Listless Parisian romance: Man of the World (Richard Wallace, 1931)

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Man of the World features William Powell and Carole Lombard, and given what later transpired between them personally and professionally, you’d be forgiven for having some high expectations of them. You may assume that two actors who gave many excellent performances, who co-starred in My Man Godfrey, and who married shortly after making this film, would have some visible chemistry here. Sadly, in all this, you would be mistaken.

Powell is Michael Trevor, an American journalist who fled to Paris after taking the blame for someone else’s indiscretions. Having grown cynical and world-weary, he uses his gossipy newspaper to blackmail some of the many people in Paris who are themselves indiscreet. The city’s full of Americans looking to have a good time, including wealthy Harry Taylor (Guy Kibbee). Trevor poses as a go-between and blackmails Taylor, whose neice, Mary (Lombard), is also visiting Paris. Trevor’s associates, Irene (Wynne Gibson) and Fred (George Chandler) convince him to put Mary in a compromising situation. Of course, the fake romance soon turns into a real one.

After the film’s first third or so, all the energy drops out of it. The romance has no spark, with Powell playing his downtrodden character at the same low note all the way through, and Lombard being so dull that it’s shocking. It’s not entirely their fault, though; most scenes meander about and the script doesn’t give Mary any real reason to fall for Trevor, beyond proximity.

Kibbee shows some verve, and although Gibson delivers her dialogue stiffly, her physical mannerisms are thought through. Her piercing glare and the decorous, impractical way she dons a fur-trimmed wrap give some life to the scenes she’s in, even if the character is unpleasant. It’s no wonder that these two actors had plenty of pictures ahead of them, but Powell and Lombard are, on the basis of this film alone, quite forgettable.

Man of the World makes a decent effort, for its time, at depicting a facsimile of Paris, though the polished production values can’t compensate for the dull plot. The downbeat ending gives the story some edge, but the rest of the film is hard to get through.

Pre-Code Stanwyck: Night Nurse (William A. Wellman, 1931)

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Night Nurse is a Pre-Code black comedy that’s primarily of interest for its display of just how much Hollywood could get away with in the early 1930s. It follows Lora (Barbara Stanwyck) through her nurse’s training, as she faces poverty, medical horrors, an overbearing matron, and one-track mind student doctors, all with the help of roommate Maloney (Joan Blondell). After graduating, her troubles grow exponentially as she comes to suspect that the children in her care are being slowly starved by their wealthy mother’s chauffeur, Nick (Clark Gable).

This film is better enjoyed for its standout moments than as a whole. Part of this is because it has two fairly disjointed sections, the first of which resembles a series of sketches. Another part is that the dialogue is repetitive and often uninspired, and the directing unremarkable (perhaps the sometimes-brilliant Wellman felt uninspired too). The plot gains traction in the second section, but the film has the unmistakeable aimlessness of many early Talkies.

Night Nurse can be truly appreciated, however, for just how far it takes its lack of censorship. Much of it would be impossible to show within just a few years, from its occasional attempts at cynical realism to its frequent sexual humour. Ribald lines abound, and Lora and Maloney seem to be perpetually stripping down to their underwear. In one scene, Lora is almost raped and then slugged unconscious by her seeming rescuer. Bootlegger Mortie (Ben Lyon) is something of a hero, and by the film’s end he’s getting away with murder for the greater good.

The film also has a reasonably nuanced take on women – more so than many later Hollywood films, at least. Lora uses her looks for her own benefit, but only on a doctor, as Maloney has warned her that this behaviour is wasted on the students, who have no money for the time being and won’t marry nurses in the end. Lora’s no hard-hearted Lily from Baby Face, however; she does want to help people, and truly cares about her job, even though she’s seen the worst of what happens behind the scenes. Meanwhile, the children’s mother is a useless lush who can’t do much more than shriek “I’m a dipsomaniac!” when criticised. Post-Code, motherhood was more likely to be venerated and sexual opportunism punished.

Stanwyck doesn’t peform with much subtlety here, but she does manage to show her burgeoning ability to be both sympathetic and tough. She also has what is arguably one of her best all-time scenes, in which she tries to persuade the children’s mother that one of the girls is on the brink of death. When the mother’s boyfriend (also Lora’s attempted rapist) gets handsy again, Lora responds by punching him to the floor and scaring him enough that he crawls behind the bar. The mother won’t wake up even after Lora drags her across the carpet and drenches her with water. Lora growls, “You mother,” and goes off to save the kid herself.

Gable was not yet an established actor and feels a little odd in the role of a heavy. He’s menacing enough though. His introduction is one of the film’s most unintentionally funny scenes, with the camera dollying in on his face as he barks, “I’m Nick – the chauffeur!” The camera then dollys in on Lora, who knows him by reputation, as she gasps, “Nick – the chauffeur?!”

Night Nurse is not the most enjoyable or well-made of Pre-Code films. Beyond being of historical interest, it does have its moments. Nonetheless, anyone who only wants to watch one early Stanwyck film, or even one Pre-Code, would be better served by watching the even blacker, franker Baby Face.

Bette’s (boring?) breakthrough: Of Human Bondage (John Cromwell, 1934)

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Honestly, Of Human Bondage is barely interesting for any reason other than its lead actors. Not that it’s badly made, or that it overstays its welcome; it’s just too self-serious and slight. It condenses the novel by W. Somerset Maugham, focusing on the plotline in which medical student Philip (Howard) becomes obsessed with Mildred, a cold-hearted, manipulative waitress who pulls him into her downward spiral. The story has an air of being over-simplified, leaving a little too much unexplained or unexpressed. Nothing has as much impact as it should, and much needs to be read between the lines.

Mildred was a breakthrough role for Bette Davis; greater things still did not come easily for her after this, but she proved herself as a daring actor here. She got the role because no one else wanted to touch it. Stridently unglamourous, Mildred ruins every chance she has to improve her life, unwilling to change her cruel nature. By the end, she’s suffering from a disease that’s probably syphilis, Davis applying her own makeup to appear withered and grotesque. It’s a dangerous character flaw for Philip to be unable to resist her. (I’ve variously read that Mildred emerged from Maugham’s misogyny, or that she was in fact based on a man he was involved with. Rather different theories, those.)

Davis was doing things that we still see today as the mark of a fine female actor, willingly making herself unlikeable and unpleasing to the eye. She received a Best Actress Oscar in 1935 for Dangerous, but the general consensus is that the award was really for her performance here. Perhaps the Academy just needed some time to get over their shock.

The problem with Davis doing things that are more common today is that it brings her into comparison with the likes of Meryl Streep and Nicole Kidman, and she’s nowhere near as assured. (Yet.) Basing her accent on that of a cockney woman who lived with her for a few weeks led to grating and clumsy results. To her credit, she hardly sounds like her usual self at all. Still, Davis seems to be trying so hard that she’s all but bursting at the seams.

This must be said however: Davis will get a reaction out of you. You may think she’s awful, you may think she’s annoying, but you most certainly will dislike Mildred, and you will remember her.

As for Howard – he’s far more controlled than Davis. He’s theater acting, and the contrast between them strains the whole film. Taken on his own, however, it is a fine performance. Though Philip is a similar character to Squier in The Petrified Forest, there’s clear differences between them. Philip is coarser, more grounded. His rare outbursts are well earned.

Davis would have many more opportunities to deliver better performances, in better films. Howard did not; he died just nine years later, in a plane shot down by Germans over the Bay of Biscay. It’s not so easy to find him in a good film, and in a role that suits him. For that reason alone, Of Human Bondage is significant for anyone who appreciates his talent, and wishes he had had more time in which to show it.

