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She Married Her Boss (1935)
What a Difference a Year Makes
I've read the other comments that talked about aspects of this film that are dated, offensive, or just plain bizarre. I was rather surprised that no one brought up the movie's cringe-inducing gender stereotypes. Anyone who has seen Claudette Colbert or Melvyn Douglas in the films they made before the introduction of the Production Code(in mid-1934) would immediately recognize the heavy hand of the censors, who did their best to impose on Hollywood their narrow-minded idea of "family values." (On the basis of this film, it would appear that allowing married women to pursue a career would bring about the end of American society, but child abuse and drunk driving are just good clean fun!) Though the cast and plot look good on paper, the result is strained and uneven, as if the script had been written to Pre-Code standards and then hastily cleaned up so as not to offend the censors.
Claudette Colbert plays Julia Scott, a bright, capable, and confident executive assistant at a large department store. She runs the busy office like a well-oiled machine and clearly enjoys the work. It's hard to fathom why she's spent six years mooning over her boss, Richard Barclay. The way the role of Barclay is written, the usually charming Melvyn Douglas comes off as a humorless, sexless cipher. All the more jarring, then, to hear Julia talk about her desire to give up her terrific job and marry Barclay. Without a trace of irony, she describes marriage as "a woman's REAL career."
Okay, she wants to get married. But why on earth would the lovely and vivacious Julia want Barclay as a husband? Not only is he dull as ditch-water, he treats her as if she were a piece of super-efficient office equipment. Once they're married, he ridicules her for assuming the stereotypical role of housewife, despite the fact that she's set his chaotic home in order and tamed his obnoxious brat of a daughter. There's nothing in the movie to explain Barclay's eventual change of heart; apparently it's brought on by a quart of whiskey. So much for good old "family values." The film is so devoid of any hint of sexual attraction that we don't see a single cuddle or smooch--not even at the very end when it's clear that the newlyweds will finally get around to doing what newlyweds are famous for doing. Julia has more physical contact (and chemistry) with Leonard Rogers, her sweet-tempered playboy suitor, who's a lot more appealing as husband material than that cold fish Barclay.
Solid performances are turned in by familiar actors in some of the secondary roles: Raymond Walburn as the perfect butler; Katherine Alexander as Barclay's drama-queen sister; Edith Fellows as the evil daughter; and especially Jean Dixon as Julia's wise-cracking, matchmaking best friend.
Would love to have seen this film made just a year earlier, before the Hays Office started taking their moralizing hatchet to so many of the things that made movies of the 30s worth watching.
Devil Dogs of the Air (1935)
Crash and burn.
DEVIL DOGS OF THE AIR has all the ingredients for a delectable dish, but the ineptitude of the chefs produced an unpalatable, unsavory stew. The story idea came from John Monk Saunderswho, in such films as WINGS, ACE OF ACES, THE DAWN PATROL, and THE LAST FLIGHT, created complex, interesting characters and compelling, dramatic situations. In DEVIL DOGS OF THE AIR, the characters are uniformly one-dimensional and unlikeable, the plot completely lacking in drama and credibility.
I'm huge fan of James Cagney and the brash, cocky, vital energy he brought to the screen. In this film, though, he's completely obnoxious, with no trace of any redeeming qualities underneath the outsized ego. I found myself rooting for stalwart Pat O'Brien to smack that arrogant smirk off his face and also win the girl at the end of the picture. Too bad it didn't happen that way. The reconciliation between O'Brien and Cagney in the penultimate scene feels unprepared and unconvincing.
The more I see of Margaret Lindsay, the less I think of her as an actor. (Check out her incredibly amateurish and hammy turn in BABY FACE and you'll see what I mean.) Here she's stiff and charmless; so much so that it's hard to fathom why Cagney would pursue her so ardently and why she would choose him over O'Brien in the end. She seems much better suited to the dull, dependable guy.
As others have commented, the usually delightful Frank McHugh is given one not very amusing routine that he repeats ad nauseam. Another waste of talent in a film that could have, should have been a lot better.
The plot is riddled with non-sequiturs and illogic. For example, when Lindsay gets her mother's check back from Cagney, why do they go through the elaborate business of endorsing it and countersigning it, when all she needed to do was tear it up? And would Lindsay really have been given free rein to roam around the military base, even riding around the airfield during operations? In the scene where O'Brien proposes to her, it's amazing how long it takes her to figure out where the conversation is heading ("I have something important to ask you." "I've been talking to real-estate agents, and we could rent an apartment really cheaply... furnished even.") And she still looks totally shocked when he finally pops the question.
The aviation sequences are probably of great interest to enthusiasts, but for this lay viewer they went on a bit too long and quickly became repetitious. The big finale, featuring the simulated air and sea attack, was completely devoid of dramatic tension.
I wish I could send this dish back to the kitchen and tell the chefs to re-think the way they combined their ingredients. Maybe they'd produce something more satisfying.
Whistling in the Dark (1933)
Coulda/shoulda been a lot better.
On paper, WHISTLING IN THE DARK has all the makings of a great little film: a clever plot offering plenty of opportunities for comedy, suspense, and action; a solid cast made up of some top-notch character actors, including Edward Arnold, Una Merkel, Ernest Truex, C. Henry Gordon, and Nat Pendleton; and the relative freedom of Pre-Code Hollywood to spice up the story with a little sex, violence, and risqué language. Unfortunately, the elements never really come together into a cohesive whole, thanks largely to a flaccid script and uninspired directing.
The story begins with a newsboy screaming the latest headline: beer baron Otto Barfuss (Joseph Cawthorn) has declared war on the racketeers who have been shaking down the brewing industry. In a sting operation, Barfuss sets up some mobsters, who are caught in the act of extorting "protection" money from him. One of the gangsters is killed while attempting to escape arrest. He turns out to be the kid brother of mob chief Ricco Lombardo (C. Henry Gordon), who swears to rub out Barfuss in retaliation. He orders his second-in-command, Jake Dillon (Edward Arnold) to take care of the business.
Dillon and his gang gather at their hideout on the Hudson River. They plan to use an out-of-town hit man to bump off Barfussuntil fate, in the form of crime novelist Wallace Porter (the diminutive Ernest Truex, who seems to be wearing his leading lady's lipstick) lands literally on their doorstep. Driving off to get married, Porter and his fiancée Toby Van Buren (Una Merkel) run into engine trouble and stop at the gangsters' place to use the phone. Porter fatefully reveals to Dillon that he is a master of the criminal mind and could easily plan a way to murder someone without getting caught. The rest of the film revolves around Dillon's forcing Porter to come up with a foolproof scheme for bumping off Barfuss, while Porter and Toby attempt to escape. The far-fetched conclusion, involving telephone wires jury-rigged to a radio set, finds Barfuss saved in the nick of time from death by toothpaste, the gangsters apprehended, and Porter and Toby happily on their way to the altar.
While other films have successfully combined elements of several different genres, WHISTLING IN THE DARK lurches clumsily between comedy, drama, and suspense. There are a couple of rather funny moments, one genuinely shocking one (when the gangsters test Porter's poisoned-toothpaste plan on one of their own men), and lots of scenes that don't appear to be leading anywhere. The sinister, mute housekeeper Hilda (Marcelle Corday) seems to have wandered in from another movieperhaps THE OLD DARK HOUSE. The engaging actor Edward Arnold is largely wasted in an underwritten supporting role, and C. Henry Gordon's talent for creepy menace is likewise underexploited. Una Merkel livens things up a bit with her patented wry charm; her attempted seduction of her timorous fiancée is one of the few sparks of life in an otherwise lackluster film.
I'm not familiar with the stage play upon which the film was based, I'll assume it played better on Broadway (where it also starred Edward Arnold and Ernest Truex).
Law of the Underworld (1938)
Muddled grade-B gangster film
LAW OF THE UNDERWORLD is a grade-B gangster film that is little more than a promising premise. Chester Morris stars as Gene Fillmore, an "honorable gangster" whose strategy is to keep a low criminal profile, directing his gang to carry out well-planned robberies that avoid the need to use violence. He keeps his men on a tight leash to make sure they stay out of troubleand jail.
So far, Gene's system has been successful. None of his high-society friends (including the newly-appointed district attorney, played by Walter Abel) has any idea that he is anything other than a fun-loving playboy. In fact, the D.A. tries to elicit Gene's help in a crusade to wipe out crime. He declines the invitation. It might have made a more interesting story if he'd done otherwise!
One of Gene's underlings, Rockey (played by the appropriately creepy Eduardo Ciannelli), chafes at Gene's "play-it-safe" approach to crime. In a play to become top dog, he has sown the seeds of dissent with some of the other members of the gang, convincing them that Gene is too weak to be their leader. The ruthless Rockey is also having an affair with Gene's girl, a nightclub singer named Dorothy (played by a miscast Lee Patrick).
Gene's "honorable thief" character is put to the test when an innocent young couple (Anne Shirley and Richard Bond) are drawn into his nest of criminals. The youngsters have stolen back the money that Rockey had stolen from them, at gunpoint, a short time earlier. They are told that they themselves are now guilty of theft and will go to jail unless they agree to participate as decoys in a jewel robbery. During the heist, Rockey shoots a couple of people, and the D.A. is out for blood.
Back at the gang's nightclub hangout, Rockey and Gene square off, with Gene killing Rockey in self defense. Chanteuse Dorothy is enraged to see her man dead. In revenge, she lies to the gang in order to get them to turn on Gene. She then tips off the police, who raid the nightclub and arrest the young couple, though they fail to find Gene. Will honorable-gangster Gene let the young innocents take the rap for him? The outcome is pretty obvious, especially if you know the kind of character Chester Morris usually plays.
The plot of LAW OF THE UNDERWORLD is full of holes and gaps in credibility, which undermines the conflict and suspense that might have made this a neat little crime story. Among the major head-scratching moments is the scene where Rockey holds up the young couple in Central Park. A police officer walks right up to them in the middle of the robbery and the kids say nothing, even though the girl had just said something about wishing a policeman would come along. It's also pretty hard to accept that nightclub singer Dorothy would prefer churlish, snarling Rockey to loving, generous (and much better-looking) Gene. Those are just two of many logistical gaffes to be found in the film. Additional liabilities are flaccid direction by Lew Landers and a patchy script by Bert Granet and Edmund L. Hartman.
Among the few positive elements to be found in LAW OF THE UNDERWORLD are the performances of the always-watchable Chester Morris (I wish he'd been given better material to work with) and especially Eduardo Ciannelli, who shows himself to be the master of the sadistic sneer.
Don't waste your time with this one unless you're a devoted fan of the genre.
Wednesday's Child (1934)
For Edward Arnold fans only
Wednesday's Child begins promisingly enough. Edward Arnold scales back his larger-than-life personality just a bit to convincingly play Ray Phillips, a jovial, loving, but often absent father. Karen Morley, even more bland and stiff than usual, is cast as his younger, errant wife, Kathryn. Their son, 11-year-old Bobby, is played by towheaded Frankie Thomas, who bears absolutely no physical resemblance to either parent.
The rapport between Arnold and Thomas immediately invites the viewer into the story. You can see why the boy would adore his warmhearted, fun-loving dad and yearn to spend more time with him. It's also apparent that there's no chemistry between the parents, so it's not surprising that during her husband's long absences, Kathryn takes up with another man. One day, while playing with his buddies, Bobby sees his mother in the arms of her lover, and his world is shattered. The rest of the film deals with his parents' broken marriage and how Bobby gets caught in the middle. It's a story that is all too common today, but certainly quite scandalous back in 1934.
The film starts to go off track when it moves into the more melodramatic aspects of the story. There is a scene where Bobby's parents stand in their bedroom loudly discussing their marriagewith the door to their son's adjacent bedroom wide open! The boy hears his mother say she regrets having married his father and then giving birth to him. He sees his mother slap his father, and then his father return the blow.
The courtroom scene, where Bobby testifies about his father hitting his mother (but not about his mother striking the first blow) is poorly written and hard to believe. It mainly serves to set up the custody arrangement in which Bobby spends school months with his mother and summers with his father. A hokey calendar montage establishes that the child is miserable living with his mother and her new husband. He can't wait to return to his old house to be with his dad.
And that's where the film really goes awry. Bobby and Ray are delighted to be together again. They make plans for a father-son vacation... just the two of them. But when Ray goes out for groceries, his new girlfriend, Louise, arrives and immediately insinuates herself into the family and their vacation plans. In an instant, Ray forgets all about Bobby's feelings. He's oblivious to his son's growing anguish as Louisea woman he knew nothing aboutcompletely usurps his place in his father's affections. The scene lacks credibility, as does Bobby's physical collapse and subsequent illness.
It goes further downhill from there. Ray Phillips turns into an absolute cad as he and his ex-wife, each absorbed with their new loves, try to foist little Bobby on one another. The boy's doctor suggests an expedient solution to the Bobby problem: pack him off to military school. (Note yet another scene where the adults make painful admissions about the boy within earshot.) At school, Bobby has a hard time adjusting, even when his roommate explains that there are many other boys here under the same circumstances.
In yet another poorly-developed, badly-scripted about-face, Ray Phillips overhears Bobby expressing his unhappiness. He suddenly becomes the good Dad again, deciding to ditch his fiancée and devote the rest of his life to little Bobby. I guess this means he never gets to have his a personal life of his own, unlike his cold-hearted, cheating ex-wife. It's hard to know what to think about the morality of this film.
Too much of Wednesday's Child is centered on the anguish of poor little Bobby. Frankie Thomas is an okay child actor, but not skilled or subtle enough to carry so much of the picture on his young shoulders. Along with the deficiencies in this central performance, the patchy script, tepid directing, sudden changes in the parents' personality and behavior, and vapid acting of Karen Morley prevent this potentially powerful film from rising above mediocrity. A wasted performance from the enormously likable Edward Arnold. Watch Wednesday's Child only if you're one of his fans.
Living on Love (1937)
This tepid remake of RAFTER ROMANCE and its predecessors stars James Dunn and Whitney Bourne in the oft-told tale of a man and woman who fall behind on their rent and are forced by their landlord to share a roombut never occupy it at the same time. He sleeps there by day, she by night, and they communicate by leaving each other sarcastic notes complaining about one thing or another. Their contempt quickly escalates into a series of mean-spirited practical jokes: she substitutes paint thinner for his mouthwash, he plants a lobster in her bed, etc.
In the meantime, the two meet in a restaurant and, unaware that they're each other's despised roommate, they fall in love. Further complications ensue when the couple's other romantic interestsbossy sausage heiress Joan Woodbury for him and on-the-make supervisor Franklin Pangborn for herdecide to drop by the boarding house. Rounding out the cast is Solly Ward as the landlord of the "Venus de Milo Arms," Tom Kennedy as Bourne's protective upstairs neighbor, and Ken Terrell and James Fawcett as the Russian-acrobat Ghonoff Brothers. (Like RAFTER ROMANCE, LIVING ON LOVE has Yiddish/Jewish jokes aplenty.) An interesting piece of casting is Etta McDaniel, Hattie's sister, as the landlord's maid, Lizbeth.
Large chunks of the film are copied directly from RAFTER ROMANCE, and the parts that have been changed are for the most part not an improvement. The tricks that Dunn and Bourne play on each other seem more nasty than funny, not to mention hard to believe; if they're so broke they have to share a room, where does she get the money to have an entire menagerie of exotic animals delivered to him, and how does he afford all those alarm clocks he sets to go off when she's trying to sleep?
LIVING ON LOVE neglects the little details that would help establish characters and setting and create a believable world for the audience. We never really get a sense of the poverty of the two leading characters and the shabbiness of their surroundings. We don't see much of their outside relationships and ambitions. And the love that develops between them seems to come out of nowhere.
The film also suffers from zero chemistry between Bourne and Dunn. She's pretty much a cipher, especially in comparison to Ginger Rogers, who really sparkles in RAFTER ROMANCE. Dunn tries hard, but he doesn't have much to work with here. Speaking of poor casting, it's hard to buy Franklin Pangborn, doing his usual prissy routine, as the lecherous womanizer played much more credibly by Robert Benchley in the earlier film.
This tedious B-comedy is of interest only as a long-unseen relic of RKO studios.
Friends and Lovers (1931)
It's Erich's movie.
This film gets off to a great, weird, very racy Pre-Code start. In the first couple of minutes we are introduced to an adulterous young wife (Lili Damita) and her slimy, sadistic, blackmailing husband (Erich von Stroheim). You can't take your eyes off von Stroheim; his over-the-top performance is not exactly what you'd call great acting, but it gives the film its only real juice. Once he'sliterallyout of the picture, we're left with a static, conventional, and uncompelling love triangle.
Others have already commented on Miss Damita's strengths (beauty and sex appeal) and weaknesses (no real acting ability), which I believe is a fair assessment of her contributions. Despite her physical charms, I found it difficult to believe that men would be driven to extremes of jealousy over her... which seriously undermines the main premise of the story. And when she chooses Adolphe Menjou over Laurence Olivier... well, that's REALLY straining the bounds of credibility!
Speaking of hard to believe, there's Hugh Herbert, making a pathetically inept attempt at a Scottish accent. (He went on to become a repeat offender, once again inflicting his bogus burr as Detective John McTavish in 1934's EASY TO LOVE). Herbert's recurring "business" about the women in his life gets very tiresome very quickly.
The biggest liability in the film is Adolphe Menjou, woefully miscast as the man who wins Damita's heart over all her other lovers, including a very young, very handsome Laurence Olivier. Scrawny, pinch-faced Menjou was over forty at the time (he looks even older); ludicrously, he is repeatedly referred to by various characters as "young man." It's obvious that the part was written for a younger, sexier actor. Had they cast someone more appropriate, the story would have had a lot more sizzle.
Though I rated the film only four stars, I'd recommend it to die-hard film buffs. Besides von Stroheim's memorable characterization, it's got a nuanced performance by the young Olivier, the lovely Miss Damita (and her equally lovely wardrobe), and some appealingly quirky scenes and performances. It's not great art, but it's good entertainment.
White Oak (1921)
A real dog-and-pony show
The best performances in this film are turned in by Oak Miller's jealous paint horse and a dog named Jeff who brings about the heroic rescue of a wagon train under Indian attack. This creaky old horse opera contains just about every silent-western cliché you could think of, which makes it entertaining in ways its creators undoubtedly did not intend. The plot features not one, but TWO maidens whose virtue is threatened by men of evil intent. (In case you don't recognize the bad guys by their black hats, long beards, and shifty eyes, the titles will obligingly point them out for you.)
"Oak" is the perfect name for a character played by William S. Hart, whose acting technique seems to have been copied from that very material. Apparently he lavished much attention on making the movie's detailssuch as costumes and settingsas realistic and historically accurate as possible. Too bad he didn't give equal consideration to the storyline, which is repetitious, slow-moving, and lacking in excitement (outside of Jeff's heroic dash through the sagebrush for help).
A real antique, worth watching perhaps for its historical interest.
The White Sister (1933)
The screenwriter for "The White Sister," Donald Ogden Stewart, has an uncredited bit playing the hind end of a horse; that pretty well sums up this picture. It's an insipid, implausible, and uncompelling film that wastes a lot of prime MGM talent.
***SPOILER ALERT*** The story concerns the ill-fated love between a sheltered, aristocratic Italian girl, Angela Chiaromonte, and a dashing soldier, Giovanni Severi. He pursues her despite the strenuous objections of her father and thwarts her marriage to a wealthy bankeran alliance that apparently was meant to save the girl's family from financial ruin. Their romance leads indirectly to the death of Angela's father in a car crash. The affair goes downhill from there. Throughout the film, Angela and Giovanni keep getting together only to be torn apartfirst by her father, then by the war, and then by God himself. Their rotten luck and bad timing are almost comical. Sent off to battle, Giovanni implausibly survives a horrific plane crash, then makes a daring escape from a German prisoner-of-war camp, only to find that Angela, believing him dead, has become a nun. At this point, there's nothing left for him to do but die an anticlimactic death with his white-habited fiancée at his bedside.
The two leads, Helen Hayes (Angela) and Clark Gable (Giovanni), give it their best, but they can't overcome being both miscast and mismatched. Coming into his own just as films learned to talk, Gable exemplified the "new" American male: confident, brash, and openly sexual. The old-fashioned pieties of this movie fit him like a straight jacket. Hayes is more plausible in the role of the spirited/spiritual young girl. While you can see how she'd be carried away by Gable's charisma and animal magnetism, it's hard to understand why he'd be so attracted to this mousy little innocent. The whole enterprise might just have worked with someone like Leslie Howard as Giovanni; his restrained classical style would have been better suited to this dated material.
Other welcome and familiar faces include Edward Arnold as a sympathetic priest (like Gable, though, he's seen to better advantage in earthy or roguish parts); Louise Closser Hale as Angela's duenna/companion, and May Robson as the Mother Superior. Uncredited but recognizable are Gino Corrado as a chauffeur, Nat Pendleton as Giovanni's soldier buddy, and Greta Meyer as the Italian-German woman who nurses Giovanni back to health after his plane crash.
A minor quibble, but I found it hugely annoyingnone of the characters can agree on how to pronounce "Giovanni." Hayes, as Angela, seems to say it differently (and wrong) every time, which is odd considering her character is supposed to be madly in love with him.
Worth watching mainly as an opportunity to catch Helen Hayes in one of her infrequent film roles (her reputation was primarily as a stage actress) and for Gable's characteristically charming performance (not to mention beefcake appeal!) in an uncharacteristic role.
Common Clay (1930)
A decidedly UNcommon film!
Granted that this film shows its age and stagebound origins, it nevertheless has a lot to recommend it. Some of its message falls under the rubric of standard-issue moralizing, but it also tells us that the rich and educated have many of the same vices as the poor and uneducated... sometimes even more so. It also offers some unconventional views on topics such as unwed motherhood, social justice, and women's independence.
The lovely Constance Bennett is eminently watchable as Ellen Neal, a young woman fighting against the circumstances of her birth, gender, and economic situation to make something decent of her life. While the chic, sophisticated actress is somewhat cast against type, she manages to create a character who is strong, sympathetic, and believable. Bennett makes us willing to overlook (at least most of the time) the long string of clichés and incredible coincidences that pass as a plot. She delivers a couple of breathtaking speeches about morality and "family values" that made me want to stand up and cheer.
The movie packs an incredible amount of storysome of it quite far-fetchedinto less than 90 minutes. It begins with 18-year-old Ellen being arrested in a raid on a speakeasy, where so far she's managed to keep her virtue intact (at least that's what we're told). A sympathetic judge lets her off with the admonition that she's heading down a bad road. Heeding the warning, Ellen eventually manages to find less lucrative but more honest work as the maid for a wealthy upper-crust family, the Fullertons. It turns out, however, that the high-society folk are no better than the speakeasy lowlifes; they swill bootleg whiskey, indulge in wild parties, and all of the men seem to be on the make, particularly for Ellen. Among her pursuers is Hugh, the Fullertons' college-age son (played by an appropriately boyish Lew Ayres). Learning of her disreputable past, Hugh believes Ellen will be an easy conquest, but she fights bravely and eloquently for respect. Eventually, though, the two fall in love.
After Hugh returns to school, Ellen discovers she is pregnant. Receiving no response to her letters to Hugh, she is forced to quit her job and move back with her mother (played with touching sweetness by Beryl Mercer). Following the birth of her son, Ellen contacts Hugh's family. Suspecting a shakedown, Papa Fullerton (played by Purnell Pratt) asks family friend Judge Filson (played by Hale Hamilton) to pay off Ellen and avoid a public scandal at all costs. But Ellen is not looking for money; what she wants is for the Fullertons to acknowledge precisely what they wish to keep secret: her relationship with Hugh and his paternity of her child. She hires a lawyer, the seedy but honest Yates (played to eccentric perfection by Tully Marshall) to press her claim.
Earlier in the film, we learn that as a young man, Judge Filson himself once fathered a child out of wedlock, but that his lower-class lover made no claim on him for fear that she would ruin his social prospects. He does not know what became of his sweetheart and the child he has never seen.
When Judge Filson meets with Ellen, he discovers she's not the conniving gold-digger he'd expected. As a matter of fact, he's quite taken with her and believes her when she insists that Hugh Fullerton fathered her child. Filson encourages Hugh not to repeat his own mistake and to claim both Ellen and the baby. But Hugh's father, as well as his friend Bud, continue to regard Ellen as low-class trash and refuse to allow Hugh to reconcile with Ellen.
Ellen has no choice but to have her lawyer Yates drag the whole issue into court. The trial scene is not to be believed (or missed). Besides some amazing revelations that follow pell-mell one after another, the scene is a hoot from a legal-procedural point of view. I'll not reveal the outcome, but suffice it to say the many, many loose ends do get tied up in tidy fashion.
It's sad that a movie that's so entertaining, so fascinating from a socio-historical perspective, and directed by the great Victor Fleming should be unavailable on video and so rarely shown anywhere. If you have a chance to catch it, don't miss the opportunity.