For Reel

The Show of Shows (1929)
December 11, 2016, 8:08 pm
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Director: John G. Adolfi
1.5 Stars
the-show-of-showsWarner Brother’s response to the revue trend of the early sound period is a lumbering, stiff mess. For two hours and change, a camera parks itself in front of a stage as a series of performers are paraded by in skits that are often not well-suited to their strengths. If Fox’s answer to the genre in King of Jazz was aided by the fact that Fox had no stars and therefore had to mine a series of eccentric vaudeville performers, the spectacles that occur in The Show of Shows are often no more engrossing than Chester Morris and emcee Frank Fay engaging in awkward banter. As a relic of its time, it has its pleasures—the film makes a great case for Winnie Lightner’s talents in that she’s about the only performer to give the production the necessary pomp—but to suggest that the film’s creaky, stiff limitations are a product of the technology is exceedingly generous to director John G. Adolfi. Regardless of how it plays for modern audiences, however, Mordaunt Hall’s glowing review for the New York Times suggests that static or not, the spectacle of seeing most of Warner’s top stars engage in such material was enough to sell the film. Regardless, when the history books refer to the audience’s lack of interest in musicals shortly into the sound era, The Show of Shows is a clear example of how that fatigue could have set in so quickly.

Thunderbolt (1929)
August 20, 2016, 12:00 pm
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Director: Josef von Sternberg
4 Stars
ThunderboltJosef von Sternberg’s first foray into sound is a hugely unique, asynchronous genre picture—while some have referred to Thunderbolt as a sound remake of Underworld, it couldn’t be any different in terms of its tone and the way it betrays certain classical forms. It can’t be said that von Sternberg used sound in new ways because it was all new, but he undeniably saw a potential in sound that his contemporaries overlooked. His soundtrack is crowded with noise, with voices coming and going as a means of conveying the moving through space. Strangely, it has the feel of wall-to-wall musical, with the death row setting accompanied by a chorus that sometimes has a maddening effect (the claustrophobia is enhanced by the fact that the music is literally inescapable). Moreover, von Sternberg used sound as an extension of his expressionism—watch, for example, the simple scene wherein George Bancroft squeaks a dog toy, first slowly and then with a rapidity that creates a high-pitch wheezing. It’s an absurd sound and even gesture given the context, but something about the toy’s death wails seems appropriate—a manifestation of the sense of terror that Bancroft rarely shows glimpses of. Thunderbolt‘s first half is almost indisputably great (including a knockout night club sequence), but the latter half poses a number of interesting challenges. Von Sternberg’s camera movements are removed almost entirely, the dialogue moves at a snail’s pace, and the suspense isn’t quite there because Thunderbolt’s change of heart seems inevitable more than a possibility. And yet it is at the same time strangely unforgettable, with its soundtrack alone earning its place among the most ambitious of the early sound films.

Jazz Heaven (1929)
June 11, 2016, 7:50 pm
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Director: Melville W. Brown
3 Stars
Jazz HeavenJohnny Mack Brown (here billed just as John) was a former college football star who found his way to Hollywood in the late 1920s. After failing to connect in A-pictures for the major studios, he found his place as one of the premiere B-movie cowboys and a frequent star of serials. Jazz Heaven offers a rare chance to see Brown play a role against type—here, he’s an innocent songwriter who finds a muse that gets him out of a writing slump. She is played by Sally O’Neill, a perky, energetic starlet who one could very easily see as having had the potential to have a more successful career. If Brown and O’Neill are cute together—their early scenes writing music together come with the dual excitement of starting a new relationship and finding artistic inspiration—the plot is paper thin, playing as a harmless, if naive distraction in which the characters’ futures are never in serious jeopardy. Regardless, for 1929 the picture moves at a decent clip, thanks in large part to O’Neill’s lively deliveries, and the music matches the earnest sentimentality of the narrative.

