Public Domain Theatre: "The Squall"







There's an old story in the theatre about a production of "The Diary of Anne Frank" where the actress in the title role gives such a bad performance that at the end of the play, when the Nazis enter, audience members yell out, "She's in the attic!"

At the end of the 1929 film "The Squall," you may feel the same way.

The Lajos family has been sheltering a runaway Gypsy girl, the nubile Nubi (Myrna Loy), and she has repaid their kindness with lying, deceit and never-ending attempts to seduce every guy in the joint.

The Gypsies have now returned -- we have seen their tiny covered wagons come over the hill (a miniature shot). They are led by their whip-wielding master, who wants Nubi back, and you can't wait to see her get kicked to the curb.

Nubi is another one of Loy's turns as an exotic temptress -- for other examples, see "Thirteen Women" and "The Mask of Fu Manchu." And she is indeed a little Hungarian hottie, with her flaming eyes and cheekbones as sharp as razor blades.  

But the movie she's stuck in is a lot like a bad opera, filled with cheering peasants, singing gypsies and characters with names like Josef and Uncle Dani.

"The Squall" takes place on the Lajos family farm, where, an intertitle tells us, "the labor of years has been crowned with prosperity and content (sic)." (I'm still wondering where "-ment" went.)

In the Lajos household, prosperity takes the form of nice wardrobes, plentiful food and lots of expository dialogue. We witness romantic hi-jinks between the cook, Lena (Zasu Pitts), and farm hand Peter (Harry Cording). Father Josef (Richard Tucker) and mother Maria (Alice Joyce) are plump and prosperous, doting on son Paul (Carroll Nye), who is engaged to the lovely Irma (Loretta Young).

But there are storm clouds on the horizon, foreshadowed by dialogue that is as subtle as a pile driver. Such as when Maria says, "Our lives have been like a summer day -- without a cloud. If only it could be that way until the end." Fat chance, Maria.

Or take this exchange, between Irma and her grandfather (Knute Erickson).

Irma: Oh, I just hate squalls. They only make everyone so unhappy. I'd like someone to tell me why we have them.

Grandfather: Perhaps there's a reason, Irma. God gives us shadows that we may know light. He gives us sorrow that we may know joy. He gives us Zasu Pitts so that we can appreciate Myrna Loy in a peasant blouse. (OK, I made up that one.) And perhaps he sends the squall that we may learn the beauty of a limpid sky.

Outside, the squall is kicking up, and then there is a scream and a frenzied banging at the door. The family hears it, but they are so busy feeding their faces with content that a servant answers. In tumbles Nubi, who is fleeing from her abusive master because "He keel me!"

Nubi immediately plays on the family's sympathy by explaining that she is a reluctant Gypsy, having been stolen as a baby. The kind-hearted Maria offers her shelter from the squall, little realizing that her act of kindness will throw her marriage, her happiness, nay, HER VERY LIFE into Jeopardy! (Used with the permission of Merv Griffin.)

Nubi looks out the window at the tiny Gypsies as they leave the farm. Then she speaks a little monologue that makes all the men hot and bothered:




Nubi's first conquest is Peter the farm hand, who lip-syncs a little song about his love for Nubi while currying the horse. No, really:



Then Nubi moves on to Paul, and as a result he starts giving Irma the cold shoulder. "Never mind, Irma. Your old granddaddy loves you, and isn't that enough?," her granddaddy asks, answering his own question. 

Finally, Nubi tries to seduce the master of the farm, Josef. "I am keesing your shadow," she purrs. Longtime wife Maria is watching from the shadows. What's a wife to do? "My husband -- half of my life," she says. "My son -- the other half." Not to get picky, but aren't they the same half? Or isn't there at least one-third of overlap?

Anyway, leave it to Maria to finally understand how dangerous Nubi is, while the men are all derp-derp-derpy about her. So when the Gypsies return, she makes the move to get rid of Nubi:




With Nubi gone, content returns to the family farm.

Here are the full credits for "The Squall."

 

Public Domain Theatre: "Weary River"




A better title for the 1929 film "Weary River" might be "The Sad, Sensitive, Singing Bandleader Convict."

OK, maybe it wouldn't be a better title, but it would be more descriptive of the trials and tribulations faced by our morose hero, Jerry Larrabee, played by hall-of-fame frowner Richard Barthelmess.

"Weary River" is a bit of an odd duck in that it is a part talkie, alternating silent and talking sequences. You might expect the difference between the two to seem herky-jerky, but director Frank Lloyd (he was Oscar-nominated) makes the transitions surprisingly smooth. 

Richard Barthelmess runs the gamut of emotion.
As the movie begins, Barthelmess-as-Jerry isn't sad at all! He enters a speakeasy where everybody knows his name. He is a high-living gangster, and always on his arm is the beauteous Alice (Betty Compson) who, when the occasion calls for it, can make with the tears like nobody's business.





