Sunday, March 31, 2024

The Temptress (1926)

The Temptress is one of Greta Garbo’s very early MGM silent pictures. It was released in 1926.

She was already a rising star (The Temptress would be a major box-office success) but was not to become what would later be called a superstar until the release of Flesh and the Devil a year later.

At this stage Garbo was rather frustrated at the course her American career was taking. MGM seemed to see her as another vamp. Garbo was not comfortable with this. She was not interested in playing women who were heartless predators. She felt she would achieve more playing women who experienced intense emotions. She was of course correct. She could play bad girls and dangerous women, but she was at her best when they were more than mere vamps. And she proved to be superb at playing women who suffer for love.

Elena (Garbo) meets the handsome dashing Manuel Robledo (Antonio Moreno) at a masquerade ball in Paris. He has returned to Paris after a period trying to make his fortune in the Argentine. He is captivated by her mystery and her beauty. She tells him that she is madly in love with him, and there is no other man in her life.

Disillusionment follows for Robledo when he discovers that Elena is married, to the Marquis de Torre Bianca (Armand Kaliz). She assures Robledo that this doesn’t matter, that she will go way with him anyway. Robledo is shocked at the idea. He is shocked that he has fallen for a wicked temptress.

It soon becomes apparent that Elena has had quite a career as a seductress. Men have ruined themselves for her. At least one was driven to suicide.

Robledo decides to return to Argentina, to escape the wickedness of Paris, and mostly to escape the wickedness of Elena.

He is pleased when his old friend the Marquis de Torre Bianca shows up in the Argentine. He is not so pleased that de Torre Bianca has brought his wife with him - the temptress herself. The Argentine is a place where a man can make a new start, but not with a woman like Elena around.

Robledo has problems with the notorious Manos Duras (Roy D’Arcy), the leader of a large band of what are in practice bandits and trouble-makers. When Manos Duras catches sight of Elena you know there will be problems.

Pretty soon men are making fools of themselves over Elena, and fighting over her. This excites and amuses her. Robledo is determined to have nothing to do with her, but it’s not easy to keep away from such a woman. More trouble is sure to follow, and it does.

The question is whether Elena really is wicked or not. She certainly has a way of leading men to their doom, but they want to be led. There are suggestions that Elena is to some extent a victim. Her effete husband was hiring her out to a rich banker in order to finance his gambling debts. The men in her life have certainly not always behaved honourably, and sometimes perhaps they deserved their fates. Elena’s true nature remains enigmatic. Perhaps she wants to reform, and perhaps she doesn’t.

The Temptress was set to be directed by Garbo’s mentor Mauritz Stiller, whom she idolised. Stiller was one of the greats of the early Swedish film industry. He had directed her in Gösta Berlings Saga in Sweden in 1924. Unfortunately Stiller clashed with the MGM hierarchy and was fired from The Temptress which was completed by Fred Niblo.

There’s an extraordinary deep-focus tracking shot early on in which the camera pulls away to reveal guests sitting at an incredibly long table, a shot very reminiscent of shots in Citizen Kane, except that it was done in The Temptress fifteen years before Citizen Kane. It would be tempting to think that some of the other rather bold shots in this movie may have been Stiller’s work but in fact not a single frame shot by Stiller remained in the finished film. Stiller had shot a lot of footage but Niblo reshot every single scene.

It has to be said that Niblo did a fine job, and having William H. Daniels as cinematographer helped a good deal. Right from the start Bill Daniels knew how to photograph Garbo. He makes her look stunning, and seductive, and mysterious.

This is unabashed melodrama but it’s a beautifully crafted film and Garbo already had very obvious star quality. This is fine entertainment and it’s highly recommended.

This movie is included in the Garbo Silents two-disc set which was bundled with the wonderful Warner Garbo Signature Collection DVD boxed set. The Temptress looks pretty good and the print includes some tinted scenes (I just love the tinting in silent movies).

The studio felt that the ending would work for sophisticated big city audiences but that less sophisticated audiences would require a lot more sugar coating so they filmed an atrocious alternate ending which is included as an extra.

I’ve reviewed one of Mauritz Stiller early Swedish movies, the delightfully wicked and outrageously immoral Erotikon (1920).

Thursday, March 28, 2024

The Right to Romance (1933)

The Right to Romance is a 1933 RKO pre-code melodrama.

