Essays


080. The Smiling Lieutenant (Ernst Lubitsch, 1931)
It’s kind of strange to see Miriam Hopkins, the actress who I think is the true Queen of Pre-Code film, playing such a sweet, timid character. No actress during the era enjoyed her sexuality more than Hopkins, but she’s able to play the inexperienced slightly prudish wife of Maurice Chevalier so well and so convincingly that it’s hard to believe it’s the same woman. Until the end, that is, when she becomes the sexual being that Hopkins was known for. It’s almost like watching the birth of the Pre-Code queen. The “Jazz Up Your Lingerie” number with Hopkins and Claudette Colbert is easily the high point of the movie. One wouldn’t think that these women would get along (since they’re rivals for the same man) but they have so much chemistry, almost more than either woman has with Chevalier. This is a Lubitsch movie, so it’s just as sophisticated as it is sexy, and it’s a joy to watch.

079. Conquest (Clarence Brown, 1937)
It’s refreshing when a movie that’s based on fact comes right out and says, before the movie even starts, that the story has been seriously embellished and that it’s a more romanticized version of the events that actually happened. Conquest, a movie about the love story between Napoleon and his mistress, the Polish Countess Marie Walewska, does this. It starts with the disclaimer. It’s nice to see a movie not hide that it’s not 100% fact. Because when the movie is good, that doesn’t really matter, and Conquest is good. It’s very good. It’s kind of amazing that this was made during the strict era of code enforcement considering the entire story is about a romantic relationship between the Countess, who has left her husband, and Napoleon, who eventually becomes married to someone else, even though they never marry. The love story really is beautifully told. It starts out with Marie mostly taking on the role of the Emperor’s mistress to help her country, but she comes to truly love this man. Conquest is also somewhat unique in that Garbo really doesn’t take on the dominant role in the relationship. Usually she’s playing the alpha to a weaker man, but this time that’s not so. It’s a heartbreaking love story that’ s brilliantly performed by the Garbo and Charles Boyer.

078. The Rules of the Game (La regle du jeu) (Jean Renoir, 1939)
Robert Altman’s Gosford Park is one of my favorite films of the 2000s, and it probably wouldn’t exist were it not for Jean Renoir’s amazing examination of the upper class The Rules of the Game. There were a lot of American films in the 1930s about wealthy people, but the most critical Hollywood was of the upper class was usually just depiction them as screwy and kind of lovably out of their minds (see My Man Godfrey and Merrily We Live). But the French filmmaker’s work looks at the real faults of the upper class in the 1930s and just how they were quite different from the common man, not just in their income, but in their attitudes. The most impressive part of the film is how it’s not particularly intimate. The viewer is not treated as part of the experience. We’re merely observers of the action, kept at a distance that almost (almost) makes the film cold. We’re seeing the way these people would act if we weren’t around watching them, which gives the film a voyeuristic feeling.

077. Today We Live (Howard Hawks, 1933)
I really love World War I movies, and I think that there aren’t enough of them. Today We Live doesn’t follow the tradition war movie formula. It focuses  mostly on Joan Crawford’s character and how she deals with the war, with her brother and her best friend (and later husband) serving. We see a little bit of action, but it’s mostly about the effects that the war has on the people on the periphery. Sure, it has it’s faults, like the whole things in the 1930s where, as long as it was set in the 20th century, everyone wore the latest 1930s fashions. But in the end, that really has no effect on ho this story just works on an emotional level. Crawford’s character has a lot of big choices to make, and sometimes she makes the wrong ones, but that perfectly reflects the confusion that comes from being indirectly involved in a war. Franchot Tone plays her brother and Robert Young their best friend, and they both deliver incredibly supporting performances.

076. Fugitive Lovers (Richard Boleslawski, 1934)
Road Romances were a neat little subgenre of Romantic Comedy in the 1930s. The most notable is probably Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night, but perhaps the most overlooked is Richard Boleslawski’s Fugitive Lovers. It’s another pairing of the endlessly adorable and enchanting Robert Montgomery and Madge Evans. This time Montgomery is an escaped convict who grabs a ride on the bus that Madge Evans is traveling on, trying to get away from the mobster who’s infatuated with her, who follows her anyway. It’s a pretty simple movie, but it’s incredibly sweet and has a surprising amount of character development for such a short comedy. The relationship between Evans and Montgomery has a very natural feel to it. Montgomery is great as always, but I think it’s Evans who’s particularly impressive here. She’s playing a character who’s a little bit sharper and snippier than her usual characters, and there are moments where she’s flat out hilarious. Nat Pendleton is the main supporting player, as Evans’ mobster stalker. He’s always a joy to watch, and this time is no different. He also has one of the most surprising and satisfying character moments in the whole film.

