Category Archives: 1936

The Princess Comes Across (1936, William K. Howard)

The Princess Comes Across is an uneven mix of comedy and mystery. Too much mystery, too little comedy, noticeable lack of romance. The romance is an awkward afterthought in Walter DeLeon, Francis Martin, Don Hartman, and Frank Butler’s script (four screenwriters is probably too much even in 1936; definitely for this kind of picture), which is weird since it’s the initial setup.

The film takes place on a passenger liner going from England to the United States. Starts with the passengers boarding, ends with them getting off. The script’s very hands off with the trip. When band leader Fred MacMurray says he and the band aren’t just rehearsing (in his room, which ought to be a comic bit but isn’t because the film’s never inventive, in script or direction), but getting ready to play for the ship, you wonder why it was never mentioned before. It’s not even clear the rest of the band’s onboard until that moment. Not for sure; you could assume it, but you could also not, it wouldn’t matter for how the film played. Princess is creatively sparse; its logic is fine (even, possibly, with the romance stuff), but the film never seems to be enjoying itself.

Maybe because MacMurray and top-billed Carole Lombard never get to be funny together. They get their not really cute cute meeting. MacMurray and sidekick William Frawley, who was already bald in 1936, booked the royal suite and are getting booted because Swedish princess Lombard is on board. MacMurray’s initially a jerk about it, then gets a look at Lombard and immediately changes his tune. So while Lombard and attendant Alison Skipworth (who gives the film’s most entertaining performance by far) try to get situated, MacMurray keeps annoying them. And it’s not cute. Especially since MacMurray plays more off Skipworth than Lombard; there’s a reason for it, as the punchline reveals, but… it could’ve been done better. Director Howard doesn’t seem to know how to showcase Lombard even when she’s not running a scene. Ted Tetzlaff’s photography doesn’t help. Tetzlaff’s lighting a thriller and even when Princess is full-on mystery, it’s never a thriller. It’s not just too much mystery in a comedy, it’s also way too light of mystery in a comedy.

The film sets up the mystery not to kick off a suspense thriller, but some kind of screwball gag. There are five police detectives onboard, all from different countries, headed to a conference. The captain (a somewhat underused George Barbier) complains about them in exposition, which seems like it’s going to lead somewhere with ex-con MacMurray or secretive royal Lombard, but instead has the five detectives chasing a stowaway Bradley Page. Sure, Page’s a convicted multiple murderer on the lamb but… even when the detectives are talking about dire outcomes, it’s all light. Howard’s just can’t bring any gravitas.

Maybe because all five detectives are basically played as comic relief. The straightest edge is Tetsu Komai as the Japanese detective but only because the movie’s othering him to create suspicion. Douglass Dumbrille’s the French guy; he’s a bit stuck-up but all right. Lumsden Hare’s the British one. He’s not memorable even though he’s got a lot to do third act. But Sig Ruman (as the German) and Mischa Auer (as the Russian)? They’re awesome. It’s like, Ruman and Auer make it seem like Princess knows what its got possibility-wise so it can’t possibly waste it.

Then it wastes all the possibility.

Notice I haven’t mentioned top-billed Lombard and MacMurray in a while? It’s because all they end up doing is reacting to the mystery with Page. And then scuz blackmailer Porter Hall bothering MacMurray and trying to get a pay-off, which ends up involving Lombard too because they’re cabins are next to each other… Sure, Lombard and MacMurray don’t really have story arcs of their own (he’s a successful band leader, she’s about to be successful as a movie star, they don’t get anything else but… vague ambition); they just react when the mystery spills over to their screen time.

They’re both fine. Absolutely no heavy lifting for either. They do have fun in the far too infrequent wordplay scenes. Frawley’s fine. He gets a beret arc, which is more than Lombard or MacMurray get. And more than Skipworth, who doesn’t even get a beret. Again, she’s awesome. Hall’s great too. Ruman, Auer. The cast is good, the film just doesn’t have anything for them to do.

