For Reel


The Thin Man (1934)
January 29, 2017, 3:10 pm
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Director: W.S. Van Dyke
3.5 Stars
the-thin-manDashiell Hammett’s mystery novels have pegged him as one of the fathers of noir—adaptations of his work such as The Glass Key and The Maltese Falcon are exemplar pieces of the genre. If noirs are often beloved more for the personalities and attitudes of their characters than the machinations of their plots, the narratives are nonetheless established in a high stakes, ultra-serious context. The most enjoyable thing about The Thin Man, then, is that while it works within many of the expected tropes of the detective genre, sleuths Nick and Nora Charles (William Powell and Myrna Loy) largely view the murder case they’re involved with as a distraction to their incessant drinking. As more bodies pile up, the resilience of their flirting is tested and is just about the only thing to stay sober—fittingly, the grand reveal of the murderer happens around a dinner table where more drinking is had. The Thin Man‘s mystery plot is too convoluted to follow, although it does lead to one suspenseful investigative sequence in which Nick and his loyal dog Asta pay a visit to the murder suspect’s warehouse, navigating the room only with a dim flashlight. The pleasure of the film comes not in the chiaroscuro lighting and hidden secrets, however, but the interactions in the glossy drawing rooms that seem lifted from one of the Astaire/Rogers pictures.



Kansas City Princess (1934)
January 28, 2017, 4:37 pm
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Director: William Keighley
3.5 Stars
Kansas City Princess.jpgFeaturing the natural pair of Joan Blondell and Glenda Farrell, Kansas City Princess plays like an early incarnation of Some Like It Hot, complete with a variety of disguises and aloof bachelors. The two quick-witted blondes play manicurist swindlers who find themselves on the run from a gangster (Robert Armstrong) who has taken a liking to Blondell. Both actresses were known for the sassy fast-talking repartee, and this film provides some of their most memorable scenes together—the two women go back-and-forth, leaving little breathing room for one another and all but speaking over each other in their urgency to get the next line out. Director William Keighley wisely stages many of these scenes in public places and blocks the women walking down hallways, adding to the sense of energy and chaos—in its best moments, Kansas City Princess makes one recall the frenetic pacing of His Girl Friday, which wouldn’t be released for another six years. Unfortunately, the momentum is all but sapped from the picture in the last fifteen minutes or so (a late appearance by Ivan Lebedeff is the sole weak performance in the cast), perhaps an inevitability when following the remarkably entertaining scenes between Blondell and Farrell and two hilariously obnoxious businessmen played by T. Roy Barnes and Hobart Cavanaugh.



Down to Their Last Yacht (1934)
May 29, 2016, 2:32 pm
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Director: Paul Sloane
3 Stars
Down to Their Last YachtBelonging to a delightful trend of surrealist comedies in the early 1930s (including films by the Marx Brothers, Wheeler & Woolsey, and Million Dollar Legs), Down to Their Last Yacht plays as an equally bizarre take on Paramount’s admittedly more satisfying We’re Not Dressing. The early-goings are actually played with a nice efficiency in the storytelling—within minutes, we’re introduced to a family of three being knocked off the social register and finding blue collar work when the Depression strikes. Before long, they’re renting out their family yacht for bourgeois travelers to voyage on the south seas. When the skipper (Ned Sparks) purposefully runs the boat ashore on a tropical island, the pleasure-seeking elite find themselves held captive by an ex-socialite island queen (Mary Boland) who complains that she needs mental stimulation because, “These Polynesians seem to be so busy lovemaking they haven’t the time for much else!” The picture was reportedly a financial disaster, and without the big name stars that kept other surrealist pictures palatable, the film has mostly left audiences flummoxed. But if you’re interested in seeing Boland dressed like a peacock and threatening to feed innocent civilians to sharks, this is for you.



Six of a Kind (1934)
February 18, 2016, 5:39 pm
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Director: Leo McCarey
3.5 Stars
Six of a KindThe success of Grand Hotel prompted a trend towards “all-star” pictures, with Dinner at Eight being the most famous example. One of Paramount’s answers to MGM’s string of successes was this programmer comedy which brought together the comedic teams of Charles Ruggles and Mary Boland, W.C. Fields and Alison Skipworth, and George Burns and Gracie Allen. If pairing six comedians together without much of a script could have been recipe for disaster, this Leo McCarey picture allows almost everyone a chance to show their talents. A cross-country road trip sketches the minimum outline of the plot, but the film is comprised of a series of vignettes wrought to the strength of the performers. In one sequence, the dim-witted Allen nearly kills Boland at the Grand Canyon by having her back up for a picture, and in the highlight of the film, Fields performs his pool routine in full. While the subject matter is presented rather innocently, the picture concerns the running joke that Juggles and Boland are desperate to have sex on their honeymoon, but Burns and Allen are constantly in their way. The dynamic means that Allen has two straight men to play off of (Burns and Ruggles), and each of the actors brings a slightly different method of dealing with her madness. One’s appreciation of Six of a Kind will relate directly towards their appreciation of the talents involved, but fans of performers will be delighted.



