Little Man, What Now? (1934): Borzage Vs. The Depression

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Little Man, What Now? is a curious title although Carl Laemmle seemed to believe in the tale even giving it a public service announcement to make the point very clearly. This is a story for every man even as it seeks to document the daily problems of the contemporary society.

From the opening vignette, the movie preaches a message of peace, tolerance, and minding one’s own affairs like an upright citizen. If you’re like this jaded viewer, you grow wary of a picture with a self-serving agenda, especially one done poorly. Thankfully, Little Man is about a lot of ideas, including the things that get jumbled up inside a person’s head as they try to make their way through the world. Or rather, when they try and make their way through the world connected with someone else in marriage. This is Frank Borzage, after all, so a romance must be key.

One is reminded instantly we are in the throes of the Depression though this is Germany. It’s true much of the western industrialized world was plagued by stagnation and poverty. Herr Pinneberg (Douglass Montgomery) is a clerk and his tyrannical boss might very well be Ebenezer Scrooge though bald, bearded, and more oafish.

His family lives in the adjoining room with a cackling freckle-faced son and his dowdy daughter, who’s not had any luck landing a husband. Her belittling father has tried to up her prospects by hiring three bachelor’s to work for him. She dislikes them all except for Pinneberg. The feelings are not mutual, and he’s already wed. To keep his job, he conveniently keeps this detail a secret. It’s out of necessity. He’s madly in love with his wife.

Margaret Sullavan has a youthful vigor and prevailing spirit of a newlywed about her to be sure, but there’s also something deep and wise layered into her performance. She’s steady as her husband seems to crumble in the face of every change in the winds.

Next to her, Douglass Montgomery at times feels weak-willed and green, almost deserving of the world’s ill-fortunes because he gripes about them so much. And yet it’s difficult to be too harsh with him lest someone puts the mirror (with its three panes) up to my face as well.

We are continually reminded of the world’s many ailings from bigotry to unrest and poverty. Against this, Borzage literally captures them frolicking together in the lap of nature. While they do model a slightly different cross-section of Depression society from say Man’s Castle, they still exhibit the same rapturous affections for their beloved. Throughout the entire film, they remain the deliriously fixated center. What remains to be seen is how the characters and situations around them evolve.

The old man starts feeling positively chummy even as his daughter becomes petty even vindictive criticizing the “other woman” he was seen with. Speaking from experience, it doesn’t matter the age, there is a helplessness, nay, a uselessness that comes with being unemployed, especially when others are counting on you. Hans remains resolute when it matters most. Maintaining his pride and the love of a good wife mean more to him than money.

There’s another wonderfully staged scene between husband and wife as the merry-go-round sends our heroine round and round through the frame as she responds to her husband’s questions about where she’s been. She sheepishly admits she got so hungry she ate all the pieces of salmon from the market and now they have no dinner. Far from being angry, he laughs riotously. This is what love is.

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The movie is melodrama in the way that a life is full of smatterings of drama, cycling through the highs and lows, the devastations and elations, that come with the daily grind. The picture never feels like it’s aiming for a particular peak. Instead, it’s content enough to offer up vignettes because we have a couple to hold onto and root for, even as the scenery, the jobs, and the hardships change. They remain our steadfast point of reference.

Next, they make their way to Berlin, which we come to realize is only one decision out of a whole host they will have to make. They meet Hans’s step-mother at the station, a bubbly absent-minded woman always holding onto her inseparable dog.

However, she’s not so genial when you get to know her, and their desperate financial straits don’t help matters any. Thankfully, they have one friend, a most curious fellow named Jachmann. He’s a close associate with Mrs. Pinneberg. His real title, I couldn’t say.

Alan Hale was always the good-humor man but, in this case, he’s also a man with means. He just might be able to set them up with a home and a job, when he’s not kissing hands and laughing his head off, that is. Certainly, he’s some kind of shyster but a generous one with a heart of gold, especially when beautiful girls and their downtrodden husbands are concerned.

