Tuesday, October 30, 2012

"The Big House," or Slammer Time










In the 1930 film "The Big House" people are constantly dwarfed by their surroundings. The prison where most of the story takes place is full of high walls and towers but it's also claustrophobic, crammed with sweaty prisoners sleeping three to a cell and filling the courtyard like a swarm of ants.


We first see the prison from the viewpoint of a new prisoner, Kent (Robert Montgomery). The paddy wagon that transports him to the gates is overwhelmed by the structure itself in a striking opening shot:



Once he enters, Kent is systematically reduced from a normal guy to just another convict -- they're givin' him a number and takin' way his name.

Kent is there because he's been found guilty of being a standoffish prig -- oh, and also of killing some guy in a drunken car accident. His cellmates are Butch (Wallace Beery at his Wallace Beery-ist, full of childlike bluster and yet handy with a machine gun) and Morgan (Chester Morris). They urge Kent not to hang out with the prison stool pigeon -- he's the only convict who's wearing a necktie -- but Kent hopes that he can trade inside information for a reduced sentence.

"The Big House" is full of scenes that have become prison movie cliches, showing up in films from "White Heat" to "Birdman of Alcatraz" to "The Shawshank Redemption." One of the best is the mess hall riot, not just because of Beery's violent protest of the dehumanizing effects of prison, but because of the silence -- and the hopeless panorama of convict faces -- leading up to it:



Beery's character is punished for the riot by being sent to "the dungeon," but before he goes he passes his knife to Kent. Then, during a surprise search, Kent slips the knife into Morgan's jacket. As a result, Morgan, a day away from parole, also gets sent to the dungeon. After his 30-day stretch living in darkness and subsisting on food and water, Morgan fakes illness and escapes through the infirmary. While on the outside, he seeks out and falls in love with Kent's sister (Leila Hyams), and she with him. But it isn't long before Morgan is nabbed and sent back to stir.

While Morgan's been out, Butch has been planning a massive escape to take place on Thanksgiving Day, while the place is low on guards. In a witty scene taking place that morning, all the convicts end up at a church service, singing "Open the Gates (of the Temple)." Then as they all kneel in prayer, Berry starts passing guns and bullets down the row to his fellow escapees.

Morgan refuses to be involved in the break, but he won't rat on Butch, either. That task falls to Kent. When the escape turns into a standoff between the convicts and the guards, Butch blames Morgan. But he finally figures out the truth. Meanwhile, Kent seems to be melting into a puddle of sweat:



Kent is killed in the riot, and Morgan is forced to shoot Butch. But Butch forgives him just before he dies. "The Big House" ends with a focus on Morgan, who's given an early release for his role in stopping the escape and saving a guard's life. The "decent" prisoner, Kent, is revealed as a coward and a stool pigeon, and Morgan effectively takes the place of Kent within the family.

"The Big House" won an Oscar for screenwriter Frances Marion, who adapted the script from Lennox Robinson's play. It was smoothly directed by George Hill, Marion's husband at the time. It represented a career-saving role for Beery, who got the role as a result of the death of Lon Chaney, Sr., who passed away after making only one talkie, "The Unholy Three."  

Here are the complete credits.




Saturday, October 27, 2012

Warren William Douchebag Theatre: "The Match King" and "Skyscraper Souls"

In the 1932 film "The Match King," Warren William has a clandestine meeting with his lover, played by Glenda Farrell. Object: money transfer.



The evidence is right before your eyes, ladies and gentlemen -- even Glenda Farrell, the woman who played hard-boiled dames in dozens of Warner Bros. movies, falls under the spell of Warren William when he is in full douchebag mode!













"Hey, good looking," he said
to the mirror
Little wonder, then, that for the first half of the 1930s, Warren William was your go-to guy for douchebags, whether they were shyster attorneys ("The Mouthpiece"), bogus doctors ("Bedside"), phony mentalists ("The Mind Reader"), lascivious bosses ("Employees' Entrance") or crafty campaign managers ("The Dark Horse").  

In "The Match King," William's character is based on a real-life douchebag -- Ivar Kreuger, a swindler who built a financial empire on matchsticks before committing suicide. Kreuger's initial construction business was called Kreuger and Toll, and the scriptwriters combine those names to give us William's character, Paul Kroll.

