1932

Boudu Saved From Drowning (1932, Jean Renoir)

I was really hoping Boudu Saved From Drowning would have a spectacular finish so I wouldn’t have to write an opening paragraph about how it’s a pretty funny misanthropic class comedy until the titular character, played by Michel Simon as a mischievous, mean-spirited pervert variation on Chaplin’s Tramp, amps up the behavior and rapes one of the two women.

But don’t worry, turns out it’s just what she needed to get her interest in sex going again.

Initially she’s just interested in getting with Simon because he’s a love god, but eventually it spills over to decidedly not sexy dirty old man Charles Granval. Granval’s a moveable dirty old man though, not like Simon. Who’s not old.

It’s kind of a lot all at once. And the ending just shrugs it all off, not doing anything with the now blended debris in Granval’s household, which includes wife Marcelle Hainia and maid Sévérine Lerczinska. Really, Boudu could be remade as a slasher movie where the women eventually just kill the dudes and it’s a happy ending. Director Renoir doesn’t want you to like the characters, because then it’s funnier when bad things happen to them. Only Renoir’s way to keep his distance is to get really naturalistic, really flat, which ends up just separately the good part of the movie and the bad part of the movie. The beginning, with Granval, Hainia, and Lerczinska making each other’s lives complicated juxtaposed against Simon’s search for a missing dog… it’s really good. When the action moves into the connected house and shop and gets into Lerczinska’s duties as maid and shop girl and how Simon’s going to make them difficult because he’s trying to get some action with her… it’s immediately exhausting. The Simon “showcase” in the second half, where he gets long scenes to goof off and be a dick, don’t add up for Renoir. He’s making a comedian’s showcase and getting so bored with the comedian he’s doing complex tracking shots to make the film feel less stagy. He succeeds in making Boudu a less stagy stage adaptation, but he does so in a way it’s very obvious it’s a stage adaptation. He’s trying to keep himself entertained.

Everyone’s playing a caricature. Granval, Hainia, Lerczinska, Simon. When Simon’s got his final look for the film, you almost think it’s a comic strip adaptation. A comic strip adaptation would make more sense as a source for Simon’s performance. Hainia and Lerczinska get the worse parts—not just because of lecherous old men and raping tramps—but also because their characters are even slighter than Granval or Simon’s. But everyone’s perfectly good at their caricature. Simon’s disgusting but so’s humanity, he’s just disgusting in a different way. At least food is good and wine is good and women are willing. Okay, maybe it’s more nihilisting while French than general misanthropy.

Excellent photography from Georges Asselin and Marcel Lucien; good editing from Suzanne de Troeye and Marguerite Renoir, who know more about cutting screwball-ish comedy situations than director Renoir appears to know about directing it. Before the happy rape, there’s at least a nice scale to the comedy situations. The film doesn’t cheap out.

The end is a little self-indulgent, with Renoir going hard on appearing very thoughtful about the previous eighty minutes. Boudu isn’t a riff on a morality play because the characters are too thin to be capable of it. But when it doesn’t add up to anything else, Renoir goes for it in the postscript. And botches it pretty bad.

Though prettily. Very prettily, with great photography.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Jean Renoir; screenplay by Renoir and Albert Valentin, based on the play by René Fauchois; directors of photography, Georges Asselin and Marcel Lucien; edited by Suzanne de Troeye and Marguerite Renoir; production designers, Jean Castanier and Hugues Laurent; produced by Michel Simon; released by Les Établissements Jacques Haïk.

Starring Michel Simon (Priape Boudu), Charles Granval (Édouard Lestingois), Marcelle Hainia (Emma Lestingois), and Sévérine Lerczinska (Chloë Anne Marie).



Rain (1932, Lewis Milestone)

Rain is an adaptation of an adaptation. Maxwell Anderson’s script is based on John Colton and Clemence Randolph’s stage script of a Somerset Maugham story. The story’s from 1921, the play first ran in 1922, Rain is from 1932. Maugham’s story is a first-person account, the play is not but does follow the original narrator, Rain does not. In Rain, he seems an afterthought, which is kind of the problem. Rain has a lot of good scenes and good moments. Director Milestone has a great time showing off camera movement and editing to convey their intensity. He’s also got a lot of excellent montage sequences (he and editor Duncan Mansfield go wild). But he doesn’t have a good sense of the story. Not how to tell it. He knows where it needs to be effective, but he doesn’t know how to keep the energy up between those scenes.

