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Chance at Heaven (1933)
Mocking rich folks
This might have been a stronger film without the Ginger Rogers character, definitely a darker one.
The true star here is Marian Nixon, directed by her future husband William Seiter; they'd marry a year later in 1934. She gives a great performance, looking sexy and beautiful while keeping her shallow character believable. I didn't think she'd have it in her after seeing her as the good girl in "Winner Take All" (1932) and "After Tomorrow" (1932).
The movie seems to be mocking the upper class, showing that their values are not only different from average Americans, but are also shallow, and even downright evil. All this is embodied in the character Nixon plays. Nixon tries to be a wife to average Joe Joel McCrea, but she's can't quite do it; she constantly calls on good girl Rogers to bail her out. I love how her failure is reflected in her dress; from the front, she looks like an average housewife, dressed in a flower-printed frock; from the back, her true self comes out -- she's completely topless, wearing short black bottoms, a sight only to be found in a pre-code movie. It seems clear that her only attraction to McCrea in the first place was physical/sexual. At the end, not only does she fail as a wife, she doesn't even want to be a mother; she gets an abortion and returns to her old life. Perhaps the abortion is a metaphor for the lengths that that class as a whole will go to preserve their privileges and fun.
Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936)
Small town vs. the big city
To me, the main theme of this film seems not so much to be upper class vs. lower class, of rich vs. poor, but of the town vs. the city, of rural values vs. urban values. This is reflected in the very title; "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town" and, as he says, finds a jungle of magnificent buildings filled with people lacking any real nobility. This is a time honored theme in films of the 1920s and 30s, seen anywhere from silent films like "Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans" (1927), to Warner Bros pre-codes like "Big City Blues" (1932) and Will Rogers vehicles like "State Fair" (1933).
Gary Cooper is often cast as an archetype. Here, he is the archetypal small town American who is filled with common sense, basic decency and a sense of fair play. He goes to the city and is taken advantaged of and mocked by jaded urbanites. His values seem so completely foreign to them that they eventually question his sanity and put him on trial.
Gary Cooper is great; the scene where Cooper discovers Arthur's deception is some of his best acting, completely naturalistic and real. Jean Arthur is amazing as well; the scene on the park bench with Cooper where she realizes Deeds has a lot in common with her own father and small town background is brilliantly played.
Unlike city folk, Deeds will help a neighbor in need. Reflecting his small town values, his plan for Depression relief is to create jobs in agriculture, giving people the chance to be farmers. Deeds would have been better off trying to create industrial jobs. Unfortunately, there wasn't any way for people with small farms operating individually to make much money then or now; agriculture in America has been in a rut since the 1920s. Like many Capra films, "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town" is a movie that looks backwards, not forward, expressing nostalgia for an America filled with small towns and prosperous farmers, an America that was gone forever in 1936 thanks to the influence of technology.
Stronger Than Desire (1939)
Good movie, better than the original
The movie flows better than the original. It also features quite a bevy of beauties in Virginia Bruce, Ann Dvorak, and Rita Johnson. All bring their A game to this B picture.
Rita Johnson made 3 B films with Walter Pidgeon in 1939. Their first film together, 6,000 Enemies, has Rita playing Pidgeon's put-upon love interest, unjustly imprisoned. After seeing her in that movie, where she acts all innocent, demure and heroic, this film was quite a revelation; she just smolders as a vamp, especially in the scene on the train.
Virginia Bruce made 2 B films with Pidgeon in 1939; I prefer this one to their other one together, Society Lawyer; the acting and story are better. Virigina Bruce was one of the most exquisite beauties of the era. She really shines here, giving one of her better acting performances.
Ann Dvorak steals the movie. She is here directed by her then husband. She really makes you feel her character, especially in the climatic courtroom scene. It was great to see her in a B film that actually showcased her talents. It's a shame she was relegated to B pictures by the late 30s; she could have done so much more.
Mr. & Mrs. Smith (1941)
Better a mistress than a wife
This screwball comedy has a naughty little premise behind it. A man discovers he isn't legally married and decides not to tell his wife. He'd rather be with her as if she were his mistress and have sex without the benefit of marriage. He finds the idea to be thrilling and exciting. Why he does isn't addressed. Perhaps the idea of defying society's conventions, or maybe the idea of gaining more power over his wife; a man can easily dump a mistress at any time; a wife, there's a long, messy divorce to deal with. Also, there's the sexual element behind it too; presumably sex with a mistress is more thrilling than sex with a wife.
