Heroes For Sale (1933)

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We Didn’t Start the Fire

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

The amount of subject matter and themes present in Heroes For Sale could create a verse in We Didn’t Start the Fire; morphine addiction, the great depression, unemployment, disgruntled vets, capitalism, communism, police brutality, automation, mob mentality, false imprisonment, stolen valour, rock n’ roll and cola wars, I can’t take it anymore! All packed within 71 minutes (well minus those last two I just mentioned). I find the sheer volume of topics the movie covers to be its weakness, many of the issues are only covered on a base level and doesn’t massively go into depth with them rather than focusing on a single topic. – Think of the movie as “Issues Facing American Society During the Great Depression 101”.

Heroes For Sale is an emotionally engaging film regardless of its constant shift in theme. Richard Barthelmess seems to have been made for heavy hitting dramas with that face and voice of his. In the role of Thomas Holmes he plays a character whom gets screwed over again and again; not being rewarded or ultimately losing his rewards either by bad luck or at the hands of a broken system. According to the details of a state narcotic farm card, Holmes is 25 in 1921 of which Barthelmess is defiantly not (yet despite being clearly too old for the role the ageing makeup in use is very effective).

At the beginning of the film, Holmes captures a German soldier in battle only to be shot and be captured by the German’s while his cowardly friend is mistakenly glorified and given a Medal of Honour for Thomas’ brave deed. Only a few minutes Heroes For Sale is comprised of a WWI battle, but any self-respecting war movie would jealous to have a sequence looking this good and real showcase of William Wellman’s skills as a director.

The film’s comic relief comes in the form of Max Brinker (Robert Barrat), a crazy caricature of a communist. They say communism fails to breed innovation due to the lack of an incentive yet Max is an inventor always hammering away in his room. Once he invents a machine which makes washing and drying clothes easier he happily becomes rich of it; reaping the rewards of your own invention rather than the state owning it. After this he dresses and acts like what would be a caricature of a capitalist seen in Communist propaganda, wearing a tux and top hat while despising the poor (*clicking tongues).

The fear of automation is present during the later portion of Heroes for Sale, the one aspect of the film which hits right at home as I write this review in 2018 in which major companies are automating their services. At the same time, however, does the fact that Heroes for Sale shows this fear existed in the 1930’s not prove that it is an unfounded one, that the market will adapt and life will go on? Holmes pitches the automated washing device invented by his friend Max to the head of a cleaning company under the pretence that it must not be used to throw anyone out of work or cut salaries but rather to increase production, makes jobs easier and make employees working hours shorter. Of course, the evil businessmen go back on their word and automate the entire process and throwing their employees out of work in which the newly found Luddites start rioting in the street. Tom himself is even taken over by guilt over the invention he promoted which resulted in job losses and uses his royalties to help the poor. Well not until he’s run out of town under accusations of being a communist (guy can’t catch a break).

It’s hard to really determine a political message emitting from Heroes for Sale that lands on either side of the political spectrum, even if it does conclude on an optimistic note with a final speech from Holmes about America and FDR’s inaugural address (whether the New Deal was counterproductive or not but that a whole other can of worms). It provides an interesting contrast to the more ominous final words given by Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath. Both films end with a titular Tom vanishing into the dark of night promising to do good in some form or another.

“It may be the end of us, but it’s not the end of America.”

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Female (1933)

Man, I Feel Like a Woman!

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Majority of reviews I have read for Female express disappoint for the film’s apparent cop-out conservative ending. A female CEO of an automobile company hands the business over to her soon to be husband and proclaims she wants to have nine children. I won’t lie though; I would have had the same reaction if I had seen Female at a younger age. I’m actually very happy that I first watched this movie when I did during a time when I became familiar with the works from the likes of Jordan Peterson and was around the time of James Damore’s Google Memo. News Flash; there are biological and psychological differences between men and women and as a result, the two make different life choices and exceed in different fields while finder others more difficult. Women are less career orientated than men and don’t push as hard for positions of power and therefore are less likely to become CEOs. The automobile industry itself had its first female CEO in 2014 but you can only attribute this to discrimination for so many years after women’s liberation. Regardless of the writer’s intention in Female, it was refreshing to see a film which portrays such an honest depiction of the differences between men and women, not to mention one made before the science on the subject became definitive. Like in Queen Christina from the same year, Female shows how positions of power require a sacrifice of feminine virtues.

