Little Caesar (1931)

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When I was a kid we had an old VHS of Bugs Bunny shorts and one of the caricatures in a gangster-themed storyline — although I didn’t know it at the time — was undoubtedly Edward G. Robinson. That voice. That mug. That smug self-assuredness. They’re inimitable. Even then I knew the image without knowing who this garbled-mouthed gangster actually was. Watch Little Caesar and it’s all right there. In fact, without Little Caesar, one could step out on a limb and say that Bugs Bunny cartoon would never have been made. Though, Robinson was an indomitable personality. One way or another he would have broken through.

As it was, Robinson made a lasting impression in his big break, the picture that would make him a star just as its contemporary The Public Enemy (1931) did the same for James Cagney also at Warner Bros. True, it served as both a blessing and a curse typecasting the stars with their audiences. Still, both men led impressive careers which, at least on occasion, allowed them to break out of the mold and really show who they were as actors. And the beauty of their successes had nothing to do with an imposing physical frame but rather a sturdiness and commanding tenacity that made them into electric performers full of captivating stage presence.

With an opening quotation from Matthew, “All who take the sword will perish by the sword,” we are immediately tipped off this will be a moral tale right from the outset, an act of condemnation not glorification. However, that cannot completely neutralize the unadulterated gangsterism of Litte Caesar. Far from it.

With all these early Warner Bros. crime films we can define the arc of the story by an ambitious lug who’s willing to do whatever it takes to rise to the top, showcasing both guts and gats when necessary. It takes both to get ahead. Rico (Robinson) is a little guy who’s not content with his lot in life so he resolves to change things. He heads to Chicago with his buddy Joe (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) to see what they can make of themselves.

Already they are on diverging paths as Joe looks to return to his first love of dancing, even finding a capable ally and love interest at a local club. Olga (Glenda Farrel) makes a new lease on life possible for him. But such a life would never do for Rico. He’s already set his sights on big-time crime, moving up the ranks with local mobster Sam Vettori.

Joe is roped in for a job as the inside man and reluctantly he goes along with it. But on the same night, New Year’s Eve, Rico guns down the crime commissioner during an otherwise straightforward hold up of the Bronze Peacock. It has heady implications as the local authorities look to clamp down.

As best as I can describe it, there is a stripped-down unsentimental bent to the action line going through the movie. The talking pictures still feel like a new phenomenon recorded on Vitaphone — a bit rigid and visually unimaginative — but in some respects, it aids in the characterization of the gangster underworld. It’s hard-edged, lacking any sense of freedom of movement or ideals. They play by a “you’re either with us or against us” mentality and they are not about to let you forget who your friends are. Rico and Joe provide the diverging alternative lifestyles available as one tries to go straight and the other becomes more crooked by the hour.

The character of Tony is another convenient case study for the movie as the local mob’s getaway driver who begins to lose his nerve and have remorse for his part in it all. It is his saintly mother who not offers him spaghetti but tries to remind him of his former life when he was a good boy. Convicted to the very core of his being, he goes to the priest for confession. But Rico will have none of this blubbering. His retribution is sure and swift as it’s always been, culminating in an OG drive-by shooting.

A gang war erupts when a failed hit is instigated on Rico. Instead, he and The Big Boy are able to consolidate power and he continues to rise up the ranks. All throughout his ascension, Rico lives by streetwise slogans like, “I ain’t afraid of nobody.” “The resident bosses are getting so they can dish it out but can’t take it anymore.” And of course, “the bigger a man becomes, the harder he falls.” It’s all but inevitable.

His words are prophetic because at some time Rico’s got to face the music and he does. Like The Public Enemy and Scarface, what sets these pictures apart is not necessarily that they glorified crime because you can make the case each tries to hammer home the moral crime doesn’t pay. And yet with the exhibitions in violence and the uninhibited pursuit of power by antiheroes like Cagney, Muni, and Robinson, the public latched onto them and propelled them into being big stars. Without the pre-code era, we would lack some of the legendary mystique of Rico.

In the end, riddled with Tommy gun fire, he looks up into the heavens, exclaiming those now immortal lines, “Mother of Mercy, is this the end of Rico?” With that, he breathes his last. But the miracle of celluloid means that now 85 years onward Edward G. Robinson’s performance lives on.

3.5/5 Stars

Golden Boy (1939)

Golden Boy (1939)

“See you in 1960. Maybe you’ll be someone by then. ” ~ Barbara Stanwyck 

At the Academy Awards in 1978, Bill Holden took a momentary aside to thank his co-presenter, Barbara Stanwyck, for her encouragement and support in helping to forge his career in its nascent stages. That picture they starred in together was, of course, Golden Boy.

By the late 30s, she was already a veteran actress in such saucy pre-code pictures as Baby Face (1933) and searing tearjerkers like Stella Dallas (1937). In an instance where fiction overlaps with reality, Holden played the scrawny newcomer. He could have just as easily been “baby face” in this film as a 21-year-old unknown bit player.

His Joe Bonaparte, a green kid and a newly-minted voice, has yet to mature into the smoky standard the moviegoing public would come to know as a handsome first-class flirt and sardonic wit.  Still, Stanwyck fought for him to stay and he did.

The film itself is thinly wrought and certainly has aged poorly with the passage of time. The simplistic dichotomy at its center begins with a young man who has an artistic gift as a violinist and his dear father (Lee J. Cobb) wants him to cultivate the talent. However, the boy has realized he has the tenacity to be a fighter and he gets a promoter (Adolph Menjou) to take him on so he can start making some dough. After all, it’s a practical means to give his family what they have always wanted.

