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Penrod and Sam (1931)
The Mischief Makers
Nicely filmed version of the Booth Tarkington novel, done with loads of charm. About a small town boy named Penrod and his adventures with his best pal/sidekick Sam - school scenes, a birthday party, touching scenes between Penrod and his dog Duke, the kids putting on a circus with Penrod as "ringmaster", and lots of stuff about the boys and their gang of kids who have this secret club - the In-Or-In lodge ("Independent Order of Infidelity" for those in the know) held in a shack in the neighboring vacant lot. This secret society's activities include some pretty brutal "initiations" for new members - of course, no girls allowed seems to be the policy too. One amusing scene features Penrod, having stolen his older sister's "love letter" to hand in for his school letter writing assignment, forced to read it aloud in front of the class as his own work. There is also a minor love interest for Penrod in the form of little Marjorie, a girl with a big case of "puppy love" when it comes to Penrod - he seems completely indifferent as he ends up in a sort of junior love triangle between him, the girl, and Sam.
I really enjoyed this film a lot - it's sentimental, yet funny and heartwrenching too. It is very nicely photographed with lots of sunshine and real small town houses and streets. The film seemed to me a sort of cross between "Our Gang" and "Andy Hardy" films. The child actors in this are all excellent - Leon Janney as Penrod gives a particularly likable and memorable performance here. Zasu Pitts and Johnny Arthur add some humor as the mother and effeminate father of Georgie, a boy who the kids don't like because, as one of them puts it "he's a big pansy". I also enjoyed seeing Elizabeth Patterson, later "Mrs. Trumbull" on "I Love Lucy", as the school teacher. I really found this film to be a delightful treat - highly recommended.
A Cottage on Dartmoor (1929)
Stylish and tense melodrama which features an opening scene where a man who has just escaped from prison is seen crossing the stark and gloomy moors, the sky darkened by black clouds, and not much more to be seen than a few wandering cows and a dark, bare tree. A woman cares for her baby at a lonely, isolated cottage, the man slithers in and confronts her and - she knows him! Now in flashback we see the background story of these two, Joe and Sally, co-workers in a barber shop where he gives men a shave and a haircut while she manicures their nails and gives the customers flirtatious smiles. This prompts more than just jealousy in this man - he pursues her, she doesn't really seem to like him that much but does agree to go out with him and they spend an evening together at her boarding-house where numerous well-meaning, slightly interfering old-timers seem to live (and he gets some pretty scary expressions on his face in what seems to be his desperation to kiss her). When she agrees to go see a "talkie" with a certain male customer, Joe turns stalker as he sneaks into the theater, secretly plants himself in the row behind them, and in an amazingly photographed scene shot using rapid-paced editing, we never see the film they are watching - instead the camera cuts between audience members plus Sally reacting as they watch the film, the orchestra playing, and Joe - who is not watching the film at all, but rather he's glaring in a steady gaze at Sally and her "date" in front of him.
This is a really excellent, well done film featuring loads of interesting cinematography - softly filtered lighting and shadowy scenes, facial close-ups, and lots of fast cutting. The guard who discovers Joe's escape is seen mainly in shadows against the cell walls, the menacing face of the convict as the camera quickly zooms in to show his face as the woman recognizes him, Joe sharpening his razor, quickly cut between two gossiping female co-workers, as he contemplates murder! The Kino DVD of this features a great looking black and white print and nicely done piano score that helps enhance the tension in the film. A great silent film, well worth seeing.
The Lottery Bride (1930)
Take a Chance - Win a Bride!
Light operetta starring Jeanette MacDonald as Jenny, who we first meet at an Oslo night club called the "Viking Ship", where she is singing her heart out and partying with handsome university student Chris (John Garrick). New club partner, wise-cracking Hoke (played by Joe E. Brown) has all kinds of new ideas for sparking up the club - like shutting off the doors, heating up the customers, and selling them drinks to "cool 'em off", and holding a dance marathon with a cash prize. Jenny's brother is in trouble after stealing money from a bank - so she agrees to partner with him in the marathon to try to win the money. Too late - the cops are after him and Jenny is arrested for helping him escape. And meanwhile she's caught hugging a man who helps the brother - and her lover Chris leaves town in a jealous huff, without even waiting for an explanation! And now we get to the real meat of the story, a very odd plot line to say the least. For some reason she decides to head to a mining town in the icy north where she plans to become a "picture bride". The lottery system used in this process features a man selling chances to lonely-hearts to "win a bride" (sight unseen) at the hands of a spin on a roulette style wheel. Okey dokey. The twist - Chris is in town, decides he'll take a chance on the wheel, and ends up winning - of all things, Jenny as a bride. But without even a glance at her photo, he gives her away to his brother. She arrives in town, and a love triangle follows.
This is a lightly entertaining film where characters occasionally burst into a pleasant, well-performed song here and there and a touch of humor is added with a side plot featuring comedy one-liners and budding romance (sort of) between Joe E. Brown and Zasu Pitts (who plays the "Viking Ship" owner). Interesting special effects come into play in later scenes involving a dirigible heading to the North Pole and a rescue on the ice. Jeanette MacDonald is very lovely in this film - it certainly is hard to understand why she wants to put herself into this sort of lottery for marriage, seems a bit implausible, but oh well, it makes for a cute plot. Max Davidson appears in a small part here as the "marriage broker" who recruits brides for this whole scheme. The DVD of this features a shorter version of the film with a couple of missing scenes - the black and white print looks reasonably nice (it does not have Technicolor for the final scene).
True Heart Susie (1919)
Just Plain Susie versus The Paint and Powder Brigade
Charming and sentimental soap opera introduced as "The Story of a Plain Girl". Well, Susie (the so-called "plain girl", played by Lillian Gish) and William (Robert Harron) are two country teens who seem to be best pals having a small little romance as she walks home from school with him and he carves their initials on a tree - seems sweet, right? But then again, she pretty much trails behind him as they walk (like his shadow) and he pretty much pulls away as they start to kiss (bashful or just not interested - it's hard to tell). He dreams of going to college, she secretly sells her cow and other goods (after all, she "must" marry a smart man) and sends him the money under the guise that it is from a "philanthropist" they previously met in town. He comes back grown-up, with mustache - she secretly writes of plans to marry him in her diary and keeps it a secret about who his real benefactor was. But - enter one flirty Bettina: she believes in paint, powder, tight skirts, and silk stockings. Young William, now ready for marriage, unbelievably asks surprised Bettina to become his wife. Oh dear, poor Susie. But it doesn't exactly work out the way he hopes!
This is a really sweet and entertaining film - I like it a bunch. Lillian Gish is quite a bit too pretty to really seem realistic as "plain", but they manage to braid and slick down her hair in the earlier scenes, and with her shuffling along and the like, it almost works - and she's great in the part, of course. The character of Bettina is not really in the vein of "evil vamp" or anything like that - she's really just an immature young girl who likes to party and flirt and just isn't ready to settle down with a house and husband yet. Clarine Seymour, who plays Bettina, is really excellent in this film - she completely brings her character to life and even manages to make what appears to be a man-stealing home-wrecker into a sympathetic character. It is hard to forget while watching this film, the early deaths of two of the stars here, Harron and Seymour, in only a year's time. The art direction and camera-work nicely captures the rural setting and youthful faces of the stars. The Kino DVD of this film features a clear, tinted print that looks great - the music is a nicely done score by the Mont Alto orchestra featuring contemporary tunes, which completely suits this film. An emotional, absorbing, and at all times enjoyable silent film.
Old-Fashioned Equal Rights Coming-of-Age Tale
Bit of fluff about teenage Billie Carol (Patty Duke), tomboy (if in any doubt of that, the short-cropped boyish haircut tells you that fact) who joins the boys track team at her high school and faces the mild wrath of her father (Jim Backus) who is running for mayor (Billie wishes she were a boy - and so does dad - uh oh). Billie "hears the beat" when she runs and even helps the other boys on the team (none of whom can run as fast as spirited little Billie) learn the beat in a fun dance number. New boy in school, Mike, wants to become a track star so recruits Billie as his "teacher" - but can't keep his eyes off her when she dances. And meanwhile issues about "women's rights" are loosely brought into the film as Billie gets upset 'cause the boys treat her "like a girl and not an equal". A subplot involves big sister Jeannie who returns from college with a secret she only reveals to sis Billie.
