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The Doorway to Hell (1930)
Putting on Ayres
I like Lew Ayres--he proved himself a versatile actor in everything from the Dr. Kildare series to "Johnny Belinda" to "Holiday" (which he steals from Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn) to his moving early work in "All Quiet on the Western Front." In this, a prototypical Warners gangster flick, at 21, he's a bit young to convincingly play a mob boss who lords it over a sea of bootleggers and other crooks; when he snarls, you're just not sure they'd cower in response. Plus, his right-hand man is being played by Cagney, and he crackles and grins and burns up the screen. That said, it's an interesting early talkie, happily pre-Code (Cagney has an affair with Ayres' wife, a calculating Dorothy Matthews, and the screenplay doesn't over-judge them for that), directed by Archie Mayo with some striking compositions and a slam-bag prison-breakout climax, and with some thoughtful work by Ayres. He's just not quite the commanding, charismatic protagonist you'd like him to be.
The Four Poster (1952)
Who was Jan de Hartog? Whoever he was, he wrote a splendid, perceptive, entertaining play, "The Four Poster," which was a Broadway hit with Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy (how I'd have loved to have seen them in it), and, during that run from 1951 to 1953, was filmed and released by Stanley Kramer. Two-character plays were rare then, and two-character movies rarer still, but this one survives quite beautifully, preserving de Hartog's clear-eyed, comprehensive views on marriage, ego, womanhood, and creativity. The husband, played a bit stiffly to my eye by Rex Harrison, is a self-centered writer who nonetheless shows great sensitivity to his wife when it's required, and the wife, played beautifully by Lilli Palmer, is a searching individual whose identity is tied up almost exclusively in her marriage. The real-life marriage of this couple was, as other posters have noted, fraught, and the tension plays well into their characterizations. It's cleverly augmented by John Hubley's animated transitional sequences, which are rather brilliantly scored by Dmitri Tiomkin. Musical theater fans will know that the piece was successfully turned into "I Do! I Do!", and they'll be intrigued by the changes librettist Tom Jones made (the characters' names, the somewhat happier ending). I'd tried to track this one down for years and am glad to have finally seen it. It's unique. And it works.
Rio Rita (1929)
A fascinating antique
A very rare chance to see a 1920s stage musical preserved more or less intact on the screen, this RKO entry, along with Warners' "Desert Song," is in pretty good shape for 90, and still entertains. Not the book, by Guy Bolton and Fred Thompson, and not the direction nor clumsy adaptation of Luther Reed. And TCM's print, missing 35 minutes of the original, has some terrible cuts. What you do get is an authentic bad 1920s musical book and a catchy stage score that wanders between operetta and musical comedy, divided more or less equally between lovers John Boles and Bebe Daniels (the former) and Wheeler and Woolsey and the adorable Dorothy Lee (the latter). Top billing, interestingly, goes to Ziegfeld, who produced the stage show and had nothing to do with the movie, and the sets and costumes are indeed Ziegfeld-lavish, and look great in the two-tone Technicolor of the third act. Boles sings very well but looks paunchy (and Paula Laurence, who worked with him on stage in "One Touch of Venus," told me he was the dullest man who ever lived), while Daniels, embodying some unpalatable Mexican cliches in speech, is vivacious, pretty, and convincing. The Wheeler-Woolsey stuff is variable, but Bert Wheeler, a first-rate song and dance man, does get to do some splendid stepping, and you'll probably be humming "Sweetheart, We Need Each Other" for days. He and Lee pair so well together that RKO kept teaming them. Yes, it's a ridiculous story that doesn't make sense, and the political incorrectness is off the charts. But if you want to know what a night out on 44th Street might have been like in 1927, you can't do better than this.
