NaBloPoMo 2013

Merrily We Go to Hell (1932)

Merrily We go to Hell PosterJerry Corbett (Fredric March) is a journalist, aspiring playwright, and known around Chicago for his love of alcohol.  Heiress Joan Prentice (Sylvia Sidney) doesn’t drink, but when they meet, but there is still a connection between them.  They start seeing each other and Joan repeatedly invites Jerry to gatherings at her house, but he continually gets drunk and fails to show up.  When he finally does meet Joan’s father, he’s not at all impressed by Jerry.  And when Jerry and Joan decide to get married, Joan’s father offers Jerry $50,000 to go away.  But Joan is more valuable to Jerry than money and they get married anyway.

The road to the altar is far from smooth for Joan and Jerry, though.  Before their engagement party, he gets so drunk before the event, he passes out before he even gets to the party.  At the wedding, he arrives drunk and without the wedding ring.  The guests are impressed he showed up at all.  But despite all of Jerry’s problems, Joan is bound and determined to stick by him and she encourages his ambitions to write plays.  After many rejections, his play is finally picked up by a producer in New York.  And as it turns out, the producer has Jerry’s ex-girlfriend Claire (Adrienne Allen) in mind to star in it.  Jerry does his best to stay sober and stay faithful to Joan, but he completely falls apart again on opening night.

When Jerry falls off the wagon, he falls off hard and lives his life in a drunken haze.  He also starts having an affair with Claire.  When Joan finds out about it, she finally snaps, starts drinking, and decides that if he can cheat, she might as well do the same and starts having an affair with Charlie Baxter (Cary Grant).  Joan lives the high life until she discovers she’s pregnant.  She doesn’t tell Jerry and goes back to Chicago to live with her family.  Meanwhile, Jerry realizes how much pain his behavior has caused her and desperately tries to patch things up with her.

Merrily We Go to Hell is a good but not great look at alcoholism.  The story is good, the performances are good, the direction is good, but it just doesn’t seem to rise above being anything better than just good enough.  I feel like Merrily We Go to Hell tried to do what Billy Wilder would go on to do more successfully thirteen years later in The Lost Weekend.  But Merrily We Go to Hell did try to offer a cold, hard look at alcoholism and it certainly didn’t glamorize drinking.  Jerry is not a fun drunk and when Joan starts hitting the bottle, they are no Nick and Nora Charles. During a party scene, we don’t see guests cavorting happily with glasses of champagne in hand, we see guests passed out on couches.  It’s just not the hardest look at alcoholism that you’ll find.  Jerry’s attempt in the end to get his act together seemed  oversimplified and unrealistic.

The Front Page (1931)

The Front Page 1931Just before Earl Williams (George E. Stone) is to be executed, the big question on many newspaper reporters minds is where isn’t about the execution, but where Hildy Johnson (Pat O’Brien) is.  Hildy is one of the top reporters in Chicago and with the execution being such a big story, it’s odd that Hildy is nowhere to be found.  The truth is, Hildy has had enough of the newspaper world and is ready to leave it behind to marry his girlfriend Peggy (Mary Grant).  He’s happy to stop by the press room at the courthouse to say goodbye to his friends, but the one person he absolutely does not want to see is his editor Walter Burns (Adolphe Menjou).  He knows that if he visits Walter, he’ll get suckered into staying at the paper.

But before Hildy can leave town, Earl Williams escapes.  The reporters in the press room rush to get on the story and Hildy can’t help but be caught up in the excitement and gets to work on the story himself.  After a while, Peggy arrives at the press room, not happy about being pushed aside for the newspaper yet again.  As much as Hildy would like to be with Peggy, he gets the scoop of a lifetime when Williams climbs in through a window of the press room.  Hildy hides Williams from the other reporters and when the other reporters are back in the press room, Williams’ friend Molly (Mae Clarke) distracts them by jumping out a window.

While Hildy works, Walter comes to check on him and of course, he tries to convince Hildy to stay on at the paper.  As the action unfolds, Hildy is left to juggle the big story and his soon-to-be wife.

If the story of The Front Page sounds familiar, that’s probably because it’s best remembered as its remake, 1940’s His Girl Friday.  Although The Front Page is a pretty good movie, it’s one of the rare times where I liked the remake better than the original.  Pat O’Brien and Adolphe Menjou are fine, but I much prefer Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell.  The Front Page is funny and fast paced, but His Girl Friday is full of even faster dialogue and the screwball factor is really amped up.  I really don’t mean to imply that The Front Page isn’t worth watching, but His Girl Friday took everything that was good about The Front Page and ran with it.

