All posts by Andrew Wickliffe

The Good Earth (1937, Sidney Franklin)

For maybe the first ninety minutes of The Good Earth, it seems like the most interesting thing to talk about is going to be how the filmmakers were able to make the lead characters in the film appear sympathetic while they were being, frankly, un-American. It makes sense, since the main characters are Chinese. The film’s set in the early twentieth century—with the 1911 Xinhai Revolution playing a short but important part, at least for the sake of plot contrivance and spectacle. At one point, upon moving south, on the run from famine, farmer’s wife Luise Rainer teaches her children how to panhandle. The scene’s particularly striking because you can’t really imagine any other big budget Hollywood movie on the late 1930s endorsing panhandling. And you also can’t imagine them doing it without a white actor endorsing it. Because Rainer is not Chinese. Neither is her husband, played by Paul Muni. Neither is his father, played by Charley Grapewin. And neither is Walter Connolly, playing Grapewin’s brother and Muni’s uncle. And neither is Tilly Losch, as the other woman. And Jessie Ralph, as the slave supervisor who tormented Rainer before she was married off? She’s definitely not Chinese either.

There are some Chinese actors in the film, but not for quite a while. For whatever reason, Good Earth doesn’t give the Asian-American actors anything to do until it’s Keye Luke and Roland Lui as Rainer and Muni’s sons. Weird how two white people in a bunch of makeup had Asian kids. Suzanna Kim is their daughter (grown), but she’s gone mute and dumb because of starving as a toddler, when famine hit and Muni wouldn’t sell his land because the movie’s all about him going from poor farmer to successful capitalist and losing his soul in the process. Though—and I’m going to be jumping around because Good Earth is really boring and and I don’t want to go through it linearly—but it’s not like Muni had much soul in the first place. He spends the first half of the film as a bit of a moron. He’s good-hearted, hard-working, sweet to wife Rainer, but he’s a dope. He talks all the time too, so much Rainer barely gets any lines. You’d think the filmmakers realized how obnoxious Grapewin’s performance was getting so they stopped giving him monologues (which Grapewin performs, albeit in yellow-face, a hillbilly stereotype), but in the last third or whatever, they give Connolly a bunch to do and he’s even worse than Grapewin, particularly in terms of the “Chinese” performance. Connolly, Losch, and Ralph are the worst performances. Ralph’s only got two scenes but she’s real, real bad. It’d be nice to say Luke and Lui are any good, but they’re not. Lui’s at least sympathetic. Luke’s got zero personality. Muni’s shockingly okay until the second half, when he’s got to play the rich man (who only got rich because, after almost being trampled to death in a riot—and left for dead—Rainer finds a bag of jewels), and then he’s bad. Muni’s too much of a dope in the first half to be believable in the second. The old age makeup for him is also weird. Rainer’s old age make up is fine, arguably better than just her yellow-face, but something goes wrong on Muni’s.

Rainer’s performance is… complicated. Well, not the performance, but whether or not it’s successful. See, the film posits one of the great things about China being the respect for the patriarchal system. Wives obey. Having multiple wives isn’t cool—one’s all a farmer needs—especially not when you’ve got one who gets up and makes you breakfast, works the field pregnant, delivers her babies by herself, and… I don’t know, doesn’t have any self-interest. Though Rainer eventually does get a monologue about the importance of not having any self-interest. And women also don’t get to talk much, especially not when the men are talking. So Rainer is already doing yellow-face, in this part where she’s not allowed any agency (in fact it’d be a failing), she doesn’t get many lines, she doesn’t have much chemistry with Muni. With those constraints? She’s fine. She’s really good in the old age makeup.

The film’s a technical marvel—just one with a lot of dragging sequences in between. There’s a great storm sequence at the beginning, the riot scene is well-executed (as action, not some much how Franklin shoots it), and the locust attack is phenomenal. There are occasionally some phenomenally edited quick cuts from Basil Wrangell. More than occasionally. Or at least more than the occasional bad cuts the film also features, though the bad cuts aren’t ever in those quick cut montages. They’re usually in dramatic scenes between Rainer and Muni in the first half, when they’ve got more chemistry than the script and director requires, but less than the film needs.

The montages are awesome though. Up until the second half, it at least seems like Good Earth is going to be able to keep going thanks to technical achievement.

But the stuff with Muni as a rich lord, listening to now sidekick crook uncle Connolly while dad Grapewin wastes away at the old house (now an estate), suffering from dementia… that stuff isn’t just tedious, it’s also narratively pointless. None of it ends up mattering for the film, except to drag Muni through the mud enough—combined with the weird makeup—to make him totally unsympathetic. Bummer.

