Friday, August 31, 2012

The Naughty Flirt (1931)

The Naughty Flirt (1931)

The Naughty Flirt is a pre-code romantic comedy with very little of the content we expect from pre-code movies. It also contains very little in the way of actual comedy. Regarded as a breezy lightweight romance it’s innocuous enough but not terribly interesting.

It’s a movie that rather nicely sums up one of the great differences between pre-code comedies and the screwball comedies of the early Code era. After 1934 comedies had to be funny. They couldn’t rely on sex, suggestiveness and general outrageousness. If the laughs weren’t there the picture was destined for quick oblivion.

Sadly, The Naughty Flirt is not only short on laughs, it’s also short on sex, suggestiveness and general outrageousness.

a href="">The Naughty Flirt (1931)

It also pinpoints a major problem with failed comedies. It’s not enough to set up potentially funny situations. The script has to have actual gags, and the performers have to be looking for laughs all the time. This one certainly has the potentially funny situations, but there’s no pay-off.

Kay Elliott (Alice White) is a young heiress, and she’s a bit of a wild thing. At least we’re supposed to regard her as a wild thing. Her friends are a group of Bright Young Things who paint the town red. Well, sort of. The don’t hang out at speakeasies or do anything really wild. They just flirt with each other, and with anyone else who comes along.

The Naughty Flirt (1931)

Jack Gregory is trying his hardest to persuade Kay to marry him. We will soon discover that he is only after her money, that his wooing of Kay is just a scheme cooked up by Jack and his sister Linda (Myrna Loy) to get their hands on the Elliott money. Jack goes very close to success. As the picture opens these would-be hellraisers are on their way to Night Court to face such drastic charges as squirting ginger ale at passers-by. Jack decides they should take advantage of being in court in order to get married and he just happens to have the marriage licence all ready.

His scheme is wrecked when a rather straitlaced clerk in Kay’s father’s law firm, Alan Ward (Paul Page), rings her father at home to let him know what is transpiring, and is instructed to bring the errant daughter straight home. Being wild and reckless, Kay meekly obeys.

The Naughty Flirt (1931)

Kay immediately decides to pass the time on the trip home by flirting with Alan. He is unmoved by her performance, which only encourages her. Over the next few weeks she pursues him with an almost frantic energy. Of  course they eventually fall in love, but can their love survive the plotting of the conniving Gregory siblings?

Paul Page is a dull leading man. It comes as no surprise that his Hollywood career was a brief one. Alice White has plenty of enthusiasm although her accent is ludicrously unconvincing. No girl who had attended such good schools (from all of which she’s been expelled) would speak with such a nasal twang. Her career had fizzled out by the late 30s as well. She’s passable and with a better script she might have been OK. Myrna Loy does nothing to indicate that she was already on the road to stardom. The remainder of the cast members are uniformly forgettable.

The Naughty Flirt (1931)

Neither scriptwriters Richard Weil and Earl Baldwin nor director Edward F. Cline are able to give this story any zest and the one thing for which we can be grateful is that this lifeless movie only runs for 56 minutes.

The Warner Archive made-on-demand DVD pairs this one with Loose Ankles, which is an infinitely better Loretta Young pre-code picture. Buy the disc for Loose Ankles and think of The Naughty Flirt as one of those extras you don’t really need to bother watching.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Dangerous Crossing (1953)

Dangerous Crossing (1953)Dangerous Crossing was based on a radio play by John Dickson Carr, a writer of detective fiction who was regarded as the master of the “locked-room” mystery. Dangerous Crossing isn’t quite a locked-room mystery but it does have many similarities to this sub-genre in the sense that it deals with an apparently inexplicable occurrence.

It was made at 20th Century-Fox in 1953 and directed by Joseph M. Newman. It was a low-budget movie that looked very expensive because it used lavish shipboard sets built for two other big-budget Fox movies that were made at about the same time - Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Titanic. So it’s effectively a B-picture with A-picture production values.

The inexplicable event in Dangerous Crossing is the disappearance from a cruise ship of John Bowman, the husband of Ruth Bowman (Jeanne Crain). They had been married for just four days. He boarded the ship with her, carried her over the threshold of their cabin, Cabin B16, and then said he had to make a quick trip to the Purser’s Office. And that was the last Ruth saw of her husband.

Dangerous Crossing (1953)

Even stranger, when she tries to return to their cabin she is informed that it is empty. And there is no record of any cabin being booked for either a John Bowman or a Ruth Bowman. But there is a cabin booked for a Ruth Stanton, which is her maiden name. It’s Cabin B18.

