For Reel


Play Girl (1932)
January 28, 2017, 4:32 pm
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Director: Ray Enright
2.5 Stars
play-girlThis Warner Brothers programmer is at its best as a cynical Depression-era comedy thanks to the talents of top-billed Winnie Lightner. The comedienne, whose shameless mugging makes her performances simultaneously feel out-dated and absolutely enlivening, had a particular gift for spitting vitriol and witty one-liners. When her last pair of panties blows out of the window and she is asked what she’ll do, Lightner nonchalantly responds, “Keep off of stepladders!” Her verbal sparring is met with acts of physical aggression—later in the film, she shoves a co-worker so hard that she collapses into the men’s room. Unfortunately, the comedic aspects only make a small part of this weepie wherein Loretta Young falls for a gambler (Norman Foster) and finds herself turning to gambling herself. Foster is hardly convincing as either an addict or a lover, and while Young makes for a terrific contrast to Lightner due to her youthful naïveté, she doesn’t sell her character’s childbirth neuroses in a convincing way. Director Ray Enright stages a memorable scene in the early-goings in which the women of a department store are assigned to their departments, and the hints of his visual comic touch makes one wish the film stayed a department store comedy (although unremarkable, his pre-Code pictures with Joan Blondell are an apt demonstration of the studio’s light-hearted but cutting comedic ethos in the early-1930s).



Return of the Bad Men (1948)
July 9, 2016, 2:25 pm
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Director: Ray Enright
2.5 Stars
Return of the Bad MenAfter having had success in casting Randolph Scott as the lawman surrounded by countless famed gunslingers in Badman’s Territory, RKO repeated the formula only two years later with Return of the Bad Men. Despite the title, it is a spiritual sequel at best—George “Gabby” Hayes reappears here in a completely different role—and this time the narrative is a typical “land rush” scenario that sees a plot of Oklahoma Territory becoming a part of the United States and the nefarious characters that threaten it. Very few films can’t be improved with the appearance of Robert Ryan, who appears as a purely corrupt version of the Sundance Kid, who assaults, murders, and cowers in fear when challenged. What made the first film such a compelling minor western was how it dealt with the morality of the characters—although Scott was undeniably good, he was surprisingly accepting of the life of an outlaw. In this film, however, the sense of good and evil is far more black and white, with Scott attempting to “save” an attractive young outlaw played by Anne Jeffreys by telling her to get a job or start a family. The toothless plot coupled with the bland characterizations make Return of the Bad Men play as a disappointment considering the talents involved, although the final shootout is exceptionally well photographed.



Earthworm Tractors (1936)
April 18, 2015, 12:31 pm
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Director: Ray Enright
3.5 Stars
Earthworm TractorsJoe E. Brown often played the incompetent but ever-persistent go-getter in his films for Warner Brothers in the early 1930s, but rarely did he accomplish it with quite the level of childish glee that he brings to Earthworm Tractors. His unpleasant hero in 6 Day Bike Rider played like an entirely unsympathetic take on Harold Loyd, but the small-town charm and misplaced confidence of this later picture is better calibrated and makes for a decidedly more enjoyable entertainment. The appeal of Brown’s pictures was often his unusual physiognomy, with critics reveling in pointing out the cavernous face of the rubber-faced comedian. By the mid-thirties, he exerted much more control over his facial ticks–he’s still a large performer, but his timing with mugging is much more satisfying than his earlier pictures like The Tenderfoot. The real enjoyment of the film comes from his play with the childlike fascination with destruction. Each setpiece involves Brown riding a tractor in reckless ways, whether that be by crushing other vehicles or by moving a house that people are still inhabiting. The film unfolds like a child bashing trucks together on a living room floor. As a sheer spectacle of chaos, Earthworm Tractors is one of Brown’s most memorable vehicles.



The Tenderfoot (1932)
April 15, 2015, 9:56 pm
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Director: Ray Enright
3 Stars
The TenderfootGinger Rogers was given one of her first leading lady parts in The Tenderfoot, a programmer from First National Pictures starring the rubber-faced Joe E. Brown. He plays a hick Texan who finds his way to the big city and is duped by would-be producers who know that they have a flop on their hands. Brown is intrigued enough by show business to invest in the property, and eventually he turns it into an unlikely hit. The humor is the expected fish out of water variety (Brown is perplexed by the menu at a Jewish restaurant, he “checks” his guns at said establishment, etc.), but it’s largely successful despite the familiarity. Brown as a performer is so larger-than-life that there is an inherent amusement in watching his long cowboy strides. Rogers is largely an afterthought, although the she has a nice encounter with Brown when he discovers he’s been made a dope of and Rogers scolds him for not standing up for himself. The picture has an unforgettable moment in which, in attempting to imitate a pretentious New York greeting (“salutations!”), Brown enthusiastically shouts “ejaculations!” at a couple of unsuspecting strangers.



Twenty Million Sweethearts (1934)
November 17, 2014, 12:01 am
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Director: Ray Enright
2.5 Stars
Twenty Million SweetheartsWarner Brothers, the studio that produced some of the sharpest and most efficiently paced films of the early 1930s, didn’t seem to know what to do with a musical stripped of the choreographed extravaganzas that they had become known for early in the decade. Twenty Million Sweethearts is a much more intimate kind of musical, completely soft-to-the-touch and inoffensive. Moreover, it was seemingly only produced to further advance Dick Powell’s star power–the hit song “I’ll String Along With You” is sung by Powell in its entirety so many times that it seems like the picture only exists as its vessel. Ginger Rogers is the co-star and steals the picture with a song (“Out for No Good”) that has the style of lyrical and performative attitude that she would bring to her pictures with Fred Astaire. The reliable Allen Jenkins is able to snag a few laughs, as is Grant Mitchell in a comically frustrated performance that one could see Franklin Pangborn playing. Despite a game cast, however, the script isn’t particularly sharp, and the musical numbers feel so disconnected from the plot that they often bring the film to a halt.



Havana Widows (1933)
April 20, 2012, 1:39 am
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Director: Ray Enright

Two of the best fast-talkers of the early thirties – Joan Blondell and Glenda Farrell – star in Havana Widows, one of their nine screen collaborations. As expected, the picture delivers wise-cracks by the dozen: in one scene, Farrell is dismayed to find Guy Kibbee sleeping on the bed in her hotel room and asks Blondell, “Has he got his knees raised or is all that his stomach?” Frank McHugh and Allen Jenkins, character actors that were always a welcome sight, mirror each other as hapless schlubs who are wrapped up in the women’s schemes. McHugh was talented as a drunk and welcome in small doses – he mastered the art of slurring speech and delivering his familiar high-pitched chortle – but his act is overused and runs stale before too long. The same could be said for much of the picture. In the climax, the narrative dissolves into a live-action cartoon. A chase through a chicken-coop sees feathers and chickens flying out of windows; Guy Kibbee is pursued while crawling on a roof in his pajamas. The zaniness is not quite fit for the stars – Blondell and Farrell are both so good at delivering their repartee, and when the film dismisses such humor for a witless madcap finale, it inevitably disappoints. As well-rounded as the cast is, so much plot is packed into such a meager running time that little stands out, and actors like Kibbee and Lyle Talbot are short-changed. Girl Missing, released earlier the same year and also starring Glenda Farrell, did the gold-digging chorus girl act much better.



The Silk Express (1933)
April 12, 2012, 6:03 am
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Director: Ray Enright

It’s not often that one sees a mystery thriller about silk importation. Perhaps for good reason. Ray Enright – a reliable enough asset at Warner Brothers for many years – directs this preposterous train picture that nonetheless moves at a brisk pace and contains some well-accomplished visuals by the great Tony Gaudio. In the film, a crooked businessman has the booming silk market cornered and, in order to set things right, a competitor begins to import his own silk from Japan. A train that carries the cargo from Seattle to New York is the sole setting, and aboard are three men who are working to stop the shipment. If the ambition to supply the country with silk for an honest price doesn’t sound particularly exciting, how about this – the key saboteur aboard the train has apparently made it his mission to stop the cargo by doing the least amount of damage that he possibly can. Throughout the picture, the devious businessman and his cohorts are shown, and in these scenes he explains, among other things, that his man is wily and prefers to do his work without killing. So, indeed, this is a murder mystery that brazenly articulates that our heroes are not in any imminent physical danger. The material may be dead on the page – it also includes some utterly bizarre, needless details, such as the involvement of a secret order of assassins from India – but the picture does give interesting roles to several of the talented contracted character actors at Warners at the time. Most memorable is Guy Kibbee, who fares well in playing a stubborn detective, as opposed to the typical drunk that he was more likely to be seen playing in the early thirties.



Blondie Johnson (1933)
May 16, 2011, 6:37 pm
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Director: Ray Enright

Though the gangster genre is riddled with companion gun molls, Blondie Johnson uniquely has a female at the center of the crime operation in the doe-eyed Joan Blondell. Homeless and caring for a hopelessly sick mother, the titular character is denied welfare and, unable to find justice for her mother’s early demise, decides to earn a living the hard way. Blondell is particularly good as she rises through the ranks – most memorably in subjecting a jury to her false innocent facade in order to get a fellow gangster out of his sentence. Level-headed until the end, Blondell’s character is successful as a feminist heroine, whose intelligence and dignity is never compromised, even in her tumultuous relationship with the love interest played by Chester Morris.