Dwight Frye

The Maltese Falcon (1931, Roy Del Ruth)

Not to be too obvious, but I really wasn’t expecting a twist ending for The Maltese Falcon. But only because I’ve… read the book, seen the 1941 version, seen spoofs of it; I sort of figured I’d be able to guess the plot turns. And I did, right up until the end, when Falcon shows its been doing an entirely different kind of subterfuge than usual. The film even takes a moment to acknowledge that twist and take a bit of a bow. It’s all quite the surprise.

But Maude Fulton and Brown Holmes’s script always seems too good for the production. Falcon is an early talkie. Director Del Ruth has no idea how to do close-ups—he and cinematographer William Rees—don’t match the angles right, the actors aren’t in the same spots, editor George Marks isn’t doing any extra favors (he doesn’t know how to cut line deliveries). The film does have some good visual storytelling ideas, but they’re mostly transition stuff; who knows maybe the script has the transitions. Or they’re just where Del Ruth has the best ideas. But—throughout—it’s clear this script deserved a better execution. Not as an adaptation of the source novel, but the script itself.

It’s not just the choppy filmmaking, it’s the acting. The best performance in the film is Una Merkel as Ricardo Cortez’s girl Friday. There’s a lot of implication they’re having an affair, but she doesn’t mind playing wing-girl for him hooking up with every other woman he meets in the movie until the last scene. Like, Cortez is a shocking man slut, so much so it forgives his performance. He comes off like a bit of a dandy, but then he’s able to toggle into being tough; he’s better at being tough. He’s a sociopath. So’s leading lady Bebe Daniels. Or is he falling for her and blind to it? Or vice versa? And those aspects of both characters is straight from the script, from how they behave, react to outside stimuli, whatever. It comes through in the film, but isn’t really presented well. It’s like the script has a point to make about the source novel, but the actual film doesn’t get the script is trying to make a point, but still precisely follows the script.

Falcon’s also pre-Code, so lots of sexy, lots of scanty. Since the film revolves around Cortez and Cortez is apparently only in the private detective racket so he can score with vulnerable women… even though Del Ruth and Rees can’t figure out how to match a shot perspective between close-up and two shot, they do manage to create a fantastic narrative distance. It’s just it needs to be identified, which doesn’t happen until the twist ending.

Back to the acting.

Cortez is okay. It works out, but it’s occasionally a little much. He’s only got like two things he can do. Three if you count him putting his hands in his vest pockets. Daniels is similar. She’s got some really good moments, but they’re spread out wrong. The film doesn’t know how to emphasize its actors’ deliveries, which is most on display with ostensible scenery-chewer Dudley Digges. Digges is a sweaty mess of vague but obvious sinfulness with major interpersonal communication issues. And somehow Del Ruth, Rees, and Marks manage to drain all the momentum from his deliveries with how they cut between shots. Maltese Falcon has a lot of pacing issues, down to reaction times for actors. There’s a lot of talking in the film; the vast majority of the film is just talking. And Del Ruth never figures out how to keep up the momentum of it. It’s like it ought to be stagy, but isn’t. Del Ruth is overenthusiastic when it comes to emphasizing the performances.

And it mostly hurts Digges. Hurts Matieson a bit, but not as much. Matieson doesn’t bit down on a sofa arm and rip it apart. Digges goes wild.

Walter Long’s good enough as Cortez’s partner. Thelma Todd is about as good but wasted as Long’s wife, who Cortez is having an affair with; naturally. Though, again, the twist. It covers a lot of storytelling choices from the script, including who gets screen time and how. Robert Elliott is annoying as the by-the-books cop. He comes off as an idiot, not a capable crime solver. J. Farrell MacDonald is fine as the good cop. They’re around a lot, but they don’t really matter because they’re not women Cortez can try to make time with.

The Maltese Falcon is way too blasé about itself. It’s got an exceptionally good script, but Del Ruth doesn’t seem to know what to do about it. Or with it.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Roy Del Ruth; screenplay by Maude Fulton and Brown Holmes, based on the novel by Dashiell Hammett; director of photography, William Rees; edited by George Marks; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Bebe Daniels (Ruth Wonderly), Ricardo Cortez (Sam Spade), Dudley Digges (Casper Gutman), Una Merkel (Effie Perine), Robert Elliott (Detective Lt. Dundy), Thelma Todd (Iva Archer), Otto Matieson (Dr. Joel Cairo), Walter Long (Miles Archer), Dwight Frye (Wilmer Cook), and J. Farrell MacDonald (Det. Sgt. Tom Polhouse).


