Sunday, December 14, 2008

Gentleman's Fate (1931)

Gentleman's Fate is another in a long line of early '30s films seemingly rigged by Louis B. Mayer in order to trash John Gilbert's career. This one does its part.

The plot of Gentleman's Fate is remarkably similar to the story of Michael Corleone in Mario Puzo's The Godfather: a respectable man is "pulled back" into his mob-based family when his father, the head thug, is on his deathbed. His violence-prone brother convinces him to join the gang, where he is eventually forced to commit a murder. His girlfriend wants nothing to do with his new occupation...does all this sound familiar?

This isn't 1972 Paramount, however, but 1931 MGM on a budget and, in fact, Gentleman's Fate is one of the sloppiest MGM films I've seen, with numerous continuity gaffes and anomalies, and some awkwardly bizarre and slapdash editing. Moreover, the screenplay is all over the map, bringing humor and contrivances to a story that needs stark realism to work.

John Gilbert gives it his best; that he didn't call in a shoddy performance regardless of the shoddy screenplay is admirable. Joining him are dependable actors Leila Hyams, Anita Page, Marie Provost, and Louis Wolheim (who was dying of cancer) as Gilbert's brother. Wolheim's perfect for the part, looking as if he'd stepped out of Chester Gould's Dick Tracy comic strip. Most of these actors were "in trouble" with the MGM head office at the time, and were perhaps cast in this film for punishment. Why make the audience suffer, though?

Gentleman's Fate is not available on DVD or VHS, but has been broadcast on Turner Classic Movies. Worth seeing for fans of the actors listed above, or for those interested in pre-code crime films.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Blondie of the Follies (1932)

In the same year that MGM cast Marion Davies in the embarrassing Polly of the Circus, they sort of made amends by casting her in the far more interesting Blondie of the Follies (what was next: Molly of the Midway?).

Blondie of the Follies benefits from two major talents allowed the freedom to do their stuff: Davies and co-screenwriter Anita Loos. In this film, Davies is allowed to show the range of her acting talents, from careful, poignant scenes to parody (in an out-of-place but funny scene with Jimmy Durante, playing himself). Under the hand of Loos and Francis Marion, the dialogue is fast, smart, quick-witted; one would never guess this was the same Anita Loos who wrote sap four years later like San Francisco.

Special mention needs to go to the perpetually old-looking James Gleason, who's given a choice role as Davies' father, attempting to prevent her from leaving their dreary tenement existence for the stage. Often used as stock comedy relief, Gleason was here given a role requiring depth of feeling, and he delivers it.

Blondie of the Follies also stars Robert Montgomery, and Billie Dove as the other compenents of a love triangle, and Zasu Pitts, who's supposed to be Davies' sister (!).

One might guess MGM tried to wreck this film in another completely implausible happy wrap-up scene of the sort the company specialized in. It didn't work - Blondie of the Follies is still worth seeing.

Blondie of the Follies is not available on DVD or VHS, but has been broadcast on Turner Classic Movies.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Grand Hotel (1932)

Muchly much has been written about Grand Hotel, one of the slickest entertainments MGM concocted, so just a few thoughts for the road:

Grand Hotel was the first Hollywood film designed to showcase a wide array of top talent in one ambitious dramatic setting. This I knew, but I hadn’t previously realized that Grand Hotel created the template not only for future star vehicles centered on one setting, but also for the disaster genre and the disaster genre parodies. When John Wayne’s 1954 The High and the Mighty dropped the Grand Hotel format on a plane and added a disaster, that film paved the way for Airport, The Poseidon Adventure, and The Towering Inferno. The High and the Mighty was also the key inspiration, even moreso than Airport, for Airplane! And so it goes.

Irving Thalberg’s artistic instincts were correct in not shooting Greta Garbo and Joan Crawford in the same scene. In the MGM “universe”, these actresses occupy different worlds and their characters were in fact opposites, one ethereal, elusive and mysterious, the other earthy, open and street-smart. To modern-day eyes, Crawford ‘s acting is more believable, but Garbo, even when over-the-top, has an indefinable old-world allure that makes Crawford look cheap in comparison (Rudolph Valentino had the same qualities in comparison to his ‘30s counterparts).

As for the men, John Barrymore’s more subtle acting holds up better than Lionel Barrymore’s flamboyant performance, and Wallace Beery – is Wallace Beery no matter the costume or accent.

