Saturday, March 25, 2023

MADAME SATAN (Cecil B. DeMille, 1930)


Have you ever danced with the Devil in the pale moonlight? Director Cecil B DeMille takes the homogeneous romantic comedy trope and transforms it into a roman orgy before plunging the final act into a “titanic” disaster flick, as even the band plays while the airship goes down! Constrained by the limitations of early sound design, the music and vocals are somewhat muddled with shrill high notes and the acting rather stagey as the characters move into the frame to deliver their dialogue in two shot. The great DP Harold Rosson (Jean Harlow’s second husband!) photographs the first act in a rather static and typical fashion, but his compositions come alive in the subsequent acts when the Zeppelin and its orgiastic revelers are revealed! 

The film begins as a simple story of a cheating husband. DeMille depicts this theorem in the very first shot of a chirping bird in a gilded cage! Hubby Bob and his buddy Jimmy poorly attempt to hide the affair after a drunken night in court (for driving 65mph). Bob’s angelic wife Angela doesn’t confront him about the girl, she instead plays dumb so Bob & Jimmy must play narrative gymnastics to appease her sublime curiosity. Seems Bob needs fire in his sex life and Angela is ice cold. This first act seems to empower Angela as the one harmed as she remains above deception and plays along with the confounding stories her paramour and his cohort have concocted. They all end up in the other girl’s apartment, Trixie, a jazz singer who’s hot to trot. So, Jimmy pretends to be married to Trixie (but Trixie doesn’t know it!) when Angela shows up because she found the card with her address in Bob’s clothing. The pantomime becomes more pathetic when Bob shows up thinking Jimmy is making time with his gal. Trixie, that is. It’s a typical romantic farce that becomes bizarre when Jimmy MCs the masquerade ball!

Now, here it gets insanely inventive and interesting. The ball is held upon a huge, moored Zeppelin and the entrance is a musical dance routine straight out of a hallucinogenic vision of electric bolts and churning gears, shot by Rosson from directly above, then superimposed upon whirring machinery. We get scantily clad women and men frothing and roiling in carnal delight and that’s before the auction for the six most beautiful girls! We also get drinks delivered in mini-zeppelin peddle-cars! Writhing cat-girls prance and claw their way about. Of course, Trixie in her mini-pheasant costume hooks up with Bob and his mini tunic until the mysterious Madame Satan appears and sings her sinful song! Ms. Satan lures Bob away from his mistress but doesn’t reveal her identity. A dance-off like a gunfight at high-noon, only here it’s nigh-midnight between the devil and the busty pheasant. Shenanigans ensue until the revelation when lightning strikes the blimp, and it breaks loose and spirals out of control. Everyone grabs a parachute. WTF? 

Though the story empowers Angela as the wronged party and gives her control, the final act ends in her begging for forgiveness (and rescue) when her own deception is unmasked. So, Bob, who cheated on her with Trixie and then Madame Satan, is now the victim whose anger is justified. I don’t like it. The story could have cut down on some of the bedroom escapades and given us some background on their relationship so we’re mostly in the dark about their life before marriage. Bob isn’t totally unlikable he’s just typical of the contemporary patriarchal morality and Angela has no recourse but marriage on his terms or divorce...also on his terms. Her heart may be broken but the boob Bob only has his arm in a sling. Maybe some other appendage needs splinted instead. 

Final Grade: (B-)

Thursday, March 23, 2023

THREE FACES EAST (Roy Del Ruth, 1930)


Z-1 sends her own message via morse code, 4 leaden dots and final dash from her own automatic transmitter. This tale of double-agents and double-cross (of the iron kind) reveals its encoded message from the first act by its very point-of-view, as the beautiful Frances Hawtree (code-name Z-1) is portrayed by top-billed Constance Bennett: one would have to believe that an American film about The Great War would choose to sympathize with Axis powers and celebrate the murder of our young men. 

The film is focused upon a duality between Frances and the stoic butler Valdar whose mysterious demeanor and scarred visage is excellently portrayed by the legendary Erich von Stroheim. The subtle wordplay and gestures between the two as they leverage themselves from servility into dominance is enjoyable if not a bit stale with stage-bound dialogue and wordy exposition. Frances is an American nurse captured by the Germans and is revealed to be an Axis spy while Valdar, earning his Medal of Bravery is a Belgian pretending to be loyal to a British General. Frances is sent to this British officer to infiltrate his household and secure orders concerning American troop transports across the Atlantic so they can be devoured by the Wolf-packs before ever landing on English soil. Her cover story is that she fell in love with the General’s son in a German POW camp before he died, and she must deliver his personal items as his last wish. Quickly endeared to the family, she now seeks out her contact, a man named Schiller, who will help deliver her information to the enigmatic Blecher. Her identifying password is “three faces East”. 

