Wednesday, February 27, 2013

"The Public Defender," or All's Fairbanks in Love and War

Travel with me, if you will, through my mind's eye to a backyard in small town America, circa 1931, filled with squealing kids.

Dad (yelling out the screen door): Montague! Time for dinner! We're having Wheatena and tapioca for dessert!

Montague: Cripes! Not now, dad! We're playing "The Public Defender"!

Dad: Come inside now, or no "Amos n Andy" tonight!

Montague: Geemanently!
(The children exuent and Montague goes inside.)

The 1931 film "The Public Defender" invites reveries like that because it's a fun little secret-identity movie in the tradition of Douglas Fairbanks and "The Scarlet Pimpernel" -- the kind of combination of spookiness and derring-do that you can picture little Montague and his buddies watching at a Saturday matinee and then acting out for the next week or two, or at least until they go to the movies again.

These men certainly seem trustworthy.
The movie opens in the conference room of a troubled bank, where innocent treasurer Eugene Gerry (Emmett King) is being railroaded into the pokey by his shifty board of directors (at left). Will no one come to his rescue?

We then move to an exclusive country club, where Gerry's daughter Barbara (Shirley Grey) is awaiting the arrival of her rich, silly-ass boyfriend Pike Winslow (Richard Dix), who's living a life of indolent frivolity (or a life of frivolous indolence, if you prefer) on his father's money.

In the back room of the club, meanwhile, are the bank's board of directors -- three of them, that is, because the fourth has been visited earlier in the evening by a mysterious figure who calls himself The Reckoner. And The Reckoner has another visit planned before the evening is out:



In other words: Dun-duh-duhhhhhhhh.

Who is this mysterious Reckoner, this cupholder -- excuse me -- upholder of the right? This champion of the accused? This unsmircher of the unjustly besmirched? This leaver of scary, scary business cards?

As played by the square-jawed Dix, Pike outlines split-second capers that are carried out with the help of two assistants -- a burly fellow known as the Doctor (Paul Hurst) and a skinny fellow known as the Professor (Boris Karloff). Their aim is to collect inside information from the board of directors that will clear Barbara's father, the bank's treasurer.

But Pike and his merry men do even more than that. When Barbara and her family are forced to sell their heirlooms, Pike sends the Professor to the auction to buy all the furniture. Then Pike rents a new apartment for the family and fills it with all their old stuff.

Then before you can say "J. Edgar Hoover's negligee" it's back to fighting crime, as the crew breaks into another bank director's home and makes off with the booty, which in this case means incriminating papers:



The investigation then narrows to just one bank director -- Kirk (Purnell Pratt), the ringleader. And he believes he knows who the Reckoner is. So there's a high-speed chase back to the Gerrys' apartment, where Pike has lured his quarry to his certain dooooooom:



Next comes a happy ending for all, especially Pike, who has proven his bad ass credentials once and for all and has left his last threatening business card -- or HAS he?!

As much fun as "The Reckoner" is, there are several missed opportunities for genuine atmospheric creepiness, especially when it comes to introducing the guy. Our first glimpse of him should be memorable and noirish. But instead of showing him skulking around dark alleys and the like, all we get is a long-winded explanation by a minor character. Don't TELL us, SHOW us! One wonders how they would have handled this material at a studio more experienced with the fast-paced and the lurid, like Warner Bros. or Universal.

Here are the complete credits for "The Public Defender."

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Awkward Early Talkie Theatre: "The Squall"


There's an old story in the theatre about a production of "The Diary of Anne Frank" where the actress in the title role gives such a bad performance that at the end of the play, when the Nazis enter, audience members yell out, "She's in the attic!"

At the end of the 1929 film "The Squall," you may feel the same way.

The Lajos family has been sheltering a runaway Gypsy girl, the nubile Nubi (Myrna Loy), and she has repaid their kindness with lying, deceit and never-ending attempts to seduce every guy in the joint.

The Gypsies have now returned -- we have seen their tiny covered wagons come over the hill (a miniature shot). They are led by their whip-wielding master, who wants Nubi back, and you can't wait to see her get kicked to the curb.

