1934

Twentieth Century (1934, Howard Hawks)

Even with its way too abrupt finish, Twentieth Century is rare delight. Would it be more successful if the ending hadn’t wasted Carole Lombard? Yes, but also because it would’ve given lead John Barrymore more Lombard to act opposite and Barrymore’s best opposite Lombard. He’s amazing the whole time, but he’s best working with her. He aggravates him in just the right way. And, after time, she aggravates him in just the right way, which certainly hints at an amazing finish.

Sadly, no. Screenwriters Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur kind of choke on it, though no doubt some of the fault lies with director (and producer) Hawks.

Anyway. Done with the negative verbiage. On to the reverse.

The film opens with a stage production doing a rehearsal; it’s model Lombard’s first attempt at acting. The director, Charles Lane, and the theatre accountant, Walter Connolly, don’t think much of her. They think boss and Broadway wunderkind Barrymore just hired her because of her looks. Just before Barrymore arrives on stage to take over the film introduces Roscoe Karns as Barrymore’s drunkard newspaper stooge, who’s there to profile Lombard. For about ten minutes, it’s just Barrymore going nuts directing Lombard through the rehearsal. He’s mean (though not cruel), manipulative, rude, and utterly hilarious. Barrymore gnaws at the scene, practically snapping at the air over Lombard’s shoulders. The scene starts with them apart, ends with them intwined, Hawks and editor Gene Havlick really focusing on how the two actors pace off the other. The air is thick with chemistry.

Even if Lombard doesn’t quite realize it yet.

Because Barrymore’s not just interested in creating a successful contract player in Lombard, he’s looking for love. The “seduction” scene is where Barrymore goes from being a hilarious tyrant to a personable, hilarious tyrant. The film has three time frames. The first opens the film; Lombard and Barrymore getting together, realizing greater success because of their collaborations. Then three years later when things have hit the skids. Then another three years later, post-skids, with one far more successful than the other. That last part is the majority of the film. It’s also where the title comes in—they’re on the 20th Century Limited, on the way from Chicago to New York. The first two phases have a lot of Lombard and Barrymore together. There’s some more character establishing with the supporting cast, Connolly and Karns in particular, as they’re going to be very important in the third phase, but it’s all about Lombard and Barrymore. Second phase is mostly more about Lombard. It’s where she’s got to show all the changes in her character over the last three years; what being around Barrymore will do to an intimate partner as well as creative partner. It’s where Lombard gets to let loose almost as much as Barrymore.

Whenever the film’s Lombard or Barrymore, it’s that rare delight. Barrymore manages to get more eccentric by the third phase, set almost entirely on train, while Lombard finally gets to match him. Much of the film is spent either laughing or grinning while preparing to laugh again. Hecht and MacArthur’s script does a fantastic job building up jokes, particularly in the third section, particularly with troublesome train passenger Etienne Girardot. Girardot is a great C plot, which ties into the A plot, but also provides some real texture to the train. He gives the supporting cast something to focus on, giving them their own story arcs. The film is always bustling, as sometimes Lombard and Barrymore need to take a break. They’re both very busy; in character and performance.

Connolly and Karns get a bunch more to do in the third phase, as they’re trying to save Barrymore from himself, which means intruding on Lombard, who’s got her own things going on with fresh beau and stuffed shirt Ralph Forbes. At some point in the second half, it almost feels like Connolly and Karns’s movie. It doesn’t last for long, as they have to involve Barrymore in their activities, but then it becomes the Barrymore, Connolly, and Karns show. Lombard gets downgraded.

Just as the film finally starts remedying Lombard’s reduced station and bringing her back up, giving her some great scenes with Barrymore, the movie stops. Maybe Hecht and MacArthur ran out of ideas to give Barrymore and Lombard something to riff on, but the film needs just a little more. Five minutes maximum. It’s not like Lombard or Barrymore give any signs of slowing, even as Connolly and Karns are literally passing out by this time.

But it’s a magnificent ride to that abrupt finish. And it works, it just doesn’t transcend.

