Karl Freund

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 Mummy (1932, Karl Freund)

The Mummy is a strange horror movie. While there’s a definite villain–a monster–in Boris Karloff’s resurrected mummy, he poses a danger specifically to only one cast member–Zita Johann. She’s the reincarnation of his lost love and her exact importance to him isn’t clear until the last act. There’s a somewhat goofy moment where Edward Van Sloan, as Johann’s guardian and the closest thing to Karloff’s nemesis, reveals it all to David Manners (as Johann’s more appropriate suitor). Fortunately Van Sloan experiences the eureka moment just in time but not too early… otherwise the entire last act could have been avoided.

And the last act is the payoff of The Mummy. There are some excellent sequences throughout and Karloff is fantastic, but the last act is where Johann gets to toggle between a reincarnated Egyptian priestess finding herself in the 20th century and her initial character. It’s less than fifteen minutes of the runtime, but it’s awesome stuff. There’s an abrupt ending to the picture, but it has gotten the job done.

Van Sloan is reliable, Manners is likable–he and Johann’s initial flirtation scene is one of the film’s more successful ones between the couple. Arthur Byron is good as another Egyptologist.

John L. Balderston’s script has a lot of fine moments too, especially for Byron, as he comes to terms with meeting a reincarnated mummy.

As for Freund’s direction… it’s always good, but sometimes exceptional. Great editing from Milton Carruth too.

The Mummy is lean and successful. Rather good stuff.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Karl Freund; screenplay by John L. Balderston, based on a story by Nina Wilcox Putnam and Richard Schayer; director of photography, Charles J. Stumar; edited by Milton Carruth; music by James Dietrich; produced by Carl Laemmle Jr.; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Boris Karloff (Imhotep), Zita Johann (Helen Grosvenor), David Manners (Frank Whemple), Arthur Byron (Sir Joseph Whemple), Edward Van Sloan (Docter Muller), Bramwell Fletcher (Ralph Norton), Noble Johnson (The Nubian), Kathryn Byron (Frau Muller), Leonard Mudie (Professor Pearson) and James Crane (The Pharaoh).


Dracula (1931, Tod Browning), the digest version

Even though it still falls apart at the end, this truncated, eight millimeter version of Dracula is better than the regular version. It’s exactly what I was hoping for from these Castle Films digests.

All of the long dialogue scenes are gone. There’s no explanation of vampires, the entire sequence before London is gone, no one even identifies Dracula by name until the flopping finish. It’s a really neat way to see the film, as it changes so many implications.

Even better, Lugosi doesn’t even have any lines. He’s a mysterious predator, not an awkwardly accented royal. There’s just enough romance between Helen Chandler and her beau too. It efficiently establishes the characters. Chandler’s first encounter with Lugosi is random chance, which makes Lugosi’s Dracula far more dangerous.

I wasn’t expecting much from this version, but Dracula finally works out. Until that ending, which is just too broke to fix.

2/3Recommended

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 Castle Films.

Starring Bela Lugosi (Count Dracula), Helen Chandler (Mina), David Manners (John Harker) and Edward Van Sloan (Van Helsing).


Dangerous Partners (1945, Edward L. Cahn)

Much of Dangerous Partners‘s excellence comes from the script. Edmund L. Hartmann adapted Eleanor Perry’s story, which Marion Parsonnet then from wrote the screenplay from–in other words, it’s hard to know who’s responsible for the script’s brilliance.

Partners has a complex, unpredictable plot–it constantly forces the viewer to reevaluate characters and situations. Added to that compelling mystery element (really, the plot is superior… it’s better than most Hitchcock just in terms of fluidity and inventiveness) are the characters. Again, it’s hard to place responsibility, but every single character in the film is incredibly strong. As it progresses, further depths reveal themselves… it’s just fantastic.

