The Mad Genius (1931)

Emphasis on the Word Mad

I feel like no other decade seems to have as many obscure gems lost to time as the 1930’s; case in point, The Mad Genius. Coming out in the same year as the iconic adaptations of Frankenstein, Dracula, and Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde; but in my humble opinion, The Mad Genius is a better and more intriguing film than any of those.

The opening of The Mad Genius does a superb job at setting a time and place; central Europe in the early 20th century. There is an impeccable level of detail in creating the world of a traveling performer; with the falling of the rain, the wind and the sound of horse and carriage taking full advantage of sound technology to create a world. Equally as impressive is Vladimar Ivan Tsarakov’s (John Barrymore) Berlin theatre and the large-scale stage set with hints of German expressionism throughout and the widespread use of music in the soundtrack, unlike other early talkies.

John Barrymore is (unsurprisingly) mesmerising as Vladimar Ivan Tsarakov (quite a name), one of the most repulsive characters he ever played as he spends the movie spewing pompous and at times mad scientist like dialogue. He has a misogynistic attitude towards women and is even seen ogling up the skirts of his dancers, in one of the film’s very pre-code elements. He is even a drug dealer, although the word drug is never used in the film nor is it identified what substances appear in the film. In one scene in which he refuses to deal drugs with the stage director played by Luis Alberni, I love his summary on drugs when he throws them into the fire; “If I drop this, you will be free, but you will suffer of course, but in the end, you will be happier than you could ever dream”. Likewise In one of the movie’s comic highlights, there is an early use of profanity in the film; “It’s unbelievable that there’s any human being living, who should be such a stupid ass”.

One of the many interesting observations in The Mad Genius is the combination of elements from other movies. The plot itself is derivative of Barrymore’s previous horror outing Svengali, while Tsarakov’s desire to create a great ballet dancer out of a young boy is a variation on Dr. Frankenstein (which the movie itself alludes to). When Tsarakov is wearing on overcoat he is bent over like Quasimodo; Barrymore’s facial appearance is very similar to that of Bela Lugosi in White Zombie, likewise, his voice is reminiscent of Lugosi’s Dracula. The theatre setting has vibes of The Phantom of the Opera and perhaps most interestingly are the elements of The Red Shoes with the film’s inclusion of ballet and the themes of going to extremes for one’s art. Could Powell and Pressburger have taken inspiration from The Mad Genius?

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The Moons Our Home (1936)

The Whole of the Moon

The Moons Our Home is one of my favourite super obscure films with only 139 users ratings on IMDB as of writing this review and a proclamation from Bill Murray as one of his favourite films (look up his appearance on the Siskel and Ebert Holiday Gift Guide 1988 in which he mentions he would like a video cassette of the film for Christmas). The Moons Our Home has only recently seen its due on DVD on the Universal Vault Series although when I watched the film I had to access it through a torrent. Not the greatest image quality but as a big fan Margaret Sullavan and a Henry Fonda enthusiast I was overjoyed to get a hold of the film and was not let down in the slightest.

What surprised me about Margaret Sullavan’s performance as movie star Cherry Chester (real name Sarah Brown) is how much she reminded me of Jean Harlow, always changing mood within a split second. Sullavan and Harlow are two actresses I didn’t think I would ever compare so it’s fascinating to see this aspect of her screen persona I didn’t even know existed. Right from the beginning of the film Cherry Chester is screaming, throwing tantrums and acting like an all-round pretentious drama queen. There is even a Hepburn-esque quality to her character with her fierce desire to be independent as well as clothing choices of a turtleneck and trousers.

Henry Fonda’s role as the explorer Antony Amberton is very much the same as we are introduced to his character escaping from a group of screaming fans which he compares to his daring exploits from the jungles of Africa to the peak of Mount Everest like a male Greta Garbo. Also, notice how all his fans are giddy women, yeah I don’t think he’s exactly Roald Amundsen. Sullavan and Fonda had previously been married, making their pairing feel more tender and genuine with moments like their histrionics in the snow being as adorable as they are funny. The Moon’s Our Home also features innovative use of split screen in which Sullavan and Fonda are given half of the screen to represent different rooms in which they move in parallel and symmetrical tandem.

The other aspect which so effectively carries The Moon’s Our Home is all the great character actor moments with the likes of Beulah Bondi, Margaret Hamilton, and Walter Brennan as the hard of hearing justice of the peace; a brief but very funny role. However, I think the best of these moments involves Charles Butterworth as Horace, the man who is chosen by Cherry/Sarah’s grandmother as her arranged husband. This is despite in his many unsuccessful marriage proposals to different women. Listen to how mundanely and awkwardly he describes how he will “lift her off her feet” while being distracted by a game of solitaire. The Moon’s Our Home is full of moments like this which are funny on different levels.

It’s already a joy to discover a film I love, even more so when it’s a film that almost no one else will watch in a million years. It gives me the sense that it’s my movie. I guess this is what hipsters must feel like listening to bands no one else has heard off.