Heroes For Sale (1933)

ww1-banner-1

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.”

Night Flight (1933)

picmonkey_image-31

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?

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”.

Queen Christina (1933)

picmonkey_image-4

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.

The Prizefighter and the Lady (1933)

Women Weaken Legs!

I’ve seen many a boxing film and despite having no real interest in the sport I find they often make for great stories – I consider The Prizefighter and the Lady (written by the great Francis Marion) as one of the great unsung boxing films with its less than conventional and exceedingly well acted and conveyed love triangle. What’s particularly striking about this romance is how intriguingly pathetic in a way it is. Belle (Myrna Loy) falls in love with a dunce of a jock named Steven (played by real-life boxer Max Baer) – “A big kid” as Belle calls him. Steven is a man who doesn’t seem to know any better and Belle is fully aware of this but can’t help that she has fallen for him; you really can feel the raw sexual attraction between these two, especially in their introductory scene in which Loy has nothing but a blanket draped over her.

The third end of the triangle of this not so swooning love story is Willie Ryan (Otto Kruger) as Belle’s original lover. Willie is a crime boss but is not presented as your typical hardnosed gangster (nor is it clear what the extent of his criminal activities are). Willie cares deeply for Belle and the two even talk openly about Belle’s newly found feelings for Steven. However, Belle eventually informs Willie she has got married to Steven and leaves him and her life as a socialite for more mundane and dowdy existence, leaving Willie with one heartbroken face with two tears coming off his face. – The Prizefighter and the Lady is full of little, subtle acting moments like this you wouldn’t notice on first viewing.

Perhaps that would be enough drama but no, Steven, the ladies man who is all muscles and no brain is cheating on Belle with multiple women. It does raise the question of what sane man would play adultery when you’re married to Myrna Loy?! The female lead of Prizefighter and the Lady would be a unique part for any major Hollywood actress. MGM was known for their glamorous stars yet here is Myrna Loy appearing dowdy and I suspect at times not be wearing any makeup – we are even introduced to her being lifted out of a car wreck and covered in dirt. While I’m not a fashion connoisseur every once in a while I will see a film from the 1930s and fawn over the outfits. Every outfit worn by Loy in The Prizefighter and the Lady is to die for. Likewise, her singing of the song Downstream River in the nightclub is enchanting, even if it’s obviously not her voice doing the singing. – She is a quintessential symbol of urbanity.

Oh yeah, and there is boxing in this film too, right? Older films generally aren’t known for their stellar boxing scenes. The film’s combination of slowed down footage and frequent cuts doesn’t look fantastic but it’s not totally immersion breaking. Likewise, I just wish the film could have done without the rather cheap, 7-minute long musical number entitled “Lucky Fella, Lucky Guy”. What more than compensates is the gorgeous high contrast cinematography in the boxing arenas; you can feel the grit and grime of the sweaty, smoke-filled atmosphere in another example of the type of neo-realism the pre-code era had to offer.

Dinner at Eight (1933)

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner

Ah, the 1930’s. No decade in cinema has since captured such an aurora of class and sophistication from the clothes worn to the way people talk; a world so removed from our own. It feels like there is no other time period in which it was as easy to make a movie about rich people and their rich people problems without it coming off as a metaphorical dick waving display of wealth. There are few better representations of this than Dinner at Eight. With the heavenly, dream-like music from the film’s opening titles; the viewer is transported to a world long, long gone. All of the stories in Dinner at Eight have tragic, to say the least, but Billie Burke as the socialite holding the impending dinner helps bring comic relief to the proceedings with her histrionics as well simply the sound of her voice. Aside from the largely carefree Burke, the rest of the characters don’t have much to look forward to with their impending affairs, bankruptcy, failing careers and illnesses.

John Barrymore’s story is my favourite; the quietly tragic demise of washed-up film star Larry Renault. His tender love scenes with Madge Evans are largely the opposite of the grandiose interaction with Greta Garbo in Grand Hotel; this is far more down to Earth. It’s not apparent when Renault first appears just what a bad state his career is in. As his segment progresses he becomes more and more pathetic as he becomes increasingly drunk and we learn more about his current state that he is only being offered a bit part in a play, he only has seven cents on him and the ultimate blow when his manager tells him he’s been a joke for years and never taken seriously as an actor; he had his good looks but he doesn’t even have that anymore. The subplot is prophetic of Barrymore’s own future as he spent his last few years as a washed-up actor and succumb to alcohol. There are hints in his performance to the egomaniac he would play the following year in Twentieth Century with his hotel room being littered with photographs of his own profile. With its haunting cinematography, Renault’s final outcome had me holding my breath with part of me wishing this could be its own film; a sort of predecessor to the story of Norman Maine in A Star Is Born.

The other storyline which particularly strikes me is Edmund Lowe’s. Once his wife confronts him about his ongoing affair with Jean Harlow, the two have a long serious chat in which she is completely understanding and forgives him. A stark contrast to any modern romantic comedy in which two characters would break up after a lengthy argument of one has betrayed the other, then get back together 20 minutes later. Are modern romantic comedies just so contrived and unreflective of real life, was adultery less frowned on back then or is it just a pre-code thing?

The early 30’s seems to be the one brief period in cinema history in which there was a number of older aged movie stars who box office draws; Wallace Beery, Marie Dressler, John Barrymore, Lionel Barrymore. There has never been another decade like it.

The Barbarian (1933)

Complete and Utter Bonkers

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

The Barbarian has to be seen to be believed. That’s if you’re able to believe this unbelievably ridiculous plot. Ramon Navarro’s Jamil is the textbook definition of a creep and why the characters in the movie take as long as they do to realise this is beyond me. Throughout much of the film, he treats the Myrna Loy’s Diana like dirt. He kidnaps her, drags her into the desert, has her whipped by another man so he can pretend to save her and on top of that, or at least what’s implied, he rapes her. Throughout The Barbarian I was thinking there’s no way these two are getting together at the end of the film but with only five minutes run time left to go, Diana ditches her nice loving fiancé for the man who earlier in the film kidnapped her and made her life a living hell. Why?! Stockholm syndrome, abused wife syndrome, girls just love a bad boy syndrome?

The final scene of the movie shows the two in a loving embrace on a barge under the moonlight, implying that his ending is supposed to be happy. Uh no, this is dark and disturbing. This woman is with a man who is the most morally dubious character being presented as the hero of the story I’ve ever seen. Is it supposed to be ironic or just horribly misguided? The Barbarian, however, is a rare instance of a movie which I feel kind of bad for having enjoyed, like I have to have the TV facing the wall in the corner of a room with the volume lowered, not letting anyone knowing I’m watching such a thing; or at least that was the case until I decided to post a review on the internet.

So what makes this movie enjoyable? For starters, there is the unmitigated joy that comes from watching politically incorrect pre-code movies. I’ve seen some crazy pre-code films but this just takes the cake.  It’s like a train wreck, it’s so shocking but you can’t look away. Moments of The Barbarian are shocking, other times it’s unintentionally funny, yet despite this bizarre mishmash, the film works. It’s engaging and there’s tension throughout, the sets and locations are superb, feeling like a tourist brochure at its exotic interiors and landscapes and there’s Myrna Loy’s bathtub scene, a moment of astounding risqué beauty and one of the sexiest scenes in all of cinema. Loy actually shows a lot of skin throughout the film in a range of skimpy attire. This is also the only movie I’ve seen to date which shows that the Pyramids of Giza are right beside the city of Cairo and not in the middle of nowhere – Who knew! Watch and observe The Barbarian in all its unbelievable pre-code glory.