Rain is just over ninety minutes and the last fifteen or twenty minutes feel like an eternity. It just won’t hurry up and do something. In fact, it gets really low towards the end, only for the finish to save things. Luckily there’s enough drama to interest Milestone and there’s enough heavily veiled (pre-Code or not) material in the script for stars Joan Crawford and William Gargan to get some gristle. Rain works out; just. It might help if the ending didn’t just reveal yet another potentially more interesting character in the narrative to follow.

The film, play, story are about a working girl (Crawford) who ends up marooned—there’s cholera on the connecting ship—on a South Seas island with a crazy Christian reformer (Walter Huston). Gargan’s a marine stationed on the island’s naval base who takes a liking to Crawford, regardless of her past. Meanwhile, Huston and his good Christian wife Beulah Bondi set about trying to slut shame Crawford and then ruin her life. They’re all staying in American ex-pat Guy Kibbee’s general store and hotel. Matt Moore and Kendall Lee are another American couple, traveling with Huston and Bondi. Moore’s a doctor, going to be stationed where Huston and Bondi are traveling to missionary. Crawford’s also going there, which horrifies Bondi who gets Huston worked up. Moore’s out on the slut shaming, which you’d think might lead to some kind of scene where Lee talks to him but I’m not sure she ever does. Lee’s never anything but background. It’s a missed opportunity.

Moore’s lack of material is probably the only not missed opportunity in the picture, which is weird since he was the narrator of the short story and still had stuff to do in the stage version. Much of Rain is from Crawford’s perspective. Some of it is from Gargan’s. Some of it is from Kibbee’s. The balance is all way off. The way Milestone directs the film, it needs to be a lot more focused on one. Crawford’s got a pretty significant arc; while it does eventually work into a big pre-Code infer not elucidate, the film would’ve worked much better with a tight focus on her. But then the same goes for… Gargan, Kibbee, Bondi, Huston, probably Lee, probably not Moore. Bondi and Huston can’t be the protagonists because the film’s got a lot to say about Christian missionaries. Kibbee would make it a black comedy sitcom for most of it then something darker. Lee would’ve worked. Gargan would’ve been a little off too. And Milestone doesn’t care. He’s too busy with the great montage sequences and occasional deft camera move. The script isn’t in his sphere of interest.

Neither are the performances. Bondi spends the movie a caricature, which is a really bad move considering how things turn out. Huston’s a little too intense. He’s standoffish in his scenes with Crawford, who tries hard but the lack of insight into her character is the film’s biggest failing. Either way it could go, will she be saved or not, the film makes it about Huston being loud and determined not Crawford’s experience. What ought to be the film’s most striking scenes, when even Milestone realizes it’s time to go to close-ups on a stage adaptation, get tedious instead. Crawford and Huston’s performances just might incompatible. She’s got this long close-up with no dialogue as she starts to break down from his booming preaching and she’s great and the shot’s long enough to see how she’s great… but it doesn’t go anywhere. Instead, the movie drops her for a while so there can be a couple surprises.

Rain had all the parts, someone just needed to think about how to make the stage narrative into a film one. Someone like Milestone, who does a bunch of great stuff, he just doesn’t support his cast’s performances. At all. It ought to be an amazing part for Crawford, Huston, Gargan, maybe Kibbee. But no. Crawford, Gargan, and Kibbee weather it best. Huston eventually gets rained out.

Oh, and awesome bit part from Walter Catlet at the beginning.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Lewis Milestone; screenplay by Maxwell Anderson, based on a play by John Colton and Clemence Randolph and a story by W. Somerset Maugham; director of photography, Oliver T. Marsh; edited by Duncan Mansfield; music by Alfred Newman; released by United Artists.

Starring Joan Crawford (Sadie Thompson), William Gargan (Sergeant O’Hara), Guy Kibbee (Joe Horn), Walter Huston (Alfred Davidson), Beulah Bondi (Mrs. Davidson), Matt Moore (Dr. Macphail), Kendall Lee (Mrs. Macphail), and Walter Catlett (Quartermaster Bates).



Red Dust (1932, Victor Fleming)

I’m not sure how much would be different about Red Dust if the film weren’t so hideously racist, particularly when it comes to poor Willie Fung (as the houseboy), but at least it wouldn’t go out on such a nasty note. Especially since the finale, despite being contrived, at least plays to the film’s strengths, which it had forgotten for a while.

Red Dust’s strengths are Jean Harlow and, at least when they’re bantering, Clark Gable. It’s not about the performances being better than any of the others—all the performances are good, with the exception of Fung, but… that one isn’t his fault—it’s just Harlow’s the most likable person in the picture. Sometimes it seems like she’s the only likable person, just because the other likable folks are offscreen somewhere, sent away so Gable can seduce married woman Mary Astor.

