Tuesday, June 3rd, 2008

Year: 1934

Director: Mervyn LeRoy

Starring: Aline MacMahon, Ann Dvorak, Preston Foster, Lyle Talbot, Glenda Farrell

I’m a fan of so many things in Heat Lightning. Ann Dvorak, Mervyn LeRoy, Glenda Farrell, Aline MacMahon. It’s a really interesting B-picture from the late pre-code era. Going in, it’s not really clear what this movie is about. Olga (MacMahon) and her little sister Myra (Dvorak) run a service station in the middle of nowhere. Olga loves it, Myra doesn’t. So where exactly is this going? Will it be a romance about Myra meeting a passer through and finding her way out? Will it be a love story about Olga falling in love with a passer through and realizing life isn’t so great away from the real world? Hell, maybe it will be a murder mystery set in the middle of nowhere. Well… actually… that last one might not be too far off.

Customers start arriving to stay for the night to provide and interesting ensemble cast to add a little bulk to the story. Preston Foster is a criminal on the run who knows Olga from long ago. The wonderful Glenda Farrell and Ruth Donnelly are two wealthy gold digger wives being transported by their chauffeur Frank McHugh, who seems to be trying to resist being seduce by the ladies.

There’s obviously a story somewhere here. Foster wants to stick around to try to steal the rich wives’ jewels. Myra wants to sneak out to go to a dance with her boyfriend. Olga tries to resist her romantic feelings for Foster, who’s considering using her for his heist. There’s a lot going on plot wise. None of it really fully develops, even in the end when one big thing happens.

That doesn’t mean the movie’s not good though. Despite the wobbly plot, Heat Lightning has the gift of a good ensemble of interesting characters. The sister relationship between Olga and Myra is really interesting to watch. It’s as though we’re simply dropped into the middle of it for awhile to observe. Olga’s relationship with Foster is pretty interesting to watch as well. We never know for certain the extent of Foster’s feeling for Olga, and we’re never told for sure. That’s left up to the viewer to decide. Probably the most fun part of the film is the relationship between Farrell, Donnelly, and McHugh. The three of them together are really funny, and give this film a lot of much needed levity.

MacMahon was a really fantastic actress, and she gets the chance to shine here. Her performance is without a doubt the best part of the movie. It’s a quiet, understate performance and it’s perfect. Dvorak is good with what she has, but she’s completely underused (and probably misused) in this film. Dvorak could really rev it up. When given the chance, she was a live wire, one of the most amazing things about pre-code, but she’s just not used properly here.

Heat Lightning is a strange little movie, but if you go into it looking more for the characters than the plot, you’ll get a solid experience.

By Katie Richardson

Year: 1931

Director: Robert Z. Leonard

Cast: Greta Garbo, Clark Gable, Jean Hersholt, Alan Hale, John Miljan, Hale Hamilton

Susan Lenox is a really strange movie. I’ve seen it several times over the years, and my opinion on it has changed constantly. Initially I was so bewildered and caught off guard by it that I really disliked it, but the more times I watch it, the more I enjoy it. It’s one of those pre-code films where the following conversation probably took place in the editing room…

“It’s okay as a 90 minute movie.”

“But if we cut it down to under 80 minutes we can schedule more screenings and make more money.”

“That’s a good idea.”

“Yeah, but don’t cut out any of the sex.”

What resulted from the studio’s interesting editing is one hell of a sexy, surreal, downright strange romantic melodrama.

Garbo plays Helga, the illegitimate child of a dead mother of bad reputation. She grows up under the tyranny of her uncle, who’s so worried she’s going to turn out like her mother that he decides to marry her off to a brute. One stormy night, said brute tries to rape her, and Helga flees into the forest. She stumbles upon a cabin where Rodney (a dashing Gable) is staying. He takes her in, and the two fall in love. Soon, Rodney has to go out of town for a week for work. While he’s gone, Helga’s uncle catches up with her, and she’s forced to take off.

