1934

The Ghost Walks (1934, Frank R. Strayer)

I’m not sure when the “old dark house” mystery film started–I haven’t seen any silent entries in the genre but I imagine there must be some, especially since the genre also appears to have been popular on stage. The Ghost Walks, in 1934–five years into talkies–shows the genre staling already. In an inventive plot development, it turns out the initial mystery of Walks is a fake, a performance arranged by a playwright (John Miljan) to impress Richard Carle’s Broadway producer.

It’s a fine plot development, only it occurs about fifteen minutes into the film, which means Charles Belden then needs to come up with an all new mystery. Though it does provide some humor–Carle and his assistant, Johnny Arthur, don’t believe the performance is over, even with people dying.

Belden comes up with another inventive plot point nearer the end. Not something I can share without spoiling a rather solid surprise (with a weak explanation, unfortunately). Belden has good ideas–he just doesn’t engagingly package them. I’m shocked he was able to withhold the final reveal, since he so impatiently revealed the play deception.

None of the acting’s unacceptable, though leading lady June Collyer is weak (while supporting Eve Southern is solid).

Miljan is a decent lead and Carle and Arthur’s bickering is amusing. It’s unfortunate Donald Kirke’s would be rapist never gets his comeuppance.

Director Strayer is clearly better than the material. He knows how to keep the actors moving, even if the script drags.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Frank R. Strayer; written by Charles Belden; director of photography, M.A. Anderson; edited by Roland D. Reed; produced by Maury M. Cohen; released by Chesterfield Motion Pictures Corporation.

Starring John Miljan (Prescott Ames), June Collyer (Gloria Shaw), Richard Carle (Herman Wood), Henry Kolker (Dr. Kent), Johnny Arthur (Homer Erskine), Spencer Charters (Guard), Donald Kirke (Terry Shaw), Eve Southern (Beatrice), Douglas Gerrard (Carroway) and Wilson Benge (Jarvis).


Evelyn Prentice (1934, William K. Howard)

Evelyn Prentice only runs eighty minutes, but it goes on forever. At seventeen minutes alone, it’s getting tiring. The big problem is the lack of thoughtful approach. It’s constantly revealing big twists, twists to shock the audience, but they just end up detracting from the film’s possibilities. Because Evelyn Prentice is not a deep study of floundering marriages or endless guilt. It’s an adultery melodrama, down to the frequent fade-outs to punctuate “affecting” scenes. It’s not even an interesting adultery melodrama–there’s a whole courtroom angle the film never shows, just because it’s withholding information the scenes would reveal. Information the film’s principles, reading newspapers, would know (but somehow do not).

It’s a frustrating film too, because of Myrna Loy and William Powell. It’s one of their least successful pairings, because Powell’s playing toward their standard (after a first act diversion) and Loy is not. She’s in a different film completely. Powell’s in one where Edward Brophy pops in for comic relief, Loy’s in one where she’s ready to collapse from internal struggle. But the script doesn’t know how to tell that story (Prentice is 1934 MGM, not a lot of subtlety) and it’s too bad, since director Howard probably would have done better with that approach than the melodrama one. He’s got one great shot at the end, makes up for the frequent panning and generally lackluster direction.

Both Loy and Powell have some good moments, but since they’re in these genre-defined, rote roles, it’s really the supporting cast who have the best roles. Well, the best roles for actors, not necessarily the best written (the script treats the entire supporting cast as superfluous). Una Merkel’s role, for instance, is to give Myrna Loy someone to have scenes with. Merkel does a fine job in the thankless role, but at least she gets to be in the whole picture. Henry Wadsworth has a lot of fun at the beginning as Merkel’s constantly intoxicated romantic interest. Then he disappears, once Powell returns to the film.

The stuff with Loy and Powell and their kid, played by Cora Sue Collins, is actually pretty darn good, though the scenes still have that disconnect–Loy and Powell aren’t acting in the same film.

Rosalind Russell pops in for a minute too–even though she’s pretty bad, had her character stayed in the film, it would have really helped things out.

At eighty minutes, Evelyn Prentice is an abbreviated but still monotonous melodrama. None of the acting really makes it worth seeing (Loy’s been just as good in similar roles in good movies and Powell’s not doing anything special) and that one shot at the end is too paltry a reward. Had the film run much longer–around two hours–and been a big melodrama, it would have been better. The same problems would probably still be there, but maybe the added minutes who make it more compelling. As it runs, there’s just not enough going on to make it watchable.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by William K. Howard; screenplay by Lenore J. Coffee, based on the novel by W.E. Woodward; director of photography, Charles G. Clarke; edited by Frank E. Hull; music by R.H. Bassett; produced by John W. Considine Jr.; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring William Powell (John Prentice), Myrna Loy (Evelyn Prentice), Una Merkel (Amy Drexel), Rosalind Russell (Mrs. Nancy Harrison), Isabel Jewell (Judith Wilson), Harvey Stephens (Lawrence Kennard), Edward Brophy (Eddie Delaney), Henry Wadsworth (Chester Wylie), Cora Sue Collins (Dorothy Prentice), Frank Conroy (Dist. Atty. Farley) and Jessie Ralph (Mrs. Blake).


It Happened One Night (1934, Frank Capra)

There’s something particularly tragic about It Happened One Night: somehow, Capra and Riskin let it get away from them. It’s possible–likely even–the awkward conclusion was a result of not having access to the stars (Gable and Colbert were both on loan to Columbia), but it doesn’t really matter. Riskin went from a deliberate pace–the majority of the film takes place over three or four nights, these days and nights being the film’s content for the first ninety minutes (I suppose the opening scene is an indeterminate period of time before these days begin, but probably not more than seven hours)–to a rushed one… the third act takes place over a week and takes up about fifteen minutes of time. However, were it not for Riskin’s change in point of view, futzing with the pace wouldn’t matter. The point of view change, combined with the pace (and the lack of the main characters) kneecap It Happened One Night when it needs to be its best.

The point of view in the film is, for the majority of it, excessively brilliant. Capra and Riskin create a masterpiece of realism and humanism, while still making a romantic comedy. The viewer is with Gable and Colbert on the road and Capra films it on location a lot (I think except some interiors) and Riskin writes it real. Watching Gable, who I really love as movie star, actually have such a great script to act–he’s fantastic. His performance is incredibly rich and deep and different from anything else I’ve ever seen him do. Colbert’s great too, with her character forming throughout. Riskin just does an excellent job and Capra knows how to direct the script and then loses itself. It doesn’t even lose the realism as much as it loses the humanism. It loses the realism a bit… Walter Connelly, also great, plays Colbert’s father and he’s a little too Hollywood perfect for the film, especially since he becomes the main character for the last fifteen minutes. I understand why–to create a sense of suspense (It Happened One Night, for worse, seemingly created the romantic comedy model still used today)–but it’s totally inappropriate. When the film loses Gable as the protagonist, it’s essentially lost (never to find itself).

Capra does a great job–his composition is particularly exciting, as he plays with tight spaces and open ones. There’s barely any score and it’s all “natural” sounds, which works beautifully. He creates this usually quiet place for the story to unfold. Again, goes towards the realism.

I’ve only seen the film once before and had the same reaction, due to the misfire of an ending, so I wasn’t enraged (because I knew it was inevitable). But I imagine I’d be livid if it were my first viewing.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Frank Capra; screenplay by Robert Riskin, based on a story by Samuel Hopkins Adams; director of photography, Joseph Walker; edited by Gene Havlick; music by Howard Jackson and Louis Silvers; produced by Capra and Harry Cohn; released by Columbia Picutres.

Starring Clark Gable (Peter Warne), Claudette Colbert (Ellie Andrews), Walter Connolly (Alexander Andrews), Roscoe Karns (Oscar Shapeley), Jameson Thomas (King Westley), Alan Hale (Danker), Arthur Hoyt (Zeke), Blanche Friderici (Zeke’s wife) and Charles C. Wilson (Joe Gordon).


Upperworld (1934, Roy Del Ruth)

Upperworld starts incredibly strong–Warren William and his son (I knew I’d seen Dickie Moore’s name in credits before–he’s in Out of the Past) feeling abandoned by Mary Astor, who’s more interested in throwing costume parties than spending time with her husband and son. The scenes with William and Moore are great throughout, even after the change I’ll get to in a second… but it’s the whole film for the beginning. The scenes with William and Andy Devine are fantastic, even the scenes with William going to work are great. Upperworld sets itself up as a traditional story–successful businessman becomes unhappy with his disaffected life–and does it real well.

Even the scenes with William and Ginger Rogers are excellent, because neither of them play it as a romance until, obviously, the script forces them to do so and then Upperworld turns in to something else entirely. It turns in to a goofy movie with William running around trying to destroy evidence, pursued by angry ex-traffic cop Sidney Toler. Toler’s performance is ludicrous, but so is his dialogue; it might not be all his fault.

Where Upperworld was interesting and unique was the friendship between Rogers and William… the resulting changes to both characters (she all of a sudden has a seedy boyfriend, played by a fun J. Carrol Naish, while William becomes a villain–except for the scenes with Moore) do irreparable harm to the film. I also was expecting, from the opening titles, Mary Astor to either have a big part or a glorified cameo. Either would have worked well, but they went for in between and, while she’s quite good, her role’s dumb and unbelievable.

The first half was so solid, I thought I’d be more depressed by end of Upperworld (the last half’s badness simmering itself), but the film closes with Andy Devine and he closes it well.

Del Ruth does a real nice job directing too, which might have made the second half more palatable than it would have been without him.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Roy Del Ruth; screenplay by Ben Markson, based on a story by Ben Hecht; director of photography, Tony Gaudio; edited by Owen Marks; music by Bernhard Kaun; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Warren William (Allexander Stream), Mary Astor (Mrs. Hettie Stream), Ginger Rogers (Lilly Linda), Andy Devine (Oscar), Dickie Moore (Tommy Stream), Ferdinand Gottschalk (Marcus), J. Carrol Naish (Lou Colima) and Sidney Toler (Officer Moran).


Manhattan Melodrama (1934, W.S. Van Dyke)

It’s funny how obvious writers’ contributions can be in certain films. For instance, Joseph L. Mankiewicz very likely wrote some of the best scenes in Manhattan Melodrama and Oliver H.P. Garrett wrote some of the worst. The clue is the dialogue. Mankiewicz has distinctive dialogue, even in a film relatively early in his career, and it’s very good dialogue.

Unfortunately, uneven writing isn’t the only problem with Manhattan Melodrama. Running ninety minutes and covering thirty years, it plays like a summary of a longer film. The characters exist only in their scenes, never in between. Myrna Loy’s got a particularly troublesome role in that regard, because her character rarely makes sense for longer than ten minutes at a time. She’s good in some of her scenes and a little lost in the others, the fault clearly resting on the script. Her character is constantly yo-yoing between, she thinks, Clark Gable and William Powell. Except, rather specifically, Gable informs her she is not. But the script keeps it up, because without it and with the rapid pace, there’s not enough… pardon the term… melodrama.

Gable gives a fantastic performance, a great leading man performance. He’s amazing in every scene, bringing both a sense of humor and sadness to the film.

Nat Pendleton and Isabel Jewell help with the humor when Gable’s being sad and their comedic scenes–along with some of the romantic scenes between Powell and Loy–are when Van Dyke’s doing his best work in the film. His worst work is when he’s being melodramatic and, oddly, a little artistic. Way too artistic for him. There’s a clear divide in the film–the good scenes sound like Mankiewicz and have good direction, the bad scenes don’t sound like Mankiewicz and have poor direction. It’s just not Van Dyke’s kind of film–the ninety minutes sounds right and I can even understand some of the lack of coverage (Van Dyke shot notoriously fast)–but Manhattan Melodrama occasionally feels like The Godfather in terms of its potential and it doesn’t (or couldn’t) even acknowledge them.

It’s clearest at the end, when Gable and Powell shake hands, when it’s perfectly honest–even in this film–they need to hug. Well, it was 1934 and they couldn’t hug and that reality is probably what makes Manhattan Melodrama a doomed effort.

The film does feature some of Powell’s best acting. I’m not familiar enough with his work outside the Thin Man series and a handful of other films–all comedies–but he had a very definite ability as a dramatic actor. So, of course, most of his more important scenes are the ones poorly written. Also, the film ends abruptly, resolving itself in the alloted time (with a really, really unfortunate scene).

I’d seen Manhattan Melodrama before and I remember it being a disappointment, but certainly not as disappointing as it turned out this time. However, Gable’s performance (and Powell’s too, but not in the showy, movie star way) is incredible.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by W.S. Van Dyke; screenplay by Oliver H.P. Garrett and Joseph L. Mankiewicz, based on a story by Arthur Caeser; director of photography, James Wong Howe; edited by Ben Lewis; produced by David O. Selznick; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Clark Gable (Blackie), William Powell (Jim), Myrna Loy (Eleanor Packer), Leo Carrillo (Father Joe), Nat Pendleton (Spud), George Sidney (Poppa Rosen), Isabel Jewell (Annabelle), Muriel Evans (Tootsie Malone), Thomas E. Jackson (Snow), Jimmy Butler (Jim as a boy) and Mickey Rooney (Blackie as a boy).


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