The wife finds out and dumps the husband for trying to turn her into that kind of woman. She dates his law partner, a true Southern gentleman who's entirely prim and proper and would never think of touching a woman before marriage. In the end, the wife finds their relationship unfulfilling, especially when he does not resort to violence to protect her honor. She dumps him and turns back to her hubby, a "real man." It's interesting that the movie ends with the husband getting exactly what he wants, sex with his wife before marriage. In effect, despite his wife's long protest, he wins; he now takes her as his mistress. This is a sex comedy where the man entirely gets his way; his sex dream is realized.
Questions this film asks: does one really have to wait for marriage to have sex? Is it better to have a wife or a mistress? The film also offers insight into the different social standards of the higher and lower class, especially in the scene at the upscale nightclub where Montgomery is embarrassed to be with low-brow Jack Carson and the two low-brow dames Carson brings with him.
Overall, the cast is good, though the three principles all show signs of premature aging. It's interesting to watch movies of the early 40s and see what's become of stars from the late 20s and early 30s. Some are still stars, like Montgomery and Lombard. Others are fading to character status like Gene Raymond. He's almost unrecognizable in dyed black hair as the type of character Ralph Bellamy plays so well in films like "The Awful Truth" and "His Girl Friday"; it's a far cry from Raymond's leading man days of the early 1930s. Saddest of all is to see what happened to another leading lady of the late 20s, Betty Compson. A star from the great 1928 film "The Docks of New York," she's truly unrecognizable here as the beat-up, low-class hag Gertie.
Norman Krasna's script is serviceable, with a number of truly funny lines and scenes, mostly avoiding the sort of cliché-riddled, unfunny, idiotic cuteness that makes the 1943 film "Princess O'Rourke" so intolerable, a film for which Krasna inexplicably won the Academy Award for best screenplay. The first half of the film is the best half, before the focus shifts to Lombard and the boring Raymond. Hitchcock is serviceable too, though anyone could have directed this film. Obviously, Hitch didn't have the gift of an Ernst Lubitsch when it came to sex comedies. Neither did anyone else, and at least Hitch here makes no pretense as to having the "Lubitsch touch," unlike Billy Wilder, who failed numerous times in trying to recreate it, in movies like "Sabrina"(1954). "Mr. and Mrs. Smith" does deal with some domestic themes that Hitch is particularly fond of though, namely the battle of the sexes and the husband getting his way in the end.
Compromised film with a miscast Cary Grant
Coming a year after Rebecca (1940), this film pales in comparison, particularly in the art direction and production design. If they wanted to do a film with a similarity to Rebecca, just without the budget, the least they could have done was to keep the story daring. The original idea behind it, of a female murder victim telling her story, of how, "before the fact," she started to become dimly aware that her husband wanted to kill her, and that at the end, she was even complicit in it, is interesting. It's unfortunate the producers didn't stick with this original idea all the way to the end. Instead, the woman is not murdered and her husband is never a murderer!
As told on screen, the story has several holes, with the motivation of the characters not being fully explained. For instance, Joan Fontaine's character is supposedly so in love with Grant's; why then does she assume so quickly that Grant will resort to murdering his best friend? Sure, he's lied, cheated and stole, but murder? What benefit does murdering his friend give him? Apparently none, since soon after the deed, Fontaine finds out that Grant needs more money and is trying to borrow from her life insurance policy; she then assumes he will kill her! Overall, Fontaine's character and performance are less believable here than in Rebecca.
The main problem with the film is the casting of Cary Grant. Through the mid-40s, Grant was known for taking a number of odd roles, roles that were different from his usual screen persona, in an attempt not to be typecast. Sometimes, like in Gunga Din, he succeeded. Others, like in The Talk of the Town, he was merely all right. And still others, he didn't succeed at all. Suspicion falls into this latter category. Grant plays the dark side too broadly. He gives an almost bipolar or manic depressive performance. For the moments where he's supposed to be happy and charming, he's the typical Cary Grant; for when he's supposed to be mean and dangerous, it's obvious he's mean and dangerous; he just clams up and gives an evil eye. A little more subtlety would have helped. Perhaps still have him be charming while being mean and murderous?
But another problem was audience acceptance. Audiences probably wouldn't have accepted seeing Cary Grant as a mean murderer. The producers were fully aware of this; hence the compromised solution of making Grant innocent in the end.
Thus, with Grant, the film just wasn't allowed to fully realize its potential or original idea. The producers felt the audience wouldn't accept it, and they were probably right. Perhaps with a different actor in the role, say Ray Milland or Fredric March, the audience would have been more willing and perhaps the producers wouldn't have changed the ending of the film, or maybe they would at least have left it ambiguous as to whether Johnnie was a murderer and as to whether or not he did kill his wife. This would have been much more interesting than what we got.
