Sunday, January 29, 2023

Panther Girl of the Kongo (1955)

Panther Girl of the Kongo was the second last serial made by Republic Pictures. Republic always made terrific serials so it will be interesting to see how this late entry stacks up.

It’s a jungle girl adventure so that’s a good start. And it features giant bugs. Not what you expect in a Republic jungle adventure serial but this was 1955 and giant bugs were all the rage.

Jean Evans is a photographer in the jungles of the Congo. She is known as the Panther Girl, after an encounter with a killer panther. She swings from tree to tree and rides an elephant but oddly enough we don’t really get an explanation as to how she became a jungle girl. And she certainly doesn’t seem like a woman brought up in the jungle.

This was 1955 and audiences were getting a bit sensitive about hunting so Jean does all her shooting with a camera.

She gets some film footage of something very strange - a crawfish wandering about the jungle. A very very large crawfish. It’s the size of a lion.

Jean enlists the help of Larry, a formidable hunter and an old Africa hand.

As well as giant bugs there is of course a guy in a gorilla suit.

Those giant bugs are not a product of nature but why would anyone want to create gigantic crawfish in the middle of Africa? It turns out that the bugs are part of a plan to frighten off the natives. A mad scientist named Morgan has discovered diamonds but he can’t mine them unless he can persuade the local tribe, the Utangas, to leave the area.

The scientist has two goons working for him, Cass and Rand. The claw monsters should frighten off the Utangas but Cass and Rand now have the job of frightening off Jean and Larry. That will require a different approach. Morgan doesn’t want Jean and Larry killed but if that proves to be necessary it doesn’t worry him too much.

Most episodes are taken up by various attempts by Rand and Cass to get Jean and Larry out of the way. Jean and Larry slowly (very slowly) piece the puzzle together and discover what Morgan is up to.

If you compare Panther Girl of the Kongo to an earlier top-notch Republic jungle girl serial like Jungle Girl or Perils of Nyoko it’s obvious that there’s been a bit of a decline in quality. Of course many of those earlier serials were directed by William Witney, the master of the serial format. Panther Girl of the Kongo doesn’t have the superb cliffhangers that Witney always provided. The cliffhangers here are quite OK but they just lack Witney’s flair.

The plot also tends to keep covering the same ground. Cass and Rand keep trying to ambush Jean and Larry and they keep failing.

Serials are often accused of repetitiveness. That’s a valid criticism of some of the lesser serials although it’s much less of a problem in the really good serials. Panther Girl of the Kongo is not in the top rank and you do sometimes get the feeling that the action scenes are falling into an overly familiar pattern. They’re very well-staged, but a bit more variety would have helped. A major problem with these very late examples of the form is that budgets were very very tight indeed and it’s not easy to come up with lots of varied and exciting action scenes when you have no money to work with.

Director Franklin Adreon does a competent job within the budgetary constraints he had to cope with.

Morgan is a reasonable villain. He’s motivated more by straightforward greed rather than the more grandiose things that usually appeal to mad scientists (like world domination). He probably needed to be a bit more overtly villainous.

One amusing feature is that there’s not a single person in the story who can actually shoot. The good guys and the bad guys fire hundreds if no thousands of rounds at one another with remarkably disappointing results. You expect the bad guys to be poor shots (the bad guys have to be lousy shots in these kinds of stories but Larry is a top big game hunter and Jean is a jungle girl who has spent her life in the wilds so it’s a bit surprising that they’re lousy shots as well.

Phyllis Coates as Jean makes a reasonably acceptable heroine. Myron Healey as Larry is OK as a fairly stock-standard hero.

There was a strict dress code for jungle girls. Their skirts had to be very short. Jean wears some very very short skirts. When she’s in her hut she looks like a typical 1950s American housewife but as soon as he heads for the jungle she dons her sexy jungle girl outfit.

In my personal view the way to enjoy a serial is to watch no more than one episode per day. If you fall for the temptation to binge-watch then they can seem to be repetitive. In the case of Panther Girl of the Kongo it’s probably even better to space out your viewing a bit more - maybe one episode every couple of days.

If you’re new to the world of movie serials then Panther Girl of the Kongo is not a great place to start. It’s not too bad but there are much much better serials to start with - Jungle Girl (1941) and Perils of Nyoka (1942) are superb jungle girl serials. Spy Smasher (1942) is perhaps the best serial ever made. Daredevils of the Red Circle (1939) is almost as good. Drums of Fu Manchu (1940) is very very good also.

Panther Girl of the Kongo is worth seeing if you’re already a hardcore serial fan.

Olive Films released this one on Blu-Ray and it looks terrific.

Friday, January 27, 2023

Ride a Crooked Trail (1958)

Ride a Crooked Trail is a 1958 Audie Murphy western and as it happens Audie Murphy westerns are one of my current enthusiasms.

The screenplay is by Borden Chase, one of the greats when it came to writing screenplays for intelligent complex westerns. His credits include Red River for Howard Hawks and films like Winchester ’73, Bend of the River and The Far Country for Anthony Mann. The guy knew how to write a script for a western.

The classic way to start a western is to have a mysterious stranger ride into town. That’s the way this one starts, with Audie Murphy as the mysterious stranger. Having the mysterious stranger immediately in trouble due to mistaken identity is a pretty standard western feature as well. That happens here as well. But with a few interesting twists.

A bank robber named Joe Maybe is on the loose so when Audie arrives Judge Kyle (Walter Matthau) figures he might be that bank robber. Then the judge sees the badge that Audie is carrying and realises his mistake. This mysterious stranger is the legendary Marshal Joe Noonan. He has the badge and he has identification papers. Only he isn’t Marshal Noonan. It won’t take long for viewers to figure out that he is really Joe Maybe.

Joe Noonan is dead. But Joe Maybe didn’t kill him. Joe Maybe is a bank robber and he undoubtedly has quite a criminal record but he didn’t kill Joe Noonan.

Judge Kyle is happy to have a Marshal in town to help him keep order. Not that the judge has too much trouble keeping order. Judge Kyle knows how to deal with trouble.

