20 December 2010

Obligatory Christmas Post No. 2

Norma Shearer has nobody to kiss her under the mistletoe. I know I would. 

18 December 2010

Obligatory Christmas Post No. 1

Anita Page shows off her considerable, ah, Christmas cheer.

05 December 2010

Five More Movies I'd Like to See on DVD

In August of last year, I drew up a list of five films I'd like to see released on DVD. Sadly, I'm still waiting for the vast majority of them (with one quite notable exception; see the previous post). Of course, I'm not about to allow that little detail to dissuade me from making more requests.

1. Ladies of Leisure (1930)
 
Ladies of Leisure is the story of hard-boiled dame who becomes the muse of an idle rich painter, in the process learning that there is more to life than cigarettes and gold-digging. This was the first collaboration between director Frank Capra and actress Barbara Stanwyck -- easily one of Hollywood's most fruitful collaborations -- and indeed it deserves to be included among the best of their work together.

2. What Price Hollywood? (1932)
 
What Price Hollywood? is a moving juxtaposition of a director rapidly slipping into drunken decline (as played by Lowell Sherman) and the aspiring actress whom he lovingly propels to stardom (as played by Constance Bennett). Although similar in many respects to the two iterations of  A Star is Born, this film stands apart quite noticeably from those later pictures, thanks in no small part to the direction of George Cukor. Highly sympathetic performances from Sherman and Bennett add even more to the film. What Price Hollywood? was released on VHS in 1991, but a DVD release is very much in order.

3. Beverly of Graustark (1926) 
 
Although I haven't actually seen this film just yet, there are quite a few reasons that I would very much like to. Among these may be counted the film's two-strip technicolor final scenes, its high marks on IMDB, its appealing mise-en-scene and Marion Davies in military regalia (don't give me that look; it's hot, and you know it).

4. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921)
 
Considering the fact that this was the film that made Rudy Valentino a household name, it's somewhat surprising that it has not yet been released on DVD. Adapted to the screen by June Mathis and directed by Rex Ingram, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse tells the story of a family divided -- and ultimately nearly destroyed -- by the Great War (the traumatic memory of which was no doubt still quite fresh at the time of the film's release). This film absolutely floored me when I watched it, and I'm willing to bet it will have -- or has already had -- the same effect on you.

5. The Merry Widow (1925)
 
How well could an operetta possibly be adapted to a silent film? Extremely well, as it turns out. Great performances all around by Mae Murray, Roy D'Arcy and -- of course -- John Gilbert. In addition to that is the superb direction of Erich von Stroheim (on a much shorter leash from the MGM studio heads after the leviathan that was 1924's Greed). Part romance, part drama of royal succession, The Merry Widow is among the best films of the silent era.

27 November 2010

Oh Happy Day

Thank heaven for the Warner Archive collection!

25 November 2010

Meant to Post this Earlier...

...but better late that never, right? Happy turkey day, Internet! 

22 November 2010

Lola Lane

 Because damn. God damn, even.

15 November 2010

The Most Dangerous Game (1932)

I must admit: the first time I watched The Most Dangerous Game (1932) I wasn't all that thrilled with it. On watching it a second time, however, I found that I like it a lot more. I'm not entirely sure why -- perhaps because I'm more accustomed to the film-making techniques of the era, having seen so many movies of the same time period since the first go-around. It does have its fair share of flaws, but on the whole this is a fairly good picture.

The film begins with renowned hunter Bob Rainsford (Joel McCrea) aboard a yacht with a few of his pals, amicably discussing the merits of hunting for sport over glasses of scotch. Their conversation is interrupted when the ship, led astray by misplaced signal buoys, crashes into a reef off the coast of a Mysterious Island. With the rest of the crew drowned or eaten by sharks, Bob is left to swim ashore by himself. On the Mysterious Island he stumbles upon a Mysterious Castle, inhabited by an eccentric Russian Count named Zaroff (Leslie Banks) who shares Bob's passion for hunting and explains that he came to the island in order to hunt "the most dangerous game." Zaroff introduces Bob to a pair of fellow castaways, a sister named Eve (Fay Wray) and a brother named Martin (Robert Armstrong). After a little polite socializing, Zaroff sends Eve and Bob to bed, but offers to show Martin -- who is by now quite drunk on vodka -- his trophy room. 

When neither Zaroff nor Martin return, Eve begins to worry and asks Bob to sneak into the trophy room with her. There they are mortified to discover that Zaroff's trophy collection consists primarily of severed human heads. Shortly after this revelation, Zaroff returns with Martin's body -- his newest trophy. When Bob confronts Zaroff, the Count offers him a choice: either hunt alongside the Count or become his next prey. Being a fine and upstanding gentleman, Bob refuses the offer and is consequently set loose in the jungle with nothing other than a knife and his wits (Eve has opted to come along with him, understandably preferring Bob's company to that of Zaroff, who has quite clearly explained his plans to give her the old in-out after killing Bob). If Bob can survive for twenty-four hours, he and Eve will allowed to escape the island.

The central premise of the film is an intriguing one, and for the most part it is executed quite well. The film moves along at a healthy pace and never drags -- indeed, at only just over an hour in running time, it's a fairly short and sweet affair. The camera work is solid, with a few particularly interesting shots -- most noticeably a few first-person perspective shots of running through the jungle during the hunt. 

The acting is competent, if a bit hammy in parts. Joel McCrea is good enough as Bob Rainsford, but Leslie Banks cuts it a bit too thick as the count (not that it really detracts anything from the picture). Although she does overplay the "swooning damsel" aspect of her character, Fay Wray is otherwise agreeable in her performance, showing off her particular flair for looking positively scared shitless (it should also be noted that she looks quite fetching with her hair its natural dark color). Finally, Robert Armstrong's appearance as the obnoxious, drunken Martin is brief but memorable. 

What I noticed in watching the picture a second time is that in many ways, The Most Dangerous Game feels like a spiritual predecessor to King Kong. There are a few reasons for this. To begin with, both pictures were produced and directed by the team of Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack. Both pictures featured Robert Armstrong and Fay Wray, the latter spending a healthy portion of both movies running around the jungle in a dirty dress. Even the jungle itself feels similar in both films, right down to the log suspended over a gaping chasm (I'm not certain if that was that meant to be so Freudian, especially given the implicit threat to Fay Wray's chastity that is present in both films. Then again, sometimes a log over a chasm is just a log over a chasm). Finally, the same campy spirit that makes King Kong so great is present in The Most Dangerous Game, even if it isn't on the same grandiose scale. As with King Kong, it's very much because of the picture's camp that I wound up enjoying it.

The film's reliance on the tried-and-true cliches of the adventure genre has a way of winning one over. It's not a picture that's going to have you on the edge of your seat, but The Most Dangerous Game is fun enough to merit at least one viewing (and hey, as luck would have it, the movie is now public domain, which means you can watch it in its entirety at the Internet Archive).

08 November 2010

In Which I Attempt Fiction

This is the beginning of that book I mentioned in an earlier post.

