How could anyone not love George Burns and Gracie Allen? They were adorable, hysterically funny, and they loved each other so much.

I first discovered the pair through their Vaudeville work. I find the whole world that was Vaudeville to be completely fascinating, and George and Gracie are probably my favorite act that I’ve found.

The pair met in 1922 and performed on the Vaudeville circuit together. When their act first started, it was Gracie who was the straight man, but George quickly discovered that it worked better the other way around. The two fell in love while working together and were married in 1926.

By the early 1930s, Vaudeville was starting to die out, and George and Gracie had to find other ways to perform. While most of their work at this time was on the radio, they did make a few films, usually playing supporting roles, but always giving wonderful and bright support.

We’re Not Dressing (Norman Taurog, 1934)
We’re Not Dressing is a wonderfully strange little musical. It’s set on an uninhabited island after a shipwreck, and features Bing Crosby singing, Carole Lombard trying to sing at points, Ethel Merman and Leon Errol being goofy, and Ray Milland as one half of a duo of gold digging princes. Oh, and there’s a bear who sometime wears roller skates. So yeah, George and Gracie are actually the most normal thing in the movie. They play a couple of scientists (I think, I’m not sure we’re ever actually clear on what they do). They get a few really amazing Vaudeville-type bits, like Gracie’s “Moose Trap”. It’s a weird movie, and I kind of love it a lot, but Burns and Allen really make their scenes great.

Six of a Kind (Leo McCarey, 1934)
Despite the fact that this movie was directed by the amazing Leo McCarey, I’m not that crazy about it. I know it might be somewhat blasphemous, but I am not a WC Fields fan. He kind of grates on my nerves, especially in this movie. Though, admittedly, this is one film where he does that the least. It’s an interesting idea, making a movie using three great comedic duos: Burns and Allen, Charles Ruggles and Mary Boland, and Fields and Alison Skipworth. All the couple balance each other out pretty well. Gracie is easily the best thing about this movie, especially when she’s causing all manner of problems for Ruggles (like, oh, making him fall off a cliff).

A Damsel In Distress (George Stevens, 1937)
I’m not too crazy about this movie either. I find the story and pacing to be incredibly messy, and I think the romance between Fred Astaire and Joan Fontaine is really flat. Yet again, Burns and Allen are the high point of the movie. The trio of Astaire, Allen, and Burns is actually quite excellent. The movie might have been a lot better if more time was focused on it. And it would have been wonderful to see them in more movies together. They could have been Fred’s partners after he split from Ginger!

By Katie Richardson

Starring: Joel McCrea, Sylvia Sidney, Humphrey Bogart, Claire Trevor, Wendy Barrie, the Dead End Kids

Director: William Wyler

Year: 1937

I’d seen Dead End a number of times, but it had been a couple of years since I had last seen it. I don’t know if I had just forgotten what an incredible movie it is, or if I’d never realized quite how amazing it was, but rewatching it again made me realize what a little masterpiece this film is. It did well at the time of its release, received an Oscar nomination for Best Picture, but it hardly remembered today. It’s depiction of slum life in the 1930s might seem a little distant for some film goers to really latch on to, but anybody with a decent understanding of the time and the films of the era should really “get” this film, and feel it right down to their bones.

The film takes place in a slum along the East River in New York, where the wealthy have decided to set up shop as well. Drina (Sidney) is on strike, trying to get the money she feels is owed to her so she can take her brother Tommy (Dead End Kid Billy Hallop) out of the neighborhood. She’s in love with childhood friend Dave (McCrea) who has a budding romance with rich girl Kay (Barrie). Baby Face Martin (Bogart), a childhood friend of Dave’s, is back in the neighborhood to find his mother and his old girlfriend Francie (Trevor).

There are several films from this era that deal with the struggle between the rich and the poor, especially during the Depression, but I don’t think I’ve seen a film do it so blatantly and so honestly as Dead End. The rich look down on the tenements from their big, beautiful building. They sit on their terraces, observing the poor, with the kids from the slums swim in the river. This divide is shown both harshly, when Tommy and his gang get into trouble for beating up a rich boy, and romantically, in the love triangle between Drina, Dave, and Kay. What it shows mostly, for all the characters, is how they dream of being more than just a child of the slums, and how the other world is just slightly out of their reach, both literally and figuratively.