Nubi is another one of Loy's turns as an exotic temptress -- for other examples, see "Thirteen Women" and "The Mask of Fu Manchu." And she is indeed a little Hungarian hottie, with her flaming eyes and cheekbones as sharp as razor blades.  

But the movie she's stuck in is a lot like a bad opera, filled with cheering peasants, singing gypsies and characters with names like Josef and Uncle Dani.

"The Squall" takes place on the Lajos family farm, where, an intertitle tells us, "the labor of years has been crowned with prosperity and content (sic)." (I'm still wondering where "-ment" went.)

In the Lajos household, prosperity takes the form of nice wardrobes, plentiful food and talking. Very. Slowly. We witness romantic hi-jinks between the cook, Lena (Zasu Pitts), and farm hand Peter (Harry Cording). Father Josef (Richard Tucker) and mother Maria (Alice Joyce) are plump and prosperous, doting on son Paul (Carroll Nye), who is engaged to the lovely Irma (Loretta Young).

But there are storm clouds on the horizon, foreshadowed by dialogue that is as subtle as a pile driver. Such as when Maria says, "Our lives have been like a summer day -- without a cloud. If only it could be that way until the end." Fat chance, Maria.

Or take this exchange, between Irma and her grandfather (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. He gives us Zasu Pitts so that we can appreciate Myrna Loy in a peasant blouse. (OK, I made up that one.) And perhaps he sends the squall that we may learn the beauty of a limpid sky.

Outside, the squall is kicking up, and then there is a scream and a frenzied banging at the door. The family hears it, but they are so busy feeding their faces with content that a servant answers. In tumbles Nubi, who is fleeing from her abusive master because "He keel me!"

Nubi immediately plays on the family's sympathy by explaining that she is a reluctant Gypsy, having been stolen as a baby. The kind-hearted Maria offers her shelter from the squall, little realizing that her act of kindness will throw her marriage, her happiness, nay, HER VERY LIFE into Jeopardy! (Used with the permission of Merv Griffin.)

Nubi looks out the window at the tiny Gypsies as they leave the farm. Then she speaks a little monologue that makes all the men hot and bothered:



Nubi's first conquest is Peter the farm hand, who lip-syncs a little song about his love for Nubi while currying the horse. No, really:



Then Nubi moves on to Paul, and as a result he starts giving Irma the cold shoulder. "Never mind, Irma. Your old granddaddy loves you, and isn't that enough?," her granddaddy asks, answering his own question. 

Finally, Nubi tries to seduce the master of the farm, Josef. "I am keesing your shadow," she purrs. Longtime wife Maria is watching from the shadows. What's a wife to do? "My husband -- half of my life," she says. "My son -- the other half." Not to get picky, but aren't they the same half? Or isn't there at least one-third of overlap?

Anyway, leave it to Maria to finally understand how dangerous Nubi is, while the men are all derp-derp-derpy about her. So when the Gypsies return, she makes the move to get rid of Nubi:



With Nubi gone, content returns to the family farm.

Here are the full credits for "The Squall."

Thursday, February 14, 2013

"The Story of Temple Drake," or Oh Brothel, Where Are Thou?

Around about 1932-33, Miriam Hopkins achieved what we might call a pre-code movie hat trick by appearing in three notorious examples -- "Trouble in Paradise," "Design for Living" and "The Story of Temple Drake."

The latter film, especially, is credited with being the straw that broke the pre-code camel's back, leading to the formation of the National Legion of Decency and the enforcement of strict movie censorship that would last until the mid-1950s. And even from the vantage point of 80 years, "Temple Drake" still packs a punch. Its lurid story deals with all kinds of pre-code hot button issues -- rape, incest, prostitution, illegitimate children, murder and farming.

We open down south in Dixon County, where Temple Drake (Hopkins) lives. She's a rich ninny -- the silly granddaughter of a local judge (Sir Guy Standing) who uses her beauty and his status to get pretty much anything she wants. Her life is a merry social whirl -- big parties! Late night revels! Formal dances with Grady Sutton!

Judge Drake is a respected figure, but he's not above sharing a shot of sour mash in his chambers between trials. And he's concerned about Temple's wild ways, but when she tells him that the man she's out carousing with attends the judge's alma mater, he calms down.

