Thursday, May 14, 2015

Background: "The Squall"

The 1929 film "The Squall" is a notoriously bad early talkie with an over-the-top performance by Myrna Loy that I skewered in this post. If you're interested, here's a little background on the movie.

The arrival of "The Squall" in the nation’s theatres during the summer of 1929 provoked this response from moviegoers and critics alike:

You’re kidding, right?

“Two different audiences on viewing ‘The Squall’ laughed long and loud at its sexiest moments,” reported Motion Picture News. “This is one that you will want to keep away from your juvenile patronage. It is strong meat for most adults, who can take it either seriously or laughingly as they see fit.”

“The best that can be said for this production,” added Mordaunt Hall in The New York Times, “is that the atmospheric effects are sometimes very good. The dialogue and the acting, however, are so pathetic that they discount any minor virtues this offering may possess, for even the discussions concerning love and the hardy embracing are open to ridicule.”

“You remember that this was a fairly good stage play. You’re sure that the film version is pretty bad,” added Photoplay. “Something happened between the story conference and the cutting room. Myrna Loy is the stereotyped Nubi, the gypsy girl and the hot baby who disrupts homes, while Alice Joyce is the Hungarian mother and Carroll Nye is the son. This film just doesn’t click, that’s all. And it’s unconsciously funny.”

Based on a 1926 play that ran a year on Broadway, "The Squall," viewed through contemporary eyes, is melodramatic high camp that brings to mind the “Bad Playhouse” sketches from the early days of “Saturday Night Live.” It’s full to bursting with awkward dialogue, obvious plotting and performances that range from immobile to oblivious.

To state the plot, we turn to an advertisement for the film that ran in Variety:

Nubi – gypsy gale of passion! An ill wind that blows no man good when, whirlwind-wild, she rages untamed through peaceful lives … Born of the storm, this half-clad human hurricane takes love where she will – from old, from young; from father, from son. Cyclonic in her caresses … Venomous, voluptuous, super-vampire … The fury of her passion lays waste the souls of men!

Any questions?

Myrna Loy is Nubi, a Hungarian hottie with blazing eyes and razor-sharp cheekbones. She is a gypsy who has been catapulted from the caravan for her wanton ways. She seeks refuge at the peaceful, prosperous farm of the Lajos family because she is on the run from the gypsy leader. “He keel me,” she purrs.

The Lajos family is compassionate, and they give Nubi food and a place to live even as a storm brews outside and they speak dialogue that foreshadows trouble like crazy. Take this exchange, between the young Irma (Loretta Young, also receiving the worst notices of her career) and Grandfather Lajos (Knute Erickson):

Irma: Oh, I just hate squalls. They only make everyone so unhappy. I'd like someone to tell me why we have them.

Grandfather: Perhaps there's a reason, Irma. God gives us shadows that we may know light. He gives us sorrow that we may know joy. And perhaps he sends the squall that we may learn the beauty of a limpid sky.

Before you can say “the Gabor sisters,” Nubi is trying to seduce every guy in the joint – son Paul (Carroll Nye), farm hand Peter (Henry Cording) and father Josef (Richard Tucker, at left). (“I am keesing your shadow,” Nubi tells Josef.)

Longtime wife Maria (Alice Joyce) is watching from the shadows. What's a wife to do? "My husband -- half of my life," she says. "My son -- the other half." It falls to Maria to get rid of Nubi, courtesy of a convenient return of the caravan. The Lajos family can return to a life of prosperous complacency, thanks to the family matriarch.

Nubi is one of Loy’s most notorious turns as an exotic temptress – similar, if less melodramatic, characterizations would follow in films such as “Thirteen Women” and “The Mask of Fu Manchu."

"They built me up as someone with a knife in her teeth," she recalled in a 1987 interview.

Although ad copy for “The Squall” billed her as a “sensational overnight star,” the reality was the Loy’s career dated to 1926, and she had appeared two years earlier in the first talkie, “The Jazz Singer.”

Fortunately, Loy’s career would survive her turn as the nubile Nubi – it would be another few years, and several more ethnic villainess roles, before Loy would be cast as Nora Charles in “The Thin Man” and begin a career as one of Hollywood’s most endearing leading ladies. And despite a review in Variety that characterized her voice as being “identical with commencement exercises in a grammar school,” Loretta Young also went on to have a long, successful career.

Others in the cast weren’t as fortunate.

After a twenty-year career in silent films, Alice Joyce’s speaking style was condemned by several critics and she only made a few more films. After playing the father, Richard Tucker, despite being a founding member of the Screen Actors Guild, went on to a sporadic career in B movies.