Test Pilot (1938)
A weak film. To see its shortcomings, just compare it to Howard Hawks' "Only Angels Have Wings," a masterful film made a year later dealing with many of the same emotional issues. For example, compare the death scenes in the two movies; "Test Pilot" is not in the same league.
Clark Gable is too Clark Gable. He should have reigned in his persona a little more here; more subtlety in his character would have done the film a lot of good. But perhaps coming off of "Parnell," a good movie but a bomb at the box office where he did depart from his typical macho character, he was less willing to take chances. Here, he does his typical macho character to the hilt.
Myrna Loy is severely miscast as a Kansas girl whose backyard Gable uses for an emergency landing. She just looks too elegant, refined. Seeing her yelling and getting all excited at a baseball game just seems so out of character for her; an embarrassing scene. And like Gable, she over-emotes during most of the dramatic moments. Subtlety goes a long way; just ask Spencer Tracy.
Of the three stars involved, Tracy comes out the best. His acting is the most naturalistic. Too bad he doesn't have a character. Just what exactly is his character's deal? Why is he hanging around Gable so much, blowing kisses at him as he takes off, living with him even after he's married. Is he related to Gable or just gay?
I for one really don't like the pairing of Gable and Tracy. All three films they made together are weak (the first 40 minutes of "Boom Town" are good, but the movie quickly falls apart after that). In each, Gable is the unabashed, reckless, macho man, while Tracy is the morbid, grumpy, moral compass. Both actors deserve better and get better on their own. Perhaps "Test Pilot" would have been a much more satisfying movie with just Gable or just Tracy; with them together, it doesn't get off the ground. A disappointment, considering all the talent involved, in front of and behind the camera.
My Favorite Wife (1940)
An unnecessary do-over
"My Favorite Wife," uses the formula, the stars and the director of the hugely successful "The Awful Truth," and tries to do it all over again. Unfortunately, this time, it falls flat, feeling like exactly what it is, a rehash of a much, much better film. Instead of trying to do something different, we get the same story, slightly changed but with the same gags and plot devices. In both, there is a married couple dealing with a separation. In both, the wife tries to hoodwink a female paramour by adopting a weird accent. In both, the wife tries to convince the husband that nothing happened with a male admirer. In "The Awful Truth," the first half of the film was concerned with the husband's jealousy over another man; the second half with the wife trying to get rid of the inconvenient other woman. In "My Favorite Wife," this plot structure is simply reversed, the other woman comes in the first half, the husband's jealousy in the second. This is about as original as "My Favorite Wife" gets. Children are also added this time around, unnecessarily, serving to make everything feel more domestic and boring. The film ends appropriately, in a sad attempt to recapture the magic at the end of "The Awful Truth." It stages the scene in practically the same way. While "The Awful Truth" ended with a dignified Grant and Dunne finally getting together, "My Favorite Wife" ends with Grant in a Santa Claus suit, a fitting contrast between the two films.
Randolph Scott is wasted here, his role amounting to more of a cameo, less a full-fledged character. The reason he's in the movie at all is probably to make light of the rumors concerning his real-life relationship with Cary Grant (they lived together for a number of years). The film has Grant almost swoon at the sight of a shirtless Scott taking a dive, and later it has Grant sitting in his office, reliving the moment in his mind. And then there's the scene of Grant looking through women's clothing, holding them up to a mirror, while telling a doctor, "I have to go, he's waiting for me in the car!" Fun at the expense of Cary Grant's sexuality is probably the most interesting thing about the picture.
Overall, this movie is lifeless, a bankrupt attempt to recreate the success of "The Awful Truth." It repeats too many elements, and not very successfully. Watch "The Awful Truth" instead.
The Awful Truth (1937)
The cinematic context
There are a number of direct similarities between this movie and the 1935 Paramount film "Hands Across the Table," starring Carole Lombard and Fred MacMurray. Both films have the main male character getting a fake tan from a sun lamp. Both have scenes where the male and female character are up at night in separate rooms, pacing up and down and wondering whether or not one should join the other. Both have Ralph Bellamy as the "other man," the "loser," certain to be dropped by the leading lady in favor of the star. In fact, Bellamy's character in this film is called "Leeson," which is how one would actually pronounce the last name of the director of "Hands Across the Table," Mitchell Leisen! (I was half expecting to see Bellamy bring out the wheelchair that he had in the earlier film!)
Maybe the similarities in the two films lie with Viña Delmar? She's identified as being on the writing team for both. In a way, "The Awful Truth" is a more comedic, more zany re-working of "Hands Across the Table." Instead of Fred MacMurray trying to put one over on his fiancé with the help of manicurist Carole Lombard, in "The Awful Truth," it's Cary Grant trying to put one over on his wife Irene Dunne who in this case is now in on the gag.
