Maureen O’Sullivan

The Emperor’s Candlesticks (1937, George Fitzmaurice)

The Emperor’s Candlesticks starts with an exceptional display of chemistry from Robert Young and Maureen O’Sullivan. They’re at the opera, it’s the late nineteenth century, it’s a masked costume ball, Young is a Grand Duke dressed as Romeo, and O’Sullivan is the sun.

Then it turns out O’Sullivan is working with a bunch of Polish nationalists who want to kidnap Young and ransom him for a political prisoner getting a pardon from the Czar (Young’s dad). Young and O’Sullivan aren’t the leads of the picture, the leads of the picture are William Powell and Luise Rainer. Powell’s an ostensibly apolitical Polish noble who’s more interested in philandering than revolting, Rainer’s a Russian noble who’s a professional spy. So Powell gets the mission to bring Young’s letter to the Czar and get the prisoner freed. Simultaneously, Rainer’s compatriots have discovered Powell’s actually a spy too. So she’s charged with bringing evidence of his treachery to St. Petersburg.

They both have a mutual acquaintance in Henry Stephenson, who wants Powell to take a pair of candlesticks to a Russian princess Stephenson is courting. The candlesticks have this awesome hidden compartment and Powell’s more than happy to do Stephenson the favor, since the hidden compartment is perfect for the letter he’s got to transport.

Powell gets ahead of himself and puts the note in before taking possession of the candlesticks, which Stephenson wants to have delivered to Powell at the train station. Seems like everything’s going to be fine, until—just missing Powell—Rainer pays Stephenson a visit and he can’t resist showing her the hidden compartment either. Powell’s worried about getting his document into Russia, Rainer’s worried about getting her documents out of Poland. It doesn’t take much for Rainer to charm Stephenson into letting her deliver the candlesticks to his lady friend. Rainer puts her documents in the other candlestick; they’re distinguished by some slight damage.

So there’s already the trouble—for Powell—of catching up to Rainer and getting at the candlesticks. But then there’s Bernadine Hayes, Rainer’s maid, who’s let thief Donald Kirke talk her into robbing her mistress of her jewelry… and her candlesticks. So then there’s going to be trouble for everyone, leading to a sometimes joint effort from Powell and Rainer, sometimes separate, across the continent. Powell’s mission has a timeline (the prisoner’s execution is set and, therefore, Young’s is as well).

Powell and Rainer falling in love doesn’t help things, especially for her, since she knows about her mission and its repercussions for Powell (he’ll be arrested, then shot by firing squad), while Powell is just trying to make sure neither the prisoner or the Grand Duke run out of time.

Powell and Rainer falling for each other pretty early, which works out well because they’ve got to bring enough chemistry to overshadow the memory of Young and O’Sullivan’s at the beginning. They do, with Rainer doing the heavier lifting as she’s falling for a man she’s condemning, but the film’s got to keep that angle pretty light—Powell’s whole persona in the picture is based on him not acting at all like a secret agent, but a playboy, including when he’s hustling to get the candlesticks. He’s doing it—he tells Rainer—because as a gentleman he should be aiding a lady in distress. Little does he know he’s causing Rainer a great deal more distress than she anticipated.

With the exception of Frank Morgan’s out-of-place introduction (he’s Young’s sidekick, in and out of captivity), Candlesticks is a joyous. Powell and Rainer are wonderful, O’Sullivan and Young are great, Stephenson’s fun. Morgan’s a little much but not enough to hurt the experience. And Morgan’s fine, he just takes up time Young could be spending with O’Sullivan.

Fitzmaurice’s direction is good. Every once in a while Candlesticks will go to second unit exteriors, which gives it a nice scale. With the exception of a (second unit-fueled) montage sequence, Conrad A. Nervig’s editing is poor. Lots of harsh cuts, a handful of severe jump cuts. Some of it is lack of coverage, but Nervig doesn’t have a good rhythm. Luckily the actors are so good and the Harold Goldman and Monckton Hoffe script is so strong, Nervig’s rough editing doesn’t do much damage. It’s occasionally grating.

