Cleaning Out The DVR: Headline Shooter (dir by Otto Brower)


Bill Allen (William Gargan) is cynical newsreel cameraman.  Everywhere he goes, he’s got a tripod and a camera ready to go.  He films the disasters that other people are too scared to go near.  When there’s an earthquake, he runs outside to film it.  When a building catches on fire, he risks life and limb to record the event.  When a dam breaks, Bill is there to not only record the devastation but also help expose the man responsible for the poorly constructed dam.  When the man later commits suicide, Bill shrugs it off.  The public, he says, had a right to know.

Jane Mallory (Frances Dee) is a reporter.  She tough and she can just as sarcastic as Bill.  When she’s held hostage by  bunch of gangster, she proceeds to not only challenge them to a game of gin rummy but she beats them too!  Jane loves pursuing a good story but she worries that she might end up as cynical and callous as some of her colleagues.  As much as Jane loves it, a part of her is desperate to get out of the news business and, instead, marry the decent but boring Hal Caldwell (Ralph Bellamy, of course).

Together, Bill and Jane …. SOLVE CRIMES!

Actually, they do.  Of course, that doesn’t happen until towards the end of this zippy 61 minute film from 1933.  Before they solve a crime and run afoul some gangsters, Bill and Jane fall in love.  Of course, it’s a cynical journalist type of love, where quips and snarky put-downs replace the traditional endearments.  But it’s love just the same.  Bill and Jane share an understanding of what it feels like to pursue a big story.  It’s something that Hal, as decent a person as Ralph Bellamy ever played in a 1930s movie, just cannot understand.

This is a pre-code film, which means that the characters are allowed to smoke and drink and the dialogue is full of double entendres.  When Bill mentions that a woman he knows has a cold, Jane replies, “Let me guess.  It kept you up all night.”  That’s the type of dialogue that, in just a few short years after the release of Headline Shooter, studio productions would no longer be allowed to get away with.

Headline Shooter is a fast-paced film, one where everyone speaks almost exclusively in the fast rat-a-tat style of 1930s New York.  Considering that it’s only an hour long, it still manages to fit in a lot of plot.  There’s also a lot of real footage of actual disasters, the majority of which is passed off as being footage that was shot by either Bill or his colleagues.  Watching the film today, it’s interesting to consider that the newsreel cameraman were essentially early versions of the paparazzi, searching the city for anything worth shooting and, for the most part, not concerning themselves with the ethical concerns of exploiting disaster.  Many of the issues raised by Headline Shooter are still pertinent today.  One could almost argue that a film like Nightcrawler is a direct descendant of Headline Shooter.

Of course, Headline Shooter in never as dark as something like Nightcrawler.  Instead, all things considered, it’s a rather cheerful melodrama.  Gargan and Dee are wonderful in the lead roles and the cast is full of wonderful 1930s character actors.  This film shows up occasionally on TCM so keep an eye out for it!

(Unless, of course, you’re a Comcast customer….)

A Flask of Fields: W.C. Fields in NEVER GIVE A SUCKER AN EVEN BREAK (Universal 1941)


cracked rear viewer

I’ve professed my love for W.C. Fields before on this blog , and NEVER GIVE A SUCKER AN EVEN BREAK is undoubtedly my favorite Fields flick. This inspired piece of lunacy is The Great Man’s commentary on getting films made in Hollywood his way. In fact, Fields wanted to title the movie “The Great Man”, but Universal execs nixed the idea, instead using a line from POPPY, his stage and screen hit. The change caused Fields much consternation, quipping that the movie’s overlong title would be boiled down on movie marquees to “Fields – Sucker”!!

Universal starlet Gloria Jean with “Uncle Bill”

The film’s plot (and I use that term as loosely as possible!) has Fields playing himself, delivering his latest script to Esoteric Pictures head Franklin Pangborn . The story he’s concocted may have the long-suffering Pangborn rolling his eyes, but it’ll have you the viewer rolling on the…

View original post 628 more words

Cockeyed Caravan: SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS (Paramount 1941)


cracked rear viewer

sul1

I’m no expert on Preston Sturges, having seen only two of his films, but after viewing SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS I now have a craving to see them all! This swift (and Swiftian) satire on Hollywood stars Joel McCrea as a successful slapstick comedy director yearning to make important, socially conscious films who gets more than he bargained for when he hits the road to discover what human misery and suffering is all about.

