Monday, January 1, 2001

1931 - Film Log

An American Tragedy (Josef Von Sternberg) - ****

Josef Von Sternberg is clearly one of the most consistent directors of his era, making one great film after another. Here he gives us an underappreciated adaptation of Dreiser's novel (which would be more famously adapted into A Place in the Sun) that may not be entirely faithful, but is nonetheless fascinating to watch. There's some really powerful and complex material in here, including a courtroom finale that gives the audience some grandstanding fireworks while also ridiculing the justice system that becomes more about the lawyers than the actual crime.

Arrowsmith (John Ford) - **

Uneven drama about medical research, which is not one of the most cinematic subjects. John Ford and the mostly uninspired cast don't do much to change that

The Bachelor Father (Robert Z. Leonard) - **

Another waste of the wonderful comedic talents of Marion Davies. Despite her winning charm and some nice chemistry with Ray Milland, the stagey direction and uneven script hold this movie back.

Bad Girl (Frank Borzage) - **1/2

Borzage departs from his usual fanciful style and settles for the stark realism of a struggling marriage. Good lead performances help, but the pacing is off and the story wastes far too much time on the courtship, preventing a deeper exploration of marital troubles.

The Champ (King Vidor) - **

This is considered a classic by many, but it left me completely cold. Beery overacts int he elad role and Cooper is a cute kid, but cannot handle the more demanding dramatic sequences. The important final scene is horribly staged and has some atrocious dialogue.

Cimarron (Wesley Ruggles) - *1/2

Someone wake me when this movie is over. A dreafully dull western that makes me want to reevaluate my negative review of The Big Trail, which at least looked great. This isn't the worst Best Picture winner ever (that honor belongs to Wings), but it's pretty close.

City Lights (Charles Chaplin) - ****

Not Chaplin's funniest film (that would be The Circus), but perhaps his most accomplished as a filmmaker. With a touching romance at the center and an oddball friendship, Chaplin hits on his familiar themes of class struggle and his Tramp character was never more endearing. Also of note is that Virginia Cherrill's blind girl is given multiple dimensions, a rarity in silent comedies.

Dishonored (Josef von Sternberg) - ****

Dietrich and Von Sternberg are one of the most perfect director/star matchups ever, and this is perhaps their best collaboration. Dietrich takes on the seductive spy role that was previously dominated by Garbo and does even better. Supporting cast is solid, but Dietrich completely dominates this film with her stunning screen presence. The most memorable moment comes when she uses an unexpected delay to apply lipstick, knowing that the delay is pointless and won't change a thing.

Dracula (Tod Browning) - **1/2

Dracula wastes the first half of its running time on pointlessly long exposition that almost completely kills the movie. In adapting a familiar story, Browning seems less prone to creating some of the more fascinating moments that piopulate his other films (The Unknown, Freaks). Still,t here is some good stuff int he second half, including an entertaining showdown between Van Helsing and Dracula, plus the memorable supporting work by Dwight Frye as Renfield.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Rouben Mamoulian) - ***

Mamoulian's artistry and a great leading performance from Fredric March put this one a step ahead of some of the other early horror films. March is strong enough to maintain interest during the usually slow exposition that unfortunately populates this film as well. Mamoulian has an uneven track record with me, but he's usually at least trying to do something interesting.

Five Star Final (Mervyn LeRoy) - ***1/2

Harrowing drama about the devastating effects that the media can have on ordinary citizens when they put aside ethics and think about their bottom line. Edward G. Robinson gives another terrific performance as an editor who seeks to reveal the hidden identity of a woman who murdered her abusive husband many years ago. Very few directors of this era understand how to build dramatic tension as well as LeRoy

Frankenstein (James Whale) - **1/2

No that rating is not a mistake. This is a horror film that just does not hold up well at all. There's very little suspense until the very, very and and even then some of it is quite laughable. Decent performances and Whale's generally competent direction prevent this from being a complete disaster.

Freedom For Us (Rene Clair) - ***1/2

Amusing satire about two prisoners who go on very different paths, one becoming a supervisor at a factory and the other becoming a lowly struggling worker. This film is probably best known for the lawsuit that the filmmakers file against Chaplin, claiming he stole many elements of this film for Modern Times. I find that interesting since many of the same elements appear in Chaplin's earlier work. Disputes aside, this is a fun and insightful film.

