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X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009)
Hack writers destroy what might have been
Hugh Jackman has to be one of the most talented actors working today, and that just doubles my disappointment with X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Not only have the producers pried $8 from my wallet by the premise of expanding our understanding of Wolverine, but they wasted Jackman in nonsense drivel that besmirches the Marvel Comics canon.
And for that, the responsibility rests solely with writers David Benioff and Skip Woods. This film should have been character driven, with slices of Wolverine's life subtly shaping the mutant he became. In fact, the advertising suggested this is the film's raison d'etre. Instead, what hit my theater was a series of action set pieces "loosely" (being generous) connected by neck snapping plot twists.
I got the feeling the writers sat down with a a six pack of Icehouse Beer and a bucket. In the bucket they tossed slips of paper with the ideas for scenes that would make a really cool trailer. And then they laid them out in a line and came up with ideas to connect them. I mean, memory erasing bullet? How else do you explain that?
2 writers with 5 movies between them, and except for Wood's "Hit-man" they all lost money. (Frankly, find Hit-man's estimated budget of $24M hard to believe). Who in Hollywood green-lighted a $130M for two guys that can't tell a story? Particularly grating was the Vietnam material because it plays like it had a 2001 transplant. They don't remember what that time was like and it shows.
The box office should fall off sharply as the public smells ripoff, too late for me.
Another great Paramount talkie!
Depression moviegoers got a 2-for-1 treat with this melodrama. A festive romance, complete with water skiing and dance parties highlight the first half. An effective and convincing set up for the 'manslaughter' to follow.
Claudete Colbert is mesmerizing as the unrepentant poor-little-rich-girl Lydia Thorne. She is too busy enjoying life's party to feel her conscience, bribing a cop rather than accept a speeding ticket. And when her maid is convicted of stealing her jewels, Lydia's bridge game is more important than a kind word to the judge. A word that would bring years of freedom to her maid's life.
Enter straight shooting District Attourney Dan O'Bannon (Frederic March). He's busy schmoozing political heavyweights with "equal justice for rich and poor" when he falls under Lydia's spell.
Miss Colbert literally sparkles in Archie Stout's photography. Principally backlit, her satin gown and diamond necklace shimmer in the star filter and complete the trap for O'Bannon and viewer alike. Lots of overhead and dolly shots keep the eye-candy coming. This beautifully mounted production gives no clue why Mr. Stout would be doing the cheapo John Wayne westerns 3 years later. Amazingly, Archie Stout would go onto shoot the sumptuously photographed Angel And The Badman for Wayne years later! An automobile accident (not a run over pedestrian as suggested above) triggers the second half of the film and the regeneration of our heroine, and not without delicious plot twists and turns.
Great performances and production make this a must see for the avid talkie buff. And Claudette Colbert fans will be well pleased to find her already in top gear.
Side Street (1929)
Flawed talkie showcases the three Moore brothers.
Though released at a time when all-talking pictures were the norm (Sept 1929), the recording and static camera technique mar an otherwise fascinating glimpse of the Moore brothers together.
Tom, Matt and Owen Moore play the three sons of Mr. and Mrs. O'Farrell, an oh-so-Irish couple living modestly in Manhattan. The O'Farrells express pride in their apparently successful sons as they prepare for a family get-together. This opening reel is an unmoving camera shot with ma and pa discussing each child and is rough going as Frank Sheridan (pa) and Emma Dunn (ma) speak with such thick brogue that the dialog is difficult to follow. This left my eyes wandering to the chandelier and the big black microphone clearly visible there. Placed far above the actors, the echoes it captured render many lines unintelligible.
As the sons arrive, the film's pace picks up. Jimmy (Tom Moore) is a uniformed cop, fresh to the force and following his father's policeman footsteps. John (Matt Moore) appears as ambulance surgeon, humble and soft-spoken. Last to show is the slick Dennis (Owen Moore), unknown to all as living a secret life as Mueller, the town's biggest gangster. The family scenes are good, and the picture improves consistently from this point on. I won't spoil a familiar plot, but Jimmy the cop makes detective and is assigned to investigate (brother) Mueller's gang. The Moore brother scenes are naturalistic and satisfying.
But, as the camera set-ups increase, so do the sound goofs. During one scene, you will hear things being moved around off-camera. Another unbilled performer is one of those big exhaust fans so prevalent before air conditioning. Clearly heard above the dialog, and with two scenes, it should have received a screen credit!
This is, however, the only chance to see Tom, Matt and Owen together on-screen, and that is worth the film's cinematic shortcomings. Tom and Matt would appear together in 1930's Costello Case and Woman Racket, but they would all fade into obscurity as the sound era took hold and brought fresh faces from Eastern theater stages. Tom, who would live until 1955, disappeared from the screen by 1938, and his talkie zenith is 1934's Return Of Chandu. Matt starred in 1933's Deluge, but would be more accessible in Rain (1932) as Dr. MacPhail. He ecked out a living in film as an uncredited character actor until his death in 1960. Most famous of the three was the hard-drinking Owen Moore. Owen married Mary Pickford secretly in 1911, their stormy marriage ending in 1920. Owen was slim, dark and didn't look like his other brothers. His casting as the gangster here is perfect, and his performance is very good. Owen is terrific in 1930's Outside The Law as Fingers O'Dell. It's a shame his life and career were cut short by drinking, he died in 1939.
Ironically, Owen's gangster-partner Silk Ruffo is played by Arthur Housman who made his career playing inebriated characters. And here his role is stone cold sober.
Enjoy this early talker from RKO which survives only in its 16mm TV distribution print.
Open Range (2003)
Kevin Costner returns to greatness.
Breathtaking, visionary, and sure to be copied. It's nothing like you've seen before. Now excuse me, I've GOT to emigrate to Canada: anyone adopting a single 50 year old sober hippie?