The gentlemen give fine performances. McCrea is one of my favorite stars of the 1930s and 1940s. I don’t think anyone could play the good guy like he could. And Bogart is great as the charismatic bad guy. We find fault with his lifestyle, but can’t help to feel sorry for him when things don’t turn out at all as he imagines. And, as usual, I just loved the Dead End Kids. I don’t know exactly what it is about them, perhaps its the friendship between them, or just the fact that in older films we usually see precocious cuties, not accurate depictions of children living it rough.

But I have to say, it’s the women who steal the show. Sylvia Sidney, an almost impossibly beautiful woman, almost completely carries parts of the movie. Her love for Tommy is honest, her longtime love for Dave is pure. And more than anything, her desire to take her brother away is deep and beautiful. There’s an incredible scene where she describes to Dave a fantasy she has of meeting a rich man. The look on her face as she delivers it is brutal. And Claire Trevor…. boy, I can’t believe more people aren’t familiar with her. With one scene she received a much deserved Academy Award nomination. She’s the complete embodiment of broken dreams and a crushed future. Even Wendy Barrie, who I’m not that incredibly fond of, does a good job of playing the wealthy woman, who remains sympathetic even as she runs from a tenement in disgust.

Another strength of the film is its set design. It’s rare for classic films to take place almost entirely outside. And, when films do venture outside, it usually looks incredibly fake. Dead End creates a very real, vibrant world for these characters to live in. The slum is almost as much a character as any of the living, breathing people on the screen. And it’s a part of each character.

Dead End is simply one of the best films of the 1930s. There’s no other way to say it. It’s just a masterpiece.

The Man in Possession (1931) and Personal Property (1937)

The Story: Raymond Dabney returns to his family after serving a prison term. His adoring mother welcomes him back with open arms, but his uptight father and brother Claude want to pay him to leave town. Raymond refuses the insulting offer and stumbles into a job working for the sheriff as a man in possession, assigned to the home of socialite Crystal Weatherby. Crystal is formerly wealthy, but has fallen on hard times after the death of her husband and cannot pay her bills, so Raymond must stay at her house and make sure she doesn’t try to sell any of her possessions. Crystal, meanwhile, is attempting to marry a rich man who can take care of her problems.

The fundamental difference between these films comes down to the times in which they were made. Six years may not seem like that much of a difference, but in terms of filmmaking it’s an enormous difference. The Man In Possession was made in the middle of the pre-code era, when a story about a morally questionable man staying alone in a big house with a sexy socialite could flourish. In 1937, the production code was being strictly enforced, and so many possibilities for this story are simply not allowed.

The Man In Possession….. Directed by Sam Wood
Starring…..
Robert Montgomery, Charlotte Greenwood, Irene Purcell, C.Aubrey Smith, Reginald Denny, Alan Mowbry

Robert Montgomery is cast as Raymond, and there’s nobody who could have played the role better. He was the best actor of the era. He had a huge range, but he seemed to delight in playing these kinds of roles – sexually charged, morally questionable, but ultimately decent and incredibly romantic men. He rules the role with a special gleam in his eye. He’s sexy, he’s mischievous, and we can tell from the very beginning that no lady would stand a chance resisting him. He’s not at all intimidating, though. He’s charming, and as the film goes on he becomes more and more romantic.

Irene Purcell is his leading lady. Purcell was a stage actress, and she made less than 10 films (and only a few of note). But she’s really a delightful actress. She has a quality that makes her perfect for Crystal in a way no other actress could be. She doesn’t feel like a movie star, which makes her more believable and likeable as social climbing schemer. Actresses like Joan Crawford or Constance Bennett could have played the role, but not as convincingly as Purcell. Crystal is a really unique character. She’s classy in a way, but it’s a feigned class. Like Montgomery, there’s a little gleam in her eye. She’s just coarse enough to be his perfect match.

