What I’ll Remember About the Films of 1930: A Love Letter


My What I’ll Remember posts are an ongoing tradition in the Top Ten By Year Project. A logbook of sorts, they pay tribute to all the year-specific viewing I’ve done over the past however many months. It also stresses that, while the Top Ten list is the crux of this whole project, it’s really a means to an end. It goes without saying, but the process and journey of watching and re-watching these films is most important. I’ve recently looked back on previous What I’ll Remember posts and they evoke the feeling of a photo album, flipping through filmic memories of all shapes and sizes. Top Ten By Year: 1930 will be up by the end of the month.

Posts in the What I’ll Remember tag: 1925, 1943, 1958, 1965, 1978, 1992, 2012, 2013, 2014

Top Ten By Year: 1930 Coverage
Top Ten By Year: 1930 – Poll Results 
Movie Poster Highlights: 1930 
100 Images from the Films of 1930 
Favorite Fashion in 1930 Film

1930 aka The Year Garbo Spoke and The Year Lon Chaney Died

The oh-so-brief but oh-so-magical forerunners of the widescreen format, the too ambitious for its time 70mm Fox Grandeur film (The Big Trail, Song o’ My Heartand MAGNAFILM (The Bat Whispers)

As much as anything else, for me 1930 is The Year of Lillian Roth. She is one of my favorite screen presences and esoteric pop culture figures of all time, a gifted comedienne with a crinkly nose and a practiced yet untouched vivacity. Her initial film career only lasted from 1929-1930, and 1933. She only appeared in 13 feature length films across her lifetime. Five of those were in 1930 when she was 20 years old.  They were The Vagabond King, Honey, Paramount on Parade, Madam Satan, Animal Crackers, and Sea Legs.

The bedroom farce that is Madam Satan, the disaster film that is Madam Satan, the awkward musical that is Madam Satan, the outrageous and doomed masquerade party on a zeppelin that is Madam Satan, the rekindled love story that is Madam Satan. In short; Madam Satan

LetUsBeGay11May I Present The Dull As Fuck Leading Man Brigade of 1930: 
Rod la Rocque (Let Us Be Gay), Douglass Montgomery (Paid), Chester Morris (The Divorcee), Clive Brook (Anybody’s Woman), Charles Starrett (Fast and Loose), Gavin Gordon (Romance), Jack Buchanan (Monte Carlo), Ralph Graves (Ladies of Leisure), John Garrick (Just Imagine), Ben Lyon (Hell’s Angels)

Spotting Ann Dvorak, another all-time favorite of mine, as a chorus girl in Free and Easy

Introducing!
(actors in their feature film debut in something more substantial than extra/bit part):
Spencer Tracy (Up the River), James Cagney (Sinners Holiday, The Doorway to Hell), Miriam Hopkins (Fast and Loose), Jean Harlow (Hell’s Angels), Laurence Olivier (The Temporary Widow), Irene Dunne (Leathernecking), Bing Crosby (King of Jazz), Herbert Marshall (Murder!), Una O’Connor (Murder!), Rose Hobart (Liliom), Una Merkel (The Bat Whispers, Abraham Lincoln, etc.)

the big trail 7The American West in The Big Trail 

MGM starlets playing characters named Jerry/Gerry – can we please bring back this trend? (Norma Shearer in The Divorcee, Joan Crawford in Our Blushing Brides)

The sing-song jury meeting scene in Murder!

Failed Bids for Sustained or Successful Hollywood Fame
(mostly musical-based careers, not exhaustive):
Marilyn Miller, Lawrence Tibbett, Vivienne Segal, John McCormack, Fanny Brice, Dennis King, Winnie Lightner, Paul Gregory, Zelma O’Neal, Helen Kane, Betty Boyd, Bernice Clare, Sharon Lynn, Jeanette Loff, Alice White, James Hall, The Sisters G, Ona Munson (later character actress), Claudia Dell, Charlotte Greenwood, Norma Terris, Ethelind Terry

The sequence in Follow Thru when Jack Haley and Eugene Pallette sneak into the girls locker room to steal a ring. They come up with hand signals. They pretend to be plumbers. The girls are in various stages of undress. It all builds to a moment of perfect anarchy

