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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Pre Code Confidential #25: The Stars Are Out for a Delicious DINNER AT EIGHT (MGM 1933)

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After the success of 1932’s all-star GRAND HOTEL, MGM studio boss Louis B. Mayer kept his sharp eyes peeled for a follow-up vehicle. The answer came with DINNER AT EIGHT, based on the witty Broadway smash written by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber. Mayer assigned his newest producer (and son-in-law) David O. Selznick, fresh from making hits at RKO, who in turn handed the director’s reigns to another MGM newcomer, George Cukor. Both would have long, prosperous careers there and elsewhere. Frances Marion and Herman Mankiewicz adapted the play to the screen for the studio with “more stars than there are in heaven”, and those stars truly shine in this film (in the interest of fairness, the stars will be presented to you alphabetically):

John Barrymoreas Larry Renault 

The Great Profile plays aging, alcoholic former silent star Larry Renault in a role that surely hit close to home. 

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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 #13: Wallace Beery in John Ford’s FLESH (MGM 1932)

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Long before his John Wayne collaborations, John Ford had worked to perfect his own style as a filmmaker. Even though the cranky, idiosyncratic Ford, who directed his first film way back in 1917,  had his directing credit removed from 1932’s FLESH, it is credited as “A John Ford Production”, and one can tell this is definitely a “John Ford Picture”.  The man himself thought the film was lousy, and most critics agreed, but I’m in the minority opinion. I think it’s worthy of reappraisal for film lovers to get a glimpse of some vintage Ford, with solid performances by Wallace Beery, Karen Morley, and Ricardo Cortez. Plus, as a long-time pro wrestling buff, the grappling game setting appeals to me, as do the many Pre-Code themes and moments.

Beery once again is a good-natured lug, a German wrestler named Polakai who doubles as a waiter in a rowdy beer garden, toting a keg on his massive…

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Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: The Champ (dir by King Vidor)


“I want the Champ!  I want the Champ!”

Oh good God, shut up you little brat.

Now, nobody actually tells 8 year-old Dink (Jackie Cooper) to shut up at the end of 1931’s The Champ.  I’d like to think that I probably would have said those words if I had been sitting in the audience but, in all honestly, I probably would have been crying along with everyone else.  I’m sure that a lot of people probably cried when The Champ was first released.

And really, it’s probably unfair to criticize Jackie Cooper for repeatedly wailing, “I want the Champ!” during the film’s final five minutes.  It’s actually probably one of the few authentic moments in the film.  It’s just unfortunate that Cooper’s voice was a bit shrill and, as a result, I found myself covering my ears.

As for what The Champ is about, it’s the story of a boy and his alcoholic father.  Andy Purcell (played with loutish charm by the never particularly subtle Wallace Beery) is a boxer.  He used to be the world champion and people still call him The Champ.  Of course, it’s been a while since he’s been in the ring.  Now, Andy just drinks and gambles and continually lets down his son.  However, Dink is always willing to forgive Andy and Andy does truly love his son.  He even buys him a horse, which gets named Little Champ.

It’s while at the stables that Dink meets an upper class woman named Linda (Irene Rich).  What Dink does not realize is that Linda is … his mother!  She was once married to the Champ but his drinking led to divorce.  Linda wants to adopt Dink and perhaps she should because The Champ really is not a very good father.  He even loses Little Champ in a card game.

Fortunately, the Champ has a chance to win the money needed to buy back the horse.  All he has to do is reenter the ring and beat the Mexican heavyweight…

It all leads to “I want the champ!” being screamed several hundred times in a handful of minutes, enough times to make me fear that I would be deaf before the film ended…

The Champ is an old-fashioned and rather creaky melodrama, one that hasn’t aged particularly well.  Director King Vidor specialized in films about the “common man” and The Champ often feels like it was adapted from the first draft of an unproduced Clifford Odets play.  It’s all very sentimental and so thoroughly lacking in snark or cynicism that, for modern audiences, it’s difficult to relate to.  I’ll leave it to you to decide whether that’s a good or a bad thing.

The Champ does hold a place in Oscar history.  Wallace Beery won the Oscar for Best Actor but, for the first time in the history of the awards, there was a tie and Beery shared the Oscar with Fredric March, who won for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

The Champ was also nominated for best picture but it lost to Grand Hotel, which also features Wallace Beery.

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.


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


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.

Embracing the Melodrama #6: Grand Hotel (dir by Edmund Goulding)

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Today, we continue to chronologically embrace the melodrama by taking a look at one of the earliest examples of what would become a Hollywood mainstay, the big budget, all-start soap opera.  Today, we start things off by considering the 1932 best picture winner, Grand Hotel.

Grand Hotel follows five separate people as they all check into Berlin’s Grand Hotel.  They all have their own lives, their own secrets, and their own dreams.  As the film plays out, these five people will wander in and out of each other’s stories.  Seeing as how this was an MGM film and MGM always promoted itself as being the most glamorous studio in 1930s Hollywood, it’s not surprising that these five characters are played by five of the biggest stars that the studio had under contract.

There’s Flaemmchen (played by Joan Crawford), an aspiring actress who, when we first meet her, appears to be willing to do anything in order to advance her career.  Whenever I watch Grand Hotel, I’m also surprised by how good Joan Crawford is here.  Crawford has become such an iconic character of camp that we tend to forget that she actually was a pretty good actress.  In Grand Hotel, she is perfectly cast as someone who is not quite as amoral as she wants the world to believe.

There’s Preysing (played by Wallace Beery), a greedy industrialist who hires Flaemmchen to be both his administrative assistant and his mistress as well.  Considering that the film is set in Germany, its’ easy to view Preysing as a symbol of the fascism that was sweeping across Europe in the 30s.  I don’t know if that was the intention of the filmmakers but it’s impossible to deny that Preysing is a pretty unlikable character, the type of greedy brute who inspires otherwise intelligent people to do things like run off and join Occupy Wall Street.

Crawford and Beery

Far more likable is Otto Kringelein (Lionel Barrymore), a meek accountant who used to work for Preysing.  Kringelein is terminally ill and has basically come to the Grand Hotel so that he can at least enjoy a little bit of luxury before he dies.  At the hotel, he meets and falls in love with Flaemmchen.  Lionel Barrymore is so likable here that it’s hard to believe that he would later be best known for playing evil Mr. Potter in It’s A Wonderful Life. 

Barrymore and Crawford

Otto also meets Baron von Giegern (John Barrymore), a penniless nobleman who supports himself as a gambler and an occasional jewel thief.  If you needed proof that this film was made before the enforcement of the strict Production Code began, just consider that the Baron, despite being a criminal, is also the moral center of the film.  John Barrymore gives a charismatic and wonderfully theatrical performance.  The scenes where he and his brother Lionel play off of each other are some of the best in Grand Hotel.

And finally, there’s my favorite of all the characters — Grusinskaya (Greta Garbo), the Russian ballerina who famously says, “I want to be alone.”  She checks into the hotel to try to escape the world and during her stay, she meets and falls in love with the Baron.  Grusinskaya is the character that I most related to, because we’re both dancers and I sometimes want to be left alone as well.

Barrymore and Garbo

I love Grand Hotel!  How couldn’t I?  The costumes, the sets, the actors, the glamour, the melodrama … what’s not to love!?  Incidentally, compared to a lot of other film melodramas from the early 30s, Grand Hotel actually holds up as pure entertainment.  The film moves quickly, much of the dialogue is still sharp and witty, and all of the actors are perfectly cast.  Curiously, Grand Hotel only received one Oscar nomination, for best picture.  However, it’s not surprising that it also won the only award that it was nominated for.

Grand Hotel has been described as being the first ensemble film.  I don’t quite agree with that because, even though it features a large cast and several intersecting storylines, you never forget the fact that you’re essentially watching a bunch of film stars sharing scenes with other film stars.  Eight decades after the film was made, the star power of Garbo, the Barrymores, Joan Crawford, and even Wallace Beery still continues to shine through and, to a large extent, your reaction to the film’s characters is pretty much the same reaction that audiences in the 1930s had to the public personas of the actors playing them.  But, and here’s the thing — it doesn’t really matter.  MGM made Grand Hotel to celebrate star power and, when you’ve got stars like these, can you blame them?