Tag Archives: 30s film

The Blue Angel (1930)

“The films that von Sternberg made with me speak for themselves. There is nothing, and there will be nothing in the future, that could surpass them. Filmmakers are forever condemned to imitate them.” (Marlene Dietrich)

Based on the novel by Heinrich Mann, the film The Blue Angel (Die Blaue Engel) follows the obsession of a reclusive bachelor schoolteacher with a sexually liberated nightclub singer. The night club singer is, of course, Marlene Dietrich, and her unforgettable performance as Lola Lola catapulted her to international fame.

The Blue Angel is the story of Professor Rath, played by the portly Emil Jannings, who teaches at a boy’s school in a small town. While he is meticulous and stuffy in his personal and professional lives, he is also the object of ridicule. Scenes show him in the classroom where as a petty tyrant, the good students fear him and the poor students torment him at every opportunity. The class swot is appropriately named Angst (Rolf Muller). When Rath notices that some of the boys possess racy postcards of scantily dressed women, it’s Angst who tells Rath that the women on the postcards are from The Blue Angel–a popular hangout for the boys after hours. Rath decides to go to The Blue Angel and catch the boys himself, and of course, this is a very intriguing decision since Rath imagines that his jurisdiction spans the boys’ lives outside of the classroom. But there again, given Rath’s own evident surreptitious sexual interest in the postcard which depicts Lola Lola, perhaps moral intervention is just the excuse he tells himself in order to visit the nightclub after dark.

Once in the nightclub, the professor, who’s there ostensibly to catch the pupils drinking and ogling the dancers, falls under the spell of the fabulous Lola Lola. The Blue Angel is definitely a low-rent club, and the women who sing and entertain the crowds are a motley crew–one young woman just stands there and rotates her eyes in her version of ocular bellydancing. Lola Lola is clearly the star of the show, and for each of her songs she dons a different outfit–all of them managing to display her underwear. One costume is a huge farthingale. Not only is the skirt see-through (so we can see her bloomers), but it’s also backless–as the Professor discovers to his astonishment once he’s inside her dressing room.

The initial scenes with the Professor at The Blue Angel are comic, and much of the humour comes from the Professor’s reactions to Lola Lola. He very quickly falls under her spell, and once he’s lost his social position, he is gradually ground down by humiliation and eventually destroyed by the very sexuality that drew him into Lola Lola’s life.

Thanks to the advent of talkies, the career of thick-German accented Emil Jannings was on the wane when he cabled von Sternberg to join him in Berlin in order to make a film–the first sound film at UFA studios. Director Josef von Sternberg was engaged by Paramount and UFA for this joint German-American co production, and Jannings, who’d fought with von Sternberg on the film set before, argued for the employment of this director for what would be his first German speaking film. Jannings stated that “he had the choice of every director, even Lubitsch,” but that “his heart” was “set on” von Sternberg. In reply, the director said that Jannings was “a horrible affliction and a hazard to any aesthetic purpose.” Then he accepted, so Jannings set out to find a project that von Sternberg would accept and direct. In Berlin, Jannings came to von Sternberg with Heinrich Mann’s novel, Professor Unrat, and this is what the director says in his memoir, Fun in a Chinese Laundry:

I liked the idea of the first part of the novel, met Heinrich Mann and asked him if he had any objection to my changing the structure of his story, eliminating and adding whatever suited my purpose. I told him of my plan to call the film The Blue Angel, to change the name of the girl to Lola, and to alter the ending completely …. Mann had no objections; on the contrary, he told me that he wished he had thought of the suggested changes himself, and gave me full liberty to alter or add whatever I thought advisable.

Josef von Sternberg filmed two versions simultaneously–the English version and the German as the technique of film dubbing was not yet possible. Emil Jannings, who was paid  200,000,  stars as Professor Immanuel Rath, the strait-laced, sexually repressed bachelor professor. Marlene Dietrich was paid a mere 5,000 for her role.

With the leading man already in place, von Sternberg’s biggest task was to find the woman to take the role of Lola Lola, a cheap nightclub singer who is the object of the professor’s obsessive desire and the woman who ultimately leads the professor to his doom. Jannings wanted Lucie Mannheim or Trude Hesterberg for the role, but after seeing Dietrich perform in a play (he’d already passed over her photograph,) von Sternberg knew that he’d found his dark angel– “here was the face I had sought.” 

