William Wellman directs in rough-and-ready style, emphasizing leering melodrama, yet produces few pre-code thrills. The weakest link here is Wellman favorite Richard Arlen, even more awkward than he was in WINGS; playing Heyst as Joe College in a tropical white suit, who just happens to enjoy living alone on an island, he drains the central role of conflict and complexity.
In this company, the villains have ample room to shine: Warner Oland works hard at threatening the leading lady's virtue (as does most of the cast), but only Gustav von Seyffertitz, in a stylish black cloak and using Bela Lugosi's vowels, suggests the corruption and wit of Conrad's creation.
The tropical flavor of Surabaya comes down to hula dancers and Hawaiian music, but Archie Stout provides some effective lighting and keeps his shaky-cam moving. While the plot resolution will please only fans of routine Hollywood endings, Nancy Carroll at her peak is always worth a look.
Here, in a project that she guided herself, she goes blonde as an aspiring dancer, devoted to her dear old Dad, tempted by an unhappily married local boxer, but targeted by a leering seducer. Throughout this plot, set in Cockney London, her working-class heroine remains good-hearted, relentlessly perky, yet fundamentally innocent. She leaps into a street melee, climbs ladders, rescues a child from a beating, and slugs a disbeliever in her stardom. (Throughout four dance numbers, Moore neither disgraces nor distinguishes herself.)
Director Charles Brabin works up some flavorful Limehouse atmosphere, staging a spirited street brawl for the opening. However, only one sequence- a romantic scene on a stairway when Moore realizes that she loves the boxer -reveals distinctive cinematic choices. The visual sophistication seen in Brabin's MASK OF FU MANCHU in 1932 is absent, apart from some prism shots to express a state of tipsiness.
Among the routinely sentimental figures, Gladys Brockwell hits a strikingly realistic note as the hero's snarling drunken wife, but the character of "Roseleaf", the producer who threatens Moore's virtue, has an anti-semitic subtext that seems borderline offensive (Warner Oland would redeem his role the next year by playing Al Jolson's rabbi father in THE JAZZ SINGER).
The plot proceeds in a series of confrontations with Medardus, his mother and sister, the blind exiled Count of Valois, his ambitious daughter, and Napoleon himself (portrayed as a cool strategist), including several brief flashbacks. The romantic element pits Medardus --the blond Mikhail Verkonyi,who became Victor Varconi in Hollywood, working often for DeMille and Borzage-- in a love-hate relationship with the Valois daughter. The result makes for tight-lipped entertainment, too steely and humorless to succeed as human drama, but interesting for Curtiz's handling of spectacle.
Curiously, whether in military parades or court pageantry or epic battles, Curtiz never once moves his camera. Each setup is cemented in place, although Curtiz stages plenty of movement within the frame, especially marshaling his armies in combat, adding inventive use of smoke effects, and ultimately achieving a genuine sense of spectacle. Only once, when the cavalry charges toward a ground-level camera, does this film suggest the dynamism of Curtiz's CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE. Also, from the director of Errol Flynn's most thrilling swordfights, a dueling sequence here offers remarkably disappointing swordplay, filmed in basic one-shots.
Among the numerous locations -- forests, the banks of the Danube, Schoenbrunn palace-- it is startling to glimpse the Josefsplatz, the square outside Harry Lime's flat which would form the epicenter of THE THIRD MAN a quarter century later.
In the end, the non-moving camera, combined with the enormous chunks of dialogue that clog the titles, suggest an illustrated text, elaborate but uncompelling, rather than the best of Curtiz's later work.
As a socialite seeking to "live honestly", Garbo first has a frank dalliance with her chauffeur, then meets artist Nils Asther--who apparently lives in an art gallery and paints exactly like Gauguin--and impulsively decides to sail to the South Seas on his yacht (although we only see Catalina, Robertson conveys a bracing sun-and-salt air quality from the shipboard locations). Returning to a somewhat scandalized reception in San Francisco, she marries local dullard John Mack Brown; meanwhile, the artist travels to "fever-haunted" China (where his hair inexplicably develops a white streak). Her final conflict is to choose between mothering her darling son or running away with the love of her life. What would Louis B. Mayer do?
Despite some talk about the "philosophy of love" and the injustice of the double standard, this is hardly Tolstoy: the film stays within the conventions of a novelette, never seriously threatening the social status quo. Still, the pleasures are many: graceful direction and nicely underplayed acting throughout, plus Garbo, at the peak of her beauty, in an elegantly tailored Adrian wardrobe, giving one of her most appealing performances.