Princess is cute. Ish.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by William K. Howard; screenplay by Walter DeLeon, Francis Martin, Don Hartman, and Frank Butlerz, based on a story by Philip MacDonald and a novel by Louis Lucien Rogger; director of photography, Ted Tetzlaff; edited by Paul Weatherwax; costume designer, Travis Banton; produced by Arthur Hornblow Jr.; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Carole Lombard (Princess Olga), Fred MacMurray (King Mantell), Alison Skipworth (Lady Gertrude), William Frawley (Benton), Porter Hall (Darcy), Douglass Dumbrille (Lorel), Lumsden Hare (Cragg), Sig Ruman (Steindorf), Mischa Auer (Morevitch), Bradley Page (Merko), Tetsu Komai (Kawati), and George Barbier (Captain Nicholls).



Tell Your Children (1936, Louis J. Gasnier)

Tell Your Children, or Reefer Madness, is sort of mundanely bad. Sure, Carl Pierson’s editing somehow pads shots to make the sixty-six minute movie drag even more than it does because of the terrible script and bad acting, but the script is just dumb and bad. There’s nothing exciting about it, other than to see how the movie is going to be anti-pot propaganda without any facts or any quality in the delivered message movie. For instance, Joseph Forte’s school principal who lectures parents (and the audience) about the evils of “demon weed” marihauna… Forte’s giving the performance like he’s a cheesy villain. It’s a weird take on the character, who otherwise might have been—if not sympathetic—at least… sensible. Forte comes off like a loudmouthed dips hit.

Though no one comes through the film well. Lillian Miles and Dorothy Short are the least terrible. They’re also not amusing. Together with Thelma White, they’re the film’s main female characters. Kenneth Craig, Dave O’Brien, Carleton Young, and Warren McCollum are the men. The men get more to do, so much even though Short’s top-billed she’s got a lot less to do in the film than little brother McCollum. See, Young and White run a dope spot. People come by and smoke marijuana cigarettes, presumably paying for them at some point but the film never shows any cash changing hands between the teenage pot junkies and their older dealers. O’Brien and Miles are recruiters. They try to get the high school kids to go. They hang out at the local soda joint, where the seedy owner helps transition kids from egg creams to ganja. Again, unclear how the business actually works, except of course it wouldn’t work because Children is just sixty-six minutes of bullshit.

Craig and Short are the straight-edge kids. They don’t go to the dope spot, even though McCollum starts going daily. All these kids are in Forte’s school and he takes an interest in them—at least as far as their possible marijuana use goes, but not if there’s home abuse—and Forte doesn’t notice anything with McCollum. Neither does sister Short. Even after McCollum runs somebody over because he’s hopped up on dope. The implied marijuana crisis never comes to anything.

Because it’s a really dumb, bad script. Plotting, dialogue, pacing, everything.

Then Pierson’s editing—especially his terrible use of sound—makes it even worse.

Back to the story. Somehow straight-laced Craig ends up at the dope spot and Miles seduces him, which is fine with O’Brien because he’s got the hots for short. The trysts lead to tragedy, mostly because O’Brien’s used so much reefer he’s lost his mind.

There’s a somewhat adequate trial sequence—the film’s not competently made, but you can tell director Gasnier isn’t working in the best conditions. He’s got some decent medium and long shots, he just doesn’t have sound on them. When he goes in for close-ups and the actors are poorly delivering the script’s lousy exposition… well, Gasnier’s just possibly okay in very different circumstances; he’s very clearly not a miracle worker. Because if he were a miracle worker, Tell Your Children wouldn’t be such an inept piece of crap. Sure, it’s lying propaganda, but it’s also an inept piece of crap. The latter is way more important than the former, as it’s so inept you can’t imagine it working as propaganda.

It’s a bad movie. It’s occasionally funny in that badness, but mostly it’s just bad.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Louis J. Gasnier; screenplay by Arthur Hoerl and Paul Franklin, based on a story by Lawrence Meade; director of photography, Jack Greenhalgh; edited by Carl Pierson; produced by George A. Hirliman; released by Motion Picture Ventures.

Starring Dorothy Short (Mary), Kenneth Craig (Bill), Lillian Miles (Blanche), Dave O’Brien (Ralph), Thelma White (Mae), Carleton Young (Jack), Warren McCollum (Jimmy), Patricia Royale (Agnes), Harry Harvey Jr. (Junior), and Joseph Forte (Dr. Carroll).


