1932 - ***
The great forgotten Jack Holt plays the worst federal agent in the world, endangering his witnesses and letting himself be snowed over by any old disguise or pretense, but he he has a yen for weird undercover work in this pulpy thriller, and he's not afraid to go to jail and pose as a convict so he can win the trust of nervous flunky Boris Karloff. It's all so he can hit him up later for a job and expose a racket that hides dope in caskets and is masterminded by a shadowy Mabuse-type. Edward Everett-Sloan is around and there's a vast spy network full of dark-eyed bit players. Meanwhile Holt's girl, Constance Cummings, tries to save her dad, a doctor in 'a lot of trouble' and a little romance bloometh. And she's even remarkably capable with a .45, which is a switch for these things.
It all climaxes in a scene where the masked evil doctor makes a great show of refusing to give the tied-down Holt anesthetic for a planned vivisection, because he wants him to experience the magic moment when excruciating pain becomes ecstasy. Batailles and dimestore pulp come together with the Universal horror stock company so you need to see it, but it's not until the last five minutes that it approaches the cock-eyed madness of any five minutes of DR. X (1933).
1932 - ***1/2
If you've been always a bit cold on Lee Tracy this is the film that will make you warm up. He's like Jimmy Cagney crossed with the adenoidal scarecrow as the quintessential fast-talking gossip columnist, ushering in a new low in journalism via the ratting out of 'blessed events' - i.e. children born less than nine months after the couple's been married, or outside of wedlock, or etc. Remember when that was a scandal? Me neither. Highlight: Tracy bluffs Allen Jenkins' mob hitman via a monologue about an electric chair execution he witnessed that brings Barrymore in TWENTIETH CENTURY-worthy manic pantomime to some balls-out ghastly places. (The infamous electric chair picture chronicled in the Cagney film PICTURE SNATCHER is seen).
As he talks and goes on in his demonstration of the execution Tracy gets more and more hysterical, his voice cracking, movements getting sharp and jerky as he describes the anguish of waiting in hopes of a reprieve, the shaky steps of the last mile, puking up the last meal, the rigor mortis and hair burning. It's the sort of thing that only the pre-codes could delve into, and this delves so deep you're quaking along with Jenkins by the end, and all traces of your dislike of Tracy have been obliterated in the burnt hair and ozone-rich air.
Roy Del Ruth directed and the rapid patter pace is awesome except when Dick Powell's lame songs slow things down. Edwin Maxwell, Ned Sparks, Frank McHugh, Allen Jenkins, Ruth Donnelly, Jack La Rue, and Rita Cunningham all come over to the table, adding plenty of moxy. Add references to Jews. ("Do you know many Jews there are in New York?" - "Oh, dozens!"), Amos and Andy, and a wild-eyed girl at 'in trouble' played with deranged ferocity and desperation by a ragged-looking creature named Isabell Jewell (left), and you have a whipsmack pre-code that makes your scalp stand on end. PS - You will also come out of this film learning what 'nadir' means.
1932 - ****
It took awhile for this to resonate with me but now I dig the it doesn't 'Americanize' the dialogue like so many lazier Hollywood films, but plays up the linguistic difficulties where not everyone is fluent with Italian, English, or French, as in the excited way the Italian hotelier translates EE Horton's story of how he got robbed in his room; if you don't tune it out, it's hilarious.
I love the little things now, so many viewings later, I love the elaborate tale of how fast gossip travels, so that Miriam Hopkins is getting verification requests from duchesses mere minutes after being spotted in the lobby of her lover by a nosy count. (and it's all rot, of course). While Herbert Marshall isn't Cary Grant, or Melvyn Douglas, or even Ronald Coleman, he swoons well and convinces you through two layers of subterfuge that he's genuinely confident in his sexuality, in love with the moon (he wants to see it reflected in champagne) and the women around him.
Who wouldn't be? Miriam displays her wide, loose midsection proudly in some tight-clinging dresses, giving you the vibe that, as Dave's South African mom used to say, "she moves from her cunt." I love the way their first kiss on the couch seems to make them slowly dissolve until the couch is empty.
As always, Edward Everett Horton and Charlie Ruggles are effete, bitchy suitors. And Gustav Von Seffeyritz humbugs with gusto as the chairman of the board who suspects Marshall is a crook, just as he is himself, the blighter. But who would be able to resist robbing Kay Francis?
|"I'm a saaad panda..."|
1930 - ***
BLUE ANGEL might best be understood as the chrysalis between the caterpillar of the silent era's 'deformed circus freak loves pretty trapeze artist' plot boilerplate which Acidemic contributor Budd Wilkins has termed the "masochistic melodrama" genre (See his fine Chaney reviews here) and the sound era pre-code butterfly of the Hollywood Sternberg-Dietrich collaborations. As such it's neither here nor there, like watching Wallace Beery get stuck in the doghouse door trying to sneak out of the cast of MGM's FREAKS and defect to Paramount rom-coms.
But Emil Jannings is a damn unsightly kind of creepy crawler, way uglier and uncharismatic than Beery, and it's clear Sternberg can't stand his character. Rather than stir our sympathy Jannings' ever more out-maneuvered Herr Professor inspires nothing but ennui so there's little masochistic payoff. He's asking for a take-down; his smug judgment of Lola and her postcards (which he finds in his student's schoolbooks) sets him up like a turkey under Lady Eve's axe. And as he makes his downward slide, his slow motion expressionist pantomime reaches for grand tragedy in a way that makes you think Chaney is down to his last few faces, and is searching vainly in the mud for one more piece of sawdust and/or tinsel. With his bug-eyed outraged head facing the camera from the same angle, round glasses and Satanic facial hair swirling, Jannings works very hard at keeping his head always in the center of the frame while his body twists and turns like a big old bug caught in a spider web. But to what effect? Nevah vanted doo.
Shot in Weimar Germany before her studio-ordered nose job, molar removal and diet, Dietrich would be unrecognizable here if not for world weary smile and flashing, darting eyes --she might pass for her own sister, the one who stayed in Berlin mit die schwarzwaldkuchen und bier. But Von Sternberg is in fine form; he lights the Blue Angel club like a crazy expressionist side show and if you just act like the lighting and shadows are the real stars of the film, it definitely is the masterpiece so many claim.
Still, more than in any subsequent films, Sternberg's masochism is a downer. Always portraying the suitors of his lovely star Dietrich as buffoons, bug-eyed blowhards, shameless masochists, or authoritarian bullies (or else they rarely speak at all and operate as sex objects themselves, like Gary Cooper in MOROCCO), Von Sternberg's obsessions can sometimes seem the cinematic equivalent of a jealous, angry lover defacing pictures of his romantic rivals even as his studio bosses insist he cast them. One would normally ask of a pre-code: maybe it's fun and sleazy but is it art? But in DER BLAU ENGEL one knows it's art, and sees it's sleazy, but is it any fun? As Herman Cain would say, Nein Nein Nein!
1933 - ***1/2
Fay Wray is the daughter of Lionel Atwill, who gets lots of ham time as the titular Dr. Xavier, out to trap the "full moon killer" amongst his creepily-lit collection of scientific colleagues, each of whom grows more indignant and suspicious the longer we hang out with them: Dr. Welles, for example, has made a 'study' of cannibalism and has been keeping a heart alive in an 'electrolysis solution' for the last three years but his missing arm preempts further suspicion; Dr. Haines on the other hand was shipwrecked for years and his tasty, plump colleague was never found; and the one-eyed Dr. Rowen studies lunar rays effects on criminal minds but notes that "the lunar rays will never effect you and me, sir, because we are normal people."
Time and digital re-colorization has been kind to the early technicolor hues of DR. X. What used to look blurry and muddy and depressing now glitters with glowing emeralds and murky pinks and deep, bloody reds make it like a candy fountain of shadowy death. And dig the post-modern self-reflexivity of the the climax, with the doctors all chained to their chairs, their pulses linked to vials of blood that overflow like a buzzer at the top of a Coney Island strength tester when they're aroused by the murder tableaux staged before them, just like you in the audience! Scream ladies and gentlemen! The Tingler is in this theater!
And notions of the duality inherent in language gets a lot of subliminal attention too: Xavier's outrage over each of the new accusations of his colleague belies its opposite: "Dr. Rowen could never never be the guilty one," means the opposite, while Lee Tracy regularly promises not to do something while then turning around and doing it, as expected. Meanwhile, Xavier's grave pronouncements of things like "There can be no doubt about it, gentlemen - this is cannibalism!" are allowed no argument since they carry his medical weight. And now that you're not annoyed by Lee Tracy anymore maybe you wont want to tear his picture apart with your bare hands when you learn he gets Fay Wray in the end. Chained, for your own amusement, indeed.