Category Archives: 1938

The Toy Wife (1938, Richard Thorpe)

The only impressive thing about The Toy Wife (not good, not admirable) is the film’s ability to keep going professionally, no matter how stupid it gets. There are no easy outs in the picture; even when people start dying off to up the tragedy, there’s still a seemingly endless amount of run time remaining. The film only runs ninety-five minutes but seems like 195 years.

(The present action is something like six years, it gets a little unclear towards the end).

The problems with Toy Wife start before the action does. They start in the opening titles, when Theresa Harris’s credit as “Pick” appears onscreen. As in, holy shit is there going to be a slave named “Pick” in this movie? The answer is yes, yes indeed there is going to be a slave named “Pick” in Toy Wife. Because slavery is very important to Toy Wife. How wonderful it was for all the Louisianans to have slaves. There’s even a scene where—apparently in an attempt to humanize the character—rich widow Alma Kruger gives the gift of Jesus to her “black people.”

Toy Wife is based on a French play from the nineteenth century. The play is based in Europe. So screenwriter Zoe Akins added all the horrific racism. Whether it was her idea, the studio’s, or producer Merian C. Cooper’s… well, they’re all responsible and accountable regardless of who had the idea. And it’s not like Akins’s script would be good without all the racism. Akins’s script is the problem with the film. Director Thorpe staying engaged enough to get through the slough of a story… again, it’s not commendable but it’s impressive. One hopes other folks would have quit instead of putting this tripe to screen.

The Toy Wife of the title is “lead” Luise Rainer. She’s the younger daughter of wealthy plantation owner H.B Warner (who’s barely in the movie and comically bad when onscreen). Barbara O’Neil, in what turns out to be the film’s worst role, is the older sister. Warner moved the family to Europe when Rainer was just a baby. Now they’re back; in the source play, Rainer’s character is sixteen; in the film, her age is never mentioned, but she’s clearly not supposed to be twenty-eight like Rainer.

Because then it wouldn’t make sense when “leading man” Melvyn Douglas, who’s eight years older than Rainer, calls her “child” in the movie. At least he doesn’t do it during one of their chaste but not too chaste love scenes. Editor Elmo Veron does know how to imply with his fades.

O’Neil has been in love with Douglas since childhood, except once they return he’s only got eyes for Rainer because he’s a gross old man and she’s a flirt. Douglas wants to propose, O’Neil talks Rainer into accepting. Rainer, meanwhile, would rather be with Robert Young. He’s a drunken rich boy, a lot more fun than serious Douglas. But she acquiesces and marries Douglas and the film skips forward four years.

Or five years. Whatever.

Fast forward to the future—Rainer is still a bunch of fun, Douglas is still a stuffed shirt, they just now have a four year-old son (Alan Perl, who’s awful). After Rainer seduces Douglas for a little morning nooky, Douglas decides he’s going to go visit O’Neil (who never told Douglas or Rainer she was in love with Douglas) and beg her to come manage the house. Because… wait for it… Rainer’s way too nice to the slaves. She doesn’t work them hard enough.

O’Neil agrees, moving into the house and assuming the head of household role, including dictating toddler Perl’s childcare. Douglas is just happy someone is making the slaves behave, Rainer slowly gets more and more miserable her sister has assumed her role, and Young’s back to try to seduce Rainer away.

Will this assortment of loathsome human beings ever find happiness?

Who cares.

And O’Neil gets more loathsome, then it gets qualified, then gets less, then gets more. Same goes—sort of—for Douglas. Rainer meanwhile never gets any character development, even when it’s obvious her character has changed circumstances. She has no reaction to them, not in script or performance. Apparently Rainer hated the movie, but whatever. It’s not like she broke into the vault and had the prints burned.

All the performances lack in one way or another. Sometimes because of the script, sometimes because of the actor. It’s not really worth itemizing the film’s failures on a granular level. Toy Wife has zero potential. Even if you equivocate away the grossness, it’s still a terrible, boring motion picture. Technically, it’s competent, but never anything better.

