For Reel

Trouble for Two (1936)
July 17, 2017, 11:18 pm
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Director: J. Walter Ruben
3.5 Stars
Trouble for Two.jpgThis adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s series of “Suicide Club” short stories casts Robert Montgomery and Rosalind Russell as the soon-to-be-married heirs to the thrones of fictitious countries. Montgomery’s Prince Florizel, having not seen Russell’s Princess Brenda in fifteen years, does not recognize the woman when he takes a liking to her at a local club. If the material seems familiar of similar royal comedies of the era, the film takes a turn at the introduction of the suicide club where the future lovers meet. Occupied by upper class socialites hell-bent on their own destruction, the group gathers regularly and distributes cards—if one is lucky, they’ll receive the card that promises them the relief of death. There is a biting satirical edge in the fact that the wealthy are so bored, ashamed, and complacent that they seek out such activities, but more than that, this sense of danger is played as improbably erotic. The courtship between the leads happens when Brenda is assigned to murder Florizel—in handling these conflicting tones, Montgomery plays the scenes with an excited sense of curiosity, treating it as a kinky game. Russell, playing things much straighter for much of the picture, makes Brenda largely enigmatic, with her final wedding-day wink at her husband finally suggesting that the time of secrets is behind them.

Sing and Like It (1934)
June 26, 2017, 11:03 pm
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Director: William A. Seiter
4 Stars
Sing and Like ItFans of character actors often watch otherwise interminable films just to see Edward Everett Horton, Pert Kelton, ZaSu Pitts, and myriad of others steal a scene or two. Sing and Like It had the novel idea of forgoing everything but the bit players. There is no generic love story in the middle of it, nor do the supporting players simply function as outsiders who conveniently move the plot along for others—they are the active participants who tell their own story. In the case of Nat Pendleton’s T. Fenny Sylvester, he will literally strongarm his way to getting what he wants, threatening a hapless theater producer (Horton) into making a star out of the clearly untalented singer Annie Snodgrass (Pitts). For all the film’s cynicism, there is something refreshing about how earnest each of the characters are—Pendleton truly believes Pitts is a genius, Pitts truly believes Pendleton will fall in love with her, and Horton truly believes he’s absolutely screwed. That these characters so readily wear their hearts on their sleeves makes the sarcastic banter of Kelton all the more biting. Sing and Like It is a satire about how taste-makers have so thoroughly taken power over the arts that “quality” is no longer of any concern, as seen when the terrific Ned Sparks literally threatens a critic to cheer (and therefore the rest of the audience to join him) during a clearly bad performance. If Pitts’ awful rendition of “Your Mother” is a repeating joke on the film, it is the audience who favors the critic to the art that director William A. Seiter wishes to humiliate.

And So They Were Married (1936)
June 26, 2017, 10:58 pm
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Director: Elliott Nugent
2.5 Stars
And So They Were Married.jpgA reversal of the familiar trope in which conspiring children attempt to bring their parents together, this screwball comedy finds Jackie Moran and Edith Fellows playing two bratty children who will do whatever they can to destroy their parents’ engagement. As the central couple is Melvyn Douglas and Mary Astor, the latter of whom is so storied as an empowered, strong-willed presence on screen that Douglas’ grouch is sickly sweet by comparison. This is part of the problem—Douglas’ stubbornness is hardly convincing, and in many scenes it seems like he simply doesn’t care about the material. It is the amount of screen time given to their offspring, however, that ruins its potential as a screwball comedy. A good screwball comedy typically involves healthy doses of cynicism and sexuality. In pairing that genre with a story about two rambunctious children who become friends, the script completely neuters the potential of Douglas and Astor’s relationship. Regardless, the ski lodge setting was relatively uncommon for the genre and it works well as a device to keep the couple trapped until they fall in love. Donald Meek is expectedly amusing as the exasperated hotel manager.