Allison Drake (played by the radiant and sadly forgotten Ruth Chatterton) is an iron lady who lost her girlish illusions when forced to take on her father’s business. She is a playgirl who seduces employees from her factory when bringing them to her house for so-called “business”. It’s odd hearing about how films of the pre-code era outraged groups such as Christians when films such as in the example of Female don’t paint a sexually promiscuous lifestyle as one that leads to much happiness. Allison’s gigolos (on top of not being very interesting) are mere yes-men who bow to her every whim; cucks as modern internet slang would refer to them as. Alison desires to be liked for bring herself and not as the president of a motor company. As she says early in the film, “Oh I see lots of men, but I’ve never found a real one”. In Queen Christina fashion she goes downtown under the guise of a commoner and meets the no-nonsense Jim Throne (George Brent).

Following their time together Allison comes across Jim again when he just so happens to coincidently start working for her company. After learning of Allison’s true identity he is invited back to her place for “business” but doesn’t fall for any of her seduction techniques; Throne is a man who is above that and has no desire to become a gigolo. With Allison’s new found desire for a domineering man she asks her father figure of sorts Pettigrew what kind of women men like Jim Throne desire; why women who are “gentle and feminine”. He’s not wrong, is he? What follows is a picnic scene in which Allison humorously tries too hard to be gentle and feminine. At the end of the day, Allison Drake is a woman making her own choice of what she wants to do in pursuit of her own happiness, what could be more liberating? In what would be a fantasy for 1933, no systemic force is keeping her down nor is she browbeaten by anyone to leave her position as CEO. It’s entirely her own choice, one of the virtues afforded to anyone living in a free society. This makes Female a fascinating watch, not only through the context of when it was made but even more so through a modern context.

Female is yet another example of those 60 minute long pre-code films which go by very fast and pack a lot into them. It is a movie of three directors but doesn’t feel like an odd stitch-up of a film; what shots evoke William Wellman and which evoke Michael Curtiz?  The film is full of unforgettable art deco sets and eye-watering cinematography not to mention the Ennis House which is used for Allison’s mansion. As Joe Gillis puts it: “I was a great, big white elephant of a place. The kind crazy movie people built in the crazy 20’s”.

Call of the Wild (1935)

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Baby its Cold Outside

The beginning of Call of the Wild (a very loose adaptation of Jack London’s novel of the same name) is made up of hard to decipher plot set up exposition which I was only able to get my head around until my third viewing; surely there could have been a more interesting and engaging way the film could have delivered all this information to the viewer. Likewise, a scene during the beginning of the film in which Jack Thornton (Gable) returns to his room only to find his love interest (and possible prostitute) Marie (Katherine deMille) having an affair with another man doesn’t appear to have any effect on the rest of the plot. According to TCM originally Marie had an earlier scene but this was cut from the original print of the film. After this rather static opening, the film gets rolling and finds one of its emotional cores.

Call of the Wild is one of the best dog movies with its complex relationship and emotional bond between Gable and the Saint Bernard named Buck, one majestic looking beast. Buck is a dog that would be of no use to Jack yet is willing to pay $250 to save its life. The image Gable hugging the pooch tells more than words can; truly man’s best friend.