John L. “Sully” Sullivan sets his studio bosses on their collective ear when he tells them he wants to film an adaptation of ” O Brother, Where Art Thou?”, a serious novel by ‘Sinclair Beckstein’. The head honcho balks, wanting Sully to do another comedy, but Sully’s not dissuaded, deciding to see what life among the downtrodden is first-hand. He dresses in rags and sets out on his quest, followed by a gaggle of PR flacks in a bus. Somehow he…

View original post 558 more words

The Fabulous Forties #43: The Sin of Harold Diddlebock (dir by Preston Sturges)


Film1947-TheSinOfHaroldDiddlebock

The 42nd film in Mill Creek’s Fabulous Forties box set was a 1947 comedy called The Sin of Harold Diddlebock.

As a classic film lover, I really wish that The Sin of Harold Diddlebock was better than it actually is.  The film was a collaboration between two of the biggest names in cinematic comedy history: director/writer Preston Sturges and legendary actor Harold Lloyd.  In fact, this was the first film that Sturges directed after leaving the studio system so that he could make bring his unique brand of satire to life without having to deal with interference.  He managed to convince Harold Lloyd to come out of retirement to star in the movie and the film even works as a quasi-sequel to one of Lloyd’s most beloved silent comedies, The Freshman.  In a perfect world, The Sin of Harold Diddlebock would have been a comedy masterpiece that would have perfectly shown off the talents of both men.

Unfortunately, that’s really not the case.  The Sin of Harold Diddlebock is consistently amusing but it’s never quite as funny as you want it to be.  This is one of those films that sounds like it should be hilarious but, when you actually watch it, you see that the film is oddly paced and Lloyd never seems to be fully invested in his role.  I suppose the natural inclination would be to blame this on interference from the notoriously eccentric Howard Hughes, who co-produced the film with Sturges.  After Harold Diddlebock failed at the box office, Hughes withdrew it and spent three years personally reediting the film before re-releasing it under the title Mad Wednesday.  However, by most reports, Hughes wasn’t really the problem.  If Wikipedia is to be believed (and God do I hate starting any sentence with that phrase), Lloyd and Sturges did not have a good working relationship.  As sad as that is, it’s also understandable.  Geniuses rarely work well together.

The Sin of Harold Diddlebock does get off to a good start, seamlessly incorporating the last reel of The Freshmen with footage shot for Harold Diddlebock.  (Somewhat sweetly, the film starts with a title card informing us that the what we are about to see was taken from The Freshman.)  After college freshman Harold Diddlebock scores the winning touchdown in a football game, impressed advertising executive J.E. Waggleberry (Raymond Walburn) offers Harold a job.  However, Harold wants to finish college so Waggleberry tells Harold to look him up in four years.

Four years later, recently graduated Harold goes to Waggleberry for a job and discovers that J.E. Waggleberry has totally forgotten him.  Harold ends up working in the mailroom but is told that, as long as he is ambitious and smart, he will easily move up in the company.  22 years later, Harold is still working in the mailroom.  He is secretly in love with Miss Otis (Frances Ramsden).  Of course, he was also in love with each of Miss Otis’s six older sisters, all of whom worked at the company before the current Miss Otis.  Harold bought an engagement ring when the oldest Otis sister was with company.  Years later, he’s still carrying it with him and dreams of giving it to the current Miss Otis.

However, that might be difficult because Harold has just been fired.  J.E. Waggleberry feels that Harold’s unambitious attitude is setting a bad example.  As severance, Harold is given a watch and $2,946.12.

The normally quiet and reserved Harold reacts to losing his job by doing something very unusual for him.  He goes to a bar and, with the help of a con man (Jimmy Conlin) and a bartender (Edgar Kennedy), he gets drunk.  The bartender even creates a special drink called the Diddlebock.  Harold drinks it and wakes up two days later, wearing a huge cowboy hat and owning a bankrupt circus…

And it only gets stranger from there….