"The Awful Truth" is the stronger film mainly because of the director and the actors. The material isn't taken too seriously. The improvisation that reportedly took place on the film works in playing up the extra light touch. It also gives the movie a kind of energy and a feeling of spontaneity that "Hands Across the Table" and other studio films from this period lacked. With "The Awful Truth," each scene feels like a moment.
One other interesting note: At the end, it seems likely that Cary Grant and Irene Dunne will now spend the night together in the one room on the one bed. But, as they mentioned, their divorce is official at midnight! They're going to wake up and not be married! Where was the Production Code here? Where's the reference to calling up a preacher to hurry over and remarry them quick, or to waiting until tomorrow to do the deed, after getting re-hitched? My goodness gracious!
Sob Sister (1931)
Sex before marriage ain't no sin
This is a good movie, with likable actors playing likable characters. Minna Gombell is in top form as a noisy friend, and James Dunn is quite amiable. Linda Watkins steals the show as the female lead. A pretty blonde with short, finger-waved hair, she is quite appealing and very engaging, displaying a persona both fragile and tough. She bears a passing resemblance to Helen Chandler. It's a shame she didn't make more movies in the 1930s.
What's most surprising about this film is it's frank treatment of the relationship between Watkins and Dunn, particularly their sexual relationship. Dunn and Watkins are both reporters who live in the same apartment house. He visits her each morning for breakfast over the course of a few weeks. They start to fall in love, with each contemplating marriage, though Dunn believes it wouldn't work because Watkins is too much of a "sob sister," so attached to her work that she'd miss it and would become bored if she ever married and became a housewife, a woman who'd have to quit her job and devote herself completely to taking care of the household.
Returning to the apartment house late one night after covering a story, Dunn invites Watkins to his apartment where they eventually embrace and the screen fades to black. The next scene has Watkins straightening her hair and clothes, while the noise of a shower runs in the background. She leaves Dunn a note taped to the mirror saying "no regrets."
What's even more remarkable is that the movie doesn't shy away or forget the fact that the two had sex. Through a misunderstanding, Dunn comes to believe that Watkins slept with him in order to steal material he had on a story. He calls her cheap and she's shocked that he'd think her capable of that. She slept with him out of love. It's really surprising to find a movie from this period dealing so frankly and clearly with the motivations behind a couple having sex!
The movie ends with all misunderstandings cleared up and the couple married. There seems to be no ill effects from them having had sex before marriage. Watkins is not demonized in any way because of the sex; after it occurs, she is still treated as the heroine in the picture and her character is not looked down upon whatsoever. The movie seems to imply that sex before marriage, at least between those who love each other, is OK, even inevitable, quite a forward and frank attitude for 1931, an attitude that would soon be banned from pictures for close to forty years.
Film noir, Frank Borzage style
To me, this film seems more like a homage to Frank Borzage, especially his film from 1933, "Man's Castle," with Spencer Tracy and Loretta Young. The two leading characters are the same as in the Borzage picture, as is the basic gloomy setting, which, through the development of the characters' love, turns luminous. In both, the lovers start out desperate and lost. They ultimately find meaning in a meaningless world only in each other. "Moontide" can be seen as "Man's Castle" done after the Code. The relationship between Gabin and Lupino is the same as the relationship between Tracy and Young in "Man's Castle," except special care has to be taken to emphasize the fact that Gabin and Lupino have not slept together, and are in fact getting married forthwith. For me, the homage to Borzage is what gives "Moontide" its charm. The film noir aspect of the film, by contrast, feels as if it was clumsily tacked on, almost as afterthought, and to me is to the film's detriment.
Lupino is solid as always, and Gabin is good. He's sort of channeling Maurice Chevalier here, but without Chevalier's looks. Perhaps his looks, more akin to a supporting character, doomed his chances in America to become a leading star; that and the fact he was reportedly difficult to work with.
The Palm Beach Story (1942)
Seeing it in its cinematic context
One element of this film that shouldn't be ignored is that it, like "Sullivan's Travels" and "The Miracle of Morgan's Creek," is a conscious lampooning of earlier movies from the 1930s. It takes a standard, conventional plot from those movies and turns it on its ear. The same plot can be seen for example in the Paramount movie from 1931, "Up Pops the Devil," with Carole Lombard and Norman Foster (who coincidentally was Claudette Colbert's first husband). In that movie, a wife who still loves her husband wants to divorce him for his own good; she thinks she's just a noose around his neck, and once rid of her, he'll become a success. It's set in the same upper crust of society as "The Palm Beach Story," with a millionaire suitor for the wife and a nymphomaniac girl for the husband. Here, everything is played straight, with as much pathos and melodrama being milked out of the situation as can be. In "The Palm Beach Story" though, the same basic plot and characters are used, but it's the comedic potential and wackiness of the situation that's emphasized, to marvelous effect.