By Katie Richardson

085. The Lady Vanishes (Alfred Hitchcock, 1936)
Following up The 39 Steps, considered today to be his first “major” film, Hitchcock made yet another “traveling” thriller. Hitch had a big thing for trains. From The Lady Vanishes to North by Northwest to Strangers on the Train, it was one of his favorite settings for mischief and mayhem. In this film, nearly all of the story unfolds on a train. The film is also notable for having a female leading the way in the plot. Margaret Lockwood is charming, lovely, and all around watchable. Her eagerness to uncover the truth is totally believable, and at her side is the equally charming and sometimes endearingly irritating Michael Redgrave. The pair try to discover what’s happened to a woman who Lockwood swears she talked to on the train who seems to have vanished without a trace. The plot has been copied in various ways many times since (most notable in Flightplan, perhaps most successfully in Bunny Lake Is Missing.) Knowing someone who has vanished, and then being led to believe that maybe they didn’t exist at all, is the stuff psychological thrillers are made of.

084. Little Caesar (Mervyn LeRoy, 1931)
The Pre-Code era was the golden age of the mobster film. Not only were filmmakers much more free to make their films violent and their villains sympathetic, but America was also in the midst of the Depression, and people were looking to unconventional movie characters to idolize. So filmmakers were able to make their gangsters into not just sympathetic hoodlums, but even into tragic anti-heroes. Perhaps the most sympathetic of the bunch is Edward G. Robinson’s Rico. In 1931, his rise to power could be seen as almost inspiration, despite the illegal and quite violent way he did it, and despite the fact that the character is something of a monster, loyalty and friendship aside. There’s also some of that wonderful pre-code homosexual subtext, and an amazing final line from Robinson.

083. Wuthering Heights (William Wyler, 1939)
1939 is considered Hollywood’s Golden Year because so many amazing movies were released, but the only two that really get any attention these days are Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz, while other films, like Wuthering Heights, which I think is better than both of those other movies, are hardly ever discussed. Wuthering Heights is kind of the grand-daddy of messed up love stories. It’s the story of how a strong and passionate love can sometimes destroy two people rather than save them. It’s dark, it’s not happy, but it’s has its own dark beauty, and this film captures it so well. It’s true, it only tells part of the story, but if you’re going to make a feature length film version of the story, I’d personally rather have a part of the story cut out to allow what’s there to fully develop as it should, rather than trying to cram it all into a two hour running time and rushing things, like that mess that was the 1992 version.

082. Possessed (Clarence Brown, 1931)
Kept woman films were popular in the romantic melodrama genre during the pre-code era. Naturally the idea of a kept woman was something that would have to be done away with completely when enforcement of the code began. But while it was allowed, the subgenre allowed for some very interesting romances. One of them paired Joan Crawford and Clark Gable, one of the all time great pairings (on and off screen) as the kept woman and the man who keeps her. A lot of these stories are about the woman falling in love with a poor man, a man who isn’t the one keeping her. This one is different because it’s about the love between the two characters. It’s not about them falling in love, it’s about their love changing and their acceptance of it.

081. Employees’ Entrance (Roy Del Ruth, 1933)
One of the sexiest movies of the decade, Employees’ Entrance is about all manner of workplace indiscretions, and it crams just about all the pre-code you can get into one movie. Loretta Young is charming as always as the sweet girl who sleeps her way into a job at a department store by way of sleazy yet oh-so-sexy Warren William, but then falls in love with good guy Wallace Ford.  Watching it now with 70+ years of history, it’s an interesting look back at the way life was back in the 1930s. But even without the historical context, it works remarkably well as a romantic drama, with an entertaining supporting ensemble. But the show belongs to the often forgotten but always awesome Warren William. He completely owns this movie in every way. It takes quite an actor to play such a horrible character with so much commitment.

