Category Archives: 1935

Murder in the Fleet (1935, Edward Sedgwick)

Murder in the Fleet is a reasonably diverting little B murder mystery; Frank Wead and Joseph Sherman’s script is almost better than the film deserves, given it doesn’t even run seventy minutes and doesn’t even bother pretending it’s got subplots. Well, outside top-billed and sort of lead Robert Taylor’s romantic troubles with blue blood Jean Parker. And then the slapstick rivalry between Nat Pendleton and Ted Healy, mostly over Una Merkel.

It’s visitor day on a Navy cruiser–the film obviously shot on one, sometimes to better effect than other times (the constant projection shots for the exterior deck scenes are flat)–but it’s also the day a new firing system needs to get installed. A top secret firing system. Taylor’s in charge of that installation, Pendleton’s on his crew. Only both men want to see their respective gals, Parker and Merkel. Thanks to the contrived presence of civilian mechanical something or other Healy (who’s had a rivalry with Pendleton for some time), Merkel ends up onboard. Parker’s there to try to get Taylor to quit his low-paying Navy job and go work for her dad. Her character’s a hideous human being, something the captain (Arthur Byron) tells her to her face in a lively scene.

There’s also a foreign dignitary visiting–Mischa Auer in semi-yellowface, an uncredited Keye Luke as his secretary–and the film throws some suspicion their way once the murders start taking place.

Donald Cook is in charge of investigating, but he’s a dipshit (and Taylor’s ostensible rival in general), so whenever there’s action to be taken, it’s on Taylor.

It’s a solid cast and the screenwriters give the supporting characters enough personality in their dialogue to make them somewhat sympathetic most of the time. As Fleet goes on, it gets more and more difficult to suspect any of the crew. Even the obvious targets. Cook, for example, would make a lot of sense personality-wise–he’s jealous no one tries to bribe him, just Taylor–but he’s got an onscreen alibi.

Taylor’s a strong lead. Byron’s great as the captain. Pendleton and Healy are fun. Pendleton and Merkel are cute. The whole thing about her throwing over Pendleton for the odious Healy… doesn’t give Merkel much credit. Parker’s successful being a terrible human being? The movie reforms her along the way, won over by the U.S. Navy, which shouldn’t a surprise given the U.S. Navy’s involvement in the making of the film.

Director Sedgwick does all right too. He’ll occasionally have some really interesting shots, then he’ll also have some really boring ones. The interesting ones tend to be in the cruiser interior, where he’s presumably constrained and has to be inventive. On deck, he’s got the same medium two shot over and over again. Or a long two shot. They’re always the same boring profile shots against projection. But when he’s actually got depth of in the shot? Usually decent. Cinematographer Milton R. Krasner does well shooting both the mediocre and the inventive, he’s more than capable.

Murder in the Fleet is never exciting (the murderer reveal is a shrug), but it’s always fine. Except Merkel taking Healy seriously as a suitor, of course. Pendleton might be a bit of a doof, but he’s an adorable doof.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Edward Sedgwick; screenplay by Frank Wead and Joseph Sherman, based on a story by Sedgwick; director of photography, Milton R. Krasner; edited by Conrad A. Nervig; produced by Lucien Hubbard; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Robert Taylor (Lt. Tom Randolph), Arthur Byron (Capt. John Winslow), Nat Pendleton (‘Spud’ Burke), Ted Healy (Mac O’Neill), Jean Parker (Betty Lansing), Una Merkel (‘Toots’ Timmons), Donald Cook (Lt. Cmdr. David Tucker), Raymond Hatton (Al Duval), Jean Hersholt (Victor Hanson), Richard Tucker (Jeffries), Tom Dugan (‘Greasy’), Mischa Auer (Kamchukan Consul).


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The 39 Steps (1935, Alfred Hitchcock)

There are numerous good moments in The 39 Steps. Even the clunky finale is a good moment–director Hitchcock knows he’s got a good moment, he just doesn’t know how to fill in around it. This inability on Hitchcock’s part makes The 39 Steps immediately interesting when compared to the rest of Hitchcock’s filmography, but far less on its own. The film’s got a bad pace at less than ninety minutes. It’s a “man on the run” thriller with constant danger and it’s got a bad pace.

For the first half of the film, when lead Robert Donat finds out about a conspiracy against Great Britain and tries to stop it, is all right. There’s some great editing by Derek N. Twist and Hitchcock does well with the commentary on Londoners. And Donat and Lucie Mannheim, who plays a spy, have some solid chemistry. Donat’s just a regular guy–a Canadian who does business occasionally in London–so all this intrigue is a big deal for him. Only it’s not, because Donat doesn’t have a character to play. Charles Bennett and Ian Hay’s script does nothing for its characters–the most interesting thing Donat does is flirt with suffering housewife Peggy Ashcroft. It’s 39 Steps best scene in a lot of ways, because it’s entirely successful. Even Hitchock’s ambitious set pieces later on in the film aren’t entirely successful. There’s always something off, be it the editing–Twist is far better at confusion than action–or Bernard Knowles’s simultaneously impressive and problematic cinematography. Most of the set pieces have a big, detailed set to play out on and Knowles shoots them blandly. Hitchcock doesn’t use them well either, which is another problem (and reason 39 Steps is historically splendid), but the lighting would help a lot.

And then there’s “leading lady” Madeleine Carroll. Hitchcock, Bennett and Hay work to make her as unlikable as possible, then she gets her big revelation scene and gets to moon over Donat. See, she doesn’t believe he’s a good guy.

There’s a certain charm to how the film builds up–Donat moving around, meeting various people–even villain Godfrey Tearle only gets a few scenes and his mid-second act showdown with Donat is brief. The film uses that narrative device, which is mostly expository but imaginatively handled, for so long, it becomes the most distinct element of the film. And then Hitchcock chucks it for the last third.

The action set pieces during the chase in Scotland have a lot of enthusiasm but they just don’t connect. Maybe if Carroll and Donat had some actual chemistry when she’s got to hate him but they don’t. It’s even worse because Bennett and Hay go out of their way to make her worse. And she ends up the protagonist in the third act so Hitchcock can do a couple surprises. It’s got a lot of problems.

I can’t be particularly disappointed in The 39 Steps because it never actually seems like anything is going to fully connect. Hitchcock doesn’t have the narrative distance down, he doesn’t have the balance between cinematographic devices and narrative ones. Though that second half is so poorly paced, it just annoys.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock; screenplay by Charles Bennett and Ian Hay, based on the novel by John Buchan; director of photography, Bernard Knowles; edited by Derek N. Twist; produced by Michael Balcon; released by Gaumont British Distributors.

Starring Robert Donat (Hannay), Madeleine Carroll (Pamela), Lucie Mannheim (Miss Smith), Godfrey Tearle (Professor Jordan), Peggy Ashcroft (Crofter’s Wife), John Laurie (Crofter), Helen Haye (Mrs. Jordan) and Wylie Watson (Mr. Memory).


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Werewolf of London (1935, Stuart Walker)

Werewolf of London. He actually does need a tailor, because he’s a gentleman and gentleman dress for the evening. For whatever reason, director Walker seems to spend more time on lead Henry Hull getting dressed while a werewolf than doing much else while a werewolf. There are a couple effects shots in the film involving Hull as a werewolf, but Walker and photographer Charles J. Stumar bumble them terribly.

Walker has a very stagy understanding of composition. I’m using stagy as a pejorative. John Colton’s script does nothing to dissuade that style either. Werewolf of London isn’t a horror picture, it’s a society melodrama in search of a point. Yes, Hull is cursed with lycanthropy but he’s still just a jerk to his wife, a floundering but sympathetic Valerie Hobson. All he does is work. He’s one of those obnoxious work-at-home botanists. Hobson starts hanging around old beau Lester Matthews just as Hull becomes more and more insufferable. He’s not just a rude jerk to her, he’s a rude jerk to fellow botanist Warner Oland. Sure, Oland’s a werewolf too, but he’s a botanist first.

Hull’s bad. Oland’s good. Hobson is fine. Matthews is bad. It’s a bad script. Overall, Werewolf of London has nothing going for it. A better script or a better director would help, but it’s conceptually a mess. Walker can’t even take advantage of Hull actually being good as the werewolf or the makeup being excellent. He gets like three decent shots of the titular monster.

But there’s also Spring Byington. She plays Hobson’s society cousin. She’s awesome. Even in bad scenes, Byington is good. It’s like she knows how to make this material work for her. Same goes for Ethel Griffies and Zeffie Tilbury. They’re dueling landladies and drinking chumps who run afoul of Hull’s werewolf.

There’s also all the morality lessons in Colton’s script regarding wandering spouses, which encourage the idea of approaching Werewolf of London as a relic of mid-thirties Universal studio filmmaking and Hollywood and so on. It’s definitely a better approach than going into it looking for a good film.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Stuart Walker; screenplay by John Colton, based on a story by Robert Harris; director of photography, Charles J. Stumar; edited by Russell F. Schoengarth; music by Karl Hajos; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Henry Hull (Dr. Glendon), Valerie Hobson (Lisa Glendon), Warner Oland (Dr. Yogami), Lester Matthews (Paul Ames), Spring Byington (Miss Ettie Coombes), Lawrence Grant (Sir Thomas Forsythe), Clark Williams (Hugh Renwick), J.M. Kerrigan (Hawkins), Ethel Griffies (Mrs. Whack), Zeffie Tilbury (Mrs. Moncaster) and Charlotte Granville (Lady Forsythe).


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Fun Sunday! (1935, Jacques Berr)

It takes Fun Sunday! almost the entire short film to find its footing. The problem is director Berr; he has no comic timing. Sunday cuts a couple corners as far as budget–the sound cuts in and out, going over to music and not the background noise–but it’s rather ambitious stuff. Except for Berr. He doesn’t have any ambition.

Writers and stars Jacques Tati and Rhum, however, have lots of ambition. They do an alternative on the classic comic duo–instead of playing off each other, they play off the environment. Rhum has more to do, just because he has the magic tricks (which Berr really can’t shoot).

Just when Sunday seems to be winding down, Tati and Rhum get in one good gag after another and bring it to a great finish. Even with Berr screwing the beautifully lighted shots (Fun Sunday!’s uncredited cinematographer does some excellent work).

2/3Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Jacques Berr; written by Jacques Tati and Rhum.

Starring Jacques Tati and Rhum.


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