“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.
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.
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.
I’m returning to the director whose career I’ve been intermittently following on this blog, William A Wellman – and to another famous movie, which has a lot in common with its predecessor, A Star Is Born, though this time the emphasis is on satirical screwball comedy rather than tragedy. Nothing Sacred stars Carole Lombard as Hazel Flagg, a lively young woman fed up with her monotonous small-town existence. She is wrongly diagnosed as dying from radium poisoning, and brought to the big city by New York newspaper reporter Wally Cook (Fredric March) for a final fling. But just how long can a final fling last?
To be honest, I don’t feel Nothing Sacred has worn quite as well as A Star Is Born, but the problem may simply be that I had already seen it a couple of times in the past and watched it again this time on the back of repeat viewings of Small Town Girland A Star Is Born – plus other directors’ versions of the Star Is Born story. So it’s likely that I had slightly overdosed on portrayals of women desperate to escape from small towns by the time I got to this one. Also I think Wellman’s melodrama often grabs me more than his comedy. Anyway, this celebrated movie is definitely worth seeing and is a must for Carole Lombard fans, as she gives a sparkling performance.
Since reading Moby Dick a few years ago, I’ve been interested in seeing different film and stage versions of it. I was especially intrigued to see John Barrymore playing Ahab, as sadly only one of his full Shakespearean roles survives on film (Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet). It is often said that Ahab is very near to Shakespeare’s tragic heroes in his monomania. Barrymore actually played the role in both the first two adaptations, this silent epic and a talkie made in 1930, directed by Lloyd Bacon, which I haven’t seen as yet. (I’m hoping this may turn up on Warner Archive before too long – I believe it is occasionally shown on TCM in the US, so there should be a reasonable print around).
I saw The Sea Beast online, at YT, in a very poor quality print, so I can’t really review it properly but just wanted to say something about it while it is fresh in my mind. There was a DVD release in region 1 by Televista, now deleted, but I gather from comments at the imdb that the quality of the DVD is also dire, very pale and washed-out. The film could really do with being restored and released in a double set with the talkie version.
I’m always saying that I plan to write more shorter postings, but now I’m really going to do it, as I’m so busy these days that it’s a choice between writing short postings or not updating this blog at all. Anyway, I will hopefully put a good selection of pictures with each posting, and over the next week or two I’m planning to concentrate on John Barrymore. As I’ve said before, although Barrymore is best-known for his silent films, I have seen more of his talkies and these tend to appeal to me because of his beautiful speaking voice – however, I do want to see more of his silents too.
Topaze is a rather obscure but entertaining comedy-drama from RKO (sadly not on DVD, though it did come out on Laserdisc – but at time of posting it can be found online at YT), adapted from a French play by Marcel Pagnol, which sees Barrymore cast wildly against type. He plays Professor Auguste Topaze, a timid, down-at-heel teacher in a boys’ school who is also a brilliant scientist – and who gets caught up in a scam to sell tap water as a health-giving mineral water. For most of the film his face is concealed by facial hair, and that famous profile is hardly glimpsed, though he does get a chance to look handsome briefly in the final scenes. I think he does a great job of playing a part which at first sounds like a surprising role for him – and it is interesting to see him if anything slightly underplaying rather than hamming it up. The other main star is Myrna Loy, as Coco, the sensible young mistress of a crooked baron played by Reginald Mason.
I’ve been getting increasingly interested in the Barrymores recently and watching a lot of their films, so I want to write about some more of them here. Glossy drama Grand Hotel is one of three films made in 1932 which starred brothers John and Lionel together – the others were Arsene Lupin, which I have seen but only in almost unwatchable bootleg form, and spectacular historical epic Rasputin and the Empress, also starring sister Ethel.
By far the greatest of these three is Grand Hotel, a breathtaking MGM drama – and one of the first films to boast an all-star cast. Greta Garbo got top billing, with her name given in the cast list simply as “Garbo”, while the two Barrymores, Wallace Beery and Joan Crawford were the other big star names. The film had a huge budget for the time, estimated at 700,000 dollars, and was a smash hit – one of the special features on the Warner DVD, which is included in a Joan Crawford box set, shows excited crowds turning up for the premiere and breaking through a police cordon to swarm towards their favourite stars.