Sunday, September 24, 2023

I Cover the Waterfront


I Cover the Waterfront
Directed by
James Cruze
Written by Wells Root, from a novel by Max Miller. Additional dialog by Jack Jevne
Starring Ben Lyon, Claudette Colbert, Ernest Torrence, Hobard Cavanaugh
IMDB Entry

Ben Lyon is pretty much forgotten today, but he was a busy leading man in the 1930s, appearing in over 30 films during that decade. He usually played a bland but likeable hero, and I Cover the Waterfront seems to be a typical example of his work.

Joe Miller (Ben Lyon) is a reporter working the waterfront beat. He finds it dull, as he explains to his friend McCoy (Hobart Cavanaugh). He gets a report that a woman is swimming naked and goes to check it out. He finds Julie Kirk (Claudette Colbert), who is the daughter of Eli Kirk (Ernest Torrence), who Joe suspects of being up to shady deals -- like smuggling Chinese into the country.*

Joe decides to romance Julie to find out what her father is doing. But Eli keeps his unsavory side secret from her, and Joe begins to fall in love with her for real. 

You can see why Lyon is not remembered. He's not bad, but there is nothing about him that stands out, and the fact that he was never in a classic movie didn't help modern audiences to see his work. On the other hand, Claudette Colbert became a major Hollywood star and brought a strong presence to her role.

The character of Eli Kirk is an interesting one. He shows compassion for the Chinese he is smuggling into the country but throws the same man overboard to drown when he needs to get rid of the evidence. It's a mixture of thoughtfulness and cruelty which makes it easy to understand why Julic believes he had done nothing wrong.  He does show cocompassioned for his daughter and for Joe in the end.

James Cruze was a successful director from the silent days, including movies with Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle and Wallace Reid.** 

*History lesson -- this was during the time of the Chinese Exclusion Acts, which limited and even banned Chinese from entering the US.

**Reid is best known for his death due to morphine addiction, which brought the issue to the general public.

Sunday, September 17, 2023



Directed by
Leo McCarey
Written by Buddy DeSylva, Lew Brown, Ray Henderson, Leo McCarey
Starring Gloria Swanson, Ben Lyon, Monroe Owsley, Barbara Kent, Arthur Kent, Maude Eburne
IMDB Entry

One thing about pre-code movies is their attitudes. Yes, they were willing to include sexual innuendo, but there were still attitudes that seem very old fashioned today. Indiscreet is based on a situation that was far less common these days than it was in 1931.

It starts where Gerry Trent (Gloria Swanson) is breaking up with her boyfriend Jim (Monroe Owsley) since he'd been seeing other women.* Some time later, she meets Tony Blake (Ben Lyon) author of the book Obey that Impulse. Tony practices what he preaches and asks her to marry him as soon as they meet. She falls in love but her aunt Kate (Maude Eburn) insists she tell him about Jim. Eventually she does, but Tony insists she not go into details or ever mention the man's name.

Jim returns from Europe, but now engaged to Gerry's sister Joan. Gerry warns Jim to stay away, but he refuses. He invites her to a house party, and, since Tony is away on business, she accepts. But Tony arrives early and goes to the party.

Of course, misunderstandings are rife.  Gerry decides to pretend to still love Jim, and have Joan see them together. Tony sees it, too, and goes to take a boat to France.

The movie is an odd mixture of comedy and drama. The ending is amusing as Gerry tries to board the boat without a ticket.

What is interesting are the attitudes. The fact that Gerry was engaged to Jim is considered a big enough scandal for it to be a major plot point. But it's not quite a double standard -- Tony hints that he may have been with other women, too. 

The ending is very dated. Gerry and Tony both get on the boat and he offers to pay her ticket. But there are no free cabins. He says she can be in his. Scandal! It's all fixed when they ask the captain to marry them so they can share quarters.** 

Gloria Swanson handles both the silliness and seriousness well. In certain scenes, you can see her silent-film-style acting, but overall, she handles the switch to talkies just fine. Her career had ups and downs after this but she was superb as Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard.

