For Reel

Stranded (1935)
July 21, 2014, 5:33 pm
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Director: Frank Borzage
4 Stars
StrandedA staple sequence in many of Frank Borzage’s romantic dramas is the first date–the dance in the closed-down restaurant in History Is Made at Night, the night of romance following a meet-cute in Living on Velvet. What distinguishes Stranded is just how dreadful the date goes, with the script emphasizing Kay Francis’ commitment to her work above all and George Brent’s growing frustration with the lack of attention he’s receiving. It’s an unusual episode for Borzage, one that almost argues that love doesn’t, in fact, conquer all–at least not yet (in the end, this is indeed Borzage). As the engineer, Brent is an unlikely hero for the genre. He’s a practical, conservative man with very little interest in the essential goodness of human beings (which creates the key conflict between he and his lover). Although his inevitable transformation is a contrived one, it’s interesting to see a movie of this period in which the woman holds her ground until the man is accepting of her chosen career path and independence. Besides the romance, Borzage invests a lot of screentime into detailing the gritty realism of the Depression (as he does in After Tomorrow), with his interest in juxtaposing romanticism with harsh realism exemplified early on when a tangential look at an adorable child is followed immediately by an old man committing suicide.

Living on Velvet (1935)
March 17, 2014, 2:34 am
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Director: Frank Borzage
4.5 Stars
Living on VelvetNo filmmaker has ever been better than Frank Borzage at showing people fall in love. Oft-cited as one of the great romanticists of classical Hollywood cinema, Borzage created lovers that were unconquerable–their unions were holy things, beacons of hope that pervaded throughout even the most dire of circumstances. Living on Velvet, a neglected masterwork, features one of the very best romantic meetings of its era. At a high society party, two people engaging in their own middling smalltalk happen to meet eyes from across the room. Borzage shoots their glances in medium close-up, editing back and forth to create the tension. To punctuate the glances, as well as to illustrate the distance between the two (a distance which the audience begs to be broken), he then has his camera pan back-and-forth between the lovers not once, but twice–a rather aggressive move for the genre in this period. The lust-filled encounter is immediately followed by a nightly excursion, the kind that he would later perfect with History Is Made at Night. Every supporting player disappears, and all the audience is left with is the lovers and the few strangers (such as a carriage driver) who bear witness to their chemistry. It is surprising that the picture isn’t held in higher regard among Borzage scholars (although few have poor things to say about it)–it is profoundly illustrative of his talents, among the most Borzage of Borzage pictures. Casting George Brent as the male lead was certainly a hinderance (a bland actor with a bad habit of appearing in otherwise great movies), but he does have a sizzling chemistry with co-star Kay Francis that is unmistakable.

Page Miss Glory (1935)
March 15, 2014, 3:38 am
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Director: Mervyn LeRoy
4 Stars
Page Miss GloryUpset with the way MGM had been utilizing her, William Randolph Hearst sought better roles for mistress Marion Davies when his Cosmopolitan Pictures made the transition over to Warner Brothers in 1935. The first picture made for the studio was Page Miss Glory, an irresistible Cinderella story that sees a common hotel maid given the opportunity of a lifetime when she takes upon the invented persona of the titular celebrity. Davies was a fine comedienne (her work in the late silent Show People is terrific), and she benefits here from the best supporting players that Warner Brothers had to offer. Besides the more familiar faces–including Pat O’Brien, Mary Astor, Lyle Talbot, Allen Jenkins, and Frank McHugh in a bigger part than he was often given–Patsy Kelly is a stand-out as another chambermaid. It is unclear who exactly the joke is on in the film, with just about everyone (including Davies and her ideal lover, a pilot played by Dick Powell) rendered as complete dopes. Regardless, the picture is an amusing distraction about publicity and the way that audience’s consume celebrity images (the conceit being that a conman (O’Brien) creates the perfect woman through a composite of other famous stars–some Dietrich here, Garbo there, etc.). One of the highlights sees a photograph of Dick Powell come to life in a ludicrous, but nonetheless satisfying musical number.

Ruggles of Red Gap (1935)
March 11, 2014, 4:30 am
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Director: Leo McCarey
5 Stars
Ruggles of Red GapCharles Laughton often cited the titular Ruggles of Ruggles of Red Gap as his favorite character that he ever played on screen. It’s a role that allowed him to embrace his comedic side more fully (which he would eventually use to great effect in films like The Canterville Ghost and Hobson’s Choice), but moreover the film gave him the ideal vehicle to present a romantic ode to both democracy and to his adopted country. The film traces the journey of an English manservant (Laughton) who is gambled away to a frontier millionaire (Charles Ruggles) and his wife (Mary Boland) in the small western town of Red Gap. Ruggles is initially uncomfortable with the drastic change of setting, however he comes to love the new opportunities he’s been granted and finally begins to see himself as an equal to his fellow man. The earnestly patriotic sentiment is consistent with the America that Capra would mythologize in the late 30s/early 40s, but the crucial detail that differentiates this narrative is the lack of a singular everyman. Ruggles is an outsider to both Red Gap and the audience initially–his intensely formal mannerisms early in the picture set him at a distance from the average movie-goer. The journey, then, is not for one noble man to create a social or political change, but rather for this outsider to assimilate with the rough-and-tumble westerners, who are presented as morally superior to the snobbish, self-important European upper class. It’s as optimistic a vision of American democracy and the country’s people that has ever been put to screen, and the miracle is that (save for Laughton’s impassioned recitation of the Gettysburg address) it never feels overly-preachy–it’s patriotism slyly works its way into the picture undetected until almost the very end.

