For Reel

There Goes My Heart (1938)
July 17, 2017, 11:22 pm
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Director: Norman Z. McLeod
3.5 Stars
There Goes My Heart.jpgAlthough screwball comedies had only been hugely successful for four years at the time There Goes My Heart was made in 1938, the simplicity that they were first loved for had come to be seen as largely derivative in the later years of the genre. Much like It Happened One Night, There Goes My Heart concerns a runaway heiress who learns what it is to live below her class and is shown the ropes by a roguish newspaperman who is torn between love and work. And yet, screwball comedies of this ilk come alive in the details, and not only does the film has a number of memorable setpieces given its short running time, but it boasts a hugely talented supporting cast. As game as Fredrich March and Virginia Bruce are as the leads, the film is stolen by the brash Patsy Kelly, who plays a shopgirl with the streetwise to sneak a free meal or swindle customers into buying a clearly faulty product. Nearly everything Kelly says is delivered with a heavy dose of snark, and yet there’s a touching sincerity in her hilarious relationship with her longtime boyfriend played by Alan Mowbray (delightfully named Pennypepper E. Pennypepper). Although they only see each other in the hallway as they are coming from/leaving to work, that sort of efficiency suits Kelly’s practicality well. The courtship between March and Bruce is likable (they are involved in a humorous scene involving musical chairs), but Kelly’s sheer energy as a performer is what elevates the material above its derivative imagining.

Maid’s Night Out (1938)
June 26, 2017, 10:59 pm
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Director: Ben Holmes
1.5 Stars
Maid's Night OutAfter her pairing with Fred Astaire in A Damsel in Distress lost the studio money, Joan Fontaine would be relegated to programmer pictures at RKO prior to her big breakthrough in Gunga Din. This screwball comedy demonstrates both the fact that RKO didn’t know how to use her and that Fontaine herself was uncomfortable with the genre. As strong as her dramatic chops would prove to be, this early outing shows her as utterly incapable as a comedic actress—she delivers every line (no matter the context) with a wide smile on her face, and her awkward forced bits of laughter happen with a frankly uncomfortable frequency. As the leading man, future cowboy star Allan Lane is amusingly miscast as an ictyologist who makes a deal with his father to work as a milkman for a short period of time. Although the film intends to demonstrate that the couple’s love goes beyond social class (they each fall for someone whom they believe is of the working class), their dual identities are so thinly sketched that the class tensions never come to a substantial boil.

Next Time I Marry (1938)
August 13, 2016, 1:26 pm
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Director: Garson Kanin
2 Stars
Next Time I MarryThis variation on the runaway heiress genre gives Lucille Ball an early starring role as a woman who can only claim her inheritance if she marries what her father has stipulated to be a “plain American.”  Things start promising enough—with an efficient opening scene, Ball surveys a work zone in an attempt to get any of the roadside workers to put a ring on her. But by the time Ball’s true love, the foreign socialite played by Lee Bowman, arrives on the scene, the picture barely patters along. Part of the problem is that the characters are utterly unconvincing—James Ellison’s “plain American” is a bit too goofy to carry the role, not having the sense of vindictive cynicism that a Joel McCrea or Clark Gable might have brought. And Ball, although charming as ever, is wrought as little more than an impulsive dunce. The banter simply isn’t there. But director Garson Kanin does provide a few unusual laughs, including a scene in which both Ball and Ellison’s dog reach for a plate of bacon. There is a sequence in which Ball is the victim of an attempted rape—certainly dark material for a screwball comedy, and the development becomes all the more baffling because it doesn’t seem to have a lasting effect on the relationship dynamic after Ellison comes to her rescue.