Taking a Shot: Possessed (Clarence Brown, 1931)

Clarence Brown’s Possessed may not be a great film –it isn’t even the best movie called Possessed that stars Joan Crawford– but it does have one great moment. Crawford plays Marion, a box factory worker who’s willing to do whatever it takes to achieve a better life for herself. While walking home one night, a train slows to a halt in front of her, the windows rolling by like a strip of film. The people she sees all seem happier than her, even if we do begin on the lower rungs of the social ladder:

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Marion doesn’t want to be the hired help, of course. She wants to be more like these people:pos6pos3pos4

We don’t need to see Marion’s face to understand how she’s affected by these glimpses of wealthier, more romantic lives.

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When the train finally comes to a halt, Marion encounters her ticket into New York high society. He’s no Clark Gable, but that’s who she’ll wind up meeting, through brazen ingenuity of her own. After that, well, as we watch Marion dealing with her not-entirely comfortable life as a kept woman, we could ourselves be the ones outside a window, looking in.

Stagey and striking: The Petrified Forest (Archie Mayo, 1936)

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Between the wordy dialogue, which often involves characters detailing their entire autobiographies, and the studio set, its walls wrapped around with a painted facsimile of Arizona desert and sky, The Petrified Forest is clearly adapted from a play. I would say, however, that this is not an overwhelming drawback. The Petrified Forest succeeds because it maintains its tension throughout and proceeds at an energetic pace, helped by snappy editing. It’s also remarkable for its uniformly strong performances, including those from Leslie Howard, Bette Davis and, most of all, Humphrey Bogart, whose career was launched with his portrayal of desperate gangster Duke Mantee.

Mantee is on the run, and seeks refuge in the remote Black Mesa gas station. Among his hostages are Gabby (Davis) and Alan Squier (Howard). Waitress Gabby is as ambitious as Squier is aimless. He’s British, and an intellectual, and though he’s seen parts of the world Gabby longs to visit, he doesn’t know where to settle himself. Gabby is a painter and, seeing that Squier is more cultured than the average visitor to the station (owned by her father), quickly falls for him.

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Mantee does not appear onscreen for more than half an hour, but the characters follow his flight from the law on the radio. When he does arrive, he doesn’t disappoint. Through Bogart’s glowering, shown as much with his body as with his face, he is constantly a threatening presence. Mantee is no thug, however; his mind is clearly ticking over at full speed. And when Bogart needs to show hurt, he can really show hurt. The actor was in debt, suffering personal hardships, and his career seemed to be going nowhere; he needed success, and this role got him noticed by critics and by audiences, for all the right reasons.

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Howard makes Squier the quintessential old world intellectual, a man whose time has passed. He has a ghostly pallor from the beginning of the film, and at times an unearthly, insightful glint comes into his eye. He’s more set upon grander goals than matters of life and death, and finds them, uncalled for, in this hostage situation.

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Mantee and Squire are vividly contrasting figures. However, there’s an unlikely connection between them. No wonder that Howard fought hard for Bogart to join him in reprising their roles from Broadway; the two are a large part of why The Petrified Forest is such a striking film.

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Davis makes a strong contribution through her performance, too. At the time, she was as ambitious as Gabby, bent on achieving on higher quality roles than those her studio had been giving her. (A rare such role was in 1934’s Of Human Bondage, which also starred Howard.) Here, she is lively without being restless, forceful without being exaggerated. Gabby does not seem much like a Davis-type role, and so could probably have been well-played by any number of other actors, but that only makes Davis more interesting here.

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This film shows America at an uncertain point in its history. The remnants of the Wild West still remain: old man Gramp Maple (Charlie Grapewin) often reminisces about nearly being shot by Billy the Kid, and there’s a photo of someone who looks very much like Wild Bill Hickock on the wall. The expansion is over, however, and where to from here? And what needs to be left behind? These questions are examined through the characters’ interactions, which makes the film work on a thematic level, while it maintains enough pacing and tension to keep from feeling stuffy. It helps that in its criticism of America’s treatment of women and black people, the film is well ahead of its time.

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The Petrified Forest would make for a great double (or triple) feature with a couple of other Bogart films. In The Desperate Hours (William Wyler, 1955), he once again played a criminal on the run, with a group of hostages to keep the police at bay – only this time, the setting is American suburbia, bringing the social criticism even closer to home. In Key Largo (John Huston, 1948), it was Bogart’s turn to be the hostage, and the gangster was played by the man who came close to portraying Mantee on film: Edward G. Robinson. Just as a dust storm heightens the tension in The Petrified Forest, the characters in Key Largo are trapped by a hurricane. The similarities and differences between these films, and Bogart’s performances, are fascinating. All three are also well worth watching for their own merits. The Petrified Forest, though, must receive special note for the way it defined Bogart’s career, and the films that followed it.

Bette outshines film: Dark Victory (Edmund Goulding, 1939)

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In Dark Victory, Bette Davis gives one of her most legendary performances as fatally ill socialite Judith Traherne, but the curious thing about this film is that’s there’s not much to it other than its lead actor. Though competently made, it has hardly any substance beyond Davis’ commitment to playing a character who manages to transcend limitations that, before she developed her brain tumour, she never knew she had.

The supporting cast do little to distinguish themselves. Amongst them are: George Brent as Doctor Frederick Steele, who diagnoses Judith, falls in love with her, and tries to cure her; Geraldine Fitzgerald as Ann King, Judith’s secretary and best friend; and, most bizarrely, Humphrey Bogart as Michael O’Leary, the Irishman who runs Judith’s stables. Perhaps the actors are at fault for not bringing much to the screen, or perhaps the film is designed to make them barely more than cardboard cutouts for Davis to react to. There’s also an actor who plays one of Judith’s drunken friends, who is so underwritten that I found myself wondering how it felt to be in that part. My sympathies were misplaced; not being an American, I didn’t instantly recognise the actor as Ronald Reagan.

Dark Victory is built around how Davis plays her role. Headstrong but playful, Judith is a far cry from Davis’ usual commanding, selfish divas. She’s a sympathetic character, though not without her flaws. Her gradual acceptance of her fate, and her ability to meet it with eyes open, is terribly moving. It doesn’t even matter that the film is hugely manipulative and takes sudden religious overtones in its last moments that had not been hinted in anything that had come before.

One of the reasons I watch so many Bette Davis films is that they are often interesting for reasons beyond her performance, more so than is the case for plenty of equally talented actors. Dark Victory, however, while not a bad film, is focused upon Davis to the exclusion of almost everything else. As such, she’s the only reason to watch it.

Taking a Shot: The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (Michael Curtiz, 1939)

The loudest thing this shot is saying to you is LOOK AT ERROL FLYNN’S LEGS. You ought to listen.

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It also tells you, perhaps, that this is a rare film in which the male lead is more objectified than the female lead, and they have a passionate romance nonetheless. It clearly indicates that the woman is the one in a position of authority. You can probably guess that the age and power differences between them will be contentious matters in their relationship – as will the fact that these differences even exist.

It is for those reasons that I can say with all seriousness that if you’re not looking at Errol Flynn’s legs, you’re watching the movie wrong.

Taking a Shot: Stagecoach (John Ford, 1939)

The longer John Wayne stayed offscreen in John Ford’s Stagecoach, the more curious I got about how he would make his entrance. Would he just kind of show up? Would it be an ignominous beginning to the ten Westerns he and Ford would make together? Would it belie the inextricable nature of their careers, or the mark they made on American cinema?

As it turns out, the shot that introduces Wayne (fifteen seconds in here) is quite well known. Generally, I’m more appreciative of “important” film moments if you don’t need to be told that other people think they’re important, because their technical achievement, or beauty, or dramatic impact is plain to see. Certainly, you don’t need to know anything about Ford or Wayne to be impressed by this entrance.

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The shot starts here. Wayne twirls his rifle, and the camera dollies allllll the way…

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…to here.

On my first viewing, I applauded in delight. And then I shrieked in terror at his resemblance to Mel Gibson.

