1930s

Dancing Co-Ed (1939)

Dancing Co-Ed 1939Freddie and Toddie Tobin are one of the most popular dancing duos working and are about to start making a new movie together, but when news breaks that Toddie is pregnant, they need to find someone to take her place in their new film. The studio moguls decide that instead of getting another big-name star to take Toddie’s place, they should cast an unknown and hold a nationwide contest for college students to find her replacement. But to make sure they’re choosing someone who is up to the demands of working with a dancer like Freddie, they choose a real dancer named Patty Marlow (Lana Turner) and enroll her in college so she can “win” the contest.

Patty isn’t too happy about the prospect of going back to school and since she isn’t all that educated to begin with, the studio’s press agent gets his secretary Eve (Ann Rutherford) to take her entrance exams for her and pays for her to go back to school, too. While at school, she ends up falling in love with Pug Braddock (Richard Carlson), who works for the school paper. Much to her surprise, she also starts to really like journalism, too. Pug is skeptical about this big nationwide contest and wants to do an expose about it. Patty tries to continue with the contest, while trying to convince Pug she’s on the level at the same time. Of course, it isn’t long before he finds out the truth, but everything works out in the end.

Some movies don’t aspire to be anything more than lighthearted fun and that’s exactly what Dancing Co-Ed does. Fluffy, formulaic, nonsense plot? Absolutely! But is it fun to watch? Oh, yeah! I’ve spent all day not feeling very well and this was exactly the sort of movie I needed to lift my spirits a little bit. Not only does it have a very young Lana Turner, still pretty early in her career at this point and very beautiful and charming, it has a really great supporting cast with people like Ann Rutherford, Roscoe Karns, and Monty Woolley, who plays one of Patty’s professors. It’s simply a really cute movie. Nothing Earth shattering, but sometimes you just need something fun and cute and Dancing Co-Ed fits the bill perfectly. I loved it.

A Woman of Affairs (1928)

A Woman of Affairs Garbo Gilbert

Diana Merrick (Greta Garbo) and Neville Holderness (John Gilbert) have been friends since childhood and ever since they were very young, Diana has been madly in love with Neville. They want to get married, but Neville’s father doesn’t approve and sends him to work in Egypt for a few years, where he will be able to make a lot of money. Diana wants to wait for him, but after a couple of years, she marries David Furness (John Mack Brown), someone Diana’s brother Jeffry (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) adores. It isn’t that Diana doesn’t like David, it’s that her heart will always belong to Neville. On their wedding night, David and Diana are visited by the police and David suddenly commits suicide.

Diana knows why he killed himself, but won’t say, and Jeffry believes David did it because of her. David’s death drives a huge wedge between Jeffry and Diana. Jeffry, already a heavy drinker, keeps drinking his way down a path of self-destruction while Diana becomes a woman notorious for having lots of affairs. The years go by and Neville comes home, but he’s engaged to marry Constance (Dorothy Sebastian). Just before their wedding, Diana calls for a doctor friend of theirs, who happens to be having dinner with Neville and Constance that night, to get help for Jeffry. Jeffry is extremely ill and won’t let Diana help. After she leaves, Neville follows her out and they end up spending the night together.

Several months later, after Neville and Constance are married, Neville gets a message saying that Diana is sick and she keeps asking for him. She’s been recovering from a miscarriage and is in a delirious state. When he goes to see her, she doesn’t even recognize him. But when she comes to her senses a little bit, she declares her love for him, not realizing he’s brought Constance with him. Neville’s never stopped loving her, but now that he has a chance to be with his true love, does he leave Constance behind?

A Lady of Affairs is pure melodrama, but it’s really great melodrama. Few actresses were made to work in silent film the way Greta Garbo was. The simple movement of her eyebrows spoke volumes and she is positively radiant in this movie. She gives a fantastic performance and although I wouldn’t say this is the best pairing of Garbo and John Gilbert (it’s awfully hard to top the cinematic explosion that is Flesh and the Devil), but Gilbert is very good in it, too, and it’s easy to see why they were such a hit with movie audiences. Great stars, beautiful cinematography, an interesting story (a bit scandalous for its time, but still toned down from the book it was based on), it all adds up to one entertaining movie.

The Murder Man (1935)

The Murder Man 1935When J. Spencer Halford (Theodor von Eltz), a business man known for his shady dealings that have swindled lots of people out of their money, is found murdered in his car, it’s exactly the kind of story local newspaper reporter Steve Grey (Spencer Tracy) is best at handling. His reputation for writing about murder cases has earned him the nickname of “The Murder Man.” At least, this would be the perfect story for Steve, if his other coworkers could find him; he also has a reputation for being a hard drinker who often wakes up in places that aren’t his home.

When he’s found and gets to work, he comes up with a theory that Halford was killed by a shot fired from the shooting gallery across the street and that Halford’s business partner Henry Mander (Harvey Stevens) killed him to collect on his insurance policy. Enough evidence is found to support that theory, Mander is put on trial, and Steve is one witness to testify against him. His testimony is enough for him to be found guilty and Mander is sentenced to death.

Although this should be a victory for Steve, he feels awful about it. His boss and his girlfriend Mary (Virginia Bruce), the newspaper’s advice columnist, both convince him to take a vacation, but that doesn’t do much good. Just before Mander is set to be executed, Steve’s fellow reporter Shorty (James Stewart) convinces him to do the final jailhouse interview with Mander. It should be an explosive story, but after meeting with Mander, Steve can’t write the story. He knows Mander is innocent and knows who really killed him and must tell the truth before it’s too late.

The Murder Man is an absolute gem. A very tightly-told crime story with a great twist at the end. I usually find most plot twists to be rather predictable, but I liked this one. It’s also noteworthy for being a major film milestone for two film legends — Spencer Tracy and Jimmy Stewart. This was the first movie Spencer Tracy made while under contract to MGM; he went on to work for the studio for 20 more years. He certainly made the most of his MGM debut, he was great in it. This is also the first featured, credited film role for Jimmy Stewart. Since it’s an extremely early role for him, he’s not given a whole lot to do, but it’s still just fun to see Jimmy Stewart in his first featured role. Virginia Bruce rounds out a great cast as the sympathetic, likable girlfriend. I’m not sure why I’ve never heard of it before today, but I sure am glad I decided to watch it. As much as I find it ridiculous that a real reporter would have this much power over a murder investigation, these types of 1930s newspaper movies sure are entertaining.

Turn Back the Clock (1933)

Turn Back the Clock 1933

Joe Gimlet (Lee Tracy) is a middle-aged man who runs a store with his wife Mary (Mae Clarke). Times are tough and they’re barely eking out a living when one day, their old friend Ted Wright (Otto Kruger) comes into the shop and they agree to get together. Ted has been faring a bit better than Joe and Mary; he went on to become a very successful bank president and is married to Elvina (Peggy Shannon), another old friend of theirs. They agree to get together and spend an evening together.

Growing up, Ted was infatuated with Mary and Joe is still kicking himself for turning down a business proposition from Elvina’s father when he was younger that would have made him a millionaire. Despite everything he has, Ted admits to being jealous of everything Joe and Mary have and offers Joe the chance to get in on an investment. Joe really wants to take him up on the investment opportunity, but it would wipe out their savings and Mary doesn’t think it’s a good idea. She and Joe get into a big argument about it that night and Joe gets very drunk, leaves the house, and gets hit by a car.

Joe is taken to a hospital where he’s put under ether and dreams that he’s a young man once again. Now he has a chance to undo all the mistakes he made so many years ago. Not only does he take Elvina’s father up on that business offer, he marries her and uses his knowledge of the future to make some very wise investments and ends up being offered a very important consultant position with the government regarding World War I. Mary, on the other hand, married Ted and the two of them live a modest life running a shop together. But there’s the age-old question of whether or not money truly makes a person happier.

Movies about a person having a fantasy about either going back in time, into the future are hardly, or otherwise experiencing an alternate reality are hardly anything unique, but Turn Back the Clock somehow manages to not feel clichéd. I can’t quite put my finger on what prevents it from feeling trite, but it manages to pull it off. It may be because it does have a touch of sentimentality to it, but not in a heavy-handed way. It’s a slow build to Joe’s epiphany that maybe wealth and power isn’t quite what it’s cracked up to be and never heads into being overly dramatic. The cast is great, it’s a particularly great Lee Tracy vehicle. It’s certainly interesting to see them try to make young Mae Clarke into a drab middle-aged woman. And hey, it’s even got a special guest appearance by the Three Stooges as an added bonus. All in all, I’d say it’s a movie that deserves to be a bit more well-known than it currently seems to be.

Captured! (1933)

Captured 1933

Captain Fred Allison (Leslie Howard) has been stuck in a German P.O.W. camp for two years. Not only is he stuck in terrible conditions, he misses his wife Monica (Margaret Lindsay) dearly and although it’s been a long time since he last got a letter from her, the hope of hearing from her is the big thing that keeps him going every day. He also tries to make life better for himself and his fellow prisoners and even makes a deal with the new commandant Carl Ehrlich (Paul Lukas) to personally be responsible for the behavior of the other prisoners if they are granted more privileges.

One day, Jack Digby (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.), Fred’s best friend, is brought to the camp with a group of new prisoners. Fred is thrilled to see his old friend, plus he knows Jack had seen Monica just a few months ago and he’s eager to know how she is. But when Fred talks to him, Jack seems unusually distant and uncomfortable, and eager to escape, even though Fred tries to talk him out of it. What Fred doesn’t realize is that Jack has fallen in love with Monica and feels terribly guilty for it. He doesn’t find out the truth until Jack makes an escape attempt and he sees a letter to Jack in Monica’s handwriting.

The same night Jack tries to escape, another soldier rapes and murders a woman and the German officers think Jack is the guilty party, so they set out to bring him back and execute him. After he’s brought back to the camp, Jack accuses Fred of doing this to him to out of anger about his affair with Monica. Just as Jack is about to face the firing squad, Fred finds a letter of confession from the real murderer and has to decide whether or not to tell the truth.

Captured! is a pretty good little movie that deserves to be a little more widely known. I don’t think I would have heard of it if it hadn’t been on today’s Summer Under the Stars lineup. Like many other pre-codes, it’s only a little over an hour long, but manages to fit a lot in during that time thanks to good pacing and generally effective storytelling. It’s got a great cast with very good performances from Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Leslie Howard, and Paul Lukas. If you’re a fan of either one of them, Captured! is definitely worth your time. Perhaps a little forced and overly dramatic near the end, but still, a pretty enjoyable movie and I’m glad I decided to take a chance on it today.

Monkey Business (1931)

Monkey Business 1931

When Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Zeppo are found as stowaways on a ship, they have to avoid being captured by running all over the place and trying to hide as best they can, whether it’s blending in with a puppet show, posing as musicians, or trying to pose as the ship’s barber. When Groucho tries hiding in a stateroom, it turns out the room is occupied by Lucille (Thelma Todd) and her husband gangster Alky Briggs (Harry Woods). Lucille is attracted to him and when Zeppo ends up coming in, he and Groucho end up being hired to be Alky’s bodyguards.

Meanwhile, Zeppo has met Mary Helton (Ruth Hall), daughter of Joe Helton (Rockliffe Fellowes) and rival to Alky. When Chico and Harpo find themselves in Helton’s stateroom while on the run, they end up becoming bodyguards for him. A big confrontation is about to happen between the two gangsters and their feud continues after the boat docks, putting Mary in danger and leaving it up to Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Zeppo to save her.

Monkey Business is pure anarchy. Although the plots to all Marx Brothers movies are pretty thin and basically only exist to serve as a catalyst to mayhem, Monkey Business seems to be the one where the plot matters the least — but that’s not a bad thing in this case. The main plot of the movie doesn’t really kick in until quite a ways into the movie and the everything leading up to that is just an excuse to have the Marxes running around the ship, wreaking havoc wherever they go. With lesser comedians, this movie would be a complete disaster, but the Marx Brothers were completely on top of their game and that’s what makes Monkey Business a true comedy classic. The physical comedy is absolutely brilliant and the jokes are pure gold. The Maurice Chevalier impersonation scene will never stop being hilarious to me. If you’ve never seen a Marx Brothers movie, Monkey Business is definitely not a bad place to start.