While The Sin of Harold Diddlebock doesn’t quite work, I appreciated the fact that it not only created its own surreal world but that it just kept getting stranger and stranger as the film progressed.  It was Harold Lloyd’s final film and there’s even a scene where he and a lion end up on the edge of a skyscraper that’s almost as good as the famous comedic set pieces from his silent classics.  It’s a pity that the film doesn’t really come together but I’d still recommend seeing it just for history’s sake.

The Fabulous Forties #39: My Man Godfrey (dir by Gregory La Cava)


My_man_godfrey

The 38th film in Mill Creek’s Fabulous Forties box set was My Man Godfrey, which is strange considering that My Man Godfrey is not a 40s film.  The back of the box insists that My Man Godfrey was made in 1946 but it was actually made in 1936.  Errors like this aren’t uncommon when it comes to Mill Creek but, even beyond that simple mistake, My Man Godfrey is clearly not a product of the earnest and pro-American 1940s.  My Man Godfrey may be a screwball comedy but it’s a comedy that is very much a product of the far more cynical 1930s.  It’s a comedy that could only have come out during the Great Depression, at a time when FDR was promoting his New Deal and yet many Americans were still out-of-work and struggling to make ends meet, forgotten by a country determined to buy into a feel good narrative regardless of any evidence to the contrary.

But no matter!  My Man Godfrey might not technically belong in the Fabulous Forties box set but I’m still glad that it was there because it is an absolutely fantastic film.

The Godfrey of the title is played by the always charming and always funny William Powell.  When we first see him, he’s living in a garbage dump with several other men who have lost their money, homes, and family.  These are men who spend their time wondering when and if things are ever going to get better.  While the rest of the country insists that happy days are here again, these men know it’s simply not true.  They are truly the forgotten men.

Fortunately, there’s also a scavenger hunt going on!

For charity, a group of rich people are running around the city and collecting various oddities.  And among those oddities — “a forgotten man!”  When wealthy and snobbish Cornelia Bullock (Gail Patrick) stops off at the dump, she offers Godfrey five dollars to come with her and be her “forgotten man.”  Offended, Godfrey reprimands her and a shocked Cornelia stumbles back and falls into an ash pile.  Cornelia’s younger sister, the flighty Irene (Carole Lombard), sees this and laughs.  Mostly to get back at Cornelia, Godfrey agrees to be Irene’s forgotten man.

When Irene takes Godfrey to the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel so that the game’s organizers can declare him to be an authentic forgotten man, Godfrey is disgusted by the silly and wealthy people that he sees around him.  After he is authenticated, Godfrey proceeds to loudly denounce everyone in the hotel.  Every one is scandalized, except for Irene.  Irene asks Godfrey if he would like to come home with her and be her family’s new butler.  Reluctant but broke, Godfrey agrees.

One of the joys of this scene is seeing the other things people found during the scavenger hunt. Love the monkey.

One of the joys of this scene is seeing the other things people found during the scavenger hunt. Love the monkey.

Godfrey, however, is far less amused.

Godfrey, however, is far less amused.

The next morning finds Godfrey in the Bullock mansion, prepared to start his duties as a butler.  He turns out to be a surprisingly adept butler but there’s only one problem.  It turns out that everyone was drunk last night and, as a result, nobody remembers Irene hiring Godfrey.  As Godfrey reintroduced himself to the family, he gets to once again know the Bullocks.

For instance, patriarch Alexander Bullock (Eugene Pallette) is a well-meaning man but he’s incapable of controlling his eccentric family or their excessive spending.  He faces each day with the weary resignation that his household is a disorganized mess and that he’s on the verge of losing his business.

Alexander’s wife, Angelica (Alice Brady), lives in her own world and confronts every problem with nonstop and delusional positivity.  She is very excited to have taken on a protegé, an artist named Carlo (Mischa Auer, who was justifiably nominated for an Oscar for his wonderfully odd performance).  Carlo is often surly and spoiled but he does do a pretty good impersonation of a gorilla.  Whenever the often dramatic Irene is declaring herself to be the most miserable rich girl in the world, Angelica insists that Carlo cheer everyone up by grunting and jumping around the room.

Mischa Auer as Carlo

Mischa Auer as Carlo

Mischa Auer as a gorilla

Mischa Auer as a gorilla

(Apparently, the gorilla impersonation was something that Auer used to do at Hollywood parties.  The role of Carlo was specifically created with the idea of capturing Auer’s act on film.  As a result, Auer was one of the first actors to ever be nominated for Best Supporting Actor and he started a new career as a comedic character actor.)

Cornelia is selfish and materialistic.  Though she may not remember much about the scavenger hunt, she does remember Godfrey humiliating her.  From the minute she discovers that Godfrey is the new butler, she starts to conspire against him.  When her necklace disappears, everyone is sure that she hid it herself just to frame Godfrey.  The truth, of course, is a little bit more complicated.

And finally, there’s Irene.  Irene is spoiled but she’s not selfish.  She’s also not as ditzy as everyone assumes.  It’s just that she sees the world in her own unique way.  Almost as soon as Irene remembers that she hired Godrey, she decides that she’s in love with him.  She also decides that Godfrey is her protegé.  After all, if her mother can have a protegé, why can’t she!?

Carole Lombard and William Powell

Carole Lombard and William Powell

Carole Lombard was a masterful comedienne whose career was tragically cut short when she was killed in a plane crash in 1942.  Lombard is absolutely adorable in the role of Irene, a character to whom I very much related.

Of course, there is more to Godfrey and his past than he actually let on.   And, even after he becomes the new butler, Godfrey doesn’t forget where he was living just a few days before.  My Man Godfrey is a hilarious comedy but it’s also a comedy with a social conscience.

my-man-godfrey_592x299

I love this film.  It’s a screwball comedy in the best sense of the term, a film where all of the characters are eccentric while also remaining human.  William Powell and Carole Lombard were briefly married before they teamed up in My Man Godfrey and their chemistry is delightful to watch.  Finally, the supporting cast is memorable in the way that only a collection of great 1930s character actors can be.

My Man Godfrey is a great film.  It may not be from the 1940s but I’m glad it was included.

Godfreyw_bw_original

(By the way, just between you and me — I had a lot of fun watching this movie and writing this review.  It kind of reminded me why I started writing about movies in the first place.)

Cleaning Out The DVR #35: Stage Door (dir by Gregory La Cava)


(For those following at home, Lisa is attempting to clean out her DVR by watching and reviewing 38 films by the end of today!!!!!  Will she make it?  Keep following the site to find out!)

Stage_Door_(1937)

The 1937 film Stage Door is a great example of a unique genre of American film, the Katharine Hepburn Gets Humbled genre.

In the 1930s, Katharine Hepburn went through a period of time where she was considered to be “box office poison.”  She was undeniably talented but it was obvious that the studios weren’t sure how to showcase that talent.  They put her in high-brow films that often did not have much appeal to audiences.  As well, the press hated her.  Katharine Hepburn was outspoken, she was confident, she was a nonconformist, and, too many, her refusal to do interviews and sign autographs marked her as a snob.  Very few people wanted to see a movie starring Katharine Hepburn and therefore, very few people were willing to make a movie starring Katharine Hepburn.

(Interestingly enough, as I sit here typing this, another KH — Katharine Heigl — is pretty much in the exact same situation, with the main difference being that Hepburn was a far more interesting actress.)

Fortunately, Katharine Hepburn was smart enough to recognize the problem and she started to appear in films like Stage Door.  In Stage Door, she essentially played a character who mirrored the public’s perception of her.  Terry Randall is a snobbish and pretentious aspiring actress who comes to New York to pursue her career and moves into a theatrical rooming house.  At first, her attitude makes her unpopular with the other actresses living in the house.  But, as the film progresses, Terry slowly starts to let down her defenses and reveals that she’s just as insecure, neurotic, and vulnerable as everyone else.  She also proves herself to be willing to stand up to manipulative producers and condescending directors.  When she’s cast in her first Broadway show, it turns out that the show is being financed by her father and his hope is that she’ll do such a bad job and be so humiliated that she’ll give up acting.  And, at first, it appears that Terry will be terrible.  During rehearsals, she is stiff and mannered.  (Hepburn was actually quite brave to portray Terry as being such a believably bad actress.)

