1930

Niagara Falls (1930, William C. McGann)

Niagara Falls doesn’t have a credited screenwriter, which is a shame as it’d be nice to know who wrote the occasionally rather witty dialogue but also who came up with such a dark short. Not even dark comedy. Just dark.

The short starts with recent newlywed Helen Jerome Eddy preparing for her honeymoon to–you guessed it–Niagara Falls. And then her mom calls and says they’re in financial trouble and isn’t Eddy selfish for going to Niagara Falls when her father needs help. So when husband Bryant Washburn gets home, Eddy gives him the bad news.

They’ll get to Niagara Falls someday though.

The film jumps forward a few years and, once again, Eddy and Washburn are getting ready to go to Niagara Falls. They’ve already got a son, so presumably they were able to consummate the marriage even without their honeymoon (in the first segment it seems like they’re waiting), and they’re bringing him along.

Then there’s another problem. Then there’s another time jump and another problem. All of the action takes place in their living room, with some old age makeup–pretty good old age makeup too–involved. The script’s efficient with the necessary exposition for the time jumps and so on (another reason it’s too bad the writer is uncredited) and the performances are decent. Washburn is fairly unlikable as a newlywed, but gets better as he stops making jokes about being stuck being married. Eddy’s actually best when she’s in the old age makeup.

McGann’s direction is pedestrian, even for a ten minute short–it’s never clear why he changes shots, it’s like there’s an egg timer going off somewhere, though the (also uncredited) editor does all right keeping a flow.

Once Niagara Falls takes its dark turn, it just keeps getting darker. Nothing extreme–not a lot of action–just a quietly despondent view of the human condition. Unfortunately, the dark turn happens in the last segment, when it’s too late to really affect the short’s quality over all. It just makes it peculiar.

Niagara Falls isn’t ever bad. It also isn’t ever good. It’s just weird.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by William C. McGann; director of photography, John Stumar; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Helen Jerome Eddy (Edna) and Bryant Washburn (Bob).


Animal Crackers (1930, Victor Heerman)

After initially teasing some kind of narrative, Animal Crackers gives it up and embraces not just being a stage adaptation (hope I don’t forget to talk about that aspect) but also a series of sketches. Not just comedy sketches, but also musical ones.

The film takes place over a day. It starts one morning, it ends the next morning. In that time, besides the Marx Brothers arrival at the swank, palatial home of Margaret Dumont (who’s particularly wonderful here), there’s a missing painting. That missing painting is as far as Crackers goes narrative. Groucho being an explorer who’s sort of courting Dumont? Not as important as a sketch with Chico or Zeppo.

For a while, when Crackers is finding its footing, the lack of narrative is annoying. There’s a bunch of great supporting performances–Dumont, of course, but also Lillian Roth as her daughter and Margaret Irving as her society nemesis–in these little moments. They have the most story without the Marx Brothers. Louis Sorin, as Groucho’s rival for Dumont, gets some good moments, but with the Brothers. It feels incredibly disjointed.

Director Heerman can never decide how to stage the action. For example, Groucho breaks the fourth wall to acknowledge the audience and loses Heerman. But, quite often, Heerman’s pragmatism serendipitously makes the awkward exquisite.

The last twenty minutes, as every plot absurdity gets integrated just because it’d be too much work to keep things sorted, gives Crackers a manic pace to the sublime finish. It ends gloriously.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Victor Heerman; screenplay by Pierre Collings and Morrie Ryskind, based on the play by George S. Kaufman, Ryskind, Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby; director of photography, George J. Folsey; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Groucho Marx (Captain Jeffrey Spaulding), Harpo Marx (The Professor), Chico Marx (Signor Emanuel Ravelli), Zeppo Marx (Horatio Jamison), Lillian Roth (Arabella Rittenhouse), Margaret Dumont (Mrs. Rittenhouse), Louis Sorin (Roscoe Chandler), Hal Thompson (John Parker), Margaret Irving (Mrs. Whitehead), Kathryn Reece (Grace Carpenter), Robert Greig (Hives) and Edward Metcalf (Hennessey).


All Quiet on the Western Front (1930, Lewis Milestone)

For the first act or so of All Quiet on the Western Front, director Milestone very gently puts the viewer amid the naïveté of the film’s protagonists, a group of students who drop out to enlist (in the first World War). He opens with this gorgeously complicated shot–brilliantly edited by Edgar Adams and shot by Arthur Edeson–coming into the classroom from a parade of soldiers on the street. There’s a fantastical grand element to Milestone’s composition in that first act, just like the new recruits think they are beginning a grand adventure.