The Love Parade (1929)
February 5, 2016, 7:16 pm
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Director: Ernst Lubitsch
4 Stars
The Love ParadeThe Love Parade might be the kinkiest film made in Hollywood’s Golden Age, its pleasures involving the shifting sadomasochistic relationship between a Queen (Jeanette MacDonald) and the man she makes her love slave (Maurice Chevalier). If that approach isn’t titillating enough on its own, director Ernst Lubitsch makes this a picture very much about voyeurism, riddling the material with games of seeing and not seeing. When Chevalier proclaims his devotion in the musical number “Anything to Please the Queen”, Lubitsch doesn’t simply show the two lovers in the throes of courtship, but cuts to a man peaking through a curtain to watch them. Similarly, not long after, a crowd of onlookers discuss the behavior of the lovers on their date, giving a play-by-play commentary as they enter the bedroom together. Only Hitchcock revels in this level of fetishism–calling this a romantic comedy almost seems too polite. The result is one of the most agreeable and pleasant musicals of its time (it was actually the first non-revue movie musical), an indisputable touchstone in the Battle of the Sexes and an all-in-all sheer delight. Complimenting the relationship between Chevalier and MacDonald is a great sub-plot involving Lupino Lane and Lillian Roth. If Lane initially seems grating in his earliest appearances, his dance number brings the same thrills as Donald O’Connor in Singin’ in the Rain, showing an acrobatic prowess that defies our expectations about what a human being can physically make himself do.

The Cocoanuts (1929)
July 21, 2015, 4:11 pm
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Director(s): Robert Florey & Joseph Santley
3 Stars
The CocoanutsThe first feature film to star the Marx Brothers, The Cocoanuts is a stagy, ponderous effort that is a few swings below the team’s usual par. Of directors Robert Florey and Joseph Santley, Groucho famously remarked, “One of them didn’t understand English, the other didn’t understand comedy.” It is clear that some things were lost from stage to screen–in a few clumsy long shots, characters walk on and off the screen and break the comedic flow of the material, and in other instances actors are awkwardly cut off by the frame. In a particularly egregious sequence, Florey frames Harpo’s leg routine with Kay Francis above the waist, meaning that audiences barely get a sense of what the great physical comedian is doing with the entirety of his body. Regardless, one doesn’t always come to a Marx Brothers film for inspired direction or an engaging narrative, and The Cocoanuts does contain a handful pleasures amongst its assemblage of vignettes. Harpo, in particular, is a stand out in that he is even more chaotic than in his later films. While he would eventually gain a tinge of sweetness in later productions, here he plays a devilish frustration that uses anything and anyone as a prop. Santley’s dance numbers are of some interest in that they predict Busby Berkeley’s numbers, rife with overhead kaleidoscopic shots and a number of low angles that fetishize the dancer’s legs.

So Long Letty (1929)
November 24, 2014, 1:12 am
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Director: Lloyd Bacon
3.5 Stars
So Long LettyCharlotte Greenwood was a well respected entertainer on Broadway but she hardly seemed like a bankable candidate for movie stardom. She’s not unattractive–she sort of looks like a cross between Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Blondell–but the clumsy way that she moves her lanky, six foot frame is far from the expected grace of a typical screen starlet. But it’s precisely that type of loose, free energy that makes her a perfect embodiment of the spirit of the Jazz Age. So Long Letty was her first talkie and, like her performance, it’s the rare film from the first year of sound that has a certain energy in the filmmaking. Although the camera remains mostly static, director Lloyd Bacon utilizes cuts relatively often and to good effect. Sometimes it is a simple change of scale, but most often the cuts are used to “pair” up two of the actors–a nice touch for a film about a wife swap (when the husbands are talking about the wives, for example, Bacon will alternate between medium closeups of the two wives and then the two husbands). The ceaseless score similarly keeps the pace moving, as does the endlessly witty dialogue (adapted from Oliver Morosco’s play) that is theatrical in its repetition and rhyming schemes without being distracting.

