Friday, September 25, 2009
Director: Victor Heerman
Cast: Groucho Marx, Harpo Marx, Chico Marx, Zeppo Marx, Lillian Roth, Margaret Dumont, Louis Sorin
Background: Animal Crackers is the second Marx Brothers film after the success of The Cocoanuts and was also adapted from their Broadway show.
Story: Famous explorer Captain Spaulding (Marx) attends a party in his honor at the home of Mrs. Rittenhouse and helps investigate the theft of a valuable painting during the party.
Thoughts: The Marx Brothers are hilarious here, mixing clever wordplay and oddball shenanigans to great comic effect. That is when they are actually on screen. The curious thing about Animal Crackers is how often that is not the case. The movie pauses frequently so the supporting characters can explain the plot, and none of the supporting characters are funny or interesting at all, even the wonderful Lillian Roth who was so great in Lubitsch's The Love Parade. It often ruins the comic momentum of the movie and prevents Animal Crackers from being as good as it really should be. Some of these problems also existed in The Cocoanuts, but that one hit some higher points, with the hilarious two room screwball sequence that is funnier than anything here. Still, there is plenty of funny material here to make this one a worthwhile effort.
Postscript: Animal Crackers is one of the Marx Brothers most well know films, and was very successful upon commercial release. Groucho himself would later say that this was the best of their movies.
Director: Clarence Brown
Cast: Greta Garbo, George F. Marion, Charles Bickford, Marie Dressler
Background: Greta Garbo was one of the biggest stars of the late silent era, and the films she made with frequent leading man John Gilbert (especially Flesh and the Devil) were very successful. She decided to make her talkied debut in this adaptation of Eugene O' Neil's Broadway play. She reteams with Clarence Brown, the director of Flesh and the Devil.
Story: Anna (Garbo) visits her seafaring father (Marion) for the first time in 15 years, looking for a place to stay. While on his barge, she meets a sailor named Matt (Bickford) who immediately falls in love with her and asks her to marry him. However, her father does not approve, wanting her to escape the kind of life he lives.
Thoughts: Garbo's deep, thickly accented voice was not likely what audiences were expecting when hearing the silent film star for the first time, but it is appropriate for the lost, broken character she plays. What is not appropriate is the abysmal sound quality of this early talkie, much worse than even some of the films that were made a year earlier. This really causes a problem for the film because the thick accents used by most of the cast are sometimes indecipherable and I'd say at least 1/3rd of the lines spoken are almost impossible to make out. But the film also runs into problems with structure. Based on a Broadway play, the staginess is to be expected, but the long and simplistic scene structure skips through events too quickly for the audience to become emotionally invested. Garbo's performance is a bit awkward, wooden at times and overdone at others. She struggled to find the right balance in her first talkie. Marie Dressler also shows up in a supporting role, but the one note drunk she is forced to play does the usually wonderful actress no favors. Only George F. Marion as the father acquits himself well with a sad portrait of a man who has many regrets.
Postscript: The film received three Oscar nominations, including Best Director and Best Actress. Garbo would adjust to talkies nicely and continue a very successful career over the next decade, receiving two more Oscar nominations. Marie Dressler would win the Best Actress Oscar the next year for Min and Bill.
Thursday, September 24, 2009
Director: Clyde Bruckman
Cast: Harold Lloyd, Barbara Kent, Robert McWade, Lillian Leighton, Noah Young
Background: Lloyd's first talkie was the 1929 film Welcome Danger (changed after originally being shot as a silent). Harold was not happy with it, but audiences flocked to the theaters to hear their favorite star speak for the first time. This would be his first movie filmed with the intent of being a talkie, and harold borrowed inspiration from his most famous film, Safety Last! for the conclusion.
Story: Harold Horne (Lloyd) is a shoe salesman who falls in love with his boss's daughter (Kent) and pretends to be a wealthy tycoon to impress her. He sneaks on to a ship and has to work hard to hide his true nature. When her job is in jeopardy, Harold must take drastic measures to save the day.
Thoughts: Harold Lloyd proves that while his sound films might not have been very successful, he was just as funny in them as he was in the silents. This is a solid comedy that shows Lloyd's natural everyman charm wasn't hurt by the added difficulties of recorded dialogue. One of the best gags in the movie is when hungry stowaway Harold comes up with inventive ways of sharing his potential girlfriend's meal. There's some fun wordplay involving Harold's script for selling shoes and how it eventually causes trouble for him. The film ends with another of Harold's thrill sequences, and while this one essentially copies his famous sequence in Safety Last! (the very best silent film I have seen), he still manages to do enough new things with the concept to make it memorable. Two moments are particularly astonishing: 1) At the top of the building, Harold almost loses his balance on the edge of the building; and 2) a first person perspective shot with the camera hurtling toward the ground. Feet First does lose some points for the unfortunate racial stereotype embodied in the character of an African-American janitor played by Willie Best, but thankfully the role is extremely limited.
Postscript: Harold Lloyd's talkies would not be as popular as his silents, although it is commonly believed that it had more to do with Depression era audiences having difficulties identifying with his character than any difficulties adjusting to the new technology. Lloyd would make a few more films before retiring, only to reappear one more time in the 40s for the Preston Sturges satire The Sins of Harold Diddlebock.
Wednesday, September 23, 2009
Director: FW Murnau
Cast: Charles Farrell, Mary Duncan, David Torrence, Edith Yorke, Tom McGuire
Background: Farrell and Duncan had previously worked together on the Frank Borzage lost film The River. Farrell is best known for the Borzage melodramas he made with Janet Gaynor.
Story: Lem (Farrell) goes to the city to sell his family's wheat crop. While there, he meets and falls in love with a waitress named Kate (Duncan). they get married, but when he takes his bride back home, she has trouble fitting in due to his father's (Torrence) strong disapproval.
Thoughts: One of the best things about Murnau's films is his gift for beautiful simplicity. The courtship between Farrell and Duncan in this film is one of the best examples of this. There's no huge, dramatic buildup to it. We just see two people enjoying each other's company and how that quickly turns into love. Farrell, well versed in the wonderful Frank Borzage melodramas, is as good as anyone at expressing pure love without a trace of cynicism. With Duncan, they create two convincing characters by refusing to overplay scenes for dramatic effect. In fact, the remarkable thing about the film is that no character in it is reduced to one note. Even the temperamental worker who tries to take advantage of Kate is portrayed as a three dimensional person. By doing this, Murnau allows these fully realized characters to interact in realistic and fascinating ways, as the distrust between two cultures comes to a head. Sure, the third act is melodramatic, but even the most melodramatic moments are still played with a fine touch of realism. Witness the scene when Kate is upset at Lem for not standing up to his father for her. Instead of a huge shouting match argument, Kate simply walks away from him. Murnau remarkably kept making silent films eventhough it hurt his box office grosses, but it's doubtful that a sound version of this film would have been able to achieve the kind of reserved romanticism that Murnau nails here.
Postscript: Murnau would only make one more film before dying in a car accident. Mary Duncan retired from films just 3 years later after getting married. Farrell continued acting throughout the sound era, but his most successful films were silent.
Monday, September 21, 2009
Director: John Ford
Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Spencer Tracy, Claire Luce, Warren Hymer
Story: Steve (Bogart) and Judy (Luce) are former inmates trying to make it on the outside. When they are blackmailed by someone who wants to pull a job, their convict friends Saint Louis (Tracy) and Dannemora Dan (Hymer) break out of prison to help.
Background: This was the first major feature length films for Bogart and Tracy. Ford was a very active director in the silent era, but had yet to really show his full potential.
Thoughts: It's amazing how much talent went into a movie that is just painfully awful in every single way. Ford had made some decent silent films at this point, but he was not ready for the talkies. The editing is just miserable, with jump cuts all over the place that don't make sense. A young, fresh faced Bogart certainly has some appeal here, and the film seems to be going for a nice, pleasant charm, but without any laughs it is patently boring. This one is a misfire for everyone involved.
Postscript: Ford, Bogart, and Tracy would all go on to become Hollywood legends. Tracy and Ford would work together again almost 28 years later in The Last Hurrah and then 4 years after that in How the West Was Won.
Director: Josef von Sternberg
Cast: Gary Cooper, Marlene Dietrich, Adolphe Menjou
Background: Gary Cooper wasn't yet a huge star, but had a supporting role in Best Picture winner Wings and a breakout lead performance in The Virginian. Dietrich had already worked with director von Sternberg in The Blue Angel, but this was her major introduction to American audiences.
Story: The Foreign Legion arrives in the town of Mogador at the same time singer Amy Jolly (Dietrich) begins her nightclub act. Amy soon finds herself falling for legionairre Tom Brown (Cooper), but political intrigue threatens their romance.
Thoughts: Another solid effort from von Sternberg. He really has a knack for showing us complex characters, always uncertain about where they are and where they are going. Cooper and Dietrich take that concept and run with it to create memorable performances. Adolphe Menjou even shows up as "the other man" and is given multiple dimensions, refreshingly not a one note villain we're supposed to hate. Dietrich's opening night club sequence in a tux and top hat is unforgettable (including a same sex kiss), not to mention the follow up sequence where she sells "forbidden fruit" to the legionnaires. Despite not much happening in terms of story, the film evokes a nice mood of intrigue and gives you a great sense of the lives that these characters lead. Because of that, he's able to pull off an ending that probably sounded hokey as written, but is a wonderful cinematic moment.
Postscript: The film was nominated for four Oscars: Best Director, Best Lead Actress, Best Art Direction, and Best Cinematography. Both Dietrich and Cooper would go on to become major Hollywood stars.
Sunday, September 20, 2009
Director: Ernst Lubitsch
Cast: Jeanette MacDonald, Jack Buchanan, Claud Allister, Zasu Pitts, Tyler Brooke
Background: Ernst Lubitsch had great success in his first talkie The Love Parade, a 1929 musical that featured Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette McDonald. He decided to mine that well once more by reteaming with MacDonald and enlisting Broadway star Jack Buchanan to play the male lead.
Story: Countess Helene (MacDonald) leaves her fiance (Allister) waiting at the altar and flees to Monte Carlo. While there, she catches the eye of Count Rudolph (Buchanan), who poses as her hairdresser to get close to her.
Thoughts: Another slight disappointment from Lubitsch, although it's still a really good film. Jeanette MacDonald is once again a perfect leading lady for the director, and she has a memorable music number early in the film while on a train, when she sings "Beyond a Blue Horizon" and Lubitsch includes outside sounds (like the train whistle) to complement the music. Part of the problem with the film is the odd choice of Jack Buchanan as a leading man. He just doesn't really have the right chemistry with McDonald and his hammy performance is at times highly annoying. I applaud the idea to get a less conventional leading man every now and then, but even then Buchanan really needed to dial it down a little bit. Also problematic is the lack of interesting supporting characters that we usually get in Lubitsch films (see: Lupino Lane and Lillian Roth in The Love Parade, Jean Hersholt in The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg). Both the leads have servants and despite some early promise, neither of them develop as an interesting character. The film still works thanks to MacDonald and the trademark Lubitsch wit (most memorable is the running bit where a joke is passed around until one of the tellers figures out that the joke is about him).
Postscript: Buchanan never did break out into a successful leading man and his most notable performances would come as a supporting character in The Band Wagon and Penny Serenade. Lubitsch would reunite the Chevalier-MacDonald combo one more time for his last musical, 1932's One Hour With You. "Beyond the Blue Horizon" became a hit song for Jeanette MacDonald.
Cast: Ben Lyon, James Hall, Jean Harlow, John Darrow, Lucien Prival
Background: Howard Hughes was ready to spent a lot of money (eventually $4 million) on a big budget action picture, hoping to outdo the enormously successful Wings. He alienated his first choice for director, so took over the directing reins himself. Halfway through the film, Hughes made the decision to switch the film from silent to talkie, as that's what audiences now wanted in the wake of The Jazz Singer. This forced him to replace Norwegian actress Greta Nissen (due to her accent) with a young Jean Harlow. Hughes brought in director James Whale to help direct the dialogue sequences.
Story: It is the start of World War 1, and two brothers, Monte (Lyon) and Roy (Hall) enlist in the Royal Flying Corps and fly dangerous combat missions against the Germans. Both are in love with the beautiful seductress Helen (Harlow).
Thoughts: What a film! This is certainly not without flaws, chiefly among them the mostly pedestrian dialogue, but what this film gets right, it really gets right! There is a stunning sequence depicting a zeppelin raid, which is by far the most impressive action scene filmed up to this point and still holds up today. The third act shows a large scale aerial dogfight involving over 30 planes that goes far beyond where Wings took us, including shots of a plane heading right at the camera and some spectacular crashes. But it's not only action scenes that are impressive. Jean Harlow makes her major film debut playing a fascinating woman that has a stunning sexual freedom that was very rare even in the pre-code days of cinema. See the scene where she seduces her man by asking if he would be shocked if she "put on something more comfortable". An impressive achievement despite its many flaws, this one will certainly stay with me for a long time.
Postscript: The expensive film would prove to be a hit and make back $8 million at the box office (equivalent to over $100 million today). The making of the film was detailed in Martin Scorsese's Howard Hughes biopic The Aviator.