American Madness (1932) and The Capra-Riskin Connection

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The entire premise is set around National Bank in New York City during The Depression. If it’s not enough explanation already, at least we have some hint of where we might be headed.

American Madness is an obvious relic of the saucier years of Capra and Riskin before the production codes set in and a movie like It Happened One Night dreamed up the “Walls of Jericho to maintain propriety between the sexes. In this picture, they kiss right out in the open and behind closed doors too. It doesn’t much matter.

With switchboard operators, secretaries, and people bustling every which way, there are also shades of Counselor at Law here. Again, we are dealing with a fairly limited space depicting working America in the 30s set against the backdrop of a Depression-era world. However, Capra’s picture appears more cognizant of its time and place, self-aware when it comes to poverty and the hard times hitting just about everyone.

The morning crowd comes in to open up the bank bemoaning one of their members who always finds a need to open the day with a corny joke out of his repertoire. His most pressing problem is owing $10 to someone else. That’s a lot of dough in the throes of the Depression!

The interest in these characters or their lives is not immediately apparent, and yet the story does pick up its steam borne on the shoulders of characters, dialogue, and a bit of drama.

There’s a joy in seeing fresh faces who became all too familiar friends in subsequent years. Sterling Holoway is one employer who gladly plays the gossip, supplying everyone else with his juicy tidbits over and over again (“You could have knocked me over with a pin”). Likewise, the obliging Principal at the It’s a Wonderful Life pool party (Harry Holman) passes through the bank seeking a loan. These are secondary pleasures of watching a film from an earlier decade like this.

Meanwhile, front and center is Matt (Pat O’Brien) a bank teller who the incumbent Mr. Dickson (Walter Huston) has set up with a job out of good faith. Everyone else seems to have given the man a bum steer because he served time once, but he’s been granted a second chance. With his sweetheart working under his boss, he feels beholden to his benefactor and maintains an unwavering loyalty toward him.

Because even as he mans his post and snatches kisses from his girl, a big to-do shakes the boardroom behind closed doors. “The four horsemen” and Dickson’s other partners have met on their own to discuss a merger. They want their other member to relinquish control of the company. They see the laundry list of outstanding loans and the needless hunches he’s backed as living proof. He’s sinking their upstanding institution into the ground. They’re all in agreement. It doesn’t help that the kindly Mr. Ives is always being cut off.

One has to admit, in a world sans Capra — gutted by the Depression — it seems like they have a valid point. Even this earlier rhetoric hints at a precursor to the Building and Loan that the Baileys famously ran. But when Walter Huston finally comes to the office with his affable charisma accommodating to all, we get something far more concrete.

Like any Capra/Riskin hero (George Bailey, Mr. Smith, Mr. Deeds, etc.), he finds his ideals under attack and makes a valiant effort to articulate why he feels so strongly about his convictions.

In his book, he’ll take an honest businessman against any amount of bad luck. To him, that is no risk and the way he sees it, it’s up to the bank to give people a break. He speaks in terms of relational capital where security is founded in quality character rather than stocks and bonds, even evoking one of the pillars of American banking, Alexander Hamilton.

Dickson readily invests in character that can pull the nation out of the doldrums, striving to keep cash liquid instead of allowing it to sit around in the vaults. It’s precisely because he runs their bank on such a flimsy thing as “faith,” he receives opposition. It’s true this point of contention really is an affront to all the “rational” sensibilities.

However although American Madness certainly acts as a platform for a certain call-to-action, in favor of the American everyman, there are mechanisms within the plot providing something to sink our teeth into.

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Even as Dickson fights for his company, a blubbering inside man (Gavin Gordon) has found himself caught up with a noted gangster. However the spineless cad, also finds time to flirt with the boss’s wife. To him, it’s a bit more substantive and when Matt walks in on their would-be tryst, you can imagine his misgivings.

Then, a bank job goes down. Matt is a major suspect; he has a record, after all, and he doesn’t even try to exonerate himself. Of course, he’s covering for his boss, not that Dickson is guilty by any means. Still, it might kill him to find out his wife has drifted away from him, even as the bank begins to fold around him.

The once-formidable institution has its reputation steamrolled as the gossip makes the rounds. A “run” on the bank follows. This in itself is striking, not only as an early forerunner, again, of It’s a Wonderful Life, but also because, unlike that film, there is not the benefit of hindsight. These moments are being documented as close to real-time as you could manage. These are contemporary concerns laid out right in front of us.

Thus, the Depression is still fresh in the public consciousness; it still is a universal reality, and it shows me that the scene out of Capra’s later film was tapping into something real and profoundly relevant. My appreciation for both depictions broadens because of it. Although the ending is firmly planted in the Depression, it still manages to evoke the very same sentiments Capra would go back to in the final act of his greatest achievement after WWII.

But a short aside is in order. Because we can often quickly analyze someone like Alfred Hitchcock’s work and the through lines from 39 Steps to North by Northwest or even the evolution between his two versions of The Man Who Knew Too Much are easy enough to acknowledge. These happened over a period of decades.

We have the gestation period and the reworking of old ideas to garner more substantial results. However, even in a slightly less amount of time (about 14 years), Capra and Riskin managed a formidable collaboration with thematic elements that are also overtly visible.

Because fewer viewers are familiar with American Madness, less is made of the comparison, but the similarities are still uncanny. I’m not sure if it lessens the impact of the later film as much as it provides a blueprint and further proof that filmmakers often return to familiar themes to flesh them out even more.

In this case, going back to the well works because the culminating message champions the human spirit as Capra and Riskin always had a habit of doing. It’s smaller potatoes but still intermittently powerful blessed by Walter Huston’s own flawless magnetism. What’s more, Capra was on the cusp of his most fruitful period. It’s as if he would break out of the Depression into full bloom along with the American populous. For now, he and his collaborator were resigned to find a crevice of hope in the midst of the madness. It’s uplifting as only they could muster.

3.5/5 Stars

Merrily We Go to Hell (1932): Directed by Dorothy Arzner

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Bubbly is flowing and the gaiety abounds. Alcohol is not an evil, just a tonic to loosen morals, tongues, and dour countenances. When Joan Prentice encounters Jerry Corbett for the first time at a party, she’s immediately taken with him. He’s a few drinks in and has let the merriment overtake him. It comes off charming if a bit dopey.

