For Reel


Son of a Sailor (1933)
April 15, 2015, 10:00 pm
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Director: Lloyd Bacon
3.5 Stars
Son of a SailorAs in a typical Joe E. Brown vehicle, Son of a Sailor features the buffoon getting himself into all sorts of trouble thanks to his loud mouth and over-confidence. Here, a dishonest but ultimately innocent game of flirting leads him to butting heads with a spy ring and before the final reel finding himself aboard a target ship that is about to be bombed. Brown’s comedy is an acquired taste–he’s far from a subtle performer, using his mugging to appeal to the immediate pleasure of a chuckle–and this picture is probably a good start for anyone interested in his career. Big as his performance is, he is a little dialed down compared to his usual work, and director Lloyd Bacon uses the occasional inventive staging to elevate the comedy with visual flair. There’s an enjoyable bit in which Brown pays homage to Chaplin swallowing the whistle in City Lights by apparently swallowing a whole harmonica. It’s refreshing to see Brown generate laughs without using his elastic face, and Bacon’s framing that places Brown’s feet in close-up before they slowly part to reveal his sleeping face (accompanied with the absurdity of his musical breathing) is an amusing gag.

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Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933)
March 10, 2015, 7:42 pm
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Director: Mervyn LeRoy
5 Stars
Gold Diggers of 1933Some film historians have generalized Hollywood productions of the 1930s as participating in an escapist sensibility that counteracted the real-life desperation of an impoverished American populous. Gold Diggers of 1933 reveals a more complex relationship that audiences had with films in the midst of the Depression. It is a film which underscores the misery of the economic times while poking fun at what an amusing trifle of a genre picture it is. While the middle hour or so of the picture is a fairly standard romantic musical comedy, it is ingeniously bookended by two game-changing sequences. The iconic “We’re in the Money” number that begins the film is tinged with irony, challenging the idea that audiences were “escaping” with such entertainments because it is a sequence that ends with authorities taking apart the production due to its lack of funds. Just as memorable is the closing “Remember My Forgotten Man” number, which brings into light the grim reality of the times just moments after the plot threads are resolved and it seems as though everything will end happily ever after. Director Mervyn LeRoy’s (and Busby Berkeley, who directed the musical numbers) genius in his imagining is that he frequently pulls the rug out from underneath the audience in this fashion. His bookending sequences demonstrate the unreality of the machinations of a typical Hollywood comedy, and in doing so he both celebrates the escapist pleasures of the genre and reveals just how removed they are from the reality of the time.



She Done Him Wrong (1933)
March 1, 2015, 1:24 pm
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Director: Lowell Sherman
3 Stars
She Done Him WrongIt was some miracle that She Done Him Wrong came to be. Mae West, the famous (or infamous) star of Broadway, did not seem like she’d make an easy transition to Hollywood, which even in the relatively liberal pre-Code era was often producing puritanical entertainments. But famously West was able to rework her controversial hit Diamond Lil into She Done Him Wrong for Paramount Pictures, shifting fortunes and upping the morale of a studio verging on bankruptcy. It’s easy to see the appeal of the film–it revels in the dinginess of the after-hours, involving a grocery list of sins and the shockingly blunt West forgoing subtlety altogether for a celebration of sexuality. Despite its historical importance, however, reading a few of West’s choice quips is about as memorable as the picture. It’s a mess of cobbled together ideas, loosely tied together in a half-baked, confusing plot. Charles Lang’s visuals offer the expected pleasures–the way he photographs beer is just as pornographic as any of West’s innuendos–but ultimately West’s schtick doesn’t permeate beyond the surface pleasures without a satisfying context.



