NaBloPoMo 2011

Madam Satan (1930)

Angela Brooks (Kay Johnson) is happily married to Bob (Reginald Denny), but unfortunately, she soon finds out that Bob isn’t as happy with their marriage.  After a wild night of partying with his friend Jimmy (Roland Young), Angela sees that their antics had made the newspaper.  Only the article mentions a Mrs. Brooks being with them and Angela was at home in bed early that night.  She also finds a card in Bob’s coat pocket from someone named Trixie (Lillian Roth) asking him to come over to her place.  When she tries to confront Bob and Jimmy about the newspaper article, they concoct a story about Trixie being Jimmy’s wife, not Bob’s girlfriend.  But Angela knows better and one night, insists on joining Jimmy to meet Trixie.

Trixie had been looking forward to an evening with Bob and isn’t at all pleased when she gets stuck with Jimmy and Angela in her apartment instead.  Angela does everything in her power to make their evening painfully awkward.  And when Bob finally does show up, lots of frantic attempts are made to cover up the fact that Angela was there and Bob leaves thinking that Jimmy was there with a woman.  Angela doesn’t want to lose Bob and when her trusted maid advises her to spice things up to win him back, she decides to try it.  Earlier, Jimmy had invited her to a costume party on a zeppelin and Angela decides to develop an alter ego for the occasion, Madam Satan.  While Angela is buttoned-up and proper, Madam Satan is the life of the party and wears extremely revealing outfits.

The party is already pretty wild before Madam Satan makes her grand entrance (fashionably late, naturally), but when she arrives, she instantly makes a big splash.  Every man wants her attention and she effectively upstages Trixie, who was shaping up to be the belle of the ball, at every turn.  Of course she picks Bob to be the lucky man who gets to spend the most time with her.  He is madly in love with the mysterious Madam Satan, but is totally unaware of who she really is.  When he does find out, though, he suddenly isn’t so impressed anymore.  But there are bigger problems at hand when the zeppelin they’re on is struck by lightning and everyone suddenly must parachute to safety.  Everyone survives, but once the party’s over, Bob still has a hard time accepting what Angela had done.  However, she did manage to impress Jimmy, who drops by and says that he’d be glad to marry Angela if they get a divorce.  Suddenly Bob realizes that he’s not about to let Angela go quite that easily.

I have never seen a movie quite like Madam Satan.  I’d heard that it was pretty wild, bizarre, and very pre-code so I figured it’d be right up my alley and I was not disappointed.  I’m actually kind of at a loss of words to describe it.  It’s kind of like Why Change Your Wife? but on a zeppelin.  The pacing had room for improvement, but I guarantee that you have never seen a party like the one in Madam Satan.  The party itself is so wild and the costumes are just insane.  It makes the most raucous fraternity party look like a quiet afternoon tea in comparison.

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Cleopatra (1934)

After being kidnapped and forced out of Egypt, left to die in the desert, Cleopatra (Claudette Colbert) turns to the only person she knows can help her — Julius Caesar (Warren William).  She makes her way to see Caesar and just as he is about to officially support her brother Ptolemy over Cleopatra, she makes her grand entrance, unfurled from a rug.  She knows how badly Caesar wants to conquer India, and to make it worth his while to help her, she promises him that he could use Egypt to make his way to India.  Caesar still doesn’t quite trust Cleopatra, but she manages to prove her loyalty to him and seduces him, starting a very passionate affair.  Caesar’s affair with Cleopatra becomes the talk of Rome and has some people very worried for what it could mean for Rome’s future.  When Caesar brings Cleopatra to Rome, those close to him beg him to end things with her, and he ignores them and carries on with his plans to address the senate.  But some people, desperate to save Rome from Caesar and Cleopatra, kill him before he can get to the senate.

With Caesar gone, Marc Antony (Henry Wilcoxon) and Octavian (Ian Keith) are named Rome’s new rulers and it is Marc’s responsibility to avenge Caesar’s death by killing Cleopatra.  He arranges a meeting with Cleopatra in a public place so that his soldiers could ambush her, but she knows better.  Instead, she has Marc join her on her barge, where she plans to win him over with food, liquor, jewels, and dancing girls.  She seduces him and the two of them also begin a passionate love affair.  Meanwhile, back in Rome, Octavian has officially declared Marc a traitor and sends King Herod to Egypt to tell this to Cleopatra.  He also has Herod tell her that if she kills Marc herself, Rome will be friendlier to Egypt.

