We watch classic musicals sometimes. I never thought a 1930’s backstage drama starring James Cagney as an obsessed showman, costarring with the entire Gold Diggers of 1933 cast, would turn out to be the elusive Perfect Film, but there ya go.
Never seen this, and I’d steeled myself for a first half of boring scientist buildup, but nope, he arrives at an inn, already invisible and in a terrible mood. This was a good pick, excellent and humorous, as I should’ve expected, coming between The Old Dark House and Bride of Frankenstein.
While the voice of Claude Rains is off being invisible and trying to complete his studies if only the other residents would leave him alone, his mustachey coworker Kemp (William Harrigan of Flying Leathernecks) takes the opportunity to mack on Claude’s girl Gloria Stuart.
The innkeepers curse their luck:
At the inn, the highlight is Una O’Connor, who has a terrific scream. Claude’s only special powers are to beat people up while invisible, and fuck with their heads – the news reports the so-called invisible man as a group delusion, a bumpkin madness, but things escalate when he kills a cop halfway through the movie.
Clarence and Gloria hear the bad news:
Kemp and Gloria arrive along with her scientist dad Clarence, who says the chemicals in Claude’s invisibility formula can cause madness. Proving his point, Claude kills 100+ innocents by wrecking a train and tearing through his own search party, then murders Kemp, sending his car off a cliff. Since neither science nor the love of Gloria Stuart can tame him, the townsfolk hunt the guy down.
Played at the second Venice Film Festival, with Little Women, Twentieth Century, It Happened One Night, and
Golden Lion Mussolini Cup winner Man of Aran. One of the five classic Universal monster movies, all of which got multiple sequels. Joe May would direct Invisible Vincent Price in 1940, and the same year Virginia Bruce would play The Invisible Woman, though of course she doesn’t get to be a scientist, she just answered a newspaper ad placed by Dr. John Barrymore. Jon Hall fought nazis as The Invisible Agent, returned for his Revenge two years later, then Arthur Franz got invisible with Abbott and Costello. There have been plenty more invisible (and Hollow) men and women, and it looks like the guy who made Upgrade is rebooting the original next year with Elisabeth Moss.
Katy and I settled in for a month of pre-code Stanwycks on Criterion and… we only made it through this one. The new doc featuring Catherine Russell and Imogen Sara Smith was certainly more engaging than the film. It’s short though, full of nurses undressing and Stanwyck solving the mystery of why her employer’s chauffeur (Clark Gable, a couple years before It Happened One Night) is slowly killing the children of the house, punching lots of people, and somehow staying employed. Stanwyck gets romanced by a bootlegger (Hell’s Angels star Ben Lyon), saves the children, and I think Gable gets murdered offscreen. Costarring Joan Blondell, who appeared in the other 1931 William Wellman movie I’ve seen.
Honestly, even just a month after watching 78/52, Vivian Leigh did not look familiar here. I have a Vivan Leigh facial recognition problem. We both enjoyed seeing the young, fiery, sexy version of Rex Harrison, who plays an extremely principled reporter who falls for the daughter of the mayor he’s attacking in print. The mayor is the sort of cartoonishly blinkered rich asshole who finally gets in trouble for ordering the death of a poor woman’s dog. Codirector Dalrymple was better known for his writing, for which he got two oscar nominations the following year.
Poor dogless Sara Allgood, in montage-dissolve against a raging storm:
Rex and Viv:
Mayor Cecil Parker gives his big speech… have I mentioned this is set in Scotland?
I guess the title refers to the ultimate horror, that in darkest Haiti, not only the deceased natives are being resurrected as workhorse zombie slaves but… white people, too! Good evocative opening, the clueless foreigners arriving to encounter a burial in the middle of the road (to avoid grave robbing) then asking directions from local zombiemaster Bela Lugosi. Of course the Christian missionary has been here 30 years and insists all this zombie nonsense is primitive superstition, but even he comes around by the end.
How are hipsters not waxing their eyebrows like this?
Since all 1930’s movies are about two white people wanting to be married, we’ve got Neil (John Harron of Satan in Sables, Karloff’s The Invisible Menace): simple, impulsive, a very slow learner… and Madeline (Madge Bellamy, star of Lazybones, who would later become infamous for shooting her millionaire ex-lover)… who is also desired by local fancyman Beaumont (Robert Frazer of The Vampire Bat), who has hired Neil in order to get closer to Mads. Beau fails to woo her from Neil, so he poisons her at the wedding, then has Lugosi resurrect her to marry.
“Surely you don’t think she’s alive in the hands of natives? Oh no, better dead than that!”
Even dense Neil figures out what has happened, teaming up with the pipe-smoking missionary (Joseph Cawthorn, William Powell’s dad in The Great Ziegfeld) to meet Haitian Witch Doctor Pierre (played by a Brit) for advice, learning that houses of the living dead can be identified by nearby vultures (played by hawks or falcons). Meanwhile Beau is bummed that Zombie Mads has no facial expressions or speech or emotions (but can still play piano), gets zombified himself for daring to complain to Lugosi about it. After a couple of attempted murders and a slow-motion shove-fight atop a cliff, Lugosi falls dead and Mads awakens (so her resurrection was permanent, but her stupor-state was maintained by Lugosi’s will?). Mostly the movie seems important for its historical place as the first zombie film, and for its wealth of Bela Lugosi poses and expressions, silently controlling zombies with hand gestures like he’s playing a Wii game.
Beau and Mads:
Nice pose… but not a vulture:
Produced by Victor’s brother Edward, the two Halperins also made a loose sequel set in Cambodia, gangster KKK drama Nation Aflame, and the Carole Lombard ghost thriller Supernatural.
Sometimes after a very long Monday, you ask the laptop, “what’s the shortest, dumbest movie we’ve got,” and the laptop says how about that Marx Brothers movie that you can never remember if you’ve seen or not because it has the same title as a Howard Hawks movie you’ve definitely seen, and you go “sure okay.”
Appropriate title for a movie that’s just a bunch of fooling around. The Four Marx Brothers – even Zeppo, who is properly integrated with the others for once – stowaway on a ship, then anarchy ensues. A couple of warring gangsters are aboard, so the guys split alliances and mess with everyone. There’s plenty of music, and Thelma Todd of Horse Feathers (who would die suspiciously before she was 30), and a gangster’s daughter whom Zeppo likes. There’s a character named Alkie Briggs (Harry Woods, who played the coward Robert Ford in one of the first Jesse James movies) which makes me wish I wrote movies just so I could reuse the name Alkie. And I forget exactly why Harpo had Maurice Chevalier’s passport.
Groucho and Thelma take a break from the action:
Barbara Stanwyck is great as ever, and maybe the movie itself isn’t great, but it’s something we didn’t think ever existed. You hear that the 1930’s pre-codes were edgy, and you see Mae West‘s bawdy humor, but you never expect to see Barbara – pushed by a Nietzsche-quoting crank – to screw her way up the ladder of a bank, finally getting the president to marry her and inspiring two suicides along the way.
Barbara has mixed feelings watching her dad burn up:
Predicting another of her movies, eight years early:
Barbara’s dad Robert Barrat is a crabby bartender, pimping out his daughter until his stillhouse explodes with him inside, so Lily (heh) moves to the city with her buddy Theresa Harris (of Thunderbolt and I Walked With a Zombie) in tow. She doesn’t actually advance her career, because women in banks were secretaries, but she starts as secretary to lowly John Wayne in the filing department and quickly becomes secretary to men higher up the organization. There’s leering Mr. Brody, then the upright guy who tries to get her fired Mr. Stevens (Donald Cook), then his crazy-haired boss Carter aka Fuzzy Wuzzy (Henry Kolker, Katharine Hepburn’s dad in Holiday), and finally the fancy young president (George Brent), who she sideways-seduces by pretending to be reformed and uncorruptable. In the end she either finds her president-husband dead in his office, or she’s so happy he’s still alive that she renounces her riches – your choice.
Barbara ignoring John Wayne:
Cozying up to Brody (Douglass Dumbrille of Mr. Deeds Goes to Town):
With wild scarf, sleeves, and Donald Cook:
Small-town Carole Lombard (Mr. and Mrs. Smith) is misdiagnosed with radium poisoning by her incompetent doctor Charles Winninger (The Sun Shines Bright). It seems most old movies have newspaper reporters as main characters, and most are big-city reporters crashing some quaint small town for a story, and this movie is no exception. Frederic March (who I absolutely cannot recognize, even though he starred in Design for Living and I Married a Witch and The Best Years of Our Lives) is that reporter, sent by chief Oliver Stone (really!, played by Walter Connolly, last seen in 5th Ave Girl).
Wellman must’ve put his energy into the oscar-winning A Star Is Born from the same year, cuz this one just spins its wheels. Lombard is cute, and it’s got not-bad color for the 1930’s.
Hecht’s best films (the Hawks comedies, though it’s also in his Hitchcock thrillers) are built on the fact that every line/action is hit on a very specific beat, a sort of rhythm that demands a not necessarily limited visual/performative delivery, but one that requires it all to be in step with those beats. Wellman instead lets the thing run with a loose rhythm more apt for his style, less editing and more long takes that give the actors breathing room – a good idea but the wrong script for a world where everyone is a cartoon.
That Flicker Alley blu-ray set I threatened to buy at the beginning of the year, well I bought it. And besides being full of interesting avant-garde films beautifully preserved in high-def, it’s really well sequenced and presented. Gonna have to break this into a few screenings and posts since I’m taking so many screenshots.
Manhatta (1921 Sheeler & Strand)
City photography, mostly seaside and rooftop, floats by, with intertitles from a Whitman poem. Impossible to know how this looked in 1921 since by now I’ve seen hours and days of NYC photography. Buildings and ships still look like buildings and ships, so I was mostly interested in the few shots of people and traffic. Strand later photographed Redes and codirected Native Land.
Lewis Jacobs, writing in Film Quarterly in late 1947:
In technique the film was simple and direct, avoiding all the so-called “tricks” of photography and setting. In a sense it was the forerunner of the documentary school which rose in the United States in the middle 1930’s … The picture’s emphasis upon visual pattern within the real world was an innovation for the times.
Anemic Cinema (1926 Marcel Duchamp)
Alternates geometric spirals with word spirals (jokey French puns, I think). Peaceful. His buddy Man Ray helped out, and some prankster named Gustavo contributed a drone soundtrack.
In Visionary Film, Sitney calls it one of the “two fundamental works of the graphic cinema from the 1920s made without animation,” along with Ballet Mechanique.
Duchamp’s purpose was presumably to create an artwork with minimal means, including quasi-found objects, the disks he had made for another purpose. His idea is clearly reflected in the title, Anémic cinéma, which suggests a weakness or thinness of means. “Anémic” is also an anagram for “cinéma.”
Life and Death of 9413 (1927 Florey & Vorkapich)
Still one of my favorite shorts ever. I love that Florey & Vorkapich were already this cynical about Hollywood in the silent era – especially great is the “babababa” mouth-flapping in place of speech. Would be a good short to run before The Last Command.
Skyscraper Symphony (1929 Robert Florey)
New York buildings, photographed straight ahead and jutting out in all directions, making this an appropriate follow-up to the city documentary Manhatta and the expressionist angles of 9413. Donald Sosin contributes a very nice piano score. Florey directed a Marx Brothers movie the same year.
Mechanical Principles (1930 Ralph Steiner)
Pistons, meshing gears and other mechanics, beginning slow and simple and getting into crazier and faster gizmos. Really cool.
A Bronx Morning (1931 Jay Leyda)
More New York scenes, this one more social than the structural interests of the others. Leyda had documentary cinematography and editing pretty well figured out by age 20, worked with Steiner, later with Eisenstein and went on to write film histories.
How much does expert ladies hair bobbing cost to-day?
Lot in Sodom (1933 Watson & Webber)
Leagues beyond the previous films in visual poetry. Bodies collide in slow motion, mirrored and refracted. Eventually a plot takes shape when an angel appears to woolen-bearded Lot and tells him to get out of town before it’s destroyed by a rain of fire (there’s some other stuff I didn’t catch, not being familiar with the bible story). Like I wrote for the same directors’ Fall of the House of Usher, “I still don’t know exactly what happened, but boy was it awesome.”
Jacobs called it “the most distinguished experimental sound film of the period.”
Lot in Sodom used a technique similar to that of The Fall of the House of Usher, but far more skillfully and resourcefully. It drew upon all the means of camera, lenses, multiple exposure, distortions, dissolves, and editing to achieve a beauty of mobile images, of
dazzling light and shade, of melting rhythms, with an intensity of feeling that approached poetry. Its brilliant array of diaphanous shots and scenes … were so smoothly synthesized on the screen that the elements of each composition seemed to melt and flow into one another with extraordinary iridescence.
Poem 8 (1933 Emlen Etting)
Visual poetry with no narrative – the first time that had been done, according to Etting, who is wrong (Man Ray, Hans Richter, Ballet Mechanique). Rough on the technical side, but it works for me. Dig the first-person camera sipping a cocktail and making out with an undressing woman. I didn’t feel the new piano score by Rodney Sauer was appropriately poetic.
An Optical Poem (1938 Oskar Fischinger)
Floating shapes appear and move in sync with a Liszt song. Since it’s made with paper cutouts in stop-motion (which must have been aggravating) you can their shadows upon each other.
Thimble Theater (1938 Joseph Cornell)
Cornell and his posthumous editor Lawrence Jordan throw together a bunch of things and run circus music under them all. Too many kids in a paper flower… what looks like a Melies movie… a cartoon printed inverse and upside down… mountain goats… a man vs. kangaroo fight in slow-motion. Before Spike & Mike or Everything Is Terrible or Star Spangled to Death, Cornell was the original curator of clip shows of wonderous things.