Warner Archive: A Trio of 1931 Pre-Codes, Including W.C. Fields' First Sound Feature

While many silent film stars struggled, or chose to retire at the dawn of the talkies, a stream of stage stars descended on Hollywood to pick up the slack. These performers had to tone down their act and stop projecting to the back row, but they were  for the most part confident speaking, and singing, for the microphone. 

Though names like Winnie Lightner, Marilyn Miller, and the comedy team Olsen and Johnson are not well remembered today, these Broadway and vaudeville artists made their mark by embracing sound and giving those early talkies a shot of energy. In a trio of new releases from Warner Archive, these stars, and W.C. Fields in his first speaking film role, romp through a pre-code playground of wealth.

Already by the early thirties talkies were experiencing a change. Musicals had been the biggest success of the first sound films, but the studios had overdone it. Now that audiences were tired of the genre, the scramble was on to change musicals in production to comedies. Gold Dust Gertie and Fifty Million Frenchmen (both 1931), both featuring the vaudevillian comedy team Olsen and Johnson, are two such productions.

There isn't a hint of musical left to Gold Dust Gertie, which instead plays like a string of vaudeville bits, or maybe as a prototypical screwball comedy. Winnie Lightner stars as gold digging, serial monogamist Gertie Dale. In the opening scenes she marries Olsen and Johnson on different dates. By the time we are brought up to date, she has divorced them both, and is determined to collect on unpaid alimony. When she sees how poor they are at business, Gertie earns the money for them by designing sexy, and best-selling swimsuits for the company where they are employed.

Though I'd heard their names before, I didn't know much about Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson before watching this film. While the vaudeville, Broadway and radio stars have had a great influence on comedy (you can especially see it in Jerry Lewis' style), I didn't find them interesting here. In fact, Johnson's high-pitched laugh, which seems to be a running gag, got on my nerves pretty fast. That said, I could see how they appealed to audiences, I just don't think they had freedom to cut loose as they needed in this film. Perhaps it would be more appealing to established fans of the duo.

I had more fun watching Lightner perform her expert manipulations of the men in her life, putting them to work for her. It's a shame that the temporary demise of musical comedy movies also meant the end of her career. It would have been interesting to see what she could have done in the screwball era.

The movie bounces along pleasantly enough for most of its 65 minute running time, but a goofy final boat chase scene takes things up a notch. I even started to warm to Olsen and Johnson during a particularly funny bit featuring an clingy eel.

Like Gold Dust Gertie, Olsen and Johnson's Fifty Million Frenchmen was also originally meant to be a musical. That it was converted to a comedy is a great loss to film history, because the stage production featured the songs of Cole Porter. A few snippets of You've Got That Thing and You Do Something to Me bounce around the soundtrack, teasing what might have been.

While I didn't find Olsen and Johnson much more amusing here, I thought this was a charming film. Set in Paris, it centers on a love story between an American (William Gaxton) and the girl he wishes to wed (Claudia Dell), but it is at its best when it lets the supporting cast run wild. It's racier than Gertie, with lots of clever double entendres and adventurous characters like Helen Broderick as a tourist who comes to Paris eager to be "shocked" and "insulted". Her putdown battle with a trio of snooty ladies is one of the best exchanges in the movie.

Keep an eye out for Bela Lugosi in a brief part as a thwarted magician. He would make a much bigger impact that year in his breakout role as Dracula.

Olson and Johnson would make films into the forties, their most popular effort being 1941's Hellzapoppin'.

While Marilyn Miller was a Broadway legend, famous for headlining the Ziegfeld Follies, she would only make a trio of films in Hollywood. The first two, Sally (1929) and Sunny (1930), were adaptations of previous stage successes. In her final screen role, Her Majesty Love (1931), she is charming, if a bit low-key, as a barmaid who wins the heart of a wealthy playboy (Ben Lyon).

Miller's appeal didn't completely translate to the screen, and here she is upstaged by the swoon-worthy camerawork of director William Dieterle and fellow Ziegfeld star W.C. Fields as her former circus performer father.

