Queen Christina (1933)

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Garbo Reigns!

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

The costume drama, a genre I struggle with; wealthy, upper class people with problems and conflicts I just can’t summon any interest in. However there are a handful which I do manage to enjoy and Queen Christina is one of them; what is it about Queen Christina which makes it compelling? The craftsmanship of the underappreciated director Rouben Mamoulian is certainly a factor but ultimately I believe it all comes down to the fascinating individual at the centre of the film.

Queen Christina is the role Greta Garbo was born to play, the androgynous, unconventional Swedish film star as the androgynous, unconventional 17th Century Swedish Queen.  Christina is one of the great gender bending characters in film history, referring to herself in masculine pronouns to having what could be mistaken as the body of a man; just look at those incredibly broad shoulders Garbo possesses when they are exposed. In the opening to Queen Christina her confidant Axel Oxenstierna (Lewis Milestone) speaks of how Christina was brought up as a boy in order to prepare her for the throne. This does raise the question; do positions of power require a sacrifice of feminine virtues? If the role was reversed of a king dressing and living as a woman, just how powerful and noble would such a king come off? Likewise while it is a likely possibility of Christina being bisexual, the girl on girl kiss she shares with Countess Ebba Sparre (Elizabeth Young) never struck me as a particularly romantic kiss and more of a sign of friendship however Christina speaking of the two of them going to the county for three nights would certainly imply otherwise. Yet even if you’re the biggest tomboy in the world like Christina, there still exists in her the desire to be a woman with her proclamation to love interest Antonio (John Gilbert) “that it had been so enchanting to be a woman. Not a queen, just a woman in man’s arms”.

The fascinating figure of Queen Christina goes beyond her disregard of social norms. She is a figure of great intellect with her values of personal freedom, the quest for knowledge, self improvement as well as spending the few spare moments she has reading books (“One can feel nostalgia for places one has never seen” – so true). As a Queen she has a great sense of national pride and has a fierce devotion to the individual citizens of her county; a romanticised depiction of a world leader many of us wish was more of a reality.

The one portion of Queen Christina which puts realism to the side is that in which she escapes from her palace to the country in order to get away from the strain of being a ruler. I enjoy the trope of a public figure in power sneaking out disguised as a commoner as seen in films such as Roman Holiday or The Shoes of the Fisherman. What is hard to shallow however is everyone Christina meets on her escapade including future lover Antonio and the alumni of the inn she spends the night mistaking her for a man. I know it was unusual back then for a woman to ride on horseback, carry a sword and pistol and go to a tavern to drink but she still clearly has the face of a woman. Regardless I can overlook this lack of realism as it doesn’t impair my enjoyment of the film.

John Gilbert shows in Queen Christina that he was an effective in talkies (contrary to the popular belief that his failure to make the jump from silent to talkies destroyed his career). I don’t find him quite great but he is good enough. After a night of love making with Antonio, Christina compares the experience to how God must have felt when he created the world; yep, she went there. The ending of Queen Christina on the other hand in one which inspires even if everything is not tied up in a neat bow. It is a tragedy in one sense but with one of the greatest uses of close up in film history of Garbo’s expressionless face looking out to sea, the viewer gets to write their own ending.

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Twilight’s Last Gleaming (1977)

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Not The Final Installment In That Teen Vampire Series

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

1977 was a year of some high profile bombs which later achieved some cult status such as Cross of Iron, Sorcerer and Twilight’s Last Gleaming. This partially came about from the competition from a certain film called Star Wars which offered a more optimistic and hopeful cinematic experience. As someone who has mixed feeling on New Hollywood, these movies don’t deserve to be ignored the way they are and are some of the best hidden gems of the 1970’s. Likewise the trashy, conspiracy theory concept of Twilight’s Last Gleaming would be the ire of many high brow critics but it’s the high concept which makes Twilight’s Last Gleaming irresistible and helps the viewer to look past the implausibility of the premise. This is a film which trades it’s logic for emotion and is aware of its own implausibility (“How in the hell does some joker walk into a top secret installation and get control of the most sophisticated weapons system in the world?”). As a layman it feels believable within the context of the movie but it’s always fun to ask, could it happen in real life?

