Sunday, September 7, 2014

Wooden Crosses (Les Croix de Bois) (1932)

This is my contribution to the World War One in Classic Film blogathon, co-hosted by Silent-ology and Movies Silently.  Please check out both to find a list of all of the blogs taking part in the blogathon.

(Warning: there are what many call 'spoilers' in this essay.  However, anyone who has seen a few films about the First World War already knows that it's not going to end well.)

When I saw that there was going to be a blogathon on WWI films, I knew instantly that I wanted to participate.  Partly because, despite my general indifference to war films, I find movies about the Great War fascinating.  And partly because I've been meaning to watch this particular film for some time and this gave me as good a reason as any to finally do so.

Wooden Crosses (available on DVD from Criterion's Eclipse Series as part of the Raymond Bernard boxset along with Les Miserables), in simple terms, is a stripped-down version of All Quiet on the Western Front.  Like that film, it is an adaptation, in this case the 1919 novel of the same name written by Roland Dorgeles, based on his experiences in the war.  Like the American film, it follows a young soldier (played by the not-quite-that-young Pierre Blanchar, star of director Bernard's earlier film, The Chess Player) from his entry into the army until his ultimate fate.  A law student, Blanchar's Gilbert is a conscript rather than a volunteer, which means that by the time he joins his regiment, they have already seen action (actually, everyone in the film had seen action as they were all veterans of the war).  From there we follow him from trench to town to trench to battlefield to town to trench again to battlefield.  Plot-wise, it is a standard WWI film.  But there is plenty of reasons to recommend it as more than just a French version of Lewis Milestone's masterpiece; it's more than just All Quiet on the Eastern Front.

 Not as polished as it's American counterparts in the genre such as All Quiet, Wings or The Big Parade,  director Raymond Bernard gives Wooden Crosses a grittier feel befitting the subject.  He still gives us some incredible visuals, some of which made me wish it had be shot wide.  The battle scenes, which I will talk about at greater length shortly, are among the best shot up to this time, noisy and nerve-racking, but the quieter moments are the ones that will stay with you.  A Sunday Mass, with a soldier singing Ave Maria, is held in one half of a church, the other half serving as a make-shift hospital.  Gilbert delivering a letter to the grave of one of his fallen comrades, silently contemplating something we can never know, but only imagine.  And Gilbert's final moments, like Paul's in All Quiet, but very, very unlike, too.  If Wooden Crosses has one thing to say, it is simply 'War is All Hell'.

As mentioned earlier, the battle scenes are remarkable.  The first, and most elaborate, is a ten day attempt to drive the Germans from a town.  Constant bombardment, booming in every shot, as the regiment moves towards the town.  As the days wear on, fewer and fewer soldiers are seen, the landscape apocalyptic.  It's a battle of attrition.  Bernard shoots the scene using various techniques, the most startling of which is his use of a handheld camera to follow running soldiers.  Common today but new in 1932, it adds a jolt of realism into the mix.  This battle ends in a cemetery, a bit heavy-handed perhaps, but it also acts as a counterpoint to the end of the final battle.  This time it's nothing as grand as saving a town, just a push into no-man's land.  But no last minute rescue from the grave.  The battle ends, Gilbert, shot in the stomach, waiting through the night for medics to arrive, slowly dying.  No quick death like Paul's.  War isn't always that merciful.     

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Catching Up

Getting a bit behind on blog posts, so here's some quick looks at what's played recently at The Sovereign.

-Fashions of 1934 (1934): William Powell and Bette Davis steal fashion designs from Paris. Two words: feather bikinis.
-Havanna Widows (1933): Joan Blondell and Glenda Ferrell go to Cuba in hopes of bilking a millionaire out of some dough. In the end, all is forgiven. It is Joan Blondell, after all.
-Diplomaniacs(1933): Can't have a pre-code marathon without a Wheeler and Woolsey movie. My favorite of the duo's films.  Always takes a few days to get the songs out of my head.
-Union Depot (1932): Best find of the year so far. Sort of like Grand Hotel in a train station, but a bit more. Joan Blondell is great, but quieter than usual.
-42nd Street (1933): A true classic. A noticeably larger budget than the other Warner films I've seen lately. Stars Columbus native Warner Baxter, too.
-Safe in Hell (1931): Lurid story of a prostitute trying to escape a murder charge by holing up on a small Caribbean island. Should be a great tragedy, but the plot is so mechanical that it takes all the punch out of the story. Great performance from Dorothy Mackaill, though.
-Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933): Great horror film, in color. The ending proves my theory that Glenda Ferrell always ends up with the most unlikely man (well, the most unlikely of likely men in this case). It was probably another 30 years before the line "How's your sex life?" was heard again in a Hollywood film.

Monday, February 4, 2013

The Secret Six

MGM crime drama from 1931.  Story: Factory worker (Wallace Beery) works his way to the top of a gang.

-Viewed on 1/17/2013 (Sovereign premeire)
-Usually when you think of 30s gangster films, you think of Warner Brothers, but this one came out of usually glossier MGM.
-Beery runs circles around the rest of the cast.  This was made the same year as The Champ, the film for which he won the Best Actor Oscar.
-The cast is impressive, but young.  It's an early credit for Jean Harlow and Clark Gable and Ralph Bellamy's first film.
-Thanks to this film, Gable was given a contract at MGM.
-Johnny Mack Brown, who plays a reporter and Harlow's love interest, later became well known as a star of Westerns in the Forties.
-The Secret 6 of the title refers to 6 men from various government agencies who join forces to find any charge that will stick to the criminals.  A real-life Secret 6 was responsible for having Al Capone convicted of tax evasion.  But I still don't know why the 6 men had to done masks whenever they met.
-Beery brings lots of humor to the role of Scorpio.  In the silent era, Beery would often play the heavy in the comedys with the likes of Buster Keaton and Raymond Griffith.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

I've Got Your Number

Warner comedy from 1934.  Story: Telephone repairman (Pat O'Brien) falls for a switchboard operator (Joan Blondell) who is unknowingly being used by gangster to rob her bosses.

-Viewed on 1/15/2013 (Sovereign premeire)
-First Joan Blondell movie of the year.  Due to a very serious, long standing infatuation with Ms. Blondell, it won't be the last.
-No need to tell you that she's great in this movie.  And cute.
-Pat O'Brien's Terry comes across as unlikable at first (he's basically a lazy womanizer), but by the last third of the movie he becomes more sympathetic.  O'Brien does a good job of convincing the audience that he's a changed man. 
-Glenda Ferrell's part as a phony psychic is too small.  She appeared in many pictures with Blondell, sometimes in smaller, supporting roles and other times with equal billing.  They make a great comedy duo when given the chance.
-It took me a while to remember where I had seen Eugene Pallette, who plays O'Brien's boss, before.  His most famous role was as Friar Tuck in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938).  He always seemed a bit out-of-place in that film, but works perfectly here.
-Blondell had an apendectomy near the end of filming, so the final shot of her in bed had to be done in her own bedroom.
-The movie presents a fascinating view of the inner workings of the telephone system.  It would probably seem like science fiction to kids today, but it really hasn't been that long since the phone system was run by one company. 

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Wonder Bar

Warners musical from 1934.  Story: a night in the life of a Paris nightclub.

-Viewing date: 1/7/2013 (Sovereign premiere)
-One of a long line (forming behind 42nd Street) of behind-the-scenes-of-the-show musicals that Warners was cranking out in the Thirties.
-Busby Berkeley's are, with the exception of one (see below), spectacular and impossible.  Apparently, the Wonder Bar was built inside an old warehouse.
-A great cast, although Al Jolson is a bit of a tough sell to modern audiences. 
-Hugh Herbert and Guy Kibbee do their drunk characters and Louise Fazenda has fun as Herbert's wife.
-Dolores del Rio plays the dancer Inez a bit over-the-top at times.  I love the bit where she opens her dressing room door and just stands and poses for no one other than the audience.
-One of the two prostitutes who Herbert and Kibbee spend the whole movie flirting with is played by Merna Kennedy.  Kennedy's first movie was The Circus, where she played the female lead opposite Charlie Chaplin.  Sadly, that was the highlight of her short career.  Shortly after Wonder Bar she married Busby Berkeley, divorcing him after only one year.  In 1944 she died of a heart attack at the age of 36.
-The movie takes cynicism to a new level.  When one of the club's longtime patrons decides to commit suicide at the end of the night, not only does Jolson's Wonder not stop him, he takes advantage of it in order to cover up a crime. 
-The movie is infamous for a couple of scenes.  The first is the oft-repeated shot of Jolson's reaction to seeing two men dancing together ("Boys will be boys!").  The second is the musical number "Goin' to Heaven on a Mule".  Minstral bits were not uncommon at the time, especially if Jolson was in the cast, but this might be the be-all-end-all of minstrallity.  No stereotype is left untouched by the end of the number.  Pork chop tree?  Check.  Black-faced women coming out of giant watermelons? Check.  And on and on.  To be a little bit fair to Jolson, he does poke fun at his own heritage on a couple of occasions, including a Jewish gag dropped into the minstral act.  To add insult to injury, the production of the number comes off as a bit shoddy and, well, the song isn't very good either. 

Monday, January 28, 2013

Thirteen Women

Warners drama from 1932. Story: woman (Myrna Loy) takes revenge on former schoolmates who kept her out of their sorority.

-Viewing date: 1/5/2013 (Sovereign premiere)
-Not as atmospheric as the art on dvd case would suggest.  Michael Curtiz was probably the only director on the lot at the time who could have managed a darker, more European style.
-Based on a best-selling novel by Tiffany Thayer. Thayer was a hack and from an excerpt I've read the book must be a lurid mess, so it says something to the screenwriter's credit that a good movie could come out of it.
-The idea of murder through suggestion is probably the most interesting element taken from the novel.  Thayer was the co-founder (along with Theodore Drieser) of the Fortean Society, a group that promoted the ideas of anomalist Charles Fort, who wrote about 'damned' facts of strange phenomena.
-This movie was before The Thin Man, so Myrna Loy plays the role she was specializing in at the time: the mysterious Asian.
-And Loy looks remarkably like Indian superstar Ashwariya Rai, which is fitting in this movie since she's playing an Indian.
-This was Peg Entwistle's only movie. The day the film was released, she committed suicide by jumping from the H of the Hollywood sign.
-Apparently, two of the thirteen women (including Betty Furness) were cut from the movie, but unless you're counting you won't notice.
-Unusually, the plot revolves around racism.  Loy's Ursula is a 'half-caste' whose attempts to pass as white were thwarted when she attempted to join the sorority.  When her motivation is revealed, the other characters are seen in a different light.  Except for Irenne Dunne's character, whose apology essentially brings the killing spree to an end,  the women are all weak-willed and ultimately unsympathetic.