Sonnenstrahl, also known as Ray of Sunshine, was made in Vienna, Austria. In some respects it's a reworking of Lonesome, in that the story follows the relationship of a young man and a young woman who meet, fall in love, and undergo various trials, adventures and mishaps. But there are major differences: it's now 1933, and economic calamity has swept the world. When we first meet our young protagonists, they are seriously up against it. Hans (Gustav Fröhlich) and Anna (Annabella) encounter each other one night on the banks of the Danube. Both are broke, homeless, and alone in the world. Each is on the verge of suicide. When Anna leaps into the river, Hans suddenly realizes that he wants to live, and rescues her. Once she recovers, they stick together. Gradually, they pull themselves up from dire poverty to the lower rungs of middle-class life. But nothing can be taken for granted, and at the story's climax, due to a cruel twist of fate, their dreams hang in the balance. Only the kindness and generosity of their neighbors saves the day.

Sonnenstrahl is a series of episodes: comic, sad, romantic, sometimes grim, but ultimately hopeful. It's a film rich with incident, and offers a number of memorable sequences. Although it's a talkie, director Fejos was faithful to the techniques of the silent era, and much is conveyed visually. Gustav Fröhlich, familiar to modern viewers as Freder from Fritz Lang's Metropolis, makes a sympathetic leading man. In appearance he is the classic proletarian in cloth cap and threadbare suit, a working class Everyman of his place and time. Fröhlich handles most of the dialog, which might have been a necessity, for the female lead, French-born actress Annabella, was not fluent in German. Silent film technique is especially notable in a delightful scene set in a travel agency, when Hans and Anna stroll past travel posters advertising the great cities of Europe, and mime suitable activities for each. There is also a vivid segment set in an amusement park, reminiscent of Lonesome. As in that film, the initially cheery mood turns sour for our young couple. The only sequence that, in my opinion, doesn't quite come off, is one set in a department store. Hans and Anna get jobs cleaning the place after hours, but postpone their chores to try on fancy clothes, play the radio, dance, and engage in playacting. Presumably this was meant to be amusing, but it feels misjudged. These two are desperate for work, and for their paychecks. Messing around on the first day of a new job seems out of character, and reckless for people in their situation. But, that sequence aside, the couple's heroic effort to make a living and keep a roof over their heads fully engages our empathy and concern.

By the time the finale arrives we truly care about Hans and Anna, so we're moved when things end happily for them, after so much travail. Yet hindsight makes this ending all the more poignant: Sonnenstrahl was made in Austria in 1933, just as Hitler was taking power in Germany. We know, as the actors and filmmakers did not, what would come next. Therefore, we're aware that any happy outcome for these characters, and more importantly for the real people behind the scenes, was not destined to last long.

2 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
The movie Howard Hawks didn't want you to see, 28 December 2013

In autumn of this year director Howard Hawks was honored with a comprehensive retrospective of his work at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, NY. The festival presented all of Hawks' surviving features, including the rare, seldom-screened silent ones. When I went to the museum for my first viewing of Trent's Last Case, the director's final silent film, I kept my expectations low for several reasons. For starters, Hawks himself was said to regard it with disdain. 'Trent,' which was based on a mystery novel published in 1913, was produced as a silent picture just as talkies were taking over the market. Hawks was eager to make it with full sound, but, unfortunately, when the story department honchos at Fox, the director's home studio, arranged to purchase the property, they secured only the silent film rights -- NOT the talkie rights. (During this period, when the transition to sound was upending the rules, such oversights were probably not uncommon.) Deeply angry, Hawks came to regard the project as an unwelcome chore, and decided to turn it into a send-up. As far as I'm concerned, that in itself isn't a deal-breaker—a send-up with this cast could be great fun— but even so, there were other reasons to approach the film warily. Hawks' biographer Todd McCarthy, who knows as much about the director and his work as anyone, trashed Trent's Last Case in his book, and pronounced it the worst film Hawks ever made. And on top of that, surviving prints of the film are incomplete: about two reels' worth of material is missing from the middle section. O joy, a murder mystery with missing footage!

