Wednesday, March 22, 2023

Sissi (1955)

Sissi, released in 1955 and directed by Ernst Marischka, was the most famous and most successful entry in the heimatfilm genre.

Sissi made sixteen-year-old Romy Schneider a major star. The male lead is Karlheinz Böhm, best-known to English-speaking audiences as the star of Michael Powell’s notorious Peeping Tom.

The heimatfilm (or homeland film) was an incredibly popular film genre in West Germany and Austria in the 1950s. It’s a genre that has for decades been despised by German film scholars and critics and it’s a genre that was passionately loathed by the intellectuals who supported the so-called New German Cinema that emerged in the 60s. To them it represented everything they hated about the German film industry of the 1950s.

Much of this loathing was simply intellectual snobbery. Intellectuals tend to be enraged by the kinds of movies that audiences actually enjoy. In the case of the heimatfilm there was also the fact that this was a genre aimed very much at a female audience. The condescension with which critics and film scholars regarded Hollywood “women’s pictures” was mirrored by a similar condescension in Germany towards movies such as the heimatfilm.

Heimatfilms were a mixture of romantic melodrama and comedy and were determinedly optimistic in tone. They were lavish productions with lots of location shooting in picturesque countryside and they looked gorgeous.

tells the story of the budding romance between Bavarian Duchess Elisabeth (known as Sissi) and the young Emperor of Austria, Franz Joseph. The movie turns the story into a kind of fairytale romance. In reality Sissi’s life (she was actually nicknamed Sisi rather than Sissi) was somewhat tragic and the marriage was a long way from a fairytale romance. But this is the world of the movies, in which real life plays no part.

As the movie opens Duchess Ludovika is hoping to marry her daughter Helene (known as Nene) to the handsome young Emperor Franz Joseph. But it is Nene’s high-spirited kid sister Sissi (Romy Schneider) who catches the emperor’s eye. It seems hopeless since the Emperor’s mother, the Archduchess Sophie, has decided he’s going to marry Nene. The young emperor usually does what his mother tells him to do, but this time things might be different. He has fallen head-over-heels in love with Sissi. He really is determined to marry her.

That’s about all there is to the plot. I’s just a matter of whether Franz Joseph can overcome the obstacles that his mother will put in his way.

His mother does not approve of Sissi, considering her to be uncouth, headstrong and rebellious. She is of course all of those things.

The story plays out like a fairy tale. A handsome emperor and a beautiful spirited princess in love, having to battle the emperor’s imperious and rather scary mother who is determined to thwart their romance and with the beautiful princess’s sister as her rival for the handsome emperor’s love. The settings look like they’re straight out of a fairy tale. The whole movie takes place in what is in effect a fairytale world. This is a gloriously frothy insanely romantic movie which makes no concessions whatsoever to historical accuracy or to the real world. And that’s its charm.

Karlheinz Böhm plays Francis Joseph as a perfect Prince Charming. Romy Schneider is charming and likeable.

Incidentally Sissi’s mother in the movie is played by Magda Schneider, who was Romy Schneider’s real-life mother.

There’s some comic relief from Josef Meinrad as Major Böckl, the bumbling chief of palace security, and from Gustav Knuth and Sissi’s father Duke Max, a bit of a bumpkin but rather wise in his own way. And the comic relief is genuinely amusing.

Had it been made in Hollywood this movie would have been shot in Technicolor but being Austrian it was shot in Agfacolor which has a softer slightly more pastel look which matches the tone of the movie perfectly. I have no idea what the budget was but this movie certainly looks lavish and expensive.

Umbrella in Australia have released this movie (and its two sequels plus a fourth movie which is a sort of prequel) in a four-disc DVD set. The films are in German with removable English subtitles. Sissi gets a pretty impressive transfer. It’s in the correct 1.37:1 aspect ratio. And the set is very inexpensive. The Sissi trilogy has also had a Blu-Ray release.

If you’re in the mood to indulge yourself in a lightweight feelgood fluffy romance with a fairytale vibe then this movie is just what you’re looking for. And it has Romy Schneider. Sissi is recommended.

Saturday, March 18, 2023

Age of Consent (1969)

Age of Consent was Michael Powell's last feature film. It was an Anglo-Australian co-production shot in Queensland. It was based on Norman Lindsay's 1938 novel of the same name.

It's a story of an artist and a girl who becomes his model and his muse.

This was Helen Mirren's film debut. Mirren and James Mason are superb. A quirky but gorgeous movie.

Here's the link to my full review.

Wednesday, March 15, 2023

The Beast of the City (1932)

The Beast of the City, released in 1932, was MGM’s attempt at the gangster movie genre. It’s based on a story by W. R. Burnett and was directed by Charles Brabin.

To say that Captain Jim Fitzpatrick (Walter Huston) is a hardboiled cop would be putting it mildly. He’s not just hardboiled, he’s impetuous and obsessive. And he’s obsessed with putting big-time mobster Sam Belmonte (Jean Hersholt) behind bars. Fitzpatrick is honest but he’s prepared to stretch the rules a little to get results.