Another impeccable image comes when the couple is crammed in bed together as the mother’s party hits full stride just outside their doors. If we talk about the wage gap between our parent’s generation and us, this image of contrasting social statuses within a single family says as much about the Depression Era. However, it turns out she advertises in the papers because her home is actually a house of ill repute, and it carries with it a local reputation. They must move on.

Hans is a naive idealist and yet he rarely seems ready to make the sacrifices and the allowances his wife is; he’s not really willing to live within his means. Their new home has a Seventh Heaven rooftop, though he fails to see its quaint qualities; it’s close to a barn or better yet a stable.

If it was good enough for the baby at Christmastime, it’s good enough for them in their own humble estate. After all, being a Little Man is only in the eye of the beholder. In the eyes of his devoted wife, there couldn’t be a greater, grander, more important person to fill up her world.

As for the “What Now?” only time will tell. They rightfully state, “We created life so why should we be afraid of it?” What it does supply is this renewing sense of hope in the face of uncertainty. Again, it’s akin to the foremost Borzage pictures. It’s a testament to his convictions that he’s able to remain a romantic during the dog days of the Depression, and he keeps us believing in the power of love even within these dire straits.

3.5/5 Stars

Only Yesterday (1933): Margaret Sullavan Shines

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In the opening designs of Only Yesterday, the New York Stock Exchange is encapsulated by its usual hubbub only to hit the skids of pandemonium when the market crashes. We’re talking about the Big Crash of 1929. It plays as the backdrop to our story, very much functioning as current events.

The backstory makes the film fall even closer to home. Because like just about everyone else, Universal Studios was saddled with their own financial troubles so it seems fitting Only Yesterday was the project made to get them out of the doghouse and salvage their holdings.

If we are to believe this film, part of what Black Tuesday did was totally humble both the rich and the poor (and the movie studios) in their separate estates. Before the sheer magnitude of the devastation has spread, we get a front-row seat at the party hosted in the home of Mr. and Mrs. James Emerson.

What becomes immediately apparent is the buzz of the atmosphere with tumultuous music and a smattering of glib zingers. There’s a cascading frivolity on all sides to go with the idle chatter supplied by such gossipping fiends as Franklin Pangborn.

However, Mr. Emerson (John Boles) comes home positively shellshocked because he’s been cleaned out. He’s in no state to make merry opting to disappear into his study. It’s in the backrooms and corridors where the crushing reality sets in, to the point of private devastation.

From the outset, Boles comes off as a sympathetic figure and a calming presence even as he comes to terms with the weight of the Crash and its innumerable implications. It’s true the man of the house looks to be teetering on the brink of suicide, if not for a mysterious letter on his desk.

He opens it up and thereby begins the heart and soul of our story. It is partially his story and someone else’s as well; it began before anyone knew of a Depression, in 1917. If you remember, without leafing through your history books, “The War to End All Wars” was reaching its conclusion.

Back then James was a dashing soldier, unmarried, and still looking to finish up business overseas. It was on one such evening back in 17 where he met a buoyant young woman (Margaret Sullavan in her stellar debut) on a dance floor.

She is the picture of youth and her voice has yet to reach depths of only a few years later Regardless, precocious Mary Lane comes out of the woodwork to confess her love for him from afar after well nigh 2 years!

He takes it good-naturedly enough, altogether flattered anyone might look at him in this manner, and it leads to something — a dance and then whatever might come next. If the cynical would term it a one-night-stand, then it’s a little bit of paradise and Mary holds onto the evening.

In her mind, it’s the first of many, if not for the fateful news that the 309th is engaged to be shipped overseas. This is the event her whole life seems to hinge on up to this point; one evening was an entire lifetime. It just goes to show how the same event can take on differing degrees of resonance for two people.

It happens so quickly as to totally catch the audience off guard. James is off to fight a patriotic war and Mary is going up to New York as to not besmirch her family with her ignominy; she is with child.

Shopworn Angel would capture much the same jingoistic “Over There” milieu a few years down the road and yet that time around, not only would Margaret Sullavan be the veteran opposite a still callow Jimmy Stewart, the Production Codes would exert themselves more rigorously.

In terms of solely content, there’s little doubt Only Yesterday is armed with the uncompromising brazenness of the Pre-Code era. This includes a broad-minded perception of a woman’s place in an evolving society. It makes for a fascinating bit of observation, especially considering how Classical Hollywood would eventually settle into a status quo — a cult of domesticity tailored to the mid-20th century.

However, in Only Yesterday, we get Aunt Julia (Billie Burke), a progressive woman who has a life involving such independent-minded things as bob hairstyles and full-time employment. Aside from The Good Witch, Burke often played ditzy oddballs in numerous comedies where she wears on the viewer. Here there’s something resolute and distinctly likable about her because she does beat to a different drum.

The words leaving her lips are both an encouragement to her rejected niece even as they color how she sees the world in the 1930s. She has effectively worked to “kick the bottom out of the bucket called the old double standard” and she fervently believes “Today a woman can face life as honestly as a man can.”

Aunt Julia also helps to temper the situation swirling around Mary helping ease her mind. As a word of comfort, she says, “It’s no longer a tragedy, it isn’t even good melodrama, it’s just something that happened.” Meanwhile, Burke’s jovial suitor (Reginald Denny) seems like a playful generally affectionate chap. This portion is one of the film’s most carefree as a result.

Armistice eventually comes and with it parades of victory. We know what must happen now: a reunion. There don’t seem to be many close-ups throughout the film, but Sullavan gets a few of the most crucial ones when she’s reunited with her man only to realize he doesn’t remember her, having found someone else to love (Benita Hume). It’s a devastating bit of exposition and her face says it all.

If Gold Diggers fo 1933 details a forgotten man, she’s a forgotten woman, although she’s not about to wait around to be noticed — she has a son to look after. It shows the depth of her character.

Mary shares a bit of the sacrificial devotion of Stella Dallas or the tragic unrequited point of view a la Letter from an Unknown Woman, maintaining a thin line of communication with her former love through a string of telegrams.

What’s astounding is even in her youthfulness — at only 24 years of age — Sullavan’s more than able to carry the weight of the performance, not only a vivacious ingenue but a mother who’s forced to weather the weight of the world alone. Like Stanwyck a few years later, they prove themselves wise far beyond their years. What a way to enter Hollywood.

Finally, it happens and The New Year brings her face to face with the man she once knew. Boles feels more and more of a cad over time, whether he was meaning to be or not. He has a steady demeanor, a serenity in his favor, but after being so ignorant of one woman, he manages to rebuttal his wife as well, all in a very civilized manner, mind you.

Even as Billie Burke represents something else, there’s still a prevailing sense that women can be cast aside for the sake of a story. Sullavan, on her part, exudes a quiet regality even unto death. What Mary has, however, is a legacy in the life of her child, and in him, like with any life, there is still some hope for the future.

From a historical perspective, there’s a lot to be learned. Even back then a young lad would rather go to the pictures to see Chaplin than read a book, and all the women want to look like Greta Garbo — one of the most sought-after glamour girls of the 30s. Some things never change.

It’s rather sobering to read Margaret Sullavan’s son Jimmy Jr. was played in real life by Jimmy Butler, who was affected by WWII like many were affected by the previous war — killed in action in France at the age of 23. It grounds Only Yesterday in real tragedy.

3.5/5 Stars

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

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

Three on a Match (1932): The Epitome of Hollywood Pre-Code

ThreeOnAMatch.jpgThe Pre-Code era of Hollywood is a legitimate marvel because in a span of only a few solitary years was a period of filmmaking bursting at the seams with vice, corruption, and licentiousness that we would never see again until the late 1960s.

