Sunday, October 19, 2014

English Without Tears (1944)

Dry British romantic farce -- by Terrence Rattigan and Anatole de Grunwald -- about a wealthy, eccentric amateur ornithologist (delightfully played by Margaret Rutherford) who travels to the League of Nations on a mission to protect the rights of English birds at home and abroad. Her campaign is interrupted both by the outbreak of war, and a budding, complicated romance between her daughter and the family butler, now an enlisted man in the British army.

Both a comedy of manners and a mild satire on British wartime attitudes, with amusing dialogue and a good performance by Rutherford that showcases her considerable gifts for playing comedy. The cast also includes Michael Wilding, Penelope Dudley-Ward, Lilli Palmer, and Albert Lieven, under the direction of Harold French. AKA HER MAN GILBEY.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Hello, Sister! (1933)

Erich von Stroheim's first talkie -- and final directorial effort -- was this surprisingly frank and grim pre-Code romantic drama, based on an unproduced play by Dawn Powell, about a young couple struggling to find happiness in Depression-era New York. Originally titled WALKING DOWN BROADWAY, Stroheim had his version of the film taken out of his hands by Fox producers Winfield Sheehan and Sol Wurtzel, who re-worked it with new footage shot by a team of directors reported to include Alfred L. Werker, Raoul Walsh and Alan Crosland (though the final film contains no directorial credit), and released it as HELLO SISTER in 1933, which was a commercial failure. That failure, combined with the wild and untrue rumors surrounding the production regarding Stroheim's supposed excesses (in reality, he brought the film in on-budget and ahead of schedule), spelled the end of his career as a filmmaker. Stroheim's original cut of the film was destroyed, and even the theatrical release version was long thought to be lost until a print was recovered by William K. Everson in the 1970s.

Seen today, it's a fascinating and frustrating work. It is disappointing that Stroheim's original cut has not survived, but what remains -- even after the studio tampering -- is an exceptional film in many ways. It is -- despite the multitude of directors involved in its final incarnation -- an astonishingly personal film, too, filled with Stroheim's stylistic and thematic touches that are startlingly powerful and brilliant in their simplicity. James Wong Howe's cinematography is exquisite as usual; there is one camera move in particular -- a slow tracking shot on a mural of "The Last Supper" -- that is breathtaking for its sheer perfection. The fine cast includes earnest and sympathetic James Dunn, the lovely Boots Mallory, tough, sexy Minna Gombell, and most effectively, ZaSu Pitts in an intriguingly offbeat and quirky performance that one wishes there remained more of in the final film. Overall, a flawed but noble end to Stroheim's remarkable filmmaking career.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Outside the Law (1930)

Edward G. Robinson stars in this tough pre-code crime drama -- directed by Tod Browning -- about a crook and his girlfriend who double-cross a local crime boss when they attempt to pull off a high-stakes bank heist in his territory at Christmas. A remake of Browning's 1921 silent film of the same name, this was his second talkie, and his first in a three-picture deal with Universal (the story -- by Browning and Garrett Fort -- would be filmed for a third time, also at Universal, in 1946 under the title INSIDE JOB).

It's interesting to see Robinson playing a gangster a year before his breakout performance in LITTLE CAESAR, and indeed, his "Cobra" Collins here seems like a prototype of Rico Bandello, especially with his distinctive delivery of gangland slang. Robinson is always a delight to watch, as he struts around like a rooster with his cocksure posturing, looking impeccably stylish and puffing on a cigar. It's easy to see the qualities here that brought him to the attention of Warner Bros. and would make him a star. Robinson is one of those actors for whom the sound film medium seemed to be invented; like Cagney, he's endlessly fascinating in how he uses his voice and body in subtle but highly expressive ways, and that is evident even in this early role, where he commands attention every time he is on screen.

Unfortunately, things get deadly dull when he is off-screen, especially in the second half which spends long stretches of time with bickering crooks Mary Nolan and Owen Moore, neither of whom seem particularly at ease in their roles. The plot drags interminably through their scenes together, taking place in a single, claustrophobic apartment set, only picking up a bit at the end during their final confrontation with Cobra, but by this point any tension in the drama has fizzled, and the ending is dramatically unsatisfying as a result.

