Treasure Island (1934)

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Me Timbers Remain Shivered

I’ve never read the book Treasure Island so I can’t compare this 1934 adaptation to the source material but rather give a point of view as someone who watched the film out of admiration for the stars involved. Treasure Island doesn’t have the unmanufactured feel or the neo-realism of the previous pairing of Wallace Beery and Jackie Cooper of The Champ (then again few films do) but I was satisfied to get my fill of another Beery-Cooper pairing. The chemistry they share, what a pure and natural delight.

For me Cooper’s performance in Treasure Island is priceless; a little kid trying to act tough. I can’t help but let out an “awwwww!!” at any moment when he’s in over his head. I can see how his performance would rub others the wrong way but I can’t get enough of it. Cooper’s relationship to Beery, in reality, was nothing like it was in fiction but watching him on screen you would never think otherwise. You can see the admiration Jim Hawkins has for Long John Silver on his face and likewise, when he discovers the truth about Long John, just look at the pure horror that bestows his face. Wallace Beery on other hand looks just like a true, rugged seafarer and a beast of a pirate. Being an actor of the silent era he has a beat-up face which says so much. Beery simply had the look this role required.

Treasure Island saw the return of the swashbuckler to Hollywood, popular during the 1920’s but almost nonexistent during the pre-code era. Coming from MGM, the production values are second to none, even throwing some exotic animals into the mix and a taster of what was to come in MGM’s Mutiny on the Bounty.

Before Beery appears on screen Lionel Barrymore as Billy Bones steals any scene he occupies and when I say steals, I mean steals. I can’t determine whether or not his performance is supposed to be funny or not but his scenery-chewing grounceness, rambling and his constant desire for rum cracks me up (“Bottle of rum ya old hag!!”).

The ending is an emotional punch to the gut albeit one of mixed emotions. It’s not clear during the film whether or not Long John has any affection for Jim or is just manipulating him and taking advantage of his naivety. Regardless of watching Jackie Cooper crying his little heart out as Beery embarks of the ship, you would need to have a heart of stone not to be moved.

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The Gay Divorcee (1934)

The Old English Definition of Gay

I had a period in which I was infatuated with the greatness that is Fred Astaire & Ginger Rodgers. Prior to this I often heard of them but I was occupied with later film musical of the 50’s. When I checked them out for myself I got it, oh boy did I get it. When together dancing or not, Fred and Ginger are in a world of their own and everyone else ceases to exist. Just look as Night & Day (my favourite Astaire and Rodger’s number), what could be more spellbinding? The Gay Divorcee is my favourite Astaire & Rodgers picture. This was their first film together as leads and yet a feel it gets everything right and I consider it a much better film than Top Hat which itself I find overrated.

I find the humour of The Gay Divorcee is more creative than that of Top Hat. Take the sequence in which Astaire finds Rodger in London by near impossible luck, then the two engage in a car chase into the countryside (how often do you get a car chase in a 30’s musical), and then in a wacky races type moment he goes ahead or Rodgers and gets road closed sign out of nowhere in order to stop her. Astaire’s stalker attitude could come off as creepy but he is charming enough to get away with it, making these moments morbidly funny. This whole sequence is so surreal and plays like a live-action cartoon as if the filmmakers are making fun of the film’s own highly improbably mistaken identity plot. This is much more clever than the handling of the mistaken identity plot in Top Hat. I don’t mean to completely undo Top Hat, I think it’s a good movie, just whatever Top Hat did I can’t help but feel The Gay Divorcee did much better. I’ve always championed Astaire’s unsung abilities as a comedian. His timing and line delivery is easily on par with the likes of Cary Grant; I wish he could have appeared in some non-musical comedies. Ginger Rodgers usually had a female companion throughout the series and I think Alice Brady is the best of them all with her histrionics; the sound of her voice alone cracks me up.

The Gay Divorcee may have slipped through the recently instated production code. If not then it certainly feels like a pre-code film, with sexual tension throughout and an air of scandalousness to the whole thing.

Fred and Ginger, they were gods!

Twentieth Century (1934)

Overacting at Its Finest

John Barrymore in Twentieth Century. Simply put. Every once in a while I may stumble upon a screen performance which leaves an indelible impression, brings me new levels of respect towards a performer and to even write a review. That’s the effect John Barrymore’s tour de force had on me in Twentieth Century. Barrymore is an absolute beast as the egomaniac Oscar Jaffe delivering one of my favourite film performances ever.

Barrymore had earned the reputation of being a ham actor although that’s perhaps the nasty way of putting it. Theatrical style acting may seem outdated and laughable to many nowadays but it is a style unto itself. When Barrymore asked director Howard Hawks why he should play the role of Oscar Hawks replied: “It’s the story of the biggest ham on Earth and you’re the biggest ham I know”. The film even foreshadowed Barrymore’s own future as he himself became a washed up actor in the final years of his life like how the character of Oscar Jaffe becomes a shadow of his former self. Really has there ever been a more impassioned performance which is hammed up to 11 than this. Barrymore doesn’t just chew the scenery in every scene he is in, he devours it like a ravenous dog; he’s the definitive representation of the angry stage director stereotype. Just look at his breakdown scene when his Tribley leaves him for Hollywood, one of the greatest displays of histrionic acting poweress. Oscar Jaffe really is a fascinating character. It isn’t just enough for him to tell an employee of his theater that they have been fired, he has to tell them in the most melodramatic fashion “I close the iron door on you!”, or what about his constant comparisons to his present occurrences to scenes from famous plays or historical events. Half of what this man says is more melodramatic than Charlton Heston and William Shatner combined. Barrymore was known as The Great Profile and rightfully so; talk about an enigmatic screen presence.

The sheer energy between Barrymore and Carole Lombard is incredible in this ultimate battle of the egos; both of these two performers cross that line in comedy of playing hateful, selfish, disciple characters you can’t help but love. Carole Lombard herself has an endearing, childlike quality to her, getting overly emotional when Jaffe insults her acting ability; appropriate though since much of the film is two adults acting like children. The first portion of the film is comprised of a stage rehearsal, showcasing an impressive display of actors playing actors giving bad performances with Jaffe insulting them at every turn (“The old south does not yodel”)  but it’s the film’s second half in which things really get crazy, taking place onboard the Twentieth Century Limited. When I first watched the film I found the subplot with the religious fanatic to feel out of place at first but trust me when I say the payoff is worth it. Twentieth Century is very screamy and very shoutey but there are many little subtle touches such as the establishing shot at the start of the film of a poster advertising the Jaffe theater (showcasing the man’s insane ego); possibly the funniest establishing shot I’ve ever seen. Also, keep an ear out for several references to Svengali, adapted to film in 1931 also starring John Barrymore. I also must give a shout out to Mary Jo Mathews, the actress who plays Valerie Whitehouse. She only has several lines in the entire film yet I’m intrigued by her; she appears to have star quality to her.

Along with It Happened One Night released the same year, Twentieth Century movie marks the birth the screwball comedy. I can never get enough of these films, they’re incredibly addictive and they always leave me with the feeling of wanting more. I don’t like to be labeled as one of those “they don’t make ‘em like they used to” people actually who am I kidding, of course, I do.

The Thin Man (1934)

Meddling Adults

William Powell and Myrna Loy, will I ever get bored of watching these two? I wish I could possess the wit and charm of William Powell, someone who can still remain classy and have a way with words even when inebriated (which is often). I wish I could be married to a woman like Myrna Loy. For Nick and Nora Charles being married is just one crazy murder mystery solving adventure after another! With so many movies in which marriage is a hindrance, here are two people who revel in being married without the worry of children (for now anyway).  I find myself jealous at these two for their existence of seemingly never-ending fun. It’s no wonder audiences of the 1930’s where attracted to these escapist fantasies in their droves.  Sometimes a man and a woman with impeccable chemistry is all you need for cinematic greatness.

The Thin Man gave birth to Myrna Loy receiving the label “the perfect wife”. Loy disliked this label but it’s not hard to see why she got such a reputation. She seems too perfect to exist like she was conjured out of the mindsets of what heavenly actress should be. It’s not all just Nick and Nora though, there is an entertaining supporting cast including the Wynet family, the classic screwball comedy troupe of the oddball family. It’s not My Man Godfrey levels but they are a bunch of nuts, with my favourite being the wannabe criminologist who is the polar opposite of the suave Nick Charles.

The Thin Man is a fairly inexpensive feature but shows how you can do so much with so little. The sequels had larger budgets and never captured the feeling or the intimacy of the first film. The scene in which Nick and his dog Asta go sleuthing by themselves in an inventor’s laboratory is almost entirely silent, features gorgeous noir cinematography and has me breathless watching the whole thing; setting the stage for the shady noir world of the 1940’s. I’ve seen The Thin Man several times and I still don’t understand the plot yet that doesn’t make the movie any less engaging. Rather it makes me want to watch the film again in hopes that I eventually will understand the plot.

Men In White (1934)

Medical Melodrama

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Initially I was skeptical at weather Clark Gable would make a convincing doctor but not only does he pull it off (even if he is the most gorgeous doctor ever *swoons) Men In White has to be my favourite performance I’ve seen him deliver portraying the idealistic and dignified young Dr. George Ferguson; 60 years before George Clooney in ER. Men In White is a perfect showcase of what Gable is cable off while Myrna Loy, although not dominating the film as much still shares a mature romance with Gable who must make difficult decisions between his profession and his love life. Rest assured I got the satisfactory amount of swooning I would expect from a pairing of these two.

I cannot stress enough just how astounding this movie looks. This is without a doubt most stunning black and white film I’ve seen from the 1930’s. Every scene is light so immaculately with multi-layered and angled shots plus the widespread use of shadows giving the film shades of noir. Even the classic noir shot of the shadows created by blind shutters on one’s face to show they have become imprisoned in life is present. Likewise, the art deco design of the hospital itself would likely not be practical in real life but it sure as hell looks good; needless to say the removal of eyes from the screen is easier said than done. The film’s set designer was Cedric Gibbons, a regular at MGM who helped create the distinctive look of their films in the 1930’s and surely Men In White is one of his greatest achievements.

Movies like this where common in the 1930’s, glorifying those who held jobs central to society (Tiger Shark, Night Flight, Slim). Call them propaganda but they were effective and informative. Although I don’t have any real interest in medicine or healthcare (despite both my parents being nurses) Men In White gives a real sense of awe and wonder to medical world such as when Dr. McCabe (Henry B. Walthall) the elder doctor who gives a rousing speech at the beginning of the film on all the medical advances in his lifetime (anesthesia, sterilization, surgery, x-ray) and the figures behind them. We’ve come much further since 1934, certainly when it comes to the etiquette of the doctors on display. In one scene a doctor hits on a nurse in the open for everyone else to hear while other doctors have no problem openly talking about their sex lives (“Being in love kills your sex life”). There is even one scene in which a doctor is running through the public area of the hospital wearing only a towel! If that happened today it would be all over the tabloids.

Men In White paints a picture of just how demanding a job as a doctor is, working round the clock; Dr. Ferguson works 16-18 hours a day for $20 a week (in 1934 or course). His finance Laura (Myrna Loy) has a selfish streak to her, getting frustrated with Ferguson when he’s only doing his job and one which is detrimental to saving the lives of others. Additionally Jean Hersholt (Hollywood’s great Dane and an actor who has that look of great intellect) as Ferguson’s mentor pressure’s George to put greater priority to his career than his love life. The film’s ending isn’t so predictable having me question whether or not George and Laura will end up together in the end.

Men In White also showcases corruption which can exist within hospitals when a superior doctor knowingly gives a child too much insulin, only for Dr. Ferguson to interfere even if it puts his job on the line. Once the child recovers from the insulin overdose, the superior doctor takes the credit; douche. The child, however, thanks and hugs Dr. Ferguson at the end of the film in what I feel is the movie’s most inspiring moment. Gable isn’t playing a brute here like he often does but rather someone who can project a level of warmth especially with his interaction with his child patient.

The scene in which Dr. Ferguson and the English nurse Barbara Den (Elizabeth Allen) are bonding over their loneliness and then start kissing is a breathtaking sequence. This leads to the most daring aspect of Men In White is the inclusion of abortion in the film’s plot. When I first watched the film I didn’t catch on that the big surgery scene itself was the result of a failed back alley abortion as the film’s hints are very subtle; it’s all in the undertones of the movie. That’s one reason why Men In White is re-watching; distinguishing what’s being said and shown versus what is really going on. If anything this is much more fun and satisfying having the movie simply spell everything out to the viewer.

When it is discovered Nurse Den attempted to get an abortion it is simply alluded to that she has a condition worse than a ruptured appendix and before the surgery itself Dr. Ferguson is questioned, “who is the man?”. It’s not made clear if the child being terminated is the result of the affair between Ferguson and Den, however, before their fling she is seen feeling unwell. Although I can’t comment of how accurate a depiction Men In White is of the medical profession I was still amazed at the level of detail in the movie from the terminology to the wide range of instruments used. One particular moment which stood out to me was the rigorously high level of sanitization the staff must go through prior to surgery. The film has an economic length of only 73 minutes but packs so much content. I’d happily become ill just to go to this hospital.

Manhattan Melodrama (1934)

Melodrama’s so much fun, in black and white for everyone to see.

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

A gangster movie starring Clark Gable, William Powell and Myrna Loy, thankfully I was not disappointed. Watching these three titans of classic Hollywood in action (and sadly the only picture in which Gable and Powell appeared together), Manhattan Melodrama not only had me enthralled from beginning to end, it’s hypnotizingly good. Gangsters, dames, urbanites, class and sophistication, this movie encompasses elements of 1930’s cinema which I’m a sucker for – and yes, the film has the word melodrama in the title, something that would never happen in contemporary cinema.

The Angels With Dirty Faces style plot allows for poignant social commentary, with Powell as a district attorney trying to avoid corruption and not allowing his personal feelings to affect his decisions. William Powell’s performance as Jim Wade is the best I’ve seen him deliver; just listen to the emotional plea he gives during the movie’s courtroom scene. His character is essentially a fantasy, an elected member of government who’s entirely honest. When Wade goes against his ethics and engages in cronyism he tells the truth to the public and resigns from office rather than trying to desperately cling onto power. There’s doubt Powell had a real knack for playing lawyers and elected members of office.

Not to undo Gable as Blackie Gallagher, the manner in which he acts during the film’s final third is simply heartbreaking as he constantly jokes around despite being sentenced to the electric chair in the film’s finale. The ending of this movie just kills me as Wade’s friend since childhood is sentenced to death; it’s near the top of my list of all time tear-jerking scenes, pure cinematic tragedy. The lights of prison even dim as the switch is pulled, the ever classic cliché. In real life that doesn’t actually happen but in the film it is the final tug of the heartstrings. Also, it seems hard to believe now that Mickey Rooney would play a child version of Clark Gable but in 1934 audiences couldn’t have seen what he would turn out to be as an adult.

Does there exist an actress who doesn’t have great chemistry with Clark Gable or even any actor for that matter? Manhattan Melodrama is the first of fourteen screen pairings of Powell and Loy, and their first scene together couldn’t be more perfect, in which she falls into his lap in the back seat of a car as she starts to deliver exposition in the most adorable manner.

MGM is not generally associated with the gangster genre. Manhattan Melodrama doesn’t have the grit of Warner Gangster films but works in its own style of MGM’s glossy high production values and ranks as one of the best gangster films I’ve seen from the 1930’s. The movie seems to be more famous for being the last movie seen by gangster John Dillinger, who was shot by federal agents as he exited a Chicago movie theater. His reason for going to see the movie, apparently he was a Myrna Loy fan. The love of Loy killed John Dillinger, I guess I can’t blame him.

It Happened One Night (1934)

What Is the Deal With Donut Dunking?!

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

It Happened One Night was my first exposure to what I now consider to be my favourite genre of film, the screwball comedy. I’ll never forget the feeling of exuberance at watching Clark Gable run to his boss at the newspaper to pitch a story about how he’s fallen in love with a princess, such energy, such emotion; I had never felt such a way from watching a movie before. It Happened One Night is the famous and most widely seen film of its genre and I believe it deserves such an accolade; something unforgettable is happening in every scene, whether funny or tender, jam-packed little details to spot on every viewing. It Happened One Night along with Twentieth Century gave birth to the screwball comedy, but it isn’t the only sub-genre it set a standard for. The runaway princess movie, the road movie and the newspaper comedy all owe their debts to it.

In his opening scene, Clark Gable is introduced as the king; couldn’t be more adapt. Watching the movie closely I can say that everything this man says is pure gold from his art of donut dunking, art of clothes removal, the different methods hitchhike signaling and his wall of Jericho. Then it dawned on me just how Seinfeldian this movie is. Much of Clark Gable’s dialogue in this movie could be a Jerry Seinfeld stand up routine. It’s easy to see how many screwball comedies have influenced modern day sitcoms; all that’s missing is the laugh track.

Claudette Colbert is one of the most famous incumbents of The Gable Treatment; what I like to call the macho manner in which Gable treats his leading ladies. Of course for any other actor to have this characteristic they would be an unlikable brute, but because it’s Gable it works. I also have to ask did the scene in which Gable eats a raw carrot while attempting to hitch-hike with his usual confidence and cockiness inspire Bugs Bunny? Ah Gable, has never ever existed a more charismatic human being?

Evelyn Prentice (1934)

The Thin Woman

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Movies like Evelyn Prentice give me one of the greatest satisfactions I get from watching films; discovering an obscurity from an actor’s filmography which I end up considering to be one of their finest films. Myrna Loy superbly carries Evelyn Prentice, dominating the majority of the screen time, with William Powell delivering one of his finest dramatic turns while seeing Rosalind Russell in her screen debut is just a mere bonus. Russell doesn’t have a whole lot to do but she still comes off as a memorable screen presence despite this, although it is a little odd hearing her speak in an English accent and not at a machine gun rate. Loy and Una Merkel make for a fun duo, with Merkel having a very memorable comic sounding voice. Just the deco of Evelyn Prentice itself makes me love this film more, whether it’s a smoke-filled nightclub, the lavish interior of Powell and Loy’s home to even the clothes worn in the film (the costume department really knocks this one out of the park), sucking me into the world of the 1930’s.

Scenes such as the family exercising or the father and daughter playing the piano together help humanize them, making me more fearful that a character played by the sweetheart Myrna Loy could be going to prison, or maybe get the electric chair! The tension builds as the film progresses. The scene in which a witness arrives at the Prentice household while Evelyn is present to describe the women she witnessed leaving the murder scene, this woman, of course, being Evelyn buy nobody else knows that, feels like the type of moment you would get from a Hitchcock movie. In fact, the entire premise of the movie could be given the Hitchcock treatment.

I often feel like Hollywood makes being a lawyer look like the coolest job ever. Even if John Prentice (William Powell) is missing time from his family, his turn during the film’s courtroom climax makes the profession look like a constant flow of hair-raising excitement. The film’s final twenty-minute courtroom sequence had my heart pounding, eating up every minute of its melodramatic glory while screaming in anticipation of how the characters are going to get themselves out of this situation.  At the same time, however, I was tense that the movie would pull the characters out of their intense dilemma in a contrived manner, I’m pleased to say I was not disappointed. The outcome of the case is movie fantasy but it didn’t feel like a cop-out. Throughout this sequence, Powell and Loy do some of the finest acting work of their careers. Myrna Loy is generally not highly regarded as a dramatic actress but I would defy anyone says otherwise as she lays on the tears and the passionate pleas. I must also give credit to Judith Wilson, whole also left an impression during these proceedings. As a fan of Powell & Loy partnership and courtroom dramas, their third film together satisfied more than I could ask for. Manhattan Melodrama, The Thin Man and Evelyn Prentice all in one year, ain’t too stingy.

Broadway Bill (1934)

A Day at the Races

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Broadway Bill is Frank Capra’s forgotten follow up to It Happened One Night, likely due to the film being out of circulation until the 1990’s and what a shame too. Warner Baxter and Myrna Loy are not romantic leads as she is his sister in law but both of them have great admiration for each other with Dan Brooks (Baxter) referring to her affectionately as The Princess and Loy clearly in love with the man and holding the same ideals as him but unable to go any further due to family ties; I find this dynamic is more interesting than a standard romance. Capra originally wanted Clark Gable in the lead role but had to settle with Warner Baxter who at least seems to be the next best thing as he holds much of the same rugged, footloose appeal of Gable.

Broadway Bill features many of the same Capra-isms as seen in his other films. The small town of Higginsvillie being run by business mogul J.L Higggins played by Walter Connolly is a much more light-hearted version of Mr Potter from It’s a Wonderful Life. He is in control of his entire family who run his individual enterprises and even their own national bank as visualised in a gag in which the entire Higgin’s family proceed to eat dinner in perfect unison. They’re not the Rothschilds but they’re wealthy and powerful (“Higgins, that’s not a family, that’s a disease”). Yet at the end of the film J.L. gets rid of his businesses or as he puts it, gives back institutions to the people who founded them. Like the Sycamore family in You Can’t Take It With You, Dan Brooks want to leave behind his life of work in favour of leisure and enjoyment, ideals comparable to the counter-cultures of the 1960’s. After all what could be duller than running a paper box company? Unless you’re Seymour Skinner.

One of the most pivotal scenes in Broadway Bill involves one of the richest men in the world, J.P. Chase putting a $2 bet on Broadway Bill at 100/1 as a means to pass time will in hospital. When word gets out it spreads like wild-fire and the claims of what the amount of money he placed on the best become exaggerated from $2 to $20,000 to $50,000 all the way up to a quarter million. Simple message – don’t believe everything you hear.

I love Broadway Bill for its simple cheerful Innocence. This is one of several films which has managed to tug my heartstrings over the fate of a horse. One plot element even involves the horse Broadway Bill refusing to race because he doesn’t have his pet chicken called Skeeter. You wouldn’t find this kind of innocence today in a film which is supposedly made for adults.