The film sets up five principals–John Warburton and Signe Hasso are married con artists, Warner Alexander is a businessman, Audrey Totter is his showgirl fiancee, and James Craig is Alexander’s corrupt attorney. Edmund Gwenn shows up as a mystery man in all their lives.

Of all the performances, Totter’s is the only one with any weakness. She recovers and does well.

But Hasso and Craig are absolutely amazing. Hasso’s cold-hearted con woman, just arriving in America to make a fast buck, is frightening. Especially when she cruelly knocks Warburton around to motivate him.

And Craig… Craig manages to make a reprehensible mob lawyer not just likable, but an excellent lead character. Craig really holds the film together.

So what’s wrong with the film?

Director Cahn. While his medium and long shots are rather uninspired, his close-ups are particularly disastrous.

Still, Partners still manages to succeed.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Edward L. Cahn; screenplay by Marion Parsonnet, based on an adaptation by Edmund L. Hartmann and a story by Eleanor Perry; director of photography, Karl Freund; edited by Ferris Webster; music by David Snell; produced by Arthur Field; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring James Craig (Jeff Caighn), Signe Hasso (Carola Ballister), Edmund Gwenn (Albert Richard Kingby), Audrey Totter (Lili Roegan), Mabel Paige (Marie Drumman), John Warburton (Clyde Ballister), Henry O’Neill (Police Lt. Duffy), Grant Withers (Jonathan Drumman), Felix Bressart (Prof. Roland Budlow), Warner Anderson (Miles Kempen), Stephen McNally (Co-pilot) and John Eldredge (Farrel).


Barricade (1939, Gregory Ratoff)

Barricade is a nice bit of pre-World War II propaganda, one of handful of ones supporting the Chinese government. The film lays it on rather thick, with heart-warming flag moments, frequent prayer, and reminders to the audience there are some people in the world worrying about more than a run in their stockings. Except the movie only runs around seventy minutes and it’s got nice sets and a lot of action, so the preachiness isn’t a significant problem. The biggest problem is Alice Faye, who’s tolerable maybe fifteen percent of the time. The rest… well, knowing the film only runs seventy minutes makes her scenes easier to tolerate.

It also helps almost all of her scenes are with Warner Baxter, who’s dependably fantastic. The nice production values and his leading man performance carry most of Barricade. There’s a hurried story about Baxter’s alcoholism and its effect of his job as a reporter and there’s an annoying bit about Faye being on the run for murder. Apparently, Barricade had massive, story-changing, role-excising cuts and its a good thing. The film’s a bore with interesting sets until the last half hour, when Mongolian bandits have the Americans under siege.

Ratoff shoots those sets really well and then when the action hits, he comes through even more. The scenes are tensed and paced well and Baxter’s running the show, so everything works–at least until the movie takes a break and reintroduces its silly elements. These silly moments are signaled by Faye’s return to the center stage, whether it’s her ludicrous woman-on-the-run story or her somewhat less ludicrous (by the last half hour) romance with Baxter.

Charles Winninger plays the America consul protecting Faye and Baxter, and his performance is a little more than the film deserves. While Baxter can manage the romance, comedy and action elements, Winninger is quite affecting and his scenes suggest the film has potential beyond what it’s realizing. It’s got some fine production values and–it’s like they had the sets, but shot the wrong script on them.

But whenever it’s looking too good, Faye pops up again and she brings it all back down. As a propaganda template, Barricade doesn’t really signal what would come during the war (it doesn’t end with the flag waving over the end title card), but it knows how to make the common elements work. In some ways, because the heroes are all down-and-outers (Winninger’s consul’s been forgotten by Washington), it’s a little more effective. But Faye and the script really drag it down….

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Gregory Ratoff; written by Granville Walker; director of photography, Karl Freund; edited by Jack Dennis; music by David Buttolph; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Warner Baxter (Hank Topping), Alice Faye (Emmy Jordan), Charles Winninger (Samuel J. Cady), Keye Luke (Ling), Willie Fung (Yen) and Leonid Snegoff (Boris).


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