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Madame X (1929)
A link between silents and talkies
Since there have been ten film adaptations of Madame X, you might not be tempted to rent all of them for a comparison study. What can I say to get you to check out the 1929 version instead of all the others? If you can appreciate the lost art of silent movies, but you prefer talkies, this one will probably be your favorite. It's a very obvious link between the two types of movies; if it were the first talking picture, I'd believe it.
Directed by Lionel Barrymore, this could have been a silent movie with the insertion of a few title cards. Everyone uses broad gestures and huge facial expressions. In one scene, the maid opens the door, flings her arms back in shock, waits three seconds as she backs up and widens her eyes, then exclaims, "Madame!" Lewis Stone waves his arms in the air, and Ruth Chatterton's makeup can be seen in the back row.
Still, the acting is worth watching. If you don't know who Ruth Chatterton is, that's because she retired in 1938. Before Gladys George wowed everyone with her 1937 courtroom scene, Ruth Chatterton played the famous fallen woman, and played it beautifully. In the story, Ruth is married to the wealthy Lewis Stone, but she leaves him and their young son for another man. The man dies, and Ruth is left penniless and alone. She takes comfort in alcohol and crummy men, until finally, her past catches up to her. If you don't know how, it's time you rented one of the versions. If you're on the fence about silent movies, don't pick this one first. Check out Gladys George or Lana Turner, and only come back to this one after you've seen Dodsworth and the hidden talents of Ruth Chatterton.
The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932)
A bit campy, but fun for Halloween
The Mask of Fu Manchu is a bit campy, but if you've got a theme planned for Halloween of old horror movies, you might want to add it to the list alongside some other Boris Karloff classics. Boris stars, in heavy makeup, as Dr. Fu Manchu, who's on the lookout for Genghis Khan's lost treasure. His minions will do anything to find it, including steal it off of museum curators who tried to find it legitimately.
Lewis Stone is the head of the good guys, or if you're looking at it another way, the opposition team. Lawrence Grant, Jean Hersholt, and Charles Starrett try to find the treasure, but along the way, Lawrence gets kidnapped and held ransom. His daughter, Karen Morley, who's in love with Charles, gets involved in the adventure, and all three of the remaining try to rescue Lawrence and maintain the treasure.
Myrna Loy, in her early days, costars as Boris's daughter, and she's quite the villainess who enjoys power and violence. This one's not as scary as Frankenstein, but it's fun if that's your theme for the weekend. Where else will you be able to find Lewis Stone fighting his way through a pit of alligators, or Jean Hersholt strapped to a chair while giant spikes close in all around him? That's some pretty scary stuff for the soon-to-be Judge Hardy and Heidi's Grandfather!
Passion Flower (1930)
Charles Bickford is such a cutie!
I'm really not a Kay Francis fan. I find her very unappealing and extremely lacking in talent. As Passion Flower starts, it doesn't seem like Kay is the lead, but her part increases as the movie continues. Kay's cousin, Kay Johnson, is really the lead, since her character is more central to the story, but Kay Francis is still supposed to be the wildly attractive, irresistible one.
Kay Johnson comes from a wealthy family, but she falls in love with the poor chauffer, Charles Bickford. She gets cast out of her family when they marry, but they're too much in love to care. It's such an adorable beginning when they marry and get their first apartment. I've never seen Charlie in such a sweet, adorable role. They're both happy and in love, and they don't care about living in an attic with tiny rooms. As soon as they tell the landlady they'll take the room, they dig in their pockets to see how much money they have. After the first week's rent, they have ten dollars left in the whole world. "Now, I'll get a job," Charlie declares, opening the newspaper. It's so optimistic and sweet, as if they're gracing the world with their presences.
Then Kay Francis shows up and ruins everything. She pretends to be supportive of her cousin's choice, but she has an ulterior motive. The years pass, and the newlyweds struggle along with a low-paying job and two small children, and still Kay Francis-who's married to the wealthy, tolerant Lewis Stone-meddles. I know Charlie's a cutie-pie, with his brown curly hair and his gruff voice, but leave him alone! If you want to find out which Kay gets the guy, rent Passion Flower. You'll get to see Ray Milland in one of his first roles, as a drunken party guest who can't find his hat.
Great performance, a touching story
As much as I've criticized Greta Garbo in the past, I'm mature enough to admit when she looks pretty and gives a good acting performance. In Camille, she looks beautiful and earned both Rag and Oscar nominations for her role as the famed literary prostitute. You youngsters might not recognize the title, but if the age-old plot of a rich man offering a low-class woman money to stay away from his son sounds familiar, it's from Camille. You might have seen Moulin Rouge, which was very, very loosely based on the classic story, but trust me, Greta Garbo came before Nicole Kidman.