By Katie Richardson

090. Anna Christie (Clarence Brown, 1930)
MGM kept Greta Garbo in silent films longer than any other star in Hollywood. It wasn’t until 1930 that she made her talkie debut in the title role in Anna Christie.  It was really the perfect role for Garbo – the world weary prostitute of Swedish descent. The film is based on the play by Eugene O’Neill, who wasn’t the sunniest of playwrights. It’s a grim and gloomy story that could have easily been bogged down by its own sadness and despair had director Clarence Brown not put such importance on the family dynamic between Anna and her father, played by George F. Marion. Anna hides her past from her father, with whom she’s recently been reunited, for fear of disappointing him. While there is a love story in the film, the movie is really about the relationship between a father and daughter and the difficulties they have relating to one another after being separated for 15 years.

089. Of Human Bondage (John Cromwell, 1934)
Bette Davis had been working steadily in mostly unremarkable pictures until 1934 when she appeared in her breakout role in Of Human Bondage. Davis was a brave actress. Not many would take on a character as vile and horrible as Mildred, and even fewer would work so hard to make the character as horrible as possible. As a result, Davis created one of the biggest film bitches of all time, and cemented her place in Hollywood history as one of the all time greats. W. Somerset Maugham’s story of obsession and abuse is a dark one, filled with characters you can never quite feel sorry for. Nevertheless, watching the power Mildred holds over Leslie Howard’s Carey and the inexplicable pull he feels toward her is fascinating to watch. We’re basically watching a series of events that leads to a train crashing. We recognize that these things are going to lead to a disaster, we’re powerless to stop it, but it’s impossible not to be entranced by it.

088. Vivacious Lady (George Stevens, 1938)
Ginger Rogers and James Stewart were close friends for most of their lives, and they shared a really amazing chemistry on screen. In the 1930s and 1940s, they were both the “every man” (or woman) stars. Unlike much of Hollywood, which seemed glamorous and untouchable, Stewart and Roger seemed like they belonged with us. Like they were regular Joes. And pairing the two worked so well on film. Which is why it’s surprising that the only made one movie together, the delightful romantic comedy Vivacious Lady. The basic story is a little hackneyed – Stewart comes from a wealthy and respectable family, so he’s afraid to tell them that he’s married a showgirl – but the fact that director George Stevens can take that story and make something so funny and heartfelt is what’s beautiful about the whole thing. The romance between Stewart and Rogers feels incredibly genuine, and the family dynamic, while screwball and therefor a little daffy, actually feels real and honest. Despite the screwball elements, this is a movie that feels true.

087. Living on Velvet (Frank Borzage, 1935)
Living on Velvet is one of Borzage’s less recognized films. On the surface is seems to be a typical romantic melodrama, but it’s actually one of Borzage’s darkest stories. George Brent’s character, Terry, has lost his family in a plane crash while he was piloting, so he spends much of his life basically courting death, even after he marries Kay Francis’ Amy. He’s so much more damaged than any of Borzage’s other heroes. So damage that not even his love for Amy can save his soul.  Rather, much of the film seems to be about how their love for each other isn’t enough. For once in a Borzage film, it’s the outside forces that his heroes and heroines are usually so isolated from which are needed to save their lives. It’s an interesting departure for Borzage, less spiritual and certainly darker.

086. Dodsworth (William Wyler, 1936)
Hollywood romances, in both classic and modern film, are usually about young people. While it’s becoming a bit more common in current film to give older people the spotlight, that was a rarity in classic film, which makes Dodsworth a breath of fresh air. The leads are Walter Huston and Ruth Chatterton, 52 and 44 years of age, respectively. Chatterton was lucky enough to have an ageless face, and was able to play the leading ladies in roles that might have gone to younger actresses for much of the 1930s. But in Dodsworth she embraced her age to play an older woman, the mother of an adult child, and the wife of a man who’s just retired. The film continues to be unconventional, telling the story of a long time romance unraveling. It’s sometimes heartbreaking to watch, but it’s such a well done film that you can’t tear your eyes away. It’s also brilliantly performed by its entire cast, especially Chatterton, who isn’t afraid to reveal the incredibly unlikable traits of her character.

Stay tuned for 85-81.

By Katie Richardson

095. The Gay Divorcee (Mark Sandrich, 1934)
After their show stealing supporting performances in Flying Down to Rio, RKO paired Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in their first starring vehicle in 1934, The Gay Divorcee. The set up of mistaken identity definitely established a standard story point for many of their films in the following years, but Fred and Ginger are always so charming that nobody really cares that the plots all look kind of the same. The Gay Divorcee is definitely noticeable as an early entry in the pair’s canon. The dancing isn’t quite as awe inspiring as it would be a few years later. But what they may lack in technical proficiency, they make up for with chemistry. Fred and Ginger are one of the all time greatest screen teams because of all the ways they clicked together on screen, with or without the dancing. As always, they’re surrounded by a wonderful supporting cast including the delightfully daffy Alice Brady and the dependably befuddled Edward Everett Horton.