Dr. Monica (1934)
February 6, 2016, 1:32 pm
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Director: William Keighley
2.5 Stars
Dr. MonicaThe plot of Dr. Monica would be just as appropriate on the Lifetime network now as it was on Hollywood screens in 1934. It concerns an obstetrician (Kay Francis) who, in the climax, must deliver her best friend’s (Jean Muir) baby shortly after having been made aware that the child is actually her own husband’s (Warren William). David Sterritt, in his article on the film at TCM.com, discusses how Dr. Monica participates in the “woman’s film” genre, remarking on the very specific audience it meant to attract. Typical of the genre, the picture involves a level of fashion and glamour that positions her as a highly dignified professional and distinguishes Francis as one of the era’s most chic stars. Just as common in this genre is that it is a film about a woman’s suffering, where the best way of being “ladylike” is to quietly cope with one’s problems. While Muir’s character undergoes a series of mood-swings–prompted both by the heartbreak of her ill-advised affair and the incredible guilt she feels for sleeping with her friend’s husband–Francis remains largely resolute and saint-like after she discovers what her husband has been up to. Francis and Muir are both solid, but Verree Teasdale steals the show as a sophisticate who gives Francis sage advice in the third act. William, sans-mustache, is dialed down from his usual cad roles, playing more for sympathy than reveling in the expected smarm. The picture’s one memorable scene involves a farewell on a dock, where William can’t muster a reaction to his obediently waving wife, but instead gestures meaningfully to his mistress.



Bedside (1934)
February 6, 2016, 1:24 pm
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Director: Robert Florey
3.5 Stars
BedsideWarren William’s series of cads are among the great pleasures of early-1930s Hollywood. A wolfish opportunist, William excelled at playing characters who were both corrupt and undoubtedly irresistible. In a period when his home studio, Warner Brothers, was known for gritty, almost nihilistic pictures about people sinking to extreme lows just to scrape by in a cutthroat world, William was the stalwart example of a leading man. Bedside takes an enormous risk by casting him as a corrupt would-be doctor who gambles away the money he meant to use for finishing medical school and instead buys a diploma from a disgraced, morphine-addicted physician (David Landau). If William’s cons are amusing in a film like The Mind Reader where the stakes are low, Bedside literally involves him taking lives into his sleazy, money-grubbing hands. Yet somehow it works, both for the the way it fearlessly revels in the muck, and in Robert Florey’s rapidly-paced and visually dynamic filmmaking. The title itself serves as a double entendre, suggesting both his profession and his penchant for affairs, and in a few scenes Florey perches the doctor on the same bed as his female patients as if stalking his prey. Nowhere is the link between sexuality and his career better demonstrated than in the opening scene, which begins with a close-up shot of a woman’s legs before pulling back to reveal that she is receiving a check-up. While William’s characters always paid the price for their misdeeds, Bedside is particularly well-imagined in this aspect in that his nonchalance and carelessness results in him facing potentially dire consequences, backing him into a corner and forcing a change-of-heart. If the situation is contrived and more than a little ridiculous, the confession sequence has a certain honesty to it that William excels at portraying.



It’s a Gift (1934)
September 7, 2015, 12:26 pm
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Director: Norman Z. McLeod
3.5 Stars
It's a GiftShedding his persona as a cynical, brash eccentric, W.C. Fields takes on a sort of everyman role in It’s a Gift. In the very first gag, Fields tries desperately to shave as his daughter blocks his view in the mirror. It’s almost sweet that he does so little to get in her way–he thinks of every possible way to circumvent the inconvenience except simply asking her to move aside. Similarly, the film’s best sequence involves Fields cast out to sleep on the porch and being interrupted by a series of noises. In exploring the perils of sharing a bathroom and the frustration caused by insomnia, each scenario characterizes Fields as not only an underdog but as a man castrated by a stifling, unrewarding domestic life. It’s a Gift is one of Fields’ most remembered pictures, perhaps a faint praise that suggests that many viewers aren’t quite taken to the comedian (films like The Bank Dick and Million Dollar Legs are better representations of what it is that makes Fields unique). Even if it goes on too long, however, the porch scene is beautifully handled. The long shots that show the entirety of his housing complex (including the noisy neighbors) have a dollhouse quality, where people become cogs in a machine that exists solely to annoy the suffering Fields. In reveling in these moving parts and positioning Fields as one small part of a chaotic universe, the sequence recalls Buster Keaton’s mastery of the frame.