Temple actually does have a secret love -- local attorney Stephen Benbow (William Gargan), who's noble enough to act as a public defender for those too poor to afford representation. At a ritzy party, Temple confesses to Stephen about her feelings for him, but she also talks about her untamed wild side. It's like the original "It isn't you, it's me" speech:



And once she confesses to Stephen, Temple goes back to the wild side of her personality, leaving the party to go for a joyride with Toddy (William Collier, Jr.), the drunken college boy from the judge's old school. Then there's an accident, and Toddy and Temple end up stranded at an abandoned plantation that looks like Scarlett O'Hara's place after the Civil War.

Living in the crumbling house is a motley crew -- bootlegger Lee Goodwin (Irving Pichel), slow-witted Tommy (James Eagles), Goodwin's common-law wife Ruby (Florence Eldredge) and their baby, and, most dangerous of all, the predatory Trigger (Jack LaRue), a small-time hood.

A storm is raging outside, and Temple is totally at sea -- for the first time in her life, she's trapped in a world where "I'm Judge Drake's granddaughter" doesn't mean anything. She tries to protect herself by staying with Ruby and her baby, who's sleeping in a wood box in the kitchen.

Temple: Why do you keep the baby in a wood box?

Ruby: So the rats won't get it.

Temple finally goes out to the barn and falls asleep in the corn crib. The simpleminded Tommy watches over her. But the snakelike Trigger is persistent, and we know there's trouble brewing when we see his shiny street shoes sliding across the hay-covered floor:


Trigger kills Tommy and attacks Temple, and then he and a shellshocked Temple drive over a county or two and take up residence at Miss Reba's House of Ill Repute, Inc. It's interesting to look at the music on the soundtrack at this point -- up until now, Temple's trials have been punctuated by a nondescript orchestral score, but once we get to Miss Reba's all we hear in the background is a honky tonk piano. And somehow, it makes things seem even more nightmarish:



Meanwhile, back in Dixon County, the official story is that Temple's away visiting relatives. And Stephen remains the sole defender of Temple's honor, going into men's rooms and wiping "Temple Drake is just a fake/She wants to eat and have her cake" off the walls.

Then Lee Goodwin is charged in the murder of Tommy, and Stephen becomes his attorney. He sets out to find eyewitnesses. His trail leads to Trigger, and he's shocked to see Temple shacking up with him. Temple places herself between Trigger and Stephen to keep Trigger from shooting him, and tells Stephen she loves Trigger. Stephen leaves and Temple decides she's had enough. She puts on her hat to leave, but Trigger blocks her and starts pushing her around, and she shoots him. Then she tries to leave, but she realizes he's holding her hat:

  


Temple makes her way back to Dixon County, where Stephen calls her as a witness in Lee Goodwin's trial. But they both know that if she tells the truth, her reputation will be ruined. "Give me a chance to live it down," she pleads to Stephen -- and he has to decide whether he will serve justice or spare the woman he still loves.   

"The Story of Temple Drake" is based on William Faulkner's novel "Sanctuary," and considering what it couldn't include from the book, it very effectively retains the Southern Gothic flavor of Faulkner. Hopkins must have drawn from her experience as a native of Savannah, Georgia in conveying Temple's lethal charm.

And props, please, to Jack LaRue, who was given the part of Trigger when George Raft refused it. In a career of thankless roles, always as the bad guy, he actually seems half-human -- flattered and even slightly vulnerable -- in the scene where Temple pretends to be in love with him in order to save Stephen.

Here are complete credits for "The Story of Temple Drake," which by the way almost disappeared after its initial release. A restored version, courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art, premiered at the Turner Classic Movies Film Festival in 2011.    


Tuesday, February 5, 2013

A Tale of Two Falcons

If you're looking for differences between the 1931 and 1941 versions of "The Maltese Falcon," you can start with the hero's hands.

The hero, of course, is private dick Sam Spade, as played in the 1931 version by Ricardo Cortez and in the 1941 version by Humphrey Bogart.

Cortez has perfectly manicured nails, and in one scene he even files them. Bogart, on the other hand, keeps his hands busy by rolling his own cigarettes. We never see Bogart's nails, but it's a pretty good bet they'd be stained with nicotine, and he wouldn't be particularly concerned about it.