Woman Wanted (1935)
December 15, 2013, 12:32 am
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Director: George B. Seitz
3 Stars
Woman WantedJoel McCrea found stardom at RKO in the early 1930s, but it wasn’t until his films with Preston Sturges in the 1940s that he really established himself as a top-tier actor. Often playing a droll romantic sap early in his career, McCrea was typically overshadowed by the women he was starring with, including such luminaries as Constance Bennett and Miriam Hopkins. On loan to MGM in 1935, Woman Wanted gave audiences a bigger taste of McCrea’s penchant for fast-talking and silliness than ever before. The picture is a rather conventional, over-written crime drama in which lawyer McCrea helps a wrongly convicted woman (Maureen O’Sullivan) escape from both the cops and the thugs pursuing her. At its best, the film indulges in screwball moments–when McCrea and O’Sullivan are laying low in the countryside, one will undoubtedly recall It Happened One Night (one particularly funny sequence includes a newly flirtatious McCrea drunk driving). The convoluted plot occasionally stands in the way of the performers, however, and although director George B. Seitz moves things along rapidly, it tends to drag due to the lackluster crime element. Seitz would be most famous for directing many of the Andy Hardy pictures, and here he shows a tremendous ability to capture the loquacious rhythms of a city by moving from one conversation to the next with a simple tracking shot or pan.

Romance in Manhattan (1935)
July 21, 2012, 6:59 am
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Director: Stephen Roberts

For a picture with such a fanciful title, Romance in Manhattan is tinged with an unmistakable feeling of despair. Love will ultimately overcome, it argues, but that doesn’t make things any easier – the convenience of the predictable Hollywood ending is made a little more palatable considering that marriage is only one small victory in what will otherwise prove to be a slog through a relentlessly oppressive economic climate. Francis Lederer plays a Czechoslovakian immigrant who arrives in Manhattan illegally after he was refused entrance due to the recently raised entrance fee. He comes across the charitable Ginger Rogers, who takes him in after she catches him stealing doughnuts from her rehearsal hall. Rogers made a career for herself as a comedienne in playing snarky, modern women who weren’t easily impressed. In dramatic roles, then, she was a natural fit, exuding the same world-weariness but with a much greater understatement (though she would win an Academy Award for her dramatic performance in Kitty Foyle, Primrose Path is her finest accomplishment). She is paired well with the Lederer, who has a childlike optimism but is never lauded for it. His idealized America is particularly naïve given the ongoing Depression, a fact which Rogers is not shy to approach him with. Their relationship, though, lacks the sexuality that came natural to Rogers in her collaborations with men like Fred Astaire or Herbert Marshall, making the “romance” of the title the biggest disappointment of the production.

The Whole Town’s Talking (1935)
May 1, 2012, 10:42 pm
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Director: John Ford

Edward G. Robinson plays a dual role in one of his very best showcases, The Whole Town’s Talking. Today’s viewers might be surprised to see that John Ford is credited with directing the picture, however Ford did make a number of comedies in his career and, even in his serious outings, his boisterous Irish humor would often come through. An office clerk at an accounting firm is mistaken for a notorious bank robber on the day that he was to be fired. When the police give him an identity card so as not to lead to any future confusion, the bank robber catches word and shows up on the clerk’s doorstep with intentions of routinely borrowing it. As the comedic elements of Ford’s pictures, especially his westerns (The Searchers being the prime example), are often brash and off-putting, it is a surprise to see how delicately he handles the humor that comes at the expense of the meek, affable clerk. The screenplay is credited to Jo Swerling and Robert Riskin, frequent collaborators with Frank Capra, and in its warm sentiment it possesses more of the traits of a Capra vehicle than it does a Ford. Most touching of all is the relationship that develops between the clerk and Jean Arthur, who, like many of Capra’s heroines (Arthur chief among them), gives the hero the confidence and drive to succeed. Robinson was initially reluctant to work on another tough guy part, but the picture is wholly devoted to presenting his dynamism – he makes a convincing romantic lead, and is given the chance to both convey the sensitivity of Marinius of Our Vines Have Tender Grapes and the menace of “Little Caesar” Bandello.

The Public Menace (1935)
March 18, 2012, 9:04 am
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Director: Erle C. Kenton

Made on the cheap by Columbia Pictures, The Public Menace is a tightly-constructed, highly entertaining screwball comedy featuring the delightful Jean Arthur in top-billing. After taking a break from Hollywood and refining her talents on Broadway, Arthur was offered a contract by Columbia in late 1933, where she would work on programmers of this breed before breaking out with a series of Frank Capra blockbusters. The Public Menace sees her as a manicurist aboard a cruise ship who, for reasons never made clear, has lost her citizenship and wishes to make a new life on land. She bribes an opportunistic journalist into marrying her by promising that she has the evidence that will lead to the breaking of a major story. The screenplay, written by Ethel Hill and Lionel Houser, might stumble with the exposition, but it deftly juggles the genres of the newspaper film, the gangster thriller, and the romantic comedy. In progressing two plot lines concurrently – one, the developing romance between Arthur and her co-star, George Murphy; the other, a thought-to-be dead gangster on the rise – director Erle C. Kenton builds suspense in teasing when the paths of the characters will inevitably intersect. While he doesn’t have much of a reputation today – perhaps due to his politics (he infamously said that Mexicans were genetically suited to farm labor before serving on the United States Senate from 1965 – 1971) – George Murphy was an able leading man who did well as foil to great comediennes, such as Ginger Rogers in the charming Tom, Dick and Harry.