Wednesday, June 15, 2022

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1935: Charlie Chan and Co.

A final round-up of twelve films, all released in the United States in 1935, qualifying for Academy Awards consideration but, alas (or maybe not alas!), unnominated:

The Last Days of Pompeii
Takes place over a period of twenty years, so those are some long last days indeed. Follows a simple blacksmith who becomes a star gladiator and slaver, his fluctuating fortunes running parallel with the Cult of the Nazarene and leading up to the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius. Takes more than a few cues from a same-titled novel (which it is at pains to distance itself from in a prologue) as well as Ben-Hur, The Sign of the Cross, and Quo Vadis. Pontius Pilate appears as a character, the protagonist's son briefly meets Christ, Christians are apparently the only survivors of the destruction of Pompeii. I found it very watchable. There aren't a lot of surprises, and as I said, the story does go on despite the implication of the title, but as a fan of spectacles and historical epics, it scratched an itch of mine; it's no DeMille, who delivered on The Crusades the same year, but it's a worthy imitation of his style. Incredible finale, the special effects hold up.

Charlie Chan's Secret
Charlie Chan solves the murder of a man who was believed to be dead already. Like King of Burlesque and Broadway Hostess, this is usually dated as a 1936 release but, I guess, played a week in Los Angeles and qualified for 1935 consideration. My first experience with a Charlie Chan picture since renting the Opera from the library in fifth grade. If whodunnit is obvious from the start, watching Charlie deduce howdunnit is a hoot. This one, in particular, makes great use of an "old dark house" set, a seance narrative, Rube Goldberg-esque murder devices, and moody cinematography by Rudolph Maté.

Charlie Chan in Egypt
Is it a pharaoh's curse or a clever killer that's offing the family of an archaeologist? Come on, now. Disappointing lack of atmospherics, an over-complicated series of secret tunnels that stretches credibility even by these films' standards, great murder method. Stepin Fetchit appears, as does a young Rita Hayworth (then billed as Rita Cansino) as a native maid. The dullest of my Charlie Chan marathon, though I do love how gruesome the murders are in this franchise.

Charlie Chan in Paris
Oh gosh, I don't even remember who was killed or why, I just remember the complex solution. Includes the first appearance of Keye Luke as Lee, the Number One Son.

Charlie Chan in Shanghai
An official is murdered at a banquet and Charlie must find out whodunnit...and stop a ring of drug smugglers. Action-packed entry makes terrific use of the father-son chemistry between Warner Oland and Keye Luke. Interesting depiction of pre-WWII Shanghai; if it seems like there's a dearth of Chinese characters while Europeans exercise an enormous amount of power over the majority, with only the Americanized Chans as go-betweens, well, that was Mao's point, too. There's more going on in this mystery than just the mystery. Also features original artwork by Luke who, if I remember correctly, also did much of the interior of the Chinese Theater in Hollywood.

Call of the Wild
Jack London's famous story of a domesticated dog's return to nature is retooled as a vehicle for Clark Gable, playing double-fisted prospector Jack Thornton who, along with buddy Jack Oakie, gets presumably widowed Loretta Young to her husband's claim, with his dog Buck by his side. Buck's return to nature parallels Jack's own journey to the remote cabin, where he opens himself up to love and committed bliss. A moving romance-adventure, with plenty of action (and at least one harrowing underwater sequence) to keep you on the edge of your seat, plus a beautiful love story played by Gable and Young. Honestly, a perfect movie...all the way up to the final scene, a tasteless joke (tacked on after an audience test screening) that only muddles what came before and ends the whole thing on a sour, racist note. Who was that for?

Anna Karenina
Tolstoy's tale of a devoted mother and agnostic wife who has an affair with a hot young officer. Captures the mother-son relationship beautifully, the party life of a soldier sumptuously. But there's very little actual chemistry between Greta Garbo and Fredric March; indeed, she seems indifferent to him, not great when the entire story hinges on her risking it all for the love of this man.

China Seas
Clark Gable once again plays an Englishman by reputation only. He's the captain of a ship, and if it wasn't bad enough having to juggle a good-time mistress who's come aboard and an unrequited love who's finally decided to requite, there's a man in league with Singaporean pirates on the ship. Other characters are on board, too, not all of their subplots handled satisfactorily, but with opportunities aplenty to shine. Entertaining, well-made, solid performances.

The Devil is a Woman
A young radical is besotted with a mysterious woman, but an older colleague warns him against her with tales of her lurid past. Hilarious skewering of the male ego: no matter how clear the con, how obvious the disinterest, how cringe his own desperation, Man shall not give up until his pride is restored...or vengeance enacted. The last of the Marlene Dietrich-Josef von Sternberg teamups, and a delicious one at that: Dietrich's flair for comedy is on full display here, her seductress never silly, but with a wicked playfulness (playful wickedness?) that gets laughs of both the amused and nervous varieties. Von Sternberg also acts as cinematographer. Costumes, sets, photography are all gorgeous, detailed. 

Sanders of the River
Paul Robeson as a chief and Nina Mae McKinney as his wife are great. Leslie Banks is great, too, as the titular Sanders. The film is about a colonial governor in Africa and how the natives are "children" who must be guided by the white "parent." Distressingly well-made.

A flibbertigibbet of an heiress arrives in Shanghai for fun, and winds up falling in love with a man who rises himself from poverty to becoming one of the most powerful bankers in the country - while hiding his Eurasian identity. Once again a Euro-focused Shanghai narrative emphasizes the glamor and riches enjoyed by the privileged few who...weren't born in China. Gets away with its narrative by casting Charles Boyer as the Eurasian who passes for white. Very smart, very good.

Crime and Punishment
French version of the same story we covered yesterday. Twenty minutes longer, and with slight variations: the film begins with the murder, we learn more about the home life of the prostitute Raskolnikov loves and the pawn broker he kills, and, frankly, some of the coverage and edits are just...better. As the inspector, Harry Baur is terrific.

We have now discussed every film viewed for this series, whether it was Oscar-nominated or not. Tomorrow, I will share my Top Ten favorite films of 1935.

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