Bad Guy (1937)
Bad guy, strange movie
An MGM melodrama-romance-documentary B, this one packs a little of everything into its 70 minutes or so. The bad guy of the title is Bruce Cabot, a lineman who gets mixed up in a gambling-related murder, is sentenced to the chair, gets out of it, and returns to his unofficial brother (Edward Norris, who's OK), upon which they both romance Virginia Grey. Cabot, who always had an easy machismo and is very well photographed here, adds some needed ambiguity: Is he really a bad guy? A good guy gone wrong? Just a good guy? Turns out he's a bad guy, so you're meant to be happy at his final fate, but it's hard to. The story's slim, so Edward Cahn pads it out with way too much footage of electrical linemen, including Norris and Cliff Edwards attending an electrical seminar/demonstration. A so-so B all in all, but there's real chemistry between Grey and Cabot (if not Grey and Norris), and a couple of good speeches--one by Cabot romancing Grey, one by Norris sussing out his complicated feelings about Cabot--lift it a bit above the ordinary.
Stick with the '50
Stewart kept returning to Elwood P. Dowd after definitively filming "Harvey," in 1950, and this 1972 Hallmark TV production, taped shortly after a Broadway revival, catches him doing his usual, competent thing, with an attractive cast around him. Minus commercials, it's about an hour fifteen, and that betrays the cuts and revisions that have been made to Mary Chase's script. The romance between Dr. Sanderson (a miscast Richard Mulligan) and Nurse Kelly (Madeline Kahn, about to become prominent thanks to "What's Up, Doc?"), is missing. Dowd's age is moved up to 57 (Stewart was 64 and looks it), and Helen Hayes is OK as Veda, though not a patch on Josephine Hull's Oscar-winning performance, and I liked Marian Hailey's Myrtle, though retaining the romance between her and Wilson (a superannuated Jesse White, who was better in 1950) is cringeworthy. All in all, it's straightforward and entertaining, but the movie, with its exteriors and additional dialogue and Henry Koster's sympathetic direction, is superior in pretty much every way.
The Second Greatest Sex (1955)
I can give you all the data/ On that gal named Lysistrata
That's a typical couplet from this Universal musical, a rather desperate attempt to cash in on MGM's success with "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers." It hews to that formula very closely: Take an ancient myth ("Lysistrata" instead of "Rape of the Sabine Women"), set it out West, write a plot-specific score (in this instance, by many hands), and cap it with lots of athletic choreography (by Lee Scott, who's no Michael Kidd, but that is, admittedly, a high bar). George Marshall, by now something of a Western musical veteran, having just wrapped "Red Garters," directs briskly, and it's an interesting cast. Neither George Nader nor Jeanne Crain could sing, both are dubbed, but both sure were pretty. Kitty Kallen, a popular recording artist at the time who didn't have much luck with movies, has one nice ballad. The always wonderful Tommy Rall, inexplicably eighth-billed, does some astounding leaps. Keith Andes, too hunky to be playing a priest, gets to sing a song, one of those pseudo-religious mid-'50s things, while chopping down a tree, and winds up with Mamie van Doren. Bert Lahr clowns, Paul Gilbert gets a big specialty number, Jimmy Boyd squeaks, and the story gets spun out decently enough. It's another enterprising mid-'50s musical, trying to keep a fading genre alive. Is it good? Not very. But fun? You bet.
The Bad Seed (1956)
Stagey, and I love it for that
Adapted from a hit novel by William March and play adaptation by Maxwell Anderson--an established, Pulitzer-winning playwright--this version has a screenplay by John Lee Mahin, a veteran and accomplished screenwriter himself, and he wisely lets the stage origins show. It does wander outside the Penmark household for some key scenes, but it's pretty stagey, and Mervyn LeRoy, the director, seems to encourage that. The intact stage conventions give us the impression we're just watching a hit 1950s stage melodrama, a macabre one with two theatrical performances at its center. Nancy Kelly overacts hideously, which only makes it more fun, and Patty McCormack is remarkable--watch how skillfully she conveys Rhoda's self-discipline, and how easily it comes apart when she's threatened. Theatrical, too, is Henry Jones's Leroy, he's given soliloquies this character would never have, but they help us understand him. The Production Code-induced moralistic ending is also fun, and so are the stage bows, and so is Christine giving Rhoda a theatrical spanking, and so is the not-as-smart-as-it-thinks-it-is 1950s psychological analysis. A wallow, and a front seat at the 46th Street Theatre in 1954.