I suppose, for a film no one ever should have produced the way they produced it, The Good Earth has some success. But it’s far more interesting as a relic of ingrained racism or maybe even a commentary on the nature of cross-cultural adaptation than a film. Muni and Rainer survive it, though Muni’s dangerously close to running out of first half momentum by the end.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Sidney Franklin; screenplay by Talbot Jennings, Tess Slesinger, and Claudine West, based on the novel by Pearl S. Buck; director of photography, Karl Freund; edited by Basil Wrangell; music by Herbert Stothart; produced by Albert Lewin; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Paul Muni (Wang), Luise Rainer (O-Lan), Charley Grapewin (Old Father), Tilly Losch (Lotus), Walter Connolly (Uncle), Soo Yong (Aunt), Keye Luke (Elder Son), Roland Lui (Younger Son), Suzanna Kim (Daughter), and Jessie Ralph (Cuckoo).


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The Emperor’s Candlesticks (1937, George Fitzmaurice)

The Emperor’s Candlesticks starts with an exceptional display of chemistry from Robert Young and Maureen O’Sullivan. They’re at the opera, it’s the late nineteenth century, it’s a masked costume ball, Young is a Grand Duke dressed as Romeo, and O’Sullivan is the sun.

Then it turns out O’Sullivan is working with a bunch of Polish nationalists who want to kidnap Young and ransom him for a political prisoner getting a pardon from the Czar (Young’s dad). Young and O’Sullivan aren’t the leads of the picture, the leads of the picture are William Powell and Luise Rainer. Powell’s an ostensibly apolitical Polish noble who’s more interested in philandering than revolting, Rainer’s a Russian noble who’s a professional spy. So Powell gets the mission to bring Young’s letter to the Czar and get the prisoner freed. Simultaneously, Rainer’s compatriots have discovered Powell’s actually a spy too. So she’s charged with bringing evidence of his treachery to St. Petersburg.

They both have a mutual acquaintance in Henry Stephenson, who wants Powell to take a pair of candlesticks to a Russian princess Stephenson is courting. The candlesticks have this awesome hidden compartment and Powell’s more than happy to do Stephenson the favor, since the hidden compartment is perfect for the letter he’s got to transport.

Powell gets ahead of himself and puts the note in before taking possession of the candlesticks, which Stephenson wants to have delivered to Powell at the train station. Seems like everything’s going to be fine, until—just missing Powell—Rainer pays Stephenson a visit and he can’t resist showing her the hidden compartment either. Powell’s worried about getting his document into Russia, Rainer’s worried about getting her documents out of Poland. It doesn’t take much for Rainer to charm Stephenson into letting her deliver the candlesticks to his lady friend. Rainer puts her documents in the other candlestick; they’re distinguished by some slight damage.

So there’s already the trouble—for Powell—of catching up to Rainer and getting at the candlesticks. But then there’s Bernadine Hayes, Rainer’s maid, who’s let thief Donald Kirke talk her into robbing her mistress of her jewelry… and her candlesticks. So then there’s going to be trouble for everyone, leading to a sometimes joint effort from Powell and Rainer, sometimes separate, across the continent. Powell’s mission has a timeline (the prisoner’s execution is set and, therefore, Young’s is as well).

Powell and Rainer falling in love doesn’t help things, especially for her, since she knows about her mission and its repercussions for Powell (he’ll be arrested, then shot by firing squad), while Powell is just trying to make sure neither the prisoner or the Grand Duke run out of time.

Powell and Rainer falling for each other pretty early, which works out well because they’ve got to bring enough chemistry to overshadow the memory of Young and O’Sullivan’s at the beginning. They do, with Rainer doing the heavier lifting as she’s falling for a man she’s condemning, but the film’s got to keep that angle pretty light—Powell’s whole persona in the picture is based on him not acting at all like a secret agent, but a playboy, including when he’s hustling to get the candlesticks. He’s doing it—he tells Rainer—because as a gentleman he should be aiding a lady in distress. Little does he know he’s causing Rainer a great deal more distress than she anticipated.

With the exception of Frank Morgan’s out-of-place introduction (he’s Young’s sidekick, in and out of captivity), Candlesticks is a joyous. Powell and Rainer are wonderful, O’Sullivan and Young are great, Stephenson’s fun. Morgan’s a little much but not enough to hurt the experience. And Morgan’s fine, he just takes up time Young could be spending with O’Sullivan.