Dr Peggy Simmons (Ann Harding) is one of the nation’s top plastic surgeons. She has achieved everything she could wish for career-wise. She has however started to realise that she’s not just a doctor, she’s a woman. She wants more out of life. She wants to dance and wear slinky dresses. She wants to smell of perfume, not ether. She wants fun. She wants romance. A woman has a right to romance.

Romance was already on offer, from fellow surgeon Dr Helmuth Heppling (Nils Asther), but she had never realised it. And the truth is that while Heppie (everyone calls him Heppie) is a seriously nice guy he is not the kind of man who is likely to sweep a woman off her feet. And she really wants to be swept off her feet.

She turns her back on her career and heads to California. She becomes a social butterfly. And she meets Bobby Preble (Robert Young). He’s more to her taste. He is irresponsible, reckless, handsome, dashing and very romantic. He’s a daredevil pilot. Sweeping women off their feet is exactly the sort of thing that he does, and does well. Peggy falls for him and falls for him hard. Being head-over-heels in love is a new experience for Peggy but she likes it. She wanted romance and she’s found it.

It’s all seems so perfect. Peggy and Bobby are crazy about each other. Marriage is the obvious next step.

There are however some potential problems. Peggy and Bobby are from different worlds. Peggy is from the serious grown-up world in which people take responsibility for their actions. And she enjoys being a doctor. Devoting herself to helping people is what she does. Peggy wants a husband who takes marriage very seriously.

Bobby has never taken responsibility for anything in his entire life. He comes from the world of pleasure and indulgence. He’s very good-natured but he’s just an overgrown kid. Love, romance and marriage are fine but they’re not things to be taken too seriously.

There’s also the complication of another woman, Lee Joyce (Sari Maritza), who rather thought that Bobby was going to be hers. She is from Bobby’s world. She doesn’t care how irresponsible Bobby is. She doesn’t mind that he’s a playboy.

And there’s the Heppie complication. He hasn’t given up loving Peggy. And Heppie is from Peggy’s world, the world of adult responsibility.

What follows is all rather inevitable. Peggy and Bobby can’t help being the people they are.

This is unabashed melodrama so you have to accept a few plot contrivances. That’s how melodrama works.

How pre-code is it? It’s not overly pre-code but there is a reluctance to judge people too harshly or to assume that every transgression must be punished, whereas the Production Code would have insisted on punishment. There’s a plot element towards the end that would have been handled much more crudely under the Production Code.

Ann Harding has the really tricky role. She’s the serious-minded good girl but it’s important that we don’t pity her or think of her as a prig. Harding does a fine job and manages to make her genuinely likeable.

Harding was a major star at the time but is now all but forgotten, which is rather sad.

In 1933 Robert Young was perfect casting as a reckless playboy and he’s amusing and charming.

The Right to Romance is perhaps not quite an overlooked gem but it’s still pretty good and it takes a grown-up look at complex emotional issues. It’s a forgotten movie that is worth rediscovery. Highly recommended.

This movie is included in the five-movie Spanish Verdice Pre-Code RKO Volume 2 DVD boxed set. All five films are in English with removable Spanish subtitles and the transfers are fine.

Sunday, March 24, 2024

Trangression (1931)

Trangression is a 1931 RKO romantic melodrama.

Elsie Maury (Kay Francis) is married to mining engineer Robert Maury (Paul Cavanagh). They live a quiet life in the English countryside until Robert has to spend a year in India for professional reasons. He thinks Elsie would be unhappy in India so he packs her off to Paris where she has friends.

You might think that sending a young beautiful wife, who for a year is going to be a young beautiful lonely wife, to Paris is not the smartest idea and you’d be right. In Paris she meets Don Arturo de Borgus (Ricardo Cortez). Arturo is handsome, dashing and exciting - everything her husband is not. They become involved, although Arturo insists to his friends that the relationship has not yet been actually technically improper.

After a year Elsie receives a telegram. Her husband will be arriving the next day. Elsie is somewhat relieved - she has found Arturo a bit too much of a temptation. Arturo is devastated. He feels he cannot live without her. If only he could persuade her to spend a few days with him at his villa in Spain.

Robert wants to return to England immediately but agrees that Elsie can follow him later. So she goes off to Spain with her handsome Latin Lover. She is playing a dangerous game and she doesn’t know the rules. She is remarkably innocent. She is totally under the spell of Arturo’s romantic aura and cannot see that he is a ruthless womaniser who will tell a woman anything to get her into bed. As you might expect it all goes horribly wrong for her and she might end up with no man at all.