The film starts with Harlow ending up at Gable’s Vietnam rubber plantation. Well, actually, it starts with Gable and occasional sidekick (and likable folk) Tully Marshall overseeing the plantation. Lots of quick expository action, lots of casual racism involving the workers (it’s okay, though, because Gable works hard like a white alpha male should—though it turns out he inherited the plantation from his dad and seemingly grew up there so, wow, what a dick), then in comes Harlow. After some good banter, they end up canoodling. Harlow’s hiding out from some problems in Saigon, where she’s probably a working girl. Red Dust is Pre-Code but it’s still 1932 and all.

So once she and Gable hook up, the movie jumps ahead three weeks or so. They’ve been shacked up, but it’s time for her to go. She’s sweet on Gable, even though he’s an abject asshole; he doesn’t even seem to notice. Red Dust is great for passive displays of not just white man’s “burden” but also toxic masculinity and privilege. John Lee Mahin’s script is rather unaware of itself. Not blissfully, it’s not an intentional move on Mahin’s part, it’s just baked in no one would ever think about those things, which almost plays to its favor. Once Gable’s doing nothing but romancing Astor, well… if the script were avoiding anything, it’d be hard to tolerate Gable.

Anyway. After the jump ahead, Astor and husband Gene Raymond. Raymond’s Gable’s new engineer, Astor is the wife he wasn’t supposed to bring. Raymond arrives ill, so Gable and Astor have to nurse him back to health. Only then Harlow shows back up because of plot contrivance—albeit a logical enough one—and Gable doesn’t want her contaminating blue blood Astor. Gable’s got to figure out how to seduce Astor while keeping it not just from Raymond, but somewhat from Harlow as well. At least, he doesn’t want Harlow messing it up for him.

The way it plays is celibate hard-ass Gable discovers he likes having a woman around with Harlow, then wants to “trade up” for Astor.

Meanwhile, once Astor arrives, Red Dust is hers for a while. All through her perspective, including the tour of the rubber plantation and how rubber is made. The tour comes relatively late in the picture, given rubber-making is most of what Gable and Marshall talk about it. It’s a rather nice narrative move from Mahin and director Fleming in a film where there really aren’t many nice narrative moves. The script’s not clumsy, just leaden. Gable’s charm plays a lot differently as he manipulates and seduces Astor (and abuses and neglects Harlow).

There’s an obvious finish to all of it, which doesn’t require anything but to completely flush the idea of Astor having a character. Then, after the first flush, when she’s reset, the script flushes her again, taking what starts as a role with quite a bit of potential and reducing it to plot fodder.

Acting-wise, Harlow’s the best, just because she doesn’t go through any character development contortions. When Gable’s not being a complete bastard, he’s good. He’s always fine with the physical aspects of the role, but when he’s in asshole mode he’s just muscling through the material not acting it. Fleming’s no help with directing his actors and they need it with Mahin’s script.

Astor’s better at the start than the finish. In theory she’s got the best character arc, but it all happens off-screen. The film skips over some crucial scenes for her character development (Red Dust runs a somewhat long eighty-two minutes as the scenes with Astor and Gable eventually get tedious). Raymond’s okay as the beta male husband. Not sure if we’re supposed to consciously notice Astor’s taller than him or not.

Marshall’s great as the sidekick (when he’s in the picture) and Donald Crisp is surprisingly good as Gable’s other overseer. Surprisingly because he’s usually passed out drunk in the picture and doesn’t get but two scenes with any activity. But he’s real good in them.

Fleming’s direction is okay. Red Dust is a stage adaptation and occasionally feels like it, but once the monsoon season starts, there’s always something inventive going on visually. Harold Rosson’s photography is excellent. Blanche Sewell’s editing is not, though it appears Fleming didn’t give her enough coverage. And it’s not bad editing, it’s just not excellent editing. It’s fine. Technically, Red Dust is a success.

Dramatically, it’s incredibly problematic (even without the contrivances and frequent, casual racism). The film wastes Gable’s potential and limits Harlow’s.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Victor Fleming; screenplay by John Lee Mahin, based on the play by Wilson Collison; director of photography, Harold Rosson; edited by Blanche Sewell; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Clark Gable (Dennis Carson), Jean Harlow (Vantine), Mary Astor (Barbara Willis), Tully Marshall (McQuarg), Gene Raymond (Gary Willis), Willie Fung (Hoy), and Donald Crisp (Guidon).


The Purchase Price (1932, William A. Wellman)

For most of its seventy-ish minute run time, The Purchase Price does really well with the way it does summary. It does so well it never even seems possible the film’s just going to welch on everything in the third act… but rather unfortunately, it does.