What it teases out is the age-old dilemma between the allure of materialism and what will actually give you a far more contented life, in this case, love and the cultivation of talents which lend beauty to the world. Initially, Joe buys into the hype backed by a gangster (Joseph Calleia) but seeing another man die in the ring straightens out his priorities for good. Many boxing dramas are fatal. Thankfully for contemporary audiences, his is allowed a palatable happy ending.

Although this would happen to him more than once, because he’s rather good at it, Lee J. Cobb is nevertheless cast way out of his age range as an ethnic Italian father-type. It’s true that this one is an overtly stagy adaption from Clifford Odet’s famed play. His presence even inadvertently reflects the overlapping nature of theater and film of the period as he would precede the likes of Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, and William Inge who would all see their works made into movies.

Director Rouben Marmoulian himself had an extensive background in the theater and while the initial fight sequences fly by as montage blips throughout, the culmination in the final fight in Madison Square Garden has the atmospherics down like all the foremost boxing movies. He undoubtedly gets that right and this picture effectively precedes the frenzied reaction shots of the audience mesmerized by violence in Robert Wise’s The Set-Up (1949) by almost 10 years.

Stanwyck carries her scenes with that passionate, winning verve of hers and she propels Holden along with her taking the inexperienced, no-name actor and helping him get by. He’s no star at this point, except one day he would be. She had enough guts to fight for him and thanks in part to her, we were given one of the most remembered Hollywood stars, “Golden Holden.”

What most people wouldn’t give to have Barbara Stanwyck in their corner. It could be unsubstantiated hearsay but the story goes Holden was forever grateful, sending his costar a bouquet of flowers every year to commemorate Golden Boy and what it meant to his career. He knew it more than anyone.

But the story did not end there. In 1982 Barbara Stanwyck was bestowed with an honorary Oscar as the Academy had never found time to give her an award for her plethora of quality performances. Shame on them. That’s not the main point, however.

Her dear friend William Holden had just recently passed away months before and so while thanking the many people behind the camera who helped her in her career from directors to stunt personnel and electricians, she also said a final word for her friend. Her Golden Boy had always wanted for her to win an award and fittingly she finally did. She raised it up, teary-eyed, in his honor, before walking off. It’s human stories such as this that transcend Film. We are better for them.

3/5 Stars

Review: Stagecoach (1939)

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While the western hardly began with Stagecoach, one could go out on a very slight limb and say it became a more fully realized version of itself in the hands of John Ford; it all but grew in stature as a genre. This progression cropped out of the prevailing assumption of the day and age that the western was low-grade rubbish meant for no-name actors and meager productions. But Ford proved they could be ripe with so many more possibilities because he had greater ambitions from the outset.

We have John Wayne making a second go of stardom as the Ringo Kid, in what would prove a career bolstering performance, after some 70 films he’d already played in. He, of course, reemerged on the screen in a bold tracking shot and subsequent closeup that has all but impressed itself upon anyone who has ever witnessed the film. In this moment, Ford all but thrusts Wayne into the limelight as his star, for better or for worse, and Duke obliges thereafter.

Ford’s first excursion to Monument Valley proved to be love at first sight as he became so enraptured with the location — and why not — he would film there countless times in the future. It became synonymous with his finest work; he used it as the perfectly mapped canvass on which to express himself. One could argue that no director ever had a better setting,  more synonymous with his vision and sensibilities.

Forget the landscape and situation for a moment. Stagecoach might be one of the premier chamber pieces ever captured. Semantics aside, the picture relies heavily on a cast of characters filled out by archetypes and yet each actor involved is able to lend such credence to each individual role. We readily accept them as a whole ensemble almost seamlessly.

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Apaches stirred up by Geronimo are an excuse for the impending threat looming over the title vehicle. Because it’s true that the stage must make its journey at some point, though the slightly chubby, whiny-voiced driver, Buck (Andy Devine), is hesitant about such a perilous road ahead. Riding shotgun for him is the no-nonsense Marshall Curly Wilcox (George Bancroft) who vetoes the other man’s blubbering.

However, if they were to go it alone with only some payload or mail delivery, Stagecoach would be robbed of some of its richness. Two of the first travelers to join them are both casualties of social prejudice and the snooty, self-righteous prigs of the Law and Order League. Dallas (Claire Trevor) is an ostracized woman of the street and then the scorned Doc Boone (Thomas Mitchell) is constantly living in a state of drunkenness.

Contrasting with the other woman is a lady of high repute, Ms. Mallory (Louise Platt), who is pregnant and yet resolves to meet her husband at his cavalry outpost. Her presence coaxes a gentleman gambler (John Carradine) to come aboard as he holds some innate sense of duty in protecting someone of her breeding.

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We also have the impeccably named Donald Meek as Mr. Peaccock who is constantly having his name mispronounced while his samples of whiskey are continually finding their way into the Doc’s possession. He’s a calming force just as the entitled banker, Mr. Gatewood, protests just about everything.

If the types sound familiar it’s because you can draw a line between many of them and their progeny for years to come. But the beauty of the character dynamics is the evolution they undergo. We are not simply blessed by starkly different individuals brushing up against each other in close confines. In other words, of crucial importance is how they act toward one another and ultimately how they change over the course of this joint heroes journey.

Claire Trevor, fittingly, later remembered Ford’s chiding of Wayne, “Why are you moving your mouth so much? Don’t you know you don’t act with your mouth in pictures? You act with your eyes.” Watch the film and you understand his direction in actual practice. So much is said in unspoken looks and behaviors. Trevor seems especially adept in speaking with her eyes because everything she wants to say and can’t say comes through this very avenue. And whether John Ford would agree or not, The Duke’s eyes are equally telling.

Interiors are exquisitely framed and lit in such a way allowing the actors to be so expressive while space and staging are used to accentuate those same aspects. Take for example one sequence around a dinner table where two camps find themselves moving to opposite corners. You have the outcasts and the purportedly upstanding citizens opposite one another. Not a word is spoken but it is all played out through mere body language and positioning.