A Free Soul (Clarence Brown) - *1/2

This is a movie that doesn't seem to know what it wants to be about. It alternates from love triangle (between Norma Shearer, Clark Gable, and Leslie Howard) to father-daughter drama about alcoholism (Sharer and Lionel Barrymore) to courtroom drama. Ultimately, it is not successful at any of them. Lionel Barrymore won an Oscar for his shameless courtroom antics at the end, but it is Norma Shearer that gives the only good performance in the film. She brings an astonishing elegance to her role and her wonderful presence makes the film somewhat bearable.

Little Caeser (Mervyn LeRoy) - ***1/2

Edward G. Robinson makes for a fine anti-hero in this straightforward, but entertaining gangster film. Robinson's presence is pretty powerful, making his character's rise through the ranks very convincing. It doesn't quite rise to the level of the first really great gangster pic, Josef Von sternberg's Underworld, because it doesn't really have as much depth. Most of it sits there on the surface. But it is still great entertaiment thanks to interesting characters, technically proficient direction from LeRoy, and a memorable performance in the lead role by Robinson.

M (Fritz Lang) - ****

Every modern filmmaker and moviegoer should be required to watch Fritz Lang's M, a brillianst story about the criminal underworld hunting down a child killer. Maybe then we'd be spared the ADD crap of modern blockbusters. M shows how brilliant a film can be when it has the patience let the suspense slowly build throughout the story. The most notable sequence is a long, mostly silent passage where a blind man notices the killer's presence and the underworld network tracks him to a building, where he hides in the attic as they get closer and closer to finding him. But the film isn't just visually brilliant, it explores the story through multiple levels, with a fascinating sequence at the end showing how the criminal underworld ironically views defense attorneys in a much different light when the tables are turned. Peter Lorre's performance is far removed from the standard one note villain. He doesn't play Hans Beckert as a purely evil psycopath, but as someone who feels he does not have control of his own actions. M is a film that plays against your expectations, where the criminals are self-righteous and child murderers are human beings. It's a thoughtful and frightening movie, coming from a director who by this point was a complete master at his craft.

Maltese Falcon (Roy Del Ruth) - *1/2

This early version of the Dashiell Hammett's crime novel suffers from the typical problems that pagued early sound films. It is poorly staged with clunky line delivery, offering very little visual imagination. Ricardo Cortez is uninspired in the role of Sam Spade.

Mata Hari (George Fitzmaurice) - ***

This is a fairly straightforward film without a lot of depth, but it is nonetheless entertaining thanks to an interesting story and solid performances from the entire cast. Garbo had issues the previous year in Anna Christie, which was her first talkie, but they seem to have been fixed as she gives a confident, relaxed performance here. Lionel Barrymore (much better here than in A Free Soul).

Miracle Woman (Frank Capra) - ****

The best surprise from 1931 was this early Capra film that doesn't get talked about too much, but deserves a place alongside his best remembered classics. Barbara Stanwyck is electrifying in the role of a disillusioned young woman whose pastor father dies and gets taken in by a con man who sets her up as a faith healer. Stanwyck is so good in this role that I don't hesitate to call it one of the very best performances I have ever seen. The opening sequence where she shames her father's former congregation is unforgettable.

Monkey Business (Norman Z. McLeod) - ***1/2

This is definitely a better vehicle for the Marx Brothers than the overrated Animal Crackers, mainly because its smart enough to keep them on the screen for the most part and the stowaway plot is a perfect setup for their hilarious antics.

Platinum Blonde (Frank Capra) - ****

This early screwball comedy from Frank Capra is definitely a great surprise. Fans of Hawks' His Girl Friday will find plenty to like in this love triangle where a reporter falls in love with someone he's writing about, while ignoring the feelings of his closest friend, who is also a reporter. All three leads are fantastic in this one, with an exquisite Loretta Young and sexy Jean Harlow. The biggest surprise is Robert Williams, who gives a terrific performance in only his 5th film that promised a bright future. Sadly, this would be his last film as he died from appendicitis.

The Public Enemy (William Wellman) - ****

The iconic central performance from James Cagney makes this one a winner. Cagney creates one of the most memorable characters in film history, one that would inspire countless followers, but only a handful would come close to matching the intimidating tough guy presence that Cagney brought to the screen. The final brilliantly shocking sequence is one of the more stunning moments in film history.

