Behind Bars: The Big House (1930)

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Any movie in which a hardened inmate slams his tin cup against a cafeteria table and agitates for revolt can trace its roots back to The Big House, the film that popularized the prison riot movie. A sensation in 1930, it paired slam-bang action with a social conscience to attract both audiences and Academy voters. The Oscar-winning script by Frances Marion (the first woman to win the “Writing” award), railed against overpopulation in the unnamed jail, which teems with resentments and untapped violence. Hit and run society boy Kent (Robert Montgomery) is thrown into a cell with machine gun murderer Butch (Wallace Beery) and prolific thief Morgan (Chester Morris). Butch is scheming an escape, Morgan is waiting for parole, and Kent is trying to stay alive, and might snitch on his roommates to insure it. It was up and coming director George W. Hill’s first sound feature, after the huge silent success of Tell it to the Marines (1926), and it features bold off-screen sonic experiments as well as awkwardly static scenes of dialogue exposition. It ends in an overwhelming fusillade of gunfire, an aural assault that might make Michael Mann blush, that netted it the Best Sound Recording Oscar.

The Warner Archive has released The Big House in a fascinating two-disc set, featuring Hill’s English language feature, as well as two foreign-language versions (French and Spanish) that were shot for international release (it was also made in German, but that variant is not included). In order to take advantage of the booming worldwide market, studios would hire completely different casts and crews to shoot the script in multiple languages, using the existing sets, and sometimes even the shot lists, of the English original. The director of the French version of The Big House was Paul Fejos, the restless Hungarian-American innovator who made the miraculous proto-neo-realist Lonesome (1928) at Universal, and who was becoming increasingly disillusioned with the film business. He would eventually retire from movies and divert his interest in people to becoming the president for the Wenner-Grenn Foundation for Anthropological Research. Fejos’ Big House shows few of his visual gifts, as he was tasked with rushing through dialogue scenes, while the more elaborate tracking shots were simply imported from the English version. In many ways it’s even stuffier than George Hill’s Big House, a document of Fejos giving up on Hollywood. What charm the Fejos version does have derives from Charles Boyer, who plays Morgan in the French version, adding a smooth sophistication to the character whom Chester Morris plays as a simple street tough.

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Remembering Jeanne Eagels

jeanneposterThroughout the month of February, TCM’s 31 Days of Oscar has offered a variety of fan favorites and familiar classics. On Thursday morning, February 20, a lesser-known Oscar-related gem airs at 6:15am. The Letter stars Jeanne Eagels in the first film adaptation of Somerset Maugham’s story. The 1929 drama lacks the star power of the well-crafted remake from 1940, which featured Bette Davis in her prime, but this version has film history on its side. The Letter represents Eagels’ only surviving sound film, and therefore the only record of the acting style that made her a Broadway legend during the 1920s. And, for those intrigued by Oscar trivia, Eagels is the first performer to be posthumously nominated for an Academy Award. While six actors have been posthumously nominated, including James Dean (twice), Spencer Tracy, Peter Finch, Ralph Richardson, Massimo Troisi, and Heath Ledger, Eagels is the only actress to be nominated after death.

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January 18, 2014
David Kalat
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What, No “What, No Beer?”

This coming Wednesday at 6 am Eastern, TCM is running What, No Beer?    It is just about as unloved as a movie can be.  If all the hatred and invective thrown at this 65 minute-long 1933 comedy were somehow bottled up and concentrated, it could power a small city.  (And ladies and gentlemen, that’s my modest proposal to solve the energy crisis—wean us off foreign oil and start using movie criticism as an alternative fuel source).

In the past  I have used this forum to defend Buster Keaton’s MGM talkies—but even I sniffed at What, No Beer?  2014 is a new year, though, and with the new year comes the possibility of redemption and renewal for all things.  I mean, if we can find détente with Iran, then certainly we can find a way to rehabilitate What, No Beer?

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KEYWORDS: Buster Keaton, Jimmy Durante, What No Beer?
COMMENTS: 11
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Opposite Directions: Going Hollywood (1933)

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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.

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To Wed or Not To Wed: Illicit (1931) and Ex-Lady (1933)

Illicit00006gene_raymond-bette_davis-ex_lady1Today’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.

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Meet Cary Grant

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.

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Modern Love

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.

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Meet Charley Chase

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.

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Warren William: “[He] “Was an Old Man Even When He Was a Young Man.”

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.

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The $30,000 Question

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.

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