A Kiss in the Dark (1949)
Alleged comedy, and comedy is not what Delmer Daves did well, about a cloistered concert pianist (David Niven, who's supposed to be 27 and was 41 and seems to know it) romancing a model (Jane Wyman; comedy was never her forte, either) in a New York apartment house run by Victor Moore, in his usual adorable-old-man mode (he twinkles almost as much as Barry Fitzgerald would). Every actor in this thing does what we've seen him/her do before, from Broderick Crawford bellowing to Joseph Buloff and Maria Ouspenskaya peddling florid accents, and poor Wayne Morris playing a character that makes no sense, a fiance of Wyman's we're supposed to hate. The slapstick is elaborate and badly staged, the conflict is essentially resolved long before it's over, and about the nicest thing is Max Steiner's scoring of the title song, which is by Victor Herbert, who doesn't even get a screen credit. I'm surprised to see so many user reviews calling it charming and fun; I generally like Warner comedies from this period, but this one's a waste.
Glamour for Sale (1940)
As these Columbia Bs go, not bad
A very post-Code look at "escort services," albeit they're places where there's nothin' dirty goin' on, this is a brisk little B with an appealing Anita Louise helping undercover agent Roger Pryor, with an uncommonly unattractive mustache, close in on the thugs running the thing. Considering all the dialog about how good these girls are, it has a nicely tawdry atmosphere, and Don Beddoe is authentically menacing as the thug-in-chief. A couple of bad songs with bad voice doubles round it out, and at just an hour and change, it won't bore you.
They Call It Sin (1932)
I call it hogwash
Silly, illogical pre-Code romance that, if nothing else, shows Loretta Young off to good advantage. She's a small-town girl who plays church organ and is saddled with a dreadful mom, Elizabeth Patterson in a more substantial role than usual for this time, who turns out not to be her mom at all. She meets traveling salesman David Manners, who neglects to tell her he's engaged, and she follows him to New York, where she bunks with Una Merkel and is dismayed to discover the truth, though not dismayed enough to throw Manners over for his best friend, George Brent, who's crazy about her. She also ends up playing rehearsal piano for a show produced by Louis Calhern, whose intentions are not honorable. The things ends, mercifully soon, with the dying Calhern confessing on his deathbed that the thrashing he took wasn't Manners' fault (something this character would not do), and Young running off with Brent, even though she and Manners have spent the whole movie unable to keep their hands off each other. But we need a happy ending, so he trudges back to his wife, and we assume he'll be happy with her even though he's previously indicated he never could be, and Young is blissful with Brent even though she's told him she could never really love him. Many loose-hanging threads in this one.
The Rich Are Always with Us (1932)
A merry marital mixup, sort of
Based on a contemporary novel, and adapted pretty well, this literate comedy-drama has rich Manhattanites generally marrying people they don't love and not marrying people they do. John Miljan and Ruth Chatterton, the richest woman in the world, have a teetering-on-collapse ten-year union complicated by a) Ruth flirting rather aggressively with a besotted George Brent, b) fellow heiress (one line of dialog suggests they're sisters, then that's dropped) Bette Davis lusting after George, c) Ruth not sure whether she loves George or not, and d) John canoodling with, and eventually divorcing Ruth to marry, Adrienne Dore. Post-divorce, Ruth still feels responsibility toward John, complicating her romance with George. You'll be pleased to know it all ends happily, though one of these four dies--and good riddance, the movie suggests. The dialog's fairly snappy, and Alfred E. Green keeps it moving nicely. Ruth and George, married in real life for a spell just around then, seem well matched despite her being 12 years older than he. He's at his handsomest here, and she, despite highfalutin speech patterns (she's always saying "cahn't"), does a lot of acting with her body language and facial expressions. A fairly entertaining trifle, and it's fun watching Warners try to glam up the young Bette.
