For Reel

Play Girl (1932)
January 28, 2017, 4:32 pm
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Director: Ray Enright
2.5 Stars
play-girlThis Warner Brothers programmer is at its best as a cynical Depression-era comedy thanks to the talents of top-billed Winnie Lightner. The comedienne, whose shameless mugging makes her performances simultaneously feel out-dated and absolutely enlivening, had a particular gift for spitting vitriol and witty one-liners. When her last pair of panties blows out of the window and she is asked what she’ll do, Lightner nonchalantly responds, “Keep off of stepladders!” Her verbal sparring is met with acts of physical aggression—later in the film, she shoves a co-worker so hard that she collapses into the men’s room. Unfortunately, the comedic aspects only make a small part of this weepie wherein Loretta Young falls for a gambler (Norman Foster) and finds herself turning to gambling herself. Foster is hardly convincing as either an addict or a lover, and while Young makes for a terrific contrast to Lightner due to her youthful naïveté, she doesn’t sell her character’s childbirth neuroses in a convincing way. Director Ray Enright stages a memorable scene in the early-goings in which the women of a department store are assigned to their departments, and the hints of his visual comic touch makes one wish the film stayed a department store comedy (although unremarkable, his pre-Code pictures with Joan Blondell are an apt demonstration of the studio’s light-hearted but cutting comedic ethos in the early-1930s).


The Mummy (1932)
October 30, 2016, 5:15 pm
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Director: Karl Freund
3.5 Stars
the-mummyIn writing about The Mummy, film historian William K. Everson remarked that the film was the closest that Hollywood came to achieving a poetry in the horror genre. Much of this quality could be attributed to the film’s visual style—director Karl Freund again (as he did as the cinematographer of Dracula) establishes a distinct sense of place, and only one year later his camera has regained some of the fluidity that was lost in the clunky early sound years. When Boris Karloff’s mummy first wakes up as the Scroll of Thoth is read, Freund spends an excruciating amount of time on the monster’s eyes opening and the slow movement of his arms. Although Imhotep will become a more intelligent, cultured villain in a similar vein as Bela Lugosi’s Dracula, this early scene imagines the mummy as a lurching terror, and Freund renders the scene all the more horrifying by leaving nearly all of it off screen (a hand grabbing the scroll and bandages trailing behind the walking corpse is all we see after the initial close-up). If Freund’s lighting, pacing, and camerawork creates a visual poetry that Everson could have been alluding to, it is the film’s love story that elevates it in that regard—a centuries-long love affair is Imhotep’s motivation, and when he nearly kills Zita Johann, it is clear that it isn’t the action of a monster but a horribly disturbed, tragic romantic.

I Was Born, But… (1932)
June 29, 2016, 7:25 pm
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Director: Yasujirō Ozu
5 Stars
I Was Born, But...One of the key moments in the maturation process is coming to understand that your parents are imperfect and don’t have all the answers. Yasujirō Ozu’s I Was Born, But… remarks on the devastating realization—towards the end of the film, two young boys (Tomio Aoki and Hideo Sugawara) who have spent the duration of the picture attempting to stand up to bullies witness a home movie wherein their father (Tatsuo Saito) makes a fool of himself by making slapstick faces to please his boss. To the boys, it’s a shameful moment of pure subservience, the equivalent of the game a boys play wherein they force their inferiors to lay on the ground until given permission to stand. If the boys have not yet understood that sometimes compromises need to be made, the parents are in denial that the day will ever come—how does one explain the precarious balance of what it means to assert oneself and what it means to make it in a social environment? That Ozu incorporates the whole of this drama of generational divides within a film that is often a comedy reminiscent of the Hal Roach “Our Gang” series is the genius of I Was Born, But…, ultimately re-contextualizing Ozu as not just a master dramatist, but a master storyteller regardless of genre.

Hold ‘Em Jail (1932)
May 9, 2016, 6:56 pm
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Director: Norman Taurog
3.5 Stars
Hold 'Em JailThat Wheeler and Woolsey’s Hold ‘Em Jail was the next film screenwriter S.J. Perelman wrote after the Marx Brothers’ Horse Feathers has encouraged comparisons to that college football picture. In fact, they both end with a climactic football scene that sees zany comedic antics on the field! And yet, if the Marx Brothers are historically the more accomplished duo and were frequently biting satirists, Hold ‘Em Jail goes further with its premise in lampooning and perverting institutions. It bridges the genres of college and prison films, suggesting that there’s not much of a difference ideologically in university students and prisoners from the point-of-view of the higher ups. Like the Marx Brothers, Wheeler and Woolsey utilize the surreal as the basis for many of their gags, and they both play as variants on Harpo in the way that they recklessly endanger those around them (in one scene, they put a fellow inmate’s leg in a vice grip and prepare to smash it with a sledgehammer). If the duo is more of an acquired taste than many of the comedy teams of their day, Hold ‘Em Jail is a good entry-level Wheeler and Woolsey picture—it riffs on familiar comedic tropes but, with small alterations in the way the comedy is presented, doesn’t seem so much derivative as a furthering of existing ideas.