Moreover, there was something else I had not sought, something told me that my search was over. She leaned against the wings with a cold disdain for the buffoonery, in sharp contrast to the effervescence of the others, who had been informed that I was to be treated to a sample of the greatness of the German stage. She had heard that I was in the audience, but as she did not consider herself involved, she was indifferent to my presence.

Von Sternberg also noted Dietrich’s “impressive poise,” and also that she conducted herself with a remarkable “bovine listlessness” with eyes “completely veiled.” For von Sternberg, she was perfect.  Jannings and producer Pommer were not impressed, but von Sternberg pushed for a screen test, and she got the part. During the filming, von Sternberg and Dietrich began an affair.   

Take a look of Dietrich’s first rendition of Falling in Love Again, the song that bookends her relationship with the Professor and then compare it to the second which appears almost at the end of the film. In the first rendition, even though the song is sung with a certain amount of indifference, Lola Lola effectively woos the Professor, and in the second rendition, she rejects him with defiance, triumph and an acknowledgment of her nature. Lola Lola appears to have undergone a transformation between the two songs or is it Dietrich we see transformed?

While the film appears to have a simple structure, it’s full of repetition and doubling. The Professor’s world of order is in complete contrast to Lola’s world of make-believe and chaos. The Professor frequently engages with the clown (the clown was entirely von Sternberg’s invention), but the relationship with the Professor and the clown consists of them both staring at each other–as if they are trying to fit this alien being into some sort of frame of reference. Yet the way they stare at each other is also reminiscent of a person staring at a reflection in the mirror–and this is, of course, a foreshadowing of the Professor’s tragic fate.

It’s clear that The Blue Angel, light on dialogue is just one short step from the silent era, and perhaps this is why the English version is a curiosity. The English spoken is heavily accented, sometimes unintelligible, and clearly this is a German film–the word “achtung,” for example, appears from the pupils when they hear Professor Rath approaching. Kino released a splendid dual DVD release which includes both the English and the German versions and Dietrich’s screen test. Although the German version is superior, it’s still well worth watching both versions. During the Professor’s first visit to The Blue Angel, he spends time in Lola Lola’s dressing room, and as she leaves to go onstage to sing, she stands in the doorway of her dressing room, and somewhat coarsely readjusts her stockings, garter and underwear. This small, and yet deliciously telling detail is absent from the English-speaking version.  

The Blue Angel is an iconic, remarkable film. As the first talking picture made at UFA studios, it has its historic value of course, but it also is a product of the marvels and talent of Weimar Germany–soon to be washed away.  Kurt Gerron, who plays Kiepert, the magician, was forced by the Nazis to direct a propaganda film extolling the kindness of the Nazis to the Jews. After making the film, he and his wife were gassed in a concentration camp. Karl Huszar-Puffy who plays the innkeeper was trying to travel to Hollywood and, according to von Sternberg’s autobiography, he was removed from a ship and interned in a concentration camp in Kazakhstan by the Russians where he starved to death. Emil Jannings who played the Professor went on to star in a number of Nazi propaganda films, and he was named as Artist of the State by Joseph Goebbels in 1941. In contrast, Marlene Dietrich took a different path entirely. She opted for American citizenship and rejected Goebbels’ attempts to woo her back to Berlin with an offer of 50,000 pounds tax-free to return to Germany to make one film.

The Blue Angel is an entry into Caroline and Richard’s foreign film festival.

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Ladies of Leisure (1930)

The 1930 Frank Capra film Ladies of Leisure stars a very young Barbara Stanwyck as tough, independent party girl Kay Arnold. It’s New Year’s Eve in New York, and it may be Prohibition, but that certainly doesn’t stop the booze from flowing at the penthouse apartment of dilettante rich boy/artist Jerry Strong (Ralph Graves), son of a railroad tycoon. The party spills over into drunken absurdities and Jerry, suddenly losing his taste for the wild high life, ditches the party and his love interest Claire Collins (Juliette Compton) and goes off for a solitary drive.

While driving through deserted streets Jerry spots a  young woman as she rows towards shore away from a party taking place on a yacht. The woman, who accepts a lift back to New York, is Kay Arnold, and to Jerry she seems like a breath of fresh air. She’s unpretentious and unaffected, and on the drive back, Jerry and Kay impress each other for various reasons. As a party girl (which is a euphemism for prostitute), Kay fully expects Jerry to step out of line–after all, her line of work involves men just like Jerry–men rich enough to afford her company while they simultaneously don’t expect to be restricted to polite behaviour.