The King’s Vacation (1933)
November 23, 2014, 3:05 pm
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Director: John G. Adolfi
3 Stars
The King's VacationThe uneasy transition from royal to civilian life is spotlighted in The King’s Vacation, a mildly amusing comedy starring the esteemed George Arliss. In the early scenes, Arliss seems disinterested as he moves through his palace, having little to hope for other than a lack of appointments on his calendar. There’s a bite in his dissatisfaction with politics, and the early sequences are well-shot in that the set’s walls seem to absolutely dwarf Arliss–his disinterest in the locale makes the scale seem more ridiculous than regal. His boredom with court leads him to pursuing a childhood love who has since taken a new identity as a wealthy socialite. There are amusing reactions from Arliss when he discovers that he’s walking into the same thing that he just ran away from, but much of the drama that follows in the latter half is predictable. Regardless, Arliss’ sense of wise sensitivity makes him an unusually pleasant screen presence–he seems physically frail but strong-willed, and it is lovely to watch the genuinely affectionate way that he looks at his queen (played by his real-life wife, Florence Arliss).



The Mind Reader (1933)
September 26, 2014, 4:45 pm
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Director: Roy Del Ruth
4 Stars
The Mind ReaderIt seems like every other shot is at a canted angle in The Mind Reader and the reasoning for it seems to be the most literal one–the man is crooked, so the film is crooked! Warren William plays The Great Chandra, a former carnival barker who learns what great money there is to be made in the business of crystal ball reading. This is William at his cynical best, paired nicely with the similarly sardonic character actor Allen Jenkins. Only when Chandra falls in love with a naive girl who believes his powers to be true (Constance Cummings) does he start to go straight, but audiences won’t be fooled into thinking that he’ll be stuck on the honest path for long. The dialogue–much of it involving a complete derision of the “common” people–is consistently witty, all culminating in one of the funniest final lines in a movie from the pre-Code era. William’s cool, acerbic deliveries are pleasing, but perhaps his best scene is when, in a drunken fury, he breaks down on stage and bluntly tells the audience what fools they are for believing him. It’s the first scene in which his hatred for the public seems married to his own self-loathing, and for a largely unpleasant protagonist the scene packs a surprising emotional wallop.



Lady Killer (1933)
September 26, 2014, 4:40 pm
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Director: Roy Del Ruth
3 Stars
Lady KillerJames Cagney was catapulted to stardom when he smashed a grapefruit into Mae Clarke’s face in The Public Enemy. Clarke had it easy–when she shows up unwanted in Cagney’s bed in Lady Killer, he literally drags her across the floor by her hair and throws her out the door. The picture involves a number of similar actions that capitalize on Cagney’s firecracker tough guy persona, creating an image of a star who was both cool and horrifying in his unpredictability. Even if Cagney was disappointed to continue to be cast in tough guy roles, this particular role involved participating in several genres at once–what starts as a familiar crime film turns into a sort of satire about Hollywood itself, with Cagney rocketing to stardom as an extra. The most appealing tangents are those that take place on Hollywood sets, where Cagney plays everything from a Native American in a western to a European romantic lead. As Warner Brothers could reliably produce, Lady Killer is fast-moving and well-cast, even if the whole does not quite live up to the sum of its memorable parts.



Parole Girl (1933)
September 24, 2014, 7:14 pm
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Director: Edward F. Cline
3.5 Stars
Parole GirlParole Girl appears in an article written by film scholar David Bordwell entitled “Daisies in the crevices” which concerns itself with the visual pleasures of ordinary 1930s American cinema. The film is just that–it’s a low-budget, fast-paced programmer that was released to little fanfare during Holy Week in 1933. But, even in its ordinariness, it represents the perfect storm of Hollywood professionalism–there are no struggles with continuity, the screenplay (though relying on contrivances) is tidy and satisfying, and the cast is more than up to their collective task. Where it is exceptional is that it involves one of star Mae Clarke’s (sporting a stylishly short-cropped hairstyle) finest performances. She transitions from apologetic victim to vengeful harpy and finally back to sympathetic heroine with tremendous grace, finding the unifying trend of her character’s essential tragedy at each step. Perhaps her best moments are those in which she takes tremendous bliss in playing a domestic nightmare–she delights in manipulating her castrated husband and raiding his pockets for cash. What could have been a simple shrew becomes an unfulfilled housewife’s revenge fantasy: she’ll clean the apartment and fulfill her domestic duties, yes… but only when she feels like it!