Robert Armstrong

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).


The Most Dangerous Game (1932, Ernest B. Schoedsack and Irving Pichel)

Running about an hour, The Most Dangerous Game shouldn’t be boring. But it somehow manages. Worse, the boring stuff comes at the end; directors Schoedsack and Pichel drag out the conclusion with a false ending or two.

The film doesn’t have much to recommend it. That laborious ending wipes short runtime off the board, leaving nothing but good sets, Henry W. Gerrard’s photography and Leslie Banks’s glorious scene-chewing performance as the bad guy. James Ashmore Creelman’s script occasionally has good dialogue, most of it goes to Banks. Unfortunately, Creelman’s script doesn’t have a good story.

Still, the script isn’t Game‘s problem. Simply, Directors Schoedsack and Pichel do a rather bad job. They rely heavily on second person close-ups–the actors are performing for the viewer, showing exaggerated emotion; it’s a terrible choice. Joel McCrea seems silly in the lead and Fay Wray is often just plain bad. She has a couple good moments, early on, but they’re amid some atrocious ones.

The hunt–if you don’t know what kind of animal is “the most dangerous game,” I won’t spoil it (though you should)–starts up over halfway into the film. Here Schoedsack and Pichel present a really boring chase sequence through the magnificent jungle sets. Their action is two dimensional. They also never establish their setting, which would have made the action play better… and give Game more weight.

Robert Armstrong is hilarious, but he isn’t not enough to save the picture.

And Max Steiner’s score is dreadful.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Ernest B. Schoedsack and Irving Pichel; screenplay by James Ashmore Creelman, based on the story by Richard Connell; director of photography, Henry W. Gerrard; edited by Archie Marshek; music by Max Steiner; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring Joel McCrea (Robert Rainsford), Fay Wray (Eve Trowbridge), Robert Armstrong (Martin Trowbridge), Leslie Banks (Count Zaroff), Noble Johnson (Ivan), Steve Clemente (Tartar) and William B. Davidson (Captain).


Penguin Pool Murder (1932, George Archainbaud)

Penguin Pool Murder, besides the peculiar title (and lack of a definite article), opens like almost any other early thirties mystery. A possible unfaithful wife, Mae Clarke, has a swindling louse of a husband, Guy Usher. When he ends up dead, there are multiple suspects.

Only the murder occurs at the aquarium (hence the title) and, it just so happens, a schoolteacher is giving her class a tour. The schoolteacher in question, played by Edna May Oliver, is half what sets Penguin apart. The other half is James Gleason as the police detective. He soon–first reluctantly, then enthusiastically–enlists Oliver as his partner.

The banter between Oliver and Gleason suggests the pair is an established comedy team but Penguin‘s their first pairing. From the moment the two get together, the film is a delight.

Even before they do, the film’s production values go far to recommend it. There are no exterior shots in the entire picture, but every set is exquisite–particularly the aquarium. Archainbaud has some great set-up shots and his direction is generally strong… though his inserts are bad. Editor Jack Kitchin’s weak cutting undoubtedly contributes, but Archainbaud’s direction is responsible for the jump cuts.

The mystery itself isn’t much of one–the film, which is very short, runs out of interesting suspects fairly quickly. Fourth billed Clarke disappears after the first act, leaving Robert Armstrong (as her attorney) to fill her slot.

He, and Clarence Wilson, are strong supporting assets.

Penguin‘s a lot of fun.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by George Archainbaud; screenplay by Willis Goldbeck, based on a story by Lowell Brentano and a novel by Stuart Palmer; director of photography, Henry W. Gerrard; edited by Jack Kitchin; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring Edna May Oliver (Miss Hildegarde Martha Withers), James Gleason (Police Inspector Oscar Piper), Robert Armstrong (Lawyer Barry Costello), Clarence Wilson (Bertrand B. Hemingway), Mae Clarke (Gwen Parker), Donald Cook (Philip Seymour), Edgar Kennedy (Policeman Donovan), James Donlan (Security Guard Fink), Guy Usher (Gerald ‘Gerry’ Parker) and Joe Hermano (Chicago Lew).


The Ex-Mrs. Bradford (1936, Stephen Roberts)

With a better director, a competent editor and a slightly stronger screenplay, The Ex-Mrs. Bradford might be more than an amusing diversion. While William Powell and Jean Arthur are great together, the film underuses them in general and her in particular. There’s this great dinner scene where she’s seeing if they’re going to get poisoned by jello (something she neglects to tell him). It’s a long and wonderful scene and apparently director Roberts didn’t realize he needed to use it as the standard, not the exception.