All Quiet on the Western Front moves very quickly. It runs around 130 minutes, but Milestone fades between vignettes. Lew Ayres is the protagonist, but he’s the protagonist because the war removes other potential protagonists. It only really becomes his film in the last quarter of the picture. But it’s not Ayres’s character’s story. Milestone and the screenwriters–Maxwell Anderson, George Abbott, Del Andrews–do a brilliant job of positioning all the characters in relation to one another. They understand the story better than the viewer does. The viewer is simply watching.

This approach–and excellent direction from Milestone and fantastic acting all around (Louis Wolheim, William Bakewell and John Wray stand out)–leads to Quiet being able to be utterly devastating but never exhausting; never exciting but always riveting. Milestone matches his attention to the battle scenes, often singularly good, with his attention to the character scenes.

All Quiet is a particularly amazing motion picture.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Lewis Milestone; screenplay by Maxwell Anderson, George Abbott and Del Andrews, based on the novel by Erich Maria Remarque; director of photography, Arthur Edeson; edited by Edgar Adams; produced by Carl Laemmle Jr.; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Louis Wolheim (Kat), Lew Ayres (Paul), John Wray (Himmelstoss), Arnold Lucy (Kantorek), Ben Alexander (Kemmerich), Scott Kolk (Leer), Owen Davis Jr. (Peter), Walter Rogers (Behn), William Bakewell (Albert), Russell Gleason (Mueller), Richard Alexander (Westhus), Harold Goodwin (Detering), Slim Summerville (Tjaden), G. Pat Collins (Bertinck), Beryl Mercer (Paul’s Mother) and Edmund Breese (Herr Meyer).


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Framed (1930, George Archainbaud)

Framed feels a little like it was a silent turned into a talkie. About half the time, instead establishing shots for scene changes, there are expository title cards. Usually they’re for time changes, as though director Archainbaud couldn’t think of anything else.

It’s hard to say how many of Framed‘s problems are Archainbaud’s fault. Most of the performances are bad, but they’re bad enough it’s not like Archainbaud could have fixed anything.

Lead Evelyn Brent and one of her beaus, Ralf Harolde, remind of particularly bad understudies taking on the roles. Harolde tries so hard to develop his character’s nervous ticks, he forgets to deliver his dialogue well. As for Brent… she’s not any good and worse, she’s annoying.

The picture opens with a good interrogation scene–Archainbaud’s best shot is his first–but then Brent starts talking and the film falls apart. Brent has a lot of problem getting out Wallace Smith’s dialogue. It might not even be here fault; Smith’s dialogue is a constant flop.

Her other beau, Regis Toomey, is a little better. He’s can’t be good–the dialogue–but he’s a little better. Until his scene opposite his father, played by William Holden (no, a different one), and then that scene falls apart thanks to the lousy dialogue.

In the supporting cast, Maurice Black and Robert Emmett O’Connor are both fine. Holden is not.

Jack Kitchin’s editing is weak too, though it’s not like Archainbaud was giving him good shots.

Framed is an insufferably drab bore.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by George Archainbaud; written by Paul Schofield and Wallace Smith; director of photography, Leo Tover; edited by Jack Kitchin; produced by William LeBaron; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring Evelyn Brent (Rose Manning), Regis Toomey (Jimmy Carter), Ralf Harolde (Chuck Gaines), William Holden (Inspector McArthur), Maurice Black (Bing Murdock) and Robert Emmett O’Connor (Sergeant Burke).


Snow Time (1930, Mannie Davis and John Foster)

Snow Time is another strange cartoon from Foster. It’s wintertime in cute cartoon animal land and everyone’s having a swell time skiing, synchronized skating and so on.

Until this cat’s tail gets cut off because he’s messing around in a ski lane. But Foster and co-director Davis don’t follow his story. Presumably he’s just done… Snow Time skips between all the cute little animals until the finish. About a minute after the cartoon needs a narrative, it gets one.

The cat who’s been off screen for most of the cartoon–apparently walking around the frozen wilderness (he loses his tail at some point)–is dying. A crazy doctor can’t save him, but maybe some whiskey can.

I’m not sure the actual moral of the cartoon is anything like what the filmmakers intended.

There’s a lot more craziness I forgot (an assault, a living hot dog).

Snow Time‘s really strange.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Mannie Davis and John Foster; produced by Paul Terry and Amadee J. Van Beuren; released by Pathé Exchange.


Congo Jazz (1930, Hugh Harman and Rudolf Ising)

Congo Jazz is a great example of how old Hollywood racism works. Having Bosko, the lead in the cartoon, be a little black kid isn’t really overtly racist… until Harman and Ising have him meet a couple monkeys.

Guess who looks like who?

And then, sort of confirming racists are morons, it turns out the monkeys’ father is a gorilla. So apparently species were unknown to Harman and Ising too.