Set in the 1800s, Greta stars as a well-to-do courtesan. Robert Taylor, one of the biggest heartthrobs at the time, is wealthy and classy and has a great future ahead of him. Unfortunately, he falls head over heels for Greta and becomes her latest in a long line of sugar daddies. He sends her camellia corsages, and in one of the most famous flaws, she smells the bouquet and smiles. Camelias have no fragrance, and they wilt quickly, so any corsage attached at the beginning of the evening would look terrible after a few hours. But back to the plot:
Robert's father Lionel Barrymore doesn't approve of the match, and he comes to Greta with the famous bribe. If you don't know the story, I won't spoil what happens later, but it does have a pretty well-known storyline. Keep in mind this is a tragedy. The hooker with a heart of gold is a classic character in movies, but so is the theme of the wages of sin.
Their Own Desire (1929)
Another solid Norma Shearer performance
Their Own Desire is quite a melodrama, so be sure to strap on your 1929 goggles securely before watching it. You've got to keep in mind that talkies were new, otherwise you'll never get past the overacting. Women will cover their mouths, wide-eyed, as they exclaim, "What shall I do?" There are no title cards, but there might as well be.
Norma Shearer stars as a daughter caught in the middle of her parents' divorce. Her father, Lewis Stone, has left her mother, Belle Bennett, for another woman: Helene Millard. Belle is distraught and attempts suicide, and Norma takes her side. It's very hard on her, since she and her dad used to be bosom buddies. While recuperating, Norma meets a handsome young man, Robert Montgomery, and falls in love. Just as they become engaged, they find out who each other's parents are. Bob is Helene's son!
I never used to like Norma Shearer. I couldn't see her talent and often cringed while watching her overact. Then I saw her in Marie Antoinette, and everything changed. Most early silver screen movies will fall into two categories: movies about men and movies about women. In the movies about women, most of the plots revolve around fallen women, tramps, prostitutes, or women forced into easy virtue against their will. It's easy to understand why their roles were limited; back in the day, many women didn't work, and since the main goal was to make a respectable marriage, the worst thing that could happen to her-and therefore the juiciest plot for a movie script-would be if she took to the streets and lost her decency. Norma Shearer didn't make those movies. She made regular old dramas, and when she put on the tears, you really felt it. She was nominated for an Academy Award for Their Own Desire, and I understand why. Check her out in this movie, Strange Interlude or Marie Antoinette to see her really shine-and she doesn't take to the streets!
Queen Christina (1933)
Steamy but boring
I wonder how much of Queen Christina would have made it past the censors had it been released one year later under the watchful eye of the Hays Code. There are some pretty steamy bedroom scenes between Greta Garbo and John Gilbert that communicate a great deal, even by today's standards. Greta, the queen of Sweden, often traverses the countryside dressed as a man, since she was raised as a boy by her father. She hunts, wears pants, wears her hair short, has a male valet-played by the sweet C. Aubrey Smith-and refuses to marry. "I'm going to die a bachelor!" she proclaims, correcting her aide who asked if she wanted to become an old maid. When she spends the night at an inn, she's assumed to be a man, and John Gilbert is asked to bunk up with her because all the other rooms are full. As they undress to get ready for bed, Greta's gender is revealed. They spend the night together, and in the morning, the innkeeper enters the room and observes the curtains drawn on the four-poster bed. John Gilbert calls out that neither of them will be coming downstairs for breakfast but instead want it served up in their room. The innkeeper looks uncomfortable but obeys and leaves them alone.
For those of you who don't know about the Hays Code, that scene was a really big deal. Men and women would never be shown to have spent the night together in that way, with their voices emanating from behind the curtains of a bed. Twin beds were preferable, and at least one person's feet had to be seen touching the floor, if one of them was lying down. Queen Christina was a very dirty movie for 1933. Following their breakfast in bed, John lounges by the fireplace and Greta returns to bed, hugging her pillow and very obviously reminiscing about their night together. She's transformed, and for the rest of the movie, she wears gowns and acts as feminine as she can.
While most of you probably want to hop right out and rent this movie for your next date night, a word of caution: the rest of the movie is incredibly boring. Greta Garbo's famous "face that launched a thousand ships" scene is in this movie, but when she's carrying out her royal duties and conversing with her advisors, Lewis Stone, Reginald Owen, and Ian Keith, you'll struggle to stay awake. Her acting chops are not shown off in this movie, as she vacillates from overdramatic antics leftover from her silent movies to stern, boring, royal monologues. Unless you really, really love her, you'll probably be bored to tears.
