Charley Grapewin

The Good Earth (1937, Sidney Franklin)

For maybe the first ninety minutes of The Good Earth, it seems like the most interesting thing to talk about is going to be how the filmmakers were able to make the lead characters in the film appear sympathetic while they were being, frankly, un-American. It makes sense, since the main characters are Chinese. The film’s set in the early twentieth century—with the 1911 Xinhai Revolution playing a short but important part, at least for the sake of plot contrivance and spectacle. At one point, upon moving south, on the run from famine, farmer’s wife Luise Rainer teaches her children how to panhandle. The scene’s particularly striking because you can’t really imagine any other big budget Hollywood movie on the late 1930s endorsing panhandling. And you also can’t imagine them doing it without a white actor endorsing it. Because Rainer is not Chinese. Neither is her husband, played by Paul Muni. Neither is his father, played by Charley Grapewin. And neither is Walter Connolly, playing Grapewin’s brother and Muni’s uncle. And neither is Tilly Losch, as the other woman. And Jessie Ralph, as the slave supervisor who tormented Rainer before she was married off? She’s definitely not Chinese either.

There are some Chinese actors in the film, but not for quite a while. For whatever reason, Good Earth doesn’t give the Asian-American actors anything to do until it’s Keye Luke and Roland Lui as Rainer and Muni’s sons. Weird how two white people in a bunch of makeup had Asian kids. Suzanna Kim is their daughter (grown), but she’s gone mute and dumb because of starving as a toddler, when famine hit and Muni wouldn’t sell his land because the movie’s all about him going from poor farmer to successful capitalist and losing his soul in the process. Though—and I’m going to be jumping around because Good Earth is really boring and and I don’t want to go through it linearly—but it’s not like Muni had much soul in the first place. He spends the first half of the film as a bit of a moron. He’s good-hearted, hard-working, sweet to wife Rainer, but he’s a dope. He talks all the time too, so much Rainer barely gets any lines. You’d think the filmmakers realized how obnoxious Grapewin’s performance was getting so they stopped giving him monologues (which Grapewin performs, albeit in yellow-face, a hillbilly stereotype), but in the last third or whatever, they give Connolly a bunch to do and he’s even worse than Grapewin, particularly in terms of the “Chinese” performance. Connolly, Losch, and Ralph are the worst performances. Ralph’s only got two scenes but she’s real, real bad. It’d be nice to say Luke and Lui are any good, but they’re not. Lui’s at least sympathetic. Luke’s got zero personality. Muni’s shockingly okay until the second half, when he’s got to play the rich man (who only got rich because, after almost being trampled to death in a riot—and left for dead—Rainer finds a bag of jewels), and then he’s bad. Muni’s too much of a dope in the first half to be believable in the second. The old age makeup for him is also weird. Rainer’s old age make up is fine, arguably better than just her yellow-face, but something goes wrong on Muni’s.

Rainer’s performance is… complicated. Well, not the performance, but whether or not it’s successful. See, the film posits one of the great things about China being the respect for the patriarchal system. Wives obey. Having multiple wives isn’t cool—one’s all a farmer needs—especially not when you’ve got one who gets up and makes you breakfast, works the field pregnant, delivers her babies by herself, and… I don’t know, doesn’t have any self-interest. Though Rainer eventually does get a monologue about the importance of not having any self-interest. And women also don’t get to talk much, especially not when the men are talking. So Rainer is already doing yellow-face, in this part where she’s not allowed any agency (in fact it’d be a failing), she doesn’t get many lines, she doesn’t have much chemistry with Muni. With those constraints? She’s fine. She’s really good in the old age makeup.

The film’s a technical marvel—just one with a lot of dragging sequences in between. There’s a great storm sequence at the beginning, the riot scene is well-executed (as action, not some much how Franklin shoots it), and the locust attack is phenomenal. There are occasionally some phenomenally edited quick cuts from Basil Wrangell. More than occasionally. Or at least more than the occasional bad cuts the film also features, though the bad cuts aren’t ever in those quick cut montages. They’re usually in dramatic scenes between Rainer and Muni in the first half, when they’ve got more chemistry than the script and director requires, but less than the film needs.