The kitchen sink, as it ever seemed to be, was full of dirty dishes. Some were stained with pasta sauce so old that had begun to petrify into a brownish crust that, for whatever reason, reminded me of Yellowstone. The plates, at least, were mostly dry. It was in the water filled bowls that the true horrors of bachelorhood revealed themselves. What was once a bowl of banana bread-flavored oatmeal was now a primordial swamp out of which, at any given moment, I expected an heretofore unknown species of nematode to come crawling. Ours was less a kitchen sink and more a tiny cosmos; I less an underemployed Bachelor of the Arts and more a wrathful god, with the power to give life to a billion microbes with my munificent leftovers or to snuff it out in a moment with the cataclysmic power of soap and sponge.


01 November 2010

Relevant to my Interests Ep. 24

Any major dude will tell you that looks aren't everything, and they'd be right. Glenda Farrell definitely wasn't a knockout by most standards, but one would be hard pressed to find an actress who encapsulated the hard-boiled dame of the 1930s as well as she did. Glenda's output while under contract at Warner Bros. can best be described as workmanlike --  between 1932 and 1934, she appeared in over two dozen pictures. To put that figure in perspective, Joan Crawford appeared in only eight pictures in the same time frame, while Norma Shearer and Greta Garbo appeared in only four. That's dedication to the craft, my friends. Glenda may not have had the prestige or the glamor of some of her contemporaries, but her parts are usually pretty memorable, and she rarely fails to entertain. That, combined with the fact that she seems like she could beat you in foosball while drinking you under the table, makes Glenda Farrell a pretty cool gal.

31 October 2010

21 October 2010

Design for Living (1933)

I had relatively high hopes for Design for Living, and I am pleased to report that for once I was not disappointed. I could throw around the superlatives usually assigned to Ernst Lubitsch films -- everything from sophisticated to smart to sexy -- because just about all of them are applicable here. Hollywood just doesn't make romantic comedies like they used to.

Design for Living truly excels in the casting department. It's four primary players are Fredric March, Gary Cooper, Miriam Hopkins and Edward Everett Horton, and each of them is absolutely perfect in their role -- Fredric March as the snarky playwright, Gary Cooper as the furniture-smashing painter, Miriam Hopkins as the classy minx and Edward Everett Horton as the straight-laced yet flustered milquetoast. March and Cooper play off one another extremely well, exhibiting both camaraderie and jealousy. Both also demonstrate great chemistry with Hopkins in the romantic scenes (for her part, Miriam displays significant presence while on screen). Finally, Horton's part as the jealous friend seems at first like an unusual heel turn for him, but ultimately works out just as well.

Definitely give this one a watch if you get the chance.

13 October 2010

Fear Before the (Fredric) March of Flames

As most of the classic film blogosphere is well aware, TCM's Star of the Month for October is none other than Fredric March. As he is one of my favorite actors from back in the day, you can probably imagine that I'm pretty thrilled with this. I listed some of the films in which he appears in my review of A Star of Born (which, perhaps not coincidentally, I watched again last night). To that list I can add the 1935 screen adaptation of Les Miserables (which also featured the great Charles Laughton), the Hal Roach-produced romantic comedy There Goes my Heart (1938, also starring Virginia Bruce and a Todd-less Patsy Kelly), and Nothing Sacred (1937, directed by William Wellman and co-starring the always entertaining Carole Lombard). Last but not least, March was fantastic opposite an equally-awesome Spencer Tracy in Inherit the Wind (1960).

I am eagerly anticipating Design for Living (1933) when it airs later this month -- with Ernst Lubitsch directing a film adapted from a play by Noel Coward, how can one go wrong? Hopefully I be able to write a glowing review. Most of the films I've mentioned in this post will be airing on TCM this month. Hopefully you'll catch as many of them as you can.

ADDENDUM: 

I just watched Bedtime Story (1941, co-starring Loretta Young and her menagerie of outlandish early 40s hats). I enjoyed this one, as well. The climactic scene in the hotel room brings to mind the stateroom scene from A Night at the Opera, I thought.

11 October 2010

The Criminal Code (1931)

Directed by Howard Hawks and released by Columbia Pictures in 1931, The Criminal Code bears a few marked similarities to The Big House, a film released by rival studio MGM the year before. Both films follow the story of an otherwise good fellow who is convicted of an accidental killing while under the influence of alcohol, both films attempt to illustrate the brutal conditions of American prisons, and both films feature highly improbable romantic subplots. Only one of these films, however, has Walter Huston.

In The Criminal Code, Walter Huston plays hard-nosed D.A. Martin Brady, who pursues a ten-year sentence for Robert Graham (Phillips Holmes), who accidentally killed a man in an altercation in a nightclub. Fast forward six years, and Brady is installed as the warden in the same prison where Graham has been serving his sentence. The horrendous conditions in the prison have taken their toll on Graham, who has begun to break down. On the recommendation of the prison doctor, Brady takes Graham out of the juke mill and takes him a his personal chauffeur. It is in that capacity that Graham meets Mary -- Brady's daughter, played by Constance Cummings. Romance ensues, but the situation is complicated when Graham witnesses the murder of a stool-pigeon by his cell-mate Galloway (Boris Karloff). Brady -- along with several guards -- finds Graham with the body, and Graham is compelled to choose between his saving his own skin or becoming a stool-pigeon himself. 

The Criminal Code is dominated from beginning to end by Walter Huston, who gives a dynamic and lively performance. Huston truly deserves to be counted among the best actors of his era, and his work in this picture is good evidence of that claim (to say nothing of Dodsworth, Rain and a host of other pictures I ought to see). Although his part is comparatively small, Boris Karloff is also good here, being suitably menacing as the convict with a score to settle.

On the other hand, Phillips Holmes and Constance Cummings are comparatively lukewarm in their roles. Furthermore, their romantic subplot does seem more than a little improbable, although this does not detract too much from the film as a whole.

The Criminal Code is an example of an early talking picture that truly benefits from great direction -- the common complaints of static camera work and stiff acting really don't apply here, and I'll wager that the direction of Howard Hawks can be credited for that. It isn't without its drawbacks, but nevertheless it's definitely one worth checking out.

09 October 2010

Holy Hell, I've Been at This for Three Years

It just dawned on me that my last post marked three years to the day that I started this blog. It was initially just meant to be something to play around with, but through the march of time it has become something a bit more important than that. Although it's been sparse here as of late, I have no intention of quitting or going on any sort of hiatus (you'll be greatly relieved to know, I'm sure). I've been grappling with that damned book I'm trying to write, which has been something of a black hole from which none of my attention can escape (that, plus all those damned computer games).

In the meantime, I'm going to try to recommit myself to posting some more meaningful musings for you passers-by to read. Thanks for taking moments of your life to read my scribblings -- it's good to know that there's someone out there in the blackness of space.

29 September 2010

This Would Have Made The Movie Ten Times Better

Unfortunately, it's kind of a scientific impossibility.

18 September 2010

In Which Cary Grant Uses the Force

Also: Harpo shot first.

16 September 2010

The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg (1927)

With the exception of my bargain-bin copy of Nosferatu, the first proper silent movie I ever watched was 1927's The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg. In retrospect, I could not have asked for a better introduction to that era of film making. With a great cast, superb direction, top-notch production values and nary a word of spoken dialogue, The Student Prince is one of the primary examples of just how great silent movies could be.

