Category Archives: 1930s

I Cover the Waterfront (James Cruze, 1933)

This is my contribution to the Journalism in Classic Film blogathon organised by Comet over Hollywood and Lindsay’s Movie Musings – please do visit and read the other postings.

Ben Lyon and Claudette Colbert

Ben Lyon and Claudette Colbert

Many 1930s films about journalists are set in big city newsrooms, with multiple editions hitting the streets all through the day. Some even feature several rival newspapers battling for stories, and whole packs of reporters jostling to be first with the news. Pre-Code romantic melodrama I Cover the Waterfront is rather different. Ben Lyon stars as Joe Miller, a young journalist with a lonely and unglamorous job covering the ships which arrive and depart  on an unnamed Californian waterfront. As author Max Miller wrote in the book of real-life stories which inspired the movie: “I have been here so long that even the seagulls recognise me.”

Inevitably, the apparently sleepy backwater soon turns out to be anything but, as Joe manages to dig out a sensational story, and finds himself caught in a moral dilemma to rival any in those big-city films. He deliberately sets out to romance Julie Kirk (Claudette Colbert) in order to get the dirt on her criminal father, fisherman Eli, who is smuggling Chinese immigrants into the country… but soon realises he is in danger of breaking her heart, along with his own. The result is a powerful drama where the investigative reporter is a hero, but his determination to nail his scoop at any cost also has its dark side.

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Always Goodbye (Sidney Lanfield, 1938)

This is my contribution to the Barbara Stanwyck blogathon being organised by Girl with a White Parasol, which features a great range of postings going right through her career.

Barbara Stanwyck and Johnny Russell

Barbara Stanwyck and Johnny Russell

Sacrificial mother love was a persistent theme in 1930s melodramas – and Barbara Stanwyck played several roles of this kind, most famously in the classic Stella Dallas (1937). The following year she was cast as a mother suffering for her child once again in Always Goodbye (1938), which isn’t one of her best-known pictures, but does feature another great performance. Did she ever give anything less? Another plus is that it casts Stanwyck opposite Herbert Marshall, whose voice adds so much to the power of every role he plays.

Always Goodbye was a remake of a pre-Code film starring Ann Harding, Gallant Lady (1933). I would like to see that one too, especially as it was directed by Gregory La Cava. Like the Stanwyck film, it isn’t available in the UK , but has had DVD releases in the US and elsewhere, so I may be tempted to buy it on import. If you’ve seen the La Cava version, I’d be really interested to hear your thoughts on how the two compare.

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Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers

This is my contribution to the Dynamic Duos in Classic Film Blogathon hosted by Once Upon a Screen and Classic Movie Hub. Do check out the other postings, which cover a wide range of artists.

Facing the music

Facing the music and dancing

If there is any one dance number which sums up the appeal of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, perhaps it’s Let’s Face the Music and Dance, as it serves up glamour, romance and laughter in the face of despair. At the start of the number, Astaire plays an elegant gambler on board a ship. He loses all he has left at the tables and is about to shoot himself – but that’s when Rogers appears at the side of the deck, trying to throw herself off. Somehow she indicates with her eyes alone that the reason is a broken love affair.  They save each other, as he pulls her back from the brink and she snatches his gun, which he then throws into the sea, followed by his empty wallet. Next Fred starts to sing Irving Berlin’s song, with those opening lines which are almost like an Astaire-Rogers movie in miniature: “There may be trouble ahead/ But while there’s moonlight and music/ And love and romance/ Let’s face the music and dance.”

And they do dance, of course, fitting into each other’s movements with an apparently effortless perfection that  takes your breath away, however many times you’ve seen it. Fred is in his famous tails (after wearing a sailor’s uniform for much of the movie in question, Follow the Fleet) and Ginger wears an evening dress with a fur stole draped around her shoulders. The cruise ship and casino are a world away from most people’s reality and yet the whole number is informed by the experience of the Great Depression which the audience was still living through in 1936. Dance now, pay later.