The judge is a bit of a cheerful rogue but he keeps order in his own highly individualistic manner and his town is thriving, peaceful and happy.

One of the great western clichés is that the good guys always play by the rules. If the good guy gets into a gunfight he’ll make sure it’s a good clean fight with the bad guy given a sporting chance. Judge Kyle doesn’t go in for any of that nonsense. He believes you should never ever give the other guy an even break. And he quickly demonstrates his methods. They’re pretty drastic and they’re very unsporting but they certainly work.

Maybe and the judge get along pretty well together but the judge is no fool. He knows there’s something not quite right here. He has his suspicions about his new marshal who claims to be Joe Noonan.

Then Tessa Milotte (Gia Scala) arrives on the river steamer. She’s the girlfriend of notorious bank robber Sam Teeler (Henry Silva). She and Joe Maybe know each other pretty well. Joe has always had a hankering to take Tessa away from Teeler but as she keeps reminding Joe if he tried something like that Teeler would kill them both.

Tessa and Joe have to pretend to be married. The judge has provided them with a nice little house and then they acquire a kid named Jimmy. Jimmy is a ward of the court. Judge Kyle is raising him but the judge isn’t exactly an ideal substitute father even when he’s sober. Jimmy decides to move in with Joe and Tessa. To all outward appearances Joe and Tessa are now totally respectable.

Joe proves himself to be an effective lawman. He’s almost starting to like the respectable life. He likes this town. He likes the people. He likes Judge Kyle. He likes Jimmy. He’s reasonably content being the town marshal. He knows it’s a job he’s capable of doing. Joe was born in a saloon. His mother was a whore. She died and the other girls in the whorehouse raised him. He’s never been respected before.

But the fact remains that he’s Joe Maybe, a wanted man. And Judge Kyle clearly suspects something along those lines.

Then Sam Teeler shows up, with plans to rob the town’s bank. Teeler’s plan is that Joe is going to take part in the robbery.

Joe is deeply conflicted. He really isn’t sure which way he wants to jump. He’d like to escape his past but he knows that isn’t likely to be possible. When the time comes for the robbery he’ll have to make his choice.

Walter Matthau is in delightfully outrageous form, stealing every scene he’s in. Judge Kyle is a wonderful character. His methods are perhaps not entirely honourable but that’s why he’s still alive. Being a frontier judge isn’t for the faint-hearted. If you stick rigidly to the rules you’ll wind up dead and your town will go down the gurgler.

Acting opposite Walter Matthau without being overshadowed is a challenge but Audie Murphy holds his own. His characteristically low-key performance meshes surprisingly well with Matthau’s acting pyrotechnics. Murphy was a talented actor and could be rather subtle and this is a part that requires subtlety.

Gia Scala gives a fine performance as Tessa. Tessa is a female equivalent of Joe. She’s a bad girl who starts to wonder if she could become a good girl, and wonders whether she’d like that or not. As you’d expect Henry Silva makes a fine heavy.

This is certainly not a comedy but there’s a healthy leavening of humour. For most of its running time it’s a good-natured movie. Joe Maybe is the bad guy but he’s a nice guy. He’s not just superficially charming. He really is a nice guy. We are therefore going to be hoping that somehow Joe will find a way out of the ticklish position he’s in. We hope he’ll find redemption. And we hope that it won’t cost him his life although we fear that it might.

There’s no shortage of action and the action scenes are well staged.

Jesse Hibbs directed. He directed B-movies in Hollywood before moving into television. It was an unremarkable career but on the strength of this movie I’d say he was pretty competent. The movie was shot in colour and in Cinemascope. It doesn’t have the grandeur of westerns directed by guys like Mann, Ford or Boetticher. It looks like a B-movie, but a solidly crafted B-movie.

This is one of three movies in the recent Kino Lorber Audie Murphy western Blu-Ray boxed set. The transfer is just fine.

Ride a Crooked Trail has just enough complexity, with Joe Maybe’s inner conflicts and the extreme trickiness of his situation, to keep us interested. Audie Murphy’s performance is more than merely competent, Walter Matthau is terrific. This is not one of the great westerns but it’s a fine movie and it’s very entertaining. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, January 24, 2023

The Cheat (the 1931 remake)

The Cheat is a 1931 Paramount pre-code movie and it’s a remake of Cecil B. DeMille’s 1915 silent version. DeMille’s version was a landmark movie which still stands up remarkably well. We shall see how the 1931 remake stacks up.

Elsa Carlyle (Tallulah Bankhead) is married to stockbroker Jeffrey Carlyle (Harvey Stephens). It’s a happy enough marriage but Elsa is wild and irresponsible. She is extravagant with money. She lives for excitement. She does not have affairs but she certainly enjoys flirting with other men. Recently she’s been flirting with Hardy Livingstone (Irving Pichel). Livingstone is an immensely wealthy collector of Oriental art. He has spent many years in the Far East and rumour has it that his lifestyle has been more than a little scandalous. He’s a man who ignores the social conventions. He’s a bad boy, but a wealthy sophisticated decadent bad boy.

Livingstone collects Oriental pictures, sculptures and objets d’art. He collects them for their beauty and for the pleasure of owning them. He also collects women, for their beauty and for the pleasure of owning them. He has a kind of trophy cabinet, filled with dolls represent his various female conquests. The dolls are all stamped with his brand, his mark of ownership.

Naturally Elsa finds him rather attractive and enjoys flirting. She knows that Livingstone wants her and that amuses and excites her. That doesn’t mean that she has any actual intention of being unfaithful to her husband. Elsa just likes dangerous games.

Elsa really is just playing a game but she has a major problem to deal with. She gambles and she has lost $10,000 at the gaming tables. She doesn’t have the money to pay the debt. She can’t ask her husband for the money - things are very tight at the moment and he doesn’t have the money either. He’s working on a big deal and if and when it comes through they will have plenty of money, but Elsa needs that ten thousand right now.

