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.

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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.

The Dawn Patrol (1930 + 1938)

Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines

The 1938 version of The Dawn Patrol is one of those remakes which is a perfectly fine film in its own right but you do have to question is it necessary especially when it is largely a shot for shot remake with various changes made to the dialogue. The original Dawn Patrol from 1930 is a superb film to begin with and one of the better films of the early sound period. But do the technological advancements between 1930 and 1938 make the remake the better film or does the original still come on top? While I like both these films, I have to side with the original over its more famous counterpart. However when your remake has Errol Flynn, David Niven and Basil Rathbone, I can’t be too critical on its existence.

The Dawn Patrol from 1930 was Howard Hawks’ first feature length talkie. Although his trademark overlapping dialogue is absent (The Criminal Code made the following year would be his first film to feature this trademark) it still has the Hawksian themes male bonding and the tensions created from a small group of people being forced together under an impossible strain. In both movies the squadron use humour to combat tragedy and drink to deal with reality, which does raise the question of how they are able to fly if they drink so much? But I digress. There are also no women in sight; both films are a man’s movie through and through. There was no shortage of aviation films in the 1930’s, a world in which death was always around the corner. Simply put, a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do. Both versions of The Dawn Patrol are close to the history they are recreating. Cast and crew from both productions had been involved in the war including Howard Hawks and Basil Rathbone. Watching a film about an armed conflict made by people who saw it first-hand really adds that extra element.

Hawk’s Dawn Patrol is an early talkie which I believe benefits from being just that. I know many dismiss early talking pictures as being static but some films from this period would not have been as effective in my eyes if they had been made a few years later; films which benefit from the rough and gritty nature of early talkies such as war movies like All Quiet on the Western Front, Hell’s Angels and War Nurse or others like the prison drama The Big House. Due to this the original Dawn Patrol feels more intimate to me than its counterpart, not to mention the sets here really do feels like they’re being lit by the candles which appear on screen. The remake on the other hand is more shinny and less gritty, not there’s anything wrong with that as it is a beauty of a film in its own right but original gets my vote when it comes to aesthetics. Surprisingly however The Dawn Patrol is one pre-code film which appears to be absent of any pre code material making the process of remaking it in 1938 easier.

Who succeeds more in the role of the Squadron’s leader Courtney; Errol Flynn or Richard Barthelmess? Barthelmess has a more gentle and more sensitive persona yet still commanding; expressing so much through his eyes as he was a distinguished actor of the silent era after all. As strong as Flynn’s performance is, the contradictory traits in Barthelmess’ Courtney makes for a more interesting performance in my eyes.

The Dawn Patrol would be one of Basil Rathbone’s few outings as one of the good guys, well kind off; he still has to perform the dirty work. It’s interesting to see him playing a character who shows sympathy towards others and even gets revenge on Errol, one upping him when he gets promoted to wing and names Courtney in the new in command of the patrol. Rathbone also has my favourite moment of the remake (a moment which isn’t in the original) in which his assistant Phipps (Donald Crisp) speaks of how wonderful it would be if they had a dog at the squadron headquarters, only for Brand to be completely zoned out that he doesn’t hear him, only to then look over at him and ask him why he’s pretending to play with a dog – a great piece of dark comic relief.

But who comes on top as the better Major Brand; Basil Rathbone or Neil Hamilton? Rathbone’s Brand is more commanding and more in control even though we still see signs that he is at breaking point. Hamilton is less commanding and in control but this itself I feel makes for an interesting character dynamic as someone who in this position of reasonability but clearly can’t handle it. If I was to choose however I would go with Basil Rathbone. While Hamilton’s performance does have more to it, Rathbone is simply a far more charismatic and cool screen presence.

Who makes for the better role of Courtney’s closet friend Scott; David Niven or Douglas Fairbanks Jr? Fairbanks is an actor I’ve long had trouble even remembering in any role. I don’t find him an engaging screen presence and will forget about his performance in a film as soon as it’s over. David Niven on the other hand is an actor I have great esteem for while his real life friendship with Errol Flynn translates into the film, making the friendship aspect is stronger and more endearing in the remake than in the original. Fairbanks is my only big complaint with the original Dawn Patrol so it’s David Niven all the way.

The aerial footage from the original is reused in the remake and there is a noticeable difference in image quality between reused footage from original and the newly filmed material. Still is it an interesting side by side comparison how movies evolved within less than a decade. The aerial action sequences are exciting to watch helped by the impressive quality of the footage while the lack of a music score and reliance on sound effects heightens the tension. I do have to ask though but can a single plane cause so much damage to an entire factory? It’s still exciting stuff none the less.

There are no good guys or bad guys in The Dawn Patrol. The movies don’t take a side such as when the downed German soldier is brought back to the squadron headquarters. He speaks in German but from what I’ve gathered in the original version of the film he calls them friends and how the fighting has “absolutely nothing to do with personal hate” and that “it is a sport/game and our duty as soldiers is clear”.

Would The Dawn Patrol be classified as an anti war film? I’m very dubious of the term anti war film and I feel throwing the term around willy nilly as is often the case comes off to me as a form of virtue signalling. As Francois Truffaut stated; war movies inherently glorify combat when they portray the adventure and thrill in combat. In other words, there is no such thing as an anti war film. Watching the action scenes in The Dawn Patrol I do feel the same kind of feeling I get when I watch an action/adventure film but then I have to remind myself of the horrors of war. Is The Dawn Patrol condemning war altogether or just the tactics used during this war such as the use of young inexperienced pilots? Or is it merely showing at the end of the day war just a necessary evil?

Man’s Favorite Sport? (1964)

Can You Smell What the Rock Is Cooking?

Man’s Favorite Sport? would have to be my favourite neo-screwball comedy (does such a term already exist or can I claim to have invented it?), and perhaps the last screwball directed by one of the original masters of the genre, Howard Hawks.

The factor which by far most surprised me in Man’s Favorite Sport? was Rock Hudson. My previous encounters with the actor left me unimpressed, leaving me classify him as one of classic Hollywood’s duller leading men. However the fact that I not only enjoyed his performance in this film but found him hysterically funny was such a shock that I was demanding answers. Did Hudson acting abilities improve by 1964? Is he better than comedy than drama or had he just grown on me? It just goes to show that there are very few classic Hollywood stars who can’t impress me in at least some small way or another, even if my previous impression of them where not very good. Paula Prentiss is also entering my books as a one hit wonder actress; I’ve yet to see her in another film in which she is as joyous and energetic as this. Being a semi remake of Hawk’s Bringing Up Baby, the two leads could have just done impressions of Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn but the avoid doing so and make the roles their own but like Grant and Hepburn, their chemistry truly is electric.

This movie exemplifies in the early to mid 1960’s aesthetic with its fashion, the cars and overall appearance showcasing the final days of old Hollywood glamour. I want to know who the set designer in this film was; the revolving bar alone has to be one of the most unabashedly 60’s sets ever. Even the less “out there” sets such an office, or a fishing shop, have a certain beauty to them. The film’s colorful visuals help give it the appearance of a live action cartoon, partly due to the fact that many of the outdoor scenes take place on obviously fake sets but then again isn’t a live action cartoon one of the definitions of screwball comedy. I also don’t normally go for those cheesy opening credit songs from the 50’s and 60’s often sang by the likes of Doris Day but this one if dam catchy.

Unlike the manic intensity of its sister film Bringing Up Baby, Man’s Favorite Sport? is surprising a very relaxing film to watch, aided by lake side resort setting and Henry Mancini’s music score, which is so mellow. I just love the juvenile innocence of the gags present in this film, such as a bear riding on a motorcycle to many variations of William Powell’s fishing scene from Libeled Lady. The common screwball comedy theme of crises of masculinity permeates the film. Hudson’s Rodger Willoughby (a name which feels straight from a 1930’s comedy) is an icon of masculinity from writing books about fishing, yet he is secretly a phony who has never fished in his life and completely fails at his attempts at his attempts at outdoor living while being made the foil of two hyperactive women. Man’s Favorite Sport? shows by the 60’s it was still possible to make these kinds of movies with the same velocity they had back in the 30’s.

Twentieth Century (1934)

Overacting at Its Finest

John Barrymore in Twentieth Century. Simply put. Every once in a while I may stumble upon a screen performance which leaves an indelible impression, brings me new levels of respect towards a performer and to even write a review. That’s the effect John Barrymore’s tour de force had on me in Twentieth Century. Barrymore is an absolute beast as the ego maniac Oscar Jaffe delivering one of my favourite film performances ever.

Barrymore had earned the reputation of being a ham actor although that’s perhaps the nasty way of putting it. Theatrical style acting may seem outdated and laughable to many nowadays but it is a style onto itself. When Barrymore asked director Howard Hawks why he should play the role of Oscar Hawks replied “It’s the story of the biggest ham on Earth and you’re the biggest ham I know”. The film even foreshadowed Barrymore’s own future as he himself became a washed up actor in the final years of his life like how the character of Oscar Jaffe becomes a shadow of his former shelf. Really has there ever be a more impassioned performance which is hammed up to 11 than this. Barrymore doesn’t just chew the scenery in every scene he is in, he devours it like a ravenous dog; he’s the definitive representation of the angry stage director stereotype. Just look at his breakdown scene when his Tribley leaves him for Hollywood, one of the greatest displays of histrionic acting poweress. Oscar Jaffe really is a fascinating character. It isn’t just enough for him to tell an employee of his theater that they have been fired, he has to tell them in the most melodramatic fashion “I close the iron door on you!”, or what about his constant comparisons to his present occurrences to scenes from famous plays or historical events. Half of what this man says is more melodramatic than Charlton Heston and William Shatner combined. Barrymore was known as The Great Profile and rightfully so; talk about an enigmatic screen presence.

The sheer energy between Barrymore and Carole Lombard is incredible in this ultimate battle of the egos; both of these two performers cross that line in comedy of playing hateful, selfish, disciple characters you can’t help but love. Carole Lombard herself has an endearing, childlike quality to her, getting overly emotional when Jaffe insults her acting ability; appropriate though since much of the film is two adults acting like children. The first portion of the film is comprised of a stage rehearsal, showcasing an impressive display of actors playing actors giving bad performances with Jaffe insulting them at every turn (“The old south does not yodel”)  but it’s the film’s second half in which things really get crazy, taking place onboard the Twentieth Century Limited. When I first watched the film I found the subplot with the religious fanatic to feel out of place at first but trust me when I say the payoff is worth it. Twentieth Century is very screamy and very shoutey but there are many little subtle touches such as the establishing shot at the start of the film of a poster advertising the Jaffe theater (showcasing the man’s insane ego); possibly the funniest establishing shot I’ve ever seen. Also keep an ear out for several references to Svengali, adapted to film in 1931 also starring John Barrymore. I also must give a shout out to Mary Jo Mathews, the actress who plays Valerie Whitehouse. She only has several lines in the entire film yet I’m intrigued by her; she appears to have star quality to her.

Along with It Happened One Night released the same year, Twentieth Century movie marks the birth the screwball comedy. I can never get enough of these films, they’re incredibly addictive and they always leave me with the feeling of wanting more. I don’t like to be labeled as one of those “they don’t make ‘em like they used to” people actually who am I kidding, of course I do.

 

Bringing Up Baby (1938)

Screwball Comedy on Steroids

I make it no secret that screwball comedy is my favourite genre of film. I can never get tired of these films; to me this is the most un-boring genre ever. Whenever I’m watching a great screwball comedy I’m on cloud 9 and when it’s over I’m always left wanting more. Sometimes I wish my life was a screwball comedy.

Bringing Up Baby is the quintessential daffy dame/stuffy gentleman movie (a formula often imitated but never topped) and I find it endlessly fascinating this premise of how this woman constantly infiltrates this man’s life and just won’t go away. You think it would be easy that he could avoid her but the manner in which she keeps coming back into his life is comedic brilliance. Like many great comedies, the jokes in Bringing Up Baby always take me by surprise no matter how many times I see it. Howard Hawks seems to have a distinctive style of slapstick comedy which separates his screwball comedies from others but what this is I can’t put my finger on; Hawks’ screwball simply has a distinctive electrically energy to it. Bringing Up Baby was produced at RKO studios, of whom I can’t help but notice their films have a distinctive imperfection of a grainy image quality and the use of soft lighting which is very easy on the eyes; the days when movie studios had their own distinctive styles.

I don’t think Katharine Hepburn ever looked more staggeringly beautiful than she does in Bringing Up Baby, I even find myself infatuated with the outfits she wears and her hairstyles in the film. Unlike other films of the genre however, the romance is largely secondary to the rest of the story; with Susan (Hepburn) falling for David (Cary Grant) but not the other way around. Even with David eventually proclaiming his love for Susan I get the impression the two only remain (unlikely) friends. Likewise the common screwball comedy theme of a crisis of masculinity is really played up here to the full with Grant wearing a woman’s dressing gown an even proclaiming in a fit of rage to be ”gay all of a sudden”.

David’s wild goose chase to obtain a dinosaur bone known as an ‘intercostal clavicle’ (a nonexistent fossil created for the movie) to complete the museum’s Brontosaurus skeleton, it’s eventfully destruction at the hands of Susan (Hepburn) as well as Susan’s treating a leopard as a pet is all perfectly in tune with the character’s defiance of the natural order of things. Bringing Up Baby is the only screwball comedy I can think of which involves it’s cast interacting with a dangerous animal; I’m unsure why this never became a common screwball trope, I guess studios wouldn’t allow their cast and crew to be placed in such danger. My review title may sound hyperbolic but I’d pair Bringing Up Baby with You Can’t Take It With You as the most over the top, steroidal, off the wall offering in the screwball comedy genre. Watching Bringing Up Baby is like watching a movie with the fast forward button turned on; the film is over before you know it. Old movies are slow and boring? Whoever came up with such nonsense?