Mata Hari (George Fitzmaurice, 1931)

Mata Hari Greta Garbo Lionel Barrymore

Greta Garbo and Lionel Barrymore

This is my very belated contribution to the Barrymore Trilogy blogathon – many apologies for being so late (I forgot the blogathon’s date), but please do visit Crystal’s blog, In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood, to read the other entries. 

This smash hit romantic melodrama is dominated by Greta Garbo, playing the woman whose name has become a byword for seductive spying. However, Lionel Barrymore also gives a powerful performance as a General who falls under her spell. Although Ramon Novarro is ostensibly the male lead, Barrymore has a more interesting role and manages to steal a large number of scenes.

The film is only loosely based on the life of the real Mata Hari, a Dutch exotic dancer living in Paris who was executed for spying for the Germans in the First World War. A recent biographer argues that she wasn’t a spy at all and says there was little evidence against her. Be that as it may, Mata was around 40 during the war and her career as a dancer was on the wane. By contrast, Garbo was only 26 when she made the film and at the height of her beauty – so the character doesn’t quite have the desperation which Mata would have had in real life. Another difference is that the real Mata was Eurasian, but fortunately, although Garbo is seen performing a sexy Oriental dance, the studio didn’t try to alter her appearance.

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Broadway Bill and Riding High (Frank Capra, 1934 and 1950)

broadway billI’m still on the blogathon trail! This is my contribution to the Animals in Film Blogathon, which is being hosted by Crystal of In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. Please do go along and look at the other postings.

Horse-racing tale Broadway Bill was clearly a story which meant a lot to Frank Capra. After being dissatisfied with the film first time around, he remade it 16 years on as Riding High. The original film was then thought to be lost for many years, before resurfacing in the 1990s. I thought it would be fun to compare the two for the blogathon, as I’ve already done with another Capra film that he remade, Lady for a Day and Pocketful of Miracles. However, I hadn’t quite realised just how similar the two versions of Broadway Bill would be!

Broadway Bill is available on DVD in both region 1 and the UK/region 2. The print on the region 2 DVD I watched is grainy and doesn’t look very good, although it’s said to be restored. Riding High is available from Warner Archive in region 1 and there is also a Spanish region 2 DVD, but I watched it via streaming at Amazon.co.uk, where the picture and sound quality were good.

The story, scripted by Robert Riskin, centres on a charming drifter, Dan Brooks (Warner Baxter). He has married an heiress and uneasily settled down in her small home town, Higginsville, where every business in sight is owned by her dad, overbearing banker J.L. Higgins (Walter Connolly). Shades of Pottersville in It’s a Wonderful Life – though Higgins doesn’t quite have Potter’s evil glee!

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The Sisters (Anatole Litvak, 1938)

This posting is my contribution to the Bette Davis Blogathon, organised by Crystal at The Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. Please visit and read the other postings. 

the sisters 3Bette Davis might be best remembered for her “bad girl” roles, but these were not the only characters she played. In The Sisters she pours her emotional power into the role of quiet and self-sacrificing wife Louise. This might be one of her lesser-known titles, but it’s a film I like a lot, partly for the daring way that both Davis and male lead Errol Flynn, playing a waifish alcoholic, are cast against type. (They went on to star together in more characteristic roles in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex). Director Anatole Litvak made a number of good romantic melodramas and is someone I’ve been meaning to write more about on this blog. This is a period piece set in the early years of the 20th century and includes some spectacular footage re-creating the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. It’s available from Warner Archive and there are also Spanish and Italian DVD eleases in region 2.

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Hedy Lamarr Film Marathon

This posting is my contribution to the Marathon Stars Blogathon hosted by Virginie at The Wonderful World of Cinema and Crystal at The Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood blogs. Please do visit and read the other postings!