The Toy Wife is a dreadful experience. All 195 years of it.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Richard Thorpe; screenplay by Zoe Akins, based on the play by Ludovic Halévy and Henri Meilhac; director of photography, Oliver T. Marsh; edited by Elmo Veron; music by Edward Ward; produced by Merian C. Cooper; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Luise Rainer (Frou Frou), Melvyn Douglas (George Sartoris), Barbara O’Neil (Louise), Robert Young (Andre Vallaire), H.B. Warner (Victor Brigard), Theresa Harris (Pick), and Alma Kruger (Madame Vallaire).


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

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Dramatic School (1938, Robert B. Sinclair)

Given Dramatic School is all about top-billed Luise Rainer’s rise of stage stardom, it might help if she were actually the protagonist of the story, instead of its—occasional—subject. Because Rainer’s got to share the film with a bunch of other characters, none particularly interesting. There’s Rand Brooks, who’s the headmaster’s son and from a long line of actors. Then there’s Gale Sondergaard as the renowned stage actress turned instructor, who resents having to teach in general and Rainer specifically. Though Rainer idolizes her. Supposedly. We don’t ever really see much of it. And then there’s second-billed Paulette Goddard, who doesn’t have much interested in acting, just gossiping with her classmates and dating a string of wealthy men and refusing to marry any of them.

Virginia Grey, Lana Turner, and Ann Rutherford play some of the other students. Rutherford is dating Brooks and ends up getting more to do than either Grey or Turner (Turner gets fourth billing, which is way too high even without Rutherford).

The film takes place in Paris, which only makes sense when Rainer is onscreen because no one else even hints at a French accent. Rainer goes to acting school all day and works in a factory all night, alongside sympathetic aunt Marie Blake (who has nothing to do in the film whatsoever, not even dote on Rainer when she’s down).

So one fateful night—in the first ten minutes of the eighty minute movie—stage sensation Genevieve Tobin (who’s also way too highly billed at fifth) shows up at the factory with her wealthy beau, Alan Marshal. There’s a little incident, but it’s not important other than to introduce Rainer to Marshal so she can make up this grandiose lie about having an affair with him. Eventually Goddard meets Marshal socially and sets a trap for Rainer, hoping to humiliate her.

Will Marshal let himself be played? Does it end up mattering?

I won’t spoil the first, but it doesn’t end up mattering at all for the narrative. When Rainer gets her big break, it’s got nothing to do with the plot until that point. It’s incredible how fast screenwriters Ernest Vajda and Mary C. McCall Jr. get bored with their… screenplay. Other than Goddard, the script doesn’t dwell on anyone. Turner and Grey are interchangeable, Rutherford is mostly scenery until she all of a sudden gets attention. Goddard doesn’t have a character. She exists as a foil to torment Rainer, who’s usually too busy in her own head to even notice Goddard’s plotting cruelty.

The third act has this big showdown between Rainer and Sondergaard, following the film infusing a “Sondergaard is getting dissed for being an actress nearing forty” subplot, which also brings in Henry Stephenson (as the headmaster) quite a bit. Stephenson’s only slightly less unbelievable as an accomplished Parisian actor than Sondergaard, who no one thought to give more characterization than shrill. She’s in the second scene of the film, bitching about (at that point) utterly harmless and barely introduced Rainer. Sondergaard is opposite Margaret Dumont in that scene; Dumont’s great. Shame she’s only in the movie for two scenes and never when Rainer’s finally out of her shell, which takes way too long. Especially for a movie ostensibly about her.

Rainer’s performance is fine. She gives the best performance in the film, which isn’t much of a compliment. Vajda and McCall can’t even be bothered with thin caricaturization, much less thin characterization. Marshal, for instance, is an utter bore. He’s got some charm, but he’s dramatically inert, upstaged by everyone opposite him. Including an uncredited, nearly silent John Picorri as his valet. Sinclair doesn’t know how to direct his cast, but he really doesn’t know how to direct Marshal.

