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First a Girl (1935)
Britain's Victor Victoria
Filmed in 1935, "First a Girl" was Britain's entry in the Victor/Victoria sweepstakes which Blake Edwards would win years later. In this version, it's Jessie Matthews who plays a girl disguised as a boy disguised as a girl who lands a music hall gig and confuses everyone in sight. A spunky, doe-eyed gamin with a winning personality, she's ably assisted by her then-husband Sonnie Hale as a Shakesepearian ham reduced to doing a drag act. Along the way, she sings, dances, gets comically drunk and glides through several Busby Brekleyesque song-and-dance numbers. "First a Girl" doesn't have the style or wit that Edwards brought to "Victor Victoria." But it's far more than a museum piece and well worth watching in its own right.
Satan Met a Lady (1936)
Let's do it again...
Gotta' hand it to Warner Bros, they kept adapting Dasheill Hammett's twisted tale til they got it right. This version, shot some six years earlier than "The Maltese Falcon" can't decide whether it's a comedy or a mystery...and isn't very good as either. As detective Ted Shane, Warren William is so ludicrously blithe that his performance comes off as burlesque. I've been shot at. Ha ha. My, that was close. Isn't detecting fun? Bette Davis does somewhat better as the mystery woman who hires him to find a Saracen horn full of jewels, alternately vamping and double-crossing the private eye. Add Allison Skipworth and Arthur Treacher (yeah, the fish-and-chips guy) in roles that would eventually be better played by Sidney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre and you have a movie that pleads to be re-made. Which fortunately it was.
Playing Around (1930)
"Playing Around" was obviously intended as a silent movie (note the screen credit, "titles-- silent version.") But with the advent of sound, First National quickly converted it to an all-talking and sometimes singing-and-dancing thriller. When we meet sassy tenement girl Alice White, she's dating gormless William Bakewell whose height of ambition is a raise to $35 a week. Then she's smitten with playboy Chester Morris unaware that his only means of support is an occasional stick-up. His next robbery stretches the long arm of coincidence to the breaking point. But director Mervyn Leroy doesn't let anything as trivial as the plot detract from the over-the-top musical numbers. And the result is surprisingly entertaining, especially for a movie made in 1929 and released in 1930.
Postal Inspector (1936)
The rains came...
I doubt that any movie ever made better use of stock footage of floods than "Postal Inspector." Every time the tale sags -- or more accurately sogs -- it's back to some unfortunate town where the river is rising, the dam done burst, homes are being washed away and people are trudging through muck and mire (not to be confused with the vaudeville act of the same name,) trying to escape the deluge. The big chase scene even replaces cars and horses with speedboats. The plot centers on Bela Lugosi as a night club owner, drowning in debt, who tries to steal $3 million in old bills being transported by the US Post Office. Fortunately, Ricardo Cortez is there to sink him, aided by Patricia Ellis as a night club singer who manages to warble a few Frank Loesser tunes before the water rises. It's actually not a bad little thriller and manages to float along in a fast-moving 58 minutes.
Dated look at pedophilia
This tale of child molesting was pretty bold for its time. But it's another time and the drama now seems contrived. As the new school principal in a Canadian town, Peter Allen is shocked when his 9-year-old daughter tells him that a dirty old man offered her candy to dance naked. He wants to press charges. But the old boy is the paterfamilias of the family that has run the community for generations -- and nobody wants to make waves. After a powerful courtroom sequence, the film descends into an all-too-predictable climax. But at least you have Felix Aylmer looking every bit the elderly nutcase you hope your children never have the ill fortune to encounter. A nice try from Hammer Films. But they more comfortable when Vlad the Impaler was sinking his fangs into Victorian necks.
365 Nights in Hollywood (1934)
A good night in Hollywood...
If you're a film buff, "365 Nights in Hollywood" is well worth watching. It's hokey, frenetic and plot-wise doesn't always make sense. But you won't find a better example of where movies were at just a few years after the introduction of sound. Alice Faye, in her second screen role, plays a star-struck kid from Peoria who's conned into signing up with a phony Hollywood talent school. Back when "365 Nights..." was made by Fox (sans Twentieth Century,) she was just hitting her stride as an actress. But she nails the production numbers -- as a succession of singing sirens in one sequence and a chorus of Alice Fayes in another. James Dunn co-stars as the down-on-his-luck movie director, fronting for the school, who sets out to outwit his employer and give her a shot at stardom. And before the fun is finished, he returns to his hoofing days to join Faye in a climactic song-and-dance routine that's a pleasure to watch.