Of course, Terry isn’t the only actress at the rooming house who has issues to deal with.  For instance, Judy Canfield (Lucille Ball) has to choose between pursuing her career or getting married and starting a family.  Kay (Andrea Leeds) is a once successful actress who is now struggling to find roles, can’t pay her bills, and has become suicidal as a result.  And then there’s Jean (Ginger Rogers), Terry’s cynical roommate and frequent enemy and occasional friend.  Jean is falling in love with Anthony Powell (Adolphe Menjou), the lecherous producer of Terry’s play.

Stage Door is a wonderfully entertaining mix of melodrama and comedy.  You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, and you’ll really find yourself hoping that all of the actresses at the rooming house will have their dreams come true.  While the film is dominated by Hepburn and Rogers, it truly is an ensemble piece.  Not only does the cast include Eve Arden, Lucille Ball and Andrea Leeds (giving the film’s best and most poignant performance) but the great dancer Ann Miller appears as Jean’s equally cynical best friend.  Stage Door may be 79 years old but it’s aged wonderfully.

At the box office, Stage Door was a modest success and it directly led to Hepburn being cast in the classic screwball comedy, Bringing Up Baby.  Stage Door was nominated for best picture but it lost to The Life of Emile Zola.

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: Imitation of Life (dir by John M. Stahl)


Louise Beavers and Fredi Washington in Imitation Of Life

Louise Beavers and Fredi Washington in Imitation Of Life

The 1934 film Imitation of Life opens with Delilah Johnson (Louise Beavers) standing on the back porch of a house owned by widowed mother Bea Pullman (Claudette Colbert).  Delilah says that she’s come for the housekeeping position.  Bea tells her that there is no housekeeping position and quickly figures out that Delilah has the wrong address.  As Delilah wonders how she’s going to get to the other side of town in time to interview for the job, Bea hears her toddler daughter falling into the bathtub upstairs.  After Bea rescues her daughter, she agrees to hire Delilah as a housekeeper.

The rest of the film tells the story of their friendship.  It turns out that, because she knows an old family recipe, Delilah can make the world’s greatest pancakes.  Bea decides to go into business, selling Delilah’s pancakes and using Delilah as the product’s mascot.  Soon Delilah’s smiling face is on billboards and she’s known as Aunt Delilah.  When it comes time to incorporate the business, Bea and her partner, Elmer (Ned Sparks), offer Delilah 20% of the profits.  They tell Delilah that they’re all going to be rich but Delilah protests that she doesn’t want to be rich.  She just wants to take care of Bea and help to raise Bea’s daughter.

Delilah, incidentally, is African-American while Bea is white.

Despite the fact that Imitation of Life is considered to be an important landmark as far as Hollywood’s depiction of race is concerned, I have to admit that I was really uncomfortable with that scene.  First off, considering that Delilah was the one who came up with recipe and her face was being used to sell it, it was hard not to feel that she deserved a lot more than just 20%.  Beyond that, her refusal felt like it was largely included to let white audiences off the hook.  “Yes,” the film says at this point, “Delilah may be a servant but that’s the way she wants it!”

It was a definite false note in a film that, up to that point and particularly when compared to other movies released in the 30s, felt almost progressive in its depiction of American race relations.  Up until that scene, Bea and Delilah had been portrayed as friends and equals but, when Delilah refused that money, it felt like the film had lost the courage of its convictions.

However, there’s a shot that occurs just a few scenes afterwards.  Several years have passed.  Bea is rich.  Delilah is still her housekeeper but now the house has gotten much larger.  After having a conversation about Delilah’s daughter, Bea and Delilah walk over to a staircase and say goodnight.  Bea walks upstairs to her luxurious bedroom while, at the same time, Delilah walks downstairs to her much smaller apartment.  It’s a striking image of these two women heading different directions on the same staircase.  But it also visualizes what we all know.  For all of Delilah’s hard work, Bea is the one who is sleeping on the top floor.  It’s a scene that says that, even if it couldn’t openly acknowledge it, the film understands that Delilah deserves more than she’s been given.  It’s also a scene that reminds us that even someone as well-intentioned and kind-hearted as Bea cannot really hope understand what life is truly like for Delilah.