Jerry asks Kay to model for him, and although she’s suspicious at first, she soon ends up at his penthouse apartment putting in long hours. Jerry just can’t seem to get his painting right. In his head he has a vision of Kay gazing toward the heavens with a beatific gaze, but he just can’t seem to get the pose. He buys Kay clothes, wipes off her makeup, but there’s still something missing.

In the meantime, everyone sees Jerry’s real motive for employing Kay as his model. Jerry’s amusing, permanently boozed-up friend, Bill (Sherman Lowell) fancies Kay for himself, and he makes it clear he’s interested, even dangling a cruise to Havana in front of her nose. Claire senses a shift in Jerry’s interest, and Jerry’s parents step in with separate attempts to prise Jerry away from Kay.

The role of Kay Arnold was a breakthrough in Stanwyck’s career, and she’s really wonderful as the gum-chewing, rough-around-the edges party girl who reforms thanks to love. I’ll admit, though, that I prefer Kay in the beginning of the film. She becomes far less interesting when she falls in love and giddily dons an apron. The role of Jerry is problematic–mainly because he’s such a wanker. He’s completely out of touch with his feelings–which isn’t a problem in itself, but then he orders Kay around in a most annoying fashion. He doesn’t make much of a romantic figure especially when Kay appears to transform, dropping some of her most appealing characteristics as she tries to please Jerry. There’s a vast gap between these two and as far as the love story goes, I don’t hold out much hope for this couple.

On the other hand there are two other performances well worth noting: Lowell Sherman as Bill and Kay’s hilarious chubby best friend: Dot Lamar (Marie Prevost): a woman who believes “you can’t weigh sex appeal.”

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Au Bonheur des Dames (1930)

“You seem to use women too easily, my dear man. People get hurt in that game. Beware, one day one of them may avenge the others.”

I’ve been reading quite a few Zola novels lately, and since I have a fascination with the book/film connection, it was only a matter of time before I started watching film versions of Zola’s 20 volume Rougon-Macquart series. Some months back, I watched Gervaise (1956) which is based on the 7th novel L’Assommoir, and then recently I found a copy of Au Bonheur des Dames (Ladies Paradise), a silent 1930 version of the 11th novel in the Zola series. This film is from director Julien Duvivier. He also made Pot-Bouille based on another novel in the series, but I haven’t found a copy of that with English subtitles yet.

While the novel is set in the hustle and bustle of France’s Third Empire, the film is set in the 1920s, and the film immediately captures the atmosphere of a world in flux–a world of horses, carriages and small businesses about to be replaced by cars and huge department stores.

The film begins, appropriately at a train station with the arrival in Paris of young Denise Baudu (Dita Parlo), an orphan from the country who’s arrived to join her uncle at his small shop. As she steps off the train and makes her way through the bustling streets of Paris, a plane flies overhead showering leaflets advertising the huge department store, Au Bonheur des Dames. Everywhere Denise turns there’s mention of this phenomenon and when Denise first sets eyes on the glittering lights and the gorgeous window displays, she’s mesmerised.

Unfortunately Denise’s uncle invited his niece in better times. The mammoth store Bonheur de Dames, which is directly across from her uncle’s business, has effectively ruined him.  His grimy, dingy little shop simply cannot compare to the glittering competition. He’s no longer in a position to employ anyone, and so Denise drifts across the street to the beckoning lights of the Bonheur des Dames and there she’s employed first as a floor model. 

Soon she attracts the attention of several men: a homely young clerk, the lascivious manager and the owner, Octave Mouret (Pierre de Guingand)….

The film lacks the complexities of the book. Background information on Octave Mouret is absent, and unfortunately the film simplifies the intensity of Octave Mouret’s business acuity. In the novel, he’s a brilliant businessman, and this is detailed in several instances. In the film, however, this is distilled down to the essentials and the physical evidence of the Bonheur des Dames. For example, in the book, Octave sets in motion a fierce sense of competition between the shop clerks by giving commissions. In the film however, employee interactions are mostly limited to a brawl in the cafeteria, and a bitchiness between the floor models. Neither does the film address the dilemma of Denise’s divided loyalties, and only hints at the book’s depiction of Denise as a woman with an intuitive business sense that matches Octave’s ambition.

