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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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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Capsule Reviews: 1930 Watchlist (Films #1-4)


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Let Us Be Gay (US, Leonard)
“I know how men feel about these things now”

It’s par for the course that if you’re watching Pre-Code Norma Shearer, at some point she’ll say something explicit about her newly transgressive way of life. I love Norma. I really do. But not for her depth of presence. Her Pre-Code persona brings a very specific brand to the table, and it’s made up of two parts. The first is permanent coy. She talks as if putting on a show; the woman’s got a secret and she’s the only one in the room who knows it. The second is prideful speechifying, daring proclamations that temporarily air out the collective frustrations of many women, calling out double standards and announcing sexual freedom (eventually of course, the film will hit the reset button in its last 30 seconds).

Shearer’s transformation from devoted wife to the ultimate sampler of sex is never more extreme than it is here, and that’s all due to how her character (Kitty) is introduced. For the first act of Let Us Be Gay, Norma Shearer goes full-dowdy. I’m not talking about movie dowdy. I’m talking about actually dowdy. It’s as plain and homely and normal as I’ve ever seen a golden age star allow themselves to look onscreen. The sheer jolt of this easily makes for the film’s high point, because let’s face it; despite the promise of an ensemble cast crossing paths during a weekend in Long Island,  Let Us Be Gay never picks up anything resembling momentum, a critical trait for a film at that one point suggests it is nearing French farce.

Some Notes:
– This was shot in 26 days because Norma Shearer was pregnant. It’s an adaptation of a play. The Shearer role was originated by Tallulah Bankhead.

– Between my previous experiences with 1930 films and the ones I’ve watched for this project so far, I know that many of the films will have moved passed the potential and often found awkwardness of early talkies. But this one does not. But there were admittedly times during this where the strange pacing, pausing, lingering were hypnotic to me. There is a shot of Norma Shearer on a couch. She moves, and the camera lingers for several second on said  couch as the scene continues. I really loved this unintentional moment.

Something else I fully expect to run into with 1930 are dull-as-fuck leading men. For every one of them I’m sure there will be a leading man I love and cherish (Robert Montgomery owns part of my heart, didn’t you know that?) But Holy Mother of God: Rod La Rocque. Worst actor ever? I mean ever? As in, of all-time? See, he’s not just bad in the sense that he’s stilted and lacks charisma. He goes the extra mile by being that special brand of bad: the silent actor who has no idea how to adjust his acting in the advent of talkies. He makes Chester Morris look like Gary Cooper.

– Shout-out to Marie Dressler for being Marie Dressler and playing to the back row and to Sally Eilers for playing a great sloppy drunk.

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Ladies of Leisure (US, Capra)
There’s a lot about Ladies of Leisure I shouldn’t like. Let’s face it, who wants to see Barbara Stanwyck as a brassy ‘party girl’ who gradually disintegrates into desperate martyr-driven love with a rich and oblivious painter who treats her like nothing? This is not why we watch Barbara Stanwyck!

But this star-making role, the first of several collaborations with Frank Capra, is some of her best work and in one of her best films. I’m not used to seeing her this vulnerable, yet this is how the country at large became acquainted with her. Barbara Stanwyck is down-to-earth glamour. Relatable glamour. Even at this very early stage it’s impossible to miss that she is in stark contrast with other actors from her time. This is a woman performing in the ‘now’. Her body language isn’t practiced. She breaks through the conventional with seeming spontaneity. She’s the perfect person for Frank Capra to direct, because in Ladies of Leisure he not only gives her plenty of backlit close-ups defying audiences not to fall in love with her, but devotes an uncommon (for 1930) length of time lingering on confidential and intimate moments that map out Kay’s internal longing.

Frank Capra doesn’t trip into that oft-fallen pit known as the Early Talkie Trap. That assumed pull of talk-talk-talk, aimlessly throwing more dialogue at the screen. Why? Because they can! Despite being based on a play, Frank Capra already shows an adept hand at visual storytelling in addition to fluid pacing, foundational building blocks everybody had to learn and relearn  to some degree when sound came along. Bypassing sluggishness, even as the film nosedives into the saccharine, there is a clarity and distinct visual perspective supporting Kay’s story.

Take the erotically charged rainy night sleepover that comes mid-film. It’s erotically charged in the silences, in what isn’t happening, in what Kay wants to happen, in what could happen. The pace of this sequence is different than the rest. The situation slowly develops, as Kay gradually allows herself to believe in the possible. It builds to a simple act of kindness that produces the film’s most telling and heartfelt moment. A lone doorknob turns. Footsteps reveal that Jerry the painter (Ralph Graves) has left his room in the middle of the night. He slowly approaches Kay’s bed. In another film the scene would be eerie, bad intentions assumed. Kay is sleeping. Jerry lays a blanket over her and heads back to bed. Close-up on Kay. She wasn’t asleep at all. The camera lingers on her face and closes in further, tears glistening. She pulls the blanket to her mouth. Everything we need to know about Kay occurs in this moment. This simple act of kindness means the world to her, and it has left her shaking and crying with joy.

Critically, Capra foregrounds Kay’s (Stanwyck) love as a character-driven arc rooted in class, lifelong struggle, and hope. You don’t have to buy into Kay and Jerry (and you won’t) to buy into the film. Forget the lame egg basket in whom Kay places said hopes and dreams. Just focus on witnessing a downtrodden woman who, for the first time in her life, experiences what happiness is, what it can mean, and its potential in her own life. The fortuitous union of Barbara Stanwyck’s startling modernism (I still can’t imagine how jarring her vivid physicality must have played for 1930 audiences) and Frank Capra’s intuitive prioritization of the inner life.

Some Notes:
– We’re back to the Dull As Fuck Leading Man syndrome. I’ve seen quite a few reviews of the film that cite Ralph Graves as a deal-breaker. But I’ve made a vow to myself to put the quality of the leading man aside as best I can while watching these films. Would I like the leading man to have chemistry with his leading lady in a film that qualifies as a romance? Well, of course. Will there be films I watch where the leading man really is a deal-breaker? Probably. But this whole leading man snag is an unavoidable evil from this period. I’d like to be surprised; I’d like the chemistry between leads to elevate whatever 1930 film I’m watching, but I also won’t let the common failures on this front decide whether or not a film works for me. Part of what I love in writing about older films (I’m talking as recent as, say, ten years old) is that time allows the mode of assessment to be so different. New films are often reviewed as A + B + C = great film but it’s missing D so merely good. Time allows us to connect or not connect in ways that feel more organic, less scientific. If the lead in a rom-com from 2015 was bland it’d likely feel impossible to ignore. But in Ladies of Leisure, who cares, this movie is great with or without Ralph Graves. More critically, as I’ve stated earlier, Kay’s love for him is grounded in individual longing. Our investment doesn’t hinge on Jerry as a character.

– Capra already taking on the disparity between the classes. But it’s surprisingly complicated. Ralph’s mother is supportive of her son and empathetic. Her actions are driven by love and a knowing selfishness for the sacrifice she asks of Kay that she cannot ask of herself. Even Jerry’s father isn’t a terrible guy. Just very set in his ways.

– Some other incredible moments of Stanwyck’s spontaneity: “Goody goody goody let’s fight”; Kay throwing food in the air and trying to catch it as an impromptu effort to distract from her tears.

– Such a bizarre party at the beginning! Capra immediately visually distinguishes that class disparity with a shot of a street getting plummeted with smashed bottles as innocent bystanders dodge the wreckage as best they can. We are brought, with an impressive crane shot using models, to the top of a building where upper class debauchery is taking place. Two women carelessly drop the liquor from above. Elsewhere, a man paints a lady’s back. Elsewhere still, ladies pray water at a painting. A woman weaves through the crowd saying “Call for Jerry Strong! Call for Jerry Strong!”

– Marie Prevost = new hero? She was relegated to best friend parts by this time in her troubled life and career. She gets the best lines of the movie and her delivery is hysterical:

“Listen Eleanor Glynn. You can’t–weigh–sex appeal.”

Prevost: “Oh, and a cup of coffee”
Waiter: “Large or small?”
Prevost: “Do I look like a small cup of coffee?”

