1929

The Cocoanuts (1929, Robert Florey and Joseph Santley)

The only stand-out sequence in The Cocoanuts comes at the end, when Chico is playing the piano. One of the directors–or both of them–finally had a good instinct and cut to a close-up of Chico’s hands playing. It overrides the first shot of the piano playing, which doesn’t show Chico’s hands at all and barely his expressions; the second shot has hand and expression, so it’s fine. But that close-up is a real surprise, given there’s nothing else impressive as far as the directing goes in The Cocoanuts.

Well, except maybe the emphasis on the dancers’ legs. Directors Florey and Santley can’t figure out depth of field for any other shots, but they sure can when there are dancers’ legs in frame. It’s a little gaudy and more than a little sensational, but it’s competently executed gaudy and sensational.

Otherwise, there’s no competent execution direction in the film. The Cocoanuts’ directors waver between middling and medicore.

The film’s able to coast on the Marx Brothers–and villains Cyril Ring and Kay Francis–into the third act. It gets really long at times (it doesn’t even show a pulse until Harpo and Chico show up twenty minutes in) and musical romantic leads Oscar Shaw and Mary Eaton have a distressing lack of chemistry, but it gets there. Even with Chico and Harpo stuck having to play off Basil Ruysdael’s stuffed shirt detective. Even with Groucho looking visibly bored during some of his monologues, which are usually poorly edited and directed without any energy. Even with Zeppo–top-billed of the Brothers–having four scenes and getting blocked out in most of the third act.

I mean, the back of an extra’s head blocking him out does mean he doesn’t have to look bored during the nonsensical wedding announcement party Margaret Dumont is throwing for daughter Eaton. It’s a gaucho-themed party, though some of the female guests are wearing gowns with crinolines (dome-shaped gowns). The party’s got to be a delight to dissect for costume and production designers.

Cocoanuts takes place in Florida, with Groucho a hotel manager and would-be land baron who can’t attract guests to his hotel (it’s unclear why there the opening establishing shots of the beach are packed with ostensible vactioneers) and can’t sell his properties. One of the scenes the directors screw up is Chico messing up Groucho’s land auction.

Ring is a scumbag blue blood who seems to have lost his money in the Crash, but Dumont’s still got hers and he wants to marry Eaton for it. But she’s in love with Shaw (apparently no one noticed Eaton singing the song Shaw writes for her to serenade Ring at one point makes Eaton even more disposably unlikable). So Francis schemes to help him get rich another–they’re going to steal Dumont’s jewels and frame Chico and Harpo. Their plan doesn’t play out, but still goes their way enough to cause some drama. Cocoanuts is heavy on character setup in the first act (pre-Chico and Harpo, whose introduction turns into a ten minute scene), then completely forgets about the characters. Francis and Ring are still pretty good. The scene where she tries to seduce Harpo is solid (it ought to be great, but for Florey and Santley).

And Ring is a sturdy scumbag.

Eaton’s bad. Shaw is bad with Eaton, but he actually plays really well with the Marx Brothers.

Ruysdael sucks the life out of the film every time he’s onscreen. The third act starts with him getting his own musical number (with a lot of assistance from people who can sing), which gets things off on rocky footing. As if the ornate hacienda, which is apparently part of Groucho’s failing hotel (Dumont and Eaton are his only paying guests), isn’t enough of a credulity pitfall. It actually starts with an excellent shot–kicking off a music number–but that one glimmer of technical hope doesn’t carry through.

Dumont and Groucho have some okay scenes together but nothing great. Her characterization is too thin. She can figure out Groucho (until his manly charms overpower her good sense), but she doesn’t notice Ring’s a scuz? It doesn’t play. And Eaton lets Dumont walk all over her in scenes, even though Dumont’s not trying to do so; Eaton visibly recedes opposite other actors.

Again, the directors.

The sets are good–the whole thing, exteriors included, are shot on interior sets–but the directors don’t really know how to use them. Or they know how to use them for half the frame. There will be a dance number on the bottom half of the screen and its audience ignoring its existence on the top half.

Despite all its problems, The Cocoanuts is still manages to disappoint in the end. The finale is nowhere near effective enough–it doesn’t help Groucho and Chico both look exasperated sitting through a lot of it. Chico in particular seems like he wants to be anywhere else. Harpo at least gets a okay decent drunk scene. Next to them, Francis manages to hold it together though.