Seven Keys to Baldpate (1929)
October 18, 2014, 5:01 pm
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Director: Reginald Barker
3.5 Stars
Seven Keys to BaldpateThe fourth adaptation of the Earl Derr Biggers/George M. Cohan play Seven Keys to Baldpate was RKO’s final release of their first year of production and starred the popular leading man Richard Dix. He plays William Magee, a novelist who makes a bet that he can finish a novel in 24 hours if he has peace and quiet. His accommodating agent gives him the seclusion he desires by providing him with what is said to be the lone key to a remote inn… only, as the title hints, it’s actually one of seven. The picture has the expected technical limitations that came with the first year of sound, but director Reginald Barker capably uses shadows and the sound of howling winds and bashing shutters to effectively set the eery tone. Dix plays his role as a cocksure braggart, a man who always believes himself to be in charge even as things are spiraling further out of his control by the minute. It’s a likable performance–one that even allows him the occasional comic moment (he has a handful of nice reaction shots in which he responds to the absurdity of the situation)–and it’s well-suited to the parodic narrative.

Tanned Legs (1929)
October 17, 2014, 4:35 pm
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Director: Marshall Neilan
2 Stars
Tanned LegsRKO began filming the comedy Tanned Legs in their first year of production before hastily reshooting it with a handful of musical numbers in tow. The resulting performances are understandably weak–the dance choreography is occasionally laughable and the singing isn’t particularly good (save for the terrific Ann Pennington)–but that’s not to say that it would have been a better film without them. As the leading man, Arthur Lake is a dope, and the rather familiar romantic comedy plot veers towards laughable melodrama by the end. Who would have thought that a light-hearted, pleasant musical could nearly end in fratricide? At least June Clyde is affable as the lead, as is Sally Blane as her sister. The aforementioned Pennington is clearly the most talented entertainer of the bunch, but she’s unfortunately relegated to a small part and her climactic dance number is butchered by the editing.

The Very Idea (1929)
October 17, 2014, 4:30 pm
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Director(s): Frank Craven & Richard Rosson
1.5 Stars
The Very IdeaA comedy involving a surrogate mother seems shockingly ahead of its time for the late 1920s, but unfortunately that’s the only thing cutting edge about The Very Idea. Adapted from a Broadway flop, the fourth film produced by the newly established RKO Pictures was a critical and commercial failure at the time of its release. It’s a staid comedy (even for 1929), with much of the film composed of long shots in which the characters have conversations with each other while facing the camera. The scale doesn’t even show basic consistency–in some sequences, the characters occupy the bottom half of the frame and their feet are cut off, and in others much of the floor is exposed. More problematically for modern viewers, the film’s content involves a light-hearted treatment of eugenics, with an insufferable intellectual played by director Frank Craven bringing together two working class people (Hugh Trevor and Sally Blane) as “thoroughbreds” to produce a child for his sister and her new husband (Doris Eaton and the obnoxious Allen Kearns). Coupled with dialogue like, “women are almost as good as men are!”, it’s an exceedingly ugly comedy, and one might expect by its box office failure that audiences of the time shared the sentiment.

The Last of Mrs. Cheyney (1929)
March 1, 2012, 10:27 pm
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Director: Sidney Franklin

Adapted from the highly successful Broadway play of the same name, The Last of Mrs. Cheyney was the first picture with a soundtrack to be produced for MGM. With the technology still archaic, it is not unlike other early talkie efforts from the same year – stagey, with inconsistent performances, and filmed without sophisticated camera movements. Nevertheless, director Sidney Franklin wisely incorporates a few early experiments with the new innovation, such as a sequence in which party guests are suggested with a use of chatter on the soundtrack despite not being present on the screen. While some of the performers are excessive, the great Norma Shearer, accomplished during the silent years, brings a dignity and the needed charisma to the character of a woman who is so agreeable that she can charm her way out of potential imprisonment. The plot, which was later adapted in 1937 under the same name and in 1951 as The Law and the Lady, concerns a group of jewel thieves, led by Shearer, who poses as a widow in order to earn the trust of wealthy aristocrats. On her tail in this adaptation is Basil Rathbone, a womanizer who, for the first time, is considering marriage having fallen for the appealing grifter. Shearer’s character is a strong, enterprising, modern woman who gets by using her intellect, however the title refers to a poorly-conceived rebirth in which she sheds her thieving past for a life as an obedient wife. The picture is of some interest for fans of the pre-Code era because it contains a character who is frequently alluded to within the text as being a homosexual (even he, however, is seduced by the divine Shearer).