Another Country, Another World-the 1930's #12 1930's Movie Reviews
I will return to the topic of great film composers in the next column. For now, enjoy my reviews of three classic 1930's films and one from the twenties from a film review column that I post at the Tony Isabella Message Board on Facebook.
TCM Gems & Dross #34
This day is filled with some of Bing Crosby's best work, but I intend to focus on two of his lesser known films that deserve more attention than they have previously received.
Rhythm on the Range (1936)
A cowboy falls for his boss, a beautiful lady ranch owner.
Dir: Norman Taurog Cast: Bing Crosby , Frances Farmer , Bob Burns .
Fun lightweight musical comedy. Crosby is probably nobody's first choice to play a cowboy, but this movie is a good natured entertainment with no pretensions to gritty realism so his skilled underplaying and easygoing charm are more than enough to see him and the audience through in comfort and more than a little style. Frances Farmer has spirit as the ranch owner. Crosby's radio sidekick and great country comedian Bob Burns provides capable comic relief. Brief aside: Burns was the inventor of an a purely-for-laughs musical instrument called the bazooka which was the inspiration for the name of the WWII antitank weapon. The musical climax features the once-in-a-lifetime teaming of Crosby, Louis Prima, and Roy Rogers and the Sons of the Pioneers in the jazziest version of "Ragtime Cowboy Joe" you will ever hear. It's an infectious musical delight and not to be missed. Norman Taurog is no Stanley Donen or Vincent Minnelli, but directs with a solid, smooth competence that had to have been harder to achieve than he makes it look.
Sing, You Sinners (1938)
A brother act is broken up by one sibling's devotion to gambling.
Dir: Wesley Ruggles Cast: Bing Crosby , Fred MacMurray , Donald O'Connor .
The previous film was a pretty good musical that deserves to be better known. This one is an unacknowledged classic well within hailing distance of the most glorious achievements of the golden age of the MGM musical or the best of Warner Bros. pre code musical classics. The reasons are a strong script, first rate acting and singing by three of the most talented performers of their era, and a terrific score. Bing Crosby and Fred MacMurray were very talented dramatic actors. Crosby is still a little underrated, his deserved Oscar nomination for The Country Girl notwithstanding. His fine work here should serve to show just how good he really was. As the middle brother, he effortlessly conveys both his character's laid back charm and his irresponsibility. Laid back characters were a specialty of Crosby's, but this one's guilt at the pain his irresponsibility causes his family is equally convincing. MacMurray would still be underrated if not for the coming of noir and the sharp casting instinct of Billy Wilder. His work here shows clearly that he was more than just an affable light comedy lead, although in that field, he was one of the best. As the responsible older brother he is believable in his slight stodginess and his deep concern for the welfare of his family. He even holds his own in the musical numbers with Crosby and, as the youngest of the three brothers, a musical comedy legend in the making. Even as a kid, Donald O'Connor was a terrific singer, dancer, and comedian.
Providing strong support are Elizabeth Patterson as the boys' loving but worried mother and the underrated Ellen Drew as Crosby's loyal girlfriend, who loves his good nature but not his unreliability. Drew is one of a number of very talented second tier Hollywood actresses like Ann Dvorak, Nina Foch, and Betsy Palmer-see Studio One-Sentence of Death and The True Story of Lynn Stuart-who consistently gave excellent performances in a variety of roles but never achieved the top stardom they deserved. The wonderful musical score includes "Pocketful of Dreams" and the Hoagie Carmichael classic "Small Fry." Director Wesley Ruggles has the skill and sensitivity to pull off the drama and the swiss watch timing to turn the musical numbers into instant classics, especially "Small Fry." Highly recommended. Do not miss.
TCM pays a well deserved tribute to the great Fay Wray who had a lot more on her resume than just screaming in the arms of a giant ape.
Wedding March, The (1928)
An Austrian Army officer falls for a bourgeois girl to the dismay of both their parents.
Dir: Erich von Stroheim Cast: George Fawcett , Maude George , George Nichols .
BW-110 mins, CC,
Visually stunning, emotionally powerful silent tragedy with just a touch of fin de siecle decadence as befits the milieu. Erich Von Stroheim is best known as a pioneering director. His resourceful, sensitive, deeply evocative visual storytelling here furnishes ample proof that his legendary status is well deserved. Compare his use of apple blossoms with the last scene of Maytime for an object lesson in the difference between genius and mere talent. His complex, heartfelt, genuinely moving performance as an aristocratic cavalry officer caught between true feeling and oppressive duty is highly illuminating. Along with his masterful character work in Grand Illusion and Sunset Boulevard, it proves that he was one of the finest actors of his own age or any other. There was always more to him than sneering villains, although he played those brilliantly too. As his lover, Fay Wray is deeply affecting. Throw in excellent character support from George Fawcett and Maud George as Von Stroheim's appalling parents and the result is one of the most memorable films you will ever see. A masterpiece. Do not miss.
A death-row convict plots to kill the man who stole his girl.
Dir: Josef von Sternberg Cast: George Bancroft , Fay Wray , Richard Arlen .
Haven't seen this, but it's a pioneering silent gangster movie directed by the legendary Josef Von Sternberg, so I have no hesitation recommending it sight unseen.
Below The Sea (1933)
Criminals threaten a wealthy woman's underwater expedition.
Dir: Albert Rogell Cast: Ralph Bellamy , Fay Wray , Frederick Vogeding . BW-74 mins,
Rough, taut, flavorful adventure film redolent of the best of the pulps. It seems to be Columbia's less spectacular but still gripping answer to King Kong. Hard as it may be to believe if you've only seen Ralph Bellamy in the comic milquetoast roles in which he became so typed that they came to be called Ralph Bellamy roles, he spent his early years in Hollywood playing an impressive array of scrappy tough guys and was very good at it. He is completely convincing here as a hardbitten wharf rat who signs on to a dangerous expedition. As the rich, slightly spoiled socialite financing the expedition, Fay Wray gives a sexy, spirited performance and she and Bellamy strike real sparks. Vogeding is approriately ruthless as the villain out to sabotage them. Rogell provides taut, fast-paced direction that compares favorably to the best of Warner Brothers from the same period.
Note to Monster Lovers: This film has a tense climactic battle with a giant [spoiler] marked by pretty convincing special effects work.
Highly recommended, especially to lovers of pulp adventure and giant monsters.