Sunday, August 27, 2023

Painted Faces


Painted Faced
Directed by
Albert S. Rogell
Written by Frances Hyland (story), Frederic and Fanny Hatton (dialogue)
Starring Joe E. Brown, Helen Foster, Barton Hepburn, Dorothy Gulliver, Lester Cole
IMDB Entry

Joe E. Brown was one of the biggest names of film comedy in the 1930s.* But his type of comedy went out of style and his films forgotten. Nowadays, the casual movie fan only knows him as Osgood Fielding in Some Like It Hot, speaking the classic line, "Nobody's perfect."  I decided to check out what his films were like and picked Painted Faces, knowing nothing about it. 

It is a real gem.

Buddy Barton (Barton Hepburn) and Babe Barnes (Dorothy Gulliver) are vaudeville partners, but Babe is harassed by Roderick (Lester Cole).** Buddy threatens to take care of him and -- you guessed it -- during a performance there is a shot and Roderick is dead, with Buddy holding a gun. He is quickly charged with murder, even though he insists he's innocent.***

After the trial, the jury retires to come to a verdict. Eleven of the jurors say guilty, but one -- Hermann (Joe E. Brown) -- keeps voting "not guilty." He refuses to change, saying only he thinks that Buddy is innocent and doesn't want him to go to the chair.  Nothing can dissuade him. As the days drag on and Christmas approaches, Hermann finally explains. He was a circus clown, a father figure to Nancy (Helen Foster) and knew Roderick.  There was a good reason why he knew Buddy wasn't the killer.

Brown is surprisingly good. Speaking with a comic accent,*** he seems somewhat simple, but he knows what's going on. His comedy in the movie is mostly physical and outside of the story -- he gives a demonstration of his circus act to the courtroom and it's shown in flashbacks.***** But he also manages some great pathos and drama throughout.

Lester Cole is a great cad. He had a short career, usually as a singer. But here he's despicable yet charming. Helen Foster is great as the naive young woman. Barton Hepburn and Dorothy Gulliver vanish from the movie once the scene shifts to the jury room.

Director Albert S. Rogell worked regularly, but didn't produce anything of note, other than the first movie version of L'il Abner, which flopped.

One interesting thing is that the songs are woven naturally into the plot. In a time when movies were "all singing, all dancing," there are no production numbers, but the handful of songs are all performed on stage or in contexts where people would naturally be singing. Another amusing theme is their visit to a Chinese restaurant, where Herman has no idea of what "chow mein" is.

The story seems to be hugely inspired by Vincent Starrett's story, "The Eleventh Juror," which came out two years before. Modern viewers would see parallels to Twelve Angry Men. Overall, the film is surprisingly good and touching, especially the ending.

*He was often caricatured in cartoons, a sure sign he was a household name of the time.

**Roderick is undeniably a sexual predator, showing that "me too" existed long before it became a movement.

***They vanish from the movie until the final scene.

****They call him "Dutch," but it doesn't sound like Dutch to me.

*****He was a circus acrobat before going into movies.

Sunday, August 20, 2023

Trouble in Paradise

Trouble in Paradise

Directed by
Ernst Lubitsch
Written by Samson Raphaelson, Grover Jones, from a play by László Aladár
Starring Herbert Marshall, Kay Francis, Miriam Hopkins, Charles Ruggles, Edward Everett Horton, C. Aubrey Smith
IMDB Entry

The Motion Picture Production Code put a damper on what could be portrayed in movies for almost 35 years. Adult subjects were taboo. Even worse, the hint of anything resembling an adult subject (primarily sex) was not allowed. This was a shame, since it was possible to handle the subject in ways that were subtle. A prime example of this is Ernst Lubitsch's Trouble in Paradise.

It starts in Venice, where the master thief Gaston Monescu (Herbert Marshall) is the target of pickpocket Lily (Miriam Hopkins). Both quickly realize the other's game in a scene where they steal the other one's things, culminating in Gaston stealing Lily's panties.  The two fall in love. They move to Paris to swindle Madame Mariette Colet (Kay Francis), owner of a major perfume manufacturer. Gaston steals her diamond-encrusted purse but, realizing the reward for it is more than what he would get from selling it, he returns it to her, and sets himself up as her secretary and runs her business interests, arousing suspicion from the head of her board of directors, Adolph Giron (C. Aubrey Smith).  He convinces her to keep a large sum of money in her safe, which he learns the combination to. Lily suspects that they are getting far too romantically involved. Things get complicated when the Major (Charles Ruggles) and Francois Filiba (Edward Everett Horton), who were both swindled by Gaston in Venice, slowly begin to catch on to his identity.

Lubitsch clearly shows a sexual relationship between Gaston and Mariette, with her spending one night in his room. But it's done so deftly that it would barely be PG rated today. This was the origin of the "Lubitsch touch," where such things are handled with delicacy, but where the smart viewer will understand what's happening.

Herbert Marshall had a long career as an actor and leading man despite losing a leg in World War I. Miriam Hopkins is delightful, especially in her scenes with Marshall. Kay Francis was a big star of the era, but seems to have been forgotten.*

Once the Hays office took over censoring, the movie was deemed unacceptable, and was not shown for over 50 years.


*She had a minor speech impediment, pronouncing "r" as "w" and thus referred to as "Kay Fwancis." You can hear it in her pronunciation of "very," but it never reaches Elmer Fudd levels.

Sunday, August 13, 2023

The Unholy Three

The Unholy Three (1925)

Directed by
Tod Browning
Written by Waldermar Young, from a novel by Tod Robbins
Starring Lon Chaney, Victor McLaghlen, Harry Earles, Mae Busch, Matt Moore
IMDB Entry  

The Unholy Three


Directed by Jack Conway
Written by J.C. Nugent, Elliot Nugent, from a novel by Tod Robbins 
Starring Lon Chaney, Harry Earles, Eliot Nugent, Lila Lee, Ivan Linow

IMDB Entry

In the early days of sound films, occasionally someone would remake an existing sound film as a talkie. The Unholy Three is an interesting example of this, since it was made with some of the original cast and also was the only sound film Lon Chaney made before his early death.

In the original version, Echo (Lon Chaney) is a ventriloquist in a sideshow act. When the show is shut down, he comes up with a scheme with the strongman Hercules (Victor McLaghlen), the midget Tweedledee (Harry Earles), and the pickpocket Rosie (Mae Busch) to steal. Echo dresses in drag as Mrs. O'Malley, the owner of a pet shop. Mrs. O'Malley sells parrots with impressive talking abilities, but they don't talk while taken home. Mrs. O'Malley comes with her infant grandson -- Tweedledee in disguise -- who cases the place as he uses his ventriloquism to make the parrot talk. Later, the two are joined by Hercules to steal whatever they can find.*  Rosie runs the shop, along with Hector (Matt Moore), who knows nothing about the enterprise but who was hired to be a patsy if things went wrong. Despite herself, Rosie falls in love with Hector.

Of course, things go wrong. Echo calls off a job, but Tweedledee and Hercules go anyway, killing the homeowner. The cops start looking into the shop. They frame Hector, but Rosie tries to stop them.

The sound version follows the plot exactly, but to lesser effect. Chaney and Earles reprise their roles, with Lila Lee as Rosie, Ivan Linow as Hercules, and Elliott Nugent, who also had writing credit, as Hector, The difference is the change of director. Tod Browning had a flair for the macabre and certainly liked to portray sideshows and midgets. Jack Conway was workmanlike studio director with little flair.

One interesting difference was the part of Echo's pet gorilla.** In the sound version, it was portrayed by a man in a gorilla suit, but Browning used a chimpanzee and undersized props.  On the other hand, the sound version has Mrs. O'Grady accidentally speaking in Echo's voice, giving away her ruse, something that you couldn't do in a silent film. Also, the characterization of Echo at the end is softened a bit in the sound film, but it does make more sense.

Browning, who started out as an assistant to D.W. Griffith, went on to direct the Bela Lugosi Dracula, but his film after that, Freaks, was both a scandal and a flop and his career petered out. The most successful actor in the cast was Victor McLaghlen, who appeared in many John Ford films and who won an Oscar for The Informer.

*Echo calls the plan "simple," but it is anything but.

**I told you things were complex.

Sunday, August 6, 2023

The Unknown

The Unknown

Directed by
Tod Browning
Written by Waldermar Young (screenplay), Joseph Farnham (titles)
Starring Lon Chaney, Norman Kerry, Joan Crawford, Nick de Ruiz, John George
IMDB Entry

Posterity isn't fair. Lon Chaney was considered one of the greatest actors of the silent era, but he's now been reduced to one image -- the reveal of his face as the Phantom of the Opera. His son, Lon Chaney, Jr.* is even more of a film icon for his portrayal of the Wolf Man, and his appearance in dozens of horror films of the 1940s. He is not comparable to his father in acting ability, but the odds are that he's more familiar. But Lon Chaney, though he loved to play grotesque characters, shows off some amazing acting chops, and none better than in The Unknown.

Alonzo the Armless (Chaney) is a knife thrower in the circus, tossing the blades with his feet to his assistant Nanon (Joan Crawford). But Alonzo isn't actually armless: he binds his arms so that he seems so and to hide his identity, since he's a criminal with a strange double thumb on one hand. The circus strongman Malabar (Norman Kerry) is in love with Nanon, but she doesn't reciprocate and confides in Alonzo that she cannot stand a man's hands touching her. Later, Nanon's father, the circus owner (Nick De Ruiz), discovers Alonzo's secret. Alonzo strangles him, witnessed by Nanon, who doesn't see his face, but sees the double thumb. So Alonzo decides to take drastic measures to solve the problem.

Cheney and Crawford

The story is more than a little bit melodramatic, but Chaney is excellent.** He acts with his face, showing the emotions going through him clearly and fairly naturalistically.*** Alonzo's is not in any way a monster, and evokes our sympathy easily so that his final tragedy is quite affecting.

Most people think of Joan Crawford in the Mommy Dearest image, but forget she got started as an ingenue. She makes an appealing love interest and later said that she learned more from Cheney about acting than from anywhere else. Of note is John George as Alonzo's friend and confidant:  he had a long career as a bit player, often uncredited****

Chaney received raves for the part, as did director Tod Browning, who later directed the Bela Lugosi Dracula and the classic horror film, Freaks. But, unfortunately, Cheney died in 1930 from a combination of lung cancer and an infection caused when some artificial snow lodged in his throat. He only made one sound film, and his career has taken a back seat to his son's. Nowadays, if you hear his name, you usually think of Junior, but the original is still a fine example of acting.


*Born Creighton Chaney

**He's far less sinister than he appears in the movie poster. 

***Given the constraints of silent film.

****Interestingly, he was an extra in The Man of a Thousand Faces, Chaney's film biography.