For Reel

Million Dollar Legs (1932)
June 15, 2014, 12:17 am
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Director: Edward F. Cline
4.5 Stars
Million Dollar LegsW.C. Fields’ first sound film plays like an avant-garde predecessor to Duck Soup, besting just about any Hollywood comedy of the era if one limits their criteria to the sheer absurdity of the gags. Jack Oakie stars as Migg Tweeny, a businessman who finds himself in the debt-ridden nation of Klopstokia. He quickly falls in love with the daughter of the nation’s president (Fields) and in order to win her father’s good graces he proposes that Klopstokia resolve their financial troubles by participating in the Olympic games. Veteran comic director Edward F. Cline is fairly graceless behind the camera–the blocking is often awkward and very rarely do match cuts actually match–but the sloppiness of the production adds to its rough, hangdog appeal. Little of what happens makes much sense, typified by the early appearances of a spy known as the Mysterious Man (Ben Turpin) who disappears entirely about a third of the way into the narrative. This tone of reckless abandon gives the picture a sort of comic surrealism, which is only heightened by the chaotic inventiveness of the gags–in one sequence, for instance, a man dressed in a goat costume races through a forest at superhuman speeds. Nonsensical and a complete mess in just about every way, Million Dollar Legs is no less some kind of masterpiece.

Make Me a Star (1932)
March 25, 2014, 8:18 pm
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Director: William Beaudine
5 Stars
Make Me a StarParamount made an appalling miscategorization when they billed Make Me a Star as a comedy. In fact, it is among the most cynical of classic movies about the Hollywood system. The picture follows Merton Gill (Stuart Erwin), a small town grocer who longs to be a screen cowboy. He makes his way to Hollywood and waits for his big break… only when he gets the one he wants, he blows it. To make matters worse, an actress who pities him (Joan Blondell) gets him a starring part in a comedy that he misunderstands as being a western melodrama. That the resulting picture is a grand success and positions him as a potentially successful comedy star doesn’t help his humiliation in the slightest. Erwin’s performance is as brilliant as any from the period–it is absolutely uncompromising in its earnesty, with Erwin playing it straight to the point where he initially comes off as little more than a rather drab oaf with grand delusions. His manner of speaking is noticeably different than those he shares the screen with, taking longer pauses and over-annunciating certain words. It’s no wonder that he’s eaten alive by the fast-talking, high pressure studio system. A word should also be said for Joan Blondell, giving a reliably terrific performance while generously elevating Erwin’s performance even higher. It’s a heartbreaking film, only Erwin doesn’t know it for much of the picture–that Blondell shows the extent of her guilt with consistency makes his performance and the film all the more wrenching. The picture is also fascinating for historical purposes, involving a number of glimpses of the filmmaking technology from the period.

Are You Listening? (1932)
March 7, 2014, 2:45 am
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Director: Harry Beaumont
3 Stars
Are You Listening?William Haines was one of MGM’s most bankable stars in the early days of sound, however his career would be cut short when studio head Louis B. Mayer terminated his contract due to his openly gay lifestyle. In the early sequences of Are You Listening?, Haines’ last picture for MGM, he plays his typical wisecracker, however the film eventually calls on him to put his dramatic talents to work. The resulting film is as entertaining as it is thematically incomprehensible–it has too many fingers in the pot, packing in a number of subplots that deal with (among other things): infidelity, the seduction of city life, the radio’s commanding influence on the public, advertising, morally bankrupt newspapermen, and the effects of the Depression. All that can be made of what transpires is a lot of anger directed in nearly every direction. The title morphs from a cutesy reference to a radio broadcast to a sort of plea for goodness in a culture of dishonesty and treachery. Haines is affable, but he is outshined by a remarkable female cast that includes Madge Evans, Anita Page, and a delightful Joan Marsh, whose career may be one worth further study.

Miss Pinkerton (1932)
September 6, 2012, 12:28 pm
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Director: Lloyd Bacon