Strangely, once the cartoon becomes a musical number–and Bosko acts the minstrel role–it becomes a lot less offensive. The last half is Bosko and the jungle animals playing a song and there are a couple almost successful moments.

The problem is the lack of ambition. Harman and Ising put more attention into Jazz‘s backgrounds than the animation.

Without a story, the lazy animation can’t make Congo Jazz succeed. Instead, it putters out, just stopping without a real ending.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Hugh Harman and Rudolf Ising; animated by Carman Maxwell and Paul J. Smith; music by Frank Marsales; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Johnny Murray (Bosko).


The Nightlife (1930, James Parrott)

The Nightlife is an unfunny mess of asynchronous sound. If I’ve ever seen a Laurel and Hardy picture before, I can’t remember, and maybe starting off with one of their Spanish-language pictures was a bad idea. There’s no ambient sound for most of the short and it often feels like a silent comedy drug out to sound pacing.

I assume there isn’t a lot of dialogue–or ambient sound–because Laurel and Hardy didn’t actually speak Spanish (from what I’ve read); they used cue cards and their delivery makes Nightlife a hideous curiosity. Even Linda Loredo, who one assumes speaks Spanish, is terrible in her deliveries. Laurel and Hardy make it sound like they’ve never heard the language spoken.

Parrott’s direction is really weak; he and editor Richard C. Currier hold shots way too long. If there was any humor, they’d be draining it.

Nightlife‘s too lame for words.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by James Parrott; written by Leo McCarey and H.M. Walker; director of photography, George Stevens; edited by Richard C. Currier; produced by Hal Roach; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Stan Laurel (Stan), Oliver Hardy (Ollie) and Linda Loredo (Mrs. Laurel).


Bubbles (1930, Roy Mack)

Bubbles might be of modern interest because to Judy Garland fans, as an eight-year old Garland and her sisters show up at one point. But to anyone else? Well, it may also be interesting as an early sound short. There’s a lot of coordinated tap dancing in the short and I kept wondering if the filmmakers were honest or fixed the sound in post.

The short’s a variety show, only in a mystical subterranean cavern, with the Vitaphone Kiddies being cute in dumb outfits and some weird (uncredited) troupe leader announcing each act. As a director, I think Mack’s most ambitious move is panning the camera left… once.

There are a couple decent performers and a lot of mediocre ones. One of the good ones is a gymnast. The mediocre ones include a boy who sings poorly while more talented kids dance.

Bubbles‘s slightly odd and pointless, but harmless.

2/3Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Roy Mack; directors of photography, Howard Green and Willard Van Enger; released by Warner Bros.


The Limejuice Mystery or Who Spat in Grandfather’s Porridge? (1930, Jack Harrison)

The Limejuice Mystery is, in puppets, the meeting of Sherlock Holmes (renamed Herlock Sholmes here) and Anna May Wong (who’s also renamed for legal reasons, I imagine). Now, there are some good Holmes jokes–like the bobbies dancing to Holmes’s violin solo and Holmes’s hobby of cross dressing–but the Wong stuff is uncomfortable.

Limejuice isn’t some homage to the star–the first Chinese-American movie star–it’s a bunch of jokes about Chinese people. The short is exemplar for bad puppetry (sadly, the terrible puppeteers are not credited) and racism.

Director Harrison is actually pretty good at setting up the shots–there’s little movement as he’s filming puppet stages; the framing’s surprisingly good. And the puppets themselves appear to be well-made. The costumes are all great.

It’s just the puppeteers.

The Limejuice Mystery is dumb and boring and offensive. But it’s a mildly interesting piece of film history.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Jack Harrison; music by Philip Braham; released by Joseph Seiden.


The Booze Hangs High (1930, Hugh Harman and Rudolf Ising)

It takes The Booze Hangs High nearly half its running time to have its first gag… but it’s worth the wait. An adorable little duckling tells its mother it needs to go number two. Without dialogue or visual followthrough, but the message is clear. And, all of a sudden, Booze starts getting better.

It starts off really rocky. Bosko, the lead, isn’t funny. Until the ducklings, the only interesting thing of note is the filmmakers seemingly not understanding bulls do not have udders.

But after the ducklings? Then Bosko feeds some pigs their slop (from a trash can) and the piglets find a liquor bottle. They proceed to get wasted. At that point, Booze gets a lot better.

Some of the problem is clearly the sound–directors Harman and Ising are still wowed with synchronized sound.

Whilethe animation detail is weak, the backgrounds are great.

Booze‘s tiring, but amusing.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Hugh Harman and Rudolf Ising; animated by Friz Freleng and Paul J. Smith; music by Frank Marsales; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Johnny Murray (Bosko).


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