Thursday, January 28, 2010


Gary Cooper is a famous author who has ruined his talent through drinking and wasteful living--think F. Scott Fitzgerald. When his latest book is rejected by his publisher, he and his wife (Helen Vinson) go off to stay on an old family farm in Connecticut, with Cooper hoping the lack of distraction with allow inspiration to strike. As soon as he arrives, he is approached by a Polish immigrant (Sig Ruman) and his lovely daughter (Anna Sten) about buying a neglected part of his land, which they intend for use by Sten and her husband-to-be (Ralph Bellamy). Cooper sells them the land, then quickly returns to his non-productive drinking ways. Vinson--think Eva Gabor on Green Acres--tires quickly of farm life and heads back to New York as winter sets in; one night, a drunken Cooper flirts with Sten, telling her she's too good for the rough, uncultured Bellamy. She rebuffs him but the next day they've become friends. With Sten as his muse, Cooper starts writing again, good stuff, we're told; he lets Sten read it and soon they're in love. Her father senses what's going on and forbids her visiting Cooper, but one night she's stuck there during a snowstorm and, though nothing more than a kiss happens, Ruman forces her to marry Bellamy within the week, just as Vinson arrives for a surprise visit. On Sten's wedding night, the forces of love, jealousy, and culture clash bring about a tragic ending.

This is a predictable melodrama, but worth watching, with several actors playing a bit against type, especially Cooper; he was no longer the male ingénue of MOROCCO or DESIGN FOR LIVING, and he hadn't yet been stereotyped as the strong, silent hero of adventure films or Westerns. He's relatively silent but plays a weak man who can't make things come out right for himself or his loved ones. Sten is better here than she was in NANA; in fact, she's very good but she's just not a Garbo type, and this was her last starring role in a Hollywood A-movie. Vinson's character is neither bitchy nor unsympathetic, just someone like Cooper and Sten who is subject to forces she can't quite control. The biggest surprise is Bellamy in a role far removed from the usual passive loser-boyfriend he played in many comedies of the 30's; here, he's almost playing a Lon Chaney Jr. type, a big, dumb, rough-edged, unlikable lug, and he's good in the part. The film's tone is also unusual for the time: though it becomes a tragic melodrama, it begins as almost a comedy, and comic touches remain here and there until the end. [DVD]

Sunday, January 24, 2010

NANA (1934)

Anna Sten is Nana, a scrubmaid in 19th century Paris; when her mother dies, she vows not to be poor or weak, and one year later, she's a successful streetwalker. After she makes a public scene dealing with a drunken sailor, theatrical impresario Richard Bennett hires her to appear in one of his shows. She's a sensation, and army colonel Lionel Atwill, though attracted to her, calls her a "gilded fly, hatched from the gutter." Though kept by Bennett, she begins an affair with Atwill's younger brother, Phillips Holmes. Atwill, trying to break them up, tells Bennett about her affair; he tosses her out of his life and his show. Holmes goes off to war and Sten moves in with her hooker friends from the old days. Thinking it's for the best, they throw away her letter to him, and his to her, so she'll forget about him. Atwill gets her a job in the theatre and becomes her lover and keeper. When Holmes finally returns to Paris, a confrontation between the three turns tragic.

This so-so romantic melodrama, based on a novel by Emile Zola, has become something of a film buff curiosity as it marked the Hollywod debut of the Russian-born Sten. Samuel Goldywn tried to build her up into a Dietrich/Garbo type, but her career never took off. She’s not bad, but she lacks the mystique of Garbo and the sex appeal of Dietrich, though there are many shots in the film in which she looks just like Dietrich. Atwill and Holmes are only OK in their roles, though Bennett (the father of actresses Joan and Constance) is good, as is Mae Clarke as Satin, one of Nana's friends. Also with Reginald Owen and Jessie Ralph. Directed by Dorothy Arzener and lushly photographed by the great Gregg Toland. [TCM]

Tuesday, January 19, 2010


A Hammer B-melodrama, much like TERROR OF THE TONGS; this was made the year before and has a similar plot trajectory. On the plus side, it moves at a faster pace, has a clearer plotline, and has more graphic gore, possibly serving as one of the inspirations for Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom; on the minus side, it's in black & white (a minus only compared to the colorful look of TONGS) and the individual characters are generally less interesting, though the villain here (George Pastell, pictured) is nastier (and more fun) than Christopher Lee was as the Tong leader. In colonial India, a Kali cult, the members of which not only strangle their victims but also disembowel and gouge out eyes, is terrorizing the populace and making life difficult for the British East India Company. Guy Rolfe, a British official, is upset by a lack of support from his superiors in trying to deal with the kidnappings, robberies, and murders, so he quits and goes looking for his former servant, who went in search of his long-lost brother, assumed to have been kidnapped years ago and impressed into service as a cult member. A scene of torture or graphic violence pops up every few minutes, not nearly as gory as they would be today, but still often startling. One of the most effective shock scenes involves a man leaping into a noose to hang himself. There's also a nice scene in which Rolfe is staked to the ground while a cobra comes slithering along the ground; if only there was a mongoose nearby to save our hero! Pastell, with his bald head, glowering eyes, and almost manscaped chest, makes for a particularly impressive bad guy, especially in the opening sequence when he’s whipping his followers into a frenzy by snapping a strangling towel between his hands and leading a chant of "Kali!! Kali!!" Allan Cuthbertson is a useless British twit who keeps pissing our hero off, and David Spenser is the brainwashed brother who’s given his full induction into the cult, including a triangle-shaped scar on the inner arm that, lucky for the good guys, is a dead giveaway of membership in the Kali fan club. This B-movie version of a Gunga Din/Temple of Doom adventure is worth seeing, and available as part of the Hammer Icons of Adventure DVD set. [DVD]

Sunday, January 17, 2010


Another Gene Raymond movie, this time a run-of-the-mill romantic melodrama which combines two hackneyed plotlines: 1) wealthy family disapproves of the common girl their son wants to marry; 2) wife tries to reform dissolute playboy husband. Raymond, who's never had to work a day in his life, takes nightclub singer Carole Lombard home to meet the family; they disapprove because they think she's a gold digger. The two marry anyway and Lombard leaves her gig, to the dismay of club owner Arthur Hohl, who is in love with her. The couple lives on the generous allowance that Raymond's father gives them, but Lombard soon thinks it's high time for Raymond to do some honest work. He gets a job as a lowly clerk in the family business, but his best friend talks him into taking afternoons off to go to the horse races, and soon he's quit his job and is back to his playboy ways. When Lombard finds out, she is furious and moves out, going back to work at Hohl's club. Of course, true love and hard work win out in the end. I'm not really a Lombard fan, though she is fine here, and Raymond is even better, and their scenes together are the best in the movie. The supporting cast is strong: in addition to Hohl, playing a rare nice-guy role, there is Donald Cook as Raymond’s brother, and Monroe Owsley as Raymond’s no-good best friend. [TCM]

Thursday, January 14, 2010


Fay Wray is working as a cook at a diner to pay her way through law school; she falls for handsome, popular football star Gene Raymond, who is studying to be an architect but who also likes moonlighting as a crooner. They marry and for a time she's happy being a housewife, but after she gives a judge some legal advice at a party (advice about how women on a jury can be manipulated), she's offered a job as a clerk at his office. When a lawyer falls sick, she winds up getting a big break defending a rich young man in a breach of promise case, and suddenly she's the toast of the town while his career comes to a standstill. He starts singing at a nightclub to make more money, which embarrasses her to no end. One night, she and her friends go to the club; he sees Raymond kiss a singer (Claire Dodd) who's been flirting with him, gets pissed off, and leaves in a huff, throwing change at Raymond as he begins singing. They split up and he takes up with Dodd; one drunken night, Dodd passes out and her scarf catches around a couch, strangling her to death. Raymond is charged with murder, and guess who agrees to defend him in court?

