Friday, November 30, 2012

"From Headquarters" and Even More Warner Regulars

Like "Life Begins" and "Union Depot," the 1933 film "From Headquarters" is another slice-of-life panorama brought to you by Warner Bros. and filled with studio contract players.

The nominal hero of the movie is Warner stalwart George Brent, as a detective investigating the murder of a wealthy, decadent ne'er do well. The suspects include his old flame (Margaret Lindsay). But the real meat of the story lies in all the goings-on at a big city police station. The movie opens with a paddy wagon bringing in some "small fish," including one joker who, in a nicely played little seriocomic moment, ends up realizing that the joke's on him:


The contract players in "From Headquarters" include Hugh "Woo Woo" Herbert as a bail bondsman, Henry O'Neill as a chief inspector, Ken Murray as a wisecracking reporter and Eugene Pallette as a gravel-voiced (What else?) detective.

Then there is Edward Ellis as the murder-loving head of the crime lab. He demonstrates the scientific methods used to catch the culprit and has a few unorthodox moves of his own:




The bad guy is played by one of my favorite Warner contractees, Robert Barrat.

The versatile Barrat was all over the Warner lot in the early 1930s -- within a span of just a few months he played a gruff Communist-turned-capitalist in "Heroes for Sale," Barbara Stanwyck's drunk father in "Baby Face," Jimmy Cagney's editor in "Picture Snatcher" and patrician murder victim Archer Coe in "The Kennel Murder Case."

The only person who can place Barrat at the murder scene is a snitch played by Hobart Cavanaugh, and Barrat takes care of him in a broom closet: 


Wait a minute -- "those fingerprints look familiar"? And they are so familiar that I can reach into this file of thousands of fingerprints and instantly pick who they belong to? Really, "From Headquarters"?

Anyway, Barrat tries to leave the police station after the murder, but the cops are a step ahead of him and they lock the doors. Barrat disposes of his murder weapon, a knife, by dropping it in a spittoon, but a sharp-eyed cop spots him and -- ugh -- digs it out. Case closed, old flame cleared, romance on again, players move on to next assignment.

Here are the full credits, and here's the "From Headquarters" trailer:

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

"Me and My Gal," or Law and Short Order

"Me and My Gal," released in 1932, is a little movie with a lot going on.

It's a showcase for a young Spencer Tracy, already relaxed and assured onscreen as police detective Danny Dolan. It's a showcase for an even younger Joan Bennett as his gal, a gum-chewing waitress named Helen who works at Ed's Chowder House on the waterfront. It has a criminal subplot that includes adultery and a break-in that will end up being reused in "Rififi." And smack dab in the middle of the movie, there's a quick parody of Eugene O'Neill's "Strange Interlude."

Despite all this, "Me and My Gal" is leisurely paced, spiced here and there with funny little set pieces, including a kind of Pete-and-Repeat patter that Danny indulges in with his John Candy-ish partner, played by Adrian Morris. Here's an example, from when the boys are called to break up a noisy wedding reception -- the bride is Bennett's sister:



The love story between Helen and Danny is spiced with slang, including "jake" and "bezark," a 1932 version of "dame." Then they drop their verbal sparring for a moment to poke fun at "Strange Interlude"; the movie version, with Clark Gable and Norma Shearer, was playing in theatres at the time. Danny calls it "Strange Innertube" and he and Helen ape the characters, whose unspoken thoughts are heard in voiceover:


In the crime subplot, Helen's sister Kate (Marion Burns) is having an affair with gangster Duke Castanega (George Walsh, brother of the movie's director, Raoul Walsh) and, even worse, is hiding him in the apartment she shares with her husband, a sailor who's out to sea in more ways than one. She also works in the bank that Duke's gang is breaking into and has given him information about which safe deposit boxes are most valuable. The gang, like the gang in "Rififi," breaks into the bank through the apartment above:


Meanwhile, back at Kate's place, her husband's father, Sarge (Henry B. Walthall, at right), sees everything that's going on, but he's paralyzed and mute. The only way he can communicate is by sending Morse code signals by blinking his eyes. Helen deciphers the code and finds out that Duke is in her sister's, ahem, attic. But to keep her sister out of trouble, she doesn't tell Danny about it:


Danny finds out, of course, and in the ensuing happy ending Duke is killed, Helen's sister's honor is restored and Sarge blinks happily.

It's interesting to see Tracy work here -- he manages to convey his character's intelligence even when Danny isn't acting all that smart. And Bennett's character is almost Lombard-ian with her guts and good humor. They're a nice match. And it's nice to see Walthall -- whose career included a leading role in "Birth of a Nation" in 1915 -- in a later role. He would appear with Tracy again in the 1935 film "Dante's Inferno."

