The Last Flight (1931)

Party Animals

The Last Flight is one of the more unique movies to come out of 1930’s Hollywood (possibly in part due to the film being directed by German newcomer to Hollywood, William Dieterle). It didn’t hold my attention on first viewing with its surprising plotless structure but the odd nature of the movie made me want to give it another try. The Hemingway like Lost Generation film follows a group of Great War veterans leading a shallow and hopeless existence as they spend their nights drinking and partying in Paris while making no attempt to properly readjust to civilian life (“Well there they go, out to face life, and their whole training was in preparation for death”) – A tale which would be repeated throughout cinema with various wars.

The film is entirely driven by the rapport between the characters and the listlessness that covers their lives. Along the way, they met a metaphorical representation of their damaged states in the form of Niki (Helen Chandler). The first scene with this character really confused me on first viewing as it sounds like she’s saying she is holding a man’s “tea” rather than his “teeth”. Why the men would get so excited over this? It’s not clear if Nikki is a ditsy dame, constantly inebriated or just nuts. She doesn’t mind just standing and holding the teeth of a stranger who wants to go out back and fight and even keeps turtles in a hotel bathroom.

I do love the exquisite Paris nightlife circa 1919 as presented in the film with the suits and the drinks, you really get a sense of the all the good (if pathetic on a deeper level) times they have (even if it’s never explained how they fund their drinking adventures). Allow me to express my inner grumpy old man when compared to modern nightlife.

Richard Barthelmess gave some of the most memorable performances of the pre-code era, having the ability to convey the look of a damaged man as seen in the role of Cary Lockwood, the most sensible one of the ecliptic group. Likewise, there’s also Frink (Walter Byron) and his sexual misconduct (“He is a member of the wandering hands society and has a grouping good time”), in which the men are shockingly tolerant of his behaviour as they call him out and criticise his actions but never expelling him from the group. Even after an attempted rape on a train the men only tell him to apologise and to never get out of line again.

The Last Flight reuses footage at the beginning from Barthelmess’ previous war film, The Dawn Patrol; both are based on stories from John Monk Sanders and make for a great double feature. – The Last Flight is a film for a patient viewer but one which holds many nihilistic rewards.

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?

The Lady Eve (1941)

So Close, Yet So Far

The Lady Eve is a conflicting film. The first hour is some of the most perfect romantic comedy I’ve ever seen, however, it falls apart around the one hour mark. However, what is it that makes the first hour so perfect? Firstly it didn’t take too long for me to realise that Henry Fonda and Barbara Stanwyck are one of the most flawless screen pairings ever, the perfect combination of sexy meets innocent. Watching these two I get the impression they must have been head over heels for each other. I’ve read that apparently Henry Fonda would later tell his wife he was still in love with Barbara Stanwyck, dam! But then again, after having your hair caressed by Stanwyck for 3 minutes and 51 seconds, who wouldn’t be?!

The Lady Eve is a prime example of a “How did they get away with that?!” movie. I’m not aware of what Stanwyck’s ideological or moral beliefs were but a number of her films are some of most sexually suggestive old Hollywood films I’ve seen. There’s her pre-code work such as Baby Face but in the postcode era, we have Ball of Fire, Double Indemnity and of course, The Lady Eve. Call me old-fashioned but movies were sexier when the actors kept their clothes on. Vilma Banky did more with one raised eyebrow than an entire (Warning! Problem in Sector 7G).

So where does it all go wrong, well about 50 minutes into The Lady Eve, the movie pulls my least favourite movie cliché of all time, “the liar revealed”. You know, when a character is exposed as a fraud causing a relationship to end, even though you know they’re going to get back together again by the end of the movie. Having this cliché is bad enough, however, I thought it was only a contrived modern invention but here it is in 1941. At least they don’t drag it out like any rubbish modern-day romantic comedy would.

I’ve found Preston Sturges’ films to be indiscipline, his films all have their moments of greatness but at times they delve into over the top absurdity, even by screwball comedy standards. During the later part of The Lady Eve it’s hard to buy into Stanwyck disguising herself as another woman who doesn’t look massively different from her previous self in order to win back Henry Fonda. Oh, and he buys into the charade, the dope! Part of me wished the entire movie could have just been the two of them on the boat and it would have been a perfect film, however the final third still has some hilarious moments, such as Eugene Pallette frantically banging the table demanding his breakfast, or Fonda getting his suit destroyed three times at a party, a perfectly timed slapstick gag if I’ve ever seen one.

On a second viewing of The Lady Eve, I still have the same reaction to the first hour but I did find myself more forgiving of the last third. With my love of screwball comedies and the pairing of Stanwyck and Fonda, perhaps with additional future viewings, I may become completely forgiving of the last half hour. The first hour is just that perfect.