The Prisoner of Zenda (1952)
The worst version
I've seen three versions of The Prisoner of Zenda, and the 1952 version is by far my least favorite. It's a wonderful, adventurous story that has to be botched terribly to not be enjoyable, and miraculously enough, this version succeeds. I'm really not a Stewart Granger fan, and his performance in the dual role is lackluster. Deborah Kerr doesn't have much opportunity to shine in the throwaway part of Princess Flavia, but she also doesn't add anything to the movie. James Mason is unimaginatively cast as the villain, which is a shame because he could have easily been the hero if Hollywood hadn't typecast him. How can you manage to make a story about a kidnapped king and a lookalike impersonator so boring? If you really care to know, rent this version. If you want to see the best version, check out Ronald Colman from 1937, or if you like silent movies, check out the 1922 impressive epic.
The cutest part of the movie is the appearance of Lewis Stone as the cardinal. It's a small part, but it's a very fitting last role for him. Thirty years earlier, he starred as both leads in the silent film version of The Prisoner of Zenda, after having tackled the role on the stage. It's been a long thirty years for Lew, so you won't see him sword fighting or running backwards up the castle's staircase, but it's a very nice way for his fans to say goodbye.
The Prisoner of Zenda (1922)
Very impressive for 1922
Can you imagine the perpetually tired Lewis Stone in The Prisoner of Zenda? He has to play the senior advisor to the king, right? He's far too old and patriarchal to play the lead. . . So one would think. Well, in 1922, Lew was neither old, fatherly, nor tired. He played the dual leads, and he was given a brown wig! Full of energy, wonderful expressions to communicate to the audience without words, and the ability to both perform stunts and woo a fair maiden, Lew takes charge and acts like a leading man.
If you've never seen any of the movie versions or read the book, the story is very exciting. Just before a king's coronation, his evil brother plans to drug and kidnap him so that he can't be crowned the king. However, the king's faithful aides find a lookalike, completely by accident, and get him to impersonate the king during the coronation! If you've seen the modern-day comedy Dave, starring Kevin Kline, you'll have a basic understanding of the story.
I've seen three versions of this movie, and while the 1937 version is the best, this one is extremely impressive. It's amazing to see what Hollywood was capable of in 1922: the costumes, the sets, the elaborate action scenes with moats, drawbridges, and swordfights. At almost two hours, this is a lengthy silent movie, and there are quite a lot of title cards for you to read, but if you know the story, you won't be lost. Those who don't like silent movies will be incredibly bored, but if you like the change of pace and different way of storytelling, this is one worth watching, if only to see what Lewis Stone looks like with brown hair. It doesn't feel like it was made so early in the decade; if it had a 1928 timestamp on it, I'd believe it.
Night Into Morning (1951)
Much better than 'The Lost Weekend'
If you've read my reviews, you'll know I once nicknamed Ray Milland "Ray Mi-bland" and it stuck. I feel a little sorry for teasing him, since I've seen more of his movies and been exposed to more of his talent. He's a two-time Rag Award nominee now, and he earned his second nomination for his excellent performance in Night Into Morning.
In this heavy drama, Ray leans on the crutch of alcohol to drown his sorrows. Yes, he did that in The Lost Weekend, but unlike his Oscar-winning performance-for which he wasn't nominated for a Rag-in this movie, he has a very good reason for doing it. He starts the movie a happy man with a wife, son, house in the suburbs, and an enjoyable job as an English professor at the local college. There's a freak accident and the furnace in his house explodes, and his wife and son are killed. Let the poor man have a drink or two, for crying out loud!
There are so many great scenes in this movie, including the scene of the accident. Ray is giving a lecture on Shakespeare, and in the background, there's an unusual noise. Shortly afterwards, police sirens interrupt his speech, and then his colleague Nancy Davis bursts into his classroom with the terrible news.
In another touching scene, Ray offers his son's bicycle to a neighbor boy. He's trying to be calm and friendly, but the interaction is too much for him to handle and he explodes, "You can use it. You're alive! Go ahead, take it!" Ray continually bottles his emotions, but when he finally releases them, he'll have you reaching for the Kleenex box over and over again. Trust me, The Lost Weekend was merely a warm-up.
Why break up with Lewis Stone?
Had the romance in Romance been between Greta Garbo and Lewis Stone, it would have been a great movie. Unfortunately, Greta falls in love with Gavin Gordon and leaves her boyfriend Lew out in the cold. It makes absolutely no sense, and the entire running time, I kept hoping she'd come to her senses. She has a boyfriend who's exceedingly wealthy, well-dressed, well-groomed, accepting of her past, generous, unselfish to a fault, sweet, even-tempered, and supportive of her career-and she tosses him aside for a poor minister with unkempt hair and no fashion sense, who's emotional, judgmental, critical, dishonest, pushy, and not self-aware. What's wrong with her? "I'll hear you singing in my heart forever," Lew says as he kisses her palm. How can she let him walk out the door?
At the start of the movie, when Greta and Gavin first sense the sparks flying between them, Lew tries to bow out graciously. He sits Greta down, tells her he's feeling his age, and rattles off a list of imaginary ailments. He encourages her to leave him and pursue a relationship with Gavin, but cautions her not to reveal her colored past, since it's obvious Gavin won't accept her as she is. If it's so obvious he won't love her anymore if he learns she's had a string of rich sugar daddies in her past, why is it good for either of them to enter into a relationship based on deceit? Greta should stay with Lew, who knows, accepts, and loves her. If you agree, don't rent this one. Stick with The Painted Veil if you're a Greta fan, or The Office Wife if you like Lew in the romantic role.
The Office Wife (1930)
Such a cute pre-Code romance
It's such a wonderful premise, but so incredibly dated, any feminist of today would probably vomit before the running time of The Office Wife was finished. The idea of the film is that any secretary to a powerful businessman can completely control him and become more essential to him than his wife at home. Since it's every woman's goal to bring a rich man to his knees and get him to marry her so she no longer has to work, it's no wonder every secretary in the movie is intent on seducing her boss.
Lewis Stone is the featured dapper businessman who announces to his dowdy secretary at the start of the film that he's getting married. She faints on the spot and resigns, since she's been in love with him for years. A pretty new secretary is hired, Dorothy Mackaill, and she makes it her mission to become Lew's office wife and steal him away from his beautiful, new bride. Dorothy is so calculating and insincere, but it's so much fun to watch her. She moves furniture around the office in the morning so her knees will be in the best light during dictation, memorizes his habits and orders his special lunches, and has her boyfriend pick her up from the office so Lew knows she's in demand.
"I wonder why I didn't think of this before," Lew muses as they sit down to eat together. Dorothy smiles sweetly, and the audience chuckles alongside her, knowing her elaborate plan is about to pay off. The next scene shows them "working" at the poolside. As much of a set-up as the romance is, it's actually really cute to see them falling in love. Lew didn't often get to play romantic leads, and it's really fun to see him smiling, blushing, holding hands, and acting his age-51 at the time.
This is a pre-Code romantic comedy, full of risqué jokes and dialogue that couldn't have been included four years later. You'll find two partially nude scenes, one with Lew's wife, Natalie Moorhead, and one with Joan Blondell in the bathtub; and a lesbian character who wears tuxedos and smokes cigars. In one scene, Natalie asks her husband if he has any strength left-while they're in the bedroom and she's unzipping her dress. I loved this movie, so if you think you can put on your 1930 goggles and enjoy it, give it a chance.
A Woman of Affairs (1928)
Entertaining and melodramatic
I'd seen the remake Outcast Lady before I rented the original silent version A Woman of Affairs. In both stories, the plot is heavily censored from the novel, but if you don't know what's been cut it still seems entertaining and complex.
In this cast, Greta Garbo is in love with her childhood friend, John Gilbert, but his father doesn't approve. When he sends his son away for a years-long business trip, Greta retaliates by marrying her brother's best friend, Johnny Mack Brown. On their wedding night, Johnny gets upset and commits suicide, but since Greta refuses to tell anyone why he was so upset, everyone assumes it was her fault. Her brother, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., in particular, blames her and accuses her of confessing sinful secrets to Johnny that made him rather die than face a life with her. Greta is banished, and Doug Jr. drinks to drown his sorrows. Only one man continually stands up for her, her pal Lewis Stone, who might harbor more than friendship in his heart.
In both versions, the woman's character doesn't really make sense. You can get past her marrying a man she doesn't love because she believes the man she does love has forgotten her, but accepting a banishment and terrible reputation when a simple explanation could have cleared things up doesn't make much sense. And after such a terrible scandal, for which she is blamed, it hardly makes sense to turn into a hussy. Why is that the answer to her problems? The rest of it is a good old-fashioned melodrama, so if you like soapy plots like that, you'll probably like to see one of the versions. Having seen both, I actually prefer the silent movie to the talkie. The story is simple and doesn't need a lot of dialogue, and since it's so over-the-top, it makes sense to have over-the-top acting to go along with it.
You Can't Buy Everything (1934)
Strong May Robson performance
May Robson stars as an ambitious, vengeful woman in You Can't Buy Everything. She's a widow and a single mother, and she scrimps and saves every penny so her son can be a wealthy gentleman when he grows up. Deep inside, she has a terrible heartache from before she was married. Lewis Stone broke their engagement and left her hurt and humiliated, so whenever their paths cross, she does everything she can to avoid him. "I hoped I'd live the rest of my life without having to speak to you again," she hisses after pulling all her money out of the bank of which he's just been made president.