The story is full of false leads, shadowy subterfuge, stolen documents and chess-like strategy as the British officers begin to suspect collaboration between the ingenue and the butler. She passes her Turing Test as fully human (not fool-y human) while Valdar is the unemotional Terminator, a computer in a man’s body that is short circuited by his own horny angst. Turns out, Z-1 is a British agent masquerading as a German spy who was embedded in the household to ID Blecher. Valder as the contact Schiller is actually the top-dog Blecher whose bark is silenced permanently. Seems an awfully contrived way to discover what was easily apparent, though somehow British Intelligence was convinced he was their own double-agent. Finally, betrayed and blinded by his lust for Frances he makes a fatal error of judgment. Fortunately for the Allies, Z-1 remains loyal to her country and not her heart. 

Final Grade: C

Saturday, March 18, 2023

MIN AND BILL (George W. Hill, 1930)

Min Divot’s life is like her surname, her small piece of ground ripped out by forces beyond her control. Marie Dressler as the titular Min absolutely owns this film as Director George Hill focuses his narrative almost exclusively upon her: Bill (Wallace Beery) and the ingenue Nancy (Dorothy Jordan) are just subordinate characters to her Alpha performance! 

The plot is quite simple: Min is investigated by Child Protective Services because her “adopted” daughter Nancy, who works long hours in her dockside tavern, has failed to register for school. But it’s how the story of Min’s life is depicted, her hardscrabble existence told with intimacy, bleakness and shocking violence in which she retains her self-respect against the odds, a woman whose love once earned cannot be forfeited. It’s not difficult to see why Depression-era audiences adored this film as Min is the pathos of Great Depression personified; she is victimized but not victim, she is both survivor and savior. Bill is her tempestuous paramour, a drunken dockworker who is easily tempted by forbidden fruit (or illegal hooch) yet whose boyish and aw-shucks charm seems to win Min’s forgiveness, though it may take a knock-down drag-out brawl to earn her tender mercies! Min’s relationship with Nancy is aggressively overprotective and restrictive yet one feels her motherly instincts beneath the illusion of callousness. Dorothy Jordan portrays Nancy as the waifish teen whose angst is in full bloom, struggling with her own independence and identity against Min’s dominance. 

Min’s lie is soon to be exposed as Nancy's biological mother Bella appears like a ghostly haze of cheap whiskey, stinking up her establishment and threatening to exploit her daughter. As Min deflects Bella’s allegations and keeps Nancy and Child Protective Services from discovering the truth, Min makes the ultimate sacrifice for her daughter proving that being a true mother transcends biology. The violence is shocking but not unexpected, per the maxim of Chekhov’s Gun. And Min’s final moment of despair as she silently observes her daughter leaving for a better life as police close in, and while in custody she holds her head confidently and smiles, just a bit, at the chance she has given Nancy at attaining her dream, is fucking sublime. 

Final Grade: (A) 

Thursday, March 16, 2023

PALOOKA (Benjamin Stoloff, 1934)


Knobby Walsh Inka Dinka Doo’s when he shoulda Inka Dinka Don’t in this corkscrew comedy of the squared circle, a farcical rise and fall of a simpleminded son who becomes the Big Palooka even if for a short while. Benjamin Stoloff’s direction is adequate which is complimented by the journeyman cinematography: it’s not art but still an enjoyable pugnacious romp and circumstance. It’s Jimmie Durante’s film even though it’s named after the father/son duo of Pete and his abandoned protege Joe, a naive and unsophisticated boy who has inherited his father’s penchant for pugilism. 

