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

Employees’ Entrance (1933) Roy Del Ruth

“Employees’ Entrance” is a classic! Not because of any artistic merit which there is little of but like most pre-code films for what is shown, said or at least insinuated. Themes that one year later after this film was released would be banned from the screen. With the enforcement of the production code, by Will Hays and company, the movie screen would be cleansed of nudity, loose women, drugs, cursing, homosexuals, sympathy for the poor and other so called vices and undesirable characters. American movies would be scrubbed clean of this kind of “filth” and homogenized into a world of celluloid unreality. And if and when they did appear, whores, murderers and their ilk would now be punished for their sins before the closing credits appeared on the screen. Even so called decent people, say for example married couples, could no longer sleep in the same bed. The baring of a female shoulder or a bit of leg was about as much nudity as you were going to get.

Of all the studios, Warner Brothers was the king of pre-code. The best, and again we are not talking artistic quality here, came from Warner Brothers/First National. Films like “Baby Face,” “Night Nurse,” “Blessed Event,” “The Public Enemy,” “Gold Diggers of 1933″ are just a few of the Warner Brothers/First National films incorporating soon to be forbidden topics. While some of these films may seem dated, even quaint today, a few still pack a punch and even remain relevant in our current society. “Five Star Final” deals with the lack of integrity and exploitation in the newspaper world and “Employees’ Entrance” gives us a bird’s eye view of big business, corporate greed, profits at any cost mentality which certainly still exist today. From the exploited topless photos of Kate Middleton to greed on Wall Street these films, made more than eighty years ago, still resonates with us in our present day. Continue reading

Lady Killer (1933) Roy Del Ruth

James Cagney most likely did not think much of “Lady Killer,” not even giving it a mention in his autobiography, “Cagney by Cagney.”  The film was a typical Warner Brothers programmer with the studio heads ensuring that Cagney’s character was exactly how the public liked Jimmy served; tough, cheeky, a hardboiled know it all with a winning sly smile. He had already in his short career played similar brash characters in earlier films like, “Taxi”, “Blonde Crazy” and “Hard to Handle.”  Released at the end of 1933, Cagney already seems to be spoofing his tough guy persona in this rough and tumble comedy/drama.

Dan Quigley, a typical smart aleck Cagney type does not like to play by the rules. Unlike his role of Tom Powers in “The Public Enemy” that made him a star, Dan Quigley is more a small time con-artist than a big time gangster. Dan is soon fired from a job as a uniformed usher at  Warner’s famed Broadway Theater, The Strand after treating customers shabbily along with other previous infractions including running a dice game in the men’s room.  Though he is a con artist, Dan is quickly conned himself when a beautiful dame named Myrna (Mae Clarke) “drops” her purse on the street and he gallantly retrieves it delivering it to her apartment where her “brother” and some friends are playing a friendly poker game. Dan is quickly suckered into the game and loses his money just as fast. As he leaves, just outside the apartment, he runs into another chump delivering another lost purse! Realizing he has been had, Dan intimidates his way into the gang taking charge as the gang sucker more marks into losing their money with the help of a draw full of lost purses. With Dan at the helm, the gang’s cons quickly escalate their fortunes until they are running an upscale nightclub, and scamming better dressed suckers. They soon graduate to burglary until one of the crew kills a housemaid during a jewelry robbery. The entire gang skips town heading west to Chicago and on the L.A. where Dan is quickly picked up and questioned by the police. Held on five-thousand dollars bail, Dan calls Myrna who he gave his money to hold, only to find out she and gang member Spade Maddock (Douglas Dumbrille) are skipping the country heading down to Mexico leaving Dan out to dry.

Continue reading

A Miracle Happened on 34th Street and 5th Avenue

 

Apparently back in 1947 Hollywood thought it was a good idea to release Christmas films in the middle of the year instead of the holiday season. In June of that year, two films were released within a week of each other. Both placed ads in the New York Times weeks before they opened as if it were a preliminary for the main bout.  Who will grab the public’s imagination and more importantly their dollars? The two contenders were the now almost forgotten “It Happened on 5th Avenue” and a film that would become a perennial holiday classic, “Miracle on 34th Street.”

While the stories are different, the two films do have some similarities. Both take place in New York during the holiday season, both feature kindly cherubic older men and both spread philosophies, though very different, on the goodness of man. Continue reading

The Little Giant (1933) Roy Del Ruth

This is a reprint of a short review from my Weekly Wrap column that I have been doing over at  the “Watching Shadows on the Wall” blog,  I am reposting some of the short reviews I have written over there that fit into the scope of 24frames.

 

From Little Caesar to Little Giant. Just two years after Edward G. Robinson made celluloid history as Rico in Mervyn LeRoy’s “Little Caesar” he and Warner Brothers were spoofing his tough guy image in this little gem.  With a story line similar to the better known “A Slight Case of Murder”, which was made some five years later in 1938, this film has Robinson as gangster Bugs Ahearn who decides to get out of the bootlegging business and go straight after Roosevelt’s victory over Hoover and the government’s announcement to repeal prohibition.

Rich from his 12 years of bootlegging, he decides to relocate to California and mingle in high society. The film becomes a fish of water story as Bugs, hiding his true identity, become a target for every scam artist on the west coast especially the evil Cass family. From pretty Polly Cass (Helen Vinson) who seduces him hoping to marry so she can get a quickie divorce and a large settlement, to her brother who sells Bugs polo ponies and finally, the father who sells Bugs an investment firm on the verge of bankruptcy and has the law coming down on them for fraud. Also on board and about the only honest person in the film is Ruth Wayburn (Mary Astor) who of course falls secretly in love with our gangster hero.

The mix of slapstick and verbal humor, many that play on Robinson’s gangster screen image, keeps this film moving at a snappy pace. The film is directed by Roy Del Ruth whose career seems to have flourished during the pre-code era while he was at Warners. His works from this period include “The Maltese Falcon” (1931), “Blonde Crazy”, “Lady Killer”, “Blessed Event”, “Employee Entrance” and “Taxi.”

“The Little Giant” is the least known of four comedy gangster films Robinson did in his career, at least with him in the lead, and deserves to be known better than it is. TCM always has the other three in their rotation (The Whole Town’s Talkin’. A Slight Cast of Murder and Larceny Inc.) however, this one seems to have fallen off the map. It deserves better.

***1/2

Always Leave Them Laughing (1949) Roy Del Ruth

    At first, I was not going to review this film, because frankly I was never a fan of Milton Berle. I always found him obnoxious, self serving and well, generally not funny.  Berle’s early career was going nowhere until, with nothing to lose, he tried out the then new medium of Television when few was willing to take the plunge. Well, lo and behold Uncle Miltie or Mr. Television, as he was affectionately called, became the biggest thing on the small tube. Suddenly, people were no longer going to the movies on Tuesday nights, they were gathering at relatives, friends, and neighbor’s homes, the ones lucky enough have a television set, and all watched “The Texaco Star Theater’s Milton Berle Show.”  Berle’s success almost single handedly was the reason TV caught on. In the late 1940’s (Berle’s show started in 1948) through the early fifties Berle was the biggest thing on television (his show ended in 1956), that is until a certain redhead and her Cuban husband came on the scene. Today, Milton Berle is practically unknown to most young people but back in those early days, he was a giant in this new medium known as television.

    With Berle’s TV success at its peak, Warner Brothers took a chance to see if his small screen triumph would translate into a big screen hit and in 1949, they agreed to give him the starring role in “Always Leave Them Laughing.”   Filmed by veteran director Roy Del Ruth in Warner’s tough streetwise style, the story seemed like it wasn’t too much of a stretch for Berle, as he was playing a narcissistic comedian who rises to fame and eventually becomes a big television star. Berle’s character Kip Cooper is a small time comedian who steals jokes and routines from other comedians and will do anything to climb his way to the top. He is ruthless, self-centered, egotistical, and has an emotional shield made of steel. We find this last trait especially in one scene early in the film when Kip goes onstage before an audience consisting of drunken men who soon pelt him with tomatoes, seltzer and anything else on their table. His final humiliation comes when backstage the owner pays him only five dollars, instead of a promised fifty, because the audience did not find him funny. For anyone thinking of a career in standup, this is a revealing and sobering scene, it reflects the guts it takes to be a comedian. How you put yourself on the line, naked in front of an audience that practically dares you to make them laugh. Kip’s big break finally comes when he substitutes for the ailing star Eddie Egan (Bert Lahr) in a new production that will soon open on Broadway after tryouts in Boston.