Frankenstein (1931, James Whale), the digest version

The eight millimeter digest version of Frankenstein removes all but three main characters. Colin Clive gets the most time, though loses all subplots and character, with Boris Karloff probably coming in second. It’s odd to watch Frankenstein and have the monster make so little impression but it’s clearly possible.

Dwight Frye, for a while, makes the greatest impact, but only because he’s present in most the background of the establishing scenes.

The digest also retains the drowned little girl, Maria, though she’s barely there too. It’s strange to see what the editors thought was the most resonate, but the little girl’s drowning does lead to the manhunt, which does feed the finish. I guess it makes sense.

The little edits are bad. Reaction shots are cut, the film’s just generally sped up. Frankenstein loses top much personality when s drastically cut.

Even the fiery windmill sequence suffers in this abbreviation.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by James Whale; screenplay by Francis Edward Faragoh and Garrett Ford, based on an adaptation by John L. Balderston of a play by Peggy Webling and a novel by Mary Shelley; directors of photography, Arthur Edeson and Paul Ivano; edited by Clarence Kolster; music by Bernhard Kaun; produced by Carl Laemmle Jr.; released by Castle Films.

Starring Colin Clive (Dr. Henry Frankenstein), Boris Karloff (The Monster), Dwight Frye (Fritz), Lionel Belmore (Herr Vogel) and Marilyn Harris (Little Maria).


Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943, Roy William Neill)

Of all the Universal monster movies, The Wolf Man “deserved” a real sequel most. With Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, Lon Chaney Jr.’s abilities to essay the Larry Talbot role really shine through. I’ve read (and maybe even repeated here) Chaney never gets credit for playing such a physical role while being a bigger man.

Here he actually starts showing off a lot of acting chops, as his character becomes, essentially, a suicidal lunatic. Being able to elicit sympathy with such a character is no easy task and Chaney does it. It helps having Maria Ouspenskaya around doesn’t hurt. In maybe three minutes, she and Chaney establish this surrogate mother and son relationship and whenever he talks about killing himself, they cut to her quietly sad expression.

Of course, the film’s got a lot of editing troubles of that nature (Bela Lugosi’s Frankenstein monster originally talked, making the film a direct sequel to the previous Ghost of Frankenstein, but they cut those scenes out) and there’s Patric Knowles’s way too rapid switch from caring doctor to mad scientist.

Knowles is fine at the beginning, when the film’s just a Wolf Man sequel, but gets silly when he returns. Ilona Massey is also a weak female lead.

The supporting cast is strong–Lionel Atwill, Dennis Hoey, Dwight Frye are all good. Rex Evans is a great villain, but never gets his comeuppance.

And Neill’s a solid director, even if he doesn’t top his opening shot.

Decent enough, could’ve been better.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Roy William Neill; written by Curt Siodmak; director of photography, George Robinson; edited by Edward Curtiss; music by Hans J. Salter; produced by George Waggner; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Lon Chaney Jr. (Lawrence Talbot), Patric Knowles (Dr. Frank Mannering), Ilona Massey (Baroness Elsa Frankenstein), Maria Ouspenskaya (Maleva), Lionel Atwill (Mayor of Vasaria), Bela Lugosi (Frankenstein Monster), Dennis Hoey (Inspector Owen), Rex Evans (Vazec) and Dwight Frye (Rudi).


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THIS POST IS PART OF THE DYNAMIC DUOS IN CLASSIC FILM BLOGATHON HOSTED BY ANNMARIE OF CLASSIC MOVIE HUB and AURORA OF ONCE UPON A SCREEN.


The Vampire Bat (1933, Frank R. Strayer)

It’s hard not to be, at least, somewhat impressed with The Vampire Bat, if only because it came out in 1933 as a knockoff Universal horror picture. Except at this point, there’d only been Frankenstein, Dracula and The Mummy. The Vampire Bat brilliantly resembles a Universal horror picture in every way but the filmmaking. There’s the burgomaster, played by the same guy as in Frankenstein (Lionel Belmore). Dwight Frye plays a role somewhat similar to Renfield. It’s only the three principles who don’t really fit–and Lionel Atwill would go on to do a lot of Universal horror pictures.

