Category Archives: 1930s

Werewolf of London (1935)


*. This might be thought of as a damp squib: the first (surviving) werewolf movie, but a film that went nowhere. It did, however, lay down some of the basics of the genre, including the idea that being bitten by a werewolf is what infects you with the werewolf curse, and the way the transformation is brought about by moonlight. These were new elements.
*. There’s also something mentioned about how the werewolf “instinctively seeks to kill the thing it loves best,” but nothing much is done with this in the movie (Dr. Glendon seems more intent on killing his rival), and it was an idea that later werewolf movies didn’t do much with. David in An American Werewolf in London mentions it to Alex, but even in that film it doesn’t really come in to play.
*. Taking a step back, the werewolf mythos has its roots in the Jekyll and Hyde story, where beneath our polished exteriors there lurks a hairy beast. Because this is the earliest telling of the werewolf story on film, the relation to Jekyll and Hyde is clearest, and when Dr. Jekyll– I mean, Dr. Glendon — turns into a werewolf and then dons his hat and scarf to go out on the town we know we’re in an earlier, more civilized werewolf universe.
*. Comparisons to The Wolf Man are, to my mind, not unfavourable (but keep in mind that I’m not a big fan of The Wolf Man). The makeup here was also done by Jack Pierce, but it wasn’t as involved. Basically it’s just a widow’s peak (maybe borrowed from Dracula) and protruding lower fangs. It’s not as hairy a get-up, so it lets Henry Hull act, which is nice. Plus it allows for more transformation scenes than are in The Wolf Man.
*. There are some nice touches. I love that giant carnivorous plant they feed the frog to. I also like how the cat looks really pissed off. I wonder what they were doing to it off camera. Dr. Glendon’s closed-circuit security cameras are way ahead of their time — indeed so much so that the plot couldn’t think of anything to do with them. And I thought the touch of having Dr. Glendon re-enact Christ’s agony in the garden before his second transformation was quite a surprise.


*. Then there are missteps. It’s typical of the love triangles in werewolf movies to be a bit sticky and ambiguous. Even before the end Lisa seems well on her way to an adulterous affair with her old flame Paul (with whom, presumably, she flies away into the credits). The old ladies letting the room are a standard comic bit, and they seem shoehorned in here. Warner Oland, as Dr. Yogami from the University of Carpathia (he’d already become famous as Charlie Chan), could have been a really interesting character, but nothing is done with him. Since the plant only offers a temporary cure for the disease of lycanthropy, it’s hard to even figure out why he’s bothering hunting it down. So he goes a month or two without killing? Then what?
*. I call it “lycanthropy” because that’s it’s name. Here it’s referred to as “werewolfery” (unintentionally funny, and not a word I recall ever hearing again) and “lycanthrophobia,” which suggests something quite different. Chalk it up to this being early days. They didn’t have their story straight.
*. I wouldn’t want to call this a seminal movie, but at the same time I think it would be wrong to overlook it entirely. It doesn’t have the same atmosphere and deeper resonance of The Wolf Man, and probably tries too hard to stay within what were conventions (for example, making the protagonist a scientist), but it’s more than just a footnote. I’m not sure it can be considered the film that properly launched the genre, but it is a kind of missing link between Jekyll and Hyde and where things were going.


The Most Dangerous Game (1932)


*. The story, by Richard Connell, is considered one of the most widely anthologized of all time. It’s an archetypal story — the hunter become the hunted when he meets a hunter of men — that Connell gives its neatest and most rapid expression.
*. When it came to Hollywood it had to be Hollywoodized. What this mainly meant was the addition of a love interest. In fiction we are comfortable being on our own, inside the head of a single protagonist. On screen we want company, or at least some eye candy. So enter the lady Eve (Fay Wray) and her dipso brother (Robert Armstrong).
*. It’s worth flagging these basic differences between the film and its source. In the story, Rainsford falls off the yacht when he drops his pipe. Zaroff does use a trick to wreck ships, but that’s not how he gets Rainsford, who comes to him as windfall. In the story there is no Eve and her brother, and so the whole business of Zaroff’s prehistoric, predatory sexuality is invented. “One passion builds on another — first kill, then love,” Zaroff tells us. For “only after the kill does man know the full ecstasy of love.” Is this Zaroff, or Dracula?
*. Overall, the film is a much, much creepier bit of work than the story, which is an inversion of the usual relationship between page and screen. So Zaroff isn’t just émigré Russian nobility (he escaped the Revolution by investing in American securities), afflicted with ennui and indulging a taste for Pol Roger and Chambertin while humming pieces from Madame Butterfly. Now he is a despotic pervert, with a suggestive habit of rubbing the scar on his forehead. What does he want to do with Eve anyway? Surely it’s no coincidence he looks like the satyr in the wall-hanging carrying off the young lady, a figure also represented in the door knocker (the door knocker in the story is a “leering gargoyle,” and there is no tapestry mentioned at all).