The subplot with the twins, glanced at in the beginning and end of the picture, is another conscious lampooning of conventional movies, here a lampooning of the structure of movies themselves, of their conventional beginnings and endings. It's not meant to be taken seriously; as McCrea's character casually says at the end, it's all stuff "for another movie."
No words can be found to adequately praise Claudette Colbert's performance. Joel McCrea is good too, as the prototypical wooden 1930s leading man. Rudy Vallee is absolutely hilarious as a "momma's boy" version of John D. Rockefeller, as is Mary Astor as his rich nymphomaniac sister. Her eunuch, Toto, played by Sig Arno, seems straight out of an Ernst Lubitch picture, perhaps a Sturges nod to the master. Quite a few scenes of the film, in their settings and atmosphere, pay homage to Lubitsch. Sturges does the "Lubitsch touch" proud, especially in those two scenes when Colbert sits on McCrea's lap so that he can undo the back of her dress, with the two of them both times melting into a kiss, and the scene ending with a fade out, leaving little doubt as to what will happen next. The second scene is particularly romantic, done as Rudy Vallee sings "Good Night Sweet Heart," itself a standard of the 1930s. Vallee also sings a line of "Isn't It Romantic," a song introduced in the luminous 1932 film "Love Me Tonight," directed by Rouben Mamoulian. The music in the film itself hearkens back to those great romantic comedies of the 1930s.
It's nice to see Sturges's stock company of actors popping up here as well. I noticed William Demarest say his name was "Bill Docker," the same name his character had in Preston Sturges's "Christmas in July."
In short, "The Palm Beach Story" is a wonderful film, whose richness can really be appreciated when seen in context, in the context of those old 1930s Paramount films, both the melodramatic ones like "Up Pops the Devil," that it lampoons, and the comedic, romantic ones like "Love Me Tonight" and "One Hour with You," that it pays homage to.
Under Your Spell (1936)
Preminger's first English film; routine & by the numbers.
This film is a pretty routine affair, with none of the participants going out of their way to do anything special. It is Otto Preminger's first English language film, and contains a scene toward the end in a courtroom, one of Preminger's favorite settings. Here, the scene is played for laughs and is easily the film's best.
Lawrence Tibbett was a star of the Metropolitan Opera who tried to bridge the gap between popular and classical music. He was also actually a film star in the early days of talking pictures, being nominated for an Academy award for best actor for 1930's The Rogue Song. Making this B-picture was an indication of how far he sunk, and how low his previous picture was received at the box office, 1935's Metropolitan. How he could have ever been a star at all is a bit of a mystery, as he does lack a bit of charisma, not to mention looks.
Wendy Barrie fairs much better in this movie. In fact, a long close-up of her as she reclines and listens to one of Tibbett's songs on record, is the most beautiful shot in the movie. She was a gorgeous woman and it's a shame she wasn't in more vehicles, be they A or B films. She's great here.
Gregory Ratoff and Arthur Treacher, each with their respective schtick, provide adequate support, which very nearly borders on the annoying.
After Tomorrow (1932)
Where's Janet Gaynor?
While Marion Nixon is OK playing the lead role, she's kind of doing a Janet Gaynor impersonation. Perhaps the movie would have been even stronger with the genuine article. But again Nixon is good; my previous experience with her was seeing her in the Cagney film "Winner Takes All" (1932), where she's a blonde.
The film is good, highlighted with a striking performance by the great Minna Gombell as Nixon's mother. The film is beautifully lit, especially during the scene where Farrell and Nixon playfully wrestle and end up on top of each other; the lighting just oozes sex; definitely a Borzage touch.
The film broaches the idea of pre-marital sex (going away together for a "holiday" as Nixon euphemistically puts it), but like most other pre-code movies, firmly supports the traditional morality of waiting until marriage. But perhaps the victory is in even broaching the subject at all.
The First Year (1932)
A different Gaynor
Janet Gaynor goes against type in this one, playing an unsympathetic character who's completely self-absorbed. Her character has the hots for another man, but for some reason still ends up marrying Charles Farrell. She then spends the rest of the movie nudging and nagging him to get rich so she can live her dream of traveling the world, and when he seems to fail, doubts and undercuts him.