Fields had made several silent films before he finally shared his distinctive drawl with the world in Her Majesty Love. It's interesting though, because he isn't quite the W.C. Fields here. He's much softer and friendlier, though just as apt to cause a disruption as he would be in future roles. Though it's possible he wouldn't have gone as far with a persona this tender, its fun to see him steal the movie with a jolly grin as he juggles plates and expertly flings eclairs to the plate of a stunned gentleman at a fancy luncheon.

The movie's appeal isn't all Fields though; it's got a lot of fascinating details. In a particularly intriguing boardroom scene, the chatter is punctuated by eccentric bits of business: an elderly lady knitting, a man noisily cracking walnuts and another gentleman dropping his specs in a cup of milky tea. Tidbits like these kept the humor simmering in a vibrant, lively scene.

Miller would go back to the stage briefly after her Hollywood years. Perhaps she would have returned in later years, but it was not to be. The actress struggled with alcoholism and eventually died in 1936 from the effects of a recurring sinus infection.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copies of the films for review. These are Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVDs. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

Book Review--Groucho Marx: The Comedy of Existence

Groucho Marx The Comedy of Existence
Lee Siegel
Yale University Press, 2016

Though he made his name inspiring laughs, Groucho Marx's comedy was often more brutal than it was humorous. Witty yes, but with such a dark view of humanity that his wisecracks always feel like arrows whizzing past your skull. In his new career analysis of the most famous Marx brother, Lee Siegel explores the roots of the nihilism in his humor, from his Jewish faith and lack of a formal education to his profoundly different, and influential parents.

Siegel goes inside Groucho's early personal life in an attempt to weave those details into his public life. He does this not so much to uncover all the mysteries of the man, but to more deeply examine the nature of his comedy. 

Though Groucho had ambitions to become a doctor,  he left school in his elementary years, and he'd always feel the need to prove himself among intellectuals, as is illustrated in the book via his uneasy relationship with T.S. Eliot. His Jewish faith and the Yiddish theater would affect his self-image and performance style as well.

The whole Marx clan in 1915, Groucho, Gummo, Minni, Zeppo, Frenchie, Chico and Harpo

Groucho's strong-willed mother Minnie also had much to do with his entry into show business, but his less potent father Frenchie was perhaps his greatest comic influence. According to Siegel, he was like many immigrant men who did not adjust to life in a new world with as much confidence as their wives. The elder Marx gave up on success, losing himself in endless pinochle games, and he was similarly lackluster as a family man.

The scorn that the brothers felt for their less than ambitious father is prominent in their comedy, where the weak are targeted as much as the strong. They lack respect for any kind of authority, whether it be over a great fortune or a peanut cart. The implication seeming to be that no one is up to the job they claim simply because they claim it.

The Marx Brothers, Chico, Groucho and Harpo, in 1948
That sort of misanthropic comedy wasn't always a surefire hit. Marx Brothers movies that are considered classics today, were not as beloved in the 1930s. In a 1960s appearance on the Dick Cavett show, Groucho could not recall receiving fan mail while he made movies, but with the revival of the Brothers' films thirty years later, he began receiving over one hundred letters a week. 

While we do laugh at Groucho, it is an uneasy laugh, more of uncomfortable recognition than joy. His rebellion against social structures is what makes him eternally modern and more relevant as time passes, because that rejection of the norm is the signature of progress.

The Marx Brothers' style was a protest of sorts, wrapped up in chaos, but Groucho always stepped in to put a point on the action, jabbing it home with his cigar. It was as if he was justifying the madness, and insisting that it all made more sense than the status quo.

It is this man that Siegel reveals, a scornful, restless, self-educated intellectual whose world view ripens over the years more than it ages.

Many thanks to Yale University Press for providing a copy of the book for review.

Warner Archive: Western Noir in Roughshod (1948) and Station West (1948)

It wouldn't take much to transform Roughshod (1948) and Station West (1948) into city-set noirs. Just take away the horses and add a pool of light from a streetlamp. These newly-released westerns from Warner Archive have the wisecracks, gangsters, and even the stars of the genre.

Roughshod has a most western cast of characters: Gloria Grahame, an exiled dance hall girl leading her fellow hoofers from uptight Aspen to a new job in Sonora; Robert Sterling, a cowboy transporting a herd of horses with his kid brother (The Yearling's Claude Jarman); and John Ireland, a psychopathic escaped convict looking for revenge on Sterling, who captured him once after the bandit murdered his friend. They all clamber across Sonora Pass, some of them finding what they want along the way and veering off the trail; the rest moving forward towards their desires, or because they have nowhere else to go.

Grahame knows Sterling wants her, as much as she irritates his morals, and she tries to make it easy for him to accept her. The problem is that she looks and talks like a femme fatale. Grahame can't be the wholesome girl forced into a shady life; she looks like she was born knowing where the bodies are buried.

That contradiction makes her character more plausible. Sure she's teaching Jarman how to read, but she also makes sure to look seductive while resting on the ground, giving Sterling her best "you want this" look. She also has an unnerving habit of never breaking eye contact with him. This woman is bold and modern in a way he doesn't recognize, and it excites him.

Roughshod gets its noir pedigree from the ground up: the script was written by Out of the Past (1947) scribe Geoffrey Homes. There's an interesting sharpness to the dialogue, it tells a familiar story, but there's always just a bit of bite, often provided by Grahame and Ireland as different representatives of the seedy side of life. Most of the action takes place at night, adding a moody, and menacing gloominess to the proceedings. Director Mark Robson heightens the intensity by making his villains loom dangerously in the foreground, and giving Ireland the most extreme close-ups, leaving the honest folks to cowering in the background, out-of-focus and out-of-control.

Station West (1948) benefits from a strong, diverse cast, including Agnes Moorehead, one-man Greek chorus Burl Ives, and noir superstars Dick Powell and Jane Greer. Powell is a military intelligence officer working undercover to find the murderer of a pair of enlisted men who were killed while serving as gold shipment guards. He's in familiar territory--playing a western version of his grim-faced gumshoe character. As the ambitious owner of a saloon, and leader of the murderous bandits, Greer is also in a recognizably dark realm, using her subtle beauty to conceal her viciousness as only she can.

The script has snap; characters banter with the sharp efficiency of a fencing match. They say all the clever kinds of things an ordinary person might think of a couple of hours after the party is over. Everyone is on their toes and ready to strike.

An interesting cast does much with that dialogue. Ives is the guitar-playing hotel owner, who provides wry comic relief with his spontaneous and pointed songs. In an unusual move, it is the women who hold power here: Agnes Moorehead as a wealthy, and self-possessed widow who as owner of the gold mine helps Powell behind the scenes, and Greer as the refined gangster in angelic white gowns who quietly rules from her plush saloon. Guinn "Big Boy" Williams adds some rough-fisted grime to all that refinement, while Raymond Burr is his cowering opposite in a viscerally craven performance as an understandably nervous lawyer.

It is a brilliantly self-assured production. The action flows easily and everyone seems happily cast and confident in their roles. There's nothing remarkable about the story; this one is all about the execution, and even more than Roughshod it could be easily transferred from the Wild West to a dark street corner. This underseen classic is deserving of a wider audience.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copies of the films for review. These are Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVDs. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

Warner Archive: The Tricky Racial Issues of General Spanky (1936)

While Our Gang comedies may not be thought of as only appropriate for children's entertainment, we do tend to view them as a family friendly option. Whether that is actually so depends on what you watch and what kinds of conversations you want to have with your kids. 

If you want to see the Gang in something lighthearted and uncomplicated, you'll need to do some vetting, and decide which titles you are prepared to show younger children.  However, if you want to start a conversation with kids about racism and how it is portrayed in our culture, something like the full-length General Spanky, now available from Warner Archive, could be an interesting part of their social education.

And there's no chance you are going to be able to avoid the issue watching General Spanky. We're not talking about a couple of blackface scenes, or the odd shot of terrified children of color darting away from a skeleton. The whole movie is filled with happy slaves, singing as they toil on the docks, sternly telling the baffled Buckwheat to go find his master, and showing no ill will at all about being a white man's property. Here a child cheerfully agrees to become a slave for the adult protagonist of the film, who is equally cheerful when he admits he owns several other slaves.

It's a confusing experience to watch this movie, because Spanky is one of the most charismatic actors to grace the silver screen. In my mind, among the Gang members he's only second to Stymie, who was also blessed with a highly unusual comic timing. You want to sit back and enjoy Spanky's precocious ways and the confidence with which he faces the world. And he somehow manages to pretty much keep his innocence here. 

Sure Spanky volunteers Buckwheat for slavery, but only because he wants his friend to have a warm bed and regular meals. He has no notion of the hateful ways of the men around him. He doesn't know any different.

Against the backdrop of the civil war, the aforementioned jolly slaves, and enough racist comments to twist your insides into bits, the Gang plays at its own war, and engages in familiar high-spirited hijinks. Spanky watches out for the suffering Buckwheat, Alfalfa sings perfectly and hilariously out of tune, and the kids do a better job solving complex issues than the grown ups around them. It's a well-made comedy, with its share of laughs, but you never have a chance to relax. There are vicious, horrid things happening beneath all that mischief.

I'm glad I saw General Spanky: for the chance to get some historical perspective, for the opportunity to think about the various racial issues of the past and how they fit into our overall history, and for a few moments, to laugh at the clever ways of the child actors, but it was an incredibly uncomfortable experience. I'm not ready to show it with my own kids, but I think it is a personal decision whether or not this film is appropriate to share with younger audiences. From a educational viewpoint, and especially given the conversations our society is currently having about race, it is definitely worthy of viewing and discussion.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. This is a Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVD. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

Book Review--Hollywood Cafe: Coffee with the Stars

Hollywood Café: Coffee With the Stars
Stephen Rea
Schiffer Publishing, Ltd., 2016
Publish date: January 28

Once I recovered from a dorky burst of giggles inspired by the idea of a coffee table book about coffee, I found that I enjoyed the breezy and surprisingly informative Hollywood Café: Coffee With the Stars. When it comes to classic movies, I've found cocktails to be the most mesmerizing onscreen beverage, but now that I think of it, coffee has also had a significant presence in cinema. In this collection of over 150 images, stars of film, television and radio are seen enjoying the drink behind the scenes and on camera.

The opening photo is of java aficionado Preston Sturges drinking from a quart-sized cup. Apparently he has told columnist Rosalind Shaffer that, "he believes coffee drinkers are the real originators of ideas." From there you get Boris Karloff as the Frankenstein monster getting his caffeine fix and Robert Taylor in knightly garb having some joe with the also lavishly-costumed Ava Gardner.

There are shots of glamorous stars at humble craft services tables, publicity photos, and stills of key coffee scenes in the movies. Ingrid Bergman is menaced by a line of poisoned coffee cups in a promotional image for the Hitchcock thriller Notorious (1946), Eddie Cantor shills for his radio show sponsor's brand, and it seems every actress from classic Hollywood has been snapped at home in an apron, proving to all that she can brew a great pot of Joe and be just as domestic as the ladies in her audience.

While there is no real background here of the history of coffee in Hollywood or the movies, there perhaps isn't much to tell. A cup of java was, and continues to be, an easy way to socialize and revive sagging energy. The drink was simply a fact of life, and here it is shown in galleries organized into categories like the more obvious Silver Service and Waitressing and more intriguing sections like Counter Espionage.

Each photo is captioned with a bit of history about the movie and stars in the shot. Some also include the text from the original archival label on the back. I found lots of interesting tidbits in these descriptions.

It's all good fun; an excuse to see gorgeous stars in beautiful costumes, reminisce about favorite movies and pick up new titles for the must-see list. There's unabashed fetishism for elegant coffee pots with long, curvy spouts and groundbreaking brewing methods like the Chemex pot and the French press. After looking at your twentieth shot of trim stars noshing on cookies and doughnuts, you wonder how they got away with eating all that sugar. Did they even swallow a bite, or was it all for the cameras?

