For Reel

King Kong (1933)
July 16, 2017, 11:00 pm
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Director(s): Merian C. Cooper & Ernest B. Schoedsack
5 Stars
King KongIn King Kong, Carl Denham is dedicated to not only deliver the world a spectacle heretofore unseen, but to create the greatest motion picture ever produced. It doesn’t take much of a stretch of the imagination to draw comparisons between Denham’s search for the beast and the production of this 1933 adventure classic, which similarly was made with lofty ambitions and presented itself as a mammoth of cinema. Beyond the special effects, the film boasts a bombastic score, including an overture—something not commonly seen in films of this genre at the time. Before Kong arrives on the screen, the film sells its import to you. And, once the great ape does arrive, the action doesn’t let up. After the arrival on Skull Island, King Kong is structured as one set piece after another, with many of them introducing a new monster for audiences to gawk at. This provokes a consistent feeling of rediscovery—by the time the pterodactyls swoop to terrorize the human characters, Kong itself feels like an old friend. If Kong’s personality is sometimes overstated by fans of the film—his relationship with Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) plays as nothing more than a dog who is particularly fond of its new toy—there is something undeniably mesmerizing about the beast. One of the great achievements of the special effects work is its ability to convey Kong’s sheer mass. When Kong splits the tyrannosaurus’ skull open, the sense of force is palpable, and the crack still sends shivers down an audience’s spine. To bring Kong to life is an achievement in itself, but to make audiences cringe at the brutality of a puppet’s actions is something else entirely.

No Other Woman (1933)
January 28, 2017, 4:34 pm
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Director: J. Walter Ruben
3.5 Stars
no-other-womanIrene Dunne and Charles Bickford play an unlikely married couple who go from rags-to-riches in this RKO melodrama. If the courtroom finale drives the film to a screeching halt, the first half of the film is benefited by an unusually expressionistic tone for a picture of the type. The couple takes residence in a small house just outside of a steel mill, and as a result the domestic scenes play out with fires raging outside of the windows and the soundtrack includes ceaseless chatter in the supposedly “intimate” scenes. Similarly, the wedding scene is played as sweaty and chaotic, with Dunne being thrown around by a slew of greasy men in their work clothes. The film loses some of the sophistication in the cinematography and art direction in the latter half of the picture in which the character’s fortunes have turned, but the quality of the performances is still high. Although imposing 21st century morals on the narrative is ill-advised, the film is limited by just how abusive the relationship is between the two—Bickford is a repugnant, scheming drunk, and Dunne’s motivations in staying with him are continuously unconvincing.

The Invisible Man (1933)
November 6, 2016, 9:49 pm
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Director: James Whale
4 Stars
the-invisible-manThe fact that Dr. Jack Griffin (Claude Rains) is only a physical presence on screen when wrapped in surgical bandages suggests an unknowability that is echoed by the refusal of the film to delve into the motivations of the once promising assistant. If Universal horror films either go at lengths to render their villains as sympathetic (Frankenstein’s monster, The Wolf Man) or simply evil incarnate (Dracula), The Invisible Man defies similar categorization—although his early pranks seem to be done in relatively good fun, the act of knocking over a baby’s carriage provides a window into his increasing power-hungry madness. In fact, his acts in the latter half of the picture become so horrific that it is a wonder the film ends with a sentimental deathbed scene in which one is meant to consider Griffin’s rise and fall. This concluding elegy is given power by the fact that director James Whale never shows us flashbacks to reveal Griffin’s rise, rather allows the audience to fill in the blanks. As with all of the Universal horror pictures, The Invisible Man moves briskly with a terrific sense of urgency, and Rains’ vocal performance is memorably spiteful and cruel—whereas Rains often played a calculated, debonair villain, his Griffin becomes increasingly barbaric.

Below the Sea (1933)
August 20, 2016, 12:03 pm
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Director: Albert S. Rogell
3 Stars
Below the Sea1933 was an unusually productive year for Fay Wray. Not only would she star in the film that made her a genre film icon in King Kong, but she starred in an additional ten pictures—ranging from the feminist drama Ann Carver’s Profession to horror classic Mystery of the Wax Museum. Below the Sea came right after King Kong and once again found her tangling with a monster: this time a giant octopus! Ralph Bellamy is the unlikely romantic lead in this pre-Code adventure that finds crooked divers searching for gold from a German U-Boat that was lost in World War I. The earliest scenes with Bellamy show him playing the brute complete with beard and eyeshadow. It’s a ridiculous performance—his best work would take advantage of his awkwardness rather than try to mask it—but his scowls and groans produce much entertainment. Wray, on the other hand, is quite good as the scientific explorer who seduces him, as is Esther Howard in a small role as a prostitute (she resembles and plays her scenes with the same sass as Miriam Hopkins). Although the film is by-and-large a standard actioner, director Albert S. Rogell shows a playfulness in the presentation, including a lengthy sequence in German without subtitles and a creative editing transition using a diegetic camera. The climax sees a well-handled use of miniatures and some sly editing as an octopus attacks a diving bell, but the film’s real pleasures have nothing to do with a sense of realism—Below the Sea is a delightful blend of pre-Code brazenness and adventure schlock, complimenting each deep diving scene with innuendo-laden dialogue.