The crux of the film is a sequence involving preparation for a dinner for Farrell's business associate and then the dinner itself. The film is based on a stage play of which presumably this was the main act. During it, Farrell & Gaynor's characters squabble amongst themselves, whining and complaining about everything, giving a most unglamorous impression of what it's like to be married after the first year, when the honeymoon's over. Also appearing in this scene is the fun Minna Gombell as the wise-cracking wife of Farrell's business associate. The scene also features a white actress in black-face portraying a slow maid, Leila Bennett, who was Loretta Young's friend in the Cagney vehicle "Taxi!" (1932).
A different type of role for Gaynor, and the squabbling, unsympathetic portrait of a year old marriage, make this an interesting movie. The only thing missing is a comeuppance for Gaynor's character; despite being a bitch, she still gets to live happily ever after!
The Power and the Glory (1933)
This movie, apart from its innovative narrative style and a few great scenes, is rather disappointing. It tells the story of a millionaire, Tom Garner, by inter-cutting between two series of flashbacks, one telling the story of him as a young man -- his rise; the other of him as an old man -- his fall. The inter-cutting, though innovative, doesn't serve much purpose, and seems haphazard. Moreover, it concentrates too much on him as an older man, on the lurid melodramatic tale of how he and his wife meet similar ends through suicide brought on by the adultery of their respective spouses. Hardly as much time is spent fleshing out the character of Tom himself. No scenes are given to the development of the adult friendship between Tom and Henry, Tom's best friend who also serves as narrator of the film. This makes a scene where Henry argues with his wife that Tom was a good man seem pretty hollow; it's hard to take a stand, since so little insight is given into what made Tom truly tick. If this film served as an inspiration to "Citizen Kane," at least those behind Kane remedied the main flaw of "The Power and the Glory," by fully realizing and exploring its main character. 6/10
The Man with Two Faces (1934)
Two faces, both ugly
"The Man with Two Faces" is a film that takes the Svengali legend and adds a twist to it in the form of the avenging brother of the entranced girl. It showcases Edward G. Robinson, who is excellent, as an actor who impersonates another man in order to rid his sister of her deadbeat, Svengali-like husband, played by Louis Calhern. Calhern is also showcased and is less successful in his portrayal, giving a performance with little charisma or magnetism, making it hard to believe that a woman like Mary Astor would be drawn to him like a mindless lap dog.
Everyone else in the cast is wasted, including Ricardo Cortez, who might have been a better choice for the deadbeat husband than Calhern. Especially wasted are the two leading women in the film, Mary Astor and Mae Clark. They're given such demeaning roles, with so little screen time, it's a wonder they ever accepted them. Astor is Robinson's sister, a woman whose husband turns her into an extreme, overdone version of Trilby. She dutifully obeys him no matter his demeaning demand. Astor plays it like an automaton; she's emotionless, numb, blank, almost in a trance, probably what got her through this. Pretty Mae Clark plays Robinson's girlfriend, an extraneous character who is ignored, ridiculed, beaten, and keeps coming back for more.
This film suffers from an almost terminal lack of humor and an unwise concentration on Calhern and his character. Having Robinson be a sympathetic murderer who poisons and stabs his victim and almost gets away with it is interesting though. (Too bad he didn't. One wonders, though, if he's such a genius how he could end up leaving his fake mustache behind inside a Gideon Bible!) And the make-up on Robinson when he's impersonating a French businessman is excellent; you can hardly tell it's him. All in all, a 6/10.
Working Girls (1931)
An interesting film. Lesbianism, fornication, illegitimacy, wisecracks .. who could ask for anything more?
Dorothy Arzner makes the film interesting by the way she depicts the clichéd story and by the touches she adds.
An aura of lesbianism pervades the beginning of the film, set in a woman's hostel, as women are seen dancing closely arm in arm, and one (Dorothy Stickney) winks and smiles suggestively at another (Judith Wood), with the latter winking back!
Lesbianism lays dormant the rest of the film as focus shifts to sisters Judith Wood and Dorothy Hall and their attempt to become "working girls." Double entendres fill the screen as Hall is hired by lecherous professor Paul Lukas, mostly because he feels she can give him "satisfaction." Lukas suggests she get boots to protect her feet during rainy weather; caught in a shoe store by a friend, Hall explains, "My boss told me to get some rubbers!"
At the shoe store, Hall meets rich Harvard man Charles 'Buddy' Rogers and falls in love. After months of courtship, they accidentally spend an evening alone together and the inevitable happens. Equally inevitable, Rogers, having conquered, silently abandons Hall and becomes engaged to Frances Dee, a woman from his own social class. Roger's conquest has lingering effects, though, as Hall is with child. When Judith Wood finds out, she gets a gun and demands Rogers marry her sister! Rogers has no qualms about complying. As he tells a friend, he prefers Hall over Dee: Dee is of his station, his social equal and no fun, while Hall, being of the working class, looks up to him and treats him like a God, and this he likes! This is an incredibly cynical film, especially where men are concerned!