Irene Dunne supplies much-needed star authority to hold it together, but seems baffled that she has no plausible leading man - where is Cary Grant? -- and no plausible scenes to play. Still, she is a professional, and delivers a surprisingly affecting "Why Was I Born?" In return, she enjoys a knockout wardrobe in white organza and feathers from Orry-Kelly
But what pallid consorts she gets! The erstwhile leading man is Donald Woods, an estimable actor [memorable as Bette Davis' brother in WATCH ON THE RHINE], but here positively evaporating off the screen whenever a stronger personality shares the scene. His songwriter character, when allowed a frame to himself, comes off as callow and egotistical. In the third corner of this love triangle, Louis Calhern-moustachios a-twirl-- plays a military recruiter for Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders, but also fades into the scenery.
Luckily, the music keeps coming, one verging-on-operetta tune after another, staged with a clear Busby Berkeley influence. An amusing Sultan's palace number has a basso trying to sing through the chaos of rehearsal. There's a beer garden singalong of "Polka Dots"; a parade of hansom cabs for "Twas Not So Long Ago"; and hordes of dancers in chiffon enact "Lonely Feet". Appealing Irish tenor Phil Regan [why didn't HE play the lead?] joins Irene Dunne in a country bower filled with flowers, swans, twinkling stars and girls on daisy-swings in "We Were So Young". Finally, and imaginatively, a torn-up score is used for a charming ending with "Don't Ever Leave Me". [Yes, the title tune --not by Kern---is briefly sung.] Throughout, Sol Polito's camera tracks from pretty pastorals to hard-edged dance numbers, but always bathes Irene Dunne in flatteringly soft light for big juicy movie-star closeups.
The heroes behind the scene are the editors at Warners, chopaholics in the 1930's, who made every frame of film fight to stay in the picture. This produced razor-fast comedies [like FIVE STAR FINAL] and gangster operas [like BULLETS OR BALLOTS], while protecting the product from harried and unimaginative directors. [Indeed, when director Mervyn LeRoy moved to MGM, his films slowed to a lumbering pace]. Here, the editors relax for the leisurely musical numbers, but seize their scissors again every time the plot surfaces, winning our applause for speeding us through the creaky parts.
Viewers who know Tallulah Bankhead only from her caricatured role in LIFEBOAT will be startled by her intensity and bruised glamour: slouching in Travis Banton gowns, she looks sometimes like Garbo, sometimes like "Margo Channing". Meanwhile, she gives a crash course in how to hold a melodrama together, commanding every scene, inflecting every line with subtle nuances. When she must deal with menacing Charles Laughton, the air between them vibrates with tension. Laughton [billed as "the eminent English character actor"] does his share as well, but he seems mannered in a familiar way, a dry run for his Captain Bligh.
Only the radiant young Cary Grant in a dazzling naval uniform steals attention from the leading lady in a brief appearance. Gary Cooper, though persuasive as the romantic hero, soon gets submerged in a disappointingly shallow character.
The eye is seduced by cameraman Charles Lang's repertoire of shadows, the heart is stirred by a star performance, but in the end the head may resist: the terse dialogue tries for Hemingway but remains stubbornly pedestrian and remarkably humorless: the script owes its sole laugh to Bankhead's line reading while buying a billiard cue. The devil is in the dialogue!
When Wong makes her debut before the nightclub audience-- sporting an ersatz Thai get-up and fluttering her fingers this way and that---it is clear that she really can't dance at all, ironically making DuPont's contribution seem even more impressive . When this performance causes an unlikely sensation, rival dancer Gilda Gray gets so jealous that she faints in a heap of feathers. [Famed as the actual creator of the shimmy, Gray demonstrates it here with lots of vigorous jiggling.]
Paralleling her rise to dance stardom, Wong's wardrobe gets increasingly elegant, while the conflicts mount: quarreling over nightclub impresario Jameson Thomas [a nicely subtle performance], Gray argues "He's too old for you!" and Wong ripostes "You're too old for him." Both have a point. Eventually, with the help of some Limehouse ruffians, a gun, and a dagger, it all ends in a courtoom.
Apart from a brief appearance by Charles Laughton as a fastidious diner, DuPont pays no attention to the café society patrons of the Piccadilly Club. His interest lies with the performers---including skinny Cyril Ritchard as a hoofer---and in his own adventurous style: the camera seldom stops moving, once even circling 360 degrees, yet the end impression is not of indulgent artiness. DuPont points the camera down through the whirring blades of overhead fans, or into distorted mirrors---virtuoso effects but somehow serving vitality, a sense of events happening in the moment.