Evelyn Prentice (1934)

Evelyn Prentice Myrna Loy William PowellEvelyn Prentice (Myrna Loy) adores her husband John (William Powell), but John is an attorney and often has to work long hours and travel for work.  Lately, he’s been hard at work defending Mrs. Harrison (Rosalind Russell) and Evelyn really misses spending time with her husband.  One night, she goes to a nightclub with her friend Amy (Una Merkel) and meets a man named Lawrence Kennard (Harvey Stephens), who claims to know her from somewhere.

Lawrence doesn’t actually know Evelyn, but he knows she’s married to a prominent attorney and plans to trap her in a scandal and blackmail her.  The next day, he sends Evelyn a book of his poetry and invites her to tea.  Evelyn isn’t at all impressed by Lawrence, but she’s feeling lonely with John out of town so when Amy accepts his invitation on her behalf, she meets with him.  She continues seeing him while John is away, but after John returns, she begins to suspect that he has been having an affair with Mrs. Harrison.  A heartbroken Evelyn goes to see Lawrence again, but ultimately decides to stay true to John and tries to end things off with Lawrence.

Lawrence isn’t about to let Evelyn get off that easily, though.  He reminds her of some letters she had written to him and demands $15,000 for them.  During the dispute, Evelyn shoots Lawrence with his own gun and leaves.  The next day, news of his murder is all over the front page, but nobody suspects Evelyn.  However, Lawrence’s other girlfriend Judith (Isabel Jewell) is considered the top suspect.  John agrees to defend Judith and during the trial, Evelyn’s guilt eats away at her.  Near the end of the trial, Evelyn tries to come clean about the whole thing.  But fortunately for them, John has a plan to get both Evelyn and Judith off the hook.

Movies with William Powell and Myrna Loy are always a hit with me.  Although it’s much more fun to watch them playing happily married couples in more lighthearted movies, Evelyn Prentice is still a darn good movie.  It’s very smartly written and well acted.  Myrna Loy did an excellent job of conveying the guilt Evelyn was feeling and Isabel Jewell and Una Merkel were both great in their supporting roles.  It’s another one of those wonderful underrated gems that I just love finding.

Ann Dvorak: Hollywood’s Forgotten Rebel

Ann Dvorak: Hollywood's Forgotten Rebel by Christina RiceFans of pre-code cinema are no strangers to the name Ann Dvorak.  Her electrifying performances in movies like Scarface and Three on a Match helped give those movies a quality that makes them enjoyable over eighty years later.  But to other movie fans, her name probably doesn’t ring any bells.

Ann Dvorak is a movie star who never really became a movie star.  When she was moving up in the film industry, she came up alongside the likes of Bette Davis and James Cagney.  Joan Crawford was a mentor to her.  Her performance in Scarface had people calling her “Hollywood’s new Cinderella.”  But like her contemporaries Davis and Cagney, Ann Dvorak wasn’t afraid to challenge her studio bosses when she wasn’t happy with the way she was being treated.  However, Dvorak’s battles against the studio were poorly planned and as a result, her career never reached its full potential.  Despite such a promising start, Dvorak was relegated to supporting roles and mediocre movies for the rest of her film career.

Ann Dvorak: Hollywood’s Forgotten Rebel by Christina Rice is the first biography ever written on Ann Dvorak and I was so excited when I found out a book about her was being published.  In the book’s introduction, Rice talks about her experience seeing Three on a Match for the first time, being captivated by Dvorak’s performance, and wanting to find out more about that woman.  Three on a Match was also my introduction to Ann Dvorak and I had a
similar reaction, but I never knew much information about her until now.

In Hollywood’s Forgotten RebelRice reveals a very intriguing woman.  Actually, I found the parts covering Dvorak’s life when she wasn’t acting more fascinating than the parts about her film career.  She was a woman with a wide range of interests outside of acting and she did her best to pursue them all.  During World War II, she went to England with her first husband and spent time driving an ambulance, working on a farm, and writing newspaper articles.  In her spare time, she enjoyed studying bacteriology.  In her later years, she tried creating a program for teaching history in universities.

Dvorak’s compelling story paired with Rice’s writing style make Hollywood’s Forgotten Rebel an absolute pleasure to read.  I didn’t want to put it down.  There were times when I’d sit down to read just a little bit and before I knew it, I’d be a good fifty pages further in it.

Whether you’re already a fan of Ann Dvorak or are just interested in hearing a largely forgotten Hollywood tale, Ann Dvorak: Hollywood’s Forgotten Rebel is well worth your time.

Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher.

Monte Carlo (1930)

Monte Carlo 1930 PosterJust as she’s about to marry Duke Otto von Liebenheim (Claude Allister), Countess Helene Mara (Jeanette MacDonald) leaves him standing at the altar and hops on the next train to Monte Carlo.  Helene may be a countess, but she’s broke and only would have been marrying Otto for his money.  She’d rather try her luck gambling with what little money she has than marry Otto.

On her way to the casino one night, Helene passes by Count Rudolphe Falliere (Jack Buchanan) and he knows he has to meet her.  He tries to get her attention, but doesn’t have much luck.  So Rudolphe comes up with the idea of posing as a hairdresser named Rudy as a way of getting close to her.  The plan works and it isn’t long before they fall in love with each other.  Helene has no idea that Rudy is actually very rich so as her financial woes continue to worsen, she’s tempted to go back to Otto.  But when Rudy offers to take the last bit of Helene’s money to the casino and comes back with 100,000 Francs (not from gambling winnings, from his own money), Helene’s decision gets even harder.

Just when it looks like Helene is going to marry Otto, Rudy gets her to see an opera about a familiar story — a man who gets close to a woman by posing as a hairdresser.  During the show, Helene realizes who she really belongs with and finds out the truth about who Rudy really is.

If you’re a fan of Ernst Lubitsch’s musicals, you’ll probably enjoy Monte Carlo.  It’s not the best of his musicals, but it is so unmistakably Lubitsch that I couldn’t not like it.  It’s a pleasant little lark.  Even though the story isn’t the strongest, Lubitsch’s distinctive brand of style and sophistication was enough to hold my interest.  However, I didn’t really care for Jack Buchanan as the leading man.  I would have preferred to see Maurice Chevalier in his role.

Sinners’ Holiday (1930)

Sinners' Holiday Running a penny arcade is a family affair for Ma Delano (Lucille LaVerne) and her grown children Jennie (Evalyn Knapp), Joe (Ray Gallagher), and Harry (James Cagney).  Mitch (Warren Hymer) runs a sideshow near the Delano’s arcade, but it’s actually a front for his bootlegging operation.  Ma Delano despises alcohol and wishes Mitch would just go away, but she has more ties to it than she’d like.  Her daughter Jennie is dating Angel Harrigan (Grant Withers), Mitch’s former sideshow barker.  And unbeknownst to her, Harry has gotten involved in Mitch’s racket.

After Mitch gets picked up by the cops, Harry starts running the bootlegging business himself and helping himself to the profits.  When Mitch gets out of jail and finds out how Harry has been running things, he’s out for blood.  Mitch confronts Harry, but Harry shoots and kills Mitch.  Harry tries to get his girlfriend Myrtle (Joan Blondell) to cover for him with the police.  However, he tells the truth to his mother and she tries to frame Harrigan for the whole thing.  But what they don’t realize is that Jennie witnessed the confrontation between Harry and Mitch.

Sinners’ Holiday isn’t a terrible movie, but there are plenty of far better movies out there about bootleggers.  However, Sinners’ Holiday is very noteworthy for being the film debut of James Cagney.  Sinners’ Holiday was based on a play called “Penny Arcade,” which had a brief run on Broadway.  Cagney and Blondell were in the play together and even though the critics didn’t care for the show, they did like Cagney and Blondell.  As fate would have it, one of their admirers happened to be Al Jolson.  Jolson thought the story might work well as a movie so he bought the rights and sold them to Warner Brothers with the stipulation that Cagney and Blondell play the same roles they had in the stage version.

Even though the movie isn’t particularly great, it’s easy to see why Jolson made sure to insist on Cagney being included in the film version.  He is by far the biggest reason to watch Sinners’ Holiday.  If I didn’t know better, I wouldn’t have even guessed that this was his film debut.  Not only does he get an extremely generous amount of screen time for someone who had never made a movie before, he plays the part as though he’d already been playing gangster types for years.  Not a bad way to get a start a movie career.

Midnight Mary (1933)

Midnight Mary 1933 posterLife hasn’t been easy for Mary Martin (Loretta Young).  Her mother died when she was very young and as a teenager, she was sent to reform school for a crime she didn’t commit.  After getting out of reform school, she tries her hardest to find a job, but there aren’t any jobs to be had.  When Mary’s friend Bunny (Una Merkel) introduces Mary to Leo Darcy (Ricardo Cortez) and his gang, Mary can’t resist the prospect of having food and shelter, so she gets involved with them too.

