It 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.
If 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.
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.
Carrying on with my series where I pick five films which have some kind of loose thematic connection – not necessarily the best or even my favourites, but five which interest me. Anyway, films about films seem to be my theme of the moment, as I’ve recently written postings about The Artist and My Week with Marilyn. So here are another five self-regarding movies. Be warned, there are spoilers in my first choice for anyone who doesn’t know what happens in the various versions of A Star Is Born.
What Price Hollywood (1932): This melodrama directed by George Cukor was the first version of the A Star Is Born story (as far as I know, anyway). It gives a very bitter picture of a Hollywood which chews people up and casts them aside. Lowell Sherman is absolutely stunning as the washed-up drunken film director Max Carey, dominating the film and drawing on his own real-life drink problem. Constance Bennett is also excellent as ambitious waitress turned rising star Mary Evans, but her romance with millionaire Lonny Borden (Neil Hamilton) doesn’t really ring true and is a weak spot in a powerful film. I also love William A Wellman’s A Star Is Born (1937), which is very much a reworking of the same story, with great performances by Janet Gaynor and Fredric March, and the George Cukor remake, with Judy Garland and James Mason – just a shame that the complete version of that one is lost. But, anyway, Cukor’s pre-Code version has a witty toughness all of its own. And the suicide scene is unforgettable, focusing on the agony of the man whose life is over, and not seen as some kind of noble gesture to the rising star he loves, as in the remakes.
Countless movies from the 1930s feature fast-talking, fast-living journalists, armed with battered old typewriters, phones and bottles of whiskey. Some of these reporters are fearlessly determined to expose corruption at any cost. Others, however, are quite the opposite, and the (anti)hero of Wellman’s quirky romantic comedy-melodrama Love Is a Racket is a case in point. Gossip columnist Jimmy Russell, played by a very young and handsome Douglas Fairbanks Jr, isn’t interested in putting his neck on the line. When he hears about a juicy story involving New York mobsters fixing the price of milk, he can’t get to the phone fast enough… to keep it out of the paper!
This is one of six movies made by Wellman in 1932, during his amazingly prolific pre-Code days. Made under contract at Warner, it has the studio’s gritty style, but is also stamped with the director’s personality, as it lurches from witty dialogue to black humour, practical jokes and slapstick. Also, about half the film seems to take place in torrential rain, Wellman’s favourite type of weather. There’s a great cast, with Lee Tracy, the original stage star of The Front Page, as Fairbanks’ best buddy and newspaper colleague, Frances Dee as our hero’s on-off girlfriend, and Ann Dvorak, one of my favourite 1930s actresses, in a sadly small role as his pal who wants to be something more. Even with all this going for it, this film isn’t on DVD as yet and is one of the director’s more obscure early works. But it has recently been shown on TCM in the US, so there must be a chance it will soon get released on Warner Archive.
It’s been a while since I did any full reviews of William A Wellman movies here, but I have been watching more of his work in the meantime and have updated my Wellman page with brief details of all the films of his I’ve seen so far (40-plus.) I do also have a couple more of his films which I haven’t got round to watching yet, and there are a few more available which I haven’t bought yet, so I will carry on updating, and hopefully review some more of them too.
Anyway, I’m delighted to say that my page is already getting out of date, because Warner Archive has just announced that it is releasing three more of his titles on DVD. I’m especially excited at the release of his great pre-Code Safe In Hell (1931), starring Dorothy Mackaill in a brilliant performance as an ex-prostitute who runs away to a Caribbean island after killing an ex-boyfriend.
The other two are later titles, which I haven’t seen as yet. One is My Man and I (1953), starring Shelley Winters as an alcoholic bar girl befriended by Mexican farmhand Ricardo Montalban. The other is Wellman’s very last film, Lafayette Escadrille (1958), starring Tab Hunter and David Janssen, and with a small part for Clint Eastwood. This returns to the theme of the director’s first big success, Wings, by focusing on First World War flyers. I have seen an interview with Wellman where he talks about this film and about how upset he was by the studio changing his ending and also imposing a title – he had already had a lot of interference with many other films, but you get the impression this one broke his heart. (He himself didn’t fly with the Lafayette Escadrille, as usually stated, but with the Lafayette Flying Corps.) Anyway, this film is already available on a French DVD from Warner, but this is said to be a remastered edition, so I’m not sure which would be the better buy. The French DVD is probably a pressed one rather than a DVR, but maybe this is a better print?
It’s also good to hear that classic screwball comedy Nothing Sacred (1937), starring Carole Lombard and Fredric March, is being released by Kino on both DVD and Blu-ray on December 20 in a new “authorised edition from the estate of David O Selznick and the collection of George Eastman House). Should be much better than all the faded public domain copies on the market!
I’ve finally managed to see pre-Code romantic comedy Laughter, starring Nancy Carroll, Fredric March and Frank Morgan. It was in a very poor print online (at good old YT), but I’m just happy to have seen it at last. It has never been released on DVD – probably because neither of the two main stars is a top name now, and nor is director Harry d’Abbadie d’Arrast, who only made a handful of movies before leaving Hollywood. There is no chance of it turning up on TV in the UK, where I live, though there is a chance it may appear on TCM in the US, which serves up such an amazing array of early 1930s films. Although this film isn’t very well-known I’ve found a few nice pictures of it, so you might be interested if you scroll down to the end!
The title Laughter might sound as if this film is an uproarious farce , but far from it. In fact it is a blend of sophisticated comedy and melodrama, with some sharp, witty dialogue from screenwriter Donald Ogden Stewart. This is a film which has attracted a lot of interest and discussion over the years as a precursor to the screwball comedies of a few years later, and there is a long piece on it in the wonderful book I’m slowly reading my way through at the moment, Romantic Comedy in Hollywood from Lubitsch to Sturges by James Harvey.
I’ve been watching a lot of Lubitsch’s famous pre-Code musical comedies recently, so thought it would be interesting also to see this little-known serious anti-war drama which he made at the same period, starring Lionel Barrymore. Broken Lullaby – also known as The Man I Killed, after the title of the original stage play by French writer Maurice Rostand – was a flop at the box office, persuading Lubitsch that he had better not try anything else in the same vein. However, watching this, I found myself feeling that it is a forgotten masterpiece, just as richly multi-layered as his early comedies. It is sad to think that, while many of them are being reissued in lavish box sets, this film has only ever been released on region 2 DVD in Spain and France.
The one part of the film which is remembered (and, I understand, occasionally shown at festivals apart from the rest of the drama, as something complete in itself) is its opening. This is an example of the breathtaking cinematography by Victor Milner, which uses many techniques from silent film. Fortunately this two-minute sequence is currently available at Youtube, so I can post a link to it – it’s much better to see it than to read my description! However, I will describe it too, since it really is the heart of the film. The film begins with a title card announcing the first anniversary of the Armistice, in 1919, and there are a series of short clips cutting between the church bells ringing, memories of the fighting, the victorious French troops marching through Paris, and screaming soldiers in hospital haunted by their memories. The most striking image here is the angle chosen to show the parade, where the camera is directed through the gap where the leg of a wounded soldier used to be, with his maimed silhouette standing between the viewer and the triumphant marchers.
I haven’t had much time for blogging lately, even for the shorter postings I keep vaguely promising – but here are a few thoughts on another Capra pre-Code melodrama, again starring Barbara Stanwyck as a fish out of water. This is said to be the movie which made her a star. Here she is working-class “party girl” Kay Arnold (though it is made fairly explicit that this is a euphemism, like “escort”) who is impulsively picked up by artist Jerry Strong (Ralph Graves) to use as a model. She soon falls in love with him, but it seems as if it is impossible to get away from her past or bridge the huge social divide between them.
Stanwyck gives a warm, vulnerable performance, as she does in other pre-Codes, and is compelling to watch. I especially enjoyed her scenes with her character’s best friend, fellow escort Dot, played by silent film star Marie Prevost. The two have a humorous relationship but definitely care about each other – and Prevost has a great scene late in the film where she runs up several flights of stairs to try to save the day for her friend. Graves is somewhat outshone by these two, plus a scene-stealing Lowell Sherman as his drunken best friend, but he does have a fair amount of chemistry with Stanwyck. (Sherman is a comic drunk in this, just a couple of years before his devastating role as a tragic drunk in What Price Hollywood?)
Actress Barbara Stanwyck is probably best-known for her roles in films noir like Double Indemnity, where she plays a cold-hearted femme fatale. But, great as she undoubtedly is in this kind of part, I tend to prefer her earlier films when she plays characters with more warmth – as she does in The Miracle Woman, one of Capra’s great pre-Codes. Her character, young bogus evangelist Sister Florence Fallon, must be the sweetest conwoman ever. Indeed, she casts her spell over the audience just as she does over her swooning congregations within the movie.
This early Capra movie is one of many of his works centring on a charismatic figure who is taken up by cynical business interests and used to manipulate the public. Capra and his regular writer Robert Riskin, who adapted this film from his own play Bless You Sister, were not the only film-makers in the 1930s to be interested in this kind of story. (A similar scam is also the theme of William A Wellman’s Nothing Sacred, a film I wrote about here recently and which John Greco has just written a great review of at his blog.) But it does seem to be a Depression-era theme that had a particular appeal for Capra, an idea that he returned to time and again.