Cleopatra doesn’t want to kill Marc, but some of her advisors recommend that she do it for the good of Egypt.  King Herod also warns Marc of his traitor status and Marc naturally starts getting nervous when he hears that Cleopatra is testing out poisons on prisoners to be executed.  And although she does plan to poison his wine at a dinner she throws for him, they find out that Rome has declared war on Egypt before he has a chance to drink it.  He goes off to fight with the Egyptians and is defeated.  Cleopatra rushes off to offer Octavian all of Egypt in exchange for Marc’s life, but Marc assumes that she is turning her back on him and stabs himself.  Cleopatra returns in time to find him still alive and explains what she has done, but he soon dies in her arms.  With Marc gone and the Romans breaking down the gate to the palace, Cleopatra decides to end it all with a snake bite.

I believe it was Cecil B. DeMille who once said that if a movie set in a biblical or historical setting, you can get away with anything.  His rendition of Cleopatra is proof of that.  This would be an excellent movie to show to someone who thinks classic movies were all so innocent.  With all of Claudette Colbert’s skimpy costumes, her handmaidens in equally skimpy costumes, adultery, murder, and all sorts of other debauchery, their jaws would be hitting the floor so fast.  Cleopatra was released near the end of the pre-code era, and what a way to end an era!  I don’t even particularly like historical dramas, but I thought this version of Cleopatra was fantastic.  With all the crazy debauchery and the big battle scenes, Cecil B. DeMille was so completely in his element here.  This movie needs to be seen to be believed.

The Smiling Lieutenant (1931)

Niki von Preyn (Maurice Chevalier) is a Lieutenant in the Austrian Royal Guard.  One night, Max (Charlie Ruggles) asks Niki to join him at the beer garden to see Franzi (Claudette Colbert), a violin player, perform.  Even though Max is married, he’s got a thing for Franzi and thinks that having Niki along will make their date seem more legitimate.  But as soon as Niki sets eye on Franzi, he instantly falls in love with her and convinces Max that she is all wrong for him so he can have her all for himself.  Niki and Franzi’s relationship turns very passionate very quickly.

A wrench gets thrown into their relationship when the King of Flausenthurm and his daughter Princess Anna (Miriam Hopkins) come to Vienna.  Niki joins his fellow soldiers for their procession into town and Franzi watches on across the street from Niki.  Niki can’t resist giving Franzi a smile and a wink, but he does it just as the King and Princess Anna pass by.  Anna notices and since she isn’t the prettiest princess ever, assumes Niki is mocking her.  The incident makes all the headlines and when Niki is brought in to be disciplined, he tries to get out of this mess by saying that he was just so in awe of Anna’s beauty that he couldn’t help himself.  Flattery will get you everywhere with these royals and all is forgiven.  In fact, the King even arranges it so that Niki will be close to them for the rest of their visit, much to Anna’s delight.

Niki continues to secretly see Franzi, but Anna has developed very strong feelings for Niki.  In fact, she even goes as far as getting permission to marry him.  When Niki finds out about this, he is shocked and can’t figure out a way to get out of this mess.  With his relationship with Franzi now over, he goes ahead with his marriage to Anna.  But Anna is so uptight, dowdy, and dull that when he finds out that Franzi is in town, he starts seeing her again secretly.  When Anna finds out about this, she is very upset and wants to meet with Franzi.  Although Anna initially wants to kill Franzi, she realizes that Franzi would be a great person to get advice from on how to make Niki happy.  The two of them end up hitting it off and Franzi gives Anna some tips on modernizing her look and their visit ends with them singing a song called “Jazz Up Your Lingerie” together. Franzi’s advice proves to be a big success and Anna and Niki live happily ever after.

The Smiling Lieutenant is another one of those delightful Ernst Lubitsch pre-codes.  Super stylish, sophisticated, witty, and well acted.  The whole movie is so much fun to watch, but it’s worth seeing if only for the wonderful scene where Anna goes to confront Franzi, the sing their song, and Anna has her makeover.  It’s just so outrageous in the best possible way.  This is the kind of thing you could only get away with in the pre-code era.  Claudette Colbert and Miriam Hopkins are such a riot together!  I love Miriam Hopkins in just about anything, but she was never better than when she was in Ernst Lubitsch comedies.

What’s on TCM: December 2011

We’re down to the last month of 2011 already!  TCM will be closing out the year in top form.  December’s star of the month is William Powell, which I am very excited about since I’m a big fan of his.  It also means we get two nights of movies featuring him with Myrna Loy, one night being the entire Thin Man series and another night featuring their other collaborations.  His movies will be showcased every Thursday night this month.  TCM will also be celebrating the 200th birthday of Charles Dickens a little early (his birthday isn’t actually until February) by devoting Monday nights to showing various film adaptations of his work.  And of course there are Christmas classics galore to look forward to!

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Flying Down to Rio (1933)

Band leader Roger Bond (Gene Raymond) is a notorious womanizer.  While his band is playing in Miami, the lovely Belinha De Rezenda (Dolores del Rio) catches his eye and isn’t about to let the hotel’s rule about staff not fraternizing with guests stand in his way.  Fred Ayers (Fred Astaire), his friend/choreographer/accordion player, knows that this will not end well at all and sure enough, he is right.  When Belinha’s chaperone finds out what Roger is doing, she gets him fired.  But when he finds out Belinha is headed to Rio de Janeiro, he gets in touch with his friend Julio (Raul Roulien) in Rio and gets the band a gig playing at the hotel Julio works at.  And it just so happens that Roger likes to fly and has his own two-seat plane, so he offers to give Belinha a lift.

Along the way, Roger plays the old “engine trouble” card and lands his plane on a secluded beach in Haiti.  He spends the whole night trying to win Belinha over, but he soon finds out there is one little detail she’s neglected to mention — she’s engaged.  Roger isn’t about to let that stand in the way, but when she finds out that there wasn’t really a problem with the engine, she storms off and catches another plane to Rio.  When Roger finally makes his own way to Rio, he asks his friend Julio to help him win Belinha back, but doesn’t realize that Julio is the person Belinha is engaged to.  Not only that, her father owns the hotel they’re now playing at.

While Fred and Honey Hale (Ginger Rogers), the band’s singer, are having fun learning the local dances, things aren’t going so smoothly for Belinha’s father.  Some business rivals are trying to put his hotel out of business before it even opens and has the police shut down the band’s rehearsals, knowing they couldn’t get their entertainment permits in time for the grand opening festivities.  But then Roger has a stroke of genius and decides to do their show in the air, where they wouldn’t need permits.  They come up with a show that involves plenty of showgirls dancing on the wings of airplanes.  The show is a huge success and Belinha’s father is so grateful to Roger for saving his hotel that he sends him a heartfelt letter thanking him for all he has done.  After that, Roger doesn’t have the heart to split up Belinha and Julio.  But Julio realizes that Belinha would be much happier with Roger and doesn’t want to get between them.

Flying Down to Rio is best remembered for being the first movie to feature Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers together.  But don’t go into it expecting something along the lines of Swing Time or Follow the Fleet.  Flying Down to Rio was really intended to be a vehicle for Dolores del Rio, so Fred and Ginger are just supporting roles.  But even in their supporting role status, they’re clearly the scene stealers of the movie.  If you set the Fred and Ginger factor aside, Flying Down to Rio stands well on its own as a real pre-code classic.  It’s got some fun innuendo and even though there’s no way that musical number on the airplanes would ever actually work as a real show, it’s such an unforgettable scene.  Overall, a very fun movie.

Paid (1930)

When Mary Turner (Joan Crawford) is unjustly accused of stealing from her workplace, she’s sentenced to three years in jail.  But she isn’t about to go down without a fight and vows to make her boss Edward Gilder (Purnell Pratt) pay for what he’s done to her.  Mary spends her time in jail brushing up on the law and realizes that there is a way for her to get money out of men legally.  All she has to do is get a man to agree to marry her, but when they back out, sue them for breach of contract.

When she gets out of jail, she joins up with more seasoned criminals Agnes (Marie Prevost), Red, and Joe Garson (Robert Armstrong) to put this plan into full force.  This scam proves to be quite lucrative with Mary calling the shots and dismissing anyone questioning the legality of their racket.  But Mary hasn’t forgotten her promise to make Edward Gilder pay for sending her to jail.  To get back at him, she sets her sights on his son Bob Gilder (Douglass Montgomery).  She starts seeing him, but he genuinely falls in love with her and they soon get married.  When Bob brings Mary to meet his father, Edward is furious and wants the thing annulled, but Bob and Mary won’t let that happen.  Even though Mary insists that she’s only in it for revenge, she really has fallen in love with Bob, too.

