The Scarlet Empress (1934)

The Scarlet Empress (1934) movie poster

director Josef von Sternberg
viewed: 05/16/2018

Josef von Sternberg’s biographical drama about Catherine the Great, The Scarlet Empress, has a lot of the Silent Epic about it: lavish sets, huge cast, and intertitles. Again, he dolls up Marlene Dietrich in lush, over-the-top outfits and figures her as the beauty among beauties, the woman above all others.

The Scarlet Empress comes at the very end of the Pre-Code Era, and it’s a decadent, bizarro piece of Hollywood extremes.  The Expressionistic sets are insane and wild, imaginative and evocative, while bearing only loosely to anything of historical or cultural accuracy. The matte paintings could use some work perhaps and the miniatures of Moscow are kind of silly. But those sets, they’re astoundingly weird and awesome.

Adapted in part from Catherine the Great’s own memoirs, the story tells of the young naif Princess Sophia, married off to the Grand Duke Peter of Russia to bear him a male heir. Peter is a simpering weirdo, trapped in a childish state, his mother, Empress Elizabeth, a cold and demanding ruler. Sophie is renamed Catherine, and herlessons in life teach her to take charge of her world, sex life (with a litany of lovers) and eventually of all of Russia as well.

I was struck as The Scarlet Empress could be a possible inspiration for Andy Milligan’s Torture Dungeon?

Sternberg depicts a world that is perverse, ornate opulence, heaped up in grotesqueries, doused with sadomasochism, lust, and icy passion. Such a visual fantasia.



Shanghai Express (1932)

Shanghai Express (1932) movie poster

director Josef von Sternberg
viewed: 05/14/2018

If you’ve ever wondered why Marlene Dietrich is considered a sex symbol, just watch Shanghai Express. She is the definition of  movie star here, shot by director Josef von Sternberg and cameramen Lee Garmes and James Wong Howe into absolute iconic pure classic Hollywood cinema.

The cinematography is breathtaking, especially lighting and capturing  of Dietrich. Her outfits, stunning and sublime.

“Don’t you find respectable people terribly…dull?” – Shanghai Lily

Set during a Chinese civil war, the film takes place, largely, on the train of the title, en route for Shanghai but delayed and manipulated by Henry Chang (Warner Oland), a particular player in the country’s unrest. Dietrich is “Shanghai Lily”, an imported courtesan, who runs into an old lover (Clive Brook).  Anna Mae Wong is another mysterious figure on the crowded train, though there is just nowhere enough Anna Mae Wong in the film.

A pre-code gem, Shanghai Express is all intrigue, exotica,  and glamour. All dreamed up on some Hollywood sound stage.

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.