Still, it's nicely shot by Roy Overbaugh, with some effective high-contrast lighting in the bank heist scenes, and filled with some of Browning's trademark flourishes, especially his emphasis on certain props to reveal character details, and his affinity with sideshows and dime museums (in the form of a bizarre "living art" exhibit). Browning's talkies are frustrating experiences because they are largely stagy, static affairs, yet often contain tantalizing traces of his distinctive visual style that made his silent films so interesting even when the plots were absurd. This one is no exception, but it makes an interesting counterpart to his earlier filming of the same story.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

So This is Love (1928)

An enjoyable if decidedly minor romantic comedy, about a timid dressmaker and a brutish prizefighter battling it out over the affection of a charming delicatessen girl. Pleasantly acted by Shirley Mason, Johnnie Walker and William Collier Jr., and skillfully directed by Capra with characteristic sincerity and verve. His handling of the climactic boxing match -- both well-staged and tightly-edited -- is especially effective.

Monday, October 13, 2014

The Singing Fool (1928)

This wildly popular follow-up to THE JAZZ SINGER is probably the best of the Al Jolson vehicles made at Warners. The story -- about a nightclub singer who rises meteorically to the top, loses his wife to another man and his son to illness, and hits rock bottom before finding redemption through his music -- is pure schmaltz, but it undeniably works thanks to Jolson's charismatic performance and energy. The charming Betty Bronson appears opposite Jolson here, and four-year-old Davey Lee is a standout as the tragic "Sonny Boy".

Despite the heavy-handedness of the material (strains of "Vesti la guibba" play on the soundtrack as the broken-hearted Jolson applies his blackface makeup), the film features some of Jolson's best and bounciest tunes, including "There's a Rainbow 'Round My Shoulder" and "I'm Sittin' on Top of the World", though extant prints of the film are missing the delightfully corny "The Spaniard That Blighted My Life", which was cut shortly after release for copyright reasons. The hit song from the film, "Sonny Boy", is sung no fewer than three times, most dramatically at the film's climax, when the melodrama reaches a fever pitch as Jolson is forced to perform the tune before an audience just moments after his son's death.

With its winning combination of Jolson's dynamic screen presence, first-rate songs and the novelty of sound, the film was a wild hit when released  in 1928, and went on to become the highest-grossing American film until GONE WITH THE WIND eleven years later.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Night and the City (1950)

An exceptionally strong film, certainly one of Jules Dassin's most remarkable achievements, and one of the very best post-war crime dramas. Evocatively photographed on location in London (due to 20th Century-Fox having some finances tied up there after the war), the B&W cinematography and settings create a highly stylized yet seedy, gritty and hellishly sinister atmosphere. Dassin maintains a relentlessly bleak and cynical tone throughout, right up to the fatalistic ending.

Richard Widmark is perfectly cast as the desperate hustler Harry Fabian, a maniacal sociopath driven only by self-interest, who has his eyes set on controlling the entire wrestling industry in London. His grand ambitions cause him to stop at nothing to get what he wants, but when his scheme goes fatally awry, he finds himself betrayed by the people whose lives he has destroyed in pursuit of success. Widmark's characteristically intense performance must rank as one of his finest.

Gene Tierney, Googie Withers, Hugh Marlowe, and Francis L. Sullivan make up the fine supporting cast, but special mention really should be made of Herbert Lom as the ruthless wrestling kingpin and Mike Mazurki as the murderous prizefighter.

Thursday, October 09, 2014

The Desert Song (1943)

Lavish Technicolor musical and action-packed adventure story, adapted from the 1926 Romberg operetta -- here updated to take place in the days right before the second World War -- about an American pianist in French Morocco who secretly fights to defend the Arabs against the Nazis.

Dennis Morgan and Irene Manning make for appealing leads, but lack the chemistry to make the most of the film's romantic plot. The good supporting cast includes Bruce Cabot, Gene Lockhart, Faye Emerson, Curt Bois, Marcel Dalio and Nestor Paiva, but none of them are given much to do with their characters. Only Lynne Overman as Morgan's friend, a wise-cracking American journalist eager to get a big scoop, really makes an impression.

Director Robert Florey was always an interesting craftsman, one who was interested in experimentation, but who never seemed to really develop a distinctive visual style of his own. As a result, much of the film is shot flat and conventionally, with occasional visual flourishes and interesting camera angles, especially during the music numbers, that call attention to themselves rather than working as part of the overall style. Still, his skillful handling of the rousing action sequences is admirable.

Long unavailable due to rights issues, it has recently become available again in a restored version that does justice to the gorgeous Technicolor cinematography (by Bert Glennon) which gives the film much of its appeal and heightens its stylized, fantastic qualities.