Roberts’s weak composition and lack of coverage combined with Arthur Roberts’s hideous editing (it’s unclear if they’re related) do a lot of damage to the film. Anthony Veiller’s script has some great dialogue but the plotting is rushed, especially for a murder mystery. Also unfortunate is Veiller’s inept finish. He modifies the Thin Man dinner party revelation to include unlikely technology gimmicks.

While the film actually doesn’t share a lot in details or tone with Powell’s Thin Man series; he’s not just sober, he’s also a responsible adult. Arthur is tenacious, but she’s an aspiring murder mystery novelist, so there’s some context. They’re both wealthy, which means Powell’s got a sidekick in butler Eric Blore.

A tired James Gleason shows up as the requisite cop (he gets the film’s worst dialogue). Robert Armstrong is the best in the supporting cast as a bookie. Erin O’Brien-Moore is shockingly bad as a suspect.

The film’s amiable enough, but it should’ve been a lot better.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Stephen Roberts; screenplay by Anthony Veiller, based on a story by James Edward Grant; director of photography, J. Roy Hunt; edited by Arthur Roberts; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring William Powell (Dr. Lawrence Bradford), Jean Arthur (Paula Bradford), James Gleason (Inspector Corrigan), Eric Blore (Stokes), Robert Armstrong (Nick Martel), Lila Lee (Miss Prentiss), Grant Mitchell (John Summers), Erin O’Brien-Moore (Mrs. Summers), Ralph Morgan (Leroy Hutchins) and Lucile Gleason (Mrs. Hutchins).


The Mystery Man (1935, Ray McCarey)

I hope Robert Armstrong got paid well for The Mystery Man, because it doesn’t do him any other good. While it’s nice to see Armstrong in a lead role, the film’s so incompetently produced, it’s sometimes painful. Armstrong acts well but director McCarey doesn’t know how to compose shots. You’ll get what should be a close-up as a medium shot. Of course, the script’s bad too so Armstrong’s working against it too.

The plot isn’t terrible—Armstrong’s a newspaper reporter with more ego than sense who finds himself broke after a week-long bender. He meets Maxine Doyle, who’s in similar financial straits. The problem with the film is mostly Doyle. If she were any good, the film might be charming, regardless of technical merits and writing. But she’s awful—just painfully bad.

But so’s the rest of the supporting cast. Armstrong’s sidekicks, played by James P. Burtis, Monte Collins and Sam Lufkin, all awful. His bosses—Henry Kolker and James Burke—awful. Guy Usher turns in the closest thing to a decent performance, but he’s not good by any stretch.

Meanwhile, there’s Armstrong moving through these inept actors, trying to do what he can with the bad dialogue, on the incredibly cheap sets (the hotel suite appears to be the newspaper editor’s office too, based on the wall design)… and he maintains some dignity.

The concept isn’t bad; it could have been a good leading man vehicle for Armstrong… instead of an unfortunate, disappointing entry in his filmography.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Ray McCarey; screenplay by John W. Krafft and Rollo Lloyd, based on a story by Tate Finn and an adaptation by William A. Johnston; director of photography, Harry Neumann; edited by Carl Pierson; released by Monogram Pictures.

Starring Robert Armstrong (Larry Doyle), Maxine Doyle (Anne Ogilvie), Henry Kolker (Jo-Jo), LeRoy Mason (The Eel), James Burke (Managing Editor Marvin), Guy Usher (District Attorney Johnson), James P. Burtis (Whalen), Monte Collins (Dunn), Sam Lufkin (Weeks), Otto Fries (Nate), Norman Houston (T. Fulton Whistler), Dell Henderson (Mr. Clark), Lee Shumway (Plainclothes Man) and Sam Flint (Jerome Roberts).


Blind Adventure (1933, Ernest B. Schoedsack)

Blind Adventure is a genial, nearly successful comedy thriller. Robert Armstrong, playing an unexpectedly wealthy working class American who’s vacationing in London, heads out into the fog and finds himself on a wild night. He encounters espionage, British society, a damsel in distress (Helen Mack) and trifle.

