Category Archives: 1937

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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THIS FILM IS ALSO DISCUSSED IN SUM UP | LUISE RAINER: AN INCOMPLETE FILMOGRAPHY.

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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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THIS FILM IS ALSO DISCUSSED IN SUM UP | LUISE RAINER: AN INCOMPLETE FILMOGRAPHY.

It Happened in Hollywood (1937, Harry Lachman)

It Happened in Hollywood is very nearly a success, which is surprising since most of the film is entirely mediocre. There’s a great lead performance from Richard Dix, as a silent movie cowboy who can’t make it in talkies (though, to be fair, the one bombed screen-test scene was more used to comment on the industry’s problematic transition to sound), and it’s nice whenever Fay Wray shows up as his regular onscreen love interest and off-screen possible love interest, but she’s not in it much. And the script doesn’t start getting inventive until well into the second half of the film, which only runs sixty-seven minutes. The direction, which has all sorts of opportunities to comment on sound storytelling versus silent storytelling, misses them all. Then in the second half, when Kid Melodrama starts kicking in (more on him in a moment), director Lachman misses the most perfect opportunity, one where it’s hard to forgive him.

Because Lachman isn’t a lazy director by any means. Hollywood is on a budget for sure, but Lachman and cinematographer Joseph Walker have a lot of big establishing shots (and small ones) and the one fight scene is good. Even if the production values are a little slim. It’s just Lachman isn’t interested in the story and Hollywood needs someone interested in it. Dix seems pretty interested in it, Wray seems pretty interested in it (when she’s around); the entire supporting cast, with the sole exception of Kid Melodrama, is solid. And they need to be really solid for what the script does with them in the second half. Hollywood doesn’t necessarily start with a lot of potential, but it builds up steadily throughout. Only to choke in the finale and not even because of Kid Melodrama. So let’s get to Kid Melodrama.

Kid Melodrama is Bill Burrud. He’s in the hospital at the start of the film, which is where we meet Dix. He’s on a children’s hospital tour, showing his latest silent Western with Fay Wray as his damsel. He’s the biggest Western star in Hollywood, beloved by children nationwide. Both boys and girls based on the hospital audience, which makes it weird when Dix gives a speech ignoring the girls. Something similar happens again even worse at the end, but it’s not the finale choke so it’s just, you know, 1937.

Anyway. Burrud. Burrud is the sickest kid on the ward. He’s going in for surgery and it doesn’t look good, but Dix promises the kid he can visit Dix and his horse in Hollywood if he gets better. Sadly, Burrud gets better. And he sends Dix letters throughout the first half, which chronicles Dix’s immediate and catastrophic fall from stardom in the first few months of the talkies. While he fails, Wray succeeds. For a short while it seems like the film might be about them, even though Wray’s in the film less and less. When Dix gets a chance in talkies again thanks to the aforementioned fight scene, it’s in one of Wray’s pictures, but only barely returns to Hollywood. She’s around for a second, then disappears again, including from Dix’s disaster. Because Dix is scared of her.

Basically Hollywood is forty-four year old Dix acting like a bashful teenager. Wray’s not much better, but she’s a little better. Dix pulls it off, sure, but eventually it gets a little tiresome, which coincides nicely with Dix deciding to abandon Hollywood forever.

Luckily for him, Kid Melodrama Burrud shows up. He got better just to come out and see Dix and he’s an orphan and the foster care guy makes fun of Dix all the time and Hollywood too. Even though Burrud’s annoying as hell, Dix’s concern for him works. Out of nowhere, It Happened in Hollywood all of a sudden gets to do something different. For a while, it gets rather inventive.