Twilight’s Last Gleaming features an ironic use of ‘My Country Tis of Thee’ during the opening and closing credits; it’s not exactly a happy movie. Oddly however Jerry Goldsmith’s score sounds like something from an action/adventure blockbuster and is even John Williams like at time. The action takes place over a single day in what can be described as Dog Day Afternoon like scenario in a missile silo for a film which you could mistaken as being based on a stage play with its handful of sets and lengthy scenes. On my first viewing I wasn’t convinced the running time was justified but watching it again I was hooked. Twilight’s Last Gleaming takes is set in the future year of November 16th, 1981 although it’s not stated why it’s set on this particular date.

Burt Lancaster was still getting some great roles into the 1970’s. He still had his mojo and now with a beat up face to boot. As one of the character’s in the film puts it, “with that rhetoric he could be elected governor in ten states”. Lancaster’s role of General Lawrence Dell draws parallels to his role of General Scott in the political thriller Seven Days In May; a megalomaniac going to extremes in order to fulfil his agenda despite the risks to the United States and the world as a whole. He may be trying to provide a catharsis to the pain and anger of Vietnam veterans but at what cost? Lancaster and co star Paul Winfred have an enjoyable chemistry between them and provide comic relief with their back and forth. It’s interesting seeing Lancaster sparring off with actors much younger than him as well as dropping some F-bombs. On top of that there is something surreal about watching Burt Lancaster drinking a can of Coca-Cola. Product placements for Coca-Cola appear at several points throughout the film with Coke vending machines in clear sight; I guess they have to answer to The Coca-Cola Company.

Twilight’s Last Gleaming consists of veteran actors talking some serious stuff. The discussions in the Oval Office scene are alot to take in on one viewing (“Ralph! Are you comparing Vietnam to Hitler?!” – It always goes back to Hitler). The movie is full of entertaining one liners – “It’s like Star Trek all over again”, “Come on this isn’t Disneyland” and my favourite, “There are no midgets in the United States Air Force”.  The oldest among this cast is Melvyn Douglas, the prime example of an actor who got better with age as clearly evident here; full of powerful subdue comments and monologues (“The beginning of the end of mankind, in graphic black and white”).

The film’s extensive use of split screen works remarkable well and does not feel like a gimmick creating a unique viewing experience; the split screen here is clearly not an afterthought. The entire sequence in which missiles are about to be launched is presented entirely in split screen with events being monitored in three different locations in order to heighten the tension. The scene itself is one scary sequence with the pandemonium and the sight of the missiles rising (the model of the silo exterior is shown on screen just briefly enough not to notice they are models). The President himself describes it best – “The opening of the doors of hell”.

The President in Twilight’s Last Gleaming played by Charles Durning is not an idealistic representation of a president nor is he massively charming and ultimately a bit drab. However we do get to see his human side during a scene in which he talks to his General alone and admits to being scared out of his mind. At the beginning of the film there is a scene in which the President has a conversation with a character played by Roscoe Lee Brown. It doesn’t have purpose in the plot but does set the tone of the White House scenes and foreshadows the rest of the movie (“If I grant Zabat sanctuary, I give approval to every dissident with a cause and a gun”).

The ending of Twilight’s Last Gleaming all comes down to the question of whether or not society can deal with the truth? With widespread distrust in the government starting with the assassination of JFK and not getting any better with the Watergate scandal, would the President’s cabinet reveal the movie’s purported truth on the Vietnam War to the American public like he ordered before being shot down in an attempt to take down the two men holding him hostage. However was his death even an accident or did they intend to let him be shot down in order to keep the truth hidden; it does seem odd that no medical aid is given to him after being shot. The ending is left ambiguous and the viewer is left to think about it.

San Francisco (1936)

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It’s Going to Be a Bumpy Night

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

The disaster film is a genre thought of as being low brow but San Francisco is one of the few with class and sophistication. Like in James Cameron’s Titanic, the viewer is left waiting in suspense for the impending disaster as the emotional stakes rise. When the night of the earthquake arrives the movie draws out the final moments before the disaster; I’m left thinking to myself “It’s coming, it’s coming”. Also was it common back then to hold a ball at 5 in the morning?