Though this film takes some fun detours from the norm (like the nasty nightclub scene), it's basically a tedious "wounded male pride" melodrama: Poor Gene Raymond! His wife is making more money than he is! That’s just unnatural. To his character's credit, he doesn’t actually ask his wife to quit her job, but it is her career that is blamed for his problems. And of course, even though she gets him cleared of the murder charge, for the happy ending to be complete she also has to quit the law and let him be the breadwinner. Grrrr! But as these films go, this is eminently watchable, mostly due to the mellow Raymond and the sizzling Dodd (pictured above with Raymond), who is always a welcome presence in 30's films, though sadly she was always in support, rarely leads. Wray is a disappointment; her acting is way too broad from the first moments of the film. There is solid support from familiar faces Jessie Ralph, Frank Albertson and Robert Barrat. Worth seeing if you can overcome your revulsion for the dated "put the woman back in the kitchen" plotline. One other major dated element has to do with race: Wray is able to get the young man off on the breach of promise case because the woman involved was a black woman passing as white (!) [TCM]

Tuesday, January 12, 2010


Another deep freeze movie today. As a rule, I don't review movies which for one reason or another I don't see all the way through. I admit to a tendency to nod off for five minutes or so during the middle of a movie, especially in the comfort of my own home, but if that happens, I can just back the disc up and see what I missed. This movie, on an Alpha DVD from Netflix, froze up at it approached the climax, with about 12 minutes left to play, and I could not get past that spot no matter what I did. Still, I think I suffered through enough of it to give it a fair review here. Adventurer Conway Tearle is leading a dirigible expedition to the South Pole, and he's not a bit suspicious when his wife (Virginia Valli) invites his best friend (Ricardo Cortez), who's also going on the trip, to accompany them to a banquet the night before they leave. Turns out Valli is in love with Cortez, and Tearle sees them kissing (while "Liebestraum" plays in the background), which rather puts a damper on Tearle's last night with his wife, seeing as she asks him to give her a divorce when he returns from the Pole. The dirigible, named Explorer, makes it through a bad storm, passes over the Pole where it's seen by the men at a polar base, disappears from radio contact, and crashes. The men decide to split up in small groups, hoping to run into search parties. Help does come, but the only survivors are, yes, Tearle and Cortez. There's only room for one on the rescue plane: who will go and will be left behind hoping for a second place's arrival?

This is the kind of film that gives early talkies a bad name. The plot moves excruciatingly slowly, and the camera doesn't move much at all. Everyone delivers dialogue in a slow and stilted manner, as though they were on stage performing an adult play for small children. It's theoretically an action/adventure film reminiscent of the "mountain movies" that the Germans were producing at the time (and it's a lot like S.O.S. ICEBERG, a German/American production of a few years later), but as it was made by Tiffany-Stahl, a small independent B-movie studio, the budget wasn't there for the kind of effects or location shooting that would have made this film interesting. Tearle and Valli are deadly dull; Cortez, whom I normally like, is not much better, so I blame the director (and the new sound technology) for the bad performances. Some of the effects and South Pole sets aren't bad, with the crashed zeppelin (see picture) looking the best, but overall this is just too dated to be of much interest (except historical) to viewers today. [DVD]

Sunday, January 10, 2010


This weekend, with a deep freeze still upon us, seemed a good time to view this run-of-the-mill biopic about the explorer Robert Scott who eventually made his way to the South Pole, but didn’t return. The film begins as he's trying to raise money for a second expedition after an earlier one in 1904 in which his ship got stuck in ice. Scott (John Mills, pictured) can’t get enough funding through traditional means, so he goes to the public for support. He doesn't get as much as he needs, but is able to hire some good men and manages to cut some corners so that by 1910, he's off to the Pole. Despite the crew's optimism, there are setbacks, partly due to limited resources, partly due to uncertain leadership. At one point, they have to shoot all the ponies, and when the small group of five finally do reach the pole, they are dispirited to find the Norwegian flag already planted there by the rival explorer Amundsen. Because we know from the beginning that Scott and his men will die on the ice--they die one by one on the way back from the Pole--the film feels gloomy, not at all like a tribute to a spirited adventurer, and there isn't much suspense, but the acting is good all around, especially Mills in the title role, but also from Kenneth More and James Robertson Justice. The filming of the expedition, done mostly in studio with some second-unit footage as background (including some nice penguin footage), is solid, despite the occasional obvious artifice. It helps that the film is in color, but the print used on the Trinity DVD is in bad shape, with lots of rough splices and a few blurry patches. [DVD]

