For Reel


Her Majesty, Love (1931)
May 27, 2016, 9:04 pm
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: , ,

Director: William Dieterle
3.5 Stars
Her Majesty, LoveFor being a largely forgotten, disposable programmer, Her Majesty, Love is full of interesting trivia facts. It was W.C. Fields’ first sound film, the second American film for director William Dieterle, and the final film of Broadway legend Marilyn Miller of the Ziegfield Follies. The plot—so simple it barely registers—involves the typical drama between lovers of different social classes, although to the film’s detriment it is never particularly humorous in its delivery, nor do the stars show the sparkling chemistry needed to sustain the tension. Regardless, it is graced with a sometimes exhilarating visual style, with the opening scene involving a camera winding through a speakeasy, matching the drunken excess with visual energy. Favoring high contrast lighting, cinematographer Robert Kurrle makes the silvers and whites glow all the more, intensifying the elegance of the fashion. Just as important to the visual style are the cuts by editor Ralph Dawson—in a remarkable jump cut, Dawson transitions from papers being scattered on a desk to pigeons taking off in Venice. If Her Majesty, Love plays as routine in its plotting, these flashes of visual sophistication place it above many other genre films of the time.

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Grand Slam (1933)
July 3, 2015, 2:30 pm
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Director: William Dieterle
3.5 Stars
Grand SlamIt might be hard to believe now, but in late 1931 a highly publicized contract-bridge event was dubbed the “Battle of the Century.” It was waged between Ely Culbertson and Sidney Lenz, each bringing their own dubbed play style, and throughout the next six weeks daily results would be posted in newspapers, with the New York Times going as far as to cover it hand by hand with analyses. Not missing the opportunity, Warner Brothers capitalized on the topical material with a comedic satire entitled Grand Slam, which similarly culminates with a bridge game between partners employing different systems. Paul Lukas plays Peter Stanislavsky, a waiter and piano virtuoso who, by happenstance, bests the reigning bridge expert and becomes one half of the “Bridge Sweethearts of America” with his new bride, Marcia (Loretta Young). The Stanislavsky method is notable because it is designed to minimize the conflicts between married couples during the game, and as such there are a handful of humorous scenes in which bitter partners fight each other as they play. As a satire of publicity, it is mildly successful and might have made an even greater impression had it not devolved into sub-standard slapstick chaos by the end. Case in point: Frank McHugh, the classic drunk archetype in early-1930s Warner Brothers films, gives a very good performance as a cynical ghost writer. By the end of the picture, however, he’s relegated back to hiccups and incessant giggling. Lukas and Young are charming together, and there are a handful of laughs–the film pokes fun at the game of bridge often by referring to it as a “game for sissies!”



The Crash (1932)
July 3, 2015, 2:28 pm
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Director: William Dieterle
2.5 Stars
The CrashThe title of The Crash doesn’t refer only to the economic realities of Black Tuesday, but also the destruction of a relationship and even of a way of life. Linda and Geoffrey Gault (Ruth Chatterton and George Brent), a pair of frivolous socialites, are devastated by the failed stock market. When the luxuries they’ve lived with are taken away, the real wounds of their relationship come to the foreground–she’s a philanderer, and he knows full well of her ways but only sees the economic potential of her sleeping around. They’re despicable, confused people. It might be a flaw that Linda is wrought as a heartless elitist in one moment and a deeply burdened woman in the next, but it also seems to capture a certain reality about people who have avoided self-reflection. Chatterton is up to the task and, better yet, is photographed well by Ernest Haller in a series of gorgeous gowns by Orry-Kelly. But Brent is as bad as it gets, so stiff that Chatterton might as well be playing alongside a cardboard cutout. In one scene in particular it appears as though he is meant to be intoxicated, and watching Brent fail to fight his natural impulse to stand still with arms at his side is something to behold.



The Secret Bride (1934)
July 21, 2014, 1:10 pm
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Director: William Dieterle
2.5 Stars
The Secret BrideRobbed of the sexuality and brazenness that she brought to her pre-Code efforts at Warner Brothers (including Baby Face, Ladies They Talk About, and Night Nurse), Barbara Stanwyck is wasted in this slog of a mystery melodrama. She and the similarly castrated Warren William play a newly-married couple who must keep their marriage a secret while he, a district attorney, handles a case involving the accusation that her politician father has been taking bribes. In typical Warner’s fashion, the plot moves efficiently and the cast is stacked with heavyweight stars and character actors, however the screenplay is far below par. The dialogue is lame and understandably delivered with zero conviction by a cast who mostly appears bored and stiff throughout. Glenda Farrell, while underutilized, has a few decent moments, but the real star of the picture is the talented Grant Mitchell, who plays an increasingly-anxious aide to the financier that has purportedly committed suicide.



Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet (1940)
March 3, 2012, 4:03 am
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Director: William Dieterle

During the late 1930s and early 1940s, Hollywood released a number of historical biographies championing world leaders, innovative scientists, and otherwise influential thinkers. A number of the most significant pictures – the widely-acclaimed The Life of Emile Zola, for example – were directed by William Dieterle, a valuable asset at Warner Brothers. German-born, part of Dieterle’s intentions with Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet were to remind Americans that, despite the world conflict, it was important to remember that many Germans were noble and hard-working. The titular doctor is scientist Paul Ehrlich, famous for discovering the treatment for syphilis in the early 20th century. While the film shares much in common with Dieterle’s The Story of Louis Pasteur, it is in every way a better effort – the storytelling is more concise, the stakes are wrought to be much higher, and the characters are allowed sharper edges. It is a film not only about the wondrous potential of science, but of the sacrifices faced by the few brilliant minds in history who conceive of such radical innovations. Ehrlich, played by Edward G. Robinson in what he considered to be his best performance, is presented as saintly, though Dieterle does not shy from giving him a temper and the occasional moment of doubt. The climax – in which dozens of patients are killed by Ehrlich’s otherwise successful cure – is handled with a maturity not often seen in Hollywood when confronting sticky moral issues. Furthermore, it is simply astounding that a picture about a sexually transmitted disease would be allowed under the Hays Code, which specifically stated that, “sex hygiene and venereal diseases are not subjects for motion pictures.”



The Life of Emile Zola (1937)
March 1, 2012, 10:53 pm
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Director: William Dieterle

After the unexpected critical and commercial success of The Story of Louis Pasteur, Warner Brothers optioned another biopic set in 19th century France for star Paul Muni and director William Dieterle, this time affording the team a much greater budget. The result, The Life of Emile Zola, earned an unprecedented ten Academy Award nominations and would go on to win the top prize for Best Picture. Zola, who rose to fame by writing gritty, realistic novels about social injustice, fought antisemitism in the French government and helped acquit a wrongly-convicted Jewish captain in the French military, Alfred Dreyfus. Muni is unrecognizable in heavy make-up and, late in the film, delivers an impassioned six minute speech in a courtroom. Showy as he is, however, it is Joseph Schildkraut and Gale Sondergaard that steal the picture, gradually becoming more broken and more determined, respectively. Like Pasteur, the film isn’t terrible, rather especially bland, with its modest successes only coming from the performers. Dieterle – who, despite a poor reputation, directed a couple of great films in the thirties (Jewel Robbery, The Hunchback of Notre Dame) – shows little sense of pacing and structure, and as such the proceedings feel indeterminate and without momentum.



The Story of Louis Pasteur (1936)
March 1, 2012, 10:51 pm
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Director: William Dieterle

One of the founders of microbiology, Louis Pasteur’s innovations in the field of science included the first vaccines for anthrax and rabies, considerations about micro-organisms that would eventually lead to proper surgical antiseptics, and a method of boiling liquids to prevent microbial growth, which has since been dubbed pasteurization. A radical of his time, Pasteur makes a fascinating subject for a feature, and, while Paul Muni is terrifically cast, the workmanlike production doesn’t quite live up to his Oscar-winning performance. Screenwriters Pierre Collings and Sheridan Gibney reduce the weighty material to that of a dull procedural, giving Pasteur little character outside of his ultra-noble tenacity and never finding an appropriate dramatization of what it is that drives him. While the last third of the picture resolves some of these problems – Muni does some of his best work conveying the exhaustion that the doctor feels having long-attempted to reason with a community that refuses to acknowledge his discoveries  – the maudlin final act is that of a humdrum biopic.