Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on August 13, 2013
Going Hollywood (1933) was a gambit by William Randolph Heart to rejuvenate his lover Marion Davies’ career, but instead it accelerated the rise of Bing Crosby. By the end of 1933 Crosby was a top-ten box office attraction, while Marion Davies would be out of movies altogether a few years later. Like their careers, the whole movie is pulled in different directions, as its patchwork backstage musical romantic comedy plot lunges from lavish Busby Berkeley style spectacles to a filmed radio show. Even the box office receipts are schizophrenic, with a cost of $914,000 and total revenues of $962,000 it was a money-maker that barely broke even. Though immensely talented, the actors perform at cross-purposes, with Crosby at his most louche and Davies in a perpetual panic. That Going Hollywood holds together at all can be credited to ace songwriting duo Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown, as well as director Raoul Walsh, who had just managed the controlled chaos of his turn of the century NYC comedy The Bowery (1933). Going Hollywood is out now in a handsome DVD from the Warner Archive.
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on May 28, 2013
Today’s Hollywood has a reputation for unoriginality, but the classical era was also rife with recycling. Before Robert Riskin became Frank Capra’s favorite screenwriter, he was a struggling playwright with co-writer Edith Fitzgerald. When their 1930 sex comedy Many a Slip became a modest hit and was adapted at Universal, Warner Brothers optioned one of their un-produced plays and cranked out two movie versions in three years. Illicit (1931) and Ex-Lady (1933), both available on DVD from the Warner Archive, reveal a studio in flux, scrambling to grab the audience’s waning attention during the Great Depression. Both cast energetic young ingenues in the role of a liberated woman who thinks marriage is a prison, but gets hitched anyway for the sake of the man she loves. Illicit stars Barbara Stanwyck and opts for escapism, taking place among the leisure class of NYC, from Manhattan townhouse hangars to Long Island mega mansions. The story gets downsized in Ex-Lady, with Bette Davis given a middle-class job as an illustrator for an ad agency. The shift is an early and unsuccessful attempt (Ex-Lady was a flop) at Warners’ downmarket move to court blue-collar dollars, which would pay dividends soon after with saucy Busby Berkeley backstage musicals and gritty James Cagney gangster flicks.
Posted by David Kalat on September 29, 2012
We come upon three men and a naked lady.
The lady is Thelma Todd, denuded as she often was in her brief screen career.
One of the men is Roland Young, a womanizing roué who has brought her home in this state. The other, Charlie Ruggles, is his mostly useless sidekick. The third man? Well, that’d be Thelma’s husband–known to be a fiercely jealous man. He is also an Olympic javelin thrower (Yes. That’s right). Oh, and he has a quiver of javelins with him.
This, ladies and gentlemen, is the screen debut of Cary Grant. It is not an especially auspicious performance–Grant is quoted in numerous sources as disliking his contribution to this film. But it is for our purposes an extremely illuminating one.
Here is a film that behaves like a modern dialogue-driven romantic comedy, but which is comprised of the DNA of silent comedy. Here is a missing link between one animal and the other–a glimpse into the evolution of talkie comedy. And it all hinges on Cary Grant.
Posted by David Kalat on September 22, 2012
I’ve been postponing this for years, waiting for what I wrongly assumed was the imminent DVD restoration of an important and greatly enjoyable comedy from the transitional talkie era. But I’m only human and can’t wait forever. This week will be a rough go for anyone who prefers to read about movies they’ve seen or have the option of seeing–and I’ll count myself squarely in that camp. If someone else wrote this I wouldn’t read it. But the day will come when Modern Love is available on DVD, maybe even Blu Ray, and if I help build up a hungry audience to welcome that eventual release with enthusiasm and appreciation, then I’m happy.
Posted by David Kalat on September 15, 2012
Charley Chase was one of the funniest, most widely talented, most important, and most influential comedians of the early 20th century. I’m not even going to bother to argue that statement, it is simply a fact—the way that 2+2=4 is a fact. However, Charely Chase did his work in shorts, not features. With one exception, he did not star in a feature-length comedy, despite a career in movies that spanned over a quarter century. The film critical establishment has historically held a pronounced bias in favor of features, which has meant that by definition Charley Chase’s extraordinary accomplishments and legacy are seen as secondary in stature.
Posted by Susan Doll on August 27, 2012
Earlier this month, the Morlocks participated in a blogathon in which we explored the films of Toshiro Mifune, the legendary Japanese movie star who was part of TCM’s Summer Under the Stars. While I was happy to give one of the worlds’ most talented actors his due, my first choice for the blogathon was Warren William, who will be spotlighted this Thursday, August 30.
Warren William is largely forgotten today, though he was a prolific film actor for Warner Bros. during the Depression. He did not have the reputation or long career of peers Jimmy Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, or William Powell, but William makes an interesting study for a couple of reasons. The Warner Bros. films of the early 1930s were ripped from the headlines of the day. They featured characters who struggled with issues of employment whether they were scrambling for a job, conniving to keep their job, or turning to crime because legitimate work eluded them. William’s urbane, well-dressed persona was suited to this hard-scrabble world because he could play the cold-hearted millionaires, abusive bosses, and society sophisticates who clashed with the working folk. Also, his career peaked in the early to mid-1930s, which parallels most of the pre-Code era (1930 to 1934). Several of William’s films include the edgy situations, randy characters, and provocative dialogue that we have all come to love about pre-Code movies.
Posted by David Kalat on August 18, 2012
Last week I began a cycle of talking through how the transition to talkies affected the development of American screen comedy, and to continue in this vein we need to take a moment to talk through what that transition was all about. The Jazz Singer has persisted in posterity and popular memory far in excess of the merits of its actual content–it is however remembered as a revolutionary picture, one that precipitated a sudden reorientation of the industry. But the real story behind the switch to talkies is messier–and doesn’t have much of anything to do with The Jazz Singer. It is instead a story about the dynamics of format wars.
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on July 24, 2012
This astounding publicity shot of a screwfaced James Cagney reluctantly probing the shoulder of a coolly admiring Claire Dodd should sell anyone on the value of Hard To Handle (1933), or of the two new volumes of WB’s Forbidden Hollywood DVD series that is releasing it. The way Cagney separates his left ring and pinky fingers – as if he couldn’t bear to put the effort into using all five digits – exemplifies his casual mastery (even in PR shoots!) in fleshing out the con-artist cads he played throughout this period. And this is only one of the pleasures found within volumes 4 and 5 of the series, which includes a trio of treats from director William Dieterle, and snappy banter from the likes of Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Blondell. The last edition appeared in 2009, containing a bevy of depression-scarred William Wellman films, but as DVD sales have continued to crater, so has the prominence of this series, with the new editions being released on WB’s movies-on-demand line, the Warner Archive.
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on August 23, 2011
Joan Blondell made herself at home in the cinema. Regardless of the plot or set decoration, Blondell would adjust her sheer stockings and plop into a seat as if she was at a cuckolded boyfriend’s pad. This Warner Brothers working class goddess buckled knees with this studied insouciance, a glamour of gum-smacking nonchalance. Our blog-a-thon has been counting down the days until the Blondell-bonanza on August 24th, her day on TCM’s Summer Under the Stars. Earlier this week Jeff discussed the James Cagney-Blondell pairing Blonde Crazy (1931), and today I’ll take a look at their subsequent film together, Howard Hawks’ The Crowd Roars (1932).
Posted by David Kalat on July 16, 2011
The comments section to last week’s post developed a thread regarding the legacy of Harry Langdon, a comedian dear to my heart. Some of y’all said what I was going to say already, but nevertheless I feel it incumbent on me to step forward and explain my own position more clearly in this space. I haven’t really written about Langdon here in part because I wanted my work on the Harry Langdon DVD box to serve as my word on the subject, but also because I realize that Langdon is a love-him-or-hate-him performer, and I don’t like to argue about opinions. If you don’t care for Langdon, that’s not something that’s open to debate.
The comments thread was initiated by Jeff H. who asserted this position:
Langdon relied more on his team of people like Frank Capra and Harry Edwards, without realizing that the character that made him so beloved was created for him, not by him. If you want proof of that, watch THE STRONG MAN, with Capra and his team then watch THREE’S A CROWD, which Langdon made after he fired Capra-there is no comparison.
That’s more a question of fact, not opinion, and it’s worth digging into it in more detail.
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