The distributor, World Wide Pictures, uses the end titles to trumpet its memorable motto: "Photoplays made where the story's laid".
Marshall plays a research chemist who tries an experimental anesthetic on herself ["nothing can go wrong"], but ends up disfigured, then takes on the identity of extortionist bad girl Ruth Ford. The switch involves several plastic surgery montages, but mostly results in a new coif, a dark rinse, and make-up adjustments.
The plot also plays out the popular postwar subtext of Send-Rosie-the-Riveter-Back-to-the-Kitchen: when scientific professional Marshall turns down a marriage proposal in favor of finishing her own work, she suffers for it at the hands of scheming Hillary Brooke, and then has to fight to get another chance at that marriage ring. This conventional message is somewhat at war with the subversive noir style, but this script includes: the unsuspected hostile motives of a friend, the nightmare chain of events, and the police station third-degree. The novelty here is the woman protagonist, who herself shifts into a femme fatale. In fact, the film centers on a trio of femmes fatales: Marshall and Brooke and Ford. The man involved is William Gargan, relaxed and charming, so hardly an homme fatal.
Republic's studio style-- aimed at simple feel-good entertainment, with invariably stodgy decor---was not exactly a natural home for noir. However, Anthony Mann delivers lean direction, with exceptionally fluid camerawork, some striking high and low angles, and smart playing from all [poor Marshall has to spend a good half-hour with her face wrapped up in bandages]. However, a few years later Mann worked out the situation-- two women tussling over a man--more pointedly, and with lots more shadows, in the superior RAW DEAL.
The plot follows two couples: glum newlyweds Joseph Schildkraut and Jetta Goudal are conflicted in their unconsummated marriage, while flapper Vera Reynolds deserts her boring fiancee for virile minister William Boyd. Soon--though inexplicably--they all find themselves on the same train to San Francisco; a crash then [inexplicably] rockets them all back to the Elizabethan era. While the four stars reconfigure their relationships, everyone spouts much Renaissance Faire dialogue ["Thou art the wastefulest tapster that ever vexed a gentle tavern-woman!"]
While DeMille tolerates some of the miming and pointing that gives silent film acting a bad name, the leads are all appealing, especially William Boyd, whose playful zest suggests early Errol Flynn. Despite playing both an innocent bride and a swarthy gypsy, the exotic Jetta Goudal gets little character to develop as both roles are one-dimensional [her performance in WHITE GOLD is considerably more complex]. The twentieth-century Joseph Schildkraut makes a credible protagonist, but the seventeenth-century Schildkraut acquires a dark bob and a pearl earring, uncannily anticipating Jack Lemmon's "Daphne" in SOME LIKE IT HOT.
In the end, what's most impressive is how smoothly DeMille manages to pack great chunks of romance, drama, action, and spectacle into this fast-moving vehicle, but anyone looking for a thoughtful treatment of reincarnation had best look elsewhere.
Conrad Veidt, in a career stretching from CALIGARI to CASABLANCA, always found the emotional authenticity in bizarre roles. Here, in the familiar 19th century figure of the suffering clown, his performance is transfixing: whether tremulous as the girl's hand explores his face, or mortified by the laughter of the House of Lords, Veidt's face makes the role more than a simple martyr: he is man struggling with unjust destiny ["A king made me a clown, a queen made me a lord, but first God made me a man!"].
Big-hearted and unashamedly dramatic, this is clearly the work of Victor Hugo, rags to riches in scope, offering consolation in love. The spirit of the French Revolution is very much in the air in this world of cruel privilege and class antagonism, full of secret doors, dungeons, and volatile mobs. While not as richly populated as Les Miserables and Hunchback, this adaptation still has spectacular set-pieces and elaborate settings.
Considerably less revolutionary is the conventional portrayal of women: virgin and vamp are the only alternatives. The former is the blind girl played by Mary Philbin [who had earlier unmasked Lon Chaney's Phantom]. With blond ringlets arranged to make her face heart-shaped, she edges close to simpering yet rises to genuinely moving moments. The vamp is Olga Baclanova [who became the blonde tormentor in Tod Browning's FREAKS], here writhing around in a black negligee and looking startlingly like Madonna.
Today, the films of Paul Leni are hard to track down, but worth the effort. Starting as an art director, Leni developed his visual command in Berlin; this Germanic style stands out in some beautifully designed compositions, such as a dynamic night sequence: a ship, full of gypsies being deported, heaves through a furious snowstorm. Yet Leni always works at the heart of the human values in the story, sustaining intense moments for all his actors. While some scenes are staged in darkness to rival a film noir, Leni also floods Veidt and Philbin with light, often focusing on one nuance per shot, an old-fashioned but effective strategy.
