Category Archives: 1930s

Dracula (1931)

Director: George Melford

Yes, the infamous Spanish version of the Bela Lugosi film that many will tell you is actually the better film… this was back in the days when it was deemed more practical to simply reshoot entire films in other languages than to shoot one and dub it into other languages; I gather the relatively few of these other-language versions of early talkies that still exist offer little more than historical curiosity value (cf. the Spanish versions of the Laurel & Hardy films). George Melford’s Dracula, on the other hand, has, for whatever reason, risen above this general mire of functional mediocrity to the point where it’s considered not just to bear favourable comparison with the English version, but to even improve on it. My first encounter with Melford’s Dracula was David J. Skal’s Dracula book, and it whetted my appetite… and yet when I finally did see it I wasn’t so sure it lived up to the hype. Melford and his team shot their version at night on the same sets as the Browning production, and the crew were inspired by Browning’s daily rushes to try and do better. And, indeed, the common consensus is that the Spanish crew succeeded, and that Melford’s version is better shot (hard to argue; Browning favoured static camera while Melford’s camera moves about a fair bit and probably shows the sets off better) and acted (maybe; as I think I’ve said before, I find it hard to judge acting in languages I don’t speak. I’ll just say Pablo Rubio seemed a bit more florid than I remember Dwight Frye being). Conversely, Carlos Villarias (the only one of the Spanish cast allowed to watch the English rushes) cops the most criticism, although I don’t think he’s that bad (insofar as I can tell, of course). The thing that Melford and his crew couldn’t surmount, of course, was the source material; they were working on the same material as Browning, and the end result is, frankly, still a 1931 talkie. Also, unlike some, I’m not convinced that the greatly extended runtime actually benefits the thing; it’s still the same material, just rather more plodding. It’s an interesting point of comparison, but I’m still not convinced the Melford Dracula is actually that much better than Browning’s.


Mad Love (1935)

Director: Karl Freund

In which Peter Lorre makes his American debut, and while I suspect MGM possibly could have found a more grotesque vehicle for him if they’d tried, they would’ve been hard put to do so. Pauline Kael actually thought this was an influence on Citizen Kane, drawing some tenuous connections to prove her point (Steve Haberman on the DVD commentary bluntly calls her views “idiotic”), but I’ll be damned if I can see them myself; while Gregg Toland was cinematographer on both films (though not the main cameraman on this one) and did pass on at least some advice to Welles on Kane, I don’t think he was drawing that strongly on this one for ideas to knock off. Anyway, this is a vastly different affair on many levels, a lurid melodrama based on the novel The Hands of Orlac (which had already been filmed in 1924) in which a concert pianist loses his hands in a terrible accident, and a doctor transplants the hands of a just-executed murderer, whereupon he finds the hands taking on a life of their own. However, MGM’s twist on the tale made it less about Orlac (played nicely enough by Colin Clive) and more about the doctor, Gogol, played by Lorre in full bug-eyed psycho mode. Gogol, a gifted surgeon, is obsessed with Orlac’s actress wife, and when she reluctantly turns to him to save Orlac’s hands, he soon finds himself with a bit of an opportunity to get at Madame Orlac. Actually, the executed killer is one of the film’s more interesting characters, for all that he’s only in two scenes; Wm. Everson thinks he comes across as too sympathetic to actually be taken seriously as a murderer, and on the surface he surely does seem kind of jolly, but somewhere below the surface lurks something more explosive with a propensity for throwing knives, which Orlac obviously picks up from him. The film is like that, too, there’s something kind of weird and nasty underlying it, which is actually kind of remarkable given we’re now in the Production Code era; I’m surprised the line about Orlac’s wife “supplementing her income” to help pay for the operation actually got into the film. It’s not quite the usual 30s gothic, but it’s still a pretty good example of early horror, shot through with an oddly unwholesome feeling, technically accomplished, and driven by a remarkable lead performance from Lorre. Alas that it was an even bigger box office catastrophe for MGM than Freaks had been, but at least its posthumous reputation has been more solid…

The Return of Doctor X (1939)

Director: Vincent Sherman

The 1932 Doctor X is also part of this Warner/MGM 30s horror set, and I watched it again with Scott Macqueen’s commentary before moving onto this literally in name only story. Apparently this was originally planned as a teaming of Karloff and Lugosi, but that was eventually deemed too expensive and it was turned into a B production with the studio’s own, cheaper contract players… most notably an up-and-coming young star called Humphrey Bogart. Yes, before he had quite blossomed as “Bogie”, he had this one B horror to his credit, and OH how unimpressed he was by this fact… Anyway, Macqueen’s commentary on the earlier film observes how Warners weren’t really big horror fans and urged exhibitors to sell their horror efforts as anything but horror, and tried to make it easier for them by minimising the horror aspects and trying to make them more like newspaper comedies with horror business in the background. The Return of Doctor X embodies this tendency even more fully than its predecessor; it’s really all about the wise-cracking reporter’s investigation of a very peculiar mystery involving a dead woman somehow coming back to life. Bogart is the titular “Doctor X”, a former doctor executed for a fairly horrible crime but revived by another doctor who’s been experimenting with synthetic blood. But the artificial stuff is only good for so long and “X” has to find a source of the real stuff instead. This is pretty unabashedly B stuff with few if any evident aspirations to being anything—director Sherman on the DVD commentary (nearly a centenarian at the time) is pretty blunt about it being the sort of job done for money rather than love—but it’s not without its charms on that level (there are some lovely moments of kind of dark humour). Weighing in at only 62 minutes, it never outstays its welcome, and it illustrates what I’ve always said about the storytelling economy of older pictures in quite striking manner; there’s really very little time wasted on anything (especially the happily minimal romantic subplot). Probably only really for vintage horror completists, but a perfectly watchable example of that sort of thing, even if it’s really only remembered now for the Bogart connection…

The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932)

Director: Charles Brabin

Another one of those films whose presence on the Top 500 Horror list strikes me as tenuous at best, but eh. It’s on the list so it counts for the ICheckMovies horror challenge this month, and IMDB classes it as horror too, and it’s in that Warners/MGM box of 30s horror I scored recently, so I’m watching it anyway. As I mentioned the last time I reviewed a Fu Manchu film here, even back in the 1910s when they first appeared the Fu Manchu stories were recognised as basically racist, and this film was similarly condemned in its day too; it was still contentious on reissue in the 70s and had some minutes cut for several years (although the DVD restores those bits). It was actually produced by Wm. Randolph Hearst’s Cosmopolitan company (who released through MGM), and given that Hearst’s papers had been among the chief peddlers of the “Yellow Peril”, it kind of makes sense he’d be behind this… Anyway, this time round, Fu is in search of the relics of Genghis Khan, with which he will inspire millions of those inscrutable easterners to rise up against the west, kill the white man and take his woman (one of the lines cut from the film in the 70s), etc… Boris Karloff is the yellow peril in this film (making his first actual speaking horror role), and he plays him as the somewhat cartoonish supervillain I suppose Fu really is; given that Fu also has a laboratory of high-level pseudoscience machinery, I’m surprised he doesn’t just use that to threaten the world and inspire his followers that way… it’s not like Genghis’ mask and sword actually seem to confer more than symbolic power. Still, even if I’m not sure it’s horror as such, it is fairly entertaining in its somewhat racially insensitive fashion, pulp adventure of the sort that time specialised in. Resolutely old-school in many ways, but rather fun if you can look past some of those old-school ways…

Mark of the Vampire (1935)

Director: Tod Browning

The imposition of the Production Code in 1934 meant difficult times ahead for the horror genre, and this film kind of unhappily exemplifies that in various ways… this is Browning’s own remake of his 1927 London After Midnight, relocated to eastern Europe (it was originally called Vampires of Prague, apparently) but still revolving around the same story: man is murdered, a preposterous scheme involving fake vampires to catch the killer is put into action (though apparently there was originally a twist in which they were found to be real after all). And while LAM was a sizeable box office hit in its day and is still one of the most sought-after lost silent films, the remake has never fared nearly so well. Indeed, MGM themselves probably had no real faith in the thing either, horror not really being Louis B.’s favourite genre; apparently it had anywhere up to 20 minutes cut from it (including comedy relief and the back story of the “vampires”) before release. Still, as Wm. Everson observes, even something they probably viewed as a piece of worthless shit had to be given the MGM treatment, and if Mark of the Vampire is basically nonsense it’s nicely produced nonsense (the first shot of the “vampires” in the castle is actually kind of amazing). And, as the DVD commentary observes (also David J Skal in The Monster Show), the film also seems to cop more than a few moves from Dracula, which was, of course, directed (putatively) by Browning as well: Bela Lugosi, useless male lead, no music score, dodgy rubber spider, same innkeeper, etc. As for the whole “it’s a trick” aspect to the plot, this is still a point of contention; the whole “explained supernatural” goes all the way back to Ann Radcliffe, of course, but it still feels like a cheat… there is the theory, advanced by Messrs Newman & Jones on the commentary, that the film is at least partly parodic in nature (counting the slightly overdone acting as actually part of the story), but I’m not overly convinced. Just too many things that don’t make a damn bit of sense. I’ll give this more credit than I probably did when I first saw it many years ago—at least the production values and visuals are far better than I recall and should be credited accordingly—but I still find it enormously unsatisfying and hard to really like; the sixty-minute run time is, perhaps, a blessing…

