Jimmy Stewart throws away his dreams to run his dad’s bank while his brother Harry is off being a war hero. Uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell of every great movie in 1939) loses a bunch of money, putting the bank at risk of takeover from evil rival Potter (Mark of the Vampire star Lionel Barrymore). Jimmy tries to kill himself but angel Clarence (The Invisible Man scientist Henry Travers) saves him, shows him that Harry and Billy and his wife Mary (Donna Reed of Scandal Sheet) and the guy at the drugstore (HB Warner, DeMille’s Jesus) would’ve all been ruined without him (Potter would be fine). The townspeople contribute to pay Jimmy’s bank’s debts and he’s newly happy to be alive. Good movie while watching, the moment it’s over I always get annoyed by it again.

The Thirteenth Chair (1929)

After London After Midnight came three more Lon Chaney pictures including West of Zanzibar. Now, Browning’s love for headscarves leads him to India, and his love for Hungary leads him to Bela Lugosi. This is quite good for a 1929 sound film, but it hurts to exchange the long, lingering silent facial expressions for inane upper-class British conversational pleasantries. There’s no transitional period, the movie is crammed wall-to-wall with dialogue as if spectators were paying by the word.

Madame LaGrange is played by an actress named Wycherly, which would’ve been a cooler name for her medium character. Yes, we’re back in Mystic territory, and to prove her authenticity she explains the mechanics of the usual tricks used by mediums, then proceeds to her spiritual work uncovering a murderer. Someone dies during the first of two lights-out seances (during which the movie achieves maximum talkie-ness, becoming a radio play) so Inspector Lugosi arrives, and star Conrad Nagel’s girl Leila Hyams emerges as chief suspect, but it turns out some other blonde lady killed both guys.


Dracula (1931)

Written about this before… watching now with the Philip Glass / Kronos Quartet score, hell yes. The music is mixed higher than the dialogue, as it should be. Now that I’ve seen Thirteenth Chair I have to say this is extremely awesome in comparison, dispensing with the constant dialogue and returning to beautiful image-making with big Lugosi close-ups.


Freaks (1932)

Wrote about this before, too. More movie-worthy characters in this hour-long film than in Browning’s whole pre-Dracula career combined. Over 50 years later Angelo had a plum role in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. Before Dracula, Browning made that Outside The Law non-remake, before Freaks came boxing drama Iron Man, and afterwards was Fast Workers… a comedy?


Mark of the Vampire (1935)

John Fordian Dr. Donald Meek busts into an inn just as idiot tourists are getting the talk about why we don’t go out at night (bad idea to watch the same night as Dracula since it’s all the same vampire explanations to incredulous people). Inspector Atwill, a large mustache man, arrives to investigate a mysterious death. Fedor and Irena are survivors, swoop-haired Otto is her guardian. Meanwhile, Dracula himself (played as a wordless zombie monster with no suave dialogue) and his undead daughter Luna lurk in a nearby castle. Professor Barrymore arrives to do some Acting, a welcome diversion, while Irena’s dead dad Sir Karell has become a zombie Drac-follower, and Irena has begun acting vampy herself.

Somehow the plot gets even more convoluted, and Browning and Lugosi’s involvement becomes an in-joke, because the “vampires” have only been performers in Barrymore’s Holmesian plot to make swoop-haired Otto confess to killing his friend, hypnotized into re-committing his crime. Good performances in this, though nothing else really works, and the rubber-bats-on-strings technology hadn’t improved since ’31. I liked how no two people manage to pronounce the character names the same way.

Clanker, the Jump-Scare Cat:


The Devil Doll (1936)

Nobody told me this would be a Bride of Frankenstein ripoff cowritten by Eric von Stroheim. Maybe bitter that another director remade Tod’s Unholy Three with Lon Chaney, he goes ahead and rips that off too. Lionel Barrymore is a banker who got backstabbed by his partners and sent to prison, escapes to get revenge – wrongly(?)-accused man becoming a murderer on the run.

First stop is scientist Marcel (Henry Walthall, the yellow shut-in of Griffith’s House with Closed Shutters) to borrow his shrinking formula. He’s working on miniaturization to alleviate world hunger (isn’t this the plot of Downsizing?) but has a heart attack while shrinking the maid, so his devoted wife Malita (Rafaela Ottiano, who’d worked with Barrymore on Grand Hotel) comes along to continue his research by shrinking some bankers, Lionel hiding in plain sight as an old woman running a doll shop.