Otherwise, the film’s technically solid.

Thanks to Powell and Rainer (and Young and O’Sullivan), The Emperor’s Candlesticks is a constant delight.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by George Fitzmaurice; screenplay by Harold Goldman and Monckton Hoffe, based on a novel by Baroness Emmuska Orczy; director of photography, Harold Rosson; edited by Conrad A. Nervig; music by Franz Waxman; produced by John W. Considine Jr.; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring William Powell (Baron Stephan Wolensky), Luise Rainer (Countess Olga Mironova), Robert Young (Grand Duke Peter), Maureen O’Sullivan (Maria Orlich), Bernadene Hayes (Mitzi Reisenbach), Donald Kirke (Anton), Frank Morgan (Col. Baron Suroff), and Henry Stephenson (Prince Johann).


A Connecticut Yankee (1931, David Butler)

A Connecticut Yankee fumbles on pretty much every level, including wasting lead Will Rogers. The big problem is the script, from William M. Conselman. It doesn’t help any director Butler can’t mount an action or comedy sequences, because there’s nothing else in the picture. It doesn’t even work as a Rogers vehicle because his character’s so poorly written.

The film opens in the present, with vaguely dopey electronics repairman slash radio station announcer Rogers going to an old dark house to deliver a battery. He meets the house’s strange inhabitants and then gets knocked unconscious by a falling suit of armor. When he wakes up, he’s in sixth century England. Has Rogers mystically travelled back in time or is he unconscious on a floor? Oh, the drama.

Regardless of inventiveness, the device should give the film a chance to reset. The film sets Rogers up as slightly lazy, mostly stupid. No doubt once he gets back to olden times he’ll make a change for the better. Not really, though. He’s still just a bit of a moron. Conselman’s script makes cracks about him being a Democrat–which is on brand for Rogers, but one would think he’d want better material than one-liners.

Rogers meets King Arthur (William Farnum) and Merlin (Brandon Hurst). Both Farnum and Hurst are bad, but it’s hard to blame them. Their writing is terrible and Butler’s direction of actors is somewhat worse than his direction of action. At least with the action, there’s the castle set. It’s fine. Not so much once Rogers modernizes Camelot. Right after he proves himself worthy, the film cuts to a Camelot with telephones, roller-skates, machine guns, tanks, cars, whatever else.

Because Rogers might be a questionably talented electrician and radio announcer, but he’s a king of all industry. Connecticut Yankee would probably be able to get away with it if there was any direction. Conselman’s script is too inept for comedy or commentary, as is Butler’s direction.

There’s an almost amusing knight vs. cowboy joust. Butler can’t direct it, unfortunately. Then Farnum and Rogers go adventuring; they need to rescue princess Maureen O’Sullivan from evil queen Myrna Loy.

Rogers gets sympathy, but he’s not good. Farnum’s not good. O’Sullivan is appealing but she has a handful of scenes and nothing to do. Same with Frank Albertson as Rogers’s pointless sidekick. Hurst is awful in a fun way as Merlin though. He’s always sprinkling dust on things. Because magic.

Loy’s probably the best? It’s hard to say, as Conselman’s script is so wretched; Loy at least gets to have some fantastic gowns.

The big action finale with knights with tommy-guns ought to be a lot better. Everything about Connecticut Yankee ought to be better. Conselman and Butler never have a handle on the film. They’re fumbling from scene one.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by David Butler; screenplay by William M. Conselman, based on a novel by Mark Twain; director of photography, Ernest Palmer; edited by Irene Morra; released by Fox Film Corporation.

Starring Will Rogers (Hank Martin), William Farnum (Arthur), Frank Albertson (Clarence), Brandon Hurst (Merlin), Maureen O’Sullivan (Alisande), Mitchell Harris (Sagramor), and Myrna Loy (Morgan le Fay).