Three by Joris Ivens (1931-1963)

A trio of shorts by the Dutch communist gadabout.

Philips Radio (1931): Notable as the first Dutch sound film—apparently the decision was made to add sound late in the production despite Ivens’ own misgivings—and as a kind of odd man out in the Ivens filmography to some extent, being a commissioned job by the former lightbulb manufacturers turned general electronics corporation (parenthetically, did you know Gerard Philips, who founded the company, was related to Karl Marx? I didn’t until just now. Hugely amused for some reason) as a PR exercise to make them like all high-tech and stuff. Noted communist taking the company coin? Hmm. Anyway, there have been various attempts to read the film as a critique of the production line it depicts, and yet I’m not 100% convinced; the film’s really an exercise in late 20s avant-gardism, and it kind of revels in the pictorial potential of the technology on show more than anything, how it gives rise to particularly interesting imagery. Not sure about what political message to take from it. In 1931, though, there seems to have been less trouble deciding about that: some critics found its focus on the machinery rather than the people using it objectionable, and Philips themselves seem to have been a bit alarmed that it had backfired, even though Ivens had pretty much given them what they wanted… Continue reading

Stagecoach (1939)

Director: John Ford

Time to revisit a film I haven’t seen since the days of VHS, at which time it was difficult enough to find in this country for some reason (my local video shop only had the 1966 remake of it)… not that it’s easily available here now either (again, only the ’66 version seems to be on DVD here), obviously I’m reviewing it now thanks to Criterion… Anyway, it’s 1939, John Ford hasn’t made a western since the mid-20s, and the genre itself has been in the B-movie doldrums for much of that time too, so for Ford to resolve to change both these situations, i.e. by not only making another western but by elevating the genre to A-level again, was a big move. Slightly too big for Ford’s producer, David O. Selznick, so Ford moved to United Artists and made what could almost be called the “western”, if you know what I mean. I recall liking the film when I saw it so many years ago, without really understanding its importance; I think I got a better sense of that on revisiting it tonight, though, cos watching it again I just got this feeling of Ford consciously setting out to make the definitive example of the genre. Let it be said, obviously, that he succeeded in that; if you were to show someone a classical example of a western, this is the one you’d show them. Of course, with hindsight, Ford’s most successful act of elevation was the job he did on John Wayne. Jim Kitses’ DVD commentary makes a useful point in this regard by insisting that Wayne shouldn’t be considered the star of the film, even though at this remove it’s tempting to view him as such; he was paid a B-movie rate far below most of his fellow actors (just a few dollars more than John Carradine got, apparently), and audiences of the time would’ve only known him as a B-movie figure if they knew him at all. The remarkable thing about Stagecoach is that it really is an outstanding ensemble piece; it’s quite a large clump of people in and around that stagecoach and singling anyone out would be kind of futile. Selznick’s reservations about the film’s commercial prospects were mocked by its box office success, and it was a hit with good reason; delightful to revisit it again after so long.

Pack Up Your Troubles (1932)

Directors: George Marshall & Raymond McCarey

Although, that credit notwithstanding, Ray McCarey (Leo’s brother) doesn’t seem to have actually done an awful lot on this film, most of which seems to have been Marshall’s work (the latter also plays the army cook Stan & Ollie antagonise cos the actor hired for the part never actually turned up on set). This was the boys’ first feature film to have actually been planned as a feature film, although it shows them still not fully adapted to the extended form yet. Story’s quite a good one; WW1 breaks out, Stan & Ollie get drafted, and when the war’s over they go home to help a pal killed in battle by returning his baby daughter to his parents from whom he was estranged. The only problem? Stan & Ollie don’t know where the grandparents live. Still, there can’t be that many people out there with the surname “Smith”… can there? IMDB notes the presence of at least two more uncredited directors, which may or may not explain the somewhat uneven tone of things (most jarring in the scenes with the foster parents being paid to care for the child; there’s a darkness to those that meshes poorly with everything else, and indeed they were cut from reissues of the film for decades. I can’t really say the film would’ve suffered for their loss either). It doesn’t have quite the same feel of being made up as they went along that Pardon Us tended to give off, but it is still somewhat episodic, although I still felt like there was generally a better flow from one episode to the next. And though it could perhaps have been compacted into a three-reeler, it might’ve lost something in the act. The good bits tend to be really good, too; the wartime scene where Stan & Ollie inadvertently capture a whole platoon of German soldiers is glorious. Maybe not fully there yet, but definitely an advance on their first feature.

Pardon Us (1931)

Director: James Parrott

So, back to films with audible dialogue! And back to a box set I started quite some time ago, that being the Essential Laurel & Hardy set from a few years back; all the sound shorts (I gather none of the silents were “essential”) and most of the features (inessential, or rights problems?). I decided to approach it this way: rather than strict chronology, watch the shorts (and the foreign-language versions of same also featured in the box) first and then come back for the features. I also decided against reviewing the shorts cos there’s too many of them, but I resolved to tackle the features when I finally got around to them… so here goes.

Now, L&H’s first feature occupies a slightly odd place in their filmography; by the time it came out, they’d already made feature-length versions of some of their shorts for foreign-language release, and this one wasn’t even meant to be a feature in the first place. Essentially, Pardon Us was a two-reeler—the boys go into the bootleg liquor business and get sent to the big house for their efforts—that got fantastically out of hand; starting in June 1930, the production wound up costing so much that turning it into a feature was deemed the only thing to do with all the footage that had been shot. The net result feels exactly like what it was, i.e. a film that should never quite have been… Mind you, I’m judging the film based upon the original August 1930 preview version on the DVD, which is some 14 minutes longer than the version actually released a full year later, and which has a lot of material cut (some reshot as well) from the release print. Does the shorter version feel quite as disjointed and padded as the longer one does? No idea, and to be honest I can’t be bothered hunting for it (can’t see it on Youtube). That said, although it’s a film of individual bits—the plot really is pretty bare and not terribly driven—those individual bits are often pretty good (though the protracted blackface scene will make many shudder), and whatever its problems Pardon Us does demonstrate how useful the still-newish sound film would be to furthering Stan and Ollie’s career; the silent film just couldn’t give you that singing voice…

Dragnet Girl (1933)

Director: Yasujiro Ozu

The spot-the-Hollywood-film-poster game is particularly amusing in this film: less overt than in these other early Ozus, but also particularly ironic because in this case it’s the French poster for All Quiet on the Western Front… ironic because, as the booklet essay observes, this Japanese film is otherwise full of English signage. Indeed, that’s been perhaps the most striking aspect of Ozu’s “gangster” films for me, this preponderance of English words in signs, graffiti, etc (hell, even one of the intertitles here actually uses the letters “OK”), and it’s made me wonder just how common this actually was in actual 1930s Japan… Cos the other point the booklet essay makes is that Ozu’s Yokohama in this film is, as they say, “a little unreal”; it looks “realistic” but there’s something kind of stylised about it. There’s a scene where the secondary love interest of the film’s gangster boss Joji says something about him putting on an act, and it’s a key moment, cos the film itself is kind of putting on an act… even more than the last two films, Dragnet Girl “plays” at being “American”, but—more impressively—goes further by arguably playing at being noir, which even the Americans hadn’t invented in 1933 (on top of that, is it also one of the first instances of the “one last job before going straight” trope?). Joji is a former boxer turned small-time hoodlum without any real evident passion for being one, while his girl Tokiko maintains a veneer of decency with a respectable office job during the day, but when Joji falls for the aforementioned other love interest, she realises she’d rather be the “good girl” instead of just playing one. Curious film; it feels somewhat disjointed, not fully hanging together, and narrative plausibility isn’t exactly rock solid. And while it’s pretty strong as an example of how refined silent film style was, it’s also so heavy on dialogue titles it’s one of a very small number of silent films that give me the impression they would’ve liked to be a talkie. Visually, though, an amazing achievement; genuinely amazing to see some of these things in an Ozu film. I’m not sure his own heart was fully in the crime genre, but it would’ve been interesting to see him essay it again later in life…

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