The Widow from Chicago (1930)
"The Widow" towers over Little Caesar
And I'll support that conclusion. However, I must preface my commentary by acceding to a predilection for Alice White's performances. I adore her no-apologies-for-pert, straight-ahead style that was the antithesis of 'real' actors who rolled their R's and eyes at every opportunity.
We are introduced to Polly (Alice White) and Jimmy (Harold Goodwin) as new tenants by the neighbors' gossiping. Are they married? The question remains unanswered until just before Jimmy, the precinct's newbie detective, leaves for work. The clever script puts a smile on your face just as Jimmy waves at his sister, Polly from the street, and becomes a drive-by shooting victim.
The scripts' powerful counterpoints and wit are enhanced by director Edward Cline's smart pacing and Sol Polito's brilliant photography. The avenging Polly, masquerades to mob boss Dominic (Edward G. Robinson) as the widow of a dead associate of the gang. But she becomes trapped in his office when the 'widow's husband returns from the dead. When Dominic goes out to meet him, we are left with a great insert of the edge of the office door. Slightly ajar, we watch it in anticipation while Dominic meets Polly's 'dead' husband. Will she make a break for it? Will Swifty confront her? Your mind races as the camera holds on that door. It's bravura filmmaking, and Cline keeps it coming. By the way, Polly embraces her 'husband' whispering "go along, I'm on the spot". The excitement's just beginning, Swifty is only too happy to go home with his 'wife'.
Neil Hamilton handles his role as Swifty Dorgan with effective menace, and Polly goes from being on the spot in Dominic's office to being in a spot behind her own (now locked) door. Frank McHugh's got a fine bit as one of Dominic's hentchmen 'Slug', and advises his fellow thug, Mullins, to give up the girl he can't get along with. Slug's smugness melts, however, when Mullins returns the girl's key only to discover the key is to Slug's girlfriend's apartment.
Earl Baldwin's script has plenty of sparks left, and Polito takes the shootout in the dark to a new level when a spotlight is introduced: not only being shot at, but everything its prowling eye touches gets killed. You'll wonder why Little Caesar is famous after seeing this terrific gangster film.
Mother and Son (1931)
Monogram meller with meaningful moments
An obvious cheapie hampered by one-take shots, this oft used mother-with-a-past melodrama is replete with satisfying set pieces.
The quality of performances keep viewer interest and account for my vote on the high side of 5. Clara Kimball Young, bravely baring her frumpish form in backless dresses, delivers an excellent job as Faro Lil, a gambler of mythical dimensions. Her sordid past threatens to poison her son's social climb, as she must resume that career thanks to the plunging stock market. As her son, Jeff, actor Bruce Warren does a fine job. Their first reunification scene has a fresh and personal quality to it, almost ad-libbed. And they'll close the picture memorably, in silent movie style.
The technical aspects of production are ambitious meets cheap. A rare example of the Balsley And Phillips sound system [I can find only 19 features credited], the soundtrack is clear and well modulated. The main set is the gambling hall: walls of rough-hewn planks fit the "old west" motif and the miniscule budget. A long dollying shot to establish the club's setting dips and wobbles so much the viewer might want to keep the Dramamine handy. Typical to Monogram (Trem Carr), a sequence will be done in one shot, with quick pans to a door as characters enter, then quick pans back so the film edits more quickly. There is one shot of Ms. Young that is splendidly lit, and for a moment you see she's still very beautiful. However, it only serves to damn the rest of the lighting schemes which are too contrasty. In a crucial gambling scene, the shot deliberately obscures the mechanics of the game, ruining a well acted climax.
I wish this studio had put a little more care into its films. There are fine moments tucked between takes that should have been reshot. For talkie buffs, only.
Wild Boys of the Road (1933)
Brilliant, heart-wrenching depression gem
Forget the Kleenex, bring the Bounty paper towels to experience William Wellman's depression masterpiece. This huge emotional epiphany packs a wallop.
Frankie Darro and Edwin Phillips portray the juvenile leads Eddie and Tommy, with Darro's performance effective and appealing. Their characters indulge in the usual teenage shenanigans until the depression overtakes their parents. As times toughen, and Eddie's father can't find work, Eddie decides to sell his jalopy to help out. This sets up the first of many splendid scenes, as Eddie's tough-guy veneer drops just long enough to share raw emotions with his father (Grant Mitchell). Zero cringe factor here, Wellman excels at emotions between men and it's never maudlin.
Hitting the (rail)road to find work, Eddie and Tommy encounter Sally, an adorable, nose-scrintching Dorothy Coonan dressed as a man. And the three set off across the country, with high ideals and optimism clashing with depression realities. Brutal and raw, this is a journey you, too, must take. A page of America's history told so expertly as to make you laugh and cry simultaneously.
Ms. Coonan (Sally) quit films after "Wild Boys" to marry director "Wild" Bill Wellman, and remain his his wife until his death in 1975. My highest recommendation.
The Son-Daughter (1932)
A world both delicate and deadly
In the Chinatown of 1911 in San Francisco, the specter of political upheaval casts a shadow over two lovers.
Helen Hayes and Ramon Navarro play Lien Wha and Tom Lee, whose ever-so-polite courtship advances haltingly under the watchful eyes of Lien's father, Dr. Tong (Lewis Stone, perfectly underplaying his role). In a world of wind chimes, flowers and birds singing, Lien Wha inhabits a world very different from the street below. Furtive shadows hide blade wielding hatchet men routinely "dispatching" self-described patriots disloyal to the repressive Chinese Emperor. It is to these patriots that Dr. Tong places his loyalty, and a $100,000 tribute for smugglers becomes crucial to save the repressed homelanders. Tong reveals to his daughter his unfulfilled wish to have had a son to send to fight for his people, and Lien pledges herself to be the son he lacks, she'll be his son-daughter.