His attempts to nail Belmonte for the murder of four bootleggers backfire, and Fitzpatrick finds himself transferred to the quietest precinct the Chief of Police can find, where he can’t get himself into hot water.

His brother Ed Fitzpatrick (Wallace Ford) is a cop as well.

Hoping to find even a shred of evidence to use against Belmonte Jim Fitzpatrick has a bunch of blondes brought in for questioning. He hopes that a witness can ID Daisy Stevens (Jean Harlow) for her part in a robbery. Daisy is pretty hardboiled as well and she knows how to handle cops.

Perhaps not altogether wisely Ed Fitzpatrick pays a visit to Daisy’s home. He falls for her considerable and very obvious charms. Given that this is Jean Harlow it would be difficult for any man to resist those charms. Seducing Ed is child’s play.

Jim Fitzpatrick hits the headlines after foiling a bank robbery and the moral reformers push for him to be made Chief of Police. His job is to clean up the town. People are having fun and someone has to put a stop to that.

Ed had hoped that with his brother now Chief of Police he’d get an immediate promotion. It doesn’t happen. Ed is bitter about this and he finds that maintaining a mistress like Daisy is an expensive proposition. He gets drawn into the rackets. In a small way at first, and then in a big way. He tips off Belmonte’s chief henchman about a shipment of bank money. The heist goes badly wrong. Ed ends up facing a murder charge. Jim Fitzpatrick is keen to see his brother go to the electric chair. Jim is not a forgiving kind of guy.

It all leads up to a finale that is one of the most extraordinary you’ll see in any gangster movie. Jim has a plan to nail Belmonte. It’s breathtakingly ruthless. Jim will use any methods, any methods at all, to get the result he wants.

Wallace Ford is very good as Ed Fitzpatrick but it’s Walter Huston and Jean Harlow who take centre stage. Huston manages to be incredibly intense without resorting to any histrionics. In the same year he played a very similar role as an obsessed lawman in the superb western Law and Order, a movie which has strong thematic affinities with this one.

Harlow is delightful. She does the full-blown sexy bad girl thing and, unconstrained by the Production Code, she sizzles.

There’s some classic pre-code dialogue. Ed grabs Daisy’s arms. She tells him he’s hurting her. He says she doesn’t like being hurt. She replies that sometimes it’s kinda fun, if it’s done in the right spirit.

This is an extremely violent brutal movie but it’s intelligent and provocative as well. Is Sam Belmonte the beast of the city, or is it Jim Fitzpatrick? Jim is entirely humourless and he’s utterly convinced that he is right. He has convinced himself that any methods can be justified, no matter how brutal. It never occurs to him that he may have become an inhuman monster.

Not surprisingly MGM were horrified by this movie when they saw it and made sure it disappeared into obscurity. One of the many things that frightened MGM was the implication that mobsters and the police can end up being almost indistinguishable, and that good men who believe themselves to be right can be horribly dangerous.

This movie is available on DVD in the Warner Archive series, with a very good transfer.

The Beast of the City is one of the most interesting of pre-code gangster films. Had it been made by Warner Brothers it might have been a major hit but MGM was the wrong studio for it. Very highly recommended.

Friday, March 10, 2023

North West Mounted Police (1940)

North West Mounted Police is a 1940 Cecil B. DeMille western, although whether it’s really a western can be debated.

The setting is Canada, in 1885. For a couple of centuries the Métis have lived in the Canadian Northwest and they’ve been more or less left alone to live their lives as they choose. The Métis are a mixture of European and Indian. They’re trappers and they’re not interested in the benefits of civilisation. Until the late 19th century they were scarcely aware of being part of Canada. Suddenly they’ve become very much aware of it, and they want no part of being Canadian. They rebelled in 1869 and they’re ready to rebel again.

Keeping order in this territory is the job of a detachment of Canada’s North West Mounted Police, about fifty men.

Inspector Cabot would like to avoid trouble. He doesn’t have enough men to put down a full-scale rebellion. The real worry is that the local tribes, the Cree and the Blackfoot, may join the rebellion.

There are romantic dramas going on in the isolated fort as well. Sergeant Brett (Preston Foster) wants to marry Anglican Mission nurse April Logan (Madeleine Carroll). She’s not sure if she wants to marry him. April’s brother Constable Ronnie Logan (Robert Preston) is in love with a beautiful Métis girl, Louvette Corbeau (Paulette Goddard).

These romantic dramas will become significant when Dusty Rivers (Gary Copper) suddenly arrives on the scene. Dusty is a Texas Ranger. He’s a long way from Texas but he’s on the trail of man wanted for murder in Texas, a man named Jacques Corbeau (George Bancroft). That man is Louvette’s brother. And Dusty takes quite a shine to April Logan. She finds the lanky Texas Ranger pretty attractive. Sergeant Brett is not happy. Not happy at all.

To make things really explosive, the rebels have managed to get hold of a Gatling Gun. Fifty North West Mounted Police troopers won’t have much chance against that.