Although the film simplifies the book, it is not a disappointment.  The film’s strength lies in its depiction of the huge department store. Interior scenes depict a lavish, garish Tower of Babel with distant aerial shots of the customers resembling ants on a giant anthill as they ascend and descend the enormous, central sweeping staircase. Close-in shots concentrate on the madness and mayhem of the shoppers in riot-like scenes.

As Mouret plans the expansion of the Bonheur des Dames, neighbourhood shops fall victim to the insatiable appetite of progress, and phantasmagorical scenes depicting the destruction of the old shops are juxtaposed with the expansion of Mouret’s   “Temple of Temptation” to consumerism. Another scene depicts Octave’s love interest, madame Desforges (Germaine Rouer) sitting in an alcove against the backdrop of a gorgeous art deco mural. Beautiful shots of reflections in mirrors and in glass windows are scattered thoroughout the film.  Visually this is a gorgeous film and Dita Parlo’s wonderfully expressive face is complemented with plenty of close-ups.

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Forbidden (1932)

“You’re poison to me. Poison. I wish I’d never met you!”

The Frank Capra pre-code film Forbidden examines a love affair between a single career girl and a politician. Yes, the story of the backstreet love affair has been done a million times, but there are nice little complications to Forbidden that elevate this drama from the mediocre. And of course, it does star Barbara Stanwyck….

The film begins with librarian, Lulu Smith (Barbara Stanwyck) deciding on a whim (and infected with spring fever) to cash in her savings and take a cruise to Havana. In the library, she’s a spectacled frump complete with a bun, but once aboard ship, she’s dressed in a full-length evening gown, fur stole and glittery jewelry, but she’s still noticeably alone–a fact that confounds the ship’s crew. 

Lulu meets and promptly falls in love with another solitary passenger, Bob (Adolphe Menjou). Nicknaming each other 66 and 99 (after the numbers of their cabins), Bob and Lulu spend the entire time together–both on the cruise ship and later in Cuba’s nightclubs. Their love affair is light and devil-may-care. Any serious discussion is deliberately avoided–although at one point Lulu does drop a broad suggestion about skipping the homeward bound ship and staying in Havana.

But Lulu and Bob return to their old lives. She begins working at a newspaper office where she attracts the interest of Holland (Ralph Bellamy), but Lulu makes it clear she’s not interested. Meanwhile Bob’s continuing relationship with Lulu is marginalized into the odd stolen hour, and in spite of the fact he’s a lawyer, Lulu never sees his name in the paper. Eventually of course, Bob reveals he’s married and cannot divorce his wife. Lulu is content to take crumbs but circumstances drive the couple apart.

Forbidden traces the relationship between Bob and Lulu over several decades. Bob’s political career soars while Lulu remains in the background, and she sacrifices again and again–career, relationships, motherhood–these issues are sacrificed on the altar of Bob’s home and career.  Forbidden explores the oppositional forces of selfishness and selflessness through their relationship.  At first, Bob and Lulu think of themselves and their desires, but then Bob shifts and suddenly he has to protect his wife, Helen (Dorothy Peterson) due to  her ‘invalidism’. His argument against a divorce to protect his wife also rather conveniently ensures the continuance of his political career. The film doesn’t explore Bob’s motives a great deal, but the tantalizing possibility that Bob uses his wife as an excuse to protect his political ambition is evident. 

Forbidden is a film that can generate a lot of intriguing discussions, and I suspect many of us would have different opinions about the characters, their motives, and just how selfish or unselfish they really are.

The film makes it clear that Lulu and Bob both very deftly avoid any discussion of their lives when they first meet. In fact at one point, Bob seems (in retrospect) on the verge of confession, when Lulu stops him. Later, Bob’s late night visits must also rouse Lulu’s suspicions but once again she avoids confronting the truth until she’s forced to. This conspiracy of silence extends beyond the lovebirds and even includes Bob’s wife. During one scene in the film, Bob’s wife is about to take off for Europe for a ‘cure,’ and she gives Bob carte blanche to do as he pleases, telling him:

“While I’m away, I want you to have a good time and I won’t ask any questions either.”