Of the students, Grey’s probably the best. If Goddard got a character before the third act, she might be better but since she doesn’t… nope. Turner’s kind of annoying.

Sondergaard, who isn’t important for the majority of the runtime, ends up being the most important player in the film. She’s really not up for it. Stephenson’s miscast. Brooks gets a rotten deal as his son too. Supposedly Brooks can’t act. But based on the exercises in the acting classes, none of the students can act. It’s not until the third act, when Rainer’s on a real stage, there’s any evidence of ability. Watching Rainer’s play in the movie, you wish the movie were just Rainer in the play. It might make up for the rest of the nonsense. Unfortunately, it’s not the movie and it’s also way too quick an interlude. Because then there’s the wrap-up, which is simultaneously tepid and vapid.

Dramatic School isn’t terrible. It doesn’t have enough energy to be terrible. Rainer’s got potential, but the script isn’t there and the direction isn’t there. Her character’s name is Louise too. It’s like, if you’re going to have the main character be an aspiring actress with the same name as the successful actress playing her… maybe there ought to be something to that coincidence. At least some emphasis. Instead, the script does everything it can to avoid Rainer and focus on everyone around her. But not give them anything to do until the end. And even at the end it’s just busywork, resolving pointless plot threads.

The film’s competent and useless. Even as a vehicle—as it seems to have been—for MGM ingenues, it’s useless. It seems like it’s more producer Mervyn LeRoy’s fault than anyone else’s. Like, Sinclair obviously wasn’t going to come through on the direction. Ditto the screenwriters. Someone needed to right the ship. No one does.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Robert B. Sinclair; screenplay by Ernest Vajda and Mary C. McCall Jr., based on a play by Hans Székely and Zoltan Egyed; director of photography, William H. Daniels; edited by Fredrick Y. Smith; music by Franz Waxman; produced by Mervyn LeRoy; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Luise Rainer (Louise Mauban), Alan Marshal (Marquis Andre D’Abbencourt), Paulette Goddard (Nana), Gale Sondergaard (Madame Charlot), Marie Blake (Annette), Lana Turner (Mado), Virginia Grey (Simone), Ann Rutherford (Yvonne), John Hubbard (Fleury), Genevieve Tobin (Gina Bertier), Henry Stephenson (Pasquel Sr.), Rand Brooks (Pasquel Jr.), and Margaret Dumont (Pantomime Teacher).


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

The Buccaneer (1938, Cecil B. DeMille)

Even if you give The Buccaneer a lot of its historical absurdities and classic Hollywood whitewashing, even if you give it a motley crew of murdering (but not raping, good family men) pirates getting giddy and doing a singalong while they row themselves through the bayou to fight for Andrew Jackson against the British, even if you give the film lead Fredric March’s accent, it’s got a lot of problems. Without even mentioning how director DeMille gives everyone a slave, American, British, Pirate. Like, he likes it. It’s creepy.

Especially at the opening when you want to be enjoying Spring Byington doing a brief cameo as a capable (and rather sexy, like what is up what that dress) first lady Dolly Madison who was to suffer men trying to rescue her when she’s doing it herself.

The big problem is The Buccaneer himself. Not March, who’s rather likable even with that accent and able to whether the silliest of DeMille’s jingoism. But the character. So he’s a pirate who doesn’t rob American vessels and doesn’t kill passengers, unless they’re asking for it (everyone gets a chance to disembarck). He’s in love with New Orleans society girl Margot Grahame, who grossly comes on to Andrew Jackson (Hugh Sothern) at one point. Not because it’s in character, but because no one–not the four-ish screenwriters, not director DeMille, not Grahame herself–knows what to do with the character. She’s there to give March a reason to fight to be an American. For the pretty, well-spoken girl who gets shown up in every one of her scenes with guardian aunt Beulah Bondi. Just because Grahame’s got nothing else to do. She’s in love with a pirate, if only he’d go legit for her. She’s just not the female lead, so she’s got squat.