Merrily We Go to Hell feels like a provocative title, and it’s true this alcohol-drenched drama is a predecessor to the likes of The Lost Weekend and Days of Wine and Roses.

Sylvia Sidney is about as winsomely sweet as she ever was and ever could be playing a socialite at a party. Frederic March has momentary glimpses of warmth and allure, though it’s hardly his finest hour on the screen. However, it is a testament to how phenomenal his career was at points, and even a picture like this seems to suggest how often he is an underappreciated star of Classic Holldywood.

There’s also a third far more surprising presence in the movie filling what might be considered a minor bit part. Cary Grant is all there, but it’s a bit like seeing John Wayne in Baby Face or James Stewart in Wife vs. Secretary. We’re there but not quite there when it comes to their career trajectory. He still needed to meet Mae West and then Leo McCarey to really get the wheels rolling, thus entering the stratosphere of quintessential screwball suavity.

As it settles in, Dorothy Arzner’s picture is all for hitting the journalistic beats contemporary to the day and age. It’s a perfect arena for modern, capitalistic America. An arena of vocation, class, and in this case, alcohol. One easily recalls Platinum Blonde though March, despite all his able acting prowess somehow cannot muster the same fitting charisma Robert Williams managed as a newshound. The former performer lent almost a screwball sensibility to Frank Capra’s picture.

It’s the same kind of affable charm that made Jack Lemmon so effective even as he dipped into similar depths of hell in Days of Wine and Roses. But back to Platinum Blonde. It’s hard not to see the earlier movie’s imprint being reworked within this material (even unconsciously) with less handsome results. Because some of the same dynamics are present. We have a lead infatuated by a platinum blonde (Adrienne Allen) and then opposite him is the endearing “other girl” we know full well will actually win out his heart. At least, in theory.

And if that isn’t enough, both newsmen dabble in playwriting, suggesting the menial pavement-pounding, all for the sake of making a buck, giving way to a higher calling of art and patronage. It handily reflects rungs in the social ladder to mirror contemporary society, as the film’s of the Depression-era all have a habit of doing. Obviously, they can’t help it. This is their world.

However, in Merrily We Go To Hell, playwriting holds a more substantial role aside from being a narrative device for the sake of parallelism. It brings Jerry Corbett the highs and lows of such a career while throwing him back together with his former flame, the glamorous thespian Claire Hempstead. The scenario feels rudimentary and mediocre going through these typical dramatic progressions.

Before it becomes complicated, the film is a basic love story of the lowly working stiff smitten with the heiress, although not for money’s sake. As it predictably dips into drunken stupors, strained relations, and infidelity, the film actually loses some ground. Corbett rounds up his chums, partakes of some merriment, and resigns himself to the platinum blonde rival. In an act of preservation more than rebellion, his wife deflects by digging up her own beau (hence Cary Grant) in an attempt to be equally “modern.”

What resonates most fundamentally are some of the more curious shot selections by Arzner. She certainly manipulates the camera and the images in such a way we are aware of them as an audience, whether through early forms of product placement or a curious rear-view of two men sauntering through a mansion. It feels sporadically alive with invention and a very particular vision, even as it spirals toward an unimaginative soap opera denouement. The accompanying  Pre-Code elements are there, but the picture doesn’t entirely douse itself and drown in the melodrama.

This proves to be a key because any such digression could have been its final death. Instead, the sense of restraint and understatement proves a far more powerful tool of storytelling. It subtly undermines stock Pre-Code sordidness for something nominally more intriguing. This nor the actors, totally save the movie, but they keep it from completely sinking. More people are finally starting to talk about Arzner, and Merry We Go to Hell feels like a worthy touchstone in her career.

3/5 Stars

Merrily We Live! (1938): My Man Godfrey Redux

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What a harebrained movie this is in all the best ways. The origins of Merrily We Live themselves are a tad murky or, at the very least, convoluted. It’s purportedly based on the novel The Dark Chapter, which subsequently received a Broadway adaptation, They All Want Something. There was a film in 1930, What a Man, with a similar vignette about a chauffeur falling in love with a woman. But for the classic film aficionado, basic similarities to My Man Godfrey are obvious enough to warrant some amount of comparison.

It is a shame ensuing generations have mostly forgotten Constance Bennett. (I must admit to paying more attention to her sister Joan.) Our leading man and amiable Englishman Brian Adherne is obliging if generally uninteresting. Certainly, we don’t have the pinpoint comic delivery of William Powell or the sheer frenzied force of comedic fury that is Carole Lombard so in this regard, Merrily We Live is a lesser effort, but that does not mean it can’t offer up its own mercurial delights.

We trade out a supporting cast of Alice Brady, Eugene Pallette, and Gail Patrick with one arguably just as good calling on the talents of Billie Burke, Clarence Kolb, and Bonita Granville. Alan Mowbray is one of the lone holdouts from the earlier picture. Thus, there is barely a drop in quality, which leads one to marvel at the sheer prolific nature of these character actors. It really was the heyday of the bit roles with actors building up such robust catalogues of appearances and seamlessly sliding into role after role.

The help, headed by Grosvenor (Mowbray), is constantly in disarray as the vexed valet threatens to walk out on his duties time and time again for all the egregious infractions he has to put up with. The latest affront was an unseen tramp named Ambrose (these character names are gold) who ran off with the family silver.

The breakfast table is an arena and a convenient microcosm for the wacky family dynamics to play out in farcical fashion. This particular morning, since there is a sudden lack of silverware in the house, the family must make do with any amount of ladles, chisels, and hammers. It’s highly irregular, but they are no normal menage.

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We are blessed with another ridiculously rich and dysfunctional family of bickering oddballs. Constance Bennett, as the eldest daughter Geraldine “Jerry,” has a grand old time being mildly amused by the utter chaos that makes up their day-to-day in the lap of luxury and excess. She’s not quite as high-strung as Lombard before her, but bouncing off her family members is entertainment enough.