Director Clarence Brown unfolds his drama in settings that are among MGM's best. Using complex lighting arrangements and crane shots, the director injects dread most effectively. The violence is quick and strong, definately pre-code. And if you're familiar with the portrayal of Chinese in America up to the sixties, you will forgive performances which play today as over the top. Indeed, during the final reel, you'll discover why Hayes was a great choice for the lead.
A great film for adults, and a must-see for students of great photography.
The Dance of Life (1929)
Still entertains and delights!
Here's one of the early talkies that has been readily available to home video, but one I've avoided. An early musical, and yet another "backstage" plotline, this was something I've seen done so poorly elsewhere I suspected I'd wind up throwing things at my TV. [Have any of you anguished your way through the musical numbers of The Great Gabbo?] Happily, such was not the case. Here is a film totally accessible to contemporary audiences.
A big film in its time, Paramount popped for Technicolor and assigned it's two top directors, Cromwell and Sutherland. [The directors appear in cameos as doorman and theatre attendant, respectively.] Musical sequences are well done and entertain. Cringe factor on a one to five scale, one. The wonder of seeing the tall, lanky Skelly and diminutive Carroll dancing in perfect unison is still with me. They're the most unlikely team this side of Laurel and Hardy.
Many other splendid differences between this film and its contemporaries are worth noting. Released August, 1929, Paramount's superimposed credits seem so much more modern than the silent card graphics MGM still used. Not everyone cares to know who the associated producer is, we want entertained. Behind The Dance Of Life, silhouetted stage hands scurry about, pulling backdrops and riggings. You're treated to seeing behind the scenes while the obligatory texts play out. The ensemble cast has antagonists which prove to be red herrings. It's loaded with interesting camera compositions. A train is gained and quit at night in a pouring rainstorm. A sandwich is used as a romantic device. And what I enjoyed the most was the personal and up close feeling the directors give scenes. Skelly, after pratfalling from wing to wing, sings "True Blue Lou" so personally it would seem he was oblivious to the camera which closed in three times during the song.
A snapshot of a lost form of American entertainment, The Dance Of Life stands apart from its roots as a great film. See it!
Anybody's Woman (1930)
Outstanding! Don't miss a single frame!
I recently denigrated Ruth Chatterton's performance in another film and became beset with the malaise that attends the negative mindset. Asked myself, "how could I be so hardened?" I set about researching her films I was familiar with. Happily, I started with "Anybody's Woman." As the film began, [and I HAD to watch the whole thing , again] it was clear that this was the performance by which I had judged all of Chatterton's. Indeed, it is the standard to which I hold Paul Lukas and Clive Brook.
While the plot of a society gentleman-marries-chorus-girl-on-bender has been done ad nauseum, this film achieves complete veracity. Ruth Chatterton's Pansy Grey is a natural, decent sort, who recognizes her own faults and refuses to let them drag her down. She is loyal to the point of self-sacrifice and tough when she needs to be. Chatterton displays acting talents from A to Z, from soft spoken to shouting, and so effective that volumes are spoken when she just leans her head against Clive Brook's chest. Brook benefits from superb lines, and he'll deliver some with uncommon fire. Paul Lukas, here, is cast in an outgoing and straightforward part which showcases him better than anywhere else.
All three vertices of this romantic triangle play a taut script right to the hilt. The intense sincerity these three bring to their roles makes every scene memorable. Structurally, the film is deliberately broken into stand alone blocks of time, each labeled silent movie style: "A Month Later", "The Next Day" and so on. Elsewhere, this device is used as a crutch, here, you are allowed to savor what you've just experienced. It is as though the film makers are saying, "if you thought that was good, watch this!"
I'm sure much credit must go to the director, Dorothy Arzner. Close ups are judiciously used and there is a natural quality pervading each set piece. She's blocked her actors and composed camera frame according to the relationship of the onscreen principles. Early in the film, Brook's and Chatterton's heads are in opposite corners of the frame. Later, during a confrontation, the three leads are almost huddled, lost in the room. While this could play onstage, only cinema can manipulate the viewer in this fashion.
Please, please Paramount, take a look at this picture and release it to home video. There is gold in your vaults.
Madame X (1929)
This thing's got whiskers, both leads better elsewhere.
I hesitate to add a note of dissonance to any of my beloved early talkies, but in this case it's most called for. Any contemporary viewer exploring ancient films may be swayed to try such a film with Oscar nominations and wide availability. Please don't. Early Oscars were voted on by studio heads only, and are no indication of popular support. Additionally, MGM and the WB studios' products so dominated the TV syndication market that most film buffs can't name any thing William Powell did before the Thin Man. [Mr. Powell had a career as a heavy even before he uttered his first word on screen.]
I found the material of the story to be that of old, turgid melodramatics. At the time M-G-M began making talkies, Louis B. Meyer and Irvin Thalberg actively sought to produce THEATRICAL productions on film, and therefore, this is not cinema. When Ruth Chatterton pauses at the door to tell Lewis Stone (almost moaning) to "tell our boy when he grows up that you (Stone) wouldn't let his mother see him one last time", talking pictures hit their lowest ebb. Outdoor scenes aren't recorded properly and at 95 minutes it's not hard to guess this is just a stage play on film.
I know I stand alone in my loathing. Variety, in 1929 said "Works like this...elevate the name of pictures, and tell the world there is an art in film making." MADAME X grossed over $1.2 million worldwide against a negative cost of $600,000. I say, works like this so dissuade modern viewers that hundreds of films lie in vaults rotting away. Please pass on this one.
Gentlemen of the Press (1929)
Amazing Kay Francis performance will rivet you!
The face value of Gentlemen Of The Press is the undertow of breaking news in journalists' lives. Walter Huston as featured reporter Wickland Snell finds himself repeatedly pulled from his life by current events and looming deadlines. On the home front, wife grows old and daughter grows up. Cleverly put across with photo albums, the story is illuminated in the films' first reel. Mr. Huston delivers a fine restrained performance under Millard Webb's direction. A lack of overt histrionics immediately set this May 1929 release apart from other talkies. And this would be a more than adequate entertainment were the film confined to this plot development.
