Saturday, July 28, 2007
This is the most interesting of the lost RKO films recently recovered by TCM. It plays out like a rough cut version of a Jeanette McDonald-Nelson Eddy operetta, more fun and with less singing. In Australia in 1874, the law and the gentry are in an uproar when they hear that the dashing highwayman Stingaree (Richard Dix) is in the country. He's the subject of ballads and legends, and the inspector (George Barraud, a Warner Baxter look-alike) has his men out in force to snare him. Mary Boland is a rich old lady who fancies herself an opera singer, though she's certainly not, and she's planning to hold a recital for visiting British composer Conway Tearle; Irene Dunne is her serving maid, a Cinderella-type orphan girl who actually has a wonderful voice, though Boland, knowing Dunne would show her up, will not allow her to be present for the recital. On a rainy night, with Barraud too drunk to be an effective policeman, Dix snatches Tearle, and, while passing himself off as the composer, meets and is charmed by Dunne and impressed by her voice. He snatches her away, though Tearle escapes, and on the night of Boland's party, Dix, risking capture, brings Dunne there to sing. Dix is shot and arrested, but Tearle is impressed with Dunne and when the furious Boland throws her out of the house, Tearle takes her to Europe to make her an opera star. Dunne goes, with encouragement from Dix, but can't get the romantic bandit out of her head, and years later, she returns in triumph to Australia, hoping to sing for Dix, who is back on the loose. The finale is romantic and exciting, and, as this is a pre-Code film, allows Dix and Dunne to escape both jail and repressive society to take off into the wild unknown together. I've not always been terribly impressed with Dix, but he fits the bill quite nicely here, and at times he sounds exactly like Robert Preston as Harold Hill in THE MUSIC MAN; Dunne and Boland are both perfect in their roles; Henry Stephenson is Boland's husband, Andy Devine is Dix's sidekick, and Una O'Connor is the nervous maid who calls Dix "Stinky-ree." Reginald Owen has a small but crucial role as an important official. The movie can't really be called a musical, though there are a few songs, the most fun one being "If I Were a Fisherman," sung badly by Boland. Quite fun. [TCM]
Thursday, July 26, 2007
I'd avoided watching this WWII combat film because of its nearly 2-1/2 hour length, and though it would be a stronger movie if it were about 30 minutes leaner, it's still a must-see for fans of war films. It opens with a crawl which quotes General Stillwell about the humiliation of getting run out of Burma, the "back door" to China, and vowing like MacArthur to return. While Stillwell (Erville Alderson) prepares for this time, Errol Flynn and his paratroopers are dropped into a Burmese jungle in order to destroy a Japanese radar station. It should be a quick in-and-out operation, with the men heading to an abandoned airstrip afterwards to be picked up by American planes, and indeed the sabotage goes as planned, but just as the planes are about to land, the men on the ground discover that the Japanese have followed them and are closing in, so they send the planes away, split up into two groups, and plan to meet at a new pickup point a couple days later. However, all does not go well: one of the groups, led by Flynn's second in command, William Prince, gets tortured and mostly slaughtered, and the pickup points wind up serving as supply drop points as the pilots give the men orders to march further into enemy territory rather than toward camp. Though the men question these orders, Flynn keeps their spirits up as best he can. The climax is played out on a hill where the men wind up digging holes for themselves to hide from the Japanese while they keep an eye to the sky for rescue.
I like Flynn in his jaunty adventure mode (ROBIN HOOD, THE SEA HAWK), but I'm wary of him in his later more serious roles. This was perhaps the first film in which Flynn started to look older than his years, and I wasn't sure I'd like him here, but he's great as an inspiring leader to his men, easygoing but with the necessary gravitas, an officer who comes off as a regular Joe while still commanding respect. The action scenes are top notch, a sequence set at night is uncommonly well done for the era, and newsreel and stock footage are well integrated, especially in the parachuting scenes. Aside from bogging down a bit in the last hour, the film's only real flaw is that most of the supporting characters aren't differentiated enough for the audience to care much about. In addition to Prince, there's George Tobias as a "dumb lug" wisecracker, Warner Anderson as a colonel, and Henry Hull as an older war correspondent who's tagging along--and who gives a vicious speech about wiping the Japanese off the face of the earth after he sees some of the American soldiers who've been tortured and mutilated (we hear one man who is still alive but who begs to be killed, though we don't see him--today, we would see him in lengthy close-up, undoubtedly). The rest of the men don't get enough screen time to stand out, though I did recognize an unbilled Hugh Beaumont as one of the colonel's assistants. A superior WWII film. [DVD]
Sunday, July 22, 2007
Another one of the lost RKO films that Turner Classic has revived. I was quite disappointed in this one, though based on viewer comments at IMDb, I'm in the minority. The film pretends to be a comedy, and the plot falls squarely in the traditional screwball "comedy of reconciliation" genre, but it isn't really very funny. Ann Harding and Lucille Browne are the daughters of the rich Henry Stephenson; Harding's casual lover is William Powell, debauched heir to a shipping company who is in the midst of running the company into the ground due to his neglect. Browne has just gotten married, and Harding, who believes that marriage is the "business" of women, sets out to trap Powell, who is also carrying on with a married woman (Lillian Bond). She imagines she'll be a savior to Powell, whom she thinks can be goaded into becoming a great man (though he says he much prefers considering the lilies of the field). Harding sets herself and Powell up to be caught by her father in a compromising position, so Powell does indeed do "the right thing" and marries her, but on their honeymoon, he proposes divorce in six months. Powell is soon working hard at his business, but Bond comes back into his life, and when Browne lets slip in an angry moment that Harding set Powell up, Powell leaves her immediately. The finale takes place at a dinner party at which Powell, who is planning to travel abroad with Bond, is supposed to sign an important shipping contract with the Postmaster General. There is a slapstick fight in the kitchen between the butler (Reginald Owen) and the chef, but the party itself is just gloomy, and though Powell does come home at the end, his return strikes me as completely unmotivated, just to give the film a happy ending. The light tone of the first half is undone in the second half, when both Powell and Harding are constantly dispirited, and the otherwise fine actors can't make those much of those moods. There are some amusing lines now and then. When Harding gasps after seeing a picture of a tarted-up Bond in the newspaper, her sister asks what's wrong and Harding replies, "I was reading a new recipe for tomato surprise." I also enjoyed Powell's appraisal early on of Harding as "coolly virginal but exquisitely inviting." The whole thing should have had a faster pace, and the climactic party scene falls totally flat. One of the few times I've been disappointed in a William Powell performance. [TCM]
Saturday, July 21, 2007
A cute romantic comedy which has become the focus of some pop culture press recently because it's one of a handful of films that had been missing from the RKO library for over 50 years until a hunt by Turner Classic Movies found them. It's pleasant but quite average for its era, and bound to be a disappointment to anyone expecting that all "rediscovered" lost movies are classic gems. In a Greenwich Village apartment house, struggling artist Norman Foster, who lives in the attic loft, is three months behind in rent to landlord George Sidney (doing some rather heavy-handed Jewish shtick). Young working girl Ginger Rogers is similarly in arrears, and although the two have never met, Sidney forces them into an arrangement whereby Rogers moves into Foster's attic room; the two will share it in 12-hour blocks. Since he works as a night watchman, he lives there from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., and she occupies the space at night. They never meet but still manage to get on each other's nerves, mostly due to misunderstandings which escalate into a war of nasty pranks. In the meantime, of course, in the outside world, the two meet cute outside a deli without knowing each other's identity and begin a romance. Rogers works as a telemarketer (even back in 1933, such pains-in-the-ass existed; who knew?) for an ice box company and has to fight off the awkward attentions of boss Robert Benchley. Foster has his own battle against a constantly drunken rich patroness of the arts (Laura Hope Crews) who keeps hoping to seduce him by offering him lots of money for his paintings. Eventually, Foster accompanies Rogers on a company picnic, leading to the finale which sorts everything out into a happy ending for the couple (with Sidney claiming he meant such matchmaking all along). Rogers is a perfect fit for her role; Foster is a whiny, uncharismatic slouch but he's not bad enough to ruin the film. Benchley and Crews are both lots of fun, and Guinn Williams has a small role as a cab driver who begins feeling protective of Rogers. There's an odd little scene in which Sidney yells at his teenage son (Sidney Miller) for doodling swastikas on the wall. The boy responds that they are for good luck, but Sidney erases them anyway. By 1933, they would have been associated with the Nazis, though the Nazis would not yet be associated with mass murder; it's a strange moment that resonates weirdly for today's audience. Although this is a pre-Code film, there's not much explicitly racy behavior, but there are some suggestive shots of Rogers stripping and showering, and we see a very amusing sketch that Foster draws of Rogers' smiling face surrounded by a ring of thick sausages (reminding him of their first meeting at the deli). [TCM]
Tuesday, July 17, 2007
This is a wildly luscious Technicolor treat for the eyes; whether it has much to engage the mind is debatable. Domini (Marlene Dietrich) has devoted her life to nursing her sick father and when he dies, she returns to the convent where she grew up; she is unhappy and restless, and seeks guidance from the Mother Superior (Lucile Watson), who suggests she take a pilgrimage of the soul through the Sahara desert. Meanwhile, in a Trappist monastery in Northern Africa, a visiting Legionnaire (Alan Marshal) compliments the famous liqueur that is made there, but that very evening, it's discovered that the monk who makes the drink (Charles Boyer) has fled, though no one knows why. In the Algerian town of Beni-Mora, local opportunist Batouch (Joseph Schildkraut) gloms onto Dietrich, showing her the sights and such, and while in a club they a sexy dancer baiting a nervous looking Boyer, who is clearly untutored in the ways of the flesh (or even the ways of nightclubbing). When a knife fight breaks out, Dietrich and Boyer escape the melee, begin hanging out together, and soon fall in love, though he keeps his monastery background a secret. A seer who reads fortunes in the sand (John Carradine) tells Dietrich that her trip into the desert will bring her great joy but also warns her against some dark fate. She and Boyer marry, use their desert journey as a honeymoon, and are sexily, ecstatically happy for a time. One night, Legionnaire Marshal, lost with his small patrol in the desert, finds their camp and recognizes Boyer, and everything unravels for the duo. Boyer confesses that he turned his back on both God and the monastery (since now the famous liqueur can no longer be produced since only Boyer knows the formula) and Dietrich, with the "Ave Maria" playing in the background, insists he do the right thing and go back, even though it means their separation; she tearfully assures him that they will eventually be together in "the other world--the real and lasting world."
While watching the movie, I had this dual-reality thing going on: the plot and dialogue are not especially strong (though the actors try hard), but because everything looked so damned ravishing, I kept imagining I was watching a different film; I was almost in a "waking dream" state watching a phantom movie that was better than the one that was really playing out. The narrative is a cross between a lusty romance and a spiritual quest, and the colorful and occasionally outlandish visuals do a nice job of catching that tension. All the locations, especially the convent and the church in which the marriage takes place, are gorgeous, as are all of Dietrich's costumes--the standout for me was her metallic silver gown (which might not be the best choice for the Sahara Desert). The beginning of the end of the couple's happiness, when Marshal, the bad news messenger, arrives, takes place during a gloriously artificial nighttime scene, played against a midnight blue sky filled with sparkling stars. Actually, the color scheme of the film is relatively subdued (reminding me a bit of how color was used in Michael Powell's BLACK NARCISSUS) with blues, beiges, and oranges standing out. Some of the exteriors were shot in a real desert in Arizona, and for the most part, the real desert and the studio desert meld together well.
The dialogue is all just too melodramatic and obvious, as when Dietrich keeps repeating like a mantra, "No one but God and I know what is in my heart." (She may only say this twice, but it seems like it's uttered every 15 minutes or so.) The actors do the best they can, though Boyer always looks a bit *too* stoic, like he might have started chuckling at the improbability of it all as soon as the director yelled, "Cut!" Dietrich, as always, is fabulous, with great coloring and lighting. Schildkraut plays Batouch as one of those not-quite-gay but not-quite-straight companions like Erik Rhodes in GAY DIVORCEE or Ramon Navarro in THE BARBARIAN (though that character does "come out" as a heterosexual). Henry Brandon (the title villain in DRUMS OF FU MANCHU) plays his brother; C. Aubrey Smith is a priest who watches over Dietrich (his bushy eyebrows are less dramatic in Technicolor); Basil Rathbone plays a dashing count (frequently seen on horseback)--it feels like the character was written to be a major supporting part, but Rathbone ends up with little to do. I like this movie despite myself, and will certainly watch it again for its visual splendors, and because it makes Dietrich, who always looks good on screen, look great. [TCM]
Saturday, July 14, 2007
Jimmy Stewart is the star of this cheap-looking, non-studio quasi-musical based on a radio show). Stewart plays a man who runs a failing music store, following in the footsteps of his late father, giving poor children music lessons in exchange for goods and letting teenagers listen to records. His rich uncle (Charles Winninger) wants him to quit and join the family health food business. As it happens, Winninger hates music and has a particular grudge against the boarding house building next to his office, which is populated almost entirely by struggling musicians (played by real bandleader Hoarce Heidt and his band, the Musical Knights), cared for by landlady Mary Gordon, whose daughter, Paulette Goddard, sings with the band. As Stewart goes wandering through the neighborhood one day, on his way to tell his uncle that he's giving up the store, he gets involved in an incident in which Winninger has called the cops on the musicians, meets cute with Goddard, and winds up throwing a tomato at his uncle. Goddard, Heidt, and the gang take Stewart (who can play a mean harmonica) in, not knowing who he is. He gets initiated into the group, via song of course, winds up in jail briefly (as does Winninger), and helps the gang get onto his uncle's national radio show. Goddard, in a fit of anger at Stewart, announces that they'll give away a thousand dollars to a random person. They manage to turn this into a popular gimmick, using a stack of phone books and a "wheel of fortune" to give the money away, bringing fame to the radio show and a happy ending to all.
This movie falls pretty solidly into the B-production category, and I'm not sure why Stewart, an established star by this time, and an Oscar winner for THE PHILADELPHIA STORY, got roped into it; perhaps the producer, James Roosevelt, son of FDR, made him an offer he couldn't refuse. The film has a certain scruffy charm, but Stewart isn't right in his role; it might have worked better as a vehicle for Kay Kyser or a B-lead like William Gargan. Some elements of the story (the failing family business, the wacky bonded "family," and a courtroom scene with Stewart being arraigned for attacking Winninger with the tomato) remind me of other Stewart vehicles like IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE and YOU CAN'T TAKE IT WITH YOU, but this isn't crafted nearly as artfully as a Frank Capra film. Stewart seems uncomfortable throughout, and Goddard doesn't seem much happier. The neighborhood number is fun but too short; there are a lot of songs woven throughout the film, and Stewart actually does his own singing at least once--later, Stewart sings with a professional voice, and there's a cute reveal scene showing that he's lip-synching. Also with Dick Hogan as Goddard's cute little brother and Art Carney in a small role as a band member. I'm glad to have seen it once, but it's not a keeper. [TCM]
Thursday, July 12, 2007
Eleven years after LOOK BACK IN ANGER, Richard Burton gave a very different kind of performance in this odd little look at an aging gay couple, produced during the early days of Hollywood's freedom from the repressive Production Code. Burton and Rex Harrison are two middle-aged men who have lived together as a couple and run a barber shop for almost thirty years. What we see is a few days in their lives; Burton, who has gone bald and keeps his head wrapped in bandages and such to hide it, frets about his bedridden and severely arthritic mother (Cathleen Nesbitt) who lives with them, and about Harrison's fidelity; for his part, Harrison, a former music hall entertainer who still fancies himself a looker in his tight clothes and moderately painted face, is worried about a summons to appear before a magistrate over a charge of cross dressing in public (he did a quick, off-the-cuff drag bit in a bar). The narrative is not packed with incident: they go on a day trip to a park, and one night Harrison brings home a trick (younger but very unattractive), but mostly we just watch the two bicker. There is no real resolution to the narrative, such as it is, except for the message that, like many long-married heterosexual couples, they'll go on as they always have, whether it's love or just being accustomed to their situation. The film feels like a cross between WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF and BOYS IN THE BAND, though it is not as funny, clever, or insightful as those films. The characters are full of self-loathing, or at least self-pity, and their bitchy, snippy, hurtful behavior may make today's audiences cringe, but it's instructive to know that homosexual behavior was still illegal in the U.K. until just two years before this film was made. Harrison almost sleepwalks through the role, relying on campy mannerisms at half-energy. Burton is much better, actually trying to inhabit a character. There are some funny moments: Burton, upset that sex organs are all messy and "tucked away," thinks they should be like antennae sprouting out of our heads; Harrison harps away at Burton's recurring behaviors, calling them "weeping stints" or "sulking stints," and I'm worrying that I may pick up one of his repeated lines, "God save us all and Oscar Wilde." It's watchable, mostly because of Burton, but it's not a film I'd recommend to everyone. [TCM]
Monday, July 09, 2007
This early film in what I think of as the British "neorealist" movement of the 1950's, which examined the lives of young working-class people, is based on an influential play by John Osborne. Richard Burton is a college graduate, simmering with frustration over his circumstances: he lives in a cramped flat, spends his days selling candy from a moveable street stall, spends his nights blowing a hot trumpet at jazz clubs, and feels trapped by his working-class background. He takes a certain sadistic delight in bullying his young wife (Mary Ure); he has a much better relationship with his more even-tempered buddy (Gary Raymond) who co-manages the shop and lives with them. In quick succession, a number of things happen to rock the volatile Burton's world: an actress friend of Ure's (Claire Bloom) comes to stay with them for a couple of weeks, his mentor, an older woman he calls Ma (Edith Evans) has a stroke, and his wife discovers she's pregnant--a fact she hides from him for a time. In a relationship that starts out a little like that of Stanley and Blanche's in "A Streetcar Named Desire," Burton holds Bloom in total contempt and does nothing to hide his feelings, but when Ure leaves to stay with her parents, the two begin a passionate affair. Before the end, another subplot comes into play, involving Burton's resentment of "official" civil prejudice against an immigrant shopkeeper. Ultimately, Raymond heads off for greener pastures, Ure has a miscarriage and comes back to Burton, and Bloom bows out gracefully.
The first scene in this movie is of Burton playing with a jazz band (shades of the Sultans of Swing) and, though he is obviously dubbed by a professional trumpet player, his performance has such energy and passion (and the scene is shot so well) that the rest of the movie suffers a bit. Burton's character is a brutish lout who lashes out at everything and everyone (except his friend Raymond; in fact, his most sensitive scene is near the end when he says goodbye to Raymond), so the opening is the last time we really empathize with him, except perhaps when he visits the dying Edith Evans. The overall mood is one of overwhelming anger and frustration, though there is some humor from time to time; I chuckled at Burton's quip, "She was only a monkey's daughter, but my, how she handled her nuts!" Ure (married at the time to Osborne, and later to the actor Robert Shaw) is beautiful and handles herself well against the powerhouse that Burton was. Raymond, also quite good, was a darkly handsome young man who may be best known in the States for his role on the 60's war series, "The Rat Patrol." Bloom doesn’t come off quite as well, but I think that's because her character is woefully underdeveloped. A good film (though I can see that Burton's overpowering unpleasantness might turn some viewers off); compare with similar films of the British realist era such as SATURDAY NIGHT AND SUNDAY MORNING and ROOM AT THE TOP. [DVD]
Saturday, July 07, 2007
A peppy little B-movie of the "crime, reporters, and romance" type, set on a train (and just a bit reminiscent of BY WHOSE HAND?) and filled with familiar character actors. Douglas Fowley is a bank robber, hiding out with his wife, Isabel Jewell in a quiet suburb. Just as playing the friendly neighbor is getting to him, he discovers that he has a winning sweepstakes ticket and, incognito with his buddy Warren Hymer, hops a train to Kansas City to claim it. Also on the train: reporter Brian Donlevy, who is trying to get an interview with a scientist (who keeps insisting that he's not the person Donlevy thinks he is), and cute blonde Gloria Stuart, who hops on the train to avoid being served a subpoena. Naturally, Donlevy and Stuart hit it off, and just as naturally, neither one is quite whom they appear to be. When Jewell shows up at the Albuquerque stop, she thinks Fowley is sweet on Stuart and gets jealous. In Topeka, Fowley discovers that his compartment has been bugged by the law and he escapes, taking Stuart as a hostage and hiding out at a sanitarium run by a friend (Julius Tannen). Fowley has one last plan to claim the winning ticket, which climaxes in Donlevy’s return and some gunplay before a happy ending for Donlevy and Stuart. The film moves briskly and benefits from good performances, especially from Stuart and Fowley, and from some nice plot twists, a couple of which I didn't see coming. You'll recognize Charles Lane, Jonathan Hale, and Stepin Fetchit, who does his slacker/porter thing to a tee; it seems offensive at first, but here I could see the subversion that Fetchit's defenders have said is often a part of his performance. The film is based on a novel by W. R. Burnett, the author of Scarface and High Sierra, and it is occasionally referred to as 36 HOURS TO LIVE, though that title doesn’t seem as appropriate. This must have been out of circulation for a while, as it's difficult to find any critical comment on it, and the print that Fox Movie Channel aired is pristine. [FMC]
Wednesday, July 04, 2007
THIS HAPPY BREED (1944)
These two movies are both based on plays by Noel Coward, both celebrate the British and their way of life, and both are structured in a very theatrical fashion, each as a parade of episodes spanning a number of years in the life of a family. CAVALCADE won the Best Picture Oscar, but has largely been forgotten, even dismissed by some critics as the worst movie to win the top prize. It is hardly that--BROADWAY MELODY is much harder to sit through, and for my money there are several later films that are less entertaining, such as LIFE OF EMILE ZOLA and CHARIOTS OF FIRE. It is, though, very much a product of its time. A concise plot summary is provided by a title card at the beginning: "This is the story of a home and a family--history as seen through the eyes of a wife and mother." An upper-class wife and mother (Diana Wynward), as it turns out, whom we first see toasting in the new century on New Year's Eve, 1899. She is nervous about her husband (Clive Brook) heading off to fight in the Boer War. Downstairs, the maid (Una O'Connor) is also upset about her husband, the butler (Herbert Mundin) doing the same thing. This theme of war worries remains a primary narrative thread, not a consistent pro or con view, but more an acknowledgment that war is a scourge of civilization that will never go away. The rest of the film consists of a series of short scenes that follow the fortunes of Wynward's family (and, when they overlap, the fortunes of O'Connor's as well) over the next 30 years. Both men return from war; Brook is knighted and Mundin buys a pub, taking O'Connor with him. The two women stay in touch for a while, as do the kids of the two families. By 1908, Mundin has let his regular customers get away with not paying, and turns to drink himself, coming to a tragic end. In 1912, Wynward's oldest son (John Warburton) goes off on his honeymoon which we discover at the end of the scene is on the Titanic. In 1914, her other son (Frank Lawton) goes off to WWI, but not before he falls in love with chorus girl Ursula Jeans who is O'Connor’s daughter. And so on, until the last scene, with an aged Wynward and Brook toasting in the year 1933. The stagy dialogue scenes are OK, though to today's viewers, they seem the epitome of the brittle British stiff-upper-lip stage melodramatics that have been so often parodied over the years. These sequences are interrupted by some fairly exciting montages, some created by renowned production designer William Cameron Menzies, mostly of the war and the Lost Generation era afterward. Wynward is a British Norma Shearer, or at least a version of Shearer's respectable wife persona of 1939's THE WOMEN; she's good, but a sometimes a bit over-the-top in her suffering. The cast includes Bonita Granville (later to play Nancy Drew) and Margaret Lindsay. Almost every sequence has a musical number of one sort or another in the foreground or background, with the highlight coming late in the film when Jeans sings "20th Century Blues." [VHS]