Arguably the most powerful scene in the film is that of Buck trying to pull 1,000 pounds as the result of a bet. You couldn’t ask for a more powerful and barbaric display of willpower knowing if he doesn’t succeed his life will be taken.  The dog in the film appears to be legitimately struggling regards the weight it is actually carrying in real life. Much of the scenes in Call of the Wild featuring dogs would never make it to screen today due to the unethical treatment of animals which is more than apparent on screen. Near the beginning of the film two dogs fight each other on screen and uncut which today would ether to edited to create the illusion of a fight or with horribly unconvincing CGI. Likewise, the general handling of the dogs and even the use of an actual rabbit as bait for dogs to hunt creates a gritty and brutal realism on screen which could not be replicated today.

Reginald Owen is the show stealer as Mr. Smith, the posh, sinister English gentleman with a sick vendetta against a dog; those ridiculous magnified eyes give him the look of a madman. Likewise, Jack Oakie as Shorty comes off to me as an uncowardly version of the Cowardly lion, even down to that laugh. Shorty was killed off in the original cut of the film, as evident from the foreshadowing of his dice turning up snake eyes after Gable throws them to him. The new ending in which Shorty and Jack are reunited prevents the film from being darker in vein like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

It took me a long time to get the appeal of Loretta Young but I gradually came to see her immense likeability, partially in due to those gazing, soulful eyes. In Call of the Wild her makeup is applied flawlessly despite being stuck in the freezing cold wilderness but she’s still she’s a tough cookie who can lecture Gable on a thing or two. I love a good man and woman alone in the wilderness film in which their chemistry fully shines through and the process of falling in love happens organically which in this instance may have been aided by Gable and Young’s affair they had during the production which bore a child named Judy. In a moment of art imitating life Shorty even says; “You know I know a couple of people who used to fool around like that and they got children now”.

I like this sub-genre of the northern western, a refreshing alternative to the mundanity I can often experience in traditional westerns. This is aided by the extensive use of location shooting present in Call of the Wild with those beautiful mountains, silhouetted trees and all that gleaming white snow – I don’t believe there could be a better natural light reflector than the white stuff.

A Star Is Born (1954)

What Price Hollywood?

It’s hard to believe a mainstream film made as late as 1954 has strands of lost footage, yet that is the case with A Star Is Born. The inserts of production photographs over the surviving audio track in the restored version is mildly irritating, so I can just hope and wait that an uncut version of the film will surface one day.

A Star is Born is the ultimate showcase for the incomparable talent that is Judy Garland. The film’s title couldn’t be more apt as this is the role she was born to play in the film her career had been building up to. Every song to come out of her mouth is sang with such emotional intensity, and with this being as much a drama as it is a musical, Garland acts her little heart like never before with her monologue at the end of the film always leaves me stunned. Her performance is surely contributed by the movie very evidently tapping into Garland’s own past insecurities; such as the scene with Esther and the makeup department men.

As much as A Star Is Born is Garland’s big moment in the sun, it is also one of the high points of James Mason’s career in a performance which is nothing short of magnificent (thanks in part to that heavenly voice of his). The character of Norman Maine is right out of a classic tragedy; a man who has accepted his doom rather than fighting against it. He is a tragic figure wearing a mask while joking and makes light about his failing career and his dependence on alcohol. His only remaining hope is that his name will continue to be remembered through the success of his wife’s career (a career from a star which he created) if he dies he will continue to exist through his wife. George Cukor had tackled this material before, first in What Price Hollywood? (1932) and later in Dinner at Eight (1933) in which John Barrymore played the alcoholic, washed up actor Larry Renault. Like Norman Maine, Renault succumbs to the bottle, although has a demise without any optimistic ending that Norman Maine has. The other real standout member of the cast is Jack Carson as Matt Libby the publicity department executive. Carson often played roles such as PR agents but it’s not hard to see why as the man has the born look of a con man.

There is real movie magic within the structure as well as individual moments throughout A Star Is Born. The entire first act, for example, takes place over the course of one night and within this single portion of the film, we have a whole gauntlet of human emotion (fear, uncertainty, pity, joy, optimism). That scene in which Norman meets Esther for the first time and writes on the wall with lipstick has so much more poignancy when watching the film again.

