What we learned: we still love the Marx Brothers. Groucho is still the most quotable bastard in movie history. Chico is still our favourite pianist. Harpo is still creepily likable. Zeppo is still oddly replaceable…
Lingerie model Mildred Plotka (Lombard) has been discovered by theatre producer/director Oscar Jaffe (Barrymore) who wants to make her a star, despite the protests of his coproducers and assistants. He renames her Lily Garland, manages to “mine her performance for gold” and their play is a huge success, making her an overnight sensation.
Fast forward three plays and while their working relationship is still productive and successful, his manipulative behaviour has all but driven her away. When he hires a private detective to watch her every move, she finally has enough and runs away to Hollywood where she becomes a film star.
After her departure, Jaffe struggles to produce another success, fails miserably, and is eventually wanted by the law for dodging debtors. While evading the police, he boards the Twentieth Century Limited, a train where Garland is also a passenger. When Jaffe learns of her presence, he starts plotting how to get her back under his thumb.
Despite both main characters being narcissistic, manipulative bastards, they’re strangely charming and they really do deserve each other. Barrymore’s Jaffe is hilarious and fun in his flamboyancy and in the way he always thinks in terms of staging, and Lombard’s Garland is wonderfully divaesque. With great gags (“Baptist!”) and entertaining supporting characters in the increasingly drunk cohorts, this is a great watch with a bottle of wine and in a fabulous dress on a Saturday night. Or in any other setting, really. We’re not the bosses of you.
Innocent princess Sophia of Germany (Dietrich) has been chosen to marry Russia’s Grand Duke Peter (Jaffe) and is fetched from her German palace by the illegitimate offspring of Vlad Tepes and Titi Suru the Rock’n’Roll Wolf, Count Alexei (Lodge).
Inexperienced and sheltered as she is, she naturally falls for the animalistic wolf-man before arriving in Russia, and falls for him doubly once she meets the “imbecilic royal halfwit” she is to marry. However, she is a woman of her word and keeps her promise to bring new blood into the Russian royal family (and about time too, judging by her husband).
Exposed to the harsh realities of life in the household of the Russian Empress (Dresser), the coldness of her arranged marriage, and Vlad Suru’s reputation as a Lothario (kind of like his fathers, we guess) the once innocent child becomes Catherine the Great, a seductive and intelligent ruler who will no longer be a pawn in other people’s power games. Instead, she’ll play her own.
This movie is epic in scope, violent and stunning, beautifully scored with themes from Wagner and Tchaikovsky among others (they’re the ones we could recognize anyway), and really well acted. The costumes, tableaux and sets are amazing (we love the grotesques everywhere in the castle), and there are so many huge, impressive scenes that you tend to wonder how much money was put into this production. We’re guessing a lot. But that is a conservative estimate – it may have been much more. The Scarlet Empress is an epic ride from start to finish, and we loved it!
Jill (Best) and Bob (Banks) Lawrence have brought their daughter Betty (Pilbeam) on a holiday in the Swiss alps, expecting no trouble apart from stories to bore their friends with upon returning to England. They befriend a Frenchman called Louis who is assassinated on the dance floor on his last day at the resort.
Before he dies, he manages to give Jill instructions about a very important message which must be brought to the British consul. Bob retrieves the message from the dead man’s room, but before the couple has time to talk to anyone from the consul, they receive a note saying their daughter is kidnapped and will be killed if they talk.
The Lawrences decide not to risk their only child’s life and return to London pretending Betty’s with an aunt in Paris and not at all kidnapped and held by some secret society plotting the assassination of a foreign dignitary. Since they cannot confide in the police, Lawrence goes after the bad guys himself and manages to track them down rather easily.
We won’t reveal the ending (except to mention that there’s a shoot out!), but we urge you to watch this film. There’s suspense, intrigue, international politics and espionage, and there’s Peter Lorre being almost as creepy as he was in M. There are also some truly hilarious scenes, such as when Bob and friend/cohort Clive sing messages to each other in church and the ensuing chair fight with organ music accompaniment. Hitchcock really knew how to build suspense (in case no one’s pointed this out before) and while this is a fairly early work compared to some of his more famous masterpieces, The Man Who Knew Too Much is still a good example of his skills. The silence helps build the tension (there’s no score for most of the film) and some of the scenes literally had us on the edge of our seats.
Ezra Ounce (Herbert) has got it going on. He’s rich, eccentric (but he can afford to be), and he has a purpose in life: to raise American morals and more specifically, get rid of Broadway shows. He decides to give his sister and brother-in-law $10 million on the condition that they live up to his standards of “clean living” and help him with his foundation.
Alas, Ounce’s niece Barbara (Keeler) and his more distant relative Jimmy (Powell) have already fallen to The Theatre (and for each other) and are busy putting on a production which Ounce decides to sabotage. However, star of the show Mabel (Blondell – who also steals the show in the film) has dirt on Barbara’s father Horace (Kibbee) and blackmails him into financing the show.
Eventually, the Ounce Foundation for the Elevation of American Morals attend the opening night of Jimmy’s musical and, unwittingly drunk on Dr. Silver’s Golden Elixir, enjoy every minute of it, causing them to change their views on both Jimmy and Broadway shows.
In many ways, this seems like the most honest of the Berkeley musicals we’ve seen. “The Girl at the Ironing Board” is an unabashed male fantasy of the perfect woman whose happiest times are cleaning men’s clothes, and in the titular number “Dames” they’re not even trying to pretend that the selling point for all these films is anything other than the pretty dames. Still, we enjoyed it a lot although, in our opinion, Footlight Parade and Gold Diggers of 1933 had slightly better musical numbers.
A man (Rains) is walking through a snow storm. He has 1/2 mile left to go to civilization. Cut to the Lion’s Head pub, a local pub for local people – there’s nothing for our man there! Nevertheless, the stranger enters and demands a room and privacy. Inn keeper Jenny Hall (O’Connor) is so done with his shit even before he is installed in his new rooms.
The stranger, who we learn is scientist Jack Griffin, has managed to turn himself invisible and is working on a cure whilst also spiralling into madness brought on by one of the drugs in the invisibility cocktail. When the Halls finally move to evict their disruptive tenant, he throws a fit and shows off just how much of a bastard he is, assaulting the landlady and going on a bit of a spree.
After wreaking havoc on the small village, Griffin goes to see Kemp to enlist his help in creating an antidote and taking over the world. Not necessarily in that order. From that moment on things take a turn for the worse, and murder and mayhem ensue.
Despite being a horror film, this is as funny as it is scary. There’s some very entertaining slapstick (how could there not be, with a naked, invisible man with no boundries running around?), and some amazing secondary characters. Griffin himself is a megalomaniac, but it seems he has become that way after turning invisible, possibly because he is no longer confronted with himself in the mirror, or because he can now get away with pretty much anything. Or because of the “monocane” he’s injected himself with. No matter the reason, he’s kind of hilarious when he’s not running around killing people.
We have to be honest here, and say that this is not our favourite from the list. The opening scene is wonderful though. The “Sons of the Desert,” a second-rate freemason society, are having a meeting discussing their upcoming annual convention. Enter Laurel and Hardy (or Moss and Roy if you will), climbing over other attendees in order to get to the vacant chairs. This is by far the funniest scene in the film.
At the meeting, all members have to take an oath to attend the convention in Chicago the next week, and our two “heroes” have to figure out a way to go, given that they are both under the thumbs of their wives. Laurel, being an honest simpleton, gets permission from his wife just by asking, but Hardy tries too hard to be “the king of his own castle” and his wife forbids him to go. Thus, they must scheme and plot.
They manage to go under the pretense of traveling to Hawaii for Hardy’s health, but the ship they were supposed to come back on sinks and the wives (believing they might now be widows) go to the movies. Because that’s what you do when your spouse might be dead. There, a newsreel shows their supposedly drowned husbands at the Sons of the Desert convention and they realise they have been tricked.
There are some very funny scenes in this, some silly slapstick, a farcical plot, and a good musical number with a girl who looks like Olivia Colman and Mae Whitman had a love child (which is a good thing!) but on the whole we were slightly underwhelmed. Or possibly just whelmed. It’s OK for a hungover Sunday afternoon though.
What we learned: where the trope of nagging wives and lying husbands came from (although it’s possible that’s an even older stereotype). Also, spousal abuse is apparently hilarious if it’s from a woman to a man.
King Kong needs no introduction, but we’ll try to summarise the plot anyway. In depression era New York, evil David Attenborough Carl Denham (Armstrong), is preparing for a journey to find a mythical beast. He has the ship and the crew ready to go, but for some reason he has trouble finding an actress willing to travel on an isolated ship with several strange men to an unknown destination. Girls used to be so picky.
This being the depression, there is no shortage of unemployed actresses and one night on the streets of New York is enough to find a suitable girl with nothing to lose, Ann Darrow (Wray). Once at sea, Denham reveals their destination – an uncharted island known as “Skull Island” which is rumoured to be the home of a mythical creature known only as “Kong.”
When they arrive at the island the locals are in the middle of a ceremony wherein a girl is sacrificed to be the “bride of Kong.” However, when the local chief spots Ann among the men, he decides “the golden woman” is a more suitable offering. That night, tribe members sneak aboard the Venture and kidnap Ann, and by the time the crew realise what has happened, she is already tied up and the beast is being summoned.
