Monday, February 25, 2019

20,000 Years in Sing Sing (1932)

In the early ‘30s, the Warner Bros. studio was establishing itself as Hollywood’s premier place for hard-edged, social realist dramas that reflected the conditions and attitudes of Depression-era America. Among these films to emerge from Warner Bros. in this period were Wild Boys of the RoadI Am a Fugitive from a Chain GangBlack Fury, and The Petrified Forest. In addition, the Depression-era wish fulfillment of the gangster films, most famously Little Caesar and The Public Enemy, and the backstage musicals of Busby Berkeley, including 42nd StreetGold Diggers of 1933 and Footlight Parade, continued in this tradition of dealing with the social issues facing the nation during the Depression at the studio presided over by the pro-Roosevelt, pro-New Deal movie mogul Jack L. Warner.

Out of this milieu came 20,000 Years in Sing Sing, in 1932, a tough pre-Code drama starring Spencer Tracy and Bette Davis in their only picture together. The screenplay was based on the novel of the same name by Warden Lewis E. Lawes. It tells the story of a high-profile, big-time New York criminal (Tracy) who is handed a stiff sentence and sent up the river. His experiences in prison are much tougher than expected, although he gradually comes to respect the stern but benevolent warden. When Tracy learns that his sweetheart, Fay (Bette Davis) is in critical condition and may not have long to live, the warden allows Tracy to take leave from the prison on the honor system and go visit Fay so that they can spend their final hours together. The situation becomes complicated when Tracy learns that it was his friend, Finn (Louis Calhern), who was responsible for his Fay’s injuries, and has plans to double-cross him.

20,000 Years in Sing Sing is stylishly directed by Michael Curtiz, who made so many pictures for Warner Bros. during the ‘30s and really had a chance to hone his craft on film after film. Here, he makes a series of interesting choices that leave an indelible impression, such as prototypical-Noirish use of shadows created by the prison bars, which create a claustrophobic and imposing effect. Another brilliant choice is the use of on-screen text, superimposed above each of the prisoners marching through the prison,indicating the number of years for which they have been sentenced. This device creates a harrowing effect by highlighting the amount of time that these men will be spending behind bars. As a result of Curtiz’s expert direction, the taut and economic storytelling and crackerjack plotting, there is not an ounce of fat on the film, not a single wasted shot or unnecessary moment.

This film offers two early starring roles for Spencer Tracy and Bette Davis, who demonstrate a remarkable chemistry together. Tracy has an excellent opportunity here to display the kind of gentle, noble qualities that he would bring to all of his screen work. He has a remarkable ability to convey so much through his expressions. His subtle and understated performance achieves a totality of tone and characterization. Davis brings just the right mix of innocence and tragedy to her role as the girl Tracy loves and had to leave behind, and it’s easy to see the qualities in her performance here that would quickly make her a top star at Warner Bros.

20,000 Years in Sing Sing is a great example of the gritty, socially-conscious films that Warner Bros. specialized in during the ‘30s. The time was definitely right for this type of film, with the nation embroiled in the depths of the Depression, of economic hopelessness and despair. Although things would soon begin to look up thanks to FDR and his New Deal, films like 20,000 Years in Sing Sing accurately captured the mood and concerns of a nation when it was at one of its all-time low points.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Moby Dick (1930)

Second version of Herman Melville's classic novel, and the second to star John Barrymore. The story had previously been filmed in 1926 as THE SEA BEAST, also starring Barrymore as Captain Ahab.

This version makes the hunt for the whale largely a minor point, instead focusing on a romance between Barrymore and a very young Joan Bennett, and adding a rivalry between Ahab and his brother over the girl's affection. And the whole story is reduced to a 77 minute film.

There is some impressive early process photography, and what had to be some pretty expensive model work with a large-scale, submersible replica of the whale. At the climax, the maniacal Ahab scurries over the back of the whale and repeatedly jams his harpoon into it, until there is a geyser of blood shooting out and spraying all over him.

 But overall, it is a good case for preferring a "faithful adaptation" -- instead of taking such a fascinating, epic story and making it into something utterly mundane.

Main Street After Dark (1945)

A family of pickpockets (including Dan Duryea and Audrey Totter) in a small port city is targeting sailors on leave, and detective Edward Arnold leads a task force with local police to bring their operation down. More of a noticeably low-budget movie than one might expect from MGM at this time, though with a good cast and some nice art direction. With its procedural format and concluding narration, it feels like a feature-length version of one of the studio's "Crime Does Not Pay" short subjects. I do enjoy movies with this kind of dark, WWII-era atmosphere.

The Merry Widow (1934)

High-class, glossy adaptation of the Lehar operetta directed with typically brilliant style by Ernst Lubitsch. The plot itself is a confectionery trifle but Lubitsch elevates it to the level of high art with his brilliant guiding hand, and the full resources of the mighty MGM behind him. Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald are utterly charming as Danilo and Sonia, and there are many welcome appearances from such familiar faces as Edward Everett Horton, Una Merkel, George Barbier, Minna Gombell, Donald Meek and a host of other fine players.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

The Dawn Patrol (1930)

Stirring action-adventure drama of the air, about the experiences of a group of British WWI aviators and the impossibly dangerous missions they must risk their lives for. Richard Barthelmess and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. are the two close friends and fellow aviators whose friendship is tested after Barthelmess is promoted to flight commander and sends Fairbanks' kid brother off on a mission from which he never returns. 

Hawks's direction keeps the pace tight and his masterful handling of the action scenes is filled with vigor and delivers some real thrills. The aerial battle scenes are some of the best of their kind ever filmed. 

AKA Flight Commander

Saturday, February 09, 2019

The Wind (1928)

One of those glorious silent films that I was introduced to through Kevin Brownlow and David Gill's HOLLYWOOD series years ago.

Lillian Gish stars in one of her most stunning and brilliant performances as Letty Mason, a young woman from Virginia who travels west to live with an old family friend and finds herself plunged in to the wild, untamed landscape of the prairie with its relentless, driving, howling winds. The wind threatens to slowly drive Letty mad as she struggles to adapt and survive in this harsh new environment and to come to terms with her feelings about the man she has married.

This merciless, unforgiving environment becomes a character in its own right. Exterior scenes were filmed on location under extremely difficult conditions of sweltering heat and wind provided by a bank of airplane propellers. Gish oversaw every aspect of the film, choosing the great Swedish director Victor Sjostrom to helm the production, and acclaimed Swedish star Lars Hanson as her leading man.

One of the truly great American silent films. See the Photoplay restoration with an inspired score by Carl Davis.

Directed by Victor Sjostrom. Written by Frances Marion from the novel by Dorothy Scarborough. Photographed by John Arnold. Released by MGM, 1928. With Lillian Gish, Lars Hanson, Montagu Love