The big problem is how the film–specifically Robert Lord’s script–is eager to slut shame star Barbara Stanwyck for exploitative purposes. The only scenes Lord can figure out scenes for Stanwyck and mortified husband George Brent involve him disapproving of her, first for being–apparently (but not exactly)–a cold fish (she refused his violent urges on their wedding night)–and then for being too warm of a fish. But, again, not exactly. Lord avoids resolving any of the issues, not just with Brent’s multiple hangups but also outstanding story issues like Stanwyck’s former beau, gangster Lyle Talbot, and Brent’s own farming foe, David Landau.

And Price can get away with a lot because director Wellman and star Stanwyck are on it. They make the too abbreviated summary work. Because the film’s not a fish out of water story, it’s what ought to be an unbelievable story about night club singer Stanwyck losing her chance at a dream marriage to jackass blue blood Hardie Albright because of her previous relationship with Talbot (who’s a lovable bootlegging adulterer–one wonders if Lord remembered Talbot’s supposed to have a wife somewhere when he’s going cross country to pursue Stanwyck) and how she ships herself out as a mail-order bride to escape Talbot. She thinks she’s going out to a standard North Dakota wheat farm, full of affable drunken neighbors and, eventually, babies. Instead, Brent’s this oddball agricultural college boy who cares more about the miracle wheat he’s spent eleven years cultivating, doesn’t get along with his neighbors, and has secret money troubles.

Brent wasn’t expecting beautiful, cultured, smart Stanwyck (she paid off her maid, Leila Bennett, to take over as mail-order bride–which worked out fine since Bennett had sent along Stanwyck’s photo in communications with Brent, who–for his part–lied about his farm and didn’t send a photo in return). After their whirlwind wedding ceremony–uncredited Clarence Wilson is a perfect creep as the justice of the peace–they’re off to the farm. But not before both Brent and the film itself have mocked the simple prairie folk. Though the film mocks them more than Brent does, which is unfinished subplot–though Brent’s character development and basic establishment isn’t really any of Price’s concern. It’s like they knew he wouldn’t be able to appropriately slut shame Stanwyck in the third act if they explored him being a dick. Sure, Landau’s a bad guy and a creep, but Brent’s a dick.

He also tries to rape Stanwyck on their wedding night, which she immediately forgets because, well, he’s a man, but apparently sets Brent on a self-loathing kick. But it’s all off-screen and Lord’s characterization of Brent in the script doesn’t do enough for it either. He’s a jerk, but for unclear reasons. And since the film’s already established him as a dick, a jerk isn’t a long walk.

In a string of barely connected vignettes–Stanwyck getting to be a better farm homemaker, though she basically throws herself into it right off and is awesome at it–time progresses, winter arrives, Stanwyck becomes the community member Brent never did, so on and so forth. Finally Brent and Stanwyck have it out and then, through a very strange euphemism device (given how far the film’s willing to go–pre-code and all–in the first act and third, it’s weird how uncomfortable it gets for an implied big romance development), get on the same page.

Only then Talbot finally tracks down Stanwyck, coming simultaneous to Landau making a big move on Brent’s property, and it’s high drama time.

And it’s all bad high drama with Stanwyck working against the script to retain character and Brent just… giving up? What’s strangest about Brent’s performance is he actually starts as a good old egg. He’s a little weird, sheltered, but cute. That character disappears once he attacks Stanwyck. Then Brent acts like he’s in this “It’s a Husband’s Right” movie while Stanwyck and Wellman are making a “It’s not a Husband’s Right but She’ll Give Him a Second Chance” movie, while Lord’s script is setting up the slut shaming third act.

It’s weird. Because what Stanwyck and Wellman are doing works. Stanwyck makes the role work. Even with so little help from Brent, who’s not terrible he just has a godawful role. Meanwhile Talbot’s great and runs with the character. The idea of the New York society gangster fitting in at North Dakota bar? It’s a hoot. For the five or ten seconds the film lets Talbot do anything with it.

There’s some great direction from Wellman (along with some very weird direction), all of it with Sidney Hickox’s amazing cinematography. Even when Wellman makes a bad composition choice, Hickox’s photography makes it a good shot. When Wellman’s on, however, they’re all phenomenal shots. The desolate exterior shots are amazing (and way too brief) but so are the desolate exterior sound stage shots. Wellman gives Purchase Price a scale the script doesn’t deserve.

So it’s a ninety percent great role for Stanwyck, who’s fantastic and implies all the character development Lord skips over. It’s a ten percent great role for Brent, who’s tiresome by the time he’s pissed off about Talbot, which is way too early for him to be tiresome. Also, given he’s supposed to be sympathetic he should never get too tiresome. Brent’s character is the problem with Purchase Price. It’s not on him, not where Lord takes things.

