Saturday, November 21, 2015

Pre-Code vs Post-Code: "Outward Bound" and "Between Two Worlds"

Sutton Vane's 1923 play "Outward Bound" takes place on a ship sailing to the hereafter, a kind of celestial branch of Carnival Cruise Lines where the passengers find out if their luggage is going to heaven or hell, and them with it. It was an unlikely stage success in London, and the 1924 Broadway production featured Leslie Howard, Dudley Digges and Beryl Mercer.

All three of them show up in the 1930 film version of "Outward Bound," though Howard's not in his original role; in the film, he plays the character played by Alfred Lunt onstage, and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. plays the role Howard played onstage.

To say the least, "Outward Bound" is a bit of an odd duck, and the 1930 film opens with three screens full of introductory text begging the indulgence of the popcorn chompers in the audience who might wonder why they're watching a movie about people who don't seem to know much about where they are or where they're going. We're told it's "an entirely new and different imaginative conception of life, death and the hereafter," involving "strange psychology and glorious sentiment interwoven between the lines," told with "deep sincerity."

There's no such introduction in the 1944 post-code remake, "Between Two Worlds." Maybe that's because audiences were a little more sophisticated by then; also, the sad fact is that by 1944, almost everyone in the audience had lost, or knew someone who had lost, a loved one in World War II. The world was in flames -- it was easier to accept a movie about dead people. As a result, "Between Two Worlds" has a extra layer of poignance.    

There are three main characters at the center of both films -- Tom Prior, a rather dissolute young man who, it's implied, drank his life away (Howard in the 1930 film, John Garfield in 1944); and a young couple who decide to commit suicide. The couple, named Henry and Ann in both films, is played by Fairbanks and Helen Chandler in the 1930 film, and Paul Henreid and Eleanor Parker in the 1944 film.

We open in London.

In the 1930 film, Henry and Ann are offing themselves because they're having an illicit affair and can't stand being without each other.

In the 1944 film, Henry is a concert pianist and a former member of the Free French -- he's like Victor Lazlo crossed with Liberace! Henreid-as-Henry can't get out of London because he can't get a visa and decides to end it all. When he opens the gas pipe, wife Ann -- You betcha they're married! No affairs allowed! -- stands staunchly by his side.

Then, before you can say "What do you want on your tombstone?," they find themselves sailing through a foggy night aboard a ship where the only crew member is a white-coated steward serving cocktails to the dead. Henry and Ann quickly figure out what's up -- in the 1944 film it's even more obvious because Ann had seen the other passengers earlier. They were all in a car driving to a ship when they were killed by an aerial bomb. In the 1930 film, we don't know how the other passengers met their deaths and came to be on board, but in "Between Two Worlds" the explanation, unfortunately, is all too obvious.

The passengers include rather unpleasant representatives of the British upper classes -- a stuffy matron (Alison Skipworth in 1930, Isobel Elsom in 1944) and a blustery, Trumpish tycoon (Montagu Love in 1930, George Coulouris in 1944). Then there's Mrs. Midget, a plainspoken member of the working class (Beryl Mercer in 1930, Sara Allgood in 1944) and the Reverend Duke, a timid priest (Lyonel Watts in 1930, Dennis King in 1944). They're all served by the steward, Scrubby (Alec Francis in 1930, Edmund Gwenn (at left) in 1944), an agreeable fellow who spills the beans about the passengers' final destination with the same line in both films: "We're going to heaven, sir. And hell, too. It's the same place, you see."

In the 1944 film, the ship looks as though it's floating through the clouds rather than fog. And it has a couple of extra passengers: George Tobias as a merchant seaman -- there's a war on, you know -- and Faye Emerson as a showgirl who's accompanying Garfield. There's also Gilbert Emery as the matron's put-upon husband -- he seems to be around mostly to emphasize how beastly his wife is.

In just about every way, the 1944 film unspools the plot with more clarity, and with more effective visual touches, than the 1930 film. It isn't that Robert Milton, the director of the 1930 film, doesn't try -- there are several striking expressionistic scenes impressively photographed by Hal Mohr. But in the 1944 film, with an adapted screenplay by Daniel Fuchs, the story is much more orchestrated and, in some cases, over-explained. (To really hammer the point home, Erich Korngold's score is full of "oooo-eee oooo-eee" moments of eeriness.)

The 1930 film is probably more faithful to the play and has a kind of pre-code take-it-or-leave-it simplicity. It doesn't feel the need to lay everything out so neatly. But it also takes its own sweet time in revealing the big twist that we've long since figured out. In the 1944 film, the twist is revealed in a more striking way -- Garfield-as-Prior knows the group is dead, and to get the point across to everyone else he stages a magic show that involves the tycoon:




Once everyone on board realizes that the limbo contest really IS a limbo contest, it's time for the ship to sail into its heavenly port and for the "examiner," Thompson (Dudley Digges in the 1930 film, Sydney Greenstreet in 1944), to start processing the passengers. Thompson is gruff but kindly for the most part, and he doles out what might be called afterlife lifestyle packages the way the Wizard of Oz gives out hearts, brains and courage.

The tycoon tries, of course, to buy his way into heaven, and Thompson treats him with the contempt you'd expect: "You'll suffer ... as you've made others suffer. That's all." Same goes for the matron, but the 1944 version offers a nice twist -- Thompson gives her a luxurious home, but she can never have visitors. And her husband decides to ditch her and live with his lifelong friends instead.

