Tag Archives: George Barbier

Thunder Birds (1942, William A. Wellman)

Thunder Birds runs just under eighty minutes and if one were to subtract the propaganda, both narrated and in lengthy monologues–not to mention the flashback to the stoic Brits–he or she would have a fifty-five minute love triangle set at an Army flight training base. The whole reason one leg of the triangle is British (John Sutton) is to rouse up support for the British.

Luckily, the movie’s love triangle is mildly effective, which makes the propaganda digressions tolerable. All of the credit for that success is surprisingly not Gene Tierney. Tierney’s great in the movie, bringing a combination of playfulness and maturity to the role. What’s surprising about the movie’s treatment of her is the constant sexism. There’s a terrible sequence at a Red Cross training with all the volunteers–all female–coming off as man-crazy and incompetent. Worse is Tierney’s grandfather, George Barbier, frequently deriding her (she’s “still a woman,” after all).

But that paragraph was supposed to be positive. Sutton’s quite good in the film, bringing a thoughtful sense to his role (an acrophobic doctor turned RAF cadet). He and Tierney have excellent chemistry; big surprise. Leading man Preston Foster is the last leg of the triangle and he and Tierney too have good chemistry. But when Foster’s with Sutton, the scenes are just bad. Foster’s very Hollywood acting doesn’t mix well with Sutton’s subdued, introspective performance. Either Tierney just worked well with Foster–her performance is a mix of charm and intelligence–or she manages to get good scenes out of anyone.

Since there really is less than an hour of story, there’s not much time for a supporting cast. Barbier’s good as the chauvinist pig (what makes it so disturbing is how he’s siding against his granddaughter’s wishes, which is a bit surprising in a Lamar Trotti script, but I guess Trotti is a servant to his source material). Richard Haydn’s great as Sutton’s friend who disappears way too fast. But Dame May Whitty’s brief, flashback role is a waste of time both for her and the film.

Where Thunder Birds really excels is in the Technicolor cinematography and the action sequence at the end. Ernest Palmer’s cinematography is great and the aerial photography is fantastic. But Wellman is just churning it out during these scenes. It’s all fine, but it’s never particularly significant. The end sequence, featuring Sutton (in a plane) saving Foster from a sandstorm is amazing. Great stuff, with some fine editing from Walter Thompson.

The story–the standard Fox war movie love triangle–does take an unexpected turn at the end. Wellman successfully milks the anticipation for the last five minutes, but then gets stuck with that narrated propaganda for a close. In the last ten minutes, I’m not sure Sutton even has a line–odd for the protagonist. The Fox propaganda movies were always decent and Thunder Birds is fine enough as one; it’s just a little emptier of actual content than I would have guessed.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by William A. Wellman; screenplay by Lamar Trotti, based on a story by Darryl F. Zanuck; director of photography, Ernest Palmer; edited by Walter Thompson; music by David Buttolph; produced by Trotti; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Gene Tierney (Kay Saunders), Preston Foster (Steve Britt), John Sutton (Peter Stackhouse), Jack Holt (Colonel MacDonald), May Whitty (Lady Jane Stackhouse), George Barbier (Gramps), Richard Haydn (George Lockwood), Reginald Denny (Barrett) and Ted North (Cadet Hackzell).


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Million Dollar Legs (1932, Edward F. Cline)

Million Dollar Legs is, production-wise, about a year early. It came out in 1932. A year later, another comedy about a goofy European nation, also from Paramount (from the same producer), came out. Duck Soup was a bomb at the time and appreciated later. Million Dollar Legs has a great reputation–apparently did so at the time too; I really can’t understand it.

The film appears to be from the awkward silent-to-sound transition period, but it’s kind of late. There are the title cards, which are supposed to be funny and are not. There’s the lack of an original score, which really hurts it. The lead actors, Jack Oakie and Susan Fleming, are both poor. So poor, I figured they were silent stars who just couldn’t vocally emote, but the years don’t match (at least not for Fleming, but the majority of Oakie’s career was in sound pictures). W.C. Fields does a little bit better, but not much. The script’s just way too stupid.

Even discounting the script’s brevity–Oakie and Fleming fall in love at first sight just to establish them as a couple, instead of having to bother with any character development–the joke’s are just stupid. They’re also sexist and racist. There’s a lot of examples of such humor at the time, but here it’s mean-spirited, instead of just ignorant. But the jokes being unfunny due to intent isn’t even the extent (hey, I rhymed).

No, a major comedic moment relies on the humor of a kid driving a locomotive. Another one is all about arm wrestling. Or the guy who can’t stop sneezing. Or Fields referring to Oakie as “Sweetheart” for the whole thing.

Legs‘s script is a mess–for the first three quarters there’s a cross-eyed spy (get it, he’s cross-eyed, funny, right?) who’s just around. It’s a sight gag, repeated over and over. In a silent, it would probably work. Here it just gets repetitive.

But the movie’s not all bad. It’s mostly bad and then the end comes around and just gets lazy.

Cline’s a bad director, both in terms of composition and how he directs the actors. There’s an absolute lack of scope here (possibly budgetary), but the budget doesn’t account for why Cline’s scenes with actors don’t work. Something about the composition, the actors’ positions, make the whole thing fall flat.

I almost forgot to mention Lyda Roberti. I spent a lot of Million Dollar Legs wishing it was silent. At those times, I was thinking how much better the film would be. When Roberti’s on screen, however, I just figured without hearing her “act,” her performance would only be half as bad… which would still be appalling.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Edward F. Cline; screenplay by Nicholas T. Brown and Henry Myers, based on a story by Joseph L. Mankiewicz; director of photography, Arthur L. Todd; music by Rudolph G. Kopp and John Leipold; produced by Herman J. Mankiewicz; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Jack Oakie (Migg Tweeny), W.C. Fields (The President), Andy Clyde (The Major-Domo), Lyda Roberti (Mata Machree), Susan Fleming (Angela), Ben Turpin (Mysterious Man), Hugh Herbert (Secretary of the Treasury), George Barbier (Mr. Baldwin) and Dickie Moore (Willie).


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