However, Whether the film completely realizes it or not there are other societal casualties, namely the Mexicans shown on the screen as well as the Native Americans themselves. Chris (prolific Mexican-American actor Chris Pin-Martin) at least has a voice but not much else. Meanwhile, it does feel as if the Indians are used essentially for a plotting device. There is no depth present in this regard.

However, the pursuit undertaken by the Apaches is filmed marvelously by Ford. In one particularly memorable long take, the stage lumbers into the distance followed by first four and then an entire wave of riders on horseback. It fluidly suggests immense menace and pace which never quite leaves the sequence.

They are reinforced by a couple shots that feel as if the stagecoach and the horses after it are all but trampling the camera. The sense of volatility is accentuated by the legendary stunt work of Yakima Canutt performing death-defying feats on horseback and hanging from the stagecoach. In the era before readily available CGI, it’s the kind of movie magic still capable of stopping a modern viewer cold.

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But the picture does not end there. The city offers other issues that must be resolved. Namely, Ringo’s final showdown with the men who killed his father and kid brother. Also, he must find out what Dallas really is or at least what she is perceived to be.

However, instead of milking the reveals for pure melodramatics, Ford does one better, creating an atmosphere of pure beauty. But within that same framework is a cringe-inducing tension. Pulling his camera away from moments to dwell on reactions as much as actions and movements as much as dialogue. Some of his actors are even given close-ups all the better for studying every expression of their faces.

Because we can write up all that happens in Stagecoach in a matter of sentences. That’s not the engrossing or remarkable part of the picture at all. It’s precisely the way Ford has cast it as only he could. It’s exciting and moving and genuinely light-hearted but it chooses when a certain mood is called for, succeeding in evoking each at the given time like the most visceral vessels of entertainment manage to do.

Thankfully we had many more outings between Ford and Wayne. The director might have given his friend hell on the set but there’s no debating the fact they crafted some of the most iconic westerns together. The collaboration was imperative. Stagecoach rides on the laurels of many people, not least among them Pappy and Duke.

5/5 Stars

Footlight Parade (1933)

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Though it still came out in the middle of The Depression, there is a sense that Footlight Parade does not confront the contemporary issues head on and maybe that causes it to lose some potential power. Because, in a sense, it’s a period piece even if that period is only a few years prior when talking pictures were taking the world by storm. Of course, many audiences will be far more acquainted with Singin’ in the Rain (1952), which arguably did much the same and even a better job in its homage than this effort.

Likewise, a bigger bankroll for the pictures at Warner Bros. meant they got longer which is some ways isn’t all that advantageous. As far as stories go, this one is pretty much on par with its predecessors (42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933) though, rather surprisingly, the cast doesn’t run as deep.

Now we have James Cagney, of course, and what makes Footlight Parade deserving of a special side note is the fact that it would serve as the Warner Bros. gangsters first chance to hoof on screen. Because he wanted to prove that he was more than a thug and boy was he ever, even if the picture never really stretches him. Above all, he’s Jimmy Cagney, through and through.

John Wayne makes a picture-within-a-picture cameo in The Telegraph Trail which is shown to Chester as a demonstration of the imminent reality. Silent pictures are totally on the way out and this new attraction will grab audiences away from the stage. With the changing industry goes Chester’s livelihood. His galling wife isn’t too understanding calling for a divorce rather than wait around for him to be completely destitute.

However, Cagney’s able to capitalize on his newest doozie of an idea that comes to him after a mundane visit to his local drugstore. He translates it to talking pictures. He pitches it to his two boob bosses and they bite on his vision to develop live “prologues” that can then be showcased in movie theaters all around, making them lots of money. It’s a good idea but their closest rival Gladstone has already jumped on the wagon. It’s no small coincidence that Chester’s longtime assistant jumps ship and conveniently leaves behind another parasite to swipe ideas.

The one person who stands by him through everything is his loyal and lovestruck secretary Nan Prescott (Joan Blondell), who nevertheless uses her acumen and street smarts to keep the utter insanity of his current work life tolerable. With the wolves primed to devour him, she’s just as feisty, out to protect his interests (and hers as well).

In the end, Chester smells a rat and puts the studio on lockdown as they race against the clock to churn out the three numbers they need to showcase to their potential backer, Mr. Apolinaris, who, despite ongoing indigestion, is a generally agreeable audience.

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Ruby Keeler is hidden behind a pair of specks to play up unwarranted stereotypes in a generally uninteresting role. Meanwhile, Dick Powell and his huffy patron have little to do. You understand why Powell wanted a different career trajectory because there’s nothing to stretch him.

His patron’s bubble-headed brother, played by Hugh Herbert calls to mind later types paraded in front of the screen by Billy Gilbert. He relies on her sway, otherwise, he wouldn’t be able to hold onto his position as the resident content watchdog who constantly badgers Chester only to get the brush. Frank McHugh cultivates his gray hairs exasperated as the dance choreographer continually bombarded by incoming stressors on the eve of the big performances. He’s teetering dangerously on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

When the first line of an audition is, “show me your legs” and obviously it’s only for the gals, it just rubs the wrong way. There’s also an inherent sense that there needed to be more dancing and less plot, as much as I would follow James Cagney to the moon and back, figuratively speaking. Even “Honeymoon Hotel’s” repetitive cadence gets tedious and it feels more cutesy than a prime showing of Berkeley’s usual visual inventiveness. It’s the same issue I had with earlier numbers like “Pettin’ in the Park.”

