Heroes For Sale (1933)

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We Didn’t Start the Fire

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

The amount of subject matter and themes present in Heroes For Sale could create a verse in We Didn’t Start the Fire; morphine addiction, the great depression, unemployment, disgruntled vets, capitalism, communism, police brutality, automation, mob mentality, false imprisonment, stolen valour, rock n’ roll and cola wars, I can’t take it anymore! All packed within 71 minutes (well minus those last two I just mentioned). I find the sheer volume of topics the movie covers to be its weakness, many of the issues are only covered on a base level and doesn’t massively go into depth with them rather than focusing on a single topic. – Think of the movie as “Issues Facing American Society During the Great Depression 101”.

Heroes For Sale is an emotionally engaging film regardless of its constant shift in theme. Richard Barthelmess seems to have been made for heavy hitting dramas with that face and voice of his. In the role of Thomas Holmes he plays a character whom gets screwed over again and again; not being rewarded or ultimately losing his rewards either by bad luck or at the hands of a broken system. According to the details of a state narcotic farm card, Holmes is 25 in 1921 of which Barthelmess is defiantly not (yet despite being clearly too old for the role the ageing makeup in use is very effective).

At the beginning of the film, Holmes captures a German soldier in battle only to be shot and be captured by the German’s while his cowardly friend is mistakenly glorified and given a Medal of Honour for Thomas’ brave deed. Only a few minutes Heroes For Sale is comprised of a WWI battle, but any self-respecting war movie would jealous to have a sequence looking this good and real showcase of William Wellman’s skills as a director.

The film’s comic relief comes in the form of Max Brinker (Robert Barrat), a crazy caricature of a communist. They say communism fails to breed innovation due to the lack of an incentive yet Max is an inventor always hammering away in his room. Once he invents a machine which makes washing and drying clothes easier he happily becomes rich of it; reaping the rewards of your own invention rather than the state owning it. After this he dresses and acts like what would be a caricature of a capitalist seen in Communist propaganda, wearing a tux and top hat while despising the poor (*clicking tongues).

The fear of automation is present during the later portion of Heroes for Sale, the one aspect of the film which hits right at home as I write this review in 2018 in which major companies are automating their services. At the same time, however, does the fact that Heroes for Sale shows this fear existed in the 1930’s not prove that it is an unfounded one, that the market will adapt and life will go on? Holmes pitches the automated washing device invented by his friend Max to the head of a cleaning company under the pretence that it must not be used to throw anyone out of work or cut salaries but rather to increase production, makes jobs easier and make employees working hours shorter. Of course, the evil businessmen go back on their word and automate the entire process and throwing their employees out of work in which the newly found Luddites start rioting in the street. Tom himself is even taken over by guilt over the invention he promoted which resulted in job losses and uses his royalties to help the poor. Well not until he’s run out of town under accusations of being a communist (guy can’t catch a break).

It’s hard to really determine a political message emitting from Heroes for Sale that lands on either side of the political spectrum, even if it does conclude on an optimistic note with a final speech from Holmes about America and FDR’s inaugural address (whether the New Deal was counterproductive or not but that a whole other can of worms). It provides an interesting contrast to the more ominous final words given by Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath. Both films end with a titular Tom vanishing into the dark of night promising to do good in some form or another.

“It may be the end of us, but it’s not the end of America.”

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Moby Dick (1930)

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Here’s To You Ahab!

I have never read the novel Moby Dick although I am informed this adaptation has very little to do with its source material. The film does open with a shot of the novel itself, however, the screen dissolves into the first paragraph of a Chapter 1 which does not exist in the book nor contains the famous line, “Call me Ishmael” (a character who also does not appear in this adaptation). Yet even to judge Moby Dick from 1930 on its own merits this is a flawed film but has enough good in it to make it enjoyable; although it is a shame as all the ingredients are there for the making of a classic. Oh whale, what can you do?