Talbot’s great one hundred percent of the time.

Landau’s good as the lecherous farming rival, Murray Kinnell’s the effectively slimy henchman. He’s not in it much, then he gets important fast in the third act. Purchase Price needed another fifteen minutes. And a good script doctor.

Anyway. The rest of the supporting cast is fine. Anne Shirley almost stands out as a scared teenager Stanwyck bonds with. Victor Potel unfortunately does stand out as an in-bred yokal who gets way too much plotting relevance. The film’s take on the community changes, but then calls back Potel after it has. It’s really weird and bad choice. Though Lord makes so many of them, they blur.

The third act spills are a big disappointment, because the film was all set to pull it off. Then deus ex machina is practically a non sequitur and the film collapses. It’s a bummer. Stanwyck and Wellman did much better work than Price deserves.

And Talbot. And even Brent, who never got a chance.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by William A. Wellman; screenplay by Robert Lord, based on a story by Arthur Stringer; director of photography, Sidney Hickox; edited by William Holmes; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Barbara Stanwyck (Joan Gordon), George Brent (Jim Gilson), Lyle Talbot (Eddie Fields), David Landau (Bull McDowell), Murray Kinnell (Forgan), Hardie Albright (Don Leslie), Victor Potel (Clyde), Leila Bennett (Emily), Anne Shirley (Sarah Tipton – the Daughter), Adele Watson (Mrs. Sarah Tipton), Clarence Wilson and (Elmer, the Justice of the Peace).


Lawyer Man (1932, William Dieterle)

Lawyer Man is a tad too streamlined. It runs around seventy minutes, charting neighborhood attorney–meaning he works with ethnic types and not blue bloods–William Powell’s rise and fall from grace. At the end, he says something about the events taking place over two years, which the film accomplishes through a variety of narrative shortcuts, usually newspaper headlines. The second half of the film is a little too truncated; it plays like the budget ran out around the forty-five minute mark.

The film opens on the crowded streets of the East Side of Manhattan; Powell’s office is amid the Jewish theaters, the street markets, the hustle and bustle of the working folk. He’s got an admiring secretary (Joan Blondell) but he’s a skirt-chaser, which contributes to his eventual downfall. Something Blondell warns him about frequently.

By the second half of the film, when Powell’s made it, there’s no more exterior street scenes. It’s one office to another, usually with the same handful of cast members. After some wonderfully efficient setup, the plot proper kicks off with society lawyer Alan Dinehart offering Powell a partnership. Whenever Powell beats someone in court, they always want to be pals–he’s such a good lawyer they can’t help it. Unfortunately, part of the film’s efficiency is never showing any of the courtroom lawyering. Even when it’s Powell on trial.

Anyway. Powell and Blondell go uptown to a skyscraper office and a better class of clients. Powell’s still skirt-chasing, Blondell’s still obviously mooning over him (Powell’s unbelievable obliviousness to it is one of Lawyer Man’s failings), but they’re more successful. And then in walks Helen Vinson as Dinehart’s sister and a suitable marriage prospect for Powell. So the film’s now got Powell, Blondell, Vinson, and Dinehart in the mix as far as characters.

Immediately after Powell runs afoul of political fixer David Landau, Claire Dodd comes into the film. She’s a showgirl just jilted by society doctor (and Landau flunky) Kenneth Thomson. Since Lawyer Man is so streamlined, it only takes her about five minutes to have Powell wrapped around her finger. And about ten minutes until she’s helped get him into a bunch of hot water.

Powell’s got to scrap to stay afloat and he becomes a dirty opportunist, with only Blondell sticking by him. At this point, the film sheds pretty much everyone except Powell and Blondell–and shaves Blondell’s subplot off her–as Powell fights to regain his good name. Landau becomes a much bigger player, until he’s pretty much the only other billed actor who interacts with Powell by the final third.

Instead of character development, there’s a lot of summary and speeches from Powell. It’s masterfully done summary, sure, but it’s still just summary. The speeches are a little much. Dieterle sort of zones out during them. He’s really involved when it’s about Powell’s skirt-chasing (there are some great examples of pre-Code visual euphemisms in Lawyer Man too) and Dieterle does really well with the bigger sets. When it’s just the static offices and melodrama… he checks out. Not on the actors, however. Blondell and Powell maintain their charm throughout, even as their characters thin. Blondell’s not the only one who loses her subplots as things progress; Powell goes from a Tex Avery wolf to a practical monk by the end.

The supporting cast is all fine. Landau’s got the only significant part throughout. He’s good.

Lawyer Man’s a little too short, a little too slight. It needs just a little more time to bring its threads together. And to keep its threads in play.

