The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933)

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The Bitter Tea of General Yen is no doubt a perplexing film to come at today but, in some respects, that makes the experience all the more gratifying. There’s still something within it 80 years on that will simultaneously rub up against our contemporary perspective while also surprising us with a certain adroitness. So many issues are stacked up one on top of another, it’s a weighty task to begin trying to unpack them all.

Certainly, we have the strains of colonialism driven by western missionaries looking to share the Christian faith with the outer reaches of the world. In fact, we can probably derive some similar themes from films such as Keys to the Kingdom (1944) and Silence (2016) which provide a myriad of questions in their own right. Are these missionaries really making a difference? Is their Gospel even being comprehended? Should they be so bold as to force their beliefs on other people groups? All of these are up for valid consideration.

Racism must also be tackled whether it is shown to prove a point or is simply a casualty of a previous generation’s approach to Asian portrayals. We hear the words of one elderly lady who in one moment is going on about how lovely a wedding is going to be and then the next she shares her true sentiments about the Chinese.

“They’re all tricky and immoral. I can’t tell any of them apart. They’re all Chinamen to me.”
It’s this kind of narrow thinking, this blatantly obvious cultural insensitivity, laid right out in front of us. Thus, it seems likely the film’s main thesis might be to prove the exact opposite. That in itself seems monumental.

We have the casting of a Scandinavian in Nils Asther for the role of the Chinese general to contend with as well. And while it’s easy to get stuck on this or go the complete opposite end of the spectrum and take it for granted given the cultural moment it came out of, I hope to arrive at another conclusion. “Yellowface” always perturbs me and yet I also realize we have to understand the intentions and so I’m apt to read this picture much as I would Broken Blossoms (1919).

Whereas Mr. Moto and Charlie Chan work in stereotypes and the Fu Manchu archetype is the demonizing of a race, you do not quite get the same sense here. Even with the problems inherent in the characterization, what comes through emotionally is resonant. Then, further still is the landmark consideration of interracial romance, no doubt a turn off for many contemporary viewers — or at the very least taboo.

The whole narrative is really about the steadily evolving relationship between an American woman (Stanwyck) and this Chinese General (Asther) who keeps her in his domain on the pretense that it is for her own safety with the civil war still raging at large.

Megan is one of those naive yet well-meaning individuals who comes to a foreign land to do good. This is the imperative of “The Great Commission” and bless her soul, she takes her faith seriously, coming to join her soon-to-be husband wherever he may go.

But soon she is struck with a reality check. Her fiancee and she try and rescue some orphans caught in the middle of the hellish war zone, but the pass they’ve been provided is no good. In the ongoing turmoil, Megan finds herself brought to the palace of General Yen for safekeeping, her husband lost in the chaos.

What follows is an exercise not so much in polarizing romance, which would be the easier road to traverse, but instead cultural understanding through candid dialogue. He criticizes what he sees as a flaw in her man, that he will betray her every time for his God. Meanwhile, the idea all humanity is one flesh and blood is almost laughable to him.

And yet, again and again, he is drawn not only to her exquisite appearance but the undeniable sincerity that guides her every action. She, in turn, recognizes something of a hidden sensitivity welled up inside his soul. As he notes, “There has never been a people more purely artist, and therefore, more purely lover, than the Chinese.”

The most straining circumstance involves the General’s lowly concubine Mah-Li (Toshia Mia) who has all but disobeyed him. Megan chides him to forgive her even in her insolence (“I want you to see the beauty of giving love where it isn’t merited”) and for the greater offense of passing secrets which gives him the grounds to have her killed. You can either say he softens or finally lets down his guard. It’s semantics really.

This might very well be the Capra picture people don’t expect because it flies in the face of all the criticisms usually leveled against him. Specifically, that he always made overly sentimentalized films without a shred of hard reality. I’ve tried to push back against this presupposition countless times and I think The Bitter Tea General Yen is another fine counterargument. Look no further than the excruciatingly frank depictions of military executions, soldiers decimated by Gatling guns,  betrayal, suicide, and near surrealistic dreams that invade a woman’s consciousness.

However, it’s difficult not to begin comparing it most obviously to Shanghai Express (1932), a picture that reveled in its atmosphere and featured Josef von Sternberg’s visual infatuation with Marlene Dietrich. Frank Capra does Stanwyck justice in his own right because there’s no doubt she’s vibrant and alluring throughout. It’s brought into sharp relief through numerous stunning close-ups that capture the softness of her features. Not to mention the tears. Something that makes her different and more vulnerable than her German contemporary.

