1931

The Maltese Falcon (1931, Roy Del Ruth)

Not to be too obvious, but I really wasn’t expecting a twist ending for The Maltese Falcon. But only because I’ve… read the book, seen the 1941 version, seen spoofs of it; I sort of figured I’d be able to guess the plot turns. And I did, right up until the end, when Falcon shows its been doing an entirely different kind of subterfuge than usual. The film even takes a moment to acknowledge that twist and take a bit of a bow. It’s all quite the surprise.

But Maude Fulton and Brown Holmes’s script always seems too good for the production. Falcon is an early talkie. Director Del Ruth has no idea how to do close-ups—he and cinematographer William Rees—don’t match the angles right, the actors aren’t in the same spots, editor George Marks isn’t doing any extra favors (he doesn’t know how to cut line deliveries). The film does have some good visual storytelling ideas, but they’re mostly transition stuff; who knows maybe the script has the transitions. Or they’re just where Del Ruth has the best ideas. But—throughout—it’s clear this script deserved a better execution. Not as an adaptation of the source novel, but the script itself.

It’s not just the choppy filmmaking, it’s the acting. The best performance in the film is Una Merkel as Ricardo Cortez’s girl Friday. There’s a lot of implication they’re having an affair, but she doesn’t mind playing wing-girl for him hooking up with every other woman he meets in the movie until the last scene. Like, Cortez is a shocking man slut, so much so it forgives his performance. He comes off like a bit of a dandy, but then he’s able to toggle into being tough; he’s better at being tough. He’s a sociopath. So’s leading lady Bebe Daniels. Or is he falling for her and blind to it? Or vice versa? And those aspects of both characters is straight from the script, from how they behave, react to outside stimuli, whatever. It comes through in the film, but isn’t really presented well. It’s like the script has a point to make about the source novel, but the actual film doesn’t get the script is trying to make a point, but still precisely follows the script.

Falcon’s also pre-Code, so lots of sexy, lots of scanty. Since the film revolves around Cortez and Cortez is apparently only in the private detective racket so he can score with vulnerable women… even though Del Ruth and Rees can’t figure out how to match a shot perspective between close-up and two shot, they do manage to create a fantastic narrative distance. It’s just it needs to be identified, which doesn’t happen until the twist ending.

Back to the acting.

Cortez is okay. It works out, but it’s occasionally a little much. He’s only got like two things he can do. Three if you count him putting his hands in his vest pockets. Daniels is similar. She’s got some really good moments, but they’re spread out wrong. The film doesn’t know how to emphasize its actors’ deliveries, which is most on display with ostensible scenery-chewer Dudley Digges. Digges is a sweaty mess of vague but obvious sinfulness with major interpersonal communication issues. And somehow Del Ruth, Rees, and Marks manage to drain all the momentum from his deliveries with how they cut between shots. Maltese Falcon has a lot of pacing issues, down to reaction times for actors. There’s a lot of talking in the film; the vast majority of the film is just talking. And Del Ruth never figures out how to keep up the momentum of it. It’s like it ought to be stagy, but isn’t. Del Ruth is overenthusiastic when it comes to emphasizing the performances.

And it mostly hurts Digges. Hurts Matieson a bit, but not as much. Matieson doesn’t bit down on a sofa arm and rip it apart. Digges goes wild.

Walter Long’s good enough as Cortez’s partner. Thelma Todd is about as good but wasted as Long’s wife, who Cortez is having an affair with; naturally. Though, again, the twist. It covers a lot of storytelling choices from the script, including who gets screen time and how. Robert Elliott is annoying as the by-the-books cop. He comes off as an idiot, not a capable crime solver. J. Farrell MacDonald is fine as the good cop. They’re around a lot, but they don’t really matter because they’re not women Cortez can try to make time with.

The Maltese Falcon is way too blasé about itself. It’s got an exceptionally good script, but Del Ruth doesn’t seem to know what to do about it. Or with it.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Roy Del Ruth; screenplay by Maude Fulton and Brown Holmes, based on the novel by Dashiell Hammett; director of photography, William Rees; edited by George Marks; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Bebe Daniels (Ruth Wonderly), Ricardo Cortez (Sam Spade), Dudley Digges (Casper Gutman), Una Merkel (Effie Perine), Robert Elliott (Detective Lt. Dundy), Thelma Todd (Iva Archer), Otto Matieson (Dr. Joel Cairo), Walter Long (Miles Archer), Dwight Frye (Wilmer Cook), and J. Farrell MacDonald (Det. Sgt. Tom Polhouse).