Marlene on a train: Shanghai Express (Josef von Sternberg, 1932)

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Shanghai Express must surely be one of the great train films. It stars Marlene Dietrich as Shanghai Lily, an infamous prostitute who crosses paths with a former lover, Captain Harvey (Clive Brook) on a dangerous journey across China. Their fellow passengers are an international bunch, English, German, French – and a half-Chinese man who has more than a passing connection with the nation’s civil war.

Brook is almost laughably uninteresting, but this is Dietrich’s film. Von Sternberg, being her svengali, knew how to elevate her beauty into realms of impossibility. She is given many striking moments, the best of which must be the camera tracking towards Lily down the train corridor as she prepares for a conversation that her heart depends upon. Dietrich plays Lily less forcefully than some of her more stereotypical roles, with a certain amount of flippancy, but always with honesty. Lily has no regrets about turning to prostitution and, most remarkably, the film doesn’t judge her for it. She is in no way incapable of deeper morality or emotions, however, and the film is entirely committed to her feelings and her choices.

Hard as it is for another woman to hold her own against Dietrich, Anna May Wong is more than capable. She is fascinating as Hui Fei, not merely because Asian actors were so rarely cast in early Hollywood films, but because she brings strength to the character, expressive even when silent. The role has traces of the Dragon Lady stereotype that Wong was unable to escape throughout her career, but nonetheless, the understated connection between Hui Fei and Lily affirms the humanity in both of them.

The rest of Shanghai Express’ characters are a pleasantly diverse group of personalities, constantly at odds with each other. Standouts are Warner Oland as the deceptive revolutionary, Eugene Pallette as an obnoxious gambler, and Lawrence Grant as a Reverend who overcomes his initial judgements about Lily. The character types in the film are largely dated in nationalistic ways, but the worst may be the dotty old English woman played by Louise Closser Hale, who is entirely unfunny.

Shanghai Express shows influences of German Expressionism in its cinematography. At times, it uses stark chiaroscuro. At others, it surrounds its characters with smoke or gauze. Despite its limited sets and slow final act, the film is always visually artful, sustained by Dietrich’s otherworldly yet passionate presence, von Sternberg’s masterful style, and the close connection between the two.

Initial reactions to a classic: Stagecoach (John Ford, 1939)

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A few notes on Stagecoach:

– I love the premise of this film (a group of disparate characters travels through a hostile landscape) so much that I’m relieved I actually enjoyed it. Does that make sense? It may be that I’ve watched some other films this year, such as Strangers on a Train, that I expected to like but didn’t, so was worried I’d be disappointed here. It’s obviously a classic film that’s important and influential, but I also liked it a lot, which is definitely not always a given.

Stagecoach features prime examples of two of the western’s most prominent female stereotypes. Dallas is a prostitute, and she’s ostracised, harassed, thrown out of town, and treated badly by anyone who’s not also an outcast. Lucy Mallory is a lady from the east, and she gets far better treatment because she’s married to a cavalry officer. It’s just as well, because she’s totally ill-suited to life in the west and would be lost if she was not looked after by others. Hatfield, a dashing but somewhat degenerate gambler and gunslinger, is only too happy to coddle her while shunning Dallas. This is at its most disturbing when he’s prepared to shoot Lucy in the head unawares rather than let her be captured by Indians.

– As the movie went on, I got curious about who was playing Hatfield. He had too strong a look and presence not to be someone significant. The answer: John Carradine! Now I know where Keith and David got their cheekbones.

Stagecoach doesn’t seem to have a good deal of confidence in America’s capacity for tolerance. The film grants Dallas and Ringo a chance at happiness, but it’s both amusing and sad that the pair of them must flee to Mexico while another character sarcastically remarks that they are eluding “the blessings of civilization.”

– There’s a shot in the scene where the stagecoach crosses a river that I find unusually effective. The camera has been put on top of the coach and I’m surprised by how off balance and uneasy this makes me feel as the horses move down into the water. It doesn’t even matter that you can see the camera’s shadow in the shot.