Eleven years later, in the middle of WWII, David Lean directed an adaptation of Coward's THIS HAPPY BREED, basically a between-the-wars CAVALCADE which follows a middle-class family from the time they move into a suburban house in 1919 until they move out in 1939. The same structure is used, with a focus on Mr. and Mrs. Gibbons (Celia Johnson and Robert Newton) and their family and friends. A Christmas scene in 1925 sets up the primary relationships which are then tracked in a series of episodes that barrel through the 20's and 30's: one daughter (Kay Walsh) is in love with a neighboring sailor (John Mills) but also vaguely unhappy with her stifling middle-class life, and she runs away from home and takes up with a married man; another daughter (Eileen Erskine) falls for a political radical (Guy Verney) who softens into complacency over the years; the son (John Blythe), who falls under the influence of Verney early on, becomes a labor agitator and is in constant strife with his father until he too embraces middle-class values and gets married. We also get to know Mills' father (Stanley Holloway) who is an old friend and drinking buddy of Newton's, and a cranky spinster aunt who is constantly clashing with Johnson's cranky mother until she gets a vague form of religion. Despite having been made in the thick of WWII, war is not a theme here, though the march of time is marked by references to historical events (the death of King George) and pop culture (the Charleston, the rise of the talkies), and it winds up being lighter in tone than CAVALCADE, though the families still have occasional domestic tragedies. It's in color, and the acting is much less stagy than in the earlier film, but I still think CAVALCADE is a more entertaining film. The later breed may have been a bit happier, but the earlier breed was apparently more interesting. [TCM]
Sunday, July 01, 2007
UNDER EIGHTEEN (1931)
Despite the rather salacious title, this is an average pre-Code melodrama about the romantic problems of working class girls. The film opens with the wedding of Anita Page and Norman Foster; he plans to hit the big time through his pool playing skills, but he doesn't have much else going for him and, sure enough a year later, the couple and their new baby have to move in with Page's widowed mother (Emma Dunn) and teenage sister (Marian Marsh of the title reference, though she actually seems much closer to 21 than 18). Marsh works as a seamstress and has a steady boyfriend, nice guy milkman Regis Toomey, but she's frustrated with her economic status and his lack of ambition. At the dress shop, Marsh sees rich, well dressed women every day and assumes they're happy--this theme of money and/or happiness is evoked frequently throughout the movie. Eventually, Toomey proposes, but by that time Marsh has attracted the attention of rich playboy Warren William and she begins imagining a life of ease with someone like him. When her sister's marriage collapses, Marsh asks Toomey for $200 to pay for Page to get a divorce. He hesitates and she angrily calls off the engagement, telling Toomey, "Any time I hand myself to a man for life, it's cash on delivery." At a party at William's swanky penthouse pad, complete with drunken rich folks leaping fully clothed into a pool to dive for jewels, he suggests she "take off [her] clothes and stay a while" (though he's actually suggesting that she change into a bathing suit) and she asks him for the $200. Toomey, who in the meantime has had a change of heart, arrives at the penthouse and has a scuffle with William which leads to a near tragedy, then a comically implausible happy ending for all, even for the troubled Page and Foster. Marsh, best known as Trilby opposite John Barrymore in SVENGALI, is beautiful and handles the role well, though as I noted earlier, she never seems to be under eighteen, and her age is never an issue anyway. William, as usual, is fine, but Toomey and Foster are even better in their quieter ways, though Foster's character, a passive loser who gives his wife a black eye, is a problematic one for today's viewers. The "decadent" pool party scene is the only thing that makes this stand out from the many other cautionary tales of the era. [TCM]