Kroll is a small-time chiseler who's working as a street sweeper in Chicago when his relatives in Sweden ask him to visit. He's bragged to them about his non-existent wealth and success and they want him to help save the family match company. Kroll's advice is to be aggressive -- to start buying up rival match companies and create a monopoly.

Only one family member is aware of Kroll's real background -- his cousin Erik (Hardie Albright). But Kroll convinces him of his plan by delivering what would become a staple in these movies -- the speech letting us know that William's character may be a douchebag, but he is a visionary douchebag:



Through his wheeling and dealing, Kroll ends up controlling a match monopoly that is practically worldwide, but you can't make an omelet without breaking some eggs. He cheats investors and builds an empire on debt. And when an eccentric chemist invents a non-disposable match that lights repeatedly, Kroll has the man committed. On the other hand, to show us that the guy does have a heart, he woos and loses a fickle actress (Lili Damita).

Then comes the stock market crash of 1929, and to keep the empire afloat Kroll buys counterfeit bonds from a forger (Harold Huber). Then Kroll offers to give the forger a lift in his boat:



In Paris, Kroll realizes that the jig, she is up. The bonds are discovered to be fake, and he is confronted by his investors. He steps onto a balcony, where all his misdeeds conveniently rattle through his head:



In "Skyscraper Souls," made the same year, William is financier David Dwight, who has just built an edifice even taller than the Empire State Building. But, like Kroll, he has built his empire on debt. And his misdeeds aren't all financial -- he's creeping a young secretary (Maureen O'Sullivan) while his loyal woman Friday (Verree Teasdale) is waiting for him to get a divorce from his absentee wife (Hedda Hopper in her pre-gossip columnist days). But Dwight doesn't want to divorce his wife -- it's easier to keep giving her checks and staying "free" to wander.

There are also a lot of subplots in "Skyscraper Souls," including a love story between a tender-hearted jeweler (Jean Hersholt) and a prostitute (Anita Page) and a love story between O'Sullivan and Norman Foster as a bank teller. And Dwight's scheme with another investor to take control of the building by running up the bank stock and then selling it short affects almost all the cast, including Gregory Ratoff as a dress merchant and Wallace Ford as a radio announcer.

But "Skyscraper Souls" revolves around Dwight, and here's the obligatory douchebag-with-vision speech:



Funny how that speech also applies to today's friction between the 1% and everyone else, isn't it?

The douchebag's comeuppance in this case comes when he is ready to skip the country with O'Sullivan in tow. Teasdale, as his longtime companion, has taken O'Sullivan under her wing and she won't stand for it because she doesn't want Dwight to ruin someone else's life:



By wiping her prints from the pistol, William's character demonstrates his good side once again. But there is more tragedy ahead:


With the advent of the production code in 1935, William started being cast as good guys, often detectives. He played Perry Mason in several films and played the Lone Wolf, aka Michael Lanyard, in a series of films into the 1940s. So William left his douchebag days behind. But they were fun while they lasted.

Here are the credits for "Skyscraper Souls." And here are the full credits for "The Match King," and a preview:



  






Monday, October 22, 2012

"Danger Lights," or Honey Choo Choo

Plotwise, the 1930 film "Danger Lights" is "The Broadway Melody" with locomotives -- a love triangle involving two people who hate to hurt the odd one out. But it also offers interesting location footage of trains and train yards, a glimpse of Jean Arthur early in her sound career, and one of the few talkie film performances of Louis Wolfheim, who died in 1931 of stomach cancer.





Off camera, Wolfheim had a reputation as a cultivated man -- he attended Cornell University and spoke several languages -- but his stocky, plug-ugly appearance meant a career in tough character roles, including a memorable turn as Stanislaus "Kat" Katczinsky in "All Quiet on the Western Front," made just before this film. Wolfheim's profile wasn't exactly Barrymore-ish -- it looks like two upside-down 7s on top of each other.

