Jean Hersholt

Greed (1924)

Greed 1924As a young man, McTeague (Gibson Gowland) works as a miner and doesn’t come from a wealthy family. His mother would love for him to have a better life, so when a traveling dentist comes to town, she begs him to take McTegue along as an apprentice. The dentist agrees and before long, McTeague has his own dentistry office in San Francisco. He’s not rich, but getting by and he has a good friend in Marcus (Jean Hersholt). Marcus is in love with his cousin Trina (ZaSu Pitts) and he wants to marry her. But when she suddenly needs some dental work done one day, it would prove to be a fateful day for all involved.

Marcus brings Trina to see McTeague and while they wait, she decides to buy a lottery ticket, not really expecting to win. When McTeague meets Trina, he falls in love with her and Marcus tries to be supportive and gives him his blessing to start courting her. It’s hard for Marcus to put his feelings aside and it gets even more difficult when they decide to get married. As difficult as that is, it gets worse when Trina finds out her lottery ticket was a winner and she’s won $5,000. Marcus becomes extremely resentful toward McTeague for not only taking Trina away from him, but for taking that money away from him, too.

$5,000 is a life-altering amount of money (the movie is set around the turn of the last century) and it could do a lot to help a newlywed couple get started in life together. McTeague wants to get a small house so they can stop living in a small apartment in a boarding house, but Trina refuses to spend any of the money. She insists on doing everything as cheaply as humanly possible, even if it means living on days old meat and living in an apartment one of their neighbors was murdered in, so she can squirrel away more money that she never intends to spend. Trina’s penny pinching ways cause a lot of tension between her and McTeague and things only get worse when Marcus spitefully rats McTeague out for practicing dentistry without a license. The couple has to sell virtually all of their possessions and McTeague struggles to find more work. Trina refuses to even let him have a few cents for car fare for him to go look for work on a rainy day.

Eventually, McTeague leaves town to work as a fisherman and takes $450 Trina had saved in addition to her winnings since they’ve been married. Trina is left behind absolutely furious and when she has to have some of her fingers amputated, she’s forced to become a school janitor for extra money, still unwilling to spend any of her $5,000. She even withdraws  the money from the bank so McTeague can’t get to it and sleeps on it at night. When McTeague returns from his fishing excursion, he finds Trina and asks her for a little money so he can get something to eat, but she refuses. The next day, McTeague confronts Trina again, but this time he kills her in a fit of rage and takes her $5,000.

Since McTeague is now a wanted criminal, he has no other choice to leave town, so he does and gets back into the mining game. But it isn’t long before begins to worry the authorities are after him. He takes a few supplies and heads into Death Valley on his own with cops following not far behind. Among the authorities is Marcus, who would love nothing more than to see McTeague brought to justice.

Greed is a movie that certainly has a level of notoriety in film history. Director Erich Von Stroheim infamously spent two years filming 85 hours worth of footage for this movie. Filming the scenes in Death Valley alone took two months and Von Stroheim’s original cut of Greed was an astonishing 42 reels long (approximately 8 hours, but could be longer depending on the speed it was projected at.) Von Stroheim only screened his original cut once for about a dozen people before Irving Thalberg insisted it be cut down to a more manageable length. Von Stroheim cut it down to 24 reels and wanted it released as two separate movies, but that didn’t happen. Instead, Thalberg had it cut down to 10 reels. For years, Greed only existed in an extremely truncated form. The hours of footage that were part of Von Sternberg’s original cut are believed to be lost, but the movie has been restored to a 4-hour long version using still photos to fill in some of the missing gaps.

Now rightfully celebrated as being one of the finest films to be produced during the silent era, Greed was greeted to less enthusiasm after its original release. The restored version does a good job of giving us a better idea of what Von Stroheim’s original vision was. The length alone is something that will deter a lot of people from watching it and I know some people aren’t big fans of using still photos in place of lost footage, but it’s really the kind of movie every self-respecting silent film fan should watch at least once. Admittedly, I don’t have the most patience for 3+ hour long movies, but I love Greed. Since it’s been a few years since I last saw it in its entirety, I re-watched it again before writing this post and I’d almost forgotten how good it is. It may be slow paced, but it’s a very compelling look at the power greed can have over people. I know I would be absolutely thrilled if that lost footage ever turned up somewhere.

