Thursday, September 27, 2012

"The Beast of the City," or Bang, Bang

The 1932 film "The Beast of the City" opens with a long-winded bit of argle-bargle from President Herbert Hoover to the effect of, dude, if movies glamorize gangsters all the time, how about a movie that glamorizes the cops instead?

Louis B. Mayer, the head honcho of MGM, was a big Hoover supporter, and slapping that statement at the beginning of "The Beast of the City" gives it a kind of moral authority and civic veneer, which is funny because the movie -- especially its no-holds-barred ending -- is every bit as violent as the popular gangster films of the day. The film's scriptwriters are W.R. Burnett (creator of "Little Caesar") and John Lee Mahin (co-writer of "Scarface"). The movie is also an impressive showcase for a young Jean Harlow, and gives us an early glimpse of Mickey Rooney.

Our hero is police Captain Jim Fitzpatrick, played stolidly by Walter Huston. Jim is stern, unsmiling and uncorruptable, but he's constantly foiled in his efforts to put gangster Sam Belmonte (Jean Hersholt) behind bars because of Belmonte's lawyers and their knowledge of "rights."

Fitzpatrick is also a solid family man, with a devoted wife, twin daughters and a rambunctious son played by Rooney, billed here as Mickey Mcguire. (Amazing that a guy who was in a movie made 80 years ago is still with us.)  Rooney is around mostly for comic relief:



Because his crusade against Belmonte is making the corrupt chief look bad, Fitzpatrick is transferred to a safer, rural district. There he foils a bank holdup and gets wounded in the process, becoming a hero. This results in his promotion to Chief, a job he tackles with the same grimness of purpose.

Meanwhile, Fitzpatrick's brother Ed (Wallace Ford) poses a problem. He's also a cop, but not as conscientious as Jim, and to make matters worse he falls for Belmonte's moll, Daisy (Harlow):



As Jim's anti-corruption crusade gains strength, Ed falls further from grace. Finally, he's arrested for his involvement in a robbery/murder. But because of threats from Belmonte's thugs and fast work by his attorneys, Ed is acquitted. He begs his brother's forgiveness, but only one thing can set things straight -- Ed joins Jim (and about 25 other cops) in a shootout with Belmonte's gang that's positively operatic in its body count:

  

Weird choice for a closing theme, eh? And don't forget the message -- courtroom justice is all well and good, but the best way to deal with criminals is to ambush and kill them before they kill you.

Here are the full credits for "The Beast of the City."








Monday, September 24, 2012

"Union Depot" and the Warner Regulars

In their underrated 1978 film "Movie Movie" director Stanley Donen and screenwriters Larry Gelbart and Sheldon Keller paid homage to the 1930s movies they loved as kids. To do this, Gelbart and Keller wrote two 45-minute movies -- one a black-and-white boxing film, the other a musical in color -- so that "Movie Movie" took the form of a double feature. More importantly, as in the 1930s when studios had stock companies -- players under contract -- it was a double feature with the same actors (including Art Carney, George C. Scott, Eli Wallach, Red Buttons and Trish Van Devere), but in different roles. The movie even had a preview of coming attractions -- a World War I movie ("War at its best!") with all the same actors as the other two movies.

In 1932's "Union Depot" we get to see a good chunk of the Warner stock company from the early 1930s, including Frank McHugh, Guy Kibbee, Alan Hale and David Landau. They all have business of one sort or another within the majestic marble structure where people are coming and going while announcements of train departures bounce off the walls. The movie opens with a tracking/crane shot to show you the whole enchilada:



More than other Hollywood studios, Warner Bros. had a uniquely working-class viewpoint, and in this movie it's expressed by the fact that the station is teeming with immigrants, from Eastern Europeans -- as seen above -- to Asians:



Our hero is Chic (pronounced "chick," not "cheek"), played by Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. He and his sidekick, Scratch (Kibbee), have just been released from the local hoosegow on a vagrancy charge, and they're looking to raise a few bucks. Chic gets lucky when he "inherits" a suit from a drunken traveler (McHugh, doing one of his specialties) with money in the pocket. He buys himself dinner, and then he sees a forlorn-looking Ruth (Joan Blondell) on a bench. She's a chorus girl who broke her ankle; now she's recovered, but the show has moved on without her, and she needs money to catch a train to Salt Lake City, where she can get her job back. At the same time, Scratch has come across a claim check. Chic redeems it, and gets a violin case -- filled with money!