May's son grows up, and of course, he falls in love with the one woman that his mother wouldn't approve of: Lew's daughter. Such a classic move; children find their parents' Achille's Heel and make sure to wound them. This movie is really May's show, so if you're a fan of hers, you'll probably like it, and vice versa. I've only seen her in a couple of movies, like Lady for a Day, but I was really impressed with her in this one. She's very convincing of a mother who loves her son above all else. As a bonus, if you rent this one: keep your eyes open and you'll catch a glimpse of a very young, pre-discovered Walter Brennan as a train conductor.
Anna Christie (1930)
What's the big deal?
The posters read "Garbo Talks!" to publicize the remake of Greta Garbo's silent film Anna Christie and the debut of her unusual speaking voice to her devoted public. Her famous first words as she staggers into a dive bar, bedraggled and already drunk: "Give me a whiskey and a ginger ale on the side, and don't be stingy, baby." I'm sure you can catch a clip of those few seconds and save yourself the rest of the ninety minutes. It's incredibly boring, and her acting leaves much to be desired. Her accent is so thick, it's nearly impossible to understand her. (She says "yust" instead of "just".) It's pretty incredible that audiences forgave her low, manly, unintelligible voice but couldn't forgive Buster Keaton's gravely one.
If you really love Greta, you'll probably want to see her talking debut. I'm not her biggest fan, so I found this movie incredibly boring. For the first fifteen minutes, Marie Dressler and George Marion get drunk in a bar and talk about George's daughter expecting to arrive. For the next fifteen minutes, Greta and Marie get drunk in the same bar and talk about Greta looking forward to meeting her father. For the next fifteen minutes, Greta and George get drunk in the same bar and talk about how they'll live from then on. Finally, when Greta meets the gruff, seafaring Charles Bickford, the plot gets going. Charles thinks she's a lady worthy of marriage, and Greta knows she's a loose, low-class woman with a shady past. Since she made so many other movies with that exact same romantic conflict, you can rent another movie to see one of better quality and better acting.
DLM Warning: If you suffer from vertigo or dizzy spells, like my mom does, this movie might not be your friend. When Greta and Charles go to the carnival, there are several things that will make you sick, including a roller coaster, merry-go-rounds, and strange angles during the side games. Also when Greta goes on her dad's boat, the camera bobs from side to side. In other words, "Don't Look, Mom!"
Mata Hari (1931)
Raunchy, yes, but badly acted and boring
You've probably heard how racy Mata Hari is, especially given the time period, but if you try to watch it, you won't be able to get your hands on the original copy. The original is full of nudity, exotic dancing, and sex scenes, but the re-release after the Hays Code cut all those naughty bits for the post-1934 public. However, this 1931 Garbo vehicle was so much nastier than I'd anticipated-even with all that cut out! Garbo gives a striptease as her entrance leaving her practically naked and gyrating against an 8-handed Durga statue. There's an abrupt cut during the dance, censoring the rest of it, but it was certainly nasty enough to explain why Garbo was popular in the 1930s. I don't think her accent or her talent-or even her figure by today's standards-mattered back then. The fact that she was showing skin and disrespecting herself was enough to sell tickets.
I don't know if there's anyone out there who doesn't know Mata Hari was a famous historical spy, but if there is, the mystery gets spoiled pretty early on in the movie. Greta Garbo is shown extracting and exchanging military secrets from General Lionel Barrymore and giving them over to her boss, Lewis Stone. When a young soldier Roman Novarro catches her eye, she falls in love and jeopardizes her future. The love story is really absurd and would only make sense to audiences who are used to the melodrama of silent movies. Greta's lousy performance is matched by her costars. If you didn't know Roman was a popular silent star, you'd never guess the young man in this movie had a career at all. Perhaps Lionel couldn't stand Greta, or he wanted the movie to flop at the box office, but he gives the worst performance of his career. If this was the first movie you'd ever seen him in, you'd think he was a terrible actor, not one of the greatest to grace the silver screen.
You might be tempted to rent this naughty old movie, but I have a feeling you'll get really bored. Keep your remote handy and have a back-up ready in case you can't take it anymore. Try Red-Headed Woman or Too Late for Tears for a much better time with a bad girl.
Another Garbo-is-promiscuous movie
Greta Garbo stars once again as a promiscuous woman with too many lovers in 1931's Inspiration. If you wonder why she was so popular in the early 1930s, it's because she was always cast as sex symbols with men falling at her feet. Check her out in Mata Hari, As You Desire Me, Camille, Susan Lennox, or this one. She starts Inspiration in a gorgeous revealing party guest as a crowd of her lovers give a champagne toast to her beauty. Bored, she wanders off in search of someone knew and finds the handsome Robert Montgomery. "I'm just a nice young woman. Not too young. And not too nice," Greta grins as they share a carriage ride back to Bob's apartment.