The Man In Possession uses its pre-code status to perfect advantage. Like I said before, it’s a story that’s tailor-made for the era. These two beautiful, mischievous people spending the night in a house alone together? How can that be anything else but a pre-code set up. Their chemistry alone in scenes where they’re simply verbally sparring almost seems indecent. And then there’s the sex. It’s some of the most blatant I’ve ever seen in classic film. Obviously, it’s not an explicit sex scene, but it’s more than implied with the two of them kissing, falling back on the couch, the light turning off, and Crystal sighing Raymond’s name. And then, if there was any doubt about what happened, the next morning the maid finds Crystal’s nightgown at the end of the bed. Ripped in half.

But beyond the pre-code goodness, it’s just a great romance because of the chemistry between Montgomery and Purcell. They don’t just have sexual chemistry. They fell like two souls who are perfectly matched. It’s more than sex. It’s completely believable that in the span of one night together the two have fallen completely in love. That’s why the film works so well. It’s more than just a fun sex romp. It’s a wonderful love story.


Personal Property
……. Directed by WS Van Dyke
Starring….
Jean Harlow, Robert Taylor, Reginald Owen, Una O’Conner

Robert Taylor doesn’t really fit into the role of Raymond. He’s incredibly handsome, and he has a certain sex appeal to him, but not really the kind that the character needs. Try as he might, Taylor never seems like he can really be a bad boy criminal, at least not in this point in his career. In the 1940s, he created a fantastic gangster in Johnny Eager, but obviously in 1937 his talent hadn’t really evolved past the handsome good guy leading man roles. He never pulls off the mischievousness that is the main characteristic of Raymond. Nor does he really pull of that raw sexuality that initially draws Crystal to him in the first place.

I adore Jean Harlow, but she isn’t right for the role of Crystal either. Harlow was a wonderful actress with a huge range, and it seems like she should be able to play Crystal, perhaps as a lighter version of her Dinner at Eight character. But somehow in this film she doesn’t find the proper balance that the character needs between crass gold digger and romantic heroine. Most of the time she simply comes off as too unlikable and completely without class. It’s such an odd performance, because Harlow was one of the sexiest, most charismatic actresses of her time, but here she is neither charismatic nor sexy.

Of course, the biggest flaw of Personal Property is that it’s not a pre-code film. It’s kind of baffling that anyone would think it was a good idea to make this story into a movie during enforcement, and it’s a little baffling that the Hays Office would even allow the story to be made. What results is one of the most ridiculously tame films that’s just huge film of untapped potential, and the whole thing just feels completely off.

Perhaps some of the film could have been saved had Taylor and Harlow had the chemistry to at least make this a decent love story. You’d think that two such beautiful people would have better chemistry, but there’s absolutely none there. It’s impossible to believe these two are even attracted to each other, much less falling in love with each other. It seems possible that they don’t even like each other. Personal Property doesn’t work as a sex romp, it doesn’t work as a romantic comedy. It doesn’t work at all.

By Katie Richardson

Wow, two big birthdays in a row!

Robert Montgomery is just my absolute favorite ever. An amazing actor, a fantastic director, and very handsome man.

Montgomery had a wonderful talent in front of the camera. He could play almost any kind of character in any kind of movie. Romantic melodrama, screwball comedy, even psychological thriller. Montgomery could do it all and he could do it brilliantly.

Sadly, he’s not as remembered today as he should be. He deserves to be remembered among the greats of the 1930s and the 1940s. Nearly all of his films could be considered obscure classics. I’ve seen 54 of his films, but I don’t want to go overkill here. Instead of just listing my favorites, I’m going to do a nice little service for everyone and talk about the rare films that you can get at http://www.freemoviesondvd.com

The Big House (1930) – Montgomery costars with Wallace Beery and Chester Morris in this prison drama. Those of you who are mostly familiar with Montgomery as the suave playboy are in for a treat here, with Montgomery going against the type he would late establish for himself by playing something of a nervous weasel.

The Gallant Hours (1960) – Montgomery directs this war drama starring James Cagney. It’s a really interesting war film, done without battle scenes.

Fugitive Lovers (1934) – Montgomery stars with my favorite of his leading ladies, Madge Evans, in this really sweet road film about an escaped convict and a showgirl who fall in love when they meet on a bus.

Hide-Out (1934) – Montgomery and Maureen O’Sullivan make a really sweet pairing in this unique, but genuine love story about an injured gangster who finds sanctuary with a family on a farm. He falls in love with the sweet daughter. This movie has one of the absolute most romantic scenes of the 1930s.