John Barrymore’s performance is unlike my perception of Captain Ahab and also differs from Gregory Peck’s Lincolnesque performance from 1956. This Ahab during the first half of the film is a womanizing, carefree rapscallion who even exudes sexuality at times. What’s striking about Ahab’s introduction are his acrobatics atop of a ship’s mast. While some shots are clearly performed by a stunt actor, those involving Barrymore really gave me the Gene Kelly vibes, specifically of his performance in The Pirate (1948). Even his voice is reminiscent of Kelly when he shouts “Look out below!”. In the latter half of the film, we see the Ahab more identified in pop culture as a bitter, vengeful man once Moby Dick robs him of a leg. Nothing beats Barrymore hamming things up and in one scene we even see him wearing a cape and strutting like he did in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Ahab’s relationship with his brother’s finance Faith (Joan Bennett) is an endearing bit of adultery as established in a cutesy scene taking place in a church in which they bond thanks a trusty Saint Bernard. The other real striking presence in the film is Noble Johnson as Queequeg, of whom Ahab humorously refers to as a heathen throughout the film.

The structure and pacing of Moby Dick is rather flimsy. The landlocked portions of the film, for example, leave me wanting to get some sea action. Likewise, the sequence of Ahab’s ship navigating through a storm is visually impressive but didn’t have to be as long as it did, plus it’s hard to make out much of the dialogue amongst the sound of the storm.

One of the film’s big positive’s are the production values from the rich details of the port, the seedy taverns and even full-scale ship recreations – all contributing to the film’s downtrodden atmosphere ( we are even given a sequence amongst an exotic Asian port in Singapore). The special effects, on the other hand, are mostly good for the time, all except for one extremely poor close up of Moby Dick during the first encounter in which the little mouth of the beast is seen moving. It only appears on screen for a mere second but looks poor enough that it sticks in your mind. Historical adventure pictures were not common during the pre-code era. After being abundant during the silent era they wouldn’t make a comeback in Hollywood until the mid 30’s so it is interesting to see a picture of this nature made in 1930.

Details on this film’s background are not abundant. It wouldn’t surprise me if Michael Curtiz directed any scenes (he did direct the lost, German language version) due to two scenes featuring the unmistakable use of Curtizian shadows. – But for now, I can only speculate. This brings me to my next point; the changes in image quality in the Warner Archive print of the film. Much of the clarity of the image quality is above what you would expect for a film from 1930, yet other scenes are of a much-degraded nature. Even more bizarrely in some scenes, the brightness levels between shots are very inconsistent. Is this the fault of the filmmakers, the print or where portions of this film lost at one point? Whale we ever know?

Night Flight (1933)

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Par Avion

Night Flight is possibly the most forgotten all-star ensemble film ever made, thanks in no small part to the movie being withdrawn from public circulation for 69 years due to a copyright dispute. Although an all-star picture, Night Flight belongs to John Barrymore. The sight of him strutting and giving monologues in front of a giant map of South America is a magnificent sight to behold. He has the Warren William type role as a flight director for a Trans-Andean European airmail company in which he goes to extreme lengths to get the job complete while trying not to let empathy get mixed in. As a viewer I’m left to question are his actions justified or is he taking things too far? Considering the perils of early aviation should he even be sending men out at night and in such terrible conditions to deliver mail? However, he claims if they don’t send planes out to fly at night then the train service will overtake them and make the outfit an unviable business. He will even go to unethical measures such as lying to a pilot that there was nothing wrong with his engine after he reported otherwise to remove any fear he had. As seen in the film Command Decision starring Clark Gable, running an outfit like this you will have to make decisions which will make you unpopular. – “Ask the impossible, demand it!”

Viewers may be disappointed to find out Clark Gable has a mere four lines of dialogue in the entire film. Although this makes sense as the role doesn’t lend itself to many speaking opportunities as he is confined to the cockpit of a two-person plane in which communication is best carried out by passing written notes to each other – As a result, Gable’s scenes play out like a silent film. That said it wouldn’t be fair to say Gable is put to waste as the movie does a good job at increasing the tension of these scenes throughout the course of the film as the plane runs out of gasoline and encounters terrible weather conditions.

