“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.
Where previous Howard Hawks films about the First World War focused on pilots, this one goes into the trenches. Warner Baxter, Fredric March and Lionel Barrymore star as beleaguered French soldiers struggling to cope with the ceaseless death and destruction all around them on the Western Front. A contemporary review in the New York Times criticised The Road to Glory for its mix of grimness and romanticism, and failure to draw any conclusions about the “ultimate value of [the soldiers’] sacrifice”. Yet, to a modern audience, the bleakness is the thing which resonates – the feeling of individuals caught up in events which they can’t control and don’t understand. While it isn’t as well-known as some Hawks movies, this film is now available on DVD in both region 1 and UK/region 2.
The drama centres on two melodramatic tales of human relationships, a love triangle between two soldiers and a nurse, and a father and son coming together on the frontline. However, the most powerful and memorable elements of the film, beyond these stories, are the portrayals of the war itself. There is some very stark photography of the men advancing through a ruined landscape full of darkness and shadows. Much of this footage was taken from a great French film, Raymond Bernard’s Les Croix de Bois, after Twentieth Century Fox bought up the rights. But this movie has its own story.
Making a list of my top ten favourite male actors was even harder than listing my favourite actresses, because there is a temptation to put all those I find the most handsome top of the list, and that isn’t really what it’s about. I’m uneasily aware that most of my top ten are, nonetheless, very attractive, but I’ve tried to go more on acting talent and screen personality! As with my list of favourite actresses, I have not included any current actors. This list would be likely to change on another day, or after I’ve seen more films… and there are many others I longed to include. I’ve once again written something about my top three choices and just listed the names of the others. I’d be interested to hear other people’s favourites and thoughts.
1. James Cagney. It’s predictable that I would give Cagney my number one spot, since he has been my favourite for years now and I spent a lot of time tracking down all his films. Why do I love him? I think it is that he seems to give everything to every role, with a blend of humour, energy, intelligence and danger, and an underlying vulnerability. I do think the films he starred in are more uneven in quality than for some of the others on my list, basically because he was tied to the studio and often forced to appear in movies which didn’t really match his quality as an actor – but, even when it is a poor film, his talent and unique screen personality shine through. My favourite performances of his range from his big four gangster films, The Public Enemy, Angels with Dirty Faces, The Roaring Twenties and White Heat, to his song-and-dance films like Yankee Doodle Dandy and Footlight Parade, but there are also many more wonderful performances, ranging from his very first film, Sinners’ Holiday, right through to later offerings like the biopic Man of a Thousand Faces, and in an earlier posting I listed some of my favourites. I’m just slightly sorry that I’ve seen just about all his films and so will never again have the delight of seeing them for the first time, but they are well worth revisiting – and there are some, like White Heat, that I’ve watched many times. I’m looking forward to the blogathon on Cagney which R.D. Finch at The Movie Projector is organising in April.
2. John Barrymore. It’s hard to believe that this great actor never received even a single nomination for an Oscar – or any film award at all. There are still a lot of his films I haven’t managed to see as yet, and quite a lot that have been lost so there will never be the chance – but his range is astonishing in the work which does survive. Barrymore was equally powerful in silent films like Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde, The Beloved Rogue and Don Juan andin the large number of pre-Code talkies he made, including Wyler’s Counsellor at Law and two celebrated films with all-star casts (on each occasion including his brother Lionel), Grand Hotel and Dinner at Eight. Sadly, he only ever played one Shakespeare role on film, an endearing yet violent Mercutio in George Cukor’s Romeo and Juliet. But there is a screen test for a film of Hamlet which was never made, and a brief clip of him as Richard, Duke of Gloucester/Richard III in a scene from Henry VI Part III included in The Show of Shows, to give a taste of what he was like on stage. Barrymore is probably as well-known for his turbulent private life and drink problem as for his acting, and often his great roles draw on these elements, so that his larger-than-life personality, veering from comedy to tragedy and back again, is inextricably linked with his acting. But it’s a shame if appreciation of his work is lost in anecdotes about drunken escapades.