Then in walks Kay Francis (billed as Katherine Francis). You can almost hear the writers sharpening their pencils. As Myra May, she protests Snell's paper defaming her character. Smooth Snell puts her at ease, promising to take personal charge of the matter. Myra melts, and Snell will need her phone number in case he needs to get the details. Myra smolders. You won't be able to take your eyes off Myra. I couldn't wait to see what she would do next. Kay Francis gives her Myra a cool fire, confident and direct. Her lines are the mother load of innuendo.
A witty, frank script populated with broad characters keep every scene interesting. Here's a film BEGGING for RESTORATION. The only print I'm aware of is the TV syndication transfer, again done with 1:16 Movietone matte which clips off the left side of the picture. But don't let that stop you from enjoying Kay Francis' landmark performance. See this film!
A Dangerous Woman (1929)
One good reel deserves another, but none here
***SPOILERS*** ***SPOILERS*** Most of this written-for-Baclanova vehicle is mired in racial stereotyping, and it's somewhat of a chore to sit through. Doing so will produce a satisfying conclusion, but it is heavy going.
Clive Brook is on hand as the icy husband of steamy Olga. He portrays Frank Gregory, the British colonial representative in 'darkest Africa'. As the film opens, he is seen resolving a marital dispute for the natives in his official capacity. At home, wife Tania (Baclanova) is creating one of her own with Frank's assistant Peter Allerton (Leslie Fenton). Tania is hot and unrestrained in her pursuit of his attention. Upon Frank's return, the internal conflict Allerton feels between loyalty to his boss and the love of Tanya leads to much blabbering by Fenton. [A really poor scene]. He storms out, a shot is heard. Frank and Tanya cross the room, go out onto the veranda, walk over to the railing, and THEN, Allerton pops out through a window to the ground. I thought, how nice of him, after committing suicide he waited until a crowd gathered, went to the window and threw himself out.
Well let's just blame it on Africa like the characters do throughout the film. The scripters continually point to the continent as some sort of black hole that sucks culture, manners and intellect out of humans. Dressing for dinner (black tie, of course) is seen as essential to maintaining the 'British' moral code. Can putting on lots of clothing in a tropical climate be sane?
Neil Hamilton as Allerton's replacement fares better in a bad role. He plays Frank's brother. Inexplicably, when drums are heard, Frank explains that's a native fertility celebration, and sends brother Bobby and Tania to go see. This gives the film its shining moment, Olga Baclanova erupts with smoldering sensuality. A very unusual scene for any era, her sexual explicitness would have been felt in the back row of any theater.
Olga sings and plays piano in the film, which makes it a treat for her fans. But, sadly, 'The Woman Who Needed Killing' is not a picture that needed making.
Cock of the Air (1932)
Sacrificed to the censor's scissors so SCARFACE could survive.
COCK OF THE AIR is a bright, intelligent, sensual romp. It is candy for the eyes and ears, a picture so competent that it transcends its 1931 origins by decades.
We have the ever-sturdy Chester Morris as the womanizing Lt. Roger Craig escaping the gunfire of jealous lovers. This gains his notice with Lilli de Rousseau, a recently deported Paris opera diva now living (under guard) in Italy. Miss de Rousseau is forced from Paris in the opening reel (what's left of it) because her irresistible magnetism imperils the war effort. This is not difficult to believe, as Billie Dove is totally ravishing as Lilli. She epitomizes desire, and the necklines of her gowns look as though the dressmaker ran out of fabric! Lilli sets out to ensnare and deny Lt. Craig, and his mounting frustration sets up increasing hilarity. The dialogue during one of these put-offs is an exchange of current events while Craig wrestles Lilli for a kiss. It's all done with light sophistication and great wit, not a hint of threat. The mood is kept light throughout the picture.
The scenes are underscored by specific musical cues that contribute to each step of the proceedings. A carnival is in progress for backgrounds and the festive atmosphere permeates Lilli and Roger's banter. The onscreen joy extends into the camerawork, as the visuals track, dip and zoom as though the DP had an Arriflex camera.
Alas, one of the put-offs Lilli devises was the first to hit the cutting room floor. In this scene, Lilli puts on an entire suit of armor (medieval style) and is reclined on a bed when Roger enters to pursue with a can opener!
Many other cuts leave scenes incomprehensible. It is difficult to assess whether these were done by Lewis Milestone to get the film released or whether the film base surrendered to the unmerciful sprocket claw at some point in time. What IS clear, by the evidence in surviving documents of the Hays Office, is that Colonel Jason S. Joy [what a surname for a prurient sort] had an axe to grind with Howard Hughes (this film's producer). It seems that a list of suggestions was compiled by "Joy" to bring the picture into conformity with the code. The original list resulted from the nominal submission of a shooting script to the Hays Office. When Joy discovered Hughes had shipped a positive print to every state before securing the Hays' MPPDA approval he became indignant. When a preview revealed his suggestions had been ignored, he set about sending a flurry of communications to the head office to make trouble, accusing the film to be in violation in title, content and portrayal.
This film was one of several Hughes launched simultaneously after HELL'S ANGELS. On the east coast, a film in production two months longer was wrapping at the same time. Its name is SCARFACE, and it, too was causing the Hays Office inordinate dismay. According to a quote from Hughes in defense of SCARFACE, "I gave up 'Queer People' [not filmed] to cooperate, and I cut up 'Cock Of The Air' until it wasn't any good, to cooperate." 1,800 feet hit the floor to satisfy Colonel Joy. As some of the cuts occur in sequences he suggested, I should note the print looks like solvent weld cement was abandoned for masking tape.
