The Lady Vanishes (1938)

Strangers of a Train

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

The Lady Vanishes is often imitated but never equalled. Many movies have done the “person vanishes but their accomplice finds out they apparently never existed” plot; but never has it been done as immaculately as The Lady Vanishes. Likewise train is the perfect cinematic device; there are an infinite amount of possibilities for scenarios based on trains and Hitchcock sure took advantage of this throughout his career.

The Lady Vanishes is a movie with a great sense of adventure to it, travelling through the picturesque mountains of a politically unstable Europe. It’s never identified what country the movie is set in, only that is “one of Europe’s few undiscovered corners”, letting the viewer’s imagination fill in the blanks. I also love the charming miniature of the train station and hotel in the opening, making no attempt to disguise that is it just that, complete with little moving figures and a car driving with no one in it.

Once the lady vanishes, is it a head scratcher, leaving me to hope this better have a dam good outcome and not cop out. The intensity ramps up to crazy levels as the mystery deepens with the atmosphere created by the train sound effects and the impending claustrophobia increases. On further viewings all the elements of the mystery make sense; the couple lying to avoid scandal, the cricket fans lying so they won’t be late and the relevance of the serenading man, genius! My favourite scene in the move is the sequence in the cargo bay in which Redgrave and Lockwood investigate magic props and start doing impressions; it’s such a fun scene to watch.

The film’s first act in the hotel could be a movie by itself; a sort of screwball comedy set in a hotel full of characters slightly off their rocker. Michael Redgrave reminds me and even looks like Errol Flynn here. Playing an adventurous free spirit and a character who could have come right out of a screwball comedy as evident by the manner in which he infiltrates Margaret Lockwood’s room, creating a ruckus in order to “put on record for the benefit of mankind one of the lost folk dances of central Europe”. Lockwood herself also plays an adventurous, free spirit (“been everywhere and done everything”), yet it takes the two of them some time to realise they have more in common with each other than they think.

The two English gentlemen who talk about nothing but cricket on the other hand showcase the British turning a blind eye to the spread of fascism in Europe. They are the only two who would stand to another country’s so called national anthem and dismiss a newspaper article on England being on the brink of war as sensationalism. On a lighter hearted note they even discuss how baseball is referred to as rounders in the UK in a still relevant joke (“Nothing but baseball you know. We used to call it rounders, children play it with a rubber ball and a stick”). Of course it wouldn’t be an unashamedly British movie if someone did mention tea (“What you need if a good strong cup of tea”).

Sporting Blood (1931)

The Electric Horseman

Sporting Blood was Clark Gable’s first top billed role, playing a gangster with a softer side, willing to take the shots but not at the expense at the life of a dumb animal. Just one problem though; he doesn’t show up until half way through! I’ve seen some movies in which it takes a long time for the top billed star to show up but this is the most extreme example I’ve seen of this; so don’t go in expecting Gable from scene 1. Sporting          Blood has an odd narrative structure with characters introduced late in the game and a second half which largely contrasts the first half but it works. The first half takes place in a peaceful farm paradise, the latter in a world of gangsters in which Tommy Boy becomes a commodity merely being passed around.

Sporting Blood is a romantic tribute to the world of equestrianism, set in the horse racing heartland of Kentucky; and when I say romantic, I mean romantic. This is a movie which would have you believe a entire group of horses would come running to a horse being taken away in a truck as a sign of farewell. But the anamorphisation of animals doesn’t end there; when Madge Evans proclaims, “What do I want to run him in the Derby for? For himself, for running for himself. Don’t you think a horse has some rights, the same as you and me to run straight and honest and to give his best in order to win what he can.” We’re all guilty of it though, aren’t we?

“Since the beginning of time the Horse has been Man’s loyal friend…BUT Man has not always been the friend the Horse has to Man….”, this section of the opening prologue confuses me; didn’t early man hunt horses for food? But I digress. I found myself getting engaged in the story with the death of Tommy Boy’s mother Southern Queen (was a real horse injured here?) and I believe must of this can be credited to the very naturalistic acting present in Sporting Blood. Unlike other films of the classic Hollywood era, Sporting Blood features African American actors in prominent roles. While they are still presented in a stereotypical manner and seem dim-witted at times, they are treated with more dignity and illicit genuine emotion, especially the black children near the beginning of the film feel just like real kids.