*. That scar isn’t in the story either, but it adds to the eccentric character of Leslie Banks’s Zaroff. Banks had been injured in the First World War and the left side of his face had been partially paralyzed. He made the most of it. Pauline Kael enjoyed “his twisted schizoid face — one half suave Englishman, the other half twisted and with suggestions of exotic evil.”
*. The script gave him every opportunity to ham the part up, with all kinds of double entendres and ironic drippings (“The count will take care of me all right!” “Indeed I shall.”). The direction does nothing to play this down, lighting him to look like a fanatical imp and even in one incredible shot zooming down the staircase into his face.


*. All of this does more, much more, than simply suggest exotic evil. That wall hanging is tame by comparison with the horrors of the trophy room. A head mounted on the wall, and then one floating in a tank! This is incredible. Indeed, a trophy room of heads would still have the power to shock in Sin City, 70 years later. And yet the trophy room scene was originally even more graphic and disturbing and was only cut when audiences couldn’t take it. Also note how a group of heads (plural) mounted on a wall are featured in the theatrical release poster!
*. It was a remarkable time, at a remarkable studio. Some scenes shot for King Kong had to be cut for their shocking nature as well. And The Most Dangerous Game was the B-side of King Kong, shot at night using the same sets, cast and crew, much as the Spanish version of Dracula was shot — these guys knew how to economize!
*. Even given how over-the-top a production it is, I still could have lived without Robert Armstrong’s character. I also didn’t see how he would have been much of a challenge for Zaroff. The count explains that he sobered up, but I don’t see where he had much time for that, and even if sober he wouldn’t have been the most difficult game. Zaroff mentions giving his other prey a training regime of good food and exercise to get them in shape, and I don’t know why he didn’t offer Armstrong the same. Unless he just couldn’t stand him any longer, or didn’t want him draining his wine cellar.
*. The leads, however, do well enough. Joel McCrae is just a stud, but he’s likeable. I really enjoyed Fay Wray this time out, and I think she provides more than what Kael calls her “usual charming terrified heroine” routine. She has a knowing look that works well with this material.
*. Banks also seems to be enjoying himself even beyond what might have been called for. Were those lines where he mockingly mimics Rainsford in the script, or were they improvised? Or when he offers Armstrong a cigarette after he’s already taken one? These all seem like happy accidents.
*. The result is a fast-paced film that’s filled with loveable nuttiness, and one which truly belies its age. Connell’s story would go on to be adapted many, many times over the years, and yet despite being constantly updated and reinterpreted I don’t think it’s ever been as fresh as it has stayed here.


Night Key (1937)


*. This is a short (68 minute) and cheap Boris Karloff vehicle from Universal that went over budget and over schedule but still seems rushed.
*. What I mean is that there are a lot of elements, some of them quite interesting, that are never developed or which seem superfluous.
*. A good example is the business of driving the getaway car up a ramp into the back of a moving van. This is clever (and will make modern audiences think of the end of The Italian Job), but it doesn’t serve any function in the plot. As it stands, there was no need for the bad guys to use such a trick since they were already getting away. Indeed, it almost gets them into trouble as the moving van nearly backs into a pursuing police car.
*. Many other parts of the story have the same feel of being introduced only to be thrown away. Is there any point to Mallory going blind? Not much, and it makes certain scenes very awkward. Or take as another example how Mallory is shown at the beginning using his new invention, which seems to be an early photo-electric beam system. This never plays any role in the story aside from being something he wants Ranger to adopt.
*. Perhaps oddest of all is the treatment of Ranger. He’s a corporate villain, every bit the low-down thief that the Kid is and just as unscrupulous and double-dealing, but in the end he isn’t punished in the slightest. Indeed, he becomes the benevolent capitalist who is able to make everything right just with his money. Along the way his crooked lawyer is simply dropped. Yes it’s nice that Jim and Joan have happily paired off in the back of the cab, but there seems to be a serious imbalance in the moral ledger when the most powerful bad guys never receive their comeuppance.
*. Night Key is often referred to as a science-fiction crime film, which was an odd genre mix at the time. The science is, however, sensibly rendered and it gives the movie its one spark (I was actually quite interested in the explanation for how the “key” works) . There’s also a foreshadowing of Walter White and Jesse Pinkman in Mallory’s adoption of Petty Louie (“Yeah! Science!”). Of course Mallory doesn’t really break bad, but there’s always that ambiguity in the uses science can be put to. What it creates can also be used to destroy.
*. Perhaps the most interesting thing about this movie though is the way the Ranger Security Company has supplanted the police. As Jim Travers acknowledges, Ranger Security really can’t just barge into Joan’s apartment without a warrant, but for them that’s not an issue. They are the law. The whole city is plugged into their surveillance system, and when the system fails there is no other authority to fall back on. It’s up to Mallory and Jim to shut the gang down, as poor dumb Louie takes the most casual bullet-to-the-back every filmed.
*. This is where the failure to balance the moral ledger is most worrisome. Who will watch the watchmen? Ranger Security’s board of directors? Will Mallory ever get that eye operation now, or will he just go blind?


