Category: Adventures on Criterion

Adventures on Criterion: Pre-Code Paramount

March’s featured collections on the Criterion Channel were a treasure trove for me! I was quite interested in almost all of them, but I had to focus on just a couple. First up had to be the Paramount Pre-Codes. I’m generally a pretty big fan of Pre-Code Hollywood, and unsurprisingly I had seen about half of this collection already.

If you’re new to Pre-Codes, I can’t recommend Trouble in Paradise, Love Me Tonight, and Shanghai Express enough. Those three should definitely be top priority if you haven’t seen them (they should be on the channel through at least the end of April – I forget whether they keep collections on for two or three months). I also really enjoy the other three I had seen: The Smiling Lieutenant, She Done Him Wrong, Design for Living, and One Hour With You.

This left largely obscurities for me to see, though some big names are attached to those obscurities – like a very early Cary Grant film, a couple of Dorothy Arzner-directed films (the only female director working in Hollywood in the 1930s), and an omnibus film with sections directed by Ernst Lubitsch among others. As of April 1, there are still a couple of films I haven’t gotten to – the 1934 Cecil B. DeMille version of Cleopatra, and the Ernst Lubitsch-directed drama Broken Lullaby. The former should be fairly easy to find and watch, and I have less interest in Lubitsch directing drama, though I should watch it for completionism’s sake. Maybe sometime this month.

Night After Night (1932)

A nightclub story, with the gangster activity and love affairs you might expect from that. Raft’s character has a girl, but becomes enamored of a glamorous woman who comes in alone frequently – turns out his club is built in the mansion she grew up in, and she’s sentimental. She’s clearly of a higher social caliber than he is (he is taking lessons in etiquette and general knowledge to move up the social ladder) and he falls hard for her. Meanwhile, a former lover turns up – Mae West in her film debut. She steals the show, but the rest isn’t bad either. However, it’s not going to make you a fan of this type of movie if you’re not already. It has some amount of early sound clunkiness.

Merrily We Go to Hell (1932)

One of the two Dorothy Arzner-directed films in the featured collection, Merrily We Go to Hell focuses on a star-crossed couple – Jerry (Fredric March), a reporter and would-be playwright, and Joan (Sylvia Sidney), an heiress who falls for him against her family’s wishes. Their relationship is rocky to say the least – she stands by him in good times, as when his play gets produced, and less-good ones, as when he missed their engagement party because he freaked out and got drunk. Until, that is, Jerry falls into seeing his old girlfriend, now a famous actress, and Joan decides to have a fully “modern marriage” – that is, basically an open, swinging marriage where each of them can do whatever they want on the side. (Look for a young Cary Grant here as one of her “on the sides”.) There’s a very thoughtful and mature tone throughout all these shenanigans, which could easily have just been played for laughs or crudity. I was impressed with how well this story was handled. Props to Arzner, for sure.

Honor Among Lovers (1931)

This is the other Arzner film, with Claudette Colbert as the greatest ever executive assistant plus a super great person in general, so it’s not super surprising that her boss Fredric March falls in love with her. She’s not keen on a potential office romance, though, so she quickly marries her existing boyfriend, an up-and-coming stockbroker. They’re pretty happy for a while, but stockbroker boy is speculating pretty heavily with other people’s money and things go downhill from there. There are a lot of interesting and unusual plot moves made here, and while I didn’t love all of them (having the initially lascivious March become the “good guy” was a bit hard to swallow), it was an enjoyable ride, and Colbert is never less than luminous. Also look for a really young Ginger Rogers as a complete ditz. Sort of an unfortunate part, but there you go.

If I Had a Million (1932)

A dying millionaire is fed up with all of his money-grubbing potential heirs and decides to give a million dollars each to eight strangers chosen at random from the telephone book. We then see eight vignettes (each directed by a different director – Ernst Lubitsch, Norman Taurog, Norman Z. McLeod, etc) that show what each of the recipients did with the money. As usual with these kinds of omnibus films, the stories range from the heartwarming to the sad to the ridiculous. None of these are particularly great as omnibus segments go, but none of them wear out their welcome too much, either.

