1937

Lonesome Ghosts (1937, Burt Gillett)

The animation in Lonesome Ghosts is so exquisite, it seems impossible the narrative could screw it up. Though, when the cartoon moves into a haunted house from this amazing outdoor scene, I suppose the possibility is there.

The cartoon is Mickey, Donald and Goofy as ghost hunters. They run into trouble with these four ghosts—who are strangely androgynous—and the problems arise from the protagonists getting a fair split of screen time.

Mickey has a fine encounter, but then Donald’s isn’t just short… it’s dumb. The animation is still great—maybe even better in Donald’s section—but the content is so tedious, the cartoon takes a severe quality dip.

But nothing could prepare for the tediousness of the Goofy segment. It’s not just stupid, it’s lazy. Worse, it’s the longest of the three segments.

After Goofy’s done, there’s really no way for Ghosts to recover.

Still, the animation’s glorious….

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Burt Gillett; written by Dick Friel; animated by Art Babbitt, Rex Cox, Clyde Geronimi, Dick Huemer, Milt Kahl, Isadore Klein, Ed Love, Bob Wickersham, Dick Williams, Don Williams and Marvin Woodward; music by Albert Hay Malotte; produced by Walt Disney; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring Walt Disney (Mickey Mouse), Clarence Nash (Donald Duck), Billy Bletcher (Short Ghost) and Pinto Colvig (Goofy).


A Night at the Movies (1937, Roy Rowland)

A Night at the Movies opens with Robert Benchley in a domestic situation (Betty Ross Clarke does a fine job playing his wife). They’re trying to figure out what movie to go see. It’s a gently amusing scene—each has seen movies without the other so they’re trying to agree on an unseen one. It’s almost more interesting in a historical sense—did people really see so many movies or is Movies just, you know, advertising going to the movies.

But then they get to the theater and it takes a turn. The humor’s more absurdist (but still realistic), with Clarke now the wife whose husband can’t stop embarrassing himself in public. It’s incredibly funny—Benchley’s great, bumbling but still sympathetic amid the rude theater employees and moviegoers.

Rowland does a great job with composition, but the editing lacks any rhythm.

Benchley’s grounding makes the short’s outlandish final joke work.

2/3Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Roy Rowland; written by Robert Benchley, Robert Lees and Frederic I. Rinaldo; produced by Jack Chertok; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Robert Benchley (Husband) and Betty Ross Clarke (Wife).


Return of the Scarlet Pimpernel (1937, Hanns Schwarz)

As Return of the Scarlet Pimpernel enters its third act, there’s this startling suggestion… one of the good guys has been sleeping with Robespierre to get in his good graces. I’m unaware of such an overt implication in any Hollywood films of 1937.

Unfortunately, that singularity is about all Pimpernel has going for it. Otherwise, it’s substandard adventure fare, with Barry K. Barnes’s Pimpernel coming off as one of the stupider screen heroes. If he were actually observant, the film’s plot line would have run out after thirty minutes.

Some of the problem is the script–the three screenwriters frequently create minor crises to be resolved in a couple scenes, just to perturb the plot. It’s melodrama at its worst.

Barnes is fantastic when he’s supposed to be playing a dandy who prefers playing in a clubhouse with his male friends (they’re trying to save France from Robespierre). However, when he’s playing opposite wife Sophie Stewart… he’s a lot less convincing. Stewart’s all right, certainly better than Barnes, but never particularly good. Her affection for Barnes is never believable, regardless of his much-lauded but never shown heroism (his titular Return is only to save her).

James Mason’s small role occasionally shows his ability, but not often.

On the other hand, villain Francis Lister is frequently fantastic, playing the only well-written character in the entire film.

Schwarz’s direction is on the weak side of mediocre. He speeds up the film for action sequences, which looks silly (especially with Barnes).

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Hanns Schwarz; screenplay by Lajos Biró, Adrian Brunel and Arthur Wimperis, based on the novel by Baroness Emmuska Orczy; director of photography, Mutz Greenbaum; edited by Philip Charlot; music by Arthur Benjamin; produced by Arnold Pressburger; released by United Artists.

Starring Barry K. Barnes (Sir Percy Blakeney), Sophie Stewart (Marguerite Blakeney), Margaretta Scott (Theresa Cobarrus), James Mason (Jean Tallien), Francis Lister (Chauvelin), Anthony Bushell (Sir Andrew Ffoulkes), Patrick Barr (Lord Hastings), David Tree (Lord Harry Denning), John Counsell (Sir John Selton) and Henry Oscar (Maximilien de Robespierre).


Double Wedding (1937, Richard Thorpe)

Much of Double Wedding–around two-thirds of it–is a supreme comedy. It might feature William Powell’s best comedic performance, just because of the limitless opportunity it offers him. It’s hard to top Powell in a fur coat and a fake wig… with a German accent (and a walking stick). Or Powell going through a big demonstration of how sidekick John Beal should win back his fiancée (who’s now in love with Powell). A crowd gathers to watch Powell and Beal and it’s the most natural thing–who wouldn’t want to watch Powell in this film.