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Christopher Strong (Dorothy Arzner, 1933)

Katharine Hepburn as Lady Cynthia Darrington

Katharine Hepburn as Lady Cynthia Darrington

Aviation movies have long held a fascination for me, but I haven’t seen many featuring female aviators — and most of those I have seen are a disappointment. For instance, I was recently excited at the chance to see the German silent film The Ship of Lost Men (1929), starring my favourite actress, Marlene Dietrich, as a pioneering pilot, but sadly she is only seen in the air for a second or so before landing in the sea, and the film as a whole isn’t very memorable. Dorothy Mackaill, another fine actress, plays a spoilt rich girl playing at being a pilot in the pre-Code Love Affair (1932), the film which features Humphrey Bogart’s first romantic lead role, but, again, she spends very little time in the air and the film doesn’t really live up to its great cast.

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It Happened One Night (Frank Capra, 1934)

It Happened 1It was a film made in just four weeks, and on a shoestring. Clark Gable was forced to star in it as a punishment, according to some accounts, and turned up drunk and angry to meet director Frank Capra.  At the end of filming, Claudette Colbert said “I just finished the worst picture in the world.”  Yet, somehow, It Happened One Night, the tale of a runaway heiress who joins forces with an unemployed journalist on a long-distance bus trip,  ended up as a smash hit and multi-Oscar winner. It touched a nerve in the Great Depression – and still does so now, in our own hard times nearly 80 years on. I was lucky enough to see it on the big screen during a rerelease in the UK, and the audience’s reaction showed just how well this early screwball tale of a couple travelling on a late-night bus has worn.

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And So They Were Married (Elliott Nugent, 1936)

This is my contribution to the Mary Astor blogathon being hosted by classic movie blogs Tales of the Easily Distracted and Silver Screenings, running from May 3-10, 2013 – please do visit the other blogs taking part.

Mary Astor and Melvyn Douglas

Mary Astor and Melvyn Douglas

The Mary Astor film I’ve chosen to write about is And So They Were Married, a little-known romantic comedy from 1936, where she plays a divorced mother thrown together with widowed father Melvyn Douglas at a snowbound ski resort over Christmas and New Year. It’s not available on DVD, but can currently be seen on Youtube, and is also due to be shown on TCM in the US  at 11.15pm (ET) on Wednesday, July 3. While not a masterpiece, this is an enjoyable family film and could also be a fun alternative to better-known Christmas movies to bear in mind when the next festive season arrives.

The scenery, filmed on location at Donner Pass in California, is beautiful, and Astor and Douglas make a great couple, even if at times they could do with sharper dialogue. This will be a fairly short posting and this isn’t the sort of film where you need to worry about spoilers – though, in any case, as the New York Times review pointed out: “And So They Were Married gives away nearly all the story it has to offer in one titular burst of generosity.”

I knew that Mary Astor found herself pushed into mother roles later in her career, but I hadn’t realised she started to play this kind of part quite so young, while still at the height of her beauty. She was just 30 when And So They Were Married was released, and looks very young to be the mother of Edith Fellows, who was 13 (although her character is said to be nine). However, even if the casting is a slight stretch, Astor’s relationship with her screen daughter comes across as warm and natural, showing the way forward to her later mother roles in better-known films like Meet Me in St Louis.

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The Thin Man (WS Van Dyke, 1934)

The Thin Man 1If there’s one  murder mystery where nobody cares whodunit, it has to be The Thin Man. Why waste time puzzling over clues when you could be enjoying William Powell and Myrna Loy, and their portrayal of  glamorous detectives Nick and Nora Charles?  The scenes everybody remembers from this sparkling pre-Code comedy-drama are all about Nick and Nora – and, of course, their wire-haired terrier, Asta.