Mister Buddwing (1966)
Stylish, polished, and a little confusing
A grim black-and-white allegory from an Evan Hunter novel, this mood piece has James Garner waking up in Central Park with no memory whatever and piecing together his past through a series of memories, hallucinations, and casting changes. Why he wouldn't have any ID on him, first of all, isn't explained, and the use of three different actors to portray the same woman in his life becomes quite confusing, good as Katherine Ross, Suzanne Pleshette, and Jean Simmons are. We're never sure how literally to take anything. Garner's excellent, as is the high-contrast photography of a dusty-looking mid-'60s Manhattan, and as the story slowly builds to a kind-of-sort-of resolution, we're intrigued. It's an interesting artifact and very much worth seeing, but one can sense how the twisted storytelling and overall bleakness didn't help the box office.
My Sister Eileen (1955)
And, hail Jule and Leo
Everybody seems to be dissing the Jule Styne-Leo Robin score to this friendly little 1955 widescreen musical, so let me put in a word for it. True, Columbia might have had an even better movie had it shelled out for the Bernstein-Comden-Green "Wonderful Town" Broadway score. But this one works just fine. It's tuneful, witty, and to the point, and it gives the great Betty Garrett (a replacement for Judy Holliday, whom Harry Cohn originally cast, but she was trying to be seen as less of a plain-Jane) several wonderful opportunities. Her comic timing's expert, she has a natural warmth, and it's easy to buy her as the overlooked sister of the well-cast Janet Leigh. Columbia, trying Jack Lemmon out in a number of guises at the time, perhaps shouldn't have cast him as a playboyish editor; it's not a very likable part, and he's not a singer, though he did do two other musicals for the studio around that time. But there's a splendid supporting cast, notably Bob Fosse (also choreographing) and a hideously underused, under-billed Tommy Rall. The Blake Edwards-Richard Quine screenplay preserves most of the best lines from previous versions and adds a few of its own, and the location footage is almost indistinguishable from the backlot work. Most raters have this one right--it's unpretentious, clever, happy, and picturesque. But it may send you out humming, too.
Mardi Gras (1958)
Some amusement. Should be more
A traditional musical made at 20th just as traditional musicals were dying, and supposedly infused with vigor by casting it with several young heartthrobs: Pat Boone, Tommy Sands, Gary Crosby, Dick Sargent. But it's pretty tired. The first half-hour is an unexciting display of military academy life, with our four cadets marching, kidding each other, and affirming their good-natured camaraderie. Then they hit the Mardi Gras, where they're raffling off to their fellow cadets a date with movie star Christine Carrere. Pat wins, and their love affair is troubled by you're-a-movie-star-I'm-a-cadet, and her manager, Fred Clark, and his secretary, Sheree North, contribute supposedly witty sayings. Sheree proves, again, she should have been a much bigger star--she's pretty, she can sing and dance, and she's a natural comedienne--and there's also a comely Barrie Chase in a supporting part. The Sammy Fain-Paul Francis Webster score is miles below what they wrote for "Calamity Jane," and the wholesomeness-mixed-with-1950s-salaciousness may give you whiplash. A couple of nice numbers, though, and it's the last movie directed by Edmund Goulding, who made some great ones. Worth a look, then, but expect to be underwhelmed.
Movie Movie (1978)
Stanley Donen in 1978 was old enough to remember how Warner Brothers double features of the 1930s played, and he brings them pretty gloriously back to life in this affectionate double-bill-within-a-single-movie, helped by a knowing, funny script by Larry Gelbart and Sheldon Keller. The first, a Kid Galahad-type boxing melo reveling in bad Clifford Odets-style metaphors, looks wonderful in black and white and is superbly cast, with, among others, George C. Scott in what might have been the Walter Huston role, Red Buttons doing Frank McHugh, Harry Hamlin as Wayne Morris, and a very funny Trish van Devere lampooning Eva Marie Saint in On the Waterfront. The 42nd Street parody rounding it out has some curiosities--it's in color, which it wouldn't have been in in 1933, the songs aren't all diegetic as they would have been, the camera work's a little more sophisticated than it should be--but gets most of it right, including Barry Bostwick and Rebecca York doing Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler and Barbara Harris doing a Joan Blondell. The in-between preview, Zero Hour--War at Its Best!--is a riot, with Scott, Buttons, and Eli Wallach parading around as some hilariously overage young World War I fliers. This didn't make much noise in 1978, and it's hard to know why--it's marvelously entertaining, the cast is aces, and plenty of people around then remembered the originals it so expertly spoofs.