094. Inspiration (Clarence Brown, 1931)
Inspiration, Greta Garbo’s third talkie, is often dismissed as lifeless, and it’s leading couple (Garbo and Robert Montgomery) as being without passion. It’s easy to see how some might think that, seeing as how it’s surrounded by pre-code melodramas being made at the same time. But this film is anything but lifeless and passionless. It’s simply a lower-key melodrama than most films that were being made at the time. For addressing such a typically pre-code topic, it remains a remarkably gentle and patient movie. Garbo played a lot of these long suffering, self-sacrificing women, who loved their men enough to know when to leave. She played the character so many times because she was good at it, and it worked, as it does here. The relationship between Montgomery and Garbo is a lot less in your face than so many of her other pairings, because in this case we’re dealing with a man of extreme repression. There’s a lot going on underneath the surface with Montgomery, and their relationship, in this movie. Inspiration is all about the thing going on just outside of our line of vision. That’s why it usually needs to be seen more than once. You have to realize where you’re supposed to be looking.

093. Romance (Clarence Brown, 1930)
This vaguely titled melodrama is the ultimate forbidden love story. Greta Garbo, at her absolute most beautiful, is an opera singer with quite a past who falls in love with a man of God played by Gavin Gorden. Director Clarence Brown isn’t particularly creative with the camera (save for one particularly tense and steamy scene between the lovers toward the end), but he makes up for it with lush and glamorous costume and set design. Garbo’s gowns in this movie are exquisite. The fact that the story is so simple is what makes the film special. There are no crazy twists and turns. We know the way it’s going to end the second the story starts. It’s the knowledge of the inevitable which makes watching the love story unfold so heartbreaking. This is the love story from which so many modern love stories derive.

092. What Price Hollywood? (George Cukor, 1932)
Five years before William Wellman’s A Star Is Born became the cautionary tale for young stars exceeding their mentors, George Cukor’s What Price Hollywood told the same basic story, with an even more heartbreaking twist of unrequited love. Constance Bennett is the young starlet here, every bit as charming as the naive Hollywood newbie as she is as the seasoned Hollywood vet. The criminally underrated Lowell Sherman is her mentor, a gifted producer who teaches her how to be a star. Unfortunately he’s a drunk, and the more her star rises, the more his falls, and his unrequited love for her doesn’t help, especially when she married another guy. In the early 1930s, the film industry was still relatively young, and it wasn’t an entirely usual thing for people on the inside to take a cynical look at the inner workings of their bread and butter. It had been done before, of course, but not quite as brutally and heartbreakingly as it was in What Price Hollywood. It showed, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that even the ones who seem like they have it all don’t have it all.

091. Lovers Courageous (Robert Z. Leonard, 1932)
The set up and story for Lovers Courageous, Robert Z. Leonard’s stunningly visual ode to the complications of love, is rather simple. Rich girl meets poor boy. In any other movie, this set up might lead to some pretty humdrum boring stuff. But when the girl is the endlessly charming Madge Evans and the boy is sexy and suave Robert Montgomery, you’re well on your way to an entertaining movie experience. Add to that the fact that Robert Z. Leonard managed to express the beauty of love on front of the camera with some surprisingly gorgeous settings and camera work, and you’re got a pretty nice little love story to kill less than an hour and a half with. Montgomery and Evans are one of the unsung duos of classic film. They made some of the best romances of the 1930s together, and had the perfect spark and chemistry for each other. Montgomery, who is often known for playing snarky men of considerable means, is quite low-key here, a humble and romantic minded playwright who enjoys the simpler things in life, specifically the beauty of one Miss Evans. It’s a charming, visually pleasing love story with a satisfying conclusion and a couple that’s impossible not to root for.

