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Night Life of the Gods

Whimsy turned to stone
A one-of-a-kind comic fantasy from the pen of Thorne Smith, creator of "Topper", this strained whimsy has eccentric playboy Alan Mowbray invent a magic ring that turns people to stone. After rendering his annoying family into marble, he spends the night drinking with leprechauns, and then visits New York's Metropolitan museum, where he throws his ring into reverse and brings to life the statues of ancient Greek gods. Hectic shenanigans ensue when they all check into the Waldorf-Astoria hotel: Bacchus drinks rubbing alcohol, Venus de Milo acquires arms, Neptune starts a slapstick fight in a fish market, and so on. More witty than funny, the movie is afloat with Prohibition-era tipsy jokes, but manages to get an occasional naughty touch past the Hays Code restrictions. Mowbray captures the right energy and manic glint in his eye, and an imperturbable butler wins some laughs, but the others give overly broad performances that are comic, but in the wrong way. At this point in history, the curiosity value and Art Deco sets exceed the entertainment, or maybe they've now become the entertainment.

Okuman choja

Hilarious satire of postwar Japan
This scathing satire plays like Ichikawa's attempt to slap Japan out of its postwar malaise. A hopelessly naïve junior tax collector crosses paths with an assortment of quirky characters, including a young woman working on a home-made A-bomb, a spoon tycoon on his way to the U.S., a poor boy aspiring to become a movie star, and a fast-talking geisha scheming to extort corrupt politicians. A running joke throughout is the absurd overpopulation: everyone seems to have an absolute minimum of twelve children. This consistently original work remains fresh and funny, thanks to vigorous performances and Ichikawa's precise framing.

The Vice Squad

Effective drama about moral choice
Intelligent drama benefits from literate script and a sensitive central performance by Paul Lukas, well cast as a diplomat blackmailed by corrupt vice cops into entrapping prostitutes. Lukas nicely balances a shabby gentility with despair as he's driven to drink in lowdown Greenwich Village dives to forget his "dirty" job. Choosing between sleek Kay Francis and blonde Judith Wood presents a romantic dilemma paralleling the moral decision he must make. Esther Howard--a longtime character actress and Preston Sturges favorite--here looks unrecognizably youthful as a salty-tongued artist's model.

Dangerous Paradise

Tropical trouble for luminous Nancy Carroll
This early talkie, like a pencil sketch of the famous Maurice Tourneur silent, preposterously reduces Conrad's "Victory" to a Nancy Carroll vehicle. But don't blame her: she gives a characteristically warm and nuanced performance, the best in the film, as a downtrodden violin-player in an all-girl band in Surabaya (now, why didn't Joseph Conrad think of that?),

William Wellman directs in rough-and-ready style, emphasizing leering melodrama, yet produces few pre-code thrills. The weakest link here is Wellman favorite Richard Arlen, even more awkward than he was in WINGS; playing Heyst as Joe College in a tropical white suit, who just happens to enjoy living alone on an island, he drains the central role of conflict and complexity.

In this company, the villains have ample room to shine: Warner Oland works hard at threatening the leading lady's virtue (as does most of the cast), but only Gustav von Seyffertitz, in a stylish black cloak and using Bela Lugosi's vowels, suggests the corruption and wit of Conrad's creation.

The tropical flavor of Surabaya comes down to hula dancers and Hawaiian music, but Archie Stout provides some effective lighting and keeps his shaky-cam moving. While the plot resolution will please only fans of routine Hollywood endings, Nancy Carroll at her peak is always worth a look.


Plucky Colleen Moore wins love and stardom
An example of an improbable genre, this silent musical, released for Christmas 1926, makes an agreeable light entertainment, at least until it collapses into a subplot of virginity threatened. As a vehicle for Colleen Moore, who personified flaming youth in a series of jazz-age comedies, it illustrates how this star's image sidestepped the sexual challenge of contemporaries like Clara Bow and Joan Crawford.

Here, in a project that she guided herself, she goes blonde as an aspiring dancer, devoted to her dear old Dad, tempted by an unhappily married local boxer, but targeted by a leering seducer. Throughout this plot, set in Cockney London, her working-class heroine remains good-hearted, relentlessly perky, yet fundamentally innocent. She leaps into a street melee, climbs ladders, rescues a child from a beating, and slugs a disbeliever in her stardom. (Throughout four dance numbers, Moore neither disgraces nor distinguishes herself.)