The Student Prince in question is Karl Heinrich of the fictional kingdom of Karlstadt, played here by Ramon Novarro (in the films first few scenes, the Prince is played as a boy by Phillipe De Lacy). Karl Heinrich is stuck in the stifling rigidity of court life, his only friend being his kindly tutor Dr. Jüttner (Jean Hersholt). Upon the completion of his primary education, Karl Heinrich in granted leave to complete his studies in the picturesque city of Heidelberg with Dr. Jüttner as his chaperon. In Heidelberg Karl Heinrich tastes freedom for the first time, carousing and tossing back steins of beer with the vivacious cadets of the Corps Saxonia. Most importantly, however, Karl Heinrich meets a beautiful barmaid named Kathi (Norma Shearer), and the two fall truly, madly and deeply in love. 

In some of the most beautifully shot scenes in the film, Karl Heinrich and Kathi share a positively idyllic romance. Their bliss comes screeching to a halt, however, when Karl Heinrich receives news that the king of Karlstadt has fallen terminally ill and is compelled to return home. With the king on his deathbed, Karl Heinrich is forced to chose between his duty to Karlstadt and his love for Kathi.

Although the plot is far from groundbreaking, the picture is so well put together that what in other hands would be a strictly formulaic affair is quite touching. The film was produced at the very height of the silent era, and it shows. This is due, in large part, to the the excellent direction of Ernst Lubitsch, who amply demonstrates in The Student Prince his singular talent as a director of romantic pictures. Norma Shearer is as charming as ever as Kathi, and Jean Hersholt is particularly likable as Dr. Jüttner. Ramon Novarro carries the picture quite well, giving a highly sympathetic performance as Karl Heinrich. 

One thing that really enhances the viewing experience is the musical accompaniment. One wouldn't normally expect that from a silent film, but here is one area where the march of time has worked out to our advantage. The print which TCM usually shows is accompanied by a full orchestral score, composed by Carl Davis and performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Davis has composed new scores for several silent films, including Ben-Hur, The Big Parade and Phantom of the Opera, to name a few. Davis' score is a perfect counterpart to the picture, and the man deserves mad respect for his contributions to the survival of silent films. 

I just recently saw The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg for the third time, and I found that I enjoyed it just as much as the first time (if not more so, now that I have become a bit more learned in the ways silent pictures). Although it has been released on VHS, The Student Prince is not yet available on DVD (here's hoping it will see a release through the Warner Archive collection before too long). Fortunately, the film airs on TCM with relative regularity. I strongly recommend watching The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg the next time you get a chance. 

[Poster via Dr. Macro]

15 September 2010

What a Manuscript Looks Like

I realize that it's been somewhat sparse around here for the last month or so, and for that I do apologize. However, I do have what I hope is a reasonable excuse -- I've been trying to write a book (emphasis on the trying bit). And when I say write, I do mean write. For whatever reason, I find that the words just flow more readily with pen and paper than with keyboard and word processor (many of the longer posts here were handwritten as drafts, in fact). Besides, I still have a New Year's Resolution which remains unfulfilled. 

We'll see where this leads me. Probably nowhere, but hey.

12 September 2010

For Whatever Reason...

...I found this to be poignant (click to view larger; you know how it works).

05 September 2010

I Dream of Jeanie

I recently finished reading John Oller's excellent biography of Jean Arthur -- aptly entitled Jean Arthur: The Actress Nobody Knew -- and I have to say that I really rather liked it. Oller's book is exhaustively researched, highly readable and sympathetic to its subject while remaining faithful to its sources. Furthermore, it also answered a question I posed in an earlier post: as it turns out, both Jean Arthur and Norma Shearer were working as models in New York in the early 1920s, which explains the mystery photo.

On a personal note, I must admit that I am now crushing pretty heavily on Miss Arthur after having read the book -- to quote Eddie Cantor, that's that kind of a baby for me! (although I do like her better as a brunette, as pictured above). 

I definitely recommend giving this book a read -- it is easily the seminal work on the subject of Jean Arthurology (and if that isn't a legitimate field of study, it bloody well ought to be).

31 August 2010

And Finally...

...Rounding off our impromptu trio of ladies who are just too damn fine to go unmentioned for so damn long is Thelma Todd. She's only been here twice before, and she was dead on the first one! Fortunately for us, she's very much alive here.

24 August 2010

And While We're on the Subject...

Here's some Dorothy Sebastian, because it's also been far too long since she's been here.

18 August 2010

Because She Hasn't Been Around for a While...

Here's some Evelyn Brent.

09 August 2010

Characters I Like, Ep. 1

In a fragmentary post rather some time ago, I described my aversion to heroic characters. In this series I'll be looking at some characters whom I do like. 

Big Fan (2009) is the story of Paul Aufiero, a native of Staten Island and an aging man-child who still lives with his mother, and whose sole passion in life is New York Giants football. He is particularly enthusiastic about fictional Linebacker Quantrell Bishop. While working at his dead-end job as a parking attendant in New York, he passes his time by meticulously scripting his telephone rants for a late-night Sports Talk radio show (rather pathetically, Paul is forced to deliver these rants in hushed tone, so as not to disturb his mother in the next room). Paul has no girlfriend of whom to speak, and at no point in the film is he provided with even a passing romantic interest. His only real friend is Sal who, notwithstanding his Giants fandom, is rather a dullard. The life situation of Paul and Sal is quite perfectly encapsulated by a recurring shot of the two fans tailgating alone in the parking lot of Giants Stadium, watching the game on a portable television set powered by a car battery while everyone else in the stands, watching the game in person.

In sharp contrast is Paul's brother Jeff, an archetypal ambulance-chasing lawyer who owns a respectable house and has a wife and several children -- these being the hallmarks of a real life, according to Paul's mother, and also things which Paul insists he does not want. What Paul does want is not made clear, as it is probable that he himself does not know.

Paul's unremarkable takes a sudden turn when he follows Quantrell Bishop into an upscale Manhattan strip club: Bishop takes Paul for a stalker and beats the living tar out of him. Paul awakes from a coma three days later and discovers that Bishop has been suspended as a result of the incident, and may be charged with assault.Owing to Bishop's absence and the off-the-field-distraction, the Giants begin to perform increasingly poorly (a moment of realism in film, I might add). Although his family pushes him to file charges against Bishop, Paul's primary concern is that Bishop's continued absence could cause the Giants to miss the playoffs and he claims to have no memory of the incident.

Clearly, Paul Aufiero is no superhero. On the contrary, he is quite painfully average. Whereas characters like James Bond never lose, Paul Aufiero never wins. When Paul finally meets his hero, he gets an ass-kicking instead of an autograph. In spite of Paul's protests, his sleazy brother seizes upon his injuries as an opportunity to sue Quantrell Bishop for millions of dollars. His identity is exposed by a bellicose Eagles fan named Philadelphia Phil. Finally -- and perhaps most painfully of all -- Paul's mother embarrasses him on live radio when he calls his favorite Sports Talk show to make a statement about the incident.

Paul Aufiero is by most reasonable standards quite pathetic, a loser in the fullest sense of the word. Perhaps because of this, I cannot help but identify with him. Like Paul, I haven't many career aspirations of which to speak -- my job doesn't thrill me at all, and I too spend my down time scribbling my thoughts on a notepad. Like Paul, I cannot bring myself to want all the things one is supposed to want -- the high-profile job, the big house, the happy family. Like Paul, I find more meaning in trivialities like football -- or movies from the 20s and 30s, for that matter -- than most people would think reasonable. The world doesn't seem to have much use for people like us.

Big Fan captures quite well the reality of what it is to be wholly unremarkable, and it is precisely because its protagonist so unremarkable that I cannot help but see a little bit of myself in him. 

