Virginia Bruce

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.

Born to Dance (1936)

In Casablanca, everyone comes to Rick’s.  In Born to Dance, everyone comes to Jenny Saks’ (Una Merkel) Lonely Hearts Club in New York.  Jenny is married to Gunny Saks (Sid Silvers), but she barely knows him since he’s a sailor who has been away with the Navy for four years.  When Gunny finally comes back to New York, he takes his sailor friend Ted Barker (Jimmy Stewart) with him and heads straight for the Lonely Hearts Club to see his wife.  But Gunny and Ted aren’t the only ones arriving in New York this day.  Nora Paige (Eleanor Powell) has just come to town looking to become a Broadway star and hits it off with Jenny.  When Gunny and Ted show up at the club, Ted and Nora fall in love, but things aren’t as warm between Jenny and Gunny.  Jenny has a daughter named Sally that Gunny doesn’t know about and Jenny doesn’t want him to know about her until she’s sure whether or not she really loves him.

However, actress Lucy James (Virginia Bruce) soon ends up driving a wedge between Ted and Nora.  When Lucy shows up on Gunny and Ted’s ship for some publicity pictures, her little dog ends up falling overboard and Ted is the lucky sailor to jump in and save it.  Lucy’s press agent sees the potential for more publicity out of this incident and gets Lucy to invite Ted out to dinner to thank him.  When her agent puts word out to the press about their date, Nora assumes that Ted loves her instead and refuses to see him.  But even though Ted still loves Nora, Lucy is smitten by Ted.  When Lucy’s agent suggests telling the press the two of them are engaged, she is outraged because she absolutely does not want to use Ted like that and threatens to back out of her new show if he does.

Meanwhile, Nora has gotten a job as Lucy’s understudy in her new show.  So what does Ted do to win Nora back?  He tells the press that he and Lucy are engaged, Lucy backs out of the show, and of course Nora goes on in her place and becomes a sensation!  Nora and Ted get back together and they all lived happily ever after.  Well, except for Gunny and Jenny.  Gunny was thrilled to find out he was Sally’s father, but he didn’t find out until after he signed up for another four years in the Navy.

In the book Irving Thalberg: Boy Wonder to Producer Prince, there’s a page that talks about how one day, Irving had been asked to come to a meeting with Cole Porter and the main cast of Born to Dance to hear songs written for the movie.  When he walked into the meeting, Irving was clearly unhappy about being asked to be there.  This wasn’t one of his movies, he was a busy man and had plenty of other things to be doing.  But by the end of the meeting, Irving was smiling and jumping up to congratulate Porter on what he called one of the finest movie scores he’d ever heard.  I think that story really sums up what kind of movie Born to Dance is — something you can watch when you’re in a bad mood and by the time it’s over, it’s awfully hard to resist smiling.  1930s musicals were all about fantasy and escapism and that is precisely what Born to Dance is.

I loved everything about Born to Dance.  It’s pure, exuberant fun, the cast is delightful, the songs are extremely catchy.  It’s got lots of great lines like, “Sally, you’re going to drive me to stop drinking,” and “He went out fifteen minutes ago for five minutes and won’t be back for a half hour.”  And there’s no going wrong will all that spectacular tap dancing by Eleanor Powell.  When I say the cast is delightful, that includes Jimmy Stewart.  This is a very unusual movie for Jimmy Stewart since he was so not meant for musicals.  But I’ve really got to hand it to him, because you can’t accuse him of not being a good sport about being put in this movie.  He was no Bing Crosby, but he doesn’t pretend to be Bing Crosby, either.  There are moments where you can tell that he felt out of his element, but he gave it his all anyway and managed to make that awkwardness totally endearing.  He may not have been a great singer, but he was completely adorable in it anyway.

Downstairs (1932)

Downstairs 1932 John Gilbert

If you work for Baron Nicky von Burgen (Reginald Owen) and Baroness Eloise von Burgen (Olga Baclanova) long enough, you will be treated like family.  So when their longtime butler Albert (Paul Lukas) marries Anna (Virginia Bruce), their maid, the Baron throws them a lavish wedding.  During the reception, the family’s new chauffeur Karl (John Gilbert) shows up and we know right away he’s up to no good when he runs into Countess De Marmac (Hedda Hopper), his former employer with whom he had an affair.  Little do we know just how evil he really is.  That night, Albert is called into work on his wedding night after another butler gets drunk on the job.  When Anna is alone, Karl makes his first move on her by telling her a made-up story about how she reminds him of his dead mother.  But Anna isn’t the only woman in the house he tries to start something with.  He also sleeps with Sophie, the cook, and the Baroness.  He’s not terribly interested in Sophie, though, he only uses her for money.  He makes friends with Albert, but continues to pursue Anna.  One day, Karl gives Anna a piece of the Baroness’s jewelery.  When the Baroness confronts her about wearing her jewelery, Karl steps in and says he gave it to her as a gift and subtly reminds her that he’s got dirt on her.  The Baroness drops the subject and Karl endeared himself closer to Anna with that move.