Carnival Boat (1932)
May 9, 2016, 6:53 pm
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Director: Albert S. Rogell
2.5 Stars
Carnival BoatThe last of three pictures Ginger Rogers made with Albert Rogell for RKO/Pathé studios sees her playing a showgirl that has stolen the heart of a lumberjack (William Boyd). Much is made of the disparity between the logging operation and the showboat of the title, but the former location is what provides the film with its few redeeming qualities. In the staging of sequences like a runaway train, an exploding dam, and even a few shots of men riding on logs as they are being hauled away by cranes, the film effectively utilizes rear projection, miniatures, and convincing stunt work as a means of getting across the scale of the operation. If Carnival Boat won’t fool anyone into thinking it had an A-budget, it has a more impressive sense of spectacle than many similar adventure programmers of its day. Boyd is a blank slate of a leading man (he would later go on to some success with the Hopalong Cassidy pictures), but he does have a nice tender chemistry with his on-screen father, the foreman of the logging operation (Hobart Bosworth). In fact, the romantic comedy aspect of the film has little to do with Boyd and Rogers, but whether or not their love will ever be validated by the father (which happens after Boyd proves himself with a heroic stunt). The action sequences elevate this above many of Rogers’ early pictures, but that’s not saying too much.

Back Street (1932)
April 11, 2016, 5:12 pm
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Director: John M. Stahl
3.5 Stars
Back StreetBetween 1932 and 1935, director John M. Stahl filmed three enormously prestigious melodramas that would later be eclipsed in film history by their remakes: Back Street, Imitation of Life, and Magnificent Obsession. Stahl’s current reputation as a Douglas Sirk prototype is primarily the result of their each filming versions of the latter two films, although as storytellers the two had quite different preoccupations. Sirk’s narratives were driven by the heft of accumulated words and gestures, whereas Stahl’s characters often pass through their narratives episodically, obsessed with rebuilding instead of preserving an emotional momentum. Back Street involves a three decades long love affair in which the romance is rarely seen as pleasurable, but instead as a series of false starts and small heartbreaks. Irene Dunne plays the kept woman (or “back street” woman) of John Boles, whose obsession with the man keeps her from pursuing her passions elsewhere. John Flaus’ article on the film for Sight & Sound argued that the film marked a retreat from expressionism, but it is actually among the most attractive and expressionistic of pre-Code melodramas. Shot by Karl Freund with Charles D. Hall serving as art director, it bridges the gap between the early-1930s Universal horror films and melodramas, encouraging high contrast visuals, deep stagings, and an evocative use of off screen space. For a melodrama, very few close-ups are used, and tellingly the most memorable of which is a still image of a telephone as pained voices inform the drama off screen. Stahl and Freund occasionally indulge camera movements not motivated by the action—a memorable establishing shot introduces a turn-of-the-century Cincinnati beer garden—and, in one of the stronger scenes, Stahl makes the wistful choice of filming a highly charged reunion with the lovers facing away from the camera. If Stahl’s method of dramatizing this masochistic affair does not offer the visceral pleasures expected of its genre, it sustains an indelibly melancholic atmosphere.

There Goes the Bride (1932)
February 20, 2016, 2:47 pm
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Director: Albert de Courville
2.5 Stars
There Goes the BrideIn Jessie Matthews’ second sound film, she plays a woman who runs off from an unwanted marriage (to Basil Redford of The Lady Vanishes), and, improbably, has to stay away from her family for a day in order to stay unwed. Naturally, she runs into a wealthy man on a train (Owen Nares) who mistakes her for a thief, and the relationship between them begins with roleplaying and ultimately becomes something more authentically romantic. Although the film goes through the motions of its genre, the romance isn’t particularly convincing–partly because Nares is a stuffed shirt, partly because Matthews is still emoting in a way more appropriate to silent films. She’s a compelling actress physically–those eyes alone makes her somewhat resemble a cartoon (her features are listed in one scene of the film, drawing further attention to her unique beauty)–but doesn’t quite know how to use her face at this point. She’s all of Clara Bow’s razzle dazzle without the sense of vulnerability. There’s an amusing little sequence early on where Matthews has to hide in Nares’ flat, but other than that it’s all very forgettable.