Sporting Blood gets a major benefit from its handsome production values, location filming and impressive race footage which gets right up close to the action. The film is full of in depth compositions and extensive camera pans; just look at the gorgeous use of lighting and shadows when Tommy Boy is introduced to his new mother. It also wouldn’t be pre code without some drug use thrown in there, ok its horse narcotics but still (“We’ve hopped him up so much in the last few months that it ain’t working like it used to”). Sporting Blood isn’t the most intense film ever but ia one with a relaxing charm to it.

Five Star Final (1931)

The Scum

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Five Star Final is 85 years old yet nothing has changed in that the public still has an appetite to read about filth in newspapers. The themes here would be looked at in many newspaper comedies throughout the 1930’s, however this is no screwball comedy – it’s deadly serious. I guess we can’t say “back in my day journalists had ethics”. The real life inspiration for Five Star Final came from a New York tabloid called New York Evening Graphic. At the time of the film release the Evening Graphic was losing circulation because its new editor was attempting to make it a more respectable paper, just like the character of Randall played by Edward G. Robinson the editor of the fictional tabloid newspaper The Gazette.

Randall is an editor who is not without ethics. Despite the objections of the paper’s management, “Randall won’t print pictures of girls in underwear in the pictures section” and prints cables from The League of Nations. The pressure is on him to stop printing “actual news” and more sensationalist stories and gossip. When Randall gives in we see the full sleaze of Edward G. Robinson; after all nobody could do sleaze better than him.

The stealer of the show however is Boris Karloff as Isopod. This isn’t a horror movie but his performance feel like one straight from a horror picture with is distinctive, eerie voice. Isopod is a disgraced priest of whom Randall disguises as a practicing priest to go undercover and do the paper’s dirty work; a creep who is full of crap and as Randall puts it “You’re the most blasphemous looking thing I’ve ever seen”. The name Isopod in Greek means ‘even footed’ but more commonly is the name an unpleasant looking order of crustacean parasites so I guess it works.

The Gazette has a number of shady practices; they bully retailers and vandalise their stalls for not putting their papers on top. Likewise they employee a pretty girl played by Ona Munson to do dirty work for the paper although the main reason they’re choosing her for the job is that she’s not flat chested, as evident by the shot in which Aline MacMahon is clearly looking at her rack (even Isopod enjoys checking her out).

In order the increase the circulation of The Gazette, Randall unearths a 20 year old murder case for the sake of a sensational story later titled, “Famous Killer’s Girl to Wed Society Man”. Today with this internet thing we’ve got going on it would be highly unlikely someone could hide the fact they were once tried for murder while Isopod could just get a photograph of the murder’s daughter on Facebook. But the fact remains the same: sensationalist news stories can affect the lives of innocent associates.

The film has a truly superb cast with everyone having their moment in the sun and this being a film set in the world of journalism, the dialogue flows at a rapid fire rate; a form of acting which is truly a thing of the past. Marian Marsh’s breakdown at the end is hair raising melodramatic brilliance, even if her husband just happens to walk in as she pulls out a gun in a delightfully improbable turn of events.

The production values are excellent helmed under the great director Mervyn Le Roy (such an impressive back catalogue). The use of sound in the opening credits with boys shouting “extra!” and the noise of the printing press sets the atmosphere while it’s evident the studio strived for this production to have authentic sets. Many shots in Five Star Final have an impressive level of depth such as that of George E. Stone with his feet up in foreground as he sits back while on the phone.

Five Star Final contains innovative use of split screen as Mrs Voorhes (Frances Starr) in the middle of the frame is trapped between paper employees who go about their business as usual and try to ignore her but also shows the paper as voyeuristic spies. Yes, the filmmakers sure love their symbolism here. Throughout the film Randall is constantly washing his hands (“50 times a day” apparently) while the paper employees going to the bar and drink in order to deal with their conscience. Likewise Randall’s closeted love interest Miss Taylor played by Aline MacMahon has feelings towards him but objects to his job and the paper; she is symbolic of his conscious. To top it all off, the film ends with an image of the paper lying in the gutter like the filthy rag it is; a final powerful image to stick in your mind.

Mr Deeds Goes to Town (1936)

Meet Longfellow Deeds

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

 

I’ll admit that it took me a while for Gary Cooper to grow on me as an actor and to see his appeal under his minimalist, low key style of acting; but eventfully I got it. It’s been said Cooper’s face was the map of America; so why in under God did they cast Adam Sandler in a remake of Mr Deeds Goes to Town?