Meanwhile, the guy who belongs to the case (Hale) is trying to get it back, and he'll get tough if he has to, see? And Ruth is trying to escape the clutches of a creepy old guy (see creep at right) who developed the hots for her during her recovery. And the money turns out to be counterfeit, and Chic is arrested by the feds, leading to a pretty cool chase through the train yards as he tries to capture the real bad guy, Hale:



And one thing's for sure -- if you didn't like the Warner regulars in these roles, you'd be seeing them in something different within a few weeks. In 1932 McHugh appeared in eight films -- he played a mechanic in "The Crowd Roars," a frantic new father in "Life Begins" and a wisecracking reporter in "Blessed Event," among others. Kibbee was just as busy, going from a drunk hobo here to a corrupt cop in "Big City Blues" to a bartender in "The Mouthpiece" to James Cagney's father in "The Crowd Roars."

Here are the full credits for "Union Depot."

Friday, September 21, 2012

"Flying Down to Rio" and the Power of Intimate Dance

Fred Astaire made his film debut in 1933's "Dancing Lady" as a dancer named, um, Fred Astaire. Preceding that film there had been a screen test where the evaluator wrote these infamous words: "Can't act. Slightly bald. Can dance a little."

In his second film, 1933's "Flying Down to Rio," Astaire has worked his way up to a fictional last name -- he's Fred Ayres, musician and best friend to dashing bandleader Roger Bond (Gene Raymond). The dominant storyline of the movie is a romance between Roger and the fair Belinha (Dolores Del Rio), even though she has been promised in wedlock to Roger's best friend (Raul Roulien).

But in film and dance history, of course, the importance of "Flying Down to Rio" has very little to do with that plot -- it has to do with the pairing of Astaire and Ginger Rogers as a sensual, elegant, in-sync dance team.

By the time she appeared in "Flying Down to Rio," Rogers had already appeared in two huge musical hits for Warner Bros. -- "42nd Street" and "Gold Diggers of 1933" -- that contained elaborate production numbers choreographed by Busby Berkeley. But she really hadn't been a featured dancer in either film -- in fact, in "42nd Street" her character is chosen to replace the tempramental star (Bebe Daniels), but Rogers steps aside to give the role to the endearing, leadfooted Ruby Keeler in a star-making turn.

So even though Rogers was the better known of the Astaire-Rogers pair, she really hadn't had a chance to show her dancing chops onscreen.

Here Rogers is the band's singer, Honey Hale, and she and Astaire aren't romantic partners, at least not overtly -- they just like to dance together, and "The Carioca" is the first opportunity they get to strut their stuff:



And in one other scene, Astaire does some freestyle stuff, and the actors look like they actually are enjoying it, not just pretending:



Astaire comes to this movie fully formed -- of course, he had been a star on Broadway, so his dancing style was established. And his distinctive style of dress is already evident -- button-down collar, tie tucked into his pants, contrasting belt, two-toned shoes to make sure we're looking where we're supposed to be looking.

The finale of the film is the fabled "girls on biplanes" number, and even though it's clearly shot in the studio, it still has the ability to make your palms clammy:

   

The big finish is a nod to the tremendously successful Warner musicals, but what makes "Flying Down to Rio" unique is that it -- and other Astaire-Rogers musicals -- is an anti-Warner's musical. The power comes not from spectacle but from a couple, dancing with and playing off of each other. That's what makes their performances together timeless.