Elsa tries to raise the money by speculating on the stock market, with disastrous results. The money with which she speculated was money she stole from a charity. Now she’s desperate. Livingstone comes to the rescue. He’ll give her the money, but she’ll have to give herself to him. It’s made pretty obvious that it’s a straightforward money for sex deal.

Then Elsa’s husband strikes it rich on the stock market. Elsa tries to buy her way out of her deal with Livingstone. He has no intention of being cheated. If she doesn’t go to bed with he’ll make sure she faces ruin and disgrace.

Then there are lots of melodramatic plot twists, there’s a gun involved and Livingstone decides to make sure that Elsa understands that he owns her, by branding her. It’s a scene that still packs plenty of punch. It’s slightly stronger than the equivalent scene in DeMille’s 1915 version. In that version Elsa is branded on the back. In the ’31 version she’s branded on the breast.

That gun gets fired and that leads to a trial and both husband and wife want to take the blame and the trial ends in a riot.

You have to understand that DeMille’s film had been pure melodrama. DeMille loved melodrama and it’s a genre he did better than anyone. The ’31 version follows the plot of the 1915 version very closely indeed. So it is, naturally, pure melodrama as well. I have no problem with that. I’m happy to accept the conventions of melodrama. If you’re not comfortable with the plot contrivances of melodrama you might not be entirely happy with this movie.

By making the villainous character European rather than Asian the racial angle of the 1915 version is removed. Naturally lots of modern reviewers have tried to put that racial angle back in. I really don’t think it’s there. Sure there’s an attempt to create an atmosphere of exotic decadence around Livingstone but I don’t think it’s worth obsessing over. I don’t think the movie is suggesting that Asiatic art leads to decadence. The whole movie has an atmosphere of late Jazz Age all-American decadence. Elsa in her own way is as decadent as Livingstone.

Tallulah Bankhead achieved star status on the stage but was never quite able to translate that into success on the silver screen. She became more famous for being Tallulah Bankhead than for her acting. She was famous for her wild parties, her drinking, her presumed drug-taking and for her habit of taking her clothes off at the slightest provocation. She claimed to have had around 5,000 lovers. So she had a busy life. As to whether her 5,000 lovers included women, it seems possible but doubtful. She certainly enjoyed flirting with women but she enjoyed flirting with anything with a pulse. She just liked flirting. And she certainly liked the idea that people thought she slept with women. It was part of her carefully cultivated outrageous reputation.

The Cheat offered her one of her better film rôles. She’s good, but somehow her performance doesn’t quite catch fire the way it should. Despite her own reputation she just doesn’t come across as sexually alluring. She’s a bit distant.

Irving Pichel plays the sinister, charming, sexually predatory Livingstone with energy.

In DeMille’s version the Livingstone character was Japanese. This pre-code version is actually less daring and less outrageous in some ways than DeMille’s version. The DeMille version has more sexual tension and a greater sense of sexual depravity.

The ’31 version still manages to be pretty pre-code. The dolls in the trophy cabinet and the branding scene are definitely sleazy touches.

The Cheat is one of the six movies included in the Universal Backlot Pre-Code Collection DVD boxed set, a set that all fans of pre-code movies should own. The Cheat gets a decent transfer.

This movie is definitely worth seeking out if you’re a pre-code fan and watching it back-to-back with the 1915 film is an interesting experience. DeMille really was the master when it came to this sort of thing. The 1931 The Cheat is recommended.

Friday, January 20, 2023

Law and Order (1953 remake)

Law and Order is a 1953 remake of the extraordinarily dark 1932 western of the same name. Walter Huston played the lead rôle in the 1932 version while Ronald Reagan plays the lead in the remake.

Both movies are based on W.R. Burnett’s novel Saint Johnson. Nathan Juran directed the remake.

Frame Johnson (Reagan) and his brother Luther (Alex Nicol) and Jimmy (Russell Johnson) have left Tombstone and headed to Cottonwood. Frame is a famous lawman but he’s had enough of that life. He’s bought a ranch. He wants to settle down.

Cottonwood is just as exciting, and just as lawless as Tombstone in its worst days. The corrupt and crooked Kurt Durling (Preston Foster), his son Frank (Dennis Weaver) and their cronies run the town, helped by crooked sheriff Fin Elder (Barry Kelley), run the town for their own benefit. Judge Williams (Richard Garrick) wants Frame to accept an appointment as Marshal. The judge wants the town cleaned up. Frame is interested. He just wants a quiet life.

Of course he’s not going to get that quiet life and eventually he has to accept the job as Marshal.

Frame has a master plan to clean up crime. He’s going to ban the carrying of guns.

Of course that doesn’t work out quite the way he’d hoped. There are further shootings. And Frame’s brothers get themselves in a jam.

You feel that you know where this story is going and of course you’re right.

The 1932 version of Law and Order is a fascinating movie with an unconventional hero with unusual motivations and it’s one of the most interesting of all westerns. It has its own unique flavour. What the writers on the ’53 version have done is pretty clever. They’ve taken a really interesting and original story and they’ve ruthlessly removed every single feature that made the original version so interesting. They’ve turned the story into a stock-standard B-western without a trace of originality. And they’ve turned Frame Johnson into an utterly conventional western cliché.

Their genius doesn’t stop there. They’ve taken a story which unsettles us because we really don’t know how it’s going to play out and they’ve turned it into a story in which every plot twist is totally predictable and clumsily telegraphed.

The problems with the remake don’t end there. Ronald Reagan’s performance is quite competent but he’s no Walter Huston. He just doesn’t manage to get us really invested in his character. It’s not entirely his fault. The script doesn’t give him anything interesting to work with.

I don’t entirely blame the writers. I assume that the assignment they were given was to turn the movie into a bland innocuous B-movie.

The basic story outline is pretty similar to the original. The changes that have been made were probably just what the producers wanted. The changes must have seemed like things that wold make the movie a safer commercial property. They’ve added a love interest for Frame - glamorous saloon keeper Jeannie (Dorothy Malone). They’ve made the characters’ motivations straightforward rather than complex and ambiguous. They’ve added a few touches of unnecessary comic relief.

The 1932 version has a brilliant and powerful ending. The ending of the 1953 version can be pretty much predicted once you’re five minutes into the movie.

Prior to this I’d only seen Ronald Reagan in the 1930s Brass Bancroft spy B-movies, which are actually very good (Secret Service of the Air is highly recommended) and as a villain in the 1964 version of The Killers (in which he’s excellent). In Law and Order he’s at best adequate.

I’m a Dorothy Malone fan but in this movie she doesn’t get a single decent scene or a single decent line.

The 1953 movie is not really a bad movie. It’s competently made but just very average. The 1932 version is a great movie. The ’53 version is moderately entertaining but routine. Seen on its own it’s OK if very undemanding entertaining. When compared to the ’32 version it’s feeble and uninteresting and very disappointing.

It once again goes to prove that you should never remake a great movie.

I picked up the original 1932 version of this movie in a French DVD release from Sidonis. This 1953 remake is included as a bonus disc. Both movies are presented in English. Both movies get good transfers.

I've also reviewed the original Law and Order (1932).

Tuesday, January 17, 2023

The Cheat (1915)

The Cheat, made for Famous Players-Lasky in 1915, is a very very early Cecil B. DeMille silent melodrama. It’s the movie that first got DeMille noticed as a major directing talent.

DeMille knew he had a story with potential but it needed work. He made sweeping changes to the original screenplay. His instincts were correct.

Edith Hardy (Fannie Ward) is married to stockbroker Richard Hardy (Jack Dean). Edith is a wildly extravagant social butterfly. She thinks nothing of spending $600 on a single dress. Remember, this was 1915. I have no idea how much that would equate to today but it would certainly be tens of thousands of dollars. Edith is irritated that her husband is so tiresome about her habit of spending money that he doesn’t have.

Edith chairs a charity committee raising money for Belgian refugees. So far $10,000 has been raised. Edith gets a hot stock tip so she decides to “borrow” the $10,000 to play the market. She loses the whole lot.

In desperation she asks her friend, the well-known Japanese ivory dealer Hishuru Tori (Sessue Hayakawa) for help. She needs to get her hands on $10,000 immediately, otherwise she and her husband will be ruined and disgraced.

He agrees to give her the $10,000, but there will be a price. The price will be the use of her body.

There’s an early scene in which Hishuru Tori is marking his ivory statuettes with a branding iron, as a sign that they belong to him. We will soon discover that he adopts the same approach with his women.

At the exact moment that Edith is closing the deal to sell herself to the ivory dealer her husband makes a killing on the stock market. Suddenly they’re rich. She tells him that she needs ten grand right away and he gives her the money without asking any questions. Now she can buy herself back from Hishuru Tori but the ivory dealer isn’t having any of this. She made a deal with him and he doesn’t intend to be cheated. Now things get really melodramatic and it all culminates in a shooting, followed by a trial.

One of the things I notice about DeMille’s silent pictures (and I’ve seen quite a few of them) is that the acting is fairly naturalistic. There’s not a huge amount of the exaggerated acting style that so many people associate with silent movies. Fannie Ward succumbs to the temptation at times but this is after all a melodrama. The acting of Sessue Hayakawa and Jack Dean is very naturalistic.

It’s intriguing to note that in the original 1915 release the character played by Sessue Hayakawa is named Hishuru Tori and he’s Japanese. When it was re-released in 1918 his nationality was changed to Burmese and his name was changed to Haka Arakau. Sessue Hayakawa was of course Japanese. Either way this rôle made him a major Hollywood star.

Of course you have to remember that was 1915. The camera doesn’t move. That’s true of all movies in the early silent era. F.W. Murnau is usually given the credit for being the first director to move the camera during a shot but that was not until the early 1920s. It is however obvious that DeMille was aware of the danger that the picture would be too static so he does his best to introduce as much movement as possible into his shots. The actors move around constantly and enter and leave the shot. He was also aware of the need to introduce a sense of movement through the editing. DeMille does use a pan in one vital scene and because this was a technique that wasn’t used very often in 1915 it has an impact.

He also does his best to make every shot as visually interesting as possible. The shot compositions are always interesting.

It’s interesting that DeMille makes very sparing use of title cards. He uses them only when it’s absolutely necessary. Even at this early stage of his career he was confident of his ability to tell a story through visual means. DeMille had a theatrical background but he understood that theatre and film have little in common and that film is a purely visual medium. He understood that if a director knows what he’s doing there is no need to be told exactly what is being said. He trusts the audience to figure out what’s going on.

This movie really doesn’t feel clunky, whereas a movie like A Fool There Was (made in the same year) does look clunky. In technical terms The Cheat feels much much more modern.

Filming a suspenseful courtroom scene without any dialogue is a challenge but DeMille is equal to the challenge.

The cinematography (by Alvin Wyckoff) is impressive with bold use of shadows and very low lighting. Quite an achievement given the limitations of the film stock in use in 1915.

One of the cool things about this movie is seeing the women wearing Edwardian evening gowns and realising that this was not a costume picture. The clothing was contemporary. This is what women were wearing when the movie was made.

This movie was of course made years before such horrors as the Production Code were even thought of. The movie does not judge Edith quite as harshly as she would have been judged under the Production Code. She has made a foolish mistake and she is spoilt and irresponsible and not particularly honest but that doesn’t necessarily mean she is irredeemably wicked.

When seeing this movie you have to avoid the temptation to get sidetracked into obsessing over the racial and social attitudes of 1915. The movie reflects the attitudes of its time. If you want to appreciate the movie you need to set aside 21st century attitudes.

And even though this is very much melodrama there is some subtlety. Edith has brought her problems upon herself. She did, quite willingly, agree to sell herself. She is, as the movie’s title implies, a cheat.

