The Big Broadcast (1932)

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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)

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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

The Jolson Story (1946)

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The Jolson Story (1946)

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)

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Madam Satan (1930)

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

Hallelujah! I’m a Bum (1933)

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Hallelujah! I'm a Bum (1933)

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

Hollywood Canteen (1944)

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Hollywood Canteen (1944)

Hollywood Canteen (1944). 124 minutes. Directed by Delmer Daves. Starring Robert Hutton (as Slim Green) and Dane Clark (as Sergeant Nolan). Also starring as themselves: The Andrews Sisters, Jack Benny, Joe E. Brown, Eddie Cantor, Kitty Carlisle, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Jimmy Dorsey, John Garfield, Sydney Greenstreet, Paul Henreid, Joan Leslie, Peter Lorre, Ida Lupino, Joan McCracken, Roy Rogers and Trigger, S. Z. Sakall, Barbara Stanwyck, and Jane Wyman.

Hollywood Canteen is a World War Two-era propaganda film that takes place in the real Hollywood Canteen, a wartime nightclub for G.I.s that operated from 1942 to 1945 and was staffed by Hollywood superstars. Inside the canteen, the most glamorous names in the film industry performed menial labor by preparing food, waiting tables, and cleaning up after guests, and provided entertainment on a main stage. The movie Hollywood Canteen offers us a glimpse of what a canteen guest’s experience might have been like while also promoting the war effort and the … Read the rest

The Wizard of Oz (1939)

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The Wizard of Oz (1939)

The Wizard of Oz (1939). 101 minutes. Directed by Victor Fleming, King Vidor, and George Cukor. Starring Judy Garland (as Dorothy Gale), Frank Morgan (as Professor Marvel/the Wizard), Ray Bolger (as Hunk/Scarecrow), Jack Haley (as Hickory/Tin Man), Bert Lahr (as Zeke/Cowardly Lion), Billie Burke (as Glinda the Good Witch of the North), Margaret Hamilton (as Miss Almira Gulch/the Wicked Witch of the West), Clara Blandick (as Aunt Em), and Charley Grapewin (as Uncle Henry). Songs by Edgar “Yip” Harburg and Harold Arlen. Based on the novel by L. Frank Baum.

The Wizard of Oz has to be one of the most phenomenal movies ever made: one of the most quotable, one of the most thematically resonant, and one of the most visually memorable (virtually any scene from any part of the movie can be excerpted in still form and people will instantly recognize it). It was not a major success upon its initial release and only achieved its present status … Read the rest

The Broadway Melody (1929)

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The Broadway Melody (1929)

The Broadway Melody (1929). 100 minutes. Directed by Harry Beaumont. Starring Anita Page (as Queenie Mahoney), Bessie Love (as Harriet “Hank” Mahoney), Charles King (as Eddie Kearns), Jed Prouty (as Uncle Jed), Kenneth Thomson (as Jacques Warriner), Edward Dillon (as stage manager), Marry Doran (as Flo), and Eddie Kane (as Zanfield). Music by Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown.

The Broadway Melody is one of the first films in the sound era to use an almost completely synchronized soundtrack. The top-grossing picture in its year of release, it was widely praised by critics and was the first sound movie to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. However, the reviews of some in the industry, such as Charlie Chaplin, were not so favorable (he calls it “a cheap dull affair” in his memoir). Chaplin admittedly had much to fear with the arrival of The Broadway Melody, whose success helped to spell the end of the silent era … Read the rest

The Pirate (1948)

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The Pirate (1948)

The Pirate (1948). 102 minutes. Directed by Vincente Minnelli. Starring Judy Garland (as Manuela Alva), Gene Kelly (as Serafin), Walter Slezak (as Don Pedro Vargas), Gladys Cooper (as Aunt Inez), George Zucco (as the Viceroy), and Lester Allen (as Uncle Capucho). Special dance sequence with the Nicholas Brothers. Music by Cole Porter.

The Pirate is famous today for its troubled production history. This is largely due to star Judy Garland’s emotional instability at the time of filming, which was related to her mood disorder and prescription pill addiction. She famously missed 99 of the 135 shooting days and had a contentious relationship on the set with director and then-husband Vincente Minnelli. The movie was also unfortunately not a financial success upon its release. But simply watching its colorful sets, beautiful costumes, and expert performances, you would probably never guess that anything was amiss. In addition to featuring the accomplished art direction that we would expect from Minnelli, The Pirate is … Read the rest

Fantasia (1940)

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Fantasia (1940)

Fantasia (1940). 126 minutes. Starring Deems Taylor (as Master of Ceremonies). Music conducted by Leopold Stokowski and performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra. Story direction by Joe Grant and Dick Huemer. Produced by Walt Disney and Ben Sharpsteen.

Fantasia is almost a complete anomaly in the Disney film canon. The third feature-length animated movie to emerge from Disney’s studios, it does not tell one overarching story but rather is a collection of eight short films inspired by and set to classical music. The sequences range from an abstract depiction of sound (Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor”) to a grim scientific odyssey (Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring”), from light comedies (Dukas’s “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” Ponchielli’s “Dance of the Hours”) to somber material (Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain,” Schubert’s “Ave Maria”). The movie is one of Disney’s finest achievements, and it elevates animation by pairing cartoons with some of the greatest instrumental music in history. But due to its considerable budget, the … Read the rest