Loy’s spicy performance as Nubi ensured that “The Squall” would run into censor trouble – in Chicago, in particular, the movie was heavily edited. But shrewd theatre operators turned this to their advantage. Said one in Motion Picture News: “In prominent place in ad feature: ‘This picture is adult entertainment. Children will not enjoy or understand it,’ and you’ll have everyone coming from high school age and over.”


Motion Picture News, May 18, 1929, p. 1717
Motion Picture News, June 8, 1929, p. 1963
The New York Times, May 10, 1929
The New York Times, Myrna Loy Receives a Tribute, November 7, 1987
Photoplay, July 1929, p. 56
Variety, May 8, 1929, p. 12
Variety, May 15, 1929, p. 20
Variety, May 15, 1929, p. 30
Variety, June 26, 1929, p. 9

Friday, May 1, 2015

CMBA Fabulous Films of the '30s Blogathon: "G-Men," or Better Fed Than Dead

This is part of the CMBA Fabulous Films of the '30s Blogathon!

Hollywood's Most Famous Bad Man Joins the "G-Men" and Halts the March of Crime! -- ad for "G-Men" in Variety, April 1935

1934 was a bad year to be a gangster.

On May 23, Bonnie and Clyde were gunned down in Louisiana.

On July 22, John Dillinger bought it outside the Biograph Theatre in Chicago.

On October 18, Charles Arthur "Pretty Boy" Floyd -- who had become Public Enemy No. 1 after the death of Dillinger -- was killed in a cornfield near Clarkson, Ohio.

And on November 17, George "Baby Face" Nelson -- who had become Public Enemy No. 1 after the death of Floyd -- was wiped out in a showdown with FBI agents just outside of Chicago.

On the other hand, 1934 was a very good year indeed to be J. Edgar Hoover.

Hoover's genius for public relations -- and for self-promotion -- turned the tables on the "glamorous" gangsters who got all the headlines in the early 1930s. He created the idea of "Public Enemy No. 1" so that America could keep track of which gangsters were getting knocked off. He planted in the public imagination the idea that upright, incorruptible FBI agents were present at every shootout with every gangster, regardless of whether they were or not. And when George "Machine Gun" Kelly, surrounded in 1933 by FBI agents, said, "Don't shoot, G-Men!," Hoover eagerly promoted the nickname.

As a result of the headlines -- and also partly due to the desire of Hollywood studios to get on the right side of the Hays office in those days of more rigid enforcement of the Production Code -- by early 1935 gangsters were out and the Feds were in.

The first rush was to register the title "G-Men," and Warner Bros. beat Universal to the punch by just 24 hours.

Several studios had entries in the sweepstakes -- RKO's "The People's Enemy," United Artists' "Let 'Em Have It" and MGM's "Public Hero Number 1," among others.

But the winnah and champeen -- one of the highest-grossing movies of the year, in fact -- was "G-Men."

And the man playing the lead G-Man was the same guy who'd spent the last five years at Warner's shooting at cops, fighting at the drop of a fedora, doing a musical or two and pushing women around -- James Cagney.

As James "Brick" Davis, a lawyer who joins the FBI to avenge the death of a friend who was also an agent (Regis Toomey, gone in a flash), Cagney is as self-assured and as pugnacious as ever. Still, there's something muted about him -- he's tough, but he's missing that impudent edge that enlivened so many pre-code movies.

To its credit, the movie doesn't try to pass off Cagney's character as a straight arrow -- he's a street kid who got a college education courtesy of McKay, the local bootlegger (William Harrigan). But the guy expects no favors -- he wants Brick to follow his own moral compass.

So, following his friend's murder, Brick leaves his moribund law career -- and his entertainer girlfriend (Ann Dvorak as a dvancer) behind. He goes to Washington and starts his training. To give the movie some conflict, the writers give Brick a frenemy in McCord (Robert Armstrong, seen at left), an FBI trainer who thinks that law school graduates like Brick aren't tough enough to be feds. Is HE in for a surprise! Oh, and Brick falls for McCord's sister (Margaret Lindsay). Is HE in for a ... oh, I already said that.

It just so happens that Brick's buddy was killed by the same gang that's high on the FBI's most wanted list, a group led by Collins (Barton MacLane). But the real target is triggerman Leggett (Edward Pawley), the guy who killed Brick's pal. And nobody gets away with that, see?

In the best Warner tradition, "G-Men" rips plot elements straight from the headlines. A train station ambush that sets Leggett free is based on the Kansas City Massacre, a 1933 bloodbath that involved the efforts of Pretty Boy Floyd to free prisoner Frank Nash. And Collins and his gang end up hiding out at a Wisconsin hunting lodge -- the same kind of place as Little Bohemia, where the feds tried and failed to catch the Dillinger gang in early 1934.