A Notorious Affair (1930)
He's with her. No, he's with her. No, he's with her
Basil Rathbone, sporting an inconsistent supposed-to-be-Italian accent, is a struggling violinist caught between heiress Billie Dove and countess Kay Francis in this not terribly interesting early-talkie soap, directed stodgily by Lloyd Bacon. Dove, a silent-screen beauty who comes off reasonably well beneath the mic, marries him to the consternation of her rich, stuffy family, and as he quickly becomes the world's greatest violinist, he pursues an affair with Francis, who's beautiful, lively, and sumptuously dressed. He's a temperamental cad, so you're not really rooting for him to end back up with Billie, especially as she's being pursued by old beau Kenneth Thomson, who becomes Rathbone's doctor after he acquires some sort of Movie Disease. The whole thing would make more sense if Rathbone ran off with Francis and Thomson reunited with Dove, and the screenplay has to contort itself ludicrously to provide a Happy Ending. It's not especially compelling, but hey, some beautiful clothes, it's over in under an hour and a quarter, and you can marvel at how quickly Rathbone became a better actor.
The Doughgirls (1944)
Less funny than it thinks it is
A hit Broadway farce, by the estimable playwright Joseph Fields, gets annoyingly Hollywood-ized in this Warners product, unsubtly written and loudly directed by James V. Kern. Its stage origins are obvious, as it's nearly all set in a Washington bridal suite, where doors slam. Boy, do they slam. Ann Sheridan (the disagreeable one), Alexis Smith (the glamorous one), and Jane Wyman (the stupid one--no one is particularly well cast) all find out they're not really married to their bridegrooms, while Eve Arden, who's pretty funny given substandard material, totes a rifle and a Russian accent. The men have less to do, but you get early glimpses of Craig Stevens and Jack Carson, and Charlie Ruggles does what he can with the unappetizing part of a lecherous old bureaucrat. Irene Manning, Alan Mowbray, and Regis Toomey are on the sidelines, and a cast like this is worth watching. But gosh, this one is shrill.
No Down Payment (1957)
This 20th Century Fox expose of "the good life" in the suburbs wasn't seen by anybody much in 1957, and it's easy to see why: It probes convincingly deep into the less pleasant aspects of this clean, all-white subculture, and suburban moviegoers probably didn't want to see their worst aspects on screen, and urban audiences didn't care. Early Martin Ritt, and typically thorough of him, it explores prejudice, sexism, alcoholism, war veterans with what would now be diagnosed as PTSD, and capitalism's way of trapping young families in debt. The wide-screen black-and-white cinematography is clean and alluring, and all eight principals do well--Sheree North, groomed by 20th to be a threat to Monroe, proves once again that they didn't really give her enough chances to show what she could do. The shiny surfaces and flattering clothes and powerful cars all illustrate that "good life," and show what's wrong with it. And in comprehensively exploring the roots and hypocrisies and effects of racism at the time, it's a good deal braver than many contemporary films.
