Capsule Reviews: 1930 Watchlist (Films #9-12)


In my first capsule review post for 1930, I covered Let Us Be Gay, Ladies of Leisure, Murder!, and Anybody’s Woman.
In my second capsule review post for 1930, I covered Liliom, King of Jazz, The Bat Whispers, and Paid.

follow thru

Follow Thru (US, Schwab) 
I just finished reading Richard Barrios’s A Song in the Dark: The Birth of the Musical Film, and am steadily working through the musical subseries of my 1930 watchlist. The majority of the book details the initial explosive–>burnout wave of the movie musical, from 1928-1930. The ubiquitous popularity of musicals in 1928-1929 quickly gave way to oversaturation. By 1930, audiences and critics were outright disdainful of any musicals coming their way, their success and subsequent failure so instantaneous it left all studios in the lurch. Countless productions, both meager and grand, were destined to collect dust, be reworked, or suffer forgettable fates. There are a myriad of reasons for the early sound musical-as-poison revolt, both obvious and delicate. The clash of the national mood, severe oversaturation, lack of rural appeal, block-booking fatigue, copycat tactics of backstage tropes (the same movie was being made ad infinitum), quantity over quality, etc.

This drop-off also left swaths of performers (not to mention songwriters), whose careers were being built and cultivated within the once surefire cushion of the musical, hopelessly adrift (I’ll list some of those folks in my What I’ll Remember post). Often hailing from vaudeville and theater, their Hollywood fame came and fell in the spurt of a year or so. Baritone Lawrence Tibbett is a major example from 1930. Marilyn Miller is another. Follow Thru’s stars, Charles ‘Buddy’ Rogers and Nancy Carroll, don’t quite fall into that category. These were major stars of their time (Carroll was arguably the most-loved star of the early 1930’s); stars who weren’t defined by appearing in musicals (Rogers’s most famous role was in 1927’s Wings), but both were invariably hurt by the sudden expiration date of film musical’s first wave.

All of this preamble is to say that Paramount released Follow Thru, like so many others, at the wrong time (in September 1930). It fared better than some others of its kind; reviews were fine, box office was fine; fine, fine, fine. It certainly had the well-established pull of its stars going for it. There was no revival of interest over the decades, and it was long believed to be a lost film. But a print was found in the 1990’s and restored by UCLA.

I’m going to try to explain the particulars of my immense like for Follow Thru. There’s that overused phrase ‘pure cinema’, and Follow Thru made me think of an entirely different and less dramatically applied use of the term. Follow Thru presents a bygone gateway into the early musicals potentiality for simple delights. There’s no sobriety here, but there’s also no extravagance. In Two-strip Technicolor, this is bright, effervescent, aggressively young stuff. Tons of films epitomize Hollywood’s specialization in escapism, but there’s something a little different about Follow Thru. It hits a hard-to-describe sweet spot. It’s the particular success of its commonplace nature. Here is a musical about girl golfers, a film of modest scale with gentle charms, filled with lots of striped sweaters and dimples. Its core strength is that it operates under the guise of crushing sweetness, while underneath its got all the naughtiness of a sex comedy.

Charles ‘Buddy’ Rogers has All-American boyishness to spare. Nancy Carroll has a Kewpie doll face, all rosy cheeks and headbands. These aren’t great actors, but they are exactly what this film needs, and it’s easy to see why they were so major in their time.

Zelma O’Neal and Jack Haley are the sidekicks, reprising their roles from the Broadway show. O’Neal belongs to the aforementioned group of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Hollywood stints. She had a very successful Broadway career before and after her time in Hollywood. She’s such fun. Zippy with a no-bullshit hunch. And she gets the only major production number of the film, “I Want to Be Bad”. Jack Haley on the other hand, is death itself. When’s the last time I’ve hated someone onscreen this much? His defining character trait is that his eyebrows go nuts when he’s around girls. So basically, he gets a boner on his face. It’s Woody Woodpecker’s laugh as a facial tick. And it’s horrifying. He is horrifying.

The out-of-place nature of the wonderful “I Want to Be Bad” number aside, the songs are integrated quite smoothly throughout. They don’t advance plot or character, but most musicals didn’t at this time, and they’re more directly woven into the story than you’re likely to see in 1930. It’s all kept very simple, starting with a two shot and widening out at the end for some broad movements or dance step.

It’s the Little Things:
That naughtiness! Characters talk of going “where the bushes are thickest”. Carroll says to Rogers “Talk rough to me Jerry. I love it”. There is a whole sequence with Jack Haley and Eugene Pallette sneaking into the girls locker room to steal back a ring. They come up with hand signals. They pretend to be plumbers. The girls are all in various stages of undress. It reaches a perfect note of anarchy so inspired I had to pause so I could work through my laughter.
– So, Thelma Todd’s rival character who happens to be a widow. How did her husband die? I want her backstory!
– This is the second film from 1930 that has featured a Vibrating Belt Machine. The first was Ladies of Leisure.

fast and loose
Fast and Loose
(US, Newmeyer)

Fast and Loose is an early practice run for what would soon become the screwball comedy (thank you Miriam Bale for bringing this film to my attention!) (also note that Preston Sturges is given credit for dialogue). Its got spoiled characters, flirtatious spats and clashing courtship, a ruse, and class consciousness. In fact, it’s got a class-as-obstacle reversal. By the end it’s the working class romantic partners (Charles Starrett and Carole Lombard respectively) of the wealthy Lenox siblings Marion and Bertie (Miriam Hopkins and Henry Wadsworth) that can’t imagine lowering themselves to a lifetime with their spoiled mates. They are the ones with the objection, and furthermore, Rich Father Lenox (Frank Morgan) completely agrees that his children don’t deserve spouses this decent! This situation only comes up in the final ten minutes, but it’s a fun spin on the normal ‘my family doesn’t approve’ conflict (a la Ladies of Leisure).

