Dames (1934). 91 minutes. Directed by Ray Enright. Musical direction by Busby Berkeley. Starring Dick Powell (as Jimmy Higgins), Ruby Keeler (as Barbara Hemingway), Joan Blondell (as Mabel Anderson), ZaSu Pitts (as Matilda Ounce Hemingway), Guy Kibbee (as Horace Peter Hemingway), and Hugh Herbert (as Ezra Ounce). Music and lyrics by Harry Warren and Al Dubin.
Warner Bros. could have called this movie Gold Diggers of 1934 and its title would have made at least as much sense as the one they settled on. Much like the Gold Diggers movies, which I have reviewed previously (here and here), Dames focuses on characters who scheme to get their hands on an impressive sum of money and the way their lives intertwine with characters who are plotting to raise funds to put on a spectacular musical — all played by the usual Busby Berkeley suspects. The first set of schemers is Matilda and Horace Hemingway, who stand to inherit millions … Read the rest
The Lady from Shanghai (1947). 88 minutes. Directed by Orson Welles. Starring Orson Welles (as Michael O’Hara), Rita Hayworth (as Elsa Bannister), Everett Sloane (as Arthur Bannister), and Glenn Anders (as George Grisby).
The Lady from Shanghai is a sophisticated film noir about the difference between reality and illusion, but one could also say that it is a movie about creepy people doing creepy things in creepy places. For the first-time viewer, it may seem most like a film that is struggling to be coherent in spite of its leaving the audience with many unanswered questions, such as: what does the husband know and when? What are we to make of the wife’s mysterious past in Shanghai, her smoldering glances, and her inexplicable moodiness? Did she marry her husband to protect a secret? Is she in danger? With dialogue such as “Everything’s bad. You can’t fight it” and “It’s a bright, guilty world,” we might wonder where the characters’ bleak … Read the rest
Scarface (1932). 94 minutes. Directed by Howard Hawks. Starring Paul Muni (as Tony Camonte), Osgood Perkins (as Johnny Lovo), George Raft (as Guino Rinaldo), Boris Karloff (as Gaffney), Ann Dvorak (as Cesca Camonte), and Karen Morley (as Poppy). Produced by Howard Hughes.
“Oh, I knew Luciano and Costello, and even Capone, and lesser lights. It was easy to be in movies and not know them, but almost impossible to be in show business—Broadway—without knowing them, unless you never went out at night to a nightclub and never knew anybody in any form of show business. Unless you were the Lunts or Katharine Cornell, it was virtually impossible not to get to know them—they were so anxious for you to. Capone used to take four rows at the opening night for every play in Chicago and come backstage and see everybody. You couldn’t get to a nightclub without Costello sending over a bottle of champagne, or sit in Lindy’s without Luciano … Read the rest
Richard B. Jewell published The Golden Age of Cinema: Hollywood, 1929-1945 in 2007 because, as he says in the introduction, he was frustrated by the absence of anything like it on the book market. Jewell is the Hugh M. Hefner (yes, that Hugh M. Hefner) Professor of American Film at the University of Southern California and teaches Golden Age cinema there.
The book has many virtues, and its content tends to be helpful and instructive. Of particular note are the chapters on technology and censorship. Both do a marvelous job of making complex processes fairly cogent: the early attempts at color and sound film on the one hand, the intricacies of the Production Code Administration (a.k.a. the Hays Office, Hollywood’s internal and voluntary censorship office) on the other. The details about the Code, in particular, are fascinating; Jewell excerpts a large portion of the Code itself for our perusal—it is astonishing. I also appreciated the chapter on the star system, … Read the rest
Gold Diggers of 1933. 96 minutes. Directed by Mervyn LeRoy; musical numbers directed by Busby Berkeley. Starring Warren Williams (as Lawrence Bradford), Joan Blondell (as Carol King), Aline MacMahon (as Trixie Lorraine), Ruby Keeler (as Polly Parker), Dick Powell (as Brad Roberts), Guy Kibbee (as Fanuel H. Peabody), and Ginger Rogers (as Fay Fortune). Music and lyrics by Harry Warren and Al Dubin.
