For Reel


They Wanted to Marry (1937)
June 21, 2016, 2:20 pm
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Director: Lew Landers
2.5 Stars
They Wanted to MarryRKO’s programmer take on the runaway heiress meets newspaperman plot is They Wanted to Marry, a nicely innocent but altogether forgettable screwball comedy. The lovers are played by Gordon Jones and Betty Furness, the former of whom is actually not a writer, but a photographer—a trade which comes to cause problems for Furness and her family. Typically in a romantic comedy from the era, the woman must give up her ambition and make sacrifices in order to please the man, but in this case the roles are reversed. Furness, good as the “other woman” in similar genre picture like Swing Time, doesn’t quite have the edge to pull off the part, and unfortunately the dialogue she’s given doesn’t do much to help her cause (including such gems as,“I know a good seven-letter word for goodbye: GOODBYE!”). The misunderstanding that pulls them apart momentarily is not particularly convincing, nor are many of the overwritten turns—in one case, Jones goes to hand in his notice at work only to receive a raise, and despite the hiccup the script has him quit only two minutes later. Regardless, the stakes are low but the romance is a pleasant slice of escapism, moving at an amiable clip and photographed in terrific art deco sets borrowed from bigger budgeted pictures.

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Hollywood Cowboy (1937)
May 27, 2016, 8:47 pm
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Director: Ewing Scott
1.5 Stars
Hollywood CowboyThis unusual programmer presents a somewhat modified version of the old west in which the threat to the frontier is not outlaws or American Indians, but gangsters from the city. Led by Charles Middleton, the mobsters scheme to use a biplane in order to frighten cattle and cause a stampede. While there is enormous potential in such a juxtaposition, Hollywood Cowboy is saddled with thin characterizations and a script that doesn’t really seem to get anywhere—the most effective B-westerns tend to make good use of the locations and rely on their action scenes, and this, on the other hand, involves a whole lot of circular conversations without much to peak one’s visual interest. George O’Brien plays a Hollywood star who becomes mistaken for a real life cowboy and finds himself defending a ranch from the protection racket. O’Brien is okay as the spoon-fed, all American hero, but ironically he is so lacking in charisma that it is difficult to buy him as a movie star. One could imagine a director with a more specific vision making more out of the genre hybrid potential, but nobody involved seemed to have much interest in doing anything but getting this filmed over a long weekend.



Public Wedding (1937)
March 31, 2016, 5:11 pm
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Director: Nick Grinde
2.5 Stars
Public WeddingA dysfunctional group of carnival works concocts their latest scheme while a roller coaster looms in the background. In order to draw crowds to their whale exhibit, they have the bright idea to stage a public wedding in the creature’s gaping mouth. So begins the series of absurd events that makes up Public Wedding, a thoroughly ridiculous but occasionally appealing comedy that has the historical value of featuring Jane Wyman in her first starring role. Wyman, along with Dick Purcell and Berton Churchill, play the central trio of carnies who follow each of their schemes with an even more implausible one (at one point, they’ll stage a woman’s suicide (Marie Wilson) in order to bring publicity to an aspiring painter played by William Hopper). Had the script given the cast more venomous material to work with, Public Wedding might have been a show-stopping satire that lampooned both the institution of marriage and the world of publicists. As it is, it coasts on the charms of its cast, including the show-stealing Churchill, who gives a W.C. Fields impersonation as a blowhard con artist. Wilson, married to director Nick Grinde at the time of the film’s release, is another standout, bringing a fierce energy to the familiar “ditzy blonde” role. The only performer who can’t carry his weight is Hopper, but fortunately Wyman’s enthusiasm almost makes his scenes bearable.



Once a Doctor (1937)
March 31, 2016, 5:02 pm
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Director: William Clemens
3.5 Stars
Once a DoctorThis ambitious programmer from director William Clemens was released the same year as Internes Can’t Take Money, the Paramount hit that launched the Dr. Kildare series of films. Perhaps more significantly, however, 1937 also saw the release of one of director Frank Borzage’s masterpieces, History is Made at Night, which concludes with a surprising Titanic-like disaster. Similarly, Once a Doctor finds its climax on the roaring seas, where a doctor will need to zipline from boat to boat in order to perform a surgery on the man that ruined his life. Once a Doctor‘s great pleasures come from this style of melodrama, accompanied effectively by the touching score by Heinz Roemheld and given more visual grace than the usual programmer by cinematographer L. William O’Connell. The usually forgettable Donald Woods is well-cast as the honorable doctor, who in the early scenes discusses death with a surprising frankness for a genre that at the time didn’t treat grim subject matter so mundanely. If the film lacks a strong romance (Jean Muir is underwritten as the love interest and the two share little chemistry together), Woods’ true on again off again affair is with his profession itself, which brings him to heartbreak in its own way. For director Clemens, this was a huge step up in quality from his earlier run of pictures—as a director-for-hire on B-pictures, he shows an unusual talent for mimicking the formula of a typical prestige film.



Lost Horizon (1937)
December 13, 2015, 11:39 pm
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Director: Frank Capra
3 Stars
Lost HorizonLost Horizon begins as a rebuttal to critics who speak of director Frank Capra’s stodginess, choreographing an exciting rescue sequence in which a noted British diplomat (Ronald Colman) helps evacuate westerners out of war-torn China. When the three key refugees are aboard a plane that’s been hijacked by a kidnapper, a sense of paranoia and dread begins to sink in–these characters at the mercy of a pilot whose motivations are entirely unclear. Unfortunately, when our heroes settle down in the famed Shangri-La, Capra perhaps dwells too excessively in the day-to-day happenings of this utopia, with the running time seeking justification that it never finds. Only with a tuberculosis-ridden prostitute (Isabel Jewel) does the drama of the fantastical reprieve have significant emotional resonance. If Capra’s desire to ponder this land of peace seems unfocused, where he succeeds is in the bookending sequences that revel in the chaos and confusion–emotions the director rarely dealt with in this period, save for short bursts (such as the bus scene of It Happened One Night). While the final image of the film makes Colman’s journey more palatable than it needs to be, there is a great poetic beauty in watching a man battle the elements in search of the happiness he made the mistake of failing to trust.



West of Shanghai (1937)
November 30, 2015, 6:49 pm
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Director: John Farrow
2.5 Stars
West of ShanghaiOne of John Farrow’s first directorial assignments cast Boris Karloff as a Chinese warlord named General Fang, a role that would allow the actor the valued chance to step outside of the horror genre he made his name on. Despite being hidden behind prosthetics and make-up (it’s a fairly convincing transformation for the period), his tremendous gift for expression isn’t too restricted, allowing a fairly dynamic characterization. Perhaps taking cues from Nils Asther’s performance in The Bitter Tea of General Yen, Karloff works to give Fang a convincing sense of humanity–an aspiration far removed from his earlier excursion into yellow face as the sinister Dr. Fu Manchu (in 1932’s The Mask of Fu Manchu). What is surprising about his take is that Fang looks to be in a perpetual state of amusement, indulging in drinks and cigarettes, engaging in repartee with his colleagues, and grinning his way throughout the picture. When Fang asks his right-hand man (Richard Loo) to translate for him, there is a sense of playfulness in trying to adapt western expressions and modes of talking. Other than the central performance, there is little that sticks in West of Shanghai–it is a forgettable, utterly disposable picture, but a valuable piece to study for fans of the immensely talented Karloff.



Fly Away Baby (1937)
September 19, 2015, 12:16 pm
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Director: Frank McDonald
3 Stars
Fly Away BabyThe second installment of the Torchy Blane series improves on the first by foregrounding the things that make the films unique. In the first picture, Steve McBride (Barton MacLane) largely served as the leading man, with Torchy (Glenda Farrell) offering up her expertise at crime-solving in small doses. Fly Away Baby is a much better showcase for Farrell and the writing does more favors for the actors by doubling down on the bantering–it is clear that Farrell and MacLane have already developed a much more comfortable rapport. Most interestingly, the picture prioritizes the feminist themes that are inherent to the series, with much of the conversation involving the significance of Torchy’s gender in the mystery context. McBride, dismissing Torchy’s expert analysis, argues, “It takes a masculine mind and years of experience to crack these cases! Now, you just go on back to your office and write a little story about what the women’s clubs are doing to promote world peace and then I’ll take you out to dinner.” With dialogue like this, the film becomes one that not only promotes the competency of women, but also makes a mockery of a certain brand of old-fashioned masculinity, defined by ignorance and pigheadedness.