Stay tuned for 90-86

By Katie Richardson

100. Liliom (Frank Borzage, 1930)
It’s not exactly the easiest love story for a modern generation to swallow, despite the fact that in its musical form (the wonderful Carousel) it’s one of the most beloved romances of all time. Nevertheless, with its endlessly flawed hero, his doormat wife, and their unconventional version of love, this is one romance that modern feminists aren’t going to be fans of. And it’s true, in its final moments, trying to sell physical abuse as some kind of sign of affection doesn’t really work as well as it wants to. But before that point, director Frank Borzage still managed to do what he always did best: he took an immensely flawed couple with an even more flawed relationship and made it beautiful. Liliom and Julie’s marriage isn’t near perfect. He’s lazy with a bad temper, she allows him to walk all over her. But underneath it all, there is a deep love there and an understanding that the pair has for one another that is unparalleled.  And even in the end, while (perhaps ill-advisedly) sugar coating Liliom’s domestic abuse, Borzage never let’s Liliom off the hook, which leaves us with a heartbreaking conclusion. Despite what seems to be an uplifting ending, we really know that even with the best of intentions, even in death some men can’t change.

099. Made For Each Other (John Cromwell, 1939)
Carole Lombard is one of the greatest comedic talents to ever appear on the screen. Because she’s so famous for her comedic efforts, her dramatic performances are, at best, often forgotten, and, at worst, ridiculed as being “a waste of her talent”.  But her talent really did shine through in her dramatic roles, and Made for Each Other is proof of that. The film is a unique love story. In most romances we get to see the falling in love part, with “happily ever after” being the end of the story”.  Here, it’s the beginning, and it’s not so much “happily ever after” as it is “with a whole lot of bumps along the way.” Marriage is hard work, and this movie shows it, complete with disapproving mothers-in-law, terrible bosses, and sick children. It still hold up particularly well today as proof that, no matter the decade, marriage comes with the same problems and the same responsibilities. Made For Each Other is a dose of reality, maybe not one that everyone wants to see, especially from the classic era, but one that’s honest and, because of that, rewarding.

098. History Is Made At Night (Frank Borzage, 1937)
It’s not secret that director Frank Borzage was all about the transcendent power of love and all the spirituality that entails. It’s a hallmark of his films, and it figures quite prominently in History Is Made At Night. But what’s most prominent in this little romantic oddity is an element that’s only a latent theme in his other films: the battle between good and evil. Underneath the surface of a lush romance is a very primal tug of war between two forces. The evil is personified in the quite substantive form of Colin Clive’s downright deranged and insanely jealous ex-husband, while the good is represented less by the lovers (Charles Boyer and Jean Arthur), and more by the undying love that they share. With shifts between romantic comedy, psychological drama, and disaster film, History Is Made At Night may seem downright schizophrenic at times, but no matter what genre it’s veering into, it always maintains Borzage’s warmth, romance, and optimism.

097. Heroes For Sale (William A. Wellman, 1933)
Unflinching yet still somehow optimistic, Wild Bill Wellman’s Depression-era saga Heroes For Sale is one of the decade’s best glimpses into the way times really were for millions of Americans. It’s not just one problem for leading man Richard Barthelmess. It starts with one thing and then just starts to snowball from there. It’s pre-code in the best possible way, dealing with issues like drug addiction head on, and never pulling its punches (there’s a character death which leads to one shot that is one of the most startling in all of classic film). Wellman wasn’t afraid to make things as dark as possible for his characters, because that’s the way things were in the world around him, and somehow, like no other director really could, he balanced this crushing sadness with a certain amount of hope. Even though they couldn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel, it was there, somewhere, and eventually they would see it, if they just kept looking.

096. Pygmalion (Anthony Asquith and Leslie Howard, 1938)
Despite all the fawning that goes on over the overblown My Fair Lady, the gloriously simple 1938 version of Pygmalion is still the best version to ever appear on the big screen. Everything about this movie is perfect, from its head to its toes. Wendy Hiller is the best Eliza Doolittle there possible could be, beautiful enough to be convincing as the lady she becomes, but with just enough grit and uniqueness to keep her believable as the lovable street urchin. Leslie Howard’s refined gruffness is inimitable, and the chemistry they share is one of a kind. The story of Pygmalion is special in that it’s a love story without being a romance. It’s not about falling in love, and the big dramatic feelings that come with it. It’s about companionship, finding where you fit. What a novel idea, to sell that as such a quiet, unassuming thing as this.

Stay tuned for 95-91.

By Katie Richardson

I’ve been kind of an updating machine lately. Wasn’t really planning anything for today, but that’s what insomnia does to you.

We talk about a lot of actors nobody has ever head of on this site, but I always love talking about the lesser known films of the really well known actors. Those hidden gems among the Some Like It Hots and the Casablancas.