Code enforcement was inconsistent. I looked into Joy's treatment of 'A Farewell To Arms' for perspective. Same year, suggestions ignored, Joy's protestations relented due to the Hemmingway pedigree on the source material. Censorship is in inherently slippery slope. Celebrate what remains as a testament to vitality of Tom Buckingham's direction. This film gave its essence so that another may live.
Hell's Heroes (1929)
This will etch Charles Bickford into your brain!
There is a production still photo (reprinted recently in Scott Eyeman's 'The Speed Of Sound') that has haunted me ever since I first came across it in 1968. It was in a humanities class text. We had studied von Stroheim's "Greed" and upturned the story of how. while shooting on location in the Mojave Desert, the cameras had to be iced against the heat while the crew's cook died from the solar furnace. And here, four years later in the Panamint Hills, is a black and white of a sound film crew out in the desert. A long black cable in the sand leading up to an airtight meat locker housing the camera and its operator. The sun blazing down, I wondered, what kind of a film could get done under these conditions? Further research heightened my frustration as William Wyler was listed as the director (must be a good film), but it was for Universal, already notorious for keeping their early talkies tightly vaulted.
Flash forward 34 years (and a big Thank You Ted Turner and TCM). It is 2:30 AM and I can't sleep. In the next room, a VCR awaits its task of making sure I don't miss this. But I'm pacing the floor for an hour and a half, heart pounding with anticipation. "I can't be very good", I tell myself, "Bickford isn't Gable". Fade up, dozens of bat-wing parchments of nitrate flap before some lamp and credits roll, I'M FINALLY SEEING IT! The camera's lens prowls back and forth across barren landscape, as though it was looking for something. Three riders appear on horseback. The dialogue begins and it's good, the camera moves right along with the riders. The lighting is remarkable as the faces well-saturate the negative [something anyone who has attempted photography in bright sunlight will appreciate]. In town, this gang's leader is in the saloon making time with the ladies. Bickford establishes his character in this sequence as one who is harder and more heartless than anyone else in westerns. He'll tell the sheriff he's going to rob the bank (across the street). A high establishing shot shows the whole town, then a shot tracks with Bickford approaching the bank as his gang rides up. This is cinema, a montage of perceptions that completely fill the viewer's consciousness. This film is very, very good.
George Robinson's photography is extraordinary, with fine compositions and contrasts. His vistas are jam packed and firmly place the viewer into this nothingness. The actors' beards progress with the time frame, and the place is so dirty you'll run for the Pledge.
It's filled with those two second throwaways that tell so much about the characters but do nothing to advance the plot. Such as when the gang leans on the teller's counter, one cowboy's boot scuffs at the bottom for a bar rail. At the saloon, a short skirted woman dances for the patrons, a low angle shot gives a glimpse of garter. The sheriff, seated nearby, drops something and pretends to pick it up. He stares lecherously at the dancing knees. Yet, a moment later, when Bickford invites him to drink, the sheriff's back on his moral high horse. Bickford bites and slaps the girl, after all this is pre-code.
The characters are complex and juxtaposed images abound. Charles Bickford's portrayal is unforgettable. Here is a picture that deserves recognition as one of the classics, a film that transcends its primitive equipment. Makes one wonder what else is locked up in the vaults of the Big U.
Darkened Rooms (1929)
Crystal ball's all that's clear here
Neil Hamilton is Emory Yago, the struggling proprietor of a boardwalk photography shop. Madame Silvera, an adjacent spiritual medium, hires Emory to fake "spirit photos", and he becomes intrigued with the financial possibilities of spiritualism. While researching this new business enterprise, an exhausted and starving chorus girl (Evelyn Brent) collapses in Emory's shop. He shows kindness, feeding and nurturing her back to health, and she repays his rescue by picking up the slack at the photo shop. In spite of the affection Emory and Ellen share, greed overtakes Emory's heart and his spiritualism racket consumes his thoughts. Ellen will resort to some trickery of her own to save her relationship and get Emory to "go straight".
An early talker, this film cannot blame its flaws on the new sound technique. Its release near the end of 1929 comes almost a full year into Paramount's talking age. The plot is meandering and direction is slack. Mr. Hamilton gave many fine, full-bodied performances in 1929. Here, his character's motivations are not made clear to the audience, because, I don't believe HE understood them. Evelyn Brent fills the eyes and ears again with PRESENCE, though her lines have plenty of clunk factor. No dazzling special effects to save the finale, either.
Comic relief is supplied by Sammy Bricker playing a sailor. He keeps coming in to be photographed with a different girl throughout the picture. For all the shortcomings, I recommend seeing Evelyn Brent in any of her early talkie roles. She is one of the screen's truly unsung divas.
Oh, for a Man! (1930)
Oh! For A Script!
Jeanette MacDonald opens the film with the finale from Tristan And Isolde. Thankfully, she has been well recorded [early Fox films were rife with spoiled sound in spite of the fact Fox held the sound-on-film patents]. Charles Clark's cinematography weaves complex shadows into the foreground and background, his camera freed from the "meat locker" booth. The performance ends and backstage dialog begins. MacDonald is the snippy diva, she performs confidently and speaks clearly. Hey! there's Bela Lugosi could this get any better? Sadly, no,
The proceedings quickly fall apart, first with a miscast William Davidson as Kerry Stokes. This actor can be convincing as a police detective, grilling a suspect into a confession. But when he uses the same delivery, trying to romance Jeanette "what I ought to do is crush you in my arms and smother you with kisses"! I almost fell off my chair with laughter. That is some clunky dialog. But the saddest thing is that it was set up by a gorgeous close-up of Jeanette. It gets worse.
The plot thickens (congeals) with a burglar in the personage of Reginald Denny. He breaks into Jeanette's bedchamber to rob her jewels. When she protests his chloroform because she's an opera singer, he recognizes the diva, compliments her performance that evening, and speaks in the most ridiculous Irish accent you have ever heard. [That settles it, I'll sit on the floor so I won't fall again]. The writing reminded me of what I used to type when I was 10. Jeanette then decides to make this thief her protege! OK!