But I went to see it anyway. And here's my verdict: Trent's Last Case is an oddity, all right, and far from great, but nonetheless surprisingly enjoyable. (Going in with low expectations surely must have helped.) Fans of the novel will need to look elsewhere for a serious adaptation, for this 'Trent' plays like a goofy sketch on the Carol Burnett Show. But what's wrong with that? The material lends itself to comedy. Our story concerns a cruel millionaire named Sigsbee Manderson (played by Donald Crisp), whose beautiful young wife (Marceline Day) is having an affair with Manderson's handsome secretary, Jack Marlowe. Manderson learns of the affair and decides to avenge himself on his wife and her lover by committing suicide, arranging the details to suggest he was murdered by Marlowe. Amateur sleuth Philip Trent (Raymond Griffith) shows up to crack the case, but only muddies the waters, until at last the correct solution is revealed. Frankly, the plot suggests self-parody from the get-go, so it's no surprise the filmmakers chose to play it that way. And incidentally, the chunk of missing footage midway is no great hindrance to following the story. A running gag develops as Trent repeatedly accuses the wrong person of murder, finds that he's mistaken, then accuses someone else. Because of the lost footage, which comprises perhaps ten or fifteen minutes of material, some of these accusations are missing, so the routine is somewhat truncated, but it's not a huge loss.

The actors look like they're having a blast. Donald Crisp, in particular, gives an outrageously hammy, teeth-gnashing, eye-rolling performance which must be seen to be believed. Despite the presence of such estimable players as Edgar Kennedy and Anita Garvin, Crisp steals the show. His spirited emoting stands in sharp contrast with the low-key underplaying of leading man Raymond Griffith. The dapper Mr. Griffith, who starred in several popular light comedies in the mid-20s, specialized in dry, sophisticated humor. He comes off here as something of a straight man to the other characters, for his sleuth is a solemn fellow with a tinge of melancholy. Perhaps the solemnity reflected Raymond Griffith's real-life career situation when the film was made. Due to injured vocal chords Griffith spoke in a husky whisper; he must have known that talkies would end his career, and that Trent's Last Case would most likely mark his final bow as a star of feature films. (As it happens, Griffith would continue to work behind the scenes in Hollywood for many years as a producer.) While 'Trent' doesn't measure up to Griffith's other surviving vehicles, it does provide him with a suitable farewell role and a nicely staged final scene.

Whatever its modest merits, Trent's Last Case made very little impression on audiences on its initial release. In his biography of Hawks, published in 1997, Todd McCarthy flatly states that the film was released only in Europe, not in the United States. Subsequent research has revealed that 'Trent' did indeed play in some regions of the U.S. during the summer of 1929 (specifically in Pennsylvania and Florida), but Fox scarcely bothered to promote it, and in the excitement over talkies the film was quickly forgotten. It did not resurface until a print was discovered in the early 1970s. 'Trent' was screened for the first time in many years at the Pacific Film Archive in 1974, with Hawks in attendance. The aging director was not pleased about the film's rediscovery, and, according to McCarthy, expressed himself in no uncertain terms during the screening, when he stormed the projection booth in mid-show and ordered the projectionist to destroy the print! In a way, I can understand why he was so upset. The loopy, over-the-top style on display was meant to be satirical, but modern viewers—especially ones unfamiliar with the general run of silent films—could easily (and mistakenly) regard it as unintentionally campy. Even so, Hawks needn't have overreacted. Taken for what it is, this version of Trent's Last Case is entertaining and amusing, a rare treat for movie buffs. I for one am glad the projectionist ignored Hawks' instructions!

2 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
Something unexpected from Howard Hawks, 12 November 2013

If a crew of film buffs arrived at a screening of this movie just after the opening credits, and then tried to guess the identity of the director based on content and stylistic clues, they could be forgiven for deciding Paid to Love must be the work of Ernst Lubitsch. After all, consider the evidence: this is a romantic comedy set largely in a mythical kingdom called San Savon—and partly in a mythical-looking Paris—which concerns a handsome young Crown Prince's love life, or lack thereof. It would appear the Prince doesn't care much for girls, but he's obsessed with automobiles, and likes to roll up his sleeves to work on engines and fan-belts and such, and get his hands dirty. His father, King Haakon, is a little worried about the boy, so he conspires with a wealthy American businessman named Roberts to teach his son the facts of life, so to speak, by arranging for him to get intimately involved with a woman brought from France for this purpose, all expenses paid. Roberts has his own reasons for participating in the scheme: he represents a firm with a financial interest in San Savon, and believes his board of directors would feel better about their investment in the kingdom if the Prince showed some interest in the ladies. (Although it's never bluntly stated, the idea seems to be that if the Prince demonstrates he's a regular guy, and might actually sire royal offspring someday, the firm's directors will be reassured about the future of San Savon.) So, the two older gents go to Paris and find a suitably sexy young cabaret performer named Gaby to stir the young man's passions. Their plan backfires, in a rather predictable but amusing way, when the Prince falls in love with her.