Here are the full credits for "Me and My Gal."   

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

"Penthouse," or Loy Meets World









I bow to no one in my admiration for, and possibly creepy love of, Myrna Loy. That little pug-nosed, round-faced, level-headed, wry-humored vixen was sexy, smart and sweetly funny -- the perfect screen wife. Who cares that in real life she was married four times -- this is why movies are awesome!

Loy's true breakthrough role came in 1934's "The Thin Man," directed by W.S. Van Dyke and with a screenplay adapted by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett. Van Dyke, Hackett and Goodrich are also all on board for the 1933 film "Penthouse," so you have to wonder if Loy's performance in this film served as a kind of screen test for "The Thin Man."

In "Penthouse" Loy plays Gertie, a call girl whose roommate, Mimi (Mae Clarke), is shot in the first five minutes of the movie. Gertie wants to find the killer, and so does hotshot defense attorney Jack Durant (Warner Baxter). Durant's interest is personal -- Tom, the accused murderer, (Phillips Holmes) is in love with his ex-girlfriend Sue (Martha Sleeper, whose last name describes her performance), who has begged Durant to take the case.

As the film opens, Durant has just won acquittal for his client, mobster Tony Gazzotti (Nat Pendleton). In this case, at least, Gazzotti was genuinely not guilty, so Durant is a hero. But not to girlfriend Sue. He shows up to greet her on Long Island in his best white flannels and a pimpin' hat, but she gives him the cold shoulder:



Durant goes on a drunk, and the next day he's debriefed on the previous night's events by loyal butler Layton (Charles Butterworth):



(Charles Butterworth should be every butler in every New York City apartment in every 1930s movie.) 

Ex-girlfriend Sue then comes to Durant for help, because Tom has been accused of murdering Mimi, his old girlfriend. And Durant goes to work, with the help of Gertie. They've been introduced by Gazzotti, who adds "she's the kind you can take home to dinner, and no hard feelings if you don't stay for breakfast." Gertie is attracted to Durant, and she accompanies him to his apartment to spend the night -- her place, which she shared with the dead Mimi, gives her the heebie-jeebies. Gertie is ready for Durant to put the moves on her, and she's a little baffled when he doesn't.

Gertie: Say, are you still in love with someone, or are you just decent?

Durant: Maybe I think you're decent.

Gertie: A girl who comes into a man's apartment at night?

Durant: Well, you might have come here just to look at the Chrysler Building.

There are certain faces in 1930s movies that mean bad news from the get-go. For instance, never do business with C. Henry Gordon (aka evil Fred Astaire). Here he is mobster Crellimen, the man behind Mimi's murder. And as Gertie and Durant team up to nab Crellimen, Durant realizes he's falling in love with Gertie. This dawns on him in a scene where Baxter and Loy have a nice dialogue that echoes "The Thin Man":


 

Loy really does shine in this film -- at this stage in her career she was finally leaving behind the oriental temptress roles she played in movies like "Thirteen Women" and "The Mask of Fu Manchu" and within a few years she'd be the queen of the MGM lot -- after "The Thin Man" came such hits as "Libeled Lady" and "Test Pilot." She plays her role here simply and realistically, without the histrionics of Joan Crawford or the melancholy of Garbo.

Baxter doesn't fare quite as well -- even when he's playing a streetwise character like Durant, he can't shake his tendency toward leading-man pomposity. He looks especially uncomfortable during the romantic clinch in the final scene, when Loy musses his hair, and why any man should object to Myrna Loy mussing his hair is beyond me:


Here are the complete credits for "Penthouse," and a trailer:






Saturday, November 17, 2012

Awkward Early Talkie Theatre: "Chasing Rainbows"

About midway through the 1930 film "Chasing Rainbows," Bessie Love -- as Carlie, one-half of a musical comedy team -- gets the news that the other half of the team, Terry (Charles King), has gotten engaged to someone else. Carlie has always loved Terry, and earlier that day Terry was finally feeling something for her, too, so now she feels like she's been hit in the gut.

To cover her emotion, Love plays this scene by crying like she's laughing, which is kind of sweet. And she plays it that way for more than 90 seconds, which is awkward:



But hey! That's life in show business, kid, and if you can't take the hard knocks then you won't be around for the soft knockers, or something like that.

"Chasing Rainbows" reunites Love and King of the 1929 hit "Broadway Melody" in another musical drama set behind the scenes of a show. This time around, they are appearing in a road show production of "Good-Bye Broadway," a show that includes the tune "Happy Days Are Here Again" two years before Franklin Roosevelt appropriated it as his campaign theme.