The earthquake itself ranks among one of cinema’s greatest disaster sequences with the special effects and studio pyrotechnics making up for the less than stellar projection effects at the beginning of the film. The sequence shows the close up reactions of individuals just before they are killed by incoming debris as it lasts for the same amount of time which the actual earthquake itself did on Five-Thirteen A.M, April 18th, 1906 (or at least according to the movie, other sources state it occurred at 5:12 AM).  This is followed by the harrowing sight of death and destruction as Blackie Norton (Clark Gable) walks through the ruins of San Francisco as he observes the horrifying, brutal aftermath in a remarkable section of the film. Even famous silent directors D.W. Griffith and Erich Von Stroheim worked on the film without credit which shouldn’t come as a surprise as the plot of San Francisco would have been ripe for a grand silent melodrama.

On my first viewing the ending of San Francisco felt farfetched. I can see many people having an “Oh come on!” reaction but for me at least even on that first viewing it still worked on an emotional level. However after contemplating about the ending I have come around to accept the idea that a person, even a non believer may turn to religion after experiencing something as horrendous as a natural disaster which leaves a trail of death and destruction. Although considering how religious the entire movie is I should have seen it coming not to mention the ending can be justified when looking at the deeper religious parallels within the film.

During the movie Mary Blake (Jeanette MacDonald) performs the opera Faust on stage as we are shown recreations of various portions of the opera; throughout San Francisco there are parallels to the story of Faust. The clash between the moral and immoral, Mary’s tendency to refuse Blackie’s advances, the fire seen at the beginning of the film to lines such as “You can’t take a woman and then sell her immortal soul”. Even during the earthquake’s aftershock the underworld itself opens up (and one poor sucker falls into it); and at the very end of all this Blackie repents his sinful ways. If you can accept Blackie’s conversion then you still have to deal with the extremely corny, patriotic finale but I can still get a kick out of such cheese.

Jeanette MacDoanld, what a voice! The reaction of the church goers listening on in awe when she sings in the choir is the same reaction as the viewer; San Francisco is after all a vehicle designed for the full range of her talents. Plus that title song is one catchy tune and I’m happy to hear it multiple times throughout the film. Likewise Spencer Tracy appears in the film for 15 minutes and 58 seconds but he is the actor who leaves the biggest impression acting wise. Father Tim Mullin is the predecessor to Tracy’s Father Flanagan in Boy’s Town. Tracy was an actor who had the ability to play such a saintly character without it being sickly even as he inhabits the office of his church amongst the most heavenly lighting.

Is Blackie an atheist or just non religious? The first dialogue between him and Father Mullin suggests he may not believe in God; “So you still believe in Santa Claus?” followed by Mullin’s response, “Trouble with you is that you don’t believe in anything”. The character relationship between Blackie and Father Mullin is the same which was seen in Manhattan Melodrama (in which Gable plays a similar character also called Blackie) and later in Angels With Dirty Faces. The two childhood friends who end up taking very different paths in life (one of moral servitude and the other of crime and corruption) yet their friendship prevails despite such contrasting lifestyles and views. Blackie Norton couldn’t be more of a Clark Gable character; a man under great pressure, business owner, runs for political office, has a way with women, cocky, street smart and a loveable jerk. It’s not clear to what extent his criminality runs to other than that he (along with numerous business owners in San Francisco) run his establishment without a license; there was still a bit of the Wild West in 1906 San Francisco.

The Criminal Code (1931)

Crime Doesn’t Pay

The Criminal Code explores the issue of turning a normal person who made a mistake into a criminal through time spent in prison and ends up abiding by the criminal code itself. The same subject matter is also explored in the movie Caged made 19 later; nothing seems to change. Robert Graham (Phillip Homles) is a sheltered pretty boy who got a rotten break (similar to Robert Montgomery in The Big House). However unlike Montgomery in The Big House, Graham is put in a cell with two guys (including Boris Karloff’s Galloway) who look out for him. Although you do have to suspend your disbelief a bit over the movie fast forwarding six years and Graham not being remotely criminalised within that time. Among the film’s examination of the American legal and penal system, Walter Huston explains how it would be possible for someone to get off the hook for a crime such as manslaughter; “A year’s delay, a new trial, the witnesses would fade away, they always do, the whole mess would get cold, the paper’s would have something else to yap about. I’d get him off; he’d never serve a day”. Great thought provoking stuff.