    Despite tired old vaudeville routines that pop more corn than a movie theater’s concession stand, the film provides a glimpse of what backstage life was like in those now bygone days. However, it is Berle’s performance that holds your attention, in a strange way. He is like an out of control train wreck, a disheveled portrayal of a struggling comedian who throws everything at the audience including the kitchen sink. We see fear, hope, desperation, cynicism and a driving ambition to be liked; there is a telling scene early in the film that conveys both his ambition and fear of commitment. While on the road, he visits Fay (Ruth Roman), his girlfriend, and her family one stormy rainy night and the subject of marriage rears it ugly head. Kip, who only arrived moments before, suddenly cannot wait to leave the house not wanting to be trapped and ultimately derailed from his career with the threat of matrimony. Throughout most of the movie, Berle’s screen character is not very likeable and in many ways, from what I have read, close to the real life Berle. It took a lot of guts for Berle to be willing to appear this exposed on the screen. 

    Bert Lahr has the small but pivotal role of Eddie Egan; the big star whose heart attack results in Kip’s his big break. He and Berle have an entertaining soft shoe number toward the end of the film. Virginia Mayo plays Lahr’s young sexy wife who is willing to saddle up with whomever to keep her own career on track. With Lahr ill and out of the picture she plays up to Berle’s character, who always thinking of his own career is attracted to the pretty but self serving blonde. He blindly ignores, not for the first time, his true love Fay who is a chorus girl in the show. The film is at its most engrossing when capturing the atmosphere of backstage life.   

    Virginia Mayo and Ruth Roman are both fine and are given the chance to show off some decent dancing skills. There are plenty of vaudeville numbers and music in the film including the title song written by Sammy Cahn and Milton Berle. While Cahn is credited with most of the music, other works by artists such as George Gershwin, Cole Porter and Harold Arlen are also featured. The screenplay was co-written by Mel  Shavelson (Houseboat, Yours, Mine and Ours)  and Jack Rose (A Touch of Class, Who’s Got the Action).

    The film opened to generally favorable reviews, with The New York Times liking it, while Time Magazine was more reserved in its praise. Ironically, when the film opened at the majestic Strand Theater in New York, the corresponding stage show was “Fiesta in Havana” starring among others Desi Arnaz. Arnaz and his wife Lucille Ball would in a few years, surpass Berle as the rulers of television comedy.     

   BTW – Martin Scorsese listed this as one of his ‘Guilty Pleasures’ in his 1998 list he submitted to Film Comment magazine.

Blonde Crazy (1931) Del Ruth

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    Over the years, there have been plenty of movies about grifters, confidence men, scam artist and flim flam men. Think David Mamet’s “House of  Games”, Lubitsch’s “Trouble in Paradise”, “The Grifters”, “Confidence”, “The Flim Flam Man” and “The Sting” just to name a few. An early entry in this sub genre, just to give it a category, is Roy Del Ruth’s 1931 film “Blonde Crazy.” Starring James Cagney, who would play a scam artist again a couple of years later in Merlyn LeRoy’s “Hard to Handle”,  and Joan Blondell along with Louis Calhern and Noel Francis, “Blonde Crazy” is a lively, witty and entertaining piece of pre-code cinema that is enhanced by the screen chemistry of its two stars.

    Fresh off his career-making role in “The Public Enemy” Cagney is Bert Harris, a bellhop and small time grifter working in a hotel in a small mid-western town. In walks Anne Roberts (Joan Blondell) looking for a job as a chambermaid. Bert eyes her lasciviously and decides it worth having her around. He arranges for the last recently filled chambermaid position to be vacated and for Ann to get the position. Looking for Ann to be ever so grateful, he arranges for her to come up to an empty room in the hotel so they can be along and she can demonstrate just how thankful she is.  Instead, Bert gets a slap in his face, one of many he will receive from Ann.

