For Reel


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.



Going Wild (1930)
August 8, 2016, 12:12 pm
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Director: William A. Seiter
2.5 Stars
Going WildReleased shortly after his affable Top Speed, Going Wild finds Joe E. Brown once again playing a wisacre who pretends to be someone he’s not, eventually culminating in a race he isn’t able to talk his way out of. The formula is again a relatively satisfying one, thanks in large part to Brown’s unlikely charisma—although the audience is behind him, they are equally happy to watch him sweat for a large part of the picture. Brown found enormous success with rural audiences in the 1930s, so it is somewhat surprising to see him cast in these urbane roles early in his sound career. Whereas films like Earthworm Tractors or The Tenderfoot cast Brown as a sort of fish-out-of-water who almost seems removed from time, in Going Wild he more closely resembles an upper class sophisticate—his rouse coming from the charismatic advantages he possesses as a fast-talking journalist. The film is hit and miss, involving everything from a horribly out of place music number (the film was initially filmed as a full-fledged musical before all but the one remaining song were cut) to a nicely imaginative medical exam sequence.



Young Bride (1932)
October 4, 2015, 7:09 pm
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Director: William A. Seiter
4 Stars
Young BrideAn unjustly overlooked pre-Code melodrama, Young Bride stars Helen Twelvetrees as a librarian who works with kids. She teaches them fairy tales as she awaits her own Prince Charming, and soon enough she unfortunately mistakes a brash swindler (Eric Linden) for the man she’s been searching for. He, unlike the hard-working Twelvetrees, feels that he’s above an average job and suggests that he’d rather be in the 1% of people who make the big bucks without busting their teeth (a line that takes on a new relevance in the contemporary political landscape!). Besides the interesting performances and the well-written characters who are both equally, in their own contrasting ways, inherently self-destructive, Young Bride is distinguished by the impressive camerawork from cinematographer Arthur Charles Miller. The opening shot tracks back from a clock face before unveiling the whole of the library setting, and throughout the picture there are similarly graceful movements that liven up the typical stilted aesthetics of an early 1930s melodrama programmer. Late in the film, the heartbroken Twelvetrees walks through the streets during Christmastime as a newspaper peddler shouts that a young woman has committed suicide due to her failures with love. The incongruity of the moment–of the falsified holiday cheer in the streets as those who walk it are suffering–is typical of the film’s sense of melancholy.



Professional Sweetheart (1933)
March 8, 2014, 7:26 pm
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Director: William A. Seiter
4 Stars
Professional SweetheartGinger Rogers’ first film at the studio that would make her a star was this Sturges-worthy satire–a send-up of sham radio personalities, but moreover a socially-conscious comedy about a country in transition. Four men meticulously help construct the image of Glory Eden (Rogers), America’s “purity girl” that would restore the image of a distinctly pre-war brand of virginal, conservative decency. As they champion their “product” in front of a gossip columnist (ZaSu Pitts), Eden bemoans that she wants to “sin and suffer”, though now she’s “only sufferin’.” Her desire to have sex is met when she is appointed a white-bread American man (Norman Foster) from Kentucky (or, as an all-time great title card reads: “Home of the Purest Anglo-Saxons”) to marry on air. The pre-Code era is a fascinating one to look at through the lens of feminism (films like Female and The Divorcee are major touchstone women’s pictures), and Professional Sweetheart fits the trend in its consideration of how real women contrasted from what the media portrayed. More than once, Eden complains that she wants to be like the other girls, implying that it is actually the custom for ordinary girls to sin–a major statement in a time when on-screen sinners were typically afforded some reprimanding. The picture loses some steam in the latter half, but the sharp, consistently funny writing from playwright/newspaperwomen Maurine Dallas Watkins (of Chicago fame) and the delightful Rogers fully in her element shouldn’t be missed.



Big Business Girl (1931)
August 27, 2012, 6:31 am
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Director: William A. Seiter

One of many films of the pre-Code era in which a driven woman makes it only so far up the corporate ladder before romance brings her back down to earth, Big Business Girl stars then 18-year-old Loretta Young as a woman who uses both her intelligence and sex appeal to find steady career progression in the advertising world. The problem is that she, unbeknownst to her wolfish boss played by Ricardo Cortez, is married to Frank Albertson, a bandleader who has taken a job in Paris. Cinematographer Sol Polito constructs an excellent opening sequence in which young, lustful couples struggle to keep their hands off of each other at a ball. The camera contributes to a vivid sense of place, with the relationship between the leads made clear using clever compositions, as well as a number of comedic vignettes rendered all-the-more funny using precise blocking (a young woman’s dress accentuates her ample derriere in the foreground as an old society matron scoffs in the background). Neither Young or Albertson are particularly exciting on screen – Young, beautiful as she is, doesn’t have the sexual cunning of Barbara Stanwyck in Baby Face, and Albertson is obnoxious, spending the entirety of the picture jealously whining. The middle section drags, but a late appearance by Joan Blondell as a sassy prostitute enlivens the material once again, aiding the sinking production with a satisfying finish.



The Flirting Widow (1930)
July 18, 2012, 10:15 pm
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Director: William A. Seiter

The all-too-brief career of Dorothy Mackaill has gathered renewed interest since the recent DVD release of her forgotten pre-Code classic Safe in Hell. Even if The Flirting Widow doesn’t satisfy on its own, as an example of her talents it is somewhat suitable, particularly in the early moments as she arrives on the screen as an androgynous, feisty beauty, retorting to the insult of, “In that outfit you almost look like a man.” with “In that mustache you look like a man… almost.” The rather typical plot involves Mackaill inventing a fiancée so that her younger sister can attain their father’s consent to marry. When a phony love letter written to the fake man is accidentally mailed, it is received by Basil Rathbone, who arrives at the manor in order to figure out who it was that sent it. Most romantic comedies involve a similar case of confused identity, but even still this particular situation seems needlessly contrived and often cruel. Rathbone persists with his ruse on Mackaill for no particular reason given that the potential relationship is not in any way threatened should he reveal his true identity. There are no stakes, nothing to pull them away from one another – it is simply a long wait until Rathbone has decided that he’s had his fun. Rathbone, dull as ever, further establishes that his is a name to avoid in the early 1930s.



The Richest Girl in the World (1934)
June 23, 2012, 6:37 am
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Director: William A. Seiter

An amusing, if utterly forgettable romantic comedy from director William A. Seiter, The Richest Girl in the World pairs frequent co-stars Joel McCrea and Miriam Hopkins as lovers who come to discover what the heart values more: material possession or true love. Hopkins plays a wealthy heiress that has been out of the press for many years, and so she opportunistically switches identities with her secretary in order to find a man who loves her for her, not for her fortune. McCrea is the man put to the test, and RKO’s top screamer, Fay Wray, plays the secretary. The narrative offers few surprises and it hardly means to – it’s the sort of picture that coasts on the talents of its stars, and, in Hopkins’ case, for good reason (McCrea, on the other hand, rarely lived up to the potential that he would later show in his collaborations with Preston Sturges). An early meet cute between the couple over a game of pool sets the tone by placing the lovers on equal footing – Hopkins is not a naive woman to be passively chased (an idea made literal in another collaboration between her and McCrea, Woman Chases Man). For the suspected gold-digger to be the man and not the woman was an intelligent way of breathing new life into what was already a tired premise in 1934, but little else is of worth nothing.