In the depths of the American Depression, movie attendance sank considerably and movie theaters, mostly owned by the studios, were going out of business. Theaters struggled to persuade people to part with the little money they had for the sake of entertainment. Studios were forced to adopt new strategies to ensure their survival. Many strove to offer theater-goers an experience that could not be reproduced outside of a movie theater—something unique and outlandish that made the price of admission worth it. Gold Diggers of 1933 is a great example of this strategy as it was put … Read the rest
Gabriel Over the White House (1933). 86 minutes. Directed by Gregory La Cava. Starring Walter Huston (as President Judson Hammond), Karen Morley (as Pendola Molloy), Franchot Tone (as Hartley Beekman), and C. Henry Gordon (as Nick Diamond).
“The good news: he reduces unemployment, lifts the country out of the Depression, battles gangsters and Congress, and brings about world peace. The bad news: he’s Mussolini.”
Film Series on Religion and the Founding
of the American Republic, Library of Congress
Gabriel Over the White House has been called one of the most bizarre movies of the 1930s. It is also the rare film that people will stress is notable but not many will say they actually liked. The movie focuses on a Depression-era American president who, following a car accident, appears to be possessed by an other-worldly spirit and is turned into a raging totalitarian dictator who ameliorates hard times by doing away with Congressional, and other, limitations on his power. Among … Read the rest
The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). 114 minutes. Directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer. Starring Renée Jeanne Falconetti (as Joan of Arc), Eugène Silvain (as Évêque Pierre Cauchon), André Berley (as Jean d’Estivet), and Antonin Artaud (as Jean Massieu). Cinematography by Rudolph Maté.
In honor of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, I am writing about a silent film that has disturbed me more than any other film, silent or otherwise, that I have seen in a long time. It is Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc. In response to the film’s intense emotional focus, Roger Ebert wrote, “Perhaps the secret of Dreyer’s success is that he asked himself, ‘What is this story really about?’ And after he answered that question, he made a movie about absolutely nothing else.” Ebert does not explicitly tell us what that answer is, but I have an idea. Dreyer has made a movie that is about a horrifying … Read the rest
The Great Ziegfeld (1936). 185 minutes. Directed by Robert Z. Leonard. Starring William Powell (as Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr.), Luise Rainer (as Anna Held), Myrna Loy (as Billie Burke), and Frank Morgan (as Billings).
If you enjoy the movies of the 1930s, it would be wrong for you not to see The Great Ziegfeld at some point. It is bloated, to be sure, and many of its historical and biographical details are inaccurate, but it was financially one of the most successful films of its decade, and among its many honors, it was the first musical for which a performer won an Academy Award (Luise Rainer for Best Actress; the movie also won for Best Picture). It features many phenomenal musical numbers, including the famous “A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody,” in which performers dance and sing on a slowly turning wedding cake-like set. The “Pretty Girl” sequence alone reportedly cost $220,000 to make at the time (close to $3.75 … Read the rest
After my previous unsuccessful attempt to see the Alfred Hitchcock film Rear Window (1954) at a Bay Area theater, I was delighted to learn that the very same movie would be screened in late April at the Paramount Theater, the glorious art deco movie palace in downtown Oakland. The screening began at 8:00pm, but the theater opened at 7:00pm. Believe me, anyone who sees a movie at the Paramount as part of their classic film series will want to get there early as there’s so much to see. People start lining up on the street at about 6:30pm, but the theater seats many thousands of people and the screen is one of the largest anywhere, so those who come later are in no danger of missing out on a good seat.
You will, however, want to enter the theater at 7:00pm so that you can tour the gorgeous, multi-floor structure at your leisure, gape in awe at the sublime … Read the rest
Freaks (1932). 62 minutes. Directed by Tod Browning. Starring Harry Earles (as Hans), Daisy Earles (as Frieda), Olga Baclanova (as Cleopatra), Henry Victor (as Hercules), Wallace Ford (as Phroso), and Leila Hyams (as Venus).
It is hard to know what exactly to say about Tod Browning’s Freaks. Some people have called it an early exploitation film, and others have called it a horror film. Perhaps the New York Times reviewer who wrote about the movie in 1932 put it best when he said, “The only thing that can be said definitely for ‘Freaks’ is that it is not for children. Bad dreams lie that way.”
The movie is about a circus and in particular its freak show, but until the final moments of the film, we never see anyone actually perform. The cast is divided into freaks and non-freaks (and I use those terms, which I realize may be offensive to some, only because they are the language of … Read the rest