Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on February 24, 2015
Johnny Mercer is one of the finest lyricists the United States has ever produced, contributing “Moon River”, “Fools Rush In” and “Days of Wine and Roses” to the Great American Songbook. Before he wrote that string of immortal hits, he tried (and folded) his hand at movie stardom, appearing in some sprightly B musicals for RKO starting in 1935. In the early 1930s Johnny Mercer was just another hard working lyricist, with his steadiest paycheck coming from the Paul Whiteman Orchestra as both writer and singer. He had made a name for himself in 1933 with “Lazybones”, written with Hoagy Carmichael, which attracted the attention of the aging but still popular “Pops” Whiteman. The hope was that Mercer could replace the recently departed Bing Crosby in his touring road show. The Savannah-born Mercer was paired with legendary Texas trombonist Jack Teagarden, and they formed a kind of Southern comedy duo, interpreting Fats Waller and “Harlemania” for the white masses. Their routines were enough to get the attention of Hollywood, and RKO lured him West. Mercer had dreams of contributing songs to major musicals, but he had to prove his mettle in the Bs first. The Warner Archive recently released a DVD of Mercer’s first two silver screen forays, the irresistible college comedy Old Man Rhythm (’35) and morbid farce To Beat the Band (’35). These cheap B pictures are enlivened by the spectacular talents RKO had at its disposal, including choreographer Hermes Pan, production designer Van Nest Polglase and director of photography Nicholas Musuraca (Cat People, Out of the Past). They are Bs that look like As, and though none of Mercer’s tunes in these films became standards, there were no duds. Billie Holiday agreed, and would record “Eeny Meeny Miney Mo” and “If You Were Mine” from To Beat the Band later in ’35.
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on February 3, 2015
I don’t know if Allan Dwan ever read the Futurist Manifesto, but High Tension is an exemplar of the what Filippo Tommaso Marinetti was celebrating in his incendiary 1909 statement in praise of the industrial age: “We declare that the splendor of the world has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed.” And boy does Dwan like to go fast in High Tension (1936), which packs a screwball comedy and an deep sea adventure into its 63 minutes. Of his films from this period, Dwan said, “I’d eliminate stuff that was extraneous and speed up stuff that was written slowly. A writer stretches a story out, and you’ve got to fix it up. Make it move.” The movies narrative literally moves through telephone wires and underground cables, bringing together the exploits of the swashbuckling cable layer Steve Reardon (Brian Donlevy) and the dime store writer Edith MacNeil (Glenda Farrell) who turns his feats into fiction. The electricity that makes their jobs possible seems to jitter their bodies as they continually break up and smack back into each other across the country. It’s an action-packed ode to wired communication, and is now available for viewing in a very nice looking MOD DVD from Fox Cinema Archives.
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on January 20, 2015
Struggling stage actors Henry Fonda and Margaret Sullavan were married on December 25, 1931. They divorced two months later. In 1936, Fonda and Sullavan were both burgeoning movie stars, and appeared together in the romantic comedy The Moon’s Our Home, whose story of whirlwind romance and hurricane breakup recalled their brief fling. Recently released on DVD from the Universal Vault, the studio’s burn-on-demand service, the film is an aggressive farce that gained added oomph from Fonda and Sullavan’s fraught, passionate relationship (the transfer looks soft and interlaced, but it’s watchable). Director William A. Seiter was a sensitive shaper of star personas, having helped mold the Dadaist antics of Wheeler and Woolsey and the blossoming sass of Ginger Rogers. The Moon’s Our Home, with the aid of some acidic dialogue contributed by Dorothy Parker, is a bumptious battle of the sexes, with Sullavan a bite-sized Napoleon and Fonda her arrogant outdoorsman opponent. Their fights are shockingly violent, and the film ends with one of them in a straightjacket.
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on January 6, 2015
In the grim police procedural Between Midnight and Dawn, violence is a spigot that cannot be turned off. It begins with a thrill – a tense night time shootout in an auto-body shop with some generic young hoods. But for beat cop prowl car partners Rocky Barnes (Mark Stevens) and Daniel Purvis (Edmond O’Brien), it’s just one of their nightly spasms of gunfire. Rocky is able to retain his humanity, working off his nerves through a constant patter of jokes, but Purvis has worn out his concern for human life. Once it turns dark, all women are tramps, all men are thugs, and Purvis’ misanthropic disgust flows into his trigger finger. The movie strays into unconvincing romance — the brightness looking sallow and jaundiced against the sepulchral evening blacks of DP George Diskant (much shot on location in Los Angeles city streets) — but it retains a bitter aftertaste upon its close. Between Midnight and Dawn is available on the TCM Vault Collection’s “Columbia Film Noir Classics IV” DVD box set.
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on December 30, 2014
Paul Muni snarled to prominence as the amoral gangster kingpin Scarface (1932), and followed it up with an expose of the prison system, I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1933). He had already received an Oscar nomination for his debut performance in The Valiant (1929), so by 1934 he was a star, and a serious-minded one. Born to a Jewish family in the Austro-Hungarian empire, he came up through the Yiddish theater, made it to Broadway, and eventually earned unprecedented freedom in choosing the parts he wanted to play in Hollywood. So when histories of Muni’s career are written, few mention his little newspaper comedy from 1934, Hi, Nellie. A standard Warner Brothers quickie, it packs in screwball, romance, mystery and gangster movies into one 75 minute package. Muni clearly revels in trying out comedy, channeling his wiry energy into the clipped, slangy dialogue of a Hecht/MacArthur knockoff. And the rest of the cast is up to his challenge, with acidic performances from Glenda Farrell and Ned Sparks. Hi, Nellie is now available on DVD as part of the Warner Archive’s Forbidden Hollywood Volume 8 set of pre-codes (also including Blonde Crazy, Strangers May Kiss, and Dark Hazard).
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on December 2, 2014
By the end of 1935 James Cagney was irritated. Under his Warner Brothers contract he was assigned four-to-five movies a year, almost all in the pugilist-gangster mold. Cagney was getting burnt out on the repetition, just as he was becoming a top ten box office attraction. Seeking a higher salary as well as greater input into his roles, Cagney walked off the studio lot and sued them for back pay. He had become a bad boy on-screen as well as off. He spent his time separated from WB making a couple of small features for the independent Grand National Pictures (Great Guy (’36) and Something to Sing About (’37)). The suit was settled in 1938, and Cagney was back at work at WB. His return film was the inside-Hollywood farce Boy Meets Girl, which was a recent Broadway hit. A rapid-fire parody of tinseltown excesses — it tracks the rise and fall of a literally newborn superstar — it allowed Cagney to stretch his comic chops. He gets to enact all of his mischievous Hollywood fantasies: mouthing off to the unit production chief (Ralph Bellamy), insulting soft-headed actors and inciting extras to riot. Cagney and Pat O’Brien play exaggerated versions of the famously acerbic screenwriting team of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur as they sweet talk their way into the heart of a naive mother whose baby becomes an overnight star. This cockeyed comedy is now available on DVD from the Warner Archive.
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on November 18, 2014
Through serendipity, skill and plain dumb luck, the last two silent films featuring comedic firecracker Colleen Moore have been restored through the work of The Vitaphone Project and Warner Brothers. Presumed lost, Synthetic Sin (1929) and Why Be Good? (1929) were sitting in a Bologna archive, waiting for money and TLC to set them free. They received their restoration premieres at Film Forum in NYC, and both are risque flapper comedies in which Mrs. Moore’s high-spirited subversive tests the boundaries of accepted female behavior. Why Be Good? was just released by Warner Archive on DVD with its full Vitaphone audio (which adds synchronized sound effects and a jazzy score). Each was directed by William A. Seiter, an inventive gag man as well as a sensitive shaper of star personas, from the Dadaist antics of Wheeler and Woolsey through the stubborn independence of Ginger Rogers. One of his earlier star-whisperer jobs was for child actor Baby Peggy, in The Family Secret (1924). A preserved Library of Congress print screened at MoMA’s To Save and Project festival of film preservation last month. Though Baby Peggy and Colleen Moore are after different things (chocolate and men, respectively) they each destabilize the society around them by daring to be independent.
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on October 14, 2014
The Lusty Men is haunted by the Great Depression. It’s about economic displacement, wandering the countryside to make a buck at podunk rodeos, and where the dream of owning a home seems forever out of reach. As with most Hollywood studio projects, The Lusty Men was built out of compromise and circumstance, starting as a Life magazine article on the rodeo by Claude Stanush, and turning into a largely improvised character study by director Nicholas Ray and star Robert Mitchum. In between were a series of scripts, the first by David Dortort, and the second by Horace McCoy, who had made his name writing about Depression desperation, most famously in his novel They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? None of them satisfied Ray or producers Jerry Wald and Norman Krasna, so they often worked without a screenplay. It is a vulnerably acted film, as Ray teases out the fragility in Mitchum and co-stars Arthur Kennedy and Susan Hayward. It is a love triangle of sorts, but one enacted with complete honesty and forthrightness. The question is between the stability of Arthur Kennedy or the soulfulness of Mitchum, and while aesthetically it’s an easy decision (Mitchum has never been so beautiful), for characters raised dirt poor it’s a heart-wrenching choice. The Lusty Men, recently restored on 35mm by Warner Brothers, The Film Foundation and the Nicholas Ray Foundation, has finally been released on DVD by the Warner Archive (it also airs 11/4 at 1:30PM on TCM). Ever since the restored print screened at the New York Film Festival last year, I was patiently awaiting a Blu-ray release, but this will have to do. Luckily the DVD is in fine shape, aside from the beat-up archival rodeo footage which sets the stage for the drama to come.
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on July 8, 2014
In the late 1950s Warner Brothers was using their television properties to create stars on the cheap. One of them was Clint Walker, a former merchant marine and deputy sheriff whose freakish physique and down home sincerity carried the TV Western Cheyenne to high ratings. A March 1958 issue of Screenland checks off his measurements as if he were a prize heifer: “It’s safe to say he is the biggest man in cowboy movies. He stands six-feet-six, with an 18-inch neck, a 38-inch waist and hips so slim that he can hardly keep his gun belt up.” Signed to a seven year contract by WB in 1955 at $175 a week, Walker began chafing at his rock bottom salary, even when it was bumped to $500 (he walked off the show to protest in ’59). To placate their brooding star, WB cast him in two big screen Westerns, both directed by Gordon Douglas and scripted by Burt Kennedy (and available on DVD through the Warner Archive): Fort Dobbs (1958) and Yellowstone Kelly (1959) (they would make a third in 1961, Gold of the Seven Saints). They are lonesome works, with Walker playing an outsider plying his trade at the edges of society. In Fort Dobbs he’s a wanted murderer, while in Yellowstone Kelly he’s an individualist scout and trapper mocked by the Army brass for his sympathy towards Native Americans.
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on July 1, 2014
The last outpost of the retail cinephile shrine Kim’s Video is shutting down this year. I made one last pilgrimage to its lower east side redoubt in NYC to experience the disappearing pleasure of browsing. The simpleminded algorithms at Amazon and Netflix want to give you more of the same, regurgitating films from the same genre, actor or director. What they miss is the pleasure of turning down an aisle and entering a different world. I had no title in mind when walking in, only knowing I needed to make one last purchase before Kim’s was replaced by an upscale frogurt shop or whatever. At first I pawed the BFI DVD of E.A. Dupont’s Piccadilly (1929), the raucous silent starring Anna May Wong. Netflix’s “More like Piccadilly” section offered random unrelated silents, from Chaplin to Pickford, while Amazon’s slightly more helpful recommendations were a Wong biography and a few of her films on public domain DVD. At Kim’s, in the Region 2 DVD section, I stumbled upon Bertrand Tavernier’s debut feature The Watchmaker of St. Paul (1974, aka The Clockmaker). I have had Tavernier idly on the mind for a few years, as I have much admired his last two features (The Princess of Montpensier and The French Minister) while being mostly unacquainted with his earlier work. Thus I gently placed Piccadilly on the shelf, and brought The Watchmaker of St. Paul to the knowledgeable cashier, who had seen a screening of the film at Anthology Film Archives, though seemed underwhelmed. The clerks at Kim’s had a reputation for being snotty, but I’ve always found them to be remarkably informed and helpful – though perhaps they could spot that I was one of their own grubby tribe.
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