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Murder! (UK, Hitchcock)
While the result may be weirdly effective and ineffective in equal measure, this is Alfred Hitchcock experimenting perhaps more essentially than ever before or since. Hitchcock, that savior of UK cinema, takes sound and uses it to make every scene its own playful gambit. Murder! is so well known for its use of sound that it’s easy to overlook the essential application of image. Every step of the way Hitchcock shows a critical understanding of how sound can be applied in new ways when married to the image. Seems obvious, but at the time it wasn’t. He brings image and sound together by constantly separating them.

For the first time in film (at least it’s credited as such), we hear a character’s thoughts in voice-over, bridging the internal (sound) and external (image). Stage manager Ted (Edward Chapman) and his wife (Phyllis Constam) frantically ready themselves to see Sir John (Herbert Marshall in his first speaking role), their preparations shown in a succession of rapid close-ups coupled with far-off dialogue; sound and image used to compress time. Sir John wakes up for a comic scene of loud chaos with Una O’Connor (in her 2nd screen appearance!) involving a wailing baby, a clingy child, overflowing coffee, and a cute kitten. There’s more too; Hitchcock plays with the rhythm of dialogue in a sequence that plays like a one-act 12 Angry Men. The jury members start as separate entities only to evolve into some sort of theatrical sing-song chorus, like something out of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.

Hitchcock also finds ways to keep things moving in his typically droll fashion. An early scene in which two women talk about the murders is turned into a three-minute uncut visual running joke that completely eclipses whatever is being said. Throughout the scene, the older woman moves between two rooms to make tea. Every time the younger woman sits down, the older woman needs to move the other room. The camera dutifully follows back and forth from Room A to Room B. The punchline? Turns out that the policeman doesn’t even want tea.

The fun of Murder! is discovering the tricks that stick versus the ones that turn out just plain awkward. That this consummately strange film is made up of pieces means it never comes together as a unified whole. Scenes don’t unfold in any kind of conventional way, and never has Hitchcock’s indifference towards plot been more apparent. And since this is a whodunit, a genre he spent his career purposely avoiding, plot is the name of the game. The experimentation often has a slightly surreal and dislodged effect, both intentional and unintentional. All the parts line up but they don’t lock in. And for all its inventions, not even Hitchcock can outwit Herbert Marshall’s Sir John. The longer he takes over the film, the more stilted the film becomes. He drones on and on and on in long shot, so oblivious to his incessant talking that it takes another character interrupting him for things to move forward.

Sir John’s actor status and the role of the theater in Murder! show the makings of another major Hitchcock trademark; his use of the theater as self-reflexive function and metaphor for artificiality. “This isn’t a play. It’s real life!”, Sir John exclaims. An early scene shows cops interviewing actors backstage in the middle of a production and they hurriedly rush on-and-off stage, answering questions in the midst of costume changes. Never mind that the bit doesn’t quite come off. An old woman is fooled (quite easily it turns out, because if we’re supposed to be Sir John’s ruse as impressive then that’s just sad) by a man feigning an old woman’s voice. Hell, Hamlet’s play-within-a-play is used as a strategic tactic to suss the killer out! There’s even a climactic suicide through performance. And the end, a final shot pulls back to reveal that Sir John and Dinah are onstage acting in a play together.

Notes:
– Herbert Marshall is a straight-laced British Jack Lemmon in this movie.
– Esme Percy’s ‘half-caste’ homosexual drag performer killer is disquieting to say the least. Both for how he plays it and how the film sees him. But for all its lesser-than view of him, it’s really surprising to see a film this early depict a ‘perverted’ killer this explicitly.

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Anybody’s Woman (US, Arzner)
I was really hoping for more being that this is from the great Dorothy Arzner. Alas, this was a disappointment, although there are a few significant takeaways to appreciate. The protagonist is a down-on-her-luck woman with the awesome name of Pansy Gray (Ruth Chatterton). She spends the film defying expectations, being unapologetically herself, and trying to do right with the odds against her in an odd situation. She’s got a keep pushin’ through the mud outlook on life. In short, she’s a survivor. And played by Ruth Chatterton with a drawled out conviction, she’s great. Sadly, the film isn’t. It starts strong, with adjacent apartments, eavesdropping, insane drunken logic, electric fans, and Ruth Chatterton casually sprawled out on a couch while singing and playing a ukulele. But it has no inkling where to go from there. I’m not even quite sure how it manages to fill out its runtime.