Elsie has another problem - Robert’s moralistic control-freak sister who hates her.

And Robert is disturbed by the changes in Elsie. She now wears make-up, a sure sign of moral laxness.

The plot is pretty basic and it’s all a bit too contrived.

Is there any actress more unfairly neglected than the wonderful Kay Francis? She’s in fine form here as a complex woman who is neither an out-and-out bad girl nor a plaster saint. She’s human and she’s not immune to temptation. Her problem is that she thinks she’s a sophisticated woman of the world when in fact she knows nothing of the big bad world. Kay Francis was one of the great pre-code stars who found the transition to the moralistic atmosphere of the Production Code impossible to negotiate.

And Ricardo Cortez was one of the great male pre-code stars who had the same problem. He specialised in playing dangerous men who led women into temptation and those roles just dried up completely thanks to the Production Code. Two great careers blighted by the Code. Cortez is excellent here - you can imagine women finding his dangerous charm hard to resist.

It’s the performances of Kay Francis and Ricardo Cortez that make this film worth watching. Aside from that it has a few problems. Robert is such a bore that we can’t possibly care if he loses his wife or not. Arturo is a cad with no complexity at all. Elsie’s sister-in-law is a one-note interfering busybody. There’s also a villainous servant, and he’s pure villainy and cowardice. The only character we can care about is Elsie, and she’s so impossibly naïve that we feel exasperation rather than sympathy.

The clunkiness of early talkies is often exaggerated but this one really is a bit clunky.

The pre-code content consists of the idea (that would never have been countenanced once the Production Code started to be enforced) that maybe adultery is something that can be forgiven.

Trangression doesn’t quite come off mostly due to the weak script and the fact that the characters are so badly underwritten that they just don’t engage us the way that they should. Worth a look but don’t get your hopes up too high.

This movie is included in the five-movie Spanish Verdice Pre-Code RKO Volume 2 DVD boxed set. All five films are in English with removable Spanish subtitles and the transfers are fine.

Thursday, March 21, 2024

Flesh and the Devil (1926)

Flesh and the Devil is a 1926 MGM silent melodrama starring Greta Garbo and John Gilbert. The success of The Big Parade a year earlier had made Gilbert just about the hottest star in Hollywood and he got top billing. Garbo at this time was a rising star. Her star status would rise considerably with the release of Flesh and the Devil.

Leo von Harden (John Gilbert) and Ulrich von Eltz (Lars Hanson) are soldiers in Germany. It is presumably the late 19th century since German South West Africa plays an important part in the story and that colony was established in 1884. Leo and Ulrich were childhood friends, along with Ulrich’s kid sister Hertha. They used to play on a little island in a lake, an island they christened the Isle of Friendship. Leo and Ulrich, as the von in their names suggest, are wealthy members of the nobility.

Then Leo meets Felicitas (Garbo). The sexual chemistry between them is immediate and as explosive as nitro-glycerine. They have a wild night of passion in Felicitas’s house which is spoilt somewhat by her husband’s arrival home the following morning and his discovery of the two of them in bed together. Felicitas had apparently forgotten to tell Leo she was married.

As you might expect some unpleasantness ensues. The final result is that Leo is shipped off to German South West Africa.

Leo and Felicitas are still madly in love, or at least so Leo assumes. When he returns from his exile he is rather surprised to find that Felicitas has acquired a new husband, and that husband is none other than Ulrich. Ulrich, who is a fine fellow but a bit of an innocent, knows nothing of the brief tempestuous affair between Felicitas and Leo.

Leo decides to do the decent thing and not resume the affair, but Felicitas has other ideas. And she has no intention of taking no for an answer.

The plot has a nice cyclical quality to it but I can’t say more without revealing spoilers.

This is a lurid potboiler and it’s dripping with sex. It’s an amazingly erotic movie. Garbo demonstrates that there is no need to take you clothes off to send the sexual temperature rocketing off the scale. The love scenes were hotter than anything seen in a Hollywood movie prior to this date, and they’re still sizzlingly hot today.

That of course includes the famous cigarette scene. This is the most blatant and effective use ever of cigarette smoking as a sexual metaphor.

There are in fact two cigarette scenes. The second is not as erotic but it’s just as crucial.

At one point Leo’s pastor opines that when the Devil can’t tempt us spiritually he does so through the flesh, by creating a woman beautiful enough to tempt any man. That’s pretty much the theme of the movie.