The Warner Bros. DVD contains a fine, but too short, documentary on the making of Grand Hotel, a promo short of Grand Hotel’s premiere, containing rare shots of MGM actors and the film’s director, Edmund Goulding, trailers, and a bizarre and not very funny Warner Bros. short parody of Grand Hotel. No complaints about the quality of the print - it looks great to me.

Grand Hotel is recommended for fans of classic Hollywood actors, those who enjoy a good, Saturday afternoon story, and as an example of sophisticated 1930s Hollywood product at its polished best.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Faithless (1932)

There are some scenes in Faithless that may require you to rewind the film to the beginning and see the lion again in order to convince yourself you're watching an MGM movie.

Faithless tackles the Depression in a more honest and sordid manner than MGM usually did. Tallulah Bankhead plays a rich heir, living it up while her savings disappear during the financial crash. She falls in love with Robert Montgomery, a perpetually optimistic advertising executive of limited financial means (in comparison). The first half of the movie involves Bankhead fighting Montgomery
's insistence on their living on his limited means - it takes place amidst art deco sets. The second half takes place in small, dirty apartments as penniless Bankhead is reduced to prostitution to save Montgomery's life. These depressing scenes are subtle and effective.

The actors are fine in these roles (though Montgomery's nearly constant child-like dialogue becomes tedious - no fault of his); Bankhead is, of course, most convincing in her state-of-the-art luxury apparel and hoity-toity surroundings - she was born for roles like this. Tallulah Bankhead fans will want to check this out, one of the best of her few early '30s movies.

Faithless is unfortunately bookended by unconvincing opening and closing scenes. The screenplay does not explain how Bankhead and Montgomery's characters know each other (living in disperate social circles). As for the quick and absurdly bright ending, chopped off by the MGM logo, one can imagine a cigar-chomping producer standing up from his seat in a dark screening room and declaring "That's it. It's over. End it there. It was due on Tuesday"

Faithless is not available on VHS or DVD. It has been broadcast on Turner Classic Movies.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Polly of the Circus (1932)

In Polly of the Circus, Clark Gable plays a man of the cloth (as he did in Laughing Sinners the year before), this time falling for a circus trapeze artist, Marion Davies. But - their church refuses to accept her as his wife, so she runs back to the circus to kill herself from great heights. Can Clark Gable reach her in time? Will Polly of the Circus have a happy ending?


Based on a 1907 play, Polly of the Circus is best described as nearly worthless product - a hollow commodity. A harsh-sounding call, I suppose, but they didn't even try to write a good screenplay for this film. The gears of the plot have been so overused (even when the film was made) that the shape of the final product is clear from the start. There's barely a moment of spontaneity present because the absurd plot demands it. Emotional outbursts come out of left-field because the plot demands it. In short, all sorts of far-fetched machinations transpire because the sappy plot demands it. The only extraneous thing in the film is a bizarre little conflict involving Raymond Hatten as an alcoholic church servant, in a role alternately creepy and "humorous".

Marion Davies, who thrived on improvisation and quick wit, is wasted in this vehicle. Gable doesn't suffer quite as badly, but C. Aubrey Smith, as his judgemental father, relies on Grand Gestures, playing to the back seats as if he's in a 1915 Theda Bara movie.

For what it's worth, this movie bombed at the box office, and Gable hated the script so much he walked off the set. Good for him.

Only recommended for Clark Gable and Marion Davies completists.

Polly of the Circus is available on Warner Archives DVD-R.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

The Beast of the City (1932)

Another attempt to go head to head with Warner Bros. with a hard-hitting crime tale, The Beast of the City succeeds where MGM’s The Secret Six had mostly failed. Though not as radical as the competition (both Scarface, United Artists, 1932, and Little Caesar, Warner Bros., 1931 featured the criminals as protagonists), The Beast of the City has an ending every bit as violent and depressing, and a plotline just as involving. (A connection between the three films is noteworthy: Beast was co-written by pulp writer W.R. Burnett, who co-wrote Scarface and wrote the novel Little Caesar was based on).

Following a plea for cooperation with the police by President Herbert Hoover (!), The Beast of the City plunges the viewer into the world of the policemen: the crowded halls, the squad cars, the mundane assignments, the investigation of deaths, the annoying reporters… These scenes strive for, and mostly attain, a chaotic “realism” which not only draws the viewer into the world of policing, but also displays a new mastery of sound and editing techniques which movies only one year earlier could not display.

