For Reel

Folies Bergère de Paris (1935)
March 16, 2016, 9:34 pm
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Director: Roy Del Ruth
3.5 Stars
Folies Bergère de ParisThat this Hollywood musical took its name from the famed cabaret music hall in Paris suggested to audiences that they were about to see something unusually risqué. After all, Hollywood films often portrayed Parisians as both sophisticated and over-sexed, with Maurice Chevalier serving as the prime example of a French womanizer throughout the late 1920s and early 1930s for directors like Ernst Lubitsch. The picture doesn’t take as many risks as one would like, nor does it pack quite the same caliber of innuendo as a Lubitsch picture, but the mistaken identity plot allows for some playful dalliances with the topic of affairs. If the romantic comedy elements are fairly typical for the time, the musical numbers are unusually terrific–rivaling the best of Busby Berkeley with the ambitious geometric patterns and the increasingly surreal sets (culminating in a dance number wrought around enormous versions of Chevalier’s famed straw hat). The early “Rhythm in the Rain” number is a predecessor of Gene Kelly splashing around in street puddles, and director Roy Del Ruth and choreographer Dave Gould use an unusual split screen device that sees one half of the frame in thunderstorm, the other bathed in sunshine. These early numbers cleverly drift between various modes of address–shots of a theater audience are intercut with shots of Chevalier addressing them, and meanwhile there is a play with more “cinematic” images in which the scale far exceeds what could be performed on a typical stage. This is not so much a problem with continuity as it is a celebration of how intoxicating the art of theater is, where the limited scale of the stage gives way into a boundless world of imagination.

Here Comes Cookie (1935)
February 18, 2016, 5:50 pm
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Director: Norman Z. McLeod
2.5 Stars
Here Comes CookieIf Here Comes Cookie is not the best picture to showcase the talents of George Burns and Gracie Allen, it is undeniably a personal one. For starters is the title, referencing Allen’s frequent singing of the medley in their earlier pictures together. But the last half of the film, which sees Allen convert a mansion into a shelter for struggling vaudeville acts, is an affectionate homage to their roots, showing a delightful pleasure in many of the skilled extras that appear in the film–in one scene, an unnamed juggler/drummer gets several minutes of screen time to show off his routine. That it all ends in the big show (as so many of these sorts of musicals do) is somewhat of a disappointment, perhaps a little too old hat for the usually expectation-defying duo. There is an amusing gag where a Romeo & Juliet adaptation is saved by unforeseen bloopers that plague the production, but the film has already run out of gas by the time it gets there. Interestingly, Burns and Allen don’t get as much screen time together as usual, which could explain what’s missing–even if their schtick was familiar, their genuine affection for each other translated well on screen. When they are kept apart and Allen, in particular, has her lunacy dialed up beyond where it usually is, they go from being something special to a fairly standard comedy routine.

Love in Bloom (1935)
February 18, 2016, 5:44 pm
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Director: Elliott Nugent
2.5 Stars
Love in BloomAfter its release in 1935, the New York Times did an excellent job summarizing the type of picture that Love in Bloom falls into the category of: “Relying upon one of the oldest plots known to Hollywood and unadorned with any semblance of newness, the picture falls into the vast, undistinguished classification which is summed up in the one word: fair.” Indeed, much of the 75 minute run time follows a blossoming romance between Dixie Lee and Joe Morrison, who both have their charms but have about as much personality as the young couples that bring the fun to a halt in a typical Marx Brothers picture. Morrison’s repetitive crooning of “My Heart Is an Open Book” reeks of a desperation to produce a hit, and co-stars George Burns and Gracie Allen are woefully underused. There are a few nice moments here and there–Lee and Morrison have an excellent scene during a stormy night that has the feel of a decent Frank Borage imitation (including a memorably racy line: “Are you as wet underneath as you feel on top?”), and Lee’s self-pity leads to a genuinely affecting moment late in the picture–but Love in Bloom is so perfectly average that it leaves little impression at all.