The Rise Of:
Marlene Dietrich, Robert Montgomery, Marie Dressler, Wallace Beery, William Powell, Barbara Stanwyck, John Wayne, Kay Francis, Helen Twelvetrees, Ann Harding, Jean Harlow

Two-Strip Technicolor! (Follow Thru, King of Jazz, portion of Hell’s Angels)

The sheer existence of King of Jazz, the most elaborate and audaciously overproduced spectacle film I’ve ever seen from the Golden Age of Hollywood

HellsAngels11

hell's angels
The privilege of seeing Jean Harlow in color and with natural eyebrows (Hell’s Angels). Also realizing that tomboy Jean Harlow is the most attractive Jean Harlow

The last year before the modern movie genre begins to get in formation, allowing for a final round of bizarre and unrepeatable genre hybrids (Madam Satan, Liliom, The Bat Whispers, King of Jazz, Just Imagine)

Knowingly playing with artificiality (Murder!, Liliom, The Blue Angel)

The unintentional meta symbolism of Louise Brooks’s onscreen death in Prix de Beauté

the big trail 3The eye candy that is John Wayne in The Big Trail 

Movies Interacting with Other Movies:
Joan Crawford in MGM’s Paid going to see MGM’s Let Us Be Gay in the theater, Fast and Loose playing Follow Thru’s “Peach of a Pear” in the background during a scene, King of Jazz giving a shout-out to Universal’s upcoming All Quiet on the Western Front

♫♫”Look out, look out the dumb police are on your trail”♫♫ (Liliom)

♫♫ We’re going somewhere
We’re going nowhere
We’re going everyyyyywhere ♫♫
(Madam Satan)

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Meta Moments:
(Murder!, Die drei von der Tankstelle, The Bat Whispers, Free and Easy)

Alfred Hitchcock using Murder! as a platform to blatantly experiment with sound from all conceivable angles

Jean Grémillon using La petite Lise as a platform to inconspicuously experiment with integrating sound as tapestry

Loaded glaring and ample cowardice in The Big House 

Howard Hawks using sound in The Dawn Patrol as a platform for more natural dialogue and an immersion into the communal and isolated male experience of wartime

Realizing I’d much rather see an all-male story over a film that clearly wants to be an all-male story but throws a woman in the mix that it has zero time or respect for
(The Dawn Patrol and All Quiet on the Western Front vs. Hell’s Angels and The Big House

scary
Scary Images of 1930 Cinema:
Chester Morris’s shadowy confrontational glare (The Bat Whispers), Paul Whiteman as a winking moon (King of Jazz), Jack Haley’s spastic eyebrows (Follow Thru), the creepy man-baby (King of Jazz), Emil Jannings: The Humiliated Clown (The Blue Angel), Buster Keaton: The Humiliated Clown (Free and Easy)

Electric fans as plot point! (Anybody’s Woman)

My first wholly depressing experience with Buster Keaton’s trademark bassoon baboon talkie moron in Free and Easy. The humiliations endured by Keaton here are a special level of cruel, not to mention that he’s forced to act in an MGM film within an MGM film

Learning to appreciate Chester Morris when his characters operate outside the confines of the typical romantic lead (The Bat Whispers, The Big House as opposed to The Divorcee)

People on Sunday 2
The four central day-trippers in People on Sunday are great and all but I’m all about Annie (Annie Schreyer), the beautiful lazy loafer who sleeps all weekend

The Dawn Patrol > All Quiet on the Western Front > Hell’s Angels 

Finding eroticism and profundity in rain and simple gestures (Ladies of Leisure)

American sound films that feel refreshingly free from the pressures of plot
(Laughter, The Dawn Patrol, King of Jazz, Animal Crackers)

Ahh Golden Dawn, a movie with bottomless racism and a song (“A Tiger”) that features a woman singing about explicitly wanting a man to straight-up beat her

Getting to watch one of my favorite men, Robert Montgomery, in his early career mode of sexy cad (Our Blushing Brides, The Divorcee, Free and Easy)

That damn car horn in Die drei von der Tankstelle 

One of my favorite niche genres in film: Department Store Gals (Our Blushing Brides, Au bonheur des dames)

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That kiss in Morocco

The unforgettable schizophrenic feeling of Borderline 

Uncle hits a breaking point in one of the most unsettling and feverish sequences in silent cinema (Au bonheur des dames)

The Fall Of:
(once major stars declining in popularity or quality of work, either momentarily or permanently)
Clara Bow, John Gilbert, Al Jolson, Corrine Griffith, Norma Talmadge, Charles Farrell, Mary Pickford, Dolores Costello, Buster Keaton, Douglas Fairbanks

the dawn patrol 8Douglas Fairbanks Jr’s adorably playful drunken interaction with the German officer who shot him down in The Dawn Patrol 

The way Kent (Robert Montgomery) is used to subvert audience expectations in The Big House

The radical modernity and spontaneity of Barbara Stanwyck’s performance in Ladies of Leisure

herbertmarshall
Herbert Marshall looking like a straight-laced Jack Lemmon in Murder!

Everywhere, Everywhere, Miniatures Everywhere:
(including but not limited to Ladies of Leisure, Liliom, Madam Satan, Murder!, The Bat Whispers, Under the Roofs of Paris, Outward Bound)

Haunting child deaths (L’age d’Or, The Doorway to Hell, Blood of a Poet)

Doorway to Hell 6My favorite moment in The Doorway to Hell: Doris (Dorothy Mathews) is talking on the phone to Mileaway (James Cagney) about how lame Louie (Lew Ayres) has become now that he’s removed himself from gangster life. Then Louie comes in wearing the above outfit and says “I’m a fine golfer”

The rigorous tailoring of Marlene Dietrich’s image is born in the short time between filming The Blue Angel and Morocco (though American audiences saw Morocco first)

Marjorie Rambeau playing a kindly pitiful drunk (Her Man) and a wretched pitiful drunk (Min and Bill)

Hells_Angels107
Watching the incredible aerial footage of Hell’s Angels knowing that several pilots died because of Howard Hughes’s unstoppable ambition

The tiresome trend of introducing unrelated low comedy subplots to lighten things up (Min and Bill, The Big Trail, Her Man, Golden Dawn)

The formal rule-breaking of the prison sequence in La Petite Lise

Running through the wheat fields in City Girl

Tale of the Fox (2)
The staggering stop-motion animation of Le Roman de Renard (The Tale of the Fox). Figures, flow, range of expression. Like watching Fantastic Mr. Fox eighty years before the fact

The Claire Denis-esque way that Tilly Losch’s dance and body movements are shot in the short Dance of the Hands 

Great Character Names:
Tripod McMasters (Wallace Beery; Way for a Sailor) Mrs. Bouccy Bouccicault (Marie Dressler; Let Us Be Gay), Amy Jolly (Marlene Dietrich; Morocco), Mileaway (James Cagney; The Doorway to Hell) Pansy Gray (Ruth Chatterton; Anybody’s Woman), Arabella Rittenhouse (Lillian Roth; Animal Crackers), Dulcinea Parker (Marion Davies; Not So Dumb) Countess Olga Balakireff (Kay Francis; A Notorious Affair), Lem Tustine (Charles Farrell; City Girl)

Being hypnotized by the close-up movement of gears in the avant-garde short Mechanical Principles 

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Esme Percy’s ‘half-caste’ homosexual drag performer killer in Murder!

The messy but unshakable loyal friendship between Morgan and Butch (Chester Morris and Wallace Beery) in The Big House

Wanting to live in the proto-French New Wave romantic bloom of People on Sunday and its immaculate footage of 1930 Berlin

three good friends 3

The angle of this shot, which takes place during a song, should give you a sense of how sophisticated and ahead of its time Die drei von der Tankstelle is within the context of ‘1930 musical’

Mops/Mopsi; Lilian Harvey’s nickname for her father in Die drei von der Tankstelle

Jean Cocteau’s trademark surrealist special effects, showing us a portal to another world and a statue that clings to its maker in Blood of a Poet 

Being reminded that The Blue Angel disturbs me more than most films

norma9Norma Shearer going full dowdy (Let Us Be Gay)

The bleak ending of Street of Chance, with an unseen level of implied violence that makes way for the much more famous ending of 1931’s The Public Enemy 

Films with a leftover from silents; intertitles
(including Anybody’s Woman, The Big Trail, Liliom, Follow Thru, A Notorious Affair, Not So Dumb)

A Notorious Affair 2Kay Francis giving interior life to her intoxicating Countess vamp in one of the worst films I’ve ever seen (A Notorious Affair). Her work, and the above image, deserve so much better

Sound films that don’t capitalize on dialogue, instead using sound as an extension of silent film (Prix de beaute, L’age d’Or, La petite Lise, The Blue Angel, Blood of a Poet. Basically; the non-American films)

The confirmation that I don’t much care for the two most canonized films of 1930, L’age d’Or and The Blue Angel

nutshellThe Nutshell Pictures Corporation logo, which features an animated dog pissing into a plant (Dance of Her Hands)

Busby Berkeley choreography appears on film for the first time ever in Whoopee!

Discovering the sassy greatness that is Marie Prevost. Once a leading lady, by 1930 (because of weight gain and alcohol abuse) she was relegated to the goofy “best friend” roles which she used to steal every film she appeared in (Paid, Ladies of Leisure, War Nurse

Only in an MGM film would a character have an art deco loft hidden in a tree (Our Blushing Brides)

Josef von Sternberg’s trademark absolute submission to love and desire in The Blue Angel and Morocco. The former filled with despair, the latter with triumph and a dash of hope.

Speaking of, the incredible final scene and shot of Morocco. The radical act of linking up with a group of women following their men into the desert and the unknown

Rooting with all my heart for Lem and Kate (Charles Farrell and Mary Duncan) in City Girl 

Doorway to Hell 51930’s James Cagney is as sexy as sexy gets in case you needed to be reminded (The Doorway to Hell)

Frances Marion dominating the early world of talkie screenwriting with credits for Min and Bill, Anna Christie (adapted by), The Rogue Song, Let Us Be Gay (continuity and dialogue), Good News (scenario), and for being the first woman to win a non-acting Oscar for her work on The Big House.

The use of interior space in Laughter

monte carlo 10Jeanette MacDonald going bonkers and rustling up her precious hair in Monte Carlo

Favorite Characters: Kate (Mary Duncan; City Girl), Douglas Scott (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.; The Dawn Patrol), Lola Lola (Marlene Dietrich; The Blue Angel), Annie (Annie Schreyer; People on Sunday), Paul Lockridge (Fredric March; Laughter), Countess Olga Balakireff (Kay Francis; A Notorious Affair), Trixie (Lillian Roth; Madam Satan), Jimmy Wade (Roland Young; Madam Satan), Dot Lamar (Marie Prevost; Ladies of Leisure)

Least Favorite Characters: Jack Martin (Jack Haley; Follow Thru), Professor Emmanuel Rath (Emil Jannings; The Blue Angel), Andre (Georges Charlia; Prix de beaute), Mr. Tustine (David Torrence; City Girl), Paul Gherardi (Basil Rathbone; A Notorious Affair), everyone in Golden Dawn, Count Rudolph Falliere (Jack Buchanan; Monte Carlo)

Laughter 11Fredric March suddenly kissing Nancy Carroll behind the neck while driving in Laughter, one of the sexiest gestures ever committed to film

The sketchy but catchy “Trimmin’ the Women” song in Monte Carlo 

Proto-screwball comedies (Not So Dumb, Fast and Loose)

The mock-up symbolic hallucinatory carnival in Liliom

The most unintentionally hilarious bit from any 1930 film (Golden Dawn)

The forgotten and incomprehensible mega-fame of El Brendel (Just Imagine, The Big Trail, Her Golden Calf, New Movietone Follies of 1930).