Then comes Prior and Mrs. Midget. Prior is offered a place in a not-so-hot part of heaven, but it beats the alternative of a very hot part of hell. Mrs. Midget is given her lifelong dream -- a seaside cottage with a garden. But for some reason, she's more interested in staying with Prior as a kind of -- mom. Even if it means giving up her cottage. Thompson knows her secret, and in the 1944 version this leads to a beautifully played scene with Sara Allgood, who also played the family matriarch in "How Green Was My Valley":


The different ways that Howard and Garfield play the same character are direct reflections of their acting styles -- Howard is introverted and haunted, while Garfield is cocky and confrontational. Garfield's character also has more dimension -- he's a newspaper reporter (as was the film's producer, Mark Hellinger) who was fired for being too good at his job, namely in the exposes he wrote about our friend the unpleasant tycoon, a war profiteer.

The minister's realization is handled with a striking difference in the two films. In the 1930 film, we see him praying silently and solitarily. But in the 1944 film -- again, perhaps because there's a war going on -- religion is much more on display as he leads the other passengers in a prayer:


The 1944 film then comes to Musick, the seaman played by Tobias. In many ways his is the movie's most tragic story -- like many servicemen, he has died without being able to see his newborn daughter. He pleads his case to Thompson the examiner, and he seems pleased with Thompson's explanation that everybody has to die sometime, but the underlying sadness makes the scene ring hollow.

Finally, we come to the couples. In both films, they're the only ones on board who have attempted suicide. Because of that, we're told, they will remain on the ship as "half-way" passengers. But Henry keeps hearing something, and as the ship pulls away it's clear that he's being pulled back to life. Will Ann make the leap back as well?

"Outward Bound" has had a life on stage beyond the film versions. In addition to the 1924 Broadway production, there was a 1938 revival with Vincent Price, Laurette Taylor and Helen Chandler, reprising her role from the 1930 movie and undoubtedly giving it the same tremulous treatment. There was also a 2012 revival in London.    


Sunday, November 8, 2015

A Talk About James Cagney

I'm a fan of James Cagney. I've written about him here, here, here, here, here and here. To me he is one of a handful of movie stars with a real sense of physical style as well as acting expertise. Dan Schneider, the impresario behind the arts site Cosmoetica, graciously invited me and fellow film blogger Marilyn Ferdinand to talk about Cagney's life and career. Here it is:


Monday, October 19, 2015

CMBA Fall Blogathon: "Silver Streak," or Train Man


This is part of the CMBA Fall Blogathon: Trains, Planes and Automobiles. Check out all entries!

The star of the 1934 film "The Silver Streak" isn't first-billed Sally Blane, or even male lead Charles Starrett.

It's the future.

Specifically, it's the future in the form of the Pioneer Zephyr, a streamlined diesel train here called the Silver Streak. But incidental roles in the movie are played by the Century of Progress International Exposition, also known as the 1933-34 Chicago World's Fair; by Boulder Dam (now known as Hoover Dam), at that point the nation's largest construction project; and even by the recent development of the iron lung.

All these projects sent the same message to depression-weary America -- that prosperity was connected to innovative engineering and improved infrastructure.

As a film, "The Silver Streak" sends a much simpler message -- work hard, be handsome, develop a streamlined train, and you end up winning Loretta Young's sister. But it's a fast-moving B movie that's very much a product of its time, with lots of cool location footage of the Zephyr, the Chicago World's Fair and Boulder Dam (with real workers in bit parts).

We begin in the offices of the Stuffy Old White Guy Railroad, run by B.J. Dexter (William Farnum). Passenger revenues are off, and Dexter's assistant Allan (Hardie Albright), who is also his son, supports a plan for a new, more efficient streamlined train developed by lantern-jawed Tom Caldwell (Starrett). Caldwell pitches his idea to a skeptical board of directors:  


Caldwell is thrown out by the seat of his blueprints, but he has another booster -- Dexter's daughter, Ruth (Blane, Young's real-life sister). She approaches a locomotive manufacturer on Tom's behalf, and before you can say "Amtrak," the Silver Streak is ready for its maiden run.

The elder Dexter and Ruth are on board, but things don't go as planned -- there's an engineering glitch:


(Dig that 1934 streamlined Chrysler Airflow on the road, by the way.)

Naturally, instead of spending a little more time figuring what's wrong with the Silver Streak, the decision is made to scrap the whole project and put in on display at the fair in Chicago. Tom tells off Dexter, and he and Ruth break up.

A few weeks later, Tom has figured out the engineering problem, but the railroad management would prefer to keep the train as the world's largest paperweight.

Meanwhile, Allan Dexter is leaving the family railroad because of his father's refusal to be innovative. This leads to a nice scene where the elder Dexter puffs his stogie like a locomotive and reminisces about trains of the past:


Allan Dexter goes to work at the dam in Nevada. Turns out that the men on the project are coming down with infantile paralysis, and no sooner does Allan get there than he passes out. Ruth has come to see him, but that's not enough -- he needs an iron lung immediately. Father Dexter is beside himself -- how to get an iron lung cross country toot suite? If only there was some sort of really fast train to take it!