Baby sister Marion (Bonita Granville) is ready to whine and prank her way into getting funds for her latest scheme. She’s part whiny brat and certainly a budding comedienne. One need only remember her chilling turn in These Three to realize how starkly different she is. Then, their brother’s always bickering and complaining about the siblings he’s been saddled with.

Billie Burke is at her most ditsy-headed cycling through absent-minded hilarity and bubble-brained insufferableness. What’s not to like? She even holds a dinner party a la Dinner at Eight. Consequently, she’s also the source of some of this constant disarray with her most recent hobby of collecting “forgotten men” and bringing them on as servants. Ambrose was her latest pet project and also the most recent disaster.

Clarence Kolb is at his most physically brilliant given more than a mere scene or two to flex his comic talents. He doesn’t disappoint alongside his wacky costars. I’ve never been so delighted with his characterization while attempting to eat his breakfast or taking a cab home after becoming completely wasted.

The family is rounded out by their two absurdly named pooches “Get Off The Rug” and “You Too,” not to mention Mrs. Kilbourne’s pride and joys “Fishy Wishy.” It’s not so much pure spastic energy but the off-the-cuff remarks and sudden jolts of absurdity and slapstick carrying the film to its conclusion. These elements are what drag the story along its merry path of craziness with or without major plot points.

Of course, we would be remiss not to mention Rawlins (Adherne), the most important new piece in the screwball equation, acting as a bit of a willing catalyst for all the mayhem inside the mansion’s walls. There has to be one normal lout, and so he conveniently fits the bill as the resident straight man.

It begins when his car goes hurtling over the side of the road. He’s an author with no means of communication. His only recourse is to find a telephone. His attire and Mrs. Kilbourne’s dull-headed insistence pull him into the house quite by accident.

All he wants is to make his phone call, but he good-naturedly acquiesces when Mrs. brings him on to work as their new chauffeur. It’s a bit of good fun. This is the key. He gladly enables their quirkiness playing along with their daily madcap rituals.

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One moment he’s assisting a fawning Jerry into the first-floor window after her flirtatious solicitation. Then, he’s covering for Mr. Kilbourne when he comes home from a bender with his buddies, as a cabbie tries to take advantage of him. The list of duties could go on and on, and very few of them have to do with his recently acquired occupation.

One of my personal high points from the movie includes Grosvenor repeatedly clunking into the chimes in the dining room, matched by the breakfast chatter. It’s not highbrow, but somehow I find this tromping around and people falling to the ground faint uproariously funny, in the right circumstances.

Merrily We Live is just the film, though one must admit it ends far too abruptly to do itself any favors. It’s a movie that’s never about the story anyway; it’s the brief instances of near serendipitous comic verve seemingly bottled more by accident than any amount of scripting. These are the interludes to truly relish and they just might be worth another viewing — once my blood pressure has settled down again.

3.5/5 Stars

Topper (1937): Cary Grant’s a Ghost

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We know what kind of movie we’re in for upon meeting Cary Grant, whistling a merry tune, as he drives his fancy wheels with his feet. His wife — a quizzical platinum blonde played to perfection by Constance Bennett — stares up at him in amusement. They are a picture of fun-loving decadence out of The Nick and Nora Charles mode.

Understandably, they are the main draw in Norman Z. McLeod’s corkscrew fantasy comedy but like its distant relative, The Thin Man, someone else’s name actually garners the title. In this particular instance, it is Mr. Topper (Roland Young), a highly successful businessman who is, nevertheless, enslaved by his rigid regimen, and it’s not of his own accord. His stifling spouse has cultivated his humdrum life like clockwork to her own liking. We don’t envy the man, hustled and harried as he is every day, with his breakfasts and innumerable sensibly scheduled appointments.

You quite forget Billie Burke can be insufferable in a different manner as the quietly exacting wife, giving the impression of a woman constantly on the verge of indignance, her voice teetering on the edge of fragility. I hardly believe myself saying this, but I like her at her more titteringly giddy spectrum. At least she’s allowed to be sympathetic; bubble-headed but sympathetic. If the point hasn’t been made apparent already, this enforced tedium is the baseline of the cinematic world needing to be spiced up by the Kerbies and their happy-go-lucky prodigality.

If we can hone in on a turning point, Topper really hits its stride in death — the death of Mr. and Mrs. Kirby, that is. Because as is the habit in the fantasy mills of Old Hollywood, our couple dies only to come back as ghostly versions of themselves, appearing and reappearing as easily as a snap of the figure.

They pull themselves away from the wreckage of their automobile and have their first out of body experience. Played straight, it would seem ghastly, but they are as gay and chipper as ever, nonchalantly debating how they’ll get through the pearly gates. Everything they did (or didn’t) learn in Sunday school says they need to do some good deeds. Regrettably, they’ve been living on the high horse for too long; they haven’t actually gotten around to the greatest commandment: loving their neighbors.

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Their pet project is “Toppy,” and he’s in need of vivification. His one act of rebellion against his wife is purchasing George Kirby’s old automobile. This is the foot in the door after he gets into a near-death fender bender of his own. It leads to his first out of body reunion with his old friends.

The movie effectively utilizes old-fashioned special effects dating back to the days of George Melies, making it effortless for Toppy’s two guardian socialites to drop in and out of his visual field. As an invisible Mr. Kirby makes himself useful changing the tire, Toppy is teased by the lady Kirby as she blows on a blade of grass like a giddy schoolgirl. It’s our first chance to play with the logic, the fact only the audience and Toppy are availed of seeing the deceased.

Because what’s really a treat are the ghosts and the ghosted. The ones who are oblivious to the somewhat explainable supernatural acts around them. We get similar moments in Here Comes Mr. Jordan and even It’s a Wonderful Life when the concrete and ethereal collide in a most comical fashion.

Roland Young does an admirable job in the part, and he’s on par with any number of the comparable characters of the day and age whether a Charlie Ruggles or Leo G. Carroll, though slightly less well-remembered for whatever reason. He finally has some pizzazz injected into his every day as the Kirby’s indulge his budding interests in wine, dancing, and song. He’s hardly a party animal, still, he gives it a go.