King's role is less sympathetic than it is in "Broadway Melody," where he can't bring himself to admit that he has fallen for the sister (Anita Page) of his longtime girlfriend (Love). Here, he's a bit of an oaf who's always chasing after -- and getting his heart broken by -- the female lead of the show, while good old Carlie makes his bed and folds his underwear. By the end of the movie, he finally realizes that Carlie is the girl for him, but you find yourself wondering how long it will be before he goes chasing after someone else.

And don't get me wrong -- despite her weird cry/laugh scene, Love is a pip, as they used to say. She's easily the most natural performer in the cast, which also includes Jack Benny -- two years before he would make his debut as a radio comic -- and Marie Dressler.

Both Benny and Dressler provide comic relief, but in vastly different ways. Benny already has his deadpan style in place and wouldn't make funny faces if his life depended on it. Dressler, on the other hand, can't even ask someone what time it is without crossing her eyes. Dressler's frequent co-star Polly Moran is in the cast as well, as a drunk wardrobe mistress.





The hefty Dressler is the butt, you should excuse the expression, of many jokes, such as when the cast hops a train to the next town:

Dressler: Who am I sleeping with tonight?

Benny: There'll be three in your compartment -- Carlie and you.

The true awkward acting honors, however, go to Nita Martan and Eddie Phillips. She plays the vamp who gets her claws into Terry -- she wants to marry him because his sister is married to a big Broadway producer. Phillips plays her smooth boyfriend. But their bad acting, especially in their scenes together, is anything but smooth:


Benny fares a little better -- one of his early radio writers, Al Boasberg, contributed dialogue to the movie. Benny plays the stage manager, and his speech to the cast near the end of the movie is similar to the kind of material he'd soon be doing on the radio:

 
"Chasing Rainbows" originally included several production numbers in two-strip technicolor, which as of this writing are lost. Here's a link to the complete cast and credits.

Monday, November 12, 2012

"Picture Snatcher," or Cagney and Racy

Whenever I talk about my love for old James Cagney movies, my kids remind me of this clip from "Family Guy":



To them, those movies are little more than that -- people in out-of-style clothes speedtalking to each other. To me, they're fast-moving star vehicles with a streetwise style, sharp wit, just the right amount of cheerful cynicism and the strong presence of a pugnacious star with great physical style. Actually, in the 1930s, James Cagney was more than a star. His films ended up symbolizing the style of the Warner Bros. studio -- tough, unpretentious, good-naturedly brash. 

The 1933 film "Picture Snatcher" combines two staples of the studio -- the gangster picture and the newspaper picture. (Actually, at Warner's there wasn't much difference between the two.) Cagney plays Danny Kean, who's just been released from Sing Sing. His old gang, led by Jerry (Ralf Harolde), is ready to welcome him back to the criminal fold, but Danny has other ideas. This is revealed when Danny's being measured for a new suit, and he tells the tailor not to leave room for the shoulder holster. Tailor: "You're gonna be the best-dressed goniff  (Yiddish for thief) in America."

No, Danny is going to go legit -- or at least legit enough to be a newspaper man. So he pays a call on editor McLean (Ralph Bellamy) at the Graphic-News, the sleaziest rag in town. McLean met Danny while he was in stir and told Danny to look him up, but he's reluctant to hire him because of his lack of experience.

Danny's chance comes as a result of a pre-code situation if ever there was one -- a firefighter ended up being called to a fire at his own apartment. He arrived to find his wife there, dead, in bed with another man. Danny's mission is to get past the fireman, who won't let any reporters into the apartment, and find a photo of the dead wife:



He's hired.
   
Danny then meets met Patricia (Patricia Ellis), a journalism student who's taking a tour of the newspaper. She likes him, but her dad (Robert Emmett O'Connor, forever playing a cop) is the flatfoot who put Danny behind bars. So they see each other on the sly. Meanwhile, another reporter, Allison (Alice White), also has eyes for Danny -- she even invites him to her apartment to play, um, ping pong. But she's also McLean's girl, and Danny is loyal to the guy who hired him.

Danny's next assignment is based on a real-life newspaper story -- in 1928, photographer Tom Howard, working for the New York Daily News, snapped photos of Ruth Snyder in the electric chair. Patricia's dad helps Danny get into an execution, where he does the same thing, in a scene that has echoes of "The Green Mile":



The cops and rival reporters find out what Danny did, and they give chase. He hightails it back to the newsroom:



Because of his death house escapade, Danny is in dutch with daddy, but he fixes that one by infiltrating his old gang, getting some great photos during a shootout, and then arranging it so that Patricia's father gets the credit for capturing Jerry. McLean goes to speak to Patricia on Danny's behalf while Allison pops up again:



The movie ends with a topical reference -- "Vas you dere, Sharlie" was the trademark phrase of radio comic Jack Pearl, at the peak of his popularity in 1933 as Baron Munchausen.