The Big Broadcast of 1936 (1935)
July 29, 2015, 12:44 pm
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Director: Norman Taurog
3 Stars
The Big Broadcast of 1936The Big Broadcast of 1936 includes a plot device that is indispensable for a variety picture: the so-called Radio Eye. As described, the portable contraption allows one to see and hear anything that is broadcast on the airwaves. The appearance of such a device shows that television was already on the public’s conscious in 1935, and the film lampoons the premise that one could have such a wide variety of entertainment at their fingertips. In a baffling sequence that first demonstrates the Radio Eye, a sketch involving a slapstick comedy team building a house transitions into a weeper about a dying child in a hospital and finally bookends that with a blackface routine from Amos ’n’ Andy. As with the medium the picture is modeled after, the lesser moments of The Big Broadcast of 1936 don’t last long before they make way for more enjoyable acts. And, if each vignette leaves something to be desired on its own (save for a beautiful tap dancing number involving Bill Robinson and the Nicholas Brothers), the film is a surreal potpourri of entertainment, bolstered by a remarkable imagination and the boldness of its juxtapositions.

Hands Across the Table (1935)
June 2, 2015, 3:47 pm
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Director: Mitchell Leisen
4 Stars
Hands Across the TableIn the opening moments of Hands Across the Table, an exasperated Carole Lombard steps off of a train on a crowded platform. Shortly thereafter, her eye catches a diamond ring in a jewelry store window–an unambiguous desire if there ever was one! Lombard’s star persona brought the cynicism and sexiness that one might expect of a gold digger, but she brings an unexpected insecurity to the part that many actresses of the period wouldn’t be able to convey. In her first meeting with Fred MacMurray (whom she has selected as bait), she awkwardly stabs his cuticles several times during a manicure and can’t seem to spit out a well-thought sentence. She’s nervous because the stakes are clear–he’s her ticket out of a lifestyle that she’s grown tired of. Director Mitchell Leisen and cinematographer Ted Tetzlaff contribute a wonderful tone that balances the playfulness of a screwball comedy with subtler, more melancholic notes. This is a romance between two characters who refer to themselves as heels, and as such neither of them feels as though they really deserve the happy ending. Ralph Bellamy has a small but hugely sympathetic performance. He’s the typical “other man”, but his chemistry is so believable with Lombard that one roots for him almost immediately, even after MacMurray has been introduced.

Pursuit (1935)
April 13, 2015, 2:40 pm
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Director: Edwin L. Marin
3 Stars
PursuitThis briskly-paced programmer packs an impressive number of action sequences into its hour running time. Chester Morris stars as an aviator who is given the task of transporting a child (Scotty Beckett) to Mexico so that his mother won’t lose the custody battle. He’s accompanied by a child protective agent played by Sally Eilers, who initially despises him before their mutual affection grows (they begin their adventure handcuffed together!). Director Edwin L. Marin ably handles the suspense of his action scenes, especially an early one in which Morris chases and eventually leaps onto a runaway plane to save a child. The cutting between the long-shots of the plane, Morris’ heroic stunt, and the child in fear shows a Griffithian eye for how to stage and edit a suspense scene. Beyond such excitements, what makes the film really work is the chemistry between the underrated stars. Their bantering on country roads reminds one of It Happened One Night, and Eilers in particular is up to the task of inviting such a weighty comparison. The child at the center of it all, on the other hand, is a weakness–he seems like an afterthought for most of the picture, and only tends to be used to create problems for the couple to solve.

Mary Jane’s Pa (1935)
March 27, 2015, 10:16 pm
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Director: William Keighley
3.5 Stars
Mary Jane's PaCharacter actors Aline MacMahon and Guy Kibbee would star together in a total of ten films after their memorable pairing in Gold Diggers of 1933. They were often utilized in domestic comedies that showcased the plights that parents went through in the domestic setting, particularly regarding the ungratefulness of children and the increasing lovelessness of a long marriage. Mary Jane’s Pa is very much about bandaging a ravaged nuclear family, but it also has a terrific romantic core. Kibbee plays a newspaperman with a severe case of wanderlust and, in the opening scene, he abandons his wife and children for a life on the road. A decade later, he returns and eventually finds his way back into the house as a cook, desperately trying to win back the good graces of his family. It’s one of Kibbee’s finest performances of the period–he’s not saddled with the usual task of playing a blowhard, rather he gets to play a deeply flawed, but ultimately sympathetic man. The opening sequence, involving MacMahon discovering that her husband has left her, is hugely effective. She plays it as more of an inevitability than a shock, but that doesn’t make it hurt any less. The frequency of the train whistle on the soundtrack seems to taunt her, a brutal reminder of her husband’s desertion.