Dorothy Hall steals the picture as Jane Thorpe, her last screen role. Judith Wood, who, billed as Helen Johnson played Dot in "The Divorcée" (1930), is equally good. Less so is Paul Lukas. He gives a confused performance; not completely sleazy, but not completely honorable, and not at all funny. Lukas gives a similar confused performance in another Arzner film, "Anybody's Woman" (1930).
This film didn't get much of a release in 1931, being effectively buried by Paramount. Little wonder given its content! It's well worth tracking down. The UCLA Television and Motion Picture Archive has beautifully restored it, along with five other Arzner Paramount films. It's an 8/10.
The Common Law (1931)
A movie with an interesting view of marriage as social convention
This movie has a lot of interesting things to say about marriage. Primarily its message is that marriage is a social convention. Women get married because marriage offers "protection." The emphasis in this movie is on social protection: marriage will protect women from malicious social gossip and from other lecherous males.
John Neville (Joel McCrea) asks live-in girlfriend Valerie West (Constance Bennett) to marry him because he's "in love." She says she wants to wait because she wants to be sure that their love will last. When she marries, she wants it "to be for keeps." As she says, "I'm really quite an old-fashioned girl -- well, with some modern decorations." Valerie soon changes her mind when John's sister (played by Hedda Hopper) arranges a boat cruise inviting his father (played by Walter Walker), her former lover (played by Lew Cody), and another girl interested in John. Unable to stand the social awkwardness, the gossip, and the blatant advances of her former beau, Valerie decides that perhaps getting married even though she's not sure it will last is the best way to go after all.
A critique about society's views of women and marriage, this movie also boasts strong performances by Hedda Hopper as John's sister and Walter Walker as John's father. Hedda is particularly good as the nasty, bitchy hypocrite Claire Collis, who does all she can to break John and Valerie up while feigning ignorance about it. Constance Bennett also gives a strong performance as Valerie.
Being that this was a pre-Code and Constance's character was supposed to be a nude model, I had hoped that they might have snuck in some flashes of skin. Unfortunately, they don't. Even the portraits of Constance nude cover up the private areas. There is some nudity in the film though, a long shot of a group of presumably naked women posing on a float during a raucous French party.
Given the performances and the interesting message the movie has, I'd give it a 7/10.
Lonely Wives (1931)
Laura La Plante makes the film worthy
While intending to be humorous, "Lonely Wives" is more laborious than anything else. It's bright spot is the beautiful, expressive Laura La Plante. Laura's scenes provide the most laughs, not surprising since of the cast, she is the actress who seems most comfortable with comedy.
Edward Everett Horton, while decent, is a bit unconvincing in the dual role, as the two characters he plays are completely alike. Often in a movie, one Horton character is irritating; here there are two, and at times it's downright excruciating!
I'd recommend seeing this movie only if you like the actors involved. It was released on DVD in 2000 from the Roan group in the worst transfer I ever saw from them. Risque elements in the film include seeing Patsy Ruth Miller, Horton's secretary, in the shower; Laura La Plante in a number of revealing outfits including her slip; and loads of sexual innuendo. All in all, I rate the film 6/10, predominantly because of Laura La Plante!
The Divorcee (1930)
Not quite so daring
The book "Complicated Women: Sex and Power in Pre-Code Hollywood" by Mick LaSalle makes a big deal about this movie as being an affirmation of the sexually liberated modern woman. His emphasis is misplaced. This movie is really not that daring. However innovative it might seem in terms of the sexual mores of women, this is only superficial. Ultimately the movie serves to reaffirm the old values of marital fidelity.
The movie concerns the wide "latitude of the male perspective" that says affairs in marriage "don't mean a thing" and can be kept from the wife, and whether a modern woman can adopt this perspective. After finding out her hubby Ted (Chester Morris) has had an affair, Norma Shearer's character Jerry tries to, out of anger, by sleeping with his best friend (Robert Montgomery). However, she comes to reject these ideas. She can't help but tell Ted of her affair the moment he gets back from a trip, and expresses regret. When Ted asks for the fellow's name, Jerry mockingly says, "Oh don't be so conventional!" in a great line delivery by Norma Shearer. Ted is though, and ends up divorcing her.