Here, Wolfheim is Dan Thorn, a hard-driving railroad yardmaster whose bark is worse than his bite. We know this because that's what everyone is always telling us, and because Dan has opened his home to his disabled railroad buddy Ryan (Frank Sheridan) and daughter Mary (Arthur). Mary is preparing to marry Dan out of obligation, but that changes when Doyle (Robert Armstrong) hits town. He's a tramp who's hitched a ride on a freight, but when Dan finds out he's a former engineer he gives the guy a job. And when Doyle gets a gander at Mary, he makes up his mind to stay:


Oblivious to the attraction between Doyle and Mary, Dan keeps pushing them to spend time together because he's working on the railroad all the livelong day. And when they're walking home across a railroad trestle, Doyle and Mary act on their attraction:


By the time Dan finally finds out what's going on, the couple has made plans to leave town together. But a hitch develops while they're cutting across the rail yard:



Dan is badly injured, because the train in rain hits mainly on the brain.

The only hope is to get him to a Chicago brain specialist within five hours, but the fastest train on record can make it only in seven. A guilt-stricken Doyle takes the throttle, and Dan makes it to the Windy City in record time. To make everything hunky-dory, Dan realizes that he really loves the railroad, not Mary, and he gives the couple his blessing.

Much of "Danger Lights" was filmed in Montana, at the Miles City yards, and director George B. Seitz fills the movie with lots of hard-charging railroad action! Wolheim is a winning presence as Dan, but occasionally he garbles his lines (at one point he says to someone, "How'd you like to have a new man for your suttapacka job?"). And it's always interesting to see Arthur; here she is just starting to demonstrate her familiar screen mannerisms.

Here is a full cast and credits list for "Danger Lights" -- pay no attention to TCM's plot description.



Saturday, October 20, 2012

"Street Scene," or Slum Like It Hot









The 1931 film "Street Scene" opens with Alfred Newman's theme music -- music that is so evocative of a city that it was being used as "New York Music" in 20th Century-Fox films twenty years later. And unlike many film scores of the time, it has a sophisticated orchestration -- you hear it and you expect to see a movie from the 1940s instead of one from the early 1930s:



The Hell's Kitchen apartment building at the center of "Street Scene" would today be filled with condominiums selling for hundreds of thousands of dollars. But in 1931 it contains the most diverse group of tenants this side of Ellis Island -- the Kaplans, the Maurrants, the Joneses, the Fiorentinos and the Olsens, to name a few. Within the space of 24 hours, on a hot summer day, they gather on the front stoop to gossip, fight, argue and witness a double murder.

Setting the story on a broiling summer day is a great way to get everyone outside and introduced -- the Maurrants include mother Anna (Estelle Taylor), crabby father Frank (David Landau) and daughter Rose (Sylvia Sidney). Then there are the Joneses, the most vocal member of which is mother Emma (Beulah Bondi), a buttinski, a gossip and a know-nothing with views on poverty and evolution that would place her comfortably within the ranks of today's Republican party. Her son Vincent is an angry ignoramus and her daughter is a floozy. The Kaplans include radical father Abe, schoolteacher daughter Shirley and sensitive Sam (William Collier, Jr.), who's always reading a book and who is sweet on Rose. The Olsens are a Swedish couple with a new baby and the Fiorentinos include an Italian husband and his German wife.

The daily routine -- life as it plays out on the stoop -- revolves around incessant talk about the weather and gossip about the neighbors -- particularly Anna Maurrant, who's having an affair with the guy who collects for the milk each week. Meanwhile, Rose is being pressured into a sexual relationship by her piggish boss, while Sam Kaplan has a hard time working up enough nerve to tell Rose how he feels -- or to counteract the constant catcalls of "Kike" from the bullying Vincent Jones.

King Vidor directed "Street Scene," and in a way the film is an extension of his towering 1928 film "The Crowd." "Street Scene" is also about urban alienation -- in this case, an alienation that the characters experience even as they live cheek to jowl in a crowded apartment building. 

After the characters are introduced, we move to the next morning. Sam sits on the front stoop reading a book. There's a music lesson being conducted in one of the apartments. Two marshals are there to evict one of the residents. Mr. Maurrant has just left to go out of the town, and Mrs. Maurrant has just pulled down the shades to entertain her gentleman friend. Here's the beautifully paced scene:



Rose has been at her boss's funeral, and when she gets back to the block she knows something's wrong. Within a few hours her mother has become today's tabloid headline:



Then it's time for Rose to say goodbye -- Sam wants to come with her, but he isn't mature enough yet, and she knows that:



"Street Scene" is based upon Elmer Rice's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, and he also wrote the screenplay. The film's heightened realism doesn't seem quite as daring or as incendiary as it probably was in 1931. But the proof is in the pudding -- you've seen a lot of movies and TV shows like "Street Scene" since 1931.