The last third of "The Silver Streak" is all about the 100 mile-an-hour overnight race from Chicago to Las Vegas. Edgar Kennedy, God love him, steps in as an old school co-engineer and gives us several good examples of his burn takes in between thrill sequences like this:


There are lots of complications along the way, including close calls with oncoming trains, tricky curves and guys who almost don't get their handcar off the track fast enough. On board, meanwhile, Tom has to deal with hysterical passengers, an escaping murderer and, worst of all, Arthur Lake as comedy relief.

To the surprise of no one in the civilized world whatsoever, the Silver Streak makes it to Vegas, the train's future is assured, and Ruth and Tom make up.




In real life, by the way, the Pioneer Zephyr made headlines in May 1934, when it traveled from Denver to Chicago in about 13 hours, almost breaking the land speed record for that time -- and the engineer happily endorsed Camel cigarettes after his run.

And if you'd like to see the real Pioneer Zephyr, it's on permanent display at Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry.




Sunday, September 13, 2015

Awkward Early Talkie Theatre: "Sally"

The 1929 film "Sally" is more than an awkward early talkie -- it's also a kind of time capsule, preserving the elements of an elaborate Flo Ziegfeld stage show and the winsome performing style of its star, Marilyn Miller, who appeared in Ziegfeld shows and reviews from 1918 through the early 1930s.

"Sally" is based on the Ziegfeld success that ran from 1920-24, including a world tour and a final series of performances back in New York City. Miller appeared in a 1925 film version as well as this one, for which she reportedly received the record-breaking salary of $100,000 -- roughly a thousand dollars per hour of work.

Sally Bowling Green works as a waitress in a Manhattan hash house. She's an orphan who was abandoned at the offices of the Bowling Green telephone exchange, hence her name. Her dream is to be a dancer, but in the meantime she's the world's worst waitress.

Sally strikes up a friendship with Blair Farrell (Alexander Gray), a society swell who always stops outside the restaurant and waves at Sally inside. Alas, Blair is betrothed to another rich woman and is bound by family pressure.

When Sally messes up one too many orders of flapjacks, she is bounced from her job and ends up as a waitress at the Elm Tree Inn, a roadhouse managed by the gruff-but-kindly Pops (Ford Sterling). Sally's co-worker and buddy is a waiter named Connie (Joe E. Brown). In real life he is the Grand Duck Constantine of Czechoslovenia and Pops, a native of the same country, keeps Connie on the job out of loyalty.

Blair has been looking all over for Sally, and when he finds her at the Elm Tree Inn they don't waste much time before breaking into the show's big number, Jerome Kern's "Look for the Silver Lining":


Miller and Gray make an appealing pair, although his singing style doesn't date as well as Miller's. Her dancing style is pleasant, as well -- she actually seems to be having fun and doesn't stomp with the joyless passion of a Joan Crawford or a Ruby Keeler. One of the movie's highlights is this charming eccentric dance that Sally does with Connie:


Blair is in love with Sally, and as one of the Elm Tree Inn's best customers he persuades Pops to let Sally perform for the patrons. She is a hit! Hooper, a big time agent (T. Roy Barnes), happens to catch Sally's act, along with his frail, Rosie (Pert Kelton, forever known in trivia circles as the first woman to play Alice Kramden in "Honeymooners" sketches). Hooper hires Sally to appear at a high society soiree but she must pretend to be a Russian entertainer. Why? Because if she doesn't, there's no third act.

Originally filmed in two-strip technicolor, "Sally" exists now only in a black-and-white print with just a moment of two of recovered color footage. Here it is, from a number called "Wild Rose," with Sally doing her Russian act:


As a result of her appearance, Sally signs a big contract with Flo Ziegfeld and Blair disappears. Cut to Sally's opening night on Broadway, and a big old production number with dancers dressed as butterflies:


After the show, all of Sally's old friends come backstage to congratulate her, but Blair is nowhere to be found -- or IS he??!?!

Miller was a huge star on Broadway, but only made three films, with "Sally" being the first. She returned to the stage after the third film, 1931's "Her Majesty, Love," and died in 1936 of a sinus condition. She was 37.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Pre-Code vs Post-Code: "Whistling in the Dark"

Usually when we compare pre-code and post-code versions of the same movie, the big differences are in the tone or in dialogue of the films, with the pre-code example a more sophisticated -- and yet more earthy -- version of each.

In the case of the 1933 and 1941 versions of "Whistling in the Dark," however, the difference is more than that, and it comes down to the leads in both films -- the subtle, Broadway-inflected performance of Ernest Truex in the 1933 version and the more exaggerated performance of Red Skelton in the 1941 film,
informed by his work on the radio and in vaudeville.

Opening on Broadway in 1932, "Whistling in the Dark" by Laurence Gross and Edward Childs Carpenter came to the screen in 1933 with two of its main leads intact -- Edward Arnold as gangster Dillon and Truex as Wallace Porter, a best-selling author of mysteries who is forced into planning a real-life murder by Dillon and his associates. The author of the screenplay and the film's director is our old friend Elliott Nugent.

Dillon works for crime boss Lombardo (C. Henry Gordon) and is trying to extort protection money from stubborn brewer Otto Barfuss (our old friend Joseph Cawthorn). When Wally and his fiancee Toby (Una Merkel), on their way to get married, encounter car trouble just outside of Lombardo's estate, Wally meets Dillon and brags about his crime-solving expertise. Dillon holds Wally and Toby captive at the estate until Wally formulates a perfect murder plan that the gangsters can use on Barfuss.