Tarzan and His Mate (1934, Cedric Gibbons)

For a film called Tarzan and His Mate, Johnny Weissmuller’s Tarzan doesn’t get much to do. He spends the film rescuing Maureen O’Sullivan (which is one of the more frustrating aspects of the film–she doesn’t exhibit any jungle survival skills until the finale) from a variety of animals. These sequences are often exciting, especially since the film doesn’t have any music. It’s just the sound of the jungle battle, expertly cut together by editor Tom Held.

The film opens with Neil Hamilton and Paul Cavanagh as ivory hunters mounting an expedition. Hamilton’s O’Sullivan’s ex, Cavanagh is his blue blood gone poor best friend. Cavanagh’s delightfully scummy, though director Gibbons makes the audience sorry for enjoying it once they meet up with Weissmuller and O’Sullivan.

O’Sullivan’s been living in wild Africa for a year (since the previous film) and she’s left the world of high society and so on. She runs around the jungle in skimpy (but functional) attire and, after spending at least twenty minutes objectifying O’Sullivan (from Cavanagh and Hamilton’s perspective, the film’s actually rather complex in how it presents her), Gibbons is able to get over it to some degree. He and O’Sullivan (and Weissmuller) sell it. Maybe the nude swimming scene just overwhelms enough.

Except then O’Sullivan (and Weissmuller) fall out of the plot and the excellent wildlife effects take over.

Neither the finish (or her scripted helplessness) do justice to O’Sullivan’s performance. Its handling of the extant sexuality, however, is as impressive as its action.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Cedric Gibbons; screenplay by Howard Emmett Rogers, Leon Gordon and James Kevin McGuinness, based on characters created by Edgar Rice Burroughs; directors of photography, Charles G. Clarke and Clyde De Vinna; edited by Tom Held; produced by Bernard H. Hyman; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Johnny Weissmuller (Tarzan), Maureen O’Sullivan (Jane Parker), Neil Hamilton (Harry Holt), Paul Cavanagh (Martin Arlington), Nathan Curry (Saidi) and Forrester Harvey (Beamish).


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A Day at the Races (1937, Sam Wood)

Until the halfway point or so, A Day at the Races moves quite well. Sure, it gets off to a slow start–introducing Chico as sidekick to Maureen O’Sullivan and setting up her problems (her sanitarium is going out of business), which isn’t funny stuff. I think Allan Jones even shows up as her nightclub singing beau before the other Marx Brothers make an appearance. But once they do, Races gets in gear.

There are a series of excellent sequences, all utilizing the Marx Brothers. Whether it’s Harpo doing physical comedy, Groucho and Chico doing a banter bit–with Harpo joining them in another one a few minutes later–Races uses them to wonderful effect. Director Wood even gets in a fine instrument playing number for Harpo and Chico.

And the supporting cast–O’Sullivan, Margaret Dumont, Leonard Ceeley, Douglass Dumbrille–is strong. Jones is an exception; his performance is broad, but he’s likable enough.

Until the second half, when the film should be giving him more to do acting-wise and doesn’t, instead giving him a long musical number. That long musical number, which leads to Harpo recruiting the nearby poor black workers into the number, kills Races’s pace. The previous musical interlude, with a lengthy (and gorgeous) ballet sequence, is about all it could handle. Maybe because there was great Marx Brothers comedy immediately following.

After the second musical sequence? Uninspired situation comedy. Races manages a satisfactory recovery in the finish, but it can’t make up the time.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Sam Wood; screenplay by Robert Pirosh, George Seaton and George Oppenheimer, based on a story by Pirosh and Seaton; director of photography, Joseph Ruttenberg; edited by Frank E. Hull; music by Franz Waxman; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Groucho Marx (Dr. Hackenbush), Chico Marx (Tony), Harpo Marx (Stuffy), Allan Jones (Gil), Maureen O’Sullivan (Judy), Margaret Dumont (Mrs. Upjohn), Leonard Ceeley (Whitmore), Douglass Dumbrille (Morgan), Esther Muir (‘Flo’), Robert Middlemass (Sheriff), Vivien Fay (Dancer), Ivie Anderson (Vocalist) and Sig Ruman (Dr. Steinberg).


