Monday, October 26, 2009

Halloween and the Precode Era

To celebrate Halloween, we decided to watch the 1931 Dracula with Bela Lugosi in the title role.  What can we say about this iconic film? To get a bit of perspective, we looked at a scene (the "I never" scene) from the 1931 Spanish-language version which was shot on the same set as Lugosi's film.  Carlos Villar (also known as Carlos Villarias), who plays the infamous Conte Dracula, probably ends up being unfairly compared to Lugosi. Sure, he's good, but Lugosi's Dracula is charismatic. It is why, when we think of Dracula today, we still tend to think of Lugosi. He's overstated at times, but he is arresting. It is hard to take your eyes off of him.  And of course, they could not make this sensual a Dracula for years. Perhaps the Frank Langella version 1979 is an attempt to recapture the sexual nature of the Count on film. 

We also talked a lot about the  way in which certain films (this one and Frankenstein, in particular.  Both, by the way, from the Precode era. Frankenstein was released only a few months before Dracula) completely overpower their original work.  Frankenstein the movie, has so entirely kidnapped the book, that when we say "Frankenstein", who do we automatically think of? - the creature, of course. And it is the wonderful Boris Karloff that we remember. We forget that "Frankenstein" is the DOCTOR, not his creation. And I think, even with all the Frankensteins that have come after, we forget that there ever was a Creature other than Mr. Karloff. A tribute to his portrayal, and the wonderful makeup created by Jack Pierce.
Dracula, the book certainly is very sexual And it is wonderful that this mood was able to be captured on film.  Though, the film goes away from the book frequently (we lose Lucy the vampire, and Jonathan Harker does not go to Transylvania), we were rather taken from one major change - Renfield as the lawyer who ends up as Dracula's first victim.  It makes rather a nice touch to have this explanation for Renfield's madness (and an explanation as well for his rebellion against Dracula when Mina Seward is threatened).

This montage of clips from the film might be of interest:

Happy Halloween all!!

Monday, October 19, 2009

Gloria Swanson Sings!

For those of us only familiar with Gloria Swanson's work in Sunset Boulevard, Indiscreet is a revelation. No, this is not the Cary Grant / Ingrid Bergman film, but a 1931 romantic comedy which is a lovely vehicle for Gloria Swanson's many talents.  The story centers around Gerry Trent; we come in on her life as she breaks up with her cheating boyfriend, Jim Woodward (Monroe Owsley).  We find out quickly that their relationship is more than casual when Gerry hands Jim his golf clubs from her hall closet! 

Several months later, Gerry meets and falls in love with Tony Blake (Ben Lyon).  After much consideration, she decides to tell Tony about her prior relationship. He accepts her confession, asks that she not tell him the name of the man, and tells her that he wants to marry her.  Problems ensue when Gerry's younger sister returns with her fiance - Jim Woodward. Gerry is horrified, and attempts to break up Jim and Joan (Barbara Kent). However, her attempts appear to Tony to be an affair with Jim, and Tony decides to leave for Europe.  All is resolved when Tony releases that he is being an idiot and goes back for Gerry. They will marry on the ship.

This is a total vehicle for Swanson, with director Leo McCarey using all her varied talents, comedic and dramatic.  Swanson's pantomime skills, as she tries to convince party guests that she is loony, are a joy, as is a similar scene when she tries to sneak aboard the ship on which Tony is leaving the country.  She will have you in stitches.  But, she also sings (and isn't bad); and her Gerry is so sweet and sympathetic that she has you rooting for her all the way.

This is a delightful movie; a real surprise, and I heartily recommend it. We'll leave you with a clip of Ms. Swanson singing in the film.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Hell's House

Hell's House from 1932 is one of the precode era's social reform pictures. It is the story of a young man, living with his loving aunt and uncle after the death of his mother, who is befriended by a bootlegger.  In an effort to make a little extra money, young Jimmy (played by Junior Durkin) begins working for the bootlegger, is caught, and is sent to an horrific reform school, where the boys are routinely tortured by the cruel punishments. In an effort to save his dying friend Shorty, Jimmy escapes and tells his story to a newspaper.  Alas, it is in vain, Shorty dies from his punishment.  But Jimmy is saved when the bootlegger Kelly finally agrees to confess that he alone was responsible, and that Jimmy had no idea of Kelly's occupation.

It was strange to see Pat O'Brien playing such a callow fellow.  One is not used to seeing him as a villain.  And Bette Davis is in a very minor role as Kelly's girlfriend, a sweet woman (NOT a moll), who is horrified when she learns of Jimmy's fate, and that her boyfriend was the cause.

This is not a great movie by any means, but interesting to see the social concerns of the era. Certainly, the boys' lives in the detention center are no walks in the spring rain, but the "horrors" are mild by comparison of what we would see today. See it for an opportunity to view an early Bette Davis film, or Pat O'Brien in a completely different vein.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Children of the Depression

Wild Boys of the Road!  We laughed about the title for weeks. We were sure it would be quite silly We were WRONG.  This is a fascinating movie.  It focuses on three children - two boys and a girl, about age 15 - who set off on the road because the depression has made them a burden to their families. The boys, Eddie (Frankie Darrow) and Tommy (Edwin Phillips) are friends; Tommy's family is already feeling the poverty of the era, when Eddie's father loses his job. Eddie tries to help by selling his car, but it is not enough, so the two boys determine to leave home in order to find work.  Of course, they can't.  They meet other children in the same predicament and are chased from place to place, as their numbers grow and town citizenry become disenchanted with this gang of impoverished children.

The unique thing about Wild Boys of the Road is that none of the children are mean-spirited or cruel.  When Sally (Dorothy Coonan, who would become Wellman's wife) is raped, it is by an adult - her companions rush to her defense. When Eddie loses a leg in an accident, all the children work to support him.   Here's that scene:

The beauty of this film is the fact that director Wellman makes sure that the children are seen in a positive light.  Their existence is almost communal, with all the children staying together, all contributing to the support of the group.  Though they seem to lose track of their original goal, to support their impoverished families, we later discover they still hold that goal close to their heart.  It is just that the crushing poverty in which they find themselves make survival become the priority. The performances, especially Frankie Darrow, are a joy. 
We watched a few  minutes of the commentary (and I look forward to watching the rest of it at a later date); what we heard was fascinating. The ending is a positive one, but we learned that Welllman had wanted a far more downbeat ending.  We agreed with the commentator who said that we preferred the positive ending.  Had the film ended differently, I think it would have been unbearable.  [And - an aside - look at the picture on the desk of NYC judge. He will become famous as a TV actor in later life. The answer is in the commentary].

Don't let the title turn you off. Do watch this. We think you will agree with us, that Wild Boys of the Road is a forgotten gem.