Here are the complete credits.


Thursday, October 18, 2012

The David Manners Film Festival: "The Ruling Voice" and "Crooner"

"You can call me Kit, or
you can call me Franklin,
or you can call me Franklyn,
or you can call me Austin ..."
Of all the actors who appeared in 1930s movies, David Manners (1900-98) was certainly one of them.

Today he is best known for playing the straight man in monster movies like "Dracula," "The Mummy" and "The Black Cat." He was discovered by James Whale, who cast Manners in the gritty 1930 film "Journey's End," a World War I drama based on the stage production that Whale directed.

Most of the time, however, Manners played people with good manners -- upper class boyfriends and fiancees with names like Kit, Franklin, Franklyn, Austin and Eden.










The 1931 film "The Ruling Voice" is a good example -- Manners plays Dick Cheney (!), an aristocratic young man who's in love with Gloria Bannister (Loretta Young). Gloria and Dick have fallen in love in Europe and are now heading home to meet Gloria's father, Jack (Walter Huston). Gloria doesn't know it, but dad is a ruthless racketeer, and in his obsessive collection of protection money he will stop at nothing -- he even knocks really cool toy trucks off of miniature highway bridges right into the path of model trains!



Truthfully, Manners doesn't have much to do in "The Ruling Voice" -- the real love story is between father and daughter. Jack is honest with Gloria about what he does for a living and she doesn't want anything to do with him, leading him to give up his shady dealings and sacrifice himself. So Huston and Young get tense, emotional scenes while Manners spends his time at the shuffleboard court in scenes like this:



In 1932's "Crooner," Manners gets a lot more to do and does it pretty well, showing a flair for light comedy. At a time when velvet-voiced groaners like Bing Crosby, Russ Columbo and Rudy Vallee were topping the charts, Manners plays bandleader Teddy Taylor. He and his musical aggravation -- excuse me, aggregation -- aren't going anywhere until Teddy starts singing and Guy Kibbee, as a guy in the crowd, hands him a megaphone:



Teddy soon becomes as well known as Chipso soap flakes (hey, this is 1932), aided by fast-talking agent Ken Murray and loving girlfriend Ann Dvorak (in a sedate performance that's a far cry from her craziness in "Three on a Match," made the same year). "Crooner" has a great deal of fun lampooning all the hype surrounding these early media-created superstars, and making it clear that most of them, Taylor included, have very little talent. That doesn't, however, keep Teddy from getting a swelled head:



Fame makes Teddy even more insufferable -- he adopts a phony British accent, starts hobnobbing with millionaires and, worst of all, ignores Guy Kibbee when he returns to remind Teddy about giving him his first megaphone! Finally, one evening he takes the stage after a few drinks:



Teddy commits PR Hara-Kari by hitting a handicapped veteran, and his career goes down the tubes, leading him back to Dvorak and a happy ending.

In real life, Manners tired of being stereotyped and left Hollywood in 1936. In later years he did some stage work (including a play with a young Marlon Brando) and wrote several books.

Here are the complete credits for "The Ruling Voice" and a trailer:




Here are the complete credits for "Crooner" and a trailer:   




Monday, October 15, 2012

"A Free Soul," or Shearer Madness

The headline refers to previous Shearer pictures
 "The Divorcee" and "Strangers May Kiss"
The climax of the 1931 film "A Free Soul" is a fourteen-minute continuous take -- a courtroom scene where Lionel Barrymore, as alcoholic attorney Stephen Ashe, back from a months-long bender, uses his last breath to argue that his daughter's fiance, accused of murder, committed the act while temporarily insane and should therefore be found not guilty. Barrymore won the Oscar largely as a result of this scene, but what makes "A Free Soul" even more interesting is the contrast in acting between the stage-trained style of Barrymore and the more natural, earthy style of a young Clark Gable.