Sergeant Brett sets off on a solo mission to try to persuade the local Cree chief to remain loyal to the Canadian Government. Dusty Rivers sets off to find Jacques Corbeau. Since he can’t make an arrest on Canadian territory he is accompanied by a North West Mounted Police guide, a Scotsman named McDuff (Lynne Overman).

The already complicated plot gets more complicated. There’s treachery, there’s cowardice, there’s thwarted love, there’s jealousy. The rebels set an elaborate trap for the North West Mounted Police.

And there’s spectacle. This is a DeMille movie so it’s not a case of spectacle at the expense of content. The spectacle is the content.

This was DeMille’s first movie in Technicolor.

DeMille has never received much appreciation in his own country. The French regard him as a major auteur which baffles some American critics. DeMille seemed to have no interest in the currently fashionable approaches to movie-making. He had his own approach and if people thought it was old-fashioned he didn’t care. He figured the public would like the movies he made, and they did. North West Mounted Police did extremely well at the box office. DeMille wasn’t interested in naturalism or realism. He liked melodrama. He didn’t care if his movies seemed artificial, as long as they looked good.

In many ways this movie has more in common with movies about British colonial wars, movies like Gunga Din and King of the Khyber Rifles, than with westerns. It’s not really a western at all. This is a grand adventure movie.

Gary Cooper is good. Most of the players are good, with Paulette Godard chewing the scenery in fine style.

The ending is rather unexpected and it works.

Umbrella Entertainment in Australia have released this movie in their inexpensive but excellent Six Shooter Classics series.

Like most of DeMille’s movies this one is misunderstood. DeMille didn’t make movies the way modern critics and reviewers think movies should be made. Personally I like DeMille’s way of making movies. Recommended.

Wednesday, March 8, 2023

Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960)

Peeping Tom is perhaps most famous as the movie that wrecked Michael Powell’s career as a director. British critics tore the movie to shreds and made Powell a pariah. 

It was released in the same years as Hitchcock's Psycho. There are similarities between the two movies but the differences are profound, and extremely interesting

Peeping Tom is actually the more interesting movie.

My full review can be found at Cult Movie Reviews.

Sunday, March 5, 2023

To the Last Man (1933)

To the Last Man is a 1933 Randolph Scott western. I love his 1950s westerns but this is the first 1930s Randolph Scott western I’ve seen. It’s based on a Zane Grey story.

The subject is feuding. The civil war has just ended. Mark Hayden (Egon Brecher) is returning to his home in Kentucky but he has no intention of staying there. He’s tired of killing and he wants nothing to do with the Hayden-Colby feud that has gone on for generations. He’s going to move his family west.

At this precise moment yet another killing in the Hayden-Colby feud occurs. Jed Colby (Noah Beery) kills grandpappy Spelvin. The Haydens naturally expect Mark to go gunning for Jed Colby. Instead, much to the horror of the entire community, Mark goes to the police. Jed Colby gets a fifteen year prison sentence. Jed Coby is enraged. It ain’t honourable. You don’t involve the police in a family feud. Most of the Haydens agree.

This makes Mark more determined to leave Kentucky. He takes his two youngest children ands heads for Nevada. His oldest son, Lynn, has to stay behind to look after Grandma Spelvin.

Fifteen years later Mark Hayden has a thriving ranch in Nevada. But there’s no escaping the old feud. Jed Colby, now released from prison, moves to Nevada as well, determined to carry on the feud. Jed takes his daughter Ellen (Esther Ralston) with him.

Jed conducts a war of nerves against Mark Hayden. He steals his cattle. He’s hoping that Mark will come gunning for him.

Tensions are rising and trouble seems unavoidable when Lynn Hayden (Randolph Scott) arrives in Nevada.

On his way to his father’s ranch Lynn encounters Ellen Colby. He doesn’t know she’s a Colby and she doesn’t know he’s a Hayden. There’s an obvious immediate attraction between them.

Ellen Colby is a wild girl. She figures she’s as tough as any man. She’s not exactly ladylike and she’s a bit shocked when Lynn calls her a lady. Shocked, but she likes it.

She thinks that maybe she’d like to be a lady. She asks one of the ranch hands about it. He tells her all about his mother, who was a great lady. It’s an amusing scene because it’s obvious that he was raised in a whorehouse and that his mother was a high-class whore. This is a pre-code western.

The fact that it’s a pre-code western also explains the nude scene. It’s a fairly tame nude scene but it’s more daring than anything you’d see in the 40s and 50s.

Jed Colby has acquired a partner, Jim Daggs (Jack La Rue). He’s a nasty piece of work and he has his own agenda. He wants to marry Ellen Colby but she wants nothing to do with him.

Colby keeps pushing Haydon, hoping for a final showdown in which he can wipe out the Haydens.

The romance between Lynn Hayden and Ellen Colby doesn’t progress smoothly. She knows she’s in love with him but he’s a Hayden. She can’t get past that.