But for a seventy-ish minute programmer? It’s pretty darn good. Great photography from Robert Kurrle and the film’s general sense of humor help.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by William Dieterle; screenplay by Rian James and James Seymour, based on the novel by Max Trell; director of photography, Robert Kurrle; edited by Thomas Pratt; music by Bernhard Kaun; produced by Hal B. Wallis; released by Warner Bros.

Starring William Powell (Anton Adam), Joan Blondell (Olga Michaels), David Landau (John Gilmurry), Helen Vinson (Barbara Bentley), Claire Dodd (Virginia St. Johns), Kenneth Thomson (Dr. Frank Gresham), Allen Jenkins (Izzy Levine), Ann Brody (Mrs. Levine), and Alan Dinehart (Granville Bentley).


Horse Feathers (1932, Norman Z. McLeod)

Horse Feathers finally finds its funny sometime in the second half. The film plays like the main plot has been removed and just a subplot remains, so it’s impressive it ever does. And when it does, it’s depressing–director McLeod and (wow, four) writers Bert Kalmar, Harry Ruby, S.J. Perelman, and Will B. Johnstone know how to do good set pieces. They just haven’t been.

Comedically, Horse Feathers turns around when Harpo and Chico go to kidnap rival college’s ringer football players Nat Pendleton and James Pierce. It’s a long, solid sequence–not without some of the standard Horse problems–but it’s way too little, way too late. Until that point, Horse Feathers might have skirted by on some mediocrity. Revealing it could be better timed, the actors could be paired off better; like I said, depressing.

Horse Feathers opens with Groucho Marx taking over a college. It’s a loser college–they took Groucho’s son, after all. Zeppo plays the son. It’s the worst part in the movie. Uncredited Pendleton makes far more of an impression. Even with Zeppo singing and having a long interest (Thelma Todd). Except, of course, “dad” Groucho steals her away from him. Or tries to.

Todd’s working for the rival college; David Landau plays the evil rival dean. Or something. I’m not sure it’s ever determined exactly what he does for the other college, as no one ever finds out he’s working for the rival college. Not even when he’s hanging around Groucho’s football team’s dressing room.

The plot is all about the football team. Zeppo tells Groucho the team has to be better and he should hire some ringers (Pendleton and Pierce). Except Landau hires them first. So Groucho instead hires Chico and Harpo. Chico’s a ice salesman slash bootlegger, Harpo is the dog catcher. Their introductions are good but not great. Harpo’s has a fun, longer physical intro with some actual plotting. They set up jokes and come back to finish them. The rest of Feathers doesn’t take that much time. Not even when it’s funny.

McLeod’s strange direction mars quite a bit of that first Harpo scene (and the rest of the film). He’s got no patience for the script. He can barely wait for the actors to deliver their lines before moving on. And his composition is distant. The first scene–Groucho addressing the students and faculty–turns into an impromptu musical number. Complete with dancing on the stage. McLeod directs it fine, though the effectiveness of Groucho doing a boring musical number first off is a Feathers red flag. After that first scene, McLeod all of a sudden forgets how to set up shots. Or just doesn’t want to bother taking the time. Horse Feathers somehow feels too rushed to even be stagy.

Todd has a great time, being courted by everyone–except Zeppo, after their first couple scenes together, Zeppo loses the girl. Harpo plays the harp for her, Chico plays the piano for her, Groucho letches her. During the first half, the best part about some scenes is seeing Todd trying to keep a straight face. Or at least not busting up entirely.

Horse Feathers has a really small cast. Besides the four brothers, only Todd and Landau get credited. After Pendleton and Pierce, there’s pretty much no one distinct in the cast. Groucho starts as the lead, but ends up without any significant comic sequences. He gets a canoe ride with Todd; it’s slight and funny and narratively pointless. And too short. Because McLeod’s in a hurry.

Harpo comes out best, overall. He at least gets good sequences throughout. The finale is the madcap football game, full of Marx Brothers antics. McLeod’s setups are fine for the big action, bad for the small. Harpo’s got a banana peel gag, which should kill; it doesn’t. Thanks to McLeod.

Horse Feathers needs a lot of work on the script, but it definitely needs someone interested in directing it. McLeod even botches Harpo’s harp scene. Harpo harp scenes are hard to botch.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Norman Z. McLeod; written by Bert Kalmar, Harry Ruby, S.J. Perelman, and Will B. Johnstone; director of photography, Ray June; music by John Leipold; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Groucho Marx (Professor Quincy Adams Wagstaff), Chico Marx (Baravelli), Harpo Marx (Pinky), Thelma Todd (Connie Bailey), Zeppo Marx (Frank Wagstaff), Nat Pendleton (MacHardie), James Pierce (Mullen), and David Landau (Jennings).