With The Man That Got Away number, the song itself is amazing but the setting really sells it; a band playing in the early hours of the morning in a club after it’s closed, with the chairs on the table and the lights dimmed, just playing in order to unwind. Not to mention Garland’s vocals, just incredible. Likewise, the scene in which Norman tells Esther to stay behind and start a Hollywood career to a backdrop of city lights – you can feel the world on her shoulder. There is also the publicity department sequence in which Esther is thrown from person to person only to literally end up where she started at the beginning of the scene. I can’t quite put my finger on it but I do smell a metaphor here. For the final portion of the film, it goes right into classic melodrama territory, taking place in a home by the sea with the sound of crashing waves and hard winds.

It’s impressive considering this was George Cukor’s first film in widescreen, his first film in colour plus his first musical, yet watching the film you would he was already a long-established master of these forms in a movie littered with eye-pleasing compositions and a three hour run time which feels shorter than it is. A Star Is Born is a great movie to have playing in the background to enhance of the atmosphere of the room or just listen to the highly lush film score; I can happily listen to orchestral variations of The Man that Got Away over and over again. Likewise, the film’s use of locations in L.A. as well as the Warner Bros studio makes the film a time capsule of Hollywood circa 1954.

Like Singin’ in the Rain, A Star Is Born is a movie which satirises Hollywood with its exposure of the actions of publicity departments and the lengths they go to in order to retain their public relations, however, at the same time it is a movie which celebrates Hollywood; an ideal balance between celebration and self-deprecation. A Star Is Born is an ecstasy explosion of old Hollywood glamour; a world of spotlights, big bands, big costumes, high-end nightclubs, backstage drama and the extravagance that comes with it. Likewise, the number Born in a Trunk is Warner’s attempt to create the type of impressionistic ballet sequence which MGM had perfected – and they certainly succeed, with movies like this it’s hard to look away from the screen.

Night Nurse (1931)

I’m Nick…the Chauffeur!

It doesn’t take long into the film to see Night Nurse is a very negative portrayal of the health service. Dr. Kildare this is not and even makes 1934’s Men In White come off as a more an idealised vision on the health care system in the 1930’s; Night Nurse is anything but. All within the first ten minutes Barbara Stanwyck is turned down for the job as a nurse but then gets it after catching the fancy from a doctor, one of the interns is a pervert and Joan Blondell recommends tricking patients into thinking you’ve saved their life in order to get money out of them. Blondell’s character, in particular, I really found myself loathing from an actress who normally played such likable characters. She clearly dislikes her profession and even recites the Florence Nightingale pledge while chewing gum. Night Nurse is a movie with a wide range of despicable human beings on display. There is even a scene which appears to show an actual baby in distress and another in which children talk about in graphic terms of the abuse they have received: not very comfortable viewing.

Night Nurse is a perfect example of the kind of pictures Warner Bros produced during the 1930’s; a thought-provoking socially conscious melodrama. Whether or not it’s exaggerated the plot of hospital corruption and the ineffectiveness of both the hospital and the authorities to prevent child abuse, the movie does succeed in packing a punch. What does it say when the intervention of gangsters is required to save the life of a child? Warner Bros was also known for featuring ethnic casts in their movies. At the beginning of the movie a shot focuses on a group of Chinese people sitting around a hospital bed speaking in their native language although here it doesn’t have any bearing on the rest of the plot. There is also an emphasises that the shop which is broken into in order to steal milk for a bath in order to save the lives of malnourished children is from a Kosher delicatessen. Is there a particular reason for this? This was 1931 but history has made of this scene of the delicatessen windows being smashed unintentional creepy.