Armstrong and Mack are wonderful together (they soon reunited in Son of Kong, along with director Schoedsack and writer Ruth Rose) and the film’s failures are mostly disappointing because it should have launched a franchise for the pair. They’re Nick and Nora, but a year early and less blue blooded. They also have a fabulous third wheel in Roland Young, a burglar they meet.

Rose’s script has some good lines and a brisk pace. It’s not a comedy revolution—though its Marx Brothers influences are interesting in the context of a straight comedy thriller—but it should have been made into a better film.

It’s Schoedsack who primarily fails here. While the film’s modest budget is obvious (any London sights would be obscured by the dense fog), Schoedsack is still essentially inept. His comedy direction is atrocious—he holds the reaction shots to jokes maybe three times longer than he should, so long one wonders if there’s going to be a second joke.

Ralph Bellamy and John Miljan are both good in small roles. Beryl Mercer has a scene and a half with Armstrong and they’re quite funny.

But Armstrong and Mack are just magical; they deserved better treatment than Adventure gives them.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Ernest B. Schoedsack; written by Ruth Rose and Robert Benchley; director of photography, Henry W. Gerrard; edited by Ted Cheesman; music by Roy Webb; produced by David Lewis; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring Robert Armstrong (Richard Bruce), Helen Mack (Rose Thorne), Roland Young (Holmes), Ralph Bellamy (Jim Steele), John Miljan (Regan), Beryl Mercer (Elsie), Tyrell Davis (Gerald Fairfax), Henry Stephenson (Maj. Archer Thorne), Laura Hope Crews (Lady Rockingham), Frederick Sullivan (The General), Desmond Roberts (Harvey), Charles Irwin (Bill), Forrester Harvey (Coffee Wagon Proprietor), Marjorie Gateson (Mrs. Grace Thorne), John Warburton (Reggie) and Phyllis Barry (Gwen).


Criminal Court (1946, Robert Wise)

If you took a film noir and removed the noir, you might have something like Criminal Court. The plot is noir. An upstanding attorney (Tom Conway) accidentally kills mobster (Robert Armstrong) and runs off, unknowingly leaving his girlfriend (Martha O’Driscoll) to take the wrap.

What does Conway do? Does he try to falsify evidence to save his girlfriend? Does he sacrifice? Nope. He confesses and when no one believes him, he sort of just sits passively through the rest of the movie and hopes something will make it all better.

There’s no angst, no guilt. Conway even tells the district attorney he didn’t report the incident because Armstrong brought it on himself. It is, apparently, an attempt to mix noir with righteousness. And, wow, does it fail.

What makes Court so awkward is what it does with the space left empty by the lack of internal conflict. It does nothing. The movie only runs an hour. It doesn’t try comedy, it doesn’t try introducing a subplot (there aren’t any in the film), it doesn’t try anything at all.

Until Armstrong dies, Criminal Court has a lot of potential. Armstrong’s just great here. Conway’s fine, but unable to overcome the script. O’Driscoll’s writing is worse, but her performance is still weak.

The supporting cast is excellent, Steve Brodie and Joe Devlin in particular.

Wise’s direction has occasional flourishes–a dolly shot here and there–but it’s fairly static and unimaginative overall, as though he couldn’t feign interest either.

Cute finale though.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Wise; screenplay by Lawrence Kimble, based on a story by Earl Felton; director of photography, Frank Redman; edited by Robert Swink; music by Paul Sawtell; produced by Martin Mooney; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring Tom Conway (Steve Barnes), Martha O’Driscoll (Georgia Gale), June Clayworth (Joan Mason), Robert Armstrong (Vic Wright), Addison Richards (District Attorney Gordon), Pat Gleason (Joe West), Steve Brodie (Frankie Wright), Robert Warwick (Mr. Marquette), Phil Warren (Bill Brannegan) and Joe Devlin (Brownie).


Remember Last Night? (1935, James Whale)

I wish I knew if Remember Last Night? is supposed to be a knock-off of The Thin Man or if it’s just a highly coincidental release, coming a year later, with a similarly intoxicated, ritzy couple solving crimes as they get more intoxicated (Robert Young and Constance Cummings play the couple in this film). Remember Last Night? is based on a novel, which suggests the latter.

The film’s about a bunch of facile rich party animals getting involved with murder–imagine “Sex and the City” with couples, set in the thirties, with murder investigation thrown in.