Here are the full film credits, and here's the trailer:

Monday, September 17, 2012

"Baby Face," or The Pubic Enemy

Saint Louis woman with her diamond rings 
Pulls that man around by her apron strings.
'Twant for powder and for store-bought hair, 
The man I love would not gone nowhere, nowhere.
The 1933 film "Baby Face" opens to the strains of "St. Louis Blues," and the song keeps popping up on the soundtrack as it chronicles the rise of Lily Powers (Barbara Stanwyck), who leaves a squalid Pennsylvania steel town and uses her womanly charms to seduce and abandon a series of men at the giant bank where she works, moving up the executive ladder with each conquest.

Lily Powers uses sex like Tom Powers (James Cagney) uses violence in "The Public Enemy," and "St. Louis Blues" follows her around the way "I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles" follows Cagney in that film, from his days as the neighborhood bully to his rise as a gangster, until he ends up perched in the family doorway at the end of the movie, murdered by a rival gang and trussed up like a badly-wrapped mummy.

We first see Lily in her hometown, working for her father (Robert Barrat), who runs a speakeasy for the steel workers:



Her father isn't above selling his daughter in exchange for "protection" from the local hoods, but fortunately he meets a suitable end when he's killed in a still explosion. After his funeral, Lily visits one of her few friends, Cragg (Alphonse Ethier), who introduces her to Nietzsche and has a few words of wisdom for her:



Lily decides to follow Cragg's advice to use men to get da tings you vant, and she and her friend Chico (Theresa Harris) hop a freight out of town: 




By the way, the brakeman Lily seduces in that scene is James Murray, the star of King Vidor's legendary "The Crowd." He was playing bit roles at this point in his career, including a role as a blind World War I veteran in "Heroes for Sale."

In New York City, Lily gets a job at the bank, where she has the darndest way of moving up, even though it means she spurns suitors like a young John Wayne:



Lily keeps taking care of business, if you know what I mean and I think you do, until a relationship with one executive (Donald Woods, who played Cagney's brother in "The Public Enemy") ends in a murder-suicide.  To avoid scandal, and to prevent Lily from selling her story to the newspapers, she is transferred by the new bank president (George Brent) to the Paris office. And darned if he doesn't end up in Paris a few months later to visit the bank, and a romance develops. What Lily sees as just another business transaction turns into much more because of that old debbil, love. But her feelings are put to the test when her wealthy man gets into a legal scrape and suddenly needs her financial help. Will she let loose of her ill-gotten gains, or will she look for another ladder to climb?

"Baby Face" is arguably the ultimate pre-code movie. It has everything -- prostitution, infidelity, spicy dialogue and punchy performances. And if you don't agree, then you tell Stanwyck. I'm scared of her.

Here's the full cast listing from "Baby Face," and a preview: 





Saturday, September 15, 2012

"The Mask of Fu Manchu," or Khan You Dig It?

The 1932 film "The Mask of Fu Manchu" begins in London, where Smith of the Secret Service (Lewis Stone) calls in explorer Sir Lionel Barton (Lawrence Grant).

Smith: The British government is asking you to risk your life again.
Barton: Oh, very well.
Barton's mission: To lead an expedition to China to find Genghis Khan's tomb and bring the artifacts back to England. What, you think they'd leave them with the "savages"? Preposterous!

Barton goes to the British Museum to get his team together, but on his way out he's taken hostage by bad guys dressed as mummies, except that they have pleated pants. And before you can say "yellow peril," Sir Lionel is face-to-face with the evil Fu Manchu (Boris Karloff).

Barton: You're Fu Manchu, arent you?

Fu Manchu: I am a doctor of philosophy from Edinburgh. I am a doctor of law from Christ College. I am a doctor of medicine from Harvard. My friends, out of courtesy, call me doctor.

Barton: All right, "doctor."

"The Mask of Fu Manchu" -- the film as well as the character created by Sax Rohmer -- is built on a foundation of pro-colonial sentiment (this is 1932, after all). But beyond that, the movie has classic cliffhanger action (if the people behind "Raiders of the Lost Ark" didn't see this movie, I'll eat my shoe), steamy torture scenes and Myrna Loy in one of her last faux-Asian roles as Fu's daughter. The idea is that Fu Manchu wants the scimitar and death mask of Khan so that he can proclaim himself the warrior's reincarnation.