Thirteen Women (1932, George Archainbaud)

Thirteen Women runs just under an hour. A minute under an hour. There was pre-release cutting on the studio’s part. But with those fifty-nine minutes, director Archainbaud is still able to create one heck of a creepy film. The film’s not a mystery. It’s not even a thriller. It’s all gimmick, but it’s suspenseful all gimmick.

The story’s simple–Myrna Loy is an Anglo-Indian woman whose plans to assimilate into white culture were once dashed. To get her revenge, she enlists C. Henry Gordon’s questionably insightful mystic to terrorize her victims and to push them into suicide and worse.

The film opens with a couple of the victims, using their plight for exposition. Not the Loy backstory, which comes in later. It’s relevant throughout, however, because the most peculiar thing about Thirteen Women is how reasonable Loy’s villain comes across. When Irene Dunne, who’s one of the intended victims, argues with Loy about motivation… well, it’s a little strange to hear the two talking around white privilege back in a pre-code RKO thriller. It makes me interested in the source novel. Loy and Dunne basically split the runtime, but Loy’s got a far more dynamic character and part in the story. Dunne just has an annoying kid–Wally Albright, who looks at the camera way too much–and a fetching police detective, Ricardo Cortez.

Of course, Cortez describes Loy in slurs. It’s pre-code, sure, but it’s very weird. Cortez and Dunne’s bigotry doesn’t get heroic presentation. It doesn’t get negative, not until Dunne has to acknowledge her responsibility for it. Thirteen Women knows exactly what it’s doing, at least in terms of Loy’s story. Who knows if it’s from the studio cuts or just Bartlett Cormack and Samuel Ornitz’s screenplay, but the Dunne sections plod along. Dunne’s fine, but she has nothing to do. Everyone who acts opposite her gets more material. But then those characters just disappear because Thirteen Women does only run fifty-nine minutes and it features multiple action set pieces. It’s sensational and not just in its raciness. Archainbaud goes all out with the film.

Good performances from Loy and Dunne. Pretty good from Cortez. He’s lazy, but his scenes are pretty lazy too. He basically calls out for all the story’s actual detective work to be done; he’s fine at the exposition, but it’s all he’s got. Gordon’s awesome as the mystic. Jill Esmond’s fine as Dunne’s sidekick who disappears.

The film doesn’t have a natural narrative flow, except for Loy. It’s jerky with everything else. Archainbaud holds it together admirably, with nice technical support from cinematographer Leo Tover and editor Charles L. Kimball. Max Steiner’s score is outstanding.

So Thirteen Women has its problems, but it’s well-made, well-acted, reasonably charming and only fifty-nine minutes. It’s all right.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by George Archainbaud; screenplay by Barlett Cormack and Samuel Ornitz, based on the novel by Tiffany Thayer; director of photography, Leo Tover; edited by Charles L. Kimball; music by Max Steiner; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring Myrna Loy (Ursula Georgi), Irene Dunne (Laura Stanhope), Jill Esmond (Jo Turner), Ricardo Cortez (Police Sergeant Barry Clive), Wally Albright (Bobby Stanhope) and C. Henry Gordon (Swami Yogadachi).


Grand Hotel (1932, Edmund Goulding)

Grand Hotel opens with an expository sequence–director Goulding cuts between each of the film’s major players as they talk in the hotel’s telephone booths. It’s a brief, fantastic sequence, thanks to Goulding’s direction and William H. Daniels’s photography, but most importantly, Blanche Sewell’s editing. The editing of this sequence brings the viewer into the hotel, which never gets an establishing shot.

Goulding follows up that exposition with a scene in the lobby to get the present action started. There are two basic plot lines in Hotel, Greta Garbo as an unhappy ballet star and Wallace Beery as a industrial magnet down on his luck. Beery brings in a secretary (Joan Crawford) who meets a nice gentleman (John Barrymore) who is actually a hotel thief targeting Garbo. John Barrymore befriends Lionel Barrymore–their relationship in the film is consistently wonderful, anything with Lionel Barrymore (particularly he and Crawford), but the brothers Barrymore show off their talent quite a bit in their scenes together.

There’s romance, there’s tragedy, there’s humor. Lionel Barrymore and Crawford are the viewer’s way into the film–the problems of Garbo are entirely otherworldly while Beery’s such a creep no one would want to identify with him–and it turns out John Barrymore isn’t so foreign either.

Great acting, a fast script and simply wonderful filmmaking from Goulding, Daniels and Sewell. There’s a freshness and imagination not just to Goulding’s composition, but how he moves the camera around the actors.

Grand Hotel is a masterful, magnificent film.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Edmund Goulding; screenplay by William Absalom Drake, based on a novel by Vicki Baum; director of photography, William H. Daniels; edited by Blanche Sewell; music by Charles Maxwell; produced by Irving Thalberg; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Greta Garbo (Grusinskaya), John Barrymore (The Baron), Joan Crawford (Flaemmchen), Wallace Beery (General Director Preysing), Lionel Barrymore (Otto Kringelein), Jean Hersholt (the porter) and Lewis Stone (Doctor Otternschlag).


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The Mummy (1932, Karl Freund)

The Mummy is a strange horror movie. While there’s a definite villain–a monster–in Boris Karloff’s resurrected mummy, he poses a danger specifically to only one cast member–Zita Johann. She’s the reincarnation of his lost love and her exact importance to him isn’t clear until the last act. There’s a somewhat goofy moment where Edward Van Sloan, as Johann’s guardian and the closest thing to Karloff’s nemesis, reveals it all to David Manners (as Johann’s more appropriate suitor). Fortunately Van Sloan experiences the eureka moment just in time but not too early… otherwise the entire last act could have been avoided.

And the last act is the payoff of The Mummy. There are some excellent sequences throughout and Karloff is fantastic, but the last act is where Johann gets to toggle between a reincarnated Egyptian priestess finding herself in the 20th century and her initial character. It’s less than fifteen minutes of the runtime, but it’s awesome stuff. There’s an abrupt ending to the picture, but it has gotten the job done.

Van Sloan is reliable, Manners is likable–he and Johann’s initial flirtation scene is one of the film’s more successful ones between the couple. Arthur Byron is good as another Egyptologist.

John L. Balderston’s script has a lot of fine moments too, especially for Byron, as he comes to terms with meeting a reincarnated mummy.

As for Freund’s direction… it’s always good, but sometimes exceptional. Great editing from Milton Carruth too.

The Mummy is lean and successful. Rather good stuff.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Karl Freund; screenplay by John L. Balderston, based on a story by Nina Wilcox Putnam and Richard Schayer; director of photography, Charles J. Stumar; edited by Milton Carruth; music by James Dietrich; produced by Carl Laemmle Jr.; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Boris Karloff (Imhotep), Zita Johann (Helen Grosvenor), David Manners (Frank Whemple), Arthur Byron (Sir Joseph Whemple), Edward Van Sloan (Docter Muller), Bramwell Fletcher (Ralph Norton), Noble Johnson (The Nubian), Kathryn Byron (Frau Muller), Leonard Mudie (Professor Pearson) and James Crane (The Pharaoh).


The Old Dark House (1932, James Whale)

The Old Dark House is a strange film about strange people doing strange things. Director Whale and screenwriter Benn W. Levy rarely let the film get a set tone–unless one counts the consistent mix of comedy and horror. It’s not straight comedy; the comic elements tend to be either absurdly strange or pedestrian. Husband and wife Raymond Massey and Gloria Stuart bickering over his driving until the storm becomes too dangerous for an argument, for example.

Whale goes for peculiar horror elements–relying on his cast to be creepy enough in their performances sometimes, but other times utilizing for practical effects in scenes without a cast member having to do much. The editing, from Clarence Kolster, is spectacular. Whale often goes for a visceral reaction, like when Boris Karloff’s vicious manservant preys on Stuart.

But just like the mix of light comedy and horror, Whale and Levy take the time to deepen even Karloff’s character. All of the characters end up getting some depth, both the “regular” people and then the crazy family living in the titular house. The film’s both cynical and hopeful, with Lilian Bond’s chorus girl having an arrangement with industrialist Charles Laughton, but not one with expectations.

Because Laughton’s messed up, just like almost everyone in the film. Melvyn Douglas’s drunken, mildly broken World War I veteran is ostensible lead–it’s between him and Stuart–and the film subtly implies his problems.

It’s a deliberately, beautifully made, beautifully acted (Ernest Thesiger mesmerizes) film. Truly fantastic.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by James Whale; screenplay by Benn W. Levy and R.C. Sherriff, based on a novel by J.B. Priestley; director of photography, Arthur Edeson; edited by Clarence Kolster; produced by Carl Laemmle Jr.; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Boris Karloff (Morgan), Melvyn Douglas (Penderel), Charles Laughton (Sir William Porterhouse), Lilian Bond (Gladys), Ernest Thesiger (Horace Femm), Eva Moore (Rebecca Femm), Raymond Massey (Philip Waverton), Gloria Stuart (Margaret Waverton), Elspeth Dudgeon (Sir Roderick Femm) and Brember Wills (Saul Femm).


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