Eventually the film zeroes in on family man Walter Huston attempting, but continually failing to convict the Capote-esque top criminal Belmonte, played by Jean Hersholt. The more Huston fails, the more determined he is to accomplish this. He has an Achilles Heel, though: his co-worker brother, played by Wallace Ford, whose weakness for Jean Harlow, Belmonte’s sometime moll, jeopardizes the mission. The higher Huston climbs in his quest to carry out justice, the more deeply entrenched his brother becomes in Harlow’s world.

This is a timeless plot (one can imagine Scorsese or Sam Mendes filming it today with Leonardo DiCaprio and Shia LaBeouf as the brothers and Javier Bardem as the heavy). For a dated, 1932 film, it’s quite good, and perhaps one of the most unjustly forgotten crime films. The acting is mostly just adequate; Mickey Rooney, in an unbilled role, shows more life and spontaneity than most of his adult co-stars, and Jean Harlow also stands out; she has a raw and vibrant sensuality which makes the stuffiness around her seem even stuffier - it's as if she walked in from a different movie. In the end, though, it’s the plot and attention to detail that propels the movie and makes for above-average entertainment.

The Beast of the City has been relased on Warner Archives DVD-R.

Daybreak (1931)

Daybreak lost $100,000 for MGM, and it’s not hard to see why. The film unsuccessfully straddles the line between Stroheim-ish decadence and slick, feel-good, romantic MGM gloss. Attempting to appeal to both sensibilities, it’s successful in neither.

Based on a book by Austrian novelist Arthur Schnitzler (whose work was also the basis for Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut), Daybreak features a cad as the protagonist, Ramon Novarro (playing a William Haines-type character, only not funny), an Austrian lieutenant who pursues shy, sweet Helen Chandler, then insults her when he makes clear he wants her only as a mistress. The most logical thing happens next (logical if you’re in tune with the vibes of early ‘30s movies): within seconds, the insulted sweet music teacher casts Ramon out of her life, flees to the arms of the sneering, sweating, debaucherous Jean Hersholt, who earlier tried to rape her (Jean Hersholt!), and becomes, overnight, an angry, cynical, gambling, seen-it-all woman of the world.

Of course.

What bizarre aspect of the American psyche made this theme so popular in the early ‘30s? Even sweet Norma Shearer went this route (in The Divorcee), but the queen of spurned-and-fornicating ex-lovers was Greta Garbo. Her surreal turn as Susan Lenox (in Susan Lenox: Her Fall and Rise) has to be the quintessential portrayal of this sort of archetype, as she literally sleeps her way around the world in revenge, Clark Gable spurning her at every far-fetched meeting (of course, they really love only each other).

Anyway, MGM filmed two endings to Daybreak, one faithful to the novel (Ramon commits honorable suicide, being unable to pay back money lost trying to win Helen back in a game of Baccarat!), and the other a happy reuniting of the two lovers. They used the latter.

Novarro reportedly attempted to buy this film off MGM and shelve it. To make matters worse, the director Jacques Feyder, who didn’t speak English well, was sick during much of the shooting. The end result is a film of inconsistent tone, unable to please either the women’s audience, who wanted to see Ramon in a likeable role, or those fans of Lubitsch and von Stroheim who like their decadence unprettified.

Daybreak is not available on VHS or DVD, but has been broadcast on Turner Classic Movies.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Five And Ten (1931)

Five and Ten is the story of the daughter (Marion Davies) of a "new money" store chain owner, moving to New York with her family and falling in love with an architect, Leslie Howard, "above her station". We've all seen that basic story, but it's also about a family disintegrating due to the patriarch's relentless pursuit of riches. You've seen that before, too, but have you seen Douglass Montgomery suicidally crashing an airplane?

Five and Ten can be looked at two ways. Taken in the context of 1930s movies, the film is an okay soaper, certainly engaging enough, with strong actors and sets and only the out-of-left-field absurdity of the aforementioned plane wreck keeps the film from approaching first rate melodrama (the character hasn't been established as knowing how to fly a plane, and then miraculously survives the horrendous wreck just long enough for a teary family farewell).

Taken in the context of Marion Davies' films, however, it's a big leap forward in the establishment of her as a varied, well-rounded actress. Davies, who for many decades after her career was underrated as a comedienne (perhaps due to the insinuations of Welles' Citizen Kane), had long wanted to perform drama, and William Randolph Hearst, her "benefactor", long fought against it.
Here she shows herself quite capable, especially amidst talents old and new like Richard Bennett, Irene Rich and Douglass Montgomery, playing Davies' brother, the aviator. It hardly seems Davies is the same person who played in solid but far distant silent films such as Little Old New York. Based on the evidence, she could have had a substantially longer career in sound films.

Five and Ten is not available on VHS or DVD, but has been broadcast on Turner Classic Movies.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Politics (1931)

Third in the “official” series of Marie Dressler and Polly Moran comedies, Politics is a pleasant way to spend a Sunday afternoon. The proto-feminist plot is slight, but keeps things rolling: Dressler becomes an inadvertent political contender when she convinces the women of their town to “go on strike” against their husbands until liquor-selling establishments are shut down. Moran is her tenant, rival, friend, and collaborator.

Politics mixes the Dressler/Moran formula up a bit by adding some serious scenes of drama, and Moran rises to the challenge of the material.

There’s nothing profound or classic here, but that’s okay. Politics is just a breezy, enjoyable package of early-‘30s MGM entertainment.

Politics has been released on Warner Archives DVD-R.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

The Secret Six (1931)

A 1931 crime film with Wallace Beery, Clark Gable, Jean Harlow, Lewis Stone, Ralph Bellamy, and Johnny Mack Brown – a recipe for a great film, right?

The Secret Six has a great opening act, but then loses its way. First it’s the story of a low-life slaughter-house worker, Beery, opting instead for a rising career as a bootlegger and well-paid thug. Then it’s a love-triangle, with reporters Clark Gable and Johnny Mack Brown vying for the attention of club worker Jean Harlow. Then it’s a police procedural, with a bizarre and unexplained group of black-masked men in power working behind the scenes to bring down Beery, who by this time is in politics. Lastly, it’s a courtroom drama.

Get all that?

The casting is perfect. Beery, who wants steak for dinner after a day of killing cattle, could be reprising his role from The Big House. Lewis Stone gives an unexpectedly understated performance as the quiet head of the gang (did Brando see this?), and Ralph Bellamy, in his first role, is convincingly menacing as a double-dealing gangster. Gable, Harlow, and Brown play early versions of the sorts of characters Hollywood made them famous for.

The Secret Six also falters in its dialogue. I hate to dis the honored Francis Marion, who worked on 166 films from 1912 to 1940. She was Mary Pickford’s personal screenwriter (some great films, those), and brought good, basic storytelling skills to many silent and sound films. By the early ‘30s, though, the tropes she relied on in her dialogue were perhaps getting stale: The Secret Six must contain at least a dozen instances of the responses, “Yeah?” and “Oh, yeah?” Producer Irving Thalberg may have had a hand in the script’s plot, though, as there’s talk about Thalberg making Gable’s role in the film larger late in the shooting process.

The Secret Six has been released on Warner Archives DVD-R.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Possessed (1931)

Possessed, with it's pre-code feminist script, swanky sets, slick direction and upper-echelon star power, is a quintessential early '30s MGM film (A Free Soul, starring Norma Shearer and Gable, from the same year, is another contender). It's escapist melodrama with just enough realism to keep from descending into absurdity.

The plot is a rubber-stamped depression-era fantasy made for its target audience: small-town factory worker Joan Crawford leaves for the big city determined to use whatever assets she has to live the high life, becomes a mistress to powerful man-about-town Clark've seen this before, haven't you?

What's enjoyable about Possessed is seeing two of Hollywood's biggest stars in their prime, Gable in a new sort of male role for the time, an anti-hero, and Crawford, who MGM considered "the personification of youth and beauty and joy and happiness", before she mutated into something other. Those familiar with Crawford's background will realize she's practically playing herself here.

Noteworthy, too, is "Skeets" Gallagher, playing a perpetually inebriated dandy, whose ritzy living quarters and whimsical demeanor must have represented the height of freedom for audiences in 1931.

Clarence Brown's directing doesn't have the sort of dreamy look he excelled in earlier in his career, in films like The Flesh and the Devil, but it's perfectly fine, and benefits from some on-location shooting in the opening scenes.

Possessed has been released on Warner Archives DVD-R.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

The Hollywood Revue of 1929

More of an historical curiosity than an entertaining night at the movies, The Hollywood Revue of 1929 is a quickly filmed (four weeks of long, non-union hours, according to Bessie Love) collection of vaudeville skits and musical numbers designed to present MGM's stars in glorious sound.

Even for the initiated, The Hollywood Revue can be tedious going. A third of the film seems comprised of uninspired musical numbers. The sequences are introduced by Jack Benny and Conrad Nagel; sometimes they're funny, more often not. The editing is awkward bordering on inept, and the camera (no surprise for 1929) is mostly static.

Some of the highlights: a bizarre dance chorus sequence rendered nearly psychedelic with its use of negative photography; a short Laurel and Hardy sequence; Buster Keaton parodying the lascivious dance by Beth Laemmle which preceded him; and Cliff Edwards ("Ukelele Ike"),who enlivens nearly every scene he's in with his visionary version of scat singing.

The world of performers used here is almost too long to list; nearly all of MGM's stars are present except for Greta Garbo, Ramon Navarro, and Lon Chaney (represented by the song "Lon Chaney Will Get You If You Don't Watch Out").

In short, The Hollywood Revue is a very mixed bag, sometimes charming (Marie Dressler, Bessie Love), sometimes boring (Marie Davies' military march), and sometimes inciting one to smash one's television set (Charles King's "Your Mother and Mine").

Nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture of 1929.
The Hollywood Revue has been released on Warner Archives DVD-R.

Friday, July 4, 2008

The Cuban Love Song (1931)

The Cuban Love Song (not to be confused with the late-'20s MGM tune "The Pagan Love Song"), stars opera baritone Lawrence Tibbett as a WWI-era marine falling for Cuban Lupe Velez, while Karen Morley (unadvisably, if you ask me) waits for him to return to the states.

Imagine William Haines as an unfunny opera singer and you'll get the gist of this movie starring yet another annoying jerk we're supposed to cheer for (an early MGM specialty). At least with Haines you had laughs; here, you have "The Peanut Song" sung so many times you wonder if you'll ever eat peanuts again.

Tibbett's voice is a real force; he was one of the all-time great opera singers. I'm sure someone can tell me why he was wasting his time in Hollywood and recording popular tunes on 78s when he could have been onstage singing Verdi and Puccini. At any rate, MGM let Tibbett go after The Cuban Love Song flopped.

Lupe Velez is fine in a role more restrained than her later comedies, and Tibbett is backed up by the bizarre comic relief team of Ernest Torrence and Jimmy Durante (!).Torrence is wasted, and Durante is...Durante.

Warning: Mary found this film quite offensive, exploiting women in general and Cubans in particular; she thinks it may be the worst MGM we've seen. Recommended only for fans of the actors involved, or opera-singing sailors getting tattoos.

Not currently available on DVD. Has been shown on Turner Classic Movies.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The Mysterious Island (1929)

The Mysterious Island has to be one of the biggest sc-fi extravagances I hadn't seen before. The film was a huge project and gamble for MGM (and it also may be the first sound sci-fi film): four million dollars, shot in Technicolor, a change in directors, changes in actors, sound added toward the end of production....

Like another MGM extravaganza beset by troubles, Ben-Hur (1925), The Mysterious Island was released with great fanfare. Unlike Ben-Hur, The Mysterious Island was a huge financial failure, and a setback for sci-fi films for years to come.

Using concepts from several of Jules Verne's novels, The Mysterious Island stars Lionel Barrymore as a scientist who's built two submarines designed to travel to the bottom of the sea, where he has reason to believe exist creatures related to mankind in the distant past.

His plans are interrupted by a revolutionary coup straight out of Sergei Eisenstein, headed by Montagu Love. It isn't explained how a scientist as clever as Barrymore would confide his secrets to a "friend" diametrically opposed to his goals and beliefs.

After plot complications, the two subs make their way to the sea's bottom, where a race of midgets, all vaguely resembling ducks, explore and eventually attack the group of sea explorers. It's here that the film really comes alive. The special effects, though primitive, have a surreal, dreamlike quality, and one has to marvel at the ambitious audacity of it all: seemingly hundreds of little creatures pulling a submarine with ropes; a set that seems a mile wide; midgets propelling an octopus forward to attack; the bizarre creatures going into a feeding frenzy at their first exposure to human blood... It would have been good to be on the set that day. The effects work on their own level, and one can see many echoes of Melies' films (especially A Trip to the Moon) in the set design. The Technicolor print of this film, unfortunately, seems to be lost.