Walter Huston plays the warden of the unnamed prison. He is stern but fair and a real “Yes sir!” type as evident from his first appearance with the manner in which he addresses a female witness (“Never mind that, pull down the shade”). The man is one lightening fast talker who can interrogate like a boss but his greatest of moment on badassery comes from the scene in which he goes into the prison yard to confront protesting, yammering prisoners face to face without any guards. Just look at the way he walks into the yard and lights up a cigar. As he approaches the prisoners the yammering stops and they don’t lay a hand on him. Simply put, this guy is badass. Perhaps unrealistically so but that’s why we have movies.

The Criminal Code was Boris Karloff’s first significant screen role in the part of Galloway. With his dominating, tall, lanky figure he steals the show; his monologue on why’s he’s in the slammer with the shadows across his face is hair raising stuff. Galloway has a vengeance with a guard named Gleason which gives the film some dark comic relief such as the two awkwardly passing each other on the stairs to Karloff’s recurring use of the lines “I don’t like you” and “I got an appointment with you”. Likewise the other memorable cast member, albeit in a very brief role is Andy Devine who is very hard to miss with that highly distinctive voice of his.

The Criminal Code uses the same set created for MGM’s The Big House released the year before. With its more intricate cinematography the film doesn’t capture the sense of claustrophobia seen in The Big House but still captures the mundanity of prison life. As an early talkie there is no music present in The Criminal Code but rather the sound of prisoners marching along with various other sound effects are just as effective as any music score could be.

The Criminal Code is also host to one of the most shocking moments in pre-code cinema (and was even featured in Karloff film Targets from 1968). When Galloway chases a squealer into a room while yammering is going on in the background from the prison yard, Galloway walks into the room with the squealer cornered as he slowly closes the door as the squealer looks on in terror. What happens next is up to the viewer’s imagination.

Dance, Fools, Dance (1931)

I Pity the Dancing Fool

Dance, Fools, Dance begins with a party onboard on yacht in which the younglings jump off the boat for a late night swim in their underwear while the older men are ignorant of a possible fall in stocks and the idea of forthcoming great depression; the last days of the carefree, roaring twenties seen through the lens of 1931.

Bonnie Jordan (Joan Crawford) and her brother Rodney (William Bakewell) are young, glamorous people who never worked a day in their life and show no resentment for it ether, from a father who doesn’t want his children to have the hard time he had. They don’t exactly mourn over the death of their father but the loss of their fortune following the stock market crash is the tragedy which gets a reaction out of them. Regardless Bonnie deals with the loss of their fortune surprisingly well and accepts the fault of being left nothing from their father because she and her brother didn’t finish school. This is the crux of the character and what makes her interesting. She doesn’t doesn’t choose the easy way out of getting married to a wealthy man even though the opportunity comes to her but rather desires the thrill to make it on her own as she herself later puts it.

I don’t believe many people are aware of just how endearing Crawford was in her younger, pre-shoulder pad days. In Dance, Fools, Dance she exemplifies a working class heroine with an aura of refreshingly simple, straightforward bravery which really makes you route for her character; plus there is the joy of watching her flex her dancing talents.

Clark Gable is a mere 5th on the cast list, even William Holden (no, not that one) is higher than him but his introductory scene is hard to forget. The downbeat piano music as one of his servants puts a blazer on him as he then blows smoke in a woman’s face; tells you everything you need to know without a spoken word. Likewise Bonnie’s bother Rodney is a memorable character himself as someone who is shocked by the criminal underworld where his alcohol came from before the depression after taking his supply of booze for granted for so long. Likewise the other great cast member is Cliff Edwards as Bert Scranton who makes for an endearing comic sidekick and mentor to Bonnie.