Hot Biskits (1931, Spencer Williams)

Hot Biskits refers to lead Thurston Briggs. He’s Hot Biskits, only he uses a pseudonym because he’s a con man. He’s got a cushy job as a miniature golf course manager; the owner is a crooked cop, who’s fine just so long as the managers don’t make any money on the side.

Although Briggs can’t play golf, he’s told everyone he’s the second best player in the world. An old acquantiance happens upon the mini-putt course and recognizes Briggs. Briggs, back in his cardsharp days, promised to take any bet.

Notice how long I’m going on with the recap? Biskits is like ten minutes. Writer, director, and costar Spencer Williams–he plays Briggs’s eventual partner in an attempt to cheat to win the game–Williams is busy. Lots is happening.

Williams has got a good sense of comic timing, both when acting and directing his cast. The only time the short drags is at the front, with Briggs’s pontification about his miniature golf skills. Biskits recovers real fast–after that opening, Briggs is great. That scene just didn’t work.

Most of Biskits works though; Williams makes some ambitious moves, mostly with dialogue comedy but also with the direction. The short’s on a budget and Williams has some ingenuity in keeping costs down. It’s short comedy but not slapstick.

Biskits is fun stuff.

2/3Recommended

CREDITS

Written and directed by Spencer Williams; director of photography, Glen Gano.

Starring Thurston Briggs (Prof. Zion Williams a.k.a. Hot Biskits) and Spencer Williams (Jim).


A Connecticut Yankee (1931, David Butler)

A Connecticut Yankee fumbles on pretty much every level, including wasting lead Will Rogers. The big problem is the script, from William M. Conselman. It doesn’t help any director Butler can’t mount an action or comedy sequences, because there’s nothing else in the picture. It doesn’t even work as a Rogers vehicle because his character’s so poorly written.

The film opens in the present, with vaguely dopey electronics repairman slash radio station announcer Rogers going to an old dark house to deliver a battery. He meets the house’s strange inhabitants and then gets knocked unconscious by a falling suit of armor. When he wakes up, he’s in sixth century England. Has Rogers mystically travelled back in time or is he unconscious on a floor? Oh, the drama.

Regardless of inventiveness, the device should give the film a chance to reset. The film sets Rogers up as slightly lazy, mostly stupid. No doubt once he gets back to olden times he’ll make a change for the better. Not really, though. He’s still just a bit of a moron. Conselman’s script makes cracks about him being a Democrat–which is on brand for Rogers, but one would think he’d want better material than one-liners.

Rogers meets King Arthur (William Farnum) and Merlin (Brandon Hurst). Both Farnum and Hurst are bad, but it’s hard to blame them. Their writing is terrible and Butler’s direction of actors is somewhat worse than his direction of action. At least with the action, there’s the castle set. It’s fine. Not so much once Rogers modernizes Camelot. Right after he proves himself worthy, the film cuts to a Camelot with telephones, roller-skates, machine guns, tanks, cars, whatever else.

Because Rogers might be a questionably talented electrician and radio announcer, but he’s a king of all industry. Connecticut Yankee would probably be able to get away with it if there was any direction. Conselman’s script is too inept for comedy or commentary, as is Butler’s direction.

There’s an almost amusing knight vs. cowboy joust. Butler can’t direct it, unfortunately. Then Farnum and Rogers go adventuring; they need to rescue princess Maureen O’Sullivan from evil queen Myrna Loy.

Rogers gets sympathy, but he’s not good. Farnum’s not good. O’Sullivan is appealing but she has a handful of scenes and nothing to do. Same with Frank Albertson as Rogers’s pointless sidekick. Hurst is awful in a fun way as Merlin though. He’s always sprinkling dust on things. Because magic.

Loy’s probably the best? It’s hard to say, as Conselman’s script is so wretched; Loy at least gets to have some fantastic gowns.

The big action finale with knights with tommy-guns ought to be a lot better. Everything about Connecticut Yankee ought to be better. Conselman and Butler never have a handle on the film. They’re fumbling from scene one.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by David Butler; screenplay by William M. Conselman, based on a novel by Mark Twain; director of photography, Ernest Palmer; edited by Irene Morra; released by Fox Film Corporation.

Starring Will Rogers (Hank Martin), William Farnum (Arthur), Frank Albertson (Clarence), Brandon Hurst (Merlin), Maureen O’Sullivan (Alisande), Mitchell Harris (Sagramor), and Myrna Loy (Morgan le Fay).


Drácula (1931, George Melford)

A lot of Drácula’s hundred minute runtime is spent with Eduardo Arozamena talking really slow to José Soriano Viosca and Barry Norton. Arozamena’s Professor Van Helsing (so nice to have such a familiar “brand” you can just talk about the characters and assume some passing familiarity) and Viosca and Norton are the guys who need to believe him about vampires. Dracula–played by Carlos Villarías–is after Norton’s fiancée Lupita Tovar. Viosca’s her father, though the film never really does anything with it.

Viosca and Norton are basically just around to hear Arozamena’s exposition. Director Melford does all right with it, actually. He seems to understand how much information they’re conveying because he usually breaks it up with some of Pablo Álvarez Rubio’s antics (as Renfield). Through some luck, screenwriter Baltasar Fernández Cué understands Rubio’s importance in the film. He opens the picture, he introduces the viewer not just to Villarías but to himself. Rubio is the only actor in the film to get a scene (or two) to himself. Everything else in the picture involves regular cast members. And Rubio’s really likable. It makes him a great tormented victim.

So Drácula is long. There’s no music and very little ambient sound. It’s often just watching Villarías walk around (in what appears–oddly–to be a London After Midnight homage). Melford’s lucky to have Tovar, who’s able to get enough sympathy from the audience just from her performance because there’s really not much character in Cué’s script.

As Tovar’s friend, Carmen Guerrero only gets two scenes and the script gives her more character. She’s good too (or gives the impression of having the ability to be good, but the film dumps her early).

Besides Norton, who’s terrible, and Viosca, who’s ineffective, Drácula is well-acted. Villarías’s got to play a walking, talking monster, which–when the film doesn’t give any character to said monster–might be the specific problem of Dracula adaptations, and he does stumble. But Melford gets a genuinely creepy conclusion when he finally kidnaps Tovar.

Tovar’s great. Did I already call her out?

Arozamena’s kind of fun as Van Helsing. He almost plays it like a comedy.

There are some editing problems (cutting in the footage from Tod Browning’s English language problems Dracula), but Arthur Tavares does well with this version’s footage. And George Robinson’s photography is magnificent. He’s so graceful Melford’s often employed dolly shots come off well.

Drácula’s pretty good. Not great, but pretty good.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by George Melford; screenplay by Baltasar Fernández Cué, based on the screenplay and play by Hamilton Dean, John L. Balderston and Garrett Fort and the novel by Bram Stoker; director of photography, George Robinson; edited by Arthur Tavares; produced by Carl Laemmle Jr.; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Carlos Villarías (Conde Drácula), Lupita Tovar (Eva), Barry Norton (Juan Harker), Pablo Álvarez Rubio (Renfield), Eduardo Arozamena (Van Helsing), José Soriano Viosca (Doctor Seward), Carmen Guerrero (Lucía), Amelia Senisterra (Marta) and Manuel Arbó (Martín).


A Free Soul (1931, Clarence Brown)

The first hour of A Free Soul is this extremely engaging, if occasionally melodramatic, story about Norma Shearer and Lionel Barrymore. They’re rebellious blue bloods–Barrymore’s Shearer’s father and he’s raised her to be an independent woman. He’s a defense attorney and a drunk. She’s his ambassador to their disapproving relations. She takes up with mobster Clark Gable, throwing aside her more appropriate suitor, polo champion Leslie Howard.

Shearer and Gable have great chemistry from their first scene. She and Howard come off like brother and sister. It’s not miscasting as much as John Meehan and Becky Gardiner’s script doesn’t do any work establishing them. All the work goes into Shearer and Gable for the romance.

Shearer and Barrymore are fantastic together too. So when Barrymore disappears for about twenty minutes, only to return in a wonderful delivery of high melodrama at the very end, Soul suffers for it. Shearer stops being the film’s protagonist and becomes its subject. While the film never actually condemns her, it flirts with the idea as an excuse. It’s lazy writing from Meehan and Gardiner, who are wrapping things up quickly.

Director Brown doesn’t do much to help in the last third either. He’s got some great work earlier in the film, but he encourages the histrionics by the end. He and editor Hugh Wynn treat Shearer differently after she breaks off with Gable to support the drunken Barrymore. They rely on her for exaggerated reaction shots, which walls Shearer off.

Barrymore’s great. Shearer’s good; good enough to weather the bad editing. And Gable’s really good. Howard’s okay. James Gleason’s good, but has nothing to do as Barrymore’s sidekick except be James Gleason. Lucy Beaumont, as Barrymore’s mother and Shearer’s grandmother, is ineffectual, which is a problem.

Most of A Free Soul avoids melodramatic tropes, only to lazily implement them for its resolution. Still, the cast makes the most of it.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Clarence Brown; screenplay by John Meehan and Becky Gardiner, based on the novel by Adela Rogers St. Johns; director of photography, William H. Daniels; edited by Hugh Wynn; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Norma Shearer (Jan Ashe), Lionel Barrymore (Stephen Ashe), Clark Gable (Ace Wilfong), Leslie Howard (Dwight Winthrop), James Gleason (Eddie) and Lucy Beaumont (Grandma Ashe).


Dracula (1931, Tod Browning), the digest version

Even though it still falls apart at the end, this truncated, eight millimeter version of Dracula is better than the regular version. It’s exactly what I was hoping for from these Castle Films digests.

All of the long dialogue scenes are gone. There’s no explanation of vampires, the entire sequence before London is gone, no one even identifies Dracula by name until the flopping finish. It’s a really neat way to see the film, as it changes so many implications.

Even better, Lugosi doesn’t even have any lines. He’s a mysterious predator, not an awkwardly accented royal. There’s just enough romance between Helen Chandler and her beau too. It efficiently establishes the characters. Chandler’s first encounter with Lugosi is random chance, which makes Lugosi’s Dracula far more dangerous.

I wasn’t expecting much from this version, but Dracula finally works out. Until that ending, which is just too broke to fix.

2/3Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Tod Browning; written by Hamilton Dean, John L. Balderston and Garrett Fort, based on their play and the novel by Bram Stoker; director of photography, Karl Freund; edited by Milton Carruth and Maurice Pivar; produced by Browning and Carl Laemmle Jr.; released by Castle Films.

Starring Bela Lugosi (Count Dracula), Helen Chandler (Mina), David Manners (John Harker) and Edward Van Sloan (Van Helsing).


Frankenstein (1931, James Whale), the digest version

The eight millimeter digest version of Frankenstein removes all but three main characters. Colin Clive gets the most time, though loses all subplots and character, with Boris Karloff probably coming in second. It’s odd to watch Frankenstein and have the monster make so little impression but it’s clearly possible.

Dwight Frye, for a while, makes the greatest impact, but only because he’s present in most the background of the establishing scenes.

The digest also retains the drowned little girl, Maria, though she’s barely there too. It’s strange to see what the editors thought was the most resonate, but the little girl’s drowning does lead to the manhunt, which does feed the finish. I guess it makes sense.

The little edits are bad. Reaction shots are cut, the film’s just generally sped up. Frankenstein loses top much personality when s drastically cut.

Even the fiery windmill sequence suffers in this abbreviation.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by James Whale; screenplay by Francis Edward Faragoh and Garrett Ford, based on an adaptation by John L. Balderston of a play by Peggy Webling and a novel by Mary Shelley; directors of photography, Arthur Edeson and Paul Ivano; edited by Clarence Kolster; music by Bernhard Kaun; produced by Carl Laemmle Jr.; released by Castle Films.

Starring Colin Clive (Dr. Henry Frankenstein), Boris Karloff (The Monster), Dwight Frye (Fritz), Lionel Belmore (Herr Vogel) and Marilyn Harris (Little Maria).


I Like Your Nerve (1931, William C. McGann)

While I Like Your Nerve is urbanely genial, it’s a somewhat high concept romantic adventure comedy.

Douglas Fairbanks Jr. is a playboy–though not one of means–living it up in South America. He travels from country to country (they are, of course, so small he can drive) and stirs up trouble. But then he sees Loretta Young and it’s love at first sight.