The writers are Phillip Klein and Lynn Stalling. Now Lynn would go onto earn credits for Bob Hope's THANKS FOR THE MEMORIES and CAT AND THE CANARY. Can't blame her, hmmm, Phillip Klein went on to write CHANDU THE MAGICIAN and a couple Charlie Chan films, aha! Mr. Klein's career climaxed with DANTE'S INFERNO, let's blame him. Anyhow, I'm obviously trying to be mean because there is so much good work in the film I was compelled to sit through Denny's insufferable performance and more horrible writing. I can only recommend this film for MacDonald and Lugosi fans on a completory quest.
New York Nights (1929)
You must see this Norma Talmadge talkie!
A police wagon speeds through pre-dawn Manhattan streets as the credits roll. The siren screams, there is no music. Two policemen rouse a doctor to a stricken man, he's dying. "Who did it, Dopie?" Cut to a tuxedoed silk hat in the back of a chauffered limo. "Gee, boss, that was a nervy hit." An I. O. U. for $25,000 payable to Dopie Brown is being torn, "Somebody's always gotta pay for a fourflush." A cackling John Wray (as Joe Prividi) chews the I. O. U. pieces into a spitwad, then flings it out the window. Joe then breaks into a flower shop and takes a stolen bouquet to "his goil".
Norma Talmadge as Jill Deverne is the object of Joe's affections. Leaning into a clever two shot in a dumbwaiter, she reminds her Broadway show's producer that her husband might object. Jill walks the knife edge between offending her benefactor and encouraging his romantic inclinations. She is polite, yet firm. In another room, her husband, Fred (Gilbert Roland) works on a tune with buddy, Johnny (Roscoe Karnes). Fred's stuck for a closing lyric and Jill enters with a plum, then falls into his arms. In one scene, Gilbert Roland and Norma Talmadge exhibit their fine voices and sparkling, well-honed chemistry. Roland and Talmadge had been teamed in THE DOVE (1927) and A WOMAN DISPUTED (1928) and here, the magic pops out of the screen. Norma has several close-ups that display her acting mastery. Halfway through the first reel you'll be in love with this movie.
Lilyan Tashman, as Jill's friend Peggy, has a backstage scene where her beauty is truly revealed. With her hair hidden by a cloche-like headpiece, Ms. Tashman's face is revealed to be the most beautiful ever photographed. Also revealed, in this pre-code picture, is her body. Were it not for the wings of a bird seemingly painted on Lilyan's front, all of her modesty would be lost.
The direction is excellent, tightly handled by Lewis Milestone right before he started ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT. The pace is rapid and only relents for one brief reconciliation between Jill and Fred. They plot their getaway in a booth in a diner. As they hash out the final details, the camera dollies slowly to the next booth, chillingly revealing Joe's chauffer eavesdropping.
Ray June keeps interesting shots coming throughout the 64 minutes my print ran. And this is where a discrepency arises. The runtime is given as 108 minutes (IMBD), then a release footage of (approx.) 7380 ft (IMDB). AFI lists the release footage at 7447. As both footages run 81 or 82 mins, one wonders what happened to the rest of the film. [I know film shrinks, but that's rediculous] I can find only evidence of one song ever having been in the picture.
73 years after its release, it is impossible to determine what sank this wonderful film at the box office. But, sank it did. Impossible to ascertain whether it failed to be promoted, what the rumor mill ground out or just how the public expected silent film stars to sound. After one more picture, the glittering career of Norma Talmadge, a star that shone so bright as to bring two sisters into the arc light, would be extinguished. Only a year later, as writer Joseph L. Mankiewicz noted, the end of the silent era was typified by Norma Talmadge leaving the Brown Derby and telling a gang of autograph hounds, "Get away, you little b*****ds, I don't need you anymore." And thus fell silent a splendid, promising new talking picture career.
At least we have this terrific movie to remind us of how good silent film technique could be in talkies.
The Marriage Playground (1929)
Super Screwball Comedy Gem
Here are the quickest 75 minutes of your life. A delightful pre-code cocktail recipe. Take three couples (add gin and tonic), their several divorces and the seven children/stepchildren of their intermarriages and blend thoroughly, and you have a mixture a too-young-to-believe Frederic March will try to straighten out.
Whew! That said, let me straighten out a possibly intentional preconception. These sophisticated couples, with an early flirting reference, seem to be playing to the naughty implication of the title. You'll comprehend the title once you've met the kids, because they are the heart of this film. Now a cast including Frederic March, Lilyan Tashman, Kay Francis and Seena Owens giving great performances can't be upstaged, right? Well this batch is the best I've seen. They steal every scene and are given lines which mirror just what you're thinking. And they deliver them like bullets. It's timed like some successful stage play where the comedy has been closely honed in front of an audience. March is doing his job just keeping a straight face!
It all works thanks to a wide open Mary Brian as the oldest (17) of the kids. Her full throttle approach to the role locks all the elements together. She has to work vigorously to keep stability in the kids custodial situation. Indeed, spying on her charges, she discovers them playing Divorce Court.
Director Lothar Mendes loaded the film with brilliant touches. Mary Brian as Judy has a full, puffy coiffure while the other females have close, short hairstyles. The eternally effeminate William Austin's on hand to be Kay Francis' "big, strong (rich) man". Mitzi Green teaches him what its like to be a father, making him her pony. The children interface with adults on adult terms, playing them like violins. I won't disclose some delicious scenes as they should be yours to discover. Have fun!
The Impatient Maiden (1932)
Definitely Whales, cynical and elusive.
A fascinating curio, Impatient Maiden reveals director James Whales' cinema style as well as his personal evasiveness.
