1935

Murder in the Fleet (1935, Edward Sedgwick)

Murder in the Fleet is a reasonably diverting little B murder mystery; Frank Wead and Joseph Sherman’s script is almost better than the film deserves, given it doesn’t even run seventy minutes and doesn’t even bother pretending it’s got subplots. Well, outside top-billed and sort of lead Robert Taylor’s romantic troubles with blue blood Jean Parker. And then the slapstick rivalry between Nat Pendleton and Ted Healy, mostly over Una Merkel.

It’s visitor day on a Navy cruiser–the film obviously shot on one, sometimes to better effect than other times (the constant projection shots for the exterior deck scenes are flat)–but it’s also the day a new firing system needs to get installed. A top secret firing system. Taylor’s in charge of that installation, Pendleton’s on his crew. Only both men want to see their respective gals, Parker and Merkel. Thanks to the contrived presence of civilian mechanical something or other Healy (who’s had a rivalry with Pendleton for some time), Merkel ends up onboard. Parker’s there to try to get Taylor to quit his low-paying Navy job and go work for her dad. Her character’s a hideous human being, something the captain (Arthur Byron) tells her to her face in a lively scene.

There’s also a foreign dignitary visiting–Mischa Auer in semi-yellowface, an uncredited Keye Luke as his secretary–and the film throws some suspicion their way once the murders start taking place.

Donald Cook is in charge of investigating, but he’s a dipshit (and Taylor’s ostensible rival in general), so whenever there’s action to be taken, it’s on Taylor.

It’s a solid cast and the screenwriters give the supporting characters enough personality in their dialogue to make them somewhat sympathetic most of the time. As Fleet goes on, it gets more and more difficult to suspect any of the crew. Even the obvious targets. Cook, for example, would make a lot of sense personality-wise–he’s jealous no one tries to bribe him, just Taylor–but he’s got an onscreen alibi.

Taylor’s a strong lead. Byron’s great as the captain. Pendleton and Healy are fun. Pendleton and Merkel are cute. The whole thing about her throwing over Pendleton for the odious Healy… doesn’t give Merkel much credit. Parker’s successful being a terrible human being? The movie reforms her along the way, won over by the U.S. Navy, which shouldn’t a surprise given the U.S. Navy’s involvement in the making of the film.

Director Sedgwick does all right too. He’ll occasionally have some really interesting shots, then he’ll also have some really boring ones. The interesting ones tend to be in the cruiser interior, where he’s presumably constrained and has to be inventive. On deck, he’s got the same medium two shot over and over again. Or a long two shot. They’re always the same boring profile shots against projection. But when he’s actually got depth of in the shot? Usually decent. Cinematographer Milton R. Krasner does well shooting both the mediocre and the inventive, he’s more than capable.

Murder in the Fleet is never exciting (the murderer reveal is a shrug), but it’s always fine. Except Merkel taking Healy seriously as a suitor, of course. Pendleton might be a bit of a doof, but he’s an adorable doof.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Edward Sedgwick; screenplay by Frank Wead and Joseph Sherman, based on a story by Sedgwick; director of photography, Milton R. Krasner; edited by Conrad A. Nervig; produced by Lucien Hubbard; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Robert Taylor (Lt. Tom Randolph), Arthur Byron (Capt. John Winslow), Nat Pendleton (‘Spud’ Burke), Ted Healy (Mac O’Neill), Jean Parker (Betty Lansing), Una Merkel (‘Toots’ Timmons), Donald Cook (Lt. Cmdr. David Tucker), Raymond Hatton (Al Duval), Jean Hersholt (Victor Hanson), Richard Tucker (Jeffries), Tom Dugan (‘Greasy’), Mischa Auer (Kamchukan Consul).


The 39 Steps (1935, Alfred Hitchcock)

There are numerous good moments in The 39 Steps. Even the clunky finale is a good moment–director Hitchcock knows he’s got a good moment, he just doesn’t know how to fill in around it. This inability on Hitchcock’s part makes The 39 Steps immediately interesting when compared to the rest of Hitchcock’s filmography, but far less on its own. The film’s got a bad pace at less than ninety minutes. It’s a “man on the run” thriller with constant danger and it’s got a bad pace.

