Movies from the Trenches: “The Golden Age of Cinema” (Review)

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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

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"Gold Diggers of 1933." Detail from original movie poster.

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)

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"Gabriel over the White House" featured image. Detail from original movie poster.

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)

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"The Passion of Joan of Arc." Detail from original movie poster.

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)

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"The Great Ziegfeld" featured image. Detail from original movie poster.

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

Movies from the Trenches: “Rear Window” at the Paramount Theater

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"Rear Window" (1954). Detail of ticket stub.

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)

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Freaks (1932). Detail from movie poster.

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

Gold Diggers of 1935 (1935)

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"Gold Diggers of 1935." Detail from movie poster.

Gold Diggers of 1935 (1935).  98 minutes.  Directed by Busby Berkeley.  Starring Dick Powell (as Dick Curtis), Adolphe Menjou (as Nicolai Nicoleff), Gloria Stuart (as Ann Prentiss), Alice Brady (as Mathilda Prentiss), and Hugh Herbert (as T. Mosely Thorpe III).  Music and lyrics by Harry Warren and Al Dubin.

One might be tempted to say that the plot of this film exists mainly to support the lavish, geometrically obsessed Busby Berkeley musical numbers presented at the film’s conclusion.  Such a reading, however, would marginalize all of the lampooning of class and extravagance that takes place over the course of the majority of the film.  What happens before the musical numbers is truly wonderful, a great showcase of scheming and greed that is delivered from an entirely playful perspective. 

Nearly everyone in Gold Diggers of 1935 is after someone else’s money.  Almost all of the characters scheme to enrich their wallets and widen their pockets—some maliciously (for example, Mosely’s stenographer blackmails … Read the rest

The Bride Came C.O.D. (1941)

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"The Bride Came C.O.D." Detail from a movie poster.

The Bride Came C.O.D. (1941). 92 minutes.  Directed by William Keighley.  Starring James Cagney (as Steve Collins), Bette Davis (as Joan Winfield), Eugene Pallette (as Lucius Winfield), and Harry Davenport (as “Pop” Tolliver).

The Bride Came C.O.D. is reminiscent of two other films that I have reviewed recently.  Like von Stroheim’s Greed, it was filmed in Death Valley when temperatures were high.  Like It Happened One Night, it features a wealthy heiress who wants to marry a dashing celebrity of whom her father disapproves, and the plot involves her displacement and an elaborate hunt to locate her.

By the early 1940s, Bette Davis and James Cagney were looking for new material.  Cagney had flourished playing gangster characters in movies such as The Public Enemy, and Davis had had great success in melodramas such as Jezebel and Of Human Bondage, but both actors thought a comedy was necessary to move their careers in fresh directions.  What they … Read the rest

Easter Parade (1948)

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Detail from "Easter Parade" movie poster

Easter Parade (1948). 103 minutes.  Directed by Charles Walters.  Starring Judy Garland (as Hannah Brown), Fred Astaire (as Don Hewes), Ann Miller (as Nadine Hale), and Peter Lawford (as Jonathan Harrow III).  Music and lyrics by Irving Berlin.

Easter Parade contains some of stars Fred Astaire’s and Judy Garland’s most beloved routines, including the title song (sung at the film’s conclusion), “Steppin’ Out With My Baby,” and “We’re a Couple of Swells,” the latter of which became an important part of Garland’s concert repertoire.  The film takes place over the course of a year in New York, from the Easter of 1912 to the Easter of 1913.  Singer and dancer Don Hewes (played by Astaire) has been abandoned by his accomplished partner, Nadine Hale (played by Ann Miller), and stumbling into a cabaret at night, Hewes tells his friend Jonathan Harrow (played by Peter Lawford) that he can make any of the girls performing in that venue into a world-class … Read the rest