From there it’s a really strange and pretty heartwrenching melodrama about Helga trying to find her way back to Rodney and all the horrible things they go through to get there. During this journey, she’s forced into becoming a “fallen women” and Rodney rashly condemns her and ditches her.

I’m a sucker for movies about people in love treating each other horribly, and this is a really early example of those kinds of films. Helga, hurt by Rodney’s dismissal, allows herself to continue along the path of a fallen woman, almost just to hurt Rodney. The film is really a fascinating look at a really intense relationship between two people who are so twisted and screwed up that they’re only happy when they’re miserable together.

In addition to the strange nature of the Helga and Rodney’s relationship, the settings of the film add to the bizarre atmosphere. It starts off in America, but in a strange wilderness of America that’s almost a fantasy world, which is appropriate with Helga beginning her life in a sort of Cinderella story, to escape and find her prince charming. during her journey back to Rodney, Helga ends up as a circus performer, and that in itself… well, well obviously that whole section and all those people are weird in an of themselves. The story than shifts to what is, I assume, the Park Avenue world of New York where Helga (now known as Susan Lenox) is being kept by a politician. For this very short section of the film, Garbo plays one of her few “modern woman” roles, and fits into the skin nicely. After this part, the story moves to a seed South America bar, where the atmosphere is rowdy, to say the least. The constant change in scenery and tone is startling, but where I found fault with that upon my first viewings, I now see it as a strength of the film. Susan Lenox is a fast paced romantic melodrama. It almost feels like and adventure film, and those jarring movements between time and setting help keep thing fresh and exciting.

This was the only pairing of Garbo and Gable. Having two such dynamic personalities on the screen certainly adds to the explosiveness of the film. Their personalities clash and merge and explode over and over again on screen. In reality, Garbo and Gable couldn’t stand each other. Perhaps that helped with the explosive nature of the couple on the screen. At the same time, though, Gable is really the only male costar Gable had who could make her really seem like a girl. Garbo was an extremely sexy woman, and all of her costars (Gilbert, Douglas, Nagel, etc) embraced and enhanced her as a woman. But only Gable was really able to accentuate the basic romantic girl inside of Garbo. It’s a surprising, unexpected pairing, but it works so well.

Likewise, Garbo’s performance is kind of unexpected. This really isn’t the kind of character one would ever think of when thinking of regal, mysterious Garbo. The vamp, the tragic heroine, the mystery. This role is nothing like any of those things. In Susan Lenox, Garbo gets to something very primal in her nature that I don’t think she ever touched in any of her other roles. She accessed a really deep romantic side, and a deep aching hurt for this character that she doesn’t show in most of her performances. The more I see of this film, the more I think that it may be her best performance.

Gable is his usual rough, rugged self. This was his first starring role where he wasn’t playing a bad guy or a heavy. It’s a pretty emotionally complicated role for an actor to really start his starring career with, but Gable plays it with perfect ease.

Susan Lenox is definitely a weird movie. On all fronts, it’s not something you’d expect it to be. But after adjusting to those unexpected things, it’s easy to see this is something unique and special.

By Katie Richardson

Year: 1936

Director: Mervyn LeRoy

Cast: Frank McHugh, Sam Levene, Joan Blondell, Alan Jenkins

Warner Brothers made series of gangster comedies in the 1930’s and 1940’s. Best known are A Slight Case of Murder and Larceny Inc. both starring Edward G. Robinson. Three Men on a Horse falls into this same sub-genre. Originally a play co-written by George Abbott that ran on Broadway for close to two years with Frank McHugh and Sam Levene originating the same roles they perform in the movie.

