Yo-Ho-Hollywood!: TREASURE ISLAND (MGM 1934)


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Robert Louis Stevenson’s  venerable 1883 adventure novel TREASURE ISLAND has been filmed over 50 times throughout the years, beginning with a 1918 silent version. There was a 1920 silent starring Charles Ogle (the original screen FRANKENSTEIN monster!) as that dastardly pirate Long John Silver, a 1972 adaptation with Orson Welles, a 1990 TV Movie headlined by Charlton Heston, and even a 1996 Muppet version! Most movie buffs cite Disney’s 1950 film as the definitive screen TREASURE ISLAND, with Bobby Driscoll as young Jim Hawkins and Robert Newton as Long John (and Newton would go on to star in the TV series LONG JOHN SILVER, practically making a career out of playing the infamous fictional buccaneer), but…

…a case can certainly be made for MGM’s star-studded 1934 interpretation of the story, teaming Wallace Beery and Jackie Cooper as Long John and Jim. This was the first talking TREASURE ISLAND, and the…

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Still Great Entertainment: Gable & Harlow in CHINA SEAS (MGM 1935)


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Back in the 1970’s, Boston’s WCVB-TV Channel 5 ran a weekend late-nite movie series called “The Great Entertainment”. For 18 years, host Frank Avruch did Robert Osbourne-like introductions to the station’s library of MGM films, way before the advent of cable. This is where I first saw and fell in love with many of the classic movies and stars of the 30’s and 40’s. When TCM recently aired CHINA SEAS, I hadn’t seen the film in decades, and knew I had to DVR it. It had made an impression on me, and while rewatching I was not disappointed; it’s still a rousing piece of entertainment!

Clark Gable is rugged sea captain Alan Gaskill, carrying a quarter million British pounds worth of gold as cargo aboard his liner heading from Hong Kong to Singapore. Jean Harlow plays ‘China Doll’ Portland, Gaskill’s in-port squeeze who comes along against his wishes. Gaskill’s former flame…

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Pre Code Confidential #6: Jean Harlow in THE SECRET SIX (MGM 1931)


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(Once again, your Cracked Rear Viewer is taking part in the TCM Summer Under The Stars Blogathon, hosted by Kristen at Journeys in Classic Film. Just like last year, I’ll be posting on two stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age: Jean Harlow (8/7) and Boris Karloff (8/26).)

Before she became The Platinum Blonde Bombshell of 1930’s Hollywood, Jean Harlow played a pivotal role in early gangster films. She was James Cagney’s second moll in the essential THE PUBLIC ENEMY, and a slutty seductress in THE BEAST OF THE CITY. In THE SECRET SIX, Jean plays a temptress who turns on the mob in a wild Pre-Code film that represents another milestone for Miss Harlow: it’s her first of six with costar Clark Gable.

THE SECRET SIX [US 1931] WALLACE BEERY, JOHNNY MACK BROWN, JEAN HARLOW

Wallace Beery plays Slaughterhouse Scorpio, who rises from the stockyards to the top of the gangster heap. He accomplishes this by brute force, bribery, and rubbing out his…

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The Fabulous Forties #45: Love Laughs At Andy Hardy (dir by Willis Goldbeck)


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I cringed a little when I saw that the 45th film in Mill Creek’s Fabulous Forties box set was 1946’s Love Laughs At Andy Hardy.  

This was because I had never seen an Andy Hardy film before but I did know enough to know that, starting in the 1930s, MGM made a series of films that featured Mickey Rooney in the role of a “nice, young man” named Andy Hardy.  Andy was a well-meaning kid who grew up in Middle America under the watchful eye of his father, Judge Hardy (Lewis Stone).  What little I had heard of the Andy Hardy films led me to suspect that they were very much a product of their time and had not aged particularly well.

Having now watched Love Laughs At Andy Hardy … well, I can confirm that it is a product of its time.  And it is definitely an uneven film, though perhaps I would have felt differently if I had seen any of the other Andy Hardy films.  (Love Laughs was the 15th film about Andy Hardy and it pretty much assumes that the viewer already knows who Andy and all of his friends and family are.)  But I will say this: Mickey Rooney was a really good actor.  In fact, as I watched Love Laughs At Andy Hardy, I was shocked by just how good a performance Rooney gave.  When I think of Mickey Rooney — well, to be honest, it’s rare that I ever do.  But when I do, it’s usually in relation to the exploitation films he made after he was a star.  These were movies like The Manipulator or Silent Night Deadly Night 5, all of which feature an elderly and obviously unwell Mickey acting up a storm.  In contrast to those film, in Love Laughs At Andy Hardy, Mickey gives a totally empathetic and, at times, even subtle performance.   Even by contemporary standards, his performance feels real and, as I watched, I started to understand how there actually could have been 16 separate films about Andy Hardy.  You really do find yourself caring about the little guy,

As for this film, it opens with Andy returning from serving in World War II.  Apparently, he left college to enlist in the army.  Now that he’s back in America, he’s ready to return to college and ask his old girlfriend, Kay (Bonita Granville) to marry him.  However, to Andy’s shock and disappointment, Kay has moved on and has other plans.  Why, it’s almost enough to make Andy want to drop out of school, give up his dreams of becoming an attorney, and try to find work as an engineer in South America!

Fortunately, Judge Hardy is there to talk some sense into his son.

It’s all fairly predictable and, as I said before, definitely uneven.  I get the feeling that a lot of the scenes in Love Laughs At Andy Hardy were meant to serve as call backs to previous films in the series.  Watching this film without a context can lead to a lot of confusion.  But, again, it’s all saved by Mickey Rooney’s performance.  While I can’t really give this film a strong recommendation, I imagine if you’re fan of Rooney’s or the Andy Hardy films, you’ll enjoy it.

Perhaps the best scene in the film comes when Andy is set up on a blind date with a girl named Coffy (Dorothy Ford).  When Andy goes to Coffy’s dorm to pick her up, he can’t understand why all the other girls keep looking at him and laughing.  However, once Coffy shows up, it quickly becomes obvious.  Coffy is 6’2 while Andy is a full foot shorter.

However, when Andy and Coffy arrive at the college dance, they defy all the laughs and the snide remarks.  Instead of surrendering to the expectations of snarky society, they perform a dance to end all dances and I’m going to conclude this review by sharing it below.

Enjoy!

Pre Code Confidential #4: Boris Karloff in THE MASK OF FU MANCHU (MGM 1932)


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“Rooted in medieval fears of Genghis Khan and the Mongolian invasions of Europe, the Yellow Peril combines racist terror of alien cultures, sexual anxieties, and the belief that the West will be overpowered and enveloped by the irresistible, dark, occult forces of the East”- Gina Marchetti, Romance and the Yellow Peril: Race, Sex, and Discursive Strategies in Hollywood Fiction (University of California Press, 1994)

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First, a brief history lesson: The Yellow Peril was a particular brand of xenophobia that spread in the late 19th/early 20th century. Named by (of all people) Kaiser Wilhelm II of  Germany, and given credibility during the Boxer Rebellion of 1900, this “fear of the unknown” basically said those “inscrutable” Chinese were going to come over and slaughter all the good white Christians and rape their women. Popular culture of the times played on these fears by depicting villainous Oriental characters as barbaric, opium-smoking deviants who…

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Embracing the Melodrama Part II #3: The Big House (dir by George Hill)


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The 1930 Best Picture nominee The Big House opens with a black Model T car slowly pulling up to the front of a large and imposing prison.  Handcuffed in the back seat of the car is a handsome, nervous-looking young man named Kent (Robert Montgomery).  Kent is led into the prison where he is forced to hand over all of his possessions to a grim-looking guard.  We find out that Kent has been convicted of manslaughter, the result of hitting someone while driving drunk.  For the next ten years, this prison (which, we’re told, was designed to house 1,800 but actually holds 3,000) will be Kent’s home.

Kent finds himself sharing a cell with two lifers.  Butch (Wallace Beery) is a coolly manipulative sociopath who alternatively counsels and abuses Kent.  Meanwhile, Morgan (Chester Morris) tries to protect Kent and even helps him get his cigarettes back from Butch.  These three prisoners represent the three faces of prison: Butch is the unrepentant criminal who is actually more at home in prison than in the “real” world.  Morgan is the former criminal who has changed his ways but who is apparently destined to spend the rest of his life paying for his poor decisions.  And Kent is the young man who has to decide if he’s going to be like Butch or if he’s going to be like Morgan.  The Big House makes the still-relevant argument that the American prison system is more likely to turn Kents into Butches than into Morgans.

When the film began, I assumed that Kent would be the main character but actually, he’s secondary to most of the action.  From the moment he first shows up, Kent is not particularly sympathetic and he becomes steadily less likable as the film progresses.  Instead, the film is more focused on the always-scheming Butch and the regretful Morgan.  While Morgan makes plans to escape from captivity and ends up falling in love with Kent’s sister (Leila Hyams), Butch spends his time plotting ways to take over the prison.  For his performance as Butch, Wallace Beery won an Oscar but, seen today, it’s obvious that the film’s heart and soul belongs to Chester Morris’s Morgan.

Like a lot of films from the period, The Big House feels undeniably creaky when viewed through modern eyes.  The Big House was made at a time when Hollywood was still trying to make the transition from silent to sound films.  As such, the film’s pacing is slower than what contemporary audiences are used to and a few of the performances are undeniably theatrical.  I can honestly say that I’m never been more aware of how much I take for granted nonstop background music than when I watch a movie from the early 30s.

That said, once you’ve adapted to the different aesthetic, The Big House holds up fairly well.  Director George Hill films the prison like a town in a German expressionist horror film and Chester Morris’s performance remains sympathetic and compelling.  If the plot seems familiar, it’s important to remember that The Big House is the film first introduced a lot of the clichés that we now take for granted.

The film’s best moments are the ones that deal not with Kent, Butch, and Morgan but instead just the ones that show hordes of prisoners — all anonymous and forgotten men — going about their daily life.  It’s during those scenes that you realize just how many people have been crammed into one tiny space and why that makes it impossible for prison to reform the Kents of the world.

Gandhi once said that the true value of any society can be determined by how that society treats its prisoners and The Big House certainly makes that case.

Shattered Politics #9: State of the Union (dir by Frank Capra)


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“Politicians have remained professionals only because the voters have remained amateurs!” — State of the Union (1948)

Does anyone remember the Americans Elect fiasco of 2012?

Americans Elect was an organization set up by a bunch of businesspeople, attorneys, and out-of-office politicians.  Their stated goal was to challenge the political establishment, shake up the two-party system, and elect a president.  The idea was that the party would hold a nationwide primary.  Any registered U.S. voter could go online and cast their vote on what they thought should be in the party’s platform and who they thought should be the Americans Elect presidential candidate.  Whoever won this nationwide primary would be required to 1) run on the platform and 2) pick a vice presidential candidate from the opposite party.

And all would be right with the world, right?

Right.

Anyway, I did register as an American Elect delegate, just because I was curious to see who was getting votes in the nationwide primary and who wasn’t.  (And yes, I did cast a vote.  I voted for Dallas County Commissioner Elba Garcia.)  Looking over the site, I saw that all of the usual suspects were getting votes — Ron Paul, Hillary Clinton, Michael Bloomberg, Donald Trump, and even Barack Obama.  None of the big vote getters were exactly nonpartisan or independent figures.  With the possible exception of Ron Paul, all of them were members of the very establishment that Americans Elect was claiming to challenge.

Anyway, Americans Elect ended up nominating no one for President and, as we all know, the 2012 election came down to choosing between two candidates who both received money from the same millionaires and, in the end, the status quo was upheld.

To be honest, everyone should have realized that Americans Elect was a sham as soon as the New York Times printed a column praising the effort.  Any truly independent political organization would never be praised by the New York Times.  Instead, like most so-called independent political organizations, Americans Elect was just a case of certain members of the establishment slumming.

So, the lesson of American Elect would seem to be that any attempt to run outside of the mainstream will, in the end, simply lead you back to the mainstream.  That was an expensive lesson for all of the volunteers who devoted their time to getting Americans Elect on the ballot in 28 states.  It was a lesson that they could have learned much more easily by watching the 1948 film, State of the Union.

In State of the Union, newspaper publisher Kay Thorndyke (Angela Lansbury) wants to make her lover, Grant Matthews (Spencer Tracy), President of the United States.  Grant is a no-nonsense, plain-spoken businessman who is quick to explain that he loves and cares about his country but that he hates partisan politics.  (In many ways, it’s impossible not to compare Grant to … well, to just about every single wealthy businessman who has ever run for public office while claiming to essentially be nonpolitical.  The big difference is that Grant actually means it.)  However, by subtly appealing to both his ego and his patriotism, Kay convinces Grant to run.  With the help of sleazy Jim Conover (Adolphe Menjou) and the sardonic Spike McManus (Van Johnson), Kay uses her money and her newspapers to turn Grant into a viable candidate.

The only problem is that Grant is separated from his wife Mary (Katharine Hepburn) and, since this movie was made in the 1940s, everyone knows that Grant has to be seen as being a family man if he’s going to be elected.  For the election, Mary and Grant pretend to be happily married.

As the primary season continues, Grant finds himself being more and more manipulated by Kay and Jim.  Eventually, Grant is forced to make a decision between his campaign and his integrity…

Following Mr. Smith Goes To Washington and Meet John Doe, State of the Union was the third part of director Frank Capra’s political trilogy.  Based on a play (which, itself, was supposedly inspired by the 1940 Republican presidential candidate, Wendell Willkie), State of the Union never quite escapes its stage-bound origins.  Add to that, the film was probably a bit more shocking when it was first released in 1948.  In 2015, we’re used to idea of politicians being controlled by money.  But, in 1948, audiences were perhaps a little bit more innocent.

But, that said, State of the Union is still an entertaining film.  Needless to say, Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn have a wonderful chemistry together and Hepburn gets a great drunk scene.  (Hepburn had such an aristocratic presence that it’s always fun to watch her do comedy.)  Angela Lansbury also does well, playing a character who could very well grow up to be the role she played in The Manchurian Candidate.

67 years after it was first released, State of the Union remains an entertaining film that makes some good and still relevant points.  In 2016, when you’re tempted to get involved with the latest version of Americans Elect, watch State of the Union instead.

The Lost Best Picture Nominee: The Patriot (dir. by Ernst Lubitsch)


So, in case you hadn’t noticed, I’ve got a love for film trivia in general and Oscar trivia in particular.  I also love to make lists.  Last night, these twin loves led to me staying up way too late making a list of every single film ever nominated for best picture.  As I looked down at that list, I thought to myself, “That’s not even a 1,000 movies.  Why it would only take a few years for me to see and then review every single film ever nominated.”  So, I am now a woman on a mission.  Well, actually, I’m on several missions but this is definitely one of them.

Unfortunately, there is one nominee that its doubtful that I — or anyone else will ever see — and that is 1928’s The Patriot.  Not only was it the last silent film to be nominated for best picture but it’s also the only nominee to subsequently become a “lost” film.  With the exception of a few publicity stills and the film’s trailer, all trace of The Patriot has vanished.  Maybe there’s a copy of it sitting in the corner of someone’s attic.  It has happened in the past, after all.  More likely though, the Patriot is simply gone. 

Here’s the trailer:

The Patriot was based on the 1801 assassination of Tsar Paul I of Russia.  Paul was played by Emil Jannings who, the previous year, had won the very first Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance in The Last Command.  Paul’s assassin — the patriot of the title — was played by character actor Lewis Stone who later played almost everyone’s father in the 1930s.  Director Lubitsch was, like Jannings, a relatively recent arrival from Germany.

The Patriot was an expensive, “prestige” presentation that was pretty much doomed the moment that Al Jolson spoke in The Jazz Singer.  With audiences now obsessed with “talking pictures,” the silent Patriot was a box office bomb.  Paramount hastily withdrew the film from circulation, added a few sound effects (though no dialogue because of Jannings’s thick German accent), and then re-released the film with the little success.  The Patriot — the last silent film nominated — lost to the first sound film to win Best Picture, Broadway Melody.

The box office failure of The Patriot pretty much drove the last nail into the coffin of the silent film era.  Jannings reacted to the coming of sound by returning to his native Germany and continuing his film career there.  He co-starred with Marlene Dietrich in Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel.   As Germany’s most distinguished actor, Jannings was a supporter of Adolf Hitler and he appeared in several Nazi propaganda films during World War II.  In 1945, following the fall of the Third Reich, Jannings reportedly carried his Oscar with him as he walked through the streets of Berlin.  He died in Austria in 1950 at the age of 65. 

Lewis Stone, meanwhile, prospered in sound films and was a busy character actor until he died of a heart attack in 1953.  Reportedly, he dropped dead while chasing some neighborhood children who had been throwing rocks at his garage.

Ernest Lubitsch also had a very succesful career in Hollywood and specialized in sophisticated romantic comedies and musicals.  While Jannings was making propaganda films for Hitler, Lubitsch was directing the anti-Nazi comedy, To Be Or Not To Be.  He died of a heart attack in 1947, reportedly while having sex with a starlet who was auditioning for a role in his latest film.

The Patriot remains lost.