Capsule Reviews: 1930 Watchlist (Films #5-9)


In my first capsule review post for 1930, I covered Let Us Be Gay, Ladies of Leisure, Murder!, and Anybody’s Woman. That post can be found here.

liliom 5

Liliom (US, Borzage)
There are two kinds of spaces in Liliom. The first is inside the carnival. That mockup hallucinatory carnival made of miniatures, dazzling lights, and bustling sounds. It’s a magical space where anything can happen, but only if you keep up. The second is anything outside the carnival, most notably domestic spaces. The carnival is always visible from the outside but the outside is never visible from within. The interiors are spacious, barren, minimalist, surrounded by gaps of frustrated silence. There is a clear delineation between the two. All this to say that Frank Borzage and his collaborators at Fox go to great length to make theatricality modern, presenting a weird vision of fantastical artificiality that easily transitions into the equally weird metaphysical final act. (Let me also take this moment to say that I am a huge fan of early cinematic depictions of the afterlife. By far the most alluring period for this kind of story.)

At the end of Liliom, the Chief Magistrate (H.B. Warner) says this of what he has witnessed: “It’s touching. It’s mysterious”. Simply and succinctly, that’s also Liliom. Think Peter Ibbetson mixed with more overt expressionism. But this is a story about two people who should not be together, but can’t not be together. This is a film that ends with a speech about, to put it bluntly and without context, domestic abuse being okay if it comes from the person you love. But the tragedy of that, and it, are so genuinely and oddly moving. Because this decree of sorts is true for Julie. Liliom is told through a romantically fatalistic lens. Fatalism in the apparent wrongness of the couple. Julie’s (Rose Hobart) only other romantic option is a carpenter named Carpenter who speaks in monosyllabic monotone. He is seemingly alive for the sole purpose of asking Julie (for years and years mind you) if she is free and interested (“No, Carpenter”). This is also a film that resolves with this statement; “The memory of you makes them much happier than you ever could”. Talk about brutal. But Liliom is about the messy complexities of individual truths. The unchangable and unswayable.

Rose Hobart is perfect for the part of Julie, though the film swallows her whole by the second half (standout deathbed scene not withstanding). Her eyes have a sharp directness as she communicates her undying love for Liliom through that tunnel vision stare. Her unshakable need to stay by this whiny asshole is seen with a kind of nobility. At the very least it’s seen without judgment. As for Charles Farrell, well… From what I’ve read, audiences apparently adjusted fine to hearing his voice, but let me be the first to tell you it is rough. He sounds like one of the kids on Pinocchio’s Pleasure Island. Close your eyes and you’re back in the schoolyard with the head bully. His Liliom also walks like Popeye, though that bluster is a pronounced character trademark.

The technical achievement and formal ambition of Liliom are two of its defining characteristics. This was the first film to use rear projection, and its use of miniatures is woozily magical. Borzage uses space so well, in part by utilizing blocking and emphasizing body language. The camera has the mobility of a sophisticated silent. Take the feverish moment where Julie and Marie (Mildred Van Dorn) first enter the carnival. The camera actually deserts them, so eager it is to explore the place itself. (I’ve been, and will keep, mentioning camera mobility in these 1930 films. I don’t mean to suggest that camera movement equals higher quality filmmaking, but in 1930 it is a clear and easy sign of formal ambition as studios, technicians, and creative personalities attempt to establish a visual language for talking pictures)

Notes:
– So this is where “Carousel” comes from! I’d eventually like to see that and other adaptations of this Hungarian play (most notably the 1934 Fritz Lang version), not least because it will be sure to illuminate this one.

– Liliom is so quick to kill himself. It’s kind of absurd. Equally absurd? The notion that Liliom is the first person to be given a second chance. Really? This moron?

– The “Look out, look out the dumb police are on your trail” song is now something I sing to myself.

– Of course this movie was a financial (and somewhat critical) failure. How could it not be? How do you even market something like this? It doesn’t fit into any box.

king of jazz 6

King of Jazz (1930, Anderson)
King of Jazz was the first of the revue craze of 1929-mid 1930 to enter the planning stage, and the last of the major efforts to be released. It went hugely over-budget (which is abundantly clear while watching), and was released at the wrong time. By the time it finally hit theaters, audiences were thoroughly ‘revued’ out. I hardly have anything to compare it to, but it is said that King of Jazz stands out from others of its kind in every way. Paul Whiteman and his orchestra are the center from which a series of musical numbers and skits revolve. His nickname, the title of the film, seems ridiculous because it is, but also keep in mind that jazz in this time period has a much broader implication. Think of how ‘pop’ is applied today.

Universal threw everything, and I mean everything, into this project. And it’s kind of a must-see. Surely one of the weirdest movies to come out of the Golden Age of Hollywood, it’s also the most elaborate and audacious spectacle film I’ve seen from the early 30’s. It features the first Technicolor cartoon, a shrunken orchestra marching out of a box, a giant larger-than-life scrapbook, ghost brides, the world’s longest bridal veil, extravagant mobile sets, superimposed images and related special effects, and, in what must be the scariest image in 1930’s cinema, Paul Whiteman as a winking moon in the sky. And the whole thing’s in Two-Strip Technicolor to boot.

The conceptual center of the impressive “Melting Pot” finale is what you might guess; promoting diversity while completely whitewashing a convoluted ‘history of jazz’. The pointed absence of African Americans is unsurprisingly everywhere. The one time African culture makes any kind of appearance is the prologue bit to the “Rhapsody in Blue” number, at once breathtaking and troubling. Dressed in Zulu chief garb, dancer Jacques Cartier stands on an oversized drum for a stage. His projected silhouette is made giant on the wall behind him. He begins to dance with direct ferocity. The eroticism of it is hypnotic, but the sexual nature of the thing reeks of the blanket exoticism so often depicted through ‘Otherness’.

King of Jazz works because the Universal team and director John Murray Anderson (Paul Fejos also contributed at some point before leaving) understand that there are different kinds of spectacle. There’s the special effects spectacle, which comes in all forms throughout here. There is also the music-centric spectacle. An early scene features copious close-ups of — not even musicians playing their instruments but something even more up close and personal; instruments being played. Another scene takes a different approach by capturing the interplay between a band and its components. Without cutting, the camera keeps up with the music by quickly panning over to each soloist. Finally, there is the grand scale production spectacle, and boy does it deliver on that front.

Though his rotund self has a welcoming energy, Paul Whiteman seems quite the random figure to construct a film around. But it falls in line with the early sound period trend of bringing in band leaders as well as talent from vaudeville and theater in order to give them film vehicles. I loved this movie. Even when it’s boring, it’s not, if that makes sense (I realize it doesn’t. Maybe one day I can describe this sedate sensation). It moves along at such a clip, and its sheer audaciousness coupled with genuine spark makes this a “seen to be believed” kind of film. It’s also beautifully, and I mean beautifully, photographed (Ray Rennahan, one of the film’s three cinematographers, was an innovator in the development of three-strip Technicolor). King of Jazz also reminds me that I have a substantial hard-on for Two-Strip Technicolor.

Notes:
– Bing Crosby’s first screen appearance! He shows up as one of the Rhythm Boys. He was originally slated for a solo number but an arrest after drunkenly crashing his car prevented that from happening.

– There are really lame 30 second skits by Universal contract players sprinkled throughout (some of which feature explicitly sexual punchlines). Though I loved the one set at an all-ladies newspaper.

– “Rhapsody in Blue”: First of all, according to author Richard Barrios, Universal may have paid upwards of $50,000 for the use of this piece. Also, the number is an all-blue one, though I’m not sure how it got like this because Two-Strip can’t pick up blue.

– Universal was also on the cusp of another colossal, and much more successful, effort; All Quiet on the Western Front. It even gets a shout-out here!

bat 5

The Bat Whispers (US, West)
What an exceptional experience seeing a 1930 film in 65mm (The Big Trail, which I haven’t watched yet, also falls under this category). The Bat Whispers is a mystery, yes, but the air here is ripe with two other genres; horror and comedy. Something that struck me about this is the way it successfully balances some tricky tones. There is a slight threatening undercurrent coursing through the film. It mostly takes place in one location, but the house is cast in shadows, and there’s a nice depth of setting that hints at what’s hidden. A masked intruder named The Bat, an entity that famously served as one of Bob Kane’s inspirations for Batman, is known to be lurking around the house for most of the film. Disguising his voice, he omits a wholly unnerving shadowy scrawl. A late scene featuring Una Merkel stuck in a hidden room with the Bat quite honestly gave me the willies.

And then the comedy of the thing! As characters tiptoe around in the dark, carefully treading with their different agendas, The Bat Whispers also proves to be light on its feet. It has a gentle comedic air, often aiming for soft laughs (can’t win them all though; a perpetually frightened character named Lizzie grates very quickly). All the tropes you can imagine are here and then some, contained by surprising energy and foreboding.

The Bat Whispers stays put once we get to Cornelia’s estate. So it uses the largely silent first ten minutes for striking formal ambition, particularly in the creative ways it introduces key locations. It also features a very early twist ending! After the film ends, Chester Morris comes out and pleads that the audience not spoil the ending for others. And in such a tongue-and-cheek way too. An eccentric note on which to end an eccentric film.

Notes:
– I really enjoyed Chester Morris doing a weird mix of dapper and dastardly. I so prefer this Chester Morris over the Chester Morris of The Divorcee.

– Features the Laganja Estranga of movie detectives.

paid 4

Paid (US, Wood)
Paid is a touchstone in Joan Crawford’s career. This was a part for Queen of MGM Norma Shearer but Joan, the ultimate self-promoter, rallied hard for this once Norma discovered she was pregnant before filming began. She long ached to move beyond lighter fare of the Our Dancing Daughters variety and establish herself as a heavy dramatic actress. Starting with Paid, Crawford gradually moved away from her flapper persona and into more refined and challenging work. And it’s a good thing she started a career evolution when she did. Between changing times and the enforcement of the Production Code, the flapper persona would soon be outdated, and actresses primarily known for those kinds of roles would have nowhere to go.

Paid has a promising premise. It’s got a prison film crammed into its first ten minutes. It then sets itself up as 80 minutes of Joan Crawford slapping everyone in the face with the law and getting sweet sweet revenge on her former boss by wooing his son. And all that happens. But the second half insists itself into empty melodrama by focusing on the aftermath of a deadly crime, imploding its premise instead of exploring it.

Notes:
– Marie Prevost!!! I’ve noticed that both of the 1930 films I’ve seen featuring her contain scenes where her body jiggles for the camera. I wonder if War Nurse will also have something of the sort.

Paid has lots of zingers:
“Wise as a tree full of owls, that’s me”
“Oh Mary, don’t be so 1890”
“It’s that coin that makes them so sassy Cassidy”
My favorite is “Four years ago you took my name and replaced with with a number. Now I’ve taken that number and replaced it with your name”.

– There are moments in Paid where Joan looks eerily like Sigourney Weaver. I never noticed it before but the proto Sigourney vibes here are off-the-charts.

 

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