"A Free Soul" is based on a 1927 novel by journalist-screenwriter Adela Rogers St. Johns, whose father, Earl Rogers, was a well-known defense attorney in Los Angeles. The heart of the story lies in the bond between Stephen Ashe and daughter Jan (Norma Shearer). Both are proudly independent spirits -- Stephen, despite his success as an attorney, is the shame of his well-to-do family because of his seedy clientele and his drinking; Jan is a romantic, strong-willed free spirit who keeps refusing to marry polo star Dwight Winthrop (Leslie Howard), who's been chasing her for years.

When Jan accompanies her father to court, she meets his latest defendant -- it's Gable as gambler Ace Wilfong -- capital W, small i, small l, small f, small o, small n, small g. (Apologies to W.C. Fields.) Anyway, Jan is struck with the big hunk of bacon, and he with her:



Ace is accused of murder, and in court, Stephen has him try on a hat found at the murder scene with the initials A.W. inside. It sits atop his head like a cherry on a sundae, and since it doesn't fit, they must acquit.

That night, Stephen celebrates by tying one on with Ace, and the two men visit the Ashe ancestral home, where everyone but Jan gives them the cold shoulder.


So Jan and Ace go for a drive:



(The lesson here is that there is no movie scene that cannot be improved by the addition of Ruh-ruh-ruh-Roscoe Ates.)

Jan and Ace begin an affair that's little more than an addictive thrill for her, but that is downright serious to him -- so serious that he asks Stephen an important question:



That scene vividly illustrates the difference in movie acting styles between the two men -- Barrymore chews the scenery, but Gable doesn't have to. He just sits back, exuding power and sexuality while barely moving a muscle.

Desperate to help her father kick the bottle, Jan promises never to see Ace again if dad will get on the wagon. It works for a few months. Then dad's off the wagon again and Jan's on Ace. But this time Ace is determined to marry Jan, and gets nasty about it. After she receives a threatening drunken visit from Ace, Dwight pays him a visit:



This leads us to the big showdown in the courtroom, where Stephen has recovered, just barely, from months of drunkenness. He tries to exonerate Dwight while once and for all publicly incriminating himself:


An unfortunate closeup.

The bond between father and daughter, and the easy banter between Shearer and Barrymore, is what makes "A Free Soul" believable despite lapses into overacting (see right). This is Shearer before she became the dowager Queen of MGM in the later 1930s, giving nobler-than-noble performances in "Marie Antoinette" and "The Women." Here she's still a little sexpot, reminding us that she did, after all, pose nude when she was a Ziegfeld showgirl. Barrymore's performance is bombastic, but shaded with affection for his daughter, and in the scene where he and Shearer swear off their respective addictions you can see that tenderness as well as the fear in their eyes:



Here are the complete credits for "A Free Soul."


Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Salute Your Shorts: Popeye in "A Dream Walking" (1934)


The Popeye cartoons that Dave Fleischer did at Paramount in the 1930s are unusually dense -- the backgrounds teem with detail and Popeye mutters about three times as much dialogue as he seems to be speaking. This cartoon is especially memorable to me -- maybe because of the storyline or maybe because my local TV station showed it about seven thousand times in the early 1960s.

Monday, October 8, 2012

"Three on a Match," or Ladies and the Tramp

The 1932 film "Three on a Match" traces the lives of three women friends from their school days to adulthood. It also offers an interesting look at three actresses on different career trajectories, with the one in the least showy role going on to become the queen of the Warner Bros. lot into the early 1950s. 

The story is by Kubec Glasmon and John Bright, the same duo who gave us "The Public Enemy," and the movie begins in the same territory -- a working-class urban neighborhood right around the end of World War I. This time around, however, the plot centers on three girls -- Mary, Vivian and Ruth. Ruth is the goody-goody kid, Vivian hangs upside down on the swings to let the boys see her bloomers, and Mary is voted most likely to be out back smoking with the boys.

Fast forward thirteen years, and the girls have grown up -- Mary into Joan Blondell, Ruth into Bette Davis and Vivian into Ann Dvorak. Ruth is a responsible office worker, Mary has gone from a stint in reform school to a life as a good-hearted showgirl and Vivian is married to wealthy attorney Robert (Warren William). Ironically, even though she has the most to be thankful for, including a young son, Vivian is the least content:



What Vivian is looking for is a little hotcha, and she gets it in the form of Lyle Talbot as Michael, a smooth gigolo-hood. They meet on a cruise ship, introduced by Mary -- Michael is there seeing off some friends and Vivian is going to Europe with Junior. At least that's her plan until Michael sweeps her off her feet:



The trunk belongs to Vivian. She's getting off in more ways than one.