The script gives him a lot of freedom–his character is revealed (a little) throughout, so there’s very little constraint on him. For whatever reason, I wouldn’t have thought Powell could have done the Peter Pan bohemian painter but he does it great. Double Wedding even makes a joke at expense of the dignified characters he more often portrayed in a spectacular little scene.

There’s a lot of dialogue in Double Wedding, which is probably not from the source play (given it was probably written in Hungarian). The actors have some lengthy deliveries–starting with Myrna Loy’s hilarious explanation of how she’s related to Beal. It’s so confusing, it’s hard not to see the connections drawing out in the mind’s eye… just to keep up with Loy, whose delivery is wonderful. But Beal and Powell also have some long monologues and both are a joy to watch.

Beal’s character, quiet and reserved, gets these great situations–often when he’s got to explain why he’s acting passive, but the ones where he nears his boiling point are funny too. He has good chemistry with the object of his affections, played by Florence Rice. So it’s too bad when she disappears a third into the film, since Powell’s got Loy to romance, not her. It’s hard to even remember Rice is around, especially during some of the sequences with Sidney Toler, as Loy’s dimwitted butler who fancies himself a detective and spies on Powell for her. Powell gets the aforementioned beard from Toler, who’s trailing him in disguise.

The various absurdities in Double Wedding–along with a couple convenient revelations–create a fanciful atmosphere. It’s like the film anticipates what the viewer wants to see happen and delivers. Loy and Powell, for instance, have a romantic scene in the forest and it turns comedic at just the right moment–and then the film doesn’t stick with it too long, director Thorpe gets out at the ideal moment.

I’m sure I’ve seen other films of Thorpe’s before, but his direction here is very impressive. He knows how to use the actors well, even when it’s as simple as walking across a room or glancing into a mirror. And Thorpe manages to keep the rather large and out of control conclusion together, which is a significant feat.

The ending is where Double Wedding falls apart. It relies on standard comedy pacing instead of doing its own thing, it follows the standards instead of writing them–the first two-thirds is unlike anything else and the last third is extremely comfortable. The film stops before the story’s done, but also before the viewer is ready for it to be over. The tedious final act, with its paltry pay-off, is okay… however, the film raised expectations much higher.

And I can’t forget Loy. The third act really fails her, in terms of material. She becomes a fifth wheel in her own film.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Richard Thorpe; screenplay by Jo Swerling, based on a play by Ferenc Molnár; director of photography, William H. Daniels; edited by Frank Sullivan; music by Edward Ward; produced by Joseph L. Mankiewicz; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring William Powell (Charlie Lodge), Myrna Loy (Margit Agnew), Florence Rice (Irene Agnew), John Beal (Waldo Beaver), Jessie Ralph (Mrs. Kensington-Bly), Edgar Kennedy (Spike), Sidney Toler (Mr. Keough), Mary Gordon (Mrs. Keough), Barnett Parker (Mr. Flint), Katharine Alexander (Claire Lodge), Priscilla Lawson (Felice) and Bert Roach (Shrank).


The Grand Illusion (1937, Jean Renoir)

I can’t figure out who Renoir had in mind when he made Grand Illusion. It goes without saying he placed incredible trust in his audience, but his expectations are somewhat beyond anything else I’ve seen. Grand Illusion is a film with events–momentous, important events–but they pass without comment, without any recognition or identification. The events tend to be big enough the viewer can recognize them, but Renoir’s characters either process them offscreen or silently.

There are some obvious examples, like the one officer sacrificing himself so others can escape and it never once being acknowledged. When he comes up again, the escapees immediately stop talking about him (in fear of it being a downer of a conversation). Renoir fills the film with moments of unstated significance, but he takes it to a technical, storytelling level too. In one scene, characters get on a train, there’s a long montage of shots presumably from the train windows, followed by a new place with the characters arriving. Except over a year has passed and the characters have been in multiple other prison camps in the missing months and the viewer doesn’t even find out about it for five minutes into this new section. It manages to be confusing without disorienting–I’ve seen the film twice before and it still threw me for a little loop.

Since Grand Illusion, many war films have used a fractured narrative with style-heavy tactics to comment on war’s disorder. But these films tend to do it visually. I’m not aware of any other war film with Grand Illusion‘s approach–Renoir doesn’t say anything to the viewer, doesn’t request any participation from the viewer, doesn’t encourage him or her to engage with the material. Instead, Renoir tells the story in a way indifferent to the audience. All fiction exists in some state without reader interaction, but Grand Illusion is one of the few completely disinterested in what that interaction might generate. It’s kind of crazy, I suppose, but it works and Renoir knows it does.

The cast–Jean Gabin, Julien Carette, Marcel Dalio, Pierre Fresnay, Erich von Stroheim–is perfect. In the first part of the film, Renoir relies a great deal on Carette for humor, while weighing Gabin done (Gabin can, of course, handle it). The second part relies greatly on the relationships between Fresnay and von Stroheim and Fresnay and Gabin. Fresnay and von Stroheim are two aristocratic officers, leftovers from the previous century, whose kinship is the only one Renoir points out. Gabin and Fresnay, who’ve been together the entire film, don’t have that connection. Their scenes in this stage, where they process the significance of class in modern warfare, are somewhat tragic and glorious.

