Friday, August 16, 2019

It Pays to Advertise (1931)

Farce comedy about the idle, rich son (Norman Foster) of a big businessman (Eugene Pallette), who decides to show his father up by starting his own company to compete with him, but gets himself in to a heap of financial trouble instead. He learns the value of good business skills in the process of getting the company back on its feet. This premise provides the framework for some very funny comic wheelings and dealings, played with good energy by the cast. Based on the play by Roi Cooper Megrue and Walter C. Hackett. The cast includes Carole Lombard as the secretary with whom the son falls in love, and Richard "Skeets" Gallagher as the wisecracking business partner. Tom Kennedy has a brief but quite funny turn as the dense and gullible landlord.

Bad Sister (1931)

A family drama about the troubled daughter (Sidney Fox) of a respected local merchant (Charles Winninger) who ditches her doctor boyfriend (Conrad Nagel) for a slick conman, and ends up getting her father involved in his fraudulent investment scheme. The cast includes a young Humphrey Bogart as the conman, and Bette Davis as the other sister. From Booth Tarkington's 1913 story "The Flirt".

Murder is My Beat (1955)

A detective, investigating the murder of a businessman, becomes obsessed with the showgirl accused of the killing. After she is convicted, the detective becomes convinced of her innocence and goes rogue in order to clear her name, plunging himself further in to a web of mystery and danger, and navigating a series of twists and turns to bring the real killer to justice.

Edgar G. Ulmer finds the poetry in the film's low-budget, B-level trappings, and tragic star Barbara Payton has her final role as the showgirl accused of murder. Loved the location shots of the cheap motel at night -- really evocative of a certain atmosphere.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Rich Man's Folly (1931)

A solid melodrama, based on Dickens' "Dombey and Son", about a shipbuilder whose obsession with having a son to carry on the family business pushes away his daughter and puts a terrible strain on the son's health, ultimately leading to tragic consequences.

I love stories about the sea and the shipping business, so I was instantly drawn in to this one. The plot is high melodrama, with the family dynamics enhanced by George Bancroft's forceful performance as the father, and Frances Dee as the estranged daughter who eventually finds the love and affection she has been missing with a rival shipbuilder.

The location photography, taken at a Massachusetts shipyard, adds a great deal of authenticity and detail, particularly effective in the film's climactic scene.

Helen's Babies (1924)

Harry Burton (Edward Everett Horton) is the author of a popular book on modern child-rearing methods, who is called on to babysit his two nieces (Baby Peggy and Jean Carpenter). The problem is, Uncle Harry is a life-long bachelor and, in fact, knows nothing about raising children, so chaos predictably ensues.

This was the first of the Baby Peggy films I've seen, and I can see why she was such a big star in the early '20s. She has an undeniable screen presence and is fascinating to watch, commanding attention as she goes through extended bits of business such as trying to fit a bunch of celluloid collars back in to their box or trying to retrieve her doll dangling precariously from a tree branch

It's also fun to watch Edward Everett Horton in a silent film, knowing his distinctive voice and mannerisms that made him such a reliable and welcome presence in so many comedies of the 1930s. Based on the popular 1876 book by John Habberton.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Lonesome (1928)

A poetic city symphony and romantic drama directed by Hungarian filmmaker Paul Fejos, who was one of the European emigres who found a home at Universal Pictures at the end of the '20s. The film takes place in New York, and is a narrative exploration of urban alienation and the oppressive effects of modernity. Fejos focuses on a young man and woman -- he a factory worker, she a switchboard operator -- both of whom are individually ditched by their friends and each of whom decide to head to Coney Island for the night, where they meet and fall in love amid the bustling throng.

The majority of the film (which in total runs just over an hour) is set at Coney Island. As the boy and girl find companionship with each other, the overbearing intensity of Coney Island threatens to separate them physically. Fejos overloads every frame with hundreds of extras, tons of confetti, balloons, and other decorations. The camera never stops moving. It's really a dizzying experience. Fejos certainly captures the frantic pace of modern life in a big city, and the sense of alienation.