One could say that each of these elements was merely an exploitive measure to get folks in the sits. No question about it. However, that’s not to say the era is devoid of meaning nor is Three on a Match any less evocative. In retrospect, we look at something like this and it’s not simply a cultural artifact for us to engage with, one could assert just as vehemently that it was more indicative of the human condition than many later films coming out of the Hollywood mills. Scan the contemporary news columns and you might have to agree. In fact, that’s much of what director Mervyn LeRoy does.

He rapidly spans time with a proliferation of news clippings. They are not simply a montage effect but a continual storytelling device that are almost sinews to this story which must function with hyperawareness of its timescale. Ricocheting with time jumps that you almost get used to by the end and each one is out of pure necessity. Remember with 63 minutes you have to scrimp with every minute. From a historical perspective alone, it’s an absolute goldmine with cinematic images to fit right alongside the current events.

The title Three on a Match seems a foreign concept now but it comes from the old wive’s tale that if three people light a cigarette from the same match the odds are one of them will die. It is often incorrectly cited as originating in the trenches during WWI. Instead, it was the advertising gimmick of a Swedish matchbox salesman to drum up more business.

The story itself ambitiously begins in adolescence with three girls. Mary Keaton (Joan Blondell) is the wayward one who looks to be headed toward a reformatory and sure enough, she grows up and winds up in such a life. Vivian Revere (Ann Dvorak) is the purported “good girl” who ends up with a fine education and marrying a wealthy lawyer (Warren Williams) but she finds her life and her marriage dull and unfulfilling. Meanwhile, little Ruth Westcott (Bette Davis) has grown up into a pretty stenographer who nevertheless is relegated to playing the third fiddle. No matter, Davis would get her revenge in an illustrious career to come.

The root of the drama crops up from Vivian’s dissatisfaction with life because being the understanding husband that he is, Mr. Kirkwood proposes she take a trip away with their little son so she can clear her mind and come back refreshed. She jumps at the opportunity.

Adultery is such an insidious thing since you never consciously think you are going to be unfaithful; I imagine it just ambushes you as it does for Vivian. She meets a man (Lyle Talbot) who is charming and the bubbly is flowing. She has few cares in the world and conveniently has neglected her son. Whom does she have to thank for this good time? Why, it’s Mary. Except Mary has changed; she’s a different person, chiding her old classmate to think before she throws her life away. The tides have changed with the reprobate teaching the classy one something about life.

To divulge any more would ruin the surprise but there’s little doubt, it’s sordid stuff with some mild sense of morality. We have drugs, adultery, scandal, and suicide all rolled up into one tightly woven package. Dvorak is devastating in her self-destructive spiral as Blondell commands the film’s stalwart center.

The most unexpected star is little Junior who is a precocious performer, lovable in every scene he shares with his bevy of costars but also a striking reminder of how innocent children are. To neglect them is to disregard the imperative of parenthood to provide for your progeny with an unselfish, unswerving, sacrificial love.

The rest of the gang are all assigned their assorted parts that became their mainstays. Humphrey Bogart becomes the quintessential heavy in a matter of moments. Ed Arnold is the exacting kingpin overseeing everything. Allen Jenkins is another tough customer with little heart or soul.

It might do well as a companion piece to Night Nurse, which also involves little children being exploited. Joan Blondell gives a spunky turn in both even as the plots verge on the utterly ludicrous and are remembered now as much for their louche content than the actual details of their plots. Part of that has to do with how unusual it seems, especially with the laissez-faire attitude of the production codes at the time.

But also in this specific case, the Lindberg kidnapping indubitably was still fresh in the minds of the viewing public, lending some credence to the believability of such a tale. That’s the key. However absurdly a plotline might slingshot this way or that, as long as something grounds it, even momentarily, in reality, it can captivate us. Three on a Match is not a phenomenal film outright but within its means, it manages to be economically diverting.

3/5 Stars

 

 

Little Caesar (1931)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3.5/5 Stars

Footlight Parade (1933)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4/5 Stars

42nd Street (1933)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4/5 Stars