The female lead–and kind of protagonist, certainly more than March–is Franciska Gaal. She’s playing an adorable–literally squeaking–Dutch girl who ends up with March and his band. March becomes her protector and, accordinly, Gaal falls in love with him even though she’s seen his men kill an entire ship of innocent people and even try to kill her. She only escapes because pirate Fred Kohler, who met her in the film’s first scene, has been trying to rape her since that first scene.

The film does this whole “she’s not in any great danger with these pirates, oh, wait, no, it’d be better if the nicer one just killed her instead” thing for the first act and beginning of second, so you’d think you’re supposed to take it serious. But then you aren’t whenever Gaal’s supposed to be foolish instead of brave. Like, the movie craps on Gaal’s performance and all the potential for the character. After the setting up the movie to focus on those things.

Because, as Gaal later whines to March when her character does nothing but lather him with unrequited verbal admiration, all the men are acting like little boys and fighting. Once the movie starts moving toward the opening text exposition on Lafitte’s place in history, once all the fighting starts, Gaal gets dropped like a rock. Worse, there’s more with Grahame. No fault to her, but she and March have even less chemistry than March and Gaal. At least March is protective of Gaal. With Grahame, it’s bewildering. She’s supposed to be his obsession and they’re flat together.

Maybe the accent got in the way. But more likely Grahame’s character being really thin. And, really, March’s isn’t much better. He’s supposed to be this great pirate captain yet the only times things go right it’s because of Gaal or Akim Tamiroff as his main sidekick. Anthony Quinn’s all right as the second sidekick. Tamiroff’s in love with Gaal. He makes it cute. He’s the best performance in the film, with Walter Brennan a somewhat close second as Andrew Jackson’s dotting frontiersman sidekick. Gaal’s a far third.

Because there aren’t any standout supporting performances. Douglass Dumbrille’s okay as the governor who’s out to get March. Ian Keith’s bad as the bent politician, working for the British. Hugh Sothern’s hilariously bad as Andrew Jackson. Though at least he doesn’t play Jackson horny old man when Grahame offers.

Beulah Bondi is fine as the aunt. Some of the third tier supporting performances are solid. It’s a big movie. There are a lot of people around. They’re mostly all right. Even Kohler. He’s not good but he’s not bad.

Technically, the film’s competent. I mean, DeMille has annoying two shots because–apparently–of height disparities and Anne Bauchens never cuts to them well. Based on DeMille’s composition, it’s probably because he didn’t get the right shots, which is weird since it’s clearly big budget and so on. He saves his energy for the battle scenes, which really aren’t effective because March doesn’t do much. He tells the other guys what to do mostly.

He does have a sword fight, but it’s got a bad finish and leads into his second asinine patriotic speech (after the Americans have massacred a bunch of his men) and the movie doesn’t even try. DeMille doesn’t try with anything in Buccaneer. It gets annoying. The massacre of the pirates at their base is probably the best action sequence. But it’s in the middle of the rather long two hour and five minute film. And it’s a dramatic fail of a plot beat.

The Buccaneer clearly was a big production and DeMille and company do make an epic. It’s just not a successful one. The script’s alterately lazy, cheap, and dull. The third act only “saves” the film because it stops getting worse. It plateaus. And Gaal’s charming and March’s likable and you just want it to end so why fight it. It’s not a success, it’s a surrender.

1/4

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Cecil B. DeMille; screenplay by Edwin Justus Mayer, Harold Lamb, and C. Gardner Sullivan, adaptation by Jeanie Macpherson, based on a novel by Lyle Saxon; director of photography, Victor Milner; edited by Anne Bauchens; music by George Antheil; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Fredric March (Jean Lafitte), Franciska Gaal (Gretchen), Akim Tamiroff (Dominique You), Margot Grahame (Annette de Remy), Anthony Quinn (Beluche), Ian Keith (Senator Crawford), Douglass Dumbrille (Governor William C.C. Claiborne), Fred Kohler (Gramby), Hugh Sothern (General Andrew Jackson), Walter Brennan (Ezra Peavey), Beulah Bondi (Aunt Charlotte), and Spring Byington (Dolly Madison).