The violence keeps escalating. And escalating. If you like action scenes there are plenty of them. There’s a very high body count.

Randolph Scott is pretty good. Noah Beery is nicely obsessed as Jed Colby. Jack La Rue plays Jim Daggs like a melodrama villain. I kept expecting him to start twirling his moustache. It’s not a good performance but it’s fun. Buster Crabbe plays Lynn’s younger brother Bill. I liked Esther Ralston as Ellen - she captures her wildness and her gradual discovery of her femininity extremely well. Look out for an uncredited Shirley Temple in a bit part.

This movie was directed by Henry Hathaway, a man who would go on to prove that he knew how to make westerns.

The Reel Vault DVD is terrible but there aren’t many options if you want to see this movie. Pre-code westerns don’t seem to be regarded as worthy of restoration and decent DVD/Blu-Ray releases. If only someone could figure out how to promote these movies as film noir we’d suddenly get special edition Blu-Rays.

This is a very dark grim movie. This is a revenge western with multiple layers of revenge. There’s an air of hopelessness about it. These people just won’t stop killing each other.

To the Last Man
is a grown-up western and not being overly constrained by the Production code helps. Nobody in this movie worries about making gunfights fair. If you see an enemy, shoot him in the back. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, March 1, 2023

Lonely Wives (1931)

Lonely Wives, released by RKO in 1931, is a pre-code comedy that is pure bedroom farce.

Richard Smith (Edward Everett Horton) is a prominent lawyer. He’s a respectable member of the community. He’s a faithful husband and he doesn’t drink. At least he’s respectable until eight o’clock every night. Then he suddenly changes. He becomes a playboy. He chases skirt and he drinks and haunts speakeasies. His mother-in-law Mrs Mantel (Maude Eburne) keeps a very close watch on him.

Richard’s wife Madeleine (Esther Ralston) is out of town at the moment. That means that Mrs Mantel will have to watch him very closely indeed.

Richard has just employed a new secretary, Minty (Patsy Ruth Miller). He notices that she wiggles when she walks. He forbids her to wiggle. Of course once the clock reaches eight o’clock he decides he likes her wiggling very much indeed.

Minty’s friend Diane O’Dare (Laura La Plante) is an actress in need of a divorce. Minty assures her that Richard will arrange it.

Richard arranges dates with both Minty and Diane. Getting out of the house without Mrs Mantel’s knowledge will be a challenge.

Then he has a stroke of luck. He has a new client, a Mr Zero (also played by Edward Everett Horton). Mr Zero makes his living in vaudeville, doing impersonations of famous men. Richard will take Mr Zero’s case for nothing, if Mr Zero does him a little favour. All he has to do is pretend to be Richard for the evening. Then Richard can keep his dates while Mrs Mantel will think he’s been home all evening.

What he doesn’t know is that Mr Zero is Diane’s husband. And Mr Zero has no idea that while he’s masquerading as Richard, Richard will be on a date with Zero’s wife.

From this point you can pretty much predict everything that happens.

Lonely Wives has one huge problem - Maude Eburne. She’s excruciatingly awful and incredibly irritating.

On the other hand Esther Ralston, Patsy Ruth Miller and Laura La Plante give bright breezy sexy performances. Spencer Charters as Andrews, the drunken butler, overdoes things at times but he’s OK.

And the movie has Edward Everett Horton. He’s in sparkling form. He’s an absolute delight.

The script is genuinely funny. There’s nothing original about any of the situations, they’re stock-standard bedroom farce stuff, but the dialogue zings and with people like Edward Everett Horton to deliver that dialogue there are plenty of laughs. And there’s no shortage of sexual innuendo.

Russell Mack’s career as a director came to an abrupt halt in 1934. I have no idea why. He lived for another forty years. It’s impossible to make a fair judgment on his directing ability based on this film because the staginess is so deliberate. He does at least keep things moving along, and for this sort of material that’s enough.

Lonely Wives
is included in a five-movie RKO pre-code DVD boxed set from Manga Films. It’s a Spanish release but all five movies are in English. There are optional Spanish subtitles but they’re removable so there are no issues there. The transfer of Lonely Wives is perfectly acceptable. This boxed set is definitely worth checking out if you’re a pre-code fan.

Whether you like this movie or not will depend a great deal on how you respond to bedroom farces. This is a pretty good example of the genre, with a witty and reasonably naughty script by Walter DeLeon (based on a play by A.H. Woods. It’s a pre-code movie so there’s plenty of spicy dialogue. Bedroom farces tend to be very stagey. That’s almost unavoidable. Lonely Wives is definitely stagey but it still manages to be lively. If you do enjoy farce then it's highly recommended. A must-see for Edward Everett Horton fans.

Sunday, February 26, 2023

Hangman’s Knot (1952)

Hangman’s Knot is a 1952 western and it stars Randolph Scott, always an enticing prospect. It was written and directed by Roy Huggins who would later have an impressive career in television, being involved in classic series such as Maverick and The Rockford Files.

