For Reel

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.

Alice in Wonderland (1933)
January 14, 2016, 9:53 pm
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Director: Norman Z. McLeod
4 Stars
Alice in WonderlandAs fascinating a failure as Hollywood ever produced, Alice in Wonderland was an ill-conceived adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s beloved novels (this one drawing heavily from both Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass). Boasting a cast of all stars–well, an assortment of familiar character actors joined by W.C. Fields, Gary Cooper, Jack Oakie, and a young Cary Grant–the film makes the bold choice of making nearly all of its players unrecognizable under prosthetics and grotesque costumes. Furthermore, it is undeniably horrific at times, including the frenzied climax that sees Alice (Charlotte Henry) throttled around the neck after she converses with her dinner. In the scene in which Alice confronts the Duchess and the pig baby, the woman is rendered with an abnormally large, potholed face, complete with a gaping mouth and tiny peering eyes. In her arms is a child that she hurls in the air, only it is not a child, but a dwarf actor. All this is to say that children might be less disturbed by Jan Švankmajer’s 1988 adaptation of the material. But, aside from the fascination of watching Alice in Wonderland for its parade of the grotesque, it is complemented with genuinely terrific set design by William Cameron Menzies, and the achievement of recreating the illustrations of the novel was an impressive one that yields some undoubtedly compelling results.

Dinner at Eight (1933)
January 14, 2016, 9:16 pm
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Director: George Cukor
3.5 Stars
Dinner at EightBusby Berkeley’s seminal musical Gold Diggers of 1933 set the tone for Hollywood’s dealings with the Depression in the early 1930s, its opening “We’re in the Money” sequence grinning through the fantasy of an economic turnaround. The same sense of desperation and denial can be seen in MGM’s portmanteau comedy melodrama Dinner at Eight, which involves the neurotic Millicent Jordan (Billie Burke) fretting over the titular soirée as her husband (Lionel Barrymore) deals with impending bankruptcy and heart failure. Meanwhile, a fading drunken movie star played by John Barrymore becomes a footnote in history, his failure to evolve leaving him behind in the dust as men like the corrupt Dan Packard (Wallace Beery) plan for success. Director George Cukor was never less visually imaginative than in this film–nearly all of it plays out in static medium shots (an exception given to the contrasting sequences involving the lavish introduction of Jean Harlow and John Barrymore’s expressionistic downfall)–but he sensibly plays to the cast’s strengths, and as such the picture is carried by the exceptional performances, with Burke, Lionel Barrymore, and Marie Dressler stealing the show. If Grand Hotel (the clear blueprint for this film) imagined itself as a too-serious imitation of a European melodrama, Dinner at Eight is suitably earthbound and decidedly American, bringing with it a touch of sneering cynicism that helps wash down the sometimes tedious plot threads.

Flying Down to Rio (1933)
July 23, 2015, 12:02 am
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Director: Thornton Freeland
3 Stars
Flying Down to RioIt is often said of the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dance routines that they effectively made the on screen romantic chemistry physical. While it is a simplification to say that each number served as a sexual consummation, many of them did. Even if Flying Down to Rio contains less of their dancing and of a lower quality than their usual standard, the scenes in which they do interact are linked to a certain raw sensuality that would eventually be subsumed by a more elegant, playful sensibility in later productions. Their big moment occurs during the “Carioca” sequence, which concerns the dance craze in which the partners touch their foreheads together as they dance. The scene is preceded by a number of innuendos and gags involving the eroticism of it–Astaire quips that it helps the partners read each other’s minds, followed quickly by an unnamed woman pulling away from her dance partner and slapping him. When they finally engage, it is full of the same titillation, as if they were the centerpiece of a grand orgy. Despite the appeal of seeing the origin of the Astaire/Rogers partnership, however, Flying Down to Rio is hugely unmemorable, severely hindered by a stale love triangle involving Dolores Del Rio, Gene Raymond, and Raul Roulien. Raymond never really found a niche despite appearing in many romantic comedies throughout the 1930s, but Roulien does give a sympathetic performance in an admittedly thankless, limp role.

Grand Slam (1933)
July 3, 2015, 2:30 pm
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Director: William Dieterle
3.5 Stars
Grand SlamIt might be hard to believe now, but in late 1931 a highly publicized contract-bridge event was dubbed the “Battle of the Century.” It was waged between Ely Culbertson and Sidney Lenz, each bringing their own dubbed play style, and throughout the next six weeks daily results would be posted in newspapers, with the New York Times going as far as to cover it hand by hand with analyses. Not missing the opportunity, Warner Brothers capitalized on the topical material with a comedic satire entitled Grand Slam, which similarly culminates with a bridge game between partners employing different systems. Paul Lukas plays Peter Stanislavsky, a waiter and piano virtuoso who, by happenstance, bests the reigning bridge expert and becomes one half of the “Bridge Sweethearts of America” with his new bride, Marcia (Loretta Young). The Stanislavsky method is notable because it is designed to minimize the conflicts between married couples during the game, and as such there are a handful of humorous scenes in which bitter partners fight each other as they play. As a satire of publicity, it is mildly successful and might have made an even greater impression had it not devolved into sub-standard slapstick chaos by the end. Case in point: Frank McHugh, the classic drunk archetype in early-1930s Warner Brothers films, gives a very good performance as a cynical ghost writer. By the end of the picture, however, he’s relegated back to hiccups and incessant giggling. Lukas and Young are charming together, and there are a handful of laughs–the film pokes fun at the game of bridge often by referring to it as a “game for sissies!”