While Lloyd Bacon worked in virtually every genre, his light-hearted comedies and musicals (most notably 42nd Street) have eclipsed in reputation the more serious-minded films that were made under his direction. Miss Pinkerton, then, comes as a surprise – it is an eccentric creaky old house horror thriller, shot using odd angles that establish even the innocent as utterly grotesque and terrifying. The picture was adapted from a novel by Mary Roberts Rinehart, who is credited with inventing the “Had-I-But-Known” narrative strategy in mysteries (in which the principal character unknowingly prolongs the case due to a series of wrong assumptions), and has been dubbed the American Agatha Christie. It is not surprising, then, that it feels like a prototype of the genre – shadowy figures creep through hallways, secret pacts are revealed, and, most specifically, every character appears to have a clear motivation to kill. As the titular character, a nurse who is enlisted by a detective to assist in his investigation, Joan Blondell is predictably sassy, although the script too often reduces her to helpless damsel. Star George Brent, on the other hand, is an utter bore – there is nothing dynamic to either his physicality or vocal range, rendering his character as robotic and embarrassingly uncharismatic. Blondell has a great line at the end of the picture in which, commenting on Brent’s incompetence as a detective, she breaks the fourth wall and observes, “come to think of it, you’ve arrested practically everyone in this cast except me!” The visual elements, clearly inspired by Universal’s monster movies (Blondell even name-checks Frankenstein), save the production and make for a suitably atmospheric and tense ride. In the most arresting image, cinematographer Barney McGill predates Psycho by chasing a falling victim down a set of stairs.

The Famous Ferguson Case (1932)
September 6, 2012, 12:22 pm
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Director: Lloyd Bacon

The early 1930s were a gruelingly productive period for star Joan Blondell. In contract with Warner Brothers, she made a total of 38 pictures between 1930 and 1934, establishing her as one of the most prolific starlets of the pre-Code era. One of the ten pictures that she made in 1932 was The Famous Ferguson Case, a largely forgotten but nonetheless entertaining crucifixion of yellow journalism. Bruce Foster plays a small town reporter who aspires to make it to the big city. When he breaks the story of the murder of a local banker, reporters from New York flock to his turf to cover the case. Kenneth Thomson, as the most dastardly of the reporters, does little in the way of writing, but instead spreads gossip and creates false leads that wrongfully persecute the wife of the deceased. As much as the film bastardizes this type of sensationalist journalism, its thematic concern was simplified for mass audience consumption – stick out of other people’s business. Blondell, who shot the picture concurrently with Howard Hawks’ racing drama The Crowd Roars, is the best part of the production, a world-weary young reporter who has been eaten up by big city living. The script’s frequent soliloquies often ring false, but Blondell’s plea to a small-town girl to not be seduced by Thomson’s promises is particularly effective.

Tarzan the Ape Man (1932)
September 6, 2012, 12:21 pm
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Director: W.S. Van Dyke

Trader Horn, MGM’s game-changing spectacle of 1931, paved the way for action adventures of its type. Famed for shooting extensively on location in Africa, the picture was largely a photographed safari, with its characters often stopping to admire creatures in shots that certainly would have excited the audiences of the time. With leftover footage from the project, the studio sought the possibility of a sequel, or even a picture that teamed the titular Horn with Edgar Rice Burrough’s Tarzan character. What eventually amounted was one of the most iconic of all adventure films and the first of its lengthy series: Tarzan the Ape Man. Johnny Weissmuller, a multi-gold medalist at the Olympics, plays the hero, an unpredictable, shamelessly sexualized adonis who gets physical with lions as much as he does with Maureen O’Sullivan’s Jane. The set pieces are spectacular (including an elephant stampede in the conclusion) and, unlike Trader Horn, they are well-integrated into the narrative rather than serving as the occasional diversion. Still, the production feels quite plain, perhaps due to O’Sullivan’s relentlessly-shrieking characterization, and one can’t help but compare it to King Vidor’s Bird of Paradise from RKO in the same year, which had a better sense of the rhythms of this type of sensationalized exotic living (that picture featuring a gender reversal, with Joel McCrea as the civilized man and Dolores del Rio as the native woman).

Union Depot (1932)
August 22, 2012, 5:06 am
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Director: Alfred E. Green

The opening sequence of Alfred E. Green’s Union Depot is among the most remarkable to come out of Hollywood in the early 1930s. Sol Polito’s camera drifts through a train station, weaving through civilians while their conversations fade in and out of the soundtrack (one can’t help but be reminded of Wim Wender’s much later classic, Wings of Desire). It is almost seven minutes into the picture before star Douglas Fairbanks Jr. is introduced, miscast as a homeless man who has just been released from prison and intends to live large for a day. He chances upon Joan Blondell, a jobless chorus girl who is fleeing from a pervert, and promises to help her pay her train fare to Salt Lake City where a job temporarily awaits her. No other major studio in the early years of sound produced more risky pictures than Warner Brothers, and Union Depot is a remarkable example of their authorship – championing a common thief as the hero, as well as a woman who has resorted to prostitution, it is a film that could not have been made in Hollywood only two years later. Fairbanks’ casting was ill-conceived – he is too handsome, young, and well-spoken to be playing a cynical bum – but Blondell was always reliable as a fallen woman with a heart of gold. Polito’s camera is the true star of the picture, using elaborate crane shots that include the aforementioned opening long take in which he tracks from the exterior of the station through its entrance and beyond.