Magnificent Obsession (1935)


*. It was a nice gesture of Criterion to include this title as a bonus feature with their release of the 1954 Douglas Sirk remake. Nice because without this treatment I think it was ready to be consigned to film oblivion. Who would even bother hunting it down today? Why?
*. Something feels icky from the start. Helen and Nancy are mother-daughter but are conscious of the absurdity of this as they appear to be the same age. This May-December feeling is later returned to when Nancy announces her engagement to Tommy, who looks quite a bit older (the actor playing Tommy was in fact twenty years older than Betty Furness.)
*. But then we have “Bobby” Merrick falling for Helen Hudson, with Robert Taylor being thirteen years younger than Irene Dunne. There’s your age equity paying back.
*. The genre is a hybrid particular to the time. Basically it’s a pulp romance (the handsome, rich playboy even becomes a Nobel Prize-winning surgeon!), crossbred with the sort of homiletic morality that was Lloyd C. Douglas’s stock-in-trade. Douglas was a Lutheran minister who didn’t write his first novel (this one) until the age of 50. He would go on to pen Biblical blockbusters like The Robe and The Big Fisherman.
*. I suspect it’s the religious message, with Bobby being reborn as Dr. Robert after an intervention by the devout sculptor, that dates the film the most. Heaven knows we still love a good love story, but I doubt the preaching appeals very much to a mass audience.
*. I don’t think it’s much worth watching today. The car accident looks pretty darn sharp for 1935 (better even than it does in the remake, twenty years later), but that’s the only thing that stood out. The plot is so clichéd and contrived it’s funny. Dunne and Taylor walk through their parts with the kind of formality that was the custom of the time, at least in a vehicle like this.
*. Pauline Kael: “This first version of the inspirational Lloyd C. Douglas novel . . . should certainly have been the last, but the woebegone trickeries of the material made the movie a four-handkerchief hit, and damned if Ross Hunter didn’t produce another version in 1954 (with Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson), and the slop made money all over again.”

Captain Blood (1935)


*. A star is born. Like being shot from a cannon, to make the obvious analogy. In the featurette on this film that’s included with the DVD, film historian Lincoln D. Hurst calls Errol Flynn’s performance “the most amazing debut of any new actor in the history of Hollywood.” That’s a dramatic pronouncement, but not unwarranted.


*. Flynn was heir to Douglas Fairbanks as an action star, but the two weren’t the same. Fairbanks was the more physical, both in terms of his stunts and the way he played a role (larger, for the silent screen). Flynn is prettier: he has the great physique and hair of a Harlequin cover model.
*. I don’t mean that in a negative way. The movies have always been about beautiful people. And it’s worth noting that Flynn was, apparently, suffering from malaria while shooting this film. But still, he is less solid than Fairbanks. In the ranks of action stars he put the emphasis on the star. He was a lover, not a fighter. For what it’s worth, Rathbone, who had a reputation as the best swordsman in Hollywood, thought him an inferior duellist to Tyrone Power.


*. You could say two stars were born, though Olivia de Havilland had just been in Reinhardt’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I believe she was only 19 here, and looks adorable. She could also act, and has terrific chemistry with Flynn, as they would go on to star together many times.


*. The pirate film wasn’t a new genre in the ’30s, like gangster films or monster movies mostly were. Indeed this was the second time around for filming Rafael Sabatini’s novel of the same name. I don’t suppose anyone reads Sabatini today. I haven’t. Later, Sabatini’s novel The Sea Hawk, which had also been made into a movie in the 1920s, would have its title borrowed for another Flynn vehicle. Some of the battle footage in this film (basically the shots of full-size ships in action) was taken from the first Sea Hawk, which gives you some indication of just how generic the action in pirate films was. Broadsides and swordfights.
*. In the 17th century, was there any effective treatment for gout? Nowadays I believe it’s mostly handled through drugs. So I’m not sure what Dr. Peter Blood is doing to the governor that works so well. Unless the governor is just a hypochondriac and there’s nothing wrong with him anyway.
*. Michael Curtiz is one of the more colorful figures in Hollywood history, probably best known (outside of his films) for several very funny malapropisms. He wasn’t an auteur, but he was a very capable professional with a knack for keeping the story moving. Even in what are fairly static scenes he engages our interest in subtle ways by dollying the camera, filling the frame in depth, or sharp editing.
*. A good example of the latter is the speech delivered by Flynn beginning with “It’s a truly royal clemency we’re granted my friends, one well worthy of King James.  . . .” There are two cuts made in this speech, breaking it into three shots, when the whole thing could have easily been done in a single take. It’s very effective, and yet so smoothly done that you don’t notice unless you’re looking for it.


*. The boats were large-scale models and they look terrific. Yet another example of how CGI hasn’t improved a thing. Even the shots of the ships shelling Port Royal look good. It’s all a studio production and doesn’t suffer for it. Not just because the in-house effects people were so proficient, but also because film hadn’t really developed an aesthetics of location shooting yet. If you’d shown Curtiz what Herzog did in Aguirre, for example, I’m not sure he would have understood it at all, the sensibility would have been so alien.
*. The idea that the pirate chieftain is actually a good guy in disguise is a trope that goes back to classical times, and was already familiar to moviegoers. These movies really followed a pattern, down to the wooing of the high-born lady by the gallant knave. That this has been such a resilient archetype is something to wonder at.
*. The story structure is a bit off. We’re half-way through the picture before the slaves escape and take to a life of freedom on the high seas. And there is no clear focus on a villain. The hanging judge, Judge Jeffreys, puts in an appearance. There’s a harsh slave driver named Dixon who apparently runs a mine but nothing is done with him. Lionel Atwill goes AWOL, both from Port Royal and the movie. And finally Basil Rathbone is introduced late and dispatched early, a terrible waste of one of the screen’s great bad guys.