Since prohibition and its related opportunities for crime were a moot point in 1941, the later version of "Whistling in the Dark" changes the gangster's estate to a "sanitarium" run by cult leader Jones (Conrad Veidt), whose racket is charming wealthy old ladies into joining his group and then leaving their earthly belongings to him when they pass.

Wally tries his sponsor's product.


The 1941 film also changes Wally's character to someone much more suited to Skelton's style of broad, visual comedy. Wally is still a crime expert, but here he is "The Fox," the hero of a radio show who, every night, foils the bad guys and saves Carol (Ann Rutherford), an actress who is also Wally's real-life girlfriend. The scene introducing Skelton's character nicely establishes that premise and shows us some fun footage of a radio show being produced:    



The opening also establishes that the 1941 version of Wally has not one but three women in his life -- Carol; Fran, the sponsor's daughter (Virginia Grey); and his business manager, Buzz (Eve Arden, not utilized enough). The evil Jones visits Wally and poses as a prospective sponsor for his show -- then when he gets Wally out to his estate, Jones forces him to plan the murder of an heir who is standing between Jones and a cult member's fortune. Carol and Fran end up at the mansion too, held captive with Wally.

In both films, Wally tries unsuccessfully to call for help, with Truex's underplaying taking the honors here -- he tries to make the call as quietly as possible and ends up mumbling into the mouthpiece:




The 1933 version of "Whistling in the Dark" contains several pre-code allusions, including cracks about bank failures and the stock market crash. Wally also drinks quite a bit. And there's an interesting scene that isn't in the 1941 version at all -- convinced that the gangsters will kill them, Wally and Toby lock themselves into a bedroom and exchange their wedding rings in their own ceremony. Toby then strips down to her camisole and hops into bed, ready to consummate the marriage while Wally flutters about, not knowing what to do.


On the other hand, there's a scene in the 1941 version that isn't in the 1933 film, and it's likely
inspired by the success of "The Ghost Breakers" of the year before, a haunted house movie with Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard. It involves Skelton, Rutherford and Grey trying to escape by following a secret passageway and running across assorted skeletons and mummies designed to supply a quick fright/laugh to the audience.

Wally does end up concocting a plan for murder that involves slipping poison into the victim's toothpaste tube. Once the gang leaves to implement the plan, Wally starts trying to contact the authorities by rigging up a radio to use as a transmitter. One of the denser gangsters finds out (played by Nat Pendleton in the 1933 film and Rags Ragland in the 1941 film), and Wally pretends he's doing a radio broadcast to throw the guy off. Here's how the scene plays out in both films:




When it comes to pacing, the 1941 version of "Whistling in the Dark" has it all over the 1933 version. The older version is too stagebound - it pretty much takes place in the one room where Wally and Toby are being held. And as good as Truex might have been on stage, his small stature and diffident comic manner don't translate very well to film. By contrast, for better or worse, Skelton pitches his performance to the back row, but it works. I'm not much of a Skelton fan, especially when it comes to his later sloppy TV performances, which can display a breathtaking contempt for the audience, but here he's fresh and funny.

The 1941 version of "Whistling in the Dark" was much more popular than the 1933 one -- so popular that Skelton appeared in two sequels. As for Truex, he alternated between Broadway and Hollywood, appearing in the films "Bachelor Mother" and "Christmas in July," among others, and the play "George Washington Slept Here," which was made into a 1942 film with Jack Benny. Truex also appeared in two episodes of "The Twilight Zone," including the classic "Kick the Can."

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

"Hell's Angels on Wheels," or Diff'rent Spokes

This time around on Motion Pictures Told Through Still Pictures with Goofy Captions we look at the 1967 film "Hell's Angels on Wheels," or as I like to think of it ...



Who is this fine, upstanding citizen? Kindly Father Harrigan
of the local parish? No, it is only Psycho -- er, Cycle Sid,
a member of the upstanding Hell's Angels. 

The Angels are a fun-loving group, dedicated to making
things better everywhere they go!

Jack is providing outstanding customer service at the local
gas station when he decides to join the Angels.

He leaves with his boss's blessing.

At first he alienates some of the members ...

... but Jack proves his mettle by giving a rival gang member
a swirly in a ladies' room toilet.

As a Hell's Angel, Jack receives continuing education
in subjects such as auto safety ...

... art appreciation ...

... guest speakers ...

... swimming ...

... and animal husbandry.


Then someone uncovers Jack's terrible secret ... he can't draw.

The revelation rips the Angels asunder and Jack
has no choice ... 

... he joins a rival group.




Thursday, August 20, 2015

Pre-Code vs Post-Code: "The Criminal Code" and "Convicted"

The title of the 1931 film"The Criminal Code," based on Martin Flavin's 1929 play, refers to two different codes -- the one in the law books, cut and dried and in black and white, administered by men like district attorney Martin Brady (Walter Huston). The other is the unofficial code among prison inmates to protect each other, even if it leads to physical abuse or solitary confinement.

Bob Graham (Phillips Holmes) is one of those inmates. He was sent up the river by Brady, and when Brady is named warden of the prison where Graham is serving his time, their paths cross again, as do the paths of Graham and Brady's daughter, Mary (Constance Cummings).