The directors sink the picture.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Florey and Joseph Santley; screenplay by Morrie Ryskind, based on the play by George S. Kaufman; director of photography, George J. Folsey; edited by Barney Rogan; music by Frank Tours; produced by Walter Wanger; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Zeppo Marx (Jamison), Groucho Marx (Hammer), Harpo Marx (Harpo), Chico Marx (Chico), Oscar Shaw (Bob), Mary Eaton (Polly), Cyril Ring (Yates), Kay Francis (Penelope), Margaret Dumont (Mrs. Potter), and Basil Ruysdael (Hennessy).

The Greene Murder Case (1929, Frank Tuttle)

If it weren’t so predictable, The Greene Murder Case would be a little better. Not much better–part of the film’s charm is the obvious foreshadowing, since director Tuttle’s obviously on a limited budget and he couldn’t do much anyway.

There are no natural exteriors, which is fine; the one artificial exterior–Tuttle’s establishing shots tend to be of people in offices or rooms–is fantastic. The majority of the film takes place in a large house and the roof plays into the film for a few scenes. At first, it appears to be a model with special effects putting people on the roof. But then the people start interacting with the rest of the house. It’s unclear how they accomplished the effect, but it looks fantastic.

With these Philo Vance films, I’m always curious why William Powell gets top billing… he barely has a presence. Tuttle often shoots over his shoulder to the suspects even. He’s fine; Greene doesn’t ask a lot from him. Eugene Pallette’s mildly amusing as his sidekick. Pallette’s the comedy relief, but not over the top.

The suspects are also the potential victims in Greene. Jean Arthur is okay. Her role’s a little broad. The script really does none of the actors any favors but Ullrich Haupt is worth a mention. First, he’s terrible. Second, he’s supposed to be a devastatingly handsome stud but he’s this wormy German guy. It’s funny.

Greene isn’t not much of a mystery, but it’s not a bad seventy minutes.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Frank Tuttle; screenplay by Louise Long, adaptation and dialogue by Bartlett Cormack, based on the novel by S.S. Van Dine; director of photography, Henry W. Gerrard; edited by Verna Willis; music by Karl Hajos; produced by B.P. Schulberg; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring William Powell (Philo Vance), Florence Eldridge (Sibella Greene), Ullrich Haupt (Dr. Arthur Von Blon), Jean Arthur (Ada Greene), Eugene Pallette (Sgt. Ernest Heath), E.H. Calvert (Dist. Atty. John F.X. Markham), Gertrude Norman (Mrs. Tobias Greene), Lowell Drew (Chester Greene), Morgan Farley (Rex Greene), Brandon Hurst (Sproot), Augusta Burmeister (Mrs. Gertrude Mannheim) and Marcia Harris (Hemming).


Sympathy (1929, Bryan Foy)

Sympathy is a Vitaphone one-reeler about a married man (Hobart Cavanaugh) stepping out on his wife. It’s not his fault, of course, he was just responding to peer pressure.

Harry Shannon plays the peer in question and he’s awful. He drags Sympathy down for the first half. Once he’s absent and the wife, played by Regina Wallace, comes in, the short greatly improves.

Both Cavanaugh and Wallace are good–they only have a couple moments together, unfortunately. Sympathy doesn’t give its cast much to do, which might be a good thing since director Bryan Foy can’t shoot a picture.

Synchronized sound is in its infancy here, not filmmaking. Foy can’t figure out how to place actors on a set, can’t imply scale. If Sympathy weren’t just talking and some tepid slapstick, he’d do it a far greater disservice.

As is, it’s indistinct except as an example of early talkies.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Bryan Foy; written by Murray Roth and Edmund Joseph; director of photography, Edwin B. DuPar; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Hobart Cavanaugh (William Maxwell), Regina Wallace (Laura Maxwell), Harry Shannon (Larry), Wynne Gibson (Trixie) and Loretta Shea (Flo).


Wood Choppers (1929, Paul Terry)

Wood Choppers is not a good cartoon. The animation is weak and director Terry’s approach to the cartoon’s reality is anything goes. Dogs resurrect themselves after being turned into sausages and mice are able to reattach their heads and morph their tails into anything they can imagine.

It’s exceptionally lazy.

But there’s something amazing about it–just how little Terry cares for making any sense. He spends about half the cartoon setting up the elaborate setting. Cats, mice and dogs live in this town where the industry is logging and the mice play on the logs. It has nothing to do with the action of the cartoon, which is a cat chasing a mouse.