*. Audiences didn’t really care. It was a big hit for Warners because the stars were in alignment. Flynn and de Havilland were both unknowns and both clicked. Erich Korngold was new as well, and had little time to write a score, but still delivered. Curtiz did a great job with the material. The effects are first rate. For a while, pirates were going to be big.


The Roaring Twenties (1939)


*. Pauline Kael: “The title and the names of the stars — James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart — make it sound like a lot more fun than it is. . . . The movie has a very mechanical and moralistic view of character; nobody ever says or does anything that surprises you.”
*. I’d agree with all this, and also say the same of another movie of three veterans returning home: The Best Years of Our Lives.
*. 1939 was the end of a lot of things, one of them being the first great era of the gangster film. James Cagney was sick of these parts and Humphrey Bogart’s career was going nowhere playing an endless stream of creepy gunsels. That would soon change. Cagney would be in Yankee Doodle Dandy in 1942 and wouldn’t play a gangster again until White Heat (1949). Bogie would do High Sierra and The Maltese Falcon in 1941. But as for now, 1939, what better time for gangster nostalgia?
*. Gangster nostalgia: a look back at the good ol’ days of Prohibition, the good ol’ days of the gangster film, and the good ol’ days (revived and improved) that the main characters here imagined they were going to enjoy on their return. No dice. When Rambo has a meltdown in First Blood about not being able to get a decent job he makes it sound like this was something new experienced by returning soldiers. It wasn’t.
*. A note on the etymology of nostalgia: it comes from a pair of Greek words meaning “home” and a wound or scar. So it’s a feeling very much in play here.
*. We start off with a written introduction to “this photoplay” by writer Mark Hellinger. He was sort of a big name at the time (dare I say he used to be a big shot?), but nobody much cared for his script, then or now. Cagney improvised a lot. I find it surprising that Hellinger would be given such prominent billing here, but writers were more important then.
*. After this we settle into a sprawling gangster film that’s overlain with a bunch of material that, while decent in itself, only weighs the movie down. Epic is a late development, a sign that a genre has begun to sprawl and bloat. There have been great gangster epics (The Godfather) and very bad ones (Once Upon a Time in America). Here we’re somewhere in the middle.


*. The newsreel-style “March of Time” montage inserts (with special effects by Byron Haskin and composed by Don Siegel, I believe) are quite well done, especially the one for the Crash of 1929 with its ticker-tape Mammon and melting skyscrapers. But I don’t think they work with the rest of the movie. They give it a kind of epic flavour, but diminish the characters and their struggles, making them seem more like representative types.
*. The musical numbers cover a lot of hits, with “Melancholy Baby,” “Wild About Harry,” “Sweet Georgia Brown,” and “Had to Be You” all getting some air (and Lane doing her own singing). They’re great tunes, but the whole Eddie-Jean-Lloyd triangle is dull, and making Jean a nightclub singer is trite formula.
*. Am I the only one troubled by Priscilla Lane’s Jean? She is perfectly happy, at least for a while, to be a gangster’s moll (Eddie even gives her a tour of the still!), then opts for the square life while the getting is still good.
*. Then there’s Jeffrey Lynn’s Lloyd the lawyer. He’s a bore, and just as easily compromised as Jean, quickly becoming Eddie’s consigliere. He draws an arbitrary line after the warehouse robbery, but, as Bogie snarls at him, he came into this business with his eyes open.


*. It seems almost as though the movie wants to be about the seduction of innocence, but all the main players give in to temptation pretty quickly, protesting hardly at all. I hardly think Lind is representative of “absolute good” and “the epitome of virtue and rectitude,” which is how Lincoln Hurst casts him in the DVD commentary. Everyone we meet here has dirt on their hands.
*. You should try and expand your vocabulary with every vintage gangster movie you see. I learned the word “gilpin” from this movie. It basically means a sucker. For some reason being a sucker is the one thing that Eddie is paranoid about. Perhaps he unconsciously recognizes that he’s too soft for the gangster life and it will be his undoing.


*. When Cagney uses Lefty (Abner Biberman) as a human shield it must be one of the earliest examples of this happening in a movie. In The Black Pirate Douglas Fairbanks uses Sam De Grasse as a shield but De Grasse is already dead. Lefty is alive until he stops some bullets. This would go on to become a film cliché used for comic overkill effect in movies like Total Recall and Payback.
*. It’s New Year’s Eve, so that’s supposed to be snow on the steps of the church at the end. Movie snow rarely looks like real snow, but here it looks like sand.
*. Despite its credits, I don’t like this movie much. The energy is gone, the cycle played out. Neither Cagney nor Bogart wanted to be here and it doesn’t help that we end with a long, downbeat final act. It’s just a tired movie, wearing too many clothes, and a great last line doesn’t save it.