3. Laurence Olivier. Olivier definitely seems to be the favourite actor among those who come across my blog, and my brief review of his Hamlet (1948)is by far my most popular posting ever. I’d like to review more of his Shakespearean films in future, as well as other work he did for both cinema and TV. However, it’s not just Olivier’s unforgettable interpretations of Shakespeare’s poetry which made him a fine film actor. He also brings the same intensity to other classic adaptations like Wyler’s Wuthering Heights and Carrie, and is perhaps best of all in the unlikely role of a failed comedian in The Entertainer. And he stayed great in later roles like a TV King Lear and as Lord Marchmain in Brideshead Revisited, which also starred his great Shakespearean contemporary, John Gielgud.
4. Humphrey Bogart
5. Jean Gabin
6. Cary Grant
7. John Garfield
8. Spencer Tracy
9. Errol Flynn
10. Paul Newman
I’m sorry to leave out, in no particular order, Richard Barthelmess, Fred Astaire, Frank Sinatra, Gary Cooper, John Gielgud, Fredric March, James Stewart, Clark Gable, Robert Mitchum, John Wayne, Edward G Robinson, Warner Baxter, Bing Crosby, William Powell, Herbert Morrison, Warren William, Sidney Poitier, Lionel Barrymore, Orson Welles, Gene Kelly, Henry Fonda, Clark Gable, Robert Donat, Ray Milland, James Mason, Kirk Douglas, Joseph Cotten, Claude Rains, Charlie Chaplin, Charles Laughton, Peter Lorre, Dana Andrews, Dan Duryea, Gregory Peck, Basil Rathbone, Charles Laughton, Thomas Mitchell… and doubtless many more.
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.
This is a continuation of my mini-Dickens series and also a rather rushed contribution to the TCM Summer Under the Stars blogathon – Saturday, August 18 is Freddie Bartholomew’s day on TCM in the US (though not, sadly, in the UK, where I live), and David Copperfield is being shown as part of his day. My posting below this one, on Me and My Gal, is also an entry in the blogathon, for Gene Kelly’s day.
Compressing a long Dickens novel into a single film is a tall order. With many such productions, the most immediately striking thing to a keen reader of the book is how much has been missed out – and, at every turn, you find yourself regretting a character or a plot twist that has been lost. By contrast, in George Cukor’s celebrated adaptation, starring Freddie Bartholomew as the young David and Frank Lawton as the adult, I’m struck by just how much he has managed to include. I’ve read that originally producer David O Selznick, who was a passionate fan of the novel, had thought about making two movies, dealing with David’s childhood and adulthood separately. This might have worked even better – but the single film we have crams an awful lot into its 131-minute running time.
I’m not going to recap the story of the novel here, but will just say that I think the film does rely on a knowledge of the book, and might be confusing at times for anyone who doesn’t already know the characters. With such a widely-read novel, it was possible to get away with this in the 1930s. The film has been described as feeling almost like Phiz’s drawings brought to life, and I can certainly see this for some of the characters, in particular Roland Young as Uriah Heep – almost unrecognisable from other roles I’ve seen him play, such as Topper, and looking uncannily like the illustrations. The script, mainly written by novelist Hugh Walpole (who also has a small role as the vicar), keeps much of Dickens’s own language – something more recent adaptations have tended to jettison – and many snatches of dialogue are taken straight from the page. Best of all, a lot of the humour is kept in, rather than being cut out in the interests of the plot, which is always a risk when adapting Dickens.
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.
Back to the pre-Code period – and back to John Barrymore. I’ve already written about one fine, though little-known, film where he plays a lawyer, State’s Attorney (1932).The following year he starred in this even better legal drama, which must be one of his finest talkies, and is available on DVD from Kino, though in region 1 only. Barrymore gives a restrained but moving performance as a workaholic lawyer, who spends much of the film having two or three phone conversations at once. Sadly there are no courtroom scenes this time – but it’s an utterly compelling film, which repays repeated viewings. Indeed, you’ll need them to catch all the quickfire dialogue, especially in the scenes with Isabel Jewell chattering away irrepressibly as switchboard operator Bessie.
Like many early 1930s films, this drama is based on a stage play, in this case by Elmer Rice. It does betray its stage origins in the way that it is entirely based in one setting, within the Simon and Tedesco suite of legal offices in the Empire State building. However, where some films set in just one location might drag at times, Counsellor at Law, an early success for great director William Wyler, moves at a breathless pace. Rice, who adapted his own play for the screen, had trained and worked as a lawyer, and the legal background feels very authentic as far as I can tell, tackling still-current issues such as insider trading and professional standards.