So the utterly pointless finish, which actually manages to interrupt a rather nice scene for Dix and Wray where it seems like at least the script understands how things echo throughout the picture… it’s disappointing. And silly. The film all of a sudden stops taking itself seriously just so it can wrap up. Nicely, Dix and Wray have enough charm to get through.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Harry Lachman; screenplay by Ethel Hill, Harvey Fergusson, and Samuel Fuller, based on a story by Myles Connolly; director of photography, Joseph Walker; edited by Al Clark; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Richard Dix (Tim Bart), Bill Burrud (Billy – The Kid), Fay Wray (Gloria Gay), Victor Kilian (Slim), Charles Arnt (Jed Reed), Granville Bates (Sam Bennett), William B. Davidson (Al Howard), Arthur Loft (Pete), Edgar Dearing (Joe Stevens), James Donlan (Shorty), Franklin Pangborn (Mr. Forsythe), Zeffie Tilbury (Miss Gordon), Harold Goodwin (Buck), and Charles Brinley (Pappy).


THIS POST IS PART OF FAY WRAY AND ROBERT RISKIN, THE BLOGATHON HOSTED BY ANNMARIE OF CLASSIC MOVIE HUB AND AURORA OF ONCE UPON A SCREEN.


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Dick Tracy (1937, Ray Taylor and Alan James)

Dick Tracy starts reasonably strong, which one forgets as the serial plods through the near five hours of its fifteen chapters. The first chapter’s a decent enough pilot, with lead Ralph Byrd actually solving a crime, something he doesn’t really do later on. It doesn’t even open with him, instead there’s a creepy introduction to the master–mystery–villain, The Spider. Or the Lame One. Because he’s got a club foot. And is hideously ugly. Only the bad guys in the Spider Gang know to call him the Lame One though. The good guys all call him the Spider. Maybe screenwriters Barry Shipman and Winston Miller had some logic to that one. Maybe it’s just bad. By the end of Dick Tracy, the latter seems more likely.

Byrd’s a G-Man in San Francisco. But he spends most of his time in his home, where he’s got his crime lab. Because the FBI doesn’t have one. He’s got two FBI agent subordinates, capable Fred Hamilton and inept moron Smiley Burnette. They all work for Francis X. Bushman. Byrd employs Kay Hughes as a lab assistant and she seems to have some kind of possible romance with his brother, Richard Beach. In the first chapter, Byrd takes in young Lee Van Atta as his ward; Van Atta has witnessed a crime or something. It involves the Spider Gang. It doesn’t matter. Van Atta’s just around to give Burnette someone to be stupid around. At some point in the serial, Van Atta starts making fun of Burnette for being a bungling idiot too. Everyone does. It’s very hard to have any respect for the Western FBI when they’ve got Burnette in their employ.

And once their competency in that hiring decision is raised… well, then it becomes more and more clear, Byrd isn’t very good at his job. Even before the serial hits the repeat button in the last few chapters–after the recap chapter (because it takes Byrd until chapter twelve to actually try to figure out the Spider’s identity)–and Byrd ends up in the same gang clubhouse they’d raided four or five chapters before. One could chalk it up to Tracy being a serial and the filmmakers assuming the audience might have missed a chapter here or there and not remember. But the whole thing hinges on details from the first chapter, which get visual refreshers throughout, but not expository ones. It’s really badly written. Shipman and Miller are awful with neccesary exposition.

Instead they’ve got Burnette goofing things up. Including him going on the radio and making a fool of himself, which everyone thinks is hilarious. Except the poor guy in charge of the broadcast. That single performance–the mortified radio announcer–is the most honest thing in Dick Tracy after the first chapter. Because it’s not like the serial ever redeems itself once it goes off the rails. The last chapter, despite having a modicum of potential, is a fail. A cheap fail. Dick Tracy’s production values peak around the halfway point in the serial, then plummet for the last four chapters.

