As well as writing about films on this blog, I’ve been meaning to write a few postings about the actors and actresses I especially like. While some of the top stars of the 1930s, like Gary Cooper and Cary Grant, are still (and deservedly so) household names, others, who were equally popular at the time, have been all but forgotten. One of these is Warner Baxter (1889-1951). He starred in almost 100 films, both silent and talkies, and was said to be possibly the highest-paid actor in Hollywood in his peak year,1936. He was also the very first male star to win the Oscar for best actor, in 1929. But today many film fans have never heard of him at all – and those who have probably only know him for a handful of his films, mainly for 42nd Street and his role as Doctor Samuel Mudd in John Ford’s The Prisoner of Shark Island.
So what is it that I like about him? In all honesty, it is partly his looks – but I’m also attracted by his screen personality, in the handful of films of his that I’ve managed to see so far, anyway, and by the demanding roles he took on. Below is a link to a tribute to him on Youtube, which gives a feeling of the range of roles he played, many in films which have now disappeared. He was the original screen Gatsby in a silent film made only a year after the novel was published, but that film is now lost, along with many of his other silents and early talkies.
Here is a brief run-down of the films of Baxter’s that I’ve seen so far, which are only a few. I’d be interested to hear recommendations of others to look for. I know the Crime Doctor films which he made in later life, after suffering a nervous breakdown and other health problems, are said to be worth seeing, but I haven’t had an opportunity to do so as yet. I have found an article which appeared under Baxter’s byline in a German movie magazine which is interesting and I will hope to translate it back into English as a follow-up to this posting – sadly I haven’t managed to find the English original of this piece!
The first film I saw Baxter in was 42nd Street (1933), and I was immediately impressed by his portrayal of driven, tortured producer Julian Marsh, who is suffering from some unspecified illness (it seems to be to do with his nerves), and slumps down outside the theatre at the end after his musical production has triumphed. The film is of course best-known for its astonishing Busby Berkeley production numbers, and for performances by musical stars like Ruby Keeler, Dick Powell and Ginger Rogers. Nevertheless, Baxter gets top billing and he also speaks the most memorable line: “You’re going out a youngster, but you’ve got to come back a star!” In some ways this seems to be a typical role for him in his talkies – lonely, on the edge, tired, and still so handsome, but with the feeling that those looks could be about to fade any minute.
The other films of his I’ve seen to date are:
Broadway Bill (1934, Frank Capra): For many years this comedy-drama was thought to be a lost film until rediscovered in the 1990s. Baxter plays the son-in-law of a domineering businessman, who breaks away from his life in the family paper business and stakes everything on training a racehorse, supported by his sister-in-law, Myrna Loy. This was actually made in the very early days of the Hays Code, but still feels like a pre-Code, as the in-laws inevitably fall in love while training the horse. Baxter is on the edge at the start of the film, but gradually mellows and is able to have more fun in this than in 42nd Street.
The Prisoner of Shark Island (1936, John Ford): This may be Baxter’s best-known role. He plays a doctor who innocently treats Lincoln’s injured assassin, and is therefore regarded as an accomplice and sent off to a nightmare island prison ridden with Yellow Fever. The film is said to be highly historically inaccurate, but it makes gripping viewing and Baxter gives one of his most powerful performances as the exhausted, despairing and yet dedicated doctor. R.D. Finch has just written a full review of this film at his blog.
The Robin Hood of El Dorado (1936, William A Wellman): Baxter plays a character 20 years younger than he really was in the early sections of this politically conscious Western, and he is also saddled with a cod Spanish accent as he plays a Mexican bandit. (He also played a Mexican bandit in the film he won his Oscar for, In Old Arizona (1928), which I haven’t seen as yet, and reprised that role, as The Cisco Kid, in some follow-up movies.) This little-known film shows the way forward to later Wellman films like The Ox Bow Incident in its powerful indictment of lynch law and prejudice. I’ve previously written a long review of this film on my blog.
The Road to Glory (1936, Howard Hawks): This is a little-known Hawks film, and not on DVD, but I really like it and have been meaning to write a full review of this one, though I will need to watch it again first. It has a lot in common with Hawks’ earlier The Dawn Patrol, focusing on a group of soldiers, here a French regiment in the First World War, with the mood becoming increasingly sombre as replacements turn up and are killed in turn. Baxter plays the stressed-out captain, who is caught up in a love triangle with Fredric March and the woman they both fall for. However, the most touching relationship is between Baxter and his father, played by Lionel Barrymore, who lies about his age and turns up at the front to serve under his son.