Clark Gable is an actor who everyone knows, for Gone With the Wind alone, if for nothing else. He had a really long career as a leading man, spanning over three decades, working with almost every leading lady imaginable. He has so many, many movies that are remembered as classics. It Happened One Night, The Misfits, and Mogambo. But, this being Obscure Classics, I want to talk about those movies that aren’t widely known. And really, I want to talk about some of his movies that don’t really get a lot of talk here. There are a lot of posts that mention movies like Men In White and Possessed, so I’m going to try to spotlight just a few that haven’t gotten so much attention here.

Laughing  Sinners (Harry Beaumont, 1931)
This movie has a criminally low rating on IMDb. It’s not any kind of masterpiece, but it’s certainly not as bad as that 4.9/10 would suggest. It actually is really good. Gable costars here with his frequent leading lady (and sometimes bedmate) Joan Crawford. This is definitely not a light movie, dealing with issues like suicide. Gable and Crawford are always wonderful together, and can say so much without actually saying anything.  Their onscreen relationship, as it always did, feels intense and genuine. Gable is really good here, but it is Crawford’s movie. She gives a very vulnerable performance.

Sporting Blood (Charles Brabin, 1931)
Despite the presence of Gable and the lovely Madge Evans, I really didn’t think I was going to like this one the first time I watched it.  The whole story of race horses and gambling sounded a little silly to me. But the movie is surprisingly gripping and really well told story.  It’s got that struggle and redemption aspect that always gets me. There’s also a genuine affection for horses and horse racing present in the film that’s really effective, even if you’re not really into that whole scene. Gable and Evans are fantastic together. They have chemistry to spare, which is why it’s a huge shame that didn’t work together again.

After Office Hours (Robert Z. Leonard, 1935)
In this fun and light mystery/drama, Gable plays a reporter trying to solve the murder of a socialite. He gets in with wealthy Constance Bennett, an acquaintance of the victim, and he falls for her, but he can’t help himself from using her to get the scoop for his story. It’s not really a comedy, so don’t go in expecting something like The Thin Man, because it’s not very funny. But it is a light and somewhat breezy murder mystery. Gable and Bennett are good together, and their romance is actually convincing instead of feeling tacked on for convention’s sake. It also sports an impressive supporting cast which includes Billie Burke, Henry Travers, and William Demarest.

Somewhere I’ll Find You (Wesley Ruggles, 1942)
I’m actually kind of surprised I don’t talk about this movie more here because it’s one of my very favorite Gable movies. Clark Gable and Lana Turner really are one of the most underrated pairings in classic film. They made a few good movies together, they looked gorgeous when they shared the screen, and they had chemistry. Somewhere I’ll Find You is probably the heaviest of all their movies. It’s set during WWII, and has two brothers (Gable is one of them, Robert Sterling is the other) trying to attract Turner’s attention.  The movie does kind of have Carole Lombard’s death hanging over it, as it was the only movie Gable did between the passing of his wife and his discharge from the military, and the final speech he gives in the film is especially poignant because of it.

By Katie Richardson

You lucky ducks. Since I didn’t do a post last week, I’m doing two posts today. So woohoo for you guys!

Minna Gombell is DEFINITELY an actress who really doesn’t get the attention she deserves. Even among the character actors she’s often forgotten. I adore her. It may just be because she made a few movies with my personal god, Frank Borzage. But I’ve always appreciated her performances and I’ve always been impressed by her range.

Gombell was nearing 40 when she started out in Hollywood during the birth of the talkies. With very, very few exceptions (Ruth Chatterton being one), actresses of that age were no longer “allowed” by Hollywood standards to be leading ladies. So these actresses of a certain age became character actors, to play older best friend types, or mothers. It was the really good character actors who took these roles and practically stole the films they were in with their amazing performances. Minna Gombell was one of those actors. In this post, I’ll take a look at a few of the films Gombell made with Borzage, my favorite director.

Bad Girl (1931)
In her first film with Borzage, Gombell plays Edna, the older best friend of Sally Eiler’s Dorothy. Bad Girl is a movie about a young marriage and expecting a child during the Depression. It’s a really mature movie, exploring the damage that a lack of communication can do to a relationship. Both Dorothy and her husband Eddie (played by James Dunn) are pretty nervous and high strung. They’re newlyweds, they’re expecting a baby, money is tight, and they both think that the other one doesn’t want the baby. With two lead characters who are such messes, Gombell’s Edna is the sturdy, steady, calming force in the movie. She herself is a single mother, but the character shows how one can actually get through even the toughest of times.