THIS POST IS PART OF THE MADE IN 1938 BLOGATHON HOSTED BY ROBIN OF POP CULTURE REVERIE AND CRYSTAL OF IN THE GOOD OLD DAYS OF CLASSIC HOLLYWOOD.


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Flash Gordon's Trip to Mars (1938, Ford Beebe and Robert F. Hill)

Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars is far from the ultimate trip. It’s not even a very good trip. It’s the kind of trip where you go somewhere, go somewhere else, then somewhere else, then go back to the second place, then go back to the first place, then go back to the third place, then go back to the first place, then go back to the second place, then go back to the….

You get the idea.

Mars starts right after the previous serial, before Flash Gordon (Buster Crabbe) and company have even returned to Earth. Earth knows they’ve saved the planet and there’s a big ticker tape parade for the returning heroes–Crabbe, damsel in distress and ostensible love interest Jean Rogers, and scientist Frank Shannon. Of course, it’s all stock footage and the cast isn’t present, but the sentiment is there. Pretty soon, there’s another threat to the Earth and the United States government is freaking out and reporter Donald Kerr realizes the only person who can save the planet–again–is Crabbe.

So right after getting back to Earth from the first serial–Rogers apparently got a haircut on the return rocket trip (in the first serial, which will come up in flashback footage, she had long blonde hair, in Mars she’s a sensibly cut brunette)–the heroes head back out into space. With Kerr a stowaway.

They’re headed to Mongo, convinced villain Ming (Charles Middleton), who they thought was dead, is out to get them again. They’re right, only he’s on Mars, not Mongo, so the rocket ship has to change course.

On Mars, Middleton has teamed up with Martian queen Beatrice Roberts, who needs Middleton’s help to destroy the Clay people, who are political exiles Roberts has turned into clay. Even though Roberts has a whole fleet of airships, she goes along with Middleton’s plan to drain the Earth’s atmosphere of nitron. Earth needs its nitron; Middleton’s got Roberts convinced he can use the nitron to make more effective weapons, but it turns out he just wants to destroy the Earth. And he’s got designs on Roberts’s throne.

Crabbe and company get into it with Middleton and Roberts in the Martian city, then have to go to the Clay kingdom, where the Clay king (C. Montague Shaw) is alternately hostile and laudatory, and eventually end up in this forest fighting the hostile Forest people. Along the way, they reunite with Prince Barin of Mongo (Richard Alexander), who has come to Mars for some reason or another. Turns out the Forest people are actually Middleton’s lackeys. They cause a lot of trouble for Crabbe and friends, including brainwashing Rogers for a few chapters, and just generally being exceptionally annoying.

Mars doesn’t exactly start off promising–the use of stock footage for the heroes’ arrival on Earth, their immediate disappearance from the action, the stock disaster footage (which isn’t terrible or unexpected or anything, just not exciting)–but it certainly doesn’t start on any kind of shaky ground. Crabbe, Rogers, and Shannon are all extremely likable and introducing comic relief Kerr to the team seems like it’s going to work out rather well. Middleton was a bit much in the previous serial, but he’s all right here. And Roberts is rather effective as the evil queen.

And even the Clay people stuff is good at the start. There are these awesome shots of the Clay men coming out of the walls. It’s not until Shaw shows up things start getting questionable. The screenplay–with four credited writers–never addresses how long the Clay people have been around, since Roberts is turning people into clay if she doesn’t like them and then banishing them. She’s got a magic jewel letting her do all sorts of stuff. Is Roberts immortal? Have the Clay people been around forever? Or is it more like a recent thing? Doesn’t matter. The writers are real bad at explaining the history of Mars, including how Middleton got there immediately after the previous serial.

The first half of the serial usually involves Crabbe trying to bring Roberts to the Clay people so she can break the spell–including a really awesome sequence where he saves her in a disaster and she realizes he’s a sap who doesn’t kill and she can exploit that weakness. Then there’s something with another jewel the Forest people have. It can negate Roberts’s jewel’s power, so for a couple chapters it’s a thing. Only Middleton (even though the Forest people are his secret lackeys–it’s not at all clear why the arrangement is secret) wants the jewel too because, pretty early on, it’s clear Middleton wants to double-cross Roberts. While she wants to kill all the Clay people, she doesn’t necessarily want to destroy Earth.

It’s also never addressed why she turns disobedient soldiers into clay instead of just executing them.

And Mars ignores how there are no female Clay people or female Forest people, though Forest people at least seem to know women exist–when they brainwash Rogers, she becomes a priestess or something. They’ve got a word for it.

All the action either takes place in the Martian city, the forest, or the Clay kingdom. Some of the city and most of the forest look good. The Clay kingdom, above ground, is just rocky terrain. The underground stuff is okay, though it’s never explained why Roberts lets the Clay people have advanced technology–in some cases more advanced than her own (including a subway system). The serial just bounces between the locations, unless it’s something in the airships, which actually happens quite a bit. The Martians have these gravity defying capes, leading–occasionally–to some decent action sequences.

But by the end of Mars, every new action set piece is just a regurgitation of a previous one. It’s rather tired by the end. Especially since the serial never improves on the most annoying aspects of the action sequences–entirely inappropriate stock music. They rarely use action music and when they do, it rarely fits. It kills all tension and most excitement, which is a real disservice to the cast–particularly Crabbe and Alexander–who always give it their all.

Crabbe clear runs out of enthusiasm towards the end, however. Maybe the last four chapters, he looks miserable.

There are some good sequences throughout the fifteen chapters–particularly Rogers getting to save the day (while otherwise just being damsel in distress)–but by the second half of Mars, it’s obvious the trip isn’t going anywhere new, just places its already been. And then it’ll go somewhere else it’s already been and then somewhere else it’s already been.

The frequent flashbacks to the first serial backfire too, just revealing how much better the production values were on the original compared to this sequel.

Only Kerr and Alexander are able to maintain energy during the last few chapters–Rogers theoretically should have a big arc thanks to the brainwashing but she doesn’t and Shannon’s just around. Middleton gets nuttier and nuttier as it goes along. His performance getting worse. Roberts’s material (and, inexplicably, her direction) gets worse too, really ruining her performance. There’s no character development in Mars, even though some characters desperately need it.

And Shaw’s super annoying. Most when he prostrates to Crabbe, which seems to happen all the time. But he’s also kind of insincere about it, like at any moment he might double cross the Earth people. Sadly he never does, because such a twist is too much for Mars.

Wheeler Oakman is almost good as Middleton’s chief flunky. Anthony Warde is comically godawful as the king of the Forest people.

Crabbe, Rogers, Alexander, and Shannon (and Kerr to some degree) have enough charm to keep the Trip tolerable but there’s really nothing they can do with the concluding chapters, when it all starts collapsing. It was always flimsy, it just had momentum. Without momentum, without any good finale set pieces, without a decent plot, the Trip flops out. It could be much worse, sure, but it’s still majorly disappointing.

Almost anything would help Mars significantly. Real music. Another set. Better performances–heck, just keeping Crabbe engaged through the finale–almost anything. Sadly, there’s nothing.

It’s worse than disappointing; it’s a defeat.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Ford Beebe and Robert F. Hill; screenplay by Ray Trampe, Norman S. Hall, Wyndham Gittens, and Herbert Dalmas, based the comic strip by Alex Raymond; director of photography, Jerome Ash; edited by Joseph Gluck, Saul A. Goodkind, Louis Sackin, and Alvin Todd; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Buster Crabbe (Flash Gordon), Jean Rogers (Dale Arden), Frank Shannon (Dr. Alexis Zarkov), Charles Middleton (Emperor Ming), Beatrice Roberts (Queen Azura), Donald Kerr (Happy Hapgood), Richard Alexander (Prince Barin), Wheeler Oakman (Tarnak), Anthony Warde (King Turan), and C. Montague Shaw (Clay King).


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