Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Movie Reviews - 1932

Here are all the movies I saw from the year 1932. This was for my Top 10 Movie Project, in which I watch the best movies of each year (starting with 1927) and at the end doing a year end write up with a top 10 list. The original format was doing individual reviews of each film, but that proved to be too time consuming, so I've switched a single page for all reviews from the year. In a separate post, I will do the yearly write up and top 10 list. Movies are rated on the classic **** scale.

American Madness (Frank Capra) ****

Starting to get boring to say, but this is yet another early Frank Capra film that is a hidden classic. The plot, about a bank owner who strongly believes in earning the trust of the people and works feverishly to keep that trust, has a compelling relevance to modern events. Walter Huston (ridiculously bad in DW Griffith's Abe Lincoln biopic) is absolutely terrific here as one of the most fundamentally decent men in movie history (he almost makes Forrest Gump look like an asshole). Any lesser performance and it would come off as pure cheese. Capra populates the film with interesting subplots that work together wonderfully and builds to an exciting climax.

Arsene Lupin (Jack Conway) ***

Definitely a fun crime caper with Lionel and John Barrymore making for very entertaining adversaries. Lionel plays the noted Detective Guerchard, who is now on the trail of Arsene Lupin (played by John). Conway kleeps things light throughout and lets the two leads shine. One of the few problems I had with the film was the story making Guerchard an idiot too often, allowing Lupin to constantly escape. If he's a great detective, we don't get to see much of that. However, the constant failures do provide some good character moments for Lionel to play. Good solid fun.

Beast of the City (Charles Brabin) **1/2

Shockingly violent (for the era) tale of a police chief who's had enough of organized crime terrorizing his city and decides to fight fire with fire. Walter Huston tackles the lead role with his usual charisma, but Brabin does a terrible job staging many of the key scenes. The climactic moment is so poorly done that it became comical and much of the dramatic momentum is completely ruined. With all the risks they took in pushing the envelope for a more realistic portrait of organized crime, it's a shame they didn't get the basics right.

Blonde Venus (Josef Von Sternberg) **

Marlene Dietrich has a magnificent screen presence, but even that can't overcrome a character is intensely unlikeable. Von Sternberg's films are always skillfully crafted, but this story about a woman who essentially kidnaps her son so she can live the lifestyle she wants is so ridiculous that no amount of talent can overcome it. Look for an early Cary Grant performance as a sleazy socialite.

Emma (Clarence Brown) **1/2

An above average little melodrama with some good performances that elevate it above the general hokiness of the story. The wonderful Marie Dressler is a housekeeper well loved by the children she's raised, but that all changes when she marries their father (Jean Hersholt, always a pleasure). Dressler creates a memorable character, but the story gets too ridiculous to take seriously.

A Farewell to Arms (Frank Borzage) **

I've been a big fan of Borzage's romantic melodramas. Films like Seventh Heaven, Lucky Star, and even Liliom have combined serious romantic stories with memorable visual backdrops and fantastic lead performances. Borzage's adaptation of the Hemingway novel A Farewell to Arms contains much of what made his previous films so good, but there is a very serious flaw that derails the entire film and that is the performance of Helen Hayes. This is the third film I've seen her in now and she's been awful in every one. She has a great reputation, so maybe later films will sowcase her talent, but in this one she fails miserably at creating an interesting character or even convincing us that she's in love with Gary Cooper (shouldn't be a difficult task!). A major disappointment.

Faithless (Harry Beaumont) **

Not much to say here. This is a soap opera about wealthy people during the depression, but this is a story that is flat from minute one. Talulah Bankhead's presence certainly commands your attention, but her line delivery is extremely wooden. She actually seems bored here and I can't say I blame her.

Forbidden (Frank Capra) ***1/2

Lonely woman (Barbara Stanwyck) takes her life savings and goes on a glamorous vacation, where she ends up falling for a sophisticated man (Adolph Menjou) who just happens to be married. Despite this, their romance blossoms into a long term affair. This is not quite as good as other early Capra pictures, but it is a good solid soap opera that features another sublime performance from Stanwyck, who at this point was probably the best actress of her generation.

Freaks (Tod Browning) ****

Freed from the constraints of adapting a popular novel that doomed him in Dracula, Browning puts together another classic cinematic tale, this one about a group of odd circus performers and what happens when one of them falls in love with the beautiful Trapeze Artist. Like with The Unknown, Freaks takes you in so many unexpected directions and is one of the few films that will really shock you. It's quite an adventure. The final shot in the film is one I'll never forget.