Edward isn’t willing to give up so easily on putting an end to Bob’s marriage.  With the recent theft of the Mona Lisa, he gets Eddie Griggs to give Joe a false tip that the real Mona Lisa is hanging in Edward Gilder’s house.  He knows that Mary is tied up with them and thinks that when Joe comes to steal the painting, Mary will be right there with him and that will be the end of that.  But when Mary finds out about this plan, she wants nothing to do with it.  She thinks they should stay within the law, but Joe and his gang insists on going through with it.  In the middle of the heist, Mary shows up to put an end to it, and Joe and Eddie get into a fight that ends with Eddie being shot and killed.  Mary tries to tell the police that it was self defense, but the police aren’t going to buy the word of someone who has done time in jail before.  But Mary sees to it that justice is served.

Not only is Paid a very strong movie with a good supporting cast, but it was a very important movie in Joan Crawford’s career. Before this, she hadn’t done any serious dramatic roles and the part of Mary Turner was originally intended for Norma Shearer.  But then Norma got pregnant and went on leave, which left the door open for Joan to step in.  As much as I love Norma, I think Joan was perfect for this movie.  She brought a lot of that steel will and determination that would go on to become her trademark.  It’s a must see for Joan Crawford fans, but even if you’re not watching it just for Joan, there’s a lot to like about it.

Taxi! (1932)

The taxi business can get pretty cutthroat in New York City.  Pop Riley (Guy Kibbee) is an independent cabbie who for the past six years has laid claim to a choice corner outside of the restaurant where his daughter Sue (Loretta Yong) works as a waitress.  When rival Consolidated Cab Company decides they want his spot, they’re willing to stop at nothing to get their way.  First they try telling him to go someplace else.  Then while Pop is having lunch one day, someone working for Consolidated intentionally drives a truck into Pop’s cab, completely demolishing it.  Pop is so furious that he pulls out a gun and shoots and kills the person responsible for it.  He is sentenced to ten years in prison, but soon becomes ill and dies.

One cabby who isn’t willing to be pushed around by Consolidated is Matt Nolan (James Cagney).  He becomes a leader to the other independent cabbies and tries to rally them to overthrow Consolidated.  Although Sue hates Consolidated for what they did to her father, she can’t stand violence anymore and tries to stop them.  At first, Matt is upset that she isn’t helping them, but since she’s pretty, he decides to ask her out on a date anyway.  Although Sue loves Matt, the only thing she can’t stand about him is his awful temper.  They can’t go anywhere without him trying to start a fight with somebody.

After Matt and Sue get married, they go out to a nightclub with some friends and Matt’s brother Danny to celebrate.  As it turns out, Buck Gerard, head of Consolidated, is also at the same club with his girlfriend Marie.  Buck is pretty drunk and tries to start trouble with Matt.  Marie also doesn’t like it when Buck tries to start fights, so she pulls Sue aside and tells her to just ignore Buck to avoid problems.  But when Buck questions whether or not their wedding was a shotgun wedding, Matt can’t resist punching him.  Danny tries to get Matt away, but Buck pulls a knife out and accidentally stabs Danny to death.  Now Matt really wants revenge.  Marie has been hiding Buck and has found a way for him to sneak down to South America, but needs money to get him there.  Since she knows Sue wouldn’t want Matt to kill Buck and be sent to prison, she asks her for it.  Sue gives her the money, taking it from the money Matt was saving to buy Danny a headstone.  But when Matt’s friend spots Marie talking to Sue and finds out about the money, he storms over to Buck’s apartment to settle the score before he can get on the train to South America.

Taxi! isn’t bad, but isn’t particularly memorable either.  My biggest complaint about it movie is that I just don’t understand why Sue wouldn’t call the police when she knows exactly where the man who killed her father and husband’s brother is hiding.  But if you’re a big James Cagney fan, it’s worth seeing.  This movie was released a little less than a year after The Public Enemy had made Cagney a star and Taxi! is definitely pure Cagney.  Not even five minutes into the movie and he’s already beating somebody up.  Not only do we get to see Cagney the tough guy, it also gives us a glimpse at Cagney the dancer, which we got to see more of later in Footlight Parade and Yankee Doodle Dandy.  There’s also an interesting scene where Cagney speaks Yiddish to a passenger.  So really, this is a showcase for a lot of different sides of James Cagney.  Loretta Young isn’t bad in it, either, but she actually wasn’t Warner Bros.’ first choice for the part of sue.  When I was looking for a picture to use for this post, I stumbled across an old Carole & Co. post that talks about how they originally wanted Carole Lombard for the part.  I would have loved to have seen Carole and Cagney together, but I liked him and Loretta well enough.