Good editing from Havlick, good photography from Joseph H. August, excellent direction from Hawks. Barrymore and Lombard are wondrous. Twentieth Century is awesome.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Howard Hawks; screenplay by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, based on a play by Charles Bruce Millholland; director of photography, Joseph H. August; edited by Gene Havlick; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring John Barrymore (Oscar Jaffe), Carole Lombard (Mildred Plotka), Walter Connolly (Oliver Webb), Roscoe Karns (Owen O’Malley), Ralph Forbes (George Smith), Charles Lane (Max Jacobs), and Etienne Girardot (Matthew J. Clark).



The Black Cat (1934, Edgar G. Ulmer)

The Black Cat has a lot going on. It’s the story of two American honeymooners–David Manners and Julie Bishop–who, for whatever reason, decide Hungary is better than Niagara Falls. It’s also the story of a recently freed Hungarian soldier Bela Lugosi, who went into the war a happily married psychiatrist, only to lose his family after being imprisioned for fifteen years. Finally, it’s the story of Boris Karloff’s Austrian “architect,” who used to command Lugosi’s regiment, but sold them out to the Russians so he could escape to run off with Lugosi’s wife. Oh, and Karloff’s a big Satanic priest. Because the Austrians are Satanists and the Hungarians are either cute or loyal.

Aside from Karloff’s satanism? He kills women and keeps them hung up, preserved, in his dungeon. He built his giant, Art Deco house atop the fortress he betrayed to the Russians.

Through coincidence, Manners and Bishop find themselves in Lugosi’s questionable–but generally benevolent–company. Through bad luck, they find themselves part of Lugosi’s quest to avenge himself upon Karloff. Only Lugosi doesn’t even know how much avenging he’s going to need to do upon Karloff. He’s only got a rough idea.

Most of Ulmer’s direction is excellent. The first act has this shaky camerawork–“courtesy” cameraman John J. Mescall–but eventually those hiccups stop. He does pretty well with the actors. Bishop doesn’t have much to do except scream and pass out from fear, but she’s effective. Manners is in the awkward spot of not being the lead, but looking like he ought to be the lead. Meanwhile, actual lead Lugosi gets a character arc he chaffs against; while Peter Ruric’s script doesn’t favor anyone, Lugosi gets the harshest treatment.

The script’s rather xenophobic–look at these strange Eastern Europeans with their Satanism and so on–and Lugosi gets caught in a lot of it. Otherwise, he’s beyond sympathetic. His nemesis isn’t just a traitor, he’s a traitor who stole his family, murders random women to embalm, and is a Satanic priest.

In that part, Karloff’s okay, not much more. He looks the part–though the height difference between him and Lugosi (Lugosi’s much taller) is disconcerting. Lugosi does better. He doesn’t do great–he suffers from intense ailurophobia (fear of cats) and Karloff has apparently an endless supply of black cats around to creep Lugosi out.

The set design is a big deal, with the Art Deco house overpowering the boring dungeon. Maybe because the dungeon seems too cramped and its geography is confusing, but not in a good way. The third act takes place almost entirely in the dungeon, which doesn’t help things; it’s also when all the character problems and incongruities come to a head.

Solid editing from Ray Curtiss, especially during the first act and then the Satanic ritual. Great music from Heinz Roemheld.

The Black Cat runs just over an hour. Its present action is a day and a half or so. It shouldn’t slog but it does. The setup of the characters then of Karloff and his nightmare house (despite it being bright and Art Deco) all goes well. But Manners and Bishop’s parts get reduced a little too much in the second half; Karloff getting more to do isn’t better. He’s effective at being threatening but there’s not a lot of danger in the script. It’s too spare. There are only four real characters. It can’t spare them.

The film’s pre-Code, so the Hays Code can’t be blamed for the finish, just common morality. Still, The Black Cat’s a reasonable success, with some excellent moments for Lugosi in particular. And Ulmer’s direction can carry it. Most of the time.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Edgar G. Ulmer; screenplay by Peter Ruric, based on a story by Ulmer and Ruric; edited by Ray Curtiss; music by Heinz Roemheld; produced by Carl Laemmle Jr.; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Bela Lugosi (Dr. Vitus Werdegast), Julie Bishop (Joan Alison), David Manners (Peter Alison), Egon Brecher (The Majordomo), Harry Cording (Thamal), and Boris Karloff (Hjalmar Poelzig).


