Category Archives: 1930s

Chandu the Magician (1932)

*. Despite the fact that a number of early filmmakers used the new medium as a way of (re)creating their own kind of magic tricks or illusions, turning “movie magic” into a term of art, magicians have never been that popular on screen. Even superhero-magician hybrids, from Chandu the Magician to Doctor Strange, while being adapted from their sources into decent flicks, didn’t enjoy great success.
*. Chandu should have been a hit. The character had been introduced to American audiences only a year earlier by way of an incredibly popular radio serial. Gregory Mank, on the DVD commentary, says that 60% of American households tuned in five nights a week to listen to Chandu, “an amazing statistic.” The show was targeted at kids, and the movie delivered with a crazy story of exotic adventure, served up with great special effects. And yet.

*. I had a hard time telling from Mank’s commentary, and the accompanying featurette Masters of Magic: The World of Chandu, just how well the movie did at the box office. Mank doesn’t say much aside from mentioning it was “profitable.” From what I was able to dig up this is correct, but only just. It certainly didn’t provide anything like the return on investment of Frankenstein. Other voices on the documentary say that the box office was disappointing due to Edmund Lowe not having the requisite star power to carry the lead. We’re also told that it didn’t do well in cities but played well in small towns, better in matinees than evening shows (as would be expected given the target audience).
*. I don’t think anyone could have been happy, as the franchise was allowed to lapse. There was a serial a couple of years later (The Return of Chandu) made up of a dozen short films that cast Lugosi as Chandu, but that would be it. Before long the mage had gone the way of the Shadow or Mandrake, radio stars killed by video. There were various rumours of remakes and re-sets all the way into the 1970s, but nothing materialized.

*. Why has this been the fate of so many magicians? Chandu the Magician (along with The Mask of Fu Manchu, starring Boris Karloff) was Fox’s response to the success of Universal’s monster hits of the previous year, and it checks all the right boxes. I don’t think we can blame it all on Lowe, as I don’t think he’s that bad, and the villain of such a piece (Bela Lugosi as Roxor) is always likely to steal the show anyway. Who remembers the handsome leads in Dracula or Frankenstein?
*. Even the credits are fun, with a waving hand making them appear on screen. And they are interesting credits too. Co-director William Cameron Menzies was an accomplished production designer, and gives this film a great look with some really impressive sets. James Wong Howe was behind the camera. Henry B. Walthall had been the star of The Birth of a Nation. Ken Strickfaden apparently designed the lab, as he had done in Frankenstein. Bela Lugosi turns in one of his best performances.
*. It’s a good story too, with all sorts of great adventure elements. There are multiple kidnappings, a plot involving a giant death ray that’s capable of wiping out cities halfway around the world, our hero being bound in chains and locked into a sarcophagus that’s then tossed into a river, a prison cell with a collapsing floor, and all sorts of other pulp goodies. For a children’s film it also pushed the envelope. Censors objected to a scene where a man has his eyes burned out with a branding iron and another where sexy June Lang is put on the auction block. Mank directs us to look at her bosom to see why the censors were so upset, as it’s clear she isn’t wearing anything under her light dress and it rather looks like a cool wind is blowing in from somewhere. Princess Leia’s turn as a slave girl had nothing on this.

*. About the only part that doesn’t work is Herbert Mundin’s turn as Miggles. It’s just a one-note part and gets tiring quickly, especially given how it’s overworked. Not to mention how he seems to be entirely shoehorned into the plot.
*. So it was a hot property and it still disappointed. The Chandu franchise was stillborn. And again I wonder why. Mank finishes up his commentary by saying that we have always been fascinated with the world of magic, which is true, but not in the movies. Why? Perhaps movies raised the bar too high. The movies are magic on steroids, making us less appreciative of the real illusion.

Freaks (1932)

*. The easy and obvious place to start is to say that this movie is itself a freak, an oddity, sui generis, “one of the strangest movies ever made by an American studio” (David Skal). Though perhaps this is only being lazy and clever. As the initial review in the New York Times put it: “Freaks is no normal program film, but whether it deserves the title of abnormal is a matter of personal opinion.”
*. Well, let’s start with things that I think we can say about Freaks. In the first place, it was a commercial failure. MGM wanted to get into the horror business after seeing Universal’s success, but they didn’t like what they got with Freaks and it did poorly at the box office. Critics were largely (though not exclusively) against it, it was banned in the UK, and then all but disappeared for a number of years. Tood Browning’s career was basically over. Skal says Freaks “was the beginning of the end of Todd Browning’s previously charmed career at MGM,” though he did go on to make a couple of other interesting but minor films in the 1930s (including Mark of the Vampire and The Devil-Doll).
*. In the second place Freaks a semi-lost film. Apparently it was cut by about a third and the stuff that was cut is gone forever. In this (one) respect it’s like The Magnificent Ambersons (or Metropolis, before that semi-lost film was found): a landmark film but also a ruined monument to what might have been.
*. As a result of having lost so much and then having extra material added in post production at the studio’s insistence (including a new opening and a dreadful epilogue), the result is a mess. There are even lines that are left not making any sense. For example, when Hercules belts Joseph(ine) he says he’ll fix her eye, which just sounds bizarre because they cut the line before it which had him saying “You’re fixing your nose are you?”
*. A final word I’d add to this short list of failure and lost is shock. There are very few horror movies that retain their power to shock, and for Freaks to be able to do so after nearly a hundred years is amazing. And yet who can forget Cleopatra’s final appearance as the Duck Lady? This is body horror long before there was a name for it, and it still packs a wallop.
*. I love the hand tearing through the title screen, and the barker’s spiel immediately grounds our sympathy. “They didn’t ask to be brought into this world.” Echoes of Frankenstein, which are perhaps not by coincidence. Early monsters tended to be more sympathetic. Contemporary horror is more about psychopaths and other killing machines.
*. There’s also a prologue scroll that played before the film that I should mention. “Never again will such a story be filmed, as modern science and teratology is rapidly eliminating such blunders of nature from the world.” I had never heard the word “teratology” before. It means the study of abnormalities of physiological development. You learn something every day, and from the unlikeliest sources.

*. Danny Peary: “I can think of no film from the period that is filled with more sexual innuendo.” It really is remarkable, both for how much of it there is and for how frankly it’s presented. Some of it was cut (Skal mentions a scene where the trained seal amorously pursues the Turtle Girl), but plenty remains. Perhaps the most daring is Cleopatra’s line when she displays her bosom to Hercules and asks “What do you think of these?” But there’s also the scene where Cleopatra drops her cape for Hans while he ogles her, or when Phroso seems to notice Venus’s “shape” for the first time. Then there’s Roscoe stripping down to his (ladies’) underwear, or Frieda hanging her lingerie on the clothesline. Or think of the way Cleopatra goes into orgasm mode while Hans massages her (“It’s so good to be rubbed!”), or the similar expressions of passion by the Siamese twin who is not being kissed.

*. Why so much sexy stuff? Usually sex in horror is meant either as a distraction or as a way of suggesting some thematic or psychological link between sex and violence. Here, however, it seems like just another way to introduce a note of normality. Of course these are sexual beings. They are, as they insist, still men (and women).
*. With his background in the circus and predilection for such creepy stories (he’d already done The Unholy Three and The Unknown), I guess this was the movie Browning was destined to make. David Thomson thought Thalberg was also a key personality, but I think this may be overplayed. Thalberg initially supported the film (or at least supported Browning), before later despairing of it.
*. Thomson: “Nothing is exaggerated; nothing is set up in a world of shadow or dementia.” Because it didn’t need to go the route of expressionistic nightmare, though Browning was more than capable of this. But I think the main point is that Browning didn’t want the freaks to seem like monsters, at least initially. He wanted them to appear normal before they turn into something dangerous.

*. Perhaps because of all the cuts it seems to me to be a movie of moments. The wedding banquet is justifiably famous, remembered in films like Altman’s The Player and Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street. “Gooble-gobble” has entered the vernacular. The sense of a net closing around Cleopatra and Hercules in the final act is well handled, and the climactic chase in the storm, with the freaks sliding through the mud in pursuit, is great, if abbreviated. Finally, the shot of Cleopatra as the Duck Woman is unforgettable, and really should have been the final shot of the film. The only other ending I can compare it to for sheer shock value is the “Help me! Help meeeeee!” at the end of The Fly (1958).
*. The sideshow performers do their thing, but the acting by the “normal” figures isn’t very good. Some of them seem as uncomfortable with the dialogue as Browning was with sound generally. Originally Myrna Loy was set to play Cleopatra and Jean Harlow Venus, but they understandably bailed. The project itself was originally the idea of Harry Earles (Hans), who wanted to make a film of the Tod Robbins story “Spurs.” Actually, as the credits read, the final script was only “suggested” by “Spurs.” They are very different stories. For example, the midget’s revenge on his gold-digging bride is only to beat her (putting the titular “spurs” to her while he rides on her shoulders), not to turn her into a freak herself.

*. I began by mentioning the conventional line about how this movie is a sort of sideshow attraction of its own. That has to be qualified, as it does tell what is in many ways a conventional story, but I think it’s as a freak  show that I still look at it.
*. What I mean is that I don’t really enjoy watching it, and don’t come back to it very often, but that it does exert that horrible fascination that we associate with freak shows, or car accidents. I think parts of it are very well done, and even in its present mutilated form it may be Browning’s best work (I’m not a big fan of Dracula). Maybe it’s the lack of any characters I really care about that leaves me feeling a bit cold toward it.

*. This is, however, also one of the more remarkable things about how Freaks works. For most of the movie the freaks are presented sympathetically: loyal to each other and generally good natured. But at the end this image is reversed: we go from their idyllic first appearance playing in the sunny woods to the last shots we have of them, covered in mud and crawling through a stormy forest at night, very much objects of terror. In other words, we’ve been fooled by a bait-and-switch. Not that the freaks really are evil monsters, but that the story is told in such way that we’ve been lulled into thinking they’re harmless and nice only to have our expectations suddenly reversed.
*. We may think we’re living in a world with certain moral rules, but in the end that’s not the way Browning wants to play it. Because let’s face it, the epilogue’s attempt to whitewash Hans’s complicity in what happened to Cleopatra isn’t just unconvincing but disgusting. We know he is an embittered and nasty man.
*. Skal calls Browning a “profoundly cynical artist.” He’s our contemporary. This is a bleak film and it belongs on a double-bill with such an example of twenty-first century cynicism and body horror as The Human Centipede. Such an outlook is more at home in our own time. Gooble-gobble. One of us.

Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933)

*. I wasn’t long into this one before I felt sure I’d seen it before. This was not, however, because I was familiar with the 1953 remake House of Wax starring Vincent Price, which remains pretty faithful to the original (outside of losing the girl reporter). Instead, what I was remembering was Doctor X.
*. Doctor X had come out just the year before and had also been directed by Michael Curtiz, starred Lionel Atwill and Fay Wray, had the same art director and cinematographer, was shot in the same two-color Technicolor system (the last studio feature filmed using this process), and had the same opening theme music. Even some of the plot elements are the same as in Doctor X, which also had a fast-talking reporter and made use of waxwork figures to dramatize the crimes.
*. I mentioned that the 1953 version cuts out the lady reporter character, replacing her with a giggling, gold-digging bimbo. I also mentioned the names of the two top-billed stars here: Atwill and Wray. In doing so I’m guilty of promoting what I think is a common misunderstanding of this movie. The thing is, this is really Glenda Farrell’s movie. She’s the spunky reporter Florence Dempsey, and I suspect she has the most lines in the movie and perhaps the most screen time as well. She’s also the character who does all the work of the plot in uncovering Mr. Igor’s foul scheme. Wray is really just a damsel in distress who screams.

*. I enjoy the newspaper angle, even if all the wisecracking, sarcastic quips, and sexual innuendo is an odd fit with the Mr. Igor story. Indeed, it’s not just an odd fit. It actually overwhelms Igor’s mad revenge. I’ll admit I got lost figuring out what his long game was vis-a-vis his former partner Worth. And where did the hophead Darcy fit into all this?
*. The ending confused audiences then and now. Florence turns down the rich kid Winton for her editor Jim. Plausible, but Winton had seemed like fun while there wasn’t much going on between Florence and Jim but the usual banter.
*. The Technicolor system required so much lighting the heat apparently melted some of the wax figures, requiring them to be played by actors. A lesson in irony there.

*. I wonder if the lighting requirements were also behind the giant sets. Igor’s museum and studio look the size of airplane hangars. The morgue is a palace of the dead. Even the girls’ apartment is ginormous. There’s so much empty space.
*. There’s much to like in this movie (I haven’t mentioned the bizarre techno-expressionist lab) but I found the gap between the newspaper stuff and the wax museum story a real bother. The remake wisely got rid of the former, even though this led to the female leads being significantly downgraded. Atwill is just OK here, perhaps not realizing how much he really needed to ham such a slight part up. Curtiz goes for a lot of close-ups but they tend to be either overdrawn (Wray) or inexpressive (Atwill). All-in-all, I find Doctor X to be more entertaining fare, though it’s far less well known. Nevertheless, the basic idea here, which actually came from an unpublished story, was gold. There were going to be many more visits to this museum in the years to come.

Il caso Valdemar (1936)

*. Poe has always been a film favourite, and I think we’re all familiar with the adaptations made of classic tales like “The Fall of the House of Usher” and “The Black Cat.” That some of these adaptations were very, very loose, sometimes borrowing nothing more than a title, is no matter. Hell, sometimes they don’t even get his name spelled right in the credits. It’s “Edgar Allen [sic] Poe” in The Haunted Palace, and “A. E. Poe” here. But as the creators of the P.O.E. series understood, it’s only the last three letters that count. Three letters and lots of atmosphere.
*. But while I think cinema’s fascination with Poe is natural, I’ve always been a bit puzzled by the amount of love his story “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” has gotten. It was the final story in Roger Corman’s Tales of Terror trilogy, was George Romero’s entry in Two Evil Eyes, and was also adapted in P.O.E.: Poetry of Eerie. All of this for a story that’s basically about a dying man who is hypnotized so that he remains in a state of suspended decease until the “control” is released and he decomposes in a rush. That’s it. Just a guy rotting in bed.
*. Well, decomposing corpses have always been a horror staple, and having a corpse decompose very quickly right before our eyes is the sort of trick that effects people like to play. So I suppose that’s a big source of the attraction.
*. Il caso Valdemar is a silent film with only some scrawled notes (in Italian) to explain what is going on. Knowing the story would be a help, but perhaps not as much as you might think. Some matters remain obscure, though I don’t think they’re really necessary to enjoy the film.
*. As you should expect, the disintegration, or liquefaction, of Valdemar’s body is the star of the show, and it’s very well done. It even sounds better in Italian: the final title card tells us of how Valdemar is converted into “una massa semiliquida, una abominevole putrefazione.”
*. We’ve been prepared for the final effect by the heavy emphasis on close-ups of people’s faces, so that the fixation on Valedmar’s face turning into goo and sliding from his skull is all of a piece. It’s also shockingly gory for 1936. It’s much better than what Corman was able to do in 1962. This was Fulci nearly fifty years before the Godfather of Gore hit his stride!
*. Another nice bit of preparation for the climax comes with the women being ushered out of the room and the door shut. This adds to the sense of our getting to see something secret and forbidden.
*. It’s odd that this was such a one-off. It’s really quite well handled, arty but not too arty and with terrific effects. Nevertheless, co-directors Gianni Hoepli and Ubaldo Magnaghi never seemed to go on to do anything else and today this film isn’t very well known. It should be, and if you’re at all interested in horror cinema you should check it out.

Werewolf of London (1935)

werewolfoflondon1

*. 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.

werewolfoflondon3

*. 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.

werewolfoflondon2

The Most Dangerous Game (1932)

mostdangerousgame1

*. 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).

mostdangerousgame4

*. 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.

mostdangerousgame3

*. 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.

mostdangerousgame2

Night Key (1937)

nightkey1

*. 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?

nightkey2

Magnificent Obsession (1935)

magnificentobsession1

*. 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)

captainblood4

*. 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.

captainblood1

*. 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.

captainblood3

*. 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.

captainblood7

*. 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.

captainblood6

*. 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.

captainblood2

*. 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.

captainblood5

The Roaring Twenties (1939)

roaringtwenties3

*. 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.

roaringtwenties4

*. 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.

roaringtwenties1

*. 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.

roaringtwenties2

*. 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.

roaringtwenties5