Like Loy, Karloff is done up in heavy-duty makeup and costuming. Here's the first glance we get of him:



Meanwhile, the British team has come to China looking for Barton, including Barton's daughter (Karen Morley), her fiancee Terry (Charles Starrett) and a professor played by Jean Hersholt. The team finds the tomb:



Then Terry visits Fu Manchu in an effort to obtain Barton's release, but all he gets is goo-goo eyes from Fu Manchu's daughter. Soon he is held hostage, too, and injected with a special brainwashing serum while daughter smokes some opium and looks on longingly:


Fu Manchu then captures everyone else, and gets a chance to use all of his cool torture devices:



In the best tradition of movie villains, Fu Manchu's lair is ultramodern and fully staffed -- hey, those hydraulically-operated spiked walls aren't going to oil themselves!

As was the case in "Thirteen Women," Loy's character is much more interesting than the other woman in the film, the explorer's daughter played by Morley. And, as in most of his films, Karloff's character exists to be killed. Or IS he?!? And by the way, for a guy who specialized in monstrous types, Karloff had a very endearing lisp.

Here are full cast and credits for "The Mask of Fu Manchu," and a little about the character's history in books and other media.



Saturday, September 8, 2012

Un-Awkward Early Talkie Theatre: "Flight"

In his 1929 film "Flight," Frank Capra demonstrates a skill that would take other directors a few more years to accomplish -- he makes an early talkie movie filled with action.

Outside.

While keeping the sound quality high and the performances natural.

To understand how different "Flight" is from its contemporaries, consider the entries in our "Awkward Early Talkie Theatre" category -- stagy, immobile, filled with overacting and arched reading of dialogue.

"Flight," by contrast, boasts an easy assurance and striking locations, most notably a naval base at San Diego that poses as Pensacola.

This was the second of three films that Capra would direct with Jack Holt and Ralph Graves -- the first was 1928's "Submarine" and the last would be 1931's "Dirigible." These movies were the "Top Gun" of their day, filled with the latest in military equipment and technology.

Beyond the flashiness, though, the movies worked because of the rapport between Holt and Graves -- a macho camaraderie that also included moments of startling vulnerability.

In "Flight," Graves (who is also credited with the story) is Lefty Phelps. In the opening moments of the film, his college football team is playing in the Rose Bowl, giving Capra the chance to include lots of real-life game footage. Lefty isn't a team star, but the coach puts him in for one last crucial play -- one that Lefty screws up by running in the opposite direction and scoring a winning touchdown for the other team.

After the game, as Lefty is hiding out in the men's room, he has a brief tussle with Panama Williams (Holt), a Marine sergeant. He accuses Lefty of intentionally throwing the game. Lefty heatedly denies it. Panama, seeing that Lefty is genuinely hurt and scared, apologizes.

We fast forward a few weeks, and Lefty has joined the Marines -- maybe because of Panama's considerate behavior, or maybe because of the snazzy recruiting poster he saw in the men's room. Anyway, Lefty is trying to keep his identity secret, but when it comes out, he confides again in Panama, and shows him a particularly harsh newspaper article:

           

Certainly Holt and Graves have their moments of roughhousing and swaggering, but their relationship is unexpectedly warm. Capra seems to let them ad lib some of their dialogue, which leads to a "damn" or "hell" getting slipped in now and then.

Despite the help of Panama, Lefty washes out as a Marine pilot. He watches dejectedly as his fellow Marines get their wings:



But Panama has a plan -- he'll keep Lefty around as his mechanic.

Meanwhile, there is some romantic tension in the form of nurse Elinor (Lila Lee). Panama is crazy about her, but she only has eyes for Lefty. Lefty feels the same way, but he keeps Elinor at arm's length out of loyalty to Panama. This leads him to leave camp and get stinking, only to be rescued by Panama:

 

Elinor confesses to Panama that she loves Lefty just as the Marines, who by now are in Nicaragua, have to leave to fight a group of bandits. The pilot Lefty is riding with makes a crash landing, leaving Panama to set out on a dangerous rescue mission.

