For Reel

King of Jazz (1930)
October 26, 2016, 11:18 pm
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Director: John Murray Anderson
3.5 Stars
king-of-jazzAnxious to capitalize on the success of early musicals but failing to have the right name stars under contract for such a major production, Universal collaborated with iconic bandleader Paul Whiteman for this ill-fated musical revue. If musicals were all the rage at the time King of Jazz went into production, by the time it was completed a year later audiences were already over them. The film was a significant flop for the studio (thankfully the studio was in the clear after the success of All Quiet on the Western Front), and only now has the musical’s reputation been reconsidered as an unusual curiosity of early sound, 1930s Jazz, and two-strip technicolor. As with many revues, King of Jazz has little plot to speak of, instead evoking a vaudeville show through a series of acts that radically disturb the tone at a moment’s notice. An elegant bridal procession can flow seamlessly into the lowbrow antics of subpar wordplay. Some of the vignettes are either bad or too slight to register, but King of Jazz does allow glimpses at a handful of little-photographed performers, the highlight of which being a hugely sexual contortionist dance number performed by Marion Stattler and Don Rose.

Going Wild (1930)
August 8, 2016, 12:12 pm
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Director: William A. Seiter
2.5 Stars
Going WildReleased shortly after his affable Top Speed, Going Wild finds Joe E. Brown once again playing a wisacre who pretends to be someone he’s not, eventually culminating in a race he isn’t able to talk his way out of. The formula is again a relatively satisfying one, thanks in large part to Brown’s unlikely charisma—although the audience is behind him, they are equally happy to watch him sweat for a large part of the picture. Brown found enormous success with rural audiences in the 1930s, so it is somewhat surprising to see him cast in these urbane roles early in his sound career. Whereas films like Earthworm Tractors or The Tenderfoot cast Brown as a sort of fish-out-of-water who almost seems removed from time, in Going Wild he more closely resembles an upper class sophisticate—his rouse coming from the charismatic advantages he possesses as a fast-talking journalist. The film is hit and miss, involving everything from a horribly out of place music number (the film was initially filmed as a full-fledged musical before all but the one remaining song were cut) to a nicely imaginative medical exam sequence.

One Night at Susie’s (1930)
June 11, 2016, 7:53 pm
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Director: John Francis Dillon
2.5 Stars
One Night at Susie'sBillie Dove enjoyed a meteoric rise in the late 1920s before her career came to an end shortly after a highly publicized affair with Howard Hughes. Although One Night at Susie’s allows audiences to see her in one of her last films, the woman the picture takes its name from is actually played by Helen Ware, memorably bringing to life a tough, no-nonsense boarding house owner. In an early scene, she has a group of gangsters at her service, demanding that they put their arms in her possession. Why she has such power over these men remains a mystery, but the dynamic is a compelling one. Interestingly enough, Susie is gobsmacked to find out that her foster son (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) wishes to marry a chorus girl (Dove), suggesting an immorality that sinks below even her usual crowd! Those interested in women’s pictures of the pre-Code era will delight in both Ware’s performance and the remarkable scene in which Fairbanks Jr. discovers that Dove has murdered a producer who attempted to rape her. Much of what follows are the familiar, creaky proceedings of a 1930 melodrama, although director of photography Ernest Haller contributes some striking images. In one advanced special effects scene, Haller employs a clever use of rear projection to make it look like the camera tracks from an elevator shaft and onto the destination floor.