Their appearances fit their portrayals. Cortez plays Spade as a cock-of-the-walk -- a fun-loving, unabashed ladies man with a plush apartment and well-tailored suits. Bogart's Spade has rougher edges and a quiet assurance -- his wardrobe and his digs aren't as opulent. He doesn't feel the need to be as showy. 

There are other differences between the two films, of course, as you'd expect when comparing a pre-code movie with a post-code movie. The 1931 version of Dashiell Hammett's novel is filled with attractive women and driven by sex; by 1941, sex was being kept on the down low. Violence, on the other hand, was much more acceptable, and the later version of the film has more fighting and gun play.

The story begins at the San Francisco office of Spade and Archer, private eyes. Here's how we first see Spade in the 1931 version:



No sooner does he get rid of one conquest than he starts flirting with gal Friday Effie (Una Merkel). Then comes a call from Iva Archer (Thelma Todd), the wife of Spade's partner. Spade and Iva do a little canoodling over the phone, and Spade doesn't know it, but Archer (Walter Long) is eavesdropping. The 1941 version opens with Spade in his office, alone, with no phone conversation. Enter a client (Bebe Daniels as Ruth in the 1931 version and Mary Astor as Brigid in the 1941 version), who says she wants her sister followed that night. Archer enters. When Brigid/Ruth flashes her gams and a wad of cash, Archer volunteers for the job. And he gets plugged -- it happens off screen in the 1931 version, but in the 1941 version we see Archer get it right in the gut.

Miles Archer's death leads to a funny little moment in the 1941 version -- as Bogart looks over the crime scene we see a movie poster on the wall behind him. It's for a 1937 film called "Swing Your Lady," a hillbilly musical that Bogart was forced to appear in as a Warner Bros. contractee and supposedly hated. Makes you wonder if director John Huston put it there as a joke or if it's an allusion to a murderess being hung.

In addition to Archer's death, the man Archer was supposed to follow is found shot. The cops start quizzing Spade. Cortez taunts the officers and laughs at his own witticisms. Bogart, on the other hand, delivers Sam's wisecracks with a straight face, and they're funnier that way. For instance, when Sam becomes a suspect, he jousts with the police. "How'd I shoot him?" he asks them. "I forget." Bogart says this as a throwaway line, while Cortez makes it too obvious -- he builds it up like the punch line of a joke. Bogart does much more with less -- when the cops start pressing him, he stops it with a hand on one cop's shoulder and a simple line -- "Don't crowd me, Tom."

Then comes a scene between Spade and Brigid/Ruth. The client's not telling the whole truth to Sam, and he knows it, so he has a little fun with her, in what I like to call the "you're good" scene. Here are the two versions -- judge for yourself which one plays more effectively:




Brigid/Ruth, of course, is wrapped up in the pursuit of a priceless jeweled statue of a falcon that dates to the 1500s. And there are others after the falcon as well -- seedy adventurer Joel Cairo (Otto Matieson in the 1931 version, and Peter Lorre in the 1941 version) and fat man Caspar Gutman (Dudley Digges in the 1931 version and Sydney Greenstreet in the 1941 version).


As you can see by the stills, there's no contest about which duo looks more threatening -- and more visually memorable. In terms of casting, first-time director Huston knocks the ball out of the park in the 1941 version. After years of playing two-bit bad guys, Bogart is entering his hero-matinee idol phase here. Astor is a perfect picture of prim sexuality. Lorre is appropriately creepy, and Greenstreet -- making his film debut -- is a memorable, charming villain.

Spade ends up in fights with Lorre's character and with Elisha Cook, Jr. as Gutman's gunsel Wilmer Cook. When Spade overpowers Lorre, who's come to search his office, Bogart sports a nasty smile while he's rabbit punching the guy. Here's a comparison of the Spade-Cairo fights in both films:




Later in the 1941 film, Spade overpowers Wilmer by pulling his overcoat down off his shoulders, and Wilmer gets back at Spade by kicking him when he's down -- after he's been drugged by Gutman. In the 1931 version, there's no kicking -- Wilmer just watches as Spade passes out.