Adventures on Criterion: Joan Bennett

January’s “star of the month” on Criterion is Joan Bennett, and I’ve spent the month catching up with all the films in the collection I hadn’t already seen, which was a substantial chunk! I like Bennett, but somehow even though I KNOW it, I always manage to forget that the blonde vixen of the Pre-Codes is the same person as the brunette femme fatale of the noirs (not to mention the motherly figure of Father of the Bride)! Bennett had range, and this collection covers it nicely. To be utterly fair, my first exposure to Bennett was her role as Amy in the 1933 version of Little Women, which doesn’t fit neatly into any of the previously mentioned categories!

I didn’t rewatch the two Fritz Lang noir films, The Woman in the Window and Scarlet Street, but I recommend both – I specifically think Scarlet Street is one of the best noir films ever made, and while true noir fans know this, it doesn’t seem to ever crack the echelon of best-known noir films (Double Indemnity, Out of the Past, etc), which is unjust. This month’s viewing for me was largely Pre-Code plus the few later films I had missed. I watched my last unseen this morning, which may be the first time I have fully completed a Criterion Channel collection!

Big Brown Eyes (1936)

I love being able to check off films from other major filmographies while watching these star-focused Criterion collections, and this was a Cary Grant film I didn’t even know about! This is a breezy mystery comedy with Grant as a detective trying to bust up a jewel thief gang, with intermittent help from Joan Bennett, who starts off as a manicurist, then briefly becomes a journalist, and then gets drummed out and goes back to being a manicurist. It’s a roller-coaster. Also a roller-coaster: her feelings for Grant, which careen wildly from love to jealousy to disregard and back to love. It’s a little too much, to be honest, and her character isn’t very believable, though Bennett does what she can with what the script forces her into. That said, the film is fun, and the jewel thief subplot gives a duplicitous Walter Pidgeon some fun.

Me and My Gal (1932)

I had heard of this before, although mostly in context of not getting it confused with the Gene Kelly-Judy Garland For Me and My Gal. This one has Spencer Tracy as a policeman in a wharf district cleaning up the place and chatting up diner waitress Joan Bennett. The script is better than Big Brown Eyes, though there are still some relationship back and forths that don’t make total sense. That said, the scene where he tries to make the moves on her and she refuses is more subtle than it seems. The main story plot actually involves Bennett’s sister, who used to be romantically involved with a gangster – she’s now getting married to someone else, but when the gangster turns back up, she falls back into her old ways, even harboring him when he’s on the run. Given Bennett’s blossoming relationship with cop Tracy, this is problematic. There are a ton of really cool little things here – especially the plot point of the sister’s father-in-law, a veteran with lock-in syndrome. I’ve never seen this condition in an old movie and it’s used quite well. There’s also a hilarious scene involving fish-slapping, which is totally random but I loved it.

Wild Girl (1932)

I rather expected this to be the wild card of the bunch, and I was not wrong. You know you’re in for something when there’s one of those opening credit sequences where the actors introduce themselves as the characters and Joan Bennett says “I’m Salomy Jane, and I like trees better than men – they’re straight!” The film was shot on location in Sequoia National Park, which is really awesome – almost all of it takes place outdoors among the redwoods. Salomy Jane is hounded by the man who’s trying to become mayor and touts his founding of some kind of Virtue League or something, but he’s anything but virtuous when trying to get Salomy Jane’s attention (she means “on the level” when she says “straight” in that intro). She can’t get anyone to believe her, though. Meanwhile, a stranger in town knows about the mayoral candidate’s bad actions (he had also seduced the stranger’s sister), and is there to kill him. This endears him immediately to Salomy Jane. MEANWHILE, a lazy neighbor with a brood of children robs the stagecoach and everyone sets out after him. It’s all incredibly melodramatic, and yet somehow quite watchable if you let it be what it is. A talent Raoul Walsh seems to have, as you notice he directed all three of the 1930s Bennett films.