However, the subsequent waterfall number gets us back to his element, by some unimaginable feat, we end up at a lavish pool gilded with finery. In an instant synchronized swimming was born (or at least promoted) and for some inexplicable reason, those overhead shots capturing the unified motion and shapes of the swimmers still blow my mind even today like a huge crowd creating shapes at a football game. What we receive is sensory overload of gestalt principles executed beyond what could possibly be imagined in terms of meticulous intricacy.

With “Shanghai Lil” Cagney gets in an excuse for a choreographed brawl which he handles ably and we do see him dance. It’s difficult to put into words completely but it seems a very sturdy approach with his feet working hard while his torso remains all but inert. It’s like there’s business on top and a party going on down below which gives him a fairly unique mechanic on the floor, resurrected from his earlier days in vaudeville.

What comes last is an ending meant to rival Gold Diggers fo 1933, still impressive but not nearly as meaningful. The “Shanghai Lil” trades out the stirring nationalism and triumph of the human spirit to cater to a number about a Chinese streetwalker played by Ruby Keeler in yellow face. Even with a turn toward the patriotic, it just can’t quite compete. But as always, it’s hard not to simply fall back on Cagney and praise him for guiding the picture with that surehanded tenacity of his that sees us through to the end.

4/5 Stars

Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933)

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With the opening number “We’re In The Money,” this musical sticks it to The Great Depression and gives their audience a respite from the poverty waiting outside the theater doors. The tone is set as Ginger Rogers, surrounded by rows of scantily clad coin-covered women, sings out one of the song’s lines in Pig Latin. It’s one in a million.

Like its predecessor, the smash hit 42nd Street (1933), this is yet another hybrid of backstage drama and semi-extravagant production numbers. An incoming rapid-fire line of close-ups featuring Joan Blondell, Aline MacMahon, and Ginger Rogers all giving the camera a mouthful is a delightful portent of all that it to come from this bevy of talent. The sass meter goes through the roof.

But we never forget that it’s the Depression, though it would be an unnecessary reminder for audiences already living through the reality. As Carol quips when she hears the timeliness of their newest project, “We won’t have to rehearse that.” Because they’ve been living through it along with everyone else.

It means that they share a measly flat together. Get by from swiping milk bottles from the upstairs neighbors and fighting over clothes to make at least one of them look presentable for the prospect of an audition. There’s a lightness to it all as much as there is a camaraderie. They’re all in it together and that allows the picture to work. Otherwise, it would be too depressing. There needs to be that assurance and resolve driving our characters. They never get too low.

Ruby Keeler has time to fall for Dick Powell yet again, this time by simply sticking her head out the window to swoon over his piano ballads. Of course, things hit the pits when they find out that despite a swell idea, their backer and potential savior Barry (Ned Sparks), still is broke and so his visions of a showstopping triumph are all for naught. The insouciant joking of Powell has everyone a little hurt until he actually comes through in shelling out $15,000 just like that. He was never more serious.

So there we have it. Another stage production is in the works. Everything is coming together dandily but in a role reversal of 42nd Street, it is Powell’s Brad who is called upon to fill a void in the production when he’s needed most.

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The original juvenile lead is not able to make the cut due to lumbago and so despite his continuous rejection of the part, he finally folds realizing so many folks are counting on him. We’ve already said it and we’ll say it again. The show must go on!

Their first number, “Pettin’ in the Park” is a near-surreal exhibition in sauciness utilizing a midget dressed as a baby, a studio orchestrated rainstorm, and women donning metal garb to foil their male suitors. Weird but it’s an unequivocal smash.

So big in fact that news gets out. Brad’s family hears he’s been moonlighting in the theater and is appalled. Because you see, he comes from a well-to-do family. Such a line of work would never do. Cavorting with chorus girls and acting is out of the question. He returns home but to no avail as his older brother Lawrence (Warren William) and the family’s lawyer Fanueal H. Peabody (Guy Kibbee) agree to come out to put an end to Brad’s career — not to mention his romance. After all, showgirls are reputed to be parasites, chiselers, gold diggers…

They get far more than they bargained for when a bit of mistaken identity causes them to get whirled away by the streetwise sauciness of Carol and Trixie who have these rich boys pegged and know exactly how to capitalize. It’s like taking candy from two stuffy, overgrown babies.

Beyond being Fred Astaire’s supremely talented collaborator on taps, it’s easy to rate Ginger Rogers as a first-rate comedienne even in this earlier juncture of her career. However, it’s Aline MacMahon with the juiciest part and the greatest showing which ultimately upstages Rogers and gives the picture its greatest buoyancy of sing-songy opportunism.

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Joan Blondell does herself proud in her own right romancing Warren William. For the first time, I actually feel sympathetic toward the poor fellow. He’s got no defenses. Peabody is simply putty in the hands of a woman — especially someone as delightfully conniving as Trixie. But remember it’s all for a good cause as Brad and Polly are able to stay together and that’s just the beginning…

It’s almost a misnomer to call Gold Diggers of 1933 a musical outright. The way that Warner Bros. ran things, there were two units one for the romantic drama led by Mervyn LeRoy and then another headed by Berkeley for the choreography of his decadent visions. So what we have is the quintessential Depression-era drama filled in with some song & dance routines. It could be completely disjointed in its execution. But on both fronts there or moments of undoubted noteworthiness. It begins with a cast that does oh so much and the baton constantly gets passed between players who readily play their part one after another.

Then, the rest is pure Berkeley first taking his dreams and turning them into a reality. “In The Shadows” in an exquisite gift to the audience showcasing swirling hula hoop dresses with showgirls gracefully flitting this way and that. Then the lights go out leaving behind the contours of violins dressed with fluorescent light,s which make for another entrancing dance of shape and light. Here we have art where the result is so much more than a mere sum of its parts.

Once again it makes the pretense of a stage performance but right away Berkeley throws off those shackles and lets his camera fly to whatever vantage point it wants proving itself essentially unencumbered and subsequently reworking how musicals could and would be staged.