It’s a nearly unbearable film. While completely unsuited for comedy, Whale does have some amazing crane shots, just beautiful work, but then he’s got these terrible inserts and all of his close-ups look somewhat off. His direction of the actors is also problematic, but some of those failures might just be the script.

The script’s entirely contrived–when they need a detective, they call one (Edward Arnold), who isn’t supposed to be investigating, mind you, just helping them out. The same goes for a psychic (Gustav von Seyffertitz). It’s never explained why socialite alcoholic Young knows detective Arnold.

The acting’s not bad. Young has his moments and Cummings is excellent. Sally Eilers, Robert Armstrong and Reginald Denny are all strong, though the script gives out on them all eventually (well, except Armstrong, only because he’s barely in it).

The film misuses Edward Brophy, which I hadn’t believed possible before seeing this one.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by James Whale; screenplay by Harry Clork, Doris Malloy and Dan Totheroh, based on a novel by Adam Hobhouse; director of photography, Joseph A. Valentine; edited by Ted J. Kent; music by Franz Waxman; produced by Whale and Carl Laemmle Jr.; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Edward Arnold (Danny Harrison), Robert Young (Tony Milburn), Constance Cummings (Carlotta Milburn), George Meeker (Vic Huling), Sally Eilers (Bette Huling), Reginald Denny (Jake Whitridge), Louise Henry (Penny Whitridge), Robert Armstrong (Flannagan), Gregory Ratoff (Faronea), Monroe Owsley (Billy Arliss), Jack La Rue (Baptiste Bouclier), Edward Brophy (Maxie), Gustav von Seyffertitz (Professor Karl Jones) and Arthur Treacher (Clarence Phelps).


The Son of Kong (1933, Ernest B. Schoedsack)

King Kong opened in April 1933, The Son of Kong opened for Christmas 1933. The rush shows. The special effects really suffer–for whatever reason, when Robert Armstrong and Helen Mack are added to the little Kong’s shots, it’s fine, but when little Kong is added to Armstrong and Mack’s… it’s not. It’s like the focus is off on the rear projector.

But the story suffers more. Son of Kong runs a lean seventy minutes, with almost forty-five gone by before the little Kong shows up. That pacing is actually fine. It gives the movie time to catch up with Armstrong and skipper Frank Reicher, get them out to sea in a new story and then introduce the girl. There’s got to be a pretty face. And when Helen Mack shows up, Son of Kong takes a decidedly darker turn. It’s a downer–Mack’s stuck on a tiny port village with no prospects thanks to an alcohol father (a disturbing Clarence Wilson). Armstrong runs into an old acquaintance, who ties into the first movie, played by John Marston. Marston’s also playing a down and out drunk and the whole film sort of wallows in despair.

It opened with a fine comic sequence with Armstrong avoiding process servers, which mixed the character’s despair with being an amusing film experience… but later on, writer Ruth Rose apparently didn’t want to curb it. The scenes at the port are so depressing, it’s fully believable when Armstrong and Mack soon connect onboard the ship–even though their fortunes aren’t much better. At least they aren’t in that port anymore.

The relationship between Armstrong and Mack is Son of Kong‘s best feature. The sequel’s entirely superfluous and, at its best, is a simply another seventy minutes the viewer gets to spend with Armstrong. Here he gets to develop the character free of narrative constraint and his performance is excellent. Reicher also gets a lot more emphasis and he’s great too. But with Mack, Armstrong’s performance comes alive. There’s nuance and subtlety to their interactions, something more sublime than the film could ever hope for. It doesn’t hurt she’s a perfect counterpart to him, down to her voice.

When the film gets to the island and little Kong and the assorted monsters, it does all right for quite a while. It’s all rapidly paced, but it gets into the kinship between Armstrong and the little Kong, which is affecting thanks to Armstrong’s performance.

Then the movie ends. Had it gone on for longer–and I’m not even talking about a decent Armstrong and Mack kiss–I’m just talking about some more content, it would have been much better. Because the entry to the island, the set-up there, is all fantastic–and then it stops. Instead of the bigger sequel of today, it’s the smaller sequel–the pre-Empire Strikes Back sequel. When Skull Island sinks at the end, it almost seems like the filmmakers are ruling out any further, even cheaper returns… and it’s damn unfortunate this one wasn’t given more of a budget. As an inessential sequel goes, The Son of Kong has a lot going for it and it’s a shame it wasn’t able to fully realize it.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Ernest B. Schoedsack; written by Ruth Rose; directors of photography, Edward Linden, J.O. Taylor and Vernon L. Walker; edited by Ted Cheesman; music by Max Steiner; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring Robert Armstrong (Carl Denham), Helen Mack (Hilda), Frank Reicher (Englehorn), John Marston (Helstrom), Victor Wong (Charlie, the Chinese Cook) and Ed Brady (Red).


King Kong (1933, Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack)

King Kong is a perfect film. I don’t think I’d realized before. It’s always hard to talk about films like Kong, influential standards of American cinema. I want to talk about how its structure still sets the tone for modern films–the gradual lead-in (it’s forty-some minutes before Kong shows up), the non-stop action of the second half, how establishing characters well in the beginning means they can go without dialogue for twenty minutes and still be affecting. Or the special effects. I’d love to talk about the special effects, like how I’d never noticed the absolutely brilliant sound design–the most effective stop motion moments are the ones with the people Kong interacts with. Murray Spivack’s sound brings them fully to life–best evidenced as Kong’s rampaging through the village and attacks a house. It engenders concern for the inhabitants, who must have been six inch dolls.

But Kong isn’t a perfect film for its impact. It’s perfect because of itself. The film opens with the scene on the docks, quickly establishing the peculiar tone of the first half. Everyone sort of takes Robert Armstrong’s gung ho filmmaker with a grain of salt. They’re bemused by him. Armstrong’s perfect for the role, big and amiable, it’s hard to be mad at him when he does something selfish and stupid. Just like the characters, who get themselves into the mess by listening to him and knowing better, so does the audience. Armstrong’s like a big kid for lots of Kong, always coming up with the best action after the consequence.

That first scene also goes far in establishing Bruce Cabot. Cabot’s character is Kong‘s most interesting–as is the way the film handles him. The scene with Cabot ranting to Fay Wray about women not belonging on ships–we’re supposed to understand it’s Cabot who’s off, not Wray. Regardless of whether or not he’s right, the first forty minutes of Kong are about Cabot learning to stop acting like a little boy (which Armstrong never has to do). It makes the romance between Cabot and Wray a wonderful one to watch unfold–that “Yes, sir” following their first kiss elicits a fantastic mood.

These scenes all happen long before Kong shows up, long before the roller coaster starts. I didn’t even get to the coffee shop scene, where Armstrong’s enthusiasm even gets the viewer going–promising everyone, viewer and Wray alike, the wait will be worth it.

And when Kong does show up, it’s clearly worth it. King Kong doesn’t really make the monster a sympathetic character. He tends to chomp on people and his curiosity usually leads to someone dying in a horrific manner, but they do make him into a real character. Utterly insensitive to the chaos he causes, Kong still has these wonderful, inquisitive moments. He’s frequently confused by the little people and it rounds out the film, bringing about emotional concern for him without having to light it in neon. The film reduces Wray’s part to victim at the halfway mark–and she certainly never shows any concern for Kong–which is narratively reasonable. It also puts the onerous on the viewer–if he or she wants to care for Kong, it’s because of his or her response to him, not because the film’s dictating.

Once Kong gets back to New York, the whole thing seems to wrap up in fifteen minutes. There’s the interesting monologue from Armstrong though, regarding what he’s done to Kong. He’s fully aware he’s been culturally insensitive, as well as zoologically, but he doesn’t care. The people don’t care what they’ve done to Kong and Kong doesn’t care what he does for people. It creates an interesting, ego and superego free narrative. Anything the audience wants to bring to it or attribute to it, they’re bringing themselves.

King Kong‘s a lot of things audiences and critics had to come up with new adjectives to describe back in 1933–a romance, an adventure being the two easiest–but it’s simply just a fantastic way to spend a hundred minutes.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack; screenplay by James Ashmore Creelman and Ruth Rose, based on an idea by Cooper and Edgar Wallace; directors of photography, Edward Linden, J.O. Taylor, Vernon L. Walker and Kenneth Peach; edited by Ted Cheesman; music by Max Steiner; production designer, Carroll Clark; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring Fay Wray (Ann Darrow), Robert Armstrong (Carl Denham), Bruce Cabot (Jack Driscoll), Frank Reicher (Captain Englehorn), Sam Hardy (Charles Weston), Noble Johnson (Skull Island native chief), Steve Clemente (Witch King), James Flavin (Second Mate Briggs) and Victor Wong (Charlie).


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