It's pretty obvious that Greta doesn't deserve her new beau, but she hopes their new love will be more powerful than her past reputation. Will her friends Lewis Stone and Marjorie Rambeau blow her cover and tell Bob how many boyfriends she had before him, and what type of men they were? Or will true love conquer all and let a loose, artsy woman have a chance at real happiness with the right guy? What I never understand about these movies is the lack of sympathy for the man's perspective. The audience is supposed to feel so sorry for the woman with a sordid past, who's repeatedly lied to trick her new boyfriend into thinking she's a completely different person than she is, and when the new boyfriend finds out and gets mad, the audience is supposed to think of him as heartless and intolerant. If the roles were reversed, audiences would think she was a wronged woman who shouldn't forgive the deceit and false image.
DLM Warning: If you suffer from vertigo or dizzy spells, like my mom does, this movie might not be your friend. About ten minutes in, after Greta and Robert take the carriage ride, the camera switches to first-person as a man walks through a house, and that will make you sick. In other words, "Don't Look, Mom!"
The Trial of Mary Dugan (1929)
The 1941 remake is so much better
In The Trial of Mary Dugan, Norma Shearer introduces for the first time her voice to audiences who adored her in silent movies. It's a heavy drama about a wronged woman on trial for murdering her married lover, and while it's a prime part for any actress of the time period, it's not a very good movie. It's very obvious this is a movie made in the transition from silent films to talkies. Some actors flub their lines, the set is very simple, and the camera angles are unimaginative. Norma doesn't even speak for a good chunk of the movie, but instead gives exaggerated expressions in close ups. When she is given the opportunity to speak, she's pretty awful. She either screams, rushes her words, or covers her mouth in mock-horror. I think she needed a year or two to get used to the microphone.
This is also very obviously a pre-Code drama, with prostitution at the forefront of many scenes. There's an incredibly unrealistic interrogation with the district attorney, H.B. Warner, attacking Norma Shearer about her relationships with her sugar daddies. The line of questioning would have been stopped in real life, and objections of irrelevancy would have raised constantly, but it's all a dramatic show to make the audience feel for Norma-and also to shame women into not becoming mistresses. If you take money and an apartment in exchange for other favors, you might wind up on trial airing every single bit of dirty laundry from every single man you've ever seen! After 1934, the entire line of questioning wouldn't have been allowed, and neither would the words "naked" and "go to bed". However, in exchange for the racy dialogue and subject matter, the 1941 remake gives audiences a better story and better acting. I saw the remake first and found it very entertaining, with passionate performances by Robert Young and Laraine Day. I was excited to see Lewis Stone in Robert Young's role, but his part wasn't even present in the original. There are still two lawyers defending the accused, but the first is her hired attorney-portrayed by Lew-and the second is her brother. To see her defended by her boyfriend, you'll have to rent the remake-which I recommend you do anyway.
DLM Warning: If you suffer from vertigo or dizzy spells, like my mom does, this movie might not be your friend. When Norma enters the courtroom in the beginning, the camera puts on a kaleidoscope effect for about 30 seconds, and that will make you sick. In other words, "Don't Look, Mom!"
Three Godfathers (1936)
Much sadder version than 1948
Remember that adorable movie where John Wayne takes care of a baby in the middle of the desert? Did you know that the 1948 Three Godfathers is a remake? Did you know that the 1936 version is also a remake? Just how many versions are there? Three Godfathers has been filmed in 1916, 1919, 1930, 1936, and 1948. This has got to be an incredible story for Hollywood to keep remaking it.
Like A Star Is Born, which has also received far too many Hollywood remakes, Three Godfathers is a very simple story. Three outlaws find a dying mother with a newborn baby in the desert, and their humanity appears as they care for the child. Each version has its own take on the characters, and some use certain aspects of the plot that others omit, but it's the same basic principle: even bad guys have hearts.
I saw the 1948 version first, and while I maintain it's the best, I was unprepared that it was the lightest version, as it's quite sad. I found out the hard way that the other versions are even sadder! Depending on how much you like the cast of which version you rent, you might find yourself reaching for the Kleenex box.
In the 1936 version, the three outlaws are Chester Morris, Lewis Stone, and Walter Brennan. The introduction is very long, as the three bank robbers infiltrate a town, stake out the bank, and finally leave in a hail of gunfire. Chester is the evil leader of the group, and dressed all in black, he rattles off poisonous one-liners with every breath. Lew and Walter are the nice ones, and when they finally come across the orphaned baby in the desert, they want to take care of it. Chester suggests putting the kid out of his misery, and Lew is forced to buy the baby's share of drinking water with his share of the bank loot. Throughout the entire movie, Chester is an irredeemable villain who hates the baby. It's really impossible to like him. Lew is clearly the nice one, but his elegance is a bit of out of place in the desert. Walter is lovably dumb, but if you think you might get attached to either one of them, you might not want to rent this version. Or you can go ahead, but bring your Kleenexes. And also make allowances for a very old movie that feels like it might have been the first talking picture. This doesn't feel like it was made the same year as The Charge of the Light Brigade or San Francisco.
The Man Who Cried Wolf (1937)
Intriguing old thriller
It's unfortunate that The Man Who Cried Wolf hasn't been remastered, as it could easily have been a classic thriller known to modern audiences the way Strangers on a Train is. This forgotten classic is riveting and has likable characters you care about. An actor confesses to murders, knowing he'll be discovered innocent and thought of as a joke by the police force. What's his point? He's planning on committing a murder in the future, and he wants the police to scratch him off the suspect list immediately. Isn't that brilliant?
The tour-de-force role is eaten up by Lewis Stone, the man soon to be known as the wise, calm Judge Hardy who never has an emotional outburst. This is a fantastic, meaty change of pace for Lew, so if you only think of him as tired and resigned, you've got to check this one out. You might think he's a bit old to take on a leading role and carry the entire movie, but keep in mind he' had gray hair ever since he was twenty, so his locks are more a statement of elegance than age. This is a very enjoyable old movie, with lots of dramatic intrigue, a very fitting title, and a compelling story with twists and turns. Rent it during a rainy afternoon! You'll also get to see a pre-hick Marjorie Main. This was one of her first speaking roles, and she plays a wealthy, corrupt snob, the exact opposite of how she was throughout the rest of her career!
DLM Warning: If you suffer from vertigo or dizzy spells, like my mom does, this movie might not be your friend. About 5 minutes before the end, there's a montage and the camera swirls a bit; that will make you sick. In other words, "Don't Look, Mom!"
The Hoodlum Saint (1946)
Powell as the bad guy
Anyone in the mood to see William Powell as a bad guy? If your answer is no, which makes sense since he usually plays fun, classy guys, you're going to want to steer clear of The Hoodlum Saint. He plays an unscrupulous cad who treats the women in his wife, Esther Williams and Angela Lansbury, without respect, and who values money above all things.
After WWI, Bill comes home to find his newspaper job is obsolete. He crashes a wedding and impersonates a wealthy man to get close to another wealthy man to get a job, and in the process he kisses Esther without permission or an introduction, merely to distract the bouncer from throwing him out. She tells him he's not behaving respectfully, but it doesn't matter to him. Soon, he rises to the top of the food chain, while stringing along nightclub singer Angie. Speaking of her, the studio dubbed Angela's singing voice! It doesn't make sense, since she later made her greatest fame on the stage.
I didn't find the protagonist likable in this one. I enjoyed seeing his group of "hoodlum" friends, since they seemed to be the only characters capable of knocking sense into him and reminding him of human emotions. James Gleason always turns in a solid performance, and you'll also see Frank McHugh and Slim Summerville.
Sweet, endearing romance
If you like seeing Jean Harlow with a heart of gold, rent Suzy for an exciting, romantic evening. If you like her being the bad girl, rent Red Dust or Red-Headed Woman instead tonight. In Suzy, she's very sweet and endearing.
While in London, American chorus girl Jean Harlow gets the same idea she got in The Girl from Missouri: hook a rich man into marrying her. She sets her sights on Franchot Tone, her love interest from The Girl from Missouri, after she sees him driving a Rolls Royce. The only trouble is that he's merely the chauffer, and he hasn't a penny to his name! They fall in love anyway, but before they can enjoy their sweet marital bliss, Franchot is shot and Jean is framed for his murder.
Jean flees and winds up in a cabaret during an air raid. The tense romanticism of the situation distracts her from her grief, and she falls in love with Cary Grant, a soldier. When they get married and Cary goes off to war, Jean's left alone with his mistrustful father, Lewis Stone, while they both worry about his safety. In a particularly touching scene, Jean reads aloud devoted letters Cary has sent his father, but the audience sees the pages she reads from are blank. At first, Lew thinks she's a gold digger, but when she takes such good care of him and the household, he softens. There are many sweet scenes in this movie, which is why it's such a treasure and staple in Jean's brief career. Franchot's proposal to Jean early in the movie is very cute, and their chemistry is so adorable, it seems impossible to believe he was married to someone else at the time! Another memorable moment is Jean's song "Did I Remember?" that Cary humiliates himself by reprising. It was funny at the time, but after Jean's death, Cary reportedly broke down during a later screening of the film during their duet.
Jean and Franchot made four movies together, and while The Girl from Missouri is my favorite, they have the greatest chemistry in Suzy. Check out this sentimental romantic drama, and bring your Kleenexes!
Public Hero Number 1 (1935)
Don't read anything, just let the plot unfold
I wasn't sure what to expect from Public Hero Number 1, since the plot synopsis I'd read online wasn't very clear. Turns out, I was really glad I didn't learn too much, since the plot was so intriguing and fast-moving.
Chester Morris stars as a prisoner who doesn't like to be contained. He starts a riot, loses his temper, and tries to cozy up to a notorious gangster Joseph Calleia. How is prison warden Lewis Stone going to handle him? Believe it or not, Chester's big secret gets revealed pretty early on, but since it's so much fun to see it as it plays out, I won't even tell you that much of the plot. All you need to know is that he's hiding something, and this part is a pretty big tour-de-force for the 1930s actor. He only had about ten years in the spotlight, so if you like him, be sure and check this movie out.
Along the way, Chester and Joseph escape from prison and try to escape the cops. Jean Arthur, who's hiding a secret of her own, feels an instant connection to Chester, but with all the deception, will they find a happy ending? Or is this drama, with Lionel Barrymore as a drunken, disreputable doctor in the supporting cast, too much of a drama for a normal romance? You'll have to rent it, which I suggest you do during the next rainy afternoon, to find out.
The Son-Daughter (1932)
More white-washing in early Hollywood
Since no one in the cast of The Son-Daughter is Chinese, it's easy to imagine the story being transported to a different culture and environment. The basic story still works, so I don't know why they made everyone pretend to be Chinese in the first place. A young couple is in love, but because of propriety, respect for their families, and a duty to problems greater to their own leads them to be separated as the girl is married off to a man she doesn't love. This is not a uniquely Chinese story, but Helen Hayes, Roman Novarro, Lewis Stone, Ralph Morgan, and H.B. Warner were all made up in costumes, wigs, and make up and told to act in stereotypical facial and body expressions.
The basic story isn't bad, but since the "white-washing" of early Hollywood is sometimes pretty painful to watch, this won't be a classic you'll want to watch over and over again. Die-hard Helen Hayes fans will want to watch it, but until the very end climax, she isn't given much opportunity to shine. It's a pretty chilling ending, though, so be prepared. For a similar story about familial duty with Helen deferring to her dad Lewis Stone, check out Vanessa, Her Love Story if you want to see her without so much makeup.
Vanessa, Her Love Story (1935)
Soapy, romantic melodrama
Helen Hayes and Robert Montgomery are two adorable people in love in the very old-fashioned melodrama Vanessa, Her Love Story. They're young and impulsive and they still believe in love-at least at the beginning of the movie. The beginning is wonderful, as they fall in love and become engaged. Then the drama shows up and turns it into a very heavy movie.
The night before their wedding, there's a fire in Helen's house. She's asleep and groggy, so Bob runs into the burning building and rescues her. He's too late to drag Helen's dad, Lewis Stone, out of the house, and Helen calls off the wedding. She vows to hate him forever, and while drowning his sorrows, Bob falls prey to a scheming barmaid and her father, Donald Crisp. That's not even half of the drama packed into this 75-minute movie, so if that sounds good to you, you'll want to rent this on a rainy afternoon. If you liked Splendor in the Grass, this movie is right up your alley. I'll watch anything with a young, handsome Robert Montgomery in it, so I was very entertained. I've seen thousands of old movies, so an overdose of melodrama doesn't bother me, but if you're not prepared for it, you'll find yourself saying, "Anything else?" halfway through. You'll also get a healthy dose of Helen Hayes, who gives a classically dramatic performance. You can imagine her hitting the back row of a theater, but since the story is so over-the-top, she doesn't really feel out of place.
The White Sister (1933)
Dramatic Helen Hayes vehicle
The opening sequence of The White Sister is worth watching, if only to appreciate the filmmaking technology in 1933. There's a crowded, joyous festival in the town square, and it's filmed with inventive camera angles and movements that make you think you're watching a movie ten years ahead of its time. I wasn't the biggest fan of the romance, but the beginning was very entertaining.
Onto the plot: Helen Hayes is engaged to a man she doesn't love. Her father, Prince Lewis Stone-it seems like he's always playing her father, doesn't it?-approves of the match, but she longs for adventure and excitement. She's drawn to the boisterous festival, and during the commotion, she catches a glimpse of Clark Gable and immediately falls in love. They start meeting in secret until she gets bold enough to tell her father she wants to call off her engagement. How does Lew react? If you've seen his movies, you know he often doesn't make it to the end, and this one's no exception. Just as in Vanessa, Her Love Story, he dies, and Helen puts her grief ahead of her romantic feelings. There's a lot more drama included in this movie-it is a Helen Hayes picture after all-so if you like her, you might want to check this out. I liked Vanessa better, but you can rent both and see which one you prefer. In The White Sister, I never felt she loved Clark Gable enough to do what she does later on in the movie. No spoilers; if you're intrigued, rent it!