Despite the divorce, Jerry can't bring herself to adopt the male perspective of looseness when it comes to sex. There's scene after scene of Jerry stopping cold suitors who want to have sex (done through close-ups of their hands, interestingly enough). She does try to act the part of the vamp, but it's out of self-loathing, not because she has accepted the idea of sexual freedom. Furthermore, it's made clear that it's only acting; Jerry never really follows through by sleeping with dozens of men. In any event, the movie ends conventionally, with Jerry reprimanding herself for giving up on her marriage so easily and running off to find her ex-husband hoping he will give her another chance.
The message is clear: a previously innocent woman trying to act like a freewheeling man sexually is wrong. What gives the movie a superficial sense of daring though is some of the dialogue that Jerry says. But again, most of it is said in anger and self-loathing, and never truly acted on.
Another theme of the movie is that of superficial friendship and the negative effect that friends can have. It is the fear of being laughed at by friends that causes Ted to divorce Jerry in the first place. Particularly loathsome is the character of Helen, a true bitch if there ever was one (played beautifully by Florence Eldridge). She casually brings along the woman that Ted had an affair with to Ted and Jerry's 3rd anniversary party knowing full well who she is. When, at the end of the movie, there's a possibility that Jerry might move on and marry an old chum (Conrad Nagel), Helen doesn't miss a beat by telling her how miserable Ted is and how still in love with her she is. Her motivation for doing all this seems to be simply that it's fun. With friends like these...
All in all, this is a good movie. It's definitely Pre-Code, with its moments of risque dialogue, like Ted actually telling Jerry, "I would like to make love to you until you scream!" and Jerry responding, "I can't scream!" The performances are also fine. That of Norma varies, from excellent understatement and bewilderment in the scenes where she reveals her affair to Jerry, to silly overacting in the scenes on the train with Jerry as a self-loathing vamp, but she does do a good job. Note that the dialogue is a bit tough to hear in places, not surprising with it being an early talkie. Overall, I'd rate this movie as a 7/10, based on performances and the frank early presentation of the subject matter.
A young, alluring Myrna Loy - the only reason to see this movie
Myrna Loy is the only reason to see this movie. Unfortunately, she only appears during the final 20 minutes in a few short scenes, probably not worth the price of sitting through the first hour and 20 minutes of this very boring, dated film. We do get to see Myrna in a very flimsy nightgown for a few seconds though. It's left open whether anything physical happened between her and the good doctor played by Ronald Colman. The suggestive scenes between them are the film's best.
The film plays now as one of those standard B melodramas of the 30s. Reality is sacrificed to create dramatic tension, such as Ronald Coleman, a dedicated researcher who smokes while conducting the most delicate of experiments, carrying around bubonic plague in test tubes closed by pieces of cotton at one end; of course one of the cotton swabs becomes loose causing plague to drip on a cigarette Colman had been smoking moments before; and of course it is his wife who days later picks up the cigarette and starts smoking it, causing her to get plague (coincidences, coincidences). The movies suffers throughout from such preposterous plot devices. Overall, it's not exactly clear what the movie is about, what message the muddled script wants to convey. It ultimately seems to be against scientific research funded by big money looking for big profit and publicity, but this is not developed well at all.
Acting-wise, Colman is adequate but with his aristocratic mannerisms and speech, miscast as a modest scientific researcher; he is not very convincing. Helen Hayes, looking a bit like Claudette Colbert's twin in the movie, is unbelievably annoying. This probably has less to do with the actress than with her character, an extremely conventional devoted wife who, as she says, has no life outside her husband, causing her to obsess over his every move.
Overall, this is a very boring movie and quite a disappointment. While it may have said something to audiences in 1931, it says nothing to us today. I give it 5/10.
This is an extremely boring, trite, unconvincing melodrama. It stars Constance Cummings as an extraordinarily selfish, unsympathetic show girl who stalks and "shames" Paul Lukas into writing a song for her. Lukas is so "taken" by her antics that he marries her. They have a child, merely because she believes it will make her a better, more sincere performer. Eventually, she gets restless and pays Lukas back for all the good he's done her by falling in love with her leading man. So it goes on...
If this hackneyed storyline isn't enough, the movie is made even more tedious by the lack of humor in it. There's probably only one good laugh in the whole picture.
According to the book "William Wyler: A Talent for Trouble" by Jan Herman, director Wyler was "forced into doing the picture." He "felt it was 'a real disappointment' and couldn't muster the enthusiasm to save it. He always remembered it as 'kind of a screwy picture.'" A real disappointment is putting it mildly. I rate this picture a 3/10.
The only real reason to see it is for Constance Cummings who, in spite of her mediocre acting, looks very pretty, particularly in the middle and towards the end of the film. She displays quite an ample amount of cleavage. There is one scene in particular where Paul Lukas throws her into the shower fully clothed, pulls her out, and proceeds to strip off her wet garment, after putting a towel over her, of course.