So it seems that Bob and Lulu’s affair will be ignored by the missus just as long as he keeps it under wraps. So we have a mistress who’d rather not know about the wife, and a wife who’d rather not know about the mistress. And what of Bob? He has his proverbial cake and eats it too. At one point, Bob rather lamely tells Lulu: “why I’ve taken your life almost as though I’d been a murderer,” and in another scene, he whines (rather unconvincingly, I thought) about how difficult his life is.

Then there’s the question of Holland. He’s every bit as ambitious as Bob, but his goal as newspaper editor is to ruin Bob’s career, and so Holland digs hard and deep for a scandal. Lulu uses Holland, and yet Holland uses Lulu too. So basically we see these four adults in twisted relationships that are a bizarre combination of selfishness and selflessness, and by the time the film ends the results of these relationships are disastrous and destructive.

Forbidden is a really interesting early pre-code vehicle for Stanwyck. The drama steers clear of hysteria and too much melodrama. The weepy bits are well done and conducted with beautiful touches–my favourite scene is when Bob runs after Lulu in the rain. Catch the moment when the rain drips from Bob’s hat. It’s a magnificent touch.

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Bombshell (1933)

bombshellI’ve never seen a Jean Harlow film I didn’t enjoy, but I think Bombshell may very well be my favourite, and that surprises me a bit as I really enjoy the pairing of Harlow-Gable in some of her other major films. Perhaps the film’s success lies partly in the fact that it’s pre-code, and the perfectly timed performances mesh with a sparkling script that matches Harlow’s talents. Bombshell is a thinly disguised homage to Harlow and the cult of celebrity, yet at the same time, Harlow so seems to enjoy taking a sly dig at her own real-life career.

Bombshell begins with images of actress Lola Burns (Jean Harlow) and then clips of Harlow’s real-life films mingle with shots of adoring, fixated fans as they stare at the big screen. Quickly establishing the way in which Burns is seen on the big screen and how she is idolised by her fans, the film then cleverly leads into the way Lola Burns really lives.

The film opens with a very typical day-in-the-life of Lola Burns. It’s morning and she wakes up in her splendid mansion in a bedroom complete with frills, silk and feathers for that despotic harem-brothel look . Even though she’s a wealthy woman and surrounded by servants, Lola’s life is a mess. Both Lola’s drunken brother and her obnoxious gambler father sponge off her while trying to manage her career, and this translates to ensuring she stays in harness, earning the money they spend. To make matters worse, she’s surrounded by out-of-control servants who take advantage of her good natured generosity. Lola’s chaotic life even follows her to the studio, and the fact that everywhere she travels she’s accompanied by her three Old English Sheepdogs doesn’t exactly help matters. If she’s not tripping over dogs, she’s juggling interviews, fans and gossip-hungry reporters. And on top of all this, the studio’s publicist, E.J. “Space” Hanlon (Lee Tracy) exploits every angle of Lola’s personal life in order to keep her on the front page. There is literally nothing that Space wouldn’t sink to in order to get a headline. 

Merging real-life with fiction, Lola is filming Red Dust with Gable while she has a romance with slimy Hugo, the Marquis Di Pisa Di Pisa (Ivan Lebedeff). The Marquis, a notorious gigolo (also called a “fungi,” a “rummage sale Romeo,” and a “glorified barber“) sponges off of vulnerable female Hollywood stars who are impressed with his foreign accent and his title. Of course, to the Marquis, Lola is a perfect target.

The plot follows Lola’s romance with the Marquis, her various whims (such as adopting a baby) and her romance with snotty poet Gifford Middleton (Franchot Tone). Meanwhile Space subverts snd sabotages Lola’s decisions about her life turning everything into a smutty headline for the studio. While the film keeps an even beat and a steady stream of comedy, some of the film’s funniest scenes occur when Lola meets blue-blood Gifford and his family. Tone’s romantic lines are priceless: “Your hair is like a field of silver daisies. I’d like to run barefoot through your hair!” Tone, of course, gained a great deal of notoriety a few years later in 1951 when he was in a fight with actor Tom Neal over the beautiful, self-destructive actress Barbara Payton.

The very lovely, luminous Jean Harlow is marvelous as the blonde Bombshell. She was just 22 when the film was released and tragically died just four years later in 1937. She’s so young in Bombshell and yet she delivers the performance of a confident, seasoned performer, never missing a beat, full of life, and simply perfect for this role.

This precode film includes a few hints at sex. For example, early in the film, Lola wonders what happened to the negligee she just gave to her maid, and the following exchange takes place:

Lola: I didn’t give you that for a negligee. That’s an evening wrap.

Loretta: I know Miss Burns, but the negligee you gave me got all tore up the night before last.

Lola: Your day off is sure brutal on your lingerie.

And in another scene, Lola is planning to adopt a baby but Space jumps to the wrong conclusion and thinks that Lola is about to be an unwed mother. Then horror of horrors, the dialogue leads Space to think that Lola doesn’t know who the father of her baby is. It’s a funny scene and of course the audience is on the joke, but when the Hays Code came into power, this exchange simply wouldn’t have happened.

Anyway, if you want to watch a Harlow film and don’t know where to start, Bombshell is a marvellous film and showcases Harlow at her glittering best. Directed by Victor Fleming.

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Today We Live (1933)

“It’s worth a World War to get a uniform like that.”

today we live 1Today We Live is a weepy melodrama set in WWI–notable for its cast: Joan Crawford, Gary Cooper, Franchot Tone, and Robert Young. Directed by Howard Hawks and based on a William Faulkner novel, it’s the story of four characters and one love triangle set against the backdrop of WWI bravado.

The film begins with an American, Bogard (Gary Cooper) arriving in Britain. It’s 1916 and it’s the middle of WWI, but Bogard declares himself “neutral.” He plans to rent a country home in Kent from a British family, and he travels to the house just as Diana (Joan Crawford) the daughter of the house discovers that her father, a British army captain, has been killed in action. Bogard moves in and Diana moves into the gardener’s cottage.

Diana’s brother, Ronnie (Franchot Tone) and their life-long friend, Claude (Robert Young) arrive with just a few hours to spare before shipping out. This interlude confirms Diana’s romance with Claude and she agrees to wait for him. That leaves her alone with Bogard, and they fall in love.

Today We Live is a peculiar film. For a start, three of the main characters: Diana (Joan Crawford), her brother Ronnie (Franchot Tone), and their childhood friend, Claude (Robert Young) are supposed to be British but of course, they are all American. This leaves Crawford hard-pressed to deliver the fake accent, and as a result, her voice seems to come from somewhere at the back of her throat, and the lines with their long vowels are accompanied by little facial expression (apart from tears)–it’s as though Crawford puts all of her effort into the accent.

While it’s supposed to be 1916, some of Crawford’s costumes (before she runs off to join the war) are much too ‘modern’–take the number she wears when she first meets Bogard. It looks like something Lt. Uhura would wear. But frankly, all these quibbles aside, it’s the horrible script that sinks this film.

Today We Live is a tearjerker based on the premise that war is noble, calls for great sacrifices and that the best way to approach the war is to pretend it isn’t happening. This works for some scenes but not others. For example, when Ronnie and Claude visit Diana for a few hours before they ship out, the atmosphere is deliberately gay and carefree. It works. But when Ronnie and Claude visit the WWI memorial to the dead, look at the names, and see Ronnie’s father’s name as the latest addition, they are positively glowing. 

Diana and Bogard fall in love–it seems–after a short bike ride–another problem. If a film is a tearjerker, it should allow the audience to wallow in it, and this film doesn’t. There’s another scene with Claude acting as a turret gunner and mouthing “sorry” as he shoots Germans down.

But ultimately it’s the film’s dialogue that drove me around the bend. In what seems to be an attempt to show suppressed emotion, the film’s clipped dialogue is absurd:

“Wasn’t killed. Mistake. Met him in the hospital.”

“Been waiting. Getting worried.”

“Can’t help it. Tried. Tried terribly.”

Now while perhaps we could argue that it’s a brother-sister language (and the film indicates that Ronnie drives the ‘no emotion’ stance), Claude speaks it too: 

“See. See better now. See lots of things.”

With dialogue like that, the characters begin to seem like foreigners who haven’t yet mastered things like pronouns and articles. Makes me think of those Hollywood films where they have Americans dressed up as Chinese, let’s say, and the authenticity is supposed to come from perfectly pronounced words that are delivered in clipped sentences.