June Bride (1948) – Not a great film, but it’s pretty fun and Montgomery and Davis have decent chemistry together.

When Ladies Meet (1934) – Definitely not one of my favorite Montgomery films. Kind of dull and the characters are all pretty unlikeable. But you get to see Bob with two of his best leading ladies, Myrna Loy and Ann Harding.

Haunted Honeymoon (1940) – I really enjoy this movie. Robert Montgomery and the completely lovely Constance Cummings play reluctant crime solvers who get sucked into a murder mystery on their honeymoon. A colorful cast of characters and a good romance between its leads makes this movie really fun.

The Saxon Charm (1948) – I still haven’t gotten my hands on this one yet (soon, oh very soon), but it’s available and I think it looks pretty good.

Ride the Pink Horse (1947) – A really brutal noir that doesn’t shy away from violence. Montgomery gives a really good performance, as well as directs.

Inspiration (1931) – This movie doesn’t get enough love. A lot of people say that Montgomery and Garbo just didn’t go well together, I think their restrained, under the surface chemistry was perfect for this movie about repressed love and sexuality.

The Single Standard (1929) – Yeah, I’m cheating on this one. Montgomery is just an extra in this film, but it’s one of my very favorite Garbo movies and everyone should see it.

The Last of Mrs. Cheyney (1937) – Another Montgomery movie that I just downright adore. Joan Crawford was one of his best costars. This is a really fun and unique story about jewel thief Crawford falling for Montgomery, the nephew of her mark.

Letty Lynton (1932) – A fantastic pre-code melodrama with Joan Crawford giving one of her best performances

Faithless (1932) – A beautiful Depression era romance. Bob and Tallulah Bankhead are perfect together. Montgomery gives a really wonderful performance, but this movie belongs to Bankhead.

Fast and Loose (1939) – I’m such a sucker for screwball detective movies, especially when they star Robert Montgomery and Rosalind Russell.

Night Must Fall (1937) – This is probably Montgomery’s best performance. He completely breaks type to play a creepy, tortured, insane murderer.

There you go. freemoviesondvd.com is a wonderful resource. You pay less than $10 for each DVD (and that includes shipping) and these films (and so many others they have) are more than worth it.

Year: 1937

Director: Fritz Lang

Starring: Henry Fonda and Sylvia Sidney

Times, they have been a-changin’. Somewhat. Back in the 1930s, Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow were folk heroes. They were vicious thugs by trade, responsible for the murder of many civilians and lawmen over the course of their careers as robbers. They were also, as the 1967 Bonnie and Clyde tag line put it, young and in love. I guess everyone’s a sucker for a star-crossed love story, especially when it’s cut short by a hail of bullets. Americans like to side with the underdog; the thirteen colonies originated as the underdog, and something in the American spirit — regardless of the U.S.A.’s place in the world — likes to believe we’re constantly rallying against all odds to fight for what is right. Who knows? Maybe we are. If an underdog carries a pistol and puts lead pills in law-abiding innocents, maybe we fit the bill better than we’d like to acknowledge.

The brilliant Fritz Lang made You Only Live Once not long after emigrating from Germany. Henry Fonda and Sylvia Sidney are fetching stand-ins for Barrow and Parker. Lang constructs his scenes with fluidity and terse grace, weaving between subtle, almost workmanlike mise-en-scene and moments of expressionist grandeur. Lang’s style abets the self-conscious moral tone of the film in surprising ways. While its plain starkness upholds a sense of black-and-white morality and redemption, jutting, layered shadows — and one notable scene shrouded in fog — drench the story in ambiguous noir overtones. When Fonda’s ex-con, Eddie Taylor, is fired for being late with a truck delivery, we are supposed to be outraged at his boss’s judgmental sadism. When Eddie shoots a priest in cold blood, we’re supposed to empathize because the poor man’s been sitting on death row for four months because on a bum rap. When Sidney’s Jo is spotted buying cigarettes, we’re supposed to lament the cosmic fickleness that these young, handsome people should be cornered so close to freedom. Without detailing the reversals and discreet mechanics of the film’s plot, allow me to simply say that for all intents and purposes, this is a “wrong man” scenario in which the wrong man (and his too-adorable-for-words wife) are persecuted by a callous society.