Fitzmaurice’s direction is good. Every once in a while Candlesticks will go to second unit exteriors, which gives it a nice scale. With the exception of a (second unit-fueled) montage sequence, Conrad A. Nervig’s editing is poor. Lots of harsh cuts, a handful of severe jump cuts. Some of it is lack of coverage, but Nervig doesn’t have a good rhythm. Luckily the actors are so good and the Harold Goldman and Monckton Hoffe script is so strong, Nervig’s rough editing doesn’t do much damage. It’s occasionally grating.

Otherwise, the film’s technically solid.

Thanks to Powell and Rainer (and Young and O’Sullivan), The Emperor’s Candlesticks is a constant delight.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by George Fitzmaurice; screenplay by Harold Goldman and Monckton Hoffe, based on a novel by Baroness Emmuska Orczy; director of photography, Harold Rosson; edited by Conrad A. Nervig; music by Franz Waxman; produced by John W. Considine Jr.; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring William Powell (Baron Stephan Wolensky), Luise Rainer (Countess Olga Mironova), Robert Young (Grand Duke Peter), Maureen O’Sullivan (Maria Orlich), Bernadene Hayes (Mitzi Reisenbach), Donald Kirke (Anton), Frank Morgan (Col. Baron Suroff), and Henry Stephenson (Prince Johann).


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The Maltese Falcon (1931, Roy Del Ruth)

Not to be too obvious, but I really wasn’t expecting a twist ending for The Maltese Falcon. But only because I’ve… read the book, seen the 1941 version, seen spoofs of it; I sort of figured I’d be able to guess the plot turns. And I did, right up until the end, when Falcon shows its been doing an entirely different kind of subterfuge than usual. The film even takes a moment to acknowledge that twist and take a bit of a bow. It’s all quite the surprise.

But Maude Fulton and Brown Holmes’s script always seems too good for the production. Falcon is an early talkie. Director Del Ruth has no idea how to do close-ups—he and cinematographer William Rees—don’t match the angles right, the actors aren’t in the same spots, editor George Marks isn’t doing any extra favors (he doesn’t know how to cut line deliveries). The film does have some good visual storytelling ideas, but they’re mostly transition stuff; who knows maybe the script has the transitions. Or they’re just where Del Ruth has the best ideas. But—throughout—it’s clear this script deserved a better execution. Not as an adaptation of the source novel, but the script itself.

It’s not just the choppy filmmaking, it’s the acting. The best performance in the film is Una Merkel as Ricardo Cortez’s girl Friday. There’s a lot of implication they’re having an affair, but she doesn’t mind playing wing-girl for him hooking up with every other woman he meets in the movie until the last scene. Like, Cortez is a shocking man slut, so much so it forgives his performance. He comes off like a bit of a dandy, but then he’s able to toggle into being tough; he’s better at being tough. He’s a sociopath. So’s leading lady Bebe Daniels. Or is he falling for her and blind to it? Or vice versa? And those aspects of both characters is straight from the script, from how they behave, react to outside stimuli, whatever. It comes through in the film, but isn’t really presented well. It’s like the script has a point to make about the source novel, but the actual film doesn’t get the script is trying to make a point, but still precisely follows the script.

Falcon’s also pre-Code, so lots of sexy, lots of scanty. Since the film revolves around Cortez and Cortez is apparently only in the private detective racket so he can score with vulnerable women… even though Del Ruth and Rees can’t figure out how to match a shot perspective between close-up and two shot, they do manage to create a fantastic narrative distance. It’s just it needs to be identified, which doesn’t happen until the twist ending.

Back to the acting.

Cortez is okay. It works out, but it’s occasionally a little much. He’s only got like two things he can do. Three if you count him putting his hands in his vest pockets. Daniels is similar. She’s got some really good moments, but they’re spread out wrong. The film doesn’t know how to emphasize its actors’ deliveries, which is most on display with ostensible scenery-chewer Dudley Digges. Digges is a sweaty mess of vague but obvious sinfulness with major interpersonal communication issues. And somehow Del Ruth, Rees, and Marks manage to drain all the momentum from his deliveries with how they cut between shots. Maltese Falcon has a lot of pacing issues, down to reaction times for actors. There’s a lot of talking in the film; the vast majority of the film is just talking. And Del Ruth never figures out how to keep up the momentum of it. It’s like it ought to be stagy, but isn’t. Del Ruth is overenthusiastic when it comes to emphasizing the performances.

And it mostly hurts Digges. Hurts Matieson a bit, but not as much. Matieson doesn’t bit down on a sofa arm and rip it apart. Digges goes wild.

Walter Long’s good enough as Cortez’s partner. Thelma Todd is about as good but wasted as Long’s wife, who Cortez is having an affair with; naturally. Though, again, the twist. It covers a lot of storytelling choices from the script, including who gets screen time and how. Robert Elliott is annoying as the by-the-books cop. He comes off as an idiot, not a capable crime solver. J. Farrell MacDonald is fine as the good cop. They’re around a lot, but they don’t really matter because they’re not women Cortez can try to make time with.

The Maltese Falcon is way too blasé about itself. It’s got an exceptionally good script, but Del Ruth doesn’t seem to know what to do about it. Or with it.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Roy Del Ruth; screenplay by Maude Fulton and Brown Holmes, based on the novel by Dashiell Hammett; director of photography, William Rees; edited by George Marks; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Bebe Daniels (Ruth Wonderly), Ricardo Cortez (Sam Spade), Dudley Digges (Casper Gutman), Una Merkel (Effie Perine), Robert Elliott (Detective Lt. Dundy), Thelma Todd (Iva Archer), Otto Matieson (Dr. Joel Cairo), Walter Long (Miles Archer), Dwight Frye (Wilmer Cook), and J. Farrell MacDonald (Det. Sgt. Tom Polhouse).


THIS POST IS PART OF THE MYSTERY MANIA BLOGATHON HOSTED BY ROBIN OF POP CULTURE REVERIE.


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Hostages (1943, Frank Tuttle)

At one point during Hostages, I thought there might actually be a good performance in it somewhere. Czech freedom fighter Katina Paxinou faces off with her mother over her Resistance work. It has the potential for a good moment, turns out it’s just an adequate one (amid the sea of inadequate ones in the film). Because there aren’t any good moments. It’s not like leads Luise Rainer and Arturo de Córdova have an iota of chemistry. Or like William Bendix out of nowhere gives a great performance as a famous Czech Resistance fighter (he doesn’t; he’s godawful). Maybe Oskar Homolka as the sniveling collaborator has the closest thing to a good moment, but director Tuttle doesn’t showcase it.

Tuttle doesn’t showcase anything in Hostages. He’s astoundingly disinterested in the film, going through the same series of setups, one after the other. Two shot, four shot, three shot. They all look exactly the same. It’s fine; it’s not like Archie Marshek would do any better with good shots. Even with the tepid ones, Marshek’s cuts screw up performances. They’re not going to be great performances (Lester Cole and Frank Butler’s script is even flatter than Tuttle’s direction) but they could be better. Marshek messes up Rainer the most. She’s already got a lousy role and bad cuts take away any hope for her to improve it. Though, again, she’s not really interested in it. No one’s got any enthusiasm.

Hostages is about Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia. Homolka is the collaborating coal millionaire. Rainer’s his daughter. Roland Varno’s her fiancé. Homolka gets rounded up on a bum charge with Bendix (who’s masquerading as a washroom attendant—spoiler, no toilets or sinks) and twenty-four other innocent people. The Nazis (led by Paul Lukas) are going to shoot them. See, the Nazis know it’s a bum charge but they want to steal the coal business from Homolka. de Córdova is the seemingly collaborative newspaperman who’s actually a Resistance fighter. It’s kind of obvious when you think about it but, even though Lukas is better at his job than the other Nazis, is actually really bad at his job.

So Varno and Rainer go to de Córdova needing his help to get Homolka released, while de Córdova wants to get Bendix released, while Lukas isn’t releasing anyone no matter what because coal. Eventually Rainer gets pulled in the Resistance, symbolically rejecting her collaborative father and fiancé, but not really giving Rainer anything approaching acting material. Everything comes out in bad exposition, sometimes god-awfully performed by Bendix.

While Bendix is woefully miscast in the film—he obviously is wrong for the part (and the only Yank amid foreign stars)—for a while you can at least pity him. But then Hostages gets even more tedious and it’s often thanks to Bendix’s bad acting. And then you realize you’re only a half hour in and there’s another hour and, wow, how did they mess this one up. The film doesn’t care about the titular Hostages, just Homolka and Bendix. There’s no saccharine introduction to the rest of the prisoners. The film’s mercenary in its disinterest.

It also has a cop out ending, which is the final nail. It was never going to go out well, but it goes out at its weakest. Okay, maybe not it’s weakest weakest because Bendix at least isn’t monologuing, which he does often and badly.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Frank Tuttle; screenplay by Lester Cole and Frank Butler, based on the novel by Stefan Heym; director of photography, Victor Milner; edited by Archie Marshek; music by Victor Young; produced by Sol C. Siegel; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Arturo de Córdova (Paul Breda), Luise Rainer (Milada Pressinger), William Bendix (Janoshik), Roland Varno (Jan Pavel), Oskar Homolka (Lev Pressinger), Katina Paxinou (Maria), and Paul Lukas (Rheinhardt).


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