Tuesday, June 14, 2022

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1935: Histories and Horrors

Twelve more films from 1935 - and by the way, some of my favorites of the entire year are in this group:

Night Life of the Gods
A scientist dreams his invention can turn people to stone and vice versa, allowing him to reawaken the Gods. The foreword of the film insists, "We leave you to enjoy this new and completely mad type of whimsical humor on the screen." Methinks the studio doth protest too much. Impressive effects and a game handling of large group scenes, but obvious jokes, a deadly pace, and unimaginative cinematography and blocking prevent it from being mad or whimsical.

The Glass Key
A local political boss is implicated in the murder of a senator's son, so his righthand man investigates. Intriguing premise and sturdy performances from George Raft (there's melancholy in this performance, a tragic devotion - is it love?) and Edward Arnold (really at his best when he gets to add a little scumminess to his hearty, gregarious screen presence) make this A Good One.

Curly Top
A wealthy trustee visits an orphanage where he falls in love with the idea of being a father to little Shirley Temple; her older sister also comes along, and that's where the romance is, but Temple is the draw here. I had never seen a Shirley Temple film before - I mean, The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer, but you know that's not the same thing - and I gotta tell you, I was knocked over. She's articulate, instinctive, and much more convincing in her scenes and songs than some of her adult co-stars. Arthur Treacher's great. The lead guy comes off as a bit of a creep. 

Crime and Punishment
Impoverished graduate commits murder and is becomes both guilt-ridden and emboldened. One of two adaptations of this book to be released in 1935, this one is more dialogue-heavy, a little "plottier" about protagonist Raskolnikov's relationships. Director Josef von Sternberg was reportedly not a fan of the final product, but I think it's a great showcase for Peter Lorre who, opposite Marian Marsh as the prostitute he loves, makes a case for himself as a leading man beyond films about suffering souls...though obviously this film gives him a lot to do in that regard, too. See it for him, it's a wonderful performance.

Dante's Inferno
A down-on-his-luck man stumbles on a carnival funhouse modeled after Aligiheri's famous work, joins the show as a barker, and begins to lose his soul to greed and power as he builds an entertainment empire. Maybe it's on-the-nose more often than not, but dammit I loved this film. Already a sucker for carny flicks in general, this one features an initially pugnacious performance from Spencer Tracy, lively and brash and unpolished; gradually - not suddenly, as some of these movies do, but gradually - his excited, top-of-the-head gambles give way to carefully planned maneuvers, his friendly appeal to community a facade for his bilking and bribing. Tracy, that natural, he doesn't overdo any of it, you feel you know the guy. Terrific sets, realistic dialogue, gasp-worthy plot turns. And then there's a ten-minute depiction of Hell itself, writhing bodies in nightmare poses (see above!). Climaxes with an inferno at sea. Non-stop excitement, even in the modest at-home scenes.

Jolly Fellows
AKA Moscow Laughs. A screwball musical comedy about a shepherd who's mistaken for a great conductor at a beach resort, a mixup that is the first in a series of such, culminating in a chaotic (and soaking wet) final concert. A barrage of fights, farm animals, and cartoonish chaos, as though a Fleischer cartoon had come to life. Simple gags, like a fish in a bathing suit, and insane ones, like an amorous cow (played by an actual cow) wreaking havoc on a dinner party. Stirring original songs, too! 

The Mysterious Mr. Wong
Chinatown murders lead to Mr. Wong, who seeks power by collecting all the coins of Confucius. Vague plot selling the ol' Fu Manchu saw, and not even the reliably dastardly Bela Lugosi can save it.

Clive of India
Epic about Robert Clive, largely credited with securing British power and influence over India. The greatest sequence is the Battle of Plassey: Clive gets his men across a river despite monsoon conditions before battling a King's army - including armored war elephants. Very cool sequence, a highlight because it is such an outlier within a film that is so much more about talk, talk, talk. No matter how nobly the film tries to paint him (and it definitely does!), it has a hard time answering the question everyone asks: Why India, what compels him to return time and again? From what I can tell, it's money and power and the ability to pretend he's not just a thug. Still, I can set aside a film's colonial mindset...but must it be so dull? Besides the war elephants, all the good stuff happens on the title cards between scenes!

The Clairvoyant
A performer with a mysticism act finds fame and fortune when he is suddenly struck with the real gift of clairvoyance. Tackles celebrity: the demand by the public that someone perform on command, consistently, else be labeled a fraud; the quickness with which someone goes from hero to the target of a lynch mob; stubborn skepticism and naive devotion. Also gets into an interesting question about soulmates: his gift only works when he is in the presence of a someone who is uniquely tuned to his frequency - in this case, not his wife (who played such role in the original act), but the daughter of a wealthy newspaper publisher. Despite this connection, there is no doubt of his own devotion to his wife, which gets into what my English teacher Ms. Wilson said all those years ago: A soulmate is not the same as a love match...and neither is a muse. It's an interesting and rare depiction of such a relationship. Claude Rains is genuinely moving in the lead role, thrilled with the fortune but distressed by his visions. Such an interesting film!

The Raven
After the success of The Black Cat, Universal re-teamed Karloff and Lugosi for another not-quite-Poe adaptation. Here, Lugosi is a mad surgeon obsessed with both a young dancer he operated on and the works of Edgar Allan Poe, to the extent of building a pit with a pendulum in his basement. He tells people about it. It's a red flag! Not as engaging as its predecessor. It's very direct, sexual obsession and psychotic revenge, but nothing thematically or cinematographically to chew on after. Not bad, but not great.

Werewolf of London
Botanist is attacked by a wild animal while obtaining a rare flower in Tibet, returns home to London and, uh, you saw the title. This is a very sad movie about a man who's terrified of losing his wife but can't tell her why he's becoming more withdrawn. Werewolf movies tend to hurt, and this one is certainly no exception. Wonderful twists.

Cardinal Richelieu
I'm not sure I've ever seen a positive portrayal of Cardinal Richelieu onscreen before, he's usually rubbing his hands together villainously against either the Three Musketeers or the Devils of Loudun. But this movie, based on a play, argues that it was Richelieu who made France a united nation despite a dumb king and plots all around. I liked George Arliss here, and I think I don't mind the movie itself - pleasantly dull, let us say.

Another round of twelve tomorrow!

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