Brick's old bootlegger pal McKay owns the place, but he's a victim and is being held hostage by the gang. Also there is Brick's old flame, the dvancer. Since Brick has brushed her off, she's taken up with Collins -- with deadly consequences.

You can pretty much predict how "G-Men" ends, and when Brick ends up saving McCord's life in a shootout that captures, McCord endlessly talks about what a great guy Brick is to anyone who'll listen. The movie is a kind of canonization of Cagney the hero and kicks off the second half of his busiest and most iconic decade. If his work doesn't have quite the same spice as his earlier performances, well, let's just chalk that up to being better fed than dead.

Here's a trailer from a re-release of "G-Men" from 1949, celebrating the 25th anniversary of the FBI:

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Pre-Code Blogathon: "Love Me Tonight," or Some People Call Me Maurice

This is part of the Pre-Code Blogathon sponsored by Danny at and Karen at Shadows and Satin. Please visit either and/or both of them for more offerings. 

The 1932 film "Love Me Tonight" lets you know you are in for something special from the very beginning:

You haven't heard a word of dialogue, but the first few moments of the film set the stage perfectly -- Paris, morning, people waking up, a friendly man jauntily walking to his tailor shop and greeting his neighbors ("Hello Mrs. Bendix! How's your appendix?").

When it comes to modern life, I'm a firm believer in what Lily Tomlin once said: "No matter how cynical you get, it's never enough to keep up." And I love the cynicism of so many pre-code movies -- I think it's a period of filmmaking that mirrors the tenor of the times like no other.

But when I watch a movie like "Love Me Tonight," I happily park my cynicism at the door. It doesn't come easily to me, but the movie deserves sincere adjectives that I usually use sarcastically -- "delightful," "thrilling," "enchanting." It's a witty, lovely fairy tale with a prince named Maurice and a princess named Jeanette. It's not just one of my favorite pre-code movies -- it's one of my favorite movie musicals, period.

The pairing of Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald brings to mind what Katharine Hepburn is alleged to have said about Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers -- "he gives her class and she gives him sex" -- but in reverse. MacDonald's regal bearing (even when she wasn't playing a princess) and cultured soprano is perfectly counterbalanced by Chevalier's good humor and growly, untrained voice.

Their paths cross when Maurice pursues Charlie Ruggles as a deadbeat vicomte (French for "viscount," if you care) to his family castle, where the women -- Princess Jeanette and Countess Valentine (Myrna Loy, sexy as hell) -- are literally wasting away from lack of love. See for yourself:

Aunts in your plans of 1932.
The lord of the castle, the stern Duke (C. Aubrey Smith), keeps everyone in line, or so he thinks, and three maiden aunts (Elizabeth Patterson, Blanche Frederici and Ethel Griffies) are a Greek chorus commenting on the action. Princess Jeanette's only suitor is a hapless count played by the Hapsburg of the hapless, Charles Butterworth.

We are introduced to Princess Jeanette in one of my very favorite film moments -- the Rodgers and Hart song "Isn't It Romantic" travels from one singer to another, beginning on the lips of the hero and ending on the lips of the heroine:

This, to me, is exhilarating filmmaking -- storytelling in a style that still seems contemporary and clever. Taking a score by Rodgers and Hart consisting of songs that are spoken as well as sung, director Rouben Mamoulian worked with screenwriters Samuel Hoffenstein, Waldemar Young and George Marion, Jr. to shape the story around the music.

Truthfully, the story is the weakest part of "Love Me Tonight," but it's more than enough to carry the score and the performances. Maurice is a tailor. The viscount owes him money. He goes to the castle to get paid. Princess Jeanette is nearby, riding in a carriage and combining the lyrics of "Lover" with commands to her horse (I wish I had a clip to share with you) Maurice meets Princess Jeanette and falls in love.

She resists his advances and runs away. They meet again at the castle, where the viscount passes off Maurice as a baron. Everyone else in the castle loves Maurice as much as the princess dislikes him. How do we know? After he arrives, they all wake up the next morning singing "Mimi" -- even C. Aubrey Smith in what is undoubtedly his most joyous moment on film.

"Trust me. I'm a professional."
The princess finally comes around, falling in love with Maurice and then realizing, as he's fitting her for an impeccably-made riding habit, that he's a tailor. "Love Me Tonight" seems a little anticlimactic after that, though the plot turn does cause one character to say/sing, "I'd rather throw a bomb at her than have her wed a commoner."

Despite its atmosphere of sweet romance, "Love Me Tonight" does have its share of pre-code spice, including scenes of Loy and MacDonald in lingerie and other revealing outfits, some of which were trimmed during the movie's original release. And one raised eyebrow from Maurice Chevalier is worth a million double-entendres.