The 1931 film, directed by Howard Hawks, has an Oscar-nominated screenplay by Seton I. Miller and Fred Niblo, Jr. And it's a much bleaker view of prison life, with morally dicey characters to match, than its 1950 remake, "Convicted." (Miller and Niblo are also credited with the screenplay of "Convicted," along with William Bowers.)

In "Convicted," Broderick Crawford is the D.A.-turned-warden, here named George Knowland. And Glenn Ford is the inmate, here named Joe Hufford. Dorothy Malone plays Knowland's daughter, Kay, even though in real life Crawford was only 14 years older than Malone.

The characters of Brady and Knowland are similar on the surface -- assured, self-made men who believe in the system and in the sanctity of the law. But Brady has rougher edges -- he smokes stogies as opposed to Knowland, who prefers a more professorial pipe. And Brady is a bit of a politician -- he is given the warden's job as consolation for a losing race for governor, and he's always worried how things will look to his enemies. By contrast, Knowland is more able to see life's gray areas, if just barely.

The movie begins with a death -- the son of a prominent political figure has been killed by accident in a nightclub fight. The character played by Holmes and Ford -- we'll call him Bob/Joe -- is the "killer," although both prosecutors know that the act was accidental and in self-defense.

"Tough luck, Bob," Brady tells Bob in the 1931 film, "but that's the way things go ... you gotta take 'em the way they fall."

But Bob doesn't have to take 'em that way, and Brady knows it -- but he doesn't tell Bob.

"If that kid belonged to me," Brady tells his assistant (and no one else), "I'd make a plea of self-defense and fight it out. I'd get him out ... he'd never serve a day. A thing like this is liable to happen to anyone."

Brady is content to "let things fall" and let Bob face the music. Bob's counsel is just this side of incompetent -- he's a corporate attorney, hired by the brokerage house Bob works for, who knows nothing about criminal law. And Brady offers no guidance whatsoever.

In the 1950 film, Knowland at least advises Joe's attorney to hire a criminal lawyer. But it's for naught.

As expected, Bob/Joe is convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 10 years in prison. In the 1931 film, Brady stands stoically by as the sentence is passed and a bailiff picks his teeth. Bob's useless attorney blows off the whole thing with a simple "the best man won, I'm afraid" as Bob is taken away to the big house. In the 1950 film, Knowland at least shows some pangs of conscience -- he tells off Joe's lousy lawyer -- and his humanity is further emphasized by having daughter Kay with him, noting his sadness:




In prison, Bob/Joe makes friends with his two cellmates. One plans to escape; the other (Boris Karloff in the 1931 film, Millard Mitchell in the 1950 film) wants to off the yard master. Seems the head bull caught the prisoner, just after he was paroled, having a beer. Thanks to that parole violation, the prisoner is back in stir -- for 12 years. (That's one heck of a beer.)

Despite all that, Bob/Joe's best friends are his cellmates, and between them they illustrate that other criminal code -- the one that isn't in the law books.

Bob has been in prison, wasting away, for six years before Brady becomes warden; in the 1950 film, Joe has only been in for three years before Knowland's arrival. Because Brady/Knowland is responsible for putting so many of the inmates behind bars, they greet his arrival with "yammering" -- a long, loud series of growls. Both men decide that the only way to deal with the uprising in the prison yard is to confront the yammerers:




Meanwhile, Bob has been falling apart in prison. He works every day in the prison's dirty, dusty jute mill, spinning fiber into burlap. Then he receives word that his only contact with the outside world -- his mother -- has died. This leads to a breakdown in the jute mill and, after a doctor's intervention, Brady appoints Bob as his chauffeur.

In "Convicted," Joe is close to his father. and while he's in stir, Kay visits the old guy, creating a bond between she and Joe even before they meet. As opposed to Bob's stint in the jute mill, Joe works in the prison laundry -- not a perfect setting, but at least it's cleaner. Joe's breakdown occurs when he learns of his father's death, and as a result he's put into solitary -- it isn't until he's released from there that he joins Knowland's staff as chauffeur.

Still, Joe's time in solitary doesn't seem to affect him as much as Bob's. In general, in fact, Holmes looks like hell for a good part of this movie, while Ford looks like ... Ford.

As the prison chauffeur, Bob/Joe spends more time driving around the warden's daughter than he does the warden himself. And things start improving as prisoner and daughter are drawn to each other.

Then comes a crisis, one involving both of Bob/Joe's cellmates. One attempts to escape, only to be shot and killed because one of his co-conspirators was a stool pigeon. The other cellmate -- the one determined to kill the yard warden -- also sets his sights on the stoolie.

Warden Brady/Knowland is hiding the stoolie in his office.

"I gotta get him off my hands," Brady says to the head of the parole board. "Pardoned, paroled transferred -- anything!" So he has no hesitation about letting the guy go. Knowland is more principled -- he wants the guy transferred, but not set free.

This guy doesn't need Frankenstein makeup.
But it ends up being a moot point very quickly, because Bob/Joe's cellmate, who works as the warden's cook, sneaks into the warden's office and knifes the pigeon. (Karloff is supremely scary as the cellmate in the 1931 film; in the 1950 film, Millard Mitchell seems a lot more comfortable as a convict than he does as a studio head in "Singin' in the Rain.") The only witness to the murder is Bob/Joe, who won't talk, and he ends up in solitary, as much to save the warden's pride as anything.

It falls to the warden's daughter to set her father straight:




Bob/Joe is released from solitary and paroled, and the "happy" ending fits each film's tone -- Brady looks a little uneasy at the idea of his daughter marrying a convict, even a noble one; and Knowland and Joe joke about his picking up the daughter as nonchalantly as if it was a Saturday night date.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

The Charles Sellon Film Festival: "Bright Eyes" and "It's a Gift"

"Bah!"
Of all the actors and actresses who appeared in 1930s films, Charles Sellon (1870-1937) was certainly one of them.

A native of Boston, Sellon made his stage debut in 1901 and his film debut in 1923. He was rarely the lead; skinny and with a long face, with a mouth usually in a frown or scowl, he often played narrow-minded small-town types in roles of authority. In the 1925 silent film "The Monster," for instance, he was the ineffectual constable responsible for catching Lon Chaney as Dr. Ziska, a mad scientist who engineers car accidents so he can experiment on the survivors. He also played a cop who unsuccessfully tried to get the goods on Rudy Vallee in the latter's debut film, 1929's "The Vagabond Lover." He played a newspaper editor in several films, as well as druggists, mayors and justices of the peace.

But most often in the movies, Sellon was somebody's uncle. He played a character named Uncle Henry in three films -- 1923's "The Bad Man," 1925's "Old Home Week" and 1930's "Borrowed Wives." He was Uncle Joe in 1923's "Woman-Proof," Uncle Bill in 1924's "Lover's Lane" and, above all, he was crabby-but-lovable Uncle Ned in 1934's "Bright Eyes."

Yes, if you remember "Bright Eyes" at all, then I guarantee that you remember Sellon.

"Bright Eyes" is the Shirley Temple movie with Jane Withers (right) as Temple's bratty nemesis and the one where Temple sings "On the Good Ship Lollipop":


Temple is a tomboy named, um, Shirley. Her father, a pilot, was killed in a plane crash and her mother works as a maid for a snooty rich family with a bratty daughter played, you should excuse the expression, balls to the wall by Withers.

Shirley spends a lot of time with her godfather, also a pilot, nicknamed Loop (James Dunn), and his fellow flyboys at the local airport.

When Shirley's mom is hit by a car (!) on Christmas Day (!!) while she's taking a cake to the airport holiday party (!!!), a custody battle develops over her. On one side is Loop, and on the other side are Uncle Ned and another nice relative who was once engaged to Loop. Whoever will win?

"Bright Eyes" is the Shirley Temple movie I remember most vividly from when I was a kid, and I think it's for two reasons. One is this great scene between Temple and Withers:



And the other is Sellon, spinning around the mansion in his 1930s wheelchair, with a wicker back that's as long as his face. He's actually pretty darn good at maneuvering that thing -- in one scene no one will help Uncle Ned get downstairs so he rolls down himself a few steps at a time.








Despite his crabby exterior, Uncle Ned really loves Shirley, and in one scene where she kisses him on the cheek under a sprig of mistletoe, darned if his expression doesn't melt your heart.

In fact, "Bright Eyes" is pretty satisfying in a basic, fairytale way. Cinderella Shirley triumphs through plain old spunkiness, and yet she's allowed to act like a real kid -- when her mother is killed, it falls to Loop to tell Shirley, so he takes her up in his plane so that she can be closer to heaven, and she just cries. Period.



As lovable as Sellon is in "Bright Eyes," he's in another film, made the same year, as one of the most particularly unpleasant people in W.C. Fields's world of particularly unpleasant people -- Mr. Muckle in Fields's great "It's a Gift."


Again, if you remember "It's a Gift" at all, then I guarantee you remember Sellon. Mr. Muckle is blind, deaf and bitter. Today he'd be the target audience for Fox News. He is one of the many banes of the existence of grocer Harold Bissonette (Fields), who is besieged on all sides each day -- shrewish wife, obnoxious kids, incompetent employees, clueless customers.

What we have here is a failure to communicate.
Like pretty much all of Fields's films, "It's a Gift" unfolds in a loosey-goosey manner. There are three main sequences -- Bissonette (pronounced Bi-son-ay, as his wife would tell you) having a hard time at his store, trying to get some sleep on his back porch and on the road to California where he's bought an orange grove, much to his wife's displeasure, thanks to an inheritance from dear dead Uncle Bean.

Mr. Muckle is so wonderful because he's so awful. He goes against all the movie stereotypes about the handicapped. He's just an irritating guy who can't see or hear. And as he wreaks havoc in the store, Harold's efforts to keep him still escalate, as does his pleading -- "Sit down, Mr. Muckle! Sit down, honey!" (Side note -- on the animated series "Rugrats," Stu Pickles's boss was named Mr. Mucklehoney.) Anyway, here's the scene:


After appearing in a handful of movies in 1935, Sellon retired; he was 65 and it was time to start collecting that sweet, sweet Social Security that had just become law. He died two years later.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Awkward Early Talkie Theatre: "Lights of New York"

The opening exchange of the 1928 film "Lights of New York," a conversation between two gangsters in a hotel room, goes something like this:

Gangster 1: The bootleg rap against us has been dropped -- and we can go back to the big town tomorrow.

(Long pause, during which Lindbergh flies the Atlantic)

Gangster 2: Great! And what are we gonna use for money when we get there? Our bootleg joint is empty and we need dough!

