Fritz Lang’s last film in Germany is this reprise of his silent film character, a venerable archetype of the genre (a mad scientist locked up for his criminal mastermindery). This film takes the character and creates a mystery thriller with another mad scientist who appears to have been possessed by the spirit of Dr Mabuse, inspired by Mabuse’s detailed writings into committing a series of heists and crimes. There’s a lot of gripping cross-cutting, and some genuinely thrilling scenes as characters look like they’re done for, many of which have been reprised in subsequent cinema history. It’s a top jaunt, and good fun too. Of course, there’s also a subtext about Nazis there if you want to find it (it may have been too early to be specifically about the rise of Hitler, but it’s certainly premonitory and presumably tapped into the stirrings within contemporary German society).
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection Director Fritz Lang | Writers Thea von Harbou and Fritz Lang | Cinematographers Karl Vash and Fritz Arno Wagner | Starring Rudolf Klein-Rogge, Otto Wernicke | Length 124 minutes || Seen at Paramount, Wellington, Thursday 25 June 1998 (and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 21 October 2018)
Having released his 1940 film The Bank Dick, Criterion followed it up with six of W.C. Fields’ short films, largely spanning the beginning of the sound era (1930-1933) though with one from 1915. He may be younger in 1915’s Pool Sharks, but he still has his comic persona largely intact, albeit with the inclusion of a particularly ridiculous moustache halfway up his nose. The film is also enlivened by stop-motion animated pool table sequences which present some of the most incredulous pool playing one could hope for, making it at least passably amusing. Less successful for me are The Golf Specialist (1930) and The Barber Shop (1933), which largely coast by on very slight comic premises — the former involving a con artist who tries at length to show a lady how to play golf but is constantly interrupted, and the latter involving an inept barber in a small town with a shrewish wife — though the former does at least feature a comedically delightful list of charges upon which the character is arrested. Appearing to have largely the same set as The Barber Shop is the same year’s The Pharmacist, with Fields this time playing a small town pharmacist, who again has a difficult wife and family, but is trying his best to keep his shop going. The Dentist (1932) also features a straightforwardly descriptive title for Field’s character, but here he exhibits even more rancour than usual in dealing with his various customers’ complaints, leading to a prolonged tooth-pulling scene which at least is as funny as it is difficult to watch. The pick of the bunch for me, though, is The Fatal Glass of Beer (1933, directed by Clyde Bruckman, a veteran of a number of Buster Keaton films). It’s a very odd little film with a period wilderness setting, in which all the actors’ performances seem pushed to the edge of deadpan blankness that seems strange initially but which sticks in my mind afterwards, giving the whole enterprise an oddly oneiric quality. For fans of W.C. Fields’s comic persona, there’s plenty in all the films to like, with annoying kids and some slightly off-colour jokes, but also lots of knockabout physical comedy. There’s also a consistent line in abrupt endings, one presumes for comic effect, though some are more satisfying than others.
Criterion Extras: Like the earlier Fields release, this is an absolutely bare-bones package, with nary even a trailer.
A lot of the more prominent films that Hollywood made at the outset of the sound era, before the enforcement of the Production Code, dealt with such outré topics as sexuality and violence. These are the ones that still grab the column inches, whether it’s the amoral bloodshed of Scarface (1932) or the sexual liberation of Baby Face (1933). However, Gabriel Over the White House manages to be an equally outrageous film without any of these more saleable elements, but instead uses the allure of autocracy to transform its vision of America. In his Roosevelt-like reforming zeal, the President played here by Walter Huston looks brazenly towards dictatorship to push through the necessary reforms following years of Depression. It’s the kind of plot outline that reads like satire, but presented here as divine inspiration (hence the title), the film seems totally onboard with the proposed ideas, as the President bypasses Congress to push through his bold measures. That said, it’s a patchy piece of filmmaking and modern audiences will struggle to take it as seriously as the filmmakers, but then we have the benefit of hindsight.
SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW Director Gregory La Cava | Writer Carey Wilson (based on the novel Rinehard by Thomas Frederic Tweed) | Cinematographer Bert Glennon | Starring Walter Huston, Karen Morley, Franchot Tone | Length 86 minutes || Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Friday 23 May 2014
This so-called ‘pre-Code’ Hollywood film, part of a retrospective taking place here in London, is renowned for being one of the films which finally ensured the enforcement of the Production Code (which ruled against general licentiousness in the pictures). For its content, it’s a fascinating film: a compelling Barbara Stanwyck plays Lilly, who starts out as a barmaid at a suburban speakasy, forced from an early age by her tyrannical father to sell herself to her customers, though she is hardly passive around these drunken oafs seen swilling their beer. When her father dies in a fire at the bar, it’s her face that is framed in close-up, reacting utterly impassively to his death. She soon moves to the city with her black co-worker, prompted in part by the words of a local cobbler, the only man she admires, who quotes Nietzsche at her, exhorting her to do whatever she can to control men and help herself. Almost immediately, having hopped illegally onto a freight train, she is seen bargaining with a furious railroad worker, using sex to get what she wants. When the pair arrive in the city, she follows this pattern by literally sleeping her way to the top of a company, a vignette on each floor between her and a hapless male manager followed by the camera moving up the outside of the building to frame her next office conquest. It’s only when she reaches the boardroom (though sadly she’s never a board member, just the mistress of the President) that she encounters resistance from the founder’s playboy son, Courtland (George Brent). Yet while he sees through her ruse, this is hardly the end of her story. It’s tempting to just recount the plot blow by blow, for that’s where a lot of the film’s power to shock (at least, relative to the other films of the period) lies. Dramatically, it does rely rather extensively on Stanwyck’s performance, as stretches of it is constructed from a number of fairly repetitive scenes of office conquests, married men succumbing to her insistent charms. That said, Stanwyck is fantastic, and it’s great to see a film that largely withholds judgement from its predatory female star, though she does eventually succumb to romantic feelings towards Courtland.
SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW Director Alfred E. Green | Writers Gene Markey and Kathryn Scola (based on a story by Darryl F. Zanuck [as Mark Canfield]) | Cinematographer James Van Trees | Starring Barbara Stanwyck, George Brent | Length 76 minutes || Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Sunday 11 May 2014
I don’t profess to know too much about the so-called “pre-Code era” of Hollywood, though I have a book about it that I mean to read, especially urgent now that the BFI is doing a retrospective of many of these films. What I do know is that for a brief period between the start of the sound era and the enforcement of the Production Code in 1934 (a sort of voluntary self-censorship by the major studios), there was a brief flourishing of films with some rather darker and more adult themes and a view on life that didn’t always reinforce cultural prejudices or end happily for the ‘good guys’.
For Gold Diggers’ part, its place in this era comes not from any kind of boldly proto-feminist message — no surprise given the title, though its female leads are all strong-willed and get what they want, which certainly provides some small corrective — but in its bitterly sardonic take on its Depression-era setting. It’s big-budget escapism, sure, but it doesn’t try to efface just what tolls living in poverty sometimes took (even if the actresses’ shared apartment is rather swanky). The big closing number, “Remember My Forgotten Man”, is rousing and beautifully moving — though narratively, it feels like a quite different film — and shows First World War heroes reduced to beggars and bums. Elsewhere there are hints at prostitution being a option to make ends meet for some of the ‘gold diggers’ we see gathered around Broadway impresario Barney Hopkins, desperate for a part in his new show.
Three of those actresses are the leads here, and share an apartment. There’s Polly, the earnest one (Ruby Keeler), Carol the glamorous blonde (Joan Blondell), and Trixie the shrewdly self-interested comic actor (Aline MacMahon). The plot itself follows the putting-on-a-show narrative and throws in some love interests (or ‘gold digging’ interests, as far as Trixie is concerned at least), which all resolve themselves in comically perfunctory manner at the end, as uptight plutocrat Lawrence (Warren William) wrestles fairly snappily with his feelings towards Carol.
What really sets apart the film is of course the Busby Berkeley-choreographed musical numbers. I’ve mentioned the closing number already, while the opener (“We’re in the Money”) kicks things off in grand style, suggesting glamorous escapism from the country’s financial woes with Ginger Rogers singing directly into camera as dancing girls clad in costumes made of gold coins swirl around her, before making it clear the bitter irony when the cops show up midway through to close things down and take away all the costumes due to (what else?) lack of money. Most fascinating is “Pettin’ in the Park”, a weirdly surreal number that depicts a refreshingly broad cross-section of people in the aforesaid park, before introducing a dwarf playing a lecherous baby, and an iron corset-clad Polly having her clothes prised off with a tin opener. By comparison, the other big number (“The Shadow Waltz”) just seems like extra padding, though its chorus line wielding neon-lit violins certainly makes for an arresting image.
There’s so much going on in this film, it’s hard for me to find any particular moral coherence, but such is often the way with Hollywood’s spectacles. It offers a sardonic commentary on the tolls of the Depression and Prohibition, while keeping things amorally snapping along. Its narrative of three women triumphing by exploiting the men around them is one that would be repeated in a number of pre-Code films of the era, but then there are the musical numbers which choreograph an almost endless line of flamboyant chorines, so maybe it’s the filmmakers who are the gold diggers and we the audience their willing victims. In any case, it’s a high-water mark of the Hollywood musical and a glorious tribute to Busby Berkeley’s art.
SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW Director Mervyn LeRoy | Writers Erwin S. Gelsey and James Seymour (based on the play The Gold Diggers by Avery Hopwood) | Cinematographer Sol Polito | Starring Ruby Keeler, Dick Powell, Joan Blondell, Aline MacMahon, Warren William | Length 96 minutes || Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Friday 9 May 2014