Certainly "Flight" fits a pattern that action/adventure movies use to this day -- heroes/friends quarrel and then unite against a common enemy at the end. And Lefty gets his confidence back by becoming a hero in dire circumstances. But this is a particularly well-done example -- all the more striking, and un-awkward, considering its age.

Here are complete credits for "Flight."

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

"If I Had a Million," or A Taste of Money

In the 1932 film "If I Had a Million," a cantankerous millionaire (Richard Bennett, the real-life father of actresses Constance and Joan Bennett) decides to stiff his greedy relatives and leave a million dollars to eight people picked at random from the city directory.

It was a big year for "all-star" films. MGM released three -- "Grand Hotel," "Dinner at Eight" and "Night Flight." And Paramount's entry into the sweepstakes included a cast of studio contract players ranging from W.C. Fields to a young Gary Cooper.

The episodes range from comedy to tragedy. There's melodrama in the segment with Gene Raymond as a convict on death row who gets to endorse the check just before he gets the hot seat. There's irony in the segment with George Raft as a check forger who slowly goes crazy because he can't get anyone to believe that his check is legitimate. There's a bit of sadness in the segment with Wynne Gibson as a prostitute who uses her money to finally rent a hotel room and sleep by herself. And there's poignancy in the segment with May Robson, who uses her money to change the bleak old folks' home where she's trapped into an exclusive club for older women.

But for my money, the best segments are the comedies, directed by Ernst Lubitsch and Norman Z. McLeod.

"Plhphluuuuuuuuuuu."
Lubitsch's segment, with Charles Laughton as a clerk who quits his job by giving the big boss a well-earned raspberry, is short and sweet.

Then there's the segment with Charlie Ruggles as the put-upon clerk in a china shop. He's been reluctantly promoted from the accounting department, and he keeps breaking the merchandise, which is subtracted from his salary. At home he is henpecked by wife Mary Boland, at her Mary Boland-iest. This leads to nightmares:

                

Once Ruggles gets his million, he gleefully destroys the store. And the film's other outstanding segment also features generous destruction. W.C. Fields and Alison Skipworth play a couple who use their million to finance a crusade against road hogs (bonus -- lots of cool footage of the Southern California landscape circa 1932):

  

Finally, there's a good look at a young Gary Cooper in the segment where he, Jack Oakie and Roscoe Karns play roughneck Marines who think the check is a joke:

  


Here's a complete cast listing for "If I Had a Million."

Monday, September 3, 2012

The Mae Clarke Film Festival: "The Good Bad Girl" and "The Final Edition"

"Don't tell anyone, but
my real name is Mary Klotz."





Of all the actresses who appeared in 1930s movies, Mae Clarke (1910-1992) was certainly one of them.

She played a variety of roles, including rather wooden reporter, rather wooden gangster's moll, rather wooden movie star, rather wooden bride carried away by Frankenstein and rather wooden prostitute. And she will go down in film history for this scene:



Clarke's kisser was a pretty one, and deserved -- and got -- better than a grapefruit half in most of her movies. She had the good fortune to appear in several true film classics, including "The Public Enemy," "Frankenstein," the first version of "Waterloo Bridge" and the original version of "The Front Page." She was capable of convincing work, but in average movies headed by average directors she tends to deliver her lines as if she was thinking about something else.

