The Maltese Falcon (1931) Roy Del Ruth

Okay, I am not going to tell you this original version of Dashiell Hammett’s now classic novel is better that John Huston’s 1941 masterpiece, but the truth is Roy Del Ruth’s 1931 pre-code has a sensual sinful aura the Huston/Bogart film lacks and it makes you want to keep it in your back pocket and save it for a night of wicked dreams.

After the release of the Huston/Bogart gem, Warner Brothers changed the title of the earlier flick to the more vapid and generic “Dangerous Woman” so as not to confuse anyone. Over the years this first version has practically been pushed into oblivion and only recently, thanks to TCM, popped back on to the screen. Continue reading

Illicit (1931) Archie Mayo

“Illicit” was only Barbara Stanwyck’s fifth film and she was already a star. Having just appeared in Frank Capra’s “Ladies of Leisure” as a prostitute, or as they would call it, a ‘party girl’ for Columbia, Babs, who had arranged for non-exclusive contracts with both Columbia and Warner Brothers, starred in her next film  for Brothers Warner as a free thinking woman, a post feminist long before the term was even conceived.

Stanwyck is Anne Vincent and her lover, James Rennie, is wealthy Richard “Dick” Ives II. They have been happily living out of wedlock, going away together for weekends, enjoying life, but she refuses to marry Dick who wants to marry her. Anne explains her theories on marriage, how married couples become complacent, have kids and begin to take each other for granted leaving the fun and romance behind. Anne wants none of that. Eventually though pressure from friends and family force the couple to marry. Once married, egos get hurt, misunderstandings come out of the closet as well as former lovers. From Anne’s past comes Price Baines, played smoothly by Ricardo Cortez, who keeps popping up to complicate the situation. Late in the film Dick is about to run off with a former girlfriend (Natalie Moorhead) when the couple come to the realization they only want each other. Continue reading

The Walking Dead (1936) Michael Curtiz

The Waliking Dea poster

“The Walking Dead” is a blend of gangster film, horror with a touch of science fiction tossed in.  Directed by Warner Brothers’ stalwart Michael Curtiz, who previously dabbled in the horror genre with “Doctor X” and “Mystery of the Wax Museum”, this 1936 film, is an engaging oddity that should not be missed. The film stars Boris Karloff as John Ellman, a down on his luck ex-convict who innocently gets mixed up with some underworld characters. He is framed for the murder of a judge who just convicted one of their buddies to a long prison term.  Two young medical assistants, Nancy (Marguarite Churchill) and Jimmy (Warren Hull) are witnesses to Ellman’s frame-up but do not come forth and say anything until the last minutes before his execution. By the time, the Governor is reached to stop the electrocution it is too late. Dr. Evan Beaumont (Edmund Gwenn), who Nancy and Jimmy work for, wants Ellman’s body for his experiments in bringing people back from the dead. Beaumont’s experiment is successful and Ellman is brought back to life.

Though he is alive, Ellman is not quite the man he used to be. He cannot remember much except who framed him and that he has an affinity for wanting to spend time at the cemetery where he says he feels that this is where he belongs.  Zombie like, Ellman soon begins to go after each of the men responsible for his frame-up and one by one, they begin to die, though more from fright than from Ellman actually doing anything.walking

What makes the film exceptional is the cinematography by Hal Mohr. The film is gorgeously shot with eerie long shadows. Most spectacular is the buildup to Ellman’s execution, poignant cello playing, and shadows of the jail cell bars flowing dramatically across the floor. The film is worth seeing for this scene alone.

Along with Karloff, the film’s cast includes Ricardo Cortez as Nolan, the mob’s slime ball lawyer, Barton MacLane as one of the gangsters and Joe Sawyer as the shooter appropriately named “Trigger.” Edmund Gwenn, best known as the real Santa Claus in “Miracle on 34th Street” is the research doctor who is more interested in what it is like to be dead than in saving Ellman’s life. As Ellman lays on the ground dying the Doctor drills him, “What’s it like to be dead…tell me!”  In his final words, Ellman begins to tell him, “After the shock, I seemed to feel peace and….” He never finishes the sentence.

Karloff of course has been resurrected from the dead more times cinematically than anyone has except for you know whom, I count at least four. He first rose from the dead as the monster in the 1931 James Whale classic “Frankenstein” (it’s alive! it’s alive! cried Dr. Frankenstein) followed by “The Mummy” in 1932.  In 1936 came this film, and since you cannot keep a good man down, or dead for that matter, he came back one more time in Columbia’s 1939 low budget “The Man They Could Not Hang” , a film with some similarities to this one.   With his hallow cheeks and mournful look Karloff makes an effecting brain dead zombie that will keep haunting you long after the film’s short running time ends.

Frisco Kid (1935) Lloyd Bacon

    Unlike “The Oklahoma Kid” starring James Cagney and directed by Lloyd Bacon, “Frisco Kid” starring James Cagney and directed by Lloyd Bacon is not a western. “Frisco Kid” takes place in San Francisco’s vice and violent teeming Barbary Coast. Here Bat Morgan (James Cagney) is a sailor just arriving in town fresh from another voyage. He soon is shanghaied by powerful gang leader Spider Burke (Barton McLane). With the help of a friendly Jewish tailor, Bat overcomes Spider and sends him off to sea instead. Bat returns to the saloon run by the crooked Paul Morra (Ricardo Cortez) where he meets up with Shanghai Duck (Fred Kohler) who arranged the deal for Bat to be shanghaied. He confronts Shanghai, who has a lethal hook in place of his missing right hand, and they get into a ferocious fight that is one of the highlights of the film. Bat kills Shanghai, impressing Morra who offers him a job as a bouncer working in his saloon.  However, Bat has bigger ideas and soon becomes the boss of the Barbary Coast running a crooked casino and getting in with crooked politicians to take over the city. Bat meets Jean Barret (Margaret Lindsay) who runs the San Francisco newspaper and is trying to clean up the Barbary Coast along with the help of Judge Crawford.   Judge Crawford (Robert McWade) who seems to be the only honest man in town is soon murdered resulting in Bat being accused of the murder. Barbary Coast citizens are now outraged by the murder they want to clean up the city and resorting to a murderous mob rule, they hang Morra. Bat is spared the same faith with when Jean Barret realizes, after numerous denials that she love hooligan Bat and pleads for his life.

    When the film opened in 1935 at the Strand Theater on Broadway, the New York Times gave it a good review calling Cagney’s character “a violent Irishmen who became the Al Capone of San Francisco’s vice district.” However, many critics were not impressed comparing it unfavorable to Howard Hawk’s “Barbary Coast” with Edward G. Robinson  and Miriam Hopkins which opened a month earlier the same year. ” “Frisco Kid” is a typical Warner Brothers programmer and not one of their best efforts. The film starts okay but is uneven and at times seems rushed. Bat Morgan’s rise to the top and the building of his grand saloon seem to happen quickly. Cagney and Margaret Lindsay do not seem to have much spark between them.  Most of their scenes fall flat. Director Lloyd Bacon and his crew do a nice job of creating the salty fog bound atmosphere of the Barbary Coast and the scenes of the fiery lynch mob are exiting and well done. Other cast members include Barton McLane, Lili Damita and Ricardo Cortez whose performance as rotten saloon owner Paul Morra is worth watching this film for by itself.