Thursday, December 29, 2022

Repeat Performance (1947)

Repeat Performance is a 1947 Hollywood adaptation of William O’Farrell’s quirky 1942 novel of the same name, which as it happens I read just recently. It’s an extremely interesting book but when I read it I remember thinking that there were so many ways in which Hollywood could make an unholy mess of a film adaptation.

It turns out my fears were well grounded. They really did make a mess of it. Everything that made the book so intriguing is lacking in the movie.

The basic idea is exactly the same in both book and movie. In the book a man’s life has ended in disaster and he’s facing a murder charge. But, by means which are never explicitly explained, he gets the chance to live the previous year all over again. He gets the chance to avoid the mistakes which led him to disaster. For some wholly unexplained reason the decision was made to make the protagonist of the movie rather than a man. Which in itself is no problem.

The movie opens with Sheila Page (Joan Leslie) shooting her husband Barney (Louis Hayward). Sheila is in a mess but she is given a chance to escape from the mess. By some mysterious means she is transported back in time for one year. She knows what it was that led to that shooting so it should be easy to make sure that this time it doesn’t happen. This time she will do things differently.

Sheila is a very successful actress and a major star on Broadway. Barney was at one time a successful playwright. Now he’s a self-pitying drunk.

Since Sheila is living the past year of her life all over again she knows what is going to happen. Barney will meet English playwright Paula Costello (Virginia Field). He will have an affair. That affair will lead to catastrophe. All Sheila has to do is to keep Barney and Paula apart.

That turns out to be less easy than it sounds. Sheila does do things differently, but somehow Barney and Paula meet anyway. And sure enough Barney and Paula start drifting into an affair. Sheila knows that she has to find a way to put a stop to this affair but she has no idea how to do it.

What makes the book interesting is that the protagonist isn’t entirely a bad guy but he’s very far from perfect. He’s human. He has plenty of human weaknesses. He finds it difficult to avoid temptations. He is impulsive and selfish. The question is, what is it that leads him to ruin? Is it just sheer bad luck? Is it fate? Is it poor judgment? Self-indulgence? Or is it his own personality flaws? We neither entirely despise him nor admire him but he’s human enough that we do care what happens to him. He’s a classic noir protagonist.

Unfortunately the decision was made to make the protagonist of the movie, Sheila, squeaky clean. She’s a regular Little Miss Goody Two Shoes. Which makes her totally uninteresting and makes it difficult to care about her fate. It also means that she doesn’t have the chance, reliving that fateful year, to learn anything about herself, to understand why she made bad decisions. Sheila in the movie is such a good girl that she never does anything wrong. It’s a fatal weakness in the movie. The movie entirely misses the point of the book, and as a result the movie ends up drifting aimlessly.

All the subtlety and cleverness and irony and ambiguity that was in the novel is missing from the movie. It’s been sanitised and dumbed down and made bland and innocuous. The feeling of impending doom in the novel, as the protagonist tries to avoid making the same mistakes and makes new ones instead, is gone. And the movie just doesn’t make any worthwhile use of its promising central idea.

It’s hard to judge Joan Leslie’s performance since Sheila is such a nothing character. Louis Hayward overacts but there’s not much he can do to distract us from the fact that Barney is a more simplistic character than any of the characters in the book.

Richard Basehart as Sheila’s poet friend William fares much better than the other cast members. Tom Conway gives his standard performance as theatrical producer John Friday, another character who has been made less interesting than his counterpart in the novel.

While the book is definitely noir fiction, the movie is not by any stretch of the imagination a film noir. The decision to make Sheila into Little Miss Perfect effectively removes all the noirness from the story.

The script apparently went through many changes and as so often happens in such cases the focus was lost. What we’re left with is a routine crime/romantic melodrama with a clumsy gimmick. As a crime/romantic melodrama Repeat Performance is not a truly bad movie, it’s just very disappointing. It’s a story with so much potential, which makes the disappointment all the more bitter.

Repeat Performance is a moderately entertaining movie that could have been something special. Recommended, with reservations.

I've reviewed William O’Farrell’s novel on Vintage Pop Fictions.

Monday, December 26, 2022

The Sign of the Cross (1932)

Cecil B. DeMille’s The Sign of the Cross (1932) is one of the most notorious of all Hollywood pre-code movies. It can be interpreted in various ways, which makes it also one of the most fascinating pre-code films. It’s a story of faith and it also offers a smorgasbord of sex and sin.

1932 was the worst year of the Depression and it looked like being a dismal year for Hollywood. Movie theatre attendances had crashed by half. It was also shaping up to be a bad year for Cecil B. DeMille. He was being pursued by the IRS and after a couple of not-too-successful movies no studio would touch him. His career was on the skids. DeMille however had no intention of fading away or retiring. He had come up with an idea. He had bought the rights to Wilson Barrett’s religious play The Sign of the Cross. Everybody told DeMille he was crazy, that audiences wanted breezy fluffy entertainment, that it was the wrong time for such a project. But DeMille made Paramount an offer they couldn’t refuse. He would put up half the money for the project out of his own pocket.

It was make-or-break for DeMille. If the movie flopped he was finished. It was pretty important for Paramount as well. They desperately needed a hit.

Barrett’s play dates from 1895 and strongly resembles the very popular novel Quo Vadis, published at around the same time. It’s a basic story that has been filmed more than once, and in more than one way.

The movie is set in Rome during the reign of the Emperor Nero. Rome has just been devastated by the Great Fire of AD 64 and Nero decides to make the Christians the collective scapegoats for that disaster. Christians are to be hunted down and executed.

The Prefect of Rome, Marcus Superbus (Fredric March), is the most powerful man in Rome after the Emperor. In many ways he’s a typical Roman (or at least he conforms to the stereotyped view of Romans of that era). He is loyal to Nero but Marcus lives for pleasure and he’s clearly very fond of women. In fact he’s notorious for his obsession with women. On the other hand it’s obvious from the start that Marcus is not an especially cruel man. In fact he has a definite soft-hearted side.

He meets a pretty girl, Mercia (Elissa Landi) and it’s love at first sight. She’s very keen on him as well. But Mercia is a Christian. Falling in love with a Christian girl is a very dangerous thing to do. It’s even more dangerous for Marcus since Nero’s empress, Poppaea (Claudette Colbert) is in lust with him. Poppaea means to have Marcus and she’s not going to let a Christian girl get in her way.

A secret meeting of the Christians is broken up by the Roman soldiery, with considerable bloodshed, and the survivors are destined to be executed in imaginative ways in the arena. Marcus is determined to save Mercia while Poppaea plots to get Mercia out of the way.

It’s not the story itself that is so interesting. It’s the way DeMille handles it. On one level it’s a pious Christian story of faith. On another level it’s a fun-filled romp of sex and debauchery. The debate about this movie centres on the question of DeMille’s actual intentions. Was he sincerely trying to make a morally uplifting religious movie or was he more interested in presenting us with a sex and sin extravaganza? I’ve always tended towards the view that DeMille was trying to have his cake and eat it too. That he was consciously making a movie that could be enjoyed on both levels.

The Catholic Church at the time had no doubt what DeMille’s intentions were. They went ballistic. They were so outraged that they formed the Catholic Legion of Decency to combat this kind of Hollywood wickedness.

For me the main support for the theory that DeMille was trying to have it both ways is that the Christians come across as being rather dull and even rather sanctimonious while the wicked pagans are attractive, sexy and fun. On the other hand DeMille does not in any way gloss over the cruelties of pagan Rome.

There’s also the question of casting. DeMille was pretty careful in his casting choices so it’s reasonable to believe that he mostly got the cast he wanted. And the actors playing the Christians are pretty dull. Those playing the sinful pagans are colourful, entertaining and great fun. This doesn’t just apply to the players in the main rôles. The actors playing minor Christian characters are dull and those playing minor pagan characters are lively and attractive.

Of course it’s possible that DeMille believed that Christian audiences would like the fact that the performances by the cast members playing Christians are terribly terribly earnest.

What’s also interesting (and daring in a way only pre-code movies could be) is that DeMille presents the Christian side of the argument but he gives us the pagan side as well, and the pagan point of view is presented without demonising it.

Enough of this. There are other things that need to be talked about. Such as Claudette Colbert. And her famous bathing-in-asses’-milk nude scene. And yes, you do clearly get to see her nipples. This is a full-on pre-code movie. Colbert is at her sexiest, and Claudette Colbert at her sexiest is something to behold. She’s superb and she sizzles.

Charles Laughton goes totally over-the-top as Nero, which is as it should be. Fredric March is an actor I’ve never been able to warm to. That might just be me. Elissa Landi is painfully earnest as Mercia.

Then there’s the spectacle, and the sin and debauchery. The arena scenes display DeMille’s absolute master of spectacle and his gift for the outrageous and the outlandish. The battle between thirty African pygmy warriors and thirty amazon women warriors is a major highlight. There’s also the nude girl and the crocodiles, and the nude girl and the gorilla. DeMille was never afraid to go for maximum outrageousness. I haven’t yet mentioned the lesbian dance scene.

Cinematographer Karl Struss shot the entire picture through red gauze filters to give it a luminous quality. Surprisingly although this is one of the most visually impressive epics ever made it wasn’t particularly expensive. Given the dismal economic climate DeMille knew he had to keep the budget down and he did. The gamble paid off, the movie was a hit and DeMille was back at the top.

The print used in the Cecil B. DeMille collection DVD set of a few years ago (which is the own I own) is excellent and it’s uncut. That’s important. Paramount butchered this movie in 1938 in order to make it acceptable under the Production Code but the DVD presents us with the completely uncut original release version in all its depraved glory. This movie is also available (uncut) on Blu-Ray from Kino Lorber.

The Sign of the Cross (1932) is pre-code Hollywood at its most decadent and outrageous. It’s a must-see movie.

Thursday, December 22, 2022

Perils of Nyoka (1942 serial)

Perils of Nyoka (later retitled Nyoka and the Tigermen) is a 15-part 1942 Republic serial. Most of Republic’s serials were very good but this one was directed by William Witney which means it’s very very good indeed. No-one was better at directing serials than Witney.

The character of Nyoka the Jungle Girl had first appeared in another very good Republic serial made a year earlier, Jungle Girl. In that serial Nyoka was played by Frances Gifford but for Perils of Nyoka she was replaced by Kay Aldridge.

The opening episode presents us with everything we could possibly hope for in a serial. There’s an exotic setting, there’s a quest for a lost treasure, there’s a crucial papyrus which tells where the treasure is to be found, there’s a beautiful glamorous evil queen (the Arab Queen Vultura) and there’s a guy in a gorilla suit. And then we meet the heroine and she’s cute and feisty.

The prize in this case is not just treasure, but medical secrets from the ancient world which could rid humanity of some of its most feared diseases. So we have the bad guys motivated by old-fashioned greed while the good guys are motivated by the desire to benefit the whole of humanity.

Finding the location of these secrets naturally involves endless complications. You have to get hold of that ancient papyrus. You have to find an inscription but the inscription is no good without the papyrus.

Only one living soul has the knowledge to translate the papyrus, an eminent scholar who has disappeared.

Or maybe there is one other person who could translate the papyrus - the missing scholar’s daughter. That daughter is of course Nyoka.

There’s plenty of potential for betrayals - some of the good guys might not be good guys after all. And the bad guys might well be prepared to double-cross each other.

As you would expect Nyoka manages to get herself captured a number of times, and threatened with torture and death. She spends quite a bit of time tied up or imprisoned. Nyoka however is by no means a helpless heroine. She can put up a pretty good fight when she needs to. She’s very handy with a gun and if she doesn’t have a gun she’ll still fight like a tigress. She’s the the type of heroine who is likely to faint when faced with danger.

She’s not quite a kickass action heroine in the modern sense. This serial doesn’t pretend that a rather petite female can throw huge guys around or punch out guys who weigh three times what she weighs. Nyoka fights like a girl, and I don’t mean that in a disparaging way. Not at all. Nyoka knows that if there’s a fight she cannot rely on speed and strength so she relies instead on being resourceful and quick-witted. If one of the bad guys has one of the good guys on the ground a girl can always sneak up and bash the bad guy over the head with a vase or anything else that’s handy. When there’s a fight Nyoka doesn’t cower in a corner. She circles about looking for opportunities to help.

And of course she has Fang to help her. Fang is her dog. Fang is brave and loyal and super-intelligent.

Speaking of cute animals there’s also an adorable pet monkey. Everyone likes cute animals so this serial has them.

More than anything else what distinguishes a really good serial from a lesser one is the quality of the cliffhangers. In a lesser serial the cliffhangers can tend to be obvious and repetitive. In the best serials the cliffhangers are clever, imaginative and unpredictable. No-one ever did cliffhangers with more style and ingenuity than William Witney. He’ll never give you the same cliffhanger twice.

Kay Aldridge as Nyoka is the perfect heroine. She’s as cute as a button, she’s smart, she’s brave, she’s sexy (in a wholesome good girl way), she’s likeable, she’s feisty but she’s also totally feminine.

Lorna Gray as Vultura is the perfect villainess. She’s cunning and ruthless and cruel and she’s sexy (in an unwholesome bad girl way).

Charles Middleton (better known as Ming the Merciless in the Flash Gordon serials) as Cassib makes a fine henchman for Vultura.

Clayton Moore as Larry Grayson is a solid hero. He’s not just a square-jawed action hero. He’s smart and likeable.

There’s non-stop action and the action scenes are expertly staged.

For those who like that sort of thing there’s the opportunity to see the beautiful heroine tied up. She gets tied up a lot.

With a sexy good girl pitted against a sexy bad girl you might be wondering if you’re going to get to see a decent cat-fight between the two of them. Well have no fears. You will get your cat-fight.

In some serials you will get one or sometimes even two episodes almost entirely made up of clips from earlier episodes. It was a good way to save money but these recap episodes are always boring and irritating. Thankfully there’s none of that nonsense in Perils of Nyoka. There are also no episodes that can be dismissed as mere filler episodes. Every episode advances the plot and has its share of suspense and excitement.

My personal view is that the way to get the most out of a serial is to resist the temptation to binge-watch. If you limit yourself to watching one episode per day you’ll have more fun.

Perils of Nyoka has been released on Blu-Ray by Grapevine Video. When you see the opening credits sequence you get that awful sinking feeling that this is going to be another cruddy unrestored release but don’t panic. It’s only that brief opening credits sequence that has problems. Apart from that the transfer is quite lovely. Image quality is very sharp, contrast is excellent and there’s no print damage. It looks like somebody has actually spent the money for a high quality restoration. Either that or somebody has somehow managed to find the original negative in pristine condition and the odds against that are pretty high.

Perils of Nyoka is a top-grade serial and it’s consistently entertaining. It contains absolutely everything you could want in a serial and all the ingredients are blended perfectly. Very highly recommended.

Other great William Witney-directed Republic serials I’ve reviewed - Daredevils of the Red Circle (1939) and Spy Smasher (1942). The latter may be the finest serial ever made.

Sunday, December 18, 2022

Murder at the Vanities (1934)

Paramount’s Murder at the Vanities (1934) is a pre-code backstage musical and a murder mystery.

Earl Carroll’s Vanities was a very popular and sometimes outrageous Broadway revue which flourished from 1923 until 1932. It provides the background to the movie.

Jack Ellery (Jack Oakie) is the manager and he’s just trying to get the first night launched without too many hitches. In fact there will be more than just the usual opening-night hitches. There will for example be a steady accumulation of corpses.

The headliners are tenor Eric Lander (Carl Brisson) and his fiancée and singing partner Ann Ware (Kitty Carlisle) and Rita Ross (Gertrude Michael). It’s the fact that Eric and Ann have decided to get married that causes some of the trouble. Rita is insanely jealous. She wanted Eric. In fact she had him and now she wants him back.

Several accidents occur which could be interpreted as attempts on Ann’s life. Jack Ellery is worried enough to call the police. His old pal Lieutenant Bill Murdock (Victor McLaglen) decides to handle the call himself. He figures it shouldn’t be too unpleasant. The theatre will after all be overrun with beautiful scantily-clad young ladies. Murdock would be well pleased if all police work involve pretty half-dressed young women.

There’s also a lady private detective Sadie Evans (Gail Patrick) hanging around the theatre.

When the first corpse turns up Murdock, much to Jack Ellery’s horror, wants to close the show down. Jack manages to persuade him that he might have a better chance of catching the killer if he lets the show go ahead.

This won’t be the only corpse. There are several suspects and a few red herrings. As a murder mystery the movie is quite passable. There are people hiding secrets from the past and there’s the hint of blackmail.

The emphasis however is on the show. Much of the running time is taken up by musical numbers. This is a full-blown musical. Fortunately the production numbers are quite good. They can’t match the spectacles that Busby Berkeley was providing in contemporary Warner Brothers musicals but they’re still impressive. There’s lot of art deco style. There are also the aforementioned scantily-clad young ladies. Actually some of the young ladies are totally unclad, their modesty preserved only by placing their hands in strategic positions.

This is pre-code Hollywood and it gets rather risqué. And I haven’t yet mentioned the Marijuana song.

Jack Oakie manages to be funny without being irritating and the banter between Oakie and McLaglen works well. They’re the standouts in the acting department although Gertrude Michael is also excellent as the sexy wicked Rita. Carl Brisson is a rather dull leading man while Kitty Carlisle is not bad. Toby Wing provides extra comic relief as the ditzy but sexy Nancy who could provide an important clue if only would take her seriously enough to listen to her.

If you watch really closely you may spot both Ann Sheridan and Lucille Ball as showgirls. You might also spot Dennis O’Keefe. There are lots of future stars in this movie.

Duke Ellington and his orchestra make an appearance as well.

Mitchell Leisen directs with a fair amount of style and energy.

This movie was one of six included in the Universal Backlot Pre-Code Collection DVD boxed set, a set that is well worth getting hold of. Murder at the Vanities was also released individually as a MOD disc in the Universal Vault series but I’ve heard terrible things about that particular release so if you want to see this movie grab the DVD boxed set or you can now get it on Blu-Ray from Kino Lorber.

Murder at the Vanities is amusing lightweight fun, it’s very pre-code and quite risqué and the musical production numbers are pretty cool. Highly recommended.

Thursday, December 15, 2022

Kept Husbands (1931)

Kept Husbands is a 1931 romantic melodrama. If the title hasn’t already given you the clue, this is a pre-code movie.

Dick Brunton (Joel McCrea) is a factory worker but he was at one time a war hero and a famous college football player. It’s on the strength of having been a hero that he gets an invitation to dinner at the home of the fabulously wealthy Arthur Parker.

He attracts the attention of Parker’s daughter Dorothea (Dorothy Mackaill). She was expecting to get a great deal of amusement out of the social embarrassment of a working man but she finds to her surprise that she finds him insanely attractive.

Dorothea is used to getting whatever she wants. If she wants a bracelet or a new dress she just goes ahead and buys it. She figures that she can do the same with men. If she wants Dick Brunton she can just buy him.

Dick is crazy about Dorothea but he has a few doubts about the wisdom of marrying her. He has a lot of pride. He doesn’t want to be a kept husband.

Once they’re married he finds that he is indeed a kept husband. He doesn’t like it but there doesn’t seem to be anything he can do about it. He’s so crazy about her and she can make him agree to anything.

Dorothea is spoilt and insensitive and she can be manipulative but she’s not really a bad person. She really does love her husband. She is genuinely unaware that she has taken away his self-respect.

There’s not a huge amount of pre-code raciness in this movie. It’s an odd mixture of the sort you often get in this era, with attitudes that seem very modern mixed with attitudes that seem very old-fashioned. In this case Dick’s obsession with the idea that marrying a rich woman means the loss of his self-respect may seem a bit excessive to modern viewers but it certainly reflects the way men felt until very recently.

What mostly marks this as a pre-code movie is its reluctance to make rigid moral judgments. Dorothea has no awareness that she is damaging Dick psychologically and the movie doesn’t make harsh moral judgments on her. She is spoilt but mostly she’s just never had to learn that she needs to think about the effect her actions have on others. There’s nothing malicious about her.

For quite a while Dick accepts his position as a kept husband and the movie also doesn’t judge him harshly.

Mackaill and McCrea have real chemistry even though they seem like a mismatched couple.

I’ve never seen Joel McCrea looking so young. He was in his mid-twenties at the time. He displays a pleasing easygoing charm.

Dorothy Mackaill was, briefly, quite a big star. Her career crashed completely with the advent of the Production Code. I like her a lot in general and I think she’s terrific in this movie. All her pre-code movies are worth a look. I reviewed several during my last bout of pre-code enthusiasm a few years back - The Reckless Hour (1931), the breezy and charming Bright Lights (a 1930 backstage musical with romance and murder added) and the stupendously sleazy but delightful Safe in Hell (1931). Safe in Hell almost qualifies as a pre-code noir.

I believe this movie is now available on Blu-Ray. My copy is an ancient Alpha Video DVD that I bought many years ago.

Kept Husbands has some humour. There’s some comic relief from Ned Sparks as Dick’s mother’s lodger Hughie Hanready and it’s mildly amusing. Mostly however this is a romantic melodrama, but a pre-code melodrama and pre-code melodramas have their own unique flavour. The likeability of the two leads is a major asset.

Kept Husbands is not one of the really great pre-code movies but it’s rather enjoyable and it’s a chance to see Dorothy Mackaill at her peak. Recommended.

Sunday, December 11, 2022

Roy Del Ruth's The Maltese Falcon (1931)

The most celebrated screen adaptation of Dashiell Hammet’s 1930 novel The Maltese Falcon is the 1941 version directed by John Huston and starring Humphrey Bogart. There were however two previous Hollywood film adaptations. In 1936 it was made as a comedy starring Bette Davis. That version, Satan Met a Lady, need not concern us. It has nothing going for it.

The 1931 version directed by Roy Del Ruth, called The Maltese Falcon, is another matter. There are those who think it’s better than the famous 1941 version. I’m not sure I’d go that far but the claim is not as as crazy as it sounds. In some areas the ’31 version really is superior.

Most of the characters are the same, but instead of Mary Astor as Brigid O’Shaughnessy we get Bebe Daniels as Ruth Wonderly.

The plot is basically the same. Sam Spade (Ricardo Cortez) and his partner Miles Archer are hired by Ruth Wonderly. She spins them a tale about her sister being in danger from a man. While tailing the guy Archer gets shot to death. Sam isn’t too worried about this. He’s been having an affair with Archer’s wife Iva (Thelma Todd) and having Archer out of the way will make things simpler. Sam feels no emotion about Archer’s murder. Sam Spade saves his emotions for the one person in the world he truly loves - Sam Spade.

Sam soon figures out that Ruth has been spinning him a line. When confronted she changes her story. Sam figures this new story is just another pack of lies but Ruth pays well and she’s a cutie, and Sam is a big boy and he knows how to handle dames.

What Ruth is really after is a bird. A statuette of a bird, a falcon, supposedly worth a couple of million dollars (which in 1931 was an unimaginably vast amount of money). There are other people who want to hire Sam to find that bird. Dr Joel Cairo (Otto Matieson) and Casper Gutman (Dudley Digges) both want the falcon. Sam takes money from all of them. That’s totally unethical of course but Sam doesn’t worry too much about ethics. Joel Cairo and Casper Gutman don’t worry about ethics either. Ruth Wonderly has never heard of the word.

They all try to double-cross each other. There’s the added complication of the police who have two murders that they want to pin on somebody. And soon there’s a third murder.

So how do the 1931 and 1941 versions differ? The first difference is that the ’31 version is a pre-code movie. There’s more sex. It’s made absolutely explicit that Sam and Ruth are sleeping together and it’s just taken for granted that that’s a perfectly normal thing to do. It’s also made crystal clear that Sam and Iva Archer have been sleeping together and we figure that Sam and his secretary Effie probably share a bed from time to time.

And Bebe Daniels takes her clothes off a lot. We don’t really see anything but it’s clear that she’s naked.

There’s also a casual cheerful immorality about the whole movie. Which is absolutely in the spirit of Hammett’s novel. This is a story without a hero. Every single character is a crook. They will all lie, cheat and steal. And they are all quite prepared to commit murder if they think they can get away with it. All of this applies to Sam Spade as well. He’s as much of a crook as the others.

This does come out fairly clearly in the 1941 version but in that version some of the characters do have one or two redeeming features. Especially Spade. The 1931 version doesn’t bother giving any character any redeeming qualities. The 1941 film is cynical but the 1931 movie takes the cynicism even further.

There’s also the acting to consider. Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet in the ’41 film are a lot better than their counterparts in the earlier film. On the other hand Bebe Daniels is vastly superior to Mary Astor in the later film. I don’t mind Mary Astor as an actress but she was miscast and she just couldn’t pull off the femme fatale thing. Bebe Daniels has no such problems. She plays Ruth as she should be played - a woman who would sell out her own mother and to whom emotional and sexual manipulation are second nature. Bebe Daniels is also smokin’ hot and she’s incredibly sexy. Her superb performance is the single biggest edge that the ’31 version has over the ’41 version.

Then there’s Sam Spade. I’m not going to claim that Ricardo Cortez is a better actor than Bogart. He isn’t. But he is perfectly cast. He gives us a meaner, nastier, much sleazier Sam Spade. Bogart is the better actor, but Cortez made a better Sam Spade. Bogart was a great choice to play Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep but Sam Spade is not Philip Marlowe. Marlowe is a white knight in a corrupt world. He’s a hero. Sam Spade is no hero. He’s a crook and a grifter and a thug. Bogart is a fine actor but he doesn’t quite nail the character of Sam Spade. Ricardo Cortez nails it totally. Of course Bogart had the disadvantage of being constrained in his performance by the Production Code. Cortez had the freedom to play Spade as he should be played without having to pull his punches.

John Huston was certainly a great director but Roy Del Ruth was perfectly competent.

So which version is to be preferred? John Huston’s version is more polished and more stylish and it has Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet. These are major factors in its favour. On the other hand the 1931 Roy Del Ruth version has more moral corruption and a lot more sleaze which is much more in keeping with the spirit of the story, it has a more effective Sam Spade and in Bebe Daniels it has a much much better femme fatale. I guess I have a very slight preference for the 1931 version but both movies are very much worth seeing.

The 1931 The Maltese Falcon is very highly recommended.

Years ago Warner Brothers released a three-disc DVD set that included all three film adaptations. If you can find it, buy it.

Wednesday, December 7, 2022

The Far Country (1954)

The Far Country was the fourth of the five westerns directed by Anthony Mann and starring James Stewart. These movies, starting with Winchester ’73, established Mann as a director of A-features and totally revitalised Stewart’s career. These movies gave Stewart the chance to demonstrate that he could play much darker roles and play them very well indeed.

Within the first few minutes it’s obvious that Stewart has by now well and truly shed his Aw, shucks persona. He might turn out to be the hero but if so he’s going to be a very dark sort of hero.

Jeff Webster (James Stewart) arrives in Seattle in 1896 with a herd of cattle. That’s what he does for a living. He drives cattle. There was trouble on this last drive and now Jeff has a possible murder charge hanging over his head. He is almost arrested but a woman on whom he has never set eyes hides him in her cabin. The woman is Ronda Castle (Ruth Roman) and they immediately recognise each other as kindred spirits. They’re both cynical and they both believe in looking after Number One.

Jeff, Ronda and those steers are off to Alaska on a steamship. They arrive in Skagway in Alaska and we quickly find out that Skagway is not exactly a civilised community.

Skagway is run by Gannon (John McIntire). He seems to be judge, sheriff, mayor and public hangman all at the same time, as well as being the town’s leading businessman.

Jeff escapes the hangman’s noose. Gannon takes a liking to him. He thinks Jeff is his kind of man - a cynic who understands that might makes right. He figures that Jeff might eventually cause him problems in which case he’ll have to hang him but in the meantime he likes Jeff. While Gannon does acquit Jeff of murder he seizes his cattle.

Jeff needs a job and Ronda provides one. Ronda is the other big wheel in Skagway. She runs the local saloon, a very prosperous establishment which provides the kinds of entertainment that frontier men crave. This clearly includes whores although this being Hollywood in 1954 that part of her business is glossed over.

The job Ronda has in mind for Jeff is taking a supply train to Dawson, over the border in Canada. Jeff’s pals Ben (Walter Brennan) and Rube (Jay C. Flippen) will go with him.

Gold fever has struck Dawson. It infects everybody. Including Jeff. Fortunes can be made quickly and easily.

The lawlessness of the frontier has never been a major problem in Dawson. THere’s never been enough crime to worry about. But the gold has changed all that. When you add greed to lawlessness you’re certain to get robbery and murder and that’s what Dawson gets.

There is no law and order in this movie. There’s just power. In theory Gannon represents the law. Gannon has no interest in the law. In Skagway he is the law. He is the law because he is willing and able to use naked force to enforce his will. As far as Gannon is concerned whatever makes Gannon richer is lawful.

Jeff understands this. He is a realist. He believes those steers rightfully belong to him but he understands that his ownership does not depend on a piece of paper but on his willingness to use his gun to assert his ownership. Jeff takes it for granted that this is the way the world works and there’s no use complaining about it. If you’re strong enough and ruthless enough you’ll do OK. If you’re not, that’s your problem. Jeff doesn’t worry about other people’s problem. Insofar as he has any loyalties or human ties at all he’s fond of Ben and Rube.

This is the purest distillation of the Wild West (although in this case it’s the Wild North). The law doesn’t matter. Power matters. Power rests on force. If you own something and want to keep it you’d better be prepared to use your gun to defend it. This is rugged individualism taken to its logical conclusion. You worry about yourself and you let other worry about themselves.

If you’re a woman then you have to be as ruthless as Ronda. If that means manipulating men then that’s what you do.

Lying and cheating don’t matter unless you get caught and you’re not quick enough with a gun.

Of course Jeff will eventually have to decide whether he can simply ignore other people’s problems or whether he’ll have to start being a responsible member of a society. So this is a movie about the transition from frontier barbarism to civilisation. It’s not a dazzling central idea but it works here because Mann keeps us waiting so long for Jeff to make his choice, and it works because of James Stewart’s brilliantly edgy performance. Ruth Roman and John McIntire are excellent as well, plus the cinematography is impressive.

A great western. Highly recommended.

I’ve reviewed three other Anthony Mann-James Stewart westerns - The Naked Spur (1953), Winchester ’73 (1950) and The Man from Laramie (1955).

Saturday, December 3, 2022

No Man of Her Own (1932)

No Man of Her Own is a 1932 comedy/romance starring Clark Gable and Carole Lombard. I went through a major phase of enthusiasm for pre-code movies some years back but it’s quite while since I’ve watched any. I’m intending to revisit the scandalous and wicked pre-code era and since I happen to own a copy of this movieI figured this would be a good starting point. I saw this movie so long ago that I had forgotten everything about it.

The movie opens with a high stakes card game. Babe Stewart (Clark Gable) has had a lucky night. Except that the way Babe plays cards luck has nothing to do with it. Babe and his cronies are card sharks and they’ve just fleeced another victim.

One of Babe’s cronies is Kay Everly (Dorothy Mackaill). She’s Babe’s girlfriend. At least she thought she was. Babe has just given her the bad news that she’s now his ex-girlfriend. Kay makes a fuss. This amuses Babe. He thought she knew the score. It’s not as if he’d ever told her he loved her. Babe picks up women and discards them but he is as he says a straight shooter when it comes to women. If they’re smart girls they know what the deal is right from the start. But Kay takes it rather badly when she finds herself in Dump City.

A cop named Collins (J. Farrell MacDonald) is making things hot for Babe and his pals. Babe figures it might be wise to stay out of New York for a while. He hops on a train and ends up in Glendale.

Glendale is a sleepy little town. Nothing ever happens there. It’s not all bad though. Babe does meet the local librarian, Connie Randall (Carole Lombard). Connie is your typical prim librarian. At least she appears to be prim and proper. In fact Connie is thoroughly bored with being prim and proper and she’s thoroughly bored with Glendale. Babe makes some very obvious advances to her in the library. She gives him the brush-off. Actually Connie thinks Babe is the most exciting man she’s ever met and she wants him but she thinks that playing hard to get would be her best tactic.

The closest thing Glendale offers to excitement is the dance out at Lake Inspiration. The locals think it’s pretty wild. Young people go there and do wicked things, like dancing.

Babe doesn’t think the dance will offer too much excitement but Connie will be there so naturally he makes sure he’s there as well. He thinks Connie might provide quite a bit of excitement. She’s clearly a girl with a bit of a wild adventurous side to her. One thing leads to another and they end up - married. They came to that decision in a sensible adult way. They tossed a coin. Heads they sleep together, tails they get married. Tails came up. And Babe never goes against the toss of a coin. It’s one of his superstitions.

So now he has a wife. And he has a problem. You see he’s told her a few little white lies. Actually he’s told her a bunch of whopping great huge lies. For one thing he’s told her he has a job. Of course Babe has never worked a day in his life. Now he’s going to have to pretend that he really does have a job.

The card-sharping is still going well and Connie proves to be an asset. She has no idea that the card games are crooked but she does know how to be the perfect charming hostess and having a sexy blonde around helps in getting the sheep to submit to being fleeced.

Inevitably the day comes when Connie figures it all out. That makes Babe’s situation really complicated. Also, inevitably, Babe figures out that he’s a lot more fond of Connie than he thought he was. He really doesn’t want to lose her.

This movie came at an interesting point in the careers of both Gable and Lombard. They were fast-rising stars but not yet the really major stars they would soon become. In fact Lombard has to share second billing with Dorothy Mackaill. This is, curiously enough, the only movie Gable and Lombard made together. Gable and Lombard are both terrific and they really steam things up when they’re onscreen together.

Dorothy Mackaill was a moderately big star during the pre-code era, after which her career came to an almost complete standstill. This happened to a number of stars. They just couldn’t make the transition to the strait-laced Production Code era. Her pre-code movies are worth checking out and I reviewed several during my last bout of pre-code fever - The Reckless Hour (1931), the breezy and charming Bright Lights (a backstage musical with romance and murder made in 1930) and the outrageously sleazy but wonderful Safe in Hell (1931). It’s well worth checking out any pre-code movie with Dorothy Mackaill. She doesn’t have a big part in No Man of Her Own but what she does she does well.

This is a pre-code movie so you might be wondering if we’re going to see Carole Lombard in her underwear. Have no fears. This movie does indeed include the obligatory pre-code underwear scene.

Pre-code movies take a bit of adjusting to. It’s not just the racy dialogue, the scenes of girls in their underwear, the occasional glimpses of nudity. It’s not just the absence of overt moralising. The whole tone is different. But there’s more to it than that. They tend to be structurally different compared to Production Code era movies. The Production Code forced writers to adhere to very rigid formulas. Things had to be wrapped up neatly in the end in such a way as to leave the audience in no doubt that the virtuous always get rewarded and wrongdoers always get punished. In the pre-code era writers had a lot more narrative flexibility. As a result the narrative structures often seem a lot looser. And more unpredictable. The writers were not forced to be constantly underlining a moral message. They could attempt plot twists that would have been unthinkable after 1934 and they could leave room not just for moral ambiguity but narrative ambiguity.

There’s some of that in No Man of Her Own. The plot lacks the sense of inevitability that you get in Code era movies. And you genuinely have no idea what is going to happen to the characters. You can’t just assume that all the male wrongdoers will end up serving long prison terms and all the female wrongdoers will end up dead. Once you adjust to the totally different world of pre-code Hollywood it becomes rather exciting.

No Man of Her Own is a pretty good pre-code movie. Gable and Lombard are in top form. Babe is a loveable rogue. Connie is a good girl but she’s not boring about it and she doesn’t moralise. She’s fun. There’s plenty of entertainment value here. Highly recommended.

My copy of No Man of Her Own is an ancient DVD from the dawn of the DVD era and the transfer is passable. This movie is now available on DVD from Kino Lorber.