But we must ask the question. Is it a type of Stockholm Syndrome? Is it a true romance or simply an affection for a man who had more beauty, more artistry, than she would have initially given him credit for? I’m not sure we know and the ingeniousness, I realized retrospectively, of the film’s ending, is that we never hear Barbara Stanwyck’s thoughts on the matter.

Walter Connolly just won’t shut up and he’s supposing all these different things. Recalling what a great guy the General was, considering what Megan will do next, and summing up the General’s spiritual proclivities. Maybe he’ll come back in some new incarnation. But the lady says next to nothing and there is a cryptic power in this. Because The Bitter Tea of General Yen allows us to ruminate over the material and draw out conclusions of our own.

3.5/5 Stars

Lady For a Day (1933)

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Apple Annie (May Robson) is one of the many impoverished individuals on the streets of New York City trying to eke by in the pits of the Depression. She makes a meager living as a fruit vendor. But appearances can be deceiving and Annie has long corresponded with and paid for her daughter Louise to grow up in Spain.

There her girl can receive breeding and make a better life for herself. However, she has never been made aware of her mother’s lot. Annie has never found the need to tell her. Instead, she’s painted a vivid picture of grandeur for herself as a society matron who resides at the Hotel Marberry. Of course, this could not be farther from the truth. But she wants Louise not to worry.

The kicker is that said daughter is making an impromptu visit, and Annie knows she will be caught in her ignominy. She’s so small and unimportant; it seems like a horrible situation. She must make a transformation if this whole masquerade is going to continue. Her last resort is Dave the Dude (Warren William), a local gambler and influential man who has always taken a liking to Apple Annie. She’s kind of his good luck charm.

So though he doesn’t have to do it, he decides to pay it forward and help her out as much as he possibly can. It starts with his girlfriend Missouri Martin (Glenda Farrell) giving the old gal a stunning makeover, then finding her a place to live more suitable for her image, and finally, a husband.

Where to find a man with enough class and eloquence to pull off such an endeavor? Look no further than the local pool hall. Guy Kibbee gives a veritably kingly performance as the theatrical pool shark who becomes Annie’s husband in a pinch. He’s a fantastic showman.

However, this is all only preliminary. The Dude must try and orchestrate this whole thing so it goes smoothly without a hitch. That means keeping nosy journalists away from the scene and never breaking the perfect illusion they have constructed. He’s got a capable staff of heavies to do his bidding. Happy (Ned Sparks) is an acerbic sidekick with garbled jargon and a sarcastic wit ready to duel with everyone. Comically, Shakespeare (Nat Pendleton) is the dumb lug who takes care of all the dirty work and messenger boy duties.

Best of all, young Louise is deliriously happy to see her mother and Annie has been allowed to maintain her dignity thus far. Almost everything has gone exquisitely. Guy Kibbee and Walter Connolly have a lovely scene together as they look to genially settle the issues of a dowry over the billiards table. The police are out for blood after a couple reporters mysteriously disappear and they believe The Dude is implicated.

He, on the other hand, is trying to get his gang of cronies and Missouri Martin’s floozies in shape for the going away gala that The Duke so kindly offered to host to send the Count  (Connolly) and his son off with. The rehearsal is a shambles that nearly makes The Dude tear his hair out. And the cops have caught wind of something fishy going down, so they’re about to close in the dragnet, threatening to end the charade for good.

However improbable, there’s a touch of sentimental fairy dust floating over the film. Serendipity or Providence. Whichever you prefer. With this band of actors, you really do get a sense that they are pulling a little magic out of their hats, because they aren’t necessarily well-known. For all intent and purposes, this could very easily be their world.

It’s true it does feel like a rather ragtag assortment of talent. By today’s standards, there’s no prominent star though Warren William was later labeled the “King of Pre-Code.” Most everyone else was a character actor, a stage performer, or an extra pulled off the streets of L.A. to provide some authentic color. And actually, it works very much to the picture’s benefit. Sure, it would have been lovely to have a William Powell, James Cagney, Marie Dressler or any number of other performers. No doubt what’s created in their absence is an unassuming charm.

Where everyone from the governor to the mayor, to the police department, and the journalists find it in their hearts to observe a little chivalry and goodwill. True, since the normal eight balls are leading the charge in the decency department the sentiment is laid on rather thick. But even if it’s a pipe dream, it’s a delight nevertheless.

I only recently discovered the picture One Way Passage (1931) and here I get the same sense of a dream being prolonged and realized beyond any human belief. Rather than the implausibility being a fault, it takes the film into a realm that only movies can take us. Where we can believe in wonderful things and therefore carry them back into our lives to hopefully brighten up reality in a similar manner. While not Capra at his finest, you can no doubt see the uplifting allure found within its frames.

