Category Archives: 1931

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).


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Hot Biskits (1931, Spencer Williams)

Hot Biskits refers to lead Thurston Briggs. He’s Hot Biskits, only he uses a pseudonym because he’s a con man. He’s got a cushy job as a miniature golf course manager; the owner is a crooked cop, who’s fine just so long as the managers don’t make any money on the side.

Although Briggs can’t play golf, he’s told everyone he’s the second best player in the world. An old acquantiance happens upon the mini-putt course and recognizes Briggs. Briggs, back in his cardsharp days, promised to take any bet.

Notice how long I’m going on with the recap? Biskits is like ten minutes. Writer, director, and costar Spencer Williams–he plays Briggs’s eventual partner in an attempt to cheat to win the game–Williams is busy. Lots is happening.

Williams has got a good sense of comic timing, both when acting and directing his cast. The only time the short drags is at the front, with Briggs’s pontification about his miniature golf skills. Biskits recovers real fast–after that opening, Briggs is great. That scene just didn’t work.

Most of Biskits works though; Williams makes some ambitious moves, mostly with dialogue comedy but also with the direction. The short’s on a budget and Williams has some ingenuity in keeping costs down. It’s short comedy but not slapstick.

Biskits is fun stuff.

2/3Recommended

CREDITS

Written and directed by Spencer Williams; director of photography, Glen Gano.

Starring Thurston Briggs (Prof. Zion Williams a.k.a. Hot Biskits) and Spencer Williams (Jim).


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A Connecticut Yankee (1931, David Butler)

A Connecticut Yankee fumbles on pretty much every level, including wasting lead Will Rogers. The big problem is the script, from William M. Conselman. It doesn’t help any director Butler can’t mount an action or comedy sequences, because there’s nothing else in the picture. It doesn’t even work as a Rogers vehicle because his character’s so poorly written.

The film opens in the present, with vaguely dopey electronics repairman slash radio station announcer Rogers going to an old dark house to deliver a battery. He meets the house’s strange inhabitants and then gets knocked unconscious by a falling suit of armor. When he wakes up, he’s in sixth century England. Has Rogers mystically travelled back in time or is he unconscious on a floor? Oh, the drama.

Regardless of inventiveness, the device should give the film a chance to reset. The film sets Rogers up as slightly lazy, mostly stupid. No doubt once he gets back to olden times he’ll make a change for the better. Not really, though. He’s still just a bit of a moron. Conselman’s script makes cracks about him being a Democrat–which is on brand for Rogers, but one would think he’d want better material than one-liners.

Rogers meets King Arthur (William Farnum) and Merlin (Brandon Hurst). Both Farnum and Hurst are bad, but it’s hard to blame them. Their writing is terrible and Butler’s direction of actors is somewhat worse than his direction of action. At least with the action, there’s the castle set. It’s fine. Not so much once Rogers modernizes Camelot. Right after he proves himself worthy, the film cuts to a Camelot with telephones, roller-skates, machine guns, tanks, cars, whatever else.

Because Rogers might be a questionably talented electrician and radio announcer, but he’s a king of all industry. Connecticut Yankee would probably be able to get away with it if there was any direction. Conselman’s script is too inept for comedy or commentary, as is Butler’s direction.

There’s an almost amusing knight vs. cowboy joust. Butler can’t direct it, unfortunately. Then Farnum and Rogers go adventuring; they need to rescue princess Maureen O’Sullivan from evil queen Myrna Loy.

Rogers gets sympathy, but he’s not good. Farnum’s not good. O’Sullivan is appealing but she has a handful of scenes and nothing to do. Same with Frank Albertson as Rogers’s pointless sidekick. Hurst is awful in a fun way as Merlin though. He’s always sprinkling dust on things. Because magic.

Loy’s probably the best? It’s hard to say, as Conselman’s script is so wretched; Loy at least gets to have some fantastic gowns.

The big action finale with knights with tommy-guns ought to be a lot better. Everything about Connecticut Yankee ought to be better. Conselman and Butler never have a handle on the film. They’re fumbling from scene one.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by David Butler; screenplay by William M. Conselman, based on a novel by Mark Twain; director of photography, Ernest Palmer; edited by Irene Morra; released by Fox Film Corporation.

Starring Will Rogers (Hank Martin), William Farnum (Arthur), Frank Albertson (Clarence), Brandon Hurst (Merlin), Maureen O’Sullivan (Alisande), Mitchell Harris (Sagramor), and Myrna Loy (Morgan le Fay).


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Drácula (1931, George Melford)

A lot of Drácula’s hundred minute runtime is spent with Eduardo Arozamena talking really slow to José Soriano Viosca and Barry Norton. Arozamena’s Professor Van Helsing (so nice to have such a familiar “brand” you can just talk about the characters and assume some passing familiarity) and Viosca and Norton are the guys who need to believe him about vampires. Dracula–played by Carlos Villarías–is after Norton’s fiancée Lupita Tovar. Viosca’s her father, though the film never really does anything with it.

Viosca and Norton are basically just around to hear Arozamena’s exposition. Director Melford does all right with it, actually. He seems to understand how much information they’re conveying because he usually breaks it up with some of Pablo Álvarez Rubio’s antics (as Renfield). Through some luck, screenwriter Baltasar Fernández Cué understands Rubio’s importance in the film. He opens the picture, he introduces the viewer not just to Villarías but to himself. Rubio is the only actor in the film to get a scene (or two) to himself. Everything else in the picture involves regular cast members. And Rubio’s really likable. It makes him a great tormented victim.

So Drácula is long. There’s no music and very little ambient sound. It’s often just watching Villarías walk around (in what appears–oddly–to be a London After Midnight homage). Melford’s lucky to have Tovar, who’s able to get enough sympathy from the audience just from her performance because there’s really not much character in Cué’s script.

As Tovar’s friend, Carmen Guerrero only gets two scenes and the script gives her more character. She’s good too (or gives the impression of having the ability to be good, but the film dumps her early).

Besides Norton, who’s terrible, and Viosca, who’s ineffective, Drácula is well-acted. Villarías’s got to play a walking, talking monster, which–when the film doesn’t give any character to said monster–might be the specific problem of Dracula adaptations, and he does stumble. But Melford gets a genuinely creepy conclusion when he finally kidnaps Tovar.

Tovar’s great. Did I already call her out?

Arozamena’s kind of fun as Van Helsing. He almost plays it like a comedy.

There are some editing problems (cutting in the footage from Tod Browning’s English language problems Dracula), but Arthur Tavares does well with this version’s footage. And George Robinson’s photography is magnificent. He’s so graceful Melford’s often employed dolly shots come off well.

Drácula’s pretty good. Not great, but pretty good.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by George Melford; screenplay by Baltasar Fernández Cué, based on the screenplay and play by Hamilton Dean, John L. Balderston and Garrett Fort and the novel by Bram Stoker; director of photography, George Robinson; edited by Arthur Tavares; produced by Carl Laemmle Jr.; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Carlos Villarías (Conde Drácula), Lupita Tovar (Eva), Barry Norton (Juan Harker), Pablo Álvarez Rubio (Renfield), Eduardo Arozamena (Van Helsing), José Soriano Viosca (Doctor Seward), Carmen Guerrero (Lucía), Amelia Senisterra (Marta) and Manuel Arbó (Martín).



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THIS POST IS PART OF THE HOLLYWOOD’S HISPANIC HERITAGE BLOGATHON HOSTED BY AURORA OF ONCE UPON A SCREEN.


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