The logging does come back at the end, after the cat’s disappeared, and the whole cartoon’s now a romance between mice.

Wood Choppers is gloriously nonsensical. Sadly, the animation’s not good enough to make it worthwhile.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Paul Terry; produced by Terry and Amadee J. Van Beuren; released by Pathé Exchange.


The Hoose-Gow (1929, James Parrott)

The Hoose-Gow is something of an early talkie mess. The shots are paced for a silent movie, leaving long awkward pauses in the soundtrack. The short’s synchronized sound is a fledgling effort. The stock sounds, when used, are obvious.

Parrott’s direction is problematic throughout, with his main deficiency becomes lucid at the finish. The short ends in a food fight and Parrott goes out of his way to remind the audience where the food (a big mess of rice) is on the frame. His direction’s artless and boring, which means the performers need to make it work. And they don’t. How can they with the awkward pacing of the scene.

The lack of sound hurts Stan Laurel mostly–Oliver Hardy gets more talking, sure–but Laurel’s often left without sound for his nervous tick behavior.

Besides George Stevens’s truly wondrous photography, The Hoose-Gow has nothing to recommend it.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

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

Starring Stan Laurel (Stan), Oliver Hardy (Ollie), Tiny Sandford (Warden), James Finlayson (Governor) and Leo Willis (Leo).


A Close Call (1929, Harry Bailey and John Foster)

A Close Call is a very strange little cartoon.

First, it’s an early talkie, so everyone’s very excited about synchronized sound. So much so, in fact, a church choir breaks out into “You’re In The Army Now.” It’s a very odd song choice.

But not as odd as the rest of Call.

The cartoon concerns two mice in love. The boy gets into some trouble when he pulls off his sweetie’s skirt to use it as an accordion. In nothing but her bloomers, she’s not happy with him and neither notice the big evil cat arrive and kidnap her.

Now, the cat’s not trying to eat her. Oh, no, not at all. He’s an amorous vicious psychopath. While making goo goo eyes at the girl mouse, he’s trying to torture the male one.

The drawing is often rough and the animation’s bad, but the strangeness makes the cartoon undeniably compelling.

2/3Recommended

CREDITS

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


Boxing Gloves (1929, Robert A. McGowan)

It’s hard not to like Boxing Gloves’s central sequence—a boxing match between Norman ‘Chubby’ Chaney and Joe Cobb—it’s two little fat kids in enormous boxing gloves duking it out. It’s also the sequence where McGowan shows the most directorial zeal. Unfortunately, it’s the place where the short’s particular sound situation (it’s a silent converted to sound and most of the bout is eerily silent) is most damaging.

Overall, the short’s reasonably amusing. It’s my first Our Gang as an adult and there’s a definite appeal to it. More, actually, before the big boxing match, as H.M. Walker’s dialogue sounds more like adult dialogue—and situations—given to deadpan kids.

The treatment of Allen ‘Farina’ Hoskins is interesting. He’s black and race is a nonissue; to say it’s uncommon for films of the era is beyond understatement. He easily gives the Gloves’s best performance, balancing charm and self-awareness.

2/3Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Robert A. McGowan; screenplay by H.M. Walker, based on a story by McGowan and Hal Roach; director of photography, F.E. Hershey and Art Lloyd; edited by Richard C. Currier; music by Marvin Hatley; produced by Roach; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Norman ‘Chubby’ Chaney (Chubby), Joe Cobb (Joe), Jean Darling (Jean), Allen ‘Farina’ Hoskins (Farina), Bobby ‘Wheezer’ Hutchins (Wheezer), Mary Ann Jackson (Mary Ann), Harry Spear (Harry) and Jackie Cooper (Jackie).


Thunderbolt (1929, Josef von Sternberg)

Thunderbolt has some excellent use of sound. It’s a very early talky and I’m hesitant to say any of its uses were innovative, because the word suggests others picked up on the techniques and developed them. Most of Thunderbolt‘s singular sound designs didn’t show up again in Hollywood cinema for over twenty years. The way von Sternberg uses on camera singers, showcasing them as a performance for the characters to watch, not for the audience to see, doesn’t resemble any of the ostensibly similar scenes in the 1930s. The overall sound design–the street scenes, the edits–resembles German film a lot more than American; there’s a particular lack of flash to von Sternberg’s tone.

