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Thursday, January 2, 2014

BROADWAY (1929)

Universal Studios poured on the bucks for this early Talkie taken from George Abbott’s wildly successful stage meller. Maybe that’s why it feels weighed down, even for Hollywood's transition-to-sound period, like a goose getting force-fed to produce foie gras. You can still see how its two story arcs build on each other, as Robert Elllis’s bootlegging club owner pulls off a mob rub-out to expand his territory while also getting romantically involved with rising chorine Merna Kennedy. She likes the attention, but is trying to stay pure and help launch a duo act with the club’s top hoofer Glenn Tryon. If that’s not enough, there’s a flat-voiced flatfoot (Thomas Jackson, the sole hold-over from the original production) grilling everyone between bites of a Swiss-on-rye sandwich. And that would include the murdered gangster’s wife, stunning Evelyn Brent who ‘just happens’ to be a member of the chorus line. Too bad director Paul Fejos doesn't get as much movement out of his actors as he gets out of some still stupefying crane shots prepped with lenser Hal Mohr. Still, we’re lucky to have this long-lost film at all, and in pretty good condition though a much faded 2-strip TechniColor finale had to be sourced from the contemporaneous silent release. Look for it on Criterion’s 2-disc set of Felos’s LONESOME/’28.

READ ALL ABOUT IT/SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Evelyn Brent, who quite literally gets away with murder here thanks to Hollywood’s Pre-Code ethos, should be a film name to reckon with; a Dietrich, a Louise Brooks. In fact, she was Josef von Sternberg’s muse before Marlene. But the combination of beauty, sexual allure & sadistic indifference may have been more than just an act for her and she quickly faded off the A-list. Brooks did too, but then resurrected herself as a literary intellectual. Brent, at least as she seems in John Kobal’s conversation compendium PEOPLE WILL TALK, became something of a shadow figure.

DOUBLE-BILL: Compare and contrast with M-G-M’s Oscar-winning THE BROADWAY MELODY/’29 which had better commercial & critical luck that year. (It surely had the better song score.) 

OR: Stick with the enjoyably trashy second-feature included on the Criterion disc, THE LAST PERFORMANCE/’28, a commercial programmer Fejos made with Conrad Veidt as a stage magician who frames his assistant on a murder rap over the affections of leading lady Mary Philbin. (He lets the poor sap think the old Swords Thru A Guy Inside A Trunk Routine has gone terribly wrong. Ouch!) It’s sub-Lon Chaney mad-masochist fluff, not up to the Tod Browning/Victor Seastrom standard. But still fun even when Fejos’s stylistic touches feel inorganic.

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