The last part of the film, with German widow Dita Parlo taking in Gabin and company, is probably Grand Illusion at it’s most traditional. It shouldn’t feel like an organic progression, but does. Renoir doesn’t exactly talk about the things he hasn’t been able to mention in the other sections; he shows them instead. For the first time in the film since the first scene, Gabin plays the leading man. First-billed, he’s rarely the most important person in the film. His scenes with Parlo, which–again–should be Grand Illusion at its most awkward or weakest, are wonderful. Renoir handles them gently, tragically hopeful. Along with the film’s final scene, they make Grand Illusion nearly optimistic.

Orson Welles called this film the one he’d save. It makes sense.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Jean Renoir; written by Charles Spaak and Renoir; director of photography, Christian Matras; edited by Marthe Huguet and Marguerite Renoir; music by Joseph Kosma; produced by Albert Pinkovitch and Frank Rollmer; released by Réalisation d’art cinématographique.

Starring Jean Gabin (Lt. Maréchal), Dita Parlo (Elsa), Pierre Fresnay (Capt. de Boeldieu), Erich von Stroheim (Capt. von Rauffenstein), Julien Carette (Cartier), Georges Péclet (le serrurier), Werner Florian (Sgt. Arthur), Jean Dasté (the teacher), Sylvain Itkine (Lt. Demolder), Gaston Modot (the engineer) and Marcel Dalio (Lt. Rosenthal).


Silver Blaze (1937, Thomas Bentley)

Given Sherlock Holmes is an English creation, I thought Silver Blaze would be a solid, thoughtful portrayal of the Empire’s most famous son. He’s still the most famous, right? But it isn’t. Silver Blaze actually follows the Marx Brothers rule of giving the romantic leads more to do. Here it’s Judy Gunn and Arthur Macrae. He’s a wealthy young man with a gambling problem, she’s the young heiress who loves him (and forgives that gambling problem once she finds out about it). The romance isn’t compelling, nor are their troubles, but they’re film standards. It’s exactly what one would expect from a couple of their position. The unexpected diversion is the lengthy sequence laying out the scene of the crime before it happens. It goes on and on–and all of it is wasted time, as Holmes’s eventual solution reveals.

But these scenes are at least interesting. Is Macrae the killer, will Gunn accept him, will they find happiness? Those three questions are infinitely more interesting than what Holmes does in the film. And the long scene with the trainer’s household is good stuff. The British approach to Holmes, however, appears to turn him into a serial hero–complete with a supervillain (Lyn Harding) who has a secret hide-out. It’s Sherlock Holmes for kiddies, the Saturday morning crowd, which is fine if it’s how the entire film’s set-up… but Silver Blaze doesn’t start out so insipid.

There are some fantastic sequences from the filmmaking standpoint. The British filmmakers of the 1930s had a definite style and Silver Blaze does feature some of it. The scenes on the moor–though obviously on a set, it’s detailed in such a way to defy the viewer to disbelieve it. Unfortunately, the location scenes poorly mesh with the studio-shot outdoors scenes and it gives Blaze a frequently disjointed feel. There are also some great camera moves, which make up for director Bentley’s overuse of the indoors long shot–the actors having no idea what to do with their hands, particularly Ian Fleming as Dr. Watson (but the awkward hands are the least of Fleming’s performance’s problems). But there’s good sound design too, which is nice and effective… until it all comes apart.

Once Silver Blaze solves the original story and gets to the added elements (Harding as Professor Moriarty), it goes to pieces. With the exception of Sherlock Holmes making untoward comments to his housekeeper, there’s nothing good in the last ten minutes of the film–and a lot happens in the last ten minutes.

As Holmes, Arthur Wontner is middling. He can deliver the lines, but he never seems very smart. And he gets real annoying with all the catchphrases, which are the script’s fault, but something about Wontner’s delivery makes them even more annoying. Fleming is useless as Watson. Harding’s performance seems to be the basis for the Hamburgler. The supporting cast is mediocre, but generally fine.

The film’s compelling as a seventy-minute diversion–though I suppose if one knows the solution to the crime, there isn’t much to see. It’s never terrible until the end, when it just keeps getting worse and worse.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Thomas Bentley; screenplay by H. Fowler Mear and Arthur Macrae, based on the story by Arthur Conan Doyle; director of photography, Sydney Blythe; edited by Michael C. Chorlton and Alan Smith; produced by Julius Hagen; released by Associated British Picture Corporation.

Starring Arthur Wontner (Sherlock Holmes), Ian Fleming (Dr. Watson), Lyn Harding (Prof. Moriarty), John Turnbull (Inspector Lestrade), Robert Horton (Col. Ross), Lawrence Grossmith (Sir Henry Baskerville), Judy Gunn (Diana Baskerville), Arthur Macrae (Jack Trevor), Arthur Goullet (Col. Moran), Martin Walker (James Straker), Eve Gray (Mrs. Straker), Gilbert Davis (Miles Stanford), Minnie Rayner (Mrs. Hudson), D.J. Williams (Silas Brown) and Ralph Truman (Bert Prince).


Scroll to Top