And before you can say "sexually transmitted disease," she and Michael are shacking up, with neglected Junior along for the ride, a towhead in tow. Robert is going crazy trying to track them down, and with Mary's help, Junior and father are reunited. Vivian, on the other hand, is sliding steadily downhill, hanging out with Michael's hood friends (including Humphrey Bogart and Jack LaRue) and developing a taste for nose candy. (In one great moment Bogart wipes his nose dismissively as he refers to her.)

Meanwhile, Mary and Robert are getting cozy, and Ruth has become Junior's nanny. Mary and Robert marry as soon as his divorce from Vivian is final. Vivian and Michael have fallen on hard times, and Michael hatches a plan -- they'll kidnap Junior for ransom from Robert. Vivian is a reluctant accomplice, and when the heat is on, the hoods -- including Bogart, La Rue and Allen Jenkins -- make plans to kill the boy. Dvorak learns of this and in a scene that's still compelling after 80 years, she takes matters into her own hands:



There's a kind of perverse melodramatic beauty in those last scenes, from the jump to Junior's painfully lame acting to the casual tossing of the match. Tramp's dead and all's well!

Davis's performance -- and her character -- are pretty colorless. She was still a couple of years away from her breakthrough role in "Of Human Bondage." Blondell is pretty much playing the same good-hearted dame she would play through the 1960s and as late as 1978, in "Grease." Dvorak has the showiest role here, but that wouldn't last long, thanks to her battles with Warner Bros., her desire for independence and her subsequent move to England.

Here are the full credits for "Three on a Match," and the preview trailer:



    









Wednesday, October 3, 2012

My Old Movie Manifesto, or It Happened One Night (at My Uncle's House While I Was Watching Old Gangster Movies)

Now that I have written more than 50 posts, this seems like a good time to stop and explain why I love movies -- especially older movies, and particularly those from the 1929-35 era. And since this is a blog where one picture (or one movie scene) speaks more than a thousand words, here's my lede:





This is what is known as "adding
visual interest," and it is also
James Cagney.
That is a scene from the 1931 film "Blonde Crazy," with James Cagney and Joan Blondell, and it contains everything I love about old movies, particularly the ones made before the 1934 production code. It's racy, it's funny, it's cynical and it's just one scene out of one movie in a year when studios cranked them out at a furious pace, at practically dozens a week. Even though there were nominal limits in place, pre-code movies reflected depression life in a particularly vivid way. They contained rough edges, adult desires and plot shadings that were later sanded down, cleaned up and bleached out by the Hollywood studio system.

Carole Lombard, holla.
The early 1930s was a time of larger-than-life movie heroes and anti-heroes like Cagney, Spencer Tracy, Edward G. Robinson, Paul Muni, Dick Powell, Robert Montgomery and Clark Gable. It was also a time of movie beauties both ethereal and down to earth, from Greta Garbo to Carole Lombard, from Marlene Dietrich to Joan Blondell.

And we cannot forget the character actors and the comics -- Aline MacMahon, Frank McHugh, Frank Morgan, the Marx Brothers, Wheeler and Woolsey, Boris Karloff and Laurel and Hardy, to name a few.

Maybe they weren't more magnetic than today's stars, but they sure as heck were more visible -- movies were the television of the early 1930s, and folks went to the show, as it was often called, at least once a week, so films were cranked out like Model Ts. (It helped that the studios owned the theatres.) And for at least the first half of the decade, these movies were edgier, sassier and more topical than they would be by the end. I personally think that, even though we came close, there are two major reasons why the United States didn't become a fascist state during the Great Depression -- Hollywood movies and Franklin D. Roosevelt. (I sound like Jack Warner, who was a big FDR booster.)