The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse (1938)


*. Clitterhouse? Are you kidding? No such name apparently existed in England (where the story originated) or the United States. Were the censors asleep or was “clitoris” not a word (or part of the anatomy) familiar to many at the time?
*. In fact, and as you can well imagine, the censors did have problems with the story. That a movie such as this could have been made in 1938 is its main claim to fame and source of interest.
*. The problem is Dr. Clitterhouse. He’s a bad guy. At first a mere burglar but later a cold-blooded murderer. And yet he’s made into a sympathetic figure who ultimately gets away with it, merely remanded to the State Lunacy Commission for examination. Which isn’t even a slap on the wrist.
*. Joseph Breen wanted the script to make it very clear that Clitterhouse is insane. Somewhat ironically, this would be the central ambiguity in the film, unresolved by the farce of the trial. But I think it’s clear Clitterhouse knew what he was doing all along.
*. Compounding things, Clitterhouse not only escapes punishment by due process of law, but that process is treated as a joke, with buffoonish, yokel jurors incapable of figuring anything out and the expert testimony of Professor Ludwig treated as bafflegab and nonsense. As for the rest of the gang, they are presumably picked up at some point, though Jo appears to have got off as well.
*. Somehow (because it was pitched as a comedy?) Warners managed to get around all this and made a movie with a very dark set of morals: the ends justify the means; crime can be fun and pay as well; with enough money you can buy the justice system. What makes it even worse is the fact that Bogart’s Rocks Valentine is not that bad a fellow. Sure he tries to kill Dr. C., but he’s been forgiven that. And his plan on using the doctor as a front for his gang isn’t a bad one. As he says to Clitterhouse, the information he’s collected against the gang is only enough to send them up for life. He isn’t a candidate for extra-judicial execution.
*. It’s based on a popular stage play of the time. Surprised? I was. There’s nothing about this movie that gives such an origin away. Most movies based on plays have a stagey look and sound to them, but aside from some of the dialogue here there’s none of that.
*. It was purchased by Warners specifically as a starring vehicle for Robinson (though Robert Lord wanted Ronald Coleman as a more romantic lead to play opposite Claire Trevor). It must have made the star happy. Edward G. Robinson was a refined, highly-cultured, intellectual man whose breakout role as Rico in Little Caesar typecast him pretty much forever as a lowlife immigrant gangster. He would have preferred parts like Dr. Clitterhouse, even though the love triangle here is downplayed considerably because it was felt no one would buy it. Which is tough without being realistic, but nevertheless very Hollywood.


*. All of the actors on Warners’ “Murderers Row” were struggling with the same typecasting. Bogart was the heavy again here, a role he’d played over and over since The Petrified Forest. Clitterhouse co-writer John Huston would be the one to finally rescue him with The Maltese Falcon, but that was still a few years away. Here, Rocks Valentine is just a caricature, shining his ring on his tie and generally looking like a guy with a chip on his shoulder.


*. Whoa! Check out the size of the “special blend” of whiskey that Dr. Clitterhouse gives Rocks. Is that a triple? A quadruple?
*. The basic conceit is interesting — upper-crust doctor slumming it with gangsters in order to study them but himself becoming mentally and morally compromised as a result. As Richard Jewell remarks on the DVD commentary, it’s an inversion of the story of A Slight Case of Murder: instead of a gangster trying to reform his ways and enter high society, we have a stalwart of high society who descends to becoming a gangster.
*. But how do you play it? As social commentary? Comedy? Right from the time of its release reviewers didn’t know how to classify it. It resisted labels and pigeonholes, and usually that’s a good thing. Usually. But not here.
*. Why? I think mainly because it’s not funny. Of course comedy dates, and there are lots of movies from this period that must have been hilarious at the time but don’t crack a smile today. But there’s nothing remotely funny about any of this. I only thought there were a couple of scenes that were trying to be funny (and failing).
*. The result is awkwardness. We don’t know how we’re supposed to view Dr. Clitterhouse: as a naive intellectual or homicidal monomaniac. We don’t know how we’re to take the question of insanity: seriously or as a source of humour. We don’t know how to view the abridged relationship between Dr. Clitterhouse and Jo: is it impossible or just frustrated by circumstance?
*. So it’s an oddity, a weird movie that is remarkable for having been made rather than anything else. In terms of tone it’s a total mess. The leads would re-assemble for Key Largo.


A Slight Case of Murder (1938)


*. Comedy doesn’t age well, but I don’t think that’s the real problem with this one. The timing just seems off throughout. And I’m not sure the material was that good to begin with.
*. It’s billed as a gangster comedy, but what it plays like is a bedroom farce without the sex. We have all those doors opening and closing and different people coming out of them upstairs, just narrowly missing each other most of the time, or spying on what’s going on.


