Red Dust (1932)

“Don’t mind me, boys — I’m just restless.”

Synopsis:
A prostitute (Jean Harlow) on the lam falls for the owner (Clark Gable) of a rubber plantation in Indochina, but Gable is primarily interested in the wife (Mary Astor) of a visiting engineer (Gene Raymond).

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “hot-blooded jungle romance” by director Victor Fleming (remade as Mogambo by John Ford in 1953) “still has the sexual charge that caused it to break box-office records in the early thirties”. He points out that “unshaven Gable and braless blonde Harlow have immense sexual chemistry at all times — whether he’s standing next to her while she takes her famous nude bath in a barrel or she sits by him as he lies on a bed, reading to him a children’s bedtime story while he’s putting his hand on her knee.” The storyline is simple but powerful, showing Gable’s sway over “well-bred Astor” (who hates herself for cheating on her noble husband), as well as Harlow’s immense patience and world-weariness. She’s been through enough that a disappointment like Gable choosing Astor over her stings a bit, but she’ll survive intact, and never loses her self-possession or sense of innate dignity. It’s easy to imagine Joan Crawford in a role like this; indeed, Red Dust and Rain (1932) — another film about a fugitive prostitute on a rainy island — would make a potent double-bill.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Jean Harlow as Vantine
  • Harold Rossen and Arthur Edeson’s cinematography

  • A smart and sassy screenplay: “If it was the summer of 1894, I’d play games with you, sister. But life is much simpler now.”

Must See?
Yes, as a pre-Code classic. Selected in 2006 for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.

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Anna and the King of Siam (1946)

“Women do not exist in Siam — they simply do not exist.”

Synopsis:
A widowed schoolteacher (Irene Dunne) arrives in Siam with her son (Richard Lyon) prepared to teach the many wives and children of King Mongkut (Rex Harrison) — including the son (Tito Renaldo) of Mongkut’s first wife (Gale Sondergaard). She’s quickly taught by Mongkut’s right-hand-man (Lee J. Cobb) about his many quirks and sexist beliefs, but pushes back when Mongkut refuses to give her the house he promised. When Anna witnesses Mongkut’s “number one wife” (Linda Darnell) being mistreated, she feels she’s had enough — but can she be convinced to stay?

Genres:

Review:
This first cinematic adaptation (by director John Cromwell) of Margaret Langdon’s biographical novel about Anna Leonowens is a worthy predecessor to its more famous musical remake, The King and I (1956). Dunne matches Deborah Kerr in both intensity and believability as a bold widow who stands up to toxic patriarchy and corruption in a foreign country while remaining sympathetic to the conflicted goals of its intelligent but brutal leader. Refreshingly, there is no hint of romantic interest between Dunne and Harrison; their relationship is one of begrudging mutual respect (and, for Dunne, eventually deep commitment). Of note are both Arthur Miller’s cinematography and Bernard Herrmann’s score, adding to the quality of this slightly over-long but engaging feminist tale.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Irene Dunne as Anna (nominated as one of the Best Actresses of the Year in Peary’s Alternate Oscars)
  • Rex Harrison as the King (nominated as one of the Best Actors of the Year in Alternate Oscars)
  • Arthur C. Miller’s cinematography

  • Bernard Herrmann’s score (check out the horror-flick ambience as Anna is leaving the king’s palace at night and hears a baby crying on her way home)

Must See?
No, but it’s certainly recommended for one-time viewing.

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Belles of St. Trinian’s, The (1954)

“This school has practically reduced me to a nervous wreck!”

Synopsis:
An undercover detective (Joyce Grenfell) is sent to investigate the situation at an anarchic boarding school for girls, whose cash-strapped headmistress (Alastair Sim) is betting money on an Arabian racehorse to save her institution. Meanwhile, Sim’s brother (also Alastair Sim) brings his rebellious daughter (Vivienne Martin) back to the school in order to learn more information about the racehorse, which is owned by the recently arrived daughter (Lorna Henderson) of a sultan (Eric Pohlmann).

Genres:

Review:
Based on a popular comic strip series by British satirist Ronald Searle, this first of four films in the popular “St. Trinian’s” series takes place at a boarding school where wild-haired girls run rampant while their vampy teachers smoke cigarettes and schmooze. It will primarily appeal either to those familiar with the strip or fans of Sim, who is in fine comedic mettle here playing dual roles as siblings (though he spends most of his time in drag as Millicent). He’s nicely matched by Grenfell as a determined detective who resorts to ultra-creative evidence gathering in the film’s final moments. Director Frank Launder co-wrote the screenplay with Sidney Gilliat, with whom he had previously scripted The Lady Vanishes (1938) and Night Train to Munich (1940); fans of those earlier classics should be forewarned that this flick is much more broadly slapstick, relying heavily on caricatures and the ridiculousness of a kidnapped horse.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Alastair Sim as Millicent and Clarence Fritton
  • Joyce Grenfell as Sgt. Ruby Gates

Must See?
No; this one will likely only appeal to fans of Sim or Searle’s work.

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What Price Hollywood? (1932)

“We don’t live in the same world!”

Synopsis:
A waitress (Constance Bennett) hoping to make it big in Hollywood convinces an alcoholic director (Lowell Sherman) to take a chance on her, and soon her star is on the rise — but her new husband (Neil Hamilton) quickly tires of her hectic schedule, and gossip emerges around her enduring loyalty to Sherman no matter how low he falls.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that in “George Cukor’s classic” — precursor to A Star is Born (1937) and the musical remake Cukor himself directed in 1954 — “Constance Bennett is extremely appealing as Mary Evans, a spunky Brown Derby waitress” who remains “forever grateful” to the man (Sherman) who gives her a break in Hollywood, becoming “the only person who remains loyal once alcoholism ruins his career”. Peary points out that the “sharply written” script by “Jane Murfin, Ben Markson, Gene Fowler, and Rowland Brown” — who “adapted a story by Adela Rogers St. John” — is “more cynical [about Hollywood] than vicious: careers are shown to be fragile and personal lives are easily shattered, but at least the souls of good people are not destroyed.” Unfortunately, the “film wavers between being highly original and very conventional” — including “everything involving Hamilton”. Indeed, Mary’s marriage to Lonny (Hamilton) is particularly poorly handled; their “meet cute” is annoyingly protracted, placing both of them in a bad light and setting us up not to like either of them as a marriage partner. As Peary notes, “the best part of the film is the core relationship between Bennett, whose star is on the rise, and Sherman, whose career is in a drunken tailspin”; his final scene is a doozy indeed.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Constance Bennett as Mary Evans
  • Lowell Sherman as Max
  • Fine cinematography
  • The impressively edited final sequence with Sherman

Must See?
No, though I’m tempted to say it’s a once-must for its strengths as well as its historical relevance.

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Scarface, The Shame of the Nation (1932)

“Colorful?! What color is a crawling louse?”

Synopsis:
A ruthless aspiring ganglord (Paul Muni) zealously protects his young sister (Ann Dvorak) from suitors while wooing the sultry mistress (Karen Morley) of his boss (Osgood Perkins); meanwhile, with help from his loyal henchman (George Raft), he wreaks murderous havoc on rival gangsters while attempting to take over new territory in Chicago.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary begins his review of Scarface by noting that this “best of the early gangster films was completed by Howard Hawks in 1930 but was held up by censors until several changes were made”, in order for “the public to understand that the motion-picture industry was also infuriated by crime.” However, as Peary points out, this film hardly glamorizes gangster life, given that “Paul Muni’s Tony Camonte, who, like many movie gangsters, was based in part on Al Capone, is a stupid, loutish, ugly brute — his scar is his best facial feature since he’s made up to resemble an apeman (he’s like Fredric March’s Mr. Hyde minus the fangs).” He adds that “screenwriter Ben Hecht based his crime family on the Borgias, so he had a model for the corruption, cruelty, power-lust and decadence that exists” — including “an incest theme” but minus any parental influence; Tony’s father is non-existent and his mother (Inez Palange) is completely ineffectual. Peary correctly notes that “no one who sees this film would want to emulate the lives of these criminals” — but with that said, the “film has exciting, atmospheric cinematography by Lee Garmes; taut, inspired direction by Hawks; and a powerful script by Hecht (with additional dialogue credit going to John Lee Mahin, Seton I. Miller, and W.R. Burnett).”

In GFTFF, Peary outlines several of the film’s highlights, including “the opening, in which the camera pans for several minutes across an emptying party room and ends up showing the first victim being murdered”; and “gangster Boris Karloff being shot just as he bowls — the camera follows the ball down the lane, where it knocks over all the pins, including the king pin, which spins for a while and topples over.” In Alternate Oscars — where he names this the Best Film of the Year — Peary writes that “for real, reel-to-reel excitement, no film filled the bill better than” Scarface, “the best and most ferocious of the gangster cycle.” He notes that “the gangster world Hawks presents is unsavory, sordid, and not enticing” — though “males might be drawn to the beautiful, trampy women played by Ann Dvorak and Karen Morley (two of the great unsung actresses of the period).” (Indeed, Dvorak “almost steals the film”.) Peary adds that “the gangsters themselves are childlike, ignorant brutes who could stand no other company but their own and play dangerously stupid games… We don’t want to be like them and we don’t want to walk the streets when they’re around.”

In GFTFF, Peary writes that Muni “gives one of his finest performances — it is his one character for whom you can feel no sympathy”, and he awards Muni Best Actor of the Year in Alternate Oscars, noting that “Muni plays his character as if he were a cocky punk teenager. Unsophisticated and immature (like all other gangsters), he’s self-impressed, overrates his intelligence (he is proud to use the word disillusioned), boasts nonstop, acts tough, doesn’t listen to his mother…, and is always looking for a good time.” He considers machine guns “toys”, women “meat”, and “likes anything that is ‘hot’.” While he “is usually having a good time” — at which moments “we fear his recklessness” — he “suddenly shifts from being carefree to being serious” and is “downright creepy.” As “Muni’s eyes, face, and tone of voice quickly change”, we “realize what a frightening, depraved individual Tony is.” I find Muni’s performance a tad overdone, but would agree he’s fully invested in his role and quite memorable — as is the entire atmospherically filmed narrative, which is well worth a look by all film fanatics.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Strong performances throughout

  • Lee Garmes’ cinematography


  • Ben Hecht’s script

Must See?
Yes, as an early gangster classic.

Categories

(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

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Shampoo (1975)

“Women can get to be an occupational hazard.”

Synopsis:
A hairdresser (Warren Beatty) lies to and cheats on his steady girlfriend (Goldie Hawn) while bedding the wife (Lee Grant), daughter (Carrie Fisher), and mistress (Julie Christie) of the man (Jack Warden) he’s hoping to secure funding from to open his own salon.

Genres:

Review:
Warren Beatty and Robert Towne co-wrote this satire (directed by Hal Ashby) about the vacuous lives of various Hollywood denizens, both rich and aspiring-rich, who mostly want sexual satisfaction and financial freedom but occasionally (like Hawn) show leanings towards something a little more wholesome — say, kids. It’s a depressing yet amusing farce, set during Nixon’s triumphant election over Humphrey in 1968, presumably to show that self-absorbed individuals may merit leadership by equally self-absorbed politicians. However, the primary focus is on George (Beatty) as he zips around L.A. (helmetless) on his Triumph motorcycle, doing women’s hair while hopping from one bed to the next. Beatty plays on his own public image as a sexual Lothario, ultimately coming across as hedonistically distracted at the cost of any other considerations (including loyalty, honesty, or the chance to open his own business). The most charitable character by far is Hawn, who thankfully has other options available to her.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Warren Beatty as George
  • Laszlo Kovacs’ cinematography

Must See?
No, but it’s worth a one-time look.

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Black Sabbath (1964)

“There’s no fooling around with ghosts, because they take revenge!”

Synopsis:
Boris Karloff introduces a trio of horror stories about a woman (Michele Mercier) seeking solace from an estranged friend (Lydia Alfonsi) while she’s menaced by an ex-lover threatening to kill her; a patriarch (Boris Karloff) returning to his family home and bringing a dreaded curse with him; and a nurse (Jacqueline Pierreux) who foolishly steals a special ring from a corpse.

Genres:

Review:
Mario Bava’s seventh credited directorial effort was this omnibus of horror shorts, retitled from “The Three Faces of Fear” for American audiences to bank on his beloved debut film Black Sunday (1960). Black Sabbath (yes, the band took direct naming inspiration from this movie) offers plenty of spooky, atmospheric visuals tied to simple yet tight storylines that serve their purpose — but it’s the visuals that really linger. DVD Savant, a huge Bava fan, describes the unique quality of Bava’s lighting style:

It’s difficult to properly express the ‘special’ quality of Mario Bava’s artistic lighting… Favoring bright primary hues, sets are bathed in washes of color that can only be called hallucinatory. Electric greens and crimson reds, steely blues and deep purples give the screen depth and character. The heroines are bathed in warm golds and lit in non-traditional ways that make them look lusciously alive (Mercier) or nervously cold (Pierreux)… The fact that Bava’s lighting makes frequent use of unmotivated, un-sourced colored lights only adds to the feeling of fantasy. Images disturb precisely because their lighting is so ‘impossible’.

Film fanatics should enjoy checking out this cult favorite, though it’s only must-see for Bava fans.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Highly atmospheric cinematography and sets


Must See?
No, but it’s worth a look as a solid set of short films by a master director.

Links:

Champ, The (1931)

“He’s got plenty of environment right here.”

Synopsis:
An alcoholic, gambling-addicted boxer (Wallace Beery) struggles to provide a decent life for his son Dink (Jackie Cooper) — however, when Dink’s long-lost mother (Irene Rich) suddenly reappears in his life, a custody battle ensues.

Genres:

Review:
Wallace Beery won an Academy Award for his role as a washed-up former heavyweight boxing champion trying to make good again for the sake of his kid. Unfortunately, this melodramatic tale about a boy who adores his father no matter how badly and repeatedly he messes up is either maudlin, depressing, or unrealistic (as when Cooper’s mother suddenly shows up, wealthy, with another husband and child, and hoping to adopt him). Meanwhile, your tolerance for Cooper — who, fresh from his success in Skippy (1931), became the first major child star of the 1930s — will depend entirely on how much you can handle his overwrought if heart-felt reactions.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • A sometimes touching tale of father-son love

Must See?
No. Listed as a film with Historical Relevance in the back of Peary’s book.

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A Nous la Liberte (1931)

“In life, liberty is all that counts.”

Synopsis:
A convict (Raymond Cordy) escapes prison with the help of his buddy (Henri Marchand) and quickly establishes himself as a phonograph factory magnate. Once Marchand catches up with Cordy, he falls in love with a beautiful secretary (Rolla France) at the factory, hoping to win her heart.

Genres:

Review:
Rene Clair’s follow-up to Le Million (1931) was this playful musical showing how industrialized work in the early 20th century mimicked the anti-human drudgery of prison. Meanwhile, as convicts become capitalists, class relations are effectively skewered, and we learn that true happiness comes from freedom rather than commitment to wealth, societal norms, responsibility, or romantic love. In addition to its innovative use of sound and stylized sets, this film is primarily notable for the fact that some of the factory sequences very closely resemble similar scenes in Modern Times (1936); indeed, without Clair’s approval, the production company sued Chaplin. The storyline unfortunately doesn’t give us much to hold onto — we know that Marchand’s love interest has another suitor, and thus he’ll never win her authentic affections; the primary tension comes from wondering how the bowler-hatted Cordy will treat Marchand once their fortunes have shifted. Is there loyalty among (ex)thieves?

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Effectively stylized sets (by Lazare Meerson) and cinematography


  • Georges Auric’s score

Must See?
No, though it’s certainly worth a look for historical purposes.

(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

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Front Page, The (1931)

“So, you’re leaving me for marriage. Why?”

Synopsis:
A wily editor (Adolphe Menjou) tries to prevent his star journalist (Pat O’Brien) from marrying his sweetheart (Mary Brian) by luring him into investigating a story about a cop-killer (George E. Stone) due to be hung that evening.

Genres:

Review:
Fresh from the success of All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), Lewis Milestone directed this 180-degree change-of-pace screwball comedy, based on the Broadway play by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur and famously remade and re-gendered by Howard Hawks as His Girl Friday (1940). Given the brilliance of Hawks’s classic, I was pleasantly surprised by this earlier iteration, which offers ample fast-paced enjoyment of its own. The Pre-Code screenplay reveals its age in terms of numerous good-ol’-boy comments that wouldn’t pass muster these days (“He’s going to write poetry about milady’s panties.”), but otherwise has held up well. One generally expects early talkies to be somewhat static and slow; however, that certainly isn’t the case here. This one’s worth a watch.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Impressive direction and editing


  • A consistently amusing and engaging screenplay: “This place is beginning to smell like… like an owl’s foot.”

Must See?
Yes, as an enjoyable and historically relevant screwball comedy. Selected in 2010 for the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.

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