Blonde Venus (1932)

Blonde Venus (1932)

Blonde Venus (1932). 93 minutes. Directed by Josef von Sternberg. Starring Marlene Dietrich (as Helen Faraday), Herbert Marshall (as Ned Faraday), Cary Grant (as Nick Townsend), Dickie Moore (as Johnny Faraday), Gene Morgan (as Ben Smith), Rita La Roy (as Taxi Belle Hooper), Robert Emmett O’Connor (as Dan O’Connor), Sidney Toler (as Detective Wilson), and Hattie McDaniel (as Cora).

Blonde Venus is a pre-Code musical drama about a woman who starts out as a kind of fairy-tale nymph, becomes a wife and devoted mother, embarks on a career as a glamorous cabaret starlet, and ends up as a vagrant on the run from the law on the American highway. The film is a hodgepodge that mixes elements of devoted mother love with glitzy nightclub routines, a road story, and a sleazy tale of financial gain. But it primarily focuses on its protagonist Helen’s search for love and acceptance as an intense dreamer and escapist, both on- and offstage—especially offstage, for … Read the rest

The Great Gabbo (1929)

The Great Gabbo (1929)

The Great Gabbo (1929). 94 minutes. Directed by James Cruze. Starring Erich von Stroheim (as Gabbo), Betty Compson (as Mary), Donald Douglas (as Frank), Marjorie Kane (as Babe), and John F. Hamilton (as neighbor). Screenplay by Hugh Herbert. Songs by Lynn Cowan, Paul Titsworth, Donald McNamee, and King Zany. Based on the short story “The Rival Dummy” by Ben Hecht.

After slogging through some of the early sound era’s underwhelming cinematic creations, I have finally found a late 1920s sound movie that is exceptional not for its technological achievements or for its storytelling, but rather because it is deranged from beginning to end. I am talking about The Great Gabbo, the 1929 backstage musical chronicling the careers of a ventriloquist named Gabbo (portrayed by legendary silent film director Erich von Stroheim) and his ex-lover in a Broadway musical revue. The Great Gabbo seems to anticipate later movies about show-business careers such as A Star Is Born and 42nd Street Read the rest

The Skeleton Dance (1929)

Skeleton Dance (1929)

The Skeleton Dance (1929). 6 minutes. Produced and directed by Walt Disney. Animated by Ub Iwerks, Les Clark, and Wilfred Jackson. Music by Carl W. Stalling.

By 1929, Walt Disney had produced and directed the Mickey Mouse shorts Plane Crazy (1928), Steamboat Willie (1928), The Gallopin’ Gaucho (1929), and The Barn Dance (1929)—all of which chronicled the adventures of the small rodent. While these early exercises may loom especially large in the Disney legend, we should not forget that Disney concurrently launched the Silly Symphonies series as an alternative to the cartoons that were in development with the Mickey Mouse character. Frequently embracing classical music in continuous or near-continuous musical soundtracks, this new line of cartoons consisted mostly of non-recurring characters and scenarios, and represents some of the best, most creative work that Disney’s team produced.

The 75 Silly Symphonies shorts released between 1929 and 1939 included the perky and upbeat Flowers and Trees (1932) and Three Little PigsRead the rest

The Marx Brothers’ “Everyone Says ‘I Love You’” on Screen and in Popular Music

Everyone Says I Love You

[This article is a study of the Marx Brothers’ song “Everyone Says ‘I Love You’” from its onscreen debut in their 1932 film Horse Feathers to its appearance in popular recorded music from roughly the same period. The article first appeared in the April 2016 edition of The Discographer Magazine and has been revised and updated for this website.]

When Peter Bogdanovich spoke with director Leo McCarey in the late 1960s about McCarey’s film Duck Soup (1933), Bogdanovich remarked: “A lot of people think it’s [the Marx Brothers’] best picture: there’s no harp or piano playing, no interludes, no love interest—those things slowed up their other comedies terribly…” The earlier Marx Brothers film Horse Feathers (1932) contains all of the elements that Bogdanovich singles out as weaknesses, in particular musical interludes. But while many people rightly consider Duck Soup to be the Marx Brothers’ greatest cinematic achievement, Horse Feathers is an accomplished film in its own right, and the … Read the rest

The Thin Man (1934)

The Thin Man (1934)

The Thin Man (1934). 93 minutes. Directed by W. S. Van Dyke. Starring William Powell (as Nick Charles), Myrna Loy (as Nora Charles), Maureen O’Sullivan (as Dorothy Wynant), Nat Pendleton (as Lieutenant John Guild), Minna Gombell (as Mimi Wynant Jorgenson), Porter Hall (as Herbert MacCauley), Henry Wadsworth (as Tommy), William Henry (as Gilbert Wynant), Harold Huber (as Arthur Nunheim), Cesar Romero (as Chris Jorgenson), Natalie Moorhead (as Julia Wolf), Edward Brophy (as Joe Morelli), Edward Ellis (as Clyde Wynant), and Skippy (as Asta the dog). Screenplay by Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich. Based on the novel by Dashiell Hammett.

The Thin Man is a unique crime movie. Cheaply and quickly filmed over the course of two weeks by W. S. Van Dyke (alias “one-take Woody”), it makes use of plain sets, very little action, and lots of talk to create a detective story that is more of a lifestyle comedy than a tale of serious murder and sleuthing. Its crime … Read the rest

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