For Reel

Frankenstein (1931)
November 6, 2016, 9:55 pm
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Director: James Whale
4.5 Stars
frankensteinAlthough Dracula was shot by Karl Freund, a key figure in establishing the aesthetic of German expressionism in the 1920s, it is actually James Whale’s Frankenstein that bears more obvious resemblances to the form. From the opening scene in which Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) and his hunchback assistant (Dwight Frye) scour a cemetery for fresh corpses, Whale’s predilection for the theatrical and cinematographer Arthur Edeson’s harsh, diagonal lines creates an uncanny atmosphere driven by a darkness in tone—if the cemetery is blatantly a soundstage, its very falseness amplifies the Gothic atmosphere, with the crooked tombstones and lurching figure of Death signifying that the unholy is being done. Frankenstein makes a good argument for being the film that popularized the German expressionist aesthetic in Hollywood, and just as significantly it is undoubtedly the first horror film as the genre became to be known. While Dracula left more to mystery (any act of violence happened only after the screen had faded to black), Frankenstein is blatant with its shocks. Boris Karloff’s monster is justifiably the iconic takeaway from the film, but Clive’s mad scientist both has the right mad fury and a level of humanity to him—when the scientist is aware of the horrors his creature is capable of, it’s something special that Clive can convincingly transition the mad scientist persona into a man who is mournful and genuinely sorry for the hell that he has wrought.

Dracula (1931)
October 30, 2016, 5:13 pm
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Director: Tod Browning
4.5 Stars
draculaIt is often remarked that Dracula becomes an utter slog once the Count makes his way to England—a criticism that both has to do with Bram Stoker’s original novel (the Jonathan Harker scenes do build up to an irresistible climax before the story all but hits the reset button) and the fact that this Tod Browning picture settles into a mode that seems more familiar of an early sound drawing room drama. But the so-called staginess of Dracula and the absence of a musical score is the key to its atmosphere, typified by Bela Lugosi silently lurching and interrupting the soundtrack with his slow, methodical line deliveries. Lugosi’s performance is great for a myriad of reasons, but it his postures and gestures that create the most compelling scenes—in fact, at its best, Dracula is ultimately a film about posture, particularly in the dynamic between the elegant Lugosi and the manic Dwight Frye as Renfield. If Browning’s film does indeed have the creaks of an early sound film, there is no other film from the period in which those creaks so effectively contribute to the mood—the fact that Count Dracula himself is characterized as a mannered, respectable man on the surface even contributes to a sense of the drawing room satire. Lugosi was such a remarkably charismatic man that he could hypnotize the audience while performing the slowest of gestures, and most of the pleasure of the film has to do with watching Lugosi’s Dracula eerily move through the space, more ghostly than the novel’s animalistic interpretation.

Broadminded (1931)
August 8, 2016, 12:18 pm
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Director: Mervyn LeRoy
3 Stars
BroadmindedBroadminded opens with one of the most bizarre, fetishistic sequences in a pre-Code comedy—a high society party in which all the attendees are dressed as babies. The centerpiece involves Joe E. Brown riding in a crib, wearing a bonnet, and drinking from a milk bottle as a dozen or so attractive young women watch in suggestive admiration. From there, it’s a pretty standard road picture, but some of the particulars (including a threatening adversary played by Bela Lugosi) feel similarly unique. At this stage in his career, the studios didn’t seem to quite know how to best serve Brown’s persona—as with Going Wild, here he suggests the standard of the modern man, with his very stylishness clashing with his brash persona and creating a fairly unlikable combination. To better serve all audiences, Brown would later appear more wholesome, both in his demeanor and in steering pretty clear of the sexuality that opens Broadminded. Aside from Lugosi, Thelma Todd also appears in a small role, giving the film the appeal of seeing both of the performers before their careers would take drastic (in Todd’s case, tragic) turns. Marjorie White steals the show as the blonde who has her sights set on Brown, and Margaret Livingston contributes fine work as the high society ex-fiancée of William Collier Jr.