The Big Broadcast of 1938 (1938)
A not-good movie I love
Paramount did a bunch of musicals in the '30s that were essentially variety shows with plots tacked on, and here's one of the most lavish examples. Based on a story by the august team of Howard Lindsay and Russell Crouse, it uses a transatlantic ocean liner race as the clothesline to hang all the finery on. Bob Hope, fifth-billed, is the on-board emcee, and he reveals some sides to his personality we don't usually get to see. Notably, there's real tenderness in his "Thanks for the Memory" duet with the excellent Shirley Ross, and I don't think it's an exaggeration to call it one of the great screen duets. The whole score, by Ralph Rainger and Leo Robin, is terrific, and you'll also love the humongous "The Waltz Lives On" sequence, Paramount's attempt to outdo MGM's huge "A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody" extravaganza in "The Great Ziegfeld." Martha Raye has a lively comedy number with some hunky sailors that looks like an "Anything Goes" outtake, and among the variety acts, Kirsten Flagstad lends some class with a bit of Wagner. It's a silly story, unevenly paced, and I don't love W.C. Fields as much as many others do, though he has a reasonably funny golf sequence here. What impresses is that we get a wide variety of '30s performance styles, and some very fine performers, and it never takes itself seriously. Postscript: One of my earliest memories of living in New York is seeing the film's lyricist, Leo Robin, at the 92nd Street "Y" in 1981 or so. He was quite old, but he got up on that stool and whispered the lyrics to "Thanks for the Memory," which are superb, and by the time he got to "And strictly entre nous, Darling, how are you," I was spellbound.
The Eagle and the Hawk (1933)
Surprise! Quite good
Stuart Walker, who directed almost nothing of value, did splendidly with this 1933 antiwar opus, which has plenty of action (some of it borrowed from "Wings" footage) and deeper-than-usual psychological insights for this genre. Fredric March, an American in a Brit World War I air unit, becomes a daredevil ace, and is increasingly repulsed by the death toll he engenders, to the point of madness. Meantime, his "observer" (he snaps pictures from the rear seat) Cary Grant relishes combat, and American compatriot Jack Oakie provides emotional ballast, until he's gunned down. Carole Lombard is also on hand, for two scenes, looking gorgeous and wearing quite a gown. The screenplay's unusually intelligent and despairing, but what really makes it work is March, at the top of his game. Watch him in a scene where a friend's young son asks for gruesome detail about what happens in combat, and see the anguish play across his face. A truly fine actor.
The Moonlighter (1953)
A western, a revenge epic in the Sergio Leone mode, a 3D novelty, a soap opera, and a reunion for Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck, who were so great together in "Double Indemnity" and "Remember the Night." By those standards it's a letdown, and screenwriter Niven Busch, who did well by Babs in "The Furies," seems unable to concentrate on any one plot strand for very long. Fred's a cattle rustler, or moonlighter, who's awaiting trial but facing a lynching, when, for contrived plot reasons, the mob seizes the wrong man and lynches him. Fred breaks out and swears revenge. Then it's a romance, as he heads back to his former sweetheart, who, unpersuasively, is being courted by Fred's younger brother, the always-watchable William Ching. He feels young for Babs, though, and this is a little late in her career for her to be playing an ingenue. Then, with the two brothers trading Babs back and forth, old crony Ward Bond shows up, and Ching unconvincingly leaves his steady bank teller job to assist the other two in robbing the bank he works for. The love story doesn't work, the 3D is largely unemployed except for one waterfall sequence that must have looked good, and the happy ending is rushed and ridiculous. Still, there are some good sequences--the hanging, a swell Fred-Ward fight, the tense bank robbery. Roy Rowland directs, as he always did, anonymously.
Summer Holiday (1948)
A botched masterpiece
"Ah, Wilderness!" should make a great musical--in fact, it made a very good one on Broadway, as "Take Me Along" in 1959--and this Freed Unit special has some greatness in it, which keeps being undercut. It's beautifully cast, the Technicolor is extraordinary, and the director, the always underrated Rouben Mamoulian, shows a lot of feel for the small-town turn-of-the-century setting and the small crises in the Miller family. But it was a troubled production, and it suffered some ruinous cuts. The editing's frankly sloppy, and misguided things happen that you don't expect to happen in MGM musicals. Mickey Rooney (10 years too old for the part, but he hides it well, and not doing those Mickey Rooney overacting things that often annoy me) and Gloria De Haven (lovely, with a lovely voice) dance fetchingly to "Afraid to Be in Love" on an emerald park lawn, and the number just fades out, no payoff, no resolution. Rooney gets drunk with Marilyn Maxwell in a cheap saloon, and there's supposed to be an Omar Khayam dream ballet (there are production stills), but it doesn't happen, and that scene, too, just fades out. The always-exemplary Walter Huston, who's charming here, rolls up the movie with the curtain line, "Well, spring isn't everything, is it, Essie?", and it's supposed to resonate because he was supposed to sing "Spring Isn't Everything," a sweet ballad similar to the "September Song" Huston introduced in "Knickerbocker Holiday," but that, too, has been cut, so it just seems an odd way to fade out. What's left of the Harry Warren-Ralph Blane score isn't great, but it's quite integrated into the action, and well performed. I caught this again on TCM recently and it's better than I remembered, but I keep wanting it to be better still.