Director Charles Brabin works up some flavorful Limehouse atmosphere, staging a spirited street brawl for the opening. However, only one sequence- a romantic scene on a stairway when Moore realizes that she loves the boxer -reveals distinctive cinematic choices. The visual sophistication seen in Brabin's MASK OF FU MANCHU in 1932 is absent, apart from some prism shots to express a state of tipsiness.

Among the routinely sentimental figures, Gladys Brockwell hits a strikingly realistic note as the hero's snarling drunken wife, but the character of "Roseleaf", the producer who threatens Moore's virtue, has an anti-semitic subtext that seems borderline offensive (Warner Oland would redeem his role the next year by playing Al Jolson's rabbi father in THE JAZZ SINGER).

Der junge Medardus

Early spectacle from Michael Curtiz
This patriotic Austrian costume drama, about the martyr Medardus who opposed Napoleon's occupation of Vienna in 1809, helped to earn Michael Curtiz (then Kertesz) his ticket to Hollywood and a long, productive career.

The plot proceeds in a series of confrontations with Medardus, his mother and sister, the blind exiled Count of Valois, his ambitious daughter, and Napoleon himself (portrayed as a cool strategist), including several brief flashbacks. The romantic element pits Medardus --the blond Mikhail Verkonyi,who became Victor Varconi in Hollywood, working often for DeMille and Borzage-- in a love-hate relationship with the Valois daughter. The result makes for tight-lipped entertainment, too steely and humorless to succeed as human drama, but interesting for Curtiz's handling of spectacle.

Curiously, whether in military parades or court pageantry or epic battles, Curtiz never once moves his camera. Each setup is cemented in place, although Curtiz stages plenty of movement within the frame, especially marshaling his armies in combat, adding inventive use of smoke effects, and ultimately achieving a genuine sense of spectacle. Only once, when the cavalry charges toward a ground-level camera, does this film suggest the dynamism of Curtiz's CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE. Also, from the director of Errol Flynn's most thrilling swordfights, a dueling sequence here offers remarkably disappointing swordplay, filmed in basic one-shots.

Among the numerous locations -- forests, the banks of the Danube, Schoenbrunn palace-- it is startling to glimpse the Josefsplatz, the square outside Harry Lime's flat which would form the epicenter of THE THIRD MAN a quarter century later.

In the end, the non-moving camera, combined with the enormous chunks of dialogue that clog the titles, suggest an illustrated text, elaborate but uncompelling, rather than the best of Curtiz's later work.

The Single Standard

Garbo blooms in graceful romance
Silent film veteran John Stuart Robertson, once called the most well-liked director in Hollywood, had already guided John Barrymore , Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish in major projects. Here, under his sensitive direction, Garbo blooms in a relaxed and radiant performance, as she never did in her stodgy Clarence Brown vehicles. Was Robertson the silents counterpart of Cukor?

As a socialite seeking to "live honestly", Garbo first has a frank dalliance with her chauffeur, then meets artist Nils Asther--who apparently lives in an art gallery and paints exactly like Gauguin--and impulsively decides to sail to the South Seas on his yacht (although we only see Catalina, Robertson conveys a bracing sun-and-salt air quality from the shipboard locations). Returning to a somewhat scandalized reception in San Francisco, she marries local dullard John Mack Brown; meanwhile, the artist travels to "fever-haunted" China (where his hair inexplicably develops a white streak). Her final conflict is to choose between mothering her darling son or running away with the love of her life. What would Louis B. Mayer do?

Despite some talk about the "philosophy of love" and the injustice of the double standard, this is hardly Tolstoy: the film stays within the conventions of a novelette, never seriously threatening the social status quo. Still, the pleasures are many: graceful direction and nicely underplayed acting throughout, plus Garbo, at the peak of her beauty, in an elegantly tailored Adrian wardrobe, giving one of her most appealing performances.


Pabst pictures a marriage-in-crisis
Just before his two masterworks with Louise Brooks, Pabst directed this provocative study of an upper-class woman's sexual frustration. Neglected by her work-obsessed husband, Brigitte Helm falls in with a fast crowd of Berlin nightclub denizens (the "wrong turn" of the title), toying with an artist and a boxer as potential lovers. Pabst sketches this milieu in terms of consumption of cigarettes, liquor, and drugs, but it looks considerably more realistic than the garish cartoon decadence of CABARET and its imitators. A highlight of a lengthy nightclub sequence is some amusing play around the erotic impact of a backless evening gown. If Helm writhes with coiled intensity in almost every scene, she still creates a credible psychological portrait. While the plot devolves into a can-this-marriage-be-saved? formula, Pabst sustains interest through expert framing and shrewdly chosen gestures: thus, the act of dividing a pastry comes to represent the possibility of divorce. An intelligently adult resolution, offering no easy answers, adds to the film's stature.