Unfortunately, there’s a lot of flash in the screenplay. In terms of plotting, Thunderbolt is exquisite. The first half of the film operates without a protagonist. All of the films scenes are long, but those first forty-five minutes play even longer due to the passage of time (a couple months). There’s the initial setup, with Fay Wray and Richard Arlen as young lovers who get picked up by the police. It seems Wray’s got an infamous paramour, played by George Bancroft (as the titular Thunderbolt, a moniker describing his lethal right). There’s some stuff with Wray and Bancroft, then a very pre-code scene with Wray staying with Arlen and mother Eugenie Besserer, and finally the development into the second half of the film.

During the first half, Besserer and Arlen are good together, Wray is mediocre (she has some effective scenes, but the dialogue’s clunky for most of her performance) and Bancroft is overblown. There are some noisy police detectives too.

The second half of the film, with Bancroft on death row, is where Thunderbolt starts to pick up. The character–going into the second half–is already supposed to be somewhat endearing, because he cared for a stray instead of promptly murdering Arlen (and, presumably, Besserer). The second half doesn’t try to rehabilitate him. Instead, it’s a goofy prison movie with Bancroft as the gangster (who we never actually see commit any crimes in the running time). There’s some decent stuff, a few good scenes here and there; really, it’s about Bancroft all of a sudden becoming the film’s lead. His performance is occasionally shaky, but it doesn’t matter. He commands the screen.

The melodrama soon kicks in (Bancroft, from prison, frames Arlen and Arlen ends up on death row and there’s conflict) and the film can’t narratively recover from it. There are still some decent scenes, some excellent shots from von Sternberg, and Bancroft maintains. Arlen, on the other hand, is silly and awful. It’s a bit of a surprise too, because he was fine during the first half.

There’s also Tully Marshall as the absurd prison warden. It’s a movie about an innocent man on death row and there’s this goofy prison warden running around, aping for laughs. Bancroft’s got some funny observations too, but Marshall’s something else entirely. He belongs in a different picture.

Thunderbolt foolishly tries to rehabilitate its protagonist (and inevitably, I suppose). It just goes about it in the worse way possible. It removes the agency from the character, making his salvation a passive event. Instead of being interesting, it’s de facto.

The film gets long during its lengthy scenes, especially after the more interesting technical methods cease. It’s decent instead of interesting.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Josef von Sternberg; screenplay by Jules Furthman and Herman J. Mankiewicz, based on a story by Charles Furthman and Jules Furthman; director of photography, Henry W. Gerrard; edited by Helen Lewis; produced by B.P. Fineman; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring George Bancroft (Jim Lang), Fay Wray (Mary), Richard Arlen (Bob Morgan), Tully Marshall (Warden), Eugenie Besserer (Mrs. Morgan), James Spottswood (‘Snapper’ O’Shea), Fred Kohler (‘Bad Al’ Friedberg), Robert Elliott (Prison chaplain), E.H. Calvert (Dist. Atty. McKay), George Irving (Mr. Corwin) and Mike Donlin (Kentucky Sampson).


Pandora’s Box (1929, Georg Wilhelm Pabst)

I think there’s one bad shot in Pandora’s Box. Maybe not even bad. It’s one of the standard silent one-shots, where the person is shot from low, disregarding the continuity of the scene (i.e. he or she is standing too close to another person). There’s one of those shots in the film and it’s the bad shot. It’s not even bad as compared to another film… but in Pandora’s Box, even a good shot would look bad. All of Pabst’s other shots are perfect, whether they’re somewhat standard composition or if they’re the awkwardly angled close-ups. The film’s amazing to look at.

The film’s split into two distinct sections. First, Louise Brooks ruins Fritz Kortner’s life. Second, she ruins everyone else’s. The film is oddly split into “acts,” which are really nothing of the sort. There are seven or eight of them and for the most part, they could be replaced with fade outs. But that strange choice of segmenting the film really doesn’t hurt it… Instead, Pandora’s Box is most hurt by how traditional a story it turns out to be in the end. It’s a morality story about the dangers of loose women (ignoring, strangely since the film didn’t even need to introduce it, all of Brooks’s problems can be traced to criminal parenting–something even furthered at the end, when her father sends her out on to the London streets looking for a john, just so he can have some Christmas pudding). It’s kind of strange how Pabst doesn’t stick with her, instead going with Kortner’s son, played by Francis Lederer, for the lovely close.

The performances are all great–Brooks establishes herself from her first moment on screen, so maybe a minute into the film, and she never lets up. She’s probably best during the second half, when her life has gotten complicated and difficult, but not yet impossible. Kortner is excellent too, even if his monocle makes him a little hard to take seriously. It’s enormous and takes up most of the side of his face… hard to believe the character would wear such a visibly uncomfortable eyepiece. Lederer is good as the son, though he has little to do but fall from grace. Carl Goetz and Krafft-Raschig are a great pair, funny a lot of the time, but always with the hint of evil below.

It’s a beautiful looking film, slow but rewarding through most of it. The ending falls apart, but not completely, with Pabst giving himself an elegant exit. That exit’s also strange, because he gives it to the film and not to Brooks, who made the film work.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Georg Wilhelm Pabst; screenplay by Ladislaus Vajda, based on plays by Frank Wedekind; director of photography, Günther Krampf; edited by Joseph Fleisler; produced by Heinz Landsmann and Seymour Nebenzal; released by Süd-Film.

Starring Louise Brooks (Lulu), Fritz Kortner (Dr. Ludwig Schön), Francis Lederer (Alwa Schön), Carl Goetz (Schigolch), Krafft-Raschig (Rodrigo Quast), Alice Roberts (Countess Anna Geschwitz), Daisy D’Ora (Dr. Schön’s Bride), Gustav Diessl (Jack the Ripper), Michael von Newlinsky (Marquis Casti-Piani) and Sig Arno (the instructor).


The Canary Murder Case (1929, Malcolm St. Clair and Frank Tuttle)

As an example of a transitional sound film–Canary Murder Case was filmed as a silent, then reconfigured as a talkie–the film’s very interesting. It’s an early talkie (1929) so there’s no sound design–there’s rarely any noise besides the talking and few sound effects, the actors aren’t ready for talking (for the most part), and the direction, even of the talkie-specific scenes, is awkward and paced for a silent film. People say their line, wait a few seconds, either for a title card or a cut, then someone else says his or her line. It’s disjointed, which surprised me, since I figured I’d just get used to it.

William Powell’s fine in the “lead,” except, while the film’s a “Philo Vance mystery,” Powell has very little to do in the film. He’s an accessory to the police and his single solo scene is a summary sequence of him up all night figuring out the solution. I too figured out the solution and had Philo Vance read more, specifically Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, he wouldn’t have had to stay up all night. The only other amusing actor is Eugene Pallette, who was in the other Powell Vance film I’ve seen too, and even he’s having trouble finding his footing in the talkie atmosphere. He does have some funny moments, which is an achievement, since all the other attempts in the film fall completely flat.

As the titular canary, Louise Brooks leaves little impression. I wasn’t paying attention during the opening titles or something and, since I’ve never actually seen any of her other films, it took me a second to realize who she was when she showed up (I thought the female lead was going to be Jean Arthur, who’s a brunette in the film and barely in it). The greatest impression Brooks’s character does leave, however, is she’s a crook… and when the film’s conclusion is her murder’s justified (agreeing with what the audience already thinks), it makes the whole thing a somewhat pointless experience.

The direction, compositionally, is boring, so there’s little driving the film. Past the long set-up, which I suppose is supposed to be interesting because of Brooks’s presence, there’s almost nothing going on. It’s a very long eighty minutes, though the section where the detective decides a poker game is the best way to discover a murderer is nice and there is one excellent plot development, which in a different film (a better one) would give the characters some real angst. But not so in this one.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Malcolm St. Clair and Frank Tuttle; screenplay by Albert S. Le Vino, Florence Ryerson and S.S. Van Dine, based on Van Dine’s novel; directors of photography, Cliff Blackstone and Harry Fischbeck; edited by William Shea; music by Karl Hajos; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring William Powell (Philo Vance), Louise Brooks (Margaret Odell), Jean Arthur (Alys LaFosse), James Hall (Jimmy Spotswoode), Charles Lane (Charles Spotswoode), Eugene Pallete (Sgt. Heath), Gustav von Seyffertitz (Dr. Ambrose Lindquist), Lawrence Grant (Charles Cleaver), Ned Sparks (Tony Sheel), Louis John Bartels (Louis Mannix) and E.H. Calvert (District Attorney Markham).


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