Here is the film itself (with commercials; sorry):

Friday, March 27, 2015

Favorite TV Show Episode Blogathon -- "The Dick Van Dyke Show: Scratch My Car and Die"

This is part of the Favorite TV Show Episode Blogathon sponsored by Terence at A Shroud of Thoughts.

"Scratch My Car and Die" aired on March 25, 1964, approximately midway through the five-year run of "The Dick Van Dyke Show," and by no means is it the best episode of the series.

And that, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, is EXACTLY my point!

Because even though it might not be the best, it's still pretty great. It's a perfect example of the kind of supreme sitcom splendor that "The Dick Van Dyke Show" pulled off on practically a weekly basis -- the kind of polished, well-written, perfectly performed, quietly revolutionary stuff that we can still watch and admire 50 (50!) years later.

In the event that you just emerged from a Maori encampment, here's the show's basic setup -- Rob Petrie (Dick Van Dyke) is head writer for "The Alan Brady Show," a New York-based TV variety series. He lives on Bonnie Meadow Road in New Rochelle, NY with wife Laura (Mary Tyler Moore) and son Ritchie (Larry Mathews) and he works with professional wisenheimers Sally Rogers (Rose Marie) and Buddy Sorrell (Morey Amsterdam) and priggish producer Mel Cooley (Richard Deacon).

"The Dick Van Dyke Show" was created and largely written by Carl Reiner, a longtime writer and performer with Sid Caesar on "Your Show of Shows" and "Caesar's Hour."  Reiner took elements of the show from his own personal and
professional life -- he named Rob Petrie after his son Rob, and Laura Petrie was based on his wife, Estelle. He even included the street where he lived -- except in Reiner's case, it was Bonnie Meadow Road in Scarsdale, not New Rochelle.

Despite critical acclaim, "The Dick Van Dyke Show" wasn't an immediate hit; in fact, due to low ratings it was almost cancelled after one season. But executive producer Sheldon Leonard wangled new sponsor support and the show was moved from Tuesdays to a Wednesday night time slot immediately following TV's new number one show, "The Beverly Hillbillies," thus inheriting a massive audience. So the survival of the Petrie family was due largely to the ratings success of the Clampett family.

But "The Dick Van Dyke Show" had little in common with "The Beverly Hillbillies," or, for that matter, almost any other sitcom on TV in the early 1960s.

For one thing, it combined slapstick humor and witty dialogue with a skill that would be unequaled until "Frasier" came along in the mid-1990s. For another, the show was grounded in reality. Reiner's philosophy, and the advice he would give to other writers on the show, was simple: "Tell the truth." "The Dick Van Dyke Show" was life according to life, not life according to other sitcoms.  

No wonder Rob and Laura slept in separate beds.
As a result, partly by happenstance and partly through intention, "The Dick Van Dyke Show" was as revolutionary as a sitcom could be for the time. Rob and Laura Petrie were a realistic married couple who were clearly attracted to each other even as they had the occasional argument -- and even though they slept in censor-mandated twin beds.

Laura dressed more like a realistic housewife than, say, June Cleaver -- Mary Tyler Moore's wardrobe choice of capri pants rather than a dress caused a mini-fashion stir at the time.

Also, the show's structure utilized dreams -- Rob's nightmare about aliens in "It May Look Like a Walnut," for example -- and flashbacks to Rob's Army days and his courtship and marriage to Laura.

Finally, by using African-Americans in "normal" roles as equals -- Godfrey Cambridge as a government agent, Greg Morris as Rob's Army buddy -- the show made subtle statements about racial equality in the midst of the civil rights era. (There's also, of course, the memorable flashback episode in which Rob was sure that the newborn Richie actually belonged to another couple, who turned out to be black (Morris again, as the husband).) And finally, Buddy Sorrell -- a central figure in the series -- was unmistakably Jewish. (There was even an episode about his belated bar mitzvah.)

On the set, 1963. Director Jerry Paris, who also played next-door
neighbor Jerry Helper, is wearing the cardigan sweater and tie.
(Photos are from Look magazine and posted on one of my favorite
Still, this was a situation comedy and not a documentary. So there were instances when Rob and Laura acted scatterbrained. But the behavior was always rooted in real reactive behavior -- they were never silly just for silliness' sake. And despite Laura's catchphrase of "Oh, Roooobb!," endlessly cited by people who don't know much about the show, the goofiness was distributed evenly between Rob and Laura, and "Scratch My Car and Die" offers a great example.