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But in truth, it’s a back-to-back show stopper and Berkeley sees the film to its crescendo by completely changing his tune with the help of composer and lyricist duo Harry Warren and Al Dubin. They all come through to deliver what can only be considered a timely eulogy to the universal figure alluded to in its title.

“The Forgotten Man” is emblematic of this entire picture and Gold Diggers of 1933 is very much an offering of thanks to the everyday American. The men who stand in breadlines scrimping over cigarettes. The men who fought in the Great War. The women who maintained the diligence and rectitude with which the country could battle poverty. The same people who line up to go see movies every day.

In the end, the movie pulls off this startling balancing act — a tightrope walk of comedy, tragedy, and above all pathos. Gold Diggers is the real deal and I cannot begrudge anyone who would deem it the pinnacle of the Hollywood dream factory sent to reach those in the throes of desperate times. Granted, some might question the merits of fantastical escapism but this effort looks to be more than a diversion — moving beyond that to be a hardy rallying cry of hope.

4.5/5 Stars

42nd Street (1933)

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“Sawyer, you’re going out a youngster but you’ve got to come back a star!” – Warner Baxter to Ruby Keeler

42nd Street essentially feels like hallowed ground even today because it single-handedly gave an entire generation of films plentiful ammunition for tropes while jumpstarting Warner Bros.’s cottage industry of musicals. These included Footlight Parade, Dames, and a whole slew of Gold Digger movies among many others. Not to mention many heirs apparent from Stage Door (1937) to Cabaret (1972).

There are several angles from which to approach this film. One of them has to do with Julian Marsh (Warner Baxter), an acclaimed theater director who is nevertheless broke thanks to The Crash and warned by his doctor that the undue stress of such a rigorous career is taking a toll on his health. He knows the clock is ticking for him and he deems that this will be his last Broadway show and it will his best even if it kills him. It probably will.

Meanwhile, the shining star of the forthcoming production Pretty Lady is one Dorothy Brock (Bebe Daniels) who keeps the picture’s lascivious financial backer (Guy Kibbee) onboard while never letting him get too familiar with her. Because you see, she has a secret romance going on the side with a young man (George Brent) who used to work with her in vaudeville. Now he’s jobless.

With all his reputation and finances dependent on the show’s success, Mr. Marsh quickly turns into a berating taskmaster, first, in casting calls and then through the grueling rehearsal regimen.

Three girls who manage to finagle their way into the show through some insider influence are Lorraine (Una Merkel), Anytime Annie (Ginger Rogers) and the wholesome newcomer Peggy Sawyer (Ruby Keeler). She knows next to nothing about the tooth and nail competition and so the two old pros gladly take her under their wing.

It just happens that she finds a romantic interest in the baby-faced crooner Billy Lawler (Dick Powell) as they both have parts to play. Meanwhile, the higher-ups catch wind of Dorothy’s male friend Pat (Brent) and he soon is paid a meeting with an influencer — someone to rough him up a bit and keep him from gumming up the show. To a degree, it works as he heads off to Philadelphia and Marsh continues to drive his stock company mercilessly. He doesn’t just want it good, he wants absolute perfection, and despite his greatest efforts, he’ll never be completely satisfied.

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The first number we’re acquainted with is “Getting to Be a Habit with Me” and with it soon comes the opening strains of Busby Berkeley’s kaleidoscope choreography — a mere taster of all the fine abstractions to come. But there must be a quarrel to further ignite the already bumpy proceedings. It starts when Dorothy gives it to the biggest sucker Abner Dillon (Kibbee) who is about as insufferable as they come, a buffoon as only Kibbee can play.

But the same night, in the process of blowing off steam, Dorothy is stricken with a fracture the day before her big debut. Things couldn’t be any worse with the pompous buffoon threatening to pull out his funding and Marsh is sunk without his leading lady. However, if you’ve seen any of the movies that this musical inspired, you already are well acquainted with the fact that “The show must go on!”

That same timorous yet sprightly chorus girl, Peggy has her chance at the big stage. Marsh drives her mercilessly through song, dance, and dialogue. Never praises her and essentially tells her that the entire weight of the hopes and dreams of all the cast is on her shoulders. Her quivering shoulders must carry the brunt of the production. That’s a terrible amount of pressure to place on one human being but the true miracle is that, of course, the new starlet manages brilliantly. The crowds want to love her and when she’s through with them they do.

In the latter half of 42nd Street, the dramatic elements give way to the actual musical numbers. “Shuffle Off to Buffalo” is a fine introduction full of romance and cheeky innuendo, spearheaded by Merkel and Rogers consorting in a compartment, chomping away on fruit. The camera is on the move as well, scanning across the train facade between faces hidden behind curtains and the shoes that ultimately get left out for the porter.

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Then, Dick Powell takes the lead in “Young and Healthy” opposite a nameless platinum blonde (Toby Wing in a memorable bit role) which is elevated by more novel shot selections. Namely, the fact that the bench our two performers are romancing on promptly sinks into the floor with them now sprawled out together. We get a signature Berkeley pirouette right after that which still never ceases to amaze me, followed by a tracking shot through a tunnel of legs. It succeeds in being far more cinematic than stagebound and that’s the key.

“42nd Street” is the tip-toppest number of them all by breaking away from any confinement with the sheer scale and mass of humanity that it puts forth. Only a few camera setups in and one realizes we are no longer a theater audience, unless we transition from sitting in the balcony to the ground level, and finally end up in the rafters looking down on the entertainment with the most impeccable of overhead views.

The final extravaganza is great fun to behold with a plethora of dancers performing in what feels like all but perfect cadence, constructing a cutout city of their own by turning around in unison. Then, they pull away and the camera gives us this wonderfully curious illusion that we are looking up the full length of the Empire State building, our two beaming starlets popping up at the top of the towering heights. The asbestos curtain drops and they have all but sealed the success of their show and the film.