3.5/5 Stars

Taxi! (1932)

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Taxi! is indubitably parked in the pantheon of misquotes and few people probably realize it. Yes, this is the film where Warner Bros. tough guy James Cagney purportedly sneered, “You dirty rat, you killed my brother!” I remember hearing the line in everything from The Monkees to M*A*S*H and it no doubt showed up in just about every show from here to eternity. Right up there with Cary Grant’s apocryphal line “Judy, Judy, Judy.”

But none of that speaks to this film or what it’s actually about. Well, the title says it: Taxicab drivers. So let’s talk about the talent instead and when I say talent that mostly means two people, James Cagney and Loretta Young. They’re the main draw.

In the opening gag, we see James Cagney using his Yiddish to placate a customer who can’t seem to get any help from a policeman. But he’s also back to running off his mouth and throwing his fists because after all, this is the same man that electrified the world with his portrayal of a gangster in William Wellman’s Public Enemy (1931) of the previous year.

The crucial event in this film is a rash of strong-armed maneuvers pulled by a taxi conglomerate in New York City looking to shoulder their way into the industry through scare tactics and willful sabotage of their competitors.

One of their victims is a veteran cabbie (Guy Kibbee) who isn’t about to take this lying down and he guns down one of the perpetrators of injustice. Justice is swift and he is given a prison sentence in lieu of death. But it might as well have been. His life is all but over.

In the wake of this outrage, Cagney begins a call-to-arms for his fellow colleagues to fight back and fight fire with fire as it were. The incarcerated man’s daughter (Young) stands tall as well and calls for action by peaceful means. She receives the disdain of Nolan for behavior that he sees as selling out her own father. Of course, he doesn’t know the whole story.

For some inexplicable reason, maybe it’s his animal magnetism, Sue falls for the cad of a cabbie. What follows are dates at the picture show which provides some free publicity including a weepy starring Donald Cook and a poster for The Mad Genius (1931) starring John Barrymore.

Sue’s fellow waitress at the local grub hub, the oddball chatterbox Ruby (Leila Bennett) even makes a passing comment to her beau about Frederic Marc though Joe E. Brown is still here personal favorite. It makes sense.

Next, comes a Peabody contest at the nightclub, featuring an appearance by George Raft, where the fiery Cagney tries to wail on his real-life friend. If it’s not that then it’s a fat man in an elevator or most obvious of all Buck Gerrard the big oaf who had a part in the shady tactics that landed Sue’s father in jail.

Matt’s not a happy camper for most of the film and yet he still manages to keep his gal. After a lover’s quarrel, a silky smooth Cagney takes his love in his arms and they dance while he slips a ring on her finger. He’s also a self-confident son-of-a-gun.

But as electric as Cagney is, one of the best to ever light up the screen — there’s no doubt about that — I’m not sure if I can forgive him slapping around someone as loving and as innocent as Loretta Young. Especially today, it just doesn’t come off very well. She deserves someone better.

3/5 Stars

Baby Face (1933)

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Even in its opening moments, Baby Face made my heart heavy. I look at Lily, this young woman played by Barbara Stanwyck and sadness wells up within me. Because her environment is so oppressive. Getting constantly pawed at and manhandled with a father who has no conception of love. Then, she opens the window to get away from the asphyxiating haze of cigarette smoke only to be met with more smoke from the steam engines outside. This isn’t a life that anyone should be subjected to and it’s brought into sharp relief because she is surrounded by so many filthy men: Mangy scuzzballs, if you want to get scientific.

But the picture, even in this opening moment, before it gets to the nitty-gritty at hand, grieves me because it still has increasing pertinence in the present world we find ourselves in. Isn’t that strange? But I am met with this fact time and time again. You would think I would be less surprised there is still nothing new under the sun. In such an environment, Lily is essentially perceived to be worthless and the men around her keep her down.

However, there’s one man in particular who rallies her to get off the trash heap. In fact, Bragg is a man who broadens her perspective and helps her to realize her own worth.  The only unfortunate part is that he bequeaths her the philosophy of Nietzsche. And I say unfortunate very purposefully because the language he provides her is like so.

“You must be a master, not a slave. It’s about exploitation using men and being strong to get the things you want.” It’s laid out as overtly as you could possibly expect. This remains only the root of a wider problem that is exasperated because, of course, this is exactly what Lily ends up doing.

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She goes to New York with her constant companion Chico (Theresa Harris) and subsequently charms her way into a job, slowly moving up the ranks due to her ambitions and calculated manipulation. There’s no other way to put it. She’s systematically sleeping her way to the top.

The funniest anachronism of them all is seeing John Wayne, young and handsome, behind a desk in a corporation. He is one of Baby Face’s early conquests. But believe me, there will be more. No sooner has one top employee lost his job due to Baby Face then another man has become seduced by her inviting eyes and soft touch. There’s one particular mirror shot from the ladies’ room that says it all. The man is saying one thing and when he sees her his whole demeanor changes. Like putty in her hands.

But there’s another running gag easily understood with a little inference. A close up on the exterior of the mortgage department with a soft pan to the accounting department or wherever else ambition takes her, the score playing “St. Louis Blues” saucily to say all that needs to be said. And you get the sense that it’s for these very interludes that the film was marketed.

It pushed the boundaries of the censor’s board at the time and many have supposed, rightfully so, that Baby Face was one of the pictures which actually led to greater enforcement of the production codes in 1934. Certainly, all this is true.

But more than anything, the most troubling thing for me is her Nietzschean code of conduct continually dictating her worldview. He is the man who most famously said “God is Dead,” not as a derisive proclamation but more so a disillusioned fact. There is no hope or grace found in such a point of view. But of course, Lily never received any of those things in her formative years so how is she to know? She just keeps plodding on using her attributes the best she knows how to make a comfortable life for herself.

To quote Proverbs, “her lips drip honey and yet her feet go down to the grave.” She’s nothing but trouble and yet I would never hold it against her. She makes us so conflicted because there is so much manipulation there — even vindictiveness — while she still nurses wounds from youth that we cannot even begin to understand.

Stanwyck never ceases to amaze me with her incredible range of performances and the deep truth she seems to mine in each and everyone to make them charming, funny, or heartbreaking — whatever the tone calls for. She always seems to have it in ready supply. It’s little different in Baby Face.

As far as the film itself, what we have here is the epitome of efficient Hollywood filmmaking that somehow is still laced with a potency of emotion, at times heartbreaking and at others verging on the salacious. Still, it’s a picture that leaves you with something. There’s no way that any of the Barbara Stanwyck faithful would forget her, but this picture gives another reason to stand up and take notice.

It’s a striking image as the phonograph turns and all the men in her life flash by. In such a short time there’s been so many and yet some passed by like a blip we almost forget they were there. George Brent is the most substantial and even he comes into the storyline far later. That’s purely a testament to the picture’s ability to really fill out the entire scenario with surprising depth.

However, it’s crucial for the film to end on a realistic and deadly note because anything else would be untrue to the life that Lily has lived thus far. It was never pretty. The denouement cheats a little bit by leaving events open-ended but all that’s left to say is Stanwyck is devastating. She just might bowl you over.

4/5 Stars

 

Miracle Woman (1931)

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“Beware of False Prophets which come to you in sheep’s clothing” – Mat. 8:15

The Miracle Woman is offered as a rebuke to anyone who, under the cloak of Religion, seeks to sell for gold, God’s choicest gift to Humanity —- FAITH. 

There are title cards that open up Miracle Woman to make it crystal clear what its intentions are. Though pointed, they hardly seem necessary given the motion picture we are about to witness. The images speak for themselves.

Inside an old-fashioned church building, we hear the opening throes of “Holy, Holy, Holy.” Most every contemporary audience knew that standard hymn well — cherishing its heavenly imagery. But when Barbara Stanwyck steps into the pulpit to pass along her father’s final words as pastor she breaks into the reverie and brings the house down. If there’s ever been a stirring depiction of righteous indignance she is most certainly it.

Like Jesus clearing out the temple of all those peddling their goods, Stanwyck empties out the entire building condemning the pews of hypocrites and lukewarm believers who sit before her. They willfully tossed her father aside for a younger man once they had no use to him. He died of a broken heart and Florence feels affronted.

A few voices chime in on her behalf but she’s all but left to wallow in her sorrows alone. One man stays behind and he’s important for this story. Bob Hornsby (Sam Hardy) was just passing through town and stopped by the church but was impressed by Fallon’s knowledge of scripture and charisma up in the pulpit. With his streetwise business acumen and her stage presence, he thinks they can really make something for themselves.

They soon resurrect a “Temple of Happiness” from a converted barn and it has the words Florence Fallon, Evangelist, and FAITH boldly emblazoned on its front for all to see. The main thing that has changed in 85 years is that the Christian faith has become less widely practiced compared to back then. But this narrative puts a voice to issues that have long plagued the organization of the church in the United States.

Namely, people make a near sideshow attraction out of the whole thing with brass bands and showmanship while simultaneously promoting selfish gain over any kind of advancement of the pronounced commandment to “love God and love thy neighbor.” I am grieved to say those root issues look very much the same all these years later.

We watch as Florence is slowly persuaded into getting back at the fickle people who sold her father out and she’s very good at it, even sincere, while Hornsby runs everything else from hauling in donations to dreaming up the next gimmick.

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However, whether she meant to or not, Florence’s voice on the radio convinces a blind man (David Manners) to not give up on his life though he is struggling mightily. For that he is grateful but it becomes even more personal when he gets up on stage with her and then after that meets her face to face. There’s something inside of him that’s so genuine and attractive to a woman who is used to working with shifty characters.

The boy shows her a good time with some parlor tricks including a music box, cards, and his roommate a very forthright dummy named Al. In many ways, it’s this wooden doll who speaks for him from the depths of his heart. The things he doesn’t know how to say outright start spewing out of the little man.

While Florence finds herself falling for John, her partner who was so warm and genial that first day they met has started to get more demonstrative — even aggressive. Because Florence means a lot him, not only as a companion but also his current livelihood. She’s fighting against him but it looks like he’s got her where he wants. She will have one final swan song and then has no choice but to go off with Bob, never to return.

However, John looks to manufacture his own miracle for her but unlike her other man, it’s not to sell tickets or pull the wool over the eyes of the public. It’s purely an act of love. He takes it a step further my fearlessly saving her life in the face of a hellish conflagration.

Capra never struck me as a terribly religious person but there’s no doubt he believed in humanity and he had faith in their capacity for good and their ability to love others. I think that perhaps this is the core of the whole “Capracorn” slogan. Because Capra as a director ultimately dwells on what he perceives to be the inherent good in people. That is not to say the conniving, corrupted, licentious side isn’t given any screen time. No place is that more clear than in Miracle Woman.

And yet the final image is of Barbara Stanwyck parading with a Salvation Army band singing “Glory, Glory, Hallelujah.” True, she gave up a lucrative career worth more money than she could imagine but she gained something worth exponentially more — her soul. She has learned how to love again and how to trust a man who in turn loves her deeply. That’s enough of a miracle.

One does have to question where her belief in God stands or if she deems the romantic love of her life to be enough. Regardless Stanwyck gives a stirring ever-impassioned performance that put her on track for continued success. She was a wellspring of talent even at this early juncture in her career.

4/5 Stars

“What God? Who’s God? Yours? This isn’t a House of God. This is a meeting place for hypocrites!”

Night Nurse (1931)

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We’re introduced to the day-to-day in a hospital ward with mothers giving birth, delinquents under police custody, and bootleggers coming in on the lamb with mysterious ailments. Barbara Stanwyck arrives in the office inquiring about a position as a nurse and she is flatly rejected for her references and lack of a full high school education.

Reluctantly she exits only to make a connection in the revolving door with a white-haired genial doctor (Charles Winninger) who pulls some strings and lands her a spot as a trainee. Her roommate and guide to this new existence is the lively Maloney (Joan Blondell). The male interns send her a warm welcome too. Namely a skeleton in her bed which gets her in particular trouble during a late night bed check from the head nurse who rules the nurses quarters with an iron fist.

This is all only a setup of the films main concerns which have roots in sordid drama and soap opera-like thrills. The melodrama comes into full view as we are introduced to none other than a mustache-less macho Clark Gable who upon being asked who he is, replies “Nick the Chauffeur” only to be captured in closeup while eliciting a gasp from a night nurse.

It’s textbook stuff and then he proceeds to wallop her as she tries to use the telephone. But a smidgen of context is in order. Lora starts her first shift as a night nurse looking after two darling little girls. But from what she can tell they are systematically being starved and their perpetually tipsy mother, Mrs. Ritchie, seems to have very little input. Meanwhile, the doctor who took over the case when Dr. Bell was deposed is shady at best. All the while, Nick leers and strong arms his way around, making sure that Lora doesn’t do anything against the doctor’s orders. Conveniently that means no nourishment.

But “Little Miss Iodine” doesn’t go down without a fight. With the girls slowly wasting away upstairs and needless extravagant parties being held continually downstairs with booze freely flowing, Lora lays down the law. She smacks the girls’ mother around a little for her parental negligence. Also, it turns out that Lora’s new boyfriend comes in handy when he’s not bootlegging. They make a swell couple.

On the whole, this picture of emaciation is slightly disjointed and hyperbolic in its own right. There’s also probably too liberal an amount of undressing on camera. Because it’s only purpose is to be provocative.

I’m not quite sure if I ever figured out the mechanics of it all but there is an undeniable fury to it and William Wellman directs it as such through every beat from comedy to romance to mystery thriller. So with stalwart performances by Stanwyck and a no-good Clark Gable on the rise, matched by a certain enigmatic potency, there is enough meat here to make it a mildly diverting Pre-Code effort.

3/5 Stars

The Virginian (1929)

220px-Poster_-_Virginian,_The_(1929)_01.jpgThough the image quality of the print I saw hardly stands the test of time, there’s something almost modern about The Virginian’s characterizations or at least what it deems interesting to show.

There’s actually a layering of tones and a fluctuation in the moral dilemma at its core that feel a great deal more nuanced than a cut-and-dry shoot ’em up western beholden to the stereotypes that the genre was founded on.

In Victor Fleming’s hands, The Virginian was not only a western but an early talkie extending the possibilities of the medium. It’s true that at this point there was a lot of pioneering still to do in film as there had been in the West.

One aspect this picture took advantage of in particular was exterior shooting which gives the West an almost palpable nature because we see the dust swirling up from the feet of the cattle, we hear the constant chorus of animal sounds, and the expanse of the prairie is daunting but also starkly majestic.

Beyond genre conventions, it’s indubitably a seminal picture since we get the overwhelming sense that we are seeing a persona coming into his own — the crystallized image of stalwart Americana — Gary Cooper. Although he was a minor star and this was not only his first starring role in a western but also his first talkie, soon enough he would be one of the most beloved actors of his day.

True, he also made many pictures outside the genre of considerable repute in their own right, and yet there’s no underselling how important the western was in further instilling Cooper’s legacy for generations of faithful fans. His eponymous character in The Virginian is an early marker of the mythology of western masculinity that would stretch all the way to High Noon (1952) and Man of the West (1958). In fact, at times this picture, featuring an imminent showdown, looks eerily similar to its future brethren from two decades later.

His cattle foreman character is a man’s man. He’s a plain-speaking, straight-talking man of few words (Yes ma’am, No ma’am), who nevertheless cares deeply about honor and personal integrity. Yet he still gives off the homely qualities of a man of the West. And it’s true that much of this film adaptation of Owen Wister’s novel and subsequent play is concerned with the butting of heads that comes with the clashing cultures between West and East.

On one side you have the Virginian and the rest of the townsfolk and on the other is the new schoolmarm, Molly Stark Wood (Mary Brian), who causes quite a stir among the men in town and is a welcomed bit of civility to everyone else.

There is a sense that she can help tame this uncivilized world that lacks manners, education, and law and order. The themes would crop again and again most notably in Ford’s own moody rumination The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). But here there’s an oddly good-natured comedy streak. It’s not all horse opera.

The Virginian and his old pal Steve have a fine time switching the babies about to be christened by the parson which causes quite the hubbub. But the two men also jockey for the new gal’s affection in all matter of things. Looking to carry her bags or get a dance with her at the community gathering.

The Virginian and Molly even conduct a discourse on Romeo and Juliet which proves to be an enlightening distillation of their two differing perspectives. All of this is fine and dandy. Even the swapping of infants like a pair of regular cow rustlers feels innocent enough. But there’s another side of this world as well.

The main antagonist named Trampas (Walter Huston) wears black and yet he’s more of a cunning thief than an ornery devil, all guns a blazing. He’s more apt to shoot a man in the back when he’s not looking like a coward than actually face him man to man.

He also happens to be a cattle rustler himself and he’s pulled Steve in with him because it’s a pretty easy business. Lots of reward for little risk. Except if and when you get caught there are no two ways about it. The law of the land says you’ll be strung up even if you’re a friend.

And so The Virginian doesn’t shy away from the harsher realities of this lifestyle whether it be hangings or the prevalence of gun duels. It’s a part of the life but also so at odds with what is considered respectable in other parts of the world. Thus, not only the schoolmarm, but the audience, and really everyone else involved must grapple with what is right and what is wrong and how we reconcile those perceived differences.

4/5 Stars

“When you call me that, smile!” – The Virginian

Impact (1949)

Impact_1949_poster.jpg“In this world, you turn the other cheek and get hit by a lug wrench.”

Impact is literally bookended by a dictionary that is opened and then closed with a concise description of the titular phrase to frame our narrative. It couldn’t be more uninspired but the word “impact” gives us some reason to hope the movie within those covers will offer some thrills.  We must brace ourselves.

The story follows Walter Williams (Brian Donlevy) the world’s most perfect industrialist and husband. He can overturn deadlocked board meetings with his stunning entrances and continually rains down affection on his wife looking forward to a weekend away in Tahoe together.

Of course, his wife (Helen Walker) has other ideas. She plays the docile and lovey-dovey wife but really she’s up to something. We see it all too quickly. Mrs. Williams is looking to get rid of her husband with the help of her boyfriend and her hubby isn’t any the wiser. He’s a sitting duck.

The script penned by Jay Dratler relies on the fact that though he gets left for dead at the side of the road, it’s a botched attempt and while disoriented, Mr. Williams is still alive.

The film is mostly encumbered by its length as it starts to sag in the middle so that even Ella Raines’ entry about halfway through the picture isn’t enough to salvage the wreckage. She shows up in all places as a mechanic in a small Idaho town and business hasn’t been good lately.

Once again Mr. fix-it Walter Williams is there to save the day. Conveniently, he keeps his past a secret. He’s happy with this simple life away from the drama that’s happening back home. Here he can go to church on Sundays and have lazy strolls out in nature. One frenzied sequence involves the volunteer fire department stirring into action which Walter readily joins.

Back home a Lt. Quincy (Charles Coburn) is making a routine going over of the case and Mrs. Williams is making arrangements of her own unaware of the unfortunate turns her plans took.

The film would have done well to have a leaner line of action because it comes out of the mayhem feeling like 2 or 3 separate movies. There are the delightful noir bits of an unfaithful wife trying to work with her lover to end her husband a la The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946). Then, there’s an ensuing court case where Williams finds the murder rap turned on him. Again, not unlike the high stakes scenario in the former film.

But in the middle, bisecting the picture in half is a warm slice of Middle America by way of Idaho with its palpable geniality acting as an oasis. It could have used with some shaving down. Otherwise, we have some great location footage of San Francisco and the Sausalito area circa 1949. The performances are fine though neither Donlevy or Raines particularly pop.

Anna May Wong essentially plays the movie from the sidelines as a maid until she’s absolutely necessary to save the story; it’s a major pity she was not utilized better. Helen Walker, however, gives a deliciously malicious performance as the wife who never denies loving another man and yet looks to get out of her fix to save her pretty little neck. It’s individuals such as herself that make film-noir a veritable breeding ground for truly degenerate reflections of humankind. However, Impact could have been so much more potent.

3/5 Stars

The Web (1947)

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An effort like The Web is precisely why many people would “die” for film-noir. Unless I am simply speaking for myself. But I don’t think so. Personally, I perked up upon reading the name William Bowers in the opening credits as one of the architects of the script because it’s quite easy to imagine some of the film’s choicest flirtatious patter being penned by him. He and his accomplices give our stars something to talk about in what otherwise might seem like idle moments. In fact, if it weren’t for its ultimately sinister outcomes, The Web carries a certain lightness of being through much of its run.

That brings us to our stars who are a fine teaming of talent for a B-grade picture. In fact, they are probably about as good as you could get considering. We have Edmond O’Brien, a personal favorite as a noir hero (The Killers, White Heat, D.O.A, etc.) and then Ella Raines, another often unsung but no less important noir heroine (Phantom Lady) of the 1940s.

Vincent Price is impeccable playing his at times beguiling businessman with that usual mixture of charm and slithering cunning. Between his lankiness and those distinct imperious eyes of his, he’s rarely been better. Our last prominent figure is the coolly perceptive William Bendix who despite his persona, knows far more than he lets on, as a generally competent member of the police force.

One morning a cocksure young lawyer named Bob Regan (O’Brien) goes barging into the offices of Mr. Andrew Colby on the pretense that his client, a man named Emilio Canepa who had his fruit cart upturned by negligent driving and he’s calling for $68.72 in damages. The businessman amusedly agrees to it, after all, it’s only a small trifle. But along the way, Regan tries to pick up the man’s loyal secretary Noel (Raines) as well as unwitingly piquing Colby’s interest. He could use someone with guts.

It’s such a dandy and a rather outrageous sequence that we almost forget the actual opening shot showing an elderly fellow being released from prison after a five-year stint. The only person there to greet him is his daughter. We gather he has a bone to pick and that is important for all that is inevitable in the near future.

For now, it’s all Edmond O’Brien. He notes that they have a snug little setup going on within Colby’s closest inner circle. They seem real buddy-buddy in all facets of their affairs. However, straight away Regan joins the operation when $5,000 is waved in front of him to act as a bit of an unofficial bodyguard and it comes with a gun permit he’s able to finagle out of his old friend at the Police precinct.

Of course, he doesn’t realize that just the following day he will be unloading the pistol on someone and killing a man no less — the same man who was just released for prison with the charge of embezzlement. But it was all done with clear intention as bitter Mr. Kroner was going to kill Mr. Colby so in that regard Regan has little to worry about.  And yet he can’t help but start to get ideas because between the police and nighttime visitors he’s given a lot to chew on.

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The film’s script has its share of veiled double talk both sensual and then increasingly threatening as it pertains to the curious events at hand. Because what reveals itself is a deliciously twisted reality that calls for the reevaluation of what we know to be true and who we trust as an audience.  The rational and yes, even the believable might very well fly out of the window but what a noir like this gives us is something arguably more satisfying in terms of impending doom.

Where something like a net — a web of destruction — begins to descend upon and close in around our heroes. It’s been cleverly orchestrated with the clearest of intent clearing up all the loose ends and framing them handily.

The police nab them easily in this case, involving multiple murders, a whole lot of money, and two tickets to Mexico. The question is who will gain from such a resolution and since that question is quite simple to answer, the better one yet is how might they possibly catch the culprit?

I’m not too proud to admit thoroughly enjoying The Web because it embodies everything that the dark genre is promoted as being and you leave the picture satiated after being caught up in something supremely sinister. It was never high art nor did it claim to be but that’s all part of the immense allure. O’Brien, Raines, Price, and Bendix might as well all be character archetypes. The parts they play do the picture a distinct service.

3.5/5 Stars

The Suspect (1944)

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It is very much a male-oriented film in subject matter and frame of reference with Charles Laughton commanding center stage. He is the very figure that we are meant to empathize with as an audience. But it’s precisely those qualities, along with the presence of director Robert Siodmak, that make it remarkably straightforward to read The Suspect as film noir even given its Edwardian setting.

Veiled in the murky London fog are the mundane strains of noir popping up within the home and the shrouds do well to imprint the British streets with a certain darkness in tone and shading.

In fact, it would be similarly done in other pictures such as The Lodger (1944) and Gaslight (1944) but this one, in particular, can be tied back to the genre’s unhinged male paranoia. Because the dark predilections of noir have often been tied to an overwhelming form of matrimonial suffocation. Not only wives nagging but also the embodiment of the femme fatale to reflect men’s fears returning from WWII to find a new movement of independent women.

The Suspect fits seamlessly into the former category. Is it right to read all of this into the movie in hindsight? I will allow others to enact final judgment but for my own purposes, I will choose to see it in this light. Though it lacks a true femme fatale, it is loaded with blackmail and the threat of scandal that leads to an underlying sense of utter despair.

But it’s necessary to backtrack and explain how events come into being. Charles Laughton is an honest gentleman who works as a bookkeeper only to go home to the ball and chain.

We get a taste of his insufferable wife (Rosalind Ivan) amid turbulent interactions with their grown son (Dean Harens) who vows to leave their home for good because he can’t stand his mother. It feels as if she’s been cast as the devils incarnate and she might as well be next to Laughton’s portly angelic character. There’s a glassy-eyed sincerity to him that plays softly to our ears thanks to an at times rasping delivery. A quiet charm exudes from him all the time. Everyone but his wife seems capable of seeing it.

One such person is Mary Gray (Ella Raines), a woman with the most stunning of wardrobes, both prim and proper and certainly capable of employment. Except she’s had an awful go of it trying to find a job and kindly Mr. Marshall can’t be of much help in that regard. However, what he can offer is a bit of innocent companionship because he imagines that they are both a bit lonely — which of course is very much the case.

At this point, he’s finally found a little enjoyment and there’s nothing more than a desire to have someone to relate with. Still, Mr. Marshall deems it most prudent to break off his friendship with Ms. Gray because after asking his wife for a separation, he is alerted that there is nothing doing. Worst yet, the cackling witch makes his life even more horrible; because that’s precisely what she has been created to do.

The next major event is all too expected, so expected in fact that the film doesn’t even bother showing it. The death or murder or accident is left off of the celluloid though certain outcomes are heavily implied. It’s partially jarring as we hardly have time to track with this jump in the sequence of events.

Again, there are happier times ahead as now Philip has married the lovely girl and they are blissfully content together as companions. But another villain is invented (or rather has been waiting in the wings). A lecherous next door neighbor who’s an incorrigible wife beater adhering to a “hurt or be hurt philosophy.” He is willing to falsely testify that he heard Mr. Marshall arguing with his wife the night before her “murder.”

Something must be done about it. This time the desperate Philip takes the firmest course of action he can muster to stop this affront. And suddenly events turn slightly intriguing becoming Rope (1948) for a man that we hold some empathy for and that’s where any amount of tension is born.

In fact, the duality in the marriages is one of the most fascinating motifs. Because you could easily see in an alternative turn of events some sort of killing off of respective spouses for an agreeable partnership to be forged. And that’s very well what this picture might have been if not for the presence of Ella Raines. She’s very much vital to the outcome without ever trying to be. Since it’s true that she has no motive, what she offers is seemingly so amiable and a very legitimate reason to murder in one man’s eyes.

To Laughton’s credit, whatever he was supposed to have done, he never ceases to have a conscience nor a capacity to love. Thus, it makes the police investigation surrounding him one that is imbued with meaning. We care what happens to him and to Mary as well. While we aren’t given much of anything, the final notes hint at something not completely inhumane. That’s all I can give you.

3.5/5 Stars