Angels with Dirty Faces (1938)

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Angels with Dirty Faces (1938)

Angels with Dirty Faces (1938). 97 minutes. Directed by Michael Curtiz. Starring James Cagney (as William “Rocky” Sullivan), Pat O’Brien (as Father Jerry Connolly), the Dead End Kids (as Soapy, Swing, Bim, Pasty, Crab, and Hunky), Humphrey Bogart (as Jim Frazier), Ann Sheridan (as Laury Martin), and George Bancroft (as Mac Keefer).

Angels with Dirty Faces was famously parodied in the Home Alone franchise as Angels with Filthy Souls, an old violent crime film with an outrageous title that the young protagonist Kevin McCallister watches when his parents are out of town. If you have seen one of the Home Alone movies, you might think that violence and the glorification of the gangster are the defining features of the parody noir’s source material. Yet while Angels with Dirty Faces does depict violence and crime, the movie nevertheless features a complex ending that undermines its gangster protagonist’s rebellious, law-breaking streak, making him appear cowardly and weak. It is an essential … Read the rest

Maniac (1934)

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Maniac (1934)

Maniac (1934). 51 minutes. Directed by Dwain Esper. Starring Bill Woods (as Don Maxwell), Horace B. Carpenter (as Dr. Meirschultz), Ted Edwards (as Buckley), Phyllis Diller (as Mrs. Buckley), Thea Ramsey (as Alice Maxwell), Jenny Dark (as Maizie), Marvel Andre (as Marvel), Celia McCann (as Jo), and John P. Wade (as embalmer).

Maniac is spectacularly bad—pretentious, gross, offensive, and unbearably confusing. I became aware of it because of Michael Adams’s book Showgirls, Teen Wolves, and Astrozombies, in which he details how he spent a year watching the worst movies ever made. To Adams, Maniac is one of the very worst that he screened and by far the worst film director Dwain Esper ever was involved in, even worse than his Reefer Madness (1936). Compared to Reefer Madness, which is a propaganda film, Maniac is not obviously on a mission to persuade us politically through preposterous means, and accordingly, it actually made my head hurt less. But at … Read the rest

Ruggles of Red Gap (1935)

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Ruggles of Red Gap (1935)

Ruggles of Red Gap (1935). 90 minutes. Directed by Leo McCarey. Starring Charles Laughton (as Ruggles), Mary Boland (as Effie Floud), Charlie Ruggles (as Egbert Floud), ZaSu Pitts (as Mrs. Judson), Roland Young (as the Earl of Burnstead), Leila Hyams (as Nell Kenner), Lucien Littlefield (as Charles Belknap-Jackson), and Maude Eburne (as Ma Pettingill).

Ruggles of Red Gap is a delightful comedy about a stuffy English valet who is won in a card game by a pair of nouveau-riche Americans and relocates to their small Western town. With the help of American principles of political and social equality, the valet (Ruggles) embarks on a project of freeing himself from servitude and establishing himself as an independent man. In that regard, the movie reminds me of Born Yesterday (1950), which similarly posits that American institutions can be a force for personal (as well as political) liberation. Ruggles of Red Gap lacks the hard edge of Born Yesterday, but it uses … Read the rest

Tarzan, the Ape Man (1932)

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Tarzan, the Ape Man (1932)

Tarzan, the Ape Man (1932). 99 minutes. Directed by W. S. Van Dyke. Starring Maureen O’Sullivan (as Jane Parker), Johnny Weissmuller (as Tarzan), Neil Hamilton (as Harry Holt), and C. Aubrey Smith (as James Parker). Dialogue by Ivor Novello.

Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan novels spawned a phenomenally successful franchise that extended into cinema, radio, television, and comic strips. Although the specifics of Tarzan’s character and his basic plot trajectory vary depending on the retelling, Burroughs’s fundamental story involves the wild man living amongst jungle apes and falling for a British female explorer. One of the best expressions of the full-on, kinky possibilities latent in this framework is the 1932 pre-Code Tarzan, the Ape Man. The movie is in some ways monolithic and crude in its colonialist rhetoric; there is a great deal of shouting, animal grunting, humans falling prey to jungle beasts, and condescending depictions of native types. But while the movie is blunt in terms of overall sentiment, … Read the rest

Nightmare Alley (1947)

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Nightmare Alley (1947)

Nightmare Alley (1947). 110 minutes. Directed by Edmund Goulding. Starring Tyrone Power (as Stanton Carlisle), Joan Blondell (as Zeena Krumbein), Coleen Gray (as Molly Carlisle), Helen Walker (as Lilith Ritter), Taylor Holmes (as Ezra Grindle), Mike Mazurki (as Bruno), and Ian Keith (as Pete Krumbein).