Here is the trailer for "Picture Snatcher," and the full cast listing.    

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Discovering Frank Fay: "The Matrimonial Bed"

In vaudeville, Frank Fay was big.

He strolled onstage casually, with a slight swish, and then stood and told jokes -- a revolutionary concept for the time. No juggling, no slapstick, no mugging. He was known for his quick wit -- when he was heckled with a Bronx cheer, he responded, "Two of those made you, pal." As part of his act, he would break down the lyrics of "Tea for Two," interspersed with wisecracks. ("Nobody near us, to see us or hear us." "Who'd want to listen to a couple of people drinking tea?")

In 1929 Fay came to Hollywood with his young wife, Barbara Stanwyck. Sound films were in full swing and the studios wanted performers with stage experience. Stanwyck thought she might try her luck in pictures, too. The studios were making all-star revues to take advantage of sound and Fay appeared in the Warner Bros. entry, "The Show of Shows." He was the emcee, and the players included John Barrymore, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Loretta Young and Myrna Loy. The movie was a hit, and Fay's screen success seemed assured. Yet within a few years he was out of Hollywood and back on Broadway, returning to films only sporadically.

Fay's fizzle is even more mystifying when you see him in 1930's "The Matrimonial Bed." He's good! Despite years on the stage, he seems to understand how to modulate his performance for the screen. The film itself is a lightweight farce, very much like a filmed play, and Fay himself gives it heart and humor.

"The Matrimonial Bed" is set in Lubitsch land -- that non-existent neighborhood in Paris that is filled with rich, charming men and beautiful, indolent women. We open in an art deco home on the fifth anniversary of the death of the master, Adolphe Noblet. In a long expository dialogue, two maids converse about what's happened since -- Noblet's wife Juliette (Florence Eldredge) has remarried, to a stuffy fussbudget (James Gleason), and they have a young son. But everyone, especially Corinne the maid (Beryl Mercer), loved Noblet, who by all accounts was kind, loving and full of fun.

A portrait of Noblet dominates the mantle -- it has just been repaired and returned to its place after falling off the wall and getting torn. "Something," says Corinne, "always happens when pictures fall down without a reason."

Enter Leopold Traubel (Fay), a popular hairdresser (he's having affairs with at least two women) who's here to style Juliette's hair. No one in the house has ever seen him before, so you can imagine their surprise when he turns out to look just like Noblet. Juliette is particularly unnerved, especially when Leopold starts touching her in special places:


Two of Noblet's friends -- Dr. Friedland (Arthur Carew) and Chabonnais (James Bradbury Sr.) --  learn that Leopold has no memory beyond the last five years, and under hypnosis by the doctor Leopold remembers that he is Noblet.

What follows is traditional, somewhat labored farce. To keep Noblet from realizing that his wife has remarried, elaborate white lies connect Juliette's new husband with Juliette's friend Sylvaine (Lilyan Tashman), who's been having an affair with Leopold. But when she confronts him, he doesn't know who she is:



To make matters even more complicated, we're introduced to Suzanne (Vivian Oakland), who is Leopold's wife and the mother of his four sons -- two sets of twins. Noblet/Leopold finally learns the truth, and he also learns that Juliette is happier in her new life with a stuffy husband and young son. And he starts to realize that Suzanne isn't so bad, either:



So Noblet/Leopold conspires with his friend, the doctor -- the doctor will pretend to un-hypnotize Leopold so that he can return to his previous life and ensure Juliette's happiness. The doctor puts Noblet to sleep and he awakens as the more flamboyant Leopold:



It's a sweet ending, and Fay plays the humor as well as the wistful sadness.

Today if Fay is remembered at all, it's for a couple of reasons. One is that his turbulent marriage to Stanwyck, which ended in 1935, is said to have provided the inspiration for "A Star Is Born." Another is that in 1944, Fay scored a personal triumph as the first Elwood P. Dowd in "Harvey" on Broadway. He had a reputation as a drinker and a bit of a bastard, but he's also remembered for saving Stanwyck's fledgling movie career by helping convince Frank Capra to cast her in the 1930 film "Ladies of Leisure." And he influenced one of the best comics of the first half of the twentieth century -- Jack Benny freely admitted that he appropriate Fay's relaxed style and his swishy walk.

Who knows where the truth lies -- but the guy knew his stuff.

Here are the complete credits for "The Matrimonial Bed," and a preview: