Roaring Twenties, The (1939)

“You want the Brooklyn Bridge, all you gotta do is ask for it. If I can’t buy it, I’ll steal it!”

Roaring Twenties Poster

Synopsis:
A kind speakeasy owner (Gladys George) helps three WWI veterans — a car mechanic (Jimmy Cagney), a saloon owner (Humphrey Bogart), and an aspiring lawyer (Jeffrey Lynn) — earn a living through bootlegging during Prohibition; but their partnership deteriorates when Lynn goes legit and marries Cagney’s love interest (Priscilla Lane), and Bogart decides to branch out on his own.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that “like most Warner [Brothers] films”, this nostalgic gangster flick — which views bootleggers as “modern crusaders who deal in bottles rather than battles” — “has a social conscience” and “pretty much blames forgotten man Cagney’s criminality on an insensitive country” that won’t hire back its veterans. He notes that while it’s “not on the level of Little Caesar and Scarface, this is one of the liveliest, most enjoyable gangster films”, given that “Raoul Walsh’s direction is fast-paced and tough, yet sentimental”, there are “many solid action scenes”, and “Cagney gives a vivid performance” —

SPOILER AHEAD

— especially during his famous “gem” of a “death scene”, in which “he tries to run up the steps of a church, but his momentum takes him downward instead”. I’m essentially in agreement with Peary’s review: this is a fine gangster flick, despite being a bit too “slanted” in its whitewashed “sense of history”. Gladys George (best known for her supporting role in The Maltese Falcon) is noteworthy as the likable dame Cagney is too dense to fall for, and it’s fun to see Cagney and Bogart together (they co-starred in three films — this, Angels With Dirty Faces, and The Oklahoma Kid).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Jimmy Cagney as Eddie
    Roaring Twenties Cagney
  • Gladys George as Panama
    Roaring Twenties George
  • Ernest Haller’s cinematography
    Roaring Twenties Cinematography
    Roaring Twenties Cinematography2

Must See?
Yes, as an enjoyable gangster flick.

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Up in Smoke (1978)

“You wanna get high, man?”

Up in Smoke Poster

Synopsis:
Two hippie stoners (Tommy Chong and Cheech Marin) accidentally drive a truck made of marijuana across the border from Mexico to the United States, pursued by an irate cop (Stacy Keach) and his incompetent men.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary notes that this “screwy screen debut [about] Cheech and Chong trying to score marijuana so their band will be at its best during a battle of the bands at L.A.’s Roxy” is “terribly made” but “surprisingly funny”, and “by far C&C’s best movie”. In his lengthier review of the film for his first Cult Movies book, Peary elaborates on scenes he found “somehow funny” despite his dread of “scatological and drug-related humor” (he admits to not seeing it until two years after its release), and points out that “like many good comedians, Cheech and Chong intentionally write lines that make no sense”. He notes that while the pair is “stupid, lazy, and filthy” they’re also “genial and you needn’t worry that your kids will emulate them because they — and all other weirdos in this film — are cartoon characters”. Indeed, I think it’s this cartoonish quality that makes it so easy to laugh at silly yet morbid scenes where “a young woman thinks a plate of Ajax is cocaine and sniffs it all up, [making] several great distorted expression”, or when “the police dog that sniffs their Fibreweed-made van ends up a stiff on its back”. Keach plays an excellent straight man (complete with a villainous mustache and incompetent lackeys), and Jade East nearly steals the show as a Shelley Duvall-esque stoner who can’t seem to stop talking.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Plenty of surprisingly enjoyable lowbrow humor
    Up in Smoke Groupie
    Up in Smoke Munchies
  • Good use of L.A. locales
    Up in Smoke LA Locales

Must See?
Yes, for its cult status.

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Black Fury (1935)

“You’ve gotta put up a fight if you want your rights!”

Black Fury Poster

Synopsis:
When his girlfriend (Karen Morley) leaves him for a chance at city-life with a policeman (William Gargan), a heart-broken coal miner (Paul Muni) is lured by a corrupt agitator (J. Carroll Naish) into leading a new union, much to the chagrin of his union-abiding friend Joe (John Qualen) and Joe’s wife (Sara Haden).

Genres:

Review:
Based on the real-life murder of a Pennsylvania coal miner in 1929, this controversial Warner Brothers drama suffers from an over-the-top performance by Paul Muni as a Polish-American miner whose poor decision-making during a night of drunken sorrow leads to irreparable harm. While corruption between Big Bosses, labor unions, and employees clearly exists in countless professions across the globe, the storyline presented here is overly simplistic, and fails to provide viewers with anything other than a melodramatic tale of the tragic downfall and heroic redemption of a “likable man”. Muni’s accent and dialect — while perhaps realistic — are laid on so thick they’re distracting; and it’s hard to root for someone who may be well-meaning but ultimately comes across as a naive dupe.

Note: The film’s title doesn’t help its staying power, given that one would naturally expect such a movie to be about African-Americans.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Byron Haskin’s cinematography
    Black Fury Cinematography

Must See?
No; this one is only must-see for Muni completists.

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Dawn Patrol, The (1930)

“You’ve learned how to fly — but things are different up here.”

Dawn Patrol 1930 Poster

Synopsis:
The commanding officer (Neil Hamilton) of an RFC squadron in WWI-era France drinks heavily while enduring the wrath of his two ace pilots, Richard Barthelmess and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., who blame him for sending young recruits into the air too soon — but when Hamilton is promoted and Barthelmess takes his position, he quickly learns how challenging it is to sit behind a desk while making life-or-death decisions.

Genres:

Review:
Howard Hawks’ first “talkie” was this poignant, engaging homage to aerial fighters in World War I, who faced unimaginable odds each time they went into combat. The narrative is crafted cyclically, mimicking the relentless schedules of the pilots as they engage in adrenaline-pumping flight and warfare followed by whatever activities will allow them to unwind, celebrate, and ritually mourn their dead compatriots before heading back up into the air. The central tension between the primary characters (Hamilton, Barthelmess, and Fairbanks, Jr.) nicely illustrates the challenges inherent in any situation where leadership is necessary but detrimental to personal dynamics. Although the 1938 remake with Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone is better known, this earlier version remains worthy viewing on its own; most of the impressive aerial footage was reused for the later film.

Note: There are NO female characters in this film — not a one.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Fine aerial (and other) cinematography
    Dawn Patrol Aerial
  • Richard Barthelmess as Dick Courtney
    Dawn Patrol Barthlemess
  • Many poignant moments
    Dawn Patrol Board
  • The exciting finale
    Dawn Patrol Finale

Must See?
Yes, as a gripping war flick. Listed as a film with Historical Importance and a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

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Trader Horn (1931)

“That’s Africa for you: when you’re not eating somebody, you’re trying to keep somebody else from eating you.”

Trader Horn Poster

Synopsis:
An experienced trader (Harry Carrey) and his young companion (Duncan Renaldo) in 19th century Africa promise a missionary (Olive Carey) to look for her missing daughter (Edwina Booth), who was captured by a tribe years earlier and turned into a “white goddess”.

Genres:

Review:
Before the advent of nature shows on television, audiences in 1931 were understandably blown away by this Oscar-nominated adventure film (based on Alfred Aloysius Horn‘s memoirs), which featured wild African animals rushing across the big screen, “exotic” tribes of humans with unusual jewelry and customs, and death-defying treks through unfamiliar geographic landscapes. These days, the film’s excruciatingly patronizing and racist attitude towards African natives — “Horn, you’re mistaken about these people — they’re not savages, they’re just happy, ignorant children.” — makes it a truly challenging pill to swallow; it remains valuable simply as a historic artifact of our inability to understand, let alone appreciate, cultures radically different from our own. However, it’s fascinating to reflect on what the cast and crew went through to make this on-location film: apparently wild-eyed Booth contracted an illness that effectively ended her career, Carey was nearly killed during one scene swinging over a live crocodile, and director W.S. Van Dyke had plenty of rum on hand and in mouth the entire time. Meanwhile, additional footage was secretly shot in Mexico to flesh out gaps, and it became a blockbuster success.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Groundbreaking footage of African animals and tribal practices Trader Horn Footage1
    Trader Horn Footage3
  • Impressive on-location cinematography
    Trader Horn Cinematography
    Trader Horn Footage2

Must See?
No; this one is only of value for its historical relevance as the first fiction film made in Africa.

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Penthouse (1933)

“I like the troubles of bootleggers, chorus girls and head waiters. They’re human! They’re alive!”

Penthouse Poster

Synopsis:
After successfully defending a racketeer (Nat Pendleton) against a murder charge, a thrill-seeking lawyer (Warner Baxter) is ostracized by his co-workers and his fiancee (Martha Sleeper), who leaves him for another man (Phillips Holmes). When Holmes breaks up with his mistress (Mae Clarke), Clarke licks her wounds by returning to her former lover, a gangster (C. Henry Gordon) who is more upset about Clarke’s betrayal than he lets on. Soon Baxter becomes an amateur sleuth in a murder mystery, assisted by Clarke’s beautiful roommate (Myrna Loy).

Genres:

Review:
W.S. Van Dyke — perhaps best known for helming The Thin Man and its sequels — helped bring Myrna Loy to stardom in this earlier “take” on the same genre (comedic murder-mystery). Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett’s Pre-Code script is refreshingly risque: Loy’s character openly accepts (indeed, encourages) an invitation to spend the night in Baxter’s apartment, for instance, and this isn’t viewed as shameful. Baxter, Loy, Pendleton, and Clarke are all in fine form, and it’s refreshing to see such an atypical relationship between a gangster (Pendleton) and a “straight man” (Baxter). This one’s not must-see, but certainly worth a look if you’re a fan of The Thin Man.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Myrna Loy as Gertie Waxted
    Penthouse Loy
  • Warner Baxter as Jackson Durant
    Penthouse PreCode
  • Nat Pendleton as Tony Gazotti
    Penthouse Pendleton
  • Mae Clarke as Mimi
    Penthouse Clarke
  • Enjoyable Pre-Code dialogue and situations
    Penthouse PreCode

Must See?
No, but it’s certainly worthy viewing.

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King of Jazz, The (1930)

“Oh, how I’d love to own a fish store!”

King of Jazz Poster

Synopsis:
Jazz band leader Paul Whiteman introduces a revue of musical and comedic acts.

Genres:

Review:
This musical tribute to bandleader Paul Whiteman features some surprisingly creative camerawork for such an early cinematic outing, but is decidedly hit-and-miss in terms of its overall entertainment value. There’s an enjoyably risque comedic interlude about premarital sex that catches one by surprise, and it’s fun to see young Bing Crosby as one of The Rhythm Boys — but other numbers are deathly boring and dated. The primary value of this film lies in its historical relevance as a time capsule of Whiteman’s appeal to audiences at the time.

Note: The quote chosen to headline this review is indicative of how random the various vignettes are.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • A few enjoyable and/or surprisingly risque sequences
    King of Jazz Dance
  • Some nifty special effects
    King of Jazz Effects2
  • Fine two-strip cinematography
    King of Jazz Cinematography
  • Creative camerawork
    King of Jazz Camerawork
    King of Jazz Effects

Must See?
No, though it possesses some value as a time capsule.

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Gorilla at Large (1954)

“All I know is a couple of gorillas around here, and one of them’s a killer.”

Gorilla at Large Poster

Synopsis:
A carnival barker (Cameron Mitchell) hoping to earn enough money to marry his girlfriend (Charlotte Austin) agrees to be part of a trapeze act involving a daring aerialist (Anne Bancroft) and a huge gorilla (George Barrows) cared for by a brooding keeper (Peter Whitney). But a brutal murder brings a detective (Lee J. Cobb) to the scene, and soon everyone — including Bancroft’s husband (Raymond Burr), owner of the carnival — is a suspect.

Genres:

Review:
While Anne Bancroft may be best known for her award-worthy dramatic work as Anne Sullivan in The Miracle Worker (1962) and Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate (1967), she starred in quite a few lesser-known titles in her earlier career, including this luridly-titled drama set in the colorful world of carnivals. Bancroft plays an intrepid, lusty trapeze artist with a wandering eye, and is nicely supported by some big-name co-stars (including Lee Marvin in an unexpectedly buffoonish role). The storyline is reasonably engaging and filled with plenty of twists, even if you’re likely to guess the culprit in advance. Scenes involving a Kewpie doll are suitably surreal, and the cinematography and sets are nicely done. Worth a look if you’re curious.

Note: Was Burr (type)cast because of his previous starring role in Bride of the Gorilla (1951)? One wonders…

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Good use of carnival sets and atmosphere
    Gorilla at Large Carnival3
    Gorilla at Large Carnival
  • Some amusingly surreal imagery
    Gorilla at Large Kewpie
    Gorilla at Large Paw
  • Fine cinematography
    Gorilla at Large Cinematography2
  • An effective whodunit script with plenty of twists

Must See?
No, though it’s worth a look for its curiosity value.

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Street Scene (1931)

“Every person in the world’s gotta have somebody to talk to!”

Street Scene Poster

Synopsis:
An unhappy housewife (Estelle Taylor) has an affair with a local milk collection man (Russell Hopton), while her neighbors — including nosy Mrs. Jones (Beulah Bondi), whose grown son (Matt McHugh) is a bullying racist — worry Taylor’s husband (David Landau) will find out and become abusive. Meanwhile, Taylor’s daughter (Sylvia Sidney) resists advances from her boss (Walter Miller) while pinning her hopes for happiness on a studious neighbor (William Collier, Jr.).

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary points out that this adaptation of “Elmer Rice’s… Pulitzer-winning play about life in the New York tenements” was “one of the first social dramas of the sound era”, “probably the first film to drive home the point that America was populated by foreigners, and the first to affirm that there were already clashes between these immigrants over religion, national origin, and politics”. He notes that “to give [the] film some visual interest, Vidor occasionally uses bizarre camera angles or pans along the street or across a row of windows”; indeed, while the movie’s stage origins are crystal-clear (including an obvious “Act II” transition), Vidor nicely opens up a storyline that is primarily centered on “characters gather[ing] on the front stoop or lean[ing] out windows so they can gossip, complain[ing] about the heat, [and] argu[ing]”.

The inherent claustrophobia of the stage-bound setting actually serves this story well, as it highlights how closely connected these neighbors are to each others’ business, for better and for worse. They can support one another during times of need — as when Taylor looks out for the very-pregnant wife of a concerned father-to-be (Conway Washburne) — but also easily become overly involved in each other’s private lives and choices. The film’s Pre-Code sensibility is refreshingly clear, most noticeably via intermittent scenes involving a bra-less young woman (Greta Granstedt) who happily goes off with her lover to spend the night in a friend’s apartment, but also in the shockingly racist language used by McHugh, and the fact that Collier, Jr.’s father (Max Montor) is able to talk at length about socialist revolutionary ideals without being overtly villainized. The dramatic finale (don’t read ANY online reviews if you want to remain surprised!) has been ridiculed by some for Vidor’s unconventional editing choices during a key neighborhood scene, but I believe it’s an effectively stylized representation of life in a densely packed, multicultural city.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Vidor’s direction
    Street Scene Direction
    Street Scene Direction2
  • A refreshing Pre-Code sensibility
    Street Scene PreCode
  • A fine sense of locale
    Street Scene Locale
    Street Scene Locale2

Must See?
Yes, as a strong Pre-Code talkie.

Categories

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Pete Kelly’s Blues (1955)

“You couldn’t give me a cold.”

Pete Kelly's Blues Poster

Synopsis:
A Prohibition-era jazz band leader (Jack Webb) is pressured into being “managed” by a local gangster (Edmond O’Brien) after his uncooperative drummer (Martin Milner) is gunned down, prompting his longtime bandmate (Lee Marvin) to hit the road. Meanwhile, a beautiful socialite (Janet Leigh) doggedly pursues Webb, and O’Brien insists that Webb allow a talented but alcoholic performer (Peggy Lee) to sing in his band.

Genres:

Review:
Jack Webb made his feature debut as a writer/director/actor/producer by adapting his hit radio series Dragnet (1954), and followed up with this cinematic rendering of a crime-musical radio drama taking place in Prohibition-era Kansas City. Webb stars as the title character, who comes across as essentially a variation on his personae as “facts only” Detective Joe Friday and hard-hitting Sergeant Moore in The D.I. (1957). As DVD Savant writes in his review:

Webb locked himself into his perfectly deadly ‘Dragnet’ style. He often moves like a robot. Instead of acting he hits marks, turns his head and flashes the occasional predetermined smile.

The movie’s redeeming moments are fine period sets, luminous Technicolor cinematography, and the presence of real-life musical stars Ella Fitzgerald and Peggy Lee, who are given wonderfully uninterrupted, respectful moments to shine. Otherwise, the storyline’s awkward pacing, rat-a-tat dialogue (“They say you’ve got rubber pockets so you can steal soup.”), and underdeveloped characterizations reflect blunt radio serial norms rather than effective screenwriting.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Ella Fitzgerald singing “Hard Hearted Hannah”
    Pete Kelly's Blues Fitzgerald
  • Peggy Lee’s tunes
    Pete Kelly's Blues Lee
  • Some creative direction and vibrant Technicolor

Must See?
No, unless you’re a diehard jazz fan.

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