The Cheat was a major step forward for Hollywood film-making, both technically and thematically. The frank treatment of the sexual subject matter is very much in the manner of pre-code movies but DeMille had already reached that point fifteen years earlier. The Cheat was one of the movies that indicated that maybe movies should be taken seriously as an art form. This was a very important movie. It’s also an incredibly entertaining movie.

The Cheat was released on DVD by Kino Video as a double feature paired with DeMille’s 1922 melodrama Manslaughter.

The Cheat is highly recommended.

Saturday, January 14, 2023

Anna Christie (German-language version, 1930)

Anna Christie was Greta Garbo’s first talkie and it was in fact shot twice simultaneously, once in English and once in German for the German market (where MGM quite reasonably expected it to do very well). Garbo is in both versions but the supporting casts are different and the two versions had different directors. Clarence Brown directed the English-language version while Jacques Feyder directed the German version. And different writers - Walter Hasenclever wrote the dialogue for the German version and Frank Reicher wrote the German screenplay.

The English-language version doesn’t get a lot of love, even from Garbo fans. It was based on Eugene O’Neill’s play and it’s very very stagey. It was a very odd choice on MGM's part for Garbo's debut in talkies. There are those who think that the German-language version is the better movie - more daring, slightly more dynamic and with a better performance from Garbo. It’s the German version we are concerned with in this review.

The movie begins with a lengthy opening sequence in which a broken-down old sailor, Chris Christopherson (Hans Junkermann) and his equally broken-down mistress Marthy (Salka Viertel) are getting quietly plastered in a waterfront bar. Chris has received a letter from his daughter Anna whom he hasn’t seen for fifteen years. She’s coming to see him. Marthy persuades Chris to go to the restaurant next door to get some food in his stomach to sober him up a bit, Chris departs, and Garbo makes her famous entrance.

Chris had abandoned his family years earlier. He has convinced himself that Anna has had an idyllic childhood on a farm. He has no idea that she is a prostitute.

Chris is captain of a barge and he lives aboard. Anna moves in with him. Chris has grown to hate the sea. He is haunted by the fear that Anna will marry a sailor. Anna falls in love with the sea.

A fierce storm blows up and Chris rescues a shipwrecked sailor, Matt Burke (Theo Shall). Matt takes a liking to Anna. Like Chris he is convinced that Anna is a good decent girl. Matt despises whores.

Anna for her part has always hated men. During that supposedly idyllic childhood on the farm she was raped by the farmer’s son. Matt is the first man she has ever liked. And she slowly realises that she has fallen in love with him. For his part matt has decided that Anna is the girl he will marry.

The problem of course is that Anna is tortured by the idea that she is deceiving Matt. She has allowed him to build up a fantasy about her, a fantasy in which she is a sweet innocent virgin. She would obviously be a fool to tell him that she’s a whore but if she doesn’t tell him and they get married she will always feel guilty.

The German version, like the English version, is very stagebound. This was of course the very early days of talkies when the initial technical problems involved with sound technology imposed serious limitations on directors. It wasn’t easy to introduce movement into shots. It was easier to stick to a few basic camera setups. In this case there is the added problem that almost all the action takes place on a handful of sets, and they’re not exactly visually impressive sets. It’s not easy to make a sleazy waterfront bar or the cabin of a coal barge visually stunning.

It’s all very claustrophobic. That suits the content but it doesn’t make for exciting viewing.

It’s also, being essentially a filmed play, a story told mostly through dialogue rather than by visual means. Anna Christie never really manages to feel cinematic.

Jacques Feyder was a sound choice as director. He had directed Garbo in her last silent film, the stylish and very underrated The Kiss, a year earlier.

You have to bear in mind that it wasn’t just MGM who were worried how audiences would respond to Garbo’s voice. Garbo herself had no idea whether audiences would go for her Swedish accent (in fact audiences decided that her voice was sexy and exotic). She was almost certainly a bit nervous shooting the English-language version. On the other hand she was extremely comfortable speaking in German so she could focus more on her acting than on her voice. She does seem generally more at ease here than in the English version.

There can be no complaints abut the casting of the German-language version. Hans Junkermann as Chris, Theo Shall as Matt and Salka Viertel as Marthy are all good. Theo Shall is particularly good.

Garbo is excellent. It’s not a glamorous role but she manages to look terrific anyway while still being totally convincing as a very unglamorous, confused rather embittered woman.

The sea is clearly meant to have some deep symbolic significance. I guess it’s supposed to represent fate.

As for pre-code content, it’s made absolutely explicit that Anna is a prostitute. There’s anything aspect to the movie that is very very pre-code but I can’t reveal what it is without revealing spoilers. But this German version is very very obviously a pre-code movie.

The German version (with English subtitles) is included as an extra on the Warner Home Video DVD that was included in their superb Garbo boxed set some years ago. The print was obviously not in very good shape but it’s quite watchable and sadly it seems unlikely that anyone is ever going to bother doing a proper restoration.

Anna Christie is a movie that never escapes from its stage origins and it’s much too stagey and static and dialogue-heavy. It’s rather stodgy. Worth seeing for the fact that the story is told in such an overtly pre-code way, and for Garbo.

Wednesday, January 11, 2023

Bend of the River (1952)

Bend of the River, released by Universal-International in 1952, was the second of the Anthony Mann westerns starring James Stewart, following the success of the superb Winchester ’73.

This time Stewart plays Glyn McLyntock. He’s acting as guide to a party of about a hundred settlers setting off into the wilderness in Oregon to establish farms. McLyntock figures he might take up farming itself.

Then comes a chance encounter. A man accused of horse stealing is about to be hanged by a Lynch mob. McLyntock saves him. The man tells McLyntock that he didn’t steal the horse. McLyntock says he doesn’t care. He just doesn’t like to see a man get hanged.

The man is Emerson Cole (Arthur Kennedy). Cole decides to ride along with the settlers for a while. He might eventually decide to head for California. McLyntock and Cole strike up a friendship which is solidified after Cole saves McLyntock’s life in a clash with a Shoshone raiding party.

When these two men meet we get our first inkling that McLyntock may have a colourful past. Cole has heard of him, and is surprised that the legendary Glyn McLyntock would want to take up farming. When Cole tells McLyntock his name there’s an interesting flicker of recognition in Glyn McLyntock’s eyes.

The leader of the settlers is Jeremy Baile (Jay C. Flippen). He has two beautiful daughters, Laura (Julia Adams) and Marjie (Lori Nelson). Cole senses that there’s something between McLyntock and Laura and asks McLyntock outright if Laura is his girl. McLyntock says that no, she isn’t.

The settlers have bought food supplies and cattle from Tom Hendricks (Howard Petrie), a trader in Portland, and they’re rather worried when the supplies don’t arrive. McLyntock and Cole ride into Portland and discover why. Portland is in the grip of gold fever. Hendricks has resold the shipment of supplies to gold miners, for ten times its value. McLyntock and Cole take steps to get those supplies back, which leads to a series of wild action scenes. In Portland they pick up another mysterious stranger, the smooth gambler Trey Wilson (Rock Hudson).

They also pick up half a dozen men to help with the loading and unloading and with the wagons. These men seem like a bunch of cut-throats but there’s no alternative to hiring them.

McLyntock and co set off down the river in a steamer but they can only go as far as he rapids and they can be sure that Hendricks will be waiting for them with a bunch of gunmen. Setting off cross-country seems like a better option. But Hendricks in is hot pursuit.

There’s plenty of action in store, and plenty of opportunities for betrayal.

Mann handled spectacle particularly well and this is a visually very impressive movie. The action scenes (of which there are many) are expertly staged.

James Stewart gives the sort of performance he was starting to become known for - there’s an edge to it and there are hints of inner darkness. Arthur Kennedy is splendid. Rock Hudson’s rôle is strictly a supporting one but he’s fine. Julia Adams makes a spirited heroine. I like Chubby Johnson as the riverboat captain, Mello. He just knows he should never have left the Mississippi.

There are critics who like to see the Anthony Mann-James Stewart westerns as noir westerns. I see this as representing a kind of condescending attitude towards the western genre. It’s as if a western can only be treated seriously if you can see it as a film noir with six-guns and horses. By the late 40s westerns were starting to become more ambitious and more thematically complex but the thematic complexity came from exploring the potential of the western genre itself. The westerns of the 1950s can stand on their own merits. They’re best understood on their own terms. I don’t see any film noir elements in this movie. Approaching Anthony Mann’s westerns as noir westerns sets up misleading expectations.

Major themes which recur during the golden age of the western (from the late 40s to the early 60s) are revenge and redemption. There’s a bit of both in Bend of the River.

We have three central male characters in this film, and all three are nicely ambiguous. McLyntock is clearly a good and honourable man but we have reason to believe that maybe there are things in his past that he’d really like to forget. Possibly things that aren’t so good and honourable.

We have no idea for most of the movie what makes Emerson Cole tick. He obviously has a very shady past but he seems like he’s a reformed character. Jeremy Baile doesn’t believe that a man can change. He thinks Cole is still a wrong ’un. McLyntock wants to believe that Jeremy is wrong. He has to believe that Jeremy is wrong. He has to believe that a man can change.

This is clearly the core of the movie. Can a man really escape his past?

McLyntock needs to believe that Cole can achieve redemption because if he can’t then McLyntock might start doubting whether his own redemption is possible.

Trey Wilson seems like the kind of character who will turn out to be a ruthless crooked gambler and a generally bad type but his behaviour doesn’t seem consistent with superficial appearances.

The plot is fairly straightforward. The suspense in this movie lies not in wondering what will happen next but rather in wondering how the major characters will react. It’s suspense that is character-driven.

Bend of the River was shot in Technicolor in the Academy ratio and it looks terrific.

Bend of the River is not a noir western but it is a grown-up serious western and an intelligent one. It’s also very exciting. Highly recommended.

Umbrella Entertainment in Australia have released this movie on DVD in their remarkably good-value Six Shooter Classics range. The transfer is extremely good.

Monday, January 9, 2023

Merrily We Go to Hell (1932)

Merrily We Go to Hell is a 1932 Paramount pre-code movie directed by Dorothy Arzner. It’s a romantic melodrama with some humour and while it does address a serious issue (alcoholism) it does so in a characteristically pre-code way.

Jerry Corbett (Fredric March) is a newspaper columnist. He’s fairly successful despite his prodigious intake of liquor. He dreams of being a real writer. He wants to write plays. What with writing his columns and drinking he has trouble finding the time to settle down to serious writing.

One night at a party Joan Prentice (Sylvia Sidney) catches his eye. He takes a liking to her. She likes him as well. He’s amusing and charming, even though he’s very drunk.

They meet again and things start getting fairly serious between them. They decide that getting married would be a fine thing to do.

Joan is the heiress to a vast food-canning fortune. Her father doesn’t approve of the match. He assumes that Jerry is just after Joan’s money. He figures that if he offers Jerry a lot of money to call the wedding off Jerry will jump at the offer. Jerry refuses the money. Mr Prentice decides that maybe Jerry really does love his daughter. He’s still not happy about the marriage but he gives them his blessing.

After the marriage Jerry seems to be a reformed character. He stops drinking. He finishes his play.

Instead of the acclaim that he hoped for all the play gets him is a pile of rejection notices. And then finally it gets accepted. It’s going to be produced. Jerry looks like being a success, and his marriage looks like being a success as well.

There’s one fly in the ointment. The star of the play will be Claire Hempstead (Adrianne Allen). Claire is the woman who broke Jerry’s heart a couple of years earlier. In fact she’s one of the main reasons he took refuge in the bottle.

Maybe it will be OK. Maybe Jerry is over Claire. But as soon as he meets her again he knows that he isn’t over her.

Jerry knows what the answer to his problem is. He crawls back inside the bottle.

Jerry’s instinctive response to any kind of setback or any kind of pressure is to get drunk. The idea of facing up to problems or trying to solve them doesn’t seem to occur to him. He’s a nice enough and he can be very charming and he means well but he’s never met a problem he hasn’t wanted to run away from.

Jerry is clearly obsessed with Claire all over again. Joan comes up with a solution, and it’s a very pre-code solution - an open marriage. Jerry can fool around with Claire as long as Joan gets to fool around with other men. Their lives become one long round of parties, night-clubs, booze and sex. Joan is a modern girl. She can handle an arrangement like this. At least she thinks she can. Of course there are some melodramatic twists still to come.

I’ve never been much of a fan of Fredric March but he’s pretty good in this film. He resists the temptation to overact and he captures both Jerry’s charm and his weakness extremely well.

Sylvia Sidney is excellent. She also resists any temptation to overact. She’s likeable and charming and convincing as a young woman facing the realisation that her marriage is about to crash and burn.

I liked Skeets Gallagher as Jerry’s loyal pal Buck. He could have been made a mere comic relief character but fortunately that temptation is avoided.

Look out for Cary Grant in a bit part.

There are those who assume that Dorothy Arzner was the first successful woman director in Hollywood but in fact that honour belongs to Lois Weber who had a notable career as a director between 1911 and 1934.

The self-appointed moral policemen at the time who were outraged by pre-code movies and who eventually forced rigid censorship upon the movies had no doubts in their minds that these movies were a deliberate attempt to undermine traditional morality. In fact that was never really true. Most pre-code movies come down on the side of traditional morality. Mostly they come down on the side of marriage. If they were advocating anything it was a more flexible and forgiving and humane version of traditional morality. Maybe people who break the social rules don’t have to suffer savage punishments. But that in itself horrified the moral policemen who had no interest in a more flexible, forgiving, humane version of traditional morality. Moral policemen enjoy punishing people.

When you actually watch a movie like Merrily We Go to Hell you have to wonder how on earth anyone could interpret it as undermining marriage and the family.

This movie is one of the six included in the Universal Backlot Pre-Code Collection DVD boxed set, a set that is well worth purchasing.

Merrily We Go to Hell has lots of pre-code naughtiness but like a lot of pre-code movies it mixes licentiousness with a grown-up awareness that sex and fun have emotional implications. It also mixes pre-code flexible morality with traditional melodrama. It’s a pretty good little movie and it’s recommended.

Friday, January 6, 2023

Manslaughter (1922)

Manslaughter is a 1922 silent melodrama directed by Cecil B. DeMille. It is uncompromisingly a melodrama. I personally think that in order to understand DeMille as a director you have to watch at least a few of his silent movies. You need to watch a couple of his melodramas and a couple of his silent comedies. When you’ve done that you start to look at his later movies in a different light. You understand that far from being the bad director that many critics he was in fact a great director but he wasn’t the kind of director of whom most critics approve.

DeMille’s silent comedies in particular are a revelation. There’s no slapstick here. These are sophisticated comedies of manners. They also demonstrate DeMille’s fondness for outrageous fantasy sequences.

His melodramas are pure melodrama.

Most mainstream critics and most mainstream audiences tend to consider realism to be all-important. Movies should reflect life as it is. The only exceptions are movies that are overtly fantasy or science fiction and most mainstream critics and audiences get uncomfortable when fantasy or science fictional elements intrude in an otherwise realistic story.

I don’t think DeMille ever made a consciously realist movie in his life. When you watch a DeMille movie you enter a parallel universe. It’s the world of movie magic, which is essentially a fantasy world. You enter the world of melodrama, and melodrama is not a realist genre. Things that would be totally unacceptable in a realist movie, things like amazing coincidences, are perfectly acceptable in the world of melodrama. Melodrama is not trying to show us reality but rather a kind of heightened exaggerated version of reality. Melodrama obeys different conventions. Real life doesn’t have endings in which people get what they deserve (whether good or bad) but it’s a convention of melodrama that melodramas do end that way. If you can’t accept that then you won’t enjoy melodrama.

When you’ve seen DeMille’s earlier movies it’s much easier to appreciate later DeMille movies such as The Sign of the Cross, Samson and Delilah and The Greatest Show On Earth. Especially The Greatest Show On Earth, a much misunderstood movie. It’s vulgar, grandiose and overblown because it’s supposed to be. DeMille wasn’t trying to make a gritty social realist movie about the actual lives of circus performers (which is what a lot of critics would have liked). He was taking us into the totally unreal world of the circus, a world of make-believe and unreality and glamour in which everything is a show. DeMille totally loved that world. He revelled in it.

Which brings us to Manslaughter. Lydia Thorne (Leatrice Joy) is a wild girl. Basically she’s a flapper. She lives for pleasure. She spends her time in speakeasies and at wild parties. And she lives for speed. She has a sports car and she drives it fast and recklessly. When motorcycle cop Jim Drummond (Jack Mower) pulls her over for speeding she bribes him with a diamond bracelet. This will have consequences (this is melodrama after all).

Humourless moralising District Attorney Daniel O’Bannon (Thomas Meighan) is in love with Lydia but he disapproves of her. He disapproves of all these crazy kids today. He thinks that America in 1922 is just like ancient Rome - a world of decadence and debauchery. It must end badly. Pleasure is bad and if you pursue pleasure you will eventually pay a price. His musings on this subject trigger the movie’s first fantasy sequence, as Lydia in the guise of a wicked Roman empress presides over an orgy.

Lydia’s maid Evans (Lois Wilson), desperate for money to send her ailing son to a healthier climate, steals a diamond ring from her mistress. Lydia is initially outraged and wants Evans sent to prison but then changes her mind and decides to ask the judge for clemency. But Lydia is too drunk to turn up at court and Evans goes to prison. This subplot is important because it establishes that Lydia is irresponsible and spoilt but she isn’t cruel or malicious. She really did intend to save Evans from prison. This subplot will also have important later consequences (again remember that this is melodrama).

Lydia’s love of speed gets her into big trouble. She causes a traffic accident in which a traffic cop is killed. And yes, you guessed it, it’s the very same traffic cop she bribed earlier.

O’Bannon intends to send her to prison for a long stretch. He does this because he loves her and he thinks that a savage punishment will save her and turn her into the good girl he always believed her to be deep down.

These events will change the lives of all these characters (including Evans the maid), by means of lots more coincidences.

We’ll also get another ancient Rome fantasy sequence in which the barbarians invade and punish the Romans for their debauchery by killing the lot of them. O’Bannon likes this fantasy. Pleasure must be paid for.

The acting isn’t really in the excessively extravagant style that many people associate with silent films. It’s reasonably naturalistic. Which is a net positive since there’s enough melodrama in the story itself. Leatrice Joy is very good as Lydia. Thomas Meighan is OK as O’Bannon although O’Bannon is not an easy character to like.

DeMille came up with a very successful formula early on. He discovered that he could get away with all sorts of sex and sin in a movie if he added in the message that people who indulge in such things must pay for their pleasures. It was a formula that was later to be used countless times by exploitation film-makers. The kicker is, he always made the sex and sin seem like enormous fun and he always made the people who indulge in such things attractive and sexy. And he always made those who enforce the punishment seem humourless and boring. It’s almost as if the audience was supposed to come down on the side of sex and sin. Whether that was really DeMille’s intention can be debated but he certainly understood that it was the sex and sin that would have people lining up to buy tickets for his movies.

Manslaughter is typical DeMille outrageousness, with both the debauchery and the moralising melodrama being equally outrageous. And I haven’t yet mentioned the boxing match between two women and the all-female pogo stick race. Manslaughter is highly recommended because nobody made movies quite the way Cecil B. DeMille made them.

Manslaughter was released on DVD by Kino Video as a double feature paired with DeMille’s 1915 movie The Cheat.

Tuesday, January 3, 2023

I’m No Angel (1933)

I’m No Angel, released by Paramount in 1933, was Mae West’s third feature film. One thing that has to be made clear is that if you’ve never seen a Mae West pre-code movie then you’ve never seen a Mae West movie. Her three pre-code movies, Night After Night, She Done Him Wrong and I’m No Angel are the only Mae West movies that count and they’re the only ones worth seeing if you want to know what Mae West was all about.

Mae West wasn’t just a star. She wrote or co-wrote her movies and she was responsible for much of the dazzlingly wicked dialogue.

In this movie she plays Tira. Tira works at a smalltime carnival. She’s the star attraction of the girlie show. She’s also a part-time lion tamer. She has the same effect on lions that she has on men - she has them eating out of her hand.

She has a boyfriend, Slick Wiley (Ralf Harolde). At least he thinks of himself as her boyfriend. Tira is on the lookout for something more promising. Her horoscope has told her that she’s about to meet the kind of man she wants.

Slick is no good and inevitably he gets himself into a jam. He’s trying to shake down a guy and slugs him. He slugs him a bit too hard. The guy doesn’t die but he’s badly hurt and that’s going to mean a stretch in the Big House. Tira is kind of mixed up in the incident but she certainly had no intention of seeing anyone get hurt. Now she needs to borrow money from the carny boss. He’ll lend it to her, on the condition that she jazzes up her lion-taming act a bit. It needs a gimmick. What could be a better gimmick than having Tira stick her head in a lion’s mouth?

Tira isn’t overly keen but she allows herself to be persuaded. The lion in question is Big Boy and he’s just a big old gentle pussycat. He would never hurt Tira. So Tira agrees.

The new act is a sensation and pretty soon Tira has hit the big time. She’s the star attraction in a major circus and she’s making real money.

But she’s still on the lookout for that special man. She figures she’s found him when Kirk Lawrence (Kent Taylor) goes backstage to meet her after one of her shows. Kirk is a nice guy, he’s rich and he’s crazy about her. Kirk already has a fiancée, Alicia Hatton (Gertrude Michael), but for Tira winning Kirk away from Alicia is child’s play. Soon Tira is set up in a luxury apartment with all the furs and jewels a girl could want.

Kirk’s family is determined not to let a gold digger circus performer get her hand on Kirk and his money. Kirk’s cousin Jack Clayton (Cary Grant) shows up to try to persuade Tira to let Kirk go. Jack is even richer than Kirk, he’s even better-looking and he’s even nicer. Tira is happy to drop Kirk. She has Jack now. He’s totally crazy about her and he wants to marry her.

For Tira there’s an added bonus. She has actually fallen in love with Jack. But of course there are complications that threaten to wreck her dreams of wedded bliss.

It ends with what is surely the most entertaining courtroom scene in movie history. Tira isn’t on trial. It’s a civil case and she’s the plaintiff. The case is going badly. Until Tira takes over the cross-examining of the witnesses herself. This is Mae West at her best. The whole movie is fun but the courtroom scenes are simply brilliant and dazzling.

Mae West was forty when she made this movie. She was getting a bit old to play a sex kitten. And while Miss West’s figure is impressive it’s the sort of figure that had been fashionable in the Edwardian age and was totally out of fashion in 1933. None of that matters. Mae West believed in herself and she carries off her rôle with ease and with style.

Cary Grant was not yet a huge star but he was definitely a rising one. The two films he made with Mae West (the other being She Done Him Wrong) were massive hits and boosted his career at just the right time. Grant and West make a great team.

There’s plenty of per-code naughtiness here. Absolutely everything in this movie would be forbidden once the Production Code came into effect. It’s not just the sexual innuendos. It’s the fact that Tira is a woman who clearly has sex frequently and with great enjoyment but she isn’t shown as a depraved monster and she doesn’t pay any price for breaking the sexual rules. Even worse (from the point of view of society’s self-appointed moral guardians) is that the movie is totally on her side and she’s shown as being perfectly capable of falling genuinely in love in spite of her wicked past.

This is actually very much a feelgood movie, which of course is something else the Production Code would have taken exception to. Dealing with sex in an open and honest way is shocking enough but to do it in a lighthearted and good-natured way rather than demonstrating that sexual pleasure leads to misery and degradation would have been way too much.

I’m No Angel is just terrific wicked fun. Highly recommended.