Paid to Love was an early assignment for Howard Hawks, made long before he'd established his directorial style or settled on the kind of material he would come to favor. In later years Hawks was dismissive of the project, declaring simply "It isn't my type of stuff." That may be, but viewed objectively Paid to Love holds up quite well today. It's smoothly made, funny and very typical of its time. George O'Brien, cast somewhat against type, makes an appealing Crown Prince. His introductory scene sets a lighthearted note, when he comes to the aid of the crusty businessman Roberts, who has car trouble and assumes that the Prince is a lowly mechanic. Roberts is played by estimable character actor J. Farrell MacDonald, who has so much screen time in the film's opening scenes you'd think this was designed to be his show. But soon the emphasis properly shifts to O'Brien and leading lady Virginia Valli, who plays Gaby. Their "meet cute" is unusual, and surprisingly erotic. Gaby collapses in a storm outside the cottage where the Prince is staying; he finds her, carries her inside and puts her to bed, off camera. When she awakens the next morning, she discovers that she's naked. For a guy who's shy with women, the Prince works fast! (The sequence is something of a precursor to a similar one involving Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak in Vertigo, made many years later.) Needless to add, romance quickly blossoms between the two. Valli and O'Brien make an attractive couple, and both actors are adept in navigating the story's shift from comedy to drama in the later scenes. Until recently Valli was unknown to me, but now that I've seen her in several silent features I've come to feel she's unjustly forgotten. Perhaps her strongest claim to fame is that she was the first leading lady of Alfred Hitchcock—speaking of Hitch—in his directorial debut, The Pleasure Garden.

Several other characters make an impression, such as King Haakon, played by a dignified old actor who happened to be named Thomas Jefferson. I also enjoyed seeing prolific comedian Hank Mann nicely underplay his part as a servant. But the most notable, striking performance of all is given by William Powell, who plays the Crown Prince's raffish cousin Eric. At this point in his career Powell was often cast as bad eggs, and his Prince Eric is a prime example: he's haughty and mean-spirited, a playboy who is a rotter to women, Gaby in particular. The film's most dramatic sequence is a tense confrontation between Eric and Gaby in her boudoir. Viewers familiar with Powell's urbane Nick Charles from the Thin Man series are likely to be surprised, even shocked, to see his dark side on full display here.

This film was believed to be lost for many years. It re-emerged in the early 1970s, when interest in Howard Hawks' career was growing markedly among critics and buffs. Happily, surviving prints look very good: the cinematography of William O'Connell is first-rate, and the film itself is complete, without the choppy continuity or visible decomposition scars that mar so many silent films. Perhaps because the material held little importance for the director, or because he was still honing his style, Hawks felt free to experiment with the kind of tracking shots and swooping camera movements he would later avoid. According to film historian William K. Everson, however, the director was not especially pleased to learn that Paid to Love had been recovered, and he refused to watch it after its rediscovery. While it may not be "Hawksian," Paid to Love is nonetheless a clever, well-acted, amusing romantic comedy in the Lubitsch vein, a sophisticated late silent feature that's well worth a look. Even Hawks might have liked it.

The silent fussbudget, 5 October 2013

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Film buffs know Edward Everett Horton as Hollywood's funniest fussbudget, a welcome addition to many a musical or light comedy during his heyday in the 1930s and '40s. He's one of those beloved character actors whose first appearance is often greeted with applause at public screenings of films such as Trouble in Paradise or Shall We Dance, because we know that when Mr. Horton shows up, things are going to get funny. Even when he was given hokey or otherwise uninspired material EEH could rise above it, with that highly expressive face and wonderful, plummy voice. He almost always gets his laughs, and when the material is good, he gets BIG laughs.

I'm a longtime Horton fan, but until fairly recently I didn't realize he had a substantial career in silent movies. As it happens, he appeared in a number of silent features, always in featured or leading roles, and during 1927-8 starred in a series of eight two-reel comedies, produced by the one and only Harold Lloyd. Six of these films still exist, and in recent months I've managed to see three of them. Horton comes off surprisingly well, even deprived of his famous voice. (Like other comedians who made a stronger impression with sound, such as W.C. Fields or Eddie Cantor, I've found that I can "hear" Horton when I watch his silent work.) Dad's Choice is a good example of what EEH could do in the field of strictly visual comedy.