Though we get the luxury of seeing Marion’s love interest in a bathing suit on multiple occasions (so much thigh), 75% of Henry Morgan’s (Starrett) dialogue is about how women are the absolute worst. Marion says she hates him, many times, many ways, but of course she’s falling hard for his misogynistic charms. Miriam Hopkins, and the film’s moderate pizzazz, makes this courtship undeniably fun. Fast and Loose is, among other things, the feature film debut of Miriam Hopkins. She already has an impressive handle on her particular screen persona. The best I can do to describe it is a clipped flightiness combined with a spoiled and fiery capricious nature. She sells her reluctant but overboard infatuation with Henry with a handful of amazing line deliveries. “I’m sorry”. Two simple words, but the distinct hilarity she wrings out of them represents the epitome of Vintage Hopkins.

Carole Lombard shows up in an early role but she’s suffocated by the propriety of the part. The first half, in which Marion and Henry flirt over stuck cars and nighttime swims, is considerably more enjoyable than the second half. All major players eventually merge at a nightclub under a potentially anarchic set of circumstances, but Fast and Loose doesn’t have the panache, or really the ambition, to make much of it.

It’s the Little Things:
– Paramount made Fast and Loose. Paramount also made Follow Thru. YOu can hear the latter film’s “We’d Make a Peach of a Pear” in the background of one scene.

Screen Shot 2015-08-06 at 11.31.30 PM

Romance (US, Brown) 
My least favorite of the 1930 films I’ve written about so far. In it, a bishop (Gavin Gordon) looks back on an early experience with love that goes nowhere. It isn’t tragic (though it’s treated as such), and it doesn’t even have the weight of feeling individually formative for the character. Gavin Gordon is downright laughable as a romantic co-lead for a woman as inscrutable as Garbo. Romance is the doldrums, folks. It’s a quintessential example of an early sound film that is all posturing, all talk. Oh, the talk. Its melodrama plays out through proclamations made with creaky archaic dialogue. Greta Garbo (who, with nothing to work with, is actually quite wooden here) spends all her time philosophizing about love. If you’re wondering what watching this movie feels like, take this piece of exchange and stretch it over ninety minutes:
“Well, do you see my flowers here?”
“You’re crushing them”
“Oh, what does it matter? They were born to die”

big trail

The Big Trail (US, Walsh)
This is going to sound really hyperbolic and dramatic, but I’ve honestly never seen a film that looks quite like this. There’s a reason for this; it was the first major on-location outdoor sound film (the first sound film shot outside a studio was Walsh’s previous In Old Arizona) and was shot on a short-lived 70mm format developed by the Fox Film Corporation called Grandeur (aka Fox Grandeur). Films would have to wait over two decades for the promise of widescreen to come to fruition. The world wasn’t yet ready for Fox Grandeur. Theaters had just been converted for sound, and yet another conversion investment was nowhere near feasible nor desirable. So you see, the reason I’ve never seen anything quite like this is because, from this era of filmmaking, there is nothing else quite like this.

Nothing that survives anyways. The Big Trail stands alone. The Grandeur prints of Song O’ My Heart and Happy Days are lost. Other competing widescreen formats like MAGNAFILM and VITASCOPE existed for the same blink-and-you’ll-miss-it period of 1929-1930, but, again, almost all widescreen prints for these few films are gone (The Bat Whispers is the rare example of a 1929-1930 widescreen film that survives in both its 35mm and 65mm versions). Not only is The Big Trail an outlier in its format and survival, but it’s easily the most ambitious widescreen project of the time. The production was a costly behemoth; shot all over the American west (primarily Montana, California, Wyoming, Arizona, and Utah), with countless extras and animals, and for an inordinate length of time.

The overwhelming scale is constantly present. For one thing, the extras are everywhere at all times. Extras in the foreground. Extras in the background. In support of the film’s core, they are everywhere, in every scene. The Big Trail may be populated by stories of revenge, romance, and comedy, but none of them matter. They’re just the needle. But the thread, the thing that does matter, is the collective journey. The building of community doesn’t start when the settlers reach their destination; it starts en route. The omnipresence of the extras never lets you forget that. everyone you see walking in and out of the frame, everyone onscreen, character or not, has put everything on the line with this endeavor. They are traversing the Oregon Trail’s all-too-real hardships, and they are doing it together.

The photography by Arthur Edeson is decades ahead of its time. I sat and watched in a constant state of awe. The scope of the image is all-encompassing. You get a rare sense of the West’s staggering vastness. Most impressive is the painterly quality of the thoughtful framing, groundbreaking early use of deep focus, and the complex compositions which so often incorporate multiple planes of staging and movement.  The Big Trail looks far into the future with its frontier tale of the past.

On a final note, I remember Karina Longworth mentioning how drop-dead gorgeous John Wayne is in The Big Trail during an episode of her “You Must Remember This” podcast. I even googled it after listening and thought “damn“. But actually watching him in this? It was his first starring role, and he isn’t exactly good, but that wooden charm makes him rather endearing. And good or not, you cannot take your eyes off of him. Give it a try. You’ll fail.

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