Category Archives: Classics

City Streets (1931, Rouben Mamoulian)

The first third of City Streets is this awesome bit of experimenting from director Mamoulian as he tries to figure out how to make a sound picture. Lots of great shots and camera setups, usually with too dawdling cuts. William Shea holds everything just a few seconds too long. But the montage imagery itself is fantastic. And Mamoulian carries it over into the narrative a bit too, though he eventually stops with it after sort of peaking.

But even for all Mamoulian’s experimenting, Streets is never experimental. There’s always the script to drag it back to reality. Oliver H.P. Garrett (adapting a Dashiell Hammett original story, with help form Max Marcin) writes some great scenes and some excellent characters… he just doesn’t write the right ones excellent. Or, if he does, at the wrong times. There’s no reason Wynne Gibson, as a jilted mobster’s dame, ought to end up giving the most dynamic female performance in Streets. It’s literally Sylvia Sidney’s movie and she loses it to Gibson for the finale. Gibson’s great, but great because the movie doesn’t give Sidney a presence much less a chance. Possibly because no one realized Gary Cooper doesn’t work without Sidney around. His performance is better, but he doesn’t function right in the plot without her.

Streets is a crime melodrama. Sidney works for her step-father, a truly singular Guy Kibbee as an abject sociopath, who in turn works for crime boss Paul Lukas. Lukas is a classy European guy who seduces the women of his gang and then kills off his romantic rivals and promotes some duplicitous underling. He’s a psychopath, but one in the guise of a sociopath. Lukas is pretty awesome. He’s not as good as Kibbee because no one’s as good as Kibbee, but Lukas is frightening. Of course, Lukas doesn’t meet Sidney through Kibbee, rather through Gary Cooper. Cooper starts the movie a dope of a cowboy who’s found his way to the big city, just waiting until the circus shows up and he can join up. He’s Sidney’s fella. And he wants nothing to do with the bootlegging gangsters.

At least until Sidney’s in a jam and, being a complete moron, Kibbee’s able to talk Cooper into it to help her. Shame the only thing Sidney’s able to hold onto is the knowledge her fella would never get involved with the bootlegging gangsters.

There’s some great romantic scenes between Cooper and Sidney, which occasionally get messed up by the edits, occasionally amplified. The first one is on the beach and is exemplar good sexy until they cut to a two-shot in the studio instead of the location. Then one where the lovers are separated by a screen. Sidney’s amazing in that one. She also gets a few great thinking scenes, one accompanied by a sound flashback (the first in film, according to the IMDb), and then one where she’s got to figure out how to save Cooper.

Because once Lukas gets a look at her, he’s not going to stop at anything to get her.

And Kibbee’s more than happy to go along. And Cooper’s a dope who thinks Lukas is his pal.

There’s a better movie in the story, but maybe not much better. Cooper’s okay. He’s actually better as the plotting gangster than the dopey cowboy stud. Sidney’s excellent, but the material’s not always with her. Kibbee, Gibson, Lukas. William Boyd’s kind of blah as Lukas’s number two. Not bad just blander than he ought to be. Some of it’s the script.

There’s a great montage sequence of Cooper and all the mob guys looking at each other. I wonder how it’d sound with Ennio Morricone.

The film’s most impressive for Mamoulian’s direction. Unfortunately, you could cut together a ten minute reel of all the best directed stuff and be fine. For whatever reason, Mamoulian drops the experimenting in the second half and the melodrama stalls. It even drags, not good for an eighty minute picture. Maybe it needs to be longer….

The film just can’t figure out how to make all its pieces work; Mamoulian tries a lot of successful things, they just don’t add up. And he seems to get tired of trying, which hurts it.

But City Streets is still an amazing piece of motion picture making.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Rouben Mamoulian; screenplay by Oliver H.P. Garrett, based on an adaptation by Max Marcin and a story by Dashiell Hammett; director of photography, Lee Garmes; edited by William Shea; produced by E. Lloyd Sheldon; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Sylvia Sidney (Nan Cooley), Gary Cooper (The Kid), Guy Kibbee (Pop Cooley), Wynne Gibson (Agnes), William ‘Stage’ Boyd (McCoy), and Paul Lukas (Big Fellow Maskal).


Champagne for Caesar (1950, Richard Whorf)

What’s so frustrating about Champagne for Caesar is how little the film really would’ve need to do to be a success. It just needed a rewrite. Someone to come in and fix Hans Jacoby and Frederick Brady’s script, which is usually fine but they really can’t figure out what to do with Celeste Holm. And given Holm is second-billed (albeit below the title) and doesn’t come into the picture until moments before the halfway point… it’s like there needs to be a point to Holm.

And there really isn’t.

Up to the point Holm arrives, it really seems like the film knows what to do. Until then, the biggest problems with it are director Whorf’s bland close-up inserts—you can just imagine the actors mugging at nothing instead of the other actor in the scene—and Art Linkletter’s game show host. Linkletter’s supposed to be a jackass so he gets a lot of leeway—he really does seem like a jackass. But even he’s able to redeem himself and help move the film into position to really take off with Holm.

So the film, which starts consciously objectifying sunbathing Ellye Marshall because—as the narrator informs the audience—there won’t be any chance for it later, is actually about erudite Ronald Colman. Colman’s dedicated his life to learning all that is learnable, content to sit and read, doing the odd job to help with the bills, but it’s obvious sister Barbara Britton is supporting them. She teaches piano. It’s crappy—while Coleman doesn’t look his fifty-nine years, he’s visibly older than Britton and there’s a story in how they ended up together, with Britton acting like she’s a spinster just because she doesn’t sunbathe.

This portion of the film, with Coleman and Britton just hanging out and trying to get by while being eccentric—they invite Britton’s student, Byron Foulger, to a show and it ends up them watching a television through the store window. Historically accurate but it’s not a “show.” The scene has Foulger perplexed at how he’s ended up sharing the activity with them; it’s really strong stuff—Whorf’s direction is never better than in the first act, though there are some returns to form later on. Coleman and Britton just perfectly click.

So Coleman has this bad job interview with this weird soap company run by oddball businessman Vincent Price. What makes Price so funny is how everyone indulges his eccentricities when he’s really just a poseur. It pisses Coleman off, so much he decides to sabotage Price’s game show—the soap company sponsors a quiz show and who better to go on a quiz show than Coleman, who’s got encyclopedic knowledge and instant recall.

While at the game show, Britton gets taken with Linkletter, which doesn’t seem like it’s going to be a great arc or anything—quite the opposite—until they fall in love. Again, shouldn’t work, but does work. After Coleman keeps winning, Linkletter offers to use Britton’s crush to snoop on Coleman; except Britton knows Linkletter’s doing it and doesn’t care. She’s not going to betray Coleman—though she’s against his game show revenge plan—but she’s also not going to stop seeing Linkletter.

Very unexpected, very well-executed. You get to see Price just completely lose it, which you’ve been hoping he’s going to do since his first scene and the payoff’s there. The third act bungles Price in a lot of ways—somewhat through neglecting him—but he’s mostly magnificent and absurdly so.

But everything going so well makes it seem like the film’s going to know what to do when it brings in Holm, who’s a professional troublemaker. Price hires her to seduce and destroy Coleman. Holm poses as a nurse to take care of man cold suffering Coleman, working to quickly sabotage him with her feminine wiles.

Except Holm mugs through all the feminine wiles scenes—very effectively, but it doesn’t seem like the script’s written for that approach. And, although he’s obviously taken with her, Coleman’s not believably moony about her. The scenes where he’s got to be a jealous mess, Coleman plays with a shrug. His character’s willing to lose $20 million to make a point, it doesn’t seem like Holm manipulating him will get much mileage.

During this section of the film—so the middle to the third act start or thereabouts—Britton basically disappears. Coleman even comments on her absence. Presumably she’s off with Linkletter but seeing them sit around and talk about Coleman’s chances on the game show would probably be more interesting than the feigned screwball stuff with Coleman and Holm. If Whorf could keep up with the actors, it’d probably be fine. Coleman and Holm are doing different things but never bumping into each other. They’ve got a professional grace, even though the script’s clunky and the direction’s detached.

Then Coleman and Britton get back together in the third act to regroup and Caesar’s all of a sudden so much better for a moment; it’s like you’ve forgotten the ground the film’s lost through its runtime.

The ending’s not bad just flat. Tepid. Lukewarm. Blah.

There’s some excellent material in it—Price is a hoot, Britton’s quite good, Coleman and Holm are solid; Caesar never tasks Coleman and he always gives more than the scene needs. Just needs a better script and more decisive direction.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Richard Whorf; written by Hans Jacoby and Frederick Brady; director of photography, Paul Ivano; edited by Hugh Bennett; music by Dimitri Tiomkin; costume designer, Maria P. Donovan; produced by George Moskov; released by United Artists.

Starring Ronald Colman (Beauregard Bottomley), Barbara Britton (Gwenn Bottomley), Celeste Holm (Flame O’Neil), Art Linkletter (Happy Hogan), Vincent Price (Burnbridge Waters), Byron Foulger (Gerald), Vici Raaf (Waters’s secretary), and Ellye Marshall (Frosty).