The screenwriter Lowe eventually did write a Universal horror picture. It took him eleven years, but he wrote House of Frankenstein.

It’s a knockoff, but it’s an effective knockoff made on a lower budget without music. By Bride of Frankenstein, in 1935, music was very important in the Universal horror formula. Seeing one of these pictures without the music is very interesting–it’s a transitory step, but made by a different studio.

The film was shot on the Universal backlot at night. But the set isn’t directed like it’s a Universal horror picture. Frank R. Strayer had time to do a lot of crane shots. His interior shots aren’t impressive (way too much headroom), but the exteriors and transition shots, it looks like Curtiz shot it during his exterior movement phase.

It distracts the viewer from realizing he or she has never seen the exterior of Lionel Atwill’s house. It’s referred to as the castle, but it’s never shown.

Atwill is pretty bad. He would go on to develop a certain character and he hasn’t gotten to it here. Fay Wray’s in it, just before Kong. They don’t use her much. She’s the girl in peril, but only a little bit. The movie only runs sixty-five minutes. She’s second-billed and it’s like they couldn’t get her to stay up late to shoot.

The most interesting thing is Melvyn Douglas, being someone who went on to greater fame. He’s fantastic in this film. He’s very aware of what film he’s in, almost mugging for the viewer when he has to deliver crazy lines–actually, when the other actors deliver the crazy lines to him, you can feel his understanding of how absurd the viewer feels watching the exchange.

Maude Eburne plays Wray’s aunt. It’s never explained why Wray works for Atwill or why Eburne lives there with them (Wray probably lives here because she’s Atwill’s assistant). It’s also never explained what kind of medicine Atwill practices (or why he needs the Universal horror bubbling devices).

Thinking about The Vampire Bat at all, it collapses–which isn’t to say it holds up. It’s an interesting debacle. It ends on a joke and it’s one of the most unfunny jokes you could end on. There’s a whole comic element to the film. Eburne’s played for laughs and it makes no sense.

For a sixty-five minute film to be as meandering and as loosely constructed as this one, it’s impressive.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Frank R. Strayer; screenplay by Edward T. Lowe Jr.; director of photography, Ira H. Morgan; edited by Otis Garrett; produced by Phil Goldstone; released by Majestic Pictures.

Starring Lionel Atwill (Dr. Otto von Niemann), Fay Wray (Ruth Bertin), Melvyn Douglas (Karl Brettschneider), Maude Eburne (Aunt Gussie Schnappmann), George E. Stone (Kringen), Dwight Frye (Herman Gleib), Robert Frazer (Emil Borst), Rita Carlyle (Martha Mueller), Lionel Belmore (Bürgermeister Gustave Schoen), William V. Mong (Sauer), Stella Adams (Georgiana) and Harrison Greene (Weingarten).


Frankenstein (1931, James Whale)

I’m trying to imagine how Frankenstein looks on the big screen–maybe on one the size of Radio City Music Hall; James Whale fills the screen upward. He directs the viewer’s attention always up, starting with the first scenes in the tower laboratory. The frames are obviously filled with extensive detail, which video certainly does not preserve. This style–tall screen (versus wide screen)–amplifies the watered-down Expressionist sets.

The film’s set design is stunning. Again, to complement Whale’s tall screen shots, the Frankenstein manor has cavernous rooms. The actors frequently occupy corners, making me wonder if theatrical audiences had to search for them in the expansive shots. But when the film’s sets are for the outdoors–the film’s famous graveyard opening for example–Whale uses the frame much differently. The painted backdrop, the endlessly murky sky, is Frankenstein‘s suspension of disbelief on-switch. Opening with it, Whale gets the viewer to accept he or she is no longer on familiar ground. Edward Van Sloan’s opening warning probably contributes as well.

Without a musical score, with incredibly delicate sound design and occasionally jarring cuts, Frankenstein is a strange dream. The first scene with Boris Karloff is the best example of this dream state. The nearly silent introduction to the monster, combined with the perspectively challenged sets, distances the viewer from Colin Clive and Van Sloan. This approach to the narrative–it being distant from the characters and more objective–really plays out in the last scene. As the Monster burns in the windmill, it’s hard not to feel sorry for him, but the film doesn’t encourage any sympathy. The lack of music really makes the narrative perspective indifferent.