Robert Montgomery has the film’s most interesting character arc. It’s clearly evident that the guy is into prostitutes and during a particularly impressive sequence in which he comes close to death flying through a canyon in the Andes, he has to come to terms with this experience after landing. Thus he ends up favouring a friendly night with a very itchy Lionel Barrymore over booze and hookers. After he refuses to be called for duty on another flight his character disappears and we never find out what happens to him. Night Flight would also be one of Myrna Loy’s earliest ventures into the role of the perfect wife, going from the exotic to another form of typecasting, but there is no denying nobody could do it better than her.

Night Flight is full of picturesque luminosity in this rare non-Cedric Gibbons design at MGM. The film also stands out for its prevalent use of Star Wars style transitions and even one particular sequence which looks very much like the intro to the TV soap Dallas in this favourable and idealised representation of a much westernised South America in which there is little showcase of poverty.

The structure in Night Flight is held together by a subplot in which a serum package that has to be delivered across the continent in order to save a child’s life (the movie pulls no punches in the opening by showing a child’s funeral). No one involved in the flying, however, is aware of this package yet it turns out this was by accident rather than design as the inclusion of the serum package subplot was an afterthought. Producer David O’Selznick thought the film didn’t have enough tension and had these additional scenes inserted after the film was shot. However, I found this does succeed in holding the film together more. Likewise original cut of Night Flight ran at over two hours with the release version being 85 minutes – who knows what was left out?

Laughing Sinners (1931)

I’d Rather Laugh With The Sinners Than Die With The Saints

Laughing Sinners is surely some good publicity for The Salvation Army. The plot of Ivy/Bunny (Joan Crawford) leaving her previous life behind and finding happiness in the helping of others is moralising but never came off to me as overly preachy. I like Laughing Sinners despite the film’s inconsistency with sections of the movie having little to no impact on the overall story. The first twenty minutes of set up, for example, could easily have been done in half the time. Yet despite this, there is a powerful emotional undercurrent at the heart of Laughing Sinners with a number of highly moving scenes making up for the less than stellar portions of the film.

At least some of these weaker moments are made passable from the presence of a comical, stereotypical Italian chef to a bizarre dance number in which Joan Crawford is dressed as a scarecrow; go figure. Likewise, another real highlight in Laughing Sinners is a scene in the park depicting a charity picnic which has such naturalism in both its documentary-like appearance as well as the acting; a piece of neorealism which doesn’t feel like a movie set.

As soon as Clark Gable enters the picture at 22 minutes the film truly takes off. Any scene with Crawford and Gable is pure magic with the sincerity in their interactions which at no point feels like acting. I don’t think there’s any other actress of the time who can as effectively as Crawford make you pour out your heart for the poor woman and rarely has she ever looked as angelic as she does here in her Salvation Army uniform. Likewise, many people will laugh at the idea of Clark Gable playing a Salvation Army officer but Laughing Sinners provides a side of Gable I wish more people could see. Like his role of Dr Ferguson in Men In White (1934), the part of Carl Loomis is saintly without delving into the sickly with his ability to project a real sense of warmth especially with his interaction with children.

This is one of the few films in Gable’s career in which he isn’t a romantic lead as he only remains in the friend-zone with Joan. Never again would we see Gable as more of a boy scout and less the alpha male; as he cooks, wears sweaters and aprons and lives with his aunt.

 

Female (1933)

Man, I Feel Like a Woman!

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Majority of reviews I have read for Female express disappoint for the film’s apparent cop-out conservative ending. A female CEO of an automobile company hands the business over to her soon to be husband and proclaims she wants to have nine children. I won’t lie though; I would have had the same reaction if I had seen Female at a younger age. I’m actually very happy that I first watched this movie when I did during a time when I became familiar with the works from the likes of Jordan Peterson and was around the time of James Damore’s Google Memo. News Flash; there are biological and psychological differences between men and women and as a result, the two make different life choices and exceed in different fields while finder others more difficult. Women are less career orientated than men and don’t push as hard for positions of power and therefore are less likely to become CEOs. The automobile industry itself had its first female CEO in 2014 but you can only attribute this to discrimination for so many years after women’s liberation. Regardless of the writer’s intention in Female, it was refreshing to see a film which portrays such an honest depiction of the differences between men and women, not to mention one made before the science on the subject became definitive. Like in Queen Christina from the same year, Female shows how positions of power require a sacrifice of feminine virtues.