Wide Open (1930)
March 30, 2016, 4:38 pm
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Director: Archie Mayo
3 Stars
Wide OpenThose familiar with Edward Everett Horton in films like Holiday or the Astaire & Rogers vehicles will be delighted to see the usual supporting actor take on a rare leading role in Wide Open. His character is not too far removed from those that he played in 1930s comedies—he’s hapless and exasperated, finding himself in various situations that lead to his embarrassment. Wide Open expands the potential of this type by suggesting the wholesomeness of it. If Horton will amusingly steam with frustration as he continues to have the rug pulled out from underneath him, the desperation for a laugh eventually gives way to something that aspires for audience empathy, if only to celebrate his very perseverance. Moreover, while Horton is usually characterized as sexless, here he is equally virginal but still nonetheless a bachelor who, shortly into the film, turns red in the face as a beautiful young woman (Patsy Ruth Miller) finds herself half naked in his apartment. Horton and Miller have a likeable chemistry together, and there is a party sequence that includes a memorable interpretation of “Nobody Cares If I’m Blue” (sung with an appropriate drunken desperation by Louise Fazenda). Without Horton as the lead, Wide Open would be a forgettable entertainment, but fans of the actor will take an added interest in the material.

Animal Crackers (1930)
July 21, 2015, 4:18 pm
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Director: Victor Heerman
3.5 Stars
Animal CrackersAfter they had enormous success in bringing their stage hit The Cocoanuts to movie screens in 1929, the Marx Brothers would repeat the formula for Paramount by bringing yet another one of their Broadway musicals to film. Animal Crackers involves the tomfoolery that occurs at the party of a society matron (Margaret Dumont), including a series of misplaced paintings and the arrival of an infamous wise-cracking explorer, Captain Spaulding (Groucho Marx). As a filmed stage play, their second outing still feels very staid, however the art deco design of the mansion contributes some interesting visuals. Also an upgrade over their previous outing is that the tedious, familiar subplot involving young lovers is given less screen time, as are the musical numbers. Director Victor Heerman reportedly was in favor of eliminating such superfluous elements so as to keep the comedy the central focus, which was the pattern that would follow for the Brothers’ successive films. Harpo is slightly more toned down than in The Cocoanuts, where he came off as a demonic pest. Groucho delivers a few of his most famous quips, including the monologue involving hunting elephants that is so over-stuffed with wordplay that one is bound to miss a few of the jokes while they’re laughing.

Bright Lights (1930)
June 27, 2015, 11:50 am
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Director: Michael Curtiz
2.5 Stars
Bright LightsBright Lights is a standard pre-Code backstage musical, elevated on occasion by its bizarre production numbers and the reliably lively performance from Dorothy Mackaill. She plays Louanne, a successful actress who is set to marry a rich bachelor instead of the man that she truly loves (Frank Fay). In a series of flashbacks, it is revealed that her socialite past was an embellishment, and instead she made her living as a showgirl at a series of shady venues. From there, the plot gets so convoluted that a murder is lightly taken as an afterthought. The original technicolor print of the picture was lost, and one gets the sense that the film was made very much as a showcase for the technology. Mackaill’s blush stands out as particularly dark, and Fay’s face is caked in makeup–small aesthetic touches that would have looked very different in the color prints. Regardless, there are a handful of enjoyable production numbers, including one in which Mackaill performs in drag as a “man about town”, and another in which she sings, “I’m crazy for cannibal love!” in full jungle attire. Fay, a star of vaudeville and the man who brought Barbara Stanwyck to Hollywood, doesn’t translate particularly well to film. His rendition of “Nobody Cares If I’m Blue” rids the song of all of its aching. It could have been a moment that earned empathy for his character, but instead his instinct is to play it ironically.