Mighty Joe Young (1949, Ernest B. Schoedsack)

From the first scene, Mighty Joe Young is concerning. There’s a nice establishing shot of an Africa plantation, with some great matte work, then little White girl on the plantation Lora Lee Michel sees a couple African men passing with a basket. She wants what’s in the basket, so there’s a nice lengthy barter sequence where you try to figure out not if it’s racist, but in how many ways it’s racist. Michel’s supposed to be adorable but is annoying and bad, which is more than Mighty Joe can handle. It’s going to be bad way too frequently; annoying and bad is just too much. Michel gets the basket and the baby gorilla it carries. When dad (a completely checked out Regis Toomey) gets home, he says she can’t keep the gorilla but of course she can because she’s precocious and mom’s dead.

Toomey’s foreshadowing for the supporting performances in the rest of the movie, which is familiar faces giving—at best—checked out performances and, in the case of Nestor Paiva, annoying ones. Though maybe it’s not Paiva’s fault; he’s playing the part like you want to see him get eaten by lions but Mighty Joe Young is a cloying kids’ movie and there’s not going to be any great feline feasting. Worse, there’s going to be lots of lions thrown around for stunts.

The film skips ahead twelve years and 8,000 miles west to New York City, where promoter Robert Armstrong is gearing up for an African expedient. He’s opening a new safari-themed Hollywood night club, even though sidekick Frank McHugh thinks it’s a bad idea. You know who doesn’t think it’s a bad idea? Out of work rodeo cowboy Ben Johnson, who’s character’s last name is Johnson and you feel like it’s because Johnson would forget anything else. Johnson’s not unlikable or annoying—actually quite the feat—but he’s beyond amateurish. Director Schoedsack does nothing for his actors.

So off Armstrong and Johnson go to Africa, joined by one of the aforementioned checked-out supporting performers, Denis Green (really, it’s hard to fault any of the actors when Ruth Rose’s script has the blandest dialogue and Schoedsack’s got zero interest in directing the cast). They’re just about to come home with all the tigers Johnson and his fellow cowboys have lassoed when Mighty Joe Young comes a-knocking–previewing the film’s impressive composite shots, where stop motion Joe will interact with the live action—and Armstrong, feeling his Carl Denham coming on, decides they’re going to rope it and bring it back with them.

Only after Joe beats up a bunch of cowboys—the cowboy thing, which goes away for most of the movie after this sequence, seems the most desperate bit of quadrant hunting—does Terry Moore appear and calm the the mighty ape. Moore is playing Michel grown-up; though, in the weirdest, definitely ickiest while not for sure being intentionally gross quadrant hunting, she’s not yet legal age, which means the contract she signs with Armstrong to do a night club act isn’t legal and also it means when thirty-year old Johnson is her love interest, he was going to have to take Moore back to Oklahoma to marry her because even in 1948 it seems like California wasn’t okay with literal dudes taking child brides. Oklahoma was, of course.

Anyway.

Things go terribly wrong and there’s a long Joe wrecking Safari-themed night club scene and fighting lions. The strange thing about the action is what the film’s willing to do stop motion and what it’s not. It uses stop motion lions sparingly, instead cutting in the real ones, usually just when a thrown lion hits something, giving the aforementioned air of animal abuse. With the horses too, in the Joe vs. cowboys scene. It also seems like the kind of movie where they’d hurt animals, while the main plot is about how you shouldn’t hurt an animal. After the night club, Johnson and Moore have to get Joe out of town—the cops want to shoot him dead—so Armstrong helps them get out.

The climax isn’t even about Joe vs. the cops or Joe escaping, it’s this out-of-nowhere orphanage fire, where Johnson, Moore, and the ape have to save children. That sequence is pretty good. The lasso thing comes back and is dumb, but it’s at last suspenseful. Most of it, anyway. They push it, which isn’t a surprise.

The stop motion’s good, but underutilized. While nothing about Joe is interesting—it feels like budget King Kong, especially the model design on Joe; the movement is great, the model itself is eh—some of the other effects, particularly with the occasional person, clicks. There’s some potential to it.

About halfway through it seems like the film’s greatest tragedy is wasting Armstrong, who’s sort of spoofing himself, sort of just doing a broad comedy performance. It rarely all comes together—Rose’s script and Schoedsack’s direction work actively against it—but, again, the obvious potential is visible. Armstrong and McHugh really ought to have been a lot more fun together.

Moore’s awful. She’s not unlikable but she’s tiring. Johnson’s at least not tiring, but it might be because he’s so unmoving you forget he’s not scenery.

A distressingly bad score from Roy Webb doesn’t help either.

From go—well, okay, from the first scene with actors—Mighty Joe Young is clearly in dire straits. The special effects sequences are technically engaging but rarely dramatically. Who knows what better writing and better direction might’ve wrought. Perhaps something entertaining, but at least the great performance Armstrong can so obviously deliver, if only someone were interested in him doing so.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Ernest B. Schoedsack; screenplay by Ruth Rose, based on a story by Merian C. Cooper; director of photography, J. Roy Hunt; edited by Ted Cheesman; music by Roy Webb; costume designer, Adele Balkan; produced by Cooper; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring Robert Armstrong (Max O’Hara), Ben Johnson (Gregg), Terry Moore (Jill Young), Frank McHugh (Windy), Denis Green (Crawford), Nestor Paiva (Brown, a drunk), Douglas Fowley (Jones, another drunk), Paul Guilfoyle (Smith, yet another drunk), Lora Lee Michel (Jill Young, as a girl), and Regis Toomey (John Young).


You Can’t Get Away with Murder (1939, Lewis Seiler)

The You in You Can’t Get Away With Murder refers to Billy Halop, nineteen year-old punk kid who doesn’t respect what sister Gale Page sacrifices for him and instead runs around with neighborhood tough Humphrey Bogart. They knock over gas stations, they play pool, it’s a good life… at least until things go wrong during a hold-up—with Bogart’s not billed victim using what looks like (but sadly can’t be) a Krav Maga disarm on him, forcing Bogart to use the gun he took off Halop instead of his regular piece. Only Halop got his gun from sister Page’s boyfriend’s apartment. Harvey Stephens is the boyfriend, some kind of reserve cop or security guard. It gets established by the car Stephens is driving in the first or second scene… I wasn’t paying attention. I thought he was a cabbie.

As Halop and Bogart get pinched for a different hold-up, the cops gossip about Stephens’s getting arrested for the murder Halop knows Bogart committed. End first act, let’s go second.

Bogart and Halop are in Sing Sing for five year sentences—the film, which looks like an A picture from time to time, usually thanks to Sol Polito’s gorgeous photography and Bogart’s phenomenally slimy performance, has a great introduction to Sing Sing with a tour boat introducing it. Things are fine enough, save Harold Huber trying to convince Bogart to dump Halop and make Huber his number one pal, which eventually becomes important but never to character development. There isn’t any character development in Murder. It’s important because after Stephens gets sent to the prison’s death house and Halop starts feeling pangs of guilt at not telling the truth, Huber’s able to poison an increasingly suspicious Bogart against his buddy.

It does help Bogart loses Halop to the prison library, where kindly, aged inmate librarian Henry Travers works toward rehabilitating the lad best he can without ever being able to say the word, “Jesus.” Having Travers get to lay in with religious indoctrination instead of just vague “you won’t be able to live with yourself if you don’t tell the truth” business probably wouldn’t improve Murder, but it might give Travers something to chew on in his performance. What he’s got is pretty thin; three screenwriters—Robert Buckner, Don Ryan, Kenneth Gamet—and they can’t come up with good monologues. I do wonder if one of them came up with the train car in the middle of the prison yard for the breakout standoff, or if it was a group effort.

Because once Page realizes Halop knows something, she tries to get him to save Murphy too, which Halop resents. Maybe if Murder went a different way—i.e. not into prison—it’d be able to get through with Halop, but he’s never good. Like… just… no. He’s never good. Sometimes when he’s doing his fidgeting stuff it seems like it could lead to something good—if he weren’t talking in bad Jimmy Cagney impressions—but he never breaks from the exaggerated deliveries. Bogart’s able to amp it up, quiet it down like none other. He’s awesome. No one else is even close. I mean, Huber and Travers are only good about thirty percent of the time, which isn’t a lot given their importance.

Page is fine. She’s got nothing to do but moon over Stephens, who’s eh (you can see why Halop doesn’t like him), and fret over Halop.

If the movie didn’t treat him like a racist caricature, Eddie 'Rochester' Anderson would win for actor you most like to see onscreen. But the movie cranks the racism from about a two (for 1939) to about a six, which is way too much. Wasting Anderson’s voice is bad enough.

And George E. Stone isn’t good as the main prison gossip, who’s always around to advance the plot. He’s ineffectual. Against Halop, which is incredible.

Even if Halop were good, even if Seiler didn’t get weird with almost all the close-ups—the medium shots are fine, the close-ups are intentionally but pointlessly askew—the script would still be blah. Even with Bogart being great… well, there are better movies to see Bogart doing the same thing in.

That Polito photography is fantastic though. Especially at the end.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Lewis Seiler; screenplay by Robert Buckner, Don Ryan, and Kenneth Gamet, based on a play by Lewis E. Lawes and Jonathan Finn; director of photography, Sol Polito; edited by James Gibbon; music by Heinz Roemheld; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Billy Halop (Johnnie Stone), Humphrey Bogart (Frank Wilson), Gale Page (Madge Stone), Harvey Stephens (Fred Burke), Henry Travers (Pop), Harold Huber (Scappa), Eddie ‘Rochester’ Anderson (Sam), and George E. Stone (Toad), Joe Sawyer (Red), Joe Downing (Smitty), and John Litel (Attorney Carey).