It starts with a gang led by Randolph Scott carrying out a daring robbery. Their target is a wagon carrying a gold shipment. The wagon has a military escort. The robbery is successful. The soldiers escorting the wagon are all killed.

But things are not what they appear to be. The robbery wasn’t carried out by bandits but by Confederate soldiers undertaking a daring mission. Randolph Scot’s characters isn’t an outlaw, he’s a major in the Confederate Army. The problem is that when they carried out the attack on the gold wagon the war had been over for a month, but they didn’t know that.

Now they’re in a tricky situation. Nobody is going to believe them if they say they were just doing their duty as soldiers and didn’t know the war was over. They’re going to be hunted down as outlaws. And that’s what happens. There are posses out everywhere searching for them. They can expect to be hanged.

They do have the gold. The question is what to do with that gold. They didn’t steal it. They were acting under military orders. As far as they’re concerned they’re not thieves. But since they have the gold it might be better to keep it. If they ride into the nearest Union Army post to return the gold they’ll certainly be hanged. The Major isn’t sure that they’re justified in keeping the gold for themselves but (quite apart from the practical difficulties involved) he doesn’t relish the idea of handing it over to the Union Army. For the time being they’ll hold onto it.

One of the posses catches up to them. The Major and his comrades are holed up in a stagecoach way station. It’s a standoff. There are too many in the posse for there to be a chance of breaking out. On the other hand there aren’t enough men in the posse to have a chance of storming the way station. It’s an interesting balance.

And the Major has made sure that the men in the posse know about the gold. He figures it might be useful if those deputies are thinking more about gold than about catching outlaws.

As the Major expected the members of the posse are soon consumed by gold fever. That breeds dissension but it still doesn’t necessarily give the Major and his men the chance to escape.

Tension builds within the way station as well. The Major had commandeered a stagecoach, with two passengers. A man and a woman. And there’s the old guy in charge of the way station, and his daughter. There’s no way of knowing how difficult these people might become.

There’s also simmering tension between the Major and his second-in-command, played by Lee Marvin. It’s fuelled by longstanding resentment and by gold and by that woman passenger, who happens to be young and pretty.

So there’s dissension on both sides.

This movie begins with stirring action scenes and it ends the same way. Huggins handles the action pretty well. He handles the psychological stresses equally well.

Randolph Scott gives his usual reliable performance, with just a touch of moral ambiguity. He and his men didn’t steal that gold as such but the Major does intend to keep it. Lee Marvin gives a trademark entertainingly psychotic performance. Donna Reed is a fine heroine. The supporting cast is strong.

Umbrella Entertainment have released this movie on DVD in Region 4 in their excellent (and good value) Six Shooter Classics series. It gets a good transfer. It’s fullframe, which is the correct aspect ratio.

Hangman’s Knot is a fine little western. There’s enough action to satisfy any reasonable person but there’s a bit more to it than that. Highly recommended.

Thursday, February 23, 2023

Baby Face (1933)

Baby Face, released in 1933, is one of the most notorious of all pre-code movies. Barbara Stanwyck stars as a girl who sleeps her way to the top. A girl who becomes known as Baby Face.

Lily Powers (Stanwyck) grows up in a small hick town. Her father runs a bar and he distils bootleg liquor. He also pimps out his daughter. He does this once too often and she decides to leave. When the still blows up he doesn’t have much choice.

There’s an old guy in the town who had befriended her. He’s into German philosophy and he sees potential in this girl. She could be a success if only she could learn to be a bit more focused, and learn to crush every trace of sentiment in her makeup.

Becoming focused and stamping out sentiment is something that Lily learns very quickly.

She arrives in New York with four dollars in her purse. What she needs is a job. The biggest building she can see is the Gotham Bank building. There should be lots of opportunities there for a smart girl.

Landing a job is easy. When there’s a man in charge of handing out jobs Lily will never lack for work. She’s asked if she has any experience. She replies that she has plenty.

The first job isn’t much but Lily knows how to move on to better positions. If you want a better job, find a more powerful man who can get it for you. Lily goes through lots of jobs at the bank, and lots of men. Eventually the bank president, Mr Carter, gets her the kind of job she likes, one where she doesn’t actually have to show up at the office. She can just laze around in her luxury apartment, admiring her furs and jewellery, while waiting for Mr Carter to find some time when he can get away from his wife.

Lily has reached one of her goals but there are complications. Some men just don’t understand when they’re not needed any more and keep turning up on the doorstep like lost puppies. Men like Mr Stevens. Men like that tend to do silly tiresome things that make life difficult for a girl.

Lily’s life gets very complicated. Now she has to deal with Courtland Trenholm George Brent). He runs the bank. Lily has never had any trouble managing men but Mr Trenholm is quite a challenge. He’s as smart as she is. In other ways he seems to be just like all the other men she’s known. That pleases her, since she knows how to handle such men. But it also vaguely disappoints her.

And her life is about to get complicated again.