The Office Wife (1930)
May 20, 2015, 10:17 pm
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Director: Lloyd Bacon
2.5 Stars
The Office WifeIn an unusual opening scene in this Warner Brothers comedy, a lesbian writer suggests the idea of an “office wife”–that is, when a businessman’s secretary becomes an even more dependable partner than his own wife. Anne Murdock (Dorothy Mackaill) is convinced she isn’t such a sap (she’s replacing a secretary who was hopelessly in love with her boss), but it’s not long before she finds out that she’s not the gold digger she thought she could be and she begins to fall for her publisher employer, Larry Fellowes (Lewis Stone). Mackaill has had a bit of resurgence in recent years thanks to the rediscovery of William A. Wellman’s pre-Code masterpiece Safe in Hell, but The Office Wife doesn’t see her at her best. For one, she’s paired with the woefully miscast Stone, who lacks the sex appeal that a Warren William might have brought to the part. Furthermore, she’s too genuine and sensitive a performer to even play at the suggestion of being a simple gold digger, and unfortunately for her she was cast alongside a sexy, brazen newcomer named Joan Blondell. In one of her first film roles, Blondell shines in what would be a protypical part for her in the early 1930s–she delivers sassy one-liners in various states of undress, stealing the show with her immodest, shameless energy.

Top Speed (1930)
December 1, 2014, 2:09 am
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Director: Mervyn LeRoy
3.5 Stars
Top SpeedJoe E. Brown had rapidly become one of the most bankable stars at Warner Brothers in the early 1930s with a handful of musical comedies beginning with the 1929 color spectacle On with the Show. Top Speed, based on the hit Broadway musical released the previous year (the production that discovered a 17-year-old ingenue named Ginger Rogers), gave him one of his first starring vehicles. The plot concerns a pair of bond clerks (Brown and Jack Whiting) who pose as millionaires to impress a couple of rich women (Bernice Claire and Laura Lee). As expected of a Warner Brothers production of the era, it moves quickly and brims with snappy dialogue and racy material. Lee is a terrific match for Brown, playing his aggressive, over-eager romantic partner. They have a couple of amusing dance numbers in which Lee coaches the awkward, elastic Brown on how to appropriately move his legs. A climactic boat race feels like an afterthought, although it involves some hilarious exchanges between Brown and Frank McHugh, who was appearing in only his second ever film as–what else?–a humorous drunk.

Eleven Men and a Girl (1930)
December 1, 2014, 2:05 am
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Director: William A. Wellman
2 Stars
Eleven Men and a GirlAlthough the premise of a woman seducing eleven men seems extreme even for the pre-Code era, Eleven Men and a Girl is largely a frothy, harmless ride. Joan Bennett plays the pack rat–only twenty at the time, she had already starred alongside the likes of John Barrymore and George Arliss. She had an impressive career to follow but is largely a dud here, with her wooden deliveries and general inexpressiveness only rendered excusable by the fact that ten of her co-stars are non-actors (unfortunately her love interest in James Hall doesn’t have that excuse). Joe E. Brown plays the college football star who enlists Bennett’s help to seduce a new winning team and he delivers some humorous mugging but is ultimately sidelined for much of the picture. Director William A. Wellman was a fresh face at Warner Brothers (after a brief stint at Paramount in which he directed the first-ever Best Picture winner Wings) and would go on to make far better films for the studio in subsequent years. There are some interesting stagings and the climactic football game is effectively edited to elevate the action, but Wellman usually wasn’t involved with such limp material, especially in the decade this was released.

Shooting Straight (1930)
October 27, 2014, 6:51 pm
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Director: George Archainbaud
3.5 Stars
Shooting StraightAn infamous gambler steals the identity of a minister in Shooting Straight, an intense crime drama featuring a terrific performance by Richard Dix. As a tough guy, Dix is ruthless, but only when he needs to be–his interest is in the love of the game, with the dark underbelly of the gambling world being an unfortunate byproduct of his lifestyle. The screenplay by J. Walter Ruben takes a special interest in the hypocrisy of moralizing religious reformers–there are numerous scenes of Dix, posing as the minister, parading through a hall of gamblers before joining in on the games himself. As with many crime pictures of the period, the line separating hero and villain is a thin one. In the climax, a chaotically violent bare knuckle brawl breaks out–chairs are thrown, mirrors are broken–and director George Archainbaud and cinematographer Edward Cronjager stage the sequence with a few innovative overhead angles that memorably add to the intensity of the fight.