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This Is the Night (1932)
An Enjoyable Pre-Code
Claire (Thelma Todd) and Gerald (Roland Young) are carrying on a rather heated affair, but just as they are about to go away together to Venice, Claire's javelin-throwing husband Stephen (Cary Grant) returns home. In order to dispel his distrust, Gerald hires a woman to pose as his wife. Germaine (Lili Damita) is a hungry young French actress who poses as a more experienced woman named Chou Chou. She vamps Gerald incessantly while Stephen is around, and she is so successful that she makes Claire insanely jealous.
This sing-songy film is a delight to watch. It is fast-paced, comedic, and filled with a stellar cast, but it is not well known today. Film collectors find it interesting because it marks Cary Grant's first screen appearance and because it is one of the few films of Lili Damita, a popular but heavily-accented French star. Her career fizzled quite quickly, but not before she appeared with stars like Gary Cooper and Laurence Olivier.
Fans of the pre-code era will enjoy this one quite a lot, as it is peppered with naughty jokes ("I was living in Cin--, I was Naughty.") and a running gag about Todd losing her clothes.
Henry Aldrich Swings It (1943)
Another Enjoyable B-Series
When Henry Aldrich (Jimmy Lydon) learns he has a new music teacher, he expects the worst, but when he discovers she is a youthful beauty, he takes a new interest in the school band. He and the other kids are thrilled to discover that she has an appreciation for swing music, but the principal doesn't like it, and forbids her from playing it. Trouble ensues. To top things off, a famous violin player comes to the school to play with the students, only to get his Stradivarius mixed up with an ordinary violin.
This is an enjoyable B-film, which is in fact the 6th of the series, the 4th with Lydon. It originally was a Broadway show which got a radio series, and was so popular, that Paramount made it into a films series. It is not remembered today, and the films are difficult to track down, but when they can be seen, they're worth the wait.
This film is lighthearted and fun with an enthusiastic cast, great music (including "Ding Dong, Sing a Song"), and a good sense of humor. Real teenagers play the teens, so the film has an air of authenticity about it. When the gang gets together to play some music, their timidity shows through as being genuine, but they have true talent. You'll find yourself swinging it too!
Charlie McCarthy, Detective (1939)
"I'm Char-lie McCar-thy, detective!"
Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy find themselves mixed up in a crime mystery. They perform at a nightclub with Sheila (Constance Moore), a singer whose boyfriend Bill (John Sutton) is hot on the tail of a powerful swindler (Louis Calhern). He is being held in South America for the proof of his accusations, but one-by-one his friends are being killed. It is up to the gang to get Bill back in one piece.
This is really a curiosity piece today; we don't really have anything equivalent in modern society. Candice Bergen said in her book that her father really belonged to the vaudeville stage and was able to extend his career into the radio and TV era. His style of entertainment is an old one, and it is hard for modern audiences to forgive Edgar's lips moving when he does Charlie's voice, or laugh at the corny jokes he tells.
But some people will get it, and they'll love it. Sure Charlie's humor is a bit outdated, but that doesn't make it unfunny, just different. He gets some really great one-liners, especially making fun of his "master," which he was famous for. Mortimer Snerd is my favorite, though, a doofus all over, with a hilarious drowsy face and a voice to match. He pops up randomly throughout the film and provides wonderful breaks from the plot.
Now, this isn't a great movie by anyone's standards. The mystery is dull and the supporting cast members seem like they belong in another movie. Bergen and his pals are the stars, but they just seem to weave in and out of the story without any real reason for being there. But it is enjoyable enough and a great way to SEE Bergen and his famous pals rather than to simply hear them on the radio.
Angels Wash Their Faces (1939)
Dead End Kids Clean Up
Gabe Ryan (Frankie Thomas) gets out of reform school and goes back to the slums. His sister (Ann Sheridan) does her best to keep him out of trouble, but it just seems to follow him. Aside from his associations with the Termite gang, Gabe is followed by real-life gangsters who have a scheme to set fire to random buildings to collect the insurance. They need someone to blame for the arson, and Gabe is it. It is up to the Termites to work the law in their favor and give the gangsters their just desserts.