 01westlake_6501   Despite Bert’s fresh attitude Ann soon hooks up with him and do their first con together scamming a hotel guest. They soon are off to a big Midwestern city where they meet Dapper Dan Barber (Louis Calhern) and Helen (Noel Francis) two big time con artists they team up with only to be swindled out of five thousand dollars by both of them.  Ann meets rich Wall Street investor Joe Reynolds (Ray Milland)  who is everything Bert is not, successful in an honest job, has friends who are into the arts. Joe is the kind of guy Ann would like to settle down with. However, there is a score to settle with Dapper Dan, and Ann comes up with a successful sting of her own that will get their money back from him.  Bert now wants to marry Ann, but she has fallen in love with Joe. They soon marry while Bert looks on.

    One year later Bert is living in a small apartment when there’s a knock on the door. It’s Ann, and it seems that honest Joe is not that law-abiding. Ann explains that Joe has embezzled thirty thousand dollars in unregistered bonds from his company.  Ann wants to borrow money from Bert so Joe can pay back the firm. Only problems is, Bert is broke. After Ann married Joe, Bert quit grifting. Still stuck on Ann he comes up with a plan to help her husband only to be double-crossed by Joe when he notifies the police and Bert is caught in the act and arrested. Ann realizing she is love with Joe, who now faces years behind bars, swears her love and promising she will wait for him.   

   blondecraz Up until the phony happy ending “Blonde Crazy” is unencumbered by censorship. There’s plenty of spicy dialogue delivered by many in the cast. Racy scenes include Cagney ogling Blondell’s body when she first arrives at the hotel looking for work, Blondell discreetly naked taking a bath giving the audience, if not Cagney, a partial view of the right side of her breast. We also have Cagney inspecting Blondell’s panties and bra to find where she hides her money (in her bra). Considering all this, why the filmmakers felt that Cagney had to pay for his sins with jail time is a mystery and Blondell as the woman promising to wait for him has been done so many times since it has become a cliché. Despite this, the film is a real pleasure to watch. Cagney and Blondell, in their fourth of seven films they made together are a perfect match as comfortable together as a pair of well-worn shoes. I don’t think the fast talking Cagney ever had a better match than the wise cracking sassy Joan Blondell.

    The Cagney persona that became so recognized was not yet fully developed at this point in his career. There are scenes early in the film that seem a little off kilter coming from Mr. Cagney. For example, the first half or so of the film is comedic and Cagney’s character, Bert, keeps greeting the ladies with a loud uncharacteristic “Hello Honeeeeeey!”  Later in the film, as it turns more serious, shades of the Cagney persona emerge that we know so well. This does not deter from the film, it is more just an interesting point as you watch Cagney’s career and persona develop from these early films to the classic Cagney we know so well.  

    Written by the team of Kubee Glasmon and John Bright who also wrote or had a hand in writing  “The Public Enemy”, Three on a Match”, “Smart Money”, “Union Depot”, “Taxi” and “The Crowd Roars”, all films that costarred both or at least either Cagney and Blondell. Directed by Roy Del Ruth, one of Warner Brother’s studio directors the film is solidly made. Del Ruth made some of his best films during the pre code period under the Warner Brothers banner. Later in his career, his films became more uneven with atrocious work like “The Babe Ruth Story” and “The Alligator People” mixed in somewhat more successful films like “West Point Story” and a lot of TV work. 

  blondecrazy-still1  “Blonde Crazy” opened in New York at the Strand Theater on Broadway in early December and was a triumph at the box office guaranteeing Cagney’s and Blondell’s continued success. According Matthew Kennedy in his recent biography “Joan Blondell: A Life Between Takes” Blondell, like Cagney, went from one film to another with little or no breaks in between. The Warner Brothers ran their studio like a factory. In just over a year since she was signed to a contract, Joan made twelve movies! Cagney, a huge star now with the success of “The Public Enemy” decided that after “Blonde Crazy” he wanted more money than his current contract with Warners was paying. When Warners refused, he walked out on his contract. Again, according to Matthew Kennedy, Cagney told Blondell she should do the same thing and demand more money. Insecure with no hit under her belt the size of “The Public Enemy” and responsible for supporting her family, Blondell stayed and continued to work. Cagney would return with a huge increase in pay while Joan continued to receive her contracted salary.    

    “Blonde Crazy” was released on VHS years ago as part of the “Forbidden Hollywood” series that came out in the 1990’s. Unfortunately, there is no sign of a DVD release. Maybe, if we are lucky some creative studio executive with get a brilliant idea and release a box set of Cagney/Blondell films, all seven of them!