I was excited today to discover that the British Film Institute in London has a comprehensive-looking Howard Hawks season coming up in January. The list of movies is on their site with an introduction by David Thomson. It will include Hawks’ earliest surviving film, Fig Leaves (1926), and other silent rarities, as well as early talkies like The Criminal Code (1931) and many better-known films from the rest of his career. As well as the silents, I’m also extremely tempted by the thought of seeing my favourites like The Crowd Roars (1932) and Ceiling Zero (1935), both starring James Cagney, as a troubled racing driver and womanising pilot, or Twentieth Century (1934), with John Barrymore and Carole Lombard – or The Dawn Patrol (1930), starring Richard Barthelmess, on the big screen. Realistically, as it is a long way to London, I’m not likely to be able to see more than one or two of the wonderful array of films, but will report back on this blog on whatever I do manage to see, anyway!
The BFI has also got what sounds like a great Frank Capra season running at the moment. On top of its programme of showings, it has ongoing appeals to restore nine rare early Alfred Hitchcock silent films and to find 75 “most wanted” lost British films – including missing features starring Errol Flynn, Laurence Olivier, Dorothy Gish, Peter Lorre, James Mason, Phyllis Calvert and many more famous actors, and also including work by directors such as Hitchcock, again, and Michael Powell. I don’t know if they have had any luck in digging up copies of any of these missing treasures, but here’s hoping.
Richard Barthelmess might be best known as a star of silent films, but I think he was equally good in early talkies, when his boyish looks were starting to fade. He was great as a tormented wartime aviator in Howard Hawks’ The Dawn Patrol (1930) – and he gives another powerful performance as a drug-addicted veteran of the First World War in William Wellman’s Heroes For Sale (1933). For me this is one of the strongest offerings in the Forbidden Hollywood Collection Volume Three, though it possibly goes off the boil for a bit in the middle.
This film, one of a number which Wellman made focusing on the Great Depression, follows Barthelmess’ character, Tom Holmes, from the trenches of France through to a peacetime battle in America, a march by the “forgotten men”, war veterans desperately seeking work. Both the opening in the trenches and the march of the unemployed men near the end are set amid torrential rain, which features in so many early Wellman films and seems to express the overwhelming forces bearing down on his heroes. The original working title of the film was Breadline, but it was changed to the more dramatic and bitter Heroes For Sale, underlining the theme of war veterans who can’t make a living in peacetime. However, the film isn’t just sympathetic to old soldiers, who are not particularly romanticised, but to everyone struggling in the Depression, and the hard years leading up to it.
Just a short review today as I don’t have time for one of my epics, you may be relieved to hear! In all honesty, I also don’t have all that much to say about Devil Dogs of the Air, which is a light comedy-drama, though it does feature some spectacular aviation footage. However, I thought I’d write something about it before it fades in my mind.
On the face of it, there are quite a few similarities between this movie , directed by Lloyd Bacon, and one of my favourite James Cagney films, Howard Hawks’ Ceiling Zero, made later in the same year. Both see Cagney playing a daredevil pilot, and both team him with Pat O’Brien as a long-suffering old friend in a position of command. (They are mail pilots in Ceiling Zero, fleet marine force aviators here.) Cagney even makes almost the same entrance in both films. In each case his character has had quite a build-up before he appears, and is first seen in a plane doing daring aerobatics, before cheekily throwing himself into a dismayed O’Brien’s arms on landing.
Yet the two movies feel very different to watch – partly of course because Devil Dogs is mainly comedy and Ceiling Zero mainly drama, but also, I think, because Hawks’ film gives so much more complexity to the characters. In Ceiling Zero Cagney’s character, “Dizzy” Davis is in his mid-30s (with a thin moustache to make him look a little older and more dashing), getting rather old to fly and also finding his life of womanising starting to wear thin.
Earlier this year, I reviewed Howard Hawks’ first sound movie, The Dawn Patrol (1930), a powerful tale of a group of British First World War pilots waiting in their small, temporary HQ near the frontline in France, to be sent off in batches to an almost certain death.
Since then, I’ve found myself often remembering the film, and have been curious to see the 1938 remake, directed by Edmund Goulding and starring Errol Flynn and David Niven as Captain Courtney and Lieutenant Scott, the roles played by Richard Barthelmess and Douglas Fairbanks Jr in the original.
I’ve now managed to get hold of a copy of the remake, and watched it – then went back to the earlier version to see what the differences were. The thing that struck me most of all was just how similar they are – in many scenes the scripts seem almost identical, while a lot of the flying footage is clearly taken from the earlier film and sandwiched into the second version, with just Flynn’s dirty face in goggles substituted for that of Barthelmess.
I’ve decided I’m going to try to write slightly shorter blog postings, as I’m so short of time these days due to my work situation. But I still want to try to record some of my thoughts on the classic movies I keep watching – so my mid-year resolution is to use more pictures and fewer words!
This is one of the early Howard Hawks films I didn’t manage to see during the blogathon organised by Ed Howard earlier this year. But I’ve now caught up with it after spotting the VHS video in a local secondhand shop (it hasn’t been released on DVD in the UK) and have also read Ed’s excellent review at his Only the Cinema blog. It’s definitely a lesser Hawks offering and doesn’t really have his stamp about it, but I’m still glad to have seen it.
Seeing the names of Howard Hawks and Cary Grant together, I expected a lot from I Was a Male War Bride. Watching it, however, I felt slightly disappointed, as I soon realised this isn’t the masterpiece I’d expected – and nowhere near the sublime screwball comedy of their other collaborations like His Girl Friday.
Nevertheless, I quite enjoyed it, and wouldn’t quite agree with the critics who claim that it is “horrendously unfunny” – James Harvey’s verdict in the massive book I’m currently reading, Romantic Comedy in Hollywood. I think that’s slightly harsh. There are some amusing moments, and the basic story is intriguing – but, to me, the main problem is that the dialogue just isn’t as fast and as sparkling as a screwball comedy needs it to be. Quite a bit of slapstick comedy is thrown in to make amends, and is often funny – but razor-sharp exchanges of wit between Grant and Ann Sheridan could have been even funnier.
Following on from my post about To Have and Have Not, thought I’d pass on a link to a video at Youtube which shows how often Hawks’ women use the same lines.
I’ll just quote a bit of a passage in Richard Schickel’s book The Men Who Made the Movies where Hawks talks about the repetition: “You ask why did I repeat myself (in) business, characters, plots, things. Probably I could answer it better by saying if a man, a good boxer, hits somebody with a left hook, he doesn’t stop left-hooking in the rest of his fights. And anybody who is any good – any writer – is always going to repeat himself, so that you’re going to know who wrote the thing. And any director that I think is any good puts a stamp on his work. And he naturally will use things again. If it has been good once, it’s good another time. That’s the only answer that I can give to a thing like that…
“I like it when (people) say, ‘You repeated yourself.’ Because if they can remember that long, the scene must be pretty good.”
Continuing my current Howard Hawks obsession, I’ve just re-watched one of his most famous films, the one where Bogart and Bacall met. The chemistry between them is just as sizzling as I’d remembered it from watching the film years ago – but what really struck me this time, after submerging myself in Hawks in recent weeks, is how much the movie has his stamp on it.
The movie is loosely based on a famous Ernest Hemingway novel (I’ve read it many years ago but don’t remember much about it) and has a screenplay by Jules Furthman and William Faulkner, but the plot construction feels very Hawksian, all the same, and there are several lines which are similar or even identical to those in his previous films. “I don’t think I’ll ever shout at anyone again,” a line spoken wearily by a wife who has just faced losing her husband, is one of these, almost identical to a line in Ceiling Zero in a slightly different context.
The central romance plot is similar to that in Only Angels Have Wings, as a woman turns up by chance in a turbulent setting, falls for a stranger, and stays around to see whether they have a chance together even when he tries to ensure that she leaves. Here, the setting is Martinique under the rule of Vichy France, where Harry Morgan (Bogart) sails a fishing boat for hire, but becomes fed up with his current client’s refusal to pay the money he owes. (In the book, Harry made his living ferrying contraband between Florida and Cuba.)
When reviewing the Howard Hawks movie Ceiling Zero for the early Howard Hawks blog-a-thon, I completely forgot that I had a copy of the Lux Radio Theater adaptation of this film, based on Frank Wead’s play. I’ve now remembered and listened to it – and found there were a few interesting differences from the film. Here’s a link to a site where anyone who wants to hear this production can download it – along with any other episodes of the Lux series which appeal to you.
From all the OTR shows I’ve heard, I’m impressed by what powerful performances the actors give – they were usually performing in front of a live audience, which gives an extra excitement, and makes it perhaps the nearest we can come to knowing what it would have been like to see many of these actors on stage.