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. 

Friday, January 25, 2013

Sh! The Octopus

Warners comedy from 1937. Story: 2 policemen (Allen Jenkins and Hugh Herbert) spend a stormy night with a group of red herrings in the lighthouse headquarters of a criminal mastermind known as the Octopus.

-Viewing date: 1/3/2013 (return engagement to the Sovereign)
-Until recently, this was rarely seen.  Turner Classic Movies has aired it a few times over the years (which is where I first saw it) and Warner Archives has finally released it on DVD, so it's picking up a small cult following.
-Jenkins and Herbert aren't as funny here as I would expect them to be, based on their work in several pre-code movies I've seen recently. More reliance on physical humor at this point in their career. Not their strength, unfortunately. Still, not a total loss. Both are professionals and do their best with what they have to work with.
-The revelation of the Octopus is the highlight of the movie.  Startling, but simply executed.  Even though the same type of effect had been used in other films (notably the 1932 version of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde), its effectiveness here should have made it more known than it is.  Guaranteed to make you jump.
-For a B picture, the production values are generally high.
-The key to watching this film is to keep in mind that nothing is what it seems.  That theme is consistant throughout, but it's not quite over-the-top enough to make it as obvious as it probably needs to be.
-And then there's the ending.  It makes no sense, but it's not supposed to make sense.  So, it does make sense. 
-This was my third viewing of the movie.  The first time I saw it, I found it interesting, but unfunny.  The second viewing was with my wife.  She came away totally confused, but I liked it a bit better than before.  I tried to ignore the comedy and just concentrate on the plot.  I was still a bit lost, but at least I enjoyed it.  This third go came at the suggestion of my wife.  We've been watching nothing but 1930s Warner films, and she wanted to give this one another shot.  This time, for both of us, everything clicked.  It helped to put it in a context with the other movies we have been watching, several of which had either Jenkins or Herbert in the cast.  Context is extremely important when watching older films; without it you're left with a shell that seem foreign and distant.  As for the plot making more sense, I wonder if that might be due to exposure to other Warner comedies and now being familiar with the house style and rhythms.  Again, context.