(Long pause, during which Alexander Fleming invents penicillin)

Gangster 1: I've been taking care of that! You know that barber downstairs? He looks like a cinch to me. And after the talks we've been having, he thinks that joint of ours is a regular barber shop and not a speakeasy!

Billed as the first 100% all-talking film, "Lights of New York" should also get credit as a 100% all-pausing film. There are large cushions of air between every line of dialogue, and sometimes between words. And to include exclamation points in the dialogue is kind of misleading -- it implies that the actors deliver lines with some sort of emotion, and for the most part they don't.

But it didn't really matter. The film's novelty assured its financial success -- it was the second-highest grossing movie of 1928, beaten only by Al Jolson's "The Singing Fool." Still, even contemporary reviewers were less than impressed. Wrote Variety:

"It's that kind of a sappy mixture, the kind that recalls the mellers [melodramas] of ... ages ago. ... In a year from now everyone concerned in 'Lights of New York' will run for the river before looking at it again. ... [S]till, this talker will have pulling power, and the Warners' should get credit for nerve even if they didn't do it with a polish."

"Lights of New York" is the story of two small-town barbers -- Eddie (Cullen Landis) and Gene (Eugene Pallette). They are plying their trade in a hotel run by Eddie's mother. But they have dreams -- dreams of being big-time barbers in the Big Apple! Shearing scalps in the city that never sleeps! Scraping their straight razors across the mugs of Babe Ruth! Herbert Hoover! Fanny Brice! Here they discuss it, at length:


As illustrated above, people don't just say their lines in this movie -- they recite them. There's a lot of standing and proclaiming, and a lot of hooking of thumbs into vests. And there's music -- always music. In movies like this, a soundtrack is something to fill up, and music incessantly plays on the soundtrack whether or not it has any relation to the action.

Anyway, Eddie and Gene get a loan from Eddie's kindly mother and they set out for the concrete canyons. Six months pass, and Gene and Eddie realize they've been had. "About the only thing I shave around here are labels off bottles," sez Gene. (In fact, these guys never have any customers in the small town or in the big city. Maybe they're just lousy barbers!)

Eddie has rekindled a relationship with Kitty (Helene Costello), a girl from his hometown who works at a nightclub run by the evil bootlegger Hawk Miller (Wheeler Oakman). In a scene set in what we're told is "Central Park," Eddie and Kitty bemoan their fates. This clip has a little bit of everything -- cheesy sets, a line flub, bad acting and deadly pauses:



Then we hie to the nightclub, where we meet owner Hawk Miller and his mistress, Molly . They've been together a long time, and Hawk is starting to ogle the chorus girls, particularly Kitty.

Molly (to Hawk): You're a hound for chickens, ain't ya? You might get indigestion from too much chicken.

(Long pause during which wood turns to coal)

Hawk: Well, if I will, it won't be from an old hen.  
Hawk has killed a cop in the process of transporting illegal hooch, and he plans to frame Eddie for the murder. But when he confronts Eddie at the barber shop, a shot is fired! And the Hawk is grounded in one of the clumsiest death scenes you'll ever see.

And just when you think things can't any worse, enter Det. Crosby (Robert Elliott), whose slow cadences make everyone else seem like they're on cocaine. Molly the mistress confesses to the killing of Hawk, and Crosby stretches ten words into what seems like ten minutes:


The film careers of the romantic leads, Cullen Landis and Helene Costello, were kaput by 1930. Gladys Brockwell, who actually acts a little as Molly, was killed in a 1929 car crash. The only folks whose careers survived "Lights of New York" were Pallette; the cop, Robert Elliott (who went on to play dozens of cops); and Tom Dugan, who played comic bits in dozens of movies and, during World War II, found himself playing Hitler or Hitler surrogates in movies such as "Star Spangled Rhythm" and "To Be or Not to Be."

Friday, July 31, 2015

Pre-Code vs Post-Code: "State's Attorney" and "Criminal Lawyer"

The 1932 film "State's Attorney" and its 1937 remake, "Criminal Lawyer," are based on the same story by Louis Stevens.

But in the hands of different screenwriters working under different production codes -- and performed by lead actors with distinctively different styles -- you get two, well, different movies.

Stevens's story is about a flamboyant attorney who's the mouthpiece for a big-city gangster. Thanks to the gangster's influence, the attorney becomes the chief prosecutor and starts dreaming of the governorship. But then the gangster commits murder, and, thanks to the love of a good woman, the attorney risks the wrath of his biggest backer -- not to mention his life -- to see that justice is done.

Both films follow that plot. In the 1932 film, John Barrymore plays the attorney, named Tom Cardigan. In the 1937 film, Lee Tracy plays the attorney, named Barry Brandon.

The screenplay for the Barrymore film, "State's Attorney," was written by Rowland Brown and Gene Fowler. Brown was responsible for some tough, notable pre-code movies, including "Hell's Highway" and "Doorway to Hell." Fowler was a longtime Barrymore crony -- he kept vigil at Barrymore's deathbed and later wrote the Barrymore biography "Good Night, Sweet Prince."

So the character of Cardigan is very much colored by what seems like Barrymore himself -- a wisecracking blend of impishness and melancholy, with plenty of boozing thrown in. Barrymore slides from comedy to drama with great grace and style. He doesn't look like he's acting, which is the best kind of acting.

The Tracy film, "Criminal Lawyer," is likewise heavily colored by its leading man, which isn't necessarily a good thing.