Dance, Fools Dance isn’t quite a great film, its concept could be fleshed out and explored to a greater degree and would have been ripe for a remake (and maybe a title that wouldn’t sound like something a James Bond villain would say). Although even at that despite the film being imperfect it would still be hard to top with that endearingly creaky, early 30’s, pre-code charm.

Only Angels Have Wings (1939)

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Flying Down To Rio

Only Angels Have Wings is the culmination of the 1930’s aviation pictures (and boy there were a lot of them), helmed by director Howard Hawks who previously directed The Dawn Patrol and Ceiling Zero and even features the casting of Richard Barthelmess, star of such flying pictures The Dawn Patrol, The Last Flight and Central Airport. With World War II on the horizon this genre would never be the same again. Like in The Dawn Patrol, the pilots in Only Angels Have Wings have methods of dealing with reality as the film really examines the psychology of early aviators and the danger they went through to get the job done; Hawks called Only Angels Have Wings the truest film he ever made. Why do flyers do what they do? As Kid (Thomas Mitchell) puts it, “I couldn’t give you an answer that’d make sense”.

The first 30 minutes of the movie takes place in real time in what is my favourite section of the film in which a whole host of emotions are presented with a short period of time; a real piece of film magic. As we are introduced to the cast and become attached to pilot Joe Souther (Noah Beery Jr.) as he and his buddy become friends with an American tourist Bonnie Lee (Jean Arthur) only for him to be killed in a flying accidents moments later when he’s called on short notice to deliver mail. Death is such a normal occurrence that the squadron leader Geoff (Cary Grant) has no problem eating the steak ordered by Joe prior to his death only moments ago while the pilots even sarcastically ask each other “who’s Joe?” when Bonnie questions them on their ability to carry on like nothing happened; a denial of reality in order to deal with reality. Just how healthy is that? Well as Bonnie puts it, “All my life I’ve hated funerals, the fuss and bother never brings anyone back, just spoils remembering them as they really are”. This 30 minute section of the film successfully goes from one emotion to the polar opposite from joy to tragedy and back to joy again. I still however can’t find myself fully engaging in the joy of Jean Arthur and Cary Grant playing the piano knowing one of their flying comrades just died a horrible death. Likewise at the beginning of the film we also see an interesting method of getting free drinks from a bar if you’re friendly with the owner; I must try that one out some time.

Jean Arthur’s role of Bonnie Lee, a lone adventuress from Brooklyn is a change of pace for the actress as she leaves her usual urban dwellings. Arthur differs from other Hawksain women due to her absence of sex appeal, she’s simply not that kind of an actress but rather more inherently innocent and sweet hearted. Hawks wanted Arthur to play Bonnie subtly sexy way with Arthur stating, “I can’t do that kind of stuff”. The scene in which she invades Geoff’s room in order to take a bath was never going to be Clark Gable or Jean Harlow in Red Dust with Arthur playing the role, resulting in a scene which is playful without being flirty of sexual. Just listen to her as speaks of how “It’s so cold and rainy outside and nice and warm and cosy in here” – it couldn’t be delivered in a more innocent manner. I feel Jean Arthur represents the way young boys will innocently feel about women before hitting puberty.

I feel the rest of the film doesn’t reach the emotional heights which the first forty minutes accomplished partially due to the lack of the Jean Arthur touch with her being absent for lengthy portions of the film but it is still blessed with a great cast of players. Cary Grant plays a Clark Gable type role, a no nonsense leader under extraneous pressure in the part of Geoff Carter while silent era star Richard Barthelmess uses his greatly expressive face which carries the baggage of his character. Plus what’s a Hollywood movie from the 30’s without a central to east European comic relief character in the form of Sig Ruman. The one cast member who doesn’t do anything for me is Rita Hayworth whom I’ve never particularly been a big fan off but there is still the bizarre amusement of Grant pouring water over her hair.

Only Angels Have Wings even opens up the potential to be The Wages of Fear of the air when Barthelmess is required to transport nitroglycerine by plane but the movie doesn’t take this far creating a missed opportunity. Regardless the aerial footage of the plans is an impressive sight with long uncut shots as the camera moves along with the aircraft. The film doesn’t identify what country the story takes place however I like when classic films leave details like that ambiguous; let your imagination fill in the blanks.

