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Monday, December 29, 2008


Although Lois Weber, the most important & successful of the early female helmers, tied many of her pics to social issues, surely none was as daring as this bifurcated look at birth control & eugenics in American society. Here, a world of drunken lower-class wastrels populate the tenements with unwanted brats while upper-crust ladies are so concerned with club life & high society that they routinely have abortions. Even using a disreputable doctor known for slip-ups. The two sides of this story merge when D.A. Tyrone Power, Sr brings an outspoken eugenics supporter to court just as he discovers his own wife’s immersion in the shadow world of illegal abortions. Much of the Social Darwinism approvingly shown here is faintly terrifying and Weber’s picturization of congregations of unborn souls may give pause*, but the general arguments remain timely & fascinating, to say nothing of her remarkably advanced narrative technique and the naturalistic acting. The film remains highly watchable and truly thought provoking.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Did Hugo Hoffmannsthal see this before writing the libretto of DIE FRAU OHNE SCHATTEN for R. Strauss in 1919?  Or did they both grab the basic idea from Maurice Maeterlinck’s THE BLUE BIRD?

Monday, December 22, 2008


Ultra low-budget noir from Republic Studios has a ludicrous storyline, but is moderate fun thanks to an evenly matched cast of mid-level names (Brenda Marshall, William Gargan, Lyle Talbot, H. B. Warner) and more than a modicum of style from rising helmer Anthony Mann, who frames & chiaroscuros to beat the band. Marshall plays a research scientist more interested in her new anaesthetic than in fiancé Gargan. (Smart girl!) But when she's out cold, testing her new serum on herself, her spunky assistant (Ruth Ford) reveals her true colors by ruining her boss's looks and usurping her life. Fortunately, a transparent sub-plot allows the scripters to rig a swapped identity revenge twist . . . and that goes wrong, too! LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN/'45 is the obvious ‘inspiration’ here, but there's only so much Mann can do with this material which also features a lame cop-out ending. Try 1949's delirious IMPACT to see how this formula can be plotted to far better effect even without Mann’s stylish moves behind the camera.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

GOOD NEWS (1947)

M-G-M musical producer supreme Arthur Freed baptized those ON THE TOWN New York wiseguys, Betty Comden & Adolph Green, with an unlikely assignment; revamp this corny mother-of-all college musicals. The 1927 show is only remembered for two songs, ‘The Best Things in Life Are Free’ & ‘The Varsity Drag,’ plus the usual football game theatrics, but the new script puts all irony on hold allowing us to smile with (rather than at) the well-calibrated conventions of musical comedy from ‘27 & ‘47. Charles Walters helms smoothly in his debut, keeping everything human-scaled (with a nice expansion for the big finale), while the modest talents and challenged intonation of leads June Allyson & especially the young Peter Lawford seem just right in this low-pressure entertainment. Even if this sort of thing isn’t your sort of thing, search out ‘The French Lesson,’ the one original number Comden & Green added with Roger Edens supplying the music, it’s a true delight.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008


Shakespeare in Hollywood took a near-fatal double hit when this big-budget pic from Warners along with M-G-M’s ROMEO & JULIET/’36 (a vanity project for Irving Thalberg & Norma Shearer) tanked. The latter is a stiff, but this adaptation of Max Reinhardt's legendary Hollywood Bowl production is not only visually luscious (thanks to Hal Mohr's ravishing lensing), but often charming & funny. Casting from the Warners stock company generally works out and is a lot of fun just to see. (No doubt The Globe used similar ‘types’ over & over again.) A few unsure line readings from some players can’t mar Joe E. Brown's inspired clowning, Victor Jory's billowing nightride or Olivia de Havilland's enchanting romantic fancy. Mickey Rooney hasn’t the technical variety to pull off Reinhardt’s wild-child conception of Puck, but he certainly looks amazing. And if some of the big set pieces hang fire, the adaptation is smartly done (though a lot of poetry gets the ax), easy to follow (thanks to some fine narrative tips in the editing) and quite respectful. Plus, using all that Mendelssohn on the soundtrack was a clever bit of nose-thumbing at the Nazis who had just banned his music in Austria & Germany.