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They Made Me a Criminal (1939)
I'm probably rating the film higher than I should, but I had fun watching it and it works for me. John Garfield played these kinds of characters, men on the wrong side of the law, so well...and he seems to represent the down-on-his-luck hero better than most actors of his generation. In this picture, he goes on the lam thinking himself responsible for a murder he didn't actually commit. He winds up in Arizona at a ranch owned and operated by May Robson and her granddaughter (Gloria Dickson), which also happens to serve as a place to rehabilitate delinquent teens (played by the Dead End Kids). This gives Garfield a chance to mentor the kids, teaching them about how to be a wiseacre hero and providing them with a few boxing lessons. Sometimes it's hard to figure out in their scenes together if Garfield is the central character, or if the kids are...but their interactions are always entertaining.
While Garfield's character is on this journey down in Arizona, he finds greater purpose in life. He also finds love with Dickson, though their romance is not without problems. She doesn't seem to believe in him, especially when he's taken the boys swimming and one of them almost drowns but doesn't thanks to his quick thinking. Of course, Dickson and her grandmother eventually learn what really happened, and he is soon back in their good graces. Probably Garfield's own reformation succeeds because it's defined by his relationship with the kids and the women, and in a way, he's rehabilitating all of them.
There are no real surprises in the film, and the story seems to go in a predictable direction. But that's a good thing. All of the characters (and the actors that portray them) are tough and brutally honest with each other, which is refreshing. THEY MADE ME A CRIMINAL is a reworking of an earlier Warner Brothers picture called THE LIFE OF JIMMY DOLAN that starred Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Loretta Young. The earlier version had Aline MacMahon in Robson's role and younger kids, and it had a certain charm-- but it didn't have what this version has...and that's grit.
Lady for a Day (1933)
In a way, it's a shame May Robson didn't win an Oscar for her performance as Apple Annie in this first cinematic version of Damon Runyon's story. Robson was nominated but lost to Katharine Hepburn for MORNING GLORY. It is, without a doubt, the defining role in the actress's long and illustrious stage and film career. She spends the first half hour as a loud- mouthed street urchin who gives apples and luck to a shady character named Dave the Dude (Warren William). But when she finds out her European-based daughter is coming for a visit, she confesses to Dave and his cronies that she's been playing a charade, pretending in letters to the girl she's a high society woman who lives at a nearby posh hotel.
The reason Dave decides to help Annie when the daughter soon visits is somewhat far- fetched, but it sets the stage for a miraculous transformation. Dave's girlfriend (Glenda Farrell) gives Annie an incredible makeover, while Dave lines up a nice suite for Annie and a phony husband (Guy Kibbee) to use when hosting the daughter and the daughter's soon-to- be in-laws.
Personally, I felt the transformation of Annie was a bit unrealistic. I think Dave's girlfriend would have been a little more tacky and probably would have overdone the makeup on Annie. Also, I didn't buy the fact that as soon as Annie has clean skin, glamorous clothes and jewelry as well as a spectacular new hairdo that she would all of a sudden talk in softer tones with the sweetest words rolling off her tongue. Probably Annie would still be talking like a sailor and not so easily lose her crude mannerisms. But despite these contrivances, the transformation is memorable and it does enable the story to progress to the next level.
In the next part, the daughter (Jean Parker) arrives, and there is an emotional reunion between mother and daughter down at the pier. This continues as they head back to the hotel. The hoax seems to be working, until we find out the prospective groom's father has suspicions about Annie and the others. There is also supposed to be a reception that brings the creme de la creme of upper crust society to Annie's suite, which forces Dave and his gang to scramble to come up with acceptable guests. Of course, we know Dave won't fail in this endeavor, and that Annie will be able to pull her deception off with her daughter's in-laws. If not, the story would not have a happy ending. And by the time the film ends, we've been treated to what is basically a nice mother-daughter story; as well as a sort of Pygmalion for the over-60 apple vending crowd.
You Can't Buy Everything (1934)
Happiness is everything
This film is not easy to describe. I guess you can call it the antithesis of a romance drama. A woman, played by May Robson, gets burned by the man she once loved and she decides to focus on taking care of herself and her young son. Along the way she scrimps and saves and builds up a tiny fortune. But her financial worth, the only thing she's managed to make of her life, becomes her obsession. It alienates her son when he grows into a young man, and he turns away from her by marrying a woman who is the daughter of his mother's archenemy. To say this MGM film is loaded with tension and melodrama at every turn is an understatement.
What makes it all the more interesting is it's based on the life of a frugal lady financier of the late 1800s and early 1900s named Hetty Green. We may not wish to believe a woman like this could ever exist, but she apparently did. The scenes where May Robson play the "witch of Wall Street" at her hardest and most ruthless are cinematic gold, however. Robson understands what drives a woman to be so uniquely misanthropic and the moments where she gets to rail at society and her ex-lover, played by Lewis Stone, are quite good. Of course, the screenwriters only take her so far, and she eventually has to soften and start reforming. That comes by giving her pneumonia, which forces the woman to reconcile with her son and daughter-in-law.