02 August 2010

When Legends Gather

I'd like to know what led to this meeting of Jean Arthur and Norma Shearer in their younger and more vulnerable days. Was it some sort of neck-wear convention? The world may never know.

25 July 2010

The Perils of Pauline

Pauline Starke wonders what to do with her Sunday afternoon. Perhaps, she thinks, it is time to summon the meteors.

Fin.

21 July 2010

The Truth About Youth (1930)

Dating from 1930, The Truth About Youth is a surprisingly enjoyable potboiler from First National and Vitaphone Pictures -- definitely a B-List production, but one starring a pair of future A-Listers (namely Loretta Young and Myrna Loy) who show some significant talent in spite of the somewhat limited material. The only real stumbling point in this picture is the ending which features a twist that might make even M. Night Shyamalan raise an eyebrow (and no, Loretta Young does not see dead people).

The plot here is fairly straightforward: Richard Carewe (Conway Tearle) has raised Richard "The Imp" Dane (David Manners) in his father's stead, and has arranged for him to marry Phyllis Ericson (Loretta Young), but whilst out on a tear (under the premise of attending a psychology lecture) he becomes smitten with a nightclub singer named Kara (alias The Firefly, played by Myrna Loy). The Imp convinces Kara that he is a rich young bachelor and marries her in secret. When Phyllis discovers a letter from Kara to The Imp, Richard the Elder deftly convinces her that the letter was actually written to him -- the letter having been addressed only to "Richard" -- and sets about trying to fix the whole mess. He bribes Kara into pretending that she and he are in love, and shenanigans ensue. 

It's a standard Good-Woman-Bad-Woman motif, with Loretta Young as the innocent sweetheart and Myrna Loy as the money-grubbing chiseler. Loretta gets top billing and does a good job with her character, but as she is wont to do Myrna basically steals every scene in which she appears, and by and large steals the whole movie -- in one particularly memorable scene she throws a delightful little fit, replete with slapping of man-face and tossing of pottery (this after The Imp admits that he isn't all he claimed to be). Myrna also sings two numbers in the nightclub, although it's fairly obvious to the attentive viewer that it isn't her voice, and that she is only lip-syncing. Still, she sells the hell out of it, bless her heart.

Loretta and Myrna appear in only a single scene together, but it is easily the best scene in the movie. Phyllis follows Richard to the nightclub and pretends to be starstruck by Kara, essentially telling Richard that she wants to be just like Kara when she grows up, much to his consternation (she suspects that Richard's courtship of Kara isn't on the level, as the saying goes, and it's clear that her praise is purely to test Richard). 

The male leads, on the other hand, aren't nearly so interesting. Conway Tearle does a decent job with his character, but there isn't much about his role that's particularly memorable. The same goes for David Manners, whose character's nickname might be the only really notable thing about him -- he doesn't do much to break the mold of the Generic 30s Guy, although it should be said that the script doesn't really give him much opportunity to do so. 

Finally, there's the ending. Although Richard manages to get The Imp to divorce Kara, he refuses to marry Phyllis, claiming that he never actually loved her. Phyllis takes the news shockingly well, exclaiming that she really loved Richard the whole time. This ending really doesn't make much sense at all, which has the unfortunate effect of upending the picture in the last five minutes. We do see that The Imp's devotion to Phyllis is questionable, but the movie gives us no hints whatsoever that Phyllis is really in love with Richard. It's kind of a shame, since I really enjoyed the picture up until that the script decided to drop that pipe-bomb in my lap.

Yet even if the ending doesn't really work, the picture is still enjoying. The acting feels quite crisp for its time, and the camera work here isn't nearly as stiff as in other movies from the same time. Then, of course, there's Myrna Loy, who has an uncanny ability to make any movie better by here mere presence. Indeed, she's pretty much the number one reason to watch the picture. The Truth About Youth is worth at least one viewing, especially for Myrna Loy fans.

[Image Sauce]

15 July 2010

A Profile in Greatness

Let me tell you about John Barrymore. This guy. This guy is un-fucking-believable. He gives a great performance in every picture of his I've seen. I've already touched on his talent in When a Man Loves, and he brings similar energy and gravity to Beau Brummel, with equally superb results. His portrayal of the eponymous villain in 1931's Svengali was easily the best part of the picture -- in a film full of uncomfortably stiff acting, Barrymore's delightfully over the top performance really carries the whole movie.In the all-star bonanzas of Grand Hotel and Dinner at Eight, John Barrymore delivers a pair of memorable performances, his portrayal of a tragically forgotten silent film star in the latter picture being particularly moving. He is similarly great as Mercutio in the 1936 production of Romeo and Juliet (this in spite of the fact that he, along with just about every other member of the cast, was at least twice as old as the character he was playing, if not more so).

The fact that John Barrymore turned in such great performances throughout his film career becomes even more impressive when one remembers that he was partying like the proverbial Rock Star the whole time, raising the devil with his frequent drinking buddies W.C. Fields and Errol Flynn. It seems that this lifestyle caused trouble for him as early as 1933, as he apparently had such difficulty remembering his lines that he resorted to using cue-cards placed off camera and around the set -- of course, the guy is so good at what he does that it's impossible to tell.

On and off the screen, John Barrymore is one of my favorite actors. He had talent that I can only dream of having, and maintained a lifestyle that I can only dream of emulating. To put it simply, John Barrymore: a pretty cool guy.

[Image Sauce]

10 July 2010

Starship Amazing - The Power of Science is Staggering (2008)


In the not-all-that-distant past I was into electronic music, primarily the more dance-oriented stuff. Although it's quite a different from what I listened to in those days, The Power of Science is Staggering by the Alaskan duo Starship Amazing is nevertheless an excellent example of just how good electronic music can be, and indeed a reminder of why I got into this style of music in the first place. 

The Power of Science is Staggering features thirteen diverse tracks, which run the gamut from laid back, hip-hop ("This is My Ideal World!" and "Kill the Body, Keep the Parts") to energetic drum and bass ("Judging By The Size of This Crater, Someone Brought the Ruckus") to more atmospheric compositions (e.g. "Finally!"). Each track is comprised of a variety of unique elements, which the result that each track is enjoyable in its own special way. Tracks such as "Finally!" and "Anyone Who is Down" feel particularly well-suited to driving around town at night, while "In a World Where Only the Strong Survive, Only the Strong Survive" seems better suited to shooting enemy robots with green laser beams while flying around in a spaceship. Then there's "Pokemon ≠ Pokemon", a song which features voice samples from Bert and Ernie from Sesame Street and is just plain fun to listen to.

If you couldn't tell by the song titles (or the name of the band, for that matter), Starship Amazing perhaps may not be taking themselves entirely seriously. Of course this only adds to the charm of the music, and when combined with the fact that Starship Amazing also seems to be quite heavily influenced by video game music makes the album that much more fun to listen to. 

In all honesty, I was quite pleasantly surprised by just how much I enjoyed this album. Whether you're a long-time fan of electronic music or just in the market for something new and exciting, you owe it to yourself to give The Power of Science is Staggering a try, and the fact that Starship Amazing has made the entire album available for free listening and download means you really have no excuse not to. Go check it out. I don't expect that you'll be disappointed by what you find.

P.S. Starship Amazing also produces a weekly podcast that is extremely entertaining. I highly recommend listening to that, as well.