That indifference only applies to the story of Clive and Karloff–and to some degree to Clive’s romance with Mae Clarke. The film’s very strange for the first act–with the grave-robbing, followed by Dwight Frye robbing the medical college (the lecture in the medical college is also worth some examination, which I’m not going to make time for here), then the rather frank scene between Clarke and John Boles. The friendship between Boles and Clive’s characters hardly gets any screen time, yet it’s present and important to the film. Frankenstein takes a lot of filmic shortcuts, usually to good effect, and that conflicted friendship is successful.

But it isn’t the most successful… the strangest thing about Frankenstein is the place of Frederick Kerr as Clive’s father. As it plays out, Kerr is the film’s main character. Even with all the conflict stemming from bringing a monster to life, the real focus is Clive and Clarke’s wedding, specifically what Kerr’s great scenes related to it. When Kerr first appears, Frankenstein changes direction–it goes from being uncanny to a bent traditional–and each of his scenes is better than the previous.

His performance isn’t the film’s best–all the principals are great, with Clive somehow turning that field day for overacting into one of Hollywood’s greatest portrayals of insanity. But in Whale’s detachment, Clive becomes even more removed in his recovering sanity. Boles and Clarke occasionally seem like they’re in a melodrama, but both have some great moments. Van Sloan’s great, as is Frye.

Karloff’s performance is singular.

Only in the end–like with most Universal horror films–does Frankenstein begin to show its stitches. The lack of content, of actual story, comes out as everything begins to run together (the Monster’s off screen rampaging, the attack on Clarke) and logic hops out the window. Around the same time, men in 1930s dress appear alongside the guys in lederhosen, which might give logic a shove.

It doesn’t really matter much, because by that time, Frankenstein‘s already established itself. Whale’s technically superior hunt through the mountains and the windmill finale, as narratively problematic as they are, still work great.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by James Whale; screenplay by Francis Edward Faragoh and Garrett Ford, based on an adaptation by John L. Balderston of a play by Peggy Webling and a novel by Mary Shelley; directors of photography, Arthur Edeson and Paul Ivano; edited by Clarence Kolster; music by Bernhard Kaun; produced by Carl Laemmle Jr.; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Colin Clive (Dr. Henry Frankenstein), Mae Clarke (Elizabeth), John Boles (Victor Moritz), Boris Karloff (The Monster), Edward Van Sloan (Dr. Waldman), Frederick Kerr (Baron Frankenstein), Dwight Frye (Fritz), Lionel Belmore (Herr Vogel) and Marilyn Harris (Little Maria).


Sinners in Paradise (1938, James Whale)

It’s James Whale’s “Gilligan’s Island,” only with more rear screen projection, as a plane crash in the Pacific brings a varied bunch together on a tropical island. It’s a boring sixty-five minutes–the script’s real stagy, with a two or three week (there’s a lot of problems with time) break in the middle, with the second half establishing all the changes instead of showing them occur. And Whale’s not much of a director here. As good a job as he does inside (even though almost all of Sinners in Paradise was shot on a sound stage), the pseudo-exteriors don’t work. It’s all too goofy, with labeled straw huts and everyone having changes of clothes after swimming from a burning plane.

The movie’s tolerable due more to geniality than anything else, though some expectation is laid throughout for the ending, especially in regards to the future of John Boles’s character. Boles is on the island when the plane crash survivors arrive and, in a strange string of scenes, refuses to help them. At that point–though the time on the plane itself is misspent–Sinners is still moderately well-paced. The script hasn’t gotten around to speeding past all the interesting moments. Of course, the viewer learns Boles’s backstory, but the characters never do, which is an awkward choice, but it does give Whale a cheap way out at the end.

Boles is visibly worn out–and Whale’s awkward close-ups, a holdover from before sound design, don’t do him any favors. Madge Evans is okay as his love interest, but her character never gets to be developed either. Charlotte Wynters is similarly okay as an heiress and Gene Lockhart is funny as a possibly corrupt senator. Marion Martin is annoying and the rest of the cast is either serviceable or bad.

Except for Bruce Cabot, who has fun–shirtless almost all time, which is never explained either–as a gangster with a heart of gold.