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It leads to a brawl in front of a restaurant that they must bail him out of and then a handful encounters with a hoodwinked doorman. At best, Mr. Topper is the hapless figure caught in the spectral screwball chaos with the Kirbys pulling all the strings for him. Unfortunately, the storyline becomes too stagnant without the constant presence of Grant and Bennett, visually or otherwise.

Toppy finds a new standard of living and comes to reconcile with his wife. These are wonderful things, mind you, but it feels like the movie itself has compromised and gone away from what really makes it zing — that is the screwball antics of its true leading couple. Without them, it feels insipid and frankly trite, arriving at its unequivocally saccharine ending.

He is the one playing it straight, in a boring perfunctory manner because this is what is requested of him. But there are a handful of quality character moments of note. Certainly, a befuddled house detective played by Eugene Palette is always good for a lark. Alan Mowbray is his typical snooty Jeeves-like valet and even Hoagy Carmichael shows up (in his screen debut) to knock back a tune on the honky-tonk with Cary and Constance.

I couldn’t help thinking, I wish our two dazzling leads had partnered in another rom-com. After all, Powell and Loy got together for over 12 offerings. Alas, it was not meant to be. It makes Topper even more crucial in charting the rise of the Cary Grant we would come to know and also an oft-forgotten starlet in Constance Bennett.

3/5 Stars

Dancing Lady (1933): Joan Crawford & Clark Gable

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You know the drill. In the throes of the Depression, the idle rich fritter their wealth away at such social events as striptease and then attend the ensuing night court until they get bored with the whole affair. Tod Newton (Franchot Tone) is one of their ilk, but he’s more engaged than others thanks to the pretty girl on the other side of the courtroom.

Down-on-her-luck Janie Barlow (an effulgent Joan Crawford) is a casualty of a police raid undertaken on the saucy dancing joint she’s been working at. Beyond being smitten, Tone (Crawford’s real-life husband for a time), is invested in helping give her a leg up, ulterior motives notwithstanding.

If it’s not obvious already, Dancing Lady has a premise to rival Warner Bros’ superlative successes with risque backstage, rags-to-riches musicals like 42nd Street. So, while the plot is nothing special, it somehow taps into Crawford’s innate sense of ambition as an actress.

There’s a feeling she’s not entirely acting a part; she’s driven to make it to the top. It’s this impetus that leads her to stick to “thousand-to-one-shots” over any man — even Park Avenue know-it-alls swimming in cash. She’s going to make it of her own accord. She’s going uptown toward the art world.

The script purposefully bears down on the vernacular to differentiate the patricians from the plebians and with it Janie’s attempts to make something of herself — first, through improved diction and then a newly cultivated wardrobe.

Without knowing it, she’s probably aspiring to the entertainment funded by such nincompoops as Mr. Bradley and his roly-poly walking gag of a son Junior. They are a father and son comic echo chamber if you will, and they also hold the purse strings for one of the industry’s latest productions.

It’s not altogether glamourous stuff but Patch Gallagher (Clark Gable) and his taskmaster-like regimen, turning chorus girls into a full-fledged production, is the “big time” for someone like Janie. The only problem is getting an audition. The head honcho has his right-hand man Steve (Ted Healy) run interference for him — it didn’t go so well for a wisecracking Eve Arden. Still, the “Dutchess” is an assiduous gal if there ever was one.

Director Robert Z Leonard is evidently enamored with his whip pans, but he does evoke pace rather well, especially when Crawford tries furiously to catch up with Gable as he streaks down the sidewalk. While it’s a cliched rom-com montage that would be recycled time-and-time again, it still stands out within the context of the film. The leads don’t speak a word to one another for several minutes at least.

In what feels like a non-sequitur, the Three Stooges make a lightning-quick cameo. Well, they actually show up twice, posing as stagehands. It’s true they feel completely at odds with Joan Crawford’s story arc, but it’s delightful to see them, even momentarily, as she continues her ascension. This is only to be surpassed by the appearance of Fred Astaire! (And I nearly forgot to mention Nelson Eddy, so there you go).

Tone continues to go to great lengths to win her affections, secretly bankrolling her star vehicle, dancing and dining her, and flaunting his swimming pools. When all else fails, he resorts to taking her to Cuba, conveniently far away from the other man in her life and the career she’s chosen.

The red-hot sparks are given a literal gymnasium to work themselves out in — positively buzzing between Crawford and Gable — as they get in their morning exercise to keep their svelte dancing figure and brawny physique respectively. It goes unspoken, but an unwritten rule of storytelling tips us off that antagonism usually denotes love. They have copious amounts ready-made to dish out at one another.

Unfortunately, by this point, the story gets less and less interesting by the minute as it continues to sink into the preconceived notions of the genre. In other words, what we suspect to be derivative proves itself to be precisely that. It speaks to the charisma of the stars who make the well-trod paces watchable, even engaging, and there are a few momentary delights around the fringes.

The final extravaganza is a not-too-veiled Busby Berkeley knockoff infatuated with beer. The surreal foray that follows offers up a luxuriant carousel of beauties and giant fan blades strapped with women — not to mention the surreal moment when a host of old maids go behind a curtain only to be dismantled to come out as gorgeous dancing ladies.

With Fred Astaire showcased prominently alongside Joan in a very fluffy ensemble, it felt strangely out of place. Astaire and Rogers had yet to be placed together and it’s true their trajectories could have been so much different. I don’t know a thimbleful about dancing, but at the very least, Crawford has an earnestness on taps. Though, she’s not quite Ginger Rogers either. No one ever said she was.

With Tone’s gigolo scorned and “The Duchess” going in to check on her dejected “Duke” after their stunning success, there’s a sense the working-class heroes are being reunited in a triumphant victory for all the blue-collar folks in the audience. In other words, it’s not just Depression-era pap, there’s this genuine element of wish fulfillment.

The movie is gracious enough to supply one last obligatory scene between Crawford and Gable for contemporary audiences. Because there are a lot of distractions (and some unique surprises like Astaire), but the romantic chemistry is present and delivered on a silver platter with the kiss that the whole movie’s been culminating to. Surprising, I know. What’s the axiom? Give the people what they want? Dancing Lady is case and point.

3.5/5 Stars

Possessed (1931): Joan Crawford and The “In” Crowd

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We open up on the Acme Paper Box Co., which has a down-and-dirty industry strewn about its edges. If the people flooding out of the factory are any indication, this will be a dusty, grubby, little picture.

Two of their employees are Al Manning (Wallace Ford) and Marian Martin (Joan Crawford). He’s a concrete worker with a penchant for bricks, and he’s also positively smitten with her. Meanwhile, her gaze is focused somewhere else. She’s not about to settle for “happiness on an installment plan.”

It’s summed up by the train tracks — a handy conduit for the luxurious upper classes who coast by with their dancing, music, and cocktails. They have no idea about a life like Marian’s, nor do they have any reason to care about it. However, she gravitates toward them, peering in at their affluence from the outside. She would do anything to breach the space in between.

She does meet one fellow as he knocks a few drinks back and stares out at the sorry landscape. They strike up a momentary conversation; it’s nothing more and nothing less, but it leaves an impression. Among other things, he tells her there two kinds of people: those who are “in” and those who are “out.” And before he’s whisked away, he offers her one of his cards like a (drunk) gentleman.

Richard “Skeets” Gallagher, a character who ultimately becomes of minor importance, nevertheless fascinates me for some unequivocal reason. As best as can be described, he is the kind of actor who feels stuck in the 1930s, and I mean it as a kind of backhanded compliment. There’s a frequency to his voice perfect for radio tones but somehow it’s hard to see him existing outside the era. That’s perfectly alright.

At any rate, intrepid Marian having eaten the fruit, so-to-speak, and gained knowledge about their world, can never go back to her simple ignorance. Instead, she returns to her mother and Al telling tales of what she’s just seen.

In the city, folks see the world as a woman’s oyster. Poor folks think men are meant to go out and get whatever they can out of life; women are meant to stay where they and get married. If anything is obvious, Joan Crawford’s not one for the shabby status quo. So she goes out and does something about it.

However, she really is in a sorry state, showing up on the doorstep of the one man she knows in town. With nothing else to lose, she tries to sneak her way into a lucky break, fumbling around brazenly, foot in her mouth, but she’s definitely got guts. There are no pretenses when she tries to get in with his friends; she’s a straight-forward gold digger and she knows what she wants.

For some, that’s a turnoff. For self-assured up-and-coming statesmen Mark Whitney (Clark Gable), he finds it oddly attractive and so he gladly leads her by the arm and allows her the benefit of his bounty. A few years down the road she’s made strides in the life of a social hostess. For all intent and purposes, she acts as the perfect wife. Directing the servants, choosing the wine, throwing dinner parties like a seasoned professional.

What’s the big reveal, you ask? They’re not married. They have a mutual agreement and being pragmatic seems to have paid off. Even as she continues to educate herself in the finer things, including French and German loves songs, there’s still something in her upbringing that sympathizes with a lowly tramp brought to one of their gatherings. The woman feels woefully, even uncomfortably, out of place, surrounded by so much class.

Marian realizes no manner of jewels or perfume can totally cover her own genetic makeup. The gravest development in the story starts in Crawford’s own character. She settles in and softens up. In some ways, she wants marriage, because she’s gone and fallen in love. It’s no longer a convenient relationship with fringe benefits.

Right here, it’s evident how it courts similar themes as Back Street or any movie about women trapped in somewhat unenviable positions in a society where their only recourse is to take what they can get by any means necessary. We pity them even as some of their actions feel unfortunate.

Al comes to the city bitten with the same bug that once got her, with the goal of making “the big time,” asking favors from the man she’s already attached to. He’s utterly ignorant of what he’s stepped into — what Marian’s arrangement entails — still, he knows what he wants.

It should be noted Clark Gable never gets a lingering closeup as fine as the ones extended to Crawford. After all, her name is over the title credits, not his. But what’s refreshing about his character — he doesn’t feel like an out-and-out cad — there’s some integrity to him. Still, life must complicate everything. Their relationship begins to disintegrate, on the behest of friends and advisors, as he must make a choice between a political career a woman.

A new normal is soon established. The wheels of the political movement begin to spin, unnamed naysayers look to stir up scandal against him, and Marian somehow evaporates into the background. The final scene is the lynchpin of it all. Joan Crawford feels like an anonymous civilian walking through the rain with her umbrella and mac amid the usual foot traffic. They all make their way to a grand pavilion with posters of her man plastered on all sides.

In a purely cinematic moment, she takes the stand on his defense and gives a tearful, overly sincere annunciation of his character. It wins over the audience as she’s overcome with emotion and stumbles out in tears.

Again, the key is that we follow Joan. We are with her as she bursts through the doors and totters her way out onto the street with the rain pelting her as she labors up the stairs…That’s when her leading man comes and wraps her up in his arms. It’s what these old movies were made for. The final embrace propelled by emotion and buoyed by the attractive glamour of their stars.

Enough films of the era take a bleaker road; it’s safe enough to give this one its Hollywood ending. It is Hollywood after all, the land where Lucille Laseurr could become Joan Crawford: one of the most indelible figures Hollywood ever created.

3.5/5 Stars

You Can’t Take It With You (1938): Quality Capra

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This is my post in The 120 “Screwball” Years of Jean Arthur Blogathon put on by the Wonderful World of Cinema!

Mr. Kirby (Edward Arnold), or A.P. as his deferential colleagues call him, is a business magnate with innumerable successful endeavors. He has the full pockets to go along with a career full of shrewd decisions. And the latest scheme he’s worked up just might be the granddaddy of them all, that is, if it weren’t for the obliging grandfather in his way.

It stands to reason if Kirby can secure the 12 blocks around the Ramsey company, his one sole remaining competitor, he can cripple them out of business with a large scale monopoly, therefore controlling the munitions industry outright.

It’s a representation of the ugliest strain of free market capitalism. This is not the type of carte blanche you want ruling business, especially in Frank Capra’s world. Still, Kirby wants no interference and that means even Martin Vanderhoff must go. He throws one of his cronies, the perpetually twitching Clarence Wilson, at the problem to get it resolved by any means necessary.

But lest you think the man is merely an old crank who won’t sell out, Lionel Barrymore (now crippled by worsening arthritis) walks into the picture on crutches and mesmerizes the entire audience with his instant charisma. This isn’t quite UP, nor is he just a silly little man gumming up the works. Well, maybe he is, but he finds strength in family. That and his given temperament are all the better for doing battle with Mr. Kirby, indirectly though it maybe.

Lionel Barrymore is defined in modern generations solely by the curmudgeon Mr. Potter and little else. What You Can’t Take It With You is a superlative reminder of is just how magnetic an actor he was in all sorts of parts. Here he serves as the affable glue holding the picture together at the seams and spinning wisdom throughout the neighborhood.

It begins by recruiting other “lilies of the field” including the timid Mr. Poppins (Donald Meek) who leaves behind the job he’s been slaving away at to follow his passions. You see, he makes things.

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There’s something innately compelling about the life Mr. Vanderhoff leads. In fact, it’s a bit of a practical utopia. He doesn’t work. He follows his fancy, whether sliding down the banisters, playing his harmonica, or going to the graduations to listen to the speeches. Still, he gets by and feels deeply contented holding malice towards none. The prayers he sends up to the big man upstairs are irreligious, frank, but genuine in nature.

His family takes much the same approach ,and they’ve built for themselves a comfortable if altogether quirky family commune.  Tony Kirby’s not far off when he surmises it’s “Like living in the world of Walt Disney.”

Grandpa does all the aforementioned activities including collecting stamps because it’s what he likes best. Mr. Sycamore makes fireworks because he never grew up and mother writes plays because a typewriter was delivered to the house by mistake. Mr. Poppins feels right at home in the basement workshop devoted to all sorts of fanciful tinkering with a raven hopping about. Meanwhile, the precocious Essie (Ann Miller) jaunts around in ballet slippers to her husband’s xylophone playing.

Charles Lane’s IRS income tax man paying a house call and grating up against the libertarian, pragmatism of Grandpa is a hint of conflict just waiting to come to a head. Of course, all of this would add up to nothing if it weren’t for the central romance spawning the indelible chemistry between James Stewart and Jean Arthur.

Because they are a bit of the prototypical Romeo & Juliet passion. He’s set up in his father’s business with no aspirations whatsoever to take over the family firm, and she is his typist with no status to her name. But we never once forget who these people are, and they are adorable together.

They forego the stuffy ballet for two front row seats at a much more attractive park bench, complete with daydreamy small talk and a personal show by a pack of real toe-tapping tykes. Then, it comes to meeting the parents at a well-to-do restaurant and in the sheer awkwardness of the scene, one cannot help but reminisce about Hepburn and Grant’s own high jinks from Bringing up Baby. This one involves a humorous tag, some phantom mice scurrying about, and so on and so forth (you get the idea).

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However, the creme de la creme has to be his parents coming over for dinner to meet Alice’s family under the most embarrassing circumstances, just as whimsical bedlam sets in. Xylophones, dancing, darts, exploding fireworks. You name it and they’re doing it. In fact, it’s enough for them to get raided by the police and serve time down at the courthouse waiting for bail — the Kirbys included. It’s the proverbial nail in the coffin.

I’m not sure if he was genius or not, but Capra had a knack for capturing the organic mayhem of a bustling courtroom to a tee. You Can’t Take It With You‘s finale uses the judicial arena to bring the story out of despair. There are words traded, a $100 fine enacted, and the passing of the charity hat, with the same outpouring of generosity from the common folk George Bailey would later be blessed with. Even the benevolent judge (Harry Davenport) throws into the pot.

And obviously, there is no Capracorn without the inspired quill of Robert Riskin. Watching more and more of Capra’s collaborations with Robert Riskin, there is the sneaking suspicion that the screenwriter has as much to do with this American optimism we so often attribute to the director. Because the words, the scenarios, the characters are constructed in such a way to draw on these deep-running themes time and time again.

You Can’t Take It With You is an unequivocal reminder that these prevailing themes of humanity never quite go away; they only reimagine themselves and return with a vengeance. The patriarch laments the fact nowadays most everyone says “Think the way I do or I’ll bomb the daylights out of you.” If this aphorism was true in a pre-war society, think how much more pertinent it remains in a hyper-polarized, antagonizing social media age.

You can scoff out their resolutions as needlessly naive or champion them as eternal optimists. Regardless, in the world dreamed up here, it’s not just the lion laying down with the lamb. The banker can play harmonica with the country bumpkin and pick up the Russian in a fireman’s carry. If that’s not a bit of paradise, I’m not sure what is.

4/5 Stars

 

Drums Along The Mohawk (1939): Ford, Fonda, and Colbert

Drumsalongthemohawk.jpgRecently, it’s come to my attention there is really is a dearth of colonial America pictures between the likes of Disney’s Johnny Tremain and Mel Gibson’s The Patriot. The reasons seem somewhat obvious at least in the current day and age. Period pieces cost money and such material feels crusty unless you spice it up with ingenuity a la Hamilton.

For anyone who might want a dose of debatably historical entertainment, there’s Drums Along The Mohawk. Because what it cannot claim in the realm of accuracy, it more than makes up for with the usual shading of classic Hollywood reined in by a consummate professional directorial eye like John Ford’s.

This particular narrative begins with a newly wedded couple in Colonial America Lana (the always glamorous Claudette Colbert) and Gil (a severe-looking Henry Fonda). The ceremony takes place in a grand estate, and it’s true Lana comes from a wealthy family. In this regard, it’s easy to buy Colbert in this part given her image and even easier to comprehend her dismay when she is met with the stone-cold reality of frontier life.

Because, as it happens, Gil has sectioned off a plot of land near the Mohawk River, building a rudimentary log cabin just to get them started as they get on their feet as farmers. For his wife, it’s a shock to the system with the pelting rain and a late-night visit by the generally benevolent Native American: Blueback.

Fresh off their honeymoon, they make the acquaintance of the dubious John Carradine with allegiance to the Tories, matched by veiled threats of a potential Indian uprising. Otherwise, all the rest of the local folks are amicable, welcoming the Martins into their tight-knit community with open arms.

Like any God-fearing populous, they have church on Sundays and a ragtag militia carried away by the “Spirit of ’76.” It proves inconsequential when their homes get ravaged and razed to the ground by marauding Indians, an admittedly faceless tribe, catalyzed by a loyalist.

Until this point, Along The Mowhawk is not altogether compelling, despite our director and leads. However, it settles into its own when our protagonists have nothing; it forces them to make a crucial decision. They seek refuge on the farm of a blunt widow with enough gumption (and covert kindness) to make a new life seem feasible.

The word from the church pulpit is the most hilarious foray in comedy as the preacher takes a dig at Massachusetts men and notes the battle at hand, meaning that all men are expected to report or else be hung! He ends it with a resounding Amen. It’s old-time religion if there ever was such a thing, complete with an earsplitting “Hallelujah” from one of the good Christians.

A worthy image in the Ford catalog comes when the men march off in their column snaking down the dirt road, off into the distance, with the womenfolk watching them leave. It has the tangible sense of space — the assurance of a painting — informing the best pictorials of the director. The simplest measure of excellence is the fact it’s pleasing to the eye.

But of course, when soldiers go off to war some die and the rest come back as changed men. We recall the horror, the almost shell-shocked nature, of war.  Henry Fonda plainly detailing what they saw out in the thicket when they got ambushed is too real. You begin to remember this is right on the advent of WWII. WWI is still a heavy burden on America’s mind as the war to end all wars.

Within the context of this film, it becomes an even more complicated comparison when you place the antagonism of Americans versus The British of the colonial era with the soon-to-be conflict between Britain and The Nazis. In fact, Ford seems to make a distinction between calling the enemy “Tories” versus the British. In 200 years allegiances have changed a great deal.

However, it wouldn’t be a true Ford picture without folks kicking up their heels in a fit of merriment to fight off the dark tides with a joyful show of community. Ward Bond gets his finest moments opposite Mrs. McKlennar, calling into question her prowess in drinking and kissing. She gaily obliges. Meanwhile, in a lowly lit corner, Lana prays these good times might never end. Of course, they do.

Homes are burnt to the ground again. The townsfolk are forced to fall back to their fort to stave off the enemy onslaught in one valorous stand. It feels like a melding of apocryphal American Revolution history, “Remember The Alamo” sentiment and a moderate dose of Ford’s own mythologizing about the frontier. It’s not his very best, but there is a basic flare for the spectacle.

If we might try to encapsulate the reverberating theme to the last line, it would be fitting to evoke Revolutionary War General Nathanael Greene who is quoted as saying, “We fight, get beat, rise, and fight again.” Ford’s film reinforces this as being the American way. The only question remains who really gains the right to this way of life.

3.5/5 Stars

Jesse James (1939): Tyrone Power & Henry Fonda

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Reputed screenwriting scribe Nunnally Johnson starts off on clever footing by giving his mythic western hero an obvious antagonist. It was the railroad — that lawless iron horse — forcing Jesse James into the position of a criminal. Though he would evolve over time into the complicated human being projecting his legend, at least in the beginning, he was all but driven to take the mantle of an outlaw. At least in this telling. 

In making his hero fully sympathetic, Johnson has cast James as a western Robin Hood righting the wrongs perpetrated against him and others based the bloodthirsty land grabbing of railroad companies. Brian Donlevy, still yet to be promoted from his heavy roles, makes his rounds swindling the general populous and using more persuasive tactics to swipe their holdings.

Content notwithstanding, Jesse James is just about the glossiest possible extravaganza, you could offer a cold-blooded outlaw. The early Technicolor is gorgeous to behold, and in these prime early years of their careers, Tyrone Power and Henry Fonda aren’t in need of any favors.

Jesse James (Power) is nothing more than a gee-whiz country bumpkin when we first set eyes on him. His big brother Frank (Henry Fonda) sits in the house lazily chawing on tobacco. Despite living with their concerned mother (Jane Darwell), they aren’t squeamish about sticking up for their own. They also aren’t about to be squandered out of their land without a fight, and they’re ready to oblige any strong-armed tactics thrown their way. Dunlevy doesn’t stand a chance.

As they flee into the night with reward posters calling for them to be dragged in for a hefty reward, they on take the mantle of fugitives almost out of necessity. It’s not merely about absconding with payloads for their own pleasure. This is a form of just retribution to be enacted against the corrupt machine belching smoke and literally railroading every poor sap in its way.

A codgerly newspaperman (Henry Hull) is one of their primary champions, though each week spawns a new tirade, whether it be lawyers or dentists or any insufferable faction who are all destroying society as we know it. Rufus Cobb is one of the voices rallying the public on Jesse’s behalf because it is his daughter Zerelda (Nancy Kelly) that the man has an eye for, but he also genuinely likes the lad.

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Even as the James’ boys notoriety grows, Jesse and Zee get hitched in an impromptu church wedding. They find out, even among this congregation, they have a great deal of friends.

For every conceited businessman represented by diminutive railroad baron Mr. McCoy (a comically demonstrative Donald Meek), there is another humble, salt-of-the-earth human being like local Marshall Will Wright (Randolph Scott). He knows the law, in all its strictness, calls for him to chase down James as a craven villain. In his own way, he’s cheering for him to live another day, even as he turns the other way on at least one occasion.

It’s this sense of good faith and the pleading of his wife leading Jesse to turn himself into the authorities for a fair trial. The judge has vowed for leniency as negotiated by the marshall. They’re all for a fresh slate. Mr. McCoy is not such an understanding fellow. All he thinks of are dollars and cents. He uses his resources to bring in his own judge and make a harsher sentence stick.

However, he’s hardly counting on Frank James. He happens to be a brazen fellow, and when he vows to come in and retrieve his brother from jail before the stroke of midnight, you better believe he’ll keep his word or else be taken for a fool. Even after their thrilling escape — one of the most gratifying successes of the picture — we fall into a bit of a rough patch.

Not only has Jesse gone off on his own to leave his family to live without the specter of his reputation, he begins to change with the constant pressures and paranoia weighing on him daily. He’s no longer the same good-natured kid who once went on the run in a righteous coup against extortion.

While not a film you look for poignancy in, Henry Fonda is present and he does deliver one monologue that speaks to something supremely candid. Jesse has become hard and crazed, systematically alienating all those around him. And if there’s anyone who can speak to him, it’s his brother Frank. Fonda handles the scene with his usual subtleness dumping all these obvious grievances in the lap of his own flesh and blood. He encourages him to draw if he needs to. Frank’s not squeamish about it, but it’s his last-ditch effort to speak some sense into his kid brother.

What will come of Jesse if he doesn’t trust those who have still stuck with him? Of course, among the faithful, there is often a Judas. In this case, Robert Ford (John Carradine), intent on getting a payoff for stabbing his old compatriot in the back.

We understand implicitly we are reaching the beginning of the end. First, they get corralled in a town after a bank job and a hail of bullets comes raining down from any number of windows. This is not what does him in. If you’re acquainted with the history, you’re aware he got knocked off by a double-crossing skunk. Then, again, this is not the Sunday school truth. If anything, Johnson relishes tinkering with the details and coloring in the tall tales to fit his ambitions.

The verdict? Jesse James feels a bit sluggish as it runs its course. There’s not enough action or bank robberies in the span of the film to make it really feel alive with the overarching aura of the James brothers. In its most watchable moments, it functions, fundamentally, like a family drama. Even if the movie is only a minor oater, Tyrone Power and Henry Fonda are the main attractions, and they rarely disappoint.

3.5/5 Stars

Dark Victory (1939): Bette Davis at Her Best

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Dark Victory reminds one how eclectic the Warner Bros. stock company was in 1939 because, in a Bette Davis vehicle, the first visage to present itself is none other than a wry Humphrey Bogart. The movie is a veritable grab bag of assorted talent from Bogart to Ronald Reagan and even kindly, bushy-browed Henry Travers. Despite still being a supporting player (his ascension would come in two years), Bogey is having a grand old time as a smart-mouthed horse trainer named Michael O’Leary.

He is under the employment of one Judith Traherne (Davis) who is coming off her most recent bender, living it up in local social circles. It’s an obvious first impression although, as time goes on, we get quite a different understanding of who she is as a human being. It’s often the case trials and tribulation mixed with romance have a habit of bringing out the truest essence of an individual.

For the Davis character, it begins inauspiciously enough. We expect her to be a frivolous, spirited socialite partying, drinking, smoking cigarettes, like any self-respecting belle in her position. In such a world the happy-go-lucky playboy Alex (Ronald Reagan) seems to be an impeccable match.

Her best friend Ann (Geraldine Fitzgerald) is the doting sounding board who might as well be a part of Judith. At any rate, she functions as a guardian angel constantly worried about the other’s well-being. She never fails to be by Judith’s side in all manner of circumstances — it’s almost uncanny — but cinematically, she becomes the necessary foil on which our heroine transfers all her fears.

This is a crucial relationship as the story progresses. For it is Ann who bears the brunt of the sorrow, in effect, freeing Judith to push bravely forward. Ann cries the tears so her friend doesn’t have to. But I’m getting ahead of myself. We must put it out there now that tragedy strikes.

The events are instigated in one frightening instance when Judith all but runs her horse through a jump out on the range. They are both shaken up, but the fall is written off as a lingering after-effect of the previous night’s merriment.

Still, the incidents persist. One afternoon Judith takes a tumble down the stairs while later confiding in her friend about other isolated moments and the recent hangover-induced headaches she hasn’t been able to shake.

While Judith remains peppy and bright, in all manner of speaking, there’s no question these developments have left her frazzled — her nerves undone by this unexplained erratic behavior.

At about this time, our other important character is introduced, a well-respected brain surgeon (George Brent) who is all but prepared to give up his booming practice for a more relaxed mode of medicine. It is only as a favor to a friend he even takes a look at Ms. Traherne (As a  minor side note, it’s staggering to acknowledge this was the eighth out of eleven onscreen appearances Brent made opposite Bette Davis!).

His subsequent examination is basic but wholly conclusive, and it is a clever bit of exposition instigated by director Edmund Goulding. We learn instantly the doctor’s new patient is losing some of her ocular and motor skills. It’s evident something is wrong. Though he does not frighten her in the moment, he has suspicions she is stricken with cancer.

The consequence. She’s going to die. It’s only a matter of time. The main conundrum suddenly thrust upon the doctor and Ann is a deplorable one: To tell her in all truthfulness what is inevitable or let her live in ignorance so her final days might be blissful.

What do you expect to happen? Of course, they never get the chance to make the decision. Two words: prognosis negative, are all Judith needs to put it all together. She feels betrayed and disdains their pity. She will never be the same.

The way Davis approaches each of these scenes with almost a spastic giddiness makes it different than what one might typically consider mainline Bette Davis, whether The Little Foxes or All About Eve. If anything, it reveals her immense aptitude at projecting different sides of humanity. Because she seems so very superficial only to subvert all our expectations with an unassailable strength, bolstering her in her waning days.

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The tear-jerking melodrama is a precarious affair because it must throw out all sorts of tragedies and sentimentalities while all the while compelling the audience such that they don’t completely laugh off the whole idea as poppycock. After all, it’s about the easiest thing in the world to dismiss such a picture — we’ve seen enough soaps in our days to grow weary of them — but the good ones take us through the paces and still manage to get to us.

Dark Victory is no person’s idea of a perfect film, but it does what it sets out to do quite stupendously. Even as someone never quick to fawn over Bette Davis, there’s no recourse but to laud her performance.

Not often am I fond of a Davis character, even the ones you’re meant to like. Dark Victory teeters somewhere in the middle for a while, but the sheer tornado frenzy of giggling life in the face of death wins out. It’s a testament to Davis more than anyone else as she all but sticks the landing, carrying the magnitude of the drama with her implacable performance.

The title itself, Dark Victory, initially sounds morbid or like it’s indicating some form of vindictive revenge. And yet really, this is a happier story imbued with hope in the face of said tragedy. It is a victory over the dark even as the light dissipates for Judith.

In reality, the trills of lasting romance and fearlessness in the face of the great unknown offer her vindication over her struggles. We are not meant to weep over her lot in life. Instead, taking a cue from her own outlook, we must lean into the sweetness in lieu of the tragedy.

4/5 Stars