This slice-of-life romantic drama concerns one Ruth Robbins, effectively portrayed by Mae Clark. By day, a secretary to a divorce attorney, Ruth brushes up against life one broken marriage at a time. At home, a neighbor's wife attempts suicide when her husband leaves her and it's left to Ruth to summon an ambulance. So when ambulance driver Myron Brown sparks Ruth's interest, Ruth's own cynical attitudes become her biggest obstacle. Distain for marriage and having personal obstacles were themes which may have found resonance to the personally challenged James Whale. He presents his tableau in matter-of-fact style, without undue emphases: Ruth's lonely plight is just something she does everyday.
Lew Ayers as Myron Brown displays a natural ease in his role, and with Whale blocking for him he'll never look better. Supporting roles are well cast. An early Andy Devine keeps the dramatic tone from sinking. On the distaff side, an ebullient Una Merkel is on hand to perk up Ruth. Great casting and solid performances maintain a balance that makes this film more "accessible" than others of this ilk.
The presentation is smartly handled, too. A Whale trademark was a scene transition that followed characters from room to room by tracking the camera through the wall. Though the end of the wall gets a close-up, the viewer's perception is priority. Rose walks from one end of her apartment to the other and in one shot the limits of her 3 room flat are established. Indeed, the film opens with an establishing sequence when Rose leaves for work. In a location shot, she quits her flat into a rundown neighborhood and boards Angel's Flight. She continues her conversation as Arthur Edeson's camera boards and rides down a piece of history. The viewer gets a real feel for what Ruth's life is like.
The attraction between Ruth and Myron is advanced and retracted like waves on the beach. Love can't catch a break until the last reel. Elusive love, what fun the chase is, especially in this film. Recommended.
Woman Trap (1929)
Hal Skelly's tour de force, but you might not want to travel.
As the Paramountain fades into the credits, a disturbing music theme underscores the credits. It's a good riff, but clearly at odds with the mood of the opening.
Hal Skelly is Sergeant Dan Malone (Irish cop, now that's original) walking the beat in some downtown. A horsedrawn milk wagon goes by. At a police call box, Malone relates his handling of disturbances to headquarters. Caught the kid that stole the milk, made him return it, then stole a quart for him 'cause "he was thirsty". His sidekick, Watts, played by William B. Davidson, expounds his theory that juvenile crime is exacerbated by unsupervised hangouts. Malone is stepping on cracks in the sidewalk like some hopscotch participant. Director Wellman keeps the action flowing, dollying his camera around a corner and down the street. [This was "Wild Bill's" 3rd talkie for 1929] A fight is quelled by Malone bonking the two guys heads together then kicking them in the pants. He is carefree.
A fellow officer tells Malone he just caught his brother, and Eddie Evans, drunk and up to no good. Now, an astute viewer might have glanced at the credits and noticed the source material is Edwin Burke's "Brothers", and thereby be forewarned. Dan goes upstairs and engages in playful banter with his mother. Watts goes to Eddie Evans' parents. A firey Evelyn Brent, playing (Kitty), Eddie's defensive sister, springs at Watts. She starts hot and is just warming up. Each family blames the other, and a life changing moment will send Malone into a get tough on crime mode. With each turn of the script's page, the drama grows grimmer.
As Malone's get tough policy gains him promotions, the liability of his brother weighs heavier upon him. A woman's wrath will spring the 'Woman Trap'. When the last reel unspools, the wide open mood of the first has steadily closed in to the point of claustrophobia. Malone has morphed into someone else.
I found the conclusion personally unsatisfying. The music under the opening credits fits here. But if you ever wondered about Hal Skelly's acting chops, they're all here.
Paramount's first talker, a film buff's holy grail, but...
Not a great film, or even a very good one, the main point of interest in watching Interference is its place in history.
In 1928, most film theaters were either owned by a film studio or "block" booked so that a patron of that venue would always see a Fox Film (if it was a "Fox" theater), a Paramount film (if it was a Paramount theater) and so on. Indeed, to this day, many old palaces still bear these logos though the practice ended mid-century. For a large chunk of filmgoers, this was the birth of a new art form. And for this reason, for me, watching "Interference" was irresistable.
I viewed an old MCA TV 16mm print (on tape) that had been transferred using the 1:16 Movietone matte. This matte normally obscures the soundtrack which intruded the left side of the picture until 1931. Films of this period were usually sent to theaters according to the sound system that particular theater used: sound-on-film or Vitaphone disc. [Also very confusing for directors struggling for decent photographic composition] This print had sound on disc and consequently the titles and action got cropped on the left side.
Our story concerns a war veteran (Powell) attending a memorial service. As he had been erroneously reported as killed in action, an old girlfriend (Brent)is shocked to see him. She gives chase, and it is revealed his wife has married and English lord. The girlfriend threatens to tell and the 'interference' begins.
William Powell is very watchable, until he does his drunk scene. Unfortunately, I've seen all the 'Thin Man' films and have seen him take 'tipsy' to new heights. His hand movements, here, are smooth and precise. Evelyn Brent is even better, giving a real star performance of a confused, vengeful mistress. Mr. Brook 's just fine, adequately uppity. The thing just falls apart with Doris Kenyon's scenes. She's lost and I fault the director, J. Roy Pomeroy. It's just so obvious, all of her lines are delivered like questions, with the inflection tailing up at the end.
Now, J. Roy Pomeroy had never directed a film before. In a perfect example of being in the right place at the right time, Pomeroy was head of the special effects department at Paramount when a committee to study the sound "fad" was formed. He was named technical advisor to study which sound system (Vitaphone disc, RCA or Western Electric sound-on-film) was superior for Paramount, MGM, Universal, First National and Producer's Distributing Organization. His decree was each were perfectly satisfactory, the confusion began. A quote given to Variety in 1928: "One year will be required to photograph a feature picture accompanied by a complete dialogue duly recorded by a soundtrack." The 'expert' went on to point out that in a dialogue, silence must follow each character's speech lest the audience become lost. Pomeroy worked on the post-synchronized "Warming Up", a Richard Dix baseball comedy. First hand accounts sound hilarious.