Not surprisingly Ruth has a bit of a crack-up at this point. She cannot persuade anybody to believe her story (up to this point the plot is almost identical to an excellent British movie So Long at the Fair made three years earlier). She is placed under the care of the Ship’s Doctor, Dr Paul Manning (Michael Rennie).

Dangerous Crossing (1953)

Dr Manning is very sceptical of her story as well but he is at least prepared to listen to her, and even sends off a wire to the Bureau of Missing Persons. And he’s sympathetic. Then things get stranger. Ruth’s missing husband phones her, tells her they’re both in great danger, that it would be too risky for them to be seen together, and that he’ll phone her again tomorrow.

Of course she has no evidence that this phone call was ever made and it has the effect of confirming the suspicions that she is crazy. Even Dr Manning starts to come around to this way of thinking.

Dangerous Crossing (1953)

The solution to the mystery is ingenious and the plot is well-constructed. The tension is maintained throughout the short 75-minute running time. Director Newman does a very competent job and makes the most of the shipboard setting. There’s some very effective and moody film noir-style black-and-white cinematography (thanks to the very talented director of photography Joseph LaShelle who always did this kind of thing very well).

This movie in some ways marks the end of an era. It’s a classic film noir-styled B-movie mystery of a kind that the major studios, sadly, had pretty much stopped making by the mid-50s. It’s a product of the studio system - a cheap movie that is expertly made because the studios had such a wealth of talent under contract.

Dangerous Crossing (1953)

Jeanne Crain does well in the leading role. She doesn’t overdo the hysteria but she very effectively conveys the mental anguish of Ruth. Michael Rennie makes a satisfactory leading man in a role where the biggest danger is the character would come across as being too bland. Rennie mostly succeeds in avoiding this danger. Being a major studio picture it benefits from a very competent supporting cast.

The Fox DVD is up to the very high standards of their other Film Noir releases, with an excellent transfer, a brief documentary on the movie and a commentary track.

Its claim to being a film noir is slightly dubious, although it does have the visual style. Overall this is an assuming but thoroughly enjoyable mystery.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Loose Ankles (1930)

Loose Ankles is a silly lightweight pre-code fun movie that is impossible to dislike.

Made by First National Pictures in 1930, it stars Loretta Young and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. This was back in the days when Loretta Young still played bad girl roles, and played them delightfully.

Young plays Ann Harper Berry, an heiress with a problem. Under the terms of her grandfather’s rather curious will she inherits a great deal of money. But she only gets the money if she gets married. And all the other beneficiaries under the will only get their share of the loot if she gets married. To add to her annoyance, she has to marry someone who meets with the approval of her straitlaced uncle and her two even more straitlaced aunts.

Ann doesn’t particularly want to get married to anyone and she certainly doesn’t intend to marry under those circumstances. She already has plenty of money so she doesn’t really need the inheritance, and she’s something of a rebel anyway so she determines to scupper any plans to marry her off.

There’s another odd provision in the will. If any member of the family is involved in a scandal that gets into the newspapers then nobody inherits anything. All the money goes to a home for stray cats and dogs. This provision is like a red rag to a bull - Ann is now determined to become involved in a juicy scandal as soon as possible. But how does one create a scandal? She’s pretty sure she’s going to need a man to help her. But how to find a suitable man? That’s simple. She places an advertisement in the newspaper for a young, handsome, unscrupulous man.

The ad attracts the notice of a couple of male escorts,  Andy and Terry. They’re tempted to apply for what sounds like an interesting job but then they remember their friend Gil (Douglas Fairbanks Jr). He needs money badly but he’s always resisted the idea of becoming a gigolo. Nonetheless Andy and Terry persuade him to answer the ad.

Ann now has the man, but she’s still not sure how to go about this scandal business. She knows he has to get her into a compromising position, but she’s never been compromised before. Luckily her maid has been compromised plenty of times so she’s able to offer Ann some advice. This all leads up to some very risque and very funny dialogue, with double entendres all over the place.

The maid assures Ann that the first thing she needs to do is to get the young man’s clothes off. This she proceeds to do by means of a number of ingenious stratagems. But just as he’s about to compromise her they have a change of heart. They’ve realised that this is not a game any more. They’re in love. Unfortunately Ann has already arranged for the arrival of newspaper reporters to photograph her being compromised.  And then her uncle and her aunts turn up. Now Ann and Gil have to do some quick thinking to avoid the very scandal that Ann had been so keen on. Gil solves the problem by leaping through the window.