Going Hollywood (1933)
August 16, 2016, 10:06 pm
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Director: Raoul Walsh
3.5 Stars
Going HollywoodIn the last reel of Going Hollywood, the issue of pitting truth against the fantasy of Hollywood comes to the forefront—the frustrated Sylvia Bruce (Marion Davies) chastises crooner Bill Williams (Bing Crosby) for representing everything fake about the lifestyle. That Bill is accused of being untrue is visually accentuated by director Raoul Walsh’s presentation of his drunken hallucinations, all in gauzy blurs and featuring one striking straight close-up of Fifi D’Orsay. It’s a terrific conceit, but it seems more than ridiculous given that the film has cast Davies in the lead role—she is all glamour and uncomfortable nervous energy, unable to look natural even in the act of listening. An early musical sequence finds Davies and Crosby frolicking on a farm as sunflowers dance and a moon made of tinsel looms in the background, and that Davies goes from this fantasy of artifice to the disenchanted realist is not convincingly sold by Davies in the slightest. Regardless, the film is a fascinating one if only due to Walsh’s direction, and supporting players like Ned Sparks, Stuart Erwin, and especially Patsy Kelly steal the show. Poor as Davies is, there are other frustrations (a poorly aged sequence involving a trio known as the Three Radio Rogues and a subplot involving Erwin’s crush on Davies come to mind) that keep this viewer from giving an enthusiastic recommendation, but fans of Walsh will appreciate it in moments.

The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933)
June 19, 2016, 7:50 pm
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Director: Alexander Korda
3.5 Stars
The Private Life of Henry VIIIThe Private Life of Henry VIII is largely responsible for two of the most lasting legacies of the British film industry: producer/director Alexander Korda and the great Charles Laughton, who gave an equally campy, memorable performance the year before in horror classic Island of Lost Souls. Much of the film’s appeal rests on Laughton’s shoulders—it’s a performance of unparalleled bombastic energy, with Laughton’s every action and line escaping from the man like a small explosion. Early on, it plays like a film purely about unmitigated consumption, with Henry’s gluttonous feasting mirrored by the parade of wives that the opening title cards promise. But very few critics of the time or modern commenters have remarked on just how sad Laughton’s performance becomes by the end. His Henry is a man who was born into an admirable position but lacks any of the social graces or charms of his subjects. The final sequence, in which Henry is viewed as an old man mourning his failure to have lived a fulfilling life, plays as emotionally true based solely on the fact that his relationship with Katherine Howard (Binnie Barnes) seemed to transform him from a single-minded blowhard to a genuinely sensitive, ever-heartbroken ruler. Discussing the film as a tragedy almost seems an injustice to how amusing it is to watch Laughton in the role (his delivery of the last line of the film plays like a punchline targeted directly at the audience), and yet the more dramatic scenes seem like the most complete in attempting to find something human about the man preserved by Holbein as a larger-than-life, pompous monarch.

State Fair (1933)
April 23, 2016, 6:06 pm
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Director: Henry King
4 Stars
State FairPhilip Stong’s popular novel about a family making their yearly voyage to the Iowa State Fair was first adapted as this slice-of-life drama before Rodgers & Hammerstein had their way with it. Henry King directs the material as a story of juxtapositions—the leisurely pace of the country scenes and the bustle of the fair; the righteous civilians and the swindlers; the biological family and the created community at the carnival. Part of the film’s great success is the way King dramatizes the interaction between these disparate elements. At the close of act one, Janet Gaynor calmly watches the sun set over a cornfield as Ma and Pa (Louise Dresser and Will Rogers) anticipate the events to come. This moment of serenity serves as a contrast to the action that follows, which indulges in attractions (such as trapeze artists, roller coasters, and Ferris wheels) and summer romances. In the way this drama plays on screen, Stong’s tale of this voyage becomes a metaphor for film going itself, where an hour of excitement proves to be a suitable reprieve from the daily grind. If the narrative champions the value of hard work, it ironically suggests the all-pervading fantasies of indulgence in the working class, where the spectacle of commerce becomes a religious retreat. Rogers retreated from his comedic screen image to take on a more earnest role as a man who proudly grooms his prize hog, and Gaynor and Lew Ayres make a compelling couple as the farmer’s daughter and a newspaperman. It is King’s vision of both small town Americana and the temporary seduction of something more that brings it all together, sustaining a warmhearted, nostalgic tone.