The first act focuses upon Pete’s boxing championship and his taste for a good time, specifically without his wife! But Mayme Palooka (Marjorie Rambeau) is no pushover and gives the adoring floozy Trixie (Thelma Todd) more than the high-hat, she gives her a right cross! Ha! The film then jumps 20 years ahead as Mayme has escaped to the country to raise their child (Pete is the father, though there’s a nice Pre-Code-only joke questioning this later in the film) while Pete chooses the bright lights and big city haunts of his diminished glory days. But a serendipitous crash with Knobby Walsh and his current pug allows Joe to knock out the reigning champ and leave his small town for the big time. Joe’s lovely girl Anne (who seems to always just miss her chance to kiss him. Played by the adorable Mary Carlisle) and his fierce mother Mayme aren’t happy about his decision, but they are supportive enough not to harangue him, to allow him to choose his own path. They are vigilant and hopeful even when the headlines scream of loose women and looser morals! I love these two women. 

Soon, Knobby sets up his dimwitted client for a great fall (and his own windfall) by scheduling a bout against the reigning champeen’ Al McSwatt (William Cagney). Ok, this ain’t winning no Pulitzer. [Side note: Wow, does William look exactly like his brother Jimmy! Though he doesn’t have a big speaking part, he walks with that Cagney strut and his closeups have an eerie effect like we’re seeing Jimmy’s face flash-burned into our retinas and superimposed upon someone else. When he speaks, he doesn’t have the machine-gun cadence of his younger brother or quite the hand-waiving etiquette.] But McSwatt is nursing a brutal hangover because he doesn’t take the fight seriously and Joe takes the championship. Knobby, once again his manager and main schnozzle, secretly pays off other boxers to dive for their dough while ducking a rematch that Joe’s bound to lose. Joe’s trophy gal is Nina (a beautiful Lupe Velez who shakes her stuff and boy does she shake her stuff!) whose loyalty is to the champion whomever that may currently be. Through various conflicting contortions Joe loses the fight yet wins the war, his award a lovely family amid the peace and quiet of a country store. But it’s Knobby who gets the trophy! 

It’s Jimmy Durante’s manic antics that dominate the story, full of self-deprecating humor, one-liners and put-downs like jabs in the boxing ring! He croons his signature song to a mannequin in a store display (after breaking the window with a brick) and DP Arthur Edeson makes sure to accentuate the nose with proper lighting and often hilarious compositions. The final shot of PALOOKA may be the most disturbing in Pre-Code history, more than the Universal horrors or the Warner wickedness: a close-up of Knobby’s infant, conceived with Nina, whose Durante-ish visage is swaddled in blankets and who chatters “Ha-cha-cha-cha”. Fuck it if I didn’t laugh hysterically yet at the same time suffer some deep emotional trauma.

Final Grade: (B-)

Tuesday, March 14, 2023

WINNER TAKE ALL (Roy Del Ruth, 1932)


Jimmy Kane is no upstanding citizen, a punch-drunk pugilist who becomes more concerned with his looks than titles. Jimmy Cagney as the lightweight boxer punches like he talks, hard but with aplomb. Cagney does all of his own stunts as the boxing matches are filmed in long to medium shot without slow-motion or close-ups, so he jabs and punches and gets rocked in real-time! Though the punches are pulled, and the matches sometimes seem more vaudeville than violent it’s still should earn our cinematic respect. Guy Kibbee as Pop Slavin, Jimmy’s manager, knocks him flat with common sense and a firm right hook. Kane’s trainer is Rosebud who is portrayed gracefully by the great Clarence Muse in a rather significant supporting role. 

Jimmy is a successful boxer who needs a Depression era GoFundMe donation for a vacation from NYC to a desert Rest Home, 3,000 miles away from broads and booze. Of course, he finds infatuation instead of rehabilitation and falls for Peggy, a widowed woman with a charming child (Marion Nixon and Dickie Moore, respectively). Jimmy drops his guard until he is summoned back to Madison Square Garden and takes a fall for Park Avenue. He is soon the brutish boy-toy for socialite Joan Gibson (the alluring Virginia Bruce) and forgets about his promises to Peggy and son: he’s without a doubt a douchebag yet Cagney still wrings some empathy from his physically and emotionally deformed character. After plastic surgery to (mistakenly) appease Joan, he dances ring-around-the-rosy in the square circle afraid of a broken nose and cauliflower ear. But her attraction is to the tough-guy visage, so she turns ice-cold. Jimmy is too ignorant to be embarrassed by her high-society friends until he delivers his own chilly rebuttal by cold-cocking her paramour. Though Jimmy ends up with Peggy it’s on the rebound and feels disingenuous. Peggy is between her rock and a hard place so what other option does she have but to accept the illusion of love: who knows, maybe the champ will rise above being a chump. 

Final Grade: (B-)

Saturday, March 11, 2023

WHITE WOMAN (Stuart Walker, 1933)


Judith Denning is a fallen angel who must endure the green Hell of Horace Prin, King of the River, a white man who not only exploits the labor of the indigenous peoples but enslaves their very culture: he has become the alter they worship upon! Diabolical. But Director Stuart Walker isn’t concerned with making a “message picture” about white entitlement and its poisonous effects upon conflicting societal values and mores, he’s interested in weaving a sordid and violent melodrama about a broken woman who struggles to find her home, wherever that may be. 

The film opens with a close-up of Judith (Carole Lombard) crooning a sultry ballad in a seedy foreign tavern: the film’s title immediately becomes a double entendre as she’s caucasian and dressed in a white gown, both magnifying her innocence and betraying it in context of her environment. The camera tracks slowly through the bar to reveal different ethnicities as she sings, before Judith mysteriously breaks away as if summoned by some higher power. Which is exactly what happens: the local Governor (white, of course) banishes her from the country because she, as a white woman, haunts this multiracial bar, revealing his bigoted fears of miscegenation or other intolerable sins like fraternization, I suppose! This racist attitude isn’t criticized it’s just portrayed as typical for the period. Soon, Judith is between a river and a hard place so, after meeting the queerly effeminate Horace Prin (Charles Laughton), decides his home is better than homelessness. Strong willed and independent after her husband’s suicide, she surrenders her body but not herself, if you can grasp the subtle distinction. She soon discovers herself indentured to a slave driver, a cruel man who retains control of his rubber plantation through extortion and violence. Judith is now surrounded by others with criminal pasts unable to escape because the consequences are too horrific. But she falls in love with the overseer David (a deserter, traumatized by his cohort’s severed head thrown at his feet) and finds friendship with Jakey and his companion Dutch, a roguish chimpanzee. But Prin destroys that which betrays him and soon Davis is sent up-river and replaced by the viscous tyrant Ballister who doesn’t pretend to conceal his masochistic and aggressive attraction to our heroine. To his minimal credit, as she continues to rebuff his advances, he eventually accepts her decision and even respects David’s heroic journey through the jungle to warn them of an impending attack. 

Charles Laughton’s performance as Prin is exceptional as he is able to portray incredible physical weakness while at the same moment project a devilish persona, seething with self-loathing and torment. His every subtle wink and tick speaks its own language of power and madness. This is a dangerous man not of physical prowess, but devious intelligence not burdened by guilt or remorse. Prin has his men executed, David tortured by another severed head, kills the Anthropopithecus Troglodytes Dutch, serves his slaves rotting food and actually spits in the face of the native chiefs, just because he can. When the uprising arrives, he is prepared with .50 caliber machine guns that spit mana or lead from the gods. He even pretends to allow Judith and David to escape down-river, but the joke is on him: Ballister has filled the boat’s gas tank to capacity and Jakey, in retribution for the death of his simian friend, tosses the machine guns overboard. With death closing in upon them, Prin and Ballister play a game of poker to idle away their last few moments on Earth. And Prin’s final soliloquy to his dead companion, shot in skewed angled close-ups, depicts a madman still facing death on his terms. But the slave master is master, no more.

Final Grade: (B) 

Wednesday, March 8, 2023

THE WOMAN CONDEMNED (Dorothy Davenport, 1934)


Reporter Jerry Beall gets the whole romance angle backwards, as he and his paramour discover the manacles of Holy Matrimony before the shackles of lifetime commitment...for murder! The directing credit goes to Mrs. Wallace Reid which betrays Ms. Davenport’s accomplishment in this male-dominated business: I suppose she didn’t quite have Dorothy Arzner’s “street cred”. Or else she didn’t want her professional name attached to this absurd and preposterous film! 

Fuck it, I had to watch this twice to confirm that the story actually made some semblance of sense because it directly lies to the audience in order to promote the crazy revelation. But a story should reveal subtle clues through each act and not rely on talky exposition to explain confounding plot points in the final reel. As the brief runtime ticks away and each scene builds one atop the other, we are given no hints or “hunches” (Jerry’s favorite word. He utters it at least 20 times and it’s fucking annoying) to propel the narrative forward: few establishing shots, no introductions of major characters, no background information, and no explanation for any behavior as everything is shrouded in secrecy. There is no baseline that allows us to understand a thing, so we’re surprised in the final act. But this story misleads us utilizing a “red herring” conversation that is not only unambiguous but patently and logically false. It reminds me of Hitchcock’s use of the strategic deception in STAGE FRIGHT told directly to the audience to induce suspense but here, it’s a flaw that ridiculously skews the film. The structure of the film is perfectly straightforward: no flashbacks, flash-forwards or cross-cutting just one plodding scene after another. The camerawork is dull and amateurish in composition and graceless in movement, often slow in pulling focus displaying too much headroom. The sound design is annoying with magnified footsteps thumping on set and sans a musical score. The main character of Jerry Beall is punchably entitled with a frat-boy smirk that needs to be removed from his face with force. The chemistry between him and his “prankster” girl is nonexistent like a mixture: that is, no reaction. It’s like watching mannequins snuggle. 

Now, the plot reveals my seething anger and waxing interest: Jane Merrick a radio star takes a mysterious holiday without explanation to her closest friend and boss Jim Wallace. I mean, he wants to marry her, but she has some hesitation so there could be a dark and eerie secret in her life. Jane speaks on the phone to an unidentified man who only takes cash and wants to give her the freedom she deserves. She then disappears for some unexplained length of time and the radio show is losing it’s prime advertising, so Jim hires a Detective Agency to find out where she is. There is a mysterious dude lurking at her apartment and police chase him away. Then another mysterious woman is lurking at her apartment, and she’s caught. Taken to Night Court she is “saved” from incarceration by Jerry a snarky crime reporter who convinces the Judge that she’s his fiancĂ©e who was only playing pranks. So, in order to cure this cutup, the Judge performs a quick legal marriage and sentences her to Jerry, now her husband! WTF? This gal Barbara enters the story without introduction and remains silent about her involvement until the very end which again makes little sense. Now Barbara and Jerry get to know one-another over dinner and a fancy show but soon she’s secretly stalking the same apartment with Jerry unknowingly and coincidentally investigating the story of the missing radio star! Barbara witnesses a shakedown by a shady dude named Dan from the earlier scene as Jane hands over some cash but hides the jewelry. He exits then a scream and gunfire! Of course, she’s left holding the pistol and held for Jane’s murder! Not once is it revealed that Barbara is the detective hired to discover Jane’s whereabouts as she keeps her intentions secret not only from Jerry and the police but from the audience. So, Jerry trusts her innocence based on his notorious hunches and eventually discovers a phone number to a local sanatorium in Jane’s apartment. Looking for a clue to clear Barbara he gets the address and does some stalking of his own. Peering through the window of the recovery room, he happens to see doctors peeling back bandages from a patient’s face and holy fuck, it’s Jane! But we know she was shot dead in her apartment, Jerry knows she was shot dead in her apartment because he was there with police, and Jim knows she was shot dead in her apartment as they brought him to the scene for questioning. But Jane doesn’t know she was shot dead in her apartment because exposition from the doctor reveals that she has a twin sister June who was hiding out in her apartment while Jane was on “holiday” for this secret and shameful remove a birth mark from her face. Another WTF moment. What fucking, what? We are shown Jane in close-up in the first fucking scene and there is not a blemish on her face. And what freedom was the doctor talking about? Consider me perplexed. So, it’s June who is dead. Now the big prevarication from the screenwriter is considered upon reflection: Dan who was shaking down June actually says “Well, radio stars have plenty” to trick us into thinking it’s Jane who was killed well before any mention of a twin sister! But Dan has known June for years as this is the guy she’s hiding from so, like, how does he not know June is a twin of Jane? Of course, he knows because he mentions her being a radio star! So, the equivocal denouement is predicated upon Dan’s shock and surprise in seeing June alive again like a ghost materializing from the darkness (a ruse inspired by Barbara and performed in conjunction with the police). If he knows she has a twin sister, he should see the parlor trickery for what it is! But of course, he screams his confession and all ends well for Barbara and Jerry, if being married to this smirking jerk counts as a happy ending. I think I’d rather be June. 

This gets a failing grade in technical competence, but it inspired me watch it twice so, there’s that. I actually liked it better the second time, believe it or not. 

Final Grade (C-)