Take a Chance (1933)
Extremely patchy comedy musical with some wobbly numbers redeemed by Cliff “Ukulele Ike” Edwards’ star turn and James Dunn’s decent comedy chops. Lillian Roth, who can be quite good (as in Ladies They Talk About) or absolutely maddening (as in her “see-yoo-ee-cide” bit in Animal Crackers) manages to be barely tolerable, although at least one of her musical numbers (the bluesy “Eadie Was a Lady”) drags on interminably. On the other hand, it does have what I believe is the first screen performance of ‘It’s Only a Paper Moon’, although the performance is a bit limp and it’s crammed into a weird medley illustrated by an even weirder fantasy dance sequence. And speaking of dance sequences, the people at Parmount who released this film are to be congratulated, if not awarded some kind of international peace prize, for having the wisdom to cut short the appalling ‘New Deal Rhythm’, the full horror of which is only evident in the TCM broadcast which appends the whole number as a kind of ‘extra feature’, in the sense that gingivitis is an ‘extra feature’ of teeth.
'Take a Chance' is not available on DVD, although it shows up from time to time on TCM. Recommended for fans of Cliff Edwards, or for people who, like me, are much too indulgent of 1930s films and almost completely undemanding as long as there's a few good gags and one decent song.
9:19 pm • 2 March 2014 • 1 note
Parlor, Bedroom and Bath (1931)
“Parlor, Bedroom and Bath was based on a play by Canadian criminal lawyer and later member of Parliament Charles William Bell, and Mark Swan. It opened on Broadway on Christmas Eve 1917 and ran for 232 performances. It had been filmed once before, in 1920. A typical farce of its day, featuring mixed-up couplings and romantic misunderstandings, it now seems an amusing cultural artifact from early twentieth-century theater, but hardly a vehicle for the particular talents of Buster Keaton. Yet that is the property M-G-M placed him in after the promising Doughboys (1930).
Parlor, Bedroom and Bath starts out like the typical farce it is: a younger sister is unable to marry her lover until her older sister marries first, so finding a beau for the older sister becomes the young couple’s cause. Naturally, Keaton becomes the target beau, named Reginald, a sign tacker who puts signs on posts (the job description is elevated to “advertising business” by his boosters). Reginald’s experience with women is limited to having once been a vacuum cleaner salesman, but to increase his desirability a phony reputation is concocted for him. When women respond, Reginald has no idea how to react. The first bit of slapstick occurs soon after Keaton appears on screen. Reginald is nailing a billboard to a post just outside the grounds of an estate, and while getting a glimpse of how the better half lives, he becomes smitten with a pretty girl on a diving board. Distracted, he walks in front of a moving roadster and gets hit dead-on, flying up and doing a major pratfall. The stunt is notable for two reasons. First is the fall. Keaton kicks up his legs and lands flat and hard—a dazzling stunt that would have fit perfectly in any of his silent films, but especially welcome in these talkative talkies. Second is the editing. There is a shot of the speeding car, then the edit of Keaton’s fall. Keaton obviously performed the fall in front of a still car, and the editing process, whether it was under Keaton’s own supervision or that of director Edward Sedgwick, makes the scene work perfectly. “
- From The Fall of Buster Keaton: His Films for M-G-M, Educational Pictures, and Columbia by James L. Neibaur
As the title of the above book suggests, there’s a general assumption shared by film historians and fans alike that Buster Keaton’s talkies were a disastrous failure on his part, either because of the villainous mediocrity of the hacks at MGM, or because of Keaton’s own alcoholic decline. Balls, I say.
It’s true that MGM didn’t give Keaton the kind of directorial authority he would have liked, and it’s certainly true that they didn’t exactly strain every nerve to knock up some quality material for their new star. However, the Buster Keaton of Doughboys or Parlor, Bedroom and Bath, or of Speak Easily (1932), is still recognisably and enjoyably Buster Keaton, and not the crushed, drunk, depressed, compromised failure of, for instance, Kevin Brownlow’s So Funny it Hurt: Buster Keaton & MGM (2004), which ends with a recording of an elderly Buster singing ‘They Always Pick on Me’ played over a slowed-down clip of Keaton as a blank-faced marionette bouncing around on strings from the end of Free and Easy (1930). Ignoring the tastelessness and utter lack of subtlety, the idea this sequence is supposed to communicate - that Keaton was miserable, broken, and a shadow of his former self as a consequence of his treatment at the hands of the scoundrels at MGM - is just not tenable.