A Free Soul (1931)

Rhett Vs Ashley

I find Clarence Brown is not a terribly remarkable director with many of his films being by the numbers but he does have has a few worthwhile movies under his belt. A Free Soul isn’t a great film as the plot is on the ordinary side but it does have enough to elevate the film above this – plus I am a sucker for the MGM product of the 1930’s. The common elements of a contemporary, pre code melodrama are here; alcoholism, adultery, gangsters, corruption of authority etc.

Norma Shearer’s nude silhouette in the first shot sets the tone of A Free Soul; a movie full of lust and sexual desire. One of the biggest stars of the film itself is the slinky silk dress Shearer wears to Grandma’s party and Clark Gable’s apartment. The dress is sexually suggestive to say the least and shows off alot of skin. The design of the dress is cut to slide over her body in all the right ways to make her appear naked without actually being so as well as show off her assets. It’s clear that costume design was taken very seriously in the days of old Hollywood as well as the art of how to wear clothes.

Outfits are one thing though, with Shearer and Gable’s scenes together steaming things up, in contrast to her fiancé played by Leslie Howard of whom she shares nowhere near the same level of sexual chemistry with. Gable played a number of gangsters in his career but none as such a player as Ace Wilfong (his gangster’s hideout and apartment are to be envied). Likewise there is an unusually intimate relationship between Norma Shearer and her father played by Lionel Barrymore. Their interactions feel more like what you would expect between husband and wife as she refers to him as “darling”, ”dear” and ”sweetheart” while also being extremely affectionate with him such as scene at the very beginning of the film in which she asks him to fetch her undies.

I’m astounding at Norma Shearer’s ability to burst of the screen with her sheer presence and I do wish I could call myself a bigger fan but her filmography is a bit lackluster in my view. Regardless there are enough melodramatic theatrics to keep A Free Soul interesting including a character’s much unexpected death by the last character you would expect and a courtroom finale in which Barrymore tears the scenery (I just have to ask though would questioning your own daughter not be a conflict of interest?). The only scene which really disrupts the tone of the film is the moment in which Barrymore pulls a Buster Keaton by grabbing onto a train as it goes past and disappears out of sight, very odd.

Black Legion (1937)

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Dey Turk Ur Jerbs!

Today when the issue of immigration is brought up you will likely be shouted down as a racist by many factions. Since there are people who believe white supremacists (an increasingly meaningless buzzword) have actual influence today in the age of Trump, what does 1937’s Black Legion say on the issue of immigration and people who are without a doubt real white supremacists. Black Legion was inspired from true events from an organisation of the same name despite the film’s false opening disclaimer.

In Black Legion Humphrey Bogart plays the role of Frank Taylor, a family man who is a far cry from the likes of Rick Blaine or Phillip Marlowe. However Bogart being one of the most adaptable actors he never feels out of place in the part not to mention he actually had a boyish look to him in his early films before he became more rugged over the next few years. Bogart isn’t a tough guy here but rather someone who tries to act like a tough guy. This is exemplified in one of the film’s most memorable scenes in which Frank stands in front of a mirror while alone in the living room of his house with a gun in his hand and admiring the way he looks with it. He feels empowered by it and develops a false sense of security as he plays it tough to bolster his lack of confidence as rarely does Frank ever look totally comfortable within in the Black Legion itself.

Frank Taylor is drawn to racial hatred and later to joining the Black Legion after he loses a job promotion of factory foreman to Joe Dombrowski, a foreign born worker. Dombrowski is an interesting character. When the position of foreman opens up Joe states that he believes Frank will make a great foreman as he has been employed longer than any of the other employees. However it is Dombrowski who gets the job as he goes to night school, reads many books and is even studying how to design a lathe such as those used in the factory. Although his nationality or ethnicity is never mentioned, the name Dombrowski is Polish and Jewish in origin while the movie also subtly hints at the character being Jewish when his nose is referred to as “a plenty big one at that”. Likewise the comments later given by Ann Sheridan’s character in relation to the idea of the Dombrowski’s setting their own house aflame for an insurance payment in that they are “honourable people” and that “they wouldn’t do a thing like that” gives the impression that they are pillars of the community and that the locals do not look on at them as foreigners.