This is Garbo in bad girl mode. There had of course been plenty of bad girls and temptresses in movies before this. There had been vamps such as Theda Bara and Pola Negri. Garbo however was something new and different. She’s both more subtle than the traditional vamp, and paradoxically more blatant. And much more dangerous. Garbo is dangerous in this movie because she is not motivated by a desire to use or manipulate a man. She is driven by genuine sexual hunger, and genuine emotional hunger. Even if her desires threaten her with self-destruction that’s not going to stop her.

The fact that Garbo and John Gilbert began their real-life love affair during the filming of this movie undoubtedly made the onscreen sexual chemistry even more potent.

Garbo is enigmatic and magnetic. If you’ve ever wondered why John Gilbert was for a time the highest paid actor in Hollywood this movie provides the answer. They’re an electrifying couple.

Felicitas and Leo are both flawed characters. They both defy not only the sexual mores of the time, they defy all the rules. They are both selfish, but both are out of control. They cannot help themselves.

Flesh and the Devil is gloriously lurid and melodramatic and sexy and romantic. It was, not surprisingly, a huge hit. And, also not surprisingly, it gave Garbo the clout to negotiate a much more favourable contract with MGM. It’s a great movie and it’s very highly recommended.

This movie is included in the Garbo Silents two-disc set which was included in the excellent Warner Garbo Signature Collection boxed set. Flesh and the Devil has some slight print damage but mostly the transfer is fine.

Monday, March 18, 2024

Carry On Loving (1970)

Carry On Loving, released in 1970, was the 20th movie in the Carry On series. There are those who feel that it’s a bit more risqué than previous Carry Ons. Perhaps it is, just a little. There are also those who feel that the series was starting to become a bit stale by this time, an opinion with which I strongly disagree.

This entry in the cycle features most of the much-loved series regulars.

This time the subject is marriage. Mr and Mrs Sidney Bliss (Sid James and Hattie Jacques) run the Wedded Bliss Marriage Bureau, a computerised dating service which is rather less high-tech than it appears to be. Mrs Bliss suspects that her husband is sampling the female merchandise, keeping the most desirable ladies for himself. In particular she thinks he’s having it off with Esme Crowfoot (Joan Sims).

She hires a thoroughly inept private eye (played by Charles Hawtrey) to find out just what Sid is up to.

Mr Snooper (Kenneth Williams) has his own problems. He’s a marriage guidance counsellor but he’s not married and he’s been told he’ll lose his job if he doesn’t acquire a wife pronto. He turns to the Wedded Bliss agency for help.

There are all the misunderstandings you’d expect in a Carry On movie. Shy young virgin Bertrum Muffet (Richard O’Callaghan) is set up to meet Esme Crowfoot but he ends up meeting a photographic pin-up model instead. He has no idea she is a model and is shocked when she immediately wants to take her clothes off.

This is the second date the agency has arranged for him. The first one ended disastrously, landing him in the midst of an incredibly gloomy and crazy family.

The great thing about the Carry Ons is that even when you know exactly where a scene is heading it’s still funny. In fact the anticipation makes it funnier. And this is a very funny Carry On movie.

Everyone is in fine form. Sid James is sneaky and lecherous, Hattie Jacques is a bit of a dragon, Kenneth Williams is the world’s worst marriage guidance counsellor. Bernard Bresslaw has great fun as Esme’s terrifying wrestler ex-boyfriend Gripper Burke. Joan Sims, Terry Scott and Charles Hawtrey are as reliable as ever. Newcomer Richard O’Callaghan plays a role that in previous movies would certainly have gone to Jim Dale but he does a fine job as a good-natured innocent.

This movie takes the same irreverent attitude towards marriage that the Carry Ons took towards everything else. Irreverent, but not hostile. The Carry Ons had no political barrow to push, which is why they’re so refreshing to watch today. The aim is to provide laughs, and Talbot Rothwell’s script provides plenty of those.

By this time the Carry On franchise was humming along like a well-oiled machine. Everybody, from director Gerald Thomas down to the humblest crew member or bit-part actor, knew what to do and how to do it. These were very modestly budgeted moves but very professionally made.

There’s a vast amount of sexual innuendo, all of it good-natured. Men are made fun of, and so are women. Authority figures are regarded with a certain scepticism.

Critics never had much love for the Carry On movies which committed the cardinal sin of being immensely popular with ordinary audiences. The opinions of the critics were irrelevant. Carry On Loving did very nicely at the box office.

Carry On Loving is naughty (in an innocent wort of way) and it’s funny. Highly recommended.

This movie is part of the Carry On Collection DVD boxed set. It gets a good 16:9 enhanced transfer with quite a few extras. Jacki Piper joins Richard O’Callaghan for an amusing audio commentary. They both have very happy memories of working on this movie.

I’ve reviewed lots of the Carry On movies including my personal favourite Carry On Cleo (1964), Don't Lose Your Head (1966), Carry On Henry (1971) and the unfairly maligned Carry On Emmannuelle (1978).

Thursday, March 14, 2024

Heat Lightning (1934)

Heat Lightning is a 1934 melodrama from Warner Brothers. It’s the sort of material that a few years later might have been given more of a noir treatment but it actually works just fine as it is.

Olga (Aline MacMahon) and her kid sister Myra (Ann Dvorak) run a gas station, lunch counter and fleabag motel in the middle of the Mojave Desert. Olga is in charge and she also acts as mechanic.

Olga takes life pretty seriously. She seems to be trying very hard to repress her femininity, and her emotions.

She is very protective, perhaps over-protective, of her sister. She is particularly concerned to keep Myra away from Steve Laird and in this case she may be right. He does apparently have quite a bad boy reputation where the ladies are concerned.

Olga wants to protect Myra from men. It isn’t hard to figure out that Olga has had plenty of experience with men, not all of it good. She’s clearly a woman with a past.

Suddenly it seems like everybody is heading for Olga’s gas station. You’d wonder how such an isolated gas station could get so many customers, but then for anyone motoring in these parts there’s just nowhere else to end up.

Some of the customers on this particular day are going to shake the foundation of Olga’s life to the core.

One of these customers is George (Preston Foster). He knew Olga a long time ago, when she was a very different person. He knew her very very well. They were lovers, and one assumes that they were involved together in various activities of dubious legality. George has turned up with Jeff (Lyle Talbot). We soon find out that they have just robbed a bank, and shot a bank guard. This is exactly why Olga now lives in the middle of the Mojave Desert. She wanted to get right away from George.

Staying at the motel overnight are Mrs Tifton (Glenda Farrell) and Mrs Ashton-Ashley (Ruth Donnelly). They’re not exactly respectable ladies. They’re both man-eaters.

The sexual tension between Olga and George just keeps rising. Olga doesn’t want to admit that seeing him still does things to her. There’s also a certain amount of sexual tension between Mrs Tifton and her chauffeur Frank (Frank McHugh). But then there’s always going to be sexual tension when Mrs Tifton is around.

George and Jeff are headed for the Mexican border but George has other things planned before they leave and those other things will precipitate a crisis.

The core of the movie is the relationship between the two sisters. Olga’s over-protectiveness has made Myra man-crazy. She feels totally cut off from life and she has a desperate need for a social life and she is desperate to find a man. Olga fears Myra will make all the mistakes that she made. She’s probably right, but she doesn’t realise that forcing Myra into open rebellion will make things worse.

Olga thinks she has successfully repressed her sexual and emotional longings but all that flies out the window when she sees George again.

It’s a tough role for Aline MacMahon. She has to make Olga sympathetic and that’s not easy. Olga is a very prickly character. She also has to convince us that inside Olga is a mass of conflicting passions and fears. MacMahon does a pretty good job of it.

Ann Dvorak has a fairly tough role as well. Myra’s judgment is disastrously poor but we have to care about her. Dvorak does a fine job as well.

Glenda Farrell is a lot of fun, as usual. Preston Foster as the manipulative George and Lyle Talbot as the easily-led and easily panicked Jeff are both good.

The desert setting works well. Everything about the movie is as overheated as the weather. There’s a bit of humour but it’s used to increase the sense of emotional and sexual tensions building to boiling point.

A fine well-crafted overwrought melodrama and the ending is satisfying. Highly recommended.

The Warner Archive DVD release is barebones but looks good.

Tuesday, March 12, 2024

The Oyster Princess (1919)

The Oyster Princess (Die Austernprinze) is a very early German Ernst Lubitsch film, described as a grotesque comedy which sums it up quite well.

If you’re only familiar with Lubitsch’s Hollywood movies his German silent movies will come as a major shock. They’re wild and crazy. Lubitsch invented his own genres as he went along. These movies obey none of the rules of conventional film-making that became established with the coming of the sound, but they don’t even obey any of the rules of silent film-making. Lubitsch just didn’t care about rules at this stage of his career. He was wildly experimental. I’d be tempted to describe the young Lubitsch as an avant-garde film-maker but that gives the impression of someone taking himself very seriously and Lubitsch wasn’t taking himself seriously at all. He was making fun movies. They were crazy, but they were fun.

The Oyster Princess is the story of Ossi (Ossi Oswalda), the daughter of American millionaire tycoon Quaker (Victor Janson). Quaker made his fortune from oysters. He’s the oyster king.

Ossi is throwing an epic tantrum. She has just heard that the daughter of America’s shoe-polish king has married a count. She now expects to marry a man at least equal to a count, preferably outranking a count. To calm her down her father promises to buy her a prince.

Quaker engages the services of renowned matchmaker Seligsohn (Max Kronert). Quaker places a firm order for a prince.

Fortunately in Europe in 1919 princes could be picked up quite inexpensively. There were plenty of noblemen who had lost their estates and fortunes in wars and revolutions. All of them would jump at the chance to marry a millionaire’s daughter.

Such a nobleman is Prince Nucki (Harry Liedtke). He is a real prince but he shares a squalid tenement apartment with his buddy Josef (Julius Falkenstein). Josef is in theory the prince’s aide-de-camp, and his only servant. Prince Nucki doesn’t have two pfennigs to rub together. What he has are debts. The marriage sounds like a fine idea.

Josef is dispatched to the Quaker mansion to meet Ossi and to make arrangements for the wedding.

Josef is certainly impressed by Quaker’s wealth. His mansion isn’t the size of a small palace, it’s the size of a large palace. Ossi doesn’t have a personal maid. She has two dozen personal maids.

The wedding doesn’t turn out quite as expected. Ossi gets married, but to whom?

This is not a bedroom farce and it’s not really a bawdy comedy. It pokes fun at millionaires and princes but it’s not really a satire. It’s certainly not a realist film but it’s not a fantasy. Everything is highly exaggerated but it doesn’t feel like surrealism.

There is romance, but this film doesn’t neatly fit the romance genre either.

It’s a bit of all those things blended into an intoxicating cocktail.

There has never been an actress quite like Ossi Oswalda. She made a series of films for Lubitsch and her performances are always bizarre and over-the-top but she’s quite different in each film. She had a knack of being bizarre and loveable at the same time. A strange actress but a fascinating one.

The Oyster Princess doesn’t have the overt and deliberate extreme artificiality or the extreme stylisation of other early Lubitsch movies, but you can sense that he’s starting to move in that direction.

Mostly it’s just crazy good-natured fun. The characters might be grotesques but they’re likeable in spite of this. Even Quaker, as crass as he is, isn’t such a bad old guy.

And I haven’t even mentioned the fox-trot epidemic yet.

This movie is included in the Lubitsch in Berlin DVD boxed set from Eureka (which has now been released on Blu-Ray as well) and it’s also available on Blu-Ray from Kino Classics. My copy is from the DVD set and the transfer is quite OK and English subtitles are provided for the title cards.

It’s best to approach The Oyster Princess with no expectations at all in mind. Just sit back and enjoy the ride. Highly recommended.

Saturday, March 9, 2024

Downstairs (1932)

Downstairs is a 1932 MGM pre-code melodrama directed by Monta Bell. The setting is central Europe and while it’s never specified it’s fairly obvious that it’s Austria.

The household of the Baron von Burgen is celebrating the marriage of the much-respected butler Albert (Paul Lukas) to the Baroness’s charming ladies’ maid Anna (Virginia Bruce). The Baron is an indulgent master and it’s a happy household.

While the festivities are in full swing the new chauffeur Karl Schneider (John Gilbert) arrives. It will immediately be obvious to the audience that Karl is a bad ’un. Not just bad but sly, scheming and ruthless. And almost certainly a womaniser.

It’s also clear that Karl has taken an unhealthy interest in the naïve Anna.

Karl is obsessed with women but he’s obsessed with money as well and it’s not clear at this stage which of those obsessions takes top priority, although in all probability he hopes to get both. He’s a blackmailer rather than a thief. Being a thief requires too much courage and the truth is that Karl is a coward. His weakness is that he doesn’t just enjoy manipulating people, he enjoys flaunting his power over them and that attracts attention. It also makes enemies.

Albert is a bit of an innocent but he’s not a complete fool and he soon suspects that Karl has seduced Anna.

The easiest solution would be for Albert to fire Karl. As butler he’s in charge of the hiring and firing of the servants but it’s not that simple since Karl has a hold over the Baroness.

Tensions rise as Albert feels himself to be more and more publicly humiliated.

The final resolution is the sort of thing a movie would never get away with under the Production Code. What would really have landed this film in hot water once the Production Code arrived is Anna’s frank admission that while she’s sorry she cheated on Albert the sex with Karl was fabulous.

Virginia Bruce is excellent as the sweet but overly trusting Anna. Paul Lukas is good as the stiff-necked Albert.

The movie however belongs to John Gilbert. He’s deliciously slimy and while Karl is a full-blown melodrama villain Gilbert makes him believable.

John Gilbert had been a huge star in the latter part of the silent era. He was unable to make a successful transition to talkies and the reason for this has always been somewhat controversial. The story was put about that his voice was all wrong or that he had a weak voice. When you watch the talkies he did make it’s obvious that his voice was fine. He did have a serious falling out with Louis B. Mayer and it seems likely that Mayer deliberately wrecked Gilbert’s career.

He is so good in this film that one can’t help feeling that he deserved a much better fate than being tossed on the scrap heap. This is one of the all-time classic sleazebag cad performances.

It’s worth pointing out that this movie is based on a story idea by John Gilbert himself. This movie was important to him and he clearly hoped it would put him back on top. That didn’t happen. Critics hated the movie and the public apparently wouldn’t accept Gilbert (one of the great romantic leading men of the silent era) as an unsympathetic scoundrel.

In this case the critics and the public were both wrong. Downstairs is truly an excellent hard-hitting pre-code melodrama and it’s very highly recommended.

Downstairs is part of the four-movie Warner Archive Forbidden Hollywood Vol 6 set (along with the wonderful Mandalay) and it gets a very nice transfer.

Tuesday, March 5, 2024

Mandalay (1934)

Mandalay, a 1934 First National Pictures production, belongs to a sub-genre I dearly love - the pre-code tropical melodrama.

The movie opens in Rangoon. Tanya Borodoff (Kay Francis) and Tony Evans (Ricardo Cortez) are very much in love. Tony isn’t what you would call a respectable citizen. He’s a gun-runner. Tanya doesn’t mind. Tony has a big deal going with nightclub-owner Nick (Warner Oland). Tony has a problem - he doesn’t have the cash to pay for a shipment of guns and Nick won’t offer him credit. Nick offers Tony a tempting deal - he can have the money for the guns in exchange for Tanya. No decent man would sell his girlfriend, and certainly not to a man with Nick’s reputation. But money is money and women are easily replaced.

Nick’s nightclub is more than just a nightclub, it’s a brothel as well. Nick needs a new hostess to take charge and Tanya has the beauty and the class needed for the job.

Tanya is devastated, for a couple of hours. Then she shrugs her shoulders and accepts the situation. We are certainly meant to realise that Tanya has been, and is, somewhat flexible and free-and-easy in her morals. And she knows how to handle men.

She is now known as Spot White. She’s a success, but she is implicated in one scandal after another, as one man after another ruins himself over her. The British police commissioner in Rangoon decides to deport her, or at least he intends to deport her until she reminds him of certain indiscretions with the fair sex of which he has been guilty.

Tanya’s life in Rangoon has been rather exhausting so she decides to head for somewhere quiet to take things easy for a while. Mandalay sounds promising. On the steamer to Mandalay she meets Dr Gregory Burton (Lyle Talbot).

In classic melodrama style lots of plot twists follow, Tanya is caught between two men and all three main characters are trying to escape their pasts.

Ricardo Cortez was one of those actors whose careers were almost entirely ruined by the Production Code but in his pre-code heyday he was a solid second-tier star who was always very watchable. He always seemed to play characters who were up to no good, men with whom the heroine should avoid becoming entangled, but he was always fun.

Kay Francis was a huge star in the pre-code era but by the late 30s her career had more or less fizzled out. Like Ricardo Cortez she was a star who could only thrive in the free-and-easy atmosphere of pre-code Hollywood.

I’ve always had a soft spot for Lyle Talbot as well.

All three give extremely effective performances but the movie belongs to Kay Francis. She also gets to wear some fabulous slinky 30s dresses and she looks great. She’s absolutely at the top of her game here.

There’s no shortage of pre-code wickedness in Mandalay. Tanya is a high-class hooker and a sexual adventuress but she certainly isn’t condemned for making such choices. It’s better than just being a victim and feeling sorry for yourself which was the only other option available to her.

The plot goes places that would have been totally off-limits after 1934 and the ending is very pre-code indeed.

Michael Curtiz directs with style and energy, as he always did.

This movie demonstrates just how good Hollywood was in those days in creating exotic atmosphere without the need to do location shooting in exotic places. In fact the exotic overheated atmosphere in these early 30s tropical melodramas has a special magic that was lost when location shooting became all the rage. This is not reality. This is the fantasy world of Hollywood movies which is much more exciting and alluring.

This is top-notch sin and depravity in the tropics stuff. Mandalay is very highly recommended.

Mandalay is included in the Warner Archive Forbidden Hollywood Vol 6 set and it gets a very nice transfer.

Saturday, March 2, 2024

Dressed to Kill (1946)

Dressed to Kill, released in 1946, was the last of the Basil Rathbone-Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes movies. Roy William Neill was the director, as he had been on eleven of these films.

Dressed to Kill is based, very very loosely, on the Conan Doyle short story The Adventure of the Six Napoleons.

It starts with three music boxes. They’re not valuable antiques, in fact they’re worth almost nothing. But they’re worth killing for. The prologue to the movie gives the audience a clue as to the reason, but both Sherlock Holmes and Scotland Yard are totally in the dark.

The music boxes are an interesting variation on the ingenious plot device of The Adventure of the Six Napoleons. We know, and Holmes knows, that there is vital evidence concealed in these three music boxes, and that for some reason it is necessary to possess all three. But Holmes cannot for the life of him see how the trick was done.

It has some connection with a robbery from the Bank of England, but it wasn’t money that was stolen. Not exactly.

The problem is that all three music boxes were sold, to three different people. Holmes has to find those three people and find the music boxes but someone else is trying to do the same thing. Someone very determined and desperate and very ruthless. Someone who is one step ahead of both Holmes and Scotland Yard.

There is a woman in the case. Holmes doesn’t yet know her identity but he knows that she is very dangerous and will stop at nothing.

The woman is Hilda Courtney (Patricia Morison) and Holmes finds her to be a formidable opponent.

The major weakness in this movie is that the script is a bit uninspired. It borrows from previous entries in the series and the solution to the mystery is a little too obvious and the ending a little too contrived. At one point Holmes has a narrow escape but it seems much too easy and fails to evoke any real sense that he’s in danger.

Universal were happy to continue the series but Rathbone had had enough and one can’t blame him. He’d been a fairly big star in the 30s but in the 40s his career was just marking time and it’s understandable that he felt he needed to move on. It didn’t really work and his career never really regained momentum.

Amusingly a lot of critics at the time complained that the film’s title was meaningless, which is the sort of inanity that makes one wonder how film critics ever get to be film critics. Hilda Courtney is a classic femme fatale, she’s always exquisitely and seductively dressed and she’s not averse to killing. The title is perfect.

Several of the Universal Sherlock Holmes movies are specifically set in the 1940s with the Second World War playing a major role. These movies have Holmes hunting spies and saboteurs. In my view these are by far the weakest movies in the series. Holmes feels totally out of place in these wartime stories.

Happily the majority of the films in the Universal series avoid this pitfall. They essentially take place in a kind of Holmesian alternative universe. People drive cars, but apart from that it could easily be the 1920s or the Edwardian era or even the 1890s.

Dressed to Kill falls into this latter category. There’s nothing in this film that really looks 1940s. Even the cars seem old-fashioned for 1946. It’s as if Holmes and Dr Watson are totally unaware that they’re no longer in late Victorian London. I really love this temporal vagueness.

Countless actors have portrayed Sherlock Holmes in movies and on TV, including some very fine actors some of whom were extremely good in the rôle. I have a soft spot for Ronald Howard as a young Sherlock Holmes in the underrated 1954 Sherlock Holmes TV series. Peter Cushing did a very fine job in Hammer’s 1959 The Hound of the Baskervilles. But two performances stand head and shoulders above all the rest - Jeremy Brett in the 1980s/1990s Granada TV series and Basil Rathbone. Their interpretations of the character were wildly different. Brett played him as an irritable, unstable neurotic genius. Rathbone’s Holmes is supremely self-confident and always in totally control. The great thing is that when you read Conan Doyle’s stories both interpretations are justified and completely valid.

I simply can’t make a choice between Jeremy Brett and Basil Rathbone. They’re both magnetic and so much fun to watch.

Dressed to Kill is one of the lesser entries in the series but it’s reasonably entertaining and it has a fine femme fatale. Recommended.