The Thin Man (1934, W.S. Van Dyke)

While enough cannot be said about the efficiency of W.S. Van Dyke’s direction of the The Thin Man, the efficiency of the script deserves an equal amount of praise. Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich get in so much little character stuff for the supporting cast, it’s hard to imagine how the film could possibly function without it. Robert Kern’s editing is essential for it to work too–the pace of reaction shots is fabulous.

Of course, the script’s structure is also peculiar. Until their second big scene–their first one alone–William Powell and Myrna Loy aren’t the leads of the story. Instead, it’s Maureen O’Sullivan. She starts out the film and it then moves to introduce various people into her story. Even at the end, after O’Sullivan has long since given up the primary supporting role to Nat Pendleton’s police inspector, she’s still integral.

From Powell and Loy’s first scene, their chemistry commands the film. The script has the banter, but it’s the way the actors play off each other (under Van Dyke’s able direction). Also wonderful is how the intercuts of their dog enhances the scenes. Van Dyke cuts to these reaction shots of Asta the terrier and it makes the viewer feel part of this peculiar family.

It’s important too, since much of the film takes place in Powell and Loy’s hotel suite.

The leads are great, the supporting cast is excellent–Edward Brophy, Harold Huber, Minna Gombell, Porter Hall being the standouts.

The Thin Man’s a masterpiece; it’s brilliant filmmaking.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by W.S. Van Dyke; screenplay by Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich, based on the novel by Dashiell Hammett; director of photography, James Wong Howe; edited by Robert Kern; music by William Axt; produced by Hunt Stromberg; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring William Powell (Nick), Myrna Loy (Nora), Maureen O’Sullivan (Dorothy), Nat Pendleton (Guild), Minna Gombell (Mimi), Porter Hall (MacCaulay), Henry Wadsworth (Tommy), William Henry (Gilbertt), Harold Huber (Nunheim), Cesar Romero (Chris), Natalie Moorhead (Julia Wolf), Edward Brophy (Morelli), Cyril Thornton (Tanner) and Edward Ellis (Clyde Wynant).


My Dear Miss Aldrich (1937, George B. Seitz)

All My Dear Miss Aldrich is missing is a good script. Well, it’s missing some other things, but with a good script, it could have survived.

The film has a lot of events in the first thirty or forty minutes, with the remaining minutes centered on a mystery. But it’s not really a mystery because Aldrich is a comedy at a newspaper. Even when there are crimes committed, no one pays attention, because being held hostage isn’t a crime if the victim’s a newspaper employee apparently.

Maureen O’Sullivan inherits a New York newspaper and heads there (from Nebraska) with her aunt, played by Edna May Oliver. O’Sullivan and Oliver are great together; it’s unfortunate they soon get separated.

The paper’s run by Walter Pidgeon’s sexist editor. He’s so sexist, his all male staff thinks he’s overboard. So the film seems like it’s O’Sullivan out to prove him wrong… only she never does. In fact, she proves his argument—she’s just a silly woman and needs to marry him. Maybe if Pidgeon were charming or in any way appealing, it might be passable as a dated, unfortunately sexist picture.

But Pidgeon’s not appealing. His performance isn’t terrible, but he’s a jerk. Everyone thinks he’s a jerk. It’s hard to see why anyone is supposed to be in his corner.

Seitz’s direction’s merely adequate. He doesn’t get enough coverage and editor William S. Gray has to make some nasty cuts.

O’Sullivan and Oliver almost make Aldrich tolerable… but it’s a losing battle.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by George B. Seitz; written by Herman J. Mankiewicz; director of photography, Charles Lawton Jr.; edited by William S. Gray; music by David Snell; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Edna May Oliver (Mrs. Lou Atherton), Maureen O’Sullivan (Martha Aldrich), Walter Pidgeon (Kenneth ‘Ken’ Morley), Rita Johnson (Ellen Warfield), Janet Beecher (Mrs. Sinclair), Paul Harvey (Mr. Sinclair), Charles Waldron (Mr. Warfield, ex-governor), Walter Kingsford (Mr. Talbot), Roger Converse (Ted Martin), Guinn ‘Big Boy’ Williams (Red Apple Inn attendant guarding room), Leonid Kinskey (Red Apple Inn waiter), Brent Sargent (Gregory Stone), J. Farrell MacDonald (‘Doc’ Howe) and Robert Greig (Red Apple Inn majordomo).


