30 From the 30’s

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.

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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.

The Ex Mrs. Bradford 1936

The Ex-Mrs. Bradford (1936)

If there’s one thing Paula Bradford (Jean Arthur) can’t resist, it’s a good mystery case. She loves writing about them and loves investigating them. Her ex-husband Lawrence (William Powell) does not share her enthusiasm and divorced her because he was tired of getting dragged into her murder investigations. But even though they are no longer married, he still finds himself getting asked to help with her investigations.

When jockey Eddie Sands suddenly dies during a horse race, Paula suspects he was murdered and goes straight to see Lawrence. Lawrence really doesn’t want to get involved, but when Eddie’s horse’s trainer Mike North (Frank M. Thomas) offers up some compelling evidence, he agrees to examine Eddie’s corpse and the only unusual thing he finds are traces of gelatin on his skin. But when a mysterious package for Mike arrives at Lawrence’s home, one that mysterious people are eager to get their hands on, Lawrence can’t help but get involved with the investigation. Not long after the package arrives, Mike is found dead on Lawrence’s doorstep, making Lawrence a top suspect and the only way to clear his name is to find the real murderer.

The Ex-Mrs. Bradford was definitely an attempt by RKO to capitalize on the success of The Thin Man, but despite the fact that you can tell what it’s trying to emulate, it doesn’t feel like a completely cheap rip-off, either.  William Powell and Jean Arthur were both too strongly talented to let that happen. It tries, and it makes a good effort, but it just falls short. The chemistry between Powell and Arthur is nice, but not nearly as spectacular as the Loy/Powell chemistry did. The writing has some really witty moments that Powell and Arthur both do very well with, but it’s not as consistently sharp as The Thin Man. It’s not that terribly remarkable, but there are far worse ways you could spend 80 minutes, too. It’s one of those movies that I’d say rises above being mediocre, but isn’t strong enough for me to call it an underrated gem.

Carefree 1938

Carefree (1938)

Stephen Arden (Ralph Bellamy) has been engaged to singer Amanda Cooper (Ginger Rogers) multiple times, but she continually breaks off their engagement. After finding himself jilted for the third time, Stephen asks his friend Tony (Fred Astaire), a psychiatrist, to analyze Amanda and find out what’s causing her fear of commitment. Before meeting her, Tony thinks Amanda is a “mindless female,” and says so into his dictaphone, a recording that Amanda ends up hearing while waiting in his office. Furious, Amanda gets out of the appointment and snubs Tony when she meets him again later.

Eventually, Amanda admits why she’s angry with Tony and Tony apologizes before he starts questioning Amanda about her fear of commitment. Amanda can’t offer any explanation for it, so Tony orders her to have a meal of ridiculous food combinations to bring on dreams that could offer some insight. The plan works, but Amanda awakens the next morning realizing she’s in love with Tony, not Stephen.

When Tony asks Amanda about her dream, she doesn’t want to admit the truth, so she makes up a wild dream that makes Tony want to study her further. He orders her to be given a truth serum, not realizing she’s due to perform on the radio very shortly. Despite the fact that her broadcast is a complete disaster, Amanda still loves Tony, but just as she’s about to admit her feelings to him, Stephen announces that he and Amanda are engaged again. Although Tony loves her back, he tries to hypnotize Amanda into thinking she loves Stephen, a plan that also totally backfires.

Carefree is an Astaire-Rogers movie that I don’t think gets nearly enough credit. Sure, there aren’t as many songs as some of their other movies and the musical numbers aren’t as dazzling as “Cheek to Cheek” or “Never Gonna Dance,” but there still are some really great dances in it. I love the hypnotic dance they do to “Change Partners” and I like the slight surrealness of “I Used to be Colorblind.” I actually didn’t mind that it wasn’t as heavy on the songs as some of their other movies because there was less to distract attention from how great Astaire, Rogers, and Bellamy all were in it, just in different ways. For example, Ginger Rogers in particular was hilarious in it, but I think that’s a fact that might have been overshadowed if there had been more dance scenes. So even if Carefree isn’t the best of the Astaire-Rogers pairings, it’s nice to see them in a movie that lets them emphasize some of their other talents.

Beau Geste 1939

Beau Geste (1939)

As some Legionaries approach a fort in the desert, they initially think it’s fully manned with soldiers, but upon closer inspection, they realize all the soldiers are dead and have been posed to look alive from a distance. As they look at the bodies, they find a note on one of them confessing to stealing a valuable sapphire known as the “Blue Water.”

As children, brothers Beau (Gary Cooper), John (Ray Milland), and Digby (Robert Preston) were adopted by their aunt Lady Brandon (Heather Thatcher) and enjoy a happy childhood living with her, her ward Isobel (Susan Hayward), and her heir Augustus (G.P. Huntley). Lady Brandon is the owner of the valuable “Blue Water” sapphire, which, thanks to her husband, is the last valuable asset she owns. When her husband wants to sell it, Beau asks Lady Brandon to let them see it one last time. But while they’re looking at it, the lights suddenly go out and the jewel is gone.

Not wanting to disgrace the family, each of the Geste brothers leaves a note confessing to stealing the jewel and leaves to join the French Foreign Legion. But it isn’t long before their cruel Sergeant Markoff (Brian Donlevy) hears the brothers had been involved in a jewel heist and that Beau is the most likely suspect. When the fort where Beau and John are stationed is attacked, nearly all of their fellow soldiers are killed during battle. Markoff, Beau, and John are the last three standing and Markoff takes the chance to try to make the “Blue Water” sapphire his own.

Beau Geste is a movie that really does have a little something for everyone. It’s got the mystery surrounding the missing jewel, it’s got a story about brotherly love, it’s got lots of thrilling battle scenes, and it has just a little bit of a love story to it. You just don’t see too many movies that have that kind of combination. And if you were to find another movie (that wasn’t another adaptation of the novel “Beau Geste”) that has all of those things, you’d be even harder pressed to find one with such a high-caliber cast and excellent direction. I had a hard time buying a nearly 40-year-old Gary Cooper as a 20-something Beau Geste, but other than that, the cast was great. Although Gary Cooper and Ray Milland are two very recognizable names, Brian Donlevy is a great reason to want to see this movie; his performance as the sadistic Markoff was fantastic.

Beau Geste also had one of the most absolutely intriguing opening scenes I’ve seen in a while. A few Legionaries finding a fort manned by a bunch of corpses and a note confessing to a jewel heist is definitely the kind of opening that makes you want to keep watching the movie. On the whole, I really liked Beau Geste a lot more than I expected to; in fact, it’s one of my favorite movie discoveries in recent memory. Although it was a big hit when it was released, it’s not a movie I hear talked about very often anymore, and that’s really too bad.

The Devil is a Woman 1935

The Devil is a Woman (1935)

When Antonio Galvan (Cesar Romero) arrives in Spain during Carnival week, he sees Concha Perez (Marlene Dietrich) passing by in a parade and is instantly captivated by her beauty. They make plans to meet later that night, but before their date, Antonio meets with his friend, Don Pasqual (Lionel Atwill). Antonio eagerly tells Pasqual all about the new woman in his life, but Pasqual warns Antonio to stay far, far away from the notorious Concha.

Pasqual was once in love with Concha himself and it ruined his life. When he first met her, she was working in a cigarette factory and he gave her the money she needed to quit her job. But after he proposed to her, she sent him a letter telling him she never wanted to see him again. But it isn’t long before she’s back, swearing that she loves him and looking for more money, but she still won’t marry him. Some time later, Pasqual finds her again while she’s working as a singer in a nightclub. He still loves her, but she’s been seeing a bullfighter, a fact that angers Pasqual to the point that he beats her up for it. Despite that, he buys her out of her contract at the night club so she can be with him, but once again, she leaves him.

Although Antonio promises to stay away from Concha, he goes to see her for the sake of getting revenge, but can’t resist her charms. Pasqual arrives and finds them together, and challenges him to a duel.

The Devil is a Woman is the last movie Marlene Dietrich made with director Josef von Sternberg and it was Dietrich’s personal favorite of her own films.   It’s not my favorite of the Dietrich/von Sternberg movies, but I can easily see why Dietrich was so fond of it; von Sternberg pulled out all the stops for it. The Devil is a Woman is a decadent feast for the eyes, full of lively and rich sets, stunning cinematography, fabulous costumes, and Dietrich being absurdly glamorous. Dietrich spent virtually her entire career being the epitome of Hollywood glamour and The Devil is a Woman is easily one of her most glamorous films. The general plot is nothing remarkable, but purely worth watching for von Sternberg’s direction and Dietrich’s commanding presence. Even though Dietrich’s performance had moments of being pure, unadulterated camp, there’s no denying she could command attention.