It’s the typical socially-conscious Hollywood picture, with a one-sided moral alignment against that most nebulous of villains, the Establishment.

To watch the film today and accord its storytelling dexterity the same virtue as its moral commentary would be a grave mistake. Perhaps even for its time, its moral compass was eerily directionless. Consider that three-time felon Taylor is only fired because he took his wife house shopping during working hours. Precipitating the Taylors’ tragedy, it illustrates their disconnect between dream and reality. Having established that Taylor is a pragmatist during his parole hearing, it astonished me that Eddie would flaunt the opportunity he’d been given his first week on the job, given his conviction that the world already scrutinizes him unfairly. After being fired, he seeks the solace of a former criminal partner and lies to his wife when she enquires about him. This criminal associate later perpetrates a massacre and frames Eddie — with Eddie having practically turned over the damning evidence with a pretty pink ribbon. His impatience for freedom and frustration with a damaged justice system lead him to jailbreak, despite the fact that, had he accepted his fate with graceful stoicism, he would have received the news of his pardon without killing a priest. He’s an aggressor; an advocate of his own fault. When we find him torn up by the guilt of Father Dolan’s murder, Jo urges him to shrug it off. Though the film (wrongly) absolves Eddie of personal responsibility for everything except killing the priest, he is anything but a passive victim.

There appears to be a mentality among many narrative artists that if a person lives at the poverty level and encounters enough unpleasant, rich, old men, he is morally unaccountable for murder. I can’t say he “gets away with murder,” since a narrative staple of films where the downtrodden are oppressed by authorities and the wealthy is that the protagonist is often shot, lynched, stabbed, burned, or executed in some other infamous fashion. My distaste for the regurgitation of these themes over the course of 100+ years of cinema — and several hundred years of literature — stems from that fact that the foundational morality of the film is flawed in service to a vogue, vague sociopolitial aim. Fonda had a penchant for playing saints and martyrs, but his Eddie Taylor is at times mercifully closer in behavior to Frank from Once Upon a Time in the West. In this respect — Fonda’s performance — the film achieves a transcendence even Lang’s direction can’t grant. Fonda’s is a naturally “honest” face you want to trust, to admire, to follow. What he does with this role is take his perpetually searching gaze and etch his eyes and his angular limbs with the fervor of a paranoid sewer rat. If he has the capacity for love, his predeliction for shortcuts and willful ignorance surpass it every time, leaving him gazing with those wide, honest eyes through the shadowy bars of a self-constructed cell, counting the eternities of every passing minute.

Eddie may be a martyr, but he’s no saint. The film canonizes him anyway. Rather than a moral complexity, it ends up an inconsistency — or, worse, a contradiction. We’re invited to look past Eddie’s career as a criminal to the sensitive soul brimming with love underneath his taut skin; instead, what lurks beneath is an antisocial malcontent whose dedication to bad choices — when he has the intelligence to know and the talent to do better — undercuts himself, and worse, his idiotically naive young wife. The truth is, Eddie is trouble. He’s young, unreliable, and infatuated with the idea of love. When he thanks Jo for loving him, perhaps his affection is genuine; maybe he’s too addicted to the idea of being loved to let her go. Like a doomed puppy, she remains by her man’s side till the bitter end, and when the gates of paradise metaphorically open for them in a tangled, existential forest, it’s a mockery of all the genuinely downtrodden people of the earth who manage to scrape by without resorting to self-delusion and crime.

You Only Live Once is a virtuoso young-couple-on-the-run drama, but morally afield. I guess it was just a Bad Time for America. Would that times were morally evolved now, but I can’t say they are. Cinema has a particular romance with outlaws and so-called “outlaw art.” Stories often shoot for moral complexity and flawed characters, but a stubborn consistency in focusing on the outlaw life suggests a much deeper empathy in filmic reality than exists in reality itself. Would you root for Eddie and Jo to cross the border to Mexico or would you place the call if you recognized Jo buying those cigarettes? Would you give Eddie a pass on murder, or would you demand a fair trial and a fair sentence? Film grants these characters, flawed as they are, eternal life and sainthood. Living once for them is living forever for us; they aren’t the dirty-faced angels I want perched on my shoulder. I don’t care how “in love” they are.

By Matt Schneider