Grand Hotel (Edmund Goulding) ***

This film is an early Oscar winner that, like Broadway Melody, is often held up as one of the worst Best Picture choices ever. While it certainly isn't even close to the best film of the year, it is much, much better than many other films that have attained that honor. In fact, it accomplishes pretty much exactly what it set out to do, which is give audiences a chance to see a bunch of big name, legendary stars (Greta Garbo, John and Lionel Barrymore, Wallace Beery, Joan Crawford) in one film and throw them together in melodramatic storylines to see the fireworks fly. And on that level, the film works pretty well. Everyone in the big name cast does very well, but Joan Crawford simply steals the movie with a surprisingly sensitive and undeniably winning performance. Jean Hersholt also shows up with another one of his memorable supporting roles.

Horse Feathers (Norman McLeod) ***1/2

One of the better Marx Bros. films and a definite improvement on the overrated Animal Crackers. The college setting is perfect for creating some hilarious scenarios for the cast to interact. I still think the early sound film Cocoanuts is actually the best Marx Bros. film I've seen to date, but this one ranks right up with it because they waste less time with a pointless story and simply set up funny situations.

I Am A Fugitive From a Chain Gang (Mervyn LeRoy) ****

An uncompromising and brutal film that exposes life in a southern chain gang prison. The film was so effective for its time that the filmmakers were sued by the state of Georgia, which is where the real life incident that inspired the film took place, although no specific state is named. Paul Muni is terrific in the lead role, delivering a nuanced performance of a man who goes through many changes throughout the events in the story. LeRoy pulls off a piece of cinematic history with a brilliant editing choice in the film's closing moments

I Was Born, But... (Yasujiro Ozu) ***1/2

Another film that showcases Ozu's wonderful gift for light comedy. This one follows two boys who have moved to a new city and have difficulties fitting in at their new school. Major embarassment ensues when they see their father sucking up to his boss, who is the father of one of the other students. This is a wonderful story where characters react naturally to situations and the drama unfolds in a fluid manner. I've got a long way to go before I get to Ozu's most recognized classic Tokyo Story, but it sure feels like it'll be a great journey to get there.

Love Me Tonight (Rouben Mamoulian) ***1/2

Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette Mcdonald made a name for themselves with their splendid turns in Ernst Lubitsch's late 20s/early 30s musicals, two of which they appeared in together and showcased their remarkable chemistry. Director Rouben Mamoulian, working with a very thin plot, recognizes what he has and simply focuses on highlighting McDonald and Chevalier as much as possible. So yeah, the story isn't worth anything, but so what? Watching these two greats work together is a wonderful treat.

Me and My Gal (Raoul Walsh) ****

One of the best discoveries of the year. Me and My Gal is simply a terific film that does a brilliant job of mixing genres and working on multiple levels. Spencer Tracy is a young policeman that falls in love with a wisecracking waitress played by Joan Bennett. The sarcastic banter between them is hilarious and creates a wonderful romantic chemistry. On the other hand, the film also features a strong side story about gangsters and corruption. The film is filled with wonderful dialogue and a large cast of well drawn characters. This is terrific entertainment.

Movie Crazy (Clyde Bruckman) ***1/2

The second Harold Lloyd talkie I've seen and yet again I'm wondering why his sound films are given so little attention. Maybe this doesn't quite approach the level of Safety Last! or Speedy, but it is still a very funny film that executes a fun premise very well. This time, Harold has adventures trying to make it as an actor in Hollywood and falls for a woman (the lovely Constance Cummings), not knowing this exotic beauty is the same person as his actress friend. There are many good jokes involving this deception and Harold's voice is a perfect match for his plucky on screen persona.

The Mummy (Karl Freund) *1/2

Much like many other early 30s horror films, The Mummy falters with a leisurely paced story that doesn't pick up at all until about the last 15 minutes. Now I'm not to one to criticize a horror film for attempting to develop characters and create an interesting backdrop, but the attempt at doing both of these things is absolutely dreadful here. This is a really boring movie.

The Old Dark House (James Whale) ***1/2

This one is a nice surprise and much better than Whale's unimaginative and weakly paced "classic" Frankenstein (not to mention many other horror films of the era, many of which I've reviewed on this very page). Whale takes the classic haunted mansion concept and breathes life into it with wonderfully staged suspense moments and invests time in developing an interesting group of character we care about. Some of the work Whale does with the camera here is very advanced for the early sound era and helps create a vivid atmosphere. If you're looking for classic horror, skip many of the better known classics and start here instead.

One Hour With You (Ernst Lubitsch) ***1/2

Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette McDonald team up with Lubitsch for the last time. Watching these two together under the direction of such a master is just pure movie magic. There's a really fun story here. The two stars play a married couple whose bliss is interrupted by the wife's flirtatious friend Mitzi (a wonderful Genevieve Tobin). The story is told with the typical Lubitsch flair for light comedy and fanciful songs. Having now seen 9 Lubitsch films, I can safely say he is one of my favorite all time directors.