Grand Exit (1935)
March 10, 2015, 7:46 pm
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Director: Erle C. Kenton
2.5 Stars
Grand ExitIn the opening scene of Grand Exit, an arson investigator (Edmund Lowe) runs into a mysterious beauty (Anne Sothern) who seems to have a particular attraction to fires. When he continues to cross paths with her at several more crime scenes, he begins suspecting that she has something to do with the string of arsons. The picture is a forgettable programmer, only worth a look for fans of Sothern or for admiring a handful of nicely accomplished fire sequences. Lowe is an unconvincing ladies’ man, although he’s not without his charm–the most memorable line happens when he explains that a love affair is not unlike a fire, because only when it’s over can you begin to parse the reason for why it happened. It’s a nicely romantic thought in what is otherwise a fairly standard crime melodrama, complete with a nearly incomprehensible conclusion. Sothern looks great in an array of costumes, and the moody opening scene, which complicates the romantic “meet cute” element with the high stakes setting of a fire, is nicely staged.

No More Ladies (1935)
February 1, 2015, 2:04 am
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Director: Edward H. Griffith
3.5 Stars
No More LadiesThis drawing room comedy about a troubled socialite marriage is nearly indistinguishable from the rest of its genre, but despite its forgettability there are a handful of laughs and good performances. It plays like a sanitized take on The Divorcee, which exposed the double standard in which husbands treat their infidelities as trivial until their wives turn the tables around on them. As the vindictive new bride, Joan Crawford only allows herself a few moments of wallowing before setting her sights on revenge. Donald Ogden Stewart is credited as a co-writer of the screenplay (adapted from a successful Broadway play by Augustus Thomas) and the film plays like a primitive draft of his masterpiece The Philadelphia Story, with a handful of eccentric characters witnessing the shifts of power in a complicated relationship. This being an MGM production, all three of the leads (the reliably charming Franchot Tone plays Montgomery’s eventual competition) are incredibly well-dressed and photographed, with Crawford’s gowns being the highlight. Charles Ruggles, Edna May Oliver, and especially Arthur Treacher, playing a caricatured British socialite who doesn’t understand American slang, each deliver laughs in their supporting roles.

The Ghost Goes West (1935)
July 25, 2014, 9:50 pm
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Director: René Clair
4.5 Stars
The Ghost Goes WestLargely neglected today in favor of director René Clair’s later fantastical romantic comedy I Married a Witch, The Ghost Goes West is a hugely successful aesthetic achievement with charm to spare due to its gentle, even-handed satire and likable stars. Robert Donat plays a dual role as both a disgraced Scottsman who is doomed to haunt a castle until he brings pride back to his family name and as his descendent. The father (Eugene Pallette) of the woman (Jean Parker) that the living Donat has fallen in love with purchases the castle and plans to move it to Florida with a publicity scheme on his mind. It is the early sequences in the Scottish castle that are the most memorable. Clair details the estate beautifully with rolling fogs at nights and an abundance of farm animals roaming the grounds in the afternoon, and in building the anticipation for the first haunting he successfully gives the castle character–shots linger on objects such as the mechanical movement of a clock as if to suggest the livingness of the building itself. The early ribbing at Scottish pride is matched equally by the boisterous, money-grubbing American businessman in the end, and even if the comedy isn’t as sharp-tongued as it could have been it is smart and amiably written throughout. Jean Parker (a dead ringer both visually and in her comedic timing for Jean Arthur) is particularly good as the curious love interest.