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The Amazing Exploits of the Clutching Hand (1936, Albert Herman)

While The Amazing Exploits of the Clutching Hand doesn’t start strong, the first chapter certainly isn’t any indication of how bad the serial is going to get over its fifteen chapters and five hour total run time. It’s never Amazing, there are rarely Exploits, but there is some Clutching Hand. The Hand himself is the mystery villain, always shown from behind or in shadow. The hand shows up as a threat to various characters, sometimes a shadow with a… well, a clutching hand. Sometimes the clutching hand will strangle someone, sometimes it’ll grab a piece of paper. It’s always silly but by the end of the serial, it’s no longer dangerous.

Probably because it never goes ahead and kills any of the annoying cast.

Clutching Hand‘s lead is Jack Mulhall. He’s a master detective, or so he and everyone (and the opening title scrawls) keep saying. But he starts getting duped in the first chapter. His plans are usually dumb and never work out. He regularly lets suspects go free and never calls in backup for when he raids the gang hangout. There’s only one gang hangout. It’s a sailor bar with a bunch of offices upstairs. Both the Clutching Hand and nondescript criminal Jon Hall use the bar for their base of operations. So there are lots of fist fights in the bar. Lots of them. Like probably half the chapters have fist fights in the bar. Eventually involving Mulhall in makeup. Though no one at the bar remembers anyone so it’s unclear why the makeup is so necessary.

Mulhall’s got to wear makeup because he’s trying to find a missing gold formula. Scientist Robert Frazer has discovered a way to turn metal into gold, exciting his corporate overlords and various other peoples. The same night he discovers the formula, he gets assaulted, is apparently dead, but then is kidnapped. Clutching Hand is looking for the gold formula, which also goes missing, and Frazer.

It really is thirteen chapters of those searches too. There’s one main subplot in the serial, involving ex-con Robert Walker (who is pals with Hall) and Frazer’s possible widow, Mae Busch. Walker and Hall are always mysterious, at least until they come across some mysterious guys scamming Busch. But daughter Marion Shilling? She gets nothing to do the whole time. She kind of gets to date reporter Rex Lease, who drafts himself as Mulhall’s sidekick, but there’s no story to their relationship. Clutching Hand is five hours of thin plot contrivances.

Unfortunately, it’s not just fisticuffs, plot contrivances, car chases, and whatever other stupidity the two screenwriters and two adaptation writers come up with. It’s bad enough I’m curious how much of that badness came from Arthur B. Reeve’s source novel, but… you know… not really. Five hours is already way too much time to invest in Clutching Hand.

With a couple exceptions, every chapter is just Clutching Hand spinning its wheels and killing time. Someone has the formula, let’s chase them, no wait, they don’t have it. Same goes for Frazer. Someone sees him–or not, really, Mulhall and Lease spend a lot of time just chasing old men–he’s not really there, or he’s a young guy disguised as an old man, Mulhall and Lease lose track of him because they’re really bad at the detective game. Over and over and over again.

You’d think Busch’s subplot with Walker or the con men would be a relief, but no. Busch gets zip to do in her scenes. It’s always the guys, who are just plodding through the plodding scene. When Clutching Hand actually has decent–read, not godawful–pacing, at least it doesn’t go on forever. It usually just goes on forever. The acting, of course, doesn’t help. Everyone’s bad. Mulhall and Lease get laughable after a while. Busch doesn’t make an impression. Shilling certainly doesn’t. Ruth Mix, as Frazer’s secretary, is kind of likable. She’s unlikable or trying, which goes for in Clutching Hand.

For intrigue, Clutching Hand relies mostly on the Clutching Hand talking to his legion of agents via television monitors–I think Mulhall has a scene where he barges in on him mid-villainy conference and both neglects to identify his enemy or call the cops about the gang hangout–or Frazer’s corporate overlords plotting for their outrageous fortune, once they get the gold formula back. On and on it goes. For hours. In the exact same places. Lease almost gets poisoned twice while loitering around Mulhall’s apartment. The last few chapters–finally–introduce a new setting (a boat), but it doesn’t make much difference. It’s not like the locations are inherently bad–well, they are bad but the sets inadequacies don’t matter anywhere near as much as Herman’s weak direction. The constant fist fights are always terrible, only ever amusing when they get really stupid. Like Lease shooting up the sailor bar with a couple revolvers.

The serial’s resolution manages to be stupid, incomplete, and exasperating all at once. Clutching Hand isn’t one of those serials where you could basically skip everything except the first, second, penultimate, and final chapters. There’s nothing important in the second or penultimate chapters here. Just more nonsense. Of course, one should skip Clutching Hand entirely. It’s wholly terrible (though, in all fairness to Herman, his bad direction is nothing compared to the script or the acting).

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Albert Herman; screenplay by Leon D’Usseau and Dallas M. Fitzgerald, based on an adaptation by George M. Merrick and Eddie Granemann and the novel by Arthur B. Reeve; director of photography, James Diamond; edited by Earl Turner; produced by Louis Weiss; released by Stage & Screen Productions.

Starring Jack Mulhall (Craig Kennedy), Rex Lease (Walter Jameson), Mae Busch (Mrs. Gironda), Ruth Mix (Shirley McMillan), William Farnum (Gordon Gaunt), Marion Shilling (Verna Gironda), Bryant Washburn (Denton), Robert Frazer (Dr. Gironda), Gaston Glass (Louis Bouchard), Mahlon Hamilton (Montgomery), Robert Walker (Joe Mitchell), Yakima Canutt (Number Eight), Joseph W. Girard (Lawyer Cromwell), Frank Leigh (Maj. Courtney Wickham), Jon Hall (Frank Hobart), Franklyn Farnum (Nicky), and Knute Erickson (Capt. Hansen).



The Amazing Exploits of the Clutching Hand (1936, Albert Herman), Chapter 15: The Lone Hand

I was expecting Clutching Hand to have a bad ending. It was inevitable. But I didn’t expect them to entirely ignore one of the major plot threads. If Clutching Hand has two plot threads, which it spends fourteen chapters suggesting are intricately connecting, The Lone Hand entirely ignores one of them. It’s astounding. Especially since the chapter uses visual motifs from the plot thread only to forget about their existence moments later.

It’s incredible.

And bad. It’s incredibly bad.

Sadly, it seemed like it wouldn’t be so bad. I mean, the final twist is really dumb and it’d be hard to not make it terrible, but I thought they’d spend the chapter with fisticuffs. They start with a lot of fisticuffs. It seems like they’re going to focus on them and not rush to “wrap” everything up in the last nine minutes.

But rush they do. There’s some weird romance implication at the end, just because they need to keep the cast around perhaps, and there are two or three subplots entirely resolved in ninety seconds of exposition. Now, at least one of those subplots wasn’t clearly a subplot until the the last scene in Clutching Hand. Fifteen chapters, five hours, not a subplot until the last two minutes. The writing is excruitatingly, unimaginably bad.

Real bad acting from Rex Lease here. It’s amazing how bad the actors have gotten as the serial’s gone on. Clutching Hand could be a case study for a film overstaying its welcome. Immediately overstaying its welcome.

The Amazing Exploits of the Clutching Hand has been an awful serial. But The Lone Hand is a particularly awful end to that awful serial. Nothing between the first chapter and the last one matters. They couldn’t even pretend the subplots had heft.

I’m so glad it’s over.

CREDITS

Directed by Albert Herman; screenplay by Leon D’Usseau and Dallas M. Fitzgerald, based on an adaptation by George M. Merrick and Eddie Granemann and the novel by Arthur B. Reeve; director of photography, James Diamond; edited by Earl Turner; produced by Louis Weiss; released by Stage & Screen Productions.

Starring Jack Mulhall (Craig Kennedy), Rex Lease (Walter Jameson), Mae Busch (Mrs. Gironda), Ruth Mix (Shirley McMillan), William Farnum (Gordon Gaunt), Marion Shilling (Verna Gironda), Bryant Washburn (Denton), Robert Frazer (Dr. Gironda), Gaston Glass (Louis Bouchard), Mahlon Hamilton (Montgomery), Robert Walker (Joe Mitchell), Yakima Canutt (Number Eight), Joseph W. Girard (Lawyer Cromwell), Frank Leigh (Maj. Courtney Wickham), Jon Hall (Frank Hobart), Franklyn Farnum (Nicky), and Knute Erickson (Capt. Hansen).


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