The the scene that introduces the Dead End Kids is really quite good. The boys wander on over to the new resident's furniture on the street, and proceed to make it their own. They talk to each other in phoney posh accents and talk about drinking tea together; Bernard Punsley takes a nap in a chair. The boys then proceed to start a fight with the new boy, but after he proves himself a good fighter, they ask him to join their club.
The initiation scene is rather good too, filled with mischief that seems dangerous at first, but is really rather clever and innocent.
Later, when Billy Halop studies to become the boy mayor, he has a dream about schoolwork. This is wonderfully staged, with tiny holograms of the kids walking on his face and firing questions at him.
Angels Wash Their Faces is a great title because it plays off of the success of Angels With Dirty Faces, and really tells what the kids are doing. Notorious for bad behavior on and off the set, these boys make nice in this film. But rather than seem disingenuous, it makes for some great laughs. This is a preview of what many of the boys would become in The Bowery Boys series. We even get a few garbled words from Leo Gorcey.
Sh! The Octopus (1937)
Sh! The Octopus was recommended to me by a friend who bought a few lobby cards from the film. I wondered why he had such an interest in a movie that I had never heard of. He told me he was afraid to tell me too much because it might spoil the fun, but that I should definitely see if I had the chance.
My time arrived.
The story begins with a sea-faring man selling the deed to a lighthouse to a polished-looking gentleman in a suit. In comes Captain Hook (that's right- Captain Hook!), a crazy sailor who goes insane at the sound of a ticking clock. Cut to two cops, Kelly (Hugh Herbert) and Dempsey (Allen Jenkins), who are racing to the hospital on a rainy night because Kelly's wife is having a baby. But they get a flat tire, and in the midst of their struggle to fix it, a woman comes tearing through the woods at them, begging for help. She has just seen her step-father's dead body in the lighthouse! The plot is laughable, and thankfully the actors and the director seem to be in on how ridiculous the story is, because it is presented as a comedy. Therefore, we're allowed to laugh at how silly it is that the villain is a murderous octopus with tentacles that creep in through doorways. And it is okay to laugh at the exaggerated plights of the characters and their overzealous performances. And we're expected to giggle at the constant twists and turns that often make no sense.
So why do I rate this movie so highly? Simply for the amount of fun I had watching it! It is packed with hilarious bits, by two comics who are generally relegated to being the 2nd or 3rd banana. Now, they're the leads, and they pull it off quite nicely. Jenkins is a great blend of comic and straight-man. He's too stupid to be taken seriously, but he is tame compared to his partner. Herbert, who often rubs people the wrong way with his giddiness, contributes nicely to the show.
The Devil Is Driving (1932)
Dickie Moore is Adorable
"Beef" Evans (James Gleason) works in a crooked garage. He takes in hot cars because he wants his wife and son to have the best things in life, but his wife worries about the consequences of his actions. Rightfully so. His new hire, "Gabby" Denton (Edmund Lowe) has his own concerns, and starts investigating the details of the racket.
I saw this movie screened at Cinevent 41, and for most of the movie, the sound was out of sync. If I were too bored, I would have left, but I couldn't miss out on seeing Dickie Moore in a rare film. Even when his voice didn't match his expressions, I found myself awwing for his innocence in spite of his predictable role in the story.
This is a standard programmer with strong ties to the crime drama genre. If you're a fan of cars and pre-codes, find a copy.
Time to Kill (1942)
Fast-Paced and Exciting
Time to Kill is a fast-paced, thrilling Michael Shayne mystery adapted from a Raymond Chandler novel and sped up to fit just inside an hour. Mrs. Murdock hires Shayne to find her daughter-in-law, a chorus girl who stole a precious coin from her home. Murdock's son is an odd sort of fellow who appears now and then to create a sense that Shayne is being watched, not the sort of guy that could be trusted. When Shayne meets the daughter-in-law, aptly named Miss Conquest, he discovers a beautiful girl just as eager to get out of the Murdock family as Mrs. Murdock is to get her out. Something doesn't quite fit.
Don't blink your eyes or you'll miss something; you have to be able to keep up with this one to truly enjoy it. Maybe some practice with other Lloyd Nolan movies will do the trick.