The Baroness is now keen to get rid of Karl.  So when she knows Albert is listening, she mentions to the Baron that she thinks Anna and Karl are having an affair.  Later, just before the Baron and Baroness are set to leave on a boating trip, she tells Albert to go ahead and get rid of some of the staff while they’re gone.  But before they leave, the Baron changes his mind and decides he wants Albert to come on the trip with him, leaving Anna and Karl alone for the duration of the trip.  Karl takes Anna out for dinner, gets her drunk, and finally gets her to give into his advances.  When Albert comes home, he fires Karl and Anna admits to what happened.  But before he leaves, Karl goes to the Baroness and threatens to reveal their affair unless she keeps him on board and she relents.  Humiliated, Albert goes to the Baroness to resign, but she tells him what Karl has done and begs him to stay.  Karl plans to leave the next day, but not before he gets more of Sophie’s money.  He tries to convince Anna to leave with him, but she refuses.  Karl and Albert end up getting into a huge fight and when the Baron is in the room, Anna forces Karl to give Sophie her money back.  Karl finally leaves, but he only moves onto another victim.

Wow!  I have to say, there are a lot of extremely unlikable characters in pre-code movies, but John Gilbert as Karl is one of the most impressively deplorable characters I’ve ever seen.  He is just so incredibly shameless and ruthless!  And John Gilbert plays him extraordinarily well!  And he should, considering he wrote the story himself.  If you only really know John Gilbert as a silent film actor, then you should definitely check out Downstairs.  His performance here dispels the widely spread story that John Gilbert had a terrible voice and acting style for talkies.  Clearly his lack of success in talkies had more to do with him daring to cross Louis B. Mayer because, as can be seen here, there is nothing wrong with his voice or his acting.  Considering he had to resort to writing a story and selling it to MGM for $1 just to get a good talkie role speaks volumes of just how much Mayer had it out for him.

Virginia Bruce was also great, gotta love the very pre-code scene where she confesses to cheating on her husband and blames him for it.  I also liked seeing Olga Baclanova playing a fairly honest and likable character since the only other movie I’ve seen her in is Freaks, where she was anything but honest and likable.  All in all, a darn good movie.  Not only one of John Gilbert’s best talkies, but a real highlight in his whole career.

The Great Ziegfeld (1936)

Welcome to part one of my Ziegfeld in Hollywood series, examining how Hollywood has paid tribute to the glorious days of the Ziegfeld Follies.  First up is none other than MGM’s lavish biopic of the man behind the Follies, The Great Ziegfeld.

The Great Ziegfeld follows the life of Florenz Ziegfeld (William Powell) beginning with his days at the 1893 World’s Fair working as a promoter for the legendary strongman Sandow.  While working for Sandow, Ziegfeld turns Sandow into the most popular attraction by drumming up media attention.  He later set his sights on Polish-French stage star Anna Held (Luise Rainer) and wants to do for her what he did for Sandow.  Even though he doesn’t have any money, he meets with her and charms her into letting him promote her anyway.  After Anna’s stage debut in New York is underwhelming, Ziegfeld starts ordering large quantities of milk and refuses to pay for it.  He tells the press that Anna bathes in the milk to keep her skin beautiful.  Curious crowds begin flocking to the theater to see for themselves whether or not the milk baths work.  Anna is now a hit and she and Ziegfeld are soon married.  However, no longer content with having just one successful stage star, Ziegfeld decides he wants to turn hundreds of women into stars, and thus the Ziegfeld Follies are born.

Since Anna is already starring in her own show, this means she can’t star in the Follies, and she soon becomes jealous of the attention Ziegfeld gives to other women, Audrey Dane (Virginia Bruce)  in particular.  Ziegfeld tries very hard to turn Audrey into a star, but ultimately, her alcoholism gets in the way.  Anna divorces Florenz and he soon meets actress Billie Burke (Myrna Loy), who he marries.  Ziegfeld’s career carries on, but eventually, the public loses interest in his shows.  This only makes him more determined to return to the top and he goes on to have four hit shows on Broadway at the same time.  However, the stock market crash of 1929 hit Ziegfeld very hard and his wife Billie had to return to the stage to make ends meet.  But Ziegfeld never gave up the dream of making yet another comeback and was planning his next show up until the day he died.

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