Wednesday, October 7, 2020

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The Third Quarter: 1931-32, Day Six

These films were released February 1, 1932-April 30th, 1932.
Veiled Aristocrats

A young doctor returns home to bring his sister to the better prospects of the city, but to do so, they will have to pass as white. Oscar Micheaux establishes the predominately black town the main characters hail from as being prosperous, with the same high society parties and class delineations one expects in "white" society - it's a place where they could live comfortably - but it is significant that our young doctor believes that this is not a "legitimate" space, that only by moving to a white city and passing will his family be able to "properly" prosper. Stiffly performed by the leads, proscenium-bound blocking, unexpected musical numbers. 

The Passionate Plumber
February 6th

A plumber in Paris becomes entangled in the romantic life of a rich American socialite. When no one's talking, the comedy works, there's some genuinely amusing physical stuff here; when anyone opens their mouth, ehhhh. Funnily enough, the most effective performer here isn't Buster Keaton or Jimmy Durante or Polly Moran, but Irene Purcell as a moody society belle who never makes the right decision.

The Monster Walks
February 10th

Mysterious deaths and controversial inheritances in an old, dark house with a chimpanzee running loose. Dusty, musty movie. Not without its interesting twists.

The Man Who Played God
February 19th

A pianist goes deaf, learns to read lips, prompting him to help strangers whose conversations he "overhears" via binoculars. George Arliss is a very talented, capable performer, surrounded by a cast of pros. God help me, though, I could not stop giggling at this bit of twaddle! Earnest, sure, but also so dumb. The mismatch of Arliss and Bette Davis is part of the text, thank goodness, but it's made more ridiculous by his makeup, the poor guy; it brings to mind Murray Melvin in Barry Lyndon.

February 20th

The trials and travails of the members of a French circus. Folks, I've been watching this movie since 2000, 20 solid years of sideshow melodrama, 20 solid years of straddling the line between exploitation and understanding, 20 solid years of, "But the 'normies' are the real monsters!", no matter how condescending or willfully ignorant of the clown subplot that take may be! The film itself is masterful, its frankness doing more to appreciate the sideshow community than any number of speeches. This time around, I was most impressed by Daisy Earles' performance as Frieda: great side-eye, vulnerable and heart-breaking and knowing in all the right amounts. Yes, and what a finale!

Murders in the Rue Morgue
February 21st

A young medical student is hot on the trail of a mad scientist seeking to blend ape and human blood. An atmospheric and surprisingly funny thriller, loosely adapted from the Edgar Allan Poe text. Some legitimately frightening/uncomfortable set-pieces include Bela Lugosi's kidnapping and mutilation of a prostitute, a victim he knows few will care about; the horror felt by the heroine's mother (a better-than-necessary Betty Ross Clarke) as she sees the fate that is about to befall her and her child; and the opening carnival sequence featuring a potentially dangerous ape. Underrated Universal horror.

The Impatient Maiden
March 1st

Divorce lawyer's secretary falls reluctantly in love with a paramedic. Following Waterloo Bridge and Frankenstein, a disappointing third team-up between director James Whale and star Mae Clarke. Aimless pacing and groan-worthy "comedy" in a who-cares story, though, as always, it's photographed well, and features great location shooting of Angels Flight and downtown Los Angeles. Andy Devine is the sole high point of the film.

Tarzan the Ape Man
April 2nd

An Englishwoman becomes enamored of a white man raised by apes who lives in the jungle. Perfect movie. Takes its time developing the relationship between Tarzan and Jane, allowing the latter the full arc of fear, friendship, and desire, coming to love the land and animals much as her ape man does. Upends expectations with its characterizations of ivory merchants Dr. Parker (her dad) and Harry Holt (her almost love interest), supposed heroes whom Jane realizes are out of their element, barbarians destroying a land they only understand in terms of profit...though the coda kind of undoes much of that progress. A fully-realized soundscape, breathtaking cinematography, suspenseful action sequences (the hippo scene!!!!), downright sexy romantic ones (they take their time with an afternoon swim...).

Wooden Crosses
April 3rd

French WWI drama. JaW-dropping cinematography, editing, visual effects. Depressing, like every WWI drama oughta be. The repeated line of the fighting's done, the War's almost over, goes from tragically naive to a sardonic joke. The tension, my God: in one sequence, our French soldiers hear the Germans tunneling below them, working on a trap to blow the Allies up in their own trenches. It never comes to anything, until our heroes leave...and suddenly their trench explodes behind them, wiping out the relief corps. Fuck, man. Yet there are moments of levity, of good humor, of camaraderie.

April 9th

The rise and elimination of a brutal gangster in Prohibition-era Chicago. Feels as bold and dangerous as it must have in its initial release. Paul Muni's exquisite as the unapologetic gangster, brutishly handsome, a palpable sexual energy. His casual defiance of the police, the offhand way he expands his power and arms himself, the savagery with which he reacts to those who cross him, culminating in that final fight to the finish - it's an unforgettable performance, a brilliantly drawn arc. There is one scene with the usual messaging about how it's up to the citizens to take charge, the media is bad, the police should kill without oversight, too many of the "wrong" immigrants get in, yada, yada, but I love that this is reduced to a single scene; in The Star Witness and The Beast of the City, it's a repeated thesis, but here, it's impotent speechifying, just as ineffective as it claims everyone else is. I haven't even gotten to the controversial touches of incest, the subplot with professional moll Karen Morley, the performances by George Raft, Osgood Perkins and C. Henry Gordon. This movie is just...terrific!

Young America
April 17th

Good kid labeled a juvenile delinquent gets into trouble, tries to do the right thing, is repeatedly punished for it. Asks for compassion from its audience, pointing out the disadvantages of the poor, how their acts of survival are harshly punished by society and the judicial system, and does so without a climactic Speech at the audience. Tommy Conlon is terrific as the lead kid.

Other films released this quarter:
Grand Hotel
One Hour with You
Shanghai Express

Tomorrow, the films of May 1, 1932-July 31, 1932.

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