The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934)

The Scarlet Pimpernel 1934It’s the middle of the French Revolution and many French aristocrats are meeting their demise at the guillotine. But much to the dismay to the people of France, many of the aristocrats are being rescued from facing the guillotine with help from the mysterious Scarlet Pimpernel and his band of 19 men. French leader Robespierre (Ernest Milton) is eager to put a stop to this and orders Chauvelin (Raymond Massey) to find out who the Scarlet Pimpernel is and arrest him.

The elusive Scarlet Pimpernel is none other than Sir Percy Blakeney (Leslie Howard), who is so good about keeping his identity as the Scarlet Pimpernel a secret, not even his wife Marguerite (Merle Oberon) knows the truth. He doesn’t want her to know, either, because she denounced one of the executed aristocrats, something he doesn’t agree with. Marguerite’s brother is also part of the Scarlet Pimpernel’s band of men and when Chauvelin finds this out, he forces her to help him find the Scarlet Pimpernel.

When Chauvelin gets word that the Scarlet Pimpernel will be at a ball, he makes a point to be there. During the party, Chauvelin finds out the Scarlet Pimpernel will be in the library at midnight. When he goes to wait for him, he only finds Percy sound asleep on a couch. After dozing off himself, Chauvelin wakes up to find he’s been bested by the Pimpernel. But when Marguerite tells Percy about her brother being arrested and explains her reasons for denouncing the aristocrat, Percy has to do anything he can to save her brother. But when Marguerite realizes her husband is the Pimpernel, she has to try to save Percy.

The Scarlet Pimpernel isn’t one of my absolute favorite movies, but it was well produced, well written, and very enjoyable. This is Leslie Howard’s signature film role with very good reason. He had the perfect demeanor for the role and does a fantastic job delivering his lines. Not to mention that seeing him disguised as an old woman is truly something to behold. Raymond Massey was a perfect fit as the villain Chauvelin. On the whole, I really liked The Scarlet Pimpernel a lot more than I expected to as, I just said in my review of The Lion in Winter, historical sagas aren’t always my kind of thing. But this is so smartly written, very witty, it still feels very fresh even over 80 years later. It’s an absolute pleasure to watch and I’d gladly watch it again someday.

Lost Horizon 1937

Lost Horizon (1937)

In the midst of a revolution in China, author and diplomat Robert Conway (Ronald Colman) is tasked with rescuing 90 people and getting them on a plane to Shanghai. Among the people rescued include Robert’s brother George (John Howard), Lovett (Edward Everett Horton), Gloria (Isabel Jewell), and Henry Barnard (Thomas Mitchell). After spending all night on the plane, the passengers wake up and realize they’re traveling in the opposite direction. Their plane has been hijacked and after an extremely arduous journey, the plane eventually crashes in some Tibetan mountains. All the passengers survive, but the pilot is dead.

The passengers are stranded far away from civilization, or so they think. Before long, they are greeted by porters who guide the passengers to Shangri-La, a beautiful paradise that apparently has magical powers. The people of Shangri-La don’t seem to age and Gloria, who was terminally ill when she left China, seems to be getting better. They have no connection to the outside world and have none of the conflicts that exist in the rest of the world.

Robert begins to feel like he’s been brought there for a reason and those beliefs are confirmed by some of the lamas of Shangri-La. When he meets Sondra (Jane Wyatt), he finds out she’s the one who suggested he be brought to Shangri-La because she’d read his books and thought they reflected the philosophical beliefs of their leader, the High Lama. The High Lama is very old and doesn’t have long to live and they want Robert to take his place.

Robert loves Shangri-La (and Sondra), as do all the other passengers, except for George. George resents being kidnapped and wants to leave with Maria (Margo), another woman who was kidnapped and brought to Shangri-La. Robert is forced to choose between staying in Shangri-La or leaving with his brother.

Spectacular. Simply spectacular. Mention the words “epic film” and you’ll likely think of Cecil B. DeMille or Ben-Hur, but Lost Horizon certainly has a place in that league of filmdom. The sets are grand and absolutely stunning, it’s full of intrigue and excitement, the story has a lot of depth to it so it isn’t overpowered by the grandeur of the sets, and the entire cast is amazing. Not only is Ronald Colman fantastic in it, he’s got an incredible supporting cast with the likes of Isabel Jewell, H.B. Warner, Sam Jaffe, Jane Wyatt, Edward Everett Horton, and Thomas Mitchell. It’s simply a first-rate film in all respects.

Man Wanted Kay Francis David Manners

Man Wanted (1932)

Lois Ames (Kay Francis) is the very hard-working editor of “400 Magazine.” Although she is married to Fred (Kenneth Thomson), their marriage is very open and Fred parties all the time while Lois is working and carries on lots of affairs. Her job involves a lot of long hours, and when her secretary gets fed up with working late, she quits and leaves Lois in need of a new secretary ASAP! As luck would have it, Tom Sheridan happened to be in her office at the time to demonstrate a rowing machine, but since he’s up for a new challenge.

Tom likes his new job and working for Lois. He and Lois have also become very romantically interested in each other. But Tom is engaged to Ruth (Una Merkel) and when she begins to suspect there’s something going on between him and Lois, she’s not nearly as tolerant of it as Lois is with her husband’s adultery. Although Tom loves Lois, he knows she’s married and thinks their affair will ultimately go nowhere, so he decides to quit his job to be with Ruth. With Tom leaving, Lois tries to refocus her attentions on her marriage, but much to her delight, Fred announces he wants a divorce instead. Now Lois has one last chance to win Tom over.

Man Wanted is nothing Earth shattering, but it’s a darn fun movie. If you’re interested in the pre-code era, you’ll love Man Wanted because it is extremely pre-code; the shamelessly open adultery makes it an essential pre-code. The cast is fantastic and I would expect nothing less from Kay Francis, Una Merkel, and David Manners. It’s very fast paced, clocking in at slightly over an hour, with a smart script and great direction from William Dieterle. I absolutely loved the sets, too; how amazing was Lois’s office? It’s terrific all around!

The King and the Chorus Girl (1937)

King and the Chorus Girl 1937Alfred Bruger VII (Fernand Gravet), a former king, is now living in Paris with his last two subjects, Count Humbert (Edward Everett Horton) and Duchess Anna (Mary Nash). His life has no direction, he never goes out, and the only enjoyment he gets out of life is by drinking himself into oblivion. Nothing interests him anymore, but one night, Humbert and Anna talk him into going out to the Folies Bergere in hopes he will find something that will bring him a little bit of happiness.

At first, Alfred is totally unimpressed by the show at the Folies Bergere, but then chorus girl Dorothy Ellis (Joan Blondell) takes the stage and Alfred is instantly smitten. He insists that Anna and Humbert invite her to join him for dinner at home after the show. But when Anna arrives, Alfred is already asleep. Anna isn’t about to spend her night waiting for him, so she leaves, much to the amazement of Humbert and Anna. Not many women have the gumption to do that to Alfred!

When Alfred wakes up the next morning, he’s disappointed to find that she left, but the fact that she doesn’t fall over herself to pursue a former king is very intriguing to him. In fact, getting ditched by Dorothy makes Alfred feel more alive than he’s felt in a long time, and he wants to see her again. Anna and Humbert are so impressed by the influence she’s had on him, they arrange for her to keep rejecting his advances and she agrees. But, of course, things get complicated when she actually does fall in love with him.

The King and the Chorus Girl is most noteworthy for being Groucho Marx’s only attempt at screenwriting. For being written by one of the Marx Brothers, the kings of completely anarchic comedy, I was pleasantly surprised by how grounded the style of comedy in The King and the Chorus Girl is. The script wasn’t perfect, but the movie is still funny and charming without being zany and off the wall. Actually, I appreciated getting to see a little bit of a different side to Groucho’s talents.

I kind of wish Groucho had written more films because I think he could have potentially come up with something really great with a little more experience at screenwriting and writing for other actors. Joan Blondell in particular is an actress I though would do well in a movie with dialogue written by Groucho Marx, and she was indeed the high point of the movie. It wasn’t one of the highlights of her career or anything, but she’s likable enough in it. I think the movie in general could have been greatly improved with a different leading man; Fernand Gravet didn’t really do much for me at all. I probably sound like I’m being rather harsh on The King and the Chorus Girl, but I really did enjoy it for the most part, it just needed a bit more polishing.