The episode was written by John Whedon, the grandfather of Joss Whedon, he of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "The Avengers." John Whedon's writing career dated to the 1940s radio series "The Great Gildersleeve," and he wrote quite a few episodes of "The Donna Reed Show." But "Scratch My Car and Die" gave him the chance to include more satire -- and more examples of honest behavior -- than an average Donna Reed script. The episode's director, Howard Morris, was also a performer with Reiner on "Your Show of Shows" and "Caesar's Hour" and also played Ernest T. Bass on "The Andy Griffith Show."

We open at the Petrie home, where Rob can't quit looking out the front door at his new car in the driveway. "Laura," he says, "will you look at that shaft of moonlight shining on our Tarantula?"

Rob: Do you know what the great thing about this car is?

Laura: That you can't bring it into the house.

Rob loves the styling -- even the ashtrays are teardrop-shaped -- the power and, most of all, the STATUS. He immediately calls next-door neighbor Jerry to brag about it, but Jerry can't come over. Rob is disappointed. "What's the sense of having a new car if you can't have your best friends envious of you?"

Then he gets even worse news from Laura -- she has to do carpool in the morning, and her car is in the shop, so she has to borrow the Tarantula. Rob is disconsolate -- he's bought a driving hat and everything:

Rob: [The kids will] ruin the new car smell with their peanut butter sandwich smell!

Laura: I'll put the sandwiches in the trunk.

Rob: There is no trunk -- that's the auxiliary motor!

Rob (to Ritchie): "This car is not the old station wagon. I don't want any candy wrappers or gum or lollipops on the seats
and I don't want any taffy or gunky stuff in the ashtrays. Rich, are you listening to me?"
Laura: "Darling, if you want him to listen to you, you're going to have to take off the hat."
The next day, Laura drives the kids to school and stops at the market. She comes home and confides to her best friend Millie (Ann Morgan Guilbert) that while the car was parked, someone scratched it:

Millie: Front or back?

Laura: Yes!

Classic sitcom conflict, right? Yes, but the way it's handled demonstrates the genius of "The Dick Van Dyke Show."

Unlike many a sitcom wife, Laura doesn't tell Rob about the scratch -- she gets moral support from Millie: "Look, it wasn't your fault the car got scratched, right? But is Rob gonna believe that? No, he's gonna use it as an example against women drivers, and you'll be giving our whole wonderful sex a black eye."

Laura tries to persuade Rob to let her have the car for one more day for carpool -- actually, so she can get it fixed. But he sneaks out and drives the car to work. Now Laura is positive that she needs to tell Rob, but Millie holds tough: "Look, before you tell him the truth, give lying another chance, okay?"

At the office, Rob enters furious and frazzled. He can't even speak, which leads to a game of charades with Buddy, Sally and Mel:

Sally: Rob -- you gonna cry?

(Rob nods)

Mel: What's the matter?

Sally: Well, he's either got a toothache or somebody stepped on his Tarantula.

(Rob stamps desk affirmatively)

Rob thinks the scratch happened in the parking garage.  He comes home furious and zooms off to see his attorney. Laura feels worse than ever. Rob returns home sheepish -- in his anger, he has run the car into a couple of concrete posts in his attorney's driveway.

So the situation that drives the comedy ends up being largely irrelevant, and the humor comes from recognizable behavior -- Rob's obsession with his new car. From his silly hat to his instructions to Laura -- "Don't park it under a tree. Or under a bird." -- Rob is the comic center of this episode. As I said, it isn't perfect -- there are a few jokes about women drivers that don't date very well. But there's so much that's good here -- and, again, on a consistent basis for more than 150 episodes, that's how they rolled at "The Dick Van Dyke Show."

Rob and Laura Petrie have been reunited on several shows, including the absolutely terrible 2004 special "The Dick Van Dyke Show Revisited." Here they are on a 1979 episode of "The Mary Tyler Moore Hour" (which featured Michael Keaton as a regular):

Monday, January 19, 2015

Awkward Early Talkie Theatre: "Untamed"

Vildkatten, that satin doll.
Here are some words you will rarely, if ever, see in the same sentence:

"Kim Kardashian" and "talent."

"Downton Abbey" and "rowdy."

"Joan Crawford" and "lighthearted."

Yes, I like to pick on Joan Crawford. Hey, at least I'm straight up about it, ya feel me? It's just that she's always so ... so oxygen-suckingly earnest and yet phony-baloney, like a robot programmed to imitate actual human emotion. My favorite Crawford picture is "Mildred Pierce" because her melodramatic style fits the story so well. (When "The Carol Burnett Show" did a parody of that movie, the title pegged Crawford's style perfectly -- they called it "Mildred Fierce.")