Tarzan the Ape Man (1932, W.S. Van Dyke)

It’s hard to believe a movie called Tarzan the Ape Man is going to be boring, but this one drags on and on. After a solid opening twenty minutes, the movie stumbles and never regains its footing. The problem is with Tarzan. Johnny Weissmuller’s Tarzan obviously doesn’t speak English but he also doesn’t communicate. He makes noises and so on, but there aren’t any conversations between him and the apes. He just runs around, occasionally getting into fights with lions or having to run from crocodiles. The action scenes are all very well done–beautifully edited, seeing as how there’s the shots of the actors cut together with location footage of the animals–but there’s no narrative. Even some of the sequences with Weissmuller and Maureen O’Sullivan, while well done (O’Sullivan being fantastic doesn’t hurt), are of little consequence to the actual plot.

The opening’s a different matter, however. It’s a far more literate film than what follows. O’Sullivan arrives in Africa to reunite with father C. Aubrey Smith after a long absence and there’s a great moment with Smith realizing his daughter has become a woman. It’s an entirely unexpected, wonderful scene and it really had me looking forward to the rest of the film.

Then it’s Smith, O’Sullivan and Neil Hamilton into the jungle as they search for a fabled elephant graveyard (for the ivory, of course). There’s some good action scenes as they climb a mountain and then have to get across a river of angry hippopotamuses. These sequences are all good… but immediately following the river traversing, Weissmuller shows up and the good plotting stops.

Hamilton becomes a bad guy, which isn’t unexpected since he plays him as morally ambiguous from the start. What’s strange about the transition is the film doesn’t recognize it. Hamilton’s shooting all over the place, but the movie still treats him like a good guy in the end. It’s inexplicable.

At some point, as the end finally neared, I realized I was going to watch a movie–the earliest where I can remember this scene happening–with the hero versus the impossible adversary. Here it’s Tarzan versus a monstrous ape. The evil dwarf trip keeps him in a pit and dumps tall people in for him to kill. It’s a lot like Return of the Jedi… and then Tarzan’s elephant friends show up and destroy the dwarf village and it’s even more like Return of the Jedi.

What’s also strange about Tarzan is how the film can be so meandering with all its technical glory. It isn’t just that fantastic editing, there’s also wonderful set design and great matte shots. W.S. Van Dyke’s best scenes are probably at the beginning with O’Sullivan arriving, but the rest of the film is good too. The sound design is phenomenal, bringing how must be men in animal costumes to life. It’s just all for naught. The movie fast forwards to its conclusion in four minutes, skipping a lot of important details (like how O’Sullivan decided to stay with Tarzan).

There’s one more interesting thing I don’t want to forget. There’s a knowing fade-out followed by a stunningly obvious postcoital scene; the two never even kiss on screen.

O’Sullivan’s great, which I already said, and Weissmuller’s fine. He has nothing to do. Smith’s good, Hamilton’s also fine–he similarly has a disadvantaged character. Ivory Williams is particularly good as the chief guide.

I’ve been looking forward to seeing Tarzan for over ten years (it never aired on AMC or something). I figured Van Dyke wouldn’t do it wrong… but then, not only does he do it wrong, he does it boring–and I never thought Van Dyke would make a boring film.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by W.S. Van Dyke; screenplay by Cyril Hume and Ivor Novello, based on the novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs; directors of photography, Clyde De Vinna and Harold Rosson; edited by Tom Held and Ben Lewis; produced by Bernard H. Hyman and Irving Thalberg; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Johnny Weissmuller (Tarzan), Neil Hamilton (Harry Holt), Maureen O’Sullivan (Jane Parker), C. Aubrey Smith (James Parker), Doris Lloyd (Mrs. Cutten), Forrester Harvey (Beamish) and Ivory Williams (Riano).


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