After Tomorrow (1932)
In her second film with director Frank Borzage, Gombell gives what I think is by far her finest performance. She’s Else, the mother of Sidney (Marian Nixon), who is in love with and trying to plan her wedding to Pete (Charles Farrell), but they have little money and marriage is starting to look impossible. The love story between Pete and Sidney is sweet, but the real emotion of the film comes from Gombell. Else is a restless and unhappy woman. She loves her daughter, but she married and had a child at a young age, and now that she’s older she feels that she’s wasted her life away cooking for her husband and ironing her daughter’s clothes. Gombell’s performance is absolutely amazing. This is a character who could very easily garner no sympathy from the viewer, but Gombell creates such a complex character. You hate her for the way she treats her husband and the way she runs away, but at the same time you still genuinely feel for her and the way she’s feeling. It’s a truly beautiful performance, and it makes one of the Borzage’s lesser film completely worth watching.

By Katie Richardson

Richard Boleslawski is another of the many, many great, yet underappreciated directors that we love here at Obscure Classics. While he directed a few films in his native Russia (in the area which is now Poland) between 1915 and 1921, his career didn’t really take off until he came to America. His first job wasn’t exactly the brightest omen of things to come. He did fill in work for Erich von Stroheim on the ill-fated Queen Kelly, which was something of a disaster that was never finished. Fortunately, his first job was not an indicator for the rest of his career, and while he never made a picture as big as Gone With the Wind or Grand Hotel, he made many excellent studio pictures before his career was tragically cut short by his sudden death in 1937. A few of his films, Beauty for Sale and Fugitive Lovers, get quite a lot of talk on this site, so here are a few of his films that haven’t received quite as much attention.

The Mystery of Mr. X (1934)
The Mystery of Mr. X is one of the man mystery/comedies to come out of the 1930s, and while it’s not quite as good as The Thin Man or The Mad Miss Manton, it’s definitely in the upper echelon of these types of films. It’s a little bit different than these other films in that its lead character, played wonderfully by Robert Montgomery, is not a detective, or a doctor/detective, or lawyer/detective. He’s ‘technically’ not a good guy at all, he’s a gentleman thief. He gets caught up in a murder when he’s stealing a diamond at the same time a policeman is being murdered just outside the building. Scotland Yard assumes the murder and theft were committed by the same man, and Montgomery is left to prove himself innocent.

His leading lady is Elizabeth Allan, and the two of them share a really wonderful chemistry that really makes me wish they had made more films together. The screenplay sparkles, and Boleslawski easily mixed the humor with some truly suspenseful scenes.

Men In White (1934)
I’ve talked about this movie a few times on this site. It’s a really incredible pre-code film, which tackles some pretty taboo issues with incredible finesse.

In Men In White, Clark Gable plays a young doctor in love with Myrna Loy, but his constantly busy schedule puts a strain on their relationship, and he ends up having a one night stand with nursing student Elizabeth Allan. She gets pregnant and has a back alley abortion, which is predictably botched and she ends up in the hospital, fighting for her life.

Abortion was perhaps the most taboo subject that could be covered in film in the 1930s, and even during the pre-code era, films had to be delicate about the way it approached the topic. The word “abortion” is never used. It’s hinted at without the word ever being spoken. Boleslawski takes a topic that could be sensationalized and tells a very personal story with it.

The Painted Veil (1934)
Boleslawski’s version of W. Somerset Maugham’s brilliant novel The Painted Veil isn’t nearly as good as the almost perfect 2006 adaptation starring Naomi Watts, Edward Norton, and Liev Schreiber. Naturally, the subject matter had to be handled much more delicately in the 1930s. But for what it is, which is basically a watered down version of Maugham’s story, it’s still a pretty good movie, with a really good performance from Garbo.

Garbo plays a restless woman who marries scientist Herbert Marshall even though she doesn’t really love him. This lack of love, combined with Marshall’s constant working, leads to Garbo having an affair with George Brent. When he husband discovers her infidelity, he takes her with him to inland China to fight the region’s illness, assuming they’ll both probably die. But in these worst of conditions, Garbo grows as a human being, as does her love for her husband.

This movie really only tells half the story of Maugham’s novel, leaving us with the happy ending, rather than going past that to the true, tragic ending of the story. But despite the sunny-ing up of the story, Boleslawski’s film does something that very few films at the time did. It takes a very honest and mature look at adult relationships and marriage.

