For Reel

Another Thin Man (1939)
January 29, 2017, 3:19 pm
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Director: W.S. Van Dyke
3.5 Stars
another-thin-manThe announcement that the Charleses were expecting at the end of After the Thin Man suggested that the lovable characters would be evolving—that is, one could hardly expect Nick (William Powell) to drunkenly stumble his way through another picture when he has a child to care for. Sure enough, the Nick Charles of Another Thin Man is more-or-less sober throughout the picture, and even has gotten to a place where he’ll deck a man who threatens his family. Just as Nick and Nora have settled down, so too does Another Thin Man deal with more of a serious mystery than those in the previous installments. While the series has always taken its murders seriously, the sense of danger was never quite so palpable as it is in this film—a dog is killed near the beginning of the picture, and a baby is threatened at the end! As Phil Church, the gangster and essential MacGuffin, Sheldon Leonard is terrifically menacing, selling his character’s quirk of threatening people based on his dreams to a brilliantly psychotic effect. One has to commend the series for taking the risks it did in adapting a more serious tone (certainly the result of the war, if not William Powell’s battles with cancer and the death of Jean Harlow in the years inbetween sequels), even if it is ultimately at the sacrifice of the charming, light-hearted banter that one expects of the series.

Beauty for the Asking (1939)
August 13, 2016, 1:29 pm
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Director: Glenn Tryon
2.5 Stars
Beauty for the AskingLucille Ball had only just been cutting her teeth as a leading lady when Beauty for the Asking reached theaters in 1939. It furthered the argument that she was among the most versatile actresses of her generation—unlike the Annabel films or Next Time I Marry, Beauty for the Asking finds Ball giving an understated performance as a struggling but empowered entrepreneur who rebounds from a failed relationship by finding business success with a new face cream. Screenwriter Paul Jarrico (later blacklisted) initially conceived of the film as an expose of contemporary beauty products, but on the screen much of the beauty business is an afterthought—the film concerns the break-up and an eventual love triangle, with Ball’s recovery from a traumatic life change marking the story’s sense of progress. It is refreshing that Ball’s character, as devastated as she is, never resorts to hysterics, and even when she confronts the woman (Frieda Inescourt) her ex (Patric Knowles) left her for she does so with a terrific amount of empathy. The film is unfortunately hampered by the fact that Ball’s co-stars in the love triangle are Knowles and Donald Woods, two fair but bland leading men of programmers of the period, but Ball’s performance maintains a level of interest.

Raffles (1939)
July 7, 2016, 3:47 pm
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Director: Sam Wood
3 Stars
RafflesA frequently revisited character in the first decades of film, Raffles is the preeminent gentleman thief, whose intelligence and vulnerability make him both impossibly debonair and surprisingly human—it’s no wonder that such actors as John Barrymore, Ronald Colman, and David Niven were cast in the part, each exuding a suave energy but also among the most simply likable of stars. Niven’s turn comes in this 1939 Sam Wood adaptation, which modernizes the plot and streamlines the narrative. The influence of the earlier films is clear—in its best moments, it uses silence and insists on closeups of the actors as a means of producing suspense. When company is gathering to hear a performance, the way the situation unfolds is almost entirely through reactions, suggestion the influence of the Barrymore version. Niven, this being among his earliest leading roles, shows visible signs of uncertainty that would vanish only years later (there is a world between the stilted performance here to the effortlessly brilliant opening scene of A Matter of Life and Death). Similarly, Olivia De Havilland tends to leave the biggest impression when cast alongside actors who were decidedly more eccentric than Niven (such as Bette Davis), and if they look good together on screen their chemistry doesn’t play beyond the superficial. Regardless, Raffles is a respectable, if entirely forgettable adaptation of the material—clearly lacking a needed edge due to the limits of the Production Code, with Niven’s interpretation playing as similarly serviceable and nothing more.

The Girl from Mexico (1939)
June 20, 2016, 12:35 am
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Director: Leslie Goodwins
2.5 Stars
The Girl from MexicoAfter she was discovered as a replacement for Dolores del Rio in 1927’s The Gaucho, Lupe Velez had success in transitioning to sound pictures but the studios didn’t quite know what to do with her. She was hot-shotted around town, appearing in supporting roles for Fox, United Artists, and RKO Radio Pictures, and wasn’t quite in her element until the latter of those studios cast her in The Girl from Mexico, an unexpected hit that would launch a series of films that would brand her as Carmelita, the Mexican Spitfire. In the first installment, Velez is discovered by New York ad man Dennis (Donald Woods), who brings her to the big city with a nice contract. Unable to restrain the firecracker that is Carmelita, Dennis finds his life set into disarray when his fiance (Linda Hayes) gets jealous and his uncle Matt (Leon Errol) indulges Carmelita’s every desire to see the town. Woods is a poor romantic pairing with Velez—as a performer, he is level-headed and calm, but not in a way that compliments Velez’s schtick. The biggest problem is that the two simply have no sexual chemistry, and Woods as the straight man tends to treat Velez more as a pet than as a love interest (which is also undoubtedly part of the script, which sees Carmelita as little more than an exotic animal run roughshod over a bourgeois family). There are some laughs here and there, and Velez is both stunning and capable of delivering lines like, “Love is a wonderful thing. It makes your heart go bumpety-bumpety-bump… like a baby falling down the stairs!” with such an irresistible enthusiasm that she keeps audiences laughing with the film rather than at it. If she deserves better material (and a better co-star), one can see why audiences would want to revisit the character over the next several years.

The Cowboy Quarterback (1939)
May 27, 2016, 8:54 pm
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Director: Noel M. Smith
3 Stars
The Cowboy QuarterbackAfter the death of his long-time performing partner Bert Wheeler, Robert Woolsey attempted a career as a solo act with this remake of the Joe E. Brown vehicle Elmer, the Great. As in the Brown picture, Wheeler plays a small town bumpkin who proves to be incorruptible when his morals are tested with great financial success. If much of the film’s humor involves the simple-mindedness of the country folk, what makes the conceit ascend above cruel mockery is that they are regardless positioned to be innocent and morally just. The film’s best moments involve William Demarest as the coach who recruits Wheeler—there’s an amusing scene early on in a general store in which Demarest is bemused by the paltry earnings of the shop (there is also a good, understated joke as a local comes in to steal prunes). Wheeler and Woolsey’s Hold ‘Em Jail ultimately was a more cynical and biting response to the exploitation of the little man by institutions, but one can read The Cowboy Quarterback as being similarly preoccupied with this conflict between capital and the working class. As a performer, Woolsey doesn’t really come into his own without Wheeler on screen—a more earnest performance, such as Stuart Erwin’s in Make Me a Star, might have aided both the comedy and the emotional impact of the picture. Regardless, the film is peppered with a handful of successful sequences, and Demarest is enjoyable in his small role.

Honolulu (1939)
March 17, 2016, 12:04 am
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Director: Edward Buzzell
3 Stars
HonoluluAnother recycling of the The Prince and the Pauper mistaken identity plot, Honolulu casts Robert Young in a dual role as both a wildly famous celebrity and the pineapple plantation owner who is his spitting image. Inevitably, the two will exchange lives, resulting in an increasingly complicated romantic situation. Though Young eats up the majority of the screen time, dancer Eleanor Powell received top billing and is the picture’s most redeeming factor. As promised by the title, Powell dances with hula skirts and leis, even if her technique is not so much traditionally Hawaiian as it is simple swing dancing with accessories. Her most memorable number, however, is a gender swap blackface number in which she emulates Bill Robinson. Three years after Fred Astaire’s “Bojangles of Harlem”, the performance can’t quite overcome its predecessor–the stage is an underwhelming minimalist design that pails in comparison to the surrealism of the sequence in Swing Time, and if Powell has some grace, she doesn’t match Astaire’s athleticism or control. Lending support to the leads are Gracie Allen and George Burns in the last of their screen appearances together, and unfortunately another wasted opportunity. The two aren’t even in the same hemisphere until the last five minutes of the picture, and MGM makes the baffling choice in the early-goings of putting Gracie in a Mae West costume and having her sing. If the number is the film’s highlight (it involves lookalikes of The Marx Brothers, Clark Gable, W.C. Fields, and more), it shows a remarkable failure to understand what audiences would have wanted to see from the comedienne. Burns is absent almost entirely from the picture, and he would not resurface on cinema screens for decades thereafter.

Clouds Over Europe (1939)
March 16, 2016, 11:59 pm
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Director: Tim Whelan
3 Stars
Clouds Over EuropeReleased six years before the start of the second World War II, Clouds Over Europe involves nefarious baddies (clearly meant to be German, although never explicitly stated in the script) who use a ray to disable airplanes in order to capture both crafts and crew. When two “experimental” aircrafts go missing, the case is pursued by a good-humored secret agent (Ralph Richardson) and a stud pilot (Laurence Olivier). Although Olivier looks especially uncomfortable attempting to navigate the machinery the script requires him to, Richardson delights in portraying his characters’ every quirk. He’s a man who is entirely self-amused, delighting himself with little regard for those around him. As a prototypical Bond film (the villains’ warship is populated by henchman and looks like a secret lair), it plays with tongue-in-cheek humor and involves a number of action set pieces on air, land, and sea. The main pleasures are the more absurd elements–the villain who disables airplanes does so by wearing hilariously large, slightly askew goggles–but Richardson and Valerie Hobson (as a reporter) are also worth the time. It is surprising to see such a good-humored spy film released in Britain so soon before the war, with the propagandist elements are not as pronounced as they would be in later films of the genre.

Devil’s Island (1939)
November 30, 2015, 6:56 pm
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Director: William Clemens
3.5 Stars
Devil's IslandWarner Brothers, quick to capitalize on both social issues and current headlines, rushed this Boris Karloff picture into production after the notoriously cruel French penal colony stopped receiving prisoners in 1938. It afforded Karloff the chance to play an unambiguous hero as the respected surgeon who is wrongfully accused after offering medical assistance to a revolutionary. While its reputation has been eclipsed by its predecessors in the genre–The Prisoner of Shark Island and Captain Blood share many plot similarities–it is efficiently made, with director William Clemens and cinematographer George Barnes packing in the hour running time with small, memorable details that give the setting its sense of horror (such as the practice of barring all of the prisoner’s legs together before lights out). Karloff is very good at playing an empathetic victim, but he also brings a great sense of anger to the role–he’s not a man who is resigned to his own fate, but who comes to be outraged by the cruelty to those around him. As the overseer, James Stephenson wisely underplays the role. Instead of interpreting the Colonel as a sniveling psychopath, Stephenson suggests a pompous, upper class snob, who seems physically repulsed by Karloff when he has to call on him to save his daughter.

Miracles for Sale (1939)
August 6, 2015, 2:05 pm
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Director: Tod Browning
4 Stars
Miracles for SaleThe debacle that followed the release of Freaks in 1932–in addition to the stricter censorship mandates in Hollywood following 1934–must have put director Tod Browning on watch at MGM. Usually a studio associated with gloss and glamour, Browning’s dealings with the occult and the otherwise macabre threatened both the studio’s raison d’être and the Catholic standards imposed by Joseph Breen’s Production Code Administration. Regardless, Browning was more than able to have his cake and eat it too with Miracles for Sale, reveling in images of corpses in pentagrams and spiritual encounters under the protection of a narrative that deals with illusions. Although the centerpiece seance scene, a remarkable feat of editing (using rapid-fire cuts between reaction shots and an oppressive silence), is later revealed to be staged, the caveat is almost an afterthought, delivered off-handedly in a few lines of dialogue. Now, Browning is brilliantly able to continue his exploration of the morbid as long as it’s followed by the sentiment, “not really.” Miracles for Sale would tragically be Browning’s last film, spending his remaining years as a reclusive widower who would die from throat cancer (as did his friend, Lon Chaney) in 1962.

Midnight (1939)
August 4, 2015, 3:00 pm
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Director: Mitchell Leisen
5 Stars
MidnightDirector Mitchell Leisen first came to Hollywood as an art director and costume designer, a fact that can often be seen in his opulent productions which showcase the glamorous art deco sets and elegant gowns that Paramount became known for. He also had a distinct outsider’s perspective–many of his films involve those on the outside looking in, from Carole Lombard’s aspiring gold-digger in Hands Across the Table to Barbara Stanwyck’s shoplifter with a heart of gold in Remember the Night. Midnight, then, feels like a quintessential Leisen picture, one with both a plain but decidedly chic aesthetic and driven by the relationships between characters from conflicting worlds. One can’t underestimate the screenplay of Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder, which might not be as politically poignant as other comedies of the time but shows a remarkable understanding of how relationships in screwball comedies work. The picture turns into a frantic game of one-upmanship, where the goal of each member of the central couple (Claudette Colbert and Don Ameche) is to dig themselves out of the hole their partner has put them in. This conceit both capitalizes on the romantic sparring that occupies these pictures and suggests how romance is formed and strengthened through the chaos of such comedies.