For the first half of the film, when lead Robert Donat finds out about a conspiracy against Great Britain and tries to stop it, is all right. There’s some great editing by Derek N. Twist and Hitchcock does well with the commentary on Londoners. And Donat and Lucie Mannheim, who plays a spy, have some solid chemistry. Donat’s just a regular guy–a Canadian who does business occasionally in London–so all this intrigue is a big deal for him. Only it’s not, because Donat doesn’t have a character to play. Charles Bennett and Ian Hay’s script does nothing for its characters–the most interesting thing Donat does is flirt with suffering housewife Peggy Ashcroft. It’s 39 Steps best scene in a lot of ways, because it’s entirely successful. Even Hitchock’s ambitious set pieces later on in the film aren’t entirely successful. There’s always something off, be it the editing–Twist is far better at confusion than action–or Bernard Knowles’s simultaneously impressive and problematic cinematography. Most of the set pieces have a big, detailed set to play out on and Knowles shoots them blandly. Hitchcock doesn’t use them well either, which is another problem (and reason 39 Steps is historically splendid), but the lighting would help a lot.

And then there’s “leading lady” Madeleine Carroll. Hitchcock, Bennett and Hay work to make her as unlikable as possible, then she gets her big revelation scene and gets to moon over Donat. See, she doesn’t believe he’s a good guy.

There’s a certain charm to how the film builds up–Donat moving around, meeting various people–even villain Godfrey Tearle only gets a few scenes and his mid-second act showdown with Donat is brief. The film uses that narrative device, which is mostly expository but imaginatively handled, for so long, it becomes the most distinct element of the film. And then Hitchcock chucks it for the last third.

The action set pieces during the chase in Scotland have a lot of enthusiasm but they just don’t connect. Maybe if Carroll and Donat had some actual chemistry when she’s got to hate him but they don’t. It’s even worse because Bennett and Hay go out of their way to make her worse. And she ends up the protagonist in the third act so Hitchcock can do a couple surprises. It’s got a lot of problems.

I can’t be particularly disappointed in The 39 Steps because it never actually seems like anything is going to fully connect. Hitchcock doesn’t have the narrative distance down, he doesn’t have the balance between cinematographic devices and narrative ones. Though that second half is so poorly paced, it just annoys.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock; screenplay by Charles Bennett and Ian Hay, based on the novel by John Buchan; director of photography, Bernard Knowles; edited by Derek N. Twist; produced by Michael Balcon; released by Gaumont British Distributors.

Starring Robert Donat (Hannay), Madeleine Carroll (Pamela), Lucie Mannheim (Miss Smith), Godfrey Tearle (Professor Jordan), Peggy Ashcroft (Crofter’s Wife), John Laurie (Crofter), Helen Haye (Mrs. Jordan) and Wylie Watson (Mr. Memory).


Werewolf of London (1935, Stuart Walker)

Werewolf of London. He actually does need a tailor, because he’s a gentleman and gentleman dress for the evening. For whatever reason, director Walker seems to spend more time on lead Henry Hull getting dressed while a werewolf than doing much else while a werewolf. There are a couple effects shots in the film involving Hull as a werewolf, but Walker and photographer Charles J. Stumar bumble them terribly.

Walker has a very stagy understanding of composition. I’m using stagy as a pejorative. John Colton’s script does nothing to dissuade that style either. Werewolf of London isn’t a horror picture, it’s a society melodrama in search of a point. Yes, Hull is cursed with lycanthropy but he’s still just a jerk to his wife, a floundering but sympathetic Valerie Hobson. All he does is work. He’s one of those obnoxious work-at-home botanists. Hobson starts hanging around old beau Lester Matthews just as Hull becomes more and more insufferable. He’s not just a rude jerk to her, he’s a rude jerk to fellow botanist Warner Oland. Sure, Oland’s a werewolf too, but he’s a botanist first.

Hull’s bad. Oland’s good. Hobson is fine. Matthews is bad. It’s a bad script. Overall, Werewolf of London has nothing going for it. A better script or a better director would help, but it’s conceptually a mess. Walker can’t even take advantage of Hull actually being good as the werewolf or the makeup being excellent. He gets like three decent shots of the titular monster.

But there’s also Spring Byington. She plays Hobson’s society cousin. She’s awesome. Even in bad scenes, Byington is good. It’s like she knows how to make this material work for her. Same goes for Ethel Griffies and Zeffie Tilbury. They’re dueling landladies and drinking chumps who run afoul of Hull’s werewolf.

There’s also all the morality lessons in Colton’s script regarding wandering spouses, which encourage the idea of approaching Werewolf of London as a relic of mid-thirties Universal studio filmmaking and Hollywood and so on. It’s definitely a better approach than going into it looking for a good film.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Stuart Walker; screenplay by John Colton, based on a story by Robert Harris; director of photography, Charles J. Stumar; edited by Russell F. Schoengarth; music by Karl Hajos; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Henry Hull (Dr. Glendon), Valerie Hobson (Lisa Glendon), Warner Oland (Dr. Yogami), Lester Matthews (Paul Ames), Spring Byington (Miss Ettie Coombes), Lawrence Grant (Sir Thomas Forsythe), Clark Williams (Hugh Renwick), J.M. Kerrigan (Hawkins), Ethel Griffies (Mrs. Whack), Zeffie Tilbury (Mrs. Moncaster) and Charlotte Granville (Lady Forsythe).


