For Reel

The Roadhouse Murder (1932)
October 4, 2015, 7:11 pm
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Director: J. Walter Ruben
2.5 Stars
The Roadhouse MurderThe Roadhouse Murder anticipates Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, Fritz Lang’s final American film, by more than thirty years. Eric Linden plays a struggling reporter who, along with his girlfriend (Dorothy Jordan), stumbles onto a murder scene and devises a plot to frame himself for the murder while stashing away evidence that will convict the real killer during his trial. Of course, things don’t go quite so smoothly, and Linden almost finds himself in the electric chair when his evidence goes missing. The early-goings of the film are quite satisfying, with Linden amiably playing the ne’er-do-well reporter who is wrought to be the joke of the paper. The arrival at the deserted roadhouse where the murders will take place is rendered memorably with a tonal shift into the old dark house genre, complete with a creepy and demanding caretaker (Gustav von Seyffertitz). In the film’s final stretch, however, it plays as both a standard courtroom drama and a detective thriller without the benefit of a legitimate mystery. The biggest problem is Linden’s conception of the leading man. He’s too spunky and sincere to concoct a scheme like this. His cynical performance in Young Bride would have been a more satisfying direction to take the role, where his angry, world-weariness and sense of entitlement would more plausibly lead him to such drastic measures.

Young Bride (1932)
October 4, 2015, 7:09 pm
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Director: William A. Seiter
4 Stars
Young BrideAn unjustly overlooked pre-Code melodrama, Young Bride stars Helen Twelvetrees as a librarian who works with kids. She teaches them fairy tales as she awaits her own Prince Charming, and soon enough she unfortunately mistakes a brash swindler (Eric Linden) for the man she’s been searching for. He, unlike the hard-working Twelvetrees, feels that he’s above an average job and suggests that he’d rather be in the 1% of people who make the big bucks without busting their teeth (a line that takes on a new relevance in the contemporary political landscape!). Besides the interesting performances and the well-written characters who are both equally, in their own contrasting ways, inherently self-destructive, Young Bride is distinguished by the impressive camerawork from cinematographer Arthur Charles Miller. The opening shot tracks back from a clock face before unveiling the whole of the library setting, and throughout the picture there are similarly graceful movements that liven up the typical stilted aesthetics of an early 1930s melodrama programmer. Late in the film, the heartbroken Twelvetrees walks through the streets during Christmastime as a newspaper peddler shouts that a young woman has committed suicide due to her failures with love. The incongruity of the moment–of the falsified holiday cheer in the streets as those who walk it are suffering–is typical of the film’s sense of melancholy.

The Crash (1932)
July 3, 2015, 2:28 pm
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Director: William Dieterle
2.5 Stars
The CrashThe title of The Crash doesn’t refer only to the economic realities of Black Tuesday, but also the destruction of a relationship and even of a way of life. Linda and Geoffrey Gault (Ruth Chatterton and George Brent), a pair of frivolous socialites, are devastated by the failed stock market. When the luxuries they’ve lived with are taken away, the real wounds of their relationship come to the foreground–she’s a philanderer, and he knows full well of her ways but only sees the economic potential of her sleeping around. They’re despicable, confused people. It might be a flaw that Linda is wrought as a heartless elitist in one moment and a deeply burdened woman in the next, but it also seems to capture a certain reality about people who have avoided self-reflection. Chatterton is up to the task and, better yet, is photographed well by Ernest Haller in a series of gorgeous gowns by Orry-Kelly. But Brent is as bad as it gets, so stiff that Chatterton might as well be playing alongside a cardboard cutout. In one scene in particular it appears as though he is meant to be intoxicated, and watching Brent fail to fight his natural impulse to stand still with arms at his side is something to behold.

Island of Lost Souls (1932)
May 26, 2015, 11:11 pm
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Director: Erle C. Kenton
5 Stars
Island of Lost SoulsIsland of Lost Souls was so shocking that it was banned in several countries at the time of its release. It could be called one of the first (and certainly among the most sophisticated) films about pain, and even in a culture largely desensitized to filmic violence it continues to disturb. Director Erle C. Kenton would never achieve these heights again, so one must credit much of the film’s success to the cinematography of the legendary Karl Struss. As with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (which he shot the previous year), Struss conceptualizes the horror as something three dimensional. The parade of disturbing man-beasts lurch towards the camera near the climax, just as Fredric March’s gruesome Hyde was often photographed head-on. Of all of the close-ups in Island of Lost Souls, perhaps none are more upsetting than those of Charles Laughton, who brilliantly conceives of Moreau as a manchild and a snob, shamelessly expressing glee when considering the potential of his vivisection practices. In a chilling touch, Laughton is often giggling and holding back smiles as if in a desperate struggle to hold back his proud laughter. That disconnect–between his unknowable private jokes and what he projects outwards–suggests that more than simply being an evil doctor, he’s an utter sociopath.

The Tenderfoot (1932)
April 15, 2015, 9:56 pm
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Director: Ray Enright
3 Stars
The TenderfootGinger Rogers was given one of her first leading lady parts in The Tenderfoot, a programmer from First National Pictures starring the rubber-faced Joe E. Brown. He plays a hick Texan who finds his way to the big city and is duped by would-be producers who know that they have a flop on their hands. Brown is intrigued enough by show business to invest in the property, and eventually he turns it into an unlikely hit. The humor is the expected fish out of water variety (Brown is perplexed by the menu at a Jewish restaurant, he “checks” his guns at said establishment, etc.), but it’s largely successful despite the familiarity. Brown as a performer is so larger-than-life that there is an inherent amusement in watching his long cowboy strides. Rogers is largely an afterthought, although the she has a nice encounter with Brown when he discovers he’s been made a dope of and Rogers scolds him for not standing up for himself. The picture has an unforgettable moment in which, in attempting to imitate a pretentious New York greeting (“salutations!”), Brown enthusiastically shouts “ejaculations!” at a couple of unsuspecting strangers.

Fireman, Save My Child (1932)
December 1, 2014, 2:13 am
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Director: Lloyd Bacon
2.5 Stars
Fireman, Save My ChildComedies in the early-1930s were often of the variety that would lead to the eventual enforcement of the Production Code. Sexuality was a major focus, with innuendo-laced dialogue being delivered by carefree sophisticates. It’s no surprise, then, that Joe E. Brown was able to carve a name for himself as a major box office draw by appealing to small town movie goers. His corn-fed, “aw, shucks” type of appeal was decidedly family friendly. Fireman, Save My Child is a prime example of his stardom. Brown plays a genius inventor, renowned pitcher, and local hero. Even when he’s threatened to be compromised by a gold digger, he naively navigates the distraction and doesn’t become fully swayed… or even aware that he’s been duped! In the midst of a Depression, it must have been heartening for audiences to see a film in which a good-natured, small town man can get by just on the strength of his determination and kindness. Today, the film doesn’t have much of a bite to it–it’s not merely the absence of the expected pre-Code shenanigans, but by the fact that Brown plays such a superhero that there’s never a sense of urgency or danger, even when fires are blazing and a baseball game gets too close for comfort in the ninth inning. Brown’s performance isn’t as comedic as some of his others, but he does get to show off his talents as a baseball player–when Warner Brothers first signed Brown, it was stipulated in his contract that he was guaranteed a personal baseball team!

Beyond the Rockies (1932)
October 14, 2014, 5:55 pm
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Director: Fred Allen
3 Stars
Beyond the RockiesBefore the first reel of Beyond the Rockies is finished, audiences are treated to a song, an attempted stagecoach robbery, and a shootout between two gangs of outlaws. In this charming B-western, Tom Keene plays an undercover deputy who is tasked with bringing down the notorious cattle rustler Ruby Sherman (Marie Wells). The luminous Rochelle Hudson plays the love interest this time, with the charismatic Julian Rivero giving comedic support. Director Fred Allen is good at interjecting comedy into the familiar genre staples (a gag involving a slot machine occurs during the dependable bar brawl), however he can’t make much of the climactic cattle rustle due to the budget-prescribed reliance on stock footage. Wells is an intriguingly cast villain, but ultimately she’s underutilized–the character doesn’t even get her comeuppance onscreen!

Polly of the Circus (1932)
October 10, 2014, 5:56 pm
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Director: Alfred Santell
2.5 Stars
Polly of the CircusClark Gable was none too pleased to be attached to Polly of the Circus, the creaky second adaptation of a successful stage play by Margaret Mayo. A script rewrite and the monetary encouragement of William Randolph Hearst (whose mistress, Marion Davies, was to play the titular trapeze artist) eased the process along. The final product is still close to a dud–the miscasting of Gable as a Salvation Army worker in Laughing Sinners was bad enough, and here he’s assigned the role of a reverend. Marion Davies was a great comedienne, but in this particular melodrama she’s rather dreadful. Her deliveries are reliably mawkish and she isn’t aided at all by Gable’s bored performance–it’s shocking to see two of the era’s most charismatic screen presences contribute such a flat romantic relationship. Despite the disappointment of the drama, the trapeze scenes are actually quite thrilling. The editing and use of long takes in the final sequence creates the necessary suspense, even if the circumstances behind the dramatic moment are ridiculous.

Prestige (1932)
September 24, 2014, 1:21 pm
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Director: Tay Garnett
3.5 Stars
PrestigeWhen Hollywood made the transition from silent to sound in the late 1920s, one of the biggest casualties was the mobile camera. There were some exceptions–director Rouben Mamoulian pushed the limits with innovations that allowed the camera to move both freely and silently–but many early talking pictures are relatively staid in form. This is not at all so with Prestige, which filmed in 1931 is just about as radical as it gets. From the very first scene, director Tay Garnett reveals his incredible preoccupation with camera movement. In a few instances, actions are meticulously blocked out so that the camera can move from character to character or room to room while keeping the actors audible and in frame (Garnett showed a similar interest in movement in the same year’s One Way Passage, which includes a similarly impressive long take). Nothing that Prestige has to offer holds a candle to the stylistic interests–it’s a dated colonialist melodrama, with a dutiful but schizophrenic performance by Melvyn Douglas as a drunk. The reliable Ann Harding is luminous and is given an empowered role, but the dialogue leaves much to be desired. Despite these limitations, however, Garnett’s experimentation with movement is essential viewing with anyone interested in the filmmaking of the era.

Secrets of the French Police (1932)
July 7, 2014, 12:55 am
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Director: A. Edward Sutherland
2.5 Stars
Secrets of the French PoliceWhile the title Secrets of the French Police might evoke a sly, fact-driven police procedural, in actuality this 1932 RKO production is more of a melodrama until it devolves into an all-out horror grotesquerie. Gregory Ratoff plays a Russian general who kidnaps and hypnotizes a Parisian flower girl (Gwii Andre) into believing that she is an exiled princess due millions of dollars held in London bank accounts. In hot pursuit is the team of inspector St. Cyr (Frank Morgan), a brilliant veteran with innovative methods of tracking down criminals, and the recruited gentleman burglar Leon Renault (John Warburton). There are some interesting looks at early 20th century investigative work here and there (one highlight sees an early form of the facial composite in which a towering face is assembled on a wall), but there isn’t quite enough to appease fans of genre. The most memorable sequence occurs when the maniacal Russian general reveals the extent of his perversity and begins the process of making a statue out of a helpless victim. Though abstracted by shadows and extreme close-ups, the audience is still made fully aware of every gory detail.