The version of this movie that I saw was the prerelease print which is the movie as it was originally made. The 1933 theatrical release was censored. After 1934 the movie was of course banned. The prerelease version makes it crystal clear that Lily offers sex in exchange for advancement and presents. She’s not leading the men to believe that maybe she’ll sleep with them. It’s very obvious that she does sleep with them.

Society’s self-appointed moral guardians were outraged by this movie. They saw Lily as being essentially a high-class whore. Which is pretty much what she is. Of course if she’d stayed in her home town she would still have been a whore, but she’d have been a cheap whore. Moving to New York allows her to become a very expensive whore. Those are the only two options that life has to offer her.

Even more outrage was caused by Lily’s lack of shame or remorse. She’s a realist. And the men know the score. She’s offering them sex in exchange for advancement and money and they’re offering her advancement and money in exchange for sex. As far as Lily is aware that’s just how the world works. She’s unsentimental and ruthless but she doesn’t treat men any worse than they’ve always treated her. The moral watchdogs were not happy about seeing such a brutally realistic view of life being portrayed and they certainly weren’t happy about the suggestion that rich, powerful respectable men participate in such transactions.

A further level of outrage was added by the fact that several of the men with whom Lily gets involved are married men.

Barbara Stanwyck is extraordinarily good. And very sexy. While we might not entirely approve of Lily we can’t help liking her. George Brent is also very good.

This movie is one of three pre-code gems included in the TCM Archives Forbidden Hollywood two-disc DVD set which I bought recently. Both discs were faulty and Baby Face is the only one of the three movies I managed to get to play, and even then only with difficulty. Of course I may have been unlucky to get a faulty set. Baby Face gets a very nice transfer and the fact that it’s the uncut version is a major bonus.

Baby Face is a must-see for pre-code fans and for Barbara Stanwyck fans. In fact it’s a must-see movie for any classic movie fan. This is pre-code Hollywood at it’s most brutally honest. Very highly recommended.

Saturday, February 18, 2023

3:10 to Yuma (1957)

3:10 to Yuma is a 1957 Delmer Daves-directed western which, perhaps surprisingly for its time period, is not shot in colour or in the Cinemascope ratio. It still manages to look glorious. This is one of Hollywood’s many 1950s attempts to make grown-up westerns and it’s one of the most successful.

It starts with a stagecoach robbery. A real western cliché but don’t panic, this movie becomes steadily less clichéd and more intriguing as it progresses.

The robbery is carried out by the gang led by the notorious Ben Wade (Glenn Ford). The stagecoach driver is killed by Wade although it’s not quite a killing in cold blood.

The robbery is witnessed by farmer Dan Evans (Van Heflin) and his two sons. Dan makes no attempt to interfere. This is a totally sensible decision. Against twelve armed men all he could succeed in doing is to get himself, and possibly his sons, killed. His sons are a bit disappointed by their father’s lack of heroism and later we get the feeling that maybe his wife Alice (Leora Dane) feels a bit that way herself. And maybe Dan does too.

But this is a western that will try to avoid clichés. Dan is not a coward who has to redeem himself for his cowardice. He does have to redeem himself, but not for cowardice. There’s more a sense that he hasn’t been a great success in life, the farm is struggling and he hasn’t been able to provide for his wife and children the way he feels that a man should.

Capturing Ben Wade proves to be surprisingly easy. Holding on to him will be the problem. He’s been captured lots of times. His gang always busts him loose. Nobody has ever been able to hold him.

The sheriff has a plan. The essence of it is to make sure Wade’s gang doesn’t know where he’s being held, and then to get him on the 3.10 train to Yuma. Yuma should be able to hold him.

The sheriff needs a couple of volunteers to carry out the plan. Nobody is keen to volunteer, except the town drunk Alex Potter. The sheriff doesn’t want him but Alex swears he won’t drink until Wade is on that train. The sheriff wants Dan Evans to volunteer. Dan isn’t interested. He has a wife and kids. Then Mr. Butterfield (Robert Emhardt), the owner of the stagecoach line, offers Dan $200 to do the job. Dan can’t refuse. There’s a drought and his cattle need water and he desperately needs the money to buy water for them.

Dan and Alex only need to keep Wade under wraps until 3.10 the next day. The sheriff is a clever man and his plan is a good one, but Wade and his gang are clever men as well. Maybe cleverer than the sheriff.

Dan is holding Wade in a hotel room in Contention City, waiting for that train. And now the tension starts to build. Wade offers Dan a lot of money to allow him to escape. Ten thousand dollars would tempt any man. Ten thousand dollars would solve all Dan’s problems and allow him to provide a secure future for his wife and sons. And while Wade tempts Dan, the sheriff’s plan starts to fall apart. Wade’s gang is on the way.

One of the best things about this movie is that every single character is initially set up as a stock western character. We know exactly how they will behave. But they don’t behave that way. They behave like real people. They surprise us by defying our expectations but their behaviour always makes sense. Their motivations are realistic. What’s really great is that this doesn’t just apply to the two main characters, Dan and Ben Wade, it applies to every character in the movie.Even the most minor characters.

This is a movie about people who have to make choices and those choices are not simplistic choices between good and evil. There’s also no simple dividing line between heroism and cowardice. Playing the hero is fine but if you have a wife and children dependent on you then heroism can be foolish and irresponsible. Sometimes it takes more moral courage to put your family first and forego the heroics.

The supporting cast includes two of my favourite character actors, Henry Jones and Robert Emhardt, and they both get to play characters who turn out to be rather complex.

Ben Wade is definitely the bad guy and he’s a killer. But he’s also not a stock western villain. He’s not quite an outlaw with a code of ethics but there are some things he just can’t do because he’s not made that way. Early on, when Dan and his sons witness the stagecoach robbery, the obvious, simple, easy, safe thing to do would be to kill them. This never even occurs to Wade. It would be a lowdown mean thing to do. Ben Wade isn’t a good man but he’s not lowdown and mean. He does take their horses, but he makes sure the horses are returned to them. Again, stealing horses from a struggling farmer would be lowdown and mean. For Wade killing is sometimes an unavoidable necessity, and he feels no regrets or remorse, but he gets no pleasure from killing. When he’s captured he’s prepared to kill in order to escape, but he’d prefer to escape without killing anyone.

Glenn Ford’s low-key acting approach contrasts perfectly with Van Heflin’s emotional angst-ridden performance. Different acting styles, but equally effective.

The worst thing about the Production Code was that it pretty much demanded predictable endings. Ten minutes into a movie you generally know how it will end, because the Production Code only allows for one ending, with good triumphant, the bad guy punished and the bad girl dead. But 3:10 to Yuma manages to come up with a genuinely unexpected ending which still manages to stay within the letter of the Code. Not everyone likes the ending, but at least it’s not the ending that genre expectations lead us to expect.

This is a movie that looks superb. Daves has been criticised for his love of crane shots but personally I have no problems with directors who try to make every scene visually interesting. Daves has put some thought into every shot composition. The black-and-white cinematography by Charles Lawton Jr is just right. This is a dry harsh country caught in the grip of drought. The starkness of black-and-white conveys that in a way that colour could not have done.

The movie was based on an Elmore Leonard short story. Leonard liked the movie, but hated the 2007 remake.

3:10 to Yuma is one of the great westerns. Very highly recommended.

Thursday, February 16, 2023

Millie (1931)

Millie is a 1931 RKO pre-code romantic melodrama with a fair leavening of wit and humour in the early stages. It covers seventeen years in a woman’s life.

Millie (Helen Twelvetrees) is a small town girl. She marries Jack Maitland because he seems like a nice guy, he has good prospects and she’s in love with him. They set off for the bright lights of New York.

Three years later the marriage is looking a bit rocky. They have a daughter, Connie. Millie is bored and lonely and she wonders if Jack still loves her. He just doesn’t seem very affectionate any more. He doesn’t even seem to want to kiss her.

Millie gets a call from an old friend she grew up with, Angie (Joan Blondell). Angie lives with her friend Helen (Lilyan Tashman). The three meet up for drinks at a ritzy bar and there Millie spots her husband Jack. Jack is with a cheap blonde. That’s it for Millie. She gets a divorce.

Millie decides she’ll have to get a job. Angie is deeply shocked. Getting a job is something she herself has never even contemplated. As long as there are men in the world why would a girl want to work?

In theory Angie and Helen are chorus girls. Judging by the expensive fashionable clothes they wear we assume they have other sources of income.

Millie gets a job at the cigar counter in a hotel. She meets reporter Tommy Rock (Robert Ames) and falls for him. Tommy wants to marry her but Millie has decided that she3’s tried marriage and it didn’t work. She wants her independence. She’s also being romanced by smooth-talking middle-aged playboy Jimmy Damier (John Halliday).

The movie keeps jumping forward, a few years at a time. Millie is doing well at her job and she’s been promoted.

Things are a bit rocky for her on the romance front. It doesn’t work out with Tommy. She gets involved with Jimmy, and with other men.

Jumping forward a few years later and Millie is still independent, she still has lots of men friends and her daughter Connie is now sixteen. And Connie is a worry. She’s a nice kid but naïve and vulnerable and she gets into a tricky situation with a man, Millie gets involved, there’s a gun involved and it ends in court. Which brings us to a big melodramatic finale.

This is the only Helen Twelvetrees movie I’ve ever seen. She’s vivacious and charming. She was fairly successful in the pre-code era but after that her career faded quickly. She died of a drug overdose at the age of 49.

Lilyan Tashman’s life was even more tragic. Three years after making Millie she was dead. She’s great fun in Millie.

Joan Blondell is of course wonderful. Early on she gets lots of racy dialogue and no-one could deliver risqué lines they way Joan Blondell could. She was never quite a top-rank star but she was able to sustain a successful acting career for half a century. She is never less than delightful in her pre-code movies.