Nightmare Alley is a wonderful, exceedingly suggestive, and excessively seedy film noir that follows its protagonist, a mesmerist, as he moves from small-time carnival barker to big-time con artist with legions of devotees. Its themes and atmosphere might quickly convince you that it belongs to the world of noir with its shadows, dark streets, con games, and untrustworthy strangers, but its budget might not. From the sprawling, ten-acre carnival set created for it on the 20th Century Fox backlot to other lush outdoor sets, and even the indulgent evening gowns worn by actress Coleen Gray, Nightmare Alley looks luxurious and expensive, unlike a typical film noir. In spite of its high-end look, the movie was … Read the rest

The Divorcee (1930)

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The Divorcee (1930)

The Divorcee (1930). 84 minutes. Directed by Robert Z. Leonard. Starring Norma Shearer (as Jerry Martin), Chester Morris (as Ted Martin), Conrad Nagel (as Paul), Robert Montgomery (as Don), Helen Johnson (as Dorothy), Florence Eldridge (as Helen Baldwin), Helene Millard (as Mary), Robert Elliott (as Bill Baldwin), Mary Doran (as Janice Meredith), Tyler Brooke (as Hank), and George Irving (as Dr. Bernard).

The Divorcee is a pre-Code drama that explores betrayal, revenge, and sexual double standards. In particular, it focuses on one woman’s efforts to overturn those standards in an attempt to wound her cheating ex-husband. The movie shows us a fair amount of wild living and is rather frank about its characters’ sex lives while they are single, married, and divorced, making it one of the most provocative of the pre-Code films. Nevertheless, it takes pains to demonstrate how unsatisfying the protagonist’s quest to hurt her ex is. The overall effect is that while the movie allows its female … Read the rest

The Sheik (1921)

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The Sheik (1921)

The Sheik (1921). 80 minutes. Directed by George Melford. Starring Rudolph Valentino (as Sheik Ahmed Ben Hassan), Agnes Ayres (as Lady Diana Mayo), Ruth Miller (as Zilah), George Waggner (as Yousaef), Frank Butler (as Sir Aubrey Mayo), Lucien Littlefield (as Gaston), Adolphe Menjou (as Raoul de Saint Hubert), and Walter Long (as Omair).

The Sheik has to be one of the strangest expressions of romance and sexuality that I have seen in a long time. It tells the story of an Arab sheik who abducts an English gentlewoman exploring the deserts of North Africa and holds her captive. At times we see that he hopes she will develop feelings for him, but at others he is intent on having his way with her whether she desires it or not. Regardless of his unsavory intentions, she does fall in love with him, but the movie’s celebration of both him and their relationship is difficult to admire. Overall, The Sheik is an … Read the rest

Safe in Hell (1931)

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Safe in Hell (1931)

Safe in Hell (1931). 73 minutes. Directed by William Wellman. Starring Dorothy Mackaill (as Gilda Karlson), Donald Cook (as Carl Erickson), Ralf Harolde (as Piet Van Saal), Morgan Wallace (as Mr. Bruno), John Wray (as Eagan), Ivan Simpson (as Crunch), Victor Varconi (as General Gomez), Nina Mae McKinney (as Leonie), Charles Middleton (as Jones), Clarence Muse (as Newcastle), Gustav von Seyffertitz (as Larson), George F. Marion (as Jack), and Cecil Cunningham (as Angie).

Safe in Hell is a dark but wonderful pre-Code movie about a fiercely willed prostitute on the run from the law in New Orleans and the Caribbean. Although raped and exploited in the United States, and ultimately executed in the context of the seedy underbelly of the South Seas crime world, she lives out her days devoted to her lover and herself with a rebellious passion. And yet, in spite of its serious content, Safe in Hell is actually laden with a great deal of playfulness both … Read the rest

All the King’s Men (1949)

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All the King's Men (1949)

All the King’s Men (1949). 109 minutes. Directed by Robert Rossen. Starring Broderick Crawford (as Willie Stark), John Ireland (as Jack Burden), Joanne Dru (as Anne Stanton), John Derek (as Tom Stark), Mercedes McCambridge (as Sadie Burke), Shepperd Strudwick (as Adam Stanton), Anne Seymour (as Lucy Stark), Katharine Warren (as Mrs. Burden), Will Wright (as Dolph Pillsbury), Raymond Greenleaf (as Judge Monte Stanton), and Walter Burke (as Sugar Boy).

If you have seen Born Yesterday (1950), the wonderful movie about a woman (played by Judy Holiday) who learns about American democracy and in doing do is inspired to end an abusive romantic relationship, you may remember Broderick Crawford as the politically aspiring businessman and thug Harry Brock—the person from whom Holiday’s character frees herself. Crawford’s Brock is brutish and malevolent, but Born Yesterday is not the first time the actor played a civic-minded and power-hungry antagonist. A year earlier he was in the astounding but perhaps today less well-known All Read the rest

One Million B.C. (1940)

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One Million B.C. (1940)

One Million B.C. (1940). 80 minutes. Directed by Hal Roach and Hal Roach, Jr. Starring Victor Mature (as Tumak), Carole Landis (as Loana), Lon Chaney, Jr. (as Akhoba), Conrad Nagel (as narrator), John Hubbard (as Ohtao), Nigel De Brulier (as Peytow), Mamo Clark (as Nupondi), and Inez Palange (as Tohana).

If you have never seen One Million B.C., chances are that if you like old B movies, you have seen it in some other capacity. Portions of it were used as stock footage for years afterwards in such films as the awful Robot Monster (1953) and Teenage Cave Man (1958). Additionally, its Academy Award-nominated visuals inspired the special effects of other monster movies that may also be known to you, such as The Giant Gila Monster (1959) and The Killer Shrews (1959). One Million B.C. is marginally better than those movies—less exploitative, more thoughtful, and more ambitious. But it remains a great example of why movies about prehistoric people … Read the rest