Tracy's screen persona was that of a fast-talking operator who was often just this side of being a con artist. Barrymore knew how to let silence work for him; with the characters Tracy played, there aren't any moments of silence, because to stop talking meant that the rubes were more likely to catch on to your scheme.

Beyond that, the script for "Criminal Lawyer," written by G.V. Atwater and Thomas Lennon, is scrubbed clean of spice. Sure, there's crime aplenty, but very little of that sex stuff.

Both movies begin with a party thrown by the gangster -- in the 1932 film it's Valentine "Vanny" Powers, played by William Boyd, and in the 1937 film it's Larkin, played by Eduardo Ciannelli (seen with Tracy at left).

The party is raided, and we end up at night court. In both movies, the gangster orders the attorney to sweet talk the female judge into releasing the party without bail. But the attorney is feeling contrary, so instead he makes sure the judge sets bail -- at fifty bucks a person, which the gangster grudgingly pays.

Here is where things begin to diverge.

Next up on the night court docket is a woman -- in the 1932 film she's June, played by Helen Twelvetrees; in the 1937 film it's Madge, played by Margot Grahame.

Both women have been picked up for soliciting, although in the 1932 film it's much clearer. June, in fact, works for Vanny, which means he also does some pimping on the side. But as opposed to Vanny's well-heeled patrons, she really does need help, and Cardigan jumps in. First he reaches into his coat pocket, pulls out a wedding band, and slips it on June's finger. Then he stands before the judge and proceeds to pull on her heartstrings:


This is a pretty cynical scene, but Barrymore plays it completely straight and practically makes you believe him. As Brandon, Tracy isn't as conniving as Cardigan -- he doesn't carry a wedding band in his pocket. Madge is already wearing a costume jewelry ring, so he turns it so that its large setting is hidden and only the band shows. Oh, and Madge doesn't work for the gangster -- she's apparently a freelancer.

The way Cardigan cross-examines the cop who arrested June also has more of a pre-code bite. Seems the cop served a hitch in reform school, and if we don't get the point that he's a bad egg we hear that after being paroled he was sent back again for torturing a dog. In "Criminal Lawyer" we don't hear anything about that.

In both movies, the attorney ends up taking the woman back to his place. Cardigan gently removes June's coat and pours her a drink, and she asks him what he wants for breakfast in the morning. Brandon, on the other hand, wastes no time in getting Madge an apartment in his building. No impropriety (or breakfast, for that matter) here! June is pretty clearly kept by Cardigan, but not Madge -- she goes to work in Brandon's office, where she can gaze at him longingly.

Once they become chief prosecutors, both attorneys hitch their star to a headline-heavy murder case -- a housewife (named Nora Dean in the 1932 film, Nora James in 1937) is accused of killing her husband as he slept. Nora whoever contends it happened during a break-in. Both attorneys are determined to break down Nora on the stand, and the 1932 treatment is much more lurid than the 1937 one. Cardigan has the bed where the murder take place brought into the courtroom, so that the jurors can see the bloody sheets. Then he takes the murder weapon -- an iron sashweight -- and incessantly taps it on the metal bed as he questions the suspect. In the 1937 film, there are no such histrionics, and Brandon takes only about five seconds to elicit a confession from Nora:


Romantic rivals rear their ugly heads in both movies in the form of the spoiled daughter of a political kingmaker. In the 1932 film it's Jill Esmond as Lillian, who purrs lines like "to me there's something thrilling about a woman killing for love." She's hot to trot for Cardigan, who willingly (if drunkenly) marries her to ensure his political success, even if it means shafting June. Her 1937 film equivalent, Betty, played by Betty Lawford (Peter's cousin), is kind of wan, and she shanghais Brandon into marrying her.

In both movies, however, the woman's character is quickly disposed of because the attorneys quickly have second thoughts, and because the women have eager suitors waiting in the wings. And as luck would have it, both suitors are played by actors with tangential relationships to Astaire-Rogers musicals.

In the 1932 version, Lillian is wooed by Alvarez, played by Raul Roulien, who would also play Gene Raymond's rival for Dolores Del Rio's affections in "Flying Down to Rio." In the 1937 film, Brandon's romantic rival is Bandini, played by Erik Rhodes (left), the comic actor best known as the Italian gigolo in "The Gay Divorcee" and "Top Hat."

There's a scene in both movies where the attorney meets with the suitor and lets him know that he's cutting the daughter loose. In the 1937 film, it's done with lots of mugging from Rhodes, and in the 1932 version it's done over a glass of saline laxative -- see for yourself:





The dramatic climax of both movies comes when the gangster goes on trial for murdering a rival ("Bird Legs" Duffy in the 1932 film and "Bird Dog" Duffy in the 1937 film, if you must know). The murder was witnessed by June/Madge, but she won't talk for fear the gangster will harm Cardigan/Brandon. In the 1932 version, there's an even stronger reason for Cardigan to back off from prosecution -- he himself was a burglar and served time in reform school.

And the ending, the same in both movies, is what you'd expect for that time -- the attorney walks out of the courtroom with his self-respect intact, along with the woman who stood with him through thick and thin.

We'll close with one more moment from the Barrymore movie -- a drunken conversation between Cardigan and a carriage driver where Cardigan is plinking out the wedding march on a series of half-full glasses of beer: