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.

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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.

Captain Blood (1935)

There Will Be Blood

Captain Blood, the one that started it all. The beginning of both the Flynn-de Havilland partnership and the Flynn-Curtiz partnership, establishing Erich Wolfgang Korngold as a movie composer and ushering in a new era of swashbucklers. Talk about a great start for two careers; two unknown actors being cast in a major production at one of Hollywood’s biggest studios. Should Hollywood have taken more risks like this more often or was this just a freakishly lucky gamble?

Warner Bros where the best studio of the 1930’s when it came to making thrillers and action pictures in this their answer of MGM’s Mutiny on the Bounty. The combination of Michael Curtiz’s direction, Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s pumping music scores, Errol Fylnn’s embodiment of a swashbuckling action hero and the dynamic he shared with Olivia de Havilland represents all the elements coming together at the right place and time to create something truly special. It’s no surprise that these elements would reunite many times over the next few years.

The scenes between Flynn and de Havilland are pure movie magic, when they’re together and alone it’s like they’re suddenly in a whole world of their own, it’s truly phenomenal. With his long hair and muscular physique I don’t think Flynn has ever been more attractive that he was in Captain Blood; he certainly never appeared this beat up than he did in any of his subsequent movies. During production scenes had to be reshot as Fylnn’s acting had improved so dramatically over time; the man is a far better actor than he’s given credit for. The character of Peter Blood reflects Flynn’s real-life personality, a free spirit who has had enough adventure for 6 years to last him 6 lifetimes. De Havilland, on the other hand, was only 19 during the filming of Captain Blood, and it never ceases to amaze me I watch her in a film and knowing that she is still alive. As of writing this review, there are only two years left until she reaches 100. I am counting down the days.

The plot of Captain Blood is a surprisingly empowering tale of defiance against corrupt authority and the seeming meaninglessness of war (“I fought for the French against the Spanish and the Spanish against the French”) giving the film that added intelligent edge but this doesn’t take away from the film’s aurora of just pure unmitigated fun.

After the Thin Man (1936)

All In The Family

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

After the Thin Man clearly has a much higher budget than the first film so it does loose the grittier, low budget charm of the original but it still works in its own glossier way. I don’t think any of The Thin Man sequels reached the standard of the first film but this was the best of them.

After the Thin Man gives William Powell some of the best comedic moments of his career; the scene in which he has a conversation with the snoring gentlemen I could watch over and over; he manages to maintain composure and still act sarcastic no matter how frustrated he gets. Although my favourite part of the film is just watching Nick and Nora trying to get an important clue from Asta by chasing him through their giant manner of a house. Just how does a retired detective and a woman who doesn’t work manage to afford to live in a palace like this during the great depression anyway? Every movie in the series had a long sequence in which Nick would go sleuthing on his own in the dark with no dialogue or music, and rightfully so, it’s so captivating. The plot is even the easiest in the series and I was actually just barely able to keep up with it.

The film’s most notable contribution to cinema is having James Stewart’s first really notable screen role. This would be the only time in his career in which he would play a villain as the suspiciously motivated David Graham. At the end of the film when he’s revealed to be the murder culprit, he has a breakdown and threatens everyone at gunpoint before being thwarted and then arrested. Jimmy Stewart as a heartless murderer who is sent to prison, what kind of crazy movie is this? It’s disheartening in a way to see this but of course, this was before he became forever enshrined as the everyman. He does pull off the role and displays he was a natural acting talent from the start of his career and shows he could have potentially portrayed convincing villains. Also look out for the Asian bodyguard who throws his hat to get a gun from Jimmy Stewart’s hand, Oddjob anyone?