Director Leo McCarey is known for his comedies, including helming Duck Soup, The Awful Truth, and Going My Way. Writers Desylva, Brown, and Henderson were a strong songwriting team, with hits like "The Best Things in Life are Free," "California Here I Come," and "Button Up Your Overcoat."


*One nice gag is just after she sends him off, she calls him back. No, it's not a change of mind -- she just wants him to take his golf clubs with him. 

**Of course, captains can't perform marriages, but this was a standard trope in old movies.

Sunday, September 3, 2023

Wonder Bar


Wonder Bar
Directed by
Lloyd Bacon
Written by Earl Baldwin, from a play by Geza Herczeg, Karl Farkas, and Robert Katscher
Starring Al Jolson, Kay Francis, Dolores Del Rio, Ricardo Cortez, Dick Powell, Guy Kibbee, Hugh Herbert, Ruth Donnelly, Louise Fazenda, Robert Barrat
IMDb Entry

Pre-code movies had exceptional freedom that vanished for over 30 years, but sometimes freedom can be problematic in the extreme. Despite its cast, and choreography by the great Busby Berkeley, Wonder Bar is not often shown -- and for good reason.

The movie is set in the Wonder Bar in Paris, run by Al Wonder (Al Jolson) and revolves around pairs of lovers. Al has a crush on Inez (Dolores del Reo), a featured dancer, who has an unrequited crush on her partner Harry (Richardo Cortez). Harry is in love with the married Liane Renard (Kay Francis). Captain Hugo Von Ferring is also at the bar, having one last fling before committing suicide after he lost all his money. There is also a comic subplot of Corby Pratt (Hugh Herbert) from Schenectady, who is visiting Paris with his wife Pansy (Louise Fazenda) and their friends Henry Simpson (Guy Kibbee) and Ella (Ruth Donnelly).*

The movie nicely intertwines the stories, with Wonder acting as master of ceremonies, and Tommy (Dick Powell) the featured singer of Busby Berkeley classic choreography of Harry Warren and Al Dubin's "Don't Say Goodnight." 

But there's another Busby Berkeley song that you rarely hear or see. When I watched it, my reaction was similar to the audience in The Producers when they first saw "Springtime for Hitler." It's appalling.

The song is "Going to Heaven on a Mule." Now, it's not surprising that Jolson is doing a blackface number -- he was famous for it. In this one, he sings about heaven. And heaven is portrayed with just about every offensive racial stereotype imaginable.**

I'm surprised it flew even back in 1934. And it would be difficult to cut it out, since it's the big finish number of the movie. I'm guessing it's just too much of an embarrassment, so the movie was rarely replayed on TV.

The movie makes light of suicide, too -- something not uncommon of the era. It also lets someone get away with murder and portrays a version of the Apache dance,*** only with a whip(!),

There are other things that do show that pre-code had its advantages. One well-reported scene is when a man asks to cut in with a dancing couple, but chooses the man instead of the woman, with Jolson quipping, "Boys will be boys." Mrs. Simpson and Mrs. Pratt let themselves be seduced by gigolos and their husbands hook up with chorus girls,**** There are also sly bawdy references sprinkled throughout.

This isn't a movie I could recommend, but if you want to see just how awful things could be, it's a prime example.


*Which comes up with a hilarious bit of geographical nonsense if you know the Schenectady area.  When first seeing the Wonder Bar, she says,  "This place doesn't compare to the Bijou Theater in West Schenectady." Of course, this is there to show how provincial the two couples are, but there is no West Schenectady. The area to the immediate west of the city center is the GE plant.  Oddly, the South Schenectady Fire Department is west of the city.

**There's even a hint of antisemitism as a bonus.

***There was an inexplicable fad for these in the 20s and 30s (and beyond -- it even shows up on The Muppet Show, on the insistence of guest star Rita Moreno), where a man would toss around and slap his dance partner.

***If that's what they're really supposed to be.