The Mysterious Island is only partly sound; the rest is silent with orchestral background or stock library crowd sounds (yelling, people running, etc.). The early dialogue scenes featuring Barrymore are some of the most static I've seen; in some endless, maddening shots, I would have paid cash money for a close-up.

Don't see The Mysterious Island expecting a coherent, intelligent story, good acting, or a sci-fi film with great special effects. View it instead if you're interested in an historical curiosity or an early American attempt at sci-fi spectacle which remains compelling despite its clumsy methods.

Not available on DVD; has been shown on Turner Classic Movies.

Parlor, Bedroom and Bath (1931)

Parlor, Bedroom, and Bath turns out to be one the best Keaton sound MGM films, anchored by a sturdy script based on a 1917 bedroom farce play and some fine character actors. It's not a classic film, but if you've seen Free and Easy (1930) or Doughboys (1931), you know things could be much worse for poor Buster.

In an elaborate plot I won't bore you with, Keaton makes the best of another film shoot out of his control. He incorporates the train sequence from his very first short, One Week (1920) in a scene without dialogue, and trounces upon the very talented and rambunctious character actress Charlotte Greenwood in a "seduction" scene transcendently funny. Though Buster came from a different school of comedy than Greenwood, he goes toe to toe with her, and they both generate real, earned and appreciated laughs.

Parlor, Bedroom, and Bath benefits from direction by Keaton's long-time friend and collaborator, Edward Sedgwick, and also stars Reginald Denny and Cliff Edwards (no singing in this one, though).

There's a lot to enjoy here if you're willing to enjoy it for what it is.

Parlor, Bedroom, and Bath hasn't been given an official DVD release. A public domain title, it has been released by various DVD production companies with varying quality. The print shown on  Turner Classic Movies is fine.

1924 MGM Films Wanted

Here's a list of 1924 MGM films Mary and I haven't seen.

If you own copies of any these, please consider loaning or selling them to us; it would help us meet our goal of seeing all of the MGM films which still exist.

Broken Barriers, starring Norma Shearer, Adolphe Menjou, JamesKirkwood, and Mae Busch. Dir. by Reginald Barker. Drama

Excuse Me, starring Conrad Nagel, Norma Shearer. Directed by Alf Goulding. Comedy.

Tess of the d’Urbervilles, starring Blanche Sweet, Conrad Nagel. Directed by Marshall Neilan.

Ramolia, starring Lillian Gish, Dorothy Gish, and Ronald Colman. Directed by Henry King. Drama.

Mademoiselle Midnight, starring Mae Murray. Directed by Robert Z. Leonard.

The Arab, starring Ramon Novarro and Alice Terry. Directed by RexIngram.

Janice Meredith, starring Marion Davies and W. C. Fields. Directed by E. Mason Hopper. Drama.

Little Robinson Crusoe, starring Jackie Coogan. Directed by Edward Cline.

Wine of Youth, starring Eleanor Boardman and William Haines. Directed by King Vidor.

Along Came Ruth, starring Viola Dana. Directed by Edward Cline.

Revelation, starring Viola Dana. Directed by George D. Baker.

One Night in Rome, starring Laurette Taylor. Directed by Clarence Badger.

Married Flirts, starring Pauline Frederick, Mae Busch, Conrad Nigel. Directed by Robert Vignola.

Cheaper To Marry, starring Conrad Nigel and Lewis Stone. Directed by Robert Z. Leonard.

His Hour, starring John Gilbert and Aileen Pringle. Written by Elinor Glyn. Directed by King Vidor.

The Bandolero, starring Gustav von Seyffertitz. Directed by Tom Terriss. Melodrama.

The Great Divide, starring Alice Terry, Wallace Beery. Directed by Reginald Barker. Melodrama.

The Dixie Handicap, starring Lloyd Hughes. Directed by Reginald Barker. Melodrama.

The Beauty Prize, starring Viola Dana, Pat O'Malley. Directed by Lloyd Ingraham.

So This is Marriage, starring Eleanor Boardman, Conrad Nagel. Directed by Hobart Henley.

The Silent Accuser, starring Eleanor Boardman, Raymond McKee. Directed by Chester Franklin.

Sinners in Silk, starring Eleanor Boardman, Adolphe Menjou, Hedda Hopper, Jean Hersholt. Directed by Hobart Henley. Drama.

Bread, starring Mae Busch and Pat O'Malley. Directed by Victor Schertzinger. Drama.

Circe the Enchantress, starring Mae Murray, William Haines. Directed by Robert Z. Leonard. Drama.

The Snob, starring Norma Shearer, John Gilbert, Hedda Hopper. Directed by Monta Bell.

The Prairie Wife, Gibson Gowland, Boris Karloff. Directed by Hugo Ballin. Drama.

Wife of the Centaur, John Gilbert, Eleanor Boardman, William Haines. Directed by King Vidor. Drama.

Monday, May 26, 2008

West of Broadway (1931)

West of Broadway, 1931, starring John Gilbert, Lois Moran, Ralph Bellamy, and El Brendel. Directed by Harry Beaumont.

Those who believe MGM was deliberately sabatoging John Gilbert's sound-era career won't find much in West of Broadway to dissuade them; the character Gilbert is asked to play here is thoroughly disagreeable. Jilted by his girlfriend after returning from WWI, and on a bender, Gilbert marries sweet but low-class Lois Moran the very night he meets her. Gilbert's character continues drunk and bitter throughout the film, as Moran unrelentingly pursues him, determined to make the quickly-spawned marriage work. She does, of course, in a fast, tacked-on ending.

There's just not a lot believable or likeable here, except for Lois Moran's good-hearted commitment to an ideal. Ralph Bellamy plays to type as the guy who doesn't get the girl; El Brendel may have been funny in some films, but not in this one.

For a much better Gilbert sound film, see The Phantom of Paris, also 1931.

Not available on DVD; it has been shown on Turner Classic Movies.

Friday, May 23, 2008

MGM Straight Down the Line

Since April, 2002, Mary and I have undertaken an ambitious (some would say foolhardy) agenda of film watching: we are watching every MGM film which still exists (many no longer do), in as close to chronological order as possible. Our agenda encompasses all feature films released by MGM from the studio's creation, in 1924, until 1960, when the classic era of systematic Hollywood filmmaking was, for all intents and purposes, over.

MGM was probably the grandest of the Hollywood studios. It lacked the hard-hitting edge of Warner Bros., but made up for it through sheer spectacle, high, glossy production values and, as their tagline proclaimed, "more stars than there are in heaven". It's also worth noting that proto-EC and proto-Lynchian films such as Tod Browning's Freaks and The Unknown were produced by MGM, as were films of visionary decadence by Erich Von Stroheim, (recommendation: see Stroheim's Greed on a double-bill with P.T. Anderson's There Will Be Blood. Only the strong will survive). MGM also destroyed the career of Buster Keaton, another fascinating but depressing spectacle. Last but not least, MGM featured a trinity of top actresses in the '20s and '30s: Norma Shearer, Greta Garbo, and Joan Crawford. Sometimes sublime, sometimes mediocre and sometimes bizarre (or all three in the same movie), their films were always fascinating.

We began by watching The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, the first film MGM released (though not the first film made by the new studio). It is also the film which made Rudolph Valentino a star. Since then, we have watched approximately 115 films, and are halfway through 1931. We're using, as a reference guide, The MGM Story, by John Douglas Eames, which lists films MGM released by year. (If you'd like to follow along with our movie watching, buy a copy of The MGM Story and have at it.) As films from years we've already covered have been made available, we've "backtracked", watching that film, then continuing on with the "current" year. I'll be posting here short reviews of the films we watch in the series, and posting reviews of earlier films we've watched when it's possible to go back and review them.

I'll also be posting miscellanious thoughts and lists on our crazy endeavour and we welcome your comments, comparisons, suggestions, or just plain help in tracking down elusive MGM films we've not yet been able to find. If you have a question about MGM or an MGM film,please post it here. I don't claim to be an expert on MGM, merely a guy watching a bunch of MGM movies. Then again, watching 115 MGM movies in a row can fill your head with a lot of near-useless facts. If you spot mistakes or wish to post clarifications or alternate opinions, feel free to post your comments.