Denham, Ann’s love interest Jack Driscoll (Cabot), and several disposable crew members chase Kong and Ann into the jungle, and on the way they run into several other “monsters” such as Nessie, a couple of huge lizards and a freaking T-Rex.
Eventually, Jack manages to save Ann with the help of an unwitting pterodactyl and they get back to the surviving crew members. However, Kong is quite smitten with Ann and not ready to let her go, so he follows them to the village where he eats (well, chews) a few villagers before Denham gas bombs him and transports him to New York. Because that seems like an excellent idea.
Then, on opening night, a whole Young Frankenstein-thing happens with the flash photography of the reporters and Kong is on the loose. He finds Ann and climbs the Empire State Building with her for the climactic and iconic final scene of the film.
This film is another old favourite and we still love it. Sure, the effects might seem a little bit dated, but they are still impressive and it’s a lot of fun trying to figure out how each shot was done. (Yes, we’re aware that there are probably hundreds of articles and documentaries on exactly how each shot in King Kong was done, but it’s much more fun to try and analyze it yourself with limited knowledge of film making.) We heartily recommend it!
What we learned: it was Beauty killed the Beast. Also, buy a girl an apple and a cup of coffee and she’ll be in your film, no questions asked.
“We’re in the Money,” a big Broadway number, is in rehearsal when creditors come and repossess the props, costumes and pretty much everything but the girls themselves. This is the ironic opening of yet another fabulous Busby Berkeley musical.
Yet again, the plot revolves around Broadway productions and in this one, the producer has everything he needs to put on a great show, except money. He visits the apartment of three showgirls (the titular “gold diggers”) to discuss the prospects with them and hears a composer playing the piano through an open window. The composer, Brad (Powell), is the sweetheart of one of the showgirls, Polly (Keeler), and he offers to put up $15 000 for the production on the condition that Polly gets a leading role. He himself is hired as a composer but refuses to be a stage performer.
Complications arise, and as Brad is forced to perform on opening night his real identity as a member of a prominent Boston family is revealed. As his older brother J. Lawrence Bradford (William) learns of his activities and his intentions to marry a showgirl, he interferes and threatens to cut him off from his inheritance if he does not leave her. However, when the brother goes to Polly’s apartment to buy her off, he meets fellow dancer Carol (Blondell) instead and mistakes her for Polly. After he thoroughly insults her and third flatmate Trixie (MacMahon), as well as their careers, they decide to take him and his lawyer for a ride.
The two girls take the men out, tricking them into paying for all sorts of extravagant things along the way. Naturally, they do a Pride and Prejudice (1813), and Bradford falls for Carol despite her “low breeding” and unseemly profession.
After the happy ending is resolved (with no less than three weddings, in proper Shakespearean fashion) the big musical numbers hit the stage. And my god, what numbers! “The Shadow Waltz” features glow-in-the-dark violins and some truly remarkable skirts and is amazing to watch.
However, the true showstopper is the spectacular “Remember my Forgotten Man” which completely blew us away. If you have no interest in musicals and no intention of watching this film, then at least do yourself a favour and check out this number. You won’t be sorry.
We reiterate: we cannot put into words our newfound love of Busby Berkeley, and we cannot believe it took us this long to find out about him. Thank you, Mr Wright!
Chester Kent (Cagney) is a musical director who is quickly becoming obsolete with the rising popularity of talkies. In addition, his wife wants a divorce, but this doesn’t seem to faze him significantly.
He changes his business venture into producing musical “prologues” for movies, dealing with creative exhaustion, corrupt business partners, rival spies and romantic complication along the way. When secretary Nan’s (Blondell) old frenemy Vivian decides to crash at her place, Kent is duped by her perceived worldliness into giving her a job and a marriage proposal, much to the chagrin of Nan who is deeply in love with her boss.
In order to save the business, Kent and his company need to wow cinema mogul Apolinaris with three spectacular shows to play in all his cinemas, but a rival company has infiltrated the chorus and all their ideas are being stolen. It’s pretty much Bring It On (2000) with better costumes and more sensational routines.
In addition to the main story, there’s a sub-plot romance between secretary-cum-leading lady Bea (Keeler) and juvenile lead Scotty (Powell) which is very sweet, but not that important to the overall plot.
In the end, we are treated to three fantastic Berkeley numbers: “Honeymoon Hotel,” with lots of innuendo; “By a Waterfall,” which features some amazing water scenes; and our personal favourite (mainly for the music) “Shanghai Lil,” in which Cagney himself stars.
Like 42nd Street, you can watch this for the story and performances (which we personally thought were slightly better in Footlight Parade), the banter and jokes, or just for the truly spectacular dance numbers. Either way, they should both definitely go on your to-do list. We’re off to watch Gold Diggers of 1933, and we can’t wait!
What we learned: As long as there are sidewalks, we have a job.