After the Thin Man (1936)
January 29, 2017, 3:13 pm
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Director: W.S. Van Dyke
4 Stars
after-the-thin-manGiven an increased budget after the original film was a surprise hit, After the Thin Man both recycled many of the elements from its predecessor while taking the opportunity to explore the relationship between Nick and Nora Charles (William Powell and Myrna Loy) more deeply. If The Thin Man was occasionally bogged down by its mystery, this second film wisely maintains a serious interest in solving a murder but gives it more of an immediacy and relevancy to the Charleses. In exploring Nick’s relationships with hoodlums and Nora’s wealthy family history, After the Thin Man more deliberately invests itself in why exactly the Charleses bicker so much, and that the mystery comes from within Nora’s family adds fuel to their conversations about class and morality. Besides the new sure-footedness in establishing the relationship between the central duo, After the Thin Man is aided by a wonderful supporting cast—Jimmy Stewart, in particular, has comparatively little screentime, but the stakes of the drama he is involved in and his motivations within the narrative are always precise. If the original film is regarded as the classic of the bunch, the opening scene of this sequel—in which Nick and Nora share a romantic kiss, become interrupted by a station worker voyeur, and begin pouring drinks—succinctly reestablishes all of the groundwork that was laid and paves the way for what is ultimately a more satisfying comedy and mystery at every turn.

Petticoat Fever (1936)
January 28, 2017, 4:39 pm
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Director: George Fitzmaurice
2 Stars
petticoat-feverThe early-goings of Petticoat Fever do much to establish the mood of a ramshackle weather station isolated in Labrador. The camera tracks Robert Montgomery as he paces the distance of the cabin, completing the tic-tac-toe game he’s playing against himself and taking inventory of the all-too-familiar belongings. His desperation sets the tone for a film in which he finds himself obsessing over the first beautiful woman he’s seen in two years—the fact that she’s engaged and her fiance is in tow is only a mild inconvenience. The snowed in cabin is an inspired location for a farce (the same year’s Snowed Under fairs a small bit better), but the performers don’t make much of the material. Loy, who fares better as a wise-cracking sophisticate, plays aloof for much of the picture, while the obnoxiously determined Montgomery is charmless (and mostly creepy) in his dedication—Montgomery plays the man as having such a single-track mind that it all but rids him of any humanity. Had Montgomery played his desperation with more convincing underlying sadness, or Loy played her character with more sass and attitude, their scenes together might have developed into something interesting. As is, however, only Reginald Owen (as Loy’s husband-to-be) turns in a fully conceived performance, equally pompous and sympathetic.

Song of Freedom (1936)
December 31, 2016, 6:25 pm
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Director: J. Elder Wills
3 Stars
song-of-freedomSong of Freedom was a significant turning point for Paul Robeson in that it followed in the immediate aftermath of Sanders of the River, a film which the actor disowned and would lead him to implement a clause in his contract regarding the final edit of his pictures. The film follows a singer on the London docks who, shortly after being discovered and achieving success, seeks his ancestral roots in Africa. Robeson’s deep, emotionally dynamic voice is enough to warrant a viewing—he sings early and often, with the picture addressing music as being a tool used to discern one’s individuality (and therefore finding freedom). The non-musical bits in the early-half, however, impressively build on the theme of displacement. While Robeson has a loving marriage with his wife played by Elisabeth Welch, he fantasizes about his history and wishes to understand it more directly. Similarly, although music leads him out of the docks, he protests wildly against the man who discovers and attempts to train him, arguing that his individuality is being stifled through the training. These dramatic contradictions all but disappear in the misguided, incoherent third act in which Robeson visits Africa and has to win over the natives (including a witchdoctor) by arguing for the correctness of the western way of life, but regardless the film is successful as a curiosity and certainly one of the most historically significant acknowledgments of blacks in Britain at the time.

Sabotage (1936)
October 8, 2016, 12:38 pm
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Director: Alfred Hitchcock
4.5 Stars
sabotageHitchcock’s Sabotage is among his most uncompromising films, the rare example of the showman toying with the audience’s expectations in ways that are almost entirely unpleasurable. The film’s controversial setpiece, in which a boy unwittingly carries a bomb on a bus and many innocent people are killed, was a sequence that the director later regretted, feeling as though it alienated audiences too much. Sabotage is indeed more confrontational than many of Hitchcock’s films—whereas his portrayals of violence were often extraordinary in that they were the culmination of emotional passions, Sabotage views violence directly and with a disturbing indifference. The scene in which Sylvia Sidney stabs her husband (Oscar Homolka) has no cathartic aftertaste—it’s unclear whether Homolka has walked into the knife or Sidney has stabbed him, and the film’s cold portrayal of the act foregrounds the effect it will have on Sidney’s character rather than serving as a cheap thrill. If Sidney and Homolka are unconvincing as a couple and the detective played by John Loder is dull, the film’s larger concerns—about both the indifference of a violent act and the lasting effect it has on the survivors—are successful enough to rank Sabotage as one of Hitchcock’s very best British films.