Ann now has a new problem. She doesn’t even know the name of the charming young man she’s just fallen in love with. Trying to locate him will lead her to the Circus Cafe, which is in reality a very swanky speakeasy. A speakeasy that her uncle, a keen prohibitionist and morals crusader, has just arranged to have raided. Her aunts’ attempt to extricate Ann from this looming new scandal will end in a drunken spree with Andy and Terry, our two good-natured gigolos.

As pre-code movies go this one is more determinedly immoral than most, and the sexual innuendos are not exactly subtle. Pretty much everything revolves around sex and booze. Even morals crusaders get into the swing of the sex and booze thing.

Loretta Young was just seventeen when she made this picture but she was already a veteran actress with nearly twenty films behind her, having made her movie debut at the age of four. She’s delightful, as she was in most of her pre-code roles. Ann isn’t really a bad girl, she just enjoy the idea of being wicked. The younger Fairbanks was always likeable and they make a great romantic couple. Inez Courtney as Ann’s friend Betty and Edward J. Nugent and Norman Selby as Andy and Terry provide good comic support, with some help from Louise Fazenda and Ethel Wales as Ann’s aunts.

The scenes in the Circus Cafe are a highlight - this is a speakeasy with a complete circus as the floorshow. The circus includes a leopard trainer but his leopard is an attractive young woman in a leopard suit, which adds a bit more pre-code outrageousness (especially when he cracks the whip to keep her in line).

The movie has a few pacing problems but generally speaking it’s a fun and frothy and rather naughty pre-code treat. This one is a must for pre-code fans.

This movie is part of a Warner Archive made-on-demand double-header. I’ve never had any problems with these discs until recently but I had major problems with this one. Luckily I have four DVD players since the first three refused to play the disc at all. I’ve had the same problems with two other recently purchased Warner Archive discs. So although I recommend the movie I can’t under any circumstances recommend the DVD. In fact I’d advise you to steer well clear of these discs.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The General (1926)

The General (1926)

The General, released in 1926, is usually regarded as Buster Keaton’s masterpiece. Personally I’ve never been a fan of silent comedies but I do make an exception for Keaton.

I still think Our Hospitality is a funnier film, but The General does have its moments.

The General (1926)

Keaton plays Johnnie Gray, an engine driver who tries to enlist in the Confederate army in the Civil War but is turned down on the grounds that he can serve the South better as an engineer than as a soldier. That earns him the scorn of his true love, Annabelle (Marion Mack). Well actually his first love is his locomotive,The General, but Annabelle runs a close second.

A year later Johnnie gets his opportunity to play the hero. Union spies steal The General, intending to head north with while demolishing the railroad line behind the engine to cut off supplies to the Southern forces. Johnnie sets off in pursuit, alone but undaunted. Eventually he not only steals back his beloved train, he also comes into possession of secret Union war plans. He has to make his way back to the Confederate lines with a train full of Union soldiers in hot pursuit.

The General (1926)

When The General was stolen Annabelle was taken prisoner. He rescues her and she provides him with some help, and some hindrance.

This mad chase affords Keaton plenty of opportunities to display his gifts for visual humour. The movie is funny but it’s also exciting and rather moving - you can’t help rooting for the valiant if somewhat foolhardy Johnnie.

The General (1926)

There’s not much to be said about Keaton’s acting. His deadpan expression was part of his style and it’s a style that worked for him.

As a writer and director he was innovative and imaginative. His visual gags are often complex and must have been an enormous challenge to film.

The General (1926)

I don’t rate this movie quite as highly as most people do but it is undeniably funny, and it avoids the emotional manipulation practised by his great rival Chaplin. That in my opinion makes Keaton’s movies much more enjoyable than Chaplin’s.

The Region 4 DVD from Force Entertainment includes a couple of Keaton’s shorts. The Balloonatic is actually funnier than the main feature. Picture quality is pretty good.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Sleepers West (1941)

Sleepers West, released in 1941, was the second of seven 20th Century-Fox B-movies featuring private detective Michael Shayne. Shayne was created by Brett Halliday and appeared in a total of 77 novels. The later Mike Shayne books were standard hardboiled detective thrillers but the early books were apparently detective stories with a fairly strong helping of comedy, and these early books were clearly the inspiration for the movie series.

Unfortunately crime B-movies with an admixture of comedy were a dime-a-dozen in the 30s and 40s so the movies come across as being rather generic examples of the Hollywood B-movie. On the plus side the 20th Century-Fox Mike Shayne movies starred Lloyd Nolan, always a delightfully entertaining actor.

In Sleepers West Mike Shayne has to escort a key witness to give evidence at a murder trial. A difficult task in itself, since there are people who intend that this witness should not reach her destination alive.

The job is made doubly difficult by the fact that the witness is Helen Carlson (Mary Beth Hughes). Helen is a bubbly blonde and she’s a very pleasant young woman, but unfortunately she’s a young woman who is very fond of a drink. Preferably quite a few drinks. She’s also rather fond of male company. Persuading her to sit quietly in her compartment in the train and not get into trouble is a task that will tax Shayne’s ingenuity to the full.

To add to Shayne’s problems, Kay Bentley is also a passenger on the train. Kay is a newspaper reporter. She’s an old pal of Shayne’s and he likes her well enough but he knows from experience that if she gets even the faintest whiff of a good story there’ll be no stopping her.

Sure enough Mike’s fears are realised when Helen not only gets access to liquor, she gets access to a man as well. He’s running away from his wife, in search of adventure. And Helen seems like the kind of gal who could provide plenty of adventure.

Of course there is a killer on board the train as well, so Mike will have his hands well and truly full. And to make his existence even more miserable, Kay gets wind of Helen’s presence on the train.

The story is played more for good-humoured amusement than real suspense. There are a few tense moments but the bad guys are mostly bumbling incompetents and the railway detective who thinks he’s stumbled onto a big case is just as bad. He is convinced that Helen’s new boyfriend is an embezzler (in fact there is no embezzler of any kind on the train) and his attempts to pull off a daring arrest go disastrously awry.

It’s all entertaining enough in a low-key way. The likeable cast is a major asset. Lloyd Nolan as Mike Shayne is good-natured although the role doesn’t exactly stretch his acting talents.

Lynn Bari is good as Kay Bentley. Mary Beth Hughes steals the picture as Helen Carlson. She’s a bit of a bad girl but not she’s not really very bad. Mostly she’s just a girl who likes a good time and has had some bad breaks. She’s bubbly and charming.

The DVD (from the Fox Mike Shayne boxed set) is exceptionally good.

Lightweight but enjoyable B-movie fun. Recommended.

I've reviewed two more of the Mike Shayne movies, Michael Shayne, Private Detective and The Man Who Wouldn't Die.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Stella Dallas (1937)

Stella Dallas (1937)

Stella Dallas is sentimental melodrama, and as far as the plot is concerned it’s fairly conventional melodrama. But then the essence of melodrama is that it is formulaic to some extent - the genre has certain conventions and if you can’t accept those conventions then you had best avoid Stella Dallas. What really matters is how sincerely and how skillfully such conventional themes are treated and in that respect this film scores highly.

The first thing that needs to be understood is that the movie was made in 1937. They were different times. Criticising the movie because the characters don’t behave the way people today would behave (as some online reviewers have done) is to miss the point. The movie deals with the world as it was in 1937, not the way it is today.

Stella Dallas (1937)

This Samuel Goldwyn production was directed by King Vidor and gave Barbara Stanwyck her most demanding role up to that point in her career. It’s a powerhouse performance and it shows that Stanwyck was not afraid to be unglamorous and even at times to appear ridiculous and even pathetic. Despite this she always maintains a certain dignity and we never lose sympathy for her, but at the same time we can never despise her enough to pity her.

Stanwyck is Stella Martin, a mill-hand’s daughter who dreams of a better life. Rather ambitiously she sets her sights on Stephen Dallas. Stephen is the scion of a wealthy and distinguished family. His millionaire father managed to lose his fortune and now Stephen has to work for a living. He is the advertising manager for the factory in which Stella’s father and brother work. He might not be wealthy but Stella knows class when she sees it, and Stephen has class.

Stella Dallas (1937)

They marry but they are always at cross-purposes. Stella wanted to escape from her working-class life and family while Stephen was charmed by her simplicity and her na├»vete. Stella’s attempts to fit in with the high society crowd embarrass Stephen. Stella tries hard but her working-class background always betrays her. She always ends up making herself look foolish.

The situation is complicated by the birth of their daughter Laurel. Stella devotes herself to her daughter while she and Stephen drift apart. They end up living separate lives in separate cities. Stella wants Laurel to have all the advantages she never had and she works hard to give her those things. Unfortunately her unconventional behaviour and her obvious lower-class background cause continual problems and also cause Laurel more and more embarrassment as she grows older. Finally Stella finds she has to make a choice between her own happiness and Laurel’s future.

Stella Dallas (1937)

Stella is caught between two worlds. She cannot go back to being a simple working-class girl but she cannot adapt to the rich society world in which Stephen moves so effortlessly. She has done a fine job in raising Laurel but her daughter is now about to move into that world of high society and Stella is now a hindrance to her.

Stanwyck was 30 when she made this movie but in the later stages of the movie she manages to look like a blowsy and faded 45. The makeup effects are subtle - mostly it’s Stanwyck’s sheer acting skill that conveys the sense of a woman ageing none too gracefully.

Stella Dallas (1937)

Stella is a tragic figure but she never gives in to self-pity. She is too concerned for her daughter’s future to have the luxury of feeling sorry for herself. Her self-sacrificing behaviour might be annoying to some modern viewers but there was a time when parents really did unhesitatingly sacrifice themselves for their children. And such behaviour was not despised.

John Boles as Stephen is a little colourless, or perhaps he just seems that way since his performance is so low-key while everyone around him is giving bravura performances. Alan Hale is amusing as always as Ed Munn, Stella’s indefatigable admirer who can never win her because Stella always puts Laurel first. Anne Shirley as Laurel is over-the-top at times but avoids making her character annoying and she is generally effective. The emotional bond between mother and daughter is convincingly and movingly portrayed.

Stella Dallas (1937)

King Vidor never allows the inherent sentimentality of the story to overwhelm the film. This is a three-hankie weepie but he’s never overly obvious.

There are many people who believe that women got better roles in the pre-code era than they did post-Code. I don’t agree and Stella Dallas is a good example of the much more emotionally challenging roles that actresses got in the late 30s and in the 40s.

The Spanish DVD from Regia Films is a little grainy at times but generally it’s a very good transfer. It includes the original English-language version as well as the dubbed Spanish version and it seems to be the easiest DVD edition of this film to get hold of. I recommend both the movie and the DVD.

Monday, August 13, 2012

The Birds - Camille Paglia

Camille Paglia’s book on Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (published by the British Film Institute in 1998) focuses, not surprisingly, more on the women in the movie than on the birds.

This approach is I think quite justified. It’s easy to get carried away by the technical achievements of the film (which were mightily impressive in 1963) but given Hitchcock’s obsession with women and his famously ambivalent attitudes towards them it makes sense to concentrate on the fascinating dynamics between the various female characters.

There’s certainly a power struggle going on between Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) and Mitch’s rather possessive mother Lydia (Jessica Tandy), and of course there’s the rivalry between Melanie and Annie (Suzanne Pleshette) for Mitch’s affections.

Paglia also notes the gradual disintegration of Melanie. She starts out as confident and assertive, perhaps even aggressive. Her pursuit of Mitch is certainly aggressive. She has the self-confidence that money brings, but as  is often the case with inherited rather than earned wealth it’s a rather superficial self-confidence. By the end of the movie she’s down, if not quite out. And Lydia has reasserted her power.

Paglia sees a parallel between the remorseless and mysterious power of nature and female power. Paglia has never subscribed to a view of women as powerless and this sort of parallel not surprisingly appeals to her.

She also makes a strong case that Tippi Hedren’s performance has been under-appreciated and I think she’s right. Considering her inexperience her roles in the two movies she made with Hitchcock, The Birds and Marnie, were both very demanding and in both cases she acquitted herself well.

I’ve always considered The Birds to be one of Hitchcock’s masterpieces and Paglia’s book makes me want to watch this movie yet again, even though I’ve seen it at least a dozen times. The book is typical Paglia - provocative and amusing and idiosyncratic. I highly recommend it.

The Crash (1932)

The Crash (1932)

The Crash is a cynical little pre-code romance enlivened by some energetic performances. It’s not quite a top-tier pre-code movie but it’s worth a look.

Geoffrey Gault (George Brent) is a New York City stockbroker, married to Linda (Ruth Chatterton. Geoffrey is in love with Linda in his own way but he has no scruples about using her to further his business. Linda is very much in love with Geoffrey’s money. That’s not to say that she isn’t fond of him, but she is more fond of money than anything else in life. Linda grew up in poverty and she is horrified by it. As she freely admits, it scares her.

They’re doing pretty well. Geoffrey’s success as a stockbroker is based on inside knowledge, knowledge that Linda obtains for him. She gets this information by using her charms. How far she actually goes to obtain the information is left to our imagination but we can be quite certain than neither Geoffrey nor Linda are constrained by any considerations of morality. And Linda gets bored easily and she likes men. We can be fairly sure that sometimes she employs her charms even when there’s no information to be had.

They’re happy in their own way. They’re rich, and that’s their way of being happy.

The Crash (1932)

Then comes the stock market crash. When the first rumblings of trouble are heard Geoffrey asks Linda to get the inside dope from John Fair. He’s the man who would know if there was any likelihood that the market was really going to go bad. Fair has been pursuing Linda for years and he’s become weary of the fruitless pursuit and this time he won’t play ball unless Linda can offer him something to make it worth her while, which she refuses to do. When Geoffrey asks her what she’s found out she’s not in a very good mood and doesn’t want to admit that she’s failed so she tells him the market is fine.

This will have devastating consequences, and not just for Geoffrey and Linda. The next day the market crashes and by lunchtime Geoffrey is wiped out. And so are all their servants - they’ve all been making use of Linda’s information as well to play the market.

The stock market crash is just too awful and too tedious for Linda to bear so she begs Geoffrey for some money (which is in fact virtually all the money he has left) so she can get away from all this unpleasantness. She sails for Bermuda.

The Crash (1932)

In Bermuda she meets an Englishman named Ronnie Sanderson (Paul Cavanagh). He has a sheep station in Australia. Linda finds the idea of sheep almost as horrible as the idea of Australia but on the other hand Ronnie does have money. And Geoffrey has none. She can’t possibly be expected to live without money. Ronnie is a nice enough fellow, she becomes quite fond of him, and he does have money. When he suggests that she should divorce Geoffrey and marry him, well really what can she do? If Geoffrey has been inconsiderate enough to lose all his money that’s hardly her fault.

Linda is still not completely broke. She still has her pearls and they cost Geoffrey $90,000. At least she had her pearls until her maid Celeste stole them to get her boyfriend out of prison. He’s been embezzling money to try to recoup the losses he made on the stock market following Linda’s phony tip from John Fair. Linda doesn’t have the heart to hand Celeste over to the police so now she’s really broke. Things are so desperate than when she returns to New York she is forced to make the ultimate sacrifice. She gets a job. But there’s still that offer from Ronnie Sanderson and maybe she could learn to like Australia. Maybe she could even learn to like sheep.

The Crash (1932)

Linda is a pretty appalling character, entirely without morals. It’s not that she’s incapable of love. She loves money very much indeed. It’s just never occurred to her that there might be anything else worth loving. Ruth Chatterton manages to make us almost like Linda. She’s so brazen about her selfishness, and so unapologetic about it, that we almost admire her. Chatterton approaches the role with whole-hearted enthusiasm.

George Brent manages to do something similar with the role of Geoffrey. Geoffrey is pathetic and despicable but he has a certain breezy boyish charm about it.

The supporting cast is solid, with Henry Kolker’s turn as John Fair being particularly good.

This is cynicism done with enough style and with a sufficiently light touch to make it fun. The movie wants us to be appalled by these two people but it wants us to like them as well. They’re really just spoilt children who have been able to avoid growing up. Their money sheltered them for years from confronting anything as tiresome as real emotions or real responsibility. When they do have to confront such things it comes as something for which they are entirely unprepared. Now they’re faced by a stark choice - whether to continue their childish existences or to grow up.

The Crash (1932)

At 58 minutes this is a very short movie even by early 30s standards but director William Dieterle keeps things moving along so briskly that he has more than enough time to accommodate what is in truth a fairly sketchy plot.

The sheer cynicism on which Geoffrey and Linda’s marriage is based marks this as being very much in typical pre-code territory.

The movie approaches the stock market crash in such a whimsical manner as to be almost shocking. The scene in which the servants are queued up desperately trying to telephone their brokers is a nicely sardonic touch.

This movie is paired with Registered Nurse on one made-on-demand disc from the Warner Archive series. The print of The Crash is mostly excellent with just a few minor flaws that can be easily overlooked.

An amusing and diverting little movie that pre-code fans should enjoy. Recommended.

Friday, August 10, 2012

The Lady from Shanghai (1947)

The Lady from Shanghai (1947)

In 1946 Orson Welles had scored a surprise hit with The Stranger (a movie Welles considered to be the weakest movie of his entire career). On the strength of this he was able to persuade Harry Cohn to let him make The Lady from Shanghai at Columbia. For which we can be eternally grateful to Cohn since The Lady from Shanghai is one of Welles’ greatest movies.

Welles had intended the movie to be an unassuming B-movie, but that all changed when his wife Rita Hayworth persuaded him to cast her as the female lead (she was hoping that making a movie together would save their marriage but her hopes were to be dashed). Hayworth’s presence immediately upgraded the movie to A-picture status. While Welles had not intended the picture to be such a big production on the plus side it did mean he had some real money to work with, and was able to persuade Cohn to allow him to do much of the movie on location. The movie was not released until 1948 but it was shot in 1946 making it one of the first film noir titles to be shot largely on location.

The Lady from Shanghai (1947)

Michael O’Hara (Orson Welles) is a sailor with a colourful past. He thinks he’s seen a great deal of life but he is about to find himself frighteningly out of his depth. He has just met Elsa Bannister (Rita Hayworth) and now his life is about to spin dangerously out of control. Elsa is married to the country’s top criminal lawyer, Arthur Bannister (Everett Sloane). Michael knows that chasing married women is a bad idea but it’s too late now. He’s hooked. It’s actually Arthur Bannister who persuades him to sign on as crew for the couple’s luxury yacht. When a married woman’s husband persuades a man he knows is obsessed with his wife to join them on a cruise, well when that happens the smart thing to do is to run. But Michael hasn’t done a single smart thing since he met Elsa.

Also on board the yacht is Arthur Bannister’s law partner, George Grisby (Glenn Anders). It’s immediately clear that Arthur and Elsa Bannister and George Grisby are three very strange and dangerous people. They enjoy playing games with other people, the way a cat enjoys playing games with mice. In one memorable scene Michael compares them to sharks so crazed by blood that they devour each other. In fact, compared to this trio, sharks are comparatively harmless creatures.

The Lady from Shanghai (1947)

It’s also clear that the Bannisters’ marriage is deeply unhealthy. Arthur Bannister is a cripple and he’s much older than Elsa. It’s never explicitly stated but we’re free to assume that Elsa doesn’t get much satisfaction out of the marriage, either sexual or emotional. In fact it appears that Arthur Bannister gets his jollies from watching innocents like Michael take the offered bait and then watching them wriggle once they’re hooked.

The games played by the Bannisters and by Grisby will lead to murder and Michael will find himself caught in the middle. The really dangerous thing is that this is a game where there are three puppet-masters all pulling the strings. Michael is hopelessly out of his depth, and he’s more obsessed by Elsa than ever.

The Lady from Shanghai (1947)

This is film noir but it’s more than just film noir. It’s also a psycho-sexual thriller and Welles is at the top of his form. The movie died at the US box office although it did very well in Europe. Harry Cohn had been hoping for a straightforward crime thriller but he’d hired Orson Welles and what he got was an Orson Welles movie. Stylistically this is perhaps the most flamboyant and eccentric thing Welles had done up to that point in his career. It was all much too much for American audiences at the time. The casting of Rita Hayworth may also have damaged the movie’s chances because this was most definitely not what audiences expected from a Rita Hayworth movie.

Welles had decided to change Hayworth’s image radically. The long red locks were shorn (much to Harry Cohn’s horror) and her hair was died blonde. The change of image was appropriate since this movie and this role were very different from anything Hayworth had done before. Audiences might not have been pleased but in fact Hayworth is absolutely superb. This movie should have established her credentials as a serious actress once and for all, but it was not to be.

The Lady from Shanghai (1947)

Welles’ performance is very good but he’s overshadowed by the other major players. I’m certain this was a deliberate decision on his part. Michael O’Hara is a regular guy who finds himself in a world of extravagant psychologically pathological exotics. Michael is the fly in a web spun by three spiders and it’s important that he should be shown as being powerless. He is not calling the shots. He quite rightly keeps his own performance as low-key as possible.

Hayworth as Elsa, Everett Sloane as her husband and Glenn Anders as Grisby dominate the movie and all give powerhouse performances. Hayworth this time is a true femme fatale (which she had not been in Gilda) and she exudes a terrifyingly potent but dangerous sexuality. In one scene Arthur Bannister explains that a tough guy is a guy who has an edge. His edge comes from money and from his powerful if twisted intellect. Elsa’s edge is sex and she knows how to use it.

The Lady from Shanghai (1947)

The movie was shot on location in San Francisco and Mexico and on board Errol Flynn’s yacht (with, according to some accounts, Flynn below decks drunk as a lord and thoroughly enjoying the proceedings). The making of the movie was delayed when Hayworth fell ill and as a result the location shooting was curtailed and the picture had to be completed on a sound stage. Welles always firmly believed that a director should be prepared to make use of accidents and in this case he later felt that the artificiality of the sequences done in the studio actually enhanced the picture, giving those sequences a dream-like quality.

Of course the highlight of the movie is the spectacular fun-house set-piece at the end. Sadly much of this sequence was lost in the editing process, much to the disappointment of Welles. Enough remains to make it one of the greatest set-pieces in movie history.

The Lady from Shanghai (1947)

Columbia’s Region 2 DVD release includes a commentary track by Peter Bogdanovich. It’s  typical Bogdanovich - chatty, informative, enthusiastic and entertaining. He got to know Welles quite well in the latter part of the great director’s life. Possibly the most interesting thing he learnt was that Welles wasn’t deliberately trying to be stylistically eccentric. He simply shot scenes the way that felt right for him. It just happened that the way that felt right for Welles was nothing like the way most directors would have done things.

We don’t have The Lady from Shanghai in the form that Welles intended. He was particularly distressed by the unimaginative score which was imposed on the film, a score that was directly contrary to his intentions. But what we have is still a very great movie. Very highly recommended.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Bright Lights (1930)

Bright Lights (1930)

Bright Lights (AKA Adventures in Africa) is a fascinating pre-code oddity, a backstage musical with romance and even a murder. This Warner Brothers release was made under the First National Pictures banner in 1930 with Michael Curtiz in the director’s chair.

Louanne (Dorothy Mackaill) is a major Broadway musical star who has snared a rich husband. At least she’s almost snared him - they’re going to get married after her final performance in her current stage hit, Bright Lights.

Bright Lights (1930)

Louanne doesn’t really love this rich man, Emerson Fairchild, but he’s crazy about her and it seems like too good a chance to miss. His family aren’t exactly over the moon about the idea of the son and heir marrying an actress but they’ve reluctantly acquiesced. Louanne is actually in love with fellow performer Wally Dean (Frank Fay) although she won’t admit it to herself. He’s in love with her but he refuses to stand in the way of her marriage. He intends to bow out gracefully.

She’s given her husband-to-be a rather sanitised account of her past. As she tells this cleaned-up version of her life story to reporters we get several flashbacks that make it clear that her past was rather more colourful than she’s admitted. She worked in a series of sleazy dives in Africa (hence the alternative title) as well as doing the carnival circuit. In Africa she had made the acquaintance of Portuguese diamond smuggler Miguel Parada (Noah Beery), an encounter that ended rather badly. Miguel has the scars to prove it.

Bright Lights (1930)

The final night goes off with a bang, literally - it culminates in a murder. In fact everything seems to be conspiring to sabotage Louanne’s wedding plans, with her past threatening to catch up with her.

Dorothy Mackaill had worked in the Ziegfeld Follies in the early 20s so she has no trouble handling the singing and dancing. She also has no trouble handling the movie’s mixture of comedy and drama. She gives a spirited performance as always. Mackaill had been a major star in the silent cinema but her career was over by 1934. Why her career crashed remains something of a mystery - there was certainly nothing wrong with her performances  during the pre-code era.

Bright Lights (1930)

Frank Fay had been a big star in vaudeville but his film career was patchy, largely due no doubt to his chronic drinking problems. He makes an engagingly sympathetic leading man.  His major success was as a comic but he proves more than adequate as a dramatic actor and his vaudeville background makes him the perfect choice for this movie. Like Mackaill he has no difficulty at all with the musical and comedy elements in this movie.

Frank McHugh provides comic relief as a drunken reporter with a fondness for chorus girls.

Michael Curtiz was one of those directors who could work in any genre (and he worked in them all) and despite the slightness of the plot he keeps the movie rolling at a suitably frenetic pace.

Bright Lights (1930)

The musical numbers are not as lavish as those in the great Warner Brothers musicals of the 30s but they’re still reasonably impressive, and this being a pre-code movie they’re fairly outrageous with the Cannibal Love number being a highlight.

The murder angle is handled in a typically pre-code manner. Murder is not a matter to be taken too seriously and no-one is worried about whether justice is seen to be done or not.

Bright Lights (1930)

This is lightweight fun, typical of the breezy pre-code style. It’s a fine showcase for Dorothy Mackaill’s considerable talents and while it reaches no great heights it’s consistently entertaining. Pre-code fans won’t want to miss this one.

This movie is paired on a single disc with The Reckless Hour in a Dorothy Mackaill double-header in the made-on-demand Warner Archive series. It’s an unrestored print but it’s quite serviceable.