Erwin Trowbridge (Frank McHugh) is a loser. A henpecked husband who writes greeting cards sayings for a living, works for a company where he is grossly underpaid and treated like dirt. His home life is not much better, a ditz for a wife and brother in law who constantly berates him for not making money. You see Erwin bets on the ponies, and he always wins. Only he doesn’t bet for money. Never for money, that would be cheating. According to Patsy (Sam Levene) a Damon Runyon type gambler, Erwin is a poet. Patsy also sees Erwin as the goldmine he and his pals have been waiting for. Along with Levene, Allen Jenkins and Teddy Hart are the gamblers who kidnap Erwin with a plan to make them a fortune. Joan Blondell, using her Brooklyn accent to its best advantage, is Mabel, Patsy’s girlfriend. Eddie Rochester Anderson and Alan Hale are also on board as employees at the hotel where the gamblers are keeping Erwin while he comes up with the winning horses. The film was directed by Mervlyn LeRoy though there is no director’s credit given in the film. Three Men on a Horse is a pleasant humorous film filled enough laughs to satisfy even though it is somewhat dated at times. Nice performances by everyone in the cast.

It looks like Warner’s took their “B” team and gave them their own game to play and they came away a winner.

By John Greco

Year: 1952

Director: Samuel Fuller

Cast: Gene Evans, Mary Welch

One of Hollywood’s true maverick filmmakers was Sam Fuller, writer/director of some of the most primitive, gritty low budgets films to come out of the studio system. His best known film, and also one of his best, is Pickup on South Street, a political thriller about a pickpocket who inadvertently becomes involved with communist agents. Amazingly the film was attacked by both the FBI and the Communist Party as propaganda for the other side. The film gave Richard Widmark one of his best roles. The year before Pickup, Fuller made a film called Park Row, his personal favorite. Park Row was made on an extremely low budget, originally for 20th Century Fox, until Darryl F. Zanuck wanted to turn the film into a musical. Fuller, using his own money bought the film and made it under his own production company. Unfortunately, the film died at the box office and Fuller lost all of his investment.

Park Row is a history of the newspaper business in New York when newspapers ruled the news media. This was in the 1880’s, a long time before Radio, TV and The Web. Fuller started out as a copyboy for a newspaper in Massachusetts and eventually became a crime reporter for the New York Graphic at the age of 17. Park Row was his love story to the newspaper life he loved.

Phineas Mitchell (Gene Evans) starts a newspaper called The Globe, dedicated to telling nothing but the truth and takes on the more powerful papers on New York’s famed Park Row, including The Star, run by Charity Hackett (Mary Welch). Of course, Charity is beautiful and there is a romantic angle that develops but the center of the story is the newspaper business: the battle of the independent Globe vs. the more established callous papers on the street. Fuller films are blunt, some say melodramatic, and here among other things he tackles corporate corruption, biased journalism and censorship. Mitchell and his paper represent integrity, ethics and the honesty of the real newspaperman and not the yellow journalism of his more powerful competition.

Fuller manages to get a lot of mileage within the confines of a small set, and a limited budget, due to some incredible camera movements that make the set look a lot larger than it actually was. Also, pay attention and you will hear some dialogue about the Dead Rabbits, and the Plug Uglies and other Gangs that became better known in Scorsese’s The Gangs of New York. This is no coincidence. Back in 1938 Fuller wrote a screenplay based on the same Herbert Asbury book. The screenplay was made into a film with the same name, and was directed by James Cruze starring Charles Bickford and Ann Dorvak.

Park Row was cigar chewing Gene Evans second film with Sam Fuller. In 1951 he made The Steel Helmet, in which he played cigar chewing Sgt Zack (hopefully the budgets allowed for Evans to have a different cigar for each film). Evans also was in Fullers’ 1953 World War Two film Fixed Bayonets.

Park Row is Fuller’s 83 minute valentine to the newspaper business he loved done in the pulp style he was most noted for.

By John Greco

Year: 1956

Director: Fritz Lang

Cast: Dana Andrews, Ida Lupino, Rhonda Fleming, George Sanders, Vincent Price

All the right names are attached to While the City Sleeps. As the opening credits unfolded I noticed pleasant surprise after pleasant surprise. This film features a star studded cast including (in no particular order) Dana Andrews, Ida Lupino, Thomas Mitchell, George Sanders, John Drew Barrymore, Vincent Price, Rhonda Fleming, and Howard Duff, just to name a few. This cast portray characters in a movie that shines a light on some unattractive aspects of human nature.

After the death of a rich entrepreneur named Amos Kyne, his top employees struggle for control in this Fritz Lang film filled with twists, and turns. Their goal is to impress Mr. Kyne’s son, played by Vincent Price. Meanwhile, a brutal new serial killer is plaguing the city and they all want to dig up a scoop to secure some stature within the media empire.

This film not only takes a haunting look at the mind of a serial killer but also portrays the cut throat nature of office politics, especially amongst newsmen.

The real success of this film is the twists and turns and the backstabbing amongst all involved in Kyne’s media empire including the women involved with those trying to climb the ladder to prestige and success. Fritz Lang doesn’t pull punches as he depicts the lengths people are willing to go to further their career. The following line, spoken by one of the competitors, depicts just how low a man will go to get a little further ahead, “To get the job I’ll stick a knife into anyone I have to.” While the prominent members of Kyne’s media empire figuratively stick knives into one another a disturbed serial killer is literally murdering woman after woman. The cutthroat world of business is more then adequately likened to the most disturbed criminals found in modern society.

At times the story drags a little bit and considering the subject matter it isn’t nearly as suspenseful and gritty as it could be. Watching these very human characters as they claw at the throats of those standing in their way is not only entertaining but results in a little introspection on just how far each and every one of us might go to get ahead.

By Greg Dickson

Year: 1958

Director: Art Napoleon

Cast: Errol Flynn, Dorothy Malone, Efram Zimbalist, Jr.

It was exhausting watching the life of Diana Barrymore in Too Much, Too Soon. I can’t imagine actually living it. In today’s culture, with the media placing every celebrity under a microscope this story will come across to some modern audiences as mundane. While the movie basically boils down to a narrative version of the television show E! True Hollywood Story, it still manages to have some impact as a tragic tale of a life completely wasted. It is especially tragic when one realizes that Diana Barrymore died just two years after the release of the film. Diana Barrymore, daughter of famous actor John Barrymore, and half-sister to John Drew Barrymore (who is the father of actress Drew Barrymore) only lived to be 38 and this movie chronicles some of the struggles that prematurely ended her life.

For your information this review may contain what some may consider spoilers.

The transformation of Dorothy Malone from a young teenager to a middle-aged woman was very well executed and her performance is impressive and still comes across as shocking and tragic even 50 years later.

The movie is also very well shot. Visually, it has a noir like quality to it and the choice to do it in black and white was genius. One wonders if color would have ruined this dark and depressing story.

The movie does have its flaws including the pulling of some punches. Certain topics are glossed over or omitted all together that I imagine a modern version would include. For instance, the real Diana Barrymore apparently found herself in some abusive relationships and was involved in both drug and alcohol abuse, not just the latter, as portrayed in the movie. There were directorial decisions that hint at these aspects of her life quite creatively however. For instance, when Dorothy Malone crashes through a window at a pharmacy in a drunken rage the word “Drugs” is shown in the foreground on the glass just before she crashes through, implying perhaps that this rampage may be more then just a reaction to liquor. One of the most memorable scenes also, which touches on the idea that she was in some abusive relationships, is when her new husband while practicing tennis, hits her in the face with a tennis ball, leaving her on the ground, bleeding from the mouth.

This brutal movie is a depiction of a book based on true events but still has moments that unfortunately come across as melodramatic. With subject matter based in such tragic realism it is a shame that some of the acting comes across as over done and too Hollywoodish. Surprisingly, I felt like Errol Flynn, who plays Diana’s father, is the worst culprit. His acting is disapointing at times and some of his dialogue seems awkward. It is hard to tell what is more to blame, the script, or his acting.

I am sure this was a much more powerful film when it was released 50 years ago. Truly, that is where some of the tragedy of the film lies, in the fact that this type of story has become all too familiar to the general public. A life wasted by missed opportunities due to drug and alcohol abuse, psychological damage brought on by a dysfunctional childhood, and codependent relationships with abusive partners seems like more of a cliche then a tragedy. Lives have been ruined by alcohol, divorce, parental neglect, drugs, and abuse for a long time yet there appears to be no end in sight. If anything, watching this movie in 2008 should leave the audience questioning why society doesn’t change and why people don’t learn.