Filmed on the cusp of the sound revolution, this semi-silent has added sound effects and rather vague non-stop music but no spoken dialogue.
At the center of the plot, Barbara Stanwyck spends much of the film in desperation mode, exhausted from searching for her lost child, beaten down by two years in jail, forced to hire stool pigeons, forced to stay alert.
Joel McCrea makes the ideal American hero for the 30's: not only a doctor, but tall, blond, honest, sincere, manly, and progressive. At one point, he has to perform an operation on a bar room table, improvising with violin strings, an ice pick, and a bottle of rum! But this is not MGM's Dr. Kildare. He has no warm relationship with a kindly old mentor; instead, the chief doctor is an authority figure upholding the rules, dismissing Lee Bowman for unauthorized experimentation. The script also pumps up sympathy for interns as underpaid workers who get only $10 a month.
As a gangster, the always fascinating Stanley Ridges conveys the calm of a man secure in his power, whose eye movements size up his adversaries and whose silences reveal more menace than mere words. Watch the sexual innuendo he finds in his "I didn't always like popcorn" speech.
Santell uses extreme close-ups and moves the camera often, aided by gleaming lighting from Theodore Sparkuhl, plus some knock-out sets, including a sparkling white Art Deco clinic and an elaborately detailed New York Irish bar. Watch how economically Santell works to show the awakening of mutual attraction between Stanwyck and McCrea in their first scene together. Also lifting the picture out of its formula origins is the headlong pace Santell maintains to the climax, an urgency lost in the blander MGM series.
At the time, Grace Moore got all the attention, as much for her shapely figure and for stepping down from her Metropolitan Opera pedestal as for her actual performance. Playing a soprano who spends her savings to study with a famous maestro in Italy, the 33 year-old Moore seems a bit of a late starter, but bounces around with lots of vivacity. Singing the title song and the inevitable "Ciri-Biri-Bin", she mostly avoids the pearls-before-swine tone of opera singers when they stoop to popular song, although she still sashays [especially as Carmen] and waves her arms too much for modern tastes.
Many decades later, it is clear that much of the charm was supplied by Tullio Carminati, an appealing comic actor with a wry quality, something like an Italian Walter Matthau. As Moore's mentor/romantic interest, he has a kind of offhand sophistication and the expert timing to support Moore's occasionally shaky line readings [of course, she's the one who got the Oscar nomination].
Director Victor Schertzinger soft-pedals the high culture, and manages several Lubitsch/Mamoulian moments: one amusing conceit has a building full of musicians all practicing different instruments in discord, until Moore unites the tunes with her impromptu rendition of "Sempre Libre" from LA TRAVIATA. Another enjoyable sequence presents singing a quartet from LUCIA as a strategy to avoid paying the rent. When the plot enters the tiresome misunderstandings phase, Schertzinger keeps the pace going until the finale, a staging of a scene from MADAME BUTTERFLY.
Throughout, Joseph Walker, Columbia's maestro of camerawork, softly lights Moore to utmost advantage, and even gets in a couple of zoom shots [in 1934!]
For mainstream Hollywood, this idea-driven story was an honorable attempt to dramatize issues of conscience and responsibility [though criticism of official silence about budding fascist regimes was surely a bit late by 1946]. However, everyone gets to face a moral crisis here, from crusty Grandpa [Dudley Digges] down to a waiter who pauses to deliver a lecture on Woodrow Wilson, and marrying its serious ideas with an uncompelling love triangle seems contrived.
Hellman writes literate but non-stop dialogue, making everyone mouth the same high-minded generalities ["Whenever people talk about not taking sides, they've already taken one," or "People who know what they want don't wait to get it."] After an hour of politely listening to such unlikely repartee, we gradually grow weary, then dismayed, and finally exasperated. Was Hellman paid by the word, like Dickens?
This torrent of talk leaves no room for the film to breathe, so all of William Dieterle's fluent staging produces only claustrophobia. Also, while Lee Garmes' exquisite lighting and Hans Dreier's cavernous interiors mark a high point in Hollywood gloss, the decor is so fancy that we in the audience can only goggle in awe at the dilemmas of these privileged power-brokers, surely not what Hellman intended. Still, as James Agee noted, "People as highly civilized as these are seldom seen in the movies, and are still more seldom played with understanding." True, but one is tempted to throw buckets of ice water on the cast to stop their debating.