Separate Tables (1958)
The only time I've ever not liked Deborah Kerr
She plays a shy virgin saddled with an awful mother (Gladys Cooper, essentially reprising her turn in "Now, Voyager") and obsessed with the glad-handing, deceiving military man living in the same residential hotel (David Niven, who deserved his Oscar), and she drives me nuts. It's like Deborah Kerr playing Carol Burnett playing Deborah Kerr, so overplaying the shyness and awkwardness and terror over sex that it crosses over into parody. The rest of this opus, cooked up from some short Terence Rattigan plays, is quite good. It's a starry hotel, with Burt Lancaster planning to marry hotel manager Wendy Hiller (another deserved Oscar) but distracted by the return of ex-wife Rita Hayworth, and a young Rod Taylor as a medical student we tend to forget about, and Cathleen Nesbitt as an old biddy a good deal more sympathetic than Ms. Cooper. The short stories are skillfully interwoven, and it's franker about sex than much 1958 product. But just as you're settling into it, along comes Deb stammering and gurgling and getting hysterical over nothing. She's such a brilliant actress, I don't know who steered her wrong on this one.
Kept Husbands (1931)
Two spoiled brats
There were so many mixing-of-the-classes romances among the early talkies, and this one, statically directed by Lloyd Bacon, is one of the less likable. I love the chipper, forceful Dorothy Mackail, a big name then and forgotten now, and Joel McCrea is at his fittest and most appealing. But as a spoiled heiress who marries a steelworker who works for her dad, she's playing a strident, shrill brat, and he, meant to represent solid middle-class values, has his own moments of selfishness and what would now be regarded as unforgivable sexism. The rich-folk trappings are lavish beyond credibility, and the supporting characters--a wealthy wolf still after Mackail, McCrea's wise, loving mom, Ned Sparks spouting cliches--aren't very interesting. It's over in 80 minutes, and very abruptly, with an unconvincing Act Three resolution, but it feels longer.
The World Changes (1933)
Rags to riches, and misery
Mervyn LeRoy was working pretty frantically in 1933, turning out five big features for Warner Brothers, and this social history-drama was as far from its LeRoy predecessor "Gold Diggers of 1933" as you can imagine. It's a rags-to-riches epic of Orin Nordholm (Henry O'Neill) and his wife (the always superb Aline MacMahon), founding a town in Dakota territory in 1856 and watching their namesake son (Paul Muni) become a meat tycoon with Guy Kibbee, marrying Kibbee's difficult and pretentious daughter Mary Astor, and raising a family of ingrates and opportunists. It's lavish, with big montages (the market frenzy is especially well done) and a big Warners cast, and there are some wonderful scenes--loved Custer informing Orinville in 1865 that the war is over, and MacMahon asking, "What war?" But the Muni-Astor love story (he unwisely abandons Jean Muir for her) is unconvincing, with a love-at-first-sight we don't buy (Paul Muni was many things, but sexy was not one of them), and the parade of greedy, unprincipled relatives--Donald Cook, Margaret Lindsay, Alan Mowbray--somewhat monotonous. Muni's fine, with some impressive aging makeup, and Astor, while playing a character we don't quite believe, never gave a bad performance. It's consistently entertaining and sprawling, and I love this 1930s genre of multigenerational American epics, but there are neater entries than this one.