Tarzan and His Mate (1934, Cedric Gibbons)

For a film called Tarzan and His Mate, Johnny Weissmuller’s Tarzan doesn’t get much to do. He spends the film rescuing Maureen O’Sullivan (which is one of the more frustrating aspects of the film–she doesn’t exhibit any jungle survival skills until the finale) from a variety of animals. These sequences are often exciting, especially since the film doesn’t have any music. It’s just the sound of the jungle battle, expertly cut together by editor Tom Held.

The film opens with Neil Hamilton and Paul Cavanagh as ivory hunters mounting an expedition. Hamilton’s O’Sullivan’s ex, Cavanagh is his blue blood gone poor best friend. Cavanagh’s delightfully scummy, though director Gibbons makes the audience sorry for enjoying it once they meet up with Weissmuller and O’Sullivan.

O’Sullivan’s been living in wild Africa for a year (since the previous film) and she’s left the world of high society and so on. She runs around the jungle in skimpy (but functional) attire and, after spending at least twenty minutes objectifying O’Sullivan (from Cavanagh and Hamilton’s perspective, the film’s actually rather complex in how it presents her), Gibbons is able to get over it to some degree. He and O’Sullivan (and Weissmuller) sell it. Maybe the nude swimming scene just overwhelms enough.

Except then O’Sullivan (and Weissmuller) fall out of the plot and the excellent wildlife effects take over.

Neither the finish (or her scripted helplessness) do justice to O’Sullivan’s performance. Its handling of the extant sexuality, however, is as impressive as its action.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Cedric Gibbons; screenplay by Howard Emmett Rogers, Leon Gordon and James Kevin McGuinness, based on characters created by Edgar Rice Burroughs; directors of photography, Charles G. Clarke and Clyde De Vinna; edited by Tom Held; produced by Bernard H. Hyman; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Johnny Weissmuller (Tarzan), Maureen O’Sullivan (Jane Parker), Neil Hamilton (Harry Holt), Paul Cavanagh (Martin Arlington), Nathan Curry (Saidi) and Forrester Harvey (Beamish).


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The Hearts of Age (1934, Orson Welles and William Vance)

The Hearts of Age is a funny short film. It’s weird funny, but it’s also funny funny. The weird has these grotesquely made up people–the film centers on an old woman, sitting on a bell, being pulled from below by this servant (in blackface). People pass her, going down these stairs. She watches them.

Then the creepiest of the creepy people shows up and convinces the servant to kill himself.

All the while, directors Welles and Vance cut all around–lots of forced symbolism (the bells, the bells), but the cutting is done to emphasis the obvious strangeness, not focus the viewer on the implied uncanny. It’s like the directors don’t want to have to try too hard with the symbolism.

The end has the action changed to the creepiest man by himself. And it’s when the humor starts coming through. The final sequence is a gag even.

Weird.

3/3Highly Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Orson Welles and William Vance; written by Welles; director of photography, Vance; produced by Vance.

Starring Orson Welles (Death), Virginia Nicholson (Old woman / Keystone Kop), William Vance (Indian in blanket) and Edgerton Paul (Bell-ringer).


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Brute Wanted (1934, Charles Barrois)

Quite a bit of Brute Wanted is rather funny. The whole idea is funny–dimwitted, failing actor (Jacques Tati) goes for an audition and it turns out he’s agreeing to wrestle a musclebound Russian grotesque. Tati’s got a nagging wife (Hélène Pépée) who also manages him.

A lot of the short is spent on the fight promoters. Tati and co-writer Alfred Sauvy exercise brevity with their exposition when it comes to Pépée and Tati’s situation so the fight promotion scenes just go too long. And so does the wrestling match, with Tati hilariously trying to avoid his opponent.

Barrois’s direction is never on par with the script’s humor, but it’s usually adequate. In the wrestling match, not so much. Barrois loses track of Tati, who’s holding Brute together, and spends it on his scheming friend, played by Rhum.

These problems are tolerable. But the final joke? Cruel and unfunny.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Charles Barrois; written by Jacques Tati and Alfred Sauvy; music by Marcel Landowski.

Starring Jacques Tati (Mr. Roustabat), Hélène Pépée (Mrs. Roustabat), Rhum (Mr. Mérandol) and Kola Kwariani (Krotov the Tartar).