Nolan gets some great lines and utilizes them well. His tough guy might not be as memorable as Edward G. Robinson's, Humphrey Bogart's, or Dick Powell's, but he gets the job done. He is flanked by a b-movie cast, including the lovely Heather Angel, but don't see b-movie and think you'll be losing out on quality. You don't want your murder mysteries to be polished anyway; the dirtier, the better.
Dante's Inferno (1924)
Lackluster Story Aided by Visuals
A selfish businessman has been consumed with the sins that will throw him to hell. He allows his tenants in his ramshackle tenement houses suffer in unsafe living conditions with no remorse. When a demon shows him what hell is like and offers him a chance to save his soul, the businessman is faced with a choice, but old habits die hard.
Although Dante's Inferno has some great visuals, the story lacks, and therefore makes this curiosity quite disappointing. This was one of the most exciting names on the list for Cinevent 41, and I was underwhelmed by it. The red tinting and the writhing bodies are powerful at first sight, but the narration dwells too much on the details of each level of hell. Maybe this is uninteresting to modern audiences who have been saturated with so many different varieties of what hell might be like that we're numb to the older renditions. Whatever the reason, it is not effective.
It is worthwhile to note that the black characters are played by white men in black-face. This choice is more startling today than it must have been when the film was originally released, but it serves as a reminder of the change in the times.
This film intertwines the imagery from Dante's famous story and a modern morality tale that plays off of the depictions of hell. Cecil B. DeMille perfected this combination in The Ten Commandments a year earlier. In comparison, Dante's Inferno falls flat.
7th Heaven (1927)
The Beginning of a Timeless Romance
Diane (Janet Gaynor) leads a horrible life; her sister beats her constantly for no reason and life in the slums leaves no room for escape. One day when the two are visited by their parents, a chance comes to break free from their seedy existence, but Diane is too honest to deceive them. She belies the fact that they have been far from moral. Her sister retaliates by attacking her in the street, but a good Samaritan steps in. Chico (Charles Farrell) works in the sewers and dreams of better things. He cannot stand to see a defenseless, albeit fearful, girl be abused. Unfortunately, when he stands up for Diane, he risks his forthcoming job as a street cleaner. He lies and tells the police that he and Diane are married, so she moves in with him to carry on the charade for his sake. The relationship blossoms into love, but the war comes and the two are pulled apart.
This is the first time that Gaynor and Farrell were paired on the screen, and the chemistry between the two is electric. It only improved as time went on, but it is exciting to see the start of it all. Gaynor is beautiful and so petite next to the masculine presence of Farrell. He takes care of her just as much as she does him; the two represent the ideal couple, two halves that make a whole.
Frank Borzage directs, and his signature touch permeates the film. The lush, soft lighting make the dirty locations seem lovely and appealing. The sparse apartment that the lovers call heaven really has a glow about it. This style lends itself perfectly to the love story and makes the more melodramatic parts forgivable in context.
Down in New Orleans
George Latimer (Adolphe Menjou) and his daughter Kit (Bonita Granville) live in New Orleans, the city of jazz. Unfortunately, the family business is not doing well and has to relocate to Chicago. Kit is heartbroken, but she agrees to the move with the promise that they will return someday. As she gets older, she never loses her love of jazz and plays it whenever she gets a chance. One night, she goes for a walk and comes across Johnny Schumacher (Jackie Cooper), a down and out musician. He takes her to a party where they play a new variation on New Orleans jazz and she brings down the house with her piano-playing. Her confidence gives Johnny a new outlook on his love for music, although money is always a temptation.
Syncopation could have been much better, but it constantly strays from the fact that jazz music came from the black community. It begins with black people, one of the rare opportunities in classic films for black actors to shine, but that quickly disappears in favor of the white stars. Noteworthy players are Todd Duncan as trumpet-player Rex Tearbone and Jessica Grayson as his mother. The movie becomes a bit of a cliché with the actors struggling against all odds only to inspire the greats like Benny Goodman and Harry James. Unfortunately black musicians like Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller, and Duke Ellington are left out of the grand finale.
As it stands, Syncopation is an entertaining movie with lots of great music, but it is simply average overall. It never sticks to a time period, but what it lacks in accuracy, it makes up for with catchy tunes and praise-worthy leading actors. Granville is dazzlingly beautiful throughout the movie and she and real-life boyfriend Cooper work well together on-screen.