Saturday, October 24, 2020

A Chump at Oxford again

I've written about this one here before, but it was on TV again this morning and I just had to note again what a perfect showcase this is for Stan Laurel's talents as an actor. He played the same character for so long and became so closely identified with it that it's striking to see him here in his stuffy, pompous "Lord Paddington" character, a real testament to his acting range and a glimpse at the different character parts he could have played.

And Oliver Hardy is wonderful as usual, frustrated and put-upon under Paddington's condescending orders one moment and then jovial and happy when he has his old friend back at the end.

Thursday, October 22, 2020

The Unknown (1927)

Lon Chaney is Alonzo, an armless knife thrower in a gypsy circus in old Madrid. He loves the circus owner's daughter, Nanon (Joan Crawford), who detests being touched by men (consequently rejecting the affections of the circus strongman) and only feels safe around Alonzo. 

Little does she know that not only does Alonzo actually have arms (which he keeps tightly and uncomfortable bound in a corset), but he actually is a wanted murderer, easily identifiable by his deformed double-thumb on one hand.

After a brutal fight with the circus owner, Alonzo strangles him, and Nanon witnesses only the telltale double-thumb on the murderer's hand. Realizing that his future happiness with Nanon depends on concealing his true identity, Alonzo blackmails a surgeon into amputating his arms.

In his absence, Nanon comes to trust the strongman and to feel comfortable in his embrace. Alonzo returns from his surgery to the news that she and the strongman are to be married. He exacts his revenge on the strongman by sabotaging his dangerous new act, which consists of his arms being bound to horses running on a treadmill, and almost results in the strongman being torn limb from limb. When his beloved Nanon intervenes to save the strongman, putting herself in harm's way of the wild horses, Alonzo sacrifices himself to save her, finally being trampled to death under the horse's hooves.

It's the kind of gruesome, offbeat film that is hard to imagine coming from a major studio like MGM. It runs only 49 minutes -- a testament to giving just as much time as needed to tell the story without any padding or extraneous material. It's beautifully photographed by Merritt B. Gerstad, who shoots some of Crawford's scenes through a gauze filter. Chaney gives one of his best performances as Alonzo, bringing sympathy to the character even when overcome with homicidal jealousy. It's also a strong contender for the best film that director Tod Browning made in his career, bringing together his favorite themes with the highly accomplished visual storytelling that silent films did best.

Monday, October 19, 2020

Mr. Boggs Steps Out (1938)

This was a nice little comedy that I found on Pub-d-Hub, looking for something short and funny to watch tonight. It's based on a story by Clarence Budington Kelland, author of Mr. Deeds Goes to Town.

Mr. Boggs, as played by affable Stuart Erwin, would be right at home in the world of Frank Capra -- a good-hearted, naïve small town man who takes on the big guys. After he wins a small fortune in a bean-counting contest, statistics expert Mr. Boggs arrives in an economically-depressed small town to purchase a barrel factory that has been shut down for some time. He knows nothing about manufacturing barrels, of course, but is sure he can learn. With the help of the barrel-maker and his daughter, Boggs sets about getting the factory up and running and putting the townsmen back to work. But he finds himself up against a crooked swindler who attempts to cheat Boggs out of his business.

I've always liked Stuart Erwin. He's one of those familiar faces who turns up in many films during the '30s and '40s, and has the kind of likable personality and low-key sense of humor that's fun to watch.

Blonde Crazy (1931)

James Cagney is a bellhop who dreams of becoming a big-time grifter. He teams up with maid Joan Blondell, and the two small-time crooks embark on a series of schemes to strike it big during the depths of the Great Depression. Along the way, they get mixed-up with other con-men and get taken by a few schemes themselves, but in the end, they'll always have each other.

This is one of the best of the Warner Bros. pre-Code crime pictures. Cagney and Blondell have great chemistry together, and the film is filled with the kind of salacious moments that just a few years later would be prohibited on the screen, giving it a "down and dirty" quality that perfectly captures the atmosphere and attitudes of the Great Depression years.

At a brisk 79 minutes, it's also a model of economic storytelling and pacing. There's not a wasted minute of screen time.

Sunday, October 18, 2020

British Intelligence (1940)

I'd watched this one last week and didn't get around to writing anything down about it. There's not much to say, really -- it's a pretty routine wartime espionage thriller about double-agents operating in London, set during WWI but designed as a bit of propaganda for 1940 audiences.

The plot itself is a bit confusing, packing so many character twists into its hour running time that the motivations and relationships aren't always clear. 

The highlight is Boris Karloff in the role of a double-agent. He's always fascinating to watch and gives the part his all.

Saturday, October 17, 2020

The Gorilla (1939)

I read an interview once with Mel Brooks where he said that he considered Harry Ritz, of the Ritz Brothers, the funniest of all comedians. The madcap comic energy he and his brothers, Al and Jimmy, bring to this fun 1939 riff on "old dark house" mysteries is certainly in line with what Mel Brooks would do years later with comedies like Young Frankenstein and Dracula: Dead and Loving It.

Directed by Allan Dwan with swift pacing, the film opens with a newspaper montage detailing a series of murders carried out by a killer known as The Gorilla. The killer has notified his next victim, a wealthy businessman (Lionel Atwill), of his impending doom. Atwill owes someone a great deal of money that he cannot pay, and then there's the matter of the forthcoming inheritance to be split between him and his niece (Anita Louise), so Atwill hires a trio of detectives (the Ritz Brothers) to protect him, who of course only add to the chaos. Things are further complicated when an actual escaped gorilla (actually Art Miles in a gorilla suit) shows up at the house, as well as a mysterious stranger (Joseph Calleia). Also on hand are Patsy Kelly as the zany maid and Bela Lugosi as the creepy butler. 

The whole thing is a good deal of silly fun, especially if you enjoy these kind of haunted house mysteries, with lots of creaking doors, lights flickering on and off, and people disappearing into hidden passageways around the elaborate mansion set. The plot (based on an old play by Ralph Spence) is just straight enough to work on its own, and the added comic presence of the Ritz Brothers just cranks everything up a notch. Recommended for a good late night comedy.

Friday, October 16, 2020

Marilyn (1953)

aka Roadhouse Girl

British noir about a young mechanic who gets a job at a garage in the English countryside. He falls in love with the owner's wife, and when the husband catches the two of them together, the mechanic kills the husband. Although the mechanic is acquitted, his problems are only beginning.

The plot reminded me a bit of The Postman Always Rings Twice. I love the bleak atmosphere of these post-war British B movies, and this one evidently has a strong reputation among them.

Saturday, October 10, 2020

Laurel & Hardy: One Good Turn, County Hospital, Blotto

One Good Turn is an interestingly topical short for Laurel and Hardy, explicitly referencing the hard conditions of the Depression. The boys are down on their luck vagrants, living out of their car, who offer to chop some wood for an old lady in exchange for food. When they come to believe the kindly old woman is in danger of being evicted from her home, they set about trying to raise the money to help her. The ending reverses their roles somewhat, with Stan turning on Oliver and getting revenge for his cruel treatment of him.

County Hospital is one of my favorites. Stan comes to visit Oliver in the hospital, and sets in motion a series of mishaps. That set-up is all they need for one of their funniest shorts. There's a great scene of Laurel eating a hard-boiled egg and making it uproariously funny as only he could. The climactic scene, with Laurel falling asleep at the wheel after sitting on a hypodermic needle, is often cited as a weak wrap-up to the short, with its overuse of obvious back-projection, but for me it works in exactly the same way as the back projection in W.C. Fields' The Fatal Glass of Beer or Man on the Flying Trapeze -- hilarious in its sheer artificiality.

Blotto is a good situation comedy for the Boys. Stan and Oliver sneak out to a fancy new nightclub for an evening of drunken carousing. Stan steals a bottle of liquor that his wife has been stashing away since Prohibition, but she's on to him, and ends up getting the upper hand on the Boys. It's an odd thing to comment on here, but I've always been struck by the elaborate production design of the Art Deco nightclub set. No art directors are credited on the Laurel and Hardy films before 1936, and I have never read any information about the set designers on these short subjects. I'd love to know more about the unsung designers who came up with that set.