06 July 2010

Miss Loy

Having recently finished reading her autobiography, I can now say with some certainty that Myrna Loy was one of the coolest people to ever walk the face of the earth. Seriously people, go hunt down a copy and read that shit. It's an enlightening and enjoyable read.

24 June 2010

Relevant to my Interests, Ep. 23


Here's a fun fact about Jeanette MacDonald: apparently, my grandfather had a thing for her, too! My father also admits that she is -- as the kids say these days -- hot, which means Jeanette has three consecutive generations of approval. If that isn't evidence of transcendental beauty, I don't know what is.

P.S. It also helps that she looks like this girl I had a major crush on in college.

19 June 2010

The Harry Warren Countdown, No. 1

1. "Dames" (1934)



Man, do I love this damned song. "Dames" was the eponymous song from the 1934 picture, and just about everything about it is great. An energetic and memorable tune, a toe-tapping rhythm, humorous lyrics and one of Busby Berkeley's best production numbers to go along with it. I'm hardly an expert on the subject, but nevertheless I'll put this song forward as one of the best of the pre-swing era.

The version featured above is a great recording by British singer Leslie Holmes, about whom very little information seems to be extant. Dick Powell -- there he is again! -- sang the song in Dames, but I actually think Leslie Holmes' performance is just a little bit better, even without a production number to go with it. Feel free to check out said production number the film, and see which one you like better.

18 June 2010

The Harry Warren Countdown, No. 2

2. "Keep Young and Beautiful" (1933)



If this song isn't obscure, the picture in which it premiered more than likely is. "Keep Young and Beautiful" was introduced by no less a personage than Eddie Cantor in the picture Roman Scandals, one of a half-dozen movies Eddie made at Samuel Goldwyn Studios. It's certainly one of the most energetic songs on this list, with a upbeat rhythm and an obscenely memorable melody to go along with it -- I've had this song stuck in my head for weeks at a time.

Yet although it's among the best songs in Harry Warren's oeuvre, it isn't nearly as well known as many of his other tunes -- aside from an Annie Lennox cover in the early 90s, it has largely faded into obscurity. Much of this is due, I suspect, to lyrics that could easily be construed as sexist -- e.g. "What's cute about a cutie? / It's her beauty, not brains!" -- and an accompanying production number that could even more easily be construed as racist (blackface, for good reasons, isn't held in very high regard these days). Even so, you oughtn't let trifling matters like political correctness keep you from enjoying a damned good song.

17 June 2010

The Harry Warren Countdown, No. 3

3. "You're Getting to Be a Habit With me" (1932)



This is song that has appeared on this blog before, but I suppose that only serves to demonstrate how much I like it. Along with "Young and Healthy", "You're Getting to Be a Habit With Me" worked wonders to keep my spirits up during my year-long stint in the poorhouse (they also helped make 42nd Street one of my favorite movies, but I digress). As with its earlier appearance, the song is here performed by none other than Bebe Daniels, although this interpretation is more down-tempo and balladic than the version I posted a while back.

For a good orchestral rendition, check out this recording by Waring's Pennsylvanians.

16 June 2010

The Harry Warren Countdown, No. 4

4. "Young and Healthy" (1933)



This song has a special place in my heart. It's bright and springy melody kept me going during the long, dark days of late 2008 (along with a certain other song, which I'll be featuring tomorrow). As was the case with several of the other songs on this list, it was introduced on film by Dick Powell, whose upbeat performance of the song still remains the gold standard of "Young and Healthy" renditions. It's featured above, and if it doesn't at least motivate you to get up and move around a little bit, you may want to check yourself for a pulse.

15 June 2010

The Harry Warren Countdown, No. 5

5. "I Only Have Eyes for You" (1934)



Aside from "We're In the Money", "I Only Have Eyes for You" might be the most recognizable song in the Harry Warren catalog. Since its debut in 1934's Dames (where it was sung by Dick Powell and a battalion of chorus girls), Countless versions of the song have been recorded, including renditions by such Jazz legends as Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holliday and Frank Sinatra himself. Hell, even Art Garfunkel recorded a version. Although the original musical number was memorable in and of itself -- Ruby Keelers, millions of em! -- the song has since surpassed the movie in fame and renown.

The version of "I Only Have Eyes for You" featured above is a 1934 recording by Eddy Duchin and his Orchestra which quite closely resembles the original version from Dames.

14 June 2010

The Harry Warren Countdown, No. 6

6. "I've Got to Sing a Torch Song" (1933)



Although it isn't one of the better known songs from the picture, "I've got to Sing a Torch Song" nevertheless features prominently in Gold Diggers of 1933 -- It plays during the introductory credits and as background music in various scenes, and Dick Powell sings the song when Ruby Keeler asks him to demonstrate some of his music for the forthcoming revue. "I've Got to Sing a Torch Song" is a surprisingly versatile tune, which lends itself nicely to both slower, balladic renditions and to more upbeat and jazzy interpretations. Dick Powell's rendition featured above falls distinctly into the former category.

13 June 2010

The Harry Warren Countdown, No. 7

7. "Cryin' for the Carolines"



Perhaps the most obscure song on the list so far, "Cryin' for the Carolines" is also the most blues-styled song so far. It was first popularized by Ruth Etting, and later appeared in the 1930 picture Spring is Here, where it was harmonized by the Brox Sisters trio. There were quite a few recordings made of the song -- evidence of its popularity -- but this particularly bluesy rendition by Ben Bernie and the Hotel Roosevelt Orchestra seems to capture the melancholy nature of the music particularly well.

12 June 2010

The Harry Warren Countdown, No. 8

8. "Lullaby of Broadway" 1935



Introduced by Winifed Shaw in a jaw-dropping production number from Gold Diggers of 1935, "Lullaby of Broadway" went on to win an Academy Award in the category of Best Original Song. With it's energetic melodies and cheeky lyrics, it's easy to understand why. Versions of this song were recorded as late as 2006, and readers of a certain age might recall seeing a rendition of it on The Muppet Show.

Busby Berkeley's grand production number from Gold Diggers is featured here. It's so grand, in fact, that it has to be shown in two parts! After checking out part one above, do check out part two, as well.

11 June 2010

The Harry Warren Countdown, No. 9

9. "On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe" (1944)



A number one hit in 1945, "On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe" is an undeniably infectious swing tune. The song was popular enough to warrant recordings by numerous singers, among them Bing Crosby, Judy Garland (who famously sang the song in 1946's The Harvey Girls) and Johnny Mercer (who actually wrote the lyrics).The latter version is posted above, for your listening pleasure.

10 June 2010

The Harry Warren Countdown, No. 10

If you don't know the name Harry Warren, you should. Even if you've never heard of the man, odds are that you've heard his music. Harry Warren -- born Salvatore Antonio Guaragna in Brooklyn -- wrote an astounding number of songs in his lifetime, which run the gamut from Academy Award-winning musical numbers to enduring Jazz standards. A cursory glance at his curriculum vitae will likely reveal at least a half-dozen recognizable songs, even for those who aren't big on classic movies.

For the next ten days, I'll be enumerating my ten favorite Harry Warren songs (and trust me, narrowing it down to just ten is no easy task). So, without further ado...

10. "Forty-Second Street" (1933)



The titular song and grand finale number from the movie that just about single-handedly revitalized the Musical genre, "Forty-Second Street" combines an almost martial cadence with a jazzy and endlessly catchy melody. The end result is a song that perfectly captures the energy of its subject matter, perfectly accentuated by the visual accompaniment in the film 42nd Street, as shown here (Ruby Keeler's obvious lip-synching notwithstanding). It's an enduring classic.

03 June 2010

The Wrestler and The Champ

Memorial Day is customarily a day for war movies, more often than not featuring Audie Murphy or (less enjoyably) John Wayne. I opted to break with tradition, however, and watched The Wrestler.

Here is a movie with a lot to like about it. First and foremost is the great performance by Mickey Rourke. In a picture that is by and large a character study, Mickey Rourke really brings the downtrodden Randy "The Ram" Robinson to life (apparently, he improvised significantly in several scenes, adding to the naturalistic feel of his performance). Secondly, the mise-en-scene is truly fantastic -- in addition to the gritty camera work, the film's setting in central New Jersey really enhances the feeling of decrepitude that is prevalent throughout the film, particularly the scenes on the ruined boardwalk in Asbury Park (indeed, much of the filming was done in and around Elizabeth, not far from my old hometown of Passaic). Then there's the surprisingly appropriate soundtrack composed largely of 1980s Glam and Heavy Metal tracks, alongside similarly styled original compositions (performed by former Guns 'n' Roses guitarist Slash). Finally, the film also provides a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at the world of independent wrestling promotions (full disclosure: I was big wrestling fan in the mid '90s. Of course, I still thought it was real back then).

To put the matter simply, The Wrestler is truly a very good movie. I couldn't help but notice, however, a few striking similarities between this movie and King Vidor's 1931 film The Champ. To begin with, the protagonists of the two pictures are very much alike -- Mickey Rourke's and Wallace Beery's respective characters are both former champs long past their prime, living in destitution and just managing to eke out a living by fighting in obscure matches. Even their names are similar -- compare Mickey's Randy Robinson to Wally's Andy Purcell. Perhaps the most significant similarity, however, is the fact that both Randy and Andy suffer from dangerous heart conditions.

One significant point of departure, on the other hand, is the protagonists' relationships with their children. In The Champ, Andy Purcell's relationship with his son Dink (played by Jackie Cooper), although quite strained at times, is nevertheless a loving one. Although he drinks heavily and gambles uncontrollably, Andy still cares a great deal for his son, and Dink looks up to him in spite of his flaws. Although Randy Robinson cares for his daughter Stephanie and regrets not having been a better father to her, it's nevertheless clear that, despite Randy's best intentions, their relationship is largely damaged beyond repair.

Yet the most compelling point of comparison between the two movies might be -- perhaps naturally -- their endings (spoilers ahead, by the way). In a final gamble to turn their lives around, Randy and Andy enter into climactic matches. Although they both emerge victorious, in both cases the victories come (or at least seem to come) at too great a cost. Andy manages to rally from a brutal beating to knock out his opponent, but suffers a fatal heart attack in the wake of the match (as an aside, Jackie Cooper is great in these final few scenes -- his tearful performance doesn't just tug at your heart's strings, it tears the whole thing out of your chest and throws it down at your feet). Meanwhile, Randy is on the way to winning his match when he begins to suffer from heart attack-like symptoms. With his opponent on the mat, Randy pulls himself up to the top turnbuckle for one last leap (this after delivering a heartfelt oration prior to the match, in which he tells the audience that they are his true family). One does not know beyond a doubt that Randy dies after his leap, but it isn't hard to imagine that he does.

Both Andy Purcell and Randy Robinson go out in a last blaze of glory. In doing so, they redeem themselves in the eyes of those dearest to them -- Andy proves his worth to both his son and his estranged wife by sacrificing his life to ensure that Dink has enough money to live on, and Randy manages, even if only for a little while, to once again win the hearts and minds of his own "family."

Of course, this isn't to say that The Wrestler is a rewrite of The Champ; In fact, I'd be surprised if The Champ actually was the first movie to tell this sort of story. The story of a broken man who, even if only a small way, manages to set things right is a theme with a timeless appeal, and one at the very heart of both movies. Although the films are poles apart in terms of feel and technique, it's their common theme that makes The Wrestler and The Champ such excellent movies. Do yourself a favor and watch them both.

30 May 2010

Re: Dennis Hopper

The internet is awash with obituaries for the late, great Dennis Hopper. So rather than add to the pile, I will leave you with this, by way of tribute.

26 May 2010

You Won't Understand a Single Thing He Says...

...but you will somehow be persuaded that the Ultimate Warrior is speaking the truth.

Also fun: the next time you watch a silent movie, imagine all the intertitles being read in this voice. Buster Keaton will suddenly be a lot more terrifying.

23 May 2010

Edward Steichen at the Nelson-Atkins

So the Nelson-Atkins Museum is running an exhibition of Edward Steichen's photography? You bet your ass I'm going. Picture related: it's a shot of Joan Crawford by Steichen.

[Image Sauce]

18 May 2010

Lulu In Hollywood

Why is it that the most fascinating denizens of Hollywood are the ones who realize just how absurd the whole Hollywood system could be? This is particularly true of Louise Brooks, who scoffed at motion picture stardom in spite of the fact that she easily had the talent to achieve that talent for herself. Louise chose the Weimar Republic over Los Angeles County, and although her career suffered for it, the choice would ultimately set her legacy in stone. This is one of the many lessons one can learn from Lulu in Hollywood, Louise's account of her experiences in tinsel town.

Rather than an autobiography proper, Lulu in Hollywood is more a collection of essays that highlight episodes in Louise's life in (and out of) the limelight. Among these episodes are her stint in New York as a showgirl in the Scandals and the Follies, her friendship with Marion Davies' unfortunate niece Pepi, her work under the aegis of Georg Wilhelm Pabst and her childhood in small town Kansas. Louise also treats the reader to her commentary on such figures as W. C. Fields and Lillian Gish, among others.

That such accounts are given from a firsthand perspective is appealing enough -- my inner scholastic still values a good primary source, it seems -- but that fact that it is such a wit as Louise Brooks narrating the events makes the book doubly enjoyable to read. Brooksie, it seems, was one of those rare specimens of human who possess both beauty and brains (this is not lost on her -- at one point, she claims that the fact that she read books made her an oddity among the screen starlets).

While not quite iconoclastic, Louise's take on Hollywood -- and indeed on the social circles of which she was a part -- is anything but starry-eyed. Here is one who definitely did not drink the Kool-Aid. Although her candor ultimately proved fatal to her acting career, Louise's singular personalty allowed her to become an enduring figure -- far more so, it seems, than many of the major stars who were her contemporaries.

Although it is a brief affair, Lulu in Hollywood is nevertheless an engaging read, so much so that even readers who are not particularly well-versed in classic Hollywood lore will be able to enjoy Louise's remarks.

15 May 2010

En Profil

Was there ever in history a profile as perfectly lovely as Norma Shearer's? Not likely.

10 May 2010

The Bicycle Thief (1948)

For American audiences, cinema in the wake of World War II was a pleasant and occasionally colorful affair, characterized by sentimental favorites like It's a Wonderful Life and Singing in the Rain. Cinema in Italy was another sort of affair entirely -- in sharp contrast to the optimism of contemporaneous American movies (as well as the telefono biancho pictures that dominated the cinema of Mussolini's Italy a decade earlier), the tone of Italian movies in the latter half of the 1940s was often times downright depressing. The most iconic film of the Neorealist era (as the style became known) is perhaps Vittorio De Sica's The Bicycle Thief (Ladri di Biciclette).

The film follows an episode in the life of Antonio Ricci. Antonio manages to secure a much-coveted job, but will need a bicycle if he wishes to work. He and his wife Maria pawn off their bed sheets in order to buy a bicycle. Antonio's job, as it turns out, is hang posters around town (as though to highlight the difference between the United States and Italy, the posters he hangs are promotional portraits of a glamorous Rita Hayworth). It is while hanging one such poster that Antonio's bike is stolen. With the help of a few friends and his faithful son Bruno, Antonio spends the rest of the film trying to find his stolen bicycle. I won't give away too many details, but I will tell you that all does not end well.

The search for the bicycle is hardly the only point of interest, however: the film also presents an absorbing portrait of an extremely sympathetic father and son duo. Antonio and his son Bruno play off one another quite well, and that they are able to stick together through their hardship is one of the few uplifting aspects of the story.

No less interesting is the struggle between Antonio's sense of decency and his growing desperation. He is not out to beg, borrow or -- as it were -- steal; he wants only to earn an honest living for his family. Yet as time and money begin to run dry Antonio becomes increasingly exasperated, a condition which leads him in the final scenes of the film to transgress his moral standards with almost disastrous consequences. Although he manages to avoid complete tragedy, the end of the film finds Antonio and Bruno utterly dispirited, their future anything but certain.

The ending is more than a little anticlimactic, and rather depressing to boot. Even so, the film is positively engrossing. It does a remarkable job of drawing the viewer into its world, and the everyman quality of its protagonists make them very easy to identify with. Indeed, this everyman quality is magnified by the fact that the cast is composed almost entirely of non-professional actors (Lamberto Maggiorani, who plays Antonio, was actually a factory worker prior to appearing in this film). Yet in spite of that fact, we see some very naturalistic performances; even young Enzo Staiola does a hell of a job as Bruno. TCM counts The Bicycle Thief as among the fifteen most influential films of all time, a difficult claim to dispute. This is strongly recommended viewing for film buffs, especially those interested in foreign films.

09 May 2010

New Year's Dissolutions, Revisited

Way back in January, I made a post outlining my aspirations for this year. To briefly recapitulate, my primary new year's resolutions were:
  1. Start a collection of classic movie swag
  2. Get a new job
  3. Get something published somehow
The year is not quite half over, but I've managed to accomplish two of these. Paying off my credit card has left me with a bit of financial wiggle room -- no bailouts from the IMF for me, I can assure you! -- which has allowed to collect a few DVDs and books of interest. In the former category, I am now the proud owner of the Busby Berkeley Collection and the Myrna Loy and William Powell Collection. Where books are concerned, I secured copies of Lulu in Hollywood (which I am currently reading and rather enjoying) and Being and Becoming (Myrna Loy's autobiography). The latter is a first edition hardcover, a particular point of pride for me.

More importantly, perhaps, I start a new job at a local law firm two weeks from tomorrow. I have no idea how this happened -- it's almost as though I just stumbled into it. My daily commute has been slashed to all of fifteen minutes, since the office is essentially right down the street. The work promises to be much more demanding than that which my current job entails, but I expect it to be a welcome change of pace from soul-deadening boredom.

The third resolution, on the other hand, remains unfulfilled. Nevertheless, I'm working on it -- you've hopefully noticed that the posts here have been increasing in length and quality (if not quantity). I used to want to be a fiction writer -- and to a certain degree I still do -- but it seems that nonfiction is much more my forte. In addition to providing an avenue by which I can pursue my geeky obsessions, writing these posts has also allowed to my keep my writing skills up to snuff. Even if I don't managed to get something published this year, writing reviews and such here is really a pleasure in and of itself. It's also a treat, by the way, to have a readership at all. Minuscule as my audience might be, it's nice to know that someone out there is listening. Thanks for coming along for the ride.

Oh, and I've switched to a new template (as you might have noticed). The old one was getting a little stale.

07 May 2010

I know I'm Late to the Party...

...But this album is actually really damned good.

03 May 2010

Souls for Sale (1923)

I recently watched Souls for Sale for the second time. Many of you might have seen it as well; it was featured quite recently on TCM's Silent Sunday Nights, as it has been before. By and large, it's an enjoyable picture about the unlikely ascent to motion picture stardom of Remember Steddon (played by Eleanor Boardman). Mem -- as she is known to intimates and confidantes -- is married to the ever-so-sketchy Owen Scudder (Lew Cody), but something about her new husband does not sit well with her, so she escapes from him by hopping off a train and disappearing into the desert of Southern California. As it turns out, Mem's suspicions well-founded -- we learn early on that Scudder (isn' that a great name for a villain?) has a history of marrying women and later murdering them for insurance money (I'm not sure how that's supposed to work out legally, but such details are apparently beside the point).

Whilst wandering in the desert, Mem happens across a film crew doing location shots for an Arab Nomad film (such films being very much en vogue in the wake of Rudy Valentino's The Sheik) in which she is given a bit part. The obligatory love triangle ensues when Mem catches the attention of both director Frank Claymore (Richard Dix) and the matinee idol leading man Tom Holby (Frank Mayo). Although initially hesitant to pursue a life in pictures -- in an earlier scene, we see Mem's father, a preacher, denounce Hollywood as a new Babylon -- Mem eventually finds her way to tinsel town, where she is reunited with the film crew after unsuccessfully attempting to find work on her own.

Scudder, meanwhile, having been given the slip by Mem, embarks on his own series of misadventures. Scudder evades the police, swindles the mousy and lovelorn Abigail Tweedy out her savings and winds up in Egypt, where he is bamboozled by a pair of British con artists. Scudder learns of Mem's success in pictures when he sees her in film in an Egyptian cinema, and heads back to the United States to pay his wife a visit. Once in Hollywood, Scudder blackmails Mem by threatening to reveal that she is his wife -- a scandal that would bring her career crashing down around her ears. Mortified, Mem agrees to pay him the hush money after a brief scuffle.

It is during this confrontation between the estranged spouses, however, that the picture's biggest problem arises -- at one point Mem threatens to commit suicide, and Scudder begs her not to, claiming that he "cannot bear to watch her die," in spite of the fact that he has already killed several women in the past, and despite the fact that he was ostensibly planning to off her himself at the outset of the movie. All of a sudden, and without any real explanation, Scudder is genuinely in love with his wife (which now means that our love triangle has evolved into a love tetrahedron, I suppose).

In the picture's climactic final scene, a severe storm brings the shooting of Frank Claymore's extravagant circus film to a grinding halt when the big top is set ablaze by a bolt of lightning. In the ensuing chaos Scudder attempts to kill Claymore -- whom he has learned is planning to marry Mem -- by piloting a wind machine into him, but Mem herself suddenly stumbles into the path and Scudder winds up pushing her out of the way at the expense of his own life. The cataclysmic final scene is actually quite well done, but Scudder's sudden change of character is a major issue. Until the last twenty minutes or so of the picture Scudder is shown to be an utter scoundrel, which makes his tranformation seem almost incomprehensible. This transformation actually would have worked quite well if it were developed over the course of the picture, but as it is it's far too abrupt. Furthermore, it isn't explained very well -- are we to assume that by shaving off his mustache, Owen Scudder frees himself from the dark side of the force? While shaving the soup strainer certainly helps, it surely can't account for everything. This abrupt change really causes problems for what is otherwise a well-acted and directed picture.