Then, as an expert in a field of one, he was assigned to direct Paramount's first talker. He demanded his $250 per week salary be increased to $2,500. Henry Hathaway recalled he spat on you as he talked, "you'd get all wet." But he couldn't direct. "Interference" is the proof.
So enjoy the Lothar Mendes production touches and plot twists. I enjoyed imagining myself at a theater in 1928, seeing what all the fuss is about. Evelyn Brent fans should consider this a must-see.
Best film of the 1970's
Great opinions follow, I'll be brief. This is the only movie that defies spoilers. The plot is not only non-linear, but circular. The unstuck-in-time device allows the screenplay to place jarring war scenes right up against the comic ones (yes, I laughed at Mrs. Pilgrim's ride to the hospital). Scenes of pain and delight follow one another and serve to distract from that TV movie look all Universal films of the 70's had ("Jaws", excepted).
The Glenn Gould score hauntingly underscores the quietude. Michael Sachs is aged flawlessly and the camera placements in the finale tell me the director clearly understood the material he was immortalizing.
I run this laserdisc every year, gaining something new with each viewing. Earlier viewings produced feelings of frustration with the futility of war. This time, what struck me with awe was a night scene, Billy and his dog looking at the stars. Billy anticipates the approach of one star. As it does, watch Billy's eyes and the dog's eyes move in perfect unison. And feel the optimism of eternity.
The Mighty (1929)
The language of the talking film begins here.
In this tale of crooks, war and regeneration are all the elements that would sustain feature films for decades.
On the technical side, we have the Movietone (optical) soundtrack. The director uses it to great effect in a variety of ways. An early fight scene has a participant fall on a bar's roll player and ragtime music springs forth to lighten the fight's mood. Soldiers sing and one lyric strikes a nerve with a face behind a window. At a crossroad in the protagonist's life, a speech is heard through as open door. And at the film's climax, the hero and villain are trapped in a darkened room; their voices and struggling carrying the story. [Some flaws not the director's fault: wow and flutter in reel four, some scenes aren't recorded properly and Ms. Ralston's volume tails off near the end of her lines] The sound is full-bodied throughout the action scenes. Cromwell keeps the camera moving, with many shots so quick they didn't need synched.
Battle scenes are well staged and a TRAVELING crane is used extensively. A charge up a hill is made memorable by this technique. Backgrounds are realistic, especially on the train sequence. They are in-focus and fit the story's progression. The battle contains one process shot done in close-up. It's quick and it works. Gunfire is shown from behind the shooter. I had the distinct impression that "Sergeant York" borrows from two scenes done better here. The onscreen action is equaled by the ferocious tracking camera. This was well planned, as Mr. Cromwell was once quoted as telling a producer, "for every day of full rehearsal you give me, I'll knock off a day on the shooting schedule." On a Cromwell set, full rehearsal meant "with camera".
While the plot's WW I gangster-turns-war-hero story would soon become cliche, good performances and writing keep this fresh. Bancroft scored big at the box office for Paramount as the "big swell" type gangster in "Underworld" (1927), "The Dragnet" (1928) and as "Thunderbolt" (1929). He's even more at ease, here, deflecting hero praise with lines like "gunmen are what they need over here." Esther Ralston is beautiful and she performs well. Raymond Hatton is agreeably over-animated as (and I love this name) "Dogey" Franks. Warner Oland as another heavy and Dorothy Revier is his "moll". Both are fine and Ms. Revier manages to wear the entire Paramount costume department in the course of this film (just kidding, maybe half). Though it may bog briefly in a couple of spots, no talkie from 1929 even comes close to this level of action. Highly recommended.
Thunder Below (1932)
Time hasn't improved the odor of this stinker
Here's a fine cast, Charles Bickford at his most popular, Tallulah Bankhead, young and on her third talkie and Paul Lukas at his most busy. The supporting players include Leslie Fenton and Eugene Pallette. How can this miss? Watch Thunder Below and discover it's so titled for the benefit of the deaf.
Our story gets off to a bad start with the geography. A map is briefly shown to place the setting in South America, a boat creeps along the river. Hey, it looks just like the Sacramento River. Now the crew has to disembark as the river is too small. Guess they were heading up river. Then our heroes slash through the jungle to the ...ocean? Suddenly, they're at the other end of the river. Then it gets worse.
Bickford plays Walt, an oil man and Joe Tough type. He goes right for his wife (Bankhead as Susan). Straight out of the sweaty jungle, he'll plant a big kiss and then muss-up her hair ('cause she likes it rough). Tells her she should feel privileged to be treated this way. [Hey, scriptwriter, won't this make it difficult for the audience to feel sympathy for this character when he goes blind later]. Lukas plays Ken, and he and Susan have been restraining their mutual 'passions'. Love triangle completed, a doctor arrives to confirm Walt is going blind. Now with the plot mechanics in place, it's time to bring on the emotions. But, honestly, I get more spark out of my soap than Ken and Susan's 'romance'. They say their lines and touch faces and go home and spend their paychecks. Walt swaggers and spouts, with one scene unintentionally funny: Walt tells off Susan's new boyfriend: boyfriend leaves and Walt's still spouting to thin air.
*** SPOILERS *** The climax is illogical, but cleverly filmed. Susan can go home, go off with her new boyfriend or keep romancing Ken in secret. So, what does she do with all these possibilities? She jumps off a cliff into the sea! Camera zooms downward to the rocks, quick cut to sky filling with seagulls in pattern like flower opening. It is done with several quick cuts and is very effective. This transcending moment is ruined when the scene cuts to Walt "oh, something frightened the gulls". The End. What a waste! I think a better title would be "Flatulence A Plenty"