Men In White (1934)

Men In White Poster 1934 (1)If you ever find yourself in the hospital, Dr. George Ferguson (Clark Gable) is the kind of doctor you’d want to have looking after you. He very deeply cares about all of his patients and will do anything to help them. But since George is just an intern, he has to deal with long hours at the hospital and sometimes isn’t even able to take his previously scheduled nights off, much to the frustration of his fiancée, Laura (Myrna Loy). Even though George loves working in the hospital, Laura insists that he specialize and open his own practice once they’re married so he can keep better hours.

But working in medicine isn’t easy and can take an emotional toll even on a dedicated doctor like George. Just after saving one young patient’s life, George finds out another one of his young patients has died. Barbara (Elizabeth Allan), a nurse George works with at the hospital, is also struggling with the emotional toll of working in medical care. When she comes to borrow some notes from George, they end up starting an affair.

Some time later, Laura is still struggling to accept George’s career choice. To try to help her understand, George’s mentor Dr. Hochberg (Jean Hersholt) invites Laura to observe one of George’s operations. As fate would have it, she observes George operating on Barbara who, although not explicitly stated, is suffering from a botched illegal abortion. In her delirium, she tells George she loves him, while Laura happens to be standing right there. After the operation, Laura refuses to talk to him and George is consumed with guilt over Barbara. Although he loves Laura, he wants to marry Barbara when she’s well enough and take care of her. That is, until fate steps in and makes his decisions for him.

Men in White isn’t a movie I hear talked about very often outside of the realm of pre-code cinema, but it is a pretty effectively produced movie. Not one of the all-time greats or even an overlooked highlight in the careers of either Gable or Loy, but it’s an intriguing, well-written story. The hospital sets are pretty impressive and, best of all, Gable and Loy are both very good in their respective roles, so if you’re a fan of either one of them, Men in White is worth your time.

Susan Lenox: Her Fall and Rise (1931)

Born out of wedlock to a mother who died in childbirth, Helga (Greta Garbo) is left to be raised by her strict uncle Karl (Jean Hersholt). When Karl tries to force Helga into marrying Jeb Mondstrom (Alan Hale), she runs away in the middle of a thunderstorm.  She makes her way to a house where architect Rodney Spencer (Clark Gable) is staying.  Rodney invites her in, gives her something dry to wear, and lets her stay with him for the night.

The next day, Helga repays Rodney’s kindness by making breakfast for him before continuing to run away.  But Rodney really likes her and persuades her to stay with him.  They fall madly in love with each other, Rodney even proposes to her, but then Karl and Jeb track her down and she has to leave town immediately.  She hops the next train out, which happens to be a train full of circus performers. Madame Panoramia (Cecil Cunningham), the tattooed lady, sympathizes with Helga’s plight and helps her get a job with the circus as a dancer.

Helga changes her name to Susan Lenox and keeps in touch with Rodney, hoping to meet with him again. But when Karl and Jeb track her down, she has to start having an affair with the circus’ owner in exchange for helping her hide from them.  Eventually, Susan and Rodney are reunited, but their happiness is short lived. Rodney finds out about Susan and the circus owner, but he doesn’t understand why she’s done it and leaves her.

A heartbroken Rodney falls into a deep depression while Susan goes from man to man, eventually winding up as the girlfriend of Mike Kelly (Hale Hamilton),a prominent but crooked politician. When Mike and Susan throw a fancy dinner party, Susan makes a point of inviting Rodney for the sole purpose of degrading him in front of all her high society friends.  But in the end, it only makes her realize that she still loves him.  She travels from city to city looking for him, taking any job she can get along the way.  Eventually, she makes her way to South America where she meets up with Rodney again while singing in a bar.  At first, Rodney is too drunk to be open to reconciling the way she wants to. But when he sobers up the next day, he and Susan are finally able to put the past behind them once and for all.

If you like melodrama, you’re in luck because Susan Lenox has got melodrama to spare!  Considering this was an adaptation of a nearly six hundred page book by David Graham Phillips, it’s safe to say that the movie is an extremely condensed version of the story.  The movie could have benefited from a slower pace, but Garbo is fantastic in it.  Even though she and Gable didn’t get along off screen, they worked pretty well together on screen.

Susan Lenox also features some very beautiful, atmospheric cinematography.  Some of the scenes in the beginning of the movie look straight out of a German expressionist film. I’d say this is one of Garbo’s more underrated films.  It’s not in the same league as Queen Christina or Ninotchka, but it is still a pretty enjoyable movie.

Private Lives (1931)

The phrase “happily divorced” is one that easily applies to Amanda (Norma Shearer) and Elyot (Robert Montgomery).  Their marriage was extremely volatile, but now that they’re divorced (and thrilled to be rid of each other), they’ve both moved on and remarried; Amanda to Victor (Reginald Denny) and Elyot to Sibyl (Una Merkel).  After each of their weddings, they each head off to their honeymoons.  Imagine their surprise (and horror) when Amanda and Elyot find out they’re both honeymooning in the same city, in the same hotel, in rooms right next to each other.

They each beg their respective new spouses to leave immediately, but they both end up getting into arguments that end with Sybil and Victor storming out of their rooms.  Left alone, Amanda and Elyot step out onto the terrace outside of their rooms and start having a conversation.  They start looking back on their relationship and suddenly remember what it is that made them fall in love in the first place.  They kiss and impulsively decide to run away from their honeymoons and go to St. Moritz together.  The only thing standing in their way of happiness is their tendency to constantly get into fights, but they even think of a way to stop those.

At first, all is going well between Amanda and Elyot, but soon their arguments start popping up more and more often.  Eventually, their plan to stop arguments quits working and they get into a knock down, drag out fight that involves Amanda breaking a record over Elyot’s head and completely trashing their rented chalet.  The next day, they find that their new spouses have teamed up to track them down.  Sybil and Elyot decide that they aren’t going to divorce and Amanda and Victor do the same.  The two couples sit down to have breakfast together, but when Sybil and Victor get into an argument, Amanda and Elyot get such a kick out of seeing what they must look like, they once again decide to run off together.

Private Lives has some of my favorite acting by Norma Shearer.  There are some scenes where she says so much with just the glance of her eyes or the tone of her voice.  Definitely watch for her expression when she first realizes that Elyot is in the room next door and listen to the way she uses her voice when she and Elyot are reminiscing about their relationship, it’s great stuff.  The movie itself is fully of smart, witty lines that lent themselves perfectly to being delivered by Norma and Robert Montgomery.  The two of them had such a wonderful rapport with each other, it was a real delight to watch the two of them go to town with this material.

Beast of the City (1932)

Jim Fitzpatrick (Walter Huston) seems to be living the all-American dream life.  He’s got a wife, children, a nice home, a good job as a police officer, and a close relationship with his brother and fellow cop Ed (Wallace Ford).  Jim takes his job very seriously, especially when it comes to putting an end to organized crime.  When the bodies of some gangsters are found, Jim immediately suspects that notorious gangster Sam Belmonte (Jean Hersholt) is the one responsible.  Sam gets off the hook easily that time, but Jim is determined to come down on him hard.

Jim’s dedication eventually ends up working against him, though, and it gets him transferred to a smaller, quieter district.  Ed, however, continues to keep tabs on Belmonte and one night goes to question Daisy Stevens (Jean Harlow), Belmonte’s stenographer.  She tells Ed that she’s through with Belmonte and the two of them spend the evening getting drunk together and begin having an affair.  Meanwhile, Jim proves to be such a success at his new precinct when he stops a bank robber that he is made chief of police.  Back at his old precinct, Jim’s top priority is breaking up organized crime and starts shutting down speakeasies left and right.  However, he is also determined to not give any officers any unfair advantages.  When Ed asks for a promotion so he could have more money to take Daisy out with, Jim turns him down.  Later that night, he goes out with Daisy and they end up running into Belmonte.  Belmonte gives Ed the chance to earn some extra money by fixing it so he can get his illegal goods into town without getting caught.

The next day, Jim tells Ed that he will be in charge of escorting a large transport of cash.  When Ed tells Daisy about this, she tells one of Belmotne’s associates and they plan to steal the truck.  Daisy tells Ed about the plan and convinces him to go along with it.  The big heist goes down, but unbeknownst to Ed, the truck has been followed by two other officers who chase the thieves down.  When questioned at the station, one of the thieves admits that Ed was in on it, too.  The case goes to trial, and shockingly, all who were involved are found not guilty.  Ed desperately wants to rebuild his relationship with Jim and sever all ties with Belmonte.  Knowing that Belmonte and his gang are all out celebrating their court victory, Ed agrees to go confront Belmonte with Jim and several police officers backing them up.  Of course, Belmonte isn’t willing to go down without a fight and insists on going out in a hail of gunfire.

Beast of the City is a great crime movie.  Super gritty and raw with excellent performances all around (be sure to keep an eye out for a very young Mickey Rooney in a small part as one of Jim’s children).  It’s kind of like The Public Enemy, but from the cops’ perspective.  With so much grit and violence, y0u might think this was a Warner Brothers film, but surprisingly, it was produced by MGM.  That big shoot-out scene at the end of the film was definitely not something you would typically expect of a 1930s MGM film.  Especially since Irving Thalberg didn’t work on it and he was the one who pushed through a lot of MGM’s edgier films during that era.  This movie actually came about when Louis B. Mayer wanted to do a movie that created a positive image of police officers, but then it ended up being so violent that he refused to let it be the top feature in double features, it could only be the second film.  But Beast of the City is definitely top-feature quality.

I picked this one to write about for The Scarlett Olive’s For The Boys blogathon because it’s the complete antithesis of the 1930s MGM women’s picture.  When MGM wanted to appeal to women, they put Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, or Greta Garbo in the lead.  They’d have Adrian come up with some fabulous gowns and have some handsome leading man for them to wind up with.  The last way those movies would end is with a violent bloodbath.  Beast of the City doesn’t really have any female characters for women moviegoers to identify with.  Jean Harlow’s character isn’t exactly the kind of person women would be rooting for.  It doesn’t have a love story, it’s ultimately about the relationship between two brothers.  These aren’t even the kind of men that women would sit in the audience and swoon over.  Although I think women could easily enjoy it, I certainly did, it’s pretty clear that they weren’t expecting women to be lining up for it in 1932.

Be sure to visit The Scarlett Olive for more on movies that mainly appeal to men, be sure to pay them a visit for more contributions.

The Real Hollywood Tough Guys (And Ladies)

In the 100+ year history of film, a lot of actors have wound up with tough guy images.  Mention tough guys to classic film fans, you’re probably going to hear a lot of James Cagney, Bogart, and Edward G. Robinson.  If you were to talk to someone more into modern movies, you’d probably get Jean-Claude Van Damme, Bruce Willis, and Vin Diesel.  Personally, I’d be hard pressed to call any of them the toughest actors of all time.  To me, I think the most unsung tough people in film history have got to be silent film actors.  Seriously, you  had to be pretty tough and fearless if you were going to make some of the most beloved movies from the silent era.  I’m pretty sure if anyone went up to Bruce Willis and told him to do some of the things that a lot of silent film actors had to do, he would say, “You have got to be kidding me.”  Now, let’s take a moment to appreciate what all these fine actors had to endure.

Harold Lloyd lost his thumb and forefinger when a prop bomb he was holding accidentally exploded.

Dolores Costello liked to refer to 1928’s Noah’s Ark as “Mud, Blood, and Flood.”  In the documentary series “Hollywood: A Celebration of the American Silent Film,” she recalled going to her dressing room on set one day and finding a very bandaged extra leaning outside of her door.  When she asked if she could help, he explained that an ambulance would come back for him since he was in better shape than most of the other extras.  A couple of extras were killed while filming the flood scene.

While filming the finale of Greed in Death Valley, director Erich von Stroheim insisted on actually filming in Death Valley.  In August.  Jean Hersholt had to be hospitalized after he lost 27 pounds from being in such extreme heat.

Lillian Gish’s hands really took a beating on sets.  While filming The Wind in the Mojave Desert, Lillian burnt one of her hands when she touched a doorknob in the 120 degree heat.  Earlier, when she was filming the famous ice floe scene in Way Down East, her right hand was permanently damaged from being left in the icy water for so long.

While making 1919’s Male and Female, Thomas Meighan carries a leopard that had recently killed a man in the zoo it was in.  Basically, Cecil B. DeMille said, “Hey, don’t put that leopard to sleep!  Let’s give it to Thomas Meighan instead!”  There is another famous scene in that movie of Gloria Swanson with real, live lions, which she insisted on doing herself.

And last, but certainly not least, there’s Buster Keaton.  I don’t think anyone loved doing stunt work more than Buster.  He insisted on doing his own stunts in all of his greatest silent movies.  Famously, he broke his neck while filming the water tank scene in Sherlock, Jr. but didn’t even know it until a long time after the fact.  The most famous scene of his entire career is probably from Steamboat Bill, Jr., where he stands in front of a house and the entire front side of the house falls down around him, but he happens to be standing where a window is.  That stunt involved a lot of precision because if his position was off by just a couple of inches, he would have been killed.  When Buster was signed to MGM, one of the things that upset him most was that MGM wouldn’t let him do his own dangerous stunts anymore.  And this is why I consider Buster Keaton to be the toughest guy to ever get in front of a movie camera.