First off is nervous mustache banker Arthur Hohl (a cop in The Whole Town’s Talking), then they use a devil-doll to rob the house of Robert Greig (who played butler-typed in Preston Sturges movies). The dolls are mind-controlled by their masters (I missed Marcel’s explanation for this) and this doll-heist setpiece is cool enough to justify the entire movie.. Barrymore wants to see his beloved family members now that he’s out, so he pays disguised visits to his blind mom (Lucy Beaumont, who’d played Lionel’s brother John’s mom in The Beloved Rogue) and his lovely grown daughter (Maureen O’Sullivan started acting at the dawn of sound cinema and died in 1998 in Scottsdale, so she may well have watched Fargo in Arizona like we did).

Malita and tiny assassin:

The third banker is Pedro de Cordoba (a circus player in Hitchcock’s Saboteur), who surrounds himself with police then sweatily confesses that he railroaded Barrymore right as his doll-sized colleague was about to stab him with paralysis/shrink syrup. Malita helpfully/fatally blows up the lab/shop because Barrymore’s mission is done but she wants to go on shrinking things. Happy-ish ending for Barrymore, who meets his daughter and her beau Toto atop the Eiffel Tower, but after all the murdering he’s got to stay on the run. Browning’s penultimate film – he’d turn in one more comedy before forced retirement.

Since Albert Brooks’s Modern Romance didn’t work out as a wedding anniversary movie (we turned it off after he’d spent 30 minutes flailing alone after dumping his longtime girlfriend), we tried this movie about society folks brought low by the great depression, full of cheating and suicide. Oh well, we made up for these rom-com failures by sandwiching them between the Soulmates Double-Feature and the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup.

Many, many quality actors, most of whom make it to dinner at the Jordans’ house by the end (John “Twentieth Century” Barrymore, playing a washed-up actor, stuffs up the cracks and turns on the gas). His secret squeeze the Jordan girl, Madge Evans (Cukor’s David Copperfield) doesn’t take the news too badly. Her mom Billie Burke (a standout with her high-pitched perfect-party obsession) ignores her own husband Lionel “West of Zanzibar” Barrymore, who is slowly dying of heart failure.

More important than the Barrymores, now I’ve seen Jean Harlow (a harsh city-slangin’ beautiful blonde broad), Wallace Beery (not just a Barton Fink reference anymore; big scary guy) and Marie Dressler, whom I’ve never heard of, but she was pretty awesome as a large, loud washed-up actress, broke but not taking it so hard as the Barrymores.

Lionel owns a shipping company, which has some stock-trading drama involving Beery. Harlow spends most of the movie in bed berating her maid, is seeing her doctor for more than medical reasons. Some servants get in a knife fight (tragically off screen – Rules of the Game this ain’t). The long-awaited society couple who are the reason for the dinner never show up, so Burke’s frowny cousin and her dullard husband come instead. After talking about dinner all movie long, they finally head in to eat just as the end title comes up – wonder if Luis Bunuel was taking notes.

The movie’s undying lessons:
1) Always, always lie to your loved ones.
2) If a patient is dying, it’s best not to tell him.

Remade in the 1950’s with Mary Astor and Pat O’Brien then in the 80’s with Lauren Bacall, Charles Durning, Ellen Greene and Julia Sweeney. At least two musical parody two-reelers were made in ’33 to poke fun at the silly rich people with their love affairs and their suicides. Supper at Six was written by song lyricist Ballard MacDonald, and couldn’t have been worse than the one we watched, Come to Dinner (1933, Roy Mack), a contemptuous mini-remake populated by look-alikes who weren’t halfway decent at acting or comedy, but did a good job of quoting and resembling. Roy Mack presumably couldn’t be arsed since he made eighteen other shorts this year, including spoofs of Grand Hotel and I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, and two movies featuring a seven-year-old Sammy Davis Jr.

Liked it better than Unholy Three because of the super fast pace and more exciting atmosphere, the wonderfully (if not accurately) rendered African setting.

Ron on IMDB helpfully summarizes: “Magician Phroso’s wife Anna leaves him for another man, named Crane, who fights with Phroso and leaves him paralyzed. Later Anna returns and he finds her dead, leaving behind a daughter. For 18 years Phroso, known as “Dead Legs” by his cronies, plots his revenge, becoming a pseudo-king in East Africa, nearby where Crane has set up an ivory business. When the daughter is grown, having lived in a brothel in Zanzibar thanks to “Dead Legs”, Phroso put his plan into action, resulting in revenge and retribution all around.”

Lon Chaney is great as Dead Legs, but the great Lionel Barrymore looked pretty generic to me, failed to stand out as the arch-rival. Young wife Anna quit acting the following year (right before sound films) and lived until 1986. Drunken Doc, who falls in love with the daughter, was Warner Baxter, who won the best-actor oscar that same year in the second annual academy awards, for In Old Arizona, the first full-talkie.

Not to be confused with the 50’s British Ealing Studios West of Zanzibar about a good-hearted man (Story of O actor Anthony Steel with wife Sheila Sim of A Canterbury Tale) fighting ivory pirates.