Essentially the factory in the film operated as a meritocracy and employed the best person for the job (“They will fill it the way they always have, move the best man up”); the essence of the American Dream – study hard and you will be rewarded. Frank however is a sore loser and instead of reflecting on himself and seeing where he went wrong he takes the weak minded route out. How would Frank have reacted if the job had been given to one of his American born co-workers?  He would not have been able to put the blame on “immigrants taking our jobs” so would he have come up with another lie in order to feel better about himself?

After Frank loses out on the promotion he comes across a charismatic radio presenter complaining about foreigners stealing American jobs and taking bread from American homes. Like this would have a hope in hell of appearing on any mainstream media today in what would now be referred to as “hate speech”. Likewise the scene in which Frank first attends a secret meeting held by the Black Legion in which a Hitler-esque speaker who overtly finger points gives a riveting yet at the same time ridiculous speech in which he speaks of ethnic nationalism and delves in conspiratorial nonsense on how foreigners “Now enriched with the jobs they have chiselled away from Americans and drunk with the power of their stolen prosperity, they are plotting to seize and control our government”.

With movies such as Black Legion and others from the mid to late 30’s you can’t help but ask would it be better if it were made before the code? Possibly the topic at hand would be presented in a less watered down manner. Look at a pre-code film such as Warner’s Five Star Final which had no problem with using a range of racial slurs whereas the only instance of this in Black Legion is the use of the word honyock. Likewise Black Legion does distinguish itself as an interesting beast of a film in that it feels like it is in between being a B picture and an A picture.

Interspersed between the main story is a love triangle subplot between Ann Sheridan, Helen Flint and Dick Foran. It’s largely a distraction from the main plot until it finally finds its relevance later on and is ultimately the lesser interesting portion of the film. Regardless Ann Sheridan provides some entertaining wise cracks plus Helen Flint plays a character called Mrs Danvers (no relation to the Rebecca character).

Does Black Legion hold much relevance for today? – To an extent yes. While much has changed since the 1930’s in today’s world of uncontrolled immigration, quotas and political correctness, there will always be groups of various political persuasions to pray on the weak minded.

Command Decision (1948)

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Catch-22

Command Decision is my favourite film in the wasteland of mediocrity that is Clark Gable’s post war career; a period which only had a few highlights. The opening stock footage is the only action seen in the film as Command Decision is a movie consisting of wordy drama; quality actors delivering quality performances.

Gable himself was a bombardier during the war and spearheaded the production of Command Decision thus it must have been something he had real passion for. The role of Brig. Gen. K.C. “Casey” Dennis is not cocky Gable as he often portrayed, nor does he have a leading lady to play off. Dennis is a man under strain which you can clearly see on his face; in order to fight Nazis he must first fight his superiors, politicians as well as dealing with the press and even attending to matters such as farmers complaining about early morning take offs frightening their cows (“When did I ever get the impression this war was against the axis?”). Above all he is a man with life and death on his hands and even the outcome of the war. He may not see the battlefield but he still has an unpleasant job to do.

Walter Pidgeon however gives my favourite performance in the film as Major General Kane with his monologue in which he speaks off how the US Air Force struggled for years in an effort to get it equipped and running is the highlight of the movie. It is four minutes long, there are no cuts with actors interacting with Pidgeon along the way while he moves around the room with the camera following him; hair raising acting.

Van Johnson gives the film its comic relief to contrast the serious, downbeat nature of the film. As Sgt. Evans he rarely takes himself totally seriously from his wisecracks to sitting at Dennis’ desk when he’s not around. Johnson was often case in military roles and it’s not hard to see why; he was a boy next door with the essence of an eager young patriot. However Evans’ inability to take himself seriously could show a cynical side to his character as someone who doesn’t have much faith in the war machine; in fact the one scene in which he does act in a more serious manner is the moment in which he praises Dennis and shakes his hand after Dennis lambasts Edward Arnold’s congressman who criticises him for recklessly causing heavy loss of life.

