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?

The Great Man Votes (1939)

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The Great Man Acts

The Great Man Votes is a humble little picture which packs a lot into it; offering a slice of Americana, taking place in “An American City, 1923”  (well the film tells us it isn’t Boston at least). The movie has a similar set up to 1931’s The Champ about a man and a single father who has fallen from grace, a loser to the rest of the world but is adored by his children who know him for what he is and help take care of him. Gregory Vance (John Barrymore) sums up this relationship he has with his children with an elegance that John Barrymore does best; “I believe the devil took you two squirts up on a mountain and offered you the whole world before your eyes, you’d come running back to your old man”. Like Barrymore’s Oscar Jaffe from Twentieth Century, Vance is a man who is who is always making references to history and literature in his speech.

The character of Gregory Vance is a representation of Barrymore at the time with his declining career brought on (at least in part) from his dependence on alcohol. Vance’s alcoholism is prophetic on Barrymore’s demise as the man would die just a few years later from the bottle. However one thing was still for sure, he was still a great actor. One interesting side note is that Luis Alberni who played a drug addict alongside Barrymore in The Mad Genius in which Barrymore’s character sold him drugs, in The Great Man Votes Alberni plays the reverse as a milkman who deals alcohol to Vance during prohibition.

The two children in The Great Man Votes played by Virginia Wielder and Peter Holden manage to hold their own against Barrymore which is no easy task. They are two mature, intelligent kids who even know how the political machine works but when they have to fend for their own and look after their drunk father, they have no choice but to be this way. Virginia Wielder is the movie’s real scene stealer. Like in The Philadelphia Story, she robs any scene she inhabits and is even the victim to a punch in the face in one of the film’s more shocking moments.

Gregory Vance is the only registered voter in his key precinct during the mayor’s re-election. It’s not explained how this manages to be the case but it’s a charming political fantasy in which a corrupt politician is at the mercy of a single John Doe to be elected to office; a case in which one person’s vote truly matters. There is no identification of who the parties are in the film but I do appreciate the scene in which a speaker talks about how voters are slaves to tradition, voting for the traditional party choice over and over again; how true. The Great Man Votes also notably showcases America as the melting pot of cultures as seen during the multi-ethnic pledge of allegiance given in the children’s school.

The movie has a number of nice filmmaking touches to it such as the shot of the two kids walking to school in which we only see their feet as they talk, to an innovative, ahead of its time edit in which the teacher (Katharine Alexander) asks Vance in regard to the wellbeing of his missing children, “But what about Joan and Donald?”, instantly cutting to Donald in another house saying “we’re doing pretty well”.

The villain of The Great Man Votes is the politician Iron Hat McCarthy; not a guy who appears to be in politics to spread any virtue nor does it help he shares the same last name as one of the most vilified figures in 20th-century politics. He is introduced giving candy to children because “they’ll all be voting the straight ticket one fine day”, he says in an unsavory tone; indoctrinate them while they’re young. These traits are carried over to his douche bag son which is visualised in an early example of an ass gag in which he falls into wet cement and creates an imprint of his rear end, a constructing worker looks down at it and utters “spitting image of his old man” and the camera cuts to the ass imprint in the cement.

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?

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.

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.

A Bill of Divorcement (1932)

A Star Is Born

Katharine’s Hepburn’s screen debut proved to be a stronger film than I expected, starring alongside the great John Barrymore in this tragic mental illness melodrama and when I say tragic, I do mean tragic. Boy does this movie lay it on thick but it sure made this viewer’s hear sink. Even before Barrymore appears on screen I was already starting to feel sorry for this character upon learning he’s spent years at a mental asylum with shell shock and couldn’t pursue his music, and that’s only the beginning. You know that dirty word people like to throw around, “manipulative”; well this movie certainly manipulated me. Yet despite the story laying additional tragic layers after another, the performances make it work and prevent it from coming come off as totally ridiculous.

Watching Katharine Hepburn I would never have guessed this was her first film, she is entirely natural and gives the impression of someone has much acting experience. Plus she was never more youthful than she is here, springing full of energy and life. Supposedly director George Cuckor inserted shots in the film which did nothing to advance the story nor deepen character but were simply lingering shots of Hepburn in which the audience could adjust and get acquainted with her.

John Barrymore, however, is the main star of the show. Throughout the film there is a sadness and fragile nature of his voice while he denies the reality of the situation to himself and pulling the puppy dog eyes; with the occasional scenery chewing outburst. He’s a ham but a lovable ham. I feel the most powerful moment in the film is the scene in which Barrymore breaks into tears into the arms of his neglectful wife (Billie Burke) while she can’t even bear to look at him; I almost broke into a tear myself.

I’ve read many comments describing the film “stagey” – not at all. Shots are framed with depth, often at different angles and with objects framed in the foreground; George Cukor was a better director than that. A Bill of Divorcement is a heart sinker if there ever was one.