Where the movie’s most interesting is in its politics. It’s anti-war profiteering and pro-union. There’s a lot of subtle socialism in the exposition (co-writer Lester Cole was one of the Hollywood Ten), not to mention the inference true democracy and the senator’s version of it are quite different.

It’s a strange b-movie, if only because of the script (at times, even though Whale isn’t directing it right, the dialogue is excellent), not to mention the political elements. And it doesn’t hurt, even though Boles’s performance is a tad broad, his chemistry with Evans is palpable.

And who can get down on a movie with an uncredited Dwight Frye bit part?

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by James Whale; screenplay by Harold Buckley, Louis Stevens and Lester Cole, based on a story by Buckley; director of photography, George Robinson; edited by Maurice Wright; music by Charles Previn and Oliver Wallace; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Madge Evans (Anne Wesson), John Boles (Jim Taylor), Bruce Cabot (Robert Malone), Marion Martin (Iris Compton), Gene Lockhart (State Senator John P. Corey), Charlotte Wynters (Thelma Chase), Nana Bryant (Mrs. Franklin Sydney), Milburn Stone (T.L. Honeyman), Don ‘Red’ Barry (Jessup), Morgan Conway (Harrison Brand), Willie Fung (Ping) and Dwight Frye (Marshall).


Dracula (1931, Tod Browning)

I never got Dracula. Even as a kid, I never watched it over and over, like I did the other Universal monster movies. When I went back and saw it in the late 1990s–after Ed Wood–Bela Lugosi’s performance horrified me. He makes funny faces and does Charles Atlas exercises for scary body language and woodenly says his lines. Apparently some blame Lugosi’s English-speaking skills on this performance (the lack thereof), but really, the line’s are just crap and hadn’t Lugosi been on stage in the play version? If so, he should have at least been responsible for inflection.

Regardless, while Lugosi is a major problem with Dracula, he’s hardly the one who breaks it. He might make silly faces, but the whole approach of the film is wrong. Dracula, more than any film I’ve seen, exists solely for the audience. These events aren’t happening to the characters in the film, rather they’re happening so the viewer can see them happen. Characters talk about each other when they’ve never met, nor is there any suggestion they’ve met, but the viewer has met both and so he or she is able to make some kind of connection. This example is indicative of Dracula’s narrative style and it isn’t–in itself–a bad thing. It just isn’t used to any effect. It’s pointless and a sign of some bad writing. The further signs of bad writing–when, for example, Van Helsing promises to deal with the vampiric Lucy–whose been feeding on small children–then does nothing… well, either a scene got cut or no one read the script before they started shooting. Further script problems include the comedy relief, which doesn’t really deserve to be mentioned. Some of the storytelling problems might stem from Dracula coming soon after the change to talkies, as it did have a silent version released at the time, and most of the film is actually silent. I wonder if the silent version, with intertitles, would be better.

The acting ranges from good to awful. Lugosi’s bad, so is leading man David Manners. Helen Chandler’s girl in distress isn’t always bad–when Chandler’s doing a scene with her friend, I almost thought I was wrong about Dracula, since the scene was so good and Chandler so likable (turned out I wasn’t)–but she does occasionally slip between her “British” accent and her native South Carolinian, which is distracting. Dwight Frye is good as Renfield. Only Edward Van Sloan–as Van Helsing–gives a really good performance, interpreting Van Helsing as a severe German, straight out of an Otto von Bismarck biopic. He even mimics some of Lugosi’s mannerisms, which almost sets up a juxtaposition, at least visually, but the story never catches on.

Even with all its defects, Dracula still manages to disappoint overall. The conclusion is hurried and nonsensical, not just leaving me wondering what’s going on in a broad sense, but also in an immediate one. Like, why Manners and Chandler are going up the huge staircase instead of leaving the creepy building? Perhaps it’s a metaphor for watching the film.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Tod Browning; written by Hamilton Dean, John L. Balderston and Garrett Fort, based on their play and the novel by Bram Stoker; director of photography, Karl Freund; edited by Milton Carruth and Maurice Pivar; produced by Browning and Carl Laemmle Jr.; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Bela Lugosi (Count Dracula), Helen Chandler (Mina), David Manners (John Harker), Dwight Frye (Renfield), Edward Van Sloan (Van Helsing), Herbert Bunston (Dr. Jack Seward), Frances Dade (Lucy Weston), Joan Standing (Briggs, a nurse) and Charles K. Gerrard (Martin).


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