Discovering Olsen and Johnson: "Fifty Million Frenchmen"

Olsen and Johnson give them the slip.
Years from now, when scholars are trying to understand the success of the comedy team of Olsen and Johnson, they will take a look at their 1931 film "Fifty Million Frenchmen" and gain practically no insight at all.

The team experienced phenomenal success on Broadway, where their comic revues "Hellzapoppin' " and "Sons O'Fun" -- filled with risque sight gags and physical comedy -- ran for years. But their free-wheeling style doesn't exactly translate to the screen, and even if it did, "Fifty Million Frenchmen" would still be a very weird duck.

Based on the 1929 Cole Porter stage success (directed by Monty Woolley), "Fifty Million Frenchmen" was filmed as a Technicolor musical in 1930. But by the time it was released, musicals were judged to be out of style (a few months later, "42nd Street" would become a smash and musicals would be in again), so all the numbers were removed -- although you do hear hints of Porter's "You Do Something to Me" and "You Don't Know Paree" on the soundtrack. And the Technicolor prints have disappeared, so the only example we have of the film today is in black and white. AND Olsen and Johnson are shoehorned into the show -- their roles did not exist in the Broadway production.

The nominal hero is William Gaxton as Jack Forbes, a millionaire's son who is in Paris because "father seems to think his business in America is better if I'm over here." Gaxton seems to be the world's oldest juvenile -- he was in his late 30s when the movie was filmed, and he's supposed to be at least ten years younger. Gaxton is repeating his Broadway role, literally -- he's still playing to the balcony.

Meanwhile, here come Olsen and Johnson as Simon and Peter, two bumbling detectives. Chic Johnson is the taller of the two, with a sharper voice, and Ole Olsen's trademark is an irritating, mirthless laugh:

(Funny how Olsen's laugh calls to mind Joe E. Brown's (much funnier) laugh in "Some Like It Hot," a (much funnier) film where Brown, too, uses the word "zowie." Hmmmm.)

Anyway, Jack has fallen for a young woman, but his friend Cummings (John Halliday) bets him $50,000 that Jack can't win the girl on charm alone. So Jack gives up his wealth for two weeks. And Cummings hires Simon and Peter to keep an eye on Jack.

As for Jack, he goes to work as a tour guide at the American Express office, where he meets Violet (Helen Broderick), a thrill-loving tourist who's come to Paris "to be insulted":

Then, in an unusually tedious plot turn, Simon and Peter are mistaken for two businessmen and become the targets of two prostitutes. Then the real businessmen show up, blah blah blah. Jack helps Simon and Peter hide out, and they disguise themselves as a magician and his assistants. They're performing the old stick-the-swords-into-a-box trick, but the setup is funnier (relatively speaking) than the trick itself:

Most everyone here would go on to do better (or at least more successful) work -- Gaxton would appear in the Broadway productions of the Gershwin shows "Of Thee I Sing" and "Let Them Eat Cake," paired with Victor Moore, with whom he would form an occasional comedy team into the 1940s. Broderick (Broderick Crawford's mother) would end up as the wisecracking friend in the Astaire-Rogers musicals "Swing Time" and "Top Hat." And Olsen and Johnson would always have Broadway.

As for "Fifty Million Frenchmen," nothing exposes the rickety plot of a musical comedy like cutting all the numbers -- after 70 very long minutes, Jack wins his girl and the bet, and gives the reward to Simon and Peter. And scholars will continue their search for the well-hidden secret of the appeal of Olsen and Johnson.

Here are the film's complete credits, and a preview:

"It's Tough to Be Famous," or Media, Myself and I

As the scion of one of Hollywood's first families, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. was born in the spotlight, and in the 1932 film "It's Tough to Be Famous," he spends all his time trying to get out of it.

YOU'RE hot! I'm wearing a turtleneck and wool blazer! 
Fairbanks plays Scotty McClenahan, a submarine commander whose ship is dead in the water -- actually, UNDER the water, eighty feet of it. There's no ventilation, and oxygen is running out.

On the surface, help is on the way with search planes flying, phones buzzing, flotillas flotilla-ing -- every producer of stock footage in the country is swinging into action! But in the submarine on the ocean floor, the mood is lower than a submarine on the ocean floor. Then Scotty gets an idea -- he starts shooting the crew, one at a time, out the torpedo tubes to the surface. Finally, it comes down to Scotty and Stevens (David Landau). They can't both escape because someone has to stay behind and pull the trigger:

When Scotty comes to, he's a hero -- and waiting to see him at the big welcoming ceremony is mom (Emma Dunn) and girlfriend Janet (Mary Brian). There's someone else waiting as well -- magazine publisher Chapin (a perfectly cast Walter Catlett), who is to ballyhoo what Crosby is to crooning:


"From now on," Chapin tells Scotty, "you're America's sweetheart!" Since Scotty was on the verge of being discharged anyway, he lets Chapin take him under his wingtips -- I mean wing. Scotty starts fielding offers from vaudeville and radio, and he starts endorsing things he doesn't know anything about. The phoniness and constant attention starts to get to him, and he can't even go to the movies without seeing his puss in the newsreels:


Scotty finally has a job, but he wants to be an engineer, and all his boss wants him for is the publicity value. And when his verbal faux pas make nationwide headlines, he finds his marriage to Janet crumbling as fast as his celebrity status. Finally, he tells Chapin, "We're all trying to get rich because I had the good luck -- or the bad luck -- to do my duty down in that submarine."

From Charles Lindbergh to Ryan Lochte, media-created Celebrities have been part of our culture, and through a remarkably smart script, "It's Tough to Be Famous" outlines a scenario that's relevant. All that's changed is the delivery system -- it's the Internet and TV rather than vaudeville and printed material.

In the end, Scotty is knocked from his public perch in the most natural of ways -- by another sailor, named Ole, who jumped overboard to rescue a dog.

"Don't you realize that Ole is the ideal national hero?" Chapin tells Scotty. "He's big, handsome, dumb, got a nice smile and he doesn't speak enough English to antagonize anybody!"

Here is full cast and credits information for "It's Tough to Be Famous," and here's the trailer:          

The Noel Francis Film Festival: "Bachelor Apartment" and "Smart Woman"

Of all the actresses who appeared in 1930s movies, Noel Francis (1906-59) was certainly one of them.

Noel Francis Madison
Not to be confused with Noel Madison, who was a guy, Noel Francis was an attractive blonde with a winsome expression. She had been a dancer on Broadway, appearing in the Ziegfeld Follies during the mid-1920s, often with the comedy team of Wheeler and Woolsey. She came to Hollywood in 1929 and ended up being signed to a contract at Warner Bros.

In Hollywood, she made over 40 movies, most of them during the pre-code period, so she usually played mistresses and prostitutes, potential mistresses and prostitutes, or former mistresses and prostitutes.

In the 1931 film ”Blonde Crazy," for example, she's the mistress of Louis Calhern and she helps him bilk the film's star, James Cagney. In "Smart Money," released the same year, she helps bilk Edward G. Robinson. In 1932's "Night Court," she's the mistress of crooked judge Walter Huston.

Her best-known film credit is probably 1932's "I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang." She plays a prostitute who James Allen (Paul Muni) meets after his first escape from the gang. Her appearance is brief, but memorable:

Francis was rarely the female lead; she usually received fifth or sixth billing. In the 1931 film "Bachelor Apartment," for example, she is one of several women who are seduced by the film's hero, Lowell Sherman, who also directed. Sherman plays Wayne Carter, a bachelor whose apartment is just busting with women -- the movie is like a pre-code "Boeing Boeing." When the taxi Francis's character is riding in gets involved in an accident, Sherman -- who has been eyeing her from his limousine -- sweeps in and scoops her up:

Once Sherman gets Francis back to his bachelor apartment, he "accidentally" spills a drink on her dress, forcing her to change into something more comfortable:

Sherman has an impish comic quality and he's always fun to watch -- he also played the dipsomaniac director who discovers Constance Bennett in "What Price Hollywood?" -- and the film's storyline has him leaving girls like Francis behind so he can marry his proper stenographer, played by Irene Dunne.

In "Smart Woman," also released in 1931, Francis has a more substantial part. She's Peggy, the other woman who Mary Astor's husband (Robert Ames) has taken up with while Astor was with her sick mother in Paris. Gracefully directed by Gregory La Cava, "Smart Woman" is more comedy than soaper, thanks largely to the presence of Edward Everett Horton as Astor's husband's business partner. Astor decides to fight fire with fire, and invites the mistress and her mercenary mother to a weekend at the family estate; then she enters, carrying lawn shears:

Astor also tries to make her husband jealous by implying that she's been having an affair of her own with the kind Sir Guy (John Halliday), a British millionaire she met on the cruise back from Paris. But when Peggy learns of Sir Guy's fortune, she sets her cap for him:

It's too easy to blame the decline in Francis's career on the advent of the Production Code in 1935, but it's true that under the Code, parts like the ones Francis played were frowned upon. At any rate, by the mid-1930s, her career had declined to the point that she was appearing in quickie Buck Jones westerns and her final feature was 1937's "Left-Handed Law."

Here are the full credits for "Bachelor Apartment" and "Smart Woman."

"The Animal Kingdom," or Fie, Society

To steal a line from his best-known work, "The Philadelphia Story," Philip Barry's plays were often about "the privileged class enjoying its privileges." But they also showed the other side of the coin: how easy it was to lose your self-respect -- and yourself, for that matter -- by getting caught up in living a life based solely on societal obligations and other people's expectations.

In Barry's "Holiday" and in "The Animal Kingdom," the 1932 film based on Barry's play, the expectations come from fiancees.

As "The Animal Kingdom" begins, Tom (Leslie Howard) has just gotten engaged to Cecilia, aka Cee (Myrna Loy). He is a proud iconoclast from a wealthy family -- he publishes limited-edition books, lives in a small (but elegant) house and prefers a simple life, with his household needs met by Regan (William Gargan), a former prizefighter who is his butler and friend.

Tom's love life has been nontraditional as well -- for years he lived with Daisy (Ann Harding) in a no-strings relationship based as much on the compatibility of their souls as it was on sex. Cee knows about it and seems very broadminded about the whole thing.

Tom (about Daisy): Well, we've been everything possible to each other, of course, but... 

Cee: Yes, Tom?

Tom: the same time free as air. I mean, there has never been a feeling of conventional responsibility towards each other's involvement. 

Cee: I can understand that.

Tom: Can you, Cee? 'Cause I never could.
But now Tom is committed to marriage.

Tom: We must make a grand go of it.

Cee: We shall -- never you fear.

(Sounds a little like Katharine Hepburn talking to herself.)

Daisy has just gotten back in town and doesn't know Tom is engaged. He goes to tell her, but she has news of her own -- she's ready to marry Tom:

Daisy: Behold, the bridegroom cometh. And no oil for my lamp, as usual. A foolish virgin me. Well, foolish anyway.

The breakup is devastating to both of them because it also marks the end of a great friendship. Tom would like to stay friends, but Daisy is honest enough with herself to know she can't handle it.

We move forward a few months, maybe a year. Tom and Cee are now married, Daisy has decided to start painting and has her first showing scheduled. At home, Tom is starting to deal with those obligations -- Cee wants him to fire the rough-edged but good-hearted Regan. And he's bowed to her wishes and started publishing badly written, but successful, novels.

Tom dodges the bullet with Regan, who leaves on his own for another job. ("I feel somehow my luck's going with him," he tells Cee.) And he wants to go into town for Daisy's opening. Cee isn't keen on the idea -- she thinks Tom should just send a congratulatory telegram -- but she doesn't come out and say so. She has other ways of keeping Tom from leaving:

More time passes, and Cee is pressuring Tom to accept a buyout offer from a larger, mass-market publishing company. And she wants to move into the city and share the family mansion with Tom's domineering father. She also decides to meet the Daisy problem head on by inviting her out to the country for Tom's birthday. Daisy comes, and despairs over the change in Tom. She and her friends leave abruptly.

The film's final sequence is beautifully played by Howard and Loy. It's finally beginning to dawn on him that if things change, it will only be for the worst. They have an intimate supper in a sitting room -- a room that reminds Tom of his visits to a London bawdy house where you left your payment on the mantle. Cee doesn't like the comparison -- she wants Tom to "behave" and give in to her vision for their lives together. Tom doesn't explode, but you see the awareness dawning on him. Cee and Tom drink some champagne and Cee starts giggling about feeling naughty. She goes to the bedroom to wait for him. Tom takes out the birthday check he received from his father, for a sizable amount:


Exit Tom.

"The Animal Kingdom" deals with such pre-code subjects as cohabitation, prostitution and at least attempted adultery  The performances are uniformly fine -- Howard and Gargan are reprising their stage roles, as is Ilka Chase as one of Cee's silly rich friends. Harding is the free-spirited one here -- she played a similar character in the 1930 film version of Barry's "Holiday"; in the 1938 film version of "Holiday," Hepburn would play the role.

For once, Loy is the odd woman out, but hey -- since she's Myrna Loy, she's perfect. Just consider the range of her roles in 1932 -- as a mixed-race murderess in "Thirteen Women," an amorous countess in "Love Me Tonight," and the villain's hopped-up daughter in "The Mask of Fu Manchu."

The scenes with Tom and Daisy have great wit and heart, as do the scenes between Tom and Regan, who loves Tom almost as much as Daisy does. It's easy to see why Hepburn and Barry worked together so often -- he was writing of a world she knew intimately, and she was the Tom figure within her own family.

Here are the complete credits for "The Animal Kingdom."

"The Mummy," or Bandages on the Run

The 1932 film "The Mummy" opens in 1921 in Egypt, where an expedition from the British Museum is digging up stuff from around the pyramids. They have found a mummy, and researcher Ralph Norton (Bramwell Fletcher) is badgering his boss, Sir Joseph Whemple (Arthur Byron), into opening a box that came along with the sarcophagus.

Sir Joseph (reading the outside of the box): "Death -- eternal punishment for anyone who opens this casket." ... Good heavens, what a terrible curse.
Norton: Let's see what's inside!

Sir Joseph then steps outside and Ralph Norton, that strange and curious man whose name is a combination of the leading characters of TV's popular "The Honeymooners," can resist temptation no longer, to his eternal regret:  

Norton goes cray-cray and we move forward 11 years, to another expedition, this one with Sir Joseph's son, Frank (David Manners). It looks like this one is going to be a bust, artifact-wise, until a mysterious fellow shows up and points them toward a new find -- the tomb of a princess.

Who is this guy? The fez is familiar. Oh! It's the mummy (Boris Karloff), but now looking like (more or less) a human! He goes by the name Ardeth Bey, and he has an ulterior motive -- he wants the princess's tomb dug up so they can have a reunion of souls.

Meanwhile, in Cairo, Helen Grosvenor (Zita Johann) is foxtrotting with some guy when she picks up on Ardeth Bey's mind rays:

Helen has an Egyptian-English lineage, and Bey has decided that she is the reincarnated princess. Meanwhile, Frank has fallen in love with Helen and vows to protect her from the Bey rays, any time or plays -- I mean place. Bey has returned to life because of a spell on a scroll, so Sir Joseph and his friend Dr. Muller (Edward Van Sloan) decide to burn it. But Bey's rays are too strong for Sir Joseph to resist, and he is killed.

Then Frank is felled, and Bey spirits Helen away to the museum where the princess's tomb is on display. Then he puts her in a skimpy ceremonial costume and gives her a home permanent and everything so she looks just like the princess. Object: To separate the princess's soul from Helen's body, if you know what I mean, and I think you do. Will Frank and Dr. Muller arrive in time? (You could see for yourself, but NBC-Universal forbids me from posting a clip showing you the climax, because they're terrified that once you see it you won't shell out $12 for "The Mummy" on DVD. Or you can go here.)

And if you still can't guess what happens, here's a hint -- anytime we can see your skull through your skin, you are in the process of decomposing, mk? 

"The Mummy" is one of the few films directed by Karl Freund -- he is better known as the director of photography of such films as "Dracula," "Metropolis" and "The Last Laugh." And in the early 1950s, he worked along with Desi Arnaz on "I Love Lucy," pioneering the way television shows were lit and photographed on film with the three-camera system that many sitcoms still use today. Naturally, he nails the movie's atmosphere of foreboding -- he has help from "Karloff the uncanny," as the ads referred to him and Johann, who looks a lot like Elisabeth Moss, who plays Peggy on "Mad Men."
Here is a full listing of credits, and a trailer from a re-release:

"From Headquarters" and Even More Warner Regulars

Like "Life Begins" and "Union Depot," the 1933 film "From Headquarters" is another slice-of-life panorama brought to you by Warner Bros. and filled with studio contract players.

The nominal hero of the movie is Warner stalwart George Brent, as a detective investigating the murder of a wealthy, decadent ne'er do well. The suspects include his old flame (Margaret Lindsay). But the real meat of the story lies in all the goings-on at a big city police station. The movie opens with a paddy wagon bringing in some "small fish," including one joker who, in a nicely played little seriocomic moment, ends up realizing that the joke's on him:

The contract players in "From Headquarters" include Hugh "Woo Woo" Herbert as a bail bondsman, Henry O'Neill as a chief inspector, Ken Murray as a wisecracking reporter and Eugene Pallette as a gravel-voiced (What else?) detective.

Then there is Edward Ellis as the murder-loving head of the crime lab. He demonstrates the scientific methods used to catch the culprit and has a few unorthodox moves of his own:

The bad guy is played by one of my favorite Warner contractees, Robert Barrat.

The versatile Barrat was all over the Warner lot in the early 1930s -- within a span of just a few months he played a gruff Communist-turned-capitalist in "Heroes for Sale," Barbara Stanwyck's drunk father in "Baby Face," Jimmy Cagney's editor in "Picture Snatcher" and patrician murder victim Archer Coe in "The Kennel Murder Case."

The only person who can place Barrat at the murder scene is a snitch played by Hobart Cavanaugh, and Barrat takes care of him in a broom closet: 

Wait a minute -- "those fingerprints look familiar"? And they are so familiar that I can reach into this file of thousands of fingerprints and instantly pick who they belong to? Really, "From Headquarters"?

Anyway, Barrat tries to leave the police station after the murder, but the cops are a step ahead of him and they lock the doors. Barrat disposes of his murder weapon, a knife, by dropping it in a spittoon, but a sharp-eyed cop spots him and -- ugh -- digs it out. Case closed, old flame cleared, romance on again, players move on to next assignment.

Here are the full credits, and here's the "From Headquarters" trailer:

"Me and My Gal," or Law and Short Order

"Me and My Gal," released in 1932, is a little movie with a lot going on.