The Thin Man (1934, W.S. Van Dyke)

While enough cannot be said about the efficiency of W.S. Van Dyke’s direction of the The Thin Man, the efficiency of the script deserves an equal amount of praise. Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich get in so much little character stuff for the supporting cast, it’s hard to imagine how the film could possibly function without it. Robert Kern’s editing is essential for it to work too–the pace of reaction shots is fabulous.

Of course, the script’s structure is also peculiar. Until their second big scene–their first one alone–William Powell and Myrna Loy aren’t the leads of the story. Instead, it’s Maureen O’Sullivan. She starts out the film and it then moves to introduce various people into her story. Even at the end, after O’Sullivan has long since given up the primary supporting role to Nat Pendleton’s police inspector, she’s still integral.

From Powell and Loy’s first scene, their chemistry commands the film. The script has the banter, but it’s the way the actors play off each other (under Van Dyke’s able direction). Also wonderful is how the intercuts of their dog enhances the scenes. Van Dyke cuts to these reaction shots of Asta the terrier and it makes the viewer feel part of this peculiar family.

It’s important too, since much of the film takes place in Powell and Loy’s hotel suite.

The leads are great, the supporting cast is excellent–Edward Brophy, Harold Huber, Minna Gombell, Porter Hall being the standouts.

The Thin Man’s a masterpiece; it’s brilliant filmmaking.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by W.S. Van Dyke; screenplay by Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich, based on the novel by Dashiell Hammett; director of photography, James Wong Howe; edited by Robert Kern; music by William Axt; produced by Hunt Stromberg; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring William Powell (Nick), Myrna Loy (Nora), Maureen O’Sullivan (Dorothy), Nat Pendleton (Guild), Minna Gombell (Mimi), Porter Hall (MacCaulay), Henry Wadsworth (Tommy), William Henry (Gilbertt), Harold Huber (Nunheim), Cesar Romero (Chris), Natalie Moorhead (Julia Wolf), Edward Brophy (Morelli), Cyril Thornton (Tanner) and Edward Ellis (Clyde Wynant).


Murder on the Blackboard (1934, George Archainbaud)

As its title suggests, Murder on the Blackboard concerns a murder in a school, specifically an elementary school. Only one student appears; Blackboard concentrates on the rather shady goings-ons of the staff. There’s a drunk janitor, a lecherous principal, not to mention a love triangle between teachers. And, one mustn’t forget, Edna May Oliver’s Ms. Withers.

Blackboard is the second in the Withers and Piper (James Gleason) series, though it’s not a direct sequel to the first. Here, Oliver and Gleason bicker and flirt in their charming and funny cantankerous people of a certain age way, but without any relationship development.

Willis Goldbeck’s script has a great structure, which makes Blackboard sail along–ably assisted by the aforementioned bickering. It’s a full ten minutes before Oliver even appears, as Blackboard establishes not just the suspects, but the possible victims, and then it’s a real-time investigation for a while once Gleason shows up. Archainbaud’s direction is okay, though he apparently didn’t give Archie Marshek enough material for smooth cutting. Nicholas Musuraca’s photography–Blackboard almost entirely takes place in the school–is real nice.

There supporting cast is competent, but they don’t make much impression after those first ten minutes. Bruce Cabot, Gertrude Michael and Barbara Fritchie are the teacher love triangle; Cabot’s easily the best of the three. Tully Marshall’s amusing as the principal, particularly opposite Oliver.

Oliver, Gleason and Goldbeck produce an excellent diversion. They distract from the mystery’s lack of mysteriousness for nearly the entire running time.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by George Archainbaud; screenplay by Willis Goldbeck, based on the story by Stuart Palmer; director of photography, Nicholas Musuraca; edited by Archie Marshek; music by Bernhard Kaun and Max Steiner; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring Edna May Oliver (Hildegarde Withers), James Gleason (Inspector Oscar Piper), Bruce Cabot (Ad Stevens), Gertrude Michael (Jane Davis), Barbara Fritchie (Louise Halloran), Tully Marshall (Mr. MacFarland), Frederick Vogeding (Otto Schweitzer), Regis Toomey (Detective Smiley North), Edgar Kennedy (Detective Donahue) and Jackie Searl (Leland Stanford Jones).