Sweet Adeline

Soaring songs, sputtering story
Chock full of sweet melodies by Jerome Kern, this lavish period musical takes Irene Dunne from Hoboken to Broadway, but in a tin-lizzie of a plot. Set in 1898, in a world of beer gardens and theatres, the film works up plenty of nostalgia -- with horseless carriages, Edison's new "pho-no-graph", and even an audition by "that Jolson kid" ["He'll never get anywhere"]--but self-consciously drops these references in like lead weights. Meanwhile, the screenwriter tries out a tiresome conflict of stage career vs. disapproving papa, then a wholly disposable spy subplot, and finally settles on a dull love triangle.

Irene Dunne supplies much-needed star authority to hold it together, but seems baffled that she has no plausible leading man - where is Cary Grant? -- and no plausible scenes to play. Still, she is a professional, and delivers a surprisingly affecting "Why Was I Born?" In return, she enjoys a knockout wardrobe in white organza and feathers from Orry-Kelly

But what pallid consorts she gets! The erstwhile leading man is Donald Woods, an estimable actor [memorable as Bette Davis' brother in WATCH ON THE RHINE], but here positively evaporating off the screen whenever a stronger personality shares the scene. His songwriter character, when allowed a frame to himself, comes off as callow and egotistical. In the third corner of this love triangle, Louis Calhern-moustachios a-twirl-- plays a military recruiter for Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders, but also fades into the scenery.

Luckily, the music keeps coming, one verging-on-operetta tune after another, staged with a clear Busby Berkeley influence. An amusing Sultan's palace number has a basso trying to sing through the chaos of rehearsal. There's a beer garden singalong of "Polka Dots"; a parade of hansom cabs for "Twas Not So Long Ago"; and hordes of dancers in chiffon enact "Lonely Feet". Appealing Irish tenor Phil Regan [why didn't HE play the lead?] joins Irene Dunne in a country bower filled with flowers, swans, twinkling stars and girls on daisy-swings in "We Were So Young". Finally, and imaginatively, a torn-up score is used for a charming ending with "Don't Ever Leave Me". [Yes, the title tune --not by Kern---is briefly sung.] Throughout, Sol Polito's camera tracks from pretty pastorals to hard-edged dance numbers, but always bathes Irene Dunne in flatteringly soft light for big juicy movie-star closeups.

The heroes behind the scene are the editors at Warners, chopaholics in the 1930's, who made every frame of film fight to stay in the picture. This produced razor-fast comedies [like FIVE STAR FINAL] and gangster operas [like BULLETS OR BALLOTS], while protecting the product from harried and unimaginative directors. [Indeed, when director Mervyn LeRoy moved to MGM, his films slowed to a lumbering pace]. Here, the editors relax for the leisurely musical numbers, but seize their scissors again every time the plot surfaces, winning our applause for speeding us through the creaky parts.

Devil and the Deep

Tallulah Bankhead takes charge in intense melodrama
Paramount, at the height of its sophistication in the early 30's, could recycle its sets from MOROCCO and fashion a stylish production out of a passable triangle melodrama. Unfulfilled wife Tallulah Bankhead --frustrated at home, humiliated in front of her social set by her pathologically jealous husband -- stumbles into an Arab marketplace crowded with whirling dervishes, and into the arms of Gary Cooper for a romantic liaison under the desert stars. Conflicts ensue, of course, and then all three find themselves on a crippled submarine.

Viewers who know Tallulah Bankhead only from her caricatured role in LIFEBOAT will be startled by her intensity and bruised glamour: slouching in Travis Banton gowns, she looks sometimes like Garbo, sometimes like "Margo Channing". Meanwhile, she gives a crash course in how to hold a melodrama together, commanding every scene, inflecting every line with subtle nuances. When she must deal with menacing Charles Laughton, the air between them vibrates with tension. Laughton [billed as "the eminent English character actor"] does his share as well, but he seems mannered in a familiar way, a dry run for his Captain Bligh.

Only the radiant young Cary Grant in a dazzling naval uniform steals attention from the leading lady in a brief appearance. Gary Cooper, though persuasive as the romantic hero, soon gets submerged in a disappointingly shallow character.

The eye is seduced by cameraman Charles Lang's repertoire of shadows, the heart is stirred by a star performance, but in the end the head may resist: the terse dialogue tries for Hemingway but remains stubbornly pedestrian and remarkably humorless: the script owes its sole laugh to Bankhead's line reading while buying a billiard cue. The devil is in the dialogue!


Seductive Anna May Wong in stylish nightclub melodrama
Tracking through a bustling nightclub kitchen, back into the scullery, amidst steaming washtubs, the camera finds a woman in torn stockings dancing a slow shimmy on a tabletop: a slow upward pan reveals the alluring Anna May Wong in a Pabstian moment of erotic revelation. In the course of this drama, director E.A. DuPont devises several more such clock-stopping moments as the star poses behind an etched glass screen or stretches her body in a geometrically beaded gown.

When Wong makes her debut before the nightclub audience-- sporting an ersatz Thai get-up and fluttering her fingers this way and that---it is clear that she really can't dance at all, ironically making DuPont's contribution seem even more impressive . When this performance causes an unlikely sensation, rival dancer Gilda Gray gets so jealous that she faints in a heap of feathers. [Famed as the actual creator of the shimmy, Gray demonstrates it here with lots of vigorous jiggling.]

Paralleling her rise to dance stardom, Wong's wardrobe gets increasingly elegant, while the conflicts mount: quarreling over nightclub impresario Jameson Thomas [a nicely subtle performance], Gray argues "He's too old for you!" and Wong ripostes "You're too old for him." Both have a point. Eventually, with the help of some Limehouse ruffians, a gun, and a dagger, it all ends in a courtoom.

Apart from a brief appearance by Charles Laughton as a fastidious diner, DuPont pays no attention to the café society patrons of the Piccadilly Club. His interest lies with the performers---including skinny Cyril Ritchard as a hoofer---and in his own adventurous style: the camera seldom stops moving, once even circling 360 degrees, yet the end impression is not of indulgent artiness. DuPont points the camera down through the whirring blades of overhead fans, or into distorted mirrors---virtuoso effects but somehow serving vitality, a sense of events happening in the moment.

The distributor, World Wide Pictures, uses the end titles to trumpet its memorable motto: "Photoplays made where the story's laid".

Strange Impersonation

Compact B-noir enlivened by Anthony Mann's direction
"You cannot escape the person you are," says plastic surgeon H.B.Warner, holding up a bony finger. Nevertheless, leading lady Brenda Marshall tries, which puts her in the postwar vanguard of stars doing identity switches [see Bogart in DARK PASSAGE and Stanwyck in NO MAN OF HER OWN]. The script also stirs in elements from A WOMAN'S FACE, plus a dash of mad-scientist hubris, then shakes it into a film noir cocktail.

Marshall plays a research chemist who tries an experimental anesthetic on herself ["nothing can go wrong"], but ends up disfigured, then takes on the identity of extortionist bad girl Ruth Ford. The switch involves several plastic surgery montages, but mostly results in a new coif, a dark rinse, and make-up adjustments.

The plot also plays out the popular postwar subtext of Send-Rosie-the-Riveter-Back-to-the-Kitchen: when scientific professional Marshall turns down a marriage proposal in favor of finishing her own work, she suffers for it at the hands of scheming Hillary Brooke, and then has to fight to get another chance at that marriage ring. This conventional message is somewhat at war with the subversive noir style, but this script includes: the unsuspected hostile motives of a friend, the nightmare chain of events, and the police station third-degree. The novelty here is the woman protagonist, who herself shifts into a femme fatale. In fact, the film centers on a trio of femmes fatales: Marshall and Brooke and Ford. The man involved is William Gargan, relaxed and charming, so hardly an homme fatal.

Republic's studio style-- aimed at simple feel-good entertainment, with invariably stodgy decor---was not exactly a natural home for noir. However, Anthony Mann delivers lean direction, with exceptionally fluid camerawork, some striking high and low angles, and smart playing from all [poor Marshall has to spend a good half-hour with her face wrapped up in bandages]. However, a few years later Mann worked out the situation-- two women tussling over a man--more pointedly, and with lots more shadows, in the superior RAW DEAL.

The Road to Yesterday

Slick DeMille entertainment using reincarnation theme
Inexplicably setting this romantic drama at the Grand Canyon, Cecil B. DeMille was probably trying to signal the grandiosity of his reincarnation theme. However, his real intention is to deliver the box-office goods: in this case, a trainwreck, a nice swordfight, a lashing, a witchburning, not one but TWO virginity-threatening wedding nights, plus his usual comforting religious affirmation.

The plot follows two couples: glum newlyweds Joseph Schildkraut and Jetta Goudal are conflicted in their unconsummated marriage, while flapper Vera Reynolds deserts her boring fiancee for virile minister William Boyd. Soon--though inexplicably--they all find themselves on the same train to San Francisco; a crash then [inexplicably] rockets them all back to the Elizabethan era. While the four stars reconfigure their relationships, everyone spouts much Renaissance Faire dialogue ["Thou art the wastefulest tapster that ever vexed a gentle tavern-woman!"]

While DeMille tolerates some of the miming and pointing that gives silent film acting a bad name, the leads are all appealing, especially William Boyd, whose playful zest suggests early Errol Flynn. Despite playing both an innocent bride and a swarthy gypsy, the exotic Jetta Goudal gets little character to develop as both roles are one-dimensional [her performance in WHITE GOLD is considerably more complex]. The twentieth-century Joseph Schildkraut makes a credible protagonist, but the seventeenth-century Schildkraut acquires a dark bob and a pearl earring, uncannily anticipating Jack Lemmon's "Daphne" in SOME LIKE IT HOT.

In the end, what's most impressive is how smoothly DeMille manages to pack great chunks of romance, drama, action, and spectacle into this fast-moving vehicle, but anyone looking for a thoughtful treatment of reincarnation had best look elsewhere.

The Man Who Laughs

Veidt and Leni and Victor Hugo
A lord refuses to kiss the hand of King James II, so is doubly punished: he perishes in the "Iron Lady" [onscreen in a memorably handled sequence] while his son is sent to a surgeon who [offscreen] carves a grin on his face "so he can forever laugh at his father". Sheltered by a kindly playwright ["like Shakespeare, only much better!"], the boy grows up to join his troupe of itinerant players as the star attraction: "The Man Who Laughs". His fortunes lead him to a blind girl, an ambitious duchess, and Queen Anne, who reinstates him to the nobility, but with further complications.

Conrad Veidt, in a career stretching from CALIGARI to CASABLANCA, always found the emotional authenticity in bizarre roles. Here, in the familiar 19th century figure of the suffering clown, his performance is transfixing: whether tremulous as the girl's hand explores his face, or mortified by the laughter of the House of Lords, Veidt's face makes the role more than a simple martyr: he is man struggling with unjust destiny ["A king made me a clown, a queen made me a lord, but first God made me a man!"].

Big-hearted and unashamedly dramatic, this is clearly the work of Victor Hugo, rags to riches in scope, offering consolation in love. The spirit of the French Revolution is very much in the air in this world of cruel privilege and class antagonism, full of secret doors, dungeons, and volatile mobs. While not as richly populated as Les Miserables and Hunchback, this adaptation still has spectacular set-pieces and elaborate settings.

Considerably less revolutionary is the conventional portrayal of women: virgin and vamp are the only alternatives. The former is the blind girl played by Mary Philbin [who had earlier unmasked Lon Chaney's Phantom]. With blond ringlets arranged to make her face heart-shaped, she edges close to simpering yet rises to genuinely moving moments. The vamp is Olga Baclanova [who became the blonde tormentor in Tod Browning's FREAKS], here writhing around in a black negligee and looking startlingly like Madonna.

Today, the films of Paul Leni are hard to track down, but worth the effort. Starting as an art director, Leni developed his visual command in Berlin; this Germanic style stands out in some beautifully designed compositions, such as a dynamic night sequence: a ship, full of gypsies being deported, heaves through a furious snowstorm. Yet Leni always works at the heart of the human values in the story, sustaining intense moments for all his actors. While some scenes are staged in darkness to rival a film noir, Leni also floods Veidt and Philbin with light, often focusing on one nuance per shot, an old-fashioned but effective strategy.

Filmed on the cusp of the sound revolution, this semi-silent has added sound effects and rather vague non-stop music but no spoken dialogue.

Internes Can't Take Money

B plot + A production = Dr. Kildare with atmosphere
An exceptionally flavorful rendering of the Depression atmosphere: a world of the poor laboring in sweatshop jobs, petty hoods hanging out in smoky bars, backroom bookie joints, pushcart vendors and bus terminals and orphanages. While the plot is no more ambitious than the typical B movie of the time, the high production values, name cast, and imaginative direction from Alfred Santell all boost the quality.

At the center of the plot, Barbara Stanwyck spends much of the film in desperation mode, exhausted from searching for her lost child, beaten down by two years in jail, forced to hire stool pigeons, forced to stay alert.

Joel McCrea makes the ideal American hero for the 30's: not only a doctor, but tall, blond, honest, sincere, manly, and progressive. At one point, he has to perform an operation on a bar room table, improvising with violin strings, an ice pick, and a bottle of rum! But this is not MGM's Dr. Kildare. He has no warm relationship with a kindly old mentor; instead, the chief doctor is an authority figure upholding the rules, dismissing Lee Bowman for unauthorized experimentation. The script also pumps up sympathy for interns as underpaid workers who get only $10 a month.

As a gangster, the always fascinating Stanley Ridges conveys the calm of a man secure in his power, whose eye movements size up his adversaries and whose silences reveal more menace than mere words. Watch the sexual innuendo he finds in his "I didn't always like popcorn" speech.

Santell uses extreme close-ups and moves the camera often, aided by gleaming lighting from Theodore Sparkuhl, plus some knock-out sets, including a sparkling white Art Deco clinic and an elaborately detailed New York Irish bar. Watch how economically Santell works to show the awakening of mutual attraction between Stanwyck and McCrea in their first scene together. Also lifting the picture out of its formula origins is the headlong pace Santell maintains to the climax, an urgency lost in the blander MGM series.

One Night of Love

Dated but bubbly musical glamourizes opera
More dated than Columbia's other big hit of 1934, IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT, this influential musical still seems light and bright because it never takes itself too seriously. Its success revealed the public's unsuspected hunger for opera, or more accurately, pretty snippets from operas. This certainly gave MGM ideas about how to showcase Jeanette MacDonald, and started a stampede to corral star sopranos [Lily Pons], budding divas [Deanna Durbin], and operatic guest stars [even Kirsten Flagstad sings in BIG BROADCAST OF 1938].

At the time, Grace Moore got all the attention, as much for her shapely figure and for stepping down from her Metropolitan Opera pedestal as for her actual performance. Playing a soprano who spends her savings to study with a famous maestro in Italy, the 33 year-old Moore seems a bit of a late starter, but bounces around with lots of vivacity. Singing the title song and the inevitable "Ciri-Biri-Bin", she mostly avoids the pearls-before-swine tone of opera singers when they stoop to popular song, although she still sashays [especially as Carmen] and waves her arms too much for modern tastes.

Many decades later, it is clear that much of the charm was supplied by Tullio Carminati, an appealing comic actor with a wry quality, something like an Italian Walter Matthau. As Moore's mentor/romantic interest, he has a kind of offhand sophistication and the expert timing to support Moore's occasionally shaky line readings [of course, she's the one who got the Oscar nomination].

Director Victor Schertzinger soft-pedals the high culture, and manages several Lubitsch/Mamoulian moments: one amusing conceit has a building full of musicians all practicing different instruments in discord, until Moore unites the tunes with her impromptu rendition of "Sempre Libre" from LA TRAVIATA. Another enjoyable sequence presents singing a quartet from LUCIA as a strategy to avoid paying the rent. When the plot enters the tiresome misunderstandings phase, Schertzinger keeps the pace going until the finale, a staging of a scene from MADAME BUTTERFLY.

Throughout, Joseph Walker, Columbia's maestro of camerawork, softly lights Moore to utmost advantage, and even gets in a couple of zoom shots [in 1934!]

The Searching Wind

Fancy High-flown Talkfest
Hal Wallis lays on a posh production, complete with tinkling crystal chandeliers, gilded ballrooms and wall-to-wall violin accompaniment, all so that journalist Sylvia Sidney can reproach diplomat Robert Young for his cowardice in not denouncing fascism [while they toy with rekindling their youthful affair]. Lillian Hellman's script boots them all across Europe, from Mussolini's takeover of Rome to the bombing of Madrid to the signing of the Munich Accord . Meanwhile, Young's wife [Ann Richards] entertains assorted brownshirts and blackshirts because she's a shallow socialite, while their war-wounded son [Douglas Dick, in Montgomery Clift's star-making Broadway role] stays home to sort out his own objections to the family's appeasement policies.

For mainstream Hollywood, this idea-driven story was an honorable attempt to dramatize issues of conscience and responsibility [though criticism of official silence about budding fascist regimes was surely a bit late by 1946]. However, everyone gets to face a moral crisis here, from crusty Grandpa [Dudley Digges] down to a waiter who pauses to deliver a lecture on Woodrow Wilson, and marrying its serious ideas with an uncompelling love triangle seems contrived.

Hellman writes literate but non-stop dialogue, making everyone mouth the same high-minded generalities ["Whenever people talk about not taking sides, they've already taken one," or "People who know what they want don't wait to get it."] After an hour of politely listening to such unlikely repartee, we gradually grow weary, then dismayed, and finally exasperated. Was Hellman paid by the word, like Dickens?

This torrent of talk leaves no room for the film to breathe, so all of William Dieterle's fluent staging produces only claustrophobia. Also, while Lee Garmes' exquisite lighting and Hans Dreier's cavernous interiors mark a high point in Hollywood gloss, the decor is so fancy that we in the audience can only goggle in awe at the dilemmas of these privileged power-brokers, surely not what Hellman intended. Still, as James Agee noted, "People as highly civilized as these are seldom seen in the movies, and are still more seldom played with understanding." True, but one is tempted to throw buckets of ice water on the cast to stop their debating.

Il viaggio

Unlikely but flavorful costume tearjerker
If you can accept Richard Burton as an Italian, if you can believe that the strappingly healthy Sophia Loren is actually delicate and dying, and if you can take a plot based on needless misunderstandings, then you should enjoy the sunny photography, elegant period decor and sincere performances here. It's soft-centered, but Vittorio De Sica manages to work up a genuine romantic glow.

Ever Since Venus

Zippy low-budget musical
Intended as a showcase for singer/bandleader Ina Ray Hutton [who only has to act in a few scenes], this fast-paced little musical about the selling of a kiss-proof lipstick works up some real charm with the help of an expert B-picture cast.

The leading lady is Ann Savage--soon to become the seediest femme fatale in film noir--who looks genuinely glamorous here, sings respectably, and handles her comedy with aplomb, but still hints at the edge that would immortalize her in Ulmer's DETOUR. The leading man is Ross Hunter, baby-faced but also with some bite, who would soon change careers to produce Douglas Sirk's glittering melodramas at Universal. Adding to the fun, Alan Mowbray plays a henpecked but lecherous cosmetics tycoon, while Hugh Herbert personifies a dizzy millionaire. This is surely the only movie that features a novelty duet sung by acerbic Glenda Farrell and bubbly Billy Gilbert.

Though hardly standards, Sammy Cahn's songs--like "Glamour for Sale" and "Rosebud"--are not bad. The tiny budget accomodates one busy dance number ["When the Samba Met the Boogie"] and an amusing "tableaux" production illustrating "Beauty Through the Ages". Director Arthur Dreifuss had already labored for Regal, Grand National, Coronado, and PRC, as well as guiding stripper Ann Corio in THE SULTAN'S DAUGHTER for Monogram. This movie was his big chance to step out of Poverty Row, so he showed Columbia what he could do with energy, timing, and budget-stretching. It worked: he stayed at Columbia for twenty years, but how unfair that this minor but enjoyable movie has dropped off the radar screens even of musical historians.

That Wonderful Urge

Stubbornly unfunny attempt at screwball comedy
Using the same plot as MGM's LIBLED LADY and EASY TO WED [aggrieved heiress vs. undercover reporter], Fox tried to resuscitate the romantic screwball comedy. However, aside from a few stray witty lines, nothing seems to work: not the comic business that Tyrone Power adeptly performs, not the Katharine Hepburn accent essayed by Gene Tierney, and certainly not scenes like the jailhouse exchange of bedbugs [what were they thinking?] Power and Tierney supply ample star power, and all the cast members are perfectly competent, but the whole enterprise resists laughter. Perhaps it's the brief but awful organ music in the score.

A Scandal in Paris

Witty Costume Comedy
A kind of anti-Les Miserables, this sophisticated period comedy inverts conventional morality, following a thief/scoundrel as he rises to become the chief of police of Paris. This makes an ideal showcase for George Sanders at his peak of suavity, which he maintains even in a blond wig while posing for a portrait of St. George [this evolves into a theme of the film: "In all of us there is a St. George and a dragon"]. Naturally, Sanders effortlessly spins aphorisms: on adultery, he murmurs, "Sometimes the chains of matrimony are so heavy they have to be carried by three".

Very much a production of displaced Europeans [Sirk, Shuftan, Eisler, Pressburger], the story celebrates a continental tolerance ["No man is a saint"]. Douglas Sirk clearly enjoys the subversive charm of the criminal mind which stays sharp by exploring all the possibilities for larceny. However, Sirk is not cruel: the provincial victims are not buffoons; they are just not sharp enough to see all the angles in each situation. He does not mock the cheerful dowager [Alma Kruger] who is eager for more adventurous company, and even the bumbling cuckold [Gene Lockhart] is ultimately touching when he disguises himself as a canary-merchant.

Like its contemporary, Renoir's DIARY OF A CHAMBERMAID, this sometimes seems like a European film trapped in Hollywood. However, while the first hour sometimes strains to be "naughty" [as in a decorous skinny-dipping scene], Sirk is able to unify the tone more successfully than Renoir. If Signe Hasso seems a bit old [at 30] as the wide-eyed ingenue, and Carole Landis struggles through her music hall number, Sirk guides both of them to satisfying moments, justifying their casting. The plot – involving a garter made of rubies, a monkey called Satan, and a Chinese carousel with a giant Pekinese to ride -- develops increasingly clever and surprising twists, to a pleasing conclusion.

My Reputation

Satisfying High-Class Weepie
An ideal script for Douglas Sirk, charting the emotional liberation of a widow, but filmed without Douglas Sirk. Instead, Curtis Bernhardt commands a lush postwar production: the $5000 limits on set construction were lifted, and it shows. Extras crowd the screen, even in modest scenes, plus James Wong Howe contributes rich low-key lighting, Max Steiner produces an expressive [if undistinctive] score, and Edith Head whips up tasteful costumes. Bernhardt works best in the big scenes, but misjudges some of the lighter moments and cannot light a fire under his leading man, George Brent at his most stolid. Still, there's much to enjoy here: thoughtful dialogue, the stylized upper-crust social milieu, and expert performances, including an unusually sensitive one from Barbara Stanwyck. However, that slight [but crucial] ironic distance of Sirk is sorely missed.

Mare Nostrum

Lavish visuals, formula story-telling
About ten minutes into this plush production comes a jaw-dropping scene of visual fantasy--a vision of the maritime goddess Amphitrite--which is matched by a similarly striking underwater sequence at the end. Unfortunately, between these bookends sits a Victorian melodrama of adultery/guilt/expiation, which is then shoe-horned into a WWI spy plot: betrayal of spouse reflected in betrayal of country.

Despite its mythological and religious trappings, this is deeply conventional story-telling: while an artist examines the ambiguities of behavior, director Rex Ingram is satisfied with this formula plot, leaving his actors no credible characters to develop and only pot-boiler dialogue to mouth ["You are the only man I ever loved!"]. So, although Antonio Moreno looks fit in his sailing captain's uniform, he mostly frowns in pain or puzzlement, while the excellent Alice Terry must enact everything from villainy to martyrdom with little help. The other players are earnest, some used for heavy-handed stabs at humor; however, this film's disregard for people becomes clear as--late into the film--new, throw-away characters keep appearing to deliver more exposition.

The action sequences--impressively shot on locations in Barcelona, Marseilles and Naples--include a mob chasing a German spy around a harbor, plus several submarine attacks and shipwrecks [done with entertainingly elaborate though unconvincing miniatures]. Yet even the visuals seem conventional and static, like academic paintings, especially when compared to the cinematic dynamism of Sternberg or Walsh.

The title refers to the Mediterranean Sea, but is also the name of the hero's ship, and acquires still a third meaning at the end.


Lots of atmosphere, less sense
Atlantis in the Sahara? This English-language version of L'ATLANTIDE follows two French Foreign Legionnaires lost in the Algerian desert who stumble into the subterranean kingdom of Antinea, the enigmatic ruler of the title. Fantasy buffs may find this production is all elaborate build-up with little dramatic payoff, while the politically inclined may see this as a late spasm of colonial chic that exploits real people for their exoticism. However, for fans of director Pabst's erotic indirection [as in PANDORA'S BOX], this makes a heady lesson in how to build a sensuous, suggestive atmosphere.

Pabst sets his cameras gliding across the sands and into real locations in the Hoggar mountains. Towering, black-shrouded tribesmen appear, then sleek native women beckon with mysterious gestures of invitation. When they descend into the maze of tunnels that is Antinea's kingdom, they find a tipsy, excitable Quentin Crisp-y character, a longtime resident who holds some key to its history. As Antinea, the great German star Brigitte Helm has a mesmerizing presence as she lolls on a divan, with a menacing leopard at her side. Equally imposing is a monumental stone head of her visage that figures in several memorable compositions. When the protagonist [who is not a traditional hero] is first summoned to Antinea, what unfathomable depravity will take place? They play chess, of course. The story comes from a popular French novel, but it is Pabst's fluid style that makes this masterly kitsch.

Edge of Doom

Pious, predictable melodrama
Samuel Goldwyn produced this hybrid of social consciousness, religion and noir stylistics, which is not successful on any level. The plot pits wise priest Dana Andrews against clean-cut slum kid Farley Granger. Ironically, this anti-poverty lesson is decked out in a sumptuous production, complete with Harry Stradling's glowing photography of the mean streets.

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