Man Hunt (1941)

With this one we move from Raoul Walsh directing to Fritz Lang directing, and as much as I do genuinely love Raoul Walsh films…yeah. Lang is in another league. This one immediately makes a stylistic impact with the camera following a man’s footsteps going to the edge of a cliff, only then revealing Walter Pidgeon with a sniper rifle. He soon has Hitler in his sights. He pulls the trigger but the gun isn’t loaded. He then puts in a bullet but gets collared by a Nazi officer (George Sanders!) and has to explain how he’s a big game hunter and just into the thrill of the hunt and wouldn’t have pulled the trigger etc etc etc. The officer understandably does not believe him, but he escapes and sets off the titular manhunt across Europe and Britain. It’s a fairly small movie despite the premise, and I’m not sure I ENTIRELY bought Bennett’s Cockney accent, but the film is very solid and very stylish, as you’d expect from Lang.

There’s Always Tomorrow (1955)

Definitely the odd one out of this series in terms of Bennett roles; here she’s the wife and mother in a typical suburban family, as her husband toys with a dalliance. Fred MacMurray is the husband, who keeps planning outings and events and having his wife too caught up in the duties of motherhood/homemaking to do them. She encourages him to go alone on what was meant to be a couples getaway for them, and he does but lo and behold meets a former flame. I’m not particularly into domestic melodramas, but I will admit that Douglas Sirk is a master of them. This one is solid if nothing particularly special. I mostly just wanted to keep yelling at MacMurray’s character that you need to check in with your family before you plan stuff, this is like marriage and family 101. Don’t get mad they made other plans when you didn’t even tell them your plans until five minutes before they were happening.

Adventures on Criterion: Snow Westerns and The Secret of Convict Lake

The other December series on Criterion Channel that interested me (besides Screwball Comedies) was Snow Westerns, which predictably features westerns set at wintertime and/or high in the mountains with lots of snow. It’s a neat and unexpected feature to structure programming around, and I am here for it. McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971) was my first thought when seeing the topic, and sure enough, that one’s here and a must-see. Another personal favorite in this series is Ride the High Country (1962), which deals with one of my favorite sub-genres of westerns (not snow, though there’s that as well) – the aging cowboy and the passing of the old West as civilization takes over. The Far Country (1955) is one of the best of the James Stewart-Anthony Mann collaborations, and they’re all good. Beyond those, there are a lot of new-to-me films to catch up with here, though I may stop short of watching Ravenous (1999), described as a “cannibal comedy”.

I started with the earliest film on the list, which is a typical move for me as I go through these series – I will read all the plot descriptions to choose based on interest, but frequently they all sound interesting and I just default to chronological order. That put 1951’s The Secret of Convict Lake first up. I had never heard of this, but a western with Glenn Ford and Gene Tierney interested me immediately. Ford is an escaped convict who managed to get across the Sierra Nevadas from Carson City along with five other convicts – he leads them to a small settlement on Lake Monte Diablo; they think he’s leading them there because he has stashed $40,000 from a robbery there. In fact, he was framed for the robbery and he’s going to kill the man who framed him. But when they get there, the men have all gone silver prospecting and the settlement is 100% women, another plot detail that interested me greatly (women alone in the west fascinates me as a plot point; see Westward the Women).

Additional plot twist: lovely Gene Tierney is the fiancee of the man who framed Ford. Now, you may ask, as I did, how are the top-billed big star actor and actress going to become each other’s love interests, as you assume they will, if she’s in love with the man he’s sworn to kill? The writers work it out, trust me. The film is intense in a lot of different ways, as there are lots of dangers here. Also, there’s a great late role for the iconic Ethel Barrymore as the matriarch of the settlement. She may be bedridden for most of the film, but she has a force of character that towers over everything. She’s frail-bodied, but she is definitely iron-willed.

The voiceover at the end of the film claims it’s a true story, and that Lake Monte Diablo was renamed Convict Lake due to this incident. Of course I had to look that up immediately. There is a grain of truth in it – there is a Convict Lake in California (near Mammoth) and it was named that due to a posse catching up with a bunch (like 30) escaped Carson City convicts near that lake, in a creek named Monte Diablo. The female-only settlement, the robbery frame-up, the love story – no sign of any of that in history. I’ll go on the record saying I’m glad the film added those elements. Historical verisimilitude is overrated in many cases.

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