Mandrake Falls is a town full of oddballs, and the naive but not a total dunce Longfellow Deeds comes off as a weirdo to the city dwellers who are fascinated by his behaviour and start mocking him. Mr Deeds Goes to Town certainly highlights the divide between city slickers and small town folk; this is particularly evident in the scene in which Deeds, himself a poet meets a group of distinguished poets in restaurant and is appalled by their snobbery and elitism to the point that he beats them up.  Likewise the film also features Charles Lane as a lawyer, the inspiration for the The Simpsons blue haired lawyer.

In an example of the darker side of Capra’s films, Mr Deeds Goes to Town is a cynical look as society and the media as a whole (“Why do people seem to get pleasure out of hurting each other, why don’t they try helping each other once in a while?”). Multiple people are out to snag Deed’s fortune while the media is out constantly pursuing him due to his odd but ultimately harmless behaviour; the media manipulating how a person is seen by the public. Mr Deeds is a man who became famous for inheriting a fortune, in other words he’s famous for being famous and the newspapers appear to have nothing better to do than report on his escapades such as feeding donuts to a horse; relevant to today’s celebrity culture.

With the scene in the park in which Babe plays a set of improvised drums and Deeds sings humoresque. Capra didn’t want to include it as he thought it was too sappy but Jean Arthur insisted it remain. Capra of all people thought it was too sappy?!  But ah Capra sentiment, it never fails to move me.

The sanity hearing at the end of the film is pure movie fantasy; I doubt in real life someone could be classified insane on such so called evidence. In a demonstration of Cooper’s ability as one of the best actors when it comes to giving a rousing speech or monologue, he talks about the silly quirks we all have. Although the likes of “o” filling or knuckle cracking seems rather trivial, I’m always left with the impression that the movie is making a statement on society’s treatment of those who don’t fully “fit in” or adhere to conformity and asks the question; who is truly “normal”?

It’s a Wonderful World (1939)

It’s a Wonderful Life…I Mean World

The first 10 minutes of It’s a Wonderful World is just rather dull set up for an incomprehensible murder mystery, but when Stewart becomes a fugitive on the run trying to prove his innocence and Claudette Colbert enters the picture it’s all smooth sailing even with the largely impossible to understand plot.

James Stewart is Guy Johnson, a hardboiled detective who often has a cigarette hanging at the end of his mouth like he’s Phillip Marlow. The role is a very different change of pace for Stewart but he pulls it off showing he could have easily slipped into a noir/detective thriller. Stewart even channels Clark Gable at times; with even the way he talks to a dog shouting at it to go away is very Gable-like. On top of that, at one point he admits to Colbert’s character that he thinks “all dames are dumb and all men ain’t” and how she has changed his philosophy on women; don’t tell the feminists. I also have to ask does this movie contain Stewart’s only ever black face moment in a film? So yes, the on screen personification of a boy scout is now literally poking fun at boy scouts and even tying them up. Claudette Colbert on the other hand plays an overly trusting eccentric poet who states throughout the film, “I swear by my eyes”. What does that even mean?

It’s a Wonderful World offers a genre mix of screwball comedy, murder mystery and even some elements of Hitchcock with the plot of a fugitive on the run to prove his innocence. Likewise many of the solutions’ the character’s use throughout the film feel like they could be used in a Hitchcock movie such as Colbert lighting the newspaper on fire to escape from the car. No surprise that the film’s co-writer Ben Hecht would be a future Hitchcock writer.

Libeled Lady (1936)

The Front Page

The opening credits of Libeled Lady are not your typical list of screen names, instead we get footage of the four main stars walking arm in arm very happily as their names come on screen one by one. Four heavy weights in roles which play to their strengths, giving some of the best dialogue the screwball comedy has to offer. Libeled Lady is my favourite newspaper comedy, a world in which journalistic ethics are nonexistent and people struggle to make relationships and careers in journalism mix. Warren Haggerty (Spencer Tracy) is so preoccupied with his job as the managing editor of a paper he has missed his own wedding several times, so no surprise Jean Harlow gives a very comically angry performance throughout most of the film.

William Powell’s Bill Chandler has such cool and confidence, he even draws his own contract which will bring him back to the paper he was sacked from as he knows Warren Haggerty will come looking for him following a scandal. Powell gets the chance to show the full range of his comic abilities, not only as a master of words but also gets showcase slapstick comedy similar in vain to Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin during the film’s fishing scene. The subplot of Bill Chandler learning to fish would be the basis of Howard Hawk’s comedy Mans’ Favorite Sport?. Despite how incredibly fast he picks up the ability to fish like an expert it doesn’t feel contrived.