The leading lady is Ann Savage--soon to become the seediest femme fatale in film noir--who looks genuinely glamorous here, sings respectably, and handles her comedy with aplomb, but still hints at the edge that would immortalize her in Ulmer's DETOUR. The leading man is Ross Hunter, baby-faced but also with some bite, who would soon change careers to produce Douglas Sirk's glittering melodramas at Universal. Adding to the fun, Alan Mowbray plays a henpecked but lecherous cosmetics tycoon, while Hugh Herbert personifies a dizzy millionaire. This is surely the only movie that features a novelty duet sung by acerbic Glenda Farrell and bubbly Billy Gilbert.
Though hardly standards, Sammy Cahn's songs--like "Glamour for Sale" and "Rosebud"--are not bad. The tiny budget accomodates one busy dance number ["When the Samba Met the Boogie"] and an amusing "tableaux" production illustrating "Beauty Through the Ages". Director Arthur Dreifuss had already labored for Regal, Grand National, Coronado, and PRC, as well as guiding stripper Ann Corio in THE SULTAN'S DAUGHTER for Monogram. This movie was his big chance to step out of Poverty Row, so he showed Columbia what he could do with energy, timing, and budget-stretching. It worked: he stayed at Columbia for twenty years, but how unfair that this minor but enjoyable movie has dropped off the radar screens even of musical historians.
Very much a production of displaced Europeans [Sirk, Shuftan, Eisler, Pressburger], the story celebrates a continental tolerance ["No man is a saint"]. Douglas Sirk clearly enjoys the subversive charm of the criminal mind which stays sharp by exploring all the possibilities for larceny. However, Sirk is not cruel: the provincial victims are not buffoons; they are just not sharp enough to see all the angles in each situation. He does not mock the cheerful dowager [Alma Kruger] who is eager for more adventurous company, and even the bumbling cuckold [Gene Lockhart] is ultimately touching when he disguises himself as a canary-merchant.
Like its contemporary, Renoir's DIARY OF A CHAMBERMAID, this sometimes seems like a European film trapped in Hollywood. However, while the first hour sometimes strains to be "naughty" [as in a decorous skinny-dipping scene], Sirk is able to unify the tone more successfully than Renoir. If Signe Hasso seems a bit old [at 30] as the wide-eyed ingenue, and Carole Landis struggles through her music hall number, Sirk guides both of them to satisfying moments, justifying their casting. The plot involving a garter made of rubies, a monkey called Satan, and a Chinese carousel with a giant Pekinese to ride -- develops increasingly clever and surprising twists, to a pleasing conclusion.
Despite its mythological and religious trappings, this is deeply conventional story-telling: while an artist examines the ambiguities of behavior, director Rex Ingram is satisfied with this formula plot, leaving his actors no credible characters to develop and only pot-boiler dialogue to mouth ["You are the only man I ever loved!"]. So, although Antonio Moreno looks fit in his sailing captain's uniform, he mostly frowns in pain or puzzlement, while the excellent Alice Terry must enact everything from villainy to martyrdom with little help. The other players are earnest, some used for heavy-handed stabs at humor; however, this film's disregard for people becomes clear as--late into the film--new, throw-away characters keep appearing to deliver more exposition.
The action sequences--impressively shot on locations in Barcelona, Marseilles and Naples--include a mob chasing a German spy around a harbor, plus several submarine attacks and shipwrecks [done with entertainingly elaborate though unconvincing miniatures]. Yet even the visuals seem conventional and static, like academic paintings, especially when compared to the cinematic dynamism of Sternberg or Walsh.
The title refers to the Mediterranean Sea, but is also the name of the hero's ship, and acquires still a third meaning at the end.
Pabst sets his cameras gliding across the sands and into real locations in the Hoggar mountains. Towering, black-shrouded tribesmen appear, then sleek native women beckon with mysterious gestures of invitation. When they descend into the maze of tunnels that is Antinea's kingdom, they find a tipsy, excitable Quentin Crisp-y character, a longtime resident who holds some key to its history. As Antinea, the great German star Brigitte Helm has a mesmerizing presence as she lolls on a divan, with a menacing leopard at her side. Equally imposing is a monumental stone head of her visage that figures in several memorable compositions. When the protagonist [who is not a traditional hero] is first summoned to Antinea, what unfathomable depravity will take place? They play chess, of course. The story comes from a popular French novel, but it is Pabst's fluid style that makes this masterly kitsch.