Anyway, watching these movies to me is like re-reading a favorite book, or, um, re-watching a favorite movie. I marvel all over again at the raw storytelling power of "I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang," or the wit of the Marx Brothers. I love watching and listening to James Cagney, with his rat-a-tat style of speaking and his exuberant-yet-contained physical presence, and Barbara Stanwyck's pugnacious performances. And to me "It Happened One Night" is one of the best pure romantic comedies ever -- and, judging by the romantic comedies we see today, contemporary Hollywood agrees, because they keep remaking it. It's also fascinating to me to watch as the industry emerges from the silent era and starts learning how to make talking movies. And it's interesting to see tropes in the making that are commonly accepted assumptions in today's films.

I also love older movies because they are free of the hype or the fashion of the moment. The years have either added or subtracted from their reputation. The older I get, the more I believe in perspective, and I think that in many cases it takes years or even decades to see a movie for what it really is -- and as I grow older, I see these movies through a different lens.   

I'm not a believer that older automatically equals better, but when I watch older movies I'm more likely to forgive clumsy performances or technical snafus and marvel over the ones that still resonate and entertain, sometimes even despite those limitations. Some might argue that it's because these older movies echo my older, clumsier self. Maybe. But I also felt that way when I was 12, and first started developing an appreciation for old movies by seeing Warner Bros. gangster movies on TV at my uncle's house. (My mom wouldn't even let us watch "Dragnet.")

In this blog, my intent is to watch and share old movies, so that if you don't have the time or inclination to watch them yourself, you can catch a condensed (and biased) review here. For 15 years I made a living as a movie critic for a daily newspaper, but I rarely got to write about the old movies that I particularly love. Now I can. And I'm glad to have you along for the ride.
      
 

Monday, October 1, 2012

Awkward Early Talkie Theatre: "The Broadway Melody"

Star-struck sisters coming to New York, struggling songwriter, backstage drama, misguided love -- it's all there, and more, in the 1929 film "The Broadway Melody." It's like a cliche incubator. It also has those awkward little touches we love in early talkies -- hammy acting, stilted silences and a musical soundtrack that makes it sound like the orchestra's in the bathroom.

To the concrete canyons of Broadway, where there's a broken light for every heart, or something like that, come the something-something sisters, Queenie (Anita Page) and Hank (Bessie Love). Queenie is blonde and stauesque, if you know what I mean and I think you do, and Hank is a little pepperpot of personality. ("I'm gonna lay that dame like a roll of linoleum," she says of a rival at one point.)

Hank's boyfriend Eddie (Charles King) has just joined the Zanfield Follies, and he's promised Hank that she and Queenie can join the show. We first meet Eddie at the Ye Olde Gleason Music Publishing Company, overseen by character actor James Gleason, who also co-wrote the dialogue. Eddie has just put the finishing touches on the movie's title song: 



Eddie and the girls are reunited, and since he hasn't seen Queenie since she was a little princess, he's surprised, to put it mildly, that she's grown so tall -- and stuff.

Meanwhile, there is backstage drama aplenty. Queenie and Hank get jobs in the chorus, and Queenie ends up as the main visual attraction, if you know what I mean and I think you do, in a big production number. There she attracts the attention of oily rich guy Jacques (Kenneth Thomson), who, in a bid at regular-guy status, signs his calling card "Jock." Queenie is attracted to Eddie, but out of loyalty to her sister she starts hanging with Jock.

Time out for some backstage banter:

Gay designer on his outlandish costumes: I design the costumes for the show, not the doors to the theatre.

Chorus girl: I know that -- if you had, they'd be painted in lavender.

Then it's time for the big-time production of "Broadway Melody":



Hank is mystified by Queenie's behavior. Eddie, mixing his metaphors, says, "I guess the bright lights just got under her skin." Then Queenie and Eddie have an awkward scene all their own:


There's a lot to like in "Broadway Melody," and if you don't like you can pass the time by counting how many times Queenie and Hank undress and slip into skimpy costumes and/or underwear. We also see them performing their vaudeville act, "Two Harmony Babies From Melody Lane," which includes the line "We can do more with a vo-de-oh-doh/Than Mr. Rockefeller can do with his dough."

When it's all said and done, Hank realizes that Queenie loves Eddie, and she steps out of the picture. At the movie's end, she's ready to go on a vaudeville tour with a new partner, and with the advice of her stuttering agent (Jed Prouty):             


Here are the complete credits, if you know what I mean, and I think you do.