The Honeymoon Killers (1969)
As bad as it gets...
I'm bewildered by the people raving about this "cult classic." It's dull, flat, awkwardly acted and ineptly directed. And those are its best qualities. Shirley Stoler as half of the homicidal title pair has two expressions, angry and unhappy. Tony LoBianco as her sociopathic paramour at least creates a character with some dimension. Other members of the cast look as if they were dragged in off the street. Okay, it was reportedly shot for a mere $150,000. But that's no excuse. Some terrific movies -- like Christopher Nolan's "Memento" and Jonathan Demme's "Caged Heat" -- had equally scanty budgets.
Supposedly based on a true story, the film casts Stoler as an obese hospital nurse who's conned into joining a lonely hearts club. She winds up with LoBianco, a womanizing swindler who palms her off as his sister, marrying women for their money, then bumping them off with her eager assistance. That sounds like it could almost be entertaining. Sorry, gang, it isn't.
Night Flight (1933)
Soaring photography, grounded characters
The perils of flying over the Andes was surprisingly popular screen fare throughout the 1930s. MGM made "Night Flight," RKO turned out "Flight from Glory" and Columbia released "Only Angels Have Wings." Of the trio, "Night Flight" has the most stunning aerial photography; one long sequence is virtually a sky-high ballet. But despite its all star cast -- John Barrymore, Clark Gable, Myrna Loy, Robert Montgomery, Helen Hayes and Lionel Barrymore -- it comes up dramatically short. John Barrymore is terrific as the ruthless boss of an airmail service inaugurating its first risky night flights. But Brother Lionel has to rely on scratching a skin rash to give his role some substance. Montgomery is wasted as a playboy pilot. Hayes has continual hysterics. And as for Gable, he spends virtually the entire movie aloft wondering where the H he is and whether he'll be able to land before his gas tank runs dry. "Only Angels..." and "Flight From Glory" were better films and despite is comparatively low budget, "Glory" was probably the best with terrific performances by Van Heflin (then a relative newcomer)as an alcoholic pilot and Onslow Stevens as the airline's tough-as-nails boss.
Only Angels Have Wings (1939)
Fine movie -- but not quite original.
I'm confused. In 1937, RKO released "Flight from Glory." Two years later, Columbia put out "Only Angels Have Wings" with virtually the same plot. Both films dealt with a small struggling airline ferrying mail across the Andes. In "Flight," Chester Morris was their hard-boiled leader. In "Only Angels," it was Cary Grant. "In Flight," Van Heflin turned up as a disgraced pilot with a pretty wife. In "Angels," it was Richard Barthemless. Only big difference between the two, in terms of storyline, was Jean Arthur's presence in "Angels" as a chorus girl who hung around the airfield after falling for Grant. Okay, another difference -- "Angels" was a better movie with considerably better production values. Then again, Howard Hawks had a heftier budget than Lew Landers. But can anyone explain how "Angels" got away with cribbing its plot and characters from the less-glorious "Flight..."?
Gentleman's Fate (1931)
Not what you heard...
There have been several explanations for John Gilbert's downfall with the advent of sound. But it's doubtful that any of them are true. His voice was not high and feminine, it was masculine and pleasant. Louis B. Mayer did not intentionally put Gilbert in a succession of turkeys to humiliate him. Mayer was too shrewd a businessman to throw away money by making clunkers. Why then did the silent screen's most popular leading man fall flat when movies learned to talk? "Gentleman's Fate" provides a pretty good answer. Gilbert had no flair for dialogue. He read his lines woodenly, especially in scenes with consummate pros like Louis Wolheim. And mediocre scripts like "Gentleman's Fate" didn't do him any favors. This has to be one of the slowest, talkiest gangster movies in history. The characters, ranging from Gilbert's "gentleman" to a gang of bootleggers and their molls, sit around a crummy hotel lobby blathering endlessly about who they're going to bump off with only an occasional foray outside for gunfire. Then it's back to the hotel for another gabfest. And another long wait for more action while poor John Gilbert has to keep bantering...which clearly isn't his forte.