Pennies from Heaven (1936)
August 16, 2016, 10:12 pm
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Director: Norman Z. McLeod
3.5 Stars
Pennies from HeavenThe 9th annual Academy Awards saw Jerome Kern’s “The Way You Look Tonight” beating out Arthur Johnston’s “Pennies from Heaven” in the Best Song category. Although the musicals the two songs appear in are both affable, crowd-pleasing entertainments, they seem to come from different worlds. Released by Columbia Pictures, Pennies from Heaven was perhaps an attempt to bank on the recent success of the studio’s It Happened One Night in that it similarly grounds itself in Depression-era realism, with Bing Crosby’s troubadour going as far as to risk his life in a carnival stunt out of his affection for an orphan girl (Edith Fellows). If it wasn’t the first musical to strive for socioeconomic realism (Gold Diggers of 1933 is a masterpiece with similar intentions), it’s a striking contrast with the largely escapist fare of the Astaire & Rogers pictures at RKO. Pennies from Heaven largely coasts on the charm of Crosby and its songs, and it is to its great benefit that there an embarrassment of riches in the latter department—in addition to the title song are “One, Two, Button Your Shoe”, “Let’s Call a Heart a Heart”, and Louis Armstrong performing “Skeleton in the Closet.” Armstrong’s musical number occurs during the film’s best episode in which the makeshift family opens a haunted house themed restaurant in which props literally burst out of the tables, providing an endearing sense of youthful creativity that overcomes the humdrum plotting.

The Man Who Could Work Miracles (1936)
May 29, 2016, 2:37 pm
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Director: Lothar Mendes
3 Stars
The Man Who Could Work MiraclesBefore starring as the title character in the popular fantasy picture Topper, Roland Young acted alongside floating props in this adaptation of H.G. Wells’ short story The Man Who Could Work Miracles. As the title suggests, the Gods entertain an experiment that involves granting unlimited power to an unlikely haberdasher’s assistant (Young). The special effects in the early-goings are charming, aided by Young’s performance as the gobsmacked George Fotheringay, who spends his first day creating kittens out of thin air and flirting with the possibility of becoming a famous illusionist. Of course, when others learn of Fotheringjay’s abilities, he is courted by sides that wish to use him for their own monetary benefit and those that wish for him to end war and disease. Eventually, he upsets a local military man (Ralph Richardson), who shortly seeks to have him assassinated. There is a Christ allegory to be read in a man with the potential to save the world being met with hostility and human greed, and the final act takes a delicious turn into pure nihilism when Fotheringjay declares himself a supreme ruler having had enough with his fellow man. As with his performance in Things To Come, Richardson plays his role too broadly, and the film grinds to a halt in the latter half until the ending sequence. Regardless, Wells’ imagination is done justice in that the film not only presents its fantastical idea and all of its potential, but posits the philosophical questions involved.

Freshman Love (1936)
April 23, 2016, 6:11 pm
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Director: William C. McGann
2 Stars
Freshman LoveIn Freshman Love,  Frank McHugh (among the most pervasive of all Warner Brothers character actors from the time) plays a college coach who is tasked with bringing his rowing team to victory. The problem is that the university’s president is so obsessed with academics that athleticism is overlooked. Enter the president’s daughter (Patricia Ellis), who McHugh quickly realizes can seduce the area’s top athletes into joining the rowing team. At just over an hour in length, the picture is the typical programmer of its day—it’s toothless and saddled with a bland leading man in Warren Hull, but moves at a decent clip. McHugh contributes fine work, but the film is stolen by George E. Stone as a dorky bandleader who gains an important function when it is realized that the rowing team performs much better when moving to a beat (something their rivals try to combat with a waltz). Mostly, however, the film is dead in the water when Ellis and Hull are sharing the screen, and for a comedy about the power of sexuality it is saccharine even by the standards of its time.