On the positive side, Roscoe Karns as Bogard’s sidekick McGinnis steals the film. McGinnis is the only sensible character in the bunch. And it is great to see the dewy-eyed Crawford before she developed that hard look that carried her through Mildred Pierce. Crawford met Franchot Tone on the set of Today We Live and they later married in 1935. Tone, of course, had a real-life love triangle of his own involving Barbara Payton and Tom Neal.

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Hold Your Man (1933)

“You know you wouldn’t be a bad-looking dame, if it wasn’t for your face.”

hold your manSet during the depression, the 1933 film Hold Your Man from director Sam Wood begins by focusing on the feet that pass by on a street corner. A wallet lands in the middle of the feet and two men begin to argue about who found it. This scene is the introduction to the film’s rogue with the “crooked smile,” Eddie Hall (Clark Gable).

On the lam from the police, ladies’ man and smooth-talking grifter, Eddie Hall meets wise-cracking, tough-as-nails, good-time-girl Ruby Adams (Jean Harlow). The sparks fly between these two major Hollywood stars as they verbally spar back-and-forth in Ruby’s apartment, and although they both try to come out on top from the exchange, it’s a draw. Eddie’s good looks and charm don’t get him far with this dame, and Ruby makes it clear that she’s not a sap to be taken advantage of. Inside Ruby’s apartment, Eddie catches sight of a photo from one of her male admirers, but then as he walks around, he sees a large collection of photos of men all signed with good wishes. The implication is clear: Ruby has been around. Eddie and Ruby meet once again at the Elite Club. Ruby is there on a date with the aim of getting some money for her pain and suffering. While she’s  obviously bored to tears by her date, Ruby comes to life when Eddie shows up masquerading as an old friend. The film’s best, witty scenes occur early in the film as the two main characters get to know each other.

The film sinks after the second half as the plot morphs into a maudlin tale of redemption. The script, written by Anita Loos, sparkles for the first half, but then the dialogue loses its pep and slides into the ordinary with the result that the film’s great first half was as funny as its second half was disappointing. Ruby’s image of the wise-cracking dame fades rapidly just as it seems she needed her claws the most, and the tale’s conclusion comes wrapped up tightly with a conventional, saccharine-sweet final scene.

Hold Your Man is one of six films made by Gable and Harlow, and it follows on the tail of Red Dust. While the first half of Hold Your Man matches Red Dust for entertainment value, the second half did not. This is not Harlow’s best by any means as she just doesn’t make a very good victim and she’s at her tenacious best when unleashed in a role that’s worthy of her.  Hold Your Man, by the way, is a pre-code film. The Hays code wasn’t enforced until 1934, but even so the redemptive ending and conversion by domesticity really smacks of someone trying to keep those censors happy.

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Filed under Comedy, Jean Harlow

Fashions of 1934 (1934)

“I’ve been told that when Americans die, they don’t go to heaven. They go to Paris.”

Fashions of 1934 is a lighthearted look at the world of fashion from director William Dieterle, and even though the film was made over seventy years ago, well some things, such as human nature and the absurdity of fashion just never change.

When the film begins, swindler Sherwood Nash (William Powell) needs a new scam. His Golden Harvest Investment Company is on its last legs, and even the office furniture has been repossessed. At one of the frequent low spots in his life, and acknowledging he needs a “new racket,” he runs across clothing designer Lynn Mason (Bette Davis) and with his sidekick Snap (Frank McHugh) the trio bootlegs Parisian fashions that are destined for exclusive New York couture houses. By bribing the driver who’s supposed to deliver the Parisian gowns, Nash, Lynn and Snap have a hilariously efficient method of copying the clothing. Soon New York socialites who paid big bucks for their exclusive gowns are stunned to discover their maids wearing knock-off copies for a fraction of the price. This leads to many embarrassing moments for the heads of the New York fashion industry, and although bitter enemies in the past, finding the “dress industry threatened by pirates,” heads of the New York fashion houses “organize to stamp out copying.”

When caught and confronted, Nash takes it one step further by convincing the New York fashion heads to send him to Paris, so that he can rip off the Parisians. The owners of the New York fashion houses like the idea of directly bootlegging the overpriced Parisian designs, and so Nash, Snap and Lynn sail for Paris.

Unleashed in Paris, Nash founds Maison Elegance, and with Lynn designing the clothes, they soon find themselves unwelcome in The City of Lights.