The montages are awesome though. Up until the second half, it at least seems like Good Earth is going to be able to keep going thanks to technical achievement.

But the stuff with Muni as a rich lord, listening to now sidekick crook uncle Connolly while dad Grapewin wastes away at the old house (now an estate), suffering from dementia… that stuff isn’t just tedious, it’s also narratively pointless. None of it ends up mattering for the film, except to drag Muni through the mud enough—combined with the weird makeup—to make him totally unsympathetic. Bummer.

I suppose, for a film no one ever should have produced the way they produced it, The Good Earth has some success. But it’s far more interesting as a relic of ingrained racism or maybe even a commentary on the nature of cross-cultural adaptation than a film. Muni and Rainer survive it, though Muni’s dangerously close to running out of first half momentum by the end.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Sidney Franklin; screenplay by Talbot Jennings, Tess Slesinger, and Claudine West, based on the novel by Pearl S. Buck; director of photography, Karl Freund; edited by Basil Wrangell; music by Herbert Stothart; produced by Albert Lewin; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Paul Muni (Wang), Luise Rainer (O-Lan), Charley Grapewin (Old Father), Tilly Losch (Lotus), Walter Connolly (Uncle), Soo Yong (Aunt), Keye Luke (Elder Son), Roland Lui (Younger Son), Suzanna Kim (Daughter), and Jessie Ralph (Cuckoo).


The Grapes of Wrath (1940, John Ford)

The Grapes of Wrath starts in a darkened neverland. Director Ford and cinematographer Gregg Toland create a realer than real Oklahoma for protagonist Henry Fonda to journey across. The locations and sets aren’t as important as how Fonda (and the audience) experience it. It’s actually rather hostile for this beginning. It’s all about Fonda getting settled, not the viewer.

Even though Fonda is the protagonist throughout and the whole show for the first twenty minutes–with John Carradine along to keep him company–Grapes is about Fonda’s family, specifically his relationship with his parents–Jane Darwell’s mom, Russell Simpson is dad.

Slowly–after Fonda does find his family–director Ford broadens the film’s focus. There’re just too many people to stick with him and get the story right. Later, as the third act approaches then arrives, Ford and screenwriter Nunnally Johnson bring the spotlight back to Fonda but gradually fill out even more of the surrounding situations. It’s a wonderful balance.

Fonda and Darwell get the showiest parts–well, except for Carradine who gets even showier–and all three do great work. Ford knows how to shoot them too, with he and Toland going almost for scares at times. For Darwell, Ford occasionally shoots the film like a silent. He’s carefully, brilliantly, all over the place.

Everything about Grapes–directing, photography, editing, writing, acting–is a singular achievement on its own. Each vingette-like scene works perfectly. Put them all together and Grapes of Wrath is a relentless, devastating odyssey.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by John Ford; screenplay by Nunnally Johnson, based on the novel by John Steinbeck; director of photography, Gregg Toland; edited by Robert L. Simpson; music by Alfred Newman; produced by Darryl F. Zanuck; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Henry Fonda (Tom Joad), Jane Darwell (Ma Joad), Charley Grapewin (Grandpa), Dorris Bowdon (Rosasharn), John Carradine (Jim Casy), Russell Simpson (Pa Joad), O.Z. Whitehead (Al), John Qualen (Muley Bates), Eddie Quillan (Connie) and Zeffie Tilbury (Grandma).


Without Orders (1936, Lew Landers)

Without Orders has enough story for a couple movies or at least one twice as long–it runs just over an hour. Instead, everything gets abbreviated. There's flight attendant Sally Eilers who has a sturdy fellow in pilot Robert Armstrong, but he's too concerned about helping her with her career and not enough with sweeping her off her feet. Her sister, Frances Sage, is a nightclub singer who gets wrapped up with Vinton Hayworth's sleaze ball stunt pilot, whose father (Charley Grapewin) owns Armstrong and Eilers' airline.

Needless to say, things get complicated.

For almost the first half of the film, there are these quick little scenes–Orders makes time for the melodrama, but not for anything around it. Ward Bond has a couple moments with personality and they're almost it for the film. It still works out nicely, thanks to the actors.