By Greg Dickson

Year: 1933

Director: Frank Borzage

Cast: Spencer Tracy, Loretta Young, Glenda Farrell, Marjorie Rambeau, Walter Connolly

This very old movie deals with timeless themes. Themes just as relevant today as they were 75 years ago when this film was released.

The story follows a young woman named Trina played by Loretta Young who has been out of work for a year. In her relatively ineffective attempts to find food and survive she encounters a peculiar man named Bill. His influence has a lasting effect on her.

It is a very simple movie really, but it transcends its own simplicity and actually ends up being more akin to a masterpiece thanks primarily to three major successes.

First, of course, is the script. This is a no nonsense script that was expertly created. It doesn’t attempt to be an epic or anything more then just a well crafted slice of life filled with very well written dialogue. A slice of life with a simple surface but deep explorations into humanity under the surface as well.

This dialogue wouldn’t mean much without the talents of some very fine actors. Both Loretta Young and Spencer Tracy bring these characters to life, effortlessly surmounting the 75 year old handicap that this movie has to struggle against to reach modern audiences. This films second major success is the excellent acting and timeless portrayals.

Lets start with Spencer Tracy. Bill is a character that is both self-assured and self-sufficient despite hard economic times. He is pure confidence and masculinity. He could also be considered immature and self-serving, but under the bravado is a lot of humanity. He doesn’t answer to anybody and he takes care of not only himself but looks out for those around him, despite the economic hardships of the era. He is tough, but at heart a kind person, a person who arguably has ran from life’s harsher realities and has been hardened by them simultaneously. At the same time he is still optimistic no matter how harsh the times have become, in fact he is always staring at the sky and listening to the passing trains, hoping for the best not only for himself but for those around him.

Spencer Tracy plays Bill masterfully. Watching him swagger around from scene to scene is delightful. Despite Bill’s big shoes, Spencer Tracy does a flawless job filling them and the end result is a perfectly played character that carries the film.

Well, maybe not carries the film. Loretta Young equally deserves the credit. Without her part and the understated manner in which she plays it the film would be nothing. Loretta Young, at just 20 years of age proves she is a force to be reckoned with as she plays this unforgettable character. Trina is a very interesting blend of wisdom, naivety and helplessness. She is completely dependent on Bill, and she is smart enough to let him be himself, to let him be his own man and not trap him. She knows that beggars can’t be choosers and she is quite literally a beggar. When he puts her down, disregards her and strays away she doesn’t judge, nor does she try to tame him. She is dependent on him and wise enough to know that attempts to shackle him would only drive him away. Trina is a pleasure to watch. In a world full of depression both emotionally and economically, she finds happiness in the little things and is a breath of fresh air in comparison to so many who both then and now seem plagued with pessimism. One wonders just how calculated her interactions with Bill are as the movie unfolds. Speculation concerning that question is part of what makes the film engaging and fascinating.

The third major success of Man’s Castle is the completely timeless theme which I hinted at earlier. This is a film as relevant now as it was then and the themes touched on will be relevant hundreds of years from now as well. Man’s Castle is largely about a man’s desire to roam about and be free. Man’s Castle is about the age old fear of commitment, as old as the male gender itself. As long as there are relationships involving men there will be the desire to avoid what is perceived as the bondage that comes with commitment and fidelity that is so foreign to the natural state of masculinity. This film portrays that struggle and the fear and the potential joy associated with giving in and embracing committed love.

This movie is also about finding happiness in reality. Life is unlikely to be as satisfying as the dreams of youth. One of the secrets to happiness it seems is finding satisfaction despite depressing circumstances. Certainly in the early 1930s there were plenty who did not learn that lesson and thankfully plenty who did. Man’s Castle isn’t the only story to teach us that happiness has more to do with attitude then circumstances, but it certainly is one of the more entertaining stories to teach that very valuable moral.

By Greg Dickson