Black Moon (1934, Roy William Neill)

Before getting into all the great things about Black Moon, I need to talk about the racism. There’s the general thirties racism, with the black sidekick (Clarence Muse) being constantly cartoonish. But the film’s entire plot is racist–it’s about a Caribbean island full of voodoo cult natives who’ve brainwashed a white woman (Dorothy Burgess). According to Moon, American blacks are fine. The Caribbean ones? Unthinkably savage. Oh, and the Black in the title? Veiled reference to Burgess being a race traitor.

Those incredibly uncomfortable elements aside, the film’s beautifully made and often wonderfully acted. Jack Holt plays Burgess’s husband, who has no idea his wife is a sleeper agent for a voodoo cult. Holt’s excellent in the leading role; he and Muse do quite well together.

Cora Sue Collins plays Holt and Burgess’s daughter. She’s excellent too.

Burgess has the most difficult role and has ups and downs, but hits an incredible high point near the end.

As Holt’s adoring secretary, Fay Wray has almost nothing to do. She’s okay, but her character doesn’t belong in the script. Logically speaking, Muse’s character should have gotten that time.

The film’s weakest performance is Arnold Korff. He’s never able to sell the plot twists and revelations. But he’s not bad, just not on par with the others.

Technically speaking, Neill’s direction, Joseph H. August’s photography and Louis Silvers’s score make Moon an exceptional picture. The final sequence is unexpected and masterful.

The racism damages Moon, but it still deserves a look.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Roy William Neill; screenplay by Wells Root, based on a story by Clements Ripley; director of photography, Joseph H. August; edited by Richard Cahoon; music by Louis Silvers; produced by Harry Cohn; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Jack Holt (Stephen Lane), Fay Wray (Gail Hamilton), Dorothy Burgess (Juanita Perez Lane), Cora Sue Collins (Nancy Lane), Arnold Korff (Dr. Raymond Perez), Clarence Muse (‘Lunch’ McClaren), Eleanor Wesselhoeft (Anna, the nursemaid), Madame Sul-Te-Wan (Ruva), Laurence Criner (Kala, the priest), Lumsden Hare (John Macklin) and Henry Kolker (The Psychiatrist).


Oliver the Eighth (1934, Lloyd French)

Watching Oliver Hardy muddle through Oliver the Eighth‘s terrible dialogue makes one wonder if the short truly did not have a writer–there isn’t one credited–or if the actors just made it up on the spot.

Given the rampant stupidity in Eighth, the latter seems more likely.

The short’s idiotic “writing” hampers it more than enough and director French’s ineptitude just makes the viewing experience work. Eighth concerns Hardy and Stan Laurel ending up locked in a house with a murderous widow and her nutty butler. The butler, played by Jack Barty, is mildly amusing at times, making him the only good thing in Eighth.

In order for the plot to work Hardy and Laurel have to be incredibly stupid and incredibly passive. The short opens with them owning a barber shop. It isn’t believable they could get to a job, much less own a business.

Eighth is awful.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Lloyd French; director of photography, Art Lloyd; edited by Bert Jordan; produced by Hal Roach; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Stan Laurel (Stan), Oliver Hardy (Oliver), Mae Busch (Mrs. Fox) and Jack Barty (Jitters the Butler).


The Goddess of Spring (1934, Wilfred Jackson)

The Goddess of Spring is the story of Persephone and Pluto. She’s the Goddess of Spring, he’s the Lord of the Underworld. He kidnaps her, life on Earth gets very cold.

The cartoon’s striking because of the movement. It’s hard to describe the animation. The figures are problematic (Persephone doesn’t have working elbows) but the movement is just beautiful.

So Goddess succeeds more in parts than a whole. No one seems particularly concerned making the story make sense. I got it was about the Lord of Hades, I got it was mythological, but the details all came from Googling. There are also these annoying little guys who worship Persephone who just sit and freeze while she’s away. Pluto’s got a bunch of active little devil guys.

Goddess would probably work better, especially with Kenny Baker’s weak narration, without any narrative. Just idyllic scenes and music.

It’d make more sense too.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Wilfred Jackson; animated by Art Babbitt, Les Clark, Dick Huemer and Hamilton Luske; music by Leigh Harline; produced by Walt Disney; released by United Artists.

Starring Kenny Baker (Singing Narrator) and Tudor Williams (Pluto).


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