Horton plays a hapless young man -- not so young really, even in 1928, but no matter -- who is courting a wealthy young lady. Her father disapproves of the match, and keeps her locked up in a well-guarded mansion, where she is protected by a vigilant bodyguard. (I should add at this point that the print of Dad's Choice I've seen did not have title cards in English, so I had to guess what was happening without any help from the text, but this is how I interpreted the story.) Basically, it's a Romeo-and-Juliet situation, where the young lovers must outwit disapproving elders and elope. But the plot is just a framework for the gags, which emphasize that our hero finds himself thwarted and publicly embarrassed at every turn.

I don't know if producer Harold Lloyd took an active role in the Horton comedies, but he clearly influenced the content. Some of Lloyd's own most memorable routines grew out of social humiliation; witness the "disintegrating tuxedo" sequence in The Freshman. Much of Horton's material in Dad's Choice plays like a Lloyd comedy. The film kicks off with a routine in which EEH repeatedly tries to cross a busy intersection, but the crowd keeps forcing him back, much to the consternation of an irascible traffic cop. (Interestingly, Charlie Chaplin filmed a similar routine for Modern Times several years later, but ultimately cut it.) Later, in a fancy dress shop, Horton tangles with a sour tempered matron played by Josephine Crowell, best remembered as Lloyd's awful mother-in-law in his 1924 feature Hot Water. Here, the lady's lapdog snatches away a gift Horton has purchased for his girlfriend, then hides it under his mistresses' chair, but whenever EEH tries to grab it back, the lady thinks he's being fresh. This rather risqué bit reminded me not only of Lloyd but of Charley Chase, another master of comic embarrassment.

Dad's Choice is a pleasant short that rattles along at a nice clip, and builds to an amusing chase finale. In the last scene a significant matter of mistaken identity is resolved, and our young (or youngish) lovers are wed by one of those stray clergymen who always seemed to turn up in silent comedies just before the fadeout. I wish these Horton comedy shorts were more easily accessible, either as a stand-alone set or as extras with some of EEH's later feature films. They're fun, well produced short comedies that deserve wider exposure.

There is no letter "w" in the French language, and other observations, 1 October 2013

Fans of the Our Gang series will recall a lively short from 1933 called The Kid from Borneo, in which Spanky is pursued by Bumbo, a wild man from a carnival who keeps repeating "Yum-Yum, eat 'em up!" Actually, the supposed wild man is quite harmless, but Spanky is frightened nonetheless, and at one point attempts to pacify the fellow by engaging him in small talk. "How's things down in Borneo?" he asks. "Do you have Technocracy?" (Slight pause, for expected laughter.) The short was in heavy rotation on TV when I was a boy, and I'm sure I wasn't the only baby boomer who was bewildered by that line. Technocracy, as it happens, was a fad in the early years of the Great Depression, an ideology that proposed the rule of society by scientists. (And at this point I'm thinking, hey, why not?) But for those viewers who wish to know more about the concept, Robert Benchley thoughtfully made this short film at the height of the Technocracy fad, to bewilder us further.

The set-up is very much like Benchley's other short comedies in which he, you know, sets out to explain stuff. We're in an auditorium, and on the dais there is a long table of well-dressed dignitaries in evening wear. The emcee tells us that Mr. Benchley is a renowned expert in North American plants and colonial furniture, and is therefore well equipped to discuss Technocracy. Benchley rises, and within moments we know that he's not especially well equipped to discuss anything. Soon he's rambling into weird digressive cul-de-sacs about razor blades, shoes in ancient Rome, etc. etc. In order to clarify matters, he decides to illustrate his points with a chart, and promptly clarifies nothing. Film clips of an industrial nature are shown, and Mr. Benchley narrates, despite the fact that he's uncertain what, exactly, those people in the factory are doing. And so it goes! This short differs from most of Benchley comic lectures in one respect: usually, his on screen listeners sit in polite, if somewhat mystified, silence. But in Your Technocracy and Mine the crowd turns openly hostile at the end, and Mr. Benchley is forced to slip out of the hall, incognito.

