Svengali (1931)

Svengali (1931) movie poster

director Archie Mayo
viewed: 01/04/2018

I first stumbled on Svengali as a horror film loving kid. Though I don’t recall the context being that it was exactly a horror film or what prompted me to watch it late one night, but I was quite impressed with it and have always meant to get back to it.

Adapted from George du Maurier’s 1894 novel Trilby, its horror cred is owed in part to its legacy relationship to the Gothic horror genre. That, and perhaps as important, are the film’s design and aesthetics, which straight borrowed from Expressionist cinema to a great effect. And, of course, John Barrymore in one of his most notable roles, the titular Svengali.

Marian Marsh stars as Trilby, the former titular heroine of the novel. As noted elsewhere, the film’s choice to focus on the villain rather than the heroine as the core of the story, turns this also from a more typical drama and into a darker, more supernatural film.

When I first saw this film, I probably couldn’t recognize the depiction of Svengali as being anti-Semitic, but if you’re familiar with the depictions of the era in which it was made, it’s hard to get away from. Some might argue that Barrymore makes more of the character than any simple racist caricature, but it is deeply imbued in his costume and make-up, as well as some other characteristics.

It’s a visually rich and inventive pre-code horror film. Sincerely recommended.

Night of Terror (1933)

Night of Terror (1933) movie poster

director Benjamin Stoloff
viewed: 12/26/2017

Night of Terror opens with a fairly awesome crystal ball credit sequence. What follows is pure pre-code kookiness with several over-lapping plots including one with a roving maniac.

“Your eyes are like dewdrops…”

I don’t understand all the nuances of camp and kitsch but this movie is full blown something.

Here’s Bela Lugosi slumming it only two years after his breakout Dracula.

I’d say it’s ridiculous fun but the ending just kicks it up an entire full notch. And you’ll just have to watch it to know why I cannot say more.

The Road to Ruin (1934)

The Road to Ruin (1934) movie poster

directors Dorothy Davenport, Melville Shyer
viewed: 05/12/2017

The Road to Ruin is a “talkie” re-make of a more controversial 1928 silent exploitation flick also directed by Dorothy Davenport and starring Helen Foster (who was notably closer in age to the teen she portrays in these pictures.) Though it has a great movie poster, the safe money is on the 1928 movie.

Per Wikipedia “The reviewer for Variety found the film “restrained” in comparison to the more “hotly sexed” silent version”.

Outside of a skinny-dipping scene, this doesn’t have a lot going for it in the more exploitative or even pre-code veins. This story of a teen turned on to sex and drink and drugs who dies after a botched abortion is almost boilerplate stuff. The film does tend to a more sympathetic portrayal of the teen’s psyche, not as judgmental as some of these flicks.

Gotta find me the 1928 version.

The Sin of Nora Moran (1933)

The Sin of Nora Moran (1933) movie poster

director  Phil Goldstone
viewed: 02/16/2017

Unfairly obscure, Phil Goldstone’s The Sin of Nora Moran really deserves to be seen by more. The gorgeous Vargas movie poster (considered by many to be one of the most beautiful of all time) doesn’t seem to help it get seen more, at least as yet. The poster is gorgeous.

This Poverty Row proto-noir pre-code flick is perhaps far from perfect, but it has many fascinating elements, most notably its montages and editing, set in prolonged flashbacks. The striking Zita Johann stars as Nora, a girl orphaned twice, who turned to dancing and showbiz before finding herself raped by a lion tamer. And that is just the beginning.

The story unfolds in flashbacks, related by a DA (Alan Dinehart) to his sister, telling the wild tale of a lost girl who wasn’t half as tawdry as suspected. Really, she had a heart of gold (this was the Depression, of course). Her story unfolds at times as delusions she undergoes via morphine doses to calm her nerves as she sits on Death Row for a crime she did not commit but will go down for.

It’s Zita Johann and the crazy quilt montages that really deliver the film from middling mediocrity and rise it to some Hollywood version of Dziga Vertov and pop culture Surrealism. When the montages come, they come fast and furious, vivid and surprising, extremely unusual.

Goldstone was a longtime producer who only directed a dozen films, mostly in the Silent Era. Was this inventiveness his? Or some collaboration with editor Otis Garrett? Or who knows what kind of alchemy made it possible?

Really a remarkable little picture.

Grand Hotel (1932)

Grand Hotel (1932) movie poster

director Edmund Goulding
viewed: 05/14/2016

Grand Hotel might not have “more stars than in the heavens” but the Best Picture Oscar winner did hail from MGM, the studio who touted that astronomical line.  It’s got Greta Garbo and her iconic “I want to be alone” line, John and Lionel Barrymore, Wallace Beery, and a young Joan Crawford.  It’s an ensemble piece of drama made for a star-studded cast, each getting their moments to shine as they haunt the titular Grand Hotel in Berlin.

For a pre-code film, it’s not especially racy, though it has a little innuendo here and there.  Beyond its starry cast, the thing that struck me the most was the cinematography and set designs.  There are some trippy master shots looking down from the high mezzanines upon the main desk in the lobby floor.  I don’t know how all these were orchestrated but they are often eye-popping and create a singular sense of space and place for the action’s setting.

Some of the drama leans toward the maudlin and the film turns into more outright tragedy by the end.  It’s a film so much of its era in style and performance that it’s easy to imagine a modern audience finding it weird and overdone.  But it also has some true qualities that transcend the aspects that make it seem such a figment of its time.

In the long-run, I’m swinging between three and a half stars and four, though I think landing on the more conservative estimation.

Africa Speaks! (1930)

Africa Speaks! (1930) movie poster

director Walter Futter
viewed: 03/07/2016

What a remarkable artifact.  Africa Speaks! is many things and is wide open for a variety of perspectives, interpretations, and critiques.  For one, the elusive notion of what a documentary is has never been well-defined or remotely unproblematic.

Speaking of problematic?  The inherent racism of the film is almost unfathomable, so steeped in American/Western culture of the time, while peering in on “Exotica”.  Here are a few snippets of the voice-over narration:

“Everybody dances in Pygmyland!”

“Yes, they have some bananas! You can tell by their fat tummies!”

“Besides, they were tired: L-A-Z-Y, TIRED!”

The film does indeed contain documentary footage of wild animals in Africa and scenes of African tribespeople, from Pygmies to Maori warriors.  It also contains scenes shot on some Hollywood backlot of the two purported filmmakers shooting all of the footage and occasionally interacting with “natives”.  While this was probably done for entertainment and narrative coherence purposes, it winds up spelling out the racist attitudes in even more pointed ways.

The footage of the animals and the peoples is informative in its own way.  It’s possible that this is one of the first feature film documents of wildlife, doubtlessly so much more abundant and unimpacted than ever after (though it’s also interesting noting the poaching of ivory was already pretty intense). And the peoples of the tribes, again, the film captures images from a world long gone, a time when isolated cultures hadn’t become as integrated and homogenized.

Africa Speaks! is a pre-code film from Columbia, so its obscurity and existence in the public domain may have more to do with a realization of its inherent problematic nature.  Who knows?  It was apparently quite a hit in its day and inspired later parodies or at least cultural references.

As a public domain artifact, it’s in pretty rough shape.  It might be a worthy recipient of refurbishment, despite its problematic nature.

I couldn’t help but think of Goodbye, Uncle Tom (1971), a bit in looking at this, though maybe it’s closer to Africa Addio (1966) instead.  It’s a world away and yet shares aspects of exploitation and perspective, trying to explain the wild “dark continent” to the West through condescending eyes with the goal of entertainment, featuring about as much misinformation as information.  A prime example of this, and part of the reason I’m tagging this as “exploitation” though it’s not necessarily considered an exploitation film is the “Ubangi” people with their “lip plate” body modification, such a highlight as to make it the primary image of the poster.

In some ways, moderately “mondo” before “mondo”.

There is so much here, this fascinating cultural artifact, way more obscure than it should be.

42nd Street (1933)

42nd Street (1933) movie poster

directors Lloyd Bacon, Busby Berkeley
viewed: 02/29/2016

Not quite as good or poignant as Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933) (which was already in production when this film hit the theaters), 42nd Street is absolutely cut from the same cloth.  It’s a “backstage musical”, directed by Lloyd Bacon instead of Mervyn LeRoy (who had to step out due to illness), featuring Ruby Keeler, Dick Powell, Ned Sparks, Guy Kibbee, and Ginger Rogers, great numbers composed by Harry Warren and Al Dubin, and the psychedelic choreography of the unmatched Busby Berkeley.

Featuring great tunes like “You’re Getting to Be a Habit with Me”, “Shuffle Off to Buffalo” and the titular “42nd Street” make for good times.  Warner Baxter is almost archetypal as Julian Marsh, the hard-driving show director.  I loved Una Merkel as the goofy showgirl Loraine Fleming.

Overall, though, the story isn’t as tight, the jokes aren’t quite as sparkling, nor is the social commentary quite as piquant as  Gold Diggers, but then again, Gold Diggers of 1933 might just be the best of the best so anything might seem a little less in comparison.

Those Busby Berkeley numbers, though!  Man, oh, man!  Glitzy surrealism, live action sculpture, painting with legs and limbs.  The camera movement is so weird and radical.  The sequences aren’t as frequent as in Gold Diggers but the “42nd Street” finale is fantastic, absolutely amazing.  I can’t wait to watch more.

Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933)

Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933) movie poster

directors  Mervyn LeRoy, Busby Berkeley
viewed: 02/04/2016

What a hoot!!

Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle has referred to Gold Diggers of 1933 as one of the best movies of the Depression, and Boy Howdy if I wouldn’t agree!

The pre-code comedy features Joan Blondell, Aline MacMahon, and Ruby Keeler as three showgirl roommates barely scraping by when Warren William shows up with a great idea for a show: a show about the Depression, what it’s really like.  And when he hears the music of Dick Powell, an aspiring songwriter neighbor of the gals, and then Powell turns out to have the money to foot the show, well, we’ve got us a musical!

Blondell and MacMahon are hilarious, leading Powell’s blue blood brother and his partner around by the nose and then eventually the heartstrings while they try to mash out the show.  You know, showgirls have a reputation….

The comedy is fast and funny as hell, but then you’ve got the phantasmagorical musical numbers staged, choreographed, and directed by legendary Busby Berkeley.  Have you ever wondered why Busby Berkeley is a legend?  Just watch Gold Diggers of 1933 and you’ll have no more questions.

From the opening number “We’re in the Money”, performed by Ginger Rogers, to the finale “Remember My Forgotten Man” (all songs by Harry Warren and Al Dubin), these utterly cinematic dance and performance numbers stunning, vivid, surreal, fantastical.  Words don’t do it justice.  Just see it.

All of this, comic and music and fantasy escapism, yet all set solidly in the world of the Depression, a direct reflection of the outside reality of the time.

This is a movie I could watch again and again.  And I plan to.

White Zombie (1932)

White Zombie (1932) movie poster

director Victor Halperin
viewed: 12/27/2015

White Zombie, the original, very first “zombie” movie was adapted from the 1929 novel The Magic Island by William Seabrook, which popularized and introduced the idea of the voodoo of the West Indies, their forebears in African culture, and the idea of reanimated corpses under the sway of some form of the occult.  Or, even, as here, seemingly reanimated  corpses, people under drugged and hypnotized command.

A product of the pre-code era, it’s not especially racy.  Produced independently by brothers Victor and Edgar Halperin, the film stars Béla Lugosi right off the heels of his biggest hit, Dracula (1931).  Here he is ‘Murder’ Legendre, who has enslaved his white enemies as zombie henchmen and runs his plantation with black zombie slaves.  When asked for help with the lovely Madeline (Madge Bellamy) by an unscrupulous plantation owner (Robert Frazer), he zombifies Madeline and plans further nefarious schemes.

It’s the eyes, Lugosi’s, that haunt the film, zoomed-in on, lit eerily, topped by an interesting mono-brow, they command wordlessly.  They even command the movie poster.

I’d seen this before and hadn’t loved it, but this time through found it surprisingly well-photographed.  The zombies themselves, including the luminous Bellamy, are evocative, with their freakish to vacant expressions, like images from a wax museum.  Not far removed from the Silent Era, the film is at its best in scenes enacted through images and movement, without the sound.  Lugosi is vibrant if stilted, not yet in caricature or self-parody (though the caricature comment might be arguable.)

Female (1933)

Female (1933) movie poster

director Michael Curtiz
viewed: 12/20/2015

DVD’s may never go down in history as some ideal form of movie-watching, but I think the format had/has its merits.  Presently, there is, albeit perhaps from some very specific corners, a fond fetishizing of VHS, but DVD’s which usurped the market before being pushed out by Blu-Ray and eventually all streaming markets, offered a format that erred toward letterboxing, added room for commentary tracks or mini-documentary films to supplement features, or even offered multiple films on a disc, opportunities for double features, occasionally with an interesting contrast.  I don’t collect DVD’s but I stick up for them on these accounts.

The case in this particular point is 1933’s Female, credited to director Michael Curtiz but apparently also to some degree directed by  William Dieterle and William Wellman.  It’s the B-side, if you will (not that you have to flip the disc for it), of the DVD of Three on a Match (1932), a double feature of Warner Bros. pre-code entertainments.

Female stars Ruth Chatterton as, yes, a female industrialist, a liberated, powerful, intelligent woman, who lives, loves, and excels “like a man.”  It’s a comedy of sexual role reversal, almost quite feminist.  Actually, if it ended about 10 minutes sooner, or with a different twist, it could have been quite feminist.  Instead, the film turns on Chatterton finally landing the one man she couldn’t have and handing over the reins to the man so that she can make babies and be happy.  What could have been feminist gets subverted quite harshly back to good ol’ patriarchal norms.

At only 60 minutes, it’s entertaining and interesting and hard to argue with, if more of an odd footnote and piece of cultural history.