Winsor McCay: The Master Edition (2004)

The Centaurs (1921)

Winsor McCay: The Master Edition (2004). 105 minutes. Featuring cartoons written, directed, and animated by Winsor McCay: Little Nemo (1911), How a Mosquito Operates (1912), Gertie the Dinosaur (1914), The Sinking of the Lusitania (1918), Bug Vaudeville (1921), The Pet (1921), The Flying House (1921), The Centaurs (fragment, 1921), Gertie on Tour (fragment, 1921), and Flip’s Circus (fragment, 1921).

Winsor McCay: The Master Edition is a complete collection of the animated shorts of Winsor McCay, whose groundbreaking work influenced Walt Disney and other early pioneers of the medium. McCay’s output was small compared to Disney’s, in part because McCay animated in an earlier period with more cumbersome technology, continued to work as a full-time newspaper cartoonist while he labored on his animated shorts, and mostly worked alone without a studio system. Although McCay’s films are adventurous, some of them, such as Little Nemo (1911) and Gertie the Dinosaur (1914), will look crude to a modern-day audience with their simple lines, … Read the rest

Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933)

Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933)

Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933). 77 minutes. Directed by Michael Curtiz. Starring Lionel Atwill (as Ivan Igor), Fay Wray (as Charlotte Duncan), Glenda Farrell (as Florence Dempsey), Frank McHugh (as Jim), Allen Vincent (as Ralph Burton), Gavin Gordon (as George Winton), Arthur Edmund Carewe (as Professor Darcy), Edwin Maxwell (as Joe Worth), Matthew Betz (as Hugo), and Monica Bannister (as Joan Gale). Art direction by Anton Grot.

Mystery of the Wax Museum is a notable pre-Code horror film about a mad sculptor and his menagerie of ghoulish statues. While less well known today than its contemporaries Frankenstein (1931) and The Mummy (1932), nevertheless it was a commercial hit in its time and has since made a place for itself in history as one of the best of the two-strip Technicolor movies. This limited but spirited color scheme infuses the wax museum setting with beauty, vivacity, and even a certain amount of sex appeal. True, the kitsch and … Read the rest

Call Her Savage (1932)

Call Her Savage (1932)

Call Her Savage (1932). 92 minutes. Directed by John Francis Dillon. Starring Clara Bow (as Nasa Springer), Gilbert Roland (as Moonglow), Thelma Todd (as Sunny De Lane), Monroe Owsley (as Lawrence Crosby), Estelle Taylor (as Ruth Springer), Weldon Heyburn (as Ronasa), Willard Robertson (as Pete Springer), and Fred Kohler (as Silas Jennings).

Pre-Code movies often feature characters who use drugs on screen, but¬†Call Her Savage feels as if it was itself created under the influence—a film verging on disaster, fueled by regrettable judgment, restlessness, and an inability to focus on any one topic for a protracted amount of time. It is the definition of a wild ride at the movies, relentlessly piling on edgy, pre-Code content and melodramatic plot points as it metamorphoses into a dozen different stories and paves the way for an outrageous finale. The film is constantly changing, constantly flabbergasting, and constantly tasteless. Above all, it is an ugly protracted joke about racial temperament that takes … Read the rest

Betty Boop: The Cab Calloway Cartoons (1932-1933)

Snow-White (1933)

From 1932 to 1933, jazz musician, songwriter, and bandleader Cab Calloway was featured in three pre-Code Betty Boop cartoons as a singer and dancer: Minnie the Moocher (1932), Snow-White (1933), and The Old Man of the Mountain (1933). While Calloway was not the only jazz musician to be featured in Fleischer Studios’ Betty Boop cartoons (Louis Armstrong notably appeared in I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead You Rascal You [1932]), his contributions to both the jazz and the animation worlds through his work with the Fleischers was impressive, especially because of the cartoons’ groundbreaking use of rotoscope technology to graph Calloway’s signature dance movements onto the bodies of his cartoon avatars. Of the three cartoons, Snow-White in particular reaches dizzying heights of complexity and coolness, but all three short films are important artifacts of jazz history and are particularly notable for their contributions to the shaping and styling of jazz celebrity in the popular imagination.

Minnie the Moocher (1932). 8

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Pinocchio (1940)

Pinocchio (1940)

Pinocchio (1940). 88 minutes. Directed by Ben Sharpsteen and Hamilton Luske (supervising directors); Bill Roberts, Norman Ferguson, Jack Kinney, Wilfred Jackson, and T. Hee (sequence directors). Starring Cliff Edwards (as Jiminy Cricket), Dickie Jones (as Pinocchio), Christian Rub (as Geppetto), Walter Catlett (as Honest John Worthington Foulfellow), Charles Judels (as Stromboli and Coachman), Frankie Darro (as Lampwick), and Evelyn Venable (as the Blue Fairy). Music by Leigh Harline and Paul J. Smith. Based on the The Adventures of Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi.

Walt Disney’s Pinocchio has somehow managed to convince generations of the movie-going public that it is fun and charming family fare. A representative critic of the film writing for The New York Times in 1940 described it as “a blithe, chuckle-some, witty, fresh and beautifully drawn fantasy… as gay and clever and delightful a fantasy as any well-behaved youngster or jaded oldster could hope to see.” It is true that Pinocchio can be upbeat and humorous, even cute … Read the rest

The Hollywood Revue of 1929

Holywood Revue of 1929

The Hollywood Revue of 1929. 118 minutes. Directed by Charles Reisner. Featuring performances by the Albertina Rasch Dancers, George K. Arthur, Lionel Barrymore, The Brox Sisters, Joan Crawford, Karl Dane, Marion Davies, Marie Dressler, Cliff “Ukulele Ike” Edwards, Gus Edwards, John Gilbert, William Haines, Oliver Hardy, Buster Keaton, Charles King, Stan Laurel, Gwen Lee, Bessie Love, Polly Moran, Anita Page, and Norma Shearer. With Jack Benny and Conrad Nagel as masters of ceremonies.

