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
The Jolson Story (1946). 130 minutes. Directed by Alfred E. Green. Starring Larry Parks (as Al Jolson), Evelyn Keyes (as Julie Benson), William Demarest (as Steve Martin), Bill Goodwin (as Tom Baron), Ludwig Donath (as Cantor Yoelson), Tamara Shayne (as Mrs. Yoelson), Scotty Beckett (as young Asa Yoelson), Jo-Carroll Dennison (as Ann Murray), and John Alexander (as Lew Dockstader). With vocal performances by Al Jolson.
Al Jolson is billed as “America’s greatest entertainer” in the tagline for The Jolson Story. However, I would be surprised to hear anyone alive today describe him in a similar way. Jolson will forever be associated with groundbreaking cinema because of his performance in The Jazz Singer (1927), the first feature-length film to use synchronized sound; and Hallelujah! I’m a Bum (1932), another of his starring vehicles, is one of the finest films of the 1930s. But in spite of the tremendous success he enjoyed during his lifetime, his legacy as a … Read the rest
Madam Satan (1930). 116 minutes. Directed by Cecil B. DeMille. Starring Kay Johnson (as Angela Brooks), Reginald Denny (as Bob Brooks), Lillian Roth (as Trixie), Roland Young (as Jimmy Wade), and Elsa Peterson (as Martha). Featuring Abe Lyman and His Orchestra.
Madam Satan has been called the weirdest movie that director Cecil B. DeMille ever made. It is true that the interpersonal bedroom comedy that makes up its first two thirds may seem strange to anyone who is used to the biblical and ancient-world spectacles DeMille is known for (although to be fair, he directed films in many other genres). Those scenes, which follow a wife’s developing awareness of her husband’s infidelity, are noticeably stripped down and deprived of the director’s penchant for excess. But Madam Satan’s final act, involving a wild party in a tethered zeppelin that goes disastrously awry, is more reminiscent of DeMille’s fondness for salacious sleaze and biblical-style punishment, albeit divorced from the thorough religious context … Read the rest
The Public Enemy (1931). 83 minutes. Directed by William A. Wellman. Starring James Cagney (as Tom Powers), Jean Harlow (as Gwen Allen), Edward Woods (as Matt Doyle), Joan Blondell (as Mamie), Mae Clarke (as Kitty), Donald Cook (as Michael Powers), Leslie Fenton (as Nails Nathan), Beryl Mercer (as Ma Powers), Robert Emmett O’Connor (as Paddy Ryan), and Murray Kinnell (as Putty Nose).
The Public Enemy is the pre-Code movie that solidified legendary actor James Cagney’s reputation for playing tough-guy criminal types. It made a major contribution to the gangster genre under development in the early sound period, which included such groundbreaking films as Little Caesar (1931) and Scarface (1932). Pre-Code gangster films typically feature slick criminal characters who at times are positioned as worthy of our admiration for their personal style, confidence, and strident disregard for authority. One of the wonderful things about the best of those movies, however, is the way that they also provocatively ask us to … Read the rest
Hallelujah! I’m a Bum (1933). 82 minutes. Directed by Lewis Milestone. Starring Al Jolson (as Bumper), Frank Morgan (as Mayor John Hastings), Madge Evans (as June Marcher), Harry Langdon (as Egghead), Edgar Connor (as Acorn), Chester Conklin (as Sunday), and Louise Carver (as Mrs. Sunday). Music by Lorenz Hart and Richard Rodgers. Written by S. N. Behrman. Based on a story by Ben Hecht.
Hallelujah! I’m a Bum is a pre-Code, Depression-era musical starring Al Jolson and Henry Morgan that seeks both to amuse the audience with comical characters and a healthy dose of light opera, and to unsettle us with a portrait of a down-and-out society on the verge of revolution. It focuses on the adventures of a New York City hobo named Bumper who chooses to be a vagrant because it is, to his mind, the freest way to live. As we follow him, we see the disparities affecting American society during the Great Depression, articulated through the … Read the rest
The Big Sleep (1946). 114 minutes. Directed by Howard Hawks. Starring Humphrey Bogart (as Philip Marlowe), Lauren Bacall (as Vivian Sternwood Rutledge), John Ridgely (as Eddie Mars), Martha Vickers (as Carmen Sternwood), Charles Waldron (as General Sternwood), Elisha Cook, Jr. (as Harry Jones), Louis Jean Heydt (as Joe Brody), Bob Steele (as Lash Canino), and Dorothy Malone (as Acme Bookstore proprietress). Screenplay by William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett, and Jules Furthman. Based on the novel by Raymond Chandler.
The Big Sleep is a befuddling but magical detective movie. Its plot points are overly complicated, much of the action does not make sense, and the audience is left with many unanswered questions when it ends. But The Big Sleep’s relentless use of cool attitudes, mystery-rich moodiness, and snappy, arch dialogue encourages us to enjoy the story’s stylish atmosphere and characterizations in lieu of the usual and more predictable pleasure that we might take in successfully unraveling a gumshoe’s investigation. The result is … Read the rest
Bambi (1942). 70 minutes. Directed by David Hand. Produced by Walt Disney.
Screenwriter William Goldman wrote in Adventures in the Screen Trade (1983) that Walt Disney’s animated cartoon Bambi (and specifically, the death of Bambi’s mother at the hands of hunters) is the 1940s equivalent to Alfred Hitchcock’s later Psycho (1963). It is a provocative claim, yet given the oblique depiction of the mother deer’s death and the generally soft qualities of the film—including how much time Bambi spends foregrounding cute fluffy animals—and also given how comparatively bloody and brutal Psycho’s slasher scenes are, Bambi to me seems a world away from Hitchcock’s masterpiece. Indeed, the public’s focus on the mother deer’s death has enshrined what is essentially one of the film’s weakest moments as a cultural touchstone. Additionally, even though Bambi’s animal characters are rendered with skill that draws on the techniques mastered in earlier Disney projects, the film seems to have forgotten a great deal of what made … Read the rest
It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). 130 minutes. Directed by Frank Capra. Starring James Stewart (as George Bailey), Donna Reed (as Mary Hatch Bailey), Henry Travers (as Clarence Odbody), Lionel Barrymore (as Henry F. Potter), Thomas Mitchell (as Bill Bailey), Beulah Bondi (as Ma Bailey), Gloria Grahame (as Violet Bick), H. B. Warner (as Emil Gower), and Todd Karns (as Harry Bailey).
It’s a Wonderful Life draws inspiration from Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, in which supernatural visitors show the miser Ebenezer Scrooge his past, present, and future in order to convince him to reform his heartless ways. Similarly, in It’s a Wonderful Life, an angelic guide named Clarence uses a vision of an alternate present to demonstrate to the suicidal protagonist George Bailey how integral he is to society, and Clarence’s efforts rescue both George and his small town, Bedford Falls, from a dark fate. But the movie also strives to convince George of the American values that … Read the rest
Frankenstein (1931). 71 minutes. Directed by James Whale. Starring Colin Clive (as Henry Frankenstein), Mae Clarke (as Elizabeth Lavenza), John Boles (as Victor Moritz), Boris Karloff (as Frankenstein’s monster), Frederick Kerr (as Baron Frankenstein), Dwight Frye (as Fritz), Edward Van Sloan (as Dr. Waldman), Lionel Belmore (as the Burgomaster), Marilyn Harris (as Little Maria), and Michael Mark (as Ludwig). Based on the novel by Mary Shelley and the play adaptation by Peggy Webling. Make-up by Jack Pierce.
Frankenstein is an iconic pre-Code monster movie released by Universal Studios—the film studio that, with the release of Frankenstein, Dracula (1931), The Mummy (1932), and a slew of other movies, would become the premiere horror workshop of Golden-Age Hollywood. Like many of those early 1930s films, Frankenstein is more than just a scary movie: at times profoundly psychological, it explores complex identity issues, tortured family relationships, and the thin line between order and chaos as it questions what defines us as … Read the rest
Grand Hotel (1932). 112 minutes. Directed by Edmund Goulding. Starring Greta Garbo (as Grusinskaya), John Barrymore (as Baron Felix von Geigern), Joan Crawford (as Flaemmchen), Wallace Beery (as General Director Preysing), Lionel Barrymore (as Otto Kringelein), Lewis Stone (as Dr. Otternschlag), and Jean Hersholt (as Senf).
Grand Hotel is a 1932 American-made film set a few years earlier in Berlin at a time when Germany was inching towards Nazification. The movie depicts pre-Hitler Berlin as a dazzling center of cosmopolitan sophistication and adventure, sweeping us away with the interpersonal intrigue and romance of continental life. In the near future, the urbanity in which Grand Hotel revels (as well as the vulnerability associated with urban hotel life that it conveys) would become lost in the dysphoria that was sweeping through Europe—and yet in 1932 when the film was made, it was still possible to envision a Germany that was enveloped in the dreams and schemes of strangers passing each other softly … Read the rest