The best reason to see Night Nurse though is Clark Gable in a role which I point to as proof of his acting ability. Gable is scary enough as a character who wants to murder children and isn’t afraid to punch a woman but this is multiplied by the fact that he’s dressed like a Nazi. Ok not really, it’s a chauffeur’s uniform but when I first saw him wearing this, my instant reaction was “Why is he dressed like an SS officer?” He could have had a knack at playing villains; such unrealised potential. His character’s introduction with the use of a camera zoom and the uttering of “I’m Nick…the chauffeur” gives me chills – melodramatic perfection.

The Ox-Bow Incident (1943)

The Mob Doesn’t Think. It Has No Mind of Its Own. The great Spencer Tracy said in Fury!

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

When I think to myself what are the most pessimistic films, The Ox-Bow Incident is one of the first to come to mind. This is the type of film you never forget. Whenever I hear a story in the news related to mob mentality, I always think ‘The Ox-Bow Incident’! In the same way how any news story of political corruption or ineffectiveness makes me think Mr Smith Goes to Washington. The eerie music throughout the film sets the tone that something bad is going to happen.

This is the type of film that needs public exposure. It showcases how people can be pack animals who will rally behind something whether or not it’s true; demanding quick, speedy justice regardless of the consequences, with an ending which is a pessimistic punch to the gut, making you feel bad about humanity. The characters having no patience for the legal system and bend the law to fit their own agendas by allowing a deputy sheriff to deputise others. The result: three men are lynched on flimsily evidence that later turn out to be innocent. And if that wasn’t bad enough; the man they were accused of murdering is actually still alive. Remember just how easily false information can spread – do you hear that internet?

All the cast members of The Ox-Bow Incident have their moment in the sun, although it’s Dana Andrews is the one of who steals the show for me – just what you expect for a man threatened with lynching for a crime he is not proven to have committed. The hung bodies themselves don’t appear on screen as this would have been too graphic for the time. Only their shadows appear which is no less a powerful image.

Henry Fonda’s character is like the man in the painting in the saloon who is about to reach out for a woman – “In reach but can’t do anything about it”. Henry Fonda was not a producer on The Ox-Bow Incident but it’s likely had more of a role than just an actor. At the age of 14, Fonda’s father took him to witness the lynching of a young black man accused of rape – an event which had a profound impact on him, so it’s clear the material of The Ox-Bow Incident was of prime interest to him. Even in the film’s trailer he appears as himself talking about the book and film, and states “it’s not ethical for an actor to talk about a picture he’s in”. Yikes, times have changed!

Lynching was still prevalent in 1943 and the movie takes a jab at southerners with much of the posse being southern stereotypes. One of them even says at one point “Down in Texas where I come from we just get a man and string him up”, and even the unofficial leader of the posse Major Tetley wears a Confederate uniform.

The movie also packs a punch with its critique on machismo. The character of Major Tetley tries to make himself out to be more than he is while trying pathetically to be manly and tough. He tries to make a man out his effeminate and possibly gay adopted son (Tetley refers to him at one point as a “female boy”) by forcing him to be part of the lynching mob; needless to say things end in a tragic state. The son barely utters a word throughout the film until the end in which he gives a monologue to his father on what a depraved animal he is – such a release of anger. Likewise, Jane Darwell plays an annoying loud-mouthed old hag (ugh, that laugh) who is essentially one of the guys and believe you me: you just want to tape her mouth shut.

At only 75 minutes the film doesn’t screw around and gets straight to the point. The only disruption in the film’s pacing is a subplot regarding Henry Fonda’s character and his ex-girlfriend. I haven’t got any answers to how this is relevant to the rest of the plot. Westerns are not my favourite genre so to enjoy one they have to be incredibly well done or stand out of the crowd. In The Ox-Bow Incident, the western setting is merely a backdrop. The film has a low budget complete with obviously fake backdrops but it’s unlike anything else being made in Hollywood at the time. The film I found it held the most resemblance towards was Paths of Glory but preceding it by 14 years. The world wasn’t ready for The Ox-Bow Incident in 1943 – but is it still ready?