The success of The Jazz Singer (1927) was the catalyst for the widespread use of synchronized sound in feature films, and as the studios began to manufacture sound productions en masse, they gravitated towards the format of the plotless musical revue. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s The Hollywood Revue of 1929 is a glitzy entry in the genre that, like its contemporaries King of Jazz (1930) and Elstree Calling (1930), offers plentiful sights and sounds to exhibit the new technology. A modern audience will likely take diminished … Read the rest

The Blue Bird (1940)

The Blue Bird (1940)

The Blue Bird (1940). 88 minutes. Directed by Walter Lang. Starring Shirley Temple (as Mytyl), Johnny Russell (as Tyltyl), Eddie Collins (as Tylo), Gale Sondergaard (as Tylette), Helen Ericson (as Light), Spring Byington (as Mummy Tyl), Russell Hicks (as Daddy Tyl), Cecilia Loftus (as Granny Tyl), Al Shean (as Grandpa Tyl), Sybil Jason (as Angela), Nigel Bruce (as Mr. Luxury), Laura Hope Crews (as Mrs. Luxury), Thurston Hall (as Father Time), Jessie Ralph (as Fairy Berylune). Based on the play by Maurice Maeterlinck.

The Blue Bird is one of the worst movies from early cinema that I have yet reviewed, and I have written about both Reefer Madness (1936) and Maniac (1934). It is certainly one of the most expensive bad movies that I have reviewed, featuring one of the biggest stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age, Shirley Temple. The Blue Bird caused problems for Temple and for her studio, 20th Century Fox, as it failed to prove a profitable … Read the rest

The Bishop’s Wife (1947)

The Bishop's Wife (1947)

The Bishop’s Wife (1947). 109 minutes. Directed by Henry Koster. Starring Cary Grant (as Dudley), Loretta Young (as Julia Brougham), David Niven (as Bishop Henry Brougham), Monty Woolley (as Professor Wutheridge), James Gleason (as Sylvester), Gladys Cooper (as Agnes Hamilton), Elsa Lanchester (as Matilda), Karolyn Grimes (as Debby), and Sara Haden (as Mildred Cassaway). Featuring The Robert Mitchell Boys Choir. Cinematography by Gregg Toland.

The Bishop’s Wife is a Production Code-era holiday film about a love triangle between an Anglican church official, his wife, and another man. This in itself would be potentially juicy material for a film of any era, but what makes The Bishop’s Wife veer towards the bizarre is that the other man making sexual advances towards the bishop’s wife is in this case an angel, sent down from heaven to assist the bishop as he navigates his way through a building project that is making his wife miserable and resentful. As a Christmas story with … Read the rest

The Big Broadcast (1932)

The Big Broadcast (1932)

The Big Broadcast (1932). 80 minutes. Directed by Frank Tuttle. Starring Bing Crosby (as Bing Hornsby), Stuart Erwin (as Leslie McWhinney), Leila Hyams (as Anita Rogers), Sharon Lynn (as Mona Lowe), George Burns (as Mr. Burns), and Gracie Allen (as reception clerk). Featuring musical performances by Cab Calloway, The Mills Brothers, The Boswell Sisters, Vincent Lopez and His Orchestra, Eddie Lang, Donald Novis, Kate Smith, and Arthur Tracy.

For a modern audience, watching The Big Broadcast—the first installment of the Big Broadcast film series that Paramount produced in the 1930s—is like watching two different movies at once. On the one hand, it can be enjoyed as a nostalgic, even escapist trip through the past: the movie features a plethora of wonderful period musical acts (including Cab Calloway, The Boswell Sisters, and The Mills Brothers) and boasts some delightful vintage comedy in the form of radio stars George Burns and Gracie Allen. But at least as interesting is what makes … Read the rest

Murder at the Vanities (1934)

Murder at the Vanities (1934)

Murder at the Vanities (1934). 89 minutes. Directed by Mitchell Leisen. Starring Carl Brisson (as Eric Lander), Victor McLaglen (as Lt. Bill Murdock), Jack Oakie (as Jack Ellery), Kitty Carlisle (as Ann Ware), Dorothy Stickney (as Norma Watson), Gertrude Michael (as Rita Ross), Jessie Ralph (as Helene Smith), Gail Patrick (as Sadie Evans), Toby Wing (as Nancy), and Donald Meek (as Dr. Saunders). Featuring Duke Ellington and His Orchestra. Songs by Arthur Johnston and Sam Coslow.

Murder at the Vanities is a late pre-Code film that merges the backstage musical elements of 42nd Street (1933) with a violent whodunnit. Putting firearms, dripping bottles of lethal acid, flying sewing shears, and deadly hat pins aside, however, Murder at the Vanities is largely about flesh and the display of flesh at every possible opportunity under the pretense that this is what the tuxedo-wearing hordes that pack the Vanities musical theater chiefly crave. We never see the audience properly, but if the police … Read the rest