By Katie Richardson

Marilyn Monroe is easily one of the most famous movie stars of all time. I don’t think you’ll find anyone who doesn’t know who she is. Sadly, most people don’t realize what an incredible actress she was. In addition to a stunning screen presence, she had an amazing comedic and dramatic talent. In the early 1950s, when she was still in mostly supporting roles, she was quite a scene stealer. When she started getting lead roles, she just sparkled in film after film after film. It’s tragic that she died so young. Who knows where her career would have gone.

Monroe made many, many films that are so incredible well known. Some Like It Hot was named the greatest comedy of all time by the American Film Institute. The Seven Year Itch, The Misfits, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and How to Marry a Millionaire, among others, are considered to be classics. But she also made a lot of really good films that aren’t particularly well known today.

Don’t Bother to Knock (Roy Ward Baker, 1952)
In this unsettling sort-of-noir, Monroe gives an excellent performance as a mentally disturbed woman opposite Richard Widmark.  It’s really a pretty disturbing film for Hollywood in the 1950s. Monroe’s character is babysitting a couple’s kid in a hotel, but thanks to the fact that she’s kind of crazy, she does a really bad job of it. Like, tying the kid up kind of bad job. This is one of Monroe’s best performances. It’s really very subtle and natural, and while you’re appalled by how poorly she’s doing her job, your heart really breaks for her when you see just how sad her instability is.  Widmark also gives a very good performance, and his chemistry with Monroe is interesting and unique.

Home Town Story (Arthur Pierson, 1951)
This isn’t a great movie at all, but it’s a decent little newspaper drama with a really charming performance from Monroe.  It is blatantly patriotic, but it’s hardly the only film from the era of McCarthyism to carry the “America is Awesome” message. In addition to Monroe, the cast is  interesting enough to make this movie worth watching.

Bus Stop (Joshua Logan, 1956)
Monroe  got the chance to really put her acting talents on display in Bus Stop, showing off in this drama-comedy. You know, a dramady, if you will. The wide range of emotions she shows in this movie is really incredible, proof that she was a truly gifted actress.  Before this she had played mostly breathless blonds, but she left that persona behind to play a hardened, disappointed woman looking for love.

By Katie Richardson

Tallulah Bankhead is legendary in the theater world, but not so much in the film world. She only made 12 films, and I’d say all but one belong firmly in the “Obscure Classics” category. And many of them aren’t even available for viewing. But I love Tallulah Bankhead. I have only seen a few of her movies, but she makes such a lasting impression. Today I’ll talk about my two favorite films starring Tallulah.

Faithless (Harry Beaumont, 1932)
With her outspoken ways, Bankhead was a perfect fit for pre-code Hollywood, and her best work during that era is the Depression era romance Faithless. I think it’s truly the role Bankhead was born to play in films.

She stars opposite Robert Montgomery as a very wealthy heiress who refuses to live on her fiancee’s income, which breaks up the engagement. Of course, she’s so arrogant and having such a good time that she doesn’t pay any attention to the fact that the Depression is quickly cleaning her out, and she ends up broke.

She and Montgomery find each other again, both poor as can be, and reignite their love. The film becomes truly pre-code in the end. Montgomery is injured in an accident, and Bankhead has to find a way to pay for his medical expenses, and she turns to prostitution. When Montgomery finds out, instead of being furious with his wife, he is grateful to her, believing that what she is doing is a sacrifice for him. Not only is it wonderful pre-code, it’s a great love story.

A Royal Scandal (Ernst Lubitsch and Otto Preminger, 1945)
Her role in Faithless may be the role she was born to play, but Bankhead’s role as Catherine the Great in A Royal Scandal isn’t that far behind. It’s an Ernst Lubitsch picture, so even though it isn’t a pre-code film, there’s still a dash of sly and subversive naughtiness, which is a perfect fit for Bankhead.

When you see costumes like this in a classic movie, you’d probably be expecting some kind of costume drama. But A Royal Scandal is a comedy, a light and sexy Lubitsch comedy (though a good deal of it was directed by Otto Preminger due to Lubitsch’s illness), that Bankhead sparkles in. There’s just something in her personality that’s so suited to the genre, but this might be the only comedic film she ever made.

A Royal Scandal is just a delightful movie through and through. Sexy, silly, and fun, with Bankhead at her best.

By Katie Richardson

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