Fun Sunday! (1935, Jacques Berr)

It takes Fun Sunday! almost the entire short film to find its footing. The problem is director Berr; he has no comic timing. Sunday cuts a couple corners as far as budget–the sound cuts in and out, going over to music and not the background noise–but it’s rather ambitious stuff. Except for Berr. He doesn’t have any ambition.

Writers and stars Jacques Tati and Rhum, however, have lots of ambition. They do an alternative on the classic comic duo–instead of playing off each other, they play off the environment. Rhum has more to do, just because he has the magic tricks (which Berr really can’t shoot).

Just when Sunday seems to be winding down, Tati and Rhum get in one good gag after another and bring it to a great finish. Even with Berr screwing the beautifully lighted shots (Fun Sunday!’s uncredited cinematographer does some excellent work).

2/3Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Jacques Berr; written by Jacques Tati and Rhum.

Starring Jacques Tati and Rhum.


A Night at the Opera (1935, Sam Wood)

As good as the Marx Brothers are in A Night at the Opera–and George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind’s strong script is important too–director Wood really brings the whole thing together. The film has its obligatory musical subplot and romantic leads. Wood knows how to balance those elements with the comedy; during long music sequences, he brings in the Brothers for a quick gag. And Opera smartly establishes those romantic leads (played by Kitty Carlisle and Allan Jones) in relation to their sympathies for Harpo and Chico.

Opera also benefits from having one wonderful heinous villain (Walter Woolf King as an obnoxious opera star) and two great doofus ones (Sig Ruman and Robert Emmett O’Connor). King has the biggest part in the film and the briefest comedic sequences. Ruman and O’Connor both have long, elaborate sequences.

But where Wood’s direction is most impressive is how he and Merritt B. Gerstad shoot the Marx Brothers. While there’s a great moment with Groucho admiring a long Harpo gag, my favorite is how Wood handles Chico and Harpo’s music scene. After a quick, finely staged song from Jones, Chico plays the piano, then Harpo plays the harp. Chico’s sequence is jovial and engaging. Harpo’s is jovial and emotive. It’s gorgeous and Wood gives it as much weight as any comedy sequence. It simultaneously breaks Opera’s reality and deepens the entire film.

The film’s perfectly timed, has some great exasperation from Margaret Dumont, and some wonderful sketches. It’s a marvelous Night.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Sam Wood; screenplay by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind, based on a story by James Kevin McGuinness; director of photography, Merritt B. Gerstad; edited by William LeVanway; music by Herbert Stothart; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Groucho Marx (Otis B. Driftwood), Chico Marx (Fiorello), Harpo Marx (Tomasso), Kitty Carlisle (Rosa), Allan Jones (Ricardo), Walter Woolf King (Lassparri), Sig Ruman (Gottlieb), Margaret Dumont (Mrs. Claypool), Edward Keane (Captain) and Robert Emmett O’Connor (Henderson).


The Bride of Frankenstein (1935, James Whale)

For The Bride of Frankenstein, director Whale takes a contradictory approach. It's either more is more, or less is less. More music, all the time. Franz Waxman's frequently playful music rarely fits its scenes, unless Whale is going for a melodramatic farce, which he really doesn't seem to be doing. I kept hoping he would be, because it might make the film more compelling.

More Monster–Boris Karloff is nonsensically running around the countryside, finding someone to accidentally kill or not. William Hurlbut's screenplay contrives connections between loose, if memorable, scenes and never pauses to explain why the Monster kills another little girl. Maybe he really liked doing it from the first one.

Of course, the Monster could explain since Karloff now has lines to deliver. But all of his lines are lame.

Poor Colin Clive has almost nothing to do. None of the characters in Bride have arcs running the whole film–not even the Monster–but Clive pops in at the beginning and then at the end. In one of Hurlbut's weaker moments, Clive goes from pro-mad scientist to anti-mad scientist at the snap of the fingers. It's ludicrous.

Ernest Thesiger's good as the villain. Valerie Hobson not as Clive's wife.

Whale doesn't have enough coverage so Ted J. Kent's editing is usually bad. Except the finale, which is wondrous and is so tightly edited, one has to wonder why the rest of the film is so loose. Probably because there has to be a story.