Hedy_lamarr_-_1940The challenge for the Marathon Stars Blogathon was to watch 5 films featuring a star whom I’d only seen in up to 3 movies previously. I found it quite difficult to pick someone, since often as soon as I notice an actor I rush to see as many of their films as possible, promptly ruling them out for this particular blogathon!

However, I realised I had seen just two films starring Hedy Lamarr, and that she had made a favourable impression on me in both. She is on something of a hiding to nothing in Algiers (John Cromwell, 1938), which is almost a frame by frame remake of the great French drama Pépé le Moko, made only a year earlier – but she still gives a good performance. However, the film I had really liked her in was Come Live With Me (Clarence Brown, 1941), a bitter-sweet romantic comedy where she plays a Viennese exile in the US who gradually falls for awkward young writer James Stewart. That’s still probably my favourite of hers even after seeing the 5 new-to-me films that I’ve watched for this marathon, which covered a range of genres and were all highly enjoyable.

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Raoul Walsh and James Cagney’s 4 Films Together

Raoul Walsh and James Cagney

Raoul Walsh and James Cagney

This is my contribution to the Symbiotic Collaborations blogathon, being hosted by CineMaven’s Essays from the Couch. Please take a look at the other postings, which all focus on collaborations between a director and star.

Both Raoul Walsh and James Cagney are known for their quality of toughness, so it’s no surprise that two of the four movies they made together are famous gangster films. But both director and actor were also interested in focusing on character and, beyond the action sequences,  their films also contain equally powerful scenes bringing out the vulnerability of the heroes/villains played by Cagney. I can’t look at every aspect of all four films here, so am concentrating on this theme. I’ve also put a separate bit about some of the films’ endings at the end, including pictures.

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What a Character – Zeffie Tilbury

This is my contribution to the What a Character blogathon. Please do visit and look at the other contributions.

Zeffie Tilbury 3

Zeffie Tilbury as Grandma in The Grapes of Wrath

Zeffie Tilbury appeared in more than 70 films, came from a famous theatrical family and had a long stage career before making her film debut at the age of 54. So I’ve been surprised to see how hard it is to find much information about this grand old lady of film and theatre. Admittedly, many of her movie parts were small and uncredited – but she also played a number of major roles.

The first time I really noticed her was in Desire (1936), directed by Frank Borzage and starring Marlene Dietrich and Gary Cooper.  Tilbury, who was then in her 70s, plays an elderly conwoman going under the name Aunt Olga, and urging on Dietrich’s character to press ahead with her efforts to con Cooper. She makes a memorable entrance, heading for the booze and admitting in her aristocratic English voice that she is just out of jail. There aren’t many actors who can hold their own with Dietrich on camera, let alone steal a scene, but I’d say Tilbury manages to do it on this occasion.

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Lady for a Day (1933) and Pocketful of Miracles (1961) (Frank Capra)

This is my contribution to the They Remade What ?! blogathon being organised by Phyllis Loves Classic Movies. Please do visit and read the other postings.

Lady for a Day 2Pocketful of Miracles 7Frank Capra first made his fairy tale of New York in black and white in the early 1930s. Then he returned to it 28 years later for a more light-hearted, star-studded Technicolor remake – which turned out to be his last full-scale film. As a fan of movies from the pre-Code era, I fully expected to prefer the 1933 version of this story, starring May Robson in the lead role. And I did, yet I also really enjoyed much of the 1961 version, where Bette Davis steps into Robson’s shoes. I watched the two more or less straight after each other – but did see the 1933 version first. I was surprised to learn that there has actually been a second remake, Miracles (1989), directed by and starring  Jackie Chan, which moved the story to 1930s Hong Kong – but I haven’t had a chance to see that one.

So what’s the story? Street seller “Apple Annie” ekes out a living selling fruit to passers-by on the streets of New York. But she’s embarrassed about her poverty and  doesn’t want her daughter, who has been educated abroad since early childhood, to know the truth about her life. So Annie “borrows” notepaper from a swanky hotel and writes letters describing a lovely society lifestyle for herself, to delight young Louise.

It all seems to be going well, until Louise writes to say that she is engaged to the son of a Spanish Count – and the couple are about to pay a visit. Annie is in despair, until gangster Dave “the Dude”, who regards her apples as his personal lucky charm, comes to the rescue. He arranges for her to borrow a flat in the hotel and pose as a society lady for the period of Louise’s stay. But can Annie carry off such a daring deception?

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Dinner at Eight (George Cukor, 1933)

This is my contribution to the Barrymore Trilogy Blogathon. Please do look at the great range of postings.

Dinner at Eight 5“The most glamorous production of all time,” proclaims the original trailer to Dinner at Eight. Well, Jean Harlow’s astonishing dresses, made by Adrian, are certainly glamorous – and so is the whole central idea, of a businessman’s wife arranging a grand society dinner. But, like the previous year’s great portmanteau drama featuring some of the same stars, Grand Hotel,  this is very much a Depression era film, with a desperation underlying the glamour.

The film has an astonishing cast even by the standards of MGM – it must be one of the most star-studded ensembles of all time, featuring  both John and Lionel Barrymore, as well as Harlow, Marie Dressler, Wallace Beery, Billie Burke, Madge Evans, Lee Tracy and Edmund Lowe. Names like Phillips Holmes, Grant Mitchell and May Robson have to make do with bit parts.

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Trapped by Television (Del Lord, 1936)

Trapped by Television 5This is my contribution to the Film Preservation Blogathon, being hosted for its final day (May 17) by  Sam and Allan at  Wonders in the Dark. The blogathon aims to raise funds for the restoration of the intriguingly titled 1918 silent film Cupid in Quarantine, a Strand comedy which is centred on a couple trying to start a smallpox outbreak! To support this cause, please scroll down to the bottom for the donation button, and do visit Wonders and the other host blogs, Ferdy on Films and This Island Rod.

Science fiction is the loose theme of the Film Preservation Blogathon. In all honesty, the comedy-drama Trapped by Television, starring Mary AstorLyle Talbot and Nat Pendleton (all pre-Code veterans), doesn’t entirely fit the bill. However, this film does take off from the science fact of the time, as it focuses on efforts to develop the first TV sets. It also seemed an appropriate choice because it’s one of the many movies which have landed up in the public domain. This means they are freely available on the internet and on many cheap DVDs – but also usually means nobody is prepared to fund a restoration. Trapped by Television is actually in a better state than many of the films existing in this sad copyright limbo, but still suffers from a rather grey picture and some surface noise. Watching it is a reminder of why it’s so essential to preserve and restore our film heritage. I watched the movie at Archive.org, but I think the picture quality is slightly better at http://free-classic-movies.com/.

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Mary of Scotland (John Ford, 1936)

This is my contribution to the Great Katharine Hepburn Blogathon, organised by Margaret Perry. Please do visit and take a look at the other posts!

Mary of Scotland 2

Katharine Hepburn in one of the amazing costumes created by Walter Plunkett

On paper, it ought to have been so good. A great director, John Ford, a great star, Katharine Hepburn, and a legendary story of rivalry between two queens. Yet somehow on the screen this historical spectacular doesn’t live up to its pedigree. It’s a slow and often boring film, despite its atmospheric, shadowy lighting, lavish art direction and evocative score by Nathaniel Shilkret, featuring snatches from many Scottish folk songs. There are some memorable patches, but the film as a whole doesn’t live up to its best scenes.

Ford famously “printed the legend” rather than worrying about historical accuracy, and that’s certainly the case here. The film turns Mary into a tragic heroine and her controversial relationship with Bothwell, played by Frederic March, into a picturesque romance. Of course, biopics and historical dramas always reshape events, and this one does that shaping from a pro-Stuart, anti-Tudor angle, editing out facts and speculation which work against its chosen story. Many dramas taking Elizabeth as the heroine have done just the opposite.

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