THE NARROW CORNER
(1933) Directed by Alfred E. Green
Finding this on TCM (part of Ralph Bellamy day) cemented the proof that 1933, not 1939, was the best year for movies. You never know what classic authors are going to ferment into wine and which to vinegar, but the South Seas commonwealth parables of W. Somerset Maugham have become a very potent wine and THE NARROW CORNER is the good stuff you keep for yourself during dark nights of the soul. Why is it so forgotten while the self-absorbed forgotten man whining of THE PETRIFIED FOREST is so lauded? Where Leslie Howard's maudlin rambling in FOREST smacked of self-pity, Maugham's dead-eyed stare into the riptide--where life is wrest from us as a berry from a branch by a half asleep Mexican gardener--is admirable, heroic, and damned hilarious in CORNER! Cheers! Tape it and save it forever.
WEST OF BROADWAY
(1931) Dir. Harry Beaumont
Here's a curio starring former-matinee idol John Gilbert, caught like a fly in the amber of the sound era: when he tries to sound manly and tough he just sounds hung over, speech halting awkwardly like he's sending a morse code S.O.S. in the spaces between the words of his dialogue, hoping his buddies off-camera will translate and rush... to his aid. In the early sound equipment days they were taught to take long pauses and say words... clearly.
But it's worth seeing for the brave way Gilbert captures the art of the shaky rebound. His character comes home from the Great War, a hero with four bullets in him, to find his fiancee Ann (Madge Evans) not there to meet him, and instead off with some slime ball. He laughs it sardonically away but it hurts and she's gorgeous and his hired rebound girl Dot (Lois Moran) is merely a bit 'pretty in a trashy sort of way.' "Dot the I and cross the Ann," he says, while introducing them to each other at the (I guess) the only swanky nightclub in NYC. "Double cross."
And it's worth it for the sly way the waiter says "your package sir," and slips Gilbert a fifth wrapped in a white towel, low under the table at the club, so the prohibition cops don't see it, and for the sleazy, no holds-barred details of Dot's life as a hired girl who's brave enough to refuse Gilbert's hand-out (she and her girlfriend owe ten days' back rent) even as she notes to her friend that at Gilbert's party there were "hands all over me" and then gropes herself in a resigned way.
But the best part is poor Gilbert's shakes the morning after he marries the hired girl (oops). I don't think I've ever seen Saint Vitus dance so accurately done I seriously it barely seems like acting. And for her part it's great when she takes over as woman of the house and gets all racist, barking at the Chinese cook, or sprawling around in a wicker chair to shoot the shit about Jerry with his high class friends, like she owns the place (hired girls who get married to drunken playboys in black-outs are always either ruthless gold-diggers or good girls awaiting redemption, seldom are they neither). And when he tries to quit drinking the cowboys are singing outside and suddenly you tap into RIO BRAVO's scene where Dean Martin almost takes a shot of whiskey while the Mariachi death song plays down the street from the jail. Moran is a little firecracker but her pal is no Joan Blondell, and when we see Gilbert ponder whether or not to keep her after their marriage's been annulled you may tap into that ambivalence Frank Sinatra had with Shirley MacLaine in SOME CAME RUNNING. But Gilbert, he was almost all the way tapped out, and it shows. Man, those shakes are something else.
And Gilbert's a good enough actor to use his personal desperation in a scene: you can feel his desperate stiff upper lip trembling as he finds out Ann's moved on. She could be standing for his entire female silent film fan base, which was once substantial and just as suddenly nonexistent. Like Barrymore's drunken has-been in DINNER AT EIGHT, he's a classic case of an actor's pain and his character's bleeding into each other, the pain of being smart enough to know when your outdated, when your matinee adoration is all wound up, and you're too drunk to find a new illusion, and seeing the only way to go is down, so might as well get drunker and plunge into the void like a cock-eyed W. Somerset Maugham kamikaze. When you're falling, dive. All else is vanity.
(1933) Dir. Otto Brauer
This is an early example of tough-ass Warner Brothers action, with an obligatory climactic gangster shoot-out and a quite a few real-time floods, fires, and even some 'collateral value' shots lensed during the Santa Monica earthquake. It's startling how at ease the actors are around these real-time calamities, with reporter Dee offering comfort to shaken witnesses as she makes sure to get the signature on the release statement, showing that solid mix of sexy warmth and maternal compassion that would one day make zombies walk with her through whispering cane fields of admiration.
THE CROWD ROARS
(1932) Dir. Howard Hawks
The cars are game and Cagney's explosive, but it's kind of tough to care because it's not like racing cars really contributes anything to society, and mainly its because he's also such a shit to his women. He's a race car driver who tries to warn his little brother off of the loose ladies he runs around with (like Joan Blondell). But of course, little brother wants to get married to one, etc. Meanwhile, Cagney's buddy dies in a wreck and the race keeps going, so Cagney starts to smell his old pal frying in the blaze every time he drives around the bend, around and around and around...Sure, that's enough to put anyone off his feed.
(1930) Dir. Mervyn Leroy
An early sound comedy-musical (with most of the music numbers cut) starring the rubber-mouthed comedian (willing to 'adopt some' with Jack Lemmon in SOME LIKE IT HOT), and a daring chronicle of the years before the Depression, this is a last gasp of college letters and class resentment. The passing era of sexual repression lingers lines like, "I'm so modest I won't allow lamb chops on the table unless they have those paper pants on." Both suggestively lewd and comically moralist, the film sums up the only sane response to the draconian, near fundamentalist level of sexual repression endured under the watchful eye of hotel detectives, chaperones, and social reform-minded wives. Herein we also learn the origins of now forgotten phrases like "over a barrel" (it's a protean kind of CPR) and "counting sheep" (apparently it was a big fad like Atkins is today, and Brown explains it complete with hand gestures). And since 1930 was such a ' scandalous' time, well, it was very easy to be scandalous. Just being caught in a hotel room with a woman not your wife could earn you a public flogging, and from thence we get those boudoir comedies of sneaking around fire escapes in one's underwear, hiding under beds while the house dick peers through the doorcrack. It's hard to get that kind of naughty steam going in our more permissive age, but here's a world where men can't show their torsos on the beach and have to wear full body swim suits. It explains a lot... about Saudi Arabia today.