Tuesday, January 05, 2010


John Lund, a mid-level executive at an Ohio factory, falls in love with a socialite, Gene Tierney, who has fallen on hard times. Despite their class differences, they're committed to making their marriage work. Enter Lund's mother, Thelma Ritter, a tough middle-aged woman who has just lost her Manhattan diner to bank foreclosure. She decides to pay a surprise visit to her son with the idea of moving in with him for a time, but when she finds out he's getting married, she realizes the two should be left alone during what she calls their "mating season" so she doesn't tell him she's in town and instead watches the wedding from a distance. Later, when she does pay them a visit, it's just before a cocktail party they're throwing and Tierney mistakes her for the hired maid. Ritter stays and helps make the party a success. Lund wants her to live with them, but she doesn't want Tierney to have the pressure of a live-in mother-in-law, so she decides to stay "in disguise" as a live-in maid. She and Tierney get along quite well in this fashion until Tierney's own mother (Miriam Hopkins) shows up to stay indefinitely. She's a monsterish pain in the ass, still clinging to her upper-class mannerisms, and sitcom troubles start piling up until it looks like Lund and Tierney are heading for a quick breakup; of course, wise Ritter manages to save the day. This is almost a screwball comedy, in as much as it's almost a comedy of re-marriage, or really a comedy of reconciliation. It's light and fluffy, with a plot that is just a tad bit too convoluted, with a subplot involving Lund's hard-drinking boss (James Lorimer) whom Tierney dumps at the beginning of the film. There's also a funny but uncomfortable moment when the eavesdropping Hopkins thinks that Lund is having an affair with Ritter, not realizing she's his mother. Ritter was nominated for a supporting actress Oscar and she is, as always, very good, carrying the movie all the way. Tierney has a nice light comedic touch and Hopkins provides good bitchy fun. [TCM]

Saturday, January 02, 2010

BABBITT (1934)

George Babbitt (Guy Kibbee) is a thoroughly average middle-class real estate developer in Zenith, which is, as road signs tell us, the fastest growing town in America. We see his daily routine: some mild exercise in the morning, a quick breakfast with the wife (Aline MacMahon) and college-age son (Glen Boles), some sloppy dictation to his secretary (Mary Treen) who always manages to spruce up his words nicely, dinner with friends--the henpecked Paul and his ferociously unlikable wife Zilla--and attendance at a meeting of the local businessmen's club, the Zebras (where we see Babbitt become the butt of a very elaborate prank as prelude to being made ceremonial head of the group). Babbitt loves his unexamined life until a string of events occur which throw him off kilter. First, Paul (Minor Watson), having had enough of his wife's nagging, shoots her during an argument; though she survives, Paul is sentenced to several years in jail, and because Babbitt refuses to abandon his friend, the Zebras give him the boot. Then Babbitt gets involved, despite warnings from his wife and son, in a shady scheme with two big shots to buy up dirt-cheap property based on a tip that a new airport will be built in the area. Finally, he begins an affair with a cheap dame (Claire Dodd); when he lets it slip to her in a weak moment about the real estate deal, she tries to blackmail him. Rather improbably, everything works out fine for Babbitt, mostly thanks to his wife and son who pull off their own scheme to neutralize the shady doings.

I have never read the original novel by Sinclair Lewis, but my understanding is that the character was intended to be a stinging satire on complacent, conforming businessmen--Babbit's very name became a negative label for such a person (Rosalind Russell uses the word with venom twice in AUNTIE MAME). But this adaptation treats the leading character with affection; even though it does seem to cast mild judgment against him, it ends by letting him regain his former standing in town, with his wife (who never knows that the potential blackmailer was her husband's mistress) and son, and even with the Zebras, and we are given to understand that he will have learned nothing much from his experiences. Still, the movie is well worth seeing; Kibbee is surprisingly good in a rare lead role and MacMahon (pictured above with Kibbee) is fine as always. The large supporting cast includes Hattie McDaniel as a singing maid, Minna Gombell as Zilla, the wife from Hell, and Alan Hale and Berton Churchill as Zebras. Minor Watson, who had mostly unmemorable supporting roles in over 100 movies, is a standout here as a guy beaten down by life. For some reason, this Warner Brothers film doesn't crop up too often on Turner Classic--I'd been waiting ten years to see it--so catch it when you can. [TCM]