It's a great representation of several things going on in late silent era. It contains a strong mix of elements from the New York-set Hollywood films of that era, as well as the City Symphonies. The plot really is a trifle, and while I could accept it as a kind of "anytime, anyplace, anyone" parable, too much time is spent on the romance for me to accept it solely as a kind of metaphorical stand-in for universal experiences. But, it still has a charm and energy to it that makes a strong impression.

Saturday, August 03, 2019

The King of the Movies: Film Pioneer Siegmund Lubin

There is so much more to the story of the early American film industry than the Edison-to-Porter-to-Griffith trajectory that gets passed down in the textbooks. Joseph P. Eckhardt fills in some more of those gaps with his book "The King of the Movies", which chronicles the life and career of motion picture pioneer Siegmund Lubin (1851-1923), a Jewish German immigrant who settled in Philadelphia, setting up shop first as an optometrist and then as an all-around film producer-distributor-showman.

Lubin was one of Edison's opponents in the patent wars of the wild and woolly early days of the picture business, gaining a reputation as film pirate for illegally duping and distributing films by other producers including Georges Melies. Although Lubin later joined forces with Edison in the Motion Picture Patents Company, he struggled to be fully accepted by Edison and the other members of the group. Lubin remained something of an outsider in the film industry throughout his career, fiercely independent and stubborn by the same turn. Lubin's critics attacked the poor quality of his original productions, which were often seen to be lacking in the acting and production values of his peers, but Lubin plowed forward with production at his main base in Philadelphia, dubbed "Lubinville".

Philadelphia would remain the central hub of Lubin's cinematic empire, even as he expanded his operations, maintaining production units in different regions throughout the US including Los Angeles and Jacksonville. In addition to his role as a producer and distributor, Lubin also moved in to exhibition, opening a chain of theaters in cities across the country. An interesting story involves Lubin helping out independent producers Sam Goldwyn, Jesse Lasky, and Cecil B. DeMille when they ran in to trouble with their inaugural production, THE SQUAW MAN, due to a technical error in the printing process. Lubin -- himself a member of the Patents Trust -- covertly aided the rival independents by devising a solution to their problem and rescuing them from personal and professional ruin. Even after joining the establishment, Lubin was still something of a maverick at heart.

Lubin would remain a major player in the industry throughout the first half of the 1910s, but changes in the industry, including those brought about by the first World War, lead to his studio closing by 1917, ending his reign as one of the important pioneers of the American film business. Little of Lubin's output survives today, as most of his films were destroyed in a horrific studio fire in 1914, thus making evaluation of his work difficult. Lubin would return to his optometry business in the final years of his life prior to his death in 1923.

Eckhardt has written an extensively-researched portrait of Lubin as a visionary who saw seemingly endless possibilities in the infant medium of motion pictures, and further expands the historical record of the formative years of the American film industry.

Col. William N. Selig: The Man Who Invented Hollywood

Too many film histories relegate the name of William Selig to a mere footnote, if he is mentioned at all. If one thing is clear, it's that the more you study film history, the more you realize there is yet to be explored.

Andrew Erish's book is an impressively-researched work that fills in many gaps in the traditional histories of the early film business, and in doing so, serves nearly as much as a history of the fledgling American film industry as it does as a biography of a major film pioneer. Selig was responsible for a number of important steps in the transition of filmmaking into a full-fledged industry. He was making films almost from the very beginning, in 1896. Originally based in Chicago, the filmmaking activities of his Selig Polyscope Company eventually expanded to Los Angeles, where he established Southern California's first permanent film studio in 1909, as well as his famous Selig Zoo. Selig also pioneered popular film genres and forms (particularly the serial) and helped establish such stars as Tom Mix and Fatty Arbuckle.

Unfortunately, most of Selig's films are lost, making re-evaluation of his work difficult, and unfairly consigning his name to relative obscurity -- not helped by the fact that he is also somewhat awkwardly positioned between the earliest inventors of cinema (Edison, Lumiere) and the next generation of moguls who often receive credit for many of Selig's contributions to the cinema.

This book is a major work that provides a much-needed re-evaluation of those contributions made by Selig, as well as painting a more complete picture of the development of the American film industry.