It's a trying seventy-five minutes.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by James Whale; screenplay by William Hurlbut, based on an adaptation by Hurlbut and John L. Balderston and a novel by Mary Shelley; director of photography, John J. Mescall; edited by Ted J. Kent; music by Franz Waxman; produced by Carl Laemmle Jr.; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Boris Karloff (The Monster), Colin Clive (Henry Frankenstein), Valerie Hobson (Elizabeth), Ernest Thesiger (Dr. Pretorius), O.P. Heggie (Hermit), Una O’Connor (Minnie), and Elsa Lanchester (Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley).


The Whole Town’s Talking (1935, John Ford)

The Whole Town’s Talking has some peculiar third act problems, but it also has this extraordinary first act set over three scenes and twenty-some minutes, which evens things out.

Some of the problem might stem from Town’s plot–mild-mannered office clerk Edward G. Robinson just happens to look like a famous gangster and is falsely arrested. The actual gangster shows up and Robinson gets to act off Robinson. The second half of the picture is often just Robinson. He can carry it–and cinematographer Joseph H. August excels at the process photography (though not the projection shots)–it’s just odd.

Also, the gangster doesn’t come into the film until the second act; he’s not a predicted permanent fixture. Not like Jean Arthur, the omnipresent love interest whose vanishes signals the awkward finish. She and Robinson are great together; director Ford introduces most of the main cast quickly and then uses repetition to establish them. No one has a deep back story but they’re all fully drawn.

As for Ford’s directing of a gangster spoof–he does really well with the actors. Robinson, Arthur, Arthur Byron, Donald Meek–Edward Brophy is good in a small part. Ford does okay with the backlot shooting, but he’s a little unsure with the mellow scenes. Lots of people standing.

Jo Swerling and Robert Riskin’s script is strong, though they do forget a joke.

The finale also redeems itself with Ford letting Robinson eschew the comedy for moral complexity.

Town’s unique and good.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by John Ford; screenplay by Jo Swerling and Robert Riskin, based on a story by W.R. Burnett; director of photography, Joseph H. August; edited by Viola Lawrence; produced by Ford and Lester Cowan; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Edward G. Robinson (Arthur Ferguson Jones), Jean Arthur (Miss Clark), Arthur Hohl (Detective Sergeant Boyle), James Donlan (Detective Sergeant Howe), Arthur Byron (Spencer), Wallace Ford (Healy), Donald Meek (Hoyt), Etienne Girardot (Seaver), Edward Brophy (‘Slugs’ Martin) and Paul Harvey (‘J.G.’ Carpenter).


Steamboat Round the Bend (1935, John Ford)

The best scene in Steambout Round the Bend is the wedding between Anne Shirley and John McGuire. Neither Shirley nor McGuire is particularly good in the film, but McGuire’s about to be hung and so they’re getting married. Steambout is often a comedy and Eugene Pallette–as the officiating sheriff–tells some really bad jokes at the beginning of the scene. Ford creates this devastating scene between Shirley, McGuire and Will Rogers (Rogers plays McGuire’s uncle). Pallette has ninety percent of the dialogue in the scene, Shirley and McGuire are almost entirely silent, but Ford captures their despondence beautifully. It’s an amazing scene.

Steamboat is often fun–that wedding scene doesn’t even come at the finish (there’s still got to be time for Rogers to try to save McGuire)–but it has a strange sense of humor. Stepin Fetchit plays one of Rogers’s crew members, so there’s some cheap racial humor… but the film also mocks white Southerners. Except Rogers is playing a Confederate veteran. Only white trash Southerners are acceptable targets.

So while that humor doesn’t work, the stuff with Pallette often does. Irvin S. Cobb is outstanding as Rogers’s nemesis.

The third act is too rushed, like screenwriters Dudley Nichols and Lamar Trotti needed more time to close gracefully. Oddly, the pacing’s weak throughout–their dialogue’s often outstanding, but the plotting is off. Steamboat doesn’t have room for subplots and it needs a couple.

Still, Rogers is appealing and Ford does a fine job. It’s problematic, but decent.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by John Ford; screenplay by Dudley Nichols and Lamar Trotti, based on the novel by Ben Lucien Burman; director of photography, George Schneiderman; edited by Alfred DeGaetano; music by Samuel Kaylin; produced by Sol M. Wurtzel; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Will Rogers (Doctor John Pearly), Anne Shirley (Fleety Belle), Irvin S. Cobb (Captain Eli), Eugene Pallette (Sheriff Rufe Jeffers), John McGuire (Duke), Berton Churchill (New Moses), Francis Ford (Efe), Roger Imhof (Breck’s Pappy), Raymond Hatton (Matt Abel), Hobart Bosworth (Chaplain) and Stepin Fetchit (Jonah).