Most of it works as a compelling motion picture, thanks in large part to the performances. However, the dialogue gets a bit preachy as the others try to instill their own sense of decency on Robson's character to make her rethink her approach to life. But maybe audiences needed to see a female Scrooge, to see that a woman might have all the money in the world, but if she doesn't have love, then she's not really rich at all.
It's a Wonderful World (1939)
It's a wonderful thing to swear by your eye
First, the acting is exceptional by everyone in this picture. They all have different performance styles, but they're focused as one great ensemble should be, and it results in one great outcome. Colbert approaches the part of a screwball poetess as an intelligent human being, just as smart as she happens to be daffy if such a thing is possible. The scenes with James Stewart and Guy Kibbee are truly extraordinary; I watched some of it more than once, because they were too good not to rewind and see again. What's going on is that there is a frantic logic; they're playing up the nuttiness of the characters and their situations, but it's smooth and it deeply concentrates on the idea that you can stay in character but still exploit character at the same time. This is where these actors are masterful.
There are nice romantic undercurrents between Colbert and Stewart that get a chance to come to the forefront every so often. In particular there are several highly effective scenes during a night time sequence on a boat, where we see the leads share some tenderness before the next set of mix-ups occur. This works because they play it straight even with the silliest dialogue. And casting its kooky shadow over the proceedings is a delirious little murder plot that is so simple and irreverent it's like Hitchcock on laughing gas.
Most of the material plays like a series of jittery outbursts, and that is meant in a good way. Examples include Kibbee's "there are bugs on the walls" scene; Colbert's being punched out cold by Stewart and needing smelling salts; Stewart's mad raving as he and Kibbee are being arrested outside the theater; Colbert telling the police inside the squad car she's been working for them and she swears this by her eye, with Kibbee complaining this is no way to play crazy; and the scene near the end where Colbert runs and tackles one of the killers. These are moments that have meaning for the insane in chaos; it's pure pandemonium and pure delight.
6,000 Enemies (1939)
Six thousand reasons to watch
I was surprised how many positive reviews I found online about this film. Not because it isn't good mind you; on the contrary, it is very good-- in fact it may almost be too good for a "B" crime flick of this type. Usually a prison drama that clocks in at 60 minutes about a man who has been unjustly framed is no frills. It is often a poverty row product made with a low budget. But here, it's an MGM production with handsome production values and a lot more attention to detail than we might expect to see.
Walter Pidgeon is cast as a ruthless attorney whose tough views on crime come back to haunt him when he's framed by a gangster and sent to the clink for something he didn't do. When he gets there, he is befriended by a doctor (Paul Kelly, who had a real-life prison term) and must deal with other inmates who have it out for him. Many of the situations are not too original, and the characters are glorified stereotypes at best, but Pidgeon and most of the cast do a credible job with the material. Meanwhile, Rita Johnson plays a female inmate with her own simultaneous false conviction; and chances are, she will end up as Pidgeon's wife before the final fadeout. She does a nice job portraying the anguish that her character experiences.
What I like about 6,000 ENEMIES is that it gives the lead actor something tougher to play than MGM usually assigned him. Normally, Walter Pidgeon played Greer Garson's suave husband, or he had an honorable role in support of other stars in lavish studio productions. But in this film, he gets a chance to be a bit less than debonair and a lot more rough around the edges. I thought he was very much up to the challenge, especially in a boxing match where his character is pummeled by an opponent (Nat Pendleton). In a way, it's a shame Pidgeon didn't get more of these parts at MGM or other studios. Another thing I like about 6,000 ENEMIES is the way the editor advances the story by literally speeding up the film during some scenes. Also, chunks of material have been spliced together as montages that quickly and efficiently show us key plot points and get us on to the next piece of business. As a result, we have an action-packed film and something that seems to imprint its own style as it goes.
Naughty But Nice (1939)
A swinging piece of entertainment
The title is more provocative than the movie itself. The story, about a college professor who gets drawn into swing music and nightclub escapades, seems like a precode leftover. Except, because the Hays Office is hovering over the production, it doesn't get too shocking; in fact, everything stays relatively tame. Dick Powell has the main role, but since it was his last film at Warners, he was "demoted" and given second billing under Ann Sheridan who doesn't turn up until the 23-minute mark, then disappears for stretches at a time. Sheridan is cast as a sultry singer, and she is truly a knockout; it's a shame she and Powell didn't get a chance to do more pictures together.
NAUGHTY BUT NICE has some amusing moments, and these are generally furnished by the character players. Helen Broderick is on hand as Powell's bohemian aunt; ZaSu Pitts plays another aunt, of the more straight-laced variety; and Jerry Colonna appears in a fun musical segment. The plot, if we can call it one, hinges on Powell coming out of his shell. But it doesn't seem to take much to turn his world upside down. This is evidenced in a scene where for the first time in his life he's had too much to drink and ends up hanging from a chandelier. The wild display is caught on film by a newspaper photographer, which quickly leads to a meeting with the aunts who disagree about how he should conduct himself.