*. Also part of the farce set-up is the social satire. The Marcos are nouveau riche, a family of proto-Sopranos or Prohibition-era Beverly Hillbillies. This is a comic stand-by, and it works well enough here contrasting high and low, criminal and legit.
*. I especially like all the cues were given for how full Marco is of himself as the Big Man. Note how often he refers to himself in the third person, and how both the outer and the inner door of his office are branded with “Mr. Marko” in brass letters.
*. I know it’s unfair to appeal to probability in a piece of fluff like this, but how likely would it be that Marko, who admittedly doesn’t drink beer, to literally have no idea what his beer tastes like, even after four years of running a legit brewery?
*. Yes, that’s the Wicked Witch of the West herself, Margaret Hamilton, playing the orphanage director Mrs. Cagle. You can’t mistake that nose anywhere.


*. Edward G. Robinson’s star was fading, but he genuinely looks like he’s having fun here with the part of Remy Marco, sending up a part that he had defined earlier in the decade, starting with Little Caesar.
*. A one point Nora tells Remy that Mary has a fiancé, but later in the movie she apparently tells him for the first time about the engagement and he is surprised. A continuity error? I don’t usually care about flagging those, but this one stood out. Especially in a film based on a play, which I would have thought had a tighter script. But there’s also a flub (harder to notice) with the names of the people who receive the various dead bodies.


*. The gang members in their different get-ups (chef, chauffeur, butler) look like the Three Stooges. I think there’s some kind of comic principle at work there, like the one that puts together odd couples (fat guy with thin guy, white guy with black guy). You get a group of three together and they have to be mixed nuts.


*. I’ve seen Willard Parker’s height listed as 6’5″. Robert Sklar on the commentary says 6’4″, but also notes how he looks like he’s 7′ in relation to most of the other actors. I mean, yes, Robinson was very short (perhaps 5’4″), but Parker towers over everyone.
*. The man who topples from the roof at the end is clearly a dummy, and does a perfect landing straight on his head. Nevertheless, we’re told he was only injured. I think that kind of fall would have killed him, or at least turned him into a quadriplegic.
*. The main point of interest I find in the film is its casual attitude toward death. The dead bodies go from being a classless inconvenience, to being made into a joke (treated as gag props), to becoming “merchandise.” And then there is the telephone serenade to the dying man, which is also set up as a joke. I know we’re in the world of farce here, but this strikes me as surprisingly irreverent for the 1930s.


The Petrified Forest (1936)


*. Can anybody watch this movie today without a wince and a chuckle? It’s based on a play by Robert E. Sherwood, and a stage play from the 1930s is exactly what it both looks and sounds like.
*. I say “looks” because the last-chance road stop café was a set built on a studio set in Burbank, with a giant cyclorama backdrop sitting in for the Arizona desert. In other words, we’re on stage.


*. Then there’s the dialogue. Has stilted speechifying ever tottered as high as this? On stage you have to act big, something actors had to be reminded of when making the transition to film. On screen, less was more. But on stage you also have to talk big as well.
*. Here are some of the greatest hits: “This is Duke Mantee, the world-famous killer. And he’s hungry.” “Alan, Alan will you please kiss me?” “She has heroic stuff in her. She may be one of the immortal women of France. Another Joan of Arc, George Sand, Madame Curie, or Du Barry. I want to show her that I believe in her, and how else can I do it? Living, I’m worth nothing to her. Dead, I can buy her the tallest cathedrals, golden vineyards, and dancing in the streets.” “Let there be killing. All this evening I’ve had a feeling of destiny closing in.” “Any woman’s worth everything that any man has to give: anguish, ecstasy, faith, jealousy, love, hatred, life or death. Don’t you see that’s the whole excuse for our existence?”


*. Most, but not all, of this comes from Leslie Howard’s Alan Squier, who may be excused somewhat on account of his being an “intellectual.” Intellectual (“a vanishing race” embodying “noise without sound, shape without substance”) is a slippery label, adopted by Squier since he doesn’t quite qualify as a writer. In fact, he’s a bum: formerly a kept man by a wealthy French woman, he now panhandles and hitchhikes across the American West. Apparently his plan is to simply walk out of the café without paying for his meal. Was this the last time such a figure could be seen as romantic?
*. That’s the question that kept niggling away at me. Of course it all sounds ridiculous today, but when, if ever, did it not sound ridiculous? Pauline Kael thought it a hoot (“There’s no way to say this stuff without sounding affected, and every now and then Howard hits really embarrassing false notes”), but what about contemporary reviews? Apparently they were strong, so maybe they took it seriously in 1936.
*. But then perhaps the problem is the cratering cultural cachet of the book. We no longer live in a society that places any value on literature, so the spiritual nobility of a failed writer and the sensibility of a young woman who gets teary-eyed at reading translations of fifteenth-century French poetry strikes us as absurd.
*. Some awareness of Squier’s absurdity is built into the play itself. Gramps thinks he’s insane and even Gabby says at one point that he’s talking nonsense (“You know, you talk like a darn fool”). But he is the hero and I don’t think he’s meant to be undercut too much. We really are supposed to see him as a noble, tragic soul. As for the others, the mystic mesa atmosphere apparently induces an “autobiographical impulse,” leading the inhabitants of the diner to confess themselves to, and fall instantly in love with, complete strangers.