It's a showcase for a young Spencer Tracy, already relaxed and assured onscreen as police detective Danny Dolan. It's a showcase for an even younger Joan Bennett as his gal, a gum-chewing waitress named Helen who works at Ed's Chowder House on the waterfront. It has a criminal subplot that includes adultery and a break-in that will end up being reused in "Rififi." And smack dab in the middle of the movie, there's a quick parody of Eugene O'Neill's "Strange Interlude."

Despite all this, "Me and My Gal" is leisurely paced, spiced here and there with funny little set pieces, including a kind of Pete-and-Repeat patter that Danny indulges in with his John Candy-ish partner, played by Adrian Morris. Here's an example, from when the boys are called to break up a noisy wedding reception -- the bride is Bennett's sister:

The love story between Helen and Danny is spiced with slang, including "jake" and "bezark," a 1932 version of "dame." Then they drop their verbal sparring for a moment to poke fun at "Strange Interlude"; the movie version, with Clark Gable and Norma Shearer, was playing in theatres at the time. Danny calls it "Strange Innertube" and he and Helen ape the characters, whose unspoken thoughts are heard in voiceover:

In the crime subplot, Helen's sister Kate (Marion Burns) is having an affair with gangster Duke Castanega (George Walsh, brother of the movie's director, Raoul Walsh) and, even worse, is hiding him in the apartment she shares with her husband, a sailor who's out to sea in more ways than one. She also works in the bank that Duke's gang is breaking into and has given him information about which safe deposit boxes are most valuable. The gang, like the gang in "Rififi," breaks into the bank through the apartment above:

Meanwhile, back at Kate's place, her husband's father, Sarge (Henry B. Walthall, at right), sees everything that's going on, but he's paralyzed and mute. The only way he can communicate is by sending Morse code signals by blinking his eyes. Helen deciphers the code and finds out that Duke is in her sister's, ahem, attic. But to keep her sister out of trouble, she doesn't tell Danny about it:

Danny finds out, of course, and in the ensuing happy ending Duke is killed, Helen's sister's honor is restored and Sarge blinks happily.

It's interesting to see Tracy work here -- he manages to convey his character's intelligence even when Danny isn't acting all that smart. And Bennett's character is almost Lombard-ian with her guts and good humor. They're a nice match. And it's nice to see Walthall -- whose career included a leading role in "Birth of a Nation" in 1915 -- in a later role. He would appear with Tracy again in the 1935 film "Dante's Inferno."

Here are the full credits for "Me and My Gal."   

"Penthouse," or Loy Meets World

I bow to no one in my admiration for, and possibly creepy love of, Myrna Loy. That little pug-nosed, round-faced, level-headed, wry-humored vixen was sexy, smart and sweetly funny -- the perfect screen wife. Who cares that in real life she was married four times -- this is why movies are awesome!

Loy's true breakthrough role came in 1934's "The Thin Man," directed by W.S. Van Dyke and with a screenplay adapted by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett. Van Dyke, Hackett and Goodrich are also all on board for the 1933 film "Penthouse," so you have to wonder if Loy's performance in this film served as a kind of screen test for "The Thin Man."

In "Penthouse" Loy plays Gertie, a call girl whose roommate, Mimi (Mae Clarke), is shot in the first five minutes of the movie. Gertie wants to find the killer, and so does hotshot defense attorney Jack Durant (Warner Baxter). Durant's interest is personal -- Tom, the accused murderer, (Phillips Holmes) is in love with his ex-girlfriend Sue (Martha Sleeper, whose last name describes her performance), who has begged Durant to take the case.

As the film opens, Durant has just won acquittal for his client, mobster Tony Gazzotti (Nat Pendleton). In this case, at least, Gazzotti was genuinely not guilty, so Durant is a hero. But not to girlfriend Sue. He shows up to greet her on Long Island in his best white flannels and a pimpin' hat, but she gives him the cold shoulder:

Durant goes on a drunk, and the next day he's debriefed on the previous night's events by loyal butler Layton (Charles Butterworth):

(Charles Butterworth should be every butler in every New York City apartment in every 1930s movie.) 

Ex-girlfriend Sue then comes to Durant for help, because Tom has been accused of murdering Mimi, his old girlfriend. And Durant goes to work, with the help of Gertie. They've been introduced by Gazzotti, who adds "she's the kind you can take home to dinner, and no hard feelings if you don't stay for breakfast." Gertie is attracted to Durant, and she accompanies him to his apartment to spend the night -- her place, which she shared with the dead Mimi, gives her the heebie-jeebies. Gertie is ready for Durant to put the moves on her, and she's a little baffled when he doesn't.

Gertie: Say, are you still in love with someone, or are you just decent?

Durant: Maybe I think you're decent.

Gertie: A girl who comes into a man's apartment at night?

Durant: Well, you might have come here just to look at the Chrysler Building.

There are certain faces in 1930s movies that mean bad news from the get-go. For instance, never do business with C. Henry Gordon (aka evil Fred Astaire). Here he is mobster Crellimen, the man behind Mimi's murder. And as Gertie and Durant team up to nab Crellimen, Durant realizes he's falling in love with Gertie. This dawns on him in a scene where Baxter and Loy have a nice dialogue that echoes "The Thin Man":


Loy really does shine in this film -- at this stage in her career she was finally leaving behind the oriental temptress roles she played in movies like "Thirteen Women" and "The Mask of Fu Manchu" and within a few years she'd be the queen of the MGM lot -- after "The Thin Man" came such hits as "Libeled Lady" and "Test Pilot." She plays her role here simply and realistically, without the histrionics of Joan Crawford or the melancholy of Garbo.

Baxter doesn't fare quite as well -- even when he's playing a streetwise character like Durant, he can't shake his tendency toward leading-man pomposity. He looks especially uncomfortable during the romantic clinch in the final scene, when Loy musses his hair, and why any man should object to Myrna Loy mussing his hair is beyond me:

Here are the complete credits for "Penthouse," and a trailer:

Awkward Early Talkie Theatre: "Chasing Rainbows"

About midway through the 1930 film "Chasing Rainbows," Bessie Love -- as Carlie, one-half of a musical comedy team -- gets the news that the other half of the team, Terry (Charles King), has gotten engaged to someone else. Carlie has always loved Terry, and earlier that day Terry was finally feeling something for her, too, so now she feels like she's been hit in the gut.

To cover her emotion, Love plays this scene by crying like she's laughing, which is kind of sweet. And she plays it that way for more than 90 seconds, which is awkward:

But hey! That's life in show business, kid, and if you can't take the hard knocks then you won't be around for the soft knockers, or something like that.

"Chasing Rainbows" reunites Love and King of the 1929 hit "Broadway Melody" in another musical drama set behind the scenes of a show. This time around, they are appearing in a road show production of "Good-Bye Broadway," a show that includes the tune "Happy Days Are Here Again" two years before Franklin Roosevelt appropriated it as his campaign theme.

King's role is less sympathetic than it is in "Broadway Melody," where he can't bring himself to admit that he has fallen for the sister (Anita Page) of his longtime girlfriend (Love). Here, he's a bit of an oaf who's always chasing after -- and getting his heart broken by -- the female lead of the show, while good old Carlie makes his bed and folds his underwear. By the end of the movie, he finally realizes that Carlie is the girl for him, but you find yourself wondering how long it will be before he goes chasing after someone else.

And don't get me wrong -- despite her weird cry/laugh scene, Love is a pip, as they used to say. She's easily the most natural performer in the cast, which also includes Jack Benny -- two years before he would make his debut as a radio comic -- and Marie Dressler.

Both Benny and Dressler provide comic relief, but in vastly different ways. Benny already has his deadpan style in place and wouldn't make funny faces if his life depended on it. Dressler, on the other hand, can't even ask someone what time it is without crossing her eyes. Dressler's frequent co-star Polly Moran is in the cast as well, as a drunk wardrobe mistress.

The hefty Dressler is the butt, you should excuse the expression, of many jokes, such as when the cast hops a train to the next town:

Dressler: Who am I sleeping with tonight?

Benny: There'll be three in your compartment -- Carlie and you.

The true awkward acting honors, however, go to Nita Martan and Eddie Phillips. She plays the vamp who gets her claws into Terry -- she wants to marry him because his sister is married to a big Broadway producer. Phillips plays her smooth boyfriend. But their bad acting, especially in their scenes together, is anything but smooth:

Benny fares a little better -- one of his early radio writers, Al Boasberg, contributed dialogue to the movie. Benny plays the stage manager, and his speech to the cast near the end of the movie is similar to the kind of material he'd soon be doing on the radio:

"Chasing Rainbows" originally included several production numbers in two-strip technicolor, which as of this writing are lost. Here's a link to the complete cast and credits.

"Picture Snatcher," or Cagney and Racy

Whenever I talk about my love for old James Cagney movies, my kids remind me of this clip from "Family Guy":

To them, those movies are little more than that -- people in out-of-style clothes speedtalking to each other. To me, they're fast-moving star vehicles with a streetwise style, sharp wit, just the right amount of cheerful cynicism and the strong presence of a pugnacious star with great physical style. Actually, in the 1930s, James Cagney was more than a star. His films ended up symbolizing the style of the Warner Bros. studio -- tough, unpretentious, good-naturedly brash. 

The 1933 film "Picture Snatcher" combines two staples of the studio -- the gangster picture and the newspaper picture. (Actually, at Warner's there wasn't much difference between the two.) Cagney plays Danny Kean, who's just been released from Sing Sing. His old gang, led by Jerry (Ralf Harolde), is ready to welcome him back to the criminal fold, but Danny has other ideas. This is revealed when Danny's being measured for a new suit, and he tells the tailor not to leave room for the shoulder holster. Tailor: "You're gonna be the best-dressed goniff  (Yiddish for thief) in America."

No, Danny is going to go legit -- or at least legit enough to be a newspaper man. So he pays a call on editor McLean (Ralph Bellamy) at the Graphic-News, the sleaziest rag in town. McLean met Danny while he was in stir and told Danny to look him up, but he's reluctant to hire him because of his lack of experience.

Danny's chance comes as a result of a pre-code situation if ever there was one -- a firefighter ended up being called to a fire at his own apartment. He arrived to find his wife there, dead, in bed with another man. Danny's mission is to get past the fireman, who won't let any reporters into the apartment, and find a photo of the dead wife:

He's hired.
Danny then meets met Patricia (Patricia Ellis), a journalism student who's taking a tour of the newspaper. She likes him, but her dad (Robert Emmett O'Connor, forever playing a cop) is the flatfoot who put Danny behind bars. So they see each other on the sly. Meanwhile, another reporter, Allison (Alice White), also has eyes for Danny -- she even invites him to her apartment to play, um, ping pong. But she's also McLean's girl, and Danny is loyal to the guy who hired him.

Danny's next assignment is based on a real-life newspaper story -- in 1928, photographer Tom Howard, working for the New York Daily News, snapped photos of Ruth Snyder in the electric chair. Patricia's dad helps Danny get into an execution, where he does the same thing, in a scene that has echoes of "The Green Mile":

The cops and rival reporters find out what Danny did, and they give chase. He hightails it back to the newsroom:

Because of his death house escapade, Danny is in dutch with daddy, but he fixes that one by infiltrating his old gang, getting some great photos during a shootout, and then arranging it so that Patricia's father gets the credit for capturing Jerry. McLean goes to speak to Patricia on Danny's behalf while Allison pops up again:

The movie ends with a topical reference -- "Vas you dere, Sharlie" was the trademark phrase of radio comic Jack Pearl, at the peak of his popularity in 1933 as Baron Munchausen.

Here is the trailer for "Picture Snatcher," and the full cast listing.    

Discovering Frank Fay: "The Matrimonial Bed"

In vaudeville, Frank Fay was big.

He strolled onstage casually, with a slight swish, and then stood and told jokes -- a revolutionary concept for the time. No juggling, no slapstick, no mugging. He was known for his quick wit -- when he was heckled with a Bronx cheer, he responded, "Two of those made you, pal." As part of his act, he would break down the lyrics of "Tea for Two," interspersed with wisecracks. ("Nobody near us, to see us or hear us." "Who'd want to listen to a couple of people drinking tea?")

In 1929 Fay came to Hollywood with his young wife, Barbara Stanwyck. Sound films were in full swing and the studios wanted performers with stage experience. Stanwyck thought she might try her luck in pictures, too. The studios were making all-star revues to take advantage of sound and Fay appeared in the Warner Bros. entry, "The Show of Shows." He was the emcee, and the players included John Barrymore, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Loretta Young and Myrna Loy. The movie was a hit, and Fay's screen success seemed assured. Yet within a few years he was out of Hollywood and back on Broadway, returning to films only sporadically.

Fay's fizzle is even more mystifying when you see him in 1930's "The Matrimonial Bed." He's good! Despite years on the stage, he seems to understand how to modulate his performance for the screen. The film itself is a lightweight farce, very much like a filmed play, and Fay himself gives it heart and humor.

"The Matrimonial Bed" is set in Lubitsch land -- that non-existent neighborhood in Paris that is filled with rich, charming men and beautiful, indolent women. We open in an art deco home on the fifth anniversary of the death of the master, Adolphe Noblet. In a long expository dialogue, two maids converse about what's happened since -- Noblet's wife Juliette (Florence Eldredge) has remarried, to a stuffy fussbudget (James Gleason), and they have a young son. But everyone, especially Corinne the maid (Beryl Mercer), loved Noblet, who by all accounts was kind, loving and full of fun.

A portrait of Noblet dominates the mantle -- it has just been repaired and returned to its place after falling off the wall and getting torn. "Something," says Corinne, "always happens when pictures fall down without a reason."

Enter Leopold Traubel (Fay), a popular hairdresser (he's having affairs with at least two women) who's here to style Juliette's hair. No one in the house has ever seen him before, so you can imagine their surprise when he turns out to look just like Noblet. Juliette is particularly unnerved, especially when Leopold starts touching her in special places:

Two of Noblet's friends -- Dr. Friedland (Arthur Carew) and Chabonnais (James Bradbury Sr.) --  learn that Leopold has no memory beyond the last five years, and under hypnosis by the doctor Leopold remembers that he is Noblet.

What follows is traditional, somewhat labored farce. To keep Noblet from realizing that his wife has remarried, elaborate white lies connect Juliette's new husband with Juliette's friend Sylvaine (Lilyan Tashman), who's been having an affair with Leopold. But when she confronts him, he doesn't know who she is:

To make matters even more complicated, we're introduced to Suzanne (Vivian Oakland), who is Leopold's wife and the mother of his four sons -- two sets of twins. Noblet/Leopold finally learns the truth, and he also learns that Juliette is happier in her new life with a stuffy husband and young son. And he starts to realize that Suzanne isn't so bad, either:

So Noblet/Leopold conspires with his friend, the doctor -- the doctor will pretend to un-hypnotize Leopold so that he can return to his previous life and ensure Juliette's happiness. The doctor puts Noblet to sleep and he awakens as the more flamboyant Leopold:

It's a sweet ending, and Fay plays the humor as well as the wistful sadness.

Today if Fay is remembered at all, it's for a couple of reasons. One is that his turbulent marriage to Stanwyck, which ended in 1935, is said to have provided the inspiration for "A Star Is Born." Another is that in 1944, Fay scored a personal triumph as the first Elwood P. Dowd in "Harvey" on Broadway. He had a reputation as a drinker and a bit of a bastard, but he's also remembered for saving Stanwyck's fledgling movie career by helping convince Frank Capra to cast her in the 1930 film "Ladies of Leisure." And he influenced one of the best comics of the first half of the twentieth century -- Jack Benny freely admitted that he appropriate Fay's relaxed style and his swishy walk.

Who knows where the truth lies -- but the guy knew his stuff.

Here are the complete credits for "The Matrimonial Bed," and a preview:

"The Big House," or Slammer Time

In the 1930 film "The Big House" people are constantly dwarfed by their surroundings. The prison where most of the story takes place is full of high walls and towers but it's also claustrophobic, crammed with sweaty prisoners sleeping three to a cell and filling the courtyard like a swarm of ants.

We first see the prison from the viewpoint of a new prisoner, Kent (Robert Montgomery). The paddy wagon that transports him to the gates is overwhelmed by the structure itself in a striking opening shot:

Once he enters, Kent is systematically reduced from a normal guy to just another convict -- they're givin' him a number and takin' way his name.

Kent is there because he's been found guilty of being a standoffish prig -- oh, and also of killing some guy in a drunken car accident. His cellmates are Butch (Wallace Beery at his Wallace Beery-ist, full of childlike bluster and yet handy with a machine gun) and Morgan (Chester Morris). They urge Kent not to hang out with the prison stool pigeon -- he's the only convict who's wearing a necktie -- but Kent hopes that he can trade inside information for a reduced sentence.

"The Big House" is full of scenes that have become prison movie cliches, showing up in films from "White Heat" to "Birdman of Alcatraz" to "The Shawshank Redemption." One of the best is the mess hall riot, not just because of Beery's violent protest of the dehumanizing effects of prison, but because of the silence -- and the hopeless panorama of convict faces -- leading up to it:

Beery's character is punished for the riot by being sent to "the dungeon," but before he goes he passes his knife to Kent. Then, during a surprise search, Kent slips the knife into Morgan's jacket. As a result, Morgan, a day away from parole, also gets sent to the dungeon. After his 30-day stretch of living in darkness, Morgan fakes illness and escapes through the infirmary. While on the outside, he seeks out and falls in love with Kent's sister (Leila Hyams), and she with him. But it isn't long before Morgan is nabbed and sent back to stir.

While Morgan's been out, Butch has been planning a massive escape to take place on Thanksgiving Day, while the place is low on guards. In a witty scene taking place that morning, all the convicts end up at a church service, singing "Open the Gates (of the Temple)." Then as they all kneel in prayer, Berry starts passing guns and bullets down the row to his fellow escapees.

Morgan refuses to be involved in the break, but he won't rat on Butch, either. That task falls to Kent. When the escape turns into a standoff between the convicts and the guards, Butch blames Morgan. But he finally figures out the truth. Meanwhile, Kent seems to be melting into a puddle of sweat:

Kent is killed in the riot, and Morgan is forced to shoot Butch. But Butch forgives him just before he dies. "The Big House" ends with a focus on Morgan, who's given an early release for his role in stopping the escape and saving a guard's life. The "decent" prisoner, Kent, is revealed as a coward and a stool pigeon, and Morgan effectively takes the place of Kent within the family.

"The Big House" won an Oscar for screenwriter Frances Marion, who adapted the script from Lennox Robinson's play. It was smoothly directed by George Hill, Marion's husband at the time. It represented a career-saving role for Beery, who got the role as a result of the death of Lon Chaney, Sr., who passed away after making only one talkie, "The Unholy Three."  

Here are the complete credits.

Warren William Douchebag Theatre: "The Match King" and "Skyscraper Souls"

In the 1932 film "The Match King," Warren William has a clandestine meeting with his lover, played by Glenda Farrell. Object: money transfer.

The evidence is right before your eyes, ladies and gentlemen -- even Glenda Farrell, the woman who played hard-boiled dames in dozens of Warner Bros. movies, falls under the spell of Warren William when he is in full douchebag mode!

"Hey, good looking," he said
to the mirror
Little wonder, then, that for the first half of the 1930s, Warren William was your go-to guy for douchebags, whether they were shyster attorneys ("The Mouthpiece"), bogus doctors ("Bedside"), phony mentalists ("The Mind Reader"), lascivious bosses ("Employees' Entrance") or crafty campaign managers ("The Dark Horse").  

In "The Match King," William's character is based on a real-life douchebag -- Ivar Kreuger, a swindler who built a financial empire on matchsticks before committing suicide. Kreuger's initial construction business was called Kreuger and Toll, and the scriptwriters combine those names to give us William's character, Paul Kroll.

Kroll is a small-time chiseler who's working as a street sweeper in Chicago when his relatives in Sweden ask him to visit. He's bragged to them about his non-existent wealth and success and they want him to help save the family match company. Kroll's advice is to be aggressive -- to start buying up rival match companies and create a monopoly.

Only one family member is aware of Kroll's real background -- his cousin Erik (Hardie Albright). But Kroll convinces him of his plan by delivering what would become a staple in these movies -- the speech letting us know that William's character may be a douchebag, but he is a visionary douchebag:

Through his wheeling and dealing, Kroll ends up controlling a match monopoly that is practically worldwide, but you can't make an omelet without breaking some eggs. He cheats investors and builds an empire on debt. And when an eccentric chemist invents a non-disposable match that lights repeatedly, Kroll has the man committed. On the other hand, to show us that the guy does have a heart, he woos and loses a fickle actress (Lili Damita).

Then comes the stock market crash of 1929, and to keep the empire afloat Kroll buys counterfeit bonds from a forger (Harold Huber). Then Kroll offers to give the forger a lift in his boat:

In Paris, Kroll realizes that the jig, she is up. The bonds are discovered to be fake, and he is confronted by his investors. He steps onto a balcony, where all his misdeeds conveniently rattle through his head:

In "Skyscraper Souls," made the same year, William is financier David Dwight, who has just built an edifice even taller than the Empire State Building. But, like Kroll, he has built his empire on debt. And his misdeeds aren't all financial -- he's creeping a young secretary (Maureen O'Sullivan) while his loyal woman Friday (Verree Teasdale) is waiting for him to get a divorce from his absentee wife (Hedda Hopper in her pre-gossip columnist days). But Dwight doesn't want to divorce his wife -- it's easier to keep giving her checks and staying "free" to wander.

There are also a lot of subplots in "Skyscraper Souls," including a love story between a tender-hearted jeweler (Jean Hersholt) and a prostitute (Anita Page) and a love story between O'Sullivan and Norman Foster as a bank teller. And Dwight's scheme with another investor to take control of the building by running up the bank stock and then selling it short affects almost all the cast, including Gregory Ratoff as a dress merchant and Wallace Ford as a radio announcer.

But "Skyscraper Souls" revolves around Dwight, and here's the obligatory douchebag-with-vision speech:

Funny how that speech also applies to today's friction between the 1% and everyone else, isn't it?

The douchebag's comeuppance in this case comes when he is ready to skip the country with O'Sullivan in tow. Teasdale, as his longtime companion, has taken O'Sullivan under her wing and she won't stand for it because she doesn't want Dwight to ruin someone else's life:

By wiping her prints from the pistol, William's character demonstrates his good side once again. But there is more tragedy ahead:

With the advent of the production code in 1935, William started being cast as good guys, often detectives. He played Perry Mason in several films and played the Lone Wolf, aka Michael Lanyard, in a series of films into the 1940s. So William left his douchebag days behind. But they were fun while they lasted.

Here are the credits for "Skyscraper Souls." And here are the full credits for "The Match King," and a preview:


"Danger Lights," or Honey Choo Choo

Plotwise, the 1930 film "Danger Lights" is "The Broadway Melody" with locomotives -- a love triangle involving two people who hate to hurt the odd one out. But it also offers interesting location footage of trains and train yards, a glimpse of Jean Arthur early in her sound career, and one of the few talkie film performances of Louis Wolfheim, who died in 1931 of stomach cancer.

Off camera, Wolfheim had a reputation as a cultivated man -- he attended Cornell University and spoke several languages -- but his stocky, plug-ugly appearance meant a career in tough character roles, including a memorable turn as Stanislaus "Kat" Katczinsky in "All Quiet on the Western Front," made just before this film. Wolfheim's profile wasn't exactly Barrymore-ish -- it looks like two upside-down 7s on top of each other.

Here, Wolfheim is Dan Thorn, a hard-driving railroad yardmaster whose bark is worse than his bite. We know this because that's what everyone is always telling us, and because Dan has opened his home to his disabled railroad buddy Ryan (Frank Sheridan) and daughter Mary (Arthur). Mary is preparing to marry Dan out of obligation, but that changes when Doyle (Robert Armstrong) hits town. He's a tramp who's hitched a ride on a freight, but when Dan finds out he's a former engineer he gives the guy a job. And when Doyle gets a gander at Mary, he makes up his mind to stay:

Oblivious to the attraction between Doyle and Mary, Dan keeps pushing them to spend time together because he's working on the railroad all the livelong day. And when they're walking home across a railroad trestle, Doyle and Mary act on their attraction:

By the time Dan finally finds out what's going on, the couple has made plans to leave town together. But a hitch develops while they're cutting across the rail yard:

Dan is badly injured, because the train in rain hits mainly on the brain.

The only hope is to get him to a Chicago brain specialist within five hours, but the fastest train on record can make it only in seven. A guilt-stricken Doyle takes the throttle, and Dan makes it to the Windy City in record time. To make everything hunky-dory, Dan realizes that he really loves the railroad, not Mary, and he gives the couple his blessing.

Much of "Danger Lights" was filmed in Montana, at the Miles City yards, and director George B. Seitz fills the movie with lots of hard-charging railroad action! Wolheim is a winning presence as Dan, but occasionally he garbles his lines (at one point he says to someone, "How'd you like to have a new man for your suttapacka job?"). And it's always interesting to see Arthur; here she is just starting to demonstrate her familiar screen mannerisms.

Here is a full cast and credits list for "Danger Lights" -- pay no attention to TCM's plot description.

"Street Scene," or Slum Like It Hot

The 1931 film "Street Scene" opens with Alfred Newman's theme music -- music that is so evocative of a city that it was being used as "New York Music" in 20th Century-Fox films twenty years later. And unlike many film scores of the time, it has a sophisticated orchestration -- you hear it and you expect to see a movie from the 1940s instead of one from the early 1930s:

The Hell's Kitchen apartment building at the center of "Street Scene" would today be filled with condominiums selling for hundreds of thousands of dollars. But in 1931 it contains the most diverse group of tenants this side of Ellis Island -- the Kaplans, the Maurrants, the Joneses, the Fiorentinos and the Olsens, to name a few. Within the space of 24 hours, on a hot summer day, they gather on the front stoop to gossip, fight, argue and witness a double murder.

Setting the story on a broiling summer day is a great way to get everyone outside and introduced -- the Maurrants include mother Anna (Estelle Taylor), crabby father Frank (David Landau) and daughter Rose (Sylvia Sidney). Then there are the Joneses, the most vocal member of which is mother Emma (Beulah Bondi), a buttinski, a gossip and a know-nothing with views on poverty and evolution that would place her comfortably within the ranks of today's Republican party. Her son Vincent is an angry ignoramus and her daughter is a floozy. The Kaplans include radical father Abe, schoolteacher daughter Shirley and sensitive Sam (William Collier, Jr.), who's always reading a book and who is sweet on Rose. The Olsens are a Swedish couple with a new baby and the Fiorentinos include an Italian husband and his German wife.

The daily routine -- life as it plays out on the stoop -- revolves around incessant talk about the weather and gossip about the neighbors -- particularly Anna Maurrant, who's having an affair with the guy who collects for the milk each week. Meanwhile, Rose is being pressured into a sexual relationship by her piggish boss, while Sam Kaplan has a hard time working up enough nerve to tell Rose how he feels -- or to counteract the constant catcalls of "Kike" from the bullying Vincent Jones.

King Vidor directed "Street Scene," and in a way the film is an extension of his towering 1928 film "The Crowd." "Street Scene" is also about urban alienation -- in this case, an alienation that the characters experience even as they live cheek to jowl in a crowded apartment building. 

After the characters are introduced, we move to the next morning. Sam sits on the front stoop reading a book. There's a music lesson being conducted in one of the apartments. Two marshals are there to evict one of the residents. Mr. Maurrant has just left to go out of the town, and Mrs. Maurrant has just pulled down the shades to entertain her gentleman friend. Here's the beautifully paced scene:

Rose has been at her boss's funeral, and when she gets back to the block she knows something's wrong. Within a few hours her mother has become today's tabloid headline:

Then it's time for Rose to say goodbye -- Sam wants to come with her, but he isn't mature enough yet, and she knows that:

"Street Scene" is based upon Elmer Rice's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, and he also wrote the screenplay. The film's heightened realism doesn't seem quite as daring or as incendiary as it probably was in 1931. But the proof is in the pudding -- you've seen a lot of movies and TV shows like "Street Scene" since 1931.

Here are the complete credits.

The David Manners Film Festival: "The Ruling Voice" and "Crooner"

"You can call me Kit, or
you can call me Franklin,
or you can call me Franklyn,
or you can call me Austin ..."
Of all the actors who appeared in 1930s movies, David Manners (1900-98) was certainly one of them.

Today he is best known for playing the straight man in monster movies like "Dracula," "The Mummy" and "The Black Cat." He was discovered by James Whale, who cast Manners in the gritty 1930 film "Journey's End," a World War I drama based on the stage production that Whale directed.

Most of the time, however, Manners played people with good manners -- upper class boyfriends and fiancees with names like Kit, Franklin, Franklyn, Austin and Eden.

The 1931 film "The Ruling Voice" is a good example -- Manners plays Dick Cheney (!), an aristocratic young man who's in love with Gloria Bannister (Loretta Young). Gloria and Dick have fallen in love in Europe and are now heading home to meet Gloria's father, Jack (Walter Huston). Gloria doesn't know it, but dad is a ruthless racketeer, and in his obsessive collection of protection money he will stop at nothing -- he even knocks really cool toy trucks off of miniature highway bridges right into the path of model trains!

Truthfully, Manners doesn't have much to do in "The Ruling Voice" -- the real love story is between father and daughter. Jack is honest with Gloria about what he does for a living and she doesn't want anything to do with him, leading him to give up his shady dealings and sacrifice himself. So Huston and Young get tense, emotional scenes while Manners spends his time at the shuffleboard court in scenes like this:

In 1932's "Crooner," Manners gets a lot more to do and does it pretty well, showing a flair for light comedy. At a time when velvet-voiced groaners like Bing Crosby, Russ Columbo and Rudy Vallee were topping the charts, Manners plays bandleader Teddy Taylor. He and his musical aggravation -- excuse me, aggregation -- aren't going anywhere until Teddy starts singing and Guy Kibbee, as a guy in the crowd, hands him a megaphone:

Teddy soon becomes as well known as Chipso soap flakes (hey, this is 1932), aided by fast-talking agent Ken Murray and loving girlfriend Ann Dvorak (in a sedate performance that's a far cry from her craziness in "Three on a Match," made the same year). "Crooner" has a great deal of fun lampooning all the hype surrounding these early media-created superstars, and making it clear that most of them, Taylor included, have very little talent. That doesn't, however, keep Teddy from getting a swelled head:

Fame makes Teddy even more insufferable -- he adopts a phony British accent, starts hobnobbing with millionaires and, worst of all, ignores Guy Kibbee when he returns to remind Teddy about giving him his first megaphone! Finally, one evening he takes the stage after a few drinks:

Teddy commits PR Hara-Kari by hitting a handicapped veteran, and his career goes down the tubes, leading him back to Dvorak and a happy ending.

In real life, Manners tired of being stereotyped and left Hollywood in 1936. In later years he did some stage work (including a play with a young Marlon Brando) and wrote several books.

Here are the complete credits for "The Ruling Voice" and a trailer:

Here are the complete credits for "Crooner" and a trailer: