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

Run Silent, Run Deep (1958): A Streamlined Submarine Drama

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Run Silent, Run Deep features what amounts to a cold open, set in the Bungo Straits, near the coast of Japan in 1942. The foreboding sonar-infused score by Franz Waxman suggests this will be a no-nonsense war drama and sure enough, within the first 5 minutes, a submarine commanded by one P.J. Richardson (Clark Gable) has been sunk in its mission to destroy an enemy ship, leading to the capsizing of the entire crew.

As Richardson looks back at his receding enemy, we see the film’s objective right before us. He is bent on revenge. Given the situation, this is not a film so much about survival but returning to finish a job no matter the circumstances, dangers, or counter-orders standing in the way.

After a short leave of action, Richardson talks his way into another command, this time taking over from Jim Bledsoe (Burt Lancaster) who has already formed a close-knit rapport with his men. They don’t look too kindly on a new man taking over and Bledsoe broaches the subject bluntly with his new superior.

Richardson is hardly going to be dissuaded by a minor thorn in his side and his new crew begrudgingly take to the grueling regiment of drills he has them on. No one is looking to make any friends. This is hardly a film about buddy, buddy or camaraderie. There isn’t time. The one thing the commander does instill in them is discipline and well-oiled efficiency. It’s probably the greatest gift he can give them based on the circumstances.

The stakes are obvious as the death trap, Area 7, has led to the loss of four separate Allied subs, including Richardson’s previous command. What the story devolves into is a fairly straightforward WWII drama which is nevertheless riddled with tension as they knowingly enter perilous waters.

It’s true a submarine serves as an impeccable locale because its very form functions in constraining the action and ratcheting up emotions. There is no release valve and all these crewmen are literally submerged underwater for hours at a time. If that isn’t nerve-wracking I’m not sure what else qualifies.

Combine this environment with men who are already in tight quarters only to become more contentious over a major distaste in their commanding officer. It’s easy to envision him as a modern-day Captain Ahab. His white whale is the infamous Japanese Akikaze, Bungo Charlie, that he’s already has a deadly history with. The seafaring setting and power dynamics also hint at the traditions of The Mutiny on The Bounty though the story foregoes this exact demarcation.

While there are few flourishes or subsequent surprises from director Robert Wise’s film, there’s no question in labeling Run Silent, Run Deep an immersive experience, even for such a streamlined endeavor. In fact, that more than anything plays to its advantage. This allows it to be compact actioner extremely aware of its outcomes and not content until its mission has been accomplished. While it does not leave a great deal of leeway in the area of character development, our cast is a varied and compelling ensemble.

Obviously, the central figureheads are Gable and Lancaster, two hard-bitten battlers who are also consequently, far too old to be playing their parts. But this is Hollywood, after all, so it’s easy enough to make allowances when you’re getting top tier talent.

However,  surround them with the likes of Jack Warden, Brad Dexter, Don Rickles (in his film debut), and Lancaster’s long-time collaborator Nick Cravat, and you have something quite engaging.

The key to the success of both the mission and the film is that it ends as quickly as it begins. It gets in and gets out with striking precision, taking little time to rest too long on its laurels. Between the flurry of malfunctioning torpedoes, the barrage of enemy depth charges, and bombs raining from up above, there is plenty of flack to provide antagonistic interference. By the end, it seems a miracle our men get through at all but of course, it’s not without a toll, both physically and mentally.

Because even when you cannot see the enemy in the flesh, the capability to do harm hardly slackens. In some cases, it proves even worse. What is easier to exterminate, an enemy who lacks any type of form or personage or one that is living and breathing? In this regard, Wise’s picture is sterile and impersonal. It’s not so much a flaw as it is a sobering reality.

3.5/5 Stars

Night Nurse (1931)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3/5 Stars

Boom Town (1940)

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Clark Gable was anxious to do a movie about oil — wildcatters as they call ’em — because his father had been an oil man. Of course, MGM was looking to put him in such a picture too and when a certain story was published in Cosmopolitan it would prove the inspiration for Jack Conway’s Boom Town.

The most obvious attraction to this picture then and now is the copious amount of star power. We already mentioned MGM’s beloved Gable but Boom Town has Spencer Tracy, Claudette Colbert, and Hedy Lamarr all readily available. This would be the two men’s final film together out of three outings. It’s not so much that they didn’t like each other but the fact that they were both formidable attractions and Tracy was starting to command top billing.

In an industry consumed with A-list and B-list stars, MGM didn’t quite know how to go about keeping them together and so they never appeared in the same film again. I can’t say that it leaves me heartbroken.

They meet on a plank crossing a muddy mining street. Whether it was purposeful or not you can’t help but recall the fateful meeting of Robin Hood and Little John. Except these two men share the same name. The local saloon keeper christens them Big John (Gable) and Square John (Tracy) respectively. They’re none too amicable at first but after a bar brawl that looks more like lawn bowling, they’re pals enough. Those type of things builds camaraderie in hard-bitten men like these.

Soon enough they are going halfsies on a piece of land “Shorty” has been aiming to drill on. Frank Morgan isn’t much help as the begrudging equipment salesman and so they take matters into their own hands. A lovable Chill Wills plays a drawling Sheriff with a penchant for cookbooks and a decent shot with a rifle.

The film could have been a gusher laden with drama but most of the blasts of energy are few and far between hidden under layers of good luck and hard luck, romantic interplay, and the ever-changing tides of the oil business. Some of these themes would be echoed again in works like Giant (1956) and There Will Be Blood (2007).

The most rewarding scene by far is watching Gable and Tracy brawl it out in an office. By now they’ve both been big men who have known both failure and success. But this strips everything down to the two of them and the woman caught between them.

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I must admit that Hedy Lamarr’s part is rather uninteresting — little fault of her own — though most would note that she is as alluring as ever as the ingenious socialite and serial eavesdropper who helps McMasters take over the New York market.

Claudette Colbert is compelling enough in a role that reunites here with her It Happened One Night (1934) leading man, though the role was written initially for Myrna Loy and there is an innate sense that if she could have repeated her spectacular turn in Test Pilot (1938), this picture now transplanted to the oil fields would have been better for it. As it is Gable and Tracy do seem to command most of the attention. After all, this is really their story as we watch them rise, fall, and come back clawing again and again.

The final big moment, however, goes to Tracy standing up at the witness stand and even though he and McMasters have long since parted ways, pushed each other out of business, and even come to blows, he still manages to exonerate the man of any wrongdoing.

Because if nothing else they are both oil men with ideals of what the country might be if we take care of our limited resources for our children. You might call “Hogwash” but it’s a nice sentiment anyways and as usual, Spence delivers it with his typical candor that silences any naysayers. However, one wonders what the picture might have been if Colbert and Lamarr were given a bigger stake.

3/5 Stars

Test Pilot (1938)

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Test Pilot is a fine piece of time capsule filmmaking and there’s little doubt that the film showcases a dizzying array of airplanes that we very rarely see today. In that sense, it’s an aerial picture with some truly dazzling footage.

By 1930s standards, this is also an action picture, a sprawling exhibition that simultaneously has a pretty thin story in some patches. In fact, it’s too long for its own good. But it’s a character drama as much as an aerial show, which takes precedence over anything else, narrative included.

The screenplay was forged by Howard Hawks (who worked on several other flight films) and a whole host of others. Its overall success is not necessarily in any amount of tension that is created or a certain brand of visceral storytelling though there are undoubtedly some emotional moments, the brunt of the heavy lifting comes from the cast as they articulate the beats of the script.

It’s true that under veteran director Victor Fleming and a cast including Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, and Myrna Loy, it’s difficult to find a more prestigious partnership out of MGM in the 1930s. This was pretty close to tops. Still, even in this dynamic, there were foreseeable problems. Spencer Tracy has a bit of a thankless job playing the faithful mechanic Gunner Morris, the character who is there to support his friend and he conveniently never gets the girl.

You can understand why Tracy could get a little tired of such roles because there’s no doubt that Gable is in one sense the main attraction as the eponymous “Test Pilot” Jim Lane. He was the great movie star of the age.

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However, Tracy was the acting powerhouse of the two and that’s the chafing at work once again in this picture. The stellar personality and the quality talent seesawing back and forth. Except Tracy’s stock had been rising year after year and by now he was a solid draw in his own right. It’s evident that he’s a formidable third wheel in the picture though he had his sights set on something slightly more gratifying.

In fact, he’s nearly invincible. Gable famously implored “Spence” to go ahead and die already because the actor milked his last words for all they were worth. However, even if this jousting match between the two male stars is most visible, out of the three I think Myrna Loy comes away having the most fun and getting the most out of the picture. It’s completely understandable why she cherished her work here.

She is the Kansas girl who has her head in the clouds like a ditzy farmer’s daughter watching as a man brings his plane down on her family’s land. He’s simultaneously an ungrateful lug and her shining knight. There’s something whimsical and wholly uninhibited about her that lets her meet a grouchy pilot out in the pasture with a wit of her own and yell her head off at ballgames like a seasoned fanatic.

Her performance runs the entire gamut from near screwball antics to deep heartfelt emotion. The dimensions there are at times difficult to read — even enigmatic. I think that’s why Jim falls for her. She’s in some ways just as tantalizing and fascinating to him as the air above.

Test Pilot also examines tragedy of such a pioneering and devil may care lifestyle — themes that Douglas Sirk would streamline in a picture such as Tarnished Angels (1956). Here we get the alluring frolicking fun of going where no man has gone before until it is tapered by the stark reality at hand. Icarus had the thrill of his life but it’s possible to fly too high or for your engines to blow out or for your instruments to fail. It’s a part of the lifestyle that pilots come to accept. They take the risk because the skies call out to them so earnestly. It’s their obsession.

Jim is one of those who has always followed that call. His story is really about his romance with two women. His wife waiting for him on the ground and the blue heavens which call out to him from above. It takes a reality check ripping something so dear away for him to realize he doesn’t mind being grounded. It was the one thing he swore he would never do and yet, in the end, he gladly does it.

3.5/5 Stars

San Francisco (1936)

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There was a time when San Francisco was synonymous with the earthquake. Before Rice-A-Roni, The Golden Gate, Bullitt, or heaven forbid, The Giants. For me, it’s hardly a major spoiler to say this film revolves around this tragic date back in 1906 (a strikingly recent 30 years before the film came out).

What the film does for most of its runtime is stack the bricks of the foundation while developing some kind of connection to the material through the world of that age. Because for destruction to mean anything there must first be context.

Clark Gable is Blackie (a name he also carried in Manhattan Melodrama), a man who runs a club in the dubious Barbary Coast sector of the city. It’s not a ritzy joint by any means but due to his outspoken nature, he’s a beloved pillar of society — especially when the society is a difficult place to live in.

Similar to the earlier film, it’s about people on the opposite side of the railroad tracks at least when their vocational calling is concerned. You see, Blackie can at best be called a saloon keeper moonlighting as a gambler and his best bud from childhood just happens to be a priest — Father Mullins (Spencer Tracy) — who runs the local parish.

An up-and-coming Mary Blake (Jeanette MacDonald) is hired on to sing San Francisco honky-tonk by Blackie because she needs work bad. Despite the prominence of the male actors, this was actually meant to be a vehicle for MacDonald and though she is no doubt vocally powerful, she’s not my favorite, blasphemous as it might be. Clark Gable didn’t like her much in real life for some reason.

Their relationship within the film proves to be a complicated one because she is a preacher’s daughter and her style of singing cannot find its true audience in Blackie’s place. She has the training of an opera singer who is far above the trash that’s she’s expected to peddle. But she is loyal to him and the favor he has shown her. She becomes a fan favorite.

That doesn’t make the tantalizing glow of the opera any less seductive nor her relationship with the man who made her any less difficult. Father Mullin tries to reform his good friend and he sees Mary as the perfect figure to help him in his crusade and yet in the same instance, he wants her to get away from Blackie’s influence. There are some happy times dancing in the park (“Would You”) but ultimately it seems she can find nothing but heartbreak in his presence.

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Meanwhile, Blackie is coaxed into making a run at the position of local supervisor to finally get some reforms including fire regulations. Father Mullins has long been trying to scrimp and save for an organ to have at the church. Without batting an eye Blackie donates one to his old pal. And that’s what makes this character fascinating given his paradoxical qualities.

He’s a tremendous force. He lives by a code and always has. But to him, religion is just a bunch of hocus-pocus making monkeys out of everyone. He’s a relativist. If that’s what you believe it’s alright by him. He won’t hold it against you for being a sap. But in his world, Blackie is number one.

Now that the context is set, the forthcoming impact is inevitable and it’s one of the great setpieces of its day. In fact, it’s a sequence so overwhelming even today and that import is placed on it because we have been so conditioned; it leaves us feeling truly shaken to the core. Yes, it’s a visual feat, to be sure, but there’s an equally crucial understanding to be had. There are consequences to this horrendously devastating disaster. It matters deeply. Not just the damage from the earthquake but the ensuing rash of fires that broke out all over town too.

I must admit I balk slightly at the film’s finale, however, as we see Blackie fall to his knees and pray to God after all the destruction he has experienced first hand. I want this transformation to be true as much as the next person but I couldn’t help thinking that this is often not how the world works or at least based on the little I know of humanity. Would a man who has no belief in a God all of a sudden drop to his heels and be made prostrate?

If anything he would seem more likely to lash out in anger. How could a loving God let this happen? How could He be silent with so much suffering? Those are the questions that ring out within me. Those are the burning thoughts that need an answer. And usually, I get them but in my own way. Still, what do I know?

Each person processes through grief and tragedy in different ways. I’ll begrudgingly give the film San Francisco its happy Hollywood ending. That might speak truth to somebody. There’s no doubt powerful emotions course through the scene based on all we have already witnessed thus far. I’ll willingly concede that. The emotional resonance in the wake of the visual horrors is unparalleled. It actually does make me feel something. That alone is something to marvel at. Not whether or not those emotions are logical or so-called correct. They very rarely are. I’m realizing now that that is okay.

Although I must admit it’s rather strange that MacDonald belts out a few rallying lines triumphantly as Clark Gable holds onto her and he just walks forward silently. Somehow it lacks camaraderie. It was as if he was implicitly saying, “You can sing but you won’t get me to do it in a million years.” However, don’t let this completely detract from the moment.

3.5/5 Stars

Manhattan Melodrama (1934)

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The stars are out for Manhattan Melodrama, at least three of the biggest from the 1930s, in Clark Gable, William Powell, and Myrna Loy. Except the latter two had yet to start their star-making run with director W.S. Van Dyke in The Thin Man until later in the year. This picture would prove to be a boost and a portent of good things to come.

The opening scene captures the bedlam during a fire aboard a riverboat with an alarmingly raw energy. One might even stoop to call it pure melodrama but to the film’s credit, it’s not faulty advertising since right from the beginning it goes for the jugular.

In fact, it continues to stack the tragic setpieces one on top of another. The next is a politically charged riot between capitalist and Soviet sympathizers. That brings with it yet another bitter tragedy already upon us in only a matter of minutes.

Because the aftermath of such events means many kids are left without parents (including Mickey Rooney’s character Blackie) and many parents are left without kids. One man resolves to fill in the hole in his heart. Of course, it doesn’t last for long when he is run over by a horsecart. Two boys are made orphans yet again.

So no time is wasted whatsoever suggesting that this is their story. The stage has been set. Our two divergent heroes head their separate ways while nevertheless remaining lifelong friends.

Blackie’s (Gable) adult life is really an outcropping of his childhood pursuits. Namely, gambling and getting other people’s money. He’s a smart character who has the police paid off and his slightly suspect establishment is running on all cylinders. But he’s hardly a bad fellow, mind you.

That’s what allows Jim (Powell) who has pursued a law degree to still be fast friends with his old chum. What they do for a living never impedes on the affection they have for one another. And for a long time that works fine. Blackie’s girl Eleanor (Loy) tries to coax him away from the life he leads — to something close to a marriage — but that was never quite him.

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One evening when she is supposed to hold onto Jim before Blackie gets there so they can all celebrate Jim’s ambitious rise, she finds herself taken with a man who is what Blackie can never be for her. She goes for Jim since he is the man who can make her a happy wife. Again, there’s no ill-will. Blackie only wants the best for his friends.

The ominous sounding tune “The Bad in Every Man” plays quite prominently in this film and many audience members will undoubtedly recognize it under a different name it would have later in life,   “Blue Moon.” For now, it’s a nightclub number that adds a palpable atmosphere to the world and especially our impression of the male protagonists.

Blackie proves to be so deeply invested that he does everything in his power to keep his friend on the path of the straight and narrow without any hindrance from a no-good degenerate like himself. He would never jeopardize Jim in his rise from district attorney to governor and so on. In fact, he would even take a hit for him. Because the film ends with Jim tossing Blackie on the funeral pyre. He’s gotten tough on crime and that means not backing down on murder raps — even involving a friend. Little does he know what Blackie has done for him. But his wife knows.

This is, of course, the picture that has the notoriety of being the last one John Dillinger viewed before being shot by Federal Agents outside the Biograph Theater in Chicago. He purportedly came out of hiding just to see Myrna Loy.

The picture itself begs the question if there was more to Dillinger. Did he have a troubled past or someone else on the other side of the train tracks who made good? More likely than anything else he was a little insignificant man and his violence was met with violence in an equal and opposite direction. His death helped sell tickets no doubt. It was probably even made into a couple of movies. But it couldn’t be a movie. Life never is.

In that sense, this film hardly seems authentic or real even when we juxtapose it with reality. It’s a nice thought, Clark Gable going off to the electric chair grinning — no good but at least a man of principle. If you want arguably a similar look with a slightly different outcome Angel With Dirty Faces (1938) provides it. John Dillinger never got around to seeing that picture though. For him, real life happened with real consequences. There was nothing idealized about it.

3.5/5 Stars

Red Dust (1932)

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My earliest recollection of knowing anything about Red Dust comes from the novel A Confederacy of Dunces where it’s recounted how the feckless oaf of a main character was born soon after his parents saw the picture being so caught up in the throes of Gable and Harlow’s cinematic passion. The fact we had this film in part to thank for such an annoying lout kept me away no fault of its own. But let’s forget Ignatius Jacques O’Reilly and cut to the picture.

The world we find ourselves in is a far-off land in Indo China on a rubber plantation. As such, Red Dust is a Pre-Code colonialist tale full of romantic heat, natives, tigers, and more heat. The only speaking part these natives are accorded belongs to the giggling cook who is not too bright as far as stereotypical Asian characters go. The tiger speaks a few times too. It’s noted more than once to be a dirty rotten country. It’s also true that to an untrained eye like my own the rubber industry looks a bit like a maple syrup colony but hardly as tasty.

The man running this particular one is named Dennis (Clark Gable). Why he could care for such a life is a worthy question and the one and only answer is that he was made for this country. It runs in his blood and he was born smelling the smells of rubber. But that doesn’t mean he wants other people in his life.

The film introduces two women in particular who test him in different ways. The first is (Jean Harlow) who gabs and gabs while pushing the boundaries of what is decent during the 1930s. She annoys the man mostly. There’s no question that Clark Gable and Jean Harlow light it up. In fact, they sizzle like hot coals. It’s often the case that true romantic chemistry that burns like this comes out of conflict and they have plenty of it.

He’s a strapping man’s man and he doesn’t want a worthless gal with a dubious reputation motoring her mouth off around him. He’s got work to do. She’s not about to be pushed around and she’s going to push all his buttons (You won’t grow up to be a big strong boy if you don’t eat your din-din ) and stay around as long as she pleases. The kerosene and gorgonzola is provided. Just stay around for the fireworks also free of charge.

This could be the picture right there. However, the new surveyor arrives, which is news enough, until it comes out that his wife is with him as well. It’s an added complication especially for Dennis because after her husband gets sick and they nurse him to a full recovery, he finds himself falling for a married woman. The difficulty is that the feelings are mutual.

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There’s a clear evocation of David and Bathsheba when Gable sends off his new surveyor into the swamps and his wife is left behind. It’s the perfect opportunity to get to know her a lot better. He knows what he is doing. She probably does too.

When the monsoon hits and Clark Gable plucks Mary Astor up and starts carrying her through the underbrush you can feel the forces of nature ripping through the country. It’s one of those precise moments when you remember why we go to the movies.

Then we also realize why Clark Gable was so popular with the ladies. He was a brash yet handsome cad. “Dreamboat” was written all over his rugged features. In the movies it spelled stardom but if this were real life it would mean disaster for true romance.

In some sense, you would think that Gable and Harlow own the picture but Astor has just as much right to it as anyone with her performance that while begging pathos is still slightly muddied by her own indiscretions. She’s not quite without fault as we find out.

But the film ends with imperfect people making certain decisions that look to preserve lives rather than utterly ruin them. Sometimes those are the most impressive feats. It’s not simply the white knights remaining untarnished but the already muddied ones willfully doing something decent. So Red Dust is a fairly landmark love story but to the credit of its cast and crew, there’s still some magic left in it even today. I won’t begrudge Red Dust anymore than I already have. It deserves that much.

Famously John Ford would remake the story as Mogambo (1953) which brought back Clark Gable 20 years later with two more ladies portrayed by Ava Gardner and Grace Kelly. I feel like colonialism was more in vogue during the 1930s.

4/5 Stars

Review: The Philadelphia Story (1940)

philadelphiastory1If there ever was a benchmark for the sophisticated, high-society brand of comedy, The Philadelphia Story is most certainly it. It’s less screwball because instead of Howard Hawks, George Cukor takes the helm and injects the film with his more refined sensibilities. It’s still very much hilarious and impeccably witty, but it’s not quite as scatterbrained as it could have been. Once more you have the iconic pairing of Cary Grant with Katharine Hepburn. Previously they had been in two other Cukor pictures (Sylvia Scarlett and Holiday) and of course Hawks’ romp Bringing up Baby. However, this time they’re joined by another cinematic titan in James Stewart and it proves to be a wonderful battle for command of the screen. The story ends up being a wonderful clash of classes and culture that also manages to illuminate a few bits and pieces of truth.

C.K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant) had it out rather acrimoniously with his wife Tracy Lord (Katharine Hepburn) and now two years down the line, she is set to marry someone else. She couldn’t be happier to be rid of him and all his faults. Her new husband is a real “man of the people,” the wooden George Kittredge (John Howard), and he got his money doing an honest day’s work. In other words, he’s everything Haven isn’t when it comes to class and manners, but he’s also quite different than Tracy. But she doesn’t seem to mind. She’s on cloud nine to be rid of Haven.

Although Cary Grant does take a back seat at times, it’s only so he can manipulate and connive in the background, because he most certainly has an agenda. It’s great fun to watch. First, he brings in the folks from Spy magazine to do a full spread on the big wedding. There’s belligerent journalist Macaulay Connor (James Stewart) scoffing at all the opulence around him and then photographer Ms. Eilzabeth Imbre (Ruth Hussey), who has something complicated going on with her colleague. They’re all here because the editor of Spy has a nice juicy expose piece on Tracy’s father and so C.K. advises her to go along with it. She suspects her old spouse has something to do with it, and it’s true, he didn’t put up much a protest when it came to taking part. However, Tracy’s not ready to let him ruin what she’s got going. She and her younger sister the crack-up Dinah (Virginia Weidler), put on a good show of upper-class snobbery to utterly bewilder their guests.

The funny thing is that while Tracy detests C.K. with the vehemence of the plague, her mother and sister quickly welcome the old gentleman back into their home with open arms. After all, what kind of trouble could he cause a couple days before the wedding, and Dinah is always game for a little chaos. She and C.K. have a mutual affection for each other. They’re both serial troublemakers.

After the surprise of Dexter wears off, the next person Tracy clashes horns with is the brusque newsman Connor, who is as turned off by her as she is annoyed by him. As she sees it, he’s invading her house as part of the paper’s plan to make her life miserable and steal away all her privacy. For him, she’s a stuck-up brat, who has had everything served to her on a silver platter in the west drawing room. He thumbs his nose at the whole set-up. But a chance encounter at the library no less opens up a different side to these characters. Mike Connor is actually an accomplished poet far more skilled than his lousy journalistic pursuits would suggest. He learns just how perfectly imperfect she is.

philadelphiastory2It’s at a party the night before the big day that things get particularly interesting. A lot happens when you fill people up with a little bubbly, some wine, and some early morning gaiety. Tracy is absolutely swimming in exuberance partially thanks to alcohol, partially because of the dancing, and maybe in expectancy of tomorrow’s high. But when things come a little loose around the edges, things happen that you regret. As it turns out Tracy doesn’t remember quite what happened that night, but Dinah saw all the good parts from her balcony. It involved a drunken Mike taking a jaunt to Dexter’s home at a godforsaken hour followed by Ms. Imbrie with an inebriated Tracy in tow. What this sets up is a wonderful little sequence where a hiccuping Stewart helps Grant orchestrate a plot to get back at Spy magazine editor Sidney Kidd. Then, Connor gets to spend the wee hours of the morning rambling on and on. It’s innocent enough, but quite the evening no less. It makes Kittridge quite distraught finding his bride to be in the arms of a man who is singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” And of course, with such an unfortunate moment so close to the wedding it looks like things will be called off. But Kittridge is willing to make amends. It’s Tracy who realizes she has to break things off because ironically this man is too good for her.

philadelphiastory3It looks like Haven has won, but in a split second Connor is proposing marriage and ready to tie the knot with Tracy to save the wedding. Once again Tracy makes a sagacious decision (which is surprising given her earlier condition). Hangovers on your wedding day are not usually a good thing. In this moment everything falls back into place as it should and as we want it to. These are characters that we grow to care about, despite their misgivings and class differences.

When reading up on this film I was astounded to hear that the film supposedly had no outtakes. Everything we see was as it was when it was first shot and that has to be a testament to the strength of these actors and maybe a little luck. It’s true that the film sometimes enters territory that feels unscripted and loose. That’s when it really gets fun. Stewart and Hepburn. Grant throwing a quick retort here and there. Imagine, this could have been a vehicle for Hepburn paired with Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy. I’m sure that would have been great, but the whole dynamic would be very different.

So who is the winner in this film? Grant as C.K. Dexter Haven? Hepburn as “Red?” Stewart as the “Professor?” The Philadelphia Story is a real winner for the audience. What more could you want in terms of high-brow comedy bursting with legendary star power?

5/5 Stars