Hayworth is great as the vain flier; he's simultaneously charming and odious and the script keeps any judgements at bay for a while. Similarly, the script does make Armstrong's sturdiness seem a little boring. Eilers does a lot better with the professional scenes than the romantic ones–Orders is a little bit too chaste, which probably cuts back on the possibilities for her role.

Grapewin and Sage both provide good support.

Where Orders really takes off (pardon the pun), is with the airplane in trouble sequences. Landers does a great job with the actors, sure, but Desmond Marquette's editing keeps everything taut.

It's a little thin overall, but surprisingly successful.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Lew Landers; screenplay by J. Robert Bren and Edmund L. Hartmann, based on a story by Peter B. Kyne; director of photography, J. Roy Hunt; edited by Desmond Marquette; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring Sally Eilers (Kay Armstrong), Robert Armstrong (Wad. Madison), Vinton Hayworth (Len Kendrick), Ward Bond (Tim Casey), Frances Sage (Penny Armstrong) and Charley Grapewin (J.P. Kendrick).


Ellery Queen and the Murder Ring (1941, James P. Hogan)

Ellery Queen and the Murder Ring‘s title confuses me for a couple reasons. First, Ralph Bellamy’s Ellery Queen disappears for long stretches of the seventy-minute runtime. When he does show up, he usually makes a mistake or overlooks something, then someone else comes in and gets the investigation back on track. Second is the Murder Ring. There isn’t one in the movie. Not in either obvious usage of the word “ring.”

Most of Murder Ring takes place at a hospital–wait a second, they never solve the inciting mystery in the film. It gets so confused, everyone (including the viewer, hopefully) forgets.

Anyway, most of the picture involves two bumbling crooks, played by Paul Hurst and Tom Dugan, trying to escape from the hospital. They’re worried they’re murder suspects, so they assault cops, kidnap girls and so on to escape and prove their innocence.

Did I mention Murder Ring is really dumb?

The hospital hijinks probably take more than a third of the runtime–maybe forty minutes of it–and then the case gets solved in the last fifteen. Bellamy doesn’t do much solving. His assistant, an appealing Margaret Lindsay does most of the work… even though she’s not much brighter than Bellamy. They do have decent chemistry though.

Mona Barrie and James Burke give the best supporting performances. Hurst’s W.C. Fields impression gets tiresome.

Hogan’s direction is adequate, but Dwight Caldwell’s editing is awful.

It’s probably most useful as an example of why whodunits shouldn’t be slapstick.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by James P. Hogan; screenplay by Eric Taylor and Gertrude Purcell, based on a story by Frederic Dannay and Manfred Lee; director of photography, James S. Brown Jr.; edited by Dwight Caldwell; music by Zee Zahler; produced by Larry Darmour; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Ralph Bellamy (Ellery Queen), Margaret Lindsay (Nikki Porter), Charley Grapewin (Insp. Queen), Mona Barrie (Nurse Marian Tracy), Paul Hurst (Page), James Burke (Sgt. Velie), Leon Ames (John Stack), George Zucco (Dr. Edwin L. Jannery), Blanche Yurka (Mrs. Augusta Stack), Charlotte Wynters (Miss Fox), Tom Dugan (Lou Thomas), Olin Howland (Dr. Williams), Dennis Moore (Dr. Dunn), Jean Fenwick (Alice Stack) and Pierre Watkin (Crothers).


Don’t Bet On Love (1933, Murray Roth)

Ayres is a degenerate gambler (who cleans up nice) and Rogers is the girl who loves him, despite herself, of course, in this breezy melodrama. In terms of particulars, it has almost nothing to recommend it. Ayres is a little bit too believable as the callous lead, who purposely eschews all advice as he lucks into horse win after horse win (at least if he’d had a system, it might seem purposeful, but apparently, he just guesses well). It makes for problems with making him sympathetic. He doesn’t deserve a happy ending, much less one where Rogers saves him from homelessness.

As for Rogers, she’s a little bit better than Ayres, but she’s uneven in this regular girl role. It’s unbelievable she’d wait ten minutes for Ayres, much less two or three years.