Orgasm from hair treatment in Monte Carlo  

Based on a Play (Paid, Romance, Fast and Loose, The Bat Whispers, Liliom, Ladies of Leisure, Follow Thru, Murder!, A Notorious Affair, Animal Crackers, Her Man (well, kind of), Not So Dumb, Let Us Be Gay, Outward Bound)

paid 4The revelation that Joan Crawford is, at least in Paid, a dead ringer for Sigourney Weaver

The onscreen persona of Wallace Beery amounts to a real-life Baloo the Bear (The Big House, Way for a Sailor, Min and Bill). He manages the impossible by remaining lovable even when talking about his murder rap or domestic abuse. A rare gift that.

 The distinct hilarity Miriam Hopkins wrings out of “I’m sorry” is the epitome of what makes her so great (Fast and Loose)

♫♫ She wanted to take it further
So she arranged a place to go
To see if he
Would fall for her incognito  ♫♫
(Madam Satan & “Babooshka” by Kate Bush)

The wholesome sex comedy is born with Follow Thru 

Marie Dressler beating the piss out of Wallace Beery and tearing apart his room in Min and Bill 

Laughter 16Fredric March casually drinking coffee in a polar bearskin rug in Laughter 

The wordless sequence in which Jerry (Norma Shearer) allows herself to be illicitly seduced by playboy Don (Robert Montgomery) in The Divorcee

The names of the party guests in Madam Satan (Miss Conning Tower! Mr. and Mrs. Hot & Tot! Mr. & Mrs. High Hat! Miss Victory! Miss Movie Fan! Fish Girl!)

The “I Want to Be Bad” number in Follow Thru

QUOTES:

“I’ve balanced our accounts”
(Norma Shearer in The Divorcee, talking to her husband about her promiscuity)

“I know now how a man feels about these things”
(Norma Shearer in Let Us Be Gay, talking to her husband about her promiscuity)

“It’s that coin that makes them so sassy Cassidy”
(Paid)

“I’m an orchid and he wants to change me into a lily” (Barbara Stanwyck in Ladies of Leisure)

“I never knew you had pale blue eyes. I hate pale blue eyes. Funny, I never noticed it before” (Kay Francis in A Notorious Affair)

Ted: “Who’s the man?”
Jerry: “Oh, Ted, don’t be conventional!”
(Chester Morris and Norma Shearer in The Divorcee)

“The memory of you makes them much happier than you ever could”
(The Magistrate in Liliom)

“What are you doing with those fingers?”
“Nothing. Yet.”
(Marlene Dietrich and Gary Cooper in Morocco)

“Wise as a tree full of owls, that’s me”
(Paid)

“Oh, and a cup of coffee”
“Large or small?”
“Do I look like a small cup of coffee?”
(Marie Prevost and a waiter in Ladies of Leisure)

“Well, do you see my flowers here?”
“You’re crushing them”
“Oh, what does it matter? They were born to die”
(yes, this is actual dialogue in Romance)

“Oh baby. Don’t think I’m such a heel just because I am!” (John Gilbert in Way for a Sailor)

Groucho: “Go away. Go away. I’ll be all right in a minute. Left-handed moths ate the painting, eh?”
Chico: “Yeah, it’s a-my own solution.”
Groucho: “I wish you were in it. Left-handed moths ate the painting. You know, I’d buy you a parachute if I thought it wouldn’t open.” (Animal Crackers)

“Press the flesh. Who’d you croak?” (The Big House)

“If you don’t watch your step you’re gonna find a way to treat yourself to a handful of clouds” (The Doorway to Hell)

“When a man begins to talk about inhibitions, it’s time to look at the view.” (Joan Crawford in Our Blushing Brides)

“It already has proved dangerous to wipe yourself off on the furniture”
(Blood of a Poet)

Groucho’s Strange Interlude bit in Animal Crackers, particularly:
“This would be a better world for children, if the parents had to eat the spinach.”

“Oh Mary, don’t be so 1890”
(Paid)

“When does she dunk her body?” (of course this is Eugene Pallette’s way of asking when a woman takes a bath in Follow Thru)

“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”
(Joan Crawford in Paid)

Angela: “Here’s the newspaper”
Bob: “Anything new?”
Angela: “Not much. Only that you’re a bigamist” (Madam Satan)

animalMargaret Dumont and Lillian Roth in Animal Crackers (I forget whose tumblr this comes from; I’m very sorry!)

 

 

 

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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.