Murder on a Honeymoon (1935, Lloyd Corrigan)

Murder on a Honeymoon is a tepid outing for Edna May Oliver and James Gleason’s detecting duo. It’s the third in the series and, while Oliver and Gleason are back, it’s clear some of the magic was behind the camera. Robert Benchley and Seton I. Miller’s script is a little too nice (in addition to being boring) and Lloyd Corrigan’s direction lacks any inspiration.

Honeymoon takes place on Catalina, which–from the film–seems to be the most boring vacation spot in the world. The only time the murder investigation overlaps with vacation activities is in a closed casino, which is one of the film’s better sequences.

But the script’s the real problem. It ignores suspects, forgets the supporting cast and makes Gleason way too nice to Oliver. Their bickering originally had a give and take–in Honeymoon, Gleason pulls his punches. The only one being really mean to Oliver is the film’s confirmed villain.

Even the supporting cast is a little weak. None of them have story arcs–except Lola Lane–and she’s absent for most of her own arc. Lane isn’t in the picture long enough to make an impression, but DeWitt Jennings is rather weak and Spencer Charters’s incompetent local police chief needs work. It might not be Charters’s fault, since the script never lets Oliver cut into him deep enough.

There are some amusing moments with Arthur Hoyt’s unprofessional medical examiner though.

The murderer’s identity’s a surprise, but a surprise doesn’t make up for the rest.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Lloyd Corrigan; screenplay by Seton I. Miller and Robert Benchley, based on a novel by Stuart Palmer; director of photography, Nicholas Musuraca; edited by William Morgan; music by Alberto Colombo; produced by Kenneth Macgowan; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring Edna May Oliver (Hildegarde Withers), James Gleason (Inspector Oscar Piper), Lola Lane (Phyllis La Font), George Meeker (Tom Kelsey), Harry Ellerbe (Mr. Deving), Dorothy Libaire (Mrs. Deving), Leo G. Carroll (Director Joseph B. Tate), DeWitt Jennings (Captain Beegle), Spencer Charters (Chief Of Police Britt), Arthur Hoyt (Dr. O’Rourke), Chick Chandler (Pilot French), Matt McHugh (Pilot Madden), Willie Best (Willie the Porter), Morgan Wallace (McArthur) and Brooks Benedict (Roswell T. Forrest).


Mark of the Vampire (1935, Tod Browning)

MGM cut at least twenty-five percent out of Mark of the Vampire, which accounts for some of the plotting problems but still leaves the film a little messy. Ben Lewis’s editing is weak during dialogue exchanges, not just in general. And no amount of studio interference could have changed Browning’s reliance on weak special effects.

There is, however, one special effect sequence of startling mastery. Unfortunately it only lasts six seconds.

Vampire is a mix of Universal horror and MGM character drama. Elizabeth Allan and Henry Wadsworth are the engaged couple, Donald Meek is the comic relief, Lionel Barrymore is the wise old man. It feels very comfortable, but it’s so plot-heavy (it’s impossible to know if Browning intended it to be so) one can’t really enjoy the cast enough. Though Allan’s weak and Wadsworth looks lost in a horror film.

Vampire tries for reality–it has a definite setting, a small town near Prague in 1935–and is partially successful.

Jean Hersholt is fantastic as Allan’s guardian. The film contracts a lot in scope–the studio edits move the halfway point up twenty minutes. But Hersholt keeps it grounded for that first half, before he can pass it over to Barrymore.

Browning too occasionally has a great shot or two (ably assisted by James Wong Howe’s photography) but not enough overall. He usually stumbles during the dramatic scenes.

Vampire should be better. Maybe, before the studio got ahold of it, it was more successful. And maybe not.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Tod Browning; screenplay by Guy Endore and Bernard Schubert, based on a story by Browning; director of photography, James Wong Howe; edited by Ben Lewis; produced by Browning and E.J. Mannix; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Lionel Barrymore (Professor Zelen), Elizabeth Allan (Irena Borotyn), Bela Lugosi (Count Mora), Lionel Atwill (Inspector Neumann), Jean Hersholt (Baron Otto Montay), Henry Wadsworth (Count Fedor Vincenty), Carroll Borland (Luna Mora), Donald Meek (Dr. Doskil), Ivan F. Simpson (Jan), Leila Bennett (Maria) and Holmes Herbert (Sir Karell Borotyn).


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