If you enjoy Benchley's style of humor -- and I do -- you'll get a kick out of this amusing short. But if you really want to learn anything about Technocracy, you may as well ask Bumbo.

Hey kids, let's put on a show! We'll have singers, dancers, and a drag routine!, 30 August 2013

Don't let the title fool you – this is no Disney cartoon. Mickey's Tent Show is in fact an entry in the long-running Mickey McGuire series of short comedies, produced by Larry Darmour from the late silent days into the early talkie era: 1927 to 1934 to be exact. Mickey Rooney starred from the first short to the last as Mickey (Himself) McGuire, a character created by Fontaine Fox for his popular Toonerville Trolley comic strip. The role was well suited to the young Mr. Rooney, who was only six years old when he landed the gig. Mickey McGuire was the undisputed leader of his own gang, the kind of kid who comes up with big ideas, and persuades the other kids to carry them out. A born C.E.O., you might say. He's multi-talented, practically fearless, and absolutely self-assured at all times. Sure sounds like an ideal role for Mickey Rooney, doesn't it? The series served as young Mick's movie apprenticeship.

I haven't seen many of the Mickey McGuire films, but the ones I've watched look a lot like Hal Roach's Our Gang series, which was already well under way when producer Darmour first hired Rooney to play the lead. The main difference seems to be that while the Our Gang shorts were usually ensemble efforts, the McGuire comedies are focused largely on the central character. Rooney dominates the proceedings, while the other kids don't register all that strongly as individuals. Mickey's Tent Show is one of the last entries, a talkie short produced when the star was a pre-teen, though he looked younger. It's the best Mickey McGuire comedy I've seen to date, at least in part because the other kids -- especially Billy Barty, as Mickey's kid brother -- are given some opportunities of their own. Barty, a midget who was eight years old when this film was made but could pass for an infant (which he did, elsewhere), makes a strong impression in several scenes, and was even allowed to perform the final comic bit, solo, before the fadeout.

The premise is simple, and amusingly enough it's a forerunner to the musicals Rooney would make (again and again) with Judy Garland later on. Mickey and his gang are earning money by helping an auctioneer deliver purchases to buyers. When the auction ends, the man pays them twenty-five cents to haul away the unsold stuff, which turns out to be leftover material from a defunct circus. So, for twenty-five cents the kids find themselves in possession of a full-sized canvas tent, costumes, and a cannon! Naturally, Mickey decides to put on a show, starring himself and his gang. And here's where young Mr. Rooney gets his first experience with one of those shoestring productions he would one day stage with Judy. All the neighborhood kids show up for the event, and find Mickey acting as barker in front of the big top. But there's also a villain on hand, a mean rich kid appropriately named Stinky Davis. Viewers who've seen other McGuire comedies know that Stinky's function in the series is to oppose Mickey at every turn. He distinguishes himself here by trying to shut down the show, first by falsely accusing Mickey and his gang of having stolen the tent they're using. When he's unable to make the charge stick, Davis employs his own gang of kids to disrupt the performance. It's a pleasure when Stinky eventually gets his comeuppance in the finale.

Meanwhile, the show itself is a hoot. First there's a barber shop quartet, followed by a cowboy act featuring two guys in a horse costume. Most memorable of all, there's a sketch that pokes fun at Mae West, then at the peak of her popularity. Believe it or not, our 12 year-old star impersonates the lady in full Diamond Lil regalia. Mickey-as-Mae slinks onto the stage, hand on hip, and addresses a cop with the startling line: "Hello there, dark and handsome. Why doncha come 'round some rainy afternoon, and I'll kinda shine your badge for ya." Then he's joined by Billy Barty and a black kid called Hambone, each dressed as Mae West, for a rendition of the song "Frankie and Johnny." You have to wonder how Rooney felt about this routine in later years, though he did dress up as Carmen Miranda for another drag routine in Babes on Broadway, at the peak of his own popularity in 1941.

At any rate, Mickey's Tent Show is a well paced, agreeable short, which offers a steady supply of moderately amusing gags. Not quite up to the Our Gang level of quality, perhaps, but not far below it, either. At this writing, Mickey Rooney is one of the last living stars of the silent era, and for that matter one of the last stars from the '30s. He comes off quite well in this short. And you haven't lived until you've seen his Mae West impression!

P.S. April 2014: RIP, Mickey (Himself) McGuire.

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