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

Another Thin Man (1939)

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Parenthood hasn’t slackened the good-natured give and take between Mr. and Mrs. Charles or Mr. Charles drinking habit either. The only difference now is that Nick affectionately calls his other half “mommy” and they have a little more work getting their nurse to watch over the baby — Asta’s new younger brother.

For the most part, they have a hands-off parenting approach with the infant Nick Jr. which is a bit of necessity given they need time to solve a mystery. Sure, it starts out innocent enough. They plan to take a trip out to the country to pay a visit to an old friend Colonel McFay (C. Aubrey Smith) who is desperate for Nick’s counsel on an issue of utmost importance.

So they head out to the country to an old family mansion that just so happens to be the perfect space for an “And Then There Were None” scenario. Except this one has Nick and Nora Charles at the center of it all and the cast of characters fits into their world.

After the Colonel is found dead in his study following a piercing gunshot, the police swarm the grounds looking for clues, but Asta winds up tampering evidence again. Meanwhile, their flighty nurse (Ruth Hussey) takes off without leaving a forwarding address. The dead man’s daughter is beside herself with grief compounded by fear when someone kills her prized dog and takes a shot at her. It doesn’t help that she’s caught between two men who love her (Patric Knowles) and her father’s secretary (Tom Neal).

The most obvious suspect is a threatening thug named Church (Sheldon Leonard) who’s been having dreams about the Colonel’s impending death. He’s in cahoots with a deadly dame and the ever faithful Dum-Dum (Abner Biberman). A big man with specs (Don Costello is somehow tied up in this business too. Yet Nick is never one to show his hand too early and he lets things play out.

Having enough of the country life, our heroes get back to the big city to do some sleuthing at the West Indies Night Club while still finding time for made-up meet-cutes and the usual playfulness. One particularly visually uproarious sequence involves Nick Jr.’s first birthday party complete with a playpen for of babies and kindly ex-cons just out of the real pen.

There’s the tell-all finale and it’s as befuddling as any mystery drama. That hardly stops Nick Charles though. It must be admitted that the final stretch outside of the haunted mansion loses a little bit of its traction because the story is stacking moment after moment on top of each other. By the sheer number of characters, it pulls the wool over the eyes once more. And yet again the Charles’ quiet weekend away became the biggest newspaper headline.

While not quite on snuff with its two predecessors, this picture is still carried by the insouciant charm of its impeccable leads and yet another host of quality character players. You’ll notice among them Tom Neal (Detour), C. Aubrey Smith, Ruth Hussey, Sheldon Leonard (It’s a Wonderful Life), Marjorie Main (Ma Kettle), Abner Biberman (His Girl Friday), Virginia Grey, and many, many more. Those were the days of great supporting stars and phenomenal studio stars for that matter. This would be William Powell and Myrna Loy’s 8th film together out of a mindboggling 14. That in itself is a remarkable feat.

3.5/5 Stars

After The Thin Man (1936)

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The reason to watch The Thin Man series was never murder. Sure, like its predecessor, this follow-up has the pretense of a mystery plot but that’s merely a trifle in comparison to the return of Nick and Nora Charles.

The novelty of this picture is no longer that it once more brings crime and comedy together because that’s what the original film did. We already have the formula, the groundwork set before us, and certain expectations. But what it does even in its opening vignettes is further develop its leads by transplanting the New York socialites to the world of San Francisco which brings with it different colorations and really an extension to this fanciful world that they live in.

William Powell and Myrna Loy are just delightful with teasing ever whip-smart interplay but we also see the class dimensions being played up too. All of a sudden, their marriage of such stark opposites comes into clearer focus and we love them even more.

Nick seems to know someone on every street corner most of them being hoods and shifty conmen begging the question just what he did in his previous life (I can’t ever remember being told)? Meanwhile, Nora comes from money and runs in a certain society that’s slightly averse to the constant verbal barbs and nose-thumbing of her husband. You see, he seems to have no respect for respectable folks. Her family can’t stand Nikolai as he’s called. But he loves his wife and she loves him.

The fact that the action is set over The New Year blesses the film with jovial gaiety and champagne bubbles that add a little pizzazz to your run-of-the-mill murder of passion. Meanwhile, the dubious Lychee Club takes its place front and center because a couple implicated persons are tied up with the establishment. One of them, named Dancer, runs the joint while his star performer Polly and her brother Phil also seem caught up in something shady. If you had to put a name to it you might call it extortion.

Then a slimy playboy (and unfaithful husband) is found murdered after a night carousing at the club with the chorus girl. That effectively gets his devastated wife accused of murder with her longtime beau (James Stewart) going to great lengths to defend her.

We could keep running off the list of suspects but to no avail, and it has the typically gung-ho cop Lt. Abrams (Sam Levene) understandably suspicious as he tries to make head or tails of the whole mess. Of course, he has Nick Charles on his side and a good thing too.

Asta is up to his old tricks running off with a vital clue and Nick’s up to his old tricks having his wife locked up in prison so that he can bail her out. Despite her longsuffering lot in life, she gets in some comic retribution of her own while maintaining a dazzling marriage full of mutual understanding.

Because, in one sense, Nick Charles is a complete imbecile, a habitual jokester, and yet he’s just serious enough to warrant some respect in the crime-solving trade and just sincere enough to hold onto his wife for posterity. Again, that’s all part of his charm. If he wasn’t so good at solving crimes, it’s doubtful people would give him the time of day. Though his wife does continuously and that’s what really counts. That’s the heartbeat of this entire franchise.

The Charles also realize humanity’s aspirations of sleeping the day away and it’s true they can get away with settling down for breakfast just as everyone else is finishing up dinner. That’s their lifestyle. I’m sure most of us hold a deep-seated desire for it in some cockeyed way. But most of us can’t solve murders on a whim either. So they get to be our surrogates on both accounts.

I won’t say he’s the epoch of amateur sleuthing, as the company includes the Sherlock Holmes, Miss Marples, and Jessica Fletchers of the world, but Nick Charles is one of the wittiest individuals to hold the mantle.

It must be noted that he was a creation of the Depression, a needed respite from the day-to-day, but you get the sense that today he comes off as a bit callous. Surely a man who knows so many undesirable characters was aware that there was a Depression on. And yet you see, that’s precisely the trick. In this world, such an event does not exist.

There’s no need to worry about it and this alternate reality instead gets to occupy itself with murder and excess, jokes and romantic patter. It truly is escapism and a gift to the masses. No wonder people loved Nick and Nora so much because it really does seem like they filled a need at the time.

While he’s not the center of attention nor is his role all that meaty until the final moments, James Stewart is nevertheless entertaining in this early part with a slam-bang finish that gives a glimpse of the passionate intensity he offered as an actor. It was full steam ahead for both him and The Thin Man series though you might say his future was a little more promising.

4/5 Stars

Zoo in Budapest (1933)

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Once more we have the Hollywood rendition of Budapest that would turn up again in other pictures like Ernst Lubitsch’s Shop Around the Corner (1940). English is spoken perfectly and individuals generally act as we would expect them to in our neck of the woods. It’s simply their story and setting which have any bearings on the real Hungary. But after all, that’s what we’re generally most interested in anyway.

Because Zoo in Budapest is everything its title promises though I admittedly know woefully little about the director Rowland V. Lee. Despite the lean narrative, a refreshing amount of time is actually spent in developing the vast menagerie of animals within the zoo. And there are many of all colors, shapes, and sizes. Elephants, monkeys, lions, tigers, ostriches, giraffes, everything that one might expect. The people are a diverse bunch as well.

For one man, in particular, the zookeeper Zani (Gene Raymond), he couldn’t be happier with his daily regiment. The film is his whimsical tale of paradise. In fact, we could just about call it Eden.  He’s a friend of every four-legged creature and he plays with them all like they’re his family. Furthermore, he slyly steals furs from snooty ladies who see animals only for their pelts.

He even coaxes a timid young orphan (Loretta Young) to make a break for it as she’s already planned an escape with the help of her girlfriends. The reason being, she is about to be hired off as an indentured servant on her 18th birthday.

But it looks like she’s lost her nerve. In one crucial instant, one girl jumps from the bridge to draw attention. Thus, the diversion has been created and Eve instinctively makes a dash for it. She’s on her way to spend an eventful evening in the zoo.

She’s not the only one. A little boy sneaks away from his governess because he wants to ride the elephants and Zani himself becomes a fugitive after purloining one fur too many. They are a trio fleeing from the powers that be, the zoo authorities, the den mother, and a governess.

After she’s gotten over her initial apprehension, Loretta Young’s eyes glow dazzlingly in the moonlight and she’s the perfect helpmate for Zani as they carve out a bit of an oasis for themselves, away from the prying eyes searching for them. In one sense, the parallels to the Garden of Eden are well-founded.

There’s also a startling amount of imagery spent on simply documenting the life around them. Swans gliding on a pond. The play-wrestling of a friendly monkey. But of course, the tranquility cannot be sustained forever. The world at large breaks in disrupting the perfect cadence and the order of beings inside the Zoo’s walls.

I can’t help but think that if the picture were remade today with our technological advancements and subsequent narrative laziness, all that provides a real threat and a true sense of danger in the film’s finale would be lost. Because as humans we know the difference inherently between CGI creations and living breathing handiworks of flesh and blood. It’s the real lions, tigers, and bears that can tear you to shreds. The computer-generated ones just provide the illusion. So Zoo in Budapest might have a bit of a scrappy, melodramatic ending but there’s something to it.

It’s almost like a reality check. We get a taste of what the Garden of Eden might have been like but of course, paradise was lost. We can still have love and romance but there must be violence and turmoil thrown in our midst as well. The lion laying down with the lamb isn’t quite actuality. The question is whether or not you believe that one day it will be so.

3.5/5 Stars

Heroes For Sale (1933)

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We are inserted, presumably, into a war picture courtesy of William A. Wellman, situated in WWI trenches. The downpour is compounded by the constant hail of bullets as a group of men conduct a near suicide mission. One of the soldiers, Tom Holmes (Richard Barthelmess) proves his heroics on the battlefield while his friend Roger dissolves in fear. But the battle leaves Tom, now a prisoner, with debilitating pain from some splinters of shrapnel lodged near his spine. He’s given morphine to keep it manageable.

He comes back from the war addicted. He gets the shakes at his bank job where he works under his war buddy Roger and the other man’s father. Tom is constantly in need of his fix and it just keeps on getting worse and worse.

Early on, the picture begs the question, how are heroes made? We turn them into near mythological beings and even if it’s well-vested that doesn’t mean that they consider what they did to be anything extraordinary. Imagine if it’s not deserved. Tom and Roger understand exactly what this is like. In the wake of a scandal and his ousting from the bank, Tom gets interned at a drug clinic only to come out a year later a new man ready for a fresh start.

It struck me that in a matter of minutes the film drastically shifts in tone, suggesting at first the dark shadows overtaking a picture like All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) only to come out unscathed and don the coat and tails of an industrial comedy-drama. I must say that while the former feels more akin to Wellman’s usual strengths, I do rather prefer the latter, though the picture doesn’t dare end there.

Wellman introduces us to our latest locale with a dash of humor delivered through an array of pithy signs adorning the walls of an old diner. But it’s the people under its roof that make it what it is. Pa Dennis (Charley Grapewin) is the most genial man you ever did meet and he would give you the shirt off his back if you needed it. His daughter Mary (Aline MacMahon) is little different though she chides her father for his loose finances.

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Still, her jovial hospitality charms Tom into striking up a conversation and considering renting a room from them. Meeting the disarmingly attractive Ms. Ruth Loring (Loretta Young) from across the hall all but seals the deal. Cue the music as Young enters stage right and let’s disregard it and just say she more than deserves the fanfare.

You would think the inventor with overt “Red” tendencies, adamant criticisms of capitalism, and a chattering habit like a squirrel would be a turnoff for prospective boarders. Not so.  Soon Tom joins the ranks of the local laundry where Ruth also works forging a happy life for themselves.

The mobility of Heroes for Sale is another thing that struck me. It results from a different era but this is also very much a Depression picture in the sense that we are seeing what a man can still do even if times are tough as long as he has a strong head on his shoulders. Machinery is implemented not to steal work away from eager employees but to cut down on long working hours and increase output. All in all, it sounds like a thoughtful and humane objective.

But a heart attack leaves the company in different hands that are looking to work only in dollars and cents, not in humanity. Thus, it looks like Tom’s idealistic enterprising has been turned on its head, now completely sabotaged. All the folks who put their trust in him are bitter with the prospect of losing their jobs. Put out of business with their own funds.  This same unrest runs through the pages of Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath (1940) too as modernity begins to put out all outmoded methods standing in the way of so-called efficiency.

What we have here is a populist picture daring to show the plight of the people. Richard Barthelmess is an affecting lead because he seems almost unextraordinary. His voice is steady and calm. He’s not unkind. But there’s an honesty to him that asserts itself. The fact that he gets a bum steer and takes it without so much as a complaint speaks volumes so he doesn’t have to.

Heroes for Sale feels like a micro-epic if we can coin the term. It’s ambitions somehow manage to be grandiose as it sweeps over cultural moments like WWI and The Depression which underline further social issues including heroism, drug abuse, communism, and worker’s rights. All done up in a measly 71 minutes. Look no further than the standoff between an angry mob and the riot squad for squalid drama. This is no minor spectacle. Nothing can quite express the anguish watching Young frantically run through the violent frenzy in search of her husband.

There is no excuse if this is the standard we put longer films up against. Not a moment seems wasted. Yes, it goes in different directions. Yes, it feels like a couple different films and yet what connects it all is this abiding sense of Americana. Themes that resonate with folks who know this country and its rich history made up of victories and dark blots as well. Most brazenly it still manages to come out of the muck and the mire with a sliver of optimism left over. Heroes For Sale is no small feat.

4/5 Stars

Employee’s Entrance (1933)

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Not only is Employees Entrance a film made for the Great Depression, but it’s also a project that would have no life if it were not for the lax enforcement of the Production Codes at the time. The same could be said of its protagonist — if he can dare call him that.

Warren William embodies the mercilessly driven businessman named Kurt Anderson like few men before, or even after him, could. He’s a brutal taskmaster who has no sense of integrity. A John D. Rockefeller except less religious. So he has even less of a moral framework. His main purpose is to crush other people because he’s running a business, not a charity ward.

He throws out the weak and surrounds himself with like-minded people. It’s how he’s managed to keep Monroe Company Department Stores a flourishing enterprise even after “The Crash.” Not everyone can say that.

An ambitious, young man named Martin West (Wallace Ford) impresses the autocrat with his idea of upping sales of men’s drawers by selling them to women. Meanwhile, Anderson finds time to sink a clothing supplier who can’t deliver on a shipment and fires a senile department head who nevertheless has stayed with the company well-nigh thirty years.

Thus, we get this sense that he wields a two-edged sword. Anderson is surprisingly generous and accommodating to those who fit into his scheme of things. For instance, increasing a certain models salary if she distracts his colleague next door. Yet he will just as quickly dump someone who is not pulling their weight. That’s how survival of the fittest works. We know this already.

What suggests this more than anything, however, is his treatment of women. Loretta Young sporting those luminous doe eyes of her is gorgeous as Madeleine, a woman who is nevertheless down on her luck and looking for work at Monroe’s. She meets Mr. Anderson quite by chance, after hours, as she has made the stores home decor section her temporary domicile. He’s immediately taken with her. Is there a tenderness unveiled perhaps?

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Ultimately, he rewards her with a job and she’s quite the success on the floor. Even catching the eye of Martin. He professes his undying affection wordlessly through adverts. And they do the one thing that if he knew about it, Mr. Anderson wouldn’t approve of. They fall in love. In his estimation love is for saps, marriage gets in the way, and he wants his people to be enamored with their work as much as he is.

Young proves adorable even when she’s tipsy, bopping and popping balloons. But as often happens, people make decisions that they will come to regret while inebriated at parties. This film is little different.

The tone and trajectory break with the entire order that the Production Code soon set in place such that we never would see the likes of this again in Hollywood, at least not for a very long time.

It’s this seemingly admissibly trenchant material that makes navigating Employees Entrance onerous, similar to problems I have with more modern works. It comes down to not only issues of tone; because this is a humorous film undercut by some severely dark realities, even suicide and rape, but it also has to do with the integrity of our lead.

For all intent and purposes, our anti-hero hardly has an ounce of likability. The best that can be said for him is he’s enormously successful and good at his job in a tyrannical, ruthless sort of way. Otherwise, he has no heart, no soul, and he’s a misogynistic lout to boot. The fact that any of those characteristics got put into a man who is not cast as a villain truly is a marvel. It’s definitely worth taking note of.

But this is also a somewhat saucy Pre-Code number and the certain playful impertinence is personified best by Alice White who burst onto the stage during the flapper craze of the 1920s. In one particularly rewarding moment, she tells a stuffy old crone that the basement is on the 12th floor as nice as you please. It’s classic lip.

However, there’s this instant realization that Warren William was made for films such as this. The implications hit like a ton of bricks. He all but disappeared from movies since Joseph Breen literally excised his entire character type out of Hollywood’s new imposed master narrative.

Others might be able to do a far more convincing job of making the case but like his contemporary Kay Francis, it’s time for the likes of Williams to be resurrected from near obscurity. Certainly, not everyone will like him, particularly in this film, but there’s no question that he has something. It allows him to play those scathing characters with an unparalleled precision.

But I’ll be honest, I’m genuinely beginning to think that Loretta Young deserves a spot as a Pre-Code icon as well. In 1933 alone she was featured in nine films! The only problem is her efforts from the 1940s are more well-known. The Stranger (1946) and The Bishop’s Wife (1947) seem to overshadow most anything else. Yet another reason to uncover Employee’s Entrance.

3.5/5 Stars

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