A portion of the story is spent trying to find William Powell with telephone, telegraph and radio as their means of communication. Outdated aspects like in old movies always intrigues me and makes me ponder if stories like this could be told today. With the internet and other modern communication devices they could have been able to recall those newspapers at the start of the film. Likewise publications today are no less obsessed with covering the escapades of socialites and people famous for being famous; but Connie Allenbury (Myrna Loy) is not a typical socialite. She is down to Earth, has an image distorted by the media and can even outwit the paper. It’s appropriate this role would be played by Myrna Loy; the so called only good girl in Hollywood.

The Mad Genius (1931)

Emphasis on the Word Mad

I feel like no other decade seems to have as many obscure gems lost to time as the 1930’s; case in point, The Mad Genius. Coming out in the same year as the iconic adaptations of Frankenstein, Dracula and Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde; but in my humble opinion, The Mad Genius is a better and more intriguing film than any of those.

The opening of The Mad Genius does a superb job at setting a time and place; central Europe in the early 20th century. There is an impeccable level of detail in creating the world of a travelling performer; with the falling of the rain, the wind and the sound of horse and carriage taking full advantage of sound technology to create a world. Equally as impressive is Vladimar Ivan Tsarakov’s (John Barrymore) Berlin theatre and the large scale stage set with hints of German expressionism throughout and the wide spread use of music in the soundtrack, unlike other early talkies.

John Barrymore is (unsurprisingly) mesmerising as Vladimar Ivan Tsarakov (quite a name), one of the most repulsive characters he ever played as he spends the movie spewing pompous and at times mad scientist like dialogue. He has a misogynistic attitude towards women and is even seen ogling up the skirts of his dancers, in one of the film’s very pre-code elements. He is even a drug dealer, although the word drug is never used in the film nor is it indentified what substances appear in the film. In one scene in which he refuses to deal drugs with the stage director played by Luis Alberni, I love his summary on drugs when he throws them into the fire; “If I drop this, you will be free, but you will suffer of course, but in the end, you will be happier than you could ever dream”. Likewise In one of the movie’s comic highlights there is an early use of profanity in film; “It’s unbelievable that there’s any human being living, who should be such a stupid ass”.

One of the many interesting observations in The Mad Genius is the combination of elements from other movies. The plot itself is derivative of Barrymore’s previous horror outing Svengali, while Tsarakov’s desire to create a great ballet dancer out of a young boy is a variation on Dr Frankenstein (which the movie itself alludes to). When Tsarakov is wearing on overcoat he is bent over like Quasimodo; Barrymore’s facial appearance is very similar to that of Bela Lugosi in White Zombie, likewise his voice is reminiscent of Lugosi’s Dracula. The theatre setting has vibes of The Phantom of the Opera and perhaps most interestingly are the elements of The Red Shoes with the film’s inclusion of ballet and the themes of going to extremes for one’s art. Could Powell and Pressburger have taken inspiration from The Mad Genius?

Night Nurse (1931)

I’m Nick…the Chauffeur!

It doesn’t take long into the film to see Night Nurse is a very negative portrayal of the health service. Dr Kildare this is not and even makes 1934’s Men In White come off as a more an idealised vision on the health care system in the 1930’s; Night Nurse is anything but. All within the first ten minutes Barbara Stanwyck is turned down for the job as a nurse but then gets it after catching the fancy from a doctor, one of the interns is a pervert and Joan Blondell recommends tricking patients into thinking you’ve saved their life in order to get money out of them. Blondell’s character in particular I really found myself loathing from an actress who normally played such likable characters. She clearly dislikes her profession and even recites the Florence Nightingale pledge while chewing gum. Night Nurse is a movie with a wide range of despicable human beings on display. Also is that a scene which appears to show an actual baby in distress: Not very comfortable viewing.

Night Nurse is a perfect example of the kind of pictures Warner Bros produced during the 1930’s; a thought provoking socially conscious melodrama. Whether or not it’s exaggerated the plot of hospital corruption and the ineffectiveness of both the hospital and the authorities to prevent child abuse, the movie does succeed in packing a punch. What does it say when the intervention of gangsters is required to save the life of a child? Warner Bros where also known for featuring ethnic casts in their movies. At the beginning of the movie a shot focuses on a group of Chinese people sitting around a hospital bed speaking in their native language although here it doesn’t have any bearing on the rest of the plot. There is also an emphasises that the shop which is broken into in order to steal milk for a bath in order to save the lives of malnourished children is from a Kosher delicatessen. Is there a particular reason for this? This was 1931 but history has made of this scene of the delicatessen windows being smashed unintentional creepy.

The best reason to see Night Nurse though is Clark Gable in a role which I point to as proof of his acting ability. Gable is scary enough as a character who wants to murder children and isn’t afraid to punch a woman but this is multiplied by the fact that he’s dressed like a Nazi. Ok not really, it’s a chauffeur’s uniform but when I first saw him wearing this, my instant reaction was “Why is he dressed like an SS officer?” He could have had a knack at playing villains; such unrealised potential. His character’s introduction with the use of a camera zoom and the uttering of “I’m Nick…the chauffeur” gives me chills – melodramatic perfection.

The More The Merrier (1943)

Three’s a Crowd

The More The Merrier represents the screwball genre adapting for the war years however this was at the end of the genre’s original run. I wonder why there was not more screwball comedies made during the war period? Did people become more cynical with the war or perhaps the genre was simply made for the depression era. Instead of taking on the establishment like the genre screwball did during the depression, The More The Merrier is supporting it. It is refreshing to see a propaganda film from the war years which is less gloomy and shows how common folk got on with their daily lives during the war.

My main flaw with The More The Merrier is Joel McCrea. He’s fine but that’s the problem, he’s only just fine; a serviceable actor who doesn’t leave a great impression. He’s the weak spot of a trio of characters who could have been much stronger with a more charismatic actor. Granted this was during the war and most of Hollywood’s big male leads where off in Europe kicking Hitler’s ass. Could Cary Grant have played the role instead, but perhaps a big star like that couldn’t play a role in he doesn’t show up until half an hour in. The trio of characters still manages to be fun with Jean Arthur playing the straight man and Charles Coburn as an immature and conniving old man who still seems like a kid at heart; while the romance between Arthur and MrCrea is still believable and handled very well as they spend the final third of the film quietly denying their feelings for each other.

Jean Arthur and Charles Coburn are one of the more unconventional screen pairings in Hollywood starring in three films together, just look at the morning schedule scene; comic choreographed brilliance and by far my favourite part of the film. When McCrea enters the picture though I feel it is never as strong. Also after you watch this movie you may find yourself saying “dam the torpedoes, full speed ahead!”, alot.

The Gay Divorcee (1934)

The Old English Definition of Gay

I had a period in which I was infatuated with the greatness that is Fred Astaire & Ginger Rodgers. Prior to this I often heard of them but I was occupied with later film musical of the 50’s. When I checked them out for myself I got it, oh boy did I get it. When together dancing or not, Fred and Ginger are in a world of their own and everyone else ceases to exist. Just look as Night & Day (my favourite Astaire and Rodger’s number), what could be more spellbinding? The Gay Divorcee is my favourite Astaire & Rodgers picture. This was their first film together as lead and yet a feel it gets everything right and I consider it a much better film than Top Hat which itself I find overrated.

I find the humour of The Gay Divorcee is more creative than that of Top Hat. Take the sequence in which Astaire finds Rodger in London by near impossible luck, then the two engage in a car chase into the country side (how often do you get a car chase in a 30’s musical), and then in a wacky races type moment he goes ahead or Rodgers and gets road closed sign out of nowhere in order to stop her. Astaire’s stalker attitude could come off as creepy but he is charming enough to get away with it, making this moments morbidly funny. This whole sequence is so surreal and plays like a live action cartoon, as if the filmmakers are making fun of the film’s own highly improbably mistaken identity plot. This is much more clever than the handling of the mistaken identity plot in Top Hat. I don’t mean to completely undo Top Hat, I think it’s a good movie, just whatever Top Hat did I can’t help but feel The Gay Divorcee did much better. I’ve always championed Astaire’s unsung abilities as a comedian. His timing and line delivery is easily on par with the likes of Cary Grant; I wish he could have appeared in some non musical comedies. Ginger Rodgers usually had a female companion throughout the series and I think Alice Brady is the best of them all with her histrionics; the sound of her voice alone cracks me up.

The Gay Divorcee may have slipped through the recently instated production code. If not then it certainty feels like a pre-code film, with sexual tension throughout and an air of scandalousness to the whole thing.

Fred and Ginger, they where gods!