And Crawford is at peak Crawford in her first full-length talkie, 1929's "Untamed." (She had earlier filmed a talkie number or two for MGM's "Hollywood Revue," but it was released afterwards.) In all fairness, "Untamed" would be terrible even if she wasn't in it -- it's a weird collision of embarrassing cultural assumptions and over-baked performances, sitting on top of a supremely uninteresting series of romantic complications that, like Crawford's grimaces, you can see coming from a mile away. (With dialogue by Willard Mack, bitchez!)

On the up side, Robert Montgomery isn't bad. (It is his first talkie as well.)

How to dance like no one is watching.
We open in the picturesque Valley of Zoro in South America or something, where lives a penniless Englishman and his daughter Alice, aka Bingo because ... she was conceived during a heated game? ("B-12! Oh, my God! B-12!")

Anyway, Bingo is the hit of the valley because of her spirited movements that approximate dance, and because she runs around in skimpy loincloths.

Accompanied by her pet monkey Chico, Bingo lives life as if it were a gay, mad game! She is as unspoiled as the jungle, as direct as a child, as graceful as a ... well, let's settle for two out of three.

Bingo's father is visited by two old friends, Murchison (Ernest Torrance) and Presley (Holmes Herbert). Father is then quickly stabbed, mostly so that Crawford can have a death to emote over; see for yourself, although I wouldn't blame you if you watched only a few seconds of this clip -- it seems to go on for hours.

So, it turns out that before Bingo's dad kicks off he tells his friends of a deed he has that's worth millions in oil rights. So if he's had that all along, why live in poverty?

Upon dad's death, Murchison and Presley swear to protect Bingo and her right to be rich, rich, rich, and they become her guardians. "The sweetest flowers grow in the mud," Murchison says in a non-creepy way about Bingo.

Then before you can say "Sydenham's chorea," we are on a ship bound for New York City. The oil rights have come through, or been established, or whatever it is you do with oil rights, and Bingo and her guardians are flush with cash. On board the ship, Bingo locks peepers with Andy (Montgomery), who's squiring an older rich woman, and it's B-12 all over again.

Since this is an early talkie, it's required that both Crawford and Montgomery sing, which they do in a nice untrained way. Their theme song is "That Wonderful Something," a ditty that's just made for plinking on the ukelele:

The scenes between Andy and Bingo, when they aren't weighed down with drama, are actually nicely played. But they also offer vivid illustrations of each actor's style. Montgomery is nonchalant -- it's almost as if he doesn't care if he's in the picture or not. Crawford, on the other hand, acts like she'd kill you if you cut even one of her lines.

At first, the devil-may-care Andy doesn't know what to make of Bingo's guileless love for him. But it doesn't take him long to respond in kind. However, Uncle Murchison has a problem -- Andy is without funds. (Which seems weird, considering that he's on an ocean liner and has access to more than one tuxedo.) So Murchison, in his lumbering style -- speed was not an Ernest Torrance specialty -- suggests that Andy and Bingo cool it until she's been in New York for a few months, and then behind the scenes he works to sabotage the relationship.

This leads to lots of breakups and makeups between Bingo and Andy, climaxing with Uncle Murchison offering Andy a bribe to leave. A fed-up Andy gets drunk and confronts Bingo, which triggers her Acting reflux -- er, reflex -- again:

All in all, 1929 was a big year for Joan Crawford -- in June she had married Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., and he supported her as she prepared for her talkie debut by reading English poetry into a Dictaphone. Unfortunately, no one at the time seemed to think about dancing lessons.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

"Call Her Savage," or Texas Hold 'Em

The personal, private, top, top super-secret diary of Nasa Springer

No boys allowed! (tee-hee)

June 12, 1932

Dear Diary:

Just got back from riding my horses across our vast Texas estate. We stopped for a water break at Dallas and then got as far as Amarillo before we turned back. Oh, and I savagely killed a rattlesnake with a whip. No wonder that whenever people refer to me, they say, "Call Her Savage"!

June 13, 1932

Dear Diary:

Did I mention I love horses? I love their smooth skin, their tight hindquarters, their bulging muscles, their sinewy legs ... and did I mention I also like boys? Oh, and also today my temper got the best of me again and I crashed a guitar over someone's head.

June 14, 1932

Dear Diary:

Father is mad at me again! All I did was bring a family of rabid possums into the house and interrupt some silly cotillion or something. Oh, and I forgot to put on underwear. The babies were so cute! The possums, I mean. But daddy was having none of it. He just gave me an angry look the way he always does, and said, "She's no daughter of mine!" And mother gave him a funny look and said, "You don't know how right you are!" Wonder what she means by that?

June 15, 1932

Dear Diary:

Well, now I'm in Chicago attending finishing school. I've been on my very best behavior, which means I have reduced my fighting to once a week. Oh, and I've met the most wonderful man! He looks just like that actor in the movies, Monroe Owsley. Except that in the movies Monroe Owsley always plays rotten cads, and this man seems great! I'm sure things will work out perfectly! P.S. I have learned enough in finishing school to know that you don't put an apostrophe in "kayos," silly Daily Express! P.P.S. I am wearing underwear more often.

June 16, 1932

Dear Diary:

I've found out that married life has its challenges, especially when your husband turns out to be a congenitally unfaithful sociopath whose brain is being eaten by syphilis. But nobody's perfect. Oh, and I am pregnant.

June 17, 1932

Dear Diary:

My baby is sick and my husband has deserted me, so in order to afford medicine I must walk the streets. I really don't have any other choice -- the only things I know how to do are ride horses and get into fights. So I went out and pretended to be very interested in a Bromo-Seltzer sign and one thing led to another. Oh, and while I was out my apartment building burned down.

June 18, 1932

Dear Diary:

You'll never believe this, but I'm wealthy again! My grandfather or whatever left me a lot of money, so I've been going out with very handsome men. I've learned to control my hot-blooded nature and I'm down to fighting only once a month. Or maybe twice. Oh, and under police orders I am allowed to eat off of only paper plates.

June 19, 1932

Dear Diary:

I have begun to seriously re-evaluate my relationships with men. What makes me such a savage around them? Why was I such a disappointment to my father? Why has my mother always had such an interest in Native American culture? What happened to those rabid possums? So many questions, diary, and so few mirrors!

June 20, 1932

Dear Diary:

What a crazy month! It's been as tempestuous as my very nature! But now I am home again in Texas because my mother has passed away. In her final words, she pointed to my father and said, "He's not your real -- " and that was it! I'll never figure out what she meant! But my lifelong friend Moonglow is here, and today we went together to the wooded glen where I have so many happy memories of whipping rattlesnakes to death. And there, diary, I asked Moonglow the question that has long been on my mind ...    

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Elliott Nugent Film Festival: "Wise Girls" and "The Last Flight"

Of all the actors and actresses who appeared in 1930s movies, Elliott Nugent (1896-1980) was certainly one of them.

Actually, if Nugent's known at all today, it's probably more for his abilities as a director and writer than as an actor. He collaborated with longtime friend James Thurber (they were both from Ohio and attended OSU together) on "The Male Animal," a Broadway hit in 1940 that was turned into a 1942 film with Henry Fonda and Olivia de Havilland. (On Broadway, Nugent also starred, opposite a young Gene Tierney, and he directed the film version.)

Nugent also directed several above-average pre-code pictures, including "The Mouthpiece," "Life Begins" and "Three-Cornered Moon." And later in the 1930s and into the '40s he directed comedies with Harold Lloyd, Danny Kaye, Bing Crosby and Bob Hope.

As an actor, Nugent was mostly at MGM. He played Marion Davies's fiancee in 1930's "Not So Dumb" and he played straight man opposite Lon Chaney and a gorilla in Chaney's only talkie, "The Unholy Three."

But Nugent's best performances onscreen tended to be in dryly comic roles, and the 1929 film "Wise Girls" offers a nice example. This is pretty much an all-Nugent show -- it's based on a play by Nugent and his father, actor J.C. Nugent, and it stars both of them. The staging is also attributed to them -- like a lot of early talkies it takes place largely on one set, with a static camera and lots of entrances and exits. Screen direction is by one E. Mason Hopper, who brings things to a deadly halt more than a few times.

"Wise Girls" starts with this title card:

In other words, this is low-key humor in the style of The New Yorker, designed to elicit smiles more than belly laughs.

"Wise Girls" is a domestic comedy set in the Bence household. Dad Bence (J.C. Nugent) is irascibly, Fred Mertzian, comic. He's driven to distraction by the escapades of his grown daughters, particularly the highly strung Kate (Norma Lee), who's determined to be an artiste in the worst way, and is succeeding.  

Kate's dalliances with the muse have included a book called "Angie's Temptation," and based on her pretentious manner we can easily imagine how good it is. Nevertheless, a local attorney named Duke (Roland Young) loves Kate so much that he has published the book for her, but she doesn't know he's involved -- she thinks it was bought solely on its own merit. The book was less than a best seller -- in fact, a bunch of copies were dumped at the local YMCA, where one resident, Kempy (Elliott Nugent), read the book and fell in love with the author.

In the course of about ten minutes, Duke and Kate have a falling out over her ambitions and Kempy, a plumber, shows up at the Bence house to fix a leaky pipe. Younger sister Ruth (Marion Shilling) discovers Kempy's love for the book and all parties involved, and she makes sure to introduce Kempy and Kate. Kate is still smarting from Duke's rejection, so she's more than ready for a new admirer:

The sudden marriage of Kempy and Ruth gives dad lots of reasons to sputter, and the elder Nugent has the character type down to a T. He's put out that his daughter isn't marrying the wealthy Duke, and he's convinced that Kempy is out for his money:

It takes, frankly, much more time than it should to establish that Kate and Duke belong together and that sister Ruth loves Kempy, and vice versa. "Wise Girls" is one of those early talkies that can be a real slog, but every so often you stumble across a scene with some bright dialogue. Here's another nice example, between Kempy and Ruth, who, admittedly, says her lines as if she learned them phonetically:

All's well that ends well in "Wise Girls," but 1931's "The Last Flight" is decidedly more downbeat. It was one of Nugent's last acting assignments for a while, and truthfully he's a bit shoved off to the side, fourth-billed under Richard Barthelmess, David Manners and Johnny Mack Brown. The four of them are shell-shocked pilots trying to drink away their trauma in post-World War I Paris.

"The Last Flight" is written by John Monk Saunders, who knew this territory -- he also wrote "Wings" and "The Dawn Patrol." In real life he was a flight instructor, although during the war he never got out of Florida. "The Last Flight" is a slightly weird but interesting mix of "The Dawn Patrol" and ersatz Hemingway. The four fliers speak in somewhat self-conscious declarative sentences in between cocktails. But this a pre-code movie through and through, unapologetic about its viewpoint -- you can't even imagine a studio remaking something like this until the 1950s.

We first meet the men after Cary (Barthelmess) and Shep (Manners) have survived a serious plane crash. Cary's hands have been badly burned and Shep has a nervous tic in his eye that requires the wearing of really cool-looking smoked glasses.

The war is over, and they're being released from the hospital. Cary can't hold anything, but hey, no problem -- the doctor just tucks Cary's discharge papers into his armpit.

Then he watches philosophically as they walk away.

Doctor: Now they're out to face life -- and their whole training was in preparation for death. It's like dropping a fine Swiss watch on the pavement. ... They're spent bullets -- like projectiles, shaped for war and aimed at the enemy. Now they've fallen back to earth spent, cooled off, useless. ... What good are they?

OK, doc, I think we get it.

Brown and Nugent round out the quartet as, respectively, Bill, an ex-football star whose laces have loosened a bit and Francis, a skilled marksman with narcolepsy. The plot thickens when the men meet Nikki (Helen Chandler) in a Paris bar. She wasn't in the war, but she can still match them quirk for quirk -- she keeps turtles in her bathtub and often says her lines while staring into space.

When Nikki sees Cary having to use both hands to hold his martini she thoughtlessly laughs, and then just as thoughtlessly pities Cary. Shep and Bill have to set her straight:

Nikki straddles the line between being vulnerable and annoying, but the men take her under their collective wing. She's especially attracted to Cary. Oh -- and there's a tag along, a creepy American reporter named Frink (Walter Byron) whose designs on Nikki are less than honorable.

Anyway, the group continues its bar hopping and committing assorted hi-jinks -- like when big Bill tackles a horse to prove he was an All-American. Again, Nugent doesn't get much meat in this movie. But there is one brief, good example, set in (where else?) a bar:

Following a sweet scene in which Cary and Nikki visit Pere Lachaise and the graves of Abelard and Heloise (Nikki ends up naming her turtles after them), we're off to Lisbon. Once there, much drinking ensues, along with visits to the bull fights and then a shooting gallery. What can go wrong?


A lot can go wrong, actually, including a final showdown between Frink and the boys. It happens at the shooting gallery, and, for the first time in the picture, it gives Nugent's character something to do:


With that exit into the darkness, Nugent also disappeared from in front of the cameras for a while. But his directoral trail leads from pre-codes to 1939's "The Cat and the Canary," the first of several pictures with Bob Hope, also including "Never Say Die" and "My Favorite Brunette." Nugent also directed Harold Lloyd in "Professor Beware," Danny Kaye in "Up in Arms" and Bing Crosby and Barry Fitzgerald in "Welcome, Stranger." And he directed the charming 1948 sleeper "My Girl Tisa" and the 1949 version of "The Great Gatsby" with Alan Ladd.

(One last point about "The Last Flight" -- just after the movie came out, Saunders turned the story into a Broadway musical, "Nikki," with his wife, Fay Wray, in the title role. It ran about a month. Playing Cary Lockwood was a young actor named Archie Leach who appropriated the character's name when he went to Hollywood shortly thereafter. But people told him Lockwood was too long a last name, so he chose Grant instead.)

Oh -- and since "My Favorite Brunette" is in the public domain, here it is: