Public Domain Theatre: "Flight" (1929)

In his 1929 film "Flight," Frank Capra demonstrates a skill that would take other directors a few more years to accomplish -- he makes an early talkie movie filled with action.


While keeping the sound quality high and the performances natural.

To understand how different "Flight" is from its contemporaries, consider the entries in our "Awkward Early Talkie Theatre" category -- stagy, immobile, filled with overacting and arched reading of dialogue.

"Flight," by contrast, boasts an easy assurance and striking locations, most notably a naval base at San Diego that poses as Pensacola.

This was the second of three films that Capra would direct with Jack Holt and Ralph Graves -- the first was 1928's "Submarine" and the last would be 1931's "Dirigible." These movies were the "Top Gun" of their day, filled with the latest in military equipment and technology.

Beyond the flashiness, though, the movies worked because of the rapport between Holt and Graves -- a macho camaraderie that also included moments of startling vulnerability.

In "Flight," Graves (who is also credited with the story) is Lefty Phelps. In the opening moments of the film, his college football team is playing in the Rose Bowl, giving Capra the chance to include lots of real-life game footage. Lefty isn't a team star, but the coach puts him in for one last crucial play -- one that Lefty screws up by running in the opposite direction and scoring a winning touchdown for the other team.

After the game, as Lefty is hiding out in the men's room, he has a brief tussle with Panama Williams (Holt), a Marine sergeant. He accuses Lefty of intentionally throwing the game. Lefty heatedly denies it. Panama, seeing that Lefty is genuinely hurt and scared, apologizes.

We fast forward a few weeks, and Lefty has joined the Marines -- maybe because of Panama's considerate behavior, or maybe because of the snazzy recruiting poster he saw in the men's room. Anyway, Lefty is trying to keep his identity secret, but when it comes out, he confides again in Panama, and shows him a particularly harsh newspaper article:


Certainly Holt and Graves have their moments of roughhousing and swaggering, but their relationship is unexpectedly warm. Capra seems to let them ad lib some of their dialogue, which leads to a "damn" or "hell" getting slipped in now and then.

Despite the help of Panama, Lefty washes out as a Marine pilot. He watches dejectedly as his fellow Marines get their wings:

But Panama has a plan -- he'll keep Lefty around as his mechanic.

Meanwhile, there is some romantic tension in the form of nurse Elinor (Lila Lee). Panama is crazy about her, but she only has eyes for Lefty. Lefty feels the same way, but he keeps Elinor at arm's length out of loyalty to Panama. This leads him to leave camp and get stinking, only to be rescued by Panama:


Elinor confesses to Panama that she loves Lefty just as the Marines, who by now are in Nicaragua, have to leave to fight a group of bandits. The pilot Lefty is riding with makes a crash landing, leaving Panama to set out on a dangerous rescue mission.

Certainly "Flight" fits a pattern that action/adventure movies use to this day -- heroes/friends quarrel and then unite against a common enemy at the end. And Lefty gets his confidence back by becoming a hero in dire circumstances. But this is a particularly well-done example -- all the more striking, and un-awkward, considering its age.

Here are complete credits for "Flight." 

Public Domain Theatre: "The Younger Generation"

Despite its title, Frank Capra's 1929 film "The Younger Generation" is really mainly about an old guy -- Julius Goldfish, a junk dealer from New York City's Lower East Side, played by Denmark's own Jean Hersholt. (A Dane playing a Jew -- Hollywood!)

The Goldfish family -- papa Julius, mama Tilda (Rosa Rosanova), daughter Birdie (Lina Basquette) and son Morris (Ricardo Cortez) -- are living the American dream, only, as Papa might say, it ain't so dreamy. They have moved on up, moved on up, to the Upper East Side, to a deluxe apartment in the sky-hi-hi because Morris, inheriting Papa's junk business, has become a fancy-schmancy antiques dealer and the family has moved in with him.

Based on a story by Fannie Hurst, who also gave us "Imitation of Life" and "Back Street," "The Younger Generation" has its own kind of Hurstian family heartache -- Morris dominates his family and orders them to assimilate or else! This means Papa has to dress for dinner and bathe a little more regularly than he's used to. Mama loves her new life, but Papa finds himself schmoozing with the delivery men because it reminds him of his old, simpler life.