The film itself tells two stories, one of which we care about and one of which we don’t.  The story we don’t care about deals with Bea and her spoiled child, Jessie (Rochelle Hudson).  Jessie develops a crush on her mom’s boyfriend, Steve (Warren William).  It’s really not that interesting.

The other story is the reason why Imitation of Life is a historically important film.  Delilah’s daughter, Peola (Fredi Washington), is of mixed-race ancestry and is so light-skinned that she can pass for white.  Throughout the film, Peola desperately denies being black and, at one point, stares at herself in a mirror and demands to know why she can’t be white.  When Peola goes to school, she tells her classmates she is white and is mortified when Delilah shows up at her classroom.  When Peola gets older, she attends an all-black college in the South but, eventually, she runs away.

When Delilah tracks her daughter down, Peola is working as a cashier in a restaurant.  When Delilah confronts her, she is almost immediately confronted by the restaurant’s owner, who angrily tells her that the restaurant is a “whites only” establishment.  Peola pretends not to know her mother.

Beyond the confrontation between Peola and Delilah, that scene in the restaurant is important for another reason.  It’s the only time that the film provides any direct evidence as to why Peola wants to pass for white.  Oh, don’t get me wrong.  We all know why Peola thinks that society will treat her differently if it believes that she’s white.  (And we also know that she’s right.)  But this scene is the first time that the film itself acknowledges the fact that, in America, a white girl is going to have more opportunities than a black girl.  Up until that point, white audiences in 1934 would have been able to dismiss Peola as just being selfish or unappreciative but, with this scene, the film reminds viewers that Peola has every reason to believe that life would be easier for her as a white girl than as an African-American.  It’s a scene that would hopefully make audiences consider that maybe they should be angrier with a society that allows a restaurant to serve only whites than they are with Peola.  It’s a scene that says to the audience, “Who are you to sit there and judge Peola when you probably wouldn’t even allow Delilah to enter the theater and watch the movie with you?”

Imitation of Life was nominated for best picture of the year and, though it lost to It Happened One Night,  Imitation of Life is still historically important as the first best picture nominee to attempt to deal with racism in America.  (Despite a strong pre-nomination campaign, Louise Beavers failed to receive a nomination.  It would be another 5 years before Hattie McDaniel would be the first African-American nominee and winner for her role as Mammy in Gone With The Wind.  Interestingly enough, McDaniel got the role after Beavers turned it down.)

Following the box office success of Imitation of Life, there were several films made about “passing.”  The majority of them starred white actresses as light-skinned African-American characters.  Imitation of Life was unique in that Fredi Washington, who played Peola, actually was African-American.  As will be obvious to anyone who watches Imitation of Life, Fredi Washington had both the talent and the beauty to be a major star.  However, she was considered to be too sophisticated to play a maid or to take on any of the comedy relief roles that were usually given to African-American performers.  (And, as an African-American, no major studio would cast her in a lead or romantic role.)  As such, her film career ended just three years after Imitation of Life and she spent the next 50 years as a stage performer and a civil rights activist.  (For an interesting look at the history of African-Americans in the film industry, I would suggest checking out Donald Bogle’s Bright Boulevards, Bold Dreams: The Story of Black Hollywood.)  

Like Peola, Washington herself could have passed for white.  She was often asked if she was ever tempted to do so.  I’m going to end this review with the answer that she gave to a reporter from The Chicago Defender:

“I have never tried to pass for white and never had any desire, I am proud of my race. In ‘Imitation of Life’, I was showing how a girl might feel under the circumstances but I am not showing how I felt.  I am an American citizen and by God, we all have inalienable rights and wherever those rights are tampered with, there is nothing left to do but fight…and I fight. How many people do you think there are in this country who do not have mixed blood, there’s very few if any, what makes us who we are, are our culture and experience. No matter how white I look, on the inside I feel black. There are many whites who are mixed blood, but still go by white, why such a big deal if I go as Negro, because people can’t believe that I am proud to be a Negro and not white. To prove I don’t buy white superiority I chose to be a Negro.”