Command Decision is a movie which covers a lot making it one worth viewing more than once in order to take it all in. Giving the film the benefit of the doubt in its accuracy, it’s an educational experience. Compared to a film like The Dawn Patrol (original and its remake) there is a world of difference in flight commanding between the world wars; much more high tech, bureaucratic and on a larger, industrial like scale.

Like the flight commander in The Dawn Patrol, Dennis gets hounded for the decisions he makes which leads to the message I ultimately take from Command Decision. Dennis’ decisions are causing a heavy loss of life of US airmen but the success of these missions to destroy the Nazi’s secret weapon in Schweinhaven (not a real place) could change the outcome of the war and save a greater number of lives in the long term. You can’t afford to appear virtuous and care only for the immediate loss of life in order to get results. However as Kane knows, without a good publicity and political support there not be much of an air force and how do you do that is your actions appear reckless to the laymen; a real catch-22.

Alias The Doctor (1932)

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Doctor Implausible and the Suspension of Disbelief (Now There’s a Band Name)

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Had Alias The Doctor been made in the 1950’s it could likely have been directed by Douglas Sirk with its implausible melodramatic madness. When watching the film for the first time I was unaware of just how improbable the plot was going to be and after several “oh come on!” moments I realised this was a film in which I had to embrace the lack of plausibility rather than fight against it.

A car just happens to crash outside the house of Karl Brenner (Richard Barthelmess) on the night in which he comes home for the first time since being released from prison after taking the heat for his brother Stephan’s  failed and unqualified attempt at surgery when they where students at college only to find out he has since passed away and must perform surgery on the victims of the car crash despite previously being kicked out of medical school for said crime only to impress a local surgeon and have Karl’s mother tell the surgeon that Karl is actually Stephan so Karl masquerades under his dead brother’s name with no further identification than a medical certificate; oh just roll with it. Alias The Doctor is a movie which trades logic for emotion as Karl deals with the dilemma of committing fraud in order to save lives.

This is the perfect example of an hour long movie which packs a lot into that short space of time; quality over quantity. Aside from the story being full of delightfully absurd turns it’s other great asset are the visuals. You can’t talk about a Michael Curtiz film without talking about the visuals and Alias The Doctor is one of the more visually avant-garde films of the 1930’s with its use of expressionism, shadows, tilted camera angles, high contrast lighting as well as striking set design from Anton Grot (that opening shot of Karl ploughing the field would surely make John Ford jealous). This is Hollywood’s imagining of Europe as seen in may 1930’s films through and through.

Boris Karloff had originally filmed scenes for the film as an autopsy surgeon but was replaced by Nigel De Brulier when he was not available for retakes after British censors objected to the gruesomeness of his scenes. While it’s disappointing that Karloff would be removed from the film, Nigel De Brulier is surprisingly Karloff-like in his creepy demur and even walks just like Karloff. The character of the autopsy surgeon has several brief appearances towards the end of the film and doesn’t affect the story but builds up to one dark, humorous punch line in which he is seen preparing himself for the expected death of Karl’s mother during her surgery. Likewise Karl is in love with his adopted sister, I know they’re not related by blood but still. Where else but pre-code cinema can you get his kind of unashamed perversion?

Alias The Doctor even has an amusing depiction of a two tier healthcare system in which a patient inquires to Karl on why he is being charged (“Any doctor can serve a broken arm!”) only for Karl to reply, “But that’s the point, you kept me away from patients who needed me, people who couldn’t afford to pay a doctor. That’s our system”.

They save the best for last which Barthelmess’ monologue to the medial committee on why he should be allowed to operate on his mother despite being exposed as a fraud (albeit under highly unusual circumstances). This is storytelling which calls to the viewers raw emotion for a rebellious ignorance over rules and regulations; reality need not apply. Being an actor of the silent era, Barthelmess can convey a lot with his face while having a great voice to boot.

There is no record of Alias The Doctor every being released on home video prior to being issued on the Warner Archive Collection in 2010. Shame that such a visual work of art would have been out of reach for decades. I’ll say it now and I’ll it again; the 1930’s is an archaeological treasure chest of obscure gems.