Finally, everyone ends up at Spade's apartment, waiting for the delivery of the black bird. Brigid/Ruth is holding an envelope with ten thousand-dollar bills for payment, which Spade gives back to Gutman. Gutman counts the money and one bill is missing. In the 1931 version, Spade confronts Ruth in his kitchen and has her strip to prove she hasn't got the missing bill. In the 1941 version, the incident is a symbol of a rare moment of trust between Spade and Brigid -- she tells him she doesn't have it, and he believes her. Gutman admits pocketing the bill.

Once the bird is delivered and determined to be a fake, Gutman and Cairo resume their search. Spade puts the cops on their trail, but he also has to deal with the fact that the woman he loves has killed his partner. In the 1931 version, the confrontation is filmed as the same leisurely pace as the rest of the film, and in the same wide shots. Huston, on the other hand, knows that this is the emotional heart of the picture and films it in tight, intense closeups:




The 1931 version ends with a sympathetic Sam visiting Ruth in jail with "good news" -- he's been made chief investigator of the District Attorney's office. Huh?



The 1941 version, on the other hand, builds to an unforgettable climax -- Sam describing the bird as "the stuff that dreams are made of" and Brigid behind the bars of an elevator door, foreshadowing the bars she'll soon be behind, with a possible death sentence. Swing your lady, indeed.

Here are the full credits for the 1931 version of "The Maltese Falcon." And here are the full credits for the 1941 version of "The Maltese Falcon," and a trailer:    

Friday, February 1, 2013

The Polly Walters Film Festival: "Young Bride" and "American Madness"

Polly Walters and Joan Blondell in "Bleaches"
Of all the actors and actresses who appeared in 1930s movies, Polly Walters (1913-1994) was certainly one of them.

Although she appeared in small roles in only a handful of movies between 1931-32, Walters made an impression with her blonde hair, deadpan style and Betty Boop-ish, singsong voice. She was usually a working-class girl -- a waitress, a hotel maid, a manicurist, a switchboard operator -- with a working-class name like Mabel, Ethel, Daisy or Gladys.

Born Maude Walters in Zanesville, Ohio, our heroine trained as a dancer and made her way to Broadway, appearing in several productions during the late 1920s. Then came a stage stint as Eddie Cantor's straightwoman before Warner Bros. signed her to a contract in 1931.

At Warner's, Walters appeared in three James Cagney films -- "Taxi," "Smart Money" and "Blonde Crazy." In "Blonde Crazy," she plays a hotel maid who warns another maid -- the film's female lead, Joan Blondell -- to stay away from Cagney, as a bellhop who knows all the angles:



Walters also appeared in Warner films with Douglas Fairbanks Jr. ("Union Depot"), Loretta Young ("Play-Girl"), Edward G. Robinson ("Five Star Final") and Warren William ("The Mouthpiece" and "Beauty and the Boss").

For the most part, her Warner roles were bits. It wasn't until she was lent out to other studios that Walters played roles that were actually important to the plot.

In the 1932 RKO film "Young Bride," for instance, she is Daisy, the streetwise best friend of innocent heroine Allie (Helen Twelvetrees). They work together as librarians, and Daisy introduces Allie to nogoodnik Charlie (Eric Linden). Allie ends up marrying Charlie while Daisy ends up with Pete (Cliff "Ukelele Ike" Edwards), and doing lots of heavy partying:



Then in one of her last films, Frank Capra's "American Madness," released by Columbia the same year, Walters's switchboard operator character starts the gossip that threatens to bring down a bank headed by honest Thomas Dickson (Walter Huston):



After appearances in only 17 films, Walters left Hollywood in 1933 and went back to Broadway, appearing in a production called "She Loves Me Not" with Burgess Meredith. After that, there was talk of returning to Hollywood, but nothing materialized. From 1936-37 Walters was on stage in "Red, Hot and Blue" with Jimmy Durante, Ethel Merman and a young Bob Hope. Then came roles in plays that ran only a few performances -- her last work was in a 1942 production called "The Life of Reilly" that closed quickly.

For the next 50-odd years, Walters lived a quiet life in New York City -- she had no other film, play or TV credits. Maybe she found a job as a switchboard operator.