This is definitely a very pre-code movie. Women don’t necessarily get punished for having sex, even if they’re not married. Millie is obviously living with Tommy out of wedlock for several years. She is obviously sleeping with Jimmy. She is obviously sleeping with plenty of other men. But all this is just taken for granted.

There are those who will try to tell you that Angie and Helen are lesbians. That’s wishful thinking. There is zero evidence in the movie to support this theory, and plenty of evidence to the contrary. There's also no evidence that Angie and Helen are prostitutes, although they have no objections to being kept by men.

This is definitely a movie that is critical of the rigidity of traditional sexual morality. Like a lot of pre-code movies it’s not necessarily arguing for the abandonment of traditional morality, but rather for that morality to be loosened up considerably and leavened with some humanity and flexibility. It treats sex as a normal part of life, even for unmarried women.

Millie is one of five pre-code movies in Kino Lorber’s RKO Classic Romances set, released on both DVD and Blu-Ray.

Millie is a fine example of the pre-code melodrama. Highly recommended.

Monday, February 13, 2023

Male and Female (1919)

Male and Female is a 1919 Cecil B. DeMille comedy/melodrama and it’s the movie that made twenty-year-old Gloria Swanson a major star.

This is a DeMille comedy so don’t expect any slapstick. DeMille’s silent comedies were witty and sophisticated comedies of manners. The movie was based on J.M. Barrie’s 1902 hit play The Admirable Crichton.

The story concerns an aristocratic family shipwrecked on a remote island in the South Seas. They soon discover that their survival depends on the butler, Crichton. He’s the only one who understands what they will need to do in order to survive. It’s obviously a satire on class relations.

The early scenes in the palatial home of Lord Loam (Theodore Roberts) set up some of the key relationships and conflicts.

Crichton (Thomas Meighan) is the butler. He’s a very efficient butler and the household runs smoothly. Of course to the family he’s a mere servant. A valuable servant, but still just a servant.

Tweeny, the scullery maid (played by the amazingly cute eighteen-year-old Lila Lee), is hopelessly in love with Crichton. Crichton isn’t interested. He’s fallen madly in love with Lord Loam’s spoilt but beautiful daughter Lady Mary (Gloria Swanson). It’s hopeless of course. Aristocratic ladies do not marry servants. Actually one of Lady Mary’s friends did marry her chauffeur. Lady Mary was horrified. She would never consider doing anything so outrageous.

Everything changes when the family sets off in a yacht for a cruise in the South Seas. The yacht is shipwrecked. The island does not appear on any charts. This is 1919. There weren’t going to be any aerial searches. They could be stuck on the island for years.

The members of the aristocratic family naturally assume that they will be able to lie about on the beach while Crichton and Tweeny fix breakfast for them and do all those menial tasks that servants are supposed to carry out. Crichton has other ideas. He realises that if they’re going to survive they will all have to pitch in and work. This causes outrage. Lady Mary is aghast. But they don’t have much choice. It’s immediately apparent that Crichton is the only one who has a clue what he’s doing and it’s equally obvious that he is a natural leader. He simply takes charge.

Pretty soon Crichton is more or less king of the tiny island. Lady Mary’s feelings towards him have changed radically. She wants to be his willing slave. He’s so strong and wise and decisive. And so manly.

In Lady Mary and Tweeny both want to be Crichton’s slave. It has to be said that Crichton rather enjoys having two beautiful women competing for his attentions.

The ending is not the typical Hollywood ending you’ll be expecting.

Like a number of other DeMille silent movies this one includes an historical dream/fantasy sequence. DeMille loved these scenes and they gave him an early opportunity to display his skill at creating an atmosphere of decadence which he could use as a counterpoint to the decadence of the modern world. And an opportunity to show his mastery of historical spectacle. In this case the fantasy starts out being Crichton’s fantasy, with himself as a Babylonian king and Lady Mary as his slave. Crichton likes this fantasy. It excites Lady Mary a good deal as well.

The shipwreck scene provides DeMille with another opportunity to offer spectacle. DeMille set high standards for himself and for those who worked for him. If the movie was going to include a shipwreck scene it would be a shipwreck scene that would knock the audience’s socks off. And it does. It’s not just impressive by the standards of 1919. It’s impressive by the standards of today.

Gloria Swanson was an ideal star from DeMille’s point of view. She wasn’t given to the exaggerated performances that we often associate with silent film stars. She looked fabulous in the fashions of 1919. She looked fabulous in the ancient Babylonian costumes. And she looked great dressed as a kind of amazon huntress, a guise in which she also appears in this movie. She was sexy and glamorous.

Some of the DVD releases of this movie have been savagely cut. The copy I have is an Italian DVD which includes the full original cut 115-minute cut in two versions, one with the title cards in English and the other with the title cards in Italian. The transfer is acceptable.

If you think of slapstick when someone mentions silent comedies you’ll be pleasantly surprised by this one. It’s sophisticated comedy, and it’s also a fine romantic melodrama and an effective satire. And it’s a DeMille movie so it’s always visually interesting. When I saw this movie for the first time some years back it changed the way I think about silent cinema. Very highly recommended.