While Leo and his gang are planning a robbery at a casino one night, Mary catches the eye of lawyer Tom Mannering, Jr. (Franchot Tone) and it’s love at first sight.  He knows that she’s tied up with Leo, but when the police arrive at the casino, he helps Mary escape.  He brings her to his place for dinner and the have a lovely evening together.  Before she leaves, she asks him to help her find a real job so she can go straight.  After she goes to secretarial school, he finds her a job as a secretary in his law firm.  But when they go out to eat one night, a cop recognizes Mary from the night at the casino and arrests her.  She refuses to implicate Leo, so she is sent to jail.

A year later, Mary is a free woman again.  Tom has since married another woman and Mary’s job prospects haven’t gotten any better.  It isn’t long before she’s involved with Leo and his gang again.  When Mary and Leo run into Tom and his wife at a nightclub one night, Leo becomes very jealous of Tom.  Even though Mary does everything in her power to convince him that she doesn’t care about Tom anymore, Leo still wants Tom dead.  He has some of his men try to do the job, but they only succeed in taking out Tom’s friend instead.  Leo decides to do it himself and Mary does the only thing she can do to save Tom — kill Leo first.

I just love Midnight Mary; it’s easily one of my favorite pre-codes.   And how could I not love it?  Midnight Mary is one bright, shining gem of a movie.  It has so many of the qualities that I love about movies from this era.  Fast paced story?  Check. Strong lead character? Check. Scandalous material? Check, check, and check!  But above all else, Loretta Young is fabulous in it.  In fact, the entire cast is wonderful with Franchot Tone, Ricardo Cortez, and Una Merkel, who are all quite perfectly cast in their respective roles.  And I can’t neglect to mention the first-rate direction from William Wellman!  It’s a winner in every respect.

Call Her Savage (1932)

Call Her Savage PosterLike so many young women, Nasa (Clara Bow) loves to rebel against her father Pete Springer (Willard Robertson).  Or at least the he’s man she believes is her father.  Nasa’s real father is a Native American her mother Ruth (Estelle Taylor) was having an affair with until he was forced to marry another woman. Nasa is a very high-spirited and hot-tempered young woman, which drives her father crazy.  When he sends her off to a boarding school in Chicago, he hopes they will be able to get her to behave, but instead, she’s as wild as ever.

In a last ditch attempt to get Nasa to clean up her act, Pete tries to force her into marrying a man she doesn’t want to marry and plans to announce their engagement at a big party.  Nasa heads him off by inviting notorious playboy Larry Crosby (Monroe Owsley) to the party so she can have someone to cavort with.  When Larry’s girlfriend Sunny (Thelma Todd) shows up, she and Nasa get into a brawl.  And to top things off, Larry proposes to Nasa after the big fight and they get married right away.  That’s the last straw for Pete, who tells Nasa that he never wants to see her again.

Nasa and Larry’s marriage is extremely short lived, though.  After Nasa decides she’s done with him, she has a grand time living the high life on Larry’s dime.  But when she gets word that Larry is very sick, she goes to see him and Larry attacks her.  When she finds out the extent of Larry’s illness, she realizes she can’t count on him anymore.  And to make things worse, Nasa is expecting a child.  Her baby is born prematurely and she is left to care for him in a run-down boardinghouse.  When she needs medication for the baby, she resorts to selling herself to get the money.  But while she’s gone, there’s a fire in the building and her baby dies of smoke inhalation.

Even though Nasa has faced terrible tragedies, things start to turn around for her when she gets a visit from her old friend Moonglow (Gilbert Roland).  He’s come to tell her that her grandfather has died and left her $100,000.  She heads to New York, takes out an ad looking for an escort to accompany her, and  meets Jay Randall (Anthony Jowitt) when he responds to her ad.  Jay is the son of a millionaire, but keeps that a secret from Nasa, even though she figures it out for herself pretty quickly.  Jay loves Nasa, but their relationship ends after his father gets involved.  With Jay out of the picture, she gets word that her mother is dying and Nasa heads home to make peace with her past.

I have seen Lifetime movies that aren’t as overly melodramatic as Call Her Savage is.   Seriously, what doesn’t this movie have?  I think the only way this movie could have been any more dramatic is if they also made Nasa a drug addict.  Storywise, Call Her Savage is a bit disjointed.  There are times when it switches gears with all the subtlety of a wrecking ball.  Like after the scene when Nasa goes to visit Larry when he’s sick and he attacks her, then all of a sudden, Nasa is totally destitute and has a baby.  There’s not much of a transition there at all.  I also found the whole morality message about the sins of the father being passed on to his children to be really tacked on and forced.

By far, Call Her Savage‘s biggest redeeming quality is Clara Bow’s pure star quality.  She really saved this movie.  This was the second-to-last movie Clara Bow starred in and based on what I saw here, it’s really too bad she didn’t continue to make more movies.  Her voice was fine, her energy was terrific, and her acting was great.  This was the first time I saw Clara Bow in a movie that wasn’t a silent film and even though I thought she was great in silents, I actually liked her even more in this. Even if this is the only Clara Bow movie you’ve seen, you’ll have no problem understanding why she was such a big star.

Morocco (1930)

Morocco 1930When nightclub singer Amy Jolly (Marlene Dietrich) arrives in Morocco, she’s already lived and loved a lot and it’s left her exhausted.  The last thing she wants is to fall in love and be hurt yet again.  But when she spots Legionnaire Tom Brown (Gary Cooper) in the audience during one of her performances, she can’t resist him.  She gives him a key to her place and he comes to visit her.  As they get to know each other, Amy really takes a liking to Tom, but is still hesitant to get too involved.

Before meeting Amy, Tom had a reputation for being quite the ladies man.  He had even been carrying on an affair with his superior officer Caesare’s (Ullrich Haupt) wife, but broke things off with her to be with Amy.  However, Caesare knew what had been going on and sends Tom on a mission that could very well cost him his life.

Before Tom leaves on his mission, he overhears Amy rejecting a proposal from Kennington La Bessiere (Adolphe Menjou).  Kennington is a rich man and can offer Amy so many things that Tom simply cannot.  Even though he loves Amy, he believes she would be better off with Kennington and decides to take himself out of the picture.  While he is gone, Amy agrees to marry Kennington. But when she finds out Tom is back in town, reportedly injured, she can’t help but rush to be with him.  Recognizing who Amy really loves and wanting her to be happy, Kennington even gives her a ride to see him.

The critical consensus for Morocco seems to be that it’s one of the best movies Josef von Sternberg made with Marlene Dietrich.  Although I do like Morocco, it’s not one of my personal favorite Dietrich movies.  As far as the von Sternberg collaborations go, I prefer The Blue Angel and Blonde VenusMorocco just leaves me a little bit cold.  Dietrich herself is divine; she has such a commanding screen presence and she can work a tuxedo like nobody else.  The exotic locale is perfect for von Sternberg’s style.  The story just doesn’t pull me all the way in, though.

Havana Widows (1933)

Havana Widows After losing their jobs dancing in a chorus, Mae (Joan Blondell) and Sadie (Glenda Farrell) take some advice from one of their friends and head to Havana to meet rich men and snare them in breach of promise lawsuits.  But first they need money to get to Havana.  Mae decides to hit up Herman Brody (Allen Jenkins) for a loan, claiming she needs the money to go tend to her sick mother in Kansas.  He loans her the money, but since he doesn’t have the cash, he has to get a loan from his boss.  But before he can get the money to Mae and Sadie, Herman gambles the money away and gets involved in a convoluted scheme involving an insurance policy to cover the lost money.

Once Mae and Sadie make it to Havana, they pose as rich women and quickly meet Deacon Jones (Guy Kibbee).  Deacon Jones can’t hold his liquor and can’t afford to be involved in any scandals, so it seems like the perfect target!  Plus he has a son named Bob (Lyle Talbot), who catches Mae’s eye.  Unfortunately for Sadie and Mae, Bob doesn’t have any money of his own and they meet Deacon’s wife, so a breach of promise suit is out of the question.  But they can at least try to trap the Deacon in a scandalous situation and try to get money from him that way.

Meanwhile, Herman is getting into hot water over his insurance scheme and needs to find Mae and Sadie to get his money back.  When he finds out he’s been scammed, he hops on the next boat to Havana.  But when he arrives, he gets pulled into Sadie and Mae’s scheme to scandalize the Deacon so he can get his money back that way.  They cause a scandal all right, but it gets so out of hand that the Deacon can’t buy his way out of it.  In fact, the whole lot of them are court ordered to leave Cuba immediately.  But that’s okay, because everybody winds up happy in the end.

I can sum up Havana Widows in one word: convoluted.  But it’s convoluted in a way that only Joan Blondell and Glenda Farrell could pull off.  Both Blondell and Farrell are so good at, well, being Blondell and Farrell, they can do just fine with such cockamamie material.  It’s nonsense, but it’s fun nonsense full of rapid-fire dialogue, wisecracks, and a good cast.