One Way Passage (Tay Garnett) ****

This little known gem was a nice surprise. Tay Garnett's shipboard romance plays very much like the best Frank Borzage melodrama that Borzage never made. The story follows two doom travelers: Dan (William Powell) is a criminal who has been taken into custody and awaits his fate when the journey is over; Joan (Kay Francis), who is suffering from a terminal illness. What's really special about the film is that despite such an overwhelmingly depressing setup, Garnett is able to setup a whimsical tone and keep the film from becoming unbearable. The two leads are incredible together and the screenplay is populated with memorable supporting characters.

Prosperity (Sam Wood) **1/2

It's always a pleasure to see Marie Dressler and she gives another fun performance as the owner of a small town bank struggling to stay afloat. The story suffers from unflattering comparisons to the more substantial Frank Capra film American Madness, but Dressler's lead performance is strong enough to carry the film.

Red Headed Woman (Jack Conway) **1/2

Wish I could recommend this stronger, because watching Jean Harlow in this film is so much fun. She completely dominates the film with a fiery performance as a scheming, manipulative woman that destroys a marriage. The plot here would fit right in on Melrose Place. Harlow acts circles around the rest of the cast. However, there is not one other positive thing to say about this trashy enterprise, particularly the awful performance of Chester Morris, an actor that was very good in the early talkie Alibi, but has been disappointing in everything else since then.

Scarface (Howard Hawks) **1/2

This is a gangster film that certainly took some major steps forward in the depiction of violent mobster lifestyle. However, the film lacks the depth that the better gangster film of the era include, such as Underworld, Public Enemy, or Little Caeser. This film mainly exists just to showcase the action and seedy lifestyle, albeit this is very well executed by Hawks. Unfortunately, Paul Muni's performance is incredibly hammy. He seems to be acting out in every possible shot and it is incredibly distracting.

Shanghai Express (Josef Von Sternberg) ***1/2

You can never have too much Marlene Dietrich, especially when paired up with her favorite director Josef Von Sternberg. Thankfully this one didn't suffer from the same problematic story issues that doomed Blonde Venus. Shanghai Express follows a group of passengers on a train who are stopped by Chinese guerrillas that take British Army Doctor Donald Harvey (Clive Brook) hostage. The notorious Shangra Lil (Dietrich), who broke his heart many years earlier, is the only person that can save him. Intricate story and great romantic pairing between Dietrich and Brook make up for some uncomfortable racial stereotypes.

Smilin Through (Sidney Franklin) ***

Clever structure helps make this mawkish story go over alot better than it really deserves. Norma Shearer and Fredric March play dual roles. In the first pairing,  Fredric March plays the jealous Joseph Wayne, who kills Moonyeen (Norma Shearer) on her wedding day. Many years later, Moonyeen's daughter Kathleen (Shearer) has fallen in love with Kenneth Wayne (March), who happens to be Joseph's son. Kathleen wants the blessing of her caretaker uncle (Leslie Howard), who happened to be Moonyeen's fiance and isn't exactly forgiving. Lots of melodrama to be had here, but it mostly works due to the strong work of the cast. Especially strong is the wonderful Norma Shearer, one of the classiest actresses I've ever seen.

Tarzan the Ape Man (WS Van Dyke) **1/2

The most notable film version of the classic story and I'm probably being a bit too harsh on it. Weismuller is certainly well suited to the lead role and Van Dyke stages some memorable action sequences. However, the film runs way too long and many of the jungle sequences felt very repetitive, which dragged down the pacing. It was fun and exciting in spurts, but incredibly dull in others (especially anything involving the civilized world).

Two Seconds (Mervyn LeRoy) ****

Probably the best performance I've seen from Edward G. Robinson yet. This film has a story with an interesting flashback structure. Robinson plays a man condemned to the electric chair. As he is about to be electrocuted, he ponders that events that led to him to this situation. It becomes quite fascinating to see this man's downward spiral caused by his unfortunate love for a manipulative woman. It also contains one of the more memorably shocking sequences of the era.

Trouble in Paradise (Ernst Lubitsch) ****

Quite simply, this is one of the best films ever made. The master Ernst Lubitsch tells a story about thief Gaston Monescu (Herbert Marshall) who falls for pickpocket Lily (Miriam Hopkins at her best). The two join forces and pull a con on socialite Mme. Colet (Kay Francis). The delicate way Lubitsch weaves his way through a plot is on full display here, aided by some of the wittiest dialogue that has ever been found in the movies. It's hard to really explain what made Lubitsch so great. He seemed to have a unique gift for coming up with special little moments in his films. These soon would become known as "Lubitsch Touches". Defining that term is a near impossible task, one that Lubitsch disciple Billy Wilder couldn't even accomplish himself. But you know it when you see it, and in Trouble in Paradise it is evident in every single scene of the film.

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