This is a delightful madcap comedy. From the heads of the fancy fashion houses on down, everyone has a scam. The film is Powell’s as he scams, lies and bluffs his way to the top of the Parisian fashion heap. As Nash, Powell is dapper and convincingly insincere, but Davis doesn’t have much of a role. She doesn’t have many lines and not much chance to act. In this black and white film, Davis wears like a Platinum blonde wig. Fashions of 1934 was Warner Brothers’ attempt to turn Davis into a glamour puss, and needless to say their efforts didn’t work, and Davis wasn’t thrilled about it.

For those who have any interest in fashions of the 30s (and some of the clothes are gorgeous) or if you are a fan of Bette Davis or of William Powell, then you are in for some decent entertainment. There’s a big dance number choreographed by Busby Berkeley in the film that includes some amazing sequences with Ostrich feathers.

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Filed under Bette Davis

Shopworn (1932)

“Your thoughts are just like your kitchen … DIRTY”

A very young Barbara Stanwyck shines in Shopworn, a dreary little drama that doesn’t have a great deal to recommend it. The film begins rather abruptly with an accident that claims the life of Kitty Lane’s (Barbara Stanwyck) father. The death scene is atrociously acted, and that is unfortunate as it basically opens the film.

Kitty Lane, now orphaned, and penniless, goes to her Aunt who works in a café in a university town. Kitty quickly becomes the attraction at the café, but class places an almost insurmountable obstacle between her and the young men who come in to flirt. One day she meets the serious minded David Livingston (Regis Toomey), and a romance blossoms briefly before his mother sabotages it.

The plot of Shopworn–a romance ruined by class–is not new. Here, Livingston’s mother (Clara Bandick) is selfish, malicious and hysterical, and while she’s convinced that Kitty will ruin her son’s career, she basically wants to keep him all to herself. She uses her money and influence to ensure that her son doesn’t marry Kitty.

Years pass, Kitty becomes a famous and notorious actress, and so ironically she becomes even a worse match for David in his mother’s possessive and snobby view. But this time, Kitty has power and money to fight back.

Stanwyck fans will treasure seeing her in this role, but the rest of the cast just seem left in the dust. There was no chemistry between Kitty and her leading man, little or no character development, and the film’s conclusion is abrupt and simplistic. Keep an eye open for Zazu Pitts as Kitty’s Aunt Dot.

From director Nick Grinde.

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Filed under Barbara Stanwyck

Gambling With Souls (1936)

“You filthy operator of a sex exchange.”

Strict censorship rules of the Hays Code spawned the production of many sexploitation films–films that were presented as exposes of the lurid charms of various human vices. These films took a strong moral stance against these vices and illustrated the inevitable consequences of sin while indulging the audience with an excuse for puerile voyeurism.

In Gambling with Souls, Mae Miller (Martha Chapin) is married to a doctor (Robert Frazer). He’s devoted to his career, and she’s left to her own devices for long periods of time. She becomes friends with Molly Murdock (Vera Steadman) who quickly introduces her to gambling. Gambling is just the first step into luring Mae into prostitution to pay off the money she owes to gambling club owner, Lucky Wilder (Wheeler Oakman).

Gambling with Souls from director Elmer Clifton contains a strong strain of Victorian melodrama (“you who thrive in the slime of life”)–with the righteous husband appearing (“women are not always to blame for their downfall”), and the wicked, repentant wife sobbing her way through a confession of her life of sin.

For camp fans, there’s a mild degree of entertainment here. Some of the lines are very funny, and there’s one scene in a club that shows a girl dancing, but she’s more of a contortionist than a dancer. She gets up on top of one of the tables, and hikes her skirt up, displaying her undies as she performs contortionist acts. It’s supposed to be sexy–at least that’s the impression I get from the men in the audience drooling as they watch her performance. There’s another scene with a chorus line, and the camera focuses on the girls’ bottoms for an inordinate amount of time. One scene (reminiscent of Hylas and the Nymphs) shows a country bumpkin lured off to a bedroom by a gang of pushy prostitutes. My favourite scene shows Mae returning from a drunken night out. She strips in her bedroom, and even her underwear has become fancier as her sins increase. Those moments provide a vague amusement, but that’s about all. The moralizing is too heavy handed and the characters serve to fill their stock roles only.

The Alpha Video print isn’t that great–there’s some skipping and crackling, but it is watchable.

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Filed under Exploitation