For the uninitiated, the film centres on supposedly retired private detective Nick Charles, who has given up the day job to concentrate on enjoying life with his rich wife. Or so he thinks – but, inevitably, when the couple leave their San Francisco home and visit his native New York to stay in a grand hotel suite there over Christmas, the festivities get mixed up with solving one last crime. Which will lead to plenty more “last crimes” in a series of sequels. There is a fine supporting cast, including Maureen O’Sullivan as a lovelorn young girl and Nat Pendleton as a comic  detective, and the murder mystery is well done in itself, leading up to a scene round the dinner table where Nick brings all the suspects together before revealing the killer. However,  it isn’t what anybody remembers the film for. Few people even remember that the phrase “The Thin Man” is actually supposed to refer to a character involved in the murder mystery, a complicated tangle about an eccentric scientist suspected of killing his ex-lover, and not to William Powell.

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Eternally Yours (Tay Garnett, 1939)

Eternally_Yours_(1939)_1

David Niven and Loretta Young

Latter-day screwball comedy Eternally Yours was made in what is often described as Hollywood’s greatest year, 1939, and has a superb cast. There are three actors who later won Oscars, not only leads Loretta Young and David Niven, but also Broderick Crawford as the hapless “other man”. Also featured are great silent film actress Zasu Pitts, doing a comic turn,  and C. Aubrey Smith,  Eve Arden, Hugh Herbert and Billie Burke in small roles.  And there’s a good director, Tay Garnett, who went on to make The Postman Always Rings Twice a few years later. Don’t expect too much, though – this is not a masterpiece by any means and I’d have to say it sags in the middle, after a great start.

Any fan of classic romantic comedy will find plenty to enjoy, all the same, just as long as you steer clear of the dire public domain DVDs on the market from companies you’ve never heard of. I rashly bought one of these  and found the film almost impossible to watch, with dreadful picture and sound quality, and a lot of bewildering jumps in the story. It later transpired that this was an incomplete version with many scenes missing (including some of the best ones!) so that the plot made little sense. Fortunately there was a more complete version on Youtube (around 90 minutes), with much better sound and picture. This may not be perfect, and still has one or two jumps, but, when I watched this, suddenly the film was immeasurably improved from the butchered version I’d originally seen. I note that the US TCM website also has a DVR version available which may be better yet.

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Night Flight (Clarence Brown, 1933)

nightflight4   MGM was at one time said to have “more stars than there are in heaven”. The studio certainly poured quite a few of them into its 1933 drama Night Flight, produced by David O Selznick and directed by Clarence Brown, which features both John and Lionel Barrymore along with Helen Hayes, Clark Gable, Robert Montgomery and Myrna Loy.  It’s an all-star cast list to rival Grand Hotel or Dinner at Eight, but this lesser-known film is on a smaller scale and doesn’t have the same compelling quality as the other two – perhaps because it was severely cut after its premiere, so what we have are the butchered remains of an epic. Most of the time the various stars are kept separate, with several of them never sharing a scene. The two Barrymores are both superb and bring the film alive whenever they are on screen, especially when they are together. But some of the other actors are wasted, especially Gable, who hardly speaks a line and is only seen wearing a helmet in the cockpit of his plane, having to act silently by means of his eyes alone.

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A Christmas Carol (Edwin L Marin, 1938)

Reginald Owen as Scrooge

Reginald Owen as Scrooge

As a fan of 1930s films, I was really looking forward to seeing  this 1938 version of A Christmas Carol. However, I must admit I was rather disappointed with this very short film (just 69 minutes), which cuts out a great deal of the story, including most of its darker elements. Remarkably, this is a version where nobody really seems to be poor. Instead, there is a lot of MGM glamour, including Ann Rutherford improbably cast as an elegant blonde Ghost of Christmas Past, plus some lavish Hollywood snow scenes thrown in. I can see that this adaptation was aimed at a family audience and this is why it has cut out so many of the scary/disturbing elements, but unfortunately this means it has in effect plucked out the heart of Dickens’s story.

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