The talkies were always going to be tough for Keaton. I remember the first time I heard his voice (probably in Speak Easily, which used to show up from time to time on BBC2), I was surprised and probably disappointed. Such an elfin, unworldly, feather-light little man, and yet such a bullfrog of a voice! By all rights he should have sounded like Cliff Edwards, all dainty, songful trills, not a deep, lived-in croak. So there’s that. And don’t forget, the supposedly great Chaplin practically disappeared once the talkies came in, apart from the massively overrated Modern Times (I don’t know the year and I don’t care to look it up), which is practically a silent film anyway, and his two utterly rotten sound films. After some decent talkies, Harold Lloyd put himself in the hands of a genius - Preston Sturges - and the result was The Sin of Harold Diddlebock (1947), the least said about which, the better.
The whole notion of Buster’s career being the victim of MGM’s corporate banality satisfies a particular sense of ‘purity’ on the part of some fans and historians. A double sense, really: the end of the silent era is looked upon not merely as a consequence of technological innovation and popular demand, but as a kind of fall from grace, from art to commerce, and from beauty to schlock. There are, I’m sure, people who take Norma Desmond’s “we had faces then” speech quite seriously. And then you have that bête noireof film students and enthusiasts since - at least - the sixties, that is: the studio system. Despite everything that the studio system had produced (namely, practically every film you could reasonably want to watch), some people seem to feel the need to blame it for mediocrity - real and imagined - seeping into the film industry somewhere in the 1950s. This is despite the fact that the 1950s is lousy with films about big studios making big stupid films for big stupid audiences (starting, I imagine, with The Bad and the Beautiful (1952)), films, I need hardly add, much beloved by big stupid audiences, delighted to have their intelligence and taste overestimated for a couple of hours, while still managing to enjoy the kind of jaw-clenching and eyelash-batting histrionics supposedly under satirical consideration.
Anyway, Buster Keaton. Buster Keaton was a funny man, and, I think, a genius. The idea that he’s somehow not worth watching in his MGM films, or indeed, that to watch his MGM films is somehow to contribute to the defamation of Keaton’s legacy, is utter madness. He clearly put a lot of effort into practically everything he ever did, and if it’s true he never again made a film as great as The General (1926), it’s also true that he never made a film as painful as Laurel and Hardy’s Atoll K/Utopia (1951) or Chaplin’s vomitous A King in New York (whatever year that was.)
Parlor, Bedroom and Bath is not only not awful, it is positively a good film, with some energetic farce, and a cracker performance by Keaton which would be no less an accomplishment even if it lacked the few great slapstick moments it provides. Obviously it suffers somewhat when Keaton isn’t onscreen, but despite the objections of the nay-sayers and the professional churls, he’s a funny man deep down in his marrow, and he doesn’t have to be narrowly avoiding death or serious injury to get a laugh.
Parlor, Bedroom and Bath is available from the wizards at Warner Archive, who despite making a point of declaring that they haven’t remastered it, have clearly treated the project with respect and sourced the very best print available, which looks fantastic even when you don’t have the dark, muddy, contrasty public domain releases to compare it to. It comes in the Buster Keaton at MGM Triple Feature two-disc set along with Speak Easily and The Passionate Plumber (1932).
2:00 am • 8 January 2014 • 65 notes
Dancing Sweeties (1930)
"The plot of Dancing Sweeties, a musical in which a young couple meet in a dance contest, marry, divorce when the ambitious husband realises that his wife is unable to learn new, more intricate dance steps, but are reunited at the end, was more original than many current screen romances but failed to realise its potential in Gordon Righy and and Joseph Jackson’s under-developed screenplay. Showing little confidence in the material, director Ray Enright resorted to cliches. Grant Withers was passable as the husband, though Sue Carol as his wife made little impact. Also cast were Edna Murphy, Tully Marshall, Eddie Phillips, Kate Price and Ada Mae Brougham. Songs included: Wishing and Waiting for Love (by Grant Clarke and Harry Askt), Hullabaloo (by Bobby Dolan and Walter O’Keefe), I Love You, I Hate You (by Al Bryan and Joseph Meyer) and The Kiss Waltz (by Al Dubin and Joe Burke). Another song, Dancing With Tears in My Eyes, was removed from the final print, but nonetheless went on to become a big hit.”
- From The Warner Bros. Story by Clive Hirschhorn.
Fans of sweeties and/or dancing can get hold of this fun flapperfest from the Warner Archives online store, where you can buy it as burn-on-demand DVD.
8:21 pm • 7 January 2014 • 27 notes
Adventures in Africa (AKA Bright Lights, 1930)
"Dorothy Mackaill gave a good account of herself doing the Hula in Bright Lights, a Technicolor musical with a backstage setting, but there was little else to admire in Humphrey Pearson’s screenplay, which also gave employment to Noah Beery (as a villain). The story of an actress who forsakes the footlights for marital respectability, but finds all sorts of obstacles in the way of her happiness, it featured Frank Fay, Inez Courtney, Eddie Nugent, Edmund Breese, Daphne Pollard and Frank McHugh (irritating as a drunken reporter). The film was directed by Michael Curtiz with Robert North supervising, ad the musical numbers were staged by Larry Ceballos. Songs included: Nobody Cares if I’m Blue, I’m Crazy For Cannibal Love[!], Chinatown, Song of the Congo, and You’re a Eyeful of Heaven.”
- From The Warner Bros. Story by Clive Hirschhorn
Reluctant as I am to contradict Hirschhorn in one of his rare good moods, I really didn’t like this film. Specifically, I didn’t like Dorothy Mackaill’s performance, which was hammy in the extreme: the eye-rolling, hands-on-hips, stagey sarcasm and forced lightheartedness she adopts for much of the film is absolutely maddening. It serves a purpose, of course - we’re supposed to know that she isn’t really as shallow, ambitious and glib as she’s pretending to be, but she lays it on so thick that she’s unconvincing at being unconvincing, which wears on the nerves like the sound of a long wavy line slowly being drawn on a chalkboard. Frank Fay is a decent actor and a reasonably good singer, but he comes across as an unconvincing love interest for Dorothy’s character, partly because he seems too paternal to be (non-creepily) romantic, and partly because his performance has, frankly, a touch of the Liberace about it, not helped by the kind of bizarre make-up he had to wear (because it was shot in a two-colour strip process). In fact, it’s hard to discern what kind of performer Fay is supposed to be in this film; the closest thing I can compare his schtick to is a kind of half-hearted, slightly camp, Ted “Is Everybody Happy” Lewis.
On the plus side, Mackaill is a decent hoofer (unsurprisingly, given her Broadway experience) and a not-too shabby singer, although the dance choreography is weak, with far too much crouching and gorilla-like arm-waving in Dorothy’s solo numbers. The larger-scale Busby Berkley-esque numbers are impressive without ever being really memorable, and a final big number with all the cast on stage would have been a nice way to end, rather than the gradual petering out that stands in place of a climax.
Fortunately for the audience, whose attention has probably flagged several times, (possibly perking up only at the few flashes of pre-code titillation,) the slapdash mish-mash of backstage ballyhoo recedes somewhat into the background when, at around the 40-minute mark (or about ten minutes after restless boredom has set in), things pick up considerably with a lovely murder and subsequent cover-up. A few perversions of justice, phony alibis and nice perjuries later, and love conquers all, loose ends are tied up, and the curtain falls on a contented cast before the corpse has had a chance to stiffen.
Adventures in Africa is currently available from Warner Archives who, fortunately, have packaged it with the much superior The Reckless Hour (1931, reviewed here), on a double-feature burn-to-order DVD.
11:41 pm • 2 January 2014 • 19 notes