Little by little, in fact, Papa's heritage is being taken away. Morris becomes the family's alpha male, forbidding his sister to see the struggling musician she's loved for years. Then Morris makes an announcement -- he's changed his surname to Fish. (Here we see a little jab at rival producer Sam Goldwyn, aka Sam Goldfish.) Papa and Birdie commiserate:


And still there's more! Morris ostracizes Birdie and makes his parents think that Birdie has deserted them. As a result, Papa wastes away, a prisoner on Fifth Avenue:

But WE know differently -- that Birdie has married her musician, who's in jail for a jewel robbery, and they have a daughter:

By the time Papa finds out the truth, he has faced the final indignity -- he has become an object of embarrassment to his meshugenah son:

"The Younger Generation" is a part-talkie, and the transitions between silent and talking sequences are a little bumpy. But director Frank Capra is already demonstrating his skill in mixing heart and humor, and in peppering "The Younger Generation" with the same salt-of-the-earth types that show up in his later films. And the ending is a killer -- Morris, left alone after everyone has moved out, covers himself in Mama's shawl and suddenly looks much older in front of his massive fireplace.

Here are the complete credits.

Public Domain Theatre: "The Vagabond Lover"

The 1929 film "The Vagabond Lover" (full movie above) stars Marie Dressler, Sally Blane and a statue named Rudy Vallee.

Filmed when Vallee was at the height of his fame as a bandleader (of the Connecticut Yankees) and as a crooner with a voice that sounds like his adenoids have adenoids, "The Vagabond Lover" is supposed to be a lightweight romantic comedy/musical. Instead it's about as graceful as one of Marie Dressler's frocks filled with wet cement.

There are a couple of problems, actually -- the script, by James Ashmore Creelman, who ended up committing suicide but not specifically because of this movie, is the kind of play that high school drama clubs would do in the 1930s or '40s. And the direction by Marshall "Mickey" Neilan is flaccid, if not downright placid. There are dead spaces between lines of dialogue long enough for a nap. The movie runs about 65 minutes, but if you took out all the pauses it would last about half an hour.

Finally, there's Vallee. By the time he started playing supporting roles in good movies in the 1940s, like "The Palm Beach Story" and "The Bachelor and the Bobby Soxer," Vallee had been hosting a hit radio show for more than ten years and had a much more polished presence onscreen. True, a little bit of pompousness remained -- the reason Vallee can be so funny in some of those later films is that he never quite seems to be in on the joke.

But here, in his first major movie role, we get all of the pompousness and none of the polish. As the movie begins, Rudy and his band are a bunch of small timers. Practice is underway, but things don't really start to sparkle until the charismatic Rudy enters:

"If only that guy could play like he can sing," one of the band members says. Meh. Looking like a 12-year-old in a double-breasted suit, Vallee conveys anger, passion and humor with the same wan smile.

The story is based somewhat on Vallee's own experience -- born Hubert Prior Vallee, our hero appropriated the first name of his musical idol, saxophonist Rudy Wiedoeft. In the movie, Vallee's musical idol is saxophonist Ted Grant, a Paul Whiteman-esque figure played badly (and baldly) by Malcolm Waite.

Vallee and his band -- which seems to consist of 12 saxophones and a banjo -- go to Grant's Long Island mansion to serenade him with hopes of getting a job. But Grant is an egotistical jerk, and throws Vallee out. Then Grant and his manager leave for the city. Vallee and his group don't know that, and they enter the mansion to audition.

Once inside, Vallee and his band cut loose. He seems a little less stiff -- here are is his stage moves move:

And here's the entire number, "Nobody's Sweetheart":

Meanwhile, the next-door neighbors -- Mrs. Whitehall (Dressler) and her niece Jean (Blane) -- think the band is breaking and entering. They call the cops and rush right over:

Through complications that make me too tired to recount, Vallee is mistaken for Grant, and Mrs. Whitehall insists that the band plays at her big charity benefit.
So as you can see, "The Vagabond Lover" is a lot like that episode of "The Brady Bunch" where Marcia promises her classmates that she can get Davy Jones to play at her prom, even though in real life he'd probably be happy for the gig.

Blane, the younger sister of Loretta Young, is the romantic interest, and Dressler does her patented fuss and bother, doing doubletakes aplenty. And it all can't be over quickly enough for me.

Here is the full cast and credits.