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.