Sit Tight (1931)
August 8, 2016, 12:14 pm
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Director: Lloyd Bacon
2.5 Stars
Sit TightAs with Going Wild, his previous comedy for First National Pictures, Sit Tight is yet another Joe E. Brown musical in which almost all of the musical numbers were cut before release due to audience exhaustion. The one significant exception makes one wonder what direction the rest of the film might have taken—in a fantasy sequence, Brown imagines Winnie Lightner dressed in a feather turban and shaking her rear. And yet if the cuts robbed audiences of a musical about professional wrestling, Sit Tight does provide the inspired casting of Brown and Lightner as co-stars—if Lightner is woefully underutilized, she is just the sort of talent to compliment Brown. Whereas Brown exceeds with mugging and reaction shots, Lightner’s great talents are as a female Lee Tracy—she’s a smack-talking motormouth, putting everyone around her in their place. Their scenes together are predictably enjoyable but frankly there are too few of them (one wishes the film scrapped a bland romantic subplot in favor of more of their interactions together). Despite her casting, Sit Tight is not particularly better or worse than the average Brown vehicle, including the reliably amusing action scene (this time making great use of Brown’s athleticism) and a few moderately enjoyable scenes in which the loudmouth gets put in his place.

The Millionaire (1931)
June 25, 2016, 4:57 pm
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Director: John G. Adolfi
3.5 Stars
The MillionaireIn the early-1930s, there is perhaps no better example of a Hollywood star as the auteur of their films than George Arliss. After prestige picture Disraeli proved to be a big hit, the unlikely star not only had the respect of his peers, but new freedom at the studios. The Millionaire is a key example of Arliss’ forward-thinking genius in that he personally cast James Cagney for the role of a braggadocios insurance salesman who prompts the turning point in the film. It’s a small but crucial role, and the scene itself is a fascinating clash in styles—it is remarkable that a British thespian with a theater background could recognize the brilliance in Cagney’s unhinged, neurotic line deliveries. The rest of the picture is as charming as one would expect from Arliss, rife with his bemused reactions as he slyly controls the people around him, working as a sort of puppet master over the younger generation. As charming as the later scenes are (Evalyn Knapp is irresistible as his young daughter), Arliss’ true genius tends to come through in the melancholic moments. Here, there’s a bittersweet farewell to the automobile factory he built. The sequence plays much longer than one might typically expect, and Arliss focuses on the gestures with terrific detail—the way he studies the engine he innovated, how he throws his keys on the table. A bittersweet piano rendition of Auld Lang Syne accompanies the scene, giving equal credence to both the farewell and to the promise of the future (the poetic equivalent of the Cagney/Arliss scene, which similarily carries the weight of the passing of a generation and the rise of the next).

The Big Gamble (1931)
June 25, 2016, 4:51 pm
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Director: Fred Niblo
3 Stars
The Big GambleThis proto-noir sees William Boyd (later of Hopalong Cassidy fame) play gambler Alan Beckwith, who out of world-weary desperation comes to the conclusion that the only way to get out of his debt is to kill himself. For no particular reason, he agrees to a deal with the shady Andrew North (Warner Oland), who has proposed to take out a life insurance policy on Boyd that he can collect on a year later. When North arranges for Beckwith to marry Beverly Ames (Dorothy Sebastian) as a means of collecting the insurance profits, one can imagine that complications that might arise as Beckwith’s promised day of death draws near. If the performers are uniformly lackluster and the script doesn’t do them many favors, The Big Gamble is elevated significantly by its remarkable visual style. Cinematographer Hal Mohr uses expressive lighting in a way that predicts the film noirs of the 1940s, suiting the fatalistic narrative quite well. More impressive is a remarkable car chase in the finale, which occurs on darkened city streets with fluid camerawork and an exciting rhythm provided by editor Joseph Kane. Boyd conveys neither his sense of hopelessness or is convincing as a man with a new lease on life, but Oland (the first of the actors to play Charlie Chan) is amusing as the devious reprobate who is all too eager to collect on the deal.

Her Majesty, Love (1931)
May 27, 2016, 9:04 pm
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Director: William Dieterle
3.5 Stars
Her Majesty, LoveFor being a largely forgotten, disposable programmer, Her Majesty, Love is full of interesting trivia facts. It was W.C. Fields’ first sound film, the second American film for director William Dieterle, and the final film of Broadway legend Marilyn Miller of the Ziegfield Follies. The plot—so simple it barely registers—involves the typical drama between lovers of different social classes, although to the film’s detriment it is never particularly humorous in its delivery, nor do the stars show the sparkling chemistry needed to sustain the tension. Regardless, it is graced with a sometimes exhilarating visual style, with the opening scene involving a camera winding through a speakeasy, matching the drunken excess with visual energy. Favoring high contrast lighting, cinematographer Robert Kurrle makes the silvers and whites glow all the more, intensifying the elegance of the fashion. Just as important to the visual style are the cuts by editor Ralph Dawson—in a remarkable jump cut, Dawson transitions from papers being scattered on a desk to pigeons taking off in Venice. If Her Majesty, Love plays as routine in its plotting, these flashes of visual sophistication place it above many other genre films of the time.

Stranger in Town (1931)
May 27, 2016, 9:01 pm
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Director: Erle C. Kenton
3.5 Stars
Stranger in TownIn the pre-Code era, Warner Brothers led the industry with progressive films that dealt with serious political issues. Perhaps the most famous of these was I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, which forgoes simple preaching in favor of depicting the brutality in all of its rawness, justly sparking an outrage in the American public. If Stranger in Town plays as a typical maudlin family drama, it shares a similar resonance to many of the studio’s social interest pictures in the way it discusses just what happens to small businesses when bigger stores come into town, and ultimately the humiliation of being undercut by the competitors. Just as importantly, it affords a respectable role for the terrific Ann Dvorak—she is the voice of reason, speaking for progress (she pushes her father into revamping his business) and even harboring a rebellious streak (she engages in a love affair with the competitor). Beloved vaudevillian mainstay Charles “Chic” Sale plays the store owner, whose performance doesn’t stray far enough from the “old coot” type, but he is a smarter actor than the surface might have one think—his stubbornness is chipped away bit by bit throughout the movie, making his character’s ideological transition happen smoothly. If Stranger in Town is not among the most memorable Warner Brothers pictures of its time, it does serve as a useful example of what the studio was capable of at its peak, and just how far ahead it was of its competition in terms of producing smart, adult films that reflected on the world around them.

Sundown Trail (1931)
April 23, 2016, 5:51 pm
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Director: Robert F. Hill
1.5 Stars
Sundown TrailIn 1930, a directionless supporting actor named George Duryea was rebranded as Tom Keene, a move that would launch for him a modestly successful career as a B-western cowboy for RKO Studios. Sundown Trail is the first western Keene made under his new name and it finds him serving as the foreman of a ranch that the owner’s daughter (Marion Schilling) has newly inherited. Although she wishes to sell, her father’s will states that she must live on the ranch for five years, and in that time Keene will continue to work as the foreman. Preposterous as the set-up is (matchmaking from beyond the grave), there is some enjoyment to be had in watching the awkwardly arranged household function, and Keene and Schilling are fairly affable with their flirtatious banter. The budget and time constraints are clearly in view as edits often don’t match and there are the occasional inconsistencies in visual style (for no apparent reason, the leads speak directly to the camera in one scene). What can be redeemed happens in the climax, which finds some impressive stunt work and a fairly well-choreographed brawl. Routine as they come and rough around the edges, Sundown Trail will appeal to those interested in B-westerns and few others.

The Smiling Lieutenant (1931)
February 5, 2016, 7:19 pm
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Director: Ernst Lubitsch
3.5 Stars
The Smiling LieutenantErnst Lubitsch, who made a career by poking jabs at aristocracy, delivers what might be his most condensed rebuttal against the traditions of old in The Smiling Lieutenant. In the climax, Princess Anna (Miriam Hopkins) confronts the woman (Claudette Colbert) that her new husband (Maurice Chevalier) has been having an affair with. Instead of a fiery battle between the two women, they treat each other with enormous compassion and respect–it’s an uncharacteristic moment of womanly bonding, showing a certain emotional maturity that Chevalier’s character is wrought as lacking (in fact, he’s often compared to a child). Colbert’s Franzi eventually gives up her connection with Chevalier while simultaneously giving Anna a lesson about what it is to live freely and with confidence. The resulting number, “Jazz Up Your Lingerie”, involves both actresses at their best, and aside from its mere pleasantries, marks a memorable transition between a Victorian sensibility and the new Jazz Age. Some critics have misinterpreted Anna’s transformation as a humiliation and a compromise, neglecting the fact that Anna has shown this passion previously–look no further than her glee when she discovers exactly what a wink means. The Smiling Lieutenant doesn’t rate alongside Lubitsch’s funniest pictures–in fact, it’s actually quite depressing, involving three sympathetic characters caught in a miserable situation–but its third act alone makes it worthwhile viewing. Additionally, although all the cast is on point, Hopkins is particularly terrific, her performance in the early part of the film never so stuffy that she loses a core sense of humanity.