*. The effect of all this poetry is to exaggerate even more the violent charisma of the movie’s real star, Humphrey Bogart as Duke Mantee. None of the gangsters at Warners were the usual matinee idol types, but Bogart was something else: raw, dirty, and weary of life. Other gangsters — Rico, Tom, Tony — were climbing the underworld corporate ladder, living their own version of the American Dream. Duke isn’t going anywhere and he knows it.
*. I’ll expand just a bit on one of those adjectives: dirty. Duke Mantee isn’t dressed well, hasn’t shaved recently, and looks like he has a couple of layers of the Arizona desert on him. One thing about earlier gangsters is that they were stylish. They dressed well and were clean shaven. Indeed they were frequently shown being fitted for bespoke suits or being lathered up. Such scenes became gangster-film tropes. Hell, in Smart Money Robertson and Cagney even start out as barbers. But Bogart is different: a Marvel superhero in a DC world.
*. I really don’t like his walk though, which makes him look like a puppet with half his strings cut. Apparently he was trying to act like Dillinger, though it seems like a pure stage mannerism to me that should have been scaled down for the big screen.
*. What kind of a name is “Mantee” anyway? I can’t fix it to any ethnicity. And it sounds so close to “manatee” it seems funny.


*. Poor Dick Foran. He was only 25 when he made this film and yet he looks 40, with a pronounced pair of droopy man boobs that might have been given some support. And poor Boze (the character he plays), still dreaming of gridiron glory in the deserts of Arizona.
*. What such an isolated place like that needs with a full-time gas jockey is another question. But then they have a full time cook (“Fat”) as well. This leaves everyone with not much to do but sit around and talk.
*. Poor Bette Davis. She was actually a couple of years older than Foran, and playing a presumably teenaged girl. She does what she can in a hopeless part: the girl who has to “go to France and find herself.” She’d been better playing opposite Howard in Of Human Bondage a couple of years earlier.


*. What remains curious is the attitude taken toward Duke. Squier, who refers to him, curiously, as the Duke (thus subordinating himself) dubs him “the last great apostle of rugged individualism.” Gramps insists that he’s not a foreign “gangster” but an authentic “real old-time” American desperado. The part was modeled after Dillinger, who was a huge celebrity at the time (he’d just been killed a year earlier). Gramps also helpfully draws a link to Billy the Kid, another American cultural icon, and is thrilled and delighted to have “ringside seats” so as to better bear witness to “some real killing!” One wonders why Gabby doesn’t get a new crush. Remarkably, Mrs. Chisholm declares that she is ready to leave her husband and take off with him to Mexico.
*. This feeds into the ending, which the studio wanted to change but was kept consistent with the play. Of course the noble Squier has to go. He realizes he’s an anachronism anyway and has a death wish. But by the same mythic logic Duke has to escape, at least temporarily. We’ll hear a report that he’s been caught, but we may not want to credit it. Surely this was just a sop thrown to the censors. Surely Duke Mantee is still out there, a legend now of the new Old West. He’d even reappear as an older man with a different name in The Desperate Hours.
*. For me anyway this is one of those movies that has dated so badly it’s almost unwatchable today. Ten years later Bogie’d be back in a very similar situation in Key Largo, facing off against Edward G. Robinson (who was originally slated to play Mantee here). In that movie he’d catch a break however, and be allowed to survive. He’d also catch a break in being directed by John Huston, who had no intention of simply filming a play he thought stupid. In contrast, a filmed play is exactly what The Petrified Forest is. A filmed play, and a fossil.


Scarface (1932)


*. Of the big three original gangster movies (the other two being The Public Enemy and Little Caesar), this is the best. What sets it apart is the direction and writing, so intelligent and alert, from Howard Hawks and Ben Hecht respectively. Not surprisingly they would be the dedicatees of Brian De Palma’s remake.
*. All three films are classic American fantasies of rising from rags to riches the fastest way possible: that is, through the wedding of crime and business. In the grim alternate ending Tony Camonte is specifically indicted for having “commercialized murder.” Audiences were torn. Was what Tony doing wrong then? Censors didn’t like this one bit, but there was little they could do when Hawks avoided showing the film in jurisdictions where he couldn’t get approval and made a fortune anyway. There’s a moral to that story.
*. Hawks did try to throw a sop to the censors, but it was a backhanded one. The introduction calls out not Tony and the criminal underclass but rather the “callous indifference of the government.” Specifically “your government”: the one that you the people elected. So if you don’t like it, you do something about it. Just don’t complain about my movie!
*. But of course “you” weren’t going to do anything about it. After all, you were paying to watch this movie. In Robert Warshow’s essay “The Gangster as Tragic Hero” he explains the cultural dynamic: “At bottom, the gangster is doomed because he is under the obligation to succeed, not because the means he employs are unlawful. In the deeper layers of the modern consciousness, all means are unlawful, every attempt to succeed is an act of aggression, leaving one alone and guilty and defenseless among enemies: one is punished for success.”
*. What an incredible opening shot. The long dolly reads like a comic strip, and makes us feel as though we’re being drawn in deeper and deeper, through jungle foliage even. Then there’s the appearance of that sinister shadow off to the far right — a threatening presence we pull back from but which pursues us until the climax and comic denouement.
*. Hawks was at the top of his game here, shooting everything with inventiveness, energy, and a fluid camera. I love the pan across the social club of the gangsters, the retreating dolly shot as Tony and Guino stalk Meehan in the hospital (a scene that would become a gangster film touchstone), and the way the pages being torn from the calendar seem to be getting blasted off by the firing of the Tommy gun.
*. Is the film too smart for its own good? I love the “X” motif used to signal or mark a violent end, but does it mean anything? I can’t think of a point to it aside from a display of visual cleverness.