But for the time being, everything is beer and skittles (the game, not the candy) -- Jerry and Alice are living the high life, cohabiting a ritzy apartment and wearing well-tailored duds. Then Jerry gets a visit from the cops, personified by Robert Emmett O'Connor. (Who else?) They're chummy, but an innocent bystander has been killed in a shootout between Jerry's gang and their rivals, and Jerry has been fingered as the shooter. So Jerry goes downtown:



Then, before you can say "The Shawshank Redemption," Jerry is in the jug. At first he is bitter about being there, and causes a mini-riot with a few guards. But the prison warden (William Holden, but not the one you're thinking of) is an understanding sort. He cautions Jerry about the pitfalls of running with "bad companions," and Jerry, a budding musician, starts leading the prison band. When Alice comes to visit, the warden (wrongly) pegs her as a bad sort and discourages her from seeing Jerry.

Meanwhile Jerry, miserable and inspired by a minister's talk, writes a song called "Weary River" and sings it on the air. The patrons of the nightclub where Jerry used to hang out listen raptly, including Alice:




"Weary River" is a hit -- so much so that Jerry sings it, in its entirely, at four different times throughout the movie. Magically, Jerry is then released from prison and tours the country as the "Master of Melody." But then thoughtless people start throwing the word "convict" around:



How does Jerry react? By crying all the way to the bank? Nope. He gets bitter and frowns even more than usual. His vaudeville career nosedives, and he starts hanging out again with those bad companions the warden warned him about. The warden learns of Jerry's possible defection and rushes to help, as does Alice. Will they save the Master of Melody, or will he turn into a Maker of Mayhem?
  
"Weary River" is well intentioned and sincere, and even a little prescient -- within a year, thanks to the Great Depression, a lot of people who saw this movie would be sailing weary rivers of their own.

Here are the complete credits. 

Public Domain Theatre: "Say It with Songs" (1929)




There is so, so, so much to make fun of in the 1929 film "Say It with Songs" that it's tempting to just kick back and start taking shots.

I mean, come on -- you have Al Jolson in full "world's greatest entertainer" mode, hamminess in overdrive, shoving his mug into the camera in what seems like every single scene, including one where he singlehandedly saves his son's life and restores his speech through pure Mammy power.

You have scenes of suffocating parental pathos between Jolson and Davey Lee, who was a huge hit opposite Jolson in 1928's "The Singing Fool" as Jolson's otherwise nameless son, Sonny Boy, appearing here as Jolson's other otherwise nameless son, Little Pal.

Finally, our man ends up in stir, the world's saddest convict, cheering up the other inmates with a passive-aggressive little ditty called "Why Can't You?" that includes these lyrics:

Violets from tiny seeds
Fight their way up through the weeds
Violets can do it
Why can't you?


Yes, prison isn't bad enough -- the punishment includes an Al Jolson motivational seminar. See for yourself:




So there's a lot to make fun of in "Say It with Songs." And yet -- stay with me here -- this movie is not totally absurd. It actually offers just the slightest taste of what would be the future at Warner Bros.: the urban-based, tough-talking, fast-moving dramas, like "The Public Enemy" and "I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang," that the studio would be known for just a few years hence, all under the supervision of Darryl F. Zanuck, who gets top writing credit for "Say It with Songs."

Of course, it's a bug jump from Al Jolson to Paul Muni. (Adapts Jolson voice) But you can see the seeds -- the tiny seeds! Fighting their way up through the weeds! Mammy!

"Say It with Songs" is tailored to Jolson's, ah, unique style. Here he is Joe Lane, a singer on his way up at a radio station. The movie's first scene establishes the station's programming -- a combination of commercials, singers and health and beauty "experts":



But then there is Joe, who stands out like a sore thumb. He is on the way up, but he has his irresponsible side. This is demonstrated when he gets involved in a crap game at the radio station. This is further demonstrated when he promises his wife he'll meet her for a date and keeps her cooling her heels for two hours. She makes empty threats to leave him, but the love between Joe and Little Pal keeps her from pulling the trigger.

But soft! There is trouble behind the microphone. The station's unscrupulous manager (Kenneth Thomson, a cad once again) is making moves on Joe's wife Katherine (Marian Nixon), the very mother of Little Pal!

Katherine tells Joe about the passes, and he knocks the station manager silly. Unfortunately, the guy falls and hits his head on a lamppost, and he ends up seriously killed. And before you can say (with apologies to Johnny Cash) "Jolson Prison Blues," Joe is in the jug.

Meanwhile, on the outside, Katherine has sent Little Pal off to boarding school and she goes back to work for a doctor who's always loved her. To spare her from society's wrath, Joe tells Katherine he wants a divorce, giving Jolson the opportunity to act noble and victimized at the same time.

Then Joe is released from prison, and "Say It with Songs" really gets maudlin. Here's the scene where Little Pal recovers, no thanks to a network of doctors, but because of fatherly egotism -- I mean, love:




A couple of facts about "Say It with Songs": The songs were by the writing team of DeSylva, Brown and Henderson, who also wrote the megahit "Sonny Boy" for "The Singing Fool"; as part of his deal, Jolson's name was added as a songwriter, entitling him to a share of that sweet royalty money. This is in addition to the $500,000 he received from Warners. Also, contrary to Wikipedia and other sources, "Say It with Songs" wasn't a flop -- it grossed more than $2 million, which placed it in the rarefied company of other pre-code Warner hits like "Noah's Ark" and "42nd Street."

"Jolson Prison Blues." Heh.