The Royal Bed (Lowell Sherman) - ***1/2

Another Lowell Sherman film that is a charming low key affair. In an era where comedy was mostly made up of broad slapstick, Sherman's style is actually refreshing. There's a nice, underlying sentiment to this story of a royal family of a small European nation, dealing with the normal family dynamics and a peasant revolt at the same time. Sherman's performance is much like his direction. He underplays every single scene, but he makes it work and creates a winning, empathetic character.

Smart Money (Alfred E. Green) - **

There's no denying that it's a thrill to see these two legends work together. Their incredible screen presence is certainly evident throughout the film. But once you get beyind that initial appeal, there's not much of a story here. The situations are poorly developed and the characters are only interesting because of the larger than life actors portraying them. I'll admit that it does wrap up nicely with a very strong concluding sequence, I just wish Robinson and Cagney had been given better material to work with before that point.

Svengali (Archie Mayo) - ***

John Barrymore gives a strong performance in the title role as a man who uses hypnotism and mind control to make a woman he loves a wonderful singer, while taking her away from the life she used to live. It's a really strong concept and t he film is entertaining enough, if not ever truly compelling. Marian Marsh also does solid work as the female lead.

The Smiling Lieutenant (Ernst Lubitsch) - ****

Another delightful Lubitsch musical and among his best films overall. Maurice Chevalier and Claudette Colbert make a terrific romantic pair, and the musical numbers between them are outstanding. However, the biggest surprise in the film is Miriam Hopkins. Her character appears at first to be a one note spoiled brat, but Hopkins (and Lubitsch) makes her a wonderful, charmingly naive person. This really sets the film apart from most that deal with love triangles by allowing us to like both choices. In fact, one of the best scenes is when the two women meet and actually gain an understanding of one another. There's quite a bit of sexual innuendo in this pre-code talkie and Lubitsch "touches" are found all throughout the film. My favorite is when Niki tries to talk his way out of the marriage:

"When you winked at my daughter, were your intentions honorable?"
"They were."
"Well, then naturally, you'll marry her."
"My intentions were dishonorable!"
"Then you'll have to marry her!"

Dialogue like that just can't be found in most films. Lubitsch wraps things up with a surprisingly satisfying ending that mixes sadness and happiness, and is a whole lot of fun.

Tabu: A Story of the South Seas (FW Murnau) - ***

Fascinating cinematography and interesting subject matter aren't enough to make this one of Murnau's better films, but even a lesser Murnau is has plenty to offer. In many ways, this film felt somewhat similar to King Vidor's Hallelujah!, another exploration of a different culture. This one works a little bit better because there isn't the same level of condescencion towards the characters, and the central love story is strong enough to make the audience care.

Tokyo Chorus (Yasujiro Ozu) - ***1/2

Ozu is an important filmmaker that will certainly take prominence as I move through the years with this project. This is one of his earlier works (although he had made many films before this), and it shows a nice eye for observant comedy and a light touch that handles a serious subject with complete charm.

Tonight or Never (Mervyn LeRoy) - **

An unremarkable romantic drama with Gloria Swanson as a talented opera singer who lacks passion in her performances, but perhaps potential romance will turn that around. Gloria Swanson is very appealing in the lead role, but this is an extremely dull story that goes nowhere.

Waterloo Bridge (James Whale) - ***

Whale takes a break from horror and presents a serious romance between a soldier and a prostitute. To the movie's credit, the characters (thanks to wonderful acting) rise above those stereotypes and become fully three dimensional creations. The romance is worth caring about, and has complexities that are interesting to explore. Loses a few points for the jarring final scene, which is completely unnecessary.

Woman in the Moon (Fritz Lang) - ***

Fritz Lang is one of the best directors in film history. His films have always had a startling originality and he has an unmatched skill in the purposeful manner he moves through a plot. Lang's movies have always been exciting from beginning to end, even at their usually long running times. However, this is one that probably runs just a bit too long. It takes far too long until we reach our outer space adventure, and what happens before that is not very interesting (as opposed to the electric opening of Spies). This is still a solid sci-fi adventure, just not up to the standards I expect from Lang.

1 comment:

phantasma said...

Frankenstein was a real disappointment. Thanks to DVD extras, my screening of the movie was saved by a short spoofusing bits of actual footage. Humor is the only thing that could save this movie.