While the musical ends on a rather inconclusive note, it in no way neutralizes the effervescent numbers and performances that bloom out of an otherwise theatrical backstage drama. 42nd Street is still important to us because it is the origin of so many musical traditions but it subsequently still manages to enrapture with even a few feats of artistic ingenuity. It deserves its place among the seminal musicals even if its staying power is moot.

4/5 Stars

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939)

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“Elementary My Dear Watson” owes its indelible stature in the lexicon hall of fame to this second installment in 20th Century Fox’s Sherlock Holmes series. The studio obviously did not gather the phrase to have that much resonance as they gave up on the franchise only to have it be picked up by Universal Pictures for many, many more outings. This would be the last one set in its original historical context and it’s unquestionably the gem of the lot.

Though the analogy breaks down, it was easy to see the first installment of Rathbone’s outing as Holmes like Peter Sellers in the original Pink Panther (1963). You get a sense of a formidable character who is subsequently given greater fluidity and is, therefore, able to break into their own. A Shot in the Dark (1964) was far better than its predecessor because it gave Inspector Clouseau his own vehicle.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes proves to be a superior film for two such reasons. First, Rathbone and Bruce coming off their success are put front and center in this picture. But also while the first film was an adaptation of a Doyle story, this picture is an original narrative thus taking the characters from the page and extrapolating them onto the screen in new and intriguing ways.

In one sense, I’m glad for that change because whereas The Hound of the Baskervilles was much better as detailed by Doyle’s pen, this story is a creation blessed with an imagination. Taking all that is good about the original work and synthesizing it into something that never quite loses the spirit but on the contrary, builds on it all the better for distillation to the big screen.

The remarkable revelation is that the story does provide a true conundrum for Holmes as he battles it out with his arch nemesis Moriarty in a chess match of wits. While there are several moments that seem uncharacteristically on-the-nose for a man of his intellect, otherwise we relish the game and his astute observations.

It opens in a courtroom as Professor Moriarty is exonerated for a crime that everyone seems to agree that he committed. Only moments after the pronouncement Holmes rushes into the courtroom with the needed evidence. But it’s far too late. His rival has lived to scheme another day and what a scheme it is. He plans to pull off the crime of the century by distracting Holmes with two toys that he won’t be able to put down. He likens Holmes to a fickle little boy easily distracted and he plans to exploit his idle curiosity.

What unravels and what is articulated by the script is a lovely piece of intrigue that provides many distractions not only to Holmes but his audience as well. We know full-well that though they might appear completely unrelated, they’re indubitably tied together. It’s simply a matter of understanding how and for what purpose.

The first involves a young woman named Anne Bramdon (Ida Lupino). She comes to Mr. Holmes on the behalf of her older brother who has received an ominous note. The reason she’s worried is that her dear father received much the same message before he died under strange circumstances years before.

Although it ultimately takes a back seat to this more interesting case, Holmes is also counted on by his friend at the Tower of London to help with security in the transfer of a priceless diamond to be added to the Crown Jewels.

Holmes is caught up in this perplexing case in front of him as Bramdon’s frightened brother is attacked by a mysterious assailant and soon after the lady gets a note of her own telling her to attend a certain social gathering of a longtime friend. Holmes advises her to go as he will be there to protect her but of course, the date and time are the exact same as the jewel transfer. You see the point already.

Rathbone makes another stunning showing in disguise apprehending the killer and dashing off to thwart another crime as Moriarty cleverly infiltrates the Towers security no thanks to Watson. George Zucco seamlessly embodies an intellectual yet sociopathic mind filled with disdain for human life. He asserts in one such scene to his harried valet that killing a plant should be a far greater offense than taking human life. He proves overwhelmingly that a superior villain with brazen intentions elevates any story.

Director Alfred L. Werker shoots the finale with some amount of artistry that heightens the climax to an agreeable apex. It goes down as it must on the top of the Tower of London and what is curious but rather refreshing is that there are no back and forth monologues of doom and heroism. Actions speak for both our hero and villain. While London Fog now seems like free atmosphere and little else, the film is actually at its best in visual terms with well-lit Victorian interiors.

The finest success of this film was in projecting a certain image or reputation that extends far into the present age. Watson became an incorrigible bumbler. Holmes a cinematic detective both partially sanitized and still witty. Moriarty remains one of the standards for villains to this day. And with so many different iterations on these same characters, the influence on Robert Downey Jr. to the modernized Benedict Cumberbatch is equally evident. There are few qualms acknowledging the impact of such a sublime mystery adventure as this.

4/5 Star

Hound of the Baskervilles (1939)

The_Hound_of_the_Baskervilles_-_1939-_Poster.pngThough there’s not a shred of doubt this picture was filmed on a Hollywood backlot, our story takes place in 1889 on the Moors of Dartmoor in Devonshire. It’s all very British and when you do a quick scan of the most British figures coming out of literature and pop culture, you would probably find few higher on the list than Sherlock Holmes.

For better or for worse, this is one of the films we must thank for countless Sherlock Holmes archetypes as established by Basil Rathbone’s characterization. Joined by his oafish, vacuous-minded friend Dr. Watson (Nigel Bruce), Holmes looks to investigate the mysterious death of one Sir Hugo Baskerville which supposedly came to pass due to the curse of a demonic curr labeled “The Hound of the Baskervilles.”

Right at this very moment, his nephew Sir Henry (Richard Greene) is coming to take up residence at the supposedly deadly manor deep in the heart of Devonshire. Holmes asks for Watson to accompany him as he has important business of a different nature to attend to. It unfolds as a stylized gothic murder mystery with typical studio melodramatics that are still somehow invariably delectable.

Some might be especially surprised to find out about Holmes’ absence for much of the film’s middle though Rathbone makes a stunning reemergence just in time to do a bit more sleuthing and confirm his numerous empirical suspicions. Bruce proves just how vital he is because there must be a stooge to make the hero look all the more preeminent.

The picture is hardly a whodunit. Deciphering the guilty party is quite simple to guess, working with the tropes that we have in our toolkit. But in the habit of Arthur Conan’s Doyle’s work, the enjoyment is in our hero’s highly-perceptive method of deduction.

While the short stories are probably more rich in this regard, what this film has in an iconic turn by Basil Rathbone — a man who was often made into a villain and yet was just as impeccably cast as a hero. However, to match the aesthetics at the time this picture has a broad menagerie of characters and the foggy atmosphere with the easily conjured shrouds of Gothic Hollywood.

We have shifty house servants, a deranged killer out on the loose, a husband and wife trained in the art of seances, and the crotchety old buffoon who is constantly threatening lawsuits. They are among the casts most colorful additions. Yes, we even get an appearance from the Hound, though, in fact, he’s actually a Great Dane.

It’s hardly an exercise to work your brain too strenuously but it’s a jolly fun piece of entertainment with several true moments of intrigue and menace. The pleasure is in its economy as well because the adventures of Sherlock Holmes as portrayed by Rathbone and Bruce proved so popular they were serialized on both radio and many more films to come.

Of course, when this effort came out, 20th Century Fox wasn’t so sure how their new hero would fare and so they conveniently cushioned his billing and his sidekick between the two love interests. I have nothing against Richard Greene or Wendy Barrie whatsoever but they are hardly the reason we turn out to see this picture.

Still, it seems necessary to at least acknowledge that one would do well to start with Arthur Conan Doyle’s work first and once you get a sense of them, enjoy this film without reservations. You can test the merits of Sherlock Holmes on this picture but you would do better not to. Because this is a Hollywood confection more than anything, proving to be a diverting adventure even as it helped usher in the accepted mythology of everyone’s favorite amateur detective for future generations.

3.5/5 Stars

The Only Son (1936)

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Tragedy in life starts with the bondage of parents and children.

The film opens with a single extended scene with the title card reading: Shinshu, Central Japan 1923. Ozu guides us in with his pillow shots framing the story’s sequences with images of his locales which neither serve the narrative nor reveal anything about our characters at hand. But he more than many directors is well aware of his environment and basking in its very contours.

The opening premise has to do with a young middle school-aged boy and his mother. The problem is whether or not he will go onto high school. You see, his father is dead and his mother must eke by a living. They don’t have much money. School costs money.

There are two stories going around. The one he told his mother saying he would not continue his schooling and then the one he told his teacher. His mother only finds out when the man comes by to acknowledge how happy he is for the boy.

Though distraught at first, from that day forward the mother vows to pay for her son to have schooling, first high school and then college. Likewise, he vows dutifully to become a great man so her maternal sacrifice is not in vain.

Flashforward to the present and the now elderly mother decides to pay a visit to her son in the big city of Tokyo. He’s grown now and has a job. But it turns out that things are not as she might have hoped.

First off, he has a couple of surprises for her. He got married and already has a baby son. Also, their home is fairly run-down and humble because his salary as a night school teacher is meager at best. So much for being a great man. It turns out such aspirations are difficult, especially in a metropolis like Tokyo. Look no further than his old teacher who has turned to running a butcher shop just to provide for his family.

However, despite these circumstances, the son throws out all the stops to make a lavish showing of hospitality for his mother’s benefit. After all, he can’t possibly let on how things are actually going. Because that would break her heart. He would have failed her.

So he buys extra chicken, offers small trinkets, and they attend the picture show. Things he probably never would have done if she were not present. Slowly he’s sinking under the surface, borrowing money from everyone who might oblige.

But of course, the truth always finds its way out. She worked so hard to get him to college and the hope of his successes kept her going. The revelation of his current situation pains her heart and she’s forthright in telling him precisely that. She is utterly ashamed as he explains how difficult it is to become a big man in Tokyo. Hard work does not always cut it.

This could be the end of their relationship right there and yet there is another moment. After a horrible accident, he gives all the money they have left to help a single mother pay for her son’s medical bills. It’s a meaningful gesture and right before she leaves, the mother tells her son that she’s proud of his integrity.

All he can think about is how unsatisfied she must be and how much he didn’t want her to come to begin with. His wife concurs he’s lucky to have such a good mother, because by the standards of Japan, she made her child her all so that he might succeed.

Meanwhile, the mother regales her solitary friend back home about her son who has become a great man and his lovely wife and how she can die now without any regrets. All the while we know the full truth but she must save face and so she makes up the most satisfying story she can. Hidden away from view her head is downcast in grief and shame.

What’s striking to the very last frame of The Only Son is the conflicting feelings it provides. It constantly flits back and forth between this false sense of security and contentment to moments of deepest regret.

It never quite allows you to rest on a single one of these emotions but instead requires you to cope with them in equal measures as the scenes are layered one on top of another. First, the mother is happy, then the son is anxious, then the mother is ashamed, then proud. Her son is regretful and finally spurred on to make another go of being a great man. So there’s this lingering sweetness, this not uncertain hope, and yet his mother is in the backroom head bowed, saddened by where she left her boy.

There is no easy answer. There is no definite category. There’s no way to siphon off this person’s emotions from that person’s because they all remain interconnected. That’s what allows this film to make sense and have such an emotional impact as it quietly whiplashes us back and forth between mother and son. We feel for both of them even if their hopes and aspirations seem somewhat misplaced. It’s a film that pains the heart of anyone who hates to see lives in utter distress.

I must confess that I racked my brain for the reason Ozu might spend so much time cutting to shots of the hanging laundry — a recurring motif throughout the film. Surely, there’s some intricacy that I am missing or some subtle symbolism. While that is undoubtedly true, I realized even more clearly that Ozu did not require an overt reason for his shot choices.

Just as our eyes stray to observe the world around us so his camera turns its lens in such a way. It is attracted to faces, rooms, and maybe even the mundane qualities of hanging shirts as the wind softly swirls past. There need not be more than this.

Likewise, I kept on staring at the image of the glamorous movie star up on the wall of their humble home. I was trying to decide if it was Joan Crawford or some German actress I am not aware of. Someone else might be able to distill my ignorance but I realized, again, it did not matter as long as I enjoyed the overall experience.

Ozu can be cast much in the way of the famed woodblock printer Katsushika Hokusai most famous for his “36 views of Mount Fuji.” Likewise, the Japanese director took similar forms and topics and unearthed the intricacies of temperament and interrelations which he subsequently revisited again and again.

If you notice, he has simply reversed his normal dynamic of father with daughter and it has become mother and son. Relatively similar origins and yet the outcomes are no less enlightening. So it’s not necessarily about the novel. There can be just as much relish in taking something that we are so used to, like parent-children relations, and recasting them in such a way that we recognize the situations with greater lucidity. Therein lies a space for growth and understanding.

Surely Ozu takes some getting used to. However, eventually his style will age on you and you will come to find the same fascinations he does until your tastes meld and it becomes second nature to see the empathy and beauty in his subject matter just as he seems to. Pretty soon it feels as if you are looking alongside him. If you let him, it can become a thoroughly symbiotic relationship between filmmaker and audience.

4.5/5 Stars

Arigato-san (1936)

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The translated English title of Mr. Thank You somehow comes off insincere as if it’s making fun but there’s nothing of this kind of sentiment in this picture from director Hiroshi Shumizu. It proves to be a cordial exploration of human nature and human kindness played out in the most organic fashion possible. In turn, it’s blessed by extensive on location shooting as well as a wide-ranging cast of players.

What it promises is a charming road film like few I’ve ever seen; self-contained and yet freely spilling out over the roads with meandering ease guided by our eponymous hero. The driver of the bus traversing the road from the rural area of Iku to the big city in Tokyo is known to everyone as “Arigato-san” because when you hear a polite ‘Honk’ followed by an “Arigato,” he’s more than made his presence known.

People appreciate his continuous gratitude and also the courteous favors he does for them along his route. It might be picking up pop records for girls in the hills so they can have quality entertainment. Or for someone else promising to place water and flowers at a deceased father’s grave. He obliges graciously and constantly makes necessary pit stops to accommodate everyone.

The rhythm becomes second nature to us as an audience as well and we gladly follow any diversion the story takes. By the end, we’re so used to the film’s continual visual motif of point-of-view shots followed by an “Arigato” and a rear view of the pedestrians making way and waving our travelers on.

Peppy scoring right out of a Hollywood silent reel comedy does wonders to develop a certain mood on the road. In one respect it matches the jovial demeanor of our protagonist but at the same time, there are slight nuances of more solemn issues merely touched upon. Because it’s a bus that brings together quite the gathering of folks from all walks of life.

If our bus driver is a lovely character full of cheerfulness then his passengers are certainly just as colorful. He can be seen almost like a benevolent symbol of modernity and in some respects, his cohort is one too. She takes the seat right behind him and we gather at first that it’s simply to flirt. But as the story unfolds and we see more interactions those initial preconceptions give way to a more complex reading. She reflects a different sort of progressiveness. A woman who speaks her mind, drinks with the boys, and calls others out for their improprieties. You get the innate sense that she is worldly wise but generally kind-hearted.

The rest of the core group includes an impoverished mother and her daughter who is going to Tokyo for the sake of her family; it’s further implied that she will be forced to take on the ignominious life of a prostitute. Next, is a phony businessman with a handlebar mustache and a penchant for ogling pretty girls. The passengers are rounded out by earthy but nevertheless amiable folks and momentary travelers attending weddings and wakes. Each has a unique destination. Arigato-san transports them all.

For a director as prolific as he was — Shimizu had over 160 screen credits — it’s astounding that he has very little recognition among audiences now, at home or abroad. Yasujiro Ozu, one of his contemporaries and colleagues in their days at Shochiku Studio is of course revered the world over. Some might actually find Arigato-san more accessible in some respects and it’s definitely deserving of more acknowledgment.

Because what it offers up is not only a genial portrait of Japan and its humanity but also some of the inherent plight of the common man in rural Japan. In fact, the film is so affable that some of its undertones easily slip by. There’s a wide range of depth going from humor to surprisingly delicate commentary.

All the while we come to relish the time spent with each one of these individual passengers and especially Arigato-san. When they exit the bus upon arriving at their appointed destination it means something because in such a short time it does feel like we’ve built some sort of rapport with them. That’s one of the joys of travel felt most readily when you make the concerted effort to get to know those around you.

In this particular instance, the film provides deeper cross-cultural understanding and there is the realization that economic depressions were not centered solely around the U.S. Japan had similar if not worse conditions for its populous. And if anything, it makes you realize how the nationalistic movement in Germany or imperialistic ambitions in Japan took root. It comes from people who are weary from economic and social deprivation. They want something better.

For his part, I deeply admire the character of Arigato-san because his purpose is a noble one planted in humility. It seems like he genuinely cares for his neighbors and he readily goes out of his way to increase their joy. On a large scale, things might well seem hopeless but the micro-level shows that Japan was made up of many considerate people. While that cannot alleviate all the suffering of the impoverished it certainly is a jumping off point to instigate human flourishing.

4/5 Stars