Narrative troubles aside, though, Souls for Sale is still interesting from a historical standpoint -- not only does it feature big names in early roles, but it also must be counted among the earliest movies about the business of making movies. Cameos also abound -- Erich von Stroheim and Charlie Chaplin can be seen directing actual scenes from forthcoming films, among a small host of other Hollywood notables. Still other familiar faces may be spotted among the supporting cast, including Mae Busch, Barbara La Marr and, in one of his earliest roles, Will Haines.

Although I've harped a bit on the picture's one major foible, Souls for Sale is nevertheless still a worthwhile picture. I'd recommend it to anyone interested in the history of Hollywood and early cinema, as well as to silent film fans in general.

...Also, who names their kid "Remember?"

26 April 2010

Obligatory Dorothy Sebastian Birthday Post

If Dorothy Sebastian were to clutch my head lovingly to her bosom, I'd probably be making that face, too.

20 April 2010

High and Dizzy

Dude... I'm gonna, like, hang from a clock and shit. It's gonna be great.

I was gonna post about today being Harold Lloyd's birthday... but I got high. Harold looks pretty high in that picture, come to think of it.

17 April 2010

That Daniels Woman

Considering the duration and breadth of her career, it's both somewhat surprising and a rotten shame that Bebe Daniels is not a better known figure. Beginning with a part as Dorothy Gale in one of the earliest screen adaptations of The Wizard of Oz at the age of nine, Bebe Daniels worked for nearly half a century in silent and talking pictures, radio, stage and television (according to IMDB, she appeared in over 200 films). More impressive still is the fact that she managed to have two children and maintain a long and by all accounts happy marriage (which, in show business, is quite an achievement in and of itself!).

Bebe's career began in earnest in the 1910s, when she appeared opposite Harold Lloyd in his highly popular series of Lonesome Luke comedies (for a time the two were simply known as "the boy" and "the girl," and there is much to suggest that they were also romantically involved off-screen). Soon afterward she went to work for Cecil B. Demille, appearing in support of such luminaries as Gloria Swanson and Wallace Reid. She spent much of the 1920s as one of Paramount Pictures' biggest names. Her output in this period was impressive: she appeared in five or six pictures per year (1924 was particularly busy for her -- she appeared in no fewer than nine pictures that year).

In the maelstrom caused by the transition from silent pictures to talkies, Bebe was cut from the Paramount roster. The joke, as it turned out, was on Paramount -- Bebe quickly signed with RKO Pictures and make her talking (and singing!) debut in the film adaptation of Florenz Ziegfeld's Rio Rita, which was one of the biggest box office hits of 1929. Her talents were again showcased in 1930's Dixiana, another adaptation of a Ziegfeld musical (you can read my reviews of these moves, if you're interested). After this brief but profitable stint at RKO, Bebe signed with Warner Brothers, where she appeared in a number of memorable roles, among them Ruth Wonderly in the original screen adaptation of The Maltese Falcon and Broadway prima donna Dorothy Brock in 42nd Street.

Although Bebe largely retired from the screen in 1935, her career as an entertainer did not end there. In that same year, she moved to London with her husband Ben Lyon, whom she had married in 1930. The pair starred in the popular radio show Hi Gang!, which they continued to broadcast during the Battle of Britain and the London Blitz. They continued in radio after the war with Life With the Lyons, a popular comedy show that ran from 1951 to 1961, and enjoyed a leap to television in 1955.

Her life off the screen was no less colorful. In 1921, she spent ten days in jail for speeding. Shortly after her release, she made light of the incident by appearing in a picture called The Speed Girl. She was also awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Harry Truman for her services during World War II.

Unfortunately, an agonizingly small portion of Bebe's films seem to have survived to this day; her silent pictures, in particular, have a very poor rate of survival (sadly, this seems to be true of much of Paramount's library of silent pictures, perhaps because of the copyright limbo in which those numerous films are adrift. Most, it is likely, are lost). What films of hers do survive reveal an actress of considerable talent and range, and no small degree of charm. In that respect, I suppose that posterity ought to count itself lucky that any of Bebe's curriculum vitae has survived the ravages of time at all.

13 April 2010

When a Man Loves (1927)

That he is able to take what is on the surface a standard-issue costume drama and make it truly engaging to the viewer speaks volumes about John Barrymore's screen presence and acting ability. This is amply demonstrated in When a Man Loves (1927), when would have been only a middle-of-the-road period picture without him. Certainly, the picture's production values are top-notch, from the Vitaphone orchestral soundtrack to the lavish costumes, but it's the unique energy that John Barrymore brings to the production that really makes it worth watching.

Originally based on the 1731 novel Manon Lescaut, the screenplay was substantially rewritten to make John Barrymore's Fabien des Grieux the primary focus of the story rather than Mlle. Lescaut herself, played by Dolores Costello in this screen adaptation. Perhaps as a result of this rewrite, Dolores is left without much to do in this picture beyond standing around in gaudy 18th century costumes looking crestfallen (although she admittedly does a pretty good job of this).

The picture begins with both Fabien and Manon on their way to join the life ecclesiastic -- Fabien is on the verge of joining the priesthood, while Manon is slated to be cloistered in a convent. These plans, as you might have imagined, quickly go awry. Fabien falls in love with Manon at first sight, symbolically dropping a pendant given to him to protect him from the temptations of the flesh. Manon, meanwhile, learns that her brother is plotting to sell her into prostitution (the evil brother is here played by Warner Oland, who always seems to play these sort of characters, Charlie Chan notwithstanding). Adventure ensues as Fabien and Manon escape to Paris together, and are separated and reunited time and again through a series of unfortunate twists of fate.

Throughout the picture, one cannot help but notice a recurring theme regarding Manon's virginity and the safeguarding thereof. That she is a virgin is established at the outset of the picture by the fact that she is en route to the nunnery. Shortly after that revelation, a kitten is shown hiding under Manon's skirts (throughout the early parts of the picture, Manon keeps this kitten tucked safely in a basket). Eventually, this kitten winds up in the care of Fabien, with instructions to "take very good care of Fifi!". It's extremely tempting to read this cat as a metaphor for ...well, a pussy of a very different sort. Furthermore, Fabien spends much of the film trying to keep a variety of unsavory characters from having their way with Manon (everyone from a Parisian guttersnipe to the captain of a prison ship to King Louis XV of France himself tries to get into Manon's petticoats).

That's taking care of Fifi for you. But let's get our minds out of the gutter.

Throughout all of this, it's John Barrymore who truly carries the picture. He gives the character of Fabien des Grieux an air of gravitas that few of his contemporaries could match, and plays the action scenes with a mania that makes the character significantly more likable than he might otherwise be (I imagine that des Grieux might seem a bit too noble if played by a matinee idol like Ramon Novarro). Whether fencing with French noblemen or leading an uprising on a prison ship bound for Louisiana, Barrymore's Fabien is zealous without being over the top. The rest of the acting is solid, even by the largely ornamental Dolores Costello, but When a Man Loves is undeniably John Barrymore's show.

It's a show worth watching if you get a chance.