Allison Drake (played by the radiant and sadly forgotten Ruth Chatterton) is an iron lady who lost her girlish illusions when forced to take on her father’s business. She is a playgirl who seduces employees from her factory when bringing them to her house for so-called “business”. It’s odd hearing about how films of the pre-code era outraged groups such as Christians when films such as in the example of Female don’t paint a sexually promiscuous lifestyle as one that leads to much happiness. Allison’s gigolos (on top of not being very interesting) are mere yes-men who bow to her every whim; cucks as modern internet slang would refer to them as. Alison desires to be liked for bring herself and not as the president of a motor company. As she says early in the film, “Oh I see lots of men, but I’ve never found a real one”. In Queen Christina fashion she goes downtown under the guise of a commoner and meets the no-nonsense Jim Throne (George Brent).

Following their time together Allison comes across Jim again when he just so happens to coincidently start working for her company. After learning of Allison’s true identity he is invited back to her place for “business” but doesn’t fall for any of her seduction techniques; Throne is a man who is above that and has no desire to become a gigolo. With Allison’s new found desire for a domineering man she asks her father figure of sorts Pettigrew what kind of women men like Jim Throne desire; why women who are “gentle and feminine”. He’s not wrong, is he? What follows is a picnic scene in which Allison humorously tries too hard to be gentle and feminine. At the end of the day, Allison Drake is a woman making her own choice of what she wants to do in pursuit of her own happiness, what could be more liberating? In what would be a fantasy for 1933, no systemic force is keeping her down nor is she browbeaten by anyone to leave her position as CEO. It’s entirely her own choice, one of the virtues afforded to anyone living in a free society. This makes Female a fascinating watch, not only through the context of when it was made but even more so through a modern context.

Female is yet another example of those 60 minute long pre-code films which go by very fast and pack a lot into them. It is a movie of three directors but doesn’t feel like an odd stitch-up of a film; what shots evoke William Wellman and which evoke Michael Curtiz?  The film is full of unforgettable art deco sets and eye-watering cinematography not to mention the Ennis House which is used for Allison’s mansion. As Joe Gillis puts it: “I was a great, big white elephant of a place. The kind crazy movie people built in the crazy 20’s”.

Call of the Wild (1935)

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Baby its Cold Outside

The beginning of Call of the Wild (a very loose adaptation of Jack London’s novel of the same name) is made up of hard to decipher plot set up exposition which I was only able to get my head around until my third viewing; surely there could have been a more interesting and engaging way the film could have delivered all this information to the viewer. Likewise, a scene during the beginning of the film in which Jack Thornton (Gable) returns to his room only to find his love interest (and possible prostitute) Marie (Katherine deMille) having an affair with another man doesn’t appear to have any effect on the rest of the plot. According to TCM originally Marie had an earlier scene but this was cut from the original print of the film. After this rather static opening, the film gets rolling and finds one of its emotional cores.

Call of the Wild is one of the best dog movies with its complex relationship and emotional bond between Gable and the Saint Bernard named Buck, one majestic looking beast. Buck is a dog that would be of no use to Jack yet is willing to pay $250 to save its life. The image Gable hugging the pooch tells more than words can; truly man’s best friend.

Arguably the most powerful scene in the film is that of Buck trying to pull 1,000 pounds as the result of a bet. You couldn’t ask for a more powerful and barbaric display of willpower knowing if he doesn’t succeed his life will be taken.  The dog in the film appears to be legitimately struggling regards the weight it is actually carrying in real life. Much of the scenes in Call of the Wild featuring dogs would never make it to screen today due to the unethical treatment of animals which is more than apparent on screen. Near the beginning of the film two dogs fight each other on screen and uncut which today would ether to edited to create the illusion of a fight or with horribly unconvincing CGI. Likewise, the general handling of the dogs and even the use of an actual rabbit as bait for dogs to hunt creates a gritty and brutal realism on screen which could not be replicated today.

Reginald Owen is the show stealer as Mr. Smith, the posh, sinister English gentleman with a sick vendetta against a dog; those ridiculous magnified eyes give him the look of a madman. Likewise, Jack Oakie as Shorty comes off to me as an uncowardly version of the Cowardly lion, even down to that laugh. Shorty was killed off in the original cut of the film, as evident from the foreshadowing of his dice turning up snake eyes after Gable throws them to him. The new ending in which Shorty and Jack are reunited prevents the film from being darker in vein like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

It took me a long time to get the appeal of Loretta Young but I gradually came to see her immense likeability, partially in due to those gazing, soulful eyes. In Call of the Wild her makeup is applied flawlessly despite being stuck in the freezing cold wilderness but she’s still she’s a tough cookie who can lecture Gable on a thing or two. I love a good man and woman alone in the wilderness film in which their chemistry fully shines through and the process of falling in love happens organically which in this instance may have been aided by Gable and Young’s affair they had during the production which bore a child named Judy. In a moment of art imitating life Shorty even says; “You know I know a couple of people who used to fool around like that and they got children now”.

I like this sub-genre of the northern western, a refreshing alternative to the mundanity I can often experience in traditional westerns. This is aided by the extensive use of location shooting present in Call of the Wild with those beautiful mountains, silhouetted trees and all that gleaming white snow – I don’t believe there could be a better natural light reflector than the white stuff.

Possessed (1931)

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Living In Sin

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

The poor, poverty-stricken girl goes to the city to meet a rich man. Once you’ve seen enough 1930’s films which follow this formula you get sick of it but Possessed is one of the better films of this kind, partially from a degree of its self awareness, such as when businessman Wally Stuart (Richard “Skeets Gallagher”) reacts to Marian Martin (Joan Crawford) showing up at his New York apartment (“Poor but beautiful factory maiden leaves squallier of small town for glitter of big city”). At the beginning of Possessed Marian works in the most comically mundane place imaginable, a box factory (thank you Principal Skinner). Marian holds the fear of getting older and passing her sell-by date; use your looks now while you still got them. When Marian goes to the city she must navigate her way through a man’s world full of greed, ambition, politics, and sex. It’s there that she meets a certain Mark Whitney (Clark Gable).

Crawford and Gable – the heat, the passion, the electricity. Could you ask for a stunning and sensational on-screen couple? Crawford has talked openly about her feelings for Gable and watching them on screen you can tell the two of them are really in love with each other. Possessed shows a couple living together (and presumably having sex) out of wedlock; means nothing today but was scandalous for the time. Mark refuses to marry Marian out of pain from his previous marriage (“Losing a sweetheart is a private misfortune, losing a wife is a public scandal”) and we see the effect this has on their relationship. In one pivotal scene during a party at Mark’s apartment, an accomplice of his brings a floozy to the party and justifies this over the presence of Marian. Not married and living with a man? Then others will see you no better than some tramp off the street.

Later in the film, Mark makes the decision to run for governor and decides to marry Marian as she would otherwise be a liability to his campaign. The scene in which Marian can overhear Mark talking about his intention to marry her as heard from Marian’s point of view is one of the many deeply emotional and naturalistic scenes with Possessed. Also at exactly 7 minutes and 7 seconds into Possessed, there is an edit which does not match at all when Crawford opens a kitchen door and enters the room; I found myself watching it several times just to make sure I wasn’t seeing things.

Mark Whitney is a man of moral character compared to other Gable characters. This isn’t the brutish Gable who throws women around. Just like the film itself, there is a great sense of tenderness, warmth, and maturity to his performance. When the two do break up we finally hear the brutish Gable and it’s heartbreaking. The greatest emotional high, however, is saved for the film’s climax as we are treated to Mark giving a campaign speech to a huge crowd in an auditorium; expertly shot and very rousing stuff (he gets my vote!) Likewise that Whitney for Governor poster is an obscure film prop that I want.

Queen Christina (1933)

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Garbo Reigns!

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

The costume drama, a genre I struggle with; wealthy, upper-class people with problems and conflicts I just can’t summon any interest in. However, there is a handful which I do manage to enjoy and Queen Christina is one of them; what is it about Queen Christina which makes it compelling? The craftsmanship of the underappreciated director Rouben Mamoulian is certainly a factor but ultimately I believe it all comes down to the fascinating individual at the center of the film.

Queen Christina is the role Greta Garbo was born to play, the androgynous, unconventional Swedish film star as the androgynous, unconventional 17th Century Swedish Queen.  Christina is one of the great gender-bending characters in film history, referring to herself in masculine pronouns to having what could be mistaken as the body of a man; just look at those incredibly broad shoulders Garbo possesses when they are exposed. In the opening to Queen Christina her confidant Axel Oxenstierna (Lewis Milestone) speaks of how Christina was brought up as a boy in order to prepare her for the throne. This does raise the question; do positions of power require a sacrifice of feminine virtues? If the role was reversed of a king dressing and living as a woman, just how powerful and noble would such a king come off? Likewise while it is a likely possibility of Christina being bisexual, the girl on girl kiss she shares with Countess Ebba Sparre (Elizabeth Young) never struck me as a particularly romantic kiss and more of a sign of friendship, however, Christina speaking of the two of them going to the county for three nights would certainly imply otherwise. Yet even if you’re the biggest tomboy in the world like Christina, there still exists in her the desire to be a woman with her proclamation to love interest Antonio (John Gilbert) “that it had been so enchanting to be a woman. Not a queen, just a woman in man’s arms”.

The fascinating figure of Queen Christina goes beyond her disregard of social norms. She is a figure of great intellect with her values of personal freedom, the quest for knowledge, self-improvement as well as spending the few spare moments she has reading books (“One can feel nostalgia for places one has never seen” – so true). As a Queen she has a great sense of national pride and has a fierce devotion to the individual citizens of her county; a romanticised depiction of a world leader many of us wish was more of a reality.

The one portion of Queen Christina which puts realism to the side is that in which she escapes from her palace to the country in order to get away from the strain of being a ruler. I enjoy the trope of a public figure in power sneaking out disguised as a commoner as seen in films such as Roman Holiday or The Shoes of the Fisherman. What is hard to shallow however is everyone Christina meets on her escapade including future lover Antonio and the alumni of the inn she spends the night mistaking her for a man. I know it was unusual back then for a woman to ride on horseback, carry a sword and pistol and go to a tavern to drink but she still clearly has the face of a woman. Regardless I can overlook this lack of realism as it doesn’t impair my enjoyment of the film.

John Gilbert shows in Queen Christina that he was an effective presence in talkies (contrary to the popular belief that his failure to make the jump from silent to talkies destroyed his career). I don’t find him quite great but he is good enough. After a night of lovemaking with Antonio, Christina compares the experience to how God must have felt when he created the world; yep, she went there. The ending of Queen Christina on the other hand in one which inspires even if everything is not tied up in a neat bow. It is a tragedy in one sense but with one of the greatest uses of close up in film history of Garbo’s expressionless face looking out to sea, the viewer gets to write their own ending.

Ninotchka (1939)

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Communism: A Load of Bolshevik

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Does communism have a moral equivalency to Nazism? Conservatives have long complained of a double stand for Nazi and communist crimes. Nazism is based on heinous sounding ideas; communism is based on nice sounding ideas. However, that makes communism and left-wing radicalism more appealing to people of good intentions and perhaps that makes communism more dangerous and an evil in disguise. I’m undecided on this question myself but regardless of which ideology is worse, there is one thing I’m certain about: communism sucks and the fact that it has nowhere near the reputation of Nazism is disturbing. This is an ideology which was responsible for the deaths of 100 million in the 20th century yet I am able to buy t-shirts featuring its dictators in pop culture stores.

The 1939 Ernst Lubitish directed and Billy Wilder penned comedy Ninotchka is reflective of this lack of moral equivalency between Nazism and communism despite the film clearly being anti-communist (apparently the film was responsible for communists losing an Italian election in 1947). The scenes in Ninotchka which take place in Russia are grim. The complete censorship of information, the regimented support of the regime, the asphyxiating and claustrophobic living conditions, rationed food, fear of spying neighbours and the overall lack of personal freedoms. Yet despite critique such as this which the film levels against communism, Ninotchka does not present communism as the utterly monstrous belief system that Hollywood suggested Nazism was. When I first watched Ninothcka as a politically lay viewer that’s the impression I got – “communism isn’t great but Nazism is worse”. That’s not to say Ninotchka would be so much better a film if it went the full throttle and showed us the gulags and mass starvation but would a film like Ninotchka transposed to Nazi Germany ever get made with the same comic and tonal approach, one which doesn’t go the full throttle by mentioning concentration camps and persecution of Jews and other minorities. Would it even be morally appropriate to do so? – Food for thought.

One of the ways in which Ninotchka jabs at the Soviets is through the Russian characters skewered thinking. In the opening scene the three comrades on a mission in Paris attempt to justify choosing an expensive hotel over a cheap one because apparently, it’s what Lenin would have wanted and refusing to simply admit they really just want the royal suite (“but who said we had to have an idea”). In another scene in the film, Ninotchka explains why Soviet Russia is “peddling our precious possessions to the world at this time”. She goes onto say, “Our next year’s crop is in danger, and you know it. Unless we can get foreign currency to buy tractors, there’ll not be enough bread for our people and you comrades.” As if tractors could overcome a drought and famine. Likewise, there is Leon’s (Melvyn Douglas) statement in regards to Russia, “I’ve been interested in your five-year plan for the last 15 years”.

I do find much of the Ninotchka’s first 18 minutes prior to the introduction of Garbo to be a bit flat even with some humorous scenes in which the three comrades are being seduced by capitalistic decadence and start fawning over Leon. The setting up of the background behind the jewels as a plot device and the scenes between Melvyn Douglas and Ina Claire are not terribly interesting. Once Garbo appears, however, the film is on fire.

Greta Garbo is not one of my favourite actresses but I totally understand the appeal. Nina Ivanovna “Ninotchka” Yakushova Envoy Extraordinaire is one badass. She claims to have been a sergeant in Third Cavalry Brigade and she is certainly one with the ability to convince the uninitiated to communist ideals. Lines such as “I have heard of the arrogant male in capitalistic society” and “That’s no business, that’s social injustice” don’t sound too different from talking points by modern lefties. Ninotchka is driven by facts and statistics in comparison to Leon who is more driven by emotion (although I guess the fact of communism’s failure is one for her to ignore). The Soviet State as represented by the figure of Ninotchka is genuinely concerned with the great mass of its people but it is so interested in their statistical well being that is has forgotten their emotional needs and has become cold, oppressive and inhuman. Garbo’s cold emotionless voice and her stone face are fully utilised in a faultless deadpan, comic performance. However, when she finally laughs for the first time and unleashes her endearing side, it feels so genuine and uplifting. At the heart of romance in Ninotchka is that of love triumphing over opposing ideologies.

Ninotchka’s communist ideology does rub off on Leon as he becomes somewhat of a campaign socialist and humorously turns to violence in order to track down Ninotchka later in the film. As good as Melvyn Douglas is in the role of Leon, I can’t help but wish William Powell could have performed the role as no one does suave cynicism like Powell. Regardless Douglas does deliver one of my all-time favourite set of movie lines in which he tells Ninotchka to just smile “At the whole ridiculous spectacle of life, at people being so serious”; I like to remind myself of this whenever I feel frustrated at the state of the world we live in.

One of the most interesting scenes in the film involves Leon’s butler Gaston (Richard Carle) telling his master about his concern regarding Ninotchka’s (or simply the Bolshevik Lady) influence over him;  Gaston as much as refuses to dust Leon’s copy of Karl Marx’s Capital as it is a socialistic volume. Gaston also mentions how Leon has not paid him two months in the movie suggesting that capitalism isn’t perfect; however, Gaston finds the prospect of sharing belongings with Leon and being on an equal footing as him to be terrifying. By the end of the film, neither Ninotchka nor Leon directly renounces communism but I doubt they will be returning to Russia any time soon.

San Francisco (1936)

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It’s Going to Be a Bumpy Night

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

The disaster film is a genre thought of as being low brow but San Francisco is one of the few with class and sophistication. Like in James Cameron’s Titanic, the viewer is left waiting in suspense for the impending disaster as the emotional stakes rise. When the night of the earthquake arrives the movie draws out the final moments before the disaster; I’m left thinking to myself “It’s coming, it’s coming”. Also was it common back then to hold a ball at 5 in the morning?

The earthquake itself ranks among one of cinema’s greatest disaster sequences with the special effects and studio pyrotechnics making up for the less than stellar projection effects at the beginning of the film. The sequence shows the close up reactions of individuals just before they are killed by incoming debris as it lasts for the same amount of time which the actual earthquake itself did on Five-Thirteen A.M, April 18th, 1906 (or at least according to the movie, other sources state it occurred at 5:12 AM).  This is followed by the harrowing sight of death and destruction as Blackie Norton (Clark Gable) walks through the ruins of San Francisco as he observes the horrifying, brutal aftermath in a remarkable section of the film. Even famous silent directors D.W. Griffith and Erich Von Stroheim worked on the film without credit which shouldn’t come as a surprise as the plot of San Francisco would have been ripe for a grand silent melodrama.

On my first viewing, the ending of San Francisco felt far-fetched. I can see many people having an “Oh come on!” reaction but for me at least even on that first viewing, it still worked on an emotional level. However, after contemplating about the ending I have come around to accept the idea that a person, even a non-believer may turn to religion after experiencing something as horrendous as a natural disaster which leaves a trail of death and destruction. Although considering how religious the entire movie is I should have seen it coming not to mention the ending can be justified when looking at the deeper religious parallels within the film.

During the movie Mary Blake (Jeanette MacDonald) performs the opera Faust on stage as we are shown recreations of various portions of the opera; throughout San Francisco there are parallels to the story of Faust. The clash between the moral and immoral, Mary’s tendency to refuse Blackie’s advances, the fire seen at the beginning of the film to lines such as “You can’t take a woman and then sell her immortal soul”. Even during the earthquake’s aftershock, the underworld itself opens up (and one poor sucker falls into it); and at the very end of all this Blackie repents his sinful ways. If you can accept Blackie’s conversion then you still have to deal with the extremely corny, patriotic finale but I can still get a kick out of such cheese.

Jeanette MacDonald, what a voice! The reaction of the churchgoers listening on in awe when she sings in the choir is the same reaction as the viewer; San Francisco is, after all, a vehicle designed for the full range of her talents. Plus that title song is one catchy tune and I’m happy to hear it multiple times throughout the film. Likewise, Spencer Tracy appears in the film for 15 minutes and 58 seconds but he is the actor who leaves the biggest impression acting wise. Father Tim Mullin is the predecessor to Tracy’s Father Flanagan in Boy’s Town. Tracy was an actor who had the ability to play such a saintly character without it being sickly even as he inhabits the office of his church amongst the most heavenly lighting.

Is Blackie an atheist or just non-religious? The first dialogue between him and Father Mullin suggests he may not believe in God; “So you still believe in Santa Claus?” followed by Mullin’s response, “Trouble with you is that you don’t believe in anything”. The character relationship between Blackie and Father Mullin is the same which was seen in Manhattan Melodrama (in which Gable plays a similar character also called Blackie) and later in Angels With Dirty Faces. The two childhood friends who end up taking very different paths in life (one of moral servitude and the other of crime and corruption) yet their friendship prevails despite such contrasting lifestyles and views. Blackie Norton couldn’t be more of a Clark Gable character; a man under great pressure, business owner, runs for political office, has a way with women, cocky, street smart and a loveable jerk. It’s not clear to what extent his criminality runs to other than that he (along with numerous business owners in San Francisco) run his establishment without a license; there was still a bit of the Wild West in 1906 San Francisco.