Since it’s an unknown evil mastermind, the main villain is Carleton Young. Young is playing Byrd’s brother, only after he’s been in a car accident and had brain surgery to make him evil. And plastic surgery to make him unrecognizable. Initially, it seems like the Spider and his mad scientist (an underutilized John Picorri) want Young to be some kind of foil for Byrd because he’s his brother, but then it turns out no. They just can’t get good criminal help without doing brain surgery to make people evil. Even though Young’s name is Gordon Tracy and his mission is to kill Dick Tracy, apparently he never wonders why they’ve got the same last name.

Again, Shipman and Miller’s script is dumb.

Young easily gives the serial’s best performance. He’s arguably the only good performance. Hamilton’s affable as all heck, but his material is so bad–second-fiddle either to Byrd or, worse, Burnette–it’s hard to say if he’s good or not. Picorri’s all right too, even if he’s literally saddled with an unfortunate hunchback. Dick Tracy doesn’t borrow much from the comic strip outside using physical disabilites as signs of evil. You’d think all the bad guys were left-handed.

They aren’t obviously, it’d be too much work for directors James and Taylor, who–outside some of the special effects sequences (the bad guys have, for a while, a giant aircraft and there’s some great miniature work)–are either mediocre or bad. And the stunt work. When Dick Tracy can afford stunt work, which is basically until chapter three, they do all right.

Anyway. Hughes is bad, but in an amateurish sense. If she was the best person they screentested for the part–the only female role in most of the serial–well, the casting director clearly did Dick no favors but Hughes mostly just embarrasses herself. She’s got scenes where Burnette talks down to her. It’s humiliating.

Ann Ainslee shows up for a chapter as a female pilot–who Burnette mocks as well, which is messed up–and she’s actually good. It’s a shock and a too brief one, since she’s then gone.

Van Atta is more appealing at the start, when he’s Byrd’s proto-sidekick and not Burnette’s babysitter. Who knew the FBI frequently put minors in perilous situations. Again, it’s hard not to roll one’s eyes towards the end when Bushman raves about the capable G-Men he commands. They’re idiots. Off track, sorry. Once Van Atta teams up with Burnette, he’s no longer appealing. He’s something else to try to endure.

In the lead, Ralph Byrd is ineffective. He’s better, like everything else, at the start, but the more Young is in the serial, the more obvious Byrd’s not measuring up. The part’s thin, sure, but Byrd’s got no presence.

Technically, Dick Tracy usually disappoints. Outside the first chapter, there’s rarely any good photography. The editing is either middling or bad. The production values suggest an unsteady budget–the same shot of three sailors going up to deck to fight the good guys is reused every couple chapters, usually not when they’re supposed to be on a ship, starting either in chapter one or two.

There’s a decent fight sequence at one point, but the rest of the fistfights are terrible. Byrd can’t just not investigate or solve crimes or remember he’s been to a gang clubhouse before, he can’t fight. He also can’t tie knots.

Oh. And the cliffhanger resolutions are all lousy. There are occasionally some good setups, but then their resolutions are always as inventive as… Byrd turns the wheel of the car or rolls out of the way. Nothing is dangerous.

Outside the occasional miniature effects, which are gone by chapter ten, and Young’s performance, which amounts to zip, Dick Tracy is an utterly misspent five hours.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Ray Taylor and Alan James; screenplay by Barry Shipman and Winston Miller, based on a story by Morgan Cox and George Morgan and the comic strip by Chester Gould; directors of photography, Edgar Lyons and William Nobles; edited by Edward Todd, Helene Turner, and William Witney; produced by Nat Levine; released by Republic Pictures.

Starring Ralph Byrd (Dick Tracy), Kay Hughes (Gwen Andrews), Smiley Burnette (Mike McGurk), Lee Van Atta (Junior), John Picorri (Moloch), Carleton Young (Gordon), Fred Hamilton (Steve Lockwood), Francis X. Bushman (Chief Clive Anderson), Wedgwood Nowell (H.T. Clayton), Louis Morrell (Walter Potter), Edwin Stanley (Walter Odette), Ann Ainslee (Betty Clayton), and Milburn Morante (Death Valley Johnny).


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