The Animal Kingdom (1932)
August 16, 2012, 7:56 am
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Director: Edward H. Griffith

Hollywood found significant success in adapting the work of playwright Philip Barry with George Cukor’s Holiday and The Philadelphia Story, released in 1938 and 1940 respectively. Prior to those classics, a significantly more dramatic play, entitled The Animal Kingdom, was adapted by producer David O. Selznick and became a turning point in the career of Myrna Loy, who had up to that time been playing Eastern sirens in films like The Mask of Fu Manchu. Her performance in the picture is not much of a stretch – again, she plays a manipulative beauty – but she has a fine understatement that was, for obvious reasons, not optimal in “vamp” roles. Leslie Howard stars as a book publisher who has a live-in relationship with an artist played by Ann Harding. Pressured by his father, he agrees to marry Loy, who dictates his career by convincing him to publish less artistically satisfying but significantly higher-selling pulp novels. Few pictures of the period explore the relationships of artists more satisfactorily – both Howard and Harding make questionable career choices and they openly criticize one another for them, not so much mean-spiritedly but rather as a display of affection and mutual respect. When Howard tells Harding that her exhibit was not particularly good, what he means to say is that she can do better. Such details contribute to fine understatement in the dialogue, but director Edward H. Griffith doesn’t have much of a visual sense and as such the picture falls into the trap of other stage-play adaptations of the period, feeling all-too stilted. Howard and Harding don’t make a convincing couple, although Harding, with a low voice and an atypical beauty, makes an argument for herself as having a career worth further investigation.

The Sport Parade (1932)
August 16, 2012, 7:54 am
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Director: Dudley Murphy

Director Dudley Murphy’s aggressive visual flares more than make up for what The Sport Parade lacks in story. He uses crowded frames – taking a particular liking to objects in the extreme foreground – and a number of clever match-cuts that intentionally draw attention to themselves. Although there were a few directors (Rouben Mamoulian being a prime example) who pushed the limits of aesthetic stylization in the early years of sound, by-and-large Hollywood’s visuals had regressed from their complexity in late silent pictures such as F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans or King Vidor’s The Crowd. Murphy hadn’t quite figured out how to coalesce his attention-seeking visual sensibilities with a strong sense of narrative by the time of The Sport Parade, but as it is it remains a valuable artifact, far different from the typical RKO production of the time. Its visuals, however, are not the only thing that is of interest historically. A thinly-veiled layer of homoeroticism is present from the first several minutes, in which William Gargan calls Joel McCrea handsome before playfully slapping him on the bum with a towel in a locker room shower. McCrea, who was considered one of Hollywood’s sexiest leading men of the period, is fetishized throughout – he wears very little in several extended scenes, and in a climactic professional wrestling match the camera takes a particular interest in his musculature. Earlier in the picture, two homosexual men leave a similar wrestling match due to their displeasure of the violence, holding hands in a public display of affection as they vacate their seats. Ordinary as the central love triangle may be, The Sport Parade is not only a visual spectacle, but one of the major gay films of the early 1930s.

After Tomorrow (1932)
July 19, 2012, 11:45 pm
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Director: Frank Borzage

Two lovers are forced to continue putting off their marriage plans in After Tomorrow, a Depression-era drama from the great romanticist Frank Borzage. Charles Farrell, who worked frequently with Borzage in the late 1920s and early 1930s, was often paired with the incomparable Janet Gaynor, however this picture sees Marian Nixon give her best Gaynor impression as the love interest. She is well-suited to the task, both exuding the weariness of the lower class and, in spite of it all, an unquenchable sexual desire for her man, as seen in the film’s most erotic moment in which Farrell teases her with a kiss as cinematographer James Wong Howe backlights the lovers in an idyllic glow. Coming between the couple is their mothers – his, overbearing; hers, carrying an affair – which proves the perfect obstacle for a picture so in tune with a natural sense of community and familial relations. Even the lowliest of Borzage’s heroes were often depicted as being remarkably courageous and sprightly – Gaynor in Street Angel, as an example – however After Tomorrow‘s cast is made up of characters who aren’t terribly smart or ambitious beyond their practical desires. This is Borzage at his most earthbound; a social realist drama with an uncharacteristic pragmatism in its handling of marriage.