A short time later, he's back on the prowl hanging out with Sheridan, who takes advantage of his sweetness. She invites him up to her apartment and proceeds to help him get drunk again. We know this will lead to other things that could disgrace the family and probably jeopardize his job at the college.
It's not as pedestrian as it sounds. And despite a script that doesn't really challenge the cast, they all manage to make a decent effort and provide a solid, swinging piece of entertainment.
When Ladies Meet (1933)
When ladies meet and chat
I think I prefer this version over MGM's remake, which was made eight years later with Greer Garson in Ann Harding's role. What makes this one work so well is the perfect casting-- Robert Montgomery is excellent as a guy who wants to prove to the girl of his dreams that she's wasting her time on a married man (Frank Morgan); Myrna Loy plays the girl whose warped morals send her down a somewhat destructive path; and of course, Ann Harding is the other lady she meets whose marriage and home are threatened by it all. There are superb supporting performances, too, including Alice Brady as a larger-than-life busybody who serves as a hostess of sorts; and we even have Sterling Holloway in an amusing golf course scene.
Despite the talkiness of the script which betrays the story's stage origins, there is a lot going on-- with all of them experiencing epiphanies about where they are in relation to each other and what they want from life. But I would say the best part is the scene where Loy and Harding sit down to talk about a chapter that Loy is writing for a book. The chapter is about the affair the main character is having and what she would say to her lover's wife. Of course, Loy is writing about herself and at this point she doesn't know Harding's true identity, and Harding hasn't figured out she's the wife in the book. There is just such a great deal of irony and it's like a scene in a therapist's office in a way, with the women probing into their own consciences about what love means or what it could mean.
Double Harness (1933)
Excellent performances by Harding & Powell
This is easily one of the ten best films RKO made in the early 1930s. John Cromwell's direction is casual yet precise, and so is William Powell's performance as a wealthy playboy who falls into Ann Harding's trap. What's great about Harding in this film is she usually plays more sympathetic women in her movies, but that's not exactly the case here. This time she's a woman facing an unmarried and uncertain future. She is affected by her younger sister's engagement, and fearing she might become an old maid, she schemes to do something about it.
As the early scenes unfold, she sets her sights on Powell and figures he's the perfect target to end her aloneness. Powell has money and status, but he lacks motivation; so Harding will project hers on to him. Of course, we pity and understand her actions. It's all rich material for Harding to play, and we surmise underneath she's a woman who must obviously have a streak of decency in her. She comes from a good family; and she strives to make life pleasant for her sister and father. But with her own insecurities gnawing away inside her, she takes steps to force Powell into marriage.
Of course, this is only beginning for their unusual romance, and during the course of the story, Harding works to make us see the character from multiple vantage points. She is able to transport us with her from trickery and deception towards redemption, without really missing a beat. It couldn't have been an easy role to perform, but Harding does it almost effortlessly.
The Flame Within (1935)
The center of an emotional vortex
It's a smooth melodramatic handling of a story about a lady psychiatrist who develops romantic feelings for her patient (Louis Hayward). The scenes are laid out strategically by writer-director Edmund Goulding, to generate the most dramatic effect possible. It works mostly thanks to Ann Harding's delicate but strong performance. Hayward tends to overdo some of his scenes, but he's young and this was one of his first Hollywood films, so he was evidently still learning on- camera techniques. Maureen O'Sullivan probably has the showiest role as Hayward's wife who tries more than once to kill herself because her husband doesn't feel for her what she does for him. I think what I like most about this film and the way it tells its particular story is how Harding's character is at the center of an emotional vortex. Her happiness causes the unhappiness of others, but ironically if she resolves herself to unhappiness, then it puts everything right for everyone else. So all her movements and words have dual meanings in them. Herbert Marshall plays the man she will settle down with at the end of the film, and Marshall's underplaying nicely complements the subtle acting by Harding.
The Law and Jake Wade (1958)
Widmark is a perfect nemesis
THE LAW AND JAKE WADE was directed by John Sturges, and it uses some of the same sets seen in Sturges' earlier MGM western BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK. So in a way, despite the different story, it has a slightly derivative feel to it. Richard Widmark is a perfect nemesis to Robert Taylor in this picture, but it's never really explained why Taylor puts up with him and why he'd want to go back in the last scene and not just let him die alone.
The final shoot-out seems contrived and unnecessary, except for the point of giving the audience some climactic ending. Taylor appears to have been battling a cold or bronchitis, and his line deliveries are a bit congested in some scenes. I wouldn't mind it if there had been a line of dialogue referencing it, but I suppose we cannot have a western hero "sick" in any way. I gave the film a score of 8 out of 10. It has some sturdy elements for fans of the genre and these stars to enjoy, but it's far from being the type of classic it could and should have been.