Many thanks to Schiffer Publishing, Ltd. for providing a copy of the book for review.

Warner Archive: Anne of Green Gables and a Pair of Clever Canines

I recently had the opportunity to view a trio of family-friendly films from Warner Archive. Anne of Green Gables (1934), My Pal, Wolf (1944) and The Littlest Hobo (1958), each have their distinct charms and were fun to watch.

In a smoothly-executed, if jam-packed, RKO production the first novel in Lucy Maud Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables series gets a brisk treatment. Abandoning her remarkable previous stage name Dawn O'Day, Anne Shirley stars as Anne Shirley. Inspired by her role in the film, the actress would keep this more easily digestible name for the rest of her career.

Shirley is suitably dreamy and determined as Anne, the girl who is adopted by brother and sister Marilla (Helen Westly) and Matthew Cuthbert (O.P. Heggie). Though the pair had hoped for a boy to help maintain their Prince Edward Island property, Anne tugs at them and they agree to let her stay. She goes to school and falls in love with Gilbert (Tom Brown), the one boy who is absolutely forbidden to her by her new family.

This was the second Hollywood treatment of the book, following a 1919 version starring Mary Miles Minter. Shirley would return to the role again with a completely different cast in Anne of Windy Poplars (1940)

In trying to cram the action of an entire book into 78 minutes, the movie often has feel of an assembly line of plot points whizzing by. Years pass in moments. While the film doesn't accomplish the impossible task of translating all the charm of the books to the screen, it does slow down enough so that you can get to know the makeshift family at its heart. Heggie is particularly magnetic as Matthew, providing ample proof that a man doesn't need words to be a brilliant communicator.

Though similarly brief, My Pal, Wolf (1944) approaches its story with a more leisurely pace. It is the screen debut of the delightfully unmannered Sharyn Moffett, a child actress who had an unfortunately brief film career. She stars as Gretchen, the daughter of a pair of workaholic parents, who spends her time at the family's country estate, cared for by a gaggle of servants and entertained by sympathetic local family of much more modest means.

Known for telling tales, no one believes the girl when she claims she has found a wolf and is caring for the animal. It is actually a highly-trained army dog that has gone AWOL. Despite the interventions of her strict new governess (Jill Esmond, more famous as the first Mrs. Laurence Olivier), she insists on visiting the dog and bringing him food. While this seems generous in theory, it's a little scary to see her face-to-face with such an enormous animal. Highly-trained or not, he's got gigantic teeth.

Moffett has become one of my favorite child actresses. I reviewed her later film Banjo (1947) last year and in both roles I was impressed with her naturalness in front of the camera. Here she seems completely unaware of her movements, letting her body fall into the familiar slouches and sprawling of a restless eight-year-old. She's lovable because rather than trying to play up to her audience, she seems completely absorbed in her own activities.

While a pair of child actors have a prominent place in the plot of The Littlest Hobo (1958), the stars of this addictively charming movie are a brilliant German Shepherd and the lamb he has saved from the slaughterhouse. While that might sound like a cutesy plot for a movie, the result is much breezier and briskly entertaining than you'd think.

The dog is a restless soul, traveling the rails and charming itself into the odd free meal. One day he hops off the train in Los Angeles and jogs around town looking for action. He sees a distraught boy (Chester Anderson) selling his pet to a meat company; the orphanage where he lives can't house the animal.

Coming to the lamb's rescue, the dog chews through the rope tying him to the loading dock at the slaughterhouse, body slams the man who bought the animal to the ground and drags the confused sheep away. For most of the rest of the movie, the German Shepherd drags his new friend around as they evade the cops, missionaries, hungry homeless men and anyone else who tries to capture them.

I can think of so many ways this movie could be corny, overly sentimental or too broad, but it rarely is. There's a cheerful naturalness to it, which is helped along by a jaunty, jazzy score and theme song. The mid-century LA locations are interesting from a historical standpoint, and they give the action just the right amount of grit.

It's also so much fun to see this clever dog trotting along, flirting with poodles and trying to do  good. He's actually a much better actor than most of the people in the film. While I did feel sorry for the lamb, who looked a bit miserable being dragged along in some of the scenes, the pair look so funny running around together. I never got tired of watching them.

This pleasant, airy film was popular enough to inspire two long-running Canadian television series about Hobo. I can see why; watching him at work is strangely fascinating. In fact, I've already watched it again and I don't mind that the theme song is still running through my head.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copies of the films for review. These are Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVDs. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

Book Review--Helen Twelvetrees Perfect Ingenue: Rediscovering a 1930s Movie Star and Her 32 Films

Helen Twelvetrees Perfect Ingénue: Rediscovering a 1930s Movie Star and Her 32 Films
Cliff Aliperti

Though I've only seen two Helen Twelvetrees films, I was fascinated by Cliff Aliperti's biography of her life. There wasn't anything in her work in Millie (1931) and State's Attorney (1932) that made me particularly curious to learn more about her, though I liked her well enough. Still, I was eager to read Cliff's book, because he is a respected friend of A Classic Movie Blog and I have enjoyed his posts on Immortal Ephemera for several years. In addition to being a fine writer, he is a stickler for good research, a pursuit that dovetails nicely with his film memorabilia business. This is a man who is immersed in the world of classic Hollywood, and that gives him an interesting point of view.

I didn't know much about Helen Twelvetrees before I read her biography. Aside from an article in Films of the Golden Age by Dan Van Neste and Cliff's profile of the actress on his site, detailed information about her life and career has not been readily available. Very few of Twelvetrees' thirty-two films are available for purchase, and some are believed to be lost.

Helen was famous for her sad eyes
It surprised me to be so entranced by Helen's story. It's not that the things that happen to her are so novel, lots of actresses deal with divorce, toxic relationships, struggling to find work and alcoholism. What intrigued me was how her life seemed to be simultaneously incredibly easy and dauntingly challenging.

Twelvetrees fell into work easily enough. She was confident and determined, and moved fairly gracefully from the New York stage to Hollywood stardom. In fact, the actress would always be able to find some kind of employment in the entertainment industry, when film and Broadway failed her, she could turn to summer stock, radio and even performed in one of the first television productions.

She was also intelligent in many ways about her own affairs. The actress wouldn't overspend, stay too long in a damaging relationship or even abuse alcohol until life truly beat her down. There was never any worry about poverty or providing for her son.

The problem was that she never had quite enough of what she needed. More often or not she would lose a plum role to another actress and her romances would begin with a bang and wither into abuse. She had something, and even critics recognized that she wasn't getting the material she deserved, but there was never a classic role, or an interested producer or director, to help her reach the next level. It's admirable that she had the strength to keep striving for the next opportunity as many years as she did, given all those disappointments.

The first talkie version of The Cat Creeps (1930), thought to be a lost film

Aliperti has arranged the book into two parts. The first is straight biography, the second a more detailed analysis of each of her films. This arrangement worked for me, because so many of Twelvetrees' films are not available that I was interested in learning as much about them as I could, but sharing those details separately gave her biographical profile a smoother narrative flow. I think this is a good format for performers with short lives and brief careers.

While there is some repetition between these two sections, it doesn't tend to be tedious because each part is written in a different tone. The biography is essentially straight-ahead storytelling, while the reviews are more personal. Aliperti shares more of his opinions and research process when he discusses the films, though most of the text focuses on critical reception and the production history.

This was an enjoyable read. I went into it with only mild curiosity about Twelvetrees and now I find my self pining for copies of unavailable, but intriguing films like the pre-code gangster drama Bad Company (1931) and the actress' final film Unmarried (1939), which sounds like a worthy effort that proved she had much more to offer Hollywood. It makes you realize how many lost gems remain to be discovered. I also found her to be an interesting person, someone with untapped potential who nevertheless was savvy enough to make something of herself.

Many thanks to Cliff Aliperti for providing a copy of the book for review.

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