The Affairs of Annabel (1938)
August 13, 2016, 1:22 pm
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Director: Benjamin Stoloff
3.5 Stars
The Affairs of AnnabelThe Affairs of Annabel was the first film in which Lucille Ball made a significant impression as a lead, giving her the opportunity to both play the comic foil to Jack Oakie and to be glamorous. Running at just over an hour in length, the film (the first of an intended series) takes an episodic approach in laying out its convoluted plot, so much so that a sequence in a women’s prison is over and done with in the first reel. But screenwriters Bert Granet and Paul Yawitz (working from a story by Charles Hoffman) elevate the material above many films of its type due to how tightly scripted it is—nearly every element that is introduced is paid off, and all the major characters are given their due. It’s a deceptively simple juggling act, showing a storytelling efficiency that brings both a sophisticated and breezy telling to the satire. The highlight is a climactic shootout in which a foreign director is tricked into believing a real-life hostage situation is staged—the image of dozens of actor cops tumbling over fences as they retreat is irresistibly surreal. Ball is terrific (even when being held captive, she is constantly showing a convincing fieriness), and Oakie’s shtick wears a little thin but doesn’t overwhelm the action.

Trade Winds (1938)
March 16, 2016, 11:55 pm
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Director: Tay Garnett
2.5 Stars
Trade WindsThis highly unusual curiosity from producer Walter Wanger has some notoriety as the picture that turned Joan Bennett into a brunette, an image change that would bring her great success as a noir femme fatale in the 1940s. But its real interest is the huge number of process shots–in a thriller/romance that travels around the world, the talented cast performs much of the material in front of projections. If the ambition is laudable, it feels cheap and poorly accomplished, ridding the rear projection technique of its charm. Part of the problem is that the picture has some interest in being ethnographic in the way it details other cultures and their people, which is an insurmountable objective when confined to a studio. Also working to the film’s detriment is the clunky tonal shifts. In the first act, Bennett shoots a man who led her sister to suicide before faking her own death. Naturally, what follows is the hijinx of a womanizing private eye (Fredric March), a dopey detective (Ralph Bellamy), and the developing romances involved. Bellamy is a highpoint, but the film is stolen by Ann Sothern, who at the time had failed to connect at either Colombia or RKO. Reportedly, this film brought Sothern to MGM’s attention, which would lead to her casting in the Maisie series.

The Invisible Menace (1938)
November 30, 2015, 6:52 pm
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Director: John Farrow
2 Stars
The Invisible MenaceThe casting of Boris Karloff is a red herring in this murder mystery, which uses the often menacing actor as a sympathetic patsy. The plot concerns a body discovered by a newly married couple (Eddie Craven and Marie Wilson) on an army base. With the brash Colonel Rogers (Cy Kendall) leading the investigation, Karloff is bullied into admitting guilt after falling under suspicion due to his wrongful incrimination in Haiti years previous. It’s a fairly standard, fast-paced Warner Brothers mystery, but the characters are cardboard cutouts and there is little sense of the escalating stakes that one would expect with a murderer on the loose. Most of the action is confined to an explosives storage building on the base, which provides for an interesting backdrop–whereas many mysteries take place in tight rooms, The Invisible Menace attempts to achieve suspense by suggesting the potential for danger lurking in the shadows around every corner. Karloff’s role is small and he does well as a misunderstood intellectual, and Marie Wilson has a couple of laughs as a Gracie Allen knockoff. Even if the honeymoon subplot feels at odds with the tone of the film, it was an admirable attempt to inject life into this stodgy whodunit.

The Big Broadcast of 1938 (1938)
July 29, 2015, 3:13 pm
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Director: Mitchell Leisen
3.5 Stars
The Big Broadcast of 1938The last in Paramount’s series of Big Broadcast revue films, The Big Broadcast of 1938 marks the passing of a generation as W.C. Fields, in his last film for Paramount, shares the screen with an appealing newcomer named Bob Hope. Although the film boasts the least impressive line-up of entertainers in the series (including forgotten names like Tito Guízar and Shep Fields), both Fields and Hope are utilized to their strengths and deliver strong work. Fields was nearing the end of his career, consumed by alcoholism and reportedly an unpleasant man to work with, but he is used sparingly enough that his scenes generate big laughs without wearing their welcome. An early sequence on a golf course is filled with terrific sight gags, including a moment in which Fields beats his own the ball to the hole on a particularly fast scooter. Hope’s performance is well-remembered for debuting the song that he would become known for: “Thanks for the Memory.” Far from just a trivia fact, the scene in which he sings it with Shirley Ross is genuinely touching–Hope’s remarkable strengths as a sentimentalist are too often overshadowed by his penchant for cornball humor. Finally, this last installment of the series is the most visually appealing, with the cinematography credited to Harry Fischbeck (although one can’t overlook the influence of director Mitchell Leisen). A climactic number about the permanence of the waltz is beautifully handled, filmed with striking, deep compositions.

Condemned Women (1938)
February 9, 2015, 6:38 pm
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Director: Lew Landers
3 Stars
Condemned WomenEarly on in Condemned Women, it is suggested that conditions for women’s penitentiaries need to change. That is, what might have been suitable for a woman one hundred years ago is no longer suitable now. It’s a thoughtful, progressive line about evolving gender expectations in a film that is otherwise without much of interest to say. Much of what follows is familiar of a standard prison drama of the early thirties, seeking to shed light on down-on-their-luck prisoners who have roles yet to play in society. The attempt to make the audience empathize with the prisoners is no better displayed than with the casting of Anne Shirley (who excelled at playing naive, waifish roles) as a young woman who has taken the rap for her boyfriend. Star Sally Eilers takes a different approach as a rather cold, distant presence–one wonders what Barbara Stanwyck, who was originally pegged for the film, could have brought to the role. As dull as the first couple of acts are, the late prison riot is visually sumptuous, with the great cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca utilizing heavy shadows and billowing smoke to create a chaotic, disorienting mood. There’s a brilliant shot in which one of the heroines lies dead and the bird’s eye camera tilts from one body to another to find her from above. It’s an artfully choreographed moment, involved in the sort of visually sophistication that Musuraca brought to his collaborations with producer Val Lewton.

The Lady Vanishes (1938)
January 13, 2015, 5:54 pm
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Director: Alfred Hitchcock
4 Stars
The Lady VanishesAlfred Hitchcock’s penultimate British film continues to be listed alongside his finest achievements in some circles. It has a rough around the edges appeal, a distinct tone of spontaneity that seems unmatched by his masterpieces to come. That’s not to say that his later films aren’t playful (if he was a master of anything, it was reinventing himself), but The Lady Vanishes crudely navigates between genres in a manner that somehow feels cohesive. It’s perhaps his first successful blending of the personal and the political–that is, the lovers’ journey is inextricably linked with the circumstances they find themselves in. Michael Redgrave must believe in Margaret Lockwood not only to move the plot along, but to show her that he loves her. One of the most memorable scenes involves Redgrave playfully putting on a deerstalker cap and holding a pipe in an imitation of Sherlock Holmes. He recounts the recent developments to Lockwood, catching up the audience and confirming the very genre he’s participating in. Although contrived, it feels entirely off-the-cuff and impossibly romantic–a nice summation of what works about the picture as a whole.

The Shining Hour (1938)
September 23, 2014, 3:58 pm
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Director: Frank Borzage
4.5 Stars
The Shining HourIn a Frank Borzage picture, romance is a life-force, an unmitigated drive, the unconquerable. In The Shining Hour, Borzage uses Margaret Sullavan (his muse at the time) to convey both the bravery of being a lover and the inherent tragedy of it. Both Sullavan and Melvyn Douglas are cast as characters who are positive in living and love without fear, harshly juxtaposed with the ever-doubting Joan Crawford and Robert Young, who are always searching for something more. Their capacity for love is almost holy, but in Sullavan’s case the wear of selfless love is etched in her desperate face. In a beautiful moment, she notices that her husband, Young, has been flirting with Crawford, so she takes the time to adjust his tie–a gesture that says, “look at how much I care for you, look at how much you need me.” While the picture is relatively neglected in Borzage’s career as a simple soap opera, it is one of his purest and most emotionally honest looks at romance. Lovers aren’t kept apart by external circumstances, rather by the very fact that one partner doesn’t believe quite as much as the other does.