The Telegraph Trail (1933)
April 23, 2016, 5:55 pm
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Director: Tenny Wright
2 Stars
The Telegraph TrailJohn Wayne and his horse “Duke” made a total of six B-westerns for Warner Brothers in the pre-Code era. The Telegraph Trail is a notable vehicle if only for the appearance of Frank McHugh as a cavalry man—a ludicrous miscasting to be sure, but one which provides the film sporadic moments of entertainment (in one scene, a drunken McHugh and Otis Harlan match each other shot-for-shot even as they’re experience severe double vision). Familiar of a typical western from the period, the film finds Wayne standing for progress and expansion, serving as the figurehead for a project that installs the first telegraph line connecting across Indian territory. The natives, then, not only represent savagery, but regression and obstacles to progress. Even by the standards of a throwaway western, the writing is often laughable—in one scene, Wayne runs away from Marceline Day, fearing his susceptibility to her feminine wiles. Later, on her quest to deliver an important message, she inexplicably hides in a box and does nothing to make her presence known. Much of the climactic shootout is recycled footage from silent films, but director Tenny Wright stages comedic cutaways including the aforementioned drunken duo, as well as an Indian being kicked by Wayne’s horse (a shot that the makers were apparently so proud of that they recycle again not five minutes later).

The Story of Temple Drake (1933)
March 12, 2016, 2:53 pm
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Director: Stephen Roberts
5 Stars
The Story of Temple DrakeEven if The Story of Temple Drake did not achieve notoriety as one the most lurid examples of pre-Code depravity, it would undoubtedly be remembered for its remarkable visual style, with cinematographer Karl Struss imagining the material in a way not unlike the horror films of the period. Watch, for example, the way in which the cast is introduced in the opening credits. Many pictures of the period utilized a roll call technique wherein scenes of the film appear with the cast member’s name superimposed on the image. The Story of Temple Drake uses an innovative method of setting the tone by intercutting the roll call shots with establishing shots of a looming dilapidated mansion during a thunderstorm. The scale of the mansion increases each time it is returned to, bringing the audience closer into the mansion that houses unspeakable horrors. Throughout the picture, Struss continues this atmosphere of dread by using lamps, candles, and even matches as primary light sources–it is not uncommon for the screen to go completely black in moments, with characters like the sinister Trigger (Jack La Rue) lurking in the dark. Star Miriam Hopkins was no stranger to the perversity of the horror genre after her memorable turn in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but as Temple Drake she brings something new entirely, revealing herself to be an actress capable of expressing not only deep fear, but pain and self-hatred. Her victimhood as a result of the notorious rape scene brings her to a near-catatonic state, with the climactic confessional scene serving as both a rebirth and a plea for forgiveness–not just to her lover (William Gargan), but to herself. More than the pinnacle of pre-Code sleaze, The Story of Temple Drake is both an enormously accomplished mood piece and an impeccably crafted character study, with Hopkins and La Rue giving two of the best interpretations of their respective character types of the era.

The Man from Toronto (1933)
February 20, 2016, 2:51 pm
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Director: Sinclair Hill
3 Stars
The Man from TorontoJessie Matthews was a popular star of English musicals throughout the 1930s, but prior to her immersion in that genre she starred in agreeable comedies like The Man from Toronto, which made use of her considerable charms under lightweight, screwball circumstances. According to the terms of a will, a widow (Matthews) must marry a Canadian bachelor (Ian Hunter) in order to receive a substantial fortune. The catch is that they’ve never met, and the troublemaking Matthews takes it upon herself to pose as a maid in order to suss her potential match out. It’s a similar plot to many 1930s American comedies, bringing love head-to-head against capital, and indeed Matthews comes off as a heroine not unlike one typically played by Claudette Colbert. Hunter was occasionally a compelling performer, but he was often miscast–one of his most memorable parts was as a Christ figure in Frank Borzage’s Strange Cargo, which also reflects on the very sexlessness he brings to this type of screwball picture (in these early Matthews pictures, she is often saddled with the lamest of leading men). Matthews, at this point in her career, doesn’t so much suggest an interiority to her characters as she gestures and makes pleasant faces, although it’s not like the script calls on her to do much more.