The best acting is from Charley Grapewin as Ayres’s father and Tom Dugan as his sidekick. Grapewin masterfully combines the knowing elder with the concerned parent, with a dash of the disapproving parent thrown in. His performance might be the film’s showiest in some ways, but it’s also the truest. Dugan’s just the faithful sidekick, who only has to be sturdy when Ayres’s acting like a gambling addict moron, which comes up a lot in the second half. And Dugan does have the film’s only funny sequence.

Roth’s direction isn’t flashy–he does move the camera for dramatic effect quite a bit, sometimes to good effect–but it’s solid.

Don’t Bet on Love‘s almost a decent hour.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Murray Roth; written by Howard Emmett Rogers, Roth and Ben Ryan; director of photography, Jackson Rose; edited by Robert Carlisle; music by David Klatzkin; produced by Carl Laemmle Jr.; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Lew Ayres (Bill McCaffery), Ginger Rogers (Molly Gilbert), Charley Grapewin (Pop McCaffery), Shirley Grey (Goldie Williams), Tom Dugan (Scotty), Merna Kennedy (Ruby ‘Babe’ Norton), Lucile Gleason (Mrs. Gilbert) and Robert Emmett O’Connor (Edward Shelton).


Libeled Lady (1936, Jack Conway)

Libeled Lady suffers from a few things, but it’s hard to pinpoint what doesn’t work about the film because there are so many things working well. There’s a great William Powell slapstick fishing scene in the film, there’s a great wedding scene where the husband gets a peck and the best man gets a passionate kiss, there’s even a nice courtship between Powell and Myrna Loy, except Powell’s married to Jean Harlow and Loy is suing Harlow’s boyfriend, played by Spencer Tracy. The problem stems from not knowing what to do with Harlow. Libeled Lady is a ninety-eight minute comedy with four major stars, it having focusing problems isn’t even in question….

The film opens with Harlow and Tracy and it stays with Tracy for a bit, introducing Powell in a great way, but up until that introduction (and even immediately following) Libeled Lady is a newspaper comedy. This genre has disappeared, but it was prevalent in the 1930s. I’ve read the early talkie screenwriters were newspaper reporters, explaining the newspaper office as a frequent setting and the reporter as a dedicated hero. But then it turns and becomes an odd Myrna Loy-William Powell comedy, one where you really miss W.S. Van Dyke behind the camera. When Tracy and Harlow return to the film, Harlow has become superfluous. It’s not a traditional comedy–there are different expectations and responsibilities. It’s a little more serious. The audience comes to like Loy (or Loy warms to Powell and the audience warms to Loy while Powell in conflict). But, Powell never reveals the full extent of his subterfuge to Loy when the audience gets to see (again turning the film’s focus to Harlow and Tracy). There isn’t a scene because it doesn’t work with that returning focus to Harlow’s side of the story.

It’s a lot of fun, and Tracy is really good in the opening. He and Powell have a good repartee going too, but we only get to see it once. Harlow and Powell were together at the time and the chemistry cares over to celluloid, but it’s also a Powell and Loy film, which causes a disconnect. I think it’s in Myrna Loy’s biography–when Loy had a cameo in The Senator Was Indiscreet as Powell’s long-unseen wife, it wasn’t even a question for audiences she would be the wife–it was expected. It doesn’t help the film perturbs Harlow’s character arc to fit that clean ending or makes Tracy so ineffectual in the second half–though the scene with him running across a foyer is delightful. It’s in an awkward part of the film, but Tracy’s fun translates well.

It’s good. It is. It’s just the problems are more visible then they should be….

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Jack Conway; screenplay by Maurine Dallas Watkins, Howard Emmett Rogers and George Oppenheimer, based on a story by Wallace Sullivan; director of photography, Norbert Brodine; edited by Fredrick Y. Smith; music by William Axt; produced by Lawrence Weingarten; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Jean Harlow (Gladys), William Powell (Bill Chandler), Myrna Loy (Connie Allenbury), Spencer Tracy (Haggerty), Walter Connolly (Mr. Allenbury), Charley Grapewin (Mr. Bane) and Cora Witherspoon (Mrs. Burns-Norvell).


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