In the 1931 film "The Good Bad Girl" she gets to dip her toe into soap opera -- a territory dominated at the time by the likes of Kay Francis and Norma Shearer. She is Marcia, a reluctant gangster's moll. As the movie opens, she is trying to leave the big lug, but as Neil Sedaka so memorably said, breaking up is hard to do. Or, as the gangster (Robert Ellis) says, "There's only one way for either of us -- feet first," which does not have much of a danceable beat. Then the gangster leaves to settle a score with an old rival, which he does in kind of a memorable way:


The gangster wants Marcia to give him a fake alibi, but she refuses. She has fallen in love with another man (James Hall). The gangster is imprisoned and swears vengeance, and Marcia marries the other man even though he doesn't know about her past. When he and his high-society family find out, she is shunned, even though she's with child. Marcia has the baby, and the gangster escapes from prison, intent on tracking down and killing her. He makes it as far as the baby's nursery, where the police shoot him down like a dog. At the same time, rich husband has come to his senses and sets out to reconcile with Marcia.

"The Good Bad Girl" gives Clarke several opportunities to do some heavy-duty emoting, and she is convincing as the young mother set adrift. As Marcia's boozy pal, silent-film beauty Marie Prevost is aces with comedy relief, and things chug along until the inevitable happy ending:


In 1932's "The Final Edition," Clarke is reporter Ann Woodman, and the first part of her last name describes her performance. When she acts sassy or makes with a wisecrack, it's almost as if she doesn't understand it's a joke. Someone like Glenda Farrell would be knocking these lines out of the park, you get me?

Anyway, Ann wants to be a reporter but boyfriend Bradshaw (Pat O'Brien), who's also the city editor, doesn't think she's up to the job. Ann gets her chance when the new police commissioner is murdered and she jumps in to console the man's wife:


She scoops the competition with details about the murder and then she follows the killer to a resort hotel where he's hiding out. The bad guys catch on and she and Bradshaw end up in hot water, at least temporarily:


The newspaper picture was a stock-in-trade at Warner Bros., where O'Brien was under contract, so he fits right in, talking a mile a minute. For instance, try to decipher what he's saying here:


As for Clarke, her career continued into the 1960s, but with smaller and smaller roles. Her other credits include "Singin' in the Rain" (as a hairdresser), "The Catered Affair" (as a saleswoman) and "Pat and Mike" (as a golfer). 

Here are full credits for "The Good Bad Girl" and "The Final Edition." 


Saturday, September 1, 2012

Awkward Early Talkie Theatre: "Seven Keys to Baldpate"

Based on George M. Cohan's 1913 play, which itself was based on a novel by Earl Derr Biggers, the man who also gave us Charlie Chan, the 1929 film version of "Seven Keys to Baldpate" takes place in what one character calls "the loneliest spot on earth -- a summer resort in the winter."

To this spot comes William Halliwell Magee (Richard Dix), a best-selling novelist out to win a bet that only gets betted (?) in movies like this -- a rich friend, the owner of Baldpate, will pay McGee $5,000 if he can write a 10,000-word story in 24 hours. (Kind-of-interesting sidelight -- when Cohan played the role on Broadway and in the 1917 film, his character was named George Washington Magee.)

Magee accepts the bet, and his friend says he hopes the book won't be about the usual stuff Magee writes about -- ghosts, stolen money, shots in the night, falling in love at first sight. At this point, of course, Magee meets Mary (Miriam Seeger):


Like most early talkies, there are awkward moments (See what I did there?) in "Seven Keys to Baldpate." Because most of the film takes place on one set -- the two-level lobby of the resort -- it lends itself to staginess, and most of the cast members perform with exaggerated gestures and hammy line readings (this is the kind of movie where Mary is called "meh-dee") that actors utilized before modern, economic sound film acting was introduced by people like James Cagney and Paul Muni.

And the first third of the film, in particular, is glacially paced -- although considering global warming, maybe that's too much of a compliment. When Magee gets to Baldpate, he has to endure what seems like a half hour of expository dialogue with the caretaker and his wife:


Once Magee starts writing his story, the loneliest place in the world suddenly seems like Grand Central Station. Visitors include the mayor, the president of the local railroad, the president's wife, a couple of guys bribing the mayor for the railroad president, and a hermit named Pete, and Mary.

Dix, a husky fellow who usually played humorless heroic types, does at least get to do some comedy:


Here are the complete credits for "Seven Keys to Baldpate."