This film is pretty light fare, nostalgic fun that reminded me so much of the 60s teenage films I liked as a kid - it's also a semi-musical with one good dance number, plus a few sort of catchy, a few not so catchy songs thrown in. As a fan of Patty Duke (one of my favorite old TV shows since childhood is the rarely seen "Patty Duke Show") it was great to see her in this fun, teenage role - she's very energetic, likable and cute in this (even though forced into appearing on screen in this rather ugly powder blue short set as well as a pretty hideous powder blue dress, amongst other things - and what's with that bleached blonde hairdo?!). 60s TV is also well-represented as this film is jam-packed with numerous familiar stars and character actors from popular 60s sitcoms - Bewitched, That Girl, Gilligan's Island, Leave it to Beaver - all represented here. Even well-loved character actor Charles Lane appears briefly in a few scenes as the track coach, and there's even a big "Shaggy Dog" in this. Nothing great- but enjoyable, light fun.
Employees' Entrance (1933)
The All-Business Triangle
A standout performance by Warren William as Anderson, the hard, uncompromising, ruthless and feared-by-most General Manager of a giant department store helps make this a really excellent and interesting film. With climbing profits over the years, the depression has hit the store with a downfall and Anderson is put in complete charge to boost up sales - and he will go so far as to ruin any man who doesn't live up to his high expectations. He likes women, but not for marriage - his motto towards females is "love 'em and leave 'em". He soon meets beautiful Loretta Young who is desperate to get a job at the store, apparently a hard nut to crack (and she, apparently, will do whatever it takes to get it as she spends the night with him at his apartment despite her indication she would like to go home). Anyway - she's hired on as a model even after she said she would like to be hired for her "brain" - okey dokey - and soon has met and married a gung-ho salesman (Wallace Ford) who has been promoted as Anderson's new assistant. Anderson believes that a man should be married to his "job" only - so the marriage is kept a secret, and the workaholic boss expects his assistant to be there by his side pretty much night and day.
Okay, this is a really terrific pre-code film, entertaining through every scene, and featuring one of my thirties favorites, Warren William, who pretty much steals the film. As for the women, though Loretta Young is fine in her part here and looks really gorgeous - it is the scenes with adorable Alice White that are the most fun to watch as she plays Polly, a blonde who takes extra pay from Anderson to do his bidding seducing male employees for various purposes. A very enjoyable film and a treat to see.
The Gilded Lily (1935)
30's Love Triangle
Entertaining romantic comedy starring Claudette Colbert and Fred MacMurray as a pair who have a "date" each Thursday meeting on a city bench to eat popcorn together, sans shoes. He seems to be in love with her, but she longs to meet her dream man for her idea of an ideal romance. And she does - in the form of handsome Ray Milland, who assists her in a crowd situation on the subway. They have a fun date together at Coney Island where the camera takes us on a wild ride on the roller coaster with them; they fall in love instantly. She thinks he's out of a job - he doesn't tell her he is a Lord (and has a fiancée back home in England!). But when she sees his picture in the paper (coincidentally attached to a story done by MacMurray, a reporter) she believes she's been duped. Follows a series of publicity newspaper stories, out of her control, which causes her to become famous as "The No Girl" for saying "no" to a lord. Then he thinks she was just in the whole relationship with him for the publicity. Well, based on her huge public fame, she is amazingly hired to sing and dance in her own solo nightclub act - even though, as seen in a quite amusing performance scene, she has zero talent!
This is a fun, enjoyable romp - a little frustrating in the way of many romantic comedies in which you feel like you know a couple should be together, but misunderstandings have caused them to remain apart. The ending of this was not particularly what I hoped to see either. But - Claudette Colbert sparkles as always, she's great. Fred MacMurray also does a fine job in his part, Ray Milland looks very young, handsome and, well, rather dashing! One thing I wondered about in this film - why are the Colbert and MacMurray characters so satisfied with just a date on a bench once a week, how come they never desire to get together for a dinner out, go to a movie, or any other normal type activity?! Seemed a bit odd to me. All in all, a quite enjoyable film.
How's About It (1943)
Fun, Loose Plot - Great Music
A-okay WWII musical featuring a very loose plot strung together with loads of snappy patter and enjoyable song numbers done by the Andrews Sisters. They appear as three elevator operators at a music company where a song publisher (who likes to take showers at the office!) has just been sued by a cutesy blonde for stealing her calendar "poem" for use as music lyrics. In order to get the lawsuit canceled, he hires her as a song writer - which she proves to have zero skill at doing (but he romances her anyway). Shemp Howard appears as a side character who fancies but is set down again and again by Patty Andrews with some rather mean one-liners - but his continual pursuit of her actually succeeds (why does this kind of aggressive pursuit of women always seem to result in success in the movies, though is seemingly unrealistic in real-life?!). There are some additional entertaining musical numbers in this film featuring Buddy Rich and His Orchestra as well as a thirteen-year old named Bobby Scheerer who is very pleasing as he plays a tap dancing office boy (he appeared in person at a screening of this last week at Cinecon 43 in Hollywood). As a whole this film is lightly entertaining, peppy fun.
Beggars of Life (1928)
Artfully photographed, dark and riveting silent film following the story of a handsome tramp (Richard Arlen) who has entered a house looking for work, finds a man slumped over at the table and discovers he has been shot to death. A young lady (Louise Brooks) appears at the top of the stairs dressed in male clothing - she admits she killed the man (he "adopted" her from the orphanage two years before - okey dokey), but reasons that she did it to protect herself from being raped. So - they run off together and hitch a ride on a rail car to get out of town. The two of them soon arrive at a side of the railyard hobo camp where they encounter one really hardened, bully of a hobo (Wallace Beery) who actually ends up helping them. When she is recognized by one of the hobos as being a woman, the bunch want to get her away from her fellow and have her for themselves - oh dear, that struck me as a pretty bad/scary situation for a female to find herself in (the looks on these men's faces as they stared in lust at this poor girl were enough to frighten anyone)! Later "Wanted" posters begin to appear on signposts, as they discover she is now wanted for murder with a $1,000 reward offered for her capture.
I found this to be a very interesting and enjoyable film, full of some beautifully photographed scenes - Brooks and Arlen in close-up as they hide out one night in a hay loft, Brooks falling from a train into a grassy field, a montage of images in the beginning showing the decadence of the girl's "father" as he paws and pursues her. The plot is, in a few ways, reminiscent of the early 40s comedy "Sullivan's Travels" - the female dressed in male clothing stealing rides on rail cars with a male friend/lover, the hobo camp, etc. Interestingly, I thought Louise Brooks looked even more beautiful dressed as a boy than when she puts on a dress! All in all, this is a visual treat and a highly entertaining film.
The Rider of Death Valley (1932)
Not Enough Water!
A top-notch early western. A gold rush hits a western town, now booming - and soon cowboy Tom Mix arrives on his wonderful horse Tony. When a man is murdered for his gold mine at the hands of two bad men - Tom takes charge of the dead man's now orphaned little girl (Edith Fellows) and she's soon all dolled up in a fancy dress and telling him how much she enjoys being "washed and dressed" by him - then Tom proceeds to tell her "remember, that's our little secret" (okay, what's that all about?! - I believe these lines didn't have the intention or meaning they seem to have today, but this caused a big reaction from the audience at a live screening at Cinecon 43 in Hollywood). Well, the child's young, attractive aunt (Lois Wilson) arrives in town to take over and and is none too happy to find the little girl in a saloon ("mixed drinks - 2 bits") at the bar, alongside a beer-drinking saloon gal (Mae Busch in much too small a part). The dead father has left a map to his gold mine (intended for his family), which the two bad men have got ahold of. But smart Tom gets it and divides the map into three pieces, one for each of them. They trek out into the Death Valley desert to find the mine - but a wagon accident leaves the three men, plus the aunt, stranded in the blazing hot desert with close to no water. Of course, while Tom and the woman are "strong and brave", the two bad men keep trying to steal water - the only one who can really help them out is Tony the horse, sent back out across the desert to the rescue!
A riveting, gripping, suspenseful film that really held my interest, especially memorable are the later scenes in the desert - the extreme thirst, the debilitating heat, the parched throats, the madness, all expertly and realistically brought to life. Tom Mix is an engaging star who gives a nice performance here, young Edith Fellows is an adorable child, but I must say, it is really Tony the horse who completely steals this film - what a neat horse, and he's the real hero here too! A very entertaining watch.