*. Muni is no Cagney or Robinson, and you can call his performance hammy. He screws his face up like a monkey and indulges in lots of broad gestures with his hands. Is that a silent film technique, or is it supposed to be Italian? Probably both. It’s also possible that he knows being the boss means playing the part.
*. In any event, the problem I had was that the two sides of Tony, the dopey joker and the sadistic killer, never seem to meet. He’s always one or the other, and it’s hard to see how they join together. At some point we needed to see him transition from one to ther other, just to show how and in what context he changes gears. Instead we get a character whose different parts don’t add up.
*. I’m put off by Mama as the Italian (or is she Jewish?) mother. She’s a familiar background figure in gangster films, always cooking away in the kitchen even in The Godfather and Goodfellas (I’m thinking of Pesci’s mom in the latter film). Why was there such an emphasis on the family life of these criminals? It’s the way Capone always wanted to be seen, so perhaps that’s where it started. She was also there in The Public Enemy and played an even more active role in White Heat (when the convention was ripe for exaggeration).
*. Of all the early gangster films this is the one that tries hardest to be ethnic. It’s crude, mostly consisting of terrible fake Italian accents: “You-a just-a like-a heem!” But fifty years later, would Pacino’s Tony Montana be any improvement on these broad stereotypes?


*. It’s interesting how all of the big three early gangster films, all of which were loosely based on Al Capone, have such memorable final death scenes: “Mother of mercy, is this the end of Rico?”, Cagney trussed up like a roll of carpet and being dropped off at the door, and here Tony expiring beneath his corporate motto “The World Is Yours.” What makes this ironic is that Capone wasn’t dead in 1931. He was in prison and his career as a crime boss was over, but he hadn’t met any final justice.
*. It’s also interesting how all three films emphasize the gangster’s weakness at the end. “I ain’t so tough,” Cagney says. Rico can’t believe death has come for him of all people. And Cesca here seems positively disgusted with Tony’s loss of manhood. Guino, she tells him, wouldn’t have been afraid, wouldn’t have been such a pansy. She says she doesn’t want to stay (live) with such a wimp. Then she turns her head away and expires.
*. Rags to riches is also the Gatsby story, and I take it there’s a deliberate nod to Gatsby in the scene when Tony shows Poppy all his beautiful shirts. This is the emptiness of affluence and consumerism, a new shirt every day so he never has to wash them. I can’t help thinking that this ties in to his final lines, when he caps his despairing complaint about how all of his friends are dead with the statement that the steel shutters on his windows don’t work. You pay for quality and this is what you get! That’s the last straw!
*. Note that Tony doesn’t really care about all his compatriots being dead. When Angelo dies it’s done as a bit of comic business, as he we see him slowly collapsing from gunshot wounds behind Tony, who is entirely indifferent, in a world of his own. What upsets Tony is that his friends have left him on his own. A lot of use they turned out to be!


*. Boris Karloff is here, not doing much. In fact, not only does he look like he’d never bowled before, it seems as though no one even showed him how to do it. But I wonder if Muni, or Hawks, were thinking of his performance as the Monster in Frankenstein in this movie’s final scene. The cops outside are like the mob of angry villagers, Tony’s smoke-filled building like the burning windmill, and Tony himself like the Monster, staggering about blindly, his face scarred, waving his arms in impotent anger.
*. I wouldn’t lean on that connection too hard though. As near as I can determine the two films were being shot at much the same time, possibly overlapping. If anything, I believe Scarface got started and finished first. Then it had troubles with the censors.
*. But in the end this isn’t an actor’s film. They only have cues. Muni whistles. George Raft flips a coin. Vince Barnett can’t figure out how to use a telephone. The only actors worth watching are the women. Ann Dvorak’s Cesca is especially good: as hot-blooded as her brother but frustrated by his oppressive violence. And Karen Morley as Poppy works the same dynamic: a highly sexual woman soaking in a sauna of testosterone.
*. Is there a moral to be drawn? I don’t think so. It’s not a case of someone gaining the world but losing his soul. Tony had no soul to begin with, nor any friends or family that meant anything to him. The only point is that it means nothing to gain the world if you can’t keep it. As Warshow noted, one has to be punished for success because all success is violence: “the successful man is an outlaw.” Behind every great fortune is a great crime. So then, as Macbeth put it: To be thus is nothing; but to be safely thus. Perhaps this is what the censors really objected to. Tony doesn’t get his just desserts but only fails to win the big prize.