Luckily she’s engaged (or Nerve would have no plot) and he has to win her away from her fiancé. The fiancé in question, played by Edmund Breon, is an old pervert with the runs. Literally. Nerve is gloriously indiscreet in its character details, a benefit of being pre-Code (another example is Fairbanks’s buddy, Claud Allister, who’s out of the closet).

Here’s where the high concept comes in… Fairbanks doesn’t so much have to win Young’s affections, but he needs to deal with her corrupt, but lovable, step-father (Henry Kolker) who’s selling her to Breon. Kolker is a government official, so Fairbanks has to tread lightly.

Nerve never gets particularly good, but it’s always mildly charming… sort of like Fairbanks. The whole point of his performance is to be charming; he succeeds. A textured performance isn’t his goal.

Young shows a fair amount of range in her role, though it’s a poorly written one. Kolker and Breon are both okay; once they get together and start arguing they’re fantastic.

Peter Fritch’s weak editing hurts McCann’s otherwise sturdy direction a bit.

Nerve is a pleasant diversion.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by William C. McGann; screenplay by Roland Pertwee, based on an adaptation by Houston Branch; director of photography, Ernest Haller; edited by Peter Fritch; music by David Mendoza; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Douglas Fairbanks Jr. (Larry O’Brien), Loretta Young (Diane Forsythe), Henry Kolker (Areal Pacheco), Claud Allister (Archie Lester), Edmund Breon (Clive Lattimer) and Boris Karloff (Luigi, Pacheco’s butler).


Monkey Business (1931, Norman Z. McLeod)

It takes about seventeen minutes for Monkey Business to start. The first seventeen minutes are the Brothers running around a cruise ship, on the run from the ship’s officers. In those seventeen minutes–about a fifth of the picture–they manage to get in a number of gags, including Zeppo discreetly laying the groundwork for his romance with Ruth Hall, and play some music for a minute. Director McLeod choreographs it all beautifully.

Then Harry Woods and Thelma Todd show up–as cruise ship passengers–and the “plot” starts. Woods is a two-bit gangster after a now retired, but successful, gangster’s empire. Rockliffe Fellowes plays the retired gangster (and Hall plays his daughter–see how it all comes together?).

For another twenty minutes or so, the Brothers interact with the gangsters in various combinations, while Chico and Harpo wreck their usual havoc on ship. Groucho is, of course, far more concerned with romancing Todd away from her husband.

All of a sudden, with a half hour left, Business changes gears once again. The cruise ship has docked and the passengers are disembarking. There are some great gags here with the Brothers trying to get through customs before the story returns to the gangster angle.

Business gets a little long towards the end, with Chico and Harpo’s musical interludes awkwardly inserted (even though they’re wondrous to see and hear), but the finale’s outstanding.

Monkey Business is great. Zeppo as the romantic lead makes up for a forgotten subplot or two.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Norman Z. McLeod; written by S.J. Perelman, Will B. Johnstone and Arthur Sheekman; director of photography, Arthur L. Todd; produced by Herman J. Mankiewicz; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Groucho Marx (Groucho), Harpo Marx (Harpo), Chico Marx (Chico), Zeppo Marx (Zeppo), Rockliffe Fellowes (J.J. ‘Big Joe’ Helton), Harry Woods (Alky Briggs), Thelma Todd (Lucille Briggs), Ruth Hall (Mary Helton), Tom Kennedy (First Mate Gibson), Cecil Cunningham (Madame Swempski) and Ben Taggart (Capt. Corcoran).


The Iron Man (1931, Harry Bailey and John Foster)

The Iron Man‘s protagonist is not the Iron Man itself (himself?), which shows up after the halfway point. The protagonist is a cantankerous old man with some magic powers. He lives amongst all the adorable cartoon animals who sing and dance happily and he does what he can to ruin their days.

He’s a bad guy. He also doesn’t show up for the first two minutes, which seems long in a seven minute cartoon, but the unlikable aspect is more interesting. He’s not a lovable jerk, he’s not even funny. He probably would kick a kitten.

The cartoon is beautifully animated. Even in black and white, the backgrounds are lush with feeling. Not a lot of detail, but directors Bailey and Foster know what’s important to include.

It could go on longer. The final gag is way too brief.

Man‘s oddly thought provoking, especially how it handles narrative structure.

2/3Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Harry Bailey and John Foster; produced by Paul Terry and Amadee J. Van Beuren; released by RKO-Pathé Distributing Corp.


Scroll to Top